As the Years Go Up in Smoke
Slow footsteps climbed the hill toward a row of houses neat to the point of fussiness, plodded toward their destination beneath a heart heavy with memories and emotions. Kenshin’s pace grew more and more sluggish with every passing moment until it seemed he would never reach the one he sought, never arrive where he wanted to be — an interesting physical representation of an ongoing spiritual condition. Though the weather was fine, the dawning day seemed harsh.
He raised his eyes, straight into the sun that seemed to hover just at the top of the hill, partially blinding him and almost totally obscuring the tall young man that stood looking down at him, motionless, from the side of the street just past the walk leading from one of those fine, distasteful little houses.
“And let me guess what you want,” Saitou said, sounding amused.
“Stay away from him,” Kenshin commanded, the dark tone in his voice seeping into his demeanor and causing him to grip the hilt of his sword overtightly.
“Sanosuke is hardly your son, Himura.”
“But he is my friend. I will not allow you to make him your mistress.”
Saitou raised a casual eyebrow. “To have a mistress, one must first have more than a simple business relationship with one’s wife.”
“Stay away from him,” Kenshin reiterated, shifting. His eyes had gradually narrowed and begun to gleam.
“So this is all it takes to push you to the other side? I should have thought of this before; it would have been a good deal less trouble to molest the Kamiya woman instead of staging that ridiculous fight.”
Kenshin’s fist whitened on his hilt, his entire body stiffening. “You bastard…”
“That was a joke,” replied Saitou evenly. “I am not, as you seem to think, a rapist or a playboy. I simply find it amusing that the very thought of my touching your pretty friend makes you so angry.”
Kenshin struggled for calm, recognizing that Saitou had, in fact, been joking about molesting Kaoru and that his ire wouldn’t get him anywhere. “I will not see him hurt by you,” he said at last. “He has not been the same since we came back; I don’t know what is wrong, but I will not see him hurt again.”
Saitou’s brows twitched downward, and for the first time since Kenshin’s appearance here, he seemed to be taking the conversation seriously. In a quiet, level tone he answered, “No, you won’t see him hurt. Because I won’t allow it. No one is ever going to hurt him again.” After a moment his customary mocking expression returned and he added, “But that’s probably what’s been bothering you all along — the idea of him being with someone who can actually protect him, instead of just talking about protecting him. Poor, useless Battousai.”
Kenshin started forward a few steps, and inches of his sword showed above the sheath’s end before he managed to stop himself.
“Oh, are you going to draw on me now? One would almost think you had some interest in him yourself.” With a disdainful sound Saitou turned and started to walk away.
Battousai’s voice went utterly flat. “Stay away from him, or I’ll kill you.”
Saitou half turned, giving a short laugh. “Good boy,” he said.
Kenshin shook his head as he reached the top of the hill and faced his friend. Forcing a smile he said, “Good morning, Sano!”
Appearing mildly surprised, “What are you doing here?” Sano wondered.
Kenshin shrugged. “I came to see you.”
“You never came to see me here before.” With more or less friendly suspicion Sano looked down at Kenshin, reaching an idle hand inside his gi to scratch the faint pink scar across his stomach and chest. At this movement, Kenshin glanced aside, biting his lip. Abruptly every trace of friendliness dissipated as Sano, his hand clenching into a fist and his face contorting into a glare, protested at a growl, “Dammit, Kenshin, get over it! I’ve fucking forgiven you already, all right?!”
Kenshin laughed lightly, falsely, and turned briefly to regard the houses behind the younger man. “You are going out?”
Sano’s scowl flattened into an expression less angry and more irritated. “Yeah, I’m going out. Did you come to chaperone me around town; is that the idea?”
Kenshin started back down the hill again, saying nothing for several moments, trusting Sano would follow. As Sano did so, joining him a few paces later, Kenshin finally answered. “Saitou sent me a note. He asked me to find you and come to the station.”
Sano brightened visibly, despite doing his best not to show it. “Did he say why?”
“He wants to ask us some questions relating to a new case,” replied Kenshin shortly.
Where Sano couldn’t hide his grin, Kenshin was looking stiffly forward. Observing the firm set of his friend’s jaw, Sano began to get annoyed again. “You know, Kenshin, I’ve forgiven you for this–” he gestured at the mark on his stomach– “but not for being such a prick. If you don’t get over this, I swear I’m gonna…” He clenched a fist, but couldn’t think of what, exactly, he was gonna do.
Kenshin looked over at him with a wan smile. “I am truly sorry,” he said, “but I don’t know if I can ever accept this. I know he has been keeping you from coming to see us.”
Sano flushed. “That’s not true! He’s never said a thing! I’ve been doing police stuff with him, and then I helped Tokio-san move houses, and… and… I’ve spent a lot of time just with him, and…”
“Sano, there is no need to make excuses.”
Sano subsided, seeing he wasn’t going to be believed no matter what he said.
“He is going to hurt you, Sano.”
“I’m sorry you think so, Kenshin.”
Saitou turned the paper over and over in his hand. He wasn’t usually given to fidgeting like that, but, despite the somewhat serious nature of the message and the difficulty he was having with his new case, his mind had been transported elsewhere almost against his will: he too was remembering a conversation between himself and a certain former assassin regarding Sagara Sanosuke, and he was not reliving it with pleasure. Who would ever have thought Himura could make himself so obnoxious at this point, in the Meiji era?
The words on the paper rotated again and again, and as Chou anxiously watched the other man he tried to read them. …know who you really are… …going to burn down… …face me man-to-man… …7:00…
“Uh, boss…” Based on precedent, Chou feared Saitou would snap at him if he was too annoying about this, but he felt he needed to know. “Any orders?”
Shaking his head free of memories for the moment, Saitou looked over at him. “Yes. Five men — preferably some with brains — down to wait by that inn near the docks at 6:30. Have this idiot brought in.”
“You’re not going to accept his challenge?”
“The war is over.” Saitou’s narrowed eyes rolled. “I have more important things to do than rehash its details with some chaos-craving ex-patriot.”
Chou nodded and stepped out of the office to issue the command.
Saitou took a long drag from the cigarette in his hand, setting the note aside and regarding once again the list in front of him. Somehow he just couldn’t keep his mind focused on the names and accompanying details. Normally he wasn’t this easily distracted, but sending that message to Himura had started him remembering things.
Saitou gestured to the fallen Battousai. “If you’ll carry him, Shinomori,” he requested, struggling to keep his voice from shaking. It wasn’t that his wounds were overwhelming, but they nearly became so when added to the sight of… of… “I’ll bring the boy.” And he bent over him.
The tacky outfit was white no longer, for where it was not burned entirely through, blood stained it nearly in its entirety. Even unconscious, Sano cradled one fist in his other hand, and his face was twisted into an expression Saitou had never thought to see there: a mixture of disillusionment, terror, and rage. What it meant he did not know, for Sano had been unconscious when he’d entered.
He hadn’t been able to help himself from immediately seeking out that form as he’d burst through the door. If he had, perhaps his attempt on Shishio’s life would have been successful. Certainly the sight had made him attack with more anger than he’d intended, which might have blinded him to the obvious… but he hadn’t been able to restrain himself. So helpless, lying there wounded…! Saitou had felt compelled to exact vengeance. No one could hurt Sagara Sanosuke when he was around and get away with it.
That had been, of course, the moment he realized he was in love.
Now, as he knelt and slid his arms under the unconscious form, he felt like shedding tears into the spreading blood. Why didn’t Sano wake up and say something stupid to reassure him? But he mustn’t let his weakness show — Shinomori was still a potential enemy, after all — so he stood and turned. He worried a bit at the lightness of his burden, but only pulled the young man closer to himself and headed for the stairs and the exit.
He couldn’t feel morose when just having been accosted by that beloved voice. Looking up, he automatically stubbed out his cigarette into the nearly full ash tray at his side and rose. Completely ignoring Himura, who was staring kodachi at him, he met his lover in the middle of the room and kissed him gently on the forehead. It would have been nice to tease Battousai by showing him one of their more vigorous and involved kisses, but Sano wouldn’t let Saitou’s mouth anywhere near his when he’d just been smoking.
Saitou got down to business. “In Shishio’s fortress, there was at least an hour’s time during which I was not in your presence. I need to know anything Shishio or any of his servants might have said to either of you during that time.”
Sano’s brows lowered, almost quaveringly Saitou thought, and instead of answering he strode to the window and threw it open. “It smells like smoke in here,” he said, waving a hand in front of his face. “I’ll let Kenshin go first.” And with that he made for the door.
Inwardly Saitou sighed. Leaving me alone with your aggravating friend, Sano? I’ll get you for that later. But, “All right,” was all he said aloud. He knew Sano wouldn’t stay in the room until the smoke smell was gone anyway, and there was no use arguing.
As the door shut behind Sano, Saitou and Kenshin stood still for a long moment, looking at one another, each watching a memory in the other’s eyes.
“It must be time for our long-anticipated battle.”
“I told you to stay away from Sano.” Kenshin’s sakabatou gleamed in the light of the rising sun.
“And I as good as told you I think you’re a fool, and am not likely to do anything you say.”
Saitou turned to face him fully, eyes gleaming. “I’ll consider this a continuation of our battle in the Kamiya dojo,” he said softly. “So if you want to die, say that again.”
Kenshin did not falter or hesitate. “Draw.”
Saitou did not underestimate his opponent. Although he was confident in his own superiority, he knew Kenshin had during his time in Kyoto acquired at least two new moves Saitou had seen only once. So he watched him as closely as anyone he’d ever fought. Although he’d never had anything personal against Kenshin, he’d always wanted to finish this fight — and the fact that Kenshin was trying to take Sano away from him made it that much easier.
They were a whirl of motion too fast for the eye of any but another seasoned swordsman to follow. Although they exchanged no words, their mutual intents were evident in each blow that was struck, and Saitou could feel Kenshin growing more and more wild as the moments passed. Battousai was beginning to surface; was it because of the intensity of the fight, or the intensity of his negative feelings toward the relationship he was trying to destroy?
But the outcome of the battle was nothing either of them had expected. Really, Saitou should have insisted they fight in a different spot; doing this outside his house was just stupid. In some ways, that made it his fault, didn’t it?
“What the fuck are you guys doing?”
“Stay back, Sano,” the two combatants commanded at once.
“If you’re doing this because of me, I’ll never talk to either of you again!” Sano yelled, running forward.
Saitou would have believed Himura more on top of things. He still had two steps in which he could stop himself; certainly for someone of his skill level, that was enough. Saitou halted his own charge, mouthing Sano’s name in concern, as Battousai took step one. Time slowed. Step two, the unexpected left. Saitou couldn’t move fast enough. The sword came free of the sheath.
Hiten Mitsurugiryuu Amakakeru Ryuu no Hirameki. Straight into Sano’s chest.
“I hate you,” Saitou murmured.
Kenshin looked at the floor. “About Shishio,” he said, making no defense.
Saitou sighed and returned to his desk. He hadn’t had anything personal against Kenshin, up until that day. Now he couldn’t stand the sight of him, of this man that had allowed himself to hurt Saitou’s beloved. He’d truly believed Battousai’s skills were greater than that; he’d obviously been wrong. “Well?” he questioned.
“With Shinomori Aoshi, I spoke of the Oniwabanshuu. Seta Soujirou informed us that the rest of the Juppongatana had failed in their attack on the Aoiya, after which we discussed the Shukuchi and Shishio’s theories on life and death. He also mentioned something Senkaku had said to him about me.”
This was going nowhere. “And with Shishio?”
“With Shishio…” Kenshin’s face had hardened as he thought back to that battle. “Shishio ranted about the state of the nation and his inhuman philosophies about the survival of the fittest.”
“Not so bad a philosophy,” Saitou murmured. Then more loudly he asked, “But no one said anything specific to you about Shishio’s organization or connections?”
Kenshin searched his memory for a moment. “No.”
Really, Saitou should be grateful that his enemy was taking the trouble to try to help him out like this, but all he could feel for the man in front of him was loathing. Kenshin had hurt Sano, and Saitou could never forgive him. He nodded and stood. “Thank you,” he forced himself to say.
“May I ask what this is about?”
“The Rengoku,” Saitou replied shortly.
“You are trying to find out who sold it to him.”
Again Saitou nodded. “Send Sano in on your way out.”
Kenshin’s fists clenched, but with apparent effort he said nothing as he turned and opened the door.
Presently Sano appeared. It was a moment similar to the one Saitou had shared with Himura as for long seconds they looked into each other’s eyes and recalled a memory.
“So what’s a big, important policeman-government-spy-person doing out here in the middle of the night?” Sano’s eyes sparkled with starlight and the effects of sake as he spoke.
“Can’t big, important policeman-government-spy-people take walks too?” Saitou asked softly, wanting nothing more than to stare into those eyes for the rest of his life.
“Maybe, but it sure seems strange how much I’ve run into this particular one lately.”
Now was as good a time as any, Saitou decided, and taking a step closer he placed a gloved hand on the boy’s shoulder. “You’re not very quick, are you?”
Sano stood frozen, looking up at the officer’s face as it drew nearer. “I just didn’t want to get my hopes up,” he replied, and it was almost a whisper.
“You can get whatever you want up now,” Saitou murmured as he leaned in toward Sano’s lips.
“That’s a little better,” Sano remarked as he stepped inside, closing the door behind him and sniffing the air. “Why are you smiling like that?”
“Because Himura’s gone and you’re here,” Saitou replied, swiftly circling the desk and pushing Sano up against the door. He rained kisses on the young man’s neck and chest for a few moments, then pressed his mouth against Sano’s.
But Sano disentangled himself, coughing, and stepped away. “You still taste like smoke,” he protested.
Contenting himself with embracing his lover from behind and pulling him close, Saitou said, “I have questions to ask you anyway.”
“Why?” Saitou was startled by the defensiveness that suddenly colored Sano’s tone and continued into his next statement. “You never asked me about it before. Why would you suddenly think I talked to Shishio more than anyone else?”
“I don’t.” More than a bit surprised, Saitou tried to calm his ruffled sweetheart. “But if he did say anything to you, I need to know.”
Sano squirmed, turning in Saitou’s arms and burying his face in the blue cloth covering the officer’s shoulder. “The truth is,” he said softly, “I don’t remember.”
Saitou breathed in the scent close beneath his face and repeated at the same volume, “‘…don’t remember?'”
“Mm,” Sano nodded, burrowing further into the embrace and Saitou’s uniform. “We walked across that walkway, and through some big doors, onto that platform, and then…” Suddenly he was clutching at Saitou tightly, and his words were a choked whisper: “Smoke… just… smoke…”
Saitou didn’t know what this meant. He ran a hand through Sano’s hair, as if to assure him he didn’t need to move or do anything but stand there in his lover’s arms, but couldn’t come up with anything to say aloud.
“Smoke,” Sano continued. “I swear it was choking me… I was falling through it…” His voice was distinctly broken now, approaching what sounded alarmingly like sobbing. Saitou’s heart beat rapidly in worried sympathy. “It tasted so awful… I couldn’t even think straight. Sometimes it was solid, sometimes it was like air, but it was always inside me and I couldn’t breathe… God, I don’t want to think about it!”
After several deep breaths, reminders that the air was clear here and now, Sano began to get hold of himself. “I’ve been… I’ve been filled in on everything that happened, basically, but I can’t remember any of it. I don’t remember anything until when I woke up at the Aoiya. Except the smoke. Sorry.”
Saitou struggled to keep his voice calm, to hide how much this had shaken him. Why hadn’t he ever asked before? This couldn’t be healthy..! “All right, then,” he managed. “Don’t worry about it.”
They stood silently for some time, quiet and comfortable but troubled in mind. So that’s why you hate smoke so much, Saitou was reflecting. But what happened to you?
I don’t want to remember, Sano was thinking at the same time. I just want to go on like this.
I’ll find out, Saitou vowed mentally. I’ll fix this, I swear.
Saitou’s here, Sano reminded himself. Whatever happened back then, I’m sure it’s nothing as long as I have him with me.
Hugging Sano tighter, slowly piecing things together, Saitou realized what he should probably do. “Come back later, around six thirty,” he said softly. “We’ll take a walk.”
Sano finally raised his head with a smile, glad to leave behind the disturbing topic. “All right,” he said. “Don’t smoke anymore, you hear me?”
Saitou kissed his cheek. “Of course not.”
Soft dawn, like a lover itself, crept through the trees with the sound of birdsong, touching sleeping faces and gradually awakening one of the two men. For a fraction of a second Saitou was disoriented — it had been quite some time since he’d slept outside, and why was he so utterly content? — but it was just as brief a time before he felt a stirring in his arms and heard a little protesting noise at his movement, and remembered everything.
He settled back down against the roots they’d made a bed that should have been far less comfortable, and rearranged Sano’s gi over them. As he laid his cheek against the spiky hair, feeling warm breath on the bare skin of his chest, he smiled. Yes, this was a stupid place to be, since anyone might come walking through this little wood at any time — it wasn’t as if they’d left civilization — but at least they’d both put their pants back on. Still he couldn’t bring himself to waken Sanosuke (who was likely to be hungover anyway) and force him to walk home. Not just yet.
‘Home?’ Saitou chided himself. One tumble and he was already thinking cohabitation? He wasn’t even sure how Sano would react to waking up in his embrace; lucid as he’d seemed, he had been rather drunk last night. He’d certainly enjoyed himself, but whether or not anything more would develop between them remained to be seen.
And then there was the little matter of Himura, who, less oblivious than his friend, just two days ago had tried to warn Saitou off. It would be amusing to make Battousai angry like this, but was Sano man enough to disobey the Kenshingumi’s perfect leader?
These reflections were interrupted as Sano stirred again, stretching his legs with a humming yawn. Giving a hot sigh, he lifted his face to meet Saitou’s expectant gaze. His eyes flashed. “Good morning,” he said with a grin.
As anticipated and even planned for, it was a quarter of seven by the time Sano arrived back at the station, whistling and nonchalant. “Yo,” he said as he stepped through Saitou’s office door, offering no apology for his tardiness.
Saitou tapped his stack of papers to straighten it before tucking it into a drawer. Standing, he retrieved his sheathed sword from where it stood against the desk and strapped it on as he leisurely approached his lover. “You’re late,” he said, taking Sano in his arms.
Sano shrugged and pushed his mouth close to the older man’s, inhaling. “Better,” he whispered as the distance between them closed. He happened to know Saitou bought imported English mint candies just for him.
They stood thus for some time, locked in a tight embrace and complicated kiss, indifferent to the bustle of evening police business outside the half-open door.
“You’ll never cure me of being late all the time,” Sano said playfully once they were done, “when that’s what you always do when I get here.”
“Ahou ga,” Saitou replied in the same tone, “did you ever think how I might greet you if you were on time?”
Sano reached down and squeezed one of Saitou’s buttocks. “That is a nice thought,” he admitted. “Maybe I’ll try it some time.”
Saitou released him and headed for the door. “And then it will immediately start to snow.”
“Probably!” Sano followed. “So, where are we going?”
Saitou shrugged. “Does it matter?”
They made their way through the station, Saitou nodding in response to the goodnights his deferential and often very intimidated co-workers rarely neglected. They were nearly out the front door when Chou came bounding up. “Hey, tori-atama,” he said. “Hey, boss. Leaving so early?”
Saitou nodded. “I have a lead to follow up. How’s that matter we discussed earlier?”
Chou thought for a moment before realizing which matter Saitou meant. “I did just what you said. And I’m almost done going through all the files I have on the other thing. I may have found something, but I’ll have to look into it some more.”
“Good. We’ll discuss it in the morning, then.”
Chou waggled an eyebrow. “You two have fun!”
“More than you will,” Sano replied with a lopsided grin.
“Sure, sure.” And Chou waved a hand at them as he turned and went back to his work.
As they descended the steps outside, Sano’s grin had taken on a scowling aspect. “So this isn’t really a ‘walk,’ huh?” he said. “You’re just following up on something?”
“I said that to get him back to work,” Saitou answered, and it was partially true. “My latest assignment is to find out where and from whom Shishio purchased the warship Rengoku. We’ve spent all day poring over the records we have of weapons dealers in and out of Japan, and haven’t turned up anything promising yet. I’m afraid this may take me away from Tokyo for a while.”
“And so you wanted to take a walk with me before you go!” Sano finished, following the statement up with a triumphant sound.
Saitou snorted. “Don’t get too worked up, ahou. We are in public.” Not only that, but I have plans for you this evening.
As they walked slowly in the direction of the docks, Sano regaling him with an amusing account of his day, Saitou looked at the pocket-watch the young man had given him for their first anniversary: five minutes after seven. He quickened his pace imperceptibly.
He’d told Chou to have the officers do whatever was necessary to prevent civilians coming to harm, but not to intervene with any arson attempts and not to engage the criminal. Then he’d purposely chosen a route through taller buildings so that, if the inn should be on fire when they arrived, it wouldn’t be evident until they were very close. He had to time this correctly, and he prayed his stupid challenger — what was the guy’s name again? — would not retreat prematurely.
Abruptly Sano stopped walking, almost with a jerk. “Do you smell smoke?”
Saitou did, but didn’t answer verbally. Instead, he ran forward around the last corner, with Sano trailing reluctantly behind, to see the inn already ablaze. He hoped they were insured.
“Holy shit,” Sano muttered, blanching what appeared an even paler shade than it was in the flickering yellow light. He seemed rooted in place, for, though Saitou took several steps forward, Sano did not move.
“There you are,” came a bitter voice from off to their left. Sano jumped, startled, but seemed glad to have an excuse to look away from the burning building. “You insult me by arriving so late.”
And here was the moron that thought he had to go out with a bang by challenging the great former Shinsen Saitou Hajime to a duel more than a decade after the fact and threatening arson if his enemy didn’t show. Saitou was not impressed. “Ah, yes,” he said, looking the man up and down. “I believe you were your group’s only survivor of a Shinsengumi raid — because you ran away, if I recall correctly… and set the building on fire to cover your escape.”
“I didn’t escape,” the man corrected him. “Those were my instructions in case the Shinsengumi appeared. How I wanted to fight you! But I’ll destroy you now as I couldn’t then!”
Saitou shook his head, working to don an amused expression that might or might not have been natural under other circumstances. “You may certainly try, but combat is as pointless against me as is your twelve-year-old grudge.”
“Fujita-san!” called an officer at the same time. “We need all the help we can get over here!”
He was barely watching as his pseudo-enemy attacked him, for nearly all his attention was focused on Sano — on Sano, whose horrified gaze had drifted back to the roaring flames. He did take care, however, not to throw off the deranged arsonist’s first blow too lightly; playing this correctly was important.
“Sir?” came the appeal once again, sounding worried.
“I’ll join you when I’ve finished with this fool,” he called back.
Sano’s face swiveled, once again glad of a reason to look away but concerned at the slightly strained tone Saitou had purposely used. “You gonna be all right?”
“Of course I am,” Saitou snapped, sidestepping a thrust with less ease than he would have had he not wanted it to appear a close call. “Go help them!”
He couldn’t tell for certain in this light, but he thought Sano trembled a little. “They’ve got it under control…” the boy faltered.
Opportunely, just at that moment one of the officers repeated his request for aid.
“Ahou, go help them! There are people in that building!”
“Fucking shit,” Sano growled, turning again toward the glow. He glanced back at Saitou, then at the building again. His fear and his heroism fought for a moment, but there was no question which would win.
That’s my boy, was Saitou’s fond thought as he watched Sano pelt off determinedly to help. Now let’s see if this does anything for your memory.
It wasn’t that he was afraid Saitou would need help, or that he was afraid to risk his life in a burning building, or that he was afraid he wouldn’t be in time to save someone… he was just afraid. Just fucking afraid. Time was slowing, grinding down, as he ran toward that open door, almost audibly even among the screams of terrified inn patrons and the roar of the fire. The building loomed before him like the gateway to hell — which was what his pounding heart and shaking frame apparently believed it was. Wondering what the fuck was wrong with him, he plunged in.
Smoke! He reeled at the shock of its smell and unbreathability, then crouched in almost a crumpling motion to escape it. Keep it together, he told himself desperately. Getting people out of the upper storeys before they collapsed was the most important thing, right? But the smoke was everywhere! The heat was nearly intolerable, and even the unencumbered air seemed to burn, but this was downright comfortable in contrast with the hellish smoke. Upstairs, Sano! Upstairs! He sprinted into the next room, looking for a staircase — and, thoughtlessly rising into too upright a position under the current circumstances, gulped a mouthful of the rolling blackness that filled the upper part of every space…
…and it was inside him, searing his lungs, ripping him apart, making him scream for mercy as he was slashed across his back and his side and his neck; his clothes were in shreds, he was torn and bleeding, choking on blood and endless smoke…
He stumbled, clutching at his throat as his stinging eyes widened in horrified shock. What was that? What had he just seen, just felt? As he looked around, trying to reorient himself to the task at hand and coughing violently, the taste of smoke raked up from his lungs. But back then, the smoke had surrounded him as flames swept across his vision from the point of a sword…
He never even knew he’d fallen to his knees, in the midst of the fire and the shouting and everything.
Houji was yammering about Shishio’s amazing techniques and power; Yumi was staring, relieved, at her pocket-watch. The sour air seemed to have become viscous, for Kenshin’s fall to the ground lasted approximately forever — a tortuous forever of pulsing rage and misery to the watching Sano. He would kill Shishio for this, tear him apart with his bare hands since it had come to that.
But Shishio was gazing down at Kenshin with a somewhat disappointed look on his face, ignoring Sano just as completely as the other two were. How could they disregard him, as if not only his abilities and determination but also his heart-squeezing despair and anger meant less than nothing? With a hoarse shout Sano threw himself at the bandaged man with all his strength, but was thrown off and away with ridiculous ease; Shishio barely looked in his direction.
Dazed, Sano slid a long, rough path along the ground and finally came to a stop on his back, whence he could not at first move. He heard them speaking as if at a distance, voices fading in and out as he battled unconsciousness:
“Houji, take Yumi inside and get her something to drink; she’s too worked up.”
“Shishio-sama, I’m fine!”
“Take her inside.”
Footsteps, tapping and pattering, passed by and then receded, faded — was he alone? He struggled to open his eyes, but every time he thought he had, all he saw was deep grey mist. He started as another set of feet thundered toward him — Shishio?
“So,” said a loathsome voice, clarifying as Sano’s desperate bids for lucidity gradually took effect, “my dream has become reality, and yours lies dead on the ground not far from you.”
The mist was beginning to acquire other colors and more coherent shapes, and his body was starting to let him know where it was instead of registering only pain. Making a stronger attempt than ever, Sano pushed at the ground and heaved himself up — only to be shoved violently backward again by the sole of a booted foot. He hit the stone so hard he grunted, and almost missed the next statement: “No, Sagara, you’re not getting up just yet. I need some compensation for all the trouble I’ve taken to entertain you people.”
Sano would have liked to ask him what the hell he was talking about, but all the breath burst from his body as Shishio slammed a gauntleted fist into his stomach. Retching and coughing, Sano felt consciousness slipping as everything spun and started to go dark.
But this was not Shishio’s intent. Digging metal-coated fingers into Sano’s scalp, he yanked him back into the sitting position he hadn’t allowed him before. The new and totally different pain of having his hair pulled, as well as the change in altitude, cleared the haze up a bit. Shishio was kneeling beside him with one hand tight in Sano’s locks and the other on his shoulder, an anticipatory look on his bandaged face. Sano forced his tongue to move, trying to speak, to demand to know what was going on and voice his defiance against it, but was instantly silenced as Shishio leaned forward and crushed Sano’s lips with his own.
Taken by surprise by the violent intrusion, Sano was startled into stillness for just a moment. Shishio tasted like ambition and blood, but mostly like smoke. And then he bit down on Sano’s lower lip hard enough to pierce with his teeth, and this was all it took to send adrenaline shocking through Sano’s body and wake him entirely from his stupor. Abruptly pulling back, he yanked his hair free and shrugged off the painful grip on his shoulder, jumping to his feet with a sick feeling in his stomach and that bloody, smoky flavor lingering in his mouth.
“What the fuck are you doing?!” His voice shook more than he had thought it would. He had a sudden feeling he was in deep shit.
“What does it look like I’m doing?” Shishio replied as he stood and drew his sword. He raised the weapon with a sadistic smile. “If you get back on your knees, I’ll let you enjoy it.”
Sano’s eyes were wide as terror and revulsion warred within him. A number of statements he could have made, defiant or disgusted or even supplicating, came to mind, but what he managed to stammer was, “Y-yumi?”
In an expression of genuine kindness abominably contradictory to everything else about him, Shishio’s smile softened. “Yumi is good for some things, but not this, much as she wishes for it.”
Though his fear and repugnance rose to a peak, Sano found they were manageable, at least for the moment. “Never gonna happen, bastard,” he spat, raising his fists.
The corner of Shishio’s mouth twisted up even farther in evil amusement as he raised his sword and took another step forward. “Even when I’ve defeated the Hitokiri Battousai without taking a single wound, you think to contend with me? Fool!”
Sano wasn’t about to let him get the first hit. “Don’t be so fucking cocky!” He charged, hoping to end it all with a single shot. Shishio simply waited for him, caught Sano’s left in his own, and turned his face to the side to accept the right-handed Futae no Kiwami, with his smile still firmly in place.
Sano wondered what the bastard was grinning for when his cheekbone was about to be violently shattered up into his brain, but stopped wondering the next moment as he felt not only the fingers of his left hand being slowly and leisurely crushed but his entire right fist crumbling against his enemy’s face. Staggering backward, he fell to the ground with a rough cry, broken hands clutching at each other excruciatingly but unstoppably in his dismay and shock.
“You shouldn’t talk in your sleep before the sun has even gone down. Now it’s time you learned who has been in control of this drama since the very beginning.”
Suddenly the supreme pain in his hands was coupled with almost unbearable heat all around him as Shishio stepped forward and encircled them in a ring of flames. With a kick he sent Sano sprawling straight into the fire, but Sano barely noticed the burning for the agony of his hands hitting the ground in an instinctive attempt at catching himself.
Almost lazily, Shishio placed a foot heavily on the young man’s back to hold him down, sweeping his sword out on either side of them to keep the fires going. Sano bit his lip to combat the screams that wanted to pour from him, shaking his head to clear the tears from his eyes. He must fight this; he could not be defeated!
But he already was.
Shishio’s sword next found his body, snapping back and forth in a swift pattern of medium-depth cuts that sliced through clothing, sarashi, skin, burning as it tore into him, lighting little fires that were extinguished by the blood gushing out over them. Sano couldn’t restrain his screams any longer, and cried out with all his agony and despair. Above him, Shishio laughed.
What it meant when the foot was removed from his back must be obvious, but Sano could do nothing except lie there moaning, waiting for his fate. Perhaps he would faint… perhaps it was all a dream and he would wake up before that moment, like when he dreamed he was falling but awoke just as he thought he must hit the ground. That was what he kept thinking, hoping, as Shishio’s arm went around his chest and pulled him roughly to his knees. He struggled again, using the last of his strength, as he felt his enemy’s other hand, its gauntlet discarded for increased fineness of movement, probing at one of the new tears in the back of his pants, but the iron grip across his chest was too much for him to fight.
He gave up.
But it was worse than he could ever have imagined.
As if in response to the animal scene, the fires seemed to rise around them and envelope them until all he could see, smell, or taste was smoke, and all he could feel was the sensation of being brutally violated from behind. He was screaming, gasping lungfuls of smoke and clutching despite his ruined hands at the arm encircling his chest. It was pain and dishonor and utter hopelessness all in one, and it was more than he could stand. Even as he prayed with abandon to whatever god might be listening, prayed for death, he felt himself slipping away into a world of smoke — choking, burning, all-encompassing smoke, but at the very least a good deal less painful than where he was now.
Smoke. Everything was smoke, and he was falling into its embrace. He didn’t want it any other way.
It hadn’t been five minutes since Sano entered the burning building, but Saitou was suddenly seized by a feverish worry and desire to follow him. With a swift stab he barely gave any thought, he ended the pointless fight, intending to turn before the body could even hit the ground and run after his lover. But in that same instant, before his motion of arm had even ceased, a scream pierced the air in much the same way his sword pierced the man’s ribcage on the left straight through to the other side: a tearing, haunting cry that rose above the guttural shout of his dying enemy and went straight through his own heart — for unmistakably, to his attuned ears, it was Sano. It continued even as he yanked his weapon free and sprinted with rapid pulse toward the inn. Sheathing his sword without even considering its bloody state as he entered, Saitou followed the sound into the second room on the left, and stopped, horrified, in the doorway.
Sano lay curled on the floor amidst flame and debris, cradling one fist in his other hand, his face twisted into an expression Saitou had hoped never to see there again: a mixture of disillusionment, terror, and rage. In the red light of the roaring flames, it almost looked as if he were surrounded once again by a pool of blood, and his clothing was again singed in places and even torn. The nerve-wracking scream continued as Saitou fell to his knees beside him cried out his name. Sano’s eyes were squeezed tightly shut, and the tears oozing from them glistened in the dancing light.
Without another thought but feeling his heart would break if Sano continued to scream a moment longer, Saitou slid his arms under the young man’s shaking form, pulled him to his chest, stood, and ran from the building.
To the wolf’s immense relief, Sano’s desperate noises faded, and he didn’t resist being carried away from this scene of destruction. Saitou wasn’t sure where he was taking him — his house was across town — but knew he had to get him away from the fire and the smoke. The first coherent thought to enter his mind was, What the hell have I done?
He kept running, and didn’t stop until the chaos was far behind them and only his footsteps and their breaths could be heard in the darkness that had fallen over Tokyo. Only in the moment when he heard Sano uncertainly call his name did he slow his pace and come to a halt in the middle of the street. The lamps were not yet lit, and with clouds covering the moon — possibly aided by smoke from the disaster — the road stood in a terrible darkness. Saitou could barely make out Sano’s face as he looked down at him. Only the gleam of what little light there was off those deep eyes, and the trails of tears leading from them, was visible.
He stepped into an alley and knelt, shifting Sano from the somewhat uncomfortable and inconvenient position in which he’d been carrying him and pulling him into a tight embrace. Afraid of agitating him further, Saitou could think of nothing to say, and as Sano didn’t seem to want to do anything but clutch at him convulsively with his face in Saitou’s chest, silence fell. But it was a heavy, roiling silence, like looking from without at a storm cloud and knowing it soon must break in torrents of rain and roaring thunder.
Finally Sano whispered something Saitou did not catch, lifting his head minutely from the cloth that smothered the words. After a moment he repeated himself, and Saitou strained to hear. It sounded like, “I remembered.”
“What did you remember?” Saitou asked quietly.
Sano stared up at him, eyes wide and set jaw trembling slightly, only for a moment before he hid his face again and began to sob. His body shook violently, and as Saitou held him even tighter he nearly shed tears himself at seeing the most important person in his life in so much pain. What had he remembered?
Again Sano was talking into his uniform, and though Saitou couldn’t make out the statement, it sounded horrifyingly broken and miserable. Sano repeated the phrase again and again, the tremors in his body increasing and his grip on Saitou’s arms intensifying until he suddenly raised his head and screamed it out loud: “He raped me!”
Saitou’s world spun abruptly, his arms slackened, and he drew in breath so sharply he thought he might fall even from this relatively stable position if there weren’t a wall behind him. Again and again Sano screamed it, though his words were once again somewhat muffled by the blue and black of Saitou’s uniform, and clawed at the officer’s back with frenzied hands.
A pair of bright, hot tears found their way at last from Saitou’s eyes as he sat, dumbstruck and limp, with Sano half on his lap raving like a madman. Shishio… it must have been Shishio… he had…
As if awakening from a trance, Saitou at last put his arms around Sano again. The mixture of feelings in his heart was something he could never express: horror, rage, deepest pity… and also a rising sensation, terrible and inexorable, of guilt. After all, who had wanted Sano to go into that building in the hopes that his memories might return? Whose selfish personal agenda had caused this pathetic scene? Saitou pressed his face into Sano’s hair and tried not to think about it. He found himself whispering apologies to his lover already, though, and Sano didn’t even know. “I’m so sorry… Sano, I’m so sorry…”
It was probably a quarter of an hour before the boy’s fit subsided into lighter weeping. Saitou could only sit still, holding him, crying with him, almost wishing a bolt of lightning would strike just then and end the story painlessly. But he knew lightning didn’t strike for anyone’s will, or he would probably have been dead long ago, and that the initiative was his.
Running his hand gently over the sweaty head, he murmured Sano’s name. “We should go home,” he said.
Sano rose abruptly in a single jerky movement, then stood very still with his arms at his sides. Saitou joined him, and was startled at what he saw in the scant light on those brown eyes: nothing. Sano’s visage was as blank and expressionless as a dead man’s, which seemed even more frightening than the horror it had held not long ago. Wondering if he would be able to get him home at all, Saitou took Sano’s hand and started to walk.
Sano followed obediently, like a young child overtired from a long day. Saitou’s pace was slow, and he kept his gaze on his lover most of the time. Glinting tears still flowed down Sano’s cheeks, issuing from those empty eyes disturbingly in the darkness. It was a long walk back to the house they’d shared for almost two years.
You shouldn’t talk in your sleep before the sun has even gone down… Mockery, and not the fond sort he could tolerate… You think to contend with me? Fool! He was knocked away without a second thought… It’s time you learned who has been in control of this drama since the very beginning… He was so weak! You shouldn’t talk in your sleep… Earlier today he’d believed he governed his own life, believed he was a worthwhile person to have around… good morning, Sano… I came to see you… Now he remembered, and knew the truth, realized exactly how ineffectual, how worthless he was… You think to contend with me? Just trying to take revenge for Kenshin’s seeming death, that was all… Sano, there is no need to make excuses… Fool! He’d made a promise to everyone, just before he threw himself forward at Shishio — and he’d broken it… he was so weak. It’s time you learned… What must Saitou think of him?
Images from then and now flashed past his eyes, that day and this day shuffled together in a sea of smoke; voices echoed through his head in a terrible chaos of past and present, enemies and friends and who knew what else. He rushed along in a torrent of memories that took no rational order and moved faster and faster by the moment, hastening him toward insanity with no chance of rescue.
Houji, take Yumi inside and get her something to drink … I have questions to ask you … she’s too worked up … we’ll take a walk … Walk? They were about home, weren’t they? No, Sagara, you’re not getting up just yet … how is that matter we discussed earlier? Some unexpected pieces were starting to fit into a puzzle he hadn’t known existed… if you get back on your knees, I’ll let you enjoy it … you insult me by arriving so late… It wasn’t something that would normally have occurred to him… I’ve defeated the Hitokiri Battousai without taking a single wound… but right now his mind was working overly fast, putting things together at a frenzied pace… ahou, go help them!
Like a drowning swimmer clutching at a broken piece of debris that was not only unlikely to assist him in getting to shore but would probably hurt him as well, Sano grasped at this thought and struck out. “This is your fucking fault!”
Instinctively, Saitou caught the clenched hand aimed at him, but the blow of Sano’s words struck home. Releasing the red-wrapped wrist, he turned his face away and nodded slowly. “Yes,” he agreed softly. “This is my fault.” And he did nothing to avoid the next strike.
“Why would you do this to me?” Sano’s eyes were squeezed shut, his clenched hands flying wildly, though with little more behind them than blind, despairing rage. “How could you fucking do that?” But as he connected once again with Saitou’s face, he opened his eyes with a start. It felt and looked just like…
Sano crumpled to the ground, cradling the fist he’d just struck with. Saitou touched a hand briefly to what would probably become a dark bruise, and knelt before the younger man. “Come inside,” he murmured. And somehow, Sano found the strength to obey.
Saitou had seen most of this before, in victims of violent or sexual crimes, but in none of his cases had it ever touched him like this. In fact he’d barely ever been affected at all. Perhaps he might have been this torn apart if any of the victims he’d interacted with, in retrospective questioning or by intervening in the crime itself, had ever, as Sano did now, displayed all the symptoms of post-traumatic shock in such swift and violent succession. Usually he caught them during one stage or another, and so, in the long term, pieced together the order of events in the entire process of recovery. Sano seemed to be going through many of the stages at once. Could someone recover like this?
“You need to sleep,” he whispered.
Sano gave a slight nod, but said no word as he walked stiffly into the bedroom. There, he laid himself down on the futon without attempting any change to his attire, assuming the same defensively miserable curled-up position as earlier, hands cradled at his chest. His eyes were blank, staring, almost unblinking; his breathing was very shallow.
Saitou stooped and pulled the blanket over him gently. Although Sano whispered, “Don’t touch me,” he made no move to undo what his lover had done. The officer then settled himself against the wall behind Sano’s back to keep watch.
Whether Sano ever slept or not was a matter of question. Certainly no such rest came near the implacable guardian. Saitou kept his eyes on the bed’s occupant through long minutes that never seemed to turn into hours, while inside he fought a heartache as alien to him as the present situation.
It wasn’t that he’d never seen a loved one suffer before. But not once in his life had he felt so entirely responsible for someone else’s pain and actually cared. He reflected with some bitterness that this was probably how Himura felt every single day, considering he lived to protect people and not infrequently failed. It was an unfamiliar sensation, but one he probably deserved. If he had only thought it through more thoroughly, surely he must have guessed… He’d been an idiot not to realize that only something deeply traumatic could cause Sano to repress his memories like that. Why hadn’t he seen it?
Somewhere in the middle of the night, Sano stirred, breaking Saitou out of a weary downward spiral of thought. The young man sat up abruptly with a shudder, pulling his knees to his face and hugging them, letting the blanket fall around him. After a moment he looked back over his shoulder at Saitou.
The latter could find nothing to say. But Sano spoke for him, in a whisper: “I’m sorry I hit you.”
Saitou could only nod. The blank-sounding apology did nothing to ease his own feelings of guilt, and as Sano dropped his face to his knees in silence, the older man still could not come up with a word.
Sano remained motionless for some time before, his back turned toward Saitou, he finally lay down again. Saitou continued to gaze at him until his eyes were burning from the hard stare and his mind exhausted from an endless refrain of self-accusation and unaccustomed pain. He didn’t realize he had dozed off until he suddenly saw Sano sitting before him, staring into Saitou’s face with the morning light at his back.
Saitou was about to speak, although once again he wasn’t sure what he would have said, but at that moment he met Sano’s gaze, and froze with a quick indrawn breath. It was as if in that instant he saw straight down into the depths of Sano’s soul in a brief, piercing moment of clarity and connection that allowed thought to flow wordlessly between their tired eyes. And he knew Sano had resolved something.
The younger man leaned forward and kissed him very gently on the mouth. Then he sprang backward, pulling Saitou’s sword from its sheath with his momentum. In a swift movement he turned its blade inward toward his abdomen.
Sano’s actions had been fast and unexpected, but Saitou’s reaction bordered on superhuman. He was across the room, had knocked the sword aside, had his arms tightly wrapped around Sano, before he could even form a coherent thought. And it was only once these instinctive movements had been made that he started to shake from a sudden, overwhelming, nauseating feeling of horror at what had just happened.
Sano was struggling against him. “Let me go! What the fuck are you doing, bastard?”
“You don’t have to do that,” Saitou told him desperately. “You can get over this!”
“What would you know?”
“I know you’re strong enough to conquer this!”
Sano was crying again. “Let me go! No, I’m not! Let me go!”
Saitou thought he might be crying too, but he wasn’t sure, for he was concentrating everything, all his strength, on holding Sano — holding Sano, which was all he’d ever wanted to do, all he wanted to do for the rest of his life, if only Sano would allow it. Please…
It took some time, but finally Sano calmed, exhausted from his struggles and continuing to weep pathetically. Saitou brought them both to the floor, but still would not let go.
“Do you want to talk?” he asked at last.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” came Sano’s muffled, bitter voice from where his face was buried in Saitou’s restrictive arm.
“I just think it might help.”
“You’d love to hear all the details, wouldn’t you, you asshole?” Sano’s head had lifted, and now he growled, “You love to see me in pain, don’t you?”
“Then why won’t you let me die?” Sano’s voice broke on the last word, and his accusations crumbled once again into sobbing.
“Because you can get through this,” Saitou replied, and was surprised at the composure in his own voice. Even now, the seal over his heart that had never allowed him to tell Sano aloud that he loved him had yet to be broken. Despite how much he ached inside, he could never let any of it out for Sano to see. And that might well cost him his happiness forever.
“You bastard!” Sano shrieked, fighting once again to get out of Saitou’s arms as if his current near-insanity gave him fresh strength. “You might as well have fucking done it yourself!”
This was a new and unexpected blow. “What?”
“Where were you?” Sano seemed to be alternating between rage and hopeless anguish. “Where were you? Why didn’t you save me?”
“Where were you? You practically raped me yourself… that’s all you care about anyway… you’re probably getting off just holding me like this!”
“Sano…” Why was that all he could say?
Sano made a sudden, extremely strong bid for freedom and managed to break away. Jumping to his feet, he whirled, turning his pain-ridden, tear-stained face on the older man. “It was all your fucking fault!”
This time Saitou couldn’t even say his name. Any way you looked at it, it really was his fault — he’d spent too much time wandering Shishio’s fortress back then, and he’d forced Sano to remember all of this now. It was just like Himura had always said: the only thing he could give Sano was pain, and he should never have come near him.
It was a strange feeling, not knowing what to do. His entire being was consumed with desire to erase Sano’s pain; he would have given anything in the world to be able to, but he simply didn’t know how. And another alien sensation was beginning to grow… so alien that at first he couldn’t even put a name to it… but eventually he recognized it for what it was: fear. Real, spirit-shaking fear. Fear of something he was realizing deep inside but that his conscious mind as yet refused to admit.
I love you, Sano…
Without a word, he stood between Sano and the door, steeling himself for the inevitable.
“What am I, your fucking prisoner?” Sano demanded. “You’re just as bad as he was!”
Saitou could not reply. He wanted to tell himself, as his logical mind knew, that Sano was still in shock and thinking far from rationally, but the wound of those words was too deep to alleviate. So he waited. And eventually, as expected, Sano attacked him. Time slowed as his beloved, the most beautiful man in all existence, the one he’d shared his life with for two years, charged at him with clenched fists and black hatred on his face.
With a lightning-fast blow that hurt them both equally, Saitou knocked him out cold.
The hedges were trimmed. The flowerbeds flanking the steps had been weeded. The porch had been swept. When he slid the door open, an enticing smell greeted him from within. He’d been planning a fancy dinner out at the most expensive restaurant in town, but apparently his sweetheart had other ideas.
Sano looked up from the table he was setting as Saitou entered the room, his face breaking into a smile. It was a version of the expression he reserved solely for circumstances like this: entirely open, simply delighted at his lover’s return, and sweeter than he was willing to give to anyone else. It was the kind of smile that made even Saitou want to smile back… and on this rare occasion, he actually did.
“Yo,” Sano said, ceasing his work and approaching. He was dressed in the red kimono and black hakama Saitou had bought for him not long before, and, as expected, the colors were perfect against his golden skin and beneath his brown hair. Pressing his beautiful body against Saitou’s, sliding his arms around Saitou’s torso, Sano drew him into a passionate welcome-home-happy-anniversary kiss.
Saitou hadn’t touched a cigarette for at least thirty-six hours solely for this purpose.
As his mouth was reluctantly released, he stared down at the other, whom he did not loose, with an overwhelming feeling of adoration. Sano met his gaze in amusement, as if curious about the scrutiny; and Saitou began pressing his lips against Sano’s skin here and there, covering his entire face with soft kisses.
“Oi…” Sano murmured, sounding amused but also more than a little turned on by this unexpected treatment. He stayed where he was, making no return gestures, as though he were content to stand in the doorway and be kissed gently by Saitou for the rest of all eternity. “What’s this for?” he asked, his voice husky.
Because I love you, Saitou wanted to reply, but, as always, couldn’t get the words out. So he held Sano close, hoping perhaps something would communicate his feelings. Sano replied by tightening his own arms around Saitou’s back.
And so they embraced each other as if nothing in the world mattered… or as if they knew that in only a few weeks every part of this was going to crumble into agony. But of that condition they, on this holiday, were nearly ignorant. Suffering surely existed, but it was far away and irrelevant. Just then their only thoughts were of each other, of how happy they were.
At last Sano raised his mouth to Saitou’s again, and spoke softly. “I have dinner ready.” His lips brushed against the older man’s with each word, and his sparkling eyes held Saitou’s firmly.
Saitou seemed more eager to taste Sano’s breath than whatever meal was prepared for them, but after one last kiss slowly relinquished his hold.
“Tokio-san sent us some wine again.” Sano grinned as he said this, perhaps remembering last year: it wasn’t often Saitou tasted alcohol, and Sano seemed to be looking forward to seeing its effects again. He seized Saitou’s hand and pulled him to the table.
Clearly Sano had engaged his every culinary power to make that simple food. It was remarkably plain fare, since not only did Saitou prefer it that way but Sano was incapable of cooking anything complex. Unlikely it was, however, that either of them would remember at another time what they’d eaten that night; it was entirely possible that neither of them could have positively identified it while they were eating it. There was so much love mixed in that it could have been dirt and Saitou might not have realized; it was the best-tasting meal he’d ever had.
Two years? Had it really been that long? How had Saitou Hajime gotten so lucky?
It wasn’t that the food was well prepared or that the room was spotlessly clean that made him so happy — it was the fact that Sano hated cooking, and never lifted a finger to clean something if he could get away with it. And the young man kept looking anxiously at him, as if worried his meal wasn’t good enough. Everything Sano had done today seemed to have been aimed at pleasing Saitou, and this thought brought a rush of joy into Saitou’s heart that, although no unfamiliar feeling since he’d been with Sano, still surprised him with its warmth.
And in that moment he realized there was nothing — not his own life or honor, not the future of Japan, not anything he had ever deemed important — that meant more to him than Sano, and because of that, there was nothing that could ever tear them apart.
“Um… I got this for you…” Sano was never very good at giving presents, and Saitou could not help but laugh a bit, inwardly, at the nervous way he handed over the small, paper-wrapped object. “I knew you liked that one guy, and the guy at the store said you’d probably like this one too, but I can’t remember his name…”
“Sophocles.” Saitou flipped through the book with satisfaction. “A Greek philosopher.” He looked up. “You were informed quite correctly.”
Sano’s face, which had been very close to housing a worried expression, broke into a smile. “That’s good… ’cause I sure as hell couldn’t figure it out, though I was pretty sure you didn’t have that one.”
If anything could have made the evening better, it was this. Not only did it show how well Sano knew him, but an imported book was an expensive thing — which meant Sano had been working and saving for him. It was also somewhat of a relief, considering how much Saitou’s present had cost: he didn’t want Sano feeling any more awkward than he already did.
“Thank you,” he said, and, setting the book down, seized Sano’s left hand in his. With his right, he pulled a little wooden box from the pocket where it had been burning a hole all day. Though not nearly so bad at gift-giving as Sano was, he still wasn’t sure what the reaction to this might be. He set the box on the table between them and opened it, explaining his present. “In western cultures, it’s traditional for a married couple to wear identical rings like this.” He slid the plain golden band onto Sano’s left ring finger. “It symbolizes, I believe, an eternity together.”
He couldn’t believe it: Sano, staring at his hand, was actually blushing, and didn’t appear to know what to say. Quietly Saitou took the other ring from the box and, holding his left hand up for Sano to see, put it on.
“Ha-Hajime… d’you really mean that?” Sano stammered at last, still staring.
Saitou nodded, and managed to say almost exactly what he meant: “I want you to stay with me forever.”
The sudden tears on Sano’s face were a bit of a surprise, though Sano laughed at himself right through them. “Fuck, this is stupid…” he said. “Look at me crying like a baby.”
Saitou chuckled. “As long as you’re my baby.”
“Hell, I’ll be whatever you want!” Sano crawled over to him and hugged him tightly. After he’d recovered himself he suggested, “Why don’t we drink that wine?”
“Let’s drink it in the bedroom,” Saitou whispered in his ear. “I have another present for you…”
“Saitou!” Kenshin stared first at Saitou’s bruised face, then at the bound and unconscious Sano in his arms. He couldn’t say another word for shock.
Saitou returned the look evenly and held his lover out toward his enemy. “Take him.”
“What the hell…” Kenshin trailed off, but almost absently added “…de gozaru ka?”
“You’ll be glad to hear the story,” Saitou replied, unable to prevent the bitterness creeping into his tone. “Glad to be proven right. Take him.”
Kenshin reached out to receive the burden, his face still a picture of confusion. “What happened?”
Not wanting to look at the two of them any longer, Saitou turned his back. “You are familiar with Sano’s disliking of smoke?”
“Yes… I always thought it odd.”
“Smoke had to do with Sano’s repressed memories of Shishio’s fortress, where he was raped by Shishio after you were knocked unconscious.”
Overwhelmed by Saitou’s typical conciseness, Kenshin let out a short, surprised breath and looked down at Sano’s face in shock. “Raped?”
Saitou nodded. “He remembered because I — and this is the part you’ll like — I asked him to help the police get people out of a burning building. I did this hoping the smoke would trigger those memories in case he knew anything about my case. I never suspected…”
“You–” Kenshin interrupted him unexpectedly. “You couldn’t have known!”
“Defending me now, are you? That’s quite a change. Anyway, Sano’s tried to kill himself already, and he certainly hasn’t been thinking straight. I’m afraid the only way to save him is to somehow repress his memories again. Maybe if he inhales smoke again…”
A long moment of silence followed, during which the presence of the two men behind him, one conscious and one unconscious, one scorned and the other beloved, weighed like a tangible thing on Saitou’s mind.
He wanted to turn.
There were a lot of things he wanted to do, actually.
Sano stirred in Kenshin’s arms, saying something that sounded piteously like ‘Hajime…’ and Kenshin spoke abruptly. “Saitou, if his memories are repressed again, he might forget everything that happened from the time of the rape onward. He… might forget that he and you were ever anything but enemies.”
Saitou did not reply immediately, because he was gathering his strength for what must be said. At last he murmured, “I know. That’s why I’m giving him to you. Because I can’t do it.” And, fearing his resolve would weaken if he stayed there much longer, he strode away.
“Saitou!” Kenshin called, but the wolf ignored him. “Saitou!!”
Their footsteps fell loudly on the overgrown path as the shrine came into view. Between the first and second arches, they could look up and see the hulking shadow of Mt. Hiei, and Sano grinned. “Well, here we are,” he said. Punching his palm, he added, “I’m trembling with excitement!”
Under the third arch, he noticed Saitou throwing him a weird look. “What’s your problem, psycho?” he demanded.
Saitou smirked. “With excitement, ahou?”
“Well, what else would I be trembling with?” Sano retorted hotly, before he realized the answer to his question. “Hey, you bastard, I’m not afraid or anything!”
A little ahead of them, Kenshin sighed almost inaudibly.
“No, I suppose you’re not,” Saitou admitted. “A fool like you is so rarely afraid of anything, even when it’s good for him.”
Sano stopped under the fourth arch and snarled. “Like someone who stabbed me through the shoulder would know what’s good for me!”
Saitou stopped along with him. “Maybe I know better than you do.”
Neither noticed Kenshin’s stiffened form standing beneath the fifth arch, nor heard his slightly annoyed outlet of breath. But when he said, “Look,” their attention was captured. He pointed ahead to where a lone woman stood against a set of massive doors leading into the mountain itself. “I think we should try to start getting along. Don’t forget what we’re getting into.” The first sentence was aimed at Sano, the second at Saitou, and each phrase referred to a totally different aspect of the current interaction. Saitou knew it perfectly well, as he’d known from the beginning what Himura’s attitude would be toward his little infatuation. But the fact was entirely lost on Sano.
He swam upward, more or less steadily, through a rancid sea of smoke, trying to escape the darkness beneath him. After a moment he recalled the impossibility of swimming through something like smoke that wasn’t solid, and his feet found ground just where he’d been expecting it. A fresh wind blew across his face, sweeping the encroaching haze away into a corner, where it roiled and struggled but remained stationary. Turning away from it toward the light beyond his eyelids, he opened his eyes and awoke.
“Oh, what is…” The mutter sounded ragged and croaky. He couldn’t remember where he was or why, where he should be or what had been happening to him.
“Sano!” This voice, Kenshin’s, was soon joined by more: Kaoru’s… Yahiko’s… Megumi’s… and? and? He sat up, confused. He was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was expecting another voice. But whose was it? As he looked from one relieved face to the next, he was sure one was missing — but what other face did he expect? As he searched for it, his heart was pounding… but why?
He turned his mind to other considerations. This room looked an awful lot like Kaoru’s dojo. What was he doing here? “Are we in Tokyo?” he asked the smiling Kenshin close to his head. His throat was sore.
“That can’t be right…”
“Why?” Kenshin sounded a bit worried.
Sano’s mind still felt cloudy, and he struggled to answer the question. “Shouldn’t we be in Kyoto? I thought we were going in against Shishio.”
Suddenly grave in both tone and expression, “Sano, that was two years ago,” Kenshin said.
It was like an unexpected slap in the face. “What?” He shook his head, thinking hard, but all he got was a worse headache. Why couldn’t he remember anything? They’d been heading up to Shishio’s secret fortress-place to fight the Juppongatana or something, and… “You’re not serious, are you?”
Kenshin nodded. “Do you remember nothing?”
Something about Kenshin’s guarded expression bothered Sano, but he didn’t know quite why. He lay back, closing his eyes but not ceasing his effort to piece events together. Some images were beginning to return. “I think… did I fight Anji? Was he working for Shishio?” It seemed so dreamlike, he couldn’t be at all sure it had actually happened.
“And then… then…”
But Kenshin had looked away.
Sano drew his knees up to his chin, scrunching blankets all around him as if trying to block out any draft of cold air into his warm haven. He didn’t quite understand what was happening to him — especially since, besides a nasty cough, a rough throat, and an achy head, he didn’t feel particularly ill. He’d only just awakened an hour or so ago, but he was already terribly confused.
So he’d been sick for a whole month… and somehow it had caused him to lose his memory of the last two years? He’d never heard of such a thing. And he wasn’t prone to sickness anyway.
Something was wrong here.
Megumi hadn’t been able to tell him the name of whatever he’d had — said it was something she’d never seen before, that they had all despaired of his life before he’d made that miraculous recovery. They’d all seemed happy enough when he woke up, anyway. But he just… didn’t feel sick…
What he seemed to be feeling was… loneliness?
He lay down once again with a sigh. How could something like this happen to him? Had it happened to him? He just couldn’t believe it. Kenshin had assured him he’d come within an inch of his life, and Kenshin wouldn’t lie… but it seemed too incredible, his getting so sick he almost died and having a bunch of memories wiped out, then waking up and feeling just fine…
But Kenshin wouldn’t lie to him.
He must have been sick, then.
He realized he’d been holding onto his left hand with his right, absently making a twisting motion around the fourth finger as if he were wearing a ring there. He looked down in brief confusion, then laid his hands at his sides.
The futon felt strange beneath him, the blankets unfamiliar. Looking around again, he realized that the whole room was unrecognizable. Sure, it was a room in the Kamiya dojo, but had he really been living here since they came back from Kyoto?
The door slid open, and Sano sat up quickly in sudden, inexplicable anticipation, his heart racing and his eyes searching for the sight of — what?
Kenshin entered, and came quietly to kneel at his bedside. “How do you feel?” he asked.
“Fine,” Sano said, trying hard not to show his disappointment that Kenshin wasn’t… whatever he’d been expecting. “Better than fine. I almost can’t believe I was sick.”
Kenshin sighed. “Lie down, please. I thought you might want to know some things about the last two years.”
“Um, yeah.” Sano did not lie down.
Kenshin raised a warning hand. “I can’t tell you too much right now. You need to sleep.”
“I feel fine, Kenshin, really.”
“I will answer three questions.”
Sano frowned and gave in, appreciating the worry he could see plainly in his friend’s face. Although he thought, for a moment at least, that something else was in that visage as well — something he didn’t like. But he shook off the feeling and contemplated what he was going to ask Kenshin. “All right, first question: what happened to Shishio?”
Kenshin told him, very briefly, touching only barely on certain aspects — Sano’s own involvement and Saitou’s part — of the fateful battle.
Sano nodded slowly, fitting the pieces into the shadows of his memory and finding that their shapes matched the jagged gaps. Not a perfect picture, but he’d have time to grille Kenshin on it all later when the man was willing to discuss things more extensively. “Fine. Then, second… has anything major happened since we came back that I should know about?”
Kenshin gave him an overview of the two or three larger events their little group had taken part in during those two years. It all sounded familiar enough to Sano, although with this account came a feeling of distance — almost as if he’d only watched the goings-on, had little part in them, little action of his own. How odd.
“Last question.” He thought for a moment, wondering how to word it, and finally said, “What have I been doing for these two years?”
Instead of answering immediately, Kenshin queried, “What do you mean?”
Again Sano felt the vague suspicion he’d harbored against his friend earlier, but his absolute faith in the rurouni won him into replying simply, “Just in general, I mean… things been like they always were?”
“Mostly. You spent most evenings gambling or drinking with your friends, and you slept a lot during the days… Kaoru-dono made you help with all the repairs, of course, and sometimes she made you do part-time work to help pay the bills…”
It sounded like him. If he’d had to guess what he’d been doing over the last two years, living at the Kamiya dojo, that would have been exactly it. But try as he might, he couldn’t make it fit into the careful timeline he was constructing in his mind. Whatever had happened, it seemed that his typical loafing hadn’t been it.
As he bade Kenshin goodnight and laid himself back onto the clean futon, he pondered. The only answer he could come up with was that he must have gotten involved in something Kenshin didn’t like — not just didn’t like, but totally didn’t approve of — and Kenshin was purposely keeping this information from him in order to prevent his starting it up again. Maybe something dangerous…
Drugs? He didn’t think so; it wasn’t like him. Besides, he’d be going through some kind of withdrawal now, wouldn’t he? But maybe that withdrawal was something with weird symptoms that made you imagine something was missing from your life all of a sudden (besides your memory of the last two years), and feel ridiculously lonely when you couldn’t figure out what it might be.
Maybe he’d gotten back into some yakuza. That sounded more like him than drugs, although why he would have done it after having left that life behind was a mystery. Still, it would explain his current feeling of aloneness — in such a group, you were watched incessantly, eyed from all corners as others waited for their chance to betray you or worried about you betraying them, and he could easily have grown accustomed again to that feeling of always having someone around him, someone thinking avidly of him.
He squeezed his eyes tight shut, then reopened them swiftly, hoping something above his head would look familiar enough to reassure him that everything Kenshin had said was true. But the room looked just as unfamiliar to him as ever. What had happened to his life? And if Kenshin didn’t want him to know about whatever it was, should he really want to find out? After all, Kenshin was obviously only trying to protect him… and the little guy really was a lot smarter than Sano, wasn’t he?
Still, it was his life, wasn’t it?
“Saitou!” It was Himura’s voice — that much he made out — but any emotion carried in the word, through which Saitou might have thought to ascertain something of the intended message, drowned in the loud marketplace. He turned and waited for Kenshin to fight his way through the crowd and join him.
Saitou could say nothing. Himura knew what he wanted to ask at any rate, so there was no need.
“As we suspected, Sano has lost all memory of the past two years.”
Kenshin looked away, as if embarrassed or even ashamed of what he was about to say. “We all talked about it and agreed… We have not told him about you. We don’t want you to see him again.”
You fucking bastard, you mean you don’t want me to see him again. But all Saitou could say aloud was the next question he desperately wanted answered. “Is he happy?” His voice sounded so harsh, so unfeeling…
Kenshin stared at him for a moment, unwilling or unable to answer. Finally he said, “Here.” Stretching out an open hand, he displayed a shining golden ring.
The sight of it glittering there on his enemy’s palm was like the stab of a knife into Saitou’s heart. There were a million things he would like to say at this point — bitter things, demanding things, supplicating things — but the pain was too great for any of them. He took the ring and put it into his pocket.
Kenshin watched as Saitou turned — a bit jerkily, he thought — and walked swiftly away from him. There, he’d done it; he’d broken someone’s heart. Despite the fact that he hated Saitou, he didn’t feel good about it. But it was for the best, wasn’t it? He couldn’t help regretting it, but for Sano’s sake he tried to rally his spirits. He turned and headed home, his feet heavy.
He hadn’t been able to answer Saitou’s last question because, despite all the lies he’d been telling over the last few days, he couldn’t bring himself to lie about Sano’s current state. The truth was that Sano was miserable, just as he had been since the day he’d awakened. Kenshin couldn’t blame him: it must be difficult to lose two years of your life all of a sudden and have… no, that wasn’t the reason, and Kenshin knew it, much as he’d like to deny it. Sano was miserable because he felt the horrible void of a lover’s absence, but didn’t understand it.
Silently, Kenshin damned himself, wondering if he was doomed to live an unhappy life. No relationship he entered into ever turned out right. His parents had died; Hiko scorned him for his choices; he’d killed Tomoe with his own hands; he’d failed to protect Sano at the most important time; and Kaoru… well, Kaoru loved him, but could he love her in return?
He seemed destined to hurt everyone he came into contact with. Was this his penance for his acts as the Hitokiri Battousai, or just another part of the fact that he was innately monstrous? If penance, he thought perhaps he could bear it… but why did others have to suffer? If a result of his true nature, it made sense that they suffered… but could he keep going like this? He shook his head; he didn’t think he would ever understand his own existence.
“Hello, Sano,” he said as he entered the room, trying to force a cheerful mien. The last thing Sano needed right now was any part of Kenshin’s suffering.
“Yo,” Sano said, and by his tone Kenshin knew immediately that something was wrong.
“What is it?”
“Come sit down and talk, Kenshin,” Sano ordered, pointing to the floor beside him. He was drawn up tightly against a wall, staring at the ceiling.
Kenshin obeyed. “Yes?”
“Kenshin, look, I know… I know there’s something you guys aren’t telling me. Something about all this stuff I’ve forgotten. Something big.”
A cold, uneasy feeling began to creep through the rurouni. Gazing intently at Sano, he could see how much of an effort it took the younger man to speak those words, that near accusation, how desperately Sano wished for Kenshin to reassure him that he was still the same honest friend Sano had always trusted.
“What do you mean?” Kenshin asked at last.
“I mean, there’s something huge I can’t figure out. Something really important that I really need to remember, and I just fucking can’t!” Sano’s head had fallen to his knees, and his voice sounded pained.
Kenshin evaded. “What kind of thing?”
“I have no idea!” Sano exploded, jumping up and starting to pace the room in agitation. “It’s like — everywhere I go, I expect… something. And every time you guys are all together… I think there should be someone else there. And at night… oh, I don’t fucking know!”
Kenshin took a deep breath, trying to loose the knot that seemed to squeeze all life from his swift-beating heart. He stood slowly, as if held down by a massive weight. With reluctant steps he walked to Sano’s side, put his hand on the high shoulder, looked into the eyes full of pain, prepared for a careful lie… and just couldn’t bear it any longer.
“I know what it is,” he said softly at last, “but I don’t want to tell you.”
In the early hours of morning no light shone from houses along the street as the occupants rested for the approaching day. One house, however, though similarly black behind the shutters, held no sleep. In a chair drawn from his desk to the window, Saitou Hajime sat alone in the dark.
Loneliness and darkness were, in fact, about all he had left.
He’d been right all along: friends were a weakness, and trying to protect them was nonsense. Friends or lovers. He’d allowed himself to fall in love with Sagara Sanosuke, and where had it led him? To Hell. If he’d only left the idiot alone, as he should have known to do in the first place, he would have been able to carry out his mission, assigned to him by the government and of the utmost importance, untroubled and untouched. He would never have felt pain for Sano’s predicament, and the Kenshingumi could have dealt with it however they felt best.
Sentimentality was a load of shit. He’d known it all his life; why had he made such an exception? If he’d just ignored Sano, he wouldn’t be feeling responsible for not having shown up sooner back in Shishio’s fortress. If he’d throttled his feelings at the very beginning, he might have had the clear-sightedness to kill Shishio with that one shot as he’d intended, freeing the country as he’d been assigned to do.
Realizing he’d been right all along, however, didn’t make him feel a bit better. All it did was add ‘fool’ to the list of names he was giving himself.
And after all, wasn’t feeling responsible for someone else’s pain just utterly foolish? He’d lived his life independent of anyone else’s emotions… why couldn’t he simply go back to those days?
He stood abruptly, knocking over the chair and striding out of the room. That would be a pathetic lie, and he knew it. And besides, he didn’t think he was capable of it. He, the great Saitou Hajime, one of the strongest warriors of his day, who had lived through more chaos than anyone he knew and defeated nearly every opponent ever to cross him, had been brought low by a 22-year-old boy.
He’d never known a broken heart could come this close to killing him.
He remembered his thoughts on the night of their second anniversary: that nothing could ever come between them, because nothing in the world meant more to him that Sano. He’d thought at the time his own strength would be enough to keep them together, since Sano was his first concern and could be given the majority of his devotion. It had almost been a vow — and now he’d broken it. But only because he’d discovered that holding Sano dearest above anything else in existence meant that Sano’s happiness was far above his own on the priority scale.
So the only thing more important to him than Sano was… Sano?
He was pacing the bedroom now, prowling like a wild animal in a shrinking enclosure. It was a cage of burning misery, and when its bars closed in enough to touch and scorch him, there was no telling what he might do.
Maybe it would be better, now he had the chance, to leave Sano’s life forever. He could probably transfer to Kyoto without much trouble, and… Dammit! That wouldn’t help him. He might seal all his sorrow up in that heart which until now had seemed so strong; might lie to himself and his acquaintances for a while, claiming he was alive when really he had died the day he left; might go on for weeks, months, even years, in relative peace… but it would be half a life and no more. Perhaps less, without Sano. And eventually, he knew, he would return to Tokyo on assignment, or Sano would show up in Kyoto to visit the Aoiya, and he would crack again.
Still, he must never again cause pain to the one he loved. Of that he was certain. Himura had been right all along, and Saitou was man enough to admit it. He must never see Sano again. So his only choices now were to go far enough away that there was no chance of their ever meeting… or… to…
Daylight was by this time flooding the room. It reminded him eerily of a morning not long ago when Sano had kissed him for the last time. Kissed him goodbye. He turned from the thought, from the window, and stared down at the floor — where the light caught on and danced across a long black object lying as he’d thrown it yesterday evening. Slowly he took it in his hand, its light reassuring clank somehow comforting. This was the one thing he understood beyond a shadow of a doubt, the one thing that could give him only physical pain rather than what he’d been suffering since that fateful fiery night.
The cage of despair was drawing closer to his skin, shrinking more quickly with each moment.
Without haste he grasped the hilt and withdrew the blade; it shone as he knelt with his back to the lighted window, and in its silvery surface he seemed to see not his own reflection, but an image of the time this very sword had been turned away by an iron band, too late to save two lives from ruin. Appropriate, then, that this weapon should wreak Sanosuke’s revenge on him, on the fool that wasn’t strong enough to fall in love but dared to do it anyway.
He cast the sheath aside, pushing away all thought of the world he was leaving behind. Of what import was it that he would be abandoning a country that needed him, and not even bothering to do it properly, as a samurai should? All he could see was Sano’s tear-stained face, a vision he thought must haunt him into the afterlife and punish him as he deserved.
The glowing bars of his cage of torment converged.
Saitou Hajime would burn.
He turned the blade inward.
He slid the door open and stepped casually inside the dojo grounds. As he’d thought, Battousai and his friends didn’t seem to be home, but there on the front steps was a young man he identified by the description his agent had given him: unkempt hair looked both sharp and soft at once, set off like the similarly colored eyes below by a red bandanna; a loose gi hanging open over a tight chest revealed a perfectly formed, golden-toned set of muscles; and the overall demeanor of the subject spoke of complete indolence that could turn to complete energy at an instant’s notice. Of course Saitou’s agent hadn’t put that kind of detail into the description, but Saitou was intrigued — perhaps even pleased — by what he saw.
The young man queried who he was, not sounding much as if he really cared. He had a deep, pleasant, rolling voice whose tones suggested he didn’t mind what anyone thought of him.
Saitou gave his supposed credentials in his ‘watakushi’ mode, continuing to smile politely the entire time, his piercing yellow gaze stifled by a put-on squint. He introduced himself as Fujita Gorou, and began his sales-pitch.
The kid wasn’t buying — neither the proffered medical product nor Saitou’s pseudo-identity. Staring up with lazy suspicion, he remarked in a nearly accusatory tone that Saitou certainly had narrow eyes for a door-to-door salesman.
Saitou’s smile widened; this was exactly what he’d expected. For some reason, now he actually saw the former mercenary, he was glad the accounts of him and his skills didn’t appear to have been wrong.
He told him he’d been born that way.
The young man seized his wrist all of a sudden, twisting his palm upward so the small white spots worn into his skin by years of sword-handling came to light. Examining them for one brief moment, he raised his eyes to Saitou’s again, and this time they gleamed with wariness. No pharmacist had sword-blisters like those on his hands, he maintained.
It was an unexpected tingle that ran from the warm place where the young man touched him, and it made Saitou take a good look, in that brief moment, at the person he was about to hurt very badly. He hadn’t felt this sensation since… But there was no time for that now. The kid was demanding who he was, much more insistently than he had the first time.
Throwing pretense aside, as planned, Saitou stood straight, stopped squinting, and gave a very different smile than before.
Nothing less from Sagara Sanosuke.
The sword clattered to the floor as a knock on the front door startled him from what was nearly a trance of pure despair. Slowly, as if in a dream, he stood and left the bedroom. It was only natural to answer the door, after all… it never occurred to his hazy mind that he could just ignore it and continue into oblivion.
The sight that greeted him sent thoughts of suicide flying so fast it made him wonder dizzily if he’d even been serious enough to go through with it. He could only stand in the doorway totally still, staring blankly and unable to breathe a word.
“Just let me in,” Sano said gruffly, looking as if he would like to push past into the house but didn’t quite have the will to do so.
Saitou stood aside and allowed Sano to step by. Beginning to recover his sanity, he shut the door behind them. He knew someone else was outside, undoubtedly whoever had shown Sano the way here, but Saitou’s entire being was caught up in the unexpected and bittersweet sight of Sano inside his home again, and he couldn’t withdraw his eyes — nor could his clouded senses detect in any other manner who it might be.
Gazing around slowly, Sano stared long and hard at the mundane objects in the room. Saitou just watched, not wanting to frighten him off. Finally Sano spoke softly. “It must be true, then.”
The officer’s heart skipped a beat. “What must be true?” It was the first thing he’d said, and it came out harshly, as if he’d half-forgotten how to talk.
Sano turned to face him. “I heard that after Kyoto, you and me got over our differences… or something… and became friends.”
Saitou kept his surprise in check. Not just friends, Sano… “Who told you that?” It couldn’t have been Himura!?
With a shrug, Sano turned and began regarding the room again. “I just heard it. I didn’t think it could be true, but everything in this room is so damned familiar. Dunno why I’d want a… someone like you for a friend, though.”
Because you loved me, Sano… “It’s true,” Saitou said calmly.
Sano nodded. “Yeah, and someone suggested you might want to know if I’m alive or whatever.”
Yes… yes, I wanted to know… “I thank them for the suggestion.” Who was this oh-so-humane person that had been telling Sano all of this? Could it possibly have been Kenshin? Did he have any idea he’d just saved Saitou’s life? It didn’t mean the wolf wouldn’t later reach the same conclusion he had a few minutes ago, but the cage had dissipated and for the moment he clung to continued existence — and the joy of Sano’s presence — desperately.
For a second time, Sano turned to face him, and this time he was smiling. “Well, I’m fine, old friend.” He said the last words mockingly, and Saitou could see Sano still didn’t quite believe the story.
I love you, Sano. He wanted to say it, but couldn’t. He’d never been able to say those simple words when they were together; now, it was beyond impossible. Instead he just replied, a bit gruffly, “Thank you.”
“I still can’t see it,” Sano laughed, looking Saitou up and down. “I mean, you’ve been such a dick to me…”
I love you, Sano… “And you’re such an annoying, hot-headed idiot, I wondered about it myself.”
“Well,” Sano shrugged, “might as well get started being friends again, right? You got any food?”
Saitou couldn’t help a tiny smile, though his face seemed stiff. When was the last time he’d smiled? I love you, Sano! Another thought struck him: if Kenshin was the one responsible for this, that meant Saitou was forgiven, didn’t it? Not that he cared much for the rurouni’s forgiveness, but… If you’re behind this, Himura, I think I just might forgive you… Provided he could forgive himself. Which, if Sano stuck around for much longer, seemed nearly possible; his simple presence was like some kind of healing magic. And if Kenshin, who knew all about second chances, was willing to give Saitou one… perhaps Saitou was willing to grant himself that same favor. Perhaps. “You’re no different than before,” he said, trying to let his sudden happiness come across as amusement, leading the way into the kitchen.
Outside, Kenshin finally tore his eyes from the front door and turned to walk slowly home. Not for the first time in his life, he wondered if he’d chosen correctly. He still didn’t believe that Saitou was right for Sano, but he couldn’t bear Sano’s misery one day longer. The poor guy would probably have remembered, or found out, eventually, wouldn’t he? And Saitou… well, everyone deserved a second chance, didn’t they? Kenshin of all people knew that.
Not that any of that had made it any easier to bring Sano here half against his will (considering Sano hadn’t believed for an instant that this was what he’d been missing) — his will and Kenshin’s. There was a strange sensation in the pit of the rurouni’s stomach, like he wanted to run back there and fight Saitou, kill him even, to keep him away from Sano. But he had to face the truth: those two were connected now, if they hadn’t always been, and he really should stop trying to halt destiny. He couldn’t decide if he’d done right or wrong, but he feared it didn’t matter.
Still, perhaps there was no thread of fate connecting them after all… perhaps nothing would come of this new relationship. He knew Saitou was likely to be more careful, probably less forward, this time around — since he blamed himself for the pain Sano had gone through, both in Shishio’s fortress and the sudden memory of it. Kenshin shook his head; he didn’t feel their relationship had been healthy, but in those two points at least he considered Saitou innocent. He looked back at the house, at the thin line of smoke rising from the chimney and dissipating into the distant sky. Maybe Sano would just go home without any desire to see Saitou again.
I love you, Sano…
Only time could tell.