I Dream I Know Not How



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

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

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

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

Ahou.

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

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

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

Hmm, what an extraordinary pity.

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

In exchange, try not to make it too boring.

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

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

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

Maybe, when you’ve said it twice before.

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

Saitou had no reply.

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

Still no answer.

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

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

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

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

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

And just what do you intend to accomplish with that?

He had no answer.

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

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

But what?

“I… don’t know…”

A typically well formulated justification.

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

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

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

That could be.

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

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

Oh, were you thinking something?

“Shut up… just shut the hell up…”

He imagined he could hear Saitou chuckling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His laughter stopped along with his movement and breathing.

Had he really just said that out loud?

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

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

Now that he’d slipped…

“Maybe I really do,” he whispered.

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

Suddenly he did not feel at all well.

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

It did not come.

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

Still no answer.

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

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

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

Too weak to handle a little pain?

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

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

“I didn’t go through with it, did I?”

You had to be talked down.

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

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

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

Nobody ever suggested I was normal.

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

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

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

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

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

Do as you please.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It didn’t really matter.

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

There was no answer.

He stumbled back home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…what was he thinking?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

And perhaps now…

And then the footsteps.

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

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

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

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

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

Saitou must have known that too.

“…but I don’t understand why he…”

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

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

And Sano would have no answer for him.

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

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

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

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

“Sano,” Kenshin’s voice said.

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

“Yeah,” Sano rasped. “Hello.”

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,” said Kenshin softly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ahou.

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

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

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

Hmm, what an extraordinary pity.

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

In exchange, try not to make it too boring.

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

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

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

Maybe, when you’ve said it twice before.

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

Saitou had no reply.

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

Still no answer.

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

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

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

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

“Kenshin…” he began. “Hey… this…”

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

“Sorry?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sano… Sano, Saitou is not–”

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

“Sano…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But of course Sano could not accept it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“S-saitou?” he stammered.

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

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

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


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

–Edgar Allan Poe


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

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

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

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

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


As the Years Go Up in Smoke

As the Years Go Up in Smoke

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sanosuke is hardly your son, Himura.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kenshin shrugged. “I came to see you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He is going to hurt you, Sano.”

“I’m sorry you think so, Kenshin.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oi, Saitou!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Saitou.”

“Himura?”

“Turn around.”

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

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

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

“Draw.”

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

Kenshin did not falter or hesitate. “Draw.”

“Very well.”

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

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

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

“What the fuck are you guys doing?”

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

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

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

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

“I hate you,” Saitou murmured.

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

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

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

This was going nowhere. “And with Shishio?”

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

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

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

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

“May I ask what this is about?”

“The Rengoku,” Saitou replied shortly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saitou kissed his cheek. “Of course not.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saitou shrugged. “Does it matter?”

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But Shishio-sama…”

“Shishio-sama, I’m fine!”

“Take her inside.”

“Yes, Shishio-sama.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But he already was.

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

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

He gave up.

But it was worse than he could ever have imagined.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What did you remember?” Saitou asked quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You need to sleep,” he whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What would you know?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I just think it might help.”

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

“Sano…”

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

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

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

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

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

“Sano…”

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

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

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

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

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

I love you, Sano…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes… I always thought it odd.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

He wanted to turn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saitou smirked. “With excitement, ahou?”

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

A little ahead of them, Kenshin sighed almost inaudibly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kenshin nodded.

“That can’t be right…”

“Why?” Kenshin sounded a bit worried.

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

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

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

Kenshin nodded. “Do you remember nothing?”

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

“Yes.”

“And then… then…”

But Kenshin had looked away.

Sick, huh?

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

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

Something was wrong here.

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

What he seemed to be feeling was… loneliness?

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

But Kenshin wouldn’t lie to him.

He must have been sick, then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um, yeah.” Sano did not lie down.

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

“I feel fine, Kenshin, really.”

“I will answer three questions.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, it was his life, wasn’t it?


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

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

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

Saitou nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?”

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

Kenshin obeyed. “Yes?”

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

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

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

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

Kenshin evaded. “What kind of thing?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The glowing bars of his cage of torment converged.

Saitou Hajime would burn.

He turned the blade inward.

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

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

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

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

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

He told him he’d been born that way.

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

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

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

Nothing less from Sagara Sanosuke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love you, Sano…

Only time could tell.

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

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


Pride of her Parents 1

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

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


Unique to this story: spectacular Mary-Sue



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


Chapter 1 – A Mistake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry,” she said with enforced calmness. “I’m ready to try seriously.” For a second time she made the sign.

“Move your fingers more regularly,” said Kylur sharply. En Shevil tried again, accustomed to her parents demanding perfection in even the simplest things but still laughing inwardly.

Once she had mastered the ridiculous move by their exacting standards, she was guided through the same process with the countersign and left to her own devices to practice. And as she had no desire to sit around in the back room at home doing this, she headed out to wander the streets.

She smiled at the guards as they passed her. There were usually guards patrolling Jamal Darb, it being so close to the palace. She hurried down that street and turned onto Hawa Darb, whence she went with a light step to the Plaza of the Palace.

There she loitered, watching people pass by and trying not to make eye contact with the merchants, any of whom would talk your ear off if you let them get started. She’d once tried to rob the silly jewel merchant by slipping into his window at night; however, he had awakened and she’d been forced to retreat. If Manta and Kylur had ever found out about that one…

Well, once she earned her lockpick — then she’d really have fun. Her foster-parents would not give her a lockpick until she had proven herself capable of using, concealing, and caring for one to their satisfaction. This, of course, was because there was no Thieves’ Guild in the city and therefore no aid for the hapless thief who got careless and got caught. Well, that and her revival ambition.

She decided to practice her latest skill. No one responded. With a sigh, she headed down Sultan Darb toward the Fountain Plaza. She made the thief sign to everyone she met along the way, but no countersign.

Oh, wonderful, she thought sarcastically as she reached the plaza. Omar… There, indeed, sat the ridiculous poet on a rug by the western door, spouting out some rhyming nonsense about honor. Just like every time she looked at him, she got the feeling she had seen him somewhere before, but it didn’t exactly matter as she couldn’t stand to be around him for more than five seconds. Next to him stood Ja’afar, the tall man who ‘translated’ the old idiot’s blather into plain language. His eyes seemed to be everywhere, and he always looked as if he had a secret.

Having no desire to put up with any of the old man’s sad excuse for poetry, En Shevil hurried away. A little annoyed at being denied her favorite spot, she ambled on through the city, slowly and leisurely, practicing the thief sign to kill time before she could return.

When she did so, Omar was gone from the plaza. On the ground where he had been, something glinted. En Shevil thought as she bent to pick it up, Stupid old man! I don’t think he’s ever done a reading here and not left something behind. Still, his loss was her gain, so she didn’t exactly curse his stupidity.

It was a pin, the kind commonly made by katta and very lovely — and better yet, rather expensive-looking. She glanced around casually to see that everyone was busy with their own affairs, and shoved it into her pocket. Quite a prize for a sharp-eyed thief.

When she reached the Plaza of the Palace on her way home, the sun had set and the merchants were gone. She sped up, eager for the night’s practice. Since Manta and Kylur’s legal trade was cushionry, a stand in the bazaar was out of the question, there being simply not enough room to display their wares, so they worked out of their own home. Thus, thievery lessons could only be conducted after dark when the door was locked for the night. Of course, Manta sometimes taught her the odd skill, as today, in the back room on slow days, but usually En Shevil was put to work doing chores, sewing, or running errands.

She bowed politely as she passed a late-staying customer at the door, and Manta locked the latter as she closed it. “Your mother has only finished dinner,” he said. “As usual, you’re just in time.”

They went into the kitchen and sat at the table while Kylur brought over their food on trays. “Lamb felafas again?” groaned En Shevil.

Kylur laughed as she took her place at the table, for this was an old complaint. “You know they’re your father’s favorite.”

“I know,” sighed the girl, poking reluctantly at her tray.

“Tonight’s task is a bedroom robbery,” said Kylur after supper.

“Wonderful,” replied En Shevil. She loved this type of exercise.

“You need to go in, find anything of value, take it, and get out. Manta will be the sleeping resident.” Kylur handed En Shevil a lockpick. “Go!”

She concealed most of the tool in her hand as she worked, bent over the lock on the bedroom door, ready to pull out and look innocent should Kylur decide to play guard. Quicker than it ever had before, the lock snapped and the door opened. En Shevil stepped quickly into the dark room and shut it softly, lest the light from outside waken the ‘sleeper.’ She paused to let her eyes adjust.

Here, she knew, katta had an advantage over humans with their ability to see in the dark and their sharper senses. However, with the techniques her parents had taught her, the darkness grew clearer, and she began to pick her way across to a chest in the corner.

Scouring the room took her less than two minutes, and soon she was out with the valuables in her pockets and arms. “You made very good time,” began Kylur as En Shevil spread the items before her, “and it looks as if you found everything.”

“That is not all she’s done,” said Manta, emerging from the bedroom.

“Oh, wonderful,” groaned En Shevil. “What now?” Manta was always more strict than Kylur. But as she looked at him, she realized that his expression was one of amazement.

“If I hadn’t been watching you the whole time, I would not have known that you were there. I don’t know where you found the time to practice, but it’s certainly paid off. I don’t think we need do any more stealth exercises.”

En Shevil was hard-pressed to conceal her astonishment. Though she would never argue with praise, this was beyond her. Practice? Not she! And though she felt she had done remarkably well that night, she couldn’t believe she had been quiet enough to evade katta hearing.

“Oh, yes,” she said absently, handing the lockpick to Kylur. “Here.”

“Keep it,” the woman said, looking at Manta for confirmation that he swiftly gave. “You’ve earned it.”

The thrill of this soon faded, however: she found after not many days that most people barred their doors, and she would have to earn a whole different set of tools to get past that barrier. Those that did not take this caution rarely owned anything worth money, but she soon taught them to be more scrupulous.

She didn’t know how or where her parents fenced the goods she brought them, but she was content for now with the small income she was bringing in. The one thing she could never bear to part with was the pin she had found.

There was something fascinating about it. It was shaped like a griffin with a blue gem in its chest and obviously very valuable, but somehow she did not want to sell it; it seemed precious to her somehow, although she could not tell why. She took to wearing it on her shirt wherever she went, removing it only when Omar was seen in the Fountain Plaza.

Nearly two months, and six robberies, later, she was wandering Shmali Tarik and happened to look down to that strange purple door with the eye painted on it. She knew the sorceress Aziza lived there, but En Shevil had never seen her. On a whim, she grinned and altered her course. I wonder what kind of valuables a sorceress keeps.

She slid her lockpick from the metal band that held her blonde hair. The latter, a color unusual to desert-dwellers, had always made her suspect that she had been born of parents from somewhere north and east, specifically Spielburg. Because of this, she had always kept up with the news thence, and it was a point of interest to her that recently the long-lost daughter of Stefan von Spielburg had finally been returned to him. But En Shevil did not know the details — something to do with brigands — and hadn’t been able to hear them anywhere.

Returning to the task at hand, the thief pushed the pick gently into the lock and gave it a slight twist as a test. There was a snapping sound, and an abrupt jolt of unexpected pain stabbed through her. She jerked back her hand as she fell to the ground, her fingers closing reflexively over the tool. The pain seemed to echo in her body, throbbing sullenly and slowly fading. Clutching the lockpick tightly, she lay curled up on the street for how long she knew not.

Teach me to mess with a sorceress, she thought painfully. Chest pounding, she hauled herself up the wall, slipping halfway and sluggishly growing stronger. As she finally stumbled to her feet, she conjectured that another attack like that would kill her. She decided it would be wise to go home. Throwing a look over her shoulder at the door, she shuffled haltingly back up the street, bent over and holding her chest with her left arm while replacing her lockpick with her right. She had only gone a few paces when she was forced to stop and lean, gasping, against the wall once again. Movement awakened physical memories of that pain. And all the while she was wondering whether the door had merely been enchanted or if Aziza had been watching her the entire time. She fervently hoped the first, rather than the second, to be true. And thus, slowly, she made her way home.

After being confined to the house for a week, partly as punishment for being so foolish and partly so that she could recover, she was finally free again, and so she went out to wander the streets. She noted with interest a new inn at Gates Plaza, but decided to defer making her first curious visit to a later date. She was in a thoughtful mood, and preferred not to meet people. So she mostly avoided the plazas.

She did not pay attention to where she was until she turned a corner and suddenly heard shouting. She looked around, realizing that she stood on Dinar Tarik and that around the next turn was the shop of the money changer, who seemed to be having an argument with someone.

En Shevil crept to the meeting of the walls, crouched, and peered around. In front of Dinarzaad’s window stood a disgustingly muscular, half-clothed man with no hair. Even the money changer’s guard, standing close by with sword drawn, looked dwarfed by him. En Shevil realized that she had seen him somewhere before. Yes… he kept one of the shops in town.

“–talk to you however I want!” he was shouting.

“Issur, I won’t, and that’s my last word,” responded Dinarzaad, her tone equally loud.

“Yes, you will!” said Issur, whom En Shevil finally remembered to be the weapon maker from the Fighters Plaza.

“All right, that’s it,” said Dinarzaad, spreading her arms out on the sill. “We’re through. No more relationship. The End.”

“Well, if that’s the way you want it,” he jeered, “but remember — you got mad at me, I never got mad at you.” He pointed at himself and her with the appropriate words. This statement did not seem to En Shevil particularly intelligent, relevant, or true, and she guessed that it concerned a previous argument, or the part of this one that she’d missed.

“I want my pin back,” said Dinarzaad.

“No way,” said Issur immediately. “That was a gift.”

“It was a loan!” she protested, her voice rising once again.

“You wanna take it to the sultan?” snarled Issur. “Fine. Hope he don’t ask where you got it. Or look too close at it.”

“Get out of here,” she commanded, pointing.

“Fine,” he snapped. “And remember, I’m not mad.”

En Shevil had barely time to press herself into the corner before Issur stormed past. Fortunately, he was too not-angry to notice her presence. Only when he was a safe distance down the street did she move, and to the sound of Dinarzaad’s near-scream of frustration walk into the tiny dead end Issur had just left.

“I’m closed,” the woman said sharply, reaching for the shutter of her window.

“Wait!” En Shevil said, stepping hastily up to the sill. She leaned forward. “I can get your pin back for you.”

Dinarzaad laughed darkly. “I like that. And I suppose you’re going to find Arus al-Din, may he live forever, as well?” En Shevil made the thief sign, just for good measure, as she prepared to speak again. Then she noticed that Dinarzaad was staring at her. “Where did you get that pin you’re wearing?” the woman asked softly. En Shevil glanced nervously at the guard who had replaced his sword and stood now by the wall. “Don’t worry,” the money changer assured her, “Franc does not speak or write. He knows my business. So, effenda thief, where did you get that?”

“I found it,” said En Shevil cautiously. “Why?”

“It’s a match to mine,” said Dinarzaad. “Mine which that jackass Issur has.”

“I can get it back for you,” said En Shevil eagerly, “if you’ll tell me where to go. And also, why is it so special?”

“I’ll tell you why they’re special if you can bring mine back, and I’ll also give you a hundred dinars.”

“Deal,” said the thief with excitement — Always control yourself in the presence of a prospective employer, Kylur had drilled into her, but it was difficult to restrain how thrilled she was at having received her first commission at such a high price.

Dinarzaad, who seemed rather amused at En Shevil’s eagerness, proceeded to give her directions. “One more thing,” she added as the girl turned to leave. “What’s your name?”

“En Shevil,” replied she.

“Pretty name,” said the money changer, repeating it. “That’s the old katta language, isn’t it? What does it mean?”

“‘Pride of her parents,'” said the thief.

The dark-haired beauty at the window smiled. “Would your parents be proud of you if they knew what you’re planning?”

“Oh, they would,” En Shevil assured her.

***

“Hey, kid!” En Shevil grabbed the arm of a hooky-playing child who ran past her at the eastern end of the Plaza of the Fighters.

“Leggo,” protested the child.

“Wait. Can you read yet?” En Shevil glanced towards the Guild Hall and back down at the kid. Then she looked up again, briefly. Before the hall stood a familiar rig of stands and rope; Agi the Agile was back to mock the uncoordinated Shapierians yet again.

“‘Course I can,” said the child proudly.

En Shevil let go his arm and crouched down to his level. “I’ll give you two dinars if you’ll take this into the Guild Hall and read it to Uhura.” And she held out a scrap of paper.

The kid stuck out his chin and looked at her. “Two fifty.”

“All right, fine, whatever,” said En Shevil impatiently, wanting very much to watch Agi: someone had accepted his challenge. “I’ll give you half now and half when you come back.” She counted the money out from her pocket and handed it to the kid, who scampered off in the same direction En Shevil now took.

It was the day after she had acquired her first official job as a thief, and being made to run errands all morning did not serve to take her mind off of it. At least she had escaped seeing Uhura. She joined the small, disinterested crowd around Agi’s tightrope. On the first platform stood a man whom she could only assume was the newly-arrived “Hero.” His hair was the same color as hers, and he looked slightly taller than she was.

She watched his blue-clad back as he began to walk the rope. En Shevil, four years ago, had taken Agi’s challenge, and had spent the entire day earning bruises and a bump on the head before she’d learned it. Usually now, each time he appeared, she would accept near the end of the day, provided no one else had, just to show his audience that it could actually be done. She was the only one in town, though, who had bothered to master this fairly useless skill. Now it seemed she had competition. She was amazed, really, at how well he did this, certain he must have learned it somewhere else and was just showing off. She would have waited for him to finish to ask him about it, but her child-helper emerged from the Guild Hall when the Hero was only halfway across the rope.

“She said, ‘that fine,'” the kid told her.

“Thanks, that was a real help,” said En Shevil, giving him the rest of his money. “Now, you better get to school before some guard finds you.” Shapierian children usually attended school until they were ten. Then, if they wanted further education, they would have to go elsewhere or seek an apprenticeship.

The child skipped off happily, and En Shevil hurried towards home and the rest of her chores, with only a brief backward glance at the man from Spielburg. He had reached the other platform and was climbing down the rope.

He must have done it before.

After dark that night, En Shevil crept from her house and headed in a state of high anticipation for the Fighters Plaza. At the doorway to Saif Darb, she paused, taking a deep breath and looking around. The plaza was shadowy, the brown-yellow stone appearing almost blue in the moonlight. As all spring nights were in the desert, the evening was warm, but a cool breeze floated down from the tops of the mountains, and she shivered — but that might have been with excitement.

There was a sudden noise to her right, and she jumped back into the doorway as a stream of light fell onto the ground from the door of the Guild Hall. She laughed at herself for being so nervous. It couldn’t be more than some idle traveler who had lingered talking to the Simbani woman.

Besides her glimpse that morning, En Shevil had heard only sketchy reports of the Hero, she having never been one for gossip, and her curiosity was merely idle interest in the fact that he came from Spielburg. But all of that changed when she had a close view of him, for he was by far the handsomest man she had ever seen.

Before he could escape her, she stepped from the street and said clearly in the merchants’ common tongue, “Good evening, effendi.”

He looked startled, and turned to face her. Then with a half smile he said, “Good evening.” She was glad now that she had managed to pick up on the language used by merchants worldwide during her time helping Manta and Kylur’s foreign customers. Neither of them had ever bothered to teach her. “Why out so late?”

“Well, I…” she found herself tongue-tied, and could not have explained why. Seeing her expression, he raised his hands, and, to her total amazement, made the thief sign. Shocked, she clumsily made the countersign, and as if with one accord they both headed out of the plaza and onto Saif Darb where they could talk.

“I saw you earlier today… what’s your name?” he asked.

“En Shevil,” she said, trying not to notice how pleasantly muscular he was — in a laid-back, active way, not like Issur’s carefully-developed body.

“I’m Achim, from Spielburg.”

“Yes, I know,” she said. “I’ve been wondering about you.” That was a lie — at least it would have been two minutes earlier — but it was a way to get him talking. “Did you really save Elsa von Spielburg from brigands?”

“In a manner of speaking,” he said, rubbing his neck thoughtfully. “It’s rather a long story.”

“Well, do you have time?” she asked. He looked at her, and she got the impression that he found her attractive. Good.

“Why not?” he said. “See, I was born in the northern part of Spielburg, not near the actual town or the barony at all. I wanted to be a Hero, so I applied to the Famous Adventurer’s Correspondence School……”

His story went on, and eventually shifted into talk and laughter between them. Suddenly En Shevil was conscious that the greenish light from the torches on the walls was not responsible for the glow around them. “Sunrise!” she exclaimed, jumping up. “I’ve got to get home!”

Achim yawned. “I suppose I should get some sleep.” He looked up at her. “I’m sorry I took you from your — er — job,” he said. “Can I see you again some time?”

“Of course!” she replied, probably with too much enthusiasm. Always control yourself in the presence of a prospective romantic interest, she chided herself, but, hey, she’d never been this attracted to a guy before.

“What about tomorrow — I suppose it’s tonight, now — here, at sunset?”

“Wonderful!” she said, and then changed her mind. “No, I really need to get this job done. What about, well, really tomorrow?” She had lowered her voice, hearing the bustle of the merchants in the brightening plaza beyond.

He stood up and looked down at her with a most engaging half-smile. “All right. Goodbye.” The smile turned into a grin that made her heart beat faster, then headed out into the plaza along with the rest of him. When he was gone, she realized she had forgotten to say goodbye.

That day dragged on, and on, and on, anticipation for the coming robbery making the time stretch terribly. Also, she was unused to staying out all night, so she was abnormally tired. There was no escape from her work, either: the forerider of a caravan that would arrive tomorrow or the day after had ordered a whole set of light sleeping-cushions, the kind generally used by large caravans going a long way.

Fortunately, she wasn’t imprisoned in the workroom the entire time; her parents did have a few errands for her. It was mid-afternoon, and she had been shopping for about three quarters of an hour, when she stopped by Gates Plaza to visit the forerider at the inn with some questions. She almost dropped the bundle she was carrying, though, when she reached the end of Junub Tarik and looked out onto the plaza.

The merchants were gone, along with their stands and blankets; not a soul was visible. The plaza’s on fire! Of course the plaza was not “on fire,” it being constructed primarily of stone — but fire was rife before her eyes in a roughly man-shaped pillar of flame that raced, dancing, from wall to wall.

En Shevil stood enraptured, staring at the beautiful flickering figure that seemed aimless, without thought, as it circled the plaza again and again. Until the voice spoke in her ear a second time she did not even mark its presence. “En Shevil?”

“Uh?”

“I did get it right, didn’t I? En Shevil?”

It was Achim. “Yes,” she said in a slightly gasping tone, turning to find his face disconcertingly close to hers.

“An elemental.” He pointed out around her to the plaza.

“I noticed.”

“Omar warned about it the other night, and I didn’t take him seriously.”

She giggled. “Who could?”

He echoed her reaction. “I have to… I’m the Hero.” Striking a pose, he put his hand to the hilt of one of the daggers sheathed at his side.

She giggled again. “So that means you’re going to get rid of it, right?”

He looked sheepish. “Do I have to?”

“Of course!” Then she reconsidered. “Well, maybe you should let some wizard handle it.”

“But… I’m the Hero.” He jumped from his second, more dramatic pose into a jog out to the middle of the plaza. Withdrawing a waterskin from his pack, he fell into step behind the creature and attempted to douse it.

With an angry flare the elemental sparked and spun violently away from him, not diminishing in size. En Shevil was afraid for a moment that it was going to return and attack him, but it only continued its random movement from wall to wall. Achim stuck out his lip in annoyance and went after it again. After three or four fruitless attempts to corner and extinguish, Achim retreated to the security of the street once again. “I’m out of water,” he said, scratching his head.

“I don’t think it’s going to work anyway,” she replied. “It’s too strong for a little bit of water.”

“No, it’s just too fast. I need to get it into the street where it can’t dodge around.”

En Shevil backed away from the door onto the plaza. “Wonderful idea… count me out.”

“I don’t know how to do it anyway,” he replied with a shrug, turning and following her. “I’ll go get some more water.”

With a glance back at the brightly-lit plaza, she walked beside him.

As Achim filled his waterskin at the fountain, En Shevil looked around, trying to think of a way to help. The sign above the apothecary’s door caught and held her eye. “Harik,” she murmured.

“What was that?”

“The apothecary’s name is Harik; that means ‘fire.'” She shrugged. “It doesn’t matter, I guess…”

“But any clues I could gather would help,” Achim finished.

“I’ll stay here,” En Shevil said nervously, sitting down on the side of the fountain as Achim headed towards the red-brown door of the apothecary’s shop. A moment later she moved to the other side to avoid the sparkling glare that the sun cast into her eyes off of the brass merchant’s extensive wares. Thus her back was to him when he reemerged, flicking her ear for attention. “Any luck?”

“Hmm…” He held up a metal box that smelled of incense. “He said I should try and lure the thing with this. Hopefully once it’s in the street, I can get rid of it.”

En Shevil, who was looking at the sun, said ruefully, “I’d come and watch, but I’ve gotta get going — more errands for my parents.”

“You’ve got to let me meet your parents sometime,” was his unexpected response. “All that stuff you said about them last night was interesting.”

She blushed and jumped up. “Well, tell me about how you dealt with that thing tomorrow, all right?”

“All right. Goodbye.”

That night, after practicing the finding and securing of valuables quickly in a dark room to improve her speed, she bolted for the door. “Where are you going?” asked Kylur.

“Out,” replied En Shevil, standing on one foot with agitation. She had been taught not even to tell her parents what she was planning in the way of thievery, if she could avoid it, so that if she were caught they could truthfully say in the face of magic-wielding judges that they had not known of her plans.

“Where?” asked her mother nevertheless.

“To rob someone, where else?” said En Shevil, dying to be gone.

“Well, don’t stay out all night again,” said Kylur. “And don’t get caught!” she added. But En Shevil was already halfway down the street.

Saif Darb was quiet and stuffy, the torches burning silently in the heavy air. En Shevil, excited, was practically skipping down the street, counting doors until she reached Issur’s house. She paused, listening, raising her hand to her hair band but not removing her lockpick. No noise, no light. That made sense, as it was after midnight. She pulled out her lockpick and set to, opening the door in almost no time at all.

Her brow furrowed as she saw the room. Ridiculously Spartan, it consisted of a door in the right and left walls, a wooden table with chairs against the opposite, a stool, and a large cabinet next to the door on the left. Swords, spears, maces, axes, scimitars, and so on leaned against the walls or stood neatly stacked on the floor. He uses his home as a warehouse! she thought in wonder; how inconvenient!

She went first to the cabinet, but inside she found only mail shirts hung in rows. She decided to try one of the two doors, and randomly chose the one to the right. Silently she opened it, and crept into the bedroom beyond. It was quite different from the room preceding.

Though the only furnishings, a bed and a round-topped chest, were as plain as those in the main room, the walls were crowded with ornate shields, matching sets of beautifully-designed weaponry, and a huge embroidered banner bearing the letters “EOF.” She was startled to notice that the bed was empty, but she wasted no time wondering. Going to the chest against the wall and picking the padlock, she thought, How strange: He doesn’t bar his door but puts a padlock on the chest in his bedroom.

A sickening smell of must and sweat arose as the lid creaked open. Inside was clothing she did not pause to examine, thrown in haphazardly along with a few other miscellaneous items of no value clustered in heaps under the smelly cloth. She did not spare a thought on them. Instead she let the lid down gently and snapped the padlock shut. She stood and went to the bed. Underneath she found a trap door, but surmised that to lift the heavy wooden square would require moving the bed, something she doubted she could do at all, let alone quietly.

On one side was a small fireplace she had not noticed, unused until the mild nighttime cold of winter. In the deep black of its interior, something glinted, which was impossible since there was no light in the room. She took a step closer, and the glint was repeated, and this time she started as it was answered by a tiny flash from the pin on her shirt. After recovering from her surprise, she began to think that this was rather cute — they were talking to each other. Wonderful.

She knelt by the fire and reached hesitantly in. Her hand contacted something just below the first layer of fire debris, and she grasped it and drew it out, the ash falling from it as she shook her hand. It was indeed the pin, she knew, for it flashed once more. It seemed an exact replica of hers, save that the gem was red. She shoved it hastily in her pocket, stood and headed for the other room.

She had hardly closed the door, however, when she knew something was wrong. She could see far too well. Light flooded in, diffusing from its horizontal origin under the other door, as well as the sound of harsh voices laughing. Whence had they come? Not from the street — En Shevil would have heard them from the bedroom. There must be another exit in the left-hand room. Who would have imagined the weapon maker to have — or want — such a large house?

Unfortunately, En Shevil lingered too long wondering. She was suddenly blinded as the door opened in a burst of light. She could see nothing for a moment, but heard Issur’s surprised, “What?” Then he roared, “Thief!” and sprang at her. It was only by pure luck that she evaded his huge arms and reached the outside door, but as she flung it open and bolted, a hand reached for her and snapped on her shirt, the semi-gauzy cloth of which ripped as she pulled away. She guessed that she had left a piece of it in her pursuer’s hand.

Clutching the front of her torn garment, she raced off Saif Darb, onto Askeri Darb, Nisr, Trab, Tarik of Rafir, and down Naufara Darb to the Fountain Plaza. All the way was the sound of pounding feet behind her, several heavy men. Somehow they did not catch up to her, and En Shevil got the feeling that they were slightly drunk and had a bit of trouble negotiating corners. She wondered why they didn’t shout, though she was glad they refrained: an entire neighborhood, angry at being awakened in the middle of the night, would have been even more difficult to escape.

At the Fountain Plaza she had an advantage. She knew that if she could hide, the men would search for her down the streets and she could slip away home or wait them out. She looked around desperately. A window? No, not enough time: climbing in haste, she might fall and kill herself. Having little other choice, she stepped into the bowl of the fountain and curled herself around the middle. Water splashed out onto the ground for a few moments before the magical spring adjusted to the new level. Balling her hands and placing them under her head, she raised her mouth out of the water.

She realized suddenly that her ruined top was floating loosely about her, and she made a slow movement to clamp it down. “Where is she?” asked a loud voice nearby, making her jump just the littlest bit. With the fountain noises all around her she had not heard the men come up.

“I got a piece of ‘er shirt,” said a slurring voice. Chortles and suppressed snorts of drunken laughter followed.

“We’ll split up,” said a calmer tone — Issur’s. “And don’t wake anybody.” Apparently then the men dispersed, but En Shevil dared not move for quite some time.

The Dark Hand was high and the moon was bright, but suddenly a shape — a man looking down at her, hands on hips — blocked her view. She reacted immediately. Splashing him first in the face and giving him a mild push, she sprang from the bowl in a spray of water, banging various parts of her body against various parts of the fountain. He grabbed for her, but only barely scraped her arm as she began to run. “En Shevil!” he said, and she stopped with a gasp. It was Achim.

She turned again, clutching her chest with relief, to face the dripping Hero. But she felt as she did so the tatters of her shirt hanging forlornly from her shoulders. She blushed; though nothing was exposed, it was still embarrassing. She quickly located her pin and used it to secure the two torn edges of her shirt-back as best she could. “Come with me,” said Achim, taking her hand when she was done and pulling her towards the western arch. His touch gave her goose-bumps, or perhaps that was merely the light breeze against her wet skin. She started shivering.

Without question she followed him. “You’ve been getting into trouble!” he said, still pulling her down the corridor.

“It’s not what it looks like,” she replied earnestly.

“I don’t know,” he said slowly. “I find you in the fountain with your shirt half-off, and a drunk guy after you — what am I supposed to think?”

“Wha…? You–? I don’t…” She was finally speechless for some moments as they turned off Naufara Darb onto Dinar Tarik. Then she gasped, “You thought I… oh!” she ended with a cry of indignation as he began to laugh. Finally he pulled her onto Centime Tarik and pushed his wet hair back, leaning against the wall and still laughing.

“I saw Issur storming out of the money changer’s alley and had to tell his fists that I hadn’t seen you. I don’t think he’ll be back this way tonight. I’ve never seen him so mad, not even when I made the thief sign to him. What did you do?”

En Shevil, still supremely annoyed at his earlier joke at her expense, said shortly, “I can’t tell you.”

“As I thought,” he replied lightly.

Why is he staring at me like that? she thought. What she said was: “I have to go see the money changer. I’ll see you tomorrow, won’t I? And tell you all about it?”

“Certainly,” replied Achim quietly. He grinned as he had the night before, and En Shevil was suddenly hot. “If you don’t get into any more trouble.

He kissed her lightly on her upturned mouth and walked away.

In a complete daze En Shevil moved cautiously down the street towards Dinarzaad’s shop. Though she was shivering slightly and her pants were chafing her, her mouth felt hot.

“Well!” said Dinarzaad as she came into sight. “I suppose this is what I get for dealing with such an obvious amateur!”

En Shevil’s mouth opened, but Dinarzaad laughed. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I know it wasn’t your fault. But with all these men running about after you, I think I’m going to have to break my own rule and invite you inside. That is, if you still want to know why the pins are so remarkable.”

“Wha — in there? Yes, of course I do.”

“Very well. Hop in.” She moved away from the window. En Shevil clambered over the sill, trying not to look too curiously around her at the fairly sparse, claustrophobic shop of the money changer. The walls were mostly hidden by locked cabinets, and a table stood by the window with a few oddments on top and underneath. There were no chairs, and Dinarzaad indicated that she should sit on the large chest in the corner. She must have seen the way En Shevil looked sidelong at all this, for she smiled wryly and explained, “I do my best to make up for the lack of a Thieves’ Guild around here. So of course I need some extra storage. And now I really must know what happened at Issur’s.”

“Well,” began En Shevil slowly, “the more I think about it, the more I wonder how I got in at all — why his door wasn’t barred, I mean. Most people’s are, even during the day.”

“Oh,” said Dinarzaad dismissively. “That’s my doing. I always made him keep it unbarred so I could get in. He probably just got into the habit.”

“Well, I had no trouble finding it,” continued En Shevil, pulling the pin from her pocket and looking at it. “But then, in the other room, there were men. They were having a party or something, and I think they were drunk.”

“That was probably EOF,” said the money changer. “It’s their stupid ‘secret’ group. They only have meetings in the middle of the night, and usually parties afterwards. I should have warned you.”

“It’s all right,” said En Shevil a little dryly (as dryly as she could say anything when she was soaking wet). “I love adventure.” And otherwise, she thought, I wouldn’t have seen Achim. “Now what about these pins?” She handed the red-chested griffin to the woman. She noticed then that the griffin’s head was turned to the right. If she remembered correctly (she could not see it), the head on hers faced left.

“These pins were — where is yours?”

En Shevil blushed and rolled her eyes backwards to indicate. “It’s holding my shirt on. I really did have a narrow escape. And then I had to lay down in the fountain to get rid of them.”

Dinarzaad burst out laughing. She laughed, apparently uncontrollably, for minutes on end, her face turning red as she attempted to catch her breath. “Excuse me,” she said at last, letting a tear roll onto her finger and flicking it off. “So that’s why you’re soaking wet. Well, that is a story… All right.” She cleared her throat, shaking her head. “When humans started ruling Shapier, a clan of katta, to prove their loyalty to the new Sultan and Sultana, made for the first royal couple these matching pins. The red was for the Sultan and the blue for his wife. They had the power to augment any talent of the bearer’s that he or she was focusing on using.”

“Oh!” exclaimed En Shevil, eyes wide. “Oh! So that’s why… Well — go on.” This explained the amazing performance by which she had won her lockpick.

“The red one would only work for a man, the blue one for a woman. They were passed down the generations until the time of Rashid bin Hawa, who as you know was the father of our present Sultan (may he live forever) and Emir (he as well). A master thief broke into the palace to steal them, but lost the woman’s pin on the way out. I’m curious as to how you got yours, but I assume you would rather not tell, as is the situation with me.”

En Shevil was shocked. So that was why Omar looked so familiar! The poet himself, she was guessing, was Harun al Rashid — though why he would be carrying around the woman’s pin she could not guess. “You’re right,” she said. “But what I want to know is about you and Issur.”

“What about us?”

“Well, you don’t exactly seem like the ideal couple.”

“There’s really little to tell. At first it was mostly a joke, but then he began getting possessive and over-demanding. We didn’t last long, so now I’m looking for a replacement.” This last was said with an airy tone that reminded En Shevil of her friend Thalanna. The katta girl had been flirtatious, mischievous, vivacious (but law-abiding and unaware of the practices of her aunt, uncle, and adopted cousin)… Her family had moved to Rasier a few years ago, and now with all the katta driven out of that city, En Shevil had been terribly worried, as she had heard nothing from her.

“Do you have anyone in mind?” she asked teasingly, still thinking of Thalanna.

“You know, that Hero-man is pretty fine-looking. Achim, that’s his name?”

“Yes,” said En Shevil numbly, sorry she had asked. The last thing she needed was Dinarzaad, the patent desert beauty, going after her Hero. At about that same moment, the full implications of the night’s events were beginning to hit her, and she started to shake, just a little. “I really need to go home and change,” she said weakly.

“All right,” said Dinarzaad sympathetically. She left her place against the wall by the window and went to a cabinet, producing a large set of keys from absolutely nowhere. She opened the doors to reveal rows of small drawers. She unlocked one and collected in her hand some coins. They fell with a chink into En Shevil’s.

“Thanks,” the girl said blankly, shock and weariness combining to cloud her vision as she looked at the ten ten-dinar pieces and stood up. She went to the window. “Well, it’s been fun, but I probably won’t be seeing you again.”

“Goodbye,” said the money changer. “Thanks.”

En Shevil pushed herself out the window and headed home, her mind foggy with the terrible realization that had hit her: she would have to leave Shapier. Issur at least, if not some of his party, had seen her in his house, and whether or not he would recognize her face, there were few other blondes in the whole country, let alone the city. In fact, she knew of only one: some strange man that everyone thought was crazy who walked the streets with a drum. She smiled slightly at the thought of him, too strung for a laugh.

By this time she had reached home, and with a deep breath she entered. She stood in the dark for some time, looking through at nothing. The world was calm and surreal here, a peaceful place of safety and familiarity where she could not stay. But she was beyond emotion now, numb and dull. So she went to bed.

The next day was quiet. They had resigned themselves to the tragedy, following an explosive and somewhat traumatic conversation in the early morning. By a mutual unspoken agreement, they did not talk about it, did not try to convince themselves aloud that it was their only option. That if Issur determined to bring En Shevil down, they could not hide her forever, or keep themselves clean in doing so, especially as it seemed that, given the information from Dinarzaad about EOF, Issur would go after her covertly rather than through the proper authorities.

So instead of dwelling on their sorrow, they brought up amusing stories from the past, humorous events or just important ones: the time Manta and Kylur had decided to take in the orphan baby brought by a caravan almost eighteen years earlier; the night En Shevil and Thalanna had repainted the shop signs and street-direction markers in Fountain Plaza and collapsed in laughter the next day as confused katta and map-bound tourists became helplessly lost as they thought north was south and east west; the year Kylur had been struck with a sickness that confined her to bed for nearly the whole summer, Manta and En Shevil putting in extra hours to make up for her absence; the time, just before Thalanna’s family had left, that, on a dare, En Shevil had told a newly-arrived Uhura that “humor” was the Shapierian word for “supplies.” Uhura, trying to furnish the Guild Hall to her tastes, had instead received only bad jokes in response to her carefully-worded inquiries.

So the family laughed as they worked, finishing up the sleeping cushions for the caravan, with which it was now determined that En Shevil would depart, to end up in Anzhad or Darun or another of the southern Shapierian towns. But their laughter was subdued, and carried behind it an audible sadness at the thought that they might never be together again. And En Shevil writhed inwardly with the thought that she was the cause of this misery. Had she only fled Issur’s house more quickly, all would now be well. But in her parents’ eyes she read their reassurance that to them it was no more than an unfortunate accident that took her from them.

Near sunset she told them quietly that she must say goodbye to her friends. They nodded silently, the expressions on their faces enough to break En Shevil’s heart. She left the house with a heavy step. Walking warily and avoiding what sounded like footsteps, she eventually crept onto the Fighters Plaza just as Rakeesh was gathering up his rug to go inside for the night.

She watched for a moment as the day’s last light glinted off his golden fur, then stepped out to halt him. “Wait!”

He turned to look at her. “Good evening, my friend,” he said. “Why so downcast?”

“I’m leaving Shapier tomorrow, probably for Darun.”

“You have fallen into trouble, I see,” said the Paladin shrewdly.

“Y-yes,” she admitted, knowing he would not betray her trust. And that she could not have deceived him at any rate. “So I came to say…” En Shevil choked suddenly and was amazed at herself. She had not imagined that this parting would be difficult; she enjoyed talking to Rakeesh, but there always the barrier that necessarily existed between thief and Paladin kept them from becoming particularly close. And now her words were all falling out on top of each other, “…goodbye, and… thank you for all your advice — and tell Uhura I’m sorry for the word thing, and please don’t think badly of me!”

“I seldom think badly of anyone, for all have their path in life. The Paladin way is not for everyone. You however…” He began the tirade to which she had paid little heed before, though the words struck her peculiarly now, “…you — if you would only take the road of Honor, you could become one of the great ones, an Erana of the night.” He smiled his ferocious lion’s grin and stepped towards the Guild Hall doors. “May you leave the path of dishonor you have chosen and go on to the glory for which you are meant. Farewell, En Shevil.” And he was gone.

En Shevil noticed that tears were picking their tickling way down the sides of her nose. “I’m sorry,” she told the doors for no reason.

She ducked onto Khaniar Tarik as she saw the door to Issur’s shop open and the bald man emerge. She didn’t take her eyes off him until he was safely gone down Saif Darb. But even then she felt nervous about going there to meet Achim.

Apparently he guessed this, and as it began to darken he came striding across the plaza to find her. “Fully-clothed this time, I see,” he said. “No rendezvous with Issur tonight?”

She gave him a scathing look. “I can’t stay long,” she said. “I leave before sunrise.”

“What!? Leave where? The city?!”

She opened her mouth to tell him, but suddenly he seized her shoulders and pulled her bodily around behind him. He drew a knife, whirled, and met the onslaught of a red-faced man in a turban with a large sword who was charging with surprising silence straight towards them. En Shevil took a step backwards in surprise, for she had not seen him come up behind her. The man seemed to want to get past Achim, and she realized that he must be from EOF.

Now she saw Achim in action, the greatest feat of skill she had ever witnessed, though much too close for her comfort. He dodged the sword-thrusts of the warrior, who seemed to outmuscle him two-to-one, and the blows he could not avoid he parried — with a dagger! Then he would dart behind the huge man’s guard to stab, but was always thrown off. Ever the attacker tried to maneuver himself around so that he could break away and go for En Shevil.

She was amazed and frightened at this persistence. If every member of EOF was as obstinate as this man and they had, as she feared, been alerted to her, then her consternation was justified and it was wise of her to go. And now had she pulled Achim into her troubles? The large man gave a strangled cry, biting his lip to silence himself, as Achim’s blade contacted his bare arm, drawing a long gash that immediately welled up red.

En Shevil crouched and pulled her own dagger free of her pant leg, ready to help if needed, though her only skill was in throwing. Kylur, the all-time Shapierian dagger-casting champion, had insisted she drill constantly at target practice, both still and moving with various knife makes and sizes, saying that a thief was not a thief who could not throw. But would it do her any good in practice?

The warrior bore down on Achim so fiercely, of a sudden, that the Hero was forced to meet the attack with his knife raised above his head. The weapons clashed, and the dagger screeched along the sword blade to the hilt so that the tip of the latter was barely above his head, gold by the reflection of his hair. The two men came up against each other, arms above their heads, weapons locked. En Shevil watched in dismay as Achim was forced slowly downward by the man’s strength alone. Then she regained confidence and threw her knife.

He growled as it tore into his underarm and blood jetted out. His right hand released its grip. His left arm was flung and his sword clanged against the wall as Achim threw it off and slashed across his enemy’s stomach. Still the warrior made no noise, which frightened En Shevil even more: if EOF, silly as Dinarzaad had implied it to be, could breed such self-restraint, they would indeed be menacing foes. When would this fight end?

Her question was answered as the man spun and ran, taking her dagger with him. He turned the corner and was out of sight. En Shevil began to shake so violently that she had to lean against the wall just to stand. She had just essentially stabbed somebody. She had seen the blood from the wound. She had a set of very dangerous enemies in her hometown, which she was soon to leave, perhaps forever. She might never see her parents again. And that’s when it hit her: she was afraid. Absolutely terrified of leaving home. She had never been out of Shapier within the time she could remember, and she was petrified.

She began to sob, and felt Achim’s comforting arms around her, helping her to sit. “Yy-you see why I hhave to go,” she said, still shaking. “But I don’t — ” she choked. After a moment she went on, “…want to go.” He said nothing, only held her and let her cry. Then she thought of something else. “And-and now I’ve gott’n you in trouble with EOF. They-they’re a group of fighters that’s after me, and now they’ll… they’ll go after you too.”

“Don’t worry,” he said. “But where are you going?”

“Darun,” she answered. She was calming now, and feeling foolish for her outburst. She moved to stand and he released her. “I must go home.”

“I’ll walk with you,” said the Hero.

“Thank you,” En Shevil replied sincerely, not looking at him. At the door to her house, she turned to him, her eyes dry though probably red. “Thank you for saving me,” she said. “Twice.”

“It was my pleasure,” he murmured, putting his hand on her face. “Come back to me soon.” And then he slid his arm down to her back and, pulling her close, kissed her. She noticed after a moment that her arms were around him as well. They stood thus for some time. “Goodbye,” he said when he finally released her.

“Goodbye,” she returned, but her voice was barely a whisper.