Slow footsteps climbed the hill toward a row of houses neat to the point of fussiness, plodded toward their destination beneath a heart heavy with memories and emotions. Kenshin’s pace grew more and more sluggish with every passing moment until it seemed he would never reach the one he sought, never arrive where he wanted to be — an interesting physical representation of an ongoing spiritual condition. Though the weather was fine, the dawning day seemed harsh.
He raised his eyes, straight into the sun that seemed to hover just at the top of the hill, partially blinding him and almost totally obscuring the tall young man that stood looking down at him, motionless, from the side of the street just past the walk leading from one of those fine, distasteful little houses.
“And let me guess what you want,” Saitou said, sounding amused.
“Stay away from him,” Kenshin commanded, the dark tone in his voice seeping into his demeanor and causing him to grip the hilt of his sword overtightly.
“Sanosuke is hardly your son, Himura.”
“But he is my friend. I will not allow you to make him your mistress.”
Saitou raised a casual eyebrow. “To have a mistress, one must first have more than a simple business relationship with one’s wife.”
“Stay away from him,” Kenshin reiterated, shifting. His eyes had gradually narrowed and begun to gleam.
“So this is all it takes to push you to the other side? I should have thought of this before; it would have been a good deal less trouble to molest the Kamiya woman instead of staging that ridiculous fight.”
Kenshin’s fist whitened on his hilt, his entire body stiffening. “You bastard…”
“That was a joke,” replied Saitou evenly. “I am not, as you seem to think, a rapist or a playboy. I simply find it amusing that the very thought of my touching your pretty friend makes you so angry.”
Kenshin struggled for calm, recognizing that Saitou had, in fact, been joking about molesting Kaoru and that his ire wouldn’t get him anywhere. “I will not see him hurt by you,” he said at last. “He has not been the same since we came back; I don’t know what is wrong, but I will not see him hurt again.”
Saitou’s brows twitched downward, and for the first time since Kenshin’s appearance here, he seemed to be taking the conversation seriously. In a quiet, level tone he answered, “No, you won’t see him hurt. Because I won’t allow it. No one is ever going to hurt him again.” After a moment his customary mocking expression returned and he added, “But that’s probably what’s been bothering you all along — the idea of him being with someone who can actually protect him, instead of just talking about protecting him. Poor, useless Battousai.”
Kenshin started forward a few steps, and inches of his sword showed above the sheath’s end before he managed to stop himself.
“Oh, are you going to draw on me now? One would almost think you had some interest in him yourself.” With a disdainful sound Saitou turned and started to walk away.
Battousai’s voice went utterly flat. “Stay away from him, or I’ll kill you.”
Saitou half turned, giving a short laugh. “Good boy,” he said.
Kenshin shook his head as he reached the top of the hill and faced his friend. Forcing a smile he said, “Good morning, Sano!”
Appearing mildly surprised, “What are you doing here?” Sano wondered.
Kenshin shrugged. “I came to see you.”
“You never came to see me here before.” With more or less friendly suspicion Sano looked down at Kenshin, reaching an idle hand inside his gi to scratch the faint pink scar across his stomach and chest. At this movement, Kenshin glanced aside, biting his lip. Abruptly every trace of friendliness dissipated as Sano, his hand clenching into a fist and his face contorting into a glare, protested at a growl, “Dammit, Kenshin, get over it! I’ve fucking forgiven you already, all right?!”
Kenshin laughed lightly, falsely, and turned briefly to regard the houses behind the younger man. “You are going out?”
Sano’s scowl flattened into an expression less angry and more irritated. “Yeah, I’m going out. Did you come to chaperone me around town; is that the idea?”
Kenshin started back down the hill again, saying nothing for several moments, trusting Sano would follow. As Sano did so, joining him a few paces later, Kenshin finally answered. “Saitou sent me a note. He asked me to find you and come to the station.”
Sano brightened visibly, despite doing his best not to show it. “Did he say why?”
“He wants to ask us some questions relating to a new case,” replied Kenshin shortly.
Where Sano couldn’t hide his grin, Kenshin was looking stiffly forward. Observing the firm set of his friend’s jaw, Sano began to get annoyed again. “You know, Kenshin, I’ve forgiven you for this–” he gestured at the mark on his stomach– “but not for being such a prick. If you don’t get over this, I swear I’m gonna…” He clenched a fist, but couldn’t think of what, exactly, he was gonna do.
Kenshin looked over at him with a wan smile. “I am truly sorry,” he said, “but I don’t know if I can ever accept this. I know he has been keeping you from coming to see us.”
Sano flushed. “That’s not true! He’s never said a thing! I’ve been doing police stuff with him, and then I helped Tokio-san move houses, and… and… I’ve spent a lot of time just with him, and…”
“Sano, there is no need to make excuses.”
Sano subsided, seeing he wasn’t going to be believed no matter what he said.
“He is going to hurt you, Sano.”
“I’m sorry you think so, Kenshin.”
Saitou turned the paper over and over in his hand. He wasn’t usually given to fidgeting like that, but, despite the somewhat serious nature of the message and the difficulty he was having with his new case, his mind had been transported elsewhere almost against his will: he too was remembering a conversation between himself and a certain former assassin regarding Sagara Sanosuke, and he was not reliving it with pleasure. Who would ever have thought Himura could make himself so obnoxious at this point, in the Meiji era?
The words on the paper rotated again and again, and as Chou anxiously watched the other man he tried to read them. …know who you really are… …going to burn down… …face me man-to-man… …7:00…
“Uh, boss…” Based on precedent, Chou feared Saitou would snap at him if he was too annoying about this, but he felt he needed to know. “Any orders?”
Shaking his head free of memories for the moment, Saitou looked over at him. “Yes. Five men — preferably some with brains — down to wait by that inn near the docks at 6:30. Have this idiot brought in.”
“You’re not going to accept his challenge?”
“The war is over.” Saitou’s narrowed eyes rolled. “I have more important things to do than rehash its details with some chaos-craving ex-patriot.”
Chou nodded and stepped out of the office to issue the command.
Saitou took a long drag from the cigarette in his hand, setting the note aside and regarding once again the list in front of him. Somehow he just couldn’t keep his mind focused on the names and accompanying details. Normally he wasn’t this easily distracted, but sending that message to Himura had started him remembering things.
Saitou gestured to the fallen Battousai. “If you’ll carry him, Shinomori,” he requested, struggling to keep his voice from shaking. It wasn’t that his wounds were overwhelming, but they nearly became so when added to the sight of… of… “I’ll bring the boy.” And he bent over him.
The tacky outfit was white no longer, for where it was not burned entirely through, blood stained it nearly in its entirety. Even unconscious, Sano cradled one fist in his other hand, and his face was twisted into an expression Saitou had never thought to see there: a mixture of disillusionment, terror, and rage. What it meant he did not know, for Sano had been unconscious when he’d entered.
He hadn’t been able to help himself from immediately seeking out that form as he’d burst through the door. If he had, perhaps his attempt on Shishio’s life would have been successful. Certainly the sight had made him attack with more anger than he’d intended, which might have blinded him to the obvious… but he hadn’t been able to restrain himself. So helpless, lying there wounded…! Saitou had felt compelled to exact vengeance. No one could hurt Sagara Sanosuke when he was around and get away with it.
That had been, of course, the moment he realized he was in love.
Now, as he knelt and slid his arms under the unconscious form, he felt like shedding tears into the spreading blood. Why didn’t Sano wake up and say something stupid to reassure him? But he mustn’t let his weakness show — Shinomori was still a potential enemy, after all — so he stood and turned. He worried a bit at the lightness of his burden, but only pulled the young man closer to himself and headed for the stairs and the exit.
He couldn’t feel morose when just having been accosted by that beloved voice. Looking up, he automatically stubbed out his cigarette into the nearly full ash tray at his side and rose. Completely ignoring Himura, who was staring kodachi at him, he met his lover in the middle of the room and kissed him gently on the forehead. It would have been nice to tease Battousai by showing him one of their more vigorous and involved kisses, but Sano wouldn’t let Saitou’s mouth anywhere near his when he’d just been smoking.
Saitou got down to business. “In Shishio’s fortress, there was at least an hour’s time during which I was not in your presence. I need to know anything Shishio or any of his servants might have said to either of you during that time.”
Sano’s brows lowered, almost quaveringly Saitou thought, and instead of answering he strode to the window and threw it open. “It smells like smoke in here,” he said, waving a hand in front of his face. “I’ll let Kenshin go first.” And with that he made for the door.
Inwardly Saitou sighed. Leaving me alone with your aggravating friend, Sano? I’ll get you for that later. But, “All right,” was all he said aloud. He knew Sano wouldn’t stay in the room until the smoke smell was gone anyway, and there was no use arguing.
As the door shut behind Sano, Saitou and Kenshin stood still for a long moment, looking at one another, each watching a memory in the other’s eyes.
“It must be time for our long-anticipated battle.”
“I told you to stay away from Sano.” Kenshin’s sakabatou gleamed in the light of the rising sun.
“And I as good as told you I think you’re a fool, and am not likely to do anything you say.”
Saitou turned to face him fully, eyes gleaming. “I’ll consider this a continuation of our battle in the Kamiya dojo,” he said softly. “So if you want to die, say that again.”
Kenshin did not falter or hesitate. “Draw.”
Saitou did not underestimate his opponent. Although he was confident in his own superiority, he knew Kenshin had during his time in Kyoto acquired at least two new moves Saitou had seen only once. So he watched him as closely as anyone he’d ever fought. Although he’d never had anything personal against Kenshin, he’d always wanted to finish this fight — and the fact that Kenshin was trying to take Sano away from him made it that much easier.
They were a whirl of motion too fast for the eye of any but another seasoned swordsman to follow. Although they exchanged no words, their mutual intents were evident in each blow that was struck, and Saitou could feel Kenshin growing more and more wild as the moments passed. Battousai was beginning to surface; was it because of the intensity of the fight, or the intensity of his negative feelings toward the relationship he was trying to destroy?
But the outcome of the battle was nothing either of them had expected. Really, Saitou should have insisted they fight in a different spot; doing this outside his house was just stupid. In some ways, that made it his fault, didn’t it?
“What the fuck are you guys doing?”
“Stay back, Sano,” the two combatants commanded at once.
“If you’re doing this because of me, I’ll never talk to either of you again!” Sano yelled, running forward.
Saitou would have believed Himura more on top of things. He still had two steps in which he could stop himself; certainly for someone of his skill level, that was enough. Saitou halted his own charge, mouthing Sano’s name in concern, as Battousai took step one. Time slowed. Step two, the unexpected left. Saitou couldn’t move fast enough. The sword came free of the sheath.
Hiten Mitsurugiryuu Amakakeru Ryuu no Hirameki. Straight into Sano’s chest.
“I hate you,” Saitou murmured.
Kenshin looked at the floor. “About Shishio,” he said, making no defense.
Saitou sighed and returned to his desk. He hadn’t had anything personal against Kenshin, up until that day. Now he couldn’t stand the sight of him, of this man that had allowed himself to hurt Saitou’s beloved. He’d truly believed Battousai’s skills were greater than that; he’d obviously been wrong. “Well?” he questioned.
“With Shinomori Aoshi, I spoke of the Oniwabanshuu. Seta Soujirou informed us that the rest of the Juppongatana had failed in their attack on the Aoiya, after which we discussed the Shukuchi and Shishio’s theories on life and death. He also mentioned something Senkaku had said to him about me.”
This was going nowhere. “And with Shishio?”
“With Shishio…” Kenshin’s face had hardened as he thought back to that battle. “Shishio ranted about the state of the nation and his inhuman philosophies about the survival of the fittest.”
“Not so bad a philosophy,” Saitou murmured. Then more loudly he asked, “But no one said anything specific to you about Shishio’s organization or connections?”
Kenshin searched his memory for a moment. “No.”
Really, Saitou should be grateful that his enemy was taking the trouble to try to help him out like this, but all he could feel for the man in front of him was loathing. Kenshin had hurt Sano, and Saitou could never forgive him. He nodded and stood. “Thank you,” he forced himself to say.
“May I ask what this is about?”
“The Rengoku,” Saitou replied shortly.
“You are trying to find out who sold it to him.”
Again Saitou nodded. “Send Sano in on your way out.”
Kenshin’s fists clenched, but with apparent effort he said nothing as he turned and opened the door.
Presently Sano appeared. It was a moment similar to the one Saitou had shared with Himura as for long seconds they looked into each other’s eyes and recalled a memory.
“So what’s a big, important policeman-government-spy-person doing out here in the middle of the night?” Sano’s eyes sparkled with starlight and the effects of sake as he spoke.
“Can’t big, important policeman-government-spy-people take walks too?” Saitou asked softly, wanting nothing more than to stare into those eyes for the rest of his life.
“Maybe, but it sure seems strange how much I’ve run into this particular one lately.”
Now was as good a time as any, Saitou decided, and taking a step closer he placed a gloved hand on the boy’s shoulder. “You’re not very quick, are you?”
Sano stood frozen, looking up at the officer’s face as it drew nearer. “I just didn’t want to get my hopes up,” he replied, and it was almost a whisper.
“You can get whatever you want up now,” Saitou murmured as he leaned in toward Sano’s lips.
“That’s a little better,” Sano remarked as he stepped inside, closing the door behind him and sniffing the air. “Why are you smiling like that?”
“Because Himura’s gone and you’re here,” Saitou replied, swiftly circling the desk and pushing Sano up against the door. He rained kisses on the young man’s neck and chest for a few moments, then pressed his mouth against Sano’s.
But Sano disentangled himself, coughing, and stepped away. “You still taste like smoke,” he protested.
Contenting himself with embracing his lover from behind and pulling him close, Saitou said, “I have questions to ask you anyway.”
“Why?” Saitou was startled by the defensiveness that suddenly colored Sano’s tone and continued into his next statement. “You never asked me about it before. Why would you suddenly think I talked to Shishio more than anyone else?”
“I don’t.” More than a bit surprised, Saitou tried to calm his ruffled sweetheart. “But if he did say anything to you, I need to know.”
Sano squirmed, turning in Saitou’s arms and burying his face in the blue cloth covering the officer’s shoulder. “The truth is,” he said softly, “I don’t remember.”
Saitou breathed in the scent close beneath his face and repeated at the same volume, “‘…don’t remember?'”
“Mm,” Sano nodded, burrowing further into the embrace and Saitou’s uniform. “We walked across that walkway, and through some big doors, onto that platform, and then…” Suddenly he was clutching at Saitou tightly, and his words were a choked whisper: “Smoke… just… smoke…”
Saitou didn’t know what this meant. He ran a hand through Sano’s hair, as if to assure him he didn’t need to move or do anything but stand there in his lover’s arms, but couldn’t come up with anything to say aloud.
“Smoke,” Sano continued. “I swear it was choking me… I was falling through it…” His voice was distinctly broken now, approaching what sounded alarmingly like sobbing. Saitou’s heart beat rapidly in worried sympathy. “It tasted so awful… I couldn’t even think straight. Sometimes it was solid, sometimes it was like air, but it was always inside me and I couldn’t breathe… God, I don’t want to think about it!”
After several deep breaths, reminders that the air was clear here and now, Sano began to get hold of himself. “I’ve been… I’ve been filled in on everything that happened, basically, but I can’t remember any of it. I don’t remember anything until when I woke up at the Aoiya. Except the smoke. Sorry.”
Saitou struggled to keep his voice calm, to hide how much this had shaken him. Why hadn’t he ever asked before? This couldn’t be healthy..! “All right, then,” he managed. “Don’t worry about it.”
They stood silently for some time, quiet and comfortable but troubled in mind. So that’s why you hate smoke so much, Saitou was reflecting. But what happened to you?
I don’t want to remember, Sano was thinking at the same time. I just want to go on like this.
I’ll find out, Saitou vowed mentally. I’ll fix this, I swear.
Saitou’s here, Sano reminded himself. Whatever happened back then, I’m sure it’s nothing as long as I have him with me.
Hugging Sano tighter, slowly piecing things together, Saitou realized what he should probably do. “Come back later, around six thirty,” he said softly. “We’ll take a walk.”
Sano finally raised his head with a smile, glad to leave behind the disturbing topic. “All right,” he said. “Don’t smoke anymore, you hear me?”
Saitou kissed his cheek. “Of course not.”