Author's Notes: An idea that hit me after seeing one of the various racebending challenges going around LJ at the time. I am not sure to quite what degree it fits the spirit of the challenge, given that I've answered it by making one more character Japanese in a canon that came from Japan to begin with, and which is set in a universe where the Japanese people are heavily implied to have unusual magical powers; but it worked very well from the perspective of How Things Could Have Gone Differently, which has always been my favourite part of writing AUs.

Year 104 of the
hundred year ongoing Holy War

Sol had had the nagging sensation someone was tailing him all day. That shouldn't have been possible in territory like this, scorched so barren even the flies didn't bother with it. Land so flat the last dead tree he passed was still in view over his shoulder twenty minutes later gave you nothing to camouflage with and nothing to hide behind. A good tracker might have been able to pick his trail out of what passed for dirt around here, the odd stone driven down into many times compacted earth under his boots, but why the fuck they'd bother was beyond him. He wasn't going anywhere you couldn't reach just as fast on the road, and the only reason he hadn't taken the road was because he hadn't been in the mood for even that much company all year.

The empty landscape did somehow allow it to seem like the Gear showed up out of nowhere, but considering how fast it was going and his own distracted state, that didn't mean much. It was Large Class, angry and quite possibly lost, and it had probably run a very long way for the privilege of trampling the only moving thing in sight. Burning it into a hunk of steaming charcoal would have improved his mood on most days. Today, it was just one more unwanted irritant at the end of hours of putting up with the maddening desire to look over his shoulder every ten seconds, knowing there wasn't going to be anyone there.

It was made only more irritating when he was done, because a battle on an unfamiliar landscape was a good reason to look around, to make sure you still had your bearings after all the excitement and that there weren't any more of them coming. Sol gave the damned beast one last, good kick, rolled a shoulder, clenched and unclenched a few completely unstrained muscles, and finally gave in, fully aware he was going to hate himself for it.

When he turned around to see someone – three someones – in the act of appearing out of a swirl of dust and a headache-inducing shimmer of magic, vindication didn't improve his mood either. There were two men and one woman, all armed, and all clothed in variations of Japanese dress, and the moment he'd had the chance to think about it all he could think was that he should've known. Goddamn Japanese and their goddamn tricks.

"Certainly, he's no friend to Gears," one of the men was saying to the other, and Sol's jaw nearly dropped – they'd tracked him this far just to talk among themselves?

"Aa, but he doesn't have the kehai of a human," said the woman.

"Indeed," agreed the first man, turning to the other, "It seems there was some substance to your story after all, Anji."

"You don't have to make that sound so unexpected," replied the other man, only a trifle put out. "All my best ones do."

"You there!" called the first, finally getting around to addressing Sol directly. "You're the man called Sol Badguy?"

If someone had called that at him on an ordinary street, he'd probably have ignored them, but this was a bit much. "Bastards, you stalk me all day just to ask that?"

"And half of yesterday," replied the man, without the slightest hint of remorse. "We heard tell of a Gear in the shape of a man who hunted other Gears. Who with the means wouldn't investigate such a tale?"

Out loud like that the whole idea sounded so ridiculous it actually took Sol a moment to realise they meant him. "Who are you calling a Gear?"

"A Gear in human form is still a Gear," declared the woman, in a tone that suggested that, oh yes, she did want to make something of it.

"As Baiken says, you have a very strange kehai for a human," said the first man. "If you are neither Gear nor human, then you must have an even more curious story than we imagined."

"Fuck off," Sol suggested, eloquently.

The man smiled and lay a hand on the hilt of his sword. "If you aren't inclined to talk, how about a match? You made short work of that Large Class; we would be most honoured to see what more you could do."

Sol didn't need the invitation; the only way he was going to be free of these jokers was to burn them all to a crisp.

"Give you a match," he snarled, and sent a gunflame roaring over the earth, forcing the three to scatter. The leader (if that was what he was, he talked the most) landed nearest to him. Close up he had a thin, vertical scar bisecting his face between the eyes, and a costume that looked like it had been picked to colour coordinate with his sword and applied in layers. As a choice for who take out first he suited Sol just fine, but it also meant he momentarily lost track of the other two, and that was his first mistake.

It was his second if he should have known that anyone who tracked him this far invisible and made light of taking down a Large Class Gear wasn't going to be any ordinary scrub (and his third if he should have known better than to let himself be goaded into attacking in a rage), but it didn't take long for it to dawn on him that these guys were good. The leader sidestepped his first wild kick with ease and swung back towards him, slicing his blade upwards and forcing Sol to block it at close range. With lightning crackling off the blade right in his face it was only then that it dawned on Sol that what he'd taken for no more than a second rate replica was no replica at all.

Staring at it in disbelief, even for the fraction of the second he wasted, should have been a mistake too, but his opponent let the opening pass, smile widening. When Sol made a perfectly rational attempt to smash it clean off his face he jumped straight back out of the way – out of his own range, even – and before Sol had had the time to wonder what he thought he was doing the bastard was flinging lightning at him, as casually as if he did impossible things with magic every day.

That marked the last time Sol did anything that came close to fighting smart, or thinking more clearly about what he was doing than the raw determination that he wasn't going to rest until he'd pounded this guy's face into the gravel; it wouldn't matter how fast or clever he was or how many tricks he had up his sleeve because Sol was ready to do this with sheer brute force if that was what it took. The rest of the battle was a blur of fire and lightning, of watching his opponent weave and prance around just out of his reach – and still come up smiling more often than not when Sol landed the rare hit. Frustration made what in reality probably lasted no more than a couple of minutes at most feel like he'd been fighting all day. It wasn't until he'd finally got the guy knocked down and disarmed and was in the middle of summoning the biggest fireball he had the patience left for that something hit him from behind – something sharp and metal that bit deeply into his back – that he remembered that he was fighting three people, not one.

The fight after that wasn't much less of a blur, all of swords and fans and fuck it all, he'd never had to regret ever building the Outrage in the first place before, but here he was about to be killed by his own damn fanclub and they'd never even know it. What would stick in his memory was being suddenly swamped by a cloud of exploding butterflies (butterflies what the fucking fuck!), feeling a metal claw rake clean through his chest, and that the first guy must have gotten up again somewhere in the mess because the last thing he remembered felt like being hit by a literal lightning bolt right out of a clear sky.

There was nothing Sol regretted doing that day more than waking up. It wasn't the pain, he didn't get concussions – it was the humility of not only realising that someone had knocked him down and tied him up, but having to remember who.

"I'd advise you against making any attempt to move," said a voice he was not pleased to recognise. "We have a binding spell on your legs, your arms in chains, and what you feel pressing against your throat is the tip of my sword."

Sol opened his eyes to find himself looking into the scarred face of the leader of... whatever this circus troop called itself. He couldn't help it, he laughed aloud – at them, at himself, what did it matter?

"Move fast, don't you? Fuck, we only just met." His mouth tasted like dirt, which didn't actually do much to kill the suspicion that any moment he was going to wake up again and find this whole nightmare was no more than a bad dream born out of drinking too much and sleeping rough. Had he really just been beaten by a few punk samurai wannabes who popped out of the desert and set on him like overbearing tourists? He couldn't even remember the last time he'd lost a fight. There'd been that Megadeth Gear last year that had knocked him around pretty bad before losing interest and going after the nearest Order airship, but he'd tracked it down again and it hadn't lasted round two.

Back in the present, scar-guy stared at him a moment, uncomprehending, then something clicked and he laughed as well, though he held the sword steady under Sol's chin as he did.

"We can't have hit him too hard if he's making bad jokes," said the second man, who was crouched off to the side, peering at Sol over a set of tiny spectacles, curious and sharp.

"He seems very well for a man who Baiken carved nearly to the bone not ten minutes ago," agreed the first.

There was no sign of the woman in immediate view, and Sol had the unpleasant feeling that meant she was behind him, ready to play back up in case he tried something stupid and the first guy didn't stab him hard enough. Propped up over his legs with his arms twisted behind his back, there was nothing in his peripheral vision to give him a clue. The long, white blade of the Fuuraiken bisected the view from the front; he'd never guessed he'd be this displeased to see it again.

The man holding it smiled that annoying smile of his, noting the direction of Sol's gaze without following it. "The Fuuraiken – you recognised it in combat, did you not? After all, you have its mate. I believe we have you to thank that they were under such heavy guard when we made to liberate it, along with..."

"Senga and Zessen," finished Sol, who'd seen both (close up and far too personal) earlier and wasn't in the mood to be reminded by anyone else. "Three Jinki. Hell. You must have every bounty hunter the government can spare on your tail."

"You're mostly correct, though the Zessen hails from our home colony, and 'every one they can spare' doesn't come to much in this day and age. We make a point of being difficult to track. Much like yourself, I imagine."

Ha. If there wasn't a hint of pride of having outdone the government twice over in there, then Sol was a Frenchman. Damned if he'd admit he'd noticed it though.

"Since we have you at a disadvantage," the man went on, "we should introduce ourselves properly. My name is Kai. My friend here is Anji, and our companion behind you making sure you don't try to damage her chains is Baiken."

Sol was not surprised to feel someone yank the bonds around his wrists a fraction tighter. "Just give me an excuse, monster," snarled a voice like gravel.

"Our Baiken has a bit of a temper," said the one they'd called Anji. "I wouldn't make her angry if I were you."

If the two of these guys had been holding an 'infuriatingly smug bastard' competition right there in front of him, Sol couldn't have said who he'd have picked to win it.

"I would apologise for our poor hospitality," said Kai, "but a man who makes it clear he would rather fight than talk with strangers who have come so very far to find him isn't to be dealt with lightly, and if we let you up I don't know that we'd defeat you a second time. You are a sight in battle indeed, Sol Badguy." He sounded like he meant it; the idea of calling these clowns 'fanboys' might not have been so far from the mark.

"What do you want?" Sol snarled, already wishing they'd get to the goddamned point. Not caring only got you so far.

"In order?" said Kai, "The end of the war, freedom for the people of the Japanese Colony, and to die knowing I have nothing left to achieve. But today, we want to know how a Gear came to be hunting other Gears."

"I told you, I-"

"Have their sigil branded on your forehead. We took the liberty of having a look beneath your headband while you were unconscious," said Kai. Sol's eyes widened.

"Don't worry, we didn't remove it," said Kai. "It has the weight of strong magic about it. Is that what allows you to resist the Gear Commander's control?"

Oh fuck him, they were detectives too. They'd beaten him, tied him down, and now they were, what, worried they might have blown his cover? He hoped someone up there was finding this funny. "Who knows? Why don't you take it off and find out."

He couldn't have said he'd expected them to fall for it, but they proved not to be completely stupid. "Ah," said Kai, thoughtful. "It also maintains your human form? Dampens your magic? Then I think we had better leave it where it is for the time being. We've yet heard only a fraction of your tale. Gears with any remaining reason are rare enough, Gears in human form one in a million, but a Gear with true free will – that must be a one of a kind."

"I'd say search me, but it sounds like you did that already."

Kai regarded him impassively. "Sol, we understand why you would hide this. Ordinary humans would not be easily convinced your intentions were good; perhaps you resent them as much as your fellow Gears. Nor have we done our best job at endearing ourselves to you by way of introduction, but we are all on the same side. If there is any way that other Gears could be freed of Justice's influence as you, surely that is knowledge too important to keep to yourself. Please, tell me how you came to own that headband."

The tone of sympathy almost made Sol miss him being smug. "Got it from your mum."

Kai merely raised an eyebrow. "My mother died in a Gear attack on the Japanese Colony when I was a child. I very much doubt you were there."

"And if you were," added his friend. "I should warn you Baiken doesn't have Kai's patience, and she lost both parents and her arm and eye in the same attack."

The feeling of chain links tightening against his flesh until it hurt was all the response he got from Baiken. Goading them into killing him was starting to seem like the fastest way out of this mess.

"And if I tell you, then what? Going to let me go? Going to make a fancy headband for every Gear in the world?" Sol spat. "Wouldn't do you one lick of good."

Kai frowned, but the other – Anji – was a bit faster on the uptake. "In other words, it only works for you? So either it's tailor made... or Kai's got the wrong idea, and it's not the headband after all."

"Don't let him fool you," said Baiken, behind him. "He wanted it taken off. Can't be he's too scared of losing it."

"So the headband is just a power dampener," said Anji, "and what keeps Justice out of his head comes from somewhere else. Or maybe nowhere at all."

Kai was very good at projecting the idea he'd given his companions his attention while never taking his eyes off Sol for a second. All that staring was merely one of a very long list of things starting to get to him. "Are we on the right track, Sol?" asked Kai. "We can let you grunt for yes or no if it's more to your liking."

Sol glared daggers at him, and leaned up against the blade on his throat until Kai had to slacken his hold or risk letting Sol slice open his own neck.

"If I don't feel like talking, what are you going to do?" Sol asked, feeling blood trickle down his neck where the motion of his throat had gotten a little too close. "Going to wait here until I do? Going to kill me, human?" (It sounded strange, using the word like that. He couldn't think of any time he'd done so before.) "How long do you think you can hold me here?"

"I said it before, a Gear is a Gear," snarled Baiken; if she pulled her chains any tighter Sol was going to have broken wrists to worry about as well. "Why should we put up with this?"

"Because an enemy of our enemy is an ally, if not a friend," said Kai, firm and clear, and with far too much good humour for his own good; the last thing Sol was in the mood for was a round of bad-cop good-cop.

"Sol," said Kai, letting his grip on the sword slacken, just a little, "if you are determined not to speak to us, then I mean to let you go. You would have us believe you are no more than a renegade who earned his freedom by some fluke of luck, who fights against the Gears for no-one's sake but his own, yet I see no advantage to ridding the world of a man who can and will take down a Large Class Gear unaided, however little love he has for humans. But I begin to wonder if the truth of the matter is that obtaining your freedom from the influence of the Commander Gear cost you dearly, a price you regret having paid – perhaps more than you would pay again, given the same choice. I am in no position to judge, but you surely cannot fear for our opinion of you on learning it."

Sol revised his opinion: the worst thing about this guy's attempts to be nice was that you could almost start to believe he meant it. Somehow he'd gotten the idea Sol was worth being nice to, and that turned out to be the final straw.

"Dunno about that," he warned. "You might not like the answer."

"I would be a lesser man if I feared learning truths that might disturb me."

"How do you think I do it? Every Gear made after Justice is subject to her will. They probably teach that in schools by now."

Realisation dawned. "You're... older than Justice. A prototype? I had no idea such a thing existed... and to have survived this long..."

"Nice guess," Sol allowed, "Still got a few pieces missing."

"A second Commander Gear?" said Baiken, incredulous.

"He doesn't seem to do a lot of Commanding," said Anji. "Justice put you out of business?"

"Never said I was a Commander," said Sol.

Kai looked convinced, but Anji less certain. "There's got to be more he's not telling us. Commander or not is just a red herring." He fixed Sol with a speculative look. "What they don't tell the schoolchildren is that the Gears weren't originally meant to be weapons, they were meant to be the next step in human evolution: a way to achieve immortality. A Gear made before Justice would still be an ordinary Gear, but one made at an earlier incarnation of the project might be a very different creature, and they could easily have found someone to volunteer as a test subject. Isn't that right, Mr Badguy?"

Sol was, grudgingly, a little impressed. "You asking me or telling me? Sounds like you've already made up your mind."

"But there's still something missing, isn't there?" said Anji. "I've read every page of every report on the Gear project, and I've never heard a mention of an earlier test-Gear. For that Gear to have disappeared so completely, he must have been made in secret, and someone must have made sure to erase everything that ever said he existed. The real question is, if they made a Gear before Justice, why wouldn't we know?"

"Close, but no vitals," said Sol. "How about I pose you a different question, butterfly-boy? If a scientist had a way to make a man immortal, do you think he'd test it on someone else?"

Oh yeah, he'd done it now, but the shocked silence that ensued while they all put it together was pretty satisfying. And if they killed him for it now, well fuck, he had his regrets, but it wasn't like he'd made any real progress on any of them in the last few decades, so what was the difference?

Kai's eyes went wide; his hold on the Fuuraiken actually slackened so much that it dropped all the way to Sol's chest. "You mean to say... you – you – are not only a Gear, but the initiator of the Gear Project itself?" He seemed as though he didn't know whether to disbelieve it, or burst into a fury, or both.

Sol shrugged. "Didn't work out quite how we expected." That dismissive manner proved to be the last straw: rage won, and the Fuuraiken was pressed back against his throat, forcing him to lean back away from it.

"The Gears – the War, Japan – you sit there and tell me that everything was your fault?"

"You tell me. Trashed the lab pretty good on my way out. Set them back nearly fifty years. Just didn't do a good enough job."

"And what, pray tell, do you think would have been a 'good enough job'?" One movement, said everything in Kai's posture – one movement and I will run you through.

"Fuck, I don't know," said Sol, at the end of century's worth of patience. "Know how long a hundred years are, human? Know how many Gears I've killed? How many times I got this close to Justice and it wasn't close enough? I was half a world away when they dredged up my work and made it into her, and I'm still paying it off!"

If anything had drifted in between them then, Sol wouldn't have been surprised to see it fizzle to a crisp. Kai held his gaze while all the rage, the warring impulses Sol could see behind his eyes, faded into something smooth and dispassionate. Sol honestly didn't know what he was going to do until the moment he threw the Fuuraiken down.

"Release him," he said aloud, not looking at either of the other two, but not looking at Sol either.

"Kai, what?" said Baiken, Anji echoing the same.

"I said, release him," Kai repeated, then quieter, "Please. You did warn me I would not like your answer." The last was directed at Sol.

"Dunno what you expected," said Sol, as Baiken unwound her chains in a series of angry jerks.

"Nor did I," said Kai, sadly. "Anji's binding spell will take another twenty minutes or so to wear off. If you intend to tear us apart for the indignity we've put you through, I would appreciate knowing now so that we can use the time to get a head start, at the very least."

Sol rubbed his wrists. Oh, what the hell did he have left to lose at this point? "Yeah, and I fucked over your country and took a hundred years too long to clean up my mess. Offer me a drink and we'll call it square."

The beginnings of a smile quirked at Kai's mouth; for once Sol didn't mind it so much. "Baiken," he said, "do you still have that jug of sake on hand?"

"Waste of good booze," Baiken grumbled as she fished through a pack, but coming from her that was probably the next best thing to a compliment.

The 'sake' turned out to be a jug of cheap whisky – more 'cheap' than 'whisky', by Sol's estimation – but a step up from the weak rice wine he'd expected, and therefore the only pleasant surprise he'd had all day. No sense letting the company spoil it.

'Company' in the immediate sense was reduced to just Kai, who took a seat beside him in the dirt. The other two had regrouped a few dozen metres away, in sight but out of earshot – the better, Sol supposed, to debate the situation without being overheard. Several of Baiken's louder protests still carried back on the wind, but there hadn't been any for a while, and she hadn't tried to kill him again, which probably meant she wasn't going to. Sol wasn't even sure if he was the subject over there anymore.

Kai was more quietly thoughtful; Sol wasn't even sure whether he was watching him or them until he made an offhanded comment, "Gear physiology comes with high alcohol tolerance?"

It seemed to come out of nowhere until he realised he'd polished off half the bottle already. "So does alcoholism," Sol replied. "Take your pick."

"I think alcoholism would be one of the lesser bad habits a man might pick up after a hundred years of war," Kai allowed.

Sol tilted the bottle at where the other two were gesticulating at each other. "They talking about me or you, you think?"

"Both, probably," said Kai, more distracted than concerned one way or the other. "And by now, I would imagine also about the distance to the next bar or bottle shop, the relative merits of planning versus action, and the number of generations separating Anji from a mule."

Weird delivery – he had to be joking, but his mind was obviously elsewhere. Probably another symptom of not having made up quite made up his mind what he thought of Sol yet. Hell, after being stalked, beaten, tied up, interrogated, let free and offered a drink, Sol didn't know what he was supposed to make of any of them either. Maybe that was how he wound up – for the first time since he couldn't remember when – actually making voluntary conversation.

"So? How'd you wind up leading this circus?"

"Leading?" said Kai, genuinely surprised. "I don't know I'd call myself a leader, there's only the three of us."

"Calling it as I saw it."

"Leading Anji and Baiken?" Kai sounded amused by the idea. "An old proverb about herding cats comes to mind."

Sol snorted. "See, I could tell you liked them."

"Baiken and I grew up together," said Kai. "Anji we met on the road by chance, though we knew him by reputation – the theft of the Zessen is legendary in the Colony. We've travelled together ever since."

"That when you decided to 'liberate' your own model?"

Kai nodded. "Stories did not do the true power of the Jinki justice; having seen it for ourselves, I still cannot believe the authorities would waste such weapons in storage while the war rages on. It sometimes seems to me they are determined to lock away everything that would be of value in winning until it is too late to make any difference."

"We talking about the Outrage or your Colony?" On a whim, Sol offered the jug and what was left of its contents to Kai. He got a startled look for his trouble, but Kai accepted it, and took a drink before answering.

"I wasn't born in the Colony," he said. "My mother escaped it as a young woman, and lived out her life on the run. Only after my father's death in battle did she lose the will to resist the authorities who would force her to return. We were supposed to be safe there. Instead, she lost her life in a Gear attack that broke through the outer defences when I was only ten years old." Kai raised a hand to trace the scar on his face. "Sometimes I feel I got off lucky. Baiken lost far more than I that day."

"No wonder she likes Gears so much. You lot should've joined the Holy Order – they're starved for people who don't piss themselves at the first sight of a Medium Class." Let alone a guy this young who could lead without even noticing he was doing it.

"The Order?" Kai gave a bitter laugh, which turned into coughing around his second mouthful of whisky as he passed the jug back again. "Oh yes, I can only imagine how pleased they'd be to have renegade Japanese among their ranks."

"Spoken like a guy who never met Kliff Undersn," said Sol, who wouldn't normally have bothered to defend the old geezer, but there were limits. "He'd have made your 'authorities' declare you legally Chinese and present you with the Fuuraiken as a present if that was what it took to keep you. Old bastard that he was."

This clearly wasn't a possibility that had ever occurred to Kai. "Do you think so? If there's ever been any westerner to see the value of Ki-based magic, I suppose it ought to have been him, but I never knew the man by more than reputation."

"Bit late now. Never cared much for the Order even when I was in it, but they can't hardly figure out which end of their swords to hang on to now he's gone."

It was a damned hard thing for even Sol to make light of; there was a long moment of silence where what levity had ever been in Kai's face drained slowly away.

"The authorities tell us that our confinement to the Colony is for our own good," he said, "for the good of what remains of the once proud Japanese race. Instead, we – among the most magically gifted of peoples anywhere in the world – are forced to sit and wait in captivity watching our swords go dull and our arts are reduced to ceremony while the rest of the world fights on our behalf. Where is the sense to it all?"

Sol didn't have an answer. "You ever get to my age, kid, you'll have stopped looking for sense."

The growing emotion in Kai's last few lines should probably have been a warning they were skirting close to the line, but Sol didn't realise he'd crossed it until Kai turned to him with a look that shot right through him.

"Do you want me to apologise for doing so? You asked me what I wanted before, I answered you truthfully. The only reason I prioritise ending the war above freeing my people is that to openly fight the authorities who keep us confined now would risk creating a state of chaos that the Gears would all too easily exploit. We are at war, Sol," said Kai, rising to his feet. "We don't get to pick and choose our allies."

Subtlety was really not Kai's his strong point. "Knew this would be about me sooner or later."

"It is about everyone and anyone with the ability to make a difference. Anji wants to live long enough to learn all the secrets of the universe. Baiken might happily live the rest of her days at war as long as there are more Gears for her to kill. But to defeat Justice would be to kill the ultimate Gear, to bring a peace that has not been seen for a century and more – for that goal they would both willingly risk their lives. Are you so different?"

Presumably that was hypothetical, as he didn't wait long for Sol to answer before pressing on. "I don't know that you realise how great a disadvantage you have us at here, Sol. I have nothing but your word that your role in the Gear Project was no more or less than what you admit. If circumstances were different, I might have no more hesitation to hold you responsible for everything that has become of the world than Baiken does. As it is, I've neither the means nor luxury of judging you. Until we have that victory, I cannot afford to reject your help. Without it I have no reason to believe we will bring Justice down at all."

Sol twitched and shook the jug, wondering if he had enough left to deal with this. "Haven't decided I want to help you yet."

"Then let us offer you our help," said Kai, switching effortlessly back to sincerity. "Between us, we have four pieces of the Outrage. We may not have your raw power, but it is the world's worst kept secret how much Justice feared the Japanese people. You yourself admit what a poor job you've done of ending this alone. Why else would a man like yourself ever have joined the Order to being with?"

Sol was running rapidly out of whisky. He was also – to his greater amazement – unusually short on cynicism. "You think me and your lot can do better than an army?"

"If not, what have we to lose by trying?" said Kai, and extended a hand to him.

He was smiling again, but Sol was getting used to that. He might as well face the fact that anyone saner than this would never put up with him anyway.

Sol put the jug on the ground beside him, reached for the hand and let Kai help him to his feet.

"Got me there," he admitted, and if he'd had any more to drink he might even have been grinning back.