"Halfbreed brat."

The words rang in Homura's ears as he swayed and caught himself, rocked back on his feet by the force of the blow. The room spun around him, tilted, then resettled, and he spat blood onto the table. The lamp which hung above was still swinging from side to side, casting leaping shadows on the room, the faces around him, the man who'd just struck him. "Can't you think of any better insults?" he spat back, wishing that he could.

The General swaggered a step towards him. A half-smoked cigarette still hung from a corner of his mouth, twitching as he spoke. "Give me a moment, kid, I'll come up with something. And what are you doing in a man's drinking establishment?"

The soldiers who had suggested that he come along here were somewhere in the mob pressing back to the walls, making sure that there was enough space for this bit of entertainment.All those faces, all those wolfish glaring hungry faces, wanting just a bit of blood to spice up their evening. All these people, and he felt even more alone than he had done in his cell.

"I came to drink," he said, stressing the second word.

It hadn't been one of his more brilliant ideas, admittedly. It had been another evening of cold moonlight and empty stars and empty bed and silence. Another evening of the cold knowledge of failure and powerlessness and rage which ate his soul out from the inside and left him empty.

Another evening of wanting her, and knowing that he would never have her again, and wondering how much of it was his own fault.

The General leaned one fist on the table next to him. A wine-jar swung at his hip, an overt display of rebellion. Nobody punishes him for it, though. "You don't get it. This is a place where soldiers drink. Fighting men. You know anything about fighting, kid?"

I know how much good it does me, he would have said, but that wouldn't have moved a single muscle of that smirking face. Kenren. General Kenren. A walking scandal. Standing there with that swaggering arrogance and casual pride and certainty, so at ease with himself and with the world around him, so innocently confident, moving through the room with the same harshness as a bearded comet swinging through the skies of earth.

It would have been sensible to say, I'll go, and walk out. He'd come here because some of the soldiers had called to him in the first place, inviting him to one of the establishments which everyone knew weren't supposed to exist in Heaven -- ideal, perfect Heaven -- but which did anyhow. Cells aren't supposed to exist in Heaven either, are they? Cells where you lock your misbegotten itan children away to forget about them? "I know enough," he said, and found his mouth curving into an unchancy smile as he spoke. "I'm here to drink. Why are you here, General Kenren?"

"Well, you know . . ." The General met his eyes. They were the same height. "I think I'm here for a fight. You got anything to say to that?"

Homura saw his future in front of him, as clear as his reflection in a mirror. Endless days in the white marble colonnades of Heaven, endless kneeling to the Emperor, endless loss, endless nothingness. And he looked at the General who stood there, still smirking, so untouched by anything that could possibly resemble grief or loss, and fire knotted in his stomach and kindled in his groin and shook him, as fire makes wood jerk and twist in the burning, and whispered in his ears, and was suddenly so necessary to him, in wrath and bitterness and the urge to strike out, that he could not imagine ever being without it again.

"Oh yes."

He struck, both hands together, in a swinging blow at the General's head. The other man dodged, sliding away from the blow to a raucous yell of cheering from the soldiers pressed back against the walls, and came back with a snap kick at Homura's stomach.

A touch slow, and rather obvious, Homura thought, and then it was a matter of quick duck and strike and duck again and then slide back just as the General was doing to catch a moment's breath and survey the other.

"Not bad," the General said. He wasn't even breathing fast. "Perhaps there is something to you after all. You're man enough to get a woman in trouble, after all . . ."

Through the killing rage that swept through him, Homura could hear the laughter, the snickers, the casual amusement -- and why should it mean anything to them, she was just a woman, just . . .

He hit out at the General.

a . . .

And again.

woman . . .

And yes, the General was sweating now, was actually having to work to avoid his strikes, there was a thin trickle of blood down one cheek, but he wanted to hurt the other, to make him feel something in return, to slide the edge in and work it until it went deep. "Oh, really." Recent gossip came to mind, bitter and spicy as all the meanest taunts were. "Well, why don't you go and find yourself a woman elsewhere -- or a Marshal, if that's more to your taste . . ."

He saw the blow coming before he could finish speaking. It wasn't as telegraphed as the previous ones, but there was a raw anger to it which had been lacking earlier. He brought his arm up in time to deflect the brute force of it, but even so the impact sent him staggering back into the waiting wall of soldiers. Hands caught him, balanced him, shoved him back into the fight.

The General kicked his feet out from under him before he saw the blow coming, and slammed him down on the floor, coming down on the small of his back. The floor tiles seemed to glow and spin in slow motion as he fought for breath. An arm came round his throat, pulling his head back.

The shouting and jeering in the background slowed its pulse, faded to a steady stamping beat.

So this was death. Admittedly it wasn't the death he'd expected, even anticipated. But she was dead to him and he would never see her again, and the weight of that dragged him down as the air left his body and the pulse of noise slowed. One hand crawled up to pull at the General's throttling arm, straining against the chain which was trapped under his body, but there was no real force to it. This was what it came to in the end, the smell of wine and sweat and the rising red darkness and perhaps silence and nothingness and true emptiness afterwards with no guilt, all the guilt over, all the debts paid.

The General was whispering something in his ear, his cheek warm against the side of Homura's head. The regular stamping beat nearly drowned it out, but the words got through somehow.

"Do you want revenge, kid?"

The words meant something. They arranged themselves into a configuration which he could recognise, which he could use.

"You want revenge, you show me that you can fight."

and this was all of Heaven and all of Under Heaven, this arm crushing his throat and cutting off his air, the Emperor saying that she had been sentenced to Earth, the sneering faces, the polite withdrawals, the casual assumption of priviledge, the constant use, the walls of his cell and the darkness, all the same thing but wearing different faces, everything coming down to this single point

Homura brought one flailing elbow back up and into the General's face. Something gave. The pressure around his throat slackened a fraction, just enough for him to get the fingers of his left hand under the leather-sleeved arm and haul it away, just enough for a breath of air that felt like fire in his lungs.

The stamping had stopped. Now they were laughing, but it wasn't the same mob noise -- it was individual laughter, with the tension broken and dissipated. The General had let go of him. He was still working on breathing, air in, air out, anger still singing through him but dissipating like water, undirected, draining away. Someone was pulling him to his feet and he could stand now, he wasn't swaying that much, and someone else had tossed him his cape and he hadn't even noticed losing that.

Now he was sitting down and someone had put a cup of wine in front of him. Nobody else was actually sitting at his table, but they weren't trying to avoid him, either. It was . . . a normal place, a normal world, normal people, normal things, people talking and drinking.

He wasn't used to this.

The General had left. A pity. Of course, Homura wasn't sure whether he wanted to apologise to him or to try to kill him, but it was still a pity that he'd gone before Homura could make his mind up.

There was a piece of paper folded under the cup of wine. He palmed it as he lifted the cup and drank from it. The wine was sweet, mingling with the taste of his own blood and washing it away.

Later, in the starlit shadows of the Heavenly street, when he was quite sure that nobody was watching, he opened it and read it.

If you are not yet resigned to being a slave, and if you want help against your need, then come to the arbour where yesterday they were viewing the cherry-trees, and come at the second hour after midnight tomorrow.

The script was strange to him -- a scholar's hand, perhaps, certainly an educated man's writing -- and there was no signature.

Homura leaned against the wall, and considered. Thoughts swarmed in his mind like the stars in the night above -- unpatterned, complex, self-contradictory -- but each one of them was a light against the darkness.


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