The Prevention of Gross Injustice


During the deep winter, having the wood stove on the arbiter’s platform was a distinct blessing. In late autumn, however, with a temperature chilly enough for a fire but not nearly low enough to justify the remarkable level of heat the stove produced in the immediate vicinity of Kenshin’s entire right side, he could never determine whether too hot or too cold was the better option. But since he now approached his fifth anniversary as an arbiter for the sovereignty and his requests to rethink the arrangement of the assessment hall had consistently been ignored, he doubted anyone would jump to accommodate him any time soon.

Too hot or too cold, he would cease to be bothered by the uncomfortably fluctuating temperatures the very minute this assessment became a little less tedious — that is, if they ever managed to get through the small fry. These consisted of acquaintances of the accused — from household slaves to employees of the young man’s father to ‘friends’ probably better described as ‘convenient drinking companions with no real depth of attachment’ — and Kenshin couldn’t think very highly of any of them.

Of course the avowal of slaves at an assessment wasn’t worth nearly as much as that of any person at liberty, since, caught between potentially vengeful masters and the law, they tended to say what they believed would best benefit them (or at least stave off punishment); but even the free and supposedly honest people that had been offering information thus far hadn’t struck Kenshin as particularly reliable. Half of them had sworn up and down that the accused was buried to the eyebrows in his father’s treasonous dealings, while the rest had maintained he’d taken no part whatsoever in them and was, in fact, the best guy in the world.

Kenshin found each style of avowal suspicious in this situation, and reflected wryly that liars would always lie. Respect for truth, most likely, would not be found among the undoubtedly numerous reasons any of them might want this assessment to go one way rather than another. Some of those reasons would probably come to light, bidden or unbidden, during their assessments, many of which Kenshin would also have to arbitrate. He didn’t greatly anticipate that.

This assessment, however, teased interest despite the frustrating tangle of dishonesty that had comprised its first hour and a half. The accused had a very handsome and honest face and a lively, compelling manner that could have predisposed anyone in his favor; his air of mingled annoyance and concern was understandable at the moment, too, given that, whatever his state of innocence or guilt, it must be disconcerting and worrisome to hear half the people he knew painting him as a saint while the rest decried his many evil deeds.

The queue of liars seemed, thankfully, to have come to an end with the latest one, whose earnest statement that, “Nobody who buys everyone drinks as much as he does could be a bad guy,” had the ring more of rote practice than of genuine feeling. As this particular young man was not in custody, he could go about his business freely when dismissed, and he gave the accused a casual encouraging wave on the way out. Neither circumstance forced Kenshin to rethink his opinion that the avowal had been more than a bit of an act aimed at freeing the frequent buyer of drinks.

Kaoru, overseer of assessments, watched the last of the riff-raff allowed out the exit, which was relocked behind him by the sentinel there, then glanced back to where a messenger had been waiting, patient and silent, beside the door near the back of the hall that led deeper into the building. At her movement, the man shook his head. She gestured her thanks, and the messenger imitated the latest witness by leaving the room and having the door locked behind him. Then Kaoru turned toward where Kenshin sat on the arbiter’s platform. “Looks like the father of the accused continues to refuse to avow.”

“All right,” said Kenshin. None of them could be happy about this, but unfortunately no inference could be drawn from it; conceivable motives came to mind in droves for someone to refuse to avow, whether the accused was innocent or guilty. It did decrease the amount of information the arbiter had to work with, but there was nothing to be done about it. The accused, Kenshin noted, merely appeared to have been expecting this; there was no guessing the exact significance of the deep breath he drew and released at hearing the news.

Again Kaoru glanced around the hall, a somewhat unnecessary movement as she stood at its head beside the arbiter’s platform and therefore had a clear view of everyone present. “The last witness will be here as soon as possible; there’s no telling how long it may take. Do you want a break, or would you prefer if Megumi questions the accused out of order?”

Kenshin’s eyes were drawn to the accused, who, where he waited in the care of a two-person armed escort, had twitched visibly at the mention of ‘the last witness.’ Evidently the final participant’s avowal would be the most important — or, at least, the information that had the accused most agitated. Curious and wishing to proceed, Kenshin said, “I would prefer to hear from the accused.”

With another nod, Kaoru also fixed her eyes on the young man. “Sanosuke of lineage Shishio, please step onto the witness’ platform.”

Unlike Kenshin’s platform, which was reached by a small flight of stairs in order that the arbiter might observe the proceedings from an elevated angle, that from which witnesses avowed was a single step up from the floor and mostly surrounded by a plain railing as if the witness were in a cage. This cage Sanosuke now entered, moving with a vigor that matched the energy of his gaze and general bearing, seeming somewhat loath about the upcoming questioning but with an evident determination to get this over with.

“Megumi,” Kaoru said, “the time is yours.”

The questioner had been availing herself, in between witnesses, of the drinking water on the table where the hall scribe sat recording what was said. Now she turned with her usual impassive gaze and began the traditional reiteration of the initial statement of the accused: “At the beginning of this assessment, you maintained your innocence of the accusation of complicity in the treasonous activities of your father Makoto. After the avowals we have heard from the previous witnesses, do you wish to change this statement in any way?”

Sanosuke scratched his head and appeared a little annoyed. “I don’t see why I’d want to change what I said because of any of that bullshit.” Then he threw a quick look, half penitent and half concerned, with an overlay of sheepish joviality, up at Kenshin. “Guess I shouldn’t swear in an assessment, huh?”

The young man was so winning that Kenshin couldn’t help a somewhat indulgent feeling as he looked down at him. It was Kaoru, however, as overseer, that replied: “You may not abuse anyone present, but otherwise we’d prefer you to speak as naturally as you can.”

The grin Sanosuke returned for this seemed relieved he hadn’t landed himself in trouble with almost his first statement, but still far more determined to get this over with than in any way happy to be here. Then he turned back to the questioner and said squarely, “So, yeah, I don’t want to change what I said. Still innocent of that.”

“Very well,” Megumi replied. Kenshin didn’t think he imagined a slight smile, if not on her face, at least in her bearing. It took a lot to compromise Megumi’s professionalism, but Kenshin knew her well enough that he could tell when she was hiding amusement. “If you are willing to avow on your own behalf, you will need to take the Oath of Honesty.”

Over the years Kenshin had seen many witnesses — even some he’d eventually declared innocent — display reluctance or discomfort regarding the Oath, so he knew the signs. And if Sanosuke had any problem repeating the ritual words after Megumi, swearing to speak the exact truth to the best of his ability and belief, he certainly hid it well. He was either completely ingenuous or an extremely convincing actor.

Megumi’s first question once the formalities had been seen to was, “If you were not involved in your father’s treasonous activities, surely you must at least have been aware of them?”

“Uh, not exactly,” Sanosuke replied. “I wasn’t really surprised when I heard what the accusation was, but I didn’t realize before that’s what he was doing.”

“So you always knew your father didn’t have the most solid moral code regarding business?”

“Regarding anything. ‘Always’ might be an overstatement, but, yeah, I’ve known that for years.”

“But you were not aware specifically of any criminal activity.”

“That’s right.”

Megumi excelled at her job of drawing from witnesses as much information as she could so the arbiter of the assessment could make the fairest judgment possible. And it not infrequently happened that she got a hint of some crime additional to or separate from the one in question; in such cases, she strove to clarify the situation as far as she could. Here, Kenshin could see, she was working to differentiate between the stated accusation ‘complicity in treason’ and the unspoken possibility ‘failure to report criminal activity,’ of which Sanosuke might still be guilty even had he never taken part in his father’s misdeeds.

“Would you tell us,” she requested, “what details you know about your father’s business?”

“Um, sure.” Sanosuke sounded a little skeptical, as if Megumi was asking for either a large amount of or some particularly dull information. “His main job is — I guess was — working with different factions all over the kingdom negotiating accords and shit. I always thought it was the most boring job I ever heard of, but I guess if he was secretly working with enemies of the sovereignty, that makes it more exciting. Probably more money in that, too… not like we ever needed more money.”

As Sanosuke went on in a very rambling fashion to describe his father’s work as he understood it, Kenshin was hard-pressed to restrain blatant laughter. Very little of what the accused had to say contained any significant detail, and some of it seemed so improbable as to suggest Sanosuke either knew next to nothing about the actual workings of Makoto’s employment or was, once again, an extremely skilled — and entertaining! — dissembler.

Megumi was a bit too deadpan as she asked her next question for Kenshin to believe her unaffected by Sanosuke’s amusing account. “You just recently turned nineteen, I believe. As a legal adult, how is it that you know so little of your father’s business?”

Sanosuke’s straightforward gaze strayed from Megumi’s face for a moment as if he didn’t want to meet her eyes. Tone equally abashed as he eventually looked back at her, he said, “Well, you know… up until just this last month or so, I never really cared about… serious shit. I mostly just fucked around and enjoyed myself. Dad’s been trying to get me into the business for years, but that was just so boring…”

“But I understand that changed when you turned nineteen. Your father finally managed to force some responsibility on you.”

“No!” It was the vehemence of annoyance. “Well, he tried, but that’s not what made me start thinking about things more seriously and shit. He just sat me down on my birthday and said it was time — ‘long past time,’ he said, asshole — time for me to start taking responsibility and learning how to run things and whatever, and said I was going to have to start doing some shit around the estate if I wanted to keep doing everything I liked doing. So all that did was make me really pissed at him.”

“And your new duties included the purchase of domestic slaves?” When Sanosuke replied in the affirmative, Megumi pursued, “And that was how you first encountered the sovereignty agent?”

It was the same discernible twitch as before. Evidently Sanosuke really did have some significant agitation relating to this person, who must be the final witness they were waiting for and was probably delayed on official business. Kenshin congratulated himself on having been correct about the interest level of this assessment, and waited in great anticipation, rubbing at his overheated right thigh and shifting slightly away from the wood stove, to hear the rest of the story.

“Yeah,” Sanosuke said. “Yeah, that’s how I met him.”

“Describe how that happened, please.”

“I went to the slave market looking for a kitchen girl, but I saw this guy — Saitou, the agent, who of course I didn’t know was a sovvie then — and I decided to buy him instead.”

“Why did you decide to purchase someone completely different from the type of slave you needed?” Megumi asked.

“I really didn’t want to be there,” grumbled the accused, “especially since the slave market’s open so damn early so you have to go first thing in the morning to get the really good ones. But dad made it pretty clear I wouldn’t get any more money or get to do anything I wanted ever again if I didn’t do what he wanted. So I was really pissed at him. I figured if I bought some slave who was totally not what we needed, it’d show him I wasn’t the right choice for that job and he’d let me off it. Plus it might make him mad, so it was sorta revenge too. Also the slave was really fucking hot, so, you know…” Sanosuke cleared his throat, blushing, and his eyes strayed from Megumi’s face again.

“So you purchased what you believed to be a slave” — Megumi was shifting smoothly onto a new track, Kenshin could tell, though Sanosuke probably couldn’t — “with the express purpose of raping him.”

Sanosuke’s hands had been lying on the railing in front of him, occasionally sliding idly from side to side, but now they jerked back toward his body as he stiffened upward, looking appalled. “What?! No! Of course not!”

“You did just say,” Megumi pointed out calmly, “that one of your reasons for buying the slave was that he was ‘really fucking hot.'” Her coolness made the quoted profanity sound very childish indeed, and Sanosuke flushed a deeper shade of red from an apparent combination of emotions.

“I don’t rape slaves, all right? That’s something my asshole dad does, not me! I mean, I know it’s something a lot of people do, but not me!”

This, Kenshin reflected, though it could not be entirely verified, was consistent with the attitude the Shishio household slaves had displayed toward Sanosuke in their avowals.

“I won’t say I didn’t totally want to have sex with him or that wasn’t part of the reason I bought him, but I always ask. I’d never force someone — I told him he could say no and it wouldn’t be a problem.” Sanosuke’s voice dropped to a mumble as his hands came down on the railing again and his gaze fell to the floor. “And he seemed like he was totally fine with it.”

“In what way did Saitou indicate he was engaging in sex willingly?”

Pensiveness now seemed to overcome Sanosuke’s chagrin, and he appeared, as he slowly drew breath and opened his mouth to answer, as if he wasn’t sure his explanation would make sense to his listeners. “He seemed so strong and so in-control…” Distinct admiration rang in his timbre. “It felt like, if he didn’t want it, he would’ve definitely said so. He didn’t really seem like a slave at all, and after a while I couldn’t even think of him as one. Sure, I gave him a job to do, but he was more like… I don’t even know. I didn’t know he was a sovvie, but from the way he talked I did get the feeling there was something else going on — like he had a reason to be there besides just that I bought him and brought him there.”

“And since you’ve discovered he did have another reason to be there, have you considered that Saitou might only have accepted your sexual advances because he believed it would endanger his position or even his personal safety to refuse you?”

Hotly Sanosuke replied, “I told him he could say no!”

“You were in a position of absolute authority at the time, and he was in the position not only of a slave and someone who needed to maintain cover, but someone who had never met you and couldn’t be familiar with your personal policy regarding slave rape. Did that never occur to you?”

Sanosuke looked stricken. “I… no. Shit. No, I… never thought of that. I really… really… didn’t feel like it was… I thought it was all just fine at the time, but… shit…” His eyes broke from Megumi’s again, fixing on the floor, and in this instance they did not re-ascend.

With a tone infinitesimally more gentle than before, Megumi shifted the subject slightly. “How did your interaction with Saitou proceed from there?”

“I… well, I had no real job to give him,” Sanosuke told the floor, “so I made him just a sort of odd-jobs man to do whatever muscle-work anyone needed. There wasn’t a lot for him to do, so mostly he just ended up… in… in my room.” He hastened on in a faintly defensive tone, “But we talked a lot! It wasn’t like we were just having sex all the time.”

“And what did you talk about?”

“He would never want to talk about himself. Obviously that’s because he was a secret agent all along, but at the time I just figured a slave didn’t have a lot of interesting stuff to say about his own life. So we mostly talked about me, and how I grew up, and what I liked to do. Oh, and about dad and his work.” Sanosuke’s mouth tightened into a frown before he went on more slowly, “I guess…” This point seemed to be novelly occurring to him here and now. “I guess he got a lot of information out of me, actually. I couldn’t have helped him with details, but what I said probably told him what to investigate and where to look and shit.”

Kenshin repressed another smile. If the vague and rather hilarious information Sanosuke had given earlier about his father’s business was typical of his elaboration on the subject, it might not have actually been remarkably helpful to the sovereignty agent.

Megumi suggested next, “You seem to regret these interactions.”

With a faint sigh Sanosuke admitted, “Yeah, I guess I do. I was thinking before that we had some good times, and he had some important stuff to say to me, but I guess I was… always kindof a dick to him. I didn’t think it was rape, and I thought it made sense he didn’t talk about himself… but I was always the one in charge, and he probably couldn’t say no, and I just talked about myself on and on like a total ass.”

“You say he had important things to say to you?”

“It seemed important at the time.” Sanosuke shrugged, and the casual gesture did not nearly suffice to downplay words he obviously meant very intensely. “When he got to know what kind of life I always had, he had things to say…” He chuckled faintly and with a mixture of bitterness and appreciation. “He was fucking rude about it, but he always got his point across. He just made me kinda realize how I was wasting my life. I was already not really thinking of him as a slave, so that’s probably why I didn’t notice how weird it was that this supposed slave — who’d been a slave his whole life, supposedly! — knew so much about… life stuff.”

So that was the real reason Sanosuke had started ‘thinking about things more seriously and shit.’ Even from the brief description of their interactions, Kenshin could see what an impact this Saitou agent had made on the young man.

“Was it your inability to see Saitou as a slave that kept you from determining he was a spy?” was Megumi’s next question.

“Yeah, that was probably part of it.” Sanosuke scratched his head, appearing a little easier now they’d left behind the question of whether or not he had committed rape — especially on someone he obviously admired. “But also I didn’t want to ask him a bunch of questions in case I blew his cover. I knew he was up to something, and I kinda really wanted to see him do whatever he was there to do because I figured that’d be one in my dad’s eye.”

“So your attitude toward your father had not changed?”

“Actually it did change.” The young man’s brow furrowed as he recollected. “I kinda went from thinking of him as this mean old dad who was forcing me to do work and threatening to take away my allowance and shit to thinking more about how I grew up with this terrible person who probably kept me from being… something better, you know?”

Kenshin had a feeling he could guess at the origin of this alteration in attitude. It was a stroke of luck Sanosuke had run into someone that could cause that revolution in him when he had. Really, it was a stroke of luck that laziness and thoughtlessness were (to all appearances) the worst of Sanosuke’s bad traits, given the circumstances of his upbringing.

“But, yeah, as far as wanting to get back at my dad for whatever I was mad at him for? That didn’t change.”

“But you still didn’t question Saitou about his intentions?”

“Yeah, like I said, I didn’t want to ruin the plan. Whatever the plan was.”

“I wonder if you didn’t want to ruin your sexual arrangement with Saitou as well.”

To Kenshin, an experienced arbiter that had worked extensively with Megumi in the year and a half she’d been questioning at his assessments, it was obvious why she returned to this topic: though slave rape was a matter of hazy legality and Sanosuke had been unaware of the true identity of this supposed slave, still sexual assault of a sovereignty agent was serious — another potential crime for which Sanosuke might be condemned — and it was essential the issue be examined thoroughly.

But to Sanosuke this probably wasn’t nearly so evident. His eyes had previously, gradually returned to the questioner’s face and his expression had cleared somewhat, but at this latest statement his brows drew back together as his gaze fell once more. “Yeah, there was probably some of that too. I didn’t want to change things with him. I didn’t want to scare him off.”

“Given the way things turned out, do you wish now that you had questioned him?”

Sanosuke scraped a foot, at which he stared fixedly, back and forth on the wooden flooring of the platform. “I don’t really know. I’m afraid shit would have gone down just the same even if I had.”

“So you don’t consider yourself in any way responsible for your father becoming aware that Saitou was a spy?”

“He didn’t know Saitou was a spy–” Here Sanosuke interrupted himself impatiently in order to answer the actual question right in the middle of his protest– “no, I wasn’t responsible for that! — but if dad knew Saitou was a spy, I bet he would have just killed him right then.”

“Are you aware of your father having committed murder in the past?”

“Not for sure, but I wouldn’t put it past him.” Sanosuke’s voice grew somewhat distant. “Actually I always wondered, when my mom died… not right at the time, but later I wondered… did she maybe cheat on him, and he…” His shoulders lifted somewhat helplessly, and Kenshin guessed this dark speculation was one he’d never been able to put into words before. The most lazy, resentful teenager had certain lines he might not want to cross, even in his own mind, about his father.

“You may want to hold onto that thought,” Megumi remarked somewhat sardonically, “for when it’s your turn to give avowal at your father’s assessment.”

Sanosuke scowled, and, forcing the scribe to lean forward abruptly to catch what he had to say, grumbled something about maybe just completely refusing to show up, then fell into an unhappy silence. Kenshin doubted the young man looked forward to the referenced event, even if he knew the assessment of Makoto would be little more than nominal, a last courtesy offered to someone already condemned in all but the final legal sense and doomed to high-security imprisonment for the rest of his life.

“But to return to the compromise of Saitou’s situation,” Megumi went on. “How exactly did that happen, if you had no part in it?”

“‘Exactly‘ is tough,” Sanosuke admitted. “I just noticed one morning that I couldn’t find Saitou anywhere, and I kinda wanted… to find him… so I was wandering around looking, and my dad noticed and called me into his room. He asked me what I knew about Saitou — called him ‘that slave you’ve been fucking’ all annoyed — so I told him — and it was totally true! — that I didn’t really know anything about his past. Of course I knew a lot about Saitou personally by then, but I knew that wasn’t what dad wanted, so I didn’t bother saying that. Anyway, dad said he noticed Saitou could read (which I never noticed because I was too busy ordering him around and talking about myself like a little shit), but of course dad got suspicious.”

That such a revelation would render a person like Makoto suspicious made sense, Kenshin reflected. In a house-slave, a certain degree of literacy might not be totally unheard-of; but in the type of person Kenshin was envisioning based on the description given of this agent thus far — probably someone, in the eyes of a slave-owner, pretty distinctly intended for manual labor — the ability to read would seem decidedly out of place. And anything out of place might set off alarms in the head of a paranoid traitor to the sovereignty.

“He said he wanted to question Saitou — whatever that actually meant — so of course I was starting to freak out a little bit on the inside. But he was going away on business for a couple days and couldn’t put it off, so he couldn’t get to questioning Saitou right away. He said he already had him locked up, and he needed to stay that way — with a guard — and I wasn’t allowed to see him.”

Just as locks and guards came up in the avowal, Kenshin noticed the sentinel at the inner door step aside and allow a man to enter the room. At Kaoru’s nod of acknowledgment Kenshin had to assume this was the agent, Saitou, their final witness and a significant part of this interesting drama; so he said nothing as the newcomer silently passed rows of benches standing empty at this private assessment and took a seat at the end of one in front. Sanosuke, his back to the door and apparently having missed the overseer’s nod, had noticed none of this.

Megumi was asking, “Do you believe your father ordered you not to contact Saitou while he was gone because he was suspicious of you as well?”

“Nah, I don’t think so. Dad was just trying to get back at me for having Saitou around in the first place. We’d already had this big argument about me buying a slave just for… uh, personal reasons… instead of what we actually needed, and he wasn’t any less pissed about it at this point… but I think it was just the usual ‘why can’t you take life seriously?’ bullshit, not him thinking I was working with Saitou on some secret mission or something.”

“And did you obey your father in this instance?”

“Hell, no! The second he was gone, I went straight to see Saitou. I was trying to think of a way to get him out of there, but I didn’t have any ideas that weren’t totally crazy, and he didn’t have any ideas either, and I was really frustrated… I told him I was sorry, since it was basically my fault for buying a slave just because he was really hot and to annoy my dad… Saying sorry didn’t fucking help, but it was all I could do for him right then. Well, I mean, besides…” Sanosuke cleared his throat.

Kenshin rather expected Megumi to probe further into this latest implication of sexual activity, but what she asked instead was, “Your father had left him under guard?”

Sanosuke scowled. “This guy Usui, who’s worked for my dad for a while — he’s this asshole thug — he was guarding the room when I got there, and even though I supposedly wasn’t supposed to see Saitou, Usui let me in pretty easy. I didn’t think that was weird at first because I was distracted, but later I did wonder why he did that. Only then, as soon as his guard shift was over, he showed up in my room saying he wanted to make a deal.”

Sanosuke’s lip curled in distaste and discomfort. “He knew me and Saitou were fucking. I mean, it probably didn’t help that… Well, anyway, he figured I might be willing to do something for him if he agreed to help Saitou escape.”

“Do what for him?”

“Um, basically… fuck him too.”

Megumi looked a little taken aback. “Why?”

Sanosuke flushed. “You don’t have to make it sound like it’s impossible to imagine or something.” At these words, one of the guards that stood a couple of steps behind the witness’ platform was forced to turn an inadvertent laugh into a cough. Kenshin noticed Kaoru giving the man a reproving look.

“What I mean,” Megumi said composedly, “is that allowing a prisoner to escape would be a dangerous risk for this Usui to take. Why would he jeopardize his position working for your father for the sake of sex?”

“You have to understand…” Again Sanosuke looked as if he feared this explanation might be a little beyond him. “Usui’s always wanted dad’s business. Not just like he wanted to work for him; he wanted to take his place. He probably knew my dad was doing illegal stuff, and he wanted to be doing it himself, I guess. Anyway, the weird thing was that dad always knew what Usui wanted, so I never could figure out why he kept him around — friends close and enemies closer and all that, I guess? So Usui could never do anything open to try to get some advantage over my dad; he had to do sneaky shit.”

“And he would have believed sleeping with Makoto’s son would give him leverage in the future?”

“Yeah.”

“All right.” Megumi nodded her understanding. “But why would you believe such an obviously untrustworthy person would keep his end of any bargain?”

“I didn’t really have any choice!” protested Sanosuke. “I couldn’t just let my dad do whatever he was going to do; I had to try something. And, I mean, I have… a lot of sex… most of the time, so what was a little more if it might help with something? And, hell, it did end up working, didn’t it?”

“Did it?”

“Well, yeah, he did keep his end of the deal, didn’t he?” Sanosuke’s expression gradually became pensive. “Actually that’s kinda weird, now I think about it. He really isn’t the kind of guy to keep a deal like that… but since he did, that’s all that matters, isn’t it?”

In order to allow her to draw out information as effectively as possible, Megumi, like any questioner, was given an overview of events relevant to an assessment prior to interrogating witnesses. And Kenshin could tell now that what she’d just heard did not entirely tally with what she’d known before entering the hall today. As usual, however, surprise was absent from her voice as she wondered, “Usui himself told you he had released Saitou?”

“Actually I haven’t seen Usui since then. I figured he was keeping his head down until after dad got back so one of the other guards could take the blame for Saitou escaping. They were really freaking out, too, when it turned out Saitou was gone — one of ’em ran away, and I really couldn’t blame him. And then the second dad came home, the whole place was just suddenly swarming with sovvies, like they knew exactly when he was going to be back, and we were all arrested. But, yeah, if you need me at Usui’s assessment — he is getting assessed, right? — I can tell you everything I know about him.”

In direct contrast to how he’d reacted to the idea of making avowal at his father’s assessment, Sanosuke seemed to be taking a grim pleasure at the thought of disclosing everything he knew about someone he disliked so much more straightforwardly. And there was a touch of tightness around his mouth, a tilt to his brows, a fleeting haunted look in his eyes that he seemed to be trying his best to hide, indicating (to Kenshin, at least) that, no matter how bravely he’d implied this encounter had merely been an additional instance of something he had quite a lot of, he was more distressed about his interactions with Usui than he was letting on verbally.

If Megumi had also noticed how much Sanosuke had really suffered by fulfilling his part of the bargain he’d made, still she chose to wrap things up and not pursue the matter. And when the questioner had declared herself finished with the accused, Kaoru took over by wondering whether the arbiter had anything to ask.

Kenshin smiled at her. Both she and Megumi could probably tell how engrossed he was in this assessment — for one thing, he hadn’t made a single request regarding the nearby overhot stove — just as he could read Megumi’s little reactions of surprise and the outrage Kaoru had been subtly evincing about the Usui business. He shook his head.

Kaoru nodded again, then turned back to Sanosuke. “The sovereignty thanks you for your avowal, Sanosuke of lineage Shishio. You may take your previous place.” She gestured to where Sanosuke’s escort still stood behind the platform.

Though he’d clearly been depressed by several items brought up during his avowal, and though he appeared understandably wearied by the ordeal, the young man’s energy of movement didn’t seem to have decreased; he hopped down the single step and turned with alacrity to face the guards that had come to meet him. Kenshin had been watching meticulously for how Sanosuke would react to his first sight of Saitou since before his arrest, what might happen when their eyes met, but the seat Saitou had taken was to the right of the platform, and Sanosuke had stepped down on the left and again entirely missed his presence in the room.

He could not long remain in ignorance, however, as Kaoru next said, “Our final witness will please step onto the platform.”

Even had Kenshin not been specifically observing, he doubted he could have failed to catch sight of Sanosuke stumbling abruptly on his way back to the open space where the accused and his escort stood and then turning in a movement that incorporated a deep breath and a significant stiffening of spine. Sanosuke still could not meet Saitou’s eyes, however, since the agent, having taken his place on the witness’ platform, now faced away from him.

As the assessment proceeded, Kenshin divided his attention between the final witness and the accused. Saitou took the Oath of Honesty, and in doing so immediately displayed a disposition seemingly the polar opposite of Sanosuke’s: perfectly composed, with no emotions tied up in this business whatsoever. And he wasn’t what Kenshin would have described as ‘really fucking hot.’ Of course Kenshin had little interest in men — the elegant questioner or the lively assessment overseer were more his speed — but even by his admittedly vague standards of what made a man attractive he found this one a little too harsh. But there was no accounting for taste.

“To begin,” Megumi was saying, “for clarity: you are an agent of the sovereignty transferred here from another location in order to investigate Makoto and his business dealings.”

“That is correct,” replied Saitou.

“You had arranged to pose as a slave in order to enter Makoto’s household, because you had some information that led you to believe he would be inclined to buy you.”

“Yes. The scar on my chest, which would be visible on a slavers’ platform, would draw associations with an old enemy of Makoto’s. We believed he would not be able to resist purchasing me.”

Kenshin noticed Sanosuke nodding slowly as if this information, though he hadn’t put its pieces together before, added up to a reasonable conclusion.

“But in fact,” Megumi pointed out, “it was Makoto’s son who purchased you. Do you believe it was a coincidence that Sanosuke had taken over the task of buying household slaves just at the time you were planted in the slave market?”

“Yes, I do.” Saitou’s demeanor made Megumi’s seem warm and casual by contrast.

“Sanosuke tells us that when he brought you home and sexually propositioned you, he indicated you had the option of refusing. Is that true?”

With a curt nod Saitou replied immediately, “He made it as clear as someone in his position at the time possibly could.”

“Would you have felt safe rejecting Sanosuke’s advances?”

Here, Kenshin was interested to note — though he couldn’t be entirely sure he wasn’t imagining it — Saitou hesitated briefly before answering, “No. I would have believed doing so would endanger my position in the household.”

A quick glance at Sanosuke showed a stricken expression so poignant as to infect Kenshin somewhat with its sudden misery. And guaranteeing the continuance of that unhappiness, Megumi persisted on the dreary topic by asking Saitou, “Do you believe Sanosuke took advantage of you?”

Saitou frowned, and spoke in a pensive tone that, though as cool as before, held a touch of darkness. “Slavery has allowed mankind new and more incisive ways to objectify and abuse each other. Even the best master treats a slave differently than he treats any free man, whether he realizes it or not. No one who has not acted as a slave can realize the layers of oppression that can be inflicted on one human by another, nor how humans change when they are put into the positions of master and slave. It’s a system the sovereignty would do well to examine closely in the near future.”

It was such a lengthy and unexpectedly moralizing answer that everyone stared at him in silence for a moment. Then Megumi gave her head a tiny shake and said, “I wonder if you aren’t trying to avoid the question.”

“I apologize,” Saitou replied dryly, “if I got a little too philosophical.” Much more bluntly he continued, “I believe I took advantage of him by cultivating a relationship under entirely false pretenses and using him for information.”

Watching Sanosuke, Kenshin believed he could pinpoint the exact instant of heartbreak — during the last syllable of ‘entirely false pretenses’ — and felt his own heart go out to the young man. It was a shame Saitou never looked around and saw the face of the accused, on which rampant emotions played as openly as children on a lawn.

Kenshin also noted, however, that Saitou, for all his cool bluntness, had still avoided the actual question Megumi had asked. He probably did believe some advantage had been taken, and now had deliberately eschewed specifically saying so — Kenshin didn’t think it was mere wishfulness on Sanosuke’s behalf that made him believe it — in order to spare the accused the pain of the admission. Whether that would have hurt more or less than ‘entirely false pretenses,’ Kenshin wasn’t sure.

Megumi seemed satisfied, at least for the short term, on the point of whether or not Saitou had been sexually assaulted, for she moved on to another part of his interaction with Sanosuke. “Is it true that Sanosuke was not responsible for the betrayal of your intentions to Makoto?”

“Yes, it is true. That was a slip of my own.”

“And did Sanosuke contact you during your imprisonment in an attempt to determine a way to free you?” When Saitou confirmed this as well, she went on. “Sanosuke reported that neither of you had any idea how you might be able to escape your confinement; yet you were able to escape soon thereafter, so clearly you did have some idea.” Saitou nodded. “Was it because you didn’t trust him that you didn’t confide your plans in him at that time?”

Kenshin, accustomed to seeing the story of events twist and evolve as it passed through various witnesses at an assessment, was not disturbed or surprised at hearing a slightly different account of Saitou’s escape from the Shishio estate than Sanosuke had presented. But Sanosuke was looking distinctly confused, and that expression only intensified as Saitou answered, “No, not because I didn’t trust him. It was because I believed it would be safer if he were not involved in my escape attempt.”

“Then you were unaware,” Megumi suggested, “of the bargain Sanosuke was making with Usui.”

“I was unaware.” Now there was a discernible, if still minimal, hint of emotion, of tightness, in Saitou’s words and bearing. He had never once looked around at Sanosuke, but at this moment Kenshin believed a certain muscular tendency indicated he would like to. “I was unaware of that,” he repeated stonily, “until just now at this assessment. If I had known of Usui’s intentions, I would have escaped and killed him much earlier than I did.”

Abruptly Sanosuke seemed to understand how things had really happened, and it might only have been possible to detangle the mess of emotions on his face with a decent stretch of time and some fine tools. It looked as if he might burst out with some surprised and unhappy exclamation, contrary to the rules of the assessment hall that forbade witnesses not on the platform from speaking, but he managed to control himself, and the mouth he’d opened snapped back into miserable closure.

Kenshin got the feeling Megumi wanted to be done with this; she probably felt the dreary atmosphere emanating from Sanosuke as well as the arbiter did. “You spent nearly a month in the Shishio estate,” she said to Saitou, “and must have become fairly well acquainted with Sanosuke and his lifestyle. Do you believe Sanosuke had any connection with his father’s illegal dealings?”

“No, I don’t believe it. Sanosuke has merely been lazy and useless and a waste of significant potential for most of his life, not actually criminal. In fact, whether he intended it or was even aware of it, he assisted in my investigations and should be commended.” Though this statement was spoken with the same lack of hesitancy as most of Saitou’s statements, it was also even more coldly professional, and Kenshin could tell Sanosuke drew very little comfort from the proposed commendation. It was evident, moreover, that Sanosuke believed Saitou had no personal interest in him and regarded him only as a facet of a job he’d been busy with that was now about ready to wrap up.

Whether or not Megumi, like Kenshin, remained far less convinced than Sanosuke was, she now turned to Kaoru and declared herself finished questioning this witness. And Kaoru wondered formally, as before, if Kenshin had anything he wanted to ask.

Kenshin stared at Saitou for a moment, and came to the conclusion that it was unlikely he had any clearer idea of the situation that Sanosuke did. He hadn’t been present for the more emotional parts of Sanosuke’s avowal, hadn’t even looked him in the face this entire time; and Sanosuke’s described behavior during their near month together had been very… frivolous… certainly nothing to indicate his interest in Saitou had been anything beyond physical, casual, transient — and that in a context of master and slave not easily translatable into normal interaction.

Saitou didn’t know what a difference he’d made in Sanosuke’s way of thinking. He didn’t know that what Sanosuke had done in an attempt to free him had been a real and deliberate sacrifice rather than the throwaway action the young man had implied it was. He didn’t know Sanosuke had never really been able to see him as a slave — especially given that, based on Saitou’s comment, ‘Even the best master treats a slave differently than he treats any free man, whether he realizes it or not,’ that perception of Sanosuke’s had not been strong enough to be plainly demonstrable.

Kenshin, having leaned far toward ‘completely ingenuous’ and away from ‘extremely convincing actor,’ fully planned on declaring Sanosuke innocent of the crime of complicity in his father’s treason. He wouldn’t even need to spend his mandatory ten minutes considering the matter; rather, he could concentrate on cooling down his right side for a bit. He did consider Sanosuke guilty of some misconduct in his sexual relationship with Saitou, but that behavior, Kenshin was sure, arose from an ignorance and thoughtlessness that Sanosuke was at least on his way to relinquishing. Besides, Saitou had clearly reached a philosophical breakthrough regarding the system of slavery and the treatment of slaves during his time posing as one, so it wasn’t impossible that Sanosuke might have some assistance in considering matters of authority and consent.

And Sanosuke would need assistance in more than that. He’d just had his entire attitude about life turned upside-down, been arrested for and accused of treason and displaced from his longtime home in the process, had his father (whatever his father might be to him) exposed as the worst of men and finally come to terms with his own suspicions about him, and discovered that he himself might be a rapist and was probably at least, as he’d put it, ‘a total ass.’ He needed someone strong and steady and wise in his life right now, and Kenshin had a pretty good idea who that person could be.

If those two ever actually spoke to each other again. Given the level of misconception Kenshin believed he currently observed between them, he wouldn’t be surprised if they went their separate ways from this hall and became little more than bitter memories in each other’s lives.

But what was an arbiter for if not the prevention of such gross injustice?

“I do have a question for you,” Kenshin said, fixing Saitou with a calm but penetrating gaze. “And I would like to remind you, before I ask, that you have taken the Oath of Honesty.”

Saitou looked wary. “Of course.”

“What,” Kenshin wondered in a friendly tone, “are your precise feelings toward the accused at this time?”

There was a long silence during which Saitou’s narrowed eyes remained locked with Kenshin’s, and the arbiter feared the witness might attempt to refuse to answer. Of course if Saitou believed Sanosuke had been doing nothing more than enjoying casual and convenient sex with a perceived slave, he would feel pathetic admitting to any deeper sensibilities. No one liked declaring unrequited love, and the strength to be completely open about something so personal, something that could be turned so easily into a weapon in callous hands, was not one everybody possessed.

But Saitou rallied with a nearly invisible breath and squaring of shoulders. He kept hold of Kenshin’s gaze with his eyes as if it were a lifeline and stated, in just as indifferent a tone as he’d used for anything else he’d said here today, “I have developed an emotional attachment to the accused that, though I can’t call it ‘love’ at this time, is more than friendship and certainly more than I would feel for someone I was merely using to further my investigative efforts.”

A choking sound issued from where Sanosuke stood, but Kenshin was not looking in that direction; he’d felt it more courteous to maintain that eye contact Saitou so clearly needed to make his declaration. Now he gave a slight smile. “Thank you,” he said, and stood, making an automatic and almost unconscious movement away from the wood stove as he did so. “I will withdraw to deliberate, and return with my arbitration in no less than ten minutes’ time.” As Saitou twitched slightly toward the step down from the witness’ platform — on the side away from Sanosuke, of course — Kenshin added, “Please remain where you are until I return.”

Saitou nodded, and stood very still and stiff where he was without looking around. Kenshin met first Megumi’s eye and then Kaoru’s as he turned for the door into his cloister, and each gave him a subtle smile of her own. They knew him too well; they must be aware both of what he’d been aiming for out here and what he planned on saying when he came back.

The arbiter’s cloister was normally unpleasantly chilly at this time of year, but today it was a nice change after the wood stove. Kenshin closed the door behind him and stretched his arms and back, rolling his shoulders and yawning. Then he drew out his pocket-watch to begin counting down.

He hadn’t arbitrated such an interesting assessment in quite a while; and he felt that when, ten minutes from now, he returned into the hall and declared Sanosuke innocent of all criminal behavior at this time, and dismissed both the accused and the final witness to go about their business simultaneously, he would have done a good day’s work.


I’ve rated this story . For some author’s notes on it, see this Productivity Log.

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


You Won’t Regret It


Why did he treat him like that, like he cared about him, then leave him with a promise he couldn’t possibly fulfill?


Having been slaves for most of their lives, they know that love is both a luxury and a weakness they can’t afford; with Sano obsessing over a guard and Katsu enchanted by a newly-arrived fellow slave, however, they may not be able to help themselves. But something bigger than that is going on around them, and their growing feelings may be the least of their problems.


Unique to this story: shallow treatment of very serious topics

You Won’t Regret It

Chapter 1

Two figures trudged silently up a long, gentle, brush-covered hill that was dotted with small trees on either side of the dirt road. There were no clouds that day, and the burning harvest sun never ceased its barrage of scorching rays despite its near-hidden state behind the forested horizon. The young men were covered in dirt the same color of dark brown as that beneath their bare feet, and sweat ran over round muscle in bright lines through the grime they’d accrued from their day’s work. Their plain, sleeveless shirts, rumpled and filthy like their equally plain, baggy pants, were balled in their hands, baring the tattoo that each bore on his right shoulder-blade: a simple logo consisting of two fisted hands pressed knuckle-to-palm and the letters ‘KL’ above a ten-digit number.

The more muscular of the two was brown-haired and brown-eyed, his locks shorn close so they prickled in every direction. He was tall and lanky, his frame filled out with muscle and perfectly trim, his skin golden. His name was Sanosuke.

The other was only slightly shorter, stockier and less well-developed but still undeniably strong from the huge amount of hard labor he and his fellow slaves performed day after day. His long black hair was tied up to keep it out of his face, which visage was somewhat gaunt and tired-looking. His skin was darker than his friend’s, his eyes clear blue. This was Katsuhiro.

As they began to speak, it was with perfectly mixed accents; they had lived in the slave complex for so long that their national origins could no longer be determined; it was possible that they themselves did not remember what those were.

“I know what you’re thinking about.” Katsu was looking anywhere but at his friend — at a lizard skittering across a rock nearby, at the half-obscured tire tracks in the dust beneath their feet, at his own work-hardened hands as they swung beside him.

“Fuck,” was all Sano replied. His gaze was steadily forward, but he didn’t seem to see anything — at least, not anything actually ahead of him.

Katsu sighed. “I know it hurts you to watch her like that, but there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Throwing him a dour look, Sano replied, “So I should just forget it, huh?”

Katsu’s eyes fell again to the ground they walked. “I don’t know.”

“I swear that bastard did it on purpose!”

“Did what?”

“They told him Kaoru was Kenshin’s woman, and he bought just Kenshin on purpose to hurt them both.”

“He did seem pretty cold-hearted,” Katsu admitted.

“Cold-hearted? The man was a fucking sadist!”

Katsu sighed again. “Sano, this isn’t helping.”

“I’ve gotta do something, though… she’s still sick, and now they’re making her work the fields already!”

“Sano, I told you, there’s nothing you can do!”

Sano seized his friend by the shoulders and shook him. “What the hell are you saying, man? What would Souzou think to hear you say that?!”

“Why do you think Souzou’s dead, idiot?” replied Katsu in a defensively loud tone, pain filling his eyes.

Sano’s face contorted in an angry growl. “Coward!”

“Is there a problem?”

Both slaves turned to look at the source of the deep, Sorratian-accented voice, and observed a guard watching them. He’d obviously been heading down to the fields from the barracks for the night watch, for the crisp cloth of his uniform was as yet unmarred by any of the dust that would certainly stripe it by the end of the night. He’d apparently come upon them just as the shaking and yelling had begun; fights between slaves were absolutely not tolerated, and the guard was touching his holstered gun, slung left-handed, in silent warning.

Slowly the two calmed and shook their heads, resuming their steady pace toward their sleeping quarters. But as they passed the grey-clad enforcer, Sano could feel the guard’s eyes carefully and approvingly traversing his body before the man chose to walk on.

Now I’ve done it,” Sano grumbled.

Their brief argument was forgotten. “Hey, he was looking at me too,” Katsu reassured him. “It’s a fifty-fifty chance.”

“I’ve never seen him around here before.” Sano fought the urge to look back at the tall, unfamiliar figure. “Suppose he’s new?”

“I guess.” Katsu gave in to the temptation Sano had resisted and turned his head to glance at the man. He snorted. “If they’re going to let their guards use us as their personal whores, they should at least get good-looking ones.”

Sano was startled. “I thought that guy looked pretty good; you didn’t?”

“He was freaky… didn’t you see? his eyes were yellow.”

Sano had seen, and shrugged. “Not like it matters much once they’re fucking you.” And he thought no more of it, for his mind had returned to the disturbing matter of Kaoru.

His heart ached for her, seeing her weakening daily from her mysterious illness. The doctor hadn’t been able to give any real diagnosis, which was why the slavers were forcing her to continue work, but Sano knew exactly what she was suffering from: a broken heart. Ever since that white-haired bastard had shown up looking for a strong but pretty man and taken Kenshin away from her forever, Kaoru’s spirit was entirely broken. Sano knew she couldn’t last long. He’d seen it before, in the years he’d spent here, but it had never hurt him like this. Kenshin had been a good friend to him, and Kaoru was like a sister, despite the fact that he’d only known the two of them for just under a year. It was difficult that no matter what he did, Kenshin was destined to live out a life of slavery to some rich sadist somewhere never knowing that his lover had wasted away without him.

Today she had collapsed in the field shortly after noon, and though they had not feared for her life — she’d been open-eyed and relatively lucid as she’d been helped back to the quarters by a couple of grumbling guards — naturally Sano and Katsu were worried that her condition was worsening. And of course there was no communication between slaves in one part of the complex and those in another, so they had no idea how she’d fared for the rest of the day.

As they drew nearer to the cluster of slave quarter buildings that semi-circled the mess hall, their pace subtly increased as they threaded their way through the influx of people to the latter and headed for their own quarters instead.

The building, identical to the other four, was a plain rectangle divided into two long rooms succeeding a small set of chambers that belonged to the quarter-warden. The main rooms contained little more than the rows of cots on which the slaves slept; as nobody stayed in the complex long before being sold, there were few belongings to be seen, and no personalization whatsoever. And everything, even what had started out another color, had faded to the same uniform grey.

Against this, Kaoru’s dark hair and pale skin stood out, as did the similarly dark hair of the stranger that sat beside her on the cot. Sano and Katsu slowed momentarily as they entered the room, surprised. Kaoru looked up at them and smiled slightly. Deciding for the moment to ignore the unfamiliar young man at her side, the two hurried over to her.

“You’re sitting up; you look OK,” Sano said as they reached her.

“Yes, I’m fine,” she replied, reaching out to squeeze his hand. “It was just the heat, I think.”

“I hope you’ve been drinking lots of water,” Katsu said.

She nodded, and gestured to the stranger, who, they noticed, was holding a half-full glass bottle. They both took the time now to study the fine features and short, even black hair of the young man that looked to be about their age. He must have been well-treated, wherever he came from.

“You new?” Sano asked him.

“My name is Soujirou,” the newcomer replied with a nod, and even in these few words his Touschan accent was clear. “I just got here today, and they didn’t give me anything to do, so I’ve just been sitting with her since she came.”

“Thanks for helping her,” Katsu replied seriously. “I’m Katsu and this is Sano.”

“You feelin’ up to supper?” Sano asked Kaoru after he’d completed his half of the introduction with a nod to Soujirou.

“I think I could manage it,” she said softly, the only problem with the statement being that she didn’t seem to care whether or not she ate that night or ever again. Sano, deciding to ignore this and how helpless and miserable it made him feel, extended a hand to help her up, and at her side Soujirou also stood.

“Anyone show you the way to mess hall yet?” Sano asked as he started toward the door.

“They pointed it out to me,” Soujirou admitted, “but I’m a little disoriented now.”

“You must have come from someone nice,” Katsu commented as he fell into step at Soujirou’s side.

Soujirou nodded. “Actually, I’m a little nervous about all this… I never had to do much hard work…” A slightly shaky laugh accompanied this statement, and Sano couldn’t help pitying him. He’d find out soon enough what real slave labor was.

There wasn’t a day when the topic of escape didn’t come up at some point, facetious, sardonic, or hopeless as such conversations usually were. The mess hall was usually the setting of this, and, despite having a new addition to their little circle, tonight was no exception. This discussion was led, as was quite often the case, by Yahiko, a boy that usually shared their company and always had a grand scheme for getting out.

“No, I swear it would work,” he was insisting, emphatically waving a piece of bread at the skeptical Katsu beside him. “All we’d have to do is get to the top of the windmill and–”

“Listen, kid,” Sano interrupted him with a shake of his head, “don’t get your hopes up with crazy plans like that. Unless we come up with something that would actually work, we’re not likely to ever escape from here, and that’s reality.”

“Don’t tell him that,” Kaoru chided, observing the eleven-year-old’s downcast expression with pity. “I’m sure there’s some way out.”

Katsu only shook his head as Sano had done.

Yahiko was determined not to despair even in the face of jaded discouragement. His was a strong spirit that had yet to be broken, he having been here only a few months or so after the relatively kind owner he’d been born serving had died. He idolized Sano, for some reason, to the point even of trying to imitate his hairstyle, though his locks were black. And he was determined to escape. “No, seriously, hang-gliders work really good — you strap it to your back and glide for a mile or something.”

Sano smiled wanly. “Don’t you think they’d notice if we took all our blankets outside and started tying them onto sticks and stuff?”

“I think it’s a good idea,” Kaoru said.

“See?” Yahiko demanded.

Soujirou, who had been listening in intent silence, now joined the conversation. “If you could escape, though, where would you go?”

“Yeah, exactly,” Sano said.

“Back to Touscha, of course,” said Yahiko hotly.

“How would you get there, though?” Soujirou pursued. “This place is in the middle of nowhere between Touscha, Baiza, and West Sorrat, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is,” Katsu confirmed, a little surprised; most slaves didn’t have any clear idea of the complex’s geographic location.

“Wouldn’t it be a long, hard hike, then?” Soujirou asked. “And what would you eat? And what if something ate you?”

Seeming a little dismayed at these questions, Yahiko struggled to find answers.

“And if you got to Touscha,” Soujirou pressed on, “what then? Do you know how to live like a free man? Could you blend in well enough that when Ketterect Labor came looking, they wouldn’t suspect you were an escaped slave?”

This was another surprise; few slaves knew what the KL on their backs stood for.

“And how would you support yourself? Touschans don’t hold jobs until they’re eighteen, you know.”

“Is this really necessary?” asked Kaoru quietly. Katsu noticed absently that she hadn’t eaten much.

Sano sided with Soujirou. “No, he’s just being realistic.” And though it did seem odd that Soujirou could play devil’s advocate so persistently with that mild smile on his face the entire time, Katsu had to agree that realism shouldn’t be argued against. A lot of the time — as in this situation, evidently — those that had just arrived were the most pragmatic; anyone that lasted longer, went through a couple of dealer cycles without being sold, often had their perspective skewed. As for Katsu and Sano… he didn’t know whether their history at this place rendered their perspective dead-on, or skewed even worse than most.

Yahiko was staring at his plate unhappily; Katsu found his eyes lingering on the boy for quite some time. The prudence of practicality notwithstanding, maybe the newcomer had been a little too blunt. Katsu’s gaze rose to find that young man, and discovered Soujirou looking similarly at Yahiko. The smile was gone from his face, and the expression there in its stead was one of sorrow and pity that Katsu couldn’t help but appreciate; maybe Soujirou also thought he’d been too hard on the kid.

As if feeling Katsu’s gaze, Soujirou looked up and caught his eyes, and the light smile returned, the sadness vanishing as if it had never existed. Katsu thought this odd, but there was no use staring any further; he was finished eating and had somewhere to be.

“Well,” he announced as he stood and picked up his tray, “I’ve got barracks-call.”

“Oh?” Sano looked up quickly. “That guy?”

“He was on night-patrol, remember? It’s Akamatsu, of course.”

“Oh,” Sano glowered.

“Yeah. See you all tomorrow.”

After tubbing his dishes, Katsu headed for the doors, glancing back at his friends as he exited. He found Soujirou watching him very steadily, and gave a little wave. Soujirou didn’t seem to have any idea what he’d meant by ‘barracks-call,’ and waved back with that same smile. Katsu sighed as he trudged away from the mess hall up the hill toward the guards’ quarters. He’d find out soon enough.



2>>

Chapter 2

The next day, Sano couldn’t help thinking a little wistfully about Yahiko’s hang-glider plan as he walked with Katsu and Soujirou past the windmill on the way to the fields in the clear dawn. The kid was always thinking up crazy ideas like that; in some ways it was refreshing, and in others terribly frustrating.

Yahiko was also constantly talking about the outer world as he’d known it. Sano had never been to Touscha, at least not as far as he could remember, and therefore those stories were interesting almost to the point of being painful. For what was the likelihood of Sano’s ever being able to find out for sure whether or not Yahiko was making them up?

It didn’t make matters any better that Soujirou was new to the complex and had all sorts of nosy questions. Some weren’t so bad… the ones about how the farming here worked and whether KL sold the grain to anyone or just used it to feed the slaves and the guards, and whether they knew which country KL bought the commodities they couldn’t produce from (incidentally, Katsu did know, because he had a seemingly superhuman ability to pick things like that up and remember them), and whether there was ever any recreation for the slaves, and all sorts of other irrelevant things… Sano just listened as Katsu patiently answered it all, in between the comings and goings of guards, until Soujirou happened upon a subject neither of them were going to want to discuss.

“Your friend Yahiko seems hell-bent on escaping. Has anyone ever escaped from here before, that you know of?”

Both Katsu and Sano shook their heads.

“In Touscha, slavery is a very touchy issue,” Soujirou remarked. Sano found his smile, at such a moment, almost uncanny. “It’s technically legal, but lots of people are against it… if something big were to come up, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it banned. That’s why I was wondering — if there were to be a mass break-out, it would stir things up there and might accomplish something… Has anyone ever tried anything like that?”

“Yes,” Sano and Katsu answered at once.

Soujirou paused, looking at them. Sano only saw this out of the corner of his eye, as he’d become very intent on his work and guessed Katsu had as well. Undoubtedly they were both trying to keep their faces from betraying the pain that still lingered.

“What… happened?” Soujirou wondered a little hesitantly. He was obviously no fool, and had read enough in their mutual tone, even in that single syllable of affirmation, to make him cautious.

Neither of the others answered for a long moment until finally Katsu said briefly, “Almost everyone involved was killed.”

“Oh.” Soujirou cleared his throat and then made a slight and obviously deliberate change of subject. “Lately — before my master went bankrupt, anyway — I was hearing about some anti-slavery groups doing things like kidnapping slaves and supposedly taking them to West Sorrat and conditioning them for free life. He worried about sending me on errands outside his property!” he added with a slight laugh, clearly unaware that a guard had appeared not far off, that he was talking too much. “I heard that not much was being done about these people because–”

“Would you shut the hell up already?” the guard said as he stepped forward and gave the cheerful young man a rough shove. “You new fucks with your stupid chatter. God.”

“Sorry, sir,” Soujirou said unnecessarily, turning his unfaltering smile toward the guard.

“Yeah, yeah, just get back to work.” The guard was perhaps taken somewhat aback by that incongruous expression — which, Sano thought with a faint touch of amusement, was maybe its point — and only eyed Soujirou a bit more before continuing his walk of the field.

Soujirou, still smiling, did as he was told. Sano was a trifle relieved.

Like all newcomers, Soujirou would undoubtedly become accustomed to this place very quickly, Sano reflected, and not by asking a lot of questions — just because no day was ever any different from any other, and the nights were similarly all the same. Week after week it was nothing but work while the sun was up (Soujirou had proven today that he was capable of that); get fucked by some guard at night (Soujirou undoubtedly had the face and figure for that); and hope to survive to see the next season roll in.

Soujirou, in that last area, was a matter of question. He was too obviously accustomed to being treated well, and was therefore a little too flippant toward the guards. Not that slaves were routinely killed by guards, but the enforcers would go out of their way to make sure they didn’t get any attitude from those they ruled. Sano had seen some slaves die of pure indifference as their spirits were thus broken. He wasn’t to that point yet, though he didn’t know why — his must have been a stronger spirit than most — but he could see the day coming. And he wasn’t looking forward to watching it happen to yet another person that had joined their little group. Soujirou had better smooth himself out before someone else did it for him.

Kaoru seemed worse than usual that night, and Sano fervently hoped that the guards would forget about him for just this evening. Just let him sit by her side a little longer. If he couldn’t bring Kenshin back, the least he could do was try to fill the void, however inadequate he was. Yahiko seemed to be out of ideas for the moment, Soujirou was weary and quiet on the cot behind Sano, and silence reigned in their part of the room.

Kaoru was very pale as she lay curled up on her side in the little cot, eyes open but unmoving, and she shivered occasionally. Sano and Katsu had given her their own thin blankets, but she never seemed to be warm enough at night, even in these sweltering months. Sano’s face was blank as he stared down at her, but his mind wasn’t. Thoughts raced through his head like suicidal flying creatures — crashing into each other, into the ground, into trees, until he thought he was going crazy. Just like every night.

His reverie was broken when Kaoru sat up slowly. “Water?” she mumbled a little blearily.

“I’ll get it,” Katsu replied, stilling Sano and rising. He walked down the long line of cots past other slaves, who ignored him, to the end of the room. Pausing for a moment to stand directly in front of the electric fan that was all the ‘air conditioning’ they were allowed, he then moved on to where a few buckets sat in the corner full of water for their use. Sano watched him tiredly, for no particular reason, and when Katsu held up an empty bucket for him to see and headed for the door, he nodded absently.

“Katsu’s going to the pump,” he assured Kaoru. “It’ll just be a minute.”

“Thanks,” she replied, and her vision seemed to drift away to something she couldn’t actually see. He was sure it had something to do with a red-haired, violet-eyed man with pale skin and a gentle demeanor. Tears slowly filled her eyes as she closed them, and she brushed fitfully at the few that slid out down her cheeks.

Sano took her hand and squeezed it, knowing he could give no real comfort but wanting her to feel his presence. It was awkward and more than a bit painful watching a woman cry when there was nothing he could do about it, though, and he let his eyes drift around the room.

As it generally did at this time of day, the false serenity of weariness lay over the slave quarters — over the small group of companions as well as the others that sat massaging their feet or lay exhausted on their cots. The noise level, as always, was low; conversation during the work-day was discouraged, and the fear of reprisal carried even into the night when no guards were present. There were a few children in one corner carrying on some kind of quiet activity with their backs to the adults, but even their game — or whatever it was — was nearly devoid of energy.

Katsu, stopping just inside the doorway to set down his burden and observing the subdued scene, reflected that, in his eyes at least, his friends were the only part of the room that had any color; everything else appeared hopelessly dull. He wasn’t sure what he would do in a place like this, would have done all these years, without those he’d become close to — even coming and going as they always did — and especially Sano.

He transferred the big metal drinking ladle from an empty bucket to one of those he’d just filled, and went over to Kaoru. She accepted the ladle gratefully and drained it slowly. When she was finished, she sighed and returned the utensil to Katsu. Glancing from his face to Sano’s and then down to Yahiko, she remarked, “You all take care of me so much. Thank you.” Sano nodded, but couldn’t say anything. Yahiko, sitting on the floor, was looking down, sad and awkward, at his crossed legs and feet. Katsu nodded, like Sano, and went to put the ladle back in the bucket.

“I heard some guards talking,” he said quietly when he was seated at Kaoru’s side again, “out there. There was water in the trough, so I didn’t have to use the pump and they didn’t hear me. They were on the porch, and didn’t know anyone could hear them.”

They waited for him to continue, Kaoru easing herself down onto the cot once more and Yahiko watching him curiously.

Katsu looked around to make sure no one else was listening. Soujirou was evidently not paying attention (though Katsu felt fairly sure he could trust the newcomer anyway), and nobody else was within earshot. Finally he continued. “I didn’t hear everything, but they did say something about a break in the perimeter — out across the east field.”

Sano’s brow furrowed. “What do you think?” he asked.

Katsu shook his head slightly. “I don’t know. It sounds dangerous, but it could be our best chance yet.”

Yahiko opened his mouth as if he wanted to speak, but then didn’t say anything.

Sano was nodding slowly. “But we’d have to do it soon… they won’t let something like that sit for more than a day or so.”

“Oh, I forgot…” Their attention was all drawn to where Soujirou had stood up abruptly. “A guard told me to come to his room after dinner. I guess I’m late.”

Katsu and Sano exchanged unhappy glances.

Soujirou’s own face went slightly pale at sight of that. “I heard what you were saying yesterday… Does that mean…”

“Yeah,” Sano said quietly. “Sorry, man.”

“But, I…” Soujirou bit his lip.

“No choice,” Katsu said darkly. “Hopefully it was one of the nicer ones, and not Akamatsu.”

“I heard you say his name last night too,” Soujirou faltered. “Is he…”

“He’s a horny pervert and a complete bastard,” Sano said.

“Gets off on making our lives hell,” added Katsu.

“What does he look like?” Soujirou asked, even more faintly.

“He’s short, kinda big,” Sano informed, “got all kinds of scars on his face.”

The young man let out a breath of relief. “It wasn’t him, then. But… what happens if I don’t go at all?”

“You’ll probably get beaten then raped,” Sano told him grimly. “Best to just go and get it over with.”

Soujirou took a deep breath, then nodded. “Good night, then,” he said in a tone that was evidently struggling to sound strong as he turned for the door and headed off to face his doom.

“Poor guy,” Katsu muttered. “Second night here, too.”

“At least he’s old enough…” But despite the pity in his tone, Sano evidently couldn’t keep his mind on that matter. “Anyway, what about that break? Do you think we should go for it?”

“Yes!” Yahiko said, a little too loudly. His eyes were sparkling. “We could get out and make a run for it!”

“You should,” Kaoru agreed, and Katsu saw that her wide-open eyes were clear and filled with some emotion he hadn’t observed there for some time.

“We’ll go get help,” he said. “Soujirou was saying earlier–” He didn’t have time to explain it, though. “Well, we’ll find something, come back, and get you out.”

She smiled. “I don’t need your promises,” she said softly. “Just get yourselves out.”

Sano frowned. “No, we will come back for you.” But she shook her head. His frown deepened at that, and Katsu thought he was slightly hurt. “Fine, don’t believe it. But we will.” Turning to Yahiko then he said, “I’m sorry, kid, but we can’t take you with us.” He continued swiftly, not allowing the protest to make its way out of the boy’s mouth. “You know if we get caught trying to escape they’re likely to kill us, and I refuse to have your death on my conscience, even if I’m dead too. Plus, you’re not strong enough or fast enough to keep up with us.”

Yahiko gritted his teeth with an angry blush, abruptly fighting back tears. But not only was there no argument against Sano’s blunt points, he probably believed the insistence that Sano and Katsu would return to rescue them — maybe even more than either of them did. Finally he nodded.

Sano pulled him against his chest in a sudden hug. “I’ll miss you, kid,” he said.

“If we get out, it’ll be worth it,” Katsu nodded, reaching out to ruffle Yahiko’s hair.

“Yeah,” Yahiko stammered.

Sano then leaned down and kissed Kaoru on the brow. “Goodbye,” he said.

“We’ll be back,” Katsu promised again, squeezing her hand.

“Goodbye,” she replied, and closed her eyes so as not to see them rising and heading for the door… given that she obviously believed she would never see them again.

They planned quietly as they made their stealthy way across the dirt yard between the slave quarters and the guard barracks and onward. Heading north, they determined that they would cut through the orchard and come onto the field from the south, crossing it at the lower end where they would less easily be seen by patrols. Thence it was into the thick, hostile forest that surrounded the complex, and hopefully they could find the break in the perimeter fence soon enough to slip through and start running before someone realized they were gone.

After that, they had no idea what to do. It was only logical to assume that, as the complex lay at the juncture of three nations, whatever direction they chose to take would eventually lead them to one of those… Touscha would be preferable, given what Soujirou had said about slavery there, and they understood that it was to their northwest — but while northwest was easy enough to find in a place they’d known for a decade, things would be very different in a dark forest with many hours before dawn. With this in mind, they resolved not to be too particular about where they ended up, as long as it was somewhere other than here, and not dead.

But as Soujirou had pointed out last night, what then? Ketterect Labor Complex had been their home for ten years, and of what lay beyond they really had no concept other than what they’d been told and what they vaguely remembered from their childhood. Would they be capable of blending in, coming up with some way to support themselves, and finding help for their friends here in time?

They could not allow themselves to doubt that somewhere in the great beyond would be help for Kaoru. At the very least, if they could raise enough money somehow, they could buy their friends and bring them to freedom. And perhaps someone would have heard of a mistreated red-headed slave that pined for a love lost at the hands of a cruel white-haired man. Or even if that could not be, if they could get her out, Kaoru could receive better medical attention. The taciturn doctor that tended to the slaves was gentle and fairly adept, but cold and distant, wrapped up in thoughts no one could guess.

They had one close call as they scaled the orchard wall and Katsu nearly fell, but the guard below merely walked on without noting them. “This would be a lot easier,” Sano grumbled a bit later, when he could without being heard, “if they didn’t wear dark grey and we could see them better.”

Katsu shook his head with a wry smile. “Idiot.”

They crossed the orchard with little trouble, and darted across the dirt road between it and the sunken level of grain that was the east field. This was going to be a bit more difficult, as guards actually patrolled up and down the lanes between the plots, and it was there Katsu and Sano also had to walk — as going through the grain itself would make too much noise on this windless night and could not be risked. By the time they made it to the ditch that separated the field from the forest, they were sweating as much as if they’d been working in the field, not sneaking through it, but they remained unseen.

Clambering across the ditch, they took one last look around before plunging into the forest.

“Do you think we’re actually going to make it?” Katsu asked when they were a few minutes into the dense foliage, fighting their way forward with determination.

“I don’t know,” Sano replied, looking for a path through a particularly nasty tangle. “But I’ve gotta try. For Kaoru. And Kenshin.”

“And Souzou,” Katsu added softly.

Sano nodded.

The perimeter was drawing nearer, and the frenzy of Katsu’s heart spread to a flush throughout his entire body. This could be the moment he’d dreamed of his entire captive life, the amazing moment when he looked for the first time beyond the pale of slavery into freedom. Of course, all he was likely to see was forest, but that was immaterial. Now, if only they could find the break!

The tall, imposing barbed-wire electric fence appeared suddenly in front of them, the trees cleared away around it and the foliage hacked back. They peered cautiously out from the forest’s shelter, and saw what they were looking for off to their right: a tree had fallen into the fence, snapping wires and creating a bridge to freedom. It wasn’t obvious how the tree had been tipped, but they weren’t about to argue with such good fortune. Scanning the area for any sign of life, they both looked again at the fallen trunk, then at each other, and slowly moved forward.

“Did you two idiots really think there wouldn’t be a guard here?”

The unexpected sound stopped them short just a few yards from their destination. They might have risked the chance that the speaker was armed and run onward if the voice had not come from in front of them — indeed, from exactly where they were heading.

The guard stepped casually from behind the fallen tree, where boughs and shadows had combined with his dark uniform and black hair to render him completely invisible.

“Shit,” Sano growled.

It was the same guard that had been admiring them yesterday. Despite the blackness, his golden eyes glowed with a deadly gleam. He stood nonchalantly regarding them, a cigarette marking the darkness in his right hand, his left lying lightly on the holster at his hip.

Sano didn’t waste time between his next phrase, “Let’s take him down!” and his sudden sprint toward the man, but neither did the guard waste time in drawing and calmly firing a single perfect shot that flew straight into Sano’s shoulder.

Katsu was less inclined than Sano to physical combat, and so had held back at first, but upon seeing his friend fall to the ground in a burst of blood he leapt forward. However, the guard had, with the same calmness, pointed the gun directly at him, and was advancing slowly.

“K-katsu…” Sano choked out, grimacing as he clutched at his shoulder and tried to rise. “Run… get out…”

“Idiot!” Katsu replied in a desperate hiss, falling to his knees at his friend’s side when he saw that attacking an armed man was futile. “I’m not going without you!”

The guard loomed over them, a tall shadow stretching up to two amber points. What little light there was in the lee of the great trees gleamed off the barrel of his gun as it was leveled at Katsu’s head. “Get away from him,” he commanded.

“If you want to kill him, you’ll have to kill me first,” Katsu replied, leaning over Sano protectively.

“That would be easy enough,” the infuriating voice drawled out of the dark. “But if I wanted to kill him, don’t you think I might have aimed for a more vital area?”

There wasn’t really a logical answer for this, and the next moment a long arm snaked around the obstruction Katsu presented to seize Sano’s shirt and pull him all at once out of his friend’s clutching grasp. The guard lifted Sano easily and slung him over his shoulder. Sano must have blacked out, for he made neither protest nor attempt to escape, and his arms hung limp.

“What are you doing?” Katsu demanded, jumping to his feet.

The man looked at him briefly. “He’s bleeding; he needs to be treated. What do you think I’m doing?”

Katsu stared at him, baffled. “But… what should…”

The guard gestured at the fallen tree. “You’re free to continue your escape attempt if you wish to do so without your companion. Otherwise, I would advise you return to your quarters before dawn.” And with these words he turned and walked away calmly into the trees, carrying Sano with him.

Chapter 3

The pain was terrible, and in large part, he thought, stunting his progress toward full consciousness. Combined with this, the other sensations of soft bedsheets around him and something grazing the bare skin of his chest left him at a total loss as to where he was or what was happening to him. The last feeling, as if someone’s hand were slowly running over him in a light, almost absent caress, he dwelt on longest; it was soothing, especially compared to the agony in his shoulder.

Wait… he’d been shot, hadn’t he? Because… because he’d been trying to escape, and Katsu…

Sano sat up, giving a grunt at the increased pain and surprise at suddenly being completely awake, his hand flying immediately to his wound as a soft blanket slid down his body and a set of infinitely familiar objects came into focus: the plaster ceiling and walls, plain light fixture, and brown door of a barracks interior. “What the…? Where am I?”

“In my room.”

Sano started away from the guard that was seated immediately beside him on the bed, leaning against the wall behind them and barely looking up from the magazine he was reading. The startled motion nearly made Sano fall to the floor, and preventing himself from doing so caused him quite a bit of discomfort. “Ow… shit…”

His first thought was that the guard must have brought him back here to have his way with him before he turned him in for trying to escape, but it was obvious that he hadn’t been raped in his sleep. Beyond that, as he took stock of himself, he found that his gunshot wound had been cleaned and bandaged. For all the pain he was in, the way his shoulder and arm were moving led him to guess that the bullet had missed everything vital and left him to heal back to what would probably be a normal muscular condition. It must have been an amazingly precise shot to do so little damage.

Dizzy and confused, he lay down again, flat on his back, looking up at the other man. “Why?” he asked softly.

“Because I didn’t feel like treating your wound outside on the ground in the middle of the night.” Once more, the guard didn’t even look at him as he answered.

“Where’s Katsu?”

“If your friend has any sense, he’ll have gone back to his quarters long before this.”

It felt like a stupid thing to ask, but, given the circumstance, Sano couldn’t forebear — “Are you gonna turn us in?”

“No.”

“Why?”

The man put his magazine down at last, and regarded Sano with his uncanny golden eyes. “I’ve been watching you and your friend for several days now,” he said, but his words didn’t seem to be meant as any sort of answer to Sano’s question. “How did you come to be here?”

Although confused, Sano saw no reason not to tell him, so he replied, “Katsu and I were living on the streets in LeMere in Baiza, and these guys picked us up.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Ten years? Eleven? Something like that.”

The man’s eyes narrowed. “I find it hard to believe than a strong and attractive young man wouldn’t have been sold in such a length of time.”

“Those are the exact reasons I wasn’t. I’m strong, so I’m useful for all kinds of work…” Sano’s eyes flicked up toward the ceiling rather than the man’s face as he blushed. Why exactly he was blushing, he couldn’t be quite sure; it might have been because of what he was about to explain, but why that should be, when it was something he basically took for granted, he didn’t know. “And I’m attractive, I guess, so I’m useful for all kinds of other stuff too. I’ll never get sold. Matter of fact, somebody always locks me and Katsu up when the dealers come by, just to make sure we don’t. I don’t think the higher-ups know they do that, though.”

“How old are you?”

“Nineteen, I think.”

There was a brief silence, and Sano was almost afraid to look over again, but did so anyway. He found the man staring down at him with a piercing gaze that he did not understand. “Are you saying,” the man asked, with peculiar emphasis, “that these guards have found you ‘strong and attractive’ since you were nine years old?

Sano was blushing even more than before. Maybe it was just that no one had ever really talked to him about it like this; it had always just been… the way he lived. “Yeah. Well, not like it’s been the same guards all this time. You guys come and go too.”

More silence. Then finally, “How many slaves would you say there are here?”

“About a hundred.”

“And how long do they usually stay — the ones who don’t routinely get raped?”

“I’ve never known anyone to stay more than a year, but sometimes they go after a month even. The dealers come all in a group once a year and pick out lots of people, but sometimes individual ones come some other time when they’re running low or whatever.”

“Do you know anything about where the slaves get sold to?”

“Nah… usually the buyers don’t come up here in person. The dealers take the slaves they pick back to wherever they do whatever they do, and the buyers get what they need from there. Every once in a while a buyer wants more selection, and’ll turn up here looking for something specific, but that doesn’t happen much.” He thought of the asshole that had bought Kenshin.

The yellow-eyed man was nodding. “And when do most of the dealers come?”

“After harvest. Won’t be more’n about a month now.” Sano, by this point, was really at a loss to explain all these questions, which reminded him vaguely of Soujirou’s endless curiosity earlier this very day (for all it felt like weeks ago)… didn’t guards get briefed on all this stuff when they took the job? Maybe not. Maybe he was just too accustomed to the ones that had been here long enough to figure it all out.

“Do you know the date?”

“It’s just… after harvest…”

“I mean, do you know today’s date?”

“Um, no…”

The guard’s lips tightened. Sano was confused.

Abruptly the man stood and set his neglected magazine down on the table, then reached up to tug on the chain that turned off the light. The interrogation was probably over, then, and it was time to get on with the reason Sano was sitting here naked. A strange feeling began to grow in the pit of his stomach at that thought, a sensation he didn’t quite recognize. It was almost as if he didn’t feel ready for it, despite the fact that he was as ready as he ever was any night.

But all the man said next was, “Go to sleep.”

Sano blinked several times into the darkness, recognizing by the shifting of the bed and the blankets that the man had lain down beside him. “What?”

“I said, go to sleep.”

“Yeah, I heard you, but…”

“Or stay awake all night, if you think that will help you heal quicker.”

“I thought… Aren’t you going to fuck me?”

He might have been imagining things, but it seemed there was a pause that felt almost indecisive before the man replied in a tone half amused and half… something else… “Why; do you want me to?”

“No!”

“Why would you ask, then?”

“I wasn’t asking you to do it; I just figured you were already going to.”

“Why?”

“Well, you obviously want to…” At least, that was how Sano was reading the man’s expressions and tones.

“So?”

Baffled, Sano had absolutely no answer to this.

“You’re injured,” the guard said, as if that explained everything.

Sano was motionless with shock. No guard in the history of the slave complex would have cared that he was injured — indeed, to some it would have been an added bonus. And this one, while not bothering to deny that he wanted it, didn’t plan on taking him just because of a clean and well-treated wound in his shoulder?

“Who are you?” he managed to ask at last.

“A guard, idiot.”

“Yeah, I know that, but when did you get here? I never saw you before yesterday. What’s your name? Why did you ask me all those questions? Why didn’t you turn us in?”

“You’re noisy. Go to sleep.”

But Sano, feeling strangely fearless, was not going to relent just yet. “If you didn’t plan on fucking me or turning me in, why did you stop me escaping?”

The guard said nothing; it seemed he didn’t intend to answer.

Finally, despairing of finding out what he wanted to know, Sano lay down with a slight sigh followed by a grunt of pain. He was acutely conscious of the warmth of the man immediately to his left; the guard still wore a robe and had his back to Sano, yet the arrangement felt very… intimate… and without the activities that generally preceded going to bed thus side by side, that intimacy was disconcerting. Sano wasn’t sure he’d actually be able to sleep like this. He couldn’t even turn away from the other man, as that would put him on his hurt shoulder.

It didn’t help that he was inexplicably naked.

Why was he naked, if the guard hadn’t planned on fucking him?

This question nagged at him until he was forced to ask it aloud.

“Your ratty clothing was covered with blood,” was the reply whose tone seemed to suggest that the answer was obvious and Sano should really shut up.

“But they won’t issue me any more clothing until–”

“I’ll make sure they do,” the man interrupted. “I’ll tell them in the morning that my gun went off by mistake and wounded you.”

“You really aren’t going to tell anyone that we tried to escape, are you.” Sano hadn’t been aware, up until this point, that he hadn’t really believed it up until this point.

“No, I’m not. It would be a good idea for you not to mention it to anyone either.”

“No shit… But I still don’t get why you stopped us. It doesn’t seem like you care whether we escaped or not.”

“Maybe I just wanted some company for the night.” By now the guard sounded exasperated.

“You could have had anyone!” Sano’s tone was very similar, but his was tinged with desperation, maybe even anger.

“I wanted you.”

“I don’t get it.”

“You don’t have to.”

“But you could have had someone who wasn’t trying to escape, dammit!”

“I told you; I’ve been watching you for days. I didn’t want anyone else. I wasn’t going to let you escape.”

“What the hell kind of motive is wanting my company for keeping me from my freedom?”

There was a long silence, and Sano thought the man was once again not going to answer him, until finally the reply came out of the darkness in the softest tone the guard had yet used: “You won’t regret it. I swear.”

The words made him shiver, for some reason, and that strange sensation in the pit of his stomach was growing. “Why?” he wondered, almost in a whisper.

“You ask too many questions.”

Sano had to give a snort of laughter. After the day he’d had… “I ask too many questions?”

But this time there really was no answer.

Once he’d resigned himself to the conversation’s end, he found discomfort, irritation, curiosity, and confusion fading, or at least going temporarily dormant, as he drifted away from consciousness much sooner than he’d expected.

The pre-dawn wake-up siren brought him to his senses in an empty bed; reflexively he sprang up before remembering the events of the night, then sat down again abruptly with a combination sigh and moan. His shoulder roared with pain, and his entire body felt stiff. He wondered if he’d moved even once the entire time he’d been asleep.

He looked around, but the guard was gone. Back to Sano came the oddly serious and almost gentle words that had been nearly the last thing he’d heard before going to sleep: “You won’t regret it. I swear.” Logically, he should be feeling regret, should be bitter or irate… but, besides the pain of his wound, the only sensation of which he was conscious was a strange sort of coldness that was more like an emotional void than anything brought on by the chill of morning. He touched the bandage on his shoulder gently and wondered where he would be by now if yellow-eyes hadn’t stopped them. He didn’t really know how to feel.

But the sun was certainly rising, and he would have time to think as he worked. Not that he was particularly looking forward to harvesting grain with this throbbing pain. He stood again, slowly, moving his arm a bit to test the muscles and grimacing at the result. No, not looking forward to it at all.

At that moment, the door opened, and a blank-faced girl entered without preamble. She didn’t seem to care that Sano was totally naked, only held out the bundle she had brought. “Here,” she said emotionlessly.

Sano knew well the look in the kid’s eyes, having seen it many times in countless faces since he came here: total, soul-deep apathy. He didn’t have to know her personally to be aware that she always did exactly what she was told, rolled with every blow, and could not care less where her life was going. It was the ultimate face of slavery: the death of all that was human in an individual.

“You won’t regret it. I swear.”

Yeah, buddy, you’re gonna hafta work pretty damn hard to live up to that one, Sano reflected harshly as he looked at the girl and thought of so many others like her, not to mention those that hadn’t yet reached this point, whose wills could still be saved, that might have been helped by his escape. He thought of Kaoru…

“Thanks,” he said, taking the clothes, old and used but clean and new to him.

“Coord’ told me to tell you to work in the wash-house ’til you’re OK.”

Sano nodded and began to dress as the girl turned and left.

As he stepped from the room and closed the door behind him a few minutes later, listening to the click of the latch with an indescribable rising emotion, the first of the morning, stretching out his healthy arm with a yawn, his attention was drawn to movement at his left. A guard had been standing very still close by and was now approaching.

“What’s your name?” the man asked in a flat tone; his accent was Sorratian like that of the other guard.

“Sano,” he replied promptly, puzzled and a little worried. Was he in trouble after all? He refrained from searching the man’s face, as guards generally didn’t like that, but from the short dark hair and cold blue eyes he’d taken in with his first glance he knew he’d never seen this man before.

“Quarter 4-12 tonight,” the stranger informed him in the same tone.

“Yes, sir,” Sano said dully, and watched in minor stupefaction as the guard turned and walked away without another word. They’re lining up for me outside each other’s doors now, he was reflecting, not without a touch of weary amusement, but how the fuck did he even know I was in there? He would have had to… well, maybe yellow-eyes told him this morning… Even with this explanation, though, it was disconcerting. But he’d deal with it as he always did.

Noting that the sun was by now risen, the slave made haste away from the barracks and down the hill toward the wash-house, hoping the excuse of having been wounded and needing to wait for new clothes would be enough to keep him out of trouble for being late.

Chapter 4

Katsu’s endless horrified conjectures about what had happened to Sano last night, and what might happen to both of the would-be escapees today, were to a certain extent interrupted by a very pale Soujirou joining him on the way to the fields just before sunrise. Looking a little lost and a bit the worse for wear, he fell into step quietly at Katsu’s side.

The latter was far too inured to the way they lived here to feel any intense remorse for Soujirou’s plight, but that didn’t make him totally unsympathetic. “Good morning,” he offered softly. “Are you all right?”

“I…” Soujirou’s face was blank.

Katsu put a hand on his shoulder, knowing full well that there was nothing he could say that would really mean anything.

Apparently attempting to rally his spirits, Soujirou managed a faint smile and, “Where’s Sano?”

Katsu tried not to frown. If Soujirou had been three minutes earlier, had come to the quarters, Katsu could have told him. Out here, however, with more guards around and so many slaves moving in the same direction, it was difficult to determine who was or wasn’t listening. “A guard came in for him right after you left last night,” he lied. “He’s probably already in the field.”

“So, how often should I expect… that…?” Soujirou wondered in response to this, trying to keep his voice even.

Katsu had to admit that he was somewhat glad of the distracting conversation. “Sano and I are their favorites,” he replied, “and we don’t usually get called up more than about three or four times a week during warmer parts of the year.”

Soujirou looked away with wide eyes, and Katsu, glancing over, could see him mouth the words, ‘four times a week’ with an air of disbelieving stupor.

“That’s actually not all that often, if you think about it.” Katsu tried to reassure him a little by explaining the system as he understood it. “There’s about forty guards, so it could be a lot more. But most of them don’t like men, I think. So since sex between women and men isn’t allowed here — because pregnant slaves don’t sell as well, and it isn’t like there’s a shop around the corner selling condoms — those ones don’t bother us. And except for Akamatsu, the rest of them don’t all feel like fucking every night.”

Whether or not Soujirou was reassured, he did seem a little calmer. “You really know how this place works, don’t you?”

“I have been here most of my life.”

“Most of your life?” Soujirou echoed in surprise. “How can you have gone so long without being sold?”

“I told you Sano and I are their favorites,” Katsu replied a little grimly. “Like they’d ever let us go.” Though that could have been subverted last night if not for that strange guard. And where was Sano? Katsu was scanning the field for him without any luck.

Soujirou, who hadn’t had any reply to Katsu’s last statement (for what was there to say?), followed his gaze across those that had already started working, then those just arriving, and shook his head. “I don’t see him.”

Tried to sound casual, Katsu agreed and added, “I wonder where he is…” And he continued to look.

“Katsu, the guards are watching.” Soujirou tugged on his arm. “Let’s go.”

Katsu couldn’t think that Soujirou’s indifference toward the guards’ influence had been completely reversed already, but evidently the barracks-call had taught him something. He allowed the younger man to pull him away from his search.

Once they were safely working and no guard was immediately nearby, Soujirou asked, “Why wouldn’t he be here?” Of course not knowing the story of the previous evening, his tone was nothing more than curious.

The only answer Katsu could come up with was that Sano was in bad enough condition that he couldn’t work the fields — but he couldn’t say that to Soujirou without explaining everything that had happened and risking being overheard… “I don’t know,” he replied at length, not bothering to hide his concern; Soujirou should be able to understand it, if he picked up on it, even without all the details.

Katsu caught a glance from the other slave that suggested he had picked up on it. “How long have you known him?” Soujirou asked deliberately, perhaps attempting to cheer Katsu up or at least distract him.

“As long as I can remember.” Katsu was not averse to being cheered up or at least distracted. “We met as orphans in LeMere and watched each other’s backs for a few years before KL found us.”

“You were homeless, then? Without any living relatives?”

“I see you know how it works.”

Soujirou smiled and rolled his eyes. “If the laws are the same in Baiza as they are in Touscha, yes. They claim anyone would rather be a slave than be homeless with no one to go to.”

With a shake of his head, Katsu remarked darkly, “I wonder if any of the people who make laws like that have any idea what it’s like to be either a slave or homeless. Anyway,” he continued, “Sano always claimed he had an uncle somewhere, but we were kids… even if he wasn’t making it up or remembering wrong, we didn’t have much of a chance at finding the guy. We were barely just staying alive.”

“And given the choice between barely staying alive and slavery, what would you take?”

Katsu had to smile a little, wryly, as he answered. “That isn’t a fair question to ask me. It may not look like much of a life I’ve got here, but compared to the horror stories I’ve heard from so many people–” He cut himself short and turned wholly to his work as a guard went slowly by.

As soon as the grey figure was gone, Soujirou broke into protest with a skeptical smile: “Katsu, men like that rape you three or four times a week. How can you say you have a better life than anyone?”

With a sighing laugh Katsu replied, “I can tell you came from a nice master who let you do things like not get raped, easy work, and keep up with national politics, so you obviously don’t know what it’s like for most slaves. Sure, I’m a free whore, but I don’t get beaten much, I don’t get starved, I’m capable of the work I’m assigned, my ownership isn’t going to change hands once every sixth months when my master gets tired of me… Most of the slaves I meet here can’t say any of that.”

“But wouldn’t you like to take a chance at finding a good master?”

“I don’t want any master.” He said it more fiercely than he’d thought he would. “I’d take a chance at freedom — nothing less.”

“For some reason, that’s exactly what I expected from you,” Soujirou said thoughtfully.

Katsu turned to find the other slave regarding him with a pleased smile, and somehow felt like he’d just received a flattering compliment; he returned to his work unexpectedly gratified.

Sano never appeared. Katsu hadn’t really expected him to, after the first half hour, but couldn’t stop watching for him. Soujirou didn’t miss this endless, worried impatience, and succeeded in distracting him from it yet again by asking sometime in the late afternoon completely out of the blue, “Is Sano your lover?”

“No!” said Katsu in surprise. “No… we’re really more like brothers.”

And Soujirou nodded, still, of course, smiling. Katsu spent the rest of the workday wondering why he’d wanted to know.

He was more anxious than usual to get back for dinner, as he anticipated answers there, good or bad, to the day’s questions. Soujirou hurried along at his side without a word as he strode through the twilight in that direction.

“Katsu!” Yahiko cried from where he waited on the mess hall porch. He didn’t shout anything further, as the door guard turned to glare at him just for the name. As the two field-workers joined the boy where he stood, Yahiko said quietly, “Sano’s not in there, and I haven’t seen him.”

“Neither have I,” Katsu admitted.

“Do you think he’s–”

“Are we eating tonight,” the guard interrupted almost at a growl, “or having a party on the porch?”

At this insistence, they all turned reluctantly to enter the building. Soujirou was inside and Katsu was just about to step through the doorway when Yahiko looked back over his shoulder, then hurled himself from Katsu’s side with a cry of “Sano!!!

Katsu whirled at the name to see Yahiko hugging the person in question, who looked as if he hadn’t even known the kid was there until just now. Sano’s shoulder was bandaged, and other than that he seemed unharmed.

“Where the hell have you been?” Yahiko was demanding.

Sano hugged him back, looking to Katsu and then to the door guard. “Come on,” he said. “I’m starving, so I’ll tell you inside.” The armed man, though glowering, was looking simultaneously curious, so Sano continued over-loudly, “Some guard’s gun went off and wounded me, so I got treated last night and worked in the wash-house today.” And pulling Yahiko off him, he moved from the post-dusk darkness into the dimly-lit interior of the mess hall.

“What did he do?” Katsu asked immediately when they were inside and making their way across the crowded room. Soujirou was already several spots ahead of them in the line, and gave a smile and a shrug when Katsu caught his eye.

“He did this,” Sano was answering, pointing to the bandage on his shoulder. “Then he asked me a bunch of questions, mostly… about this place and the people here, and me…”

“But why didn’t he…” Katsu began in a marveling whisper, cutting himself off before saying anything possibly incriminating in a crowded room. “If he just wanted information, he could have gotten it from any other guard, or the staff.”

Sano shook his head. “I have no idea. It was confusing as hell.” And, indeed, he had an air about him of underlying perplexity like Katsu had never seen.

Once they had their thick bread and thin soup, they made their way over to where Kaoru sat at the end of a bench saving places for them; Soujirou had found a spot across from her, and the two were conversing quietly. Katsu still couldn’t help but appreciate the concern Soujirou seemed to show for Kaoru. She looked paler than usual this evening, but her unhappy face took on an amazingly relieved expression when she saw Sano.

“Hey, missie,” the latter said softly as he took his seat beside her.

“I’m glad you’re safe,” she remarked. “I was getting ready to go find that guard and beat him up.”

Sano smiled. “Getting some of your spirit back, I see,” he said amusedly. “But he really wasn’t so bad.”

“I missed what happened,” Soujirou said with a smile of his own. “What guard are we beating up?”

“The one Sano spent the night with,” Katsu said quickly. “His gun went off by accident, and you can see the result.” He jerked a thumb at his friend.

Sano took the hint that Soujirou was not in the know and added, “But it’s really OK. I get to work in the wash-house for a while instead of baking in the sun.”

“The wash-house…” Soujirou said thoughtfully. “So you’ve been doing laundry all day? Please tell me they don’t make you do it by hand.”

“Nah, there’s machines in there,” Sano assured him. “Just no dryers. We gotta hang out all the clothes, with clothespins and everything, only it’s inside so nobody steals ’em, and the whole place smells like… well, wet laundry. Then we take the dry stuff down and fold it and organize it by size in this huge wall of compartments. It’s boring as shit, and I was getting my ear talked off all day too.” He gave a slight chuckle at the end of this explanation, but Katsu thought his mind was not entirely on this conversation, that something was wrong.

“By those nice old ladies, right?” Kaoru asked, looking amused in her turn.

“Well, yeah, and there’s some new girl too who just went on and on the whole day.” Sano started to reach up with his right hand, winced, and switched to his left to scratch his head. “She wasn’t actually talking to me, but it wasn’t like I couldn’t hear her.”

“Oh, I think I know who you’re talking about,” Yahiko put in. “I saw her the other day when they were assigning her — the one with the long black braid?”

“Yeah, that’s her.”

“Well, I’m done,” Soujirou declared suddenly, standing and stepping back over the bench, then looking down at Katsu. “You coming?”

“You eat too fast,” Katsu replied with a slight grin. “We’ll be there when we’re done.”

“OK.” Soujirou leaned over suddenly and kissed Katsu on the mouth before turning and walking away.

Katsu was speechless for a very long moment while that brief pressure seemed to linger teasingly, worrisomely on his lips and the others stared at him, their previous conversation entirely forgotten.

“Katsu…” Sano began in a worried tone.

“I…”

“Katsu, don’t,” Sano said. “You know what’ll happen.”

“It was just unexpected, that’s all!” Katsu protested. “And he’s only been here a couple days! It’s not like…”

“Yes, it is like,” Kaoru contradicted. “I can tell.”

“You know what’ll happen,” Sano repeated darkly. He did not add what Katsu knew he must be thinking: Don’t make me watch another one of my friends go through that.

“It’s nothing,” Katsu assured them, especially Sano, attempting at the same time to assure himself of the same thing. “Don’t worry about me, OK?” And he turned his full attention to eating as silence fell heavily among them.

Eventually they all finished, and with very few words rose together and left the hall — each of them, from what Katsu could gather by furtive glances, pensive with a different emotion: Yahiko seemed to feel awkward at that last exchange, not knowing what to think or say on the subject; Kaoru appeared very sad, even paler than before and moving at a slow pace — she understood better than anyone why Katsu should be careful; and Sano still looked confused, maybe a bit angry on top of it, and rather worried.

Katsu went to walk at his best friend’s side. “Are you all right?” he asked in a low tone. “You seem…” But he didn’t quite know how to describe it.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” Katsu thought Sano’s reply was a little absent.

“Are you sure? That weird guard… did he rape you?”

“No…” Sano said slowly, thoughtfully.

“But..?”

“But nothing. It was just strange and confusing is all.” Sano seemed to shake himself out of his reverie, for a few moments at least, long enough to reiterate his warning. “You just worry about yourself and pretty boy over there.”

“I told you, it’s nothing,” Katsu said with a slight frown. “You notice I didn’t tell him about last night.” OK, so that was a misleading statement, but if it made Sano feel better…

It appeared to. “Yeah. Good.” Sano had slowed, and now as Yahiko and Kaoru caught up with them he stopped walking entirely. “I’ve got call tonight, so I’ll see you all at showers tomorrow. Well, except you,” he added with an emotionless smile at Kaoru. “You I’ll see at dinner.”

Katsu shook his head sympathetically. A barracks-call was going to be even worse than usual for Sano with a shoulder he could barely use. “Good night,” he said.

As the other two echoed the goodbye, Sano turned away in the direction of the guards’ quarters while Katsu continued toward his own. It was troublesome that so few of the questions he’d awakened with today had been answered… not only that, but a new and totally unexpected issue had come to light: on top of being worried still that the guard might report what they’d been trying to do, now he had to figure out whether Soujirou might not already have led him onto the road to heartbreak.

Chapter 5

The blank door opened at his knock to reveal the equally blank face of the guard within.

“Hey,” Sano greeted him, trying not to sound too unenthusiastic. The guard gestured him inside without a word, then returned to the task of undressing in which Sano had apparently interrupted him.

There was always a tired, almost morbid curiosity in Sano’s mind regarding the sexual organs of a good-looking guard that hadn’t fucked him before, so he waited in watchful silence to find out how well this one was hung. But for some reason, the man stopped at his boxers and turned to the slave. “Sit there,” he said in an emotionless tone, pointing not to the bed as Sano had expected but to the chair that every guard had in his room and few seemed actually to use.

“OK,” he replied, obeying.

The man looked him over slowly, not a trace of what he was thinking evident on his face. Finally, just when his scrutiny was beginning to make Sano a bit nervous, he spoke again. “My name is Aoshi. I expect you to do everything I say.”

Sano nodded. That was normal.

“You can sleep in that chair,” Aoshi continued, reaching up and turning off the light. “Just stay quiet.”

Sano blinked. That was not normal. He opened his mouth to question as he heard the unmistakable sound of the guard getting into bed, then forbore. It seemed as unwise to go against what Aoshi had just commanded as it seemed completely illogical for the guard to have called Sano here for no reason in the first place.

As he adjusted his position in the uncomfortable chair, his head was slowly starting to ache. Up until twenty-four hours ago, his life had been so straightforward… he hadn’t been confused about anything since Yahiko had tried to explain triangle geometry math to him a couple of months ago. And now…

He’d spent the day trying to ignore both the pain in his shoulder as he worked and the chattering braid-girl, and the whole time a wheel of confusion had been endlessly turning, endlessly repeating, in his tired mind:

Why would a guard that was willing to shoot him casually through the shoulder, willing to prevent him escaping this whorehouse of a life, hesitate to fuck him, though obviously wanting to, just because he was hurt? There was always the possibility that yellow-eyes found injuries or blood a turn-off, but he hadn’t seemed the squeamish type to Sano… and otherwise, such consideration seemed so nice… or at least reasonable…

But wouldn’t it also have been nice or at least reasonable to let him escape? Or if he wasn’t going to allow that, wouldn’t it have made sense to turn them in like a normal guard would? Well, some normal guards… Akamatsu wouldn’t have turned his favorite sex toys in to be executed. But yellow-eyes hadn’t wanted sex. No, even less comprehensibly, he had wanted it — as if Sano couldn’t tell after all these years when somebody did! — just hadn’t taken it. It really didn’t add up.

The answer, he thought, lay in that impossible promise. But that was as easily decoded as the rest of the man’s behavior. Why wouldn’t Sano regret it? What lay in his future important enough that it was worth shooting him to be sure he was here for, and not turning him in to be sure he was alive to see? Something that yellow-eyes knew about and would swear by, as if he, a mere guard, could personally guarantee it? Something better than freedom? And why, if it seemed so offhandedly impossible, was Sano inclined to believe it? He had no reason to trust the man, and several reasons to be suspicious of him…

But what exactly was there to suspect him of, when he’d done no worse than any other guard would have done, and in at least one respect better? Maybe Sano just wanted to believe, because it was better than the despair he might have felt at having been thwarted three yards from escape. But how could he believe something that he didn’t even understand?

He started to sigh, but then, remembering his situation, restrained it. Why the hell was he here, anyway? Of course Aoshi probably had no idea that Sano had already had one inexplicably sex-free night in a guard’s room and more than enough confusion for one week… but what in the world was the point of calling him here and then telling him to sit in a chair all night anyway? Did that turn him on or something?

This was an unpleasant way to try to sleep. Sano couldn’t say he’d rather have been raped, and at least in this case it wasn’t totally nonsensical — as Aoshi had shown no signs of actually wanting him — but still he could have done without additional strange behavior after last night. For a few moments he toyed with the notion that there might be some connection between the two circumstances, but abandoned it when he couldn’t come up with anything logical. Of course, none of this was logical…

Aoshi had probably just changed his mind about finding Sano attractive. But that wasn’t logical either, for not only had no other guard ever done so (or at least bothered to tell him, or not fuck him, if they had), but wouldn’t it also have made more sense to send Sano back to his quarters at this point?

If they’d been successful in escaping, Sano wouldn’t have had to puzzle over Aoshi’s behavior. He wouldn’t be desperately confused about anything. He wouldn’t be in quite so much pain; he wouldn’t be brooding in the dark over, of all stupid things at this moment, whether he was becoming less attractive and was that good or bad? and he certainly wouldn’t have a hole in his shoulder. But, then, he wasn’t going to regret all that.

Sitting like this really wasn’t the best way to encourage his wound to heal, and besides, he’d love to spend a couple of nights with his friends just to keep an eye on things. He restrained another sigh. This timing…

He’d seen the attraction between Katsu and Soujirou yesterday, but hadn’t really recognized it as such until today when Soujirou had startled him into looking back a little more critically. And though he should trust his best friend not to make any stupid mistakes, Katsu seemed to be in denial about it. Sano wasn’t sure what there was to be done, especially as Soujirou was in their quarters, but he just couldn’t let Katsu get attached to someone that was going to be sold in a month. It was as much for his own sake as for Katsu’s — how could he watch another friend break and fade away?

Of course, if they’d managed to escape, that wouldn’t have been a problem, now, would it? They would be on their way to Touscha or something, and Soujirou would be forgotten. Guess I’m not supposed to regret that, though, he reflected bitterly, ’cause you’ve got something better than not watching my friend get hurt, right?

“Damn you,” he whispered inadvertently.

In the darkness, Aoshi stirred, but whether he was actually awake and disturbed by Sano’s comment, the slave could not tell.

With yet another stifled sigh, he rearranged himself again and wondered for the second night in a row if he was going to get any sleep.

This question was answered when for the second morning in a row he awoke to the siren alone in the room. He groaned as he stood, for his shoulder was in agony. Today was a bathing day, and after that he thought he should go see the doctor again. He’d gone yesterday — she’d taken a quick look, applied some desperately painful alcohol of some sort, and changed the bandages — but he thought it was actually hurting more now than it had before. “Thanks a lot, Aoshi,” he grumbled.

The showers building adjoined the wash-house; it was a noisy, wet facility that always smelled of soap and mold and was a pain in the ass to clean if you happened to be assigned to it. Sano usually enjoyed bathing, which only happened every three days, but today he was uncertain about what to expect. What he found, though, wasn’t too surprising.

“Good morning, Sano!” Why did Soujirou have to be so damn cheerful? Especially when he was making no visible effort not to ogle Katsu?? The latter greeted him with a nod as Sano deliberately stood between them. Sano couldn’t help noticing that Katsu’s glance strayed more often than not in Soujirou’s direction as well.

Damn naked bathing was going to fuck everything up. Sano couldn’t help noticing also that Soujirou, though he finished cleaning up about twice as quickly as the others, stuck around for no apparent reason other than watching Katsu. Of course Yahiko was relatively oblivious to what was going on, but even he could sense the tension, and didn’t say much.

It was difficult for Sano to clean his shoulder without getting the bandages soaked, so he was doubly frustrated as well as in pain by the time he was finished. Well, at least he knew what he needed to do. Not that the doctor was likely to lessen the pain, and not that letting Soujirou know exactly how things had to be was likely to lessen the frustration… but it was better than nothing, wasn’t it?

It was a relief when everyone was dressed again, and just as they were all leaving the building was Sano’s moment. “Soujirou.”

The latter must have recognized the trouble in Sano’s tone, for his smile was worried as he turned toward him.

Sano gestured him three steps back into the entryway, making sure Katsu and Yahiko were out the door before speaking. “I like you, OK? But you’re exactly the kinda guy who’s gonna get sold first the next time there’s a dealer up here. So I want you to leave Katsu alone. See, I’ve already got one friend who’s dying from being lonely. I don’t think I can handle two.”

Soujirou nodded with a very serious expression. “I understand. All I can tell you is that you’re going to have to trust me.”

“What?” Sano glowered.

“Trust me,” Soujirou reiterated. “There’s no way I’m letting Katsu get hurt.”

The really strange thing was that with the way the guy said this, Sano had this uncanny urge to believe him. That actually made him angrier. “I don’t know where you came from and what kind of freedom you had there, but around here you ain’t in charge of whether or not someone else gets hurt. There’s no way you can promise not to let him get hurt and make it mean anything to me.”

Soujirou’s face did not change. “I’m sorry, Sano,” he said softly. “You really are just going to have to trust me.” And with that he turned and walked away.

“Soujirou!” Sano growled. “Who do you think you are? Dammit, Soujirou, come back here!”

When he did not find his order obeyed, Sano ran out the door after him. He came up short just outside, though, finding Katsu there and Soujirou standing with him. Well, it was no good continuing now; it would only start a fight for which he had neither the energy nor the heart. He merely let out an angry breath and hastened heavily away.

Katsu watched him head off toward the other side of the building with a frown, his heart heavy. He’d heard everything that had just been said; he wasn’t sure Sano had even attempted to keep it from his ears. And now he found he couldn’t quite turn toward Soujirou.

“Let’s go,” the latter said, taking a few steps in the direction of the fields.

The long-haired slave was torn between following Sano and following Soujirou. It didn’t help that either choice would end in awkwardness. He just didn’t know how he felt about this. On the one hand, he perfectly understood Sano’s reasoning and appreciated his concern; on the other, he also perfectly understood how things worked around here and wished Sano would have a little more faith in him. He wasn’t sure where the fact that he did like Soujirou fit in…

Finally, with an unhappy shake of his head, he joined Soujirou.

“I’m sorry if I’ve made things difficult for you,” the latter said after several silent paces.

Katsu sighed. “It’s OK. Sano always gets — Sano and I both always get pretty protective of each other.”

“I do like you a lot, you know,” Soujirou smiled over at him.

Was it a good or a bad sign that this made Katsu’s insides feel so damn warm? He cleared his throat. “That’s kind of… sudden.”

“We’re slaves,” Soujirou replied. “We don’t have the luxury of taking a long time to fall in love.”

“Sano’s right, though… you’re sure to get sold after harvest. Not falling in love at all is a better option.”

“And if we could escape?”

Katsu had to laugh, bitterly, at this unexpected and absurd question. “Don’t you start with that too. It doesn’t work. Period.”

With a return of that careful tone that suggested he wanted to know but wasn’t going to push too hard for it, Soujirou remarked questioningly, “You’ve had some kind of personal experience with that.”

Not sure he’d rather be discussing this than the philosophy of romantic attachment between slaves, Katsu was silent until they were safely working and he could make a reply with his back to Soujirou and no guards immediately present.

“When Sano and I first came here, we didn’t want to trust anyone. We’d been on the streets with only each other for so long… We were miserable and scared and didn’t know what was going to happen to us, and we had this attitude that anyone around us was out to make things worse for us somehow. But there was this man in our quarters named Souzou… He was just a slave like everyone else; I think he was from West Sorrat, and he’d been a slave all his life like most people… he wasn’t better educated than anyone else… didn’t have any particular abilities more than the rest of them…” Katsu trailed off with a slight shrug, feeling the ache that always accompanied this subject and surprised he’d even managed to get this far.

“But he was special somehow,” Soujirou prompted after a few moments, “right?”

“Yeah.” Katsu struggled to continue. “He didn’t seem like a slave. When you were around him, you didn’t get the sense that he belonged to someone, that his whole life had to be directed by a master of some kind. It was like he was a free man who was putting up with slavery, for now, for some very good reason of his own. It wasn’t anything he said or did; it was just the way he was. Of course we couldn’t stay away from a guy like that.”

“Of course,” Soujirou echoed. “And he gave you the same attitude.”

“You think so?”

“You and Sano don’t seem so much like slaves either, you know.”

Katsu smiled faintly. “I don’t know if that’s because of Souzou or just because we’ve been here so long. We’re practically part of the staff these days.”

“True,” admitted Soujirou. “But go on.”

“Well, Souzou sort of took us in. He was like a father, almost, though as old as we were it really would be more like an older brother, I think. He helped us adjust, made us feel like part of a family with him and his friends. You wouldn’t think you’d want to feel like part of a family at a place like this, but it turns out it’s better than feeling like everyone you see is out to get you. Anyway he was better family than anything Sano or I had had, and we loved him like we were really related to him. We weren’t the only ones, either.”

Soujirou maintained a patient, anticipatory silence.

“Eventually,” Katsu continued, steeling himself for the rest of the account, “he and some of the other adults started making plans to escape. A lot of them were thinking what you were talking about the other day: if there was some kind of mass break-out, the governments wouldn’t be able to ignore the issue anymore, or people would speak out against slavery, or something. A lot of the people in the quarters were going to go along with it, and it seemed like it was going to work pretty well… until we got near the main entrance and…” Even if a guard hadn’t passed by at that very moment, Katsu would not have been able to articulate the rest of those events.

“So you were actually there,” Soujirou marveled pityingly, quietly. “When you said before that almost everyone involved was killed, I guessed it must have been somebody close to you, but…”

“Yeah, we got to watch.” Katsu wondered if this pain lingered so much because of that — the first and most traumatizing event in his life — more than any other reason. He couldn’t say another word for a while, and Soujirou did not make any further inquiries.

“The only reason we survived,” continued Katsu at last, figuring he might as well finish the story, “is that Souzou sent us off into the trees when he realized what was about to happen. We didn’t want to go — Sano especially didn’t want to leave him — but what could a couple of kids do? It would probably have been better if Souzou hadn’t let us come along in the first place.” He added quietly, “Or maybe if we’d been shot along with him.”

“You don’t really think so,” Soujirou answered immediately in the same quiet tone. “You don’t really think you’d be better off dead, or you wouldn’t be here.”

At this assessment Katsu gave a wry smile. “I can’t say that for sure. It’s possible I just never thought about it enough to know one way or another.”

“Or maybe you live for people like Kaoru and Yahiko.”

This idea was a slight surprise that Katsu had to ponder for a while. And into his thoughtful silence Soujirou continued, “Because you must realize that you’re doing the same thing for Yahiko that that man did for you…”

Right down to trying to escape and getting shot, even. But things had gone better for them than they had for Souzou; did that mean there was more hope for Yahiko? It was a fanciful idea that smacked of some kind of silly karmic theory or other, and yet it was, strangely enough, vaguely comforting.

“Maybe,” Katsu admitted with a smile as he continued working in an oddly improved mood. “Maybe.”

Chapter 6

Sano beat his friends to the mess hall by several minutes, and was already eating by the time Katsu, Kaoru, and Soujirou sat down around him.

“What’s wrong?” asked Katsu immediately.

Sano glowered. “I ran into that guard again.”

“That does happen sometimes with people who work here,” Katsu replied carefully.

But Sano was no in mood for caution. “He asked me how my shoulder was!”

“So?” wondered Kaoru.

Unsure why his companions were not getting it, “He’s messing with me!” Sano explained in irritation. “How can he shoot me and then confuse the hell out of me and then ask me how I am?!”

“How did he confuse you?” Soujirou inquired. Sano had forgotten that the newcomer didn’t know all the details.

Sparing Sano the trouble of answering, Yahiko joined them just then with the announcement, “I have a great idea!” Making no objection to the subject change, Sano sat back and brooded in silence as the kid detailed his latest escape plot.

But as Soujirou began again systematically to shoot him down with a smile (though Yahiko seemed to have thought it through better this time, and was putting up more of a fight), Katsu leaned over to Sano and murmured, “I think you’re worrying too much about this.”

“No, I’m not!” Sano protested. “I can’t tell if he’s threatening me or what!” His voice dropped to a quiet, intense hiss. “He said he wasn’t going to turn us in, asked me a hundred questions he could have found out the answers from anyone, and said he wasn’t going to fuck me because I was hurt. Then he shows up in the wash-house like he’s coming specifically to ask about my shoulder, and gives me this look like I think he still wants me, but…”

“Oh, god, Sano, is it the sex thing that’s bothering you?” Katsu demanded incredulously.

“It’s everything about him!” replied Sano vehemently. After a moment he added, “Still, though, when was the last time a guard took you to his room and then didn’t fuck you?”

“He’s probably planning to wait until your shoulder’s better and then do it.”

“But it doesn’t make sense! Nothing he did makes sense!”

“I’m not saying I don’t see your point… there’s just nothing you can do about it. If you keep worrying, it’s just going to drive you crazy.”

“Maybe it already has,” Sano muttered. “But I don’t think I can just let it go when the guy knows…”

“That puts the ball in his court,” Katsu replied firmly. “You’re just going to have to wait for whatever he wants to do. You can’t go harassing a guard.”

Sano really had nothing more to say. Despite the soundness of this admonishment, he wasn’t sure Katsu was right — but at the same time, what could he do to press the issue, to find out anything more than he already knew? The answer to that was obvious, and the next question was whether Sano would rather pursue peace of mind by taking potentially life-threatening chances or a good friend’s concerned and reasonable advice. At the moment he was leaning toward the life-threatening chances, but it took a while for him to decide.

It was one of those rare nights when both he and Katsu got to sleep in their own cots in their own quarters and not get fucked by anyone. With Soujirou around and also without barracks-call, the occurrence was that much more unusual. And though Sano would never actually wish the guards’ attentions on his friends, it was a bit of an unfortunate coincidence, as their presence could only weaken his resolve and Katsu specifically was sure to object.

But though Katsu might be able to talk him out of it, he couldn’t stop him if Sano had a head start…

The quarter-warden hadn’t closed the doors yet, as usual, letting the cooler air into the consistently-uncomfortable building, but she had already done her nightly count — ‘inventory,’ she called it — after which it was very difficult to convince her that you had barracks-call: you’d be late by then, and few slaves were stupid or absent-minded enough to keep a horny guard waiting. Sano was debating now whether it would be better to tell her he had call and risk her not believing him (and keeping a closer eye on things for the rest of their awake time), or to attempt sneaking out (which would have worse consequences if he were caught). Either option had its advantages in keeping Katsu from following him with dissuading logic.

Presently the decision became easier when the conversation among his friends turned simultaneously lively and exclusive of him just when the warden had stepped into the next room. There was no time for further consideration; Sano rose quietly, glad he wasn’t sitting in the middle of the group, and slipped out the door.

Hurrying up the hill toward the barracks, he only looked back once. Though nobody followed, he still felt nervous. Well, of course he felt nervous: he was sneaking out to pay an unsolicited visit to a man that could bring about his death in a variety of ways and didn’t seem to have any logical reason not to have done so already.

And this was his door…

His knock was answered immediately, yellow-eyes was staring down at him, and suddenly Sano had no idea what to say. Katsu had been right, of course: deliberately seeking out a guard with the idea of demanding anything was phenomenally stupid.

The man’s expression slowly turned skeptical as Sano continued to say nothing, until finally he stepped aside and gestured the slave to come in. Closing the door he remarked, “I don’t recall inviting you here.”

“You didn’t invite me the other night either,” was all Sano could come up with.

The guard nodded as he bent and continued to untie his half-unlaced boots.

Sano watched uncertainly for a moment, then took a deep breath. “Look. I wanna know…” What did he want to know? Everything. How to ask was the more difficult part. “Who are you?” he finished lamely.

The guard glanced at him a little skeptically as he set his shoes aside and began to unbutton his heavy grey shirt. “I believe I answered that one last time.”

Sano was heartened by the casualness of this response, and retorted, “You didn’t do a very good job.”

Curtly drawing his gun, the guard startled Sano into stepping hastily back with a racing heart and a hot rush of fear. But yellow-eyes was merely putting the weapon away in the safe, it seemed. Still, the awareness that Sano shouldn’t push his luck was reinforced by the action; this man had shot him once without blinking, after all.

But he’d come to get answers. “You’re not a normal guard.”

“Thank you,” yellow-eyes replied, laying his shirt over the back of the chair to his right. “Get in the bed.”

The strange sensation Sano had felt in the pit of his stomach the last time he’d talked to this guard abruptly returned. “I didn’t come here to sleep with you,” he said hoarsely.

“It’s past curfew,” the guard replied, removing his belt to lay it also on the chair and seating himself on the bed. “You can’t go back to your quarters now.”

Sano couldn’t argue with that point. “Not without getting in trouble, anyway,” he muttered, going to the other side of the bed. At least yellow-eyes was on the left this time, which meant Sano could lie on his good shoulder and not face the man. And maybe he could yet obtain some answers.

But as he was removing, slowly and painstakingly, his own dirty shirt and tossing it onto the floor, very conscious of the presence close at his back, yellow-eyes questioned, “What kind of punishment is usual here?” And he reached up to turn off the light.

Sano pulled back the blankets and lay down as close to the mattress’ edge as he could. “Why do you want to know?” He was braver in the dark, but only for half a second —

For as the guard settled down beside him and replied, “I asked first,” Sano could feel the words almost in his ear, and the man’s warmth just behind him, partly against him.

His heart was pounding, and that feeling in his stomach was steadily increasing. Uncomfortably he hastened to answer. “It depends on who’s giving it, what you did, what time it is, shit like that. Some guards’ll just smack you around some; some of ’em’ll drag you into a corner and make you give ’em a blow job or something. If it’s staff, quarter-warden or something, you’ll probably end up with some really shitty cleaning project you have to get done along with your regular work.”

“And what if you’ve done something more serious than just breaking curfew?”

“Still depends. If it’s not bad enough to kill you over, you might end up in solitary for a while. They don’t feed you much in there, and you get beat a lot.”

Yellow-eyes was silent, and the air was tense. Still, Sano interpreted the quiet to mean that it was his turn. “So, why’d you want to know?”

“I’m calculating how much I’ve saved you from,” came the reply.

Saved me?!” wondered the slave angrily. “You fucking shot me!”

“You wouldn’t have survived long enough out there to get to any country. I saved your life.”

“What kinda life is this? And how do you know I wouldn’t have survived?”

“Didn’t Souzou’s experience teach you not to put faith in escape attempts?”

Startled, Sano couldn’t reply for a few moments. Finally he asked in a near-whisper, “How do you know about him?”

“You’re not the only one who was here back then,” yellow-eyes answered.

Sano was wordless, baffled. Who besides him and Katsu was left from that time? Some member of the staff, no doubt… but who could it be? And if the guard was getting detailed information from that person, what need was there to question Sano? But while this would probably have been the perfect moment to inquire about that, the unexpected mention of Souzou’s name had thrown him drastically off balance.

It had been so long, and he still couldn’t help but be deeply disturbed by the thoughts of those events. But, then, he’d long known that time didn’t move the same for him as it did for others. Sometimes — not often — he almost wished he were just a normal slave. Might not that be a better life than stagnating in painful memory? But if he was going to wish for anything, he might as well wish for freedom. Or…

“You could at least have let me die like him,” he whispered.

“I saw no need for you to die,” yellow-eyes replied immediately.

“There was no need for him to die either, but at least he got away from here…”

“If you wanted to be like him in that sense, you wouldn’t be here.”

“If you hadn’t stopped me, I wouldn’t be here.”

“True.”

And finally Sano managed to ask the question he most wanted answered: “Why won’t I regret that?”

“Because I won’t allow it.”

Sano laughed bitterly. “What if I’m already regretting it?”

“Then you need to be distracted.” Suddenly the man’s arm had crept over his body to run fingers across his chest.

Sano’s breath caught in his throat, his shoulder throbbed, and his stomach twisted… and, oddly enough, none of these necessarily in an unpleasant way. “So you’re gonna actually fuck me this time?”

The guard had shifted so he was pressed fully against Sano’s back, and now replied in the slave’s ear, “Do you want me to?”

“No,” Sano gasped as the man’s hand slid into his pants, but he wouldn’t have been surprised if yellow-eyes hadn’t heard him at all. And as the guard began stroking him, he didn’t think he had the ability to reiterate his negative. The last time he’d gotten an erection without having to concentrate on doing so was… he couldn’t remember… Had a guard’s touch ever done it before? He didn’t think so…

He knew he shouldn’t let the man’s overtly-stated intention of distracting him be fulfilled, but the unusual sensation of being deliberately pleasured by somebody else was too overwhelming. And as yellow-eyes, who seemed unfairly good at this (though what did Sano know?), wasn’t in any hurry to finish him off, there was plenty of time for Sano to lose track of everything except the skilled fingers working him toward orgasm, and to forget everything he’d come here intending to find out.

While all this was going on, Katsu, who might otherwise have prevented it, found himself equally distracted. Having emerged from the building too late to stop or even catch sight of the missing Sano, he spent a moment contemplating the relative merits of chasing his reckless friend versus sneaking back inside before the quarter-warden closed the doors.

“Katsu, what’s happening?” Soujirou had followed him.

“Sano’s being stupid,” Katsu sighed.

“I heard some of what you were saying… he’s having trouble with a guard, right?”

Katsu nodded. “The guy who shot him the other night was unusually nice to him, that’s all. Sano doesn’t know how to deal with people being nice when he doesn’t expect it.” Hell, who did?

“Maybe this is a good way for him to learn, then.”

“Bothering a guard isn’t a good way to do anything except get yourself in trouble.”

“Is the guard likely to do anything worse to Sano because of it than he would do anyway, though? Or, if he’s nice…”

“I don’t know that he is; I’ve never talked to him.” Though his tone was still grim, Katsu’s tension was draining. Soujirou made a very good point: what could the guard do to Sano at this point that was any worse than what they were already fearing might happen? Hell, maybe the guy would fuck Sano for his trouble, and Sano’s confusion would end. Not that Katsu would ever really wish that on his friend.

“Hey,” Soujirou said softly, breaking Katsu from his thoughts. “I’m sure it’ll be all right. Who knows better than Sano how things work around here?”

“I do,” Katsu replied wryly, “and I’m the one who’s worried.”

Soujirou put his hand on Katsu’s shoulder, drawing his gaze. “It’ll be fine,” he reiterated, leaning up and kissing Katsu briefly.

The latter watched the blue eyes as they drew back. He wasn’t sure why, but somehow when Soujirou said things like that, Katsu was inclined to believe it. “I hope you’re right,” he said in a lighter tone, looking back in the direction of the guard barracks. I hope you find some answers, he told Sano silently.

Soujirou said his name suddenly, and on turning Katsu found himself locked in a longer and much more intense kiss. And perhaps it was not the best display of friendly loyalty, but with Soujirou’s soft lips against his, he couldn’t stay worried for long.

The younger slave’s arms slid around Katsu’s back to pull them closer together, and even in the warm summer night the heat of proximity was not unpleasant. Katsu laced his fingers though Soujirou’s hair and savored the feeling of the other’s body against his.

And then the voice he hated most in the entire world spoke from several yards away: “Nothing I like better’n slaves sneaking out of their quarters at night to fuck.” Akamatsu was approaching swiftly as he said this, opening his pants. “Don’t mind me, guys,” he grinned licentiously as he halted.

Katsu tried to keep what would have been a very detrimental expression of horror off his face. He couldn’t say he was surprised at this turn of events — standing around outside carelessly kissing another slave could bring only a few results — but was vehemently cursing his luck and foolishness.

Soujirou did not appear any better pleased at the prospect of providing this kind of entertainment for a third party, but after a moment his visage hardened in determination and he put his mouth to Katsu’s ear. “Looks like we have no choice; might as well make the best of it.”

“We can’t do this…” If he’d had time to explain, he would have had more objections than just the audience. He’d never had a relationship, because he hadn’t wanted to find himself in Kaoru’s situation or that of those he’d known before her… and the fact that something about Soujirou was more intensely attractive than anything he’d ever felt from anyone else he might have liked was all the more reason to want to do things right… if there was a right way for one slave to get involved with another that was likely to be sold away from him within a few weeks. And he wasn’t sure he knew how to have sex the right way, the way where both parties supposedly enjoyed it.

Soujirou said very seriously, almost as if reading more than one of these objections in Katsu’s few words, “You won’t regret it if I enjoy it, though?”

“But, in front of him?” Katsu murmured, aghast. It wasn’t as if he’d never done anything like this in front of a guard before — indeed, this guard — but he assumed Soujirou really hadn’t.

“Just pretend he’s not there.”

“I don’t know if I can.”

Akamatsu’s impatient tone broke into their debate. “Are you guys gonna get on with it, or do you need my help?”

Katsu was not about to answer that out loud. Slowly he drew Soujirou to him once more and wondered not only whether he could do as he was urged — ignore the guard and enjoy this — but what kind of animal it would make him if he did. Most likely, merely more the kind he already was. He tried to console himself, to placate his conscience, by reflecting that this was probably better, at least, than either of them having Akamatsu’s attention solely on himself… but in the end the most placating circumstance arose from his body, not his mind.

It was some time — indeed, it was about the middle of the night — before they went back inside their quarters. That they were going to be unusually tired tomorrow was the least of Katsu’s concerns.

Chapter 7

Supper was very hushed the next day, but the nuances of the wordlessness were eluding Katsu. They’d had to rouse the warden to let them back into the quarters last night; she’d not been quiet in her wrath and assignment of punishment — it didn’t help that she found distasteful the activities they’d fairly obviously been engaged in outside — so Yahiko and Kaoru knew.

Kaoru was very disappointed; she seemed to think Katsu should have been stronger than that against temptation. She’d worked alongside him and Soujirou throughout most of the nearly-silent day, unhappy and without enough energy for the annoyance she might otherwise have displayed. Katsu hadn’t bothered to explain that Akamatsu had encouraged them into it, given that he wasn’t entirely sure something similar wouldn’t have happened without the guard’s help.

Yahiko was uncomfortable with anything sexual, being at the age where such things were still relatively null in his mind, but, simultaneously, living in an environment where it was present around him at most times and where he also had to worry that he might be growing into a more attractive young man than was good for him. He understood fairly well the potential dangers of involvement with another slave, having seen Kaoru’s symptoms as plainly as the rest of them, but evidently didn’t feel qualified to discuss the matter.

How much Sano deduced by the atmosphere among them Katsu couldn’t tell. He’d never come back yesterday, so presumably he’d spend the night with that guard again. And whatever had occurred between them didn’t seem to have improved the situation, for Sano was even more broody and tense than before. Whether this preoccupation extended so far as to keep him from noticing that Kaoru was sad and disapproving, Yahiko silent and embarrassed, and that Soujirou couldn’t look at Katsu without his smile turning all silly, there was no way to tell.

Not knowing exactly what his own opinion about last night was, Katsu didn’t feel up to trying to make conversation, and the meal proceeded without much comfort. He also couldn’t decide whether or not he wanted to ask Sano about the outcome of the ill-thought venture, whether it had accomplished anything more than getting friends in trouble: such a discussion would undoubtedly lead to what Katsu and Soujirou had gotten in trouble for, and why they’d been out after the door was locked… he feared Akamatsu’s involvement wouldn’t entirely avert Sano’s protectiveness and worry. Yet Sano was sure to find out sooner or later, and, for all Katsu’s engrossment in his own situation, he was concerned enough about Sano’s not to want to wait.

Kaoru had hardly any appetite, and walked heavily and slowly away with Yahiko after not too long. This didn’t help the tension much, but, as Katsu thought it would be best to question Sano with less of an audience, he didn’t complain. Once the two of them were done eating (Soujirou, of course, having finished before anyone else, as usual), they all rose and left the building wordlessly. Katsu found that Sano turned immediately toward the guard barracks outside the door.

“You’re going back to him?” he asked without thinking.

Sano stopped and turned. Soujirou, almost as if Katsu had specifically requested it, did not halt, but walked on a few paces, giving the two of them almost complete privacy. Sano sighed and said, “No… the other confusing guy.”

“The othe– oh, the one who had you sit in a chair the other night?”

“Yeah. I don’t know what the hell he wants me up there again for.”

With a shake of his head and a shrug Katsu changed the subject. “So what happened last night?”

Sano scowled, and at first it seemed he wasn’t going to answer at all. This was not a good sign. Finally he said, “Not much. He asked me more questions…”

“And then…?”

“And then he jacked me off.”

This, Katsu had to admit, was strange… but he was sure Sano was making more of it than it merited. “Why?” he asked.

“I don’t know!” Sano exploded. “I don’t understand one fucking thing he’s done!”

Katsu shook his head again. “Neither do I… and I also don’t understand why you’re complaining when it’s better than what you’re used to.”

“I’m not used to being confused,” Sano insisted heatedly. “I’m not used to–”

And just then Soujirou called out, “Katsu, don’t forget we need to scrub the bathrooms!”

The conversation was derailed and Sano was frowning at him. “Why do you guys have to scrub the bathrooms?”

It was Katsu’s turn to sigh, and Sano’s frown grew; evidently he hadn’t gone through dinner time completely oblivious. “Last night I went outside after you, and he followed… then Akamatsu showed up and demanded some slave porn. We didn’t get back in for a while.”

The expression on Sano’s face was disturbing. He obviously didn’t know what to say, or probably what to feel. Finally he forced a very unconvincing grin and said, “Better than that bastard doing you himself, right?”

Katsu, miserable at his friend’s concern — all the more because it was perfectly justified — seized him by his good shoulder. “Look, I don’t want you to worry yourself to death about me when you’re already driving yourself crazy over some guard who’s suddenly decided you’re his boyfriend.”

“It’s not that I–”

“I know exactly why you’re worried,” Katsu broke in, “and I appreciate it. But you’re going to have to trust me to take care of myself, OK? I’m not going to… I’m not going to fall in love with him and waste away and abandon you. I promise.” And he shook Sano slightly.

Sano took a deep breath as if steeling himself. “OK.” He didn’t sound entirely convinced, but he did make a brave attempt to smile.

“I won’t let you down.”

Sano nodded.

“I’ve gotta go scrub toilets. Good luck with that weirdo.”

“Have fun,” Sano said, with another gratifying effort at greater cheer. He turned and walked away. Katsu watched him for several moments with a heart in turmoil.

“Everything OK?” Soujirou asked in what seemed a deliberately casual tone as they started toward their quarters again.

“Relatively speaking,” was Katsu’s dry reply.

“I don’t want this to come between you guys,” Soujirou said softly.

“I don’t know that there is a ‘this,'” answered Katsu just as quietly.

Soujirou nodded his understanding, his smile wan.

It wasn’t long before, armed with old and somewhat ragged scrub-brushes and diluted but still foul-smelling tile cleaner, they were sequestered in the first bathroom. There were two bathrooms, of course, at the back of the building, connected by a door that was usually locked; tonight they had they key so they could detail clean both sides without bothering the other slaves, and easily vacate the women’s half when someone needed to use it. Having a key to anything was an unusual amount of responsibility, but this was not exactly consoling.

As they went at the streaked, disheveled sinks with less than perfect vigor, a somewhat awkward silence hung in the air; the last exchange they’d had outside was just as palpable between them. Katsu wasn’t sure it was a good idea to say anything; doing so might give rise to expectations or even assumptions he didn’t want to encourage — in both of them. But at the same time, he couldn’t just say nothing… because neither did he want to promote the idea that there wasn’t anything between them.

Finally, “So how much of this type of work did you have to do with your old master?” He gestured at the brush in his hand. He thought this was a fairly safe topic.

“Some,” Soujirou shrugged. “More towards the end when he was selling the others. I can’t say I like it very much.”

Katsu gave him a skeptical smile. “Does anyone?”

“Well,” Soujirou pondered, “I think it wouldn’t be so bad if it were my bathroom.”

Katsu had to smile again. “So you do want freedom.”

Mimicking Katsu’s skeptical expression of a moment before, Soujirou wondered, “Doesn’t everyone?”

“You and that smile could fool anyone. You seem like you’re happy all the time no matter what.”

Soujirou laughed. “I guess I’m just an optimist.”

“You’ve been pretty optimistically shooting down all of Yahiko’s escape plans,” Katsu pointed out, still quizzical.

“Even an optimist can be practical!” Soujirou protested. “I wouldn’t want to try anything stupid, but I’m always sure things will get better somehow.”

Somehow, sure,” replied Katsu darkly. “It won’t be because of anything you did, though; it’ll still be someone else making changes in your life. Someone doing you a favor, or you being in the right place at the right time.”

Soujirou considered this and nodded slowly. “You’re right; a slave’s happiness isn’t the same as a free man’s happiness…” Not surprisingly, he broke into another smile. “Either way, I’m still usually pretty happy.”

Katsu experienced an abrupt clenching in his heart at this. He had to admit, he couldn’t understand the concept of practical optimism… and whether what he felt now was more worry for the moment of Soujirou’s disillusionment or a hopeless desire to share in the sanguine attitude, he could not tell. So much for a safe topic.

The conversation lapsed as they each attacked one of the two toilets with quiet sighs.

“Come look at this,” Soujirou said suddenly, after several minutes. “It won’t come off, and I swear it’s moving.”

Katsu joined him in the next stall, and, both of them on their knees, they scrutinized the spot on the toilet Soujirou indicated. It was faintly green with bright orange blobs, and it did almost seem to be pulsing on the slick porcelain as they looked at it.

“Watch,” Soujirou advised, and, bending down, scrubbed at it hard. When he pulled his brush away, the stain had undergone no change; indeed, it had quite possibly become more pronounced. He gave a helpless laugh. “It looks like an octopus having spasms.”

Katsu, who only vaguely knew what an octopus was, peered more closely and replied, “Or a dancing spider.”

“It’s an indestructible toilet monster!”

Katsu chucked; then, sitting back up, found himself very close to Soujirou.

The latter had opened his mouth to say something more, but refrained as they were suddenly staring into each other’s eyes. Katsu wondered why he felt like he’d never seen that precise shade of blue before. Some silly reason, no doubt.

Hands clammy with tile cleaner sought each other as their lips met almost desperately, and they were kneeling next to a toilet and the smell was unpleasant and they’d just been discussing some kind of fungal discoloration and it was about as far from romantic as anything he could imagine and Katsu could not stop. His hands were moving to Soujirou’s body, trying futilely to pull him closer or at least to feel as much of him as possible. Soujirou’s were likewise engaged.

And then came the unmistakable sound of the door opening.

They jerked apart and scrambled up. The girl that had entered was looking curiously at the open door into the other bathroom, and gasped when they emerged from the far stall.

“Sorry,” Soujirou smiled a little breathlessly. “We’re cleaning the bathrooms; we’ll step out.” As he grabbed Katsu’s arm and they hastened through the door, the girl nodded her comprehension. She didn’t appear any too sympathetic, and Katsu assumed she’d been awakened last night, as many had, by the quarter-warden yelling at them.

He swung the door closed and leaned against it, and presently found his companion leaning against him looking up into his face. Soujirou didn’t say anything, only smiled.

Katsu sighed, but also didn’t really have anything to say. Actually, there wasn’t much to do other than kiss him again and not let go until they heard the girl exiting the other side.

Sano’s night, not surprisingly, involved a good deal less scrubbing, but also a good deal less kissing. Which he would have considered himself happier to forego, under the circumstances, was a matter of question.

Aoshi responded immediately to the knock, and ushered him in without a word. Once the door was shut, Sano found his entire figure the subject of the guard’s intense, silent scrutiny. For several moments the cold eyes roved over him, and Sano was actually a little startled when Aoshi spoke. “Take off your clothes.”

Sano did as he was told, wondering if this night would end up a little more normal than the last one had. But he found when naked that Aoshi was still doing nothing more than staring. It almost seemed he was looking for something. After what felt like a very long time, and without giving any hint at what he was thinking, Aoshi turned. “Sleep in the chair. Put your clothes back on if you want.” Sano opened his mouth. “And keep quiet.”

A little annoyed, Sano began pulling on his pants as darkness fell and he heard Aoshi getting into bed. He fumbled his way to the chair and sat down.

Here we go with another comfortable night, he grumbled silently. Way to make sense again. What the hell was wrong with this guy? It was almost like he was punishing Sano for something. This was just like the other night, only everything he was sitting here contemplating had escalated since then. Stupid fucking guards.

“…some guard who’s suddenly decided you’re his boyfriend…”

Sano just didn’t want to think about any of it. He was very close to wishing he were in some normal guard’s room, so at least he might have something to distract himself. Some guard that didn’t pretend not to want him or pretend to want him and not fuck him either way and what the hell did it mean?!

Then a new theory struck him, and he stared through the darkness to where he knew Aoshi lay. I bet… he considered slowly, and a slight grin spread across his face. Bet ‘e can’t get it up. He’s hauling me in here and doin’ his best, but even I can’t do it for him.

Maybe it was the stress he’d been under lately, or maybe it was because this explanation lessened the burden of confusion on his mind, but somehow, the more Sano thought about the theory, the funnier he found it — until he had his head laid against the back of the chair and tears leaking from his eyes in silent laughter, and drawing breath quietly was difficult. He can’t get it up, and sending me back to quarters would be good as admitting he couldn’t… so he keeps me here in the chair and goes to sleep all frustrated.

He hadn’t expected to find any relief here tonight, but after not too long was falling asleep in a much better mood.

Chapter 8

Days passed with no more perturbing guard-related events than sitting twice in Aoshi’s chair and being checked on fairly routinely by yellow-eyes. Though he still wanted answers, Sano was, somewhat against his will, beginning to get used to this. Aoshi’s strange behavior kept him out of random beds on at least those nights, anyway; and constant confusion, while not technically pleasant, was technically better than his interaction with most guards.

The one disconcerting moment of the week (guard-related, that is) was when yellow-eyes, ‘coincidentally’ encountering him yet again, asked whether he had barracks-call that night. Sano’s eyes flew instantly to the man’s hand, currently holding a cigarette, his thoughts to the feeling of that hand touching him, and that same strange twisting sensation in his stomach kept him for a moment from answering. Was the guy giving in? Had he actually decided to fuck Sano? It didn’t matter, since Sano did have a call for that night, but he spent the day in renewed mystification.

Katsu was no help at all, for a few reasons. First, Sano had yet to hear from coordination and was still separated from his friends during the days as he did laundry and they worked the fields. Second, Katsu still thought Sano was making too much of this, and from a logical standpoint Sano couldn’t even argue. Third, there was still Soujirou. Sano wasn’t sure how, but he was certain the two of them were finding opportunities to be alone and… do whatever. What disturbed him most was how cheerful this made Katsu. Increased happiness on the part of any of his companions would, of course, normally be a good thing, but here he feared it meant that Katsu was falling more and more for the smiling newcomer.

Katsu knew Sano’s worry, and continually insisted that he could take care of himself. He seemed to think Sano’s ‘obsession’ (as he called it) was a greater problem. The evening after yellow-eyes made his disconcerting inquiry, when Sano had told his friend about the conversation and wasn’t even bothering trying to disguise his intentions for the night, Katsu nearly snapped.

Why, Sano?” He looked like he might very readily have punched Sano if they hadn’t been indoors.

“I have to know what the hell he meant by that,” Sano grumbled, at once guilty and defensive. “I have to try at least one more time to get answers.”

“Goddammit,” hissed Katsu in desperate frustration, “don’t you realize that it’s not just your own ass you’re risking here?”

“If he was gonna turn us in,” Sano insisted, lowering his voice with a glance around at the others, “he’d have done it already. He’s got something else going on, and I wanna know what it is.”

“It probably has nothing to do with you!”

“Then why didn’t he turn us in?”

“Who cares?” Katsu exploded. “Since when is it your business what he does or doesn’t do?”

“I think I’ve gone crazy,” was Sano’s muttered admission. “Or if I haven’t, I will if I don’t figure this guy out.”

“You realize he didn’t actually tell you to come to him; he just asked if you were going to anyone else. It’s not necessarily the same thing.”

“I know. But I have to go.”

Katsu pursed his lips and nodded. “Be careful,” he said hopelessly.

Sano had been planning on merely stopping by the quarters to check on Kaoru, who hadn’t come to supper, but between waiting for a moment when Soujirou wasn’t listening and the subsequent debate with Katsu, he found the quarter-warden locking the door by the time he approached it; she didn’t even ask, tonight, where he thought he was going, only let him out with a sneer of, “You’ve been busy lately.”

He just nodded, and left as quickly as he could.

But as he made his way up the hill, he found himself dawdling, hesitant. Katsu was right: yellow-eyes hadn’t told him to come. Though the guard hadn’t been angry the last time Sano had shown up uninvited, was Sano pushing his luck? Just asking for the man to snap? Or what if… what if yellow-eyes had somebody else with him in there? What would he do to the upstart slave that came pounding on the door like a suspicious lover?

Something cold and hard seemed to grow in Sano’s chest, and still he wavered. He couldn’t go back now, even if he wanted to. He could spend the night outside; he’d done it before, and knew it was possible… but what he’d told Katsu had been true as well: not knowing was going to break him.

The dilemma was eventually solved for him. “What’re you doing out, there?”

At first Sano thought he was caught: outside after curfew, having lied (at least by omission) to his quarter-warden, with no actual barracks-call to excuse his slow, loitering walk… and the voice, of course, was Akamatsu’s… The blood rushed to his face as he stood suddenly still. But a split-second later he realized that the guard, a few yards away, was addressing another slave and Sano, concealed in shadow, had gone unnoticed as yet.

It was the braid-girl from the wash-house. “I… I…” She’d barely begun to stammer out an excuse when the guard interrupted her:

“Never mind, sweetie, just come with me.”

“Where?” The girl’s voice was a frightened squeak.

“We’ll just head back to my room and not worry about curfew.” Not for the first time, Sano wondered whether Akamatsu ever did any actual guarding or just wandered around looking for slaves to molest. He hadn’t been aware that the asshole liked girls, though.

“But, sir, I–” Now it was a horrified squeak.

“C’mon.” He grabbed her arm. “I’m lettin’ you off easy here.”

“No!” She was standing her ground.

Won’t do you any good, Sano told her silently, repressing a sigh and remembering.

“Don’t give me no attitude, there,” the guard growled.

“But…”

“You gonna keep fighting me? Do I hafta show you your place right here outside, then?”

Sano couldn’t take this. He’d been fairly sure this girl was new around here since the first time he’d seen her; he couldn’t stand to watch her dragged off to be raped — or, worse, raped right in front of him on the ground — when all it would take to save her was a ‘Hey, guy, she ain’t worth your time… wanna try something tighter and ready to go?’ He was about to go over there and work his charm when the situation suddenly turned on its head.

“Bastard,” the girl said in a clear and completely different tone, and, apparently without effort, threw the man to the ground.

Sano wasn’t exactly sure what she’d done — he certainly didn’t see any weapon — but the man did not get up again. And now the girl was looking straight at him. “Come over here and help me,” she commanded.

Sano did so, having not the faintest idea what to expect, his eyes on the fallen guard. “Did you… is he…”

“I just knocked him out, but it’s going to be a big problem. Can you carry him for me?”

Eyes widening and brows lowering, Sano demanded, “Just what do you think you’re doing? This… this is gonna get you killed, you know that? I can’t… I mean, not that I haven’t always wanted to kick this guy’s ass, but…”

She gave him a flat stare that said very clearly, I know what I’m doing. Which Sano couldn’t believe, but she was doing it rather convincingly. “Just come on,” she ordered.

For some unfathomable reason, Sano found himself obeying. “I’m gonna get fucking killed,” he muttered as he hoisted Akamatsu onto his back and tottered after the girl, who was now leading the way. “I always feel bad for you gals and do stupid shit.”

She threw a grin over her shoulder at him. “Trust me.”

“Why do people keep saying that?” Sano grumbled, then added under his breath, “This bastard always stinks…”

Braid-girl was keeping them close to the trees, watching carefully for anyone approaching from any direction; she moved almost noiselessly, and her vigil looked like it was unerring. Sano wondered, very curious, what kind of work she’d done for her previous master.

She stopped them suddenly, as they were about to leave the cover of the little belt of forest, and scanned their surroundings even more cautiously than before. Sano was becoming increasingly nervous… they were approaching the guard barracks, and he had an unconscious rapist on his back. “Where are we going?” he wondered in the quietest tone possible.

“There,” she replied, pointing — he must be seeing things — straight at the barracks in front of them.

“Are you fucking crazy?” he demanded, stepping back a few paces and almost stumbling under his load. “What the fuck is your–”

She glared at him. “I’m not suicidal and I’m not stupid. Do you think I’d be doing something like this if I didn’t know what I was doing?”

“Um…” Sano shook his head, baffled. “I don’t know you from fucking Juno! How should I know if you would or not?”

“Well, I wouldn’t,” she said impatiently. “Are you going to trust me and come with me, or am I going to knock you out too?”

“Betcha can’t drag us both,” he said defiantly.

She turned fully to face him with an annoyed scowl. “Just trust me. Bring him, and everything’ll be OK.” After a long moment she turned away again and continued checking for watchers.

Thinking he must have gone completely insane, Sano stepped after her as she hurried across the open space toward the building. His frown deepened as he realized that he knew which room she was approaching. But… it couldn’t be… why?

She glanced around yet again, furtively, when she reached the door. Indeed, it was the door. She knocked softly, and, indeed, it was yellow-eyes that opened and, with only a fleeting look of surprise, gestured for them both to come inside.

Sano was by now far over his head in puzzlement and trepidation. He entered mutely, and at braid-girl’s gesture dumped the unconscious body on the floor.

“I’m sorry…” the girl was saying, giving Akamatsu a look of contempt. “I shouldn’t have… but you said not to let any of them touch us.”

Yellow-eyes nodded shortly; then, to Sano’s utter shock and dismay, he knelt beside the prostrate guard and, in a concise movement and with a quick, sickening series of snapping crunches, twisted the man’s head violently almost a full one hundred and eighty degrees.

“H-holy… fucking…” The slave was gaping, shaking his head, feeling bile rise in his throat and his entire body flush with horror. He’d witnessed deaths before, but this was… different… and the fact that he’d fantasized seeing exactly that for at least a year actually made it worse.

“Look away if it bothers you,” said yellow-eyes shortly. Then he turned immediately back to braid-girl and told her, “Go spend the night in Aoshi’s room; tell him what’s happened. We may have to move sooner than we’d planned because of this; we’ll need to see how this man’s absence is taken.”

Even through the shock he was in, Sano didn’t fail to note the smile that flickered across braid-girl’s face at Aoshi’s name. Aoshi? Aoshi??

“Yes, sir,” braid-girl said, and was out the door.

“Um…” Sano stood rooted to the spot, his gaze fixed on a point where he could still see the corpse in the corner of his eye. “What is going on?”

“You’ll need to spend the night here,” yellow-eyes told him. Sano was compelled to look at his face, but, as always, could not read the expression there.

“That doesn’t really tell me what’s going on,” he protested weakly. Although, provided something was done with the dead body, spending the night here was not nearly as disagreeable a thought as it might or probably should have been.

“You don’t need to know what’s going on,” yellow-eyes said. “Just forget everything you saw tonight.” He had pulled the blanket from the bed and was busy stripping the sheets.

Sano didn’t like this at all. “You can’t just expect me to really do that,” he protested. “You just fucking killed a guy… a guy who’s been raping me for, like, a year, yeah, but…”

“He’s been worse than most, hasn’t he?” Yellow-eyes’ voice was stony.

“How the hell did you know that? Yeah, he has… but…”

“I’m sorry if it disturbs you,” said the man grimly, “but someone like that deserves it.”

“He does… he did… but… What the fuck are you? You and that girl and… and that other guard, Aoshi… you’re all working together to do something here, aren’t you?”

“How do you know who Aoshi is?” yellow-eyes asked curiously as he bent and began tightly wrapping the sheet around the corpse.

“He keeps calling me up to his quarters and then just having me sit there all night not doing jack-shit. Confused the hell outta me before, but maybe I get it a little now.”

For some reason, yellow-eyes looked annoyed at this. “Not as much as you think you do,” he replied darkly.

“What do you mean? And what are you guys all here for?”

Yellow-eyes just shook his head as he finished his task.

Frustrated but by now familiar with how nearly impossible it was to get information out of this man, Sano made one last attempt to put the pieces together. Knowing that there was some kind of conspiracy, some kind of organization toward whatever end yellow-eyes had in mind, was not nearly as helpful as he would have thought it should be. The only answer he could come up with, eventually, was, “Are you here to steal slaves?”

Looking up at him impassively, yellow-eyes replied shortly, “Yes.”

Surprised that his guess had been correct, Sano frowned for a moment before making another. “And I’m one of the ones you want.”

The guard was briefly silent as he lifted the body, then stood straight with a slight smirk and said, “You are the one I want.”

“What, you’re each only taking one?” Suddenly the man’s behavior up until now came frighteningly close to making sense. But… yellow-eyes, braid-girl, and Aoshi… that was only three… if they were each hand-picking one slave, then… Sano scowled abruptly. “I won’t let you.”

Yellow-eyes quirked an eyebrow. “You’re not going to have a choice.”

“So was this why I wasn’t supposed to regret not escaping?” Sano demanded irately. “Because you stealing me was going to make up for it?” The idea was somehow more painful than anything else he’d imagined during the long days that had passed since the fateful escape attempt. Sano’s rising voice overrode whatever the guard might have been about to say. “You fucking asshole, you’re just like all the other guards here… fuck that, you’re worse… you’re worse than that stiff you’re holding!”

The look of mild and relatively patient annoyance on the man’s face as he let Sano have his say was just too much. In what the slave hoped was an unexpected movement — not that the guard was in much of a position to stop him, burdened as he was — Sano yanked the door open and bolted.

Lucky he was that he didn’t encounter anyone, for he ran almost blindly — first in the general direction of his quarters, then, in a brief moment of greater presence of mind, into the nearby belt of trees. There, he threw himself down half in a bush and closed his eyes.

He didn’t know where to go. Straight to another guard, to report the crime brewing in their midst? No, he couldn’t… no matter what the man’s motives had been, yellow-eyes hadn’t turned him in for trying to escape — nor, perhaps more to the point, Katsu — and Sano didn’t think he could just turn around and betray him after that. But he couldn’t allow himself to be stolen…

The mere thought of that man’s attitude and behavior was bitterly painful to him. Why it should be so he was not sure… Because, despite his technical status as a slave, he yet was unaccustomed to being so blatantly objectified? Because, now that he knew the inadequate reason for its prevention, the thwarted escape attempt was haunting him? Because the faith he’d had, in defiance of all logic, in that mysterious promise was now shattered? And why was it that knowing the truth raised more questions than it answered?

The sex thing, for example, still made no sense. Did yellow-eyes plan on continuing to ask him, ‘Do you want me to?’ once Sano had become his personal property? Did he assume Sano would eventually succumb to his… charms… and answer yes? That would fit, Sano thought, with the arrogance and selfishness of a man under the impression that belonging to him would be better than freedom.

Sano buried his face in the dusty cloth that covered his knees, as if by hiding it he could hide from the emotional turmoil it displayed. He feared he wouldn’t be getting much sleep tonight.

Chapter 9

In the showers the next morning, it was readily evident to Katsu that Sano was, true to form, even worse off than he’d been before going on his third (or was it fourth?) quest for answers. This obsession of his had to reach a breaking point eventually… Katsu could only fear that, as Sano himself had once suggested, it might well be Sano’s breaking point. Today he didn’t even appear to notice the interaction between Katsu and Soujirou, which otherwise Katsu assumed would have worried and angered him.

Sano seemed exhausted and unhappy, but more distressing than that was the blankness of his eyes — and nothing Katsu thought of to say could really pull him from his evidently very unpleasant thoughts. He wished they would be going to the fields together; if he’d had all day to work on him, his efforts might have had some better effect. As it was, the time for their separation came all too soon, and Sano made for the other side of the building and his laundry with almost no farewell.

Katsu watched him go with a feeling of pained frustration, then turned toward his own day’s work. But as his eyes swept past the belt of forest that ran behind the wash-house and the mess hall and on up the hill, he caught sight of a tall grey figure standing in the shadows of the trees, from all appearances watching the slaves emerging from the wash-house very intently. And, though the features were obscured by distance and shadow, somehow Katsu knew who it was.

Maybe he was feeling reckless; maybe the memory of the conversation he’d overheard at the showers the other day inspired him to greater protectiveness of his friend than prudence could restrain. Whatever the impelling madness, he said quietly to Soujirou at his side, “Wait here a second,” and jogged over to the guard.

The latter gave him an aloof quizzical look and said nothing, only sucked on a cigarette, as he approached. That was somewhat promising.

“What are you doing to Sano?” Katsu demanded, taking care not to precede the question with a deep breath that would indicate just how nervous he was.

“I don’t see him around, so I’d have to say nothing,” the man replied with a touch of sarcasm.

Sarcasm, however, was far from the hostility Katsu would have expected from a guard thus accosted, and this gave him courage. “Every time he goes to you, he’s confused and upset the whole next day. He hasn’t been himself at all since that night you stopped us.”

“Sounds like a personal problem to me,” said the guard.

“A personal problem you’ve been causing!” Katsu protested. “What did you do to him?”

“Nothing he didn’t want or enjoy.”

By this statement Katsu was taken aback, and a frown grew on his face as he remembered Sano’s slow and thoughtful ‘No…’ when Katsu had asked if the guard had raped him. Did that mean… could it be possible… that something had happened to make Sano like this man? That would explain everything very neatly, Katsu thought. And if it indeed was the case, it made Sano’s situation even more complicated and unfortunate than Katsu’s. Who had ever heard of a slave becoming attached to a guard?

Still, he couldn’t be sure from the uncertain information the taciturn man had given him. He was about to demand more answers when the guard cut him off with, “You need to get to work.”

“Yes,” Katsu replied in a colder tone than he thought he’d ever used with a guard before, and added for good measure, “sir.” Then he turned to obey the command.

“What was that?” Soujirou wondered as Katsu rejoined him and they set off.

“Me being suicidal,” sighed Katsu in reply. “Sano’s rubbing off.”

Soujirou glanced back. “Oh, was that the guard that Sano’s worried about?”

“Yeah.” A harshly helpless feeling was growing in Katsu’s chest as they walked. Was that really the best he could do for his friend? A couple of questions and then a quick step back into line? He’d had the guy there, conveniently located and at his ease… yet all he could manage was to invite retribution while obtaining almost no answers and definitely not making his point. “Goddammit,” he muttered.

“If he upset you so much,” Soujirou remarked, “I’m surprised your conversation was so short.”

“As if I had any choice,” replied Katsu in a growling sigh. “There’s not much else you can say to ‘You need to get to work’ than ‘Yes, sir.'” He kicked at a rock, but didn’t bother to go back for it when he missed and half-stumbled past it. “It doesn’t matter what we do,” he added softly, bitterly. “Whether we try to stand up to them or just give up and do whatever they say… they’re miles above us. It’s like they’re a different species.”

“That’s not true, and you know it.” Soujirou’s tone was quiet, serious, and just a little startling. Glancing at him, Katsu noticed that, although his rarely-absent smile was in its customary place, it was more rigid than usual. Walking purposefully and quickly as always, Soujirou was looking down at the ground… but Katsu thought there was something tight about his movements; a completely different emotion than the ones superficially suggested by his expression showed in every other aspect of his figure. “Anyone who’d be willing to guard a place like this is less of a man than you are.”

Katsu stared. He’d never heard Soujirou talk like that, but somehow it reminded him of the pitying look he’d caught him giving Yahiko his first night — if only because of the apparent incongruence of each circumstance. “I’m still usually pretty happy,” Soujirou had commented when they’d discussed their attitudes toward their situation, and his constant smile testified of that statement’s truth… yet moments like this did not. Was there something about Soujirou, something hiding behind that smile, that Katsu was missing?

Aforementioned smile rose, once again beaming innocent complacence in almost jarring transformation now that Katsu was paying attention. “But you’re probably right about not provoking the guards; you know how this place works better than I do, after all. Do you think Sano’s gotten himself in trouble with that guy?”

With a slight chill Katsu recognized the technique: transition away from the revealing comment, compliment to distract, and question on a topic that won’t be ignored. Was he imagining things? Or else how many times had Soujirou directed his conversation thus since arriving at the complex? And, more importantly, why? To conceal strong anti-slavery sentiments that could get him killed if they were even hinted at aloud? Or something less harmless? Not that Katsu could imagine anything one slave might have to conceal from another that would require such behavior…

“I don’t know,” he said, not bothering to make his answer sound less darkly contemplative; let Soujirou think Katsu was brooding about Sano. Hell, let him think Katsu was onto him; it didn’t make much difference. Still, favoring the first impression slightly, he added with a little more attention, “I don’t think so. The guard didn’t sound angry.”

“Well, that’s good, at least,” Soujirou smiled, and asked no more questions.

Having a lot to think about wasn’t entirely bad, despite the unsettling nature of the two subjects: the day seemed to fly by when both his head and his hands were occupied. He took little part in the conversation between Soujirou and Kaoru, who was working in their area as she did whenever she could; and the apparently innocuous nature of Soujirou’s half of the discussion only lengthened Katsu’s internal debate: was he imagining things? There was more to anyone he was likely to meet than he would be able to comprehend in the amount of time he’d known Soujirou; just because he’d had sex with someone didn’t mean he knew everything there was to know about him. Was he borrowing trouble just so he wouldn’t have to deal with the trouble he already had?

Not that he wasn’t thinking about Sano, but there was nothing new in those reflections. The very novelty of the suspicions Soujirou’s words had awakened was, for the moment, almost equal to his worries about his best friend, so there was a fairly steady alternation of topic throughout the course of his work — to absolutely no purpose. The aforementioned suspicions were not concrete enough to approach Soujirou with, and the aforementioned worries, as Katsu was fully aware, got him right to the middle of a bleak and frustrating nowhere. It made for a disheartening day.

Near the end of the latter, he was distracted from both of his engrossing subjects by a couple of guards that stopped nearby to talk in low voices. What caught his attention in specific was the question asked by the one that had apparently initiated this not atypical breach in protocol: “So, did you hear about that pervert scarred guy?”

Katsu moved a few quiet steps closer. It was his habit to listen to any conversation he was able to overhear between guards, and here he had the added incentives of a distraction from unpleasant reflections and finding out what the other guards thought of Akamatsu.

That opinion didn’t seem to be too high. “The one who’s got a slave up to his room every fucking night?” the second guard snorted. “No, what happened?”

“He’s gone,” replied the first. “Last night, I guess; never showed up this morning, and his stuff’s gone from his room and everything.”

This was such a shock of good news that Katsu could scarcely believe it.

“Man, I never thought he’d leave… all the free faggy sex he wanted here; where else was he gonna go?”

“That’s the best part… seems like he found himself a real boyfriend.” The first guard’s tone was sardonic and amused. “That new guy — the one with the yellow eyes — he’s gone too.”

Katsu’s brows lowered. He’d seen the man just this morning… and now they said he was gone? Unless there was some other new guard with yellow eyes…

The second speaker burst out laughing at the first’s suggestion. “You’ve gotta be shitting me! Those were the two scariest-looking guys in this place!”

“Funny coincidence, though, them both leaving on the same day, isn’t it?”

Just at that moment the siren calling the end of the work-day sounded from the distant opposite end of the complex, and Katsu jumped. Hastily he stepped away from the guards and put his back to them to make sure he didn’t appear to have been doing what he’d been doing.

Soujirou gave him a curious smile, but Katsu shook his head slightly. Not until they’d stowed their tools in the shed and left the immediate supervision of the field guards for the greater privacy of the road did he speak. This gave him time to decide whether to confide in Soujirou at all, and, if so, how much. The conclusion he came to was that, even if there was something untoward about Soujirou, this particular piece of news probably wouldn’t do any harm — and would undoubtedly reach his ears after not too long anyway.

Soujirou’s comment on the story was very much along the lines of what Katsu had been wondering since hearing it himself: “But if he supposedly left before work, why did we see him hanging around the wash-house this morning?”

Katsu shook his head. “Who knows?”

Kaoru, who hadn’t witnessed the morning’s encounter, had to have it explained, which was fortunate — although Katsu had been willing to relate what he’d overheard, his thoughts in response to it were something he didn’t feel like sharing, and this was a good way to avoid doing so.

The guard had seemed to be waiting or watching for something outside the wash-house — if not necessarily for a rendezvous of some sort, at least to confirm someone’s presence or state. Perhaps that had been his final item of business before leaving the complex? And where did Akamatsu fit in? Would he also be showing up for one final item of business?

With a sigh (and a slight shudder at that last concept), Katsu reflected that he was soon likely to be as bad as Sano if he kept puzzling over things like this. Overall, it was good news that the yellow-eyed man had left, whenever he’d gone: whatever Sano might or might not feel for the guard, he would be better off without him around. And Akamatsu’s departure must be, beyond simply good news, a cause for outright celebration.

Kaoru was agreeing aloud with this unspoken sentiment as they approached the mess hall, but, naturally, quieted as soon as they were within earshot of the guard on the porch. “Sano will be happy to hear it,” she did add, however, in an undertone, as they entered.

Katsu wasn’t so sure about that. Based on what he’d seen this morning and the logical destination of the road Sano’s spirit had been traveling lately, he feared even the news that the world was going to end tomorrow might not have roused Sano from the stupor into which he’d fallen. Yet he pondered how to bring the subject up. Although, in perfect accordance with his theory, Sano’s eyes were just as blank over his soup and bread as they had been in the showers, Katsu’s surety of his friend’s current dullness wasn’t so great as to assume that the news of the yellow-eyed guard’s departure would have no affect on him.

Conforming to the pattern of the day, he was distracted from one issue by another when he noticed the odd way Soujirou was holding his soup spoon. Of course the slaves weren’t given knives or forks — not that they needed such things for their simple meals — and the spoons were too flimsy to be used as weapons… but their edges tended to be somewhat rough, and it seemed this was causing Soujirou some discomfort.

Curious, Katsu abandoned his scrutiny of Sano’s blank face for the moment in favor of watching Soujirou’s hands surreptitiously. It didn’t take too long to discern that their undersides, from wrist to fingertip, were covered with raging red blisters and cuts, which were apparently aggravated today more than previous days by the basic motions of eating. Indeed, Soujirou’s typical speed at that activity was hampered somewhat by the care he was taking not to hurt himself more than he had to.

Soujirou had mentioned that his work for his late master had been ‘white-collar.’ Katsu’s wasn’t entirely clear on that concept, but knew it placed Soujirou in the category of indoor slaves. Therefore the havoc that the rough, heavy harvesting tools had been wreaking on Soujirou’s hands was no surprise at all. What did come as a surprise was that Katsu hadn’t seen it before today. Usually he was quite good at noticing things like that — at noticing things in general, actually — and in this specific case, the hands in question had touched him rather intimately on several occasions. That he hadn’t taken note of their injured state seemed to suggest Soujirou had been taking care to keep it hidden. And did that mean he had deliberately allowed Katsu to see it tonight? But why would he do either?

Or was Katsu still imagining things, fitting this circumstance into the network of doubt he was now continually developing in reference to the other slave? Soujirou might merely be embarrassed to have his weakness known, or in some sort of quiet denial about the circumstances that had caused it, or undesirous to add to the others’ existing unhappiness. And it was quite possible that Katsu was simply slipping — that this thing with Sano had blinded him, to a certain extent, to extraneous facts, and caused the state of Soujirou’s hands to escape him. Or perhaps the blisters hadn’t been this visible until tonight? There were plenty of logical reasons Katsu might not have noticed besides Soujirou having some kind of dark secret.

In any case, the sight reiterated a fact Katsu had been largely trying to ignore all day: whatever Soujirou was or might be hiding and why, Katsu cared about him. Not as much as he cared about Sano and in a decidedly different way… but he did care, and he couldn’t deny it. He would have to talk to Soujirou about it later; it could be that the latter simply wasn’t aware there was treatment (however perfunctory) available, and had opted to suffer in silence.

“Katsu.” Kaoru brought him back to the here and now with her quiet call. She was looking at Sano worriedly — and when a woman wasting away of heartbreak looked at someone like that, it was time to pay attention. “Are you going to tell Sano the good news, or should I?”

“Good news?” Sano said vaguely, his eyes still unfocused.

With a deep breath, Katsu tried to put on a smile as he nodded. “I heard some guards talking…” He trailed off for a moment as he was reminded of the last time he’d used this exact phrase and what had happened that night. Were they headed for further disaster? But that was superstitious and irrelevant. “Akamatsu’s gone,” he finished with all the cheer he could muster. It wasn’t quite as much cheer as he could have mustered if he hadn’t had additional news he was less eager to relate, but it didn’t sound too bad.

“Aka… ma…” To all appearances, Sano wasn’t even aware that he was repeating the name; it was as if his mouth were acting independently of his brain in an attempt to bring the rest of him up to speed.

His moment of realization, as abrupt as the firing of a gun, was clearly visible and equally puzzling to all of them: the color drained from his face, and his body straightened with a jerk that caused the tray beneath his hands on the tabletop to clatter and shift. He stood without a word and started to make a swift, ungraceful path through the crowd toward the door. For one baffled moment they all stared after him, unmoving. Then Katsu, his mind and consequently many of his actions in complete disarray, jumped up clumsily and followed.

He hadn’t really believed Akamatsu’s departure had anything to do with the other guard’s, but for Sano to react thus forced him to rethink that assessment — though any logical guess at the connection between the circumstances was beyond the pales of Katsu’s imagination. But now his curiosity had risen to the level of his concern, and both were at fever pitch. He was not surprised, on leaving the building, to see Sano heading up the hill toward the guard barracks. Nor was he surprised to hear Soujirou’s footsteps behind him as he gave chase.

“Sano,” he called out as he drew close. He didn’t think Sano would deliberately ignore him, especially not when he spoke in a tone so serious; he suspected that Sano was in this case so lost in his own thoughts that he hadn’t even heard. “Sano!” he said again, more loudly.

“This is the last time.” Sano replied with a sure finality that yet held the same lack of attention that had marked all his previous statements of the evening. He didn’t even look around or slow as he said it.

It wasn’t even really a protest at Sano going to see that man again, not this time; Katsu just wanted to know what the hell was going on, both physically and in Sano’s head. But it was discouragingly obvious that a question to that purpose would get him absolutely no response. So he said the only thing he was sure would stop his friend’s absent yet determined steps:

“He’s gone, Sano.”

“What?” Sano finally looked back, the blankness lifting somewhat from the eyes he turned toward his friend.

“He’s gone,” Katsu repeated quietly. “He and Akamatsu both. The guards I overheard mentioned them at the same time.”

The maelstrom of emotions that flashed momentarily across Sano’s face made Katsu alternately want to shake him until he came to his senses or hug him to that exact same purpose. But in the next instant Sano shook himself, turned again, and took off at a run in the same direction he’d been going.

Squeezing his eyes closed, Katsu raised his face toward the sky in frustration and pain. He could only hope — and without even much of that confident emotion — that this really would be the last time, that the man really was gone and that Sano would be able to let him go. Because otherwise… He didn’t know, couldn’t guess what would happen to all of them; in his mind it was an impenetrably black void of despair.

Soujirou laid a comforting hand on Katsu’s shoulder and squeezed slightly. There wasn’t really anything he could say, but Katsu appreciated the gesture — and it reminded him…

He couldn’t help himself. Taking the hand gently in his own, he examined the palm briefly before lifting it to his lips and kissing the only spot that was still relatively unhurt. But he too had nothing to say, so next he merely let go and turned back toward the mess hall. Soujirou, whose eyes had been very bright during those few wordless moments, followed in silence.

Chapter 10

Braid-girl hadn’t been there — transferred, supposedly, to the workshop — but somehow in his confused state of mind Sano hadn’t been able to connect this with the events of the previous night. Had completely lost track of it, in fact, in the whirlpool of thought and emotion that passed for his brain these days.

As far as he knew, the washing machines into which he’d been stuffing clothing were the only actual whirlpools he’d ever encountered, and he’d certainly never attempted to swim — but he imagined this must be what drowning felt like. His thoughts, normally allies if not necessarily friends, now dragged at and overwhelmed him. If he tried to think about something else or sought the solid ground of a blank mind, the other matter sucked him back down with crushing surety.

Even within the topic to which they were restricted, his thoughts were limited. He might have realized the significance of braid-girl’s absence if he’d been able to think about her at all. He might have been able to guess what was coming if his reflections had been a little broader. But the only thing in his head — practically the only thing in his world — was that man, the things he’d said and done, and the sense Sano was trying desperately to make of it all.

Well, really, it all would have made sense easily if not for his emotions that had to attach varying significance to anything and everything that had happened between them, and to any inference Sano could draw therefrom.

Yellow-eyes was here to steal slaves — or, rather, a slave. Why had he fixed on Sano among all the rest? He’d seemed angry when he’d spoken of the guards finding Sano strong and attractive… for what other attributes, then, could he desire to possess him? Or was it all right as long as he didn’t plan on raping him? As long as Sano was the property not of a faceless slave-trafficking corporation but of a single person, someone that was willing to ask him, ‘Do you want me to?’

Someone that wanted him badly enough to shoot him rather than let him escape?

Part of Sano’s heart — a dark, secret part hiding behind his rational thoughts — also wanted it, desperately wanted it. Couldn’t stop imagining what it would be like… couldn’t keep from reflecting on the romance of it… couldn’t help thinking that there was no way in hell it could be worse than the life he’d led up until now.

He was bitterly ashamed of this, but could not entirely repress it. Did that mean he was giving in? That he was past caring about having a master so long as that master was intriguing and good with his hands? So long as that master was that man?

To further his shame, the same part of him that would gladly belong to that man forever was more than willing to sacrifice everything else that mattered to achieve that end. In a way, he felt, this was a sort of mirror to what he thought the other man’s desires were… Sano almost ready to lose everything he valued in himself in order to be with him, and yellow-eyes ready almost to kill him to similar purpose.

Still, the whole thing seemed strange, and not just to his emotions that had their own mysterious agenda. People had work and responsibilities out there, after all… could someone really afford to waste the amount of time and effort yellow-eyes was evidently putting into this on a venture that wasn’t likely to repay either? For Sano couldn’t consider the acquisition of a single personal slave of much practical use… Really, the more he thought about it — and god knew he couldn’t stop thinking about it — the more insane it seemed… like some things he’d heard in stories about eccentric masters with too much money. But, while yellow-eyes was like nobody else Sano had ever met, he’d never seemed insane

Perhaps, then, Sano had misinterpreted the man’s intentions. What exactly had the guard told Sano, after all? That he was here to steal a slave, and had selected Sano. He hadn’t, Sano realized with a sudden constriction in his chest, said anything about keeping him. If the man was merely a merchant of sorts, and Sano was the stolen item yellow-eyes thought would fetch a good price… if the merchandise agreed to sleep with the merchant along the way, well, that would be a nice perk, wouldn’t it? –but if it didn’t, not much of a disappointment. Sano felt cold and small and miserable thinking of such a possibility.

But it still didn’t make sense! He didn’t know much about business of any kind, but even he was fairly certain that putting bullets into the wares was not good business. Besides, yellow-eyes had — no, Sano just couldn’t convince himself he’d been imagining it, however beneficial it might have been to his state of mind — yellow-eyes had as good as stated a strong personal interest in him. No, Sano really couldn’t doubt that the guard meant to keep him. So there must be another explanation for the apparent incongruity of shooting him in the shoulder but not fucking him without permission.

Perhaps yellow-eyes was a collector? Maybe he made a habit of stealing attractive slaves, and had an entire harem at home to satisfy him if Sano continued to say no? Come to think of it, Sano had no real way of knowing that the man did intend to steal only him. He’d been interpreting “You are the one that I want” that way, but desire and intention weren’t necessarily the same thing — as yellow-eyes had already proven by denying himself, for some obscure reason, pleasures he quite clearly wanted.

Goddammit, none of this made any sense, and Sano’s theories were getting more far-fetched by the moment. He really should stop speculating before he worked himself into an inventive frenzy; the truth was that he just didn’t have enough information, what he did have was ambivalent at best, and the added confusion of his twisted emotions could only continue to complicate things until he lost track of what little he was certain of.

Which was why he had to go back. One last time. And if he didn’t get his answers this time, he would… well, he didn’t know what he would do. Go entirely insane and run screaming into the electric fence, most likely. But he had to try, or just go ahead with that suicidal run right now.

And then…

“He’s gone, Sano.”

He couldn’t believe it. Katsu’s further information notwithstanding, somehow the fact did not register in Sano’s mind as something that was actually possible; it entered into the whirlpool and was immediately flung out again, rejected. Still, Sano found himself moving at a dead run toward the barracks, those words echoing in his head and taking longer than they should have to fade. He’s gone, Sano. He’s gone.

Some part of him — the same fatalistic part, probably, that considered the electric fence a viable alternative to a continuation of the way he’d been living lately — must have believed it, for he didn’t bother knocking when he reached the door that looked, somehow, completely different from the other, identical doors along the barracks wall. Nor did he bother coming up with anything to say — greeting, excuse for his presence or precipitous entrance, or even just a better way to phrase the questions that so far had gone unanswered.

And the room was empty.

It was unmistakably evident. The bed was made with military precision; the chair was pushed neatly up to the table; the strongbox was sitting open and the key lying on top. The only sign that anyone had ever lived in this cold, lifeless space was the full ash-tray that still gave off a scent he felt he would never forget.

The ash tray was the only thing that was full. Emptiness like the room ate at Sano, until only one thought rang through the void that was his head and heart:

“You won’t regret it. I swear.”

Now more than ever he couldn’t understand what he was feeling. It reminded him vaguely of what he’d experienced when Kenshin had been sold — as if someone that cared about him was gone; as if yet another beloved friend had been taken from him — but this was worse, somehow… perhaps because he didn’t know if yellow-eyes had cared about him, or because it seemed like the man had purposely abandoned him. Whatever the situation was, Sano was in sudden and severe pain, and not just in his shoulder.

No, he couldn’t lie to himself. Not anymore. He knew the real reason he was hurting so intolerably. The man’s behavior had hinted to him how life could be, how things could feel. He’d been like a lover, a real lover, something Sano had never had. He doubted real lovers were supposed to shoot you in the shoulder; but, at the same time, nobody had ever expressed the kind of interest and concern in Sano that yellow-eyes had.

He had cared; Sano knew he had; he would be damned if he would believe otherwise. But now… now? Why was he gone? Why had he left without even trying to contact Sano? Had he been forced to abandon his plans because of last night’s events? Or had he simply decided that Sano wasn’t worth the trouble? Sano couldn’t think; he couldn’t guess. He just didn’t know.

Stock still, staring silently at some vague point in the empty room, Sano was bizarrely conscious of the grain of the wood of the door he clutched in his raised hand as if to support himself. Everything that had happened here, everything that had begun in this room, everything he’d hoped for or feared that had arisen from that man’s presence… it was like something out of a dream. And that’s exactly what it was… a dream… an illusion, a vision he would never see again.

Now that he’d had a glimpse… now that he had experienced, however briefly and incompletely, something more… he could never just go on as he had. He’d always known with his intellect, but now, staring into this barren room with the rough wood under his whitening fingers, remembering strange sensations that made him shudder with a mixture of emotions even now, feeling the cold of this empty space seeping into his bones and seeming to make them brittle and render him more breakable than he’d ever felt… it came home to him suddenly, brutally, inescapably, just how miserable his life was.

Nothing had actually changed, but his new awareness made that same life a hundred times worse than it had been, could ever have been before. Why did that man treat him like that, like he cared about him, then leave him with a promise he couldn’t possibly fulfill?

Who are you? he inquired in silence of the stranger that had done this to him. What am I supposed to do now that you’ve fucked up my life?

But the man’s only answer was, “You won’t regret it. I swear.”

What the hell kind of promise is that? Sano queried desperately. What does it mean?

But the same six words, cool and mocking, were the only reply.

Chapter 11

A loud pounding on the outer door of the quarters in the middle of the night startled a good half of the sleeping slaves awake, including Katsu. Anyone that remained asleep was probably awakened by the subsequent discussion; even through the wall Katsu could hear every word.

“What the hell do you want?” This was the quarter-warden; she had absolutely no qualms being incredibly rude to the guards if she thought the situation warranted it. Apparently being dragged out of bed at some dark hour of early morning warranted it.

“This one’s yours, isn’t he?” This guard was familiar enough to Katsu, his voice rough and annoyed. A thudding sound accompanied the question.

“Yeah; what’d he do?”

“We found him hanging around an empty barracks room. Trying to avoid earning his keep; who knows how much he’s been doing it lately?”

Katsu had a sudden sinking feeling that he knew who ‘he’ was.

“He’s been out a lot lately,” the warden said in disgust, and by this time Katsu had rolled from his cot and crept to the doorway between the two rooms.

“Don’t let him out anymore unless one of us comes for him,” the guard was saying as Katsu peered around the doorframe. It was as he’d feared: Sano, red spots of recent blows on his face and redder spots of blood on his shoulder, crouched or knelt on the floor as if he’d been thrown there. Half bent over and motionless in the incomplete light from the door of the warden’s room, he looked almost dead.

Even as Katsu’s eyes fell on him, the guard that had brought him gave him a hard kick. “You hear me?”

At once Sano answered in a dull tone, “Yes, sir.”

“And I’ll be by for you tomorrow night when I’m not on patrol. I’m not done teaching you your lesson yet.”

“Yes, sir,” Sano repeated, and Katsu found himself shuddering. That tone, that repetition…

The guard gave Sano a parting shove before turning to leave; Sano fell forward onto all fours and remained there. With a snort, the warden turned her disgusted gaze from him to where Katsu stood watching, as if she already knew she would find him. “Get him to bed,” she ordered. “Clean him up first if you want, but if I hear one sound out of any of you you’ll be scrubbing this place until your fingers fall off.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Katsu murmured, hastening forward. The presence of Soujirou at his side briefly startled but did not really surprise him. The newcomer couldn’t assist much in raising Sano, given that only one of the latter’s shoulders was a workable support, but his willingness to be of service was comforting.

Another, deeper shudder chilled Katsu as they got into the bathroom and full light. Sano stood still, swaying slightly, exactly where he was placed, gaze angled downward and shoulders slumped. He didn’t seem to feel the pain of his reopened injury or the blows he’d evidently taken to other parts of his body, and he didn’t say a word as Katsu pulled the loose shoulder of his shirt aside to see how bad the damage was.

It wasn’t as dire as Katsu had feared — well, as far as he could tell; admittedly his medical knowledge was next to nonexistent — and he hoped that, once the blood was cleaned off and the bandages retightened, Sano might not suffer too much.

“What happened?” Soujirou asked, hovering to one side.

For a moment Sano did not even seem to have heard the question, but finally he stirred a little — though still staring blankly at the floor — and murmured, “I should have closed the door.”

At first Katsu couldn’t think what his friend meant by this, and silently continued wiping the blood away from Sano’s shoulder with a wad of toilet paper. As he threw the latter into the garbage, however, he guessed, “Of the room that guard found you in?”

“Yeah,” Sano replied in the same quiet, listless tone. He didn’t wince as Katsu yanked the bandages back into place and fastened them in a tight knot. But he did look up, meeting his friend’s gaze, as he added, “His room.”

Katsu drew in a sudden rough breath and took an inadvertent step back as a painful, desperate panic whirled through him. “Sano…!” The word had the tone of a shout but was as quiet as a whisper. His hands reached out, clutching tightly at his friend’s shoulders as he moved back toward him. “Sano!” he said again, shaking him.

“That hurts,” Sano replied vaguely, pulling away from Katsu’s grip and moving past him. “I’m going to bed.” And without another word he left the room.

Katsu stumbled blindly to the nearest hard surface and, without even thinking what he did, pounded a fist against it. A muffled gasp told him he’d found the door between the two bathrooms and startled someone on the other side, but at the moment he couldn’t bring himself to care whether whoever it was alerted the warden and he got in trouble. How could this be happening? How could this be happening??

Soujirou’s hand was on his shoulder. “Katsu, what’s wrong?” The worry in the tone seemed born more of confusion than sympathy.

But how could Katsu answer? How could he possibly explain to someone as carefree as Soujirou, someone without a history of being mistreated, someone that had not lived his life among the most miserable members of the human race, that the dullness he had seen in Sano’s eyes was the first downward step on the path to utter soullessness? And how could he admit the secret belief he’d cherished all along that he would be the first to break? That he would never have to deal with Sano breaking because he would almost certainly go first? That he wasn’t ready for this?

But Soujirou’s hand was still on him, gripping him tightly, silently expressing a desire to know and to help… as if there were anything he could do to help… Katsu had to say something.

He leaned his forehead against the cold wall and squeezed his eyes closed. “This is how it starts. I know the signs.” His tone was hoarse, almost harsh. “That’s how they act when they’re starting to break. If he keeps going like that, he won’t be Sano anymore. He won’t be anyone anymore.”

Soujirou drew in a deep breath, and Katsu held his own. He’d chosen his words carefully — as carefully as he could in this frame of mind — because he didn’t think he could stand it if Soujirou argued with him; he simply could not handle a debate at this point. But what the other finally said, quietly and slowly, was, “If that’s true, then it’s even more important now not to give up hope.”

It sounded so trite, so meaningless in the face of what Katsu couldn’t help regarding was something like the end of his world… and yet somehow, when he stood straight and looked over at Soujirou and saw the sad smile on his lips, he felt, if not exactly reassured, at least steadied: aware that he wasn’t alone. Still, his tone was unmistakably bitter as he replied, “You and your optimism.” After which he found Soujirou’s arms around him — strong arms, stronger than he’d really been aware before — holding him tightly as if to say that, while Soujirou might not entirely understand, still he would not let go. And if Katsu’s reciprocal gesture was more of a clinging grasp than a return embrace, neither of them much cared.

The amount of sleep Katsu got for the rest of that night was phenomenally low, if not actually nonexistent. When he wasn’t staring at Sano’s motionless back in the next cot, he was tossing and turning with his eyes squeezed shut, unable to fight off a parade of cruelly dismal thoughts about the future. And every once in a while, when he was turned that direction, he would catch sight of Soujirou on his other side watching him in the darkness with expressionless eyes.

Katsu felt somewhat comforted that he was not the only sleepless worrier… but also got the impression, though he could not have explained why, that Soujirou was just as much keeping an eye on him to make sure he didn’t do anything impetuous as offering moral support. He remembered the suspicions he’d formulated about his would-be lover… but at the moment couldn’t bring himself to give that matter much thought.

The morning came with some consolation. Although Katsu could still barely get a word out of Sano before they went their separate ways, Sano’s blankness seemed to reflect contemplation rather than true absence of mind. Katsu should have known better than to think Sano would go all at once… but it was only a slight relief, given that the genesis had unmistakably taken place even if Sano was fighting it.

As for Sano, he could only hazily remember what had happened after his disastrous visit to that empty room last night. As a matter of fact, except for certain repetitive trains of thought that seemed to have him in an unshakeable taloned grip, everything was a little hazy in his head. The world seemed simplified somehow… he was confused, he was unhappy, but beyond that he didn’t seem to care about — or, to a certain extent, even recognize — anything.

It was not so much any sort of external inhibition of his senses as an internal disinclination or even inability to rouse himself to any particularly complex thoughts or emotions. And he found he couldn’t really object. There was pain and confusion; here was relative peace. If he could just not care for a while, things would undoubtedly work out.

The dullness made the day drag, each load of laundry seeming to take an hour just to get into the washing machine and the muscular impulses required to accomplish this task unusually difficult — but the apathy rendered him indifferent. The increased pain in his shoulder from the beating he’d taken last night, augmented by the work of the day, could not rouse him; even the memory that he was in disfavor with the quarter-warden and had what would probably be an unusually unpleasant barracks-call tonight could not rouse him.

His senses were dulled along with his thoughts: he didn’t really hear the murmur of the other slaves in the mess hall, nor taste his supper, and saw his friends only as if from far away, their faces unusually featureless. If they held any conversation while they ate, he didn’t notice.

The one event of the entire day that threatened to shake him was when Katsu very deliberately kissed Soujirou as the newcomer rose to leave the room once he’d finished eating… but even that was not quite enough. Why worry about a situation for which there was no help? Besides, Sano’s mind felt like it had shrunken past the point of holding anything but the unpleasant reflections, now hazy, that had plagued him since yesterday. Eventually, he thought, even those must fade.

He hardly noticed the quarter-warden’s disdainful insults when he came in after supper, and once again the dull time passed smoothly away before his uncaring eyes as he waited for the guard that was going to ‘finish teaching him his lesson’ tonight.

The crispness of the man’s grey uniform, freshly-laundered today, was something of a jolt, but the guard lacked the leanness of figure and precision of movement that would have really bothered Sano. At another time, in another frame of mind, that expression combining lust and anger might have worried Sano… but not tonight. This was just another thing he had to do; it meant nothing. So, though Katsu gave him a stricken look as the guard led him out and the others appeared no less grim, Sano didn’t feel there was any real need for worry.

He was right. Rough, almost brutal, though the guard was with him, Sano found it even easier, as the day progressed toward its end, not to care. It was just another task, and if he could get through it he could sleep. And the simplest way of getting through it was not caring.

He didn’t care how thoroughly or painfully the guard wore him out. He didn’t care that the man then made him sleep on the floor. He didn’t care that his shoulder and ass were bleeding. He didn’t care that the doctor was tired of seeing him and might get him in trouble when he went to her in the morning. He didn’t care that he was going to be in even greater pain as he worked tomorrow.

Abstractly he wondered why he hadn’t ever tried this before. Life would have been so much easier, could have moved so much more quickly and smoothly toward its end like this. He wasn’t entirely certain yet whether or not he wanted to remain thus indefinitely, but at the moment it didn’t seem a half-bad idea. Forget yellow-eyes and the confusion he’d induced, forget the idea of a better way of living, and just not care.

For tonight at the very least, in any case, he planned on staying in this peaceful, hazy place, and it was unlikely there was anything in his little world that could possibly drag him out of it.

Chapter 12

The alarm siren was pounding through his brain like a stake driven by a mallet as he and Katsu hid in the trees, shaking, clutching at each other in terror — fear that was all the worse for being unusual and unconquerable. They wouldn’t have been afraid at all if it hadn’t been for the desperate, hopeless tone in Souzou’s voice as he ordered them away. “You’re too young to die,” he’d said. “I’m sorry.” They knew now what he’d known all along: that the approaching footsteps were armed guards out for the kill.

Sano awoke in outright tears, curled up on the floor clutching at his chest as if he could pull himself into a tighter ball and thereby avoid notice, as if he were still that frightened child of ten years prior.

Weapons at the ready, the grey-clad enforcers appeared all at once from practically every direction. Obviously by prearrangement, they did not speak or otherwise allow for confrontation. They merely opened fire.

This was what he got for trying not to care, for thinking nothing in the world could rouse him.

Sano would have liked to look away or close his eyes, would have liked to run to avoid the stray bullets that tore the air around him and splintered the tree trunk behind him… but he couldn’t… he couldn’t move or even blink as the slaves before him — all of them good men and women that had been kind to him during his brief time in this awful place — were mercilessly slaughtered in a shower of gunfire and blood. As he watched Souzou fall, he screamed.

This could always rouse him, no matter what else he’d suffered, no matter how he felt. The day the memory of Souzou’s horrific, pointless, glorious sacrifice failed to move him was the day he truly lost his humanity.

After a few moments, silence fell over the gory scene, broken only by the weeping of two young slaves — boys that, a moment later, were spared their companions’ fate only because they were too young and too pretty to kill.

Fighting viciously to subdue the fear and misery that kept him from functioning correctly, it took Sano a moment to recognize what had caused him to dream of that distant scenario: outside, the alarm siren was blaring for perhaps the first time he could remember since that tragic night.

The guard was gone, apparently having run out in a hurry to see what the alarm was about, leaving the door half-open. Sano had managed to pull himself off the floor and had just located his shoes when the shooting began.

Against the backdrop of the alarm siren, it was almost too painfully similar to the events of his dream for him to bear, and he was tempted to curl up on the bed and squeeze the pillow around his ears until it was all over. But he was braver than that, so he put his head cautiously through the door.

Looking out from the south side of the building on the first floor, he was facing the slave quarters and facilities. Guards were running here and there in a pattern he only recognized very vaguely: the complex seemed to be going into lockdown in response to the shooting, which was coming from up the hill to the north in the vicinity of the staff buildings and the main entrance. He left the room and headed around the corner.

He didn’t feel like himself. He wasn’t sure what “feeling like himself” was anymore, but he didn’t feel like it. The pain of which he’d been barely conscious last night was present, the thoughts he’d pushed aside all day yesterday were audible in his head, and yet this awareness was different from the usual: the current situation, whatever it was — the sounds of the siren and the guns, the memory that was so inextricably connected with them — superceded everything else. He was himself, but it was more the self of years ago than the self of today or the day before yesterday.

“Sano!”

He looked up to see Katsu running toward him from the direction of the slave quarters, looking haggard and desperate. It was no surprise that Katsu had felt the need to seek Sano out in the midst of what must be for him just as emotionally chaotic as it was for Sano, but the latter doubted it was a good idea.

Reaching him, Katsu took him by his good shoulder and met his eyes, panting. The look on Katsu’s face showed plainly that he’d been awakened in the exact same manner Sano had, but also that he hadn’t forgotten how Sano had been acting yesterday and wasn’t sure now in what state he would find his friend. Sano was sorry for that. At least he was able to convey with a single glance that he had returned, though it did little to alleviate the pain in Katsu’s gaze.

“What’s going on?” Katsu asked unsteadily.

“I don’t know,” Sano replied, reaching up to take hold of and squeeze the arm with which Katsu was gripping his shoulder — as much for his own comfort as to reassure Katsu.

The latter pushed his messy, unbound hair out of his face, and together they turned to look toward the noises. They could still see nothing through the trees that separated the sprawling barracks from the staff buildings, but they could hear that the gunfire hadn’t lessened.

“Hey, you two!” A guard startled them in their watch by turning the corner and almost running into them. “What the hell are you doing standing around here? Are you fucking deaf? Get in–”

Sano and Katsu, turning, saw it where the guard could not, and their mutual expressions of surprise were not in time to warn him, even had that been their intention. His eyes went as wide as theirs before closing as he slumped forward to the ground. They stepped back to avoid his falling figure, staring, and Sano was sure Katsu was wondering, just as he was, whether the man was still even alive.

“You left so fast,” Soujirou greeted Katsu with his usual smile, lowering the hand that had felled the guard, “I almost couldn’t figure out where you went!”

“I… had to find Sano…” Katsu was shaking his head disbelievingly. “Did you… is he dead?”

Sano sympathized with his friend’s evident inability to grasp what was going on, but thought he understood better than Katsu could. Had he not questioned — in almost those same words, even — a similar action performed by another newcomer only days before? The same mysterious motion, the same fortuitous timing… Sense was suddenly blossoming out of confusion… and, with it, anger.

You’re part of all of this too, aren’t you?” he demanded, stepping toward Soujirou without minding that he trod on the arm of the fallen guard. “You could have answered my questions all along, and you fucking pretended to be just like us!”

Soujirou raised a hand as if to stave off further recrimination or even physical retaliation, though Sano hadn’t planned on the latter. “I’ll explain on the way; we need to get back to the quarters.”

“Like hell we do.” Sano stood his ground, growling. “What the fuck is going on? Who are you, or what are you, or whatever? Where is… where’s that guy? That guard?”

“Sano, what the hell are you talking about?” Katsu was demanding at about the same moment.

“He’s probably in the middle of the shooting,” Soujirou answered Sano’s question. “You’ll have to wait until this is all over.”

Turning immediately, Sano tried again to guess via sound where exactly the aforesaid middle of the shooting was likely to be. Behind him Katsu gave a shaky sigh and remarked, “With as long as you’ve been here, I should think you’d know Sano better than that.”

Glancing back, Sano saw that Soujirou’s smile was wry, probably because he’d realized that actually answering the question had been a mistake of sorts. “If you go over there and get yourself shot, he’ll be angry,” he told Sano.

“He fucking shot me already,” Sano replied flatly. “I’m going to find him.”

“Sano…”

Sano almost couldn’t bear to face Katsu, nor could he help reflecting that there were a lot of diverse and fascinating ways to be a complete dick to someone. He had no idea what his friend must think of him by now, after all the stupid and crazy things he’d been doing lately, after everything he’d put him through, after yesterday… but this, he hoped, would be the end. The end of everything.

Why it was so imperative for him to brave the crossfire and chaos that was presumably going on over there was more difficult to say… but he felt he was being drawn, impelled, so that every moment he spent standing still here for whatever reason was almost painful to him. There was no way he could make Katsu understand this, however, so he remained silent.

He might have had more faith in his friend. True, it was only uncertainly and decidedly unhappily that Katsu smiled at him and spoke, but his words were just, “Be careful, OK? Stay in the trees or something.” And whether this was more akin to his saying, You’re an idiot, or, I forgive you, Sano seemed to sense a certain weight lifting off his heart. Honestly he didn’t feel entirely justified in going on this suicidal pursuit, leaving his friends at this critical moment, especially when he knew Katsu — like himself — must still be feeling the awful burn of memory, but the fact that he had to, and that Katsu understood, made the necessity easier.

“By now,” Soujirou said slowly, “he may be in the staff buildings… but I can’t be sure.”

“Thanks,” Sano nodded. And after looking Katsu in the eye one last time, he turned and ran off, heading for the end of everything.

As Katsu watched his friend depart, fully aware that he might never see him again (alive), his heart was clenching tighter and tighter with compounded worry and grief. And he couldn’t decide whether this conscious, feeling, still-obsessed Sano was better than yesterday’s Sano slipping toward oblivion.

However, he had very little time to consider this before Soujirou was tugging at his arm. And as he looked at the smiling, agitated other, Katsu’s eyes seemed to focus or lock onto Soujirou as if he’d forgotten he was there. As if he’d forgotten that he’d been right, that there had been something suspect about Soujirou all along, that there were more strange situations in the complex than just Sano’s.

He gave Sano’s disappearing form another glance before turning to follow Soujirou. However foolish it might be — even more so than Sano going in the first place — Katsu wanted to follow his friend, die with him if need be. He wanted all of this to end. But he also desired, with a fervor only secondary to the aforementioned, to find out who and what Soujirou really was and what was going on. And somebody needed to check on the other slaves. Katsu wasn’t entirely ready to abandon Kaoru and Yahiko just yet.

“So explain,” he commanded tersely as he fell into step beside Soujirou.

“We’re vigilantes,” replied Soujirou promptly. “Or terrorists, depending on which news stations you watch — fighting for human rights that aren’t available to people by law. Our goal on this mission is to completely destroy Ketterect Labor and relocate all slaves to safe locations throughout the three countries.”

Involuntarily Katsu drew in a hissing breath at the ambitiousness of this project. On the surface, in fact, it seemed impossible, except perhaps by the power of a very large, well-funded organization. Given that Soujirou did not seem to be joking or exaggerating, Katsu had to believe that such was the situation, had to take this seriously… but still it was almost too much to wrap his brain around. It meant the total annihilation of his entire world, however he felt about that.

Their swift pace had allowed them to reach the quarters after only so many words and reflections, but when Soujirou went to open the door Katsu held him back. “I assume you’ve taken care of any guards inside already.” He was a little surprised at how bitter his tone already was when he hadn’t even neared the bitter part of his discourse yet.

Soujirou nodded.

“Then we have a minute.”

Although Soujirou threw what might be called a calculating (if still smiling) glance at the door, on looking back at Katsu he seemed to read the seriousness in the latter’s expression. “All right,” he said.

“I knew you were hiding something,” Katsu began, “but this I wouldn’t have guessed.”

Soujirou nodded without saying anything; he was watching carefully all around them, although he did not seem tense.

“All that talk about laws and public opinion wasn’t just talk,” Katsu went on at a murmur. Still Soujirou did not seem inclined to reply, at least not until Katsu continued pointedly, “But the rest of it was.”

“The rest of it?”

“‘I really do like you,'” Katsu quoted harshly. “‘We don’t have the luxury of taking a long time to fall in love.'”

“That wasn’t just talk.” Soujirou actually seemed a little startled at the accusation. “I do like you.”

“So much that you’d take advantage of me and lie to get what you wanted from me.” Outwardly Katsu was a good deal calmer than inwardly, but he didn’t think there was a tone that could have expressed just how betrayed he felt at this point.

“I had to lie.” Soujirou, too, was calm — almost agonizingly so. “Those were my orders.”

“Your orders,” Katsu said very dryly, “were to find a slave you liked and seduce him?” For all he didn’t actually believe Soujirou’s orders had been anything of the sort, still he felt as if the entire time he’d been nothing more than an objective… a quota…

Now Soujirou’s smile was gone, and tone and expression were entirely serious. “My orders were to make friends with slaves, find out information, and steer them away from anything that might lead them to guess something was going on.”

“You did it to distract me, then?” If anything, this was an even cheaper excuse than the previous, and Katsu was almost inclined to discontinue the conversation. On top of everything else, this was simply too painful.

“I did it because I like you,” said Soujirou quietly. “If I didn’t like you, there were other ways I could have distracted you.”

“But you preferred playing games and feeding me lines.”

“Katsu, they weren’t lines; it wasn’t a game.” Soujirou shook his head emphatically. “I wouldn’t have taken it as far as Akamatsu made us go, but I really have been sincere.”

Katsu also shook his head, protesting, almost in denial of this situation. “Didn’t you ever think that my feelings might be different if I knew what was going on?” he demanded. “Maybe I’d like to know I really do have the luxury of taking a long time to fall in love? That I might actually have a choice?” He was finally starting to sound angry now, the hot, upset emotion breaking at last through the shock and confusion. “That my new option isn’t like everyone else, and neither is the situation?”

In response to Katsu’s tone, Soujirou looked away and said quietly, “I thought… you liked me…”

Katsu stared at him. How could someone so intelligent still be so clueless? Because it was clear that Soujirou simply did not understand the magnitude of what he’d done. And seeing finally that the mistake arose not from callousness but from genuine (if completely unexpected) naivete, Katsu couldn’t help feeling just a little less betrayed.

“People get into relationships with different attitudes,” he explained with a sigh. Soujirou looked up at him again immediately, hopefully, at the apparent abatement of anger. “If you’re assuming it’s going to be brief,” Katsu went on, “or if you get into it with the idea that this is the only option when you happen to be horny, it’s not going to be the same as if you know you have a choice, both about the person and how long you’re going to be with them. It’s going to be a totally different relationship; it won’t mean as much.”

Now Soujirou was staring, and his smile had returned — but it was a sad, wan expression. “How is it that you’re an expert on this too?” he murmured, seeming a little confused. “How do you know so much about everything when…”

Flatly Katsu finished the question for him. “When I’m a slave? I’m only a slave when people treat me like one… keeping me in a place like this, or raping me four times a week… or letting me think that I have no choice but to like them or stay lonely. I can still keep my eyes and ears open and learn whatever I can.”

Soujirou bowed his head again, now as if in defeat, his smile even sadder. “You really are like him…”

If Katsu hadn’t already had Souzou on his mind — admittedly in the background, behind the separate dramas of Soujirou and Sano — he might not have realized what Soujirou meant. As it was, he couldn’t help feeling, as he had the last time Soujirou had compared him to his late role model, a little gratified. As such, his tone was gentler than it had yet been during this conversation as he asked, “Does it bother you that a slave might know more about relationships than you do?”

“Only a little…” Again Soujirou raised his head and gave Katsu a forlorn smile. “I’ve always known I’m hopeless in that area. It just makes me like you more, knowing how impressive you really are.”

Although this seemed honest and still a bit sad, there was more than a hint of pleading ingratiation about the words. Katsu had no doubt that Soujirou really did like him… but all that did was make the situation more complicated and more potentially painful. Here all over again was the dilemma he’d faced when he’d started suspecting Soujirou, only on a larger scale. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the right moment to puzzle through his own heart and what he could or could not forgive; they really couldn’t afford to spend any more time standing around out here. Still, looking into the almost hopeless face turned up toward him, Katsu couldn’t bring himself to be too harsh just yet.

“Maybe if you get me out of here alive,” he said, “we can start over.”

Chapter 13

On entering the slave quarters ahead of the watchful Soujirou, Katsu halted in shock when he found himself face-to-face with the barrel of a familiar gun. The quarter-warden had always been rather proud of her weapon, and had been given, periodically, to sitting in a comfortable chair just outside her rooms cleaning it ostentatiously with the nervous slaves looking on in silence. But now the quarter-warden was nowhere in sight, and was certainly not the one leveling the gun at the door.

Katsu stared, blank, unblinking, almost unbreathing at the rigid form of Kaoru, who lowered the weapon when she saw who he was. Her other hand held a second gun; this one looked like it probably belonged (had belonged) to a guard. Although tears ran down in two unbroken trails, her face was of better color than he’d seen for weeks, even months; her bearing was upright and steady; her voice was like iron — hard, strong, white-hot — as she met his astonished gaze and said calmly, “Katsu… I’m going to see Kenshin again.”

Until that moment, Katsu hadn’t really felt anything in regard to the current situation — his reaction to Soujirou’s revelation had overridden it. But now it rushed in at him all at once like a whirlpool, and his entire body seemed suddenly weak. Freedom… Not just for himself, but for all of them. Everyone he loved and every last hopeless, miserable person in this hopeless, miserable place. Ten years of nightmare would end at last.

His somewhat inane agreement came out nearly a whisper: “Yes… yes, you are.”

How much longer he might have stood still in the doorway, staring at Kaoru’s unshaking hands holding those guns as if fully confident of her willingness and ability to use them, Katsu could not have guessed. But Soujirou’s hand on his shoulder reminded him that they were supposed to be entering the quarters in order to take cover. Mutely he moved out of the way.

A confused noise arose among the other slaves at the sight of Soujirou; it sounded very much like it wanted to be a cheer. God knew slaves weren’t very practiced at that particular sound, but it shook Katsu out of his shock to some extent.

With a modest nod, Soujirou turned to Kaoru and reached out. Once she’d given him the second gun, she had a hand free to wipe the tears from her face — a futile gesture, since they just kept coming.

“You’ll dehydrate yourself like that,” Soujirou smiled, then offered the gun to Katsu.

The latter’s eyes went wide. “I’ve never–”

“It’s very simple,” Soujirou assured him. “Just point and pull the trigger.”

“I wouldn’t hit a damn thing!” Katsu took a step backward.

Soujirou moved closer and, with that uncanny speed and dexterity of his, took Katsu’s hand, pressed the gun into it, curled Katsu’s fingers around it, and stepped back again.

“But… what about you?” Katsu stared uncomfortably at his own hand, which had the gun pointed resolutely downward and held it only loosely.

“I don’t need one,” Soujirou smiled.

Before Katsu could protest further, a new voice broke into the conversation with a demand both energetic and uncertain: “Where’s Sano?” It proved an adequate distraction, since not only did it send Katsu’s thoughts flying immediately to his friend, it also called his attention to Yahiko, who’d joined them and asked the question.

Wondering if Sano was even still alive at this point, Katsu shook his head.

Kaoru drew in a startled breath. “He’s not–”

“I don’t know,” said Katsu quickly. “He went off after that same guard again.”

“What?” Kaoru looked and sounded incredulous and almost angry. Yahiko, who’d edged to her side, appeared horrified.

“The guard’s part of this too,” was Katsu’s helpless reply. “God knows how many others there are.”

“Almost fifty,” Soujirou smiled. “Apart from the people who stayed outside who’re attacking now, there were three ‘guards,’ and at least one ‘slave’ in every quarters building. Our assignment at this point is to keep all of you inside until someone comes for us. And take care of any guards that might show up, of course. That could happen any time, if things are going our way up the hill; they might come running down this way to try and hide in one of these buildings or take slaves hostage. So,” he added, still smiling somewhat unnervingly, “keep your eyes on the door.”

Kaoru nodded.

Soujirou had done it again, Katsu noted wearily as he turned, like Kaoru, to face the door: neatly diverted their attention from a troubling issue — this time perhaps to keep them on task, prevent excessive worry about Sano, or stave off further questions… Katsu couldn’t be sure. He wasn’t sure of anything at the moment, and in order to avoid catching Soujirou’s eye he watched the door very steadfastly and listened hard.

The room was not quiet. True, the uneasy conversations behind him were conducted at the lowest possible volume, but since it seemed that everyone in the room was talking, it added up. It did not, however, mask the sounds of gunfire outside that were drawing nearer by the moment. This wasn’t the same gunfire as before, though; it was far more diffuse. Katsu guessed that whatever primary assault had been carried out by Soujirou’s ‘people who stayed outside’ had ended in a rout of the defenders, who were now being pursued into and through the complex. Soujirou was right; they might be seeing guards seeking sanctuary inside the building any time now. Little as he felt qualified for it, Katsu finally tightened his grip on the gun in his hand.

Beside him, Kaoru still stood solid and unshaken, still crying and still with that brilliant light in her face. She hadn’t been seduced by a terrorist. She didn’t have to worry how she felt about Soujirou. She hadn’t seen what another member of this mysterious group had done to Sano. To be quite honest, she didn’t care as much about Sano as Katsu did. Not that she didn’t care at all… but at the moment, Katsu was certain, all she did care about was the prospect of seeing Kenshin again. And who could blame her? When love was as straightforward as that — she loved him, she missed him, she would do anything to be reunited with him — why seek out unnecessary complications?

It was a question he might well ask himself. Of course he was worried about Sano and perturbed about Soujirou, but why did he find himself so unbearably, increasingly agitated about the situation itself? It was, after all, no more complicated than Kaoru’s: he was a slave, he would prefer not to be, and soon he would have his freedom — something he’d dreamed about every night and planned for every day for a decade. Why should he be standing here in utter turmoil, not knowing what to think or how to feel?

He knew why. It had nothing to do with the potential dangers of frantic guards or stray bullets. It was in response to a single looming question: once he was free… what then?

He was not worried about the technical aspects of it — whether or not this breakout would achieve the social and legal revolution Soujirou had mentioned so hopefully, whether he would remain free. There was no doubt in his mind that a group capable of orchestrating an operation like this could keep him safe and hidden until the proper time.

No, though he would not have liked to admit it, what really concerned him was freedom itself. Concerned him? It downright terrified him. Of course they’d always talked about escape, and had even attempted it once or twice… but had they ever really thought past that? Thought past what it meant to give up a life that, while fairly miserable, at least offered a measure of certainty? In the countries beyond, there were laws he didn’t know, social customs he didn’t know, work he didn’t know, human nature he didn’t know, life he simply did not know. Would he even be capable of living as a free man?

He wondered whether, and to what extent, Soujirou’s organization had taken this into account. Because it occurred to Katsu at that moment, with this overwhelming realization in mind, that not all slaves were likely to want to be freed.

But he wanted it. When it came right down to it, the fear and uncertainty were nothing compared to his boundless desire to leave this life behind. He wanted to work honestly for his own sake, to get paid for it, to go where he pleased and do as he chose. He wanted his friends around him, no guards, and no guns. And whether he liked it or not, he wanted Soujirou with him.

Still unready to think about that, however, he shifted into a more solid stance and once again directed his eyes at the door.

The morning’s emotional turmoil had been no less severe for Sano than it had been for his friend, though the components were different. For one thing, there was a dead body in the foliage in front of him, and his heart simply would not stop racing.

It wasn’t just that he’d been agitated by the memory of Souzou; it wasn’t just the sight of figures, some in the grey uniform of guards and some in foresty camouflage, running and shooting; it wasn’t just the danger to himself or the worry about his friends… it was the fact that soon he would have answers. Finally. His confusion and turmoil would end. It was this that kept him on his feet and kept the blood rushing so frantically through his veins.

Well, and it was all that other shit too.

He’d never moved so fast in his life, he thought: around the barracks and up the hill in what felt like an instant. Only when he’d reached the staff buildings and the gunfire had seemed to explode practically in his ears had he remembered Katsu’s admonition. He’d plunged into some trees, the last cover available before the main entrance, paused to get his bearings — and, if possible, calm his racing heart — and was now ducked down low in the bushes.

The guard’s body that sprawled beneath another bush almost within arm’s reach was a nerve-wracking indicator that Sano wasn’t the first to take cover in this particular spot. However, he thought the danger had passed from this immediate vicinity; most of the movement he could see was past the corner of the nearest building, and the noises of gunshots and shouting were loudest from that direction.

The gates of the complex lay to his left, but it would take several paces through the trees to see them clearly; he didn’t think he could hear any gunfire thence, but it was difficult to tell. From his current position he could see most of the staff buildings, however, and he had a good view to the right and down the hill. Whether because neither of the combative groups intended the actual slaves any harm or purely by luck, Sano seemed to have made his way straight through the midst of several small firefights; the turmoil appeared now to have spread out all the way down past the guard barracks.

This is stupid and I didn’t think it through, he was reflecting. The same fluttery nervousness that kept him from looking too closely at the nearby corpse was whispering, with a franticness to match his pulse, that he should go back to his quarters before he got himself killed — killed for no good goddamn reason, killed without ever seeing his friends again or even knowing what had become of them — or at the very least flatten himself onto the ground and wait this out.

But the thought that yellow-eyes was around here somewhere, that the answers he wanted were so close, coupled with the fact that he’d gotten this far, aroused in Sano a stubborn unwillingness to retreat. He did, however, wish he’d asked Soujirou just a few more questions about what was going on, where people were likely to be and to go, and whether or not they were likely to kill him on sight.

If he could just get into that closest building, surely he would be safe. Safer, at least, than he was here. He could probably sprint to the door on this side before anyone was likely to notice or try to shoot him. Circumnavigating the dead body, he moved to the very edge of the trees and peered to the left and right. Nobody seemed to be nearby, nor did anyone within his range of vision seem to be looking his direction. This was the moment.

He sprang forward, and, as predicted, reached the door two seconds later. However, within that span of time, the crack of a shot sounded just above him. It was so startling, acting on his already-pounding heart and strained nerves almost as severely as if the bullet had actually struck him, that his last two steps were a stumble and his hands could barely manage the door that was his object.

Inside, he immediately took the staircase that lay just past the small entry, and put his back to the wall so he could face both the stairs he’d just practically jumped down and the continuing descent. It wasn’t the most tactically strategic position, but he had to give himself a few seconds to calm down. He was shaking, and at the moment he thought only the wall against which he leaned was keeping him upright.

How could he have forgotten?? The staff buildings, unlike all the other buildings in the complex, had windows — windows that opened (or could be broken) and therefore through which people could easily shoot at anything that approached. And just because Soujirou had said yellow-eyes would probably be in the staff buildings by now didn’t mean he was guaranteed to be in this one or that all the staff buildings would be safe to enter!

I really didn’t think this through. Sano drew an unsteady arm across his face as this reflection heralded a wave of giddy amusement, of all things. Stability was returning, and he thought he would soon be able to move again — but perhaps before that, he should give some serious consideration to what the hell he was doing.

He didn’t have time for that, however, as he heard footsteps on the stairs above his head, coming down from the second floor. “Shit,” he muttered, and stood straight. Yes, his legs would do what he told them to now. He told them to run.

The basement contained a short corridor with a door to either side and at the far end. It was very dark, but the light switch didn’t have any effect when Sano turned it; he guessed that the whoever-they-were’s had disabled the complex’s power. It would probably be more difficult to find or shoot him in the dark, anyway, if that was the intention of his presumed pursuer.

Panic began to take hold of him once again when he found the first door locked and the second leading only to a small office in which (as far as he could tell in the limited light) it would be impossible effectively to hide. The third door, however, opened onto a large storage room that seemed to fill the entire remaining basement space.

He couldn’t see a thing once the door was closed, and he fumbled with outstretched arms for anything large enough to conceal him from sight. What it was that he eventually found he couldn’t identify, but it was solid and tall enough to duck behind; after that he concentrated on holding still and controlling his breathing. The latter wasn’t exactly coming out in gasps, but it wasn’t exactly unobtrusively quiet, either.

Strain his ears how he might, though, he couldn’t hear a thing. This was almost, he thought, more disconcerting than distant sounds of gunfire. The building — or at least this room — must be well-insulated. Even more disturbing, perhaps, was the lack of footsteps from the hall he’d just left. Was it possible that whoever had been coming down the stairs hadn’t been looking for him after all? Or had they realized they’d set him to flight and quieted? And if nobody appeared, what then? At least he’d have time to give this situation a little more thought.

Not that he really had any idea what he’d do if someone did appear.

Then he heard it: the slight click of the doorknob turning, though unaccompanied by any sounds of human movement. A low grey light, filtered down the stairs and the hallway and through the opening, vaguely illuminated a few dim shapes out past whatever Sano was hiding behind. It shifted slightly, growing, distorting, shrinking, and then disappeared entirely. The door clicked shut. Complete silence fell as Sano held his breath and his movement in rigorous check.

Someone was there.

Sano had never been so still or silent in his entire life. His lungs felt likely to explode, his legs were cramped from crouching, his entire body was tense almost beyond endurance ready to run again, and the only thing going through his head was the continued reiteration of his own stupidity and utter, suicidal lack of forethought.

Another, unexpected light appeared suddenly — this one the brief orange flare of a match, sending strange, unidentifiable shapes jumping into view for half a second and then dying down again. The sound of its striking was accompanied by that of an indrawn breath, and was followed by a calm statement that pierced the darkness as effectively as the light had:

“There’s no need to hide from me.”

Sano knew that voice.

Chapter 14

“Y-you…!” He gasped the word out along with the breath he’d been holding. “God fucking damn you, you scared the shit out of me!” His burning legs gave way and he collapsed into a sitting position on the floor, raising his hands to clutch as his hair as almost the only way he could express his relief and the abrupt withdrawal of adrenaline from his system.

The man chuckled, and this time Sano could clearly hear his footsteps approaching; apparently he only moved silently when he felt the specific need. “Making your way up here in the middle of a firefight doesn’t scare you, but this does?” Sano could tell when the man had neared him, not only by sound but by the sight of a small point of orange light in the darkness. The scent of cigarette smoke informed him what this must be. “I should have known you wouldn’t stay safely in the slave quarters until this was over. I suppose Soujirou told you where to find me?”

“He… I…” It would take too many words to explain, and Sano felt that he was really the one that was owed an explanation here. Because suddenly he was angry. Angrier than he’d been in a very, very long time — perhaps his entire life. What right had this man to treat him the way he had, then walk in here and scare him half to death and laugh at him and ask him questions so coolly? It brought Sano to his feet in an instant.

“You better fucking have some good explanations ready.” It was a little like the first time they’d lain in yellow-eyes’ barracks bed together — the darkness seemed to embolden Sano — and this time on a much larger scale. In fact, knowing what he now knew, he felt all of his inhibitions dissolving and all his fears erased, and nothing but the desire for answers present in his mind.

“Do you have any idea what you’ve done to me?” he burst out. “Who the hell gave you permission to fuck with my head like that? Do you know how fucking confused I’ve been about you and what was going on? Why would you let me think you were here to ‘steal slaves’ without just fucking telling me what you were really doing? Why would you make me think you were going to just take me away from my friends — and that was confusing as hell too because you acted like you hated all the fucking guards — and why would you act like you fucking cared about me and then just make it look like you’d left without even saying anything to me?” Here he ran out of breath; this and the nagging reflection that he wasn’t expressing himself very well forced him to pause.

A long silence followed, during which the end of the man’s cigarette glowed brightly for a moment as he took a drag, then faded back to its former, duller red. Finally, “I knew you must be confused,” came the voice of the darkness, “but I didn’t realize it would bother you that much.”

“You shot me,” Sano replied, striving for a level tone, determined that it should make sense this time. “You stopped me from escaping but didn’t turn me in. You wanted to fuck me but never did. You acted like you cared about me specially but wouldn’t ever answer any of my questions. Then you killed a guy right in front of me, claimed you were here to steal me, and then disappeared. If you’d just told me what you were doing here, I’d have gotten it. Instead I just about fucking lost my mind.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. But I couldn’t have told you without jeopardizing the mission.”

“‘Jeopardizing the mission…'” Sano repeated it at a whisper. “Jeopardizing the fucking mission…” Then, because he simply couldn’t help himself, he began to laugh.

Suddenly, as if something that had been tightening all morning had snapped inside him, he felt exhausted and strangely limp. He took two steps forward, and yellow-eyes steadied him as Sano pressed against his body and continued laughing into his chest. He seemed to be shaking a little more than the laughter could account for, and there was a touch of hysteria in the sound.

“I’m sorry,” the man said in his ear. “It’s all over now.” He even sounded fairly sincere.

“You…” Sano murmured when he could speak again. “You are a fucking asshole…”

One of the man’s arms went around Sano for support as he answered, “Probably.”

Sano noted distantly, pointlessly, that the cloth against his face was not the stuff the guards wore — infinitely familiar as he was with that — but something a touch rougher and not so stiff. Yellow-eyes had probably changed into the same camouflage the rest of his group had on. “I don’t know why I’ve been thinking about you nonstop for so fucking long. That was all I really needed to figure out: that you’re a fucking asshole.”

Yellow-eyes chuckled again. “Then you understand everything now.”

“Not quite.” Sano remained where he was, with his head bent and his words muffled by the man’s garment; he wasn’t ready to move quite yet. “You wanted me all along, but you didn’t fuck me because you wanted to be better than the other guards because you’re not really one of them and all that. That makes sense now, I guess. But then why the hell did you jack me off that one time?”

“I shouldn’t have done that,” was the answer — so immediate that Sano thought yellow-eyes must already have had this on his mind.

“It didn’t help with me being confused as hell, you know.”

“Do you want me to apologize again?” These words were somewhat dry, but Sano got the feeling the man would apologize again if Sano demanded it.

He considered for a moment. “Nah,” he finally said. “You just did it ’cause you felt like it?”

He could feel the man nod.

Sano nodded also, withdrawing slightly. He felt a little less shaky now, but still very tired. He doubted it was an hour since he’d arisen, but he could probably sleep a whole night’s worth if he lay down now.

Yellow-eyes made no effort to keep him close; in fact, in a businesslike tone he remarked, “I’ve been down here too long. Come with me.” The glowing ember of the cigarette fell to the concrete floor and disappeared under an invisible foot.

Sano reached out and caught at the man, finding an arm to hold onto, afflicted by a sudden, childish fear of losing him in this darkness. But if yellow-eyes picked up on this, he said nothing, only led Sano unfalteringly to the door. Notwithstanding his lack of tension up until this moment, he opened it quietly and cautiously. Once Sano’s eyes had adjusted to the dim light pouring through the slowly-widening aperture, he could see that yellow-eyes had his hand on his holstered gun and was, in fact, wearing the camouflage Sano had observed on the other invaders.

The hallway was empty, and no sound came from up the stairs. As they stepped out of the storage room and yellow-eyes closed the door behind them, Sano paused to look at him. It was the same face — the same high cheekbones and narrow eyes, expressive lips and thin brows — but something was different about him now, something more than a mere change of raiment could explain. Perhaps it was that, after that conversation in utter darkness, Sano felt he knew the real man a little better, that some of the mystery was repealed. Perhaps it was only the absence of the previous turmoil through which Sano had been viewing the other all along.

Whatever it was, he found himself moving almost without conscious effort, taking the handsome face in his hands, and leaning up to kiss him.

His anger was mostly gone, and though he didn’t know what would happen next or exactly how he felt about this man, there was undeniably something between them. Yellow-eyes responded by pulling him close, and they stood thus for quite some time.

When Sano finally broke away, the man quirked a half-smile at him and said, “Trying to pay me back for confusing you so much?”

“You’d deserve it if I did.” Sano wasn’t quite sure what he meant, though.

Evidently in response to Sano’s uncertain tone, “I’m a fucking asshole,” the man explained, “but you kiss me?”

Sano grinned. “Yeah, why don’t you just headache about it for a while before I tell you?”

Yellow-eyes’ smirk widened as he shook his head slightly, released Sano, and turned again. His cautious demeanor and the hand again on his gun told Sano they were moving on.

“So you’re in charge of all of this?” Sano asked quietly as they climbed the stairs.

The man looked for a moment as if he wasn’t going to answer, was perhaps going to advise wordless progress, but then — perhaps realizing that Sano might explode if he tried that shit again — answered just as softly, “Our organization has three teams; I’m in charge of one of them.”

“And what the hell are you guys trying to do?”

They’d reached the second floor, and here, upon seeing another camouflage-clad person crouched beside a potted plant in the corridor to which the stairs led, yellow-eyes relaxed somewhat. Acknowledging the watcher with a nod, he answered Sano’s question as they continued down the hall. “Our goal is to annihilate Ketterect Labor and free all the slaves.”

Although this was what Sano had guessed, he couldn’t help shivering slightly at hearing it. If he hadn’t seen all the people with guns… if he didn’t know this man was in charge of at least part of the operation… he would have thought it an impossibly grandiose scheme likely to get more of them killed than freed.

“What are you going to do with me?” he asked next.

“We’ve arranged for temporary homes for all the slaves; it was the longest and most difficult part of the preparation for this mission. You’ll all be acclimatized to free society, and hopefully during that time the laws will change.”

“No, I mean, what are you going to do with me.”

Yellow-eyes paused outside the door they were evidently about to enter and looked back at him. “Whatever you want me to,” he said.

In response to Sano’s somewhat baffled expression, the man smirked faintly and explained. “It’s really up to you whether you want to put up with me after this.” He held Sano’s gaze for a moment, and Sano really didn’t know what to say. “For the moment,” he finally continued, turning back to the door, “I’m going to work on keeping you alive long enough to decide.”

Sano followed him unhesitatingly into the room. This might prove to be a rather long day, but he wasn’t sure he minded.

Katsu also felt he was in for a long day. The lights had gone out, leaving them in near-complete darkness in the windowless slave quarters, and, while he and Kaoru maintained their dubious cover of the door, the other slaves bombarded Soujirou with questions.

Just listening — on the outside now, as it were — Katsu could clearly see how easily and glibly Soujirou answered only exactly what he wanted to and evaded the rest. Some of what the other slaves wanted to know, Katsu guessed, might indeed be dangerous or demoralizing; but not all of it was, and there seemed no good reason for evasion. He wondered whether this repressiveness was simply Soujirou’s nature. In any case, it didn’t seem to be hurting the other slaves’ opinion of him; there was already a touch of hero-worship to their interaction with him. Katsu tried very hard not to let this make him jealous.

Every moment that passed seemed like an hour as he held the gun, watched the faint glint of tears on Kaoru’s face, and felt the tension grow; eventually he lost all concept of the passage of time. There was no way to see outside without opening the door, there were no clocks, and the questions being posed by his fellows to Soujirou were getting disconcertingly repetitive. Katsu felt he was beginning to go a little crazy. Was it morning or afternoon? Or another day or year? Or had time stopped completely?

The gunfire, at least, had stopped completely, after a gradual diminution, and it had been some time since Katsu had heard anything beyond the increasingly loud noise here inside the building. Their little set of rooms might have spun out from the rest of the world for all he knew, and he might stand here pointing this gun at that unmoving rectangle of dim light at the other end of the chamber for the rest of eternity.

Even these thoughts seemed removed by an incomprehensible gulf of time from the eventual sounds at the door.

The room fell gradually quiet as the realization that someone was outside filtered through its inhabitants. Most of them, Katsu thought, were turned toward Soujirou in apprehensive appeal by the time the knock came.

It was a peculiarly rhythmic knock, obviously a signal of some sort, and in response Soujirou’s smile widened. “Looks like it’s over,” he said cheerfully, and moved toward the door. Gratefully, Katsu lowered his gun.

The sunlight that streamed into the room seemed almost alien after the shadows, but the hour of day, at least, could now be guessed at. Katsu couldn’t be surprised at seeing what looked like the light of mid-afternoon, given that he’d had no idea what time it was.

“Hey, Sou,” said the figure that entered, partially blocking the light.

“All clear,” Soujirou replied.

“We’re on to Phase 4,” the man’s voice said. Katsu couldn’t make out any details beyond his silhouetted figure in the open doorway, but felt predisposed to like the person. The combination of his seeming informality and the words ‘Phase 4’ seemed strange, but it really made little difference. “We’ll take over for you here, if you wanna report to the captain at the office building.”

Soujirou tilted his head curiously. “Why?”

“Captain’s informant wants to hear his friends are safe or something. Said you’d know who to take up there.”

If it weren’t for the fact that Katsu always heard everything, he might not have caught the second sentence. Overwhelmed with relief at the implications of the first, he let out a breath like a sigh and felt suddenly rather weak. Beside him, he could sense much the same reactions from Kaoru and Yahiko.

“Sounds good.” This time Katsu didn’t just hear the smile in Soujirou’s voice, but saw it on his face along with a glint of blue eyes as Soujirou turned toward him and gestured. “Katsu, why don’t you come with me?”

Quickly Katsu joined Soujirou at the door, through which the latest arrival had moved into the room. “Hey, folks,” the man was saying to the other slaves. “How you doing?”

Outside, shielding his eyes against the sun, Katsu found himself facing a number of people clad in camouflage the colors of the forest and carrying various firearms. He couldn’t help stopping to stare for a moment, though Soujirou just waved and started up the hill. They stared back, some of them smiling, some grim, some curious.

Katsu shook himself and jogged to catch up with Soujirou.

The latter remarked as Katsu reached him, “It’s good to hear that Sano’s all right, isn’t it?”

Yes,” replied Katsu emphatically. He glanced back at the slave quarter buildings as they moved farther up the hill, taking note of the number of camouflage figures he could see and their movements. After a few more paces he felt compelled to comment, “Your organization seems really… informal.”

“I guess,” Soujirou shrugged. “It works, though.” He added with a slight laugh, “People don’t disobey the captains.”

“That guard of Sano’s…” Katsu had to pause to grimace briefly at his own choice of words. “He’s one of the captains?”

Soujirou nodded. Katsu thought he understood why people didn’t disobey, in that case.

Although there were two staff buildings that contained offices, apparently Soujirou knew what to understand by ‘the office building,’ as he was headed unerringly to the one nearer the complex entrance. Everywhere Katsu looked there were more camouflaged people, standing around, moving purposefully somewhere or other, watching him and Soujirou… It made him a little nervous — not that he was exactly free of that emotion to begin with — and when they reached the doors to the building he was actually relieved to find not a single one in sight (from that angle at least). There were sure to be more inside, though.

A desire had been growing in the back of his head all the way up here, and now as Soujirou reached for the door handle Katsu took a deep breath and said his name. When Soujirou turned a questioning smile on him Katsu said, “Hey, listen.” But that wasn’t really what he meant. Frowning, reaching for Soujirou’s hand to pull him close, Katsu bent and kissed him briefly and almost reluctantly.

Soujirou looked a little surprised. “Does that mean you’re not mad at me?”

“Not necessarily,” replied Katsu. He sighed, letting his head fall back to look up at the underside of the roof that overhung the doors so he wouldn’t be tempted to kiss Soujirou again. “I’m not really sure what it means. Just… thanks.”

Squeezing Katsu’s hand briefly and probably smiling, Soujirou released him and said, “Let’s go find Sano.” Katsu looked down to see him turning back toward the door and again reaching for the handle. He took a deep breath and followed.

Chapter 15

Time didn’t seem to be passing any more quickly for Sano and Katsu once they were together, but they didn’t mind. As a matter of fact, they might have said fairly positively that they were content now to weather out the long day watching the comings and goings of the operatives around the complex.

Yellow-eyes — whose rank of “captain” apparently allowed him to stay in one place and give orders rather than run around like everyone else — was the only consistent sight throughout the afternoon; even Soujirou had to go do something at some point, throwing a bright smile at Katsu before he left.

Realizing that here was another question he could probably get answered now, Sano strolled over to yellow-eyes’ side once Soujirou was out of the room. “So were his orders to seduce Katsu, or what?” Hearing his friend behind him make a noise somewhere between a laugh and a sigh, Sano guessed Katsu and Soujirou had already been over this.

Turning fully to face them both with a frown that seemed to indicate existing suspicions now confirmed, yellow-eyes answered, “No.”

Katsu sighed again. “Is that going to get him in trouble?”

“We’ll see,” replied yellow-eyes darkly.

But with taking cryptic, uninformative statements from this man Sano was finished. “We’ll see what?” he demanded. Yellow-eyes was unable to answer, however, since at that moment someone entered the room to make a report (or something) and he became busied in a professional conversation.

“It’s probably a little difficult for him to decide,” Katsu speculated, “when he’s pretty much guilty of the same thing.” Sano could clearly hear the disapproval in his barely-lowered voice, and felt his own expression tauten into what might have been called a rueful grin.

“I don’t wanna say I think he did something horrible to me,” he murmured reluctantly. His words grew even quieter as he continued, glancing over at yellow-eyes to see if he was still occupied with the other person. “I was really pissed at him earlier, and I don’t know exactly how I feel about him or what I want to do… but… well, I dunno.”

Katsu snorted. “That’s about how I feel about Soujirou.” Then he sighed again, and returned Sano’s rueful grin as he shook his head. Whatever he might have said next was prevented, though, by the return of yellow-eyes to their end of the room and his full attention to them.

“I also,” the latter remarked as if he’d been part of their discussion all along, “have to take into consideration exactly what he did and to what extent it could have been consensual.”

“What do you mean?” asked Sano, a little suspicious.

Katsu gave the false guard an appraising look. “He means,” he explained slowly, “that the more mindless he finds me, the less forgivable whatever Soujirou’s done will be.”

Yellow-eyes nodded briefly and turned back to his perusal of some of the paperwork he’d rounded up from the various offices. Sano had no idea what he was looking for — but, then, he really had no idea what kind of paperwork the staff kept in their offices. To be honest, he almost had no idea how to read.

He also had no idea how he felt about what Katsu had just said.

They sat in silence for a while, Katsu at the chair from one of the room’s large desks and Sano atop the latter, Sano watching yellow-eyes work and Katsu staring out the window. From this room there was a good view of about two thirds of the complex, which Sano thought was probably the reason yellow-eyes had chosen to remain there.

Everyone that entered drew Sano’s attention — as much because he wanted to watch their interaction with yellow-eyes as that he wanted a better idea of what kind of people these were. For the latter… well, that he had no real idea what ‘normal people’ were like or what to expect from them did occur to him, but he thought most of the members of this group could pass for a fairly good approximation. For the former… it didn’t surprise him to find that yellow-eyes was something of a jerk to his subordinates, nor that they obeyed his orders without argument or hesitation.

All except Aoshi.

Sano couldn’t help grinning a little at the other false guard when he entered. Aoshi didn’t look at him, and kept his conversation with yellow-eyes low — neither of which surprised Sano either. Aoshi seemed to have a sort of passive-aggressive one-man rebellion going on against yellow-eyes’ authority, which yellow-eyes tolerated with crumbling patience. This also didn’t surprise Sano, given what he’d learned earlier.

Aoshi did cast a cold-eyed and unreadable look at Sano before he left the room, and Sano didn’t even bother trying not to laugh. Understandably, he found Katsu bemused and curious when he returned his eyes to his friend.

“That’s sit-in-a-chair-all-night guy,” he explained. “Aoshi.”

“Oh!” Katsu glanced at the door through which Aoshi had disappeared, then back to Sano. “Did you figure out what his deal was?”

“I’d completely forgot about him earlier, with all this other shit going on, or else I would have asked yellow-eyes there,” Sano began in a low voice, once again glancing at the third man in the room to see if he was listening. He didn’t appear to be, but that didn’t really mean anything. “But then Aoshi came in here, a little before you showed up, and I remembered. He acted all worried about whatever yellow-eyes was ‘doing with me,’ like I wasn’t even here or couldn’t hear what he was saying. He asked if yellow-eyes was really in love with me after less than a month and’d decided to keep me.”

Katsu blinked widened eyes, apparently uncertain whether to be more annoyed or surprised at the words.

“Yeah,” Sano agreed. “And yellow-eyes said he didn’t have to explain anything, and Aoshi says something like, ‘Of course you don’t have to. But I think you’re lonely and you’re trying to fill the gap with someone you just met, and it’s not going to work.’ Then — this is the best part — yellow-eyes says, ‘Lonely? You have a very high opinion of yourself.'”

Katsu’s eyes widened even further as the implications of this exchange struck him immediately. “So that’s why…” A grin similar to Sano’s was beginning to pull at his mouth.

Sano nodded. “I laughed. Right out loud. You shoulda seen the look Aoshi gave me.”

“It’s good to know people other than slaves can have relationship issues.” It was only a partly facetious comment, and Katsu’s grinning, head-shaking expression was half-pained.

Sano just grinned back.

Sobering completely, Katsu noted, “You were glad he was jealous.”

“Maybe I was,” Sano agreed, and couldn’t even regret admitting it. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed yellow-eyes smirking faintly.

Eventually out the window they could see the other slaves exiting the quarters in fairly placid, organized lines, and at this point yellow-eyes announced it was time to go down. Looking forward to seeing how Kaoru and Yahiko were doing, they followed him from the building. Perhaps because of their greater understanding of the situation, the time they’d spent away from their other friends seemed like an age or more.

By the time Sano, Katsu, and yellow-eyes reached them, the slaves were milling about at the entrance to the complex. They were still roughly organized by quarters division, probably simply for convenience, and a kind of count or roll call was being conducted by some of the camouflaged operatives.

Whether deliberately or otherwise — Sano wasn’t going to ask — yellow-eyes led them to a spot very near where their friends stood, then turned pointedly away to converse with one of his own people. Sano didn’t have time or inclination to attempt to listen in, since at that moment Kaoru and Yahiko staged a sort of hugging-and-talking-at-once attack on him.

“Ah! shit! shoulder!” Sano grunted in reminder.

With an apology Kaoru drew back far enough to stop hurting him and to look up into his face, and actually startled him with hers. She’d obviously been crying, and that didn’t do much for anyone’s complexion — but somehow, despite the red blotches that were her cheeks and the puffiness around her eyes, she looked better than he’d seen her in months. She looked, in fact, more like the strong and determined Kaoru he’d met a year ago than he’d ever thought to see her again.

With a shock, staring at her uplifted expression, he realized suddenly that he’d never expected her to survive this far. Perhaps her lack of faith in her friends’ ability to escape and come back to rescue her had been in response to their lack of faith in her. Perhaps slaves couldn’t ever really have faith in each other. He didn’t know. But now… now everything had changed, and in an instant a totally unanticipated and overwhelming joy filled him. He pulled her back into the hug she’d abandoned, ignoring the pain.

Things became very noisy for a while as all the slaves seemed to be discussing this turn of events at once, shouting to friends from other quarters or sometimes, it seemed, just for the pleasure of shouting without repercussion. Kaoru and Yahiko were not the only ones to be checked on, and for a while Sano and Katsu were pleasantly busy. Marveling, plan-making, weeping, speculation, congratulation: it assaulted them from every side. Not everyone was happy, and most were nervous if not downright terrified… but the general air was of relief, wonder, and joy. This, Sano thought, was what a holiday must feel like.

As the sky began to blacken, even the redness of sunset fading from the close forested horizon, a number of buses pulled up in a neat row just outside the entrance of the complex and reilluminated the scene with their bright headlights. Sano barely remembered buses, and these looked bigger and a lot nicer than the ones he recalled hazily from the LeMere streets so long ago, but at the moment very little he saw could fail to give him pleasure — especially anything that would help remove the slaves from this place, hopefully never to return. So he grinned at the buses and at the operatives once again calling the crowd to order.

Turning, he found yellow-eyes watching him from nearby. Sano had rather lost track of the man in the last couple of hours, though in the back of his thoughts never really misplacing him or the indecision connected with him. Now Sano moved toward him a few steps, for no real reason other than a certain feeling of being drawn by the sight of him.

He wanted to say something, but this wasn’t really the moment for all of his serious reflections that tended toward working out the aforementioned confusion. Eventually what came out, pointless but at least something, was, “So… buses…”

Yellow-eyes nodded.

“Where are you taking us?”

“A number of different sites. It isn’t safe or practical for everyone to relocate to the same place.” Now it was Sano’s turn to nod. Most likely, naming the destinations here in front of everyone also wasn’t safe or practical, and the names probably wouldn’t mean anything to Sano anyway… but he couldn’t help feeling a little annoyed. It must have shown on his face, too, for yellow-eyes smirked slightly and said, “I’ll tell you on the way.”

“Tell him what?” Katsu wondered as he appeared at Sano’s side — probably in response to Soujirou, who’d just appeared beside yellow-eyes.

“Exactly where we’re going,” Sano answered. “And where everyone is going,” he added as an afterthought. “And all the details of this project of theirs that he hasn’t told me yet. Like where they got buses from and shit.”

Yellow-eyes snorted. “You certainly don’t ask much.” The sarcasm wasn’t meant to cut, though.

“You specifically told me I ask too many questions, actually.” Sano stared up into the man’s face, more flippant than defiant but not willing to be denied his answers. The yellow eyes rolled.

“So…” began Katsu. He glanced from Soujirou, at whom he’d been looking fairly steadfastly, to a nearby operative that was shouting orders to the slaves in the immediate vicinity. “Do we get on the bus with them?”

Yellow-eyes’ mouth tightened, and Soujirou’s smile turned a little self-conscious. “That depends,” the false guard said at last.

Sano and Katsu just waited.

“You two are a… special case.” Yellow-eyes shook his head, and the expression on his face seemed to reflect an almost helpless sort of frustrated amusement that held a touch of self-deprecation. Neither he nor Soujirou, after all, had probably expected to find what they had at Ketterect Labor Complex; Sano was sure neither of them was entirely satisfied with his own behavior. “We’ll probably bring you with us in one of the trucks… back to our headquarters instead of to a relocation site, and then… you two are free now; it depends on what you want.”

“Free…” Had Sano ever really understood that word before? It tasted strange on his lips, sounded unfamiliar in his ears. He glanced from the interesting look on yellow-eyes’ face to Soujirou’s tentative smile to Katsu, and saw the same uncertainty in his friend’s expression that was probably in his own. They had Kaoru, Yahiko, and others to consider, not to mention the ambiguity of their own attitudes toward their deliverers. “I… don’t know,” Sano answered at last. Katsu shook his head to indicate similar feelings.

“Well, you have three hundred miles to think about it,” Soujirou smiled.

Yellow-eyes nodded.

Glancing at Katsu again, Sano couldn’t help smiling too. The one thing he could be sure of was that, whatever strange complications had arisen thus far, neither of them would regret these events or even meeting these men, whatever they decided. They had three hundred miles — and more — to think about it; Sano believed, at this point, that neither Soujirou nor his superior officer would pressure either of the two former slaves.

They had all the time in the world. This was what Souzou had wanted; this was what Souzou would always have wanted for them. They were free — free — to come to their own decisions, to determine their own future.



<<14

When I first got an account at fanfiction.net in 2002 and started posting things there, the popularity and the headiness of multiple reviews per chapter provided a rush of motivation, and I produced eleven rickety chapters of a story called You Won’t Regret It in record time. And perhaps it was the haste with which I wrote it, or possibly a special kind of naivete that fanfiction.net didn’t help, but it really sucked. It was so full of implausible circumstances and so incredibly shallow and fangirly that a few years later I took it down.

But having a finished story eleven chapters long sitting around not posted really bothered me, and eventually I decided to rewrite the thing and see if I could manage to hate it less. And here is the result: a rewrite barely less spurious than it was before, even more hedonistic in places, consisting for many chapters mostly of recycled text from the original with other shit added and some slight pretext of dealing with some of these serious issues just a touch less shallowly. If you’ve made it this far, I’m impressed… and actually kinda feel I should apologize. Still, it has its moments; one of these days even their sad glitter may fade, and then it’ll come down.

I’ve rated this story (though the last few chapters, the best parts of the fic, merit more like a ).

And the Moments Drift Like Snow

And the Moments Drift Like Snow

And the Moments Drift Like Snow

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

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

And the Moments Drift Like Snow

Part 1

Three. Hours.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Part 2>>

Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

“‘Or something?'” Saitou echoed mildly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Am I?”

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

“Am I?” Saitou repeated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saitou’s expression remained quizzical.

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

Saitou nodded without offering any explanation.

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

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

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

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

“When did I say it before?”

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

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

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

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

“Recently.”

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

“Why do you find it so interesting?”

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

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

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

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

“Hn.”

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

“I have to admit I see your point.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sano, I love you.”

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

“I have always loved you.”

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

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

“Well…”

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

“Look…”

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

“Kenshin, I’m…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And something was… wrong…

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

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

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

And at that moment Saitou entered the room.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tell me,” Sano demanded quietly.

“Tell you what?”

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

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

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

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

“You mean Kenshin?”

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

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

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

“And it has something to do with you.”

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

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

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

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

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

Part 4

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

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

He steeled himself and went inside.

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

“Yeah, no shit,” the kid grumbled.

“Where’s Kenshin?”

“In his room, I think.”

“Thanks.”

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

“Come in, Sano.”

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

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

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

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

“Oh?” Kenshin’s tone seemed guarded.

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

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

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

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

“Why is everyone lying to me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“‘Again?'”

Kenshin just shook his head.

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

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

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

“Sano…” Kenshin began, uncertain and appealing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello,” was all the other said.

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

“And?”

“And Kenshin finally told me everything.”

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

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

“Do you remember?” Saitou asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that all?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gone away to think, Sano was.

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

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

It was over.

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

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

It was really over.

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

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

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

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

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

Part 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saitou’s sword.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What does it look like I’m doing?”

No… oh, god, no…

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

“Are you… I…”

Saitou…

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

“Sano! Sano!”

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

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

“You’re kidding me, right?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kenshin looked dumbstruck.

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

“Sano, do you… did you…”

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

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

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

Kenshin was absolutely speechless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He remembered Shishio.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



<<Part 4

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

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


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

“If you knew he had.”

“Well, you’re gonna tell him, right?”

“I don’t know yet.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He didn’t like me much…”

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

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


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