Salsa's on the trail of a local killer, but why has he been shutting Taketo out of his investigation? Taketo wants answers, but he may not like what he learns. (slash!)
"Geez," Taketo wheezed, exasperated, "if . . . you'd wake me up . . . in the mornings, I wouldn't be . . . late, would I?"
"Oh sure, blame it all on the dog," Salsa said, galloping easily down the street behind Taketo, who was running full out. "I'm nine years old -- I can walk myself in the mornings, y'know."
But wasn't that true all along? Taketo considered unhappily. After Salsa had ordered that his doghouse be moved back outside, he'd taken to occupying it every night -- as a result, Taketo now had to rely on his bedside clock instead of his 'dog demanding a walk' alarm. Unlike Salsa, the clock could be ignored, so Taketo often woke up later than he intended these days. He'd been an occasional assistant at the Karasuma Animal Clinic during high-school, and now he worked there every morning; although Karasuma never seemed to mind these lapses, Taketo still felt terrible about showing up late.
Salsa was more than pleased to help him shovel on the guilt: "With my amazing deductive powers, I foresee that healthy, wealthy, and wise aren't featured in your future," he said. "So why don't you just ask your brother to wake you up before he leaves for work?"
Taketo paused to hang off the handle of the clinic's door, catching his breath. "He's been leaving . . . too early," he said. Then he flung open the door and rushed inside, Salsa trotting after.
"Ah, Taketo-kun, Salsa-kun," Kaoru Karasuma said, straightening up from petting the cranky-looking long-haired cat sitting in a waiting client's lap. He studied Taketo gravely. "I see. Another of those mornings." Taketo cringed.
You're a winner today, Salsa thought happily. Taketo kicked him.
"Sensei!" Taketo blurted. "Please excuse --!"
"No no no!" Karasuma whipped out his coke-bottle glasses from his tunic pocket, and shoved them on his face. "Don't worry about it," he said, grinning wildly, demeanor completely transformed. "You're just in time to help with Fluffy-chan's booster shots! I'm afraid she has unresolved issues with veterinarians," he added sadly.
"Oo-er," the woman cooed happily, "she dislikes them so."
That turned out to be a grotesque understatement. Later, Salsa briefly assumed his human form to smear some of his healing blood on Taketo's battle wounds, while Karasuma mopped up the excess that Taketo had dripped on his examination table. "And if you could have heard that little bitch's vocabulary," Salsa was complaining scornfully. "Tell me, why is it that the people who have the most unruly, arrogant, freaking rude animals always seem to be so proud of their behavior?"
"Yes, one has wondered" came the dry-as-dust response behind them. Claws clicking on tile, Karasuma's own wild-half dog, Ginsei, trotted into the clinic from Karasuma's quarters, pausing for a quick shake of his long-haired, grey coat. "Kaoru, I've finished with the breakfast dishes," he said to Karasuma. "I'll be hanging out the laundry --"
"Ginsei?" Karasuma froze, staring at him with those silver eyes that had been Ginsei's gift to him as a child. His face flushed a deep crimson -- he tossed aside his towel, and threw himself across the room, wailing, "I've missed you /so much/, my Ginsei!" He buried his face in Ginsei's fur, sniffling loudly.
Ginsei's usual sober expression became soft. "Kaoru," he murmured.
"It's been what? All of fifteen minutes?" Salsa muttered sourly, as Taketo shushed him. The phone at the front counter rang just then, and Taketo slid through the doorway quickly to answer it.
"Hello, thank you for calling the Karasuma Animal Clinic, may I --?"
"-- turn on your damn cell phone?! Yeah, indeed you may!" Taketo winced and held the receiver away from his ringing ear to wait out the storm. His brother Toshifumi was now elaborating in far greater detail on his personal opinion of those who turned off their cell phones when others, who might happen to be police detectives with no time to waste on such shenanigans -- unlike, say, idle college students aiming to become useless veterinarians who had been ignoring their own flesh and blood in favor of wasting their time with the professionally useless, tending those repulsive canines -- wished to speak with them.
Salsa, who had been bowled off his haunches by the brotherly blast as well, righted himself with a clink of collar tags. "Yeesh, what's the brother's problem today?"
"Dunno yet," Taketo said in a low voice, after placing a careful hand over the mouthpiece. "He hasn't gotten to that part." He held the receiver a little closer and listened cautiously for a few seconds to the ongoing thunder. "Um, okay. Now he's moved on to his disappointment with the youth of today, the so-called future of Japan. Less than a minute to go." Taketo had his brother's stress patterns down to a science.
Karasuma looked up from Ginsei's neck to squint at him, confused. "But Iwase-kun still counts as the youth of Japan, doesn't he?" he asked. Taketo sighed. Adrift on his Ginsei cloud, Karasuma had again managed to momentarily misplace his basic life information -- he was the same age as Taketo's brother, and not only were the two former high school classmates, they had been weekly drinking buddies for several years now.
Ginsei merely waved his tail in agreement. "So true, Kaoru," he said fondly. "I believe you'll never stop being young at heart."
"Ginsei . . . " Karasuma's eyes widened with unshed tears. "Ginsei is just /too adorable!/" he cried, hugging him with renewed vigor.
"Oi, Taketo. D'you stock enough insulin here to meet the demand?" Salsa grumbled. Glancing at him, Taketo saw that Salsa's tongue was hanging out in a 'bleh' that was a mirror of his own. Ginsei was not only Karasuma's dog, he was his biggest fan. That the feeling was glaringly, terrifyingly reciprocated was borne out by the pictures of Ginsei that adorned every free centimeter of Karasuma's wall space. The atmosphere of mutual adoration in the clinic could become too cloying to breathe.
Taketo didn't actually mind, though: It made him feel all the more lucky to have his abrasive, surly, greedy Salsa. Ginsei had age, wisdom, and good manners on his side, but his Salsa was ultra clever and strong and loyal and brave and optimistic . . . and ultra disgusted, from the look of it. Taketo stared at the ceiling, composing far less complimentary thoughts for Salsa's enjoyment, when his internal timer pinged. He turned his attention back to the telephone. "Yes, Aniki, I'm very sorry," he recited. "I'll remember to turn on my phone in the morning."
"Be sure that you do," his brother huffed. "Now I need you to get over here. I'm at the hospital."
"The hospital?" Taketo shouted. "Why didn't you say so? Are you hurt?" Somewhere in the next room, Taketo heard a crashing thud and "Whoa, hamsters!" Now everyone else in the vicinity was listening, too.
"No," his brother said curtly. "The beat patrols picked up a gang of teenage thugs, and all of them needed a trip to the emergency room before they could be hauled to the station. One of these idiots refuses to talk -- all he'd give them was his name." His brother paused, then added, with dour emphasis: "Taketo Iwase."
"/My/ name?" Taketo yelled.
"What's going on?" Salsa demanded. Taketo shushed him as his brother continued.
"Yeah, well, imagine how I felt hearing that," his brother said. "I dropped everything I was working on to get over here, only to find that it wasn't you after all. So now I want you to get your butt over here to identify this asshole, since he's refusing to do it himself."
"Couldn't you just hand him the phone?" Taketo said faintly. "I could talk to this guy."
Salsa sighed, having scented the tenor of the conversation through Taketo. "He's given false information to the police. They'll want you to show up in person to make a statement."
Taketo sagged, listening as his brother on the other end told him the same thing. But why me? he wondered.
/Ask what he looks like/, Salsa suggested.
"Can you at least tell me what he looks like?" Taketo asked.
"Like a punk," his brother said unhelpfully. "They all look alike."
Salsa, who'd caught that thought without an interpreter, spread his paws in resignation. Your brother, what can you do?
Taketo gave up as well. "Aniki, hold on a little longer." He glanced through the door at Karasuma, who now was crawling around the floor with Ginsei, herding unwilling hamsters -- he'd stood up abruptly when Taketo had yelled about the hospital, and smacked his head on the shelf holding the open case. "Um, I've got a few things to do here at the clinic --"
"Let that idiot clean up his own mess," his brother snapped.
Taketo declined to confirm his accuracy; his brother didn't have psychic powers -- he'd known Taketo's notoriously klutzy boss for years. Taketo instead opted for, "But I was also supposed to go to the Luna Rental Pet Shop after this to help with Maria-san's supply inventory. I should call over there and explain."
Muffled chuckles broke out from the vicinity of the rodent roundup. Toshifumi's years of agonized, unrequited infatuation with dog-loving Maria Sugitani, the owner of Luna Rental Pet, had provided ongoing entertainment for everyone.
"Forget that," his brother said woodenly. "If you two start chatting about your mutts again, you'll miss the next bus."
"I guess you're probably right," Taketo agreed, ignoring the expectant grins closing in around him. "So while you're waiting for me to get there, could you call Maria-san and let her know I'll come in tomorrow?"
Taketo listened to the resounding silence from the other end of the line. Finally, his brother cleared his throat, but he still sounded hoarse: "Fine. You just get over here now. I'll . . . make the call."
"Thanks! I'm on the way," Taketo said cheerfully, hanging up. The other three applauded.
"Thing of beauty," Salsa admitted grudgingly.
"I do my best for the cause," Taketo said, exchanging high-fives. As he stripped off his white staff tunic, Taketo tried to explain the situation to the perplexed group.
"Wonder who it is," Salsa mused.
"No idea," Taketo said. "You're coming too, aren't you?"
"You forget," Salsa said, "it's my client day."
Taketo glanced at the clock. It had slipped his mind in the day's rush. There was no way that even someone as fast as Salsa could be in two places at once. One of the worst kept secrets in town was that, at 3:00 in the afternoon, on a specific day, in a specific park, near a specific bench, the famous -- and very eccentric -- private detective Wild Half would listen to requests from prospective clients from an unseen vantage point in the park's shrubbery.
Salsa's accurate tips to the police force, signed only "Wild Half," had led to a number of high-profile arrests, so his reputation as a detective had been earned -- much to Taketo's brother's annoyance. No one but Taketo was aware that Wild Half had been Salsa all along. Salsa's ability to smell feelings and intentions gave him access to information the police could never obtain by any other means; and his speed, strength, and ability to channel his seimei-ryoku, his own life force amplified by Taketo's feelings, into his surroundings gave Salsa the edge in any physical fight.
To Taketo's surprise, Salsa walked him to the bus stop anyway. He waited patiently as Salsa oppressed a young terrier who'd been running alongside them, vying for Taketo's attention. "You're being kind of mean, aren't you?" Taketo observed, after Salsa had finally thumped the other dog over the head and sent it running away howling. "He was just a little guy."
"Have to let everyone know who's in charge here," he grumbled. "Would you stop encouraging them already?"
"I wasn't encouraging anyone," Taketo pointed out. "And you're going to be late, aren't you?"
"They'll keep," Salsa said with a snort. "The serious ones will stick around, the curiosity seekers will get bored and leave. I'm considering a change in my hours -- but not today. Right now I'll take any leads I can get."
"The park must be getting crowded with all those loiterers trying not to notice each other," Taketo said.
"You have no idea," Salsa grumbled, lifting his hind leg to send a stream of urine onto the side of the bus shelter.
Which was nothing but the truth, Taketo thought quietly, masking it by scanning the posted bus schedule. Salsa hadn't asked him along to the park since last year. "Salsa," he started to say, but Salsa interrupted him.
"You've been doing that a lot lately," he said. "What's the problem?"
"Huh?" Taketo started guiltily. "I was just checking the schedule --"
"Your chest," Salsa said. "You keep rubbing it. Why?"
Taketo looked down, surprised. Salsa was right -- he had been rubbing his chest, right over his full-moon mark. The opalescent, round mark on Taketo's chest was only the surface representation of something even deeper -- a moonlight stone, the physical manifestation of Salsa's bond with his master. Inside Taketo's body, a crystal sphere had formed from his feelings for Salsa. And, from the strength of Taketo's feelings for him, held in that stone, Salsa derived most of his powers as a wild-half. "I didn't even notice," he admitted.
"Hmph. There's your bus," Salsa said, glancing up the street. "I gotta go."
Taketo felt a trace of concern emanating from Salsa. Even if he thought it was misplaced, Taketo was touched, considering Salsa's standoffish attitude lately. Salsa must have picked some of that up in return; as he turned away, he said flatly, "Taketo, how many times do I have to say it? I protect only you. I fight only for you. You're my only master. Nothing will ever change that."
With that, Salsa trotted down the nearby alley and out of sight. Taketo stared after him, perplexed, as the bus squealed to a stop at the curb.