Condition of Learned Helplessness

At this point, all he was doing was tormenting a woman who loved him in order to put up with the violent attentions of a man who didn’t.

Kenshin isn’t sure what he means to Saitou, who’s been raping him for so long it’s become a matter of routine… but finding out and bringing an end to their interaction may be every bit as painful as not knowing and letting it continue.


Condition of Learned Helplessness

Part 1

Kenshin wasn’t afraid anymore. There had been a period, immediately following the period of anger, when he’d been afraid every time this happened. He was through with both of those stages now; he didn’t fear anything anymore. He knew he was strong enough to protect his friends — his fight against Shishio had proven this — and as for himself… he didn’t need to protect himself. He was practically the strongest in Japan, as everyone had recently seen, and practically was close enough for him. So there was no more reason to fear — anything. Not national domination, not local trouble, certainly not his current situation.

He was too jaded to feel fear in his current situation at any rate.

So when Kaoru appeared in the doorway with a purple-blue anemone tucked behind her ear and said, “Saitou was here looking for you, but he’s gone now,” Kenshin did nothing more than smile.

“Thank you, Kaoru.” He had dropped the honorific lately, which seemed to delight her to no end.

“You know, that man is so much nicer than he seems,” Kaoru remarked, loudly enough to be heard as she stepped back into the kitchen and continued her work. Kenshin followed her, face emotionless as she continued. “He gave me a flower!” She looked over at Kenshin, no doubt to see if he was jealous. “I sure hated him at first, but he definitely improves with time.”

“He does,” Kenshin agreed quietly. “But you seem to forget his trying to kill me.”

Kaoru stood on one foot as she chopped the vegetables, rocking her head back and forth as she searched for an answer. “Well, I guess there’s more than one person in the world with something from the past buried inside them.”

Kenshin smiled, forcing the expression to look cheerful rather than wan as it was inclined to be. “Will you need tofu tonight?”

She looked over at him sweetly. “No, thanks; I’ve got everything I need.”

Kenshin paused a moment in thought. “Have you seen Sano today?”

Kaoru shrugged. “I might have seen him around, but that might have been yesterday.”

Kenshin felt the urge to scratch his head. “And Yahiko?”

“He’s practicing. He’s gotten really serious since we came back from Kyoto.”

“And I do not blame him.” Kenshin was still searching his mind. Finally, seeing no viable alternative, he just said, “I believe I will go for a walk before supper — if you don’t mind.”

To his relief, the sweet expression on her face did not change. “All right. It won’t be too long, though, so don’t go far.”

It was strange to him how practiced he’d become at deceiving her. He foresaw a marriage between them soon (they’d even discussed it vaguely at times), and it felt odd considering marrying someone who couldn’t see through even this little lie. He always meekly obeyed her commands during everyday life, knowing that she would bow to his superior knowledge in out-of-the-ordinary situations — and it was a good balance, until you threw deception into the mix. He frowned as he left the dojo and headed purposefully into the woods.

A little clearing held a small pond in the dip between two hills, and a stretch of soft, weedy turf beside it was hidden by cattails but raised enough to stay dry despite its proximity to the water. This was the spot he made for, as he always had, not with any particular haste but not exactly dawdling either. As he drew nearer, he untied the band that held his ponytail, shaking his long, soft locks down around his shoulders and running an absent hand through them. His footsteps were silent, the rustling of his clothes as he walked blending with the slight rustling of foliage in the tiny, shifting breeze.

This same slight wind soon brought him a familiar scent, the one that always greeted him as he approached. Pushing his way softly through the cattails, he emerged onto the little grassy spot beside the pool, and stopped.

Saitou didn’t say anything, just sat there with one leg stretched almost to the water’s edge and the other drawn up to his chin, leaning back on a bare hand while the other, still gloved, held his cigarette to his lips.

Kenshin sat down beside him in equal silence and waited.

They never needed many words, for they were spirits totally aligned to each other. They’d spent so many years of their lives reading others, in almost exactly the same manner, that it was only natural the two of them should understand each other so perfectly. Body position, breathing pace, the slightest facial expression — nothing more than this was needed for either of them to determine the mood, thoughts, and feelings of the other. Kenshin could tell that Saitou was brooding over a difficult case just as easily as Saitou could tell that Kenshin was feeling bad about leaving Kaoru cooking supper for them back at the dojo.

Saitou’s entire demeanor said, I need relief.

And Kenshin’s replied, Let’s get it over with, then.

Finally Saitou reached the filter and tossed it down into the water, stretching out his other leg as he did so. He removed the single glove and set the pair carefully aside atop his folded jacket that lay neatly to his left.

Then, in what seemed an abrupt change of mood, he bore down on Kenshin, pushing the smaller man into the ground with a hand on each shoulder and a mouth pressed against his.

Kenshin fell beneath him, the familiar taste of Saitou’s smoke-flavored breath strong in his throat and the other man’s hot hands sliding up into his hair to stroke and tangle it. Saitou was on his knees, straddling Kenshin’s hips, and their clothed erections were rubbing together with electrifying regularity.

Kenshin’s hands remained motionless on the ground beside him, never so much as twitching. His eyes were lightly closed, his tongue barely responding to Saitou’s as it probed the insides of his mouth. As always. At this point in the game, he was usually too lethargic to react to much of anything — although some reactions he had no control over — until Saitou began hitting or biting him, which, if he was lucky, didn’t happen; it depended on how much of a reaction Saitou wanted on the particular occasion.

As Saitou loosened the ties of Kenshin’s gi, the redhead docilely slid his arms free of the sleeves and submitted to Saitou’s exploration of his naked torso — not that there was anything unfamiliar about it. Kenshin shuddered as Saitou’s lips played over the freshest scar, the bite-mark just beneath his left collarbone. Saitou always had to touch that scar. I wish I had done this, he seemed to say, by which he meant he wished nobody had. It was one of the things Saitou tried to hide, his regret about Kenshin’s fight with Shishio, but at times it surfaced in ways he didn’t even consider.

The moist, burning, nicotine-scented mouth had found a nipple, which prickled now that it was bereft of its customary cloth covering. Kenshin didn’t bother to stifle his moan as Saitou’s teeth pulled gently at him and the older man pushed their crotches more tightly together. The wolf’s hands were now reluctantly leaving the beloved hair behind and moving down to untie Kenshin’s hakama.

Their rapport extended even so far that Kenshin knew how Saitou wanted him; as the wolf stood to shed his own clothing, Kenshin dutifully turned over onto his knees. He laid his left forearm on the ground so his right hand would be free, and closed his eyes. Moments later he felt Saitou’s fingers probing at the opening between his buttocks, pressing inwards and smearing him with unscented oil. After this was finished, Kenshin braced himself. He grunted as Saitou pushed his swollen sex into the narrow cavity, rocked by the strong thrust of the other man’s body against his. Moaning, he waited until Saitou’s hands clamped onto his hips. Drawing from this the conclusion that Saitou was only going to get himself off, Kenshin sighed — more of a breathy moan, really — and reached his own hand down to stroke his throbbing erection. An embarrassing circumstance, but one much better than going unsatisfied and returning to the dojo with bulging pants.

Eventually it was all over; Saitou finished up just after Kenshin did and pulled out with a grunt, letting Kenshin fall. Panting and sleek with sweat as he lay on his stomach in the soft grass, the smaller man did not open his eyes. It was several minutes, in fact, before he moved at all, turning onto his back at last and trying to steady his breathing. Saitou, clothed once again, sat back down beside him and lit another cigarette.

The day had faded, and the soft glow of fireflies over the water illuminated the couple better than the last rays of dusk that tried to pick their way through the trees at the top of the hill. Saitou’s cigarette briefly appeared in the darkness as he took a long drag, then vanished again in a stream of smoke.

“Saitou,” Kenshin said softly.

Saitou glanced down at him.

“I will probably be marrying Kaoru.”

Silence.

Kenshin opened an eye, then another, to look for Saitou’s reaction. The older man was sitting utterly still, staring out over the pond with a slightly narrowed gaze. I will kill her. But all he said aloud was, “Hn.”

Kenshin restrained a sigh, slowly sliding his hands behind his head and closing his eyes again. He did not open them until Saitou was standing, and watched the other man’s back as he stepped toward the wall of cattails. As he put out a hand to make a path for his body, Saitou stopped briefly and cast a slow, burning glance back at Kenshin. “Fifty,” he said.

Kenshin sat up in surprise. You’ve been keeping track?!

Saitou smirked, but only very slightly. Of course.

Once the man was gone, Kenshin began slowly to dress himself again, to smooth his hair and retie it, to make himself presentable. And he wondered all the while exactly what he meant to that man, that strange man who, although so easy for Kenshin to read, was in general still so inscrutable. Fifty times now Saitou had raped him. It made sense that Kenshin would keep count, since he was the one whose pride was ground into the dust with every encounter, but why should Saitou care? Kenshin didn’t for one moment entertain the thought that Saitou considered it an anniversary of any kind… It must be that the heartless spy had a head for numbers and that sort of thing.

Kenshin shook his head, and turned toward the Kamiya Dojo.



Part 2>>

Part 2

He awoke the next morning with moisture running from his eyes; it was not a rare occurrence after such an evening for him to dream of the first time. Saitou had been so utterly brutal, had made it so perfectly clear who would have won that fight between them (earlier that very day) had it been allowed to continue. As all his dignity had been torn and scattered away like a butterfly’s wings ripped off and tossed into the wind, Kenshin had cried. And strangely enough, Saitou had not mocked his tears — seeing, apparently, that he’d broken the younger man, he had only held him tightly and nibbled contentedly on his fiery hair.

Now Kenshin washed his face viciously and went, smiling, to do his morning chores. He did not have the fortitude of Soujirou, however (probably all for his own good at any rate), and his cheerful expression soon faded to one of pensive melancholy.

It seemed strange that, after everything he’d been through, after each former enemy he’d defeated, and despite the fact that through everything he’d always managed to come out on top, he was still so horribly not “on top” in this one area of his life. It stung like the blow of a whip as he looked back at those fifty encounters and watched himself, in his memory, grow weaker and weaker under Saitou’s attentions until finally he just let his eyes glaze over and resisted no more. Despite his seeming timidity, however, his pride had not been swallowed, and with every thrust of Saitou’s hips, every time, another blow was struck to it.

And that was his chief dilemma. It was enough of a wound that he was being raped by Saitou Hajime without his friends’ knowledge. What preventative measures might perhaps have been taken had he opened his mouth, he did not know; it was pointless to think about it since the idea of seeking help was almost nauseating, and after about twenty or so molestations he’d simply given up hope of any change in the near future.

He was Saitou’s sex-slave, and so it seemed he would remain until the former Shinsen grew tired of him, or one of them died. And Kenshin had already tried that one. It was the part of the whole mess that he liked least to think about.

It had been the third time Saitou had approached him that he’d snapped and attacked the older man with all the hatred in the blackest corner of his mind. He’d totally lost himself to blood-lust and rage, and was hell-bent on killing him or dying in the attempt.

And Saitou had backed off.

He’d redonned his jacket and lit a cigarette, starting to walk away. Congratulations, his half-disgusted look had said, you’ve discovered your one unattractive feature.

And with his enemy standing down, Kenshin had slowly pulled himself once more out of the inferno that was Bakumatsu assassin, and just stared after him. It didn’t take long for the theory to crystallize: that Saitou’s actions were all intended to bring Battousai out of repression in preparation for the coming conflict in Kyoto. But this idea had been entirely blown away when Saitou next came and actually seemed relieved as Kenshin managed to control himself. And then there was the fact that it had continued after Kyoto, leaving the victim with the single, unbearable resulting thought that it was Himura Kenshin, not the Hitokiri Battousai, that Saitou wanted to feel beneath him.

“Kenshin!” Kaoru’s voice disturbed his reverie, and Kenshin made haste to bring out the smile again. “Kenshin!”

“Out here, Kaoru!” he replied in a shout, vigorously scrubbing at whatever the hell he was washing.

She approached him with a bucket. “I will need tofu today,” she said. Playfully she bent and kissed him on the cheek before handing him the container. “Don’t take too long!”

For the first time that day, a real smile found its own way onto Kenshin’s mouth as he looked up at her. “All right,” he replied, and softly rubbed the hand she’d placed on his shoulder before rising. He was just so comfortable around Kaoru… As he turned away, he thought of Saitou’s reaction to his words yesterday. Was the man that jealous? He’d done everything he could to keep their ‘relationship’ a secret, even going so far as to come up with a little code whereby he could let Kenshin know he was wanted in their special spot. (Back during the stage where Kenshin had been afraid of their every encounter, just the sight of an anemone, even growing wild, was enough to unsettle him. Now he was, as toward everything else, indifferent.) At any rate, why should Saitou care if Kenshin had an actual, real relationship with someone? It wasn’t as if there were any emotional attachment between the rapist and his victim, so wasn’t Kenshin allowed some comfort? Apparently not. And Kenshin wouldn’t risk Kaoru’s life in the assumption. How to break it to her was going to be the difficult thing.

As he headed into town he brooded further. If he couldn’t get involved with Kaoru, his presence would merely be a source of pain to her, and probably to anyone watching them as well. Which meant that his life in Tokyo was drawing to a close unless he finally came out with the truth about Saitou. Because at this point, all he was doing was tormenting a woman who loved him in order to put up with the violent attentions of a man who didn’t.

At that precise moment he almost turned and went back to the dojo, intent on telling Kaoru everything. But a heaviness beset all his limbs, and a burning flush spread over his face at the very thought of admitting that he’d allowed Saitou to rape him fifty times. With a sigh he trudged onward, the empty bucket swinging in his listless hand. He was trapped.

He had not even realized which route he was taking until he heard the laughter of children and looked up to see neat apartments stretching down the block for quite some distance. It was one of the nicer middle-class neighborhoods, and, incidentally, the street on which Saitou lived. He was certainly dwelling on the man too much for his thoughts to have directed his feet down this road. But he only squared his shoulders and walked resolutely onward. Saitou would probably still be at work at this time of day anyway.

Kenshin let out a sigh as he dully noted the apartment to his left — it looked no different from the rest, and yet was somehow ominous. He’d been inside, of course, several times. He remembered one particular incident near the beginning with painful clarity.

He’d been lying on his back much like yesterday, eyes closed as he tried to deal with the discomfort bordering on pain in his lower half as well as with the bitter wound to his pride. Saitou was naked beside him, lying at his ease, smoking and smiling with his own eyes closed. Kenshin had stared at him with a mixture of anger and curiosity, and had finally said, “Aku Soku Zan.”

Saitou responded to those words as if to his own name, glancing over at Kenshin quizzically. What about it?

What happened to it?

And Saitou had reached out to pet Kenshin’s hair, smiling sardonically. “Everyone has one point of utter selfishness. You insist on not killing, after all.”

And you rape me.

Of course.

Kenshin was still sighing when he suddenly saw Saitou’s door open. For just the barest fraction of an instant he considered taking off at a sprint up the hill, but that urge faded as impractical and he only started to look away. But the next instant he looked back — for the figure he’d seen emerging from within was not Saitou.

It was an unfamiliar man who didn’t look like a spy or policeman or government employee. Saitou had no friends, and since the man closed the door behind him it was obvious that the wolf was not there with him as host. Who was it, and what exactly was he doing? He looked casual enough, but that might be an act to cover up a robbery, or the preparation for one — setup for an ambush, even.

There was no reason for Kenshin to stick his neck out for Saitou, and fifty very good ones for him not to. And it might be extremely satisfying to see Saitou’s annoyance at having had his own house robbed, especially when Kenshin would be able to describe one of the chief players without hesitation. So why exactly was he veering away from his path toward the man? He asked himself this somewhat desperately as he approached and spoke. “Excuse me…”

“Yes?” The man didn’t look at all frightened or embarrassed, only polite as he turned to face the rurouni.

“What were you doing in there?” Kenshin said bluntly.

The man smiled, and indicated the apartment next door. “I live there. Fujita-san had to leave very suddenly just now, and as I was outside just then, he asked me to take his teapot off the stove and lock the doors.”

Kenshin nodded. “I beg your pardon. But why did he have to leave so suddenly?”

The man shrugged. “Something about his wife, I believe.”

“Thank you,” Kenshin said with a bow. “Sorry to have bothered you.”

“Oh, not at all. Good day.”

The hill suddenly seemed steeper than before, and clouds were rolling across the sun with depressing rapidity. Kenshin bent his steps quickly toward his destination in order to get back home before the rain. And he wondered why he was not smiling. Saitou Tokio lived in Kobe, he understood, and that was a good enough distance away to give Kenshin at least a week and a half of freedom — more, depending on carriage speeds and road conditions. But if possible, he only felt worse than he had before. Probably, he reflected, because he didn’t like to be uncertain where Saitou was concerned. Better to have him there, to know exactly what he wanted and when, than to have no material idea where he was or when was the next time Kenshin was likely to find an anemone grinning at him in some conspicuous spot.

And something about his wife… What could that be? If he had been forced to leave so quickly that he didn’t have time to take a teapot off the stove or lock the door, it must be something serious. Maybe she is having a baby, Kenshin speculated wryly. There really was no reason for this curiosity. But, then, Saitou’s actions always made him curious. Nothing about the man seemed to make sense.

Part 3

Having brought the tofu back to Kaoru, Kenshin sat down outside and watched the shrieking Ayame and Suzume run from monster-Yakiho. He felt strangely listless, and wondered if it was the rurouni side of his personality making an especially strong bid. Perhaps it really was time to move on. He looked at the little girls and the boy who wasn’t much older, and thought about the sweet young woman only a few years senior to Yahiko who was inside making supper for all of them. He wasn’t sure he could stand hurting her like that.

“Oi, Kenshin.”

He wasn’t sure he could stand to leave him behind either, if only because the big idiot needed Kenshin’s presence just to keep him out of trouble. Still, if Kenshin left, Sanosuke might have a better chance at Megumi’s heart… “Hello, Sano.”

Sano took a seat beside him. “You look stupid today… what’s up?”

“Nothing,” Kenshin replied with a laugh. “What brings you here?”

“Not that smell,” replied Sano with first a shrug and then a wrinkled nose as he looked toward the door into the building. “But free food’s a good thing even if she makes it.”

“You should get a job.”

“I’ve got something…” Sano scratched his head, looking a tad annoyed. “Gonna guard a wagon fulla stuff for some merchant. Actually, I was thinkin’ you might wanna come with… easy money, you know? Guy’s been robbed a coupla times, I guess, but they were just highway-geeks.”

“Where is the merchandise going?”

“Kobe.”

Kenshin stiffened reflexively at the name, relaxing instantly as he knew Sano was watching him. “I will go with you.” There wasn’t any reason to let the thought that Saitou was or would be in Kobe deter him from making some cash with which to pay his way around here… coincidental as the two circumstances seemed, they really had nothing to do with each other.

Kenshin was still telling himself this in two days’ time when he and Sano stood waiting in the early morning at the edge of town for the merchant’s wagon to arrive. Sano was yawning, a fishbone dangling precariously from his stretching lips. Kenshin often wondered where, exactly, Sano got all the fish, but didn’t bother to ask. Sano was not going to take it well when the inevitable announcement of Kenshin’s departure came. The boy loved Kaoru like a sister, not to mention being quite attached to Kenshin himself — no, it was not going to be pleasant. Kenshin expected to leave Tokyo with two black eyes at the very least.

Something of these reflections must have shown on his face, for Sano poked him in the stomach and teased, “Don’t worry, Kenshin — you’ll be back with her after not too long. And we can get fuckin’ sloshed in Kobe to make up for being away from her.”

Kenshin forced an embarrassed smile, waving Sano’s words away and saying something typical that he couldn’t remember the next second. Maybe getting ‘fuckin’ sloshed’ with Sano was a good idea — it might take his mind off Saitou. He only hoped they didn’t run into the wolf in Kobe and ruin everything.

The trip started out as boring as Kenshin had anticipated, but at least Sano did his best to liven it up. An hour out of Tokyo he started singing, and it seemed that he was going to go through every song he’d ever heard before he stopped. The funny thing was, he didn’t have a bad voice, and Kenshin found it quite relaxing to walk along in the sun and listen to Sano’s vulgar chorusing. Sano tried repeatedly to get Kenshin to sing along, when it was obvious that the song was familiar to him, but Kenshin wasn’t about to display his musical abilities (which included a high A) in front of the stranger driving the wagon who’d already made a comment on Kenshin’s effeminate appearance earlier in the day.

Sano broke off from a refrain about huge swords and commented, “I wish I could find another zanbatou.”

“Then you would have to call yourself Zanza again,” Kenshin replied in amusement, though feeling a bit guilty.

“Nah… That was all kindof a show, you know? It was cool and impressive and all, but it wasn’t really me.”

Kenshin smiled. “And the zanbatou was?”

“Well… maybe not…” Sano admitted. “But it got me more respect from the off, you know? People didn’t just look at me and say, ‘oh, it’s just some stupid teenager who thinks he can fight.’ I mean, just carrying the thing proved I was strong.”

“You don’t need to prove you’re strong,” Kenshin said. “Anyone to whom it matters knows it. Even Saitou — ” He cut himself short, brows furrowed. It had come naturally to say it, but hearing the name aloud was a jarring reminder of where they were going.

“That bastard!” Sano spat, though his tone was actually somewhat jovial. “He doesn’t know jack about me.”

“There you are wrong. Saitou respects you more than you realize.”

“How the hell do you know that? Been talking to him lately?”

“Yes.” Kenshin was unwilling to say more, though with the natural way they were conversing he feared the same answer might have slipped out even if Sano had said, ‘Been sleeping with him lately?’

Sano shrugged. “Like I care what he thinks.”

Kenshin smiled. He knew Sano would rather prove himself to Saitou than to anyone else in the world, despite (or perhaps because of) the hatred between the two. Kenshin envied him, for he would have given anything to be in the younger man’s position — with no doubt as to the emotions involved, and the question of strength and respect the only uncertain thing between them.

That night Sano slept first, sprawled out in the grass snoring and keeping the wagon driver, who was at least three yards away, up for several hours. Kenshin sat watch from the wagon, staring up at the stars and thinking not-very-cheerful thoughts about his future and the friends he would be hurting if things turned out the way he feared they must.

At midnight he woke Sano, and went to sleep himself in the soft grass.

“Kenshin!”

He didn’t want to wake up.

“Oi, Kenshin!”

He just felt so good, so warm and comfortable…

Kenshin!!

“What is it, Sano?” he asked as he sat up and shook sleep from him — sleep, and also an inexplicable feeling of contentment. Normally he awoke in an instant into full alertness; he couldn’t imagine why he was so sluggish now.

Sano jerked a thumb at the sunrise. “Mornin’,” he said.

“Thank you, Sano,” he replied, pulling the blanket off as he stood and folding it. He looked around for his shoes.

“That musta been some weird dream you were having,” Sano was saying as he headed for the wagon where the driver was already harnessing the horse.

Kenshin looked up from his now-shod feet, nearly dropping the blanket. The feeling he’d awoken with had held a definite sexual flavor, and a dream could certainly have caused it — what might he have said in his sleep that Sano had heard? “Why?” He tried to sound casual.

“You kept sayin’ weird stuff like, ‘the beginning, please’ or ‘start, please,’ or… something…” Sano shrugged. “And some other stuff I couldn’t hear.”

Kenshin tried not to blush, but, not entirely successful, had to look away. “I do not remember it,” he said. He was overcome with gratitude that Sano had misheard and misinterpreted, but didn’t dare say anything that might lead the boy to dwell on what other meanings ‘hajime’ might have.

Eventually Sano exhausted his store of songs, which seemed to relieve the wagon-driver immensely, and spent most of the rest of the day, in between more intelligent bits of conversation, trying to get Kenshin to sing. Kenshin refused to bend, however, and Sano was pouting when they made camp.

Several nights later, everything went to pieces.

“Let’s go swimming, Kenshin.” They were stopped just next to a large pond, and Sano’s logic was that even if someone did attack while they were in the water, they were close enough to get out and fight them off in plenty of time — and, he added cheerfully, any attacker would be likely to run off in shame at the sight of two such massively-endowed men.

“Sano, that doesn’t make any sense,” Kenshin replied in embarrassment.

“Whatever… let’s go swimming!”

And, as Kenshin had no particular argument against going swimming, he readily agreed. It was an innocent, forgetful mistake, but a serious one.

“You just haven’t been yourself,” Sano remarked as he floated languidly on his back.

“You think so?” Kenshin said. It was all he could say. The true brooding state of his mind could not easily be explained, after all. Beyond that, he was confused as to why his thoughts had gone from worry about hurting his friends in getting away to endless reflections on the man he wanted to get away from. The tall, dark figure with his various unique mannerisms, his forceful ideals, his strange tastes, had dominated the former hitokiri’s brain until he felt he must go insane. Why couldn’t he tear himself away from all of this?

“Maybe you need me to kick your ass to cheer you up, huh?” It was all the warning he had before Sano jumped him and they both plunged under the water.

Kenshin wasn’t exactly in the mood for sparring, but he didn’t have much choice as Sano was holding him down and he did need to breathe. So, with great effort, he managed to extricate himself and push Sano off. Even as he was sloshing away from his light-hearted opponent, he head the young man laughing.

He turned and awaited the next attack, wondering what was so funny. But Sano was lost in mirth and didn’t seem to be planning any more moves just yet. Kenshin straightened in the water, looked around for the source of Sano’s amusement, and finally asked, “What?”

“Now I see why you’re so depressed!” Sano cried, his shoulders shaking with laughter. “I thought it was funny that you missed her so much just being gone for this little while…”

“What are you talking about?” Kenshin wondered in bewilderment.

Sano floated on his back once more, splashing masses of water all over Kenshin as he continued to laugh. “You guys got impatient, huh?”

As Kenshin finally realized what this all must mean, he felt a shiver of fear go through him, and took a furtive glance down at his body to search out what Sano had seen — but found nothing that would suggest what Sano was apparently thinking.

“It’s on your back, man,” Sano giggled, “right below your neck. It’s fading, but don’t think I can’t tell what it is.”

Kenshin unconsciously put a hand to his shoulder, remembering. How could that mark possibly still be there? But then, everything Saitou did left a lasting mark, didn’t it? What was he going to say?

He didn’t have to say anything at first, for Sano had gone into a new fit of laughter at the look on Kenshin’s face. “I didn’t think she would be the one to do that to you…” Kenshin cleared his throat nervously. “But I guess you probably showed her what a man you are right after that, huh?”

Kenshin’s face was burning like the sun, and he made a vain appeal. “Sano…”

“I bet you guys’ve been going at it forever and I never noticed… she probably got sick of being a virgin and tied you up or something!” And that thought made Sano positively wild with laughter.

“Sano!” Kenshin said in a more commanding tone, annoyed that Sano would talk about Kaoru that way. Admittedly, if Sano’s assumptions had been true, Kenshin wouldn’t have minded so much — but with the way things actually stood, he didn’t like Sano guessing. Still, as long as he went on thinking it was Kaoru who’d given him that mark — and why shouldn’t he, if Kenshin kept his mouth shut? — it wasn’t so bad… was it?

It was. For Sano, instead of letting the matter go after that night as Kenshin had expected, continued to tease him with every breath until Kenshin was cringing at the sound of his voice. And Sano could be as vulgar as anything Kenshin had ever heard, bringing images into Kenshin’s head that didn’t need to be there during his current dilemma. The worst part was, Kenshin knew that the teasing wasn’t likely to stop once they got to Kobe, or, worse, once they got back to Tokyo. And then everything would have to come out — unless Kenshin put a stop to it right now. How exactly he was going to do that, he wasn’t sure, but something had to be said to shut Sano’s wild mouth.

Sano was in the middle of an imitation of Kaoru crying out something about Kenshin’s ‘Hiten Mitsurugiryuu’ when Kenshin snapped, seizing him by the arm and growling his name so fiercely that Sano’s full attention was riveted on him in an instant. “Whoa, sorry, man,” he said. “Didn’t mean to make you mad or anything.”

Kenshin took a deep breath. “You didn’t make me mad,” he replied. “It’s just that I wish you would forget about… that…”

The wagon driver snickered softly. He’d been enjoying Sano’s taunting just as much as Sano had.

Sano looked confused for a moment, and then an evil gleam came into his eyes along with a wide grin on his face. “I knew it,” he gloated. “She’s your first, isn’t she?”

Kenshin blushed and immediately cried, “No!”

The driver laughed openly at this.

“I mean, that’s not why,” Kenshin continued, lowering his voice with a slightly annoyed glance at the driver. “I would just appreciate it if you didn’t mention this again.”

Sano’s brows lowered, bringing the red of his headband right down above his eyes, at the serious tone in his friend’s voice. “All right, Kenshin,” he agreed slowly. “If you and jou-chan wanna it kept a secret, I guess I can…”

“Don’t mention it to anyone,” Kenshin said, trying hard not to let his voice shake and looking away quickly to hide another blush whose cause was a bit different from that of the previous.

Sano stopped walking abruptly, staring wide-eyed at the other man, his hands slowly clenching into fists. “Kenshin…?” he whispered, and in his tone was not only bewilderment but accusation.

Oh, he’d really done it now, hadn’t he? It was probably the worst thing he could have said. He turned to face Sano, letting out a long breath as the wagon progressed along the road without them. “Sano,” he said slowly, “don’t think that way. Please.”

Sano’s face was twisting into a familiar expression. “What the hell am I supposed to think?” he demanded, his voice rising toward the end of his sentence. “Why the fuck wouldn’t you want me to fucking mention that to jou-chan if you’re not having a fucking affair!?”

The wagon had creaked to a halt several yards beyond them, and the driver was looking back curiously.

“Sano…” Kenshin said again, feeling helpless. He took a step forward, his expression appealing. Don’t make me tell you, he begged mentally. Just trust me.

“Who was it?” Sano hissed. “Who’re you planning on breaking her heart for?” His eyes narrowed. “Megumi?”

“Sano!” It was almost a squeak in response to a new accusation that Sano was obviously taking more seriously than he let on — Kenshin could see the fear and betrayal in his eyes, surpassing even the anger in his voice.

“I’m waiting.”

Kenshin’s shoulders drooped, and he began to walk toward his friend slowly, his head turned downward in despair. “I’ll tell you,” he said softly, “but you mustn’t overreact. It’s totally different than what you’re thinking.”

Despite his anger, Sano’s trust in Kenshin made him pause and examine his friend’s demeanor. “What is it?” he asked quietly, raising a hand to Kenshin’s shoulder.

Kenshin could not lift his burning face as he uttered the single word, “Rape.”

“Rape?” Sano repeated in a whisper, his eyes widening once again. “But… who…” He seemed almost in shock, and Kenshin’s heart felt like it had stopped. Had he shattered all of Sano’s faith in him? “Who could be strong enough…” Suddenly Sano gripped Kenshin’s shoulders with his hands and shook him, probably harder than he’d meant to. “Who was it!?” he shouted, and as Kenshin unwillingly raised his eyes, he saw tears in Sano’s — tears of rage, perhaps, or disillusionment; he didn’t know. All he knew was that Sano was not going to let him slip away from this without an answer. An answer which Kenshin was infinitely reluctant to give, and inexplicably for more reasons than just the terrible, terrible wound to his pride.

He took a deep breath, opened his mouth, and never broke his eye contact with Sano as he said the name.

Sano’s hands dropped to his sides as his face darkened and he began to shake uncontrollably. Kenshin could see his muscles tensing, could sense the blow that was about to land — somewhere.

Unexpectedly, Sano bent and slammed his fist into the ground, an unmistakable Futae no Kiwami that made Kenshin stagger as it rained him with shattered earth. Sano’s roar disintegrated into a cursing shout that used every obscenity Kenshin had ever heard and then some, and lasted for almost a minute.

The wagon driver had prudently turned and begun ignoring them.

Part 4

“But why didn’t you stop him?”

This was most certainly not the next thing Sano said; however, it was the next coherent thing he said. It was about an hour later, actually, when Kenshin’s frantic, horrified efforts had finally managed to calm his friend’s frenzy. Kenshin had never seen Sano so angry. And he knew, no matter how little he felt like discussing the issue further, that if he didn’t answer Sano’s questions, the calm wasn’t going to last. But what could he say?

“Kenshin…?” Sano prompted him in a growl.

Kenshin looked up at the sky and shook his head. This was a moment he’d been dreading: the moment when he was forced to say aloud what he’d been fearing all along yet not wanting to admit he’d been fearing at all. “Sano, I’m not as strong as he is.”

And Sano’s reaction was also exactly as he’d feared, for instead of defending him hotly, Sano only dropped his eyes to the ground and fell silent.

Kenshin’s face was burning, and his movements felt awkward and stiff as he inwardly combated shame, anger, and fear. Shame at his weakness, anger at his foolishness, and fear of what might be going on in Sano’s head. Disillusionment? Horror? Would he scorn his friend now?

Shaking himself, Kenshin tried to dispel these thoughts. He’d always told himself that he didn’t care about being the strongest, but that had obviously only been the response of his logical mind to a subconscious desire to be just that. How petty, to worry about which of a handful of men was at the top in terms of physical strength and samurai abilities! How childish, to be afraid to admit that he wasn’t as skilled at fighting as someone else! How pathetic, to be worried what other people thought of him! He didn’t need those kinds of considerations.

“I’m going to kill him,” Sano said.

Kenshin tensed abruptly. This was, of course, the natural progression of events, but for some reason he hadn’t anticipated it. He found himself replying, “No!” before he even realized what he was saying. After a moment he wondered why he’d even said it.

Sano was wondering too, although he had his guesses. “What,” he asked in a surly tone, “you think I’m not strong enough?”

Kenshin knew he wasn’t strong enough. Sano knew it too, and knew that Kenshin knew. But what could he say? The fact was, that wasn’t the reason at all that he didn’t want Sano to try to kill Saitou, but he wasn’t sure what the reason was. He was so confused, it was a wonder he was walking straight. “It’s not that, Sano, it’s just that I… I want to deal with this myself.”

And once again, Sano didn’t have a reply. They kept walking in a silence like a subdued thunderstorm that could break again at any moment.

After quite some time Sano abruptly said, “But couldn’t you just have…”

Kenshin interrupted him, surprising himself with the harshness of his tone. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Needless to say, the rest of the trip to Kobe was every bit as unpleasant as this day had been. Sano, despite Kenshin’s desire that the subject be dropped altogether, started making guesses: when the first time had been, how many times it had happened since then, when it had happened when he’d been around and just hadn’t realized, and myriad other uncomfortable conjectures that threatened to drive Kenshin mad. The first sight of their destination was like a fresh wind through stagnant air.

Sano mumbled something as they accompanied the wagon down the hill into town, but Kenshin did not catch what it was. He turned a quizzical eye on his friend, who repeated himself at top volume in a tone of reckless and somewhat bitter abandon. “I’m gonna go get drunk. You can get our pay if you want, or whatever, and I’ll see you later.” Without waiting for an answer to this statement, he stalked off at a quick and heavy pace into the crowd.

“I guess I’ll do that, then,” Kenshin muttered, feeling abandoned. “Let’s go,” he added in a louder tone to the wagon driver, trying to act more cheerful than he felt.

The man shook his head, and urged the horse into movement once more.

Less than an hour later and somewhat richer than he had been, Kenshin found himself on the Kobe streets wondering what to do. The plan had been for him and Sano to get drunk together… now he didn’t even know where Sano was. He was a bit annoyed, actually, that Sano hadn’t bothered to make arrangements with him, as the ex-gangster probably didn’t have any money on him and would need to rejoin Kenshin just to get a room for the night.

He found his thoughts wandering into dangerous areas, such as where Saitou might be right now and, again, why he’d come to Kobe. It was understandable, but Kenshin didn’t like the way he just couldn’t get the older man out of his head lately.

Sighing, he decided that the best course of action would be to find the area of town with the most bars and gambling houses and search methodically through them for Sano. It might take all night, but it might also take his mind off things he didn’t really want to be thinking about. And it was better than finding Sano in the morning and trying to dredge out of his friend’s hung-over state where he now owed money and how much. Besides, he’d be up all night worrying if he didn’t locate Sano. Though that might be better than being up all night worrying about other things. He sighed again; there were no pleasant prospects for the rest of the trip.

Unfortunately, just as on that day when Saitou had left Tokyo, Kenshin’s feet (or subconscious mind) had different plans than his head did, and he found himself after not too long wandering a neighborhood in which he was certain not to find Sano, and more likely to find someone else. Although the chances of that couldn’t be particularly great, could they? How could he think just because it looked appropriate that this was the neighborhood in which Saitou Tokio lived? It was just because it was so similar to Saitou’s street in Tokyo, he assumed, that his wanderings had taken him in this direction. Still, it was unsettling. As much as he could be unsettled from a mental state that was already akin to an earthquake.

He stared absently at the fine, small houses, feeling his footsteps slow with every one he passed as if progress down the street were difficult for him somehow. A few leaves, dried since their fall from some shaken tree, skittered past him on a light breeze, and he raised a hand to his face against the intrusion of hair into his eyes. And finally his sluggish pace brought him to a halt entirely, directly in front of a house that looked no different in any respect from the others. He turned to face it fully, wondering why he’d stopped. There was simply no way he could know, but here he was before of a home that was entirely unremarkable, quite still in his tracks as if this were the exact place he had come to Kobe to visit.

He was truly foolish. He didn’t even want to see Saitou, and here he was standing in the middle of an unknown street wondering if it was the right place. But somehow he couldn’t move from the spot. Moment after moment he spent telling himself that he was about to turn and walk away, but for every repetition of the sentiment, his feet seemed to root themselves more firmly in place. Maybe he had something he wanted to say or do?

Or maybe he was just a glutton for punishment.

Not that he hadn’t considered that possibility before, in regards to the entire situation with Saitou. He honestly didn’t think it was the case, but had to admit that he hadn’t yet dismissed the idea as entirely implausible. There’d always been a kind of guilty haze in his mind through which he viewed just about everything; it was something he’d long since resigned himself to, as the crimes of his youth dictated it without a doubt. No matter how he lived his life, he would never be entirely free of the sensation; he doubted he even should be. And perhaps… just perhaps… it was in response to this that he had not yet worked to extricate himself from this dilemma. But he didn’t think so.

For one thing, what crime did this punishment fit??

Now he was going to turn and walk away.

The door in front of him opened.

He should feel sick. He should feel affronted. He should feel angry, or afraid, or even sad. He should feel something in response to the flash of happy surprise that showed on Saitou’s face for half a second, anything other than totally numb.

What are you doing here?

Kenshin had no answer. He didn’t even know how he’d found the place, let alone what he was doing here. And he certainly didn’t want to be here. At least now he could move, although he hadn’t intended to go in quite that direction.

Saitou didn’t like to show surprise, Kenshin knew, which was why, as the tall man stepped aside to allow Kenshin to pass him through the door into the house, he acted no differently than usual, as if he’d been expecting him. But the surprise had been there, only moments earlier, and they both knew it. That, and the fact that Saitou was glad to see Kenshin. Actually emotionally pleased by Kenshin’s mere presence.

He looked around the comfortable home with eyes that perceived very little physical detail but took in quite a bit of implication. There was no way Saitou could live in a house this… warm. He certainly had not had any say in its decoration or arrangement. Somehow… somehow a certain tightness somewhere inside Kenshin was eased. He told himself this was because he was suddenly doubting that there was a wife who loved Saitou that could be being hurt by the situation with Kenshin.

Despite seeming somewhat out of place, Saitou played a deft host. It was the same grace Kenshin had always known him to display, when he had a reason to display it or a deceptive face to put on, and yet different somehow. Perhaps it was just the contrast of seeing him in this unknown setting.

“What are you doing here?” Saitou finally questioned aloud when they were seated in a commodious chamber with bright windows and doors on all sides.

“Sano and I took a job guarding a shipment of goods from Tokyo.”

“Ah.”

They were both very still, not looking at one another, and this in itself was a statement. Kenshin could not quite read it, however. “Why are you here?” he asked at length.

Saitou stirred a little, in a motion that tended toward the door to the left. “My wife is ill.”

“How ill?”

“Her situation was reported as very grave, but by the time I got here she had recovered to the point where there’s no longer any need to worry. I may still be here for a while, though.” Kenshin marked Saitou closely during this statement — idle curiosity at work — and noted that Saitou spoke of his wife very clinically. Kenshin looked at the door to the left in a clear request for more information, but Saitou’s slight withdrawal of intention to speak as he answered briefly, “She is asleep,” told Kenshin plainly that the subject was not interesting enough to discuss.

For some considerable time after this, they sat still in a silence so profound that only those to whom communication is as simple as breathing can attain; no ideas were exchanged between them in any manner. Kenshin could feel Saitou’s eyes on him, calm and unflagging, but he had ceased to look at the other man.

Time wore on, accompanied by very slowly mounting tension. The scene felt surreal, almost dreamlike — the circumstances by which he’d arrived at it tended toward unreality, and nothing would have been better than to believe he was asleep and would at any moment awaken to find himself… anywhere but here. It was a silence that felt somehow like a wound to which he’d grown accustomed: as long as he didn’t move, it wouldn’t hurt him. Kenshin was on the verge of believing that it was all right to remain there wordlessly with Saitou until the end of time, and suddenly he remembered Sano.

It was not worth the effort to consider the issue — whether he should bring it up, whether Sano’s rage weighed more in his worried mind than the safety of this silence — for the moment the thought crossed his mind, Saitou perceived his agitation and became subtly but overbearingly inquisitive. Well, it would only be a small break in the silence to mention it and then let the matter drop.

“Sano knows,” he said softly, and although his tone was certainly not apologetic, Saitou would not fail to hear how sorry Kenshin was that the event had taken place.

The officer, however, after a brief frown, did not look particularly concerned. Doubtless he knew Sano well enough to realize what the boy’s reaction would be.

“I don’t want him hurt any more,” Kenshin insisted in an even quieter tone than he’d used before — although since he’d spoken once, a second statement was easier to make.

“And when he attacks me, what do you expect me to do?” Saitou wondered. His tone was almost blank: neither mocking, nor overly somber — nor anything else Kenshin could place.

As he had noted about Saitou’s demeanor as they’d entered, something was incomprehensibly different about this entire conversation from any other time they had interacted that Kenshin could remember. Perhaps it was the unfamiliar environment or the other man’s restrained manner; perhaps it was the fact that Kenshin felt he was for the first time in this matter defending someone other than himself. Whatever the reason, something was building inside him and suggesting that now might be a good moment to say some of the things he’d always wanted to say, the things he sometimes murmured aloud to himself at night, pretending Saitou could hear them. The silence was still a strong opponent, but when Saitou could obviously once again sense that Kenshin wanted to speak, and looked at him with calm attention, it suddenly became almost easier to break it.

“Saitou, we are not at war.”

Saitou looked mildly surprised and curious — still with no trace of mockery, nor of particular earnestness.

“It isn’t appropriate — it isn’t necessary — to hurt people in order to get what you want,” Kenshin explained softly. “But maybe you still think of life as a battle where anything is fair…”

Long moments passed while they again avoided looking at each other, but now the air was thick with apprehension, anticipation.

“At first it was,” Saitou replied at length. “It was a battle, or a message. And then…” He fell silent, clearly reluctant to continue on the subject. This seemed odd; Saitou had been almost flippant about this the last time it had come up. Kenshin, surprised, wondered where the composure had gone.

Following another long pause Saitou began again, this time, it seemed (but only at first), on a different topic. “During my youth I was a heavy drinker, but after the Bakumatsu I gave it up. That was… a challenge.” Kenshin did not have to look up to sense that this was an understatement. “A few years ago I attempted to quit smoking as well, and at the time I was unable to do so. I have yet to try again. And–”

He broke off abruptly, as if he couldn’t bring himself to say any more. Kenshin didn’t exactly feel sorry for him; moreover, he thought he understood where it was leading, and he wondered if Saitou was fool enough to think understanding would equal forgiveness.

Although Saitou could probably discern that unspoken query, he didn’t choose to reply to it directly — but what he did say, after an interval that was probably at least a minute long, was answer enough: “You’re welcome to stay here while you’re in town…” …as if you would ever want to. Kenshin had finally raised his eyes, only to find Saitou’s turned away from him and on the wolf’s face an inscrutable smile that might have been described as one of self-mockery.

Kenshin was frozen where he sat. Confusion immediately obliterated any thought of a reply he might have entertained, and after a moment he found himself rising almost clumsily to his feet and making for the door — as if his body knew better than his baffled mind that everything that needed to be said had been said. Indeed, more had been said just now than at any previous meeting, and he should be aware of that fact even if he wasn’t aware of what the results would be. Still, somewhere in the back of his thoughts he felt that perhaps his exit was a little too precipitous, that there could be one or two things left to say.

Whatever might or might not be going on in the rest of his head, eventually his eyes became aware of the sight of the dark street into which he’d fled, and his ears delivered to him belatedly the report of Saitou’s last words before he’d left the house: “I won’t hurt your friend.” What was the tone? He almost wished he’d paid a little better attention, for his memory couldn’t be coloring those words correctly; Saitou never regretted anything.

He should probably keep looking for Sano now, but somehow once he’d realized he’d left Saitou’s house, he couldn’t bring himself to move. At least, not for a very long time.

Part 5

It had to be around midnight when Kenshin at last ran into Sano, somewhere down some turning in some area of town… he’d entirely lost track.

Sano seemed to have been looking for him as well, for he quickened his pace to stand before Kenshin, then stopped and went motionless. Kenshin was still trying to decide what to say when Sano at last grumbled, “I’m a dick.”

“Sano, it’s all right,” Kenshin replied automatically, and it was mostly true.

“No, really, I’m a dick,” Sano insisted. “I can’t believe I forced you to listen to me guessing and shit… and then I ran off like that…”

Kenshin looked away. “You were upset. Don’t worry about it.”

“I’m still a dick.”

“Only a little.”

Sano seemed to relax a bit as Kenshin finally agreed with his self-assessment, but he still appeared to feel very awkward. “Hey, if you… wanna talk… or anything… I mean, if you need anything… now or whenever…”

Kenshin wasn’t sure how he felt about this offer; he knew that at another time, he would be grateful for the concern behind it, but he still wished with all his heart that Sano had never found out. But he couldn’t be upset with him for that… And at the moment all he really wanted was to go to sleep; there, after all, he had at least a small chance of being able to think about something else. “Thank you,” he forced himself to say. “Let’s go find a place to stay.”

And Sano was a model of self-restraint as they did so.

The trip back to Tokyo started out very quiet, and it wasn’t long before Kenshin was cursing Saitou and circumstance for driving this wedge into his friendship with Sano. But the boy was less socially maladroit (less of a “dick”) than he gave himself credit for. After the first day and a half of awkward silence, he began a bold conversation project wherein he delved with a semblance of cheer that eventually became almost real into every topic he could think of that had nothing to do with any subject neither of them wanted to discuss. It was undeniable that he was not light-hearted enough for singing, but his efforts were not without effect.

Tokyo did not seem particularly welcoming. Of course Kaoru was pleased and relieved to see them, Yahiko eager to hear that they’d encountered and defeated robbers on the way to Kobe (but not particularly disappointed that they hadn’t), and their other friends glad as always of their presence. But Kenshin didn’t really feel, anymore, that he was at home. Sano’s awareness of his plight heightened the sensation that none of his acquaintances really knew what he was feeling from day to day, or even really knew him. And while it did seem that having someone with him would make telling the others easier, still thinking back to the reaction of the same always made him reconsider. Beyond that, there was a new, perverse little voice in his head that was insisting he shouldn’t have to tell them: that he was unhappy, that he was conflicted over something this momentous should be discernable to those who claimed to be his close friends, who purported to love him.

And yet, now that Sano knew, it seemed things would be so much simpler and clearer if everyone else did as well. And what pride did Kenshin have left anyway? Thus his indecision was as bad as it had ever been, and he wavered between yes and no like the wind chime on the porch, with about as much weight to what swayed him.

So caught up in this debate was he that he almost forgot to dread Saitou’s homecoming, and it was some time — a month, perhaps, since he and Sano had returned — before he began to wonder where the policeman was. Surely he could not still be in Kobe? It wasn’t that Kenshin wished for his presence, by any means; again, it was merely that he would prefer to know exactly where his tormenter was at any given moment, so he could know what to expect. He began to keep his eyes open when he was in town — indeed, wanting the information sooner rather than later, he found excuses to be in town rather often. And what he discovered — sooner rather than later — was somewhat surprising, even startling: that Saitou was in Tokyo, apparently had been there for some time, and had simply not made his presence known.

Kenshin did not dare — could not afford to believe that this meant what he wanted it to mean. Still, weeks wore on and it was as if Saitou Hajime did not exist and Kenshin’s none-too-untroubled life had been further twisted by an illusion only. As he knew this was not the case, and could hardly think that Saitou’s libido had suddenly dropped off, the only other logical explanation was… but still Kenshin refused to believe it. It was of all the plausible events he could imagine the one he desired most, and he would not set himself up for such crushing disappointment. But the air of freedom has a distinctive scent, and eventually even the most prudent denial must give way to happy truth.

No. ‘Happy’ was not the right term. All the end of the affair did was raise more questions — now less likely than ever to be answered — and change the tense of the old ones: ‘Should he tell them it had happened?’ ‘What had he meant to that man?’ and so on.

Well, the answer to the latter could perhaps now be guessed at with more certainty, as Saitou had hinted at it himself. But despite the so-called happy resolution to the issue — he was not complaining — it did little for Kenshin’s self-assurance to reflect that he had been just another part of Saitou’s one weakness and been dropped accordingly.

And how had Saitou come to that decision, anyway? After so many times, to stop so suddenly… Kenshin wouldn’t mind thinking that his own words had had something to do with it, but felt it more likely that Saitou had been moved by some reflection stemming from the situation with his wife, entirely independent of his victim. Or perhaps it hadn’t been sudden at all; perhaps it had just taken Saitou that long to rally his will-power. Maybe now he would make another attempt to quit smoking.

No, Kenshin could hardly be expected to find anything pleasant in that area of thought. In addition, as time and accompanying hindsight brought clarity to the concluded circumstance, Kenshin’s shame rather grew than lessened. He’d always known that there were ways out of his predicament if he’d only been willing to take them, but only now as he began to regain, perhaps, a part of his old self-confidence did he see just how far into indifference he’d sunken, how easy it might have been to free himself. His prior helplessness, whose name and nature he did not know, was just one more thing he could not understand. Looking back, Kenshin almost did not recognize himself.

Disturbing as this was, and much as Kenshin came to loathe the thought of that apathy that had for so long taken the place of happiness in his life, it was slightly heartening to consider that as he was changing, moving away from the void of impassivity he’d let his existence become, happiness must surely follow. That it had not, as yet, was not, as yet, a matter of concern.

Kaoru had not sensed the change in him, just as she had never sensed his discontent; she could not discern his gradual and largely detached realization that he did not love her, could never marry her. Well, he could… but he could picture himself after a few years making a statement like, Her situation was reported as very grave, but by the time I got here she had recovered to the point where there’s no longer any need to worry, with an uncaring voice and no desire to continue the conversation on that topic. He’d once thought… he’d long thought… but it was clear by now that Kaoru could never make him happy.

Sano was around almost all the time now. Whether or not he could guess any of the finer points of Kenshin’s reflections of late, he made sure Kenshin knew he was there for him, stubbornly remaining the same quiet (quiet in respect to the situation, at any rate), relentlessly cheerful friend he’d become since the return from Kobe. And Kenshin was grateful for that, and wondered why, with such companionship, he couldn’t be happy.

Time wore on, and it became increasingly difficult for him to deny that he’d outgrown his life at the Kamiya dojo. He didn’t know whether he should be angry with Saitou for bringing this about, for he wasn’t sure that it hadn’t been inevitable — but as he pinned all his problems, mentally, on Saitou and his damned objectifying addiction, he didn’t mind the anger when it came. Anger was the antithesis of helplessness, Kenshin was certain; if he’d just kept his anger from the beginning… well, it was too late for ‘if-only’ thoughts, and he’d been down that path too many times anyway.

And then, suddenly on a cool morning in late October as he was hastening to get the laundry hung so it could dry during the sun’s highest hours, the anger was gone when he most expected, would have welcomed, its presence.

He knew who it was even before the outer door opened, but he didn’t know what to do. As many times as he’d thought out this encounter in his mind, still he had no clear idea of how to react. Except that he knew he must not ‘react,’ for therein lay the helplessness. And he was not helpless. The door slid open, and the doors across his heart slid shut. He would not give Saitou the advantage this time.

He’d unconsciously let down his sleeves and stepped forward to meet the visitor, as he always did, and so it was that they faced each other on the path before the dojo doors. It was a long minute of complete silence as their locked eyes exchanged no information or sentiments and their stiff frames held no indication of any desire to communicate.

Finally Kenshin forced himself to speak, if only to prove that he was not the man he had been. “No flowers today, Saitou?” His voice was cold — so cold — colder than the day around them. He couldn’t be regretting those words even as he spoke them, and yet he was… it was all so pointless. The moment he and Saitou came into contact, everything just became… meaningless.

Saitou didn’t seem to want to look as displeased as he did look, and strove to contain his expression before he spoke. “I’ve been transferred to Hokkaido,” he finally said shortly, and his tone held the same chill as Kenshin’s. “I wanted–” If in that beginning of a phrase there was any softening, any drop from the height of absolute disinterest Saitou was maintaining, or if there would have been in its remainder, Kenshin was never to know.

For at that moment the dojo door burst open and Sano blazed out. “You bastard,” he seethed as the shoji fell from its tracks behind him. The hatred and anger burning in his voice was baffling, and his bearing was that of one who moves to kill. “How dare you show your face here? How dare you fucking talk to Kenshin? As if…” But it seemed that words had failed him, for those were the last to push their way through his gritted teeth, and he threw himself forward with fists trembling.

Kenshin wasn’t sure why, but Sano’s motion had suddenly made it possible for him to move, and before the boy could land more than one hit on the officer who had for some reason remained still (I won’t hurt your friend?), Kenshin had gripped his arms and was holding him back with all his strength. “Sano, Sano,” he was saying desperately, “stop!”

Saitou spared Sano not even a glance; his eyes never strayed from Kenshin’s. He raised a hand to where the kenkaya’s punch had landed, and then turned and walked quickly, almost stiffly, away. If he’d made any further motion — shaken his head, given one hint of a facial expression — Kenshin might have been able to tell… but it was too late. I wanted— Wanted what?

“Let me go, Kenshin,” Sano was growling. “I’m going to fucking kill him. I know you won’t, so I’m going to kill him for you.”

“Sano, no,” Kenshin was saying; “it’s all taken care of; it’s all right.” He found he was not really hearing his words, because he was not really saying what he wished to. Saitou’s name was the one he should be shouting, to bring the man back here to finish that sentence. Why had he come here? Why, after so long, had he reawakened this thing? What did he want, or what had he wanted?

As the doors closed behind the wolf, Kenshin’s grip slackened; fortunately when Sano threw him off he did not pursue the enemy, only turned to face his friend. “I don’t understand this!” he growled. “Why don’t you– why can’t you– dammit, Kenshin, what the fuck is wrong with you? I thought…”

“Sano, it’s over,” Kenshin replied in something near a growl; he suddenly just found himself so desperate for Sano not to be involved in this… He forced himself to say more calmly, “Let it go.”

Sano was shaking his head, slightly as if the motion were difficult, and the look on his face was now one of barely-suppressed horror. “Kenshin,” he said, and it was almost a whisper. “Let it go? the fuck… how can you let it go?”

This was almost too much. Kenshin had to turn away, under the pretense of checking the dojo grounds for anyone who might be listening, to keep Sano from seeing the expression on his face. He wasn’t entirely sure, himself, what that was, which was all the more reason for concealment — Sano didn’t need to know his confusion. Not now when it was all certainly, unmistakably, irrevocably over.

“Kenshin…” The younger man’s voice had calmed a bit, quieted, and sounded now almost hesitant. “You told me the most important thing I ever heard in my life, so now I’m gonna tell you something, and you can judge whether it’s the truth or just some bullshit from a stupid kid.”

Sano paused, as if waiting for Kenshin’s permission to go on, so Kenshin nodded.

“Long as I’ve known you, and I bet even longer than that, you’ve been letting yourself get used. Not–not… not like…” He stammered in shock at his own phrasing. “I mean, you help people and you give everything you have and… and… and you let people… well, someday you’re gonna be used up, and there won’t be any happiness left for you ’cause you’ll have given it all away or let it get taken away or… shit, I’m not making any sense, but what I mean is that you fucking deserve to be happy, and you shouldn’t just let things happen to you because you think… you shouldn’t think you have to just ‘let it go…’ you should be happy, Kenshin. That’s all.”

This had taken longer for Sano to say than it would have seemed it should have, but it was all right; it had given Kenshin a chance to slow his heart and smooth his breathing. He wasn’t sure that he was really taking the words in just yet, but Sano’s desire to help him, Sano’s fierce devotion, he felt clearly. He stepped forward and embraced his friend, which Sano had evidently not been expecting, and murmured something that neither of them, probably, could understand, but which was meant as an expression of appreciation and most likely received as such.

As he drew back, he said more clearly, “Thank you, Sano. I think everything will be all right now.”

And Sano’s earnest face replied silently that he was desperate to believe it would be, and almost convinced that he did.

So. Whatever he could or could not discern, Sano knew that Kenshin was not happy, and his tone of near remonstrance as he insisted that it should be otherwise surprised the rurouni. Was that the solution, then, and Sano knew it better than Kenshin did — that the helplessness was his inability to feel happiness when he logically should? For this, as for so much else, Kenshin had no answer.

Part 6

It was less than a week later. Returning in the evening from some meaningless, galling errand for Kaoru as usual, finding her smiling and sweet and loving and oblivious and insufficient as always, it was not quite as much of a shock as the ambiguous visit had been, but disconcerting still, when she held out the folded paper toward him. “I don’t know who it’s from,” she was saying a little suspiciously. “The kid who delivered it wouldn’t say.”

“Thank you,” Kenshin replied as he took it. It was very small; men of few words do not need epistles, after all.

Kaoru looked at him with suppressed eagerness, obviously hoping he would open and read it immediately and ease her curiosity. Kenshin turned from her with the routine expert calm deception, but was a little unsettled as his eyes immediately met Sano’s. No curiosity there, only grimly subdued anger. But Kenshin could do and say nothing before Kaoru. With movements almost stiff he turned again, this time toward the door. “Excuse me.”

Kaoru was clearly more curious than ever now, but would obviously content herself with the report she was sure he would give later. Little did she know — about anything that really mattered. But Sano was not so easily thrown off. Kenshin was barely out of the dojo and starting somewhat aimlessly across the yard, the note clenched tightly, unopened, in one hand, before he felt the boy’s agitated presence behind him.

“Sano…” He came to a slow stop, watching the puff of his breath disperse on the heavy, dusk-darkened air.

“Kenshin,” Sano replied, in much the same tone of uncertainty and concern.

“Sano, I have not forgotten what you said last week.” Kenshin found suddenly that he could not bear to face his friend; there was something significant about this exchange, and he feared… he did not know what, exactly, he feared. “I appreciated it.” Now he did not know what, exactly, he was saying. “Thank you for being such a good friend to me.”

Seeming to relax slightly, as if he’d been expecting something else that he would have liked less, Sano replied quietly, “I meant it. You do whatever you need to do to be happy. It’s your turn.” He sounded sad, and Kenshin wondered, again, if perhaps Sano comprehended things better than Kenshin did at this point. It wouldn’t surprise him.

“Thank you.” Still without looking back, Kenshin walked slowly into the shadowy woods to read.

It was very dim by the pool, and as night approached the air was growing frigid. Almost without thought on the location Kenshin seated himself at the water’s edge, in a spot that was so familiar and yet in this greyness, this chill, seemed as alien as the paper in his hand. After not too long, the pond would probably freeze over, but it could scarcely make him feel any colder.

He opened the note.

There was no greeting, nor was there a signature, but for these there was no need. The words on the paper were simply, “I’m sorry,” but, meeting the infallible standard, there was more to it than that. So much more.

Kenshin stared at it until he could no longer see it, wondering at the effect of one man’s impatience on minds and lives and fates, wondering at the clement emotions that would name selfish cruelty ‘impatience.’ As the stars, painfully clear, sparked into life in the sky, he looked out over the water at their reflection and recalled that the last time he had done so, he had not been alone. It was a hated memory, but he wished it were not. He realized after a moment that he had torn the note to shreds with numb, absent, vengeful hands.

He did not know how long he sat motionless among the cattails in the moonless dark, thinking about a thousand things that might have been and wondering where the true helplessness lay… was it in the pain, in the desire, or in the belief that things had happened the only way they could have? Perhaps he’d always been helpless, and happiness would therefore always be just beyond his grasp.

He counted the times he’d acted on someone else’s will. He counted the times he’d allowed himself to feel one way or another just because it was easier. He counted the times he’d said ‘yes’ when he meant ‘no.’

He counted the times he’d waited for happiness to blow into his hands, a statue trying to catch flower-petals in a high wind.

You should be happy, Kenshin.

I’m sorry.

He stood up. In the midst of all that he did not and could not know, one thing he understood well was that while some scars never healed, others at times did so unexpectedly. Perhaps if he could counter impatience with patience, he would learn which type of wound this was, and discover what he should do next; if it had healed, if the clemency remained…

It was possible that patience was helplessness, another name for passivity or cowardice, but although right now he felt he couldn’t comprehend any of it, he believed he could take that chance.

He stepped to the edge of the bank and reached out his hand. Stiff with cold and unwilling to unclench, it took some effort to let go, but once he opened it, his heart seemed lightened somehow as the bits of paper fluttered silently toward the still, black, star-flecked water. I’m sorry, they said, even long after they’d disappeared. I’m sorry.

So am I, Kenshin replied, and turned away into the darkness in the opposite direction of the dojo.

Follow-up

The case Saitou had been sent here to solve, though engrossing and distracting, had been soon closed, and after that had come the usual small-time nonsense he could deal with in his sleep. It was almost as if destiny had arranged the transfer specifically to give him time and opportunity to think about everything he’d been consistently pushing to the back of his mind for the last few months.

He had never begged anyone for anything in his life, least of all forgiveness. But if he’d had Himura Kenshin in front of him, he would have done it.

This Sapporo office was no different from any other office he’d ever inhabited, and his desk here was just as neat as any other he’d ever used. Paperwork and written evidence organized in easily-accessible stacks seemed to build a wall around him as he sat, protecting him from the stupidity of his subordinates, the prying of other investigators, and the meaningless appeals of the masses. It also boxed him in like a prison, keeping him and his thoughts in a tightly-enclosed space, forcing him for long hours on end to look at himself and what he’d done.

It hadn’t been necessary. He’d never considered it necessary. That had merely been his excuse, and that only at the beginning. He’d just… wanted him… so much and so unexpectedly that he’d jumped on the justification “I’m doing this to prove a point” without admitting that there were ways of proving that point, other means to that end, that were infinitely more worthy of him.

And why? Why had he given in to his desire so easily, and in a manner so heinous? The desire itself, which, though unprecedented, was perfectly natural, wasn’t the source of his shame; rather, it was the laziness that marked taking as easier than being given, and the cowardice that lauded it as a much surer thing.

He was filling out a report by rote as he entertained these thoughts — which had also become well-trodden territory, though without the paperwork’s subsequent potential for being almost completely ignored. But now as he looked down, he couldn’t help noting the coincidence of just having written “diligence” (in reference to a slightly less-than-incompetent subordinate) and used one of the same kanji he would to write “lazy.”

Since when had he ever been lazy or cowardly? It was almost impossible to believe, and looking back he did not know himself. But there it was: the possibility of rejection — the probability, more accurately — had led him not even to make the attempt. Too impatient to wait for a better moment to offer, too self-centered to look beyond his own desires — but in the end, he felt, it all came back to laziness and cowardice. He lazy. He a coward. He, Saitou Hajime. It was what he told himself on a daily, perhaps hourly basis, but it was still a struggle just to see that perspective, let alone believe.

The second stage of his crime, at least, made sense, though it did him just as little credit. Pride and an accompanying self-deception had upheld what laziness and cowardice had instigated. He’d pretended he still thought he was adhering to his “point,” he’d pretended it was the only way to keep Himura in line. He’d pretended, now that he thought about it, that Himura wanted it as much as he did but was too weak to admit it — that Saitou was the only thing between the two of them and the tragic loss of a good thing.

A good thing…!

At times like this, he often found his hand moving seemingly of its own volition to the breast pocket of his jacket and stilling when it found nothing there. He didn’t smoke anymore, which was more a form of self-punishment than any consideration of health. Now, fist clenched against his breast as if to mark the beating of his faithless heart, he sat still as the dark reflections marched inevitably onward.

The awareness of his own infamy had been all along growing steadily and subtly, while he played games with Himura — sometimes verbal, sometimes otherwise — in which he could refer to their unfortunate situation carelessly, with levity even. Had he convinced himself that Himura’s half of those word-games were in that same facetious spirit? Himura was also not the type to beg for things, and Saitou should have known that. Had known that. But he simply had not been able to admit, even to himself, that he’d done wrong, had stubbornly persisted in that wrong even when the self-loathing had risen to just beneath his skin, determined to prove himself right.

And even now he could not admit he’d been entirely at fault. He couldn’t suppress the belief that there had been something… he couldn’t write off as self-delusion the signs that Himura had given of wishing, not that it would cease, but that it could be different. Yet since that played straight into the frame of mind that had kept the thing going for so long, Saitou pushed it away with all the force of logic he could muster.

With a deep breath, he took up his pen again, compelling himself to finish the performance assessment he was writing. After that there was the recent robbery case review to look over before he submitted it.

He had never been a compassionate man, but he was not immune to the sensation. And as the knowledge of the true nature of his behavior had come closer and closer to the surface, and as he had become more and more deeply attached to his victim (god, it was hard even now to think of him that way), that little-used sensibility of consideration for the feelings of others, that awareness of and response to the suffering of another person — not of Himura’s physical status or usefulness or even the mental distinction between Kenshin and Battousai — had come into greater prominence.

It was a new take on an old exercise — putting himself in someone else’s place, now not to predict their next move or use their mental or emotional state against them, but simply to try to feel what they were feeling, to understand their point of view. And the reactions that should have been fundamentally obvious suddenly took on new dimensions and hit home: the shame, the anger, the helplessness, the despair….

Saitou thought it was safe to say that Himura was stronger than he was.

His one consolation was that he had managed to give it up at last. When it had finally gotten through to him that clinging to this behavior was doing more than simply retaining for himself a pleasure he ought to have earned rather than stolen, that he was, in fact, continually wounding the one person he’d ever understood to that extent, the one person that had ever moved him to that level of pure compassion, the one person he’d ever…

No, he didn’t dare use that word. He wasn’t worthy of it.

But at least he’d given it up.

Some consolation.

How he got through each day with thoughts like these, with the awareness of what he’d done and what he was bombarding him, he didn’t know. It never stopped. Investigations and reports and the mundanities of everyday life and sometimes even the awareness of his surroundings all vanished behind it; it was before him and around him and atop him, a crushing weight he would not have felt it appropriate to shrug off even if he could have.

There was a persistent voice in his head telling him that seppuku was his only honorable option at this point.

To this a louder (for now) mental voice replied impatiently that he was no longer in the Shinsengumi. His work was important; it would be stupid to leave the world while he could still do so much good. Moreover, it would be selfish.

And yet, wondered the first voice, how could he continue to give himself more quarter than he gave his enemies?

Aku Soku Zan. What happened to it?

An unexpected voice pointed out that even an honorable suicide could hardly be a decent apology to a man that had chosen life as atonement for his sins.

Another voice merely laughed bitterly at the irony of Saitou Hajime committing seppuku over the Hitokiri Battousai.

He didn’t know which of these voices was right — if any — but he was fairly certain atonement didn’t, couldn’t enter into his considerations. He would do anything, anything, if he thought there was anything to be done. But there wasn’t. He could not atone for his crimes… and, as such, seppuku seemed a meaningless gesture. So for the moment, whatever was or wasn’t right, he was going with the option that had him getting on with his work.

If he’d had this attitude-altering experience as a younger man, lives might have been saved.

Not that he called this much of a life… hating himself, regretting the last year’s worth of choices, and having decided to live only for now, only for his work, with no anticipation of future happiness…

Like ears listening so hard for a summons that they fabricated the sound over and over and over long before it came, he was constantly under the impression that he sensed Himura’s presence nearby when he didn’t and never would again. It was trivial and little more than irritating, but it was just one more part of his endless punishment: a falsification of sense that would never let him forget, never allow him to let go.

And yet today… There was movement in his office, but he had no desire to look up and greet whoever was intruding on his dubious peace — and not even so much because his subordinates were all so incompetent as because he couldn’t bear having the illusion shattered again, having his deceptive senses corrected about the identity of his visitor. The robbery case review couldn’t really hold his attention, but it was better than looking up.

“Sir?” He knew he’d become more irritable and inscrutable to the general police force than ever before, but even that couldn’t account for the hesitance and confusion in the voice that hailed him now. Vaguely curious, he finally looked up. He rarely remembered their names anymore; it was the man with the receding hairline and the overbite. But now Saitou barely took in even these identifying details as his eyes were dragged to and locked on the man’s open hand.

For in the latter lay a large, perfect blood-red anemone to which the entire world seemed suddenly to have narrowed in an abrupt, heart-stopping constriction.

“Where did you get that?” His voice sounded choked and distant.

“Someone sent me to give it to you with a message.”

“What message?” It was almost a whisper now, since he had no breath left in him and couldn’t seem to draw any. His lungs, like the rest of him, were paralyzed.

“He told me to tell you, ‘It’s your turn,’ sir.”

A very long silence followed.

He knew down to the very last detail what that meant. It wasn’t a possibility he’d ever considered as part of his willingness to “do anything,” probably because even from Himura he hadn’t expected this degree of clemency. For some time he sat rigidly still and silent, while the other man fidgeted and looked confused.

The naysayers were those thoughts and emotions that couldn’t agree on a better solution, and in favor was the one emotion for which he’d never blamed himself — all equally incoherent. But Saitou wasn’t really engaged in any legitimate decision-making process during this time, consequent upon his faculties being in some kind of severe shock. So it was perhaps fortunate that in the end it wasn’t really much of a choice.

He found himself standing, with little to no recollection of having willed himself to do so.

He found himself setting aside his work as if it had never existed.

He found himself reaching out, taking the anemone in a hand that almost didn’t seem to be his own, though the coolness and texture of the flower was more precisely apparent to him than it had ever been before.

He found himself with no clear idea of what the future held, only of what he must and would do.

“Where is he?” he asked.



<<Part 6

For some author’s notes on this story, see this Productivity Log. I can’t decide what to rate it, so it gets a .

As the Years Go Up in Smoke

As the Years Go Up in Smoke

As the Years Go Up in Smoke

“No, you won’t see him hurt. Because I won’t allow it. No one is ever going to hurt him again.”

Saitou could never have predicted the devastating results of trying to fill the gap in Sano’s memory… of bringing to light a secret involving Shishio and Sano’s desperate fear of smoke, a horror that threatens to tear them apart forever.

As the Years Go Up in Smoke

Part 1

Slow footsteps climbed the hill toward a row of houses neat to the point of fussiness, plodded toward their destination beneath a heart heavy with memories and emotions. Kenshin’s pace grew more and more sluggish with every passing moment until it seemed he would never reach the one he sought, never arrive where he wanted to be — an interesting physical representation of an ongoing spiritual condition. Though the weather was fine, the dawning day seemed harsh.

He raised his eyes, straight into the sun that seemed to hover just at the top of the hill, partially blinding him and almost totally obscuring the tall young man that stood looking down at him, motionless, from the side of the street just past the walk leading from one of those fine, distasteful little houses.

“And let me guess what you want,” Saitou said, sounding amused.

“Stay away from him,” Kenshin commanded, the dark tone in his voice seeping into his demeanor and causing him to grip the hilt of his sword overtightly.

“Sanosuke is hardly your son, Himura.”

“But he is my friend. I will not allow you to make him your mistress.”

Saitou raised a casual eyebrow. “To have a mistress, one must first have more than a simple business relationship with one’s wife.”

“Stay away from him,” Kenshin reiterated, shifting. His eyes had gradually narrowed and begun to gleam.

“So this is all it takes to push you to the other side? I should have thought of this before; it would have been a good deal less trouble to molest the Kamiya woman instead of staging that ridiculous fight.”

Kenshin’s fist whitened on his hilt, his entire body stiffening. “You bastard…”

“That was a joke,” replied Saitou evenly. “I am not, as you seem to think, a rapist or a playboy. I simply find it amusing that the very thought of my touching your pretty friend makes you so angry.”

Kenshin struggled for calm, recognizing that Saitou had, in fact, been joking about molesting Kaoru and that his ire wouldn’t get him anywhere. “I will not see him hurt by you,” he said at last. “He has not been the same since we came back; I don’t know what is wrong, but I will not see him hurt again.”

Saitou’s brows twitched downward, and for the first time since Kenshin’s appearance here, he seemed to be taking the conversation seriously. In a quiet, level tone he answered, “No, you won’t see him hurt. Because I won’t allow it. No one is ever going to hurt him again.” After a moment his customary mocking expression returned and he added, “But that’s probably what’s been bothering you all along — the idea of him being with someone who can actually protect him, instead of just talking about protecting him. Poor, useless Battousai.”

Kenshin started forward a few steps, and inches of his sword showed above the sheath’s end before he managed to stop himself.

“Oh, are you going to draw on me now? One would almost think you had some interest in him yourself.” With a disdainful sound Saitou turned and started to walk away.

Battousai’s voice went utterly flat. “Stay away from him, or I’ll kill you.”

Saitou half turned, giving a short laugh. “Good boy,” he said.

Kenshin shook his head as he reached the top of the hill and faced his friend. Forcing a smile he said, “Good morning, Sano!”

Appearing mildly surprised, “What are you doing here?” Sano wondered.

Kenshin shrugged. “I came to see you.”

“You never came to see me here before.” With more or less friendly suspicion Sano looked down at Kenshin, reaching an idle hand inside his gi to scratch the faint pink scar across his stomach and chest. At this movement, Kenshin glanced aside, biting his lip. Abruptly every trace of friendliness dissipated as Sano, his hand clenching into a fist and his face contorting into a glare, protested at a growl, “Dammit, Kenshin, get over it! I’ve fucking forgiven you already, all right?!”

Kenshin laughed lightly, falsely, and turned briefly to regard the houses behind the younger man. “You are going out?”

Sano’s scowl flattened into an expression less angry and more irritated. “Yeah, I’m going out. Did you come to chaperone me around town; is that the idea?”

Kenshin started back down the hill again, saying nothing for several moments, trusting Sano would follow. As Sano did so, joining him a few paces later, Kenshin finally answered. “Saitou sent me a note. He asked me to find you and come to the station.”

Sano brightened visibly, despite doing his best not to show it. “Did he say why?”

“He wants to ask us some questions relating to a new case,” replied Kenshin shortly.

Where Sano couldn’t hide his grin, Kenshin was looking stiffly forward. Observing the firm set of his friend’s jaw, Sano began to get annoyed again. “You know, Kenshin, I’ve forgiven you for this–” he gestured at the mark on his stomach– “but not for being such a prick. If you don’t get over this, I swear I’m gonna…” He clenched a fist, but couldn’t think of what, exactly, he was gonna do.

Kenshin looked over at him with a wan smile. “I am truly sorry,” he said, “but I don’t know if I can ever accept this. I know he has been keeping you from coming to see us.”

Sano flushed. “That’s not true! He’s never said a thing! I’ve been doing police stuff with him, and then I helped Tokio-san move houses, and… and… I’ve spent a lot of time just with him, and…”

“Sano, there is no need to make excuses.”

Sano subsided, seeing he wasn’t going to be believed no matter what he said.

“He is going to hurt you, Sano.”

“I’m sorry you think so, Kenshin.”

Saitou turned the paper over and over in his hand. He wasn’t usually given to fidgeting like that, but, despite the somewhat serious nature of the message and the difficulty he was having with his new case, his mind had been transported elsewhere almost against his will: he too was remembering a conversation between himself and a certain former assassin regarding Sagara Sanosuke, and he was not reliving it with pleasure. Who would ever have thought Himura could make himself so obnoxious at this point, in the Meiji era?

The words on the paper rotated again and again, and as Chou anxiously watched the other man he tried to read them. …know who you really are… …going to burn down… …face me man-to-man… …7:00

“Uh, boss…” Based on precedent, Chou feared Saitou would snap at him if he was too annoying about this, but he felt he needed to know. “Any orders?”

Shaking his head free of memories for the moment, Saitou looked over at him. “Yes. Five men — preferably some with brains — down to wait by that inn near the docks at 6:30. Have this idiot brought in.”

“You’re not going to accept his challenge?”

“The war is over.” Saitou’s narrowed eyes rolled. “I have more important things to do than rehash its details with some chaos-craving ex-patriot.”

Chou nodded and stepped out of the office to issue the command.

Saitou took a long drag from the cigarette in his hand, setting the note aside and regarding once again the list in front of him. Somehow he just couldn’t keep his mind focused on the names and accompanying details. Normally he wasn’t this easily distracted, but sending that message to Himura had started him remembering things.

Saitou gestured to the fallen Battousai. “If you’ll carry him, Shinomori,” he requested, struggling to keep his voice from shaking. It wasn’t that his wounds were overwhelming, but they nearly became so when added to the sight of… of… “I’ll bring the boy.” And he bent over him.

The tacky outfit was white no longer, for where it was not burned entirely through, blood stained it nearly in its entirety. Even unconscious, Sano cradled one fist in his other hand, and his face was twisted into an expression Saitou had never thought to see there: a mixture of disillusionment, terror, and rage. What it meant he did not know, for Sano had been unconscious when he’d entered.

He hadn’t been able to help himself from immediately seeking out that form as he’d burst through the door. If he had, perhaps his attempt on Shishio’s life would have been successful. Certainly the sight had made him attack with more anger than he’d intended, which might have blinded him to the obvious… but he hadn’t been able to restrain himself. So helpless, lying there wounded…! Saitou had felt compelled to exact vengeance. No one could hurt Sagara Sanosuke when he was around and get away with it.

That had been, of course, the moment he realized he was in love.

Now, as he knelt and slid his arms under the unconscious form, he felt like shedding tears into the spreading blood. Why didn’t Sano wake up and say something stupid to reassure him? But he mustn’t let his weakness show — Shinomori was still a potential enemy, after all — so he stood and turned. He worried a bit at the lightness of his burden, but only pulled the young man closer to himself and headed for the stairs and the exit.

“Oi, Saitou!”

He couldn’t feel morose when just having been accosted by that beloved voice. Looking up, he automatically stubbed out his cigarette into the nearly full ash tray at his side and rose. Completely ignoring Himura, who was staring kodachi at him, he met his lover in the middle of the room and kissed him gently on the forehead. It would have been nice to tease Battousai by showing him one of their more vigorous and involved kisses, but Sano wouldn’t let Saitou’s mouth anywhere near his when he’d just been smoking.

Saitou got down to business. “In Shishio’s fortress, there was at least an hour’s time during which I was not in your presence. I need to know anything Shishio or any of his servants might have said to either of you during that time.”

Sano’s brows lowered, almost quaveringly Saitou thought, and instead of answering he strode to the window and threw it open. “It smells like smoke in here,” he said, waving a hand in front of his face. “I’ll let Kenshin go first.” And with that he made for the door.

Inwardly Saitou sighed. Leaving me alone with your aggravating friend, Sano? I’ll get you for that later. But, “All right,” was all he said aloud. He knew Sano wouldn’t stay in the room until the smoke smell was gone anyway, and there was no use arguing.

As the door shut behind Sano, Saitou and Kenshin stood still for a long moment, looking at one another, each watching a memory in the other’s eyes.

“Saitou.”

“Himura?”

“Turn around.”

“It must be time for our long-anticipated battle.”

“I told you to stay away from Sano.” Kenshin’s sakabatou gleamed in the light of the rising sun.

“And I as good as told you I think you’re a fool, and am not likely to do anything you say.”

“Draw.”

Saitou turned to face him fully, eyes gleaming. “I’ll consider this a continuation of our battle in the Kamiya dojo,” he said softly. “So if you want to die, say that again.”

Kenshin did not falter or hesitate. “Draw.”

“Very well.”

Saitou did not underestimate his opponent. Although he was confident in his own superiority, he knew Kenshin had during his time in Kyoto acquired at least two new moves Saitou had seen only once. So he watched him as closely as anyone he’d ever fought. Although he’d never had anything personal against Kenshin, he’d always wanted to finish this fight — and the fact that Kenshin was trying to take Sano away from him made it that much easier.

They were a whirl of motion too fast for the eye of any but another seasoned swordsman to follow. Although they exchanged no words, their mutual intents were evident in each blow that was struck, and Saitou could feel Kenshin growing more and more wild as the moments passed. Battousai was beginning to surface; was it because of the intensity of the fight, or the intensity of his negative feelings toward the relationship he was trying to destroy?

But the outcome of the battle was nothing either of them had expected. Really, Saitou should have insisted they fight in a different spot; doing this outside his house was just stupid. In some ways, that made it his fault, didn’t it?

“What the fuck are you guys doing?”

“Stay back, Sano,” the two combatants commanded at once.

“If you’re doing this because of me, I’ll never talk to either of you again!” Sano yelled, running forward.

Saitou would have believed Himura more on top of things. He still had two steps in which he could stop himself; certainly for someone of his skill level, that was enough. Saitou halted his own charge, mouthing Sano’s name in concern, as Battousai took step one. Time slowed. Step two, the unexpected left. Saitou couldn’t move fast enough. The sword came free of the sheath.

Hiten Mitsurugiryuu Amakakeru Ryuu no Hirameki. Straight into Sano’s chest.

“I hate you,” Saitou murmured.

Kenshin looked at the floor. “About Shishio,” he said, making no defense.

Saitou sighed and returned to his desk. He hadn’t had anything personal against Kenshin, up until that day. Now he couldn’t stand the sight of him, of this man that had allowed himself to hurt Saitou’s beloved. He’d truly believed Battousai’s skills were greater than that; he’d obviously been wrong. “Well?” he questioned.

“With Shinomori Aoshi, I spoke of the Oniwabanshuu. Seta Soujirou informed us that the rest of the Juppongatana had failed in their attack on the Aoiya, after which we discussed the Shukuchi and Shishio’s theories on life and death. He also mentioned something Senkaku had said to him about me.”

This was going nowhere. “And with Shishio?”

“With Shishio…” Kenshin’s face had hardened as he thought back to that battle. “Shishio ranted about the state of the nation and his inhuman philosophies about the survival of the fittest.”

“Not so bad a philosophy,” Saitou murmured. Then more loudly he asked, “But no one said anything specific to you about Shishio’s organization or connections?”

Kenshin searched his memory for a moment. “No.”

Really, Saitou should be grateful that his enemy was taking the trouble to try to help him out like this, but all he could feel for the man in front of him was loathing. Kenshin had hurt Sano, and Saitou could never forgive him. He nodded and stood. “Thank you,” he forced himself to say.

“May I ask what this is about?”

“The Rengoku,” Saitou replied shortly.

“You are trying to find out who sold it to him.”

Again Saitou nodded. “Send Sano in on your way out.”

Kenshin’s fists clenched, but with apparent effort he said nothing as he turned and opened the door.

Presently Sano appeared. It was a moment similar to the one Saitou had shared with Himura as for long seconds they looked into each other’s eyes and recalled a memory.

“So what’s a big, important policeman-government-spy-person doing out here in the middle of the night?” Sano’s eyes sparkled with starlight and the effects of sake as he spoke.

“Can’t big, important policeman-government-spy-people take walks too?” Saitou asked softly, wanting nothing more than to stare into those eyes for the rest of his life.

“Maybe, but it sure seems strange how much I’ve run into this particular one lately.”

Now was as good a time as any, Saitou decided, and taking a step closer he placed a gloved hand on the boy’s shoulder. “You’re not very quick, are you?”

Sano stood frozen, looking up at the officer’s face as it drew nearer. “I just didn’t want to get my hopes up,” he replied, and it was almost a whisper.

“You can get whatever you want up now,” Saitou murmured as he leaned in toward Sano’s lips.

“That’s a little better,” Sano remarked as he stepped inside, closing the door behind him and sniffing the air. “Why are you smiling like that?”

“Because Himura’s gone and you’re here,” Saitou replied, swiftly circling the desk and pushing Sano up against the door. He rained kisses on the young man’s neck and chest for a few moments, then pressed his mouth against Sano’s.

But Sano disentangled himself, coughing, and stepped away. “You still taste like smoke,” he protested.

Contenting himself with embracing his lover from behind and pulling him close, Saitou said, “I have questions to ask you anyway.”

“Why?” Saitou was startled by the defensiveness that suddenly colored Sano’s tone and continued into his next statement. “You never asked me about it before. Why would you suddenly think I talked to Shishio more than anyone else?”

“I don’t.” More than a bit surprised, Saitou tried to calm his ruffled sweetheart. “But if he did say anything to you, I need to know.”

Sano squirmed, turning in Saitou’s arms and burying his face in the blue cloth covering the officer’s shoulder. “The truth is,” he said softly, “I don’t remember.”

Saitou breathed in the scent close beneath his face and repeated at the same volume, “‘…don’t remember?'”

“Mm,” Sano nodded, burrowing further into the embrace and Saitou’s uniform. “We walked across that walkway, and through some big doors, onto that platform, and then…” Suddenly he was clutching at Saitou tightly, and his words were a choked whisper: “Smoke… just… smoke…”

Saitou didn’t know what this meant. He ran a hand through Sano’s hair, as if to assure him he didn’t need to move or do anything but stand there in his lover’s arms, but couldn’t come up with anything to say aloud.

“Smoke,” Sano continued. “I swear it was choking me… I was falling through it…” His voice was distinctly broken now, approaching what sounded alarmingly like sobbing. Saitou’s heart beat rapidly in worried sympathy. “It tasted so awful… I couldn’t even think straight. Sometimes it was solid, sometimes it was like air, but it was always inside me and I couldn’t breathe… God, I don’t want to think about it!”

After several deep breaths, reminders that the air was clear here and now, Sano began to get hold of himself. “I’ve been… I’ve been filled in on everything that happened, basically, but I can’t remember any of it. I don’t remember anything until when I woke up at the Aoiya. Except the smoke. Sorry.”

Saitou struggled to keep his voice calm, to hide how much this had shaken him. Why hadn’t he ever asked before? This couldn’t be healthy..! “All right, then,” he managed. “Don’t worry about it.”

They stood silently for some time, quiet and comfortable but troubled in mind. So that’s why you hate smoke so much, Saitou was reflecting. But what happened to you?

I don’t want to remember, Sano was thinking at the same time. I just want to go on like this.

I’ll find out, Saitou vowed mentally. I’ll fix this, I swear.

Saitou’s here, Sano reminded himself. Whatever happened back then, I’m sure it’s nothing as long as I have him with me.

Hugging Sano tighter, slowly piecing things together, Saitou realized what he should probably do. “Come back later, around six thirty,” he said softly. “We’ll take a walk.”

Sano finally raised his head with a smile, glad to leave behind the disturbing topic. “All right,” he said. “Don’t smoke anymore, you hear me?”

Saitou kissed his cheek. “Of course not.”



Part 2>>

Part 2

Soft dawn, like a lover itself, crept through the trees with the sound of birdsong, touching sleeping faces and gradually awakening one of the two men. For a fraction of a second Saitou was disoriented — it had been quite some time since he’d slept outside, and why was he so utterly content? — but it was just as brief a time before he felt a stirring in his arms and heard a little protesting noise at his movement, and remembered everything.

He settled back down against the roots they’d made a bed that should have been far less comfortable, and rearranged Sano’s gi over them. As he laid his cheek against the spiky hair, feeling warm breath on the bare skin of his chest, he smiled. Yes, this was a stupid place to be, since anyone might come walking through this little wood at any time — it wasn’t as if they’d left civilization — but at least they’d both put their pants back on. Still he couldn’t bring himself to waken Sanosuke (who was likely to be hungover anyway) and force him to walk home. Not just yet.

‘Home?’ Saitou chided himself. One tumble and he was already thinking cohabitation? He wasn’t even sure how Sano would react to waking up in his embrace; lucid as he’d seemed, he had been rather drunk last night. He’d certainly enjoyed himself, but whether or not anything more would develop between them remained to be seen.

And then there was the little matter of Himura, who, less oblivious than his friend, just two days ago had tried to warn Saitou off. It would be amusing to make Battousai angry like this, but was Sano man enough to disobey the Kenshingumi’s perfect leader?

These reflections were interrupted as Sano stirred again, stretching his legs with a humming yawn. Giving a hot sigh, he lifted his face to meet Saitou’s expectant gaze. His eyes flashed. “Good morning,” he said with a grin.

As anticipated and even planned for, it was a quarter of seven by the time Sano arrived back at the station, whistling and nonchalant. “Yo,” he said as he stepped through Saitou’s office door, offering no apology for his tardiness.

Saitou tapped his stack of papers to straighten it before tucking it into a drawer. Standing, he retrieved his sheathed sword from where it stood against the desk and strapped it on as he leisurely approached his lover. “You’re late,” he said, taking Sano in his arms.

Sano shrugged and pushed his mouth close to the older man’s, inhaling. “Better,” he whispered as the distance between them closed. He happened to know Saitou bought imported English mint candies just for him.

They stood thus for some time, locked in a tight embrace and complicated kiss, indifferent to the bustle of evening police business outside the half-open door.

“You’ll never cure me of being late all the time,” Sano said playfully once they were done, “when that’s what you always do when I get here.”

“Ahou ga,” Saitou replied in the same tone, “did you ever think how I might greet you if you were on time?”

Sano reached down and squeezed one of Saitou’s buttocks. “That is a nice thought,” he admitted. “Maybe I’ll try it some time.”

Saitou released him and headed for the door. “And then it will immediately start to snow.”

“Probably!” Sano followed. “So, where are we going?”

Saitou shrugged. “Does it matter?”

“No.”

They made their way through the station, Saitou nodding in response to the goodnights his deferential and often very intimidated co-workers rarely neglected. They were nearly out the front door when Chou came bounding up. “Hey, tori-atama,” he said. “Hey, boss. Leaving so early?”

Saitou nodded. “I have a lead to follow up. How’s that matter we discussed earlier?”

Chou thought for a moment before realizing which matter Saitou meant. “I did just what you said. And I’m almost done going through all the files I have on the other thing. I may have found something, but I’ll have to look into it some more.”

“Good. We’ll discuss it in the morning, then.”

Chou waggled an eyebrow. “You two have fun!”

“More than you will,” Sano replied with a lopsided grin.

“Sure, sure.” And Chou waved a hand at them as he turned and went back to his work.

As they descended the steps outside, Sano’s grin had taken on a scowling aspect. “So this isn’t really a ‘walk,’ huh?” he said. “You’re just following up on something?”

“I said that to get him back to work,” Saitou answered, and it was partially true. “My latest assignment is to find out where and from whom Shishio purchased the warship Rengoku. We’ve spent all day poring over the records we have of weapons dealers in and out of Japan, and haven’t turned up anything promising yet. I’m afraid this may take me away from Tokyo for a while.”

“And so you wanted to take a walk with me before you go!” Sano finished, following the statement up with a triumphant sound.

Saitou snorted. “Don’t get too worked up, ahou. We are in public.” Not only that, but I have plans for you this evening.

As they walked slowly in the direction of the docks, Sano regaling him with an amusing account of his day, Saitou looked at the pocket-watch the young man had given him for their first anniversary: five minutes after seven. He quickened his pace imperceptibly.

He’d told Chou to have the officers do whatever was necessary to prevent civilians coming to harm, but not to intervene with any arson attempts and not to engage the criminal. Then he’d purposely chosen a route through taller buildings so that, if the inn should be on fire when they arrived, it wouldn’t be evident until they were very close. He had to time this correctly, and he prayed his stupid challenger — what was the guy’s name again? — would not retreat prematurely.

Abruptly Sano stopped walking, almost with a jerk. “Do you smell smoke?”

Saitou did, but didn’t answer verbally. Instead, he ran forward around the last corner, with Sano trailing reluctantly behind, to see the inn already ablaze. He hoped they were insured.

“Holy shit,” Sano muttered, blanching what appeared an even paler shade than it was in the flickering yellow light. He seemed rooted in place, for, though Saitou took several steps forward, Sano did not move.

“There you are,” came a bitter voice from off to their left. Sano jumped, startled, but seemed glad to have an excuse to look away from the burning building. “You insult me by arriving so late.”

And here was the moron that thought he had to go out with a bang by challenging the great former Shinsen Saitou Hajime to a duel more than a decade after the fact and threatening arson if his enemy didn’t show. Saitou was not impressed. “Ah, yes,” he said, looking the man up and down. “I believe you were your group’s only survivor of a Shinsengumi raid — because you ran away, if I recall correctly… and set the building on fire to cover your escape.”

“I didn’t escape,” the man corrected him. “Those were my instructions in case the Shinsengumi appeared. How I wanted to fight you! But I’ll destroy you now as I couldn’t then!”

Saitou shook his head, working to don an amused expression that might or might not have been natural under other circumstances. “You may certainly try, but combat is as pointless against me as is your twelve-year-old grudge.”

“Fujita-san!” called an officer at the same time. “We need all the help we can get over here!”

He was barely watching as his pseudo-enemy attacked him, for nearly all his attention was focused on Sano — on Sano, whose horrified gaze had drifted back to the roaring flames. He did take care, however, not to throw off the deranged arsonist’s first blow too lightly; playing this correctly was important.

“Sir?” came the appeal once again, sounding worried.

“I’ll join you when I’ve finished with this fool,” he called back.

Sano’s face swiveled, once again glad of a reason to look away but concerned at the slightly strained tone Saitou had purposely used. “You gonna be all right?”

“Of course I am,” Saitou snapped, sidestepping a thrust with less ease than he would have had he not wanted it to appear a close call. “Go help them!”

He couldn’t tell for certain in this light, but he thought Sano trembled a little. “They’ve got it under control…” the boy faltered.

Opportunely, just at that moment one of the officers repeated his request for aid.

“Ahou, go help them! There are people in that building!”

“Fucking shit,” Sano growled, turning again toward the glow. He glanced back at Saitou, then at the building again. His fear and his heroism fought for a moment, but there was no question which would win.

That’s my boy, was Saitou’s fond thought as he watched Sano pelt off determinedly to help. Now let’s see if this does anything for your memory.

It wasn’t that he was afraid Saitou would need help, or that he was afraid to risk his life in a burning building, or that he was afraid he wouldn’t be in time to save someone… he was just afraid. Just fucking afraid. Time was slowing, grinding down, as he ran toward that open door, almost audibly even among the screams of terrified inn patrons and the roar of the fire. The building loomed before him like the gateway to hell — which was what his pounding heart and shaking frame apparently believed it was. Wondering what the fuck was wrong with him, he plunged in.

Smoke! He reeled at the shock of its smell and unbreathability, then crouched in almost a crumpling motion to escape it. Keep it together, he told himself desperately. Getting people out of the upper storeys before they collapsed was the most important thing, right? But the smoke was everywhere! The heat was nearly intolerable, and even the unencumbered air seemed to burn, but this was downright comfortable in contrast with the hellish smoke. Upstairs, Sano! Upstairs! He sprinted into the next room, looking for a staircase — and, thoughtlessly rising into too upright a position under the current circumstances, gulped a mouthful of the rolling blackness that filled the upper part of every space…

…and it was inside him, searing his lungs, ripping him apart, making him scream for mercy as he was slashed across his back and his side and his neck; his clothes were in shreds, he was torn and bleeding, choking on blood and endless smoke…

He stumbled, clutching at his throat as his stinging eyes widened in horrified shock. What was that? What had he just seen, just felt? As he looked around, trying to reorient himself to the task at hand and coughing violently, the taste of smoke raked up from his lungs. But back then, the smoke had surrounded him as flames swept across his vision from the point of a sword…

He never even knew he’d fallen to his knees, in the midst of the fire and the shouting and everything.

Houji was yammering about Shishio’s amazing techniques and power; Yumi was staring, relieved, at her pocket-watch. The sour air seemed to have become viscous, for Kenshin’s fall to the ground lasted approximately forever — a tortuous forever of pulsing rage and misery to the watching Sano. He would kill Shishio for this, tear him apart with his bare hands since it had come to that.

But Shishio was gazing down at Kenshin with a somewhat disappointed look on his face, ignoring Sano just as completely as the other two were. How could they disregard him, as if not only his abilities and determination but also his heart-squeezing despair and anger meant less than nothing? With a hoarse shout Sano threw himself at the bandaged man with all his strength, but was thrown off and away with ridiculous ease; Shishio barely looked in his direction.

Dazed, Sano slid a long, rough path along the ground and finally came to a stop on his back, whence he could not at first move. He heard them speaking as if at a distance, voices fading in and out as he battled unconsciousness:

“Houji, take Yumi inside and get her something to drink; she’s too worked up.”

“But Shishio-sama…”

“Shishio-sama, I’m fine!”

“Take her inside.”

“Yes, Shishio-sama.”

Footsteps, tapping and pattering, passed by and then receded, faded — was he alone? He struggled to open his eyes, but every time he thought he had, all he saw was deep grey mist. He started as another set of feet thundered toward him — Shishio?

“So,” said a loathsome voice, clarifying as Sano’s desperate bids for lucidity gradually took effect, “my dream has become reality, and yours lies dead on the ground not far from you.”

The mist was beginning to acquire other colors and more coherent shapes, and his body was starting to let him know where it was instead of registering only pain. Making a stronger attempt than ever, Sano pushed at the ground and heaved himself up — only to be shoved violently backward again by the sole of a booted foot. He hit the stone so hard he grunted, and almost missed the next statement: “No, Sagara, you’re not getting up just yet. I need some compensation for all the trouble I’ve taken to entertain you people.”

Sano would have liked to ask him what the hell he was talking about, but all the breath burst from his body as Shishio slammed a gauntleted fist into his stomach. Retching and coughing, Sano felt consciousness slipping as everything spun and started to go dark.

But this was not Shishio’s intent. Digging metal-coated fingers into Sano’s scalp, he yanked him back into the sitting position he hadn’t allowed him before. The new and totally different pain of having his hair pulled, as well as the change in altitude, cleared the haze up a bit. Shishio was kneeling beside him with one hand tight in Sano’s locks and the other on his shoulder, an anticipatory look on his bandaged face. Sano forced his tongue to move, trying to speak, to demand to know what was going on and voice his defiance against it, but was instantly silenced as Shishio leaned forward and crushed Sano’s lips with his own.

Taken by surprise by the violent intrusion, Sano was startled into stillness for just a moment. Shishio tasted like ambition and blood, but mostly like smoke. And then he bit down on Sano’s lower lip hard enough to pierce with his teeth, and this was all it took to send adrenaline shocking through Sano’s body and wake him entirely from his stupor. Abruptly pulling back, he yanked his hair free and shrugged off the painful grip on his shoulder, jumping to his feet with a sick feeling in his stomach and that bloody, smoky flavor lingering in his mouth.

“What the fuck are you doing?!” His voice shook more than he had thought it would. He had a sudden feeling he was in deep shit.

“What does it look like I’m doing?” Shishio replied as he stood and drew his sword. He raised the weapon with a sadistic smile. “If you get back on your knees, I’ll let you enjoy it.”

Sano’s eyes were wide as terror and revulsion warred within him. A number of statements he could have made, defiant or disgusted or even supplicating, came to mind, but what he managed to stammer was, “Y-yumi?”

In an expression of genuine kindness abominably contradictory to everything else about him, Shishio’s smile softened. “Yumi is good for some things, but not this, much as she wishes for it.”

Though his fear and repugnance rose to a peak, Sano found they were manageable, at least for the moment. “Never gonna happen, bastard,” he spat, raising his fists.

The corner of Shishio’s mouth twisted up even farther in evil amusement as he raised his sword and took another step forward. “Even when I’ve defeated the Hitokiri Battousai without taking a single wound, you think to contend with me? Fool!”

Sano wasn’t about to let him get the first hit. “Don’t be so fucking cocky!” He charged, hoping to end it all with a single shot. Shishio simply waited for him, caught Sano’s left in his own, and turned his face to the side to accept the right-handed Futae no Kiwami, with his smile still firmly in place.

Sano wondered what the bastard was grinning for when his cheekbone was about to be violently shattered up into his brain, but stopped wondering the next moment as he felt not only the fingers of his left hand being slowly and leisurely crushed but his entire right fist crumbling against his enemy’s face. Staggering backward, he fell to the ground with a rough cry, broken hands clutching at each other excruciatingly but unstoppably in his dismay and shock.

“You shouldn’t talk in your sleep before the sun has even gone down. Now it’s time you learned who has been in control of this drama since the very beginning.”

Suddenly the supreme pain in his hands was coupled with almost unbearable heat all around him as Shishio stepped forward and encircled them in a ring of flames. With a kick he sent Sano sprawling straight into the fire, but Sano barely noticed the burning for the agony of his hands hitting the ground in an instinctive attempt at catching himself.

Almost lazily, Shishio placed a foot heavily on the young man’s back to hold him down, sweeping his sword out on either side of them to keep the fires going. Sano bit his lip to combat the screams that wanted to pour from him, shaking his head to clear the tears from his eyes. He must fight this; he could not be defeated!

But he already was.

Shishio’s sword next found his body, snapping back and forth in a swift pattern of medium-depth cuts that sliced through clothing, sarashi, skin, burning as it tore into him, lighting little fires that were extinguished by the blood gushing out over them. Sano couldn’t restrain his screams any longer, and cried out with all his agony and despair. Above him, Shishio laughed.

What it meant when the foot was removed from his back must be obvious, but Sano could do nothing except lie there moaning, waiting for his fate. Perhaps he would faint… perhaps it was all a dream and he would wake up before that moment, like when he dreamed he was falling but awoke just as he thought he must hit the ground. That was what he kept thinking, hoping, as Shishio’s arm went around his chest and pulled him roughly to his knees. He struggled again, using the last of his strength, as he felt his enemy’s other hand, its gauntlet discarded for increased fineness of movement, probing at one of the new tears in the back of his pants, but the iron grip across his chest was too much for him to fight.

He gave up.

But it was worse than he could ever have imagined.

As if in response to the animal scene, the fires seemed to rise around them and envelope them until all he could see, smell, or taste was smoke, and all he could feel was the sensation of being brutally violated from behind. He was screaming, gasping lungfuls of smoke and clutching despite his ruined hands at the arm encircling his chest. It was pain and dishonor and utter hopelessness all in one, and it was more than he could stand. Even as he prayed with abandon to whatever god might be listening, prayed for death, he felt himself slipping away into a world of smoke — choking, burning, all-encompassing smoke, but at the very least a good deal less painful than where he was now.

Smoke. Everything was smoke, and he was falling into its embrace. He didn’t want it any other way.

Part 3

It hadn’t been five minutes since Sano entered the burning building, but Saitou was suddenly seized by a feverish worry and desire to follow him. With a swift stab he barely gave any thought, he ended the pointless fight, intending to turn before the body could even hit the ground and run after his lover. But in that same instant, before his motion of arm had even ceased, a scream pierced the air in much the same way his sword pierced the man’s ribcage on the left straight through to the other side: a tearing, haunting cry that rose above the guttural shout of his dying enemy and went straight through his own heart — for unmistakably, to his attuned ears, it was Sano. It continued even as he yanked his weapon free and sprinted with rapid pulse toward the inn. Sheathing his sword without even considering its bloody state as he entered, Saitou followed the sound into the second room on the left, and stopped, horrified, in the doorway.

Sano lay curled on the floor amidst flame and debris, cradling one fist in his other hand, his face twisted into an expression Saitou had hoped never to see there again: a mixture of disillusionment, terror, and rage. In the red light of the roaring flames, it almost looked as if he were surrounded once again by a pool of blood, and his clothing was again singed in places and even torn. The nerve-wracking scream continued as Saitou fell to his knees beside him cried out his name. Sano’s eyes were squeezed tightly shut, and the tears oozing from them glistened in the dancing light.

Without another thought but feeling his heart would break if Sano continued to scream a moment longer, Saitou slid his arms under the young man’s shaking form, pulled him to his chest, stood, and ran from the building.

To the wolf’s immense relief, Sano’s desperate noises faded, and he didn’t resist being carried away from this scene of destruction. Saitou wasn’t sure where he was taking him — his house was across town — but knew he had to get him away from the fire and the smoke. The first coherent thought to enter his mind was, What the hell have I done?

He kept running, and didn’t stop until the chaos was far behind them and only his footsteps and their breaths could be heard in the darkness that had fallen over Tokyo. Only in the moment when he heard Sano uncertainly call his name did he slow his pace and come to a halt in the middle of the street. The lamps were not yet lit, and with clouds covering the moon — possibly aided by smoke from the disaster — the road stood in a terrible darkness. Saitou could barely make out Sano’s face as he looked down at him. Only the gleam of what little light there was off those deep eyes, and the trails of tears leading from them, was visible.

He stepped into an alley and knelt, shifting Sano from the somewhat uncomfortable and inconvenient position in which he’d been carrying him and pulling him into a tight embrace. Afraid of agitating him further, Saitou could think of nothing to say, and as Sano didn’t seem to want to do anything but clutch at him convulsively with his face in Saitou’s chest, silence fell. But it was a heavy, roiling silence, like looking from without at a storm cloud and knowing it soon must break in torrents of rain and roaring thunder.

Finally Sano whispered something Saitou did not catch, lifting his head minutely from the cloth that smothered the words. After a moment he repeated himself, and Saitou strained to hear. It sounded like, “I remembered.”

“What did you remember?” Saitou asked quietly.

Sano stared up at him, eyes wide and set jaw trembling slightly, only for a moment before he hid his face again and began to sob. His body shook violently, and as Saitou held him even tighter he nearly shed tears himself at seeing the most important person in his life in so much pain. What had he remembered?

Again Sano was talking into his uniform, and though Saitou couldn’t make out the statement, it sounded horrifyingly broken and miserable. Sano repeated the phrase again and again, the tremors in his body increasing and his grip on Saitou’s arms intensifying until he suddenly raised his head and screamed it out loud: “He raped me!

Saitou’s world spun abruptly, his arms slackened, and he drew in breath so sharply he thought he might fall even from this relatively stable position if there weren’t a wall behind him. Again and again Sano screamed it, though his words were once again somewhat muffled by the blue and black of Saitou’s uniform, and clawed at the officer’s back with frenzied hands.

A pair of bright, hot tears found their way at last from Saitou’s eyes as he sat, dumbstruck and limp, with Sano half on his lap raving like a madman. Shishio… it must have been Shishio… he had…

As if awakening from a trance, Saitou at last put his arms around Sano again. The mixture of feelings in his heart was something he could never express: horror, rage, deepest pity… and also a rising sensation, terrible and inexorable, of guilt. After all, who had wanted Sano to go into that building in the hopes that his memories might return? Whose selfish personal agenda had caused this pathetic scene? Saitou pressed his face into Sano’s hair and tried not to think about it. He found himself whispering apologies to his lover already, though, and Sano didn’t even know. “I’m so sorry… Sano, I’m so sorry…”

It was probably a quarter of an hour before the boy’s fit subsided into lighter weeping. Saitou could only sit still, holding him, crying with him, almost wishing a bolt of lightning would strike just then and end the story painlessly. But he knew lightning didn’t strike for anyone’s will, or he would probably have been dead long ago, and that the initiative was his.

Running his hand gently over the sweaty head, he murmured Sano’s name. “We should go home,” he said.

Sano rose abruptly in a single jerky movement, then stood very still with his arms at his sides. Saitou joined him, and was startled at what he saw in the scant light on those brown eyes: nothing. Sano’s visage was as blank and expressionless as a dead man’s, which seemed even more frightening than the horror it had held not long ago. Wondering if he would be able to get him home at all, Saitou took Sano’s hand and started to walk.

Sano followed obediently, like a young child overtired from a long day. Saitou’s pace was slow, and he kept his gaze on his lover most of the time. Glinting tears still flowed down Sano’s cheeks, issuing from those empty eyes disturbingly in the darkness. It was a long walk back to the house they’d shared for almost two years.

You shouldn’t talk in your sleep before the sun has even gone down… Mockery, and not the fond sort he could tolerate… You think to contend with me? Fool! He was knocked away without a second thought… It’s time you learned who has been in control of this drama since the very beginning… He was so weak! You shouldn’t talk in your sleep… Earlier today he’d believed he governed his own life, believed he was a worthwhile person to have around… good morning, Sano… I came to see you… Now he remembered, and knew the truth, realized exactly how ineffectual, how worthless he was… You think to contend with me? Just trying to take revenge for Kenshin’s seeming death, that was all… Sano, there is no need to make excuses… Fool! He’d made a promise to everyone, just before he threw himself forward at Shishio — and he’d broken it… he was so weak. It’s time you learned… What must Saitou think of him?

Images from then and now flashed past his eyes, that day and this day shuffled together in a sea of smoke; voices echoed through his head in a terrible chaos of past and present, enemies and friends and who knew what else. He rushed along in a torrent of memories that took no rational order and moved faster and faster by the moment, hastening him toward insanity with no chance of rescue.

Houji, take Yumi inside and get her something to drink … I have questions to ask you … she’s too worked up … we’ll take a walk … Walk? They were about home, weren’t they? No, Sagara, you’re not getting up just yet … how is that matter we discussed earlier? Some unexpected pieces were starting to fit into a puzzle he hadn’t known existed… if you get back on your knees, I’ll let you enjoy it … you insult me by arriving so late… It wasn’t something that would normally have occurred to him… I’ve defeated the Hitokiri Battousai without taking a single wound… but right now his mind was working overly fast, putting things together at a frenzied pace… ahou, go help them!

Like a drowning swimmer clutching at a broken piece of debris that was not only unlikely to assist him in getting to shore but would probably hurt him as well, Sano grasped at this thought and struck out. “This is your fucking fault!”

Instinctively, Saitou caught the clenched hand aimed at him, but the blow of Sano’s words struck home. Releasing the red-wrapped wrist, he turned his face away and nodded slowly. “Yes,” he agreed softly. “This is my fault.” And he did nothing to avoid the next strike.

“Why would you do this to me?” Sano’s eyes were squeezed shut, his clenched hands flying wildly, though with little more behind them than blind, despairing rage. “How could you fucking do that?” But as he connected once again with Saitou’s face, he opened his eyes with a start. It felt and looked just like…

Sano crumpled to the ground, cradling the fist he’d just struck with. Saitou touched a hand briefly to what would probably become a dark bruise, and knelt before the younger man. “Come inside,” he murmured. And somehow, Sano found the strength to obey.

Saitou had seen most of this before, in victims of violent or sexual crimes, but in none of his cases had it ever touched him like this. In fact he’d barely ever been affected at all. Perhaps he might have been this torn apart if any of the victims he’d interacted with, in retrospective questioning or by intervening in the crime itself, had ever, as Sano did now, displayed all the symptoms of post-traumatic shock in such swift and violent succession. Usually he caught them during one stage or another, and so, in the long term, pieced together the order of events in the entire process of recovery. Sano seemed to be going through many of the stages at once. Could someone recover like this?

“You need to sleep,” he whispered.

Sano gave a slight nod, but said no word as he walked stiffly into the bedroom. There, he laid himself down on the futon without attempting any change to his attire, assuming the same defensively miserable curled-up position as earlier, hands cradled at his chest. His eyes were blank, staring, almost unblinking; his breathing was very shallow.

Saitou stooped and pulled the blanket over him gently. Although Sano whispered, “Don’t touch me,” he made no move to undo what his lover had done. The officer then settled himself against the wall behind Sano’s back to keep watch.

Whether Sano ever slept or not was a matter of question. Certainly no such rest came near the implacable guardian. Saitou kept his eyes on the bed’s occupant through long minutes that never seemed to turn into hours, while inside he fought a heartache as alien to him as the present situation.

It wasn’t that he’d never seen a loved one suffer before. But not once in his life had he felt so entirely responsible for someone else’s pain and actually cared. He reflected with some bitterness that this was probably how Himura felt every single day, considering he lived to protect people and not infrequently failed. It was an unfamiliar sensation, but one he probably deserved. If he had only thought it through more thoroughly, surely he must have guessed… He’d been an idiot not to realize that only something deeply traumatic could cause Sano to repress his memories like that. Why hadn’t he seen it?

Somewhere in the middle of the night, Sano stirred, breaking Saitou out of a weary downward spiral of thought. The young man sat up abruptly with a shudder, pulling his knees to his face and hugging them, letting the blanket fall around him. After a moment he looked back over his shoulder at Saitou.

The latter could find nothing to say. But Sano spoke for him, in a whisper: “I’m sorry I hit you.”

Saitou could only nod. The blank-sounding apology did nothing to ease his own feelings of guilt, and as Sano dropped his face to his knees in silence, the older man still could not come up with a word.

Sano remained motionless for some time before, his back turned toward Saitou, he finally lay down again. Saitou continued to gaze at him until his eyes were burning from the hard stare and his mind exhausted from an endless refrain of self-accusation and unaccustomed pain. He didn’t realize he had dozed off until he suddenly saw Sano sitting before him, staring into Saitou’s face with the morning light at his back.

Saitou was about to speak, although once again he wasn’t sure what he would have said, but at that moment he met Sano’s gaze, and froze with a quick indrawn breath. It was as if in that instant he saw straight down into the depths of Sano’s soul in a brief, piercing moment of clarity and connection that allowed thought to flow wordlessly between their tired eyes. And he knew Sano had resolved something.

The younger man leaned forward and kissed him very gently on the mouth. Then he sprang backward, pulling Saitou’s sword from its sheath with his momentum. In a swift movement he turned its blade inward toward his abdomen.

Sano’s actions had been fast and unexpected, but Saitou’s reaction bordered on superhuman. He was across the room, had knocked the sword aside, had his arms tightly wrapped around Sano, before he could even form a coherent thought. And it was only once these instinctive movements had been made that he started to shake from a sudden, overwhelming, nauseating feeling of horror at what had just happened.

Sano was struggling against him. “Let me go! What the fuck are you doing, bastard?”

“You don’t have to do that,” Saitou told him desperately. “You can get over this!”

“What would you know?”

“I know you’re strong enough to conquer this!”

Sano was crying again. “Let me go! No, I’m not! Let me go!”

Saitou thought he might be crying too, but he wasn’t sure, for he was concentrating everything, all his strength, on holding Sano — holding Sano, which was all he’d ever wanted to do, all he wanted to do for the rest of his life, if only Sano would allow it. Please…

It took some time, but finally Sano calmed, exhausted from his struggles and continuing to weep pathetically. Saitou brought them both to the floor, but still would not let go.

“Do you want to talk?” he asked at last.

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” came Sano’s muffled, bitter voice from where his face was buried in Saitou’s restrictive arm.

“I just think it might help.”

“You’d love to hear all the details, wouldn’t you, you asshole?” Sano’s head had lifted, and now he growled, “You love to see me in pain, don’t you?”

“Sano…”

“Then why won’t you let me die?” Sano’s voice broke on the last word, and his accusations crumbled once again into sobbing.

“Because you can get through this,” Saitou replied, and was surprised at the composure in his own voice. Even now, the seal over his heart that had never allowed him to tell Sano aloud that he loved him had yet to be broken. Despite how much he ached inside, he could never let any of it out for Sano to see. And that might well cost him his happiness forever.

“You bastard!” Sano shrieked, fighting once again to get out of Saitou’s arms as if his current near-insanity gave him fresh strength. “You might as well have fucking done it yourself!”

This was a new and unexpected blow. “What?”

“Where were you?” Sano seemed to be alternating between rage and hopeless anguish. “Where were you? Why didn’t you save me?”

“Sano…”

“Where were you? You practically raped me yourself… that’s all you care about anyway… you’re probably getting off just holding me like this!”

“Sano…” Why was that all he could say?

Sano made a sudden, extremely strong bid for freedom and managed to break away. Jumping to his feet, he whirled, turning his pain-ridden, tear-stained face on the older man. “It was all your fucking fault!”

This time Saitou couldn’t even say his name. Any way you looked at it, it really was his fault — he’d spent too much time wandering Shishio’s fortress back then, and he’d forced Sano to remember all of this now. It was just like Himura had always said: the only thing he could give Sano was pain, and he should never have come near him.

It was a strange feeling, not knowing what to do. His entire being was consumed with desire to erase Sano’s pain; he would have given anything in the world to be able to, but he simply didn’t know how. And another alien sensation was beginning to grow… so alien that at first he couldn’t even put a name to it… but eventually he recognized it for what it was: fear. Real, spirit-shaking fear. Fear of something he was realizing deep inside but that his conscious mind as yet refused to admit.

I love you, Sano…

Without a word, he stood between Sano and the door, steeling himself for the inevitable.

“What am I, your fucking prisoner?” Sano demanded. “You’re just as bad as he was!”

Saitou could not reply. He wanted to tell himself, as his logical mind knew, that Sano was still in shock and thinking far from rationally, but the wound of those words was too deep to alleviate. So he waited. And eventually, as expected, Sano attacked him. Time slowed as his beloved, the most beautiful man in all existence, the one he’d shared his life with for two years, charged at him with clenched fists and black hatred on his face.

With a lightning-fast blow that hurt them both equally, Saitou knocked him out cold.

Part 4

The hedges were trimmed. The flowerbeds flanking the steps had been weeded. The porch had been swept. When he slid the door open, an enticing smell greeted him from within. He’d been planning a fancy dinner out at the most expensive restaurant in town, but apparently his sweetheart had other ideas.

Sano looked up from the table he was setting as Saitou entered the room, his face breaking into a smile. It was a version of the expression he reserved solely for circumstances like this: entirely open, simply delighted at his lover’s return, and sweeter than he was willing to give to anyone else. It was the kind of smile that made even Saitou want to smile back… and on this rare occasion, he actually did.

“Yo,” Sano said, ceasing his work and approaching. He was dressed in the red kimono and black hakama Saitou had bought for him not long before, and, as expected, the colors were perfect against his golden skin and beneath his brown hair. Pressing his beautiful body against Saitou’s, sliding his arms around Saitou’s torso, Sano drew him into a passionate welcome-home-happy-anniversary kiss.

Saitou hadn’t touched a cigarette for at least thirty-six hours solely for this purpose.

As his mouth was reluctantly released, he stared down at the other, whom he did not loose, with an overwhelming feeling of adoration. Sano met his gaze in amusement, as if curious about the scrutiny; and Saitou began pressing his lips against Sano’s skin here and there, covering his entire face with soft kisses.

“Oi…” Sano murmured, sounding amused but also more than a little turned on by this unexpected treatment. He stayed where he was, making no return gestures, as though he were content to stand in the doorway and be kissed gently by Saitou for the rest of all eternity. “What’s this for?” he asked, his voice husky.

Because I love you, Saitou wanted to reply, but, as always, couldn’t get the words out. So he held Sano close, hoping perhaps something would communicate his feelings. Sano replied by tightening his own arms around Saitou’s back.

And so they embraced each other as if nothing in the world mattered… or as if they knew that in only a few weeks every part of this was going to crumble into agony. But of that condition they, on this holiday, were nearly ignorant. Suffering surely existed, but it was far away and irrelevant. Just then their only thoughts were of each other, of how happy they were.

At last Sano raised his mouth to Saitou’s again, and spoke softly. “I have dinner ready.” His lips brushed against the older man’s with each word, and his sparkling eyes held Saitou’s firmly.

Saitou seemed more eager to taste Sano’s breath than whatever meal was prepared for them, but after one last kiss slowly relinquished his hold.

“Tokio-san sent us some wine again.” Sano grinned as he said this, perhaps remembering last year: it wasn’t often Saitou tasted alcohol, and Sano seemed to be looking forward to seeing its effects again. He seized Saitou’s hand and pulled him to the table.

Clearly Sano had engaged his every culinary power to make that simple food. It was remarkably plain fare, since not only did Saitou prefer it that way but Sano was incapable of cooking anything complex. Unlikely it was, however, that either of them would remember at another time what they’d eaten that night; it was entirely possible that neither of them could have positively identified it while they were eating it. There was so much love mixed in that it could have been dirt and Saitou might not have realized; it was the best-tasting meal he’d ever had.

Two years? Had it really been that long? How had Saitou Hajime gotten so lucky?

It wasn’t that the food was well prepared or that the room was spotlessly clean that made him so happy — it was the fact that Sano hated cooking, and never lifted a finger to clean something if he could get away with it. And the young man kept looking anxiously at him, as if worried his meal wasn’t good enough. Everything Sano had done today seemed to have been aimed at pleasing Saitou, and this thought brought a rush of joy into Saitou’s heart that, although no unfamiliar feeling since he’d been with Sano, still surprised him with its warmth.

And in that moment he realized there was nothing — not his own life or honor, not the future of Japan, not anything he had ever deemed important — that meant more to him than Sano, and because of that, there was nothing that could ever tear them apart.

“Um… I got this for you…” Sano was never very good at giving presents, and Saitou could not help but laugh a bit, inwardly, at the nervous way he handed over the small, paper-wrapped object. “I knew you liked that one guy, and the guy at the store said you’d probably like this one too, but I can’t remember his name…”

“Sophocles.” Saitou flipped through the book with satisfaction. “A Greek philosopher.” He looked up. “You were informed quite correctly.”

Sano’s face, which had been very close to housing a worried expression, broke into a smile. “That’s good… ’cause I sure as hell couldn’t figure it out, though I was pretty sure you didn’t have that one.”

If anything could have made the evening better, it was this. Not only did it show how well Sano knew him, but an imported book was an expensive thing — which meant Sano had been working and saving for him. It was also somewhat of a relief, considering how much Saitou’s present had cost: he didn’t want Sano feeling any more awkward than he already did.

“Thank you,” he said, and, setting the book down, seized Sano’s left hand in his. With his right, he pulled a little wooden box from the pocket where it had been burning a hole all day. Though not nearly so bad at gift-giving as Sano was, he still wasn’t sure what the reaction to this might be. He set the box on the table between them and opened it, explaining his present. “In western cultures, it’s traditional for a married couple to wear identical rings like this.” He slid the plain golden band onto Sano’s left ring finger. “It symbolizes, I believe, an eternity together.”

He couldn’t believe it: Sano, staring at his hand, was actually blushing, and didn’t appear to know what to say. Quietly Saitou took the other ring from the box and, holding his left hand up for Sano to see, put it on.

“Ha-Hajime… d’you really mean that?” Sano stammered at last, still staring.

Saitou nodded, and managed to say almost exactly what he meant: “I want you to stay with me forever.”

The sudden tears on Sano’s face were a bit of a surprise, though Sano laughed at himself right through them. “Fuck, this is stupid…” he said. “Look at me crying like a baby.”

Saitou chuckled. “As long as you’re my baby.”

“Hell, I’ll be whatever you want!” Sano crawled over to him and hugged him tightly. After he’d recovered himself he suggested, “Why don’t we drink that wine?”

“Let’s drink it in the bedroom,” Saitou whispered in his ear. “I have another present for you…”

“Saitou!” Kenshin stared first at Saitou’s bruised face, then at the bound and unconscious Sano in his arms. He couldn’t say another word for shock.

Saitou returned the look evenly and held his lover out toward his enemy. “Take him.”

“What the hell…” Kenshin trailed off, but almost absently added “…de gozaru ka?”

“You’ll be glad to hear the story,” Saitou replied, unable to prevent the bitterness creeping into his tone. “Glad to be proven right. Take him.”

Kenshin reached out to receive the burden, his face still a picture of confusion. “What happened?”

Not wanting to look at the two of them any longer, Saitou turned his back. “You are familiar with Sano’s disliking of smoke?”

“Yes… I always thought it odd.”

“Smoke had to do with Sano’s repressed memories of Shishio’s fortress, where he was raped by Shishio after you were knocked unconscious.”

Overwhelmed by Saitou’s typical conciseness, Kenshin let out a short, surprised breath and looked down at Sano’s face in shock. “Raped?”

Saitou nodded. “He remembered because I — and this is the part you’ll like — I asked him to help the police get people out of a burning building. I did this hoping the smoke would trigger those memories in case he knew anything about my case. I never suspected…”

“You–” Kenshin interrupted him unexpectedly. “You couldn’t have known!”

“Defending me now, are you? That’s quite a change. Anyway, Sano’s tried to kill himself already, and he certainly hasn’t been thinking straight. I’m afraid the only way to save him is to somehow repress his memories again. Maybe if he inhales smoke again…”

A long moment of silence followed, during which the presence of the two men behind him, one conscious and one unconscious, one scorned and the other beloved, weighed like a tangible thing on Saitou’s mind.

He wanted to turn.

There were a lot of things he wanted to do, actually.

Sano stirred in Kenshin’s arms, saying something that sounded piteously like ‘Hajime…’ and Kenshin spoke abruptly. “Saitou, if his memories are repressed again, he might forget everything that happened from the time of the rape onward. He… might forget that he and you were ever anything but enemies.”

Saitou did not reply immediately, because he was gathering his strength for what must be said. At last he murmured, “I know. That’s why I’m giving him to you. Because I can’t do it.” And, fearing his resolve would weaken if he stayed there much longer, he strode away.

“Saitou!” Kenshin called, but the wolf ignored him. “Saitou!!”

Their footsteps fell loudly on the overgrown path as the shrine came into view. Between the first and second arches, they could look up and see the hulking shadow of Mt. Hiei, and Sano grinned. “Well, here we are,” he said. Punching his palm, he added, “I’m trembling with excitement!”

Under the third arch, he noticed Saitou throwing him a weird look. “What’s your problem, psycho?” he demanded.

Saitou smirked. “With excitement, ahou?”

“Well, what else would I be trembling with?” Sano retorted hotly, before he realized the answer to his question. “Hey, you bastard, I’m not afraid or anything!”

A little ahead of them, Kenshin sighed almost inaudibly.

“No, I suppose you’re not,” Saitou admitted. “A fool like you is so rarely afraid of anything, even when it’s good for him.”

Sano stopped under the fourth arch and snarled. “Like someone who stabbed me through the shoulder would know what’s good for me!”

Saitou stopped along with him. “Maybe I know better than you do.”

Neither noticed Kenshin’s stiffened form standing beneath the fifth arch, nor heard his slightly annoyed outlet of breath. But when he said, “Look,” their attention was captured. He pointed ahead to where a lone woman stood against a set of massive doors leading into the mountain itself. “I think we should try to start getting along. Don’t forget what we’re getting into.” The first sentence was aimed at Sano, the second at Saitou, and each phrase referred to a totally different aspect of the current interaction. Saitou knew it perfectly well, as he’d known from the beginning what Himura’s attitude would be toward his little infatuation. But the fact was entirely lost on Sano.

He swam upward, more or less steadily, through a rancid sea of smoke, trying to escape the darkness beneath him. After a moment he recalled the impossibility of swimming through something like smoke that wasn’t solid, and his feet found ground just where he’d been expecting it. A fresh wind blew across his face, sweeping the encroaching haze away into a corner, where it roiled and struggled but remained stationary. Turning away from it toward the light beyond his eyelids, he opened his eyes and awoke.

“Oh, what is…” The mutter sounded ragged and croaky. He couldn’t remember where he was or why, where he should be or what had been happening to him.

“Sano!” This voice, Kenshin’s, was soon joined by more: Kaoru’s… Yahiko’s… Megumi’s… and? and? He sat up, confused. He was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was expecting another voice. But whose was it? As he looked from one relieved face to the next, he was sure one was missing — but what other face did he expect? As he searched for it, his heart was pounding… but why?

He turned his mind to other considerations. This room looked an awful lot like Kaoru’s dojo. What was he doing here? “Are we in Tokyo?” he asked the smiling Kenshin close to his head. His throat was sore.

Kenshin nodded.

“That can’t be right…”

“Why?” Kenshin sounded a bit worried.

Sano’s mind still felt cloudy, and he struggled to answer the question. “Shouldn’t we be in Kyoto? I thought we were going in against Shishio.”

Suddenly grave in both tone and expression, “Sano, that was two years ago,” Kenshin said.

It was like an unexpected slap in the face. “What?” He shook his head, thinking hard, but all he got was a worse headache. Why couldn’t he remember anything? They’d been heading up to Shishio’s secret fortress-place to fight the Juppongatana or something, and… “You’re not serious, are you?”

Kenshin nodded. “Do you remember nothing?”

Something about Kenshin’s guarded expression bothered Sano, but he didn’t know quite why. He lay back, closing his eyes but not ceasing his effort to piece events together. Some images were beginning to return. “I think… did I fight Anji? Was he working for Shishio?” It seemed so dreamlike, he couldn’t be at all sure it had actually happened.

“Yes.”

“And then… then…”

But Kenshin had looked away.

Sick, huh?

Sano drew his knees up to his chin, scrunching blankets all around him as if trying to block out any draft of cold air into his warm haven. He didn’t quite understand what was happening to him — especially since, besides a nasty cough, a rough throat, and an achy head, he didn’t feel particularly ill. He’d only just awakened an hour or so ago, but he was already terribly confused.

So he’d been sick for a whole month… and somehow it had caused him to lose his memory of the last two years? He’d never heard of such a thing. And he wasn’t prone to sickness anyway.

Something was wrong here.

Megumi hadn’t been able to tell him the name of whatever he’d had — said it was something she’d never seen before, that they had all despaired of his life before he’d made that miraculous recovery. They’d all seemed happy enough when he woke up, anyway. But he just… didn’t feel sick…

What he seemed to be feeling was… loneliness?

He lay down once again with a sigh. How could something like this happen to him? Had it happened to him? He just couldn’t believe it. Kenshin had assured him he’d come within an inch of his life, and Kenshin wouldn’t lie… but it seemed too incredible, his getting so sick he almost died and having a bunch of memories wiped out, then waking up and feeling just fine…

But Kenshin wouldn’t lie to him.

He must have been sick, then.

He realized he’d been holding onto his left hand with his right, absently making a twisting motion around the fourth finger as if he were wearing a ring there. He looked down in brief confusion, then laid his hands at his sides.

The futon felt strange beneath him, the blankets unfamiliar. Looking around again, he realized that the whole room was unrecognizable. Sure, it was a room in the Kamiya dojo, but had he really been living here since they came back from Kyoto?

The door slid open, and Sano sat up quickly in sudden, inexplicable anticipation, his heart racing and his eyes searching for the sight of — what?

Kenshin entered, and came quietly to kneel at his bedside. “How do you feel?” he asked.

“Fine,” Sano said, trying hard not to show his disappointment that Kenshin wasn’t… whatever he’d been expecting. “Better than fine. I almost can’t believe I was sick.”

Kenshin sighed. “Lie down, please. I thought you might want to know some things about the last two years.”

“Um, yeah.” Sano did not lie down.

Kenshin raised a warning hand. “I can’t tell you too much right now. You need to sleep.”

“I feel fine, Kenshin, really.”

“I will answer three questions.”

Sano frowned and gave in, appreciating the worry he could see plainly in his friend’s face. Although he thought, for a moment at least, that something else was in that visage as well — something he didn’t like. But he shook off the feeling and contemplated what he was going to ask Kenshin. “All right, first question: what happened to Shishio?”

Kenshin told him, very briefly, touching only barely on certain aspects — Sano’s own involvement and Saitou’s part — of the fateful battle.

Sano nodded slowly, fitting the pieces into the shadows of his memory and finding that their shapes matched the jagged gaps. Not a perfect picture, but he’d have time to grille Kenshin on it all later when the man was willing to discuss things more extensively. “Fine. Then, second… has anything major happened since we came back that I should know about?”

Kenshin gave him an overview of the two or three larger events their little group had taken part in during those two years. It all sounded familiar enough to Sano, although with this account came a feeling of distance — almost as if he’d only watched the goings-on, had little part in them, little action of his own. How odd.

“Last question.” He thought for a moment, wondering how to word it, and finally said, “What have I been doing for these two years?”

Instead of answering immediately, Kenshin queried, “What do you mean?”

Again Sano felt the vague suspicion he’d harbored against his friend earlier, but his absolute faith in the rurouni won him into replying simply, “Just in general, I mean… things been like they always were?”

“Mostly. You spent most evenings gambling or drinking with your friends, and you slept a lot during the days… Kaoru-dono made you help with all the repairs, of course, and sometimes she made you do part-time work to help pay the bills…”

It sounded like him. If he’d had to guess what he’d been doing over the last two years, living at the Kamiya dojo, that would have been exactly it. But try as he might, he couldn’t make it fit into the careful timeline he was constructing in his mind. Whatever had happened, it seemed that his typical loafing hadn’t been it.

As he bade Kenshin goodnight and laid himself back onto the clean futon, he pondered. The only answer he could come up with was that he must have gotten involved in something Kenshin didn’t like — not just didn’t like, but totally didn’t approve of — and Kenshin was purposely keeping this information from him in order to prevent his starting it up again. Maybe something dangerous…

Drugs? He didn’t think so; it wasn’t like him. Besides, he’d be going through some kind of withdrawal now, wouldn’t he? But maybe that withdrawal was something with weird symptoms that made you imagine something was missing from your life all of a sudden (besides your memory of the last two years), and feel ridiculously lonely when you couldn’t figure out what it might be.

Maybe he’d gotten back into some yakuza. That sounded more like him than drugs, although why he would have done it after having left that life behind was a mystery. Still, it would explain his current feeling of aloneness — in such a group, you were watched incessantly, eyed from all corners as others waited for their chance to betray you or worried about you betraying them, and he could easily have grown accustomed again to that feeling of always having someone around him, someone thinking avidly of him.

He squeezed his eyes tight shut, then reopened them swiftly, hoping something above his head would look familiar enough to reassure him that everything Kenshin had said was true. But the room looked just as unfamiliar to him as ever. What had happened to his life? And if Kenshin didn’t want him to know about whatever it was, should he really want to find out? After all, Kenshin was obviously only trying to protect him… and the little guy really was a lot smarter than Sano, wasn’t he?

Still, it was his life, wasn’t it?

Part 5

“Saitou!” It was Himura’s voice — that much he made out — but any emotion carried in the word, through which Saitou might have thought to ascertain something of the intended message, drowned in the loud marketplace. He turned and waited for Kenshin to fight his way through the crowd and join him.

Saitou could say nothing. Himura knew what he wanted to ask at any rate, so there was no need.

“As we suspected, Sano has lost all memory of the past two years.”

Saitou nodded.

Kenshin looked away, as if embarrassed or even ashamed of what he was about to say. “We all talked about it and agreed… We have not told him about you. We don’t want you to see him again.”

You fucking bastard, you mean you don’t want me to see him again. But all Saitou could say aloud was the next question he desperately wanted answered. “Is he happy?” His voice sounded so harsh, so unfeeling…

Kenshin stared at him for a moment, unwilling or unable to answer. Finally he said, “Here.” Stretching out an open hand, he displayed a shining golden ring.

The sight of it glittering there on his enemy’s palm was like the stab of a knife into Saitou’s heart. There were a million things he would like to say at this point — bitter things, demanding things, supplicating things — but the pain was too great for any of them. He took the ring and put it into his pocket.

Kenshin watched as Saitou turned — a bit jerkily, he thought — and walked swiftly away from him. There, he’d done it; he’d broken someone’s heart. Despite the fact that he hated Saitou, he didn’t feel good about it. But it was for the best, wasn’t it? He couldn’t help regretting it, but for Sano’s sake he tried to rally his spirits. He turned and headed home, his feet heavy.

He hadn’t been able to answer Saitou’s last question because, despite all the lies he’d been telling over the last few days, he couldn’t bring himself to lie about Sano’s current state. The truth was that Sano was miserable, just as he had been since the day he’d awakened. Kenshin couldn’t blame him: it must be difficult to lose two years of your life all of a sudden and have… no, that wasn’t the reason, and Kenshin knew it, much as he’d like to deny it. Sano was miserable because he felt the horrible void of a lover’s absence, but didn’t understand it.

Silently, Kenshin damned himself, wondering if he was doomed to live an unhappy life. No relationship he entered into ever turned out right. His parents had died; Hiko scorned him for his choices; he’d killed Tomoe with his own hands; he’d failed to protect Sano at the most important time; and Kaoru… well, Kaoru loved him, but could he love her in return?

He seemed destined to hurt everyone he came into contact with. Was this his penance for his acts as the Hitokiri Battousai, or just another part of the fact that he was innately monstrous? If penance, he thought perhaps he could bear it… but why did others have to suffer? If a result of his true nature, it made sense that they suffered… but could he keep going like this? He shook his head; he didn’t think he would ever understand his own existence.

“Hello, Sano,” he said as he entered the room, trying to force a cheerful mien. The last thing Sano needed right now was any part of Kenshin’s suffering.

“Yo,” Sano said, and by his tone Kenshin knew immediately that something was wrong.

“What is it?”

“Come sit down and talk, Kenshin,” Sano ordered, pointing to the floor beside him. He was drawn up tightly against a wall, staring at the ceiling.

Kenshin obeyed. “Yes?”

“Kenshin, look, I know… I know there’s something you guys aren’t telling me. Something about all this stuff I’ve forgotten. Something big.”

A cold, uneasy feeling began to creep through the rurouni. Gazing intently at Sano, he could see how much of an effort it took the younger man to speak those words, that near accusation, how desperately Sano wished for Kenshin to reassure him that he was still the same honest friend Sano had always trusted.

“What do you mean?” Kenshin asked at last.

“I mean, there’s something huge I can’t figure out. Something really important that I really need to remember, and I just fucking can’t!” Sano’s head had fallen to his knees, and his voice sounded pained.

Kenshin evaded. “What kind of thing?”

“I have no idea!” Sano exploded, jumping up and starting to pace the room in agitation. “It’s like — everywhere I go, I expect… something. And every time you guys are all together… I think there should be someone else there. And at night… oh, I don’t fucking know!”

Kenshin took a deep breath, trying to loose the knot that seemed to squeeze all life from his swift-beating heart. He stood slowly, as if held down by a massive weight. With reluctant steps he walked to Sano’s side, put his hand on the high shoulder, looked into the eyes full of pain, prepared for a careful lie… and just couldn’t bear it any longer.

“I know what it is,” he said softly at last, “but I don’t want to tell you.”

In the early hours of morning no light shone from houses along the street as the occupants rested for the approaching day. One house, however, though similarly black behind the shutters, held no sleep. In a chair drawn from his desk to the window, Saitou Hajime sat alone in the dark.

Loneliness and darkness were, in fact, about all he had left.

He’d been right all along: friends were a weakness, and trying to protect them was nonsense. Friends or lovers. He’d allowed himself to fall in love with Sagara Sanosuke, and where had it led him? To Hell. If he’d only left the idiot alone, as he should have known to do in the first place, he would have been able to carry out his mission, assigned to him by the government and of the utmost importance, untroubled and untouched. He would never have felt pain for Sano’s predicament, and the Kenshingumi could have dealt with it however they felt best.

Sentimentality was a load of shit. He’d known it all his life; why had he made such an exception? If he’d just ignored Sano, he wouldn’t be feeling responsible for not having shown up sooner back in Shishio’s fortress. If he’d throttled his feelings at the very beginning, he might have had the clear-sightedness to kill Shishio with that one shot as he’d intended, freeing the country as he’d been assigned to do.

Realizing he’d been right all along, however, didn’t make him feel a bit better. All it did was add ‘fool’ to the list of names he was giving himself.

And after all, wasn’t feeling responsible for someone else’s pain just utterly foolish? He’d lived his life independent of anyone else’s emotions… why couldn’t he simply go back to those days?

He stood abruptly, knocking over the chair and striding out of the room. That would be a pathetic lie, and he knew it. And besides, he didn’t think he was capable of it. He, the great Saitou Hajime, one of the strongest warriors of his day, who had lived through more chaos than anyone he knew and defeated nearly every opponent ever to cross him, had been brought low by a 22-year-old boy.

He’d never known a broken heart could come this close to killing him.

He remembered his thoughts on the night of their second anniversary: that nothing could ever come between them, because nothing in the world meant more to him that Sano. He’d thought at the time his own strength would be enough to keep them together, since Sano was his first concern and could be given the majority of his devotion. It had almost been a vow — and now he’d broken it. But only because he’d discovered that holding Sano dearest above anything else in existence meant that Sano’s happiness was far above his own on the priority scale.

So the only thing more important to him than Sano was… Sano?

He was pacing the bedroom now, prowling like a wild animal in a shrinking enclosure. It was a cage of burning misery, and when its bars closed in enough to touch and scorch him, there was no telling what he might do.

Maybe it would be better, now he had the chance, to leave Sano’s life forever. He could probably transfer to Kyoto without much trouble, and… Dammit! That wouldn’t help him. He might seal all his sorrow up in that heart which until now had seemed so strong; might lie to himself and his acquaintances for a while, claiming he was alive when really he had died the day he left; might go on for weeks, months, even years, in relative peace… but it would be half a life and no more. Perhaps less, without Sano. And eventually, he knew, he would return to Tokyo on assignment, or Sano would show up in Kyoto to visit the Aoiya, and he would crack again.

Still, he must never again cause pain to the one he loved. Of that he was certain. Himura had been right all along, and Saitou was man enough to admit it. He must never see Sano again. So his only choices now were to go far enough away that there was no chance of their ever meeting… or… to…

Daylight was by this time flooding the room. It reminded him eerily of a morning not long ago when Sano had kissed him for the last time. Kissed him goodbye. He turned from the thought, from the window, and stared down at the floor — where the light caught on and danced across a long black object lying as he’d thrown it yesterday evening. Slowly he took it in his hand, its light reassuring clank somehow comforting. This was the one thing he understood beyond a shadow of a doubt, the one thing that could give him only physical pain rather than what he’d been suffering since that fateful fiery night.

The cage of despair was drawing closer to his skin, shrinking more quickly with each moment.

Without haste he grasped the hilt and withdrew the blade; it shone as he knelt with his back to the lighted window, and in its silvery surface he seemed to see not his own reflection, but an image of the time this very sword had been turned away by an iron band, too late to save two lives from ruin. Appropriate, then, that this weapon should wreak Sanosuke’s revenge on him, on the fool that wasn’t strong enough to fall in love but dared to do it anyway.

He cast the sheath aside, pushing away all thought of the world he was leaving behind. Of what import was it that he would be abandoning a country that needed him, and not even bothering to do it properly, as a samurai should? All he could see was Sano’s tear-stained face, a vision he thought must haunt him into the afterlife and punish him as he deserved.

The glowing bars of his cage of torment converged.

Saitou Hajime would burn.

He turned the blade inward.

He slid the door open and stepped casually inside the dojo grounds. As he’d thought, Battousai and his friends didn’t seem to be home, but there on the front steps was a young man he identified by the description his agent had given him: unkempt hair looked both sharp and soft at once, set off like the similarly colored eyes below by a red bandanna; a loose gi hanging open over a tight chest revealed a perfectly formed, golden-toned set of muscles; and the overall demeanor of the subject spoke of complete indolence that could turn to complete energy at an instant’s notice. Of course Saitou’s agent hadn’t put that kind of detail into the description, but Saitou was intrigued — perhaps even pleased — by what he saw.

The young man queried who he was, not sounding much as if he really cared. He had a deep, pleasant, rolling voice whose tones suggested he didn’t mind what anyone thought of him.

Saitou gave his supposed credentials in his ‘watakushi’ mode, continuing to smile politely the entire time, his piercing yellow gaze stifled by a put-on squint. He introduced himself as Fujita Gorou, and began his sales-pitch.

The kid wasn’t buying — neither the proffered medical product nor Saitou’s pseudo-identity. Staring up with lazy suspicion, he remarked in a nearly accusatory tone that Saitou certainly had narrow eyes for a door-to-door salesman.

Saitou’s smile widened; this was exactly what he’d expected. For some reason, now he actually saw the former mercenary, he was glad the accounts of him and his skills didn’t appear to have been wrong.

He told him he’d been born that way.

The young man seized his wrist all of a sudden, twisting his palm upward so the small white spots worn into his skin by years of sword-handling came to light. Examining them for one brief moment, he raised his eyes to Saitou’s again, and this time they gleamed with wariness. No pharmacist had sword-blisters like those on his hands, he maintained.

It was an unexpected tingle that ran from the warm place where the young man touched him, and it made Saitou take a good look, in that brief moment, at the person he was about to hurt very badly. He hadn’t felt this sensation since… But there was no time for that now. The kid was demanding who he was, much more insistently than he had the first time.

Throwing pretense aside, as planned, Saitou stood straight, stopped squinting, and gave a very different smile than before.

Nothing less from Sagara Sanosuke.

The sword clattered to the floor as a knock on the front door startled him from what was nearly a trance of pure despair. Slowly, as if in a dream, he stood and left the bedroom. It was only natural to answer the door, after all… it never occurred to his hazy mind that he could just ignore it and continue into oblivion.

The sight that greeted him sent thoughts of suicide flying so fast it made him wonder dizzily if he’d even been serious enough to go through with it. He could only stand in the doorway totally still, staring blankly and unable to breathe a word.

“Just let me in,” Sano said gruffly, looking as if he would like to push past into the house but didn’t quite have the will to do so.

Saitou stood aside and allowed Sano to step by. Beginning to recover his sanity, he shut the door behind them. He knew someone else was outside, undoubtedly whoever had shown Sano the way here, but Saitou’s entire being was caught up in the unexpected and bittersweet sight of Sano inside his home again, and he couldn’t withdraw his eyes — nor could his clouded senses detect in any other manner who it might be.

Gazing around slowly, Sano stared long and hard at the mundane objects in the room. Saitou just watched, not wanting to frighten him off. Finally Sano spoke softly. “It must be true, then.”

The officer’s heart skipped a beat. “What must be true?” It was the first thing he’d said, and it came out harshly, as if he’d half-forgotten how to talk.

Sano turned to face him. “I heard that after Kyoto, you and me got over our differences… or something… and became friends.”

Saitou kept his surprise in check. Not just friends, Sano… “Who told you that?” It couldn’t have been Himura!?

With a shrug, Sano turned and began regarding the room again. “I just heard it. I didn’t think it could be true, but everything in this room is so damned familiar. Dunno why I’d want a… someone like you for a friend, though.”

Because you loved me, Sano… “It’s true,” Saitou said calmly.

Sano nodded. “Yeah, and someone suggested you might want to know if I’m alive or whatever.”

Yes… yes, I wanted to know… “I thank them for the suggestion.” Who was this oh-so-humane person that had been telling Sano all of this? Could it possibly have been Kenshin? Did he have any idea he’d just saved Saitou’s life? It didn’t mean the wolf wouldn’t later reach the same conclusion he had a few minutes ago, but the cage had dissipated and for the moment he clung to continued existence — and the joy of Sano’s presence — desperately.

For a second time, Sano turned to face him, and this time he was smiling. “Well, I’m fine, old friend.” He said the last words mockingly, and Saitou could see Sano still didn’t quite believe the story.

I love you, Sano. He wanted to say it, but couldn’t. He’d never been able to say those simple words when they were together; now, it was beyond impossible. Instead he just replied, a bit gruffly, “Thank you.”

“I still can’t see it,” Sano laughed, looking Saitou up and down. “I mean, you’ve been such a dick to me…”

I love you, Sano… “And you’re such an annoying, hot-headed idiot, I wondered about it myself.”

“Well,” Sano shrugged, “might as well get started being friends again, right? You got any food?”

Saitou couldn’t help a tiny smile, though his face seemed stiff. When was the last time he’d smiled? I love you, Sano! Another thought struck him: if Kenshin was the one responsible for this, that meant Saitou was forgiven, didn’t it? Not that he cared much for the rurouni’s forgiveness, but… If you’re behind this, Himura, I think I just might forgive you Provided he could forgive himself. Which, if Sano stuck around for much longer, seemed nearly possible; his simple presence was like some kind of healing magic. And if Kenshin, who knew all about second chances, was willing to give Saitou one… perhaps Saitou was willing to grant himself that same favor. Perhaps. “You’re no different than before,” he said, trying to let his sudden happiness come across as amusement, leading the way into the kitchen.

Outside, Kenshin finally tore his eyes from the front door and turned to walk slowly home. Not for the first time in his life, he wondered if he’d chosen correctly. He still didn’t believe that Saitou was right for Sano, but he couldn’t bear Sano’s misery one day longer. The poor guy would probably have remembered, or found out, eventually, wouldn’t he? And Saitou… well, everyone deserved a second chance, didn’t they? Kenshin of all people knew that.

Not that any of that had made it any easier to bring Sano here half against his will (considering Sano hadn’t believed for an instant that this was what he’d been missing) — his will and Kenshin’s. There was a strange sensation in the pit of the rurouni’s stomach, like he wanted to run back there and fight Saitou, kill him even, to keep him away from Sano. But he had to face the truth: those two were connected now, if they hadn’t always been, and he really should stop trying to halt destiny. He couldn’t decide if he’d done right or wrong, but he feared it didn’t matter.

Still, perhaps there was no thread of fate connecting them after all… perhaps nothing would come of this new relationship. He knew Saitou was likely to be more careful, probably less forward, this time around — since he blamed himself for the pain Sano had gone through, both in Shishio’s fortress and the sudden memory of it. Kenshin shook his head; he didn’t feel their relationship had been healthy, but in those two points at least he considered Saitou innocent. He looked back at the house, at the thin line of smoke rising from the chimney and dissipating into the distant sky. Maybe Sano would just go home without any desire to see Saitou again.

I love you, Sano…

Only time could tell.



<<Part 4

If you made it all the way through, I am impressed and apologetic. This story is dreadful, and just about its only redeeming feature is its sequel. That’s certainly the only reason this terrible, terrible piece is still around. Eventually I will probably cease to like the sequel enough that they’ll both come down, so enjoy(?) them while you can.

I’ve rated this story . Here is the older title picture: