Soft dawn, like a lover itself, crept through the trees with the sound of birdsong, touching sleeping faces and gradually awakening one of the two men. For a fraction of a second Saitou was disoriented — it had been quite some time since he’d slept outside, and why was he so utterly content? — but it was just as brief a time before he felt a stirring in his arms and heard a little protesting noise at his movement, and remembered everything.
He settled back down against the roots they’d made a bed that should have been far less comfortable, and rearranged Sano’s gi over them. As he laid his cheek against the spiky hair, feeling warm breath on the bare skin of his chest, he smiled. Yes, this was a stupid place to be, since anyone might come walking through this little wood at any time — it wasn’t as if they’d left civilization — but at least they’d both put their pants back on. Still he couldn’t bring himself to waken Sanosuke (who was likely to be hungover anyway) and force him to walk home. Not just yet.
‘Home?’ Saitou chided himself. One tumble and he was already thinking cohabitation? He wasn’t even sure how Sano would react to waking up in his embrace; lucid as he’d seemed, he had been rather drunk last night. He’d certainly enjoyed himself, but whether or not anything more would develop between them remained to be seen.
And then there was the little matter of Himura, who, less oblivious than his friend, just two days ago had tried to warn Saitou off. It would be amusing to make Battousai angry like this, but was Sano man enough to disobey the Kenshingumi’s perfect leader?
These reflections were interrupted as Sano stirred again, stretching his legs with a humming yawn. Giving a hot sigh, he lifted his face to meet Saitou’s expectant gaze. His eyes flashed. “Good morning,” he said with a grin.
As anticipated and even planned for, it was a quarter of seven by the time Sano arrived back at the station, whistling and nonchalant. “Yo,” he said as he stepped through Saitou’s office door, offering no apology for his tardiness.
Saitou tapped his stack of papers to straighten it before tucking it into a drawer. Standing, he retrieved his sheathed sword from where it stood against the desk and strapped it on as he leisurely approached his lover. “You’re late,” he said, taking Sano in his arms.
Sano shrugged and pushed his mouth close to the older man’s, inhaling. “Better,” he whispered as the distance between them closed. He happened to know Saitou bought imported English mint candies just for him.
They stood thus for some time, locked in a tight embrace and complicated kiss, indifferent to the bustle of evening police business outside the half-open door.
“You’ll never cure me of being late all the time,” Sano said playfully once they were done, “when that’s what you always do when I get here.”
“Ahou ga,” Saitou replied in the same tone, “did you ever think how I might greet you if you were on time?”
Sano reached down and squeezed one of Saitou’s buttocks. “That is a nice thought,” he admitted. “Maybe I’ll try it some time.”
Saitou released him and headed for the door. “And then it will immediately start to snow.”
“Probably!” Sano followed. “So, where are we going?”
Saitou shrugged. “Does it matter?”
They made their way through the station, Saitou nodding in response to the goodnights his deferential and often very intimidated co-workers rarely neglected. They were nearly out the front door when Chou came bounding up. “Hey, tori-atama,” he said. “Hey, boss. Leaving so early?”
Saitou nodded. “I have a lead to follow up. How’s that matter we discussed earlier?”
Chou thought for a moment before realizing which matter Saitou meant. “I did just what you said. And I’m almost done going through all the files I have on the other thing. I may have found something, but I’ll have to look into it some more.”
“Good. We’ll discuss it in the morning, then.”
Chou waggled an eyebrow. “You two have fun!”
“More than you will,” Sano replied with a lopsided grin.
“Sure, sure.” And Chou waved a hand at them as he turned and went back to his work.
As they descended the steps outside, Sano’s grin had taken on a scowling aspect. “So this isn’t really a ‘walk,’ huh?” he said. “You’re just following up on something?”
“I said that to get him back to work,” Saitou answered, and it was partially true. “My latest assignment is to find out where and from whom Shishio purchased the warship Rengoku. We’ve spent all day poring over the records we have of weapons dealers in and out of Japan, and haven’t turned up anything promising yet. I’m afraid this may take me away from Tokyo for a while.”
“And so you wanted to take a walk with me before you go!” Sano finished, following the statement up with a triumphant sound.
Saitou snorted. “Don’t get too worked up, ahou. We are in public.” Not only that, but I have plans for you this evening.
As they walked slowly in the direction of the docks, Sano regaling him with an amusing account of his day, Saitou looked at the pocket-watch the young man had given him for their first anniversary: five minutes after seven. He quickened his pace imperceptibly.
He’d told Chou to have the officers do whatever was necessary to prevent civilians coming to harm, but not to intervene with any arson attempts and not to engage the criminal. Then he’d purposely chosen a route through taller buildings so that, if the inn should be on fire when they arrived, it wouldn’t be evident until they were very close. He had to time this correctly, and he prayed his stupid challenger — what was the guy’s name again? — would not retreat prematurely.
Abruptly Sano stopped walking, almost with a jerk. “Do you smell smoke?”
Saitou did, but didn’t answer verbally. Instead, he ran forward around the last corner, with Sano trailing reluctantly behind, to see the inn already ablaze. He hoped they were insured.
“Holy shit,” Sano muttered, blanching what appeared an even paler shade than it was in the flickering yellow light. He seemed rooted in place, for, though Saitou took several steps forward, Sano did not move.
“There you are,” came a bitter voice from off to their left. Sano jumped, startled, but seemed glad to have an excuse to look away from the burning building. “You insult me by arriving so late.”
And here was the moron that thought he had to go out with a bang by challenging the great former Shinsen Saitou Hajime to a duel more than a decade after the fact and threatening arson if his enemy didn’t show. Saitou was not impressed. “Ah, yes,” he said, looking the man up and down. “I believe you were your group’s only survivor of a Shinsengumi raid — because you ran away, if I recall correctly… and set the building on fire to cover your escape.”
“I didn’t escape,” the man corrected him. “Those were my instructions in case the Shinsengumi appeared. How I wanted to fight you! But I’ll destroy you now as I couldn’t then!”
Saitou shook his head, working to don an amused expression that might or might not have been natural under other circumstances. “You may certainly try, but combat is as pointless against me as is your twelve-year-old grudge.”
“Fujita-san!” called an officer at the same time. “We need all the help we can get over here!”
He was barely watching as his pseudo-enemy attacked him, for nearly all his attention was focused on Sano — on Sano, whose horrified gaze had drifted back to the roaring flames. He did take care, however, not to throw off the deranged arsonist’s first blow too lightly; playing this correctly was important.
“Sir?” came the appeal once again, sounding worried.
“I’ll join you when I’ve finished with this fool,” he called back.
Sano’s face swiveled, once again glad of a reason to look away but concerned at the slightly strained tone Saitou had purposely used. “You gonna be all right?”
“Of course I am,” Saitou snapped, sidestepping a thrust with less ease than he would have had he not wanted it to appear a close call. “Go help them!”
He couldn’t tell for certain in this light, but he thought Sano trembled a little. “They’ve got it under control…” the boy faltered.
Opportunely, just at that moment one of the officers repeated his request for aid.
“Ahou, go help them! There are people in that building!”
“Fucking shit,” Sano growled, turning again toward the glow. He glanced back at Saitou, then at the building again. His fear and his heroism fought for a moment, but there was no question which would win.
That’s my boy, was Saitou’s fond thought as he watched Sano pelt off determinedly to help. Now let’s see if this does anything for your memory.
It wasn’t that he was afraid Saitou would need help, or that he was afraid to risk his life in a burning building, or that he was afraid he wouldn’t be in time to save someone… he was just afraid. Just fucking afraid. Time was slowing, grinding down, as he ran toward that open door, almost audibly even among the screams of terrified inn patrons and the roar of the fire. The building loomed before him like the gateway to hell — which was what his pounding heart and shaking frame apparently believed it was. Wondering what the fuck was wrong with him, he plunged in.
Smoke! He reeled at the shock of its smell and unbreathability, then crouched in almost a crumpling motion to escape it. Keep it together, he told himself desperately. Getting people out of the upper storeys before they collapsed was the most important thing, right? But the smoke was everywhere! The heat was nearly intolerable, and even the unencumbered air seemed to burn, but this was downright comfortable in contrast with the hellish smoke. Upstairs, Sano! Upstairs! He sprinted into the next room, looking for a staircase — and, thoughtlessly rising into too upright a position under the current circumstances, gulped a mouthful of the rolling blackness that filled the upper part of every space…
…and it was inside him, searing his lungs, ripping him apart, making him scream for mercy as he was slashed across his back and his side and his neck; his clothes were in shreds, he was torn and bleeding, choking on blood and endless smoke…
He stumbled, clutching at his throat as his stinging eyes widened in horrified shock. What was that? What had he just seen, just felt? As he looked around, trying to reorient himself to the task at hand and coughing violently, the taste of smoke raked up from his lungs. But back then, the smoke had surrounded him as flames swept across his vision from the point of a sword…
He never even knew he’d fallen to his knees, in the midst of the fire and the shouting and everything.
Houji was yammering about Shishio’s amazing techniques and power; Yumi was staring, relieved, at her pocket-watch. The sour air seemed to have become viscous, for Kenshin’s fall to the ground lasted approximately forever — a tortuous forever of pulsing rage and misery to the watching Sano. He would kill Shishio for this, tear him apart with his bare hands since it had come to that.
But Shishio was gazing down at Kenshin with a somewhat disappointed look on his face, ignoring Sano just as completely as the other two were. How could they disregard him, as if not only his abilities and determination but also his heart-squeezing despair and anger meant less than nothing? With a hoarse shout Sano threw himself at the bandaged man with all his strength, but was thrown off and away with ridiculous ease; Shishio barely looked in his direction.
Dazed, Sano slid a long, rough path along the ground and finally came to a stop on his back, whence he could not at first move. He heard them speaking as if at a distance, voices fading in and out as he battled unconsciousness:
“Houji, take Yumi inside and get her something to drink; she’s too worked up.”
“Shishio-sama, I’m fine!”
“Take her inside.”
Footsteps, tapping and pattering, passed by and then receded, faded — was he alone? He struggled to open his eyes, but every time he thought he had, all he saw was deep grey mist. He started as another set of feet thundered toward him — Shishio?
“So,” said a loathsome voice, clarifying as Sano’s desperate bids for lucidity gradually took effect, “my dream has become reality, and yours lies dead on the ground not far from you.”
The mist was beginning to acquire other colors and more coherent shapes, and his body was starting to let him know where it was instead of registering only pain. Making a stronger attempt than ever, Sano pushed at the ground and heaved himself up — only to be shoved violently backward again by the sole of a booted foot. He hit the stone so hard he grunted, and almost missed the next statement: “No, Sagara, you’re not getting up just yet. I need some compensation for all the trouble I’ve taken to entertain you people.”
Sano would have liked to ask him what the hell he was talking about, but all the breath burst from his body as Shishio slammed a gauntleted fist into his stomach. Retching and coughing, Sano felt consciousness slipping as everything spun and started to go dark.
But this was not Shishio’s intent. Digging metal-coated fingers into Sano’s scalp, he yanked him back into the sitting position he hadn’t allowed him before. The new and totally different pain of having his hair pulled, as well as the change in altitude, cleared the haze up a bit. Shishio was kneeling beside him with one hand tight in Sano’s locks and the other on his shoulder, an anticipatory look on his bandaged face. Sano forced his tongue to move, trying to speak, to demand to know what was going on and voice his defiance against it, but was instantly silenced as Shishio leaned forward and crushed Sano’s lips with his own.
Taken by surprise by the violent intrusion, Sano was startled into stillness for just a moment. Shishio tasted like ambition and blood, but mostly like smoke. And then he bit down on Sano’s lower lip hard enough to pierce with his teeth, and this was all it took to send adrenaline shocking through Sano’s body and wake him entirely from his stupor. Abruptly pulling back, he yanked his hair free and shrugged off the painful grip on his shoulder, jumping to his feet with a sick feeling in his stomach and that bloody, smoky flavor lingering in his mouth.
“What the fuck are you doing?!” His voice shook more than he had thought it would. He had a sudden feeling he was in deep shit.
“What does it look like I’m doing?” Shishio replied as he stood and drew his sword. He raised the weapon with a sadistic smile. “If you get back on your knees, I’ll let you enjoy it.”
Sano’s eyes were wide as terror and revulsion warred within him. A number of statements he could have made, defiant or disgusted or even supplicating, came to mind, but what he managed to stammer was, “Y-yumi?”
In an expression of genuine kindness abominably contradictory to everything else about him, Shishio’s smile softened. “Yumi is good for some things, but not this, much as she wishes for it.”
Though his fear and repugnance rose to a peak, Sano found they were manageable, at least for the moment. “Never gonna happen, bastard,” he spat, raising his fists.
The corner of Shishio’s mouth twisted up even farther in evil amusement as he raised his sword and took another step forward. “Even when I’ve defeated the Hitokiri Battousai without taking a single wound, you think to contend with me? Fool!”
Sano wasn’t about to let him get the first hit. “Don’t be so fucking cocky!” He charged, hoping to end it all with a single shot. Shishio simply waited for him, caught Sano’s left in his own, and turned his face to the side to accept the right-handed Futae no Kiwami, with his smile still firmly in place.
Sano wondered what the bastard was grinning for when his cheekbone was about to be violently shattered up into his brain, but stopped wondering the next moment as he felt not only the fingers of his left hand being slowly and leisurely crushed but his entire right fist crumbling against his enemy’s face. Staggering backward, he fell to the ground with a rough cry, broken hands clutching at each other excruciatingly but unstoppably in his dismay and shock.
“You shouldn’t talk in your sleep before the sun has even gone down. Now it’s time you learned who has been in control of this drama since the very beginning.”
Suddenly the supreme pain in his hands was coupled with almost unbearable heat all around him as Shishio stepped forward and encircled them in a ring of flames. With a kick he sent Sano sprawling straight into the fire, but Sano barely noticed the burning for the agony of his hands hitting the ground in an instinctive attempt at catching himself.
Almost lazily, Shishio placed a foot heavily on the young man’s back to hold him down, sweeping his sword out on either side of them to keep the fires going. Sano bit his lip to combat the screams that wanted to pour from him, shaking his head to clear the tears from his eyes. He must fight this; he could not be defeated!
But he already was.
Shishio’s sword next found his body, snapping back and forth in a swift pattern of medium-depth cuts that sliced through clothing, sarashi, skin, burning as it tore into him, lighting little fires that were extinguished by the blood gushing out over them. Sano couldn’t restrain his screams any longer, and cried out with all his agony and despair. Above him, Shishio laughed.
What it meant when the foot was removed from his back must be obvious, but Sano could do nothing except lie there moaning, waiting for his fate. Perhaps he would faint… perhaps it was all a dream and he would wake up before that moment, like when he dreamed he was falling but awoke just as he thought he must hit the ground. That was what he kept thinking, hoping, as Shishio’s arm went around his chest and pulled him roughly to his knees. He struggled again, using the last of his strength, as he felt his enemy’s other hand, its gauntlet discarded for increased fineness of movement, probing at one of the new tears in the back of his pants, but the iron grip across his chest was too much for him to fight.
He gave up.
But it was worse than he could ever have imagined.
As if in response to the animal scene, the fires seemed to rise around them and envelope them until all he could see, smell, or taste was smoke, and all he could feel was the sensation of being brutally violated from behind. He was screaming, gasping lungfuls of smoke and clutching despite his ruined hands at the arm encircling his chest. It was pain and dishonor and utter hopelessness all in one, and it was more than he could stand. Even as he prayed with abandon to whatever god might be listening, prayed for death, he felt himself slipping away into a world of smoke — choking, burning, all-encompassing smoke, but at the very least a good deal less painful than where he was now.
Smoke. Everything was smoke, and he was falling into its embrace. He didn’t want it any other way.