Condition of Learned Helplessness follow-up

The case Saitou had been sent here to solve, though engrossing and distracting, had been soon closed, and after that had come the usual small-time nonsense he could deal with in his sleep. It was almost as if destiny had arranged the transfer specifically to give him time and opportunity to think about everything he’d been consistently pushing to the back of his mind for the last few months.

He had never begged anyone for anything in his life, least of all forgiveness. But if he’d had Himura Kenshin in front of him, he would have done it.

This Sapporo office was no different from any other office he’d ever inhabited, and his desk here was just as neat as any other he’d ever used. Paperwork and written evidence organized in easily-accessible stacks seemed to build a wall around him as he sat, protecting him from the stupidity of his subordinates, the prying of other investigators, and the meaningless appeals of the masses. It also boxed him in like a prison, keeping him and his thoughts in a tightly-enclosed space, forcing him for long hours on end to look at himself and what he’d done.

It hadn’t been necessary. He’d never considered it necessary. That had merely been his excuse, and that only at the beginning. He’d just… wanted him… so much and so unexpectedly that he’d jumped on the justification “I’m doing this to prove a point” without admitting that there were ways of proving that point, other means to that end, that were infinitely more worthy of him.

And why? Why had he given in to his desire so easily, and in a manner so heinous? The desire itself, which, though unprecedented, was perfectly natural, wasn’t the source of his shame; rather, it was the laziness that marked taking as easier than being given, and the cowardice that lauded it as a much surer thing.

He was filling out a report by rote as he entertained these thoughts — which had also become well-trodden territory, though without the paperwork’s subsequent potential for being almost completely ignored. But now as he looked down, he couldn’t help noting the coincidence of just having written “diligence” (in reference to a slightly less-than-incompetent subordinate) and used one of the same kanji he would to write “lazy.”

Since when had he ever been lazy or cowardly? It was almost impossible to believe, and looking back he did not know himself. But there it was: the possibility of rejection — the probability, more accurately — had led him not even to make the attempt. Too impatient to wait for a better moment to offer, too self-centered to look beyond his own desires — but in the end, he felt, it all came back to laziness and cowardice. He lazy. He a coward. He, Saitou Hajime. It was what he told himself on a daily, perhaps hourly basis, but it was still a struggle just to see that perspective, let alone believe.

The second stage of his crime, at least, made sense, though it did him just as little credit. Pride and an accompanying self-deception had upheld what laziness and cowardice had instigated. He’d pretended he still thought he was adhering to his “point,” he’d pretended it was the only way to keep Himura in line. He’d pretended, now that he thought about it, that Himura wanted it as much as he did but was too weak to admit it — that Saitou was the only thing between the two of them and the tragic loss of a good thing.

A good thing…!

At times like this, he often found his hand moving seemingly of its own volition to the breast pocket of his jacket and stilling when it found nothing there. He didn’t smoke anymore, which was more a form of self-punishment than any consideration of health. Now, fist clenched against his breast as if to mark the beating of his faithless heart, he sat still as the dark reflections marched inevitably onward.

The awareness of his own infamy had been all along growing steadily and subtly, while he played games with Himura — sometimes verbal, sometimes otherwise — in which he could refer to their unfortunate situation carelessly, with levity even. Had he convinced himself that Himura’s half of those word-games were in that same facetious spirit? Himura was also not the type to beg for things, and Saitou should have known that. Had known that. But he simply had not been able to admit, even to himself, that he’d done wrong, had stubbornly persisted in that wrong even when the self-loathing had risen to just beneath his skin, determined to prove himself right.

And even now he could not admit he’d been entirely at fault. He couldn’t suppress the belief that there had been something… he couldn’t write off as self-delusion the signs that Himura had given of wishing, not that it would cease, but that it could be different. Yet since that played straight into the frame of mind that had kept the thing going for so long, Saitou pushed it away with all the force of logic he could muster.

With a deep breath, he took up his pen again, compelling himself to finish the performance assessment he was writing. After that there was the recent robbery case review to look over before he submitted it.

He had never been a compassionate man, but he was not immune to the sensation. And as the knowledge of the true nature of his behavior had come closer and closer to the surface, and as he had become more and more deeply attached to his victim (god, it was hard even now to think of him that way), that little-used sensibility of consideration for the feelings of others, that awareness of and response to the suffering of another person — not of Himura’s physical status or usefulness or even the mental distinction between Kenshin and Battousai — had come into greater prominence.

It was a new take on an old exercise — putting himself in someone else’s place, now not to predict their next move or use their mental or emotional state against them, but simply to try to feel what they were feeling, to understand their point of view. And the reactions that should have been fundamentally obvious suddenly took on new dimensions and hit home: the shame, the anger, the helplessness, the despair….

Saitou thought it was safe to say that Himura was stronger than he was.

His one consolation was that he had managed to give it up at last. When it had finally gotten through to him that clinging to this behavior was doing more than simply retaining for himself a pleasure he ought to have earned rather than stolen, that he was, in fact, continually wounding the one person he’d ever understood to that extent, the one person that had ever moved him to that level of pure compassion, the one person he’d ever…

No, he didn’t dare use that word. He wasn’t worthy of it.

But at least he’d given it up.

Some consolation.

How he got through each day with thoughts like these, with the awareness of what he’d done and what he was bombarding him, he didn’t know. It never stopped. Investigations and reports and the mundanities of everyday life and sometimes even the awareness of his surroundings all vanished behind it; it was before him and around him and atop him, a crushing weight he would not have felt it appropriate to shrug off even if he could have.

There was a persistent voice in his head telling him that seppuku was his only honorable option at this point.

To this a louder (for now) mental voice replied impatiently that he was no longer in the Shinsengumi. His work was important; it would be stupid to leave the world while he could still do so much good. Moreover, it would be selfish.

And yet, wondered the first voice, how could he continue to give himself more quarter than he gave his enemies?

Aku Soku Zan. What happened to it?

An unexpected voice pointed out that even an honorable suicide could hardly be a decent apology to a man that had chosen life as atonement for his sins.

Another voice merely laughed bitterly at the irony of Saitou Hajime committing seppuku over the Hitokiri Battousai.

He didn’t know which of these voices was right — if any — but he was fairly certain atonement didn’t, couldn’t enter into his considerations. He would do anything, anything, if he thought there was anything to be done. But there wasn’t. He could not atone for his crimes… and, as such, seppuku seemed a meaningless gesture. So for the moment, whatever was or wasn’t right, he was going with the option that had him getting on with his work.

If he’d had this attitude-altering experience as a younger man, lives might have been saved.

Not that he called this much of a life… hating himself, regretting the last year’s worth of choices, and having decided to live only for now, only for his work, with no anticipation of future happiness…

Like ears listening so hard for a summons that they fabricated the sound over and over and over long before it came, he was constantly under the impression that he sensed Himura’s presence nearby when he didn’t and never would again. It was trivial and little more than irritating, but it was just one more part of his endless punishment: a falsification of sense that would never let him forget, never allow him to let go.

And yet today… There was movement in his office, but he had no desire to look up and greet whoever was intruding on his dubious peace — and not even so much because his subordinates were all so incompetent as because he couldn’t bear having the illusion shattered again, having his deceptive senses corrected about the identity of his visitor. The robbery case review couldn’t really hold his attention, but it was better than looking up.

“Sir?” He knew he’d become more irritable and inscrutable to the general police force than ever before, but even that couldn’t account for the hesitance and confusion in the voice that hailed him now. Vaguely curious, he finally looked up. He rarely remembered their names anymore; it was the man with the receding hairline and the overbite. But now Saitou barely took in even these identifying details as his eyes were dragged to and locked on the man’s open hand.

For in the latter lay a large, perfect blood-red anemone to which the entire world seemed suddenly to have narrowed in an abrupt, heart-stopping constriction.

“Where did you get that?” His voice sounded choked and distant.

“Someone sent me to give it to you with a message.”

“What message?” It was almost a whisper now, since he had no breath left in him and couldn’t seem to draw any. His lungs, like the rest of him, were paralyzed.

“He told me to tell you, ‘It’s your turn,’ sir.”

A very long silence followed.

He knew down to the very last detail what that meant. It wasn’t a possibility he’d ever considered as part of his willingness to “do anything,” probably because even from Himura he hadn’t expected this degree of clemency. For some time he sat rigidly still and silent, while the other man fidgeted and looked confused.

The naysayers were those thoughts and emotions that couldn’t agree on a better solution, and in favor was the one emotion for which he’d never blamed himself — all equally incoherent. But Saitou wasn’t really engaged in any legitimate decision-making process during this time, consequent upon his faculties being in some kind of severe shock. So it was perhaps fortunate that in the end it wasn’t really much of a choice.

He found himself standing, with little to no recollection of having willed himself to do so.

He found himself setting aside his work as if it had never existed.

He found himself reaching out, taking the anemone in a hand that almost didn’t seem to be his own, though the coolness and texture of the flower was more precisely apparent to him than it had ever been before.

He found himself with no clear idea of what the future held, only of what he must and would do.

“Where is he?” he asked.

Previous (Chapter 6) | Chapter Index

For some author’s notes on this story, see this Productivity Log. I can’t decide what to rate it, so it gets a . What do you think of it?

13 thoughts on “Condition of Learned Helplessness follow-up

  1. This poor wagon-driver . . . man just wants to sleep peacefully, enjoy some bawdy talk, and what he gets is high drama from the guards about love, betrayal, and an enormously tragic event that would no doubt be dismaying just to hear about. Dear God. I would NEVER go to Kobe again.

  2. Having read the first half of the faerytalk, I’m now aware that you’re aware that you tread the line in this story between rape and passion and make the whole “He’s abusive but that only makes him more mysterious and my love more intoxicating” business every bit as delicious and troubling as it should be.

    The most delicious part of it all, though, in my opinion, is that that allows you to tread the line between love and hate in a way that is fresh and meaningful. We so often hear that love and hate are inextricably paired, or two sides of the same coin, and we so rarely see it proven–most often an author just mistakes lustful or jealous actions for loving ones. Here, things are just weird. You’re right to say that it is a wonderful relationship that is off-kilter; before reading your notes I planned to describe it as something incredibly right that had gone off a half-step, like a minor chord. Your decision to elide the exact details–the actual threats, the brutality, the fresh abasement and violation, and the in-the-moment horribleness–of how Saitou first raped Kenshin and what Kenshin felt his alternative was to returning to Saitou regulary heightens the feeling of attraction between them (and the attractiveness of the situation) and banishes obstacles to it.

    In fact, your elegant style and the muffled, smoothed emotion of the story makes it read very formally (the fact that it is Kenshin’s perspective helps with this), more like one of those gothic poems of which I am so fond, the ones that discuss outrageusly erotic or depraved or disturbing things in such a formal and pretty structure that you cannot help thinking that things are just as they should be.

    Likewise with this fic: it ended appropriately, of course–the best possible outcome to such a situation, in fact–but in the meantime, Kenshin’s despair and desire and longing are lovely, and I take much more delight in them than I probably should. Thank you for writing.

    1. Thank you for these wonderful comments ^__^ It’s always nice to hear that a story I started writing seven years ago is still acceptable to the intelligent reader :D

  3. comment on the follow-up story

    That. Is. So. Hot.

    The follow-up–and it’s good that it’s a separate story rather than an epilogue, I think, in order to reinforce the time that has passed–is just as good as the original.

    In fact, it reads as fan fiction of the fanfic it succeeds, referencing its forbear breezily but constructing an entirely new theme. And the quote about cowardice and laziness is going in the quotie file, oh, yes.

    I don’t know what blood-red represents in Japanese culture, but in western culture it is, of course, a symbol of guilt: to present someone with a blood-red object is to remind him of his guilt–the blood on his hands, as it were. In heraldry, sanguine is a rare color that also represents power and witchcraft. These, too, I think, are appropriate, and then there is the perennial (ha!) red as a symbol of passion, blood-red, of violence.

    And yet it’s a flower, too, and a very pretty, delicate one. And we all know what giving someone flowers means.

    I realize that I’m stating the obvious in laborious detail, but this English-major stuff is just so cool sometimes, that a writer can say, what is that, seven or eight different things with ONE OBJECT. And you have done it so adroitly, without maudlin obsession with it.

    Delightful. This fic and its follow-up might well be one of my favorites.

    1. ^__^ I’m glad you liked it! Don’t forget another thing that red symbolizes in this context: Kenshin :D Which line about cowardice and laziness did you have in mind? I am cuuuurious.

  4. Wow! I love your story! I already read it twice and am planning to read it again. I can’t believe I only found this Saitou/Kenshin story now. I love how you portrayed both their personalities so well. I love flawed characters in stories, and you really added a whole new dimension to both Saitou and Kenshin (I mean, by the end of your story, Saitou actually felt compassion for someone!?). I really wish you wrote more Saitou/Kenshin fanfiction. There is something about this pairing that appeals to me, even though it’s probably one of the least likely/plausible pairings in the RK universe. But I read so many incredible and believable fics with this pairing, some of them really haunting (including this one), which is probably why I like this pairing so much. I also love how you wrote Sano. He wasn’t one of my favorite characters in the manga/anime, but I have to say I really love Sano in your fic!

    I just had a question about the ending (if you still read the comments). What does Kenshin mean by “It’s your turn”. Saitou seems to understand everything that Kenshin meant by that, but for me it’s not clear what you meant. Sorry if I’m stupid haha. Is it Saitou’s turn to come to Kenshin and ask for forgiveness or something? It appears to be something deeper than that but I just don’t get it.

    1. Hey, thanks so much! I’m very glad you liked this story, and I appreciate you letting me know!

      I have to admit that this is not my favorite pairing (as you have no doubt observed if you’ve looked around at what else I’ve written), so I’m sorry I must disappoint you on the pairing front. The only other story about Saitou and Kenshin on this archive is a Saitou/Kenshin/Sano threesome (Angles). I do have another old fic about Saitou and Kenshin that’s no longer around because it’s not very good, which I suppose I could email to you if you wanted to read something about them that isn’t very good XD

      Aaanyway. By “It’s your turn,” I’m afraid Kenshin meant, “It’s your turn to submit to me.” Unfortunately, the relationship between Kenshin and Saitou isn’t going to get any healthier, at least not for a long while. The whole situation is so messed up XD

      In any case, I am, as I mentioned, very glad you enjoyed the story. Thank you very much for your comments; it really makes my day to receive them!

      1. Thanks for your reply and explanation! I really like the ending of the story! I agree, everything is so messed up! I read your Saitou/Kenshin/Sano fic and I liked it, but the romantic in me is not a huge fan of m/m/m, unless it’s all a huge lemon or something XD. Plus, even though I read quite a few Kenshin/Sano fics, I don’t find the pairing too interesting for whatever reason.

        How can I pm you my email address? I would like to read your other story. I’m curious what it’s about!

        1. Yeah, I don’t usually find the Kenshin and Sano pairing terribly interesting either. I’m all over Saitou and Sano, and shall be until the day I die XD I’m sure I’d be happier if I could like Kenshin and Sano together, since they seem by far to be the most popular gay RK pairing… but such is life, heh.

          I’ve emailed the address that appears when I get a comment from you; hopefully it’s the right one!

  5. Objectively, this story was extremely well-written. You did fantastic work delving into Kenshin’s emotions (or lack thereof for some time) and his frame of mind. It was very believable. Sano’s behavior was also just…so real. I don’t know, like. I feel like it’s easy to trivialize writing a confidant’s reaction to such a confession, but the way he was written was……..just real. That’s all I can really call it. Like the way he went through the motions and even left Kenshin when they reached Kobe, only to apologize for doing so and attempting to weed information out with guesswork. So, yeah. this piece was extremely believable.

    Emotionally, it was extremely difficult to read. As it should be. Helplessness took on such a varying amount of definitions to Kenshin. My heart broke at the misery of this situation. The follow up was just chilling, however, when we get to see how much regret Saito lives with. In no way am I defending him or feeling sorry for him. But holy shit. To live with that amount of despair…and the whole red anemone with “it’s your turn, sir.” How he simply stands and accepts his fate. Christ. The tables turned completely.

    I had to pump myself up to read this because I knew it was going to upset me, and it did. A lot. But at the same time, it was crafted extremely well and I’m just fucking left wishing the same thing as Saito and Kenshin…why couldn’t they just have gone about this the right way? I don’t want either of them together when there’s rape in the picture, but it’s the only time I’ve ever thought “what if they actually got together in a healthy way?” …and as someone who doesn’t ship them at all, that’s really kind of alarming. I’m not sure what to think about that at the moment.

    Anyway, I’ll stop rambling. Thank you <3

    1. You seem to have had the same reaction to this story that I did when I reread it recently in order to give it a star rating. Always nice to know we’re on the same page, I suppose!

      As I said before, I don’t know why I started writing this story. I don’t remember what was going through my head at the time, except that I’d just learned about learned helplessness in a psychology class. I had a tendency to inflict school shit on Rurouni Kenshin characters (e.g. when I first encountered the word “cytology,” I got ridiculously excited), but why this idea came to mind in response to learned helplessness I can’t begin to imagine. Srsly what was wrong with me back then.

      I’m glad the emotional reactions came across as realistic. Probably the only excuse for this piece existing is as a possibly useful examination of such emotional reactions to horrific situations. And I can’t help feeling a little satisfaction that you were kinda-sorta shipping Saitou and Kenshin in a hypothetical better relationship, since “good potential gone so, so wrong” was one of the points of the story.

      But I’m sorry to have given you a difficult time. I certainly appreciate your comments, and it’s extremely flattering that you were willing to muscle your way through this thing at all, given the subject matter. I don’t really know what else to say :\

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