Sano wasn’t aware of the motions he used to get out of the car, didn’t feel the handle under his fingers or hear the sound of the door closing, was barely even conscious of the parking lot around him. All he knew was the huge, hot, overwhelming certainty of where Kaoru’s story was going. He was so angry he couldn’t think; he was so angry he practically couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t quite say it was worse than before, because it was different than before, but he couldn’t quite say anything, really, because all that was likely to come out was an inarticulate roar.

Sure, it was no surprise, after all the speculation (serious or otherwise), that Kenshin’s wife had been his killer… but Sano had expected that to have been caused by a concealed callousness, or a moment of lost control during an argument, or some kind of infidelity or other marital intrigue… If he’d had any idea that threat and coercion had been involved… He raged at himself for ever having joked about it.

The sight of Hajime’s bright red figure emerging from the passenger side of the unfamiliar red car was the first event or part of his surroundings to register coherently (relatively) in Sano’s head, and he felt his hands clench immediately into tingling fists.  Of course he was still angry at Hajime, for all the same reasons as before — the aloofness and evident disinterest, the blame Sano laid on him (unfair; even now he knew it was unfair) for the slowness of proceedings and the fact that he still had a maddening ghost attached to him — but this time he also recognized, somewhere deep in the maelstrom that was his thoughts and emotions under Kenshin’s influence, that Hajime was trying to help him, that Hajime was willing to do what was necessary.  This time, as Sano staggered toward him with intentions every bit as violent as earlier, he did so with nearly as much needy hopefulness as anger.

It was as before: Hajime encouraged him off behind one of the other cars in the parking lot — a big old SUV, Sano vaguely recognized, which could provide at least a little privacy — and essentially beat him up until Sano was in a more propitious frame of mind.  And this time, when yet another hard-knuckled blow from the exorcist opened the return doorway to rationality, when Sano staggered backward to stumble (not for the first time in the last couple of minutes) over the curb that bordered the lot on this side and sit down heavily in the small strip of grass between that and a tall fence, he ran a hand across his face and let out a frustrated sigh.  His statement that he hoped they wouldn’t have to go through this again today lacked about half its intended words.

Hajime snorted but said nothing.  Both shoulders of his shirt, Sano noted, were now split open, and at least one of the buttons across his chest had torn through its hole; his jacket he must have left in Kaoru’s car, since it wasn’t visible anywhere around.  The newest bruise on his face induced simultaneous guilt and satisfaction in Sano.

Calming his panting breaths and trying in vain to smooth away his scowl, Sano growled, “Thank you.”

Returning to their interviewee after not too long, Sano in some weary dismay at the feeling of the anger still growing as he continually had to restrain Kenshin, they found Kaoru staring at the steering wheel with a dry face but despairing eyes.  These she turned only briefly on Sano as he resumed his place in the back seat; then she returned quickly, with a wince, to what she’d been regarding before.

“He’s mad at me,” she whispered. “Kenshin. He wants revenge. He isn’t — wasn’t — isn’t that kind of person, but… but I think anyone would react like that. I killed him… me, the person he should have been able to trust most… I took everything from him… and now his son is being raised by a murderer. Of course he would have to do something about that. Anyone would.”

“Then he’s a fucking dick,” Sano growled, “and he can damn well just stop haunting me right now, because fuck that.”

Neither of the others responded directly to this largely incoherent statement. Instead, Hajime said in what Sano was fairly sure he intended as a kind tone, “What’s the rest of the story?”

After the same preparations for unpleasant speech they’d seen her make a couple of times already today, Kaoru continued.  “These notes had me so tense and miserable and worried that I didn’t even blink when they told me they needed me to kill someone. The note said I’d never hear from them again if I did it, and I was so relieved at that thought that at first even murder didn’t seem like too much. That’s how far they’d pushed me.

“Obviously after a while I was horrified by what they were asking me to do, but even then I couldn’t see any way out of it, and I think I accepted the idea and how helpless I was a lot more easily than I should have. It’s something to remember, I guess… how easy it is to make someone a murderer. It’s not a certain type of person; it’s any type of person in the right situation. You’d never look at me and think, ‘She seems like someone who’d shoot a man twice in the head,’ but here I am a murderer.

“Kenshin and I had agreed I wouldn’t have any guns in the house until Kenji was old enough that we could count on him not hurting himself by accident.  Obviously whoever they were knew that, because they told me where to go to find a gun to use for the job they wanted me to do: they left it in a box behind a dumpster in one of the streets on the way to where they wanted me to go.  It was — I told you — it was a Taurus .38 special, snub-nosed, hammerless, with a — god, what does that matter?  I’ll remember every little detail of that gun for the rest of my life, but you guys probably don’t need to know.”

“I’ll admit,” said Hajime, looking at her with slightly raised brows, “that description didn’t actually mean anything to me.”

“Sorry.”  It was half a laugh and half a sob.  “Not everyone’s a fan of guns.  Including me, now.  But I’ve been shooting since I was little… actually, I’ve always wanted to be a policeman.  Not much chance of that now, is there?”

As Kaoru took a moment to get hold of herself as she admitted to a lifelong dream thus shattered, Hajime filled the near-silence with the query, “Is that why they chose you for this?  Because you’ve had the practice and are familiar with guns?”

She shook her head slowly.  “I’ve had a lot of time to think about all of this — god knows I’ve had a lot of time to think about all of this, even if I wasn’t thinking very clearly some of that time — and I think that was only the reason they had me do it the way they did.  If I wasn’t a good shot and familiar with guns, they’d’ve had me poison him or something.  And if they just… if they just wanted him dead and not cared who did it, they already had whoever it was who was sneaking notes into my house, who I’m sure would have… would have done it better than I did anyway.”

“So you think this was a deliberate form of torture or revenge?”  Although Hajime seemed to be interjecting at this point to allow Kaoru another moment to calm her misery, his tone also had the steel-cool determination of someone that loathes what he’s heard and has plans for doing something about it.

With a nod, a deep breath, and an obvious effort, she elaborated.  “They wanted me to do it because — I’m just sure of this — they thought it would be the best way to hurt us both.  They didn’t care whether I got caught or what happened afterwards… they were completely anonymous the entire time, so even if I did get caught and I told everything, the police wouldn’t be able to get at them and I’d probably still be charged with accessory to murder or something.

“I think I did better than they thought I would, though,” she added with the hint of a bitter smile.  “I followed their instructions about the route to take and the best position to be in to wait for the victim, and I wore what they suggested, and I got rid of the gun exactly how they told me.  They promised to provide cover fire in the street, and they even did that.  It went so smoothly, it was just like I’d practiced it, like I’d been doing this forever.”

They had probably been doing this forever,” said Hajime.

“Did you…”  Sano could barely get the words out.  “Did you know who…”

“No,” Kaoru whispered.  “Do you think I would have — do you think I could have done it if I’d known?  Even to protect my son, even to save my own life, do you think I would have been capable of…”

“And it was a dark little back street and he had his hood up,” Sano finished for her in a tone as low as hers but far more rough.  “I bet you never even saw his face.”

“I didn’t even know until the phone call came.  But… but even not knowing who it was… from the moment I pulled the trigger for the first shot, I felt sick… and cold… and just… terrible like I can’t even describe… and when I saw him fall on his face, I knew I’d done something I could never take back.  And even thinking about how I’d done it to save Kenji didn’t help, because I knew I’d turned into something I…”  Whatever she said next was completely unintelligible in a storm of body-wracking sobs.

Sano didn’t know how much more of this he could take.  He was exhausted and aching all over, and wasn’t sure if he could handle another fist fight today… and yet the anger was growing even more quickly than before as he watched the suffering of this poor woman and thought of whoever it was that had put her through this torment.  He wanted to find them and do to them the most horrible things he could come up with, force them to endure what Kaoru had endured.  His heart hurt even more than his body, and the horror of the circumstance she described was overwhelming.

Eventually, as her sobbing diminished, Hajime asked, “And did you get any more notes?”  When she shook her head, he nodded.  Even from the back seat, Sano could clearly see the set of his jaw and his brow, and he realized with an odd sense of clarity and certainty that Hajime was having much the same thoughts and vindictive desires he was.  On the topic of what should be done about Kaoru’s abusers, evidently, they were in complete accord.

There was a long period of brooding wordlessness during which Sano was trying to decide how much longer he could stay in this car and how he could comprehensibly express, through this rage, his resolution and pity.  Finally, though, Kaoru spoke again, apparently determined to finish what she had started even if her story had rather fallen apart halfway through.

“So you see why it makes perfect sense for Kenshin to be so angry.  I’ll do whatever he wants me to, whatever he needs to see happen so he can move on.  I’ll shoot myself in the head if he wants.  If it weren’t for Kenji, I probably would have done it already.”

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