He Can Be Taught

Section 1

A serious dreariness had been creeping over Sagara Sanosuke of late, and had proven extremely difficult to talk himself out of or even shake by more vigorous methods. He shouldn’t be so melancholy, now Shishio was defeated and so-called peace had returned to the country, now they were finally going back to Tokyo to see all their friends and settle down again. Really, with as well as things had turned out, especially contrary to many of their expectations, Sano should have been quite happy, perhaps extremely happy. Placidly happy, at the very least. But he couldn’t even manage to be moderately satisfied.

He tried to believe his depression was based in a right hand that would probably be messed up for the rest of his life. He experimented with the concept of disappointment that he’d never get his rematch against Saitou in order to prove himself to the skinny bastard. He even played with the theory that he was annoyed with Chou for beating him home and presumably waiting there rubbing his hands together in evil anticipation of aggravating Sano farther as part of the Tokyo police force. But not one of these was the true cause of Sano’s dejected state.

The fact was that he loved Kenshin, and couldn’t have him.

Those gorgeous violet eyes, their expression veiled partially by the charming ragged bangs that fell carelessly across them and more completely by the mysterious yet not unfriendly reserve that was one of Kenshin’s most engaging features, were enough to melt Sano with a single glance. He longed to seize that compact form, bury his hands in that luscious mass of hair, and envelope Kenshin’s strong lips with his own. What would follow he tried not to imagine, at least in public, since it seemed injudicious to be getting aroused any old time, but even in the presence of others his fancy ran free with tamer thoughts of holding Kenshin in his arms, kissing him, watching the sun set…

And then Kaoru would open her damn mouth and shatter all his dreams. And Sano would have to face the truth: Kenshin would never be his.

So life wasn’t as beautiful for him as it seemed for all of his companions, particularly the one whose apparent confidence in the return of her affections was actively tearing down any hope Sano might have in the return of his. The only solace he’d found thus far had been in drinking himself silly at the numerous victory parties Misao and the rest of them (well, mostly just Misao) had insisted on holding at the Aoiya. For this excess nobody seemed to blame him; they all assumed he did it out of relief rather than misery.

The situation would not gall quite so much, he thought as he watched Kenshin and Kaoru walk in front of him hand in hand on their way to the train station, if his object of affection were to act as hopelessly trapped as Sano believed (or wished he could believe) he was. He couldn’t be unconscious of the irony in the thought that a show of discontentment from Kenshin would make Sano feel less discontented, but he didn’t spend long dwelling on it. The point was that Kenshin gave every indication — every indication such a constrained character as his could give, anyway — of actually being very fond of Kaoru.

Sano couldn’t quite comprehend this. He loved her, of course, but that stemmed merely from being around her all the time; you just came to love people like that, as long as they weren’t too annoying (like Saitou). But a closer look at Kaoru revealed very little that could induce someone to spend a lifetime with her. She was pretty, yeah, but nothing out of the ordinary. She didn’t have any real talents besides kenjutsu, which made her a bit brutish anyway. Certainly she wasn’t a good cook. What did Kenshin see in her?

“Are you listening to me?” Yahiko demanded from his side.

Sano realized that, during the last few minutes he’d spent staring engrossedly at the couple in front of them, he hadn’t heard a word his young companion had said. So he replied bluntly, “No. It’s not like you’re saying anything worth listening to.”

Yahiko bristled. “Dammit, Sano, it’s a funny story!”

“Yeah, yeah, you better start over,” Sano replied, giving a final glance to his desire and his rival, then settling in for whatever Yahiko was babbling about. “I’ll try to pay attention this time.”

“So I was saying–” Yahiko now looked and sounded annoyed– “how Okon and Omasu decided at the same time they wanted Hiko-sama, and when they found out they both wanted him and realized only one of them could have him — though I think he probably would have taken them both if they’d asked — they each decided they were going to outdo the other and get his attention. So Omasu was planning to make him this amazing meal…”

This time when Sano stopped listening, it wasn’t because Yahiko’s words weren’t interesting, but because they were so interesting that they’d struck him like lightning, and he’d become deafened to anything else by an entire unrelated world of thunderous thought. ‘Outdo the other and get his attention,’ had he said? Why the hell hadn’t he thought of it before?

Sano was very good-looking. This strong internal conviction was born not of vanity, but of the experience of many years spent in colorful venues where whistling at and even casually propositioning a passing bishounen wasn’t considered inappropriate behavior for denizens of either sex. And he had talents. At least he thought he did. More than that obnoxious girl, anyway — specifically, some she pointedly lacked.

He grinned widely. Kamiya Kaoru, you’d better watch yourself, he reflected. Zanza has just entered the game.

Yahiko, misinterpreting the grin, went off on a tangent in his story.

But how to go about it? Unlike Hiko, Kenshin probably wouldn’t take them both if they asked, and one thing Kaoru had that Sano definitely lacked was the former Battousai’s attention and a good head start. Sano would have to do something flashy just to get Kenshin to begin noticing him and the qualities that set him above Kaoru, and that something couldn’t be merely show; he would really have to impress him.

Considering all the things he’d ever seen impress Kenshin in the past, he determined that, in his case, the first thing to do was to learn to defend himself properly. This would mean swallowing his pride, actively amending his fighting style, and engaging in some real training with someone, none of which struck him as even a little bit fun — but would certainly be worth it to attain his end. A display of such personal improvement would not only grab Kenshin’s eye, get him thinking about Sano in a very serious light, it would prove that Sano was a responsible adult worthy of affection, that Sano was willing to change for the better for the man he loved. Where he would find someone to train him was a mystery at this point, since it would ruin the surprise and send entirely the wrong message if he asked Kenshin himself, but he would deal with that concern later.

And eventually, obviously, he would have to seduce him. Of course that would come only after he’d gotten his attention, gotten him thinking about all of Sano’s multiform, scintillating points of attraction and contrasting them with Kaoru’s deficiency, but it would be a crucial sort of capstone to Sano’s efforts. To prove he was more desirable than Kaoru meant showing Kenshin he was superb in bed, whereas she would probably alternate between demanding and demure and have any idea what she was doing in neither state.

The only problem here was that Sano, pickier and more circumspect about romance than anyone might have thought to find him, had never slept with anyone, woman or man. Though the solution to this problem too was a concern to be dealt with later — much later, since it was a secondary stage in his plan at earliest — he still found himself laughing a little as he wondered how, exactly, he could assert his superiority in an area where had no experience.

Yahiko laughed along with him, and continued talking, unheard, all the way to the train station.

***

“No, no, no, no, no, no.” The first ‘no’ held the kind of genuine, straightforward annoyance Sano could relate to, but by the sixth, the statement had degenerated into a sneer for which he had much less patience. “Are you completely deaf? You can’t tense up like that.”

Sano ground his teeth against a counterproductive snarling reply. During this training session — which had lasted, so far, all of twenty-five minutes — Arakaki had insulted Sano’s powers of sight, hearing, and comprehension several times; but honestly what bothered Sano most was the supercilious tone and the use of labels like ‘thug’ and references to ‘the streets’ that (while not necessarily inaccurate) made it clear how far above his pupil Arakaki considered himself. If there was one thing Sano hated more than (well, perhaps on a similar level to) the Meiji government, it was people that tried to perpetuate the old class system whose abolition or at least partial breakdown was one of the few decent things the revolution had accomplished.

Genji had sworn up and down that Arakaki’s training worked absolute miracles, but Sano had yet to feel particularly inspired by it. It wasn’t just the classism; it was the nasality of Arakaki’s tone on a purely aural basis, as well as the fact that he had yet even to touch the sword he wore so boldly at his hip. He’d talked and talked, harping on Sano’s stance and breathing patterns and the arrangement of fingers in his fists (for fuck’s sake), and become more and more offensive while doing so.

Yet this was the first step in Sano’s plan to impress Kenshin. That Arakaki was the best he’d been able to come up with in his quest to learn better defensive techniques was not terribly promising, but he couldn’t quit so soon after starting just because the man was incredibly irritating and not actually very educational so far. Wasn’t part of the point of all of this to demonstrate he was a responsible adult capable of deliberate improvement? He would just have to try harder.

Unfortunately, his annoyance had caused him to tense up even farther. Observing this, Arakaki leaned back and crossed his arms, foot tapping impatiently, with an exaggerated sigh. “Are you sure you’re up to this?” he wondered aloofly.

“I’m paying you good money,” was Sano’s surly reply. “Just get on with it.”

“You’re paying me borrowed money, I believe. I could just as easily find someone to work with who’ll pay me out of his own pocket, if this is all a little beyond you.”

At this, Sano felt his resolve to put up with this asshole dissolving. He could do better than this. Surely there was some option that wouldn’t make him want to pull his hair out — or perhaps pull Arakaki’s hair out in big, painful, bloody clumps. The only salvage he thought he could make of this scene was to get at least some of his borrowed money’s worth out of Arakaki by forcing him into a fight that might be interesting even if it wasn’t particularly edifying. So, as he growled, “Like hell you can!” he hurled himself at the other man.

But somewhat to his surprise and even dismay, Arakaki’s expression went from startlement at Sano’s sudden move to blankness as Sano’s fist connected solidly with his cheekbone. Without ever a twitch toward his weapon, Arakaki went down.

In some bemusement, not quite grasping what had just happened or what to do with the energy he’d built up for combat that now obviously wasn’t going to take place, Sano stood over the fallen form, staring. A thunderous scowl grew on his face as the truth dawned on him, and curses presently began pouring from his mouth. More in belated response to Arakaki’s sneering than anything else, Sano kicked his fallen ‘mentor’ a couple of times, then searched through the man’s pockets until he found the money that had been meant to pay for this and future lessons. Finally he stalked away to look for Genji, intending to give him a good backhand for hooking him up with a defense trainer that was all talk.

Halfway across town, however, and upon further reflection, his anger at his friend had cooled. He hadn’t actually specified that he was looking for someone more skilled than himself, someone that could easily defeat him. That would have been a difficult requirement to meet in any case. And even if Genji should really have known that book-learning and teaching thereby didn’t mean shit to Sano, such methods probably meant something to someone. All that nasal absurdity about stance and breathing and proper arrangement of fingers surely had its place, and Genji shouldn’t be blamed if he thought that place might be in a training session with Sano.

But Genji also didn’t know how much of Sano’s heart was wrapped up in this, how much of Sano’s future happiness depended on his following through with his plan. What to do now?

He thought back through the major conflicts he’d taken part in, listing one by one the people that had managed to defeat him during his adult life as a warrior: Kenshin, Aoshi, Saitou, Shishio… it was not an extensive list, and even less so in the possibilities it presented for a new defense tutor. Kenshin was, self-evidently, unfeasible. Shishio and Saitou were dead. Which left only Aoshi. Which meant going back to Kyoto, damn it all.

As if subconsciously seeking an excuse not to return to a place he associated with very few pleasant memories and that was, additionally, two hundred and fifty miles away, he found his mental vision filled with Aoshi’s frigidity of glance and strange gaunt figure, his mental hearing with the Okashira’s hushed, almost eerie voice. That man gave him the utmost creeps, and how likely was he to want to help Sano anyway? During the weeks between the defeat of Shishio and the Kenshingumi’s return to Tokyo, Aoshi’s attitude had struck Sano not so much with penitence toward Kenshin as something much more… covetous. It could have been his imagination, but he wouldn’t be surprised to find that Aoshi thought of Kenshin very much as Sano did.

Not Aoshi, then.

Sano’s thoughts kept returning to Saitou. If only that bastard hadn’t been fried to a crisp and presumably flattened like an okonomiyaki back in Shishio’s fortress, he would be absolutely ideal. Sano wasn’t quite sure where this concept of Saitou’s perfection for the job came from, but figured it had something to with the officer’s casual willingness to beat him up. Why the fuck hadn’t Saitou done something back there? He’d never seemed the type to give in, but he’d just lit a cigarette and walked straight to Hell; it had practically been deliberate suicide. Of course there wasn’t much chance he could have jumped that damn chasm, but he could at least have made the attempt…

On the spur of an annoyed and bitter moment in the midst of these thoughts, Sano decided just to go get drunk with the money Genji had loaned him for defense tuition. Maybe if he found a crowded bar full of toughs as volatile as himself, he could start a brawl that might teach him a thing or two. But even as he turned his feet toward the best area of town for this activity (which he knew well from long experience), he was rolling his eyes at the recollection of fight after fight with large groups of men that hadn’t taught him anything but arrogance.

The plausibility of the ideas he came up with as he drank lessened with each degree of sobriety that slipped from him. There was Heihachiro-sensei, who’d always been a friend to Sano even if he was a bit washed up… Hiko Seijuurou, an ass Sano didn’t particularly ever want to see again… that Shigure guy that had caused so much trouble right after they’d come back from Kyoto and was, of course, dead… For one silly drunken moment, Sano even seriously considered tracking down that psychotic Soujirou kid, who’d definitely known how to fight like a fucking badass even if he was completely out of his mind… but finding him would be even more trouble than going back to Kyoto and trying to convince an equally out-of-his-mind Aoshi that Kenshin was better off with Sano than with a depressed necrophiliac that had twice tried to kill him.

Sano demanded more sake of the bar staff by the time-honored method of slamming down his current empty jug so hard it cracked. If only fucking Saitou were alive! Sano’s anger at the absent police officer seemed to increase alongside, but separate from, his anger at the situation in general. What was he going to do? Only a little way into his plan and he was already at an impasse! An impasse he would never have hit if Saitou were just around, damn him!

Nobody had brought him any more sake, but it didn’t matter; he seized a jug from the tray of someone passing nearby, who was too afraid of him in his current state to protest. The room suddenly felt dim and stuffy, much too small to house his mood that expanded like a roiling stormcloud. He seemed to have grown huge, bloated with anger, and as he stood he felt like he was dwarfing the other customers as well as the staff–

–when in actuality he was reeling, falling back to his seat and almost losing hold of his latest provision of drink as he tried to catch himself. Damn. He pushed up again heavily with his free hand against the table, took another gulp for increased steadiness, and, once he’d gotten his legs, staggered toward the exit. A red haze floated around him and supported him to a certain extent; it was, he thought, the buoyant energy of his hatred for everything in the world except Kenshin — maybe even Kenshin, who’d dared to capture his heart without his permission and put him into this irate quandary. Damn that peace-loving redhead!

Sano’s shoulder hit the doorframe with his ill-aimed attempt at departure, and this distracted him from his rage long enough to hear the proprietor’s voice– “Sir, your bill…?”

Yes, he should probably pay, since he had money for once. He’d forgotten why he had money, but there was no reason to drag others down into his miserable state when he did have the means to interact properly. Fumbling in his pocket, he extracted what he had and dropped it somewhere before staggering out the door.

An intense desire was building inside him much more potently than the distant awareness that this upright posture was pushing his alcohol-saturated blood throughout his body in such a way that he wasn’t likely to remain upright all that much longer. There was something he specifically wanted to do… what was it… fight someone? Yeah, that was it. His aching fist was pleading for a skull, and as he swallowed more sake he could have sworn that the jug was speaking its concurrence with each glug.

But it wasn’t just anyone he wanted to fight… not Kenshin or Gohei or Anji — these were the names that came blearily to mind, only to be dismissed by a rakish wave of hand in the dark street. There was someone he specifically wanted to fight, someone he desperately wanted to give a good thrashing. Someone whose fault it was that he was so miserable tonight.

In the shadows ahead, beside an object his increasingly wavering vision eventually recognized as a wall, he thought he saw him: tall, slim, clad in dark blue and black, nihontou worn high at his side, the man he so intensely sought. Smoke curled hazily from somewhere beneath two gleaming gold spots; yeah, that was the bastard. He grinned — at least he thought he grinned; some of his muscles either weren’t responding to his brain or just weren’t reporting what they were up to — and stumbled forward, hands clenching into fists.

His charge gained momentum, but even as he heaved his weight into a solid punch to the head that would fucking show him, that would pay him back for going off and dying and leaving Sano in a dilemma like this, he felt his eyelids falling inexorably closed and an irresistible leadenness overtaking his entire frame. Too late, too late. Too much sake, too angry, too stupid, too late. As he crumpled, he cursed himself: Of course Saitou’s not there, ahou; he’s… But even as he mentally formed Saitou’s pet name for him, everything went black.

And the tall figure that had sidestepped his punch leaned casually, quickly, and caught him with one arm before he hit the ground. The other hand flicked away the butt of a cigarette, then smoothed out, as if to see it better, the rumpled kanji covering the limp back. A faint, monosyllabic laugh came from the darkness beneath the golden gleams. “Ahou ga.”

***

As Sano awoke to a splitting headache fueled by the rush of light into his suddenly opened eyes, he tried to remember where he was, why he was wherever that was, and whether anything had happened last night that he might need to answer for. Memory came trickling back, and he groaned. Imagine attacking a wall thinking it was Saitou! To have believed even briefly that Saitou was somehow alive and just happened to be not only in Tokyo but on the very street that held the bar where Sano had been drinking, Sano must have had more to drink in that bar than he’d realized — a theory that, as he blinked slowly and experimentally once or twice, was fully sustained by the flare of nauseating pain in his head.

Though well aware that he might be happier in ignorance, he turned sluggishly to see if he couldn’t figure out where he was. There had been instances in the past when this fact had remained a mystery for some time after his awakening, and in those cases his inability to recognize his surroundings had presented a source of interest that could at least distract from even if it didn’t override the discomfort of the hangover. Unfortunately, this small bare chamber separated from the hallway beyond by thick bars provided no such interest. The knowledge that he’d been incarcerated, rather than distracting him, could only add to his current feelings of general wretchedness. After he got out of here, he was going to need another drink.

“Yo, tori-atama!”

Fucking shit… he was definitely going to need another drink.

“The hell d’you want?” he demanded, directing his face toward the ceiling again and reclosing his eyes.

“Just thought you might wanna know why you’re in here, is all.” Chou leaned casually against the bars, grinning as he peered inside at Sano with one eye.

A lamp mounted on the wall across the hallway was placed so as to shine as fully as possible into the cell for optimal inmate visibility; Sano knew from experience how many of these lined the corridor, and that the cops only lit each one when its corresponding cell was occupied. At the moment, though Sano certainly wasn’t about to point it out, Chou stood precisely in the right spot to block the light from falling onto this inmate’s sensitive eyelids — a circumstance that made an unusual love-hate relationship out of one generally a good deal more straightforward.

“Like it’s never happened before,” he finally muttered in reply to Chou’s flippant comment.

“What,” the broomhead wondered, “you attacking a police officer in the middle of the night?”

Sano sat bolt upright, his heart suddenly, inexplicably pounding, eyes wide despite the stabbing discomfort. “At-t-tacking a policeofficer?”

Squint momentarily not so tight, Chou stared at him in bemusement. “Yeah… officer patrolling over in Akasaka says you came out of a bar drunk as a fucking dog and tried to attack him for no reason, but–” chuckling derisively– “you passed out before you could even get in one single hit.”

Fucking hell. Sano lay back down on the hard bench, closing his eyes yet again and breathing deeply despite how rancid the air currently tasted and smelled thanks to whatever had gone on inside his mouth and nasal passages while he’d been unconscious.

Now the story was told, lack of detail notwithstanding, Sano felt foolish and more than a bit confused at his own reaction to Chou’s original statement. He wouldn’t even try to pretend he hadn’t taken those words as an immediate confirmation that it had actually been Saitou, and he wondered both where he’d gotten such a foolish notion as well as why that foolish notion had so roused him. Obviously he would have liked to think Saitou might be available to train him in defense so he could impress Kenshin… but why had he seemed, to himself and possibly to Chou, just plain excited at the thought of Saitou alive?

“Whatever,” he said, trying to sound casual.

“‘Whatever’ won’t get you out of this, ahou,” Chou laughed.

Sano sat up again, as if hearing himself called ‘ahou’ in an unaccustomed voice pricked him more than it ever had when Saitou had said it. “Don’t call me that.”

Chou shrugged, still laughing. “Whatever you say, bakayarou. You know, I had no idea you were so fucking famous around here! Seems like the whole force knows who you are, and nobody was even a tiny bit surprised when you got dragged in last night.”

Sano just grunted.

“That’s good, though, ’cause you ain’t getting out of here for free this time.” The broomhead grinned broadly. “So it’s a good thing this is like your second home, huh?”

On the extremely uncomfortable bench, Sano turned toward the wall, putting his back decidedly to Chou. The latter, at this futile gesture of denial, walked off with another laugh.

Once he determined Chou had really gone — gone, undoubtedly, to annoy someone else, though leaving behind a sinking feeling that this hadn’t been his last appearance down here — Sano gave a sigh, rolled onto his back again, put his hands behind his head, and crossed one leg over the other. This position put his closed eyelids into the direct path of the light Chou no longer blocked, but he had to get used to it sooner or later. And he felt he might be able to go back to sleep if he lay still enough. As he drifted in and out of a hangover-hazed doze, he imagined…

“Yes, Sano, I love you. Of course I love you.” Kiss, kiss. “I was immediately interested when we first met at the Akabeko, and by the time we first fought, I was in love. Maybe I did not know it then, but I was. It broke my heart when you and Katsu were planning on bombing that government building. I thought it was simply because you were my friend, but the truth is… I already loved you then. As I do now… as I always will…” Kiss, kiss, kiss. “And when I was unconscious in Shishio’s fortress, it was the memory of you that brought me back from the brink of death… yes, you were the one that saved me then. I love you, Sano.”

“I love you too, Kenshin.”

“Ah, Sano! Now make love to me like the violent animal you are.”

“All right, Kenshin!”

Eventually Sano turned his back again to the barred doorway so as to imagine the next part more freely…

…for a week.

By the seventh day, he’d been through this imaginary process more times than he could count, and, though he didn’t scruple to attach the label ‘masterpiece’ to some of his mental compositions and the brilliant concurrence of physical sensation he was able to orchestrate as he came up with them, he was just about ready to throttle someone. Why the hell was he still here?? Why hadn’t one single person he knew shown up at least to ask what it would take to get him out of jail if not immediately volunteer the required money? Every hour he was forced to stagnate here was one hour more Kaoru had to get a tighter squeeze on Kenshin’s heart and one hour less Sano had to work on his plans for conquest. Where was everyone?!

He supposed he should consider himself lucky that, after public drunkenness leading to unwarranted aggression against a police officer, he should be facing merely detainment until a fine could be paid; and admittedly there was more surety of a daily meal here (however unappetizing and undernourishing) than at home… but it would take circumstances immeasurably more desirable than these to make up for the lack of attention from his friends and the presence of attention from goddamn Chou. Sano was almost to the point where if getting out required fucking up his damaged hand even farther in breaking the bars, so the hell be it.

And then one day they let him go. Half asleep, as wasn’t infrequently the case where he had no other pastime, he was dreaming about Kenshin in a manner he wouldn’t have dared had he been crashing at the dojo (even his subconscious having a very healthy fear of discovery in that area), when the sound of Chou’s impudent voice and the rattling of the bars burst through the beautiful images in Sano’s head like a runaway horse crashing through a silk merchant’s stall: bright fragments scattered abruptly in every direction, fluttering into obscurity.

Starting, jumping up with clenched fists, Sano didn’t concern himself with the disorientation of awakening, only growled out an incoherent oath as he looked around murderously for whoever had interrupted him and Kenshin. But Kenshin wasn’t there. Sano was still in jail. And being bothered by Chou for the eight millionth time.

Now what the hell do you–” But as full wakefulness snapped into place and Sano became conscious of sights other than the gallingly bright clothes and hair of his personal plague, he realized Chou had unlocked and opened the door and was standing aside watching Sano with a faint, contemplative grin. “It’s about fucking time!” Sano roared, not hesitating to stalk out of the cell and direct his anger at Chou in order to work off the worst of it. “If I never have to see your stupid face again, it’ll be too fucking soon.”

Then he turned to loose what he considered a very appropriate remaining amount of wrath on whoever had only bothered to show up to get him out of jail after seven goddamn days, but he found the hallway empty except for the customary officers assigned to watch the prisoners. These men, possibly aware that they might fall next on Sano’s list of potential objects for his rage if they weren’t careful, or possibly just in an attempt to keep straight faces, affected the stoniest and most oblivious guard-stare directly before them that Sano had ever seen.

With a scowl he whirled to face Chou again. “How the hell am I out?”

Chou shrugged, his grin widening. It was an expression he’d worn on and off all week during his absolutely pointless visits; maddeningly, it declared without words that Sano was being mocked for some reason he did not comprehend. “Fine’s paid,” he said in a deceptively mild tone.

“By who?”

Again Chou shrugged. “Someone who’s sick of watching you lay there jacking off all day, I guess.”

Momentarily thrown off-balance and losing track of his anger, Sano fought a violent blush. Was that just a careless figure of speech, or did Chou or someone else actually know what Sano had been doing all week?

One side of Chou’s crooked grin pulled up even farther as he moved to close the cell door, and Sano didn’t know what this meant. In any case, it wasn’t a topic he wanted to dwell on, so as soon as he had control of his voice again he demanded, “But who?” Who would pay his fine but not stick around to tell him they’d done it?

The glimpse of Chou’s expression Sano caught when the broomhead turned back toward the hallway’s exit past the stone-faced guards proved that the mockery hadn’t faded. “I guess you do have a friend somewhere after all, eh?”

“No, seriously,” Sano insisted as he followed, “if you know who it was, fucking tell me!”

But Chou, continually with that stupid teasing grin on his stupid face, refused to answer — and he was (somewhat surprisingly, actually) slick enough in dodging the question that Sano wasn’t sure whether it was a proper refusal or a real lack of information. And since he likewise couldn’t be sure whether or not Chou knew some of the specifics of Sano’s idle pastimes over the last week, and honestly would rather not be sure, he felt it was dangerous to continue prying. Besides that, the cops were all staring at and whispering about him in the rooms of the station through which he dogged Chou’s footsteps, and he had other business elsewhere anyway. So eventually he left.

***

All the way through town away from the main police station, across the river into Asakusa, and up the hill to the Kamiya Dojo, someone followed Sano. It was unmistakable, even from the distance necessary to maintain secrecy, that Sano was filthy from an unwashed week in prison, and this in combination with his loud grumbling to himself and his murderous gait served both to ward off others and to inhibit Sano’s ability to notice his tail. And the chances were infinitesimal that anyone else would notice the two of them and come to the conclusion that one was following the other.

Outside the main doors, which Sano had already flung (and left) open in order to stalk inside, the follower paused. It took a few moments to determine that, with Sano crossing the dojo grounds in a direction unpropitious for entering any of the buildings, the entertainment to be had in spying on him was not yet at an end. So the follower moved around the perimeter to locate a tree that would allow good visibility over the wall into the yard, and arrived at that height just in time to observe Sano heading purposefully for a red-headed figure busy with a couple of tubs of water and a basket of washables.

“Good morning, Sano,” Himura said, in a friendly enough tone but without looking around. Whether he could sense the watcher in the tree as well as the approaching young man was neither evident nor terribly important; possibly the purely idle curiosity of one was completely masked by the distinctly combative aura of the other. In any case, Himura finished hanging up the latest garment extracted from the second tub, and began to turn to greet Sano properly. “You’ve been–” But here, as he ducked in a movement so reflexive, apparently, that his surprise at the blow he dodged was synonymous with his surprise at his own motion, his feet twisted in the muddy results of the current chore, and he ended up putting one hand and one knee down into the stuff in order to keep from falling.

Though Sano withdrew the fist that had struck out against Himura, he didn’t unclench it, as if still contemplating another try if the moment and his emotions seemed to call for it. As he watched Himura stand again and look ruefully down at the mud, he demanded, “What the fuck is the big idea? Leave me sitting in jail for a week like you don’t fucking care?”

The distress mingled with the anger on Sano’s face was easy for the hidden watcher to read, but Himura, being somewhat oblivious to emotion that didn’t pertain to combat, either missed it entirely or misinterpreted it. “Jail?” he echoed in a surprised squeal. He’d been about to plunge his hand into the soapy water, but paused with the dirty appendage poised comically just above the top of the tub as he looked at Sano with wide eyes.

“You didn’t notice.” The flat resignation of Sano’s tone barely cracked with the faintest touch of unhappiness.

“Why were you in jail?” Now Himura completed his intention of washing his hand — he had to get the other one involved as well — and then started rubbing ineffectually at his soiled knee.

Sano sighed. “You didn’t even know I was there.”

Without ceasing to rub, Himura looked Sano over more carefully than he’d yet done. “I see it now,” he said. “And smell it,” he added a bit reluctantly. “You have been in jail for a week?”

As Himura’s eyes rose to where they would have met Sano’s, the younger man looked away. “Oh, who fucking cares? I’m out now, no thanks to any of you guys.”

“Well, I apologize for neglecting you.” The sense that Himura was attempting to placate and humor Sano with this placid statement was, the watcher thought in some amusement, unlikely to do much good in this situation.

“Sanosuke!”

Sano’s cringe at the sound of Yahiko’s voice from across the yard was visible even from afar — but perhaps not visible to Himura, who’d turned back to his work. It was almost as clear as if Sano had said it aloud: he regretted making this visit at this time, in this mood, and had no desire to talk to Yahiko right now.

“Where have you been?” the kid wondered as he came running up.

“Jail,” was Sano’s grumpy reply. “And since none of my ‘friends’ bothered to notice I was gone for a week, I only just got out.”

“Wow, you must have done something really stupid,” laughed Yahiko, “if they actually kept you for a whole week… don’t they usually let drunks out once they’re sober?”

The glance Sano threw now at the house was as easy to read as his wince at Yahiko’s appearance: “Kaoru might show up any time, and I don’t want to be here when she does.” Though Sano called her ‘jou-chan,’ didn’t he? In any case, he answered briefly as if to facilitate the haste of his departure: “I attacked a police officer.”

This retrieved Himura’s attention. “Did you? Why?”

Sano toed the earth near where it turned to mud around the laundry project. It seemed he didn’t really want to answer, but, having been asked by the honesty-inducing rurouni, couldn’t help himself. “I was really drunk. Thought it was Saitou.”

With a sour expression and an emphatic nod, Yahiko said, “I don’t blame you, then.”

In some concern, Himura was looking Sano over again. Eventually, not having found any serious injuries, “But I suppose it was not actually Saitou,” he said.

“Um, no…” Sano gave his friend a strange look. “Unless it was his ghost. That would be just my fucking luck.”

For a moment Himura appeared confused, but then made a sound of understanding. “You didn’t know that he is still alive.”

Sano’s reaction — the abrupt stiffening of his body, the slow, convulsive reclenching of his hands into fists, the twisting snarl that took his features — would have made the whole evening after work watching him worth it, even if it hadn’t already been so entertaining. It was almost enough to prompt vocal laughter in the tree.

“You are fucking kidding me.” The young man had stepped back a pace, his complexion cycling through various shades, some more natural than others. “You cannot be fucking serious.”

Himura just gave him a mild look as if to ask, first, what could be prompting this extremity of emotion and, second, why Sano thought he might have invented something like that.

And Sano seemed to tremble from head to toe, his anger clearly having increased to an improbable and inexplicable degree from the not inconsiderable level it had been at when he’d entered. Slamming a fist wordlessly into a palm, he whirled and stalked away out of the dojo grounds.

***

If he’d been asked why he was so angry, Sano couldn’t have explained — possibly because his attitude made even less sense to him than it would have to anyone else. To find that Kenshin, far from feeling curiosity or concern about his whereabouts, had not even noticed his absence over the past week had hurt, and this emotion should, logically, dominate… but for some reason, rage against Saitou had swallowed up everything else he might have been feeling. Perhaps, having learned that the officer yet lived, he had subconsciously adopted Saitou as a better object than Kenshin against which to channel all the pent-up aggression of seven days in jail.

This explanation, the only that came to mind, didn’t quite seem sufficient to cover the circumstance. Though there was also the fact that it was practically Saitou’s fault Sano had gone to jail in the first place. At least, Sano enjoyed heaping the blame on an absent, irrelevant party with whom he’d clashed in the past rather than on a violent fool mooning over a guy he couldn’t have, spending borrowed money to drink himself irrational, then staggering into the street and attacking uninvolved strangers at random.

And at the moment, stalking haphazardly through town without any clear idea where he was going or what his next step must be, irate at most of the world again — particularly Saitou — he found himself about as unreasonably emotion-driven as he had been that drunken night when the trouble had started.

Saitou. That was the next step, wasn’t it? –find Saitou and get him to train Sano with some of that supposed superiority of his. Too bad Sano hadn’t questioned Kenshin farther, found out if he knew the officer’s current whereabouts, before he slammed the doors and raged off impetuously into town. Not much point having a plan of any sort if he was always too thoughtless to carry it out effectively. Would he ever learn? Maybe he should just go get drunk again and…

He stopped himself with a bitter laugh. No, it seemed he wouldn’t ever learn. What he actually needed next was a bath, a wash of clothes, probably some decent sleep on a soft surface for the first time in a week, and definitely a meal. Then, with all of that done, he could go look for Saitou. He had to be reasonable.

But he was still fuming, and more specific cogitation than the jumble of desires and provocations that had come out of his time in a cell led him to more specific annoyance at the cop. How could someone allow his allies to believe him dead and just go on with his life like everything was fine? Even worse, possibly, than letting all his allies believe him dead, tell only a select few of them he’d survived as if the rest weren’t worth informing? What a prick!

Sano’s reflections, their tone alternating between accusation against Saitou and pity for himself, went on much along these lines as he scrubbed and then soaked at the expense of the bath-house owner, whom he promised to pay back before the month was out though he was damned if he knew what with. Once up to his neck in hot water, having removed the dried sweat and grime of a week of… what he’d been doing in jail all week without bathing… once his knotted muscles loosened and the relaxing, soap-scented humidity started to have the same effect on his mind, he began gradually to calm.

Why, after all, should he be angry with Saitou? The guy was alive; that should make Sano happy. Not informing his allies he hadn’t died in Shishio’s fortress still seemed like something an asshole would do — nothing could change that — but his continued existence removed what had seemed a serious blockage from Sano’s path.

He started to plan.

“Hey, Saitou! Good to see you’re still alive after all even though I totally thought you were dead for a while. Kindof a long time, actually — it’s been, what, three months since Shishio’s fortress? Funny how you never bothered to let me know you were alive, though I notice you told Kenshin. Anyway, ever since you kicked my ass way back when, I’ve been thinking about what you said, and thinking maybe, since it was your idea in the first place, you could teach me to defend myself better?”

Wow, stupid. Just walk up to him and admit I was wrong, huh? And maybe I shouldn’t dwell so much on the not-being-dead thing.

“Hey, bastard, you owe me big for kicking my ass; why don’t you teach me better defense so you can’t do it again?”

That sounds a little bit better, but I think I have to at least mention the not-being-dead thing…

“Hey, wow, it’s Saitou totally not dead! When were you planning on telling me? Yeah, that’s right, you owe me! Uh-huh, yeah, I think you’ll have to train me in defense to make up for it!”

Hmm, almost there… but he owes me for way more than just that.

“Hey, Saitou, I need a favor. I need to learn better defense, and you seriously owe me for kicking my ass twice — once when I didn’t even ask for it! — and then insulting me all the way to Kyoto and then making it seem like you were dead when you actually weren’t. How about it?”

Yeah, that might work. No way could he have any argument against all that.

Having determined what points he would raise when he found Saitou, he set off to actually find him. This wasn’t likely to be as easy as saying it, since he had no idea where to start his search or even whether or not Tokyo was the most likely place. Saitou could still be working in Kyoto, for all Sano knew, or, really, anywhere else in the country, and where to look first was… Where to look first was the police station, of course.

“Damn,” he muttered. After what he’d just been through, the police station ranked extremely low on his list of places he would like to revisit, and on a list of people he was interested in encountering, Chou did not feature at all. Of course, a few hours had passed since he’d left, and Sano had noticed several of the officers leaving for the evening; Chou might not even be there…

Who do I think I’m kidding? Chou has as much of a life as I do; of course he’ll still be there. It took him only a moment to reassess that. More of a life, actually — he’s got a job. Indecisive and not terribly happy with his unexpected self-condemnation, he loitered aimlessly outside the bath-house, irritably putting off for as long as possible a trip back to the police station. Lengthy shadows stretched from the west, and the sun had shrunken to a sliver, by the time he overcame his reluctance and started off.

This would be easier if he could count on no one at the station recognizing him as a prisoner that had just been released earlier that day… but not only did most of the police know him far too well for that, he also owned only one outfit, and that not exactly tailored for subtlety. Maybe, though, he could just stand around outside in a shadow, waiting to jump Chou when he emerged and demand to be told where Saitou was. No wonder Chou joined up, Sano reflected as he walked. One bastard attracts the next, and soon they’re all together in one building wearing the same clothes.

In annoyance he kicked hard at a stone, then hopped into a mud puddle. Brown water splashed everywhere, including his pants all the way up to the knees. Though he’d bathed his person, his clothes hadn’t yet been washed, so what was a little more dirt? Perhaps if he provided Chou such an obvious target of mockery, he could avoid the more precisely irritating jibes against other aspects of his character.

And then a voice off to his left drawled, “Are you having difficulties walking, ahou, or is your aim as bad with stones and mud as it is with punches and kicks?”

Fists formed automatically. Sano’s body pivoted on a muddy point. Everything sensible he’d earlier planned on saying spiraled as abruptly from his mind as if a plug had been pulled from a disproportionately large drain. Only a messy growl emerged from his mouth as he hurled himself at the nearby calm, irritating shape in blue.

“Yare, yare.” Saitou easily sidestepped Sano’s blow. “Don’t forget what happened the last time you tried to attack me like this.”

Since Sano had completely failed to deliver his planned opening speech for whatever reason (if ‘reason’ was any accurate description of the apparent commandeering of his entire being by overwhelming and already not-completely-logical emotion), he had planned on saying nothing, at least until he could get a grip on himself. But now, unable to stop it, he blurted out, “That was you?”

“As observant as ever, I see.” A gloved hand smoothly caught Sano’s next blow, and the young man was slammed to the ground. Before he could rise, Saitou had pressed a foot to his chest and applied much of his weight, leaning on his knee and looking down. “And as skilled,” he added, blowing smoke into Sano’s face.

“And you’re an even bigger bastard than before,” snarled Sano as his struggle to free himself proved unsuccessful. The features above him were just as he remembered — just as harsh, as if they’d been chiseled by a skilled but maladjusted sculptor, just as infuriating — right down to the fine eyebrow that rose at Sano’s words.

“You think so? I’m being much gentler than the first time we met.”

“Fuck you, Saitou,” Sano spat, trying even harder to remove the foot that dirtied his chest and probably bruised it at the same time. “It was too much effort for you to let your allies know you were still alive?”

An expression of mild surprise crossed Saitou’s face as he continued to lean thoughtfully on his raised knee and smoke his cigarette. “And why should they care?”

Wondering exactly how to answer that, Sano paused. Because they need you to help them seduce each other, was his first thought, but Saitou might well believe him drunk again if he said it. “Did you ever think some people might be worried about you?”

“Again, why should they be?”

“Fuck it, you bastard, get the hell off me so I can talk to you like a normal person!” Sano lost patience, lost track of his points again, and started beating at Saitou’s leg with both fists, flailing his own legs at the same time to try to interfere with the officer’s balance.

The cigarette in Saitou’s hand was nearly spent, but its end glowed threateningly as he brought it close to Sano’s face. This stilled the young man and forced him to cease attacking the blue-clad leg holding him down as he switched his efforts to trying to keep the burning stub away from his skin. And as he did so, Saitou remarked, “Start behaving like a civilized person, and perhaps I will consider your request.”

“You’re holding me down in the fucking mud and trying to burn my fucking face with a fucking cigarette!” Sano swatted frantically at the latter as Saitou teased him as a child might a cat (though hopefully not with a burning cigarette). “How the fuck is that civilized?!”

Saitou appeared extremely entertained. “You attacked me for no reason. Again, I might add. I’m just defending myself. The burden of reopening civilized communication is yours at the moment.”

Having finally managed to knock the cigarette butt away and been about to start thrashing around again, Sano forced himself instead to lie still. Saitou, goddamn fucker, had a point. With several deep breaths, Sano pressed his hands flat to the ground. “Will – you – please – get – off – me,” he said between gritted teeth.

“That’s better.” Finally Saitou withdrew his foot and stood back. As if nothing had happened out of his ordinary routine, he produced his cigarettes and extracted a new one. The package, Sano noted, though paper and having been in Saitou’s pocket, was uncrushed and crisp-looking — much like Saitou himself, damn him.

By now on his feet, Sano brushed dirt awkwardly from his back as best he could. He supposed he deserved this, to some extent, for having muddied Kenshin earlier — though it would have been more appropriate for Kenshin, not Saitou, to exact that revenge. And he still needed to wash his clothes in any case.

“And what did you have to say?” Saitou inquired.

Sano knew he’d had good phrases planned, but, having by now forgotten them, just came clean. “I want you to teach me better defense.”

“Ahou ga.” Saitou gave a short laugh. “You practically live with the former hitokiri Battousai and you’re asking me…” But he stopped, looking Sano over with calculating eyes. “Sou ka?” he drawled at last, his mouth spreading into a wide smirk. He appeared to be reading Sano, putting together facts — and possibly, if the activity of thought in his expression was any indication, more facts than just Sano’s sudden blush at his words about practically living with Kenshin. “You want to learn better defense to impress Himura,” he summarized, “as your inevitable infatuation with him has finally developed.”

Sano couldn’t think of any response to this besides ‘Fuck you,’ which he’d already said enough this evening, so he just glared. This wasn’t going as planned.

Looking both thoughtful and as if he found all of this extremely amusing, Saitou turned and began walking down the street, skirting the mud puddle and holding his fresh cigarette at a thoughtful angle from his face. “You want me to teach you because… if you asked Himura, you would lose your element of surprise, you don’t trust Shinomori not to be after the same thing you are, and everyone else is either dead or inaccessible.” He glanced back as if questioning why Sano wasn’t following. “Am I right?”

“Yeah.” Sano’s tone was surly as he hurried to catch up.

“And that explains your anger that I didn’t inform you I was still alive.”

“That’s only part of it! We were all in it together — you, me, Kenshin; even Aoshi, once he got a clue; and there were other people who weren’t in the fortress with us but who were fighting too — we were all allies against Shishio together. Why would you just tell Kenshin you weren’t dead? You assumed none of us would care, sure, but you still told him…”

“I see one of your problems already.” Saitou’s sidelong amused smugness was extremely annoying. “Anyone looking at your little group might assume that telling Kenshin was the same as telling all of you, but apparently he doesn’t share with you nearly as much as an outsider would think… or as much as you would like.”

Sano blushed and scowled.

“And as a matter of fact, I didn’t tell him I was still alive. But he was bound to notice when I ran into him during that little uprising a month ago. His surprise was almost comical.”

“Oh.” Sano couldn’t exactly say he liked this piece of information, since Saitou was being an aloof jerk and making fun of Kenshin in the same breath, but for some reason it still fell relatively pleasantly on his ears. That Saitou hadn’t, at least, thought Kenshin worth more consideration than the rest of them — even if Sano himself might have agreed Kenshin was — relieved Sano unexpectedly.

This moment of pensiveness gave Saitou a chance to return to their previous topic. “So you want my help with your substandard defensive abilities so you can get this Kenshin of yours to notice you.” In response to Sano’s noise of affirmation, Saitou nodded slowly. His mocking expression did not bode entirely well, but he seemed to be taking the subject seriously enough for the moment. “It’s not a bad idea. And by that I mean it’s an idiotic idea, but I suppose it might work. The question is, what are you willing to do in exchange for my services?” He still sounded far too entertained, which still felt a little worrisome.

“I’ll pay you,” Sano said hesitantly. However mocking Saitou might or might not be, this was probably the longest conversation that had ever taken place between them at this level of placidity, and as such Sano considered himself in uncharted waters.

“With what money?” was Saitou’s immediate, dismissive response.

Sano would have retorted that he did sometimes do work and get paid for it, and that, being a decent guy unlike some people he knew, he also had friends willing to extend him loans — he’d borrowed money just recently specifically to pay for defense training! But he remembered even as the words formed in his head that he’d spent all of that money to get drunk and was now as broke as usual.

“No,” Saitou went on, “I think you’ll have to do my housework for me.”

“Where the fuck did you get–” Sano stopped short of throwing another fit as he recalled that he was supposed to be behaving like a civilized person — that Saitou was doing just that, more or less, and was probably owed, for once, some degree of politeness. “Uh, you came to that conclusion quickly,” he corrected himself.

“It’s the only logical one,” Saitou explained with a narrow-eyed smile. “I can’t afford to spend time with you unless I get something out of it. You have no job, and won’t have time for one if you’re training as hard as you’ll have to be in order to learn anything from me. You can spend what spare time you have on my laundry and dishes.” These words were calculated to make Sano grimace, and in response to the expression Saitou added, “I rather think I’ll be getting the worse end of the bargain still.”

Laundry and dishes. Despite the accuracy of Saitou’s assessment, Sano couldn’t help fuming at how easily he’d been second-guessed and outmaneuvered. What had happened to Saitou being in his debt for all that shit? He decided to bring it up and get some leverage. “Hey, what about all that crap you gave me? You kicked my ass twice for no reason, you know, and then dumped shit on me the whole time in Kyoto, and then pretended to be dead. What about all that?”

“What about it?”

“I mean you owe me.”

Saitou spared him another amused glance as he led them around a corner and down a residential street. “I owe you because I defeated you? I have to admit, I was grateful to find you there just when I needed a gift for Himura, but that was hardly more than coincidence.”

“‘Grateful,'” Sano snorted. “As if you didn’t plan it all.”

“I planned to hurt one of his friends, yes,” replied Saitou somewhat grimly, “to make an important point about the dangers of trying to challenge an enemy and look out for weaker fighters at the same time. If you hadn’t been that friend, who do you think would have been?”

With a faint shiver, Sano tried not to contemplate the answer to that question. For a fleeting instant — as if, seated on a fast-moving carriage, he had caught a glimpse of scenery lining up perfectly for a sudden, piercing clear view straight into some distant scene that was normally hidden from his eyes — he could see Saitou’s point of view, see the ruthless measures he was willing to adopt in his pursuit of evil and for the sake of Japan… but this provided him no comfort. Understanding was not the same as concurrence. “I don’t agree with your extreme methods,” he insisted, “so that doesn’t make up for the fucking wound in my shoulder.”

Saitou shrugged. “And yet the country is free from Shishio, and here we all are back to our normal lives.”

And there was the second time — in the street outside Katsu’s place? You were a total asshole there, you know.”

“If you still haven’t grasped the point I was trying to make, there’s nothing I can do about it. Unless,” he added, “you’d like me to reopen your shoulder again.” When Sano’s only answer was a snort, Saitou went on. “I did what I thought was necessary to try to prevent you from following Himura. You did prove useful in the end, but another time I might still take the same steps.”

For a moment Sano was shocked into silence. Was this Saitou admitting that Sano had been useful at some point? That he, Saitou, had been mistaken? In his surprise, Sano couldn’t find words for his next argument. (He knew what Saitou would probably say anyway — that Sano had been belligerent enough to merit every bit of shit Saitou had dished out in Kyoto, a fact Sano couldn’t exactly dispute.)

Finally, in lieu of this, Sano tried to pull himself together and revisit his final point. “But what about pretending to be dead? That’s pretty fucked up, if you ask me, to go along helping people and then suddenly just let them think you died.”

Apparently they’d reached their destination, for Saitou did not immediately answer as he headed for the door of a small but comfortable-looking house in the equally comfortable-looking lane along which they’d been walking. He unlocked it, creating a deep rectangle of darkness and gesturing Sano to enter before him. As the door shut behind them, immersing them for several moments in near-blackness, Saitou finally replied. “You shouldn’t assume my escape from Shishio’s fortress was easy. I wasn’t in any state to see anyone for some time after the battle.”

Sano felt his annoyance fading, though at the concise defeat of his last argument he really ought to have been more angry with the slippery bastard. But the tone in Saitou’s voice held just the tiniest bit of strain — so faint Sano could barely hear it, and only noticed because it contrasted so pointedly with the amusement that had colored nearly all of the officer’s previous comments. Still, Sano didn’t give up easily. “Couldn’t you have sent a message?”

“Hn.” Saitou’s soft footsteps sounded through the darkness down what seemed to be a short hallway, then paused at its end. “Dear Himura-tachi– Not that you’ll care, but I am not dead, only horribly burned. Do not come see me. Do not send that doctor with the intolerable laugh to look at me. As a matter of fact, you might as well forget I exist. But I’m not dead. –Saitou. Would that have made you feel better?”

“‘Horribly burned?'” Sano echoed, curious, hastening the removal of his shoes so he could follow.

Another rectangle appeared, this one of light, as Saitou slid open a door at the end of what did, in fact, turn out to be a short hallway. Sano barely had time to look around at the two other closed doors to left and right before Saitou’s form blocked the light again as he entered the far chamber. The younger man hurried after.

This great room filled the back half of the house and was divided between a neat kitchen and an open living area with a fireplace. Saitou walked immediately into the former with the querying statement, “I assume you’re hungry.”

Sano’s stomach jumped excitedly, thoughts of food wiping out all others. It had been over a week since he’d enjoyed a proper meal. “Yes!” he replied eagerly. “Hell, yes!”

“Since I also assume you can’t cook, I’ll make supper for both of us, and then we can agree on the details of our arrangement.”

Just as at the dojo, Sano saw no reason to mention here that he wasn’t a bad cook himself. What Saitou’s skills in that area might be he had no idea, but still he made a grateful noise at the prospect of real food.

At the sound, Saitou rolled eyes in Sano’s direction. “Sick of that stuff we serve at the station, are you?”

These words triggered a memory. “Hey,” Sano wondered, “you don’t happen to know who paid the fine to get me out of there, do you?” Actually it was a little annoying to think about having been held for a fine just for attacking Saitou; some random officer, sure, but Saitou was an old acquaintance that knew perfectly well Sano wanted to fight him again. But there was nothing to be done about it now, and Saitou might not even have had anything to do with the assignment of that punishment. “It wasn’t any of my friends, as far as I know.” He tried to keep the bitterness from his tone as he recalled how Kenshin hadn’t seemed to have noticed or cared about Sano’s absence.

“Your haphazard life is certainly funnier to watch when you’re out of jail than when you’re in it,” Saitou mused from where he’d been unwrapping some thin strips of beef he hadn’t appeared surprised to find on the kitchen counter. “And Chou is completely useless when there’s someone in the cells he wants to bother on a regular basis. There are a number of reasons someone besides your friends might have paid the fine or tried to get it dropped.” He shrugged as if out of suggestions.

Sano supposed he might as well get used to the idea that he would never know for sure, and to assuage his annoyance started to admire the room. It was furnished in cherrywood, which set off the red ink of the paintings hanging on the walls, and in general much cozier than Sano would have expected Saitou’s home to be. “Nice place you got here,” he commented eventually.

“Why don’t you take a look around?”

Whistling some random notes, Sano obeyed the suggestion and returned to the hallway, where he tried to reach the two closed doors simultaneously but couldn’t quite. Once separate movements had opened both, he observed that he hadn’t been mistaken, from outside, about the size of the house. “Hey, you only have three rooms!” he remarked, loudly enough to be heard by Saitou in the kitchen.

“I was aware of that,” came the wolf’s dry answer.

“So this is your bedroom?” Sano wondered next as he poked his head into the tidy chamber on the right. The red ink paintings must have been a series, as there were a few more in here.

“No, it’s just a room with a bed in it,” Saitou replied.

“And what the hell is this?” Sano stepped into the last room, glancing around in some surprise at the full shelves and the desk that looked like it had seen a lot of use.

“A study, ahou, not that I would expect you to know what that is.”

“You have so many fucking books!”

“You have so few words in your vocabulary.”

“What the hell language is this?”

“Can you even read Japanese?”

Feeling no need to examine anything in great detail when he would, presumably, have plenty of opportunity to do so in days to come, Sano returned to the great room. “Nice place,” he said again.

With the bucket he now held, Saitou gestured toward the door leading outside. “Refill this from the well by the gate.”

Sano nodded, accepting the container, and stepped outside. “Hey, this is nice!” he shouted back into the house as he crossed the yard. “You cops make some pretty good money, huh?”

Saitou’s answer from the kitchen was barely audible: “Why don’t you announce it to the whole neighborhood?”

After glancing over the private bath and the adjoining properties that compared unfavorably to Saitou’s, Sano located the well and fetched what he’d come out for. Then he headed back inside. “Who did that rock gardening?”

“I did.”

“I’m impressed! You’ve got a-whole-nother side to you I never would have guessed.”

“We can’t all be as one-dimensional as you are.” Some of the water Sano had brought went into a teapot and was set to boil next to whatever else was cooking on the stove.

Rather than reply in annoyance to the accusation of being one-dimensional, Sano only found himself wondering whether Kenshin too thought of him that way. This reminded him of the reason he’d come here in the first place, and he glanced around the room again with an eye specific to the potential chores involved in its layout. “So you want me to clean stuff for you, huh? And do your laundry? How much laundry can a guy like you possibly have? And dishes? I mean, you only eat here a couple times a day, don’t you?”

“I am a bit picky about the state of my house. It may be more work than you’re anticipating.”

Sano scratched his head. “I hate to say it, but it seems like what you said — I’m getting the better end of this deal.”

“You always reach these conclusions so quickly.”

“I’m just wondering what’s in this for you.”

From where he stood at the stove, Saitou turned just enough for Sano to catch the positively evil twinkle in his eye. “The chance to beat your sorry ass again, perhaps?”

Sano felt a strange shiver go through him, almost as if he were looking forward to that. This scared him to the point where only the promise of food kept him from bolting out the door. In a tone that tried for casualness as he looked quickly away from Saitou, “All right, so when do you start beating my ass again?” he asked.

“Tomorrow.”

Now Sano looked quickly back at Saitou. “Shit, you’re really serious about this!”

“Did you think I would bring someone like you into my house just to feed you?”

“I never know what to think of a bastard like you,” Sano shrugged. “And I’m thinking tonight you must be drunk or something, ’cause you’re being all nice to me and shit. I almost can’t believe my luck.” Suddenly his eyes narrowed. “Hey, you’re not going to change your mind all of a sudden when you sober up, are you?”

“Ahou, if I were drunk, you wouldn’t be alive right now.”

“Ohhh,” Sano moaned, “scaaaryyy.”

Saitou threw him an exasperated look. “You’re not likely to learn anything from me if you can’t take me seriously.”

A little surprised by this remark, Sano moved a pace closer and leaned on the kitchen counter next to the board where Saitou had previously been chopping vegetables. “I thought I was taking you seriously,” he said. “But since all I really know about you is that you’re a heartless asshole who likes to stick swords in people and then batter them and taunt them and trick them into thinking he’s dead–”

“I believe we already discussed this,” Saitou interrupted shortly.

“Whatever you say,” Sano grinned. “My point is that I don’t know much more about you than all that, so when you give me a macho line about how you’d have killed me by now if you were drunk…” Well, actually, based on those very characteristics Sano had just listed, a remark like that should logically be more threatening from Saitou than it would have been from anyone else. Sano cleared his throat.

The set of Saitou’s shoulders looked somewhat triumphant, but he didn’t pursue the topic any farther. Instead, he pointed out where he kept his table settings, and instructed Sano to lay them out.

The table itself, a neat little red rectangle that couldn’t have seated more than two, proved Saitou wasn’t in the habit of entertaining, and Sano quickly centered it (roughly) in the living area and started loading it up. Then it was only a few minutes more before Saitou brought over what he’d cooked, arranged their supper, and took a seat. Feeling a bit nervous all of a sudden for what reason he didn’t quite know, Sano joined him.

The noodles and steamed vegetables and beef weren’t as delicious as Kenshin would have made them, but Sano had to admit that Saitou was no mean hand in the kitchen. And as they ate, the officer enumerated the specific tasks he wanted done on a daily and weekly basis, with details on how they were to be performed. He told about the foodstuffs he had regularly delivered since he apparently didn’t like shopping much; and about the neighbors that shared access to the well and which of them would make themselves obnoxious if Sano gave them the chance. He also explained his own schedule, what time he was likely to be home on most days in order to engage in regular training sessions, and what events might occasionally delay him. It all sounded very reasonable, and the idea that Sano was getting the better end of the bargain hadn’t yet been challenged.

After everything had been elaborated upon and agreed to, they finished their meal in silence, but the nature of that silence eluded Sano’s probing curiosity. It wasn’t what he would call ‘friendly’ or ‘comfortable,’ but not exactly ‘cold’ or ‘stiff’ either. Perhaps ‘polite’ would be the best word for it — hardly an expression he would think to apply to anything between himself and Saitou. Maybe the best way to describe it would be ‘businesslike,’ since business associates were what they’d now become.

“So, want me to get started right away?” he asked eventually, gesturing to the table. Saitou gave a bit of a smile and a silent nod as he poured himself another cup of tea. “These are some nice dishes you got here,” Sano remarked, mostly just for the sake of having something to say, as he began to clear up. “You better hope I don’t break ’em.”

Saitou’s withering look was palpable on the back of Sano’s neck. “You had better not.”

“I’m kidding!” Sano could laugh, because Saitou’s threatening statement had restored a more accustomed atmosphere between them. “Loosen up, why don’t you? You’re in your own house, after all!”

“Not everyone can be as loose as you are — something has to get done somewhere in the city.”

“Then at least pull that damn stick out of your ass.”

“You put things in the most interesting way,” was Saitou’s bemused reply.

At the sound of a match striking behind him, Sano finished pouring the remaining water from the bucket into the basin where he’d stacked the dishes, and turned. “Give me one of those?” he requested, leaving the kitchen and approaching the table again.

A black eyebrow arched. “You smoke?”

“Doesn’t everyone? I just can’t afford it like some loaded cops I know, so you won’t see me doing it very often.”

“Doesn’t that bother you?”

“A little.” Sano grinned at him brazenly. “Not enough to get a real job.”

“Ahou ga.” Despite this verbal response, Saitou brought out his cigarettes again and handed Sano one from the package. He even went so far as to light it for him. “Don’t expect any more of these. I’m not buying double just so you can freeload.”

Sano made a noise of acquiescence, took a long drag, and sighed blissfully. “Thanks,” he said sincerely, and even as the word left his mouth realized it was the first time he’d ever thanked this man for anything. He rose quickly from where he’d been kneeling to receive the somewhat unexpected present, and moved toward the kitchen again to wash the dishes with his back turned.

***

The next day was rainy and grey, and Sano awoke at home with bleary eyes and little recollection, at first, of what he’d been doing the previous night. Trying to remember had to be postponed, however, since reluctant curiosity about why he felt so wet must form his primary concern. Even as his vision focused enough to observe that his ceiling had apparently decided to spring a significant leak in not one but two spots immediately over his bed, he also found his other puzzlement increasing as he noted in himself an absence of hangover and the inexplicable flavor of good tobacco in his mouth. Well, it was stale by now, but it tasted like it had been good at the time.

As he sat up, it all came back to him, and the next thing he wondered was whether Saitou’s mouth tasted like this in the mornings. Not much difference would be made even if it did; Saitou never seemed to have any end of cigarettes, and would just smoke a fresh one to override the old.

So this was Sano’s first day of work for the guy. Despite how strangely he felt the entire thing had turned out, he was pleased with it in equal measure; actually, it had all fallen into place with unexpected neatness and convenience, regardless of how he felt about Saitou. He might as well get up and head over to the bastard’s house to prove or disprove the theory about who’d gotten the better end of the deal.

He whistled as he set out across town, and offered a cheerful wave and mocking greeting to some of his friends in a dockyard he passed. They had to spend the day in the rain, whereas he would be nice and dry doing much easier work. His pity for them fled his thoughts after not too long, though, as he began to remember last night’s dreams: lovely visions of being held in warm arms in a comfortable atmosphere. This had probably contributed to his confusion upon waking, but such a contribution was totally worth it.

By the time he reached Saitou’s house, his head swam in warm, misty thoughts of Kenshin and their future together. This was the first step toward that happy ending, odd as it might seem to be doing a psychopath’s laundry in order to win the heart of the man he loved. He felt almost giddy at the thought of stepping so definitively onto the path to his goal.

Opening Saitou’s door with the key he’d been provided last night gave him an unexpected little thrill. It wasn’t everyone that could boast access to the home of a former Shinsengumi captain, now, was it? Of course, anyone personally acquainted with Saitou’s obnoxiousness probably wouldn’t have boasted of such a circumstance, but it was an interesting rarity nonetheless. And, hey, Sano was even doing this to get closer to the former hitokiri Battousai, an even greater rarity and certainly more thrilling than Saitou could ever be!

Sano’s smile at these thoughts slowly faded as he walked through the little house again and started to think seriously about the actual labor involved in this job. True, the load didn’t seem too heavy, but was more than he’d voluntarily done on a regular basis for quite some time. There was a reason, after all, that he didn’t hang around the dojo on any given day longer than it took to get his Kenshin fix. But since this was for Kenshin, he steeled himself and got to it.

Dusting the study took longer than he’d expected, for he found the motion of his hand falling to almost nothing as the titles and the eye-wearying unfamiliar characters of many of the books distracted his eye. This room was something of a pain to sweep, too, what with all the crevices formed by desk and shelves, none of which could be moved; he was glad he wasn’t expected to scrub the floor in here unless Saitou specifically requested it.

On the other hand, practically nothing needed to be done in the bedroom. Saitou, every bit as neat as Sano had expected, had left his bedding folded in the same chest that held the rolled futon, and, as this bedding only wanted washing once a week, it required no attention today. Some laundry waited in a basket by the door, but the continued rainfall outside rendered this, perforce, a task for later.

So he washed the breakfast dishes, straightened up the kitchen to the extent this was required, and swept the great room floor while he waited for the weather to clear. When it still hadn’t quite, he decided he might as well do some scrubbing; since this wasn’t technically necessary today, his efforts at it might have been somewhat lackluster, but it did, at least, pass the time relatively constructively until the rain finally stopped. Then he went outside to wash and hang the laundry.

All right, so maybe Saitou hadn’t been lying when he’d said this would be more work than Sano expected. If the young man hadn’t arisen so late in the morning, it wouldn’t be too long after lunchtime now; but since he had, by the time everything was finished, the day’s progress had been marked by the appearance of the market boy that delivered meat and vegetables for Saitou’s supper. Sano was a little surprised — Saitou had mentioned the kid usually showed up in the late afternoon or early evening; had so much time really passed? — and a little flustered as he tried to think how to introduce himself, especially when the boy referred to ‘Fujita-san’ and assumed Sano was ‘the new help.’

Whatever Sano’s job title (assuming he had one) and whatever name his ’employer’ chose to use, obviously this work was going to dominate a good part of his daylight hours in the weeks to come. And any hours that remained would probably have to be devoted to practice — Saitou had mentioned this would be the case, and Sano wasn’t such a fool as to disbelieve him. Having already dismissed the effectiveness of book-learning, he must embrace vigorous practice as essential to his quick grasp of the concepts he needed to know. He could probably pick up better defensive techniques just by watching, eventually, but ‘eventually’ wouldn’t do when a tanuki-girl lurked insidiously around the man Sano wanted to seduce.

To this eventual seduction, Sano deliberately avoided giving any real thought just yet. Such things were really the last he needed to be worried about while hanging Saitou’s clothes out to dry — and in fact were surprisingly easy to set aside, as Saitou’s clothes proved bizarrely engrossing. The blue police pants and jackets were only interesting in that Sano thought he and Saitou were almost exactly the same size and he could therefore borrow one of these uniforms for any number of mischievous or even nefarious purposes, were he so inclined; but the other contents of the laundry basket, though their mere presence there indicated they’d been worn recently, Sano simply could not imagine the uptight officer in.

This red yukata, for instance — who ever heard of Saitou wearing a warm color? Obviously he must own a yukata or two, but if Sano had ever for an instant considered such a thing, he would have assumed them to be black or a boring dark brown… possibly blue, like the uniforms, but definitely still a subdued example of that color. Never red.

The silver kimono and dark grey hakama appeared more the wolf’s style, having about them a stark, subtle sort of elegance, but still Sano struggled to picture Saitou in them. No, he corrected himself as he pensively hung them to dry, it wasn’t that he couldn’t picture Saitou in them, but that the resulting mental image looked too unexpectedly good to be plausible. He’d never really thought of Saitou as handsome, but in those… he might well turn out to be just that.

So now he had something to tease Saitou about this evening. What did he get all dressed up for in silver? Was he embarrassed enough about wearing red — a closet fan, perhaps? — that he only wore it around the house? And did he start to lose track of who he was whenever he put on anything besides the somewhat appalling number of uniforms he seemed to own? True, there wasn’t much fodder for teasing in any of this, but Sano wanted to tease him, so anything would do. He would certainly need some kind of edge when training began.

Whether he looked forward to or dreaded the upcoming session he couldn’t quite decide, especially remembering the strange sensation of last night in response to the gleam in Saitou’s eye when he’d mentioned pleasure at the prospect of beating Sano’s ass. Sano must really be pining for Kenshin, to have seen that ruthlessly eager sparkle, heard that casually deadly tone, and still be here.

The time remaining before the officer would arrive home was small enough that Sano decided just to stick around waiting for him. (This choice was definitely not influenced at all by the idea that Saitou might be willing to feed him again, an opportunity the very hungry Sano would surely miss if he went somewhere and came back later.) He stretched out on the floor of the great room, which had by now dried, and stared, lazily contemplative, at the ceiling.

Acting so freely in the home of someone he’d always thought of as his rival, even his nemesis, seemed odd to him — odd, and yet somehow natural. Presumably this naturalness arose from the knowledge that this was all part of his plan to get at Kenshin, and therefore potential awkwardness was set aside. With this explanation in mind, he didn’t worry about dozing off in the midst of some of his usual daydreams.

Perhaps he should have worried. A dull pain awakened him, a rhythmic pounding against his left hip; and as his eyes sluggishly opened, he yelled aloud when he saw the length of the sword stretching up from where its tip just brushed the skin of his neck to the gloved hand on the hilt. The pain — which he recognized now as a heel, still very solid even just in a sock, slamming down repeatedly — continued for a few moments just for good measure. “Lesson one,” Saitou said from above him: “never fall asleep in enemy territory.”

The victim of this bastardly behavior moved to slap the blade away from the vicinity of large veins, but Saitou pressed it closer so that it cut minutely into him, and Sano was forced to lie still. “Right, fine,” he said. “I get it. Lesson learned. Stop that!”

With that mocking smile of his, Saitou drew back and sheathed his weapon. “I suppose I’m not surprised to find you don’t even know that.”

“This isn’t what I’d normally call ‘enemy territory,'” Sano grumbled as he climbed to his feet.

“Isn’t it?”

What Sano had just been thinking before his little nap recrossed his mind; no, despite all prior indications, this really wasn’t what he would consider enemy territory. But he certainly wouldn’t admit to Saitou just how at-home he’d come to feel here after the course of a mere day. Next he’d be admitting that, in defiance of all logic, he suddenly didn’t really think of Saitou as ‘the enemy’ anymore either.

Especially when he noticed that the officer had apparently gotten through most of the supper-cooking process before deciding to awaken him.

Observing Sano’s pointer-like gaze into the kitchen, Saitou rolled his eyes. “Set the table,” he ordered. “Keep in mind, though,” he added as he turned away, “that if you gorge yourself now and then vomit it all onto my floor while we’re training, you’re the one who’ll be cleaning it up.”

“Oh, it takes more than some hard training to get food back from me,” Sano told him, relatively cheerfully, as he brought the little table out into the middle of the room.

“I thought that might be the case: adaptive for your subspecies.”

Though the words thus arranged meant little to him, Sano could tell this was an insult. With great difficulty, however, he refrained from demanding to know what Saitou meant; the jerk was undoubtedly waiting for him to ask, and therefore Sano would disappoint his disdainful hopes by not doing so. He thought he even made out the traces of that disappointment on Saitou’s face as he fetched dishes from near where the officer stood, and that was a sort of triumph.

Their meal consisted of the same mixture of awkwardness and unexpected ease as last night’s had, alternating mostly between that odd silence Sano had noticed then and the usual exchange of insult and rudeness. When they’d finished, Saitou instructed him to clear the table but leave washing the dishes for later or tomorrow. And once the table itself was out of the way, there was ample space for practice.

As Saitou announced that they would start with hand-to-hand, he examined Sano up and down with thoughtfully lowered brows; it made the kenkaya a little uncomfortable. In response to this feeling, Sano backed away slightly and took up a combative position, smacking a fist into a palm. “Bring it on, old man.”

Saitou’s expression slowly worked its way toward that look of evil he’d more or less terrified Sano with yesterday, and, despite his bravado, Sano suddenly felt a resurgence of that emotion. Surely he was staring pain in the face and encouraging it! But Saitou only said with innocent levelness, “Let’s look at this stance of yours first.”

***

The moron had initially been extremely reluctant to follow Saitou’s instructions, but the officer had discovered after a while a more or less forgivable reason for it: Sano feared, in consequence of the statement about stance, that these lessons would resemble those he’d attempted to engage in with some supposed expert trainer not too long ago. His worry on this point had entirely disappeared the moment Saitou started punching him. It was funny how often punching things seemed to solve problems where Sanosuke was concerned.

A whim, based on how entertaining Sano had been to watch in jail and upon his release from it, had led Saitou to enter into this arrangement in the first place, and so far he was nothing but pleased with the circumstance. His chores would be done for free by someone on whom he could, if he wished, take out all the frustrations of his day at work — someone, in fact, specifically asking for it — and Sano continued to be pretty consistently entertaining, if at times equally annoying. Saitou hadn’t quite decided yet whether he believed Sano capable of improvement under his tutelage, but he would be interested in seeing what progress did take place, and what (if any) affect the display thereof would have on Himura. Yes, Saitou would definitely keep this up for a while.

When Sano hit the floor with a full-body thud after an intense couple of hours, Saitou dropped his fists and stood straight, watching the young man carefully in case he might be faking to gain an advantage. But it seemed weariness and that last blow really had done the job; Sano was out cold. So Saitou lit a cigarette and walked away.

He went first into the yard, where he found, as he’d suspected, damp laundry still hanging. He would need to have a word with Sano on the subject of using his brain (if he had one) about weather patterns and what time of day he hung clothes out. Saitou would have to bring these inside now, because if he left them overnight they would probably be soaked by rain before either he or Sano awoke in the morning. But they did seem to have been washed and hung properly; the moron wasn’t completely ignorant.

This task finished, Saitou locked the back door and went to his bedroom. A spare blanket, rendered unnecessary by the current weather, he retrieved from the chest and, returning to the great room, shook open with one hand so it fluttered down over Sano. Then he put out the gas, shut the hallway door behind him as he left the comatose young man on his floor, and moved silently through darkness toward bed.

With a smile that lingered unusually, he prepared his futon, undressed, and lay down. Perhaps sleep came quickly for him, after his hectic day at work and the exercise he’d subsequently taken — not a gleam issued from his eyes in the blackness, and his breathing was soft and regular. But perhaps he lay awake for a time, his thoughts pleasantly busy with… something.



2>>

Section 2

That wasn’t the last time Sano spent the night at Saitou’s house. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t the last time Sano spent the entire day and then the night at Saitou’s house. The routine developed quickly, almost enforcedly: wake up, usually with a throbbing skull and aching body that was bizarrely more encouraging than dismaying; do the chores, which became easier and quicker as he developed a viable pattern, but never seemed like less overall work; practice whatever Saitou had ordered, by which he was reminded of Yahiko’s ten thousand repetitions of some move or other at Kaoru’s bidding; eat dinner, often with Saitou, who hadn’t shown himself nearly as averse to feeding Sano on a daily basis as Sano had expected him to; and then spar in a somewhat one-sided, vigorous and educational manner until he passed out and was able to rest for the next day’s fresh start.

In one corner of his mind, he’d rather expected Saitou wouldn’t be willing to maintain this arrangement for very long. They still annoyed each other, after all, and now Saitou not only gave up time and energy to Sano’s goals, but also food (alternately known as money) to Sano’s admittedly rapacious stomach. He even, despite what he’d said the first evening, allowed Sano the very occasional cigarette. And he got his house cleaned and his laundry and dishes washed, sure, but still was probably doing this only out of a passing interest in beating Sano up routinely for a while, and must eventually get tired of it. Either that or he wouldn’t trouble himself too much about the teaching, and that aforementioned beating up of Sano would be the full extent of their training together.

But this, Sano found, was not the case. Saitou might not be the most personable teacher ever to harass a student, but he knew very well what he was doing. His criticism, though irritating, was always accurate and comprehensible. He showed Sano how better to balance his weight so as to be ready to receive attacks as well as deal them out; he helped Sano recognize subtle changes in an enemy’s stance so he might have some chance at knowing what was coming. He gave cogent explanations and practical demonstrations, and even refrained from taking too great an advantage, with those iron fists of his, when Sano entirely failed to predict and properly react to the next incoming blow. They hadn’t yet progressed to a point where Saitou was ready to draw his sword, but that Sano was making progress couldn’t be denied, and Saitou didn’t seem to be tiring of the pastime.

Only after almost three weeks of this did Sano realize he hadn’t seen his friends, or even Tokyo in general, in quite some time. And though he was more than a little pleased at the maturation of his plan, he felt all of a sudden like a hermit. His scummier friends probably thought he’d finally lost his life by picking a fight too tough for him (which, in a way, was true), and surely Kenshin must have noticed his absence this time. So he made a special effort to rise early one morning, got the chores done as quickly as possible, and left the house in an anticipatory mood for the Kamiya Dojo.

It was odd, but with all the work he did these days — cleaning, practicing, and dealing with Saitou — he’d hardly given Kenshin a thought lately. Not that the rurouni had never crossed Sano’s mind, but there hadn’t been nearly as much leisure to dwell on him, and Sano hadn’t once… well… imagined him as he had during those days in jail. He hadn’t dreamed about him much either, but that might have been because ‘sleep’ and ‘unconsciousness from too many blows to the head’ were difficult to distinguish one from the other nearly every night. But since the whole rigmarole aimed at eventually getting Kenshin’s attention, that goal could easily take the place of obsessive thought.

Presently he caught sight of a familiar figure not far ahead of him, she having just turned from another street onto the one he walked, perhaps heading the same place he was. As quietly as he could, he ran up behind her and slipped his hands over her eyes with a sly, “Guess who!” But he withdrew his arms quickly the next moment as he felt his fingers grow slick with moisture.

Megumi gave him a furtive glance like a wounded animal even as she began hastily wiping her eyes dry with a sleeve of her doctor’s smock. “Oh, Sanosuke,” she acknowledged. And that was all. No real greeting, no pointing out that he was the only person impudent enough to play that childish game with her and therefore she had no need to guess who it was, no inquiry as to where he’d been for the last couple of weeks, and no explanation of her tears.

“What’s wrong with you?” he wondered. And though he didn’t say it without sympathy or concern, perhaps he could have worded it a bit better.

She turned away from him and resumed her walk. “It’s nothing,” she replied as he jumped to follow.

“Someone like you doesn’t cry about just nothing,” he prodded.

“Even you should realize I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Talk about what? Seriously, what’s wrong?”

Her face screwed into a tight, painful grimace. “I knew you were a jerk,” she spat at him, “but I didn’t think you’d go this far.”

“Look, I’m trying to be nice here.” Sano’s concern gradually gave way to anger. “You don’t have to get all bitchy on me!”

“If you really haven’t been paying attention all this time… if you really don’t know how I…” Her expression hardened so her face was transfigured into a mask of anguish, skepticism, and disgust. “Or are you just taunting me? I thought some things were beneath even you, but I guess I was wrong.”

“Why the hell would I… taunt you… about what? I really truly have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Very convincing. Maybe you are just that clueless.” Megumi quickened her pace. “There’s no need for you to walk with me any further.” And the tears never ceased their steady trail down her cheeks as she left a confused and very angry Sano behind.

He stared after her until she disappeared around another corner, then muttered, “What the fuck was that…?” He looked around for a stone to kick, but, not finding one, just kicked at the ground instead. Here his first sojourn out of his new little life was already turning out weird and unpleasant.

Well. Kenshin would cheer him up. The rurouni might even know what was bothering Megumi, which might help Sano eventually patch things up with her. Maybe. Not that he cared. Clueless about what?

The first thing he noticed as the familiar outer walls of Kaoru’s property came into sight was a dejected-looking Yahiko sitting in a little ball outside the doors. Glancing up at the high sun and down at the glum boy, Sano was puzzled; shouldn’t Yahiko be practicing about now? He usually was at this time of day, and it took some serious distraction on Kaoru’s part for him to get out of it. Of course, Sano was truanting on his own practice time at the moment, so he couldn’t really accuse.

“Sano!” Yahiko yelled, jumping to his feet and running to meet him. “Where have you fucking been?”

“You better watch that mouth,” Sano grinned. “You’re starting to sound like me, Yahiko-chan.”

“Oh, you–” Yahiko cut himself off without bothering to vent his frustration at the honorific. “Never mind. Where have you been? You haven’t been around here for so long, you haven’t heard the news!”

Stopping just outside the doors, Sano looked at Yahiko askance. He couldn’t quite tell what the expression on the kid’s face meant. Was it unhappy? Frightened? It was definitely agitated. Agitating news, then… and Megumi was crying somewhere across town, and had expected Sano to know why. He suddenly gripped Yahiko’s shoulders and demanded, “What’s happened?”

“Calm down,” Yahiko protested, trying to shrug the heavy hands from him. “It’s not like something happened, exactly…” There was a touch of resignation to his demeanor in addition to the agitation.

Sano didn’t understand. “Well?”

“All it is is that Kenshin and Kaoru are getting married.”

Kenshin and Kaoru are…

Kenshin and Kaoru are getting…

“Ittaai, Sano! Get your hands off me! Hello?! Sano! Let go!”

Kenshin and Kaoru…

Kenshin…

Feeling somewhat dizzy all of a sudden, Sano finally released the grip that had been mercilessly squeezing poor Yahiko’s shoulders. He straightened and thrust his hands into his pockets, where they immediately clenched into fists. His teeth ground with a horrible sensation, which was perhaps the reason for the sudden painful pounding in his head. It didn’t explain the painful pounding in his chest, but you had to start somewhere.

“Sano?” The boy’s voice sounded tentative now. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, kid; it’s just a surprise, that’s all; nothing’s wrong.” Sano knew he spoke a little too quickly in a little too-high-pitched a tone, but it was the best he could do. He felt like he’d just been kicked in the balls.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Not recently… So, when’s the wedding?” His attempt at sounding casual failed miserably, and Yahiko’s head had practically started to smoke with frustrated curiosity. Smoke… Sano suddenly wished for Saitou’s presence, just so he could beg a cigarette off him.

“Something like three months,” Yahiko said, still staring at Sano’s face with his jaw thrust out contemplatively. “I don’t know the exact date.”

Sano had just reached down to ruffle Yahiko’s hair and thank him, then turn and walk away to find a wall somewhere to pound his head against in an attempt to beat away the pain and perhaps improve his equilibrium. But at that moment a voice called from inside the dojo grounds: “Yahiko? Yahiko, where are you?”

“Coming, Kenshin!” the kid replied as he glanced in that direction. This gave Sano, in addition to a hard shiver down his spine, the chance he needed to escape. He heard Yahiko behind him wondering where he was going, but the query faded as Sano pelted away as fast as he thought he’d ever left the Kamiya Dojo before.

He could probably run forever. The pounding of his feet seemed to mix with his heartbeat in a drumming rhythm that punctuated his shock and despair: Kenshin! and Kaoru! Kenshin! and Kaoru!

So she had won. And Sano hadn’t even really gotten started yet.

This was what he got for acting slowly, for putting things off, for living a lifestyle that left him little recourse for the plan he’d conceptualized and the end he wanted to achieve, for being a lazy good-for-nothing, a pathetic little boy with no talents, no future, no personality. He deserved to lose Kenshin… but was Kaoru any fitter to win him? He decided to keep running forever… or at least until he came to an ocean, where he could end it all like the miserable bottom-dweller he was.

He had not yet reached an ocean, however, when he changed his mind and headed for a bar instead.

***

Saitou ate slowly, occasionally scowling but trying not to. He really shouldn’t, he kept telling himself, be annoyed at Sano’s absence. Just by looking around he could tell the young man had done the chores, and any time Sano chose to spend away from Saitou’s house thereafter could only hurt his own cause, not do any damage to anything Saitou cared about. And it was only natural that he should want a break after eighteen days of the rigorous routine they’d fallen into. But it would have been polite to inform Saitou of such a plan before carrying it out, so Saitou could make his own plans for the evening.

Not that Saitou would have. If he wasn’t required to stay late at work or go out on some spying venture after dark or attend some event, he cherished his evenings as the only time he could relax and think about something other than the state of the country. Well, he never really stopped thinking about the state of the country, but at home he could at least allow other considerations to take center stage. And perhaps he’d grown more accustomed to having company over and after supper than he’d realized, and didn’t appreciate being abandoned. He left the dishes for Sano.

Probably because he’d developed a new habit of exercising just before bed, Saitou found himself very restless — far too restless to sit quietly reading. He stalked back into the great room and went through some moves, but apparently it wasn’t enough. Wasn’t the same. Glowering, he returned to the study.

Paperwork, though nothing he particularly relished, at least usually had the power of seizing his full attention since it reflected the pursuits to which he was devoted, but even this, tonight, was insufficient to occupy him. He decided in his frustration that he might as well just go to bed early. As he stripped down to nothing in his bedroom, he couldn’t help feeling a little confused about his own state of mind. When had he ever been so bound to a routine that he couldn’t function when it was disrupted? This was stupid.

It seemed he’d barely fallen asleep when his ever-wakeful instincts warned him of someone standing outside at the front door. Footsteps sounded loud and clumsy on the porch, and there was a fumbling at the latch. With a soundless dexterity inversely proportional to that of the unknown party, Saitou rose, slipped into yesterday’s pants, took sword in hand, and moved toward the hall. The intruder had the way unlocked by now, but seemed to be having difficulty getting through it. Sliding the bedroom door open a fraction, Saitou peered through into the faint light cast from outside.

Then he dispensed with secrecy, flinging the door fully open with an impatient gesture and stepping out. “Ahou, what are you doing here?”

The figure dimly silhouetted by starlight in the doorway reeled in startlement, clutching at the frame as Saitou’s sharp voice assaulted him. After a moment, appearing to remember who Saitou was and where they both were, he slurred out in reply, “Wz comin’ to do th’ chorzz.”

Saitou moved toward Sano, grimacing as he caught the remarkably strong smell of sake. Reaching out a bare arm, he seized Sano’s gi and yanked him inside, tossing him carelessly to the floor as he closed the door with his other hand. “Get your drunken ass in here before you wake up the neighbors. Do you know what time it is?”

Not bothering to pick himself up, Sano whined something unintelligible in as miserable-sounding a tone as Saitou had ever heard from him. The officer stalked past him into the great room and lit a lamp, waiting for the moron to get to his feet and follow. Eventually the moron did, unsteadily and with his head hanging, and, staggering into the middle of the room, collapsed again into a heap.

“I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised,” Saitou said, looking down at him, “that this is how you choose to spend a night off. Attack any walls this time?”

From where he’d buried his face in his arms, Sano made another wretched sound, and Saitou was a little startled to realize what it portended.

“What’s wrong with you?” he demanded, moving a bit nearer.

Sano looked up, eyes clouded and tears streaming down his face, and almost wailed, “Ke’shin’s ge’ing married!”

His annoyance suddenly tempered by amusement and perhaps even some pity, Saitou knelt down. He reached out to punch Sano’s shoulder, though the blow and his subsequent tone were a little softer than usual. “That was inevitable, ahou. Even you must have seen it coming.”

Without warning, Sano broke down entirely, sobbing his heart out. More surprising still, he threw himself forward onto the other man, burying his face once again in his arms, but this time in Saitou’s lap. Though taken aback, Saitou made no move to forbid Sano his little drunken bout of self-pity. In fact, he had to combat a sudden extremely unexpected desire to stroke the spiky locks close beneath his hands that had risen in his initial surprise. The gesture probably wouldn’t have helped to comfort Sano in any case.

When Sano’s wailing eventually subsided, his sobs shaking less of his body and his state more propitious for hearing anything said to him, Saitou asked him calmly, “When is the wedding?”

“I dunno,” came Sano’s muffled voice. “Yah-Yahiko sayziz in three monsur sothin.”

“Then all this does is give you a deadline,” was Saitou’s businesslike reply, “and an incentive to work harder.”

Sano sat up, gazing lopsidedly at him. “Harder?” he echoed. “I’m nafuckin ge’ing anywhere!” His lip trembled. “I’m nalernin; I’m jussa stupid kid; I’m…”

“While I would have to agree that you are a stupid kid,” Saitou interrupted, “you’re wrong if you think you’re not learning. You’ve come much farther since we started than I could have expected.”

The brown eyes widened, and perhaps grew a shade less bleary. “Serious?”

“Yes,” Saitou replied with conviction. “Now go to sleep.” He leaned forward and pushed Sano hard, easily sending him to the floor. Standing, he moved to the hearth where the folded blanket Sano used for sleeping here generally stayed, and threw it at him. “Since I know you’re the kind of idiot that never gives up, I know you’ll show your usual resilience and get back to work tomorrow.”

“Buh Saitou…” Sano clutched at the blanket like a child with an indispensable toy, looking up at the wolf despairingly.

“Shut up and sleep,” Saitou commanded as he moved toward the lamp to put it out. Despite the harshness of his words, his tone was almost kind; it surprised even him. “You’re drunk, and you’re not thinking straight.” Certainly Sano wasn’t, to bury his face in Saitou’s lap!

Sano’s compliance was evinced by the silence, but for sniffling and a slight shuffling of blanket, that accompanied the click of the lamp’s snuffing, and Saitou returned to his bedroom in relative peace.

***

All right, he’d now been awake for twenty seconds at the most, and had already done a lightning-speed search of his memory in order to confirm that this was the worst hangover he’d ever had.

Yes – it – was.

How the hell much had he drunk last night? And why the hell had he gotten that drunk? He didn’t dare move for fear of making it worse, nor open his eyes to what felt through his lids like the light of mid-afternoon. He wasn’t even sure where he lay, couldn’t remember a thing about the entirety of yesterday. His head felt far worse than usual after a spell even of heavy drinking, his bladder swollen to twice its usual size, and his stomach threatened to do what it never did and actually regurgitate something. Also, where was he, and what had happened last night?

Well, the surface beneath him seemed to be a hard floor, and the blanket atop him smelled clean and felt soft. These combined clues led him to believe he’d slept at Saitou’s house. Why did he have a gladiatorial hangover at Saitou’s house? Saitou wouldn’t have allowed a drunken Sano into his house, would he? Ah, but Sano had a key. So that explained how he’d gotten in… but what time had that been?

He didn’t remember training yesterday, and the pain in his head wasn’t the type that usually came from Saitou’s fists. Some extremely blurry images of wandering around town becoming increasingly drunk were beginning to trickle back. People he’d talked to… acquaintances he’d had drinks with… in bar after bar after bar… after bar… why?

Then there’d been Megumi, right? She’d been crying and wouldn’t tell him why. And Yahiko, who’d been sitting outside the dojo for some reason, and…

“Shit!”

In a single rapid, jerky movement he sat up, his eyes springing open as he remembered, and immediately fell back to the floor with a loud groan, pulling the blanket over his face.

Kenshin and Kaoru! How could he have forgotten?

Well, the multiple jugs of sake might have had something to do with it.

So he’d been so miserable yesterday after hearing the news that he’d run off and gotten drunker than he’d ever been, then somehow found his way back to Saitou’s house for no reason he could comprehend in a more sober state, and collapsed here. Saitou must have been irate. Nothing later than about the fifth bar could Sano remember, but he’d be willing to wager he was in for a more intense beating than usual later. He’d better get the chores done quickly… especially if it was, as he’d guessed upon first awakening, mid-afternoon; he could probably start now and still not be quite finished before Saitou came home.

But he seriously didn’t want to get up. Wow, this one was bad. And he doubted Saitou had any of the ingredients for his usual remedy.

But if he didn’t get up soon, there was no chance he’d be done in time, and Saitou might refuse to train with him. Since Sano was already probably in trouble for skipping out last night and then barging in drunk at whatever wee hour, he doubted the wisdom of further angering the officer. As much of a bother as it was, it seemed he would have to act like a responsible adult, get up, and do his job.

The great room blazed cruelly bright despite the shouji not letting in any more light than usual, which was yet insufficient preparation for actual daylight; making his way to the necessary facilities outside was a tortuous process. Even once he’d recovered the safety of indoors, he still squinted hard as he shuffled into the kitchen to see if anything might be lying around that he could make half a breakfast of. It must actually be half a lunch he sought by now, but he didn’t care what the meal was called as long as it was edible. Saitou usually left at least some rice around…

What he didn’t usually leave around was a single cigarette atop a box of matches in the cupboard next to the tea jar.

Sano stared at the thing for what were probably minutes, though he kept no track of time in his efforts to fight his overall discomfort and make sense of what he saw. The thought that finally sluggishly struck him was this: Saitou never took a cigarette out of the package without smoking it. And he kept his matches in a desk drawer in the other room. There was simply no reason in the world for the presence of this solitary cigarette and box of matches in this cupboard at this time… unless Saitou had intended Sano to find them there. And there wasn’t any reason for that either.

He tried to tell himself Saitou had meant to smoke this after breakfast, or that there was some other unfathomable rationale behind its being here like this, but he knew the officer’s habits too well by now to think he would ever put one cigarette and some matches in the cupboard like a portent… or a present. There was obviously nothing for it but to smoke the thing.

So did this mean Saitou wasn’t mad at him? What a miracle for his hangover, anyway. Maybe Sano had explained about Kenshin’s engagement, and Saitou was just being… who the hell did he think he was kidding? Saitou just being sympathetic? Just being a decent person? Just proactively trying to comfort Sano? Beyond nonsensical.

But he enjoyed the hell out of the cigarette.

Later, having finished washing up after what appeared to be last night’s supper and this morning’s breakfast, reentering from dumping the dirty dish-water, he could tell by the fresh scent of tobacco that Saitou was home. Unsure what to expect, he hung around fidgeting by the back door until the officer returned to the great room, then tried his hardest to sound casual as he greeted him.

Saitou eyed him, said nothing, and moved into the kitchen to start making supper.

Shit. Maybe Sano was in trouble after all. “Sorry for ditching practice last night,” he tried.

Still the officer remained silent.

“I didn’t do it on purpose.” Was that a touch of panic in Sano’s tone? He fought it off as he continued, “That was just how things worked out.”

Finally, more or less easily, Saitou broke his silence. “Some temperance might be advisable, but, considering the circumstances, I think you can be forgiven this time.”

A pressing feeling of concern suddenly eased out of Sano’s chest, and he realized that his smile was the first he’d worn all day. “Seriously? I thought you were going to kill me!”

Far too much amusement sounded in Saitou’s tone as he replied, “I thought about it at first, but after your little crying fit I didn’t have the heart.”

“Crying fit?” Sano echoed hoarsely.

“You don’t remember?”

Mutely Sano shook his head.

Saitou merely laughed, obviously enjoying this. But Sano wasn’t. Just how drunk had he been? ‘Fit’ might be a malicious exaggeration, but he didn’t think even Saitou would invent such an episode wholesale; some tears must have been involved. In front of this guy, of all people? What potentially embarrassing things might Sano have let slip during such a lapse in control?

“What did I say?” he asked before he could think of a more diplomatic way of finding out.

“You confessed your own stupidity, among other things.”

What other things?”

“Just some pathetic wailing about Himura, I believe. It was rather late,” Saitou added pointedly; “I can’t be expected to remember your every word.”

Wondering what to say next (and certainly not about to say, “But I bet you do, you bastard”), Sano remained silent for a moment. He still couldn’t be sure whether Saitou was mad at him or just having fun being a jerk as usual, nor what should be done to allay the man’s possible ire. Finally, “Well, sorry about that,” he decided on.

Saitou made no reply.

Glancing at the tofu that waited on the counter to be worked into tonight’s meal, Sano volunteered, “Why don’t I help you make supper?”

“I think I prefer my kitchen in one piece.”

Sano bristled, forgetting his attempt at penitence. “Hey, jerk, I can cook just as good as you can!” When the only response was a skeptical sound, Sano strode forward and seized a knife, turning toward the tofu.

“Careful with that,” the officer cautioned. “It’s called a ‘knife,’ and one of the edges will hurt if you touch yourself with it.”

“Very funny, asshole.”

Saitou grinned and made a conciliatory gesture. “If you think you can mange it, ahou, go ahead.”

A little later, when they sat down at the table, instead of starting right in on the meal, Sano watched intently as his companion did so. He was confident Saitou would confess what an excellent cook Sano was and admit he couldn’t possibly be upset with him any longer, and then everything would be fine. But Saitou merely continued eating without a word or any change in demeanor.

Finally Sano couldn’t stand it. “Well?”

With a mildly dubious expression Saitou said, “Outside. I should think you’d know where it is by now.”

“I mean the food,” Sano growled. “I’m a good cook, huh?”

Saitou looked down at his supper with a soft, “Hn.”

“What the hell ‘hn?’ What do you think of it?”

“I think…” Saitou continued to stare pensively at the food in front of him. “I think I will add making supper to your list of chores.”

Sano’s jaw dropped. That was not the commendation he’d had in mind.

The corners of Saitou’s lips twitched, but he prevented the expression from becoming a full-blown smirk by taking another bite. Then he said in an admonitory tone, “You’d better eat, ahou. We have a lot for you to learn tonight, considering how much time you’ve got left.”

Oh, yeah… he had a deadline now, didn’t he? He had to win Kenshin away from Kaoru before they could get married and ruin Kenshin’s life forever! He had to work harder.

It occurred to him to wonder why he wasn’t as depressed about this as he’d obviously been yesterday. Had drinking really made him feel better? That would be… unprecedented. Something had made him feel better, though. As he thought about it, his hand slowed in bringing his chopsticks to his mouth and eventually hovered just short of it. Was he merely thinking wishfully, or did he hazily start to remember Saitou saying something… something nice… about him… last night?

He took his bite and chewed, still struggling to remember. Finally he felt he had to ask. “So how am I doing, anyway? Think I’ll beat you any time soon?”

“No,” Saitou answered immediately and bluntly. “But you’re not hopeless.”

“Guess that’s the best I’ll get out of you,” Sano said wryly. In actuality it was a pretty meaningful concession, but he wasn’t going to say so.

“Probably. Your friend’s wedding is set for July the 22nd, by the way.”

Sano stared. “How do you know?”

“Sometimes, ahou, if you ask someone something, they tell you.”

“Who’d you ask?”

With the customary raised brow Saitou said, “Battousai?”

“Oh. Fuck. Well… thanks, I guess.”

Saitou merely nodded.

Sano was still eating when Saitou, who’d had a head start, laid down his chopsticks and sat back, as he usually did after supper, to light up while he drank the remainder of his tea. This, of course, reminded Sano of something he didn’t really want to mention (in case he’d been wrong) but felt like he must. Fixing his eyes on the contents of his bowl he said, “Oh, and thanks for that cigarette this morning.”

Saitou’s tone was easy as he replied, “Don’t mention it.”

***

Things progressed for the next few weeks much as they had for the first few, save that now Sano worked doubly hard to meet Saitou’s increasingly harsh demands. He’d decided July 15th would be the big day — the day he would tell Kenshin his feelings — and that sometime before that he must, obviously, take Kenshin out somewhere and get into a fight in order to set things in motion by making a solid bid for the rurouni’s attention and admiration.

But he felt that, before he could do this, he needed to get a move past Saitou. He had to. Though this wasn’t a line he’d deliberately set for himself — at least not consciously — it had popped up from somewhere, and he saw it as an undismissible marker of progress, one he must reach before he could stop this relentless training. He’d hit Saitou before, of course, but only ever on his own terms. He wanted to get in a decent shot by Saitou’s rules. And he felt like he was running out of time awfully quickly.

It frustrated him, therefore, when Saitou mentioned one night that they wouldn’t be able to train the next evening, as he was expected to attend a party that would probably run late. Observing that Saitou didn’t seem much more pleased at the prospect than Sano was at the disappointing news, the young man inquired about the details. Apparently the officer would be officially representing the police at the inauguration of a respectable Kyoto manufacturer’s new branch of operations in Tokyo, but his real objective was to try to sniff out any connection between this manufacturer and a recent increase in modern weaponry on the streets.

Though he’d asked, Sano was surprised Saitou had answered so openly — and pleased as well at this sign of trust. And seeing the importance of trying to control the presence of firearms throughout the country, he tried to stifle his annoyance at having to miss another training session. At least this would give him a chance to go remind his friends that he still existed and see, once again, whether or not Kenshin had missed him.

But his visit to the dojo came to a cataclysmic end when Kaoru actually kissed Kenshin. Right in front of everyone! Sure, it was a quick, shy little peck, but everyone saw. If anybody wondered why both Sano and Megumi got up suddenly with half-formed excuses for why they must depart so abruptly, they didn’t voice their curiosity. Indeed, the two lovebirds seemed so sickeningly wrapped up in each other and the moment that they didn’t really notice much of anything. And Sano headed for the bars.

His mood was foul, but not the type that encouraged him to get phenomenally drunk; it encouraged him, rather, to pick fights. By the time he was ready to declare the night over (and technically it was, for early morning had commenced), he’d been kicked out of more places than he could count, and might not be welcome back to any of them another time. Still, he hadn’t been able to help himself when, on top of what had happened earlier to upset him, every single person he’d run into had insisted on being so damn irritating.

That last one had been the worst, and Sano still fumed in the wake of the infuriating exchange. Retaliation hadn’t been an option, since the guy was so clearly not a warrior that engaging him in physical combat would be outright bullying… and in verbal combat, the enemy had just as clearly consistently had the upper hand. Most frustratingly, it had actually stung, and worried Sano at the same time, to an unusual degree; he generally didn’t care nearly so much about other people’s opinions of him. He would have liked to discuss it, actually, with a sympathetic listener, but Katsu would be either asleep or prohibitively wrapped up in newspaper work at this hour, Kenshin would not do for a conversation that would inevitably eventually touch on the topic of Sano’s chances with him, and no one else would take him seriously.

Finding himself at Saitou’s house took Sano rather by surprise in the midst of his agitation and anger, as he hadn’t realized that his thoughtless steps were directing him to it. He did have his own place, after all; it wasn’t like he actually lived here. That this, rather than his apartment, had been his unconscious destination just showed how accustomed he’d grown to spending his nights on Saitou’s floor, and that seemed a little pathetic. But since he was here now, he might as well stay instead of traipsing all the way back across town to his trashy longhouse.

Perhaps, upon entering, he slammed the door a bit harder than he should have. And perhaps his socked footfalls in the hallway were a bit louder than they should have been. Whatever the case, Sano had barely flung open the great room door when Saitou’s irritated voice sounded from behind him: “Ahou, did you ever consider that there are certain volumes more appropriate for daytime than two in the morning?”

Grumpily and without responding, Sano threw himself onto the floor near where he usually slept.

Saitou glared at him from the doorway. “Are you drunk again?”

In trying to avoid meeting Saitou’s eyes, which, even in this semi-darkness, seemed to emit live sparks of irritation at him, Sano noticed as he looked downward that the pants Saitou had thrown on in order to come harass his noisy houseguest were not buttoned quite up to the top. This, combined with the lack of a belt and the slight sag of the pants, gave Sano a better view of the officer’s abdominal muscles than he’d ever had before, and the shadows in the room lit only by the moon through the shouji made the sight even more intriguing. However, the conclusion that Saitou really was quite physically attractive could only specifically make things worse.

“No,” was Sano’s surly reply to the question.

“Then what’s your problem?”

To say Sano replied unthinkingly would be understating the fact, as he would never in a million insane years have voiced what was on his mind if he’d given it even half an instant’s thought. “Saitou, am I sexy?”

Saitou’s expression of surprise and skepticism wasn’t terribly difficult to make out even in the shadows, and Sano experienced a moment of shock and horror as he realized what he’d just said. That it might have been entirely counterproductive and he was probably now in for a second round of denigration such as he’d suffered at that last bar, he couldn’t fail to be aware, and in extreme annoyance and some trepidation he dropped his gaze to his knees to await Saitou’s taunting.

Only then Saitou said, “Yes.”

His brain suddenly a confusion of disbelief and the scattered remnants of the defenses he’d been building up, Sano shook his head, unable to formulate a reply.

“Why?” wondered Saitou, curiosity and some amusement having replaced his prior annoyance. It was interesting how often this particular emotional exchange seemed to take place in him in response to Sano.

Well, if Saitou wasn’t going to make fun of him, and in fact, against all expectations, might be inclined to take his side, Sano might as well tell him. “There was this dickhead in the bar who decided it would be hilarious to keep talking shit at me the whole time I was there. One of those guys who probably sits at a desk all day because he knows all these big words and how to put ’em together right.

“He wouldn’t leave me alone, and I couldn’t beat him up because he was too small and scrawny, and somehow we got onto this topic of who gets more sex, and he was basically saying that I’m not attractive at all and only a dog would ever want to have sex with me and shit like that.” It certainly hadn’t helped that Sano had been talking much bigger than his actual experience the entire time, a fact his obnoxious rival might well have picked up on, but Sano didn’t plan on mentioning that aspect of the conversation to Saitou.

Saitou was grinning at this account, and more, it appeared, entertained than disdainful. “This ‘dickhead’ — what did he look like? Small and scrawny, you say?”

“Yeah, he was a short little guy. Looked straight-up like a woman, too, even with the really short haircut — I would have thought he was a woman except for the whore on his lap. She was kinda the reason we got onto the sex topic in the first place, and, you know, she could have stuck up for me. I mean, with the way she was looking at me, I’m pretty sure she didn’t agree that I wasn’t sexy at all. But I guess she didn’t want to ruin her chances with him.”

“Did he have a scar above his left eyebrow?”

“Yeah… how’d you know?” Sano wondered suspiciously.

Instead of answering the question, Saitou informed him, “That was a woman.”

“Oh, great, you know her?” Though not terribly surprised at finding his assessment of the cross-dressed bar-goer correct, Sano had to wonder why all the people in his life that drove him crazy ended up being connected somehow.

“Rather well.” The amusement in Saitou’s voice had taken on a tone of fond tolerance. “She typically wears men’s clothing. And she does have a very sharp tongue.”

“Yeah, I fucking noticed.”

“Poor ahou: always getting beaten by everyone.”

“She didn’t ‘beat’ me! Just annoyed the hell out of me.”

“And yet you made a strategic retreat. That was unusually rational of you, in fact.”

Sano gave a frustrated sigh and, rather than continuing to argue, confessed what really had him worried. “The thing is, if she thinks I’m ugly enough that it’s worth sitting there insulting me forever about, what’s to say Kenshin doesn’t think I’m totally unattractive too? It’s not like he’d ever tell me what he thinks of my looks unless I asked him, so I have no way of knowing. He could have thought that all along and I’d never know.”

“Don’t take Tokio’s opinion of you so seriously,” Saitou said somewhat dismissively. “She’ll aim for any target that gives her a chance to exercise her wit.”

“‘Tokio?'” Sano wouldn’t have guessed Saitou was close enough to any woman to refer to her so familiarly.

Saitou obviously read Sano’s meaning in the single word. “It would be odd to use an honorific with my own wife.”

This electrified Sano right onto his feet. “Are you fucking kidding me?!”

“No, ahou, I’ve been married for ten years.”

“Ten… years…? Didn’t you fight at Hakodate and everything?”

“Fighting at Hakodate and being married are not mutually exclusive.”

“Shit.” So overwhelming and unexpected and bizarre a concept Sano was having a very difficult time getting his brain around. As the idea slowly penetrated, however, he did reflect that if Saitou were to be married to anyone, that offensive woman he’d met at the bar seemed like the ideal candidate. Finally he asked, “Why doesn’t she live here with you?”

The fondly tolerant tone had returned as Saitou replied, “Tokio enjoys taking a lot of women to bed with her — sometimes all at the same time — which would be inconvenient under my roof.”

“Shit,” Sano muttered again. He didn’t know what else to say. It made sense, in that case, that the woman personally might consider him unattractive; and Saitou’s hint that she enjoyed haranguing people on topics she wasn’t necessarily legitimately invested in, just for the sake of employing her verbal skills, rendered Sano’s entire interaction with her completely understandable… but this couldn’t relieve his newly arisen concern about whether or not Kenshin found him attractive. If anything, it reinforced his fear by reminding Sano that tastes differed significantly from one person to the next. Just because Saitou admitted Sano was sexy didn’t mean Kenshin would. And Saitou was… “I can’t believe you’re fucking married,” he couldn’t help expressing aloud.

“It’s more of a business arrangement.” Saitou sounded downright tickled by Sano’s reaction, if such a word could be thought to apply to him. “We make foreign investments jointly, and that’s about the extent of it.”

They were both still and silent for a moment as Sano digested this. Why did these words seem to relieve him somehow? Because it would have complicated the arrangement if some really obnoxious woman might have dropped by any old evening and wondered what the hell Sano was doing sleeping on her husband’s floor? “So I guess…” he postulated, “you guys aren’t… in love… or anything.”

“‘In love?'” The scornful way Saitou drawled out the phrase almost made Sano blush. “You met her. What do you think?”

Sano grinned, relieved again. He’d been afraid at first it might be love in general that Saitou looked down on, and wondered for a fraction of a second what the officer must think of him for spending so much time and effort in the pursuit of it. But it made perfect sense that Saitou should speak so disdainfully of the idea of being in love with the person in question. “Yeah, she did seem really annoying.”

Saitou’s tone relaxed as he allowed, “I actually like her well enough. But she isn’t interested in men, so we’re merely friends.”

Friends with Saitou. Funny, but up until several weeks ago, Sano wouldn’t have considered that possible for anyone. Now, however, as he analyzed the atmosphere between them, he could positively state that this was a friendly silence.

Eventually Saitou broke it with an unexpected query. “Ahou,” he said slowly and somewhat pensively, “are you planning on making sexual advances toward Himura?”

“I mean, I wouldn’t put it exactly like…” Sano looked away, scratching his head. “Yeah, I guess. I’m going to have to, if this is going to work.” Since waiting for Kenshin to make sexual advances toward him certainly hadn’t.

“How?”

Sano was glad the shadows probably hid his blush at the thought that immediately entered his mind — a very nice thought, certainly, but he had to get to that point first. “I dunno,” he muttered.

“Why don’t you try it?”

“What, you mean march over to the dojo and–”

“I mean here and now. Try to seduce me and see how far you get.”

His blush abruptly deepening as his body stiffened in sudden surprise, Sano’s eyes snapped back to where Saitou still stood in the doorway. “You… you’re not serious…”

Saitou shrugged slightly, giving no indication that he might be joking. “It’ll be pretty pathetic when you’ve gone to all this trouble to impress Battousai and then can’t follow it up with a decent performance in more important areas.”

“Who says I can’t?” Sano demanded, insulted.

“I didn’t. But if you fail, you can be sure I’ll be laughing at you.”

“Fuck you.”

Saitou narrowed suggestive eyes. “I thought you didn’t intend to.”

Again Sano blushed. “I… I couldn’t. Kenshin… it wouldn’t be right…”

“Well, if celibacy is worth the strong possibility of failure, good night.” Saitou started to turn as if to go back to his bedroom.

“Hang on.” Sano took a step toward him with a sudden unexpected resolve that had arisen along with the horde of butterflies in his stomach. He would fuck the bastard’s brains out if he had to, just to prove him wrong. And it wouldn’t be so bad to get some practice in, after all… it might be nice to know what he was doing when he eventually made his move on Kenshin, and actually it would be really convenient to get it from the same source as his defense training. So he strode up to Saitou and did something he would never have dreamed he could possibly ever have considered: he kissed him.

It wasn’t his first kiss, but it couldn’t have been anything more than his eighth… and it sure as hell felt like the first. Might as well have been the first, for the mixture of uncertainty, awkwardness, nervous elation, and absolutely uncontrollable physical response involved. The tobacco and soba taste of the officer’s mouth and the warm sensation of his lips was surprisingly pleasant, and Sano dragged the kiss on longer than he’d meant to. Saitou, on the other hand, stood there motionless.

When he finally pulled back and asked, “How’s that?” it was with a bravado that was at least three quarters feigned.

The shadowy, thoughtful look the action had won him rather annoyed Sano, even in the midst of his other, more confused emotions, as Saitou demonstrated so little reaction to what Sano had considered a really good kiss. What he did instead was make a pensive sound and reach out. “Hardly enough to tempt someone into bed. Move your lips more.” And as he simultaneously slid bare hands around Sano’s shoulders and leaned forward, he murmured, “Like this,” and returned the kiss.

It was difficult to define the subtle differences to the action that made Sano’s heart throb and his knees weaken and his groin tingle; Saitou did move his lips, yes, and pushed gradually closer, but surely that couldn’t be the extent of it…!

Breathless, weak-limbed, and wide-eyed, Sano staggered back a step when Saitou released him. “Fuck,” he whispered. “You really know what you’re doing.”

The familiar smirk returned. “Try again,” Saitou commanded.

And things went from there.

***

It was with a mixture of emotions inexplicable and unfamiliar that Sano awoke the next morning much earlier than he generally did. For a few moments, eyes squeezed shut against any potential evidence to the contrary, he lay still and hoped it had all been a dream. Unfortunately, senses other than vision would provide their evidence — the futon beneath him was soft, for example, and smelled of cigarettes — and even his eyes, though closed, informed him that the light hit their lids from a different direction than it did in the great room. No, no good. He really was in Saitou’s bed.

Fuck,” he muttered, looking around at last at the room he’d never seen from this particular angle before. He hadn’t been drunk last night, but obviously he’d been pretty damn close to let Saitou do that. Do to him what had left behind a physical memory so powerful it could not be ignored, especially as he shifted into a sitting position and hugged his bare knees to his bare chest.

He tried, at least, to push away all the other memories crowding and clamoring for his attention… the sensation of hands and lips creeping over his body; the shocking realization of just how attractive Saitou really was, especially naked, how well built his body and how well suited to this particular activity; the rise of intense passion and simultaneous frustration as he was brought almost to his peak with aggravating expertise that never quite allowed him to climax until slick fingers had loosened him up sufficiently for…

“No!” God, how had he done that? “Oh, Kenshin,” he groaned, remembering just how fucking good it had felt. “I’m so sorry.”

And it had all started so innocently! Well, at least, it had all started so non-sexually… with Saitou’s willingness to listen to Sano’s concerns giving rise to the idea that Saitou might actually be someone Sano could at some point consider a friend. He hadn’t been thinking he might ever consider Saitou something more. He couldn’t consider Saitou something more. He loved Kenshin, for fuck’s sake, and this insanity didn’t change that.

The blanket needed washing, he reflected dully as he rose. He didn’t know what do to about the futon. It didn’t matter; the first thing to do was cover up the nudity that still made him think of how Saitou’s muscles felt beneath his skin, shifting hot on top of Sano, and the way trailing fingertips had sent little prickling shivers all across his body. Covering up the mottled bruise around his left nipple seemed eminently desirable, too.

“You always go to sleep like this afterwards,” Saitou said, somewhat breathlessly, when it was all over. With a deft movement of strong arms, he nestled Sano close up against him, then pressed his face to Sano’s sweaty head.

At first Sano was too dazed to say anything, but eventually, on regaining his voice, he commented hesitantly, “I… kinda hoped… I’d be the one to…”

Saitou gave a muffled laugh into Sano’s hair and raised his mouth enough to speak. “Not if you’re practicing for Battousai. Hasn’t the glimpse you’ve gotten at his true inner self shown you how things will be between you?”

Not sure what he made of Saitou’s apparent surety that sex would be any way between Kenshin and Sano, the latter said in continued hesitation, “But Kenshin’s–“

“Repressed,” Saitou broke in. “And he’ll show it in bed. His personality issues won’t let him give control to someone else at such an intimate moment, even for something as enjoyable as penetration. You’ll never get on top of him.”

Sano would have protested the disdainful reference to Kenshin’s ‘personality issues’ if he hadn’t been so busy wondering in some concern just how much of Saitou’s rather unkind assessment was true.

Now Sano considered that, since he was up so early, he should avail himself of the bath out back. It wouldn’t help with the nakedness, but obviously he wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about this any time soon in any case. “We make foreign investments jointly,” had remarked the bastard that had fucked him last night; thus he could afford a private bath. Sano might as well make use of it.

The advantage of bath-houses over private baths was, of course, that somebody else got everything ready for you, so the relaxation stage was reached much sooner and with less trouble. But eventually, even here, Sano lay back in the hot water with his eyes closed thinking about the same things he’d been thinking about almost exclusively since awakening. The biggest question at the moment remained how he could feel so good about something and yet so fucking awful at the same time.

It was all so totally wrong. Not even the proof Saitou had continually offered that this really was just practice for Kenshin — the tips he’d given Sano (usually with accompanying demonstrations) on how to go about this sex thing, the comments he’d made about Sano’s future with Kenshin, his businesslike manner throughout (considering the nature of the situation, at any rate) — not even that could change the wrongness Sano felt now, the morning after. But the undeniable awareness that it had been wildly, amazingly fun, that he desperately wanted further demonstrations of Saitou’s expertise, left him miserably conflicted.

And it wasn’t like he was having an affair or anything. He wasn’t actually with Kenshin yet, and this was just practice…

He groaned. To lose his virginity to Saitou Hajime was nothing he’d ever expected — not when he’d entered into their little agreement, nor at any time in his weirdest and most perverted dreams. He hadn’t even tried to pretend Saitou was Kenshin. And the most ridiculous thing was that he didn’t mind.

He tried to tell himself he did. The whole situation was sick — he should mind — he minded not minding. But it was clear already that his first taste of sex had changed how he felt about a lot of things… including sex. He wanted more of it, and at the moment he could accurately say he didn’t care how or with whom. Eventually he hoped it would be with Kenshin, but for now Saitou would have to do.

And how had he reached this conclusion so quickly? How had he gone from last night’s “It wouldn’t be right…” to this morning’s perfect readiness to bend over for Saitou (or, hell, to bend Saitou over if he’d let him)? Had it been at all aided by the memory of Saitou’s hot tongue on his–

“I’m not fucking thinking about that!” he growled. His face seemed more heated than the water that splashed up onto it when he slammed a fist down into the bath. He’d been in here for a long time, and had really better get out and start his chores.

***

That Saitou could sit there over supper without a single word, could act so normally, after what had happened between them last night, astonished Sano to no end. Not a syllable, not a look, not a movement on the officer’s part indicated their relationship had changed. Well, Sano reflected a bit defensively, because it hadn’t changed. Just practice for Kenshin, remember?

“You had better have been practicing,” Saitou did finally say as he smoked his after-dinner cigarette while Sano washed the dishes. “I’m not going easy on you tonight.”

At the way his brain chose to interpret that remark, Sano blushed so hard he thought blood must ooze from his eyes, and he had to fight off a totally unnecessary increase in respiratory rate. There was another thing he definitely needed practice in — he couldn’t get uncontrollably worked up like the barely-post-virginal amateur he was at the slightest thought or mention of sex. He had to be confident and in control, or Kenshin would just smile at him with that gentle condescension he excelled at and move on to something closer to his own level — or, worse, to Kaoru, who wouldn’t even be post-virginal yet.

With how much work he still had to do to become the mature sexual being Kenshin surely deserved, Sano didn’t want to jump right into combat practice. His astonishment at Saitou’s apparent indifference to the new step they’d taken hadn’t abated yet. How could the officer think to start training just like that, without a word?

“So, Saitou…” Though he’d finished the dishes, Sano didn’t turn; it was easier to bring this up — especially to bring it up without sounding shy and hesitant — with his back to Saitou. “About last night…”

“Yes?” The officer’s casual tone made it evident he really hadn’t thought much of it. It really had just been practice.

Relieved, Sano wondered, “Well, how was I?” with greater ease than before. This was the next step if he wanted to get some more. Practice, that is. More practice.

The amused curl of Saitou’s lip sounded in his reply, “Adjusting for the fact that it was your first time, or speaking objectively?”

“How do you know it was my first time?”

“Your pathetic performance made that pretty clear.”

“Hey!”

In his annoyance Sano had turned around at last, so he was able to see Saitou’s shrug. “You asked.”

“Fuck that,” grumbled Sano.

“Later,” said Saitou, in the same easy tone as before, “if you like.”

Attempting to look as cool and disinterested as Saitou and not to show the excited reaction that spread through his entire body at the words, Sano folded his arms across his chest and said, “Yeah?”

“You won’t get anywhere with Himura with your level of performance.” An interesting gleam appeared in Saitou’s eye as he added, “And I am certainly not averse to helping you improve.”

“You old lech,” Sano grinned. “Hurry up with the training, then!”

“Hurrying will make it worse.” Saitou reached for his sword, which he’d started using during these sessions only in the last week or so. “I expect you to learn just as much.”

“Bring it on,” Sano growled.

“Then don’t pass out, ahou.”

***

Sano wondered, a few days later, how sex could be so damned addictive. Since everything he’d ever heard had indicated this was the case, it came as no great surprise, but he definitely hadn’t been prepared for its influence in his own life. Alcohol had always been an effective diversion for him, but it had never been this compelling; fighting had always been a good escape from reality, but it had never been this irresistible. ‘Addiction’ was the only way to describe it, and he’d never been addicted to anything before.

This was exciting and frightening, and he couldn’t be sure exactly what he would do about it. Transfer the entire condition over to Kenshin, he hoped. And meanwhile, he planned on enjoying himself (enjoying Saitou, that is) and disregarding any guilt. He didn’t have much choice, really. Memories of sex were his constant companions during the day, dreams of sex not infrequently invaded his brain at night, and even during after-supper spars his thoughts were never fully occupied by his combative education and progress anymore — especially when Saitou took off his jacket and gloves to expose muscular arms and dexterous hands whose effectiveness in areas other than this Sano was coming to know intimately.

But one night all such distractions tumbled vigorously into the background when Sano, smoothly sloughing Saitou’s intended sword-blow away as he’d been taught — if not for the first time, at least for the first time to such a decisive degree of success — felt his follow-through connect. The next moment, of course (probably facilitated by his surprise at his own triumph), he was thrown to the floor by Saitou’s much more proficient counter-counterattack, but it was with an idiotically big grin on his face and a bubbling sense of victory and accomplishment.

Saitou stepped back, his sword-arm falling to his side. And though he undoubtedly wasn’t as full of glee as Sano, the nod he gave and his voice as he remarked, “It’s about time,” indicated satisfaction.

Bouncing to his feet, Sano struck a bicep-flexing pose as he gave a celebratory roar that turned into a laugh. “Oh, fuck, yes!” he exulted. “Did you see that? Did you fucking see that?” The brow Saitou raised worried him not at all. “Ohhh, Zanza is back in business! Anybody looking for someone to fight any ex-Shinsengumi captains? Contact me tonight and I’ll do it for free!”

“Whenever you and your deluded ego are finished…” Saitou’s tone was sardonic, but there was a touch of amusement to it as well.

“You have to admit I’ve come a long way. I couldn’t even touch you before.” Though Sano hadn’t intended a pun of any sort, he wondered if Saitou’s mind made as rapid a jump as his had from one kind of touch to another.

The officer gave no indication of such an inference as he said calmly, “True. You have improved.” Which was high praise, coming from Saitou, and only increased Sano’s excitement.

“Come on, let’s go celebrate!” Seizing Saitou’s right arm, Sano made tugging movements toward the door into the hallway.

Saitou shrugged him off easily, pointing his sword at the young man’s chest to keep him from reattaching. “Ahou, don’t you ever think of anything else?”

Attempting to hold off a blush, Sano protested, “Hey, bastard, don’t think you’re so fabulous I can’t keep my mind off you!” And was that ever a half truth at best. “I meant let’s go hit a bar somewhere.”

“You… and I… ‘go hit a bar somewhere?’ I must have been training you too hard.”

“I knew you’d say that. Come on, let’s go.”

The disbelief in Saitou’s stare increased. “Ahou, what part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?”

“The part you didn’t say, which I’m pretty sure was ‘no.’ Come on!”

“I have to go out of town tomorrow,” Saitou told him with a shake of the head. “I’m not going to spend my last night in Tokyo at some trashy bar full of lowlifes like you.”

These words fell like cold rain onto Sano’s sizzling enthusiasm. “What? How long will you be gone?”

“At least a week.”

“A week?! And you weren’t even going to tell me about this?”

“Of course I was. I couldn’t have you getting the wrong idea when I didn’t come home and going to look for me or something.”

“Like I’d ever look for you.”

“Like you’d ever have a chance at your darling Battousai without me.”

Sano made a frustrated sound. His cheer had been dampened, tempered by annoyance, but not eradicated. “Well, I still want to celebrate,” he said stubbornly. “I finally hit you!” His tone turned wheedling. “Just come out for an hour.”

“Why is it so important to you that I come drinking with you?”

Gradually Sano stilled. Why was it so important? It wasn’t as if there weren’t a dozen other people he would rather drink with than Saitou. Why should Saitou seem such a specifically desirable companion in this instance? He scrambled for an answer, and managed to come up with an excuse that might actually have been the truth. “Because… because you know what we’re celebrating, and I couldn’t really tell anyone else.”

Unsurprisingly, Saitou answered only with, “Hn.” Abruptly he sheathed his sword and moved toward the hallway door. “How late will you be out?”

Sano knew exactly what that question meant, but if Saitou didn’t plan to ask plainly Sano didn’t plan to answer plainly. “I dunno. All night, maybe.”

“Fine.” Saitou hadn’t turned to look at Sano since he’d started walking, and now did not even pause before entering the hall, which resulted in a somewhat muffled goodbye: “I’ll see you in a week or so, then.”

An inexplicable sense of bitter disappointment filled the young man he left behind. “Have fun in wherever the fuck you’re going!” Sano shouted after him. And when he’d stared at the hallway from beneath thunderous brows for several moments and received no reply, he finally whirled and stomped out of the house, slamming the back door behind him.

“Asshole,” he growled as he hopped the fence and took off through the neighborhood. He didn’t even know why he was so annoyed; he could drink just as easily without that jerk — more easily, in fact, since Saitou would probably complain about venue and company wherever they went and eventually insist they leave. Still, Sano wished Saitou had joined him, if only because he was curious about the cop’s level of tolerance.

Maybe he would go roll some dice with the guys. He’d landed the long-desired hit on Saitou; perhaps that luck would carry him to a series of wins. It was Monday, so he would probably find his friends down at Demura’s place clear across town. He could stop for a drink or two on the way, and if he ran into someone that seemed likely to treat him continually, he might cancel his gambling plans entirely. In any case, it should be a good night.

So why did he keep glancing back up the street toward Saitou’s house? It wasn’t like Saitou would have a sudden change of heart and come running out after him. And though voluntarily doing without the nightly pleasure he’d become accustomed to lately was no happy prospect, still it wasn’t like Sano would have a sudden change of heart and go running back in there to Saitou. The coming week was going to suck too, but he could stand it. He’d done it for twenty years; he could do it for seven days.

The silence weighed on him oddly as he made his way out of the residential area and into a more commercial district, to the point where he almost felt like talking to himself to fill it. Not quite that far gone yet, however, he just stomped his feet as he walked instead. He felt like being noisy, since obviously he had no chance at conversation. Damn that bastard! Was it so hard to come drinking for an hour with his star pupil or whatever the hell Sano was to him?

He paused for a moment in order to knock on his forehead. “Hello in there!” And now he really was talking to himself. “You don’t fucking care, remember? It’s not important!”

Saitou had accused Sano, the day they’d started all this, of not being able to take him seriously. But who wasn’t taking whom seriously now? All Sano wanted was to have a few drinks to commemorate this checkpoint in his training… it meant a lot to him, and what was so fucking hard about it? What seemed the most logical answer — that Sano’s company did not at all appeal to Saitou, that Ex-Shinsengumi-san would rather sit around alone and then go to sleep in a cold bed than be seen in public with someone like the former Zanza, that Saitou could find more entertainment in his own solitary thoughts than in anything Sano had to offer, that Sano in general just wasn’t good enough — was something Sano simply refused to think about. Not that he cared what Saitou thought of him in any case.

What he really needed, he realized, was to see Kenshin. It had been too long, and Sano would have to face Kaoru again eventually. That would rid his head of these tumultuous thoughts about stupid Saitou, too, so multiple birds could be taken care of with one stone. Was it too late for a visit to the dojo? Probably not… he’d have to see what the hour was by the time he made his way over there.

Ah, Kenshin. He could erase any number of problems. Sano thrust his hands into his pockets as he continued walking and began to contemplate his friend. The first smile since before his argument with Saitou crossed his face as he recalled how it had felt, in response to Kenshin’s potent words, to realize there was more to life than he’d been getting out of it, that if he looked outside himself he might actually be able to enact some change in the world, Meiji era or not. He remembered how inspiring it had been to watch Kenshin fight the Oniwabanshuu for Megumi’s sake, culminating in that dreadful (and, embarrassingly enough, only partially observed by Sano) battle with Aoshi.

He thought back to the time when old loyalties had confused him, set him on another misguided quest of violence, and how Kenshin had not only rescued him once more, but had done so in a manner that allowed him to retain his other best friend. He recalled how frighteningly noble Kenshin had been during that ridiculous pirate affair, how he’d managed to turn Shura’s heart just by being his extraordinary, strong, generous self. And of course there had been Kyoto. Even knowing the rurouni, Sano couldn’t have imagined it until he’d seen it; the image of a battered and nearly dead Kenshin rising slowly but forcefully from the ground to face Shishio yet again would forever give him shivers.

Truly, no one was as amazing as Kenshin.

With a sigh, Sano glanced behind, back up the street, one last time.

***

The footfalls that had started when speech had ceased were coming this way, hastening into a run. Sano, who hadn’t previously bothered trying to hide as he listened in, now stepped into a nearby shadowed doorway and waited. Presently, as he’d expected, a female figure passed him, moving as quickly as her zouri and restrictive kimono would allow. The glimpse he caught of her face showed warring panic and determination; she didn’t believe fleeing would help, but neither did she plan on simply giving in. Lucky for her Sano had been around to notice her predicament.

Also as he’d expected, when he stepped out of his brief place of concealment to intercept the woman’s pursuer, he found himself facing a drawn sword. He’d heard its rasp at the culmination of the argument that had set the woman running, not to mention the suddenly overtly threatening tone of the man’s voice that had previously been merely haughty and demanding. And Sano wanted to know why, between these two people that seemed to know each other and have some manner of business to discuss, things should escalate into violence. If the woman were a prostitute, it would make sense — still wouldn’t be acceptable, but it would make sense — but she didn’t look it, and this wasn’t the right part of town.

The man, like the woman, appeared to be relatively affluent, clean and classily dressed, but the katana he held was nothing out of the ordinary. And given there was no way he could mistake the demeanor of the much more scruffy-looking person that had just stepped from the shadows and held out an arm, fist clenched, to block his path, he lowered his weapon as he came to a halt and scowled. “What do you want?”

“I want to know what the hell you think you’re doing.”

“Nothing that’s any of your business.”

“You’re armed; she’s not. That kind of bullshit’s always my business.”

The man drew himself up, and his sword rose to mimic the straightness of his spine. “Do you have any idea who I am?”

“No.” Sano grinned darkly. “Do you have any idea who I am?”

Too busy narrowing his eyes and curling his lip, the man didn’t actually manage to reply to this question. It was a panting female voice from behind Sano that provided the answer: “You’re… kenkaya… Zanza.”

Sano twitched a brief glance over his shoulder to where the woman had ventured back this direction and now stood, bending as if to ease a stitch, a few cautious paces away. He gave her a more friendly grin. “Glad someone still recognizes me. What the hell is going on?”

“Butt out, mercenary!” Evidently the announcement of Sano’s former identifiers had done nothing to cow the man. “She’s my fiance; I have every right to–”

“To chase her around with a sword?” Sano turned fully to face the man again, taking a menacing step toward him. “I don’t fucking think so.”

“And I told you,” the woman put in, still breathless, “I wouldn’t marry you if you were the last man in Tokyo, no matter what your father does.”

Just Tokyo, huh? Small world.

Having evidently reached the end of his patience, the man pointed his weapon at Sano. The position of his hands and orientation of his body spoke a certain degree of expertise, and Sano, much to his pleasure and somewhat to his surprise, fell automatically into one of the defensive stances he’d been practicing with Saitou. Even the unfairly demanding wolf couldn’t criticize that reaction.

And then another voice spoke up. “I believe you should put your sword away. I would not recommend fighting this man.”

Sano’s heart, which had given a little jump at the very first word, began to pound rapidly as he turned his eyes toward the new arrival. He couldn’t believe this luck. Ever since Saitou left town, Sano had actively planned on dropping by the dojo, yet somehow been sidetracked every single evening; and now here on the fourth night was Kenshin running into him. What a gorgeous, perfect coincidence.

“Oh, hey, Kenshin,” he greeted, as casually as if he’d been expecting him. “Don’t bother trying to talk to this guy; I think he’s the stubborn type.”

Taking another step out of the shadows, where it appeared he’d concealed himself in order to see what would happen exactly as Sano had a few minutes before, Kenshin gave Sano an adorable mild expression of skepticism at the description of someone else as ‘the stubborn type.’ “I heard what he was saying to the young lady. He does seem very sure of himself.”

Sano gave a derisive laugh worthy of Saitou, at which the bratty man made a snarling sound of defiance and lunged.

To drag this fight out as long as possible so as to showcase every single move he’d been practicing lately was Sano’s goal, and he pursued it ruthlessly. The rich guy, though not on a level with Sano’s combative skills, wasn’t too bad with his little sword, and Sano allowed him to think they were more evenly matched than was actually the case as he encouraged more complex attacks just to show how well he could deflect or avoid them. And once sure he’d shown off everything — he didn’t want this to get too repetitive, after all — he knocked the jerk out cleanly with a single hit.

“I did tell him…” Kenshin said ruefully as he approached from where he’d been calmly watching.

Sano nudged the form at his feet with a brief laugh.

“That was amazing!” The woman too had come forward, and was now staring down at her fallen harasser with a wide-eyed expression of almost disbelieving pleasure and sudden freedom. “Thank you!” And she joined them in watching the shallow breaths of the lump on the cobblestones for a few moments.

Finally Kenshin asked her, “Will this make your situation worse?”

“I don’t know that it can get worse,” she sighed, “and this is certainly better than whatever he was planning to do to me just now.”

“If you require any assistance…” Seriously Kenshin gave directions to the Kamiya Dojo. “You will find friends there.”

She looked from one man to the other and nodded gratefully.

“Meanwhile,” Sano advised, “don’t let this jerk push you around. Just kick him in the balls if he tries.”

“When he’s awake and armed,” she replied regretfully, “that isn’t usually an option.” Her smile became very sunny all of a sudden as she added, “But right now…” And she lashed out with a heel with such suddenness, viciousness, and precise aim that Sano and Kenshin both winced. For an intense instant she looked as if she was considering doing it again, or even several more times, but then apparently thought better of it. “I’ve got to go home. Thanks again!”

Sano waved her away, and he and Kenshin waited in silence until she’d turned a corner. Then, not for the first time, Sano murmured, “Women are scary.”

“I hope she will be all right,” Kenshin worried.

Though Sano hoped so too, this wasn’t what he wanted to talk about. Time to get the long-anticipated reaction from Kenshin. So he replied, “Well, hopefully this guy won’t bother her again now I’ve taught him a lesson.”

Kenshin glanced down. “We should do something with him.”

“Why?” Sano started moving away from the recumbent form. “Though I did leave him in pretty bad shape, didn’t I?”

Joining him with only a brief backward look and slight shrug, Kenshin smiled up at Sano. “You did. You have clearly been training.”

“I sure have,” Sano beamed.

“And it has been well worth it,” Kenshin assured him. And he sounded impressed! He really did!!

“I’ve been working hard!”

“I see,” the rurouni went on, speaking slowly as if planning his words with care, “that you are learning to defend yourself more thoroughly, and avoid taking injury, as you fight.”

Though Sano honestly didn’t see anything wrong with taking a reasonable amount of injury as a means to the desired end, he wasn’t about to say so; rather, he launched into some smooth self-promotion: “Yeah, I’m not as bull-headed as everyone thinks.”

“I never thought you were,” was Kenshin’s automatic reply. Then he gave an embarrassed laugh as honesty evidently compelled him. “Well, maybe occasionally I did. Or maybe more often than that, but…”

But now you fucking don’t! Slapping Kenshin’s back in a friendly, I’m-not-planning-on-seducing-you-eventually sort of way, the overjoyed Sano said, “I’ve been working so hard, I haven’t seen you in forever. How ’bout we go get a drink somewhere?”

Once he regained the balance Sano’s slap had thrown him off, Kenshin smiled up at him again. “All right,” he said.

As they headed toward the nearest decent drinking establishment Sano knew (and Sano knew most of them, decent or otherwise), Kenshin continued the conversation on the same topic, which was exactly where Sano wanted it. “Have you been training ever since we got back from Kyoto?”

“Not the whole time… it wasn’t ’til after that bullshit with that Shigure guy. But I’ve been doing damn well for how long I’ve been at it, if I do say so myself.”

“You are! I was very impressed.”

He was impressed! He was fucking impressed!!

But then he said the one thing in the world Sano didn’t want him to — well, besides talking about how in love with Kaoru he was or something — “Whom have you been training with?”

Not blushing was out of the question, given the images the words conjured up in Sano’s head, even if the secondary training he’d been busy with had only been aimed at becoming better for Kenshin. And though there was surely no way Kenshin, knowing nothing of what was going on, would suspect the true depth of Sano’s arrangement with Saitou, he was struck with a wild, guilty fear that the redness of his face would reveal everything and Kenshin would utterly scorn him for the rest of his life.

“Some bastard I met on the street,” he said somewhat indistinctly, avoiding Kenshin’s eye. Technically it was the truth. “Look, there’s the Haiirobou; they do some good mitarashi.” And he hastened forward.

Giving no sign of having noticed anything odd in the answer to his last question, Kenshin followed his friend inside and joined him in requesting some snacks and sake, even openly volunteering to meet the bill like the angelic being he was. But whether his mind remained on their previous topic or he’d been brought back to it by the dango they’d ordered, he continued on it. “You are really serious about this training, if you haven’t stopped by the dojo for food even when Kaoru is not cooking.”

To hear Kenshin refer to Kaoru with no honorific was disconcerting and depressing; Sano had come to consider the ‘dono’ an integral part of the relationship between those two, and didn’t like it dropped.

“Hey,” he protested, “I was there… um, well, I guess it was a few weeks back, wasn’t it?” He tried not to think about the kiss that had broken up that party, how he’d slumped off to drink and fight away his pain, and then Saitou had… “But I’ve also got a job,” he half lied, making the addendum hastily so as to force images of that hot night out of his head, “so I’m really busy. Actually I’ve been meaning to come see you sometime soon, since my trainer’s out of town and I have some free time.”

“Everyone misses you,” Kenshin said, evidently completely oblivious to the shiver such words occasioned up Sano’s spine. “Especially the little girls.”

Though Sano wouldn’t have minded getting some more admiration out of Kenshin regarding his improving skills, the interrelated topic of Saitou that he would prefer to avoid actually made it something of a relief to abandon the subject. So he said teasingly, “Ayame-chan and Suzume-chan just can’t get enough of a real man when he shows up, huh?”

Kenshin laughed along with him. “I believe Ayame-chan may be developing some interest in Yahiko.”

“And he can’t see anyone but Tsubame-chan, so he’ll never notice.”

“That does seem to be the case.”

They both laughed again, but Sano couldn’t help noticing the irony of the exchange. Reminded by this of one other that shared his plight, he asked, “By the way, have you guys seen kitsune-sensei lately?”

Appearing somewhat worried, Kenshin shook his head. “No. Kaoru and I are concerned about her; she seems to be overworking herself. Something is troubling her, I think.”

For this Sano had no reply. A variety of reasons existed not to tell Kenshin bluntly that Megumi was in love with him and undoubtedly trying to distract herself with a heavy workload from thinking about his engagement to Kaoru — especially when Kenshin went on musingly, “Actually, I believe the last time we saw her at the dojo was that same night when you were last there.”

Yeah, funny coincidence, Sano was tempted to say aloud. He hoped Megumi would pull through this. Things would probably be especially bad for her when Sano jumped in and proved that Kenshin and Kaoru could be broken up with the right application of leverage. At that point, if she could never bring herself to examine and treat his hand again, he would completely understand. He should probably visit her for a checkup sometime before he alienated her permanently.

“Speaking of Kaoru worrying,” Kenshin said, looking around, “I promised her I would not be out too late.”

Sano clenched his jaw to keep it from dropping open, and sounded almost as appalled and unhappy as he actually was when he protested, “But you just got here! You’ve only had two drinks!”

“You were right,” said Kenshin as he prepared to rise. “The mitarashi here is delicious. But Kaoru will be expecting me back.”

Struggling mightily for a jovial tone rather than the deep bitterness that wanted to spill out in his words, Sano replied, “Funny… I didn’t notice that collar around your neck until just now. Where does that leash lead off to?”

Kenshin’s smile acknowledged the tease while at the same time reproving very slightly. “It is not a leash, Sano; it’s basic courtesy.”

“Yeah, of course.” Sano forced a smile in return. “Have fun. I’ll talk to you later.”

Kenshin nodded and bade him a casual goodbye that seemed somehow very cold in spite of its informality. Even the wave he offered from the door before he slipped out was no consolation. And Sano was left staring down at the last of the dango and the sake he fully intended to finish before he left, wondering where all the pleasure in his night had gone.

***

How Sano endured the remaining four days before Saitou returned, Sano wasn’t at all certain. Though he did make it to the dojo on two separate occasions, all that happened there was the assignment of chores and babysitting jobs and the opportunity to observe Kaoru making eyes at Kenshin, who was as gorgeous and oblivious as ever, and Sano came back extremely frustrated. Eventually he was so agitated, and judged himself so impossible to be around, that he lay in the bath the entire last day of Saitou’s absence, emerging only to stoke the fire for another period of hot water, alternately napping and languidly masturbating.

The only coherent dream he had during any instance of sleep, however, was about Saitou rather than Kenshin, and explicit enough that he awoke with an erection to go along with his confusion. He needed Saitou here, to put things in perspective, to calm him down, to get everything back on track. With Saitou around, things were a lot easier to understand — everything except Saitou himself.

So he took care of his condition, finally vacated the bath, and checked over the house to make sure it was up to the bastard’s exacting standards of cleanliness and organization. He’d done this yesterday, hoping Saitou would be home then, and probably didn’t need to do it again… but figured he couldn’t be too careful. He even gave the great room floor one last and somewhat unnecessary sweep before he went into the bedroom.

He’d been shamelessly sleeping in Saitou’s bed all week, and didn’t think twice about preparing to do so knowing its rightful owner might join him there tonight. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t been using it when Saitou was around, and anyway this was all just an arrangement. But it did feel odd to be surrounded by that cigarette smell, which never really washed out of the linens, without actually having the smoker in the house. It felt… wrong… somehow. Of course the whole situation was wrong, but it wouldn’t last much longer. Because Kenshin’s wedding careened toward them faster every day, and Sano would be damned if he lost him after working so hard.

Having stripped to his wraps, he tossed his clothes aside on the floor and himself down onto the futon. Though the night was hot, he always felt the need, in bed, to be covered with something, and pulled the blanket loosely over his stomach. Then he closed his eyes, lay still, and tried to escape the confusion of today’s thoughts by forcing himself to contemplate Kenshin coherently and purposefully.

Exactly when he fell asleep, or what he was thinking at the time, he didn’t know. But at some point he sensed vaguely a draft of cooler air, soft sounds nearby, the advent of a warm body beside him, strong arms around him, and breath on his neck as a deep voice said… something… before he returned to his dreams. He couldn’t make out the words, and didn’t remember them in the morning, but somehow he felt better than he had the previous day despite again awakening alone. The only indication that Saitou had returned was the new laundry in the basket and a few dirty dishes in the kitchen.

That day, unfathomably happy, Sano whistled as he did his chores, every vestige of yesterday’s agitation and confusion gone. He washed his own clothes along with Saitou’s, borrowing the officer’s red yukata until the sun had dried everything else. Not that his clothes particularly needed this attention — he’d laundered them just last week — but for some reason he wanted them clean. It was the same non-reason he’d taken another bath this morning despite having lived in the water yesterday. Some of Saitou’s fastidiousness must be rubbing off on him.

Then he spent longer than usual making supper. Things weren’t turning out the way he wanted them, for some reason. And the table didn’t look right no matter how many times he reset it; it took four attempts before he considered himself (grudgingly) satisfied. Saitou must really be rubbing off on him — he’d never cared this much before whether the rice was perfect or whether the chopsticks were at the correct angle!

He sat down to wait.

“Is that empty bowl particularly interesting this evening, ahou?”

At the first syllable of this question, Sano jumped, rattling the table, then nearly upset the latter as he rose clumsily to his feet. “What bowl?” was his stupid response.

“The one you’ve been staring at for the last three minutes.”

“You were standing there that long?”

Saitou raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t even notice? That’s an achievement even for you.”

Flustered, Sano protested, “I was thinking, all right?”

The mocking expression on the harsh face intensified, though there might have been some interest there as well, as Saitou asked, “Ah, and was Himura impressed with your new skills?”

Sano shook his head. “How the hell do you always know fucking everything?”

“I look around, unlike a certain idiot I know.”

Turning, Sano dropped back into his place at the table. “Well, get over here and look around at this food before it gets cold.” Despite his exasperated sigh, however, he’d enjoyed this exchange, and he definitely enjoyed having Saitou in the same room again. Against all odds, it appeared he truly was glad to have the bastard back.

The officer sat, and they commenced eating just as they had so many times before. They often spent the first half of the meal in relative silence, since little came between Sano and his food; but it seemed to Sano that, though Saitou wasn’t saying anything more than usual, his gaze crossed the table with a strange frequency. After a while it began to get irritating, so finally Sano asked, “What are you staring at?”

“You.” Saitou was unfazed by his companion’s belligerent tone.

“Yeah, I noticed that much. What about me?”

“I was just wondering how else you’ve wasted your time this last week. Not practicing, I assume.”

Would Sano never again be able to hear words like ‘training’ and ‘practice’ without blushing? He bent over his vegetables to hide his face. “Maybe I have been. You don’t know.”

“I think we covered what I know just a few minutes ago.”

Sano choked on his latest bite, gripped suddenly by the uncanny thought of Saitou being able to see him wherever he went and whatever he did — especially, though not exclusively, what he’d been doing yesterday. “Hey, don’t go claiming to have any supernatural powers or anything,” he said weakly, through a cough.

“Only in bed.” This was uttered at such a deadpan, without the slightest change in facial expression as Saitou sipped his tea, that at first Sano didn’t quite know what to say.

Finally, as the implications of the phrase sank in, Sano grinned. “Kyoto was cold, huh?”

Saitou’s face remained tilted slightly downward into his cup, but Sano caught the amused gleam in his eyes as they rose toward him in acquiescence.

“Then hurry up and finish, old man. It’s been cold here too.”

Section 3

Days passed, and suddenly it was July. How could time have been moving so slowly when it was already July? Looking at the calendar on the wall in Saitou’s office, despite how meticulously the officer kept to the current page, Sano still felt there must be some mistake. It could only be the beginning of June at the very latest! Even the weather didn’t seem to believe it could possibly be July; this was the mildest summer he could remember.

Though he never definitively brought it up, and Saitou never questioned, Sano began pushing himself harder than ever in all areas. Technically he could probably entirely abandon the combative part of his training, since the goal of impressing Kenshin had been accomplished… but Sano felt he wasn’t quite getting something, that something lay just barely beyond him; he was sure if he only reached far enough, trained thoroughly enough, he would understand. If only Saitou would giver him some positive feedback! As Sano had predicted all those weeks ago, ‘not hopeless’ was the best he would ever get. Even just a word or two of specific encouragement would do him a world of good.

This overwhelming desire for an expression of approbation from his mentor brought Sano to the realization of just how reliant he’d become on Saitou, and forced him to a reluctant decision: regardless of what remained for him to learn, he needed to extricate himself from this dependency. So on July 8th, having finished his chores early enough to be done before Saitou appeared, he went home… though that phrase didn’t feel entirely accurate anymore; his run-down apartment seemed almost unfamiliar after so long. It was definitely cold. Very cold, particularly at night. And the lack of a certain heat during those hours was not the least of the circumstances he needed to acclimatize himself to. He should only be thinking about Kenshin now, even at night — especially at night — and he needed a clear head for the upcoming trial.

And he was prepared, wasn’t he? In the important areas, at least. He’d built up better defensive skills than he’d ever had, could easily continue practicing them on his own, and had caught Kenshin’s eye with his abilities and his willingness to change and grow. He’d learned so many lovemaking tricks that he hadn’t even gotten a chance to test half of them yet, but he sure as hell knew what their effects on him were; he figured if Saitou could do it to him, he could do it to Kenshin.

So why did he still feel there was something serious, something vital, that he hadn’t figured out yet?

In searching his own head for the answer, in trying to lay everything out neatly in the hopes that he would be able to spot the missing piece, he found only confusion. Of course lately he’d been confused on a fairly regular basis, and he assumed it would clear up once he was triumphantly and happily settled down with Kenshin, so he attempted not to worry too much about it.

Settled down with Kenshin? Now that he thought about it, this circumstance seemed unlikely. Sano’s intentions were going to destroy or at least severely damage some of the friendships they had here in Tokyo and — he hadn’t considered this before — effectively evict Kenshin from the Kamiya Dojo, at the very least until Kaoru recovered. A single glance around assured Sano he couldn’t very well invite Kenshin to stay here with him in the limited space under this leaky roof… it was about time he made some concrete plans.

First, the confession.

“Hey, Kenshin, can I talk to you?”

“Of course, Sano.”

Then I put my hand on his shoulder and step up close. “I’ve been wanting to tell you for a long time. A really long time. Maybe ever since I first met you.” Dammit, even in my own fucking imagination I can’t spit the damn phrase out.

So Kenshin says, “Yes?”

“Kenshin… I love you. And I don’t want you to marry jou-chan.”

Then he stares at me like I’m crazy and says, “But I love Kaoru! I am sorry, Sano.”

Fuck! No! Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. How about this…

“Hey, Kenshin, can I talk to you?”

“Of course, Sano.”

Then I take him for a walk away from the dojo and make sure jou-chan doesn’t follow, and once I get him somewhere private I give him a kiss — a really good kiss, like the kind where Saitou…

He shifted in discomfort and annoyance where he lay on his moldy futon staring at the ceiling. It took several moments to get his thoughts under control again.

Yeah, so I kiss the hell out of him, and while he’s all breathless afterwards I say, “I love you, Kenshin. Please don’t marry jou-chan; it’ll break my heart.”

And he’ll look at me and realize he’s loved me all along and was only going along with jou-chan because… whatever; anyway, he’ll see that me and him just have to be together, and he’ll say, “Oh, Sano, I am so glad you told me this! I might never have realized, but of course I love you! I must cancel my wedding to Kaoru-dono.”

Again he was derailed. Because that was going to fucking kill Kaoru.

He’d never given more than marginal reflection to this topic, but now he supposed it was time to focus on it squarely. Kaoru loved Kenshin. Kaoru had supported Kenshin, emotionally and financially, almost from the very moment she’d met him. Kaoru had waited ages for a return of affection from Kenshin. And once Sano had won Kenshin away from her, had broken her heart, how could he live with himself?

And yet… shouldn’t she have picked up, after those platonic ages, that Kenshin would only marry her if she pressured him into it? By this time she should be braced for the possibility of never actually having him. And it wasn’t as if a lengthy period even of the impressive type of unwavering support Kaoru had been providing entitled her to romance; she shouldn’t expect it! And, honestly, did Kaoru really love Kenshin? Was there a proper bond of souls there, or was she merely dazzled by Kenshin’s awesome amazingness?

Besides, Kaoru was strong and resilient… she’d recovered nicely once before when Kenshin had left her. Even if the emotion she felt toward Kenshin and the expectation of living happily ever after with him were both serious and deep, even if the series of events Sano planned on initiating did break her heart, she would eventually be fine. She would go on to find a love more properly suited to her, and perhaps even, someday, reinstate her friendship with the two men.

Though far from satisfied, Sano steeled himself. That was the best he could do, so he pushed thoughts of Kaoru’s part in all of this firmly aside and went back to meticulous planning of his conversation with Kenshin. “Hey, Kenshin, can I talk to you?”

This set of reflections left him much closer to satisfied. He believed he had things worked out reliably well, having come up with a general plan of attack, specific arguments against any weak excuses Kenshin might provide, and some really delicious mental images of how things would go from there. Then he would suggest they remove to Kyoto for a while — he could do some work for the Oniwabanshuu or something to support them — as a sort of honeymoon. It gave him shivers just thinking about it.

Over the next couple of days, he took to practicing the persuasive statements he had in mind whenever he was alone — which, given that he’d come home specifically to concentrate and not be distracted by anyone (mostly by Saitou), he usually was. As long as he didn’t botch his delivery (and possibly even if he did, depending on how near the surface lay Kenshin’s subconscious love for him), he didn’t think anything could go wrong.

That at least some aspects of the affair still had him feeling undeniably, skin-crawlingly wrong he continued attempting to ignore.

And July 15th arrived. Sano didn’t have to make any special effort to rise early, for he’d been awake all night. Once the light of dawn touched his unsettled figure in its twisted blanket, he gave up trying to sleep and commenced pacing instead. Hands in the pockets of his freshly washed pants, he chewed his lip in between hours’ worth of broken further rehearsals of what he was coming to consider his lines for the day.

Finally, “What the fuck am I doing?” he grumblingly demanded of himself. Throwing open the door with decisive vigor, he strode out toward the Kamiya Dojo and his conquest.

***

Though Sano raised his arm toward the dojo property’s outer door, his fingers seemed to shrink back toward the palm of his hand rather than extend to open it. Was he really that nervous? His steps had been sluggish all the way here, and his mind was in a turmoil. He was more than ready for this, so why the hesitation?

He brushed the handle, which was good for a start. He had to stop overthinking. Had to set worry aside and just go in there and do this. It was his own happiness he sought; delay would do nothing for him. What was wrong with him? After a deep breath he intended as steadying and encouraging (little as it functioned thus), he clenched the muscles in his arm to fling the door open.

“Sanosuke.”

He froze. Not having heard the other man’s approach was nothing unusual, but the use of Sano’s actual name was.

“Sano.”

And his nickname, even? Sano turned slowly. Under other circumstances, he might have been annoyed with Saitou for throwing him even farther off balance than he already was with the unprecedented name-calling, but he found himself bizarrely pleased at the officer’s presence. The very sight of him there puffing away at the ubiquitous tobacco fix braced Sano unexpectedly.

“Hey,” was his weak greeting. “Come to wish me good luck?”

“Since you didn’t bother to say goodbye a week ago…” That the generally articulate Saitou didn’t finish the sentence struck Sano as odd, but he took his point. Actually it was touching — and surprising — that Saitou would wish him well, so far even as to show up here specifically today.

Sano smiled faintly. Saitou had been really nice all along, hadn’t he? Nice and supportive and a lot more of a friend than Sano had ever expected to find him. It would have been appropriate to thank him for that at this point, but an unspeakable ocean of things Sano needed to say already threatened to drown him. So he just gave the older man a wave that probably didn’t convey much as he turned toward the door again.

And then Saitou said his name for a third time. The sound of those syllables in that voice was so unusual and so compelling that Sano turned back immediately. He noticed now, as he looked closer, that Saitou’s appearance differed somewhat from that of last week: he was worn out, Sano thought, and perhaps a little thinner… haggard, almost. He’d clearly been up all night as Sano had. He must be working on a difficult case.

Though Sano sympathized, he couldn’t handle delay. Still, he tried to keep any unfriendliness from his tone as he asked, “What do you want?”

The period Saitou then spent staring, cigarette near but not quite touching his lips as if he’d forgotten about it, lasted so long that Sano would have thought his own patience shouldn’t have covered it… and yet he made no move, nor attempted to break the silence. And finally Saitou said, “You’re finding this difficult.”

“Yeah, no shit,” Sano muttered.

“Why?”

“If I knew what was wrong, I’d have kicked its ass by now.”

One corner of Saitou’s mouth lifted. “Pithy, as always.” He came a step closer, looking abruptly so pointedly determined that Sano shivered. Those golden eyes seemed ready to stab into him every bit as devastatingly as Saitou’s sword had once done. “My point,” he said, “is that you don’t actually want to go through with this.”

Sano stiffened. “What? What the hell do you mean?”

“Maybe you haven’t realized it yet, but you don’t really want Himura.”

“What the fuck would you know about that?” He managed to make this demand in a decently defiant tone, and the feeling of fists forming from what had previously been lax, sweating hands encouraged him somewhat, but mentally Sano was even more of a mess now than before.

“I was sleeping with you for two months, a week, and three days. It makes sense that I would know some things about you.” Saitou’s smirk lacked something; it looked put on, like a mask behind which his true feelings were completely unreadable.

“And you came all the way over here to tell me this at the last minute?”

“I came all the way over here at the last minute,” Saitou said slowly, as if struggling for words, “to tell you that I don’t want you to go through with this.”

At this the final strands of Sano’s annoyance and impatience unraveled, leaving behind thin-stretched nervousness and a condition, newly revealed, that seemed very much like unhappiness. But there was curiosity too, and something else he couldn’t quite define, in response to Saitou’s words and unusual demeanor. “What? Why?”

The officer stepped even closer, so that only a short distance remained between them, never removing his piercing gaze from Sano’s. “I am in love with you.”

Inability to breathe or, for several moments, to formulate a coherent thought in the wake of the sort of reality implosion that had just taken place inside him left Sano stammering and dizzy. What kind of a development was this?

All these months practicing at… at… everything… had all been real to this guy? All along? Or else since when? And Saitou claimed Sano didn’t want Kenshin, which carried the obvious implication that there might be someone else Sano did want… and Saitou had an infuriating habit of being right most of the time. And Saitou was not only capable of love, willing to admit he could and did love, but loved Sano? Enough that he would actually say it in such unmistakable, uninsulting terms? How had that happened?

Everything was spinning, and Sano suddenly found himself leaning on the frame of the door he’d been trying to open just minutes before. The figure in front of him had become more of a concept, a puzzle he was being forced to solve, than a proper visual, and seemed to be flickering in and out, repeatedly replaced with a different concept, a different puzzle, a torment to Sano’s eyes and brain. Kenshin, Saitou, Kenshin, Saitou… what was he going to do?

***

As the silent mental wrestling match progressed, Saitou watched in raging anxiousness, unmoving and equally silent. He didn’t miss a single expression that crossed the young man’s face as Sano furiously contemplated this upheaval, but what to make of those expressions he didn’t know. He feared his own interpretation must be miserably biased, but interpretation was all that could occupy his mind at the moment.

No, that wasn’t true. In addition to this, his mind was full to bursting of any number of things, many of them emotion-charged images and memories: Sano jumping in mud puddles and kicking rocks; Sano yelling until he was pink in the face; Sano lounging around Saitou’s home as if it were his own; Sano complaining in colorful language about the littlest, silliest things; Sano sitting across from Saitou at the supper table, laughing at something Saitou was telling him about work; Sano twisting and attacking during their training, somehow simultaneously stubborn and responsive; Sano straining upward as Saitou thrust deep inside him… Everything was Sano: cheerful, infuriating, funny, beautiful Sano. It was all Saitou could do to keep from shaking in fear at the thought of losing what he’d so unconsciously come to treasure.

The only person that could hide anything from Saitou with any success, he reflected bitterly, was Saitou himself. He’d certainly repressed this well, at any rate. Exactly when it had started — exactly how long he’d spent denying what he felt, coolly claiming that the entire arrangement with Sano was nothing more than a source of entertainment, eventually easy sex, and perhaps something like unexpected friendship — he still didn’t know. He probably would never have admitted it even internally if he hadn’t been forced to.

When Sano had disappeared so abruptly without a word of explanation, Saitou had tried to tell himself first that he wasn’t surprised, then that he didn’t regret the loss, then that he missed Sano only as he would miss anything he’d become accustomed to having around, that he would soon cease to notice his absence. But just the consciousness of that absence — the awareness that Sano might never come back, that Saitou might never see him again or perhaps encounter him only as Himura’s lover — had roused in his suddenly racing heart a sharp, squeezing pain that increased with every lonely moment and every thought of Sano. He’d been overcome with a furious and nearly unconquerable desire to go after the idiot, drag him home, and never let him go again, and this had made plain to him the full scope of his own emotions.

And now what? He’d been encouraging Sano’s plan to win Himura — at first because it was so amusingly ludicrous, but eventually because it seemed to mean so much to Sano — and therefore hadn’t made any provisions against falling in love with Sano himself. If he’d even recognized that as a possibility, he would have been more guarded, probably wouldn’t have slept with him, would at least have watched himself for symptoms and nipped any budding of what he would have considered a very inconvenient and counterproductive attachment.

Or, if the attachment had been inevitable, which he was more than a little inclined to think, if he’d merely known his own heart earlier, he could have spoken then and avoided the badly timed outburst of today… the one that, every moment, he expected to have thrown back in his face with anger and derision… or, even worse, stupefied pity.

But he hadn’t been lying when he’d postulated that Sano didn’t really want Battousai. Wishful thinking it might be, but not dishonesty. To him, Sano’s behavior over the last few months, not to mention the way Sano spoke of Himura, indicated nothing more than a superficial infatuation. Saitou certainly didn’t believe Himura had any romantic interest in Sano, but, again, wishful thinking might be skewing his perception.

If Sano continued his plan, walked in there now and made his confession, what would be the result? And if it turned out Saitou was the only person around here that actually understood his own feelings, might not irreparable harm be done to more than just him by the decisions made behind these doors?

Of course, even if Sano didn’t love the rurouni, and even if he could acknowledge that, it did not necessarily follow that he loved or could acknowledge he loved Saitou. There were any number of ways in which these events could end very badly.

Sano’s emotions tended to be printed across his face like words on a page. Saitou therefore watched all the more carefully, looking for any sign of favor in those eyes, those lips, that set of jaw and level of brow. But though every feature seemed active, the whole was also almost unreadable in its chaos. As Saitou had predicted, Sano didn’t really know what he wanted, and was at the moment overwhelmed with confusion — better than outright rejection, than a dogged clinging to his supposed love for Himura, but horribly tormenting in the interim. What would he say?

Nothing, it turned out. Instead of speaking or even attempting to speak, Sano spun jerkily and ran away.

Saitou released a tense little sigh as he watched the white-clad figure tear off down the street like a madman. That Sano wanted time and privacy to think things over meant more hope for Saitou, but the latter would rather be with Sano than know he was dealing with turmoil and confusion alone. The presence of one of the causes of that confused turmoil probably wouldn’t improve Sano’s mood or assist his thought, but still Saitou would like to be with him during this difficult time. At the very least, he would like to know immediately what conclusion Sano came to.

Deciding that, in any case, he would prefer to remain as close to him as possible until the crisis had ended, he tossed away his cigarette and lifted his leaden feet to follow.

***

It felt as if Sano had done a lot of running lately — a lot of leaving behind of problems, a lot of avoidance of things he didn’t want to face. But he couldn’t go to a bar and drink this away. He was literally running, but he couldn’t outdistance this issue. He had to stop moving, stop mentally reeling, and face this.

What did that mean, “I am in love with you?” Sano knew it meant, “This changes everything.” He knew it meant, “I won’t lose you to Himura.” He knew, as surely as if Saitou had said it aloud, that it meant, “Stay with me.” Maybe forever, because that was the kind of person Saitou was. It held an entire world of meaning, the earnestness of a strong heart and unwavering character directed toward Sano with the piercing purpose and desire he’d observed in Saitou’s eyes just now. It held the offer of everything Saitou was, and the life that could create for Sano, for both of them. Because that was the kind of person Saitou was.

But how could it be possible? After all their training on various battlefields for today’s trial, that Saitou would be the one to back down had never seemed remotely likely, had never occurred to Sano. He hadn’t even thought the officer particularly invested; Saitou had just been getting his chores done and some nightly entertainment, hadn’t he? But now it turned out that in fact Saitou loved him. It didn’t make sense.

Without having given any thought to where he was going, Sano found himself approaching the river near the spot where, just over a year ago, Kenshin had taught him one of the most important lessons of his life. Perhaps the singular appropriateness of the place had drawn him. He clambered up onto the wooden wreckage that had changed very little since he’d last seen it — certainly far less than he had — stared out over the sparkling water, and essayed to make some sense of his racing thoughts.

He tried to think of Kenshin, or at least to give equal time to the two most prominent men in his life, but apparently his memory had other ideas: Saitou moving with that spare but graceful stride; Saitou mocking him with a gleam of eye stating that, although he meant the insult, he didn’t mean any hurt by it; Saitou sitting across from him at the little table, surprisingly easy and pleasant company; Saitou training him, his concise words and precise movements teaching Sano more than he’d ever learned from anyone else; Saitou conjuring up reactions from his body that he couldn’t have imagined… Although he’d come to accept some time ago that Saitou was not the heartless bastard he’d long thought him, he hadn’t realized until it was laid out in front of his mind’s eye like this what a wonderful person Saitou really was.

But Sano wanted Kenshin, didn’t he? He’d always wanted Kenshin! Since that first day here at this very spot, when his life had been turned upside-down, he’d wanted him. Kenshin was gorgeous; he had eyes you could melt into and the world’s sweetest smile. He could move like nobody could, and he’d done things nobody else could have done. Kenshin was kind and admirable and amazing. You just couldn’t help loving Kenshin. Of course Sano wanted Kenshin.

Even if Kenshin never paid Sano much attention, didn’t know where he was or what he was doing or notice when he was gone. Even if conversation with Kenshin rarely progressed past the superficial, and Kenshin was never willing to spar with him. Even if the connection Sano felt with Kenshin didn’t really go far beyond that of one comrade deeply indebted to another. Even if memories of Kenshin came in discrete little bursts like recalled interesting moments from an otherwise unmemorable play he’d seen at some point — unlike those memories of Saitou, which grasped him in an unshakable grip, rolled him over, climbed on top of him, and started kissing his neck. Fuck it all. Everything was snapping into focus.

Sano was in love with Saitou.

The whirling of reality seemed abruptly to cease, and as Sano gazed out over the calm river he thought his eyes were continually adjusting as if he’d been falling and had suddenly been righted.

No, he never really had loved Kenshin. Not the way he’d believed he did. He gave a hoarse, wild laugh, in fact, as it occurred to him that the feelings he’d vaguely attributed to Kaoru in his attempt to excuse what he planned on doing were actually, more accurately, his own: not love — not romantic love, at any rate — but rather an awareness of the heroic, mysterious image of the hitokiri-turned-rurouni, who had taught him such an important lesson and done such impressive things, that had dazzled him. Dazzled and blinded him so he couldn’t see anything else, even what should have been glaringly obvious.

Of course there was some legitimate physical attraction there, but what did that mean? A lot of people Sano met or noticed in passing were physically attractive, and he wouldn’t necessarily want to spend his life with them. Of course Kenshin was a comfortable friend to have around, but Sano was realizing now that this friendship had a sort of stagnation to it, an unchanging complacency and a lot taken for granted. And of course Kenshin had revolutionized the way Sano lived, and Sano would always be grateful for that… but love didn’t necessarily follow. He could appreciate without idolizing. Hell, he could even, if it came to it, idolize without desiring.

He needed someone to saturate his existence, someone whose presence in his mind was more than just a disconnected series of isolated events; someone that didn’t consider him merely a groupie, and had a real emotional reaction to his presence, whether that was good or bad; someone that knew him well enough to understand his thoughts, and was actually interested enough to pursue them; someone that would surprise him instead of sticking to an endless routine; someone uncontrollable and perfect. He needed Saitou, and if he went back to the dojo now he would be making the biggest fucking mistake of his life.

***

A tall blue figure stood on the long bridge over the river, a smoldering cigarette held to his lips, watching the unceasing sparkle of sunlight on the water beneath him. The bright spots burned his eyes and remained in negative, obscuring his vision, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to look away.

He should be at the police station right now; he should be working. God only knew what kind of mess Chou would be making there without him. Somehow Saitou couldn’t quite bring himself to care.

Presently he found his cigarette had shrunken to a butt, which was farther than they usually got before he threw them away — though it was possible he’d only let it burn down rather than actually smoking the thing to this point. He allowed it to fall from lax fingers into the water, and there lost track of it. Another would be nice, for the comfort of the thing, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to search one out and light it. He merely stood still, perfectly still, waiting in silence.

Sano wasn’t far off. He’d stopped at a point just out of sight of this bridge that seemed to hold special significance to him, and Saitou had come here to wait without even taking care not to let Sano see him following. And here he waited.

He tried not to think about Sano, tried not to think about the situation or the last few months or the possible future. But the burning sun and its unpleasant effect on his body in a relatively heavy jacket, the coruscating whiteness of the river water, the case he was currently working on and the harm Chou might do it while left alone, the state of the country in general… none of it could take his thoughts off Sano. Just as the officer had been unable to do anything recently, even sleep, without thinking of Sano, so Sano dominated his thoughts all the more in this crucial moment.

What would he do if the young man went through with his plan, went back to the dojo and the clueless, undeserving Battousai? Wait around like a faithful hound in case he might have a chance at second place? No, never. He was Saitou Hajime, and he could deal with this as he’d dealt with any pain or loss he’d ever experienced. If Sano rejected him, he would leave Tokyo and move on. He’d been alone for years; he could do it again.

And yet, if Sano did go through with his plan, and was, as Saitou believed he would be, rejected by Himura, he would emerge from the dojo heartbroken and probably in greater need of support than he’d ever been. Could Saitou bear to abandon him at such a moment? Just because the plan was idiotic didn’t mean Sano would suffer any less when it failed.

But approaching him at that point, even purely as a friend offering comfort, would be like pressing his suit, taking advantage of Sano’s frame of mind to insinuate himself as a replacement for the originally desired prize. There were many circumstances under which Saitou would have no objection to such underhanded methods in pursuit of a worthwhile end, but in this case his pride would not allow it. He would not be satisfied with attentions from Sano under any pretenses not completely straightforward. He would not take second place, and he would not take advantage.

But if Sano needed him…

Finally he lit another cigarette, using jerky, irritable movements and viewing the package and matches only imperfectly through the burn spots on his eyes. Then he turned back toward the water and continued to damage both his vision and his lungs.

Not quite knowing what to do was an unusual state for him. He was half inclined to go seek Sano out, half to go home. Which was the wisest course he couldn’t tell, and the awareness that nothing he did was likely to make much difference, that the outcome of this situation lay entirely out of his lands, made the decision seem pointless in any event. He was Saitou Hajime, who had outwaited enemies in the most uncomfortable of circumstances and whose work often required immeasurable patience… but this extended ignorance, he thought, might well kill him.

How long he’d been standing here he wasn’t sure — it could have been minutes or hours — but eventually he felt as if he was at last ready to move. Where he would go and what he would do he likewise wasn’t sure, but the moment finally seemed right. So he lifted his hand to toss what remained of his latest cigarette into the water unfinished before he turned to walk away, but found himself frozen as a figure appeared in the corner of his eye and footfalls sounded across the planks of the lengthy bridge.

He knew Sano’s tread as well as his own, and he thought his heart slowed with each step toward him until it stopped entirely. He ached to look, to see the noontime brightness picking out the subtle differences of shade in Sano’s hair, gilding his smooth skin, sparkling in his eyes, but he didn’t move. He couldn’t move. What he might see in those eyes when he turned his own in that direction kept him paralyzed. He was Saitou Hajime, dependent on no other person for his own fulfillment, and yet he could not move.

These continual reminders of his identity were having little effect. The terrible, wonderful presence nearly at his side was enough to make him forget himself in an instant.

Hotter even than the July sun, ready to burn Saitou into nothingness with his verdict, ready to send him from this place in agony, Sano paused a few feet away for several moments without a word. Finally he came to lean on the railing beside Saitou, reaching out a casual hand to nab the forgotten cigarette from dangling gloved fingers. “So,” he said after a long drag, “why the hell did you wait so long to tell me?”

Under other circumstances the question might have been ambiguous, but here Sano’s tone and the language of his body made its meaning plain. And as if Saitou had been entirely suffused with anxiety so great it was almost despair, swollen and tight with it, he seemed now to feel this wretchedness draining out of his sensitized tissues and spirit and dissipating. He was conscious of relief in every part of himself, every muscle and bone, every corner of his mind; it left him embarrassingly weak. And yet his motions were strong and sure, energized by the same outside source that had freed him from his fears, as he turned and reached out.

Crushing, jealously clutching, he drew Sano to him, flush up against him, fitting them together as they were meant to fit, as perhaps they always had been. One hand at the base of Sano’s spine and the other on his neck, Saitou did not allow any space to remain between them as he tilted Sano’s face upward and descended on slightly parted lips with his own. Sano gave a muffled sound of surprise, but the squirming motion of his body was clearly intended only to wedge himself even closer as his own arms circled Saitou’s back and held tenaciously.

Overwhelmed as he was with relief and happiness and desire, Saitou had no other way to express himself at the moment. He could only kiss Sano as he never had before, as he’d never allowed himself to, as he’d never felt the need to, trying to communicate thus what he could not, at present, convey in words: all the fervor and adoration that had been building during the last few months and had now broken over him like a thunderstorm.

Eventually, dizzily, panting, lips swollen and internal temperatures significantly increased, they were forced after some unknown period of time to stop kissing each other, at least for now, and acknowledge that the world around them still existed. Saitou, however, only saw it reflected in Sano’s eyes, which were at the moment extremely bright and clear and still very close to his own, as the two hadn’t loosened their mutual embrace. Sano stared at him with a shocked expression that might presently turn into a grin but at the moment was still too much blown away for anything but astonishment.

“You… never kissed me like that before,” he gasped.

Before Saitou could even reply, he had to kiss him again, but he made it brief this time. Then, “I couldn’t have you staying with me just for the sex,” he explained, every bit as breathless as Sano.

“Shit.” Somehow Sano’s eyes managed to widen even further. “Have you been holding back there too?”

“Come home,” said Saitou, conscious of a thrill like electricity at a phrase that suddenly held an entire new world of meaning, “and I’ll show you.”

***

During a kiss that had seemed to last forever, to promise forever, and yet hadn’t been nearly long enough, Saitou’s feelings had required no clarification, but the fact remained that Sano couldn’t read Saitou nearly as well as Saitou could read him. As they embarked on the long walk across town, Sano couldn’t shake the impression that Saitou was still worried, and he wondered if he was imagining things.

It would make sense, though… he didn’t like to think what his poor wolf must have suffered waiting for Sano to make up his stupid mind. How long Saitou had loved him Sano didn’t yet know — it was one of a number of questions he wanted to ask — but every moment that emotion had been recognizably present in Saitou’s heart while Sano mindlessly pursued someone else must have been a torment. And recovering from that kind of ongoing concern and agitation must take more than just one kiss, especially given that the conclusion Sano had come to had been reached over the course of less than an hour’s reflection.

The silence that settled over them as they walked, however, seemed to forbid speech. The thousand things that needed to be said — reassurances, queries, explanations — busily lined up in Sano’s head and quickly lost patience, but he couldn’t bring himself to say a word. He wasn’t uncomfortable walking next to the officer, but he did feel… well, impossible as he would otherwise have considered it, he really did feel… shy… and he believed the revolutionary nature of the kiss on the bridge had caused it. Their relationship, the entire scope of their interaction, and, in fact, Sano’s whole spinning world had changed… and he doubted what to do or say now.

But the need to reassure Saitou was overwhelming; the thought of him still skirting the edge of fear and sorrow, and Sano doing nothing to steady him, was unbearable. Somehow he had to demonstrate the seriousness of his decision. So he reached out — almost without looking, lest he deepen the blush that already rode his cheeks — and took the closest gloved hand in his own. As he interlaced their fingers, he thought he saw from the corner of his eye an expression turned toward him that seemed to say, “Right out in public, ahou?” Yet Saitou didn’t pull away. In fact he never pulled away, throughout the entirety of that lengthy walk.

As the familiar house came into view, Sano’s heart gave a little throb. “Come home,” Saitou had said. This was home. At the same time, the silence became discernibly heavier and more expectant than before, and Sano wondered what Saitou believed to be the cause of the increasing sweat on his palm that must be palpable through the glove. In any case, he finally disengaged his grip as they went inside, closed the door behind them, and removed their shoes in continued wordlessness.

Sano had to admit he wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted at the moment. Well, he knew of several things he wanted very much, but in what order they should be accomplished and how each should be carried out he couldn’t tell. His body longed for the sex Saitou had promised him — somewhat annoyingly perpetually demanded it, actually — but those thousand things he had to say clamored with equal noisiness in his mind. His heart, full of a variety of emotions, was making the obviously erroneous claim that it would be quite content doing nothing more than simply being here with Saitou, while simultaneously informing him that the unprecedented post-bridge shyness had only become stronger.

With all four doors closed, almost no light shone in this hallway, and Sano had never before felt so grateful for that circumstance. It meant the intensity of his blush couldn’t be seen as Saitou pulled him close in the darkness, though the pounding of his heart would undoubtedly be felt. Saitou didn’t kiss him this time, but drew him into a tight embrace as the silence dragged on. And Sano got the feeling, somehow, that he was still worried. Sano himself was nervous, but that overwhelming need to prove himself and the truth of his feelings was as strong as ever. Words still weren’t quite working, so, until they were, actions would have to do; that at least helped to clarify what the order of events was to be at the moment.

He stepped back out of Saitou’s arms, but, catching hold of one, urged the man toward the door for which the fingers of his other hand fumbled. Then the dim light of the shuttered bedroom filled the passage, and they moved together into it.

Sano caught his breath at the sight of the room, and was at last able to speak. “You left your futon out this morning.”

“Is that really what you want to talk about, ahou?” Though the tone was one of skepticism nothing alien to Saitou, yet there was a hint of evasiveness to this answer — as if he was reluctant to admit to a morning state of mind so distracted and unhappy that he hadn’t bothered to put his futon away… a state of mind that was, perhaps, still lingering in traces.

Instead of forcing Saitou to discuss the unpleasant details of earlier hours, Sano turned to him with a grin. “Your housekeeping’s hopeless without me, isn’t it?” He trailed down the arm he had hold of until he caught Saitou’s hand, then began walking backward onto the futon in question.

“Don’t get too high an opinion of yourself,” Saitou admonished, smiling crookedly as he allowed Sano to pull him down to his knees on the bed.

Kneeling, Sano immediately leaned forward to kiss Saitou. And though this was something he’d done many times over the last couple of months, he was blushing harder than ever now — which probably explained why the kiss started out so soft, though it didn’t stay that way long. For Sano pressed closer eagerly to taste the cigarette flavor of Saitou’s mouth, and Saitou teased Sano’s tongue out with his own.

With so much blood heating his face, that there was any left to form an erection down in the sudden tightness of the wraps beneath his pants was astonishing. Sano’s chest rose and fell rapidly with the intensity of his breaths; and, wanting to get some part of Saitou in between his legs, he squirmed closer to him in an attempt to rearrange their limbs a bit, rendering their kiss messy and difficult to maintain as he moved. The desire he felt to be closer to Saitou was like an explosive force expanding within him… and it was this very desire, seemingly contradictorily, that slowed him.

Because words from earlier, “I couldn’t have you staying with me just for the sex,” had come back to him all of a sudden. Saitou had clearly been teasing with that statement, but the memory of it reinforced Sano’s awareness that his current actions could be interpreted in more than one way and might not be as reassuring as he intended. He throbbed for Saitou in every part of his body, and he fully planned to use that body to convey his emotions… but he had to preface that with words. He couldn’t proceed one step farther in this process, couldn’t so much as kiss Saitou one more time, before he’d done so.

His lips tingled as he drew back, and his heart felt much the same as he looked Saitou in the eye. He found himself abruptly overwhelmed with a feeling of vulnerability like nothing he’d ever experienced even when he’d been specifically encouraging Saitou to attack him. Everything that had gone before had been mere play compared to this moment; with this he would be opening himself up to Saitou, exposing his heart, as he never had. It was a breathtaking sensation.

“I love you,” he said in something of a rush, quietly and hoarsely. “Don’t think, just ’cause I realized it all of a sudden, I don’t mean it. I’m just sorry I didn’t notice sooner.”

Saitou smiled, and if there had previously been any trace of worry in his expression, it had now vanished. “I only realized a few days before you did,” he said. “For once, I’ve been just as stupid as you.”

Sano grinned in return. “I don’t think either of us have been stupid.” He was able to speak more easily now that the soul-baring moment was over. “This shit is crazy; we couldn’t have predicted it.”

The smile on Saitou’s face widened to match Sano’s. “And for once I think you’re right.”

Leaning forward again, Sano half growled as he approached Saitou’s lips, “Why don’t you stop insulting me and fuck me already?”

Saitou’s chuckle was muffled and then cut off completely.

Of all the garments between them, Sano’s gi was historically the easiest to remove, and it wasn’t long before sliding gloved hands had pushed it down off his shoulders and Sano had pulled his arms free so it could be tossed aside. Then he replaced his own hands on Saitou’s neck, where they ran continually up to the man’s ears and chin and back down to just beneath the collar of the blue police jacket. Though he’d actively taken Saitou’s clothing off on numerous occasions and knew exactly what the officer looked and felt like underneath, Sano found himself inexplicably nervous about initiating this process at the moment — and simultaneously hungrier for Saitou’s nakedness, more eager to get at his skin, than he’d ever been before.

And then, in a hasty movement almost impatient, Saitou gave a brief, teasing twist to one of Sano’s nipples, ran one knuckle down the wraps beneath it over stomach and waistband, and took hold of Sano’s erection. Sano stiffened, his lips breaking away from Saitou’s with a groan, at the very unsubtle touch. As Saitou began a massaging motion through the cloth of Sano’s pants, he murmured, “I think you’re even harder than usual.”

Sano’s attempt to answer was an incoherent failure, and where he had previously been working on the buttons of Saitou’s jacket he was now clutching pointlessly. Eventually, in a clumsy-fingered trance of pleasure, he resumed his previous activity, though his aim wasn’t likely to be accomplished any time soon. Presently Saitou turned his full attention to stripping his companion, and Sano took advantage of the brief removal of direct stimulus to hasten his own efforts in that direction as well. He’d barely managed to remove the jacket when Saitou’s arms, returning from shrugging that garment to the floor, encouraged Sano upward so as to shed his pants.

The moment the latter had fallen around his ankles, Sano would have relinquished the standing position, but Saitou held him steady as he rose up on his knees; and suddenly it was Saitou’s mouth rather than his fingers that worked against Sano’s cock, now with minimal material between. The sound of pleasure Sano let out was sharper than before, and his legs trembled and stiffened as the world seemed to be tilting sideways and threatening to take him with it. This made Saitou chuckle, and the vibrations of the laugh tingled against sensitive skin and only increased Sano’s imbalance. His hands came down heavily on Saitou’s shoulders as he struggled not to fall right over.

Gloves, soft but rougher than the hands they covered, lightly brushed against Sano in one spot after another, teasing, as Saitou deftly unwound the wrappings around Sano’s abdomen and crotch. No sooner was Sano’s erection freed to throb in the open warming air than Saitou’s tongue ran along it, eliciting further absurd noises from Sano’s throat and more pronounced trembling of his legs. Then, though Sano wouldn’t have thought there had been a chance for Saitou to remove his gloves (not that he was probably observing time properly at the moment), bare, calloused hands were exploring his exposed buttocks and the space between them, making it nearly impossible for him not to writhe.

In response to growing pleasure he thought soon must become overpowering, Sano forced himself to make the somewhat half-hearted protest, “You’re gonna… make me come… way early… like that.”

Again Saitou chuckled, with much the same effect as before — an effect that was augmented by the vibrations of his words: “I want you to come early. Then you can come again late.” And so saying, he took the head of Sano’s cock in his mouth and began sucking it deeper in.

At this, Sano’s fingers dug into Saitou’s shoulders, and he made another inelegant noise. This was followed by a few more, voluntary sounds, which had been intended as words but didn’t come out resembling anything of the sort. Eventually, though, he managed to articulate more or less comprehensibly, “Rather… have you… inside me… better that way…”

“Hmm,” Saitou said, wringing an inadvertent groan from Sano once more. The officer drew back so as to disengage his lips and tongue, then remarked, “I can’t say no to that.” He licked the tip of Sano’s erection again briefly before he added, “We’ll see if you can last that long.”

Determined to prove he could, Sano was nevertheless unsure; he was so affected by Saitou’s stated intention to make him come multiple times, by the awareness that Saitou specifically wanted to give him pleasure, that every touch threatened to send him over the edge. It came extremely close when Saitou’s fingers, on returning to the crevice between Sano’s buttocks, proved now to be slick with oil that eased their quick slide into the opening there.

In fact the only thing that kept Sano from orgasm was the sudden distracting mental query as to why the oil had been near the futon at all. Whenever they weren’t actually busy fucking, it was always put away neatly in the cabinet. The room didn’t stretch far in either direction, but the cabinet was definitely too distant to reach from here… so the jar must already have been on the floor nearby.

The ensuing theory — that Saitou must have had some personal use for it very recently — would have been enough to make Sano come hard as the mental image of Saitou masturbating hit him like a hot blow, but for the accompanying pathos at the thought of the man he loved attempting in desperate loneliness to recall physical sensations that were all he had left of someone he believed he might never see again.

Prompted by this miserable image, “I love you,” Sano gasped even as Saitou’s fingers pushed deeper inside him.

“And I love you.” Saitou sounded as if he would like to know why Sano had felt the need to make that statement just at that particular moment, but he didn’t ask; he just licked Sano’s cock again as if he wanted something less comprehensible instead. He got it. It wasn’t merely the tongue, though, or even the fingers; it was the words. Sano had never realized how amazing it could feel to hear them like this, to exchange that declaration in such a context. It rendered all of this so much more meaningful, as if they were operating on a totally new level. Now more than ever he wanted Saitou inside him.

And it was time, as evidenced by the withdrawal of fingers and Saitou shuffling backward slightly into a cross-legged position right at the end of the futon. Gratefully Sano dropped to his knees even as Saitou unfastened his own belt and the buttons of his pants. Before he could bring out the instrument with which he would more thoroughly penetrate and pleasure Sano than his fingers could, Sano growled, “You let me do that,” and pushed Saitou’s hands aside.

Yet again Saitou chuckled, though the sound disappeared as Sano leaned forward and kissed him while his hands dove into the blue pants and found what he sought. He thought as he did so that Saitou, too, was harder than usual. Never had he loved any texture as much as the hot, silky skin of Saitou’s cock, and couldn’t help rubbing it up and down, smearing the pre-ejaculate from the tip as far across the length as it would go. Of this substance he could taste traces of his own in Saitou’s mouth, and he could feel the moan in Saitou’s throat as he continued to massage his erection with one hand while the second pushed impatiently at his pants.

He had to break off the kiss a moment later in order to look around for the oil jar, and while his head was turned Saitou began mouthing his jaw and neck. Locating the lubricant and scooping some messily up to dribble onto Saitou’s cock, Sano rubbed the latter down again — partly to ensure even coverage, but partly just because he wanted to return the pleasurable teasing Saitou had given him.

Saitou groaned, and his teeth closed on the flesh of Sano’s shoulder, causing Sano also to make an abrupt noise in surprise. The older man’s hands pulled at the younger’s body, trying to draw him into the closeness they both wanted, and, as Saitou had remarked not long ago, it was an invitation Sano couldn’t deny. He clambered forward fully across Saitou’s lap, ignoring the slight discomfort of a starched waistband and a belt buckle against his exposed flesh, and positioned himself somewhat awkwardly while keeping hold of and guiding Saitou’s erection.

The moment he’d been waiting for was exquisite, and, as he ground down onto the long solid shaft, he felt he was allowing more into his being than just that. Physically the sensation was the same as ever — the stretching tightness and fullness, both somewhat uncomfortable in an absolutely wonderful way — but the feeling of deriving mutual pleasure from taking part of his lover inside him was maddeningly heightened. The awareness of having opened himself to Saitou as never before had only increased, and the intense intimacy this led to was augmented to a nearly unbearable pitch by the certainty that Saitou would not take advantage of that vulnerability. There were times, of course, when any weakness of Sano’s was fair game, but this was not one of them; at the moment, Sano thought, Saitou was every bit as open as he was, relishing this honest show of Sano’s feelings and pleased at a soul-deep level by Sano’s presence.

Overwhelmed by all of this, Sano pressed hard against Saitou in a full-body shiver, flexing around the stiffness that now filled him and giving a helpless groan. This mingled with Saitou’s sound of pleasure, and they more or less stilled with the officer’s hands tense against Sano’s lower back and Sano clutching at Saitou’s shoulders. The messy, hungry kiss that followed did little to stop Sano’s noisy gasping or Saitou’s moan as Sano continued to clench around him and shift in his lap. And when one of Saitou’s hands sneaked into the limited space between them to grasp Sano’s aching erection, Sano went from panting to crying out.

Clearly Saitou’s ability to articulate was in a state similar to his partner’s, but it seemed fairly sure that what he whispered roughly into Sano’s ear was along the lines of, “Is this what you wanted?”

Sano felt as if he’d been stripped not just of his clothes, but right down to his most sensitive organs, and once again the consciousness of Saitou’s devotion to his pleasure seemed to lance straight into his bared heart — which was, of course, connected directly to his entire sexual system. There was absolutely no way he could respond coherently to the question that had affected him so strongly, but Saitou seemed to understand that the answer was a riotous affirmative. As he pumped his oil-slicked hand up and down Sano’s length, he growled something that sounded very much like, “Then come for me.”

At times Sano didn’t enjoy being ordered around by Saitou, but now he did as he was told. With a cry, stiffening, clutching at Saitou tightly, Sano let the ecstasy spread explosively across his body and the less physical realms of thought and emotion that appreciated it, perhaps, even more.

Upon returning from the prickling mists of insensible pleasure to the more mundane but still astonishingly enjoyable world he knew, Sano found Saitou slowly kissing his neck beneath his upturned chin. And as Sano looked down again, Saitou transferred his attention to the young man’s lips, leisurely working them open, trailing his tongue over them and over Sano’s. His movements seemed smug, somehow, and he was still hot and solid inside Sano’s ass — and the fact that he, yet unsatisfied, was so pleased with having brought Sano so hard made Sano shudder and cling to him again.

Though this current position, seated and entwined, was a little awkward, Sano didn’t want to move from it just yet. He didn’t want to move at all, in fact, savoring the fading throb of orgasm, and couldn’t be sure how long he sat flush against Saitou breathing in the scents of the hot air. Moreover, he loved the feeling of precision that came with penetration in such a position — they way they fit together so perfectly, as if they’d been cut from a single pattern of the same material — and how even the minutest motion tested the boundaries of that connection and reaffirmed it with little jolts of sensation.

He also loved — particularly loved — how Saitou reacted to each of those minute motions, those little jolts. Sano was very tight around him since coming, and even the movement of his calming breaths seemed to tug at the hardness inside him and make Saitou moan.

“So…” Sano said at last, softly, when his mouth was free for a moment. “Was I really pathetic that first night?”

“Yes,” replied Saitou at a whisper. He was unfastening the last of the wraps around Sano’s upper body — unnecessarily, since they covered nothing relevant to the task at hand, but Sano did not begrudge it him.

Slowly he squirmed, reveling in the fullness and solidity and, most of all, how affected his lover was. “Really?”

Saitou’s hands clenched almost convulsively against Sano’s back, and his whisper was broken as he replied again, “Yes.”

Sano stopped his teasing movements and scowled. “I thought for sure you were just being an asshole when you said that.”

“You…” Saitou kissed the corners of Sano’s pouting lips. “…were an awkward scared virgin who was thinking about someone else and came after about thirty seconds.” As he drew back a bit and observed Sano’s increased glower, he grinned and added, “And I enjoyed it very much. You could have done a lot worse and I would probably still have enjoyed it.”

Placated, Sano also determined, now, to wring more distinct praise out of his lover. He ran one hand up under Saitou’s black shirt, which was sticky with Sano’s ejaculate, to pinch one of the officer’s hard nipples even as he started squirming again more pointedly against the hot length that filled him below. “You don’t think I’m pathetic now,” he growled.

“No,” Saitou gasped, his eyes closing briefly and his whole body tensing beneath Sano. “Not at this, anyway.”

Sano couldn’t help laughing. “I’m not even going to ask what you still think I’m pathetic at.” His motion had taken on a rise and fall that began gradually to mimic thrusting. “I’m so not-pathetic at fucking now that you want it all the time.”

“That’s right.” It was half a chuckle and half a groan as Saitou pulled Sano closer against him. The rubbing of Sano’s flaccid cock on Saitou’s stomach as he did this wasn’t entirely comfortable, but that didn’t matter much.

“You can probably never stop thinking about me.”

“Possibly.”

“Even at work when you’re supposed to be thinking about other things.”

“Maybe.”

“And even Aku Soku Zan and all that isn’t as important anymore.”

“You’re getting… too high an opinion of yourself… again…”

Sano grinned. “Just checking.”

Breathless as he returned the expression, Saitou replied, “Ahou.” And as his unblinking gaze bored into Sano’s, there was a feeling of something snapping, as if even the patient, powerful Saitou couldn’t bear this any longer. His arms tensed around Sano and his entire body shifted, and Sano was suddenly propelled downward to land heavily on his back on the futon with Saitou atop him. Then there was barely time for a desperate kiss and some brief disentangling of limbs before Saitou was thrusting into him hard and fast.

Sano’s abruptly shattered thoughts as he shouted in surprise and pleasure had something to do with the idea that if this was what happened when he got Saitou’s cock inside him and started teasing, he would definitely have to try that more often. He wasn’t quite ready for a second erection of his own yet, but in this new heat and speed and intensity — not to mention the awareness that Saitou had been driven to it by Sano’s words and actions — he knew it wouldn’t be too much longer.

A noise of frustration forced its way through the happier ones Saitou was making, and suddenly, dismayingly, he was pulling back — pulling out — and getting to his feet.

The sight of Saitou yanking his clothes off with quick, determined movements was exactly the opposite of disappointing, but Sano was yet compelled to make a disappointed sound at the constriction and emptiness caused by the removal of the hard length that now stood out from Saitou’s bare body beyond Sano’s reach. And Saitou was so desirable, so perfect in every way that mattered to Sano… beautiful, even, if such a word could be thought to apply… from the hair he’d mussed with the removal of his shirt to the scars that dotted his shins — the only scorch marks he’d borne from Shishio’s fortress, as Sano, upon inquiry, had discovered the first night. (‘Horribly burned,’ indeed!) Even the white socks, which often seemed out of place with Saitou’s dark clothes and that now looked downright silly, Sano loved.

At the pitiful noise Sano made, the officer looked down as he kicked his pants aside. And it seemed the complaint had actually been counterproductive, for the quick return movement toward which Saitou’s body had tended was now stilled, and he stood staring in silent pensiveness. The lust in his demeanor had not diminished, but he obviously felt the need to take this moment to scrutinize, from that height, the young man lying propped up on one elbow at his sock-clad feet, naked and ready for him.

Sano’s shyness and the piercing awareness of their increased intimacy was ongoing, and he knew he was blushing as Saitou’s glinting eyes traversed his body. But this was no one-sided or disconnected appreciation; the mutual approval and admiration and desire were palpable between them, tying them together like a hot cord along which thoughts seemed to run from mind to mind without words. It sent a shiver through him that was something like discomfort or nervousness, or what these conditions would be if nearly all unpleasantness were stripped from them.

Saitou’s intent gaze didn’t leave Sano as he dropped to his knees and blindly sought out an auxiliary helping of lubricant, the application of which made him gasp, before crawling forward. Somehow the half smile on his otherwise serious face served to render his entire expression more intense, and Sano groaned not only at the sight of it but at the mere touch of Saitou’s hand on his leg. That second erection was very close now.

And then Saitou was pushing into him again, and Sano was groaning not just in pleasure but in something like relief. Saitou didn’t wait this time, but immediately began thrusting. His skin, now free of encumbrance, slid against Sano’s with hot friction as he curled down atop him and kissed his face with such imprecision it was as if finding his lips was not merely impossible but unthinkable at the moment. Up and around Saitou’s tense back Sano slid his arms, fingers spread wide to feel the shifting of muscle beneath them. Then he drew his knees up as far as they would go and began running his curling toes at random over Saitou’s lower body.

The change this occasioned in the angle of constriction on Saitou’s cock made the wolf groan out his lover’s name in between his panting breaths, and that was enough for Sano, in a prickling rush of sensation, to start becoming hard again. His moan matched Saitou’s, and immediately he tried to press closer to the shifting body above him so as to trap this new erection tightly between them. Unfortunately, this left not quite enough of him against the futon, and Saitou’s next thrust slid him right off one edge.

The floorboards were unexpectedly cool beneath his shoulders, and he gave a little cry of surprise in which was mixed some pleasure, equally unexpected, at the temperature contrast. Saitou laughed breathlessly and, without bothering about the fact that Sano was half off the bed, adjusted his position. He braced himself more firmly with strong arms on either side of Sano, and kept at what he was doing.

Some tiny segment of the burning, spinning, out-of-control part of Sano that claimed to be his mind insisted that later he would have to remember this new angle and try for it again, because it was fabulous. Everything besides Saitou atop him and inside him, Saitou loving him, had faded rapidly from his awareness; he’d practically forgotten his own identity, except as far as he was Saitou’s lover, and didn’t particularly mind. And by the gorgeous expression on his face and the increasingly pleased and eager noises he was making, Saitou seemed to be enjoying it too.

How long this went on Sano couldn’t guess; such mundanities as seconds and minutes (and caring about them) seemed inapplicable to this ecstasy. He held tightly to his beloved, moved with him, felt with him, and nothing else really mattered. And then, as that full-body tingle of second orgasm swept through him, compelling him to cry out in an attempt (not very successful) at Saitou’s name, he tightened every part of himself that was locked to Saitou, clenching most notably and somewhat painfully where Saitou still moved inside him. It made his outburst of pleasure even louder, in which he was joined by his partner as Saitou ground into a suddenly much smaller opening. Saitou quickened his pace for the last few deep thrusts it took him to come as well, with a moan as formless as Sano’s had been.

They celebrated this accomplishment with a few kisses almost exhausted and certainly uncalculated, then lay mostly still, breathing hot mist against each other’s skin for quite some time. Things besides Saitou and Saitou’s body and Saitou’s love were reminding Sano that they existed, and he wanted to laugh as he discovered how well he and Saitou together seemed to fit into them. Everything was perfect right now, even if they were still lying half off the futon and had, he was fairly sure, spilled the oil jar at some point.

Eventually, with a sigh and the kind of wincing care he never exhibited under any other circumstances, Saitou lifted himself slowly out of direct contact with Sano as he pulled gradually out of him. Then he shifted so that when he settled again, it was lying properly on the bed, and he pulled at Sano to join him. Sano squirmed over and into the arms that awaited him, pressing back against Saitou’s hot flesh and kissing him briefly on the neck before stilling with an echoing sigh. They fell silent, except for breaths calming only in their own good time, and Sano, analyzing the silence as he had often done since he’d met Saitou in the street that day that seemed so long ago, classified it as ‘exquisite.’

All silences, even the most beautiful, must end eventually, especially between two such men, and Sano didn’t mind when he felt he couldn’t refrain from speaking any longer. “So you weren’t lying. You really were holding back before.”

“Because I was trying to simulate the boring sex I imagined you having with Himura.”

Later Sano would have to explore the interesting idea of Saitou imagining him having sex with Kenshin. At the moment, however, the reference was extremely awkward. “Shit, please don’t mention Kenshin at a time like this.”

“Good.” Saitou sounded very pleased as he ran a hand up and down Sano’s back in response to the younger man’s shudder. “I’d rather have you thinking exclusively about me anyway.”

“You might want to be careful… I can get kindof obsessive…” Though Sano grinned as he said it, there was a touch of embarrassment to the warning.

“I’ve seen how you can get when you think you’re in love; I’m very interested in how you get when it’s real.”

“You’ll probably still think I’m an idiot, though.”

“Of course. I wouldn’t love you half as much if you weren’t.”

“I’m going to quote you on that.” Sano wondered if he would be receiving nearly this many declarations of love once the current atmosphere of intense emotional connection between them had faded, and believed keeping this latest one firmly in mind would be extremely useful in the future when Saitou was talking down to him as usual.

“I’m sure you are,” Saitou chuckled.

Sano angled his face upward to look into Saitou’s, and found the older man smiling fondly at him. He smiled back, upon which Saitou nipped at the tip of his nose and then kissed it. Sano kissed him back, but on the mouth, and then drew away with a thoughtful expression. “You know what you never have showed me?” he mused.

“Hmm.”

“How to fuck you.”

“No… in the previous context it seemed unnecessary.”

“This is not the previous context.”

Saitou’s eyes narrowed. “It certainly isn’t. Do you think you can handle more lessons from me?”

“I’m pretty sure I could spend the rest of my life figuring out better ways to be with you.” The lightness of Sano’s tone did not hide the fact that he meant this statement, in all seriousness, on multiple levels.

Again Saitou smiled at him. “Well, we’ve discovered you can be taught, so I think it’s worth a try.”

***

Sano’s gorgeous new life (which, honestly, almost mirrored the old life, except that he understood it better) had progressed only a few days before he ran into Kenshin. He hadn’t expected this quite so soon — he’d believed nothing but the wedding itself, which he obviously couldn’t miss, could tear him away from Saitou for the next long while, but the work of Mibu no Ookami waited for no man and didn’t always keep the most convenient hours for newly declared lovers. The fact that Saitou was likely to be out all night drove Sano from home with afternoon just turning to evening; visiting the dojo wouldn’t help with the pining and worrying that would torment him later when he went to bed alone, but it could at least prevent him from starting in on those pastimes several hours earlier than absolutely necessary.

Kenshin was just emerging from the main doors with a shopping bag over his arm, and Sano immediately reflected how funny it was that, only a few days before his marriage, nothing had changed for the rurouni. Somewhat unthinkingly, he stepped forward and remarked on this aloud — which was fortunate, because after that thought came a whole slew of others that he had to work through before he could possibly speak again.

Perhaps nothing had changed for Kenshin, but everything had changed for Sano. He almost couldn’t believe he’d previously considered himself in love with this man. Of course he loved him — in fact, a warm wave of affection washed through Sano as he looked Kenshin over now — but it was a comradely love, even a brotherly love, and that he could ever have mistaken it for anything else seemed absurd. Sure, looking with less bias now than before, Sano could still admit Kenshin to be damned attractive (though ‘tall and lean’ took a firm first place on his list of desirable physical attributes these days), but this was nothing more than an impartial observation such as he might make about anyone he met. There was no trace of active desire.

What there was was guilt, and even a certain measure of horror. The awkwardness Sano had planned to thrust upon Kenshin had been unkind and unfair, and the heartbreak and betrayal he’d callously declared perfectly appropriate for Kaoru had been unforgivable. How grateful he was that they knew nothing of it! How immeasurably more grateful he was that Saitou had snapped him out of his lengthy trance of inconsiderate stupidity before friendships could be strained or even destroyed. Saitou hadn’t rescued him merely from emotional turmoil, but from actually making a worse person of himself. Not that having considered it in the first place didn’t weigh pretty heavily yet… but at least now Sano had the chance to improve, to avoid a repetition of such reckless thoughtlessness in the future. Thank god, once again — and Saitou! — that Kenshin and Kaoru would never know.

In direct contrast to the mixed nature of these feelings, Sano was struck by a straightforwardly pleasant irony in the reflection that he had originally intended to get to Kenshin by way of Saitou, then ended up doing just the reverse. It only made the sight of Kenshin, regardless of any other emotions simultaneously called up, that much more welcome to Sano’s eyes. He could make amends, whether or not Kenshin and Kaoru guessed what for or even that he was doing it. He’d been learning a lot lately; surely he could learn to be a better friend too.

At the moment, Kenshin was wrapping up his explanation of what he needed to shop for and why it was necessary that he rather than Kaoru do it; and, though Sano hadn’t caught most of the exact words, he could easily read his friend’s mood.

“I’m glad you’re happy, Kenshin,” he said with earnest sincerity. “Really glad.” It was all he could do not to ask how he could help keep things that way, which would just sound silly.

“Thank you,” said Kenshin, equally intent. Then he gave his companion a brief, sidelong look whose meaning Sano didn’t recognize until Kenshin continued in a somewhat cautious tone, “And you, Sano? It looks as if you have made up with Saitou, so I assume things are going well for you…”

Torn abruptly and violently from schemes of better friendship and personal improvement, Sano stilled with a jerk and stared, gaping, as Kenshin kept walking a step or two before stopping as well. Hoarse and quiet, Sano echoed, “‘Made up with…'” and could say no more.

Turning to face his friend, Kenshin looked as if he regretted having decided to ask. “If you would rather not talk about him…”

“No, that’s not…” Sano cleared his throat and shook his head vigorously, feeling a blush creeping over his face to replace what had probably been an unusual paleness there a moment before. “I just… didn’t know you knew about us.”

“I couldn’t be sure I was interpreting things correctly,” Kenshin admitted, “until that night at the Haiirobou, when you were so embarrassed when I asked whom you had been training with. I thought you must be worried I would disapprove.”

This conversation had gone in a direction so completely, so stunningly unexpected that Sano could say nothing but, “And… do you?”

“I did at first.” Kenshin sounded apologetic. “Especially because you did not come to see us very often, and seemed so agitated whenever you did. But I believe I am used to the idea now. It is your choice, after all.”

They’d resumed walking, and Sano was speechless. Kenshin trusted him in a way he hadn’t done Kenshin the honor of trusting him: to make a rational decision about his own love life. And he’d known all along — the entire time Sano had been training and scheming and deliberately overlooking sense and morality — all along that Sano was involved with Saitou. As Sano perceived clearly the precise depth of the abyss he’d so narrowly avoided flinging himself into, the true scope of the embarrassment and misery he’d only been saved from by the care of another, he was hardly able to breathe for horror and chagrin.

“Saitou was stalking around for a week or so as if he was ready to kill someone,” Kenshin went on when Sano said nothing. “That is, he always looks like that, but this was worse than usual. But when I’ve noticed him over the last few days, he has appeared much happier.” In a tone of pitying resignation he added, “I assume there will be plenty of fights between the two of you, but, once again, it’s your choice… and after that business with Hasekura, I did worry less.”

Sano still had no grip whatsoever on this discussion, and could only repeat blankly, “‘Business with Hasekura?'” The name was vaguely familiar; he thought he remembered Saitou mentioning it at some point… one of the government officials on the ‘to be investigated eventually’ list, wasn’t he?

Now Kenshin gave him an inquiring look that turned quickly to one of surprise and even disbelief. “You did not know?”

“I still don’t know. What are you talking about?”

“Saitou never said anything at all about Hasekura Susumu?”

“I’ve heard the name, but he never told me anything specific about…” Sano’s presence of mind got no support from the nearly astonished expression on Kenshin’s face.

“Sano, the man you fought in the street that night — the same night I mentioned, when we went to that restaurant — his father is Hasekura Susumu, of the Ministry of Finance. Hasekura was so angry at what you did to his son that he was going to bring charges against you — you really know nothing about this?”

Mutely Sano shook his head.

“The police were searching for you for a week. They came to the dojo almost every day.”

“But…” Thinking back, Sano remembered that he hadn’t left Saitou’s house for quite some time after the incident in question. “But Saitou knew where I was that entire time!”

“I suspected as much when he suggested you were in hiding. He contacted both me and the young woman we met that night for an unofficial hearing. Any charges against you were dismissed when the police chief heard two witnesses describe the circumstances and the fact that the Hasekura boy actually attacked you first. And you will be happy to hear that he was ordered to stay away from her.”

Sano nodded blankly. It was good news, but nothing he could concentrate on at the moment.

His mind reeled and his heart throbbed with the thought of what Saitou had done for him. The officer had gone out of his way to free Sano from trouble he must have assumed had arisen during the pursuit of a goal he considered ill-judged in the first place. He’d taken time from the busy schedule of essential work he had to do for the country to smooth over that little issue for Sano, who at that point had not even been his lover. Saitou’s sense of justice had undoubtedly come into play, but Sano liked to think consideration for a friend had also been a part of why he’d taken such pains. And he hadn’t said a single word about it — had neither held it over Sano’s head as a favor that would one day need to be repaid, nor taunted Sano for getting himself into such a situation.

“Thank you,” Sano managed at last. “For telling me, I mean.” In the midst of his shock at everything that had just been revealed, he was conscious of a hot joy spreading through him as he considered everything he would be saying to Saitou when they next met. First there was this little matter of secretly rendered services to address… Saitou might never have established it as a matter of future repayment, but would be paid for it, with interest. And then there was the fact that Kenshin had known about them all along — known about them even before there was really a ‘them’ to know about — and held his tongue the entire time. This would probably amuse Saitou to no end.

Lastly, the point Sano could least likely express aloud but that he would surely find some other way to show his appreciation for, there was the unexpected newly arisen idea that Saitou, of all people, might be able to teach him to be a better friend. For Sano’s new goal of making amends to Kenshin and Kaoru and himself as true to them as they deserved, it appeared he needed to look no farther than the man that had helped him with his previous goal, the man that had saved him from destroying that friendship entirely, the man that had already taught him so much. The man he loved with all his heart and only respected more with every new thing he learned.

There was a big stupid grin on his face as he considered this. Kenshin, probably thinking he knew the reason for the expression — and certainly understanding at least part of it — smiled in return as he said, “You are certainly welcome, Sano.” And together in silence they walked on into the evening.



<<2

He Can Be Taught was one of the first Rurouni Kenshin stories I ever wrote. It was quite popular as I originally posted it, and won the 2002 Rurouni Kenshin Readers’ Choice Award for the yaoi category. Then, in 2013, as I reread it intending just to touch it up a bit, I realized it needed rewriting entirely. The result is what you find here.

The events of the story have remained completely intact, though a couple of them may be approached from a slightly different angle now. The biggest overall change, besides a quality of prose that I consider much better and the transition from chaptered to nonchaptered, is that certain interesting ideas only teasingly touched on in the original have been expanded in the rewrite. There’s a greater depth to it, very much for the better, I believe. And though nearly every other RK fanfiction I ever wrote was based on the manga rather than the stupid anime, in this case I found anime-specific references too numerous (and generally too innocuous) to do away with.

I’ve rated this story , one of the few perfect fives on my site. I consider the romantic development in this rewrite the best and most touching I’ve ever written.

10 Comments

  1. Chikki

    You don’t know how happy I am to stumble upon your site. SaiSa was one of the first pairings that got me into yaoi, and rereading this fic after so many years proves that our boys timelessly just so perfect together. This fic feels all cleaned up and I love how smoothly everything flows. Thank you for this. This fic just made my day. Can’t wait to reread all of your writing! :)

    Reply
    • kuroiyousei

      Aww, thanks so much! I’m very glad you liked the story, and I’m extremely glad you’re still interested in Saitou and Sano! I still love them so much, and I miss having fellow fans around! Thank you for your lovely comments!

      Reply
  2. Sagara-hime

    I actually read your original version of He Can Be Taught over a decade ago and became a fan of SaiSa. Netflix recently added Rurouni Kenshin to their online shows, and as I nostalgically rewatched my favorite anime of all time, I was reminded of some of the awesome SaiSa fiction I had read so long ago. Naturally I searched for this fic first. I’m so happy with all the revisions you’ve made! I love all the emotions you evoke in your writing, and this will continue to be one of my favorite SaiSa stories. Thank you for keeping this site running and allowing me to enjoy your works all over again.

    Reply
    • kuroiyousei

      Aww, welcome back! Thanks so much for your lovely comments! It’s wonderful to re-encounter fans of Saitou and Sano after all these years ^__^ I’m particularly glad you enjoyed this rewrite, since I’m very happy with it myself. Thanks again!

      Reply
  3. catsbell

    To this day, this remains my very favorite SaiSa story. It’s believable. It follows canon in a very natural progression. It doesn’t get over-the-top. There are glimpses of unapologetically immature Sano as well as his development into a (more) responsible human being. Saito slowly realizes his feelings and loses his iron grip on his control (always flail inducing). We learn Kenshin’s kind of just human (he’s so overrated).

    I could read this over and over and never tire of it.

    I feel like This Summer, Every Summer is a sort of far in the future glimpse of where this relationship goes. It’s the kind of story that makes one hopeful they will get their own love story without being bitter that someone else has attained it, even thought they are fictional characters.

    Reply
    • kuroiyousei

      Aww, thanks a lot! It makes me really happy that you like this story so much! And you’re right; TS,ES does make for a logical follow-on. It wasn’t deliberately written as such, but it fits more or less perfectly :D I really appreciate your kind comments.

      Reply
      • catsbell

        I hope by continuing to read and praise your fic, it will encourage you to write more! Of course, your work merits its own praise. I’m only sorry I was not around for RK’s heyday. On a completely different tangent and strictly out of curiosity: what ever happened to QY’s stuff? It’s nowhere to be found, though I do have a hard copies of some of her works.

        Reply
        • kuroiyousei

          At this point in my life, I don’t foresee a cessation of writing about Saitou and Sano under any circumstances. However, anyone demonstrating interest in my work absolutely helps me get into the proper writing mode more often and for longer. I appreciate the hell out of such wonderful comments and any opportunity for discussion.

          And, yeah, there was a lot more opportunity for discussion during the major popularity of the series :/ Sometimes I miss those days.

          I don’t know what QY is up to in modern times. Her work all seems to have disappeared along with Geocities, and since she didn’t put it back up elsewhere, I can only assume she’s no longer interested in sharing it. Happens to a lot of authors over the course of time; what can you do?

          Reply
          • catsbell

            In any case, I am glad you have chosen to continue your SaiSa works and that you have kept your finished products available for us no0bs. (I’m actually kicking around the idea of writing some of my own SaiSa once I get a new keyboard.) 🙀

            Reply
            • kuroiyousei

              I make absolutely no promises about keeping stuff up, however. If I no longer like a story, either because it represents an older attitude I now find offensive or because I feel it’s artistically inferior, I will take it down. If it’s just poorly written, I might rewrite it, but there’s no guarantee even then. This doesn’t happen terribly often, but it does happen. Therefore I advise anyone with particular favorites to save those favorites against such an event (hopefully the ebook versions help with that).

              Ohhhhhhh, you said the magic words. I am inexpressibly pleased at the prospect of new Saitou/Sano stuff. If you write it, I will absolutely read it! I check various places around the internet on a stupidly regular basis for anything new about them, and there’s almost never anything anywhere XD

              Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Saitou & Sano | kuroiyousei - […] He Can Be Taught may quite possibly be my #1 favorite ever since I rewrote it. Proof that I…

Leave a Reply to kuroiyousei Cancel reply