Watching Over Him

Sanosuke burst out laughing. “You’re telling me to be gay and ridiculous and silly and drunk??” Saitou rolled his eyes. “At least I know you can handle that part.”

An undercover mission in a hot springs town brings danger, entertainment, espionage, violence, delirium, and a stunning realization. It’s a test of the medical prowess of one, the hearts of two or three, and the combative abilities of most.

Watching Over Him

They’d chased two gangsters through the woods, both fleeing in the same direction they’d suspected all along, and followed them for a decent length before Saitou drew his sword on them. After that, they proceeded with more caution, knowing they must be close.

Sanosuke, for once, endeavored to make less noise than he generally did (especially in a forested area, or so Saitou assumed), and he seemed grim; it was another moment of perfect agreement between them, which on Sanosuke’s side might have been prompted by Takani’s outrage at a yakuza controlling an entire town through debt and addiction.

When Saitou began to spot the occasional piece of garbage in this natural setting, he slowed them even further. They’d never been able to discover the precise size of the gang, so how many more there might be to deal with at their hideout remained a dangerous mystery.

The trees thinned a bit, and the harder lines of a building became visible against the sky. Now they only crept forward, on the lookout for signs of human activity. Oddly, there were none. Surely someone should be outside; the Kinoshitokai couldn’t be so foolish as not to post a guard? Saitou saw lamplight through a window or two, but everything was quiet — so perhaps whoever was here didn’t know yet that they’d been found out?

Halting in a tree’s shadow just at the edge of the small clearing, they examined the prospect. The building hardly looked big enough to act as headquarters for as many gang members as they did know about; there must be a cellar or other underground component invisible from here. This would be tricky.

“We’ll need to take care of anyone in the main building as quietly as possible,” he murmured to Sanosuke. “I suspect there will be more downstairs, and we don’t want to alert them. Go for the throat.”

Sanosuke nodded, but then seemed to hesitate as Saitou shifted to step out of the shadows. “Wait,” he said. Saitou couldn’t make out his expression. “Something’s wrong.”

If headstrong Sanosuke thought something was wrong and didn’t want to go charging in, Saitou thought it better to listen to him. “What is it?”

Sanosuke took two slow paces forward, audibly sniffing and tasting the air. “Katsu,” he muttered. Then abruptly he turned back, eyes wide, and threw himself at Saitou, knocking him down as everything behind him — the building and the ground around it — erupted into explosive flame.

***

Takani required no time for reflection beyond what she’d taken while listening. “I’m quite willing to be a part of this mission,” she said when he’d finished speaking, “but I do feel the need to ask — why did you come to me? Wouldn’t a woman who can fight have been a better choice for this role?”

He gave the specific reason that applied to the kenjutsu instructor to whom she obviously referred. “I’d rather keep Himura in the dark about this. Kamiya too.”

“So you intend to kill members of this yakuza.”

“As many as possible,” Saitou confirmed.

“I’m flattered you believe you can trust me not to tell them… and more curious than ever why you would choose me, and not someone outside the Kenshingumi.”

“You have the nerve and the social skills necessary for the deception,” Saitou replied. “And I’ll feel more secure with a doctor along that I know I can trust.”

Takani nodded slowly, but still stared at him as if unsatisfied.

Stifling a sigh, the officer gave in. “The man who’ll be posing as your husband is Sagara, and he’s made it clear he needs someone he knows to play his wife.”

Takani laughed. “Sasuga Sanosuke! Why on earth are you taking him with you — and therefore me — instead of two people with no connection to Ken-san?”

Saitou pushed his words out through tight lips. “Sagara happened to come by the police station when I was securing my own agents for this mission. He overheard, and became very insistent that he should be included.”

“You’ve never,” the doctor remarked, “in my experience,” with her head tilted slightly in bemusement, “had a problem overcoming Sanosuke’s insistence before.”

Trying very hard not to grumble, Saitou said, “Sagara is likely to make trouble for me if I don’t let him take part.”

“Surely not, if he knows what’s at stake!”

Why was she so interested in this question anyway? She was correct, too, dammit — Sanosuke, knowing the importance of eradicating inhumane scum like this, wouldn’t (at least deliberately) sabotage Saitou’s mission if forbidden to participate. He would just be hurt and angry.

Aloud, though, Saitou said, “I wonder if you aren’t trying to weasel out of agreeing not to tell Himura about this.”

Takani gave a very superior smile and said, “I might be trying to outfox you, but I never weasel!” Expression and tone becoming more serious, she went on. “I won’t tell Ken-san or Kaoru-chan. I hate for people to be killed almost as much as they do — it’s antithetic to what I am — but I understand when it needs to happen. And I have–” Her statement ended on a series of points so sharp and bitter, it was as if every word was a blade — “strong feelings about drug-dealers and the living death they spread.”

“So I understand,” Saitou said with a nod, acknowledging what drove her in this context.

“And maybe that’s another reason you want me specifically,” she added more lightly.

“Hn. It may well be.” And why did he feel as if he clung to this as if it were a desirable excuse? He didn’t need an excuse; he’d explained his reasons perfectly well.

***

Everything rumbled and crackled around him, and the darkness was lit by fire. Saitou struggled out of a stunned state that had lasted, he thought, no more than a minute. That minute had been long enough, however, for the trees around him to creak backward and start burning; staring from the ground, he could already see limbs ready to fall. He tried to sit up, but a warm weight prevented it.

With a sudden clenching in his chest, he brought his arms up and around Sanosuke’s body atop his, and found him completely limp. The young man’s clothing had burned to the flesh across his back, and still burned in places, so Saitou patted it out without a thought for his own skin. “Sanosuke,” he said. “Can you hear me?”

No response. Saitou ran a hard-probing hand from the base of the young man’s skull down to his tail bone checking for spinal injuries. Finding none that he could identify, he rolled them both over and rose to his knees. And in looking at Sanosuke, he thought his own face must have gone every bit as pale; the blood had left it for a twisting heart beating hard enough to be painful. The impact had surely caused that reaction, as well as the dizziness he now felt. He drew in and released a few steadying deep breaths.

Sanosuke’s left arm was clearly broken, Saitou thought in multiple places. The right seemed whole, as did his legs, but what damage he might have internally there was no way to tell. And there was no time. The officer glanced up at the threatening trees and back. Dark blood soaked the young man’s hakama on the right, to the extent that Saitou’s pants on the left had probably come in for their share. But he needed to get them out of this situation before he could do anything about the wounds.

Standing, gaging his own ability to do so and to walk, Saitou stamped his feet a few times and rolled his shoulders. He didn’t seem to be hurt — much — but that was because this idiot had taken almost all of the blast himself. And possibly committed suicide in the process. Saitou had lost operatives on dangerous missions before, but never like this. He hauled Sanosuke onto his back and, bent like an old man, hurried into the forest.

To escape the spreading fire, he had to walk some distance before he felt safe putting Sanosuke on the ground again, this time as gently as possible. They couldn’t stay here long either, but it would at least give Saitou time to assess Sanosuke’s condition better. He started by reaching for the young man’s pulse, and had no difficulty finding its fast, hard pumping.

Next he pulled back the eyelids, but even the flames couldn’t help him distinguish brown from black underneath. He proceeded to lift the right leg, carefully, to find the source of the oozing. Rather than a laceration, it was a large, deep abrasion across the entire rear side of Sanosuke’s calf. Saitou removed his jacket, folded it twice, and strapped it onto the injury with its belt. Certainly not a long-term solution, but one that would hopefully prevent some blood loss.

The flames drew nearer and nearer, so Saitou was once again running out of time. He wouldn’t be surprised if Joukimura had already roused its fire brigade. In a forested area they couldn’t do more than clear out as much foliage as possible and set controlled break fires, and that probably wouldn’t be enough. Or, if the fire brigade was under the control of the Kinoshitokai, who knew how they would behave?

He considered Sanosuke’s left arm. He planned on carrying him across his shoulders, and could let it dangle, but felt that would cause more damage than whatever imperfect stabilization he could rig up. So he drew his sword and hacked down the closest tree limb, then sheared off the branchings and twigs, then cut the whole thing in half. The blade would need some attention after these dulling activities, but that seemed an insignificant sacrifice.

Placing the two awkward, rudimentary splints above and below the elbow (which he believed to be sound), he tied them on with strips he cut from Sanosuke’s good hakama leg. Lastly, he ran quick hands up the young man’s body from feet to head, just to confirm nothing else pressing would force him to stop again before he got back to town. Finding none, he put one hand between Sanosuke’s legs, and, with a grunt, hauled him up onto his shoulders by the right arm.

Even this way he couldn’t conveniently run, but he moved much more quickly than with Sanosuke on his back. He didn’t dare hope, though. He’d lost men on dangerous missions before, and he didn’t dare hope. He was only grateful for his good sense of direction and memory of the way they’d come, as the spreading smoke had blotted out all the stars.

***

“Didja think not telling me when this meeting was meant I wouldn’t show up?”

“No. You’ve been hanging around the police station so much lately, I merely left it for you to figure out.”

“I coulda been on time if you’d told me.”

Saitou gave him a very skeptical look. “Could you?”

Sanosuke cleared his throat, though he appeared miffed, then glanced around to determine where he should sit. As he took his place next to Takani, he grumbled, “Asshole.”

Across the table, Chou and Kamatari both laughed. Sanosuke gave them a rude gesture, then turned his attention to the map spread out between his side and theirs. “So what’s this?” he wondered, resuming his usual sanguinity.

Saitou sighed and went about repeating what he’d said before the idiot entered. “This is Joukimura and the surrounding area, where the Kinoshitokai is a major presence. We suspect their base of operations is in or somewhere near this town. The goal of this mission is to discover exactly where, assuming our suspicions are correct, and to make a decisive strike against them.”

“I thought it was to get drunk and gamble,” Sanosuke said, sounding impatient.

“Don’t jump ahead, ahou,” replied Saitou shortly. As if Sanosuke could ever refrain from that. “In order to get the information we need, you four will be posing as two well-off newlywed couples — and all friends,” he added, eyeing Sanosuke and Chou alternately, “so no infighting.

“You’ve all come to the highly recommended Bunanoki Onsen Ryoukan in Joukimura — marked in red — as a wedding trip. Each couple will display an attitude of wanting to outdo the other, which will justify you in things that might otherwise seem strange to the townsfolk. You’re to be as gay and ridiculous as you can within the scope of that attitude; convince them you really are just two silly couples drunk on love and freedom.”

Sanosuke burst out laughing. “You’re telling me to be gay and ridiculous and silly and drunk??”

Saitou rolled his eyes. “At least I know you can handle that part.”

Kamatari snorted.

“And, yes,” Saitou went on, holding Sanosuke’s gaze sternly, “there will be drinking and gambling — the gambling halls we know about are marked in green. Be as pleasant and as ready to make friends as possible; don’t turn down invitations. That way, you’ll be able to get a feel for how much of the town is actually controlled by the yakuza, and hopefully where they come from.”

With a cheer, Sanosuke did a sort of victory dance with his fists.

“You will not,” said Saitou pointedly and in a raised voice, “get drunk, unless it’s absolutely necessary to avoid detection. I need all your wits about you — even what few you possess, ahou.”

“Fuck you, old man,” Sanosuke replied, sounding easily as entertained as angry.

At his side, Takani sighed faintly.

“This mission is being funded by the police department. I don’t need to tell you that actual extravagance will be frowned upon.” He gave an example of such a frown to all four of them. “You will only spend as much as it takes to make you appear to have deep pockets and no self-control. I’m counting on you, sensei, to exercise restraint on these others.”

“Ah, now I see why you wanted me,” Takani said somewhat dryly.

Sanosuke poked her shoulder. “Yeah, but I dunno if you can be silly and drunk and all that!”

“The idea of me as your wife is incredibly silly,” she replied with some tartness but a teasing smile hovering around her eyes, “so I think I’ll do just fine.”

Saitou smirked. He did appreciate this woman at times.

Turning almost haughtily away from her, Sanosuke locked gazes with Saitou again, and the officer was startled when he thought he detected something like discomfort or nervousness there. “So, uh…” He broke eye contact and went back to scanning the map, and there was a definite redness to his cheeks. “How, uh, seriously do we have to pretend to be married?”

Chou and Kamatari began laughing at precisely the same nanosecond, and in fact Chou guffawed so hard he had to lean over and press his face into his sleeve.

Sanosuke’s blush grew brighter, but some of it was probably anger. “Shut up!” he demanded, slamming down a fist. “Just because you two are already fucking doesn’t mean–” But he cut himself short before he could explain his embarrassment. Saitou felt some grudging curiosity, but didn’t express it.

Instead, loudly, he said, “You will be convincing.” Finding this did nothing to diminish the laughter to his left, he punched Kamatari in the head. Chou would have made a better target, but Kamatari sat in the nearest spot.

“Mmm, boss likes it rough,” she said, raising a hand to rub at her temple.

And Chou broke off long enough to say with plaintive jealousy, “Not with you!” Unfortunately, this reinstated Kamatari’s giggles, though what she found so funny about the statement Saitou couldn’t guess. She leaned away from him and tried to get hold of herself with a motion very like Chou’s and a sleeve just as colorful.

With Kamatari muffled and Chou startled out of his mirth, Saitou felt he could continue. “If you can’t bring yourself to kiss in public, ahou, at least be as hands-on as you can. It won’t kill you to put your arm around her.”

“You may have to count on me for that as well,” Takani interjected. She appeared torn between exasperation and amusement.

“And at night, I expect believable noises from your rooms so the hotel staff doesn’t become suspicious.” A strange thing to say to agents at a mission briefing, but necessary. “Especially if any one of you is out following up on information gained during the day. Sensei, I believe you can be unobtrusive enough to do that? I’m familiar with you two–” to Kamatari and Chou; and then to Sanosuke, “You, I forbid from attempting it.” He had to smirk again, a little, as he added, “You’ll have to stay in the room and produce the noises.”

Again the roosterhead’s blush seemed divided between anger and embarrassment. “What the fuck, Saitou?!” he demanded, though he seemed unwilling to meet the officer’s eyes this time, and appeared to be staring instead at his collar buttons. “You never said anything like that was gonna be part of this!”

“Backing out, are you?” The mission would have to be put off; it would be a pain in the ass to find a replacement; for those reasons, despite his original annoyance at Sanosuke’s involvement, Saitou would really prefer he didn’t cancel it. “I should have known you couldn’t handle this.”

“I’m not backing out!” The volatile young man was on his feet, glaring more directly at Saitou with clenched fists. “I can absolutely handle it. You just didn’t give me all the details, which makes you a bastard.”

“That’s not the definition of ‘bastard,’ ahou.” What had set Chou and Kamatari off this time? None of it amused Saitou, and Sano was dragging the meeting out far longer than it needed to last. “And I’m giving you all the details now, which is the definition of ‘briefing.’ Sit down and shut up.”

Refusing to obey, Sanosuke demanded, “And where are you gonna be while I’m sitting alone in a hotel room making sex noises?”

Once more Saitou couldn’t answer properly, because Kamatari was shrieking with laughter, she and Chou leaning on each other for support as the broomhead turned purple in the face. Saitou scowled at them, but they weren’t looking, and probably couldn’t see through the tears in their eyes at any rate.

Although Sanosuke’s embarrassment and annoyance with Saitou didn’t seem to have diminished much, still he leaned close enough to be heard and said, “You know what always distracts Chou? Sword sounds.” And when Saitou gave him a surprised half smile at this frankly excellent idea, Sanosuke drew back abruptly, finally sat down, and looked at the map again. Takani’s eyes rolled, but she said nothing.

Saitou drew his sword. This had the double effect of seizing Chou’s attention and providing a greater threat to Kamatari. The former’s ears seemed to prick up almost visibly, and his change in posture and the direction of his gaze were immediate; whereas the latter really feared nothing and didn’t take much warning from a drawn sword, but at least would know Saitou was serious.

The broomhead went silent in an instant, though he looked disappointed in the next. His girlfriend (or whatever term she preferred) made another valiant attempt at getting hold of herself, perhaps out of respect for the importance of continuing the briefing. Really, once she’d gotten over Shishio, she’d turned out to be quite a moral person.

“I,” Saitou went on at last, “will be in Joukimura as well, acting as a decoy.”

Sanosuke’s head snapped up to show a face mostly returned to its proper color. “You’ll be acting as a decoy?” he broke in, surprised and serious.

Saitou knew this had to do with his using Himura for that role in Kyoto, but he didn’t choose to address that. “The Kinoshitokai is unlikely to believe the story that I’m only there for some time off; they’ll assume I’ve been sent to spy on them. This will draw attention away from you four.”

For half a moment Sanosuke didn’t seem to know what to say. Then he gathered himself and, with half a grin, asked proddingly, “You gonna carry some weak-ass concealed sword again?”

That was, actually, the plan. But Saitou replied, “Only if I need to stab your weak ass.”

To his very great annoyance, the two idiots to his left both snorted and buried their faces in their sleeves yet again — and Kamatari, at least, hadn’t even fully quieted before being thus re-inspired to laughter. But this time Saitou didn’t bother with them, only addressed himself to the other two and spoke more loudly.

“It’s not necessary to try to ‘make friends with me.’ In fact, if a rumor goes around that I’m a cop and probably a spy, it’s better to avoid me as if you had something to hide. Once I’ve familiarized myself with the precise layout as well as the staff of my inn and your hotel, I’ll establish communications so we can share information.”

They discussed the potential methods of exchange and how Saitou would get in touch with them initially. It went stupidly.

At the end, Takani nodded her understanding. At the same moment, Sanosuke asked, “What inn are you staying at?”

“One much cheaper than yours,” Saitou assured him dryly, then moved on. “Kamatari will be seeing to your appearances, making you look as little like your usual selves as possible. She’ll also be coaching you on your pseudonyms and mannerisms. She’s had experience with this, so I trust you’ll cooperate with her.”

Proving she was listening despite her giggles, Kamatari put in, “And I can’t wait to get at this silly man’s hair” — picking at Chou’s vertical locks as she said it, then shooting a look across the table. “And yours, tori-atama.”

“I guess,” Sanosuke mumbled.

“I’ve got a back room here at the station all set up as a staging area,” Kamatari said cheerfully. “If we’re done here–” glancing at Saitou– “I’ll take you all back there and we’ll do some mockups.”

“Sweetheart,” said Chou, evidently shocked into complete soberness, “you are terrifying.” Kamatari just laughed.

“I got one more question for you, bamboo-screen, before we go get combed out.” Saitou turned his eyes toward Sanosuke again without answering. It had been a long time since the idiot had called him ‘bamboo-screen.’ And Sanosuke cleared his throat and asked, “Why don’t you have someone pretending to be your wife?”

The sleeves went up again, but Kamatari and Chou managed to keep fairly quiet this time, though the shaking of their bodies increased with the diminution of sound. Why they’d found so much of what Sanosuke had said during this meeting so vastly entertaining, Saitou couldn’t guess and didn’t really want to know.

“To begin with,” he replied calmly, “my actual wife would be jealous of anyone besides herself pretending to be romantic with me. But she has no skills that suit her for this type of work. And we’ve talked about exploitable weaknesses on a dangerous mission, I believe?”

“‘Talked,'” Sanosuke snorted.

“Beyond that, my having a wife present would add unnecessary verisimilitude to my cover story, which is undesirable.”

“You and your big words.”

Saitou smirked. “As long as you understand, ahou. Now get out of here and have your face painted.”

“Shit, I gotta wear makeup?” Sanosuke wondered as he stood.

The gleeful Kamatari answered in the affirmative as she too got to her feet, tugging Chou up after her. “A touch or two here and there will change the entire shape of your face!”

“You gonna do Saitou too?” Sanosuke wondered under his breath as he waited to follow Kamatari out of the room. Behind him, Takani shook her head with a skeptical smile. The other two were, predictably, chortling again as they led the train.

Alone at last, and feeling unexpectedly drained after such a silly briefing, Saitou reached for cigarettes and matches. In his gut he felt this mission would go well, that he’d chosen (or been chosen by) acceptable agents; but his better judgment certainly was raising a racket.

***

As Saitou made his way through trees and bracken, dodging denser foliage, pausing every so often to reorient, a faint groan touched his left ear. And wasn’t it just like Sanosuke to awaken so soon after such injuries.

But he wasn’t properly awake, as his words soon proved. First he mumbled something Saitou didn’t understand, but after a couple of progressively clearer repetitions, it proved to be, “Taichou.”

This was nothing Sanosuke had ever called Saitou before, so Saitou ignored it and concentrated on getting him to safety. But the calls became more insistent, and Sanosuke even shifted slightly against Saitou’s shoulders and made a sound of pain.

“What happen to that… ‘give up and rest’ advice… frm last time?” His speech was slurred and halting, but comprehensible. Still Saitou had no idea what he was talking about, and, with another chest constriction at this clear sign of damage to the head, didn’t know what to say in response.

Reacting to a jarring step Saitou took, Sanosuke groaned, his breath hot and uneven against Saitou’s neck. The officer tried to walk more gently, which slowed him down a trifle, but Sanosuke’s panting did not diminish.

Finally the young man spoke again. “Mus be tough to carry me… Maybe you’re the one who needs to give up’n rest.”

Saitou knew what to say to this, at least. “Maybe I should leave your ass out here to die?” Banter was something he understood, the level on which they usually connected. Perhaps it would improve Sanosuke’s blurry head and help him recognize his porter.

Sanosuke’s voice went quieter as he said, “You wouldn’ do that, though.” Was he blacking out again? “You always took care of me.”

In one way or another, Saitou always had. But the statement seemed unlikely from Sano, inapplicable.

“No matter what else you did, you were always takin’ care of me. You took me in when I wanned to help… you let me be parta the group, even though I was jussa kid.” He let out a breathy sound of pain, but it didn’t stop his explanation. “‘Fyou hadda go off somewhere, or ‘fthere wassa fight, you always made sure I was safe and knew you were comin’ back. And you made me feel useful, lettin’ me carry things and look at maps with you…”

Saitou had wondered at ‘taichou,’ but now realized Sano was addressing a specific someone else.

Sanosuke sighed and said nothing more for a moment. Curious but hesitant, and overall wanting to keep him awake, Saitou asked, “What was I to you?”

“Oh… you were like a dad. A dad better’n my dad. But…” Giving this matter any thought seemed difficult for him, but might be best for his state of awareness. “‘Snot right. Maybe a cool older brother? No…”

Saitou adjusted his grip on Sanosuke’s left leg and didn’t interrupt his musings.

“I think, actually, I always hadda lil crush on you.”

And what was this reaction? This blush rising onto Saitou’s face? Sano wasn’t even talking to him.

“You were so devoted… gettin’ rid of the classes, makin’ Japan better… you wanned us all to be equal…”

Thinking he knew who Sano believed him to be, Saitou began to understand better the things he’d already said, and what he continued to say. He still had no response, however, especially since he’d never been quite sold on the idea of erasing the class system in Japan.

“Taichou… we’re all gonna be equal inna new age, right? Farmers, sam’rai, alluvus?”

Saitou did not reply. Hearing Sanosuke say it made him doubt his own conclusions on the matter.

“So anyone could hava family name, right? Even a farm kid like me?” Three more steps and he added somewhat dreamily, “I’m gonna name myself after you, taichou…”

“Sagara Sanosuke,” Saitou said, testing the name as if he’d never put both parts together before. “It sounds idiotic.” Or had the young man meant ‘Saitou Sanosuke?’ That sounded… better. He hadn’t known before what Sanosuke’s exact relationship to Sagara had been, and hadn’t much cared; now it made sense, and he was glad to find out. An unusual feeling, however, was growing within him regarding Sanosuke’s loyalty to and admiration of this man Saitou had never met. It discontented him somehow.

“Yeah, tha’s what you said before,” Sano slurred on. “But I want your name ’cause I believe in the cause too. I wanna help people who’re sufferin’.”

Not all of Sanosuke’s idealism, Saitou realized, came from Himura. Perhaps even most of it had merely been reawakened by the former Battousai, having been planted early and deeply by Sagara Souzou.

He cleared his throat. “Isn’t that what you’ve been doing lately — helping people who’ve been suffering under the yakuza holding their town hostage?”

Sanosuke answered immediately. “But we haven’ done it yet. Nothin’s the way you wanned it to be.”

“No,” Saitou answered quietly. “No, it isn’t.”

“But there’s this guy… this guy who tries…”

The pressure in Saitou’s chest redoubled, and he asked hoarsely, “Who is that?”

“You’d like ‘im. He does what he hasto, just like you.”

Saitou could only repeat, “I do what I have to…”

“Yeah, you’d like ‘im. You died for the cause, and I know he would too. But it really messed me up at the time. You left, and next thing I knew I was lookin’ at your headonna stake. And one time he…”

These remarks had been delivered more intensely than Sanosuke’s previous, vaguer-sounding statements. Was it healthy for him to experience such profound emotions in his condition? It didn’t matter, because Saitou suddenly couldn’t stand the sorrow and growing panic in his voice. “I’m fine,” he said. “I won’t leave you.”

Sano seemed to relax a trifle. “When I die, I getta join you, right? ‘Cause in the afferlife, I just know you’re still workin’ for what you believe is right. You prob’ly hava whole team… and I getta join it, right?” He drew in a painful breath and continued. “I can help f’real this time… I’ve gotten so much stronger since you knew me as a kid.”

“You have,” Saitou agreed. “But you’re not going to die.”

“You said everyone dies someday!”

“Not you today. Look, there are the lights of the town.”

“Yeah, but when I do die, I getta join you, right?”

Saitou hesitated a moment, then said, “Of course.”

***

He arrived in uniform, just in case the Kinoshitokai didn’t recognize him as someone reported by their Tokyo agents (whom police in Tokyo would be rounding up in the next few days). He changed in the cramped, flea-ridden inn room he would be operating out of, with an immediacy that might seem suspicious to anyone watching. Satisfied with the first impression he’d probably made, he then ventured forth to see the sights.

Joukimura had numerous onsen, some public gardens and views, plenty of drinking establishments, gambling establishments disguised as drinking establishments, a couple of restaurants with excellent reputations, a brothel tucked away somewhere, and even a small museum. The town thrived on tourism, and by extension the Kinoshitokai did too. It only remained to discover exactly how many of these businesses the yakuza had their hands in, and to avoid or repel any assassination attempts.

The agents had taken their places a few days prior, and the rumors already flew. Apparently Kamatari had started out by rejecting the room she was to share with Chou as ‘not as good as theirs,’ establishing the rivalry early on. Sanosuke, in the spirit of that rivalry (or perhaps just of his general rivalry with Saitou’s long-term operatives), had ordered Takani some extravagant kimono that had become the talk of the town when she appeared in it. This Chou had felt the need to match for Kamatari, and Saitou winced at the probable expense.

Then at some point, while the four had been lounging in the hotel’s onsen, Chou had climbed first the wall and then the magnolia tree beyond in order to bring Kamatari back some flowers. Completely naked, he’d slipped, grazed the entire inside of a thigh on the bark, and had to be seen by the local doctor.

And just yesterday, Takani had hosted a lavish dinner party at the hotel for some of the ‘friends’ they’d made during their evening revels, and had even graciously invited the other couple, who were undoubtedly plotting this very moment to outdo her. When Saitou heard about this gathering and what had supposedly been served there, he began to think the budget for this mission entirely shot.

He tried to ignore them whenever he caught sight of them over the next few days — at least to the extent that would be natural in an unrelated party; he didn’t have to feign confusion and disdain for their noisy and borderline rude behavior on a couple of occasions — but found it impossible, for some reason, not to at least check on them whenever he could. Maybe it was because Chou and Kamatari had shared a very public kiss in one instance, and Saitou wanted to see whether Sanosuke could work up the nerve to do the same with Takani.

Overall, no one seemed to suspect them. Well, of being idiots, yes, but not spies. Saitou hoped they were taking advantage of the plan going so well, because his part of the plan was also succeeding. He found himself treated coolly by many of the businesses in town and not welcomed (at least not enthusiastically) into many of the entertainment venues. This gave him a general idea of which places were under Kinoshitokai control, but he hoped his agents were recovering more specific information.

In fact they’d been working their way outward from their hotel through all of the aforementioned entertainment venues (except the brothel), where they in turn seemed to become the entertainment with their antics and probably picked up plenty that fell from lips loosened by amusement. Meanwhile, Saitou’s part of the plan was succeeding so well that the first time anyone came for him, the group numbered seven.

Not wishing to cause a commotion on a public street, he lured the thugs into the woods that hugged the town to the east. As he’d done a few unsatisfactory times in the past, he wore a concealed sword — of all the things never to let Sanosuke know — and with two strikes downed the first near-half of them. Seeing this, one of the remaining four panicked and ran, disappearing into the trees before Saitou could quite finish off the other three.

He followed, at first effectively; but the man must have gotten hold of himself and stopped crashing so much through bushes and other foliage, for eventually Saitou lost the trail. Carefully, though, he took note of the line of travel and his distance from town before returning to the latter. He didn’t dare explore farther at the moment, but he suspected he might have been put on the scent of the Kinoshitokai’s base. That yakuza beetle had certainly appeared to have a destination in mind, which was unlikely to be anywhere he wouldn’t feel safe.

A few days, no more assassins, a lot of noise from the other end of town, and nary a kiss between Sanosuke and his ‘wife’ later, the date arrived that Saitou had established for the first information exchange between himself and the group. He’d arranged for Chou to handle it, since they’d practiced it most, but for some reason the broomhead sent Takani in his place. Nevertheless, the transfer went perfectly smoothly. He’d known she had what it took.

They listed the businesses in town they believed were not under yakuza control, evidently thinking that would be more efficient than listing those that were, as well as the names of everyone they suspected or knew were in the gang. They mentioned the Yorokobi Chiawase, a gambling hall they were fairly sure was entirely owned and run by the Kinoshitokai, but also postulated a base somewhere in the woods. All in all, good information that left Saitou satisfied with his own scheme.

For his part, he’d mentioned the assassination attempt, and his suspicions that now corresponded with theirs about suspect businesses and a base in the woods. Somewhat reluctantly, he’d explained that he couldn’t be entirely sure at any given moment that he wasn’t being watched, and therefore hadn’t been able to search for this hypothetical base himself. Perhaps this was overcautious, but when stirring an anthill, you needed to be prepared for the bites, because enough of them could hurt even a strong warrior.

Even more reluctantly, he’d given orders for them (or one of them) to conduct the hunt in his place. This he’d followed, not to belabor the point, with a paragraph of warnings and threats concerning how they went about it, and one line in particular (obviously aimed at Sanosuke and Chou, though it didn’t say so in words) beginning with, I will personally kill… admonishing whoever found the place not to try running in there all alone to fight and dying by the swarm.

Lastly, he’d named the time and place for the next information exchange, after which he hoped to plan the decisive action they would take. He anticipated they would be back in Tokyo within two weeks, or sooner if things went smoothly.

The very next day, in the afternoon, he started to hear rumors about ‘those tourist women staying at the Bunanoki’ getting into what was vulgarly referred to as a ‘catfight,’ after which one of them (the gossips couldn’t agree on the color of her hair) had stormed off, possibly trying to hide her tears, toward the garden on the east side of town.

Saitou had always considered Kamatari capable of no less than everything (and her hair dark red), but this venture had also left him regularly impressed with Takani’s ability to play her role. This news in particular pleased him, too, since the ‘fight’ had clearly aimed at giving Kamatari an excuse to slip into the woods, and wouldn’t cost the police force anything.

Whether or not she had any success, she evidently returned safely, for the next thing Saitou overheard on the subject was of the women’s tearful, alcohol-muddled making up. And whether or not any of the subsequent debacles he learned about marked other attempts, he couldn’t tell.

It seemed they’d all been gathering information in their different ways long enough to exhaust their sources and the regular routines of the town. It lacked yet a few days until the next exchange and the real planning, which left Saitou very little to do but legitimately enjoy what attractions Joukimura had to offer and hope for another assassination attempt.

The latter did not come, however, and he guessed the Kinoshitokai had, instead of following the usual perseverent yakuza pattern, learned their lesson the first time. They would wait for him to make a move against them, and try to come down on him with a much more significant force. Whether even that would accomplish what they intended, Saitou couldn’t guess, but he didn’t plan on taking the chance.

He’d toyed with the idea, while composing his previous message to his agents, of ordering Sanosuke to make the upcoming exchange. It would have been so easy to orchestrate a meeting in the street during which the roosterhead would annoy him enough to justify an ass-kicking, and papers could change hands unseen in a chaos of flying limbs.

That would have been fun — indeed, imagining it was a valued entertainment as he whiled away his time — and might even have enhanced the image of the agents… but he’d reluctantly dispensed with the idea, considering he couldn’t trust Sanosuke not to slip up and shout out his name or some other personal information he wasn’t supposed to know. (In fact, in Saitou’s imagination, that was how it always went.) At least he had the thought to console him over the next few rather boring days.

And finally the exchange took place. It seemed they hadn’t been able to find the postulated forest base either, though they agreed with Saitou, considering the gangsters’ movements, about its general location. They had little more to report except a finer understanding of the drug trafficking system the Kinoshitokai employed. Evidently the yakuza’s control over so much of the town was facilitated by addiction. That fit with what Saitou had observed and the original information that had started this mission; equally fitting was the note in the margin in Takani’s handwriting stating that something must be done to help the addicts after the dust settled.

Setting that matter aside, and despite having failed to find the base in the woods, plans to raise the dust could now commence.

***

Saitou thanked his lucky stars that, thanks to Chou’s little mishap, they’d already determined the doctor in town to be on the level; though he trusted Takani completely, she didn’t have the facilities or the materials in Joukimura to treat Sano as extensively as was obviously necessary. But she could and would be involved. He might have gone to get her himself, but he felt as if an invisible chain limited him to a very short radius around the clinic.

The doctor did not require rousing, for the man already had a few patients after the fight in the Yorokobi Chiawase. Some volunteers from around town were aiding the victims lying in the main room, who were none of them severely wounded; and, though these noble-hearted helpers looked at Saitou with outright fear, he conscripted one to go to the hotel and bring Takani.

Noya-sensei, despite knowing Saitou and Sano for members of the party that had caused such devastation at the gambling hall, had immediately admitted Sano into one of the better-lit private rooms, and examined him with a grim face. By the time Takani arrived, Noya had already cut all the clothing off the young man and, with clean hands, begun sponging dirt and blood from his injuries.

And Sano looked so beaten. All his angles were wrong; his face was wrong; his stillness was wrong. Saitou stood just inside the door and struggled to breathe.

Takani took one look at Sano, then Saitou, and said, “You can’t be here for this.”

“Sensei–”

Noya, believing Saitou had addressed him, looked up. But Takani broke in. “Your face is white. This is going to be serious. Get out.”

“Who is this?” Noya asked, confused.

“She’s a doctor,” Saitou replied, and introduced Takani by her codename. He fixed Noya with a severe gaze. “She’s going to work with you on this.”

Noya actually took a step back, which meant Saitou’s hard eyes and commanding tone had done their job and Takani wouldn’t face overt sexism at least. “Yes, of course,” the man said, and glanced at Takani, who had already moved to wash her hands.

When she turned again, she mimicked Saitou’s gaze, and the officer found it every bit as effective coming from her. “Out.”

He had no grounds on which to base a demand to be present, and, honestly, she’d cowed him. This was her territory, after all, not his. He took one last look at Sano’s pale face, then all but ran from the room.

Outside, leaning against the wall on one side of the building, he found himself shaking. He patted his pockets absently, but it appeared he’d lost his cigarettes. With a deep breath, he dragged a hand over his face. In actuality, his tremors probably arose from having been hit with an unexpected truth at precisely the wrong moment.

He should try to find Kamatari and Chou, and help them if necessary. He should prowl the town looking for signs of any lingering yakuza. He should go back to the site where the explosives had been hidden and see what he could find there. It was what Sano would want — “He does what he has to” — and it was his duty.

He shuddered. The chain that bound him to the clinic tightened, and he had neither desire nor energy to test it.

When a hazy, faintly glowing figure became gradually visible beside him, he hardly blinked. The young, handsome face, the bandanna, the old uniform… he knew who this was. But he couldn’t bring himself to stand straight or to look directly at him for long. He only asked in a low, harsh tone, “Will he live?”

“I don’t know,” replied Sagara Souzou quietly. “But I wouldn’t be here if he weren’t close to death.”

It had progressed beyond clenching now; his heart actually ached at the words, throbbed unevenly as if working around something that had been lodged in it. “Why is that?” he whispered.

“I’m drawn to him at times like this.” The ghost appeared both fond and deeply sorrowful. “Since he took my name, took on himself the ‘evil’ everyone believed of us, he made himself my heir as if he were my own son. A connection like that is difficult to break.”

Saitou rasped out half a laugh. “Didn’t you hear him? He doesn’t think of you as a father.”

“I heard him.” Sagara smiled sadly. “He only said that because he was conflating me with you.”

The officer, trying to calm his shuddering breaths, said nothing.

“You’re drawn to him as well. Because he’s inherited from you too: principles, strength, and what’s been born of your impact on him. A connection like that is difficult to break.” A touch of hope sounded in Sagara’s voice now, and he added, “And he’s right; I do like you. You and I might have been enemies once, but now… now we have the same concerns.”

“And if he dies?”

“You’ve both lived through worse.” Sagara offered a stronger smile. “Take care of him.” Then he disappeared.

Finally Saitou turned fully toward where the ghost had stood, and stared at the emptiness there for several long moments. His body had straightened. The shaking had stopped. He didn’t even crave a cigarette. The chain had broken.

Finding Kamatari and Chou, he decided, was his first priority. He would need to go back to the Yorokobi Chiawase and try to trace their route. They’d probably left a trail of blood for him to follow, so he should be able to catch up with them and finish whatever needed to be finished.

He still hated to leave Sano’s vicinity, but felt he now had the strength to do what he must — strength he almost couldn’t believe he’d lacked, or that a dead man had restored in him. Sano was in the capable hands of a close friend, and his taichou was watching over him. Saitou must put his trust in them.

***

The Yorokobi Chiawase appeared quiet from the outside, but when Saitou drew closer as he passed, he could hear the rowdy noise and laughter from within. Perfect. He moved down a side-street opposite and hid in the shadows, after checking with every sense he possessed that he really had shaken his tail.

Of course something could go wrong tonight; it usually did. The latest communication had been the youngsters acknowledging the plan he’d laid out, and he assumed that, among the four of them, they could come to a proper understanding of its details. But where Sanosuke was involved (especially in combination with Chou), that introduced an unknown element. (Though Saitou knew it entirely too well.)

He wondered how Sanosuke had reacted when he’d learned that Chou and Kamatari would both be wearing weak-ass concealed swords.

Despite his extensive experience with hiding in the shadows and the agitated boredom it could sometimes lead to, he was impatient to get on with this. For all he knew, the place could be populated entirely by yakuza members, and in any case it would be a dangerous situation. He always hoped to get through missions like this without significant harm coming to his agents, but this time it seemed especially, unusually important.

People went casually in and out of the building, often drunk, and without any sign of impediment beyond what their own state caused. Strange not to have someone at the door assessing patrons; maybe the Kinoshitokai were just that confident, or maybe they thought a bouncer would draw unnecessary attention to their illegal activities. And finally, Takani emerged, stumbling slightly and looking, even in the lamplight, somewhat green. Saitou was impressed.

She made her way off down the street in the direction of the hotel, supposedly drunkenly sick, to hide herself where any rogue gangster with a brain in his head wouldn’t find her, and to ready her medical supplies for any of the others returning with injuries. Her planned exit was the signal to begin.

He could already hear it as he ran across the street: the sounds of enjoyment turning to cries of rage and fear. Even as he approached, a couple of bawdy women burst out of the door with wide, terrified eyes. He let them pass, but stabbed the tattooed man that attempted to follow.

The room was in chaos. His agents that remained had separated in order to cover as much of it as possible; normally Saitou would prefer his people to have someone watching their backs, but for these three he supposed it was superfluous.

Most of the gangsters carried only small weapons — concealed knives and brass knuckles and the like — but a few had swords, and some used the furniture (not always in one piece) against their opponents. Things already weren’t going well for them, and Saitou’s appearance blocking the door didn’t improve their situation.

Kamatari was less skilled with a sword than with a larger weapon, her attacks thus more sweeping than they should be, but she knew how to move to avoid taking damage. And she was ruthless, never using the lighter hits that would have been called for if they’d wanted to take prisoners. She did occasionally salute one of the cowering women in the room when she came near them, though.

Chou must be disappointed with the sword he’d brought. Though it was of a different make than the one his lover used, a concealed sword was a concealed sword, and more fragile than anything in his arsenal at home. He remained a talented warrior, however, and had a unique move or two that took his opponents by surprise even with the weapon he’d been dealt.

And Saitou had never seen the roaring Sanosuke so intense. This must represent some return to his pre-Himura days, though perhaps even more murderous. He didn’t pull his punches, and had a favorite tactic of kicking a man in the groin and then throwing his entire body in such a way that the neck snapped. It was surprisingly efficient, and made him seem like less of an idiot.

Saitou himself took care of anyone bent on escaping. He would have let the women run if they’d had the nerve to, but none of them seemed to have much of that left. The room was a flurry of tattooed arms, flashing blades, broken decor, and blood. But he noticed as more bodies fell that the place was emptying too quickly. Unable to examine the building as closely as they would have liked without rousing suspicion, they must have missed a concealed exit. The yakuza thugs, when they’d realized they were outmatched, had begun slipping out as best they could. A couple of the women nearest the back of the room had scrambled that direction as well.

“Souma! Yoshina!” Saitou called, still using codenames for prolonged security. “Out the back! Chinen, let’s finish this!”

Chou and Kamatari quickly disappeared, and, if the grunts from that exit were any indication, caught up with a gangster or two that had lingered too long. Meanwhile, Saitou and Sanosuke dispatched the last of those that had seen fit to stay.

“With me,” Saitou commanded, and headed out the main door.

“Where to?” wondered Sanosuke as he caught up with him.

“We’re going to find the hideout in the woods.”

Sano pounded his fists together, grinning darkly, and the two men ran into the night.

***

The sky had gone from smoky black to dark smoky blue, and would soon shift to a lighter smoky grey. Saitou had no idea what the status of the fire was, but guessed it had been handled based on the relative thinness of the grimy clouds and the lack of any light to the east beyond the hint of approaching dawn.

Though visibly weary beneath their bloodstains, Chou and Kamatari perked up a bit as they all entered town again after hours of tracking gangsters through the surrounding area. “Hope tori-atama’s all right,” Chou remarked, throwing Saitou an uneasy glance.

“I hope so too,” replied Saitou, his voice resolute and steady. He noticed neither of his companions had commented on his unusual brutality against the yakuza that had hurt Sano so terribly with their trap.

“Meg–” Kamatari cleared her throat and went on lightly. “Fuse-sensei is an excellent doctor. I’m sure she has him all patched up by now. I’d love to have her examine me.”

“What?” Chou could always be riled up by these teasing suggestive statements from his girlfriend. “Since when?!”

Kamatari laughed brightly.

Saitou snorted. “You two need to go back to the hotel.”

Brows rising, both eyes open, Chou protested, “But I wanna know how he’s doing!” And that he could express such concern without reservation proved that Saitou had given him a clear enough idea about Sano’s condition, and that the enmity between the broomhead and the roosterhead was no more than skin deep.

Kamatari looked hard at Saitou, who tried to keep his expression neutral. “No, anata,” she said at last, “I think we need to go back to the hotel. We’ll hear the news soon enough. And I want to get you out of those dirty clothes.”

Chou smiled uncomfortably, as if acknowledging Kamatari’s last words while dissatisfied with her first.

“It’s an order,” Saitou said shortly. “Go get some rest.”

“What about you?” Chou didn’t seem able to stop himself from asking.

“I’m going to check on Chinen and Fuse. I may be able to send you a message.”

The broomhead muttered, “‘Check on,'” but had nothing more to say. And a few streets later, the group split at a crossing.

Alone, Saitou felt at once calm and very agitated — as if, while he moved with his usual controlled, dispassionate solidity, some interior core made up of his true self vibrated almost enough to crack the surface. His footsteps neither hurried nor faltered, and in fact were so ordinary that he took little notice of them, yet it felt as if the world was rushing past him at a breathtaking and unstoppable velocity.

The streets were eerily empty and silent. It appeared no one yet dared to step from the perceived safety of their homes. Saitou reflected tiredly that they would need to clear out the Yorokobi Chiawase, and anywhere else in the vicinity where they’d left corpses; it would be too tasteless to ask the townspeople to clean up the gory mess of their former oppressors.

He turned the corner onto the street that held the clinic, on which his eyes immediately fixed. There, on the outside step, sat Takani, her slumped position appearing dull from exhaustion. Even from here Saitou could see the blood on her garments. Still he did not quicken his pace, though inside him something strained and pranced like a racehorse, demanding he sprint the last distance.

She saved him the trouble. Her head lifted, and she looked around in a slow, vague movement — but when she turned his direction, she jumped up as if injected with new vigor. Cupping her hands around her mouth, she shouted hoarsely, “He’s alive!”

Then Saitou’s feet failed him. He stumbled slightly, caught himself, and stood still for a long moment, forcing unclenched the fists he hadn’t known he’d formed. Dizzy, he took three or four slow steps before resuming his previous stride.

“He’s alive,” Takani repeated as he drew close. “He made it through everything. He’s stable. He’s alive.”

Saitou dropped onto the steps himself, and echoed her last words softly.

“Yes,” she said, and sat down again beside him.

“Is he out of danger?”

“When is he ever out of danger?” the doctor joked wearily. “No, he could still take a turn for the worse. His fever hasn’t gone down, for one thing, and he needs to rest more deeply than we agree is safe at the moment, after a concussion. But he survived the surgeries.”

“And what surgeries were those?”

She proceeded to list all of Sano’s injuries and how they’d been treated. Saitou felt the blood drain gradually from his face at the length and severity of that list.

At last she finished with, “So we’ll be monitoring him carefully for a while. I only stepped out here for some fresh air.”

“Thank you for your hard work,” Saitou said formally and a little weakly.

Takani nodded. “And you… you have some injuries too. You should come inside with me, and we’ll get you patched up. That’s what I’m here for, after all, not just treating that thoughtless idiot.”

“Not thoughtless. Not this time. He got those wounds saving my life.”

“I’m not surprised. We’ve all known for a while…” And though she didn’t specify what they’d all known, or even who ‘they all’ were, Saitou understood.

Wearily he replied, “I haven’t known.”

Some of her playfulness returned as she said, “So Sano’s not the only thoughtless idiot.”

The officer could respond only with a tired laugh.

After Takani, despite her weariness, had cleaned and bandaged Saitou’s hurts — all of them minor (especially as compared with Sano’s), he urged her to return to the hotel and get some sleep. But she shook her head.

“Someone has to sit with Sanosuke. Noya-sensei is in there now, but he still has plenty of work to do with the other wounded from last night. I need to relieve him.”

“I can sit with Sano.”

She smiled palely. “But you’re not a doctor, and you don’t understand what to watch for.” It was bluntness to match his own, and he felt the impact he must so often dole out to others.

“Then you get some sleep in the room with him,” he replied in a tone every bit as set against contradiction as hers, “and I’ll wake you if anything changes.”

For a long moment she hesitated. Finally she said, “If you wake me the instant something happens, I suppose I can trust you to watch him carefully.”

Saitou snorted at the idea of his watching Sano any other way.

“And I do need sleep. All right.”

She led him back into the treatment room toward whose door his eyes had been moving repeatedly this entire time. He’d barely even taken stock of who remained in this outer, more communal area. He should have stared at them all and noted who squirmed, who might be guilty rather than a bystander. He hadn’t.

Noya didn’t look quite as weary as Takani, but had, like her, missed some blood when washing his hands and arms. It seemed he’d been longing to get back out to the other patients, since the volunteers had apparently fled home. Such devotion to his local charges was admirable, but Saitou had stopped paying attention almost the moment he’d entered the room.

Sano remained as pale as death, and only the visible if minimal rise and fall of his chest reassured Saitou. He looked so still, was far too quiet. Saitou told himself that this intense fighter would be on his feet again in no time — much earlier than his doctors would prefer — shouting and jumping and brawling and demonstrating in every way his irrepressible, passionate nature. He would be well, he would be strong, and he would be… with Saitou. Assuming Takani and ‘they all’ were correct.

For now, Saitou drew a high doctor’s chair close to the raised table on which Sano lay, and took his clammy hand. The other poked out of a sling that otherwise completely enveloped his broken arm, and it hurt Saitou to see it perhaps as much as it had hurt Sano physically. This was the price Sano had paid for Saitou’s sake, and the officer didn’t think he could ever adequately make that up to him. His life belonged to Sano now, and it only remained to see what the young man would do with it.

Takani had a few more remarks before she too settled into a chair, legs curled up beneath her and head resting on the back, but they sounded like so much blurred noise to Saitou. Everything besides the padded table had gone out of focus.

After a while he found he’d matched his breathing to Sano’s. It was surprisingly soothing, and he felt his mind going blank. He couldn’t call it sleep, for had the figure on the table given even the slightest twitch, Saitou would have recognized it a nanosecond into the movement; but it was like sleep. Like sleeping beside Sano.

Past the shelves and materials partially blocking the north-facing window, the cycle of the sun could not be made out with any certainty. Therefore following the course of the day would have been difficult even had Saitou thought to attempt it. So he didn’t know how many minutes or hours passed, while he sat still holding Sano’s hand and breathing with him, before those breaths changed and some folds of the thin blanket drawn up to his chest shifted slightly.

Whatever he’d said in the past, he knew Sano to be ridiculously strong. This was just like the walk through the forest: would anyone else have awakened so soon after a series of desperate injuries and surgical operations? No one but his Sano.

He caught his breath as thick lashes slowly parted. In the lamplight, Sano’s eyes looked promising, their pupils the same size or nearly so, and the awareness in them, if not sharp, at least indicating some level of lucidity.

And the first thing he said, in a low, hoarse tone, was, “Taichou?”

This time Saitou recognized his own jealousy for what it was. But there would always be a place in Sano’s heart set aside for his old captain, and Saitou couldn’t even say Sagara didn’t deserve it. Besides, if Sano believed Sagara was the last person he’d spoken to… Perhaps Sagara was the last person he’d spoken to.

“Taichou had to leave,” Saitou murmured, “but I’m here.”

“Ohh… Saitou…” Sano’s little smile would have appeared dreamy under other circumstances. He shifted his hand just slightly in Saitou’s, and the officer had the fleeting mental impression of holding a small, delicate bird. Tori-atama indeed.

Saitou drew his free hand across Sano’s hot brow in a caressing gesture he simply couldn’t restrain, and Sano let out a faint sigh. “Did we get ’em?”

“We did.”

Again Sano smiled faintly, vaguely, and again his fingers twitched.

“Go back to sleep,” Saitou advised quietly. “I’ll take care of you.” And as the brown eyes fell closed, Saitou raised Sano’s hand and pressed his lips to it before laying it, still clasped in his, gently back on the table.

This story is a gift for OTPsaisa as a Patreon signing bonus. Their initial request was just the bit about delirious Sano talking to Saitou as if he’s Sagara-taichou and all the feels, and then I had to go blow it into this long-ass thing XD XD

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