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Degree in Pleasing Women

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Hoshiguma stands in the doorway, leaning against the frame. Taller than the entrance to her own home. There’s a steady drizzle against the rusted sheet-metal overhang, a pitter-patter counting the passing seconds out of time. My feet bicker about the long walk here, my back grinds its teeth about the uneven concrete steps I climbed to find her room number. I lean against the railing out front her apartment, coat and hood pulled tight against the weather. Anywhere else, the rain would be beautiful, but here in Lungmen it’s cut with oil and neon. Slowly she pulls from her cigarette, expression even as she eyes me up and down. She lets out a heavy sigh, blowing smoke in to the rain. A dark tank-top hangs off her, a faded Kirin Beer logo stretched over her chest, the hem ending just above her boxers. And that’s her wardrobe A to Z. She gestures with her head back in to her apartment,
“You hungry?”

Her home is compact, especially for someone like her. One long room more than it is a place to live, save one door at the far end that’s likely a bathroom cramped in to a closet. Tiling cut in to the wooden floor designates one corner of the room as the kitchen. A pot simmers away on the stovetop, a cutting board holds some half chopped vegetables. The rest of the living space is cluttered with discarded clothing, she has piles sort of vaguely arranged by some method that surely makes sense to her. Weights and exercise equipment stand in a stack by the entryway. A window on the other side of the room is shuttered and draped, the light on the other side flashing from purple to red to purple is a sure sign there’s not much of a view. The walls have a couple posters tacked up, some band called Alive Until Sunset. No overhead lighting, but a couple lantern style lamps give the space a soft glow. No bed either, but a sleeper sofa sits in the middle of the room. No wonder she’s always popping her back. A mix of covers all tangled up on it. An ashtray and assorted lighters and empty cans live on the nearby nightstand. Crumpled bodega receipts. I feel a light tap against my arm, something cold. Hoshiguma holds out a beer can fresh from the fridge,
“Make yourself at home.” She steps back over to the kitchen once I take the beer, busying herself with whatevers on the menu. I hobble over to the couch, drop my duffel, and slouch over one of the arms, resisting the urge to deflate entirely. Summoning up what little energy I have left, I kick off my boots and arrange them and my cane neat as I can near my pack. Now that I’m off my feet, I’m hit by just how much they hurt. More than that, the manacle scars on my ankles won’t stop throbbing. Still hidden in my coat, I curl up on the couch and try to massage at my pains.
“Food’s gonna be a minute. Feel free to use the shower while you wait, or put somethin’ on the TV.” She has such a calming voice, so clear and relaxed. I want to tell her to keep talking, so I can fall asleep to her. But, the cold can in my hand and the promise of a shower prove just enough to rouse me. Shrugging off my coat, I fold it and place it atop my shoes. The rest…I’m reluctant to take off. She’s seen me, intimately. I made a show of it, even. But that was one time. One time is nothing…even though it still means something, I suppose. But there’s no continuity to it, no persistence of it in your head afterwards. Like pulling a tooth, one good yank and it’s done. It might hurt, but it’s only once. But here I am, about to pull another tooth so soon. But I don’t exactly want to keep myself on square one… So I take the middleground that sounds the most comfortable and fish out a fresh turtleneck from my duffel. And still dressed, I limp on over to the door she gestured at. I was right about the closet bathroom.

I don’t do much but sit in the shower and nurse my drink. The water against my skin, the cold beer across my lips. The vent fan buzzes hypnotic, rattling slightly against the window in the room. Very pointedly, I avoided looking in the mirror on the medicine cabinet. Swimming through my head are thoughts of Kal’tsit, Red, Amiya. This struggle with Reunion. Us selling our services to Wei Yenwu and his wretched city. With every sip that spills in to my empty stomach, I feel the sharp edges of my worries start to fizz away. What should I say to Warfarin. I want to pick up Red’s lessons again. How much do Red and Amiya know of the situation between Kal’tsit and I. Another drink. If we are going in to combat soon, who am I taking. How strictly are we going to have to follow Ch’en’s orders, and what will she ask of us. Another drink. Should I even be at this woman’s house. What am I looking for here, in the long run. What is she looking for. What’s best for my kids. I tilt the can, sighing in frustration as I’m forced to confront the fact that my worries run deeper than just 12 ounces.

Clean and dry, a little buzzed, I pull on a long sleeve shirt. For a moment fretting about not grabbing any new pants from my bag as I glare at all the marks across my legs. I tug at the collar, making sure it’s up as it goes. Check the sleeves are past my wrists. And resign myself to worrying about the rest for now. 
I’m back on the couch quick as I can manage, but not before trashing the empty can. Hoshiguma gives me a glance and a smile that turns just a touch devious as her eyes wander. I bundle up in blankets that smell of her, huddling myself in to a corner of the sleeper sofa. Before long she brings over two steaming bowls,
“Oni style ojiya. Vegetables and mushrooms and rice and shit.” She offers me one of the dishes, “Basically just leftovers. But it’s good.” I emerge from the blankets, and mumble a thank you.
“Mind if I sit next to you?” Always so considerate, even in her own home. I manage a smile and invite her close. As we cozy up together, she turns on the TV to some background noise. An old action flick starring a famous white-haired actress from Yen, the volume down. Hoshiguma doesn’t pay it much mind at first, looking me over. There’s a sadness in her eyes as she reaches up towards my head, pausing, waiting for my nod. She runs her hand through my hair, my eye drifts closed.
“…thank you…for all this…” 
“You don’t gotta thank me. Just eat up,” She pulls her hand back , “Before it goes cold.” 
Her touch is warm, her voice gentle, and the food delicious.

When we finish eating, Hoshiguma sets the bowls to the side. The movie carries on, the room is quiet and I find myself more and more tired as each moment of the day catches up to me. The oni, earlier, asked to touch my legs, and has been tracing patterns over the scars on my ankles since. Her touch fills me with contentment and I’m practically melted against her. But I never drift off to sleep. I should have insisted Kal’tsit give me a sleep aid, should have pressed the matter. My migraine hasn’t let up much either, though the food did help a bit. 
Hoshiguma keeps shifting, her back apparently giving her more trouble than before. So the offer comes naturally to my lips, considering all she’s done,
“…do you want a massage…?” She looks at me with more surprise than I expected, “…I am serious. I will have you know, I have a degree…”  
She laughs as she speaks, but re-situates herself to lay on her stomach,
“In what?”
“…pleasing women…” I straddle her, pushing up her shirt, for a moment admiring the work of art she is. A lifetime of impressive deeds define the muscles in her back.
“Didn’t know they gave out degrees for that…” Her voice fades in to a moan as my hand easily finds the knot between her shoulders.
“…when you are as good as I am they do…” In honesty though, according to my file I’m a certified Massage Therapist, among other things. And like my tactical acumen and my knowledge of medicine, my body remembers what to do when she’s beneath me. So with a steady hand I press and push her tension away. Leaving my fingerprints all across her as wards against ache and pain, and I come to know the feeling of her twitching in my grip once again. Feel the shake and moan as my fingers bring her to bear.
After a while, I give her a moments pause, not wanting to overwork her muscles. I spread across her back a gentle touch and her breathing is easy and calm. Her voice drifts to me,
“Can I ask you a rude question.”
I raise an eyebrow, but permit her to ask.
“What happened to you.” She glances at me from the pillow she’s buried her head in. “You ain’t exactly in one piece.” 
“…that eager to see me crying again…?”
“No, I just…” She sighs, sitting up to face me, expression conflicted. “You don’t have to answer. There’s some shit on my mind and it’s got me thinkin’ about things I shouldn’t.”
Such vulnerability in her voice, always earnest when she speaks…
“…I will make a deal…” I hold up two fingers,
“Let’s hear it.”
“…one, I would like another beer…” She actually thinks about it for a moment, but nods. “…two, tell me what’s on your mind…” I reach out to her, stroking her cheek. She leans in to the gesture, muttering,
“Alright. You earned that degree.”


I chew my lip and pick at the can tab. Wrapped in blankets, and given space where needed. At first it’s difficult to talk about, and I’m given assurance I can stop whenever I need. But I press on, I want to get it out, want to process it. Need to hear it in a context that isn’t strictly medical or diagnostic. She listens patiently, quietly sipping her own beer. The movie ended who knows how long ago, the TV screen now lingering on the DVDs main menu playing the title theme on loop. She hears about how my head has been emptied out, somehow. Whoever I was now lost and gone. I tell her where the scars on my ankles, my wrists, my neck, all came from. About how I used to be left handed, and had that very intentionally taken from me. Her touch is reverent, an offering placed upon the thick discoloured lines cut in to me. She learns what I know of my leg being made lame, my eye pulled out. The rest of the healed over cuts and abrasions are self explanatory when placed within the context she’s been given. It isn’t until I start talking about my kids that I start crying, when I have to confront everything as real. She lets me hold tight to her hand, doesn’t push in to my space unless invited. I tip toe the edges of a breakdown, a couple times nearly hyperventilating, but she guides me steady. I listen to her breathe and match it as my own.
I wipe at my eye with the back of my hand, and take a long pull of my beer,
“…your turn…” I try to offer up a smile, but don’t quite have the heart. Hoshiguma looks away with a sigh, her brow knit. She kills her beer and sets the can on the nightstand, fussing with it’s placement. Buying time. She was patient with me, and I’m glad to return the favour.
“I need your help with something.” She sounds ashamed as she says it, too used to being the one helping others I imagine. She continues, “I’m a member of the L.G.D.” She looks me in the eye as she says it, holds her tongue as I bristle at that name. I pull back my hand. She works with Che’en, for Wei Yenwu. Complicit in a system that would see the infected left to starve in quarantine, at best. I force myself to stay quiet.
Her voice wavers,
 “I want out. I want to join Rhodes Island.”

 


 

I don’t sleep much, not for lack of trying. Morning comes when my tablet buzzes, a couple messages from Amiya setting the schedule for the day. Hoshiguma’s asleep when I leave. I put a note on her nightstand saying we’ll talk when I come back.

Amiya/violapin [6:05AM]: Good Morning Radish!! (=⌒×⌒=)
Amiya/violapin [6:05AM]: hehehe
Amiya/violapin [6:06AM]: Sorry about texting so early ( ´•̥ ו̥` )
Amiya/violapin [6:06AM]: Kal’tsit wants you at a brief to go over the next couple days plans
Amiya/violapin [6:06AM]: Please let me know if you need help getting there! d(=⌒×⌒=)
Amiya/violapin [6:06AM]: Make sure you eat breakfast too!
Doctor/radish [6:08AM]: good morning sweetheart
Doctor/radish [6:08AM]: thank you for letting me know
Doctor/radish [6:09AM]: those are some very nice emojis
Amiya/violapin [6:09AM]:  (◕ × ≦ )
Amiya/violapin [6:09AM]: hehehe


Surprisingly, I’m nearly the first one to arrive. Barring Kal’tsit, the only other one here is Red. Seems they’re in the middle of a conversation, of a sort.
“No. You almost had it Red, try one more time.” Kal’tsit doesn’t even look at me when I come in. Red on the other hand, starts wagging her tail as she sees me.
“Red.” Kal’tsit’s voice grabs the little wolfs attention with a gentle reprimand. Her tail stops wagging, her ears fold back. She seems a little frustrated.
“The……bill,ding……no, body” her voice is quiet and she trails off as she looks back over to me, tail wagging again. I smile at her and gesture to Kal’tsit as I pick a spot at the makeshift conference table set up in the middle of the room. 
“You’re very close. Think back to your worksheet. You can do it.” The feline usually so cold, speaks with such a warm motherly tone.
“The…the……build…ing…was…” Red lets out a little whine, glancing over to me. I mouth the word ‘empty’ and Red’s tail very slightly wags,
“The, building……was, empty.” She stares at the ground, very clearly worried and a little confused still.
“Yes!” There’s real joy in Kal’tsit’s voice as she opens her arms to Red. The little wolf immediately wags her tail and hugs her mother. She gives Red her congratulatory pets, and directs her to a chair at one of the folding tables that have been pushed together. I sigh, as Kal’tsit seats Red away from me and begins setting out pamphlets at each of the seats. Red, from the far end of the table gives me one of her odd little smiles and I can see the idea click in her head as she pulls out her tablet.

Projekt Red/louproux [6:30AM]: Red LEarn
Projekt Red/louproux [6:32PM]: bilding empte
Doctor/radish [6:33AM]: you are doing a wonderful job honey

I look up from our conversation as a vulpo complains her way in to the room, a rather impressive blade slung across her back. She rehearses all the usual diatribes about being up so early as she picks the seat closest to the entrance and lays against the table, her tail drooping. A compact shield-bearing vouivre steps in behind her and shuts the door. She reports the arrival of her comrade and herself to Kal’tsit. From Blacksteel Worldwide, Franka and Liskarm. Red quietly eyes the vulpo’s tail, but turns her attention back to the comm once the wyvern takes a seat next to the fox and breaks her line of sight. I continue my conversation with Red to the sounds of Kal’tsit speaking with Liskarm.

Projekt Red/louproux [6:35AM]: Radish brefkast
Projekt Red/louproux [6:36AM]: Sister amiya tell to red check
Doctor/radish [6:37AM]: thank you for checking honey
Doctor/radish [6:37AM]: I have not eaten yet but I promise I will
Projekt Red/louproux [6:38AM]: honey what is 
Projekt Red/louproux [6:38AM]: food juice
Projekt Red/louproux [6:39AM]: Beehunter likes
Projekt Red/louproux [6:40AM]: can say to red name like befor
Projekt Red/louproux [6:40AM]: fansy
Doctor/radish [6:42AM]: fancy?
Projekt Red/louproux [6:43AM]: fancy
Doctor/radish [6:44AM]: Ma petite loup roux
Doctor/radish [6:44AM]: like that?

I look up from my tablet to see Red wagging her tail and hugging her comm. My smile is cut short when I see another Lupo enter the room. I’m immediately reminded of Red’s personnel file. Dark hair nearly blue, with a thousand yard stare. Red immediately turns to look at her. This newcomer pauses, actively un-reacting. Her placid demeanor is clearly very practiced, but there’s an undeniable tension in the air. I grip my cane, ready to move. Kal’tsit steps between them,
“Texas, good of you to join us. Should I be expecting Exusiai as well?”
“You should!” A chipper red haired Sankta pops in through the door.

With that, all the seats are claimed. The meeting is brief, led by Kal’tsit. Everything is to the point. The wolf and the angel work for a Logistics company and have been gathering intel for us about the current state of Lungmen and it’s outskirts. There’s been a massive influx of refugees due to the situation in Chernobog, and the L.G.D’s response has been just short of digging a mass grave. There are shutdowns all across the city. Small scale riots simmering. I’m introduced to each of these new Operators, given a chance to probe them about their specialties and combat experience. Feels like I’m organizing puzzle pieces, numbering potential combinations. A dark part of my mind estimates how hard I can push them before they break. I shake it off.
At the end of the meeting, I’m given a personnel file on each of them as they depart. The logistics lupo glances at Red, but leaves without incident. The smiling sankta at her tail talks to her, or more accurately, at her as they depart.
I wave to the wyvern as she ushers out the taller fox who gripes about how there wasn’t even coffee.
“…Je ne m'attendais pas à voir une Vouivre dans une ville comme celle-ci.” She stands upright as I speak, a feat considering her already plank like posture, and looks at me as though she’s been shocked.
“Tu-…Tu, parles ma langue?”
“…Bien sûr, car c'est aussi le mien...”
Her fox companion’s dreary morning manners dissolve immediately, replaced by a mischievous grin.
“Liskarm, are you picking up girls on the clock?” She sidles in close, elbowing the wyvern.
“B-d-wh-Franka!” She flushes, “I’m just being polite. She’s a superior officer, I would never.” The fox let’s out a knowing ‘hmmm’ as she exits ahead of her partner. Liskarm looks back to me and offers a quick,
“J'ai hâte de travailler avec vous, Dr Radigue.” She rushes after the fox who left her behind.
After that Kal’tsit sends Red off on some task, but I manage to sneak a hug from the little wolf before she’s gone. Out of some sense of obligation, I help Kal’tsit clean things up. Fold the tables used for the conference, stack the chairs. I’m not much use, but she doesn’t seem to mind. When we’re finished she doesn’t have much to say except,
“You look terrible.” She sighs.
“…thank you…” I smile, trying to wave my white flag.
“Is it the migraine, or the trouble sleeping?” She moves over to a cabinet full of medical supplies.
“…do I have to pick…?”
“Yes. One at a time. You’re on a very heavy regimen already.”
“…trouble sleeping…”
I watch as she counts out pills like sheep, and passes me the bottle.
“Here. Take them when you intend to go to sleep. Do not take them in the field, and do not take more than one at a time.” She cross her arms, “And make sure you eat too. It’s all on the label in case you forget. ” Her cold demeanor wavers. “I didn’t mean that as—”
I hold up a hand, still smiling, and we both stand there in awkward silence for a moment. Her gaze wanders, and I follow. The map of Lungmen tacked to the wall, field lines etched across it. Entire sections of the city covered in red.
“…it’s going to be bad, isn’t it…”
She doesn’t respond.
“…I promise you, with all I’m worth, I will keep the kids safe…”
Kal’tsit looks me in the eye, her lips purse, concern on her brow. And perhaps, in a moment of kindness, she once more says nothing.

 


 

Having been reminded by every member of my family, I pick up some food from a stand on the way back to Hoshiguma’s, grabbing an extra serving to hopefully account for the Oni’s appetite. I chew my lip, not looking forward to this conversation. Uncertain of how it might play out, I start thinking of alternative places to stay. Before I know it, I’m back at her door. She answers after the second knock, dressed much the same as the day before. She seems a little surprised to see me, steaming cup of coffee half raised to her lips. I lift the bag of takeout,
“…you hungry…?”

We talk very little while we eat. I finish off my plate with some difficulty, and am quietly satisfied I got the right amount of food for her as she doesn’t leave anything left. She pours me some coffee—black—once we finish, then turns off the television. Though she’s clearly preparing for a Talk, she doesn’t speak up. She sits crossed-legged, and mostly stares at the mattress, not meeting my eye. 
“…I am going to help you leave the L.G.D., no matter what…” I sip the coffee, “…I want you to keep that in mind…” She takes a breath like she’s preparing for a shot, the words I didn’t speak certainly clear enough in the air.
“…Why did you even join the L.G.D in the first place…?” I watch her very closely. She stares at her hand, shaking her head.
“Back when it was founded, Wei Yenwu said it’d be a group with a focus on uplifting Lungmen.” She sighs, “At the time, I was workin' in what they’d call the underworld. He offered me a position as Inspector and a budget I could use as I saw fit.”
“…You had to have known, especially coming from him…” I narrow my eye, searching for faults in what she says. But she’s as truthful as ever, even now.
She looks me dead on,
“You’re right. I did. But I saw a chance, too. I could use that money to help my community.” Her expression is unyielding, and almost difficult to keep looking upon, “It’s no secret I have a criminal record. A large one. I’ve offed my fair share of crooked cops and opportunists. But I could only do so much like that.” Surprisingly she’s the first to look away, “With the money he offered I could pay for water filters. Fund housing restoration, build out the power grid.”  
“…but you were still complicit in the rest of what they did, the moral math does not add up…” My drink has since gone cold, now a chore to stomach.
“Yeah. I was. I am.” She looks straight at me, “I’ve done some awful things. But so have you.”
Her vitriol surprises me, and I fire back,
“…so I am your next meal ticket, then…?” I make a crude gesture, “…Thought you could get me off a couple times and I would absolve you of your participation in your cities finely tuned system of oppression…” with the words off my lips I immediately despise myself for my bridge burning predilection. But I don't stop,
 “…But you did not expect damaged goods to be crying in your arms, did you?” She stares at me, this fortress of a woman, and she looks hurt.
“No, I didn’t. But I’ve meant everything I said. At least I’m honest about the blood on my hands.” She stands, and steps away from me, “And if this city becomes a war zone, maybe you’ll have to be honest too.”

 


 

[ARCHIVE FILE 4]

An excerpt from an unfinished paper

 --while most of the patients at Rhodes Island, and indeed many of its Operators and Staff, belong strictly to the category of those infected with Oripathy, there is another dominant group I’d like to draw attention to. That is, patients who came here due to the reputation held by Doctors Radigue and Kal’tsit in the field of transgender care. Many of these same individuals are also infected. This is no small coincidence, as the people most at risk of infection are the impoverished and underprivileged. The people pushed to the fringes of society. Take for instance Operator Rope, who came to us in a very advanced state of oripathy. Whether she would survive was touch and go for a period of time. Her internal organs had begun to fail due to combinations of severe malnutrition, infections, and mistreatment. However, with proper attention, and encouraging the Operator to become invested in her own future, she managed a recovery. Early in life she had been abandoned by her own parents due to her transition, and contracted Oripathy while making a life for herself on the streets of Rim Billton. While Rope is certainly a stand out individual, the tragedies that shaped her are unfortunately very common. Take a look, for example, at the infection rates in poorer cities like Rim Billton, compared to places like Kjerag. Now take a look at a city like Lungmen, which intentionally under-reports the number of oripathy cases, as infected aren’t considered citizens--