Where the Love-Light Gleams

“…he’s got nobody to spend Christmas with… he pretends not to care, but you should hear him whining about the Christmas music on the radio…”

Saitou isn’t terribly pleased at the approach of Christmas and the winter break; Sano thinks he knows the reason and what to do about it.


“Well! I’m gonna fail my English class,” Sano announced as he shed his backpack, sat down heavily, and placed squarely in the center of the table his tray full of tacos.

Sano’s companion, immediately pushing the tray away from where it encroached upon his own lunch space, glanced up through spidery bangs and remarked, “You were already saying that before you took the final.”

“Yeah, well, now I know for sure. Stupid little mini essays…”

“You don’t seem terribly concerned.”

Sano shrugged. “It’s hard to be really worried about anything this close to break.”

With a scowl, Saitou returned to the task of applying mustard to his sandwich. “That attitude seems to be contagious, if my last class was any indication.”

Sano always observed Saitou’s lunch with some amusement. The older man seemed to have a stock of frozen sandwiches, comprised only of meat and cheese (which would be thawed by lunch time), onto which he would then put lettuce and tomato from a ziplock and mustard from a packet. What entertained Sano most about this was the mental image of Saitou at home painstakingly laying out the meat and cheese on twenty sandwiches at a time in order to freeze them to take to work every day. Sano had long since run out of energy to tease him about it, however, so today it didn’t interrupt their conversation. “I seriously can’t blame anyone for trying not to think about the kind of finals I’m sure you give,” he grinned as he unwrapped one of his tacos. “Taking one of your classes is probably about the same as suicide.”

“So you’ve theorized before,” Saitou replied — somewhat sourly, Sano thought.

“Well, I’ve just got one more final at 1:45,” the younger man said through a mouthful of spicy beef and lettuce, “and then I’m done! Then it’s home for Christmas!”

“Idiotic song.” It seemed at first that Saitou’s statement was an answer of some sort, and Sano blinked in confusion before he realized what he’d last said had overlaid the same words emanating in wavering, sonorous tones from the speakers above.

At these latter he glanced up pointlessly as he wondered, “Is it?” He hadn’t really been paying attention to the music.

“He says he’ll be home for Christmas,” the teacher elaborated in some irritation, “that whoever he’s talking to can plan on him being there. But at the end he admits it may only happen in his dreams. With as slowly as he’s singing, they might already have made all of their plans by the time he gets around to letting them know he may not actually come home.”

Sano chuckled. “You’re right,” he admitted; “seems pretty rude. Which reminds me I forgot to email my dad.”

“You mean,” Saitou wondered with exaggerated expression and tone of incredulity, “you haven’t mentioned your plans to him every day for the last two weeks?”

“I don’t talk to my dad every day,” retorted Sano. “And I’m excited to go home, OK? You know, since my dad can afford to eat more than, like, three times a week?”

Though Saitou’s monosyllabic laugh reiterated his attitude toward poor college students — especially, Sano was all too aware, poor college students that didn’t budget very well and spent half of the week’s food money on one day’s lunch at the cafeteria Taco Bell — still he seemed to be in a worse mood than usual. Was it just because of finals?

Even in retrospect, Sano was unsure what had prompted him, that cool day back in early September, to go sit down across the little table from what was obviously a teacher ousted from the faculty lounge by the construction then in progress. He was equally uncertain why said teacher had put up with him when a mere half hour’s conversation had evinced the man’s disliking of the human race in general and freshmen in particular. How it had then become a custom for the two of them to eat lunch together every weekday, exchanging news and insults and the occasional joke, was as much a mystery as the other points. Sano liked to think there was a subconscious and perhaps precognitive explanation for it, but always reminded himself firmly not to get his hopes too high.

Of course, his hopes had to have some sort of elevation today, given what he proposed to propose… and he feared that nearly an entire semester of repressing his optimism might be responsible for the complete unpreparedness he felt for the task.

All of a sudden Saitou rolled his eyes, the motion of the irises seeming very pointedly directed toward the ceiling (and therefore, presumably, the speakers therein and the music the latter were playing).

“What now?” Sano wondered, sucking on his drink.

“Why would any sane person want to be wished a ‘merry little Christmas’ like some kind of backwater idiot?” Saitou shook his head and finished with muttered disdain, “I’m surprised the song doesn’t use the word ‘y’all’ in it anywhere.”

Leaning his chin on his fist Sano replied with a grin, “Not much into making the Yuletide gay?”

Saitou just rolled his eyes again.

Then as silence fell but for the continuation, above their heads, of the song in question, Sano took a surreptitiously deep breath, working up his courage. Finally he said, as casually as he could manage, “Speaking of Christmas, I got you a present.”

This caused Saitou to look up from his meal rather abruptly. He expressed no surprise at the announcement, however, merely stared.

Sano tried not to let Saitou hear him clearing his throat as he bent and retrieved the wrapped package from his backpack. He wasn’t exactly heartened by Saitou’s immediate raising of an eyebrow as the object changed hands.

“It’s a tie,” Saitou said flatly. It wasn’t even a remotely inquiring tone; he wasn’t guessing.

“How the hell do you know that?” demanded Sano.

“Because you were as uncreative packaging it as you were selecting it.”

“Hey, it could be anything!” Sano didn’t want to admit that, being fully conscious of the possible implications of a present, he’d chosen as generic a gift as he thought would still be even the slightest bit meaningful. “Just because it’s about the size and shape of a box a tie comes in doesn’t mean…” But he trailed off as Saitou removed the wrapping paper and disclosed the tie within.

The eyebrow rose even higher as Saitou looked, and the expression of wordless incredulity now turned toward Sano bordered on the reproving. Finally Saitou demanded, “And what on earth makes you think I would be caught dead wearing something like this?”

Despite the premonition that his gift might provoke this precise reaction, Sano felt, in addition to a little crestfallen, the stirrings of irritation. “I swear every teacher here’s got a Christmas tie except you,” he explained. “You always wear those boring ones with diamonds or those little bent teardrops with shit all over them.”

“Nobody expects the Japanese teacher to wear a Christmas tie.” Saitou glanced again through the clear plastic at the chaos of candy canes that covered the article in question, rolled his eyes, and bent to stow the present away in his briefcase. Well, at least he hadn’t refused it outright.

Sano was about to protest that Christmas was celebrated in Japan as well, but stopped himself before he’d said a single word to that effect… it really would be too embarrassing if the discussion turned to the romantic nature of that particular holiday in that particular country. Instead, he continued to defend his choice. “Hey, at least I didn’t get you one with Santa or some shit on it, OK? I mean, I saw some pretty horrible and scary ones at the store. You should be thanking me for not getting you any of those.”

With a slight smirk that seemed to arise almost in spite of himself, Saitou shook his head and returned to his food. After a few moments he said grudgingly, “I suppose I should thank you for the thought, at least.” He didn’t actually thank Sano, but, really, that was close enough… and more than Sano had expected anyway.

Saitou usually brought vegetables to eat alongside his sandwich. As with the latter, Sano had long since run out of verbal ammunition to make fun of him for his elementary-school-healthy selections (and, since Saitou never ran out of ammunition, proper eating was a subject best avoided when Sano was having tacos). But he was tempted to dredge up some of the teasing statements he’d made back when he’d still been able to think of new ones, just because the silence was beginning to feel rather heavy. Logically he knew it wasn’t any more uncomfortable than any silence between them on any day, but it seemed worse because he still hadn’t managed to ask what he really wanted to ask.

He was on his last taco, still vacillating, and Saitou was finishing off his iced tea, when the teacher made his next comment. Predictably this was, “People who write Christmas music all seem to be morons.”

“Hey, I like this one,” protested Sano.

“‘Giddy-up, jingle-horse, pick up your feet,'” Saitou repeated in a drawn-out tone of utmost scorn, and Sano had to admit that the words sounded even stupider than usual in that dark, serious voice. “It might be less irritating if the idiot who wrote it had a basic grasp of the syntax of the original song.”

“OK, when you start using words like ‘syntax,'” Sano laughed, “that’s when I really stop caring.”

“That’s because you’re an idiot too,” Saitou muttered.

Sano didn’t bother getting annoyed at this insult (which was typical in any case), mostly because he thought he knew by now what really had Saitou so irritable — and was fairly certain it wasn’t the music itself. To test his hypothesis, he actually listened to the next song that came on, and voiced the first complaint about it that sprang to mind: “If he’d take off those blue suede shoes, I bet his Christmas wouldn’t be so blue.”

Saitou lifted an eyebrow in obvious disdain. This could merely have been a criticism of Sano’s powers of criticism, but Sano felt his theory was confirmed. “I just thought you could use some help in your Grinching,” he explained.

The eyebrow rose even higher, now in skepticism. “‘Grinching?'”

“Well, you’re all kinds of hating Christmas today.”

“I’m not hating Christmas,” Saitou contradicted. “I have no feelings one way or another about Christmas. It’s this stupid music I can’t stand.”

“And my present.”

The slight shift in Saitou’s expression interested Sano; he wasn’t quite sure he could pinpoint what exactly had changed, but somehow its annoyance stood out distinctly from the previous. “If you were going to waste money,” the teacher admonished, “you might as well have bought me something useful.”

“How the hell is a tie not useful?!”

“A tie I’m likely to drop off at Goodwill next week is–”

“You wouldn’t!” Sano scowled at the other man, pounding a fist onto the table so the remains of his lunch jumped. “I know you’re a jerk, but seriously.”

Saitou’s ambiguous answering smirk indicated he was slightly cheered. This didn’t last long, however, for the moment some incredibly obnoxious chorus of kids and a consequently very creepy-sounding adult singer burst out of the speakers with the beginnings of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Saitou stood abruptly. “I need a cigarette,” was the only explanation or invitation he offered, leaving Sano to clear up the table and hasten after him as quickly as possible.

By now Sano definitely believed he knew exactly what was wrong, and also exactly how to handle it; the only remaining point of uncertainty was exactly how Saitou would respond. This resulted in a return of his nervousness as he continued to attempt to decide exactly how to word his statement. Heartened as he was by the apparent accuracy of his hypothesis, his state of encouragement had been largely canceled out by the extended response to his present. How the hell was he supposed to put this so it sounded appealing and casual and… not-stalkerish?

The issue, luckily, largely left his hands. As he joined Saitou in the frigid shadow of the building on the north side, snow crunching beneath his feet and his breath as visible as the smoke Saitou was already exhaling, his pocket gave a chirp indicating that the lack of signal inside had caused him to miss yet another call. Withdrawing his cell, he noted that this had actually been someone he wanted to talk to. Turning away from the teacher, who was watching him wordlessly, he called back. As he conversed, he couldn’t help being acutely aware of how the discussion must sound to someone that could only hear half of it:

“Hey, dad, what’s up? …nah, I just had no signal… …no, I got one more this afternoon… …pretty good, all except English, but I knew that would suck… …yep! So I’ll probably be there around three or four… …nah, I’m good… …hey… um, do you mind if I bring someone home with me? …no, not even a girl, actually; it’s a friend from school — well, sortof — actually he teaches here… …nah, he only teaches Japanese history and boring shit like that… …yeah, he is, and his family’s all still over there — and he hates them all anyway — so he’s got nobody to spend Christmas with… …no, he doesn’t have any except me, far as I can tell… he’s kindof an asshole… …nah, he pretends not to care, but you should hear him whining about the Christmas music on the radio… …no, no, you’ll like him… …really? OK, cool… …see you tomorrow, then… …yeah, bye.”

Snapping the cell phone shut, he replaced it in his pocket and took another subtly deep breath, bracing himself, before turning to face his companion. Saitou was staring at him with the same skepticism he’d displayed a couple of times already today, but now there was a touch of something else to it — curiosity, perhaps? Sano had spent a lot of time studying Saitou’s facial expressions since he’d met him, but feared it would take a good deal longer than a single semester — years, maybe — to understand them completely. And he refused to allow himself to believe there was some kind of pleased surprise in that look. Just in case.

“Well?” he asked, trying hard not to allow his tone to express his uncertainty. The precise interpretation of Saitou’s arrangement of features still eluded him, so Sano added, “Your last class is done by eleven tomorrow, right? Think you can stand to sit in a car with me for, like, four hours?”

Finally Saitou’s stillness broke as he raised his cigarette to his lips, but his eyes hadn’t left Sano’s face; Sano thought his expression was more contemplative now than anything else. At last he said, “That depends.”

“On?”

“On whether you’re going to play any Christmas music during the drive.”

A huge wave of relief and joy washed over Sano at these words, but, remembering that he wanted to seem not-stalkerish, he restrained himself from any overt display of any such emotion. “I thought you wouldn’t care so much,” was his reply instead, “now that your Christmas isn’t going to suck.”

“You have an inordinately high opinion of your own entertainment value.”

“Hey, my family’s plenty entertaining,” objected Sano with a grin.

“And you think your dad will like me,” the teacher mused, stepping to the ash tray to dispose of his cigarette butt. After this, however, he made no motion to go back into the building.

Cold as it was, Sano felt his heart warmed by the thought that Saitou didn’t mind standing out here in the snow, with him, all alone, making plans with him to go home with him and meet his family. That seemed like considerable progress for someone that didn’t think too highly of the human race in general and freshmen in particular; actually, it seemed like the best Christmas present Sano had received in many years.

“He’ll like you better if you wear that tie,” he said, grin widening.

“You’re already getting me to help you celebrate a holiday that means almost nothing to me,” replied Saitou, his smirk also widening slightly. “Don’t push your luck.”


This story is very unremarkable, and I’ve rated it , but it might have been better if I’d ever gotten around to writing the second half of it. Let’s take a look at what I had written, shall we?

*

It had taken Saitou an anomalously long time to see the truth. Neither the unprecedented companionship nor the unexpected present nor even the surprising invitation had given him a clue. He might have begun to realize what was going on by his own happy reaction to that invitation or the unanticipated pleasure he’d taken in the four-hour drive to Sano’s hometown, if those hadn’t been so engrossing — and, therefore, distracting — in themselves. In fact, it was not until they’d reached their destination and greetings and introductions were over with that Saitou had his first real, jolting hint at the truth.

The little sister, Uki, had apparently demanded more space in which to do her homework, and thus what had previously been the spare room was now devoted to computer desks. It was Sano’s reaction to the news that his guest would have to sleep on one storey of his own bunk bed that gave him away: a startled look and noise accompanied by an intense blush he immediately tried to hide — all of them just a little too vehement for the news in question.

Saitou’s own surprise was equally great, simply because the concept had never crossed his mind. Looking back at his interaction with Sano over the last three months, he was consequently disposed to think himself somewhat blind. But, then, the general consensus around here seemed to be a certain set of idiotic stereotypes for men that liked other men, and perhaps he’d subconsciously absorbed that attitude to the exclusion of more logical reality.

Now all he had to do was decide how he felt about this.

In the meantime, Sano had shaken himself out of his shocked stupor and accepted the situation with a show of backbone. But there wasn’t much mystery behind his excessive sudden embarrassment in his room when he unthinkingly asked, “Do you want top or bottom?”

And perhaps the fact that Saitou immediately, amusedly ran his eyes up and down Sano rather than the bed before answering, “Top, I think,” helped at least to start answering the question about how Saitou felt. He’d never really looked at Sano in this light before; he’d been aware that the kid was good-looking, thanks both to his objective observation thus far and to the reactions of others that made it rather absurdly evident, but that awareness had been nothing but clinical up until now. Now… perhaps it was evolving.

*

Uki has several of her barely-teenage friends over for a Christmas party to celebrate the end of school. Several of them are all googly-eyed over Uki’s hot brother and Uki’s hot brother’s hot friend.

*

A gesture from one of the high-schoolers caught his eye, and he noticed that Uki and another girl were having an intense, rather giggly conversation behind their hands. It seemed to involve looking over at him a lot. Not really interested in what they might be saying, he turned away again — only to find Sano’s eyes, narrowed with suspicion, pointed in the direction Saitou’s had just been. Finally Sano also looked back, looked around, and abruptly turned red.

Saitou wasn’t sure what had caused Sano’s blush this time, but the boy’s embarrassment was getting more and more difficult to pretend to ignore. In a pointed effort to do so, however, he directed his attention again toward the girls… and that was when he caught the whispered word ‘mistletoe.’

He didn’t glance upward. He didn’t need to.

Now he couldn’t look at Sano or Sano’s sister, and the one consolation, as things currently stood, was that if the little girl did work up the nerve to kiss him — something Sano certainly wouldn’t do — watching Sano’s reaction was a guaranteed source of entertainment that might fully make up for it.

*

Sano’s dad asks them to set out the Christmas stuff for him on Christmas Eve, since Outa has caught on to the secret and will be staking out dad’s room. They do this, and then, before heading back to Sano’s bedroom…

*

“I believe…” he began pensively, giving Sano a thoughtful stare. Sano wasn’t looking at him, however, so Saitou left it at that for the moment. When Sano finally did glance over, curious, Saitou finished. “You noticed that mistletoe before your sister did. I believe that means you owe me a kiss.”

“What?!”

*

Outa, coming to check whether the presents are somehow there, walks in on them kissing.

*

“Are you guys gay?”

The concept ‘bisexual’ was not really something he wanted to explain to an eight-year-old, let alone the even more difficult ‘bi-curious’ — so Saitou just nodded.

“OK,” said the boy, and turned toward the Christmas tree.

*

Bit of a shame I never finished that, isn’t it? It’s pretty damn cute. But more things are a greater shame than just the lack of a fun second half of a mediocre story.

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


Hopeless Cause



I’m enjoying a cup of tea before I get on with my other chores, watching the clean laundry wave slightly in a light, cool breeze, when Sano wanders in. His looks have been unusually despondent lately, but as yet I haven’t been able to get him to tell me why. Today he seems even more cast down than before, sighing as he sinks onto the porch beside me, and looks as if he hasn’t slept well the last few nights.

I return his unenthusiastic greeting, and that I can do so with “Good morning, Sano” is another indication something is wrong; usually we don’t see Sano here until the afternoon. I don’t delay in asking him, though I doubt he’ll be any more forthcoming than he has been the last few times I’ve inquired.

“I don’t know,” he replies somewhat dully. When he sees me patiently waiting for elaboration, he sighs again and goes on. “I mean I really don’t know. I don’t know if I’m going crazy or what.”

He doesn’t appreciate being pressed to explain his feelings, so I simply wait. And since I’m sure he never had such consideration from him, maybe that will invite him to open up to me.

“It’s been months,” he says in a tone of protestation, as if responding to some conversation we haven’t actually had yet, then adds more softly, “Five months.”

I don’t correct him out loud; picking at Sano’s inexactness is something he would do. Four months and twenty-five days is close enough to five, at any rate. And at least now I have a general idea of what’s bothering him. I’m not exactly shocked.

Sano sighs and mutters, “I just wish I knew if this is normal, or if…” And he shakes his head.

I want to shake him, to insist he tell me what’s wrong, to demand, “Why could he always get you to literally shout out what you were feeling, but I have to sit through your uncertain mutterings and head-shakings just to get a hint?” But I won’t do anything of the sort; I won’t be like him. Still, I can’t bring myself to say nothing, so after several moments of silence I prod gently, “If what is normal, Sano?”

“That I can’t stop thinking about him,” he finally admits. “I knew it would stick around for a while — I know that’s normal — but I figured it would stop eventually… but it hasn’t.”

I want to sigh. I want to tell Sano that he isn’t worth thinking about and that, normal or otherwise, such obsessing isn’t healthy or wise. But at the same time, I want to be supportive of my friend like he never was. So I merely ask politely, “What kind of things do you think about him?”

“I can’t stop going over every little thing we said…” he replies, staring hard at the ground. “And then how I feel about it keeps changing. One minute I’m justifying something one of us said, and the next I’m blaming it for everything that happened. Is that normal?”

Is it normal to try endlessly to untangle the dynamics of a relationship that was destined from the beginning to be twisted and confusing? But while he might be more than willing to write Sano’s efforts off as pointless and tell him to find something better to do, I won’t be so callous. “So you are trying to assign blame?”

“Well…” I don’t think he would have gone on if I hadn’t asked. Why can’t he confide in me? “I thought I knew exactly whose fault it was back then, but now… goddammit…” He’s speaking with a little more energy than before as the emotions associated with his thoughts creep into his words. “First it’s mine, then it’s his, then it’s neither of us, then it’s both… there’s no right answer.”

I know the right answer: he was always the unreasonable one, and the only thing Sano did wrong in leaving was putting it off for so long. But somehow I don’t believe expressing that opinion so forcefully will encourage Sano to continue; I must remain relatively impartial. I can’t help asking, though, “Why do you blame yourself at all?”

He shrugs. “Little things. I keep thinking if only I’d said this or if I hadn’t done that… even when I’m pissed as hell remembering something he said or did, something inside me still wonders, What could I have done different? That’s not normal, is it?”

The whole thing wasn’t normal, Sano. Your attraction to him, your interaction with him, the way he treated you — none of it was normal. It would be so easy to open my mouth and just tell him all of this, tell him this and more, what I’ve wanted to for so long… but I won’t. There’s a time and a place for disparaging bluntness — something he needs to learn — and this isn’t it.

“But it’s not just that kind of shit, all about how it ended.” Finally Sano seems to be willing to go on without my prompting him. “It’s like something in my head still thinks we’re together, because everything I do, practically everything I just see, like walking down the street, I’m thinking of telling him about it before I even remember I’m not going to be talking to him anytime soon.”

He very rarely tells me about things he sees walking down the street, and he talks to me all the time. Am I surprised? Not particularly. Close to miserable? Yes.

“And I’ll think things… just stupid shit, the usual stuff I think whenever… and even though I know what he’d say if I told him — god, and it wouldn’t even be nice — I still want to tell him. Is that normal? I mean, it’s been five fucking months and I’m still wanting to tell him fucking everything…”

Him fucking everything and me almost nothing. Is that normal? Is it normal for a man to ignore his best friend — somebody who’s always there for him, would do anything for him — and throw away all his effort and thought and affection on someone who never deserved or appreciated it?

“And I remember things just out of the blue, and they affect me way the hell more than they should. The other day I remembered some funny conversation we had once, and it made me laugh ’til I was crying… or I’ll suddenly think about the last time he kissed me, and–” He turns away as he breaks off abruptly, obviously unwilling to tell me what reaction he had to that memory. I’m not sure I’m entirely disappointed he didn’t continue. There’s a part of me that wants desperately to know that kind of physical detail; it’s largely overridden by my politer side, but there’s no denying it’s there.

“And you know I’m a pretty happy guy most of the time,” he goes on, perhaps a little too quickly, “but every once in a while if something goes wrong, why the hell is it him I keep thinking of going to? Lately it’s been building up worse than usual. I’ve been trying to ignore it — that and all the rest of it — but I can’t help feeling like it’s just not normal to be thinking all of this after this long. I mean, at first, sure, but still?”

He pounds his face against his fist, and with his elbow propped on his knee and his leg drawn up so his foot can press against the porch pillar, his body appears strangely cramped and contorted — though perhaps it’s more his emotional state giving that impression.

“Tell me I’m not going crazy, Kenshin.” He looks up at me now almost imploringly, and I can see how much this really has him worried. “Tell me this is normal.”

If ever I wanted to call my friend an idiot, this is the moment. That he can be so utterly blind, both to what’s in his own heart and what’s right in front of him… He almost deserves to be ridiculed. But of course I won’t. It’s completely reprehensible to call the person you love an idiot, and I won’t be like him.

“Yes, Sano, that is all quite normal…” I take a deep breath, steeling myself, before finishing the statement. “…if you still love him.”

Sano is staring at me now, his mouth open slightly as if he was about to make some further point and suddenly has no breath left to say it with. His face, rather than red with the blush I was expecting, is actually a little pale. “I don’t…” he stammers. “I never… It wasn’t…”

My smile feels more patient and sad than teasing. “Yes, you did, Sano,” I tell him gently. It’s hard to continue, desperately hard, but I’m not the type that neglects to mention important details to his associates. That’s something he does. “And I think you still do.”

“But he…” Sano has gone even paler, and the fact that this concept is such a shock to him tempts me more than ever to apply that affectionately insulting epithet I know perfectly well Sano is only willing to receive from him.

And this is, quite possibly, the most painfully difficult thing I’ve ever said. “Sano, I would be very surprised if he does not love you in return.” Even if he doesn’t deserve to, I don’t add. Even if he barely has any idea what love is. Even if he could never come close to returning the kind of love you’re capable of. I would be very surprised, because anyone who knows you and doesn’t love you is completely insane.

“But… but it’s been five months,” Sano protests, and now I can hear, to my sorrow, a tone in his voice that is something like the beginnings of desperate hope. “He hasn’t said anything…”

“And neither have you,” I remind him quietly. I can’t go so far as to make a suggestion; from my very soul I’m aching to advise him to give up, to forget, to move on, to live down the emotion he’s finally recognizing, but after those few words I keep silent.

Sano stands abruptly. “God dammit…” he mutters, more to himself than to me, but I can read the purpose in that purposeless exclamation. I think I know Sano better than he ever could, and I can hear the self-castigation in that curse. He wonders why it took him so long to see; he wonders how badly he’s wounded the person he’s only just realized he loves; he wonders if it’s too late.

He turns to me at last, and his eyes are full now of pain and determination. At first he has nothing to say, and neither do I, so for several moments we stare at each other in silence. And, somewhat guiltily I must admit, I can’t help hoping that while our gazes are thus locked and Sano is in this mood of perception, he’ll somehow begin to notice at last how I feel. My emotions are mixed when, unsurprisingly, he doesn’t.

“Thank you,” he says intensely.

I can only nod, even as he turns to leave me.

Do I hope it won’t work out? Do I wish him failure in his endeavor, to see him back here within an hour even more unhappy than before? No. Unlike him, I don’t hold grudges. And I know a hopeless cause when I champion it. Still, I wouldn’t complain if this heaviness, this dark turmoil in the back of my head, this uncomfortable pressure on my heart were to abate somewhat.

With a slight sigh I stand and glance around the courtyard. Life goes on, after all; I suppose I’d better get started with the rest of my chores. But I do turn again before going inside and watch Sano walk away with a much lighter step than when he approached.

“Ahou ga…”


This story was for 30_kisses theme #4 “Our distance and that person.” I’ve rated it .

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


More Than Just His Scent


Saitou had an excellent sense of smell, especially when it came to things that were important in his life, such as blood or Sano. Thus he could easily discern that Sano had been wearing his uniform. Why Sano had been wearing his uniform was something he couldn’t begin to guess, but Sano’s distracting scent suffused the material covering his body and made it nearly impossible to think of anything else all the way to work. Sano was going to pay for this.

The younger man’s dogged independence prevented him from officially moving in with Saitou, despite the condition of his own quarters and the fact that he spent more than half his nights at the officer’s house anyway — so it hadn’t been entirely surprising not to find Sano there when Saitou returned home from his business trip… but had the purpose of Sano’s absence been to escape punishment on the eventual discovery of his uniform-borrowing trick, or to worsen the latter by forcing Saitou to smell him all day when he hadn’t seen or touched him for a week?

Immediately inside the door to his office, Saitou bent his head and brought the unbuttoned collar of his jacket to his face, inhaling deeply. He couldn’t describe it — it wasn’t particularly similar to the smell of anything else he could recall — and, really, he had very little inclination to try; but it was more or less intoxicating.

Sano couldn’t have done anything particularly strenuous — or even, most likely, what Saitou would have expected (taken a nap, that is) — given the still-relatively-crisp state of the clothes when Saitou had pulled them from the closet; actually Saitou was a little surprised the careless young man had managed to refold them so neatly in the first place. But what had he done? Saitou could just imagine Sano strolling around town dressed as a cop… Sano, with his tenuous grasp of legality and occasional tendency to vigilantism. If he’d done anything stupid in public wearing a police uniform, he was really going to get it.

With a sigh Saitou dropped into the chair at his desk and, unconcerned with the effect this might have on the garment, dragged a handful of the black shirt under his jacket to his face. The shirt smelled even more heavily of Sano; whatever he had or hadn’t done, he must have been wearing it for some hours. Saitou was inconveniently curious.

It did occur to him that Sano might have put the uniform on for the same reason he was sitting here smelling it now — if the thing reminded him of Sano after presumably only a few hours, the memory of the man that wore it every day probably never washed out. And the thought of Sano wishing to surround himself with his lover’s scent while Saitou was far away brought a hot, happy feeling into the wolf’s chest as images of his roosterhead arose in his mind. If he had Sano here right now, he would give him more than just his scent.

Even his gloves smelled like Sano. Saitou’s eyes drifted shut as he breathed it in. Yes, if he had Sano here…

He knew perfectly well he might be making more of this than was actually the case. He had an excellent sense of smell, it was true, and definitely did detect Sano’s aroma in his clothes, but wishful thinking born of his week-long absence might be exaggerating it. He didn’t care; the remembered and anticipated sensations of Sano’s body against his were not something he wanted to dismiss just yet, whatever their source.

“Uh… boss?” Confusion and amusement warred in Chou’s voice, and for good reason: Saitou had been stationary for at least a minute with his hand to his face, eyes closed and mind far away. And somehow he hadn’t noticed he’d neglected both to lock his office door and Chou’s presence. Damn that distracting boy of his. He was definitely going to get it. Which, Saitou considered as he chased his grinning subordinate from the room, might have been Sano’s only intention all along.


I’ve rated this story .

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


I Dream I Know Not How



“When he said you’d gone completely mad, he wasn’t exaggerating.”

“I… wanted to talk to you,” Sano admitted, feeling foolish.

You spend most of your time talking to me. Your neighbors think you’re insane.

“Well, none of them are here right now, are they? That’s kinda the point.”

Ahou.

“Why’d you just leave the other night, anyway? Didn’t even say goodbye or anything.”

Do you think I’m at your disposal? That I have nothing better to do?

“Course not. Not like I have any real idea what you do these days, but still… you… missed what I had to say.”

Hmm, what an extraordinary pity.

Sano gave a sigh, amused and exasperated. “Well, listen now, all right? Don’t go running off, or floating off, or whatever you do at this point.”

In exchange, try not to make it too boring.

Sano chose not to respond to this jab either. “Look, what I want to tell you is…” Even without having to meet an intense golden stare while making this statement, it was difficult to spit out. “You’ve changed me. You held me to your standard while you were alive — I practically had no choice but to be a better person — and even after you were dead you wouldn’t let me throw my life away. So it’s like you saved me twice. But no matter how hard I try, I can’t get to your level. The only thing I can ever really do is wish for it and want to touch it and want…” Finally, finally he came to the point. “And want you. Not like that’s possible now, I know, but at least I want you to know… I love you. And I’d kinda like to know how you feel about me back.”

There was a very long, and to Sano very tense silence. Eventually Saitou simply remarked, Hn…

“What does that mean? Is ‘I love you’ too boring, or what?”

Maybe, when you’ve said it twice before.

“What the– you did hear me then? Why didn’t you say anything?”

Saitou had no reply.

“Any chance you could stop being an asshole and say something? Right, like you could ever stop being an asshole. Why the hell do I love you, anyway? Could you at least tell me that?”

Still no answer.

“Guess it bothers you to hear me say it, huh? Well, suck it up, bastard. I love you, I love you, I love you. You hear me?” And he flung his gaze into the sky, shaking an irate, clenched fist upward. “I love you!!”

The water was now even blacker than it had been that day, its increased darkness in some ways more enticing and in some more horrific. It stretched like a shadow, a deep endless shadow you could easily blend into… or, at least, somebody with dark hair and dark clothing could. Sano would stand out, a blemish on the water, until he sank and was entirely forgotten, not by choice but because he just wasn’t good enough.

Eventually he stirred from his motionless stare, and his limbs felt heavy and sluggish. It took more effort than it should have to haul himself up onto the railing. The water appeared even closer now, despite its being technically a few feet farther from him. He glanced around at the rest of the dark world. Why did it seem he was expecting something? Expecting someone? Expecting… Saitou… to say something… What would Saitou say?

Well, he probably wouldn’t bother trying to stop Sano, but he wouldn’t miss the opportunity to mock him. What are you doing, ahou?

“What does it look like I’m doing, old man?” Sano replied to the hypothetical question out loud.

And just what do you intend to accomplish with that?

He had no answer.

Do you think you’ll be helping anyone? Saitou would persist. Do you think the state of the world will improve? Do you think anything you’ve ever lived for will be carried out in that kind of death?

“Well, no, but…” That would be a fairly good point.

But what?

“I… don’t know…”

A typically well formulated justification.

“Pretty sure you’re dead, bastard,” Sano growled, as if Saitou could really hear it. “Why do I have to justify myself to you anyway?”

It makes no difference to me, of course. Rushing into things without thinking is what you’re best at. This will be particularly glorious — something you’re not even sure about but can’t take back once it’s done. Yes, you’ll really outdo yourself here, boy.

“You just don’t want me to come bug you in the afterlife.”

That could be.

“Well, if you still hate me so damn much, why don’t you just stop haunting me?”

For this the fictional Saitou had no answer. But suddenly, whether it was the hazily imagined conversation, the thought of Saitou actually haunting him — watching him, demanding concrete reasons for this course of action — or something else entirely, the blackness in the water below did not look nearly so enticing. Staring down, Sano’s eyes grew wide and he began to shake. That’s right… it wouldn’t help anything… it would only make things worse. What had he been thinking?

Oh, were you thinking something?

“Shut up… just shut the hell up…”

He imagined he could hear Saitou chuckling.

The state of his body, half-forgotten on the way out in his previous frame of mind, reiterated itself now as he tore himself from the bridge and threw himself toward home, and his walk turned almost to a stagger. “Goddammit,” he grumbled breathlessly, “I might as well be dead.”

Of course he would have to make further effort eventually… he did have to eat. But as he still dreaded further questioning, it was at least another day before he tried. That made it he did not know how long since he’d had any food; he couldn’t imagine how he looked to the others in the scummy little restaurant to which he eventually dragged himself… since he had no problem getting a meal on credit, it must have been either intimidating or pitiable. At any rate, he wasn’t disturbed as he ate, and his mood slowly grew less black.

He started leaning toward the ‘intimidating’ theory, however pathetic he felt, when on the way out the door he nearly ran into an incoming restaurant patron whose reaction was to yelp, jump, and scurry out of the way. Normally Sano would stop and talk to the guy — make sure he was all right, probably tease him for being twitchy, find out if he wanted to buy a drink for the ex-mercenary that had startled him so badly — but today he didn’t feel up to it, and moved on without looking back.

He’d already muttered, “I’m as scary as you, I guess,” before he even realized he was thinking of Saitou again. Still.

You’ve always been somewhat frightening, Saitou replied easily, as if he’d been expecting Sano’s remark perhaps more even than Sano had, if only because of your terrifying fashion sense…

“Hey, now,” Sano grunted, but did not continue as Saitou went on.

But I think a drug-addict river rat like that would probably jump the same way no matter who he bumped into. It could be that shy little girl from the Akabeko and he’d still probably piss himself if she surprised him.

The image of Tsubame scaring a man twice her size out of his self-control just by appearing in a doorway was unexpectedly hilarious, and the laughter it induced unexpectedly relieving. “Shit, I can just picture her face,” Sano chortled. “Tsubame…! I love you…”

His laughter stopped along with his movement and breathing.

Had he really just said that out loud?

He hadn’t meant it like that; it had merely been an expression of appreciation, albeit a stronger one than he might normally have used — his tone must have been enough to convey this — but once the words were out, he found himself frozen in place with his head spinning. Because now that he thought about it…

Now that he’d said it, couldn’t take it back, couldn’t help but think about it…

Now that he’d slipped…

“Maybe I really do,” he whispered.

He’d been anticipating ridicule for the original statement alone; in response to this addendum he didn’t know what to expect. Certainly he did not hope. It was a foolish thing to have admitted so carelessly, to have realized so late. So… late…

Suddenly he did not feel at all well.

He stood very still, waiting for Saitou’s derision.

It did not come.

His breathing returned to normal and the nausea receded gradually, yet he heard nothing but the wind. He couldn’t say that whatever cruel remark he’d been expecting was worse than this, but no response at all he simply could not deal with. “Saitou?” he queried.

Still no answer.

Sano looked slowly around. Of course he saw nothing more than he ever did… but he felt very much alone.

Saitou hadn’t heard, then. He didn’t know.

The state of his body, half-forgotten on the way out in his previous frame of mind, reiterated itself now as he tore himself from the bridge and threw himself toward home, and his walk turned almost to a stagger. “Goddammit,” he grumbled breathlessly, “I might as well be dead.”

Too weak to handle a little pain?

“Thought I told you to shut up,” Sano snarled, as if Saitou, living or otherwise, would actually do as Sano told him.

Which hurts more, came the easy tone, the pain or the truth about yourself?

“I didn’t go through with it, did I?”

You had to be talked down.

“Not like it’s totally unheard-of for someone to get suicidal.”

Yes, you’re perfectly normal… very mainstream… You help people in ways that will get them killed, you try to kill yourself and don’t know why, and you talk to dead cops.

“Guess that makes us pretty damn similar, then, since you did the same thing and did get yourself killed so you are a fucking dead cop who doesn’t seem like he’s got anything better to do than hang around talking to me!”

Nobody ever suggested I was normal.

“Ch…” Sano was home by now, and fell to his futon gratefully, dragging an arm across his eyes although there was no light in the room to block them against. He lay silent for a long time, getting his breath back and letting the trembling stop. He needed something to eat and then he would certainly be all right.

Even before Saitou wondered idly, Nothing more to say? Sano could not feel entirely alone in the room, but with his vision obscured it almost did seem the other man was actually present.

“Hey,” Sano asked in a weary and nearly indifferent tone, “are you really here?”

Of course not. When was the last time you talked to a ghost?

A little startled by the question, Sano paused in the slow act of sitting up, supported on one elbow and still half recumbent. “Not too long ago, actually…” He hauled himself up and glanced around at the empty apartment. “But I still don’t think I believe this.”

Do as you please.

“Yeah, I always do.” Sano stood and shuffled to a cupboard to see if he had any food.

You know it’s empty. You’ve checked it every day since you came home.

Sano didn’t feel like explaining that in repressing the awareness of the cupboard’s emptiness and going to look as if it might contain something, there was a pleasure, if not equal to eating, better at least than lying around realistically contemplating the lack of food in his possession. What he did say was, “Seems like it’s gonna get real crowded around here pretty quick.”

If you had a job, you could afford a bigger apartment.

“Fuck you,” Sano replied, turning toward the door to go find somewhere to freeload.

Telling his buddies the story of his wounds did not appeal to him. Katsu undoubtedly already knew about the kidnapping-related events, and talking to him about it didn’t really appeal to Sano either. Obviously the dojo was out of the question. This was going to take a little more effort than usual.

But more effort was exactly what he didn’t have to expend. For the night was different now, colder and heavier — so heavy, in fact, it seemed to weigh on Sano’s shoulders and slow his steps until walking became useless for as far as it was likely to get him before he inevitably collapsed. He felt suddenly very weak. Weak in more ways than he’d often worried about in all his energetic days.

The sky looked like the water had: black and ready to swallow everything. He faltered to a complete halt as he stared up. There was a feeling of grasping emptiness to it that matched his soul, or perhaps it was just that the coldness of his frame and the coldness of the stars seemed to be one and the same. And he was still in pain.

Even if he wanted to ignore certain conclusions, wanted to forget certain emotions, the wounds would not let him… so he gave up, gave in, and started to ponder the last few weeks: the news, the coincidence, his own decisions, the bridge… Had Saitou actually had some hand in those events? Had he actually shown up, just at the right time in the right place to keep Sano from suicide? Was he still here, still near Sano, even now?

It didn’t really matter.

“Thank you,” Sano told the man, wherever and whatever he was, in a gruff murmur, forcing his gaze now toward the ground rather than that disturbing sky. Then, almost as if he couldn’t contain the words, he added, “You know, I don’t really hate you. I never did.”

There was no answer.

He stumbled back home.

Of course he would have to make further effort eventually… he did have to eat.

If Saitou were here, he would ask why Sano had done it. But it wouldn’t mean quite the same thing coming from him.

This was Sano’s first coherent thought, though Sano himself was far from coherent. It seemed too much of an effort to struggle for real consciousness, and he didn’t mind how disordered and incohesive was the parade of images marching past his mind’s eye, the play of sounds that did not always match.

Kenshin, solemn and quiet, telling him the news. There was no ambiguity this time. There could be no mistaking the matter. There was no misunderstanding, misinformation, or misinterpretation. Kenshin had seen the body.

His head hurt so much. Someone was talking, but he couldn’t quite hear any words just yet.

Footsteps, swift and urgent, coming his direction. They pounded across the bridge on which he stood. He looked up.

“…boy and his fiance were killed…” There were the words at last, still a bit distorted.

He’d been the only one Kenshin had told, because he’d been the only one Kenshin had thought would care. In that supposition he was wrong, of course. Sano had never cared.

“…should have gone to the police…” He wondered if he’d taken a blow to the side of his head that might have done something to his hearing.

The river beneath him. That was the only real reason the news was so unsettling — because the river he looked out on was gilded by the sunset to just the color of Saitou’s eyes. He’d thought that old man would never go. Well, he’d thought that old man was invincible. But Kenshin had been in Kyoto by coincidence just then, and had seen the body. Had made sure to see the body, so there could be no mistake this time.

His chest hurt; he thought he was breathing shallowly, out there on the other side of consciousness where he could not quite reach.

Although he didn’t care, he questioned Kenshin rather carefully about circumstances, as he’d been deceived once and didn’t want it to happen again. Kenshin gave explicit answers to the best of his knowledge.

Apparently Saitou had gone alone to attempt the rescue of a abducted child, feeling he would have a better chance at infiltrating the kidnappers’ hideout by himself. But he’d been discovered and the enemies’ numbers had been greater than was generally supposed. Greater even than Mibu no Ookami could handle on his own. Although Kenshin did hint that Saitou might have been more aware of that beforehand than he’d let on. That perhaps there had been more… bravado… in the act than many others believed. At any rate, he was killed, as was the hostage; the police were still looking into the affair, but now there was no longer any hope of recovering the abductee, the case was likely to be dropped rather quickly.

Sano could see it all, even when only half awake. He could picture every detail: Saitou striking blow after deadly blow but slowly hemmed in by an overwhelming group of thugs, falling finally of many wounds… the last justice the wolf would ever deal out.

“…what was he thinking?”

The bridge. The figure of a much-distressed youth whose rich fiance had been kidnapped from under his nose. It was just too tempting, too perfect — too coincidental. Did you set this up, old man? Sano wondered. But Saitou would not have answered such a stupid question. “Don’t bother with the police,” he said. “They fuck everything up. I’ll go get her out.”

“But why did he do it?” That was the question the voices all kept asking. Saitou would have asked that too, if he were here. If he were still alive. Except that Saitou wouldn’t mean it the way they did. Saitou saw through everything, and Sano knew he would know.

The light that shone on his closed eyelids was as golden as the river had been.

The river. He knew what Saitou would say if he saw him here, watching the shining water roll away beneath him endlessly in the long dusk and thinking fixedly of a rival he would never see again. It would be something to the purpose of, Ahou — because that was how it always started — why don’t you find something productive to do?

And he probably should. After all, it wasn’t as if he cared. But then the sun set completely, and the water seemed to burn for a moment and then go black, like a bright flame suddenly extinguished. And Sano wondered… had it been like that? Had the fire in Saitou’s eyes gone out that abruptly? From gold to crimson to sable in an instant, just so?

Saitou would mock him: A little fanciful, are we? But Sano couldn’t help thinking that so it must have been. Also that it was terribly inviting, such a deep black color of death. He couldn’t blame Saitou for having accepted it. The best way to go would be to flame and burn out; would Saitou have thought so too?

And perhaps now…

And then the footsteps.

Too convenient, he reflected at the thought of the circumstance and its timing. You really must have set this one up.

“…should have known it was too big for him to handle alone…” He wondered if voices had asked the same questions, made the same comments, if in perhaps more hushed tones, after Saitou’s failure. Although he noticed Kenshin had no input. Kenshin probably saw through it too; he alone knew how similar Sano’s situation had been to the one he’d described earlier that very day. He must have his guesses as to why Sano had been so foolish.

“Hey, bro, haven’t you heard of me? You’ve got Zanza on your side now!” The young man seemed to perk up at this, and didn’t mind so much the idea of leaving the police out of the business. But still he insisted on coming along too. Well, that was fine. Sano could show off a little.

His body hurt all over: bruised, he thought. Lots of heavy bruises. As soon as he woke fully, he would be able to move and figure out if he had any cuts or broken bones.

There were too many of them, and the girl was too front and central for him to get her out first and then go down fighting. He’d left behind the days when he’d refused to admit he was dangerously outnumbered, and now he knew perfectly well this was not a battle he could win.

Saitou must have known that too.

“…but I don’t understand why he…”

Yes, if Saitou were still alive, he would surely say the same. Except that he would have seen the answer to the immediate question and would be asking something a bit more profound:

There were better ways you could have chosen to be like me. Why would you want to die like I did?

And Sano would have no answer for him.

No more than for the other question Saitou would probably ask — Why did you want to die at all?

He was waking up now, slowly, finally. He must have made some noise, probably a groan at the heightening pain as consciousness approached, for the conversation whose bits and pieces had been reaching him through the haze abruptly ceased. Or perhaps more time had passed than he realized, and they’d all gone away.

He could open only one of his eyes; the other ached and stung, obviously swollen. His throat ached with dryness, so much that he could make nothing more than a croaking sound when he tried to speak.

Megumi appeared, blurry and overly bright, and gave him a little water. She spoke no word, but her eyes were like books, and what Sano read in them made his heart sink. It was more than just Why did you? — it was You shouldn’t have. As if she were at all qualified to make that judgment when she didn’t know why… but he might be imagining things.

“Sano,” Kenshin’s voice said.

Now to see if Kenshin saw through it. He didn’t always see things the way Saitou had, so maybe he couldn’t tell.

“Yeah,” Sano rasped. “Hello.”

“I’m glad you are awake,” Kenshin said.

Sano honestly couldn’t bring himself to say the same. Despite the chaos of his jumbled thoughts, being halfway conscious had been a good deal less painful than being fully so. And he didn’t like Kenshin’s tone. So the only answer he made was inarticulate and low.

“Sano, please do not do that again.” It was a tone that tried not to be hurt or reproving, and failed.

For several moments Sano was tempted to reply, “Do what, Kenshin?” as if he didn’t know perfectly well his friend had him figured out. But he had a sneaking suspicion, somehow, that pretending ignorance, forcing Kenshin to explain it to him plainly, would not make him feel much better. So finally he merely said, “I won’t.” And didn’t add, Unless another coincidence like that pops up. Actually, he tried not to admit that thought even to himself.

“Thank you,” said Kenshin softly.

That was the worst it got, but the next step down was almost less tolerable for being more protracted. Megumi, Kaoru, and Yahiko, not to mention the other friends that came to visit, were ignorant of the true depth of the circumstances, so all they could do was ask why… but that was enough.

“Let’s have a look at this thick skull of yours,” Megumi would say, sardonically pleasant, then add silently, with real darkness, “Why did you give me more work for no good reason?”

“I brought you lunch, Sanosuke!” Kaoru would chirp, turning severe with, “And don’t you say a word about how it tastes!” But her true comment was, “Why did you ruin everyone’s peace?”

“If you don’t hurry up and get better, I’m gonna move into your place,” Yahiko threatened. What he really meant was, “Why did you let me down?”

Sano pretended to need a lot more sleep than he was actually getting.

Kenshin saw through this, of course, and his ever-present and far more penetrating “Why?” was the worst of all.

Saitou hadn’t heard, then. He didn’t know. But, again, now he’d been forced by his own carelessness to think about it, Sano couldn’t decide whether this was good or bad. Did he want Saitou to know? It was too late now anyway, and what could Saitou possibly say in response? Even if he didn’t tear Sano to pieces for his foolishness, it was still… too late. A certain nausea, the same that had twisted his stomach the first time, again threatened his already-dubious physical well-being every time he considered the matter, and this as well as everything else that had happened lately made Sano doubt himself. He wasn’t as certain of the clarity of his own reflections as he would like… should he really share them with someone else, someone so… capable of hurting him… if he wasn’t sure?

He lay awake, or half-awake, meandering through pain and dreams and contemplating this question for hours in the darkness… and eventually reached the conclusion (a conclusion he perhaps should have expected and therefore reached much sooner) that some things needed to be said regardless of the outcome. Regardless of his state of mind.

Coming out with something like that, seriously saying it aloud, premeditated and deliberate, wasn’t as easily done as it was decided upon, however. Days passed before he managed to work up the requisite resolve (he couldn’t quite call it nerve, as he couldn’t quite call what held him back fear), and during that time he grew restless and agitated. It didn’t help that Saitou said little and Sano had no hint of a clue about what the response might be when he finally managed to tell him.

Eventually he forced himself out of the quiet apartment and took to the streets. He had no idea where he was going, but the impetus to movement had something to do with not wanting to see or be seen by anyone. Anyone living, that is. He felt his confession nearly ready, that it was creeping up on him, and he didn’t want to be around people when it burst out.

A field he came upon in a sparse, quiet, distant area of town beckoned him to its center, for the wind-ruffled yet empty feeling that hung about it seemed appropriate somehow. He wandered across, steps slowing in the rustling grass. Finally he stopped and took a long look all around him.

You’re more aimless than usual today, Saitou commented, and it was as good an opening as any.

“I… wanted to talk to you,” Sano admitted, feeling foolish.

You spend most of your time talking to me. Your neighbors think you’re insane.

“Well, none of them are here right now, are they? That’s kinda the point.”

Ahou.

“Why’d you just leave the other night, anyway? Didn’t even say goodbye or anything.”

Do you think I’m at your disposal? That I have nothing better to do?

“Course not. Not like I have any real idea what you do these days, but still… you… missed what I had to say.”

Hmm, what an extraordinary pity.

Sano gave a sigh, amused and exasperated. “Well, listen now, all right? Don’t go running off, or floating off, or whatever you do at this point.”

In exchange, try not to make it too boring.

Sano chose not to respond to this jab either. “Look, what I want to tell you is…” Even without having to meet an intense golden stare while making this statement, it was difficult to spit out. “You’ve changed me. You held me to your standard while you were alive — I practically had no choice but to be a better person — and even after you were dead you wouldn’t let me throw my life away. So it’s like you saved me twice. But no matter how hard I try, I can’t get to your level. The only thing I can ever really do is wish for it and want to touch it and want…” Finally, finally he came to the point. “And want you. Not like that’s possible now, I know, but at least I want you to know… I love you. And I’d kinda like to know how you feel about me back.”

There was a very long, and to Sano very tense silence. Eventually Saitou simply remarked, Hn…

“What does that mean? Is ‘I love you’ too boring, or what?”

Maybe, when you’ve said it twice before.

“What the– you did hear me then? Why didn’t you say anything?”

Saitou had no reply.

“Any chance you could stop being an asshole and say something? Right, like you could ever stop being an asshole. Why the hell do I love you, anyway? Could you at least tell me that?”

Still no answer.

“Guess it bothers you to hear me say it, huh? Well, suck it up, bastard. I love you, I love you, I love you. You hear me?” And he flung his gaze into the sky, shaking an irate, clenched fist upward. “I love you!!”

Startled by a soft noise behind him, he whirled suddenly, and found himself looking unexpectedly into the face of an uncertain Kenshin.

“Shit,” he muttered, lowering his hand and letting it go lax. He hadn’t considered how loudly he’d been talking; he hadn’t felt the need. Had Kenshin heard the whole thing? Sano must sound certifiably crazy at this point.

Such seemed to be the case, for the look in Kenshin’s eyes that the rurouni was not very well able to conceal seemed to be one of pitying horror.

“Kenshin…” he began. “Hey… this…”

“Sano,” whispered Kenshin with a minuscule shake of his head. “Sano, I am so sorry.”

“Sorry?”

It appeared Kenshin didn’t quite have words to convey his feelings or thoughts at the moment.

“Kenshin, look,” Sano said, trying to sound reasonable. “I know that sounded kindof… um, crazy… but, seriously, I’m not. It’s… it’s just something…” There wasn’t really any way to explain it, though, that wouldn’t sound just as insane as the overheard one-sided conversation must have.

“This is my fault… I never should have told you…”

“Told me what?” Sano demanded, a little impatiently. He didn’t like that expression of Kenshin’s, the one of sympathetic despair. “I’d have known he was dead soon enough when he started haunting me, wouldn’t I? It wouldn’t have mattered.”

“Sano, I never thought your liking him was a good idea. He didn’t think so either, so–”

“What, he knew??” Sano broke in. “He knew I liked him?!” The fist clenched again. “That fucking asshole,” he muttered, looking away so as not to direct his pained rage straight into Kenshin’s face. “He knew before I even knew and he didn’t say anything, and he won’t say anything now even when I fucking tell him straight up.”

“Sano… Sano, Saitou is not–”

“Don’t even go there, Kenshin. I’m not crazy. I know perfectly well nobody else can hear him. Doesn’t make me crazy. I’ve met ghosts before; doesn’t make any difference that I just hear him and don’t see him this time.”

“Sano…”

“Dammit, just leave me alone, Kenshin,” Sano commanded, a little wearily. “I’m pissed enough as it is.”

Appearing helpless and desperate, Kenshin seemed to be contemplating a variety of things to say; finally he just shook his head. “All right.” And he turned and walked away.

Days wore by without another encounter with the rurouni. Of course Sano hadn’t been around him much lately anyway, but now he didn’t even see him, walking through town, as he usually did. “Guy must really think I’m crazy,” Sano remarked on this at a mutter after a week had passed, “and he’s avoiding me now.”

You were ranting like a lunatic, was Saitou’s helpful, amused-sounding comment. Himura’s tolerance level is high, but everyone has to draw the line somewhere.

“If you goddamn heard me ranting like a lunatic, you could have answered my fucking question,” Sano protested.

Hn. He still sounded amused, but at the same time somewhat disinterested. Obviously Saitou didn’t feel like answering, and what exactly did that mean? What did it mean that he was willing to stick around, to converse with Sano at all hours of the day, to share inside jokes with him and comment carelessly on almost every aspect of Sano’s private life… but unwilling to respond to what might be the most important statement Sano had ever made, the most meaningful question he’d ever asked?

Because Sano wouldn’t like the answer? He couldn’t believe that; Saitou would not have so much consideration for him. Why, then? He didn’t understand.

And perhaps the reason Saitou didn’t answer was part of the reason Sano didn’t understand… some deficiency in him that rendered the answer as well as Saitou’s motives incomprehensible? He’d never been good enough; that almost made sense.

But of course Sano could not accept it.

He couldn’t run. Despite the fact that, figuratively, that was exactly what he was doing — running from an array of accusing eyes and pursed lips and soft voices asking endlessly why, why, why?? — he was still too weak actually to run. He thought a few more good nights’ sleep would have him up to a decent level of strength again, but he wouldn’t spend them at that quiet, accusatory clinic. So he stumbled home.

He felt sure he knew what Saitou would say if he saw him stagger into his dirty little apartment and hit the futon like he weighed a ton with a grunt to match. Well, Saitou would just call him some rude name. But if he were in a mood to elaborate, he would surely mock Sano for being so weak he couldn’t handle a little disapprobation in order to get the medical attention he needed. And Sano would insist he didn’t need any medical attention, and Saitou would probably point out the worst of his wounds and ask facetiously if they were cosmetic.

Sano couldn’t help grinning up at the ceiling a little at the thought.

Here he could sleep, for there was no interminable conversation of why‘s on the other side of consciousness to invade his dreams. Soon he would be completely well again, if left alone like this. That was all he really wanted: to be alone.

You’re lucky you didn’t get sick, then, Saitou would say. The words would be a disinterested observation, but the tone would be sarcastic. If a fever had come with those bruises of yours, you wouldn’t be able to make it on your own.

And that was true. Sano was glad he didn’t have a fever. He wouldn’t have much to say in response to that.

The passage of time eluded his comprehension. When he awoke, he couldn’t remember what part of the day it had been when he’d left the clinic, and therefore couldn’t determine how long he’d been asleep. His head still hurt. He was excessively hungry.

Forcing himself to sit up, however laborious and painful the process, he slowly checked his bandages. Some had come loose, and they could probably all do with a change. When he would have the energy to wash the used ones, though, he didn’t know. He hoped he had enough of his own to keep himself alive until then.

Saitou would certainly have something to say, on observing this, about Sano’s forethought, and Sano muttered preemptively, “Shut up…” as he lay back down. Then he contemplated, for a very long time, sitting up again. He needed to change the bandages so he wouldn’t get infected, but somehow all he could give any serious thought to was the memory of the bridge and approaching footsteps just as the sun set.

“That guy’s dead now.” He didn’t realize he was talking to Saitou until he added, “Dead as you are.”

He thought that if Saitou were feeling relatively light-hearted, he might inquire into Sano’s assignment of degrees of deadness. Otherwise he would probably just comment that most people died eventually.

“Most of the time it ain’t my fault, though.”

Maybe it is, and you’re just not aware of it, Saitou might say.

And Sano laughed quietly, painfully, at the thought of expecting any kind of comfort from that man. He fell asleep again.

How many days passed in similar manner he couldn’t tell, and probably didn’t want to. His own convalescence might have served as some type of measure — how at first even taking stock of his condition exhausted him, but eventually he was actually able to stand and move — but he did not heed it, not wanting to risk Saitou’s hypothetical derisive comments on his recovery rate.

Eventually his apartment and the heavy awareness of what he had done or hadn’t done, not to mention the why‘s in his own mind, became too oppressive, and he stumbled out for a walk despite the pain. He couldn’t bear bright sunlight just yet, so he waited until dusk; in the cool evening he found there was a sensation vaguely like freedom about escaping his empty room and moving about as if he were perfectly well in mind and body, and this almost made him able to forget or ignore his condition. Thus he walked farther than he’d intended, farther than was probably healthy, and found himself after not too long, unexpectedly and yet so appropriately, on that bridge again. He couldn’t quite say this was where it had all started, but still it fit so well to revisit this spot.

The water was now even blacker than it had been that day, its increased darkness in some ways more enticing and in some more horrific. It stretched like a shadow, a deep endless shadow you could easily blend into… or, at least, somebody with dark hair and dark clothing could. Sano would stand out, a blemish on the water, until he sank and was entirely forgotten, not by choice but because he just wasn’t good enough.

But of course Sano could not accept it. Time slipped by, however, without any possible solution occurring to him. He didn’t exactly have a history of getting likeable answers out of Saitou, and Saitou’s current state just made things more difficult.

Kenshin was around town again. Sano saw him once or twice, but avoided his eye, and Kenshin did not solicit his company. Sano didn’t regret this; he was avoiding all of his friends right now while he grew more and more agitated within himself, felt more and more helpless and trapped and just unutterably stupid. He took to going on a lot of long, aimless walks, greeting or even looking up at nobody he passed.

And then, not to his surprise but perhaps a little to his dismay, he found himself again in the field where he’d made his first deliberate confession. As he looked around and remembered that day, a frown formed slowly on his face.

Saitou, who had been rather quiet during that walk, now commented sardonically, Returning to the scene of the crime, are we?

“What crime?” Sano demanded, instantly incensed. He definitely hadn’t come here to revisit the previous conversation, as he’d yet to determine how to word what he wanted to say, hadn’t actually figured out whether he really wanted to know… but, as was or had been often the case, a statement seemingly casual on Saitou’s part was unbearably stabbing to Sano; it set him off, and, all hesitation and uncertainly flung aside, he plunged on without thinking:

“Is it so wrong I finally figured out how I feel about you? I know it was fucking stupid that it took me so long, so go ahead and mock me for that… but first you better tell me one thing straight out: what the hell do you think about me?” Trying to calm down wasn’t working. “Did we ever have a chance?” He wasn’t sure whether he sounded (or felt) more angry, sad, or confused. “And if you like me, why didn’t you ever say anything? And if you don’t, why the hell do you still hang around?”

No reply, only a tense, foreboding feeling in the air as it stilled; in no part of the field did the wind move, and the anxiety heightened as Sano continued to wait for a rejoinder that never came. It seemed to him that whatever was about to happen here would change everything — there was something dark and ominous in the stillness — but that it simply wasn’t going to happen, for better or worse, if Saitou didn’t want it to; it was Saitou’s move.

“Why is this the one thing I say that you can’t answer?” Sano burst out at last, his blood heating even further. “Anything else I say or do you’ve got some smart-ass comment on, but the one thing I really want you to respond to makes you suddenly shut up? I think it’s pretty damn important, when somebody tells you they love you, to give them an answer at least! Especially when… goddammit, Saitou, you’re fucking dead! I know you can’t hang around here forever, so at least tell me if…”

As his voice faded, thick, pensive silence again enveloped the field, and Sano’s heart-rate and desperation increased. “You set up that stupid coincidence, with the kidnappings and all,” he growled. “Almost like you wanted me to go like you did and join you; then you started hanging out around me when that didn’t work, when there’s gotta be better afterlife shit you could be doing… If you don’t care about me, why would you go to all that trouble? Why would you still be here?”

At the continued strained quiet, Sano crouched and pounded the ground in anger, sending a slight tremor out a dozen feet around him and causing the grass to ripple. “Dammit, Saitou, answer me!”

He stood straight again, staring ahead of him with wild, unblinking eyes, as if by gazing hard enough he could cause the outline he envisioned to materialize, even if in a non-corporeal form, force his will on Saitou and get his questions answered. “You can’t go forever without saying anything!” he shouted. “Do you think I’m just going to let it drop, stop bugging you about it? Saitou!!”

Into the next silence he gave a frustrated roar as he fell to his knees and slammed both fists into the ground this time. “Damn you!” he gritted out. “Damn you.” His hands opened to lie flat against the earth as his voice sank to a whisper. “Damn you… even if you fucking hate me, doesn’t it mean anything to you that I love you? Can’t you even have the decency to let me know, let me stop wondering? Are you gonna make me go forever not knowing what I mean to you, why you had to get into my head while you were alive and why you decided to haunt me now you’re dead?” His hand clenched again, clawing at the dirt as his eyes squeezed shut against tears that wanted to fly from them as his head dropped to face the ground.

For the next few moments, his ragged breaths were the only sounds to disturb the thick and sober atmosphere, until finally a slight breeze shifted the air in his direction. Startled, he drew in a gasp and opened his eyes, for it seemed he suddenly smelled cigarette smoke.

“S-saitou?” he stammered.

“Himura was right, it seems. What he thinks I can do about it, I’m not entirely sure, but when he said you’d gone completely mad, he wasn’t exaggerating.”

Sano’s eyes grew wide with disbelief, and he found he couldn’t quite get his shaking body to move, to stand as he wanted it to. So like an animal he clawed his way around on his knees to face the sound of that voice, that voice whose source he had to find, because it had come not from the hazy nothingness of the afterlife as he was accustomed to, but from just behind him at a normal human level, with normal human tone and volume.

He scrambled the one hundred and eighty long degrees, all the breath gone from his body, his mind at once numb and exploding, his gaze unblinking but faltering badly as every part of him shook except his abruptly motionless heart, to look up — up what seemed a hundred miles past despair and insanity and denial — up into the eyes of a very present, very real, very living Saitou Hajime.


Would God I could awaken!
For I dream I know not how,
And my soul is sorely shaken
Lest an evil step be taken, —
Lest the dead who is forsaken
May not be happy now.

–Edgar Allan Poe


This story, which I’ve rated , was dedicated to MsJadey because I originally discussed the idea with her and because it was just the kind of tragic and messed-up take on this pairing that she always seemed to like.

Sano didn’t feel like explaining that in repressing the awareness of the cupboard’s emptiness and going to look as if it might contain something, there was a pleasure, if not equal to eating, better at least than lying around realistically contemplating the lack of food in his possession. And therein, to great extent, lies the theme of this fic. Unhealthy and unhappy, isn’t it?

But it’s only partly the fault of this attitude of Sano’s; Kenshin and Saitou are very much to blame as well. Apparently Kenshin hasn’t yet learned his lesson — that he shouldn’t try to interfere in the Saitou/Sano thing. At least Saitou was in on the heinous plot this time. Of course, if he hadn’t been, I would have succeeded in writing a Saitou/Sano story that did not actually feature Saitou.

I commissioned a sort of illustration/concept piece for this fic of Link Worshiper:

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


Rainfall

I’m sitting on the edge of the porch, and with the angle of the wind, the storm is coming down right into my face. Hell, I’m looking up into it, and only closing my eyes when I seriously can’t stand it.

He just got home, I think. I should really go inside to him. Pretty sad when you don’t even welcome your own lover home, isn’t it? But I don’t want to talk to him. I don’t want to see him. I get like this sometimes… it’ll pass. Sex will help… though that requires me to actually go in there…

He and I have been together for a long time now… ever since Kenshin got married. That same night, actually, was our first time. But he wanted me for a long time before that. Good to see someone has what he wants, I guess. I should add it’s good to have exactly what I need, too… but in this kind of mood, the kind where I’d rather sit out in the rain than go in and pretend any more, I just can’t.

He’s perfect for me. He’s strong, he’s energetic, he’s smart, he’s loyal, he’s good. He keeps me in line and inspires me to be a better person. He always knows exactly the right thing to say to me at any given moment, especially if I’m being stupid or stubborn; he’s unfailingly logical and practical. Sometimes I hate him for that. But I respect him too much to really hate him. I like him too much.

But I don’t love him.

Fuck knows I’ve tried… tried my damnedest to give up, to forget, to move on, to let this be the perfect match it should be, that he wants it to be… but giving up, forgetting, and moving on are a few things I’ve always been particularly bad at. And someone else was there first.

The back door slides open and he steps onto the porch. “What are you doing out here?” he wonders.

I look over at him, and I can’t think of anything to say. I may hate him sometimes, but I would never want to hurt him. Not like that, anyway; not that much; not anymore.

“Sano, are you all right?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I finally manage. “Rain’s just a little depressing, is all.”

He rolls his eyes. “Then don’t sit out in it, ahou.” And he gestures for me to come to him.

See what I said? Logical, practical, always knows what to say to me, even if he might not realize the decision he’s telling me to make is about more than just the weather. If the rain’s depressing, don’t sit out in it, ahou: it’s that simple. And I bet it would be just that for him: a decision, and a simple one. If the rain’s depressing, make the choice not to sit out in it, not to be depressed by it. He has that kind of will power. As for me… well, I thought I was strong, but…

“Yeah, you’re right,” I reply, standing up and shaking water from my hair and stepping toward his outstretched hand.

As for me…

I accompany my lover inside.

Even if I don’t sit out in the rain, that doesn’t stop it from falling.



Geez, what a sad story. It’s like the end of He Can Be Taught went horribly wrong. I wrote it because imillien beat me at the Quote-Guessy Game and requested “Sano in relationship with Saitou but not necessary in love with him. Like sometimes we are with people we know are good for us and we respect them but not always in love with them.” I’ve rated this fic .

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


Defense

It didn’t even mean what the words supposedly expressed anymore; it hadn’t for a long time.

As he says goodbye, Saitou makes a final subtle appeal for Sano’s attention.


Saitou leaned against the side of the building, his eyes following the young man wandering around the restaurant’s entrance waiting for someone to buy him food. Both the watcher and the freeloader knew someone eventually would.

God knows what he would do if he realized how much I watch him. Even more so if he knew why. Sometimes Saitou liked to pretend he didn’t know why himself. It certainly wasn’t particularly edifying or entertaining… just absurdly riveting. And I still haven’t been able to determine what it is about him…

By chance Sano finally noticed the cop’s presence and, naturally, broke into a scowl. His greeting as he immediately approached was, “Getting kinda sick of running into you.”

He never realizes it’s anything more than coincidence. He doesn’t see through things, doesn’t pick up on things. He just assumes we meet so often because I’m constantly having to deal with his fellow lowlifes. Idiot.

“You won’t have to worry about that from now on,” Saitou told him.

“Good.” After a moment Sano added curiously, “Why?”

Why does conversation with him feel so natural in spite of everything? Despite the fact that Saitou knew how things were, how they must always be. “This is my last day in Tokyo.”

“Oh, great!” Sano grinned. “I won’t have to smell your nasty cigarettes anymore.”

Note he doesn’t ask where I’m going or why. Not that Saitou had expected him to care.

What Sano did ask was, “So what are you doing here? Last case before you leave?”

Actually talking to Sano was worse than simply observing — having him within arm’s length, watching his lips move… Being reminded of exactly how he feels about me. But Saitou wasn’t just going to leave town without a word to him, no matter how the conversation must turn out. “No. I’m here to say goodbye to you.”

“Heh… right.” It was a tone of amusement that did not even approach skepticism. Sano didn’t take him seriously enough to think such a remark was anything but sarcasm.

Maybe it’s because he never takes me seriously. Everything I do is so serious… maybe it’s a change I’m craving.

“Like you could have known I’d be here,” Sano was adding with a laugh.

Sano thought he didn’t stick to a routine, prided himself on doing whatever he wanted whenever he wanted to. He was wrong about that, as he was about many things. His days were very much the same, and what he mistook for spontaneity was just a predictable roulette of inane pastimes: he ate the same five meals at the same five restaurants, blew money of mysterious origin at the same five gambling halls, and slept over at the same five friends’ homes. Mathematically, that did allow him quite a few possibilities for each day’s schedule, but still, if Saitou wanted to intercept him, he tended to know where Sano would be at any given moment.

He’d tried not to do that too often, but there had been times he hadn’t been able to help himself.

And there were times he didn’t know what to say. He, Saitou Hajime, didn’t know what to say.

“You awake in there?” Sano wondered mockingly.

Saitou’s eyes narrowed as he looked down at him. Yes, here was an idiot — a waste of oxygen and a beautiful face and body with a history of stupidity, worthless friends, no real ambitions, a pathetic life…

And that’s what I’ve…

He’d given up dwelling on how it defied all reason.

He’d given up on pretty much everything.

“Work on your defense,” he said. It didn’t even mean what the words supposedly expressed anymore; it hadn’t for a long time.

Sano looked annoyed. “Are you gonna start on that again after all this– wait… you really are here to say goodbye to me, aren’t you?”

Saitou nodded and simply held Sano’s eyes. The young man’s face went slightly puzzled, and with that change, the last faint hope Saitou had always secretly harbored for this matter slowly faded and disappeared. If there were anything there, any chance at all, it would not be a blank look. It would be anything but that.

No, don’t worry about working on your defense. Your heart’s impervious, isn’t it?

After a few moments, that terrible expression having gradually changed to one suggesting Sano thought Saitou might have something wrong in the head — and was he ever right about that! — Sano turned away casually. “Well, bye, then!” And with a careless wave of his hand, he headed back to the front of the restaurant to resume his food-seeking vigil.

Saitou watched him until it became too painful. “Goodbye, ahou,” he finally murmured. And good riddance. He was speculating on the sourness of grapes he couldn’t have, and he knew it; he’d been doing it for a long while now, and its effectiveness as a defense mechanism was waning. So, committing meticulously to memory the image of the white-clad figure standing nonchalantly there, hands in pockets and a winning smile on his face, for reference over the remaining years of his life, he turned and walked away.



Dedra won the Quote Guessy Game a second time, and this Saitou/Sano request was a bit more specific than her first one: she wanted Saitou “seemingly hopelessly attracted to/in love with” Sano. Cruel as this seemed, I wrote it. It turned out almost brilliantly ironic and depressing. And it’s good to have a parallel to Distraction Sufficient. Well, almost parallel; as I told Dedra, I draw the line at killing Saitou.

I’ve rated this story .

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


And the Moments Drift Like Snow

And the Moments Drift Like Snow

And the Moments Drift Like Snow

“If you want those two years badly enough to face what has to come with them, you’ll let yourself remember.”

Sequel to As the Years Go Up In Smoke: Saitou no longer trusts himself, Kenshin claims to love Sano, and Sano feels more and more that it’s desperately important to recover his memory of the last two years… but can he handle it?

And the Moments Drift Like Snow

Part 1

Three. Hours.

Three hours, consisting each of sixty minutes, for a total of one hundred and eighty, which was ten thousand eight hundred seconds if you wanted to calculate that out — which Saitou didn’t need to, as he’d counted each as it passed. For three long hours he sat in his room, scarcely able to breathe, cold, silent, still, struggling against a deadly pattern of thought from which a brief, inadvertently well timed visit had pulled him for the course of the morning. As he found himself slipping back into it in the afternoon, he fought. Now that he had a weapon with which to combat it, the battle was fierce and attenuated.

Although he wasn’t sure exactly what he would do, he knew survival would be part of it. Now that his world had in some measure regained its wholeness, or at least now that he was seeing things in less of a miserable haze, he wondered for a second time if he’d really been serious about suicide. He believed he had, but didn’t know if even before the visit it would have been right. He didn’t quite know how he felt about anything at this point, and he hated not knowing.

But he had to see him again. It seemed he would be allowed to associate with his ex-lover, and he knew he needed to contact him as soon as possible, if only to prevent himself from going crazy or sinking back into the suicidal mindset. He wasn’t sure how he would make this happen, but he knew he must.

To court Sano before, he’d merely made a point of showing in places the roosterhead went, knowing Sano was interested in him already, counting on the combination of constant proximity and previous desire to do the trick. That wouldn’t work this time, as Himura was still likely — indeed, more likely than ever, and with good reason — to frown upon his seeking Sano’s company.

He didn’t know what to think of Himura. He knew exactly how he felt about him — he hated him, and that wouldn’t be changing any time soon — but wasn’t sure how he should react to the choices that man had made. Naturally he couldn’t be pleased with the seemingly selfish decision to withhold from Sano the entire truth about their relationship — but how much that decision pleased Saitou was not the issue; whether or not it had been the right course was the important thing. Just because Himura had probably jumped at the chance to keep Saitou out of Sano’s heart, in order to attempt to put himself there, didn’t necessarily mean he had the wrong idea about Sano being better off without Saitou in his life.

The officer still wasn’t sure who had informed his former lover of their previous ‘friendship,’ but, given his belief in Kenshin as the mastermind behind the neat deception currently being inflicted on Sano, Saitou had to think that half-lie, like the rest, had had at least its origins with the rurouni. And why? Himura must disapprove, and to give his rival such a second chance… why? Saitou doubted it was out of kindness toward him, but perhaps it had been out of kindness toward Sano. Did he dare hope Sano missed him somehow, perhaps not knowing what he lacked, and that Himura had been driven, eventually, to that carefully curated form of the real story in order to placate him?

More likely it was a reminder from Himura to keep quiet about the truth.

And maybe he’d jumped to a false conclusion anyway in assuming Kenshin wanted Sano. Maybe he’d been thinking too jealously, had misread the looks, had attributed to desire what was merely natural protectiveness. Perhaps the rurouni’s motives were purer than Saitou thought, and his discernment should therefore be lent that much more credence — certainly more than Saitou’s heavily biased judgment. He didn’t know. Normally he would trust his instincts in such a matter, but he found he couldn’t bring himself to rely on his own understanding at the moment. He just couldn’t be sure.

That was what it came down to: he didn’t know that Himura wasn’t entirely correct in the way he was handling this. And as Saitou had turned Sano over to Himura’s care in the one hour when Sano had been unable to care for himself — that is, the one hour when Saitou, as his lover, might have been justified in making decisions on his behalf — he felt he’d waived his right to protest. A lover’s rights would not ordinarily be so lightly repealed, but he’d given up that status as well when he’d put Sano into Kenshin’s arms.

Eventually it seemed best to let Himura have his way — at least temporarily — and to keep up with the deception that catered to Sano’s repression. If Saitou could spend some time with Sano, as it appeared he would be allowed to, he could hopefully, through observation, form a less clouded opinion of the rightness of the situation and plan his actions accordingly.

And meanwhile, at the very least, Sano would still be a part of his life, something he’d feared was impossible. At least he had that to keep him alive.

This same life, he was reflecting in response to a sense of duty that at the moment he found almost painful, was something he should really be getting back to… now he’d decided he was definitely going to be living it.

They rarely questioned his actions at the station. As a matter of fact, though they unfailingly greeted him when he entered and said goodbye when he left and jumped to answer any question he might have or follow any order he might give, few of them there were even willing to look him in the eye. So his return to work, even after so many days’ absence, went unchallenged. Two or three gazes followed him into his office, but nobody said a word.

“Hey, boss, where you been?” Chou greeted him, glancing up from whatever he was doing, which looked to be essentially nothing. “Chief told me to send you his way whenever you showed up.”

Saitou nodded, casting dull eyes around at the room. Rousing himself after several long moments, he asked, “Any progress?”

“Actually, maybe yes,” Chou replied, beginning to dig through a nearby stack of papers.

It was with unexpectedly engaged attention that Saitou stepped forward to see what Chou might have found, and he realized he had subconsciously been steeling himself for a future devoid of all interest consequent upon the loss of Sano. The discovery that he was still intrigued by, still felt a sense of purpose concerning the issues he dealt with in his job was both reassuring and painful. On the one hand, the fire of Aku Soku Zan, whatever color it burned these days, was gratifying and familiar heat. On the other hand, Sano had meant more to him even than that, and it felt like betrayal to be taking comfort in another pleasure, to find something else meaningful, however important it had always been and still was to him.

Eventually, as he started to fall back into the customary pattern of work, Chou’s initial statement — that the chief wanted to speak to him — registered in his mind. This was something he would not so easily have forgotten had he been mentally on top of things, and he wondered how long it would take him to get it together. He wouldn’t lie to himself; it was entirely possible that would never happen.

The police chief was merely suffering from acute curiosity about Saitou’s orders concerning the arsonist. Considering the situation’s less-than-brilliant resolution and Saitou’s disappearance in the midst of the action, this was understandable. With forced composure and fighting off desperate unhappiness Saitou informed him it had been in pursuit of a lead regarding his current case. That was enough for the chief, who knew full well Saitou had duties separate from and often superseding precinct business, and it was also the truth, but Saitou still didn’t like to be reminded of the fact that everything had been his fault.

Moving slowly back to his own office from that unpleasant interview, wherein his conscience had berated him while his superior had not a word of reproof, it occurred to him it would probably be wise to tell Chou at least part of what had happened. With the broom-head’s tendency to run his mouth, Saitou couldn’t count on chance to keep Sano away or the secrets safe. Even if he did decide Sano needed to be told the truth, he wouldn’t want it done haphazardly by Chou.

Then, maybe he just wanted to talk about it with someone. He didn’t like that thought — it made him feel very weak — but he wasn’t going to deny the possibility. And maybe he was weak. He wouldn’t deny that one either.

Weeks were passing with their usual quickness, hastening toward winter, and Sano was dissatisfied with his life. At times he even felt downright unhappy. He supposed this was natural for someone with as large a memory gap as he had, but (also naturally) he didn’t want to accept it at that and just continue placidly living on the border of sorrow.

He’d sensed all along, and far from indistinctly, that there was something his friends weren’t telling him, but his brain had exhausted itself trying to guess what kind of thing it might be. Kenshin had absolutely refused to open up, maneuvering his way out of every conversation on the topic with a slickness Sano would not (but probably should) have expected of him. So continuing to conjecture that this big secret was something of which Kenshin did not approve seemed to be a good line of thinking.

But what could it be? He’d already logically ruled out nearly everything he could come up with. So, since the only thing Kenshin made any overt signs of disapproving was Saitou, Sano assumed the secret pertained to him — or at least that Saitou also knew what it was, and Kenshin worried he might reveal it.

Therefore, sensibly, Sano spent as much time with the police officer as he could.

It was a little amusing and a little disturbing how startled Saitou seemed the first few times Sano showed up — amusing because he’d rarely seen Saitou startled, disturbing because, damn! had he really been sick enough that for someone to see him walking around alive and well could be consistently shocking? Other than that surprise, Saitou didn’t seem to mind Sano randomly appearing at his side at any given time; and that Saitou made no discernable objection stood as fairly convincing evidence they really had been friends before (which Sano at first couldn’t quite bring himself to believe): there was no way the man would put up with Sano’s near-stalking if he regarded him with nothing more than tolerance.

Yet Saitou was different than Sano remembered him. His previous intensity was… not gone, Sano had corrected his initial assessment after a few meetings, but restrained somehow. This, even when Saitou was at work or tossing unusually mild insults in Sano’s direction, left him with something like placidity, even gentleness, that seemed unnatural.

Puzzling and sometimes disconcerting as this must be to Sano, it was yet another sign that they could have been friends. On the other hand, any particular friendliness, which might naturally be expected as typical of such a relationship, seemed likewise withheld. Actually, every aspect of the personality Saitou presented these days felt characterized by restraint.

Was that part of the secret, then? But why would Kenshin disapprove of a restrained Saitou? Of the man Sano remembered — of the stabbing, the offenses, the general lack of respect — perhaps… but with a wolf so subdued, what could be the problem?

Well, the fact was, if Kenshin wasn’t prepared to tell him, in any kind of satisfying detail, why associating with Saitou was unwise, no way in hell would Sano stay away. Beyond his initial motive of hoping to absorb information, he found himself too curious about the alteration that had come over a man he’d always thought the essence of stability.

Besides, after the disbelief in their friendship had at last worn off, he’d come to realize he liked Saitou, changed though he was.



Part 2>>

Part 2

It had never been Saitou’s habit, before, to alter his routine for something as inconsequential as winter weather… but this year, for whatever reason (as if he really didn’t know), he couldn’t stand the cold, and had taken to spending his lunch breaks at an indoor restaurant rather than the open-air stands he usually favored. And somehow Sano had discovered where this was and taken to joining him there not infrequently.

It still made Saitou’s heart pound every time Sano showed up, as if the sight of him were startling, even shocking. And watching him walk casually over to the booth, slide his shoes off, and sit down without ever realizing that his every movement was torment to the watcher, Saitou wondered how long he could last keeping regular company with him. It was a daily struggle not to pour out his entire heart and the protracted story of the past two years to the ignorant young man.

And maybe one of these days he would; he had yet to decide.

At the moment he still leaned toward letting things run their current course, the reason for this being that Sano didn’t seem unhappy. That made it no easier to buy him lunch day after day and try to keep himself from seizing him and declaring he would never let him go again, never let anyone else have him.

“Funny thing…” Sano had obviously noticed something unusual about their interaction. “Most people, when you say you’re friends with ’em, it means you’re nice to each other and shit… but with you, it’s more like you’re just refraining from killing me or something.”

“‘Or something?'” Saitou echoed mildly.

Sano shrugged. “I can’t figure out whether you still hate me and are just pretending not to, or what.”

Saitou struggled to keep the bitterness from his laugh as he wondered, “If I hated you, why would I bother hiding it?” That would make about as much sense as loving you and hiding it.

“Guess this is as nice as you get, then, huh?” speculated Sano in a jovially insulting tone.

“Be careful, or I might decide even that’s too nice.”

“I wouldn’t put it past you! And, hell, at least you don’t treat me like Kenshin does.”

“Oh? How is that?” Saitou hated Himura more than anything else in the world, hated it when Sano brought him up in conversation, hated the very sound of his name… but couldn’t be anything but desperately curious what complaint Sano might have about Kenshin’s treatment of him.

But Sano merely shrugged again. “I can’t figure him out either. He probably just treats me funny because I was so sick.”

Or because he wants you, Saitou suggested silently, grimly. The doubts he’d once entertained about Himura’s intentions toward Sano were by now completely gone; everything Sano had said about the man since that time confirmed this. And it made keeping quiet all the more difficult. Sano was right — Saitou was refraining from killing; it was just that Sano wouldn’t be the victim of choice if he were to let himself go.

What he said aloud was, “I think you like the extra attention.”

“Hell, no! Everyone’s always acting all careful around me, like I might fall apart or something… and they’re all so sorry for me. Losing a couple years’ worth of memory is shit, but I’m not made of fucking glass.”

“I’ve hit you enough times to believe that,” Saitou nodded. “And I’m glad to hear you’re dealing with this better than your friends expect.”

Sano sighed and leaned back, putting his hands behind his head and looking thoughtfully annoyed. “Well, I guess it’s really just Kenshin, actually,” he corrected himself. “And you, of course, but you’re different.”

“Am I?”

“Yeah… Kenshin treats me different than I remember, but you are different than I remember.”

“Am I?” Saitou repeated.

“Yeah… either something happened to you over the last two years that changed you, or I just didn’t know you all that well before.”

“People do change,” Saitou said with some difficulty. If I have, it’s because of you. Although at the moment what Sano was probably sensing was merely Saitou’s struggle to keep up the charade, not the natural metamorphosis of seven hundred and seventy-odd days. “Two years is a long time.”

Kenshin’s the same… I’m pretty much the same…”

“Don’t be too sure. Not on either count.”

“Why do you say that? You think we’ve changed a lot?”

The tone of that question was a little too eager, and it made Saitou pause before answering. Why did it seem Sano was fishing for information? Surely, ever direct as he was, Sano would simply ask if there was something he really wanted to know? Or did he assume Saitou wouldn’t tell him just as Himura wouldn’t tell him? But that would imply he was resorting to guile to get answers — and Saitou doubted that of Sano… at the very least, he would ask directly before attempting to employ artifice. Of course, Saitou could merely be reading him wrong; Sano could really just be eager to hear the answer to that question for its own sake.

Why couldn’t he be certain about anything anymore? Why did he have to question himself at every turn?

Because he’d been certain, so damned perfectly sure of himself, a month and a half ago, and it had cost him everything.

“You’ll have to watch for the changes yourself,” he forced out at last, adding in an attempt to take the focus off his long silence, “if you think you’ve changed enough in the head to recognize them.”

Sano stared at Saitou as he made this statement, wondering… not only did the words remind him only a very little of the Saitou he remembered, they also lacked the vigor that would previously have marked them. Beyond that, something else was missing… what was it?

Saitou raised an eyebrow at Sano’s unbroken gaze and lack of response.

“Oh,” Sano explained, even as he realized what it was, “I think I just figured out why you’re not as good at insulting me as you used to be!”

Saitou’s expression remained quizzical.

“Cutting remarks just don’t have the same edge without you waving a cigarette around as you say them. What happened, djyou quit? Speaking of changing…”

Saitou nodded without offering any explanation.

“Your teeth start to rot out?” Sano prodded.

With only the mildest of scowls Saitou replied shortly, “I don’t like smoke as much as I used to.”

That seemed an odd answer, but instead of pursuing it directly Sano mused, “I wonder about that whole smoking thing… How did it ever get started, anyway? What idiot first decided that breathing smoke was a good idea? It comes from some plant, right? Who picked the plant and thought, ‘I wonder what would happen if I burned this and breathed the smoke!’ Seems fucking idiotic to me. It’s one thing to– what?” He’d looked across the table to find Saitou staring at him with a hint of the same startlement Sano had previously found so entertaining.

Saitou shook his head with a slight smile. “It’s just odd to hear you say that as if you’ve never said it before.”

“When did I say it before?”

Saitou seemed to calculate days in his head before answering, “May of the year before last, I believe. You were trying to argue me into quitting.”

“Did it work?” Sano wondered eagerly. “Is that when you quit?”

“Unfortunately, no.” And again with the lack of explanation.

“But I had you half convinced, right?” Sano grinned, then spoke again before Saitou could even attempt to deny it: “So when did you quit?”

“Recently.”

“You really don’t want to tell me anything about this, do you?”

“Why do you find it so interesting?”

“Well, it’s not the most exciting thing I’ve ever discussed, but it seems like you specifically don’t want to talk about it. You hiding something, or what?”

“Yes, ahou, the dark and scarring secret of the cigarettes.”

Even with the ahou, Sano had to laugh. It wasn’t as if he thought he’d really been following a lead or something with this branch of the conversation.

“It’s one thing to accept a cigarette from someone who tells you, ‘Try this; it’s nice.’ If they’re your friend, you take their word for it and try it, and — if you’re like you — it is nice, and then you can’t stop, and you bug the hell out of your boyfriend with the nasty things forever more. That I can understand. But who the hell goes around burning shit and breathing over the fire?”

“Hn.”

“Seriously! If I went around picking plants and burning them and telling people to breathe the smoke–“

“I have to admit I see your point.”

“–hell, trying to charge people to breathe the smoke — they wouldn’t pay for it, they’d–“

“And having made your point, you can shut up now.”

“–throw me in a fucking asylum! But some guy whenever over in America somewhere–“

“I admit that smoking is one of the stupidest things anyone can do.”

“–instead of people calling him crazy and stupid like he was for thinking — wait, what?”

“Yes, smoking is stupid. Cigarettes are stupid. Much like you rambling on about it when there are so many more interesting things we could be doing.”

“So you admit I’m right?! Does that mean you’ll give them up? Wait…” Sano looked around, not failing to note their solitary state. “What more interesting things?”

Saitou’s answer was to latch his mouth onto Sano’s shoulder — he couldn’t kiss his lips, as this conversation had originally been prompted by the cigarette he’d just been smoking — slide his hands down the young man’s body, and silence him quite effectively, at least on the topic of tobacco.

Saitou sighed quietly, watching Sano chuckle at his remark about the dark and scarring secret and wanting to do here and now just what he’d done back then. How am I supposed to keep this up? he wondered hopelessly. He’d better get around to resolving for certain how he felt about maintaining this secrecy, and quickly.

Part 3

Saitou had been right: Sano wasn’t the same as he’d been two years ago. Well, that was logical; he should have agreed at the time. But of course he had always to figure things out on his own. He’d realized this one upon coming to recognize a sensation he’d been feeling lately that he’d certainly never felt before the lost time: restlessness for lack of anything to do. This was utterly baffling. As far as he could remember, he liked nothing better than to lie around on someone’s porch all day completely idle, but now he couldn’t stay still for very long, had to have something to keep him occupied.

He could only guess he must have developed something like a work ethic over the past two years and it was plaguing him now. Why this had happened he could not begin to guess. Kenshin had told him Kaoru had compelled him to work to pay at least a semblance of rent to her, and to help with repairs — but had he really come to like it? Become addicted to activity because Kaoru insisted?

Whatever the cause, the result was that he now found himself performing odd grunt jobs around town on a near-daily basis, and more money in his pocket at any given time than he (thought he) was accustomed to. It still puzzled him. Additionally, he couldn’t lounge around the dojo as he had in the past. Either he had to be assisting somebody there with chores or whatnot, or he ended up wandering away in search of something else to do.

This was the case one chilly afternoon when he found himself discontented, within a mere half an hour, with the pastime of restfully drinking tea after having helped Kenshin bring the clean laundry inside.

“You are leaving already?” Kenshin looked up from whatever he was folding.

“Yeah…” Sano stretched his arms and back as he headed out. “I’m gonna go see what Saitou’s up to.”

“Sano, I would like to talk to you about something, if you wouldn’t mind staying.” It sounded more like a command than a request, which was irksome. And Sano believed he knew what Kenshin wanted to talk to him about, too. Again.

“Yeah, yeah, I know you don’t like him or like me hanging out with him… I don’t really need to be lectured about it even more.” Sano waved an irritated hand at Kenshin as his steps toward the door did not slow.

“Sano, I love you.”

That, of course, was enough to halt Sano dead in his tracks.

“I have always loved you.”

“K-Kenshin…” He couldn’t turn. There was simply no way he could look Kenshin in the face, having just heard those words. “Are you serious?”

Of course Kenshin was serious. As if Kenshin would joke about something like that. At least, so Sano interpreted the silence behind him.

“Well…”

He really had to answer this, didn’t he? Not that Kenshin had asked anything outright, but the statement had been as good as a question.

“Look…”

There was a strange feeling in the pit of his stomach… almost sick, he thought… he didn’t quite understand it. How was he supposed to say this?

“Kenshin, I’m…”

Kenshin finally spoke again. “Sano, can you love me?” And how could he ask that so calmly?! A question like that, really! shouldn’t sound so damn placid.

“I–” The substance of his answer was obvious — a yes-or-no query laid out for him so neatly like that — but the wording was a bit more difficult if he didn’t want to be a complete asshole about it. Finally he settled for, “I’m sorry, Kenshin.”

He still couldn’t look back, and this silence couldn’t be interpreted as easily as the previous. Had he crushed him? Was Kenshin surprised? Hurt? Sano wasn’t sure he wanted to add guilt to his current discomfort, and therefore turning around must be out of the question. But Kenshin continued to say nothing. What could Sano do? This had been so unexpected and, honestly, unwelcome…

“I’m sorry,” he repeated as he left in a hurry. And he had no real idea where he was going.

This explained very adequately Kenshin’s odd treatment of him lately. Actually, he wondered how he could possibly have failed to consider this a viable answer before. Probably because he would never have wanted to think Kenshin had been in love with him for years and was just now telling him. Well, that Kenshin loved him at all.

And why should that feel so wrong, anyway? It was hardly unnatural for a man to fall in love with his friend… Sano didn’t think so lowly of himself to be amazed it had happened… And it wasn’t as if he was obligated to reciprocate; Kenshin was reasonable, and would certainly understand that his feelings were not returned. It was unfortunate Kenshin must suffer, but such things happened in life… none of this was unusual. So, really, why did it seem so completely inappropriate?

Of course there could be no staying at the dojo after that. It was perfect, just perfect, that Kenshin had said what he had on the day leading to the first intolerably cold night of the year — when Sano couldn’t just find a secluded spot or quiet corner to curl up in, but actually had to locate someplace with a roof and walls and a welcome. And as he was not in the mood to wrack his brains, Saitou’s house seemed most convenient to fill the first two requirements at least.

There was no answer to his knock, but that was just as well: he could explain his freeloading better once he’d warmed up and settled down. And maybe Saitou wasn’t coming home tonight, gone on business or something, and Sano wouldn’t have to worry about explaining at all. It took a few tries to pick the lock, and he was inside.

“Freezing in here too,” he muttered, and why did that seem so sadly appropriate? Fortunately, there was wherewithal on the hearth to build a fire, which he soon had in order; the only thing missing was matches. Sano looked around, puzzled. Matches were not something he would have thought Saitou’s house would be deficient in. But, then, he remembered, the man had quit smoking. Still, matches near the firewood seemed logical, didn’t it?

He went into the next room, the bedroom, and continued his search. This was a nice modern house, for all it was so small, with those fancy self-striking lamps and everything, but there had to be matches somewhere… unless Saitou had gotten rid of all of them to keep himself from lighting cigarettes with them? Sano had heard quitting was difficult, so that explanation could make sense. But there had been signs of a fire on the hearth recently, and, fanciful as Sano was, he didn’t think Saitou had lit it with those burning eyes of his…

He was about to close the standing cabinet that seemed much too large for what appeared to be all the clothing Saitou owned, when his eye caught on something that, though not likely to contain matches, still seized his attention: a small wooden box tucked away at the back of an empty shelf.

Don’t pry, Sano, he was telling himself. It’s absolutely none of your business. But despite the timely manner in which he’d recognized and attempted to discourage his nosy intentions, the box was already open in his hand.

And something was… wrong…

It was merely a pair of matching golden rings. He had never seen them before… that he could remember… but he must have… otherwise what could be so totally riveting, so very nearly appalling, about objects so plain, so insignificant?

Something was definitely wrong. His chest suddenly hurt, and as he stared at his hand and what it contained, a strange feeling very much like despair rushed through him. He didn’t know what was happening, why he was now on his knees clutching the little box so fiercely, or how he could be gripped with such inexplicable anguish, but it frightened and disturbed him and sent shivers throughout his entire body.

He recalled with an abrupt hastening of the already-painful pounding in his heart the gesture he made sometimes and had never previously understood: the twisting motion around one of his fingers, as if he were wearing a ring. A ring like these? Possibly one of these? The latter option didn’t make sense, but otherwise why was he so very worked up?

And at that moment Saitou entered the room.

“What are you…” The semi-irritated tone in which he began faded just before the words failed as he stepped fully inside and went completely still.

The consideration that perhaps Sano was trespassing onto very personal territory and Saitou might now, justifiably, be very upset with him only barely crossed his mind. As he set the box down hurriedly and staggered to his feet, all he knew was that the expression on Saitou’s face — nearly blank but for the hint of something a little like surprise — was somehow… just… unbearable. It rendered a previously uncomfortable scene overwhelmingly unpleasant, all the more so because Sano had no idea why.

Somehow finding movement difficult, Sano stumbled out the door as quickly as he could, gasping as he did so, “I think I’m sick…” This was a plausible excuse for his hasty exit as well as a decent explanation for why he felt so strange and distressed, but he didn’t believe it and wasn’t sure even why he’d said it. Saitou gave neither word nor gesture to stop him.

He broke into a run immediately outside the house, with no idea where he was going, only the determination to outdistance his pain and confusion. When he felt the tears on his face, however, he stopped.

Crying?! Sinking to the ground against some wall near which he found himself, he put his head in his hands. How could he be crying? Wasn’t he a grown man? What was there here to cry about? The last time he could remember having cried was…

But he should really stop looking to his memory to help him make sense of things. Because that’s what this was about, wasn’t it? It had to be: whatever it was he didn’t remember, whatever Kenshin hadn’t told him. Something about Saitou.

From that night on he knew no peace. Whereas before he’d been living merely at the edge of sorrow, now he dwelt in it day after incomprehensible day. Previously his attitude about this had been relatively casual, as if recovering his memories were a game of sorts… now, frustrated and nearly distraught as he thought about that unexpectedly upsetting discovery, he could not treat the matter so lightly.

The Tokyo friends he remembered were gone or nowhere to be found, doubtless drawn away over the last two years by the demands of chance. Kenshin might even have reminded him who had gone where, but at the moment Sano was still pushing thoughts of Kenshin uncomfortably away. He wasn’t even sure where or how he spent the next several nights, since most of his time was devoted to a search of the blackness in his head — a fruitless search. The only thing he could come up with, besides a headache, was the hazy image of a ring on his finger… but was that real memory, or wishful imagination?

When he found himself outside Saitou’s lunch restaurant one day at about the right time, he wondered if his feet didn’t know better than his brain what the next step was. Saitou had never been particularly forthcoming about the issue either, but Sano realized he’d never really asked him very direct or specific questions the way he had Kenshin. Newly hopeful, he went inside.

“I haven’t seen you for a while,” Saitou remarked carefully as Sano slid into the booth across from him.

“I’ve been avoiding everyone,” admitted Sano.

Saitou said nothing, wary, as if waiting for further explanation before he spoke.

“Tell me,” Sano demanded quietly.

“Tell you what?”

“Everything. Everything I don’t know. Everything about those two years I’m missing that nobody thinks I need to know. What’s with those rings? Why did I… freak out… like that, looking at them? And where do you come into all of this?”

Saitou gazed at him very seriously for a long moment, then turned his face away and remarked so softly that he might not have been addressing Sano at all, “I no longer trust myself.” Looking back at his companion, “I can’t tell you,” he said.

The younger man drew breath to protest, but checked his exclamation. If Saitou didn’t trust his own judgment… this was serious. Not that he’d thought it wasn’t, but that revelation did a lot to drive it home. He closed his mouth and frowned.

“What I will tell you,” Saitou said heavily, as if pondering each word before and even as he spoke it, “is this: what you’ve forgotten, you don’t remember because you don’t want to. Nobody but you has the right to decide whether or not you should remember it, but at the same time, nobody but you can recover it. If you really want to remember, you can and you will; I can’t give your memory back to you…” Then, almost as if speaking against his will, he added more quietly and with a touch of bitterness, “…and he can’t keep it from you.”

“You mean Kenshin?”

Saitou looked away again, but did not manage to conceal from Sano the brief flash of absolute hatred that passed across his face.

Sano attempted to puzzle through this out loud. “Obviously there’s something there… something that happened… something really bad… or nobody would mind telling me anything I wanted to know. And you say I’d remember on my own if there wasn’t something like that I wanted to forget.”

Saitou, his eyes still turned from Sano, nodded stiffly.

“And it has something to do with you.”

Saitou stood abruptly. “I won’t play guessing games with you. If you want those two years badly enough to face what has to come with them, you’ll let yourself remember.”

“Dammit, Saitou, you’re just–” But the older man was gone before Sano could finish his sentence, leaving him with a sudden chill in his heart that simultaneously angered and pained him. Why had Saitou turned so cold so suddenly? Why had those last words seemed so harsh? Had Sano been right, then, that whatever the big secret was concerned Saitou, more closely than he’d been speculating all along? And was it true the answer lay within his own mind?

“Bastard,” he muttered as he stood and looked to the door, but the remark held little energy. Glancing back down, he realized with a start that Saitou had left not only in the middle of his soba but without even paying for it. Hoping vaguely that he had enough on him to cover it, Sano wondered what in the world could be so upsetting as to distract that man that much. And once again, as Saitou had suggested, did the answer lie somewhere within reach inside Sano’s head?

He’s probably right, Sano reflected as he paid the bill (by a hair) and left the restaurant. Dismissing as annoying the quieter mental voice that added, He’s usually right, he decided it couldn’t hurt to put Saitou’s theory to the test.

Well… it could hurt. But supposedly ignorance could kill.

Part 4

And here he was at the dojo again. He hadn’t set foot here in over a week, not since Kenshin’s disconcerting confession, and he wasn’t entirely sure he really wanted to be here now. Something about what Kenshin had said just gave him unpleasant goose-bumps. It was faintly disturbing, having that kind of reaction to your best friend, but Sano had no control over it; feeling vaguely uncomfortable was the best he could do.

Remembering on his own hadn’t worked. Sorry, Saitou, you were wrong, he reflected ruefully as he stared at the dojo’s outer doors, trying to bring himself to open them. He didn’t know what he would or could say to Kenshin to get any more information than he’d ever gotten before, but retrieving the missing pieces of his past had become paramount… he had to crawl free of this growing depression.

He steeled himself and went inside.

Yahiko looked up from where he was raking soggy leaves into a pile, and Sano observed, “You should have done that before it snowed.”

“Yeah, no shit,” the kid grumbled.

“Where’s Kenshin?”

“In his room, I think.”

“Thanks.”

As he made his way toward the aforementioned, Sano tried to figure out what he would say. Kenshin had always resisted him quite expertly before, and Sano didn’t excel at speaking cleverly. Unfortunately, he hadn’t come up with much by the time he knocked.

“Come in, Sano.”

Kenshin sat very still, appearing as if Sano was interrupting him staring at the walls. “Hey, Kenshin,” Sano greeted him a little nervously.

“It’s been a while.” Was it really necessary for Kenshin to gaze at him so steadfastly, so attentively? It was unsettling. The younger man scratched his head as he sat down, already at a loss for words.

“Sano,” Kenshin said quietly, “I am sorry if I made you uncomfortable the last time you were here.”

Sano cleared his throat. “That’s… all right…” A very awkward, wordless moment followed, thickening ice that it was a struggle to break. But eventually Sano managed it. “I wanted to ask you about the last two years.”

“Oh?” Kenshin’s tone seemed guarded.

“Lately… it’s getting really important to me to figure this out, and I feel like there’s some bullshit I really need to get out of the way.”

“What do you mean?” Still that wariness of voice. If Sano had needed any further confirmation of some secret in his past, this would have been enough.

“I didn’t lose my memory because I was sick, did I.”

After a very long silence Kenshin answered softly, “No, you didn’t.”

“Why is everyone lying to me?”

Kenshin’s eyes dropped to the floor as he replied, “Because we all want what is best for you. We thought it would be easier this way.”

“Do you know that’s what’s best for me? You’re a really smart guy, Kenshin, but can you really say what’s best for another person?”

Appearing just slightly uneasy, Kenshin seemed unable to decide how to reply.

Sano went on. “Saitou said… well, suggested… the reason I don’t remember is because something shitty happened at some point and I’m repressing it… and that if I want to remember it, I will.”

“Has Saitou not yet learned his lesson about meddling in your life?” The tone of Kenshin’s voice was quiet and possibly the most bitter Sano had ever heard from him.

“So it is something to do with him. I don’t remember you guys hating each other as much as you do now… what the fuck happened with him? Did he…” But Sano couldn’t come up with a single idea of what Saitou could have done that would be so bad the memory of it would need to be repressed… at least, nothing Saitou would have gotten away with. Or that would result in nothing more than disapproval from Kenshin.

“Sano, I am not going to play guessing games with you. It’s just better you don’t know.”

“Kenshin, that’s not good enough!” Sano jumped to his feet as the anger that had been building this entire time finally broke surface. “Who are you to decide whether or not I should know something that happened in my own fucking past? Is it something so horrible it’s worse than anything any other human has had to deal with in all history? If not, why not just let me deal with it? For once can’t you let me carry my own fucking weight? You don’t have to protect me, you don’t have to feel responsible for me… you don’t… I’m my own person…” Sano was running out of things to say, and Kenshin’s unhappy placidity wasn’t helping.

When the younger man had finally fallen silent, Kenshin said quietly, “There are some things people should not have to bear, and this is one of them. If I can spare you the pain of it, I will. I cannot stand to lose you again.”

“‘Again?'”

Kenshin just shook his head.

“Kenshin!” Sano’s voice was rising despite all his attempts to keep the anger out of it. “Can’t you ever… what, do you think I’m not strong enough? It always comes back to that! Why do you think you’d ‘lose me’ or whatever? How can it be that bad?”

“Sano, the last time you recovered this memory, you tried to kill yourself. I am not going to let that happen again.”

Sano let out a long breath of surprise and irritation, but could think of no further argument and therefore lapsed into several moments’ silence as he stared down at his friend. Could he ever have guessed a time would come when Saitou’s words, Saitou’s treatment of him, would seem more reasonable than Kenshin’s? When Saitou would have more faith in him than Kenshin did? Clearly if he wanted answers, this was not the place to find them. He turned toward the door.

“Sano…” Kenshin began, uncertain and appealing.

Forcing himself to speak calmly again, to spare his friend’s feelings, whatever they were, Sano said, “I’ll see you around.”

“Sano, please trust me,” Kenshin murmured, and he sounded so miserable that Sano had to turn and regard him. And the expression on his friend’s face drained the anger out of him and left him cold. Unfair as his behavior seemed, Kenshin did care about him and really was, probably, trying to spare him pain as best he could. Sano just didn’t want any such efforts, any more than he wanted the affection that prompted them.

“Kenshin, there’s a lot of people in the world, I bet, who’d be glad to let you make this choice for them. But I’m not like that. So if you’re not gonna tell me, I’ll go to someone who will.”

Kenshin’s brows twitched downward, and he looked for a moment as if he might say something very emotional, let something slip, perhaps — no doubt in response to the implication that Sano was going again to talk to Saitou — but eventually did not even open his mouth. This was at first frustrating… but it also gave Sano the beginnings of an idea.

If neither of them will straight-out tell me, he reflected as he left the dojo and the sad-eyed rurouni behind, maybe I can trick it out of one of them…

Saitou seemed the obvious choice. He didn’t disapprove of the general idea of Sano recovering his memory — only insisted Sano do it on his own — and had, of the two men, been easier to deal with lately — especially given Kenshin’s revelation — and more reasonable on the subject. Whether or not Sano could adequately deceive such a man was a matter of question, but he considered it worth an attempt if it meant he could get rid of this damned incessant curiosity and confusion and the pain that came with.

He had to steel himself before approaching, prepare himself for the kind of subterfuge he planned. He didn’t like deliberately lying to his friends; it didn’t seem fair. And the fact that his own situation was also unfair, that Kenshin and others were deliberately lying to him, made things no easier, because Saitou didn’t seem to be a part of that. But what else could he do? This was his last idea.

“Saitou!” he called out to him, running to catch up as Saitou was evidently walking home from work.

“Hello,” was all the other said.

Walking beside him, Sano took a deep breath. “So I was at the dojo earlier…” He let the sentence hang unfinished, knowing Saitou’s hatred of Kenshin and incomprehensible concern with Sano’s memory issue would eat at him until he demanded,

“And?”

“And Kenshin finally told me everything.”

Saitou stopped walking, stiffening where he stood, motionless as a statue, in visible shock. He was silent for so long that Sano was beginning to think he would never speak again, when he finally repeated, “And?” in an unnaturally quiet tone.

“And…” What to say now? It was what he wanted, but why did it seem he had the officer’s attention more completely than he’d ever had it before? Why was this matter so important to Saitou? “I understand now why you didn’t want to tell me,” he finished.

“Do you remember?” Saitou asked.

“I’m getting bits and pieces of it back when I think about things he said,” Sano replied cautiously. “There’s some stuff I still can’t remember, though… Kenshin said I tried to kill myself before, but… was I…” How could he put this to get the most informative answer? “Was I really that weak?”

“Stronger spirits than yours have been broken by an experience like that…” Saitou faced away from him, and his speech was still oddly soft and perhaps even a little uncomfortable. “But I don’t think you would even have considered it if you hadn’t remembered… the way you did.” What was that tone? Guilt? From Saitou? This was so unfathomable it hurt — what part had Saitou played in whatever had happened to Sano?! “Most people have time to deal with something like that, instead of having it overwhelm them all at once.”

“I’m not mad at you,” Sano found himself saying… and although it seemed the perfect next line in the conversation, in response to that guilt, he was surprised to realize that the statement arose more from a desire to… comfort Saitou… than anything else. That was decidedly odd.

“Sano–” Saitou, who had with the word turned suddenly to look at him, cut himself short. And what was that expression on his face? Finally, after studying Sano for several moments, Saitou said in a calmer tone, “What are you going to do now?”

It was a good question. Sano feared that with Saitou looking into his eyes as he was — looking hard, as if searching for something, searching avidly — he wouldn’t be able to lie any more. But still he’d found out so little… only that the spirit-breaking experience he was repressing was something he’d already brought out of repression once before (though Kenshin had said something indicating this as well); that Saitou hypothesized it was the suddenness of his previous recollection of it, not necessarily the memory itself, that had caused his attempt at suicide. And that Saitou really had had something to do with it… or, at least, had been there the first time Sano had remembered? Felt terribly guilty about it in some way..? This was just too confusing. “I need to think,” he finally answered both Saitou and himself. Still a trifle afraid Saitou might detect his deception, he turned as if to walk away as he added, “A lot.”

“Sano…” It was the second time he’d heard Saitou say his name within a few moments, and Saitou never called him by his name. Sano hadn’t thought he would ever find Saitou so emotionally involved in something as the man seemed to be in this… and why was it that when he did get the chance to see so rare an occurrence, he couldn’t understand it no matter how hard he tried?! “Did Himura tell you… all about the last two years?”

Maybe he would, after all, get more information out of this conversation. “Yeah, just about everything,” he replied, glad his back was turned.

“Are you…” Had he ever heard Saitou so uncertain before? He didn’t think so. He wouldn’t have thought it possible. “I…”

“I’m not mad at you,” Sano said again, and although there was nothing he could think of for which he should be mad at Saitou and therefore the statement should logically be meaningless, for some reason he found himself putting his entire soul into the phrase.

“Is that all?”

Why did it feel like the rest of his life was riding on the answer to that question? Why did he have to be caught in the middle of a stupid riddle game nobody would play by the rules? It wasn’t fair. “Like I said,” he finally settled on, “I need to think.”

And why did he feel, then, as if he’d said exactly the wrong thing?

Only impenetrable silence lay behind him, so after a few moments, disappointed and disturbed, he really did walk away.

Without a word, without moving a muscle, Saitou watched him go. He obviously wasn’t welcome during this proposed meditation, so what could he say or do?

Despite how much he liked to attach every possible negative trait he could think of to Himura in his mind, realistically he knew it wasn’t much like the rurouni to back down from his resolve. But he was also perfectly well aware that men did stupid things when they were in love, and Sano had been insistent lately. Sano was always insistent. If he wanted something, it was usually almost completely pointless to try denying him. And when it came down to it, Saitou rarely begrudged any of it, for all he might pretend otherwise.

He couldn’t even smile at that reflection. At another time he might have, but just after Sano had given “I need to think” as his only answer to the question Saitou had clumsily been asking? …he wasn’t sure he would ever smile again. Not so difficult a prospect, really, when his face felt frozen in this blank stare.

Well, Sano had what he wanted now; Saitou only hoped with all his heart it was not more than he could handle. Then, maybe Himura telling him first as a sort of warning precursor to actual memory was the best way to go about it. At least the deception was at an end. But had Sano really been ready for it? Saitou didn’t know. He’d had no faith in his own discernment since that burning building; how could he possibly guess now whether this turn of events was for good or ill?

Gone away to think, Sano was.

And didn’t need Saitou’s company as he did so.

Saitou didn’t want to consider this a sure indication that Sano’s regard for him had not and would not return… but how could he think otherwise? He couldn’t deny he’d had the more-than-occasional daydream about Sano remembering everything, running immediately to his open arms, and staying there for however long it took to recover… but these had never been anything more than fantasies. And the reality was that if Sano had been told, was remembering, and was already avoiding him… how likely was it that he would ever return?

It was over.

Given the intensity of the previous exchange and the emotions he’d felt at Sano’s words, he thought he was taking to the idea remarkably calmly. There was no stabbing sensation in his chest, no overwhelming pressure or any more pain than he was accustomed to feeling day after day.

He supposed a heart could only break once, after all.

It was really over.

He realized he was walking, after a few minutes, but it didn’t seem he was heading home any more. He didn’t know where he was going, but what did it matter? He could be walking straight to Hell, and what difference would it make? He was too numb to care, or to mind the snow that began to gather as it fell onto his slow-moving frame.

Attempting to tell himself it was too early to declare the thing completely done with was futile, as he realized he’d been bracing himself, ever since he’d made the decision to go on living, for the eventuality of Sano’s never coming back; he’d actually, on some level, been expecting it. A pessimist at heart, then? It was what he would previously have called realism or prudence. Now he didn’t know what to think. Only that he felt so cold… so very cold… it seemed natural to have assumed he would never be loved again.

“I just didn’t want to get my hopes up.”

And there he was, stopped short at the edge of the street looking out into a little wood to the spot where Sano had been standing as he’d said those words. So this was where his steps had been directing him. It was no surprise.

His eyes did not see the snow, nor his ears hear the silence. His mind was reliving a far-off day whose effects had now been terminated, and what flesh remained to him was finally turning completely to stone.

Part 5

What had started as a lie to cover up a lie was about to become truth. This had to end. For some reason Sano could not even begin to guess at, he’d just made things worse with Saitou in his attempt to gain a little more information. It seemed it really was time to think about things — a lot and alone. Every time he went to either Kenshin or Saitou for answers, the entire mess just became more complicated, more confusing, more painful… to the point where he was hurting not only himself but also his friends in the process.

His initial attempt had been far from successful; in fact he’d fallen asleep. But now it seemed that to try again was the only thing left for him to do, besides being a venture he absolutely had to make — because, of all possible motives, he couldn’t stand to let Saitou suffer any longer. Of course Kenshin was suffering as well, but Saitou was obviously central to this thing and his unhappiness weighed heavier on Sano. What memory he did possess found it ironic that he would be searching for something painful in his soul in order to spare Saitou discomfort, but the recollection of that man’s tone and bearing just now would not leave him.

He was right after all, I guess; it really is up to me in the end. Except now I’m not really doing this for myself, am I? He shook his head and looked around. It was snowing, but the day had yet to fade, and everything under the clouds was a dull sort of glowing grey. I’ll find a place and sit down, and I won’t move until I remember, he told himself determinedly. And a nearby stack of crates in an alleyway between two shops seemed as good a place as any. He settled in against the cold wall, wrapped his arms around his chest, and closed his eyes.

The beginning of this process, at least, he’d been over many times, like fingers run across a sealed wound without nearly enough force to break it open again. The last thing he could remember clearly before the gap was Yumi offering to let them leave without any further battle. Her back was to a huge pair of metal doors, and beyond these, memory dissolved. Picturing himself there with a clarity he would fight to retain, he steeled himself and stepped forward through them as they grudgingly parted with the shriek of unoiled metal. He must not fail this time.

His eyes flew open, wide and trembling, his breaths shortened, as he finally remembered.

It was… terrible… so terrible… This was what Kenshin had sought to protect him from, and with good reason. Misery, humiliation, self-abhorrence, hatred of the entire world… it raged out at him from the depths of his mind that were now becoming less black — cold, clawing, his own weakness and pathos, his abject helplessness, nearly crushing him.

Hands clutched each at the opposite arm as he bowed his head and squeezed his eyes shut once more, gritting his teeth against the recollection of physical sensations so strong he could swear it was happening all over again. Tears seared their way from beneath his eyelids and fell like crystals into his lap, and he bit back an anguished cry as his entire body shook.

No wonder Kenshin had tried so hard to keep him from recovering this. These feelings were worse, he had to think, than death… making his previous attempt at suicide beautifully understandable. He remembered that now as well, remembered the feeling of the sword in his hands and the sweet promise of oblivion.

Saitou’s sword.

No. He absolutely couldn’t allow himself to fall into that oblivion now. Because he hadn’t done this for himself. Of course he’d wanted to remember, but what had finally opened those doors was his concern for Saitou. If he gave in to despair now, it would make the entire effort, maybe his entire existence, meaningless. Saitou blamed himself — Sano remembered now — because he hadn’t arrived in time, because he’d forced the memory on Sano before, because… because Sano himself had told him it was his fault.

This recollection was a blow, if not equal to the one dealt by Shishio, immediately secondary to it. Had he really… had he really said… A trembling hand crept to his cold face, clenched against it, felt the tears pouring. He could hear his own voice screaming, “You might as well have fucking done it yourself!” Yes, it seemed he really had.

He forced himself to his feet, finding his balance badly off but taking to an immediate run nonetheless. The irregular beat of his pounding steps reminded him of the sound of Shishio’s footfalls as he’d approached… to… and how could Sano believe he was fit for anything other than to be thus used, when he’d said things so unforgivable to Saitou… to a man who’d… who’d loved him so completely?

The overfast and terribly painful pounding of his heart almost dragged him to the ground at that moment, the sense of his own worthlessness threatening to devour him whole. But he pressed onward, seeing before him the expression on Saitou’s face from earlier that had probably been a mirror of what his own must be now.

“I need some compensation for all this trouble I’ve taken to entertain you people.”

No, he could not start reliving it here. It would sap his strength and fell him, curl him up again around his once-shattered fists, and he might just die there in the snow. He had to find Saitou. But–

“If you get back on your knees, I’ll let you enjoy it.”

Concentrating on a different memory — the quiet despair in Saitou’s voice as he agreed with Sano’s wild accusation, “Yes, this is my fault” — he kept moving. As he found himself in Saitou’s neighborhood, his speed increased; he could not reach the man’s house quickly enough, and it didn’t matter if he was panting too hard to speak when he got there.

He burst inside without knocking, not even knowing whether he’d broken the door, stumbling and yelling out Saitou’s name. But in none of the rooms he frantically entered was Saitou to be found.

This house… everything here was familiar now — from the angle of every corner to every worn spot on the floor to every last item in every room. He knew it all, because this had been his home, the place he’d spent nearly two years in peace — in peaceful ignorance, at least — with Saitou, the place where he’d been happier than anywhere else he’d ever lived. But for the moment, without Saitou here, he couldn’t stand it.

“What does it look like I’m doing?”

No… oh, god, no…

The minor composure he’d built up in the house shattering, he slipped in the growing snow on the walk outside, but caught himself before he could fall; he wasn’t sure he’d be able to rise again if he did. Think of something else! Just for now…

“Are you… I…”

Saitou…

Back in the street, his desperate eyes searched for any sign of the man, but found nothing. There was no way to tell where he might have gone after the fraudulent conversation that — well Sano knew now — must have hurt him so deeply.

“Sano! Sano!”

Only at a third repetition of his name did he realize someone was calling him, and he skidded to a halt. Turning, he found Kenshin at his side looking as if he’d just run to catch up. The rurouni’s eyes were wide and his face extremely worried. “Sano, what is going on? Are you all right?”

“The thing you are missing… the person you are missing… is Saitou.”

“You’re kidding me, right?”

“Sano, I honestly wish I could say I was. During the last two years, you and Saitou became friends, and you spent a lot of time with him. None of us ever really approved, but…”

“‘Friends?'” Sano whispered, absolutely stunned, as that instance not long after he’d awakened from his ‘illness’ drifted across his mind’s eye. Then a bit louder, “‘Friends?‘”

“Sano, what is wrong?” Kenshin sounded almost desperately concerned.

“Sano, I love you. I have always loved you.”

He understood it all now: the lies from a man he’d thought totally honest, the disapprobation of a friendship that had seemed harmless, the inexplicable and apparently recently-arisen hatred of someone that had never appeared to be more than a rival in combat… the selfishness and glaringly contrasted selflessness of two men that wanted the same thing.

“You absolute bastard,” Sano whispered, rage swelling for the moment above his pain.

Kenshin looked dumbstruck.

“How could you do that to me?” Sano demanded, unable even to raise his voice, so great was the commotion within him. “How could you do that to him? How could you call yourself my friend doing something like that?”

“Sano, do you… did you…”

“Yeah, I remember everything now.” He couldn’t even think of anything more to say to Kenshin; his mind was in too much turmoil, his heart hurting too desperately for much more speech with the man. “I’m just on my way to find Saitou,” he added as he turned away, emphasizing the name almost spitefully.

“Sano!” Kenshin’s voice was harsh, demanding, nearly reminiscent of how he spoke as Battousai. “All that man has ever done is hurt you! If you remember, you should see that! He’s no good for you; if you go back to him now, he’ll–”

Sano had whirled and struck Kenshin in the face with a clenched fist, full force, before he’d even realized what he was doing. Even Kenshin, who saw every blow coming, looked shocked as he staggered back a pace. “Don’t you dare even fucking talk about him,” Sano seethed. “All that man has ever done has been anything and everything that was good for me, unlike some so-called friends or would-be lovers who couldn’t even let me live my own life without trying to play out their own fucking selfish plans.”

Kenshin was absolutely speechless.

“Sano, I love you. I have always loved you.”

“Some love,” Sano growled, disdainful and bitter and utterly crushed, as he turned away again, and the freezing tear tracks on his face doubled as he resumed his run.

Forward movement, after that encounter, was physically difficult; it felt as if he floundered through a waist-deep snow-drift, memory piled upon stinging memory and each demanding to be examined at length.

He remembered Kenshin and Saitou fighting… fighting over him… fighting for his love… a battle that would have been a death-match had Sano not intervened.

He remembered another battle that had been a death-match, on a high and fiery platform on Mt. Hiei, a battle that had taken more than lives.

He remembered every tortured moment of the events just a few months ago, when Saitou had done everything he could to help him, to save him, and had eventually, evidently, given him up for that very purpose.

He remembered falling to the ground onto shattered hands, and Shishio pulling him back up by the hair.

He remembered those rings: how much it had meant to him back then, and that whole glorious day… but the recollection of how happy he’d been only heightened by contrast his current misery.

He remembered Shishio.

He remembered his first confirmation of Saitou’s feelings for him, and what they’d done in that grove… it had been months after Shishio, but still he’d been in so much pain… he’d assumed, back then, that was due to its being his first time, but of course he’d been wrong about everything… Shishio had been there first.

Shishio… Oh, god, he didn’t think he could ever… no, no, never again…

I have to find Saitou! Continually telling himself that was the only thing keeping him going, now not only because of his desperate need to reassure the officer that none of it had been his fault, but also because he feared that, at least until he could get himself together, he might just fall apart without him.

Time seemed to stretch until he could not tell a second from an hour, and his body worked only sluggishly so it felt he moved as slowly as the languidly-falling snow. And his only coherent thought amidst a flaming sea of horrifying images and ghost sensations threatening every moment to overwhelm and destroy him was that he must find Saitou.

And at last, by some miracle of chance or perhaps by the kindness of destiny, he did. The wolf stood very still on a secluded street that ran alongside a little patch of woods. As Sano came to a halt upon sight of him, his blood seemed to start flowing again, and his mind cleared just enough for him to entertain one or two lucid reflections.

Saitou’s figure, his movements, his presence, everything, everything Sano saw and remembered of him, knew about him without having any way of knowing — Sano loved it all. It seemed so natural for him to love him, so nearly primal, he almost couldn’t believe he’d ever forgotten he did. All he wanted now was to be in Saitou’s arms, know he could stay there, to cry out his sorrow until it washed away and have Saitou still with him when it was all over.

But would Saitou forgive him for his deceit? For the pain he’d inflicted in attempting to figure things out, when he could have remembered on his own without that kind of duplicity? Could Saitou still love him, after putting up with months of indifference and carelessness?

It didn’t matter. There were things Sano had to say, regardless of their future together.

“Saitou!” he hailed him, nearly too breathless to form the call. Likewise was his body nearly too exhausted to finish the run to the other man, and he stumbled as he approached.

Saitou, though apparently surprised as he turned toward Sano’s voice, stepped forward and caught him quick as lightning, looking in horror at Sano’s tear-stained face and desperate eyes. “Sano, what’s…”

Regaining his balance, Sano did not step back, but clutched at Saitou’s arms and gasped out, “Saitou, I’m sorry… I’m sorry… it was all a lie… Kenshin never told me anything. I was just trying to get you to talk. I’m sorry.”

The older man’s eyes widened a fraction, and then he frowned. “I told you that you–” he began, apparently with some difficulty.

“But I couldn’t stand it bothering you so much,” Sano interrupted him, plunging on wildly with his explanation, “so I took your advice and forced myself to remember… so I could tell you… make sure you know… that I really don’t blame you… really.” After that, the words just came pouring out; he had to make sure Saitou understood; it was simply imperative. “I know I said I did, but I wasn’t thinking straight; you know I wasn’t thinking straight; you said so yourself, that I wouldn’t have tried suicide if I hadn’t remembered it all at once. I wouldn’t have said any of those horrible things… I would never have fucking hit you. You can’t blame yourself; there was no way you could have known what kind of thing I was repressing… you needed me to remember, and I needed to remember, and I need to remember now and you…” His tone was more desperate than he recalled allowing it to become. “I’m sorry if I sound like a complete idiot, but just… just tell me you’ll stop blaming yourself.”

Saitou was staring at him wordlessly, but his expression now was less inscrutable than it had been in months: he was clearly heartbroken, and at last Sano knew why. And imagining what Saitou must have been going through since their separation… no, he couldn’t even begin to imagine it. But at last he understood the man’s face.

“Please,” he said, very seriously. “It’s the only thing about this I won’t be able to deal with, if you keep thinking it was your fault.”

“You’re… sure you’re remembering what happened to you accurately?” Saitou finally asked with forced calm.

“Yes, I am,” replied Sano. “Don’t worry about that; I’m handling it.”

“You seem to be handling it… very well.” Saitou really couldn’t be blamed for mistrusting Sano this time, but that didn’t make things any less strange and awkward.

“I remember every fucking detail,” Sano insisted. “Do you want me to describe it? He told Houji to take Yumi inside and–”

“All right,” Saitou cut him off, harsh and quiet. “You don’t have to. And you’re… all right?”

“No. Nobody’s all right who gets raped, least not for a while,” Sano answered bluntly. “I feel like crawling into a hole and rotting. But right now it’s more important to me to make sure you don’t feel like any of this is your fault when you’re the only one who was actually looking out for me all along.”

Saitou let his eyes fall shut and nodded slowly, as if finally accepting what Sano was trying to get through to him. But the expression he was still fighting off, that tortured restraint, was just too much for Sano. The younger man’s breath caught as he began, “And– and if you– if you still love me, I–”

There was a half-second’s flash of gold from which every minute shred of restraint had fled as Saitou’s eyes opened, and then Sano was… whole again… held tightly against the man he loved in a heated, possessive, almost crushing embrace that shattered any doubts he might have that everything would, someday, be all right.

“Ahou,” Saitou was growling into his ear. “The moment I stop loving you, I’ll cease to exist.”

Sano buried his face in Saitou’s chest, choking out something he thought might have been an apology before the sobs tore all words from him.

And as the sun set completely and frigid night fell, the healing of two fragmented hearts, reunited in the silent, drifting snow, slowly began.



<<Part 4

This story’s not terrible; in fact it gets a . It’s good enough, at least for now, that I keep its abysmal predecessor around so this one can be read properly. You never know when that may change, though.

I had at one point started writing the scene where Saitou tells Chou what’s going on. It turned out not to fit in the story, and never got finished, but I think it’s interesting enough that I’m including it here. I just adore Saitou and Chou as friends.


“What? What?! I thought that guy was tori-atama’s friend! I’d fucking kill someone who did that to me!”

“If you knew he had.”

“Well, you’re gonna tell him, right?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“What do you mean you don’t know yet?! You’re not gonna fucking let Battousai win, are you?”

“It isn’t about him. It’s about what’s best for Sano.”

“How the fuck is that good for him?! How can you be so calm about this?”

“The only reason I brought this up is to let you know that you need to keep out of it.”

“But… but this really pisses me off! It’s a fucking dirty trick! It ain’t right! Don’t just stand there and tell me not to get involved!”

“Do you remember what Sano thought of you in that jail cell in Kyoto two years ago?”

“He didn’t like me much…”

“Well, that’s probably all he remembers of you now. You’re not his friend anymore.”

“But I’m fucking still yours! This… this seriously pisses me the fuck off!”


Also, two bonus versions of the figures from the title pictures:

Distraction Sufficient

The idea that if he’d realized it sooner things might have been different was pleasantly, absorbingly distracting.

Sano finally admits how he feels about Saitou, perhaps only because to do so is conveniently distracting.



It was with a peculiar sort of indifferent abandon that Sano allowed his thoughts for the first time ever down a path wherefrom they had previously been emphatically banned, and it was a surprise how short that path was before the destination I love him was reached.

He was astounded. I love him? he wondered. That’s a pretty hefty thing to have been denying all this time!

He couldn’t help but think it had been ‘all this time,’ or at least something close to it, as he certainly couldn’t have fallen in love recently. One didn’t fall in love with absent men. And though he couldn’t trace it quite as far back as the shoulder-stabbing, he felt it must have been present for some time without his noticing or at least admitting it.

The fight in the street had procured his attention and his desire to impress, the endless reflections on the way to Kyoto had solidified that… the jail, perhaps, had been the beginning, the Rengoku the confirmation, and after that it had just become steadily stronger and stronger and, as a consequence, more deeply repressed. It had almost surfaced in the smoke and dust of that protracted battle of many enemies when he’d first laid eyes on him again after believing him dead for so long, but Sano had been too steadfast in his denial to allow that.

It was liberating, really, to make a clean breast, even if only with himself. It was a relief to allow that the reason he’d been so inexplicably, so drastically horrified in that burning fortress had not been merely the unnecessary loss of a strong ally. He felt a strange and unexpected clear-headedness, as if in being honest with himself he had suddenly simplified the whole world. He loved Saitou, and he didn’t even mind thinking about it.

Too bad he wouldn’t be seeing him again. Hokkaido, was that it? He thought that was what he remembered Kenshin saying. Well, it didn’t matter… Hokkaido or America or the moon; it made no difference now.

He wondered what Saitou would say about his current situation. Surely the wolf would have nothing but contempt for Tani, but Sano doubted his concern would extend as far as a stupid rooster that had made the pig mad. But Saitou, having been transferred, wouldn’t even know, so wondering if he would care was rather extravagant.

Still, Sano didn’t bother to stop himself imagining nice things that might have been. It wasn’t likely they would have been, but he’d met stranger couples. And in all honesty, he didn’t really think Saitou had hated him as much as he’d pretended. Maybe they could have been happy…

It was interesting he’d chosen to delve into this issue when he had nowhere near enough time to do so thoroughly. Perhaps it was because Saitou, and the fact that Sano loved Saitou, and the idea that if he’d realized it sooner things might have been different, was pleasantly, absorbingly distracting.

That was what Saitou would say, he realized belatedly — “You should have learned to defend yourself.” And surely he should have, or should, at the very least, have been quicker in his attempt to flee the country. He laughed weakly.

He wondered if, were it possible for Saitou to know of this anomaly of being simultaneously first and last in Sano’s thoughts, he would appreciate it.

First because Sano loved him more than he might have been able to express even had he had the chance.

Last because they were fitting the noose around his neck even now.

He closed his eyes, and burning gold was all he could see.



The idea for this story evolved at work (McDonald’s), and I got so agitated about it that they actually let me go home early so I could write it XD I’ve rated it .

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


Birthday Present


Saitou paused outside his apartment, absolutely silent and still, dropping the hand that had initially risen to open the door. He couldn’t go in yet. He had things to think about. It wasn’t that he was afraid, of course… it was just so inconvenient, all of it. It wasn’t that he thought he might have hurt his lover, either… it was just that the latter was so difficult to deal with when miffed. Saitou probably wouldn’t be getting any tonight, and that was remarkably bad timing.

He couldn’t shift the blame, though, or deny that it had been a lapse into unprecedented stupidity. He’d thought he had more self-control than that; maybe it had just been one fuck too many?

But really… they’d never made each other any promises, never suggested there was any emotion involved in their convenient situation. There was no reason to think the idiot would be angry, because what could he expect? Faithfulness? He should understand the nature of their relationship better than that by now. No, there was no good reason for anger.

But still… even for someone as callous as Saitou admitted himself to be, and even in as cold an arrangement as this, calling out the wrong name in bed seemed a little unkind.

This to himself he could freely admit, but it wasn’t likely he could say it out loud. It was likely he would have to make something that at least sounded like an admission of guilt if we wanted to get laid tonight. And he needed to get laid tonight. He spent one last moment coming up with a few things he could say without actually apologizing, and opened the door.

He hadn’t expected this.

Oh, this was bad timing.

He stood in the entryway and couldn’t stop staring at the wall immediately opposite: at the great empty spot where not even the heavy mounting hooks that had lately been sagging remained. His eyes traced the slightly brighter pattern that marked where the sword had rested. If the zanbatou was gone, it could mean only one thing.

He moved swiftly through the other rooms of the apartment, confirming his first suspicion: nothing was left; he was entirely alone, and obviously with little hope of a reunion. That must have been why his lover hadn’t been around all day: he’d been busy moving out.

Well, Saitou certainly wasn’t getting laid tonight. Bad, bad timing.

With a sigh he sank into the chair beside his desk and closed his eyes. That was no good, however, as the backs of his eyelids seemed to be burned with the image of a spiky-haired, golden-skinned young man in white who beckoned sexily to him but was not physically present to follow up on the tease.

What was he supposed to do now?

There was something foreign on his desk that he hadn’t noticed before. He reached for the folded paper, unsure as he opened it what to expect — some kind of accusation, probably, an unnecessary explanation as to why Saitou found himself suddenly without a roommate. It appeared to have been written calmly, however, which was a good sign. That handwriting was always neater than he expected, no matter how often he saw it, and the words always looked quite different on paper from how he knew they would have sounded aloud.

Hey,

You’re probably worried, but don’t be. I’m not mad or hurt or anything. I knew all along you were only with me because I reminded you of him. The sex was always good, but we each like someone else, right? You probably think this is really bad timing too, what with him being in town for that girl’s birthday — you’re probably horny as hell — but I’ll tell you something I found out. The little thing he’s got going with Shinomori is exactly the same as our little thing. Shinomori didn’t want the girl until she was legally an adult, and was just with your boy because he reminded him of her. They ended it a while back since she was going to turn eighteen soon. I don’t think she knows about them, and I don’t think he knows about us. So go get him!

–Chou

P.S. I can’t remember if this wakizashi is mine or yours. I’ll bring it to work on Monday so you can tell me.

At first Saitou was slightly stunned, staring at the words as if they were some sort of magic spell that held him entranced. But after a moment, as that image he’d watched for an instant on the back of his eyelids only seconds before seemed to become more material and a good deal more plausible, he smiled. Folding the paper again neatly, he stood and looked around the room that now bore no traces of Chou’s ever having been there. The broomhead had more sense than he’d thought; certainly he had good timing. Perhaps Saitou would get laid tonight after all.

He thought it might be nice to visit the Aoiya with a birthday greeting for that weasel-girl.



I’ve rated this story .

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


Rurouni’s Kiss


Sano tugged with nervous but absentminded adjustment at his gi. He had no real reason to believe it was sitting wrong — it wasn’t a tight or fitted garment; it didn’t matter how much of his chest showed; the thing just hung off his shoulders in any case — and when he realized what he was doing, he yanked his hands away and stowed them in his lap. No reason to think I look any different than I ever do, he reminded himself somewhat fiercely.

“Sano, are you all right?”

Dammit, why can he always tell when something’s wrong? Well, maybe because I can’t stop playing with my stupid clothes… He caught himself smoothing out his pants even as he made this reflection, wishing almost subconsciously and for the first time in his life that he could steam the creases, and again jerked his arms away. With a self-conscious laugh he replied, “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” and avoided meeting Kenshin’s gaze. But he found as he raised a hand behind his head in one of his typical casual gestures that he immediately started fingering his hair as if to make sure it all stood out from his head correctly.

I should just go out there and wait, he reflected, irritated. Being in here’s gonna give them clues. A glance at the clock, however — perhaps his hundredth since he’d entered — nixed this idea. If I go out there now I won’t even know when it’s seven. He could never show up at all and I wouldn’t realize until midnight or something. So instead he concentrated on eating, glad Kaoru was at an evening teaching session at the Maekawa dojo and had left Kenshin to cook supper: it wouldn’t do to head out on an empty stomach (or, worse, an upset one).

Some symptoms must have continued to exhibit, though, for he suddenly felt Kenshin’s hand covering his own. Startled, he looked up into the big purple eyes he’d so successfully evaded just moments before, and blushed. It scared him when Kenshin touched him that gently. “Sano,” Kenshin said in a low, worried tone. “Are you really all right?”

This more intense repetition of the question caught Yahiko’s attention, and the boy looked up from where he was avidly wolfing down his food.

‘Wolfing’ — why that term? Didn’t he want to calm himself?

He breathed deeply, trying not to acknowledge the earnestness of Kenshin’s expression, trying to appear casual, trying to give no indication of the reason he was so desperately nervous and becoming more so with every movement of the hands on the clock’s face. What to say, what to say… Obviously he needed to reassure his companions he was all right, and in some manner decisive enough to prevent their asking him again or following him out the door when he left… or Kenshin’s continuing to give him that I-think-I-might-like-you-as-more-than-a-friend look.

“I’m trying to decide whether to go gambling tonight,” he said after the barest moment’s reflection. “It’s so cold I may just go to bed, but all the guys’re gonna be there.” It might make sense to them, he hoped, that he was agitated with indecision.

Kenshin relaxed visibly. “Oh, I see,” he remarked, seeming appeased. Sano still didn’t like the look in his eyes, though — the one that said, “I’m glad you’re all right, but if you weren’t, I could have helped.”

And all of a sudden he found himself checking his hair again. Stop doing that! he chided. Kenshin’s not gonna buy your excuses if you keep primping like jou-chan!!

It didn’t appear Kenshin had specifically noted Sano’s behavior or guessed its significance, but Kenshin had a terrible habit of noticing exactly what you didn’t want him to. A speedy exit from the dojo, Sano thought, was in order. He shoveled down a last mouthful of food and stood with a forced stretch. “Well, I’m gonna head downtown and win some money, so I gotta get outta here before jou-chan shows up and tries to kill me for even thinking about it.” He flashed them a grin and headed for the door.

Swiftly Kenshin stood as well. Oh, no, Kenshin, don’t do this to me, Sano begged his friend mentally. But Kenshin only moved aside as he passed. Once more Sano avoided his eyes.

“Don’t forget your coat, Sano,” the rurouni said, apparently as a means of making Sano look over at him.

Sano didn’t take the bait. In fact, he almost laughed — and a moment later paled because of it: Kenshin was dull sometimes, but frighteningly quick-witted at others… and Sano had the feeling a jealous Kenshin would be the sharpest of all. Not a good idea, then, to laugh at the ridiculous idea of forgetting his coat. That coat.

As he slipped it on, the same wash of warmth he’d felt every time he did so came over him, and he took a deep breath to aid in his effort to keep a silly smile off his face. Finally turning to the others for the last time — in truth he was just looking at the clock across the room — he waved goodbye. Then he practically bolted out the door.

His nervousness hadn’t abated, obviously, as he was still checking his attire when he climbed the hill at last and looked around. He wasn’t sure why he’d chosen a location so close to the Kamiya dojo — stupid coincidence, really — but he hoped he wouldn’t have to be there long. Certainly not long enough for Kenshin to decide he was cold or lonely or whatever and come after him.

Stop playing with your damn bandanna! he told himself as he again succumbed to subconscious worries about his appearance and started fiddling. Ignoring the frigidity of the ground, he sat down against a tree and put both hands firmly behind his head, fingers interlaced so he couldn’t annoy himself any more. And he started to wait.

Under normal circumstances he would have fallen asleep like this, relaxing out in the open in a soft coat, the chill of the air notwithstanding, but these were far from normal circumstances. His agitation, already great, continued to grow and grow until his stomach actually hurt. He’d never once thought things would go well tonight — only pure desperation had driven him to this extreme at all — but now the worst-case scenarios started running through his head, and he almost couldn’t stand it.

It had to be seven by now… the wall clock in the dojo had said six thirty, and he’d been freezing his ass off out here forever!

But what if he waited alone all night? As he’d remarked to himself earlier, he might never know what time it was until seven had long gone… In his current nervous state he could well be misjudging the passage of time. And was there any real reason to believe he wouldn’t wait out here alone all night? A remembered look, a forlorn hope… He must be a fool.

But really, it had to be at least seven by now.

He shifted against the tree, and that was when he noticed it: the thin scent of tobacco drifting faintly to his nostrils from somewhere above and behind. He jumped to his feet and whirled. “How long have you been there?” he demanded.

Saitou shrugged, taking another drag on his cigarette and blowing the smoke into Sano’s face. “Since seven,” he said at last. “I assumed you’d say what you were going to say when you were ready.” But the quirk of his lips spoke otherwise: Saitou, reveling as usual in his superior skills, had just been waiting to see how long it would take Sano to notice him.

Despite this aggravating behavior, Sano no longer tried to keep the silly smile off his face. The inevitable result of looking into the gold fire of Saitou’s eyes was that abruptly he wasn’t cold anymore. He could have remarked on this; he could have called Saitou a bastard for standing there without saying anything for however long; he could have teasingly implied that Saitou had done so merely out of desire to admire Sano longer; he could have just gotten down to what he really wanted to talk about. But he managed none of this. Instead, brilliantly, “You got my note,” was what he came up with.

“No, ahou, I’m just standing here in the freezing cold talking to a complete idiot on a ridiculous whim.”

The consternation that had previously manifest as a pain in Sano’s stomach grew. The officer’s presence had driven away his exterior nervousness, but the fear remained to gnaw at his insides. That Saitou was here in response to his request at all was a hopeful sign, but might not really mean anything; things could still go entirely wrong. Sano almost couldn’t believe he was actually doing this, had actually gotten this far.

“Has your mouth frozen shut?” Saitou inquired. “Generally you would have made an amusingly futile attempt at a witty response by now.”

Once again, any number of potential replies careened through Sano’s head, and for a second time what he eventually did say was completely inane: “Yeah, it really is cold out here.” Great, ahou, way to make an impression. Talk about the weather.

Saitou seemed to have the same idea. “Is that what you called me out here to talk about?”

“No…” Contrary to his last statement, Sano began to feel uncomfortably hot as he contemplated broaching the subject he’d intended all along. You suck, he told himself. You’ve been worrying about this for weeks; why didn’t you use that time thinking up what words you were gonna use instead of playing with your clothes? As if spawned of this reflection, his next action was to tug at the collar of his coat.

“If you came to thank me again for buying you that coat, you’re welcome.”

“Um, that’s not… I mean, yeah, thanks, but that’s… I mean…” He usually didn’t have trouble talking to Saitou; what the hell was his problem? You know what your problem is. Just tell him already!

Saitou was gazing into the sky, apparently studying the stars as he calmly smoked his cigarette. He looked amazingly elegant thus, with a long black trench-coat over his shoulders, glowing hand raised casually to his lips as his face turned toward the sparkling heavens that framed his figure. Dammit, Sano, admiring him isn’t gonna make you any less nervous! Just say what you fucking came to say!

He gathered up every last bit of his courage and strength, building a wall against fear, nervousness, and any feeling of awkwardness he might be entertaining. “Saitou…” he began.

Saitou glanced over his shoulder at him, and it all shattered.

“Damm,” Sano muttered, turning away. When he wasn’t facing him, he realized, it might be easier. “Saitou,” he said again, less hesitantly this time.

“That is my name,” Saitou replied. “I’m glad you’ve learned it. Next we’ll see if you can spell it.”

He wasn’t sure how he finally managed to get it right, but by some trick of fate he was able out of this third roulette of response choices to pull the correct reply. “Saitou, I love you.”

As he blurted the words out, a fierce blush overtook his face and spread in a hot wave through his entire body — which had already been a bit overheated from what had gone before. This was probably the most embarrassing thing he’d ever done, admitting he was in love with someone he’d once considered his arch-nemesis, and he frantically tried to put off Saitou’s inevitable mockery by further speech. He found, though, that once he got started it was difficult to stop — difficult to allow a silence to fall in which he knew would also fall the other man’s taunting rejection.

“I know it sounds crazy — I mean, it’s definitely crazy, and I think I’m probably crazy for falling for someone like you, but I did fall for you, and it’s not my fault, so it’s too late now. It started back when I was just hanging around with Chou and I kept running into you and I started thinking you might not be so bad even though you’re still a bastard, but that’s why I like you, I think — I mean, part of it, anyway; it’s not like there’s nothing else about you I like; it’s not completely crazy, I promise — but then when I went with you guys to Yokohama trying to find that one yakuza boss and it snowed and shit, that was really intense; and you bought me this coat without even me saying anything, and I was thinking you weren’t as much of a bastard as I thought, and I just kept liking you more and more, even though you’re still a bastard, just less of one, but that’s why I like you, I think–”

There was a hand on his shoulder. He shut up with a gasp. None of it had been entirely coherent, and he’d been starting to repeat himself anyway; it was probably better that he stop. And now Saitou’s gloved hand was on his shoulder. For whatever mock sympathy the man would have to offer as he broke Sano’s heart, Sano braced himself as if he were readying for a physical blow. God knew he’d had enough blows from Saitou that he should be able to withstand this one.

“Sanosuke,” Saitou said quietly.

Sano couldn’t breathe. Saitou had never called him that before — it was always ‘ahou’ or occasionally ‘roosterhead,’ and every once in a while some other choice term of insult fitted to their specific situation. But now suddenly, “Sanosuke,” Saitou said, and withdrew his hand. Not allowing himself to dare to hope, Sano turned slowly, his heart not beating, to face the man he loved.

The latter had turned away from him again, and for a second time looked wordlessly into the sky. Finally, in a tone far gentler than any Sano had ever heard from him, “It wouldn’t work,” he said.

Among all the responses Sano had imagined, from the cruelest derision to the warmest acceptance, this had no place. “What… what do you mean?”

“It wouldn’t work,” Saitou repeated. “You and I are too different.”

Sano was baffled. Was that regret he heard in Saitou’s voice? Did that mean what he thought it meant? “Too different?” he echoed. “I thought that’s why people fall in love — ’cause they’re different, and they admire stuff in each other they don’t have themselves.”

“Hn.” Saitou’s amusement so expressed seemed unbelievably bitter. “I suppose it does work that way for some people.”

“Why not for us?” Sano took a step closer, drawn by the inexplicably forlorn aspect of the dark man staring up into the cold stars.

“We have different ideals, different ways of life. We’d only end up annoying and hurting each other.”

“But Kenshin and Kaoru are like that!” Sano protested. The fear was returning, but now, blended with anger and sadness, it was a hundred times worse.

Saitou gave a short laugh, but said nothing. Sano couldn’t hold back any longer; he pressed himself close against the other man, wrapping his arms around Saitou’s chest and hugging him tightly. Cheek laid against Saitou’s shoulder, he murmured again, “I love you.” Saying it the second time was easier.

For a moment it seemed Saitou would relax into his embrace, but the next instant he was pulling away, moving Sano’s hands off and turning to look him in the eyes for the first time during the interview. “You are so naïve,” he said, but, though his tone carried his typical scorn, there was little energy behind it. Indeed, as their gazes met, Sano was taken aback by the regret he saw plainly there. “It wouldn’t work. But you’re young; you’ll find someone else as pretty as you are.”

Not for the first time that evening, Sano said entirely the wrong thing. “You… think I’m… ‘pretty?'”

Saitou snorted. “And stupid.” Abruptly he turned, his coat flying out like a cape as he spun, and began to walk away. “Just forget all of this, ahou.”

“Saitou!” Sano protested, desperate and furious. “I can’t love anyone else! Don’t fucking throw me off like this! I’ll never find anyone else I want like I want you!”

Saitou paused in his long stride, and, turning again, retraced his steps up the hill. There was a glitter in his eyes that frightened and bewildered Sano: a feral, irate, erotic look that heated him even further despite the winter night. He took a step back as Saitou advanced all the way to him and seized his wrist. “Ahou,” Saitou growled, and unexpectedly punched him in the gut. As Sano crumpled, the officer caught him, lifting him by one side of the coat he’d bought for him last month. “Is this what you want?” he demanded angrily, and proceeded to crush Sano’s mouth with his own.

It was like nothing he’d ever felt before, not even in his most fiery dreams. Saitou tasted like pure strength, and his bruising kiss sent shockwaves of desire through Sano’s body in a burst of chaos. As Saitou threw him roughly to the ground, standing over him like an avenging angel, Sano’s mind cried out the answer to his last question, Dammit, yes, that’s what I fucking want! However, as usual, his mouth wasn’t listening to his brain and immediately shouted what would be his typical response to such actions: “You bastard!”

“I see you can be brought to reason.” Saitou smirked, but the expression was devoid of any enjoyment. “There’s nothing gentle about me,” he said. Preparing to depart once again, he added, “I’d probably just end up killing you.”

Sano jumped to his feet, angrier than before. “You think I care?!” he shouted. “You think it fucking makes a difference to me if you wanna beat me up? Well, if that’s what gets you off it’s fine with me, but you don’t think I can handle it, do you? It’s always the same thing with you: I’m not strong enough. Well, dammit, Saitou, I’m strong enough to handle whatever you dish out as long as…” Saitou showed no signs of responding or returning. “…as long as you love me,” Sano finished dully.

“Don’t come bothering me again, ahou,” Saitou’s voice floated back as he disappeared completely into the darkness.

***

Well, that was done. A fair night’s work, in all, he thought: he’d compromised his dignity, he’d broken the poor idiot’s heart, he’d practically claimed he had abusive tendencies, and he’d walked away from yet another challenge. Yes, indeed, an excellent list of accomplishments for one evening. He’d probably set a new record, as this had to top his previous feat of having Sano convinced for two months that he was dead.

Firmly restraining any physical signs of his utter despair at what had just transpired, he still found himself stopping just around the bend in the path and listening. He told himself he needed to make sure Sano wasn’t following him, and this had nothing to do with his overwhelming desire to run back and kiss him again. He’d done the right thing; it was a matter on which he couldn’t possibly have been mistaken. There was just no way they could be happy together. He would not allow himself to take another lover he would only end up hurting over and over again as he had the last. Strong enough to handle it, Sano claimed? He didn’t think so. He turned to stalk off again, and froze.

Well, it was freezing outside anyway, but he did stop abruptly. He heard voices behind him: Sano’s and… Battousai’s. Damn. If Himura had seen their exchange, he would, most likely, come after Saitou with drawn sword for trying to molest his poor, pretty, oblivious friend, and then Saitou would be forced to kill him.

“Have you been here since you left?” Himura was asking in a surprised tone, and Saitou drew a breath of relief; obviously Battousai hadn’t witnessed the tragic interview.

“Uh, yeah. Just looking at the stars,” he heard Sano reply. Of course the proud young man wouldn’t admit what he’d really been doing, Saitou reflected fondly, even to his supposed best friend.

“You have been acting strangely all day. I had to come find you.”

“That’s real nice of you, Kenshin, but I’m fine. Really.” Saitou thought Sano overdid the last word a bit, and knew Battousai wouldn’t fail to notice. He began to creep back toward the meeting-place, slipping into the trees that flanked the path.

“Are you sure?” Himura’s voice sounded concerned; how touching.

Sano sighed and apparently gave up trying. Even as Saitou found a good spot where he could watch the entire scene, his heart twisted at the miserable look on Sano’s face. “Yeah, so maybe I’m not fine.”

Moving closer to the kenkaya and putting a hand on his high shoulder, Kenshin said, “Sano, you know I would be glad to listen to anything you want to say.”

“It’s not something I really wanna talk about,” Sano admitted, “but thanks.”

The suspicion that had been forming in the corner of a mind always on the alert for the approach of enemies heightened intensely as Himura moved even closer to Sano and spoke again more softly. “I hate to see you hurting. Are you sure there is nothing I can do?”

Sano seemed to have caught wind of the worrisome tendency of his friend’s demeanor as well, for he took a hasty step backward. “Thanks, Kenshin, but really, I need to–”

At this moment Battousai interrupted with a desperate cry of, “Oh, Sano, why can’t you see how I feel?”

“Kensh–” was all Sano had time to say before Himura had thrown himself at him and seized his face in a passionate kiss.

This was too much. Saitou’s hand gripped the hilt of his sword so tightly his knuckles must have been pure white beneath his gloves. Himura was kissing his ahou. It took only a moment for fury to fill his vision and turn everything blood-red; but of course he managed to restrain himself. It wouldn’t do to slaughter the unsuspecting rurouni in the very arms of his friend. But something had to be done.

The look on Himura’s face as Saitou emerged from behind the tree, seized Sano, and dragged him off around the bend in the path almost quicker than thought — the stunned orororo look beneath the red hair was really quite priceless, and, though Saitou had not spent long observing it, he would always treasure the memory. He generally didn’t allow himself to indulge in such sensations, but it felt undeniably good to deny Himura something he wanted like this.

Sano managed to escape from Saitou’s grasp not long after, and fell into a combative position with an expression of intense pain mingled with anger. He was breathtaking, as always, but that display of mixed emotions added a poignancy that pierced Saitou’s heart.

“What the hell is your problem?” Sano demanded.

“He was kissing you,” Saitou replied, managing to remain calm despite the pounding in his chest. He feared that all his careful efforts earlier at smashing their potential relationship would now fall to nothing.

“And why do you fucking care who kisses me?” Sano shouted. “You just got finished telling me you didn’t want me! What am I, some ‘pretty’ statue for you to look at but nobody’s allowed to touch?!”

Saitou’s eyes narrowed and he took a step closer. “First,” he said, “I never told you I didn’t want you; I only said I was likely to hurt you. Second, I should think you would thank me for saving you from a situation you obviously weren’t doing a very good job getting out of.”

Sano gaped. “And who ever said I wanted to get out of it?”

Saitou laughed bitterly. “As if I couldn’t tell.”

“So you do want me, and you sneak around spying on me, and you don’t like Kenshin kissing me, but you won’t fucking get with me! What the hell do you want?” It was exactly what it sounded like: a question voiced honestly from the last desperate confusion of Sano’s heart.

It wasn’t fair to say Saitou melted, or snapped, or any other term so extreme. Even to say he gave in would be a bit of a misnomer. Certainly, though, some change in resolve must have become evident in his eyes, for as Sano said his name uncertainly, it was nearly a whisper, and he seemed to be trembling.

And Saitou moved forward to take Sano in his arms. “Sanosuke,” he said softly, “do you understand what I was saying earlier?”

“Better than you think,” Sano replied in a surly tone, although he wasted no time in returning the embrace. “You wanted it to sound like you’re cruel so it’d scare me off, but I think you’re actually just really intense when it comes to shit you care about, and not very good at lightening up even when you know you need to. But so what? I knew that already. I mean, you shoved a fucking nihontou through my shoulder when we first met!”

“But who says I cared about you then?” Though this reply was somewhat amused, Saitou also couldn’t help a feeling of startlement at Sano’s incisive assessment. No matter how he tried to ignore it, Sano was always more observant, and had sharper powers of interpretation, than Saitou wanted to believe. It was harassingly attractive.

“I do,” Sano said matter-of-factly. “You couldn’t resist me then, and you can’t resist me now.”

Saitou drew back, staring the young man earnestly in the face. Despite his serious desire to convey this alert — serious enough to have exaggerated or cast it in the worst possible light, just as Sano had accused him of doing — all he could feel as he looked into those hopeful eyes was joy that he’d finally decided to allow himself this luxury. “You don’t seem to be getting it, ahou.”

“I’m getting it just fine!” Sano protested, moving closer in clear indication that he wanted another kiss. “You’re not easy-going or even very nice most of the time, and people close to you get hurt by that. It’s not hard to understand. And I wouldn’t blame you for your stupid warnings if you were getting with someone like, say, jou-chan… but it’s me. I’ve been through all sorts of shit; I’m strong; I can handle it. And maybe I can even help you soften up sometimes.”

Trying not to think about that hypothetical match between himself and the tanuki, Saitou reflected instead on Sano’s other words. Finally he smirked. “Is that a promise?”

“Is what a promise? That I can help you change?”

“That isn’t very likely, is it? People have been trying that for years. No, I want you to promise you are strong enough.”

Sano frowned. “I swear on my fucking life. Whatever you want this to be, I can take it.”

Saitou wasn’t entirely satisfied, but he wasn’t going to fight it anymore. Maybe Sano was right, and he could find some softer side within himself that might have saved some of his previous relationships if he’d been able to access it. He doubted it, but perhaps Sano would prove strong enough to handle him after all and he wouldn’t have to. At any rate, Saitou couldn’t stand the thought of letting him go now, running the risk of Himura’s picking him up. Admiring a single Sano from afar he could handle; watching Sano happily coupled with someone else — especially his longtime rival — he could not. Even if it meant risking both their happiness, he would not give him to Battousai.

Evidently Sano was about to kiss him. “Whatever I want,” Saitou echoed suddenly. He let his hands move down Sano’s back to delve under the significant coat, into the high waistband of those white pants, and back down to squeeze smooth, tight buttocks. “Whatever I want,” he said again, his expression turning feral as he grinned into the widening eyes opposite him. Sano was blushing wildly. Saitou had never supposed him a virgin until now, and laughed as he touched his lips briefly to the younger man’s, speaking into them. “And you can take it.”

“Of-of course I can!” Sano stammered into his mouth, moaning slightly as Saitou’s hands moved to grasp his hips and draw him closer. They pressed into each other for a lustful kiss from which Sano only withdrew gasping. “I told you… I can handle… anything you can dish out.”

Saitou pulled his hands free and found a cigarette to smoke that didn’t taste nearly as good as this young man here that he’d wanted for so long. He was surprised at how steady his grip on the matches were, as he thought he must be shaking with pent-up desire about to be fulfilled. “Shall we go find out?”

Sano clamped onto his arm, leaning his spiky head on Saitou’s shoulder. “Mm, yeah,” he breathed into the older man’s ear.

“All right. Your place or mine?”

“Yours… you might change your mind about all this if you see my sorry excuse for an apartment.”

“Ahou. You’re just hoping I’ll feed you.”

“Damn straight. But only after sex.”

And the two walked off into the night to enjoy the spoils of victory.

***

Atop a nearby hill, a red-haired man stood thoughtfully in the same spot he’d occupied for the last several minutes, running an absent finger across his bottom lip. He was staring out into space with an expression similar to the one he’d worn when, only a short while ago, a blue flash had appeared from behind a nearby tree and pulled Sano out of his embrace and away.

A voice floated toward him from the direction of the dojo. “Kenshin?”

“Coming, Kaoru-dono!” Shaking himself at last free of the stupor that had gripped him, he hastened back the way he’d originally come.

She was waiting for him nearby. “Well, how did it go?” she asked as he joined her.

He finally smiled. “Just as we expected.”

She clapped her hands together gleefully, clasping them briefly and emphatically before letting go in order to take his arm. “So it worked?”

“Saitou grabbed Sano away from me so fast I almost could not see him.”

She laughed at his exaggeration. “And do you think they worked things out?”

“I don’t know. What they were saying before I came up… Saitou has some valid worries about the whole thing.”

Kaoru waved a hand in dismissal as she searched her bag for the key to the outer dojo door. “Oh, that’s ridiculous. Anyone can see they’re meant to be together: the jerk and the idiot! It’s perfect!”

“Yes…” Kenshin replied faintly.

Kaoru looked up at him, curious at his tone, and found him with his hand touching his mouth and a strange expression on his face. “Kenshin, are you all right?”

“Yes…” he said again, shaking his head.

“What is it?”

“I had never… kissed a man before…”

She was silent for a moment, wide-eyed and open-mouthed. “You- you kissed him?!”

“I wanted to be convincing.” He was almost afraid of the horrified tone in her voice.

“Kenshin… you don’t really like Sano, do you?”

“No, not at all!” he hastened to assure her. “I just…”

“What did he taste like?”

“Kaoru-dono!”

“I’m sorry… it’s just that… I’ve never kissed a man before either.”

She was gazing downward with a slight blush at the audacity of her words, playing unconsciously with a lock of her hair, and looking so innocently sweet that Kenshin simply couldn’t resist drawing her into his arms, tilting her face up, and kissing her gently on the mouth.

And thus two matches were made by Kaoru’s efforts that evening, although she’d only ever intended one. She wasn’t complaining, though.



I’ve rated this story .

Once I decided to do a five-page mini-comic of one scene, taking it as far as where Saitou says, “Don’t come bothering me again,” and walks dramatically away. Of course, I being I, only one page got finished… but at least you can look at that one:

I had all five pages mapped out, and had even made a fairly good start on the second one, but something distracted me and the project just died. I kinda like that first page, though.

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


Pride of her Parents

…a light in the distance that only she could see, whose name was perhaps death, perhaps happiness…

A simple Shapierian thief finds herself become something she never wanted to be, and must embark on her own quest across Glorianna to redeem herself and reunite with the Hero she loves.


Unique to this story: spectacular Mary-Sue



1
Chapter 1 - A Mistake
2
Chapter 2 - Shapierian No More!
3-4
Chapter 3 - Itsumo Kawai
Chapter 4 - Nightfall
5-6
Chapter 5 - Demons and Darkness
Chapter 6 - Mirror, Mirror
7
Chapter 7 - Sechburg
8
Chapter 8 - Magic and Mayhem
9
Chapter 9 - On the Road
10
Chapter 10 - Trouble in South Spielburg
11
Chapter 11 - New Quests
12
Chapter 12 - Silmaria
Chapter 13 - Looking Forward
Chapter 14 - Various Ends
Chapter 15 - Forms of Hell
Chapter 16 - Horror and Heartache
Chapter 17 - Dance of Destinies
Chapter 18
Chapter 19 - Blood of Love, Death of Death
About the sequels


Chapter 1 – A Mistake

“We think you are ready to learn the thief sign,” announced Manta as the day’s training commenced, looking and sounding somber as usual. In careful, slow demonstration, he crossed his eyes, put his thumb to his nose, wiggled the remaining fingers of that hand, and rubbed his stomach with the other.

En Shevil, despite the long years she’d waited to learn the gesture that would be nearly the final step in her journal toward being an official thief, just could not help but giggle at the sight. The sound had barely left her mouth when Kylur was at her side, startling her. En Shevil’s early memories were of Manta and Kylur teaching her stealth, but even after eighteen years she was still unused to them appearing next to her at any given moment. Naturally they were completely silent — katta were like that, after all.

“This is a very serious thing, child,” said Kylur. “If you do not know the sign, you run the risk of a knife in your back.”

“I know,” En Shevil replied, putting a hand over her mouth to hide her amused smile. “I wish you’d taught it to me earlier…”

“We couldn’t have you running around making the sign to people until we felt you were old enough to handle yourself properly. Anywhere that there is no guild, one must be more cautious.”

En Shevil had often thought that the couple who had raised her were just about the only dishonest katta in all of Shapier. Manta had explained once that in the old days, there had been a sophisticated thievery system among the katta of Shapier, which had then been abolished when humans had muscled their way into the country. Now En Shevil planned to revive thievery in the city of Shapier, if she could, although she was a human. And perhaps it was this lofty ambition that had led her parents to be so wary of letting her spread her thiefly wings before they were sure of her ability — in any other country, she was sure, she would have learned something as essential as the thief sign years ago. Or perhaps it was just the guild thing.

“Try it,” said Manta, showing her the sign again. She attempted to copy him, but fell to giggling once more. “Very well,” sighed her foster-father, as always making a bigger deal of it than En Shevil would have thought he should. “We will do something else until you have regained your self-control.”

“I’m sorry,” she said with enforced calmness. “I’m ready to try seriously.” For a second time she made the sign.

“Move your fingers more regularly,” said Kylur sharply. En Shevil tried again, accustomed to her parents demanding perfection in even the simplest things but still laughing inwardly.

Once she had mastered the ridiculous move by their exacting standards, she was guided through the same process with the countersign and left to her own devices to practice. And as she had no desire to sit around in the back room at home doing this, she headed out to wander the streets.

She smiled at the guards as they passed her. There were usually guards patrolling Jamal Darb, it being so close to the palace. She hurried down that street and turned onto Hawa Darb, whence she went with a light step to the Plaza of the Palace.

There she loitered, watching people pass by and trying not to make eye contact with the merchants, any of whom would talk your ear off if you let them get started. She’d once tried to rob the silly jewel merchant by slipping into his window at night; however, he had awakened and she’d been forced to retreat. If Manta and Kylur had ever found out about that one…

Well, once she earned her lockpick — then she’d really have fun. Her foster-parents would not give her a lockpick until she had proven herself capable of using, concealing, and caring for one to their satisfaction. This, of course, was because there was no Thieves’ Guild in the city and therefore no aid for the hapless thief who got careless and got caught. Well, that and her revival ambition.

She decided to practice her latest skill. No one responded. With a sigh, she headed down Sultan Darb toward the Fountain Plaza. She made the thief sign to everyone she met along the way, but no countersign.

Oh, wonderful, she thought sarcastically as she reached the plaza. Omar… There, indeed, sat the ridiculous poet on a rug by the western door, spouting out some rhyming nonsense about honor. Just like every time she looked at him, she got the feeling she had seen him somewhere before, but it didn’t exactly matter as she couldn’t stand to be around him for more than five seconds. Next to him stood Ja’afar, the tall man who ‘translated’ the old idiot’s blather into plain language. His eyes seemed to be everywhere, and he always looked as if he had a secret.

Having no desire to put up with any of the old man’s sad excuse for poetry, En Shevil hurried away. A little annoyed at being denied her favorite spot, she ambled on through the city, slowly and leisurely, practicing the thief sign to kill time before she could return.

When she did so, Omar was gone from the plaza. On the ground where he had been, something glinted. En Shevil thought as she bent to pick it up, Stupid old man! I don’t think he’s ever done a reading here and not left something behind. Still, his loss was her gain, so she didn’t exactly curse his stupidity.

It was a pin, the kind commonly made by katta and very lovely — and better yet, rather expensive-looking. She glanced around casually to see that everyone was busy with their own affairs, and shoved it into her pocket. Quite a prize for a sharp-eyed thief.

When she reached the Plaza of the Palace on her way home, the sun had set and the merchants were gone. She sped up, eager for the night’s practice. Since Manta and Kylur’s legal trade was cushionry, a stand in the bazaar was out of the question, there being simply not enough room to display their wares, so they worked out of their own home. Thus, thievery lessons could only be conducted after dark when the door was locked for the night. Of course, Manta sometimes taught her the odd skill, as today, in the back room on slow days, but usually En Shevil was put to work doing chores, sewing, or running errands.

She bowed politely as she passed a late-staying customer at the door, and Manta locked the latter as she closed it. “Your mother has only finished dinner,” he said. “As usual, you’re just in time.”

They went into the kitchen and sat at the table while Kylur brought over their food on trays. “Lamb felafas again?” groaned En Shevil.

Kylur laughed as she took her place at the table, for this was an old complaint. “You know they’re your father’s favorite.”

“I know,” sighed the girl, poking reluctantly at her tray.

“Tonight’s task is a bedroom robbery,” said Kylur after supper.

“Wonderful,” replied En Shevil. She loved this type of exercise.

“You need to go in, find anything of value, take it, and get out. Manta will be the sleeping resident.” Kylur handed En Shevil a lockpick. “Go!”

She concealed most of the tool in her hand as she worked, bent over the lock on the bedroom door, ready to pull out and look innocent should Kylur decide to play guard. Quicker than it ever had before, the lock snapped and the door opened. En Shevil stepped quickly into the dark room and shut it softly, lest the light from outside waken the ‘sleeper.’ She paused to let her eyes adjust.

Here, she knew, katta had an advantage over humans with their ability to see in the dark and their sharper senses. However, with the techniques her parents had taught her, the darkness grew clearer, and she began to pick her way across to a chest in the corner.

Scouring the room took her less than two minutes, and soon she was out with the valuables in her pockets and arms. “You made very good time,” began Kylur as En Shevil spread the items before her, “and it looks as if you found everything.”

“That is not all she’s done,” said Manta, emerging from the bedroom.

“Oh, wonderful,” groaned En Shevil. “What now?” Manta was always more strict than Kylur. But as she looked at him, she realized that his expression was one of amazement.

“If I hadn’t been watching you the whole time, I would not have known that you were there. I don’t know where you found the time to practice, but it’s certainly paid off. I don’t think we need do any more stealth exercises.”

En Shevil was hard-pressed to conceal her astonishment. Though she would never argue with praise, this was beyond her. Practice? Not she! And though she felt she had done remarkably well that night, she couldn’t believe she had been quiet enough to evade katta hearing.

“Oh, yes,” she said absently, handing the lockpick to Kylur. “Here.”

“Keep it,” the woman said, looking at Manta for confirmation that he swiftly gave. “You’ve earned it.”

The thrill of this soon faded, however: she found after not many days that most people barred their doors, and she would have to earn a whole different set of tools to get past that barrier. Those that did not take this caution rarely owned anything worth money, but she soon taught them to be more scrupulous.

She didn’t know how or where her parents fenced the goods she brought them, but she was content for now with the small income she was bringing in. The one thing she could never bear to part with was the pin she had found.

There was something fascinating about it. It was shaped like a griffin with a blue gem in its chest and obviously very valuable, but somehow she did not want to sell it; it seemed precious to her somehow, although she could not tell why. She took to wearing it on her shirt wherever she went, removing it only when Omar was seen in the Fountain Plaza.

Nearly two months, and six robberies, later, she was wandering Shmali Tarik and happened to look down to that strange purple door with the eye painted on it. She knew the sorceress Aziza lived there, but En Shevil had never seen her. On a whim, she grinned and altered her course. I wonder what kind of valuables a sorceress keeps.

She slid her lockpick from the metal band that held her blonde hair. The latter, a color unusual to desert-dwellers, had always made her suspect that she had been born of parents from somewhere north and east, specifically Spielburg. Because of this, she had always kept up with the news thence, and it was a point of interest to her that recently the long-lost daughter of Stefan von Spielburg had finally been returned to him. But En Shevil did not know the details — something to do with brigands — and hadn’t been able to hear them anywhere.

Returning to the task at hand, the thief pushed the pick gently into the lock and gave it a slight twist as a test. There was a snapping sound, and an abrupt jolt of unexpected pain stabbed through her. She jerked back her hand as she fell to the ground, her fingers closing reflexively over the tool. The pain seemed to echo in her body, throbbing sullenly and slowly fading. Clutching the lockpick tightly, she lay curled up on the street for how long she knew not.

Teach me to mess with a sorceress, she thought painfully. Chest pounding, she hauled herself up the wall, slipping halfway and sluggishly growing stronger. As she finally stumbled to her feet, she conjectured that another attack like that would kill her. She decided it would be wise to go home. Throwing a look over her shoulder at the door, she shuffled haltingly back up the street, bent over and holding her chest with her left arm while replacing her lockpick with her right. She had only gone a few paces when she was forced to stop and lean, gasping, against the wall once again. Movement awakened physical memories of that pain. And all the while she was wondering whether the door had merely been enchanted or if Aziza had been watching her the entire time. She fervently hoped the first, rather than the second, to be true. And thus, slowly, she made her way home.

After being confined to the house for a week, partly as punishment for being so foolish and partly so that she could recover, she was finally free again, and so she went out to wander the streets. She noted with interest a new inn at Gates Plaza, but decided to defer making her first curious visit to a later date. She was in a thoughtful mood, and preferred not to meet people. So she mostly avoided the plazas.

She did not pay attention to where she was until she turned a corner and suddenly heard shouting. She looked around, realizing that she stood on Dinar Tarik and that around the next turn was the shop of the money changer, who seemed to be having an argument with someone.

En Shevil crept to the meeting of the walls, crouched, and peered around. In front of Dinarzaad’s window stood a disgustingly muscular, half-clothed man with no hair. Even the money changer’s guard, standing close by with sword drawn, looked dwarfed by him. En Shevil realized that she had seen him somewhere before. Yes… he kept one of the shops in town.

“–talk to you however I want!” he was shouting.

“Issur, I won’t, and that’s my last word,” responded Dinarzaad, her tone equally loud.

“Yes, you will!” said Issur, whom En Shevil finally remembered to be the weapon maker from the Fighters Plaza.

“All right, that’s it,” said Dinarzaad, spreading her arms out on the sill. “We’re through. No more relationship. The End.”

“Well, if that’s the way you want it,” he jeered, “but remember — you got mad at me, I never got mad at you.” He pointed at himself and her with the appropriate words. This statement did not seem to En Shevil particularly intelligent, relevant, or true, and she guessed that it concerned a previous argument, or the part of this one that she’d missed.

“I want my pin back,” said Dinarzaad.

“No way,” said Issur immediately. “That was a gift.”

“It was a loan!” she protested, her voice rising once again.

“You wanna take it to the sultan?” snarled Issur. “Fine. Hope he don’t ask where you got it. Or look too close at it.”

“Get out of here,” she commanded, pointing.

“Fine,” he snapped. “And remember, I’m not mad.”

En Shevil had barely time to press herself into the corner before Issur stormed past. Fortunately, he was too not-angry to notice her presence. Only when he was a safe distance down the street did she move, and to the sound of Dinarzaad’s near-scream of frustration walk into the tiny dead end Issur had just left.

“I’m closed,” the woman said sharply, reaching for the shutter of her window.

“Wait!” En Shevil said, stepping hastily up to the sill. She leaned forward. “I can get your pin back for you.”

Dinarzaad laughed darkly. “I like that. And I suppose you’re going to find Arus al-Din, may he live forever, as well?” En Shevil made the thief sign, just for good measure, as she prepared to speak again. Then she noticed that Dinarzaad was staring at her. “Where did you get that pin you’re wearing?” the woman asked softly. En Shevil glanced nervously at the guard who had replaced his sword and stood now by the wall. “Don’t worry,” the money changer assured her, “Franc does not speak or write. He knows my business. So, effenda thief, where did you get that?”

“I found it,” said En Shevil cautiously. “Why?”

“It’s a match to mine,” said Dinarzaad. “Mine which that jackass Issur has.”

“I can get it back for you,” said En Shevil eagerly, “if you’ll tell me where to go. And also, why is it so special?”

“I’ll tell you why they’re special if you can bring mine back, and I’ll also give you a hundred dinars.”

“Deal,” said the thief with excitement — Always control yourself in the presence of a prospective employer, Kylur had drilled into her, but it was difficult to restrain how thrilled she was at having received her first commission at such a high price.

Dinarzaad, who seemed rather amused at En Shevil’s eagerness, proceeded to give her directions. “One more thing,” she added as the girl turned to leave. “What’s your name?”

“En Shevil,” replied she.

“Pretty name,” said the money changer, repeating it. “That’s the old katta language, isn’t it? What does it mean?”

“‘Pride of her parents,'” said the thief.

The dark-haired beauty at the window smiled. “Would your parents be proud of you if they knew what you’re planning?”

“Oh, they would,” En Shevil assured her.

***

“Hey, kid!” En Shevil grabbed the arm of a hooky-playing child who ran past her at the eastern end of the Plaza of the Fighters.

“Leggo,” protested the child.

“Wait. Can you read yet?” En Shevil glanced towards the Guild Hall and back down at the kid. Then she looked up again, briefly. Before the hall stood a familiar rig of stands and rope; Agi the Agile was back to mock the uncoordinated Shapierians yet again.

“‘Course I can,” said the child proudly.

En Shevil let go his arm and crouched down to his level. “I’ll give you two dinars if you’ll take this into the Guild Hall and read it to Uhura.” And she held out a scrap of paper.

The kid stuck out his chin and looked at her. “Two fifty.”

“All right, fine, whatever,” said En Shevil impatiently, wanting very much to watch Agi: someone had accepted his challenge. “I’ll give you half now and half when you come back.” She counted the money out from her pocket and handed it to the kid, who scampered off in the same direction En Shevil now took.

It was the day after she had acquired her first official job as a thief, and being made to run errands all morning did not serve to take her mind off of it. At least she had escaped seeing Uhura. She joined the small, disinterested crowd around Agi’s tightrope. On the first platform stood a man whom she could only assume was the newly-arrived “Hero.” His hair was the same color as hers, and he looked slightly taller than she was.

She watched his blue-clad back as he began to walk the rope. En Shevil, four years ago, had taken Agi’s challenge, and had spent the entire day earning bruises and a bump on the head before she’d learned it. Usually now, each time he appeared, she would accept near the end of the day, provided no one else had, just to show his audience that it could actually be done. She was the only one in town, though, who had bothered to master this fairly useless skill. Now it seemed she had competition. She was amazed, really, at how well he did this, certain he must have learned it somewhere else and was just showing off. She would have waited for him to finish to ask him about it, but her child-helper emerged from the Guild Hall when the Hero was only halfway across the rope.

“She said, ‘that fine,'” the kid told her.

“Thanks, that was a real help,” said En Shevil, giving him the rest of his money. “Now, you better get to school before some guard finds you.” Shapierian children usually attended school until they were ten. Then, if they wanted further education, they would have to go elsewhere or seek an apprenticeship.

The child skipped off happily, and En Shevil hurried towards home and the rest of her chores, with only a brief backward glance at the man from Spielburg. He had reached the other platform and was climbing down the rope.

He must have done it before.

After dark that night, En Shevil crept from her house and headed in a state of high anticipation for the Fighters Plaza. At the doorway to Saif Darb, she paused, taking a deep breath and looking around. The plaza was shadowy, the brown-yellow stone appearing almost blue in the moonlight. As all spring nights were in the desert, the evening was warm, but a cool breeze floated down from the tops of the mountains, and she shivered — but that might have been with excitement.

There was a sudden noise to her right, and she jumped back into the doorway as a stream of light fell onto the ground from the door of the Guild Hall. She laughed at herself for being so nervous. It couldn’t be more than some idle traveler who had lingered talking to the Simbani woman.

Besides her glimpse that morning, En Shevil had heard only sketchy reports of the Hero, she having never been one for gossip, and her curiosity was merely idle interest in the fact that he came from Spielburg. But all of that changed when she had a close view of him, for he was by far the handsomest man she had ever seen.

Before he could escape her, she stepped from the street and said clearly in the merchants’ common tongue, “Good evening, effendi.”

He looked startled, and turned to face her. Then with a half smile he said, “Good evening.” She was glad now that she had managed to pick up on the language used by merchants worldwide during her time helping Manta and Kylur’s foreign customers. Neither of them had ever bothered to teach her. “Why out so late?”

“Well, I…” she found herself tongue-tied, and could not have explained why. Seeing her expression, he raised his hands, and, to her total amazement, made the thief sign. Shocked, she clumsily made the countersign, and as if with one accord they both headed out of the plaza and onto Saif Darb where they could talk.

“I saw you earlier today… what’s your name?” he asked.

“En Shevil,” she said, trying not to notice how pleasantly muscular he was — in a laid-back, active way, not like Issur’s carefully-developed body.

“I’m Achim, from Spielburg.”

“Yes, I know,” she said. “I’ve been wondering about you.” That was a lie — at least it would have been two minutes earlier — but it was a way to get him talking. “Did you really save Elsa von Spielburg from brigands?”

“In a manner of speaking,” he said, rubbing his neck thoughtfully. “It’s rather a long story.”

“Well, do you have time?” she asked. He looked at her, and she got the impression that he found her attractive. Good.

“Why not?” he said. “See, I was born in the northern part of Spielburg, not near the actual town or the barony at all. I wanted to be a Hero, so I applied to the Famous Adventurer’s Correspondence School……”

His story went on, and eventually shifted into talk and laughter between them. Suddenly En Shevil was conscious that the greenish light from the torches on the walls was not responsible for the glow around them. “Sunrise!” she exclaimed, jumping up. “I’ve got to get home!”

Achim yawned. “I suppose I should get some sleep.” He looked up at her. “I’m sorry I took you from your — er — job,” he said. “Can I see you again some time?”

“Of course!” she replied, probably with too much enthusiasm. Always control yourself in the presence of a prospective romantic interest, she chided herself, but, hey, she’d never been this attracted to a guy before.

“What about tomorrow — I suppose it’s tonight, now — here, at sunset?”

“Wonderful!” she said, and then changed her mind. “No, I really need to get this job done. What about, well, really tomorrow?” She had lowered her voice, hearing the bustle of the merchants in the brightening plaza beyond.

He stood up and looked down at her with a most engaging half-smile. “All right. Goodbye.” The smile turned into a grin that made her heart beat faster, then headed out into the plaza along with the rest of him. When he was gone, she realized she had forgotten to say goodbye.

That day dragged on, and on, and on, anticipation for the coming robbery making the time stretch terribly. Also, she was unused to staying out all night, so she was abnormally tired. There was no escape from her work, either: the forerider of a caravan that would arrive tomorrow or the day after had ordered a whole set of light sleeping-cushions, the kind generally used by large caravans going a long way.

Fortunately, she wasn’t imprisoned in the workroom the entire time; her parents did have a few errands for her. It was mid-afternoon, and she had been shopping for about three quarters of an hour, when she stopped by Gates Plaza to visit the forerider at the inn with some questions. She almost dropped the bundle she was carrying, though, when she reached the end of Junub Tarik and looked out onto the plaza.

The merchants were gone, along with their stands and blankets; not a soul was visible. The plaza’s on fire! Of course the plaza was not “on fire,” it being constructed primarily of stone — but fire was rife before her eyes in a roughly man-shaped pillar of flame that raced, dancing, from wall to wall.

En Shevil stood enraptured, staring at the beautiful flickering figure that seemed aimless, without thought, as it circled the plaza again and again. Until the voice spoke in her ear a second time she did not even mark its presence. “En Shevil?”

“Uh?”

“I did get it right, didn’t I? En Shevil?”

It was Achim. “Yes,” she said in a slightly gasping tone, turning to find his face disconcertingly close to hers.

“An elemental.” He pointed out around her to the plaza.

“I noticed.”

“Omar warned about it the other night, and I didn’t take him seriously.”

She giggled. “Who could?”

He echoed her reaction. “I have to… I’m the Hero.” Striking a pose, he put his hand to the hilt of one of the daggers sheathed at his side.

She giggled again. “So that means you’re going to get rid of it, right?”

He looked sheepish. “Do I have to?”

“Of course!” Then she reconsidered. “Well, maybe you should let some wizard handle it.”

“But… I’m the Hero.” He jumped from his second, more dramatic pose into a jog out to the middle of the plaza. Withdrawing a waterskin from his pack, he fell into step behind the creature and attempted to douse it.

With an angry flare the elemental sparked and spun violently away from him, not diminishing in size. En Shevil was afraid for a moment that it was going to return and attack him, but it only continued its random movement from wall to wall. Achim stuck out his lip in annoyance and went after it again. After three or four fruitless attempts to corner and extinguish, Achim retreated to the security of the street once again. “I’m out of water,” he said, scratching his head.

“I don’t think it’s going to work anyway,” she replied. “It’s too strong for a little bit of water.”

“No, it’s just too fast. I need to get it into the street where it can’t dodge around.”

En Shevil backed away from the door onto the plaza. “Wonderful idea… count me out.”

“I don’t know how to do it anyway,” he replied with a shrug, turning and following her. “I’ll go get some more water.”

With a glance back at the brightly-lit plaza, she walked beside him.

As Achim filled his waterskin at the fountain, En Shevil looked around, trying to think of a way to help. The sign above the apothecary’s door caught and held her eye. “Harik,” she murmured.

“What was that?”

“The apothecary’s name is Harik; that means ‘fire.'” She shrugged. “It doesn’t matter, I guess…”

“But any clues I could gather would help,” Achim finished.

“I’ll stay here,” En Shevil said nervously, sitting down on the side of the fountain as Achim headed towards the red-brown door of the apothecary’s shop. A moment later she moved to the other side to avoid the sparkling glare that the sun cast into her eyes off of the brass merchant’s extensive wares. Thus her back was to him when he reemerged, flicking her ear for attention. “Any luck?”

“Hmm…” He held up a metal box that smelled of incense. “He said I should try and lure the thing with this. Hopefully once it’s in the street, I can get rid of it.”

En Shevil, who was looking at the sun, said ruefully, “I’d come and watch, but I’ve gotta get going — more errands for my parents.”

“You’ve got to let me meet your parents sometime,” was his unexpected response. “All that stuff you said about them last night was interesting.”

She blushed and jumped up. “Well, tell me about how you dealt with that thing tomorrow, all right?”

“All right. Goodbye.”

That night, after practicing the finding and securing of valuables quickly in a dark room to improve her speed, she bolted for the door. “Where are you going?” asked Kylur.

“Out,” replied En Shevil, standing on one foot with agitation. She had been taught not even to tell her parents what she was planning in the way of thievery, if she could avoid it, so that if she were caught they could truthfully say in the face of magic-wielding judges that they had not known of her plans.

“Where?” asked her mother nevertheless.

“To rob someone, where else?” said En Shevil, dying to be gone.

“Well, don’t stay out all night again,” said Kylur. “And don’t get caught!” she added. But En Shevil was already halfway down the street.

Saif Darb was quiet and stuffy, the torches burning silently in the heavy air. En Shevil, excited, was practically skipping down the street, counting doors until she reached Issur’s house. She paused, listening, raising her hand to her hair band but not removing her lockpick. No noise, no light. That made sense, as it was after midnight. She pulled out her lockpick and set to, opening the door in almost no time at all.

Her brow furrowed as she saw the room. Ridiculously Spartan, it consisted of a door in the right and left walls, a wooden table with chairs against the opposite, a stool, and a large cabinet next to the door on the left. Swords, spears, maces, axes, scimitars, and so on leaned against the walls or stood neatly stacked on the floor. He uses his home as a warehouse! she thought in wonder; how inconvenient!

She went first to the cabinet, but inside she found only mail shirts hung in rows. She decided to try one of the two doors, and randomly chose the one to the right. Silently she opened it, and crept into the bedroom beyond. It was quite different from the room preceding.

Though the only furnishings, a bed and a round-topped chest, were as plain as those in the main room, the walls were crowded with ornate shields, matching sets of beautifully-designed weaponry, and a huge embroidered banner bearing the letters “EOF.” She was startled to notice that the bed was empty, but she wasted no time wondering. Going to the chest against the wall and picking the padlock, she thought, How strange: He doesn’t bar his door but puts a padlock on the chest in his bedroom.

A sickening smell of must and sweat arose as the lid creaked open. Inside was clothing she did not pause to examine, thrown in haphazardly along with a few other miscellaneous items of no value clustered in heaps under the smelly cloth. She did not spare a thought on them. Instead she let the lid down gently and snapped the padlock shut. She stood and went to the bed. Underneath she found a trap door, but surmised that to lift the heavy wooden square would require moving the bed, something she doubted she could do at all, let alone quietly.

On one side was a small fireplace she had not noticed, unused until the mild nighttime cold of winter. In the deep black of its interior, something glinted, which was impossible since there was no light in the room. She took a step closer, and the glint was repeated, and this time she started as it was answered by a tiny flash from the pin on her shirt. After recovering from her surprise, she began to think that this was rather cute — they were talking to each other. Wonderful.

She knelt by the fire and reached hesitantly in. Her hand contacted something just below the first layer of fire debris, and she grasped it and drew it out, the ash falling from it as she shook her hand. It was indeed the pin, she knew, for it flashed once more. It seemed an exact replica of hers, save that the gem was red. She shoved it hastily in her pocket, stood and headed for the other room.

She had hardly closed the door, however, when she knew something was wrong. She could see far too well. Light flooded in, diffusing from its horizontal origin under the other door, as well as the sound of harsh voices laughing. Whence had they come? Not from the street — En Shevil would have heard them from the bedroom. There must be another exit in the left-hand room. Who would have imagined the weapon maker to have — or want — such a large house?

Unfortunately, En Shevil lingered too long wondering. She was suddenly blinded as the door opened in a burst of light. She could see nothing for a moment, but heard Issur’s surprised, “What?” Then he roared, “Thief!” and sprang at her. It was only by pure luck that she evaded his huge arms and reached the outside door, but as she flung it open and bolted, a hand reached for her and snapped on her shirt, the semi-gauzy cloth of which ripped as she pulled away. She guessed that she had left a piece of it in her pursuer’s hand.

Clutching the front of her torn garment, she raced off Saif Darb, onto Askeri Darb, Nisr, Trab, Tarik of Rafir, and down Naufara Darb to the Fountain Plaza. All the way was the sound of pounding feet behind her, several heavy men. Somehow they did not catch up to her, and En Shevil got the feeling that they were slightly drunk and had a bit of trouble negotiating corners. She wondered why they didn’t shout, though she was glad they refrained: an entire neighborhood, angry at being awakened in the middle of the night, would have been even more difficult to escape.

At the Fountain Plaza she had an advantage. She knew that if she could hide, the men would search for her down the streets and she could slip away home or wait them out. She looked around desperately. A window? No, not enough time: climbing in haste, she might fall and kill herself. Having little other choice, she stepped into the bowl of the fountain and curled herself around the middle. Water splashed out onto the ground for a few moments before the magical spring adjusted to the new level. Balling her hands and placing them under her head, she raised her mouth out of the water.

She realized suddenly that her ruined top was floating loosely about her, and she made a slow movement to clamp it down. “Where is she?” asked a loud voice nearby, making her jump just the littlest bit. With the fountain noises all around her she had not heard the men come up.

“I got a piece of ‘er shirt,” said a slurring voice. Chortles and suppressed snorts of drunken laughter followed.

“We’ll split up,” said a calmer tone — Issur’s. “And don’t wake anybody.” Apparently then the men dispersed, but En Shevil dared not move for quite some time.

The Dark Hand was high and the moon was bright, but suddenly a shape — a man looking down at her, hands on hips — blocked her view. She reacted immediately. Splashing him first in the face and giving him a mild push, she sprang from the bowl in a spray of water, banging various parts of her body against various parts of the fountain. He grabbed for her, but only barely scraped her arm as she began to run. “En Shevil!” he said, and she stopped with a gasp. It was Achim.

She turned again, clutching her chest with relief, to face the dripping Hero. But she felt as she did so the tatters of her shirt hanging forlornly from her shoulders. She blushed; though nothing was exposed, it was still embarrassing. She quickly located her pin and used it to secure the two torn edges of her shirt-back as best she could. “Come with me,” said Achim, taking her hand when she was done and pulling her towards the western arch. His touch gave her goose-bumps, or perhaps that was merely the light breeze against her wet skin. She started shivering.

Without question she followed him. “You’ve been getting into trouble!” he said, still pulling her down the corridor.

“It’s not what it looks like,” she replied earnestly.

“I don’t know,” he said slowly. “I find you in the fountain with your shirt half-off, and a drunk guy after you — what am I supposed to think?”

“Wha…? You–? I don’t…” She was finally speechless for some moments as they turned off Naufara Darb onto Dinar Tarik. Then she gasped, “You thought I… oh!” she ended with a cry of indignation as he began to laugh. Finally he pulled her onto Centime Tarik and pushed his wet hair back, leaning against the wall and still laughing.

“I saw Issur storming out of the money changer’s alley and had to tell his fists that I hadn’t seen you. I don’t think he’ll be back this way tonight. I’ve never seen him so mad, not even when I made the thief sign to him. What did you do?”

En Shevil, still supremely annoyed at his earlier joke at her expense, said shortly, “I can’t tell you.”

“As I thought,” he replied lightly.

Why is he staring at me like that? she thought. What she said was: “I have to go see the money changer. I’ll see you tomorrow, won’t I? And tell you all about it?”

“Certainly,” replied Achim quietly. He grinned as he had the night before, and En Shevil was suddenly hot. “If you don’t get into any more trouble.

He kissed her lightly on her upturned mouth and walked away.

In a complete daze En Shevil moved cautiously down the street towards Dinarzaad’s shop. Though she was shivering slightly and her pants were chafing her, her mouth felt hot.

“Well!” said Dinarzaad as she came into sight. “I suppose this is what I get for dealing with such an obvious amateur!”

En Shevil’s mouth opened, but Dinarzaad laughed. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I know it wasn’t your fault. But with all these men running about after you, I think I’m going to have to break my own rule and invite you inside. That is, if you still want to know why the pins are so remarkable.”

“Wha — in there? Yes, of course I do.”

“Very well. Hop in.” She moved away from the window. En Shevil clambered over the sill, trying not to look too curiously around her at the fairly sparse, claustrophobic shop of the money changer. The walls were mostly hidden by locked cabinets, and a table stood by the window with a few oddments on top and underneath. There were no chairs, and Dinarzaad indicated that she should sit on the large chest in the corner. She must have seen the way En Shevil looked sidelong at all this, for she smiled wryly and explained, “I do my best to make up for the lack of a Thieves’ Guild around here. So of course I need some extra storage. And now I really must know what happened at Issur’s.”

“Well,” began En Shevil slowly, “the more I think about it, the more I wonder how I got in at all — why his door wasn’t barred, I mean. Most people’s are, even during the day.”

“Oh,” said Dinarzaad dismissively. “That’s my doing. I always made him keep it unbarred so I could get in. He probably just got into the habit.”

“Well, I had no trouble finding it,” continued En Shevil, pulling the pin from her pocket and looking at it. “But then, in the other room, there were men. They were having a party or something, and I think they were drunk.”

“That was probably EOF,” said the money changer. “It’s their stupid ‘secret’ group. They only have meetings in the middle of the night, and usually parties afterwards. I should have warned you.”

“It’s all right,” said En Shevil a little dryly (as dryly as she could say anything when she was soaking wet). “I love adventure.” And otherwise, she thought, I wouldn’t have seen Achim. “Now what about these pins?” She handed the red-chested griffin to the woman. She noticed then that the griffin’s head was turned to the right. If she remembered correctly (she could not see it), the head on hers faced left.

“These pins were — where is yours?”

En Shevil blushed and rolled her eyes backwards to indicate. “It’s holding my shirt on. I really did have a narrow escape. And then I had to lay down in the fountain to get rid of them.”

Dinarzaad burst out laughing. She laughed, apparently uncontrollably, for minutes on end, her face turning red as she attempted to catch her breath. “Excuse me,” she said at last, letting a tear roll onto her finger and flicking it off. “So that’s why you’re soaking wet. Well, that is a story… All right.” She cleared her throat, shaking her head. “When humans started ruling Shapier, a clan of katta, to prove their loyalty to the new Sultan and Sultana, made for the first royal couple these matching pins. The red was for the Sultan and the blue for his wife. They had the power to augment any talent of the bearer’s that he or she was focusing on using.”

“Oh!” exclaimed En Shevil, eyes wide. “Oh! So that’s why… Well — go on.” This explained the amazing performance by which she had won her lockpick.

“The red one would only work for a man, the blue one for a woman. They were passed down the generations until the time of Rashid bin Hawa, who as you know was the father of our present Sultan (may he live forever) and Emir (he as well). A master thief broke into the palace to steal them, but lost the woman’s pin on the way out. I’m curious as to how you got yours, but I assume you would rather not tell, as is the situation with me.”

En Shevil was shocked. So that was why Omar looked so familiar! The poet himself, she was guessing, was Harun al Rashid — though why he would be carrying around the woman’s pin she could not guess. “You’re right,” she said. “But what I want to know is about you and Issur.”

“What about us?”

“Well, you don’t exactly seem like the ideal couple.”

“There’s really little to tell. At first it was mostly a joke, but then he began getting possessive and over-demanding. We didn’t last long, so now I’m looking for a replacement.” This last was said with an airy tone that reminded En Shevil of her friend Thalanna. The katta girl had been flirtatious, mischievous, vivacious (but law-abiding and unaware of the practices of her aunt, uncle, and adopted cousin)… Her family had moved to Rasier a few years ago, and now with all the katta driven out of that city, En Shevil had been terribly worried, as she had heard nothing from her.

“Do you have anyone in mind?” she asked teasingly, still thinking of Thalanna.

“You know, that Hero-man is pretty fine-looking. Achim, that’s his name?”

“Yes,” said En Shevil numbly, sorry she had asked. The last thing she needed was Dinarzaad, the patent desert beauty, going after her Hero. At about that same moment, the full implications of the night’s events were beginning to hit her, and she started to shake, just a little. “I really need to go home and change,” she said weakly.

“All right,” said Dinarzaad sympathetically. She left her place against the wall by the window and went to a cabinet, producing a large set of keys from absolutely nowhere. She opened the doors to reveal rows of small drawers. She unlocked one and collected in her hand some coins. They fell with a chink into En Shevil’s.

“Thanks,” the girl said blankly, shock and weariness combining to cloud her vision as she looked at the ten ten-dinar pieces and stood up. She went to the window. “Well, it’s been fun, but I probably won’t be seeing you again.”

“Goodbye,” said the money changer. “Thanks.”

En Shevil pushed herself out the window and headed home, her mind foggy with the terrible realization that had hit her: she would have to leave Shapier. Issur at least, if not some of his party, had seen her in his house, and whether or not he would recognize her face, there were few other blondes in the whole country, let alone the city. In fact, she knew of only one: some strange man that everyone thought was crazy who walked the streets with a drum. She smiled slightly at the thought of him, too strung for a laugh.

By this time she had reached home, and with a deep breath she entered. She stood in the dark for some time, looking through at nothing. The world was calm and surreal here, a peaceful place of safety and familiarity where she could not stay. But she was beyond emotion now, numb and dull. So she went to bed.

The next day was quiet. They had resigned themselves to the tragedy, following an explosive and somewhat traumatic conversation in the early morning. By a mutual unspoken agreement, they did not talk about it, did not try to convince themselves aloud that it was their only option. That if Issur determined to bring En Shevil down, they could not hide her forever, or keep themselves clean in doing so, especially as it seemed that, given the information from Dinarzaad about EOF, Issur would go after her covertly rather than through the proper authorities.

So instead of dwelling on their sorrow, they brought up amusing stories from the past, humorous events or just important ones: the time Manta and Kylur had decided to take in the orphan baby brought by a caravan almost eighteen years earlier; the night En Shevil and Thalanna had repainted the shop signs and street-direction markers in Fountain Plaza and collapsed in laughter the next day as confused katta and map-bound tourists became helplessly lost as they thought north was south and east west; the year Kylur had been struck with a sickness that confined her to bed for nearly the whole summer, Manta and En Shevil putting in extra hours to make up for her absence; the time, just before Thalanna’s family had left, that, on a dare, En Shevil had told a newly-arrived Uhura that “humor” was the Shapierian word for “supplies.” Uhura, trying to furnish the Guild Hall to her tastes, had instead received only bad jokes in response to her carefully-worded inquiries.

So the family laughed as they worked, finishing up the sleeping cushions for the caravan, with which it was now determined that En Shevil would depart, to end up in Anzhad or Darun or another of the southern Shapierian towns. But their laughter was subdued, and carried behind it an audible sadness at the thought that they might never be together again. And En Shevil writhed inwardly with the thought that she was the cause of this misery. Had she only fled Issur’s house more quickly, all would now be well. But in her parents’ eyes she read their reassurance that to them it was no more than an unfortunate accident that took her from them.

Near sunset she told them quietly that she must say goodbye to her friends. They nodded silently, the expressions on their faces enough to break En Shevil’s heart. She left the house with a heavy step. Walking warily and avoiding what sounded like footsteps, she eventually crept onto the Fighters Plaza just as Rakeesh was gathering up his rug to go inside for the night.

She watched for a moment as the day’s last light glinted off his golden fur, then stepped out to halt him. “Wait!”

He turned to look at her. “Good evening, my friend,” he said. “Why so downcast?”

“I’m leaving Shapier tomorrow, probably for Darun.”

“You have fallen into trouble, I see,” said the Paladin shrewdly.

“Y-yes,” she admitted, knowing he would not betray her trust. And that she could not have deceived him at any rate. “So I came to say…” En Shevil choked suddenly and was amazed at herself. She had not imagined that this parting would be difficult; she enjoyed talking to Rakeesh, but there always the barrier that necessarily existed between thief and Paladin kept them from becoming particularly close. And now her words were all falling out on top of each other, “…goodbye, and… thank you for all your advice — and tell Uhura I’m sorry for the word thing, and please don’t think badly of me!”

“I seldom think badly of anyone, for all have their path in life. The Paladin way is not for everyone. You however…” He began the tirade to which she had paid little heed before, though the words struck her peculiarly now, “…you — if you would only take the road of Honor, you could become one of the great ones, an Erana of the night.” He smiled his ferocious lion’s grin and stepped towards the Guild Hall doors. “May you leave the path of dishonor you have chosen and go on to the glory for which you are meant. Farewell, En Shevil.” And he was gone.

En Shevil noticed that tears were picking their tickling way down the sides of her nose. “I’m sorry,” she told the doors for no reason.

She ducked onto Khaniar Tarik as she saw the door to Issur’s shop open and the bald man emerge. She didn’t take her eyes off him until he was safely gone down Saif Darb. But even then she felt nervous about going there to meet Achim.

Apparently he guessed this, and as it began to darken he came striding across the plaza to find her. “Fully-clothed this time, I see,” he said. “No rendezvous with Issur tonight?”

She gave him a scathing look. “I can’t stay long,” she said. “I leave before sunrise.”

“What!? Leave where? The city?!”

She opened her mouth to tell him, but suddenly he seized her shoulders and pulled her bodily around behind him. He drew a knife, whirled, and met the onslaught of a red-faced man in a turban with a large sword who was charging with surprising silence straight towards them. En Shevil took a step backwards in surprise, for she had not seen him come up behind her. The man seemed to want to get past Achim, and she realized that he must be from EOF.

Now she saw Achim in action, the greatest feat of skill she had ever witnessed, though much too close for her comfort. He dodged the sword-thrusts of the warrior, who seemed to outmuscle him two-to-one, and the blows he could not avoid he parried — with a dagger! Then he would dart behind the huge man’s guard to stab, but was always thrown off. Ever the attacker tried to maneuver himself around so that he could break away and go for En Shevil.

She was amazed and frightened at this persistence. If every member of EOF was as obstinate as this man and they had, as she feared, been alerted to her, then her consternation was justified and it was wise of her to go. And now had she pulled Achim into her troubles? The large man gave a strangled cry, biting his lip to silence himself, as Achim’s blade contacted his bare arm, drawing a long gash that immediately welled up red.

En Shevil crouched and pulled her own dagger free of her pant leg, ready to help if needed, though her only skill was in throwing. Kylur, the all-time Shapierian dagger-casting champion, had insisted she drill constantly at target practice, both still and moving with various knife makes and sizes, saying that a thief was not a thief who could not throw. But would it do her any good in practice?

The warrior bore down on Achim so fiercely, of a sudden, that the Hero was forced to meet the attack with his knife raised above his head. The weapons clashed, and the dagger screeched along the sword blade to the hilt so that the tip of the latter was barely above his head, gold by the reflection of his hair. The two men came up against each other, arms above their heads, weapons locked. En Shevil watched in dismay as Achim was forced slowly downward by the man’s strength alone. Then she regained confidence and threw her knife.

He growled as it tore into his underarm and blood jetted out. His right hand released its grip. His left arm was flung and his sword clanged against the wall as Achim threw it off and slashed across his enemy’s stomach. Still the warrior made no noise, which frightened En Shevil even more: if EOF, silly as Dinarzaad had implied it to be, could breed such self-restraint, they would indeed be menacing foes. When would this fight end?

Her question was answered as the man spun and ran, taking her dagger with him. He turned the corner and was out of sight. En Shevil began to shake so violently that she had to lean against the wall just to stand. She had just essentially stabbed somebody. She had seen the blood from the wound. She had a set of very dangerous enemies in her hometown, which she was soon to leave, perhaps forever. She might never see her parents again. And that’s when it hit her: she was afraid. Absolutely terrified of leaving home. She had never been out of Shapier within the time she could remember, and she was petrified.

She began to sob, and felt Achim’s comforting arms around her, helping her to sit. “Yy-you see why I hhave to go,” she said, still shaking. “But I don’t — ” she choked. After a moment she went on, “…want to go.” He said nothing, only held her and let her cry. Then she thought of something else. “And-and now I’ve gott’n you in trouble with EOF. They-they’re a group of fighters that’s after me, and now they’ll… they’ll go after you too.”

“Don’t worry,” he said. “But where are you going?”

“Darun,” she answered. She was calming now, and feeling foolish for her outburst. She moved to stand and he released her. “I must go home.”

“I’ll walk with you,” said the Hero.

“Thank you,” En Shevil replied sincerely, not looking at him. At the door to her house, she turned to him, her eyes dry though probably red. “Thank you for saving me,” she said. “Twice.”

“It was my pleasure,” he murmured, putting his hand on her face. “Come back to me soon.” And then he slid his arm down to her back and, pulling her close, kissed her. She noticed after a moment that her arms were around him as well. They stood thus for some time. “Goodbye,” he said when he finally released her.

“Goodbye,” she returned, but her voice was barely a whisper.