Heretic’s Reward 21-24

Heretic’s Reward

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

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



This story was last updated on July 29, 2018

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

Chapter 21 – Third Report: Purple Sky

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

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

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

That wasn’t all Hajime had been right about.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Her?”

“Tomoe.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 22 – Third Report: Wishes That May Be Prayers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Interesting.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, you shouldn’t have.”

“You could be a little more sympathetic.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you regret not having died?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 23 – Wanted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Something with a hood!” Katsu called after.

“Fiiiine,” Chou replied petulantly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>23 Interlude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing here, then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You… don’t have any money.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 24 – Playing Thieves Guild

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

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

“Well… I guess…” Sano replied skeptically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like who, though?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, is he a damn know-it-all too?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, he had been the one to ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How?”

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

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

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

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


Rainbow Love Explosion!!

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

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

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

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

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

First Kiss

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

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


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

Saitou certainly had a good sense of timing.

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

And now he was dead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In between dodging it,” Saitou nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You really thought I’d care, huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um, no, also–”

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

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

“All right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You and your stupid dedication,” Sano snorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


SHARKFACE

Month after month after month, I put off my art exchange piece until the last weekend of the month, draw something barely passable at best, and tell myself, “Next month I will start as soon as I get the assignment so as to work on it in whatever spare time I happen to have all through the month so my picture will NOT SUCK.” And month after month after month, this doesn’t happen.

But in September, by some miracle, I actually managed to do it. And behold! The picture does not suck!

He Can Be Taught (2/3)

He Can Be Taught



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


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





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

1
2
3


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kenshin and Kaoru are…

Kenshin and Kaoru are getting…

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

Kenshin and Kaoru…

Kenshin…

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

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

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

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Yes – it – was.

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

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

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

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

“Shit!”

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

Kenshin and Kaoru! How could he have forgotten?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But he enjoyed the hell out of the cigarette.

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

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

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

Still the officer remained silent.

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

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

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

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

“Crying fit?” Sano echoed hoarsely.

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

Mutely Sano shook his head.

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

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

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

What other things?”

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

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

Saitou made no reply.

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

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

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

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

“Very funny, asshole.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sano stared. “How do you know?”

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

“Who’d you ask?”

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

“Oh. Fuck. Well… thanks, I guess.”

Saitou just nodded.

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

But his trip to the dojo was brought to a cataclysmic end when Kaoru actually kissed Kenshin. Right in front of everyone! Sure, it was a quick, shy little peck, but everyone saw. If anybody wondered why both Sano and Megumi got up suddenly with half-formed excuses for why they must depart so abruptly, they didn’t voice their curiosity. Indeed, the two lovebirds seemed so sickeningly wrapped up in each other and the moment that they didn’t really notice much of anything. And Sano headed for the bars.

His mood was foul, but not the type that encouraged him to get phenomenally drunk; it was more of a fight-picking attitude. By the time he was ready to declare the night over (and technically it was, for early morning had commenced), he’d been kicked out of more places than he could count, and might not be welcome back to any of them another time. Still, he hadn’t been able to help himself when, on top of what had happened earlier to upset him, every single person he’d run into had insisted on being so damn irritating.

That last one had been the worst, and Sano was still fuming in the wake of the infuriating exchange. Retaliation hadn’t really been available, since the guy was so clearly not a warrior that engaging him in physical combat was unfeasible… and in verbal combat, the enemy had just as clearly consistently had the upper hand. The worst part was that it had actually stung, and worried Sano at the same time, to a degree that was a bit unusual; he generally didn’t care nearly so much about other people’s opinions of him. He would have liked to discuss it, actually, with a sympathetic listener, but Katsu would be either asleep or prohibitively wrapped up in newspaper work at this hour, Kenshin would not do for a conversation that would inevitably eventually touch on the topic of Sano’s chances with him, and no one else would take him seriously.

Finding himself at Saitou’s house took Sano rather by surprise in the midst of his agitation and anger, as he hadn’t realized that his thoughtless steps were directing him to it. He did have his own place, after all. It wasn’t like he actually lived here. That this, rather than his apartment, had been his unconscious destination just showed how accustomed he’d grown to spending his nights on Saitou’s floor, and that seemed a little pathetic. But since he was here now, he might as well stay instead of traipsing all the way back across town to his trashy home.

Perhaps, upon entering, he slammed the door a bit harder than he should have. And perhaps his socked footfalls in the hallway were a bit louder than they should have been. Whatever the case, Sano had barely flung open the great room door when Saitou’s irritated voice sounded from behind him: “Ahou, did you ever consider that there are certain volumes more appropriate for daytime than two in the morning?”

Grumpily and without responding, Sano threw himself onto the floor near where he usually slept.

Saitou glared at him from the doorway. “Are you drunk again?”

In trying to avoid meeting Saitou’s eyes, which, even in this semi-darkness, seemed to emit live sparks of irritation at him, Sano noticed as he looked downward that the pants Saitou had thrown on in order to come harass his noisy houseguest were not buttoned quite up to the top. This, combined with the fact that he wore no belt and the pants were sagging just slightly, gave Sano a better view of the officer’s abdominal muscles than he’d ever had before, and the shadows in the room lit only by the moon through the shouji made the sight even more intriguing. However, the conclusion that Saitou really was quite physically attractive could only specifically make things worse.

“No,” was Sano’s surly reply to the question.

“Then what’s your problem?”

To say that Sano replied unthinkingly would be understating the fact, as he would never in a million insane years have voiced what was on his mind if he’d given it even half an instant’s thought. “Saitou, am I sexy?”

Saitou’s expression of surprise and skepticism wasn’t terribly difficult to make out even in the shadows, and Sano experienced a moment of shock and horror as he realized what he’d just said. That it might have been entirely counterproductive and he was probably now in for a second round of denigration such as he’d suffered at that last bar he couldn’t fail to be aware, and in extreme annoyance and some trepidation he dropped his gaze to his knees to await Saitou’s taunting.

Only then Saitou said, “Yes.”

His brain suddenly a confusion of disbelief and the scattered remnants of the defenses he’d been gathering around him, Sano shook his head, unable to formulate a reply.

“Why?” wondered Saitou, curiosity and some amusement having replaced his prior annoyance. It was interesting how often this particular emotional exchange seemed to take place in him in response to Sano.

Well, if Saitou wasn’t going to make fun of him, and in fact, against all expectations, might be inclined to take his side, Sano might as well tell him. “There was this dickhead in the bar who decided it would be hilarious to keep talking shit at me the whole time I was there. One of those guys who probably sits at a desk all day because he knows all these big words and how to put ’em together right.

“He wouldn’t leave me alone, and I couldn’t beat him up because he was too small and scrawny, and somehow we got onto this topic of who gets more sex, and he was basically saying that I’m not attractive at all and only a dog would ever want to have sex with me and shit like that.” It certainly hadn’t helped that Sano had been talking much bigger than his actual experience the entire time, a fact his obnoxious rival might well have picked up on, but Sano didn’t plan on mentioning that aspect of the conversation to Saitou.

Saitou was grinning at this account, and more, it appeared, entertained than disdainful. “This ‘dickhead’ — what did he look like? Small and scrawny, you say?”

“Yeah, he was a short little guy. Looked straight-up like a woman, too, even with the really short haircut — I would have thought he was a woman except for the whore on his lap. She was kinda the reason we got onto the sex topic in the first place, and, you know, she could have stuck up for me. I mean, with the way she was looking at me, I’m pretty sure she didn’t agree that I wasn’t sexy at all. But I guess she didn’t want to ruin her chances with him.”

“Did he have a small scar above his left eyebrow?”

“Yeah… how’d you know?” Sano wondered suspiciously.

Instead of answering the question, Saitou informed him, “That was a woman.”

“Oh, great, you know her?” Though not terribly surprised at finding his assessment of the cross-dressed bar-goer correct, Sano had to wonder why all the people in his life that drove him crazy ended up being connected somehow.

“Rather well.” The amusement in Saitou’s voice had taken on a tone of fond tolerance. “She typically wears men’s clothing. And she does have a very sharp tongue.”

“Yeah, I fucking noticed,” Sano grumbled.

“Poor ahou,” Saitou chuckled. “Always getting beaten by everyone.”

“She didn’t ‘beat’ me,” was Sano’s angry protest. “Just annoyed the hell out of me.”

“And yet you made a strategic retreat. That was unusually rational of you, in fact.”

Sano gave a frustrated sigh and, rather than continuing to argue, confessed what really had him worried. “The thing is, if she thinks I’m ugly enough that it’s worth sitting there insulting me forever about, what’s to say Kenshin doesn’t think I’m totally unattractive too? It’s not like he’d ever tell me what he thinks of my looks unless I asked him, so I have no way of knowing. He could have thought that all along and I’d never know.”

“Don’t take Tokio’s opinion of you so seriously,” Saitou said somewhat dismissively. “She’ll aim for any target that gives her a chance to exercise her wit.”

“‘Tokio?'” Sano wouldn’t have guessed Saitou was close enough to any woman to refer to her so familiarly.

Saitou obviously read Sano’s meaning in the single word. “It would be odd to use an honorific with my own wife.”

This galvanized Sano right onto his feet. “Are you fucking kidding me?!”

“No, ahou, I’ve been married for ten years.”

“Ten… years…? Didn’t you fight at Hakodate and everything?”

“Fighting at Hakodate and being married are not mutually exclusive.”

“Shit.” It was so overwhelming and unexpected and bizarre a concept that Sano was having a very difficult time getting his brain around it. As the idea slowly penetrated, however, he did reflect that if Saitou were to be married to anyone, that offensive woman he’d met at the bar seemed like the ideal candidate. Finally he asked, “Why doesn’t she live here with you?”

The fondly tolerant tone was back as Saitou replied, “Tokio enjoys taking a lot of women to bed with her — sometimes all at the same time — which would be inconvenient under my roof.”

“Shit,” Sano muttered again. He didn’t know what else to say. It made sense, in that case, that the woman personally might consider him unattractive; and Saitou’s hint that she enjoyed haranguing people on topics she wasn’t necessarily legitimately invested in, just for the sake of employing her verbal skills, rendered Sano’s entire interaction with her completely understandable… but this could not relieve his newly arisen concern about whether or not Kenshin found him attractive. If anything, it reinforced his fear by reminding Sano that tastes differed significantly from one person to the next. Just because Saitou admitted that Sano was sexy didn’t mean Kenshin would. And Saitou was… “I can’t believe you’re fucking married,” he couldn’t help expressing aloud.

“It’s more of a business arrangement.” Saitou sounded downright tickled by Sano’s reaction, if such a word could ever be thought to apply to him. “We make foreign investments jointly, and that’s about the extent of it.”

They were both still and silent for a moment as Sano digested this. Why did these words seem to relieve him somehow? Because it would have complicated the arrangement if some really obnoxious woman might have dropped by any old evening and wondered what the hell Sano was doing sleeping on her husband’s floor? “So I guess…” he postulated, “you guys aren’t… in love or anything.”

“‘In love?'” The scornful way Saitou drawled out the phrase almost made Sano blush. “You met her. What do you think?”

Sano grinned, relieved again. He’d been afraid at first it might be love in general that Saitou looked down on, and wondered for a fraction of a second what the officer must think of him for spending so much time and effort in the pursuit of it. But it was totally understandable that Saitou should speak so disdainfully of the idea of being in love with the specific person they were discussing. “Yeah, she did seem really annoying.”

Saitou’s tone relaxed as he allowed, “I actually like her well enough. But she isn’t interested in men, so we’re merely friends.”

Friends with Saitou. It was funny, but up until several weeks ago, Sano wouldn’t have thought that was possible for anyone. Now, however, as he analyzed the atmosphere between them, he could positively state that this was a friendly silence.

Eventually Saitou broke it with an unexpected question. “Ahou,” he said slowly and somewhat pensively, “are you planning on seducing Himura?”

“Yeah…” Sano looked away, scratching his head. “Yeah, I guess. I’m going to have to, if this is going to work.” Since waiting for Kenshin to seduce him certainly hadn’t.

“How?”

Sano was glad the shadows probably hid his blush at the thought that immediately entered his mind — a very nice thought, certainly, but he had to get to that point first. “I dunno,” he muttered.

“Why don’t you try it?”

“What, you mean march over to the dojo and–”

“I mean here and now. Try to seduce me and see how far you get.”

His blush abruptly deepening as his body stiffened in sudden surprise, Sano’s eyes snapped back to where Saitou still stood in the doorway. “You… you’re not serious…”

Saitou shrugged slightly, giving no indication that he might be joking. “It’ll be rather pathetic when you’ve gone to all this trouble to impress Battousai and then can’t follow it up with a decent performance in more important areas.”

“Who says I can’t?” Sano demanded, insulted.

“I didn’t. But if you fail, you can be sure I’ll be laughing at you.”

“Fuck you.”

Saitou narrowed suggestive eyes. “I thought you didn’t intend to.”

Again Sano blushed. “I… I couldn’t. Kenshin… it wouldn’t be right…”

“Well, if celibacy is worth the strong possibility of failure, good night.” Saitou started to turn as if to go back to his bedroom.

“Hang on.” Sano took a step toward him with a sudden unexpected resolve that had arisen along with the horde of butterflies in his stomach. He would fuck the bastard’s brains out if he had to, just to prove him wrong. And it wouldn’t be so bad to get some practice in, after all… it might be nice to know what he was doing when he eventually made his move on Kenshin, and actually it would be really convenient to get it from the same source as his defense training. So he strode up to Saitou and did something he would never have dreamed he could possibly have considered: he kissed him.

It wasn’t his first kiss, but it couldn’t have been anything more than his eighth… and it sure as hell felt like the first. Might as well have been the first, for the mixture of uncertainty, awkwardness, nervous elation, and absolutely uncontrollable physical response that was involved. Saitou, on the other hand, just stood there motionless. The tobacco and soba taste of the officer’s mouth and the warm sensation of his lips was surprisingly pleasant, and Sano dragged the kiss on longer than he’d meant to.

When he finally pulled back and asked, “How’s that?” it was with a bravado that was at least three quarters falsified.

The shadowy, thoughtful look the action had won him rather annoyed Sano, even in the midst of his other, more confused emotions, as Saitou demonstrated so little reaction to what Sano had considered a really good kiss. What he did instead was make a pensive sound and reach out. “Hardly enough to tempt someone into bed. Move your lips more.” And as he simultaneously slid bare hands around Sano’s shoulders and leaned forward, he murmured, “Like this,” and returned the kiss.

It was difficult to define the subtle differences to the action that made Sano’s heart throb and his knees weaken and his groin tingle; Saitou did move his lips, yes, and pushed gradually closer, but surely that couldn’t be the extent of it…!

Breathless, weak-limbed, and wide-eyed, Sano staggered back a step when Saitou released him. “Fuck,” he whispered. “You really know what you’re doing.”

The familiar smirk returned. “Try again,” Saitou commanded.

And things went from there.

***

It was with a mixture of emotions inexplicable and unfamiliar that Sano awoke the next morning much earlier than he generally did. For a few moments, eyes squeezed shut against any potential evidence to the contrary, he lay still and hoped it had all been a dream. Unfortunately, senses other than vision just had to provide their evidence — the futon beneath him was soft, for example, and smelled of cigarettes — and even his eyes, though closed, informed him that the light was hitting their lids from a different direction than it did in the great room. It was no good. He really was in Saitou’s bed.

Fuck,” he muttered, looking around at last at the room he’d never seen from this particular angle before. He hadn’t been drunk last night, but obviously he’d been pretty damn close to let Saitou do that. Do to him what had left behind a physical memory so powerful it could not be ignored, especially as he shifted into a sitting position and hugged his bare knees to his bare chest.

He tried, at least, to push away all the other memories that were crowding and clamoring for his attention… the sensation of hands and lips creeping over his body; the shocking realization of just how attractive Saitou really was, especially naked, how well-built his body and how well-suited to this particular activity; the rise of intense passion and simultaneous frustration as he was brought almost to his peak with aggravating expertise that never quite allowed him to climax until slick fingers had loosened him up sufficiently for…

“No!” God, how had he done that? “Oh, Kenshin,” he groaned, remembering just how fucking good it had felt. “I’m so sorry.”

And it had all started so innocently! Well, at least, it had all started so non-sexually… with Saitou’s willingness to listen to Sano’s concerns giving rise to the idea that Saitou might actually be someone Sano could at some point consider a friend. He hadn’t been thinking he might ever consider Saitou something more. He couldn’t consider Saitou something more. He loved Kenshin, for fuck’s sake, and this insanity didn’t change that.

The blanket needed washing, he reflected dully as he rose. He didn’t know what do to about the futon. It didn’t matter; the first thing to do was cover up the nudity that was still making him think of how Saitou’s muscles felt beneath his skin, shifting hot on top of Sano, and the way trailing fingertips had sent little prickling shivers all across his body. Covering up the mottled bruise around his left nipple seemed eminently desirable, too.

“You always go to sleep like this afterwards,” Saitou said, somewhat breathlessly, when it was all over. With a deft movement of strong arms, he nestled Sano close up against him, then pressed his face to Sano’s sweaty head.

At first Sano was too dazed to say anything, but eventually, on regaining his voice, he commented hesitantly, “I… kinda hoped… I’d be the one to…”

Saitou gave a muffled laugh into Sano’s hair and raised his mouth enough to speak. “Not if you’re practicing for Battousai. Hasn’t the glimpse you’ve gotten at his true inner self shown you how things will be between you?”

Not sure what he made of Saitou’s apparent surety that sex would be any way between Kenshin and Sano, the latter said in continued hesitation, “But Kenshin’s–“

“Repressed,” Saitou broke in. “And he’ll show it in bed. His personality issues won’t let him give control to someone else at such an intimate moment, even for something as enjoyable as penetration. You’ll never get on top of him.”

Sano would have protested the disdainful reference to Kenshin’s ‘personality issues’ if he hadn’t been so busy wondering in some concern just how much of Saitou’s rather unkind assessment was true.

Now Sano considered that, since he was up so early, he might as well avail himself of the bath out back. It wouldn’t help with the nakedness, but it was obvious he wasn’t going to be able to stop thinking about this any time soon in any case. “We make foreign investments jointly,” had remarked the bastard that had fucked him last night; thus he could afford a private bath. Sano might as well make use of it.

The advantage of bath-houses over private baths was, of course, that somebody else got everything ready for you, so the relaxation stage was reached much sooner and with less trouble. But eventually, even here, Sano was lying back in the hot water with his eyes closed thinking about the same things he’d been thinking about almost exclusively since awakening. The biggest question at the moment was: how could he feel so good about something and yet so fucking awful at the same time?

It was all so totally wrong. Not even the proof Saitou had continually offered that this really was just practice for Kenshin — the tips he’d given Sano (usually with accompanying demonstrations) on how to go about this sex thing, the comments he’d made about Sano’s future with Kenshin, his businesslike manner throughout (considering the nature of the situation, at any rate) — could change the wrongness Sano felt now, the morning after. But the undeniable awareness that it had been wildly, amazingly fun, that he desperately wanted further demonstrations of Saitou’s expertise, left him miserably conflicted.

And it wasn’t like he was having an affair or anything. He wasn’t actually with Kenshin yet, and this was just practice…

He groaned. To lose his virginity to Saitou Hajime was nothing he’d ever expected — not when he’d entered into their little agreement, nor at any time in his weirdest and most perverted dreams. He hadn’t even tried to pretend Saitou was Kenshin. And the most ridiculous thing was that he didn’t mind.

He tried to tell himself that he did. The whole situation was sick — he should mind — he minded not minding. But it was clear already that his first taste of sex had changed how he felt about a lot of things… including sex. He wanted more of it, and at the moment it was fair to say that he didn’t care how or with whom. Eventually he hoped it would be with Kenshin, but for now Saitou would have to do.

And how had he reached this conclusion so quickly? How had he gone from last night’s “It wouldn’t be right…” to this morning’s perfect readiness to bend over for Saitou (or, hell, to bend Saitou over if he’d let him)? Had it been at all aided by the memory of Saitou’s hot tongue on his–

“I’m not fucking thinking about that!” he growled. His face was at the moment more heated than the water that splashed up onto it when he slammed a fist down into the bath. He had been in here for a long time; he’d really better get out and start his chores.

***

That Saitou could sit there over supper without a single word, could act so normally, after what had happened between them last night, astonished Sano to no end. Not a syllable, not a look, not a movement on the officer’s part indicated that their relationship had changed. Well, Sano reflected a bit defensively, that was because it hadn’t changed. Just practice for Kenshin, remember?

“You had better have been practicing,” Saitou did finally say as he smoked his after-dinner cigarette while Sano washed the dishes. “I’m not going easy on you tonight.”

At the way his brain chose to interpret that remark, Sano blushed so hard he thought blood must ooze from his eyes, and he had to fight off a totally unnecessary increase in respiratory rate. There was another thing he definitely needed practice in — he couldn’t get uncontrollably worked up like the barely-post-virginal amateur he was at the slightest thought or mention of sex. He had to be confident and in control, or Kenshin would just smile at him with that gentle condescension he was so good at and move on to something closer to his own level — or, worse, to Kaoru, who wouldn’t even be post-virginal yet.

With how much work he still had to do to become the mature sexual being Kenshin surely deserved, Sano didn’t want to jump right into combat practice. His astonishment at Saitou’s apparent indifference to the new step they’d taken hadn’t abated yet. How could the officer think to start training just like that, without a word?

“So, Saitou…” Though he’d finished the dishes, Sano didn’t turn; it was easier to bring this up — especially to bring it up without sounding shy and hesitant — with his back to Saitou. “About last night…”

“Yes?” The officer’s casual tone made it evident that he really hadn’t thought much of it. It really had just been practice.

Somewhat relieved, Sano wondered, “Well, how was I?” with greater ease than before. This was the obvious next step if he wanted to get some more. Practice, that is. More practice.

The amused curl of Saitou’s lip was audible in his reply, “Adjusting for the fact that it was your first time, or speaking objectively?”

“How do you know it was my first time?”

“Your pathetic performance made that pretty clear.”

“Hey!”

In his annoyance Sano had turned around at last, so he was able to see Saitou’s shrug. “You asked,” the officer said.

“Fuck that,” grumbled Sano.

“Later,” said Saitou, in the same easy tone as before, “if you like.”

Attempting to look as cool and disinterested as Saitou and not to show the excited reaction that spread through his entire body at the words, Sano folded his arms across his chest and said, “Yeah?”

“You won’t get anywhere with Himura with your level of performance.” An interesting gleam appeared in Saitou’s eye as he added, “And I am certainly not averse to helping you improve.”

“You old pervert,” Sano grinned. “Hurry up with the training, then!”

“Hurrying will make it worse.” Saitou reached for his sword, which he’d started using during these sessions only in the last week or so. “I expect you to learn just as much.”

“Bring it on,” Sano growled.

“Then don’t pass out, ahou.”

***

Sano wondered, a few days later, how sex could be so damned addictive. Since everything he’d ever heard had indicated this was the case, it came as no great surprise, but he definitely hadn’t been prepared for its influence in his own life. Alcohol had always been an effective diversion for him, but it had never been this compelling; fighting had always been a good escape from reality, but it had never been this irresistible. ‘Addiction’ was the only way to describe it, and he’d never been addicted to anything before.

This was exciting and frightening, and he wasn’t sure exactly what he was going to do about it. Transfer the entire condition over to Kenshin, he hoped. And meanwhile, he planned on enjoying himself (enjoying Saitou, that is) and disregarding any guilt. He didn’t have much choice, really. Memories of sex were his constant companions during the day, dreams of sex not infrequently invaded his brain at night, and even during after-supper spars his thoughts were never fully occupied by his combative education and progress anymore — especially when Saitou took off his jacket and gloves to expose muscular arms and dexterous hands whose effectiveness in areas other than this Sano was coming to know intimately.

But one night all such distractions were pushed firmly to the background when Sano, smoothly sloughing Saitou’s intended sword-blow away as he’d been taught — if not for the first time, at least for the first time to such a decisive degree of success — felt his follow-through connect. The next moment, of course (probably facilitated by his surprise at his own triumph), he was thrown to the floor by Saitou’s much more proficient counter-counterattack, but it was with an idiotically big grin on his face and a bubbling sense of victory and accomplishment.

Saitou stepped back, his sword-arm falling to his side. And though he undoubtedly wasn’t as full of glee as Sano, the nod he gave and his voice as he remarked, “It’s about time,” indicated satisfaction.

Bouncing to his feet, Sano struck a bicep-flexing pose as he gave a celebratory roar that turned into a laugh. “Oh, fuck, yes!” he exulted. “Did you see that? Did you fucking see that?” The brow Saitou raised did not worry him. “Ohhh, Zanza is back in business! Anybody looking for someone to fight any ex-Shinsengumi captains? Contact me tonight and I’ll do it for free!”

“Whenever you and your deluded ego are finished…” Saitou’s tone was sardonic, but there was a touch of amusement to it as well.

“You have to admit I’ve come a long way. I couldn’t even touch you before.” Though Sano hadn’t intended a pun of any sort, he wondered if Saitou’s mind made as rapid a jump as his had from one kind of touch to another.

The officer gave no indication of such an inference as he said calmly, “True. You have improved.” Which was high praise, coming from Saitou, and only increased Sano’s excitement.

“Come on, let’s go celebrate!” Seizing Saitou’s right arm, Sano made tugging movements toward the door into the hallway.

Saitou shrugged him off easily, pointing his sword at the young man’s chest to keep him from reattaching. “Ahou, don’t you ever think of anything else?”

Attempting to hold off a blush, Sano protested, “Hey, bastard, don’t think you’re so fabulous I can’t keep my mind off you!” And was that ever a half truth at best. “I meant let’s go hit a bar somewhere.”

“You… and I… ‘go hit a bar somewhere?’ I must have been training you too hard.”

“I knew you’d say that. Come on, let’s go.”

The disbelief in Saitou’s stare increased. “Ahou, what part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?”

“The part you didn’t say, which I’m pretty sure was ‘no.’ Come on!”

“I have to go out of town tomorrow,” Saitou told him with a shake of the head. “I’m not going to spend my last night in Tokyo at some trashy bar full of lowlifes like you.”

These words fell like cold rain onto Sano’s sizzling enthusiasm. “What? How long will you be gone?”

“At least a week.”

“A week?! And you weren’t even going to tell me about this?”

“Of course I was. I couldn’t have you getting the wrong idea when I didn’t come home and going to look for me or something.”

“Like I’d ever look for you.”

“Like you’d ever have a chance at your darling Battousai without me.”

Sano made a frustrated sound. His cheer had been dampened, tempered by annoyance, but not eradicated. “Well, I still want to celebrate,” he said stubbornly. “I finally hit you!” His tone turned wheedling. “Just come out for an hour.”

“Why is it so important to you that I come drinking with you?”

Gradually Sano stilled. Why was it so important? It wasn’t as if there weren’t a dozen other people he would rather drink with than Saitou. Why should Saitou seem such a specifically desirable companion in this instance? He scrambled for an answer, and managed to come up with an excuse that might actually have been the truth. “Because… because you know what we’re celebrating, and I couldn’t really tell anyone else.”

Unsurprisingly, Saitou answered only with, “Hn.” Abruptly he sheathed his sword and moved toward the hallway door. “How late will you be out?”

Sano knew exactly what that question meant, but if Saitou wasn’t going to ask plainly Sano wasn’t going to answer plainly. “I dunno. All night, maybe.”

“Fine.” Saitou hadn’t turned to look at Sano since he’d started walking, and now did not even pause before entering the hall, which resulted in a somewhat muffled goodbye: “I’ll see you in a week or so, then.”

An inexplicable sense of bitter disappointment filled the young man he left behind. “Have fun in wherever the fuck you’re going!” Sano shouted after him. And when he’d stared at the hallway from beneath thunderous brows for several moments and received no reply, he finally whirled and stomped out of the house, slamming the back door behind him.

“Asshole,” he growled as he hopped the fence and took off through the neighborhood. He didn’t even know why he was so annoyed; he could drink just as easily without that jerk — more easily, in fact, since Saitou would probably complain about venue and company wherever they went and eventually insist they leave. Still, Sano wished Saitou had joined him, if only because he was curious about the cop’s level of tolerance.

Maybe he would go roll some dice with the guys. He’d landed the long-desired hit on Saitou; perhaps that luck would carry him to a series of wins. It was Monday, so he would probably find his friends down at Demura’s place, which was clear across town. He could stop for a drink or two on the way, and if he ran into someone that seemed likely to treat him continually, he might cancel his gambling plans entirely. In any case, it should be a good night.

So why did he keep glancing back up the street toward Saitou’s house? It wasn’t like Saitou was going to have a sudden change of heart and come running out after him. And though voluntarily doing without the nightly pleasure he’d become accustomed to lately was no happy prospect, still it wasn’t like Sano was going to have a sudden change of heart and go running back in there to Saitou. The coming week was going to suck too, but he could stand it. He’d done it for twenty years; he could do it for seven days.

The silence weighed on him oddly as he made his way out of the residential area and into a more commercial district, to the point where he almost felt like talking to himself to fill it. Not quite that far gone yet, however, he just stomped his feet as he walked instead. He felt like being noisy, since obviously he had no chance at conversation. Damn that bastard! Was it so hard to come drinking for an hour with his star pupil or whatever the hell Sano was to him?

He paused for a moment in order to knock on his forehead. “Hello in there!” And now he really was talking to himself. “You don’t fucking care, remember? It’s not important!”

Saitou had accused Sano, the day they’d started all this, of not being able to take him seriously. But who wasn’t taking his companion seriously now? All Sano wanted was to have a few drinks to commemorate this checkpoint in his training… it meant a lot to him, and what was so fucking hard about it? What seemed the most logical answer — that Sano’s company was completely unappealing to Saitou, that Ex-Shinsengumi-san would rather sit around alone and then go to sleep in a cold bed than be seen in public with someone like the former Zanza, that Saitou could find more entertainment in his own solitary thoughts than in anything Sano had to offer, that Sano in general just wasn’t good enough — was something Sano simply refused to think about. Not that he cared what Saitou thought of him in any case.

What he really needed, he realized, was to see Kenshin. It had been too long, and Sano would have to face Kaoru again eventually. That would rid his head of these tumultuous thoughts about stupid Saitou, too, so multiple birds could be taken care of with one stone. Was it too late for a visit to the dojo? Probably not… he’d have to see what the hour was by the time he made his way over there.

Ah, Kenshin. He could erase any number of problems. Sano thrust his hands into his pockets as he continued walking and began to contemplate his friend. The first smile since before his argument with Saitou crossed his face as he recalled how it had felt, in response to Kenshin’s potent words, to realize that there was more to life than he’d been getting out of it, that if he looked outside himself he might actually be able to enact some change in the world, Meiji era or not. He remembered how inspiring it had been to watch Kenshin fight the Oniwabanshuu for Megumi’s sake, culminating in that dreadful (and, embarrassingly enough, only partially observed by Sano) battle with Aoshi.

He thought back to the time when old loyalties had confused him, set him on another misguided quest of violence, and how Kenshin had not only rescued him once more, but had done so in a manner that allowed him to retain his other best friend. He recalled how frighteningly noble Kenshin had been during that ridiculous pirate affair, how he’d managed to turn Shura’s heart just by being his extraordinary, strong, generous self. And of course there had been Kyoto. Even knowing the rurouni, Sano couldn’t have imagined it until he’d seen it; the image of a battered and nearly dead Kenshin rising slowly but forcefully from the ground to face Shishio yet again would forever give him shivers.

Truly, no one was as amazing as Kenshin.

With a sigh, Sano glanced behind, back up the street, one last time.

***

The footfalls that had started when speech had ceased were coming this way, hastening into a run. Sano, who hadn’t previously bothered trying to hide as he listened in, now stepped into a nearby shadowed doorway and waited. Presently, as he’d expected, a female figure passed him, moving as quickly as her zouri and restrictive kimono would allow. The glimpse he caught of her face showed warring panic and determination; she didn’t believe fleeing was going to help, but neither did she plan on simply giving in. Lucky for her Sano had been around to notice her predicament.

Also as he’d expected, when he stepped out of his brief place of concealment to intercept the woman’s pursuer, he found himself facing a drawn sword. He’d heard its rasp at the culmination of the argument that had set the woman running, not to mention the suddenly overtly threatening tone of the man’s voice that had previously been merely haughty and demanding. And Sano wanted to know why, between these two people that seemed to know each other and have some manner of business to discuss, things should escalate into violence. If the woman were a prostitute, it would make sense — it still wouldn’t be acceptable, but it would make sense — but she didn’t look it, and this wasn’t the right part of town.

The man, like the woman, appeared to be relatively affluent, clean and classily dressed, but the katana he held was nothing out of the ordinary. And given that there was no way he could mistake the demeanor of the much more scruffy-looking person that had just stepped from the shadows and held out an arm, fist clenched, to block his path, he lowered his weapon as he came to a halt and scowled. “What do you want?”

“I want to know what the hell you think you’re doing.”

“Nothing that’s any of your business.”

“You’re armed; she’s not. That kind of bullshit’s always my business.”

The man drew himself up, and his sword rose to mimic the straightness of his spine. “Do you have any idea who I am?”

“No.” Sano grinned darkly. “Do you have any idea who I am?”

Too busy narrowing his eyes and curling his lip, the man didn’t actually manage to reply to this question. It was a panting female voice from behind Sano that provided the answer: “You’re… kenkaya… Zanza.”

Sano twitched a brief glance over his shoulder to where the woman had ventured back this direction and now stood, bending as if to ease a stitch, a few cautious paces away. He gave her a more friendly grin. “Glad someone still recognizes me. What the hell is going on?”

“Butt out, mercenary!” Evidently the announcement of Sano’s former identifiers had done nothing to cow the man. “She’s my fiance; I have every right to–”

“To chase her around with a sword?” Sano turned fully to face the man again, taking a menacing step toward him. “I don’t fucking think so.”

“And I told you,” the woman put in, still breathless, “I wouldn’t marry you if you were the last man in Tokyo, no matter what your father does.”

Just Tokyo, huh? Small world.

Having evidently reached the end of his patience, the man pointed his weapon at Sano. The position of his hands and orientation of his body spoke a certain degree of expertise, and Sano, much to his pleasure and somewhat to his surprise, fell automatically into one of the defensive stances he’d been practicing with Saitou. Even the unfairly demanding wolf couldn’t criticize that reaction.

And then another voice spoke up. “I believe you should put your sword away. I would not recommend fighting this man.”

Sano’s heart, which had given a little jump at the very first word, began to pound rapidly as he turned his eyes toward the new arrival. He couldn’t believe this luck. Ever since Saitou left town, Sano had actively planned on dropping by the dojo, yet somehow been sidetracked every single evening; and now here on the fourth night was Kenshin running into him. It was a gorgeous, perfect coincidence.

“Oh, hey, Kenshin,” he greeted, as casually as if he’d been expecting him. “Don’t bother trying to talk to this guy; I think he’s the stubborn type.”

Taking another step out of the shadows, where it appeared he’d concealed himself in order to see what would happen exactly as Sano had a few minutes before, Kenshin gave Sano an adorable mild expression of skepticism at the description of someone else as ‘the stubborn type.’ “I heard what he was saying to the young lady. He does seem very sure of himself.”

Sano gave a derisive laugh worthy of Saitou, at which the man made a snarling sound of defiance and lunged.

To drag this fight out as long as possible so as to showcase every single move he’d been practicing lately was Sano’s goal, and he pursued it ruthlessly. The guy, though not on a level with Sano’s combative skills, wasn’t too bad with his little sword, and Sano allowed him to think they were more evenly matched than was actually the case as he encouraged more complex attacks just to show how well he could deflect or avoid them. And once he was fairly sure he’d shown off everything — he didn’t want this to get too repetitive, after all — he knocked the jerk out cleanly with a single hit.

“I did tell him…” Kenshin said ruefully as he approached from where he’d been calmly watching.

Sano nudged the form at his feet with a brief laugh.

“That was amazing!” The woman too had come forward, and was now staring down at her fallen harasser with a wide-eyed expression of almost disbelieving pleasure and sudden freedom. “Thank you!” And she joined them in watching the shallow breaths of the lump on the cobblestones for a few moments.

Finally Kenshin asked her, “Will this make your situation worse?”

“I don’t know that it can get worse,” she sighed, “and this is certainly better than whatever he was planning to do to me just now.”

“If you require any assistance…” Seriously Kenshin gave directions to the Kamiya Dojo. “You will find friends there.”

She looked from one man to the other and nodded gratefully.

“Meanwhile,” Sano advised, “don’t let this jerk push you around. Just kick him in the balls if he tries.”

“When he’s awake and armed,” she replied regretfully, “that isn’t usually an option.” Her smile became very sunny all of a sudden as she added, “But right now…” And she lashed out with a heel with such suddenness, viciousness, and precise aim that Sano and Kenshin both winced. For an intense instant she looked as if she was considering doing it again, or even several more times, but then apparently thought better of it. “I’ve got to go home. Thanks again!”

Sano waved her away, and he and Kenshin waited in silence until she’d turned a corner. Then, not for the first time, Sano murmured, “Women are scary.”

“I hope she will be all right,” Kenshin worried.

Though Sano hoped so too, this wasn’t really what he wanted to talk about. It was time to get the long-anticipated reaction from Kenshin. So he replied, “Well, hopefully this guy won’t bother her again now I’ve taught him a lesson.”

Kenshin glanced down. “We should do something with him.”

“Why?” Sano started moving away from the recumbent form. “Though I did leave him in pretty bad shape, didn’t I?”

Joining him with only a brief backward look and slight shrug, Kenshin smiled up at Sano. “You did. You have clearly been training.”

“I sure have,” Sano beamed.

“And it has been well worth it,” Kenshin assured him. And he sounded impressed! He really did!!

“I’ve been working hard!”

“I see,” the rurouni went on, speaking slowly as if planning his words with care, “that you are learning to defend yourself more thoroughly, and avoid taking injury, as you fight.”

Though Sano honestly didn’t see anything wrong with taking a reasonable amount of injury as a means to the desired end, he wasn’t about to say so; it was time for some smooth self-promotion. “Yeah, I’m not as bull-headed as everyone thinks.”

“I never thought you were,” was Kenshin’s automatic reply. Then he gave an embarrassed laugh as honesty evidently compelled him. “Well, maybe occasionally I did. Or maybe more often than that, but…”

But now you fucking don’t! Slapping Kenshin’s back in a friendly, I’m-not-planning-on-seducing-you-eventually sort of way, the overjoyed Sano said, “I’ve been working so hard, I haven’t seen you in forever. How ’bout we go get a drink somewhere?”

Once he regained the balance Sano’s slap had thrown him off, Kenshin smiled up at him once again. “All right,” he said.

As they headed toward the nearest decent drinking establishment Sano knew (and Sano knew most of them, decent or otherwise), Kenshin continued the conversation on the same topic, which was exactly where Sano wanted it. “Have you been training ever since we got back from Kyoto?”

“Not the whole time… it wasn’t ’til after that bullshit with that Shigure guy. But I’ve been doing damn well for how long I’ve been at it, if I do say so myself.”

“You are! I was very impressed.”

He was impressed! He was fucking impressed!!

But then he said the one thing in the world Sano didn’t want him to — well, besides talking about how in love with Kaoru he was or something — “Whom have you been training with?”

Not blushing was completely impossible, given the images the words conjured up in Sano’s head, even if the secondary training he’d been busy with had only been aimed at becoming better for Kenshin. And though he was sure there was no way Kenshin, knowing nothing of what was going on, would suspect the true depth of Sano’s arrangement with Saitou, he was struck with a wild, guilty fear that the redness of his face would reveal everything and Kenshin would utterly scorn him for the rest of his life.

“Some bastard I met on the street,” he said somewhat indistinctly, avoiding Kenshin’s eye. Technically it was the truth. “Look, there’s the Haiirobou; they do some good mitarashi.” And he hastened forward.

Giving no sign of having noticed anything odd in the answer to his last question, Kenshin followed his friend inside and joined him in requesting some snacks and sake, even openly volunteering to meet the bill like the angelic being he was. But whether his mind was still on their previous topic or he’d been brought back to it by the dango they’d ordered, he continued on the same subject. “You are really serious about this training, if you haven’t stopped by the dojo for food even when Kaoru is not cooking.”

To hear Kenshin refer to Kaoru with no honorific was disconcerting and depressing; Sano had come to consider the ‘dono’ an integral part of the relationship between those two, and didn’t like it dropped.

“Hey,” he protested, “I was there… um, well, I guess it was a few weeks back, wasn’t it?” He tried not to think about the kiss that had broken up that party, how he’d slumped off to drink and fight away his pain, and then Saitou had… “But I’ve also got a job,” he half lied, making the addendum hastily so as to force images of that hot night out of his head, “so I’m really busy. Actually I’ve been meaning to come see you sometime soon, since my trainer’s out of town and I have some free time.”

“Everyone misses you,” Kenshin said, evidently completely oblivious to the shiver such words occasioned up Sano’s spine. “Especially the little girls.”

Though Sano wouldn’t have minded getting some more admiration out of Kenshin regarding his improving skills, the interrelated topic of Saitou that he would prefer to avoid actually made it something of a relief that they were abandoning the subject. So he said teasingly, “Ayame-chan and Suzume-chan just can’t get enough of a real man when he shows up, huh?”

Kenshin laughed along with him. “I believe Ayame-chan may be developing some interest in Yahiko.”

“And he can’t see anyone but Tsubame-chan, so he’ll never notice.”

“That does seem to be the case.”

They both laughed again, but Sano couldn’t help noticing the irony of the exchange. Reminded by this of one other that shared his plight, he asked, “By the way, have you guys seen kitsune-sensei lately?”

Appearing somewhat worried, Kenshin shook his head. “No. Kaoru and I are worried about her; she seems to be overworking herself. Something is troubling her, I think.”

For this Sano had no reply. A variety of reasons existed not to tell Kenshin bluntly that Megumi was in love with him and undoubtedly trying to distract herself with a heavy workload from thinking about his engagement to Kaoru — especially when Kenshin went on musingly, “Actually, I believe the last time we saw her at the dojo was that same night when you were last there.”

Yeah, funny coincidence, Sano was tempted to say aloud. He hoped Megumi would pull through this. Things would probably be especially bad for her when Sano jumped in and proved that Kenshin and Kaoru could be broken up with the right application of leverage. At that point, if she could never bring herself to examine and treat his hand again, he would completely understand. He should probably visit her for a checkup sometime before he alienated her permanently.

“Speaking of Kaoru worrying,” Kenshin said, looking around, “I promised her I would not be out too late.”

Sano clenched his jaw to keep it from dropping open, and sounded almost as appalled and unhappy as he actually was when he protested, “But you just got here! You’ve only had two drinks!”

“You were right,” said Kenshin as he prepared to rise. “The mitarashi here is delicious. But Kaoru will be expecting me back.”

Struggling mightily for a jovial tone rather than the deep bitterness that wanted to spill out in his words, Sano replied, “Funny… I didn’t notice that collar around your neck until just now. Where does that leash lead off to?”

Kenshin’s smile acknowledged the tease while at the same time reproving very slightly. “It is not a leash, Sano; it’s basic courtesy.”

“Yeah, of course.” Sano forced a smile in return. “Have fun. I’ll talk to you later.”

Kenshin nodded and bade him a casual goodbye that seemed somehow very cold in spite of its informality. Even the wave he offered from the door before he slipped out was no consolation. And Sano was left staring down at the last of the dango and the sake he fully intended to finish before he left, wondering where all the pleasure in his night had gone.

***

Sano wasn’t sure how he endured the remaining four days before Saitou returned. Though he did make it to the dojo on two separate occasions, all that happened there was the assignment of chores and babysitting jobs and the opportunity to observe Kaoru making eyes at Kenshin, who was as gorgeous and oblivious as ever, and Sano came back extremely frustrated. Eventually he was so agitated, and judged himself so impossible to be around, that he lay in the bath the entire last day of Saitou’s absence, emerging only to stoke the fire for another period of hot water, alternately napping and languidly masturbating.

The only coherent dream he had during any instance of sleep, however, was about Saitou rather than Kenshin, and explicit enough that he awoke with an erection to go along with his confusion. He needed Saitou here, to put things in perspective, to calm him down, to get everything back on track. With Saitou around, things were a lot easier to understand — everything except Saitou himself.

So he took care of his condition, finally vacated the bath, and checked over the house to make sure it was up to the bastard’s exacting standards of cleanliness and organization. He’d done this yesterday, hoping Saitou would be home then, and probably didn’t need to do it again… but figured he couldn’t be too certain. He even gave the great room floor one last and somewhat unnecessary sweep before he went into the bedroom.

He had shamelessly been sleeping in Saitou’s bed all week, and didn’t think twice about preparing to do so knowing that its rightful owner might join him there tonight. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t been using it when Saitou was around, and anyway this was all just an arrangement. But it did feel odd to be surrounded by that cigarette smell, which never really washed out of the linens, without actually having the smoker in the house. It felt… wrong… somehow. Of course the whole situation was wrong, but it wouldn’t last much longer. Because Kenshin’s wedding was approaching fast, and Sano would be damned if he lost him after working so hard.

Having stripped to his wraps, he tossed his clothes aside on the floor and himself down onto the futon. Though it was a hot night, he always felt the need, in bed, to be covered with something, and pulled the blanket loosely over his stomach. Then he closed his eyes, lay still, and tried to escape the confusion of today’s thoughts by forcing himself to contemplate Kenshin coherently and purposefully.

Exactly when he fell asleep, or what he was thinking at the time, he didn’t know. But at some point he was vaguely aware of a draft of cooler air, soft sounds nearby, the advent of a warm body beside him, strong arms around him, and breath on his neck as a deep voice said… something… before he returned to his dreams. He couldn’t make out the words, and didn’t remember them in the morning, but somehow he felt better than he had the previous day despite again awakening alone. The only indication that Saitou had returned was the new laundry in the basket and a few dirty dishes in the kitchen.

That day, unfathomably happy, Sano whistled as he did his chores; every vestige of yesterday’s agitation and confusion was gone. He washed his own clothes along with Saitou’s, borrowing the officer’s red yukata until the sun had dried everything else. Not that his clothes particularly needed this attention — he’d laundered them just last week — but for some reason he wanted them clean. It was the same non-reason he’d taken another bath this morning despite having lived in the water yesterday. Some of Saitou’s fastidiousness must be rubbing off on him.

Then he spent longer than usual making supper. Things were not turning out the way he wanted them, for some reason. And the table just didn’t look right no matter how many times he reset it; it took four attempts before he was grudgingly satisfied. Saitou must really be rubbing off on him — he’d never cared this much before whether the rice was perfect or whether the chopsticks were at the correct angle!

He sat down to wait.

“Is that empty bowl particularly interesting this evening, ahou?”

At the first syllable of this question, Sano jumped, rattling the table, then nearly upset the latter as he rose clumsily to his feet. “What bowl?” was his stupid response.

“The one you’ve been staring at for the last three minutes.”

“You were standing there that long?”

Saitou raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t even notice? That’s an achievement even for you.”

Flustered, Sano protested, “I was thinking, all right?”

The mocking expression on the harsh face intensified, though there might have been some interest there as well, as Saitou asked, “Ah, and was Himura impressed with your new skills?”

Sano shook his head. “How the hell do you always know fucking everything?”

“I look around, unlike a certain idiot I know.”

Turning, Sano dropped back into his place at the table. “Well, get over here and look around at this food before it gets cold.” Despite his exasperated sigh, however, he was actually enjoying this exchange, and definitely enjoying having Saitou in the same room again. Against all odds, it appeared he really was glad to have the bastard back.

The officer sat, and they commenced eating just as they had so many times before. They often spent the first half of the meal in relative silence, since little came between Sano and his food; but it seemed to Sano that, though Saitou wasn’t saying anything more than usual, his gaze was crossing the table with a strange frequency. After a while it began to get irritating, so finally Sano asked, “What are you staring at?”

“You.” Saitou was unfazed by his companion’s belligerent tone.

“Yeah, I noticed that much. What about me?”

“I was just wondering how else you’ve wasted your time this last week. Not practicing, I assume.”

Would Sano never again be able to hear words like ‘training’ and ‘practice’ without blushing? He bent over his vegetables to hide his face. “Maybe I have been. You don’t know.”

“I think we covered what I know just a few minutes ago.”

Sano choked on his latest bite, gripped suddenly by the uncanny thought of Saitou being able to see him wherever he went and whatever he did — especially, though not exclusively, what he’d been doing yesterday. “Hey, don’t go claiming to have any supernatural powers or anything,” he said weakly, through a cough.

“Only in bed.” This was uttered at such a deadpan, without the slightest change in facial expression as Saitou sipped his tea, that at first Sano didn’t quite know what to say.

Finally, as the implications of the phrase sank in, Sano grinned. “Kyoto was cold, huh?”

Saitou’s face remained tilted slightly downward into his cup, but Sano caught the amused gleam in his eyes as they rose toward him in acquiescence.

“Then hurry up and finish, old man. It’s been cold here too.”


He Can Be Taught (1/3)

He Can Be Taught



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


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





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

1
2
3


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Aoshi, then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“Yo, tori-atama!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sano just grunted.

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

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

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

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

“I love you too, Kenshin.”

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

“All right, Kenshin!”

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

…for a week.

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

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

And then one day they let him go. He was asleep, actually, as wasn’t infrequently the case where there was so little else to do, dreaming about Kenshin in a manner he wouldn’t have dared had he been crashing at the dojo (even his subconscious having a very healthy fear of discovery in that area), when the sound of Chou’s impudent voice and the rattling of the bars burst through the beautiful images in Sano’s head like a runaway horse crashing through a silk merchant’s stall: bright fragments scattered abruptly in every direction, fluttering into obscurity.

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

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

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

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

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

“By who?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sanosuke!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He started to plan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Again, why should they be?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sano blushed and scowled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about it?”

“I mean you owe me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why don’t you take a look around?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You have so many fucking books!”

“You have so few words in your vocabulary.”

“What the hell language is this?”

“Can you even read Japanese?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I did.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You always reach these conclusions so quickly.”

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

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

Sano felt a strange shiver go through him, almost as if he were looking forward to that. This scared him to the point where only the fact that Saitou was standing there cooking food he might be able to eat in a few minutes kept him from bolting out the door. In a tone that tried for casualness as he looked quickly away from Saitou, “All right, so when do you start beating my ass again?” he asked.

“Tomorrow.”

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

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

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

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

“Ohhh,” Sano moaned, “scaaaryyy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m kidding!” Sano was able to laugh since Saitou’s threatening statement had restored an atmosphere between them that he was more accustomed to. “Loosen up, why don’t you? You’re in your own house, after all!”

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

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

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

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

A black eyebrow arched. “You smoke?”

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

“Doesn’t that bother you?”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

He was whistling as he set out across town, and offered a cheerful wave and mocking greeting to some of his friends in a dockyard he passed. They had to spend the day in the rain, whereas he was going to be nice and dry doing much easier work. His pity for them didn’t occupy his thoughts for long, though, as he was beginning to remember, while he walked, the dreams he’d been having last night: lovely visions of being held in warm arms in a comfortable atmosphere. This had probably contributed to his confusion upon waking, but such a contribution was worth it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Isn’t it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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


Blood Contingency 1-5



This story was last updated on December 30, 2018

I’m so rarely afraid of anything that when I do happen to encounter something that scares me, I hardly know what to do about it.

It would be easier to decide on a course of action if the source of my fear were something that might reasonably frighten a normal man — but this sudden, irrational wariness of the teenager leaning against the wall near my apartment door isn’t really something I know what to do with. I stop, under the pretense of checking something in the car before I get out, to examine the stranger.

About my height, though he’s slouching and that estimate could be off; a pale, Asian face with dark-lashed eyes; shaggy brown hair — I can’t tell how long, as it’s pulled back; seems fairly lanky, though not a lightweight; and could be anywhere from seventeen to twenty-two-or-three. He doesn’t appear threatening — at least not in any way I, as a cop, would normally consider threatening; there are, of course, any number of things that could be hidden under the jacket he’s wearing, but his bearing doesn’t suggest him ready to attack at any moment. So why does the very sight of him send a chill through my entire body?

Afraid I may be, inordinately and unusually so, but a coward I am not. I’ve already determined that he doesn’t mean to attack me, and, besides that, I’m wearing a bullet-proof vest and have a gun and a nightstick at my side. Closing the car door with no more firmness or haste than I normally use, I head up the sidewalk toward the building without hesitation. “Can I help you?” I ask the young man casually.

“I was waiting for you, actually,” he replies, and though on the surface his tone is equally casual, there’s something immovably… hard… in the voice… some cold note I can’t quite place, but which sends a slight shiver up my spine and puts me even more on my guard.

“And what can I do for you?” I ask, stopping before the stranger without a flinch.

He straightens up and pulls empty hands out of the pockets of his jacket. They’re unnaturally pale in front of the black leather and even the blue jeans they fall against as they drop to his side. He’s now looking me very intently in the face; I think that staring into his eyes, which are, like his skin, uncannily bright, might well and probably should increase the irrational fear, but somehow it doesn’t. In fact, the effect is rather the opposite.

“There’s a lot of things you could do for me, Joe,” he says after a long moment of silence. “It’s gonna be up to you like always, though.”

I wonder briefly if I’m being sexually propositioned, but dismiss the notion as implausible at best. Even the boldest prostitutes don’t wait for police officers outside their own homes and then make their advances in cryptic, stalker-like language — and this isn’t the neighborhood for it at any rate. It’s also far from the center of what little gang activity there is in this city, as well as the worst areas of drug-related intrigue. Thus I’m really at a loss what this young man who knows my name and address could possibly want from me here at night with empty hands and an aura of danger.

But, once again, I am far from cowardly. “I think you’d better tell me exactly who you are and what you’re doing here.”

He gives a wry smile — almost rueful, I think — and shakes his head. “You’ll find that out one way or another,” he says. “This is your first chance.”

“Are you threatening me?” I ask, my cool tone far from a reflection of my state of mind.

He shrugs. “Kinda. I’ll be back in a week.” And, replacing his hands in his pockets, he turns and begins to walk away.

I’m surprised and annoyed. That someone should show up like this outside my home, frighten me as nothing has for a decade, and then walk so carelessly away after making such incomprehensible remarks… it isn’t merely unsettling and bizarre, it’s irritating. However, as I’m opening my mouth to tell him to come back and explain himself, my entire attention is arrested by something — yet another inexplicably disconcerting object that really should mean nothing to me — something that sends another shiver up my spine.

There is a large symbol in white on the back of the stranger’s jacket: some sort of Japanese character, I think, though this is just my default guess because I happen to have a Japanese-American girlfriend. But something about it freezes me to the spot and silences whatever protest or demand I was about to make. It isn’t an innately frightening sign; it doesn’t convey any meaning to me whatsoever; it certainly does not, in its design or general aspect, have any sort of hypnotic effect; but somehow it’s riveting. Because it’s… familiar…?

When the young man’s back has disappeared from my sight around the corner, releasing me from the disturbed and absorbed contemplation of the symbol thereupon, my presence of mind returns instantly and informs me that it would be absurdly foolish to let him walk away like that.

However, darting around the corner with quiet, determined footsteps, I find the parking lot completely empty — empty, silent, and calm under the peaceful moon. My eyes stray from one part of my placid and familiar surroundings to the next, my ears straining for any sound out of the ordinary in the quiet neighborhood, for a good five minutes before I turn with yet another shiver and make my way back to the apartment.

Inside, in the comforting skepticism of an air-conditioned and linoleum-floored kitchen, I analyze the confrontation as I mechanically seek out something microwaveable for dinner. I’m realizing now, in even greater annoyance than I was feeling a few minutes ago, that I wasn’t really afraid so much as disturbed by the stranger’s aspect and presence. Something inside me doesn’t want to have anything to do with the guy, even look at him. Of course there’s a certain amount of fear involved in this, but the primary reaction was and is reluctance. As if I really do know, and disapprove of, who he is and what his appearance signifies. Which seems impossible, but there it is.

And then that symbol… what did it mean? And what did it mean that I found it so terribly fascinating that I couldn’t look away or say a word while it was in view? Turning from the busy microwave, I seize a paper towel and the nearest available writing utensil, and do my best to reproduce the image; having a good eye for detail, I think I’ve done fairly well, but it means no more to me now than it did then.

A glance at the clock confirms that it isn’t too late for a phone call, but I can’t decide for a moment whether or not that would be overreacting. Eventually I opt for better-safe-than-sorry and dial Renee’s number.

“You’re calling me on a Wednesday?” she greets me. “What’s the big occasion?”

Ignoring her sarcasm I command, “Grab something to write with.”

“OK,” she says gamely, then, a moment later, “Go ahead.”

I study the figure I’ve jotted down, realizing just how stupid this is going to sound. “Draw a tic-tac-toe board,” I begin.

“Is this our date for the week?” she wonders, but I can hear the scratch of a pencil.

“Yes,” I deadpan. “Now put lines across the top and bottom about the same length as the other horizontal lines.”

“OK…”

“Then add a wide letter U or smile underneath.”

“Oh, I see what we’re doing.”

“Do you?”

“Yes, but it’s not really a fair game… you don’t know any kanji, which means I never get a turn. Where are you seeing this one?”

I find myself oddly reluctant, suddenly, to tell her about the strange young man. Am I hesitant to admit how much he disturbed me? Though unsure if this is my actual motive, the impulse not to mention him is too strong to resist. So I put her off with, “I wasn’t finished.”

“Well, with dashes around and inside the ‘smile,’ and the sides of the ‘tic-tac-toe board’ closed off” — she obviously finds this quite amusing — “you’ve got ‘waru’ or ‘aku,’ which means ‘evil.'”

“Evil,” I repeat slowly. Somehow I’m not surprised. Then, in response to her expectant silence I explain, “I saw it on someone’s jacket and wondered what it meant.”

She laughs. “People wear kanji all over the place and have no idea what they actually say. At least it wasn’t a tattoo.”

“Or a shirt that says, ‘Let’s Begin To Love Myself Over Again?'” I can’t help bringing that up; I never can.

“May I remind you that that was a birthday present?” She’s laughing. “I didn’t buy it.”

“And yet you still wear it.” I really don’t feel like further banter, though, so before she can retort I add, “Thanks for the translation; I have to go.”

She must have observed that my tease was half-hearted, for after noting that I sound tired and promising to call me on Saturday for a date that will not involve tic-tac-toe, she lets me go.

I stand in the kitchen staring at the paper towel for who knows how long, eventually make slow progress with my warmed-up leftovers to the table, and turn on the TV. I don’t pay any more attention to the news than I do to my dinner, however. It’s irritating but predictable: I can’t stop dwelling on the stranger. He was giving me a chance… to do what? He’ll be back in a week… why? And what was it he thought I could do for him? It’s pointless to speculate; if he does come back, presumably I’ll find out… but I hate being left in the dark, sitting back and waiting for my turn to know until it’s too late for action.

Most engrossing, though probably not most important… why was I so perturbed by him? I didn’t know the meaning of the symbol on his back until after he was gone, so why did I find it so riveting, so nearly horrifying? But he probably couldn’t answer those questions even if I felt like making a fool of myself asking them.

The next question is why such a minor event is still bothering me so much now that it’s over. It’s understandably annoying that I was disturbed enough not to act as I logically should have, but why I should be feeling echoes of that agitation even now… why I should be feeling traces of some kind of superstitious premonition, as if that brief encounter was a herald of upheaval… why I should be feeling like there’s something I should remember but that’s just past the edge of my conscious mind… I don’t know. I don’t know if I want to know.

I’m certain that going to bed is not likely to improve my state of mind, but I’m not about to change my habits or disrupt my sleep schedule for some stranger who shouldn’t really be at all unsettling.

It was probably just a prank anyway, and I’ll never see the guy again.

“Saitou,” she said. “With a mysterious, bloodthirsty psychopath murdering his way through Tokyo, I really should have been expecting you.”

“Good morning to you too, doctor,” I returned the greeting. “I’m not surprised to find you here.”

“No,” she replied sardonically, “considering I’ve managed to examine five of these things so far.”

I wasn’t about to mention how lucky I found these combined circumstances. I hadn’t yet had opportunity to examine much physical evidence, so I’d been less upset than I might have at another murder — and far from upset that Takani-sensei, who had no selfish motives or class biases and who knew me better than most, had once again been the closest doctor to the crime. The fact that the pattern had been significantly broken this time was another point in the incident’s favor.

Hironaku was getting excited over the signs of violence, which hadn’t been present at any of the previous scenes. He seemed to be missing the fact that, as usual, the victim had evidently gone peacefully without a struggle — that the smashed dishes, broken table, and dented wall had not been part of the murder — but he’d been with this case since the first corpse and had watched two other investigators make nothing of it, so his enthusiasm was reasonable. As subordinates went, he was a greater combination of tolerable and competent than most; I would probably keep him.

Takani was still kneeling beside the body, looking understandably disheveled. This certainly wasn’t the first time in the last few weeks she’d been summoned to an unusual murder scene in the early morning without even the consolation of being a police doctor. I wasn’t entirely without sympathy, but was still glad she and not some other physician was present.

A few drops of blood on the floor that had evidently come from the victim’s single wound were the only indication as to where the body had originally fallen and how it had lain. Apparently the wife, in her understandable but damnable hysteria at finding her husband the latest of possibly the most bizarre string of murders in Tokyo’s history, had dragged him out of place and might have caused more harm to the scene had her frantic screaming not alerted the neighbors and, subsequently, the police.

Only by chance had there been an officer in the vicinity at all; it wasn’t the type of neighborhood that got much attention from our upstanding and unbiased justice system. And that was the most significant deviation from the pattern here. The murders thus far had fallen into two categories: successful businessmen killed in their own homes, apparently by design; and unemployed lowlifes or homeless killed in the streets, apparently at random. This man had been an unemployed lowlife, yet, by all appearances, had still been specifically tracked to his home and deliberately murdered.

“What can you tell me?” I asked the doctor once I’d finished my methodical look around the room.

“He’s the same as all the rest,” she reported dully, “just fresher. Exsanguination and no trauma as far as I can tell. At least this time you found him soon enough for a proper autopsy.” The last remark was clearly made without much hope that she wouldn’t be the one performing it.

“Time of death?”

“He has no blood,” she reminded me flatly. “That throws everything off. Until the autopsy, I can only guess. Three hours ago, maybe more.”

I nodded as I stared down at the corpse. I hadn’t disbelieved the reports regarding the cause of death, but I hadn’t exactly believed them, either. Not until I’d seen it for myself could something so outlandish seem at all real. And I found myself a good deal more disturbed than I typically was at a murder scene. It wasn’t the abnormally pallid, dry-looking flesh and emaciated, slightly twisted frame that made it so much more horrific than usual… I’d seen bodies barely recognizable as such, turned inside out or strewn in pieces across large expanses, seen rooms so drenched in blood as to make me go temporarily colorblind. This was the exact opposite, and somehow just that… the mere absence, the complete absence of blood… that made it worse than all the rest.

Only the most puerile investigators jumped immediately to insanity as the likely motive for a crime, but this… this had the mark of a madman. Though still a madman with specific goals. The theory the previous investigators had been working with was that we had on our hands a disgruntled, jealous, overly ambitious businessman who’d hired an assassin to give him an edge and had set the killer on a few unrelated victims as well in order to cloud the issue. Not a bad hypothesis… but, typically, its flaws had either never occurred to my predecessors or had been willfully overlooked. Significant among these was a question they had entirely ignored: what would a businessman — or even an assassin — want with such a large volume of blood?

I’d been in town and on the case for several days now and still had no solid theories, and that was a deviation from pattern of another kind. Nothing we knew so far was remotely conclusive; indeed, every new clue we turned up seemed to point in a different direction from the last.

The final deviation was the witness. Every previous victim seemed to have been killed in complete solitude, and a few of them hadn’t even been discovered for days. But this man had been entertaining at the time of death — a guest who’d been knocked hard into a wall and fallen thence onto the table where the sake they’d been sharing had rested… but who might have seen something before that, who might be able to explain why a struggle had been necessary to subdue him but not the man actually being murdered.

I worked my way through the scene once more. I felt like I was missing something, or perhaps that some of this was making more sense to my subconscious than to the surface of my mind. Either way, I didn’t think I was likely to learn anything more from the room at the moment. “Let’s get him out of here. Takani-sensei, you’ll perform the autopsy?”

Hironaku looked at me askance but said nothing.

“Of course,” the doctor answered, heavily but unhesitating, as she rose. She wasn’t happy about this; it was rather outside the boundaries of what she usually dealt with, her connection to the Kamiya dojo notwithstanding… but she was resigned, and not lacking in the aplomb necessary for her profession.

I’d sent for a closed wagon to transport the body, and at my orders a few of the men who waited outside got the latter wrapped and loaded onto the former. “The wife was taken to the south station?” I asked another.

“Yes, sir.”

“Have arrangements made for her for the next couple of days, and one of you stay here to keep the curious off. I’m going to look this place over again after I’ve questioned the witness.” He repeated his acknowledgment, and I left him discussing with the others who would return to the station and who would stand guard.

“I doubt your ‘witness’ is going to have anything to say for some time,” Takani warned me quietly.

“On the off chance that he’s awake and coherent and happened to see something, I’m going to look in on him.”

She was giving me an odd eye, and it seemed she might have something useful to say, but eventually she merely shook her head and remarked, “I won’t have you jeopardizing his recovery.”

I had no answer for this, since each of us knew that, if it came to it, the other would press their side of the issue — and probably knew equally well who would prevail.

By the time I handed the doctor into the cab and took the spot beside her, Hironaku was already seated looking over his notes. While I preferred to keep my thoughts organized in my head where troublesome people couldn’t get their hands on them, I had to appreciate his dedication.

“This murder method…” he remarked as the carriage began to move, then abruptly glanced at the doctor. His expressive face was as plain as a direct question whether he should discuss his theories in front of her. She wasn’t looking at either of us. I nodded.

“It reminds me of some things yakuza bosses have done to scare their people into sticking with them,” he continued slowly. “Or something similar: someone trying to send a message to someone…”

“With as much specific aim as anonymously tacking signs up on lamp-posts,” I replied. “If it’s a message, it could be meant for just about anyone, and that anyone isn’t likely to step forward.”

He sighed. “In any case, we’re dealing with one sick bastard.”

“Or more than one,” I reminded. “Don’t get too caught up in speculation until after we find out what the other man knows.” Not that I wasn’t speculating. I just wasn’t doing it aloud.

With an expression of perturbation, Hironaku nodded. In actuality I feared he might prove a little too emotionally fragile to last long… He hadn’t shown signs of excessive brittleness, but he seemed the type that might crack all at once when things piled up. Still, someone relatively competent for a short while was better than someone hopeless I couldn’t get rid of. Perhaps I could increase his longevity by letting him handle most of the paperwork. That would be doubly useful.

“I do wonder why the other man is alive at all, though,” he murmured thoughtfully after several silent moments. “Our murderer has killed eight people so far… why not this other man?”

“If you’ll allow me to speculate…” Takani had looked up abruptly. “‘Your murderer’ seems to be interested in collecting blood, not committing murder.” It was only very slight, but in her voice was the tone of someone patiently explaining something obvious. Hironaku’s expression in response was slightly amusing; it seemed this thought really hadn’t crossed his mind. Maybe I wouldn’t keep him.

“If he was equipped to extract blood from only one man,” Takani continued, “and had no idea there was anyone else there until he entered…”

“Oh?” Now I was curious, and turned to regard her with a raised brow, wondering what she thought she knew. “Why would he assume his victim was alone?”

“Oh?” she echoed. I got the feeling she was somewhat darkly pleased at having information that I lacked. “None of your fine officers were able to identify the other man?” Finally I comprehended her earlier odd expression as she added pointedly, “I doubt anyone besides the victim knew Tsukioka-san was there, or would be there, at that time. He’s not the type to let people know what he’s planning.”

I nodded slowly. That complicated things.

“…of all the stupid things. A degree in criminology, and they’ve got me hunting vampires.”

Overhearing this at the station the next day is not exactly comforting. Nor is the fact that I make mental connections as fast as I do.

“I don’t know what else to call them, though… I’ve never seen murders like this before, and neither have you.”

Curious as I am — and I am — I decide not to ask. Better not to know the details of this elaborate hoax. It isn’t my case anyway, and it certainly won’t help keep my mind off the strange, pale visitor of last night.

The latter, as I somewhat anticipated, is in and out of my head throughout the day. The same questions I’ve been asking about him all along arise and are steadfastly ignored while I get what I need to do finished. Even more assiduously I ignore the movie lines that keep popping up in my head trying to distract me… things like, “You know how few vampires have the stamina for immortality, how quickly they perish of their own will?” and, “The vampires didn’t realize you were following a human… did they?” and, best of all, “You’re not a full vampire until you’ve made your first kill. You were supposed to be mine… but I couldn’t…” Only then do I realize just how many stupid vampire movies I’ve actually seen. It’s very annoying.

I wonder how the stranger would react if he knew these thoughts. Vaguely putting myself in his place (assuming some sort of reasonable motive for the mysterious behavior), the idea is actually slightly amusing, in a god-forbid sort of way.

The question from last night that returns the most persistently is why this matter continues to bother me so much. Mere unusualness is not enough to justify this kind of devotion of thought. I try to tell myself that it’s the natural result of boring paperwork, that as soon as I’m out on a new case I’ll forget it entirely… but not even boring paperwork has ever led me to reflections this firmly locked on a seemingly unimportant subject before.

Eventually, thinking to drown the fixation with excess information, I give in and ask someone to enlighten me on the ‘vampire’ business. My precinct is given to gossip like some proverbial group of old women, so he’s only too happy to do so — and what I hear is no more than I expected: a couple of apparently-related killings by some unknown whose MO matches what one must assume a vampire’s would be if such creatures existed, right down to the presence of foreign DNA in the neck wounds. Predictably, keeping the press off the occurrences is taking up half my colleague’s energy at the moment.

For all our gossipy habits (and, yes, sadly, I’m forced to include myself in this description), the tales don’t leave the station; as such, the number of people outside the police force who are likely to know about this matter is small (for now, while the press is still in the dark). Therefore, little as I want to assume there are two similar hoaxes going on simultaneously in the same vicinity, I have to believe this is unconnected with my visitor — mostly because if the circumstances were connected, that complicates and darkens something I thought simply unusual.

Wait; similar hoaxes? Why, I wonder in annoyance, am I connecting them at all? Why has such a fantastic concept as vampires attached itself so tenaciously to the visitor in my head? Because he was pale, because he moved quickly and quietly, because I was disturbed by him? How utterly childish of me. Maybe I’ve been working too hard lately. I wonder briefly when I can next take vacation time. Renee would like that, anyway.

“I fucking hate vampires.”

I roll my eyes, and, with an effort of will, force myself to stop thinking about it. And once I’ve torn myself away, I manage, if not entirely without further struggle, to stay away for the rest of the day.

Leaving rather late, having lost track of the time in enthusiasm(?) for my paperwork, as is often the case, I find the parking lot dark and sparse when I finally emerge. Not even the faintest glow of sunset remains on the city-obscured horizon, and I parked in a spot where the lot lights don’t touch. It’s from the shadows near my car, which I haven’t quite reached, that a woman’s voice unexpectedly speaks: “You’ve been contacted.”

Simply because of the brazen oddity of the greeting, yesterday’s occurrence — and all related reflection — springs immediately back into my mind.

Stepping forward into the full light, she displays pale Asian features and bright eyes. When she catches sight of my face she stops moving. “Oh,” she says in a tone of understanding.

Two encounters with washed-out, glowing-eyed, cryptic Asians on two consecutive days is no coincidence — especially given the news, I can’t help but think — so I’m immediately tense, ready to make sure she doesn’t run off. “‘Oh,’ what?” I demand.

Her face takes on a sad expression. “He hasn’t reminded you yet.”

Assuming she’s referring to the young man, and considering he didn’t tell me anything, I have to assume she’s correct.

She looks even more somber at my silence. “I know you’re confused,” she says quietly, “and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. But I can assure you you’ll know everything in time.”

“Everything?” I echo wryly. “Not something I ever wanted to know.”

Her smile matches my tone. “And you won’t want to know most of this. But I’d like at least to assure you that we don’t have any criminal intentions towards you.”

I frown, unable to keep from becoming suspicious at this carefully-worded statement. “Who are you?”

She looks thoughtful for a moment, almost indecisive. Finally she says, “Megumi.”

A Japanese name, I know; Renee is a fan of some trembly-voiced singer called the same thing. That doesn’t tell me much, but it’s better than no information at all. “And your friend’s name?”

Another wry smile. “‘Friend?’ Hmm. Well, his name… I’ll leave that up to him.”

This is getting frustrating. I’m tempted to return to the prank theory, but there’s something about her that seems too serious to disregard. “And what do you want?” I wonder next.

“I want nothing from you,” she says, and her slight emphasis of the word ‘I’ again makes me frown.

“And him?”

“Again, that’s up to him,” she replies.

There’s very little more I can ask her, given that this is not an interrogation and she’s basically told me she isn’t going to tell me anything. And as the silence lengthens, she shakes her head and turns. I don’t feel I should let her walk away, but can’t think of anything to make her stay.

Then, as she puts her back to me but before her first few steps take her out of the ring of light, I see very clearly, slung over her shoulder, a sort of leather holster that contains, unless I’m very much mistaken, a neat row of wooden stakes.

By now even my better judgment is starting to give way, and only my desire to consider this a hoax allows me to keep doing so.

Sagara answered after I’d knocked about four times, opening the door sluggishly and blinking at me for several moments. Then he scowled. Grunting, he withdrew, leaving the way free for me to follow. “I figure if you’re here to kick my ass,” he explained at a grumble, “you might as well do it inside where you won’t wake up all my neighbors.”

“How considerate of you,” was my reply as I shut the door behind me.

“Since when are you in town?”

“Since last week; I’m here for a case.”

“Then I guess I can forgive you for not showing up earlier to kick my ass.”

“Unfortunately, I have business other than kicking your ass today.”

It was the first time I’d been inside his home, and I found it a little neater than I’d expected… mostly because he didn’t seem to own very much. What he did have was enough, however, to provide sufficient clutter that his search for the upper garment he lacked was taking some time. “I thought all your Tokyo cases involved kicking my ass,” he said as he hunted.

“Hn.” I would have had a better reply for this, but I really was here on business — business he was probably going to find even less pleasant than his speculations. “Hurry up and get ready.”

He straightened, his gi in one hand, and threw me a black look. “Like I’m going to take orders from you.”

“You are if you want to hear what happened to your friend.”

The gi dropped to the floor. “Which friend? What happened?!”

“I’ll tell you on the way.”

Hastily now he recovered the article of clothing and shrugged into it, demanding, “On the way where? You didn’t come in a stupid carriage, did you?”

“No. Come on.”

He followed me out the door, not bothering to lock it behind us. Of course, I didn’t know if he ever bothered to lock it.

“Well?” he demanded as we started up the street.

“Have you heard about the recent attacks?” I began.

With a snort he replied, “You’re gonna have to be more specific than that… think about where I live.”

He hadn’t heard, then; he’d have known what I meant without any elaboration otherwise. “Eight people — so far — have been killed by having large quantities of blood drained from their bodies.”

“Eight?? What the fuck are you cops doing? Is one of my friends one of ’em?!”

One of his questions was a very good one, but not one I felt like addressing right now. “He isn’t dead,” I replied. “He was found unconscious next to the body of the latest victim. He’s the first potential witness to any of the attacks.”

Sanosuke drew a deep, angry breath. “You’re an asshole, you know that? Scaring the shit of out me like that for nothing.”

“It’s not nothing. His shoulder was dislocated, his arm broken, and he has a concussion.”

“My god, you are an asshole… Why the hell didn’t you say that before?”

“He’s also incoherent and won’t talk to me.”

“I fucking wonder why,” muttered Sanosuke. “So that’s what this is all about. You want me to help you question one of my friends because you can’t do it yourself. I’d never have known he was hurt otherwise.”

“I’m fairly sure you’re his only real friend, and probably as close to family as he has at this point,” I replied coolly; “you’d have been notified if he died.”

“Shit, it’s Katsu, isn’t it?” His tone had taken on an edge of much greater concern. “Why didn’t you just say so?” When I did not reply he went on in a surly tone, “So what do I get out of this?”

I raised a brow. “Safer streets?” I suggested. “The opportunity to talk to him at all?”

“Ch…” He’d only asked in order to be perverse, I was certain; we both knew he wouldn’t refuse to help in a situation like this. “Hurry the fuck up, then,” he added.

The only reason I hadn’t taken a carriage was that I recalled how difficult he’d been the last time I’d tried to get him to ride in one. The walk between the clinic and his neighborhood took more time than I really wanted to waste, but I’d decided that keeping him in a relatively compliant mood was probably worth it. Still, my impatience to get back and get on with things led me to accede quite easily to his demand that I ‘hurry the fuck up.’

Eventually he recognized the direction we were going. “So he’s at kitsune’s clinic?”

I nodded. “Takani has been lucky enough to examine most of the bodies so far, including this latest one.”

“No wonder I haven’t seen her around lately…” Sagara murmured thoughtfully. I was vaguely surprised at the implication that he saw her around enough to know the difference; I hadn’t thought they got along that well.

As we finally approached the clinic, I broke the silence again. “He has no reason to trust me. But if you can convince him he’s safe in telling you anything that might be related to this matter–”

“Dyou realize what you’re doing?” Sagara broke in.

I glanced at him with a raised brow.

“You’re counting on me,” he stated. Though his tone was nearly flat, it had the air of a defiant announcement. “I’m doing something important for you, and you’re trusting me to do it.”

“You’re the only one who can,” I replied, by which I meant (and he knew it) that if there had been anyone else, I wouldn’t have asked him.

His face darkened briefly, then cleared, and he grinned slightly. “I’m gonna take that as a compliment.”

“Do as you please.”

We’d reached the door, and here Sanosuke paused. “All right, so what am I finding out if I can?”

“Anything he remembers about the attack, anything he thinks might be related to it. The series of events, what the killer was like, and any guess he might have about why the killer chose that victim.”

“You don’t ask much, do you?” wondered Sagara sarcastically.

“I’ll be out here,” I replied.

He shook his head and entered the building.

It took much longer than I expected. Whether this meant Tsukioka had a lot of information to relate, or that he wasn’t lucid enough to relate it quickly, or that Sagara was dominating the conversation talking shit about me, I couldn’t guess — though presumably I would find out soon enough.

The lady doctor, who’d left to get some rest after the autopsy, returned while I was waiting. She didn’t look particularly rested, however; actually, I thought the darkness beneath her eyes was even more pronounced than before. But I restrained myself and didn’t speculate about nightmares or anything less appropriate that might have interrupted her sleep, merely nodded to her.

With a grim expression she glanced from the door to where I was leaning against the wall looking out at the yard. “You found Sanosuke?” she guessed.

I nodded again.

“You know I don’t approve,” she said flatly.

“And you know it’s necessary,” I answered in a similar tone.

She held my eye for a second and then replied more lightly, “I meant your smoking just outside my clinic.” Evidently she knew better than to argue further against disturbing her patient.

I smirked slightly, darkly, as I took another drag. “That’s necessary to keep me from going insane.”

“Yes, this case of yours is enough to have that effect on anyone.” She sounded simultaneously sympathetic and exasperated, though mostly tired. “Just don’t bring it inside.”

Again I nodded, and she disappeared through the door.

Eventually Sanosuke emerged. He was moving slowly, with an unusual restraint on all his limbs, as if he were a patient here and suffering from some invisible wound; but when he looked up and met my gaze, I could see in his face a deep anger just waiting to invigorate him against some unsuspecting target. Breaking eye contact, however, he sat down on the edge of the porch with his back to me.

After several long moments of silence he said abruptly, “He doesn’t know anything.”

I lit another cigarette and waited for him to elaborate. When he didn’t, I requested that he should.

“You can’t get much more specific than ‘nothing,'” he retorted, though I felt that, for once, he wasn’t really angry at me. He sighed slightly and went on. “He doesn’t know that the dead guy — Irutou’s his name, right? — had any enemies in particular. Apparently the guy was always going on about some big shot he used to work for named Tomizawa, but it wasn’t the kind of thing Katsu prints. But Katsu loves gossip whether he prints it or not, so it’s no wonder they were drinking together. Everything was normal, and then the next thing he knew somebody was knocking him into a wall.”

“What did he see?”

“Almost nothing, I guess… shadows… he said the lamp had gone out. Though apparently whoever attacked him moved really fast and was pretty normal-sized.” Sanosuke shrugged. “He doesn’t remember it very clearly, but it sounds like even if he did he probably didn’t see anything helpful.”

“So it seems,” I murmured thoughtfully.

“And that’s all he said.” This statement had a fatalistic edge to it, as if Sagara’s friend had died after saying all of this.

“How is Tsukioka doing now?”

Sanosuke made a noise like a snort or a grunt, bitter and angry, and said nothing; so I turned my thoughts to the minimal information he’d provided.

Though I did appreciate the artist’s remembering it, the name Tomizawa was not likely to be terribly useful. For though Tomizawa — whoever he was — might not be aware that the victim’s information on him wasn’t the sort of thing Tsukioka was interested in printing — thus providing a motive for the murder — that would not explain any of the other killings, the blood thing, or, most significantly, the fact that Tsukioka was still alive. Still, it was a name; I would have Hironaku look into it.

Sagara interrupted this brief reverie with the very stiff-sounding pronouncement, “Thanks for coming to get me.” Turning my eyes back to him, I could easily mark the further stiffness in his figure as he stared out across the yard at nothing.

“Don’t mention it,” I said.

“So this person,” he began again presently, in what I might have called a careful tone if I could have thought him capable of that.  “This person who hurt my friend… he’s killed eight people, right?”

As I realized why he was asking this, I was a little surprised at my own reaction: an abrupt sinking of heart.  I was certainly taking care as I replied, “That’s why I’m here.”

“Yeah, you always get to play with the psychopaths, don’t you?”

“The doctor made much the same comment.”  I was still wary, not daring to hope the danger had been averted.

And it hadn’t.  “So what do you know about the guy so far?”

“Nothing.”  Normally I wouldn’t be so quick to admit such a complete lack of results even on a case I had only very recently taken, but I didn’t want to give him anything he might see as a clue lest he… get in my way.

“Nothing?” he echoed suspiciously.  “You’ve been in town since last week and you just found a fresh corpse yesterday, and you still don’t know anything about the murderer?”

I must have been tired from staying up all night: his skepticism was slightly flattering; I wouldn’t have guessed he thought so highly of my abilities.  That didn’t change the situation, however, and I threw back his earlier words: “You can’t get much more specific than ‘nothing.'”

He rose and turned to face me, staring me in the eye much as Takani had earlier. But unlike her, Sagara had no issues with arguing. “You’re lying,” he stated flatly.  “You’d be way more annoyed if you really didn’t know anything.  You’re lying ’cause you think it’s none of my business.”

“It is none of your business,” was my cool response.  Of course he’d really only been skeptical because he didn’t want to believe I had no information.  “It’s police business.”

“Bullshit,” he said emphatically.  “You wouldn’t tell the families of the victims that it’s none of their business, and you said yourself I’m as close as Katsu’s got.”

“I would tell them that, if they were likely to get in my way.  But I’m not lying,” I added before he could retort.  “Whether you choose to believe me or not is your own business, but all I have at this point is speculation… and that won’t give you any skulls to crack.”

“Well…”  It seemed I’d convinced him, for his anger had cooled.  Or at least his specific annoyance at me had. “What do you speculate?”

He’d grown much stronger since our last don’t-get-involved argument, but somehow my desire for him not to get involved was also that much stronger.  And while I wouldn’t hesitate to lie to him to accomplish that, there was no lie in this situation that was likely to be as effective as the truth.  So I answered immediately, hoping to give the impression of compliance despite fully intending to give him more questions than answers.  “Your friend’s presence would complicate even the most straightforward investigation.  A political journalist doesn’t become a witness to a murder like this by coincidence.”

“Right,” Sanosuke muttered thoughtfully.

“But did they mean to leave him alive? If so, why?  Does he have some information they want to see published, or is there another reason?  If not, why do they want him dead?  Does he know something they don’t want to get out?  And why did he survive?  Is the murderer simply sloppy?”

My companion’s face was now very serious and contemplative, and, given that rare circumstance, I thought I could be forgiven for staring.  He didn’t seem to notice or care.  “I’m surprised you’re not in there questioning him to death,” he finally remarked.

“If he does know something that’s related to this, he’s not aware of it, or he would have told you; I’m sure he trusts you enough for that.  Our only option is to keep an eye on him in case the murderer really does want him dead.”

Sanosuke took the bait.  “Oh, believe me, nobody’s gonna touch him again,” he vowed darkly.  “And if somebody tries… well, I’ll solve the case for you.”

I gave him an assessing look, not because I was considering options but because I wanted him to think I was.  This should keep him out of my way at least for a while, let him think he was helping, and (I thought) put him in no more danger than he would already have been in.  I agreed with Takani’s assessment — the murderer, who was primarily after blood, hadn’t expected to find Tsukioka there and, in getting him out of the way, hadn’t cared whether he lived or died.

“Fine,” I said at last.

Sagara’s expression turned skeptical again.  “What, you’re gonna let me do that?”

“I can hardly keep you from hanging around your friend, and you’ll probably be a much more competent bodyguard than anyone I could assign from the police force.”

This time he frankly gaped.  “Did you just call me ‘competent?'”

“It was relative, but, yes, I believe I did.”

“Holy shit…”  He had looked down, and I might have been mistaken, but I thought he was blushing slightly.  I was probably mistaken.


As early as the next day, I’m forced to think about the ‘vampire’ issue again. A new body has turned up, this one in a small grocery store dumpster used for the disposal of old frying oil. Cause of death was the same, but a little more care was given this time to the subsequent disposition of the corpse, and the shape of the container and the weight of the victim make it unlikely that only one person was involved in hiding the body… These facts make my colleague somewhat wary of assuming he’s even dealing with the same murderer. But how many murderers with vampiric aspirations can there possibly be in this city? And if one or more of the crimes was imitation, which was the original? Interesting as it is, I’m grateful this isn’t my case.

Unfortunately, this discovery has been largely publicized. Last night’s news (which I, regrettably, skipped watching) talked about it, for one thing, and before I get the real details at work that day I’ve heard of it from no fewer than three of my neighbors. Whether they’re trying to comfort themselves with the reminder that they have a cop in the near vicinity, see if they can be the first to tell that cop about a murder, or just garner my approval on the plans that are evolving in the area, I don’t know.

Because plans are certainly evolving. The murder wasn’t precisely in the neighborhood, but close enough that the families in my apartment complex are thrown into a subdued panic of carpool and neighborhood watch arrangements. I know that fervor will die down after a few uneventful weeks — possibly even a few uneventful days; it always does. People strive for complacency, after all, to the point of disregarding a real threat the moment they’ve ‘done their part’ to prepare for it.

Besides instilling in my neighbors the aforementioned paranoia, this affects my life by shutting down the closest grocery store, probably for several days. Which is why Friday evening finds me walking to a convenience store just around the corner, rather than wasting the gas it would take to drive all the way to the next-closest grocery store, in search of macaroni and cheese.

Renee would certainly tease me about venturing forth on foot in the middle of a murder scare to buy what she calls fake food, but the shopping I planned to do tonight now isn’t going to happen. Of course, I would have bought macaroni and cheese at the grocery store anyway; it isn’t an inability to cook real food that makes this item a regular in my kitchen, but rather a hypersensitivity to the pointlessness of spending much time or effort making anything complicated for myself alone.

The local juvenile-delinquents-in-training that are always at the gas station pretending to be some variety of hardcore, knowing me for a cop, slink off as I approach, leaving the exterior of the store vacant and silent. Silent, that is, except for a couple of voices I can just hear conversing quietly around the corner of the building. It seems an unlikely place for a drug deal — though god (and the entire precinct) knows that well-off neighborhoods like this can produce some phenomenally naïve dealers — but since it also seems an unlikely place for any entirely innocent conversation, I stop to listen for a moment before going inside.

“–know you were back in the country until today,” a woman is remarking in a chiding tone. “You need to get a new cell phone.”

“Yeah, in case you haven’t noticed,” replies a man’s voice, “I’m not in much position for a credit check, and the prepaid ones don’t cover half the places I go.”

Startled and experiencing abruptly some of the same agitation as a few nights before, I stiffen and listen harder. It’s that vampire boy.

I have no idea when I started thinking of him that way.

“There are channels…” Having identified the young man, it isn’t difficult to recognize the other as the woman who approached me last night. Megumi.

“Fuck them,” says the young man, dark and vehement.

“My thoughts exactly,” Megumi agrees.

“Besides, they’ve figured out my connection to you across the whole damn country by now; they wouldn’t do a thing for me.”

She laughs mirthlessly and then (to judge by her tone) changes the subject. “So do you have any idea who’s vagabonding around here?”

“No clue.”

“I thought the police might be farther along than they usually get when I felt the touch on one of them, but it was just…” Here she seems to trail off in some sort of hesitation.

“Yeah,” the other puts in abruptly, harshly. “Just him.”

Silence ensues, and lasts so long I think the conversation must be over. But then the young man goes on, now in a tone that sounds so close to tortured as to be entirely absorbing, “He’s a cop again, Meg. A fucking cop.”

“I know,” she replies quietly.

“And eventually I’m not gonna ask; I’m just gonna–”

“I know,” she repeats, interrupting. “I know.” Without missing a beat she goes on in Japanese, and he answers in the same language.

This transition doesn’t make their conversation any less comprehensible, but I have no doubt that I am the ‘fucking cop’ and that they’ve stopped using English because they know I can hear them. They know I’m here. I haven’t made a sound; I haven’t stepped forward or even moved; I feel I’m barely breathing in my efforts to catch every word… yet somehow they know I’m here.

Which means there’s no reason to keep pretending I’m not.

Walking quickly around the corner, I find myself in a sort of alley between the store and the car wash, the kind of place that seems to have been built deliberately for the kind of young men with nothing better to do that my approach spooked just a few minutes ago. It couldn’t have been constructed with much else in mind, given that it’s too narrow to house anything beyond a few large trash cans and a lot of grime.

And it’s empty.

That my first thought is, Of course it’s empty; they can probably fly, isn’t even my greatest source of chagrin; rather, it’s that it takes me nearly a minute to recognize that this was my first thought and react to it with proper disdain.

Normally this kind of stupid semi-subliminal fixation with an absurd idea would somewhat irritate but mostly amuse me; that I’m more disturbed by it than anything else in this situation suggests that it has taken far more hold of my subconscious than I really want to admit. It almost makes me angry to find myself searching the rooftops of the two buildings with my eyes, to admit thus that I don’t find it totally illogical to think the speakers might have escaped in that direction.

But, really, where they’ve gone is probably the least compelling question of the evening. Questions… I need more questions, don’t I? I feel like I should be writing them down, there are getting to be so many of them.

Beyond merely wondering at the meaning of that strange conversation, I wonder that I caught it at all. Either they deliberately allowed me to hear, or they didn’t notice at first that I was there. And since what I heard meant almost nothing to me, I have to assume the latter… and therefore that this place is a customary haunt for the young man. A block from my home.

So it appears that it isn’t his intention merely to give me an ultimatum and come back when the time is up; he’ll be watching me through this week of his. Why? Does he expect some specific reaction from me? Or is he just curious how I’ll behave under these strange circumstances? Perhaps I’ve become the subject of an undeclared, unethical psychological experiment, and there will be a reward once it’s all over if I get through with sanity intact.

Why does it bother him so much that I’m a cop, though, and what did he mean by ‘again?’ There was something in his tone as he made that remark that was completely riveting. Despite Megumi’s comment about the police being ‘farther along than they usually get,’ which logic suggests should be the most interesting part of the exchange, my mind keeps returning inexorably to the pain in the young man’s voice as he seemed to deplore my being a cop. ‘Again.’ It was the manner of one struck unexpectedly with a tragic memory, and I simply can’t think what it might mean.

If he really were a vampire… But I cut that thought off before it can bloom into absurdity. It wouldn’t provide an explanation anyway.

How long I stand in that little alley I’m not sure, but it must be quite a while; when I leave it I find that the loiterers have returned. And the irritation on my face must be rather severe, for at my appearance they scatter even faster than before.

It’s reassuring, at least, how easily I can transition from thinking about vampires to shopping for macaroni and cheese, as I’m fairly certain that means my subconscious really isn’t as convinced as some of my thoughts seemed to indicate it is; surely I would not be able so smoothly to return to the mundane of the familiar world if I truly believed I was being stalked by vampires.

I am being stalked, though, and what I should do about it (if anything) I don’t know. The woman assured me that they have no ‘criminal intentions’ toward me, but do I believe that?

“He’s a cop again, Meg. A fucking cop.”

Perhaps the young man has done this before to others — whatever it is that he’s doing — and I’m not the first policeman in his lineup. The anguish in his tone, though, which would seem to indicate that he finds it an unpleasant, even painful task to carry out makes that theory incompatible with ‘no criminal intentions.’ Other than this, I have no theories.

And why should I continue to theorize, when the issue is so obviously beyond my comprehension at this point? Personally, there’s nothing I can do about this: they are clearly capable of evading me with apparent ease; legally, I still don’t really have a basis for action, and in any event just the thought of the phone call to the precinct to report the supposed crime makes me almost shudder with chagrin; mentally, persisting in my speculations will get me worse than nowhere: if I keep up at the rate I’m going, I might well have some sort of breakdown before the week is over.

Presumably the latter will bring the answers I need. It had better, I find myself thinking grimly as I head back home with my pseudo-groceries. And despite the resolution I’m forming about this entire affair, I still have to force myself not to look behind me at every other step to see if I’m being followed. Not that I would probably see them anyway, even if they happen to be there.


His Own Humanity: Plastic 26-30

Plastic

“A curse affects both the victim and the caster. A skilled curse-caster can bend this effect so that their share in the curse is something they don’t mind, something that doesn’t inhibit them… but even if they manage that, repeatedly having a share in any curse leaves a mark eventually.”

When Heero rescues an abandoned doll from the gutter, he hardly thinks it’s going to change his life; but now he and his best friend Quatre find themselves involved in the breaking of a curse from almost a hundred years ago, and perhaps in falling for exactly the wrong people.



Heero was not a morning person. He did what he had to, of course (part of which was being to work on time at eight every day), but in general the world before ten o’clock seemed to him something like the setting of a horror movie — and the monsters were those perky people that could do equations and complicated analysis and be polite to obnoxious others at only the slightest notice upon awakening. On Saturdays he made sure to stay safely in bed until the coast was clear.

The problem with sleeping late, however, was that, no matter how nice it felt to awaken in his own time without an alarm, he was always rather sluggish for a while unless he had some specific task to see to immediately. Most weekends this didn’t bother him, but right now, with Duo around, he preferred to be a little more alert. So as soon as he was out of bed, he turned on some music a little louder than was his habit, and headed for the kitchen to start his coffee immediately.

“Good morning!” Duo greeted him cheerfully from his end table.

Before replying, Heero reminded himself firmly that Duo couldn’t sleep and therefore could be neither night person nor morning person at this point. “Morning,” he finally said.

Duo had muted the television with the remote lying by his side; as Heero got the coffee going he asked, “So what are we listening to?”

It occurred to Heero that he was a little too accustomed to living alone; he hadn’t even considered that his wakeup music might inconvenience Duo. This, of course, sent his thoughts out to the happy field of ‘living with Duo,’ whence he quickly reined them in because that kind of thinking wouldn’t do anyone any good. “Prisn,” he answered the question.

“Never heard of it,” said Duo promptly.

“Yeah, most people haven’t,” Heero yawned. Turning his back on the gurgling of the coffee-maker, he leaned against the counter and looked at Duo. “So what kind of music do you like?”

“Mexican circus music,” Duo replied after a moment’s thought.

Halfway through another yawn, Heero felt his brows contract in confusion. “What?”

“Well, I don’t know if it’s really Mexican or what…” Duo waved an arm vaguely. “In one place I lived, there was a Mexican family next door, and they used to play this stuff really loud so we could hear it too. Drove my kid’s parents crazy. It was this really cheerful, upbeat stuff that sounded like what you hear in circus scenes in movies, and it was all in Spanish. I think.” As a sort of aside he added, “I speak maybe ten words of Spanish, and that’s Wade Spanish anyway.”

“And that’s…” Heero stared at him. “That’s your favorite music? Something you heard through a wall and didn’t understand?”

“You asked.” It was Duo’s ‘shrug’ tone, but there was a grin involved as well.

“But…” Heero couldn’t quite explain why this baffled him so much. How could someone over a century old be so lacking in any decisive opinion about music? “Didn’t you live through the jazz era? Didn’t you pretty much live through the development of all modern styles of music?”

“Well, yeah, but mostly with kids! I mean, if you had to listen to things like Mr. Green Jeans and Muffy Mouse and Hanna Montana for seventy years, you’d appreciate some Mexican circus music too!”

Heero laughed. “OK, I see your point.” Then he moved forward, picked up Duo in the hand that wasn’t holding his newly-filled coffee mug, and headed for the hallway. “But I think this is something we need to fix.”

“Onward!” cried Duo in his small voice as he was carried away from the place he’d occupied for almost the entire time he’d spent in Heero’s apartment.

Entering his bedroom, Heero felt a slight, unaccustomed embarrassment about its state. It was true that he only tolerated mess up to a point, but he knew that sometimes that point was farther along the clutter scale than others’ — certainly farther along than Quatre’s. However, the only thing Duo had to say was, “Ooh, I finally get to see your bedroom.” Which Heero really should have been expecting.

“Yes,” replied Heero calmly, and then just couldn’t help adding, “Remember what I told you about being a very good boy?”

“Is that what we’re doing?” Duo said in a deliberate tone of pleased surprise. “I mean, that’s definitely something we need to fix too, but I thought you were talking about music.”

Deciding that he probably couldn’t get away with the response he was considering, Heero just chuckled again as he set Duo down on his dresser next to his CD player. The doll began swiveling his head back and forth in a wide arc, examining the room. “Oh, you’ve got that cool hands-drawing-each-other picture,” he commented, waving an arm.

Heero nodded, unzipping the binder that held his CD’s and beginning to flip through it. Duo turned his painted eyes in that direction and watched him. “So what do you call this stuff?”

“What stuff?” Heero looked up at him, forgetting that there would be no facial expression from which to obtain a hint about Duo’s meaning. Not that he minded looking at Duo: it was always thought-provoking to see the plastic body in those little clothes Heero had bought beneath the long and bizarrely realistic hair, and Heero still liked to imagine what Duo would look like as a human.

“This music that’s playing,” Duo said.

“Oh. Well, this group’s ten fans,” replied Heero ironically, “call it ‘experimental-hard-rock-slash-neo-classical-fusion.'”

“How pretentious,” remarked Duo in his ‘grin’ tone.

Heero shrugged. “It sounds better than ‘our orchestra has electric guitars.'”

“You know how weird it’s been to watch this whole ‘genre’ thing develop?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, there’s half a million different kinds of just ‘rock’ now, aren’t there? I mean, I remember where all there was on the radio was ‘pop’ — and for a while they were calling all of that ‘rock’n’roll’ — and ‘country-western.'”

“Really?” Heero had found the CD he wanted, and was spinning it somewhat absently around his finger while he waited for the song currently playing to end. “No classical or jazz or anything?”

“Oh, yeah, I guess there was that… But you didn’t hear people talking about ‘trance’ and ‘thrash metal’ and whatever the difference between ‘hip-hop’ and ‘rap’ is… which, by the way, what is it?”

“I’m…” Heero grimaced. “…not really sure…”

“Can’t be important, then,” declared Duo.

Heero’s expression needed very little alteration to go from grimace to grin. “OK, you’ve heard enough Prisn; now listen to this.” And he switched the CD.

“All right,” Duo agreed jovially.

They might not have found Duo a new favorite, or even broadened his musical horizons to any great extent, but Heero at least was enjoying himself so much that he rather lost track of the rest of the world for a while. He was only brought back to it, with something of an unpleasant jolt, when Duo remarked eventually, “Trowa really likes jazz.”

Because it always came back to Trowa, didn’t it?

When Heero had nothing to say in response to this, Duo went on a little wistfully, “At least he used to. He was pretty good at clarinet back in the day. Of course he was almost completely self-taught… we sure couldn’t afford music lessons. I wonder if he still plays…”

So Trowa was musical as well as magical, was he? Heero restrained himself from remarking sourly that he bet Trowa did still play, and had been practicing for ninety years and was now a virtuoso — whereas the extent of Heero’s musical inclinations was occasionally singing along with something when he was absolutely certain nobody could see or hear him.

He looked around, letting life come back into focus, and realized with a start what the time was. “Oh, Quatre’s going to be here soon to watch the game,” he said. “I’d better get dressed.”

“Aw, you’re going to change out of those sexy pajama pants?” Duo complained.

Feeling his face go abruptly hot, Heero glanced down at his cotton pants and their repeating pattern of Optimus Prime’s face. “Yes,” he said, and was pleased at how levelly he managed it.

“Well, do I at least get to watch?”

If Duo’s tone hadn’t been so clearly joking, Heero did not doubt that his own face would have gone even more red than it probably already was. In any case, he took care not to let Duo see it as he picked him up. “No,” he said in the same level tone.

Duo made an exaggerated sound of disappointment as Heero carried him back into the living room and replaced him on his end table. A moment later, before Heero had even reached his bedroom door again, the sound of the TV coming back on floated down the hall. And Heero went to change contemplating how frustrating words could sometimes be that otherwise might have been exactly what you wanted to hear.


So he liked Heero.

Duo had unmuted the television, it was true, but he wasn’t paying it any attention. His view of the hallway was mostly blocked, but he thought what he was doing could still accurately be called ‘looking after Heero.’ And if he’d had the luxury of a facial expression, it would have been pensive indeed.

The last time he’d been even remotely romantically interested in anyone had been eighty-seven years ago. Oh, sure, he’d always been able to recognize attractiveness when he encountered it, and there had been that whole coming-out thing in the 60’s… but it had all been almost more clinical than anything else — observations that led nowhere. And he’d never really thought about why he’d spent so long without anyone specifically catching his eye. But he was thinking about it now. Why exactly had this been the case? Surely over the course of nearly nine decades he should have met someone to interest him…

Admittedly he’d spend a good percentage of that time with children, but he’d gotten to know his fair share of adults as well. Also, he was a doll, but so what? His mind was the same, wasn’t it? Or had Trowa been right, all those years ago — was Duo really so petty and superficial that he couldn’t even fathom liking someone without the possibility of attendant physicality?

And, more importantly perhaps than why it had been like this for so long, what had changed now? Because something had. Was it Duo? Was something inside him maturing to allow a new interest after so long without any? Or was Heero just that overwhelmingly attractive? Perhaps it was more that Duo had some hope of regaining his humanity sometime soon, and so was allowing himself to notice humans in that light again.

He laughed helplessly at himself. This was all just another observation that led nowhere, since Heero was still clearly uninterested. Which hadn’t been a problem when Duo was idly reflecting that he might at some point start thinking of Heero as more than a friend, but could prove somewhat annoying now that he actually had.

Little time was available for him to dwell on this (which was probably for the best), as a knock sounded on the door and Heero reappeared, fully dressed, to let Quatre in. Evidently it was Heero’s turn to provide snacks again, for Quatre was empty-handed. Duo was getting the hang of these sports-oriented get-togethers.

That Duo had gone over a century without ever learning the joys of basketball seemed incredible. It was always interesting (and, to be frank, somewhat annoying) just how many things he’d never seen or done. Immortals were supposed to be knowledgeable and experienced, weren’t they? In the vampire movies, they always spoke a dozen languages and had contacts everywhere and loads of money. Duo spoke only English, could have counted his friends on one hand if his fingers separated, and didn’t even have any way to make money.

But he did like basketball. Movie immortals never did that. And they didn’t know what they were missing.

He liked Heero, too. This fact was rapidly becoming inescapable. The way Heero shook his fist and half-growled out commendations at the team he was supporting, a much less obtrusive celebration than Quatre’s cheers or the victory dances Duo would undoubtedly have done if he’d been capable, had an intense, subtle sort of happiness behind it that Duo enjoyed seeing almost as much as the skillful plays that inspired it.

Perhaps as a direct result of this, Duo was struck with the thought that playing basketball with Heero might be even more fun than watching basketball with Heero. Of course, the idea of playing anything was pleasant, for obvious reasons… but basketball in particular, especially with Heero, seemed like fun. He couldn’t be sure, of course — it had still been a relatively new sport back when Duo might have had the option to play it, and limited mostly to venues he didn’t frequent — and besides that was a pipe dream at this point anyway, but even so he had to express his curiosity on the subject.

During the next commercial break, therefore, he asked, “So do you guys ever play this game?”

“Sometimes,” Quatre replied, while at the same moment Heero said, “Every once in a while.” And they exchanged a look, the spontaneity and mutuality of which was comical even if the expression itself was not.

“What?” wondered Duo, amused.

“Two-on-two is more fun than one-on-one,” Quatre explained with a smile, “but we have a hard time persuading our friends — the friends we play stuff with — to play basketball. They’re fine with tennis–“

“As long as they can use racquets that cost at least $300,” Heero put in.

“–but they don’t think much of basketball. I think they find it a little…” Quatre trailed off as if unsure of the word he wanted.

“Ghetto,” Heero supplied.

Duo laughed, but could question no further as the commercials were over. Once a new set arrived, however, he pursued the subject. “So these snobby friends of yours who won’t play basketball… they wouldn’t happen to be the same ones who are always playing matchmaker at you guys?”

Quatre threw him a surprised look. “Yes, they are.” And he glanced at Heero as if to ask, “What have you been telling him?”

Pleased to have put these pieces together, Duo sat back (figuratively speaking) to enjoy the rest of the game.

Thereafter, Quatre announced his intention to check that Trowa had eaten something today before he went home, much to Duo’s satisfaction. It was silly to worry about not having seen his friend since Thursday when he hadn’t seen him for almost ninety years and Trowa had been just fine, but that didn’t make Duo any less pleased that Quatre was going to check on him.

“And I need to do my laundry,” Heero said as Quatre disappeared into Trowa’s house.

“Ooh, can I come with?” Duo requested.

Heero gave him a very skeptical look and said, “Why?”

“Just to spend more time in your scintillating presence,” Duo replied in a tone that indicated this should have been obvious.

“I don’t think you pronounce the ‘c’ in ‘scintillating,'” Heero said.

“Yeah, maybe not,” Duo allowed. “So can I come with you?”

Heero’s face took on a pensive expression that Duo knew very well. It was the look that said he was pondering the logistics of carrying a talking doll to wherever it was he did laundry — never very promising. What, then, was Duo’s pleasure when Heero suddenly grinned and said, “Why not? You can sit in the laundry basket.”

“I get to sit in the laauundry basket, I get to sit in the laauundry basket,” Duo sang cheerfully as Heero went to fetch what he needed. He had a feeling this was going to be a good weekend.


Quatre awoke on Monday morning at about his usual time, and for a good ten seconds was somewhat distressed and disoriented because his alarm hadn’t sounded. Then he remembered the last-minute plans for a week off, and relaxed. Lying in bed and staring at the ceiling, he thought for a while about what he meant to do today, then finally got up with a smile.

Although the purpose of these days off wasn’t to waste a lot of time doing nothing, Quatre had no objection to adopting a leisurely pace in what he did need to get done. This included jogging, some tidying up at home, his laundry, playing with the dogs for a little while, and, eventually, a trip to a grocery store. But he was anything but leisurely when, late in the morning (EST), he marched into Trowa’s house with his grocery bags and an expression of determination.

“Who’s there?” called Trowa from the study as usual, but Quatre did not enter that room this time. Instead, he identified himself and went straight into the kitchen.

At the store, he’d concentrated on finding things that wouldn’t go bad quickly — crackers and canned food and microwaveable frozen stuff — and was pretty pleased with his results. They certainly made Trowa’s almost completely barren cupboards and freezer look a little less forlorn.

“What are you doing?” Trowa had emerged so quietly that Quatre hadn’t noticed he was in the room until this moment. Quatre turned, a little startled, to find Trowa staring blankly at where he was trying to decide on a good place to put microwave popcorn.

“I brought you food,” Quatre answered.

“Yes… Why?”

Quatre had come prepared for this question. The argument that Trowa would feel better and work better if he ate regularly had thus far been entirely ineffectual, so Quatre had specifically planned on approaching this from another angle. “Do you know,” he said conversationally, “what Duo said yesterday when I told him how often you don’t eat?”

He was beginning to recognize the tiny signs of discontent Trowa gave on occasion, and now saw clearly the very slight drawing-together of brows at his question. “He complained about not being able to eat,” Trowa guessed dully.

“Well, yes,” Quatre conceded. “But he also said that somebody needs to come over here and force you to start eating on a daily basis. Obviously he can’t do it,” he added with a bright smile, “so here I am.”

Trowa stared at him for a long moment, and finally said, “Fine. What’s for lunch?”

“Um…” Quatre reopened the freezer and pulled out the first box to hand. “Looks like… shrimp scampi.”

“Fine,” said Trowa again, his entire demeanor now subtly, indefinably defeated. Then he added, “But you’ll have to join me. You cannot stand there and watch me eat again.”

“OK,” Quatre said happily, and opened the cold box in his hand.

The wisdom of this particular purchase was confirmed in the ease of preparation, though the flavor had yet to be ascertained. Once Quatre had figured out the buttons on the excessively dated microwave, he leaned against the counter and again looked at Trowa, who hadn’t left his place at the edge of the kitchen. “So how’s your progress?” he asked. “Any new ideas for Duo?”

Trowa turned abruptly away and moved toward the table. “No,” he said shortly.

After a few moments of contemplation during which the microwave was the only sound, Quatre said, “So tell me about curses. What is a curse, exactly?”

“A curse,” Trowa answered slowly, flatly, “is a malicious spell that causes a set of circumstances to take effect and can only be reversed when another set of conditions is met. Cursing is considered a branch of command magic.”

“You sound like a textbook,” said Quatre with a smile.

Trowa made a faint, sardonic sound. “I’ve had quite some time to think about the nature of magic, especially curses, and organize my thoughts on the subject.” He paused, then went on more quietly, “I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a book… but I haven’t felt motivated to do so.”

“We know what you’ll be working on once you’ve cured Duo, then!” said Quatre cheerfully.

Trowa was silent.

“So there’s an entire branch of magic dedicated to curses?” Quatre was determined to keep this conversation going.

“There are five branches of magic. Cursing is a subcategory of one of them.”

“‘Subcategory,'” Quatre murmured as he began pulling out the dishes they would need. “That makes it sound so organized.” And he knew so little about magic that any question he could think to ask on the subject was essentially a shot in the dark. That didn’t matter much, though. “So are there… specialists in these subcategories? Experts at cursing who’ll curse someone for you if you pay them?”

“Yes. They’re not very nice people.”

Quatre laughed. “Really?”

“Not just because they’re willing to curse others for money,” Trowa went on seriously. “A curse affects both the victim and the caster. A skilled curse-caster can bend this effect so that their share in the curse is something they don’t mind, something that doesn’t inhibit them… but even if they manage that, repeatedly having a share in any curse leaves a mark eventually.”

Under cover of bringing dishes to the table, Quatre stared surreptitiously at Trowa. The unhealthily pale skin, the strange eyes, the overall sickly glow… were these parts of Duo’s curse, as Quatre had vaguely assumed prior to this, or did Trowa’s knowledge of the nature of curses come from more extensive experience than just Duo? It would make sense, he thought, for Trowa to have experimented with curses over the years in order to be better prepared for meeting with Duo again… but what a miserable thought. Quatre wasn’t entirely certain he would blame him, but also wasn’t entirely ready to know for certain.

So instead he asked, “So what is it about Duo’s curse that’s giving you trouble?”

Trowa sighed faintly. “Someone who deliberately casts a curse has a limited control over and understanding of what is required for the curse to be broken. But this wasn’t meant to be a curse; it was the artifact that twisted my spell into one. I have no idea what needs to happen for Duo to be human again.”

“And your divinations haven’t answered the question,” Quatre finished for him, “and your research hasn’t given you any answers either.” He’d finished spooning shrimp and sauce onto two plates, and was now bringing these back to the table.

Trowa nodded in response to Quatre’s words, and turned his eyes to the food in front of him. “Thank you,” he murmured.

Quatre made a noise of acknowledgment, and sat down nearby — not too near, but not at the opposite end of the table, either. And it soon became evident that, as far as microwaveable frozen food went, he’d made a good choice on this. He noticed after not long, however, that Trowa was staring down at his plate without moving. Bracing himself for another debate, Quatre asked, “What’s wrong?”

Trowa looked up, then over at the kitchen. “Did you buy all of this?”

“Yes,” replied Quatre, raising his brows slightly and wondering what Trowa thought the alternative was.

“How much did you spend? I’ll pay you back for it.”

Quatre shook his head. “Don’t worry about it.”

Trowa set down the fork he’d picked up but hadn’t yet used. “I am perfectly capable of doing my own shopping.”

Matching Trowa’s flat, steely tone, but laying a sheen of cheerfulness over the top, Quatre replied, “Of course you are. But since you don’t…”

Trowa stared at him hard for a moment, and Quatre got the feeling he had other arguments he would have produced if he felt like continuing to argue at all. Instead he simply said, “Half, then. I’ll pay you half.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Quatre said, “OK. It was about sixty dollars.”

Trowa nodded, then finally began eating.

After several silent moments Quatre asked thoughtfully, “Where do you get money, anyway? You don’t seem to have a job…”

“No.” At least Trowa appeared to be enjoying his lunch, whatever he might say. “Eighty-seven years of investment and interest.” He went on in a ‘before you ask’ sort of tone, “According to official records, I am Trowa Barton the third and was born in 1970.”

“You’re your own grandpa, huh?” Quatre grinned. But as the reference seemed to go right over Trowa’s head, he added, “Well, you certainly look good for someone who was forty at last count.”

To his surprise, Trowa actually smiled. It was faint and sardonic, yes, but it made Quatre’s heart leap. “And a hundred and eleven at a more accurate count,” he said, and bit into one of his shrimps.

Quatre left Trowa’s house later feeling that this endeavor had gone very well. Admittedly it was a little difficult to tell, but Trowa had seemed to be in a better mood after eating than before. And Quatre was obviously going to have to come back every day this week and make sure Trowa ate again in order to get him into the habit, but it wasn’t exactly a task he minded. Indeed, the memory of that little smile, brief and ambivalent though it had been, would undoubtedly have bolstered him through any number of much less palatable undertakings.


“I really don’t know how you stand this,” Heero remarked conversationally. “Some TV is fine, but this is insane.” They’d essentially spent the whole of Monday in front of the television, and Heero didn’t think he could handle a repetition on Tuesday; he wondered how Duo could.

“Oh, I have a special power,” replied Duo mysteriously, “which allows me to watch TV for days on end without doing anything else.”

Heero looked over at him, curious.

Duo explained. “It’s called ‘having no other choice.'”

Heero winced. There were just so many ways being a doll must be miserable; it didn’t quite seem fair that even Duo’s primary source of entertainment formed one of them. Remind me never to piss Trowa off, was Heero’s immediate reaction to this thought, but he forebore from saying it aloud. Duo had been complaining lately that Trowa hadn’t come to see him for so long, and Heero didn’t feel like bringing the subject up if it wasn’t already on Duo’s mind.

Instead, he stood abruptly and said, “No. We’re going to find something else to do.”

“‘Something else to do?'” Duo echoed in an eyebrow-waggling sort of tone.

Firmly, Heero took the remote control from where it lay next to Duo on the end table, and turned the TV off. “Yes,” he said. “Anything but more TV.”

“‘Anything?‘” said Duo in that same suggestive tone.

Heero gave a monosyllabic laugh and rolled his eyes. He was already pondering what kinds of pastimes besides television-watching were available to someone that couldn’t hold, eat, or drink anything, couldn’t stand under his own power, whose knees and elbows didn’t bend, and who would be considered more than a little bit anomalous to the world in general. (He couldn’t deny that a little voice in the back of his head added, ‘and whose entire groin is a solid piece with no movable parts,’ but he did brush the thought away as entirely unhelpful.) He hadn’t come up with anything yet when his reflections were interrupted by the ringing of his phone.

“I don’t think I’ll ever get used to cell phones,” Duo remarked as Heero dug into his pocket.

It was one of his parents calling. Heero took a deep breath, bracing himself mentally, before picking up.

His mother always greeted him, “Heero?” in a questioning tone, as if someone else might be answering his phone.

“Yes,” he replied. “Hello. How are you?”

“We are very well,” said his mother with her usual businesslike, almost brusque cheerfulness and faint trace of disapprobation. “Relena and Colin are coming over for dinner on Sunday, if you’d like to come too.”

Heero counted the days since he’d had dinner with his family, and saw very plainly that he could not turn down this particular invitation. If only they’d planned this for Monday, so he could plead Final Four… Stifling a sigh, he said, “Yeah, that would be great. Six thirty?” Because no dinner at the Yuy household had ever happened at any other time.

His mother confirmed this, then proved that, as usual, she didn’t have much else to say besides what she’d specifically called for. She wasn’t very good at chatting on the phone, a trait Heero had inherited from her — but at least he didn’t try. She asked what he’d been up to lately without really wanting to hear the answer, which was good, since he didn’t really want to give the answer.

He could just imagine telling his mother, “Well, I found a talking Ken doll in the gutter and have since developed a crush on him, but he’s already got a 100-year-old boyfriend.” She might, at least, be glad to hear that Quatre was chasing someone else; she was just sure that, any day now, Heero was going to announce he’d started sleeping with his best friend.

They exchanged a few more somewhat stiff comments, and finally hung up, with the reiterated promise of a meeting on Sunday that Heero wasn’t particularly looking forward to. A couple of months ago he wouldn’t have minded, but at the moment there were few places more awkward and uncomfortable to be on a Sunday evening than at his parents’ house with his sister and her fiance.

“I didn’t know you were bilingual!” said Duo, sounding impressed, as Heero put his phone away.

“Oh. Yeah.” Heero shrugged slightly. His family tended to speak Japanese among themselves, which included phone conversations; Heero didn’t really think much about it.

“Well,” Duo went on matter-of-factly, “that is extremely sexy, and I am totally jealous.”

Heero laughed briefly. “Didn’t you say you spoke some kind of Spanish, though?”

“I said I spoke maybe ten words of Wade Spanish, which doesn’t even start to count.”

Looking down thoughtfully at the doll, Heero said, “You keep mentioning this ‘Wade.'”

“That was what they called the neighborhood Trowa and I lived in growing up.” Duo’s plastic head was swiveled upward to return Heero’s gaze, and his eyes blinked with unnerving regularity, like an animation in an old video game or something. “See, the city was right up against this shallow river, and there was this big old sort of shantytown on the other side… a bunch of poor people lived there, mostly non-white, the kinds of people that got kicked around most back then.”

“Has that changed?” asked Heero with light dryness.

“It was worse back then,” promised Duo somewhat flatly. “Anyway, it was quicker for them to wade the river than walk a couple of miles to a bridge to get into the city, so they got called ‘Waders’ and the part of town where most of them worked — hell, it was practically the only part of the city a lot of them could get work — but that part next to the river got called ‘the Wade.’ I mean, this all started before I was born; I always knew it as the Wade.”

“And what was it like?” Heero asked curiously.

In response to this question, Duo laughed. “You know, there’s this thing I see happen on TV,” he began in an amused, pensive tone, “and you probably know about it too, if TV hasn’t been lying to me like it sometimes does.”

“Yes?” Heero prompted, returning to his seat on the couch and facing Duo.

“Someone’ll find out that someone else speaks another language — say, Spanish — and they’ll say, ‘Oh, oh, say something in Spanish for me!’ And the other person suddenly has no idea what to say.”

Now Heero laughed too. “OK, yes, I do know about that.” He was certain, however, that Duo, if he found himself in that situation and did happen to speak Spanish, would be one of those smartasses that just translated the words ‘something in Spanish’ into Spanish.

“Because you know about a billion words in that language, right?” Duo said. “And how are you supposed to decide just at a moment’s notice which ones will represent the language and how it sounds to someone who doesn’t speak it?”

“Are you sure you haven’t experienced this personally?” Heero asked, eyebrows raised.

“Well, I think that’s about what it feels like when you ask me what the Wade was like.” Duo said this in some triumph, as if he’d just made an irrefutable point in an intense debate.

“Oh,” said Heero, understanding, and laughed a little again.

“I mean, I could tell you a million things about life there, but there’s no quick and easy way to tell you ‘what the Wade was like.’ What would you say if I asked you what this city was like?”

“All right, I see your point,” Heero conceded. For, while there were a lot of concise answers he could have given to the proposed question, none of them would really paint a reliable picture of the city in general. “How about this, then: do the movies get it right? I guess that’s more about era than location,” he admitted immediately, “but still…”

“Well, sometimes…” Duo went on in a ‘scratching his head’ sort of tone. “As right as anyone can get it when they’re trying to cram all the social changes and attitudes and stuff of an entire decade into an hour and a half. They always try to capture ‘the spirit of the times’ in movies, but that’s something you can only do after the fact, I guess. I mean, I don’t think I ever did anything that embodied the progressive and inventive spirit of the 1910’s, and I definitely never looked around and thought about it. But sometimes the movies do get sets that look pretty good.”

Again Heero nodded his understanding, and couldn’t help thinking about how movies a hundred years from now would portray this decade; what ‘spirit’ might they attempt to capture? “OK,” he said. “Then tell me one of the million things you could tell me about life in the Wade.”

And as Duo obeyed, leading them into a fascinating, lively, and long-lived conversation, Heero wondered why he’d ever been under the impression that they lacked interesting things to do.



Evidently Trowa was getting used to this routine Quatre was imposing on him, for, when Quatre came over for lunch on Wednesday, he found Trowa closing the book he’d been reading as if he’d been specifically waiting for a reason to do so. Actually, that wasn’t at all uncommon; Trowa seemed to be more than pleased at any excuse to set aside his research. Given how many hours a day Trowa was spending buried in books or on the internet, and to no avail, Quatre found this completely understandable.

They had some kind of breakfast-like affair involving sausage and potatoes — not the best of the frozen meals with which Quatre had stocked Trowa’s freezer — and their conversation somehow found its way to hiking and the local opportunities therefor. Local to Quatre, that is, but since he was the one that did most of the talking this was not inappropriate. Trowa always seemed to listen somewhat grudgingly to what Quatre had to say, as if he’d rather be doing or thinking something else but couldn’t help being interested. This simultaneously amused and bothered Quatre, but, as he wasn’t really sure what to do about it, he simply continued as he had done.

After lunch, Trowa returned to his study and, as far as Quatre could tell, the same book he’d been perusing before, but instead of reading it he only sat still in his horrible armchair and stared at the nearby table. He had that pensive little half frown on his face again, and Quatre decided to make him some tea before he left him to his work.

Almost the only food-like item present in Trowa’s kitchen before Quatre had forced half a grocery store on him had been a package of cinnamon orange tea. Having observed this, Quatre had bought him some more, but had also picked up a couple other flavors he thought Trowa might like. Of course someone that generally didn’t eat or drink anything, and that quite possibly had an entire century’s worth of tea experimentation under his belt, could probably be trusted to know of his one culinary indulgence what flavors he did and didn’t like without help from anyone else… but Quatre speculated — it was just a feeling, really, but an instinct he trusted — that it was the caffeine Trowa really sought, and the taste was irrelevant.

Wild mint seemed a good choice for today, so Quatre got a cup of that ready and returned with it to the study. There he found Trowa continuing to stare at nothing, the book evidently untouched in his lap, a slight frown still on his otherwise unreadable face. The magician did not even seem to notice when Quatre set the teacup in its neat little saucer down at the other end of the table.

Was Trowa staring at nothing, though? As Quatre’s eyes left the object he’d brought into the room and roved over the others on the cluttered table, he began to rethink this assessment. Trowa’s gaze seemed to be directed at an old, tarnished silver candlestick devoid of a candle that stood among the books and papers and other items. It occurred to Quatre that it had always been there, but he had never really taken notice of it before; and simultaneously that, even in a house full of mismatched articles from a variety of eras, this particular piece looked out of place.

He leaned closer to examine it. It was obviously very old, much too old to be any relic of the early twentieth century, or even — though he was far from an expert on the subject — of the late nineteenth. And then, with a faint, quick intake of surprised breath, he noticed the pattern of tiny moons, progressing from the merest sliver to round and full, carved delicately into the sides of the square base.

“Is that…” he began, and found his voice coming out in a murmur, almost a whisper, as if he were asking Trowa to divulge some serious secret.

For a long moment Trowa did not move or speak, as if he hadn’t heard Quatre’s beginning of a question and had, in fact, forgotten he was there. But finally with a deep breath he tore his eyes from the candlestick and turned them on Quatre. He wasn’t wearing his contacts today, and Quatre had already noticed that the moon must be starting to wane at the moment. Now the moons in Trowa’s face regarded him emotionlessly for a moment before returning to their previous object of scrutiny.

“Yes,” Trowa said.

Quatre also turned back to peer intently at the artifact. “It’s a… candlestick…” he said at last.

“Yes,” Trowa said again.

“I’d expected it to be… something…” Quatre shrugged and laughed faintly. “Something more, I guess. Something that seemed more magical.”

“Any object can become an artifact,” Trowa reminded him, “if enough magic is performed around it.”

Quatre nodded, then murmured, “So it was Trowa in the study with the candlestick.”

Here was another reference that seemed to go right over Trowa’s head. “It was created by a group of moon-worshiping magicians around 1760 in France,” he explained seriously. “It’s been difficult to find records of its history, but, as far as I can gather, it was created by accident — most artifacts are — when the group used to cast spells at an altar where this and another, matching candlestick stood.”

“So there are two of them.”

“I don’t believe so. Apparently both became magical artifacts, but when the group noticed how much magic the candlesticks were absorbing, they began deliberately channeling their own power into one of them; so it became extremely powerful, while the other remained a standard artifact. Well, perhaps a little more powerful than a standard artifact, but nothing in comparison to this one.” Trowa gestured at the candlestick on the table, from which Quatre’s eyes had wandered to his companion’s much more interesting face.

“Why did they put their power into it?” Quatre wondered, looking back at the candlestick as seemed to be indicated by Trowa’s movement. “I can see where such a powerful artifact would be useful, but did they know that’s what would happen?”

Trowa surprised Quatre by snorting in derision. “I doubt it. I can’t be sure, but the feeling I get is that they did it just to see what would happen. Just for fun.”

“Really?” wondered Quatre, amused. “Not to… appease the moon spirit… or something?”

“The changing nature of this group is interesting to watch in retrospect. I would let you see the records, but you wouldn’t be able to read them.”

“I’m fairly good with French, actually,” Quatre informed him.

For the second time that week, Trowa smiled, just a little, and again Quatre’s heart-rate seemed instantly to increase at the sight. “I’m not,” he said simply. “I can’t even pronounce the name this group called themselves. But one of the conveniences of magical skill is the ability to understand the magical language, which is universal to everyone who also has magical skill.” Now he gestured to the book in his lap, across whose pages were marked the indistinct and unfamiliar characters Quatre had noticed a few times before in books here. “Almost all of the records of note are written in the magical language.”

“Ohh,” Quatre said, a little disappointed. “Well, what do they say that’s so interesting?” He was pleased at getting Trowa to talk to so much, but also had to admit that the subject was not without interest in its own right.

“The group was not a serious undertaking at the beginning,” answered Trowa sardonically. “They were all or almost all magicians, yes, but they were not people who used magic for anything. They were aristocrats: rich, idle people who thought it would add some spice to their pointless lives to start a secret society and pretend to worship the moon in made-up ceremonies. I gather that it was mostly an excuse to show off useless magic and have drunken orgies.”

This startled a laugh out of Quatre, and inside he couldn’t help reflecting that, while he’d certainly never expected it, hearing the word ‘orgies’ from Trowa’s pale lips was every bit as pleasant as he would have thought it might be if he’d ever thought about it at all.

“But there were a few who took it seriously,” Trowa went on, unaware of the fascinating train of thought onto which he’d put Quatre for a few moments. “The second generation of members, you might call them — people who actually felt a connection to the moon which they wanted to enhance. They were the ones who wrote all the records, and they were the ones who transformed the group into a real cult after it had been nothing more than an exclusive club for several years. They continued pouring their energies into the artifact, and using it in rituals related to the moon and its cycles, which eventually gave it an affinity with the moon.”

“What happened to the cult?” Quatre asked.

Trowa shook his head. “I don’t know. I haven’t been able to find any records later than 1785. As I understand,” he added a little wryly, “that was a bad time to be an aristocrat in France. I’m lucky to have found any records at all.”

“How long have you been researching this?”

After a moment’s thought Trowa answered, “Sixty-two… no, sixty-three years. I thought if I could find something that would tell me more about the artifact, I might learn something that would help break the curse.” He sighed faintly, and said nothing more, though the lament was clear: he had learned more, and it had been fascinating research, but so far it hadn’t helped. He reached out a pale, slender hand to the candlestick and ran one long finger up and down its tarnished side.

Quatre watched without blinking. Trowa had a sort of stark, lean sexiness about him that was only augmented by his strangeness and sadness, and which Quatre could really do without noticing at moments like this. He was afraid he’d caught his breath just a little, too, as he watched Trowa’s cold, almost caressing movement toward the artifact, for Trowa looked over at him again abruptly.

Blushing as if Trowa were able to read his thoughts — Quatre assumed Trowa couldn’t read his thoughts, anyway — he said quickly, “Well, I made you some tea,” realizing even as he said it that it probably wouldn’t be hot anymore… not that Trowa ever seemed to care… “Maybe today will be the lucky day when you find your answers.”

Trowa returned to staring at the candlestick beneath his fingertips as he murmured, “How many times I’ve thought that…” The hopelessness in his tone was almost overwhelming.

Quatre wanted very much to hug him, but still didn’t quite dare. Instead he smiled as brightly as he could and said bolsteringly, “Well, it has to happen sometime — why not today?”

With a faint sound of doubt that was almost disdainful, Trowa turned his eyes downward to the book in his lap once again, and Quatre reluctantly deemed it time to leave. Without a word of goodbye, which was becoming customary at the ends of these visits, he moved toward the door. A look back before leaving the room showed him that Trowa’s gaze had already strayed from the book and was once more riveted on the artifact on the table, staring blankly into the past.



His Own Humanity is an AU series set in modern-day America (plus magic) featuring characters from Rurouni Kenshin (primarily Saitou and Sano) and Gundam Wing (primarily Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre). In chronological order (generally), the stories currently available are:

Sano enlists the help of exorcist Hajime in discovering the nature of the unusual angry shade that's haunting him.

Best friends Heero and Quatre have their work cut out for them assisting longtime curse victims Duo and Trowa.

During Plastic (part 80), Cairo thinks about thinking and other recent changes in his life.

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

Couple analysis among Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre.

Quatre undergoes an unpleasant magical change; Heero, Duo, and Trowa are forced to face unpleasant truths; and Hajime and Sano may get involved.

During La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré (parts 33-35), Sano's 178-day wait is over as what Hajime has been fearing comes to pass.

During Guest Room Soap Opera (part 3), Cathy learns a lot of interesting facts and Trowa is not happy.

A few days before the epilogue of La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré, Duo and Sano get together to watch football and discuss relationships and magical experiences; Heero listens in on multiple levels.

And here’s a picture of Trowa playing his clarinet (not entirely relevant to this part, but he never actually plays the thing during the course of the story, so here’s as good as any):

I actually drew this for Zombie Girl’s 2010 birthday, since, as I’ve mentioned, the whole story is for her and Trowa is her favorite. I screwed up the damn angles, and I can’t fix things like that on paper very well, so the clarinet got all super long, but ZG didn’t seem to mind.