His Own Humanity: Reciprocity

It defied logic for an object lacking voice or facial features to express emotions, but somehow, looking at it, Heero read annoyance and frustration pretty clearly without needing a human face to read them in. He couldn’t help smiling; hand-held can openers were a bit of a bother before you figured them out. He’d found the electric kind so unreliable, though, that he’d sworn them off years ago. Duo would simply have to get used to it.

He hadn’t heard a sound since entering the apartment, but considered it unlikely Duo would be out; so he recovered the can opener from where it had evidently been tossed down with some force into the corner at the far side of the counter, and started his search. Before he could even peek into any of the rooms down the hall, though, he caught sight of what he sought on the balcony at the end.

As he drew nearer, he observed that Duo, seated against the outside wall beside the glass door, was eating black olives from a can, which solved that mystery. A G.E.D. study guide, only a couple of weeks old yet already somewhat ragged-edged, lay across his lap, and his new sparkly green iPod sat on top of that. His bare feet, down at the end of long, full-stretched legs, twitched rhythmically back and forth, presumably to the beat of whatever he was listening to — he’d been downloading anything and everything in the last few weeks — and as Heero opened the door Duo added to this time-keeping operation by tapping out the rhythm on his book with the highlighter in his hand.

“Oh, hey!” Duo looked up with a surprised smile as Heero stepped onto the balcony. He pulled the headphones from his ears, and would have risen if Heero hadn’t dropped down beside him as he closed the door. “Is it that late?” Duo added, sounding pleased, after which his mouth was busy and he couldn’t say anything more for several long moments. He tasted like olives.

Finally Heero sat back from the hello kiss and remarked, gesturing at the can, “You got them open eventually, I see.”

With magic,” replied Duo belligerently. “That goddamned torture device was not cooperating.”

“This one?” Heero held up the can opener.

“Yes!” Duo yelped. “Can I throw it?”

Heero laughed. “No. Here, let me show you…” He pulled the olives closer, then slowly demonstrated how the can opener worked — incompletely, of course, since this particular can already showed a clean open edge.

Duo watched with suspicious eyes, and eventually remarked dubiously, “It kinda crawls along there, doesn’t it? Sorta eats its way around the top of the can.” He sounded as if he wanted to give the device another chance, but had been too wounded by its betrayal to trust again so soon.

“Now you try,” Heero urged, reaching for one of Duo’s hands to place it on the rubber-coated handles of the can opener.

Grumbling and still suspicious, Duo nevertheless allowed Heero to guide his fingers through the process a couple of times. He seemed to develop some reluctant admiration for the object’s design, but obviously remained a little wary of it even when the tutoring session had ended.

“I may keep opening stuff with magic for a while,” he said, and for a few tense moments followed the can opener with his eyes as Heero set it aside next to the nearly-depleted olives. “Speaking of which…” Relaxing, Duo leaned to move the two items entirely out of the space between himself and his boyfriend — his touch on the can opener, the amused Heero noted, still gingerly — and gestured. “Now come here.” And he tugged at Heero’s arm.

Heero obeyed, and found himself, at Duo’s direction, leaning close against him. When Duo said, “I’ll show you something,” Heero could feel the vibrations of his speech through the hand that Duo had pulled to his chest.

“All right.” It came out in a murmur, which seemed somehow to fit the snugness of their new position.

Duo went on, now no longer speaking English. “Let me say, everyone who’s got magical abilities has a magical or psychic center ’round about here.”

Heero had no problem at all understanding the magical language, and as Duo spoke he could sense something a little different than before through his palm and fingers. It resembled the vibrations of Duo’s regular speech, but Heero thought he felt them on another, deeper level.

“Let me say, if you can find that center in yourself and sorta talk through it, it’ll come out in the magical language, and anyone with magical abilities will be able to understand you.”

It made him shiver, and, as Duo continued, Heero couldn’t help feeling as if they two were connected on a new and deeper level as well. He remembered ascribing a certain intimacy to the idea that Duo had been the one to awaken his magical abilities; evidently he hadn’t been too far off the mark.

“Let me say, you have to speak through your magical center to cast spells, too, so finding it’s pretty important if you’re going to be doing magic.”

Heero dropped his head to rest against Duo’s shoulder and closed his eyes. He thought he could feel a faint resonance inside his own chest responding to that in Duo’s; it fascinated and excited and disconcerted him.

“Let me say, can you feel that?”

“Why do you keep starting all your sentences like that?” Heero wondered quietly, eyes still closed.

“Let me say, to make sure I don’t cast any actual spells by accident. Let me say, this way I’m structuring my sentences so they’re pretty much just a spell commanding me to say what I’m saying.”

Heero nodded minutely. “Why is the magical center in the chest?” he asked next. “Is it associated with a particular organ?”

In English this time, Duo answered, “You’d have to ask Trowa about that one.”

Heero raised his head again to look Duo in the eye with a slight smile. “I prefer learning from you,” he said, and kissed him.

Some time later, still in English, Duo echoed Heero’s earlier suggestion: “Now you try it.”

“Do what, exactly?” It didn’t sound in his voice, but Heero couldn’t be 100% comfortable about this. He had, after all, recently witnessed the tail-end of a conspicuous example of magic gone very, very wrong. That Duo himself wasn’t more wary of amateur magic use at this point might have been a surprise if Heero hadn’t already become perfectly accustomed to his attitude.

“Just try to feel your magical center,” Duo replied somewhat vaguely, “and see if you can talk through it.”

“All right…” Heero closed his eyes again and concentrated, simultaneously silently predicting that his nervousness would render him completely unable to pull this off. He thought he retained awareness of the not-entirely-physical area of his chest he’d felt vibrating in response to Duo’s earlier words, but he couldn’t quite get mental hold of what it would take to ‘talk through it.’ “Say something else,” he requested of Duo, who complied.

And as Duo started to ‘Let me say’ through the lyrics of some absurd song that was popular at the moment, which sounded even more idiotic when chanted in the magical language, and placed a hand over Heero’s heart to mirror the one of Heero’s that lay atop his own, Heero found that nervousness was not the emotion likely to get in the way here. He tried to concentrate again on the resonance Duo’s speech caused within him, but Duo’s voice and his warm hand were simply too distracting.

Finally Heero gave a faint, helpless laugh. “I don’t think this is going to work right now.”

Duo broke off his lyric recitation and wondered, “Oh?”

“Because it’s making me want you like mad,” Heero confessed.

“Justin Bieber?” said Duo skeptically. “I’ll have to remember that.”

Heero chuckled. “Let’s just say even he couldn’t make me not want you.”

“Oh, well done!” Duo complimented this statement with a laugh. Then he asked slyly, “So what are you going to do about it?”

“Nothing, at the moment,” Heero said with a sigh. “We’ll have to try this again later when we have more time.”

“Oh, that’s right,” Duo recollected in disappointment: “suits.”

Heero nodded against Duo’s shoulder; then, because he simply couldn’t help it, he turned to mouth Duo’s neck.

Duo let out a pleased breath and said in a tone half serious, half silly, and all suggestive, “We’ll put off the magic ’til tonight, then.”

Less than a month remained before Relena’s wedding, and Heero and Duo had fittings scheduled today for the necessary attire. Tempting though it was to forget all about that and pursue, as Duo had said, magic of various types, Heero knew his mother would go into meltdown if she found out he’d put off reserving his tux.

“Consider yourself booked for tonight, then,” he said, withdrawing reluctantly from his comfortable position against his boyfriend and moving to rise.

Duo groped him on the way up. “Consider it considered.” After which, thankfully, they managed to get Duo shod and the both of them out of the apartment without too much more Justin Bieber, though Heero had a sinking suspicion he hadn’t heard the last of that.

A preference for jewel tones had already been established on Duo’s part, and Heero began to suspect him of a preference for the jewels themselves as well as Duo oohed and ahhed over a line of shirts with sparkly decorated collar points. Finished with his own fitting, which had been quick and easy, Heero watched Duo’s with a smile but without a word. He wouldn’t try to talk Duo out of the blingy shirt he had his eye on (nor the tie and vest with glittery stripes to match), and in fact was ready to buy him whatever he wanted.

Duo looked so damn good in everything, and watching him try things on was a wonderful experience — and not just because Heero adored every detail of his body. Duo struck poses for the mirrors and quoted movie lines he thought were appropriate (though they usually weren’t) and generally made an adorable goof of himself. And the dawning realization displayed by the employee helping him that he had a gay couple in his dressing room was amusing too — in a different, tiresome sort of way.

Near the end of the process, oddly enough, Billy Joel’s My Life began playing from Heero’s pocket. In some confusion he fished out his phone while Duo tried for a straight face as he said, “That’s one of your parents.”

Heero did remember eventually that Duo had been playing with his phone the other night, and admired what a quick learner his boyfriend had proven. Duo had once said he didn’t think he’d ever get used to cell phones, and now here he was assigning custom ringtones.

Despite its unexpected trappings, the call itself came as no surprise. Mrs. Yuy considered all wedding preparations as her immediate jurisdiction, and the acquisition of suits was no exception even though it technically had nothing to do with her. Naturally she would want to check to make sure this phase of the operation proceeded according to plan.

“Hello, mama,” Heero greeted her, more or less amiably.

“Heero? Hello. How are you doing?”

“Great,” he replied truthfully. “How are you?”

“We’re well. Your father has decided to take up golfing. Are you getting your tuxedo today?”

Unfazed by her topic roulette, nothing atypical of her, Heero informed her of his current location.

“No problems getting the same style as your father’s?”

“No.” They’d only been over this a dozen times.

“And your friend is there too? Getting his suit?” She rarely used Duo’s name, and the term ‘boyfriend’ was absolutely beyond her, but that she acknowledged his existence at all was something of a miracle.

“That’s right.”

“Good. You wrote down the colors to match?”

“Yes, mama. There won’t be any problems.”

“Good. And you two are coming to dinner on Sunday, aren’t you?”

There was an even bigger miracle. Heero marveled at how happily he could give an affirmative when just two months before it had made him cringe. So far it turned out the steady-boyfriend theory had been correct, and things had progressed very much as Relena had predicted: stiff and awkward, though not necessarily antagonistic, at first, and then (more quickly than he would have dared hope) increasingly easy.

Whether it was because his parents were charmed by Duo’s persistently ingratiating and entertaining ways, or because they saw how happy he’d made Heero, or because they simply didn’t have the energy to hold out in the face of Heero’s determination to live the way he thought appropriate (not to mention the support of those around him), or some combination of these, things were gradually, miraculously getting better. And now they’d even reached the point where Mrs. Yuy would declare it “Good” in her sharply friendly tone that he and Duo were coming to dinner.

Of course it would have been impossible for them not to like Duo himself, so that was nothing spectacular; and they still seemed to avoid thinking of him as Heero’s boyfriend as much as they could, treating him rather as if he were merely a good friend of both their children, which was less than ideal… but there was no denying things were getting better.

Duo could tell, too. When Heero hung up from the conversation with his mother, he found him grinning, and clearly not solely because of the sneakily altered ringtone. As usual, Duo had been able to pick up the mood of the discussion despite its being in Japanese and only half audible, and approved of what he’d heard.

Heero smiled back. His gratitude to Duo for this circumstance just added another item to a growing list of reasons he rejoiced at having Duo in his life. The former doll hadn’t exactly done it as a favor — except as far as Duo went out of his way to be even more likeable than usual around the Yuy parents — but that didn’t lessen Heero’s appreciation. He would share all of this with Duo one of these days, but not yet — at least not in these terms — since he feared it would correspond undesirably with an unfortunate attitude he already thought he perceived in Duo.

That perception only strengthened when he paid the bill at the outfitters. Heero was renting his tux, since he had no routine need for it; but a nice suit was something useful to own, so he’d bought one for Duo… and Duo was making the same face he always did when Heero spent money on him or assisted him in some aspect of human life, be it as significant as helping him get registered as a patient at a doctor’s office or as small as demonstrating proper handling of a can opener.

The expression displayed displeasure, almost disapproval, that overrode Duo’s simultaneous gratitude and fondness and seemed to be immediately calculating how to shift the balance of the situation. And if the setting had been right he would have tried: shown Heero something magical or volunteered for some household chore… actions not at all objectionable in themselves, but the motives behind which Heero had begun to question.

It was time they did something about this.

*

Heero was onto him.

Even after a month and a half, Duo had not yet readjusted to humanity, and having facial expressions, and all that, and he hadn’t been able to hide it, and Heero had noticed. He got this impression, anyway, based on the look Heero gave him on the way out of the store. But instead of commenting, at least for the moment, Heero paused outside and glanced around.

“You’ve never had bubble tea,” he declared. He didn’t have to ask; to a certain extent — particularly when it came to food — he was familiar with Duo’s entire range of human experiences.

“Nope. Never heard of it.”

Heero pointed to the strip mall’s next business over, which, indeed, bore a sign reading ‘Bubble Tea’ in puffy colorful lettering. “Want to try it?”

“Yes,” replied Duo at once. “What is it?”

Heero began walking in the direction of the adjacent shop. “It’s weird,” he said unhelpfully. “I think you’ll like it.”

The little store, decorated in an eclectic style Duo associated with Chinese restaurants, featured a complicated list of flavors that occupied him for several minutes. Though he didn’t know yet what precisely he would be ordering, he eventually chose strawberry-banana, and the lady behind the counter set to work making some kind of smoothie for him in addition to the avocado-vanilla one Heero had already requested. He and Heero were discussing weddings, not terribly intensively, while the woman worked, until Duo suddenly broke off what he was saying to hiss, wide-eyed, at his boyfriend, “What is she putting in there? What is that stuff?”

Heero just smiled enigmatically.

The cup he eventually received had a thin sheet of plastic sealed across the top, which made it possible for Duo to turn it all around, peering suspiciously inside, without worrying about spilling. This didn’t prevent him from pouting a bit (for all he tried not to) as he watched Heero pay for the drinks, but soon he returned his attention to the mysterious objects at the bottom of the smoothie. They looked like black marbles.

After offering Duo a hugely wide, green-striped straw, Heero headed out the door into the warm June dusk once again. Duo nearly tripped on the mat and ran into someone as he followed, so riveted was he on the drink in his hand. Once outside (and out of the path of other customers), they paused so Heero could demonstrate how to puncture the plastic covering with the pointed end of the straw. Then he stood still sipping his own drink and watching Duo expectantly.

It tasted like strawberry… strawberry-banana… banana… and then…! Duo choked, trying to drink, chew, and laugh through his surprise at the same time. This only made him laugh (and choke) more, which induced a nearly similar reaction in Heero as the latter handed over a couple of napkins he’d had the prescience to obtain inside.

“They’re… squishy… what the hell…” Without looking, Duo mopped up what he’d spewed down his front, still laughing and coughing.

“You missed some,” Heero grinned, pointing.

It was a good thing they’d already gotten the fitting-room portion of the day out of the way. As he entered a second round of napkin application to his newly-spotted shirt, Duo finally managed a complete sentence. “What are those?”

“It’s tapioca.”

“Like in pudding?” Duo laughed. “Whose idea was it to put that in a drink?” And he looked askance down his straw; now he recognized the reason for its diameter.

Heero shrugged. “Do you not like it?”

Thoughtfully Duo took another drink, at the same moment tossing the napkins into a trash can by the door. And after a very intense and serious assessment, he laughed again, less disastrously this time, and commented, “Yes, I like it! It’s hilarious! But I think ‘weird’ wasn’t quite strong enough, before.”

“Good,” Heero said with a smile. Then he gestured to stop Duo from taking a seat at the little table just outside the shop. “Let’s go sit in the car.”

Duo tried not to wince as he agreed. Mr. Privacy would only want to go sit in the car for the sake of a personal conversation. Which meant he really had noticed. And Duo wouldn’t try to keep anything from him; he probably shouldn’t have kept it to himself to begin with — they’d had enough of that back in April.

Despite bracing himself, as they crossed the parking lot, for a discussion in which he would probably have to disclose feelings that might bother or even hurt his boyfriend, Duo simply could not help laughing every time he got another of the tapioca balls in his mouth. Severely amusing beverage additives didn’t balance quite equally against potentially uncomfortable conversation — though, admittedly, for someone that only a couple of months before had been unable to enjoy any kind of beverage, it came closer than it might for anyone else — but the tapioca was very present, while the conversation was only pending as yet. So in an oddly mixed frame of mind, he slid into the passenger seat and closed the door behind him.

And as Heero did the same on the driver’s side, Duo asked, mostly facetiously, “Am I in trouble?”

Heero smiled briefly and took Duo’s free hand. “No,” was his serious answer. “I’ve just noticed something you’ve been doing more and more since the curse was broken, and I wanted to talk to you about it.”

“I am in trouble,” Duo grimaced.

Squeezing the hand he held, Heero said, “I promise you’re not. It’s just that…” He took a deep breath. “I love you.”

Duo knew by now that Heero was neither accustomed to nor terribly expert at saying this phrase aloud; if you counted as a single instance the repetitions Duo had dragged out of him the night after the first time, this made the second time he’d managed it in this relationship.

“And I’m happy having you around,” Heero went on, blushing faintly. “Having you living with me. But I can tell you feel bad about me supporting you. I want you to know you don’t have to. You don’t need to feel like it’s inconvenient for me, or like you have to try to pay me back.”

This might be a little awkward no matter how it went, and therefore Duo didn’t at all regret starting out his end of it by waggling an eyebrow and asking in a exaggerated suggestive tone, “Not even with sex?”

Heero grinned. “Sex with you is wonderful,” he said sincerely, “but if I thought you were actually doing it because you thought you had to to pay me back for anything, I would be extremely uncomfortable.”

Duo returned the grin. “Well, don’t be, ’cause I’m not.” Then he sobered entirely as he faced down the explanation he needed to give. “The thing is… I still don’t feel much like a real person yet. I mean, physically I do — and it’s great — but socially, I guess, not so much. It’s not something I ever expected; I thought once the curse was broken and I could feel and smell and taste, I’d be able to consider myself a human being again… but I don’t, really. And a big part of that is the fact that you’re still taking care of me so completely.

“Don’t think I resent that or anything! Because I totally love you too, and I love living with you… but it’s not like I would have much of a choice at this point even if I didn’t. I might as well still be a doll, because you’re still practically carrying me around.”

Swiveling his cup at an oblique angle in his hands, Duo watched the remainder of the tapioca balls at the bottom swish through the melting smoothie as he continued. “And I know I got excited about you buying me things right at first, because I could own things and use things again instead of being one; and having them meant a lot, because it was so different from before and they were such a strong proof that I’m human again. I don’t want you to think I don’t like you buying me things. It’s just that if you didn’t, I sure as hell wouldn’t be able to buy them for myself.

“And you do a lot of things for me that I can’t do for myself, because I don’t know how yet or because it’s something that takes money that I don’t have yet. It’s like I’m a little kid; I’m having to totally rely on you for everything.”

At the sight of Heero’s expression of perturbation and concern, Duo hastened on. “Don’t look like that! I really don’t want you to feel bad about this. It’s nobody’s fault; it’s just the way things have to be after the curse. Just… if I do act like I’m trying to pay you back a little for everything you do for me, it’s not so much because I feel like I owe you as because it makes me feel more like a real person who has a choice about what he does and where his life is going.”

Heero sat in silence for several moments, and looked as if he was turning this over thoroughly in his head. Finally he nodded. “I see what you’re saying,” he assured Duo seriously. “At least I think I do. And of course I want you to do whatever you need to to feel better, about everything and yourself. Don’t let me make you feel like you can’t… tell me if I ever do, OK?”

Now it was Duo’s turn to squeeze Heero’s hand.

“But also,” Heero added with a solemn smile, “don’t get into the habit of trying to find some way to pay me back for every little thing, or thinking you have a debt piling up. I take care of you because I love you, not because you’re then obligated to do something in return. We’re not business partners.”

That was two I love you‘s in one conversation; Duo wondered how he’d so lucked out. Actually, on a larger scale, he wondered yet again how he’d so lucked out as to find someone like Heero — someone that could, after only what Duo considered a very imperfect explanation of his feelings under these circumstances, comprehend what he was going through, or at least act as if he did, and someone he loved so very much.

He felt he did owe Heero, more than he could ever repay, for what Heero had done to break his curse. He knew perfectly well Heero hadn’t done it in the expectation of a reward of any kind, but he didn’t think his own resulting desire to give Heero everything, do everything he could for Heero — not because he had to but because he wanted to, out of gratitude and love — was at all unhealthy or inappropriate. But he certainly wouldn’t say that now, since it would undoubtedly be counterproductive in this discussion.

Instead he said, “You’re the best, you know that?” He took another drink of the hilarious smoothie and added, “And so is this stuff.”

Heero smiled.

Duo hadn’t quite finished with the previous topic, though, much as he would like to be done. “Of course the real next step toward being a real person is to get that test taken so I can get a job. I think I’m about ready… hopefully the grammar parts won’t kill me…”

“I’m sure you’ll do fine,” Heero reassured. “Even on the grammar parts. You’ve been studying that book until it’s falling apart, and highlighting half of every page.”

“That,” Duo admitted sheepishly, “may be just because I like the highlighter colors.”

“I knew that.” Fondly Heero grinned at him. “Why do you think I bought them for you?” At Duo’s faint wince his smile turned rueful, but his follow-up statement came more or less smoothly: “And once you have a job, you can buy your own highlighters, in every color you can think of. But for now, do you want to go practice driving?”

Heero really was the best; his suggesting they work on something that furthered the cause of Duo’s autonomy (not to mention something Duo thoroughly enjoyed in itself) indicated both that he really did understand and that he wasn’t hurt by what Duo had told him. “Yes, please!” Duo said heartily.

As Heero navigated toward the large, usually empty parking lot where he’d been teaching Duo to drive in spare moments, Duo concentrated on finishing his drink so as to have both hands free. At the bottom, he had to suck up the weird little squishy balls deliberately one at a time, which was extremely entertaining. Once again, Heero had treated him to a marvelous experience, and Duo was cheerfully grateful.

By the time he’d fished out the last of the tapioca from the floor of the cup, they were parked and idling at their destination. And after a quick but very sincere kiss that constituted a strange blending of flavors after their respective smoothies, they left their seats in order to switch places and give Duo a turn at the wheel.



His Own Humanity is an AU series set in modern-day America (plus magic) featuring characters from Rurouni Kenshin (primarily Saitou and Sano) and Gundam Wing (primarily Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre). In chronological order (generally), the stories currently available are:

Sano enlists the help of exorcist Hajime in discovering the nature of the unusual angry shade that's haunting him.

Best friends Heero and Quatre have their work cut out for them assisting longtime curse victims Duo and Trowa.

During Plastic (part 80), Cairo thinks about thinking and other recent changes in his life.

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

A meeting between Kamatari and Wufei.

Couple analysis among Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre.

Quatre undergoes an unpleasant magical change; Heero, Duo, and Trowa are forced to face unpleasant truths; and Hajime and Sano may get involved.

During La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré (parts 33-35), Sano's 178-day wait is over as what Hajime has been fearing comes to pass.

During Guest Room Soap Opera (part 3), Cathy learns a lot of interesting facts and Trowa is not happy.

A few days before the epilogue of La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré, Duo and Sano get together to watch football and discuss relationships and magical experiences; Heero listens in on multiple levels.

On the same evening as That Remarkable Optimism, Trowa tells Quatre's parents the whole truth, as promised.



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Duo came up the stairs to his dorm hallway with an overloaded backpack and frozen hands, still stomping snow off his feet and wishing he hadn’t lost his gloves. At least it was warm in here. Actually it was a little too warm, since whoever was in charge of the heating and air conditioning in this building had a penchant for stark opposites, but you couldn’t have everything.

The not-unusual sight of Heero sitting on the floor outside the door to his room with a computer on his lap and a textbook open beside him met Duo’s eyes as he approached, and Duo chuckled. “At it again, are they?”

Heero looked up at him, threw a quick glance at the warning rubber band hanging from the doorknob, and nodded with a slight rolling of eyes.

Carefully avoiding getting his wet shoes anywhere near Heero and what he was doing, Duo circumnavigated him to reach the door of his own room just diagonally across the hall from Heero’s. “I keep telling Quatre he should switch with you, but apparently breaking two rules is waaaay worse than breaking just one.”

Heero gave a faint snorting laugh. “And Trowa thinks it would be too distracting to share a room with Quatre.”

“Did you want to come in?” Duo invited him as he unlocked his door. “You can sit at Quatre’s desk instead of on the floor.”

With a glance at the time, Heero shook his head. “Thanks, but I’ve got to go in a couple of minutes anyway.”

Duo acknowledged this and went inside, but he’d only set his backpack down beside the bed before he stepped out again. “Hey, did I hear right? You’re staying here for break?”

“Yeah.” Heero was putting his things away now, getting ready to head off to whatever class he had this afternoon. “My parents are going on a cruise, so I thought I’d just stay here and get some work done.”

Awesome. I was afraid I was going to be bored out of my skull all alone in this place.”

“Didn’t Quatre invite you to have Christmas with his family?”

“Yeah, but that was before he decided he wanted to take a certain person home to meet mommy and daddy… I wouldn’t want to get in the way of their romantic holiday.”

Heero smiled. “Well, yes, I’ll be here.”

“Excellent. See ya!” And Duo went back into his dorm room and closed the door. He removed his coat and tossed it onto the chair at Quatre’s desk, then flopped down on his bed, letting his feet hang off the end so as not to get it wet, and reached for the backpack. Somebody had left him what appeared to be an honest-to-goodness Christmas present in his mail cubby downstairs, and he was eager to get at it.

The wrapping paper was a very tasteful pattern of red ribbons intertwined among big white and gold flowers on a deep green background. Duo always wondered where people found wrapping paper like this; whenever he went to buy some, he ended up with something truly horrible with the worst-looking cartoon Santas imaginable on it. Of course it didn’t help that he was drawn to the ugliest and most nauseating choice in any given selection… but still he didn’t think he’d ever seen wrapping paper this nice at any store he’d been to. Maybe he just didn’t know where to shop.

White and gold ribbons were tied around the package in an off-center double line, the crux covered by a huge white bow that was rather crushed from having been in his backpack. Duo probably would have used red ribbon with paper like this, and, looking at the fine effect of this color choice, thought he probably would have been wrong to do so. He’d never been very good at wrapping presents.

The one aspect of the package Duo thought he could have done better than whoever had actually wrapped it was the tag. Because there wasn’t one. He’d turned it over three times and looked under the ribbons, but no indication was to be found of who had sent the thing — not even a spot where an existing tag might have been torn off. In fact, if these dorms hadn’t happened to have separate mail cubbies for all the students, Duo couldn’t even have been sure the gift was intended for him and not his roommate.

Of course he was also curious about what was inside, but, since it was obviously a soft-cover spiral-bound book of some sort, this was of less driving interest for the moment than the question of the anonymous sender and their mad wrapping skills — not to mention the fact that he rarely got Christmas presents. But eventually he gave up trying to glean any extra knowledge from the exterior of the package, and tore it open.

It was a sketchbook — one of those green ones with a picture of dancing pencils on the cover. This was a little strange, Duo thought, and what made it even more interesting was that it seemed quite well used. He lifted the somewhat ragged cover, turned the first, blank page of relatively thick drawing paper, and found himself unexpectedly looking into his own face.

Duo didn’t often think much about it, but he was, like most people, familiar enough with what he would see in a mirror if he bothered to check. And he found it strange, bordering on uncanny, to have that experience mimicked suddenly by this anonymous present. For the artist seemed to have captured perfectly every detail of Duo’s face in this rich pencil, right down to the almost invisible little scar on his right cheekbone just in front of his ear. And the Duo on the page was grinning up at him as if there were nothing at all odd about this.

Further information was probably needed before he could decide exactly how he felt about this, so he turned to the next drawing. In a much better display of what Duo expected of sketchbooks, this image was a house with trees and a lake: a very picturesque landscape in the same soft pencil, its lines fading to nothing as they approached the edges of the paper. Duo nodded slightly and moved on.

The next page was a collection of small, random sketches that appeared to have been doodled during class. Except that, unlike when Duo doodled during class, these did not involve battling dinosaurs or noses with feet or flying blenders, nor did they look like crap. They were quick little drawings, but very good nonetheless, mostly of faces in various positions and expressions and shown from various angles — classmates, perhaps? None of them were familiar to Duo except for the four (out of twelve or so) that were his face.

Still attempting to reserve judgment, he turned to the next page. Here was a nicely-shaded rendering of the modern art statue thing outside one of the science buildings. The artist had done an excellent job, Duo particularly noted, giving the idea of the grass that surrounded the base without actually drawing a lot of grass. That meant this had probably been drawn back before snow and whatnot. Which meant that the previous images, including the ones of Duo, had probably been drawn even before that…

He was not particularly surprised to find another picture of himself on the next page. In this one, he was looking over his shoulder and apparently in the middle of saying something cheeky (to judge by the expression on his face); the shirt was identifiable as one that he actually owned, too, not just some random artist’s invention or a fadeout.

With a deep breath, staring down at his own penciled face on the thick paper, Duo allowed himself to think the thought that had been hovering at the edge of his mind since the very first page: this was officially really weird. Someone had been watching him closely enough to draw him repeatedly with excellent skill and accuracy, and then had given him their sketchbook as a Christmas present.

He bypassed a picture of a car without much attention to its fantastic light-on-chrome effect, and found one of himself holding — and ill-protected by — the ragged umbrella he’d finally been convinced to throw away last month when rain had given way to snow.

Then there was another page full of smaller sketches — this time mostly hands and ears, perhaps for practice — followed by an extreme close-up of Duo’s broadly-grinning face that showcased the artist’s knowledge of the fact that Duo was missing a canine on top. The resulting empty space between lateral and bicuspid had closed up on its own before Duo had reached college age, so it wasn’t something people usually noticed at a glance, but the artist obviously knew all about it. Well, the artist probably didn’t know about the childhood bike accident that had caused it, but the tooth’s absence had certainly been accurately noted in the picture.

Actually, Duo reflected as he proceeded through an orderly set of blotches that looked like some kind of experiment in shading or contrast, and another picture of himself — this one full-length from behind, with a good deal of attention given to his braid — he wouldn’t be surprised if this artist did know the reason for his missing tooth.

A key sounded in the door, and Duo found himself hastily closing the sketchbook and shoving it under his pillow. He didn’t really feel like explaining to Quatre that he seemed to have an extremely artistic stalker.

His roommate entered with that look he often wore these days, of clothing just straightened and a bright flush just diminished, trying to appear casual and innocent and failing utterly. “Hi, Duo,” he said with excessive cheer.

“Hi,” replied Duo in a very knowing tone. “Have fun?”

“Well, yes,” Quatre said, blushing. “Quite a bit.” He seized Duo’s coat and hung it from the doorknob of Duo’s little closet, then took its place in the chair at his desk.

“Good job.” Duo reached for his backpack again and dug out his laptop, then shifted into a seated position. He didn’t know how much he was going to be able to concentrate on homework at the moment, but he might as well make the attempt — at least while Quatre was in the room.

Two minutes in, exactly what he’d anticipated took place: the mental images of what he’d seen in that sketchbook swallowed up his ability to work, and, in fact, his very awareness that there was even work to be done. His hands stilled on the keyboard as he stared blankly at the screen, seeing nothing but what he was picturing in his head.

From what he’d observed so far, the artist could be anyone. It didn’t even necessarily have to be a student, though that, he thought, was most probable. But anyone that, for instance, lived in the vicinity of the school, or worked close and perhaps passed nearby on their way home, could have seen him often enough. Hell, it could be someone that worked at the school… it could even be a teacher… That was a weird thought. It really was probably a student, though.

Whoever it was, they seemed to have more than a passing interest in Duo. That little scar, the missing tooth… his friends usually knew about these eventually, either because they spent enough time with him to notice or because it came up in conversation… but Duo wasn’t aware that any of his friends drew. Besides, if any of them liked him that much, they’d surely just tell him, wouldn’t they?

Which made the whole thing that much weirder.

He might be making a big deal over nothing; there might be a message with a perfectly good explanation further on in the sketchbook. He needed to look at it again. He wanted to look at it again. Aside from itching to solve the mystery and dying to know what else was in there, there was also the simple fact that the art was really good — and, strange and possibly extremely creepy as the situation was, there was something flattering about having been the model of someone so talented so many times, about being drawn so frequently in such loving detail…

Had he really just thought of it as ‘loving detail?’ Yes, this situation was definitely creepy.

Quatre, who had seated himself at his desk and was typing cheerfully away at what from here looked like an email — Probably to Trowa, Duo thought, since it’s been soooooo long since they had any sort of interaction — had his back to Duo and was humming to himself. Watching him carefully, Duo slid a cautious hand under his pillow and slowly extracted the sketchbook. Quatre might well overlook a nuclear apocalypse at this stage of afterglow, Duo was quite aware, but there was no point taking risks. The sketchbook and the news that Duo had a stalker would inevitably call up a We need to report this!! reaction in his roommate, and Duo thought it was still a bit early for that.

Quietly, he opened the book again behind his computer screen, ready to close it and shove it underneath the moment Quatre showed signs of emerging from his happy little world. Flipping through the pages, he took up where he’d left off.

A zebra… a fantasy swordsman… another car… a praying mantis… an old, cracked flowerpot containing one lonely geranium… a pair of beaten-up tennis shoes… a direct copy of Boston’s Third Stage album cover… a barn standing among dead trees… a basket of fruit set up for a very deliberate, dull still-life… a receding street Duo recognized as being downtown not far from here… a wolf… Leonardo DiCaprio…? a shotgun… a hand drawing a hand drawing a hand drawing a hand…

And in addition to all of this, at least fifteen more pictures of Duo, one on every other page. But Duo was past being astonished by now, and was simply looking for clues as to who the hell was behind this.

The earlier drawings were all in pencil — graphite, actually, he guessed it was called — but eventually some color entered the scene, and the artist was just as good at that. Every five or six pages, with interesting regularity, there was another collection of doodles (though the word hardly seemed to fit), which indicated to Duo that the artist really was a student and had a particularly boring class every so often.

In one of the pictures of him, he was in the cafeteria eating some of the disquieting stuff they called pizza down there, and the figure next to him, though only a collection of faint, squiggly lines, might almost have been Quatre. From this he inferred that the artist wasn’t Quatre, but he hadn’t really thought it was. Still, he filed the fact away.

Then in another, he was in pajamas. This was one of the color pieces, as the artist evidently hadn’t wanted to miss the chance to capture the fluorescence of the bright little electric guitars that covered the long-sleeved flannel shirt and footed pants. Duo wondered if the artist also knew that these glowed in the dark, and felt he could safely narrow down the pool of possibilities to students living in this particular dorm. At least he didn’t think he’d ever worn those pajamas outside…

One image on which he lingered particularly long was that of a nude model posing on a mess of shiny, rumpled cloth. He’d already guessed, from various previous pieces, that there was an art class involved in this business somewhere, and this seemed to confirm it; he was fairly sure you didn’t get nude model setups like this in other contexts.

The man faced away from the viewer, and either was rather well-formed or had been touched up by the artist, who had given most of his attention to the back and buttocks and thighs. And as for the head…

No, the artist hadn’t quite gone so far as to pretend that the model was actually Duo… but, as on a few earlier pages, there were some light, meandering lines that suggested… and what they suggested here was a long braid draped over the cloth-covered whatever-it-was the model was lying on. It probably wouldn’t have been noticeable if Duo hadn’t specifically been looking for it, but it was fairly obvious what the artist had been thinking about while drawing.

So who did he know that took an art class?

Who did he know that took an art class and totally had a hard-on for him?

OK, well, it could be a woman; this was a co-ed dorm. No need to assume this was a gay man just because he was bisexual until he had some real indication of the artist’s sex.

That indication came at the end of the book.

The last page had been carefully removed along the perforated line, and lay loose against the back cover. It was another full-color piece and nothing short of exquisite — if Duo did say so himself, since it was another picture of him. It was one of those portraits that faded out just below the shoulders, and he couldn’t for the life of him figure out how anyone could draw something melting out into the white nothingness of the paper like that, especially in multiple colors. But it was impossible for this or any other aspect of the picture to hold his attention for very long, for this time the artist had signed his work.

Duo sat back against the wall, his eyes locked on the neat little signature but not really seeing it anymore, his mouth hanging slightly ajar. He must have made some sound — some squeaky, choking sound of astonishment and disbelief — for Quatre turned, and Duo only barely had the presence of mind to act upon the plan he’d had in place all along against these circumstances. He just hoped Quatre didn’t see him frantically hiding the sketchbook underneath his laptop.

In response to his roommate’s curious look he managed, “The internet is so stupid sometimes.”

“I’d say all the time,” Quatre grinned. “And I can see you’re hard at work.”

“Hey, finals don’t start ’til next week.” Banter could cut into any thoughts, no matter how serious. “Besides, I’m not the one wasting time getting laid twice a day.”

It was so easy to make Quatre blush… but that didn’t mean he didn’t have a very good retort. “Obviously you’re not getting laid, Duo, or else you wouldn’t call it a waste of time.”

“Ouch!” Duo cried, laughing.

“Yeah, you walked right into that one.” Quatre turned his grin back toward his computer.

So Duo was safe for the moment, but he couldn’t be sure it would last. He needed to think about this good and hard; he needed to get out and think about this. The little room felt suddenly very cramped and restrictive. Of course it was very cramped and restrictive, but usually this didn’t bother him.

Swiftly he strategized as he quietly closed his computer, laid it aside, and began pulling the heavier books out of his backpack. He was fairly sure Quatre did not have class this afternoon, and, although Quatre now appeared to be doing homework rather than sending love notes, if Duo announced that he was going somewhere interesting Quatre would probably volunteer to accompany him. But to get outside, he needed his coat, and taking it would rather prevent his pretending he was just going to the bathroom. Damn this weather.

In the end, his ‘strategy’ consisted of stuffing the sketchbook into his backpack, gathering this and his coat as hastily as possible, and mumbling something incoherent when Quatre asked where he was going. Then, coat flapping out behind him like a superhero’s cape, he pelted down the hall, down the stairs, and out of the building, startling but managing not to run into at least five people on the way.

Outside, he made a noise of disapprobation as the cold hit him, and quickly shrugged first into his coat and then his backpack. Shoving his gloveless hands into his pockets and hunching his shoulders, he set off at a brisk walk in some direction across one of the snow-covered lawns. He should probably have kept to the sidewalk, as his shoes really weren’t made for this, but he preferred not to have to spare any thoughts for avoiding other pedestrians.

So…

Heero…

All this time, when their little group had been studying together, eating together, just hanging out, putting up with the vagaries of the dorm amenities, watching the ongoing drama between Quatre and Trowa, playing stupid pranks on each other… all that time, quiet, serious Heero had been watching Duo from whatever corner he was sitting in, with those eyes of his that missed nothing, and had half-filled a sketchbook with pictures of him.

Duo had been surprised at first, but, now that he thought about it, found it made perfect sense. Heero was always around, but nobody much paid attention to what he was doing; it would have been quite easy for him to study Duo — or anyone else — and draw at his leisure. And actually it seemed just like Heero to have done something like that… something that quietly tested his observational skills and his ability to represent coherently what he’d observed. Heero was always observing.

The thorough precision of the shading combined with the subtle effectiveness of the faint suggesting lines seemed just like Heero too. Everything Heero did he did perfectly; it was no wonder he turned out to be such a great artist as well.

Winter afternoons swiftly turned into winter evenings, and Duo could already see his breath as a heavy white mist on the darkening air. His ears and nose were frozen, and his toes were beginning to complain very seriously. He paused, frowning, and, with vague thoughts of hot coffee at a restaurant, turned his steps toward the edge of campus and the shopping district beyond.

So Heero liked him, apparently. Duo couldn’t imagine the obsessive attention paid to him in that sketchbook meaning anything else. Heero liked him. Did Heero even like guys? Duo realized that, though some memory or other seemed to answer in the affirmative, he couldn’t quite dredge up any instance where it had been definitively stated. The fact that he’d never known Heero to date… or flirt with… or express even the remotest interest in anyone certainly didn’t help.

But, then, Heero wouldn’t do any of that if he had a crush on Duo, would he? But why hadn’t he said something? How long had this been going on? How long had Heero been surreptitiously studying his dorm-mate, drawing these brilliant pictures of him, and wishing… what? Without a word to Duo…

Again, as he thought about it, Duo couldn’t really say that much surprise was called for. Somehow, pining in lonely silence seemed absolutely typical of Heero. Against this, however, his mind rebelled a bit. Because, sure, Heero was quiet, but was he really that shy?

Well, yes, Duo thought, he really was. He’d never considered it before, but of course Heero was shy. It wasn’t that stupid kind of stammering, obnoxious shyness you saw in movies and stuff; it was a cool, self-aware disinclination for certain aspects of social interaction, probably born of a sense of inability, that barred Heero from even attempting what he perceived as beyond him. And perhaps telling Duo he liked him had simply been beyond him. At that point, the ability to hide his inclination — so expertly, so completely that the object of it would never even begin to suspect — must be considered an adaptive related trait.

Because, god, Duo had just talked to him in the hall, and hadn’t had any idea. He talked to Heero fairly frequently, in fact, and had never had any idea. But now, as he looked back, he was beginning to realize that, although he talked to Heero a good deal more than Heero talked to him, still Heero talked to him a good deal more than Heero talked to anyone else.

The restaurant on the corner closest to campus made its fortune off the students with its twenty-four hour service and its overpriced coffee. Duo had grumbled about the prices on numerous occasions, but would probably continue to patronize the establishment just as long as they served that mint cappuchino he particularly liked because they put green food coloring in it.

The dining lobby was tackily hung with tinsel and lights, and cheerful secular Christmas music issued from the speakers overhead. Duo, humming absently along, looked around as he found a seat, remembering several instances of eating here with his friends — including Heero. On one particular occasion just before mid-terms, they’d pulled an all-nighter in this very corner, almost more for the sake of being able to say they’d done it than because they were desperate for more study time. At least, that had been Duo’s motive. Quatre and Trowa, at that point, had been happy to spend all night giving each other significant looks and avoiding admitting that they were madly infatuated; their other few friends had been legitimately studying for some class they shared (though there was also a lot of unrelated chatter involved); and Heero had, as usual, been buried in…

No… he hadn’t… he hadn’t had his nose in a textbook, though there had been one on the table beside him. Duo had thought at the time that he was taking notes of some sort, without considering the fact that Heero almost never wrote anything by hand and hadn’t had his laptop out. Heero had been drawing, hadn’t he? Just sitting there in the midst of them (well, OK, in the corner seat where nobody could see what he was doing, with one knee pulled up so that they couldn’t even make out what kind of notebook he was working in, but still…) drawing Duo right under Duo’s nose.

Somewhat unexpectedly, these new realizations pertaining to that innocent memory made Duo smile. Wasn’t that just like Heero… hiding in plain sight…

It was quite flattering, really. Heero was some kind of genius, after all… sometimes Duo thought he only studied because that was what was expected of the perfect student, but that he could probably maintain his position on the Dean’s List without it. Though, actually, given how much time Duo now knew Heero spent drawing (him), maybe he didn’t really study quite as much as everyone thought he did.

Whatever the case, Heero was still a genius physics major that had probably never failed a test in his life. And now come to find out he was an incredible artist too… Duo wasn’t about to start letting his opinion of himself be affected by who had a crush on him, but the interest of someone like Heero couldn’t but give him a sort of warm internal glow. Though maybe that was just the coffee.

Besides, Heero was really nice, too, in his subtle way. He was a private tutoring army unto himself, ready to help anyone in the dorm with whatever subject they were struggling with, whether or not he was actually taking it. Duo didn’t know how many times he’d run into Heero and some random acquaintance in some quiet corner bent over some unexpected textbook, one drawing attention to some unnoticed point to the sound of the other’s sudden understanding “Ohh!”

This willingness to help people out at such short notice, Duo thought, much more than the fact that Heero was roommate to someone being courted by one of the most outgoing guys in the dorm, was what had made him known to and welcome among such a wide and diverse circle despite his being not at all social. And this was the person that had drawn Duo thirty times in a secret sketchbook.

More than just flattering, Duo thought, it was a bit of a triumph. Because Heero might be kind, and Heero might be shy, but Heero didn’t put up with nonsense. And Duo was not infrequently all nonsense. Did that make him the exception to the rule? The one nonsense Heero could tolerate? A sort of nonsense, in fact — Duo was thinking of his absurd pajamas that Heero had captured down to the last bright, silly detail — that Heero actively enjoyed?

The last few slurps of his drink, which if they hadn’t been so deliciously minty he would have called ‘dregs,’ disappeared down Duo’s throat, and he set down the cardboard cup with a tap on the table as he reached epiphany.

No, ‘epiphany’ wasn’t quite right. In much the same way certain other aspects of this situation hadn’t been very surprising as soon as Duo seriously bent his thoughts toward them, so it was also no great shock to realize that the idea of Heero liking him — or, more accurately, the idea of what might come of that — was not at all unpalatable. Actually he found that the greatest surprise was that this had never occurred to him before. It was almost as if he’d liked Heero all along and had simply forgotten, and was now remembering — remembering both that he liked him and, to his chagrin, that he’d forgotten.

Which brought him to the topic of what to do about all of this. Normally, on finding that he was interested in someone, his immediate action was to ask them out — or at the very least start flirting with them pointedly until things ran their natural course. But Heero was…

Heero was a special case. Heero was special. He obviously hadn’t intended to confess this to Duo… probably assumed Duo wouldn’t respond well, and who could blame him for that? Duo had always been friendly to him, sure, but had never given even the slightest indication that he might be amenable to anything more than that. If Duo went up to him now and said something to the purpose of, “I know you have a crush on me; let’s go out,” it would probably discomfort and embarrass Heero, and Duo didn’t like the thought of doing that to him, even in bringing him what would presumably be good news.

But if he went up to him a week from now (OK, well, thirteen days from now, when finals were over) and asked him out, pretending he’d come to the idea independently, knew nothing of Heero’s existing interest, and was unsure of the outcome of this venture… that might work. Well, it would be a torment to watch Heero coming and going all week without saying anything, but Duo supposed it was about his turn. Yes, that would probably work. They could get together and try things out, and Duo wouldn’t have to say anything that would make Heero feel bad. There was no reason at all even to mention the sketchbook.

The sketchbook…

He pulled it out of his backpack and began looking through it again. It really was quite marvelous work; Duo particularly liked the pictures of animals, and thought the praying mantis was his favorite. And, to be honest, there were a number of pictures of him that he enjoyed seeing too — although, despite being aware now who the artist was and having worked through how he felt about that, gazing down at his own face so accurately depicted was still a little uncanny.

So this was the last mystery of the whole affair: who had stolen Heero’s sketchbook, wrapped it up like a Christmas present, and dropped it off in Duo’s mail cubby? Duo had no doubt that the motivation for this had been to alert Duo to Heero’s feelings for him… but who else knew, was busybody enough to want to advance things manually, and had the ability to carry out this devious plan?

Well, anyone that had seen inside the sketchbook could undoubtedly have figured it out just as Duo had. Obviously Heero didn’t leave the thing lying around, or Duo would have noticed it at some point before this; but he also probably didn’t take it with him everywhere, so someone that had been into his room with Trowa while Heero was out might have had access to it.

Trowa himself, of course, was a suspect, and therefore so, by extension, was Quatre. They were awfully busy these days getting busy in between classes, but, if they ever managed to engage in coherent conversation at any point, Duo could see them conspiring to hook their roommates up in some tricky manner just like this. He could even see Quatre picking out that elegant rich-boy wrapping paper.

What he couldn’t see was either of them being so insensitive. Trowa probably knew Heero better than anyone in the dorm; he must, if he was aware of Heero’s feelings at all, be aware of Heero’s disinclination to share them. And Quatre, Heero’s friendly rival in the genius department, could undoubtedly come up with a better way to get them to notice each other (or, rather, to get Duo to notice Heero) than stealing personal possessions and giving away secrets.

Duo ran through the other members of their group of friends, and then through everyone he could think of in the dorm. Breaking into someone’s room was not generally difficult even if you didn’t have a key, and, given that the school never changed the locks, functional dorm room keys were fairly easy to come by. In the end there was a dismaying number of people on the ‘Might Have Done This’ list; and he feared the list was still incomplete, given how many in Heero’s art class that Duo didn’t even know could also meet the criteria.

It irked him that he might never find out. The idea of this misbegotten Samaritan smugging around behind their hand at the thought that they’d put things right, that nobody would ever know, made Duo’s fists clench. Apart from the general dickishness of the plan, nobody got the better of Duo without being pranked equally in return.

Well, he would definitely have to keep his eyes open for anyone in the dorm that seemed to be unusually interested in his or Heero’s doings. That would probably be beneficial, too, because it would help keep him occupied and from showing his unusual interest in Heero before the time came. He had a feeling the next week and a half was going to be something of a trial.

And now it was about time to get back to all of that trial and week and dorm stuff. This wasn’t how he’d expected to spend his free evening, but, overall, he couldn’t really say he was terribly unhappy about it. Having his eyes opened about Heero had been unforeseen, but was already proving fascinating, and would (he hoped) end positively. Standing, he returned the sketchbook to his backpack, then took his cup to the trash on the way out of the restaurant.

The next day, Friday, he had a small number of classes and a great number of work hours, which meant he wasn’t in the dorms most of the day and didn’t catch sight of Heero until late that evening. It didn’t mean he didn’t think about Heero, though. Class had some efficaciousness as a distraction from social life, and the student bookstore where he worked kept him fairly busy, but neither could wholly strike from his mind the sketchbook, Heero’s state as revealed thereby, his own growing interest, and the future’s related possibilities.

And none of this really readied him for actually laying eyes on Heero later. For the moment he caught sight of the messy dark hair, the smooth tan skin, and the slender figure (most particularly those tight jeans), he found himself stopping in his tracks at the top of the stairs and simply staring, overwhelmed by the shocking realization that Heero was, if not the hottest guy he’d ever seen, at least in the top five. How the hell had he failed to notice this before? Why had it taken a stolen sketchbook and several hours of reflection to see something he should have been availing himself of forever ago??

It looked as if Trowa was heading for the showers, and Heero had stopped him just outside their room for some discussion or other. Duo, wide eyes still running frantically up and down Heero’s body, did not at first take in anything they were saying, but eventually, as he began to get himself under better control, he was able to make out the words.

“For the last time, no.” Trowa sounded a little frustrated.

“You’re absolutely sure?” Heero, on the other hand, sounded as calm as usual — but if this was really ‘for the last time,’ it was probably something he had bothered his roommate about on previous occasions, which meant he was actually quite concerned.

“Heero, I’m not blind,” Trowa insisted. “I know what it looks like; I would know if I’d seen it.”

Duo suddenly had an uncomfortable suspicion that he knew exactly what they were talking about.

“But–”

“I’m sorry. I know it’s a nightmare to lose something you need for class. But I really can’t help you.” And Trowa turned away from Heero and moved on toward the bathrooms.

Slipping into the other hallway, which ran to the right from the top of the stairs, where Heero would not see him, Duo leaned against a wall and didn’t budge until he heard a door close around the corner, trying to work through all of this.

He needed it for a class? God damn this luck! Duo was tempted to add, ‘And god damn whoever had stolen the thing from Heero in the first place,’ but couldn’t quite bring himself to. Despite not appreciating being put in this position, seeing Heero put in this position, despite how much of a tactless jerk he thought that anonymous person must be, Duo couldn’t regret having been brought to his senses where Heero was concerned — because how long, otherwise, might it have taken him to notice and appreciate Heero fully? He might never have.

But Heero needed his sketchbook for class. Apart from wondering what the professor was likely to make of the prolificacy of Duo within — or had stalking been part of the assignment? — Duo was now wondering what was the best way to get the thing back to Heero without embarrassing the hell out of him. He peeked around the corner, and, seeing no one in the perpendicular hall, hurried down it toward his own room to think about things in greater comfort there.

He was not at all even a little surprised to find Quatre all bathrobed up and ready for a shower when he entered his room, and was glad that he would be alone for the next… however long it took. After wishing his roommate a suggestive farewell, he flopped down on the bed just as he had yesterday, pulled the sketchbook out, and stared at it, trying to decide what to do.

Well, there was a lost-and-found in the building, but it was historically unreliable as a means of somebody actually recovered their own lost property. And there was always the option of giving it to someone else and asking them to deliver it to Heero, but, besides that seeming equally unreliable when he wanted to make good and sure Heero actually got it in time for whatever class called for it, whom could he entrust with such a task?

He’d never really fully cleared his closest friends of suspicion, and, besides, how could he word the request without making it sound strange and underhanded? They would undoubtedly mention to Heero that Duo was the one that had found the missing sketchbook, and that was precisely what he was trying to avoid.

Much the same problems were associated with his outer circle. What if he handed the thing off to the very person that had originally stolen it? What if whoever he asked to return the sketchbook looked inside it, came to the same conclusion Duo had, and spread the word throughout the dorm that Heero Yuy on the second floor was obsessed with Duo Maxwell across the hall?

No, no, no, no, no. Duo couldn’t let that happen. He would just have to sneak in there and deliver it himself. Quatre had a key, of course, which Duo was sure he could easily appropriate… If he sat around quietly here before work tomorrow, keeping his ears open, he could mark when both Trowa and Heero went out — he was fairly sure Heero worked Saturday mornings, and Trowa was likely to go somewhere with Quatre — and then he could creep over there, let himself in, drop off the sketchbook, and retreat with none the wiser.

He nodded decisively. Good plan.

Taking advantage of Quatre’s in-building absence from the room, he set about locating the key. Actually, there wasn’t much ‘setting about’ involved; Quatre’s things were always organized, and his keychain lived on a push-pin on the little bulletin board that hung above his desk. Duo wasn’t sure whether he would notice the absence of one key among four or five (what they all unlocked Duo hadn’t the faintest idea), but he hoped to sneak it back on there as soon as possible and didn’t really worry about it.

Then, having arranged this to his satisfaction, he sat down and went through the entire sketchbook again. This was probably quite vain of him, since it was almost like reading and rereading a list of compliments, but he simply couldn’t resist. His favorite picture of himself, he decided, was the one in which he was gesticulating wildly and making a funny face. There was so much life and movement in the piece, and Duo was certain it wasn’t just because there was so much life and movement in him. He wondered what Heero had been thinking as he’d drawn it. Someday maybe he would be able to ask him.

Although… the more he looked… he remembered this. Of course he couldn’t be certain, but he thought the last time he’d worn that shirt with those jeans had been when they’d all gone to that stupid movie… the one they’d gotten free tickets to from that Independent Records store, that terrible one where the main character had worn clothes something like Duo’s (which was why he remembered at all).

In the restaurant afterward, Duo had mocked the show mercilessly, and Heero had helped him. That just meant, most of the time, that Heero nodded his agreement, or smiled at Duo’s dumb jokes at the movie’s expense, but occasionally he offered some derisive jest of his own. As Heero was quite clever, these had all been very amusing. Why hadn’t it occurred to Duo at the time that Heero hardly ever joked with anyone? That Heero was paying Duo exclusive attention and enjoying Duo’s attention in return? Why had Duo then drifted off to argue with his other friends, who’d liked the movie and kept referring to him by the name of the main character because of his stupid outfit?

And Heero had retreated back into his usual corner to capture Duo’s gesture and expression on paper. Heero bringing a messenger bag full of homework (or what was generally perceived as homework), even to a social event, was so standard that no one looked twice or questioned; no wonder there were so many candid pictures of Duo in this sketchbook.

He left it open to that piece as he changed into pajamas — the plaid ones, not the ones featured in the book — and then put it carefully away in his backpack again before turning off the lights and getting into bed. Knowing he would have to let a loudly-humming Quatre in after not too long, he didn’t bother trying to sleep just yet, but put his arms behind his head, looked up into the dark, and thought about Heero.

The next day he was awakened, as was often the case, by the sounds of Quatre cheerfully getting ready for whatever romantic outing he had planned. Normally this caused Duo to grumble fairly volubly from the muffling warmth of his pillow about rich kids that didn’t have to work, morning people in general, and anyone so incapable of getting enough of his damn boyfriend that he had to annoy his roommate with his stupid weekend schemes at uncouth early hours… but today he just turned toward the wall with a grouchy noise (only partially to keep up appearances) and listened.

Quatre took an inordinately long time to get ready, for someone that didn’t wear makeup or use hair product, but eventually he finished his whatever and left. Then there was the sound of Heero and Trowa’s door opening and closing, voices, receding footsteps, and then silence. So that was Trowa gone.

Yawning, in no kind of hurry, Duo rose and dressed, still listening. It did occur to him that Heero might already have left before this vigil even started, and Duo might now be waiting for a sound that would never come; in that respect, he was fully willing to admit, this wasn’t the best of plans. But he figured he’d head over there and knock if ten o’clock came and he still hadn’t heard anything; if Heero was in there, he could just pretend he needed to borrow a calculator, and then he would know, and could keep listening.

Wait, what was that? A couple of people walking by, talking… Shut up! You’re making it impossible to hear! Except then one of them said quite distinctly, “Oh, hi, Heero.” Duo didn’t catch Heero’s reply, but he did hear the door across the hall close and the voices continue toward the stairs. Then there was silence. Hah.

Hastily Duo pulled out the sketchbook and retrieved the key he’d left sitting in one of his shoes last night, but forced himself to slow down and wait a few minutes. No reason to rush things, after all; he didn’t work until one.

Eventually he deemed it to have been long enough, and probably couldn’t have waited much longer in any event. The sketchbook was too big to burn a hole in his pocket, but his hands certainly felt on fire as he held it.

Nobody was around in the hall when he stepped out, but there were noises from other parts of the floor. He doubted anyone would think twice about his entering someone else’s room even if they happened to know which was really his, but somehow he didn’t want to be seen. So he bounded across, pressed as close as he could to the door as he unlocked it at top speed, and dashed inside.

He’d opened and closed the thing so quickly that, at the crappy little table Heero and Trowa used in lieu of desks at the far end of the room, the seated Heero was only just beginning to look up when Duo noticed he was there.

He could have bolted. He might even have made it back out into the hallway before Heero realized who his unexpected visitor was. He could have tossed the sketchbook down on one of the beds and made a break for it. But he found that Heero sitting there in the sunlight — they had a window in here, unlike in Duo’s room — his serious eyes bent studiously downward and his dark hair falling into his face, was one that it was almost painful to abandon. He wanted those eyes to look up at him, for he found himself uncertain as to their precise color. Blue, certainly, but exactly what kind of blue, he was ashamed to admit, he’d never noticed.

But even as his wish was granted — and they were the most spectacular cornflower he’d ever seen — he realized with a sinking heart that his plan had failed. Here he was, here was Heero, here was the sketchbook. They would have to have it out here and now; there was no escaping.

Heero was greeting the person he thought had entered before he’d even fully turned: “That was the quickest breakfast I’ve–” But he cut his words off abruptly when he saw who it actually was.

“Hi,” said Duo. “I used Trowa’s extra key he gave Quatre, but I didn’t think you were in here; I heard the door close twice, and I thought you guys were both gone.”

Heero was looking at Duo curiously and a little warily; knowing what he now knew, Duo thought there were other emotions in that gaze as well, but so expertly concealed that they were only visible to someone that knew specifically to look: hope, desire, fear, despair…

“I walked downstairs with them, but decided I didn’t want breakfast.” Heero’s tone sounded a little as if he was humoring the madman that had burst into his room and started talking about how many times he’d heard the door close. “So I came back in here.”

Wow. If Duo had been trying to arrange a private conference with Heero in his room alone, rather than essentially the opposite, he couldn’t have done better. He took a deep breath. “Well, I came to return your sketchbook.” And he held it out.

Heero seemed to reach for the object very stiffly and reluctantly; he’d probably already seen it in Duo’s hand, and knew what this must mean. “Thank you,” he said as he set it on the table in front of him and turned his eyes upon it. His voice was level and cool, and it occurred to Duo all of a sudden what he might be thinking — especially given the use of the word ‘return.’

“I wasn’t the one who stole it!” Duo said hastily. “Somebody left it in my mailbox all wrapped up like a Christmas present with no tag, probably trying to–” But he stopped with something of a jerk; wasn’t he supposed to be not saying embarrassing things?

“Trying to what?” Heero’s tone was still calm, and his eyes, as he glanced over at Duo again, were piercing. Captivating.

“Well…” Duo scratched his head, wanting to look anywhere but at the searching eyes and yet never wanting to look away. “I did go through it, and I couldn’t help noticing…” Noticing what an interesting and attractive guy you really are… noticing that, even if I haven’t had a crush on you all along, I really should have…

Finally those eyes withdrew as Heero let his gaze fall once again to the table and the book between his hands. “Yeah,” he said shortly. And his voice was still cold.

“Well, listen,” said Duo after an awkward silence. And perhaps the difficulty of the conversation thus far prompted him to phrase his sentiment in a way he otherwise might have avoided. “I think secretly drawing someone a million times is probably the most passive-aggressive way I’ve ever heard of to express your interest in them, and I’ve gotta say… if it was anyone but you, it’d be really creepy. Since it is you, though…” He paused. He’d seen Heero’s shoulders go rigid at his last words, and knew that Heero was anticipating intensely what else he had to say. “Since it is you,” he resumed at last, slowly, “it’s actually kindof adorable.”

Abruptly Heero stood from his chair and turned to face Duo, taking a step toward him with a hard, riveting look. It was a look that said alternately, “Don’t you dare play games with me,” and, “Please don’t break my heart.” But what his mouth said was, “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying that I wish you’d just told me, because–” But that was as far as Duo got; quite obviously, it had been enough. He wasn’t sure which if either of them moved first, faster, or farthest; they seemed to meet in the middle, and were suddenly kissing as if they’d been magnetically drawn.

And it wasn’t like a typical first kiss, where they were getting used to each other and figuring stuff out and still hesitant about any number of things… it was more like the reunion of long-separated lovers, each reminded in a blaze what he loved about the other, tasting with curiosity and undismayed by the changes time had wrought, settling joyfully into each other again.

When they eventually broke apart, Duo remained hovering close to Heero’s face, his breathing somewhat hastened, surprised and delighted at what he’d found here. Heero looked as if he felt much the same, though to his expression there was also an overtone of ecstatic disbelief.

“My god,” Duo whispered, “your eyelashes… I’ve never noticed before what amazing eyelashes you have.”

Heero smiled.

“And your smile!” Duo went on, seeing this. “I’ve seen you smile a million times before, but I’ve never really noticed.” And he kissed him again.

His next query was, “Why am I not surprised that you’re perfect at kissing too?”

“If that is the case,” Heero said with impossible calm, “it’s a surprise to me.”

Duo bent so his forehead rested against Heero’s. “You and your perfect face and your perfect grades and your perfect kisses and your perfect art…”

“I’m glad you liked it.”

“Liked which?”

Heero actually laughed, a rare sound at any time, and one that now sent shivers up Duo’s spine. “All of it. But especially the art.”

“I couldn’t stop looking at it,” Duo confessed, “but it mostly just made me think of you.”

“Why did you want to bring it back when I wasn’t in here?”

Taken a little by surprise, it was a moment before Duo could shift gears and answer this question. “Oh, I figured since you hadn’t told me all along, it’d probably embarrass you if you knew I had it, so I thought I’d just drop it off here anonymously so you wouldn’t know I knew.”

“And skip this conversation entirely?”

“No way! I was planning on asking you out after finals! I just didn’t want to make you feel bad!”

Heero smiled a curious little smile and said, “Well, I appreciate the thought. Really. But I think you were underestimating me.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s true–” and he sounded rather displeased with himself admitting it– “I couldn’t figure out how to tell you I liked you in person, but I had decided I was going to tell you somehow… I was ready for however you responded.”

“But you still didn’t actually tell me!”

“Yes, I did. I gave you my sketchbook.”

“You… what?” Duo released him so he could more properly gesture his surprise and skepticism. “You? You did not!”

“I did.”

You took your own sketchbook and — no, you did not. I don’t believe it.”

Without a word, Heero pushed past Duo and crouched beside his bed to retrieve something from beneath it. When he stood again, he placed in Duo’s hands a roll of wrapping paper: green, red-ribboned, covered with gold and white flowers.

“I should have known,” said Duo in a murmur of wonder, staring down at it. “Of course this is really your style.” But he hadn’t noticed, before, that he had any idea what Heero’s style was. “And the way you wrapped it… all neat and nice-looking… I’m going to make you wrap every present I give to anyone from now on.”

“I would be glad to,” said Heero solemnly.

Duo lifted his eyes from the paper, grinning at Heero suddenly. “And it’s all or nothing with you, isn’t it? You can’t just tell me, ‘I’m interested in dating you,’ but apparently you can tell me, ‘Look! I drew you thirty times!'”

Now Heero did appear somewhat embarrassed. A little hoarsely he said, “I wanted you to know how much I…”

That embarrassed look on that usually-so-impassive face was just too charming; Duo tossed the wrapping paper aside, stepped forward, and pulled Heero into another embrace. “I guess it’s no weirder than writing someone a love sonnet or something,” he allowed. He was moving to kiss Heero again, but this thought made him pause a breath away from Heero’s lips to ask a little suspiciously, “You don’t write poetry too, do you?”

“I may have tried it a few times,” Heero replied noncommittally, and forestalled any further questioning by leaning in to claim the kiss Duo had postponed.

The next point to be brought up once articulation was again available was, “Without a tag, though? I mean, you had me all up in arms trying to figure out who would be such a jerk to steal your stuff and blow your secrets!”

Heero looked surprised and pleased. “You really were worried about embarrassing me.”

With an exaggerated expression of reproving austerity Duo said, “I think now you’re underestimating me.”

“I won’t do it again,” Heero promised with a slight smile.

Really, it shouldn’t be much of a shock if Heero considered him a little thoughtless, given how long Heero had been largely invisible to him despite being pretty much everything Duo wanted. Maybe Duo was a little thoughtless. Maybe this was a lucky break the like of which he would never see again. Maybe he should take advantage of this opening of his eyes to look around him more seriously in case there was anything else important going on that he was missing.

He would have to think about this later, though; none of it was answering his question.

“So why anonymously?” he reiterated. “You knew I’d find out at the end who’d drawn it all; what was wrong with letting me in on who’d sent it, too?”

Once more Heero looked somewhat embarrassed as he shrugged and said, “I guess that was just another passive-aggressive thing. I thought about putting a tag on it, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. I’m pathetic, I know.” It was remarkable how he could make such statements so placidly, so coolly. And he was pathetic — or, at least, if Duo didn’t precisely feel sorry for him, he at least felt sorry

Throwing his arms around Heero again, he said, “I so wish I’d noticed before this how interesting and sweet and hot you are! We wouldn’t have had to go through all of this!”

“I wouldn’t have had to try and fail to approximate a perfectly normal human interaction?” Heero wondered dryly. He seemed to be blushing a little — his face felt suddenly hot where Duo’s was pressed against it — whether at his own misanthropy or at Duo’s compliments could not be guessed.

“Well, now you’ve learned your lesson,” Duo laughed. I’ve learned my lesson, anyway.

“Yes: passive-aggressiveness gets me everything I want.”

Again Duo laughed, simultaneously amused by the joke and pleased at being referred to as everything Heero wanted. “OK, one more question,” he said, “and then we can make out all weekend.”

“With a promise like that,” said Heero seriously, “I’ll tell you anything.”

Duo grinned. “OK. So what’s the symbol for the curl operator in Maxwell’s equations?”

Heero blinked. “An upside-down triangle and an X… Where have you even heard of Maxwell’s equations?”

“Some nerds outside one of the science buildings were talking about it,” Duo shrugged, “and it had my name in it so I listened. I just wanted to see if you really would tell me anything.”

“Yes, but now you’ve asked your one question.”

“I’m going to ask you another one anyway, though.”

“I may not answer.”

“Then I may not kiss you again.”

“Fine; what is it?”

“Was Trowa in on all of this? All that, ‘For the last time, I haven’t seen it!’ stuff? Or was that something else you’d actually lost?”

“Oh, that.” Heero cleared his throat. “That was a show, at least on my part. Trowa doesn’t know. But I saw you coming–” he gestured to the window– “and I wanted you to know that I needed it for class.”

“So I’d make sure to get it back to you soon and not keep you in suspense,” Duo finished for him.

“Well,” Heero said a little sheepishly, “and I do need it for class.”

“You… sneaky… manipulative… underhanded…” If Duo’s affectionate tone didn’t assure Heero that there was no malice in the statement, the coined noun with which he eventually finished must have: “…adorableguy!” He put his hands on his hips. “No more of that, OK? Just because you can trick me into doing things doesn’t mean you’re allowed.”

“No more,” Heero agreed gravely.

“And I,” Duo went on expansively, “promise in return never to ignore you again the way I’ve been doing pretty much ever since we met.”

With a rueful smile, “I’m just naturally invisible, I think,” remarked Heero.

Duo shook his head. “Not to me,” he said firmly. “Not anymore.”

Heero’s smile warmed.

“And now…!” Duo wanted and fully intended to make good on his promise of prolonged kissing, but this needed to be done first. “This… is mine.” He turned to the table and snatched up the sketchbook.

“I do have to turn it in on Monday.”

“But you gave it to me. You wrapped it up and gave it to me. It was a present, and I like it way too much to give it back!”

“It’s an eighth of my grade in that class.” Heero reached for the book.

“You should have thought of that before you just gave it away!” Duo laughed as he jerked out of Heero’s reach.

“Duo!” Heero was grinning somewhat too now as he dove again for the item in Duo’s hand.

“It’s mine!” Duo insisted, jumping aside and almost crashing to his doom against the table; the small dorm room wasn’t made for this kind of game. As Heero made another lunge he therefore added, “Maybe I’ll let you borrow it if you ask nicely.”

At this Heero straightened and met Duo’s eyes with such a fervid gaze that Duo also immediately stilled. Heero reached out again, this time not for the sketchbook but for the collar of Duo’s shirt, with which he pulled him close and then guided him into a seated position on his bed. “Please,” he said, almost against Duo’s lips.

“OK,” Duo managed weakly. The object of their discussion was already well on its way to being completely forgotten; it fell from his hand to the floor as Heero’s arms slipped around him and Heero’s lips pressed insistently against his. Duo slid his hands into Heero’s hair, pulling him closer as he deepened and intensified their kiss; and Heero was clasping him, warm and strong, as he let Duo in. And then–

“This is unexpected.”

At least this time Duo wasn’t the only one not to have noticed things going on around him; he thought Heero was just as startled as he was at Trowa’s impassive voice from the door he hadn’t even heard being unlocked.

“I like it, though.” Quatre, at Trowa’s side, looked and sounded both thoughtful and pleased. He took his boyfriend’s hand. “Let’s give them some privacy.”

“It is their turn.”

“We can go to my room.”

Trowa nodded. With an ironic salute in Heero’s direction, he allowed himself to be dragged out, and the door closed.

Once again Duo flung his arms around Heero for a ferocious hug, laughing heartily. “We have been judged!” he cried.

“And found worthy,” Heero added in amusement. He paused, and when he spoke again it was in a tone simultaneously pensive and more playful than anything Duo had ever heard from him. “I say we move them in together over break.”

Duo’s eyes went wide at the consummate genius of this idea, but the aspect of it on which he chose to comment was, “Heero, I think you just asked me to move in with you.”

“I think I did,” Heero nodded.

“Could get awkward if we break up…”

“You think we won’t even last one semester?” Though his tone was light, still Heero was discernibly disappointed.

Maybe it was just beginning-of-the-relationship giddiness, but somehow, when Duo thought about it, he actually saw them lasting a lot longer than that — and he said so. He’d been reminded, too, by Heero’s suggestion, of the fact that the winter break was approaching and he and Heero would be here practically alone throughout. Settling his arms around Heero’s waist, Duo added happily, “This is going to be the best Christmas ever.”

“I think so too.” Heero pulled him close again for another kiss.

And from the floor beside them, another Duo, in exquisitely detailed colored pencil and bearing the neat signature of Heero Yuy in pen, smiled up at them approvingly.


Oh, Heero. Nothing says love like being a manipulative stalker, right? He’s lucky Duo’s so generous (and likes him too), because, generally, the appropriate reaction to this kind of behavior is not to make out with the guy.

Also, don’t even ask me what kind of bike accident knocks out a canine but leaves the lateral untouched.

I’ve rated this story . I wrote most of it in the car during a family vacation to Santa Fe when the interstate stopped due to feets of snow. The back seat of my dad’s car is not a comfortable place to sleep.

This story is included in the Gundam Wing Collection ebook (.zip file contains .pdf, .mobi, and .epub formats).


Pillow Talk


Sano wasn’t sure which aspect of his hangover woke him, just as he wasn’t sure which was the worst, or which the most familiar; it would have been like trying to describe the wetness of water. Very disgusting water that left him still thirsty.

Every new hangover — at least lately — felt like the worst he’d ever had. Today’s surpassed even that ever-growing record by seeming like the worst experience he could possibly have in waking up. But that was only until he managed, with some difficulty, to drag his lids open and force his eyeballs to focus — and saw the woman lying in the bed beside him.

“Oh, god,” he groaned, burying his face in the blanket again immediately. It was one thing to get so drunk he couldn’t remember what he’d done the night before; it was another entirely to wake up in bed with what he didn’t remember. Not that this was by any means the first time it had happened to him lately. Usually, though, it was merely signs that someone else had been there, not the someone herself. And none of the reasons they ever stuck around until Sano awakened were good.

“If you’re hoping for breakfast,” he mumbled at last into the linen, “you’re out of luck.”

“That’s just what you said last week,” she replied complacently.

Sano was so relieved she hadn’t said something like, “You promised to pay in the morning,” it took him a moment to comprehend what she had said.

“Last week?” Was he supposed to know this girl?

“You don’t remember? Guess I’m not surprised. This is the second time for us.”

Sano sighed and raised his face slightly so his voice wasn’t quite as muffled as before. “At least one of us must be a pretty good lay.”

He could hear the grin in her reply, “I’ll take that as a compliment, thanks, but since we haven’t actually fucked…”

Already grimacing, Sano could not express his confusion with a frown, but he did turn his eyes toward her with a little more attention.

She was fairly pretty, a couple of years his senior, and already had that world-weary shadow in her expression that he knew would eventually turn to dull blankness as she went about her seductive trade entirely by rote. For now, though, she evidently had energy and enthusiasm enough. She looked back at him from where she sat in the tangle of blankets at his side, eyes sparkling with curiosity. That she wore underclothes seemed to bear out her latest remark, and Sano struggled futilely to remember what they had done last night.

“You’re everyone’s favorite client, you know,” she went on, “just ’cause of that. Getting paid for a night of almost no work…”

“‘Everyone’s?'” Sano sat up now, noting he was fully clothed, and that his hangover was every bit as bad as it had seemed at first.

The woman raised a brow at him. “Every one of us you’ve hired recently, yeah. We’ve started rolling dice to decide who gets to go with you whenever you show up.” She laughed a pleasant, musical laugh.

Considering the method by which Sano raised the funds necessary to pay for this entertainment, there was something ironic in the idea of the entertainment rolling dice over him. Dismissing this, however, along with the depressing thought of how much money he must have spent on absolutely nothing lately, he listened to her next comment.

“We’ve got some bets going on you, too. We thought, since we were already gambling…”

Again he merely echoed her word, “‘Bets?'” and wasn’t really surprised at how blank his voice sounded.

She propped her elbow on her knee and leaned forward to rest her chin in her hand, fixing him with an intense gaze. “Well, some of us think she must be European… an exotic foreigner, you know? Some, including me, are sure she must be an older woman… there’s even one gal with her money on it being a warrior of some sort.” Again she laughed, and her eyes sparkled. “We’re all sure she must be a real looker, so there’s no money in that.”

Sano had believed his somewhat bewildered state was due to his hangover, but was beginning to retreat from this point of view. “Who the hell are you talking about?”

Her expression softened slightly as she replied, “The woman who broke your heart.”

Sano blinked. “What?”

The musical laugh was a little gentler this time. “For weeks now you’ve been coming over stone drunk and paying for us and then never actually fucking any of us, like you just want somebody to sleep next to. If that ain’t the behavior of a heartbroken man…”

“Oh.” Sano wasn’t sure whether to laugh or sigh. He supposed once a group of complete strangers started telling him he was clearly heartbroken, it was about time to admit it to himself. Especially given how ineffectual it was proving getting drunk enough not to remember the nights and making sure he had a distraction for the mornings.

Eventually he did laugh, albeit somewhat bitterly. “None of you are gonna be able to collect on your bets,” he told her; “sorry. Well, except whoever guessed a warrior. Maybe. If you guys decide it still counts.”

Now it was the prostitute’s turn to appear bemused.

Like his laugh, Sano’s grin was rather bitter. “No woman broke my heart,” he said, the bluntness of his tone belying the ambivalence of his words.

She had him figured out, though — either that or she thought she was teasing him with the suggestion, “A man, then?”

Sano nodded.

Again she laughed. “And if I thought the news of a beautiful woman was going to stir the girls up…”

“I’m glad you think it’s funny,” Sano half-snarled, tempted to rebury his face in the bedding after telling this nosy woman to go to hell.

Her next laugh, however, was actively sympathetic. “Oh, honey, I don’t think it’s funny at all! Someone as lonely as you…”

“Who says I’m lonely?” Sano responded automatically, sullenly, and entirely futilely.

“And we ain’t helpin’.”

“No, you sure as hell aren’t,” Sano agreed.

She stared at him thoughtfully for a moment, then asked in a conversational tone, “So did he die?”

“No!” Sano felt a little cold at the thought, and answered more vehemently than the question really required.

Now she was looking at him expectantly. “So if he isn’t dead…”

“You know, it’s really none of your business,” Sano replied.

She chuckled. “No, it isn’t. But we’ve all been so curious… and talking about it would be good for you.”

Examining her eager face, Sano couldn’t really bring himself to believe his wellbeing was any great part of her motives… but that didn’t necessarily mean she wasn’t right. It certainly couldn’t be any less effective than what he had been doing.

“Fine,” he sighed a little grouchily, lying back down and raising his arms to use as a pillow. Eyes closed to facilitate the ebb of his headache, he wondered where to start.

Well, hell, why not at the beginning? “We were sortof enemies at first. Well, we were on the same side, but he didn’t want me around. Thought I wasn’t good enough to be there. I wanted to prove him wrong so fucking bad… I got so used to obsessing about it and thinking about him, I don’t even have a clue when I started liking him… but at some point I did.”

“But what’s he like?” she asked impatiently. “What does he look like? What does he act like?”

Sano huffed, also somewhat impatient, but couldn’t see any reason not to provide this peripheral information. “Well, he’s thin… I mean, he’s got muscle, but he’s also got a sorta narrow body. His face is kinda harsh; he’s got these high cheekbones so there’s always these shadows…” He traced the spots on his own face. “And his eyes…” Here he trailed off, unable to give the details he’d had in mind. The pain abruptly blossoming in his chest had nothing to do with his hangover. Finally, though, he forced himself to complete the broken sentence. “His eyes are gold.”

A long silence followed. He’d been half expecting her to laugh again, and appreciated that she didn’t.

Eventually, when the silence began to weigh on him unbearably, Sano went on. “And how he acts… pretty much like an asshole most of the time.” Now she did laugh, and he didn’t mind. “He’s a good person,” he explained, “a really good person… he’s just not a very nice person.”

A more pensive silence followed, and eventually Sano murmured almost to himself, “I guess it makes sense. Obsessed with the guy and then getting to know what a good person he really is… I kinda had no choice, you know? Not fair, really…”

“If he’s an asshole, then, no, it really ain’t fair,” she agreed. It was a prodding tone, urging him to go on, and at the same time she was trying to hide her amusement.

Again Sano considered telling her to go to hell — or at least get out of his home and stop rubbing salt in his wounds — but, having disclosed this much, unless he finished the story, he had probably doomed himself to endless questioning from every prostitute he hired from now on. Which, given his track record, he wasn’t likely to stop doing, once he got drunk, no matter how much this one annoyed him.

“Yeah…” he went on at last, “so, eventually somehow when I was trying to get his attention it wasn’t because I wanted to fight him anymore. And I guess I was pretty annoying, because he gave in finally.”

“He gave in finally because you were… annoying?” Sano could hear the skeptical laughter hiding behind the careful neutrality of this statement.

“Yes.” His tone was surly. “He was always annoyed with me. Always telling me to get lost, acting like I was in his way all the time, even when he was fucking me…”

“So he was fucking you at one point.”

“Yeah, for a while. A lot, actually.” He added with a wry grin, “See, I really am a good lay.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” she chuckled. “So he must’ve liked you at least a little, then.”

Sano’s arms weren’t in the best position for a shrug, but still that was the tendency of his shoulders as he answered bitterly, “If you call acting like he never wants me around and always calling me names and saying that everything I say is stupid and basically being a jerk to me in every possible way all the fucking time signs that he likes me at least a little, then, sure, maybe he did.” At her repeated sympathetic laugh he added decisively, “No, the whole thing was just sex to him, and I should’ve never let it get more than that for me.”

After another long moment she asked, “How did it end?”

“He left,” Sano sighed. “Got transferred out to Niigata.”

“So it wasn’t even a real break-up? That’s almost worse…”

“Well, it was… I dunno. He did say I could come with him if I wanted… like that actually meant anything.”

Though he wasn’t looking at her, Sano got the feeling the woman went utterly still where she sat. “So…” she said after a tense moment. “This guy you’re in love with…” With a grunt Sano protested her word choice, but she went on. “You always wished he’d stop acting like he didn’t want you around, and he’s not the type of guy to show he cares about someone…”

“Right, right,” said Sano impatiently.

“So this guy who never acts like he likes you — and you wish he would — asks you to come with him when he gets transferred…”

“Yeah?”

“And you say no?”

“Course.”

At her sudden movement he opened his eyes, in time to see her roll onto her side and press the blanket against her face to muffle her sudden torrent of laughter. It was loud and it was musical, and it was quite clearly derisive.

“God, shut up,” he grumbled, stung. “I thought you felt sorry for me.”

“I do!” She pulled the blanket away from her face long enough to laugh out these words. “It’s just you’re such a fucking idiot!”

If he’d thought her capable of holding her own against him in a fist fight, he would have started one. Instead he merely tried to defend himself in a raised voice. “Look, I don’t know why he even said that, but it wasn’t like I was going to jump at the chance to go with someone who only wants me around to fuck whenever he feels like it. Even if I do… really like him.”

For some reason this sent her into a fresh spasm of laughter, and by now Sano was sitting up watching her mirthful writhing in annoyance. She did manage to ask, however, through her amusement, “What exactly… were you waiting for… from him?”

“What do you mean?” Sano demanded.

With a succession of deep breaths she strove to calm herself, and answered in a more level tone, “Guys who are bad at showing they care about their boyfriends and all don’t change overnight… he ain’t just gonna come out and say ‘Oh, I love you’ all of a sudden. He’s gonna show it by doing something.”

“What, you think he said I could come with him because he was in love with me or some shit?” Somewhat to his surprise, Sano actually found himself rather angry at the idea. How could she even suggest such a stupid thing?

Evidently following his mood, she sobered completely. “Why the hell else would he do it, if he’s such a jerk?”

She did have a point… but even so, the theory was utterly absurd. Not to mention… a little painful to think about, given how quickly he’d said no.

“And did you ever think to ask him why he was inviting you like that?” she pursued. “Or did you just assume that, just ’cause he doesn’t read you poetry, he only wanted you to come along as his fuck-buddy?”

“Yes!” Though this emphatic answer was almost loud enough to be a shout, it sounded more discouraged than angry. “Why the hell should I think anything else? I mean, he was never nice to me; I thought I made that pretty clear.”

“Lord save me from the like,” she murmured with a rueful grin toward heaven. Then, returning her eyes to him, she went on in a calm, placating tone. “Course I don’t know all the details, and I don’t know the guy, and, hell, I don’t really know you. I’m not gonna try to talk you into seeing it my way… but do you really think you handled it right?”

“How is asking me that not trying to talk me into seeing it your way?” Sano wondered. Then, as she only looked at him, he added, “I have no fucking clue whether I handled it right or not!”

“Well, neither do I,” she shrugged.

Sano was surprised to feel a surge of annoyed disappointment at this; had he really been expecting some wise advice or something from this complete stranger? “Why the hell did you even ask, then?”

“Well, what I do know is that you shouldn’t just end a relationship without talking about it first.”

“Wasn’t a fucking relationship,” Sano grumbled. “It was just fucking.”

“People don’t invite their fuck-buddies to come with them when they transfer,” she replied dismissively.

“Maybe nice people don’t.”

“All I’m saying is, it seems like you wasted an opportunity, and I hate that.”

“Yeah, sure, an opportunity to keep dealing with the hardest situation to deal with and the biggest jerk ever.”

“People who want real relationships do deal,” she said sternly. “I know because the rest buy whores.”

“God!” Sano protested, “you say that like I’ve got some kind of responsibility or something and I’m not doing it right.”

“That’s kinda exactly what I’m saying. Nothing pisses me off more than seeing people like you who can do things and go places I never can throwing away their chances.”

“What do you mean? What chances do I have that you don’t?”

She gave him a hard look. “You think I’ll ever have someone ask me to go with him when he gets transferred? Hell, do you think I’m ever likely to leave Tokyo… do anything besides what I’m doing now for the rest of my life… however long that turns out to be…? That’s why you people who ain’t whores really oughta make the best of your choices, ’cause not everybody has any.”

“What?” Sano stared at her. “The hell you don’t have any choices! Who says you can’t leave Tokyo? Who says you have to stay a whore?”

“My contract and a million other things.”

“A contract? Shit, that’s nothing.”

“See, it seems really easy to you… Nobody thinks about what I’d have to do to give up this life.” She raised a hand and began counting off points on her fingers. “I’d have to sneak out, move to a new town, leave all my friends and all the stuff I know… change my name, probably change the way I look… I’d have to learn a real job to support myself and actually work it… practice talking all correct, probably…” She laughed. “And you think it’s hard to deal with your boyfriend.”

“You’d think so too if you met him! Besides, I’d have to travel and go find him. And then what if I was right? What if he didn’t want to talk to me or see me or whatever? At least your thing would make your life better; I’d be maybe making things worse.”

With a slight laugh she acknowledged this to be true. “But the point is that you could.”

“So could you!” he countered. “You listed all that stuff, but all you really said was that it would be hard to leave. Maybe harder than me talking to him, sure, I’ll give you that, but you could do it.”

She tilted her chin upward and looked shrewdly down her nose at him. “Tell you what. Let’s make a deal. You go talk to him and find out how he really feels about you, and I’ll come with you and start a new life in Niigata.”

Sano gaped at her, at first unable to speak. Finally he managed, “You’re kidding.”

“No!”

“But… why…?”

Now the look she gave him was skeptically disdainful. “You think I want to stay like this forever?”

“No, but… going all the way to Niigata…” Sano scratched his head.

“‘Sas good a place as any, ain’t it?”

“Well… I guess…”

“So is it a deal?”

“I…” Sano’s mind had gone somewhat blank the moment she’d suggested he go look for Saitou, but now he had to think quickly and intensely. He couldn’t deny that he would like almost nothing in the world better than to see him again, but what would such a meeting entail? All he could think of was Saitou’s coldest tone, narrowed eyes, and most indifferent gesture as he wondered why Sano had come all this way for nothing. And yet… and yet… there was that small seed of uncertainty that had already existed, buried deep, even before this woman had started pouring water and sunshine on it. Was he sure he’d interpreted everything correctly? Was he sure he knew how Saitou felt about him? And wasn’t his uncertainty almost worse than the rejection he assumed would be the result of the proposed venture?

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s a deal.”

***

Saitou turned toward the wall, pulling the crumpled blanket up to his hips. His breathing was returning to normal, the sweat cooling, and the haze receding, which meant the usual host of importunate thoughts was coming forward from the background — whence it had been hounding him all along — to hound him up close.

He’d stopped attempting to keep these thoughts away — the irritation and the puzzlement and the regret — because even if he put his hands over the spring, it welled up inexorably through his fingers. The result was that he felt defeated and ineffectual on a daily basis at his inability to control what went on in his own head, and then had to deal with the irritation and the puzzlement and the regret on top of that. And moments like this were the absolute worst.

“Hajime,” came Tokio’s soft voice from behind him.

Saitou pulled the blanket up farther and stared at the wall.

“Ha-a-ajime,” she called him again.

He ignored her as best he could. As if she hadn’t commanded plenty of his attention a few minutes ago.

She wasn’t having it, though. She crept sideways to press herself against him, and slid a delicate hand up over his arm around to his chest. “It’s funny,” she said into his ear, in that vague, airy way of hers. “You’ve always been distant when we made love, but lately you’re even worse. You’re just an empty, handsome shell. Your mind is a hundred miles away.”

Saitou had nothing to say to this; it was true enough.

“I wonder why that could be,” she went on, dragging out ‘wonder’ in a way that clearly stated, “Tell me, or else I’ll speculate. Aloud. At length.”

He wasn’t about to tell her, however. Masochistic this might be, since she didn’t threaten idly, but he didn’t care.

Once several moments had passed and it was evident he wouldn’t be admitting anything, “I suspect you’ve left your heart in Tokyo,” she said.

Saitou stifled a groan, but couldn’t quite restrain the accompanying sigh. It was a little ironic, considering what they’d just finished doing, how penetrating she was. Of course she’d managed to hit on the real answer on her first guess. And, as was often the case, she did it with an air of simultaneous absence and intensity that made it seem as if she were the one a hundred miles away and yet had never been more invested in anything in her life than she was in this — as if her interest were, in fact, being transmitted from a hundred miles away, like a discussion carried out by telegraph but without the stops and ungrammatical brevity.

“Funny thing, your heart,” she mused. “Some would say it doesn’t exist.” She chuckled her distracted-sounding laugh. “Especially that poor man who runs errands for you at the station. I know I’ve certainly never gotten at it.” She ran her fingertips up and down his arm, again as if waiting for him to add something to the thus far one-sided conversation.

Of course he didn’t. It wasn’t his responsibility to provide her with entertainment; Tokio was perfectly capable of finding alternate sources, and routinely did so when he was otherwise occupied. She would never have come bothering him if Sano had been here.

If Sano had been here…

“I wonder what it takes…” she went on eventually. “Since you are, in fact, very passionate, I believe you must love very well. Very skillfully. And I don’t just mean your skills in bed. I can get into your bed because of our legal bond, but what kind of person can get into that heart of yours?”

She always reminded him of the ‘legal bond’ at times like this, reveling (as much as someone like Tokio could ever revel in anything) in the fact that he had a sense of honor that wouldn’t allow him to deny his wife her marital dues.

“I think it must be someone a little older than you,” she speculated: “someone who’s had a chance to steady out like you have and who’s savvy and jaded like you; someone cool and calm who won’t annoy you.”

“Is there a point to this chatter?” Saitou wondered, prodded into impatient speech at last by this spectacularly inaccurate assessment.

“Well, let me know if I’m right…”

“Not even close.”

“I thought so,” she said. The complacence in her tone brought him to the irritating realization that she’d been baiting him with a false picture of what she thought his lover must be like; she knew him better than that. “You would prefer someone younger, whom you can order around, but probably not somebody who actually obeys all your orders; someone who still has something to learn, because you’d like to help; someone who enjoys life the way you can’t, but still knows what the world is really like; someone as passionate as you are, and probably just as stubborn.”

After a long silence, he had to admit with grudging admiration, “That’s about right.”

“The world’s a funny place,” she said thoughtfully and with half a sigh. “That someone like you exists somewhere, and then it turns out someone like him does too.”

She even knew it was a man. Why did he bother trying to hide anything from her?

“And yet you didn’t bring him here with you when you transferred…” Her voice was even more pensively musing than usual at this.

And that was the crux of the matter, wasn’t it? That there had been someone in the world for someone like him, and then, all of a sudden, there hadn’t been. Because evidently, despite all steadily growing impressions to the contrary, Saitou hadn’t been right for him.

“I offered,” he said, and didn’t bother to try hiding his bitterness; she would pick up on it anyway. “He refused. That was the end of it.”

“Perhaps he didn’t really like you.”

Resisting the urge to snarl, Saitou said tightly, “That was the conclusion I came to.” Not that Sano had said so, exactly… but he’d laughed when Saitou had offered to bring him here.

“You ‘came to that conclusion?'”

He grunted assent.

“That’s funny,” she said, and left it at that.

She let him steep for a few minutes in his frustrated disappointment, and then almost repeated her last phrase. “It’s funny…” She dragged out the word in a you really want to know what I have to say sort of way, then waited a moment in placid silence. Finally, “You have a tendency to run people’s lives,” she said. “I think I’m almost the only person you don’t expect to jump when you tell them to, and you still tried it for the first year we were married.”

Out of morbid curiosity as to what her point could possibly be, Saitou asked, “Why is that funny?”

“You didn’t insist on him coming with you, but you’re still thinking about him now.” How she could read so much from the motionless back turned toward her he could never tell; sometimes it was uncanny how much she knew without any evidence as to how she knew it. Occasionally the thought had crossed his mind that he should recruit her as a spy, but the gulf of attendant horror always swiftly drowned it.

“Funny,” she went on, “that you care so much about him, but wouldn’t insist.”

“I wasn’t about to force the idiot to do anything he didn’t want to do.”

“Of course not. So it’s lucky you have me around to take his place, isn’t it?”

The implication was clear: he might be thinking of someone else, but as long as he couldn’t physically produce that person, Tokio had free rein. No great surprise there.

He couldn’t help reflecting on this conversation the next day when she dragged him shopping. With Sano around, days off had seemed to have a purpose; he’d actually enjoyed being away from work. But here with Tokio, it was all boring errands and wondering (on good days) what was going on at the station or (on worse days) what was going on in Tokyo. He wasn’t sure why he didn’t just put in seven days a week and avoid all of this. Oh, wait, yes, he was: Tokio wouldn’t let him. If either of them had had another lover around, she would leave him alone, but as it was…

“Well?” she was wondering in her gentle tone that suggested she’d never been impatient or annoyed in her whole life.

“Go with the orange,” he replied absently. “The white doesn’t suit you.”

She smiled her thanks at the advice and turned back to the merchant.

Saitou also turned away, wanting to look anywhere but at the stall and fearing he must go insane if he had to pass judgment on one more set of options for his wife’s new kimono as if he in any way cared what she wore. And that was when he saw, some distance off coming up the crowded sidewalk in this direction… but it couldn’t be… Sano.

Outwardly, of course, Saitou remained as collected as ever — though he was glad Tokio was doing business just at that moment, as it provided a good excuse for him to be standing there still as stone — but inside he seethed with turmoil and confusion. What was Sano doing here? What would happen if they met? Why was Sano in Niigata in the first place? What could Saitou possibly say to him? What was Sano doing here? And who was that smart-looking woman walking next to him?

Sano was busy talking to the woman with that over-animation of his that simultaneously animated others — Saitou recognized it with painful precision — and evidently hadn’t noticed him yet. There didn’t have to be a confrontation. Saitou could turn and walk away right now and hope never to be tormented again by the unexpected sight of Sano with a beautiful woman on his arm. Or by the sight of Sano, period. Just a glimpse of him like this in a crowded market street did things to Saitou’s head and heart, and it would be better for all concerned if it simply didn’t happen again.

At that moment, as if on cue, Tokio appeared and took his arm, making some remark about the order she’d just placed. She couldn’t fail to note his rigidity, though, and the fixed stare he hadn’t yet managed to withdraw. “Hajime?” she wondered placidly. “What’s wrong?” She leaned slightly toward him, looking where he looked, and said, “Ohhh.” He could hear the calm smile in her next words, but the words themselves blurred as his attention strayed — for at that moment Sano noticed him.

Accident or coincidence, Saitou had thought, must be unlikely here. What business could Sano have in Niigata that didn’t involve Saitou — Sano, to whom ‘business’ generally meant ‘finding someone to buy him a drink?’ And yet the look on the boy’s ingenuous face now was so honestly shocked, it didn’t seem possible he’d been specifically looking for Saitou — because why, in that case, should he be shocked at seeing him? In any case, he and his woman formed a sort of mirror to Saitou and Tokio: standing still in the middle of the flow of sidewalk traffic, staring, each man evidently ignoring the words of his companion.

Perhaps Sano was simply here to show off this new ladyfriend of his. She was certainly pretty, and had a self-sufficient, down-to-earth air Saitou thought must appeal to the young man. And yet he didn’t believe he’d ever done anything to Sano to deserve such retribution, nor that Sano was capable of such deliberate cruelty.

“Who is that woman?” Tokio asked. Obviously she’d decided on who Sano was — actually, Saitou might well have told her without noticing, that and god knew what else, while he was distracted — and she thought the woman might be an acquaintance as well.

“I have no idea,” he said briefly.

“She’s very pretty,” Tokio remarked, then went on in a dreamy tone about the woman’s kimono, but Saitou was mostly ignoring her again. For Sano’s face had twisted and he was turning away. He didn’t seem terribly pleased at seeing Saitou, and evidently also thought they didn’t really have to talk just because they’d (almost) run into each other again. Maybe it truly was a coincidence.

Saitou found himself excessively relieved, and simultaneously overcome with fresh bitterness and disappointment. Of course it made sense that, if Sano had never cared about him and even had a new interest now, he might not be inclined to say a single word to Saitou… After all, outside of being lovers they’d practically been enemies… It made sense, but it hurt.

Now there seemed to be some sort of active discussion or even argument going on between Sano and his companion, and presently the latter broke away and turned. Moving purposefully through the others on the sidewalk, she made her way back the direction they’d previously been walking. Sano whirled, looked after her with an exclamation of some sort, then followed in what seemed to be a thick mixture of reluctance and anger.

“Oh, she’s coming over here,” Tokio observed unnecessarily.

The woman walked directly to Saitou and stopped, an intention that had been obvious from her determined expression. The latter disappeared entirely, however, behind a mask of suggestive playfulness as she looked up at him. He’d seen that practiced putting-on of coquetry before, and knew what it meant, but in this situation — at this time, in this place, and given who he assumed she was — it seemed so utterly incongruous and inexplicable that he was completely unprepared for what she said to him:

“Hello, handsome. You look so hot… how about a quick dip and something to eat?” And it wasn’t so much the words as the inflection that emphasized their secondary over their straightforward meaning.

“That sounds like fun,” Tokio smiled placidly. “Am I invited?” And the worst part was that she knew what she was saying just as well as the other woman did.

“Course you are, honey.” The woman flashed his wife a seductive smile. “Always a discount for pretty ladies on the side.”

Between the proposition out of nowhere and Tokio’s frank response, Saitou found himself at a loss for words. He probably appeared every bit as nonplussed as Sano did; the latter had caught up just in time to hear his friend’s unusual offer, and apparently was taken as much by surprise as Saitou was. Now, consciously avoiding meeting Saitou’s eyes, he took the last step forward to seize his woman by the arm and drag her away.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” he demanded as they went. They were moving rapidly out of earshot, so Saitou only caught part of the woman’s response, and even less of Sano’s subsequent statement.

“Hey, if you ain’t gonna…your half…deal…don’t…mine.”

“…think…obvious…goddamn wife…”

Saitou didn’t really want to hear more, especially once the word ‘wife’ got involved. Let them have their little private, intimate conversation there with their heads so close together and Sano still gripping her arm like that. It didn’t matter what stupid game the idiot was playing, parading his sweetheart (or whatever she was) around here like this and sending her to flirt so clumsily with Saitou. He wanted nothing to do with it.

Still, he had to admit, it had been… nice… to see Sano again. Even if nothing good could come of it, even if it exacerbated his condition… a part of him was lighter for the encounter. Another part of him, the coldest and most pragmatic part, hoped it would be their last.

As he turned to leave, he found himself facing Tokio, who had evidently anticipated him and somehow gotten right into the path she knew he would tread. She had a gift for making herself seem to take up a good deal more space than she actually did, and he stopped after only a step, scowling at her.

“It’s funny,” she said in her softest, blandest tone, “the look on your face when you saw him. Well, really, it’s more funny that you’re walking away now, when you obviously desperately want to talk to him.”

“I don’t ‘desperately’ want to do anything,” he said stonily, “and there’s no reason for me to talk to him at all.”

“I think you’re wrong,” replied Tokio calmly. And then she just stared up at him with those wide eyes whose appearance of vacancy could fool anyone into thinking there was very little going on behind them. She did not intend to move. And pushing past or circumnavigating her would take so much more than just the relatively easy physical motion involved. How had he ever ended up married to someone like this?

He turned again and looked at Sano, who was still arguing with the unknown woman some distance off. Both seemed upset. Turning yet again toward Tokio, he found her unbreakable stance unchanged. When he faced Sano again, he found him coming toward him with that same expression of angry reluctance he’d worn before. Sano didn’t meet Saitou’s gaze, only stared defiantly at the ground as he drew up to him. There he stood solidly and said nothing.

Saitou wasn’t entirely sure what was going on, nor entirely sure he wanted to be, but when he glanced over his shoulder, Tokio just smiled at him. He found Sano having a similar experience — except that, instead of smiling, Sano’s woman glowered and gestured emphatically across the street. There a neat row of trees stood that might provide a bit of privacy for any two people wanting a personal conversation away from the market crowd. Assuming there were two such people around. And perhaps this was starting to make a little more sense.

Sano’s head swung around, and his eyes met Saitou’s for the first time. Scowling, he looked away again quickly, muttered something unintelligible, and headed off across the street. The scowl wasn’t his angry one, though; it was the I can’t see this ending well expression he used for unpleasant situations he couldn’t get out of. And if he was that averse to talking to Saitou, he could damn well just… but, no, Tokio still stood there smiling benignly; Saitou had no choice either. With a sigh he crossed the street after Sano.

Behind a tree that didn’t really hide them from most people’s sight but that they could at least pretend did, they stared at each other for a long moment without a word. And finally Saitou said, “It seems I’m not the only one plagued by helpful women.”

Sano laughed sardonically. “So’s that your wife?”

“Yes.”

“She’s hot.”

Saitou snorted, and another long silence fell. Knowing Tokio wouldn’t allow him to leave for a while yet, he eventually forced himself to ask, “What are you doing here?” And he was surprised, after all the effort it took to get started with the question, how excessively easy it was to continue and finish.

“I…” Sano’s voice dropped so that his words were nearly inaudible; Saitou caught them, however: “I was looking for you.”

Saitou’s heart had been beating a little faster than usual ever since the moment he’d set eyes on Sano, and now, hearing this, it fluttered abruptly and alarmingly. “Why?”

Standing stiff and motionless, looking away, Sano took a deep breath. “I made this deal…” he began. “See that woman over… Well, ever since… I mean, I wanted to…” With each new abortive phrase he sounded less uncertain and more irritated. “I guess I can keep acting like a fucking idiot,” he murmured gruffly, “or just fucking ask you and get it over with.”

As no question was immediately forthcoming, “So you wanted to ask me something…?” Saitou prompted.

“Yeah, she was getting on my case for never… But, I mean, you could have told me sometime without me having to… one way or the other…” Abruptly Sano turned his face toward Saitou and looked him straight in the eye, his fists clenching as if for a fight. The idiot was always ready for a fight, even in the middle of a scene like this. Whatever kind of scene this was. He managed to get his question out fairly levelly, though: “What exactly do I mean to you?”

The heart that had hastened unduly now seemed ready to stop beating. After so many weeks of separation, after so emphatically denying what Saitou wanted and parting with him so cavalierly, was Sano really here — could he really be here, now, asking a question like this? Saitou found his own voice surprisingly, disturbingly subdued as he said, “You came all the way here to ask me that?”

“Yeah.” Sano’s tone was similarly soft, almost a whisper. And his answer to this question, Saitou thought, also provided an answer to another Saitou could have asked, had he been inclined to wonder. Sano added a little more strongly, “And I want the truth, Saitou.”

“When have I ever lied to you?” Saitou’s smirk struck him as very weak and somewhat out of place at the moment.

“Um, whenever you fucking felt like it?” It was the same glare as always, wonderfully hot and direct; but there was a look of desperation to it as well that demanded the truth in more forceful terms even than Sano’s words had. Not that Saitou could possibly want to play with him at the moment — not when Sano’s mere, unexpected presence had already brought more lightness into Saitou’s day, whatever had been going on with that woman notwithstanding, than anything had since the transfer. Not when he might have a chance to get back what he’d let go, to return to the happiness he’d had and lost.

“What impression have you been under all along?” he wondered quietly.

“That I was just convenient sex,” replied Sano, flat and equally quiet, looking away again as if he couldn’t bear to meet Saitou’s eyes as he said it, in case it might be true.

And suddenly everything made sense.

“No.” It came out as something of a horrified whisper. “I…” Saitou took a deep breath, and said what he realized now he should have said back then — said every day — and the lack of which had come so close to costing him everything. “I love you.”

Sano’s head snapped back around, his face going white, and it seemed he postponed inhaling for an unnaturally long span. Then, in a flash, he had flung himself at Saitou and was kissing him for all he was worth — which, Saitou was inclined to think, was a good deal more than he had ever realized.

“Well, that’s about done it,” said one woman, coming to stand by the other and join her in looking across the street.

“I believe so,” the other smiled.

“And all it took was some basic communication,” the first said, somewhat exasperated. “Dunno what men find so damn hard about that.”

“Some men think they’re safer if they defend everything like a secret,” said the second.

“I think we’ll need to keep an eye on ’em still for a while,” the first frowned. “I can totally see them turning around and doing the same thing to each other again if we don’t.”

“You may be right,” said the second woman. She looked around, and added pensively, “I’m hungry. Shall we discuss it over lunch?”

The first woman agreed gladly. Introductions ensued, and two new friends — or perhaps co-conspirators, or even business partners — walked off arm in arm.


I’ve rated this story . The idea was kicking around for literally years before I actually wrote it. I think it’s pretty sweet. Also, you know Tokio and that ex-prostitute are going to hook up now. Maybe I should write a story about them

This story is included in the Saitou & Sano Collection ebook (.zip file contains .pdf, .mobi, and .epub formats).


Angles – The Color of 120°

Angles – The Color of 120°

Chapter 1 – Something

There was something in those eyes, something uncanny that, while not feeling inherently wrong, still frightened him; something at once alien and shockingly familiar — and perhaps it was his struggle to name it that had put him so badly off guard. That wild golden something had been directed at him, surely, as if those eyes were pistols aimed straight into his own.

Debris crowded his vision, flying dust that obscured the object of his curiosity. He couldn’t manage to get up again, no matter how he tried, and a shadow fell over him so he couldn’t even see the light. But then those eyes were clearly before him…

“What does he see in you?”

The world spun and blackened…

There was blood everywhere, agony in his shoulder and the back of his skull…

Pressure… a fiery touch… the taste of…

But, no, this was familiar pressure, gentle, and a taste he knew well.

“Kenshin…” he groaned into his lover’s mouth as warm, bright colors swam before him and pain exploded again in his shoulder. Kenshin’s lips quickly withdrew, and Sano opened his eyes.

“Sano.” Kenshin hovered close, staring at him worriedly. “Sano, you’re finally awake.”

Remembering at the last moment that his right shoulder had been impaled — yesterday? a week ago? how long had it been? — Sano lifted instead his left hand to touch the scarred face. “Yeah,” he grunted once he was certain Kenshin was actually there.

“How do you feel?” Kenshin inquired in the same tone as before.

“Like shit,” Sano replied hoarsely. “And maybe like I’m going crazy,” he muttered as an afterthought, thinking of the dream from which Kenshin had just awakened him. “And some guy’s out to get you.”

“I know,” Kenshin replied grimly.

Sano studied Kenshin’s expression, immediately apprehensive. He’d never seen the redhead so visibly anxious before. “What is it?” He was recovering his voice a little, but his whole body ached, and breathing deeply enough to lend the question any volume was not worth the pain it occasioned. Still, Kenshin knew he seriously wanted an answer.

“I am at a loss why he would have attacked you.”

Sano’s state of mind wasn’t exactly placid to begin with, between his pain and the agitation of half-formed recollection that might (not?) have been a dream, but it made everything so much worse that Kenshin didn’t seem upset in quite the way he should be. Of course he was concerned for Sano’s health and safety, and unhappy that Sano had been hurt, but when he said ‘he,’ something else showed in his face — something like confusion, like memory, like… like whatever had been in those eyes that Sano had never successfully been able to name.

“You know who he is, don’t you?” Sano managed to ask this a bit more loudly than his previous question.

Kenshin nodded, his face still rather bleak.

That his lover did not immediately elaborate made Sano a hundred times more worried than before, and he felt that, having been on the receiving end of the unknown enemy’s sword (and an unwanted kiss? …no, he wouldn’t believe that had actually happened until he had more concrete evidence), he deserved to know. Still, seeing what a strange effect the events seemed to have had on Kenshin, he felt it would be kinder not to get angry. “What,” he said in a somewhat teasing tone, trying to lighten the mood by reaching out to squeeze Kenshin’s knee where he knew him to be ticklish, “you afraid he may be able to kick your ass?”

Kenshin took Sano’s hand in both his own as he nodded gravely.

Sano was so startled that he almost sat up, but his shoulder hurt too much for that. “What?!”

“The man who attacked you is one of the few I have ever fought that I was unable to defeat.” And Kenshin broke their shared gaze and looked slowly away.

Sano’s eyes widened. The tone in his lover’s voice was… different… somehow… from anything he’d ever heard. That anything spoken by Kenshin, his Kenshin, could be… an audio version of what he’d seen and failed to understand in that other man’s eyes… almost terrified him. And watching his lover’s face, he shivered slightly as he saw, or perhaps (hopefully?) only imagined, a splash of gleaming amber dot the customary violet of Kenshin’s eyes: a gilded flash identical in hue to the last thing he’d seen before he’d passed out after being stabbed by the as-yet-unnamed man — their mutual enemy? Or something else? What was that something he could not define? Why did his lover share it with the stranger that had attacked him?

He had a feeling everything was soon going to change.

***

“He’s about seven years older than me.” He didn’t get into the irrelevant details of Saitou’s exact date and place of birth and the names of all his family. “He was the captain of the Shinsengumi’s third division during the war.” Exactly when Saitou had joined, what his position had been at first, the name Yamaguchi Jiro, and a few other trivialities Kenshin happened to know were equally certain not to interest Sano, so he didn’t mention them either. “He is quite a skilled swordsman, as you probably noticed.” Sano’s statement that he wouldn’t go back to sleep until Kenshin told him everything he knew about Saitou was quite an ambiguous threat, really; Sano couldn’t possibly want to know all about the Hirazukiryuu, could he?

“The move he used on you is called gatotsu; it is his personal variation of the Shinsengumi’s most famous technique.” And surely Sano didn’t care what Kenshin knew of Saitou’s various stances. “I fought him a few times, but we were always interrupted by circumstance, and so never reached a real conclusion as to who was stronger.” No need to tell him the well remembered details of any of those encounters, was there? Just because he hadn’t forgotten them didn’t mean Sano wanted to hear them. “However, there was one thing we were certain of in regards to each other: that we each fought for what we thought was right.”

Sano was watching him intently; could he tell how much Kenshin was leaving out? “So even though you were enemies, you both knew the other was fighting for what he believed, ‘zat it?”

Kenshin nodded. “Our fundamental beliefs differed very little in those days, and we respected each other for that.”

“What beliefs were those?” Sano asked softly; it seemed he couldn’t tell Kenshin was omitting large parts of his account — but was obviously very interested anyway. “And what changed?”

I changed,” Kenshin admitted softly, and wondered why he felt uncomfortable thinking about it possibly for the first time since he’d made the decision not to kill, all those years ago. “One of the basics of the Shinsengumi code was something that he wholly embraced, and to which he devoted himself — Aku Soku Zan.”

Sano frowned in understanding, and moved his hand to squeeze Kenshin’s comfortingly — although also, Kenshin thought, perhaps in slight need of comfort himself. “Is that why he’s after you now? Because he thinks you’ve become evil or something?”

“I do not know,” Kenshin replied grimly. “I haven’t seen him since those days, so I do not know how he might have changed.” And that he attacked you is worrisome, he didn’t add. What is he thinking?

Sano closed his eyes with a sigh, still holding Kenshin’s hand. “Don’t worry,” he said softly. “I believe in you. You won’t lose, no matter how strong he is.”

Sano’s faith didn’t seem as optimistic as it generally did, and failed to bring the usual warmth to Kenshin’s heart. Was it because Sano sensed Kenshin’s confusion? Was it because he could sense Kenshin had once been…

No. Sano was just concerned because he’d already had concrete proof of what a strong enemy Kenshin faced, not because he thought Kenshin was thinking too much about things, remembering too many details but not sharing them.

The redhead bent and kissed the younger man gently on the mouth. “You should go back to sleep now.”

Sano grunted his assent, returning the kiss until Kenshin withdrew. No, there was no way Sano could guess Kenshin was… well, no, because Kenshin wasn’t.

Savvy, yes. Detail-oriented, certainly. Observant, by habit and necessity, definitely. But if there was one thing Himura Kenshin was not, and certainly had not been as a younger man, it was obsessive.

Especially not where Saitou Hajime was concerned.

His lover had no reason to worry.

***

Some believed dreams were carried out in shades of grey, while others held they were accurately colored; some believed it could go either way depending on the dream, some that it depended on the dreamer. It was a ridiculous debate he’d heard among philosophers at times before, but its importance in anyone’s life was the point none of them ever brought up.

His dreams were all in varying hues of yellow and violet anyway.

Yellow — gold as some fancifully called it, amber as other insisted, or very light brown to the pragmatic that denied such an eye-color as yellow could exist — was familiar. It was safe. Yellow was what he saw in his sword’s blade when he caught sight of his own reflection, what he had seen there since he could remember having looked. Yellow was how he viewed the world. Yellow was surely the color of justice.

Violet — orchid for that same crowd that wanted to name every color after an object, purple for those that fancied themselves modern, or warm blue for those in denial — was also familiar. But it was less safe. Violet was what he had seen beyond his sword’s blade when he found himself caring to look, what he had always hoped to see there since the first moment he had. Violet was a door into a different world. Violet was surely the color of indulgence.

And these were the two extremes that, without exception, colored his every dream.

Or had, up until very recently.

He’d talked to an artist once, incidentally at some point in the line of work; he hadn’t paid much attention at the time, as the conversation had been merely a cover for whatever he’d actually been doing — but somehow he recalled the man’s ramblings on the subject of color better than that vaguely remembered activity. The spectrum was arrayed in a circle, the artist had said, in which each hue had a perfect opposite: red and green, orange and blue, yellow and violet. When blended, two opposites would produce a neutral central color.

Thence the brown that had recently touched his dreams with its unexpected tint.

Yes, that was the logical answer. The yellow and violet to which he had so long been accustomed had simply melted together and added a third color — definitely a neutral color — to the spectrum of his nightly visions. There was no significance in it whatsoever. Even if there were, he was not a jealous man: let the brown intrude; he had no particular attachments to the exclusive combination of yellow and violet.

So why, he wondered as he found his fingers creeping to his lips yet again, was he always so confused when he awoke?



Chapter 2>>

Chapter 2 – No Security

He was drifting in and out of painful dreams again. Or was it still? Did the state of painful-dream-drifting restart after each period of wakefulness, or did it count as ‘still’ if he just took up where he’d left off whenever he went back to sleep? At any rate, this time he was conscious of Kenshin’s absence at his side. And he wouldn’t notice Kenshin wasn’t beside him unless Kenshin had been gone for more than about ten minutes. It was this eventual realization, coupled with the sound of Kaoru’s spoken inquiry on the same topic just outside the room in which he lay, that awakened him completely.

“Where is Kenshin?” She sounded curious and a little worried, and probably with good reason. “I haven’t seen him for at least an hour, and he hasn’t been gone that long since before Megumi-san left.” Sano began immediately to share her feelings, but with a much less concrete apprehension than Kaoru’s pragmatic and probably superfluous fear for Kenshin’s physical safety. Though there was something to be said for practicality, for realism — how could he state, after all, that his worry was centered around the color of his lover’s eyes and the possible reasons it kept changing, and stemmed from dreams of transforming faces and unfairly effective stab-wounds?

Yahiko probably didn’t realize that Sano, if awake, could easily hear them through the shouji as he answered, “He said he had some errands and that he’d be late, but I saw him reading a letter or something earlier.”

“Errands… A letter?” Kaoru repeated, sounding by now quite confused. Sano, who was propped up on one elbow (the one that didn’t cause him serious pain to prop himself up on, obviously), had to agree with that sentiment. As far as he knew, Kenshin had no friends, beyond the little circle that had collected around him here in Tokyo, that would send him a letter that could drag him away from Sano without any notice or explanation. But Sano was beginning to fear that ‘as far as he knew’ was about as far as he could toss a feather when drunk. Kenshin could have any number of friends he’d never so much as mentioned. He was a wanderer, after all, or had been up until recently, and although Sano knew (thought he knew) Kenshin hadn’t made a habit of stopping long in any particular place over the past ten years, he might have made all sorts of friends along the way. Or it might be a friend from before, from the old days.

Or an enemy. There were some of those from those days too.

But would any of them send him a letter?

Perhaps they might, if there was an affinity, somewhere, of golden eyes and respected beliefs.

But what would that letter say? And how would Kenshin respond to it?

Taking a deep breath, Sano sat up entirely, gritting his teeth against the raging hurt in his shoulder. Really, for a wound that had been precise enough to cause so little major damage, it had kept him in bed and amazing pain for far too long. It had been almost two days now since that man had stabbed him, and he was getting sick of lying here. And now he felt he had a real reason to get up, there was very little that could have kept him in bed.

***

“Yahiko thinks you’re sneaking out to see some secret girlfriend; ‘tsa bad example to set for a kid, you know.” This was almost Kenshin’s first warning of Sano’s approach, which was rather disconcerting; was he really so lost in thought?

“Sano!” He jumped to his feet, hurrying worriedly to where his lover was pushing through the grove of tall bamboo toward him. “You shouldn’t be up yet!”

“Like hell I was just gonna lie there with you gone.”

Kenshin carefully embraced him. “How did you know where to find me?”

Sano’s tone indicated he was frowning. “You always come here to practice or meditate, so I figured you’d come here if you were worried about some letter or something too.”

Startled, Kenshin kept his face pressed against the younger man’s chest so Sano wouldn’t see his expression. He hadn’t planned on telling him about the letter, as he knew Sano had been unusually worried about the whole thing. Well, and also because he was worried about it. He’d come here to sort out his feelings, to see if the suddenly stirred emotions of a decade ago were at all compatible with those he’d built up over the last few months. His words were muffled by Sano’s gi as he said, “It is a challenge.”

Something like an unusual tenseness seemed to dissipate from the air as Sano relaxed somewhat, but there was still quite a bit of tension left both around them and in Sano’s taut form. “Thought so.”

But did you really, Sano? “I don’t know whether I will go to meet him or not.” That Sano hadn’t asked meant Kenshin didn’t have to state who ‘he’ was.

Sano lowered his head so his face was buried in Kenshin’s hair, tightening his single-armed hug on Kenshin’s back. “You do whatever you think’s best.” But his voice sounded worried… so worried… much too worried…

“I will not let him hurt anyone,” Kenshin murmured almost automatically, in a soothing tone. Why Sano? Why had it been Kenshin’s best friend, rather than Kenshin himself, that had been the initial target? And did the fact that Sano was also his lover have anything to do with it?

Sano drew back, one hand still on Kenshin’s shoulder holding him close, but far enough away that they could look into each other’s eyes. “I’m not worried about him hurting anyone but you,” he said softly, still frowning, and Kenshin could see plainly that what he’d taken for worry was actually barely-controlled terror.

“Sano…” Asking what Sano was afraid of would be like deliberately insulting him. But how could he reassure where he didn’t know what was wrong? “When I said I was never able to defeat him, it was–” He didn’t get to finish, for Sano leaned down and kissed him.

Kenshin couldn’t help but respond to any kiss from Sano; he was like walking fire, and never failed to bring out all the passion and energy that so often lay dormant in Kenshin’s heart. But this kiss was a little different than normal… somehow it seemed desperate, but not sexually so: it felt as if Sano was demanding something of him, begging for it in the only way that would not compromise his dignity, letting Kenshin taste all the fear he was feeling without actually explaining what its object was.

Once Sano pulled reluctantly away and rested his forehead against Kenshin’s, they stood silent with their eyes closed for several moments. Finally Kenshin asked, “Are you all right?”

“Yeah…” Sano sounded tired, and there was some additional timbre to his voice that could not quite be given a name. Kenshin imagined that if Sano were ever to back down from a fight, this would be the sound of his call for retreat. “I just… I’m just afraid you’re fighting a battle without me.”

Kenshin hesitated to answer, for it seemed Sano meant something else beyond what he’d said, and Kenshin wasn’t sure exactly what. “We have supported each other through all of our battles,” he finally replied softly. “Ever since we met.”

“Yeah,” Sano said again. “Even when it was just a battle in our head about something that happened way back before we met.”

“Even then,” Kenshin agreed, his heart sinking as he finally understood what his lover meant.

“So don’t leave me out of this one,” Sano whispered.

And Kenshin made no reply, not liking to promise where he wasn’t sure of his own power to fulfill.

***

He laid his left hand flat on the floor so close beneath him, to remind himself it was there. His sword was always a comfort at his side, but it was good to know the floor also supported him. He continued listening to the conversation not far off.

“What do you mean, he’s not here?”

“I don’t know where he is.”

“Am I to believe three of you couldn’t handle the task of keeping one wounded boy in bed?”

“Kenshin went somewhere, and Yahiko and I thought he was sleeping!”

Women were annoying. He touched the floor again, then laid his sword across his knees, anticipating the moment when he could finally draw it. It felt as if he hadn’t drawn it for years.

“Where did Ken-san go?”

“I don’t know. It must have been important, though, for him to leave Sano.”

“It may have something to do with what that policeman said.”

“Yes, and I’m worried.”

“Don’t be… Ken-san can take care of himself, and we’ll be safe with that officer here.”

“I think I’ll go outside and wait.”

He lifted the sheath onto his lap and pulled the sword a few inches out. Even seeing the fine, well-cared-for edge of the blade gleaming before his face did not give him the feeling of having drawn the sword. It wasn’t real. But soon…

“Wow, I thought policemen carried sabers.”

He barely looked toward the voice as he slid the sword back into place and the light it had caught faded. “Sabers are brittle and unreliable,” he replied shortly, setting the sword down again and tapping his gloved fingertips briefly against the floor just to see if it was still flat and made of wood.

“Isn’t it against the rules to have a nihontou, though?”

“I have special permission to carry this.”

“And Japanese swords are really better than those western ones?”

“Of course.”

Kids were annoying. And they were kids until they were at least twenty-five, no matter how good they looked or tasted.

Tasted? That seemed to have jumped in at the last moment, just as the thought was ending, and sent his hand to the floor again, making sure it was there. It wasn’t that he’d lost his equilibrium, or that the floor had made any threats recently to disappear (although this was someone else’s home, and the floor here might be less stable than at his own); he just wanted certainty.

“Kenshin! Sanosuke!” He only heard this because it was shouted; whatever followed was inaudible. He gripped his sword-hilt in cool expectation. It was just a sword, really, but it was always there, and soon he would draw it. The end of the sheath tapped reassuringly on the floor.

“What?!”

The door had opened.

“Where did you hear something like that?”

Footsteps were approaching.

He stood slowly. He turned, and although he knew perfectly well what he was turning to face, from what he already knew and the voices he heard and the spirit he felt, it was as if this was the first true confirmation of who they were, what they were to each other, and what he planned to do. He was holding his breath as he finally set eyes on them, standing there together with that girl at the other end of the room gazing in startlement back at him. He held his sword tightly in his left hand, and stared, wondering where the floor had gone.

Chapter 3 – Chaos (ScornBloodConfusion)

It had been troubling before, when Kenshin had asked him to stay hidden, but then, at least, Kenshin had been conscious of his presence. Now, with the enemy actually before them and visible — the real enemy, not some troublesome decoy — now… this was downright painful. For Kenshin to prefer him uninvolved showed Kenshin cared what happened to him. For Kenshin to ignore him completely, stepping forward with that calm tension that meant he was already more than prepared for battle, showed he cared… about something else.

Already Kenshin was fighting without him.

“You had trouble with Akamatsu, I see. You have become weak.”

Sano loved Kenshin. He hadn’t quite managed to tell him yet, but he did love him, more than he’d ever loved anybody in his life. But he’d seen… and he wondered whether the man he loved was the true Kenshin or just a beautiful and inevitably temporary façade. It frightened him that he didn’t know.

“It has been ten years.”

But what frightened him even more was that there existed anywhere a man that didn’t even have to be present, only brought to mind, to effect the change from the Kenshin Sano loved to… the other one. And perhaps he was also a little frightened by the fact that that same man had kissed him. (Or that he’d dreamed he had; that Sano might have thought it up out of his own head was equally disturbing.)

“Ten years, yes. Two simple words, those, but a long time to live through.”

“Yes. Long enough for someone to become rotten.” He couldn’t see Kenshin’s face, couldn’t see his lover’s eyes. But Kenshin’s voice was gilded, and that was all Sano needed. “In the old days, you would consider it beneath you to attack an opponent’s friends in order to intimidate him, or to set a dog on him and take hostages while he was occupied. You cannot be the Saitou Hajime I respected as a warrior.”

Sano’s attention shifted abruptly at the speaking of the man’s name, and he began to feel slightly guilty. No matter what or who Kenshin was, or had been, or even would become, the fact remained that he was likely to fight a very difficult physical battle right now, and Sano should support him (and think about settling his own score later).

Saitou was laughing. The sound sent a shiver through Sano as if he’d been touched by something unexpectedly painful. Not an unexpected pain, but rather something that seemed like it shouldn’t have hurt. Now he’d begun to look at Saitou, Sano couldn’t remove his gaze from the lean, blue-clad figure. He wasn’t close enough to see if that uncanny something was still in the man’s narrow yellow eyes, but he didn’t want to know. Didn’t need to see to know, actually, as he felt the same inexplicable discord in his thoughts just by being in the room with Saitou.

“You think Akamatsu was a dog? Ridiculous. He’s far too weak.”

He was studying Saitou’s face as the policeman said this, and for some reason felt that somehow the expression thereon was incompatible with the speech. The laughter, he realized, had sounded much the same. But there was no real physical evidence of this, and he couldn’t decide what exactly he thought he saw.

“The Shinsengumi fought the hitokiri Battousai many times,” Saitou continued; “we knew his strength. But you had trouble fighting Akamatsu. Your notion of a rurouni who doesn’t kill has taken that strength from you.”

It was true the fight Kenshin had just finished had given him a bit of trouble, but that was more because he’d been trying to get information out of the freak than because the stitched-up man had really been difficult to defeat. Certainly it didn’t earn Kenshin such a moniker? Yahiko and Kaoru seemed quite shocked by the suggestion, and Sano was somewhat disturbed at the finality in Saitou’s tone… but Kenshin’s answer seemed to indicate he didn’t much care:

“The only strength I need now is that of the rurouni who protects others. I don’t need the hitokiri’s strength I once had.”

“If your rurouni’s strength is all you need, I’m here to tell you you’ve failed.” It was something about the heavy scorn in Saitou’s voice, Sano decided. Something… “While you were busy fighting Akamatsu, I was here waiting for you. Since I presented myself as a police officer, your friends let their guard down.” Saitou gestured at Yahiko and Kaoru, whose shocked expressions, if possible, intensified. “I could have killed them as I pleased.”

Sano was too busy searching for the answer to his solidifying question to partake much in the others’ fearful outrage at this statement. He was still pursuing the scorn idea. It was truly felt, not a playact; that seemed fairly obvious. Just something was… off… somehow… about the way Saitou delivered his words. “And that wasn’t the only time,” the dark man continued. “With Jin’ei, with Kanryuu… during every battle, the one you were trying to protect fell into the enemy’s hands. You even let that fool Raijuta scar someone for life.”

This last shook Sano out of his attempted analysis, and he stared at Saitou in surprise and growing consternation. The police hadn’t been involved with…

Something caught at his mind as the anger that usually followed such emotions washed through him, but he ignored both it and the anger in favor of the other two feelings. To think Saitou had been watching Kenshin so closely for so long… it was frightening in more ways than one. What were Saitou’s motives? Obviously he wanted to fight Kenshin, but why all this extraneous nonsense, all these other things Saitou had done? In Sano’s mind, a fight was a fight, and such trappings were not only unnecessary but also a confusion of the issue (not to mention disconcerting in the present situation, especially given Saitou had… well, he wasn’t going to think about that now).

“Having only a part of your strength is equal to having no strength at all. Your words are pure hypocrisy; you make me sick.”

Sano’s rage was growing, and he wanted desperately to retort at the top of his lungs, to refute Saitou’s contemptuous accusations… but he found he couldn’t say — or shout — a single word. To begin with, Kenshin was still simply standing there, offering no defense… and though Sano loved him and could hardly bear to hear him insulted, he feared that silence. What did it mean? Did Kenshin not consider a response necessary? Was he trying to decide what was best to say? Or did he agree with the accusations? And if so, what would his answer be then? Would it be a verbal answer, or something more meaningful? If he concurred, what did that say about who he was? And why didn’t Sano know what was going through his lover’s head?! Dammit… he didn’t, he couldn’t understand any of this, and it frightened him. Which only made him more angry.

And that was the other reason he couldn’t find a word to say — there was something about his anger, his typical response-to-fear-and-confusion irate state, that brought him closer to the answer he sought about Saitou.

He needn’t have worried about defending Kenshin; he’d forgotten there were others present willing to do so. “What are you talking about?!” Yahiko was demanding angrily. “Every time, ’cause Kenshin was there, nobody died!”

Saitou nodded grimly, and replied with the same inscrutable scorn as before. “But tell me… how long will that last? How long can you trust luck to fill in the gap between your current strength and your potential?” The utter derision in his voice — therein lay the answer, somewhere… “I thought you, Battousai, would understand merely by this example with Akamatsu, but as you said, ten years is long enough for someone to become rotten. This rurouni who does not kill is too comfortable with his pseudo-justice. How can the hitokiri Battousai protect without killing?”

Fists clenched and twitched, but Sano was rooted to the floor where he’d stopped upon entering the room, his back to the door that nobody had yet remembered to close. Anger rose like a storm inside him — his usual, familiar protection against the black (or, in this case, gold) unknown — but because it was giving him his answer, he couldn’t do a thing except ponder.

“Aku Soku Zan — this was the one truth that the Shinsengumi and the hitokiri shared. I can’t stand to see what you’ve become.” This statement provided Sano with the final piece of evidence he needed, as the tone it was spoken in was just slightly more scathing even than the rest of Saitou’s words. The bitter drip of his voice contrasted harshly with the dry rasp of his sword leaving its sheath — but still Sano could do nothing.

“No matter what you think of my ideals, I will never kill again.” The look on Saitou’s face as Kenshin uttered this calm rebuttal only confirmed further what Sano had begun to believe — and he could not move, perhaps because of this or perhaps in spite of it.

For it was clear now, to Sano at least, that Saitou wore scorn just as Sano wore anger — to protect himself from something he didn’t want to feel, to hide that feeling from the rest of the world. It was not a falsified emotion, not a show… but it was deliberately conjured to guard against something else. Nobody that didn’t shield in such a manner could tell, Sano guessed, but even from this brief conversation that didn’t involve him it seemed obvious. Perhaps that had been what he’d seen in Saitou’s eyes the other day when…

“Is that so? Then come,” Saitou challenged. And what was he trying to hide? What was it he didn’t want to feel? Sano thought his contempt increased tenfold as he added, “I deny everything you are.”

***

It was the same stance. Kenshin never forgot a technique that was shown to him, and this one he remembered particularly well. It was that straightforward stabbing move that could be modified into just about any swing after its commencement, like truth that could become a lie at any moment or perhaps even a lie that could become truth. And he was willing to meet it. He drew his own sword.

“Are you going to involve your lover in this?” Saitou asked, making just the slightest gesture with his head.

The words hit Kenshin like a blow, for he had… forgotten… that Sano was there. Sano, whom he loved, whom he wanted to stay with for the rest of his life… he had forgotten him. It hurt. He dared not turn around, lest Sano should realize this was the case. He feared it was too late.

He stepped slowly away from the door and the two people behind him.

“Kenshin…” Sano growled softly.

Kenshin couldn’t tell whether his tone was one of warning, of fear, of supplication, or something else. Why couldn’t he tell? He’d been with Sano long enough that he could usually read everything from a single word… why didn’t he know now what his lover was thinking?! “Sano, please stay back.” His own voice sounded surprisingly calm, flat even, much like… it always had… back then… “This is inevitable.”

“But, fighting like this… you promised…”

He’d forgotten Sano’s tendency to read oaths into simple words or actions; Kenshin had never promised him anything. “It will be all right.” He glanced over at Sano finally, now he was far enough away, hoping his words were enough to keep Sano out of the fight. But he couldn’t tell. He might as well never have set eyes on his own lover before this, for all he could anticipate Sano’s intentions. And the reason for that was… he was already looking through the eyes of a hitokiri: Sano, as a non-threat, was practically invisible. Which might be a good sign, as far as Sano’s planned involvement in the upcoming battle, but…

But now Kenshin was angry.

How dare Saitou have such an affect on him?!

That carefully-locked-away part of himself should not be so easily, so quickly accessed by another; Kenshin should have a chance to fight it at the very least. He almost felt violated as that assassin’s internal fire rose again within him and he clenched tighter at his sword hilt. He was already battling the desire to kill Saitou, to spatter blood all across the floor and walls of the dojo — and the fight had not yet begun. He could not engage Saitou with that impulse in his veins… could not.

But Saitou was not leaving him that option.

The policeman charged in his first gatotsu stance, and Kenshin jumped to avoid the stab. The warring desires of slaughter and decency slowed him, however, and before he could move into a Ryuu Tsui Sen, Saitou had altered the trajectory of his blow and jumped upward to meet him. Kenshin barely managed to block, avoiding being impaled straight through the chest, but still felt his ribs grazed as the sword pierced his flesh on the right. Saitou twisted the blade to the right and slashed it out across Kenshin’s chest in a burst of pain and blood, spinning to kick him in the stomach in the same movement.

Kenshin fell to the floor, struggling within himself. The taste and smell of blood were exciting him dangerously; the desire to kill was growing. He got to his knees, then his feet, watching Saitou fall into his first stance again. As the wolf charged, Kenshin went forward to meet him, almost staggering as something twitched within him, urging him toward destruction. They engaged midway, vying until Saitou managed to get in a quick but forceful slash across Kenshin’s chest, knocking him backward. Hitting the wall so hard he could hear plaster crack, holding his stomach with a grimace, Kenshin fought to stay upright. He… didn’t want… to want… to kill him… but that battle he was losing. Standing again, he really did stagger this time, making one last attempt to bring his enemy down before he himself was lost. Saitou was ready to meet him with a second-stance gatotsu; Kenshin slipped around behind him, but Saitou turned and kicked him in the face, knocking him away in another splash of blood.

And suddenly everything was colored thus, deepening until there was only red and black as Kenshin flipped backward to land in a crouch some distance off, panting, staring at Saitou who seemed pleased and who charged in his second stance again. And Kenshin dodged to the left, blocked the slash that Saitou moved into, then ducked down beneath the level of Saitou’s sword to spin around backward into a Ryuu Kan Sen. And there was harsh contact between blade and skull, a guttural cry, and Saitou was thrown through the wall. Certainly that hurt, but unfortunately did not kill.

Sword resheathed, ready for Battoujutsu, watching Saitou’s second stance again, meeting its charge and forcing the other blade away to the right, feeling the heat between bodies drawn close together, then ducking beneath Saitou’s sword and throwing it off entirely. Speeding forward low with a rising sweep, feeling the tension as Saitou blocks him again in a clash of metal and they’re forced close to each other once more, an attempted blow from Saitou’s right fist, and with evasion they’re apart again.

A jump into a half-formed Ryuu Tsui Sen that Saitou dodges, but push upward from the resulting crouch with a sweep that Saitou blocks, and suddenly Saitou is restraining his sword-hand and sweeping his own weapon at him simultaneously, but a high leap can dodge the swing and free the hand at the same moment, then charge forward again, I’m going to kill him, but it’s blocked and now the heat is there again between two close bodies locked by flashing swords between until Saitou pulls back and swings downward but if I jump again I can dodge that as well as the next, onto the ceiling, sheathe the sword again, push off toward the wall, propel from there into an aerial Battoujutsu that he blocks on his right, so I roll forward through the air and push off another wall, spinning, regaining my bearings, stabbing at him, falling backward as he blocks and pushes me back, he’s so close and the beautiful edge of that sword is near my cheek I’m going to kill him so I kick his face, flipping over and launching myself above his head backwards to land facing him as I resheathe my sword again, he isn’t waiting but he’s back in his first stance, which I meet with Battoujutsu and break his sword, so now we’ll see who’s going to die I’m going to kill him he’s charging again the fool without a weapon block the broken hilt he throws at me blood from my left hand pain in my sword-hand his belt? sword falls to the left blows all over my chest and stomach behind me damn him jacket? can’t breathe can’t pry the thing off choking slam iron sheath into his chin jump tear away the jacket smells like cigarettes crouching panting going to kill him those eyes kill him love those eyes ready for the next stand kill he’s aiming kill this is the end

Stop!!

***

He’d never deluded himself into thinking he would walk into that dojo and make an impartial judgment of Himura’s level of strength, but he hadn’t expected it to go quite as far as it did. The moment he’d started to fight, all surroundings had shattered and they’d been lost in a void of heat and movement and the desire for one another’s death that was far from any era but farthest from the Meiji. And on his part, it was weakness. He couldn’t speak for Himura, but that battle was exactly what Saitou had been wanting for years — to be able to fight with abandon and still be in danger of his life. He’d experienced nothing so thrilling since the Bakumatsu — not in the Boshin wars and certainly not during his time with the police, even as a spy. But it was weakness. He was not here to sate his long-repressed desire, but rather to test the former Battousai’s strength for more important matters. And he’d given in.

And yet he couldn’t regret it.

He’d shown them — shown them all — what Himura was really like — shown that boy. That boy that thought he knew Himura so well, that was stupid enough to think his foolish existence was sufficient to feed the fire of a hitokiri’s soul. Certainly Saitou had proven him wrong on both counts. Although why he felt so triumphant at the thought of having done so, he did not know. As if he cared what kinds of playmates Himura sought out these days.

As if he’d ever cared.

He wasn’t paying attention to the conversation going on around him; he’d barely even noticed the other woman was there in the room, didn’t know when she’d entered. He was concentrating dually on the presence outside the window and his own thoughts. As he felt more than heard Akamatsu slip away, presumably to run to Shibumi with his whipped tail between his legs and his ears down (although hadn’t Saitou just finished saying Akamatsu could never be strong enough to merit the canine title?), the room came back into focus. He hadn’t realized his unseeing eyes had been directed at the boy Sagara the entire time, but apparently they had. He wondered how long Sagara had been staring back at him the way he was now.

“Hmph.” He made the noise only to draw attention to himself as he bent and retrieved his jacket. Slinging the latter over his shoulder, he directed his following statement at Himura: “I’d love to stay and play, but I have real work to do. We’ll finish this some other time.”

“Your life has been spared,” Himura replied in that even, emotionless tone Saitou remembered so well.

“Rather, yours has,” Saitou replied with a smirk. These were the typical words of men whose battle has been prematurely terminated: meaningless noise. Only in actual combat could such things be determined. He continued toward the door.

“Saitou!”

Kawaji. Saitou probably wouldn’t hate him so much tomorrow as he did now; at the moment he was still reeling internally from the abrupt withdrawal of his battle-drug that Kawaji’s voice had caused, despising his short employer for dragging him back into this era that he loathed. He paused, resisting the urge to say something pointless and nasty to the little man, and decided what he would say. Halting thus put Sagara immediately to his right, and before answering Kawaji’s stern demand he turned his head briefly in that direction to give the boy a glance that if he’d ever told Sagara anything would have been an ‘I told you so.’ “Mission report,” he finally stated succinctly: “Himura Kenshin is worthless. Himura Battousai may suffice. End report.” And he stalked out the door.

Oddly enough, as he walked away, replacing and buttoning his jacket and wiping the blood from his face with gloves he then folded and put in his pocket, he couldn’t quite decide whether he’d succeeded or not. Obviously he’d done what he’d been assigned to do — tested Himura’s strength and determined whether or not the former assassin was suitable for the task Ookubo wanted to set him at — but as for his own personal goals… he couldn’t be sure whether he’d met them or not, as he wasn’t entirely certain he even knew what they had been.

Chapter 4 – The Beginnings(?) of Distraction

Sano was about ready to go into a rage and start throwing things. Every last little aspect of this situation made him nervous and unhappy, and his anger, as a response, was phenomenal. The only thing stopping him was the reflection that his shoulder, which already hurt like hell, would not stand for it.

What had that look been for? Any of those looks? Why had Saitou been looking at Sano anyway, if the bastard was so fixated on stabbing Kenshin to death? On taking Kenshin away…? (Sano was determinedly focusing all his anger on Saitou so as not to have to think about Kenshin at all.) Was Saitou maybe trying to rub in the fact that Sano didn’t understand his eyes and whatever that nameless-but-familiar thing in them was trying to tell him? Yeah, that’d be a great reason to stare at someone like they’re your next meal.

And just who the hell was Saitou, anyway?? Working for Ookubo and Kawaji and crap explained a couple of things, but not why the jerk had stabbed Sano through the shoulder or fucking kissed him. He doubted that had been part of Saitou’s mission briefing. Then Saitou’s whole demeanor, Sano thought, had been this understated cry of check-me-out-I-may-be-a-freak-but-I-can-kick-Battousai’s-ass-I-am-so-cool, right down to the casual way he’d strolled out the door after informing Kenshin he’d be dealing with him later, then looked straight at Sano with that… that… that look. That look saying who-fucking-knew-what. Was it, See how great I am? Or I’ll be dealing with you later, too? Or…

Wait…

Sano felt the blood drain from his face at his new thought. Was that what Saitou wanted? In other words, was he what Saitou wanted? That would explain why Saitou had obviously intended to kill Kenshin rather than just test him as Ookubo and Kawaji insisted had been the original idea… That would explain why Saitou had kissed Sano… That would explain the looks, probably… That would… not explain “What does he see in you?”

I am so fucking confused…

A sudden movement startled him into looking at Kenshin again, against his inclination, as his lover abruptly punched himself in the face, and it took Sano actual willpower not to step back in surprise. He just didn’t want to think about…

“I am not the only one involved in this,” Kenshin said darkly as he raised his bloody face. “We will all hear what you have to say.”

“…sessha hitori dewa gozaran…”

A wave of heat ran through Sano at the sound of the words, and he stopped breathing entirely. No, he hadn’t been thinking about Kenshin, but in reality… he’d been thinking quite a bit about Kenshin. And now it was like a physical sensation, the relief he felt at knowing that Kenshin, his Kenshin, had returned. From the sharp intake of breath at his side, Kaoru had evidently noticed as well… but she, not being in love with the confusing redhead, couldn’t possibly feel it the way Sano did. “Megumi-san?” she requested in a tone that, despite the tension of the scene, was almost calm. Sano wouldn’t have been able to say anything calmly even if he’d wanted to try.

Megumi nodded and hurried over to Kenshin. One look and with a shake of her head she said, “Come over here and sit down. This will take a minute.”

“Yahiko, will you find cushions for everyone?” Kaoru said.

Sano was barely paying attention to the sudden air of business that had filled the room; he stepped after Kenshin as the latter went to have his wounds tended, knowing this interval would not be long and soon Ookubo would be saying what he’d come to say. And in that time, Sano wanted to — needed, actually, to hear Kenshin’s voice again, talking just to him. He told himself it didn’t matter what that voice was saying as long as it was speaking and it was his Kenshin, but he wasn’t sure at all if that was true.

***

It had all been a test, of course. There was no deep, mysterious motive behind Saitou’s behavior; he was following orders as usual, presumably for some good cause, probably something fair and rational Kenshin would hear about in a minute or two, something in the pursuit of the destruction of evil. Yes, it all made sense now. Kenshin laid it out carefully in his mind thus:

Saitou had been assigned to seek Kenshin out. If he hadn’t been, he wouldn’t have, as he would have had no reason to do so. Saitou had a few points to make as part of this assignment, but no emotional involvement in any of them — the points were related to whatever Ookubo and Kawaji wanted to use Kenshin for, undoubtedly something unpleasant and difficult. Saitou had striven to prove that Kenshin’s friends were weak and he couldn’t protect them, that Kenshin himself was too trusting and easygoing. Was too different from the way he had been. Yes, Saitou had worked very hard to demonstrate that. And even if the old days had jumped up around them as they fought, that was just a natural result of such a battle — it was still merely part of the test, the assignment. Everything had been; it made sense.

And then from the end of the battle until the moment he’d left the dojo, Saitou had looked at nothing… but… Sano…

And all of Kenshin’s neatly-organized reasoning was blown away, as if each step in the process were written on a slip of paper on the floor and the door had suddenly been opened.

It meant nothing.

It proved nothing.

It said nothing to either of them.

Didn’t it?

Or had it meant something to Sano?

It almost seemed like it had.

Saitou hadn’t appeared threatening, particularly. Smug, perhaps, and calculating — Kenshin hadn’t been able to read him. Had Sano? Why would Saitou look at Sano like that anyway? Kenshin was trying so hard to believe the only thing going through Saitou’s head was the assignment, the duty in the name of justice. So why, when Kenshin had been the one at whom were aimed the cutting words, “I can’t stand to see what you’ve become” — words obviously meant to goad him into anger so Saitou could fight him and carry out that same duty — why did Saitou stare at Sano?

It wasn’t that Kenshin cared whether or not Saitou could stand it; it was just that the statement did seem to indicate Kenshin was the focus of this drama. Why should Sano be a target? Especially when it had already been proven that Sano was weaker than both of them and therefore a relatively easy one? Saitou didn’t know, and therefore could hardly have any grudge against or interest in Sano… as far as Kenshin could see, Sano’s part in all of these dealings had ended the moment he hit the dojo floor the day Saitou attacked him. Why would Saitou have been staring at him??

Kenshin was jolted into awareness of a question perhaps even more important by a hand on his shoulder that was not Megumi’s: Why, if he was so very worried about his lover, had he forgotten entirely Sano was there, sitting beside him?

***

As far as Saitou knew (and he knew rather a lot, as when he’d become a spy for Kawaji he’d gained access to all sorts of new information sources), Himura, a disturbingly young man wielding a legendary kenjutsu style whose actual existence many doubted, had shown up out of nowhere in 1863 in Choushu’s Kiheitai and become an assassin at Katsura Kogorou’s request for the specific purpose of using his skills to help build a new era in which the weak would no longer suffer.

Perhaps some would object to such a portrait of one that killed in the shadows for a revolutionary group, but from the few existing accounts of those that had known him at the time, it was undoubtedly true. Not that Saitou needed any such proof: it had been evident to him from the first time he’d crossed blades with the hitokiri Battousai. Well, perhaps the particulars of Himura’s morale hadn’t been evident: there was no way he could have read something so complex in another’s eyes alone. But what was obvious was conviction, whole-hearted devotion to a well-understood cause — and that was admirable in and of itself. The accounts Saitou heard later regarding what, more exactly, Battousai believed had only strengthened his respect for his one-time enemy. Clearly Himura Kenshin, during the Bakumatsu at least, had been fighting for the good of Japan and its people using all his strength of body and will.

And what was he now?

Saitou didn’t like to admit how often he’d wondered, during the past ten years, just what had happened to Himura at the commencement of the Meiji era. It was nothing unnatural to wonder, of course, about the fate of someone so interesting to so many, but after the first couple of years the curiosity really should have faded just as it had about the other few that had captured his interest during the war. What was there about Himura, after all, so much more intriguing than about any other young warrior from those days that fought with conviction and spirit? Well, other than that Himura could battle Saitou evenly and most of the rest hadn’t even come close?

At least that was still true of him, if nothing else was.

The first report, given by the unflagging spy he’d set to watch Himura from the moment the former Battousai set foot in Tokyo, had been a surprise. Subsequent reports had been dismaying. Actually, Saitou had not really believed them. The man these accounts represented was sloppy, passive, acquiescent — it could not be the same he had known. But now he had no choice but to believe. Now he’d been informed definitively that ten years was enough time to change someone completely. He wasn’t sure why it bothered him so much.

But was it really a change? Had Himura really transformed into something nearly unrecognizable, or was this rurouni merely an aggravating and hopefully temporary façade? Did Saitou hope, as it really seemed he did despite the indifference he continually declared to himself, that the latter was true? Presumably the answer to these questions would not be long in coming to light.

Saitou assumed the reason he cared was because there were so few people left that he’d known at all during the war, even fewer he’d respected, and he would like to understand what had happened to this one — whether he could continue to respect him, or whether he would be forced to add him to the ever-growing ranks of those he utterly scorned, on which he was often tempted simply to list ‘mankind as a whole’ and be done with it. But even given that sort of understandable curiosity, this kind of musing seemed slightly… no, no, it wasn’t worth that title. He liked to see, to know and understand what was going on around him, down to minor details, but that didn’t make him obsessive. Really, it was just the week thing that was bothering him.

Either Himura was still, underneath the fluffy exterior of this ridiculous decade, the precise and steadfast warrior he had once been; or he was, in spite of the strength of purpose with which he’d once burned, truly a lost and faded soul doomed to die some obscure death unworthy of his former status. The offer of a week to such a man was pointless.

The hitokiri would not need a week to accept the task.

The rurouni could take a year and still be coming up with excuses not to go.

And Saitou should not care so damned much either way. Why should those seven days seem like such a long time to wait?

Chapter 5 – Other Beginnings

The next few days were not pleasant.

Kaoru was in a bad mood in general due to recent events, and therefore when Megumi came over the two of them fought more than ever. Not that Megumi was in a particularly good mood herself. Yahiko had been pestering Sano ever since that day to give him the details of his relationship with Kenshin, about which the kid hadn’t known until Saitou’d had to go and refer to Sano as Kenshin’s lover in front of him. And Yahiko was too young to hear details like that, but too persistent to let the subject drop. And as for Kenshin… Kenshin was spending a lot of solitary time, among chores and shopping trips, in his secluded bamboo practice-hole.

He didn’t exactly say he didn’t want Sano around, but Sano, with all the willful irritation an insecure lover can muster, assumed. And as his shoulder still hurt, he spent most of his own time lying around in Kenshin’s room or just outside it, dozing or thinking. Mostly thinking. Kaoru, who hated it when Sano stayed at the dojo for extended periods of time and seemed in her annoyance to have forgotten he was still wounded, presumed him sleeping — and truly he would have preferred to be. He abhorred trying to work things out in his head, because they only seemed to get more twisted, and as he got deeper and deeper inside his own confused mind he just got more and more angry.

If there was anything worse than the confusion, it was this tense monotony. Kenshin made no sign, whenever he returned from his meditative outings, that he’d chosen one way or another. Sano didn’t care what Kenshin chose, as long as Kenshin was still Kenshin, but he would have liked to know what was going on under that red-thatched roof. Not knowing was surely as bad as whatever Kenshin eventually decided.

And he still had another four days of this to deal with.

Rather than in or near Kenshin’s room as he mostly had been for the last seventy-two hours, he was lying now on the front porch of the dojo. Actually, it seemed he’d gravitated slowly in that direction from day to day, or even nap to nap. It took him a while to notice, and when he did, he sat up and stared. He didn’t like to think he was drawn toward the as-yet-unpatched hole in the wall, but that was where he seemed to have stopped.

And he knew why he’d awakened, this time: he felt something. He didn’t always know what people were about to do the way Kenshin did, but he damn well knew when there was an enemy hanging around outside the dojo walls. He jumped up, ignoring the pain the action occasioned, and crossed the yard. He flung open the doors with a scowl and one clenched fist, and stopped short.

Any enemy but this he had been ready for. Now he didn’t know what to do.

***

Kenshin hadn’t been able to decide whether to walk up to Saitou and ask what he wanted, or to ignore him and enter the yard a different way. The choice was taken out of his hands, however, when Sano burst out the front doors ready to do battle and stopped short when he saw who his enemy was.

“Calm down, boy; I’m not here to see you.” Saitou sounded unexpectedly amused. Kenshin would have liked to see his face, but if he moved any closer Saitou would certainly realize he was there. Perhaps he already knew.

“You weren’t the first time either.” Sano, on the other hand, sounded agitated — and for good reason, Kenshin supposed. He could feel his lover shifting into a more solid combative stance.

“Is it my fault you spend your entire life lying around on someone else’s porch?” The sound of a match striking accompanied this question: Saitou remained casual.

“Shut up!” Sano growled. “Just tell me what you’re doing here!”

“You are aware that shutting up and telling you anything are mutually exclusive?”

“Tell me what you fucking want before I kick your ass!” Sano was becoming more and more angry and disturbed; he probably thought Saitou once again had some violent intention here at the dojo. Kenshin knew better: if Saitou intended violence, he would already have carried it out and would not be wasting time talking with Sano. Still, Kenshin couldn’t help being a little worried. Why was Saitou talking with Sano like this, casually but for Sano’s high level of tension?

“Indeed, what do I want?”

“What are you staring at, you psychopath?” Kenshin was startled at this demand, brows lowering at its implications. Saitou seemed to stare at Sano quite a bit, and if that meant what he thought it might… The idea bothered him, more than he would guess it should. “Hey, cut it the hell out! Like I’m some shunga or something…” Sano obviously didn’t much like the attention either. Kenshin found himself thinking at the same moment both that he should be relieved at this and that to feel so would be an insult to his lover.

He felt similarly about Saitou’s scorn-laden reply: “What makes you think you look that good?”

Now Sano was angry again, and, although the uncertainty wasn’t entirely gone from his voice, it had diminished quite a bit. “All right, just why the fuck are you here?”

“To talk to Himura, if you must know,” Saitou answered easily, adding, “though it’s hardly any of your business.”

“Listen up, bastard: it is my business if it has to do with Kenshin!” Here was Sano’s typical tone of righteous indignation, but with an added depth to it of whose nature Kenshin could not quite be sure.

“Is it really?” Had Saitou picked up on that extra edge to the tone as well, and understood it better than Kenshin had? He seemed to know exactly what to say to render Sano speechless. And that question… Kenshin didn’t like this. Not at all. What did Saitou think he knew? No, what did Saitou know, that he could use to make Sano so uncomfortable with just a few words? Actually, Kenshin had his guesses… and he didn’t want to think about them.

He moved forward, stepping around the corner. “What do you want, Saitou?”

Saitou was already looking in his direction. “Are you going to Kyoto?” he asked.

“Thought your part in that shit was just trying to kill everyone.” Sano, who had obviously found his voice again, moved to stand next to Kenshin even as Kenshin took his stolid place before the open door.

“Then you have been misinformed on several counts.” Saitou did not even remove his eyes from Kenshin as he said this, almost as if Sano’s presence didn’t matter anymore.

“Ookubo isn’t expecting my reply for two more days,” Kenshin said calmly.

“I’m asking now, out of curiosity,” Saitou returned just as calmly. There was no challenge in his words.

“I have not made my decision yet,” Kenshin said after a moment, not pleased with how much he found himself inexplicably shaken by the question. Why did Saitou want to know? Surely, as Sano said, his involvement in the whole affair was over?

Saitou frowned. “Putting it off, are you?”

Kenshin disliked the heavy scorn in the tall man’s voice. “No,” he replied firmly, “debating possibilities.”

Saitou stared down at him wordlessly, and Kenshin wondered, not for the first time, what was going on behind those metallic eyes. He would instantly have been able to tell if Saitou intended something other than standing there levelly meeting his gaze, but as to what the wolf was thinking… Finally with a sneer, Saitou took a drag on his cigarette and turned.

Sano let out an angry breath as the police officer began to walk away. “What the hell are you so worried about?!” he shouted after Saitou a moment later. “Bastard, like it has anything to do with you!” His volume was fading as he added, “Like Kenshin won’t do the right thing…”

Kenshin looked at him in surprise. “Sano…”

“Sorry,” Sano grumbled. “I just can’t stand him looking at you like that. Who does he fucking think he is?”

How was it Sano could assign any interpretation to that unreadable expression? Let alone that interpretation? And then, if Sano was so angry, why didn’t he act as he usually did and try to fight Saitou? Kenshin didn’t think for one moment Sano was learning any self-preserving restraint… perhaps the younger man saw something else in Saitou that Kenshin could not? The thought was unaccountably disturbing. “Come inside,” Kenshin urged, taking Sano’s hand and moving through the doorway, away from Saitou and the mystery he presented.

Because it didn’t matter.

It didn’t matter what Saitou was thinking or feeling, or who knew about it or how they knew.

It just wasn’t important.

***

Ookubo’s murder was not much of a surprise to Saitou. He wasn’t exactly thrilled it had happened, but couldn’t exactly say he hadn’t seen it coming some time in the indefinite future, either — especially given the way Ookubo liked to run around without an escort of any kind. No, not much of a surprise.

He wasn’t thrilled… it was terrible news… he wished he could have prevented it… but he wasn’t torn to pieces over it either. Because he hadn’t seen that look in Himura’s eyes — that absolute determination fueled by some flame within that could not be extinguished — in a number of years he didn’t like to count… and it was the knowledge Ookubo had been assassinated by some agent of Shishio’s that had inspired it. Whether Himura’s mind had been changed at the last moment or his resolve merely strengthened, the former Battousai was going to Kyoto.

Himura’s little troupe of friends, though… that was a different story. Saitou had no idea whether Himura had really understood his demonstration or not. And even if the point had gotten across to him, it was too much to hope that the headstrong Sagara would remain in Tokyo, regardless of what Himura chose to do. The other fools were mostly directionless without Himura around, so Saitou didn’t worry as much about them, but Sagara was likely to be a problem. A problem Saitou was almost looking forward to taking care of, although he didn’t quite know why. Probably because the boy was irritating.

The best way to find out how Himura planned to deal with those friends of his was to keep a close eye on him until the rurouni left the city, and as Saitou had very little business remaining in Tokyo at the moment, he could easily make that his first priority. Therefore, as soon as he could get away from Kawaji, he discreetly made his way to the Kamiya dojo to find out what he wanted to know.

Chapter 6 – Fallout

Kenshin had been gone all day.

It seemed so cold out. Unseasonable. Sano frowned.

It couldn’t take this long, could it? Unless… but, yeah, right. Seriously, Kenshin certainly wasn’t going to accept this stupid assignment. So all he would have needed to do was find Ookubo and explain he wasn’t going. Couldn’t take more than a couple hours at the most, no matter how much the old guy argued. Kenshin should have been back long before this.

It wasn’t really actually all that cold out, now he thought about it. It just felt that way, a little bit. He went inside, into Kenshin’s room, and sat down, staring at the door.

All right, so maybe he was worried. Kenshin and his damned sense of responsibility… As if this Shishio thing were his fault in any way, shape, or form. As if he had any obligation whatsoever to go to Kyoto and clean up the damn government’s mess.

But, no. There was just no way. Because, no matter how Kenshin felt about the issue, the thing involved killing, and that wasn’t Kenshin. Not anymore. And Kenshin would never, never go back to those days.

Not even with some guy around who seemed to want to pull him back. Some guy with really haunting eyes and…

Sano got up and left the room again. He didn’t know what he’d been thinking; it wasn’t cold, it was hot. And it was way too stuffy in there. He sat outside on the porch and stared absently into the twilight.

But what if…

No way.

He clenched a fist and slammed it down into the wood beneath him. He would really love to continue reassuring himself that his rurouni wasn’t going anywhere, but he couldn’t keep up lying to himself much longer. Because in the last little while he’d come to realize just how much he didn’t know about Kenshin and just how likely it was he could be mistaken about his lover’s intentions and, more frighteningly, the effect that the past could have on the former assassin. The truth was that he just didn’t know what conclusion had been the end of Kenshin’s week’s musings. Kenshin hadn’t confided in him, not even with the smallest hint.

It hurt, and he wasn’t reluctant to admit it. But even worse was this inescapable fear. Something important like this, and Kenshin didn’t say one word of his thoughts or plans to his lover… It made Sano wonder… how much did he really mean to Kenshin? Before this thing had started, he’d really been beginning to think Kenshin loved him. Would love him after not too long, at any rate. But now that he began to rethink the equation of Sano plus Kenshin, the answer was coming to something more like diversion than love — something useful that would take up time until Kenshin’s past came back to claim him. Until he

“Motherfucker, I am not gonna start thinking like that,” Sano growled, standing up abruptly. He went back into Kenshin’s room. The wind out here was a little chilly anyway.

He trusted Kenshin. He believed in Kenshin. He loved Kenshin. He didn’t sit around thinking stupid, traitorous, faithless, jealous, irrational thoughts about Kenshin.

But Kenshin had been gone all day.

Sano tensed abruptly as he heard footsteps outside. He was up and bounding toward the door in an instant, but before his hand reached it he realized it couldn’t be Kenshin. Too much weight, too much height. For all Kenshin sometimes looked and sounded really girly, he didn’t walk like a woman. Certainly not one that tall. Megumi, Sano guessed, coming to gossip with Kaoru.

To his credit, he didn’t go straight to sleep after he’d unrolled Kenshin’s futon and thrown himself down onto it — he lay around reflecting that love had to be more than just a word when the combination of uncertainty and an absent lover’s scent could make a heart hurt so desperately. Could drive someone that hadn’t cried in ten years so perilously close to tears.

***

It had taken him nearly an hour to come up with the words. Granted, that deliberation had been interspersed with contemplation on other subjects, so it might not have been such a lengthy process had he been undistracted. But even hearing the voice of the person that had murdered Ookubo had not taken his mind entirely from the difficult matter.

No matter what he said, it was going to upset Sano, so to choose what would hurt his lover least had been the dilemma. He hoped he’d gotten it right, but he wouldn’t know until he next saw Sano. And when that would be he did not know; he was on his way to Kyoto now, and had no idea how long he would remain there.

There hadn’t been anything he’d wanted to take with him: he’d spent what few yen he had on some food for the journey, and a decade as a wanderer had acclimated him to owning very little. Besides, Sano had been asleep in his bedroom, and although Kenshin could move as quietly as any spy, he just couldn’t risk his lover awakening. So he’d slid his note through the crack in the door and departed.

He was glad it was summer. He was taking any comfort he could get at this point, after all, and the thought of how much worse this would have been had it occurred in winter… well, it didn’t really do anything for him. But at some point it might.

The others, he felt sure, would forgive him. Kaoru and Megumi had each other, whether they knew it or not (and he was fairly certain they still thought of each other only as fellow members of the Women-Kenshin-Doesn’t-Want Club); and though they might be outraged at first, Megumi’s sense and Kaoru’s activity would soon help them both recover. And Yahiko admired him too blindly to be angry at him for long. Beyond that, even if they all understood he’d left alone for their protection, they would not hold it against him.

Sano, on the other hand…

Kenshin wouldn’t really want Sano calmly to accept that he wasn’t strong enough to accompany the rurouni on this dangerous venture; that just wouldn’t be Sano, and so compliant a lover would not appeal to Kenshin. But the concept was going to hurt him more than Kenshin could bear to consider. It was too much to hope Sano wouldn’t eventually figure it out, too (and, once again, Kenshin wouldn’t really want him not to), although the note certainly hadn’t elaborated on it; he could only hope Sano would not hate him for it.

His footsteps seemed difficult, somehow, as if the very act of walking had become a chore. He had to smile a little, wryly, at his predicament in general: he’d left his friends and lover, hurt them, in order to accept the request of a murdered man to do something he didn’t want to do and had, in fact, sworn he would never do again. And where was the benefit?

Well, certainly he would be aiding the country, fulfilling his own sense of responsibility, doing in part what he had dedicated himself to doing when he took up his sakabatou — and that had to be enough. But he didn’t feel it. And the thought that there might be one or two other rewards, which he probably didn’t want any more than he wanted the assignment in the first place, was vaguely disturbing. No, he didn’t even want to think about that… but the alternative was thinking about Sano, and there was too much heartache associated with those thoughts. So what could he think about, on this long and lonely walk?

The weather was always a good topic.

He reflected, most steadfastly, that it would have been a much finer day out if this chilly wind would stop.

***

Saitou was now even more curious than before, and it annoyed him because he’d rather not be curious at all. He just couldn’t help wondering what Sagara’s response to Himura’s note would be — not to mention what that note said — and it irritated him that he cared so much. He could probably have rationalized that he needed to know what message Himura had left and see first-hand the boy’s reaction to it the better to plan what he should do and say to keep Sagara from following Battousai all over creation… but the fact was simply that he was curious, and he wasn’t bothering to deny it.

The problem, for all of that, was that he really had no desire to sit around outside the dojo waiting for Sagara to wake up and find Himura’s message. And the problem with that was that he had nothing better to do. Dealing with Himura’s stubborn lover was Saitou’s final task in Tokyo, after all. But though he wanted to make sure he did it right, he didn’t want to waste much time on it. Still, he didn’t think walking into Himura’s bedroom and kicking Sagara awake in order to tell him he couldn’t go to Kyoto would be quite as effective as waiting and holding a slightly more conventional conversation with the boy. So he waited.

All night.

After this Shishio thing was over, he was going to sleep for a week.

The Kamiya girl and the child were up long before Sagara ever stirred, and even the doctor woman found her way to the dojo relatively early. As Himura hadn’t spoken to any of them the previous evening, they were all anxious to know the outcome of yesterday’s events, and kept walking past Himura’s bedroom door apparently in the hopes someone would emerge from it if they made enough noise…

Kenshin usually doesn’t sleep this late, but maybe he had a rough night, or maybe Sanosuke kept him up, giggle giggle, or maybe he isn’t in there at all, but someone’s obviously in there, it might be Sanosuke, should we knock? that would be too rude, but what if we were bringing him breakfast? maybe he’s thinking and doesn’t want to be disturbed, he does that sometimes, what do you think he said? and so on and on and on. How did Himura stand them?

Saitou was getting impatient. After battle or a long stint without rest it would make sense, but how could any ordinary person sleep this late? Especially in the middle of something this important to him? Granted, Saitou couldn’t exactly think of Sagara as an ordinary person anymore… the kid was strong and beautiful enough to have caught Himura’s attention, although whether that could possibly be anything more than a purely sexual relationship Saitou doubted. Still, how could the boy sleep so long??

There was always the possibility that Sagara had already awakened and read the thing and was sitting in there considering it or something, but Saitou was counting on an initial reaction explosive enough not to miss. Thoughtfulness didn’t really fit with what he’d seen of Sagara so far, let alone the reports he’d been given before that.

He was partially correct. Around noon Sagara finally appeared, flinging the door open so hard it bounced and sprang from its track and fell askew. In the boy’s free hand was clenched, crumpled, what must be Himura’s note, but the expression on his face was not what Saitou had expected. There was anger in it, and some pain, yes, but more than that some kind of confused look neither pleased nor unhappy. What did that damned note say?

This was very irritating. Saitou had sat around all night waiting for an entertainment, not for the stupid boy to be completely ignorant of what he was feeling. And now the officer had to go talk to him like that… Sagara was really an idiot. It was vaguely disappointing to think Himura had such poor taste — but then, as before, it was certainly just a temporary, casual arrangement for which he could more easily be forgiven; the physical attraction, after all, Saitou could readily understand (although when he’d come to that conclusion he wasn’t quite sure).

In bursting from the room, Sagara had startled the passing doctor woman into screaming, which in turn had brought the Kamiya girl running outside, but the kenkaya pushed past them both without a word as if he were only half conscious of their presence.

“Sanosuke!” they both protested, but, seeing they were being ignored, turned in synchronization toward Himura’s room. The boy, who’d obviously seen them after all and evidently knew they would seek answers from him when they found the chamber empty, took off at a run the moment their backs were to him, and was out the main doors of the dojo before they’d turned again.

Saitou followed, determined to have his questions answered and the remainder of his Tokyo duties carried out within the hour.

Chapter 7 – Confrontation, Confession

He wanted to tear the damn thing up, wanted to burn it, wanted to throw it in the river where the ink would bleed away and the paper would wash downstream out of his sight forever. And he wanted to keep squeezing it and never let go, wanted to take a needle and sew it into the skin just above his heart, wanted to frame it and hang it somewhere where he’d see it every day when he awoke. He wanted to kiss it, but he was afraid in doing so he might rip it to shreds with his teeth. He wanted to grind it into the dust with his heel and walk away, but he knew he would only turn around and pick it up and hug it and apologize to it, and then it would be difficult to get the dirt off.

He wanted to stop being ridiculous, but he really had no choice.

He had no idea what he was thinking or feeling, or where he was going or what he was planning. He was so angry, he wanted to track Kenshin down and punch him in the face. Or shake the little guy and demand just why the hell he’d thought Sano needed to suffer like this. He was so happy, he wanted to fly after Kenshin and kiss him halfway to death. Or talk to him, tell him everything, anything he could think of, all his secrets and stories and thoughts and ambitions and anything, just because he wanted to share himself. Tell him he loved him. But not until after he hit him, to let him know how much he was hurting. Or kissed him, to let him know how much he missed him already.

All right, so he did have some idea what he was thinking and feeling and where he was going and what he was planning. He wanted to see Kenshin. He wasn’t staying here. He was going to Kyoto. But what he would say to his lover once he found him… about that he really had no idea.

To Kyoto… He would need traveling food, and that meant money. And since he’d just annoyed Kaoru and Megumi, no way was he going back to the dojo or to the clinic. Besides, they would want to know how he knew Kenshin was gone, and that would bring up the note, and then they’d demand he tell them what it said, and then they would be the ones annoying him, and they’d probably want to go with, and… no, that just wasn’t an option. He would never, never, never show that horrible note to another living soul. It was the treasure of his heart, and not for anyone else’s eyes.

Katsu was his best option. Katsu would lend (give) him money without asking questions. Well, Katsu probably wouldn’t need to ask questions. Ever since he’d started the whole newspaper thing, he knew everything, and he would probably take one look at Sano and say, “You’re going to Kyoto after Himura, aren’t you? Do you need money?”

The problem was that Sano had been walking randomly through town without looking where he was going, and was now far from Katsu’s apartment. And although it would be quicker just to keep on the way he was going and leave the city right now, he knew he shouldn’t depart without some supplies. He forced himself to stop and consider. Trekking all the way to Katsu’s apartment before heading out would make visiting his own only a small detour, so there was no excuse not to pack a couple of things. He could still be out of here in a couple of hours, which amount of time couldn’t possibly make any real difference except to his impatient mind. So that’s what he would do. He turned, pleased with himself for being reasonable.

“Shit!” This wasn’t really in response to anything specific, just an exclamation of surprise at finding he was not alone. “Fucker!” This one was aimed more specifically. “How long’ve you been following me?”

“Longer than anyone should be able to follow someone else without being noticed,” Saitou replied dryly. “But I suppose the usual rules of attentiveness and sense don’t apply to you, do they?”

“Shut the hell up. What do you want this time? Shouldn’t you be off to Kyoto anyway? Got big murder plans and shit to take care of, don’t you?”

“I believe I’ve already explained that if I shut up I can’t answer your questions. You’ll have to choose one or the other.”

Sano growled, clenching the paper in his hand more tightly. “You think this is all going great, don’t you? You think everything’s worked out just exactly how you wanted it.”

Saitou nodded once, smiling slightly, but Sano could see the heavy scorn in his eyes. What emotion was Saitou repressing that he had to… well, Sano shouldn’t really try to figure that kind of thing out. First of all, he could have been wrong with that hypothesis he’d made back in the dojo a week ago and now be looking for something that wasn’t there. Secondly, he didn’t want to stand here staring into Saitou’s eyes puzzling over scorn and repression when Kenshin was somewhere waiting to be punched in the face and kissed half to death. Third, he hated Saitou anyway, so what the hell did he care how scornful the bastard was?

But the half smirk was beginning to enrage him, so he finally growled out, “Listen to me, you freaky-eyed jerk: no matter what you think, just ’cause Kenshin’s going to Kyoto doesn’t mean he’s gonna kill anyone.”

“I suppose you’re going to stop him.” Saitou’s tone was still threateningly casual, but he wasn’t fooling Sano.

“No, dumbass, he doesn’t need anyone to stop him! He’s strong enough to keep his own promises.” Except for the one about not wandering off without me, an unexpected infidel thought interjected.

“Promises? He promised you he wouldn’t kill Shishio?”

Sano didn’t quite know what to make of this question. “He didn’t have to… I already knew… that’s just how he lives…”

Saitou’s smirk grew. “So you have nothing to hold him to.”

Sano wasn’t sure why he was even still standing here discussing this kind of topic with this kind of man… maybe it was because he couldn’t bear anyone speaking badly of Kenshin, or maybe just because Saitou seemed to be playing off his own specific worries and Sano wasn’t going to take it. Either way, he demanded angrily, “Do you know anything about having a normal life, or do you just run around stabbing people all the time? Sometimes people promise you things without saying it, you know? Just by being a certain way and getting close to you. And then you can hold them to that even if they’ve never said a word about it. But I guess you wouldn’t know about shit like that, would you?”

The older man was contemplating him now with undisguised disdain, and what did it mean? “And if the rurouni you know is only a hiatus, a step out of his regular lifestyle?”

Sano glared, but truthfully, when this was exactly what he’d been worrying about lately, Saitou’s bringing it up did more to frighten than anger him. “But for me–” he began, but Saitou interrupted him:

“What makes you think you’re worth a second thought when it comes to what direction he decides his life is going?”

It stung about twice as much as Sano would have expected. Illogical as it was, he didn’t think it could have hurt all that much more even if Kenshin himself had said it. But at the same time, it infuriated him to the point where he wasn’t even sure what he did next. It felt as if he was trying to punch Saitou, but he found after a moment that he’d shoved Kenshin’s note into the other man’s face. “That fucking does,” he growled. “Read it, asshole, and just try to say that again.”

Saitou took the crumpled message between two fingers, smoothed it halfway out with two more, and scanned it briefly before handing it back. “Ahou.”

Sano snatched it, bristling. “What?!”

“You let a few words on a piece of paper blind you… you really can’t see the reason he left you behind, can you?”

“He said it right there, dipshit,” Sano retorted. But this entire conversation was leaving him with a dreadful sinking feeling, as if there were a lot of things out of his control and Saitou knew it.

With a short, derisive laugh Saitou replied, “Even if he hasn’t abandoned you in order to return to the way he once was without your interference, it’s obvious he doesn’t want you around because you’re a liability to him.”

Sano stared, dumbstruck. He was a… But Saitou couldn’t possibly… But it made sense… And Kenshin would never say something like that, might even say something else to lead Sano away from the idea…

As Sano stood stunned, Saitou continued. “The first rule in any fight is to know your opponent’s weak points. If you were to go to Kyoto, Shishio would immediately find a way to use you. Battousai knows he can’t protect you; I showed him that. That’s why he left you here.”

The scales were tipping heavily toward punching Kenshin rather than kissing him, although at the moment Sano could do nothing but stand perfectly still waiting for the first wave of pain to subside. He wasn’t really seeing anything in front of him, only Kenshin’s face and the question of how he felt about it. But as things began slowly to come into focus around him, it was extremely irritating to find Saitou still standing there, silent and staring. He frowned, and in a sudden movement pushed past the other man and started walking swiftly away.

“Where are you going?” Saitou asked.

“Where do you think I’m going, bastard?” Sano stopped and glanced back; Saitou had not moved. “I’m going to Kyoto to hit Kenshin. Got a problem with that?”

“Kyoto is the other way,” Saitou replied mildly, walking toward Sano with calm purpose. “And, yes, I do have a problem with it. I can’t have an amateur like you underfoot; this is too important for you to get in the way.”

Sano turned to face Saitou, eyes blazing with the rage these words had awakened. “I’ve had about enough of you,” he snarled. “I’m going to Kyoto whether you like it or not!” And he hurled himself at his enemy to prove his point with his fists.

But Saitou dodged the blow, and, in a movement that seemed to indicate he’d been ready to fight all along despite his casual demeanor, slammed his own gloved fist into Sano’s exposed underarm, seized the wrist that sailed past him, and used the intended strike’s momentum to throw Sano dizzyingly to the ground.

The disorientation of this move did not distract Sano from the agonizing sensation of barely-healed flesh ripping open and blood abruptly soaking the gi Kenshin had just washed and mended for him. By the time he hit the ground, though, the anger was blocking out any other pain — until Saitou’s heel ground down on his torn shoulder and pain took over again for a moment. Then anger regained the upper hand as the bastard stepped back and spoke. “You see how easily your weakness is used against you. Do what’s best for everyone and stay here.”

Sano staggered to his feet. The battle between anger and pain within him continued, but the unbeatable pain — the one that wasn’t physical — was returning with new force and threatening to overwhelm all. Weakness… Was he really…? He just… No, it seemed his rage still had a chance, as he felt it surge up again and break over him, sending him hurtling forward a second time. And even though Saitou was his target, some of the anger was directed at Kenshin, giving Sano new resolve.

Saitou blocked the punch with raised arms, and, although he skidded back, it didn’t seem to have affected his balance. Evidently, however, his composure was slowly wearing away. “What is this going to prove?” he wondered in obvious annoyance as Sano postured for combat. “Especially when I’ve already beaten you once?”

“You can’t say that,” Sano returned in a growl. “You didn’t fight fair.”

Saitou glowered. After a moment he reached down and lifted his sheathed sword out of its holster on his belt and tossed it aside. “You won’t have that excuse this time. If I use your own sorry way of fighting to beat you, you’ll see what your own limitations are whether you like it or not.”

“You’ll never make me think I’m anyone’s fucking weakness,” Sano replied as he charged. Although he wasn’t sure he believed it.

At the moment, much as he would like to do some serious damage to Saitou, what he really wanted was for the jerk to back off so he could go to Kyoto without any trouble. So all he needed was to prove he was stronger than Saitou thought, that he had some tricks (fair tricks!) up his sleeve that would ensure he was not a liability. So he showcased his new idea, one he’d actually formulated while watching Saitou fight Kenshin: he laid into the man with a seemingly endless barrage of tight punches, forcing Saitou to stay entirely on the defensive (if he didn’t want his ribs pummeled into his lungs) and never giving him a chance to get in a hit of his own. A messy technique, but effective.

Or so he’d thought. But he found, as he fell back slightly to observe the effects of the prolonged attack, that his blows didn’t seem to have connected. Saitou would have nicely bruised forearms from blocking them all, but that would be the sole damage. Sano could only stare.

Saitou’s smirk was heavy with contempt, but also rather irritated. “You still don’t get it, do you?” He lowered his arms, the sleeves over which were shredded from elbow to wrist, and indeed he did not seem to have taken a single hit. “You may be considered strong in your little Tokyo fighting circles, but the Kyoto we’re talking about is a different world. Compared to Battousai and me you’re nothing but a child.”

Sano’s fists clenched again, but the depth of his ire was not so great as it had been. It was appalling, the way Saitou said ‘Battousai.’ Sano had heard Kenshin’s enemies say the old assassin’s name before, and of course he’d heard Saitou speak it both to Kenshin and when discussing Kenshin with Sano… but when mentioning him so casually like this, it was different from anything Sano had ever heard. Especially given the context, it sounded so familiar, so knowledgeable… as if Saitou were infinitely accustomed to speaking that name as well as perfectly justified in passing judgment on that man.

“That’s not his name anymore,” Sano said tensely, trying not to seem illogically defensive. Saitou started to make some undoubtedly smart reply, but Sano immediately continued, loath to listen. “And even if he did decide to start killing people again, it still wouldn’t be his name because the war’s been over for ten fucking years and he couldn’t go back to that time even if he wanted to.”

A brief — barely momentary — flicker of contemplation passed through the yellow eyes before Saitou replied, “Even so, you’re nowhere near his level. Kyoto is no place for you.”

Sano’s only response was to ready himself to fight again.

“You don’t know when to give up,” Saitou remarked darkly, and attacked.

Sano gritted his teeth and struggled just to keep his balance as Saitou mimicked his move from a few moments before — copying it perfectly except that he connected nearly every time. It didn’t make any sense! The blows were the same speed, coming at Sano with the same strength, but he was lucky if he could block one out of four. What was the difference?

It didn’t take Saitou long to knock Sano to the ground again, this time with a painfully shocking hit to the jaw that wrenched his neck and sent paralyzing tremors through his entire body. Of course Sano immediately struggled to rise, but just at first he couldn’t find anything like balance.

“Do you understand yet?” Saitou was saying. “Even at your own game, you can’t win. Shishio is going to be playing something completely different; if you go, you’ll jeopardize the entire operation and be killed.”

Perhaps it was the mixture of determination and rage flooding him that helped Sano finally stand. Saitou looked annoyed as the former kenkaya steadied himself and declared, “I’m going to Kyoto.” His tone was surprisingly calm, the words far more level than any he’d yet used as he added, “No matter what you or anyone else says.”

Saitou frowned, his eyes narrowing. “Give up.” There was a chilling finality to the statement, and as he made it he took what looked like a gatotsu stance without a sword. “You can barely stay standing.” Sano returned the dour expression, silently still and challenging. “It doesn’t matter how stubbornly you keep this up; you’re still just an inexperienced child.”

This was not a blow Sano could afford to take, and he knew it, but not until the last possible moment did he see any way out of it. Then as Saitou’s fist was about to meet his face, he slammed his own fists together with Saitou’s arm between them, applying all the force he could without knocking himself over. And it worked: Saitou was stopped mid-charge, staring surprised at Sano. There was a long moment of silence during which a slow, dark, triumphant smile spread over Sano’s face. “This inexperienced child could break your arm right now,” he finally said. “What do you think of that?”

“Kisama…” Saitou, for the first time, really looked like he’d been thrown for a loop. And this helped Sano find the words he needed.

“You keep saying I’m nothing compared to you and Kenshin, but so what? You guys didn’t start out that strong, or get like that just overnight… you had a war and then ten years to practice and get better and crap. But that doesn’t mean everyone who hasn’t had that kind of experience is a weakling. I may have a long way to go, but that doesn’t mean I ain’t at a pretty good place right now.”

Saitou’s expression had gone back to its usual sneer, but he made a frustrated sound. Sano thought he was going to say something, but instead the older man caught him unexpectedly with a right hook that knocked Sano away. “I can see I’m wasting my time with you. Go, then, if you’re so determined to get yourself killed.”

“I am not gonna ‘get myself killed!'” Sano retorted, watching irately as Saitou turned and started to walk away.

Saitou looked over his shoulder. “A fool who thinks he’s strong and doesn’t know the first thing about defense isn’t going to survive long.”

Sano kept his eyes on Saitou’s back until the other man was out of sight, and he found he was trembling. Possibly with pain, but he doubted it, as that sensation was mostly forgotten. He found all he could think of was how he could get stronger and prove to that bastard he wasn’t some loser weakling. He didn’t even bother to wonder why it mattered so much that he prove this, why he cared what Saitou thought. He just had to; he just did. In that moment, there was nothing else in the world besides Saitou and Sano and something one of them really needed to learn.

After a while, of course, reality came trickling back, and Sano turned and headed toward Katsu’s place again. He felt a little tired now, although he hadn’t really expended all that much energy in the fight… it was the conversation, rather, that seemed to have drained him. He didn’t want to think about anything, not even how he was supposed to become stronger in so short a time; he just wanted to leave and start walking. He’d have to figure something out on the way.

***

He never really considered that it wasn’t quite natural for there to be two of them. It was just one of those things that seemed perfectly normal in the dream and wouldn’t strike him as odd until he awoke in the morning. That there were two was just another part of his trial anyway.

I’ll tell the locals they’re twins. And that I’m only married to one of them. Except that he was married to both of them, because they were the same woman but there were two of her.

But I don’t want either of them. The person I love is… somewhere else. It’s been a long time… So long he almost couldn’t remember who it was. And the women wanted him. Why is that? I killed their fiance… They should hate me. They both should. But, actually, he didn’t know yet that he’d killed their fiance. So why should they hate him?

Still, I can’t love them, obviously; all I want is to protect them. He didn’t much think about protecting people, usually; it was his job to kill, and although there was a philosophical, indirect sort of protection involved in that, it was far from his thoughts when he drew his sword. But now I just want to make sure they’re safe and happy. That was clearly impossible, though. They wanted him to be something other than what he was, and they weren’t going to allow him to protect them.

Yes, that’s exactly how it happened. Are they destined to die, then?

He awoke to the sound of someone approaching through the trees.

***

He’d always been rather partial to the ocean, as much as he’d ever really been partial to anything. He enjoyed the fact that for all its changes in form and attitude, it remained blue, remained vast and unstoppable despite the years’ movements. He was appreciating this idea in the back of his mind as he stood at the rail and only half observed the rocking tide around him. The ship swayed more and more as they truly got underway, but it felt steadier to him than anywhere he’d stood for weeks. And still it rolled beneath him.

“…the war’s been over for ten fucking years and he couldn’t go back to that time even if he wanted to.”

He never would have thought that after so long, after all the changes that had touched both their lives, he would trust Battousai. Trust Himura, he corrected himself with a surprising lack of bitterness. It made no sense for him to trust the man in the first place; they had never been anything but enemies — mortal enemies. Well, perhaps there had been some rivalry there, a slight sense of competition… but it was a strange world in which a man could trust his enemy over his friends. But Saitou had no friends, so perhaps it was he that was strange. Certainly he was foolish. He and Himura had tried to kill each other too often for this kind of sensation. He must be mistaken.

“No matter what you think of my ideals, I will never kill again.”

Perhaps out of desperation, a final act of rebellion against something he knew he couldn’t deny much longer, he searched his memory for any evidence of the animosity that should logically be the basis of his relationship with that man. Ah! Why had he gone to the dojo after the fight, he demanded of himself triumphantly, if he trusted Himura so much? Shouldn’t he have assumed the former assassin would make the right choice?

“Sometimes people promise you things without saying it, you know? Just by being a certain way and getting close to you. And then you can hold them to that even if they’ve never said a word about it.”

The truth was that he had assumed. He’d never really believed Himura would turn down Ookubo’s request. Feared it, perhaps, but only in the irrational way an adolescent still fears the monsters in his closet. And he’d gone to the dojo simply because he wanted… he wanted…

He didn’t know what he wanted. He didn’t know why he’d gone there that day.

It’s been said that a filthy man cannot smell the stench that clings to him. But Saitou was beginning to smell his own denial. Or perhaps that was only the sea, which at the moment was looking disturbingly far from blue.

Sanosuke– I feel I must go to Kyoto. Please protect the others while I’m gone; please wait for me. I love you. –Kenshin

So there was obviously more to it than physical attraction. But Saitou wasn’t ready to admit just yet that he could see any basis for emotional appeal. Then, Sagara was clearly not as pathetic as Saitou had thought at first, but there was certainly no reason for… But Himura loved the boy, so there certainly was a reason.

Saitou no longer had the energy to ask himself why he cared.

“Do you know anything about having a normal life, or do you just run around stabbing people all the time?”

No. No, he didn’t know much about having a normal life, and he didn’t want to. He hated it all. He hated being confused. He hated this rocking ship. He hated Himura and Sagara and their damned voices in his head and however he actually felt about either of them. He hated this hellish, changing grey sea most of all.

Chapter 8 – Stronger Distraction

He’d been a little off in his prediction. Upon opening the door, Katsu had skipped the small talk and gone straight to the point with, “How much do you need?” But then, Sano had made his prediction before he’d had a bloodied shoulder and freshly bruised face. At any rate, departure from Tokyo hadn’t taken long. Neither had getting lost.

He sat wearily against a tree and tried not to think about anything. He’d never run so fast for so long before — pushing his body to its limits until his lungs threatened to dissolve and his legs finally declared their simple decision not to run anymore today — but he’d wanted to escape. Perhaps that was what had gotten him lost, but he didn’t really care. Just… he’d escaped… now…

Or had he? Naturally, once he went still and his rasping breaths were calming, the thoughts began to return. He wished he could run forever — well, run all the way to Kyoto in one stretch, anyway, so there would be no gap, no moment when he was forced to sit against a tree to save his lungs from being ripped to shreds and his legs from turning to some kind of highly useful bean paste not terribly effective at holding his weight. The gap let the thoughts in again, and now he was exhausted on top of it.

If he could sleep, he could lose them, and when he awoke he would be rested enough to run from them again. He pushed away the mental query about what he would do if his dreams followed the same pattern as his thoughts, as they seemed likely to do. It didn’t matter, though; he couldn’t sleep just yet anyway.

He pressed his hands against his chest and looked down at them with a scowl. The knuckles were split, every one, the fingers bruised, and dried blood lay in thin, halted lines down to his wrists. He probably shouldn’t have done that… but he’d been so furious!! He’d had to take his rage out on something, before he started running, and it had felt so good to watch huge trees splinter and go crashing down among their fellows to cause absolute havoc among the animals and birds. Trees looked nothing like Saitou, but still, somehow, it felt good.

And now he’d admitted why he’d bloodied his fists, the thoughts came pouring in. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the tree-trunk, hoping sleep would take him soon but not very optimistic about it.

. . . stronger . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . His reflections flowed along in time with the beating of his heart. . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . that bastard . . . stronger . . . why did every fucking thing he had to say have to be true?. . . stronger . . . stronger . . . but it wasn’t all true . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . no, ’cause Kenshin’s still Kenshin, no matter what Saitou says . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . I’ll make that asshole respect me, if it’s the last thing I do . . . stronger . . . and I’ll prove to Kenshin I’m not a fucking liability, too . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . I’ll show them both . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . I don’t even know how . . . stronger . . . but I fucking will . . . they’ll see . . . stronger . . . both of them with their ten years of experience since the war, all better than me and everything . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . they’ll see, and then they’ll . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . I don’t know . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . but I won’t be left behind again . . . stronger . . . I’m not a fucking baby . . . stronger . . . even if he did say I’m a child, and so what if I am compared to those old men? . . . stronger . . . I’ll show them . . . I will get stronger . . . stronger . . . Saitou has to . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . Kenshin has to . . . stronger . . . they both . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . I’m not just . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . had ten years . . . stronger . . . . . . . stronger . . . . . . . . I will . . . . . . . . . . . . .

It seemed he was closer to sleep than he’d originally imagined. Either that or this pleasant lullaby had eased the transition from waking to dreaming much more quickly than he’d fancied it could.

***

“…and they were all laughing like it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard!” She reminded him a little of Sano. “And it was true, but it’s good for onmitsu to be small, right?” Not that Sano ever chattered like this. “But when I said so, they just kept laughing!” A certain restlessness about her was somewhat like Sano when he was actually interested in what he was doing. “I got so mad…” Misao’s energy level was slightly higher than Sano’s even then. “Then, I guess to prove their point or something, Hyottoko grabs me and throws me in the air!” He wondered if she had lazy spells the way Sano did. “So I’m looking for a good way to kick him in the face as I’m coming down, just to show them all that just because I’m small doesn’t mean they can toss me around…” Her lazy spells would probably exceed Sano’s in lethargy just as much as her activity did his in exuberance. “And then my grandpa decides to get his old self involved.” She didn’t seem to do anything by halves, and therein lay the real resemblance. “He isn’t really my grandpa, actually, did I mention?” Beyond that, she seemed prone to bouts of swift-passing anger much like Sano was. “My real grandfather was Okashira before Aoshi-sama.” But once again, Sano didn’t go on like this. “He was killed at the beginning of the Bakumatsu and I never met him.” Actually, her talk was becoming a bit tiresome. “Anyway, so here I am falling and Jiiya decides to show off that he still knows what he’s doing even though he’s so old.” Not that he would tell her she was annoying him… yet. “Actually, it was a pretty good lesson for me, because of course I was so silly back then — you know, eleven years old and all, and thinking anyone over thirty is washed up — so it was good to learn that old Jiiya still had it in him.” He liked energetic people perfectly well. “I hope I’m still that good when I get that old!” He didn’t like chatter, and he found women’s voices a little irksome. “So where was I? Oh, flying through the air, and then Jiiya jumps up and grabs me before I can manage to kick Hyottoko in the face.” Sano would probably put up with her a little better… “And he and Hannya-kun start playing this game like I’m a ball or something.” Sano and Misao might turn out to be two peas in a pod, really. “Every time I manage to get something ready — like a kick or a punch, and once I had a really good one for Hannya-kun’s crotch — whoever was holding me would hand me off to the other guy.” He could be wrong, though; they might rub each other entirely the wrong way for being so similar in some points. “So they’re jumping around off the courtyard walls passing me back and forth in the air, and Beshimi’s rolling on the ground laughing.” Saitou would not like her at all. “I mean literally rolling on the ground laughing!” Not that Saitou and Misao were likely ever to meet, but it might be interesting if they did. “And the worst part of it was that — I mentioned I was eleven at this point, right? — it was actually kinda fun to be thrown around like that, and I was trying not to laugh myself!” He wondered idly what Saitou would have to say to her. “Anyway, like I said, that was the last time I saw Aoshi-sama smile.” Or about her, if Saitou considered it not worth his time to address her directly. “And the time before that was — hey, did you hear something?”

***

Before they’d even become aware of him, Shishio Makoto had built up one of the largest criminal empires in Japanese history, as well as a fighting force that could not be dismissed as some mere gang. His organization had eventually grown so big that despite how well it was maintained it could no longer be hidden from the government. But by then, he was firmly established and unshakeable, and had already quietly begun his takeover. It seemed incredible, but the possibility that he could have the entire country under his control within the next year was real. The worst part of it was that the whole affair, when looked at in the light, appeared so implausible and fantastic that there was little chance of much resistance from the general populace. Moving thus so efficiently in the shadows, Shishio was a greater danger than any other kind of revolutionary. That was why they had to combat him in kind: quietly and subtly.

And, really, in the midst of something like that seemed a very odd time for a government agent to indulge in self-defeating behaviors.

Though he was still technically denying that he… well, denying things… he wouldn’t have used that phrase for it. ‘In denial’ implied there was an awareness not readily apparent, that the knowledge being denied was subconscious — whereas what he denied now had been parading itself through his head for the last few days; he was merely pushing it away, not claiming it didn’t exist. He had been in denial, and now he was simply being stubborn. He would not admit… what was begging to be admitted.

Stubbornness — persistence for persistence’s sake apart from any justice involved in the issue — was a perfectly useless, often dangerous, and almost always ridiculous frame of mind, and one he would generally avoid. But everyone had to let themselves go somewhere, sometime… it was just a vacation of sorts. Although right now really did seem like an odd time for it.

But then, none of this had anything to do with Shishio and the state of the nation… allowing himself to play at being stubborn or in denial or whatever he was might as well happen now as any other time, as long as it didn’t interfere. Actually, keeping things from interfering might be one of his motives. He had no time, he had no energy, he certainly had no patience for things like that right now. Also, he could think up a number of very specific reasons why he shouldn’t admit…

Or maybe that was denial again? Considering, he couldn’t decide whether these excuses he was making, though they seemed quite logical, were part of the stubbornness, or part of another attempt to claim he didn’t…

Or maybe they were both really the same thing? He’d admitted that he was being stubborn, but maybe it was just a new label for the denial? He could be in stubborn denial about being in denial, stubbornly claiming he was merely stubborn rather than in denial.

And if that wasn’t the most ridiculous thought he’d ever had, he didn’t know what could possibly have been.

He hated this. It gave him a headache every time he thought about it, which meant he’d had a headache for… a week? Or had it been longer than that? But this headache, actually, was probably different from the headache he’d had before he’d realized… Time to think about something else. Perhaps saving the country would be a sufficiently distracting subject. Starting with whatever was going on in this sorry little village.

Himura appeared to have found yet another shrill and obnoxious friend just when it seemed he’d managed to escape the last batch. Saitou could see merely by the hyper glint in her eyes that he would probably regret after not too long having saved her just now. But he couldn’t look at her for long, because Himura was out there fighting in the main square of the little town.

Himura had very red hair, that is, and the contrast against the grey and miserable tableau drew Saitou’s gaze. That was the reason he looked at him.

(…self-defeating…)

“Hey,” Saitou called, in a slightly darker tone than he’d intended. No, actually, it was good to talk to him like that. That was what Himura needed to hear. “What are you doing wasting time around here?”

“Saitou…” The way Himura said his name was… well, it wasn’t interesting at all. It was not at all different from the way anyone else said his name. Similarly, Himura’s eyes that turned toward him in surprise were nothing remotely fascinating. Just like his hair, they provided an unexpected contrast to the colors around them and drew Saitou’s own eyes.

(…useless…)

“What are you doing here?” Himura didn’t seem to care, asking this, that he hadn’t answered Saitou’s very similar question.

Saitou explained concisely. It was good to talk business, but when it was Himura he was talking to, it didn’t really help.

“The boy’s brother must have been the man you speak of.”

Saitou followed Himura’s brief glance toward the two desecrated bodies that hung in the center of the square and then at the boy behind him and nodded slowly. “Mishima Eiichirou was a native of this town; I thought he could get in without raising suspicion, but apparently he was discovered. The fool should have waited for me before trying to get his family out.”

The anonymous girl had drawn closer, and now burst out, “How can you say something like that about one of your own men?!”

“Oi…” Saitou glanced sidelong at her, marking smallness, swiftness, bared teeth, and a pointed nose. Not to mention a peculiar annoying quality that, as it was already displayed in this the third thing he’d heard her say, was sure to heighten to a painful degree. Certainly this was not a companion Himura had chosen of his own accord! “Who is this weasel-girl?”

The little one went into a violent tantrum, and Himura restrained her and said some pacifying things, but Saitou had what he wanted: that quirk of the former assassin’s mouth, the glint in those violet eyes, that told him he’d been correct.

Which knowledge, of course, he only wanted because he needed to be sure Himura’s judgment was still intact.

(…dangerous…)

And he wasn’t tempted to test Himura’s tact by saying something else that would invite the redhead to join him in teasing the girl possibly without her knowledge, thus making a sort of inside joke out of the scene.

(…ridiculous…)

“Please calm down, Misao-dono.” Himura was still trying to keep the girl from attempted murder. “That is merely the way he talks; if you become angry with everything he says, we will be here for eternity.”

Saitou snorted, but Himura still had half of half of a grin hanging around the edge of his lips, so he could not be entirely displeased. Anyway, it was the truth…

“Besides that,” Himura added, his tone growing less pleasant as he turned slowly back toward the square, “we have more important things to attend to right now.”

Saitou had never rued his low level of compassion. But at the same time, he had never particularly disliked the emotion on the occasions he did feel it, nor minded it in others. Of course he believed having too much of it, or none at all, could be blinding, but it was generally something he didn’t give much care or consideration. Certainly he’d never admired it… before…

But the combination of deep pity and rage in Himura’s eyes as he fixed them on the hanging bodies, Saitou was realizing, suited him extremely well. Not the same as the purpose with which they’d glowed ten years ago, no… but somehow, that was all right. Different, but still…

Yes, fine, he admitted it. It was a little irritating, but he conceded he’d probably been wrong in assuming the changes Himura had undergone were entirely bad. That didn’t mean much, though. They still needed Battousai’s superior strength for the coming conflict.

(…and his subconscious could stop with the tirade any time…)

Himura was approaching the corpses, his hand on the hilt of the sword he’d resheathed. As his intent became clear, a protest rose from some member of the crowd that had gone only half-noticed as it gathered at the other side of the square. Saitou, Himura, and the girl Misao looked to where an old man, surly in his fear, stood spokesman for the equally surly and frightened other men of the town.

“You can’t cut them down,” he said. “You’ll anger Senkaku-sama, and we can’t allow you to do that. Without his permission, those bodies stay where they are.”

“Will you listen to yourself?” the girl sprang forward shouting. Saitou expected her to go up in flame at any moment like the slip of paper she almost resembled. “Are you going to let this Senkaku get away with this, just like that?!”

“Defying Senkaku-sama means death. Obeying him means life.” There was hardly anything in the old man’s eyes as he replied… a trace of weariness, a spot of fear, perhaps… but beyond that, nothing. He barely even seemed human. “All of you must leave at once, for the sake of the village. Eiji, do you hear me?”

Little Misao was trembling with anger, apparently shocked that anyone could act like this. Ah, young disillusionment. Not that the situation was any less abhorrent to someone twice her age. Saitou stepped forward quickly, putting a hand on her head and startling her out of whatever she’d begun to retort. “Don’t bother,” he said. “Few people are willing to put honor and dignity over their own lives. If your only goal is to survive, after all, those things are useless. Give them up and live like an animal, and you’ll live.” Intentionally he spoke loudly enough for everyone present to hear him, but he knew it would have little effect. Men that had allowed themselves to sink so far could rarely be brought back by mere words.

And, indeed, it only made them angry. Mutters spread through the little crowd, but even so it was a washed-out murmur: a little anger, a little guilt, but mostly just noise for the sake of it. Truly, they were little better than animals.

“No matter what you say,” the old man finally insisted, “we can’t allow you to remove the bodies, and you must leave at once.”

Himura stepped forward without a word, and Saitou found himself watching breathlessly, taking in every slight motion of that small frame with a rising feeling of pleasure. Yes… yes… he’d been wrong. So very wrong. The fire had never gone out, nor even waned. The flames had just shifted hue, so Saitou had not at first been able to make them out — but he was beginning to see them again, a figurative light around the former assassin. That was why he really stood out.

Purposefully displaying his uncanny speed in the action, Himura severed the ropes that held the two corpses, his sword vanishing back into its sheath before anyone present except Saitou could mark its movement. Then, kneeling, heedless of the blood and not flinching at the touch of cold flesh, he began to untie the ropes from the dead couple’s necks.

Saitou walked toward him, finding as he did so that any desire he’d been harboring to keep up his stubborn denial about this particular matter had been swept away. It was about time he admitted that this Himura Kenshin was every bit as palatable to him as the old hitokiri Battousai; that Saitou wanted him just as much now as he had ten years ago and even, as long as he wasn’t in denial anymore, every day for that long decade.

He toyed with the idea of admitting some other things as well, but he didn’t think he was ready for that yet. The concession he’d just made had been quite enough for one day.

The girl was cheering, the villagers protesting loudly, but Himura, who had straightened and looked away from them all, ignored the sounds, his face grim and determined. Saitou stopped at his side, his gaze directed at the villagers rather than Himura for fear he might say the wrong thing. “You see how the people of this place have degraded themselves,” he remarked softly. “If Shishio has his way, the same will happen to all of Japan. People will be controlled through fear and violence, and in struggling just to survive they’ll forget the real reasons they were living in the first place.”

“Saitou,” Himura said quietly, “did the government truly abandon this town?”

With a frown and a sigh Saitou replied, “It isn’t just this one. At least ten villages have been lost to Shishio and his men. The police have given up all efforts at recovering them.”

“I don’t get it,” the girl said. She’d drawn closer as Saitou spoke. “If the police can’t do anything, why not just send in the army?”

“Ahou,” he replied, not even bothering to look at her. “It’s barely been half a year since the Seinan War. If the army were to be mobilized again so soon, it would show every foreign power exactly how weak we are at the moment.”

“How can you say something like that, you heartless–” her shrill voice came from his side, but he cut her off sharply:

“Even if that weren’t the case, we’d never get the authorization for any kind of military action. Nobody who’s in a position to give the order wants to share Ookubo’s fate.”

“I see,” Himura nodded. “The army could certainly retake this and the other villages, but whoever planned the operation would undoubtedly be assassinated in retaliation.”

Saitou finally looked at him. “You of all people should know how little the government can do to prevent such things,” he replied quietly. Then more loudly, “In the end, politicians and officials are only human. They all value their lives and hope someone else will handle the problem.”

“Someone else?” the girl shrieked, waving her arms. “Someone else?! Who else is there? Who’s going to help this place, and avenge that kid’s family?!”

“Who else indeed?” Saitou asked, and Himura would know the question was directed at him. “The village, the police, the army, the government… nobody can stand up to Shishio Makoto.” He met Himura’s eyes, and finally let his gaze stay there as he saw that the former assassin had come to the same conclusion Saitou was vocalizing: “That’s why men like you and me are needed for something like this.”

He was searching for any sign that Himura had also come to the conclusion Saitou did not vocalize– That’s why I had to hurt you and your lover. It was never random… never malicious –an avowal he wouldn’t have bothered to make even mentally if he hadn’t decided to leave his comfortable denial. But apparently he was looking for too much, on this occasion, for the only glint in Himura’s eyes was that of determined purpose.

The girl must have wondered why they were just standing there staring at each other, for she was making impatient, angry noises like some kind of trapped rodent. Saitou realized in that moment that it might be every bit as dangerous having admitted what he had as the denial had been before. He was already starting to get a little distracted by these ideas, and it had barely been ten minutes.

“We’ve located the inn where Shishio is currently staying,” he said, resolving not to think about any of it right now when it was potentially perilously intrusive; he would resolve this later. “I think a visit is in order. Will you be coming with me?”

Himura was silent for a long moment, but it didn’t seem he was deliberating… or at least, it didn’t seem he was trying to decide how to answer that question. Finally he replied with a simple, intense, “Yes.”

Chapter 9 – Still Not Obsessive

The last time he’d been left behind by someone he loved because he wasn’t strong enough, that person had then been beheaded.

That this was a different kind of love and different kind of situation didn’t make any difference; the worry was the same. Not that he’d actually worried at the time, ten years ago — he’d never expected what had happened, as he’d been steadfastly convinced Sagara-taichou was invincible. But during the nights when those events repeated themselves in his dreams, he did worry… he hoped things might play out to another ending this time around. But by the time he awoke, they never had. And he had the same firm belief in Kenshin’s infallibility as he’d had as a child in his captain — a belief perhaps equally childish. No one could exist without taking a defeat at some point, and it was about Kenshin’s turn, no matter how good he was.

The point was that Kenshin might need all the help he could get. The point was that Sano didn’t want to be left alone again. The point was that he would get stronger and keep things from happening like they had ten years ago. He just didn’t quite know how yet.

He was still lost, and sweltering in the spots between tree-shadows. And he couldn’t get his mind to stop bouncing around like a hyper child in a small room. It was a little sad, but more annoying, that even after having cooled off somewhat, slept, stopped punching trees, ceased picturing Saitou’s face everywhere he looked… still the moment he exhausted that minute’s store of Kenshin-thoughts, they were replaced by thoughts of Saitou.
It was perfectly clear to him now that he must get stronger just as much to prove to Saitou he was worth something as to prove to Kenshin he wasn’t a weakness. Less clear was why these were so equally weighty in his mind… something about that man’s derisive eyes, and “I can see I’m wasting my time with you. Go, then, if you’re so determined to get yourself killed…”

So he walked on and on, his thoughts moving in an endless circle of Kenshin, Saitou, Kenshin, Saitou, the link between them that same tiresome, inciting mantra of stronger, stronger, stronger that had punctuated his mental process since he left Tokyo. He couldn’t get any of it off his mind, and it was giving him a headache. Again. Still.

Please wait for me.

“I can see I’m wasting my time with you.”

An idea had suggested itself to him so subtly that he hardly recognized it at first. But once he did, he fought against it with vigor and ire. Obviously he was dealing with this emotionally, because he was an emotional person… but even he didn’t just react at random. There were sensible reasons he felt the way he felt, and it was logical to want what he wanted. Hadn’t he just finished reflecting how possibly similar this was to the situation of ten years ago? And he wasn’t dwelling on this too much; it was natural for him to be thinking the way he was. Anyone would do the same in his shoes. And that stupid idea could just go jump of something high and precipitous.

Yeah, he was scarred. Yeah, he was therefore maybe a little overreactant. Yeah, he was in love and, yeah, he was incensed. But if there was one thing he wasn’t, it was obsessive.

***

There were times he felt totally convinced, and there were times he was less sure. He couldn’t recall ever having lost faith, but on occasion he was tested. It was a distinctly different pair of mind-sets: the one in which he felt he was doing the right thing with his life and could be strong in the resolve he’d made no matter what kind of pressure was on him, external or internal; and the one in which he feared he was fighting an unwinnable battle for principles that were perhaps wrong and useless. The first feeling, which was greatly strengthened by the support of those he loved and respected, he’d come to associate very much with Sano. The second… he was beginning to connect quite a bit with Saitou.

However, despite Saitou’s proximity and Kenshin’s overwhelming consciousness of his presence, this was nothing he could afford to dwell on during as important an event as his first confrontation with Shishio. Still, with Saitou standing beside him undoubtedly wishing he would spring forward and decapitate their enemy, it was a difficult thing not to dwell on. The scene was certainly tense to begin with, but it became even more so because of this.

He didn’t think Shishio could tell there was something on his mind that had only a minor connection to the matter at hand, but he felt sure Saitou could. It was a bit bothersome, though. He didn’t need Saitou’s approval and didn’t want to want it, but he did want it, and couldn’t help thinking that if Saitou would just accept the way he was, things would be a lot easier. But it was Saitou’s job at this point to expect a killer of him, wasn’t it? Kenshin found this rather annoying.

He didn’t always enjoy fighting, but the conflict with Senkaku was a welcome release. But when even Shishio, who didn’t even know him, started in on his ideals, Kenshin found himself wishing, just a little, that Sano were here. Not because he needed someone to defend him when his lifestyle was questioned, but because this whole affair was so dreary and almost demoralizing that some happiness, some increased confidence in himself, would have been a comfort. He didn’t like going into battle feeling like a champion of a lost cause — though the exchange of sword-blows with Soujirou did not turn out to be quite as much of a ‘battle’ as he had been expecting.

And now his sakabatou was broken. He wouldn’t go so far as to say he was dreading it, but he didn’t look forward to Saitou’s comments on that. Then he was somewhat distracted by Eiji, as there were things that could not go unsaid and it wouldn’t do to be selfish (and he was fairly certain Saitou wasn’t going to say them), but soon enough he had returned to his own problems. Saitou, too, seemed distant, and his orders to his subordinates, as those men cleaned things up around Shingetsu and took Senkaku away, were curt. Even genki-genki Misao seemed to have been put in a dark mood by the proceedings.

“This village is my home,” Eiji was remarking. “I’m glad something good could happen to it.”

“That reminds me,” Kenshin said. “What is Eiji going to do?”

“I’ll take him to stay with Tokio,” Saitou replied absently. “He can determine what he wants to do from there.”

“Tokio?”

Saitou looked over at him, and, though Kenshin could have been imagining things, for some reason he appeared slightly startled. But it passed quickly, and he answered calmly, “My wife.”

It was such a shock that Kenshin could not even complete his first resultant reflection, I thought I knew everything about… Saitou was married? He wasn’t sure why it was such a surprise, given that there were several years of the man’s life he hadn’t followed obsessively, and a wife could easily have entered the picture during that time… but… Saitou was married?! Kenshin couldn’t quite figure out, also, why the thought of Saitou being with a woman was so strange — unsettling, even — but it was. He supposed he’d just always assumed that… well, he didn’t know what he’d always assumed.

He was lucky Misao was equally shocked, as otherwise his prolonged staring silence in response to the revelation might have seemed more than a little odd. As it was, he found himself absently responding to her whispered comment with something that was probably unduly insulting to Saitou — not that he cared. Actually, the man seemed rather amused by whatever Kenshin and Misao were whispering, so Kenshin struggled for a moment to remember what it was — something about saints… Saitou was married?!

Misao was having a relatively cheerful conversation with Eiji now, and Saitou had taken two steps toward Kenshin with that usual inscrutable expression on his face. “You go straight to Kyoto,” he said. “And it should be obvious to you after that fight — you couldn’t even take Shishio’s advisor: you can’t fight Shishio the way you are now.” Kenshin braced himself for censure, irritated once again at the same time that this man had such an effect on him. But Saitou’s next words were the second shock of the last few minutes: “We need your old strength, so figure out some way to get it back even if you don’t plan on killing him.” And with a hand laid briefly on Kenshin’s shoulder, his leave-taking was at an end and he was walking away, calling Eiji to follow.

This time, Kenshin managed to recover much more quickly, quite possibly thanks to a self-preservation instinct reminding him that Misao’s list of insistent questions would probably double in length if she caught him staring after Saitou like… like… he didn’t fancy any of the analogies that came to mind, and didn’t think Sano would either.

But Saitou… well, it would be silly to say he approved or agreed or anything so positive, but obviously he suddenly didn’t mind the way Kenshin was. Kenshin had no idea how the wolf could possibly have come to that conclusion during the events that had just transpired, but… Had he been thinking it would ‘make things easier’ to have Saitou’s acceptance?

What a weak description.

He was elated.

And he didn’t care anymore that that might be an overreaction.

***

Just a minor slip of the tongue, really. It happened sometimes when he was distracted, though only in the presence of those he didn’t really worry about telling things. In other words, it rarely happened at all. And now he couldn’t stop thinking about it. He’d known this would be distracting, but he hadn’t counted on it being quite this distracting. He just couldn’t get the image out of his head of Himura’s shocked face. And, try as he might, he couldn’t stop dwelling on it and wondering whether this was a good or a bad thing.

On the one hand, Himura’s surprise had apparently not been of the pleased variety. And surely there was hope if Himura disliked the idea of Saitou being married! Not that he needed to be thinking about hope or the furtherance of his desires… but he was. On the other hand, supposing Himura’s inclinations had ever tended toward him at all (and Saitou could not help thinking perhaps they had), in a mind such as Himura’s, the knowledge that Saitou was already spoken for would only add to the weight of moral obligation to forget him. And there obviously hadn’t been opportunity to discuss the details.

It was fortunate Eiji was being quiet. Saitou didn’t think he had the patience to answer a lot of questions at the moment.

All very irritating, the whole affair. Why, in the first place, did such feelings have to develop and get in the way of sense and activity? This desire he now had, to explain to Himura the entire situation with his wife, seemed unlikely to go away; most likely it would plague him throughout his dealings with the other man until he found some way to fulfill it. But he just didn’t have time, at the moment, to make any attempt at winning Himura over, and how if not in such a light could he bring up such a subject? He supposed he could possibly…

This was no good. A certain kind of philosophical pondering was one thing, but this sort of pointless speculative musing was entirely another. And he was stronger than this anyway. With painful determination, he wrenched the greater part of his thoughts from the topic they most wanted to hover around and sent them with great force toward the much more important business of saving the country. Which is not to say they all went obediently, but at least for the moment he could be pleased with his level of self-control.

***

He was lying on the ground in exhaustion, taking a break, just a brief break, from his training — he deserved it after three unflagging days — holding Kenshin’s note above his face and rereading certain words over and over again without really taking in their individual meanings.

Sanosuke Sanosuke –

He had to hold it carefully, to avoid getting the paper dirty with the blood that ran from his mangled knuckles; he’d gone at that last set of rocks a bit carelessly.

…I feel I I I feel feel…

Of course, blood could only make the words brighter, because to have earned the love of someone like Kenshin was…

…go go go to…

He wasn’t making sense.

…I feel I…

Too tired, no doubt.

…must I must must feel I must…

They all had duties… why, when there was love, did those duties have to conflict? Or did they only think they did?

…go to Kyoto go to Kyoto go to go to…

Yes, he was going to Kyoto. He’d show them both.

Please Please Please Please…

Kenshin didn’t really need to beg him.

…protect protect protect the…

How could he protect anyone if he couldn’t even master something so simple as hitting a rock twice and making it shatter?

…the others protect the others…

But it wasn’t for Kenshin that he wanted to do that, was it? There was an other, indeed.

…while I’m gone…

No, Kenshin, nothing happened while you were gone… I still love you…

…wait wait wait…

The words seemed almost accusatory. I swear I still love you…

…wait for me…

Desperate, maybe? Even if I…

…please wait…

Even if I…

…for me for me for me me me…

Even if there’s maybe something…

I love you.

…someone…

– Kenshin Kenshin Kenshin

It was about time to get up and start working on that Futae no Kiwami thing again.

Chapter 10 – In Another Light

He’d never really intended to come back here. He didn’t feel that subjecting himself to an endless stream of horrific memories was necessary to his penance, and this city was the Bakumatsu to him. It was here the path of his life had led down through a pool of blood and forever colored his footprints. It was here he’d met Tomoe, who had represented at once a victim of and someone to be protected by his sword; represented everything terrible he was and everything noble he could become. As little as he’d actually felt anything in those days of repression, she had almost been his first love… except that it was here he’d first seen… well, he hadn’t ever intended to come back to Kyoto. And yet here he was.

The girl seemed pleased. No, ‘seemed’ was an unnecessary description for Misao at any time, since she let everyone know exactly what she was thinking and feeling in a manner so unambiguous — indeed, often so overstated — as to put the matter beyond speculation. And she did make him smile a little. But not much. Kyoto was too sobering, and he was beginning to see things in the colors of the old days — deep blues and bloody reds and all with edges of gold. It was like being plunged into a dream more corporeal than anything he’d ever experienced, while at the same time real life went on all around him — to a certain extent: he saw and heard and spoke, accepting the help of the Kyoto Oniwabanshuu in finding the people he knew he must seek, but not really conscious of any of it.

It was his own fault for allowing the spirit of the past thus to overcome him, but he couldn’t remember having felt this lonely for years.

***

The Kyoto chief of police was giving him a lot of unnecessary details he already knew and that probably weren’t relevant to the interrogation he was about to conduct, but to which he couldn’t object as, firstly, he personally wasn’t infallible and was capable of forgetting things; and, secondly, he personally wasn’t infallible and had of late been in an inordinate state of distraction that could do with a good healthy dose of unrelated data.

And really didn’t need to be aggravated by the sight of Sagara Sanosuke sitting, glowering but at his ease, in the shadows of one of the lesser cells.

He’d already come to a halt in front of the latter even before Sagara greeted him, even before he’d decided that stopping and looking toward the boy was a bad idea. Having halted, having decided, there was then not much to do besides throw his impassive gaze at an angle between the slats of the wooden door and try to be as ambiguous as possible about whether or not he was listening to what the boy was saying.

And only half listening he was in reality, as certain thoughts from previous days reiterated themselves with alarming mental volume. It was the first time he’d seen Sagara, had that aspect of recent realizations (or admissions) forced onto his mind, since those realizations or admissions had taken place, and perhaps he wasn’t as well prepared for the ensuing reflections as he could have been.

…it was certainly just a temporary, casual arrangement… Himura Kenshin was every bit as palatable to him as the old hitokiri Battousai… pointless speculative musing… I feel I must go to Kyoto. Please protect the others while I’m gone; please wait for me. I love you…

Oh, come, now! He wasn’t… This little pathetic nineteen-year-old didn’t have that power over him, did he? With that perfect body and those warm eyes and that unguarded, passionate nature that seemed to be just exactly what Himura needed these days…

No, no… As Saitou looked him over again, he resisted the urge to shake his head. If he were jealous, he would certainly be experiencing different sensations here and now, especially having entered this encounter entirely unaware and unprepared as he had. He would surely be conscious of a much more lively, bitter disliking of the young man before him than the same passive disdain that (he was fairly sure) had been his attitude toward Sagara’s existence ever since the beginning of the roosterhead’s association with Himura…

Indeed, the only distinct feeling he could admit to now, besides the aforementioned disdain, was the other he’d had since the beginning: curiosity as to what in the world a man like Himura could see in a boy like Sagara… at least, what he could see that would hold him, would prompt him to write such words as he had. It was an unforeseen desire, strong enough for its vigor also to be rather surprising: to find out what there was to the idiot beyond what met the eye and ear… to know, if it came to that, exactly what he was up against. A strategic desire, but simple… and unmistakably ill-timed.

Perhaps his recent acknowledgment had not been inappropriate, but, as he’d reminded himself more than once, anything that purported to move beyond mere mental acceptance into the realm of planning or actual deeds was totally out of place at this point. He had neither time nor opportunity to do whatever it was this new and rather odd attitude toward Sagara was prompting him to do — get to know him better or be nicer to him or any such thing. He tried to tell himself he didn’t want to either, but denial was getting stale and he didn’t relish it as much as he used to. He had other things to do.

Pulling forcibly out of these reflections, he found himself, as he had once before, staring fixedly into Sagara’s dark eyes. And though he would not go so far as to say it was startling, the sudden recollection that, somehow, Sagara had on certain recent occasions been able to read him better than Himura had left him abruptly just the tiniest bit unsettled. Not that he had any fears regarding the privacy of his thoughts and feelings… but this was a potent reminder, more even than his own remonstrances to himself, that he didn’t have leisure to try to define the look in Sagara’s eyes.

So when the police chief ventured into the thick silence, “Do you know him?” Saitou merely replied, “No, not at all,” and walked on. And while he wasn’t entirely thrilled at having done it, such was necessity.

***

Had Kenshin been aware someone somewhere was consistently struggling not to think about him, he might have been comforted. He’d been thinking about himself all night, struggling not to think about Sano.

Hiko had said there was something wrong with him, something he was missing… this was not exactly news, and though its bearing on his ability to master the technique was as much a mystery to him as it was, he couldn’t be surprised at the necessity of facing whatever it was before he could complete his training.

But he couldn’t contemplate the state of his life, the interior of his soul, without thinking about Sano. Much as his lover had to do with those things, Kenshin was sure this issue was deeper within himself than Sano could reach — or at least could have reached by this point — and thinking about him was therefore outside the purpose of the night’s meditation. It was also outside his ability to avoid. Without throwing any blame on Sano, Kenshin blamed this for his lack of results. Not that he’d ever really needed any additional reason for having no answer to What is wrong with me?

Hiko had shed his mantle. Kenshin didn’t remember ever having seen him do this with sword in hand, and a shiver ran through him so heavy it left him feeling almost paralyzed.

He shook himself, trying to break free of the spell. Why should I be afraid? he demanded. Either I master the technique, or he kills me. I have already said I’m willing to die for this… why should I fear his killing me?

The answer to that came a little more easily than whatever other answer he was seeking: there rose immediately into his mind with piercing clarity faces… words… experiences, past and cherished, future and anticipated…

“I believe in you. You won’t lose.”

“That’s why men like you and me are needed.”

Obviously, then, it wasn’t the act of dying he feared, but the separation it would bring about from a certain person… certain people… he’d rather not part from so soon. It was selfish, certainly… he, with the blood of so many on his hands, should not hesitate to die for a righteous cause just because he wanted…

And then it hit him, swifter and harder even than a blow from his master — that no matter who or what he was, what he’d done, what he deserved, he did not want to die. It was something he’d never considered, the difference between being willing to die for the protection of the weak, if it came to it, and having entirely lost the will to live. For this, it struck him in a half-moment as that fine difference came to him all at once, he had not done.

It was not selfishness to desire life; it was a basic human instinct… and, in trying to repress it, had he not repressed a part of his own power and ability along with it? He hadn’t realized it, as he’d never thought about it, but he knew now, suddenly, almost overwhelmingly… he was not going to die if it could be helped. He wanted to see them again. He wanted to live. He would live. Hiko Seijuurou was not going to kill him here.

He put his hand to his sword hilt.

***

Saitou had pretty much continued being just as much of an asshole as usual, but somehow it wasn’t bothering Sano like before.

For one thing, the cop was confident they would meet Kenshin soon; though volunteering very little information, from what he had said Sano got the impression there was a kind of general police lookout on for Kenshin throughout Kyoto ever since he’d trashed that Chou guy and caused a commotion outside some shrine.

For another thing, Sano couldn’t help thinking of the way Saitou had looked at him downstairs in the cells — both right at first and then in that unexpected moment of total agreement after talking to Chou. Something had changed. There was something in Saitou’s bearing toward him now that seemed to imply, however strange it might be, that Sano had been just then truly noticed by Saitou for the first time. This really made no sense, as Saitou had paid him plenty of attention in the past… what with the stabbing, staring, beating, and possibly kissing… and Sano really should be mad that even after all of that it was only now Saitou saw him as something other than an object — either tool or obstruction. He should be mad, but he couldn’t… for though Saitou’s overtly displayed opinion of him didn’t seem to have changed, and though he still refused to fight Sano again, it had been from the moment of Sano’s Futae no Kiwami on the cell door that Saitou had ceased to make any real objections to Sano’s coming with him. Which meant Sano’s efforts had made Saitou take him more seriously, and how could Sano be angry in such a moment?

While he didn’t think he’d won a particularly large amount of respect, having won any at all just confirmed how much he wanted more. Of course he still hated the bastard, but at the same time found himself elated even with such an understated rising esteem. In fact, he had a rather stupid, childish urge to make the first thing he said to Kenshin, when he saw him again, “I showed him!!!” After he punched him, of course. He cracked his knuckles with a grin.

“You’re in a very good mood for someone who’s been in a jail cell all day,” Saitou remarked dryly, looking at Sano over the top of the paper he’d been studying with a grim expression.

Sano thought this an oddly conversational (that is, relatively un-insulting) remark, and was not averse to answering. But there was no way he was going to admit the already somewhat disturbing fact that his good mood had a lot to do with Saitou himself. “I’m looking forward to punching Kenshin in the face,” he said.

“How affectionate,” murmured Saitou.

Sano only bristled mildly at the scornful tone. “Like you’d know,” he muttered.

Though Saitou’s eyes had turned back to whatever he was reading, Sano thought they flashed as he answered, “And how would you know what I know?”

The younger man snorted. “Everything I know about you so far pretty much proves you don’t know much about relationships.” He found Saitou’s response strange, though, and a little unsettling. Certain worries regarding Saitou and relationships had never entirely been cleared from the back of his mind, and the confusion of the dojo was suddenly beginning to reawaken.

“My wife would probably agree with you,” Saitou nodded without looking up again.

This didn’t do much to keep the confusion off.

“Your… wife…?”

After a few moments, Saitou set aside his paper and stood in an abrupt movement. Withdrawing a cigarette case and going about the business of matches, he left Sano in inexplicably agitated suspense for nearly a minute. Then, through a fresh haze of smoke, he answered in a still oddly casual tone. “She’s been trying for a ‘relationship’ with me for years. Either I’m not good at it, or she’s not nearly as attractive as she thinks.”

Sano was skeptically horrified. “So she likes you but you don’t like her?” What was wrong with this man?! “Why the hell’d you marry her?”

Saitou snorted but had no other answer. Actually, Sano was surprised such a topic had even come up at all, that he’d gotten even that much of a response to such a question. But he had to admit, their last conversation in Tokyo (if an argument that ended in blood could be called a conversation) had also concerned rather personal serious subjects. Sano had even shown him that note he hadn’t been planing to show to anyone, hadn’t he? This, perhaps, made them even, in that case. Sano liked that thought somehow, but at the same time, it threw Saitou’s wife into contrast with… Sano couldn’t help remarking, “Figures you’re even a bastard to your wife.”

Saitou raised an eyebrow and preceded his response with a long drag of his cigarette, as if sustaining himself through the unpleasant subject. “And it figures you’d blame me for not returning some stubborn idiot’s feelings.”

“Well, I bet you didn’t even try,” Sano retorted a little huffily.

“Should I have?”

“You said ‘years!’ A woman’s in love with you for years and you can’t even try to like her back?”

“Would you apply that logic to anyone?”

“What do you mean?” Sano asked a little warily.

“If someone you didn’t like was in love with you, would you try to like them back?”

“Of course,” insisted the uneasy Sano.

“Even if you already loved someone else?” The glance Saitou threw him as he said this, though brief, was piercing, and Sano’s confusion was great. At first he was, as Saitou seemed to be admonishing, putting himself in the unfortunate position of being in love with and promised to one and sought after by another… but after a moment the particular significance of that statement as made by that speaker struck him.

“Wait, so, you do?”

“Hn.” Saitou returned to the desk.

Sano watched him, unsure how to react. Short as it had been, that discussion had given him much food for thought. Saitou’s words and behavior could add up to a couple of conclusions, but they were in areas of Sano’s mind he’d pretty much forbidden himself to enter, and now he was agitated. He was angry, too, with Saitou for bringing it up and then leaving it hanging — but what more could he do besides reiterate a question that was maybe (hopefully) none of his business, that would lead him to thoughts he definitely didn’t want?

And what the hell did it mean that Saitou had entered so readily into such a conversation, anyway? In the middle of police shit, too, with a plot afoot to burn down Kyoto, why would Saitou waste time on a totally irrelevant discussion? That didn’t seem like him. He must have had some specific purpose…

Sano suddenly felt very uncomfortable.

Exceptionally quiet, this police station. After they’d finished questioning Chou, Saitou had consulted briefly with the fat chief, most of the cops who weren’t out already had been ordered off on different assignments, and the building was left big and echoing and empty. Except for this room where Saitou was doing whatever he was doing — some kind of research or something, combined with a stack of local reports of some kind; Sano didn’t really have any concept what the prospective result was — in here the air was thick with the hovering remains of that conversation, with thought and implication, mostly ideas Sano wanted to avoid.

After several tense minutes passed in silence but for the shifting of papers, the chief bustled back in and, with a curious and slightly disapproving glance at Sano that matched the ones he’d given him before, started talking to Saitou about patrol patterns and something else that sounded like it might actually be interesting if Sano cared to listen. Instead it seemed that he, only half-realizing what he did, was taking the opportunity to slip out of the room. As he resumed a leaning position against a shadowy wall in the corridor, he found it wasn’t much more comfortable out here than it had been in there. In fact, if anything, he felt more restless and agitated than before, because now he had the vague sensation of having somehow backed down from something, retreated from some challenge. Which was stupid, since there hadn’t been anything of the sort within… just Saitou and the totally immaterial and extraneous fact that he had a wife he didn’t love and maybe a love he hadn’t admitted to.

Eventually the chief emerged, gave Sano the same expression of confused disapprobation, and hastened off about some other task. Sano fixed his eyes on the door and contemplated moving toward it, but somehow never did.

Whether his thoughts kept to the same tether was another business entirely.

Chapter 11 – Angles

He could go in there and comment, “Yeah, pretty serious shit you didn’t want my help with, ain’t it?”

He’d taken a restless little walk around the station, and had been trying to decide whether or not to go back into that office and talk to Saitou again, only to hear, upon his return, through the door of said room, Kenshin doing exactly that. His lover’s surprised and horrified voice crying “Kyoto Taika?!” sent shivers up Sano’s spine. It seemed much longer than a mere couple of weeks since he’d seen him, seemed like a lot had changed. He hadn’t set eyes on the rurouni since before reading the words I love you, and he was sure their meeting would mean more than a standard reunion; he still wasn’t certain whether he felt angrier or happier with Kenshin. And “Yeah, pretty serious shit…” seemed like a decent way to enter the conversation. But for some reason he didn’t do it.

Saitou was explaining, his tone relatively devoid of emotion, how he’d learned of Shishio’s arson plans. Saitou was all business, of course. Lives and the country were in danger, and Saitou wasn’t dragging personal shit into it. Even if he had brought up his wife for no good reason just a little earlier. Sano couldn’t quite admonish himself to follow Saitou’s example, but, even so, perhaps a less pointed opening remark, such as, “With shit like this going down, seems like you can use all the help you can get,” would be better.

“It seems strange,” Kenshin remarked pensively.

“Strange like going on an epic quest without your boyfriend?” That would also be a good interjection… but still Sano didn’t move.

“You think so too?” wondered Saitou.

Sano frowned and leaned against the door in order to catch every word more fully. Not that it was important that Saitou and Kenshin had some similar unfathomable thought; he just didn’t want to miss any of what was certainly an important conversation.

“No matter how strong Shishio’s organization is,” mused the wolf, “we still have an overwhelming advantage of numbers. So their tactics will have to emphasize surprise attacks and assassination, and this Kyoto Taika will have to rely on the same things. If their plans aren’t kept a complete secret, they can’t accomplish anything nearly that big. Their security should be so tight that information leaks are a matter of life and death, so I thought someone would be sent to eliminate Chou before he could be brought to tell what he knows. I set up a close watch down in the cells… but there was no sign of anyone, and it turns out you can get anything out of Chou without much effort.”

Sano snorted. It made sense, though; in that light, it did seem strange. Sano surely would have noticed if he hadn’t been distracted. It was about time he made his entrance.

“There must be something behind the Kyoto Taika that is a secret even to the Juppongatana,” Kenshin agreed.

“Well, going places and doing shit without your allies is popular these days,” Sano could say, if he walked in there right now.

“There must be some other target.”

“Either that or there’s some other…” But that was going a little too far; he wouldn’t say that.

Sano didn’t know the reason for his continually increasing anger as he listened. It wasn’t as if anything inappropriate was going on behind this door, or as if anything had happened to render him more annoyed than he had been before Kenshin had arrived… but… couldn’t Kenshin tell he was here?

“This is modeled after the Ikedaya affair,” Saitou said decisively. “Since Shishio is taking over the country and taking revenge at the same time, he’s probably playing a game of some sort with the Kyoto Taika and this other target.”

Playing a game with an ostensible objective and a second, concealed one. That concept was just… Yeah, it must be Shishio Sano was so angry at.

There was silence for a few moments. Sano could head in there and berate Kenshin for his mean trick right now, but… what exactly would he say?

“In the battle of Tobafushimi,” began Kenshin, his words slow, dark, and thoughtful, “Tokugawa Yoshinobu deceived his own allies by retreating by ship from Osaka Bay to Edo. This maneuver was the main reason for the government victory. It would be ironic if Shishio could somehow mirror that tactic for his own victory… Here!” Sano was startled by the vehemence and volume of the sudden exclamation. “The Kyoto Taika is only the first stage of his plan! His true objective is a marine bombardment of Tokyo!”

Sano’s frown had by now become an irate glower; again, the logic in there was flawless, this conclusion even less pleasant than the last. And he couldn’t help thinking he could easily open the door and say, “Tokyo? What, you mean that place I was supposed to stay so I wouldn’t get involved?”

“I see…” Saitou sounded pretty glowery too. “The Kyoto Taika is an opening move that will draw all eyes to where Shishio’s forces are meeting head-on with the police in a flashy battle. He deliberately released the information about it to draw attention from his real target: the seat of the government and a place that can’t be put out of harm’s way.”

“Tokyo will not be able to combat a marine attack!” was Kenshin’s energetic worry. “That’s the one thing they cannot avoid! There’s no time! Hurry!”

“Hurry to leave me behind again?” He could say that. Or… could have. It was too late now. The door was opening. Actions spoke louder anyway.

***

Himura really didn’t seem to have seen it coming, truly didn’t seem to have noticed Sagara’s presence in the hall. Saitou wasn’t sure how this could be possible when the boy was so conspicuous that his mere presence in the building was like having a bonfire glowing just out of the corner of one’s eye; should he consider it significant that Himura had been so preoccupied?

The crack of fist meeting face was nearly concurrent with Himura’s startled gasp and followed by the rustle of cloth as he stumbled and Sagara caught him. It hadn’t been a light punch, and, Saitou suspected, the unfamiliar circumstance of its taking Himura entirely by surprise made its impact all the stronger. Then Sagara hauled the redhead upright and kissed him, and the poor man looked completely stunned.

Well. ‘Poor man’ was not an apt description.

Saitou didn’t bother trying not to stare, to study the contact of their lips, their clutching arms and hands. He’d never actually seen them behave like lovers before, and, though there was nothing particularly surprising about the display, he felt something that seemed a little like surprise. Strikingly unexpected was that he couldn’t quite define the feeling, which was intense, a dizzying mix of pleasant and unpleasant, and not quite jealousy. He’d feared this would be too distracting, and he’d been right. He really didn’t have time to analyze such things right now, or to put up with useless displays of affection… and yet he did nothing to break up the unorthodox reunion.

As the kiss ended and Sagara’s eyes opened, the boy caught sight of the assiduous watcher. And his expression as their gazes met over Himura’s shoulder was about as unfathomable to Saitou as the emotion the previous action had produced. Sagara himself had literally shoved the status of his relationship with Himura in Saitou’s face at one point, and therefore shouldn’t have much room to complain of feeling intruded upon; Saitou got the impression he probably would anyway. But that wasn’t the look the boy was giving him now.

Nor was it the frenetic I have him and you can’t defiance he would have expected had he thought Sagara had any idea… It wasn’t even angry. Saitou couldn’t think him at peace, even in his lover’s arms; it must be that, having accomplished what he’d intended, his fury had abated. But why he seemed to be including Saitou in his brief period of contentment — or at least not actively excluding him — the wolf couldn’t understand. Was it simply Himura’s long-sought company that had made him momentarily so unhostile?

“Sano!” Once Himura had his breath back, his astonishment was great. “How did you get here? What are you doing here?”

The strange instant had passed as Sagara’s eyes returned to his lover. “I came with him,” he said — somewhat misleadingly, Saitou thought, and was that deliberate? — “to help you.”

Saitou abhorred having such a limited grasp on the nuances of a situation, even if it was merely the personal aspect that he shouldn’t be allowing to distract him so much in the first place. “Don’t you mean get in our way?” he asked caustically, and was pleased to feel the entire mood shift at once.

Sagara broke from Himura with clenched fists and an irate face that also looked, oddly enough, vaguely betrayed. “What the fuck is your problem?” he demanded. Saitou just smirked.

Himura’s admonition, “Calm down, Sano,” didn’t seem to be the primary impetus for the boy’s subsequent deep breath and angry sigh, but in any event Sagara did calm down, somewhat, and turned pointedly away from Saitou back to his lover.

“Anyway, I got a lot to tell you while we run; we should get going.”

“You’re going to run to Osaka, ahou?” Saitou couldn’t decide whether to laugh or to go over there and hit the boy on the head. “We’ll take a carriage.”

“Is there some reason–” Sagara began, but Himura interrupted him:

“I need to send a message to some allies here in Kyoto; Saitou, can you have someone deliver it immediately?”

A little surprised by the request because it didn’t seem Himura had only made it to diffuse the argument, Saitou nevertheless merely pointed to the office they’d just vacated and said, “Hurry. I have a telegram to send as well; I can have someone take yours at the same time.”

He’d expected a much greater delay to aggravate him before they could be on their way, especially given the current status of the Kyoto police force, but they managed to get their tasks finished quickly, and the carriage was ready for them soon thereafter. Then Sagara seemed oddly hesitant about climbing into the equipage, as if he had some other course of action in mind. Surely he didn’t really think he could run to Osaka…? But he sat down next to Himura without complaint, and they were off. As their rapid journey commenced, they all seemed to breathe a silent sigh and settle into their seats as if for a much-needed rest. Which is not to say the air among them was at all relaxed.

It was too late for the Osaka police to set up roadblocks despite the telegram; Saitou was agitatedly aware they were departing late, that at best they couldn’t arrive until nearly midnight, and he said so. “And if we have to search for him randomly once we get there,” he added, “we have no chance of success.”

“He will undoubtedly have his ship disguised as something unobtrusive and hidden among the others,” Himura replied logically, “but it will have to be a certain size and ready to depart. If we can get there in time, I’m certain we can find him without trouble.”

The officer nodded darkly. ‘If we can get there in time’ was the key point.

Sagara was looking between them with a scowl. “Why the hell are you two so gloomy? So we don’t make it… it’s not like Tokyo can be destroyed by just one ship.”

Again Saitou couldn’t decide whether to laugh at him or hit him… and, really, that he was indecisive in such a matter was significant.

“Shishio is not trying to destroy Tokyo,” Himura explained patiently. “Remember that the appearance of the black ships in Kaei 6 threw Edo into panic and led to the opening of the country and the Bakumatsu. Even though Edo has become Tokyo, the terror and uncertainty of that time and of the war still lingers in people’s hearts. If an unfamiliar ship suddenly appears in Tokyo Bay and opens fire, the city will, without a doubt, fall into total chaos.”

“The government doesn’t have the power to stop it,” Saitou agreed. “Tokyo will become a lawless region, paralyzing the government in a single stroke. Especially,” he added, “with so many of the Tokyo police relocated to deal with the other problems Shishio is causing.” The man was playing this all exceptionally well.

“Yeah, I see,” Sagara muttered. “It gets worse and worse.”

“How many policemen are in Kyoto?” asked Himura.

“Five thousand,” Saitou replied. “That’s ten times as much manpower as Shishio has. With that alone we should be able to hold off the fire.” Then, as an afterthought, he inquired, “What was that message you sent?”

Sagara looked at him sharply — Saitou wasn’t sure why — but said nothing. The wolf thought the boy was just as curious anyway.

“The police can hold off 500 soldiers,” was Himura’s answer, “but they cannot stop 500 sparks. To fight the Kyoto Taika, we need the help of the people who protected Kyoto during the Bakumatsu.”

Saitou smiled slightly. “Which people who protected Kyoto during the Bakumatsu?”

“The Oniwabanshuu,” was Himura’s reply.

“What?!” cried Sagara.

With a raised brow, Saitou wondered, “So Shinomori has decided to let you live?”

Himura also gave a small, reluctant smile. “Not as far as I know. This group is no longer under his leadership.”

“I shoulda known there’d be more of those bastards…” Sagara grumbled.

Himura’s smile grew. “These are mostly women, Sano.”

“As I thought,” Saitou frowned, “that girl…” He’d realized eventually what her clothing implied, but hadn’t really been willing to believe it.

Himura nodded.

“What girl?” wondered Sagara. Suspicion sounded in his tone, and Saitou didn’t entirely understand it. If Sagara suspected Saitou’s preference, surely his reaction — his entire demeanor — would be a good deal less calm. But why would that suspicion arise if not from jealousy about the time Himura and Saitou had spent together while Sagara hadn’t been around? Perhaps the boy just hated him. That would make sense on more than one level… but somehow, despite all evidence provided by their interaction up to this point, Saitou didn’t think so.

Himura had begun to explain about the girl Misao and the other members of the Kyoto Oniwabanshuu, Sagara was listening somewhat skeptically, and Saitou watched them both. Once the account was completed, nobody introduced a new topic of conversation, and the ride continued in increasingly tense silence.

***

Kenshin wasn’t sure what had prompted him to pay specific attention to the way Sano and Saitou interacted, but by the time they reached Osaka he was tracking it minutely. He toyed with the idea that he wanted to reassure himself that Saitou had no further plans for wounding Sano, but that couldn’t be it; a mere half-minute’s observation made it clear there was no murderous (or even semi-murderous) intention in Saitou’s attitude toward Sano — quite the opposite, in fact. Though what exactly would be the opposite of stabbing him in the shoulder, Kenshin couldn’t guess. Perhaps to Saitou, simply allowing Sano to accompany him was the opposite.

Osaka Bay necessitated these thoughts move from center stage, but he couldn’t help marking the desperately frustrated tone in which Sano wondered why Saitou had to find fault with everything he said… the way Saitou, after surfacing from the dive off the ruined pier, glanced back almost inadvertently to where Sano had barely missed being struck by the cannon shot…

In his own horror for his lover’s safety and the easement thereof at Sano’s nearly miraculous survival in the face of a gattling gun, he almost missed the stricken look that flashed across Saitou’s face and the profound relief that replaced it… but still he caught them. He just didn’t know what they meant.

He couldn’t help noticing, also, the immediacy of Saitou’s withdrawal from combat-intent at his urging… but that was entirely different.

Or was it? Once Shishio had gone, Kenshin was at leisure to be surprised at the sound of Saitou’s “Ahou…” and the glance at the ranting Sano that accompanied it. It wasn’t that Saitou didn’t mean it, but it lacked intensity. He might almost have called it… indulgent… if that would have made any sense at all. It was at the very least a good deal more tolerant than the disposition Saitou had previously displayed toward Sano. Or had Kenshin been misreading that? There had been the staring… Or else what had changed to make the officer so accepting?

Largely experimentally, Kenshin said, “You are being too harsh. Without Sano, this would not have turned out nearly so well. He’s more reliable than you think.”

Saitou specifically turned away as he replied, “I’m well aware of that. It doesn’t change the fact that he’s an idiot.” But it wasn’t so much the facial expression Kenshin couldn’t see as the action he could — Saitou extracting a cigarette he could not possibly light and smoke after the swim across the bay — that led the rurouni to suspect there was more to the words than the wolf really wanted to express.

Kenshin wasn’t sure what to think or feel about that. But maybe this level of acceptance was simply the opposite he’d been wondering about earlier. And it didn’t mean much, really. A little more acceptance from Saitou still meant a disdainful ‘ahou’ for Sano.

The latter was definitely standing next to the former, though, a good five feet behind Kenshin, as they looked out over the railing of the sinking ship for any signs of fire in Kyoto.

Chapter 12 – A First Time For Everything

Toward wherever Kenshin was taking them they walked through town in an indefinable silence. It was almost as if they couldn’t say anything, as if they were both trying but it just wasn’t working. And why should that be? Well, the previous day and night had been tiring; although it would have felt more natural to talk about what had happened than to maintain this unusually wordless state, people did odd things when they were worn out.

They both, Sano noticed, seemed to be looking around them diligently at the bustle and arrangement of the city. Searching for signs of fire and destruction in the Kyoto streets was an excellent excuse not to talk. That they weren’t finding any must be a source of joy and relief, but must also eventually lead to the discussion they were trying to avoid. Were they trying to avoid a discussion? He’d believed they were just tired.

Saitou had been preoccupied when they’d left him, busy with the police chief, with numbers and reports and the wounded from last night’s anti-arson efforts, and Sano felt the situation to be a little unfair: he and Kenshin were heading for some inn presumably to rest, while Saitou didn’t seem likely to get any sort of break or sleep in the near future. Whatever he was, his dedication to this cause deserved a better reward than that.

“So…” Kenshin remarked in a tone that was almost casual. “You seem to have made up with Saitou.” Obviously Kenshin’s thoughts had been on the same topic as Sano’s.

The rush of emotion the younger man felt at this was nothing he could describe. It wasn’t anger, it wasn’t embarrassment, it wasn’t fear; yet it partook somewhat of each, and he was certainly agitated. Yes, they had been trying to avoid a discussion, and this was that discussion; it would be fruitless to deny in the face of this reaction that prompted a tenseness in Sano’s frame and caused his fists to clench and twitch as if he really were angry.

He certainly sounded angry when he demanded in a growl, “Why the fuck would I have made up with that asshole?” And why did that seem like such a… backlash? Sano tried very hard not to answer that question.

Kenshin didn’t look at him, and they said no more. The silence was now palpably awkward. Why awkward? There was no reason for — no, Sano didn’t even want to think about it.

“God, I’m fucking hungry,” he growled in nearly the same tone as his previous statement, little as he thought that would really help. “This place we’re going to’s an inn, you said? I hope they’ve got some good service.”

Kenshin shook his head slightly and spoke in the tone of one forcing himself onto the cheer of an innocuous topic. “Yes, it is, and yes, they do.” He smiled faintly. “And I am certain you will find the staff entertaining.”

“Oh, really?” There wasn’t much else to say.

“Yes. This branch of the Oniwabanshuu is very different from the ones we met in Tokyo.”

“Great.”

Oh, god, this was polite conversation. Even a reference to a shared experience — an emotional one at that — hadn’t been enough to turn it into a real conversation. Why… how… he needed to say something now to dispel this unprecedented atmosphere, to smash through this goddamn awkwardness that had come up out of fucking nowhere. When had he ever been this uncomfortable with Kenshin?

Did it really come up out of nowhere, though? a surprisingly sedate voice in his head wondered suddenly. Think back, it said. When did it start?

I know perfectly fucking well when it started, was his surly reply.

Then it shouldn’t be difficult to figure out why it started, the voice admonished calmly. He wasn’t given to such cool and logical self-counsel, but there was a first time for everything; he must have been a little too much under the influence of…

I’m not even fucking going there, he shot back.

Eventually you’re gonna have to. You’re gonna have to think about him, and you’re gonna have to admit–

I am not fucking gonna have to fucking admit anything I don’t fucking want to!!! It was the mental equivalent of a bellow, and some of it must have leaked out his mouth, for Kenshin looked toward him.

“Did you say something?” he asked, his tone still insufferably polite and benign.

“No,” Sano muttered.

Could he keep this up? There was a distinctly rebellious tone to that collected and rational voice in his head — which, after all, was merely part of his own consciousness and pointing out things he knew already; how long could he really resist it? Could he keep his thoughts under control enough not to start suspecting, to start blaming, to start resenting? Wasn’t he already cracking just by admitting the possibility of those frames of mind? And what else might he find if he allowed himself to look at this situation from all angles, as he was beginning to ache to do? Did he even want to admit there was a ‘situation?’

He felt guilty already. Determining why he did would blow the issue open, since he was fairly sure the reasons were manifold and branched out through everything else he was feeling. And the only plausible reaction to this frame of mind was an anger more profound than he’d experienced for some time.

Time… yes, that was what it would take, wasn’t it? If he could keep himself together until this ended… once Shishio was defeated, they would surely return to Tokyo and the way things had been, and he could let go and forget. Distraction, aspersion, confusion — it would all vanish once this mess was over.

Hah! It was his damned head again. Haven’t you heard? ‘You can never go back.’ And the distraction isn’t just gonna go away on its own, for you or for him.

Shut the fuck up, he told himself, but it was no use.

‘Once Shishio’s defeated?’ it demanded. You know what has to happen before that. You know what has to happen tomorrow morning.

God fucking dammit. He really had nothing else to say. He could argue as stubbornly as anything — against someone else. Against his own private logic, it was a battle lost almost before it started. Denial (and perhaps a subconsciously encouraged obtuseness) could only protect him for so long. Eventually he had to admit to himself that facts would have to be faced once they… well, tomorrow morning. But, hell, if he couldn’t find something to distract himself with until then, he might well not be sane enough to face those facts when the time came; there were a lot of weary, pensive hours between now and then.

“Here we are,” Kenshin said, and probably had no idea just how good his timing was.

***

Saitou felt as if he’d been wading carefully downstream in the shallows of a raging river, but had now misstepped and been swept away in its powerful currents — in the direction he wanted to go, admittedly, but with absolutely no control over how or how quickly. And why not? he wondered with grim abandon. Why not let all hell break loose in this matter? What was at stake, after all? Only the fate of the nation.

It was useless to try not to take so much upon himself. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t alone in this endeavor; if they failed, the responsibility would still rest with him. And he was in a dangerous state of mind.

The boy had been brilliant.

No, not brilliant — he’d been telling himself that all day, but somehow the adjective persisted. Yes, Sagara had been innovative and effective and had managed to keep himself from getting killed at the same time… all in that flashy, jarring way of his where every move was unexpected and eye-catching, but not… Well, maybe, in a symbolic, luminescent sense of the world, ‘brilliant’ wasn’t too bad a description.

No, it was still a bad description. The moron had gotten the bombs from somebody else and wouldn’t even have known how to use them properly if Himura hadn’t reminded him of the properties of gunpowder. And he’d nearly given a couple of people a heart attack with his antics. Sagara was still an impetuous child unworthy of someone like the former Battousai.

But weren’t practical use of the tools available and the ability to adapt one’s plans at the last moment traits of a proficient warrior? No matter how sloppy the technique seemed, if the desired outcome was attained and the performer remained relatively unscathed, Saitou could not reasonably object.

It was no good trying to drag his thoughts away from this topic. Now that he’d been pulled into the flood, he had very little choice left in the matter. He could let it overpower him and interfere with his duties, or he could assimilate the unavoidable — he could sink, or he could swim, but there was no getting out of the water.

And there was no denying he’d asked for it. “What does he see in you?” he’d wondered of Sagara back when — it seemed bizarrely long ago, now — he’d knocked him through the wall of the Kamiya dojo. He shouldn’t ask questions if he wasn’t ready for the answers. Of course, that had been before he’d admitted how he felt about Himura, when he’d still thought he was strong enough to open an emotional issue in the midst of the other and keep it from getting in the way.

Perhaps, in response to the half-formed resolution he’d made in the jail to find out what he wanted to know, he’d been subconsciously attempting to look at Sagara as Himura must, and was therefore being easier on him than he otherwise might… but the reason why was neither problem nor solution. The problem was that he was starting to see what Himura saw in the passionate kenkaya, and it threatened to be one distraction too many. And the solution? He hadn’t the faintest idea.

This feeling of nearly complete lack of control, of being a breath away from drowning, was irritating, agitating… And if the tasks of the day hadn’t been engrossing enough to keep his thoughts relatively well balanced, it would also have been overwhelming. Fortunately, he had enough to do in cleanup after the events of last night and preparation against further assault from Shishio that he could have continued working without pause from the moment they got back to Kyoto until it was time to depart for the mountain the next morning; how fortunate he should really consider the general ineptitude of the police force was a matter of debate, but it was convenient for purposes of distraction.

“Do you know anything about having a normal life?” This time, somewhat disturbingly, these remembered words only made Saitou smirk slightly, ruefully, and shake his head.

He had to rest eventually. God knew how much fighting, and what else besides, he would have to do tomorrow… but it was almost as if he dreaded the cessation of his work day. Though he’d never been given to brooding insomnia, there was a first time for everything, and this was just the situation to bring about that sleepless state.

“Everything I know about you so far pretty much proves you don’t know much about relationships.” Well, he knew they were damned inconvenient. Even when it was only someone else’s relationship that wasn’t his business in the first place.

Midnight had come and gone before he found his bed in the cheerless inn near the police station. Sleep did not elude him as he’d feared it might, but uncomfortable images of rushing water in which he sometimes thought he could see figures and faces followed him relentlessly there and throughout the rest of the night.

***

Why was it so cold? Kenshin already sat as close to the fire as was prudent; why was there still such a deep-set chill in his body? He rubbed absently at one arm with the other as he stared at the low flames and felt goosebumps rise across his flesh. Was it an after-effect of the swim in Osaka Bay? Had he caught something?

The door slid open and then closed again, and quiet footsteps crossed the floor.

The shiver that ran through Kenshin at the sound of Sano entering their shared room was not the usual one; it was neither pleased nor aroused, but rather… uncomfortable. Anxious, even. Why? It couldn’t be Sano’s mere presence he worried about… but, rather, interaction with him, a continuation of the atmosphere that had marked that interaction all day.

Sano was trying not to show how disturbed he felt, and had been avoiding Kenshin — or at least being alone with Kenshin — ever since they’d entered the Aoiya. Even now he did not greet him, and walked as quietly as he was able (which, as always in Sano’s case, wasn’t particularly quiet). But surely he didn’t think Kenshin hadn’t noticed. Every last word they’d said to each other had been forced, uncertain, stilted, ever since… well, all day. Sano had used the reunion with Kaoru and Yahiko and getting acquainted with the Kyoto Oniwabanshuu as his unstated excuses for saying as little as possible to his lover, and Kenshin had accepted that… but it couldn’t continue. Not when they had a potential deathmatch tomorrow. Not when dawn would bring… No, Kenshin couldn’t just let this go without at least trying to work things out.

Seeming somewhat indecisive, Sano now stood in the middle of the room. Kenshin’s back was to him, but he could sense the younger man’s perfect stillness. That stillness seemed to bring with it a fresh coldness, as if Sano were a door to the starry night, and Kenshin wanted to draw even closer to the fire. But that coldness, he could tell, lay only in the space between the two of them; no one else would have felt such a low temperature radiating from Sano. He feared Sano must be feeling the same from him.

After seconds had dragged by without word or movement from his lover, Kenshin said his name quietly. “Are you upset with me?”

“No!” Sano replied, with so much vehemence and so much haste that the rurouni, heart sinking, immediately doubted the insistence. “Upset with you for what?”

“For… leaving you behind in Tokyo.”

“Oh.” In that one syllable, why did Sano sound so relieved? As if he’d perhaps thought Kenshin would suggest something, confess something else Sano might be angry at him for? But was Sano worried Kenshin would admit having suspected him of… something… or admit to… that same something on his own part?

No, that was impossible. That something was only a fragmentary thought in Kenshin’s head in the first place; its very wild improbability was the only thing that even brought it to mind, and therefore made for a self-fulfilling prophecy: his search for the awkwardness that would certainly characterize it if it were true had caused awkwardness to develop.

Yes, he was the cause of this strange atmosphere between them, he and his… what could he call it but an overactive imagination? He wasn’t generally given to that sort of fancy, but there was a first time for everything… and the vague ideas he avoided directly scrutinizing couldn’t have any basis in reality. He needed to stop thinking about it, stop looking for signs of its presence, and then things would improve. And he never should have mentioned…

“No,” Sano finally said. “No, I’m not mad at you for that anymore. Or for anything else.” It was a stiff pronouncement, and ended on a note of indecision. “Just tired and tense,” he added in an obvious and ineffectual attempt to put a graceful end to the fledgling conversation. “I’m going to bed.”

Kenshin nodded, and forced himself to say good night in as warm a tone as he could command. After that he could sense Sano’s increased agitation, and he thought the kenkaya even reached out a hand toward him that fell back before making contact. Then came the shuffling noises of Sano preparing for bed, and at last quiet breathing. No reminder of the need for them both to be rested, no invitation to join him. Not that Kenshin thought Sano wasn’t worried about his well-being or didn’t want him at his side; he just wouldn’t say it at this point, because of… whatever had come between them. And Kenshin found he couldn’t insist on a more explicit discussion.

He wondered that he wasn’t feeling worse about this. Slight apprehension, yes, but nothing that would keep him awake when he eventually joined Sano on the futon. Certainly such unnatural communication with his lover should be a source of greater worry… and yet he found his only sensation was one of nearly emotionless cold. A clinging mist seemed to surround him, surround them both… well, if he was going to be honest about it, surround all three of them… in his mind — but it was only cold, not frightening.

Something was changing, certainly, though he couldn’t quite see what it was… but he didn’t sense that it would end in loss. The mist would clear, he would have all the facts and understand the situation more precisely; he was sure of it. For the moment he simply had to weather the adherent chill until the warm sun shone again.

Eventually, when Sano’s breathing turned to snores, Kenshin undressed and lay softly down by his side, sliding an arm around Sano’s chest. They would overcome this as certainly as they had other difficulties. Whether his surety arose from faith in Sano or some subconscious understanding he already possessed, he didn’t know; but his conviction was unfailing. He put his face against his lover’s smooth shoulder and closed his eyes.

Chapter 13 – Wait

Sano wasn’t sure how much sleep he’d managed to get, nor entirely sure why he felt such a massive wave of relief at finding Kenshin warm at his side in the early-morning darkness to which he awoke. He tried not to think about either issue.

His movement, slight as it was, roused Kenshin immediately. There followed a moment of almost panicked apprehension as he remembered last night and the awkwardness — but as they both sat up and looked immediately at each other as if seeking concord by mutual consent, Kenshin only smiled at him. And it was there, in Kenshin’s eyes — forgiveness? contrition? simple understanding? — Sano couldn’t quite define it, but it was there.

Immensely cheered, he leaned over and kissed Kenshin gently and briefly. It almost seemed, just for that moment, that the strange, cold atmosphere of the night before hadn’t really existed except in his suspicious or guilty imagination, that perhaps he’d only dreamed the discomfort, the tension. But during the next few minutes as they rose and prepared for the day (as much as anyone could prepare for the kind of day they anticipated), he realized how wrong he was.

Things hadn’t gone back to how they’d been (I told you so, whispered that unrelenting voice in the back of his head); the tension and discomfort were just as real as they really had been last night. The air between the lovers had merely settled into a sort of resigned patience — as if they both knew their situation hadn’t finished changing yet, that they could do nothing to halt the metamorphosis, and therefore they might as well just wait and see how things turned out.

Sano wasn’t sure he liked this — in fact was almost positive he didn’t — but rejoiced, at least, that Kenshin was here with him. Whatever had changed, whatever would change, they still loved each other. Sano would just have to hold onto his faith in that, believe it was enough to get them through whatever was coming.

From downstairs, the yard outside the window, and other rooms even on this level, noise indicated they were not the only ones in the Aoiya up before dawn. Sano had spent yesterday assiduously hearing what their Tokyo friends had to tell and getting to know the Kyoto Oniwabanshuu, and he wouldn’t even try to deny he’d done it specifically so he wouldn’t have to talk to Kenshin about the whatever. Now, with this tacit agreement to wait for things to stabilize and figure everything out once the dust cleared, it almost seemed cowardly to fall back on that same tactic — but, while it appeared Kenshin could get dressed and wash his face in perfect silence without feeling at all awkward, Sano couldn’t stand this.

“So they all really did come,” he commented, cocking an ear at the distant sounds to indicate which ‘they’ he meant.

Kenshin’s smile at this was somewhat bittersweet, his tone a mixture of light chiding, amusement, and resignation. “You were the one I trusted with keeping them away.”

Sano was unsure to what extent Kenshin’s attitude still bothered him. On the one hand, Kenshin had done and said nothing to indicate his reason for wishing Sano to remain in Tokyo had been anything other than what his note had indicated — protection for the others in his absence — or to validate Saitou’s theory that Sano was a source of vulnerability to his lover; on the other hand, Sano couldn’t help thinking someone would have to be fairly cold-blooded not to want the person they loved beside them going into a battle that might be their last, and he knew Kenshin wasn’t that heartless. Kenshin was that selfless, though…

Last night, at any rate, Sano had declared his forgiveness and lack of anger for being left behind, and he didn’t want further contemplation on the subject to make him a liar. It was too complicated to think about anyway. So he just answered casually, “Yeah, you shoulda known better.”

Kenshin laughed softly. “I suppose so.”

“Hell, if Saitou kicking my ass couldn’t get me to stay in Tokyo–” Breaking off almost in the middle of the last syllable, aghast, Sano found himself stiffening with horror at what he was saying, what he had almost said. The unspoken half of the sentence hung in the air — what would Kenshin hear? “There’s no way you could?” Worse, more explicit, “No way just a note from you, even if it did say ‘I love you,’ ever could?” Holy god, he hadn’t meant anything like that; he hadn’t meant to contrast those two influences; hadn’t meant to bring up Saitou. Fucking idiot, he told himself harshly. Why didn’t you fucking stay in Tokyo? All you’re doing here is screwing shit up.

Just like Saitou said.

Out of nowhere there was a tight, heavy knot of unhappiness in his chest, so abrupt and startling that he jerked reflexively toward Kenshin as if to reach out and cling to him, close his eyes and have Kenshin hold him until it went away. But part of the sudden sadness, he knew, was the feeling that he might very well have cut himself off from that source of comfort by his own stupidity.

“Sano,” Kenshin said. It was a firm but largely emotionless tone.

The only acknowledgment Sano could manage was a deep breath. He couldn’t even bring himself to look around.

“We will probably be leaving here in just under an hour for Shishio’s headquarters.”

Sano understood: Kenshin was admonishing him to set all of this aside for the moment. The overwhelming impression of the morning thus far was that he needed to wait. There were direly important deeds to be done today; this simply wasn’t the time to be distracted.

But patience was nothing Sano had in surplus, and he didn’t know that he was strong enough to stay entirely focused when the source of distraction was so close, so vital to him.

Wait. Not strong enough?? Was he giving up, then? Giving up on his desire to prove he wasn’t a liability, that he could handle this; on his desire to continue improving simply for his own sake? That is, was he giving up on the just respect of Kenshin, Saitou, and himself?

Fuck, no.

He could feel his fists clenching in determination almost inadvertently as he made his resolution: he would remain steadfast, would keep his mind on the mission, would deal with the confusion later. It helped that Kenshin obviously believed he was up to this; it helped a lot.

Finally he acknowledged his lover’s remark. “Right.” And as proof of his bravery, he turned to face Kenshin without hesitation. Although he didn’t entirely understand the expression on the scarred face, he could at least see that Kenshin wasn’t upset with him — and that was enough for now. They would get through this. Impulsively Sano said, “I love you, Kenshin.”

If Kenshin was surprised at hearing this phrase spoken aloud for the first time at what was perhaps an odd moment, he didn’t show it. He simply smiled gently and replied, “And I love you.”

And Sano found that in a heart on fire there really wasn’t much room for doubt.

***

Kaoru and Misao brought them breakfast and chatter, and eventually Yahiko joined them, ensuring they were adequately cheerful on this important day; between this thoughtful gesture and having heard Sano speak the words ‘I love you,’ Kenshin could hardly be otherwise.

He could tell Kaoru was working to keep her voice steady as, when most of them had finished eating, she reached out to him and said, “Kenshin… take this.” The object she held turned out to be a floral-patterned tin from which a faint medicinal smell rose as it changed hands.

“I brought it on Megumi-san’s behalf,” Kaoru explained, “but I haven’t had a chance to give it to you. It’s her way of saying she hopes you come back safely. She’s not the only one; we all want you to come back safely.” She looked him in the eye, and, as he’d not infrequently noticed, there was a subdued dismay in her gaze that seemed to ask almost against her will, Is there really no chance for me? But it was far weaker than the last time he’d seen it, and it occurred to him that this journey — the journey from which he’d sought to bar her — might have been very beneficial for her as well. Her being Megumi’s designated messenger in this situation (not that Megumi had had much choice) might show progress on that front as well.

Kenshin smiled and thanked her, but his words were drowned out by Misao’s: “That’s the hundredth time you’ve mentioned this Megumi-san — who is she, exactly?” And as Kaoru went on to describe Megumi in terms that might have surprised her if she’d been listening to herself, Kenshin thought that, yes, some progress had been made on that front.

Under the cover of this discussion, “Kenshin,” Yahiko said urgently and quietly. He glanced around to see if anyone was listening — Sano was, but apparently Yahiko didn’t mind him — then went on with a touching sort of nervous defiance, “Please let me come with you!”

Kenshin shook his head. They’d been through this yesterday, but not thoroughly enough, it seemed.

“Since we got here, I haven’t missed a day training!” protested Yahiko in a hiss. “I’m a lot stronger than you think!”

Reaching out to place a hand on the boy’s shoulder, Kenshin prevented him continuing. “I know that. And I am not just arbitrarily ordering you to stay here. Tomorrow when we fight the Juppongatana–” he gestured to Sano and himself– “it’s likely Shishio will send others to attack the Aoiya, and you will not be able to avoid fighting. I need you to be ready for that; you must remain here on guard.”

Yahiko bit his lip and looked at once flattered and disappointed. After a thoughtful moment, he nodded. “But busu’s right,” he added pensively. “It’s not just the girls who want you to come back safe.” He looked away as he said it, lowering his voice even farther, as if embarrassed to be admitting affectionate concern for the leader of the little group he’d named into existence in the first place. He was at that age…

Despite Yahiko’s quiet tone, Kaoru’s ears seemed to have a special setting for the word ‘busu,’ and she broke off what she was saying to Misao in order to attack Yahiko with the usual string of angry reactions.

Kenshin watched the scene with a mild smile. True, Kaoru worried more than she was letting on, and lamented that she couldn’t be Kenshin’s primary source of comfort; Misao still lacked the level of confidence Kenshin would have preferred in his ability to deal with the Aoshi situation; Yahiko might have been more hurt than he was willing to show by Kenshin’s treatment of him; Saitou’s arrival, which could occur any moment, was going to throw Kenshin and Sano back toward the awkwardness of last night and put to the test the silent resolutions they’d made together this morning; and of course the prospective battle or battles of the day, all the more ominous for their obscurity, were a looming threat to his tranquility as to his person. But all this he pushed aside for the moment, concentrating on having a good meal with people he loved in relative peace.

Breakfast and their primary, lengthier goodbyes were over and the sun had just parted with the horizon when they made their way outside to wait. Standing in silence with his friends around him in the cool morning, Kenshin reflected that, worried though he was for their safety, he wasn’t sure he really regretted their following him here, if only for this — this last measure of strength he could draw from them in preparation for the end. Whether he was equally glad Sano had followed him was more complicated — but, as it partook of matters he’d decided not to think about until a more opportune time, he pushed the question away.

He couldn’t help noticing the way Sano shifted when Saitou appeared, or smiling slightly as he recognized Sano’s air as that of a man ready for combat. Of course Kaoru and Misao evinced a certain level of displeasure and agitation at the sight of the officer as well, but, for more reasons than one, it couldn’t be anything to what Kenshin and Sano felt.

Turning, Kenshin smiled at his friends. “Goodbye,” he said simply, and moved forward to meet Saitou. Behind him, Sano did much the same.

Saitou was smoking a cigarette and appeared largely unrested, and his greeting was a slow study of the both of them, almost as if looking for something, before he spoke. “I hope you haven’t wasted the night.”

At the tone even darker than usual, Kenshin had a sudden sad vision of Saitou, lonely and bitter, working himself half to death and wondering how Kenshin and Sano were wasting their night. Still, there was nothing to be said; he had a feeling Saitou didn’t really want to know the answer to the question implicit in his statement anyway.

“So…” Sano’s reflections were probably similar to Kenshin’s; he spoke with some effort, and the rurouni didn’t think Saitou could fail to notice. How he would interpret Sano’s demeanor was another story. “No carriage today?”

“The road to the shrine is too narrow,” Saitou replied with a shake of his head; Kenshin thought he was glad to have business to discuss. “Rokutsurane-Torii-Hokora is a good place to conceal the entrance to a secret headquarters, since it isn’t visited much anymore.”

Sano grunted acknowledgment and fell silent. And that silence went unbroken nearly their entire trip.

***

Saitou had thought the carriage ride to Osaka awkward, but realized now that he hadn’t known the meaning of the term until today.

For one thing, there was an air of finality about this venture, more than there had been during any of their previous interactions, as if they really didn’t expect to return this time; it sobered and stiffened their every word and gesture. The problem was that it seemed somehow too personal for Saitou to bring up, given the uncertain relations among them. And from the impersonal distance he was forced at this point to maintain, any sort of reassurance he could offer would seem asinine and fake.

For another thing, he got the feeling Himura knew. Exactly how much he knew or how Saitou knew he knew it, he wasn’t prepared to guess… but still he didn’t doubt the impression. Obviously the clues must be there, and Saitou could undoubtedly piece together what had led him to the conclusion, but for the moment he was more concerned with Himura’s reaction. In fact, he was concerned enough with Himura’s reaction that he could think of almost nothing else as they walked, silent and tense, through and out of the city. But except for the increase in moroseness (and consequent tension) that had gripped all three of them, Himura, to all outward appearances, was behaving as he always did.

As if after listening intently to silence he’d been startled by a loud noise, Saitou didn’t realize just how hard he was concentrating on reading Himura’s every slightest change of expression or gesture until Himura made one worth reading. Sagara had commented meaninglessly on some aspect of the walk, and Himura, after a brief reply, had thrown a glance back at Saitou as if to see whether he wanted to be included in the conversation.

And what was in that look? For Saitou fancied it had been alive with emotions. Did Himura want him included in the conversation? Did he want to drag him into such mundane exchanges and minutiae? Did he believe Saitou desired that sort of interaction, and pitied him its lack?

He wanted to take Himura by the shoulders and shake him, to tell him ‘I don’t want your sympathy,’ to state emphatically — though he doubted even he could find words sufficiently acerbic properly to convey the disdain such a statement would require — that this sort of pretentious attempt at understanding was something he neither needed nor desired.

Except that he did desire it.

His one consolation at the moment was that Himura didn’t yet seem to have shared his realization with Sagara. There were so many divergent reasons Himura might have done this, and the implications connected to them so varied, that Saitou could postulate nothing with any certainty, but he was glad Himura apparently hadn’t said anything; it would further complicate an already stupidly tangled situation, and escalate the awkwardness perhaps beyond enduring. If he had been in Himura’s position, he probably wouldn’t have said anything yet either.

It was surprisingly, dismayingly, appallingly easy to imagine himself in Himura’s position. Why, why had Saitou thought it necessary to try to see Sagara as Himura must? Hadn’t he considered the possible consequences?

He was aware — once again, through clues so subtle he might as well simply have called it intuition — of Sagara’s desire to prove himself to him. Looking back over what had passed between them since their first meeting, it wasn’t terribly surprising. And perhaps it shouldn’t be too terribly surprising, either, to recognize his own growing desire for Sagara to understand him, to lose the misconceptions he’d formed thus far, to comprehend and vindicate his motives. Or, to put it another way, a desire to prove himself to Sagara that was or would be, quite possibly, as strong as Sagara’s corresponding wish.

This might have been embarrassing — irritating, even — at another time and under different circumstances, but by now Saitou had given up applying the logic of his life prior to recent times to the current situation. And he’d given up as well trying not to admit he wanted more from Sagara than just understanding… though he couldn’t quite put exactly what more he did want into words just yet.

And from Himura… well, that was much easier to specify, since it had developed so much farther. It should be; it had had a good decade longer in which to form, repression notwithstanding.

He wasn’t generally the type to find himself at a loss for words. This was probably because he rarely had anything to say that didn’t directly concern business of some sort, or at least rarely cared what the effect of his words might be if he did. A situation like this, where he had more than a passing desire to say something but feared whatever he came up with would be either too little or too much — or at least be construed as too much by one of the people to whom he wanted to say it — was unheard of.

And yet he spent most of the latter portion of the walk trying to think of something to say.

He also wasn’t the type to give up easily or for no good reason. After all, he didn’t undertake something in the first place if it wasn’t worth a certain measure of trouble. Of course he hadn’t precisely undertaken this; it had, rather, overtaken him. But that didn’t mean he was prepared to expend any less effort on it than he felt it deserved. Than he felt they deserved.

And yet he could think of nothing to say.

As the path widened at the end of the trees and they emerged into the sunlight, as they started climbing a slope of cracked flagstones under the six arches, as that woman they’d earlier observed with Shishio came into sight standing before a giant pair of doors, Saitou knew it was time to give up. At least for now.

He’d told himself perhaps a dozen times since this whole mess had started that this wasn’t the time for it. Wait! was the message — by now rather emphatic, almost desperately so — that his better judgment continually delivered to his less practiced and therefore less self-assured romantic sense. And for the moment he obeyed. He just hoped the chance he was waiving now to express even a touch of what he felt wouldn’t prove to have been his last.

Chapter 14 – Difficult As Hell

One aspect of love, Kenshin reflected, was the ability to restrain yourself and stay out of something you would really much rather be involved in. Would rather take over completely in order to spare your lover the less pleasant effects of the situation.

It had very little to do with faith in Sano’s combat prowess; Kenshin wasn’t sure whether or not he believed Sano could win this fight, but certainty either way would not have changed his behavior. It had very little to do with the fact that Kenshin would be over this railing with sword drawn the moment Sano’s life seemed in legitimate danger; he would do that for anyone. What he might not do for anyone was let it get to that point.

He probably would not have stood by watching Kaoru, for instance, battle a stronger opponent. Assigned her the task of dealing with a particular enemy while he faced some other threat, perhaps; been aware that she was elsewhere fighting and quietly worried, certainly. But stood still observing? Actually watched her fight someone he wasn’t certain she could defeat? Probably not. Allowing Sano this chance without protest or interference was a mark of respect he might not even be capable of showing just anyone.

And even in this case it was difficult as hell.

The huge monk was obviously a world ahead of Sano in mastery of the interesting two-hit move they called Futae no Kiwami, and his ki was every bit as ragingly angry as Sano’s. The latter’s superior agility would only get him so far. More promising — to Kenshin, who believed in the influence of attitude in combat — was the fact that when faced with the corruption and misery of the world, one of them had chosen destruction while the other (with some encouragement) had chosen life. But even this could not be entirely reassuring.

Then a hard voice to his left called down in the direction of the combatants, “Do you want me to take your place?”

Kenshin glanced over, very startled. He certainly hadn’t forgotten Saitou was there… but in his concern for Sano, Saitou had blurred into a vague, comforting essence of strength and solidity.

Comforting?

Yes, comforting. Why bother denying it?

“Shut the hell up!” Evidently Sano didn’t find him comforting.

Startling as it had been, the suggestion did not surprise him. Kenshin had suspected — strongly suspected — and now he knew; it was the elbow that gave Saitou away, really. The offer could just as easily have been exactly what it seemed — a condescending jab at Sano’s abilities — but Saitou’s elbow rested in his other hand as if needing support, and the hand seemed clenched tighter than was strictly necessary. One arm lay close across his body as if he wanted to project his subtly defensive stance at Sano, the other raised a cigarette to his lips. Kenshin had noticed that Saitou normally took no more than a drag or two on any cigarette before tossing it away. This one was steadily shortening, almost as if he didn’t notice himself smoking it.

Then there was the fact that Saitou had voiced concern even before Kenshin could. No, there could be no question now.

Did Kenshin resent this sudden apparent worry where none had been present before? Did he consider telling Saitou to mind his own business? Did he look down at Sano with new jealousy in his gaze, unsure whether he envied more the circumstance of being the object of Saitou’s concern or the one feeling it for Sano?

No. He knew any or all of these could have been his reaction, but the only thing he could do was appreciate Saitou’s attitude even as he felt the same. In fact, Saitou’s presence rendered a little less painful the unendurable thoughts of what if? that hovered just beyond the bright areas of his mind. It didn’t matter what each of them was to Sano; the fact that they stood here side by side, both with his well-being in mind, made all the difference.

“Sano!” he called out, feeling minutely better about things all of a sudden and wishing to share that, if possible, with his lover. “Even in kenjutsu, a man with two swords is not necessarily stronger than one with only one! I am sure you can find a way to win!”

Though not as fierce as the one he’d directed at Saitou a moment before, Sano’s reply to this encouragement was definitely a scowl. Realizing belatedly that his words, though kindly meant, might seem to imply a surety of the monk’s superior abilities, Kenshin felt a little sheepish, and was actually rather glad to busy himself in a brief, meaningless exchange with Yumi about the suitability of cheering Sano on.

He was watching avidly the next moment, though, when Sano landed a hit. Both the spectators were, Kenshin thought, interested in the effects of Sano’s new move on a human body — Kenshin probably with a good deal more speculative horror than Saitou — and they both, he knew, were shocked at the result. Though it seemed feasible to cancel out the energy of the blow, the precision with which the opposing force would need to be directed to avoid damage to self would demand an incredible level of mastery. To see Sano’s opponent displaying such expertise could only dishearten.

Despite Sano’s swift retreat from striking distance, the monk’s big fist grazed his stomach. Kenshin clutched hard at the railing as Sano staggered a step back and coughed up a handful of blood. At his side, Saitou shifted.

“Retreat,” the monk said darkly. “I’ll let you go this time.” It sounded more like an order than an offer, and it seemed to upset Yumi quite a bit. She and the monk argued the point for a few moments before Sano broke in with a glib and rather insulting comment on Anji’s self-proclaimed authority over life and death.

Though Kenshin focused primarily on the debate that would undoubtedly return to blows any moment, he couldn’t help noticing Saitou’s increasing tension. The wolf now had his free hand in his pocket, and had started another cigarette. Noting Kenshin’s attention he murmured, “I meant it when I offered to take his place. He’s not going to get through this with that attitude.”

Kenshin might have been inclined to agree with the statement had Sano not at that moment been voicing sentiments both convincing and familiar: a combination of what he’d told Kenshin bitterly when they’d first met and his more enlightened later thoughts on the state of the country, culminating in the defiant and utterly self-assured declaration, “I absolutely won’t lose to you!”

Letting out a deep breath, Kenshin turned a slight smile on Saitou, whose face now barely even concealed the worry he felt at the recommencing fight. “Sano said that to me when he and I first fought,” he remarked quietly. “‘I absolutely won’t lose…’ But this time it means a lot more.”

For a long, dark moment Saitou stared at Kenshin, brows drawing together and some kind of struggle going on behind his eyes. Saitou, Kenshin was fairly sure, had a hard time feeling faith in anyone besides himself; how lonely that must be. But he was also a very strong man, just as capable of changing himself for the better as he was of changing the world. Finally he too let out his concerned breath, his face relaxing and smoothing slightly as it turned back to watch the action below. He didn’t say anything, but Kenshin knew he’d decided to take the reassurance seriously.

Now to see how long they could endure in silence.

***

With his body aching from head to toe, the halls they walked were a claustrophobic nightmare. Why the pain should make such a difference Sano wasn’t sure — nor could he guess why, under such circumstances, he should want to draw closer to his companions as they walked rather than further away.

He flexed his hand and let out an involuntary sound of pain. Trying to avoid worries about the long-term ramifications of this damage — worries that, even in the midst of this very present turmoil and the need for concentration, would continue nagging at him — Sano stretched and contracted his fingers again, forcing himself to adjust to the unpleasant sensation. He wasn’t out of the action yet; he needed his fist to function.

Saitou at his side kept looking at him. For a moment Sano avoided his eyes, not really wanting to endure any more derisive comments than he already had, but eventually the fleeting (and, admittedly, somewhat irrational) thought that this might be his last chance to look into Saitou’s eyes overcame his reluctance. And the pensive, serious expression he found there, far different from the irritating disdain he’d expected, could not but surprise him.

In direct contrast, Saitou’s words were no surprise whatsoever: “If you’re hurt, you’re only going to get in the way. You should leave now.” What Sano did not anticipate, however, was the way they were spoken. Sure, it sounded like Saitou’s usual jerk-face attitude, but something about the suggestion was… off… somehow.

For a few moments just a minute ago, after Anji’s news, Sano had been stupidly determined to turn back. Sense had returned, but the burning cold fear in his heart for their friends at the Aoiya had not disappeared. Was Saitou subtly trying to convince him to give in to that? Well, no, that didn’t make much sense; what would Saitou care about their friends at the Aoiya? If it had been anyone else, Sano might have thought there was some concern for his concern… but this was Saitou; he would no more care that Sano cared than care in his own right. Right? Sano was probably just imagining things anyway. He’d spent far too much time lately trying to solve puzzles in the light of Saitou’s uncanny eyes.

But perhaps Saitou simply didn’t want him to get hurt. Because of Kenshin, that is, of course; that would make sense. Saitou knew — better than any other third party, probably — the effect it would have on Kenshin if anything serious happened to Sano. The latter couldn’t help recalling the way his two companions had stood together looking down at him as he fought Anji… neither seeming any more or less worried about him than the other… and Saitou’s offer to take his place…

Yes, that was undoubtedly the answer: Saitou was simply looking out for Kenshin, who was, after all, the government’s specific answer to this Shishio situation. That was Saitou, all right: just doing his job; nothing personal about it.

Sano found himself making another little pained noise. He’d been flexing his hand throughout these reflections, and didn’t think it was getting any better for it.

Saitou snorted, evidently accepting this non-verbal answer for the dismissal of his suggestion that it was. “This is what you get for ignoring what I told you and neglecting your defense,” he said.

Sano made a face at him. Disinclined to repeat the responses he’d already given to the admonition, however, he merely said, “Hey, fuck you.”

“Here and now? I wonder what Shishio’s thoughts on that would be.” Though Saitou’s murmur was carrying, evidently meant to be heard by the two people walking down the hall in front of them, Sano chose to interpret it at being directed toward Yumi alone. She didn’t seem to have much of a sense of humor, and her huffy, stiff-shouldered response was pretty funny… a good deal more than the thought of the remark having been aimed at Kenshin and what that might mean.

“Could only make his day better,” Sano replied with a shrug and a grin… and realized even as he said it that, while there was nothing wrong with levity in general, these particular words were probably not the wisest. They could only bother Kenshin and bring to mind things neither of them were supposed to be thinking about at the moment. Honestly, he was a little shocked he’d even said such a thing to Saitou. Hell, he was shocked Saitou had said what he had to him.

He couldn’t help being surprised as well at how amiable that brief exchange had been. Perhaps Saitou was surprised too, for he raised a brow and gave Sano a lopsided smile. It was a strange look, holding something more than skepticism and amusement, and it gave Sano the strangest feeling. There was something of finality in Saitou’s eyes all of a sudden… finality and acceptance. Seeing that expression, Sano almost expected the man at any moment to say goodbye and just disappear.

Earlier on in this venture, Sano would have been glad of the disappearance and told Saitou to skip the goodbye. Now… Well, it would probably get in the way of all that waiting he’d resolved to do if he thought about what he would prefer now. Break his concentration on the tasks at hand, complicate things with Kenshin, and all that.

But after the oddly friendly moment of banter and those looks, and in this current silence that (according to Sano’s earlier, admittedly irrational fear) might be his last chance, it was difficult as hell not to think about this sort of thing.

Kenshin glanced back at them just then, the very nonexistence of his expression expressive. He looked like a man holding his breath, reminding his companions that the air would slowly poison them if taken in. There was no trace of what Sano knew he must be feeling, the worry and confusion and god knew what else… only the determination to finish what he’d started, to complete the accepted task. Not even the awareness that their friends at the Aoiya were in worse danger, perhaps, than anyone here in the fortress — a fact that, quite frankly, Sano was trying his best simply to ignore, though it lingered under everything else he did or said or thought as a live current of potentially detrimental concern… not even that showed in Kenshin’s face.

Sano smiled faintly at his lover, then stared at his back when Kenshin turned away again. Kenshin was so strong… strong in ways Sano had never thought about — never been aware of, really — until recently, until Kenshin himself had made him recognize them. Sano admired and loved Kenshin as much for teaching him these things he might not otherwise have learned as for bearing that strength in himself. And observing Saitou’s fixed, serious stare in the same direction as his own, Sano couldn’t help thinking…

No. No. He could help thinking that, because he wasn’t supposed to be thinking about anything but this situation here and now at the fortress. Sano might not be as strong as Kenshin was in many ways, but he’d be damned if he let him down here and now by getting distracted and jeopardizing the endeavor. He returned his attention very pointedly to the continual, painful flexing of his hand.

“We’ve arrived,” Yumi announced at last, drawing to a halt in front of another pair of doors in a particularly dark stretch of corridor. “Inside is your second opponent. Once you enter this room, you won’t be allowed to turn ba–”

“Enough,” Kenshin interrupted her, somewhat fiercely, and, to Sano’s surprise, kicked the doors down. They clattered to the floor a few feet into the room beyond.

The latter, as dim as this length of hallway, was decorated with stylized eyes on floor and wall and ceiling. In the solid circular center of one of these a man, blindfolded and bearing a large-headed spear and a shield, wore more of the same symbol on his clothing and sandals. He didn’t sit; he crouched, evidently ready to spring into action at any moment. Piecing together certain things Misao and Chou had said, Sano identified this as Mouken no Usui.

“One… two… three…” the man counted. He raised a hand and pointed at the people in the doorway, skipping Yumi but indicating the rest of them one by one with a precision that made Sano a little uncomfortable. Was the guy blind or wasn’t he? Surely he couldn’t see through the damn blindfold in any case…! “Anji couldn’t even get rid of one of you?” Usui put a hand thoughtfully to his smiling face. “Well… that’s fine, that’s fine.”

“We don’t have time for your bravado,” Kenshin replied in an even harsher tone than his previous. Glancing at him, startled, Sano noticed he was already prepared to draw and fight. “Will you step aside and let us pass? Decide quickly.”

Sano struggled to fight off a deep, cold shiver. He knew that voice. It was Kenshin’s first-step-down-Battousai-path voice. Perhaps the news of the planned Aoiya massacre was affecting him more than Sano had thought; or perhaps Kenshin, in steeling himself for the eventual encounter with Shishio, was inadvertently (inadvertently, Sano hoped to god inadvertently) pushing himself into Battousai territory.

“Kenshin–” he began uncertainly, but cut off in surprise as Kenshin’s forward momentum brought him into sudden, unexpected contact with Saitou’s abruptly outstretched arm. Kenshin stumbled back a step, staring at Saitou just as Sano was.

“It’s good that you’re angry,” Saitou explained, his eyes never moving from the still figure of Usui, “but don’t waste it on him.” His tone was utterly flat as he continued, “Go on and leave this one to me.”

“Saitou…” Kenshin’s voice was a great relief, for it had returned to normal; and the expression he gave Saitou, as he touched briefly the spot where the officer’s fist had met his face, was all Kenshin. Silently Sano sighed. Was it all right to feel grateful to Saitou for this? Kenshin could undoubtedly have taken care of it himself, but the fact remained that the wolf had deliberately pulled him back from those first steps.

“Go,” ordered Saitou, and suddenly the import of his previous statement struck Sano. Go? Leave him here to fight alone? Move on to whatever came next without him? Just like that?

Sano opened his mouth, but found himself devoid of words.

Kenshin nodded. “Excuse us,” he said to Yumi, and took off at that improbable speed of his toward the far doors.

“Hey, wait!” the woman protested. “You can’t just–”

Deeming it best to bring her along, given the likelihood of their getting lost without her, Sano hefted Yumi up into his arms as he moved to follow Kenshin. “You’re coming too!”

Through the door Kenshin had flung open, carrying the struggling, loudly protesting Yumi, Sano had time for nothing more than the briefest glance back. And he couldn’t even deny to himself the painful clenching of his heart as he took in the lean, tense, motionless figure in blue that they were leaving behind perhaps never to see again.

The room stank of blood, but Saitou did not rush to leave it; unnecessary haste would only set him back at this point. He was quick about treating his injuries, though… It probably would have been better to bandage his legs under his pants, but, squeamish as he wasn’t, the thought of removing the garment in the presence of the pinned and blindly staring half body on the wall was unpalatable to him.

“Could only make his day better,” he seemed to hear in Sagara’s tones, and he smirked faintly to himself. He still couldn’t quite believe they’d said those things to each other.

After retrieving his sword with some difficulty from aforementioned corpse, he finally left the room. As he lit a cigarette outside, covering up the last traces of the bloody scent, he spent several moments staring down the corridor to the right. Based on what he’d heard earlier, he believed his companions had gone that way. Unfortunately, based on what he remembered, he needed to go the other way. To be sure, he traded his cigarette case for the map in his pocket.

It would be a struggle to concentrate on the information he needed to collect when he wanted so badly to follow Himura and Sagara. Supposedly only Seta Soujirou remained to be defeated before Shishio himself, but, even assuming he believed those really were the only dangers left to face, he wasn’t terribly happy letting the others face them alone. He knew part of this was his usual, deeply-ingrained disinclination to delegate difficult tasks; he was always surer of things he did himself. He knew what the rest of it was too — he could finally even admit it to himself — but it was no good thinking about that right now.

He headed down the hallway to the left. Careless haste was still to be avoided, but he could hope to wrap up this part of his task quickly and rejoin the others before too long. And if either of them had been seriously hurt during this separation…

He took a long drag on his cigarette. He needed to visit three areas of the fortress before he could do what he really wanted to do, so, though it was difficult as hell, he pushed Himura and Sagara from his mind (as far as that was possible) and moved, purposeful and silent, toward his first duty.

That things went smoothly was not, he thought, in this instance, a bad sign. The complex was practically uninhabited — emptied, perhaps, toward the unsuspecting Aoiya — and those that remained were too distracted by the presence of Himura to notice Saitou. So it was with relative ease he found what he sought — none of which could occupy his mind anywhere near as thoroughly as the emptiness he was enforcing in place of what he didn’t need to be worrying about at the moment.

On the way to the last and largest office-like room he intended to inspect, a door stood ajar. A glance at his map confirmed it led to a library, but even half a hallway away Saitou could tell that its recent purpose had been something very different. Moving even more stealthily than before, he stepped inside to have a look.

The two rooms he’d seen in which the prearranged battles had taken place had been specifically suited for that purpose, tasteless personalized decorations aside. This chamber, with its narrow, shelf-walled lanes, was not suited for the purpose, so presumably this battle had not been prearranged. Saitou had been wondering all along, in the back of his head, about the location of almost the only unknown factor in this great equation; therefore, the presence in the dark chaos inside the doors of one Shinomori Aoshi was not terribly shocking. Nor was the fact that Himura had been able to defeat him.

It was one hell of a relief, though.

Judging by Shinomori’s state and that he was just getting to his feet and moving as if to leave the room, Saitou judged that it couldn’t have been too long since the end of this bout. The Okashira actually moved two steps forward before observing Saitou’s presence; Saitou wished very much he could have seen the battle that had left him in this condition.

During the few moments before Shinomori noticed his presence, Saitou debated whether or not to speak to him. Time was nothing could spend extravagantly, but he was so pleased to see Himura had won this battle that he actually felt rather positive toward Shinomori at the moment. Additionally, the Oniwaban’s presence in the fortress had surely contributed to the general distraction of which Saitou had been able to take such convenient advantage… and the man might even have a further use against Shishio, assuming Himura had managed to convince him of the error of his ways. Since Himura could probably convince Enma of the error of his ways, Saitou was assuming.

So, when Shinomori signaled by a barely visible start that he was finally aware of Saitou’s presence, looking up from the wreckage of slashed books and shattered shelves he attempted to navigate, Saitou greeted him. “I see you got your ass kicked again.”

“Saitou Hajime.” Shinomori didn’t seem terribly pleased to see him, but it was a little hard to tell.

“Hm?” Saitou lit a fresh cigarette. “You should know me as Fujita Gorou.”

“That Seta boy told me you were here,” Shinomori replied shortly.

“Sou ka,” said Saitou even more shortly, smirking at the other man.

“You’ve been taking your time.” Shinomori seemed somehow even less pleased now than before. “Battousai’s long gone.”

Saitou nodded. “Everything’s going according to plan.” Now he essentially had confirmation in Shinomori’s own words of Himura’s victory, he could get back to work in relative contentment. The Okashira was fading as an object of any interest, but he might still be useful. So Saitou pulled his map again from his pocket and flicked it at the other man.

Shinomori caught the paper and snapped it open with a hand that was evidently regaining its vigor. As his eyes took in the fine lines representing the rooms and passages surrounding them, he managed by some means or other to appear almost astonished with no visible change of expression.

Saitou turned to leave with another satisfied smirk. “Your intelligence network is effective,” he answered Shinomori’s surprise, “but the government’s system is the best in the country. It’s one of the reasons I work for them.” He gestured briefly. “I don’t need that now; it will lead you to Shishio, if you’re interested.”

“So you’re using Battousai as a decoy.” The Okashira’s flat statement made him pause.

“Something like that.” It certainly had been the plan all along; it was still the plan… it was just that Himura had become so much more since that encounter in the Kamiya Dojo. This was nothing he felt like explaining to Shinomori Aoshi, though. “This battle will decide the future Japan,” he forced himself to go on. “Nothing can come before that.” And he was not so much expressing the opinion as trying to convince himself he actually believed it. He’d known this would happen; he could only hope, now, that he really was as strong as he’d told himself he was.

“Then what about your match?” Shinomori wondered next. “The grudge between you and Battousai from the Bakumatsu? If he dies here, what will you do?”

Saitou wasn’t certain whether Shinomori was trying to reiterate the efficacy of his network by showing how much he knew, or if he was aware that these questions would be bothersome and was just lashing out since Saitou had caught him in such a vulnerable position. Either way, Saitou considered remarking cryptically that the Okashira’s information was outdated, and leaving it at that… but the thought of Himura dying here — the thought of losing what he’d only just allowed himself to admit he cherished — was too disturbing for him to answer quite so facetiously, even if Shinomori didn’t understand.

“Then whoever lives wins,” he said flatly. Under normal circumstances, it would be true, which made it a good response. But he was less pleased with Shinomori upon leaving the room than when he’d entered it.

Everything he needed to know was not readily available here in the fortress, but he hadn’t really expected it to be. He’d still learned enough to justify the trip, and after the office near the library felt it was all he was likely to. Which meant he was free to rejoin the others and, hopefully, see the end of this drama.

A large space that had appeared on the map to be an arena of some sort lay outside these dark corridors in a valley that cut right through the underground fortress; Shishio having already displayed an eye for showmanship, Saitou believed the battle against him would take place there. Picturing the route he must take to reach it required no particular effort of memory, since, under the assumption that Himura and Sagara were or would soon be there, his eyes had inevitably traced it every time they’d fallen to the map; he could probably walk it without looking.

Anticipation and concern tensed his body further with every step he took along aforementioned path, until finally he turned the last corner. Daylight flooded this corridor… more of a room, really, where the hallway opened out into an atrium of sorts before a giant set of riveted metal doors that stood open. But while the real, natural light of the sun served as a pleasant reminder of the world outside this dreary fortress and the events taking place therein, the fresh air that should have accompanied it from the valley or gorge beyond the doors was tainted by a hot, acrid smell he didn’t quite recognize at first.

Uncertain though he was at what he might find beyond them, he took the fact that the doors were open at all as a confirmation of his guess about the final battle’s location. He had only to step through and learn what was going on. Now for the end; now to hope his other duties, which it would have been impossible for him to shirk and which he was yet inclined to curse as he thought about the amount of time he’d spent away from Himura and Sagara, hadn’t delayed him too long.

Chapter 15 – The Point of Strength and Fire

Saitou had reached a point he had never thought to see, had experienced something that, for all his careful planning, all his meticulous calculations of possibilities and the outcomes of various paths, he had never anticipated — nor would quite have known how to deal with if he had. The shock of this, he thought, did him little good at this point. It increased his pain, clouded his thoughts, and further reduced his ability to get hold of himself and the situation.

It wasn’t his failure that took him so much by surprise, for even that possibility was part of his calculations. The manner of his defeat was also no great surprise, as he’d been very aware of what a threat Shishio’s strength posed. No, while it could dismay, this in general could not surprise him. Nor was he entirely willing to classify this as ‘failure’ yet in any case. But a number of other aspects of what was happening found him so thoroughly off guard he thought he must spend the rest of his life — however much longer that was likely to be — wondering at them, at this point he never would have expected to reach.

He would never thought he could regret so deeply a plan of his own concoction, nor wish so desperately he could have altered or even abandoned it. Not that he would have — his level of dedication to the country and its good lessened for no man (or men) — but that he wished to was enough to startle him. And as he’d stood behind the closed arena doors listening, striving to keep his intentions neutral and suppress the ki that might otherwise betray him, taking in the unmistakable sounds of a battle not proceeding in Himura’s favor, he could do almost nothing but wish it could have been otherwise — that some other decoy could have been found or some other arrangement made to give them an advantage. Hell, even a straightforward battle with no gimmicks would have been better than this.

When had he ever wished, honestly, for a battle to be straightforward?

He’d never thought to reach the point where a difficulty he had anticipated would prove a genuine setback. That unexpected hurdles would arise he accepted perforce; he planned as best he could, and considered himself by no means deficient in foresight, but the unexpected would always take a part, for good or ill, in any venture. But for something he had foreseen, something he had specifically expected and readied himself to combat, nothing that had taken him blind but something of which he’d been long aware — for such a thing to have become a stumbling block he almost could not believe.

And yet, despite his awareness that his growing unrelated emotions might interfere with his ability to carry out his duty, despite his belief that he had this under control, the sound and feel of Himura’s defeat on the other side of those doors and the far worse sight of Himura senseless and bleeding on the ground had absolutely undone him. Which begged the question of just how much under control he really had things; of just how foresighted he really was when he hadn’t predicted or even considered this.

Or perhaps he simply hadn’t realized the strength of his own emotions. If that was the case, it was yet another surprise.

For one vital moment, all he’d been able to think or feel was the desire to kill Shishio. Of course killing Shishio had been the objective all along, but if Saitou had had his head about him, hadn’t been so utterly overcome, he might have aimed more responsibly. He didn’t entirely believe, in general, that emotion was the antithesis of rational thought, but it certainly had been in this scenario. It had been utterly irresponsible of him to fail in the sneak attack that had been the purpose of the whole operation, and the blame rested with his overactive sensibilities.

And now as he fell, unable to stop his descent, unable though he struggled to regain any sway over his injured form, conscious of almost no physical sensation beyond overwhelming pain, the last thing he heard as everything plunged into agonized darkness was Sagara’s cry of rage and despair. At least he had not yet fallen. There was little hope he would remain standing, so the emotion resultant upon hearing the shout partook very little of that foresight Saitou still believed himself to possess — but for the moment, thank god, Sagara had not yet fallen.

Saitou would never have thought to reach the point where comfort so destined to fail, as doomed to fall as Sagara was, could mean so much to him.

***

“This is my fight,” Kenshin had said, with that distant look of ten years past, that look Sano hated more than anything, that look that spoke of a responsibility that really shouldn’t have been his. This had faded somewhat, though, as Kenshin had taken in Sano’s expression. “I must ask you…” And he’d trailed off and smiled faintly, silently acknowledging his inability to continue under that stare.

Sano had known Kenshin wanted to ask him to stay out of the coming battle, both because of that damned unfair sense of responsibility and because he was still trying to protect him. But that was absurd; Sano hadn’t come this far to watch. And the impossibility of Sano giving the promise Kenshin wanted had translated into impossibility of Kenshin even asking it. But even if words could not, the concern in Kenshin’s eyes had demanded something of Sano. With an effort the latter had said, “I’ll do my best.”

Then they’d stared at each other for a long moment, and Sano had fought off the temptation to pull Kenshin to him for what might be their last kiss or remind him that he loved him. They were not going to die here, and any statement or gesture of such finality as to imply he thought they might could only have lowered morale.

As if understanding and concurring with this unspoken thought, Kenshin had nodded and turned toward the walkway. He certainly had understood Sano’s words, brief though they’d been — that Sano would try to stay out of the battle, try to let Kenshin handle it… but that he had his limits.

It turned out his limits lay just below the sum total of what he felt at seeing the two people most important to him cut down in front of him.

Seeing either fall singly, he thought, would have caused the same shock, the same body-and-spirit-encompassing leaden despair that had gripped him when Kenshin’s limp form hit the ground. But seeing them both fall, whichever fell first, was enough to inspire a hotter rage, a deeper pain, and a greater need to move, to fight, to kill, than he in his nineteen years had ever before felt.

With a scream he launched himself, fists clenched and aching, with no more complex motive than this desire to destroy and very little awareness of anything beyond his anger and his agony. Anger and agony were all he took into the collision, and were all he found there, and the only additional reflection that could pierce the chaos and the blackness that swiftly began to swallow him as he hit the wall and saw the world dimming in a spray of blood was that Shishio was right — he really wasn’t strong enough for either of them.

***

He couldn’t sense them.

Kenshin was half dead of blood loss and pain, more unconscious than otherwise, battered and shaken and anguished, and he couldn’t sense them.

He could feel Aoshi’s presence, weary but undaunted, and Shishio’s looming black-hot ki; he could vaguely make out the presence of the other two people on the platform. He could even hear a little of their discussion, though it was distant and garbled and incomprehensible as if he listened from under water. But Sano… where was Sano? Somehow Kenshin was sure Saitou was here too… how he knew this was less important a question than where Saitou was. Kenshin knew they were there, but he could not sense them.

He had to… he had to

Why couldn’t he sense them?

In a movement of will closer to slow and steady than passionate or determined, he pushed against the haze that shrouded him. With growing awareness came an increase in pain, which only paved a quicker path to full consciousness, and still he could not sense them.

Working, struggling, battling to awaken, straining for any indication past Aoshi’s chill and Shishio’s heat that Sano and Saitou were still with him and still alive, Kenshin forced his senses back into place and his eyes to open.

One glance was all it took to tell the tale: what Shishio had done, what Aoshi had done and why… what Saitou had done, what Sano had done… what Shishio had done to them. The blood running from Sano’s brow down his cheek onto his neck and chest… the wounds to Saitou’s legs and torso as he lay motionless… their pained, insensible faces… Saitou’s fallen sword, Sano’s limp fist…

Kenshin had felt all along that this was his fight, but only by extension of old loyalties and events of ten years past, only because a burden he’d taken on his shoulders during the Bakumatsu had seemed to include a certain responsibility for the actions and choices of some of his confederates.

Now Shishio had made it personal.

Kenshin could burn too. It was time to see who burned hotter, to test the black flame against the white. It was time to save them, to put all his desire to protect on the line and see if it measured up.

It was time to end this.

Chapter 16 – The Color of 120°

Gazing across the gap in the path that was clearly too wide to jump, Saitou watched as everything wavered in the rising heat that here and there even gave way to high-springing flame, and wondered how in such conditions he could possibly be so cold. How could he look over there, meet Sagara’s eyes across that divide, take in the devastation Himura’s body had undergone, and say nothing, do nothing in response? Sagara was screaming at him in a tone of such despair that his emotions were borne across the burning chasm as clearly as his voice was; how could Saitou listen to those words, those feelings, and respond by lighting a cigarette and smiling?

Had he been this cold watching from the deck of the Rengoku as Shishio ordered Sagara gunned down? Had he been this cold bursting through the arena doors to see Himura lying motionless on the ground?

No, never this cold. Tense, breathless, irate, bloodthirsty, horrified, terrified. No, never cold at all, except perhaps on the exterior, and even that had cracked at least once in both instances.

But in both instances, it had been they, not he, in danger of their lives. Had been a member of a pair that should not be separated, that he could not bear to see separated. This time it was merely a lone wolf that was only in the way. He’d done his job as best he could, considering the terrible dual distractions, and now could fade away — die perhaps — and leave them to each other as they were meant to be. This was the best of all possible endings, after all.

He was going to miss them, though, if he got out of this alive. More than just a little, if the pang that went through his heart at his final glance at Himura’s unconscious face was any indication. Still, he’d played a game against each of them and lost — lost more than he’d ever thought he had to lose — and he knew it.

“Ahou,” he remarked softly as Sagara finished his tirade in a voice that would echo in Saitou’s ears forever. I expected him, but not you, he did not add out loud as he took one last look and turned away into the rising flames and billowing brown smoke.

***

The closer Kenshin drifted toward the shores of consciousness, the greater the pain. But with the memory of the battle against Shishio and those preceding it fresh even in his hazy mind, this was no surprise to him. However, innumerable glimpses of Sano’s worried face and tortured eyes, indistinct and half viewed through barely opened lids as he repeatedly struggled and failed to reach the waking world — that was something he could not entirely explain. They’d come through the ordeal together alive, regardless of what state he would find himself in when he was at last able to take stock. Why should Sano appear so miserable? Kenshin didn’t think he was dying… but why else would that utterly forsaken look be so constantly painted across his lover’s face?

Unless… unless something had happened to one of their friends, and Sano was just waiting for Kenshin to regain lucidity enough to break the news. But how — when, even — could that have happened? Soujirou had informed them that the Juppongatana had been defeated at the Aoiya. Could he have neglected to mention it had not been a perfect defeat? Then, Kenshin remembered both Aoshi and Saitou standing, if not entirely healthy, well enough to walk and converse, after the battle on the platform. Might something have happened to one of them after Kenshin had blacked out? But though Sano would regret it, he wouldn’t worry so much communicating bad news about Aoshi — would not harbor such terrible pain in his eyes over that loss. Nor, Kenshin had to admit, about Kaoru or Yahiko or anyone else involved in this except for…

But Saitou was…

Kenshin knew he must have lost quite a lot of blood. Because Saitou was not invincible, and anything even approaching such a protest spoke of muddled thoughts.

His struggles for consciousness redoubled, and eventually through sheer force of will he managed to rouse himself sufficiently to whisper to Sano, who was seated at his side still with that horrifying pain in his gaze, “What happened?”

“Kenshin,” Sano whispered, “Saitou…”

Kenshin took a deep, tremulous breath, closing his eyes and sinking back into the haze.

He floated through memories, distant and recent. Blue haori and headbands mingled with blue police uniforms and cigarettes, a haughty smile presiding over all. A smile that had been turned toward Kenshin in genuine pleasure — there was no mistaking it — as he disembarked from that carriage at the police station and Saitou greeted him from the window. A smile whose absence had been conspicuous during the ride to Osaka, in as awkward a silence as three men could possibly attain and that had answered more questions than any words could. A smile that had never changed over all those years. A smile he would not be seeing again.

When he was finally able to open his eyes and look around without immediately falling back onto the pillow in profound exhaustion, he wondered what the point had been, as, excepting (thankfully) Sano, all the colors in the world seemed to have faded to a dull brown.

***

Sano couldn’t think clearly, and he didn’t know why. He couldn’t remember having been in this much pain at any time during his entire life. And he couldn’t be sure whether the pain was due more to the agony in his hand and his head — the memory constantly replaying itself of that walkway, explosions, fire, and unexpected loss — or the look in Kenshin’s eyes, as if the older man had just been stabbed, when Sano had told him.

He didn’t know whether or not seeing Kenshin hurting was worse than the loss he felt in his own heart, and it didn’t seem to matter much anymore whether or not that represented unfaithfulness.

Hugging himself in the corner of a window-seat in the room he was sharing with Kenshin in the Aoiya’s upper level — not the same room as before, as that had been destroyed in the battle — Sano stared blankly through the glass at the failing day. He felt so cold.

Of course no one could be invincible. He’d reminded himself of that fact when Kenshin had left Tokyo, but still somehow then put Saitou in another class, in a different category than Sagara-taichou and his lover. Possibly because he’d thought for so long that he hated Saitou, and therefore whether Saitou lived or died had less to do with Sano… or something like that. He couldn’t even think straight, and it was all Saitou’s fault.

He remembered how Saitou had looked at him through the door of that cell, the first time they’d seen each other since Tokyo. How after that incident it had seemed a matter beyond question that Sano would be accompanying Saitou at least until they found Kenshin, if not… well, forever…

“Damn you,” he whispered, letting his head fall so his face rested against the cool glass.

He was startled just then by Kenshin’s hand on his shoulder, the first sign of the other man’s presence. Sano looked up in silent surprise to meet his lover’s weary eyes, that gaze that seemed to hold every bit as much pain as he thought his own must. Kenshin touched his face wordlessly and joined him on the window-seat, curling up with him, his head against Sano’s chest, breathing laboriously just from the effort of moving here from his futon in his current condition. “You are thinking about Saitou.”

Sano nodded with a sigh.

Kenshin echoed the latter, but didn’t seem to have any further comment.

“I’m just so…” Sano growled out an inarticulate syllable before he concluded, “…pissed!” That wasn’t the right word at all, actually. “I just can’t believe he… he’s… dammit…” But there was no way he could finish that thought.

“Sano, you do not have to try to hide that you loved him.”

Pressed against him as he was, Kenshin might have felt Sano’s heart stop beating completely, but would not have been able to see how pale Sano’s face went or how his lips moved silently not knowing what to say.

The tone had been soft, containing no accusation or reproof, nor any more pain in particular than anything else Kenshin had said since their return from the fortress — and yet how could Sano answer? How did you reply when your lover told you he knew you were in love with someone else? Sano should probably start by reassuring Kenshin that he didn’t love him any less or any differently, which was quite true… but no matter how he began or what he professed, it would eventually come down to confessing that he had also loved Saitou so desperately that even with Kenshin here now, his heart was breaking. How did he admit to that kind of duplicity? He couldn’t stand the thought of hurting Kenshin any further, and yet… he just couldn’t deny what his lover had said, any more than he would have been able to deny that he loved Kenshin.

He took a deep breath, still unsure of what he was about to say… and suddenly found Kenshin’s hand gently covering his mouth, halting him. The redhead had raised himself and was looking Sano in the face, solemn and sorrowful.

“I loved him too,” he said, and his eyes closed slowly as he laid himself once more against Sano’s chest.

Neither one spoke again, for the true comfort they could offer each other was love and mutual understanding and this tight embrace. Their torn hearts beating out the same rhythm, they sat in the glow of a sunset that really seemed somehow more brown than crimson, and watched it fade slowly away.



<<15

Once upon a time, Aletsan was writing a fic called Healing Broken Things (though that was not its title at the time), and this story she updated every single day. Thinking this would be an interesting challenge, I too decided to write a story I would update every single day. As you can probably guess, each segment of this resulting fic was one of these daily updates, except for one or two that were long enough that I split them and wrote the halves on consecutive days. And it was an interesting challenge. It led to a story that felt different from anything else I’d ever written.

Of course the fic is steeped in hyperdrama from beginning to end and is chock full of hit-or-miss gimmicks. The first chapter sets the groundwork, and then it gets a lot… I don’t want to say ‘worse,’ because I find I like this story surprisingly much for all that. But it gets a lot… more.

At some point around the early teens (as the chapters currently stand), I decided I didn’t feel like writing any more of this story and gave up on it. Then I resumed it a few years later, writing whole chapters at a time instead of little scenes and not bothering with the daily-update stuff. I honestly can’t remember where that occurred, though, so make your best guess.

In addition to being illustrative, the picture at the end of Chapter 12 was drawn in exchange for this.

I’ve rated this story .

The Eyes in the Mirror

Sure, they’d discussed a restaurant and renting something they’d both missed while it was in theaters, but just because the resulting plan was ‘dinner and a movie’ didn’t mean it was a date. No matter how much Heero wanted it to be.

Days keep slipping by while Heero, who desperately wants to step up his relationship with Duo, the taxi driver that always takes him to work, continually puts off confessing that he likes him.



Monday

Heero slid into Duo’s cab almost fifteen minutes later than his usual time, shook off and half-closed his umbrella, and tossed his briefcase onto the empty beige seat beside him with what would have been a grumble, or perhaps a sigh, if he’d given it any volume. Despite the relative subtlety of this expression and the complete muting by the rain of any sound he might inadvertently have let escape his lips, Duo, of course, noticed his mood.

“Moving a little slow today?” he said cheerfully, throwing an understanding grin over his shoulder from the driver’s seat. Only someone that knew Heero well enough to read the signs of his discontent would have been able to guess at its cause… Duo had driven Heero to work almost every day for the past few months, and had learned to read the signs earlier than most people.

“Yes.” Heero gave him a hard look, though not necessarily an angry one. He was irritated, but only at himself for getting off to such a late start; he supposed there probably were circumstances under which he could be angry at Duo… but he hadn’t found any yet.

Duo’s grin widened as he glanced back the other direction and pulled away from the curb. “You’re my third fare of the day who’s been running late. The first guy’s basement flooded, and then this lady told me an awesome story about her kid taking his diaper off and putting it all over his room, and she had to clean it up before she could leave for work.” He chuckled. “Think your excuse can top theirs?”

“No.” There was a touch of surliness to this answer, since Heero would much rather have had such an excuse, unpleasant as either situation would have been to deal with, than the infinitely weaker ‘couldn’t get to sleep for hours and then didn’t hear the alarm once sleep finally came.’ However, he found himself, for some reason, explaining this to Duo despite its lameness.

“Well, I think this is the first time I remember you coming down late,” the driver answered him in an easy, reassuring tone. “Nobody can be on time every day. I mean, me, the earlier I get up, the later I’m likely to be. If I have to be to class at eight and I get up at six, I’ll be late; but if I get up at seven fifteen I’m fine.”

At this Heero couldn’t help smiling a little; if he’d had to guess what Duo’s morning routine was like — and he spent more time guessing about Duo’s personal life in general than Duo probably had any idea — this would certainly have been part of it. He could easily picture Duo snooze-buttoning himself into rising five minutes before he needed to leave, then getting ready in forty-five seconds and showing up to work as dapper as usual.

Except for… “How long does your braid take?” The words were out of his mouth almost before he’d even fully formed the question, long before he’d consciously decided to ask it. That sort of thing happened a lot in Duo’s cab; Heero was almost used to it.

Duo shrugged. “A minute? Two minutes? Maybe?”

Heero raised a brow at the indigo eyes in the rear-view mirror. “I don’t believe you,” he said, and noticed, as he often did, how serious his voice sounded — as if he were denying, rather than the length of time Duo claimed it took to do his hair, the possibility of a heinous crime he knew Duo incapable of committing, or the likelihood of some hideous natural disaster he would rather not believe had happened. No wonder they kept him off the phones at work.

Duo, however, far from objecting to Heero’s incongruously dire tone, seemed inclined rather to build on it. “I swear it’s true, your honor!” he protested, the edge of his face that Heero could see wrinkling in amusement as he squeaked out this appeal. “Don’t send me back to jail!”

“All right,” Heero answered, “I’ll let you off this time.” And though he still sounded unnecessarily serious, the slight grin that had taken hold of his mouth almost in spite of himself added a touch of warmth to his tone that he was sure Duo would pick up on.

“Seriously, though,” Duo went on, “it doesn’t take very long: pull it out, brush it, put it back in.” With a facetiously rakish expression that was discernable even from this angle he added, “It’s not like I have to spend forever in the bathroom to look fabulous.”

Heero pursed his lips against the response he was tempted to make — to wit, that he had no doubt this was the case. Fortunately, he was saved the trouble of coming up with an innocuous response when Duo turned a corner rather sharply and noticed Heero reeling a bit behind him.

“Seat belt!” the driver commanded, and Heero dutifully complied. Duo watched him in the mirror, eyes narrowed and jaw jutting out in an exaggerated expression of authoritative determination, until something on the road drew his gaze to where it probably should have been all along.

Heero was never quite sure whether he should worry when Duo looked at him rather than traffic, as he did rather value his life… but he certainly couldn’t complain if Duo wanted to look at him — even if it was only to be sure he was donning his seat belt as commanded — and Duo did have a remarkable talent for weaving through the lanes and avoiding other vehicles that often made Heero wonder vaguely if, with coordination like that, he might not be a very good dancer. So it was unlikely that Heero would protest until Duo actually wrecked them — and even that Heero might overlook, provided the circumstance was resultant upon Duo fixing him with that unexpectedly firm gaze in the mirror or half-turning to say something adorable over his shoulder.

Yeah, Heero had it pretty bad.

When Duo’s attention returned to him, both face and voice were companionable once again. “So are we still going to hang out on Friday?”

To Heero this was a somewhat awkward question, since his reply, “If you’re free,” was not what he actually wanted to say. He wasn’t really given to blushing, but he did busy himself with shaking the rain off his umbrella onto the floor beside his feet so as to avoid, just for the moment, meeting the eyes in the mirror.

“Only if you promise not to stand me up again,” Duo said.

Truly, obviously, Duo had no idea. ‘Stand me up’ was such a date term. And Friday’s arrangement — their second attempt, after last Friday’s cancellation on Heero’s part thanks to the demands of overtime, to turn the customer-client relationship into something more — was definitely not a date. Sure, they’d discussed a restaurant and renting something they’d both missed while it was in theaters, but just because the resulting plan was ‘dinner and a movie’ didn’t mean it was a date. No matter how much Heero wanted it to be.

“Not this time,” he promised. “I told them I wouldn’t be working any overtime this week.”

Duo winced theatrically, amusement sparkling in his eyes. “If you told them with that face, I’m not worried!”

“What face?” Heero wondered, resisting the impulse to raise a hand to the area in question to attempt ascertaining with fingers the answer to his.

“That face where if you said, ‘I told them I wouldn’t be on the planet this week,’ I would totally believe you,” Duo chuckled. “And so would they. Man, when you get serious, you really get serious! You should ask for a raise with that face. I mean tell them you want a raise with that face. Or tell my boss I want a raise with that face.”

Heero laughed. This happened occasionally in Duo’s cab; he was almost used to that too. He did have to wonder, though, whether, if the driver had watched his face enough to know it so well, Duo had really never suspected…

Well, Heero reflected, his face probably wouldn’t show it. He wasn’t exactly a stereotypical gay man. The fact that he didn’t think he’d ever actually met a stereotypical gay man didn’t negate his belief in their existence, since his social circle — so called — was not wide enough to encompass any other gay men, and therefore he had no living model besides himself to compare with the mythos of television. But he hoped he was able to perceive the status he claimed for himself in others, if it existed — at the very least in someone he’d watched carefully — and he hadn’t yet observed any symptoms in Duo. And evidently Duo didn’t recognize it in him, either.

Which was why Friday’s meeting wouldn’t be a date.

…unless Heero managed to establish it as such before the time in question, and Duo accepted the arrangement — the chances of which seemed at the moment to range from slim to none, given that Heero hadn’t been able to bring himself yet to confess his crush and Duo probably wouldn’t be interested even if or when he did. Would probably, in fact, become uncomfortable, and would stop showing up conveniently outside Heero’s apartment at 7:45 every morning knowing he was guaranteed a fare that at least up until that point he’d seemed to enjoy talking to. That’s what Heero thought he would do in a similar situation, anyway.

“So Friday…” He began this phrase in the hope of tricking himself into finishing it without realizing. Generally he didn’t speak impetuously or lose control of what he was saying, but the moment he was in Duo’s cab he had a tendency to blurt things out spontaneously — which might lead, if he timed it correctly, to his saying exactly what he wanted to say and hadn’t yet been able to. His ingrained reticence and reluctance to emotional commitment won out over Duo’s influence, however, and he found himself unable to proceed.

“Yeah?” Duo wondered.

With an effort Heero forced out, “I’ll get that movie.”

“Cool.”

They were approaching the office now, so it wasn’t really the right time for a conversation beginning with an unprecedented declaration of gay admiration. He would prefer to have a little more leisure to discuss it, and be more adequately braced for possible rejection, in any case. Still, it wasn’t with a great amount of hope, as Duo swiped his card and then bid him a friendly farewell, that Heero reflected, Maybe tomorrow.

Tuesday

Heero slid into Duo’s cab with every intention of getting the big question out before they reached the interstate. He’d spent breakfast working himself up to it, considering variants of phraseology on his part and possible responses on Duo’s as well as what he would say and do if Duo utterly rejected him. However, he was completely distracted from his purpose, as he pulled the door shut, by the heartily bizarre greeting from the driver: “Welcome to my dog!”

“What?” wondered Heero blankly.

“Oh, in the book I’ve been reading…” Duo began as he inserted the taxi smoothly into traffic.

“The same one?” Heero guessed.

In response to the slight skepticism in the query Duo just laughed. He’d been working on this particular book for almost two months now, if Heero was remembering correctly, ever since a class he’d been taking had studied excerpts and gotten him interested. “Well, it’s, like, a thousand pages,” he reminded Heero, without even a trace of shame at taking so long or at the subsequent admission, “and some parts of it are really boring.”

Heero restrained his head-shake. Duo was so enthusiastic about things — about life in general, it seemed — that even in something he did purely for recreation he enjoyed a challenge. Heero couldn’t help but admire the intensity as well as the intelligence that fitted Duo for such a pursuit… For any thousand-page book he wasn’t required to read that didn’t entirely hold his interest, Heero didn’t think he would have the fortitude.

It wasn’t that he objected to a challenge… just not when he was trying to relax. Maybe that was why he found it so difficult to relax most of the time: it was too damn challenging, so he avoided it. As if that made sense at all. Duo obviously had no such problem. Still, Heero might not necessarily want to be like that… but he definitely knew he wanted to be with that. There was about Duo an almost uncanny air of ease and simultaneous boundless energy that was somehow galvanizing and restful at the same time.

“Anyway,” Duo continued, “I got to this part last night where they called a dog a ‘cab’ — part of this thieves’ dialect-thing that was really interesting for almost the whole time the author went on and on about it — and it made me think I should name my car ‘Spot’ or something. It’s got those checkers on it; I think it’d make a good ‘Spot.'”

Heero had considered, on occasion, bringing with him on his taxi rides a little notebook in which to document the number of times Duo made him smile unexpectedly. “Do people name their dogs ‘Spot’ anymore?”

“Well, it needs to be a name people know is a dog’s name, or else the joke won’t work.”

“I think your ‘joke’ is a little too obscure for it to matter.” God, would he ever be able to respond to Duo’s carefree conversation with matching lightness, or was he doomed forever to this overly-serious tone? He struggled for greater levity of expression as he added, “You might as well choose a name you like better than ‘Spot.'”

As usual, Duo didn’t seem to mind Heero’s solemn tone; eyes crinkling with his pleased expression, he looked at his passenger in the mirror and said, “Well, and it’s a translation, too, so I guess that makes it even more obscure. We didn’t read this part in class, so I don’t even know if ‘cab’ was actually the word they used — so maybe the joke doesn’t even really work. Someday I’ll try the original and find out… but my French isn’t good enough for that yet, so I’m sticking with the English version for now.”

Had Heero been a more flirtatious man, or one possessed of easier powers of socialization — or, possibly, even just a bit more surety of his success in the present case — he might have tested on Duo the only French phrase he knew: asked for a translation in all innocence, or simply thrown it out as the admitted extent of his conversance, and gauged the reaction. As it was, he kept his voulez-vous coucher avec moi to himself. That, and admired Duo’s inclination and ability to learn a foreign language at all — something Heero had never managed. Unless programming jargon counted.

Heero had been fortunate enough to complete an accredited technical training program just out of high school on a grant, and had been making decent money in a relatively stable career field ever since. Duo, on the other hand — as far as Heero understood based on their conversations up until this point — had been painstakingly working his way through a four-year degree at the local college for the last decade, paying every penny of tuition himself by driving cabs and waiting tables. Heero, while not thinking of himself as overly transient in his interests or pursuits, couldn’t help looking up to that kind of long-term determination.

And now, as Duo inquired whether Heero had finished ‘that train robbery book’ (the most recent novel he had mentioned reading), there really was no way to introduce the topic Heero had entered the taxi determined to bring up; it would seem too jarring against the clever joviality of Duo’s book talk. Heero could only hope that they were not like that as well: too different ever to mesh, and in more ways than mere orientation (which information neither possessed, currently, about the other to any degree beyond assumption).

Heero knew perfectly well that he was gloomy and far too serious… or, at the very least, too outwardly serious for his own good. It made other people take him seriously, which was to his advantage, but it didn’t necessarily make anyone like him. And Duo was so cheerful… Still, Heero thought he had noticed — only a few times during their acquaintance, since taxi drives to work, however consistent, rarely afforded occasion for such — a deeply shadowed side to Duo’s vehemence of personality with which he thought he could readily identify. There was a well-rounded awareness of the often painful realities of life under that attractive grin; Duo simply chose to be cheerful on top of it.

The facts that they could probably connect on that level, that Duo’s sanguinity so often increased Heero’s, and that Duo didn’t seem to be bothered by Heero’s lack in the first place, surely made them perfectly suited for each other. Heero certainly saw it that way… but would Duo?

So the question went unasked that day as well; instead they discussed Michael Crichton until pulling up at the office and parting.

Wednesday

Heero slid into Duo’s cab already on the phone. It was never a good sign when his work day started before he’d even left the apartment, and Duo apparently agreed; as the latter moved them out into the street, evidently realizing this was a business call, his face took on first a look of sympathy and then a dramatic expression of suffering and despair.

It was a statement almost never made of Heero that he could not keep countenance, but, as he explained the details of the current project (admittedly somewhat complicated) to his coworker, and Duo began responding to everything he said with increasingly exaggerated feigned misery, rarely if ever watching his driving, it grew more and more difficult not to laugh out loud.

It got so bad that Relena finally asked, “Is something wrong?” She’d probably never heard him smile over the phone before.

“No,” Heero assured her, tearing his eyes away from those in the mirror with some effort and smoothing over his grin. “But if you’re in the area this afternoon, I’ll talk to you then. Just make sure you call us if you do hear from him.”

She assured him that she would and said goodbye.

Almost before the call had even ended, Heero had again sought out the gaze of the taxi driver, who grinned unrepentantly at him. “Good thing I don’t charge for the entertainment!” said Duo, laughing at himself. “Good morning! Now that you’re done sweet-talking your girlfriend.”

“She’s not my girlfriend.” Heero shook his head at the idea as he snapped his phone shut and put it back into his briefcase. Then, in one of those disturbingly unguarded bursts of madness that Duo’s cab seemed so often to induce, he added, “I don’t date women.”

He felt the blood drain from his face and then return in a rush for an honest-to-goodness, hot-burning blush. Why the hell had he said that?? He could have explained the situation in so many other ways — ‘She’s seeing someone;’ ‘We’re just friends;’ ‘I’m not interested in her’ — all of them perfectly true and all of them a good deal less burst-out-of-the-closet-from-nowhere startling.

But all Duo said was, “Oh! That makes a difference, doesn’t it?” And while he did appear a little surprised, it faded quickly and was neither accompanied nor followed by any look of disapproval. Heero thought, though, in a stiff fit of ragingly awkward, conflicting feelings, that the driver’s eyes were turned away from the mirror a good deal more than usual throughout the rest of the journey.

Obviously the latter could no longer reasonably hope to contain the specific conversation Heero had wished it would. As a matter of fact, he almost felt like jumping out of the cab and walking the rest of the way from the next light, melodrama level of that gesture notwithstanding.

It was not heartening that he felt this way about a fairly smooth admission of homosexuality that could only bring him closer to his goal. The statement had, for all its serious tone, had the kind of unassuming, personal, yet not indelicate sound he would precisely have wished for… a sound he doubted he could conjure anywhere but here or probably to anyone but Duo, if he could come up with it at all. If this relatively well-delivered and well-received confession was attended by so much embarassment and confusion, what hope on earth was there for his planned ‘let’s-make-this-a-date‘ speech?

That this was really a fortuitous event he kept telling himself with all the firmness he could command. This meant one thing fewer to worry about getting off his chest; maybe it would make the asking easier. And wasn’t it a good sign that Duo hadn’t freaked out? Now he had merely to propose casually that they rename the get-together on Friday, no preamble required. It would no longer be a surprise on top of another surprise; the two shocks were divided conveniently onto separate days. Surely this was a good thing.

So he kept telling himself.

And yet he wished he could fall through the seat and into the road like one of those superheroes that went intangible at will.

He was hardly aware of a word they spoke during the remainder of that drive. Duo, after a minute or so of silence, reverted to that completely harmless conversational staple of his, amusing anecdotes about anonymous passengers — but Heero would certainly not remember any of them later. As usual when this subject arose, he did wonder vaguely and somewhat dejectedly whether he might not be the hero of any of these stories when someone else was in the back seat, but for once Duo’s pleasant cabbie chatter could not wholly engross him. Staring out the window, uncertain whether or not he was still blushing, he tried to make for his agitation a sort of balm out of the wordless sound of Duo’s voice that was all he could hear behind the noise of his reflections. He thought he gave noncommittal interjections occasionally, too.

By the time they reached the office, Heero had straightened his head out somewhat. Whether he actually believed it or not, he was ready at least to believe that this had been a step forward, and he was fairly sure the usual tan of his face had returned. And at least his expression (as far as he could tell) hadn’t changed this entire time to betray his embarassment and turmoil. There was something to be said for stoicism.

His emotions were still rather augmented, but hadn’t really changed. So, although he didn’t exactly expect it, the half-hopeful, half-painful throb his heart gave when Duo smiled at him as he said goodbye didn’t really surprise him.

Thursday

Heero slid into Duo’s cab somewhat damp, as it was raining rather torrentially today; even with an umbrella, just the walk from the apartment lobby doors to the curb could not but discomfort.

“Good morning,” he said.

…there was another thing Duo’s cab did to him: made him offer a greeting (to Duo) before he’d been greeted. Which only happened occasionally, since Duo pretty consistently got to it first.

Through vigorous repetition of all the positive thoughts he’d tentatively entertained yesterday, Heero had come to grips with his inadvertent confession and was relatively calm. Whether he was at all ready to ask Duo about tomorrow was an entirely different story, but he thought he could at least converse with some degree of normalcy.

Duo, on the other hand, seemed out of sorts. His good morning was lethargic, and he yawned expansively before pulling out into the street. The eyes in the mirror looked tired, the planes beneath them unusually dark, the friendly opening comments that usually accompanied their gaze markedly absent.

After a few minutes of pathetic silence Heero wondered, “Not feeling well?” Here was where the austere tone did him the most disservice: there was no way he could sound concerned with that voice. He could only hope Duo would read his sincerity some other way.

The driver threw a rueful smile over his shoulder. “I didn’t sleep well last night.”

“Sorry to hear that,” Heero replied, and stifled a sigh at how stiff and purely conventional it sounded.

“Thanks,” said Duo. His smile, visible in the mirror as he tilted his chin up to get a clear look at the right lane, widened into something more like his usual transmittable grin; this comforted Heero a little for his inability to express himself the way he wished to… he wasn’t sure whether it was merely Duo’s professionalism that led him to act as if he didn’t care about Heero’s social deficiencies, or whether he truly didn’t mind — and this lack of certainty was a large part of why Heero was so reluctant to speak — but it was comforting. Even when he was sick or tired or both and not inclined to converse, Duo was a wonderful person to have around.

Whatever the case was, Heero forced himself to say something else to reiterate (perhaps to prove) his genuine sympathy. “I sometimes unexpectedly get insomnia, and I hate it. And I don’t even go to school,” he added, considering how that would complicate things.

Duo nodded, his expression still weary and rueful.

“Does it happen to you often?” Heero persisted.

“No,” answered Duo. “No, not very often.”

“Well, that’s good, at least.” And Heero could think of nothing more to say. Well, he could think of plenty to say; he just doubted his ability to say it naturally enough that it wouldn’t sound somewhat creepy. One didn’t suggest a certain type of pajamas and a glass of warm milk to one’s taxi driver unless one was a good deal smoother or outwardly friendlier than Heero was. Or just a little closer to said driver.

Which brought him uncomfortably hard up against the very solid and unpleasant reflection that perhaps it would be unwise, even unkind, to attempt a transition from business associates straight to guys that are dating without even a nominal stop at friends.

How well did he know Duo, really? How well could he expect Duo to know him at this point? Was it really such a good idea to try to initiate a more romantic relationship without finding out? And wouldn’t he be putting an awful lot of pressure on Duo by asking him to take that step without giving him the chance to get to know Heero under less businesslike circumstances than these taxi rides to work?

He didn’t know. How did most people go about this sort of thing? Maybe Duo would just provide some reasonable contingency involving a forerunning period of friendship. Heero could accept that. It would drive him crazy — closer even than the current arrangement, yet still not what he wanted — but he could accept it.

It was stupid, though, even to contemplate Duo’s specific response to the idea of dating him without knowing how Duo felt about dating other males in general. What was the latest word on population percentages? Two out of a hundred American men identified as gay? Seriously, what were the chances that out of, say, the hundred men on this stretch of interstate right now, the two gay ones were sitting in the same taxi?

Heero wasn’t the type to shy — for long — from something he was reluctant to do… he knew he would confess, he would ask, at some point. But it certainly wasn’t going to be today, and it might very well not be tomorrow either. Duo’s mood made it utterly impossible today, and tomorrow… well, he simply wasn’t sure it simply wasn’t too early for all of this.

There were moments in this cab, however, when he felt he could spill out all the words requisite to forming the confession and ensuing question, if not necessarily in perfect order, at least in some semblance of coherency. At these moments he really had no idea what was holding him back, and his agitation was extreme. He was fairly certain it still didn’t show in his face or sound in his voice if he happened to speak just then — and it might have been better if it had — but these were some of the most discommodious moments of any time spent with Duo. And this was definitely one of them.

It was not an entirely silent trip following the brief opening exchange; even through the bleak mood that had gripped him in his exhaustion Duo still had an apparently unquenchable urge to say certain things that came to mind. It was clear, however, that he was not inclined toward ongoing conversation, nor in the best humor with the rest of the world; he grumbled a few fairly rude comments in apostrophe at other drivers on the road — which comments were nothing unusual in themselves, only rendered so by the lack of the cheery volume and forgiving affability that generally accompanied them. He wasn’t exactly unpleasant to Heero, but the atmosphere remained far from what it normally was.

Still, he did make a visible effort at smiling and rendering his goodbye pleasant when Heero had paid and was readying his umbrella. “Have a good one,” Duo bade him wearily.

“You too,” replied Heero, and hesitated. After a surreptitiously heavy breath he added, “I hope you feel better. Get some sleep.”

Duo’s smile deepened, and just that was worth the effort of the extra, personal words. “Thanks,” he said sincerely.

Heero smiled a bit too, and got out of the cab.

Friday

Heero slid into Duo’s cab in a state of almost frantically desperate determination he seldom reached, knowing today was the day if any was. Yesterday’s doubts hadn’t made any significant difference to his overall resolve; he’d decided to try it today, if he could. For one thing, he thought it more than likely that he couldn’t, and therefore saw no reason to put it off since it would probably be put off for him anyway. For another… well… he really, really liked Duo, and didn’t want to turn him into a distant courtly love. Heero wasn’t the happiest person in the world, but simultaneously had little patience for that sort of counterproductive self-pitying lethargy.

Duo’s wonderfully cheerful, amusing, enticing demeanor was back in place today in full force. Before Heero could even begin to think how to work the discussion around to what he wanted to talk about, he found himself engrossed in some topic that with anyone else would have been utterly dull but with Duo was funny and interesting — yard work and gardening, he thought. He was afraid he was an even worse conversational companion than usual, though, since his mind was on such a different track. Duo, as always, didn’t seem to mind.

But that didn’t mean he didn’t notice. His eyes were fixed on Heero in the mirror more often than on most days, and with a curiosity he didn’t bother to disguise. Heero thought that some of the agitation might actually be showing for once; it was certainly growing moment by moment — or, rather, street by street as they drew closer and closer to their usual goal of Heero’s place of employ and watched his opportunity shrinking.

And then, with a splash in the gutter beside the curb and a tenfold increase of inner turbulence, they had arrived. Duo put the car in park and turned a smile on Heero as he always did. “So I’ll call you tonight after class and make sure–”

Heero cut him off. “About tonight.”

Duo tilted his head slightly, wordless, his smile undiminished.

“I was wondering.” He sounded like a goddamn robot, absolutely flat and emotionless. “I was wondering,” he said again, feeling a bit faint. Apparently ‘I was wondering’ wasn’t the right way to start, though, since no other words wanted to emerge thereafter. He tried a different approach. “I’ve had a…” No, that wasn’t it either. “I have a…”

Duo’s brows went up, though he was still smiling.

And that was what did it, really. Rather than appear incompetent — especially to someone he liked so much — rather than keep dithering like an idiot — or, worse, start actually stammering or stuttering — Heero would bear all the rejection in the world. “I’ve liked you for a long time,” he said, coolly, clearly, and with perfect calm. “And I wanted to know if we could possibly call tonight a date instead of just ‘hanging out.'”

There. There was an end of that. He didn’t know if he could speak ever again, but there, at least, was an end of that. Now Duo would let him down gently and drive off out of his life.

For a long moment Duo stared at him with no change in the unconcerned expression on his face. Finally he said, “Yeah, sure, I guess we could.”

Dumbfounded, certain his face had gone white and that he had quite possibly stopped breathing entirely, Heero sat frozen, staring back. After what seemed like forever in the steady beat of the rain and the windshield wipers and the noise of cars outside and the stunned silence within he managed, “‘Yeah, sure?’ Just like that?” And again with the level, serious tone. Not that the flabbergasted squeak in which these words would have emerged from many another person’s mouth was what he wanted… but it probably would have been better to convey just a little of the utter shock that had overtaken him at Duo’s response.

Duo’s smile turned sympathetic. “If it makes you feel any better, I wasn’t this calm about it on Wednesday.”

“Wednesday?” Heero repeated. “When I…”

“Said that bit about not dating women? Yeah. I hadn’t even guessed! And I remembered on Monday you said ‘About Friday’ or something all hesitating…”

“You remember what I said on Monday,” Heero put in blankly.

“Well, unlike most people in this city, you say interesting things; I usually remember it. Anyway, on Wednesday I was pretty shocked, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it… I realized that you might want tonight to be a date and just hadn’t told me, and I didn’t really know…” He laughed a little helplessly. “I didn’t know what to do about that.”

“That’s why you were in a weird mood yesterday.”

“Yeah… sorry if I took it out on you… Wednesday wasn’t quite long enough to decide; it took me half of yesterday too.”

“And now…” This was really nothing like anything Heero had expected; he felt as if, in this conversation, he was largely along for the ride. How appropriate.

Duo shrugged. “I’ve had this thing in the back of my head for a while about whether or not I might like men, but it’s hard to decide that these days in this understanding country of ours.” He accompanied his airy tone with a casual wave of the hand, as if to indicate that this was a largely unrelated matter. “So since you’re an interesting guy, like I said, I figured you’re the perfect way to find out for sure.”

“I’m an interesting guy…” Heero’s voice trailed off into silence, probably a better indication of what he was feeling than anything he’d said to Duo all week.

“Yeah.” Duo grinned as he added, “Didn’t you know that?”

Heero saw no reason to try to fight off the infectiousness of that grin — though his own expression was more of a baffled half-smile. “No, not really.”

“You expected me to say no, didn’t you?” This was spoken a little more quietly than the previous statements, and the look in Duo’s eyes had softened a trifle.

Heero nodded.

Duo reached over the seat — which was awkward, yes, but neither of them really cared — and took Heero’s hand and squeezed it. “You’re a brave man, Heero Yuy,” he stated solemnly. It was absurd that even his deliberate solemnity couldn’t match Heero’s most casual tone.

Feeling suddenly warm all over and the beginnings of an overwhelming, adrenaline-withdrawal-like jittery joy, Heero held onto Duo’s hand for a moment and just smiled.

“So I really will call you when I’m out of class,” Duo went on, returning the pleased expression as he pulled his arm back over the seat, “and let you know I’m on my way. Don’t forget to rent that movie.”

“I won’t,” Heero assured him, pulling his briefcase onto his lap. As he opened it and reached for his wallet, Duo waved dismissively.

“This ride’s on me,” he said.

Afterward (Saturday)

Heero slid into Duo’s arms where they welcomed him onto the sofa in the midst of a nest of rumpled blankets. They’d been up so late last night after the movie, talking about nearly every subject under the sun until even the laconic Heero was hoarse and dry-throated, that Duo had opted to stay the night — chastely, on the couch in the living room, since (even if Heero had been) he really wasn’t ready for any more intimate arrangement just yet. Apparently he was ready for some small-scale cuddling, though, and Heero felt no reluctance whatsoever — felt, in fact, a clinging, overwhelming eagerness — at settling into the mess of spare bedding beside and against him and returning the half-embrace.

“Good morning,” Duo said, a charming half-grin quirking his mouth. He brought his face very close to Heero’s as the latter echoed the greeting; Heero could feel Duo’s breath warm against his skin, and his own respirations seemed to have gone all uneven and shallow as Duo’s eyes roved meticulously across his features and that adorable little grin faded into a more absent, contemplative smile. Then, abruptly, Duo pushed forward and kissed Heero briefly but firmly without closing his eyes.

“This gay stuff isn’t so hard,” he murmured as he drew back.

For a long moment Heero had no power to respond, and Duo’s traditional hearty grin blossomed beneath his amused, crinkling bright eyes.

Finally Heero said, “No, apparently it isn’t.” He didn’t even bother lamenting the serious tone now.

Duo raised a brow. “‘Apparently?’ You’re the experienced one here, aren’t you?”

Heero’s own brows went down slightly. “I’ve only ever dated a couple of guys before,” he admitted, feeling a little awkward and suddenly hoping Duo wasn’t anticipating all-encompassing expert knowledge from him. “And it was never very… physical.”

Nodding his understanding and giving no sign of disappointed expectations, Duo asked, “And women? Did you ever see any women before you realized?”

“A few,” said Heero with a shrug. “It was pretty much the same with them.”

Again Duo nodded. “Well…” Again he moved his parted lips and intoxicating breath toward Heero’s face, and again Heero’s own breath became almost embarassingly erratic. Before they touched, though, Duo finished his statement, “At least this part’s pretty easy.”

He kissed him harder this time, and with a sort of shifting, caressing pressure that was almost more exploratory than anything else. Heero, through the hot steam of indigo and tan and golden-brown that seemed to have overtaken his vision and blurred his thoughts, felt the entire universe narrow to the circumference of the space they occupied; everything more than an inch beyond the boundaries of their bodies ceased to exist, and even the forest-green couch cushions on which they sat and leant and the blankets tucked around them were dimming.

Duo’s left hand running slowly up and down his arm; Duo’s right hand on his back, fingers bending and unbending in a sort of small massage against his pajama shirt; Duo’s thigh, clad only in shorts he’d been wearing beneath his jeans last night, the smooth tanned flesh of a shapely leg intermittently visible through the parted folds of the blanket, flush against Heero’s, warm and firm; Duo’s lips pushing against his in incomprehensibly world-melting patterns — this was really all there was to anything… and all with the tacit promise of an exponentially greater level of intensity once Duo got his bearings.

Heero was not ready to stop kissing Duo when Duo pulled away, but neither was he for several moments in a sufficiently lucid state verbally to request a return of Duo’s lips to his. During those moments, Duo brought one hand near his face and spoke into an imaginary sound recorder in a stodgy, mustached accent. “March 20, 2010. Experiment Report. Test subject responding favorably to prolonged oral contact with minor peripheral stimulus. Scientist responding pretty well too. Propose increasing complexity of interaction, but not today since scientist has to be driving at 11:30 and has probably already been here too long.” By the time he reached the end of this little dissertation, his voice had worked its way back to its usual sound.

Heero, meanwhile, had regained his composure, vision, and (to some extent) clarity of thought, and had overcome the urge to push Duo down onto his back and jump on him. Instead, he just grinned in response to Duo’s performance and said, “We should schedule another experiment, in that case.”

“Well, do you want to play basketball with me on Wednesday?”

“Yes,” Heero found himself saying, almost before the precise nature of the invitation had actually registered. He had a feeling that his answer to ‘Do you want to [verb] with me?’ spoken by Duo would be an unmitigated ‘yes’ for an indeterminate period of time to come. Once the meaning of Duo’s words did sink in, though, he added, “But we can get together next Friday too, can’t we?”

Duo grinned; perhaps he could sense Heero’s keen interest in the proposal even through the inadvertent facade of solemnity, now that he was aware of Heero’s keen interest in general. And if that was the case, Heero thought, there really was no logical reason to try to abandon that facade for the rest of the world.

“We have all week to discuss it,” Duo said.

“Or put off discussing it,” Heero replied with a smile.

To judge by his expression, Duo — like Heero — already knew what conclusion they were most likely to come to.


This story was written for Sharon as part of the “Help Haiti” auction in 2010. I’ve rated it .

I don’t think the perspective is correct in that picture, but whatever… if I were worried about anything in it, it would be the less-than-perfectly-straight lines of seat and dashboard that I couldn’t be arsed to use a ruler for.

This story is included in the Gundam Wing Collection ebook (.zip file contains .pdf, .mobi, and .epub formats).


Hopeless Cause



I’m enjoying a cup of tea before I get on with my other chores, watching the clean laundry wave slightly in a light, cool breeze, when Sano wanders in. His looks have been unusually despondent lately, but as yet I haven’t been able to get him to tell me why. Today he seems even more cast down than before, sighing as he sinks onto the porch beside me, and looks as if he hasn’t slept well the last few nights.

I return his unenthusiastic greeting, and that I can do so with “Good morning, Sano” is another indication something is wrong; usually we don’t see Sano here until the afternoon. I don’t delay in asking him, though I doubt he’ll be any more forthcoming than he has been the last few times I’ve inquired.

“I don’t know,” he replies somewhat dully. When he sees me patiently waiting for elaboration, he sighs again and goes on. “I mean I really don’t know. I don’t know if I’m going crazy or what.”

He doesn’t appreciate being pressed to explain his feelings, so I simply wait. And since I’m sure he never had such consideration from him, maybe that will invite him to open up to me.

“It’s been months,” he says in a tone of protestation, as if responding to some conversation we haven’t actually had yet, then adds more softly, “Five months.”

I don’t correct him out loud; picking at Sano’s inexactness is something he would do. Four months and twenty-five days is close enough to five, at any rate. And at least now I have a general idea of what’s bothering him. I’m not exactly shocked.

Sano sighs and mutters, “I just wish I knew if this is normal, or if…” And he shakes his head.

I want to shake him, to insist he tell me what’s wrong, to demand, “Why could he always get you to literally shout out what you were feeling, but I have to sit through your uncertain mutterings and head-shakings just to get a hint?” But I won’t do anything of the sort; I won’t be like him. Still, I can’t bring myself to say nothing, so after several moments of silence I prod gently, “If what is normal, Sano?”

“That I can’t stop thinking about him,” he finally admits. “I knew it would stick around for a while — I know that’s normal — but I figured it would stop eventually… but it hasn’t.”

I want to sigh. I want to tell Sano that he isn’t worth thinking about and that, normal or otherwise, such obsessing isn’t healthy or wise. But at the same time, I want to be supportive of my friend like he never was. So I merely ask politely, “What kind of things do you think about him?”

“I can’t stop going over every little thing we said…” he replies, staring hard at the ground. “And then how I feel about it keeps changing. One minute I’m justifying something one of us said, and the next I’m blaming it for everything that happened. Is that normal?”

Is it normal to try endlessly to untangle the dynamics of a relationship that was destined from the beginning to be twisted and confusing? But while he might be more than willing to write Sano’s efforts off as pointless and tell him to find something better to do, I won’t be so callous. “So you are trying to assign blame?”

“Well…” I don’t think he would have gone on if I hadn’t asked. Why can’t he confide in me? “I thought I knew exactly whose fault it was back then, but now… goddammit…” He’s speaking with a little more energy than before as the emotions associated with his thoughts creep into his words. “First it’s mine, then it’s his, then it’s neither of us, then it’s both… there’s no right answer.”

I know the right answer: he was always the unreasonable one, and the only thing Sano did wrong in leaving was putting it off for so long. But somehow I don’t believe expressing that opinion so forcefully will encourage Sano to continue; I must remain relatively impartial. I can’t help asking, though, “Why do you blame yourself at all?”

He shrugs. “Little things. I keep thinking if only I’d said this or if I hadn’t done that… even when I’m pissed as hell remembering something he said or did, something inside me still wonders, What could I have done different? That’s not normal, is it?”

The whole thing wasn’t normal, Sano. Your attraction to him, your interaction with him, the way he treated you — none of it was normal. It would be so easy to open my mouth and just tell him all of this, tell him this and more, what I’ve wanted to for so long… but I won’t. There’s a time and a place for disparaging bluntness — something he needs to learn — and this isn’t it.

“But it’s not just that kind of shit, all about how it ended.” Finally Sano seems to be willing to go on without my prompting him. “It’s like something in my head still thinks we’re together, because everything I do, practically everything I just see, like walking down the street, I’m thinking of telling him about it before I even remember I’m not going to be talking to him anytime soon.”

He very rarely tells me about things he sees walking down the street, and he talks to me all the time. Am I surprised? Not particularly. Close to miserable? Yes.

“And I’ll think things… just stupid shit, the usual stuff I think whenever… and even though I know what he’d say if I told him — god, and it wouldn’t even be nice — I still want to tell him. Is that normal? I mean, it’s been five fucking months and I’m still wanting to tell him fucking everything…”

Him fucking everything and me almost nothing. Is that normal? Is it normal for a man to ignore his best friend — somebody who’s always there for him, would do anything for him — and throw away all his effort and thought and affection on someone who never deserved or appreciated it?

“And I remember things just out of the blue, and they affect me way the hell more than they should. The other day I remembered some funny conversation we had once, and it made me laugh ’til I was crying… or I’ll suddenly think about the last time he kissed me, and–” He turns away as he breaks off abruptly, obviously unwilling to tell me what reaction he had to that memory. I’m not sure I’m entirely disappointed he didn’t continue. There’s a part of me that wants desperately to know that kind of physical detail; it’s largely overridden by my politer side, but there’s no denying it’s there.

“And you know I’m a pretty happy guy most of the time,” he goes on, perhaps a little too quickly, “but every once in a while if something goes wrong, why the hell is it him I keep thinking of going to? Lately it’s been building up worse than usual. I’ve been trying to ignore it — that and all the rest of it — but I can’t help feeling like it’s just not normal to be thinking all of this after this long. I mean, at first, sure, but still?”

He pounds his face against his fist, and with his elbow propped on his knee and his leg drawn up so his foot can press against the porch pillar, his body appears strangely cramped and contorted — though perhaps it’s more his emotional state giving that impression.

“Tell me I’m not going crazy, Kenshin.” He looks up at me now almost imploringly, and I can see how much this really has him worried. “Tell me this is normal.”

If ever I wanted to call my friend an idiot, this is the moment. That he can be so utterly blind, both to what’s in his own heart and what’s right in front of him… He almost deserves to be ridiculed. But of course I won’t. It’s completely reprehensible to call the person you love an idiot, and I won’t be like him.

“Yes, Sano, that is all quite normal…” I take a deep breath, steeling myself, before finishing the statement. “…if you still love him.”

Sano is staring at me now, his mouth open slightly as if he was about to make some further point and suddenly has no breath left to say it with. His face, rather than red with the blush I was expecting, is actually a little pale. “I don’t…” he stammers. “I never… It wasn’t…”

My smile feels more patient and sad than teasing. “Yes, you did, Sano,” I tell him gently. It’s hard to continue, desperately hard, but I’m not the type that neglects to mention important details to his associates. That’s something he does. “And I think you still do.”

“But he…” Sano has gone even paler, and the fact that this concept is such a shock to him tempts me more than ever to apply that affectionately insulting epithet I know perfectly well Sano is only willing to receive from him.

And this is, quite possibly, the most painfully difficult thing I’ve ever said. “Sano, I would be very surprised if he does not love you in return.” Even if he doesn’t deserve to, I don’t add. Even if he barely has any idea what love is. Even if he could never come close to returning the kind of love you’re capable of. I would be very surprised, because anyone who knows you and doesn’t love you is completely insane.

“But… but it’s been five months,” Sano protests, and now I can hear, to my sorrow, a tone in his voice that is something like the beginnings of desperate hope. “He hasn’t said anything…”

“And neither have you,” I remind him quietly. I can’t go so far as to make a suggestion; from my very soul I’m aching to advise him to give up, to forget, to move on, to live down the emotion he’s finally recognizing, but after those few words I keep silent.

Sano stands abruptly. “God dammit…” he mutters, more to himself than to me, but I can read the purpose in that purposeless exclamation. I think I know Sano better than he ever could, and I can hear the self-castigation in that curse. He wonders why it took him so long to see; he wonders how badly he’s wounded the person he’s only just realized he loves; he wonders if it’s too late.

He turns to me at last, and his eyes are full now of pain and determination. At first he has nothing to say, and neither do I, so for several moments we stare at each other in silence. And, somewhat guiltily I must admit, I can’t help hoping that while our gazes are thus locked and Sano is in this mood of perception, he’ll somehow begin to notice at last how I feel. My emotions are mixed when, unsurprisingly, he doesn’t.

“Thank you,” he says intensely.

I can only nod, even as he turns to leave me.

Do I hope it won’t work out? Do I wish him failure in his endeavor, to see him back here within an hour even more unhappy than before? No. Unlike him, I don’t hold grudges. And I know a hopeless cause when I champion it. Still, I wouldn’t complain if this heaviness, this dark turmoil in the back of my head, this uncomfortable pressure on my heart were to abate somewhat.

With a slight sigh I stand and glance around the courtyard. Life goes on, after all; I suppose I’d better get started with the rest of my chores. But I do turn again before going inside and watch Sano walk away with a much lighter step than when he approached.

“Ahou ga…”


This story was for 30_kisses theme #4 “Our distance and that person.” I’ve rated it .

This story is included in the Saitou & Sano Collection ebook (.zip file contains .pdf, .mobi, and .epub formats).


Helpless


It was stupid and crazy and he knew it. After a day of chaos and a night of worry and little rest, he was barely cleaned and patched up, and decidedly exhausted. Beyond that, he had to evade a doctor, several concerned friends, and a house full of fucking onmitsu just to get to the door. And that was all before taking into account his terrible sense of direction. But despite everything, here he was sneaking from the half-ruined Aoiya, pockets stuffed with spare bandages, heading out of town.

There wasn’t much he could do to deny the reasons for this foolishness, but he didn’t really want to think about it, so he concentrated on walking, on the physical pain, on not thinking about too much of anything. One foot in front of the other, don’t stumble, try to keep to a relatively straight line.

But a burning image was seared across the insides of his eyelids every time he blinked, and an unusually ambiguous rage tore at his heart. He might have identified that anger if he’d wanted to; might have associated it with memories, with missed opportunities — none of them from too long ago, yet all bearing the mental stamp of circumstances deliberately distanced from associated recollection because they were too painful to consider.

He would have stayed if he’d been the only one, or even if Kenshin hadn’t needed him quite so desperately.

Walking. Physical pain. Not thinking about anything. Not getting lost.

Smoke rose from the site; it was visible from the edge of town, but soon hidden again by trees. His progress was slow, and he found himself pushing, frustrated, for greater speed, as if there were something up there that couldn’t wait. As if there were anything up there at all.

He couldn’t be sure, after not too long, that this was the right direction, but he kept moving. The sun was high and the path bright between the trees’ shadows: the perfect day for a nap, something Sano was certainly in a condition to appreciate… but instead here he was plodding up a mountain, probably killing himself, looking for…

…nothing.

Eventually he lost track of how long he’d been walking; awareness of a lot of things was fading, actually, and it was perhaps this general dimness that prompted the worried voice in the back of his head that vaguely suggested he stop. Or perhaps it was something else. For, slowing to a standstill as he rounded a bend, he raised his gaze from where it had preceded his footsteps along the ground and saw before him, among the mountain foliage and the imaginary gloom created by his own weakness, what he took at first to be a hallucination. For a while he merely stared. It was almost as if he’d been expecting it, for there was no surprise at the sight… no surprise, only a slow, magnificent fury.

How could he make an ambiguous exit like that and then get out just fine? Finally play the hero and then just walk away??

“Asshole,” Sano growled. Everything about Saitou was so maddening, from the indifferent expression to the slow way he stood straight from the tree he’d been leaning against as if Sano was barely worth his attention, that the young man could not restrain himself. He would show that arrogant bastard…

Saitou twisted so Sano’s arm passed over his shoulder, and unexpectedly met him chest to chest, his weight driving them both back a pace. Thus Sano’s fist barely brushed the bark of the tree, and his eyes went wide. If Saitou had answered his attack any other way, a very solid trunk would have met the very sensitive hand about which Sano himself had, in the ire of the moment, almost forgotten.

“I doubt that’s the way you want to fight me,” Saitou murmured.

Sano could find no answer. This guy knew everything; he’d been unconscious when Shishio had crushed Sano’s hand, yet had noticed at some point and now had the presence of mind to spare Sano further injury.

Also, he was still pressed against Sano for some reason, seeming almost limp.

“What the hell are you doing?” demanded Sano, nonplussed.

“Didn’t you know?” Saitou replied in what was barely an echo of his usual tone. “This is my new hobby.”

This was the first intimation that Saitou might not be fine, and at that thought Sano’s rage drained instantly away. Returning common sense seconded the supposition: Saitou had been wounded in the fortress; getting out of the fortress, through that inferno, couldn’t have improved his condition. In a movement almost panicky, arms rose to clutch at Saitou’s form. Now that Sano was paying attention, he could smell charred clothing and flesh, and he thought something wet was soaking through Saitou’s jacket onto his chest. For half a moment he had no idea what to do.

“Make yourself useful, ahou,” Saitou commanded faintly.

Annoyance restored Sano’s presence of mind. “I’m waiting to see if you’re gonna die before I waste my time on you,” he retorted, though his voice sounded nearly as weak as Saitou’s. Honestly, just supporting the other man’s weight as well as his own was almost more than he could handle. Trying to remember how far back along his path lay the nearest potential place of rest and medical care was futile; he could barely remember how far he’d come from the city, let alone what he’d passed along the way. “How far can you walk?” he asked doubtfully.

“If I could still walk, do you really think I’d be leaning on you?” Saitou’s sarcasm was distinctly blunted under these circumstances.

Sano snorted. “Fine,” he muttered, looking around for a decent place to… what? Make camp? Play doctor? Preferably not in the middle of the path.

Eventually he chose a somewhat clear spot among the trees to their left and helped Saitou to the ground. The officer really didn’t look good. Beyond merely wondering, Sano was baffled as to why he hadn’t noticed at first. His emotional response at finding Saitou still alive at all might have been some explanation — if he wanted to think about that.

Before he could do anything else, he had to take some rest himself. Both of his hands hurt desperately, the pain in his skull was steadily growing again, and his entire body ached. He felt he could sleep for a year — and probably would, forgetting Saitou and everything else in the world, if he lay down. But, though there were times when it seemed forgetting Saitou would make his life a good deal easier, that didn’t strike him as the best plan at the moment. So he leaned against a tree and drew an arm across his face, closing his eyes in search of comfortable darkness.

His breathing, which he hadn’t realized was so uneven, became gradually more regular, and the sounds of the wooded mountain were soothing — until he felt himself tilting, succumbing to gravity, falling asleep on his feet. Straightening, dropping his protective arm, he opened his eyes to the somewhat jarring day. Surprisingly, he did actually feel rested — readier, at least, for the task at hand. His steps weren’t as steady as he could have wished, however, as he made his way back to Saitou.

The officer’s eyes had closed, but Sano thought he was still conscious. And at least he didn’t seem to have any respiratory problems. “Any idea what’s worst here?” Sano asked almost conversationally as he knelt at Saitou’s side and began unbuttoning the man’s jacket. It was almost a pointless exercise — the front of the thing was a mess, the dexterity of Sano’s fingers far from its usual level — but he didn’t want to start destroying clothes before he had to.

Saitou took a breath as if to answer, but then let it out without a word; Sano guessed he’d had some unhelpful sarcastic impulse that he’d thought better of, and had nothing to say in its place. He did open his eyes, though, and these seemed alert enough for the moment.

“Holy fuck,” was Sano’s next remark. He was taking in the extent of the wounds on Saitou’s chest as he started to peel the jacket away from them. “How’d you even make it this far?”

“Good question,” Saitou replied, and it was nearly a whisper; Sano thought he was perhaps trying to cover up his hiss of pain as torn, bloody cloth that was already hardening onto similar bloody tears in his flesh tugged at the latter.

“Water…” Sano muttered. He wasn’t going to get much farther without it.

“Listen,” admonished the officer, and just in that single, weary word the implication was strong: “You should have thought of that earlier.”

It was true, and there was no purpose getting annoyed about it now. Sano closed his eyes, alert this time and concentrating. His head was pounding, and it interfered somewhat with the pursuit of distant sound, but he forced himself to perceive past it, and restrained his breathing until he felt he must faint; never in his life had he listened so hard. And Saitou was right, of course: he did hear water, some way ahead and to the left — whatever direction that actually was.

It took him longer to physically locate his goal than it had to perceive it, and by the time he reached the little stream he was frustrated and tired. But the thoughts of rest he entertained as he sank again to his knees were dispelled when he glanced down and saw Saitou’s blood patterned across his borrowed gi. Having no container of any kind, after some thought he pulled off the garment and held it in the water until it was entirely soaked. Then, wadding it up and trying to keep it as much as possible from dripping, he rose and returned (after a few false starts in wrong directions) to where he’d left the other man.

Although Saitou’s eyes were again closed, he was still obviously awake, and Sano grudgingly had to admire that; lying flat, Sano would long ago have been out cold. The officer even went so far as to grunt and speak an entire sentence when Sano wrung out one corner of the waterlogged gi over his chest: “Do you have… any idea… what you’re doing?”

“Yes,” Sano replied indignantly. “Any decent street-fighter knows how to treat wounds… basically.”

“‘Decent…'” Saitou muttered, eyes still closed.

“Hey, fuck you,” Sano shot back, responding to the disdain he assumed Saitou intended; “I could just leave you here.” But somehow, facetiously as he’d meant it, this was a disturbing idea, so he added more seriously, “But don’t worry. After I get you cleaned up and you have some rest, we’ll get you down to a real doctor. In the meantime, I’ve got all sorts of bandages.”

Now one of Saitou’s eyes cracked open, but it seemed all he could manage was a very faint expression of skepticism and consternation. “I’m not sharing your dirty bandages, ahou.”

“No,” protested Sano, piqued again, “I grabbed a bunch from the Aoiya before I left, just in case–” He broke off, his face heating for some reason.

Saitou, even in his present state, didn’t miss it. “‘In case–?'”

Choosing to ignore this, a luxury he didn’t often have with Saitou, Sano bent his full attention to the duty before him. His stupid blush was undoubtedly answer enough anyway.

It was a laborious process conducted mostly in silence. Sano was forced, after all, to use the nihontou from the officer’s belt to cut free the front sections of shirt and jacket, and getting these out of the clotting wounds was an ordeal for both of them. Sano’s hands didn’t fancy the exertion, and obviously it was a good deal less pleasant for Saitou. But eventually it was done, and the newly-cleaned cuts were beginning to ooze fresh blood, which, after the mélange of blackening cloth, looked positively healthy.

Sano hastened to empty his pockets of the various rolls of bandages he’d managed to pick up on his way out on this absurd quest. Presently he found that he’d either overestimated the amount he’d brought or underestimated how much length was required to treat any significant hurt, for by the time he got Saitou’s chest sufficiently wrapped, very little remained. He could only hope, as he turned his attention to Saitou’s lower half, that the officer had no other severe injuries. The hastily tended wounds on his thighs were obvious and should probably be re-wrapped, but other than that he couldn’t tell.

“Don’t,” Saitou murmured as Sano’s hand touched his belt. Glancing back at the wolf’s slitted eyes, Sano got the impression Saitou’s struggle against unconsciousness was nearly lost.

To see Saitou like that, vulnerable and hurting, gave Sano the oddest feeling and the oddest impulses. His bandaged fingers had reached out and grazed the harsh face before he even realized what he was doing. “Just checking for other shit you might die from,” he replied softly, trying to fight off another blush at his own foolishness. “Didn’t figure you for the modest type.”

Saitou’s answering twitch of lips was a far cry from his usual smirk, and faded quickly. “I just don’t think… you need another reason… to be jealous of me,” he whispered. Then with a slight sigh he closed his eyes, this time clearly abandoning wakefulness.

Reflecting that Saitou would be sarcastic even on his deathbed, Sano continued with his planned course of action. Saitou was probably right; removing an unconscious man’s pants was always an awkward procedure, and given the lack of large bloodstains on them it was to be assumed he didn’t have any life-threatening wounds below the waist… but Sano would be perverse even on his deathbed, and Saitou’s parting shot was an indomitable inducement at least to look.

He bit back a… remark. Figured Saitou would be right about that too. Though it wasn’t exactly jealousy Sano felt.

Of course he really had only given himself unnecessary work by disturbing the bandages on the officer’s thighs. But he persevered until he had those wounds cleaned and re-wrapped (simply rotating the same bandages, unfortunately) and had at least wrung the last of the water he could from his now very bloody gi onto the burns that covered Saitou’s legs in painful-looking patches from the knees down. Then it was even more awkward to get the pants back on, but finally his work seemed finished.

Almost without another thought, he stretched out on the ground beside the other man and went to sleep.

***

Saitou awoke, cold and in pain, in an unfamiliar and decidedly outdoor setting, and wondered for a long, disoriented moment why this didn’t bother him more.

Concentrating first on the physicality of his situation, the sensations of the ground beneath him and the pain throughout his body, he determined in what position he lay and recalled each of his wounds in succession, and the world seemed a bit less nonsensical. What he couldn’t quite make sense of was the warmth all along his left side. But as the events preceding his period of unconsciousness slowly, vaguely returned to him, he realized what it must be.

His mind was almost blank; he didn’t know what to think, and it was easier just to hurt. The one solid reflection he was able to entertain was that he’d been helpless: truly helpless, with only an extraneous factor standing between him and a variety of possible causes of death, the circumstances entirely beyond his control; a state he hadn’t been in since… he couldn’t remember when. Though trying to remember did awaken his cognitive faculties somewhat.

He didn’t think he would have made it more than a few steps further on his own. Whether he would have survived his inevitable collapse, he didn’t know — but even if the idiot hadn’t saved his life, he had certainly saved him from complications and greater discomfort. Sagara Sanosuke, of all people.

Though Saitou knew perfectly well why Sano had done it. It was the same reason Sano was huddled up against him now, rendering imperfect the chill that had settled across his body.

Slowly and with a great deal of discomfort, Saitou sat up. His next breath was a gasp as the wounds on his chest flared with a burst of pain, and he had to lean heavily on his hand to keep from falling back to the ground. Once it had died down (or he’d become accustomed to it), he assessed his condition. It took only a brief examination to see that Sano had done an unexpectedly good job with his ‘just in case’ bandages. Saitou was still in rather dire shape, but he wouldn’t die and might not get infected.

Next the officer turned his eyes to his companion. Sano lay on his side, curled up, shirtless, shivering occasionally but untroubled by Saitou’s movement in the deep sleep of exhaustion. Saitou stared at him for a long time — until weariness and pain dragged him back to the ground and his eyes closed, in fact. What kept his gaze riveted until that extremity was the unfamiliar and unanticipated reaction he had to seeing the young man there like that: far from clinical indifference, or even the vague tolerance he would have expected if he’d thought about it at all, the sudden rush of emotion he experienced was, rather, something discernibly positive… something that went beyond fondness, even, and held traces of possessiveness and sympathy.

When had that started?

At some point while Saitou had been in the aforementioned rare helpless state, undoubtedly. Helpless, evidently, in more ways than one, if, as it seemed, the big brown eyes and stupid remarks had finally gotten to him. Well, there was nothing to be done about it now but let it run its course, whatever that might be. It wasn’t entirely unexpected, anyway. Himura had predicted it. Saitou himself had not ignored the possibility in his calculations for the future — he just hadn’t thought it a very probable possibility. And here it was.

He could already hear Tokio’s comment: “So you just woke up one day” — it was a phrase she used consistently, which was why it crossed his mind at all — “and decided you liked this kid?” And when he replied that, yes, that was exactly how it had happened, she would say… but he didn’t have the energy to play out that hypothetical but inevitable conversation, entertaining as it was and would be.

A burning sensation lay just beneath his flesh throughout his body, and he thought illness might be the greatest danger to him at this point. In direct contrast, the surface of his skin was uncomfortably cool, and sweat stood clammy across his form. Though the day was warm, the sun’s light, diluted by the trees, did little to comfort him. And at his side he thought Sano shared his condition. But there was nothing to be done about it; he wasn’t yet rested enough to finish the walk back to Kyoto — and because of his wounds, he couldn’t even find a better position to lie in for shared body heat. He did, however, seek out Sano’s wrist, in lieu of a broken hand, and hold onto it as he fell asleep again.

When next he woke, he felt, if not exactly better, more like he might be able to stand and walk. Sano still slept soundly at his side, now with Saitou’s hand lying between both of his — which, though unclenched, yet managed to seem tenacious. When Saitou pulled his away as he sat up, Sano gave an angry-sounding mutter but did not stir. It was dusk, and getting steadily colder; Saitou thought that was what had awakened him. High time to get back to civilization.

“Sano,” he said, but his voice came out weak and faint. Bending, awkward and painful, until his lips brushed Sano’s ear, he repeated the hoarse call.

Sano stirred slowly, mumbling, as Saitou drew away, and eventually opened his eyes. Disorientation seemed to last about twice as long for him as it had for Saitou, but when on sitting up he caught sight of the older man, recollection flashed in his face. “Shit, how long–” He broke off as he looked around at the evening shadows.

“Long enough,” Saitou replied quietly.

“How’re you feeling?” was Sano’s next query. It was made with some abashment, but the young man seemed to have gained greater mastery over the apparent embarrassment of having come up this mountain in this state specifically to find Saitou, and the blush from earlier did not reappear.

Saitou pondered a moment on what reply was most likely to recall that blush, and decided honesty would probably do the trick. “Grateful,” he said. “You may have saved my life.”

It worked, for which victory the concession was only a small discomfort in exchange. “Well… I wasn’t…” Sano’s tone was amusingly defensive, as if Saitou’s statement had been one of accusation rather than gratitude. “I couldn’t just…”

“I know,” said Saitou, and his tone only served to intensify the blush. He smirked, albeit faintly.

“Look…” Sano began, but hesitated, evidently unsure how to continue.

Unfortunately, this was not the best moment for the wavering idiot to work himself up to a confession, so Saitou changed the subject. “Let’s go.”

At this Sano seemed to return to reality. “Yeah,” he agreed hoarsely, and scrambled to his feet. Saitou noted his expression when his hands touched the ground; and, thinking Sano in this mood might want to try to help his companion up and hurt himself in so doing — he was reckless like that — Saitou made his own way to a standing position.

Immediately he foresaw difficulties: his legs were very stiff and reluctant to move, and a nearly overwhelming wave of pain, originating in his chest, swept through him with every breath the instant he was upright. “I’m going to need your help.” His voice grated out in a whisper once more, but Sano was at his side in half an instant, literally almost tripping over himself. Saitou smirked again. “You’re just the right height for this,” he remarked, still very softly, as Sano supported him. Sano seemed to overlook the possible offensively objectifying interpretation of this statement, for it threw him into another dither of abashment as they set off.

So the first time they ever had their arms around each other, it was because Saitou could barely walk. It made for a long and awkward trip back to Kyoto, but at least Sano’s warmth at his side was a comfort in the growing dark; and, though his thoughts became hazier with every moment he spent perpendicular, he used the time to accustom himself to the idea of seeing a lot more of Sano’s from now on.

They did not speak until they’d entered town, and it was Sano who broke the lengthy silence. “Where now?”

Saitou’s energy was almost entirely gone, and his answer, “Police station,” was a barely intelligible mumble.

“Are you insane?” Sano demanded. “I go to all this trouble to get you back here alive, and you want to kill yourself going to work?”

“Ahou…” He was about to continue with an explanation about police doctors in as few words as he could condense the idea into, but Sano cut him off at the epithet:

“‘Sides, the police station’s gone. Juppongatana destroyed it.”

This news was so startling, it seemed somehow to put up a wall in the officer’s brain. He couldn’t get his thoughts past it, and they ran in circles at its foot. At a complete loss, near the end of coherent reflection, he couldn’t speak.

“Aoiya, then,” Sano pronounced, sounding at once dogmatic and concerned.

This, at least, Saitou was aware he didn’t want, and it roused him somewhat. “No,” he whispered, and with a great struggle managed to come up with the name of one of the doctors that answered to the precinct. And that was the real end of his logic for the day; he was content thereafter to lean increasingly heavily on Sano and let him take charge. In the fog of confusion that seemed to have fallen over Kyoto, relying on someone that was confused under normal circumstances didn’t even seem strange.

The next thing he knew was waking up alone. Though not as disorienting as waking up on the forested mountain, this was also more jarring than that unusual occurrence had been. Why did finding himself lying beside Sano feel so natural where in a similar condition finding himself in a clinic bed felt somehow off? Well, the answer to that must be obvious… if a somewhat alien concept.

Noting simultaneously the improved state of his various wounds and his lower level of pain, he looked around languidly at his sterile but comfortable environment, taking in details but not straining himself. He didn’t remember and couldn’t really imagine how Sano had managed to find the right place. Actually, he wasn’t even sure this was the right place. But it was obviously the right type of place, and not that ninja inn, and for the moment that must be enough. Though he didn’t feel significantly better, it was now a placid discomfort aware of drugs and a soft bed and the promise of as much rest as he needed. His mind still wasn’t entirely clear either, but at least now this didn’t result from him being about to collapse.

The end of last night’s events at first completely eluded his recollection, and, content to drift in and out of a half-sleeping state, he didn’t fight for it. But finally the thought of Sano’s face and voice managed to conjure up certain expressions and statements that he was fairly sure had been made during the period in question. He knew he’d spoken to Sano as well, replying to his remarks, and that there had been a doctor and possibly a doctor’s assistant that had also probably had something to say… but he still couldn’t remember most of it. In his struggle for recollection, all he heard was Sano.

“I’d stay, but I kinda feel like shit too, and they’re probably having fits about me being gone this long.”

Saitou reflected with a slight smirk that they would probably have fits when they realized why he’d gone, too. Himura would understand… but would he approve? That was a question for another time.

“But I’ll come by tomorrow if I can and make sure you’re not dead, all right?”

This had been spoken in such an odd tone… as if Sano had been more than a little anxious to reassure him. What had Saitou said or otherwise indicated to have prompted that? He simply couldn’t recall. And then…

Then Sano had kissed him. Right in front of the doctor and god knew who else.

Saitou sighed, rolling his eyes, but found he also wore a small smile. It was an inevitable result of being helpless in Sano’s hands… and conceivably an inevitable result of involvement with Sano in general. He might as well get used to it.

The effort of remembering had tired him, so he closed his eyes and drifted again, musing vaguely, speculatively, and not entirely unpleasantly about the future.

“I’ll come by tomorrow.”

He wondered how long Sano would keep him waiting.


This story, which I’ve rated , was for 30_kisses theme #20 “The road home.”

This story is included in the Saitou & Sano Collection ebook (.zip file contains .pdf, .mobi, and .epub formats).


Gold Eyes False

Gold Eyes False

It might not be so bad if we weren’t outside in the rain, and he wasn’t such a complete bastard.

When Sano is forced to live a day as Saitou and Saitou is forced to observe, the resulting realizations are nothing like what they expect.

Unique to this comic: astonishingly ugly art.

000

Image 1 of 101

Oh, what can I say about this comic? I went through phases of trying to make it look decent, and others of not caring at all about the visuals because I just wanted to tell the story. In fact, it was originally a prose story, but there were some moments that just screamed for visual representation (like all the nonsense Sano does when he first finds himself inside Saitou’s body). The whole thing took me forever to complete, and, as you can see in the comments, I had some amazing support all the way through despite the visuals. In fact, when it was finished, evidently not having learned my lesson, I immediately started in on another comic. Fortunately I eventually got tired of spending so many hours on pages that never looked any good, and turned that one (Heretic’s Reward) into a much better prose story.

I’ve been told that my commentary on the GEF pages is as much fun as the comic itself, so I kept that available to read beneath the pages. However, I don’t know if anyone has read the comic at all since a year or two after its completion XD Anyway, in full spite of the ugly drawings and often confusing page layouts, I think the story is pretty damn brilliant, and I’ve rated this comic .

State of Attire


Saitou had just risen from a full night of unbroken sleep when noisy footsteps sounded in his entry hall. They were familiar footsteps (though when Sano had acquired the means to let himself into the house Saitou wasn’t sure), so he merely continued with his preparations for the day. Having become accustomed, lately, to half nights of less perfect repose, snores and sprawling limbs, the unexpectedly smooth period of rest had left him slightly less alert than usual upon awakening; he was, in fact, splashing cold water onto his face as the bedroom door opened.

It seemed like Sano stood in the doorway, and Saitou stood staring at him, for a very long time.

With the appearance of the tired, slightly grinning, very rumpled young man with clothes and hair in great disarray, there came also the faint smell of flowery perfume; it floated into and seemed to permeate the room in a single instant: a clinging, distinctly feminine scent that might have been considered an olfactory representation of the pinkish color smeared faintly in places on Sano’s face and neck.

It seemed like Sano stood in the doorway, and Saitou stood staring at him, for a very long time, but it actually took only half a moment for the story of the night to be told — half a moment’s dismay and resentment of which Saitou had no real desire to make a great display — before he returned without a word to the task of getting dressed.

He should have known better. This was Sagara Sanosuke, after all. He had known better: he’d always known the young man for an impetuous idiot and a good-for-nothing. However, he wouldn’t have guessed even a clearly intoxicated Sano would have the nerve to show up here smelling like the woman he’d spent the night with.

After not too long, he heard footsteps behind him and felt the delinquent’s arms slip around his waist to stop his progress in fastening his pants. “Do you really wanna put those on?” Sano wondered in a rumbling slur, drunken hands attempting clumsily to enter the garment in question.

Saitou pushed him roughly away, marveling at this shamelessness. “It would be inconvenient to go to work without them.”

The moron could sleep with whomever he wanted, of course, and be as reckless and indiscreet about it as he chose, of course. When had anyone implied anything else? Since when did Saitou want anything else? Why should Saitou want anything else?

Obviously not even a little put off, Sano asked, “Well, do you really wanna go to work?”

“In case you didn’t notice as you stumbled over here, ahou,” Saitou snorted, “the sun is coming up. Those of us who don’t waste our lives gambling and whoring have things to do.”

For once, he had to admit, his irritation with Sano was not as great as his irritation with himself: that Sano hadn’t even bothered to wipe the lip-color off his neck was brazen or perhaps just careless, but either way seemed typical of him; that Saitou reacted to it like this was more than a little atypically foolish… when had he starting thinking of their convenient-sex arrangement in relationship terms?

Sano was frowning in bleary disappointment. Evidently the ‘whoring’ comment hadn’t made even the slightest impression. Of course not; why should it have? “Guess I’ll just take a nap, then.” And he flopped down onto the futon Saitou had yet to put away.

“I don’t want you in my bed smelling like you’ve been rolling in a gardenia bush all night,” Saitou said coldly. Or rolling some cheap woman in a gardenia bush all night.

Sano buried his face in his sleeve and inhaled loudly. “Damn whore was wearing a fucking gallon of that shit,” was his muffled comment. Then, with a yawn but not even a touch of compunction, he rearranged the blanket around himself, put his hands behind his head, and looked blandly up at Saitou.

As he finished buttoning his shirt and donned his jacket with movements that might perhaps have been a little more forceful than was entirely necessary, the officer considered tossing the thoughtless young man out on his ear, telling him to go back to aforementioned whore if he wanted to freeload. It would certainly be the appropriate treatment.

But for some reason he didn’t.

“Chou had better be on time today,” he was growling to himself as he put out the lamp and turned to leave.

“I doubt it,” came Sano’s faint, unexpected, and uncalled-for reply, “if he shows up at all…”

Saitou paused in the doorway and turned to look back at the groggy ahou. “Why?”

“He took that stupid woman home…” the younger man answered sleepily. “Broke up a really good game, too, horny bastard.” He yawned again before adding, “Well, least it stopped her getting all over me.” Turning onto his side and tugging on the bedding so all Saitou could see of him was a blanket-covered lump ending in a jagged brown mass, he finished at a mumble, “Some chicks just won’t take ‘I have a boyfriend’ for an answer.”

Heavy seconds passed as Saitou stared, wordless and motionless, down at Sano. Presently the latter began to snore.

So Chou wasn’t likely to show up at all today, was he? That meant Saitou had to run his own errands. He hated running his own errands when there were more important things to be done; perhaps, he thought as he started to remove his jacket, having Chou at his beck and call had spoiled him. Unbuttoning his shirt, he reflected that Chou was hardly competent enough to merit that distinction. By the time he got his pants off, Chou had entirely fled his mind.

Working his way under the blanket in which Sano had twisted himself was no easy task, but, once he’d gotten there and wrapped his arms around the young man, he was rewarded with an incoherent but affectionate-sounding mutter and a sigh as Sano’s body squirmed slowly to fit against his.

“Next time tell her you have an extremely jealous boyfriend,” he murmured, and pressed a kiss to the spiky head. In doing so he caught a stronger whiff of the omnipresent flowery scent, and had to reflect that, on his Sano, it actually smelled quite nice.



This story, which I’ve rated , was for 30_kisses theme #11 “Gardenia.”

This story is included in the Saitou & Sano Collection ebook (.zip file contains .pdf, .mobi, and .epub formats).


漸進的 な 会得 – Gradual Understanding

These people Saitou and Sanosuke, they’re not him and me, and we don’t live in Japan, and none of this has anything to do with our relationship.

A string of bizarrely realistic dreams in a language he doesn’t speak about some old-timey Japanese people has absolutely nothing to do with his relationship and possible breakup with his boyfriend, no matter how much Sano and Saitou remind him of the two of them.

Unique to this story: narrating voice is disparaging of psychiatric patients and treatment.



It’s always thirty billion degrees when I get home from class, because he has the air conditioner set not to run when neither of us is here. Saving money or something. So the first thing I have to do is turn it up all the way. Then I toss my backpack next to the couch and my keys somewhere nearby, and sit down to yank my shoes off, humming the song that was playing on the radio in the car. I swear some of those songs from the 50’s only still get played because they get stuck in your head so easy. Some people might call that ‘catchy,’ but I call it fucking annoying.

There’s nothing quick to eat in the kitchen; there never is. I bug him to buy better food, but he goes for all that ‘sensible’ bullshit. And there’s only so much a poor college student like me can afford to buy on his own.

I end up drinking the rest of the milk, then flop down on the couch. I find my keys again that way somewhat painfully, and throw them on the floor. With a yawn I arrange the cushions better and close my eyes. Hopefully I won’t wake up until he’s home and making dinner… or maybe if I wake up right when he gets home I’ll be able to convince him to make grilled cheese sandwiches. With that happy thought, I drift off.

Almost the moment I’m really asleep and nothing’s left of my actual surroundings, it starts: I find I’m sitting somewhere I don’t recognize on some wooden steps — or a porch, I guess — my chin in my hands. It seems like I’m annoyed; I think I came into this dream a little late and missed stuff. Maybe a lot of stuff. I’m staring at some funny walls and doors that look like… something out of Crouching Tiger or something.

I yawn and mutter incoherently, and although it’s definitely the familiar feeling of me moving, I don’t have any sense of really being in control, of having sent the commands from brain to body to do those things. Guess I’m just along for the ride here, then.

One of the doors opens — slides open — and someone comes in. Well, this is outside, but he comes through the door. I recognize him right away, except he looks all Chinese. And he’s wearing some goofy outfit with a… skirt… I swear it is.

I realize I just said something to him. I don’t think I was making fun of the skirt, though, which is what I’d actually be doing if I were in charge here. Anyway, somehow it doesn’t seem to bug me that he answers in a language I don’t know: “始めまして. 私 石田散薬 という 妙薬 を 扱っている 多魔 の 薬売りで 藤田 五郎 と申します.” He’s pretty close in front of me now, opening this box he had on his back and holding up this paper sack. He sounds like a total yuppie, too, as he keeps talking about it; I think he’s selling it. Door-to-door salesman’s not something I ever would have thought to see him as; it’s pretty funny.

“待った 待った,” I tell him, whatever that means. “俺 は ここ の 者 じゃねーよ.” I guess I don’t want any of the paper bag stuff. “ここ の 者 は 留守 だぜ みんな.”

He looks kinda pleased with this. “そうなんですか…”

Something besides his funny clothing is obviously wrong here, because whatever I say next sounds pretty suspicious.

He just laughs, though, giving me a bright and somewhat creepy smile as he replies, “この 目 は 生まれつきな もんで.”

But evidently I’m not taking that answer. I can feel my eyes narrow — though not to the extent of the squint he’s got going — and I reach out and grab his wrist. “そう か い じゃお,” I growl accusingly. “薬売りにゃ全然 似合わね この竹刀 ダコ. これ は 生まれつじゃねえよな. てめ 何者 だ?”

Smiling, he just looks at me for a moment. Then he lets up on his squint and murmurs very pointedly, “なかなか 鋭い男 なんですね, 相楽 佐之助君.”

The uncanny color of his eyes has always been riveting, but at the moment I don’t have time to be captivated. His words are a jolt, and I’m jumping backward quickly and warily. For good reason, too: as he continues to speak in a dark tone, he’s pulling from almost nowhere — well, from his back — a real, actual sword.

This shit keeps getting weirder.

Still, I don’t seem to be as surprised as I reasonably should be at my pedemarketer-boyfriend pulling a sword out of nowhere or his back. I’m just making some grim comment and tensing up like I’m getting ready to fight him. Maybe I’ve got a sword too?

And then, I guess in response to my remark, he — I swear I’m not kidding — licks the sword. What the hell kind of kinky shit is this?! Isn’t he afraid he’s going to cut his tongue? God! “いいだろうよ,” I growl at him, not caring much for this behavior. I slam my fists together menacingly. “受けて 立つぜ!” Wait… am I going to fight him with my bare hands?? “てめえ の 正体 は この 拳 で 聞いて やろ!” I assert, and charge. I guess I am. Well, the adrenaline I think I might have conjured out of nowhere (from my back, maybe?) convinces me pretty well that I know what I’m doing. And the punch I throw at his face seems pretty effective.

At least, for about five seconds it does, until it becomes obvious he wasn’t knocked away by it, he stepped away to get his own attack ready. “成程,” he says. “ケンカ 一番と噂される だけおって いい 拳打 を しているよ. だが…” As he pulls the sword back and holds it funny, he finishes in this irritatingly disdainful tone, “それも 明治 という 泰平 の 世 で の 話 幕末 の 京都 に 於いて は この 程度 の 拳打 は 全く通用しない.” Apparently the meaning of the words is just as annoying as the tone, if my rush of indignation at them is any indication, but again I don’t really have time to react, because — shit, he’s fast!! — he’s suddenly racing at me with the sharp end of that sword pointed where I’d really rather not have it.

I try to dodge, but my movements seem sluggish and meaningless compared to his. Holy shit, that fucking hurts! Right into my shoulder goes the sword, and right through something hard and solid goes my entire body with the force of his attack. I skid and crash to a halt on my side, grating across the wooden floor of whatever building this is, pummeled with rubble from the smashed wall, losing sight of him somewhere even when the dust and the haze of pain allow me to see anything at all.

Oh, and I’m pissed off now. I’ve barely stilled before I’m hauling myself to my feet with a roar, swaying just slightly with pain and the loss of equilibrium. “どこ を 向いてる, 細目野郎?” I demand, catching sight of his back as I stand. “まだ 終わっちゃいねえぞ!”

“威勢 が いい な. だが…” He turns casually toward me; the sword is gone from his hand, probably because the snapped-off end of it’s still sticking out of my screaming shoulder. “大人しく 寝ていた 方 が 身 の 為 だったな,” he says; “致命傷 に 至らなかったとは 言え 深 傷 に は 代わない.” And though I don’t understand, it’s no surprise I’m not pleased by the admonition.

“るせい!” I bellow. “深 傷 は 負ったが てめえ の 刀 も 砕けた! 勝負 は これ から だ!” With this I rush to attack him again.

If I thought my chances were better now he’s got no sword, boy, was I wrong… he half dodges, half blocks my punch and at the same time slams the protruding end of the broken weapon into my shoulder. Through the agony this occasions, only a hot blur is his hand on my face, his harsh command “寝ろ,” and my swift descent.

I jerk awake as my skull should hit the floor, and I think I’m making some kind of funny gasping sound. Disoriented for a second, it takes me a bit to realize I’m in my apartment on the couch and nothing unusual is going on. My heart’s pounding like mad, though, and I swear for a split second I can feel ghostly echoes of the pain from my dream.

He’s sitting in the chair across from me reading the paper and looking as American as ever, and I can’t help staring at him for a bit. He raises an eyebrow at me as he turns a page. With a frown that melts into a yawn, I get up and go over and smack him.

He looks up at me skeptically.

“That’s for stabbing me,” I tell him.

The eyebrow goes higher, so I take his paper, throw it on the floor, and climb onto his lap. “You’re just as big a asshole in my dreams as you are in real life.”

“And I’m sure you’re just as big an idiot,” he replies, groping my ass.

“Well, I guess you thought so, ’cause you fucking stabbed me.” But I’m frowning as I say this. The more I think about it, the weirder that dream seems — because I usually dream about things I’m familiar with, you know? And I’m familiar with him, of course, and his bastardliness, but I don’t know anything about katanas or whatever, and I definitely don’t know any other language.

“You probably deserved it.”

“Maybe I did.” Maybe it was some kind of psychic message. That would be cool, except… why would I get a psychic message about my boyfriend stabbing me? Of course there’s the obvious sexual meaning, but it didn’t feel like that kind of dream. Maybe it was a warning, letting me know that everything I’ve been worrying about lately’s been right on target.

“What’s wrong?” he asks, with more curiosity than concern.

“Nothing.” I jump up. “I’m gonna take a shower.” Pulling off my shirt, I head down the hall.

I can hear him following, and soon he’s standing at the bathroom door watching me strip. Obviously he picked up my shirt on the way — which was mostly why I dropped it in the hall — but he doesn’t say anything about me throwing the rest of my clothes all over the bathroom. I’ll never get it — how is the hall different from the bathroom, when they’re both places you’re not supposed to throw clothes? He’s weirdly picky like that.

I close the shower curtain and turn on the water, but don’t get in just yet. First I have to say over my shoulder, “You coming?” As if I really need to ask. The sex is the one thing in this relationship I could never complain about. Hell, that’s probably why I’ve stayed as long as I have. That and the money. Which is really sad. Anyway, I step into the shower as he starts to unbutton his shirt.

It’s hard to use up all the hot water in a big apartment complex like this, but we’ve done it, like, three times now. I’m really tired by the time we’re finished, and neither of us says much of anything as, vaguely and mostly as if it doesn’t matter, we get ready for bed. And I’ve pretty much stopped thinking about the dream by the time I’m curled up beside him in a nice haze and falling asleep.

I can’t help but remember it the next day, though.

He’s almost always up and gone a lot earlier than I am — I’m not one for morning classes — so I come to alone, as usual. The new images in my head are already dimming, but that doesn’t mean I’m forgetting them. Having a second dream like that so soon after the first is more than a little startling.

I was still in pretty bad shape, and had to lean real hard on this woman’s shoulder to stand up. He was fighting some little red-headed guy in a dress, and none of the people watching seemed very happy about it. I’m not sure who was winning, though, and I woke up pretty soon after making some fatalistic-sounding comment in Chinese or whatever again. “無理 だぜ 嬢ちゃん… 俺達 には 止められねエ…”

I lie in bed for a bit and watch the image of the blue outfit he was wearing this time — a much better choice than his previous thing — blur into the ceiling as the dream fades. I have to wonder, really wonder, what this all means. Two in a row is no coincidence, and non-coincidental dreams are pretty much always important and trying to tell me something, right? And in this case the message seems fairly obvious.

My boyfriend’s a freak.

I’m broken from the downward spiral of this reverie by the grumbling of my stomach, and I remember the other thing I forgot last night: the dream and the shower distracted me from the fact that I didn’t have any dinner. Jerk probably had his own while I was getting beat up by him inside my head, and didn’t bother to wake me up for it. Or, I amend with a little more charity, lost track of the fact that he was human and forgot to eat entirely. Because he does that sometimes too.

With an inarticulate remark I’m fairly sure is about food — see, I make as much sense in English as I do in whatever-dream-language — I finally haul my ass out of bed and go to see which of my guesses is correct.

The issue bugs me on and off all day, but not so much that I can’t pay attention at school. Or at least not so much that I pay any less attention than I ever do. Between classes, I’ve got to dodge/hide from the poster people who want me to come to the environmental club thing and the campus improvement panel thing and the association of gay-bi-les-whatever students thing. Drive-time I’m too distracted trying to choose a new radio station (hopefully one that won’t annoy the shit out of me) to think about dreams. But once I get home, it’s on my mind full-force once again. I turn up the air conditioner and, after another futile glance through the fridge, plop down on the couch to do some homework.

I should know better. Know better than to look in the fridge and better than to think I’m going to get any homework done.

“なかなか 鋭い男 なんですね, 相楽 佐之助君.” I still don’t understand a word of it, but phrases are replaying in my head like they should mean something. “幕末 の 京都 に 於いて は この 程度 の 拳打 は 全く通用しない.” The image of my fist meeting his face, of him charging at me with that sword. “俺達 には 止められねエ…” Him fighting that other guy and me just totally despairing of a good outcome… And what’s the significance here, anyway? That I had two of these dreams? If I went to sleep now, would I have another one?

But there’s no way I can take a nap today, I remind myself dejectedly… I already put off studying for my marketing test, which is tomorrow, by wasting yesterday evening. And I don’t have time to dwell on dreams either, I add firmly. With a sigh I go back to the couch from the random pacing I was doing, dig out my notebook, and find that my marketing book isn’t in here. It’s probably in the car.

With an annoyed groan I lean my head onto the back of the cushion and glower at the ceiling. I don’t want to walk all the way out to the car through this heat… why the hell can’t I bring stuff in when I get home?

I turn on the TV.

The TV’s not mine, I reflect as the somewhat comforting noise fills the room. Practically nothing in here is. If I break up with him, everything’s going to be really empty for a while… Not that I’ll have leisure for TV, since I’ll have to go full-time just to pay rent. I probably won’t eat for a while, too.

I close my eyes and frown. Is that why I’m still here? Because I’m too fucking lazy not to keep leading him on if it means more work for me? Am I that big a half-assing jerk? That’d make me way worse than he is. He doesn’t deserve that…

The first commercial break makes me wonder suddenly what the hell I’m doing, and I flip to my marketing notes. I don’t take very good notes; I need the book. This is probably why, after several minutes, my attention drifts again.

Why’d he stab me, anyway? Was he there specifically to stab me, or was he just mad that I didn’t want to buy anything? Deranged door-to-door salesman… perfect… And why didn’t he kill me, then? I was obviously still alive to see the thing with the red-head, who it seems like he did intend to kill… why him and not me? Did he need me alive for something? Why through my shoulder like that? Why would he go to the trouble of kicking me around so badly, but not kill me, when he’s evidently Mr. Super Violent?

More importantly, why am I not studying?

I look to my notebook again.

He gets home after I’ve been following this pattern for a few frustrating hours without ever going out to get the textbook, and, given the prevalent topics of the day, I’m only half glad for the distraction of his presence.

“How many times do I have to tell you not to turn the air conditioner up? Just hit the ‘occupied’ button.”

“Yeah, good to see you too.”

“I’m serious; is it that difficult?”

”’bout as difficult as it is for you to be nice.”

“Grouchy today?” he wonders a little testily, and neither of us says anything more for a while.

I find I can’t stop looking at him, trying to pin down the exact differences between his real face and his face in my dreams. A certain annoying-as-hell quality definitely exists in both. And he’s hot either way, but who the hell cares about that when he’s stabbing you or harassing you about the air conditioner?

Eventually, of course, he has to start again. “You drank all the milk, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, so?” I look studiously back at my notebook, but he’s got to know I’m not actually reading it.

“So, if you tell me, I can buy more before we need it.”

“What do you ‘need‘ milk for?” I ask skeptically.

“A case I’m working on,” is his very sarcastic reply. “For dinner, idiot; what do you think?”

“Well, since you’re so smart, I’m sure you can figure out something to make that doesn’t need milk.”

He snorts. “Or you could.” And he leaves the room; pretty soon I hear the shower starting. I echo his grunt and jump up to go get my book from the car finally.

I’m not sure whether I think it’s a good thing that I end up sitting awake half the night studying and then sleep so hard there’s no room for dreams. Do I want more dreams? Do I really believe they’ve got some deeper meaning, that I’m going to find some answer in them? Or do I want them to stop? Do I think they’re getting in my way, clouding the issue, that I need to make up my own mind without this weirdness? Oh, give me a break. I don’t have time for this; I’ve got a test today.

It doesn’t go too badly, considering. Well, OK, it goes badly. But I don’t have to find out exactly how badly until next week, and then there are other tests this semester to make up for it. I try not to think about it. Not too difficult, when I’ve got plenty else to keep my mind off it. A little too much, really. I’m not the most gung-ho student ever, but this is getting annoying. They’re just dreams, probably induced — oh, yeah, why didn’t I think of this before? — induced by the stress of indecision about leaving my boyfriend.

I experience an almost-tangible wave of relief as this occurs to me. Of course there’s no secret, no message… it’s natural to have unpleasant dreams about him at this stage, right? It makes me feel so much better, that thought… for about two seconds, before some stupid voice in my head answers, Not in Chinese, it’s not. Not with swords and blood and shit. That’s not normal at all.

So I keep going back and forth between thinking the dreams mean something and that they don’t… that they’re the cause of my anxiety and that they’re just caused by it… and the point I keep coming back to is the language thing. Two dreams in a row in a coherent-sounding language I don’t speak has to mean something. But what the hell is that?

If I take any notes this whole day, they’re going to be hilarious to reread when this is all over… a painful, I’m-going-to-fail-all-my-Wednesday-classes funny.

My homework efforts this evening are just as laughable. Too bad I’m not laughing.

I give up the attempt when he gets home, but he’s late and tired and I’m grouchy… and, rather than argue again — though I remembered to hit the stupid ‘occupied’ button this time and he’s bought more milk — we’re quiet for the rest of the evening. More quiet than usual, actually, for after such a little argument. I mean, we fight all the time, and usually we’ve forgotten it the next day, unless we need make-up sex (which is pretty much always). But tonight we end up in bed with the lights off and no indication of wanting to do anything more than sleep. Is this because of my indecision, or it is the natural death of a relationship that was never meant to be?

I’m almost nervous as I close my eyes, and, probably because of that, it takes me a while to fall asleep. Then I’m standing very suddenly in a narrow street. It’s got the same type of look as the last place, just a lot shabbier. There’s an intermittent hot breeze, and by the smell carried on it, this neighborhood is every bit as run-down as it looks. I feel incredibly tense; I’m staring steadily, angrily in front of me… I guess I came into this one late too.

Barely a yard away, he’s facing me with a somewhat annoyed expression, and saying severely, “抜刀斎 に とって お前等 の 存在 など 弱点 以外 の 何でも ないんだ.”

For some reason, these words come as a painful shock, and for a moment I can’t make any reply. I don’t know who Battousai is or why I care so much what he thinks of me, but evidently it hurts to have this pointed out. He goes on, but I barely hear any of his harsh explanation and remonstrance. I’m shaking, breathing hard, battling a huge wave of anger.

I find, though, as I begin to speak, that I sound a good deal calmer than I really feel. “そう か… 俺 は 剣心 の 弱点 で… 守り きれない から あいつ は 独り で 旅立った って 訳 か…” Again with this Kenshin person who seems to be the center of this issue… that red-haired guy… who left me behind… and my stabbing boyfriend here agrees with that decision. My attempts at staying calm failing utterly at this thought, rage explodes through my chest as I clench my fists and shift toward him. “それ を 聞いて 尚更 あいつ を ブン 殴りたく なったぜ!””

He looks like he expected this, and says nothing.

“どけ 斎籐!” I order him angrily. “どかなきゃ, 力ずくで いくぞ!” Of course I’m not going to put up with this type of treatment; I’ll make him get out of my way.

“その 言葉… そっくり 返すぜ,” he replies grimly, tossing my threat right back at me. But I’m not afraid of him — actually, considering what he did to me last time we ‘fought,’ I’m probably a little too not afraid of him — and I’m racing at him, ready to do battle.

He doesn’t take the hit this time, but dodges almost faster than I can see. With a disdainful expression, he grabs me by the sleeve of the weird black-and-white thing I’m wearing, and punches me in the armpit. It must be not too long after the stabbing, because my shoulder’s obviously not healed yet. This Holmesian deduction that puts the scene into better perspective doesn’t do much to distract me from the sensation of shit tearing that’s really better off in one piece, blood gushing abruptly, and my whole body suddenly flying through the air as he throws me.

I slam into the ground with a pained grunt. A voice I don’t recognize is yelling something about that not being fair, but with the wind knocked out of me and my shoulder reopened I’m not in any condition to state my agreement. A moment later as his shadow looms over me and one of his heels slams unexpectedly down into the aforementioned shoulder, I’m not in any condition to do much more than scream.

He waits until I’m good and recovered from that shock — or at least have stopped screaming and can listen to him — before starting to explain why he won’t leave my damn shoulder the hell alone. The other voice (which, I finally recognize indistinctly, belongs to one of the people who were watching the fight with that Kenshin dude) is arguing the point. I override them both as I struggle to my feet. “痛かねエ…”

Oh, look at that — he’s surprised. He didn’t think I could still get up. He thought his point was made. Ha. Still, if I’m not mistaken, I just claimed this wound doesn’t hurt. I know I’m all for bravado, but, uh, it does hurt. Like hell, actually. But then I go on to explain that something having to do with Kenshin hurts a thousand times more, and I guess that makes sense… I may not have much idea what’s going on here, but I can damn well feel all this emotional turmoil. Using the latter to power my movement, I charge him again, and this punch connects hard.

Looking startled, he blocks it, but is still knocked backward. “Out of the way, Saitou!” I command again. “I’m going to Kyoto! 京都 で 俺 が ヤツ の 力 に なれるって この 拳 で あかしてやるぜ!”

“身 の 程 知らず が,” he replies tensely, almost angrily, looking me up and down. Then he puts a hand to his chin and says with grim thoughtfulness, “よく 言うぜ この 前 は 俺 に ボロ負けしたくせして.”

This makes me so irate I want to rip his throat out, but the sight of him removing his sword from his belt and tossing it aside calms me. Is it possible he’s going to take me a little more seriously now? But then, “So you won’t have any excuse about me having a sword,” he says, pretty much disproving that theory. “This fight will be on your terms — 拳 の 勝負 だ.”

I’ve noticed this blue outfit he’s got on, with the way the jacket-thing’s shaped, still kinda looks like he’s wearing a skirt. A mini-skirt this time. Too bad I’m too busy being pissed at him and preparing to get my ass kicked again to make fun of it.

He has a brief exchange with the kid, who’s trying to warn me about something, but I’m not really listening. I’m watching his hands as he gets ready to fight me. But as he finishes with, “No matter how stupid he is, he’ll understand how weak he is when I beat him at his own game,” I can’t help paying attention to his words.

I’m angry as all hell, but I think being about to fight helps me control it better (because I know I’m about to let it all out?) “Interesting,” is all I say through my clenched teeth, then slam my fists together and hurl myself at him with a growl.

Scornfully, and in a motion that looks almost slow compared to my wild rush, he blocks. Apparently exasperated, he opens his mouth, doubtless to tell me why that punch sucked — but I’ve got more up my sleeve this time. Without warning — and I think it’s a surprise to both of us — I follow up the first blow with a second, a third, a fourth, a fifth… countless more hits… I just don’t stop, my arms working like machinery, and there’s no way he’s blocking all of them… What a good idea! I’m pleased with myself. As long as I don’t relent, he’ll never have a chance to hit me back, and eventually I’m sure to get enough through to take him down. Seems messy and slow, but, hell, if it works…

It’s a flurry of heat and movement and the thump of flesh-and-bone contact, and after a while, arms burning, I guess it’s OK to let off and stand back to see how it went. Looks like I’ve forced him to retreat a couple steps, and completely shredded the sleeves of his jacket… but as he straightens from his defensive stance, I can see… Shit, it doesn’t look like a single one of my million or so punches actually connected with his body. What the fuck? Ruined sleeves shows what nice forearms he’s got, sure, but if that was the only effect of my great attack, even I have to admit it was a waste of energy. I can’t wait to hear what he has to say about it.

“Finished?” he asks in that infuriating tone, advancing. He raises his gloved hands, and…

I needed more pain today, right? I needed fists like iron slamming into my face and chest over and over and over, right? It’s another unintelligible flurry of motion and impact, this time with a lot more hurting mixed in, as he returns my attack — only it works for him. Why the hell am I not blocking?

A jarring blow to the jaw knocks me right off my feet, and I barely feel myself falling to the ground through the stunning tremors from the hit. I’m definitely tasting blood, and the image of him standing over me wavers slightly. I find I’m not yet able to move.

“Do you understand?” he demands, then, ironically, adds, “お前 は 俺 や 抜刀 には実力斎 も 経験 ありと あらゆる 面で 遠く 及ばない. 俺達 から すれば お前 など 口 うるさい だけ の ヒョッコ過ぎん.”

During this little speech I’ve mostly regained my mobility, though my voice still sounds slurred as I shout, “Shut up! So what?” I force myself up, feeling unsteady, planting my feet firmly apart to keep my balance. “I’m going to Kyoto no matter what anyone says!” But I find even as I make the defiant statement that, though I’m standing, my ability to do just about anything else is not great. As a matter of fact, I may fall over again if I even try.

He’s evidently aware of this, and knows I know. As he draws back, stretching his right arm out and holding his left fist tight at his side, he says in a tone of grim command, “You cannot go to Kyoto.”

I don’t need the noisy kid’s warning to recognize the danger I’m in. The stance reminds me of the one he used to stab me before; he’s like clockwork, wound up tight and ready to strike. Problem is, I don’t think there’s really much I can do to avoid taking this hit. So like him to save his worst attack for after he’s already worn me out.

“No matter how hard you try,” he tells me disdainfully, then finishes as he begins his charge, “you’re still nothing more than an amateur!”

In the next flashing instant I seem to be concentrating on three things at once: trying to roll with his incredibly painful blow, avoiding getting knocked off my feet again, and doing something with my arms. It only takes a moment to find out what the latter is, even with the blood now running down my face and hazing across my eyes: I’ve caught his arm, as he drew it back, between my fists, and am applying what has to be an uncomfortable amount of pressure.

He looks unpleasantly shocked, and I feel a rush of satisfaction as I growl, “Your arm could have been broken by an amateur — how does that feel?”

“きさま…” But he doesn’t go on. I guess he’s actually going to hear me out.

“You’ve been having fun with your ‘amateur, amateur…'” I continue, drawing closer to him but not loosening my hold on his arm. “Maybe you and Kenshin are stronger than me, but you didn’t start out that way. Maybe I didn’t fight in the Bakumatsu ten years ago, or help build the Meiji era… Maybe I am an amateur, but that doesn’t mean I’m weak.”

It seems for half a moment like he’s contemplating my words, but before I can even begin to hope, he just makes a contemptuous sound and punches me across the face with his free hand. Which, now that I think about it, kinda is the tactical drawback to pinning one of his arms with both of mine.

“Bastard!” I shout at him as he moves to walk away.

Without pausing he replies, “I’m finished with you.”

“What?!” I demand, incensed.

“Trying to keep an idiot from doing idiotic things is a waste of time. Go to Kyoto if you want. You’ll die soon enough.”

“何イ?!?” I cry, even more furious than before.

He turns briefly to look back at me. “Any moron who relies on his current strength with no thought of defense can’t possibly survive very long.” Then he keeps walking.

I wake up with what sounds like a growl to find myself tense in a tightly wound sheet. However much I must have moved to get it so twisted up, I don’t seem to have bothered him; he’s got his back to me and the entire blanket.

I find I’m still pissed. He didn’t think I was good enough for whatever was about to go down in Kyoto, wherever the hell that is. I don’t know why I wanted to help with whatever it is at all, considering he stabbed me in the shoulder, and I don’t know anything about this Kenshin person, but obviously the whole thing meant a lot to me, so why did he have to be such an asshole about it? It seems so typical, though…

OK, this has to be some kind of warning message. Why else would I dream about him kicking my ass repeatedly just now when I’m wondering whether to leave him? He’s never hit me or anything — well, not seriously like in the dreams, and definitely not with a sword — but imagining him getting abusive isn’t too hard, even if the idea does kinda bug me.

As I struggle to escape the sheets, some of the grunts escaping my lips sound like curses against him, and I’m not quite sure they’re not. Finally free, lying still at last, I stare at his back and wonder. How many days can it possibly take me to make up my mind or work up my nerve or whatever? I mean, why am I still here? My reasons for being with him are stupid, he’s not a nice guy, and my subconscious seems to have an even bigger problem with him than my conscious. But here I am…

Maybe it’s just that I’m not quite sure how to do it. Not that I think he’ll be heartbroken or anything — yeah, right! — but what the hell exactly do I say? ‘Hey, man, we gotta break up because I’m just a horny gold-digger and I dream about you beating me up in Korean or something?’

I sigh and bury my face in the pillow.

It doesn’t even really strike me until I’ve lain still for a while trying not to think about it that I understood a good half of the dialogue in that one. The words were still… whatever language… but it wasn’t a problem for me any more. It felt so natural at the time, it didn’t seem at all strange to be slipping into comprehension… but it sure doesn’t clear up the issue. Yeah, I know a bit more about what’s going on in dreamland, but what does that imply here? My first thought would be that my brain is starting to make sense of its own nonsense… but that would have to mean I’m getting closer to some kind of real understanding — and I certainly don’t feel even the beginnings of enlightenment.

It takes a while to get back to sleep, and then thankfully I don’t have any more stupid dreams before waking up the next day. But what’s the difference at this point? Three of them is enough to mean whatever it means… that I need to leave him… that I need to stay with him… that I’m fucking stupid and don’t even understand myself

I go to school dully and without much hope of getting any higher education out of the day. The phrase ‘going through the motions’ comes to mind… an expression that’s often used, coincidentally, to describe failing relationships. Perfect. And for some reason, “No matter how stupid he is, he’ll understand how weak he is when I beat him at his own game,” keeps echoing through my head. The anger comes and goes, but mostly the day is just apathetic.

A new idea occurs to me when a psychology class empties into my hallway as I’m heading for the shuttle back to the parking lot. I’ve never thought about it before, but we’ve got to have some kind of psychology therapy counsely person on campus somewhere. Don’t most schools have those? And wouldn’t that person maybe be able to interpret my dreams for me? That’s what they’re there for, right? Assuming they’re there at all? They could help with the stupid dreams and the stupid big question.

Or would I just get handed off and become an unwitting contributor to some psychiatry major’s thesis?

No, I’m not even remotely distrustful and bitter about this place because of how much they charge me for the privilege of doing homework and having no life.

It’s the beginnings of an idea, though, and I give it some serious thought as I drive home. But I haven’t really reached a decision by the time I get there (which is so typical of me these days, isn’t it?), because… well, going to a therapist seems so extreme. They’re just dreams. And couples break up all the time without having to see shrinks. Simultaneously, though, I remind myself that if they were really just dreams, they wouldn’t be bothering me this much… and that no breaking up has actually occurred yet, just a lot of thinking about it. And if I can’t deal with something on my own, isn’t it about time to get help?

The idea of ‘getting help,’ however, is distasteful. It suggests I really think there’s something wrong with my head that I can’t work out. And I don’t think that, do I? God, I hope not. But as I seem to hear again, “Trying to keep an idiot from doing idiotic things is a waste of time,” and feel the same rush of anger in response as I did then, I grab the phone book.

Staring at the list of doctor names and numbers, running my finger absently over them again and again, I wonder if I’m really going to do this. Am I overreacting? I’m really just a very normal person who’s had a couple of abnormal dreams coinciding with a difficult decision, that’s all. Do I really need therapy? What if they want to give me drugs? Despite my misgivings, I’m drifting toward the phone. If I call, they’ll probably want me to schedule an appointment. Then if I change my mind later, I can just not show up. This isn’t a commitment to being crazy; I’m just testing the water. I pick up the receiver.

What meets my ear is the manic-sounding quick tone that means there’s a voicemail. Without even thinking, I dial in to listen to it.

“I’m going to be working late.” He always sounds so brusque on the phone… “There’s some cash on the dresser.” You’d never guess it was his boyfriend he was calling… “You can order pizza for dinner, and make sure to put what’s left in the fridge.”

I delete the message, hang up the phone, and go flop down on the couch. ‘Working late’ means ‘working really late,’ usually because of something exciting and dangerous, or at least some important development in some case. He’s got a pretty cool job.

Idly I wonder how he would react if he came home late after tracking down and arresting and processing some serial killer and found me and all my stuff gone. It’s actually a really disturbing scenario. No matter what I end up choosing, I won’t do it that way. He’ll know, and he’ll know why. Which brings me back to the question of what I am going to choose.

I don’t call a therapist.

After some pizza that isn’t nearly as exciting as pizza usually is and should always be, I head to bed. Yes, I remember to put the leftovers in the fridge. No, I haven’t touched a textbook since I got home from class. Yes, I’m going to regret that another day.

There’s no way I’ll fall asleep quickly. I’m not tired — hell, what-all have I done today? — and I’m sincerely nervous about having another dream, and hours pass with me tossing and turning and thinking almost nothing, never allowing myself to relax. When he finally gets home and moves quietly to get undressed and into bed in the dark, however, I force myself to breathe deeply and lie still. The last thing I want right now is a conversation.

Hmm, is that really the last thing I want? Is discussing whatever we would end up talking about really worse than getting beaten up by him once I’m asleep?

Now I’m almost tempted to speak.

Obviously, I don’t. And forcing myself to relax makes a difference. I don’t even realize for a while that I’m back there again until a chill starts settling over me and I notice that I’m seated on a hard surface rather than lying in bed. I open my eyes.

It looks like a jail cell. How the hell I got myself into jail I don’t know, but it kinda makes sense given how much violence I seem to be part of around here. I’m sure it has something to do with him, too.

As if in response to this thought, he appears. Well, I don’t see him just yet, but a door opens somewhere off to my left and I can suddenly hear him talking to someone else as they move in my direction. I get the feeling he doesn’t have any idea at all that I’m here, so I’m almost kinda looking forward to the moment he gets to my cell and sees me.

There he is now, walking alongside some short guy with a mustache and the same uniform he always wears. Guy’s talking about me, which seems like a good cue to jump into the conversation.

“Just like I thought,” I say loudly, triumphantly. “Instead of stumbling around in the dark, I made some trouble for the police so I could find you. Seemed like the quickest way of finding Kenshin.”

“You…” He only glances over his shoulder briefly, but I’m pretty sure he’s both surprised and displeased to see me here.

“おうよ,” I grin around what seems to be a feather or something in my mouth. “Sagara Sanosuke’s magnificent arrival in Kyoto.” After a moment’s pause, as he turns more fully toward me, still silent, I add thoughtfully, “Well, it was a gamble, actually… I didn’t know whether you’d come to Kyoto yourself or not. When I thought about it, I couldn’t be sure you wouldn’t just sic Kenshin on him and stand back.”

He still doesn’t say a word, so I get up and advance on the bars. “You could look a little happier to see me. I did do some training along that damn Nakasendou. Actually, I got pushed a lot farther than I needed to go by this one guy, just because I got lost…” It seems like I’m rambling, but my follow-up is more to the point. “Anyway, Saitou, I’m gonna show you the results of my training!”

The short dude asks Saitou if he knows me. “いえ, 全く,” he replies, and, turning, they both start to walk away.

“Hey!” I bellow, watching them through the bars. “Wait just a second, you!”

“It’s easy to mistake people when you’re angry,” he says. “He’s in the way, so just leave him down here for a while.”

Oh, I am so not going to take that. “Running away, you bastard?!” I demand at the top of my lungs. “Open this door or I’ll open it myself! Do you hear me?!” And when he only barely glances back before continuing down the hall, I actually do it.

Wow. Holy shit. I just totally trashed that thing! I punched it, but it wasn’t a normal punch… the wood’s half turned to sawdusty powder all over the floor, and the other pieces are splintered and small. And I did it. With my hand. I’m… I’m fucking awesome!! Guess I really did do some training on the damn Whatever-it-was. This’ll show him! It’s got to. Hell, that was so cool, I missed whatever I just said.

He watches me for a moment, then, “Chief, I will deal with this,” he tells the little fat guy (who’s not looking happy). “Please wait for me upstairs.” Notice he’s never that polite to me. Of course, I probably wouldn’t really like it if he was.

Once the other dude’s gone, he starts stalking toward me with this dark and very pointed stare. And I have to admit, even when I’m annoyed as hell at him for pretending not to know me and trying to walk away, he looks pretty hot like that. He also looks like he might want to kick my ass again. This is apparently what I want too, given what I’m saying to him: “I’ve got a lot of things I want to ask you, but first we settle the fight we started in Tokyo!” Why do I have the feeling this is going to hurt again?

Except that he’s not paying attention to me.

How is he not paying attention to me?!

“コラア!!”

He kneels down and examines the wreckage of the door, speculatively analyzing the technique. Which, I guess, is better than ignoring me completely. Except he doesn’t seem to be impressed by it at all. How the hell can he not be impressed?!?

Suddenly he stands and looks over at me. And although it’s a fixed gaze, I can’t help thinking he seems rather indifferent. Tired. “And what about the basics of defense I told you to practice?”

I shrug, grinning. Even from the inside I can tell it looks stupid, and he certainly isn’t pleased with me. Annoyed, he grabs the edges of my shirt and drags me toward him… but he doesn’t have words, apparently, for his frustration, so I speak instead, angry again: “Since when do I have to do what you tell me?” Dislodging his hand from my lapels or whatever they are, I continue, “Defense just isn’t my thing! I’ll fight my own way!”

He gives his hand a little shake, as if to get rid of the sensation of touching me, makes an exasperated sound, and turns away. “I don’t have any men to spare, but even so, you’re useless to me.”

I stare after him, fists clenching. “You’re running away again!”

“I’m very busy; I don’t have time to play with you.”

Frustrated but trying hard to keep my tone fairly casual, I take a deep breath and answer loudly, “Well, then, I guess it’s my win by default.”

“If that’s what you want to think,” he replies indifferently, not even slowing.

I think it’s the surge of pure rage at this behavior that jolts me to consciousness this time. Though I can’t even begin to piece together what the hell is happening in these dreams, one thing I’m sure of: he never takes me seriously, he never thinks I’m good enough for this big project of his. Seems like I’d even gotten stronger — which is kinda cool, especially since it felt like I was pretty damn strong before — and he still totally blew me off.

Of course, it doesn’t seem like we’re exactly lovers in this little sword story, so he’s not under quite so much obligation to take me seriously.

But half the time, he doesn’t take me seriously in real life either.

Shit, this is so messed up. Dreams are not something you base important, relationship-altering decisions on. At least they shouldn’t be… but these ones of mine are getting to that point…

I can’t stop thinking about it now. Not at home or school or anywhere. In fact, I skip my first class of the day to go to the computer lab and try to find some of the words I’m picking up. This isn’t all that educational, though, except to confirm that it’s Japanese. Whatever that should mean to me. Did I watch some movie in Japanese at some point and store away all these words in my subconscious or something? Because there’s just no way my brain’s coming up with all of this on its own… unless I’m really going crazy.

Yeah. Maybe he’s driving me crazy.

With this thought I start wandering around campus without much intention of going to any of my classes… and possibly no intention of going home, either. Home? Shit.

Maybe it’s about time I discussed this with someone else. Not a shrink, like I was thinking yesterday; that idea’s definitely out of the question now, though I’m not even sure why. But what are friends for, other than paying for dinner and driving you home when you’re drunk?

Once in the car out on the street, though, my confidence in that idea drains away. I’m still heading in the general direction of the place where a couple of my pals live, but I’m changing lanes at random and taking what could be considered the scenic route. Because none of my friends like him, but at the same time they’re all way pro-relationship in general… it’d be impossible to get an unbiased answer out of any of them, and no way in hell am I bringing up the dreams. What am I expecting to say or to hear? And what do I think I’m going to make of it? I know perfectly well I’m too hard-headed to take advice anyway.

Which is a really bad thing, I realize, if the dreams are some form of advice, whether from my subconscious or from the mystic ethereal lands of whatever.

I end up driving aimlessly for a long time. Briefly I play with the idea of just continuing to drive and seeing where I end up, but I don’t live in a movie where I’d coincidentally run into exactly what I needed to fix the situation at a little gas station twenty miles outside of town. I’ve got things to do and a boyfriend waiting either to be dumped in a face-to-face, not-spineless way or… not. So I stick to city limits.

I skip eating; contrary to the impulse that set me driving in the first place, I’m not in the mood to talk to people, and the process of ordering food seems overly complicated and not worth the trouble.

The best part of all this is that it’s not helping. I’m not resolving issues or comparing pros and cons… I’m just driving endlessly, wasting gas, my mind almost entirely blank, annoying myself with oldies on the radio again for some reason (though the instant some pansy ass starts crooning, Whenever I want you, all I have to do is dream, dream, dream, dream, I turn the damn thing off). The occasional fleeting thought that has a shred of meaning is usually just a retread of everything that’s been bothering me all along, and what’s that going to accomplish?

And yet I don’t go home until it’s way later than I ever get home without letting him know where I am. Which seems blatantly rude considering just yesterday he let me know where he was when he was going to be home late… but it’s done now. The apartment’s dark; evidently he didn’t wait up for me.

It’s too much to hope that I can sneak into bed without disturbing him, since he’s such a light sleeper, but I do my best. He doesn’t sit up or even move as he asks, “Where have you been?” His tone is pretty neutral, but I get the feeling he wasn’t even asleep.

“Out.” I don’t snap it, but a one-syllable answer is always going to sound a little tetchy.

“That much I had noticed,” he replies dryly.

Since that’s not a question, I decide I’m not required to respond, and just settle into my place in the bed and close my eyes.

“Hey,” he says after a moment. Great, now he’s going to demand I tell him.

“Yeah?”

“Are you OK?”

He’s… Dammit, I’m just not sure… Of course he’s noticed something’s going on with me; he’s not stupid… he’s probably even guessed what I’m trying to decide… and he’s not a complete jerk… I just don’t… I don’t know.

“Yeah,” I lie.

It’s a thick silence, like he wants to say something else, but eventually it’s clear he’s decided not to. We go to sleep with our backs to each other.

Next morning I’m thinking maybe it was my increased uncertainty and discomfort caused by this brief exchange that brought on a dream with a slightly different focus. It wasn’t so much that he was an overt asshole this time… just that he was still undervaluing me. I blew up an entire fucking battleship singlehandedly, by being awesome, and kept from getting shot in the process, and he still didn’t have a word to say to me. I would say it’s like I don’t exist, but I sure as hell seem to when he wants to beat someone up.

So I’m angry again; seems I’m always waking up angry now. I’m getting into this way too much. As real as it all feels, and as much continuity as I’ve come up with, they’re just dreams, right? These people Saitou and Sanosuke, they’re not him and me, and we don’t live in Japan, and none of this has anything to do with our relationship. Just because I’ve got some fixation with impressing him — I mean, just because Sano has some fixation with impressing Saitou in my dreams — doesn’t make any difference in my real life… right?

I don’t even go anywhere at all today. Normally Saturday is a time for me to sleep in (more than usual), lounge around for a while, then go do stupid shit and find my friends… but what’s the point? I’d just be moody and annoying, and it’s about time to make up my mind once and for all anyway. If I’m staying with him, I need a good reason why. If I’m leaving him, I need to do it, stop leading him on and driving myself crazy. I need to figure out what these dreams mean, what they’re telling me. If anything.

First I lie on the bed and then the couch, watching sunlight creep through the apartment through open blinds. Then I eat something… not sure what… Eventually I find a deck of cards somewhere and deal myself a game of solitaire, or maybe more than one… I don’t know. I’m not paying attention to what I’m doing, but at the same time my thoughts are just going around and around and not accomplishing much either, like yesterday. What does he really mean to me? What do I mean to him? Am I brave enough to go? Or do I want to stay and I’m just being childish? And where in all this mess do the fucking dreams come in?

It’s inevitable that, spending so much time doing jack, I’m going to fall asleep at some point. At multiple points, actually, though they’re really just cat-naps. Long enough, though, for a broken string of brief images to hound me through the day:

Him and me talking as we walk up some steep path under these red arches in some mountain forest. He’s calling me an idiot again, of course.

Him volunteering to take my place as I fight some big guy in kinda gothy makeup. Obviously he still doesn’t think I’m good enough, and I’m surprised he cares whether I get my ass pounded.

Him getting ready to fight some weirdo in a blindfold while I run off, picking up some woman (oddly enough) and carrying her away before I throw a look back at him. I’m worried about him.

Yeah, so it all makes even less sense than before, but I’ve given up trying to follow the story, if there is one. The point, again and again and again, is that he doesn’t think I’m worth anything, but even so I

Well. I don’t know. Or maybe I do know and I’m just denying it.

He’s quiet and thoughtful this evening — worried, I think, probably about something at work connected with what kept him late the other day. Normally I would ask, but right now I’ve got my own concerns. We don’t really say much of anything, actually, and dinner is quiet and a little awkward. Then we watch TV for a while in continued silence.

After the news, we both get up to go to bed as if we’ve discussed it. I feel dull, and as if physical stuff like what I’m wearing to sleep just doesn’t matter at all… and he probably gets the wrong idea from me sitting down on the bed in nothing but boxers, because the next second he’s leaning against me, mouthing my shoulder and running hands around to my chest.

I fight off a shudder, trying hard not to show how much I’d like to… because I really don’t need this right now. Pushing his hands away, I say a little stiffly, “I don’t feel like it.”

He pulls his arms back immediately. “Fine.” Considering I’ve not once ever ‘not felt like it,’ I actually expected more of a reaction than that neutral tone, but not having to explain is a good thing. I lie down with my back to him and return to my thoughts.

Tomorrow is his day off, and of course I have no classes on Sundays. Normally when our days off coincide, we find something fun to do, and I’m wondering… would one last day and night together be a nice parting gift, or just leading him on more? I guess it depends on how much I really think he likes me. Which, when it comes down to it, I’m just not sure about. And maybe I’m only finding excuses to stay. Because, when it comes down to that, I don’t think I’ve even really made up my mind yet.

This isn’t the best mood or train of thought for falling asleep, but eventually I’m as worn out fussing about it as I would have been if I hadn’t stopped him, though not as pleasantly, and I slip uncomfortably off.

The scene I come into smells like shit and doesn’t feel much better. I could say it’s nice to get here after the ass-beating for once, but actually I find I prefer to know where all this raging pain came from before I experience it. As it is, it takes me a bit to focus on anything else — but eventually I do become aware that we’re standing on a stone bridge overlooking… I’m not sure… napalm or something… a canyon, I guess, filled with fire and billowing, rancid smoke.

I’m holding the Kenshin guy, who’s unconscious and, wow, he’s so short… Nearby is some sad-looking dude in a glowing trench-coat, and on my other side, of course, is Saitou. He’s… he’s hurt pretty bad, it looks like… bleeding heavily all over his chest and both his legs. Somehow I don’t think I did that to him, so it’s a fair guess I look about ten times worse. Of course, I don’t really have any idea what I look like at all around here.

I know what I sound like, though, and I think it’s the remains of my desperate annoyance echoing in the air as we stare at a giant pair of heavy-looking metal doors starkly closed in front of us. There’s a feeling here like everything’s almost over; I think the battle’s been fought and all we have left to do is get the hell out, which probably means getting through these things. Seems ample cause for frustration.

“Out of the way.” Rude as always, even when we’re all dying. But I shift aside to let him pass, noticing as I do so that he’s drawn his sword.

“Hey, you’re wounded too,” I object. It makes sense he’s almost as bad-off as Kenshin: he was pretty much in charge of this whole thing, I think, and he’s too dedicated to just let someone else do the hard work. But what is he up to now?

I don’t seem to be nearly as surprised as I should be to see him charging at the doors in that silly-looking attack position of his. There’s no way he’s going to be able to…

Well, I guess there is.

Wait, I took one of those to the shoulder? What the hell am I made of?!

He stands back in this kind of ‘after you’ gesture, satisfied with the jagged hole he just created as an escape route. Hell, I’d be pleased with myself too. I can’t help but notice, though, that the blood seeping through the bandages on his legs has increased quite a bit, and his face looks grim. But all he says, I guess in response to my protest of a moment ago, is, “I’ve gotten through more of these situations than you have.”

And then shit starts happening fast. As everything begins rumbling so violently it’s almost difficult to keep my feet, I glance back and see that some building thing behind us — sticking out of the opposite canyon wall or something — is starting to explode in places with loud booms and bursts of fire. Fire is likewise flaring around us from below, and in the next instant a huge pillar of it roars up just in front of me, right through the stone I’m standing on, scorching my hair (I think) and making my sudden gasp burn all the way down my throat into my lungs. Then in an instant it dies down again.

Panic leaps up inside me with the explosion just as abruptly, and is quelled just as quickly with its dissipation; it’s replaced by a very sharp sense of relief when I see he’s OK… if you can call it ‘OK’ when a twenty-foot gap has been blown through the bridge and he’s on the other side. “Sa- Saitou!” I call out to him, aghast.

“How annoying.” He isn’t shouting back exactly, but purposely says it loud enough for me to hear over here, I’m sure of it. Then, casually as if he’s not standing on the edge of a hundred foot drop into a fucking inferno, he pulls out matches and cigarettes and lights one. He lifts his eyes again, looking us over in that damn calculating way… and a moment later, starts to turn.

I can feel my eyes widening, my heart-rate increasing until I think my chest must burst, my breaths coming short, hot, and angry. Where does he think he’s going? There’s no way he can survive over there! “Saitou!” I’m screaming, and I can easily hear the internal desperation leaking through into my voice. “You bastard, are you trying to run out while you’re still ahead? Saitou!! What about our fight? Answer me!!”

What is wrong with me?! ‘What about our fight?’ What the hell kind of question is that? Can’t I think of anything else to bring him back here, get him to try to save himself?

“As I just told you,” he says, turning again and sucking on his cigarette as he glances back right at me, “I’ve gotten through more of these situations than you have…” His lips curl into that derisive smile as the cigarette leaves them and he adds decisively, “…idiot.” Then he walks away into a rising chaos of flame, rubble, and smoke as more of the world falls apart, explodes inescapably — most pointedly the place where he was standing just moments ago.

The sound of my own voice screaming his name as if I were the one dying is, I think, what wakes me up.

I’m struggling hard. I don’t remember for a couple seconds that it was just a dream, that nobody’s died, that I don’t need to save anyone. He’s holding onto me tight even though I was probably kicking him, and the room feels uncomfortably hot. Still, as soon as I’m awake enough to stop struggling, I cling to him, trying to calm down. I can’t get the images out of my head; my heart is pounding, and I don’t want him to let go.

“These dreams of yours are getting out of hand, it seems.”

Trying not to seem so childish and out of control, I attempt to laugh it off, but it comes out shaky and weak. I’m planning on asking whether he’s been wakened up and bothered by all my weird dreams lately, or at least something comparably reasonable, I really am… but I find as I bury my face in his chest, the only words that come out of my mouth are, “I love you. I love you, and I’m not going to leave you.”

A startled silence falls over us, interrupted by my rasping breaths against his skin.

“I’m… glad to hear it,” he finally says.

“Are you?” I ask shakily. I’m glad to hear it too. Guess I’ve got my answers.

“You were thinking about it, weren’t you?”

“Only because I’m an idiot.”

After that we just hold each other for a while; I’m calming down and adjusting to the heat in the room, which I think may actually be more internal than anything else — remembered heat from that platform thing. Finally I’m relatively rational, and with a deep breath I speak again as if there hasn’t been a lengthy silence between statements. “You and me, we’re… we’re not in a good place. We both have things we need to change about ourselves and the way we treat each other.”

After a pause not quite as long as the previous, but still taut and anticipatory in the warm darkness, he says, “I agree.”

The clutching of my arms around him intensifies as I declare with a strength of purpose, almost a desperation, that surprises even me, “But I think it’s worth trying to get right.” I stop myself just short of admitting that the idea of losing him, of letting go of what we have or could have without even attempting to fix it, is horrifying beyond endurance — a dramatic avowal that, even in this intimate, accepting atmosphere, might get me laughed at a little.

He returns the tightening of embrace, and, with an intensity to match mine, repeats, “I agree.” And he presses a kiss to my temple before we both loosen our grip in order to lie more comfortably. “In the morning,” he goes on more levelly, “I’ll make you a mushroom omelet and we can talk about it.”

“Thank you,” I whisper — and my gratitude relates much more to his immediate willingness — earnest desire, even — to work with me on this than to his offer of my favorite breakfast. He hasn’t specifically told me he loves me back, but I think I’ve got it pretty much figured out now. Closing my eyes, I bury my face in his chest. I’m exhausted, as if I really did just fight a major battle. And escape from the fiery fortress really is in view: I feel I can rest properly, dreamless and optimistic in his arms, now I know he’s going to try to save himself. Now I know we’re going to try to save us.

As I’m falling back toward sleep, however, he pulls me out, briefly, with a quiet statement: “I do have one question right now, though.”

“Hmm?”

“Who the hell is Saitou?”

I chuckle just as quietly against the soft cloth of his t-shirt, shaking my head in a nuzzling motion and grinning slightly as I reply, “It’s a long story.”


This story, which I’ve rated , was for 30_kisses theme #6 “the space between dream and reality,” and dedicated to FarStrider.

This story is included in the Saitou & Sano Collection ebook (.zip file contains .pdf, .mobi, and .epub formats).


I Dream I Know Not How



“When he said you’d gone completely mad, he wasn’t exaggerating.”

“I… wanted to talk to you,” Sano admitted, feeling foolish.

You spend most of your time talking to me. Your neighbors think you’re insane.

“Well, none of them are here right now, are they? That’s kinda the point.”

Ahou.

“Why’d you just leave the other night, anyway? Didn’t even say goodbye or anything.”

Do you think I’m at your disposal? That I have nothing better to do?

“Course not. Not like I have any real idea what you do these days, but still… you… missed what I had to say.”

Hmm, what an extraordinary pity.

Sano gave a sigh, amused and exasperated. “Well, listen now, all right? Don’t go running off, or floating off, or whatever you do at this point.”

In exchange, try not to make it too boring.

Sano chose not to respond to this jab either. “Look, what I want to tell you is…” Even without having to meet an intense golden stare while making this statement, it was difficult to spit out. “You’ve changed me. You held me to your standard while you were alive — I practically had no choice but to be a better person — and even after you were dead you wouldn’t let me throw my life away. So it’s like you saved me twice. But no matter how hard I try, I can’t get to your level. The only thing I can ever really do is wish for it and want to touch it and want…” Finally, finally he came to the point. “And want you. Not like that’s possible now, I know, but at least I want you to know… I love you. And I’d kinda like to know how you feel about me back.”

There was a very long, and to Sano very tense silence. Eventually Saitou simply remarked, Hn…

“What does that mean? Is ‘I love you’ too boring, or what?”

Maybe, when you’ve said it twice before.

“What the– you did hear me then? Why didn’t you say anything?”

Saitou had no reply.

“Any chance you could stop being an asshole and say something? Right, like you could ever stop being an asshole. Why the hell do I love you, anyway? Could you at least tell me that?”

Still no answer.

“Guess it bothers you to hear me say it, huh? Well, suck it up, bastard. I love you, I love you, I love you. You hear me?” And he flung his gaze into the sky, shaking an irate, clenched fist upward. “I love you!!”

The water was now even blacker than it had been that day, its increased darkness in some ways more enticing and in some more horrific. It stretched like a shadow, a deep endless shadow you could easily blend into… or, at least, somebody with dark hair and dark clothing could. Sano would stand out, a blemish on the water, until he sank and was entirely forgotten, not by choice but because he just wasn’t good enough.

Eventually he stirred from his motionless stare, and his limbs felt heavy and sluggish. It took more effort than it should have to haul himself up onto the railing. The water appeared even closer now, despite its being technically a few feet farther from him. He glanced around at the rest of the dark world. Why did it seem he was expecting something? Expecting someone? Expecting… Saitou… to say something… What would Saitou say?

Well, he probably wouldn’t bother trying to stop Sano, but he wouldn’t miss the opportunity to mock him. What are you doing, ahou?

“What does it look like I’m doing, old man?” Sano replied to the hypothetical question out loud.

And just what do you intend to accomplish with that?

He had no answer.

Do you think you’ll be helping anyone? Saitou would persist. Do you think the state of the world will improve? Do you think anything you’ve ever lived for will be carried out in that kind of death?

“Well, no, but…” That would be a fairly good point.

But what?

“I… don’t know…”

A typically well formulated justification.

“Pretty sure you’re dead, bastard,” Sano growled, as if Saitou could really hear it. “Why do I have to justify myself to you anyway?”

It makes no difference to me, of course. Rushing into things without thinking is what you’re best at. This will be particularly glorious — something you’re not even sure about but can’t take back once it’s done. Yes, you’ll really outdo yourself here, boy.

“You just don’t want me to come bug you in the afterlife.”

That could be.

“Well, if you still hate me so damn much, why don’t you just stop haunting me?”

For this the fictional Saitou had no answer. But suddenly, whether it was the hazily imagined conversation, the thought of Saitou actually haunting him — watching him, demanding concrete reasons for this course of action — or something else entirely, the blackness in the water below did not look nearly so enticing. Staring down, Sano’s eyes grew wide and he began to shake. That’s right… it wouldn’t help anything… it would only make things worse. What had he been thinking?

Oh, were you thinking something?

“Shut up… just shut the hell up…”

He imagined he could hear Saitou chuckling.

The state of his body, half-forgotten on the way out in his previous frame of mind, reiterated itself now as he tore himself from the bridge and threw himself toward home, and his walk turned almost to a stagger. “Goddammit,” he grumbled breathlessly, “I might as well be dead.”

Of course he would have to make further effort eventually… he did have to eat. But as he still dreaded further questioning, it was at least another day before he tried. That made it he did not know how long since he’d had any food; he couldn’t imagine how he looked to the others in the scummy little restaurant to which he eventually dragged himself… since he had no problem getting a meal on credit, it must have been either intimidating or pitiable. At any rate, he wasn’t disturbed as he ate, and his mood slowly grew less black.

He started leaning toward the ‘intimidating’ theory, however pathetic he felt, when on the way out the door he nearly ran into an incoming restaurant patron whose reaction was to yelp, jump, and scurry out of the way. Normally Sano would stop and talk to the guy — make sure he was all right, probably tease him for being twitchy, find out if he wanted to buy a drink for the ex-mercenary that had startled him so badly — but today he didn’t feel up to it, and moved on without looking back.

He’d already muttered, “I’m as scary as you, I guess,” before he even realized he was thinking of Saitou again. Still.

You’ve always been somewhat frightening, Saitou replied easily, as if he’d been expecting Sano’s remark perhaps more even than Sano had, if only because of your terrifying fashion sense…

“Hey, now,” Sano grunted, but did not continue as Saitou went on.

But I think a drug-addict river rat like that would probably jump the same way no matter who he bumped into. It could be that shy little girl from the Akabeko and he’d still probably piss himself if she surprised him.

The image of Tsubame scaring a man twice her size out of his self-control just by appearing in a doorway was unexpectedly hilarious, and the laughter it induced unexpectedly relieving. “Shit, I can just picture her face,” Sano chortled. “Tsubame…! I love you…”

His laughter stopped along with his movement and breathing.

Had he really just said that out loud?

He hadn’t meant it like that; it had merely been an expression of appreciation, albeit a stronger one than he might normally have used — his tone must have been enough to convey this — but once the words were out, he found himself frozen in place with his head spinning. Because now that he thought about it…

Now that he’d said it, couldn’t take it back, couldn’t help but think about it…

Now that he’d slipped…

“Maybe I really do,” he whispered.

He’d been anticipating ridicule for the original statement alone; in response to this addendum he didn’t know what to expect. Certainly he did not hope. It was a foolish thing to have admitted so carelessly, to have realized so late. So… late…

Suddenly he did not feel at all well.

He stood very still, waiting for Saitou’s derision.

It did not come.

His breathing returned to normal and the nausea receded gradually, yet he heard nothing but the wind. He couldn’t say that whatever cruel remark he’d been expecting was worse than this, but no response at all he simply could not deal with. “Saitou?” he queried.

Still no answer.

Sano looked slowly around. Of course he saw nothing more than he ever did… but he felt very much alone.

Saitou hadn’t heard, then. He didn’t know.

The state of his body, half-forgotten on the way out in his previous frame of mind, reiterated itself now as he tore himself from the bridge and threw himself toward home, and his walk turned almost to a stagger. “Goddammit,” he grumbled breathlessly, “I might as well be dead.”

Too weak to handle a little pain?

“Thought I told you to shut up,” Sano snarled, as if Saitou, living or otherwise, would actually do as Sano told him.

Which hurts more, came the easy tone, the pain or the truth about yourself?

“I didn’t go through with it, did I?”

You had to be talked down.

“Not like it’s totally unheard-of for someone to get suicidal.”

Yes, you’re perfectly normal… very mainstream… You help people in ways that will get them killed, you try to kill yourself and don’t know why, and you talk to dead cops.

“Guess that makes us pretty damn similar, then, since you did the same thing and did get yourself killed so you are a fucking dead cop who doesn’t seem like he’s got anything better to do than hang around talking to me!”

Nobody ever suggested I was normal.

“Ch…” Sano was home by now, and fell to his futon gratefully, dragging an arm across his eyes although there was no light in the room to block them against. He lay silent for a long time, getting his breath back and letting the trembling stop. He needed something to eat and then he would certainly be all right.

Even before Saitou wondered idly, Nothing more to say? Sano could not feel entirely alone in the room, but with his vision obscured it almost did seem the other man was actually present.

“Hey,” Sano asked in a weary and nearly indifferent tone, “are you really here?”

Of course not. When was the last time you talked to a ghost?

A little startled by the question, Sano paused in the slow act of sitting up, supported on one elbow and still half recumbent. “Not too long ago, actually…” He hauled himself up and glanced around at the empty apartment. “But I still don’t think I believe this.”

Do as you please.

“Yeah, I always do.” Sano stood and shuffled to a cupboard to see if he had any food.

You know it’s empty. You’ve checked it every day since you came home.

Sano didn’t feel like explaining that in repressing the awareness of the cupboard’s emptiness and going to look as if it might contain something, there was a pleasure, if not equal to eating, better at least than lying around realistically contemplating the lack of food in his possession. What he did say was, “Seems like it’s gonna get real crowded around here pretty quick.”

If you had a job, you could afford a bigger apartment.

“Fuck you,” Sano replied, turning toward the door to go find somewhere to freeload.

Telling his buddies the story of his wounds did not appeal to him. Katsu undoubtedly already knew about the kidnapping-related events, and talking to him about it didn’t really appeal to Sano either. Obviously the dojo was out of the question. This was going to take a little more effort than usual.

But more effort was exactly what he didn’t have to expend. For the night was different now, colder and heavier — so heavy, in fact, it seemed to weigh on Sano’s shoulders and slow his steps until walking became useless for as far as it was likely to get him before he inevitably collapsed. He felt suddenly very weak. Weak in more ways than he’d often worried about in all his energetic days.

The sky looked like the water had: black and ready to swallow everything. He faltered to a complete halt as he stared up. There was a feeling of grasping emptiness to it that matched his soul, or perhaps it was just that the coldness of his frame and the coldness of the stars seemed to be one and the same. And he was still in pain.

Even if he wanted to ignore certain conclusions, wanted to forget certain emotions, the wounds would not let him… so he gave up, gave in, and started to ponder the last few weeks: the news, the coincidence, his own decisions, the bridge… Had Saitou actually had some hand in those events? Had he actually shown up, just at the right time in the right place to keep Sano from suicide? Was he still here, still near Sano, even now?

It didn’t really matter.

“Thank you,” Sano told the man, wherever and whatever he was, in a gruff murmur, forcing his gaze now toward the ground rather than that disturbing sky. Then, almost as if he couldn’t contain the words, he added, “You know, I don’t really hate you. I never did.”

There was no answer.

He stumbled back home.

Of course he would have to make further effort eventually… he did have to eat.

If Saitou were here, he would ask why Sano had done it. But it wouldn’t mean quite the same thing coming from him.

This was Sano’s first coherent thought, though Sano himself was far from coherent. It seemed too much of an effort to struggle for real consciousness, and he didn’t mind how disordered and incohesive was the parade of images marching past his mind’s eye, the play of sounds that did not always match.

Kenshin, solemn and quiet, telling him the news. There was no ambiguity this time. There could be no mistaking the matter. There was no misunderstanding, misinformation, or misinterpretation. Kenshin had seen the body.

His head hurt so much. Someone was talking, but he couldn’t quite hear any words just yet.

Footsteps, swift and urgent, coming his direction. They pounded across the bridge on which he stood. He looked up.

“…boy and his fiance were killed…” There were the words at last, still a bit distorted.

He’d been the only one Kenshin had told, because he’d been the only one Kenshin had thought would care. In that supposition he was wrong, of course. Sano had never cared.

“…should have gone to the police…” He wondered if he’d taken a blow to the side of his head that might have done something to his hearing.

The river beneath him. That was the only real reason the news was so unsettling — because the river he looked out on was gilded by the sunset to just the color of Saitou’s eyes. He’d thought that old man would never go. Well, he’d thought that old man was invincible. But Kenshin had been in Kyoto by coincidence just then, and had seen the body. Had made sure to see the body, so there could be no mistake this time.

His chest hurt; he thought he was breathing shallowly, out there on the other side of consciousness where he could not quite reach.

Although he didn’t care, he questioned Kenshin rather carefully about circumstances, as he’d been deceived once and didn’t want it to happen again. Kenshin gave explicit answers to the best of his knowledge.

Apparently Saitou had gone alone to attempt the rescue of a abducted child, feeling he would have a better chance at infiltrating the kidnappers’ hideout by himself. But he’d been discovered and the enemies’ numbers had been greater than was generally supposed. Greater even than Mibu no Ookami could handle on his own. Although Kenshin did hint that Saitou might have been more aware of that beforehand than he’d let on. That perhaps there had been more… bravado… in the act than many others believed. At any rate, he was killed, as was the hostage; the police were still looking into the affair, but now there was no longer any hope of recovering the abductee, the case was likely to be dropped rather quickly.

Sano could see it all, even when only half awake. He could picture every detail: Saitou striking blow after deadly blow but slowly hemmed in by an overwhelming group of thugs, falling finally of many wounds… the last justice the wolf would ever deal out.

“…what was he thinking?”

The bridge. The figure of a much-distressed youth whose rich fiance had been kidnapped from under his nose. It was just too tempting, too perfect — too coincidental. Did you set this up, old man? Sano wondered. But Saitou would not have answered such a stupid question. “Don’t bother with the police,” he said. “They fuck everything up. I’ll go get her out.”

“But why did he do it?” That was the question the voices all kept asking. Saitou would have asked that too, if he were here. If he were still alive. Except that Saitou wouldn’t mean it the way they did. Saitou saw through everything, and Sano knew he would know.

The light that shone on his closed eyelids was as golden as the river had been.

The river. He knew what Saitou would say if he saw him here, watching the shining water roll away beneath him endlessly in the long dusk and thinking fixedly of a rival he would never see again. It would be something to the purpose of, Ahou — because that was how it always started — why don’t you find something productive to do?

And he probably should. After all, it wasn’t as if he cared. But then the sun set completely, and the water seemed to burn for a moment and then go black, like a bright flame suddenly extinguished. And Sano wondered… had it been like that? Had the fire in Saitou’s eyes gone out that abruptly? From gold to crimson to sable in an instant, just so?

Saitou would mock him: A little fanciful, are we? But Sano couldn’t help thinking that so it must have been. Also that it was terribly inviting, such a deep black color of death. He couldn’t blame Saitou for having accepted it. The best way to go would be to flame and burn out; would Saitou have thought so too?

And perhaps now…

And then the footsteps.

Too convenient, he reflected at the thought of the circumstance and its timing. You really must have set this one up.

“…should have known it was too big for him to handle alone…” He wondered if voices had asked the same questions, made the same comments, if in perhaps more hushed tones, after Saitou’s failure. Although he noticed Kenshin had no input. Kenshin probably saw through it too; he alone knew how similar Sano’s situation had been to the one he’d described earlier that very day. He must have his guesses as to why Sano had been so foolish.

“Hey, bro, haven’t you heard of me? You’ve got Zanza on your side now!” The young man seemed to perk up at this, and didn’t mind so much the idea of leaving the police out of the business. But still he insisted on coming along too. Well, that was fine. Sano could show off a little.

His body hurt all over: bruised, he thought. Lots of heavy bruises. As soon as he woke fully, he would be able to move and figure out if he had any cuts or broken bones.

There were too many of them, and the girl was too front and central for him to get her out first and then go down fighting. He’d left behind the days when he’d refused to admit he was dangerously outnumbered, and now he knew perfectly well this was not a battle he could win.

Saitou must have known that too.

“…but I don’t understand why he…”

Yes, if Saitou were still alive, he would surely say the same. Except that he would have seen the answer to the immediate question and would be asking something a bit more profound:

There were better ways you could have chosen to be like me. Why would you want to die like I did?

And Sano would have no answer for him.

No more than for the other question Saitou would probably ask — Why did you want to die at all?

He was waking up now, slowly, finally. He must have made some noise, probably a groan at the heightening pain as consciousness approached, for the conversation whose bits and pieces had been reaching him through the haze abruptly ceased. Or perhaps more time had passed than he realized, and they’d all gone away.

He could open only one of his eyes; the other ached and stung, obviously swollen. His throat ached with dryness, so much that he could make nothing more than a croaking sound when he tried to speak.

Megumi appeared, blurry and overly bright, and gave him a little water. She spoke no word, but her eyes were like books, and what Sano read in them made his heart sink. It was more than just Why did you? — it was You shouldn’t have. As if she were at all qualified to make that judgment when she didn’t know why… but he might be imagining things.

“Sano,” Kenshin’s voice said.

Now to see if Kenshin saw through it. He didn’t always see things the way Saitou had, so maybe he couldn’t tell.

“Yeah,” Sano rasped. “Hello.”

“I’m glad you are awake,” Kenshin said.

Sano honestly couldn’t bring himself to say the same. Despite the chaos of his jumbled thoughts, being halfway conscious had been a good deal less painful than being fully so. And he didn’t like Kenshin’s tone. So the only answer he made was inarticulate and low.

“Sano, please do not do that again.” It was a tone that tried not to be hurt or reproving, and failed.

For several moments Sano was tempted to reply, “Do what, Kenshin?” as if he didn’t know perfectly well his friend had him figured out. But he had a sneaking suspicion, somehow, that pretending ignorance, forcing Kenshin to explain it to him plainly, would not make him feel much better. So finally he merely said, “I won’t.” And didn’t add, Unless another coincidence like that pops up. Actually, he tried not to admit that thought even to himself.

“Thank you,” said Kenshin softly.

That was the worst it got, but the next step down was almost less tolerable for being more protracted. Megumi, Kaoru, and Yahiko, not to mention the other friends that came to visit, were ignorant of the true depth of the circumstances, so all they could do was ask why… but that was enough.

“Let’s have a look at this thick skull of yours,” Megumi would say, sardonically pleasant, then add silently, with real darkness, “Why did you give me more work for no good reason?”

“I brought you lunch, Sanosuke!” Kaoru would chirp, turning severe with, “And don’t you say a word about how it tastes!” But her true comment was, “Why did you ruin everyone’s peace?”

“If you don’t hurry up and get better, I’m gonna move into your place,” Yahiko threatened. What he really meant was, “Why did you let me down?”

Sano pretended to need a lot more sleep than he was actually getting.

Kenshin saw through this, of course, and his ever-present and far more penetrating “Why?” was the worst of all.

Saitou hadn’t heard, then. He didn’t know. But, again, now he’d been forced by his own carelessness to think about it, Sano couldn’t decide whether this was good or bad. Did he want Saitou to know? It was too late now anyway, and what could Saitou possibly say in response? Even if he didn’t tear Sano to pieces for his foolishness, it was still… too late. A certain nausea, the same that had twisted his stomach the first time, again threatened his already-dubious physical well-being every time he considered the matter, and this as well as everything else that had happened lately made Sano doubt himself. He wasn’t as certain of the clarity of his own reflections as he would like… should he really share them with someone else, someone so… capable of hurting him… if he wasn’t sure?

He lay awake, or half-awake, meandering through pain and dreams and contemplating this question for hours in the darkness… and eventually reached the conclusion (a conclusion he perhaps should have expected and therefore reached much sooner) that some things needed to be said regardless of the outcome. Regardless of his state of mind.

Coming out with something like that, seriously saying it aloud, premeditated and deliberate, wasn’t as easily done as it was decided upon, however. Days passed before he managed to work up the requisite resolve (he couldn’t quite call it nerve, as he couldn’t quite call what held him back fear), and during that time he grew restless and agitated. It didn’t help that Saitou said little and Sano had no hint of a clue about what the response might be when he finally managed to tell him.

Eventually he forced himself out of the quiet apartment and took to the streets. He had no idea where he was going, but the impetus to movement had something to do with not wanting to see or be seen by anyone. Anyone living, that is. He felt his confession nearly ready, that it was creeping up on him, and he didn’t want to be around people when it burst out.

A field he came upon in a sparse, quiet, distant area of town beckoned him to its center, for the wind-ruffled yet empty feeling that hung about it seemed appropriate somehow. He wandered across, steps slowing in the rustling grass. Finally he stopped and took a long look all around him.

You’re more aimless than usual today, Saitou commented, and it was as good an opening as any.

“I… wanted to talk to you,” Sano admitted, feeling foolish.

You spend most of your time talking to me. Your neighbors think you’re insane.

“Well, none of them are here right now, are they? That’s kinda the point.”

Ahou.

“Why’d you just leave the other night, anyway? Didn’t even say goodbye or anything.”

Do you think I’m at your disposal? That I have nothing better to do?

“Course not. Not like I have any real idea what you do these days, but still… you… missed what I had to say.”

Hmm, what an extraordinary pity.

Sano gave a sigh, amused and exasperated. “Well, listen now, all right? Don’t go running off, or floating off, or whatever you do at this point.”

In exchange, try not to make it too boring.

Sano chose not to respond to this jab either. “Look, what I want to tell you is…” Even without having to meet an intense golden stare while making this statement, it was difficult to spit out. “You’ve changed me. You held me to your standard while you were alive — I practically had no choice but to be a better person — and even after you were dead you wouldn’t let me throw my life away. So it’s like you saved me twice. But no matter how hard I try, I can’t get to your level. The only thing I can ever really do is wish for it and want to touch it and want…” Finally, finally he came to the point. “And want you. Not like that’s possible now, I know, but at least I want you to know… I love you. And I’d kinda like to know how you feel about me back.”

There was a very long, and to Sano very tense silence. Eventually Saitou simply remarked, Hn…

“What does that mean? Is ‘I love you’ too boring, or what?”

Maybe, when you’ve said it twice before.

“What the– you did hear me then? Why didn’t you say anything?”

Saitou had no reply.

“Any chance you could stop being an asshole and say something? Right, like you could ever stop being an asshole. Why the hell do I love you, anyway? Could you at least tell me that?”

Still no answer.

“Guess it bothers you to hear me say it, huh? Well, suck it up, bastard. I love you, I love you, I love you. You hear me?” And he flung his gaze into the sky, shaking an irate, clenched fist upward. “I love you!!”

Startled by a soft noise behind him, he whirled suddenly, and found himself looking unexpectedly into the face of an uncertain Kenshin.

“Shit,” he muttered, lowering his hand and letting it go lax. He hadn’t considered how loudly he’d been talking; he hadn’t felt the need. Had Kenshin heard the whole thing? Sano must sound certifiably crazy at this point.

Such seemed to be the case, for the look in Kenshin’s eyes that the rurouni was not very well able to conceal seemed to be one of pitying horror.

“Kenshin…” he began. “Hey… this…”

“Sano,” whispered Kenshin with a minuscule shake of his head. “Sano, I am so sorry.”

“Sorry?”

It appeared Kenshin didn’t quite have words to convey his feelings or thoughts at the moment.

“Kenshin, look,” Sano said, trying to sound reasonable. “I know that sounded kindof… um, crazy… but, seriously, I’m not. It’s… it’s just something…” There wasn’t really any way to explain it, though, that wouldn’t sound just as insane as the overheard one-sided conversation must have.

“This is my fault… I never should have told you…”

“Told me what?” Sano demanded, a little impatiently. He didn’t like that expression of Kenshin’s, the one of sympathetic despair. “I’d have known he was dead soon enough when he started haunting me, wouldn’t I? It wouldn’t have mattered.”

“Sano, I never thought your liking him was a good idea. He didn’t think so either, so–”

“What, he knew??” Sano broke in. “He knew I liked him?!” The fist clenched again. “That fucking asshole,” he muttered, looking away so as not to direct his pained rage straight into Kenshin’s face. “He knew before I even knew and he didn’t say anything, and he won’t say anything now even when I fucking tell him straight up.”

“Sano… Sano, Saitou is not–”

“Don’t even go there, Kenshin. I’m not crazy. I know perfectly well nobody else can hear him. Doesn’t make me crazy. I’ve met ghosts before; doesn’t make any difference that I just hear him and don’t see him this time.”

“Sano…”

“Dammit, just leave me alone, Kenshin,” Sano commanded, a little wearily. “I’m pissed enough as it is.”

Appearing helpless and desperate, Kenshin seemed to be contemplating a variety of things to say; finally he just shook his head. “All right.” And he turned and walked away.

Days wore by without another encounter with the rurouni. Of course Sano hadn’t been around him much lately anyway, but now he didn’t even see him, walking through town, as he usually did. “Guy must really think I’m crazy,” Sano remarked on this at a mutter after a week had passed, “and he’s avoiding me now.”

You were ranting like a lunatic, was Saitou’s helpful, amused-sounding comment. Himura’s tolerance level is high, but everyone has to draw the line somewhere.

“If you goddamn heard me ranting like a lunatic, you could have answered my fucking question,” Sano protested.

Hn. He still sounded amused, but at the same time somewhat disinterested. Obviously Saitou didn’t feel like answering, and what exactly did that mean? What did it mean that he was willing to stick around, to converse with Sano at all hours of the day, to share inside jokes with him and comment carelessly on almost every aspect of Sano’s private life… but unwilling to respond to what might be the most important statement Sano had ever made, the most meaningful question he’d ever asked?

Because Sano wouldn’t like the answer? He couldn’t believe that; Saitou would not have so much consideration for him. Why, then? He didn’t understand.

And perhaps the reason Saitou didn’t answer was part of the reason Sano didn’t understand… some deficiency in him that rendered the answer as well as Saitou’s motives incomprehensible? He’d never been good enough; that almost made sense.

But of course Sano could not accept it.

He couldn’t run. Despite the fact that, figuratively, that was exactly what he was doing — running from an array of accusing eyes and pursed lips and soft voices asking endlessly why, why, why?? — he was still too weak actually to run. He thought a few more good nights’ sleep would have him up to a decent level of strength again, but he wouldn’t spend them at that quiet, accusatory clinic. So he stumbled home.

He felt sure he knew what Saitou would say if he saw him stagger into his dirty little apartment and hit the futon like he weighed a ton with a grunt to match. Well, Saitou would just call him some rude name. But if he were in a mood to elaborate, he would surely mock Sano for being so weak he couldn’t handle a little disapprobation in order to get the medical attention he needed. And Sano would insist he didn’t need any medical attention, and Saitou would probably point out the worst of his wounds and ask facetiously if they were cosmetic.

Sano couldn’t help grinning up at the ceiling a little at the thought.

Here he could sleep, for there was no interminable conversation of why‘s on the other side of consciousness to invade his dreams. Soon he would be completely well again, if left alone like this. That was all he really wanted: to be alone.

You’re lucky you didn’t get sick, then, Saitou would say. The words would be a disinterested observation, but the tone would be sarcastic. If a fever had come with those bruises of yours, you wouldn’t be able to make it on your own.

And that was true. Sano was glad he didn’t have a fever. He wouldn’t have much to say in response to that.

The passage of time eluded his comprehension. When he awoke, he couldn’t remember what part of the day it had been when he’d left the clinic, and therefore couldn’t determine how long he’d been asleep. His head still hurt. He was excessively hungry.

Forcing himself to sit up, however laborious and painful the process, he slowly checked his bandages. Some had come loose, and they could probably all do with a change. When he would have the energy to wash the used ones, though, he didn’t know. He hoped he had enough of his own to keep himself alive until then.

Saitou would certainly have something to say, on observing this, about Sano’s forethought, and Sano muttered preemptively, “Shut up…” as he lay back down. Then he contemplated, for a very long time, sitting up again. He needed to change the bandages so he wouldn’t get infected, but somehow all he could give any serious thought to was the memory of the bridge and approaching footsteps just as the sun set.

“That guy’s dead now.” He didn’t realize he was talking to Saitou until he added, “Dead as you are.”

He thought that if Saitou were feeling relatively light-hearted, he might inquire into Sano’s assignment of degrees of deadness. Otherwise he would probably just comment that most people died eventually.

“Most of the time it ain’t my fault, though.”

Maybe it is, and you’re just not aware of it, Saitou might say.

And Sano laughed quietly, painfully, at the thought of expecting any kind of comfort from that man. He fell asleep again.

How many days passed in similar manner he couldn’t tell, and probably didn’t want to. His own convalescence might have served as some type of measure — how at first even taking stock of his condition exhausted him, but eventually he was actually able to stand and move — but he did not heed it, not wanting to risk Saitou’s hypothetical derisive comments on his recovery rate.

Eventually his apartment and the heavy awareness of what he had done or hadn’t done, not to mention the why‘s in his own mind, became too oppressive, and he stumbled out for a walk despite the pain. He couldn’t bear bright sunlight just yet, so he waited until dusk; in the cool evening he found there was a sensation vaguely like freedom about escaping his empty room and moving about as if he were perfectly well in mind and body, and this almost made him able to forget or ignore his condition. Thus he walked farther than he’d intended, farther than was probably healthy, and found himself after not too long, unexpectedly and yet so appropriately, on that bridge again. He couldn’t quite say this was where it had all started, but still it fit so well to revisit this spot.

The water was now even blacker than it had been that day, its increased darkness in some ways more enticing and in some more horrific. It stretched like a shadow, a deep endless shadow you could easily blend into… or, at least, somebody with dark hair and dark clothing could. Sano would stand out, a blemish on the water, until he sank and was entirely forgotten, not by choice but because he just wasn’t good enough.

But of course Sano could not accept it. Time slipped by, however, without any possible solution occurring to him. He didn’t exactly have a history of getting likeable answers out of Saitou, and Saitou’s current state just made things more difficult.

Kenshin was around town again. Sano saw him once or twice, but avoided his eye, and Kenshin did not solicit his company. Sano didn’t regret this; he was avoiding all of his friends right now while he grew more and more agitated within himself, felt more and more helpless and trapped and just unutterably stupid. He took to going on a lot of long, aimless walks, greeting or even looking up at nobody he passed.

And then, not to his surprise but perhaps a little to his dismay, he found himself again in the field where he’d made his first deliberate confession. As he looked around and remembered that day, a frown formed slowly on his face.

Saitou, who had been rather quiet during that walk, now commented sardonically, Returning to the scene of the crime, are we?

“What crime?” Sano demanded, instantly incensed. He definitely hadn’t come here to revisit the previous conversation, as he’d yet to determine how to word what he wanted to say, hadn’t actually figured out whether he really wanted to know… but, as was or had been often the case, a statement seemingly casual on Saitou’s part was unbearably stabbing to Sano; it set him off, and, all hesitation and uncertainly flung aside, he plunged on without thinking:

“Is it so wrong I finally figured out how I feel about you? I know it was fucking stupid that it took me so long, so go ahead and mock me for that… but first you better tell me one thing straight out: what the hell do you think about me?” Trying to calm down wasn’t working. “Did we ever have a chance?” He wasn’t sure whether he sounded (or felt) more angry, sad, or confused. “And if you like me, why didn’t you ever say anything? And if you don’t, why the hell do you still hang around?”

No reply, only a tense, foreboding feeling in the air as it stilled; in no part of the field did the wind move, and the anxiety heightened as Sano continued to wait for a rejoinder that never came. It seemed to him that whatever was about to happen here would change everything — there was something dark and ominous in the stillness — but that it simply wasn’t going to happen, for better or worse, if Saitou didn’t want it to; it was Saitou’s move.

“Why is this the one thing I say that you can’t answer?” Sano burst out at last, his blood heating even further. “Anything else I say or do you’ve got some smart-ass comment on, but the one thing I really want you to respond to makes you suddenly shut up? I think it’s pretty damn important, when somebody tells you they love you, to give them an answer at least! Especially when… goddammit, Saitou, you’re fucking dead! I know you can’t hang around here forever, so at least tell me if…”

As his voice faded, thick, pensive silence again enveloped the field, and Sano’s heart-rate and desperation increased. “You set up that stupid coincidence, with the kidnappings and all,” he growled. “Almost like you wanted me to go like you did and join you; then you started hanging out around me when that didn’t work, when there’s gotta be better afterlife shit you could be doing… If you don’t care about me, why would you go to all that trouble? Why would you still be here?”

At the continued strained quiet, Sano crouched and pounded the ground in anger, sending a slight tremor out a dozen feet around him and causing the grass to ripple. “Dammit, Saitou, answer me!”

He stood straight again, staring ahead of him with wild, unblinking eyes, as if by gazing hard enough he could cause the outline he envisioned to materialize, even if in a non-corporeal form, force his will on Saitou and get his questions answered. “You can’t go forever without saying anything!” he shouted. “Do you think I’m just going to let it drop, stop bugging you about it? Saitou!!”

Into the next silence he gave a frustrated roar as he fell to his knees and slammed both fists into the ground this time. “Damn you!” he gritted out. “Damn you.” His hands opened to lie flat against the earth as his voice sank to a whisper. “Damn you… even if you fucking hate me, doesn’t it mean anything to you that I love you? Can’t you even have the decency to let me know, let me stop wondering? Are you gonna make me go forever not knowing what I mean to you, why you had to get into my head while you were alive and why you decided to haunt me now you’re dead?” His hand clenched again, clawing at the dirt as his eyes squeezed shut against tears that wanted to fly from them as his head dropped to face the ground.

For the next few moments, his ragged breaths were the only sounds to disturb the thick and sober atmosphere, until finally a slight breeze shifted the air in his direction. Startled, he drew in a gasp and opened his eyes, for it seemed he suddenly smelled cigarette smoke.

“S-saitou?” he stammered.

“Himura was right, it seems. What he thinks I can do about it, I’m not entirely sure, but when he said you’d gone completely mad, he wasn’t exaggerating.”

Sano’s eyes grew wide with disbelief, and he found he couldn’t quite get his shaking body to move, to stand as he wanted it to. So like an animal he clawed his way around on his knees to face the sound of that voice, that voice whose source he had to find, because it had come not from the hazy nothingness of the afterlife as he was accustomed to, but from just behind him at a normal human level, with normal human tone and volume.

He scrambled the one hundred and eighty long degrees, all the breath gone from his body, his mind at once numb and exploding, his gaze unblinking but faltering badly as every part of him shook except his abruptly motionless heart, to look up — up what seemed a hundred miles past despair and insanity and denial — up into the eyes of a very present, very real, very living Saitou Hajime.


Would God I could awaken!
For I dream I know not how,
And my soul is sorely shaken
Lest an evil step be taken, —
Lest the dead who is forsaken
May not be happy now.

–Edgar Allan Poe


This story, which I’ve rated , was dedicated to MsJadey because I originally discussed the idea with her and because it was just the kind of tragic and messed-up take on this pairing that she always seemed to like.

Sano didn’t feel like explaining that in repressing the awareness of the cupboard’s emptiness and going to look as if it might contain something, there was a pleasure, if not equal to eating, better at least than lying around realistically contemplating the lack of food in his possession. And therein, to great extent, lies the theme of this fic. Unhealthy and unhappy, isn’t it?

But it’s only partly the fault of this attitude of Sano’s; Kenshin and Saitou are very much to blame as well. Apparently Kenshin hasn’t yet learned his lesson — that he shouldn’t try to interfere in the Saitou/Sano thing. At least Saitou was in on the heinous plot this time. Of course, if he hadn’t been, I would have succeeded in writing a Saitou/Sano story that did not actually feature Saitou.

I commissioned a sort of illustration/concept piece for this fic of Link Worshiper:

This story is included in the Saitou & Sano Collection ebook (.zip file contains .pdf, .mobi, and .epub formats).


Rainfall

I’m sitting on the edge of the porch, and with the angle of the wind, the storm is coming down right into my face. Hell, I’m looking up into it, and only closing my eyes when I seriously can’t stand it.

He just got home, I think. I should really go inside to him. Pretty sad when you don’t even welcome your own lover home, isn’t it? But I don’t want to talk to him. I don’t want to see him. I get like this sometimes… it’ll pass. Sex will help… though that requires me to actually go in there…

He and I have been together for a long time now… ever since Kenshin got married. That same night, actually, was our first time. But he wanted me for a long time before that. Good to see someone has what he wants, I guess. I should add it’s good to have exactly what I need, too… but in this kind of mood, the kind where I’d rather sit out in the rain than go in and pretend any more, I just can’t.

He’s perfect for me. He’s strong, he’s energetic, he’s smart, he’s loyal, he’s good. He keeps me in line and inspires me to be a better person. He always knows exactly the right thing to say to me at any given moment, especially if I’m being stupid or stubborn; he’s unfailingly logical and practical. Sometimes I hate him for that. But I respect him too much to really hate him. I like him too much.

But I don’t love him.

Fuck knows I’ve tried… tried my damnedest to give up, to forget, to move on, to let this be the perfect match it should be, that he wants it to be… but giving up, forgetting, and moving on are a few things I’ve always been particularly bad at. And someone else was there first.

The back door slides open and he steps onto the porch. “What are you doing out here?” he wonders.

I look over at him, and I can’t think of anything to say. I may hate him sometimes, but I would never want to hurt him. Not like that, anyway; not that much; not anymore.

“Sano, are you all right?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I finally manage. “Rain’s just a little depressing, is all.”

He rolls his eyes. “Then don’t sit out in it, ahou.” And he gestures for me to come to him.

See what I said? Logical, practical, always knows what to say to me, even if he might not realize the decision he’s telling me to make is about more than just the weather. If the rain’s depressing, don’t sit out in it, ahou: it’s that simple. And I bet it would be just that for him: a decision, and a simple one. If the rain’s depressing, make the choice not to sit out in it, not to be depressed by it. He has that kind of will power. As for me… well, I thought I was strong, but…

“Yeah, you’re right,” I reply, standing up and shaking water from my hair and stepping toward his outstretched hand.

As for me…

I accompany my lover inside.

Even if I don’t sit out in the rain, that doesn’t stop it from falling.



Geez, what a sad story. It’s like the end of He Can Be Taught went horribly wrong. I wrote it because imillien beat me at the Quote-Guessy Game and requested “Sano in relationship with Saitou but not necessary in love with him. Like sometimes we are with people we know are good for us and we respect them but not always in love with them.” I’ve rated this fic .

This story is included in the Saitou & Sano Collection ebook (.zip file contains .pdf, .mobi, and .epub formats).


RKAIM

You have just entered room “Kaoru’s Chat Room.”

Now see how many conversations you can follow at once.




Sexy Fox Bitch – Instant Message
Kenjutsu Komachi: Megumi-san!!!
Sexy Fox Bitch: What’s up, girl?

Kenjutsu Komachi:
same as always

Sexy Fox Bitch:
You mean Ken-san isn’t paying attention to you?

Kenjutsu Komachi:
:O

Kenjutsu Komachi:
Shut up

Sexy Fox Bitch:
ho ho ho

Kenjutsu Komachi:
you’re in Aizu so you it’s not like he’s paying attention to you either

Sexy Fox Bitch:
*sighs* You’re right :

Sexy Fox Bitch:
But it’s OK, because I may be hooking up with a guy here

Kenjutsu Komachi:
That’s great! *hugs*

Sexy Fox Bitch:
He’s a friend of the family. He IS a little older than me, but I don’t mind…

Kenjutsu Komachi:
awesome!! older guys are the best!!!

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!! – Instant Message
Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
*glomps*

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
Kaoru-san!!!!!

Kenjutsu Komachi:
Hold on, let me start a chat

Chat Room – Kaoru’s Chat Room

You have just entered room “Kaoru’s Chat Room”
Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!! has entered the room
Sexy Fox Bitch has entered the room


Kenjutsu Komachi:
Now we’re all together!

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
*waves* HI!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Sexy Fox Bitch:
How are you, Misao-chan?

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
Great!! How are you?

Kenjutsu Komachi:
:D I’m eating leftover rice-balls that Kenshin made!!

Sexy Fox Bitch:
Fine… Kaoru-san, it’s no surprise that you’d prefer even a leftover rice-ball Kenshin made to one of your own

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
lol, Sexy!!

Kenjutsu Komachi:
Well, at least he makes rice-balls for ME

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
Ouch!!

Sexy Fox Bitch:
Let’s invite him to chat

Kenjutsu Komachi:
what he’s on? oh he is!

Sexy Fox Bitch:
…inviting…

Kenjutsu Komachi:
No, I will!

Sexy Fox Bitch:
Too late

Rurouni has entered the room


Kenjutsu Komachi:
Kenshin!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Sexy Fox Bitch:
Ken-san!

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
*glomps* Himura!!!!!!

Rurouni:
My… I seem to be very popular here!

Sexy Fox Bitch:
-snuggles Rurouni- Of course you are! You’re the only mane we know with red hair!

Sexy Fox Bitch:
*man

Kenjutsu Komachi:
*pulls out shinai* hey, bitch…!

Rurouni:
Umm… I’m inviting Sano in, OK?

Sexy Fox Bitch:
-readies scalpel- What is it, Komachi dear?

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!!!:
Yay, Kenkaya!!!

Kenjutsu Komachi:
*laughs at scalpel* I jsut wanted you to come over here

Kenkaya Zanza has entered the room


Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
*glomps Zanza* Hi!!!!!!!!!!

Kenkaya Zanza:
feeling outnumbered by women, rurouni?

Kenkaya Zanza:
hi aoshi’s girl

Sexy Fox Bitch:
-holds onto Rurouni- I’d rather sta yover here, thanks

Sexy Fox Bitch:
*stay over

Rurouni:
Yes, Sano, I was

Rurouni:
Oro?!

Kenjutsu Komachi:
Misao-chan, can I borrow your kunai?

Super Samurai 94783 has entered the room


Kenkaya Zanza:
i’m afraid to get online cause some sycopath is stalking me

Super Samurai 94783:
Hi, everyone

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
lol *hands Komachi kunai*

Rurouni:
Who’s stalking you, Sano?

Kenjutsu Komachi:
*holds up kunai* well, Bitch, you can stay there if you want…

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
There’s nothing wrong with stalking people online!!!!!

Kenkaya Zanza:
i dont know if he’s relaly stalking me, but i see him everywher and he’s so rude

Kenkaya Zanza:
yes there is aoshi’s girl what the hell are you talking about?????????

Sexy Fox Bitch:
Ho ho ho ho ho ho ho, you can’t throw those!

Rurouni:
But who is this stalker, Sano? Maybe I know him.

Amber Wolf has entered the room


Kenkaya Zanza:
WHAT THE FUCK THAT’S HIM WHO THE HELL INVITED HIM??????????

Kenjutsu Komachi:
what do you mean, I can’t throw them? Sano, get over it!

Super Samurai 94783:
This is my friend Amber Wolf, Kaoru you don’mind do you?

Super Samurai 94783:
don’t

Amber Wolf:
I do seem to know how to make an entrance… thank you for the all-caps greeting, Zanza

Rurouni:
Oro? Zanza, this is your stalker?

Sexy Fox Bitch:
You’re such a terrible shot, Komachi, you’ll hit Rurouni if you throw those!

Kenkaya Zanza:
YES

Super Samurai 94783:
Wolf, are you stalking Zanza?

Rurouni:
Please don’t throw kunai at me….

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
I’m an online stalker too!!! Good to meet you, Amber Wolf!!! ^.^

Amber Wolf:
Stalking, is it?

Kenjutsu Komachi:
this is a chat room, so my aim is improved like you won’t believe!

Kenkaya Zanza:
amber wolf, i think u must be gay

Rurouni:
Aoshi’s Girl, I think you are maybe too hyper to be a real stalker.

Super Samurai 94783:
Speaking of gay…

Amber Wolf:
Zanza, I think you must be mentally retarded.

Rainbow Scythe has entered the room


Sexy Fox Bitch:
-laughs- Will you risi it, though?

Sexy Fox Bitch:
*risk

Rainbow Scythe:
Hi, all!! :: glomps Super Samurai ::

Rurouni:
I can see why you don’t like this ‘stalker,’ Zanza!

Kenjutsu Komachi:
hi, Rainbow! you’re Yahiko’s friend, aren’t you?

Kenkaya Zanza:
amber wolf is such a bastard

Rainbow Scythe:
:: smiles seductively at Super Samurai :: Oh, I’m much more than just his friend!

Kenjutsu Komachi:
Bitch, I have a new idea. *grabs Zanza’s sword* now I can reach you from here without throwing anything!

Super Samurai 94783:
What?! Rainbow, you’re going to make these poeple think I’m as gay as you are!

Kenkaya Zanza:
what, kenjutsu, you’re grabbing my sword? i thought it was rurouni you liked!

Super Samurai 94783:
people

Amber Wolf:
Super Samurai, do you mean to say that you *aren’t* gay?

Sexy Fox Bitch:
Oh ho ho ho!

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
lol, Amber Wolf!

Rurouni:
Oro??

Super Samurai 94783:
What?!?!?

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
roflol, Zanza!

Rainbow Scythe:
:: pouts :: Well, do you mind if I invite my REAL boyfriend in, then?

Kenjutsu Komachi:
Zanza, you’re an idiot! Rainbow, I don’t mind.

King Of Hell has entered the room


Kenjutsu Komachi:
Bitch, let me rephrase. *grabs Zanza’s ZANBATOU*

Queen Of Hell has entered the room


King Of Hell:
I found you guys again! Did you think you could have a chat without me?

Kenkaya Zanza:
who the HELL r u 2?

Sexy Fox Bitch:
You don’t scary me with that thing… you can barely lift it!

Rainbow Scythe:
:: glomps King of Hell, kisses ::

Sexy Fox Bitch:
*scare

Super Samurai 94783:
LOL, Zanza!

Queen Of Hell:
Don’t talk to him like that! Rainbow Scythe, get off him!!!!

Kenjutsu Komachi:
Zanza, have you never meet the King and Queen of Hell before?

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
I wish Aoshi-sama would get online…

Kenkaya Zanza:
what kinds of names is King of Hell and Quen of Hell?

Rainbow Scythe:
:: laughs at Queen of Hell :: Your dress is falling off, hon.

Kenjutsu Komachi:
well, it IS a stupid kind of sword, but it’s the only heavy weapon in the room!

King Of Hell:
What kind of a name is “Zanza?”

Kenkaya Zanza:
a fucking cool one!!! kenjutsu, are you inslting my zanbatou???

Rainbow Scythe:
:: laughs again and tosses Kenjutsu his scythe :: Look out for the ball-and-chain!

King Of Hell:
And if I’m really the king of hell?

Kenkaya Zanza:
why would u call yourself what u really r? kinda goes against the point of being online

Amber Wolf:
Yes, we couldn’t do that…. then Zanza would be “Complete Idiot.”

Kenjutsu Komachi:
*catches the scythe* wait, are you Kamatari?

Queen Of Hell:
Amber Wolf, LMAO!

Kenkaya Zanza:
shut the fuck up, wolf

Amber Wolf:
Or perhaps “Constantly Intoxicated.” And Kenjutsu seems remarkably quick at picking up on things.

Rainbow Scythe:
:: blows kiss, winks :: Of course I am!

King Of Hell:
Wolf, good call.

Kenjutsu Komachi:
hey! how was I supposed to know?

Sexy Fox Bitch:
-snuggles Rurouni-

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
*whines* I wonder where he is….!

Kenkaya Zanza:
then wolf would be ‘ugly bastard.

Amber Wolf:
“Unable to Type” …Kenjutsu, I think “Rainbow Scythe” was somewhat of a giveaway.

Rurouni:
Oro?

King Of Hell:
roflol

Rainbow Scythe:
Good idea, Sexy…. :: snuggles King of Hell ::

Super Samurai 94783:
LOL! Stop picjing on Zanza!

Super Samurai 94783:
pickin

Kenjutsu Komachi:
Samurai, he deserves it. Who do you think is paying for his internet connection? Besides, Amber’s picking on me too. Bitch, don’t make me come over there!

Super Samurai 94783:
picking

Queen Of Hell:
*glowers at Rainbow Scythe* You’ve got three seconds to get off my man, you queer pervert!

Amber Wolf:
“Cognitively Defunct”

Kenkaya Zanza:
for your information, i’m at katsu’s place

Sexy Fox Bitch:
-beckons, hugs Rurouni tighter- Come right over, tanuki-girl!

King Of Hell:
Amber Wolf, I like the way you think.

Rainbow Scythe:
:: grins, feels up King of Hell ::

Kenjutsu Komachi:
Zanza, mooching off of HIS connection? *runs, attacks Bitch with scythe*

Queen Of Hell:
*counts:* THREE Hey, Constantly Intoxicated…

Kenkaya Zanza:
DON’T CALL ME ANY OF THAT CRAP

Sexy Fox Bitch:
-ducks behind Rurouni, starts mixing chemicals-

Rurouni:
Oro??? Don’t attack me, Kenjutsu Komachi!

Super Samurai 94783:
Aoshi’s Girl Forever, do you have Aoshi’s other address?

Kenjutsu Komachi:
*ducks around Rurouni to find Sexy Fox Bitch* don’t try to hide!

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
OTHER ADDRESS??!?!?!?!?!??!?!??!?!??!?!??!?!?!??!?!

Kenkaya Zanza:
heh, I can balance the mouse on one finger

Sexy Fox Bitch:
-throws acid in Kejutsu’s face-

Amber Wolf:
Thank you, your majesty. *bows* And Zanza, you never cease to fail to amaze me.

Rainbow Scythe:
:: kisses King of Hell repeatedly ::

King Of Hell:
Amber Wolf, you don’t have to mock me like that… I really AM the king of hell… *is losing patience with Rainbow Scythe*

Queen Of Hell:
*counts:* TWO

Kenkaya Zanza:
wolf, can U balance the mouse on one finger, huh? huh?

Kenjutsu Komachi:
*dodges the acid, strikes with scythe* (and you spelled my name wrong)

Super Samurai 94783:
Yeah, it’s Midnight_Okashira@angelfire.com

Amber Wolf:
Is there nothing better to do in Hell than this? Zanza, if I were so pathetic as to attempt to best you in such matters, I certainly wouldn’t admit it in a public chat.

Sexy Fox Bitch:
-dodges the strike, prepares a syringe- (oh, I did… ‘Komachi’ is much easier to type)

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
OMG, THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!!

Rainbow Scythe:
:: starts to disrobe King of Hell ::

Rurouni:
Ladies…. um….

Queen Of Hell:
ALL RIGHT, YOU FAGGOT! I’VE HAD ABOUT ENOUGH OF THIS!!!

King Of Hell:
Kamatari, I think that’s enough.

Kenkaya Zanza:
fuck u, wolf

Super Samurai 94783:
Yeah, he’s got an Angelfire website too, didn’t you know?

Rainbow Scythe:
I guess it’s time to kill Yumi at last! :: looks around for scythe :: (lol, Zanza, yes! you should! yummy!)

Kenjutsu Komachi:
*attacks Bitch again* wait, Rainbow, do you need this back?

Amber Wolf:
Rainbow Scythe, was that an invitation?

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
OMG OMG OMG OMG!!! WHERE IS IT?????

King Of Hell:
*sighs* She’s already dead, you idiot. She can’t fight anyway. *draws sword*

Super Samurai 94783:
http://www.angelfire.com/shinomori/okashira/.

Rainbow Scythe:
:: kisses Amber Wolf :: I was just thinking it would be fun to watch. Kenjutsu, yes, please. King Of Hell… if I can beat you, will you go out with me?

Super Samurai 94783:
Minus the .

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
looking… Thank you so much!!! *glomps Yahiko*

Kenkaya Zanza:
rainbow i can’t believe u just did that!!!

Kenjutsu Komachi:
*returns the scythe to Rainbow*

Sexy Fox Bitch:
-jumps on Komachi while she’s not looking, injects her-

Rurouni:
Oro?

Amber Wolf:
Rainbow Scythe, I did NOT ask you to kiss me.

King Of Hell:
And if I can beat YOU, will you leave me alone?

Super Samurai 94783:
No prob.

Amber Wolf:
King Of Hell, I suggest that if you can defeat him he should transfer his affections to Cognitively Defunct.

Kenjutsu Komachi:
*rips needle out of arm* what the hell was that?

Kenkaya Zanza:
WHAT THE FUCK?!?

Rainbow Scythe:
:: winks at Zanza :: Hey, that’s a good idea! I get a boyfriend either way!

Sexy Fox Bitch:
You just look so tense, Komachi… I thought you could use a sedactive.

King of Hell:
Once again, Amber Wolf, I like the way you think.

Sexy Fox Bitch:
*sedative

Kenjutsu Komachi:
I need a weapon! Somebody give me a weapon!

Kenkaya Zanza:
NO

Rainbow Scythe:
Yay! :: dances ::

Amber Wolf:
I would, Kenjutsu, but I’m afraid you’d accidentally hurt someone important.

Queen of Hell:
For god’s sake, Rainbow, stop dancing.

Super Samurai 94783:
LOL, Wolf

King of Hell:
Amber Wolf, the only important people in here are well-capable of defending themselves.

Rurouni:
Kenjutsu, Fox, why are you two fighting anyway?

Kenkaya Zanza:
I M NOT A PRIZE FOR U RAINBOY SCYTHE

Rainbow Scythe:
All right, here we go! :: attacks King of Hell :: (Rainboy, Zanza? that’s a pretty good name for me!)

Amber Wolf:
You do have a point, your majesty, but she might also accidentally destroy the weapon while she was at it.

King of Hell:
*easily evades Rainbow Scythe’s clumsy attack*

Sexy Fox Bitch:
Rurouni, if you don’t know, I don’t think either of uss will explain it to you. And you know you can call me Sexy, right?

Sexy Fox Bitch:
*us

Kenjutsu Komachi:
Amber, just give me your sword before I kick you out of my chat!!

Queen of Hell:
Kenjutsu, I have a tantou you could use…

Rainbow Scythe:
Ah, but don’t forget that the ball will swing and strike you even if you evade the attack!

Kenkaya Zanza:
she just calle du Amber

Sexy Fox Bitch:
-snuggles Rurouni-

Kenjutsu Komachi:
Thanks, Queen, but not enough range. I want Amber’s sword.

Kenkaya Zanza:
Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber

Amber Wolf:
Zanza, what is so interesting about that word?

King of Hell:
*cuts the ball off Rainbow Scythe’s chain*

Kenjutsu Komachi:
BITCH!

Rurouni:
Oro

Kenkaya Zanza:
cause it’s a girl’s name

Sexy Fox Bitch:
Yes?

Super Samurai 94783:
LOL, Zanza

Rainbow Scythe:
No! Not my ball and chain!! :: attacks King of Hell again ::

Amber Wolf:
Hmm, you’re right.

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
YAHIKO >.<

Kenkaya Zanza:
Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber

Kenjutsu Komachi:
GET

Kenjutsu Komachi:
OFF

King of Hell:
*dodges again, makes sword flame*

Super Samurai 94783:
What, Aoshi’s girl?

Sexy Fox Bitch:
Ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho!! Do you really mean that, Komachi??

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
WEASELS AND THEIR NATURAL PREDATORS?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!

Kenkaya Zanza:
Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber

Kenjutsu Komachi:
NOT LIKE HTAT

Kenjutsu Komachi:
THAT

Rainbow Scythe:
I knew you were as flaming as I am! Hee! :: attacks ::

Amber Wolf:
That’s getting annoying, Zanza.

Sexy Fox Bitch:
Ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho!

Kenjutsu Komachi:
Zanza stop that

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
IS THIS A JOKE DO YOU THINK IT’S SO FUNNY TO SEND ME TO A WEBSITE ABOUT THAT WHAT THE HELL IS YOUR PROBLEM YOU LITTLE BRAT *THROWS 999999 KUNAI AT YAHIKO AND BEATS HIM UP*

Queen of Hell:
Not funny, Rainbow.

Kenkaya Zanza:
Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber

Sexy Fox Bitch:
-kisses Rurouni-

King of Hell:
*slices Rainbow Scythe to pieces*

Super Samurai 94783:
Hey, Aoshi’s girl, I never looked at the site just sent you to it! It’s Aoshi’s damn website, not mine!! *beats Aoshi’s girl with shinai*

Amber Wolf:
*stabs Zanza*

Kenjutsu Komachi:
BITCH I will fight you with my bare hands!!

Kenkaya Zanza:
WHAT u can’t stab me!! i’ll kick your ass with my ZANBATOU

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
DIE, YAHIKO!!!!!

Kenjutsu Komachi:
*attacks Bitch*

Rainbow Scythe:
Hey!

Amber Wolf:
*kills Zanza*

King of Hell:
*sets fire to Rainbow Scythe’s corpse*

Kenkaya Zanza:
WHAT

Rurouni:
ORO?!

This program has performed an illegal operation and will be shut down


Originally this was going to be a graphic fic, but it was too much of a pain in the ass to make, so it ended up just prose. The one thing I regret about that is that in the graphic version, you got to see Aoshi’s screen name — “Not Misao’s Man” — on the list of Kaoru’s contacts that weren’t signed on.

Over the years since this was first posted, many people have been under the mistaken impression that this is an actual transcript from a chat where various people were casually role-playing RK characters. While this is flattering to me (sort of), it’s not the case. I wrote this. The typos, stylistic differences, and idiocy are all intentional. If it feels like a real chat, I win.

I’ve rated this story . What do you think of it?

This story is included in the Rurouni Kenshin Collection ebook.



Just Ten More Minutes

…these last minutes seemed to drag by like the long years of eternity.

A young woman is unbearably impatient.


Just ten more minutes.

It was such a hot, beautiful day. Waiting was hot, but waiting was not beautiful. At least there were only ten more minutes, which was something to be able to say after the many days and hours. Still, these last minutes seemed to drag by like the long years of eternity. She drummed her fingers nervously, pressing her ear to the ground to catch the vibrations as each fingertip made contact with floor so close beside her face. Ten… more… minutes…

Araki had been so excited to go to the fair — begged and begged for days when the news of its coming had hit town. Had, in fact, begged too much.

Nobody liked her now.

She was so impatient to get going, she almost screamed. Seven minutes left.

And what a fair! The guards were out in force, naturally, so there was no loitering. Everyone who was not buying and selling was just staring. Araki had been so eager to see it all.

She wanted to be the one staring. She would be staring soon. Five more minutes. Bubbling with joy at the thought, she grinned and looked around impatiently, ceasing her nervous drumming for just a bit. Then she sighed.

The endless begging really had been too much, hadn’t it?

She had crossed the line from aggravating to being seriously in the wrong. Still, there was no reason to feel this guilty, right? Everyone had wanted to kill Araki after about an hour’s complaining that chores too look long and they should leave for the fair now.

Everyone had wanted to kill Araki. Some of them, their patience worn out with the endless talk, talk, talk about the fair, had even threatened to.

What reason could they have to wish her dead?

Maybe they felt differently now, she reflected as she lay, silent and impatient. Two minutes.

She turned to gaze up at the ceiling. She couldn’t help the increasing pace of her heart as she counted down the last seconds. The huge clock, out there in the town square where the fair was taking place, began the lesser chimes. Her ears strained as the last seconds ding-donged away, strained and hungered for the eventual twelve notes — she couldn’t remember whether the strike of the hour was the highest or the lowest tone the clock possessed. Twelve, eleven, ten — ah, it was the lowest! — six, five, four — ah, high noon! The reverberations of the deep tolling faded. Finally! Finally! Finally!

The hooded guards arrived on cue. “Any last words?” one of them asked.

She shrugged. “It was Araki’s fault,” she said, briskly stepping out between them. “If he hadn’t begged and complained so much, I wouldn’t have killed him.”


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