The hedges were trimmed. The flowerbeds flanking the steps had been weeded. The porch had been swept. When he slid the door open, an enticing smell greeted him from within. He’d been planning a fancy dinner out at the most expensive restaurant in town, but apparently his sweetheart had other ideas.
Sano looked up from the table he was setting as Saitou entered the room, his face breaking into a smile. It was a version of the expression he reserved solely for circumstances like this: entirely open, simply delighted at his lover’s return, and sweeter than he was willing to give to anyone else. It was the kind of smile that made even Saitou want to smile back… and on this rare occasion, he actually did.
“Yo,” Sano said, ceasing his work and approaching. He was dressed in the red kimono and black hakama Saitou had bought for him not long before, and, as expected, the colors were perfect against his golden skin and beneath his brown hair. Pressing his beautiful body against Saitou’s, sliding his arms around Saitou’s torso, Sano drew him into a passionate welcome-home-happy-anniversary kiss.
Saitou hadn’t touched a cigarette for at least thirty-six hours solely for this purpose.
As his mouth was reluctantly released, he stared down at the other, whom he did not loose, with an overwhelming feeling of adoration. Sano met his gaze in amusement, as if curious about the scrutiny; and Saitou began pressing his lips against Sano’s skin here and there, covering his entire face with soft kisses.
“Oi…” Sano murmured, sounding amused but also more than a little turned on by this unexpected treatment. He stayed where he was, making no return gestures, as though he were content to stand in the doorway and be kissed gently by Saitou for the rest of all eternity. “What’s this for?” he asked, his voice husky.
Because I love you, Saitou wanted to reply, but, as always, couldn’t get the words out. So he held Sano close, hoping perhaps something would communicate his feelings. Sano replied by tightening his own arms around Saitou’s back.
And so they embraced each other as if nothing in the world mattered… or as if they knew that in only a few weeks every part of this was going to crumble into agony. But of that condition they, on this holiday, were nearly ignorant. Suffering surely existed, but it was far away and irrelevant. Just then their only thoughts were of each other, of how happy they were.
At last Sano raised his mouth to Saitou’s again, and spoke softly. “I have dinner ready.” His lips brushed against the older man’s with each word, and his sparkling eyes held Saitou’s firmly.
Saitou seemed more eager to taste Sano’s breath than whatever meal was prepared for them, but after one last kiss slowly relinquished his hold.
“Tokio-san sent us some wine again.” Sano grinned as he said this, perhaps remembering last year: it wasn’t often Saitou tasted alcohol, and Sano seemed to be looking forward to seeing its effects again. He seized Saitou’s hand and pulled him to the table.
Clearly Sano had engaged his every culinary power to make that simple food. It was remarkably plain fare, since not only did Saitou prefer it that way but Sano was incapable of cooking anything complex. Unlikely it was, however, that either of them would remember at another time what they’d eaten that night; it was entirely possible that neither of them could have positively identified it while they were eating it. There was so much love mixed in that it could have been dirt and Saitou might not have realized; it was the best-tasting meal he’d ever had.
Two years? Had it really been that long? How had Saitou Hajime gotten so lucky?
It wasn’t that the food was well prepared or that the room was spotlessly clean that made him so happy — it was the fact that Sano hated cooking, and never lifted a finger to clean something if he could get away with it. And the young man kept looking anxiously at him, as if worried his meal wasn’t good enough. Everything Sano had done today seemed to have been aimed at pleasing Saitou, and this thought brought a rush of joy into Saitou’s heart that, although no unfamiliar feeling since he’d been with Sano, still surprised him with its warmth.
And in that moment he realized there was nothing — not his own life or honor, not the future of Japan, not anything he had ever deemed important — that meant more to him than Sano, and because of that, there was nothing that could ever tear them apart.
“Um… I got this for you…” Sano was never very good at giving presents, and Saitou could not help but laugh a bit, inwardly, at the nervous way he handed over the small, paper-wrapped object. “I knew you liked that one guy, and the guy at the store said you’d probably like this one too, but I can’t remember his name…”
“Sophocles.” Saitou flipped through the book with satisfaction. “A Greek philosopher.” He looked up. “You were informed quite correctly.”
Sano’s face, which had been very close to housing a worried expression, broke into a smile. “That’s good… ’cause I sure as hell couldn’t figure it out, though I was pretty sure you didn’t have that one.”
If anything could have made the evening better, it was this. Not only did it show how well Sano knew him, but an imported book was an expensive thing — which meant Sano had been working and saving for him. It was also somewhat of a relief, considering how much Saitou’s present had cost: he didn’t want Sano feeling any more awkward than he already did.
“Thank you,” he said, and, setting the book down, seized Sano’s left hand in his. With his right, he pulled a little wooden box from the pocket where it had been burning a hole all day. Though not nearly so bad at gift-giving as Sano was, he still wasn’t sure what the reaction to this might be. He set the box on the table between them and opened it, explaining his present. “In western cultures, it’s traditional for a married couple to wear identical rings like this.” He slid the plain golden band onto Sano’s left ring finger. “It symbolizes, I believe, an eternity together.”
He couldn’t believe it: Sano, staring at his hand, was actually blushing, and didn’t appear to know what to say. Quietly Saitou took the other ring from the box and, holding his left hand up for Sano to see, put it on.
“Ha-Hajime… d’you really mean that?” Sano stammered at last, still staring.
Saitou nodded, and managed to say almost exactly what he meant: “I want you to stay with me forever.”
The sudden tears on Sano’s face were a bit of a surprise, though Sano laughed at himself right through them. “Fuck, this is stupid…” he said. “Look at me crying like a baby.”
Saitou chuckled. “As long as you’re my baby.”
“Hell, I’ll be whatever you want!” Sano crawled over to him and hugged him tightly. After he’d recovered himself he suggested, “Why don’t we drink that wine?”
“Let’s drink it in the bedroom,” Saitou whispered in his ear. “I have another present for you…”
“Saitou!” Kenshin stared first at Saitou’s bruised face, then at the bound and unconscious Sano in his arms. He couldn’t say another word for shock.
Saitou returned the look evenly and held his lover out toward his enemy. “Take him.”
“What the hell…” Kenshin trailed off, but almost absently added “…de gozaru ka?”
“You’ll be glad to hear the story,” Saitou replied, unable to prevent the bitterness creeping into his tone. “Glad to be proven right. Take him.”
Kenshin reached out to receive the burden, his face still a picture of confusion. “What happened?”
Not wanting to look at the two of them any longer, Saitou turned his back. “You are familiar with Sano’s disliking of smoke?”
“Yes… I always thought it odd.”
“Smoke had to do with Sano’s repressed memories of Shishio’s fortress, where he was raped by Shishio after you were knocked unconscious.”
Overwhelmed by Saitou’s typical conciseness, Kenshin let out a short, surprised breath and looked down at Sano’s face in shock. “Raped?”
Saitou nodded. “He remembered because I — and this is the part you’ll like — I asked him to help the police get people out of a burning building. I did this hoping the smoke would trigger those memories in case he knew anything about my case. I never suspected…”
“You–” Kenshin interrupted him unexpectedly. “You couldn’t have known!”
“Defending me now, are you? That’s quite a change. Anyway, Sano’s tried to kill himself already, and he certainly hasn’t been thinking straight. I’m afraid the only way to save him is to somehow repress his memories again. Maybe if he inhales smoke again…”
A long moment of silence followed, during which the presence of the two men behind him, one conscious and one unconscious, one scorned and the other beloved, weighed like a tangible thing on Saitou’s mind.
He wanted to turn.
There were a lot of things he wanted to do, actually.
Sano stirred in Kenshin’s arms, saying something that sounded piteously like ‘Hajime…’ and Kenshin spoke abruptly. “Saitou, if his memories are repressed again, he might forget everything that happened from the time of the rape onward. He… might forget that he and you were ever anything but enemies.”
Saitou did not reply immediately, because he was gathering his strength for what must be said. At last he murmured, “I know. That’s why I’m giving him to you. Because I can’t do it.” And, fearing his resolve would weaken if he stayed there much longer, he strode away.
“Saitou!” Kenshin called, but the wolf ignored him. “Saitou!!”
Their footsteps fell loudly on the overgrown path as the shrine came into view. Between the first and second arches, they could look up and see the hulking shadow of Mt. Hiei, and Sano grinned. “Well, here we are,” he said. Punching his palm, he added, “I’m trembling with excitement!”
Under the third arch, he noticed Saitou throwing him a weird look. “What’s your problem, psycho?” he demanded.
Saitou smirked. “With excitement, ahou?”
“Well, what else would I be trembling with?” Sano retorted hotly, before he realized the answer to his question. “Hey, you bastard, I’m not afraid or anything!”
A little ahead of them, Kenshin sighed almost inaudibly.
“No, I suppose you’re not,” Saitou admitted. “A fool like you is so rarely afraid of anything, even when it’s good for him.”
Sano stopped under the fourth arch and snarled. “Like someone who stabbed me through the shoulder would know what’s good for me!”
Saitou stopped along with him. “Maybe I know better than you do.”
Neither noticed Kenshin’s stiffened form standing beneath the fifth arch, nor heard his slightly annoyed outlet of breath. But when he said, “Look,” their attention was captured. He pointed ahead to where a lone woman stood against a set of massive doors leading into the mountain itself. “I think we should try to start getting along. Don’t forget what we’re getting into.” The first sentence was aimed at Sano, the second at Saitou, and each phrase referred to a totally different aspect of the current interaction. Saitou knew it perfectly well, as he’d known from the beginning what Himura’s attitude would be toward his little infatuation. But the fact was entirely lost on Sano.
He swam upward, more or less steadily, through a rancid sea of smoke, trying to escape the darkness beneath him. After a moment he recalled the impossibility of swimming through something like smoke that wasn’t solid, and his feet found ground just where he’d been expecting it. A fresh wind blew across his face, sweeping the encroaching haze away into a corner, where it roiled and struggled but remained stationary. Turning away from it toward the light beyond his eyelids, he opened his eyes and awoke.
“Oh, what is…” The mutter sounded ragged and croaky. He couldn’t remember where he was or why, where he should be or what had been happening to him.
“Sano!” This voice, Kenshin’s, was soon joined by more: Kaoru’s… Yahiko’s… Megumi’s… and? and? He sat up, confused. He was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was expecting another voice. But whose was it? As he looked from one relieved face to the next, he was sure one was missing — but what other face did he expect? As he searched for it, his heart was pounding… but why?
He turned his mind to other considerations. This room looked an awful lot like Kaoru’s dojo. What was he doing here? “Are we in Tokyo?” he asked the smiling Kenshin close to his head. His throat was sore.
“That can’t be right…”
“Why?” Kenshin sounded a bit worried.
Sano’s mind still felt cloudy, and he struggled to answer the question. “Shouldn’t we be in Kyoto? I thought we were going in against Shishio.”
Suddenly grave in both tone and expression, “Sano, that was two years ago,” Kenshin said.
It was like an unexpected slap in the face. “What?” He shook his head, thinking hard, but all he got was a worse headache. Why couldn’t he remember anything? They’d been heading up to Shishio’s secret fortress-place to fight the Juppongatana or something, and… “You’re not serious, are you?”
Kenshin nodded. “Do you remember nothing?”
Something about Kenshin’s guarded expression bothered Sano, but he didn’t know quite why. He lay back, closing his eyes but not ceasing his effort to piece events together. Some images were beginning to return. “I think… did I fight Anji? Was he working for Shishio?” It seemed so dreamlike, he couldn’t be at all sure it had actually happened.
“And then… then…”
But Kenshin had looked away.
Sano drew his knees up to his chin, scrunching blankets all around him as if trying to block out any draft of cold air into his warm haven. He didn’t quite understand what was happening to him — especially since, besides a nasty cough, a rough throat, and an achy head, he didn’t feel particularly ill. He’d only just awakened an hour or so ago, but he was already terribly confused.
So he’d been sick for a whole month… and somehow it had caused him to lose his memory of the last two years? He’d never heard of such a thing. And he wasn’t prone to sickness anyway.
Something was wrong here.
Megumi hadn’t been able to tell him the name of whatever he’d had — said it was something she’d never seen before, that they had all despaired of his life before he’d made that miraculous recovery. They’d all seemed happy enough when he woke up, anyway. But he just… didn’t feel sick…
What he seemed to be feeling was… loneliness?
He lay down once again with a sigh. How could something like this happen to him? Had it happened to him? He just couldn’t believe it. Kenshin had assured him he’d come within an inch of his life, and Kenshin wouldn’t lie… but it seemed too incredible, his getting so sick he almost died and having a bunch of memories wiped out, then waking up and feeling just fine…
But Kenshin wouldn’t lie to him.
He must have been sick, then.
He realized he’d been holding onto his left hand with his right, absently making a twisting motion around the fourth finger as if he were wearing a ring there. He looked down in brief confusion, then laid his hands at his sides.
The futon felt strange beneath him, the blankets unfamiliar. Looking around again, he realized that the whole room was unrecognizable. Sure, it was a room in the Kamiya dojo, but had he really been living here since they came back from Kyoto?
The door slid open, and Sano sat up quickly in sudden, inexplicable anticipation, his heart racing and his eyes searching for the sight of — what?
Kenshin entered, and came quietly to kneel at his bedside. “How do you feel?” he asked.
“Fine,” Sano said, trying hard not to show his disappointment that Kenshin wasn’t… whatever he’d been expecting. “Better than fine. I almost can’t believe I was sick.”
Kenshin sighed. “Lie down, please. I thought you might want to know some things about the last two years.”
“Um, yeah.” Sano did not lie down.
Kenshin raised a warning hand. “I can’t tell you too much right now. You need to sleep.”
“I feel fine, Kenshin, really.”
“I will answer three questions.”
Sano frowned and gave in, appreciating the worry he could see plainly in his friend’s face. Although he thought, for a moment at least, that something else was in that visage as well — something he didn’t like. But he shook off the feeling and contemplated what he was going to ask Kenshin. “All right, first question: what happened to Shishio?”
Kenshin told him, very briefly, touching only barely on certain aspects — Sano’s own involvement and Saitou’s part — of the fateful battle.
Sano nodded slowly, fitting the pieces into the shadows of his memory and finding that their shapes matched the jagged gaps. Not a perfect picture, but he’d have time to grille Kenshin on it all later when the man was willing to discuss things more extensively. “Fine. Then, second… has anything major happened since we came back that I should know about?”
Kenshin gave him an overview of the two or three larger events their little group had taken part in during those two years. It all sounded familiar enough to Sano, although with this account came a feeling of distance — almost as if he’d only watched the goings-on, had little part in them, little action of his own. How odd.
“Last question.” He thought for a moment, wondering how to word it, and finally said, “What have I been doing for these two years?”
Instead of answering immediately, Kenshin queried, “What do you mean?”
Again Sano felt the vague suspicion he’d harbored against his friend earlier, but his absolute faith in the rurouni won him into replying simply, “Just in general, I mean… things been like they always were?”
“Mostly. You spent most evenings gambling or drinking with your friends, and you slept a lot during the days… Kaoru-dono made you help with all the repairs, of course, and sometimes she made you do part-time work to help pay the bills…”
It sounded like him. If he’d had to guess what he’d been doing over the last two years, living at the Kamiya dojo, that would have been exactly it. But try as he might, he couldn’t make it fit into the careful timeline he was constructing in his mind. Whatever had happened, it seemed that his typical loafing hadn’t been it.
As he bade Kenshin goodnight and laid himself back onto the clean futon, he pondered. The only answer he could come up with was that he must have gotten involved in something Kenshin didn’t like — not just didn’t like, but totally didn’t approve of — and Kenshin was purposely keeping this information from him in order to prevent his starting it up again. Maybe something dangerous…
Drugs? He didn’t think so; it wasn’t like him. Besides, he’d be going through some kind of withdrawal now, wouldn’t he? But maybe that withdrawal was something with weird symptoms that made you imagine something was missing from your life all of a sudden (besides your memory of the last two years), and feel ridiculously lonely when you couldn’t figure out what it might be.
Maybe he’d gotten back into some yakuza. That sounded more like him than drugs, although why he would have done it after having left that life behind was a mystery. Still, it would explain his current feeling of aloneness — in such a group, you were watched incessantly, eyed from all corners as others waited for their chance to betray you or worried about you betraying them, and he could easily have grown accustomed again to that feeling of always having someone around him, someone thinking avidly of him.
He squeezed his eyes tight shut, then reopened them swiftly, hoping something above his head would look familiar enough to reassure him that everything Kenshin had said was true. But the room looked just as unfamiliar to him as ever. What had happened to his life? And if Kenshin didn’t want him to know about whatever it was, should he really want to find out? After all, Kenshin was obviously only trying to protect him… and the little guy really was a lot smarter than Sano, wasn’t he?
Still, it was his life, wasn’t it?