First Kiss

Had it been an apology for all the ill treatment? A premature profession of a secret passion? A goodbye preceding what Saitou knew was coming? Or perhaps just a whim?

Why did Saitou kiss Sano on their way into Shishio’s fortress? Can Sano figure it out now Saitou is dead?


Two steps earlier and Kenshin would have seen. Two steps later and Yumi would have. Two seconds shorter and Sano wouldn’t have been quite shocked enough to keep quiet; two seconds longer and, again, Yumi would have seen.

Saitou certainly had a good sense of timing.

This wasn’t Sano’s only thought on the matter, but it was one of the more prevalent. The universe seemed to have handed Saitou that moment, that perfect opportunity, to surprise and confuse the hell out of Sano, and Saitou had not been remiss in accepting.

And now he was dead.

How long he’d been awake Sano couldn’t be sure; dream and waking thought tended to blend rather uncomfortably when you were wounded. Had he been dreaming about Saitou and was now consciously thinking about him? Or had he been awake, contemplating, and slipped into a dream that still gripped him? Honestly it didn’t matter much; such metaphysical questions paled in comparison with the greater query, Why had Saitou kissed him?

Sano sighed (a gesture that, he thought, indicated fairly well he was awake). He could recall the exact feeling of Saitou’s lips on his, the racing of his heart, the shock that had suffused his entire body, the taste and the smell… but why? Had it been an apology for all the ill treatment? A premature profession of a secret passion? A goodbye preceding what Saitou knew was coming? Or perhaps just a whim?

Saitou was an asshole. This Sano’s logic told him with alarming frequency while these reflections meandered through his head. Saitou was an asshole, and why he’d done anything he’d done during his lifetime could not be a question worth asking. Nor Saitou, the asshole, worth pursuing, nor the feel of his kiss a sensation worth dwelling on. But Saitou was also intelligent and persistent and honorable. Not to mention attractive as hell, but what did that matter? The guy was dead.

The ability to predict and plan for the moment of his own death was something Sano would not put past Saitou’s impressive skill, so perhaps it had been a sort of goodbye. The concept of a ‘goodbye kiss’ was not unusual, after all… just totally bizarre in this context. Because why a kiss? From Saitou? Though it didn’t seem too out of character for Saitou to have left Sano with an insoluble mystery in an aggravating memory just to drive him crazy after he was dead…

And Sano couldn’t regret it. After all, apology, proposition, or farewell, it was the only one he’d gotten.

He’d felt for some time that Saitou’s disliking of him, strongly expressed though it was, really didn’t exceed Saitou’s disliking of anyone else… that Saitou might, perhaps, not even dislike him much at all. It had been a significantly shorter time since he’d started thinking his disliking of Saitou might not be as intense as he’d all along believed. Was that merely because he felt bad about Saitou’s death? Was he cutting him slack because they’d fought side by side and Saitou had eventually given his life for the cause? Sano couldn’t be certain it was only this and not something more, because he’d never bothered attempting to analyze his feelings before.

That analysis was not proving very successful now. His hands ached, his head ached, his entire body ached, and he was operating in a state of perpetual weariness; the mental fatigue that came with this topic clouded the issue further, until he could barely think straight. And wasn’t it a moot point in any case? With Saitou dead, did it really matter how Sano had felt about him?

As little able as he was to distinguish sleep from waking at any given moment of this contemplation — he knew he’d had some real sleep since coming back from the fortress, and acknowledged vaguely that it was now the next day, but more details than this eluded him — he felt it was about time for another long attempt at some real rest… the kind that didn’t involve surreal memories of Saitou’s hand gripping his jaw, holding him in place for precisely four and a half seconds, and what the hell that meant. Afterward, maybe seeing how everyone else was doing and getting a more coherent version than they’d had on their return of what had happened in their absence would distract him from what he’d been thinking about ever since that return.

Just as he was lying back down, however, from the seated position in which he’d been dully looking around the room he’d been occupying in what remained of the functional chambers of the damaged inn, there came a knock at the door. Most likely, he thought, here was that hyperactive girl trying to find anyone to talk at when everyone was as busy resting as she should be after the ordeals of the last few days, but he retracted this speculation when the knock was not repeated.

Despite its probably being someone else, then, he considered not answering, pretending to be asleep — but only for a moment. He might as well see what whoever it was wanted. Something interesting (distracting) might be going on that would be even better than rest for him at present, since if he actually managed to fall asleep he couldn’t be at all certain what type of dreams he would have (or continue to have). So he called for the unknown to enter.

It was one of the two Oniwaban guys, Kuro or Shiro (visually they were perfectly distinct, but Sano sure as hell couldn’t remember which name went with which man), and all he’d come for, he explained apologetically when he saw Sano lying down, was to bring up a note that had just been delivered to the Aoiya. Thinking he’d been right not to pretend to be asleep, Sano thanked the guy and accepted the folded paper, though he didn’t open it until he was again alone.

Its purport was merely that he should come immediately to a certain room of a certain inn, and the unfamiliar handwriting, strong but neat, had a dictatorial slant to it that matched the style of the language.

What was this? Whom was it from, and what did it mean? The writer had put Sano’s full name on the outside, so it certainly hadn’t been misdelivered, but they sure hadn’t bothered to put their own name at the end of the message. With the conflict over and Shishio dead, what kind of meeting would someone feel the need to summon him to at this point?

None of this mattered much, he reflected as he rose from his futon and looked around for something to wear. Pursuing this mystery would be an engrossing pastime, and in that light the note was little less than a godsend.

Given how imperiously it ordered him to come, Sano thought its writer might at least have provided directions to the area of town where his destination was located. He intended to go, and go immediately as instructed, but there was no guarantee, in this unfamiliar city, he would be there anytime soon. That was fine with him — a relaxing walk with thoughts of this unknown communicator to keep him from what he’d been agonizing about was exactly what he needed — but how the sender of the note would feel about his probable lateness he couldn’t guess.

It had rained significantly sometime while Sano had been unconscious, in pain, deliberating, and analyzing, and the brisk wet air under the silver cover of clouds made Kyoto feel like a different world than the one he’d walked through with Kenshin and Saitou to reach the path to the shrine. Of course, that one of those men was dead had an impact on the scene as well. Every death made the world a different place; Sano wasn’t sure why this one should make so much more of a difference than most. Maybe because it had been preceded by that damned inexplicable kiss.

But he really must stop thinking about that. Whatever secretive and dangerous circumstances he was preparing to put himself in would not be improved by thoughts of the taste of Saitou’s breath through barely parted lips, and wasn’t the entire point of going to force his mind away from that topic? Firmly Sano started running through names of potential senders of the note and potential reasons for their having sent it.

Though he’d come up with a few scenarios whose pieces more or less fit together, though sometimes only roughly, by the time (after having separately asked three people for directions that had turned out to conflict in various aspects) he found the stupid inn he was looking for approximately ten thousand miles away from his starting point, nothing he’d thought of seemed terribly likely. This wasn’t terribly important, since the distraction had been unobjectionable, and now he was finally here he could concentrate on what this situation actually turned out to be rather than his speculations about it.

The place looked normal enough, Sano considered as his gaze swept across the second-floor windows, all of them in perfectly natural and innocuous positions, where the room he needed must be located. Of course an enemy could be waiting up there to attempt to kill him silently, or possibly the entire inn was in on the ambush or whatever it was… Sano couldn’t think what enemy it was likely or even possible to be, but it wasn’t impossible. Still, he didn’t really mind walking into ambushes; one against many was his specialty. He would have preferred to be less tired and incapacitated, but everyone needed a handicap now and then, right?

When the employee inside, upon hearing of Sano’s errand (just that he was supposed to meet someone, not that he anticipated an attack), merely directed him politely as if this was expected, Sano’s suspicions intensified. He saw no one all the way up the stairs, and the second-floor corridor was empty, but he listened hard at every step for anybody that might burst out of one of these rooms or try to sneak up behind him. And when he reached the door he needed, after double-checking the note he then thrust into his pocket so as to have his hands completely free, he tensed for action before knocking. He couldn’t help hoping there might be a really fun fight waiting for him in here, and he could lose himself in those good old emotions and forget about everything else for a while.

The door opened, and Sano found himself staring up into narrow golden eyes.

“I sent that message over two hours ago. What could possibly have taken you that long?”

Sano could have told him to fuck off, that Saitou was not entitled to his presence in a timely or even an untimely fashion, that Saitou should feel damn lucky Sano had bothered to respond at all to an anonymous note mysteriously ordering him around, that he might have been in the middle of something and had taken his sweet time responding. He might even have told the truth, admitted he was unfamiliar with the layout of Kyoto and had made one or two wrong turns on the lengthy trip over. But he actually said nothing, at least at first.

For the world seemed to go simultaneously unnaturally sharp at all edges and blurred in the middle, while the saturation of every color fluctuated wildly. A sudden pressure in his head combined with an erratic jumping of his heart made him feel as if he was suspended by the latter in a haze of surprise and other, less definable emotions above an unknown abyss.

The first he knew he was swaying was when Saitou caught him. The feel of the man’s hands on his arms, hot and alive, jolted him out of his momentary syncope. And when the officer said with unexpectedly warm sarcasm, “That happy to see me, are you?” it worked further to bring reality back.

“You asshole,” Sano gasped, and, neither content to leave it at that nor able, just yet, to articulate anything more meaningful, repeated himself in a stronger tone. Finally, after what seemed at least an entire minute during which Saitou had drawn him into the room, guided him to a seated position on the mat, and dropped down beside him, he felt up to continuing. “You survived. You fucking survived, and let me think you died.”

To this there was no response, and Sano needed none to know the rebuke was unjust. Everything around him signified this was almost the earliest possible moment he could have been called here: near the futon not far off were indications of a doctor’s having been in attendance until recently; a thoroughly consumed meal’s empty dishes, though neatly stacked, had not yet been removed; and a packet of what looked like official paperwork had not yet been untied or attended to… indeed, that Saitou was here at an inn at all, rather than already back at a police station plugging away again, seemed meaningful.

And the very instant Sano’s brain had finished up these thoughts, he was overcome once again with the abrupt memory of Saitou turning suddenly toward him, gripping his chin, and kissing him firmly for four and a half seconds. From the cold and light-headed whiteness it had undoubtedly attained during his brief weakness, Sano’s face transitioned instantly to a burning heat that was probably brilliant red. Was that why Saitou had brought him here? To explain his strange behavior? And what would Sano say when he did? He never had figured out how he felt about it.

He opened his mouth to demand to know why Saitou had kissed him, but found he couldn’t quite bring himself (indeed, didn’t even really know how) to tread such vastly alien territory. What emerged instead was, “So how did you get out of there? Seemed like there wasn’t even much ‘there’ to get out of when we were leaving.” The words sounded surprisingly rational, considering how different they were from what he really wanted to say, what he really meant.

“There was a second exit on the other side of the canyon,” Saitou replied, “though it did take some work to get to.”

“Shit! Did you have to climb burning wreckage and stuff?” Though Sano was legitimately alarmed by the mental image of that escape, what he meant by the question was, ‘Why the hell did you kiss me?’

“In between dodging it,” Saitou nodded.

Impressed rather in spite of himself, the younger man gave the older a more thorough visual examination than before. Like Sano, Saitou had abandoned for the moment the ensemble, now rather the worse for blood and battle damage, he generally favored; he wore a more traditional kimono and hakama from under which bandages peeked in bright contrast to the outfit’s dark grey and black. And like Sano, Saitou had about him the kind of passive pained weariness that comes after the first long rest following injury and exhaustion. But in general, remarkably, “You don’t even look all that much more hurt than you were when we left.”

Saitou’s lips lifted at one corner as if he could tell this near-praise was delivered almost against Sano’s will, but he probably couldn’t tell that what Sano would rather say was, ‘So why’d you kiss me?’ At any rate, his reply was, “It looks like you managed to stumble back without hurting yourself too much more as well.”

“Excuse me, dickface,” Sano retorted, instead of asking why Saitou had kissed him, “I am capable of walking across town without fucking dying.”

“But apparently not without taking two hours.” It was irritating how attractive those thin lips could be even when arranged in such a mocking expression.

“You know, you’re lucky I came at all. An unsigned note telling me to come to some strange place for some reason it didn’t bother to mention?” Sano was pleased to make one of the points he hadn’t been able to when he’d first arrived, even if the point behind that point was, “And now you’re going to tell me why you kissed me, right?”

“Certainly nobody with an iota of sense would have come in response to a note like that,” Saitou agreed with mock solemnity. “I was counting on that.”

“Bite me,” Sano growled. “Or at least goddamn explain why you kissed me yesterday.” Yesterday? Had it really been only yesterday? He felt like he’d been dwelling on it for a lifetime. With an effort he forced himself to ask, “Why the hell did you even call me here, anyway?”

“I thought you might want to know I was still alive.”

“You really thought I’d care, huh?”

Rather than point out that, just minutes before, Sano had grown faint at the revelation and then profanely reprimanded Saitou for not telling him sooner, the officer merely said, “I thought it might at least be interesting to you.”

“You know you could have said that in the note, though, right?” Annoyed that he had reacted so dramatically, whether or not Saitou had called him on the discrepancy, Sano sounded more surly than he actually felt. “I didn’t have to come all the way across town when you could have just written, Hey, I’m still alive, and actually signed it.”

“But I couldn’t kiss you from all the way across town.”

Having gone so long without bringing it up and then made inroads away from the topic, then giving this statement so blandly, Saitou took Sano completely and shockingly by surprise, and he’d leaned in and almost connected with Sano’s lips before the stunned young man could react to the words or the gesture. As in the previous instance, Saitou’s nearness and intoxicating smell overwhelmed him, and Sano was for an instant entirely paralyzed.

And then, jumping as if stung, he jerked back and raised a hand to block access to his mouth. “Fucking–” he gasped. “No, just– stop that!”

Though the time that passed between this broken admonishment and Sano’s subsequent words was the span of a breath and no longer, it was enough to observe, interpret, react, and feel a great deal. For Sano thought he read in Saitou’s slight straightening movement toward his previous position some disappointment and resignation, and just that was enough to provide a few answers or at least conjectures to similar effect.

Saitou had summoned him here not merely to let Sano know he was still alive, but to reiterate the overture he’d made at the gates of the fortress… and in that brief moment before Sano explained himself, Saitou interpreted Sano’s impetuous reactive words as a rejection, and was disheartened by it. This was simultaneously, even in that fraction of a second, empowering, pathetic, and irritating to Sano.

He could never have predicted that, having (or perhaps being) something Saitou wanted, he would be able to hold over Saitou’s head his ability to deny him that desire. The lightning-fast realization that he didn’t want to deny Saitou that desire didn’t change the fact that, with this unexpected influence in mind, they were on much more equal footing than they’d ever been before. Much more equal footing was much more solid footing, and Sano felt abruptly much more sure of what to say, much more able to deal with this scenario.

And even that merest hint of disappointment he thought he saw in Saitou made him feel bad for the man. Who hadn’t, after all, experienced fear of rejection, fear of losing or even entirely failing to gain a desired prize? Saitou had too much pride to display anything beyond just that faint hint that couldn’t be hidden, but just that faint hint had been enough to make Sano pity him and feel more disposed toward his cause.

And this was annoying. A normal person, someone not intolerably arrogant and overconfident in their own powers, would perhaps say words to the effect of, ‘I like you; let’s have a romance.’ There might be presents involved, or at least pleasant conversation or other signs of friendship preceding the declaration. But not Saitou Hajime. Saitou would kiss a guy out of the blue, unsolicited, unwarned-for, unexplained, then allow his victim to suffer agonies of indecision and confusion, then try to repeat the performance without ever giving any other overt signs of interest or even good will… and then make a grippingly pathetic display of his manfully repressed sorrow at the apparent failure of his scheme. What a marvelous jerk.

And yet Sano didn’t want to say no, and did feel something in response to Saitou’s disappointment.

He might have tried to play with that power he suddenly felt he had over the other man, but couldn’t quite bring himself to evoke a possibly even stronger dismayed reaction in Saitou. Though Saitou would certainly deserve that, it might get Sano thrown out on his ass before he could admit he was just messing around, making the whole situation much more difficult and uncomfortable. Also, he maybe wanted to hasten, as best he could, the moment when Saitou would kiss him again.

So he lowered his hand, leaving his lips unguarded, and said loftily, “We need some First Kiss rules before you can do that.”

Saitou’s lean toward Sano disappeared completely as he sat straight again, eyebrow raised. “And the previous kiss doesn’t count why?”

Sano’s glare was one of righteous indignation. “Because you didn’t explain anything — like why the hell you did it — and then you went off and died.”

Any and all signs of unhappiness had vanished from Saitou’s demeanor, and the skeptical expression on his face took on a touch of amusement. “Setting aside the fact that neither of those things makes this our first kiss, are those the rules you want? ‘Tell you why I’m kissing you,’ and ‘don’t die afterwards?'”

Pensively Sano replied, “Also you have to promise you’re not just fucking with my head — because you’ve pretty much been nothing but a complete bastard all along to me, so it’s hard to believe you kissed me except to mess with me.”

“Is that all?” Saitou asked with an exaggerated air of patience.

“Um, no, also–”

“These are a lot of rules for something that’s only going to happen once.”

“Well, yeah, but a First Kiss is important!” Sano too was impatient to get on with this thing, but he meant what he said. “It’s a big moment, and it means a lot — it sort of sets up how everything’s going to go from then on!”

“All right.”

“So when you beat me up outside Katsu’s place, you were saying…”

Saitou’s brows both rose as Sano proceeded to elaborate the fourth rule. Presently, with a slight sound of frustration that might have been his forbearance snapping, he leaned forward again and cut Sano’s words off entirely by kissing him.

As Sano’s lips worked slowly against Saitou’s, opening gradually at the advancement of a tongue that tasted more of soba and green tea and less of cigarettes than he would have expected, every nerve in his body seemed to intensify in its receptiveness so his injuries throbbed like his heart. He felt sensitized and dizzy and overwhelmed, and he clutched at Saitou with painful hands as the man pushed him slightly backward with the fervor of their connection.

This was Saitou being an tyrannical asshole again, but Sano could not have complained even if he’d had breath and opportunity to do so. As a First Kiss it was acceptable, even superior, and as a representation of the rest of their relationship, whatever that turned out to be, Saitou muscling past any preexisting animosity to startle and incapacitate Sano with something new and shockingly wonderful seemed neither inaccurate nor undesirable.

When after some time they divided like a chemical bond breaking, forming two entities from what had previously been one, Sano was panting heavily and almost painfully and watching little darting, sparkling dots at the edges of his vision. He was definitely in no physical condition, at the moment, for kisses that passionate; if he had been, he would probably have flung himself on top of Saitou at this point and demanded more… never mind that Saitou’s physical condition seemed even worse than his.

“I did that,” Saitou said somewhat breathlessly, “because I like you. And I have no intention of dying any time soon. And if this weren’t such a bad time for it, I would drag you onto that futon over there and prove that I’m not just fucking with your head.”

The rush of hot blood mobilizing through Sano’s body at these words and at the look in Saitou’s eyes, making him feel all over again as if he might faint, only served to reiterate what he’d just been thinking and Saitou had essentially just said: that, despite how much both of them would love to continue this experiment, this was not a good moment for it. All the interesting possibilities that had arisen between them must be put off until another time.

“I might drag myself onto that futon over there and take a nap,” Sano muttered.

“No. I have paperwork to do, and I can’t have that temptation lying there the whole time.”

Sano couldn’t help grinning a little at what was essentially a compliment no matter how coolly Saitou had delivered it, but he was concurrently annoyed. “You want me to walk all the way back across town again?”

“I didn’t say I wanted you to.” Saitou threw a look half regretful and half irritated at the bundle of papers.

“You and your stupid dedication,” Sano snorted.

Saitou’s gaze returned to him, the quirk of his lips and the narrowness of his eyes now clearly teasing. “Think you can manage it in less than two hours this time?”

“Probably not. I know the way better, but I’m in worse shape now — which is your fault, by the way.”

Without responding to the accusation, Saitou just said, “You’d better get going as soon as possible, then.”

“Fine!” Only Saitou would start something like this and then dismiss his partner like that. Sano climbed laboriously to his feet, somehow managing not to reel once fully upright, and stuck out his tongue at the smirking policeman. Then he turned toward the door. When he’d opened it, before actually leaving the room, he glanced back briefly, perhaps to offer a goodbye, though whether it would be friendly or belligerent he couldn’t be quite sure.

His breath caught, however, and he found himself incapable of speech of any kind when he observed Saitou smiling at him as Sano had never seen him smile before — with a look of fondness, of genuine pleasure, of satisfaction untouched by mockery. In the face of this interesting unknown he’d somehow unlocked, Sano clutched at the doorframe in an unexpected repeat of his earlier imbalance as he blushed madly… but he did manage a return smile before departing.

He made his way back to the Aoiya in continued dizziness and a mixture of buoyancy and discomfort. His injuries hurt more severely than before, and he was far more exhausted than he should have been after a mere two leisurely walks (even with an earth-shattering kiss between them), but his fluttering heart seemed to keep him half-hovering off the ground, and his emotions, though not significantly more coherent than they had been earlier, were now such a pleasant tangle as to give a vigor he could not otherwise have expected to his steps.

By the time he’d reached the blue roofs, some of them even more damaged than he was, and let himself in and found his way back up to his room as quietly as possible, he was happily, fuzzily contemplating both the general future with its bizarrely unexpected pleasures and the very immediate prospect of some thorough rest and recuperation almost this very moment. Though famished and still curious about what his friends were and had been up to, he must consider sleep his absolute first priority; with one contact of lips, Saitou had managed to enforce that.

Sano thought he understood, now, the meaning of the original kiss that had so baffled him at the time. It had been neither apology nor goodbye, as he’d speculated (though there had probably been in it some smugness at the thought of how much it would puzzle and annoy Sano until it could be explained); it had been no declaration of deepest affection, nor yet a meaningless whim; in fact it had been nothing more nor less than a suggestion of something they might try and see how they liked it. Which meant Sano didn’t need to figure out how he felt about Saitou, since the experiment was not over; actually it had just begun.

Currently he felt pretty damn positive about him, despite how much Saitou had annoyed him even during the pleasant parts of their conversation. Currently he felt pretty damn positive about everything. Getting some proper sleep was going to be a lot easier now.

For a second time, however, just as he was lying down and preparing to rest, in this instance far less worried about (indeed, rather looking forward to!) the type of dreams he might have when he did, there was a knock at the door. Also for a second time he speculated it was probably Misao, and also for a second time was proven wrong.

It was the other of the two Oniwaban guys, Shiro or Kuro, and the déjà vu of debating over appellations augmented that of seeing the note just delivered to the Aoiya. That it had arrived directly on Sano’s heels reiterated one of yesterday’s startling points: what an uncannily good sense of timing Saitou had. And Sano’s full name on the outside of the folded paper was so identical to the first, he had to pull the other out for comparison before he could believe there actually were two notes. Then, once again having waited until he was alone, he opened the message.

I thought about it, and that one may not have qualified either. We had better discuss your other rules and try again tomorrow. Come by at around lunch time.

Sano lay back down in triumph and weariness, hugging the refolded note to his chest. That was right; that was exactly right. Saitou recognized his First Kiss requirements, that they hadn’t all been elaborated upon, and that another attempt must be made at meeting them. And if he and Sano didn’t manage it tomorrow, they could easily give it another shot the next day. Eventually, when wounds had started to heal and bodies had regained some stamina (and perhaps when paperwork had diminished a trifle), they could try more than once in a day. His standards were fairly high on this point, after all; the number of attempts it might require could not really be fathomed at this juncture.

He plunged toward sleep happily anticipating something he would not previously have considered a matter of question, something he would have taken entirely for granted before yesterday: the probability that he would never have a proper First Kiss with Saitou.


This fic is dedicated to liveonanon and W. Solstice for the explosion of joy they had recently caused in my life at time of writing.

I’ve rated this story . The part where Sano reacts to Saitou reacting to Sano blocking his attempted kiss is my absolute favorite. The rest of the fic is pretty good, but that part is genius, if I do say so myself. Too bad I can’t say the same about the illustration XD

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


His Own Humanity: Plastic

Plastic

“A curse affects both the victim and the caster. A skilled curse-caster can bend this effect so that their share in the curse is something they don’t mind, something that doesn’t inhibit them… but even if they manage that, repeatedly having a share in any curse leaves a mark eventually.”

When Heero rescues an abandoned doll from the gutter, he hardly thinks it’s going to change his life; but now he and his best friend Quatre find themselves involved in the breaking of a curse from almost a hundred years ago, and perhaps in falling for exactly the wrong people.

“I’ve had enough of this.”

“Enough of what?”

“Don’t play ignorant; you know what. You knew she and I were to go driving today; you deliberately kept her out all afternoon so she would miss the appointment.”

“So?”

“So?! So, you are sabotaging my relationship with her!”

“And if I am? All’s fair in love and war, my friend.”

“You don’t love her. You don’t care about her at all. You’re just trying to make sure I don’t win her. You’re being petty and shallow and… and fake. It’s as if you were made of plastic.”

“Oh, plastic, that is appropriate. No surprise you should mention that, since that’s all you care about. You never behaved like this when we were both poor, but ever since that promotion at the factory, you think you can just buy everything you want — a big flat, a motorcar, even a nice woman. You don’t care about her either! She’s simply another object to you.”

“Good lord, Duo, is this really about money? How can you deny being petty while you’re saying such things?”

No, this isn’t about money… not entirely. But ever since you’ve had money, you’ve become more and more disconnected with the human world and human emotions. You don’t care about people anymore — not her, not me, not anyone. You don’t care about anything beyond your damned work!”

“You’d probably better watch what you’re accusing me of. You may not want to find out just how much I care.”

Heero’s glance into the gutter to make sure nothing was going to splash up at him as he stepped over it turned into a double-take and a pause. Something unexpectedly flesh-colored had seized his attention, and as he looked down more pointedly he stopped walking entirely. Then he bent and picked up the object that had caught his interest.

It was a doll — one of those Barbie men, whatever they were called, that dated Barbie or whatever they did — though Heero hadn’t thought they made them anatomically correct these days, nor the males with such long hair. Lying on the ground hadn’t done its state of cleanliness much good, and it had no clothes, but seemed otherwise undamaged. What a strange thing to find in the gutter.

He weighed the doll in his hand, looking around for a child that might perhaps have dropped it. The plastic had a somewhat brittle feeling to it, and the little figure was heavier than he would have thought it should be. Looking back down, he reflected that he was (understandably) out of touch with the world of dolls; he hadn’t thought they made the faces this nicely detailed, either. Really, for a toy, it was rather attractive. It seemed old, somehow, too, for all it was in such good shape. Why and how such a thing should be here he couldn’t guess, but surely this was someone’s collector’s item abandoned by accident.

Despite feeling a little foolish, Heero couldn’t bring himself to set it down once he’d reached this conclusion. If he put it back, it would just get ruined, and it was already so forlorn… Besides, it was undoubtedly worth something to someone, even if that was just someone on ebay; he might as well try to locate its owner. Or sell it. He could let the businesses in the immediate area know he’d found it, in case someone came asking, and if that didn’t lead anywhere he could check online to see how much it might be worth.

He didn’t want to put a dirty, wet doll in his briefcase, but neither did he much want to be seen carrying it — he wasn’t sure how his co-workers would react to the sight, but he was certain it would be annoying. So he held it down against his leg as he hurried on into the parking lot, trying to hide it as best he could with one hand and feeling its long, matted hair brushing him as he walked.

Mentally reviewing the contents of his refrigerator and kitchen cupboards and trying to decide whether or not to stop at the grocery store on the way home, he largely forgot about the doll as he drove. But once he removed his briefcase from on top of it on reaching his apartment (having decided to skip shopping today), there it was staring up at him with wide eyes and a vague smile. Sardonically he shook his head and carried it inside.

The kitchen sink under running water seemed a good place for it to wait while Heero put his work things away and changed clothing, and once he came back into the kitchen he poured some dish soap over it with a lavish hand. It looked better already. After double-checking that his mental fridge inventory was correct, he returned his full attention to the doll again. Keeping it under the tap, he worked the soap off of the plastic and out of the tangled hair, then turned the water off and held it out for inspection.

No, it didn’t look bad at all. The face was remarkably nice, actually, for something that small, and the hair was soft and didn’t feel much like plastic. Hadn’t they made dolls’ hair out of real human hair in some previous decade? This hair felt real, which was a little disconcerting but probably increased the value of the piece. The plastic genitalia was strange too; Heero wondered if this might not have been designed as some kind of gag gift. After a moment of thought, he pulled a paper towel from the roll behind the sink, folded it in half, and wrapped it around the doll’s waist, tucking the upper fold beneath the lower so it would stay. Studying the effect, he wondered if this was what little girls felt like when they dressed their dolls.

Again he shook his head. “So what am I going to do with you?” he murmured.

“You could start by combing my hair.”

Heero dropped — or, rather, threw the doll into the sink, jumping back with a startled noise. That thing had just… that thing had really just…

“Just a suggestion,” said the doll’s small voice, echoing slightly against the metal of the sink.

After his initial surprise, Heero didn’t quite know what to think. He moved forward and stared down at the doll, which now lay on its face partially hidden by this morning’s cereal bowl; the paper towel skirt had come askew, so a pair of plastic buttocks, half-hidden by clinging wet hair, was all Heero could actually see. Even as he looked, though, it commented further, “I hope you didn’t faint. I hate it when they faint.”

“I’m sure the audience likes it, though,” Heero murmured as he reached into the sink somewhat tentatively and drew the doll out again. This time he pulled the paper towel off completely and began a minute examination of the plastic body. He was looking for the camera.

“You know,” said the doll calmly as Heero turned it over and over, “this is just one of the horrible effects of reality TV. A talking doll never gets believed anymore; it’s always, ‘All right, where’s the audience?'”

“Yes, that is one of the biggest horrible effects of reality TV,” Heero replied dryly. “It happens all the time.” No feature on the doll’s body seemed to resemble camera, speaker, or microphone, but surely the unusual heaviness of the thing was explained by their presence somewhere.

The doll laughed. “OK, mostly I just hate reality TV,” it admitted. “And it does make it difficult to get anyone to believe that the doll in their hand is really talking to them on its own.”

By this point Heero had turned it to face him once again, and could swear that the little lips were actually moving — stiffly, as one might expect one’s lips to move if one were made of plastic, but moving nonetheless. “Who would ever believe that?” he wondered. He thought the camera was probably focused through the eyes, since that made a certain sort of sense, and was peering closely at them trying to find any sign of it. They were nicely-painted eyes, well-detailed and an attractive shade of indigo, and, as far as he could tell, not cameras. They didn’t even appear to be transparent.

“Children sometimes do,” the doll said in a tone that implied he would have been shrugging had his shoulders contained the necessary muscles. Or… any muscles. His voice, though fairly quiet, didn’t sound either recorded or transmitted; communication technology really had come a long way.

“I’m not a child,” Heero said flatly. Perhaps if he removed one of the limbs…

“No, you’re a big, strong, handsome man who’s going to be nice to little helpless me,” the doll cajoled absurdly. Then it went on in a more practical tone, “Also you’re… wasting your time trying to pull my leg off. I don’t come apart.”

Ceasing his attempt to dismember the doll, Heero just stared at it with a raised brow. “Are you flirting with me?”

“Of course.” Its lips were definitely moving.

“If this is one of those Punk’d-style shows, I have to say I don’t think much of this premise.”

“I dunno; I think it might work pretty well.” Here was that ‘shrug’ tone again. “Too bad it’s not a show; I think being a TV star would make being a doll suck less. I could get one of those luxury Barbie houses and a little convertible and everything.”

“Well, it’s time for this doll to go back to the gutter he came from. I was going to try to find your owner, or maybe sell you on ebay, but I think you’ll do OK on your own.”

“Thanks for the bath, at least,” the doll sighed. Pensively, softly, it added, “I wonder how much I’d go for on ebay these days…”

In response to Heero’s somewhat distracted look as he answered his door, Quatre remarked, “I just talked to you a few hours ago. You didn’t already forget I was coming over, did you?”

“No, I didn’t,” replied Heero almost absently, stepping back to allow Quatre into the entry and closing the door behind him.

“Well, what’s wrong?” Quatre persisted.

Heero frowned. “I guess I’ll show you.”

He gestured to the kitchen, which was set apart from the rest of the living/dining room only in that it had linoleum rather than carpet, and which lay immediately to the left of the entry. Quatre set down his shopping bag and backpack and immediately reached for the strange object on the counter. Heero stood aside in silence; evidently this was exactly what he’d planned on showing.

As Quatre examined the doll quizzically, Heero gave one of his usual unhelpful explanations. “I found it in the gutter outside work.” After an almost expectant pause, he went on slowly,”I thought I might try to find its owner.” Again he paused, as if waiting for Quatre to interrupt, then finally said, “Or see if it’s valuable enough to sell it online or something.”

At last the apparently hoped-for interjection came, though not from Quatre: “I think it’s pretty obvious,” said the doll, “that I’m a ‘he,’ not an ‘it.'”

Quatre dropped the doll and stepped back, startled and staring. Its lips had moved.

“Yeah,” said Heero darkly. Slowly the doll, which had landed face-down on the counter, moved its unbending plastic arms and righted itself stiffly, ending up in a sitting position with its legs straight out, facing them. At Quatre’s side Heero shifted uncomfortably and muttered, “Well, I haven’t seen it do that.”

He,” the doll insisted. “Surely you noticed the giant plastic penis.”

“‘Giant?'” wondered Heero with a raised brow.

At the same moment Quatre speculated, “Is this some kind of reality TV stunt?”

The doll sighed.

He–” Heero emphasized the pronoun– “claims it’s not. I can’t find any cameras or microphones or anything.”

“But they have to be there somewhere.” Quatre took up the doll again, straightening its legs out and examining it once more, this time with the aim of detecting hidden electronic devices. The plastic penis was rather large, proportionally speaking; obviously this was some kind of joke. Quatre smoothed the long brown hair away from the doll’s face and looked closely at the latter. “Why is he wet?”

It was the doll rather than Heero that answered. “He gave me a bath. He rubbed me all over. It was niiice.”

Assuming the licentious tone was part of the joke, Quatre simply shook his head and kept looking for the camera. Heero, however, seemed prompted to reply. “Yes, I’m sure all those plastic nerves of yours enjoyed it.”

The doll laughed regretfully. “You caught me. I can’t feel a damn thing. I’m aware that he’s turning me over and over — you’re looking for cameras, aren’t you? — but I can’t really feel it. Someday maybe I’ll get used to that.”

So forlorn was the complaint that Quatre had to laugh. “You’re pretty convincing!”

Plastic lips stretched past what Quatre would have thought their limit must be into what might be called a grin. “Thanks. It’s a side effect of being real.”

“Real what?” Heero wondered.

“I’m not inclined to tell,” the doll replied a little haughtily. “You’re just going to throw me back into the gutter.”

“I’m not going to throw you back into the gutter.” At Heero’s impatient tone Quatre had to restrain a laugh; sometimes the most unexpected things could get Heero involved and worked up.

“No,” Quatre agreed pleasantly. “If technology really has come far enough for dolls to have conversations with people, you’ve got to be pretty valuable. And if you’re just a transmitter for somebody who’s secretly taping us, then somebody‘s in violation of certain privacy laws.”

“Oh, nicely done,” the doll commended him. Heero’s sharp nod seemed to indicate he felt much the same.

“Anyway,” Quatre went on lightly, “the game’s going to start…” He looked down at the doll. “I don’t suppose you’re a college basketball fan?”

“For you, I could be,” said the doll with a wink — an actual wink, though the examination of him that Quatre had conducted thus far wouldn’t have led him to guess he had mobile eyelids.

Quatre shook his head skeptically. “Heero,” he wondered, glancing up at his friend, “what have you gotten us into?”



“I’ve watched a lot of TV in my time,” the doll was saying as Heero propped him up against the lamp on the end table beside the sofa in front of the television, “– and by that I mean more TV than anyone should ever watch in a single lifetime — but not much basketball.” The propping took longer than Heero had expected, since the paper towel skirt, which he’d replaced, didn’t want to behave.

“What kind of TV do you prefer?” Apparently Quatre had decided to play along.

Heero, who hadn’t decided anything yet, rolled his eyes.

“I like sci-fi,” the doll stated. “I used to watch that channel all day at my last house. The girl would leave me where I could see the TV, and the remote next to me where I could reach it, when she went to school; I just had to make sure to turn the TV off if her mom came into the room!”

“‘The girl?'” Quatre echoed curiously.

“Yeah, my last kid; the last person who was taking care of me.” With a disconcerting swiveling motion, the doll shook his head. “She liked to dress me up, and she liked to alter the clothes she had for me. She’d put sequins on them and stripes with markers and stuff like that — creative little kid. The problem was that she’d take off my clothing to do something to it, and then forget to put it back on me, so I’d be laying around naked.

“She was a little too young to appreciate my fine physique… she just forgot. But her mom hated finding me around naked all the time. I didn’t talk to the mom, because she was touchy and would have freaked out, so she didn’t know why I’m so detailed in certain areas, and she didn’t like it. She told the kid that if she found me somewhere naked one more time, she was taking me to Goodwill. Well, guess what happened.”

Quatre was standing beside the table now, looking down at the doll in silent fascination. Heero found that he too was staring, inordinately interested in the narrative.

The doll wrapped up his story with, “So I have no idea what’s been happening on Dr. Who lately, and it’s driving me crazy.”

Very convincing,” Quatre murmured, shaking his head. “Somebody’s done a really good job on this.”

Heero nodded. “How did you supposedly get from Goodwill to the gutter?” he asked the doll as Quatre turned on the TV and settled onto the couch beside him.

“Oh… well…” The doll seemed a little annoyed, though whether at Heero’s choice of words or what he was about to relate Heero wasn’t sure. “I always try talking to the person who gets ahold of me, but it doesn’t always work very well. They all think I’m a reality TV thing or some kind of walkie-talkie, like you guys do. I usually change hands a bunch of times before I end up anywhere I can stay for a while. Some woman buys me and then throws me out for the usual reasons… some kid she’s babysitting picks me out of the garbage, tries to hide me from her mom on the way home, and drops me… some dog chews on me and carries me around… dogs love to chew on me… sometimes it goes on for days and days.”

“How long do you usually stay somewhere?” Having found the channel, Quatre was now digging through his shopping bag and pulling out cheese dip and chips.

“It varies,” said the doll in his ‘shrug’ tone. “Days, months, years… depends on how long it takes people to decide I’m an unhealthy figment of their imaginations and get rid of me.”

The sincerity in Quatre’s tone as he replied, “Oh, I see,” struck Heero as rather worrisome. Quatre wasn’t necessarily gullible, but he was kind-hearted almost to a fault, and it might be problematic if he started believing this weirdness, even just a little, simply because it seemed so pathetic.

“All right, enough about the doll,” Heero commanded stonily.

“Duo,” said the doll.

“What?”

“That’s my name. Duo Maxwell.”

“Not Ken?” wondered Heero dryly, having eventually remembered the name of Barbie’s boyfriend.

“Ken’s got nothing on me,” the doll — Duo — grinned. “Did you ever see a well-hung Ken doll?”

“Well, I’m sorry we’re not watching Dr. Who,” Quatre broke in, addressing Duo, “but maybe you’ll enjoy the basketball game.” It was a pointed reminder that the latter was starting.

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” the doll replied, waving one arm stiffly up and down. “Just explain the rules and I’ll be fine.”

Paying full attention to basketball with a talking doll on the end table was something of a challenge. Duo — or, more accurately, whoever was controlling the doll — was a quick learner: it only took a couple of commercial break lectures on the rules and a few comments about events during the game to get him just as involved as they were, and he readily joined in cheering on the team they were supporting… but that was only natural for someone trying to win their trust in order to further the practical joke or whatever this was.

“That was great!” he was saying enthusiastically once it was over. “It’s too bad I’ve never watched basketball before! There was one guy I watched a lot of football with a couple of years ago, but he wasn’t a basketball fan.”

“Did he throw you away too?” Quatre wondered.

“He Goodwilled me,” replied Duo a little bitterly. “You know I fucking hate Goodwill? Yeah, his girlfriend thought it was weird how he kept an anatomically-correct man doll around, and he didn’t want to tell her that I talked because he was afraid she’d think he was crazy. I could have just talked to her, but he thought it wasn’t a good idea, so he just got rid of me.”

“It makes sense, I’m afraid,” Quatre said apologetically.

Heero nodded.

“Well…” Duo swiveled his plastic head toward them, his tone thoughtful. “I know you two still don’t believe me, but–”

“Believe what, exactly?” Heero broke in. “Are you inclined to tell yet?”

“That I have no cameras or microphones in me… nobody’s talking through me or recording you… and I’m not a piece of advanced technology designed to have conversations with bored little girls while they dress me up.”

“All right,” said the skeptical Heero. “Then what supposedly are you?”

Seriously Duo replied, “I’m a human. Or I was. These days I’m just a creepy doll. But I’m supposed to be human. See, I’m under a curse.”


Quatre tried his hardest, his very hardest, but he simply couldn’t help himself; he burst out laughing. “You’re what?”

The doll just shook his head.

“Everything sounded really good up until that part.” With an effort, Quatre got control of himself again. “Seriously, I’d change it; say you’re alien technology stranded on Earth or something. That would fit better with you liking sci-fi shows anyway.”

“The shows I like have nothing to do with the fact that I’m a doll,” Duo protested. “Besides, you wouldn’t believe the alien technology thing either, so why not just tell the truth?”

Heero was actually smirking a bit at this conversation. “We might come closer to believing that, though.”

“Why is science fiction always so much more plausible to people than fantasy?” complained Duo. “Why are robots who can have intelligent conversations more believable than curses?”

“Because we’ve made progress toward–” Heero began.

Quatre put a hand on his shoulder. “Debating the psychological impact of technological advancement is pointless right now.”

So Heero asked a question instead. “How did you get…” The rueful half-smile he’d adopted in response to Quatre’s admonition changed to another skeptical look. “…cursed?”

“I’m not even really sure,” Duo replied. “My friend and I’d been playing around with magic for a while, but neither of us was very good at it. We had an argument, and I heard him starting a spell… some kind of spell, but he was talking real quietly… but I didn’t think he would do something like this to me. Hell, I didn’t think he could do something like this! We never had this kind of power…”

“Well, that’s convenient,” Quatre said a little sarcastically, and began counting off points on his fingers. “Somebody else cast the spell, so you don’t know exactly what he did… It’s something stronger than you thought you guys were capable of, so not something you can reverse on your own… I bet you’re going to claim you can’t do spells as a doll anyway… and you’ve probably lost track of your friend… am I right?”

Duo tilted his plastic chin up in a motion that made his entire head swivel backwards. “No, I can’t cast spells as a doll,” he said a bit snappishly. “And my friend is long dead, since he was born in 1898.”

Heero snorted. “This keeps getting better.”

The doll seemed to take a deep breath, which was faintly audible but in no way visible, and to put some effort into downplaying his irritation. “You don’t have to believe me,” he said, with admirable calm. “Just don’t take me to Goodwill.”

With a thoughtful sidelong smile at his friend, Quatre remarked to Heero, “I think we know how to keep him in line now, don’t you? Just threaten to Goodwill him, and he’ll probably do anything we ask.”

“What on earth would we ask him to do?” Heero was giving Quatre a dark look, almost accusing, and Quatre realized immediately what the problem was.

“Heero, I don’t believe him,” he said sternly.

Heero’s expression seemed to ask, “Are you sure?” and Quatre’s in return was almost a glare. Heero really was getting worked up about this.

“Well, my flight leaves at 7:50,” Quatre said next, turning away and changing the subject; “I’m going to go take a shower.” He was a little surprised at his own tone of voice — it seemed to insert an “I give up” into his statement somewhere. There really was little more of use, he felt, to be gotten out of the doll (though probably a good deal more of interest), and Heero was evidently in a strange state of mind.

It was reluctantly, however, that he rose from the couch and made his way toward the hall. Only the awareness that he didn’t want to be either dirty or tired at tomorrow’s meeting induced him to abandon such a fascinating scene in progress. He did turn again at the entry to the hallway, though, and look back to where Heero was still pensively staring down at Duo. “Good luck with him…”


“So I’m a little confused,” Duo was saying after Quatre had gone. “Is he or is he not your roommate? He knocked on the door earlier and you had to let him in, but now he’s taking a shower here?”

“He’s not.” Heero wondered why the doll cared. “I mean he’s not my roommate,” he clarified. “But he lives out east past the edge of town, and we’re closer to the airport here; he usually stays the night when he has a flight the next day.”

“Ohhhhhh,” said Duo in an exaggerated tone of understanding. “Where is he flying to?”

Heero’s cool answer was, “None of your business.”

“Fine, fine,” Duo said breezily. “Where are you going?” For Heero had stood.

“None of your business,” Heero repeated, moving toward the hall as Quatre had. Also as Quatre had, he paused in the doorway and glanced back. He couldn’t help thinking that, whatever kind of hoax this was, Duo did look rather lonely and pathetic sitting there on the end table, stiff and unmoving in his paper towel skirt. Heero watched him for a moment, a frown growing on his face as much in response to his strange feelings at the sight as to the sight itself. Then, returning to the couch, he found the remote and turned on the TV again, this time to Syfy.

“Oh!” came Duo’s surprised voice from his left. “Thanks!”

Heero, feeling a little stupid, did not reply.

Resultant upon a greater demand and therefore a higher price for one-bedroom apartments in the complex just when he’d been looking, Heero lived in a two-bedroom. The second room did hold a bed, and did come in useful when Quatre spent the night here, but its primary purpose was to house Heero’s computer desk and bookshelf. So while Quatre was in the shower and the doll was watching television, Heero got on the internet.

Typing ‘talking doll’ into Google made him feel even stupider than leaving the TV on said talking doll’s favorite channel as if he really thought a piece of plastic (and presumably electronics) was capable of a preference. The search results were far from pretty, and even farther from useful. The things little girls would play with…

The things grown men would play with…

He turned ‘safe search’ on and tried again.

The creepiness of the results didn’t really diminish with the sex toys removed from the lineup, nor did he find anything useful in the fifteen pages he had the patience to glance over. Neither did adding terms like ‘hoax’ or ‘reality TV’ or any clever combination of quotation marks call up anything that seemed at all similar to this situation, let alone related. ‘”Duo Maxwell” “cursed doll”‘ gave him no results at all. Not that he’d expected any; they (whoever they were) undoubtedly had the doll give a different name to each person it attempted to trick, for this very reason.

Frustrated and judging by the cessation of the bathroom fan that Quatre would soon want the room, Heero shut down the computer.

Duo was watching something involving a psychic couple and an albino trying to stop a clan war among people with weird hair, but how much he was enjoying it was anybody’s guess. The design of his face seemed well-suited for emotional display, Heero thought, and it was unfortunate — and a little uncanny — to see it so stiff and dispassionate.

Then he shook his own head vigorously. He shouldn’t have been so quick to judge Quatre earlier, when here he was thinking things like this. Duo was not a person, for god’s sake. He was either an expensive toy or a conduit for some prankster’s misplaced sense of entertainment.

“Something wrong?” Duo wondered, his head swiveled a good forty degrees past disconcerting to glance at Heero.

Instead of answering the question, Heero requested the identity of the rather stupid-looking show Duo was watching. This proved not to be the best idea, as it led to a conversation about the series and the broader topic of science fiction and its typical follies. And with a piece of plastic he’d found in a gutter and was already having a difficult time dismissing as the joke part of him was still certain it must be, Heero really had no desire to be enjoying any discussion quite this much.



His Own Humanity is an AU series set in modern-day America (plus magic) featuring characters from Rurouni Kenshin (primarily Saitou and Sano) and Gundam Wing (primarily Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre). In chronological order (generally), the stories currently available are:

Sano enlists the help of exorcist Hajime in discovering the nature of the unusual angry shade that's haunting him.

Best friends Heero and Quatre have their work cut out for them assisting longtime curse victims Duo and Trowa.

During Plastic (part 80), Cairo thinks about thinking and other recent changes in his life.

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

A meeting between Kamatari and Wufei.

Couple analysis among Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre.

Quatre undergoes an unpleasant magical change; Heero, Duo, and Trowa are forced to face unpleasant truths; and Hajime and Sano may get involved.

During La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré (parts 33-35), Sano's 178-day wait is over as what Hajime has been fearing comes to pass.

During Guest Room Soap Opera (part 3), Cathy learns a lot of interesting facts and Trowa is not happy.

A few days before the epilogue of La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré, Duo and Sano get together to watch football and discuss relationships and magical experiences; Heero listens in on multiple levels.

On the same evening as That Remarkable Optimism, Trowa tells Quatre's parents the whole truth, as promised.

Here is a picture I drew of dolly Duo:

I actually didn’t draw this until a much later point, but I moved it to this part to be concurrent with Duo’s first appearance in the story. I’m very pleased with this piece, all except the hair. It’s supposed to look like real human hair, but I think it actually looks more fakey than anything else in the picture. The shadows aren’t entirely correct either, but I couldn’t figure out how to make them look more realistic; I suck at lighting. Ah, well. I didn’t draw the background; it’s a photo of my kitchen counter that I blurred up a bit and put Duo on top of.

Here’s a picture of Quatre I drew:

Like the previous picture of Duo, I didn’t draw this until long after this part was posted, but I put him here since this is Quatre’s first appearance in the story.

His facial expression didn’t turn out at all like I planned, and actually strikes me as rather hilarious.

I never had Barbies growing up, because my mother disapproved of them. This was partly because she didn’t like the image they presented to impressionable young minds (in which I really can’t disagree with her), and partly because she just knew they’d end up lying around naked, and she hated that thought…. and, to be honest, I can’t really disagree with her there either. Oh, Barbies…

In reality, you can go fifteen pages into a Google search for “talking doll” and not find any sex toys; there is a lot of creepy Christian stuff, though. And ‘”Duo Maxwell” “cursed doll”‘ does actually turn up several results — mostly from cosplay.com — though the two terms usually only happen to be on the same page, and not actually related. This may change if the search engines catch up to these chapter posts, though :D



Subtext

The absurd discussion dragged on and on and on; the man at the other end must either be phenomenally stupid or enjoying the joke just as much as Sano was.

When the victim of Sano’s prank texting turns out to be an intimidating cop, Sano’s friends are every bit as amused as Sano is terrified.


When Katsu got home from work, he found his roommate chortling on the floor. Sano’s head was under the coffee table, his legs up on the couch, and he held a cell phone in the air above his face. The moment Katsu entered and looked at him, he rolled onto his side in a spasm of laughter — the sort of laughter that sounded like a relapse, as if he’d just managed to get himself under control and Katsu’s appearance had set him off afresh.

“I’m almost afraid to ask,” Katsu remarked as he closed the apartment door behind him.

At first Sano could not answer except with further paroxysms, but he did sober enough to read the text message that presently chimed in to his phone. But if Katsu expected an explanation thereafter, he was disappointed, for the message sent Sano into another rolling fit of amusement.

Being a patient young man, Katsu moved off into his own bedroom to change from his work uniform and turn on his computer; he left the door open, though, in case Sano should recover to the point of volunteering information.

Eventually he did. “I’ve been prank-texting this dude for, like, an hour now,” he explained at a shout. “Pretending to be some chick named Sandra.”

“Oh, god,” was Katsu’s (not entirely unamused) response.

“I asked him out and everything. He thinks I’m a girl…” And Sano lost it again.

Katsu shook his head, rolling his eyes and grinning. “And who is this guy?”

“I dunno… Chou gave me his number.”

“Are you sure it’s smart to be randomly texting somebody Chou gave you the number of?”

“I dunno. It’s just some–” The phone chimed again, appropriating all of Sano’s attention. “Oh, he says he’s going to–” But again the phone cut him off, this time with a genuine ringtone. Sano’s mirth quickly turned to consternation as he realized, “Oh, shit, my voicemail! What do I do?”

“You should have thought of that before.”

With a deep breath, Sano answered the call.

Now Katsu had to bury his face in a couch cushion, for at the first sound of, “Hey, Sandra here!” in the most unconvincing falsetto he’d ever heard, he simply could not contain himself any longer.

As soon as Katsu emerged again he saw Sano waving violently at him in a gesture that clearly communicated, It’s hard enough for me to keep from laughing without you doing that. “No, I’m not,” he was saying into the phone, still in that awful fallacious tone. “I lost my voice for a few days and it’s just coming back, so if I sound weird that’s why. Hmm, oh, really? That sounds so sexy. Ooh, that sounds totally sexy too! What? No, those are hot too. Ha ha, no. I love a car with good gas mileage.”

Whether this was a euphemism and what they could possibly be talking about Katsu couldn’t guess, but the absurd discussion dragged on and on and on; the man at the other end must either be phenomenally stupid or enjoying the joke just as much as Sano was. Every little while, Sano would turn aside and let out a string of muffled guffaws into his sleeve, and Katsu wondered what the stranger thought of these breaks in the conversation.

“He keeps getting all quiet for, like, a minute at a time,” Sano explained in a choked whisper on seeing his roommate’s expression at this. “What do you think he’s–” But he was forced to return to the phone at this point, his stupid falsetto even less convincing than before. “Oh, no, sugar, I was talking to the TV. I told you I was bored…” Sometimes a random little accent crept in too, and Katsu wasn’t sure whether Sano even knew it was happening. “What else do I have to do when I don’t have a man to keep me busy? Oh, can’t you guess? Well, I’ve been told I give really good blow jobs. Hmm? Oh, yeah, any time.”

Things had gone so far that just about everything Sano said was too much for Katsu, and eventually he would surely betray his friend by laughing more loudly than the pillow could stifle or too suddenly to hide it. Besides, he had other things to do. However, he’d barely reached his room again when there came a knock at the apartment door. Assuming Sano was too busy — and in no fit state — to answer it, Katsu reemerged.

“Dude, he stopped talking again,” Sano was chortling as Katsu turned the dead-bolt and then the knob.

“Yes, he did,” said the man at the door in a carrying tone, ostentatiously snapping shut the cell phone he held.

Sano sat up abruptly, dropping his own phone. He dove for it, found the confirmatory evidence of the call’s having ended on its screen, and stared at the man again in growing dismay.

“A word of advice for you,” the stranger remarked as he stepped inside unhindered by any motion of Katsu’s. “Chou isn’t a very good accomplice. He can’t keep a straight face.”

Katsu restrained a snorting laugh.

“And the fact that he works at a police station should have given you some idea of the type of people he’s with all day.” The man pulled aside his jacket to display the badge he wore on a lanyard around his neck.

This time Katsu couldn’t contain it; the laughter burst out of him. “Oh, god, Sano, you do know how to pick them.”

“So what?” demanded Sano, worried and obviously trying to cover it up with surliness. “Are you gonna press charges or something?”

“Harassment is a fairly serious charge,” the cop agreed with a smirk, “but I’m more inclined to take you up on your offer.”

“What offer?” Sano wondered blankly.

The officer held up his phone again and answered blandly, “Among other things, you asked me out.”

This was almost too much for Katsu. And if the pronouncement itself hadn’t been enough, Sano’s stunned expression — as if he’d just been shot in the middle of a laugh — certainly would have been.

“That was… that was just a… I wasn’t serious!”

“Still, you did offer.”

“I have a girlfriend,” Sano stated defiantly.

“Of course,” was the cool reply. “And that poster there was her idea of a joke.”

Katsu almost lost it again as the man indicated with a gesture the half-naked Speedo model adorning the wall. The interlocking rainbow male symbols that formed the poster company’s logo didn’t help.

“Yeah, OK, it’s a boyfriend.”

The cop glanced at Katsu, who was still struggling not to collapse bonelessly onto the floor as he shook his head without a word.

“Katsu!” Sano yelped in protest at this betrayal.

The stranger’s mouth twisted into a smile. “So it appears you have no legitimate cause to object to our arrangement.”

“Except that it was just a joke! I was just messing with you!”

“So you would rather I pressed charges for harassment?”

“I…” Sano’s brows went down over wide, astonished eyes. “That’s blackmail! Isn’t that just as illegal?”

“It’s called ‘settling out of court,'” the stranger corrected. “You’ve had your fun; now it’s my turn.”

Katsu thought Sano went a little pale at this.

“Come on,” the man insisted, jingling his keys. He added with a smirk, “I thought you wanted to see my car.”

Sano took a step toward him, jerkily, as if drawn against his will. “Katsu…” he said helplessly.

“Have fun, Sano,” Katsu grinned.

With a look at his friend half stricken and half irate, Sano began to move a little more naturally: evidently he realized he had no choice in the matter. Stopping just short of arm’s length of the stranger, however, he turned to Katsu and said darkly, “If I’m not back in a couple of hours, call the…” He threw a glance at the policeman and amended his statement. “Call someone.”

“I may call a pizza place and order something to eat…” Katsu offered.

“Oh, fuck you,” Sano said. And then they were gone.

Katsu didn’t have long to laugh himself sick over all of this while wondering desperately and impatiently what was going on; he should have known Sano would keep him posted. The first text arrived only a few minutes later: I’m going to fucking die!

What are you guys doing? Katsu inquired in return.

We’re going to play pool, I guess, was Sano’s answer.

That’s not so bad.

It is with THIS psychopath! Now he’s asking if I’m harassing someone ELSE, so I’ll tell you more later.

Katsu sincerely hoped it wouldn’t be too much later, since this was funnier than anything he could have found on TV, and had made his day a good deal better not only than it had been but than any recent day he could think of or future day he was likely to have. Living with Sano was always an adventure.

This guy kicks ass at pool, was the next message, after perhaps half an hour.

Better than you? wondered Katsu.

I’ll beat him pretty soon, Sano replied evasively, but Katsu could hear the irritated determination as clearly as if they’d been talking rather than texting.

Relative pool skills were all well and good, but what Katsu was mostly interested in hearing about… Is he still being creepy?

Not really. He bought me some snacks. This didn’t tell Katsu much, since Sano was so fond of being bought snacks that he might overlook a good deal of creepiness on the part of the buyer.

Another twenty minutes or so passed before Katsu heard anything more. Then it was, I’m going to kill Chou. He TOLD this guy who I was after my FOURTH text. He told him I was gay and everything.

And probably that you were his neighbor, too.

You should totally hear this guy talk about him, though. Shit’s hilarious.

“Oh, Sano,” Katsu murmured, laughing as he read this and refraining from making the obvious reply.

The next communication, after another interval spent impatiently on Katsu’s end trying to find anything that hadn’t gone bad in the fridge, was a call. Of course he picked up immediately. “Sano?”

“Shit, man, I don’t know what to do!” Sano sounded panicked “You gotta help me!”

“Calm down! I can’t do much to help you from here. What’s going on?”

“He… this guy…” Sano’s voice echoed somewhat; since the signal was fine and the words otherwise undistorted, Katsu guessed him to be making the call from a restroom.

“Is he assaulting you, or what?”

“Well, sortof… I mean, he keeps saying things…”

“That’s quite an accusation, Sano.”

“He keeps saying… flirty… things.” The word didn’t really seem an appropriate descriptor for the man, briefly as Katsu had met him, but the concept at least was clear.

“You guys are on a date,” Katsu pointed out. His tone was mild, but it was probably a good thing Sano couldn’t see his face.

“Only because he forced me!” Sano sounded far more confused than anything else.

“What’s really bugging you is that you’re enjoying this.”

“What?! I am not! Just ’cause he’s… How could I possibly–” At this moment Sano made an indescribable and very undignified sound, and his phone clattered as it evidently fell to the floor. Hastily Katsu turned off the TV and pressed his own phone hard against his ear so as not to miss a word of the subsequently distant conversation.

“What are you doing in here?!” This was Sano, startled and angry.

“Seeing what’s taking you so long,” said the man’s voice; he sounded amused. “You just can’t stop harassing people with that phone, can you?”

“I’m not–”

“And what are you promising this one?”

“It’s just–”

“I seem to recall you promising me a ‘really good blow job.'”

“I… what?!” Sano sounded a little hysterical. Or perhaps ‘giddy’ was a better term. “I didn’t… No!”

Even from here, Katsu could tell that the man was teasing just as easily as he could tell that Sano didn’t mind the idea nearly as much as he claimed to.

“Then I think you owe me a kiss at least.”

The guy was probably giving Sano some kind of look Katsu couldn’t appreciate from afar, for Sano was obviously very flustered. “Not… not… not on the first–”

There came a scuffling sound, during which the transmitting device was apparently kicked into a corner or something, followed by a long silence. Finally, almost inaudibly now (thanks to the phone’s new position? or the man’s lowered tone?), the police officer said, “That wasn’t so bad.” And whether the statement aimed at reassuring Sano or commenting on his performance Katsu couldn’t tell.

“You are the worst cop I’ve ever met,” Sano responded with relative distinctness — and relative calm, too, especially for how breathless he sounded; it really must not have been so bad.

“That’s quite an achievement, considering you’ve met Chou.”

“And he backstabbed me.” This grumble of Sano’s was suddenly a good deal louder as he evidently bent to retrieve his phone.

“I don’t know what else you were expecting,” the man said, a sentiment with which Katsu had to agree.

Some profane statement of Sano’s cut off as he hung up the phone without a goodbye, and again Katsu waited for the next update on the edge of his seat (figuratively, as he was, rather, sprawled on the couch in weariness from laughing so much and never having found anything readily edible in the kitchen).

Sano’s eventual comment was, So he’s a good kisser.

So I gathered, Katsu replied.

And he’s actually pretty hot.

I noticed that too.

And he bought me ice cream.

Plying you with dessert, is he?

He’s still an asshole.

I’m sure he is.

During the next information lapse, wherein Katsu tried futilely to pay attention to the show he was supposedly watching but kept checking his phone so frequently he might as well just have turned the TV off again, there came a knock at the door. A little irritated at an interruption he doubted could be anywhere near as interesting as the ongoing drama, Katsu went to answer it. He knew who it must be, however, when the knock was repeated and elaborated upon before he’d made it halfway to the door.

“Hiya, Katsu,” Chou greeted him, craning his neck to look past into the apartment.

“He’s not here.” Katsu gestured Chou inside, shut the door behind him, and checked his phone again. “And you’re lucky he’s not, because at the moment he wants you dead.”

Chou grinned broadly. “Hey, I tried not to give him away… but it was just too fucking funny.”

“It’s better than you think.” Katsu couldn’t help promising great things with his own grin. “At this very moment they are out on a date.”

“What?!” yelped Chou. “You’re shitting me! No way!”

“Last I heard–” Katsu held up his phone– “your boss or whatever he is was buying Sano ice cream.”

Chou staggered over to the couch and collapsed onto it, breathless and helpless with laughter. “Do you…” he panted eventually. “Do you know… what he came over here… to do…?”

“Threaten Sano with death if he ever did something like this again?”

“Yeah, something… something like that…” Chou buried his screwed-up face in the same cushion Katsu had been using all evening to muffle his own laughter.

“Well, he pretty much took one look at Sano and changed his mind.”

When Chou could speak again he said, “Oh, we live in a fucking insane world.” His posture having returned to more or less upright, he’d freed up the other half of the sofa; Katsu came to sit next to him and give a more detailed account of what was going on somewhere else in town — including reading out all the messages sent and received thus far.

At the end of the tale, Sano’s newly arrived comment on the proceedings could be appended: I guess we’re done now.

Did you ever beat him? Katsu wondered.

I would have if he wasn’t so distracting, Sano answered, to the great amusement of his friends.

“‘Distracting,'” Chou chortled. “God, of all the fucking weirdness I never expected…”

Katsu shook his head. “This is so typical of Sano.”

“This is so not typical of my boss,” replied Chou.

“You’d better get back downstairs,” Katsu advised. “I don’t know where they went, but it might have been that pool hall just up the street, and if Sano gets back and finds you here…”

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Chou grinned, rising. “Thanks for the entertainment, though.”

“I think I should be thanking you. Sano probably should too, but I doubt he ever will.”

Chou’s grin broadened, and he turned in the exit. “You’ve got my number, right? Let me know if more fun shit happens.”

“Roger that.” And Katsu shut the door behind him.

His speculation regarding Sano’s date venue was pretty much confirmed when Sano arrived, solitary and angry, after only a few more minutes.

“He didn’t walk you back in?” Katsu wondered, fighting to keep his face grave; his levators and zygomatics were aching enough as it was.

Sano’s answer was a short, irritated negative.

“Did he at least try to molest you in his car?”

“He didn’t even kiss me again,” was Sano’s reply, and exactly what the surliness of his tone was aimed at was rather up in the air.

“Well, I’m glad you survived,” Katsu said placatingly.

Sano snorted and threw himself down onto the couch.

Gradually the apartment grew quiet, except for the continued chime of incoming texts to Sano’s phone. Katsu, moving around straightening things up and getting ready for bed, wondered whether Sano was threatening Chou or continuing his ‘distracting’ interaction with the other cop. Eventually, too curious to refrain from being nosy, he stepped to the couch and looked down over it, and Sano’s shoulder, from behind.

It was fun, said the latest message Sano had received. Despite the angle, Katsu saw the conflict in the lip-biting scowl on his friend’s face. He also saw that Sano had created an actual contact for the man. The name confirmed what Katsu had guessed at seeing the man’s face: another gay Japanese guy. How did Sano keep finding them?

Finally, Yeah, I guess, Sano replied.

Katsu rolled his eyes, and didn’t move. His quiet patience was rewarded, soon thereafter, by the sight of another message from the cop: Same time next week?

Sano made a What the fuck, man? sort of gesture, and suddenly noticed Katsu. “God!” he cried, startled. “How long have you been standing there?”

Katsu grinned. “A while. What are you going to tell him?”

Sano grimaced at him, and got up in something of a huff. “I don’t know!” He headed for his room, and Katsu watched him complacently, still grinning.

He was pretty sure he knew what Sano’s answer would be.


So there’s a dumbass story behind this story. It is, in fact, based on actual prank-texting that happened at one point. It was my brother in real life, pretending to be a girl and asking some guy from school to homecoming and whatnot. It happened very much like this, too: the dude eventually called, my brother realized that his voice on the voicemail recording would give him away, and falsetto conversation ensued.

So, yeah, Sano would definitely chatspeak, abbreviate, typo, and misspell all over anyone he texted (especially with T9 and whatnot, which is the era this story is set in; ah, nostalgia), but there was no way in hell I was going to write it like that. Consider this a translation.

I’ve rated this story .

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


Angles – The Color of 120°

Angles – The Color of 120°

Chapter 1 – Something

There was something in those eyes, something uncanny that, while not feeling inherently wrong, still frightened him; something at once alien and shockingly familiar — and perhaps it was his struggle to name it that had put him so badly off guard. That wild golden something had been directed at him, surely, as if those eyes were pistols aimed straight into his own.

Debris crowded his vision, flying dust that obscured the object of his curiosity. He couldn’t manage to get up again, no matter how he tried, and a shadow fell over him so he couldn’t even see the light. But then those eyes were clearly before him…

“What does he see in you?”

The world spun and blackened…

There was blood everywhere, agony in his shoulder and the back of his skull…

Pressure… a fiery touch… the taste of…

But, no, this was familiar pressure, gentle, and a taste he knew well.

“Kenshin…” he groaned into his lover’s mouth as warm, bright colors swam before him and pain exploded again in his shoulder. Kenshin’s lips quickly withdrew, and Sano opened his eyes.

“Sano.” Kenshin hovered close, staring at him worriedly. “Sano, you’re finally awake.”

Remembering at the last moment that his right shoulder had been impaled — yesterday? a week ago? how long had it been? — Sano lifted instead his left hand to touch the scarred face. “Yeah,” he grunted once he was certain Kenshin was actually there.

“How do you feel?” Kenshin inquired in the same tone as before.

“Like shit,” Sano replied hoarsely. “And maybe like I’m going crazy,” he muttered as an afterthought, thinking of the dream from which Kenshin had just awakened him. “And some guy’s out to get you.”

“I know,” Kenshin replied grimly.

Sano studied Kenshin’s expression, immediately apprehensive. He’d never seen the redhead so visibly anxious before. “What is it?” He was recovering his voice a little, but his whole body ached, and breathing deeply enough to lend the question any volume was not worth the pain it occasioned. Still, Kenshin knew he seriously wanted an answer.

“I am at a loss why he would have attacked you.”

Sano’s state of mind wasn’t exactly placid to begin with, between his pain and the agitation of half-formed recollection that might (not?) have been a dream, but it made everything so much worse that Kenshin didn’t seem upset in quite the way he should be. Of course he was concerned for Sano’s health and safety, and unhappy that Sano had been hurt, but when he said ‘he,’ something else showed in his face — something like confusion, like memory, like… like whatever had been in those eyes that Sano had never successfully been able to name.

“You know who he is, don’t you?” Sano managed to ask this a bit more loudly than his previous question.

Kenshin nodded, his face still rather bleak.

That his lover did not immediately elaborate made Sano a hundred times more worried than before, and he felt that, having been on the receiving end of the unknown enemy’s sword (and an unwanted kiss? …no, he wouldn’t believe that had actually happened until he had more concrete evidence), he deserved to know. Still, seeing what a strange effect the events seemed to have had on Kenshin, he felt it would be kinder not to get angry. “What,” he said in a somewhat teasing tone, trying to lighten the mood by reaching out to squeeze Kenshin’s knee where he knew him to be ticklish, “you afraid he may be able to kick your ass?”

Kenshin took Sano’s hand in both his own as he nodded gravely.

Sano was so startled that he almost sat up, but his shoulder hurt too much for that. “What?!”

“The man who attacked you is one of the few I have ever fought that I was unable to defeat.” And Kenshin broke their shared gaze and looked slowly away.

Sano’s eyes widened. The tone in his lover’s voice was… different… somehow… from anything he’d ever heard. That anything spoken by Kenshin, his Kenshin, could be… an audio version of what he’d seen and failed to understand in that other man’s eyes… almost terrified him. And watching his lover’s face, he shivered slightly as he saw, or perhaps (hopefully?) only imagined, a splash of gleaming amber dot the customary violet of Kenshin’s eyes: a gilded flash identical in hue to the last thing he’d seen before he’d passed out after being stabbed by the as-yet-unnamed man — their mutual enemy? Or something else? What was that something he could not define? Why did his lover share it with the stranger that had attacked him?

He had a feeling everything was soon going to change.

***

“He’s about seven years older than me.” He didn’t get into the irrelevant details of Saitou’s exact date and place of birth and the names of all his family. “He was the captain of the Shinsengumi’s third division during the war.” Exactly when Saitou had joined, what his position had been at first, the name Yamaguchi Jiro, and a few other trivialities Kenshin happened to know were equally certain not to interest Sano, so he didn’t mention them either. “He is quite a skilled swordsman, as you probably noticed.” Sano’s statement that he wouldn’t go back to sleep until Kenshin told him everything he knew about Saitou was quite an ambiguous threat, really; Sano couldn’t possibly want to know all about the Hirazukiryuu, could he?

“The move he used on you is called gatotsu; it is his personal variation of the Shinsengumi’s most famous technique.” And surely Sano didn’t care what Kenshin knew of Saitou’s various stances. “I fought him a few times, but we were always interrupted by circumstance, and so never reached a real conclusion as to who was stronger.” No need to tell him the well remembered details of any of those encounters, was there? Just because he hadn’t forgotten them didn’t mean Sano wanted to hear them. “However, there was one thing we were certain of in regards to each other: that we each fought for what we thought was right.”

Sano was watching him intently; could he tell how much Kenshin was leaving out? “So even though you were enemies, you both knew the other was fighting for what he believed, ‘zat it?”

Kenshin nodded. “Our fundamental beliefs differed very little in those days, and we respected each other for that.”

“What beliefs were those?” Sano asked softly; it seemed he couldn’t tell Kenshin was omitting large parts of his account — but was obviously very interested anyway. “And what changed?”

I changed,” Kenshin admitted softly, and wondered why he felt uncomfortable thinking about it possibly for the first time since he’d made the decision not to kill, all those years ago. “One of the basics of the Shinsengumi code was something that he wholly embraced, and to which he devoted himself — Aku Soku Zan.”

Sano frowned in understanding, and moved his hand to squeeze Kenshin’s comfortingly — although also, Kenshin thought, perhaps in slight need of comfort himself. “Is that why he’s after you now? Because he thinks you’ve become evil or something?”

“I do not know,” Kenshin replied grimly. “I haven’t seen him since those days, so I do not know how he might have changed.” And that he attacked you is worrisome, he didn’t add. What is he thinking?

Sano closed his eyes with a sigh, still holding Kenshin’s hand. “Don’t worry,” he said softly. “I believe in you. You won’t lose, no matter how strong he is.”

Sano’s faith didn’t seem as optimistic as it generally did, and failed to bring the usual warmth to Kenshin’s heart. Was it because Sano sensed Kenshin’s confusion? Was it because he could sense Kenshin had once been…

No. Sano was just concerned because he’d already had concrete proof of what a strong enemy Kenshin faced, not because he thought Kenshin was thinking too much about things, remembering too many details but not sharing them.

The redhead bent and kissed the younger man gently on the mouth. “You should go back to sleep now.”

Sano grunted his assent, returning the kiss until Kenshin withdrew. No, there was no way Sano could guess Kenshin was… well, no, because Kenshin wasn’t.

Savvy, yes. Detail-oriented, certainly. Observant, by habit and necessity, definitely. But if there was one thing Himura Kenshin was not, and certainly had not been as a younger man, it was obsessive.

Especially not where Saitou Hajime was concerned.

His lover had no reason to worry.

***

Some believed dreams were carried out in shades of grey, while others held they were accurately colored; some believed it could go either way depending on the dream, some that it depended on the dreamer. It was a ridiculous debate he’d heard among philosophers at times before, but its importance in anyone’s life was the point none of them ever brought up.

His dreams were all in varying hues of yellow and violet anyway.

Yellow — gold as some fancifully called it, amber as other insisted, or very light brown to the pragmatic that denied such an eye-color as yellow could exist — was familiar. It was safe. Yellow was what he saw in his sword’s blade when he caught sight of his own reflection, what he had seen there since he could remember having looked. Yellow was how he viewed the world. Yellow was surely the color of justice.

Violet — orchid for that same crowd that wanted to name every color after an object, purple for those that fancied themselves modern, or warm blue for those in denial — was also familiar. But it was less safe. Violet was what he had seen beyond his sword’s blade when he found himself caring to look, what he had always hoped to see there since the first moment he had. Violet was a door into a different world. Violet was surely the color of indulgence.

And these were the two extremes that, without exception, colored his every dream.

Or had, up until very recently.

He’d talked to an artist once, incidentally at some point in the line of work; he hadn’t paid much attention at the time, as the conversation had been merely a cover for whatever he’d actually been doing — but somehow he recalled the man’s ramblings on the subject of color better than that vaguely remembered activity. The spectrum was arrayed in a circle, the artist had said, in which each hue had a perfect opposite: red and green, orange and blue, yellow and violet. When blended, two opposites would produce a neutral central color.

Thence the brown that had recently touched his dreams with its unexpected tint.

Yes, that was the logical answer. The yellow and violet to which he had so long been accustomed had simply melted together and added a third color — definitely a neutral color — to the spectrum of his nightly visions. There was no significance in it whatsoever. Even if there were, he was not a jealous man: let the brown intrude; he had no particular attachments to the exclusive combination of yellow and violet.

So why, he wondered as he found his fingers creeping to his lips yet again, was he always so confused when he awoke?



Chapter 2>>

Chapter 2 – No Security

He was drifting in and out of painful dreams again. Or was it still? Did the state of painful-dream-drifting restart after each period of wakefulness, or did it count as ‘still’ if he just took up where he’d left off whenever he went back to sleep? At any rate, this time he was conscious of Kenshin’s absence at his side. And he wouldn’t notice Kenshin wasn’t beside him unless Kenshin had been gone for more than about ten minutes. It was this eventual realization, coupled with the sound of Kaoru’s spoken inquiry on the same topic just outside the room in which he lay, that awakened him completely.

“Where is Kenshin?” She sounded curious and a little worried, and probably with good reason. “I haven’t seen him for at least an hour, and he hasn’t been gone that long since before Megumi-san left.” Sano began immediately to share her feelings, but with a much less concrete apprehension than Kaoru’s pragmatic and probably superfluous fear for Kenshin’s physical safety. Though there was something to be said for practicality, for realism — how could he state, after all, that his worry was centered around the color of his lover’s eyes and the possible reasons it kept changing, and stemmed from dreams of transforming faces and unfairly effective stab-wounds?

Yahiko probably didn’t realize that Sano, if awake, could easily hear them through the shouji as he answered, “He said he had some errands and that he’d be late, but I saw him reading a letter or something earlier.”

“Errands… A letter?” Kaoru repeated, sounding by now quite confused. Sano, who was propped up on one elbow (the one that didn’t cause him serious pain to prop himself up on, obviously), had to agree with that sentiment. As far as he knew, Kenshin had no friends, beyond the little circle that had collected around him here in Tokyo, that would send him a letter that could drag him away from Sano without any notice or explanation. But Sano was beginning to fear that ‘as far as he knew’ was about as far as he could toss a feather when drunk. Kenshin could have any number of friends he’d never so much as mentioned. He was a wanderer, after all, or had been up until recently, and although Sano knew (thought he knew) Kenshin hadn’t made a habit of stopping long in any particular place over the past ten years, he might have made all sorts of friends along the way. Or it might be a friend from before, from the old days.

Or an enemy. There were some of those from those days too.

But would any of them send him a letter?

Perhaps they might, if there was an affinity, somewhere, of golden eyes and respected beliefs.

But what would that letter say? And how would Kenshin respond to it?

Taking a deep breath, Sano sat up entirely, gritting his teeth against the raging hurt in his shoulder. Really, for a wound that had been precise enough to cause so little major damage, it had kept him in bed and amazing pain for far too long. It had been almost two days now since that man had stabbed him, and he was getting sick of lying here. And now he felt he had a real reason to get up, there was very little that could have kept him in bed.

***

“Yahiko thinks you’re sneaking out to see some secret girlfriend; ‘tsa bad example to set for a kid, you know.” This was almost Kenshin’s first warning of Sano’s approach, which was rather disconcerting; was he really so lost in thought?

“Sano!” He jumped to his feet, hurrying worriedly to where his lover was pushing through the grove of tall bamboo toward him. “You shouldn’t be up yet!”

“Like hell I was just gonna lie there with you gone.”

Kenshin carefully embraced him. “How did you know where to find me?”

Sano’s tone indicated he was frowning. “You always come here to practice or meditate, so I figured you’d come here if you were worried about some letter or something too.”

Startled, Kenshin kept his face pressed against the younger man’s chest so Sano wouldn’t see his expression. He hadn’t planned on telling him about the letter, as he knew Sano had been unusually worried about the whole thing. Well, and also because he was worried about it. He’d come here to sort out his feelings, to see if the suddenly stirred emotions of a decade ago were at all compatible with those he’d built up over the last few months. His words were muffled by Sano’s gi as he said, “It is a challenge.”

Something like an unusual tenseness seemed to dissipate from the air as Sano relaxed somewhat, but there was still quite a bit of tension left both around them and in Sano’s taut form. “Thought so.”

But did you really, Sano? “I don’t know whether I will go to meet him or not.” That Sano hadn’t asked meant Kenshin didn’t have to state who ‘he’ was.

Sano lowered his head so his face was buried in Kenshin’s hair, tightening his single-armed hug on Kenshin’s back. “You do whatever you think’s best.” But his voice sounded worried… so worried… much too worried…

“I will not let him hurt anyone,” Kenshin murmured almost automatically, in a soothing tone. Why Sano? Why had it been Kenshin’s best friend, rather than Kenshin himself, that had been the initial target? And did the fact that Sano was also his lover have anything to do with it?

Sano drew back, one hand still on Kenshin’s shoulder holding him close, but far enough away that they could look into each other’s eyes. “I’m not worried about him hurting anyone but you,” he said softly, still frowning, and Kenshin could see plainly that what he’d taken for worry was actually barely-controlled terror.

“Sano…” Asking what Sano was afraid of would be like deliberately insulting him. But how could he reassure where he didn’t know what was wrong? “When I said I was never able to defeat him, it was–” He didn’t get to finish, for Sano leaned down and kissed him.

Kenshin couldn’t help but respond to any kiss from Sano; he was like walking fire, and never failed to bring out all the passion and energy that so often lay dormant in Kenshin’s heart. But this kiss was a little different than normal… somehow it seemed desperate, but not sexually so: it felt as if Sano was demanding something of him, begging for it in the only way that would not compromise his dignity, letting Kenshin taste all the fear he was feeling without actually explaining what its object was.

Once Sano pulled reluctantly away and rested his forehead against Kenshin’s, they stood silent with their eyes closed for several moments. Finally Kenshin asked, “Are you all right?”

“Yeah…” Sano sounded tired, and there was some additional timbre to his voice that could not quite be given a name. Kenshin imagined that if Sano were ever to back down from a fight, this would be the sound of his call for retreat. “I just… I’m just afraid you’re fighting a battle without me.”

Kenshin hesitated to answer, for it seemed Sano meant something else beyond what he’d said, and Kenshin wasn’t sure exactly what. “We have supported each other through all of our battles,” he finally replied softly. “Ever since we met.”

“Yeah,” Sano said again. “Even when it was just a battle in our head about something that happened way back before we met.”

“Even then,” Kenshin agreed, his heart sinking as he finally understood what his lover meant.

“So don’t leave me out of this one,” Sano whispered.

And Kenshin made no reply, not liking to promise where he wasn’t sure of his own power to fulfill.

***

He laid his left hand flat on the floor so close beneath him, to remind himself it was there. His sword was always a comfort at his side, but it was good to know the floor also supported him. He continued listening to the conversation not far off.

“What do you mean, he’s not here?”

“I don’t know where he is.”

“Am I to believe three of you couldn’t handle the task of keeping one wounded boy in bed?”

“Kenshin went somewhere, and Yahiko and I thought he was sleeping!”

Women were annoying. He touched the floor again, then laid his sword across his knees, anticipating the moment when he could finally draw it. It felt as if he hadn’t drawn it for years.

“Where did Ken-san go?”

“I don’t know. It must have been important, though, for him to leave Sano.”

“It may have something to do with what that policeman said.”

“Yes, and I’m worried.”

“Don’t be… Ken-san can take care of himself, and we’ll be safe with that officer here.”

“I think I’ll go outside and wait.”

He lifted the sheath onto his lap and pulled the sword a few inches out. Even seeing the fine, well-cared-for edge of the blade gleaming before his face did not give him the feeling of having drawn the sword. It wasn’t real. But soon…

“Wow, I thought policemen carried sabers.”

He barely looked toward the voice as he slid the sword back into place and the light it had caught faded. “Sabers are brittle and unreliable,” he replied shortly, setting the sword down again and tapping his gloved fingertips briefly against the floor just to see if it was still flat and made of wood.

“Isn’t it against the rules to have a nihontou, though?”

“I have special permission to carry this.”

“And Japanese swords are really better than those western ones?”

“Of course.”

Kids were annoying. And they were kids until they were at least twenty-five, no matter how good they looked or tasted.

Tasted? That seemed to have jumped in at the last moment, just as the thought was ending, and sent his hand to the floor again, making sure it was there. It wasn’t that he’d lost his equilibrium, or that the floor had made any threats recently to disappear (although this was someone else’s home, and the floor here might be less stable than at his own); he just wanted certainty.

“Kenshin! Sanosuke!” He only heard this because it was shouted; whatever followed was inaudible. He gripped his sword-hilt in cool expectation. It was just a sword, really, but it was always there, and soon he would draw it. The end of the sheath tapped reassuringly on the floor.

“What?!”

The door had opened.

“Where did you hear something like that?”

Footsteps were approaching.

He stood slowly. He turned, and although he knew perfectly well what he was turning to face, from what he already knew and the voices he heard and the spirit he felt, it was as if this was the first true confirmation of who they were, what they were to each other, and what he planned to do. He was holding his breath as he finally set eyes on them, standing there together with that girl at the other end of the room gazing in startlement back at him. He held his sword tightly in his left hand, and stared, wondering where the floor had gone.

Chapter 3 – Chaos (ScornBloodConfusion)

It had been troubling before, when Kenshin had asked him to stay hidden, but then, at least, Kenshin had been conscious of his presence. Now, with the enemy actually before them and visible — the real enemy, not some troublesome decoy — now… this was downright painful. For Kenshin to prefer him uninvolved showed Kenshin cared what happened to him. For Kenshin to ignore him completely, stepping forward with that calm tension that meant he was already more than prepared for battle, showed he cared… about something else.

Already Kenshin was fighting without him.

“You had trouble with Akamatsu, I see. You have become weak.”

Sano loved Kenshin. He hadn’t quite managed to tell him yet, but he did love him, more than he’d ever loved anybody in his life. But he’d seen… and he wondered whether the man he loved was the true Kenshin or just a beautiful and inevitably temporary façade. It frightened him that he didn’t know.

“It has been ten years.”

But what frightened him even more was that there existed anywhere a man that didn’t even have to be present, only brought to mind, to effect the change from the Kenshin Sano loved to… the other one. And perhaps he was also a little frightened by the fact that that same man had kissed him. (Or that he’d dreamed he had; that Sano might have thought it up out of his own head was equally disturbing.)

“Ten years, yes. Two simple words, those, but a long time to live through.”

“Yes. Long enough for someone to become rotten.” He couldn’t see Kenshin’s face, couldn’t see his lover’s eyes. But Kenshin’s voice was gilded, and that was all Sano needed. “In the old days, you would consider it beneath you to attack an opponent’s friends in order to intimidate him, or to set a dog on him and take hostages while he was occupied. You cannot be the Saitou Hajime I respected as a warrior.”

Sano’s attention shifted abruptly at the speaking of the man’s name, and he began to feel slightly guilty. No matter what or who Kenshin was, or had been, or even would become, the fact remained that he was likely to fight a very difficult physical battle right now, and Sano should support him (and think about settling his own score later).

Saitou was laughing. The sound sent a shiver through Sano as if he’d been touched by something unexpectedly painful. Not an unexpected pain, but rather something that seemed like it shouldn’t have hurt. Now he’d begun to look at Saitou, Sano couldn’t remove his gaze from the lean, blue-clad figure. He wasn’t close enough to see if that uncanny something was still in the man’s narrow yellow eyes, but he didn’t want to know. Didn’t need to see to know, actually, as he felt the same inexplicable discord in his thoughts just by being in the room with Saitou.

“You think Akamatsu was a dog? Ridiculous. He’s far too weak.”

He was studying Saitou’s face as the policeman said this, and for some reason felt that somehow the expression thereon was incompatible with the speech. The laughter, he realized, had sounded much the same. But there was no real physical evidence of this, and he couldn’t decide what exactly he thought he saw.

“The Shinsengumi fought the hitokiri Battousai many times,” Saitou continued; “we knew his strength. But you had trouble fighting Akamatsu. Your notion of a rurouni who doesn’t kill has taken that strength from you.”

It was true the fight Kenshin had just finished had given him a bit of trouble, but that was more because he’d been trying to get information out of the freak than because the stitched-up man had really been difficult to defeat. Certainly it didn’t earn Kenshin such a moniker? Yahiko and Kaoru seemed quite shocked by the suggestion, and Sano was somewhat disturbed at the finality in Saitou’s tone… but Kenshin’s answer seemed to indicate he didn’t much care:

“The only strength I need now is that of the rurouni who protects others. I don’t need the hitokiri’s strength I once had.”

“If your rurouni’s strength is all you need, I’m here to tell you you’ve failed.” It was something about the heavy scorn in Saitou’s voice, Sano decided. Something… “While you were busy fighting Akamatsu, I was here waiting for you. Since I presented myself as a police officer, your friends let their guard down.” Saitou gestured at Yahiko and Kaoru, whose shocked expressions, if possible, intensified. “I could have killed them as I pleased.”

Sano was too busy searching for the answer to his solidifying question to partake much in the others’ fearful outrage at this statement. He was still pursuing the scorn idea. It was truly felt, not a playact; that seemed fairly obvious. Just something was… off… somehow… about the way Saitou delivered his words. “And that wasn’t the only time,” the dark man continued. “With Jin’ei, with Kanryuu… during every battle, the one you were trying to protect fell into the enemy’s hands. You even let that fool Raijuta scar someone for life.”

This last shook Sano out of his attempted analysis, and he stared at Saitou in surprise and growing consternation. The police hadn’t been involved with…

Something caught at his mind as the anger that usually followed such emotions washed through him, but he ignored both it and the anger in favor of the other two feelings. To think Saitou had been watching Kenshin so closely for so long… it was frightening in more ways than one. What were Saitou’s motives? Obviously he wanted to fight Kenshin, but why all this extraneous nonsense, all these other things Saitou had done? In Sano’s mind, a fight was a fight, and such trappings were not only unnecessary but also a confusion of the issue (not to mention disconcerting in the present situation, especially given Saitou had… well, he wasn’t going to think about that now).

“Having only a part of your strength is equal to having no strength at all. Your words are pure hypocrisy; you make me sick.”

Sano’s rage was growing, and he wanted desperately to retort at the top of his lungs, to refute Saitou’s contemptuous accusations… but he found he couldn’t say — or shout — a single word. To begin with, Kenshin was still simply standing there, offering no defense… and though Sano loved him and could hardly bear to hear him insulted, he feared that silence. What did it mean? Did Kenshin not consider a response necessary? Was he trying to decide what was best to say? Or did he agree with the accusations? And if so, what would his answer be then? Would it be a verbal answer, or something more meaningful? If he concurred, what did that say about who he was? And why didn’t Sano know what was going through his lover’s head?! Dammit… he didn’t, he couldn’t understand any of this, and it frightened him. Which only made him more angry.

And that was the other reason he couldn’t find a word to say — there was something about his anger, his typical response-to-fear-and-confusion irate state, that brought him closer to the answer he sought about Saitou.

He needn’t have worried about defending Kenshin; he’d forgotten there were others present willing to do so. “What are you talking about?!” Yahiko was demanding angrily. “Every time, ’cause Kenshin was there, nobody died!”

Saitou nodded grimly, and replied with the same inscrutable scorn as before. “But tell me… how long will that last? How long can you trust luck to fill in the gap between your current strength and your potential?” The utter derision in his voice — therein lay the answer, somewhere… “I thought you, Battousai, would understand merely by this example with Akamatsu, but as you said, ten years is long enough for someone to become rotten. This rurouni who does not kill is too comfortable with his pseudo-justice. How can the hitokiri Battousai protect without killing?”

Fists clenched and twitched, but Sano was rooted to the floor where he’d stopped upon entering the room, his back to the door that nobody had yet remembered to close. Anger rose like a storm inside him — his usual, familiar protection against the black (or, in this case, gold) unknown — but because it was giving him his answer, he couldn’t do a thing except ponder.

“Aku Soku Zan — this was the one truth that the Shinsengumi and the hitokiri shared. I can’t stand to see what you’ve become.” This statement provided Sano with the final piece of evidence he needed, as the tone it was spoken in was just slightly more scathing even than the rest of Saitou’s words. The bitter drip of his voice contrasted harshly with the dry rasp of his sword leaving its sheath — but still Sano could do nothing.

“No matter what you think of my ideals, I will never kill again.” The look on Saitou’s face as Kenshin uttered this calm rebuttal only confirmed further what Sano had begun to believe — and he could not move, perhaps because of this or perhaps in spite of it.

For it was clear now, to Sano at least, that Saitou wore scorn just as Sano wore anger — to protect himself from something he didn’t want to feel, to hide that feeling from the rest of the world. It was not a falsified emotion, not a show… but it was deliberately conjured to guard against something else. Nobody that didn’t shield in such a manner could tell, Sano guessed, but even from this brief conversation that didn’t involve him it seemed obvious. Perhaps that had been what he’d seen in Saitou’s eyes the other day when…

“Is that so? Then come,” Saitou challenged. And what was he trying to hide? What was it he didn’t want to feel? Sano thought his contempt increased tenfold as he added, “I deny everything you are.”

***

It was the same stance. Kenshin never forgot a technique that was shown to him, and this one he remembered particularly well. It was that straightforward stabbing move that could be modified into just about any swing after its commencement, like truth that could become a lie at any moment or perhaps even a lie that could become truth. And he was willing to meet it. He drew his own sword.

“Are you going to involve your lover in this?” Saitou asked, making just the slightest gesture with his head.

The words hit Kenshin like a blow, for he had… forgotten… that Sano was there. Sano, whom he loved, whom he wanted to stay with for the rest of his life… he had forgotten him. It hurt. He dared not turn around, lest Sano should realize this was the case. He feared it was too late.

He stepped slowly away from the door and the two people behind him.

“Kenshin…” Sano growled softly.

Kenshin couldn’t tell whether his tone was one of warning, of fear, of supplication, or something else. Why couldn’t he tell? He’d been with Sano long enough that he could usually read everything from a single word… why didn’t he know now what his lover was thinking?! “Sano, please stay back.” His own voice sounded surprisingly calm, flat even, much like… it always had… back then… “This is inevitable.”

“But, fighting like this… you promised…”

He’d forgotten Sano’s tendency to read oaths into simple words or actions; Kenshin had never promised him anything. “It will be all right.” He glanced over at Sano finally, now he was far enough away, hoping his words were enough to keep Sano out of the fight. But he couldn’t tell. He might as well never have set eyes on his own lover before this, for all he could anticipate Sano’s intentions. And the reason for that was… he was already looking through the eyes of a hitokiri: Sano, as a non-threat, was practically invisible. Which might be a good sign, as far as Sano’s planned involvement in the upcoming battle, but…

But now Kenshin was angry.

How dare Saitou have such an affect on him?!

That carefully-locked-away part of himself should not be so easily, so quickly accessed by another; Kenshin should have a chance to fight it at the very least. He almost felt violated as that assassin’s internal fire rose again within him and he clenched tighter at his sword hilt. He was already battling the desire to kill Saitou, to spatter blood all across the floor and walls of the dojo — and the fight had not yet begun. He could not engage Saitou with that impulse in his veins… could not.

But Saitou was not leaving him that option.

The policeman charged in his first gatotsu stance, and Kenshin jumped to avoid the stab. The warring desires of slaughter and decency slowed him, however, and before he could move into a Ryuu Tsui Sen, Saitou had altered the trajectory of his blow and jumped upward to meet him. Kenshin barely managed to block, avoiding being impaled straight through the chest, but still felt his ribs grazed as the sword pierced his flesh on the right. Saitou twisted the blade to the right and slashed it out across Kenshin’s chest in a burst of pain and blood, spinning to kick him in the stomach in the same movement.

Kenshin fell to the floor, struggling within himself. The taste and smell of blood were exciting him dangerously; the desire to kill was growing. He got to his knees, then his feet, watching Saitou fall into his first stance again. As the wolf charged, Kenshin went forward to meet him, almost staggering as something twitched within him, urging him toward destruction. They engaged midway, vying until Saitou managed to get in a quick but forceful slash across Kenshin’s chest, knocking him backward. Hitting the wall so hard he could hear plaster crack, holding his stomach with a grimace, Kenshin fought to stay upright. He… didn’t want… to want… to kill him… but that battle he was losing. Standing again, he really did stagger this time, making one last attempt to bring his enemy down before he himself was lost. Saitou was ready to meet him with a second-stance gatotsu; Kenshin slipped around behind him, but Saitou turned and kicked him in the face, knocking him away in another splash of blood.

And suddenly everything was colored thus, deepening until there was only red and black as Kenshin flipped backward to land in a crouch some distance off, panting, staring at Saitou who seemed pleased and who charged in his second stance again. And Kenshin dodged to the left, blocked the slash that Saitou moved into, then ducked down beneath the level of Saitou’s sword to spin around backward into a Ryuu Kan Sen. And there was harsh contact between blade and skull, a guttural cry, and Saitou was thrown through the wall. Certainly that hurt, but unfortunately did not kill.

Sword resheathed, ready for Battoujutsu, watching Saitou’s second stance again, meeting its charge and forcing the other blade away to the right, feeling the heat between bodies drawn close together, then ducking beneath Saitou’s sword and throwing it off entirely. Speeding forward low with a rising sweep, feeling the tension as Saitou blocks him again in a clash of metal and they’re forced close to each other once more, an attempted blow from Saitou’s right fist, and with evasion they’re apart again.

A jump into a half-formed Ryuu Tsui Sen that Saitou dodges, but push upward from the resulting crouch with a sweep that Saitou blocks, and suddenly Saitou is restraining his sword-hand and sweeping his own weapon at him simultaneously, but a high leap can dodge the swing and free the hand at the same moment, then charge forward again, I’m going to kill him, but it’s blocked and now the heat is there again between two close bodies locked by flashing swords between until Saitou pulls back and swings downward but if I jump again I can dodge that as well as the next, onto the ceiling, sheathe the sword again, push off toward the wall, propel from there into an aerial Battoujutsu that he blocks on his right, so I roll forward through the air and push off another wall, spinning, regaining my bearings, stabbing at him, falling backward as he blocks and pushes me back, he’s so close and the beautiful edge of that sword is near my cheek I’m going to kill him so I kick his face, flipping over and launching myself above his head backwards to land facing him as I resheathe my sword again, he isn’t waiting but he’s back in his first stance, which I meet with Battoujutsu and break his sword, so now we’ll see who’s going to die I’m going to kill him he’s charging again the fool without a weapon block the broken hilt he throws at me blood from my left hand pain in my sword-hand his belt? sword falls to the left blows all over my chest and stomach behind me damn him jacket? can’t breathe can’t pry the thing off choking slam iron sheath into his chin jump tear away the jacket smells like cigarettes crouching panting going to kill him those eyes kill him love those eyes ready for the next stand kill he’s aiming kill this is the end

Stop!!

***

He’d never deluded himself into thinking he would walk into that dojo and make an impartial judgment of Himura’s level of strength, but he hadn’t expected it to go quite as far as it did. The moment he’d started to fight, all surroundings had shattered and they’d been lost in a void of heat and movement and the desire for one another’s death that was far from any era but farthest from the Meiji. And on his part, it was weakness. He couldn’t speak for Himura, but that battle was exactly what Saitou had been wanting for years — to be able to fight with abandon and still be in danger of his life. He’d experienced nothing so thrilling since the Bakumatsu — not in the Boshin wars and certainly not during his time with the police, even as a spy. But it was weakness. He was not here to sate his long-repressed desire, but rather to test the former Battousai’s strength for more important matters. And he’d given in.

And yet he couldn’t regret it.

He’d shown them — shown them all — what Himura was really like — shown that boy. That boy that thought he knew Himura so well, that was stupid enough to think his foolish existence was sufficient to feed the fire of a hitokiri’s soul. Certainly Saitou had proven him wrong on both counts. Although why he felt so triumphant at the thought of having done so, he did not know. As if he cared what kinds of playmates Himura sought out these days.

As if he’d ever cared.

He wasn’t paying attention to the conversation going on around him; he’d barely even noticed the other woman was there in the room, didn’t know when she’d entered. He was concentrating dually on the presence outside the window and his own thoughts. As he felt more than heard Akamatsu slip away, presumably to run to Shibumi with his whipped tail between his legs and his ears down (although hadn’t Saitou just finished saying Akamatsu could never be strong enough to merit the canine title?), the room came back into focus. He hadn’t realized his unseeing eyes had been directed at the boy Sagara the entire time, but apparently they had. He wondered how long Sagara had been staring back at him the way he was now.

“Hmph.” He made the noise only to draw attention to himself as he bent and retrieved his jacket. Slinging the latter over his shoulder, he directed his following statement at Himura: “I’d love to stay and play, but I have real work to do. We’ll finish this some other time.”

“Your life has been spared,” Himura replied in that even, emotionless tone Saitou remembered so well.

“Rather, yours has,” Saitou replied with a smirk. These were the typical words of men whose battle has been prematurely terminated: meaningless noise. Only in actual combat could such things be determined. He continued toward the door.

“Saitou!”

Kawaji. Saitou probably wouldn’t hate him so much tomorrow as he did now; at the moment he was still reeling internally from the abrupt withdrawal of his battle-drug that Kawaji’s voice had caused, despising his short employer for dragging him back into this era that he loathed. He paused, resisting the urge to say something pointless and nasty to the little man, and decided what he would say. Halting thus put Sagara immediately to his right, and before answering Kawaji’s stern demand he turned his head briefly in that direction to give the boy a glance that if he’d ever told Sagara anything would have been an ‘I told you so.’ “Mission report,” he finally stated succinctly: “Himura Kenshin is worthless. Himura Battousai may suffice. End report.” And he stalked out the door.

Oddly enough, as he walked away, replacing and buttoning his jacket and wiping the blood from his face with gloves he then folded and put in his pocket, he couldn’t quite decide whether he’d succeeded or not. Obviously he’d done what he’d been assigned to do — tested Himura’s strength and determined whether or not the former assassin was suitable for the task Ookubo wanted to set him at — but as for his own personal goals… he couldn’t be sure whether he’d met them or not, as he wasn’t entirely certain he even knew what they had been.

Chapter 4 – The Beginnings(?) of Distraction

Sano was about ready to go into a rage and start throwing things. Every last little aspect of this situation made him nervous and unhappy, and his anger, as a response, was phenomenal. The only thing stopping him was the reflection that his shoulder, which already hurt like hell, would not stand for it.

What had that look been for? Any of those looks? Why had Saitou been looking at Sano anyway, if the bastard was so fixated on stabbing Kenshin to death? On taking Kenshin away…? (Sano was determinedly focusing all his anger on Saitou so as not to have to think about Kenshin at all.) Was Saitou maybe trying to rub in the fact that Sano didn’t understand his eyes and whatever that nameless-but-familiar thing in them was trying to tell him? Yeah, that’d be a great reason to stare at someone like they’re your next meal.

And just who the hell was Saitou, anyway?? Working for Ookubo and Kawaji and crap explained a couple of things, but not why the jerk had stabbed Sano through the shoulder or fucking kissed him. He doubted that had been part of Saitou’s mission briefing. Then Saitou’s whole demeanor, Sano thought, had been this understated cry of check-me-out-I-may-be-a-freak-but-I-can-kick-Battousai’s-ass-I-am-so-cool, right down to the casual way he’d strolled out the door after informing Kenshin he’d be dealing with him later, then looked straight at Sano with that… that… that look. That look saying who-fucking-knew-what. Was it, See how great I am? Or I’ll be dealing with you later, too? Or…

Wait…

Sano felt the blood drain from his face at his new thought. Was that what Saitou wanted? In other words, was he what Saitou wanted? That would explain why Saitou had obviously intended to kill Kenshin rather than just test him as Ookubo and Kawaji insisted had been the original idea… That would explain why Saitou had kissed Sano… That would explain the looks, probably… That would… not explain “What does he see in you?”

I am so fucking confused…

A sudden movement startled him into looking at Kenshin again, against his inclination, as his lover abruptly punched himself in the face, and it took Sano actual willpower not to step back in surprise. He just didn’t want to think about…

“I am not the only one involved in this,” Kenshin said darkly as he raised his bloody face. “We will all hear what you have to say.”

“…sessha hitori dewa gozaran…”

A wave of heat ran through Sano at the sound of the words, and he stopped breathing entirely. No, he hadn’t been thinking about Kenshin, but in reality… he’d been thinking quite a bit about Kenshin. And now it was like a physical sensation, the relief he felt at knowing that Kenshin, his Kenshin, had returned. From the sharp intake of breath at his side, Kaoru had evidently noticed as well… but she, not being in love with the confusing redhead, couldn’t possibly feel it the way Sano did. “Megumi-san?” she requested in a tone that, despite the tension of the scene, was almost calm. Sano wouldn’t have been able to say anything calmly even if he’d wanted to try.

Megumi nodded and hurried over to Kenshin. One look and with a shake of her head she said, “Come over here and sit down. This will take a minute.”

“Yahiko, will you find cushions for everyone?” Kaoru said.

Sano was barely paying attention to the sudden air of business that had filled the room; he stepped after Kenshin as the latter went to have his wounds tended, knowing this interval would not be long and soon Ookubo would be saying what he’d come to say. And in that time, Sano wanted to — needed, actually, to hear Kenshin’s voice again, talking just to him. He told himself it didn’t matter what that voice was saying as long as it was speaking and it was his Kenshin, but he wasn’t sure at all if that was true.

***

It had all been a test, of course. There was no deep, mysterious motive behind Saitou’s behavior; he was following orders as usual, presumably for some good cause, probably something fair and rational Kenshin would hear about in a minute or two, something in the pursuit of the destruction of evil. Yes, it all made sense now. Kenshin laid it out carefully in his mind thus:

Saitou had been assigned to seek Kenshin out. If he hadn’t been, he wouldn’t have, as he would have had no reason to do so. Saitou had a few points to make as part of this assignment, but no emotional involvement in any of them — the points were related to whatever Ookubo and Kawaji wanted to use Kenshin for, undoubtedly something unpleasant and difficult. Saitou had striven to prove that Kenshin’s friends were weak and he couldn’t protect them, that Kenshin himself was too trusting and easygoing. Was too different from the way he had been. Yes, Saitou had worked very hard to demonstrate that. And even if the old days had jumped up around them as they fought, that was just a natural result of such a battle — it was still merely part of the test, the assignment. Everything had been; it made sense.

And then from the end of the battle until the moment he’d left the dojo, Saitou had looked at nothing… but… Sano…

And all of Kenshin’s neatly-organized reasoning was blown away, as if each step in the process were written on a slip of paper on the floor and the door had suddenly been opened.

It meant nothing.

It proved nothing.

It said nothing to either of them.

Didn’t it?

Or had it meant something to Sano?

It almost seemed like it had.

Saitou hadn’t appeared threatening, particularly. Smug, perhaps, and calculating — Kenshin hadn’t been able to read him. Had Sano? Why would Saitou look at Sano like that anyway? Kenshin was trying so hard to believe the only thing going through Saitou’s head was the assignment, the duty in the name of justice. So why, when Kenshin had been the one at whom were aimed the cutting words, “I can’t stand to see what you’ve become” — words obviously meant to goad him into anger so Saitou could fight him and carry out that same duty — why did Saitou stare at Sano?

It wasn’t that Kenshin cared whether or not Saitou could stand it; it was just that the statement did seem to indicate Kenshin was the focus of this drama. Why should Sano be a target? Especially when it had already been proven that Sano was weaker than both of them and therefore a relatively easy one? Saitou didn’t know, and therefore could hardly have any grudge against or interest in Sano… as far as Kenshin could see, Sano’s part in all of these dealings had ended the moment he hit the dojo floor the day Saitou attacked him. Why would Saitou have been staring at him??

Kenshin was jolted into awareness of a question perhaps even more important by a hand on his shoulder that was not Megumi’s: Why, if he was so very worried about his lover, had he forgotten entirely Sano was there, sitting beside him?

***

As far as Saitou knew (and he knew rather a lot, as when he’d become a spy for Kawaji he’d gained access to all sorts of new information sources), Himura, a disturbingly young man wielding a legendary kenjutsu style whose actual existence many doubted, had shown up out of nowhere in 1863 in Choushu’s Kiheitai and become an assassin at Katsura Kogorou’s request for the specific purpose of using his skills to help build a new era in which the weak would no longer suffer.

Perhaps some would object to such a portrait of one that killed in the shadows for a revolutionary group, but from the few existing accounts of those that had known him at the time, it was undoubtedly true. Not that Saitou needed any such proof: it had been evident to him from the first time he’d crossed blades with the hitokiri Battousai. Well, perhaps the particulars of Himura’s morale hadn’t been evident: there was no way he could have read something so complex in another’s eyes alone. But what was obvious was conviction, whole-hearted devotion to a well-understood cause — and that was admirable in and of itself. The accounts Saitou heard later regarding what, more exactly, Battousai believed had only strengthened his respect for his one-time enemy. Clearly Himura Kenshin, during the Bakumatsu at least, had been fighting for the good of Japan and its people using all his strength of body and will.

And what was he now?

Saitou didn’t like to admit how often he’d wondered, during the past ten years, just what had happened to Himura at the commencement of the Meiji era. It was nothing unnatural to wonder, of course, about the fate of someone so interesting to so many, but after the first couple of years the curiosity really should have faded just as it had about the other few that had captured his interest during the war. What was there about Himura, after all, so much more intriguing than about any other young warrior from those days that fought with conviction and spirit? Well, other than that Himura could battle Saitou evenly and most of the rest hadn’t even come close?

At least that was still true of him, if nothing else was.

The first report, given by the unflagging spy he’d set to watch Himura from the moment the former Battousai set foot in Tokyo, had been a surprise. Subsequent reports had been dismaying. Actually, Saitou had not really believed them. The man these accounts represented was sloppy, passive, acquiescent — it could not be the same he had known. But now he had no choice but to believe. Now he’d been informed definitively that ten years was enough time to change someone completely. He wasn’t sure why it bothered him so much.

But was it really a change? Had Himura really transformed into something nearly unrecognizable, or was this rurouni merely an aggravating and hopefully temporary façade? Did Saitou hope, as it really seemed he did despite the indifference he continually declared to himself, that the latter was true? Presumably the answer to these questions would not be long in coming to light.

Saitou assumed the reason he cared was because there were so few people left that he’d known at all during the war, even fewer he’d respected, and he would like to understand what had happened to this one — whether he could continue to respect him, or whether he would be forced to add him to the ever-growing ranks of those he utterly scorned, on which he was often tempted simply to list ‘mankind as a whole’ and be done with it. But even given that sort of understandable curiosity, this kind of musing seemed slightly… no, no, it wasn’t worth that title. He liked to see, to know and understand what was going on around him, down to minor details, but that didn’t make him obsessive. Really, it was just the week thing that was bothering him.

Either Himura was still, underneath the fluffy exterior of this ridiculous decade, the precise and steadfast warrior he had once been; or he was, in spite of the strength of purpose with which he’d once burned, truly a lost and faded soul doomed to die some obscure death unworthy of his former status. The offer of a week to such a man was pointless.

The hitokiri would not need a week to accept the task.

The rurouni could take a year and still be coming up with excuses not to go.

And Saitou should not care so damned much either way. Why should those seven days seem like such a long time to wait?

Chapter 5 – Other Beginnings

The next few days were not pleasant.

Kaoru was in a bad mood in general due to recent events, and therefore when Megumi came over the two of them fought more than ever. Not that Megumi was in a particularly good mood herself. Yahiko had been pestering Sano ever since that day to give him the details of his relationship with Kenshin, about which the kid hadn’t known until Saitou’d had to go and refer to Sano as Kenshin’s lover in front of him. And Yahiko was too young to hear details like that, but too persistent to let the subject drop. And as for Kenshin… Kenshin was spending a lot of solitary time, among chores and shopping trips, in his secluded bamboo practice-hole.

He didn’t exactly say he didn’t want Sano around, but Sano, with all the willful irritation an insecure lover can muster, assumed. And as his shoulder still hurt, he spent most of his own time lying around in Kenshin’s room or just outside it, dozing or thinking. Mostly thinking. Kaoru, who hated it when Sano stayed at the dojo for extended periods of time and seemed in her annoyance to have forgotten he was still wounded, presumed him sleeping — and truly he would have preferred to be. He abhorred trying to work things out in his head, because they only seemed to get more twisted, and as he got deeper and deeper inside his own confused mind he just got more and more angry.

If there was anything worse than the confusion, it was this tense monotony. Kenshin made no sign, whenever he returned from his meditative outings, that he’d chosen one way or another. Sano didn’t care what Kenshin chose, as long as Kenshin was still Kenshin, but he would have liked to know what was going on under that red-thatched roof. Not knowing was surely as bad as whatever Kenshin eventually decided.

And he still had another four days of this to deal with.

Rather than in or near Kenshin’s room as he mostly had been for the last seventy-two hours, he was lying now on the front porch of the dojo. Actually, it seemed he’d gravitated slowly in that direction from day to day, or even nap to nap. It took him a while to notice, and when he did, he sat up and stared. He didn’t like to think he was drawn toward the as-yet-unpatched hole in the wall, but that was where he seemed to have stopped.

And he knew why he’d awakened, this time: he felt something. He didn’t always know what people were about to do the way Kenshin did, but he damn well knew when there was an enemy hanging around outside the dojo walls. He jumped up, ignoring the pain the action occasioned, and crossed the yard. He flung open the doors with a scowl and one clenched fist, and stopped short.

Any enemy but this he had been ready for. Now he didn’t know what to do.

***

Kenshin hadn’t been able to decide whether to walk up to Saitou and ask what he wanted, or to ignore him and enter the yard a different way. The choice was taken out of his hands, however, when Sano burst out the front doors ready to do battle and stopped short when he saw who his enemy was.

“Calm down, boy; I’m not here to see you.” Saitou sounded unexpectedly amused. Kenshin would have liked to see his face, but if he moved any closer Saitou would certainly realize he was there. Perhaps he already knew.

“You weren’t the first time either.” Sano, on the other hand, sounded agitated — and for good reason, Kenshin supposed. He could feel his lover shifting into a more solid combative stance.

“Is it my fault you spend your entire life lying around on someone else’s porch?” The sound of a match striking accompanied this question: Saitou remained casual.

“Shut up!” Sano growled. “Just tell me what you’re doing here!”

“You are aware that shutting up and telling you anything are mutually exclusive?”

“Tell me what you fucking want before I kick your ass!” Sano was becoming more and more angry and disturbed; he probably thought Saitou once again had some violent intention here at the dojo. Kenshin knew better: if Saitou intended violence, he would already have carried it out and would not be wasting time talking with Sano. Still, Kenshin couldn’t help being a little worried. Why was Saitou talking with Sano like this, casually but for Sano’s high level of tension?

“Indeed, what do I want?”

“What are you staring at, you psychopath?” Kenshin was startled at this demand, brows lowering at its implications. Saitou seemed to stare at Sano quite a bit, and if that meant what he thought it might… The idea bothered him, more than he would guess it should. “Hey, cut it the hell out! Like I’m some shunga or something…” Sano obviously didn’t much like the attention either. Kenshin found himself thinking at the same moment both that he should be relieved at this and that to feel so would be an insult to his lover.

He felt similarly about Saitou’s scorn-laden reply: “What makes you think you look that good?”

Now Sano was angry again, and, although the uncertainty wasn’t entirely gone from his voice, it had diminished quite a bit. “All right, just why the fuck are you here?”

“To talk to Himura, if you must know,” Saitou answered easily, adding, “though it’s hardly any of your business.”

“Listen up, bastard: it is my business if it has to do with Kenshin!” Here was Sano’s typical tone of righteous indignation, but with an added depth to it of whose nature Kenshin could not quite be sure.

“Is it really?” Had Saitou picked up on that extra edge to the tone as well, and understood it better than Kenshin had? He seemed to know exactly what to say to render Sano speechless. And that question… Kenshin didn’t like this. Not at all. What did Saitou think he knew? No, what did Saitou know, that he could use to make Sano so uncomfortable with just a few words? Actually, Kenshin had his guesses… and he didn’t want to think about them.

He moved forward, stepping around the corner. “What do you want, Saitou?”

Saitou was already looking in his direction. “Are you going to Kyoto?” he asked.

“Thought your part in that shit was just trying to kill everyone.” Sano, who had obviously found his voice again, moved to stand next to Kenshin even as Kenshin took his stolid place before the open door.

“Then you have been misinformed on several counts.” Saitou did not even remove his eyes from Kenshin as he said this, almost as if Sano’s presence didn’t matter anymore.

“Ookubo isn’t expecting my reply for two more days,” Kenshin said calmly.

“I’m asking now, out of curiosity,” Saitou returned just as calmly. There was no challenge in his words.

“I have not made my decision yet,” Kenshin said after a moment, not pleased with how much he found himself inexplicably shaken by the question. Why did Saitou want to know? Surely, as Sano said, his involvement in the whole affair was over?

Saitou frowned. “Putting it off, are you?”

Kenshin disliked the heavy scorn in the tall man’s voice. “No,” he replied firmly, “debating possibilities.”

Saitou stared down at him wordlessly, and Kenshin wondered, not for the first time, what was going on behind those metallic eyes. He would instantly have been able to tell if Saitou intended something other than standing there levelly meeting his gaze, but as to what the wolf was thinking… Finally with a sneer, Saitou took a drag on his cigarette and turned.

Sano let out an angry breath as the police officer began to walk away. “What the hell are you so worried about?!” he shouted after Saitou a moment later. “Bastard, like it has anything to do with you!” His volume was fading as he added, “Like Kenshin won’t do the right thing…”

Kenshin looked at him in surprise. “Sano…”

“Sorry,” Sano grumbled. “I just can’t stand him looking at you like that. Who does he fucking think he is?”

How was it Sano could assign any interpretation to that unreadable expression? Let alone that interpretation? And then, if Sano was so angry, why didn’t he act as he usually did and try to fight Saitou? Kenshin didn’t think for one moment Sano was learning any self-preserving restraint… perhaps the younger man saw something else in Saitou that Kenshin could not? The thought was unaccountably disturbing. “Come inside,” Kenshin urged, taking Sano’s hand and moving through the doorway, away from Saitou and the mystery he presented.

Because it didn’t matter.

It didn’t matter what Saitou was thinking or feeling, or who knew about it or how they knew.

It just wasn’t important.

***

Ookubo’s murder was not much of a surprise to Saitou. He wasn’t exactly thrilled it had happened, but couldn’t exactly say he hadn’t seen it coming some time in the indefinite future, either — especially given the way Ookubo liked to run around without an escort of any kind. No, not much of a surprise.

He wasn’t thrilled… it was terrible news… he wished he could have prevented it… but he wasn’t torn to pieces over it either. Because he hadn’t seen that look in Himura’s eyes — that absolute determination fueled by some flame within that could not be extinguished — in a number of years he didn’t like to count… and it was the knowledge Ookubo had been assassinated by some agent of Shishio’s that had inspired it. Whether Himura’s mind had been changed at the last moment or his resolve merely strengthened, the former Battousai was going to Kyoto.

Himura’s little troupe of friends, though… that was a different story. Saitou had no idea whether Himura had really understood his demonstration or not. And even if the point had gotten across to him, it was too much to hope that the headstrong Sagara would remain in Tokyo, regardless of what Himura chose to do. The other fools were mostly directionless without Himura around, so Saitou didn’t worry as much about them, but Sagara was likely to be a problem. A problem Saitou was almost looking forward to taking care of, although he didn’t quite know why. Probably because the boy was irritating.

The best way to find out how Himura planned to deal with those friends of his was to keep a close eye on him until the rurouni left the city, and as Saitou had very little business remaining in Tokyo at the moment, he could easily make that his first priority. Therefore, as soon as he could get away from Kawaji, he discreetly made his way to the Kamiya dojo to find out what he wanted to know.

Chapter 6 – Fallout

Kenshin had been gone all day.

It seemed so cold out. Unseasonable. Sano frowned.

It couldn’t take this long, could it? Unless… but, yeah, right. Seriously, Kenshin certainly wasn’t going to accept this stupid assignment. So all he would have needed to do was find Ookubo and explain he wasn’t going. Couldn’t take more than a couple hours at the most, no matter how much the old guy argued. Kenshin should have been back long before this.

It wasn’t really actually all that cold out, now he thought about it. It just felt that way, a little bit. He went inside, into Kenshin’s room, and sat down, staring at the door.

All right, so maybe he was worried. Kenshin and his damned sense of responsibility… As if this Shishio thing were his fault in any way, shape, or form. As if he had any obligation whatsoever to go to Kyoto and clean up the damn government’s mess.

But, no. There was just no way. Because, no matter how Kenshin felt about the issue, the thing involved killing, and that wasn’t Kenshin. Not anymore. And Kenshin would never, never go back to those days.

Not even with some guy around who seemed to want to pull him back. Some guy with really haunting eyes and…

Sano got up and left the room again. He didn’t know what he’d been thinking; it wasn’t cold, it was hot. And it was way too stuffy in there. He sat outside on the porch and stared absently into the twilight.

But what if…

No way.

He clenched a fist and slammed it down into the wood beneath him. He would really love to continue reassuring himself that his rurouni wasn’t going anywhere, but he couldn’t keep up lying to himself much longer. Because in the last little while he’d come to realize just how much he didn’t know about Kenshin and just how likely it was he could be mistaken about his lover’s intentions and, more frighteningly, the effect that the past could have on the former assassin. The truth was that he just didn’t know what conclusion had been the end of Kenshin’s week’s musings. Kenshin hadn’t confided in him, not even with the smallest hint.

It hurt, and he wasn’t reluctant to admit it. But even worse was this inescapable fear. Something important like this, and Kenshin didn’t say one word of his thoughts or plans to his lover… It made Sano wonder… how much did he really mean to Kenshin? Before this thing had started, he’d really been beginning to think Kenshin loved him. Would love him after not too long, at any rate. But now that he began to rethink the equation of Sano plus Kenshin, the answer was coming to something more like diversion than love — something useful that would take up time until Kenshin’s past came back to claim him. Until he

“Motherfucker, I am not gonna start thinking like that,” Sano growled, standing up abruptly. He went back into Kenshin’s room. The wind out here was a little chilly anyway.

He trusted Kenshin. He believed in Kenshin. He loved Kenshin. He didn’t sit around thinking stupid, traitorous, faithless, jealous, irrational thoughts about Kenshin.

But Kenshin had been gone all day.

Sano tensed abruptly as he heard footsteps outside. He was up and bounding toward the door in an instant, but before his hand reached it he realized it couldn’t be Kenshin. Too much weight, too much height. For all Kenshin sometimes looked and sounded really girly, he didn’t walk like a woman. Certainly not one that tall. Megumi, Sano guessed, coming to gossip with Kaoru.

To his credit, he didn’t go straight to sleep after he’d unrolled Kenshin’s futon and thrown himself down onto it — he lay around reflecting that love had to be more than just a word when the combination of uncertainty and an absent lover’s scent could make a heart hurt so desperately. Could drive someone that hadn’t cried in ten years so perilously close to tears.

***

It had taken him nearly an hour to come up with the words. Granted, that deliberation had been interspersed with contemplation on other subjects, so it might not have been such a lengthy process had he been undistracted. But even hearing the voice of the person that had murdered Ookubo had not taken his mind entirely from the difficult matter.

No matter what he said, it was going to upset Sano, so to choose what would hurt his lover least had been the dilemma. He hoped he’d gotten it right, but he wouldn’t know until he next saw Sano. And when that would be he did not know; he was on his way to Kyoto now, and had no idea how long he would remain there.

There hadn’t been anything he’d wanted to take with him: he’d spent what few yen he had on some food for the journey, and a decade as a wanderer had acclimated him to owning very little. Besides, Sano had been asleep in his bedroom, and although Kenshin could move as quietly as any spy, he just couldn’t risk his lover awakening. So he’d slid his note through the crack in the door and departed.

He was glad it was summer. He was taking any comfort he could get at this point, after all, and the thought of how much worse this would have been had it occurred in winter… well, it didn’t really do anything for him. But at some point it might.

The others, he felt sure, would forgive him. Kaoru and Megumi had each other, whether they knew it or not (and he was fairly certain they still thought of each other only as fellow members of the Women-Kenshin-Doesn’t-Want Club); and though they might be outraged at first, Megumi’s sense and Kaoru’s activity would soon help them both recover. And Yahiko admired him too blindly to be angry at him for long. Beyond that, even if they all understood he’d left alone for their protection, they would not hold it against him.

Sano, on the other hand…

Kenshin wouldn’t really want Sano calmly to accept that he wasn’t strong enough to accompany the rurouni on this dangerous venture; that just wouldn’t be Sano, and so compliant a lover would not appeal to Kenshin. But the concept was going to hurt him more than Kenshin could bear to consider. It was too much to hope Sano wouldn’t eventually figure it out, too (and, once again, Kenshin wouldn’t really want him not to), although the note certainly hadn’t elaborated on it; he could only hope Sano would not hate him for it.

His footsteps seemed difficult, somehow, as if the very act of walking had become a chore. He had to smile a little, wryly, at his predicament in general: he’d left his friends and lover, hurt them, in order to accept the request of a murdered man to do something he didn’t want to do and had, in fact, sworn he would never do again. And where was the benefit?

Well, certainly he would be aiding the country, fulfilling his own sense of responsibility, doing in part what he had dedicated himself to doing when he took up his sakabatou — and that had to be enough. But he didn’t feel it. And the thought that there might be one or two other rewards, which he probably didn’t want any more than he wanted the assignment in the first place, was vaguely disturbing. No, he didn’t even want to think about that… but the alternative was thinking about Sano, and there was too much heartache associated with those thoughts. So what could he think about, on this long and lonely walk?

The weather was always a good topic.

He reflected, most steadfastly, that it would have been a much finer day out if this chilly wind would stop.

***

Saitou was now even more curious than before, and it annoyed him because he’d rather not be curious at all. He just couldn’t help wondering what Sagara’s response to Himura’s note would be — not to mention what that note said — and it irritated him that he cared so much. He could probably have rationalized that he needed to know what message Himura had left and see first-hand the boy’s reaction to it the better to plan what he should do and say to keep Sagara from following Battousai all over creation… but the fact was simply that he was curious, and he wasn’t bothering to deny it.

The problem, for all of that, was that he really had no desire to sit around outside the dojo waiting for Sagara to wake up and find Himura’s message. And the problem with that was that he had nothing better to do. Dealing with Himura’s stubborn lover was Saitou’s final task in Tokyo, after all. But though he wanted to make sure he did it right, he didn’t want to waste much time on it. Still, he didn’t think walking into Himura’s bedroom and kicking Sagara awake in order to tell him he couldn’t go to Kyoto would be quite as effective as waiting and holding a slightly more conventional conversation with the boy. So he waited.

All night.

After this Shishio thing was over, he was going to sleep for a week.

The Kamiya girl and the child were up long before Sagara ever stirred, and even the doctor woman found her way to the dojo relatively early. As Himura hadn’t spoken to any of them the previous evening, they were all anxious to know the outcome of yesterday’s events, and kept walking past Himura’s bedroom door apparently in the hopes someone would emerge from it if they made enough noise…

Kenshin usually doesn’t sleep this late, but maybe he had a rough night, or maybe Sanosuke kept him up, giggle giggle, or maybe he isn’t in there at all, but someone’s obviously in there, it might be Sanosuke, should we knock? that would be too rude, but what if we were bringing him breakfast? maybe he’s thinking and doesn’t want to be disturbed, he does that sometimes, what do you think he said? and so on and on and on. How did Himura stand them?

Saitou was getting impatient. After battle or a long stint without rest it would make sense, but how could any ordinary person sleep this late? Especially in the middle of something this important to him? Granted, Saitou couldn’t exactly think of Sagara as an ordinary person anymore… the kid was strong and beautiful enough to have caught Himura’s attention, although whether that could possibly be anything more than a purely sexual relationship Saitou doubted. Still, how could the boy sleep so long??

There was always the possibility that Sagara had already awakened and read the thing and was sitting in there considering it or something, but Saitou was counting on an initial reaction explosive enough not to miss. Thoughtfulness didn’t really fit with what he’d seen of Sagara so far, let alone the reports he’d been given before that.

He was partially correct. Around noon Sagara finally appeared, flinging the door open so hard it bounced and sprang from its track and fell askew. In the boy’s free hand was clenched, crumpled, what must be Himura’s note, but the expression on his face was not what Saitou had expected. There was anger in it, and some pain, yes, but more than that some kind of confused look neither pleased nor unhappy. What did that damned note say?

This was very irritating. Saitou had sat around all night waiting for an entertainment, not for the stupid boy to be completely ignorant of what he was feeling. And now the officer had to go talk to him like that… Sagara was really an idiot. It was vaguely disappointing to think Himura had such poor taste — but then, as before, it was certainly just a temporary, casual arrangement for which he could more easily be forgiven; the physical attraction, after all, Saitou could readily understand (although when he’d come to that conclusion he wasn’t quite sure).

In bursting from the room, Sagara had startled the passing doctor woman into screaming, which in turn had brought the Kamiya girl running outside, but the kenkaya pushed past them both without a word as if he were only half conscious of their presence.

“Sanosuke!” they both protested, but, seeing they were being ignored, turned in synchronization toward Himura’s room. The boy, who’d obviously seen them after all and evidently knew they would seek answers from him when they found the chamber empty, took off at a run the moment their backs were to him, and was out the main doors of the dojo before they’d turned again.

Saitou followed, determined to have his questions answered and the remainder of his Tokyo duties carried out within the hour.

Chapter 7 – Confrontation, Confession

He wanted to tear the damn thing up, wanted to burn it, wanted to throw it in the river where the ink would bleed away and the paper would wash downstream out of his sight forever. And he wanted to keep squeezing it and never let go, wanted to take a needle and sew it into the skin just above his heart, wanted to frame it and hang it somewhere where he’d see it every day when he awoke. He wanted to kiss it, but he was afraid in doing so he might rip it to shreds with his teeth. He wanted to grind it into the dust with his heel and walk away, but he knew he would only turn around and pick it up and hug it and apologize to it, and then it would be difficult to get the dirt off.

He wanted to stop being ridiculous, but he really had no choice.

He had no idea what he was thinking or feeling, or where he was going or what he was planning. He was so angry, he wanted to track Kenshin down and punch him in the face. Or shake the little guy and demand just why the hell he’d thought Sano needed to suffer like this. He was so happy, he wanted to fly after Kenshin and kiss him halfway to death. Or talk to him, tell him everything, anything he could think of, all his secrets and stories and thoughts and ambitions and anything, just because he wanted to share himself. Tell him he loved him. But not until after he hit him, to let him know how much he was hurting. Or kissed him, to let him know how much he missed him already.

All right, so he did have some idea what he was thinking and feeling and where he was going and what he was planning. He wanted to see Kenshin. He wasn’t staying here. He was going to Kyoto. But what he would say to his lover once he found him… about that he really had no idea.

To Kyoto… He would need traveling food, and that meant money. And since he’d just annoyed Kaoru and Megumi, no way was he going back to the dojo or to the clinic. Besides, they would want to know how he knew Kenshin was gone, and that would bring up the note, and then they’d demand he tell them what it said, and then they would be the ones annoying him, and they’d probably want to go with, and… no, that just wasn’t an option. He would never, never, never show that horrible note to another living soul. It was the treasure of his heart, and not for anyone else’s eyes.

Katsu was his best option. Katsu would lend (give) him money without asking questions. Well, Katsu probably wouldn’t need to ask questions. Ever since he’d started the whole newspaper thing, he knew everything, and he would probably take one look at Sano and say, “You’re going to Kyoto after Himura, aren’t you? Do you need money?”

The problem was that Sano had been walking randomly through town without looking where he was going, and was now far from Katsu’s apartment. And although it would be quicker just to keep on the way he was going and leave the city right now, he knew he shouldn’t depart without some supplies. He forced himself to stop and consider. Trekking all the way to Katsu’s apartment before heading out would make visiting his own only a small detour, so there was no excuse not to pack a couple of things. He could still be out of here in a couple of hours, which amount of time couldn’t possibly make any real difference except to his impatient mind. So that’s what he would do. He turned, pleased with himself for being reasonable.

“Shit!” This wasn’t really in response to anything specific, just an exclamation of surprise at finding he was not alone. “Fucker!” This one was aimed more specifically. “How long’ve you been following me?”

“Longer than anyone should be able to follow someone else without being noticed,” Saitou replied dryly. “But I suppose the usual rules of attentiveness and sense don’t apply to you, do they?”

“Shut the hell up. What do you want this time? Shouldn’t you be off to Kyoto anyway? Got big murder plans and shit to take care of, don’t you?”

“I believe I’ve already explained that if I shut up I can’t answer your questions. You’ll have to choose one or the other.”

Sano growled, clenching the paper in his hand more tightly. “You think this is all going great, don’t you? You think everything’s worked out just exactly how you wanted it.”

Saitou nodded once, smiling slightly, but Sano could see the heavy scorn in his eyes. What emotion was Saitou repressing that he had to… well, Sano shouldn’t really try to figure that kind of thing out. First of all, he could have been wrong with that hypothesis he’d made back in the dojo a week ago and now be looking for something that wasn’t there. Secondly, he didn’t want to stand here staring into Saitou’s eyes puzzling over scorn and repression when Kenshin was somewhere waiting to be punched in the face and kissed half to death. Third, he hated Saitou anyway, so what the hell did he care how scornful the bastard was?

But the half smirk was beginning to enrage him, so he finally growled out, “Listen to me, you freaky-eyed jerk: no matter what you think, just ’cause Kenshin’s going to Kyoto doesn’t mean he’s gonna kill anyone.”

“I suppose you’re going to stop him.” Saitou’s tone was still threateningly casual, but he wasn’t fooling Sano.

“No, dumbass, he doesn’t need anyone to stop him! He’s strong enough to keep his own promises.” Except for the one about not wandering off without me, an unexpected infidel thought interjected.

“Promises? He promised you he wouldn’t kill Shishio?”

Sano didn’t quite know what to make of this question. “He didn’t have to… I already knew… that’s just how he lives…”

Saitou’s smirk grew. “So you have nothing to hold him to.”

Sano wasn’t sure why he was even still standing here discussing this kind of topic with this kind of man… maybe it was because he couldn’t bear anyone speaking badly of Kenshin, or maybe just because Saitou seemed to be playing off his own specific worries and Sano wasn’t going to take it. Either way, he demanded angrily, “Do you know anything about having a normal life, or do you just run around stabbing people all the time? Sometimes people promise you things without saying it, you know? Just by being a certain way and getting close to you. And then you can hold them to that even if they’ve never said a word about it. But I guess you wouldn’t know about shit like that, would you?”

The older man was contemplating him now with undisguised disdain, and what did it mean? “And if the rurouni you know is only a hiatus, a step out of his regular lifestyle?”

Sano glared, but truthfully, when this was exactly what he’d been worrying about lately, Saitou’s bringing it up did more to frighten than anger him. “But for me–” he began, but Saitou interrupted him:

“What makes you think you’re worth a second thought when it comes to what direction he decides his life is going?”

It stung about twice as much as Sano would have expected. Illogical as it was, he didn’t think it could have hurt all that much more even if Kenshin himself had said it. But at the same time, it infuriated him to the point where he wasn’t even sure what he did next. It felt as if he was trying to punch Saitou, but he found after a moment that he’d shoved Kenshin’s note into the other man’s face. “That fucking does,” he growled. “Read it, asshole, and just try to say that again.”

Saitou took the crumpled message between two fingers, smoothed it halfway out with two more, and scanned it briefly before handing it back. “Ahou.”

Sano snatched it, bristling. “What?!”

“You let a few words on a piece of paper blind you… you really can’t see the reason he left you behind, can you?”

“He said it right there, dipshit,” Sano retorted. But this entire conversation was leaving him with a dreadful sinking feeling, as if there were a lot of things out of his control and Saitou knew it.

With a short, derisive laugh Saitou replied, “Even if he hasn’t abandoned you in order to return to the way he once was without your interference, it’s obvious he doesn’t want you around because you’re a liability to him.”

Sano stared, dumbstruck. He was a… But Saitou couldn’t possibly… But it made sense… And Kenshin would never say something like that, might even say something else to lead Sano away from the idea…

As Sano stood stunned, Saitou continued. “The first rule in any fight is to know your opponent’s weak points. If you were to go to Kyoto, Shishio would immediately find a way to use you. Battousai knows he can’t protect you; I showed him that. That’s why he left you here.”

The scales were tipping heavily toward punching Kenshin rather than kissing him, although at the moment Sano could do nothing but stand perfectly still waiting for the first wave of pain to subside. He wasn’t really seeing anything in front of him, only Kenshin’s face and the question of how he felt about it. But as things began slowly to come into focus around him, it was extremely irritating to find Saitou still standing there, silent and staring. He frowned, and in a sudden movement pushed past the other man and started walking swiftly away.

“Where are you going?” Saitou asked.

“Where do you think I’m going, bastard?” Sano stopped and glanced back; Saitou had not moved. “I’m going to Kyoto to hit Kenshin. Got a problem with that?”

“Kyoto is the other way,” Saitou replied mildly, walking toward Sano with calm purpose. “And, yes, I do have a problem with it. I can’t have an amateur like you underfoot; this is too important for you to get in the way.”

Sano turned to face Saitou, eyes blazing with the rage these words had awakened. “I’ve had about enough of you,” he snarled. “I’m going to Kyoto whether you like it or not!” And he hurled himself at his enemy to prove his point with his fists.

But Saitou dodged the blow, and, in a movement that seemed to indicate he’d been ready to fight all along despite his casual demeanor, slammed his own gloved fist into Sano’s exposed underarm, seized the wrist that sailed past him, and used the intended strike’s momentum to throw Sano dizzyingly to the ground.

The disorientation of this move did not distract Sano from the agonizing sensation of barely-healed flesh ripping open and blood abruptly soaking the gi Kenshin had just washed and mended for him. By the time he hit the ground, though, the anger was blocking out any other pain — until Saitou’s heel ground down on his torn shoulder and pain took over again for a moment. Then anger regained the upper hand as the bastard stepped back and spoke. “You see how easily your weakness is used against you. Do what’s best for everyone and stay here.”

Sano staggered to his feet. The battle between anger and pain within him continued, but the unbeatable pain — the one that wasn’t physical — was returning with new force and threatening to overwhelm all. Weakness… Was he really…? He just… No, it seemed his rage still had a chance, as he felt it surge up again and break over him, sending him hurtling forward a second time. And even though Saitou was his target, some of the anger was directed at Kenshin, giving Sano new resolve.

Saitou blocked the punch with raised arms, and, although he skidded back, it didn’t seem to have affected his balance. Evidently, however, his composure was slowly wearing away. “What is this going to prove?” he wondered in obvious annoyance as Sano postured for combat. “Especially when I’ve already beaten you once?”

“You can’t say that,” Sano returned in a growl. “You didn’t fight fair.”

Saitou glowered. After a moment he reached down and lifted his sheathed sword out of its holster on his belt and tossed it aside. “You won’t have that excuse this time. If I use your own sorry way of fighting to beat you, you’ll see what your own limitations are whether you like it or not.”

“You’ll never make me think I’m anyone’s fucking weakness,” Sano replied as he charged. Although he wasn’t sure he believed it.

At the moment, much as he would like to do some serious damage to Saitou, what he really wanted was for the jerk to back off so he could go to Kyoto without any trouble. So all he needed was to prove he was stronger than Saitou thought, that he had some tricks (fair tricks!) up his sleeve that would ensure he was not a liability. So he showcased his new idea, one he’d actually formulated while watching Saitou fight Kenshin: he laid into the man with a seemingly endless barrage of tight punches, forcing Saitou to stay entirely on the defensive (if he didn’t want his ribs pummeled into his lungs) and never giving him a chance to get in a hit of his own. A messy technique, but effective.

Or so he’d thought. But he found, as he fell back slightly to observe the effects of the prolonged attack, that his blows didn’t seem to have connected. Saitou would have nicely bruised forearms from blocking them all, but that would be the sole damage. Sano could only stare.

Saitou’s smirk was heavy with contempt, but also rather irritated. “You still don’t get it, do you?” He lowered his arms, the sleeves over which were shredded from elbow to wrist, and indeed he did not seem to have taken a single hit. “You may be considered strong in your little Tokyo fighting circles, but the Kyoto we’re talking about is a different world. Compared to Battousai and me you’re nothing but a child.”

Sano’s fists clenched again, but the depth of his ire was not so great as it had been. It was appalling, the way Saitou said ‘Battousai.’ Sano had heard Kenshin’s enemies say the old assassin’s name before, and of course he’d heard Saitou speak it both to Kenshin and when discussing Kenshin with Sano… but when mentioning him so casually like this, it was different from anything Sano had ever heard. Especially given the context, it sounded so familiar, so knowledgeable… as if Saitou were infinitely accustomed to speaking that name as well as perfectly justified in passing judgment on that man.

“That’s not his name anymore,” Sano said tensely, trying not to seem illogically defensive. Saitou started to make some undoubtedly smart reply, but Sano immediately continued, loath to listen. “And even if he did decide to start killing people again, it still wouldn’t be his name because the war’s been over for ten fucking years and he couldn’t go back to that time even if he wanted to.”

A brief — barely momentary — flicker of contemplation passed through the yellow eyes before Saitou replied, “Even so, you’re nowhere near his level. Kyoto is no place for you.”

Sano’s only response was to ready himself to fight again.

“You don’t know when to give up,” Saitou remarked darkly, and attacked.

Sano gritted his teeth and struggled just to keep his balance as Saitou mimicked his move from a few moments before — copying it perfectly except that he connected nearly every time. It didn’t make any sense! The blows were the same speed, coming at Sano with the same strength, but he was lucky if he could block one out of four. What was the difference?

It didn’t take Saitou long to knock Sano to the ground again, this time with a painfully shocking hit to the jaw that wrenched his neck and sent paralyzing tremors through his entire body. Of course Sano immediately struggled to rise, but just at first he couldn’t find anything like balance.

“Do you understand yet?” Saitou was saying. “Even at your own game, you can’t win. Shishio is going to be playing something completely different; if you go, you’ll jeopardize the entire operation and be killed.”

Perhaps it was the mixture of determination and rage flooding him that helped Sano finally stand. Saitou looked annoyed as the former kenkaya steadied himself and declared, “I’m going to Kyoto.” His tone was surprisingly calm, the words far more level than any he’d yet used as he added, “No matter what you or anyone else says.”

Saitou frowned, his eyes narrowing. “Give up.” There was a chilling finality to the statement, and as he made it he took what looked like a gatotsu stance without a sword. “You can barely stay standing.” Sano returned the dour expression, silently still and challenging. “It doesn’t matter how stubbornly you keep this up; you’re still just an inexperienced child.”

This was not a blow Sano could afford to take, and he knew it, but not until the last possible moment did he see any way out of it. Then as Saitou’s fist was about to meet his face, he slammed his own fists together with Saitou’s arm between them, applying all the force he could without knocking himself over. And it worked: Saitou was stopped mid-charge, staring surprised at Sano. There was a long moment of silence during which a slow, dark, triumphant smile spread over Sano’s face. “This inexperienced child could break your arm right now,” he finally said. “What do you think of that?”

“Kisama…” Saitou, for the first time, really looked like he’d been thrown for a loop. And this helped Sano find the words he needed.

“You keep saying I’m nothing compared to you and Kenshin, but so what? You guys didn’t start out that strong, or get like that just overnight… you had a war and then ten years to practice and get better and crap. But that doesn’t mean everyone who hasn’t had that kind of experience is a weakling. I may have a long way to go, but that doesn’t mean I ain’t at a pretty good place right now.”

Saitou’s expression had gone back to its usual sneer, but he made a frustrated sound. Sano thought he was going to say something, but instead the older man caught him unexpectedly with a right hook that knocked Sano away. “I can see I’m wasting my time with you. Go, then, if you’re so determined to get yourself killed.”

“I am not gonna ‘get myself killed!'” Sano retorted, watching irately as Saitou turned and started to walk away.

Saitou looked over his shoulder. “A fool who thinks he’s strong and doesn’t know the first thing about defense isn’t going to survive long.”

Sano kept his eyes on Saitou’s back until the other man was out of sight, and he found he was trembling. Possibly with pain, but he doubted it, as that sensation was mostly forgotten. He found all he could think of was how he could get stronger and prove to that bastard he wasn’t some loser weakling. He didn’t even bother to wonder why it mattered so much that he prove this, why he cared what Saitou thought. He just had to; he just did. In that moment, there was nothing else in the world besides Saitou and Sano and something one of them really needed to learn.

After a while, of course, reality came trickling back, and Sano turned and headed toward Katsu’s place again. He felt a little tired now, although he hadn’t really expended all that much energy in the fight… it was the conversation, rather, that seemed to have drained him. He didn’t want to think about anything, not even how he was supposed to become stronger in so short a time; he just wanted to leave and start walking. He’d have to figure something out on the way.

***

He never really considered that it wasn’t quite natural for there to be two of them. It was just one of those things that seemed perfectly normal in the dream and wouldn’t strike him as odd until he awoke in the morning. That there were two was just another part of his trial anyway.

I’ll tell the locals they’re twins. And that I’m only married to one of them. Except that he was married to both of them, because they were the same woman but there were two of her.

But I don’t want either of them. The person I love is… somewhere else. It’s been a long time… So long he almost couldn’t remember who it was. And the women wanted him. Why is that? I killed their fiance… They should hate me. They both should. But, actually, he didn’t know yet that he’d killed their fiance. So why should they hate him?

Still, I can’t love them, obviously; all I want is to protect them. He didn’t much think about protecting people, usually; it was his job to kill, and although there was a philosophical, indirect sort of protection involved in that, it was far from his thoughts when he drew his sword. But now I just want to make sure they’re safe and happy. That was clearly impossible, though. They wanted him to be something other than what he was, and they weren’t going to allow him to protect them.

Yes, that’s exactly how it happened. Are they destined to die, then?

He awoke to the sound of someone approaching through the trees.

***

He’d always been rather partial to the ocean, as much as he’d ever really been partial to anything. He enjoyed the fact that for all its changes in form and attitude, it remained blue, remained vast and unstoppable despite the years’ movements. He was appreciating this idea in the back of his mind as he stood at the rail and only half observed the rocking tide around him. The ship swayed more and more as they truly got underway, but it felt steadier to him than anywhere he’d stood for weeks. And still it rolled beneath him.

“…the war’s been over for ten fucking years and he couldn’t go back to that time even if he wanted to.”

He never would have thought that after so long, after all the changes that had touched both their lives, he would trust Battousai. Trust Himura, he corrected himself with a surprising lack of bitterness. It made no sense for him to trust the man in the first place; they had never been anything but enemies — mortal enemies. Well, perhaps there had been some rivalry there, a slight sense of competition… but it was a strange world in which a man could trust his enemy over his friends. But Saitou had no friends, so perhaps it was he that was strange. Certainly he was foolish. He and Himura had tried to kill each other too often for this kind of sensation. He must be mistaken.

“No matter what you think of my ideals, I will never kill again.”

Perhaps out of desperation, a final act of rebellion against something he knew he couldn’t deny much longer, he searched his memory for any evidence of the animosity that should logically be the basis of his relationship with that man. Ah! Why had he gone to the dojo after the fight, he demanded of himself triumphantly, if he trusted Himura so much? Shouldn’t he have assumed the former assassin would make the right choice?

“Sometimes people promise you things without saying it, you know? Just by being a certain way and getting close to you. And then you can hold them to that even if they’ve never said a word about it.”

The truth was that he had assumed. He’d never really believed Himura would turn down Ookubo’s request. Feared it, perhaps, but only in the irrational way an adolescent still fears the monsters in his closet. And he’d gone to the dojo simply because he wanted… he wanted…

He didn’t know what he wanted. He didn’t know why he’d gone there that day.

It’s been said that a filthy man cannot smell the stench that clings to him. But Saitou was beginning to smell his own denial. Or perhaps that was only the sea, which at the moment was looking disturbingly far from blue.

Sanosuke– I feel I must go to Kyoto. Please protect the others while I’m gone; please wait for me. I love you. –Kenshin

So there was obviously more to it than physical attraction. But Saitou wasn’t ready to admit just yet that he could see any basis for emotional appeal. Then, Sagara was clearly not as pathetic as Saitou had thought at first, but there was certainly no reason for… But Himura loved the boy, so there certainly was a reason.

Saitou no longer had the energy to ask himself why he cared.

“Do you know anything about having a normal life, or do you just run around stabbing people all the time?”

No. No, he didn’t know much about having a normal life, and he didn’t want to. He hated it all. He hated being confused. He hated this rocking ship. He hated Himura and Sagara and their damned voices in his head and however he actually felt about either of them. He hated this hellish, changing grey sea most of all.

Chapter 8 – Stronger Distraction

He’d been a little off in his prediction. Upon opening the door, Katsu had skipped the small talk and gone straight to the point with, “How much do you need?” But then, Sano had made his prediction before he’d had a bloodied shoulder and freshly bruised face. At any rate, departure from Tokyo hadn’t taken long. Neither had getting lost.

He sat wearily against a tree and tried not to think about anything. He’d never run so fast for so long before — pushing his body to its limits until his lungs threatened to dissolve and his legs finally declared their simple decision not to run anymore today — but he’d wanted to escape. Perhaps that was what had gotten him lost, but he didn’t really care. Just… he’d escaped… now…

Or had he? Naturally, once he went still and his rasping breaths were calming, the thoughts began to return. He wished he could run forever — well, run all the way to Kyoto in one stretch, anyway, so there would be no gap, no moment when he was forced to sit against a tree to save his lungs from being ripped to shreds and his legs from turning to some kind of highly useful bean paste not terribly effective at holding his weight. The gap let the thoughts in again, and now he was exhausted on top of it.

If he could sleep, he could lose them, and when he awoke he would be rested enough to run from them again. He pushed away the mental query about what he would do if his dreams followed the same pattern as his thoughts, as they seemed likely to do. It didn’t matter, though; he couldn’t sleep just yet anyway.

He pressed his hands against his chest and looked down at them with a scowl. The knuckles were split, every one, the fingers bruised, and dried blood lay in thin, halted lines down to his wrists. He probably shouldn’t have done that… but he’d been so furious!! He’d had to take his rage out on something, before he started running, and it had felt so good to watch huge trees splinter and go crashing down among their fellows to cause absolute havoc among the animals and birds. Trees looked nothing like Saitou, but still, somehow, it felt good.

And now he’d admitted why he’d bloodied his fists, the thoughts came pouring in. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the tree-trunk, hoping sleep would take him soon but not very optimistic about it.

. . . stronger . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . His reflections flowed along in time with the beating of his heart. . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . that bastard . . . stronger . . . why did every fucking thing he had to say have to be true?. . . stronger . . . stronger . . . but it wasn’t all true . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . no, ’cause Kenshin’s still Kenshin, no matter what Saitou says . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . I’ll make that asshole respect me, if it’s the last thing I do . . . stronger . . . and I’ll prove to Kenshin I’m not a fucking liability, too . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . I’ll show them both . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . I don’t even know how . . . stronger . . . but I fucking will . . . they’ll see . . . stronger . . . both of them with their ten years of experience since the war, all better than me and everything . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . they’ll see, and then they’ll . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . I don’t know . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . but I won’t be left behind again . . . stronger . . . I’m not a fucking baby . . . stronger . . . even if he did say I’m a child, and so what if I am compared to those old men? . . . stronger . . . I’ll show them . . . I will get stronger . . . stronger . . . Saitou has to . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . Kenshin has to . . . stronger . . . they both . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . I’m not just . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . had ten years . . . stronger . . . . . . . stronger . . . . . . . . I will . . . . . . . . . . . . .

It seemed he was closer to sleep than he’d originally imagined. Either that or this pleasant lullaby had eased the transition from waking to dreaming much more quickly than he’d fancied it could.

***

“…and they were all laughing like it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard!” She reminded him a little of Sano. “And it was true, but it’s good for onmitsu to be small, right?” Not that Sano ever chattered like this. “But when I said so, they just kept laughing!” A certain restlessness about her was somewhat like Sano when he was actually interested in what he was doing. “I got so mad…” Misao’s energy level was slightly higher than Sano’s even then. “Then, I guess to prove their point or something, Hyottoko grabs me and throws me in the air!” He wondered if she had lazy spells the way Sano did. “So I’m looking for a good way to kick him in the face as I’m coming down, just to show them all that just because I’m small doesn’t mean they can toss me around…” Her lazy spells would probably exceed Sano’s in lethargy just as much as her activity did his in exuberance. “And then my grandpa decides to get his old self involved.” She didn’t seem to do anything by halves, and therein lay the real resemblance. “He isn’t really my grandpa, actually, did I mention?” Beyond that, she seemed prone to bouts of swift-passing anger much like Sano was. “My real grandfather was Okashira before Aoshi-sama.” But once again, Sano didn’t go on like this. “He was killed at the beginning of the Bakumatsu and I never met him.” Actually, her talk was becoming a bit tiresome. “Anyway, so here I am falling and Jiiya decides to show off that he still knows what he’s doing even though he’s so old.” Not that he would tell her she was annoying him… yet. “Actually, it was a pretty good lesson for me, because of course I was so silly back then — you know, eleven years old and all, and thinking anyone over thirty is washed up — so it was good to learn that old Jiiya still had it in him.” He liked energetic people perfectly well. “I hope I’m still that good when I get that old!” He didn’t like chatter, and he found women’s voices a little irksome. “So where was I? Oh, flying through the air, and then Jiiya jumps up and grabs me before I can manage to kick Hyottoko in the face.” Sano would probably put up with her a little better… “And he and Hannya-kun start playing this game like I’m a ball or something.” Sano and Misao might turn out to be two peas in a pod, really. “Every time I manage to get something ready — like a kick or a punch, and once I had a really good one for Hannya-kun’s crotch — whoever was holding me would hand me off to the other guy.” He could be wrong, though; they might rub each other entirely the wrong way for being so similar in some points. “So they’re jumping around off the courtyard walls passing me back and forth in the air, and Beshimi’s rolling on the ground laughing.” Saitou would not like her at all. “I mean literally rolling on the ground laughing!” Not that Saitou and Misao were likely ever to meet, but it might be interesting if they did. “And the worst part of it was that — I mentioned I was eleven at this point, right? — it was actually kinda fun to be thrown around like that, and I was trying not to laugh myself!” He wondered idly what Saitou would have to say to her. “Anyway, like I said, that was the last time I saw Aoshi-sama smile.” Or about her, if Saitou considered it not worth his time to address her directly. “And the time before that was — hey, did you hear something?”

***

Before they’d even become aware of him, Shishio Makoto had built up one of the largest criminal empires in Japanese history, as well as a fighting force that could not be dismissed as some mere gang. His organization had eventually grown so big that despite how well it was maintained it could no longer be hidden from the government. But by then, he was firmly established and unshakeable, and had already quietly begun his takeover. It seemed incredible, but the possibility that he could have the entire country under his control within the next year was real. The worst part of it was that the whole affair, when looked at in the light, appeared so implausible and fantastic that there was little chance of much resistance from the general populace. Moving thus so efficiently in the shadows, Shishio was a greater danger than any other kind of revolutionary. That was why they had to combat him in kind: quietly and subtly.

And, really, in the midst of something like that seemed a very odd time for a government agent to indulge in self-defeating behaviors.

Though he was still technically denying that he… well, denying things… he wouldn’t have used that phrase for it. ‘In denial’ implied there was an awareness not readily apparent, that the knowledge being denied was subconscious — whereas what he denied now had been parading itself through his head for the last few days; he was merely pushing it away, not claiming it didn’t exist. He had been in denial, and now he was simply being stubborn. He would not admit… what was begging to be admitted.

Stubbornness — persistence for persistence’s sake apart from any justice involved in the issue — was a perfectly useless, often dangerous, and almost always ridiculous frame of mind, and one he would generally avoid. But everyone had to let themselves go somewhere, sometime… it was just a vacation of sorts. Although right now really did seem like an odd time for it.

But then, none of this had anything to do with Shishio and the state of the nation… allowing himself to play at being stubborn or in denial or whatever he was might as well happen now as any other time, as long as it didn’t interfere. Actually, keeping things from interfering might be one of his motives. He had no time, he had no energy, he certainly had no patience for things like that right now. Also, he could think up a number of very specific reasons why he shouldn’t admit…

Or maybe that was denial again? Considering, he couldn’t decide whether these excuses he was making, though they seemed quite logical, were part of the stubbornness, or part of another attempt to claim he didn’t…

Or maybe they were both really the same thing? He’d admitted that he was being stubborn, but maybe it was just a new label for the denial? He could be in stubborn denial about being in denial, stubbornly claiming he was merely stubborn rather than in denial.

And if that wasn’t the most ridiculous thought he’d ever had, he didn’t know what could possibly have been.

He hated this. It gave him a headache every time he thought about it, which meant he’d had a headache for… a week? Or had it been longer than that? But this headache, actually, was probably different from the headache he’d had before he’d realized… Time to think about something else. Perhaps saving the country would be a sufficiently distracting subject. Starting with whatever was going on in this sorry little village.

Himura appeared to have found yet another shrill and obnoxious friend just when it seemed he’d managed to escape the last batch. Saitou could see merely by the hyper glint in her eyes that he would probably regret after not too long having saved her just now. But he couldn’t look at her for long, because Himura was out there fighting in the main square of the little town.

Himura had very red hair, that is, and the contrast against the grey and miserable tableau drew Saitou’s gaze. That was the reason he looked at him.

(…self-defeating…)

“Hey,” Saitou called, in a slightly darker tone than he’d intended. No, actually, it was good to talk to him like that. That was what Himura needed to hear. “What are you doing wasting time around here?”

“Saitou…” The way Himura said his name was… well, it wasn’t interesting at all. It was not at all different from the way anyone else said his name. Similarly, Himura’s eyes that turned toward him in surprise were nothing remotely fascinating. Just like his hair, they provided an unexpected contrast to the colors around them and drew Saitou’s own eyes.

(…useless…)

“What are you doing here?” Himura didn’t seem to care, asking this, that he hadn’t answered Saitou’s very similar question.

Saitou explained concisely. It was good to talk business, but when it was Himura he was talking to, it didn’t really help.

“The boy’s brother must have been the man you speak of.”

Saitou followed Himura’s brief glance toward the two desecrated bodies that hung in the center of the square and then at the boy behind him and nodded slowly. “Mishima Eiichirou was a native of this town; I thought he could get in without raising suspicion, but apparently he was discovered. The fool should have waited for me before trying to get his family out.”

The anonymous girl had drawn closer, and now burst out, “How can you say something like that about one of your own men?!”

“Oi…” Saitou glanced sidelong at her, marking smallness, swiftness, bared teeth, and a pointed nose. Not to mention a peculiar annoying quality that, as it was already displayed in this the third thing he’d heard her say, was sure to heighten to a painful degree. Certainly this was not a companion Himura had chosen of his own accord! “Who is this weasel-girl?”

The little one went into a violent tantrum, and Himura restrained her and said some pacifying things, but Saitou had what he wanted: that quirk of the former assassin’s mouth, the glint in those violet eyes, that told him he’d been correct.

Which knowledge, of course, he only wanted because he needed to be sure Himura’s judgment was still intact.

(…dangerous…)

And he wasn’t tempted to test Himura’s tact by saying something else that would invite the redhead to join him in teasing the girl possibly without her knowledge, thus making a sort of inside joke out of the scene.

(…ridiculous…)

“Please calm down, Misao-dono.” Himura was still trying to keep the girl from attempted murder. “That is merely the way he talks; if you become angry with everything he says, we will be here for eternity.”

Saitou snorted, but Himura still had half of half of a grin hanging around the edge of his lips, so he could not be entirely displeased. Anyway, it was the truth…

“Besides that,” Himura added, his tone growing less pleasant as he turned slowly back toward the square, “we have more important things to attend to right now.”

Saitou had never rued his low level of compassion. But at the same time, he had never particularly disliked the emotion on the occasions he did feel it, nor minded it in others. Of course he believed having too much of it, or none at all, could be blinding, but it was generally something he didn’t give much care or consideration. Certainly he’d never admired it… before…

But the combination of deep pity and rage in Himura’s eyes as he fixed them on the hanging bodies, Saitou was realizing, suited him extremely well. Not the same as the purpose with which they’d glowed ten years ago, no… but somehow, that was all right. Different, but still…

Yes, fine, he admitted it. It was a little irritating, but he conceded he’d probably been wrong in assuming the changes Himura had undergone were entirely bad. That didn’t mean much, though. They still needed Battousai’s superior strength for the coming conflict.

(…and his subconscious could stop with the tirade any time…)

Himura was approaching the corpses, his hand on the hilt of the sword he’d resheathed. As his intent became clear, a protest rose from some member of the crowd that had gone only half-noticed as it gathered at the other side of the square. Saitou, Himura, and the girl Misao looked to where an old man, surly in his fear, stood spokesman for the equally surly and frightened other men of the town.

“You can’t cut them down,” he said. “You’ll anger Senkaku-sama, and we can’t allow you to do that. Without his permission, those bodies stay where they are.”

“Will you listen to yourself?” the girl sprang forward shouting. Saitou expected her to go up in flame at any moment like the slip of paper she almost resembled. “Are you going to let this Senkaku get away with this, just like that?!”

“Defying Senkaku-sama means death. Obeying him means life.” There was hardly anything in the old man’s eyes as he replied… a trace of weariness, a spot of fear, perhaps… but beyond that, nothing. He barely even seemed human. “All of you must leave at once, for the sake of the village. Eiji, do you hear me?”

Little Misao was trembling with anger, apparently shocked that anyone could act like this. Ah, young disillusionment. Not that the situation was any less abhorrent to someone twice her age. Saitou stepped forward quickly, putting a hand on her head and startling her out of whatever she’d begun to retort. “Don’t bother,” he said. “Few people are willing to put honor and dignity over their own lives. If your only goal is to survive, after all, those things are useless. Give them up and live like an animal, and you’ll live.” Intentionally he spoke loudly enough for everyone present to hear him, but he knew it would have little effect. Men that had allowed themselves to sink so far could rarely be brought back by mere words.

And, indeed, it only made them angry. Mutters spread through the little crowd, but even so it was a washed-out murmur: a little anger, a little guilt, but mostly just noise for the sake of it. Truly, they were little better than animals.

“No matter what you say,” the old man finally insisted, “we can’t allow you to remove the bodies, and you must leave at once.”

Himura stepped forward without a word, and Saitou found himself watching breathlessly, taking in every slight motion of that small frame with a rising feeling of pleasure. Yes… yes… he’d been wrong. So very wrong. The fire had never gone out, nor even waned. The flames had just shifted hue, so Saitou had not at first been able to make them out — but he was beginning to see them again, a figurative light around the former assassin. That was why he really stood out.

Purposefully displaying his uncanny speed in the action, Himura severed the ropes that held the two corpses, his sword vanishing back into its sheath before anyone present except Saitou could mark its movement. Then, kneeling, heedless of the blood and not flinching at the touch of cold flesh, he began to untie the ropes from the dead couple’s necks.

Saitou walked toward him, finding as he did so that any desire he’d been harboring to keep up his stubborn denial about this particular matter had been swept away. It was about time he admitted that this Himura Kenshin was every bit as palatable to him as the old hitokiri Battousai; that Saitou wanted him just as much now as he had ten years ago and even, as long as he wasn’t in denial anymore, every day for that long decade.

He toyed with the idea of admitting some other things as well, but he didn’t think he was ready for that yet. The concession he’d just made had been quite enough for one day.

The girl was cheering, the villagers protesting loudly, but Himura, who had straightened and looked away from them all, ignored the sounds, his face grim and determined. Saitou stopped at his side, his gaze directed at the villagers rather than Himura for fear he might say the wrong thing. “You see how the people of this place have degraded themselves,” he remarked softly. “If Shishio has his way, the same will happen to all of Japan. People will be controlled through fear and violence, and in struggling just to survive they’ll forget the real reasons they were living in the first place.”

“Saitou,” Himura said quietly, “did the government truly abandon this town?”

With a frown and a sigh Saitou replied, “It isn’t just this one. At least ten villages have been lost to Shishio and his men. The police have given up all efforts at recovering them.”

“I don’t get it,” the girl said. She’d drawn closer as Saitou spoke. “If the police can’t do anything, why not just send in the army?”

“Ahou,” he replied, not even bothering to look at her. “It’s barely been half a year since the Seinan War. If the army were to be mobilized again so soon, it would show every foreign power exactly how weak we are at the moment.”

“How can you say something like that, you heartless–” her shrill voice came from his side, but he cut her off sharply:

“Even if that weren’t the case, we’d never get the authorization for any kind of military action. Nobody who’s in a position to give the order wants to share Ookubo’s fate.”

“I see,” Himura nodded. “The army could certainly retake this and the other villages, but whoever planned the operation would undoubtedly be assassinated in retaliation.”

Saitou finally looked at him. “You of all people should know how little the government can do to prevent such things,” he replied quietly. Then more loudly, “In the end, politicians and officials are only human. They all value their lives and hope someone else will handle the problem.”

“Someone else?” the girl shrieked, waving her arms. “Someone else?! Who else is there? Who’s going to help this place, and avenge that kid’s family?!”

“Who else indeed?” Saitou asked, and Himura would know the question was directed at him. “The village, the police, the army, the government… nobody can stand up to Shishio Makoto.” He met Himura’s eyes, and finally let his gaze stay there as he saw that the former assassin had come to the same conclusion Saitou was vocalizing: “That’s why men like you and me are needed for something like this.”

He was searching for any sign that Himura had also come to the conclusion Saitou did not vocalize– That’s why I had to hurt you and your lover. It was never random… never malicious –an avowal he wouldn’t have bothered to make even mentally if he hadn’t decided to leave his comfortable denial. But apparently he was looking for too much, on this occasion, for the only glint in Himura’s eyes was that of determined purpose.

The girl must have wondered why they were just standing there staring at each other, for she was making impatient, angry noises like some kind of trapped rodent. Saitou realized in that moment that it might be every bit as dangerous having admitted what he had as the denial had been before. He was already starting to get a little distracted by these ideas, and it had barely been ten minutes.

“We’ve located the inn where Shishio is currently staying,” he said, resolving not to think about any of it right now when it was potentially perilously intrusive; he would resolve this later. “I think a visit is in order. Will you be coming with me?”

Himura was silent for a long moment, but it didn’t seem he was deliberating… or at least, it didn’t seem he was trying to decide how to answer that question. Finally he replied with a simple, intense, “Yes.”

Chapter 9 – Still Not Obsessive

The last time he’d been left behind by someone he loved because he wasn’t strong enough, that person had then been beheaded.

That this was a different kind of love and different kind of situation didn’t make any difference; the worry was the same. Not that he’d actually worried at the time, ten years ago — he’d never expected what had happened, as he’d been steadfastly convinced Sagara-taichou was invincible. But during the nights when those events repeated themselves in his dreams, he did worry… he hoped things might play out to another ending this time around. But by the time he awoke, they never had. And he had the same firm belief in Kenshin’s infallibility as he’d had as a child in his captain — a belief perhaps equally childish. No one could exist without taking a defeat at some point, and it was about Kenshin’s turn, no matter how good he was.

The point was that Kenshin might need all the help he could get. The point was that Sano didn’t want to be left alone again. The point was that he would get stronger and keep things from happening like they had ten years ago. He just didn’t quite know how yet.

He was still lost, and sweltering in the spots between tree-shadows. And he couldn’t get his mind to stop bouncing around like a hyper child in a small room. It was a little sad, but more annoying, that even after having cooled off somewhat, slept, stopped punching trees, ceased picturing Saitou’s face everywhere he looked… still the moment he exhausted that minute’s store of Kenshin-thoughts, they were replaced by thoughts of Saitou.
It was perfectly clear to him now that he must get stronger just as much to prove to Saitou he was worth something as to prove to Kenshin he wasn’t a weakness. Less clear was why these were so equally weighty in his mind… something about that man’s derisive eyes, and “I can see I’m wasting my time with you. Go, then, if you’re so determined to get yourself killed…”

So he walked on and on, his thoughts moving in an endless circle of Kenshin, Saitou, Kenshin, Saitou, the link between them that same tiresome, inciting mantra of stronger, stronger, stronger that had punctuated his mental process since he left Tokyo. He couldn’t get any of it off his mind, and it was giving him a headache. Again. Still.

Please wait for me.

“I can see I’m wasting my time with you.”

An idea had suggested itself to him so subtly that he hardly recognized it at first. But once he did, he fought against it with vigor and ire. Obviously he was dealing with this emotionally, because he was an emotional person… but even he didn’t just react at random. There were sensible reasons he felt the way he felt, and it was logical to want what he wanted. Hadn’t he just finished reflecting how possibly similar this was to the situation of ten years ago? And he wasn’t dwelling on this too much; it was natural for him to be thinking the way he was. Anyone would do the same in his shoes. And that stupid idea could just go jump of something high and precipitous.

Yeah, he was scarred. Yeah, he was therefore maybe a little overreactant. Yeah, he was in love and, yeah, he was incensed. But if there was one thing he wasn’t, it was obsessive.

***

There were times he felt totally convinced, and there were times he was less sure. He couldn’t recall ever having lost faith, but on occasion he was tested. It was a distinctly different pair of mind-sets: the one in which he felt he was doing the right thing with his life and could be strong in the resolve he’d made no matter what kind of pressure was on him, external or internal; and the one in which he feared he was fighting an unwinnable battle for principles that were perhaps wrong and useless. The first feeling, which was greatly strengthened by the support of those he loved and respected, he’d come to associate very much with Sano. The second… he was beginning to connect quite a bit with Saitou.

However, despite Saitou’s proximity and Kenshin’s overwhelming consciousness of his presence, this was nothing he could afford to dwell on during as important an event as his first confrontation with Shishio. Still, with Saitou standing beside him undoubtedly wishing he would spring forward and decapitate their enemy, it was a difficult thing not to dwell on. The scene was certainly tense to begin with, but it became even more so because of this.

He didn’t think Shishio could tell there was something on his mind that had only a minor connection to the matter at hand, but he felt sure Saitou could. It was a bit bothersome, though. He didn’t need Saitou’s approval and didn’t want to want it, but he did want it, and couldn’t help thinking that if Saitou would just accept the way he was, things would be a lot easier. But it was Saitou’s job at this point to expect a killer of him, wasn’t it? Kenshin found this rather annoying.

He didn’t always enjoy fighting, but the conflict with Senkaku was a welcome release. But when even Shishio, who didn’t even know him, started in on his ideals, Kenshin found himself wishing, just a little, that Sano were here. Not because he needed someone to defend him when his lifestyle was questioned, but because this whole affair was so dreary and almost demoralizing that some happiness, some increased confidence in himself, would have been a comfort. He didn’t like going into battle feeling like a champion of a lost cause — though the exchange of sword-blows with Soujirou did not turn out to be quite as much of a ‘battle’ as he had been expecting.

And now his sakabatou was broken. He wouldn’t go so far as to say he was dreading it, but he didn’t look forward to Saitou’s comments on that. Then he was somewhat distracted by Eiji, as there were things that could not go unsaid and it wouldn’t do to be selfish (and he was fairly certain Saitou wasn’t going to say them), but soon enough he had returned to his own problems. Saitou, too, seemed distant, and his orders to his subordinates, as those men cleaned things up around Shingetsu and took Senkaku away, were curt. Even genki-genki Misao seemed to have been put in a dark mood by the proceedings.

“This village is my home,” Eiji was remarking. “I’m glad something good could happen to it.”

“That reminds me,” Kenshin said. “What is Eiji going to do?”

“I’ll take him to stay with Tokio,” Saitou replied absently. “He can determine what he wants to do from there.”

“Tokio?”

Saitou looked over at him, and, though Kenshin could have been imagining things, for some reason he appeared slightly startled. But it passed quickly, and he answered calmly, “My wife.”

It was such a shock that Kenshin could not even complete his first resultant reflection, I thought I knew everything about… Saitou was married? He wasn’t sure why it was such a surprise, given that there were several years of the man’s life he hadn’t followed obsessively, and a wife could easily have entered the picture during that time… but… Saitou was married?! Kenshin couldn’t quite figure out, also, why the thought of Saitou being with a woman was so strange — unsettling, even — but it was. He supposed he’d just always assumed that… well, he didn’t know what he’d always assumed.

He was lucky Misao was equally shocked, as otherwise his prolonged staring silence in response to the revelation might have seemed more than a little odd. As it was, he found himself absently responding to her whispered comment with something that was probably unduly insulting to Saitou — not that he cared. Actually, the man seemed rather amused by whatever Kenshin and Misao were whispering, so Kenshin struggled for a moment to remember what it was — something about saints… Saitou was married?!

Misao was having a relatively cheerful conversation with Eiji now, and Saitou had taken two steps toward Kenshin with that usual inscrutable expression on his face. “You go straight to Kyoto,” he said. “And it should be obvious to you after that fight — you couldn’t even take Shishio’s advisor: you can’t fight Shishio the way you are now.” Kenshin braced himself for censure, irritated once again at the same time that this man had such an effect on him. But Saitou’s next words were the second shock of the last few minutes: “We need your old strength, so figure out some way to get it back even if you don’t plan on killing him.” And with a hand laid briefly on Kenshin’s shoulder, his leave-taking was at an end and he was walking away, calling Eiji to follow.

This time, Kenshin managed to recover much more quickly, quite possibly thanks to a self-preservation instinct reminding him that Misao’s list of insistent questions would probably double in length if she caught him staring after Saitou like… like… he didn’t fancy any of the analogies that came to mind, and didn’t think Sano would either.

But Saitou… well, it would be silly to say he approved or agreed or anything so positive, but obviously he suddenly didn’t mind the way Kenshin was. Kenshin had no idea how the wolf could possibly have come to that conclusion during the events that had just transpired, but… Had he been thinking it would ‘make things easier’ to have Saitou’s acceptance?

What a weak description.

He was elated.

And he didn’t care anymore that that might be an overreaction.

***

Just a minor slip of the tongue, really. It happened sometimes when he was distracted, though only in the presence of those he didn’t really worry about telling things. In other words, it rarely happened at all. And now he couldn’t stop thinking about it. He’d known this would be distracting, but he hadn’t counted on it being quite this distracting. He just couldn’t get the image out of his head of Himura’s shocked face. And, try as he might, he couldn’t stop dwelling on it and wondering whether this was a good or a bad thing.

On the one hand, Himura’s surprise had apparently not been of the pleased variety. And surely there was hope if Himura disliked the idea of Saitou being married! Not that he needed to be thinking about hope or the furtherance of his desires… but he was. On the other hand, supposing Himura’s inclinations had ever tended toward him at all (and Saitou could not help thinking perhaps they had), in a mind such as Himura’s, the knowledge that Saitou was already spoken for would only add to the weight of moral obligation to forget him. And there obviously hadn’t been opportunity to discuss the details.

It was fortunate Eiji was being quiet. Saitou didn’t think he had the patience to answer a lot of questions at the moment.

All very irritating, the whole affair. Why, in the first place, did such feelings have to develop and get in the way of sense and activity? This desire he now had, to explain to Himura the entire situation with his wife, seemed unlikely to go away; most likely it would plague him throughout his dealings with the other man until he found some way to fulfill it. But he just didn’t have time, at the moment, to make any attempt at winning Himura over, and how if not in such a light could he bring up such a subject? He supposed he could possibly…

This was no good. A certain kind of philosophical pondering was one thing, but this sort of pointless speculative musing was entirely another. And he was stronger than this anyway. With painful determination, he wrenched the greater part of his thoughts from the topic they most wanted to hover around and sent them with great force toward the much more important business of saving the country. Which is not to say they all went obediently, but at least for the moment he could be pleased with his level of self-control.

***

He was lying on the ground in exhaustion, taking a break, just a brief break, from his training — he deserved it after three unflagging days — holding Kenshin’s note above his face and rereading certain words over and over again without really taking in their individual meanings.

Sanosuke Sanosuke –

He had to hold it carefully, to avoid getting the paper dirty with the blood that ran from his mangled knuckles; he’d gone at that last set of rocks a bit carelessly.

…I feel I I I feel feel…

Of course, blood could only make the words brighter, because to have earned the love of someone like Kenshin was…

…go go go to…

He wasn’t making sense.

…I feel I…

Too tired, no doubt.

…must I must must feel I must…

They all had duties… why, when there was love, did those duties have to conflict? Or did they only think they did?

…go to Kyoto go to Kyoto go to go to…

Yes, he was going to Kyoto. He’d show them both.

Please Please Please Please…

Kenshin didn’t really need to beg him.

…protect protect protect the…

How could he protect anyone if he couldn’t even master something so simple as hitting a rock twice and making it shatter?

…the others protect the others…

But it wasn’t for Kenshin that he wanted to do that, was it? There was an other, indeed.

…while I’m gone…

No, Kenshin, nothing happened while you were gone… I still love you…

…wait wait wait…

The words seemed almost accusatory. I swear I still love you…

…wait for me…

Desperate, maybe? Even if I…

…please wait…

Even if I…

…for me for me for me me me…

Even if there’s maybe something…

I love you.

…someone…

– Kenshin Kenshin Kenshin

It was about time to get up and start working on that Futae no Kiwami thing again.

Chapter 10 – In Another Light

He’d never really intended to come back here. He didn’t feel that subjecting himself to an endless stream of horrific memories was necessary to his penance, and this city was the Bakumatsu to him. It was here the path of his life had led down through a pool of blood and forever colored his footprints. It was here he’d met Tomoe, who had represented at once a victim of and someone to be protected by his sword; represented everything terrible he was and everything noble he could become. As little as he’d actually felt anything in those days of repression, she had almost been his first love… except that it was here he’d first seen… well, he hadn’t ever intended to come back to Kyoto. And yet here he was.

The girl seemed pleased. No, ‘seemed’ was an unnecessary description for Misao at any time, since she let everyone know exactly what she was thinking and feeling in a manner so unambiguous — indeed, often so overstated — as to put the matter beyond speculation. And she did make him smile a little. But not much. Kyoto was too sobering, and he was beginning to see things in the colors of the old days — deep blues and bloody reds and all with edges of gold. It was like being plunged into a dream more corporeal than anything he’d ever experienced, while at the same time real life went on all around him — to a certain extent: he saw and heard and spoke, accepting the help of the Kyoto Oniwabanshuu in finding the people he knew he must seek, but not really conscious of any of it.

It was his own fault for allowing the spirit of the past thus to overcome him, but he couldn’t remember having felt this lonely for years.

***

The Kyoto chief of police was giving him a lot of unnecessary details he already knew and that probably weren’t relevant to the interrogation he was about to conduct, but to which he couldn’t object as, firstly, he personally wasn’t infallible and was capable of forgetting things; and, secondly, he personally wasn’t infallible and had of late been in an inordinate state of distraction that could do with a good healthy dose of unrelated data.

And really didn’t need to be aggravated by the sight of Sagara Sanosuke sitting, glowering but at his ease, in the shadows of one of the lesser cells.

He’d already come to a halt in front of the latter even before Sagara greeted him, even before he’d decided that stopping and looking toward the boy was a bad idea. Having halted, having decided, there was then not much to do besides throw his impassive gaze at an angle between the slats of the wooden door and try to be as ambiguous as possible about whether or not he was listening to what the boy was saying.

And only half listening he was in reality, as certain thoughts from previous days reiterated themselves with alarming mental volume. It was the first time he’d seen Sagara, had that aspect of recent realizations (or admissions) forced onto his mind, since those realizations or admissions had taken place, and perhaps he wasn’t as well prepared for the ensuing reflections as he could have been.

…it was certainly just a temporary, casual arrangement… Himura Kenshin was every bit as palatable to him as the old hitokiri Battousai… pointless speculative musing… I feel I must go to Kyoto. Please protect the others while I’m gone; please wait for me. I love you…

Oh, come, now! He wasn’t… This little pathetic nineteen-year-old didn’t have that power over him, did he? With that perfect body and those warm eyes and that unguarded, passionate nature that seemed to be just exactly what Himura needed these days…

No, no… As Saitou looked him over again, he resisted the urge to shake his head. If he were jealous, he would certainly be experiencing different sensations here and now, especially having entered this encounter entirely unaware and unprepared as he had. He would surely be conscious of a much more lively, bitter disliking of the young man before him than the same passive disdain that (he was fairly sure) had been his attitude toward Sagara’s existence ever since the beginning of the roosterhead’s association with Himura…

Indeed, the only distinct feeling he could admit to now, besides the aforementioned disdain, was the other he’d had since the beginning: curiosity as to what in the world a man like Himura could see in a boy like Sagara… at least, what he could see that would hold him, would prompt him to write such words as he had. It was an unforeseen desire, strong enough for its vigor also to be rather surprising: to find out what there was to the idiot beyond what met the eye and ear… to know, if it came to that, exactly what he was up against. A strategic desire, but simple… and unmistakably ill-timed.

Perhaps his recent acknowledgment had not been inappropriate, but, as he’d reminded himself more than once, anything that purported to move beyond mere mental acceptance into the realm of planning or actual deeds was totally out of place at this point. He had neither time nor opportunity to do whatever it was this new and rather odd attitude toward Sagara was prompting him to do — get to know him better or be nicer to him or any such thing. He tried to tell himself he didn’t want to either, but denial was getting stale and he didn’t relish it as much as he used to. He had other things to do.

Pulling forcibly out of these reflections, he found himself, as he had once before, staring fixedly into Sagara’s dark eyes. And though he would not go so far as to say it was startling, the sudden recollection that, somehow, Sagara had on certain recent occasions been able to read him better than Himura had left him abruptly just the tiniest bit unsettled. Not that he had any fears regarding the privacy of his thoughts and feelings… but this was a potent reminder, more even than his own remonstrances to himself, that he didn’t have leisure to try to define the look in Sagara’s eyes.

So when the police chief ventured into the thick silence, “Do you know him?” Saitou merely replied, “No, not at all,” and walked on. And while he wasn’t entirely thrilled at having done it, such was necessity.

***

Had Kenshin been aware someone somewhere was consistently struggling not to think about him, he might have been comforted. He’d been thinking about himself all night, struggling not to think about Sano.

Hiko had said there was something wrong with him, something he was missing… this was not exactly news, and though its bearing on his ability to master the technique was as much a mystery to him as it was, he couldn’t be surprised at the necessity of facing whatever it was before he could complete his training.

But he couldn’t contemplate the state of his life, the interior of his soul, without thinking about Sano. Much as his lover had to do with those things, Kenshin was sure this issue was deeper within himself than Sano could reach — or at least could have reached by this point — and thinking about him was therefore outside the purpose of the night’s meditation. It was also outside his ability to avoid. Without throwing any blame on Sano, Kenshin blamed this for his lack of results. Not that he’d ever really needed any additional reason for having no answer to What is wrong with me?

Hiko had shed his mantle. Kenshin didn’t remember ever having seen him do this with sword in hand, and a shiver ran through him so heavy it left him feeling almost paralyzed.

He shook himself, trying to break free of the spell. Why should I be afraid? he demanded. Either I master the technique, or he kills me. I have already said I’m willing to die for this… why should I fear his killing me?

The answer to that came a little more easily than whatever other answer he was seeking: there rose immediately into his mind with piercing clarity faces… words… experiences, past and cherished, future and anticipated…

“I believe in you. You won’t lose.”

“That’s why men like you and me are needed.”

Obviously, then, it wasn’t the act of dying he feared, but the separation it would bring about from a certain person… certain people… he’d rather not part from so soon. It was selfish, certainly… he, with the blood of so many on his hands, should not hesitate to die for a righteous cause just because he wanted…

And then it hit him, swifter and harder even than a blow from his master — that no matter who or what he was, what he’d done, what he deserved, he did not want to die. It was something he’d never considered, the difference between being willing to die for the protection of the weak, if it came to it, and having entirely lost the will to live. For this, it struck him in a half-moment as that fine difference came to him all at once, he had not done.

It was not selfishness to desire life; it was a basic human instinct… and, in trying to repress it, had he not repressed a part of his own power and ability along with it? He hadn’t realized it, as he’d never thought about it, but he knew now, suddenly, almost overwhelmingly… he was not going to die if it could be helped. He wanted to see them again. He wanted to live. He would live. Hiko Seijuurou was not going to kill him here.

He put his hand to his sword hilt.

***

Saitou had pretty much continued being just as much of an asshole as usual, but somehow it wasn’t bothering Sano like before.

For one thing, the cop was confident they would meet Kenshin soon; though volunteering very little information, from what he had said Sano got the impression there was a kind of general police lookout on for Kenshin throughout Kyoto ever since he’d trashed that Chou guy and caused a commotion outside some shrine.

For another thing, Sano couldn’t help thinking of the way Saitou had looked at him downstairs in the cells — both right at first and then in that unexpected moment of total agreement after talking to Chou. Something had changed. There was something in Saitou’s bearing toward him now that seemed to imply, however strange it might be, that Sano had been just then truly noticed by Saitou for the first time. This really made no sense, as Saitou had paid him plenty of attention in the past… what with the stabbing, staring, beating, and possibly kissing… and Sano really should be mad that even after all of that it was only now Saitou saw him as something other than an object — either tool or obstruction. He should be mad, but he couldn’t… for though Saitou’s overtly displayed opinion of him didn’t seem to have changed, and though he still refused to fight Sano again, it had been from the moment of Sano’s Futae no Kiwami on the cell door that Saitou had ceased to make any real objections to Sano’s coming with him. Which meant Sano’s efforts had made Saitou take him more seriously, and how could Sano be angry in such a moment?

While he didn’t think he’d won a particularly large amount of respect, having won any at all just confirmed how much he wanted more. Of course he still hated the bastard, but at the same time found himself elated even with such an understated rising esteem. In fact, he had a rather stupid, childish urge to make the first thing he said to Kenshin, when he saw him again, “I showed him!!!” After he punched him, of course. He cracked his knuckles with a grin.

“You’re in a very good mood for someone who’s been in a jail cell all day,” Saitou remarked dryly, looking at Sano over the top of the paper he’d been studying with a grim expression.

Sano thought this an oddly conversational (that is, relatively un-insulting) remark, and was not averse to answering. But there was no way he was going to admit the already somewhat disturbing fact that his good mood had a lot to do with Saitou himself. “I’m looking forward to punching Kenshin in the face,” he said.

“How affectionate,” murmured Saitou.

Sano only bristled mildly at the scornful tone. “Like you’d know,” he muttered.

Though Saitou’s eyes had turned back to whatever he was reading, Sano thought they flashed as he answered, “And how would you know what I know?”

The younger man snorted. “Everything I know about you so far pretty much proves you don’t know much about relationships.” He found Saitou’s response strange, though, and a little unsettling. Certain worries regarding Saitou and relationships had never entirely been cleared from the back of his mind, and the confusion of the dojo was suddenly beginning to reawaken.

“My wife would probably agree with you,” Saitou nodded without looking up again.

This didn’t do much to keep the confusion off.

“Your… wife…?”

After a few moments, Saitou set aside his paper and stood in an abrupt movement. Withdrawing a cigarette case and going about the business of matches, he left Sano in inexplicably agitated suspense for nearly a minute. Then, through a fresh haze of smoke, he answered in a still oddly casual tone. “She’s been trying for a ‘relationship’ with me for years. Either I’m not good at it, or she’s not nearly as attractive as she thinks.”

Sano was skeptically horrified. “So she likes you but you don’t like her?” What was wrong with this man?! “Why the hell’d you marry her?”

Saitou snorted but had no other answer. Actually, Sano was surprised such a topic had even come up at all, that he’d gotten even that much of a response to such a question. But he had to admit, their last conversation in Tokyo (if an argument that ended in blood could be called a conversation) had also concerned rather personal serious subjects. Sano had even shown him that note he hadn’t been planing to show to anyone, hadn’t he? This, perhaps, made them even, in that case. Sano liked that thought somehow, but at the same time, it threw Saitou’s wife into contrast with… Sano couldn’t help remarking, “Figures you’re even a bastard to your wife.”

Saitou raised an eyebrow and preceded his response with a long drag of his cigarette, as if sustaining himself through the unpleasant subject. “And it figures you’d blame me for not returning some stubborn idiot’s feelings.”

“Well, I bet you didn’t even try,” Sano retorted a little huffily.

“Should I have?”

“You said ‘years!’ A woman’s in love with you for years and you can’t even try to like her back?”

“Would you apply that logic to anyone?”

“What do you mean?” Sano asked a little warily.

“If someone you didn’t like was in love with you, would you try to like them back?”

“Of course,” insisted the uneasy Sano.

“Even if you already loved someone else?” The glance Saitou threw him as he said this, though brief, was piercing, and Sano’s confusion was great. At first he was, as Saitou seemed to be admonishing, putting himself in the unfortunate position of being in love with and promised to one and sought after by another… but after a moment the particular significance of that statement as made by that speaker struck him.

“Wait, so, you do?”

“Hn.” Saitou returned to the desk.

Sano watched him, unsure how to react. Short as it had been, that discussion had given him much food for thought. Saitou’s words and behavior could add up to a couple of conclusions, but they were in areas of Sano’s mind he’d pretty much forbidden himself to enter, and now he was agitated. He was angry, too, with Saitou for bringing it up and then leaving it hanging — but what more could he do besides reiterate a question that was maybe (hopefully) none of his business, that would lead him to thoughts he definitely didn’t want?

And what the hell did it mean that Saitou had entered so readily into such a conversation, anyway? In the middle of police shit, too, with a plot afoot to burn down Kyoto, why would Saitou waste time on a totally irrelevant discussion? That didn’t seem like him. He must have had some specific purpose…

Sano suddenly felt very uncomfortable.

Exceptionally quiet, this police station. After they’d finished questioning Chou, Saitou had consulted briefly with the fat chief, most of the cops who weren’t out already had been ordered off on different assignments, and the building was left big and echoing and empty. Except for this room where Saitou was doing whatever he was doing — some kind of research or something, combined with a stack of local reports of some kind; Sano didn’t really have any concept what the prospective result was — in here the air was thick with the hovering remains of that conversation, with thought and implication, mostly ideas Sano wanted to avoid.

After several tense minutes passed in silence but for the shifting of papers, the chief bustled back in and, with a curious and slightly disapproving glance at Sano that matched the ones he’d given him before, started talking to Saitou about patrol patterns and something else that sounded like it might actually be interesting if Sano cared to listen. Instead it seemed that he, only half-realizing what he did, was taking the opportunity to slip out of the room. As he resumed a leaning position against a shadowy wall in the corridor, he found it wasn’t much more comfortable out here than it had been in there. In fact, if anything, he felt more restless and agitated than before, because now he had the vague sensation of having somehow backed down from something, retreated from some challenge. Which was stupid, since there hadn’t been anything of the sort within… just Saitou and the totally immaterial and extraneous fact that he had a wife he didn’t love and maybe a love he hadn’t admitted to.

Eventually the chief emerged, gave Sano the same expression of confused disapprobation, and hastened off about some other task. Sano fixed his eyes on the door and contemplated moving toward it, but somehow never did.

Whether his thoughts kept to the same tether was another business entirely.

Chapter 11 – Angles

He could go in there and comment, “Yeah, pretty serious shit you didn’t want my help with, ain’t it?”

He’d taken a restless little walk around the station, and had been trying to decide whether or not to go back into that office and talk to Saitou again, only to hear, upon his return, through the door of said room, Kenshin doing exactly that. His lover’s surprised and horrified voice crying “Kyoto Taika?!” sent shivers up Sano’s spine. It seemed much longer than a mere couple of weeks since he’d seen him, seemed like a lot had changed. He hadn’t set eyes on the rurouni since before reading the words I love you, and he was sure their meeting would mean more than a standard reunion; he still wasn’t certain whether he felt angrier or happier with Kenshin. And “Yeah, pretty serious shit…” seemed like a decent way to enter the conversation. But for some reason he didn’t do it.

Saitou was explaining, his tone relatively devoid of emotion, how he’d learned of Shishio’s arson plans. Saitou was all business, of course. Lives and the country were in danger, and Saitou wasn’t dragging personal shit into it. Even if he had brought up his wife for no good reason just a little earlier. Sano couldn’t quite admonish himself to follow Saitou’s example, but, even so, perhaps a less pointed opening remark, such as, “With shit like this going down, seems like you can use all the help you can get,” would be better.

“It seems strange,” Kenshin remarked pensively.

“Strange like going on an epic quest without your boyfriend?” That would also be a good interjection… but still Sano didn’t move.

“You think so too?” wondered Saitou.

Sano frowned and leaned against the door in order to catch every word more fully. Not that it was important that Saitou and Kenshin had some similar unfathomable thought; he just didn’t want to miss any of what was certainly an important conversation.

“No matter how strong Shishio’s organization is,” mused the wolf, “we still have an overwhelming advantage of numbers. So their tactics will have to emphasize surprise attacks and assassination, and this Kyoto Taika will have to rely on the same things. If their plans aren’t kept a complete secret, they can’t accomplish anything nearly that big. Their security should be so tight that information leaks are a matter of life and death, so I thought someone would be sent to eliminate Chou before he could be brought to tell what he knows. I set up a close watch down in the cells… but there was no sign of anyone, and it turns out you can get anything out of Chou without much effort.”

Sano snorted. It made sense, though; in that light, it did seem strange. Sano surely would have noticed if he hadn’t been distracted. It was about time he made his entrance.

“There must be something behind the Kyoto Taika that is a secret even to the Juppongatana,” Kenshin agreed.

“Well, going places and doing shit without your allies is popular these days,” Sano could say, if he walked in there right now.

“There must be some other target.”

“Either that or there’s some other…” But that was going a little too far; he wouldn’t say that.

Sano didn’t know the reason for his continually increasing anger as he listened. It wasn’t as if anything inappropriate was going on behind this door, or as if anything had happened to render him more annoyed than he had been before Kenshin had arrived… but… couldn’t Kenshin tell he was here?

“This is modeled after the Ikedaya affair,” Saitou said decisively. “Since Shishio is taking over the country and taking revenge at the same time, he’s probably playing a game of some sort with the Kyoto Taika and this other target.”

Playing a game with an ostensible objective and a second, concealed one. That concept was just… Yeah, it must be Shishio Sano was so angry at.

There was silence for a few moments. Sano could head in there and berate Kenshin for his mean trick right now, but… what exactly would he say?

“In the battle of Tobafushimi,” began Kenshin, his words slow, dark, and thoughtful, “Tokugawa Yoshinobu deceived his own allies by retreating by ship from Osaka Bay to Edo. This maneuver was the main reason for the government victory. It would be ironic if Shishio could somehow mirror that tactic for his own victory… Here!” Sano was startled by the vehemence and volume of the sudden exclamation. “The Kyoto Taika is only the first stage of his plan! His true objective is a marine bombardment of Tokyo!”

Sano’s frown had by now become an irate glower; again, the logic in there was flawless, this conclusion even less pleasant than the last. And he couldn’t help thinking he could easily open the door and say, “Tokyo? What, you mean that place I was supposed to stay so I wouldn’t get involved?”

“I see…” Saitou sounded pretty glowery too. “The Kyoto Taika is an opening move that will draw all eyes to where Shishio’s forces are meeting head-on with the police in a flashy battle. He deliberately released the information about it to draw attention from his real target: the seat of the government and a place that can’t be put out of harm’s way.”

“Tokyo will not be able to combat a marine attack!” was Kenshin’s energetic worry. “That’s the one thing they cannot avoid! There’s no time! Hurry!”

“Hurry to leave me behind again?” He could say that. Or… could have. It was too late now. The door was opening. Actions spoke louder anyway.

***

Himura really didn’t seem to have seen it coming, truly didn’t seem to have noticed Sagara’s presence in the hall. Saitou wasn’t sure how this could be possible when the boy was so conspicuous that his mere presence in the building was like having a bonfire glowing just out of the corner of one’s eye; should he consider it significant that Himura had been so preoccupied?

The crack of fist meeting face was nearly concurrent with Himura’s startled gasp and followed by the rustle of cloth as he stumbled and Sagara caught him. It hadn’t been a light punch, and, Saitou suspected, the unfamiliar circumstance of its taking Himura entirely by surprise made its impact all the stronger. Then Sagara hauled the redhead upright and kissed him, and the poor man looked completely stunned.

Well. ‘Poor man’ was not an apt description.

Saitou didn’t bother trying not to stare, to study the contact of their lips, their clutching arms and hands. He’d never actually seen them behave like lovers before, and, though there was nothing particularly surprising about the display, he felt something that seemed a little like surprise. Strikingly unexpected was that he couldn’t quite define the feeling, which was intense, a dizzying mix of pleasant and unpleasant, and not quite jealousy. He’d feared this would be too distracting, and he’d been right. He really didn’t have time to analyze such things right now, or to put up with useless displays of affection… and yet he did nothing to break up the unorthodox reunion.

As the kiss ended and Sagara’s eyes opened, the boy caught sight of the assiduous watcher. And his expression as their gazes met over Himura’s shoulder was about as unfathomable to Saitou as the emotion the previous action had produced. Sagara himself had literally shoved the status of his relationship with Himura in Saitou’s face at one point, and therefore shouldn’t have much room to complain of feeling intruded upon; Saitou got the impression he probably would anyway. But that wasn’t the look the boy was giving him now.

Nor was it the frenetic I have him and you can’t defiance he would have expected had he thought Sagara had any idea… It wasn’t even angry. Saitou couldn’t think him at peace, even in his lover’s arms; it must be that, having accomplished what he’d intended, his fury had abated. But why he seemed to be including Saitou in his brief period of contentment — or at least not actively excluding him — the wolf couldn’t understand. Was it simply Himura’s long-sought company that had made him momentarily so unhostile?

“Sano!” Once Himura had his breath back, his astonishment was great. “How did you get here? What are you doing here?”

The strange instant had passed as Sagara’s eyes returned to his lover. “I came with him,” he said — somewhat misleadingly, Saitou thought, and was that deliberate? — “to help you.”

Saitou abhorred having such a limited grasp on the nuances of a situation, even if it was merely the personal aspect that he shouldn’t be allowing to distract him so much in the first place. “Don’t you mean get in our way?” he asked caustically, and was pleased to feel the entire mood shift at once.

Sagara broke from Himura with clenched fists and an irate face that also looked, oddly enough, vaguely betrayed. “What the fuck is your problem?” he demanded. Saitou just smirked.

Himura’s admonition, “Calm down, Sano,” didn’t seem to be the primary impetus for the boy’s subsequent deep breath and angry sigh, but in any event Sagara did calm down, somewhat, and turned pointedly away from Saitou back to his lover.

“Anyway, I got a lot to tell you while we run; we should get going.”

“You’re going to run to Osaka, ahou?” Saitou couldn’t decide whether to laugh or to go over there and hit the boy on the head. “We’ll take a carriage.”

“Is there some reason–” Sagara began, but Himura interrupted him:

“I need to send a message to some allies here in Kyoto; Saitou, can you have someone deliver it immediately?”

A little surprised by the request because it didn’t seem Himura had only made it to diffuse the argument, Saitou nevertheless merely pointed to the office they’d just vacated and said, “Hurry. I have a telegram to send as well; I can have someone take yours at the same time.”

He’d expected a much greater delay to aggravate him before they could be on their way, especially given the current status of the Kyoto police force, but they managed to get their tasks finished quickly, and the carriage was ready for them soon thereafter. Then Sagara seemed oddly hesitant about climbing into the equipage, as if he had some other course of action in mind. Surely he didn’t really think he could run to Osaka…? But he sat down next to Himura without complaint, and they were off. As their rapid journey commenced, they all seemed to breathe a silent sigh and settle into their seats as if for a much-needed rest. Which is not to say the air among them was at all relaxed.

It was too late for the Osaka police to set up roadblocks despite the telegram; Saitou was agitatedly aware they were departing late, that at best they couldn’t arrive until nearly midnight, and he said so. “And if we have to search for him randomly once we get there,” he added, “we have no chance of success.”

“He will undoubtedly have his ship disguised as something unobtrusive and hidden among the others,” Himura replied logically, “but it will have to be a certain size and ready to depart. If we can get there in time, I’m certain we can find him without trouble.”

The officer nodded darkly. ‘If we can get there in time’ was the key point.

Sagara was looking between them with a scowl. “Why the hell are you two so gloomy? So we don’t make it… it’s not like Tokyo can be destroyed by just one ship.”

Again Saitou couldn’t decide whether to laugh at him or hit him… and, really, that he was indecisive in such a matter was significant.

“Shishio is not trying to destroy Tokyo,” Himura explained patiently. “Remember that the appearance of the black ships in Kaei 6 threw Edo into panic and led to the opening of the country and the Bakumatsu. Even though Edo has become Tokyo, the terror and uncertainty of that time and of the war still lingers in people’s hearts. If an unfamiliar ship suddenly appears in Tokyo Bay and opens fire, the city will, without a doubt, fall into total chaos.”

“The government doesn’t have the power to stop it,” Saitou agreed. “Tokyo will become a lawless region, paralyzing the government in a single stroke. Especially,” he added, “with so many of the Tokyo police relocated to deal with the other problems Shishio is causing.” The man was playing this all exceptionally well.

“Yeah, I see,” Sagara muttered. “It gets worse and worse.”

“How many policemen are in Kyoto?” asked Himura.

“Five thousand,” Saitou replied. “That’s ten times as much manpower as Shishio has. With that alone we should be able to hold off the fire.” Then, as an afterthought, he inquired, “What was that message you sent?”

Sagara looked at him sharply — Saitou wasn’t sure why — but said nothing. The wolf thought the boy was just as curious anyway.

“The police can hold off 500 soldiers,” was Himura’s answer, “but they cannot stop 500 sparks. To fight the Kyoto Taika, we need the help of the people who protected Kyoto during the Bakumatsu.”

Saitou smiled slightly. “Which people who protected Kyoto during the Bakumatsu?”

“The Oniwabanshuu,” was Himura’s reply.

“What?!” cried Sagara.

With a raised brow, Saitou wondered, “So Shinomori has decided to let you live?”

Himura also gave a small, reluctant smile. “Not as far as I know. This group is no longer under his leadership.”

“I shoulda known there’d be more of those bastards…” Sagara grumbled.

Himura’s smile grew. “These are mostly women, Sano.”

“As I thought,” Saitou frowned, “that girl…” He’d realized eventually what her clothing implied, but hadn’t really been willing to believe it.

Himura nodded.

“What girl?” wondered Sagara. Suspicion sounded in his tone, and Saitou didn’t entirely understand it. If Sagara suspected Saitou’s preference, surely his reaction — his entire demeanor — would be a good deal less calm. But why would that suspicion arise if not from jealousy about the time Himura and Saitou had spent together while Sagara hadn’t been around? Perhaps the boy just hated him. That would make sense on more than one level… but somehow, despite all evidence provided by their interaction up to this point, Saitou didn’t think so.

Himura had begun to explain about the girl Misao and the other members of the Kyoto Oniwabanshuu, Sagara was listening somewhat skeptically, and Saitou watched them both. Once the account was completed, nobody introduced a new topic of conversation, and the ride continued in increasingly tense silence.

***

Kenshin wasn’t sure what had prompted him to pay specific attention to the way Sano and Saitou interacted, but by the time they reached Osaka he was tracking it minutely. He toyed with the idea that he wanted to reassure himself that Saitou had no further plans for wounding Sano, but that couldn’t be it; a mere half-minute’s observation made it clear there was no murderous (or even semi-murderous) intention in Saitou’s attitude toward Sano — quite the opposite, in fact. Though what exactly would be the opposite of stabbing him in the shoulder, Kenshin couldn’t guess. Perhaps to Saitou, simply allowing Sano to accompany him was the opposite.

Osaka Bay necessitated these thoughts move from center stage, but he couldn’t help marking the desperately frustrated tone in which Sano wondered why Saitou had to find fault with everything he said… the way Saitou, after surfacing from the dive off the ruined pier, glanced back almost inadvertently to where Sano had barely missed being struck by the cannon shot…

In his own horror for his lover’s safety and the easement thereof at Sano’s nearly miraculous survival in the face of a gattling gun, he almost missed the stricken look that flashed across Saitou’s face and the profound relief that replaced it… but still he caught them. He just didn’t know what they meant.

He couldn’t help noticing, also, the immediacy of Saitou’s withdrawal from combat-intent at his urging… but that was entirely different.

Or was it? Once Shishio had gone, Kenshin was at leisure to be surprised at the sound of Saitou’s “Ahou…” and the glance at the ranting Sano that accompanied it. It wasn’t that Saitou didn’t mean it, but it lacked intensity. He might almost have called it… indulgent… if that would have made any sense at all. It was at the very least a good deal more tolerant than the disposition Saitou had previously displayed toward Sano. Or had Kenshin been misreading that? There had been the staring… Or else what had changed to make the officer so accepting?

Largely experimentally, Kenshin said, “You are being too harsh. Without Sano, this would not have turned out nearly so well. He’s more reliable than you think.”

Saitou specifically turned away as he replied, “I’m well aware of that. It doesn’t change the fact that he’s an idiot.” But it wasn’t so much the facial expression Kenshin couldn’t see as the action he could — Saitou extracting a cigarette he could not possibly light and smoke after the swim across the bay — that led the rurouni to suspect there was more to the words than the wolf really wanted to express.

Kenshin wasn’t sure what to think or feel about that. But maybe this level of acceptance was simply the opposite he’d been wondering about earlier. And it didn’t mean much, really. A little more acceptance from Saitou still meant a disdainful ‘ahou’ for Sano.

The latter was definitely standing next to the former, though, a good five feet behind Kenshin, as they looked out over the railing of the sinking ship for any signs of fire in Kyoto.

Chapter 12 – A First Time For Everything

Toward wherever Kenshin was taking them they walked through town in an indefinable silence. It was almost as if they couldn’t say anything, as if they were both trying but it just wasn’t working. And why should that be? Well, the previous day and night had been tiring; although it would have felt more natural to talk about what had happened than to maintain this unusually wordless state, people did odd things when they were worn out.

They both, Sano noticed, seemed to be looking around them diligently at the bustle and arrangement of the city. Searching for signs of fire and destruction in the Kyoto streets was an excellent excuse not to talk. That they weren’t finding any must be a source of joy and relief, but must also eventually lead to the discussion they were trying to avoid. Were they trying to avoid a discussion? He’d believed they were just tired.

Saitou had been preoccupied when they’d left him, busy with the police chief, with numbers and reports and the wounded from last night’s anti-arson efforts, and Sano felt the situation to be a little unfair: he and Kenshin were heading for some inn presumably to rest, while Saitou didn’t seem likely to get any sort of break or sleep in the near future. Whatever he was, his dedication to this cause deserved a better reward than that.

“So…” Kenshin remarked in a tone that was almost casual. “You seem to have made up with Saitou.” Obviously Kenshin’s thoughts had been on the same topic as Sano’s.

The rush of emotion the younger man felt at this was nothing he could describe. It wasn’t anger, it wasn’t embarrassment, it wasn’t fear; yet it partook somewhat of each, and he was certainly agitated. Yes, they had been trying to avoid a discussion, and this was that discussion; it would be fruitless to deny in the face of this reaction that prompted a tenseness in Sano’s frame and caused his fists to clench and twitch as if he really were angry.

He certainly sounded angry when he demanded in a growl, “Why the fuck would I have made up with that asshole?” And why did that seem like such a… backlash? Sano tried very hard not to answer that question.

Kenshin didn’t look at him, and they said no more. The silence was now palpably awkward. Why awkward? There was no reason for — no, Sano didn’t even want to think about it.

“God, I’m fucking hungry,” he growled in nearly the same tone as his previous statement, little as he thought that would really help. “This place we’re going to’s an inn, you said? I hope they’ve got some good service.”

Kenshin shook his head slightly and spoke in the tone of one forcing himself onto the cheer of an innocuous topic. “Yes, it is, and yes, they do.” He smiled faintly. “And I am certain you will find the staff entertaining.”

“Oh, really?” There wasn’t much else to say.

“Yes. This branch of the Oniwabanshuu is very different from the ones we met in Tokyo.”

“Great.”

Oh, god, this was polite conversation. Even a reference to a shared experience — an emotional one at that — hadn’t been enough to turn it into a real conversation. Why… how… he needed to say something now to dispel this unprecedented atmosphere, to smash through this goddamn awkwardness that had come up out of fucking nowhere. When had he ever been this uncomfortable with Kenshin?

Did it really come up out of nowhere, though? a surprisingly sedate voice in his head wondered suddenly. Think back, it said. When did it start?

I know perfectly fucking well when it started, was his surly reply.

Then it shouldn’t be difficult to figure out why it started, the voice admonished calmly. He wasn’t given to such cool and logical self-counsel, but there was a first time for everything; he must have been a little too much under the influence of…

I’m not even fucking going there, he shot back.

Eventually you’re gonna have to. You’re gonna have to think about him, and you’re gonna have to admit–

I am not fucking gonna have to fucking admit anything I don’t fucking want to!!! It was the mental equivalent of a bellow, and some of it must have leaked out his mouth, for Kenshin looked toward him.

“Did you say something?” he asked, his tone still insufferably polite and benign.

“No,” Sano muttered.

Could he keep this up? There was a distinctly rebellious tone to that collected and rational voice in his head — which, after all, was merely part of his own consciousness and pointing out things he knew already; how long could he really resist it? Could he keep his thoughts under control enough not to start suspecting, to start blaming, to start resenting? Wasn’t he already cracking just by admitting the possibility of those frames of mind? And what else might he find if he allowed himself to look at this situation from all angles, as he was beginning to ache to do? Did he even want to admit there was a ‘situation?’

He felt guilty already. Determining why he did would blow the issue open, since he was fairly sure the reasons were manifold and branched out through everything else he was feeling. And the only plausible reaction to this frame of mind was an anger more profound than he’d experienced for some time.

Time… yes, that was what it would take, wasn’t it? If he could keep himself together until this ended… once Shishio was defeated, they would surely return to Tokyo and the way things had been, and he could let go and forget. Distraction, aspersion, confusion — it would all vanish once this mess was over.

Hah! It was his damned head again. Haven’t you heard? ‘You can never go back.’ And the distraction isn’t just gonna go away on its own, for you or for him.

Shut the fuck up, he told himself, but it was no use.

‘Once Shishio’s defeated?’ it demanded. You know what has to happen before that. You know what has to happen tomorrow morning.

God fucking dammit. He really had nothing else to say. He could argue as stubbornly as anything — against someone else. Against his own private logic, it was a battle lost almost before it started. Denial (and perhaps a subconsciously encouraged obtuseness) could only protect him for so long. Eventually he had to admit to himself that facts would have to be faced once they… well, tomorrow morning. But, hell, if he couldn’t find something to distract himself with until then, he might well not be sane enough to face those facts when the time came; there were a lot of weary, pensive hours between now and then.

“Here we are,” Kenshin said, and probably had no idea just how good his timing was.

***

Saitou felt as if he’d been wading carefully downstream in the shallows of a raging river, but had now misstepped and been swept away in its powerful currents — in the direction he wanted to go, admittedly, but with absolutely no control over how or how quickly. And why not? he wondered with grim abandon. Why not let all hell break loose in this matter? What was at stake, after all? Only the fate of the nation.

It was useless to try not to take so much upon himself. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t alone in this endeavor; if they failed, the responsibility would still rest with him. And he was in a dangerous state of mind.

The boy had been brilliant.

No, not brilliant — he’d been telling himself that all day, but somehow the adjective persisted. Yes, Sagara had been innovative and effective and had managed to keep himself from getting killed at the same time… all in that flashy, jarring way of his where every move was unexpected and eye-catching, but not… Well, maybe, in a symbolic, luminescent sense of the world, ‘brilliant’ wasn’t too bad a description.

No, it was still a bad description. The moron had gotten the bombs from somebody else and wouldn’t even have known how to use them properly if Himura hadn’t reminded him of the properties of gunpowder. And he’d nearly given a couple of people a heart attack with his antics. Sagara was still an impetuous child unworthy of someone like the former Battousai.

But weren’t practical use of the tools available and the ability to adapt one’s plans at the last moment traits of a proficient warrior? No matter how sloppy the technique seemed, if the desired outcome was attained and the performer remained relatively unscathed, Saitou could not reasonably object.

It was no good trying to drag his thoughts away from this topic. Now that he’d been pulled into the flood, he had very little choice left in the matter. He could let it overpower him and interfere with his duties, or he could assimilate the unavoidable — he could sink, or he could swim, but there was no getting out of the water.

And there was no denying he’d asked for it. “What does he see in you?” he’d wondered of Sagara back when — it seemed bizarrely long ago, now — he’d knocked him through the wall of the Kamiya dojo. He shouldn’t ask questions if he wasn’t ready for the answers. Of course, that had been before he’d admitted how he felt about Himura, when he’d still thought he was strong enough to open an emotional issue in the midst of the other and keep it from getting in the way.

Perhaps, in response to the half-formed resolution he’d made in the jail to find out what he wanted to know, he’d been subconsciously attempting to look at Sagara as Himura must, and was therefore being easier on him than he otherwise might… but the reason why was neither problem nor solution. The problem was that he was starting to see what Himura saw in the passionate kenkaya, and it threatened to be one distraction too many. And the solution? He hadn’t the faintest idea.

This feeling of nearly complete lack of control, of being a breath away from drowning, was irritating, agitating… And if the tasks of the day hadn’t been engrossing enough to keep his thoughts relatively well balanced, it would also have been overwhelming. Fortunately, he had enough to do in cleanup after the events of last night and preparation against further assault from Shishio that he could have continued working without pause from the moment they got back to Kyoto until it was time to depart for the mountain the next morning; how fortunate he should really consider the general ineptitude of the police force was a matter of debate, but it was convenient for purposes of distraction.

“Do you know anything about having a normal life?” This time, somewhat disturbingly, these remembered words only made Saitou smirk slightly, ruefully, and shake his head.

He had to rest eventually. God knew how much fighting, and what else besides, he would have to do tomorrow… but it was almost as if he dreaded the cessation of his work day. Though he’d never been given to brooding insomnia, there was a first time for everything, and this was just the situation to bring about that sleepless state.

“Everything I know about you so far pretty much proves you don’t know much about relationships.” Well, he knew they were damned inconvenient. Even when it was only someone else’s relationship that wasn’t his business in the first place.

Midnight had come and gone before he found his bed in the cheerless inn near the police station. Sleep did not elude him as he’d feared it might, but uncomfortable images of rushing water in which he sometimes thought he could see figures and faces followed him relentlessly there and throughout the rest of the night.

***

Why was it so cold? Kenshin already sat as close to the fire as was prudent; why was there still such a deep-set chill in his body? He rubbed absently at one arm with the other as he stared at the low flames and felt goosebumps rise across his flesh. Was it an after-effect of the swim in Osaka Bay? Had he caught something?

The door slid open and then closed again, and quiet footsteps crossed the floor.

The shiver that ran through Kenshin at the sound of Sano entering their shared room was not the usual one; it was neither pleased nor aroused, but rather… uncomfortable. Anxious, even. Why? It couldn’t be Sano’s mere presence he worried about… but, rather, interaction with him, a continuation of the atmosphere that had marked that interaction all day.

Sano was trying not to show how disturbed he felt, and had been avoiding Kenshin — or at least being alone with Kenshin — ever since they’d entered the Aoiya. Even now he did not greet him, and walked as quietly as he was able (which, as always in Sano’s case, wasn’t particularly quiet). But surely he didn’t think Kenshin hadn’t noticed. Every last word they’d said to each other had been forced, uncertain, stilted, ever since… well, all day. Sano had used the reunion with Kaoru and Yahiko and getting acquainted with the Kyoto Oniwabanshuu as his unstated excuses for saying as little as possible to his lover, and Kenshin had accepted that… but it couldn’t continue. Not when they had a potential deathmatch tomorrow. Not when dawn would bring… No, Kenshin couldn’t just let this go without at least trying to work things out.

Seeming somewhat indecisive, Sano now stood in the middle of the room. Kenshin’s back was to him, but he could sense the younger man’s perfect stillness. That stillness seemed to bring with it a fresh coldness, as if Sano were a door to the starry night, and Kenshin wanted to draw even closer to the fire. But that coldness, he could tell, lay only in the space between the two of them; no one else would have felt such a low temperature radiating from Sano. He feared Sano must be feeling the same from him.

After seconds had dragged by without word or movement from his lover, Kenshin said his name quietly. “Are you upset with me?”

“No!” Sano replied, with so much vehemence and so much haste that the rurouni, heart sinking, immediately doubted the insistence. “Upset with you for what?”

“For… leaving you behind in Tokyo.”

“Oh.” In that one syllable, why did Sano sound so relieved? As if he’d perhaps thought Kenshin would suggest something, confess something else Sano might be angry at him for? But was Sano worried Kenshin would admit having suspected him of… something… or admit to… that same something on his own part?

No, that was impossible. That something was only a fragmentary thought in Kenshin’s head in the first place; its very wild improbability was the only thing that even brought it to mind, and therefore made for a self-fulfilling prophecy: his search for the awkwardness that would certainly characterize it if it were true had caused awkwardness to develop.

Yes, he was the cause of this strange atmosphere between them, he and his… what could he call it but an overactive imagination? He wasn’t generally given to that sort of fancy, but there was a first time for everything… and the vague ideas he avoided directly scrutinizing couldn’t have any basis in reality. He needed to stop thinking about it, stop looking for signs of its presence, and then things would improve. And he never should have mentioned…

“No,” Sano finally said. “No, I’m not mad at you for that anymore. Or for anything else.” It was a stiff pronouncement, and ended on a note of indecision. “Just tired and tense,” he added in an obvious and ineffectual attempt to put a graceful end to the fledgling conversation. “I’m going to bed.”

Kenshin nodded, and forced himself to say good night in as warm a tone as he could command. After that he could sense Sano’s increased agitation, and he thought the kenkaya even reached out a hand toward him that fell back before making contact. Then came the shuffling noises of Sano preparing for bed, and at last quiet breathing. No reminder of the need for them both to be rested, no invitation to join him. Not that Kenshin thought Sano wasn’t worried about his well-being or didn’t want him at his side; he just wouldn’t say it at this point, because of… whatever had come between them. And Kenshin found he couldn’t insist on a more explicit discussion.

He wondered that he wasn’t feeling worse about this. Slight apprehension, yes, but nothing that would keep him awake when he eventually joined Sano on the futon. Certainly such unnatural communication with his lover should be a source of greater worry… and yet he found his only sensation was one of nearly emotionless cold. A clinging mist seemed to surround him, surround them both… well, if he was going to be honest about it, surround all three of them… in his mind — but it was only cold, not frightening.

Something was changing, certainly, though he couldn’t quite see what it was… but he didn’t sense that it would end in loss. The mist would clear, he would have all the facts and understand the situation more precisely; he was sure of it. For the moment he simply had to weather the adherent chill until the warm sun shone again.

Eventually, when Sano’s breathing turned to snores, Kenshin undressed and lay softly down by his side, sliding an arm around Sano’s chest. They would overcome this as certainly as they had other difficulties. Whether his surety arose from faith in Sano or some subconscious understanding he already possessed, he didn’t know; but his conviction was unfailing. He put his face against his lover’s smooth shoulder and closed his eyes.

Chapter 13 – Wait

Sano wasn’t sure how much sleep he’d managed to get, nor entirely sure why he felt such a massive wave of relief at finding Kenshin warm at his side in the early-morning darkness to which he awoke. He tried not to think about either issue.

His movement, slight as it was, roused Kenshin immediately. There followed a moment of almost panicked apprehension as he remembered last night and the awkwardness — but as they both sat up and looked immediately at each other as if seeking concord by mutual consent, Kenshin only smiled at him. And it was there, in Kenshin’s eyes — forgiveness? contrition? simple understanding? — Sano couldn’t quite define it, but it was there.

Immensely cheered, he leaned over and kissed Kenshin gently and briefly. It almost seemed, just for that moment, that the strange, cold atmosphere of the night before hadn’t really existed except in his suspicious or guilty imagination, that perhaps he’d only dreamed the discomfort, the tension. But during the next few minutes as they rose and prepared for the day (as much as anyone could prepare for the kind of day they anticipated), he realized how wrong he was.

Things hadn’t gone back to how they’d been (I told you so, whispered that unrelenting voice in the back of his head); the tension and discomfort were just as real as they really had been last night. The air between the lovers had merely settled into a sort of resigned patience — as if they both knew their situation hadn’t finished changing yet, that they could do nothing to halt the metamorphosis, and therefore they might as well just wait and see how things turned out.

Sano wasn’t sure he liked this — in fact was almost positive he didn’t — but rejoiced, at least, that Kenshin was here with him. Whatever had changed, whatever would change, they still loved each other. Sano would just have to hold onto his faith in that, believe it was enough to get them through whatever was coming.

From downstairs, the yard outside the window, and other rooms even on this level, noise indicated they were not the only ones in the Aoiya up before dawn. Sano had spent yesterday assiduously hearing what their Tokyo friends had to tell and getting to know the Kyoto Oniwabanshuu, and he wouldn’t even try to deny he’d done it specifically so he wouldn’t have to talk to Kenshin about the whatever. Now, with this tacit agreement to wait for things to stabilize and figure everything out once the dust cleared, it almost seemed cowardly to fall back on that same tactic — but, while it appeared Kenshin could get dressed and wash his face in perfect silence without feeling at all awkward, Sano couldn’t stand this.

“So they all really did come,” he commented, cocking an ear at the distant sounds to indicate which ‘they’ he meant.

Kenshin’s smile at this was somewhat bittersweet, his tone a mixture of light chiding, amusement, and resignation. “You were the one I trusted with keeping them away.”

Sano was unsure to what extent Kenshin’s attitude still bothered him. On the one hand, Kenshin had done and said nothing to indicate his reason for wishing Sano to remain in Tokyo had been anything other than what his note had indicated — protection for the others in his absence — or to validate Saitou’s theory that Sano was a source of vulnerability to his lover; on the other hand, Sano couldn’t help thinking someone would have to be fairly cold-blooded not to want the person they loved beside them going into a battle that might be their last, and he knew Kenshin wasn’t that heartless. Kenshin was that selfless, though…

Last night, at any rate, Sano had declared his forgiveness and lack of anger for being left behind, and he didn’t want further contemplation on the subject to make him a liar. It was too complicated to think about anyway. So he just answered casually, “Yeah, you shoulda known better.”

Kenshin laughed softly. “I suppose so.”

“Hell, if Saitou kicking my ass couldn’t get me to stay in Tokyo–” Breaking off almost in the middle of the last syllable, aghast, Sano found himself stiffening with horror at what he was saying, what he had almost said. The unspoken half of the sentence hung in the air — what would Kenshin hear? “There’s no way you could?” Worse, more explicit, “No way just a note from you, even if it did say ‘I love you,’ ever could?” Holy god, he hadn’t meant anything like that; he hadn’t meant to contrast those two influences; hadn’t meant to bring up Saitou. Fucking idiot, he told himself harshly. Why didn’t you fucking stay in Tokyo? All you’re doing here is screwing shit up.

Just like Saitou said.

Out of nowhere there was a tight, heavy knot of unhappiness in his chest, so abrupt and startling that he jerked reflexively toward Kenshin as if to reach out and cling to him, close his eyes and have Kenshin hold him until it went away. But part of the sudden sadness, he knew, was the feeling that he might very well have cut himself off from that source of comfort by his own stupidity.

“Sano,” Kenshin said. It was a firm but largely emotionless tone.

The only acknowledgment Sano could manage was a deep breath. He couldn’t even bring himself to look around.

“We will probably be leaving here in just under an hour for Shishio’s headquarters.”

Sano understood: Kenshin was admonishing him to set all of this aside for the moment. The overwhelming impression of the morning thus far was that he needed to wait. There were direly important deeds to be done today; this simply wasn’t the time to be distracted.

But patience was nothing Sano had in surplus, and he didn’t know that he was strong enough to stay entirely focused when the source of distraction was so close, so vital to him.

Wait. Not strong enough?? Was he giving up, then? Giving up on his desire to prove he wasn’t a liability, that he could handle this; on his desire to continue improving simply for his own sake? That is, was he giving up on the just respect of Kenshin, Saitou, and himself?

Fuck, no.

He could feel his fists clenching in determination almost inadvertently as he made his resolution: he would remain steadfast, would keep his mind on the mission, would deal with the confusion later. It helped that Kenshin obviously believed he was up to this; it helped a lot.

Finally he acknowledged his lover’s remark. “Right.” And as proof of his bravery, he turned to face Kenshin without hesitation. Although he didn’t entirely understand the expression on the scarred face, he could at least see that Kenshin wasn’t upset with him — and that was enough for now. They would get through this. Impulsively Sano said, “I love you, Kenshin.”

If Kenshin was surprised at hearing this phrase spoken aloud for the first time at what was perhaps an odd moment, he didn’t show it. He simply smiled gently and replied, “And I love you.”

And Sano found that in a heart on fire there really wasn’t much room for doubt.

***

Kaoru and Misao brought them breakfast and chatter, and eventually Yahiko joined them, ensuring they were adequately cheerful on this important day; between this thoughtful gesture and having heard Sano speak the words ‘I love you,’ Kenshin could hardly be otherwise.

He could tell Kaoru was working to keep her voice steady as, when most of them had finished eating, she reached out to him and said, “Kenshin… take this.” The object she held turned out to be a floral-patterned tin from which a faint medicinal smell rose as it changed hands.

“I brought it on Megumi-san’s behalf,” Kaoru explained, “but I haven’t had a chance to give it to you. It’s her way of saying she hopes you come back safely. She’s not the only one; we all want you to come back safely.” She looked him in the eye, and, as he’d not infrequently noticed, there was a subdued dismay in her gaze that seemed to ask almost against her will, Is there really no chance for me? But it was far weaker than the last time he’d seen it, and it occurred to him that this journey — the journey from which he’d sought to bar her — might have been very beneficial for her as well. Her being Megumi’s designated messenger in this situation (not that Megumi had had much choice) might show progress on that front as well.

Kenshin smiled and thanked her, but his words were drowned out by Misao’s: “That’s the hundredth time you’ve mentioned this Megumi-san — who is she, exactly?” And as Kaoru went on to describe Megumi in terms that might have surprised her if she’d been listening to herself, Kenshin thought that, yes, some progress had been made on that front.

Under the cover of this discussion, “Kenshin,” Yahiko said urgently and quietly. He glanced around to see if anyone was listening — Sano was, but apparently Yahiko didn’t mind him — then went on with a touching sort of nervous defiance, “Please let me come with you!”

Kenshin shook his head. They’d been through this yesterday, but not thoroughly enough, it seemed.

“Since we got here, I haven’t missed a day training!” protested Yahiko in a hiss. “I’m a lot stronger than you think!”

Reaching out to place a hand on the boy’s shoulder, Kenshin prevented him continuing. “I know that. And I am not just arbitrarily ordering you to stay here. Tomorrow when we fight the Juppongatana–” he gestured to Sano and himself– “it’s likely Shishio will send others to attack the Aoiya, and you will not be able to avoid fighting. I need you to be ready for that; you must remain here on guard.”

Yahiko bit his lip and looked at once flattered and disappointed. After a thoughtful moment, he nodded. “But busu’s right,” he added pensively. “It’s not just the girls who want you to come back safe.” He looked away as he said it, lowering his voice even farther, as if embarrassed to be admitting affectionate concern for the leader of the little group he’d named into existence in the first place. He was at that age…

Despite Yahiko’s quiet tone, Kaoru’s ears seemed to have a special setting for the word ‘busu,’ and she broke off what she was saying to Misao in order to attack Yahiko with the usual string of angry reactions.

Kenshin watched the scene with a mild smile. True, Kaoru worried more than she was letting on, and lamented that she couldn’t be Kenshin’s primary source of comfort; Misao still lacked the level of confidence Kenshin would have preferred in his ability to deal with the Aoshi situation; Yahiko might have been more hurt than he was willing to show by Kenshin’s treatment of him; Saitou’s arrival, which could occur any moment, was going to throw Kenshin and Sano back toward the awkwardness of last night and put to the test the silent resolutions they’d made together this morning; and of course the prospective battle or battles of the day, all the more ominous for their obscurity, were a looming threat to his tranquility as to his person. But all this he pushed aside for the moment, concentrating on having a good meal with people he loved in relative peace.

Breakfast and their primary, lengthier goodbyes were over and the sun had just parted with the horizon when they made their way outside to wait. Standing in silence with his friends around him in the cool morning, Kenshin reflected that, worried though he was for their safety, he wasn’t sure he really regretted their following him here, if only for this — this last measure of strength he could draw from them in preparation for the end. Whether he was equally glad Sano had followed him was more complicated — but, as it partook of matters he’d decided not to think about until a more opportune time, he pushed the question away.

He couldn’t help noticing the way Sano shifted when Saitou appeared, or smiling slightly as he recognized Sano’s air as that of a man ready for combat. Of course Kaoru and Misao evinced a certain level of displeasure and agitation at the sight of the officer as well, but, for more reasons than one, it couldn’t be anything to what Kenshin and Sano felt.

Turning, Kenshin smiled at his friends. “Goodbye,” he said simply, and moved forward to meet Saitou. Behind him, Sano did much the same.

Saitou was smoking a cigarette and appeared largely unrested, and his greeting was a slow study of the both of them, almost as if looking for something, before he spoke. “I hope you haven’t wasted the night.”

At the tone even darker than usual, Kenshin had a sudden sad vision of Saitou, lonely and bitter, working himself half to death and wondering how Kenshin and Sano were wasting their night. Still, there was nothing to be said; he had a feeling Saitou didn’t really want to know the answer to the question implicit in his statement anyway.

“So…” Sano’s reflections were probably similar to Kenshin’s; he spoke with some effort, and the rurouni didn’t think Saitou could fail to notice. How he would interpret Sano’s demeanor was another story. “No carriage today?”

“The road to the shrine is too narrow,” Saitou replied with a shake of his head; Kenshin thought he was glad to have business to discuss. “Rokutsurane-Torii-Hokora is a good place to conceal the entrance to a secret headquarters, since it isn’t visited much anymore.”

Sano grunted acknowledgment and fell silent. And that silence went unbroken nearly their entire trip.

***

Saitou had thought the carriage ride to Osaka awkward, but realized now that he hadn’t known the meaning of the term until today.

For one thing, there was an air of finality about this venture, more than there had been during any of their previous interactions, as if they really didn’t expect to return this time; it sobered and stiffened their every word and gesture. The problem was that it seemed somehow too personal for Saitou to bring up, given the uncertain relations among them. And from the impersonal distance he was forced at this point to maintain, any sort of reassurance he could offer would seem asinine and fake.

For another thing, he got the feeling Himura knew. Exactly how much he knew or how Saitou knew he knew it, he wasn’t prepared to guess… but still he didn’t doubt the impression. Obviously the clues must be there, and Saitou could undoubtedly piece together what had led him to the conclusion, but for the moment he was more concerned with Himura’s reaction. In fact, he was concerned enough with Himura’s reaction that he could think of almost nothing else as they walked, silent and tense, through and out of the city. But except for the increase in moroseness (and consequent tension) that had gripped all three of them, Himura, to all outward appearances, was behaving as he always did.

As if after listening intently to silence he’d been startled by a loud noise, Saitou didn’t realize just how hard he was concentrating on reading Himura’s every slightest change of expression or gesture until Himura made one worth reading. Sagara had commented meaninglessly on some aspect of the walk, and Himura, after a brief reply, had thrown a glance back at Saitou as if to see whether he wanted to be included in the conversation.

And what was in that look? For Saitou fancied it had been alive with emotions. Did Himura want him included in the conversation? Did he want to drag him into such mundane exchanges and minutiae? Did he believe Saitou desired that sort of interaction, and pitied him its lack?

He wanted to take Himura by the shoulders and shake him, to tell him ‘I don’t want your sympathy,’ to state emphatically — though he doubted even he could find words sufficiently acerbic properly to convey the disdain such a statement would require — that this sort of pretentious attempt at understanding was something he neither needed nor desired.

Except that he did desire it.

His one consolation at the moment was that Himura didn’t yet seem to have shared his realization with Sagara. There were so many divergent reasons Himura might have done this, and the implications connected to them so varied, that Saitou could postulate nothing with any certainty, but he was glad Himura apparently hadn’t said anything; it would further complicate an already stupidly tangled situation, and escalate the awkwardness perhaps beyond enduring. If he had been in Himura’s position, he probably wouldn’t have said anything yet either.

It was surprisingly, dismayingly, appallingly easy to imagine himself in Himura’s position. Why, why had Saitou thought it necessary to try to see Sagara as Himura must? Hadn’t he considered the possible consequences?

He was aware — once again, through clues so subtle he might as well simply have called it intuition — of Sagara’s desire to prove himself to him. Looking back over what had passed between them since their first meeting, it wasn’t terribly surprising. And perhaps it shouldn’t be too terribly surprising, either, to recognize his own growing desire for Sagara to understand him, to lose the misconceptions he’d formed thus far, to comprehend and vindicate his motives. Or, to put it another way, a desire to prove himself to Sagara that was or would be, quite possibly, as strong as Sagara’s corresponding wish.

This might have been embarrassing — irritating, even — at another time and under different circumstances, but by now Saitou had given up applying the logic of his life prior to recent times to the current situation. And he’d given up as well trying not to admit he wanted more from Sagara than just understanding… though he couldn’t quite put exactly what more he did want into words just yet.

And from Himura… well, that was much easier to specify, since it had developed so much farther. It should be; it had had a good decade longer in which to form, repression notwithstanding.

He wasn’t generally the type to find himself at a loss for words. This was probably because he rarely had anything to say that didn’t directly concern business of some sort, or at least rarely cared what the effect of his words might be if he did. A situation like this, where he had more than a passing desire to say something but feared whatever he came up with would be either too little or too much — or at least be construed as too much by one of the people to whom he wanted to say it — was unheard of.

And yet he spent most of the latter portion of the walk trying to think of something to say.

He also wasn’t the type to give up easily or for no good reason. After all, he didn’t undertake something in the first place if it wasn’t worth a certain measure of trouble. Of course he hadn’t precisely undertaken this; it had, rather, overtaken him. But that didn’t mean he was prepared to expend any less effort on it than he felt it deserved. Than he felt they deserved.

And yet he could think of nothing to say.

As the path widened at the end of the trees and they emerged into the sunlight, as they started climbing a slope of cracked flagstones under the six arches, as that woman they’d earlier observed with Shishio came into sight standing before a giant pair of doors, Saitou knew it was time to give up. At least for now.

He’d told himself perhaps a dozen times since this whole mess had started that this wasn’t the time for it. Wait! was the message — by now rather emphatic, almost desperately so — that his better judgment continually delivered to his less practiced and therefore less self-assured romantic sense. And for the moment he obeyed. He just hoped the chance he was waiving now to express even a touch of what he felt wouldn’t prove to have been his last.

Chapter 14 – Difficult As Hell

One aspect of love, Kenshin reflected, was the ability to restrain yourself and stay out of something you would really much rather be involved in. Would rather take over completely in order to spare your lover the less pleasant effects of the situation.

It had very little to do with faith in Sano’s combat prowess; Kenshin wasn’t sure whether or not he believed Sano could win this fight, but certainty either way would not have changed his behavior. It had very little to do with the fact that Kenshin would be over this railing with sword drawn the moment Sano’s life seemed in legitimate danger; he would do that for anyone. What he might not do for anyone was let it get to that point.

He probably would not have stood by watching Kaoru, for instance, battle a stronger opponent. Assigned her the task of dealing with a particular enemy while he faced some other threat, perhaps; been aware that she was elsewhere fighting and quietly worried, certainly. But stood still observing? Actually watched her fight someone he wasn’t certain she could defeat? Probably not. Allowing Sano this chance without protest or interference was a mark of respect he might not even be capable of showing just anyone.

And even in this case it was difficult as hell.

The huge monk was obviously a world ahead of Sano in mastery of the interesting two-hit move they called Futae no Kiwami, and his ki was every bit as ragingly angry as Sano’s. The latter’s superior agility would only get him so far. More promising — to Kenshin, who believed in the influence of attitude in combat — was the fact that when faced with the corruption and misery of the world, one of them had chosen destruction while the other (with some encouragement) had chosen life. But even this could not be entirely reassuring.

Then a hard voice to his left called down in the direction of the combatants, “Do you want me to take your place?”

Kenshin glanced over, very startled. He certainly hadn’t forgotten Saitou was there… but in his concern for Sano, Saitou had blurred into a vague, comforting essence of strength and solidity.

Comforting?

Yes, comforting. Why bother denying it?

“Shut the hell up!” Evidently Sano didn’t find him comforting.

Startling as it had been, the suggestion did not surprise him. Kenshin had suspected — strongly suspected — and now he knew; it was the elbow that gave Saitou away, really. The offer could just as easily have been exactly what it seemed — a condescending jab at Sano’s abilities — but Saitou’s elbow rested in his other hand as if needing support, and the hand seemed clenched tighter than was strictly necessary. One arm lay close across his body as if he wanted to project his subtly defensive stance at Sano, the other raised a cigarette to his lips. Kenshin had noticed that Saitou normally took no more than a drag or two on any cigarette before tossing it away. This one was steadily shortening, almost as if he didn’t notice himself smoking it.

Then there was the fact that Saitou had voiced concern even before Kenshin could. No, there could be no question now.

Did Kenshin resent this sudden apparent worry where none had been present before? Did he consider telling Saitou to mind his own business? Did he look down at Sano with new jealousy in his gaze, unsure whether he envied more the circumstance of being the object of Saitou’s concern or the one feeling it for Sano?

No. He knew any or all of these could have been his reaction, but the only thing he could do was appreciate Saitou’s attitude even as he felt the same. In fact, Saitou’s presence rendered a little less painful the unendurable thoughts of what if? that hovered just beyond the bright areas of his mind. It didn’t matter what each of them was to Sano; the fact that they stood here side by side, both with his well-being in mind, made all the difference.

“Sano!” he called out, feeling minutely better about things all of a sudden and wishing to share that, if possible, with his lover. “Even in kenjutsu, a man with two swords is not necessarily stronger than one with only one! I am sure you can find a way to win!”

Though not as fierce as the one he’d directed at Saitou a moment before, Sano’s reply to this encouragement was definitely a scowl. Realizing belatedly that his words, though kindly meant, might seem to imply a surety of the monk’s superior abilities, Kenshin felt a little sheepish, and was actually rather glad to busy himself in a brief, meaningless exchange with Yumi about the suitability of cheering Sano on.

He was watching avidly the next moment, though, when Sano landed a hit. Both the spectators were, Kenshin thought, interested in the effects of Sano’s new move on a human body — Kenshin probably with a good deal more speculative horror than Saitou — and they both, he knew, were shocked at the result. Though it seemed feasible to cancel out the energy of the blow, the precision with which the opposing force would need to be directed to avoid damage to self would demand an incredible level of mastery. To see Sano’s opponent displaying such expertise could only dishearten.

Despite Sano’s swift retreat from striking distance, the monk’s big fist grazed his stomach. Kenshin clutched hard at the railing as Sano staggered a step back and coughed up a handful of blood. At his side, Saitou shifted.

“Retreat,” the monk said darkly. “I’ll let you go this time.” It sounded more like an order than an offer, and it seemed to upset Yumi quite a bit. She and the monk argued the point for a few moments before Sano broke in with a glib and rather insulting comment on Anji’s self-proclaimed authority over life and death.

Though Kenshin focused primarily on the debate that would undoubtedly return to blows any moment, he couldn’t help noticing Saitou’s increasing tension. The wolf now had his free hand in his pocket, and had started another cigarette. Noting Kenshin’s attention he murmured, “I meant it when I offered to take his place. He’s not going to get through this with that attitude.”

Kenshin might have been inclined to agree with the statement had Sano not at that moment been voicing sentiments both convincing and familiar: a combination of what he’d told Kenshin bitterly when they’d first met and his more enlightened later thoughts on the state of the country, culminating in the defiant and utterly self-assured declaration, “I absolutely won’t lose to you!”

Letting out a deep breath, Kenshin turned a slight smile on Saitou, whose face now barely even concealed the worry he felt at the recommencing fight. “Sano said that to me when he and I first fought,” he remarked quietly. “‘I absolutely won’t lose…’ But this time it means a lot more.”

For a long, dark moment Saitou stared at Kenshin, brows drawing together and some kind of struggle going on behind his eyes. Saitou, Kenshin was fairly sure, had a hard time feeling faith in anyone besides himself; how lonely that must be. But he was also a very strong man, just as capable of changing himself for the better as he was of changing the world. Finally he too let out his concerned breath, his face relaxing and smoothing slightly as it turned back to watch the action below. He didn’t say anything, but Kenshin knew he’d decided to take the reassurance seriously.

Now to see how long they could endure in silence.

***

With his body aching from head to toe, the halls they walked were a claustrophobic nightmare. Why the pain should make such a difference Sano wasn’t sure — nor could he guess why, under such circumstances, he should want to draw closer to his companions as they walked rather than further away.

He flexed his hand and let out an involuntary sound of pain. Trying to avoid worries about the long-term ramifications of this damage — worries that, even in the midst of this very present turmoil and the need for concentration, would continue nagging at him — Sano stretched and contracted his fingers again, forcing himself to adjust to the unpleasant sensation. He wasn’t out of the action yet; he needed his fist to function.

Saitou at his side kept looking at him. For a moment Sano avoided his eyes, not really wanting to endure any more derisive comments than he already had, but eventually the fleeting (and, admittedly, somewhat irrational) thought that this might be his last chance to look into Saitou’s eyes overcame his reluctance. And the pensive, serious expression he found there, far different from the irritating disdain he’d expected, could not but surprise him.

In direct contrast, Saitou’s words were no surprise whatsoever: “If you’re hurt, you’re only going to get in the way. You should leave now.” What Sano did not anticipate, however, was the way they were spoken. Sure, it sounded like Saitou’s usual jerk-face attitude, but something about the suggestion was… off… somehow.

For a few moments just a minute ago, after Anji’s news, Sano had been stupidly determined to turn back. Sense had returned, but the burning cold fear in his heart for their friends at the Aoiya had not disappeared. Was Saitou subtly trying to convince him to give in to that? Well, no, that didn’t make much sense; what would Saitou care about their friends at the Aoiya? If it had been anyone else, Sano might have thought there was some concern for his concern… but this was Saitou; he would no more care that Sano cared than care in his own right. Right? Sano was probably just imagining things anyway. He’d spent far too much time lately trying to solve puzzles in the light of Saitou’s uncanny eyes.

But perhaps Saitou simply didn’t want him to get hurt. Because of Kenshin, that is, of course; that would make sense. Saitou knew — better than any other third party, probably — the effect it would have on Kenshin if anything serious happened to Sano. The latter couldn’t help recalling the way his two companions had stood together looking down at him as he fought Anji… neither seeming any more or less worried about him than the other… and Saitou’s offer to take his place…

Yes, that was undoubtedly the answer: Saitou was simply looking out for Kenshin, who was, after all, the government’s specific answer to this Shishio situation. That was Saitou, all right: just doing his job; nothing personal about it.

Sano found himself making another little pained noise. He’d been flexing his hand throughout these reflections, and didn’t think it was getting any better for it.

Saitou snorted, evidently accepting this non-verbal answer for the dismissal of his suggestion that it was. “This is what you get for ignoring what I told you and neglecting your defense,” he said.

Sano made a face at him. Disinclined to repeat the responses he’d already given to the admonition, however, he merely said, “Hey, fuck you.”

“Here and now? I wonder what Shishio’s thoughts on that would be.” Though Saitou’s murmur was carrying, evidently meant to be heard by the two people walking down the hall in front of them, Sano chose to interpret it at being directed toward Yumi alone. She didn’t seem to have much of a sense of humor, and her huffy, stiff-shouldered response was pretty funny… a good deal more than the thought of the remark having been aimed at Kenshin and what that might mean.

“Could only make his day better,” Sano replied with a shrug and a grin… and realized even as he said it that, while there was nothing wrong with levity in general, these particular words were probably not the wisest. They could only bother Kenshin and bring to mind things neither of them were supposed to be thinking about at the moment. Honestly, he was a little shocked he’d even said such a thing to Saitou. Hell, he was shocked Saitou had said what he had to him.

He couldn’t help being surprised as well at how amiable that brief exchange had been. Perhaps Saitou was surprised too, for he raised a brow and gave Sano a lopsided smile. It was a strange look, holding something more than skepticism and amusement, and it gave Sano the strangest feeling. There was something of finality in Saitou’s eyes all of a sudden… finality and acceptance. Seeing that expression, Sano almost expected the man at any moment to say goodbye and just disappear.

Earlier on in this venture, Sano would have been glad of the disappearance and told Saitou to skip the goodbye. Now… Well, it would probably get in the way of all that waiting he’d resolved to do if he thought about what he would prefer now. Break his concentration on the tasks at hand, complicate things with Kenshin, and all that.

But after the oddly friendly moment of banter and those looks, and in this current silence that (according to Sano’s earlier, admittedly irrational fear) might be his last chance, it was difficult as hell not to think about this sort of thing.

Kenshin glanced back at them just then, the very nonexistence of his expression expressive. He looked like a man holding his breath, reminding his companions that the air would slowly poison them if taken in. There was no trace of what Sano knew he must be feeling, the worry and confusion and god knew what else… only the determination to finish what he’d started, to complete the accepted task. Not even the awareness that their friends at the Aoiya were in worse danger, perhaps, than anyone here in the fortress — a fact that, quite frankly, Sano was trying his best simply to ignore, though it lingered under everything else he did or said or thought as a live current of potentially detrimental concern… not even that showed in Kenshin’s face.

Sano smiled faintly at his lover, then stared at his back when Kenshin turned away again. Kenshin was so strong… strong in ways Sano had never thought about — never been aware of, really — until recently, until Kenshin himself had made him recognize them. Sano admired and loved Kenshin as much for teaching him these things he might not otherwise have learned as for bearing that strength in himself. And observing Saitou’s fixed, serious stare in the same direction as his own, Sano couldn’t help thinking…

No. No. He could help thinking that, because he wasn’t supposed to be thinking about anything but this situation here and now at the fortress. Sano might not be as strong as Kenshin was in many ways, but he’d be damned if he let him down here and now by getting distracted and jeopardizing the endeavor. He returned his attention very pointedly to the continual, painful flexing of his hand.

“We’ve arrived,” Yumi announced at last, drawing to a halt in front of another pair of doors in a particularly dark stretch of corridor. “Inside is your second opponent. Once you enter this room, you won’t be allowed to turn ba–”

“Enough,” Kenshin interrupted her, somewhat fiercely, and, to Sano’s surprise, kicked the doors down. They clattered to the floor a few feet into the room beyond.

The latter, as dim as this length of hallway, was decorated with stylized eyes on floor and wall and ceiling. In the solid circular center of one of these a man, blindfolded and bearing a large-headed spear and a shield, wore more of the same symbol on his clothing and sandals. He didn’t sit; he crouched, evidently ready to spring into action at any moment. Piecing together certain things Misao and Chou had said, Sano identified this as Mouken no Usui.

“One… two… three…” the man counted. He raised a hand and pointed at the people in the doorway, skipping Yumi but indicating the rest of them one by one with a precision that made Sano a little uncomfortable. Was the guy blind or wasn’t he? Surely he couldn’t see through the damn blindfold in any case…! “Anji couldn’t even get rid of one of you?” Usui put a hand thoughtfully to his smiling face. “Well… that’s fine, that’s fine.”

“We don’t have time for your bravado,” Kenshin replied in an even harsher tone than his previous. Glancing at him, startled, Sano noticed he was already prepared to draw and fight. “Will you step aside and let us pass? Decide quickly.”

Sano struggled to fight off a deep, cold shiver. He knew that voice. It was Kenshin’s first-step-down-Battousai-path voice. Perhaps the news of the planned Aoiya massacre was affecting him more than Sano had thought; or perhaps Kenshin, in steeling himself for the eventual encounter with Shishio, was inadvertently (inadvertently, Sano hoped to god inadvertently) pushing himself into Battousai territory.

“Kenshin–” he began uncertainly, but cut off in surprise as Kenshin’s forward momentum brought him into sudden, unexpected contact with Saitou’s abruptly outstretched arm. Kenshin stumbled back a step, staring at Saitou just as Sano was.

“It’s good that you’re angry,” Saitou explained, his eyes never moving from the still figure of Usui, “but don’t waste it on him.” His tone was utterly flat as he continued, “Go on and leave this one to me.”

“Saitou…” Kenshin’s voice was a great relief, for it had returned to normal; and the expression he gave Saitou, as he touched briefly the spot where the officer’s fist had met his face, was all Kenshin. Silently Sano sighed. Was it all right to feel grateful to Saitou for this? Kenshin could undoubtedly have taken care of it himself, but the fact remained that the wolf had deliberately pulled him back from those first steps.

“Go,” ordered Saitou, and suddenly the import of his previous statement struck Sano. Go? Leave him here to fight alone? Move on to whatever came next without him? Just like that?

Sano opened his mouth, but found himself devoid of words.

Kenshin nodded. “Excuse us,” he said to Yumi, and took off at that improbable speed of his toward the far doors.

“Hey, wait!” the woman protested. “You can’t just–”

Deeming it best to bring her along, given the likelihood of their getting lost without her, Sano hefted Yumi up into his arms as he moved to follow Kenshin. “You’re coming too!”

Through the door Kenshin had flung open, carrying the struggling, loudly protesting Yumi, Sano had time for nothing more than the briefest glance back. And he couldn’t even deny to himself the painful clenching of his heart as he took in the lean, tense, motionless figure in blue that they were leaving behind perhaps never to see again.

The room stank of blood, but Saitou did not rush to leave it; unnecessary haste would only set him back at this point. He was quick about treating his injuries, though… It probably would have been better to bandage his legs under his pants, but, squeamish as he wasn’t, the thought of removing the garment in the presence of the pinned and blindly staring half body on the wall was unpalatable to him.

“Could only make his day better,” he seemed to hear in Sagara’s tones, and he smirked faintly to himself. He still couldn’t quite believe they’d said those things to each other.

After retrieving his sword with some difficulty from aforementioned corpse, he finally left the room. As he lit a cigarette outside, covering up the last traces of the bloody scent, he spent several moments staring down the corridor to the right. Based on what he’d heard earlier, he believed his companions had gone that way. Unfortunately, based on what he remembered, he needed to go the other way. To be sure, he traded his cigarette case for the map in his pocket.

It would be a struggle to concentrate on the information he needed to collect when he wanted so badly to follow Himura and Sagara. Supposedly only Seta Soujirou remained to be defeated before Shishio himself, but, even assuming he believed those really were the only dangers left to face, he wasn’t terribly happy letting the others face them alone. He knew part of this was his usual, deeply-ingrained disinclination to delegate difficult tasks; he was always surer of things he did himself. He knew what the rest of it was too — he could finally even admit it to himself — but it was no good thinking about that right now.

He headed down the hallway to the left. Careless haste was still to be avoided, but he could hope to wrap up this part of his task quickly and rejoin the others before too long. And if either of them had been seriously hurt during this separation…

He took a long drag on his cigarette. He needed to visit three areas of the fortress before he could do what he really wanted to do, so, though it was difficult as hell, he pushed Himura and Sagara from his mind (as far as that was possible) and moved, purposeful and silent, toward his first duty.

That things went smoothly was not, he thought, in this instance, a bad sign. The complex was practically uninhabited — emptied, perhaps, toward the unsuspecting Aoiya — and those that remained were too distracted by the presence of Himura to notice Saitou. So it was with relative ease he found what he sought — none of which could occupy his mind anywhere near as thoroughly as the emptiness he was enforcing in place of what he didn’t need to be worrying about at the moment.

On the way to the last and largest office-like room he intended to inspect, a door stood ajar. A glance at his map confirmed it led to a library, but even half a hallway away Saitou could tell that its recent purpose had been something very different. Moving even more stealthily than before, he stepped inside to have a look.

The two rooms he’d seen in which the prearranged battles had taken place had been specifically suited for that purpose, tasteless personalized decorations aside. This chamber, with its narrow, shelf-walled lanes, was not suited for the purpose, so presumably this battle had not been prearranged. Saitou had been wondering all along, in the back of his head, about the location of almost the only unknown factor in this great equation; therefore, the presence in the dark chaos inside the doors of one Shinomori Aoshi was not terribly shocking. Nor was the fact that Himura had been able to defeat him.

It was one hell of a relief, though.

Judging by Shinomori’s state and that he was just getting to his feet and moving as if to leave the room, Saitou judged that it couldn’t have been too long since the end of this bout. The Okashira actually moved two steps forward before observing Saitou’s presence; Saitou wished very much he could have seen the battle that had left him in this condition.

During the few moments before Shinomori noticed his presence, Saitou debated whether or not to speak to him. Time was nothing could spend extravagantly, but he was so pleased to see Himura had won this battle that he actually felt rather positive toward Shinomori at the moment. Additionally, the Oniwaban’s presence in the fortress had surely contributed to the general distraction of which Saitou had been able to take such convenient advantage… and the man might even have a further use against Shishio, assuming Himura had managed to convince him of the error of his ways. Since Himura could probably convince Enma of the error of his ways, Saitou was assuming.

So, when Shinomori signaled by a barely visible start that he was finally aware of Saitou’s presence, looking up from the wreckage of slashed books and shattered shelves he attempted to navigate, Saitou greeted him. “I see you got your ass kicked again.”

“Saitou Hajime.” Shinomori didn’t seem terribly pleased to see him, but it was a little hard to tell.

“Hm?” Saitou lit a fresh cigarette. “You should know me as Fujita Gorou.”

“That Seta boy told me you were here,” Shinomori replied shortly.

“Sou ka,” said Saitou even more shortly, smirking at the other man.

“You’ve been taking your time.” Shinomori seemed somehow even less pleased now than before. “Battousai’s long gone.”

Saitou nodded. “Everything’s going according to plan.” Now he essentially had confirmation in Shinomori’s own words of Himura’s victory, he could get back to work in relative contentment. The Okashira was fading as an object of any interest, but he might still be useful. So Saitou pulled his map again from his pocket and flicked it at the other man.

Shinomori caught the paper and snapped it open with a hand that was evidently regaining its vigor. As his eyes took in the fine lines representing the rooms and passages surrounding them, he managed by some means or other to appear almost astonished with no visible change of expression.

Saitou turned to leave with another satisfied smirk. “Your intelligence network is effective,” he answered Shinomori’s surprise, “but the government’s system is the best in the country. It’s one of the reasons I work for them.” He gestured briefly. “I don’t need that now; it will lead you to Shishio, if you’re interested.”

“So you’re using Battousai as a decoy.” The Okashira’s flat statement made him pause.

“Something like that.” It certainly had been the plan all along; it was still the plan… it was just that Himura had become so much more since that encounter in the Kamiya Dojo. This was nothing he felt like explaining to Shinomori Aoshi, though. “This battle will decide the future Japan,” he forced himself to go on. “Nothing can come before that.” And he was not so much expressing the opinion as trying to convince himself he actually believed it. He’d known this would happen; he could only hope, now, that he really was as strong as he’d told himself he was.

“Then what about your match?” Shinomori wondered next. “The grudge between you and Battousai from the Bakumatsu? If he dies here, what will you do?”

Saitou wasn’t certain whether Shinomori was trying to reiterate the efficacy of his network by showing how much he knew, or if he was aware that these questions would be bothersome and was just lashing out since Saitou had caught him in such a vulnerable position. Either way, Saitou considered remarking cryptically that the Okashira’s information was outdated, and leaving it at that… but the thought of Himura dying here — the thought of losing what he’d only just allowed himself to admit he cherished — was too disturbing for him to answer quite so facetiously, even if Shinomori didn’t understand.

“Then whoever lives wins,” he said flatly. Under normal circumstances, it would be true, which made it a good response. But he was less pleased with Shinomori upon leaving the room than when he’d entered it.

Everything he needed to know was not readily available here in the fortress, but he hadn’t really expected it to be. He’d still learned enough to justify the trip, and after the office near the library felt it was all he was likely to. Which meant he was free to rejoin the others and, hopefully, see the end of this drama.

A large space that had appeared on the map to be an arena of some sort lay outside these dark corridors in a valley that cut right through the underground fortress; Shishio having already displayed an eye for showmanship, Saitou believed the battle against him would take place there. Picturing the route he must take to reach it required no particular effort of memory, since, under the assumption that Himura and Sagara were or would soon be there, his eyes had inevitably traced it every time they’d fallen to the map; he could probably walk it without looking.

Anticipation and concern tensed his body further with every step he took along aforementioned path, until finally he turned the last corner. Daylight flooded this corridor… more of a room, really, where the hallway opened out into an atrium of sorts before a giant set of riveted metal doors that stood open. But while the real, natural light of the sun served as a pleasant reminder of the world outside this dreary fortress and the events taking place therein, the fresh air that should have accompanied it from the valley or gorge beyond the doors was tainted by a hot, acrid smell he didn’t quite recognize at first.

Uncertain though he was at what he might find beyond them, he took the fact that the doors were open at all as a confirmation of his guess about the final battle’s location. He had only to step through and learn what was going on. Now for the end; now to hope his other duties, which it would have been impossible for him to shirk and which he was yet inclined to curse as he thought about the amount of time he’d spent away from Himura and Sagara, hadn’t delayed him too long.

Chapter 15 – The Point of Strength and Fire

Saitou had reached a point he had never thought to see, had experienced something that, for all his careful planning, all his meticulous calculations of possibilities and the outcomes of various paths, he had never anticipated — nor would quite have known how to deal with if he had. The shock of this, he thought, did him little good at this point. It increased his pain, clouded his thoughts, and further reduced his ability to get hold of himself and the situation.

It wasn’t his failure that took him so much by surprise, for even that possibility was part of his calculations. The manner of his defeat was also no great surprise, as he’d been very aware of what a threat Shishio’s strength posed. No, while it could dismay, this in general could not surprise him. Nor was he entirely willing to classify this as ‘failure’ yet in any case. But a number of other aspects of what was happening found him so thoroughly off guard he thought he must spend the rest of his life — however much longer that was likely to be — wondering at them, at this point he never would have expected to reach.

He would never thought he could regret so deeply a plan of his own concoction, nor wish so desperately he could have altered or even abandoned it. Not that he would have — his level of dedication to the country and its good lessened for no man (or men) — but that he wished to was enough to startle him. And as he’d stood behind the closed arena doors listening, striving to keep his intentions neutral and suppress the ki that might otherwise betray him, taking in the unmistakable sounds of a battle not proceeding in Himura’s favor, he could do almost nothing but wish it could have been otherwise — that some other decoy could have been found or some other arrangement made to give them an advantage. Hell, even a straightforward battle with no gimmicks would have been better than this.

When had he ever wished, honestly, for a battle to be straightforward?

He’d never thought to reach the point where a difficulty he had anticipated would prove a genuine setback. That unexpected hurdles would arise he accepted perforce; he planned as best he could, and considered himself by no means deficient in foresight, but the unexpected would always take a part, for good or ill, in any venture. But for something he had foreseen, something he had specifically expected and readied himself to combat, nothing that had taken him blind but something of which he’d been long aware — for such a thing to have become a stumbling block he almost could not believe.

And yet, despite his awareness that his growing unrelated emotions might interfere with his ability to carry out his duty, despite his belief that he had this under control, the sound and feel of Himura’s defeat on the other side of those doors and the far worse sight of Himura senseless and bleeding on the ground had absolutely undone him. Which begged the question of just how much under control he really had things; of just how foresighted he really was when he hadn’t predicted or even considered this.

Or perhaps he simply hadn’t realized the strength of his own emotions. If that was the case, it was yet another surprise.

For one vital moment, all he’d been able to think or feel was the desire to kill Shishio. Of course killing Shishio had been the objective all along, but if Saitou had had his head about him, hadn’t been so utterly overcome, he might have aimed more responsibly. He didn’t entirely believe, in general, that emotion was the antithesis of rational thought, but it certainly had been in this scenario. It had been utterly irresponsible of him to fail in the sneak attack that had been the purpose of the whole operation, and the blame rested with his overactive sensibilities.

And now as he fell, unable to stop his descent, unable though he struggled to regain any sway over his injured form, conscious of almost no physical sensation beyond overwhelming pain, the last thing he heard as everything plunged into agonized darkness was Sagara’s cry of rage and despair. At least he had not yet fallen. There was little hope he would remain standing, so the emotion resultant upon hearing the shout partook very little of that foresight Saitou still believed himself to possess — but for the moment, thank god, Sagara had not yet fallen.

Saitou would never have thought to reach the point where comfort so destined to fail, as doomed to fall as Sagara was, could mean so much to him.

***

“This is my fight,” Kenshin had said, with that distant look of ten years past, that look Sano hated more than anything, that look that spoke of a responsibility that really shouldn’t have been his. This had faded somewhat, though, as Kenshin had taken in Sano’s expression. “I must ask you…” And he’d trailed off and smiled faintly, silently acknowledging his inability to continue under that stare.

Sano had known Kenshin wanted to ask him to stay out of the coming battle, both because of that damned unfair sense of responsibility and because he was still trying to protect him. But that was absurd; Sano hadn’t come this far to watch. And the impossibility of Sano giving the promise Kenshin wanted had translated into impossibility of Kenshin even asking it. But even if words could not, the concern in Kenshin’s eyes had demanded something of Sano. With an effort the latter had said, “I’ll do my best.”

Then they’d stared at each other for a long moment, and Sano had fought off the temptation to pull Kenshin to him for what might be their last kiss or remind him that he loved him. They were not going to die here, and any statement or gesture of such finality as to imply he thought they might could only have lowered morale.

As if understanding and concurring with this unspoken thought, Kenshin had nodded and turned toward the walkway. He certainly had understood Sano’s words, brief though they’d been — that Sano would try to stay out of the battle, try to let Kenshin handle it… but that he had his limits.

It turned out his limits lay just below the sum total of what he felt at seeing the two people most important to him cut down in front of him.

Seeing either fall singly, he thought, would have caused the same shock, the same body-and-spirit-encompassing leaden despair that had gripped him when Kenshin’s limp form hit the ground. But seeing them both fall, whichever fell first, was enough to inspire a hotter rage, a deeper pain, and a greater need to move, to fight, to kill, than he in his nineteen years had ever before felt.

With a scream he launched himself, fists clenched and aching, with no more complex motive than this desire to destroy and very little awareness of anything beyond his anger and his agony. Anger and agony were all he took into the collision, and were all he found there, and the only additional reflection that could pierce the chaos and the blackness that swiftly began to swallow him as he hit the wall and saw the world dimming in a spray of blood was that Shishio was right — he really wasn’t strong enough for either of them.

***

He couldn’t sense them.

Kenshin was half dead of blood loss and pain, more unconscious than otherwise, battered and shaken and anguished, and he couldn’t sense them.

He could feel Aoshi’s presence, weary but undaunted, and Shishio’s looming black-hot ki; he could vaguely make out the presence of the other two people on the platform. He could even hear a little of their discussion, though it was distant and garbled and incomprehensible as if he listened from under water. But Sano… where was Sano? Somehow Kenshin was sure Saitou was here too… how he knew this was less important a question than where Saitou was. Kenshin knew they were there, but he could not sense them.

He had to… he had to

Why couldn’t he sense them?

In a movement of will closer to slow and steady than passionate or determined, he pushed against the haze that shrouded him. With growing awareness came an increase in pain, which only paved a quicker path to full consciousness, and still he could not sense them.

Working, struggling, battling to awaken, straining for any indication past Aoshi’s chill and Shishio’s heat that Sano and Saitou were still with him and still alive, Kenshin forced his senses back into place and his eyes to open.

One glance was all it took to tell the tale: what Shishio had done, what Aoshi had done and why… what Saitou had done, what Sano had done… what Shishio had done to them. The blood running from Sano’s brow down his cheek onto his neck and chest… the wounds to Saitou’s legs and torso as he lay motionless… their pained, insensible faces… Saitou’s fallen sword, Sano’s limp fist…

Kenshin had felt all along that this was his fight, but only by extension of old loyalties and events of ten years past, only because a burden he’d taken on his shoulders during the Bakumatsu had seemed to include a certain responsibility for the actions and choices of some of his confederates.

Now Shishio had made it personal.

Kenshin could burn too. It was time to see who burned hotter, to test the black flame against the white. It was time to save them, to put all his desire to protect on the line and see if it measured up.

It was time to end this.

Chapter 16 – The Color of 120°

Gazing across the gap in the path that was clearly too wide to jump, Saitou watched as everything wavered in the rising heat that here and there even gave way to high-springing flame, and wondered how in such conditions he could possibly be so cold. How could he look over there, meet Sagara’s eyes across that divide, take in the devastation Himura’s body had undergone, and say nothing, do nothing in response? Sagara was screaming at him in a tone of such despair that his emotions were borne across the burning chasm as clearly as his voice was; how could Saitou listen to those words, those feelings, and respond by lighting a cigarette and smiling?

Had he been this cold watching from the deck of the Rengoku as Shishio ordered Sagara gunned down? Had he been this cold bursting through the arena doors to see Himura lying motionless on the ground?

No, never this cold. Tense, breathless, irate, bloodthirsty, horrified, terrified. No, never cold at all, except perhaps on the exterior, and even that had cracked at least once in both instances.

But in both instances, it had been they, not he, in danger of their lives. Had been a member of a pair that should not be separated, that he could not bear to see separated. This time it was merely a lone wolf that was only in the way. He’d done his job as best he could, considering the terrible dual distractions, and now could fade away — die perhaps — and leave them to each other as they were meant to be. This was the best of all possible endings, after all.

He was going to miss them, though, if he got out of this alive. More than just a little, if the pang that went through his heart at his final glance at Himura’s unconscious face was any indication. Still, he’d played a game against each of them and lost — lost more than he’d ever thought he had to lose — and he knew it.

“Ahou,” he remarked softly as Sagara finished his tirade in a voice that would echo in Saitou’s ears forever. I expected him, but not you, he did not add out loud as he took one last look and turned away into the rising flames and billowing brown smoke.

***

The closer Kenshin drifted toward the shores of consciousness, the greater the pain. But with the memory of the battle against Shishio and those preceding it fresh even in his hazy mind, this was no surprise to him. However, innumerable glimpses of Sano’s worried face and tortured eyes, indistinct and half viewed through barely opened lids as he repeatedly struggled and failed to reach the waking world — that was something he could not entirely explain. They’d come through the ordeal together alive, regardless of what state he would find himself in when he was at last able to take stock. Why should Sano appear so miserable? Kenshin didn’t think he was dying… but why else would that utterly forsaken look be so constantly painted across his lover’s face?

Unless… unless something had happened to one of their friends, and Sano was just waiting for Kenshin to regain lucidity enough to break the news. But how — when, even — could that have happened? Soujirou had informed them that the Juppongatana had been defeated at the Aoiya. Could he have neglected to mention it had not been a perfect defeat? Then, Kenshin remembered both Aoshi and Saitou standing, if not entirely healthy, well enough to walk and converse, after the battle on the platform. Might something have happened to one of them after Kenshin had blacked out? But though Sano would regret it, he wouldn’t worry so much communicating bad news about Aoshi — would not harbor such terrible pain in his eyes over that loss. Nor, Kenshin had to admit, about Kaoru or Yahiko or anyone else involved in this except for…

But Saitou was…

Kenshin knew he must have lost quite a lot of blood. Because Saitou was not invincible, and anything even approaching such a protest spoke of muddled thoughts.

His struggles for consciousness redoubled, and eventually through sheer force of will he managed to rouse himself sufficiently to whisper to Sano, who was seated at his side still with that horrifying pain in his gaze, “What happened?”

“Kenshin,” Sano whispered, “Saitou…”

Kenshin took a deep, tremulous breath, closing his eyes and sinking back into the haze.

He floated through memories, distant and recent. Blue haori and headbands mingled with blue police uniforms and cigarettes, a haughty smile presiding over all. A smile that had been turned toward Kenshin in genuine pleasure — there was no mistaking it — as he disembarked from that carriage at the police station and Saitou greeted him from the window. A smile whose absence had been conspicuous during the ride to Osaka, in as awkward a silence as three men could possibly attain and that had answered more questions than any words could. A smile that had never changed over all those years. A smile he would not be seeing again.

When he was finally able to open his eyes and look around without immediately falling back onto the pillow in profound exhaustion, he wondered what the point had been, as, excepting (thankfully) Sano, all the colors in the world seemed to have faded to a dull brown.

***

Sano couldn’t think clearly, and he didn’t know why. He couldn’t remember having been in this much pain at any time during his entire life. And he couldn’t be sure whether the pain was due more to the agony in his hand and his head — the memory constantly replaying itself of that walkway, explosions, fire, and unexpected loss — or the look in Kenshin’s eyes, as if the older man had just been stabbed, when Sano had told him.

He didn’t know whether or not seeing Kenshin hurting was worse than the loss he felt in his own heart, and it didn’t seem to matter much anymore whether or not that represented unfaithfulness.

Hugging himself in the corner of a window-seat in the room he was sharing with Kenshin in the Aoiya’s upper level — not the same room as before, as that had been destroyed in the battle — Sano stared blankly through the glass at the failing day. He felt so cold.

Of course no one could be invincible. He’d reminded himself of that fact when Kenshin had left Tokyo, but still somehow then put Saitou in another class, in a different category than Sagara-taichou and his lover. Possibly because he’d thought for so long that he hated Saitou, and therefore whether Saitou lived or died had less to do with Sano… or something like that. He couldn’t even think straight, and it was all Saitou’s fault.

He remembered how Saitou had looked at him through the door of that cell, the first time they’d seen each other since Tokyo. How after that incident it had seemed a matter beyond question that Sano would be accompanying Saitou at least until they found Kenshin, if not… well, forever…

“Damn you,” he whispered, letting his head fall so his face rested against the cool glass.

He was startled just then by Kenshin’s hand on his shoulder, the first sign of the other man’s presence. Sano looked up in silent surprise to meet his lover’s weary eyes, that gaze that seemed to hold every bit as much pain as he thought his own must. Kenshin touched his face wordlessly and joined him on the window-seat, curling up with him, his head against Sano’s chest, breathing laboriously just from the effort of moving here from his futon in his current condition. “You are thinking about Saitou.”

Sano nodded with a sigh.

Kenshin echoed the latter, but didn’t seem to have any further comment.

“I’m just so…” Sano growled out an inarticulate syllable before he concluded, “…pissed!” That wasn’t the right word at all, actually. “I just can’t believe he… he’s… dammit…” But there was no way he could finish that thought.

“Sano, you do not have to try to hide that you loved him.”

Pressed against him as he was, Kenshin might have felt Sano’s heart stop beating completely, but would not have been able to see how pale Sano’s face went or how his lips moved silently not knowing what to say.

The tone had been soft, containing no accusation or reproof, nor any more pain in particular than anything else Kenshin had said since their return from the fortress — and yet how could Sano answer? How did you reply when your lover told you he knew you were in love with someone else? Sano should probably start by reassuring Kenshin that he didn’t love him any less or any differently, which was quite true… but no matter how he began or what he professed, it would eventually come down to confessing that he had also loved Saitou so desperately that even with Kenshin here now, his heart was breaking. How did he admit to that kind of duplicity? He couldn’t stand the thought of hurting Kenshin any further, and yet… he just couldn’t deny what his lover had said, any more than he would have been able to deny that he loved Kenshin.

He took a deep breath, still unsure of what he was about to say… and suddenly found Kenshin’s hand gently covering his mouth, halting him. The redhead had raised himself and was looking Sano in the face, solemn and sorrowful.

“I loved him too,” he said, and his eyes closed slowly as he laid himself once more against Sano’s chest.

Neither one spoke again, for the true comfort they could offer each other was love and mutual understanding and this tight embrace. Their torn hearts beating out the same rhythm, they sat in the glow of a sunset that really seemed somehow more brown than crimson, and watched it fade slowly away.



<<15

Once upon a time, Aletsan was writing a fic called Healing Broken Things (though that was not its title at the time), and this story she updated every single day. Thinking this would be an interesting challenge, I too decided to write a story I would update every single day. As you can probably guess, each segment of this resulting fic was one of these daily updates, except for one or two that were long enough that I split them and wrote the halves on consecutive days. And it was an interesting challenge. It led to a story that felt different from anything else I’d ever written.

Of course the fic is steeped in hyperdrama from beginning to end and is chock full of hit-or-miss gimmicks. The first chapter sets the groundwork, and then it gets a lot… I don’t want to say ‘worse,’ because I find I like this story surprisingly much for all that. But it gets a lot… more.

At some point around the early teens (as the chapters currently stand), I decided I didn’t feel like writing any more of this story and gave up on it. Then I resumed it a few years later, writing whole chapters at a time instead of little scenes and not bothering with the daily-update stuff. I honestly can’t remember where that occurred, though, so make your best guess.

In addition to being illustrative, the picture at the end of Chapter 12 was drawn in exchange for this.

I’ve rated this story .

You Won’t Regret It

You Won’t Regret It

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


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

Unique to this story: shallow treatment of very serious topics

You Won’t Regret It

Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I swear that bastard did it on purpose!”

“Did what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is there a problem?”

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

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

Now I’ve done it,” Sano grumbled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You new?” Sano asked him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katsu only shook his head as Sano had done.

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

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

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

“See?” Yahiko demanded.

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

“Yeah, exactly,” Sano said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh,” Sano glowered.

“Yeah. See you all tomorrow.”

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



2>>

Chapter 2

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

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

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

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

Both Katsu and Sano shook their heads.

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

“Yes,” Sano and Katsu answered at once.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katsu and Sano exchanged unhappy glances.

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

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

“But, I…” Soujirou bit his lip.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” Yahiko stammered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And Souzou,” Katsu added softly.

Sano nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

“Shit,” Sano growled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 3

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

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

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

“In my room.”

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

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

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

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

“Where’s Katsu?”

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

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

“No.”

“Why?”

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

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

“How long have you been here?”

“Ten years? Eleven? Something like that.”

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

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

“How old are you?”

“Nineteen, I think.”

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

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

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

“About a hundred.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you know the date?”

“It’s just… after harvest…”

“I mean, do you know today’s date?”

“Um, no…”

The guard’s lips tightened. Sano was confused.

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

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

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

“I said, go to sleep.”

“Yeah, I heard you, but…”

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

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

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

“No!”

“Why would you ask, then?”

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

“Why?”

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

“So?”

Baffled, Sano had absolutely no answer to this.

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

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

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

“A guard, idiot.”

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

“You’re noisy. Go to sleep.”

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

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

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

It didn’t help that he was inexplicably naked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I wanted you.”

“I don’t get it.”

“You don’t have to.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You ask too many questions.”

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

But this time there really was no answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You won’t regret it. I swear.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 4

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

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

“I…” Soujirou’s face was blank.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have been here most of my life.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I see you know how it works.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Neither have I,” Katsu admitted.

“Do you think he’s–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, that’s her.”

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

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

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

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

“Katsu…” Sano began in a worried tone.

“I…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No…” Sano said slowly, thoughtfully.

“But..?”

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 5

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

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

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

“OK,” he replied, obeying.

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

Sano nodded. That was normal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Damn you,” he whispered inadvertently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Sano glowered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And if we could escape?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You think so?”

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

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

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

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

Soujirou maintained a patient, anticipatory silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 6

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

“What’s wrong?” asked Katsu immediately.

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

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

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

“So?” wondered Kaoru.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this was his door…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“True.”

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

“Because I won’t allow it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sano’s being stupid,” Katsu sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just pretend he’s not there.”

“I don’t know if I can.”

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

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

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

Chapter 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And then…?”

“And then he jacked me off.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s not that I–”

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

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

“I won’t let you down.”

Sano nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soujirou nodded his understanding, his smile wan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s an indestructible toilet monster!”

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

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

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

And then came the unmistakable sound of the door opening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It probably has nothing to do with you!”

“Then why didn’t he turn us in?”

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

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

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

“I know. But I have to go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No!” She was standing her ground.

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

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

“But…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nothing he didn’t want or enjoy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katsu shook his head. “Who knows?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aka… ma…” To all appearances, Sano wasn’t even aware that he was repeating the name; it was as if his mouth were acting independently of his brain in an attempt to bring the rest of him up to speed.

His moment of realization, as abrupt as the firing of a gun, was clearly visible and equally puzzling to all of them: the color drained from his face, and his body straightened with a jerk that caused the tray beneath his hands on the tabletop to clatter and shift. He stood without a word and started to make a swift, ungraceful path through the crowd toward the door. For one baffled moment they all stared after him, unmoving. Then Katsu, his mind and consequently many of his actions in complete disarray, jumped up clumsily and followed.

He hadn’t really believed Akamatsu’s departure had anything to do with the other guard’s, but for Sano to react thus forced him to rethink that assessment — though any logical guess at the connection between the circumstances was beyond the pales of Katsu’s imagination. But now his curiosity had risen to the level of his concern, and both were at fever pitch. He was not surprised, on leaving the building, to see Sano heading up the hill toward the guard barracks. Nor was he surprised to hear Soujirou’s footsteps behind him as he gave chase.

“Sano,” he called out as he drew close. He didn’t think Sano would deliberately ignore him, especially not when he spoke in a tone so serious; he suspected that Sano was in this case so lost in his own thoughts that he hadn’t even heard. “Sano!” he said again, more loudly.

“This is the last time.” Sano replied with a sure finality that yet held the same lack of attention that had marked all his previous statements of the evening. He didn’t even look around or slow as he said it.

It wasn’t even really a protest at Sano going to see that man again, not this time; Katsu just wanted to know what the hell was going on, both physically and in Sano’s head. But it was discouragingly obvious that a question to that purpose would get him absolutely no response. So he said the only thing he was sure would stop his friend’s absent yet determined steps:

“He’s gone, Sano.”

“What?” Sano finally looked back, the blankness lifting somewhat from the eyes he turned toward his friend.

“He’s gone,” Katsu repeated quietly. “He and Akamatsu both. The guards I overheard mentioned them at the same time.”

The maelstrom of emotions that flashed momentarily across Sano’s face made Katsu alternately want to shake him until he came to his senses or hug him to that exact same purpose. But in the next instant Sano shook himself, turned again, and took off at a run in the same direction he’d been going.

Squeezing his eyes closed, Katsu raised his face toward the sky in frustration and pain. He could only hope — and without even much of that confident emotion — that this really would be the last time, that the man really was gone and that Sano would be able to let him go. Because otherwise… He didn’t know, couldn’t guess what would happen to all of them; in his mind it was an impenetrably black void of despair.

Soujirou laid a comforting hand on Katsu’s shoulder and squeezed slightly. There wasn’t really anything he could say, but Katsu appreciated the gesture — and it reminded him…

He couldn’t help himself. Taking the hand gently in his own, he examined the palm briefly before lifting it to his lips and kissing the only spot that was still relatively unhurt. But he too had nothing to say, so next he merely let go and turned back toward the mess hall. Soujirou, whose eyes had been very bright during those few wordless moments, followed in silence.

Chapter 10

Braid-girl hadn’t been there — transferred, supposedly, to the workshop — but somehow in his confused state of mind Sano hadn’t been able to connect this with the events of the previous night. Had completely lost track of it, in fact, in the whirlpool of thought and emotion that passed for his brain these days.

As far as he knew, the washing machines into which he’d been stuffing clothing were the only actual whirlpools he’d ever encountered, and he’d certainly never attempted to swim — but he imagined this must be what drowning felt like. His thoughts, normally allies if not necessarily friends, now dragged at and overwhelmed him. If he tried to think about something else or sought the solid ground of a blank mind, the other matter sucked him back down with crushing surety.

Even within the topic to which they were restricted, his thoughts were limited. He might have realized the significance of braid-girl’s absence if he’d been able to think about her at all. He might have been able to guess what was coming if his reflections had been a little broader. But the only thing in his head — practically the only thing in his world — was that man, the things he’d said and done, and the sense Sano was trying desperately to make of it all.

Well, really, it all would have made sense easily if not for his emotions that had to attach varying significance to anything and everything that had happened between them, and to any inference Sano could draw therefrom.

Yellow-eyes was here to steal slaves — or, rather, a slave. Why had he fixed on Sano among all the rest? He’d seemed angry when he’d spoken of the guards finding Sano strong and attractive… for what other attributes, then, could he desire to possess him? Or was it all right as long as he didn’t plan on raping him? As long as Sano was the property not of a faceless slave-trafficking corporation but of a single person, someone that was willing to ask him, ‘Do you want me to?’

Someone that wanted him badly enough to shoot him rather than let him escape?

Part of Sano’s heart — a dark, secret part hiding behind his rational thoughts — also wanted it, desperately wanted it. Couldn’t stop imagining what it would be like… couldn’t keep from reflecting on the romance of it… couldn’t help thinking that there was no way in hell it could be worse than the life he’d led up until now.

He was bitterly ashamed of this, but could not entirely repress it. Did that mean he was giving in? That he was past caring about having a master so long as that master was intriguing and good with his hands? So long as that master was that man?

To further his shame, the same part of him that would gladly belong to that man forever was more than willing to sacrifice everything else that mattered to achieve that end. In a way, he felt, this was a sort of mirror to what he thought the other man’s desires were… Sano almost ready to lose everything he valued in himself in order to be with him, and yellow-eyes ready almost to kill him to similar purpose.

Still, the whole thing seemed strange, and not just to his emotions that had their own mysterious agenda. People had work and responsibilities out there, after all… could someone really afford to waste the amount of time and effort yellow-eyes was evidently putting into this on a venture that wasn’t likely to repay either? For Sano couldn’t consider the acquisition of a single personal slave of much practical use… Really, the more he thought about it — and god knew he couldn’t stop thinking about it — the more insane it seemed… like some things he’d heard in stories about eccentric masters with too much money. But, while yellow-eyes was like nobody else Sano had ever met, he’d never seemed insane

Perhaps, then, Sano had misinterpreted the man’s intentions. What exactly had the guard told Sano, after all? That he was here to steal a slave, and had selected Sano. He hadn’t, Sano realized with a sudden constriction in his chest, said anything about keeping him. If the man was merely a merchant of sorts, and Sano was the stolen item yellow-eyes thought would fetch a good price… if the merchandise agreed to sleep with the merchant along the way, well, that would be a nice perk, wouldn’t it? –but if it didn’t, not much of a disappointment. Sano felt cold and small and miserable thinking of such a possibility.

But it still didn’t make sense! He didn’t know much about business of any kind, but even he was fairly certain that putting bullets into the wares was not good business. Besides, yellow-eyes had — no, Sano just couldn’t convince himself he’d been imagining it, however beneficial it might have been to his state of mind — yellow-eyes had as good as stated a strong personal interest in him. No, Sano really couldn’t doubt that the guard meant to keep him. So there must be another explanation for the apparent incongruity of shooting him in the shoulder but not fucking him without permission.

Perhaps yellow-eyes was a collector? Maybe he made a habit of stealing attractive slaves, and had an entire harem at home to satisfy him if Sano continued to say no? Come to think of it, Sano had no real way of knowing that the man did intend to steal only him. He’d been interpreting “You are the one that I want” that way, but desire and intention weren’t necessarily the same thing — as yellow-eyes had already proven by denying himself, for some obscure reason, pleasures he quite clearly wanted.

Goddammit, none of this made any sense, and Sano’s theories were getting more far-fetched by the moment. He really should stop speculating before he worked himself into an inventive frenzy; the truth was that he just didn’t have enough information, what he did have was ambivalent at best, and the added confusion of his twisted emotions could only continue to complicate things until he lost track of what little he was certain of.

Which was why he had to go back. One last time. And if he didn’t get his answers this time, he would… well, he didn’t know what he would do. Go entirely insane and run screaming into the electric fence, most likely. But he had to try, or just go ahead with that suicidal run right now.

And then…

“He’s gone, Sano.”

He couldn’t believe it. Katsu’s further information notwithstanding, somehow the fact did not register in Sano’s mind as something that was actually possible; it entered into the whirlpool and was immediately flung out again, rejected. Still, Sano found himself moving at a dead run toward the barracks, those words echoing in his head and taking longer than they should have to fade. He’s gone, Sano. He’s gone.

Some part of him — the same fatalistic part, probably, that considered the electric fence a viable alternative to a continuation of the way he’d been living lately — must have believed it, for he didn’t bother knocking when he reached the door that looked, somehow, completely different from the other, identical doors along the barracks wall. Nor did he bother coming up with anything to say — greeting, excuse for his presence or precipitous entrance, or even just a better way to phrase the questions that so far had gone unanswered.

And the room was empty.

It was unmistakably evident. The bed was made with military precision; the chair was pushed neatly up to the table; the strongbox was sitting open and the key lying on top. The only sign that anyone had ever lived in this cold, lifeless space was the full ash-tray that still gave off a scent he felt he would never forget.

The ash tray was the only thing that was full. Emptiness like the room ate at Sano, until only one thought rang through the void that was his head and heart:

“You won’t regret it. I swear.”

Now more than ever he couldn’t understand what he was feeling. It reminded him vaguely of what he’d experienced when Kenshin had been sold — as if someone that cared about him was gone; as if yet another beloved friend had been taken from him — but this was worse, somehow… perhaps because he didn’t know if yellow-eyes had cared about him, or because it seemed like the man had purposely abandoned him. Whatever the situation was, Sano was in sudden and severe pain, and not just in his shoulder.

No, he couldn’t lie to himself. Not anymore. He knew the real reason he was hurting so intolerably. The man’s behavior had hinted to him how life could be, how things could feel. He’d been like a lover, a real lover, something Sano had never had. He doubted real lovers were supposed to shoot you in the shoulder; but, at the same time, nobody had ever expressed the kind of interest and concern in Sano that yellow-eyes had.

He had cared; Sano knew he had; he would be damned if he would believe otherwise. But now… now? Why was he gone? Why had he left without even trying to contact Sano? Had he been forced to abandon his plans because of last night’s events? Or had he simply decided that Sano wasn’t worth the trouble? Sano couldn’t think; he couldn’t guess. He just didn’t know.

Stock still, staring silently at some vague point in the empty room, Sano was bizarrely conscious of the grain of the wood of the door he clutched in his raised hand as if to support himself. Everything that had happened here, everything that had begun in this room, everything he’d hoped for or feared that had arisen from that man’s presence… it was like something out of a dream. And that’s exactly what it was… a dream… an illusion, a vision he would never see again.

Now that he’d had a glimpse… now that he had experienced, however briefly and incompletely, something more… he could never just go on as he had. He’d always known with his intellect, but now, staring into this barren room with the rough wood under his whitening fingers, remembering strange sensations that made him shudder with a mixture of emotions even now, feeling the cold of this empty space seeping into his bones and seeming to make them brittle and render him more breakable than he’d ever felt… it came home to him suddenly, brutally, inescapably, just how miserable his life was.

Nothing had actually changed, but his new awareness made that same life a hundred times worse than it had been, could ever have been before. Why did that man treat him like that, like he cared about him, then leave him with a promise he couldn’t possibly fulfill?

Who are you? he inquired in silence of the stranger that had done this to him. What am I supposed to do now that you’ve fucked up my life?

But the man’s only answer was, “You won’t regret it. I swear.”

What the hell kind of promise is that? Sano queried desperately. What does it mean?

But the same six words, cool and mocking, were the only reply.

Chapter 11

A loud pounding on the outer door of the quarters in the middle of the night startled a good half of the sleeping slaves awake, including Katsu. Anyone that remained asleep was probably awakened by the subsequent discussion; even through the wall Katsu could hear every word.

“What the hell do you want?” This was the quarter-warden; she had absolutely no qualms being incredibly rude to the guards if she thought the situation warranted it. Apparently being dragged out of bed at some dark hour of early morning warranted it.

“This one’s yours, isn’t he?” This guard was familiar enough to Katsu, his voice rough and annoyed. A thudding sound accompanied the question.

“Yeah; what’d he do?”

“We found him hanging around an empty barracks room. Trying to avoid earning his keep; who knows how much he’s been doing it lately?”

Katsu had a sudden sinking feeling that he knew who ‘he’ was.

“He’s been out a lot lately,” the warden said in disgust, and by this time Katsu had rolled from his cot and crept to the doorway between the two rooms.

“Don’t let him out anymore unless one of us comes for him,” the guard was saying as Katsu peered around the doorframe. It was as he’d feared: Sano, red spots of recent blows on his face and redder spots of blood on his shoulder, crouched or knelt on the floor as if he’d been thrown there. Half bent over and motionless in the incomplete light from the door of the warden’s room, he looked almost dead.

Even as Katsu’s eyes fell on him, the guard that had brought him gave him a hard kick. “You hear me?”

At once Sano answered in a dull tone, “Yes, sir.”

“And I’ll be by for you tomorrow night when I’m not on patrol. I’m not done teaching you your lesson yet.”

“Yes, sir,” Sano repeated, and Katsu found himself shuddering. That tone, that repetition…

The guard gave Sano a parting shove before turning to leave; Sano fell forward onto all fours and remained there. With a snort, the warden turned her disgusted gaze from him to where Katsu stood watching, as if she already knew she would find him. “Get him to bed,” she ordered. “Clean him up first if you want, but if I hear one sound out of any of you you’ll be scrubbing this place until your fingers fall off.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Katsu murmured, hastening forward. The presence of Soujirou at his side briefly startled but did not really surprise him. The newcomer couldn’t assist much in raising Sano, given that only one of the latter’s shoulders was a workable support, but his willingness to be of service was comforting.

Another, deeper shudder chilled Katsu as they got into the bathroom and full light. Sano stood still, swaying slightly, exactly where he was placed, gaze angled downward and shoulders slumped. He didn’t seem to feel the pain of his reopened injury or the blows he’d evidently taken to other parts of his body, and he didn’t say a word as Katsu pulled the loose shoulder of his shirt aside to see how bad the damage was.

It wasn’t as dire as Katsu had feared — well, as far as he could tell; admittedly his medical knowledge was next to nonexistent — and he hoped that, once the blood was cleaned off and the bandages retightened, Sano might not suffer too much.

“What happened?” Soujirou asked, hovering to one side.

For a moment Sano did not even seem to have heard the question, but finally he stirred a little — though still staring blankly at the floor — and murmured, “I should have closed the door.”

At first Katsu couldn’t think what his friend meant by this, and silently continued wiping the blood away from Sano’s shoulder with a wad of toilet paper. As he threw the latter into the garbage, however, he guessed, “Of the room that guard found you in?”

“Yeah,” Sano replied in the same quiet, listless tone. He didn’t wince as Katsu yanked the bandages back into place and fastened them in a tight knot. But he did look up, meeting his friend’s gaze, as he added, “His room.”

Katsu drew in a sudden rough breath and took an inadvertent step back as a painful, desperate panic whirled through him. “Sano…!” The word had the tone of a shout but was as quiet as a whisper. His hands reached out, clutching tightly at his friend’s shoulders as he moved back toward him. “Sano!” he said again, shaking him.

“That hurts,” Sano replied vaguely, pulling away from Katsu’s grip and moving past him. “I’m going to bed.” And without another word he left the room.

Katsu stumbled blindly to the nearest hard surface and, without even thinking what he did, pounded a fist against it. A muffled gasp told him he’d found the door between the two bathrooms and startled someone on the other side, but at the moment he couldn’t bring himself to care whether whoever it was alerted the warden and he got in trouble. How could this be happening? How could this be happening??

Soujirou’s hand was on his shoulder. “Katsu, what’s wrong?” The worry in the tone seemed born more of confusion than sympathy.

But how could Katsu answer? How could he possibly explain to someone as carefree as Soujirou, someone without a history of being mistreated, someone that had not lived his life among the most miserable members of the human race, that the dullness he had seen in Sano’s eyes was the first downward step on the path to utter soullessness? And how could he admit the secret belief he’d cherished all along that he would be the first to break? That he would never have to deal with Sano breaking because he would almost certainly go first? That he wasn’t ready for this?

But Soujirou’s hand was still on him, gripping him tightly, silently expressing a desire to know and to help… as if there were anything he could do to help… Katsu had to say something.

He leaned his forehead against the cold wall and squeezed his eyes closed. “This is how it starts. I know the signs.” His tone was hoarse, almost harsh. “That’s how they act when they’re starting to break. If he keeps going like that, he won’t be Sano anymore. He won’t be anyone anymore.”

Soujirou drew in a deep breath, and Katsu held his own. He’d chosen his words carefully — as carefully as he could in this frame of mind — because he didn’t think he could stand it if Soujirou argued with him; he simply could not handle a debate at this point. But what the other finally said, quietly and slowly, was, “If that’s true, then it’s even more important now not to give up hope.”

It sounded so trite, so meaningless in the face of what Katsu couldn’t help regarding was something like the end of his world… and yet somehow, when he stood straight and looked over at Soujirou and saw the sad smile on his lips, he felt, if not exactly reassured, at least steadied: aware that he wasn’t alone. Still, his tone was unmistakably bitter as he replied, “You and your optimism.” After which he found Soujirou’s arms around him — strong arms, stronger than he’d really been aware before — holding him tightly as if to say that, while Soujirou might not entirely understand, still he would not let go. And if Katsu’s reciprocal gesture was more of a clinging grasp than a return embrace, neither of them much cared.

The amount of sleep Katsu got for the rest of that night was phenomenally low, if not actually nonexistent. When he wasn’t staring at Sano’s motionless back in the next cot, he was tossing and turning with his eyes squeezed shut, unable to fight off a parade of cruelly dismal thoughts about the future. And every once in a while, when he was turned that direction, he would catch sight of Soujirou on his other side watching him in the darkness with expressionless eyes.

Katsu felt somewhat comforted that he was not the only sleepless worrier… but also got the impression, though he could not have explained why, that Soujirou was just as much keeping an eye on him to make sure he didn’t do anything impetuous as offering moral support. He remembered the suspicions he’d formulated about his would-be lover… but at the moment couldn’t bring himself to give that matter much thought.

The morning came with some consolation. Although Katsu could still barely get a word out of Sano before they went their separate ways, Sano’s blankness seemed to reflect contemplation rather than true absence of mind. Katsu should have known better than to think Sano would go all at once… but it was only a slight relief, given that the genesis had unmistakably taken place even if Sano was fighting it.

As for Sano, he could only hazily remember what had happened after his disastrous visit to that empty room last night. As a matter of fact, except for certain repetitive trains of thought that seemed to have him in an unshakeable taloned grip, everything was a little hazy in his head. The world seemed simplified somehow… he was confused, he was unhappy, but beyond that he didn’t seem to care about — or, to a certain extent, even recognize — anything.

It was not so much any sort of external inhibition of his senses as an internal disinclination or even inability to rouse himself to any particularly complex thoughts or emotions. And he found he couldn’t really object. There was pain and confusion; here was relative peace. If he could just not care for a while, things would undoubtedly work out.

The dullness made the day drag, each load of laundry seeming to take an hour just to get into the washing machine and the muscular impulses required to accomplish this task unusually difficult — but the apathy rendered him indifferent. The increased pain in his shoulder from the beating he’d taken last night, augmented by the work of the day, could not rouse him; even the memory that he was in disfavor with the quarter-warden and had what would probably be an unusually unpleasant barracks-call tonight could not rouse him.

His senses were dulled along with his thoughts: he didn’t really hear the murmur of the other slaves in the mess hall, nor taste his supper, and saw his friends only as if from far away, their faces unusually featureless. If they held any conversation while they ate, he didn’t notice.

The one event of the entire day that threatened to shake him was when Katsu very deliberately kissed Soujirou as the newcomer rose to leave the room once he’d finished eating… but even that was not quite enough. Why worry about a situation for which there was no help? Besides, Sano’s mind felt like it had shrunken past the point of holding anything but the unpleasant reflections, now hazy, that had plagued him since yesterday. Eventually, he thought, even those must fade.

He hardly noticed the quarter-warden’s disdainful insults when he came in after supper, and once again the dull time passed smoothly away before his uncaring eyes as he waited for the guard that was going to ‘finish teaching him his lesson’ tonight.

The crispness of the man’s grey uniform, freshly-laundered today, was something of a jolt, but the guard lacked the leanness of figure and precision of movement that would have really bothered Sano. At another time, in another frame of mind, that expression combining lust and anger might have worried Sano… but not tonight. This was just another thing he had to do; it meant nothing. So, though Katsu gave him a stricken look as the guard led him out and the others appeared no less grim, Sano didn’t feel there was any real need for worry.

He was right. Rough, almost brutal, though the guard was with him, Sano found it even easier, as the day progressed toward its end, not to care. It was just another task, and if he could get through it he could sleep. And the simplest way of getting through it was not caring.

He didn’t care how thoroughly or painfully the guard wore him out. He didn’t care that the man then made him sleep on the floor. He didn’t care that his shoulder and ass were bleeding. He didn’t care that the doctor was tired of seeing him and might get him in trouble when he went to her in the morning. He didn’t care that he was going to be in even greater pain as he worked tomorrow.

Abstractly he wondered why he hadn’t ever tried this before. Life would have been so much easier, could have moved so much more quickly and smoothly toward its end like this. He wasn’t entirely certain yet whether or not he wanted to remain thus indefinitely, but at the moment it didn’t seem a half-bad idea. Forget yellow-eyes and the confusion he’d induced, forget the idea of a better way of living, and just not care.

For tonight at the very least, in any case, he planned on staying in this peaceful, hazy place, and it was unlikely there was anything in his little world that could possibly drag him out of it.

Chapter 12

The alarm siren was pounding through his brain like a stake driven by a mallet as he and Katsu hid in the trees, shaking, clutching at each other in terror — fear that was all the worse for being unusual and unconquerable. They wouldn’t have been afraid at all if it hadn’t been for the desperate, hopeless tone in Souzou’s voice as he ordered them away. “You’re too young to die,” he’d said. “I’m sorry.” They knew now what he’d known all along: that the approaching footsteps were armed guards out for the kill.

Sano awoke in outright tears, curled up on the floor clutching at his chest as if he could pull himself into a tighter ball and thereby avoid notice, as if he were still that frightened child of ten years prior.

Weapons at the ready, the grey-clad enforcers appeared all at once from practically every direction. Obviously by prearrangement, they did not speak or otherwise allow for confrontation. They merely opened fire.

This was what he got for trying not to care, for thinking nothing in the world could rouse him.

Sano would have liked to look away or close his eyes, would have liked to run to avoid the stray bullets that tore the air around him and splintered the tree trunk behind him… but he couldn’t… he couldn’t move or even blink as the slaves before him — all of them good men and women that had been kind to him during his brief time in this awful place — were mercilessly slaughtered in a shower of gunfire and blood. As he watched Souzou fall, he screamed.

This could always rouse him, no matter what else he’d suffered, no matter how he felt. The day the memory of Souzou’s horrific, pointless, glorious sacrifice failed to move him was the day he truly lost his humanity.

After a few moments, silence fell over the gory scene, broken only by the weeping of two young slaves — boys that, a moment later, were spared their companions’ fate only because they were too young and too pretty to kill.

Fighting viciously to subdue the fear and misery that kept him from functioning correctly, it took Sano a moment to recognize what had caused him to dream of that distant scenario: outside, the alarm siren was blaring for perhaps the first time he could remember since that tragic night.

The guard was gone, apparently having run out in a hurry to see what the alarm was about, leaving the door half-open. Sano had managed to pull himself off the floor and had just located his shoes when the shooting began.

Against the backdrop of the alarm siren, it was almost too painfully similar to the events of his dream for him to bear, and he was tempted to curl up on the bed and squeeze the pillow around his ears until it was all over. But he was braver than that, so he put his head cautiously through the door.

Looking out from the south side of the building on the first floor, he was facing the slave quarters and facilities. Guards were running here and there in a pattern he only recognized very vaguely: the complex seemed to be going into lockdown in response to the shooting, which was coming from up the hill to the north in the vicinity of the staff buildings and the main entrance. He left the room and headed around the corner.

He didn’t feel like himself. He wasn’t sure what “feeling like himself” was anymore, but he didn’t feel like it. The pain of which he’d been barely conscious last night was present, the thoughts he’d pushed aside all day yesterday were audible in his head, and yet this awareness was different from the usual: the current situation, whatever it was — the sounds of the siren and the guns, the memory that was so inextricably connected with them — superceded everything else. He was himself, but it was more the self of years ago than the self of today or the day before yesterday.

“Sano!”

He looked up to see Katsu running toward him from the direction of the slave quarters, looking haggard and desperate. It was no surprise that Katsu had felt the need to seek Sano out in the midst of what must be for him just as emotionally chaotic as it was for Sano, but the latter doubted it was a good idea.

Reaching him, Katsu took him by his good shoulder and met his eyes, panting. The look on Katsu’s face showed plainly that he’d been awakened in the exact same manner Sano had, but also that he hadn’t forgotten how Sano had been acting yesterday and wasn’t sure now in what state he would find his friend. Sano was sorry for that. At least he was able to convey with a single glance that he had returned, though it did little to alleviate the pain in Katsu’s gaze.

“What’s going on?” Katsu asked unsteadily.

“I don’t know,” Sano replied, reaching up to take hold of and squeeze the arm with which Katsu was gripping his shoulder — as much for his own comfort as to reassure Katsu.

The latter pushed his messy, unbound hair out of his face, and together they turned to look toward the noises. They could still see nothing through the trees that separated the sprawling barracks from the staff buildings, but they could hear that the gunfire hadn’t lessened.

“Hey, you two!” A guard startled them in their watch by turning the corner and almost running into them. “What the hell are you doing standing around here? Are you fucking deaf? Get in–”

Sano and Katsu, turning, saw it where the guard could not, and their mutual expressions of surprise were not in time to warn him, even had that been their intention. His eyes went as wide as theirs before closing as he slumped forward to the ground. They stepped back to avoid his falling figure, staring, and Sano was sure Katsu was wondering, just as he was, whether the man was still even alive.

“You left so fast,” Soujirou greeted Katsu with his usual smile, lowering the hand that had felled the guard, “I almost couldn’t figure out where you went!”

“I… had to find Sano…” Katsu was shaking his head disbelievingly. “Did you… is he dead?”

Sano sympathized with his friend’s evident inability to grasp what was going on, but thought he understood better than Katsu could. Had he not questioned — in almost those same words, even — a similar action performed by another newcomer only days before? The same mysterious motion, the same fortuitous timing… Sense was suddenly blossoming out of confusion… and, with it, anger.

You’re part of all of this too, aren’t you?” he demanded, stepping toward Soujirou without minding that he trod on the arm of the fallen guard. “You could have answered my questions all along, and you fucking pretended to be just like us!”

Soujirou raised a hand as if to stave off further recrimination or even physical retaliation, though Sano hadn’t planned on the latter. “I’ll explain on the way; we need to get back to the quarters.”

“Like hell we do.” Sano stood his ground, growling. “What the fuck is going on? Who are you, or what are you, or whatever? Where is… where’s that guy? That guard?”

“Sano, what the hell are you talking about?” Katsu was demanding at about the same moment.

“He’s probably in the middle of the shooting,” Soujirou answered Sano’s question. “You’ll have to wait until this is all over.”

Turning immediately, Sano tried again to guess via sound where exactly the aforesaid middle of the shooting was likely to be. Behind him Katsu gave a shaky sigh and remarked, “With as long as you’ve been here, I should think you’d know Sano better than that.”

Glancing back, Sano saw that Soujirou’s smile was wry, probably because he’d realized that actually answering the question had been a mistake of sorts. “If you go over there and get yourself shot, he’ll be angry,” he told Sano.

“He fucking shot me already,” Sano replied flatly. “I’m going to find him.”

“Sano…”

Sano almost couldn’t bear to face Katsu, nor could he help reflecting that there were a lot of diverse and fascinating ways to be a complete dick to someone. He had no idea what his friend must think of him by now, after all the stupid and crazy things he’d been doing lately, after everything he’d put him through, after yesterday… but this, he hoped, would be the end. The end of everything.

Why it was so imperative for him to brave the crossfire and chaos that was presumably going on over there was more difficult to say… but he felt he was being drawn, impelled, so that every moment he spent standing still here for whatever reason was almost painful to him. There was no way he could make Katsu understand this, however, so he remained silent.

He might have had more faith in his friend. True, it was only uncertainly and decidedly unhappily that Katsu smiled at him and spoke, but his words were just, “Be careful, OK? Stay in the trees or something.” And whether this was more akin to his saying, You’re an idiot, or, I forgive you, Sano seemed to sense a certain weight lifting off his heart. Honestly he didn’t feel entirely justified in going on this suicidal pursuit, leaving his friends at this critical moment, especially when he knew Katsu — like himself — must still be feeling the awful burn of memory, but the fact that he had to, and that Katsu understood, made the necessity easier.

“By now,” Soujirou said slowly, “he may be in the staff buildings… but I can’t be sure.”

“Thanks,” Sano nodded. And after looking Katsu in the eye one last time, he turned and ran off, heading for the end of everything.

As Katsu watched his friend depart, fully aware that he might never see him again (alive), his heart was clenching tighter and tighter with compounded worry and grief. And he couldn’t decide whether this conscious, feeling, still-obsessed Sano was better than yesterday’s Sano slipping toward oblivion.

However, he had very little time to consider this before Soujirou was tugging at his arm. And as he looked at the smiling, agitated other, Katsu’s eyes seemed to focus or lock onto Soujirou as if he’d forgotten he was there. As if he’d forgotten that he’d been right, that there had been something suspect about Soujirou all along, that there were more strange situations in the complex than just Sano’s.

He gave Sano’s disappearing form another glance before turning to follow Soujirou. However foolish it might be — even more so than Sano going in the first place — Katsu wanted to follow his friend, die with him if need be. He wanted all of this to end. But he also desired, with a fervor only secondary to the aforementioned, to find out who and what Soujirou really was and what was going on. And somebody needed to check on the other slaves. Katsu wasn’t entirely ready to abandon Kaoru and Yahiko just yet.

“So explain,” he commanded tersely as he fell into step beside Soujirou.

“We’re vigilantes,” replied Soujirou promptly. “Or terrorists, depending on which news stations you watch — fighting for human rights that aren’t available to people by law. Our goal on this mission is to completely destroy Ketterect Labor and relocate all slaves to safe locations throughout the three countries.”

Involuntarily Katsu drew in a hissing breath at the ambitiousness of this project. On the surface, in fact, it seemed impossible, except perhaps by the power of a very large, well-funded organization. Given that Soujirou did not seem to be joking or exaggerating, Katsu had to believe that such was the situation, had to take this seriously… but still it was almost too much to wrap his brain around. It meant the total annihilation of his entire world, however he felt about that.

Their swift pace had allowed them to reach the quarters after only so many words and reflections, but when Soujirou went to open the door Katsu held him back. “I assume you’ve taken care of any guards inside already.” He was a little surprised at how bitter his tone already was when he hadn’t even neared the bitter part of his discourse yet.

Soujirou nodded.

“Then we have a minute.”

Although Soujirou threw what might be called a calculating (if still smiling) glance at the door, on looking back at Katsu he seemed to read the seriousness in the latter’s expression. “All right,” he said.

“I knew you were hiding something,” Katsu began, “but this I wouldn’t have guessed.”

Soujirou nodded without saying anything; he was watching carefully all around them, although he did not seem tense.

“All that talk about laws and public opinion wasn’t just talk,” Katsu went on at a murmur. Still Soujirou did not seem inclined to reply, at least not until Katsu continued pointedly, “But the rest of it was.”

“The rest of it?”

“‘I really do like you,'” Katsu quoted harshly. “‘We don’t have the luxury of taking a long time to fall in love.'”

“That wasn’t just talk.” Soujirou actually seemed a little startled at the accusation. “I do like you.”

“So much that you’d take advantage of me and lie to get what you wanted from me.” Outwardly Katsu was a good deal calmer than inwardly, but he didn’t think there was a tone that could have expressed just how betrayed he felt at this point.

“I had to lie.” Soujirou, too, was calm — almost agonizingly so. “Those were my orders.”

“Your orders,” Katsu said very dryly, “were to find a slave you liked and seduce him?” For all he didn’t actually believe Soujirou’s orders had been anything of the sort, still he felt as if the entire time he’d been nothing more than an objective… a quota…

Now Soujirou’s smile was gone, and tone and expression were entirely serious. “My orders were to make friends with slaves, find out information, and steer them away from anything that might lead them to guess something was going on.”

“You did it to distract me, then?” If anything, this was an even cheaper excuse than the previous, and Katsu was almost inclined to discontinue the conversation. On top of everything else, this was simply too painful.

“I did it because I like you,” said Soujirou quietly. “If I didn’t like you, there were other ways I could have distracted you.”

“But you preferred playing games and feeding me lines.”

“Katsu, they weren’t lines; it wasn’t a game.” Soujirou shook his head emphatically. “I wouldn’t have taken it as far as Akamatsu made us go, but I really have been sincere.”

Katsu also shook his head, protesting, almost in denial of this situation. “Didn’t you ever think that my feelings might be different if I knew what was going on?” he demanded. “Maybe I’d like to know I really do have the luxury of taking a long time to fall in love? That I might actually have a choice?” He was finally starting to sound angry now, the hot, upset emotion breaking at last through the shock and confusion. “That my new option isn’t like everyone else, and neither is the situation?”

In response to Katsu’s tone, Soujirou looked away and said quietly, “I thought… you liked me…”

Katsu stared at him. How could someone so intelligent still be so clueless? Because it was clear that Soujirou simply did not understand the magnitude of what he’d done. And seeing finally that the mistake arose not from callousness but from genuine (if completely unexpected) naivete, Katsu couldn’t help feeling just a little less betrayed.

“People get into relationships with different attitudes,” he explained with a sigh. Soujirou looked up at him again immediately, hopefully, at the apparent abatement of anger. “If you’re assuming it’s going to be brief,” Katsu went on, “or if you get into it with the idea that this is the only option when you happen to be horny, it’s not going to be the same as if you know you have a choice, both about the person and how long you’re going to be with them. It’s going to be a totally different relationship; it won’t mean as much.”

Now Soujirou was staring, and his smile had returned — but it was a sad, wan expression. “How is it that you’re an expert on this too?” he murmured, seeming a little confused. “How do you know so much about everything when…”

Flatly Katsu finished the question for him. “When I’m a slave? I’m only a slave when people treat me like one… keeping me in a place like this, or raping me four times a week… or letting me think that I have no choice but to like them or stay lonely. I can still keep my eyes and ears open and learn whatever I can.”

Soujirou bowed his head again, now as if in defeat, his smile even sadder. “You really are like him…”

If Katsu hadn’t already had Souzou on his mind — admittedly in the background, behind the separate dramas of Soujirou and Sano — he might not have realized what Soujirou meant. As it was, he couldn’t help feeling, as he had the last time Soujirou had compared him to his late role model, a little gratified. As such, his tone was gentler than it had yet been during this conversation as he asked, “Does it bother you that a slave might know more about relationships than you do?”

“Only a little…” Again Soujirou raised his head and gave Katsu a forlorn smile. “I’ve always known I’m hopeless in that area. It just makes me like you more, knowing how impressive you really are.”

Although this seemed honest and still a bit sad, there was more than a hint of pleading ingratiation about the words. Katsu had no doubt that Soujirou really did like him… but all that did was make the situation more complicated and more potentially painful. Here all over again was the dilemma he’d faced when he’d started suspecting Soujirou, only on a larger scale. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the right moment to puzzle through his own heart and what he could or could not forgive; they really couldn’t afford to spend any more time standing around out here. Still, looking into the almost hopeless face turned up toward him, Katsu couldn’t bring himself to be too harsh just yet.

“Maybe if you get me out of here alive,” he said, “we can start over.”

Chapter 13

On entering the slave quarters ahead of the watchful Soujirou, Katsu halted in shock when he found himself face-to-face with the barrel of a familiar gun. The quarter-warden had always been rather proud of her weapon, and had been given, periodically, to sitting in a comfortable chair just outside her rooms cleaning it ostentatiously with the nervous slaves looking on in silence. But now the quarter-warden was nowhere in sight, and was certainly not the one leveling the gun at the door.

Katsu stared, blank, unblinking, almost unbreathing at the rigid form of Kaoru, who lowered the weapon when she saw who he was. Her other hand held a second gun; this one looked like it probably belonged (had belonged) to a guard. Although tears ran down in two unbroken trails, her face was of better color than he’d seen for weeks, even months; her bearing was upright and steady; her voice was like iron — hard, strong, white-hot — as she met his astonished gaze and said calmly, “Katsu… I’m going to see Kenshin again.”

Until that moment, Katsu hadn’t really felt anything in regard to the current situation — his reaction to Soujirou’s revelation had overridden it. But now it rushed in at him all at once like a whirlpool, and his entire body seemed suddenly weak. Freedom… Not just for himself, but for all of them. Everyone he loved and every last hopeless, miserable person in this hopeless, miserable place. Ten years of nightmare would end at last.

His somewhat inane agreement came out nearly a whisper: “Yes… yes, you are.”

How much longer he might have stood still in the doorway, staring at Kaoru’s unshaking hands holding those guns as if fully confident of her willingness and ability to use them, Katsu could not have guessed. But Soujirou’s hand on his shoulder reminded him that they were supposed to be entering the quarters in order to take cover. Mutely he moved out of the way.

A confused noise arose among the other slaves at the sight of Soujirou; it sounded very much like it wanted to be a cheer. God knew slaves weren’t very practiced at that particular sound, but it shook Katsu out of his shock to some extent.

With a modest nod, Soujirou turned to Kaoru and reached out. Once she’d given him the second gun, she had a hand free to wipe the tears from her face — a futile gesture, since they just kept coming.

“You’ll dehydrate yourself like that,” Soujirou smiled, then offered the gun to Katsu.

The latter’s eyes went wide. “I’ve never–”

“It’s very simple,” Soujirou assured him. “Just point and pull the trigger.”

“I wouldn’t hit a damn thing!” Katsu took a step backward.

Soujirou moved closer and, with that uncanny speed and dexterity of his, took Katsu’s hand, pressed the gun into it, curled Katsu’s fingers around it, and stepped back again.

“But… what about you?” Katsu stared uncomfortably at his own hand, which had the gun pointed resolutely downward and held it only loosely.

“I don’t need one,” Soujirou smiled.

Before Katsu could protest further, a new voice broke into the conversation with a demand both energetic and uncertain: “Where’s Sano?” It proved an adequate distraction, since not only did it send Katsu’s thoughts flying immediately to his friend, it also called his attention to Yahiko, who’d joined them and asked the question.

Wondering if Sano was even still alive at this point, Katsu shook his head.

Kaoru drew in a startled breath. “He’s not–”

“I don’t know,” said Katsu quickly. “He went off after that same guard again.”

“What?” Kaoru looked and sounded incredulous and almost angry. Yahiko, who’d edged to her side, appeared horrified.

“The guard’s part of this too,” was Katsu’s helpless reply. “God knows how many others there are.”

“Almost fifty,” Soujirou smiled. “Apart from the people who stayed outside who’re attacking now, there were three ‘guards,’ and at least one ‘slave’ in every quarters building. Our assignment at this point is to keep all of you inside until someone comes for us. And take care of any guards that might show up, of course. That could happen any time, if things are going our way up the hill; they might come running down this way to try and hide in one of these buildings or take slaves hostage. So,” he added, still smiling somewhat unnervingly, “keep your eyes on the door.”

Kaoru nodded.

Soujirou had done it again, Katsu noted wearily as he turned, like Kaoru, to face the door: neatly diverted their attention from a troubling issue — this time perhaps to keep them on task, prevent excessive worry about Sano, or stave off further questions… Katsu couldn’t be sure. He wasn’t sure of anything at the moment, and in order to avoid catching Soujirou’s eye he watched the door very steadfastly and listened hard.

The room was not quiet. True, the uneasy conversations behind him were conducted at the lowest possible volume, but since it seemed that everyone in the room was talking, it added up. It did not, however, mask the sounds of gunfire outside that were drawing nearer by the moment. This wasn’t the same gunfire as before, though; it was far more diffuse. Katsu guessed that whatever primary assault had been carried out by Soujirou’s ‘people who stayed outside’ had ended in a rout of the defenders, who were now being pursued into and through the complex. Soujirou was right; they might be seeing guards seeking sanctuary inside the building any time now. Little as he felt qualified for it, Katsu finally tightened his grip on the gun in his hand.

Beside him, Kaoru still stood solid and unshaken, still crying and still with that brilliant light in her face. She hadn’t been seduced by a terrorist. She didn’t have to worry how she felt about Soujirou. She hadn’t seen what another member of this mysterious group had done to Sano. To be quite honest, she didn’t care as much about Sano as Katsu did. Not that she didn’t care at all… but at the moment, Katsu was certain, all she did care about was the prospect of seeing Kenshin again. And who could blame her? When love was as straightforward as that — she loved him, she missed him, she would do anything to be reunited with him — why seek out unnecessary complications?

It was a question he might well ask himself. Of course he was worried about Sano and perturbed about Soujirou, but why did he find himself so unbearably, increasingly agitated about the situation itself? It was, after all, no more complicated than Kaoru’s: he was a slave, he would prefer not to be, and soon he would have his freedom — something he’d dreamed about every night and planned for every day for a decade. Why should he be standing here in utter turmoil, not knowing what to think or how to feel?

He knew why. It had nothing to do with the potential dangers of frantic guards or stray bullets. It was in response to a single looming question: once he was free… what then?

He was not worried about the technical aspects of it — whether or not this breakout would achieve the social and legal revolution Soujirou had mentioned so hopefully, whether he would remain free. There was no doubt in his mind that a group capable of orchestrating an operation like this could keep him safe and hidden until the proper time.

No, though he would not have liked to admit it, what really concerned him was freedom itself. Concerned him? It downright terrified him. Of course they’d always talked about escape, and had even attempted it once or twice… but had they ever really thought past that? Thought past what it meant to give up a life that, while fairly miserable, at least offered a measure of certainty? In the countries beyond, there were laws he didn’t know, social customs he didn’t know, work he didn’t know, human nature he didn’t know, life he simply did not know. Would he even be capable of living as a free man?

He wondered whether, and to what extent, Soujirou’s organization had taken this into account. Because it occurred to Katsu at that moment, with this overwhelming realization in mind, that not all slaves were likely to want to be freed.

But he wanted it. When it came right down to it, the fear and uncertainty were nothing compared to his boundless desire to leave this life behind. He wanted to work honestly for his own sake, to get paid for it, to go where he pleased and do as he chose. He wanted his friends around him, no guards, and no guns. And whether he liked it or not, he wanted Soujirou with him.

Still unready to think about that, however, he shifted into a more solid stance and once again directed his eyes at the door.

The morning’s emotional turmoil had been no less severe for Sano than it had been for his friend, though the components were different. For one thing, there was a dead body in the foliage in front of him, and his heart simply would not stop racing.

It wasn’t just that he’d been agitated by the memory of Souzou; it wasn’t just the sight of figures, some in the grey uniform of guards and some in foresty camouflage, running and shooting; it wasn’t just the danger to himself or the worry about his friends… it was the fact that soon he would have answers. Finally. His confusion and turmoil would end. It was this that kept him on his feet and kept the blood rushing so frantically through his veins.

Well, and it was all that other shit too.

He’d never moved so fast in his life, he thought: around the barracks and up the hill in what felt like an instant. Only when he’d reached the staff buildings and the gunfire had seemed to explode practically in his ears had he remembered Katsu’s admonition. He’d plunged into some trees, the last cover available before the main entrance, paused to get his bearings — and, if possible, calm his racing heart — and was now ducked down low in the bushes.

The guard’s body that sprawled beneath another bush almost within arm’s reach was a nerve-wracking indicator that Sano wasn’t the first to take cover in this particular spot. However, he thought the danger had passed from this immediate vicinity; most of the movement he could see was past the corner of the nearest building, and the noises of gunshots and shouting were loudest from that direction.

The gates of the complex lay to his left, but it would take several paces through the trees to see them clearly; he didn’t think he could hear any gunfire thence, but it was difficult to tell. From his current position he could see most of the staff buildings, however, and he had a good view to the right and down the hill. Whether because neither of the combative groups intended the actual slaves any harm or purely by luck, Sano seemed to have made his way straight through the midst of several small firefights; the turmoil appeared now to have spread out all the way down past the guard barracks.

This is stupid and I didn’t think it through, he was reflecting. The same fluttery nervousness that kept him from looking too closely at the nearby corpse was whispering, with a franticness to match his pulse, that he should go back to his quarters before he got himself killed — killed for no good goddamn reason, killed without ever seeing his friends again or even knowing what had become of them — or at the very least flatten himself onto the ground and wait this out.

But the thought that yellow-eyes was around here somewhere, that the answers he wanted were so close, coupled with the fact that he’d gotten this far, aroused in Sano a stubborn unwillingness to retreat. He did, however, wish he’d asked Soujirou just a few more questions about what was going on, where people were likely to be and to go, and whether or not they were likely to kill him on sight.

If he could just get into that closest building, surely he would be safe. Safer, at least, than he was here. He could probably sprint to the door on this side before anyone was likely to notice or try to shoot him. Circumnavigating the dead body, he moved to the very edge of the trees and peered to the left and right. Nobody seemed to be nearby, nor did anyone within his range of vision seem to be looking his direction. This was the moment.

He sprang forward, and, as predicted, reached the door two seconds later. However, within that span of time, the crack of a shot sounded just above him. It was so startling, acting on his already-pounding heart and strained nerves almost as severely as if the bullet had actually struck him, that his last two steps were a stumble and his hands could barely manage the door that was his object.

Inside, he immediately took the staircase that lay just past the small entry, and put his back to the wall so he could face both the stairs he’d just practically jumped down and the continuing descent. It wasn’t the most tactically strategic position, but he had to give himself a few seconds to calm down. He was shaking, and at the moment he thought only the wall against which he leaned was keeping him upright.

How could he have forgotten?? The staff buildings, unlike all the other buildings in the complex, had windows — windows that opened (or could be broken) and therefore through which people could easily shoot at anything that approached. And just because Soujirou had said yellow-eyes would probably be in the staff buildings by now didn’t mean he was guaranteed to be in this one or that all the staff buildings would be safe to enter!

I really didn’t think this through. Sano drew an unsteady arm across his face as this reflection heralded a wave of giddy amusement, of all things. Stability was returning, and he thought he would soon be able to move again — but perhaps before that, he should give some serious consideration to what the hell he was doing.

He didn’t have time for that, however, as he heard footsteps on the stairs above his head, coming down from the second floor. “Shit,” he muttered, and stood straight. Yes, his legs would do what he told them to now. He told them to run.

The basement contained a short corridor with a door to either side and at the far end. It was very dark, but the light switch didn’t have any effect when Sano turned it; he guessed that the whoever-they-were’s had disabled the complex’s power. It would probably be more difficult to find or shoot him in the dark, anyway, if that was the intention of his presumed pursuer.

Panic began to take hold of him once again when he found the first door locked and the second leading only to a small office in which (as far as he could tell in the limited light) it would be impossible effectively to hide. The third door, however, opened onto a large storage room that seemed to fill the entire remaining basement space.

He couldn’t see a thing once the door was closed, and he fumbled with outstretched arms for anything large enough to conceal him from sight. What it was that he eventually found he couldn’t identify, but it was solid and tall enough to duck behind; after that he concentrated on holding still and controlling his breathing. The latter wasn’t exactly coming out in gasps, but it wasn’t exactly unobtrusively quiet, either.

Strain his ears how he might, though, he couldn’t hear a thing. This was almost, he thought, more disconcerting than distant sounds of gunfire. The building — or at least this room — must be well-insulated. Even more disturbing, perhaps, was the lack of footsteps from the hall he’d just left. Was it possible that whoever had been coming down the stairs hadn’t been looking for him after all? Or had they realized they’d set him to flight and quieted? And if nobody appeared, what then? At least he’d have time to give this situation a little more thought.

Not that he really had any idea what he’d do if someone did appear.

Then he heard it: the slight click of the doorknob turning, though unaccompanied by any sounds of human movement. A low grey light, filtered down the stairs and the hallway and through the opening, vaguely illuminated a few dim shapes out past whatever Sano was hiding behind. It shifted slightly, growing, distorting, shrinking, and then disappeared entirely. The door clicked shut. Complete silence fell as Sano held his breath and his movement in rigorous check.

Someone was there.

Sano had never been so still or silent in his entire life. His lungs felt likely to explode, his legs were cramped from crouching, his entire body was tense almost beyond endurance ready to run again, and the only thing going through his head was the continued reiteration of his own stupidity and utter, suicidal lack of forethought.

Another, unexpected light appeared suddenly — this one the brief orange flare of a match, sending strange, unidentifiable shapes jumping into view for half a second and then dying down again. The sound of its striking was accompanied by that of an indrawn breath, and was followed by a calm statement that pierced the darkness as effectively as the light had:

“There’s no need to hide from me.”

Sano knew that voice.

Chapter 14

“Y-you…!” He gasped the word out along with the breath he’d been holding. “God fucking damn you, you scared the shit out of me!” His burning legs gave way and he collapsed into a sitting position on the floor, raising his hands to clutch as his hair as almost the only way he could express his relief and the abrupt withdrawal of adrenaline from his system.

The man chuckled, and this time Sano could clearly hear his footsteps approaching; apparently he only moved silently when he felt the specific need. “Making your way up here in the middle of a firefight doesn’t scare you, but this does?” Sano could tell when the man had neared him, not only by sound but by the sight of a small point of orange light in the darkness. The scent of cigarette smoke informed him what this must be. “I should have known you wouldn’t stay safely in the slave quarters until this was over. I suppose Soujirou told you where to find me?”

“He… I…” It would take too many words to explain, and Sano felt that he was really the one that was owed an explanation here. Because suddenly he was angry. Angrier than he’d been in a very, very long time — perhaps his entire life. What right had this man to treat him the way he had, then walk in here and scare him half to death and laugh at him and ask him questions so coolly? It brought Sano to his feet in an instant.

“You better fucking have some good explanations ready.” It was a little like the first time they’d lain in yellow-eyes’ barracks bed together — the darkness seemed to embolden Sano — and this time on a much larger scale. In fact, knowing what he now knew, he felt all of his inhibitions dissolving and all his fears erased, and nothing but the desire for answers present in his mind.

“Do you have any idea what you’ve done to me?” he burst out. “Who the hell gave you permission to fuck with my head like that? Do you know how fucking confused I’ve been about you and what was going on? Why would you let me think you were here to ‘steal slaves’ without just fucking telling me what you were really doing? Why would you make me think you were going to just take me away from my friends — and that was confusing as hell too because you acted like you hated all the fucking guards — and why would you act like you fucking cared about me and then just make it look like you’d left without even saying anything to me?” Here he ran out of breath; this and the nagging reflection that he wasn’t expressing himself very well forced him to pause.

A long silence followed, during which the end of the man’s cigarette glowed brightly for a moment as he took a drag, then faded back to its former, duller red. Finally, “I knew you must be confused,” came the voice of the darkness, “but I didn’t realize it would bother you that much.”

“You shot me,” Sano replied, striving for a level tone, determined that it should make sense this time. “You stopped me from escaping but didn’t turn me in. You wanted to fuck me but never did. You acted like you cared about me specially but wouldn’t ever answer any of my questions. Then you killed a guy right in front of me, claimed you were here to steal me, and then disappeared. If you’d just told me what you were doing here, I’d have gotten it. Instead I just about fucking lost my mind.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. But I couldn’t have told you without jeopardizing the mission.”

“‘Jeopardizing the mission…'” Sano repeated it at a whisper. “Jeopardizing the fucking mission…” Then, because he simply couldn’t help himself, he began to laugh.

Suddenly, as if something that had been tightening all morning had snapped inside him, he felt exhausted and strangely limp. He took two steps forward, and yellow-eyes steadied him as Sano pressed against his body and continued laughing into his chest. He seemed to be shaking a little more than the laughter could account for, and there was a touch of hysteria in the sound.

“I’m sorry,” the man said in his ear. “It’s all over now.” He even sounded fairly sincere.

“You…” Sano murmured when he could speak again. “You are a fucking asshole…”

One of the man’s arms went around Sano for support as he answered, “Probably.”

Sano noted distantly, pointlessly, that the cloth against his face was not the stuff the guards wore — infinitely familiar as he was with that — but something a touch rougher and not so stiff. Yellow-eyes had probably changed into the same camouflage the rest of his group had on. “I don’t know why I’ve been thinking about you nonstop for so fucking long. That was all I really needed to figure out: that you’re a fucking asshole.”

Yellow-eyes chuckled again. “Then you understand everything now.”

“Not quite.” Sano remained where he was, with his head bent and his words muffled by the man’s garment; he wasn’t ready to move quite yet. “You wanted me all along, but you didn’t fuck me because you wanted to be better than the other guards because you’re not really one of them and all that. That makes sense now, I guess. But then why the hell did you jack me off that one time?”

“I shouldn’t have done that,” was the answer — so immediate that Sano thought yellow-eyes must already have had this on his mind.

“It didn’t help with me being confused as hell, you know.”

“Do you want me to apologize again?” These words were somewhat dry, but Sano got the feeling the man would apologize again if Sano demanded it.

He considered for a moment. “Nah,” he finally said. “You just did it ’cause you felt like it?”

He could feel the man nod.

Sano nodded also, withdrawing slightly. He felt a little less shaky now, but still very tired. He doubted it was an hour since he’d arisen, but he could probably sleep a whole night’s worth if he lay down now.

Yellow-eyes made no effort to keep him close; in fact, in a businesslike tone he remarked, “I’ve been down here too long. Come with me.” The glowing ember of the cigarette fell to the concrete floor and disappeared under an invisible foot.

Sano reached out and caught at the man, finding an arm to hold onto, afflicted by a sudden, childish fear of losing him in this darkness. But if yellow-eyes picked up on this, he said nothing, only led Sano unfalteringly to the door. Notwithstanding his lack of tension up until this moment, he opened it quietly and cautiously. Once Sano’s eyes had adjusted to the dim light pouring through the slowly-widening aperture, he could see that yellow-eyes had his hand on his holstered gun and was, in fact, wearing the camouflage Sano had observed on the other invaders.

The hallway was empty, and no sound came from up the stairs. As they stepped out of the storage room and yellow-eyes closed the door behind them, Sano paused to look at him. It was the same face — the same high cheekbones and narrow eyes, expressive lips and thin brows — but something was different about him now, something more than a mere change of raiment could explain. Perhaps it was that, after that conversation in utter darkness, Sano felt he knew the real man a little better, that some of the mystery was repealed. Perhaps it was only the absence of the previous turmoil through which Sano had been viewing the other all along.

Whatever it was, he found himself moving almost without conscious effort, taking the handsome face in his hands, and leaning up to kiss him.

His anger was mostly gone, and though he didn’t know what would happen next or exactly how he felt about this man, there was undeniably something between them. Yellow-eyes responded by pulling him close, and they stood thus for quite some time.

When Sano finally broke away, the man quirked a half-smile at him and said, “Trying to pay me back for confusing you so much?”

“You’d deserve it if I did.” Sano wasn’t quite sure what he meant, though.

Evidently in response to Sano’s uncertain tone, “I’m a fucking asshole,” the man explained, “but you kiss me?”

Sano grinned. “Yeah, why don’t you just headache about it for a while before I tell you?”

Yellow-eyes’ smirk widened as he shook his head slightly, released Sano, and turned again. His cautious demeanor and the hand again on his gun told Sano they were moving on.

“So you’re in charge of all of this?” Sano asked quietly as they climbed the stairs.

The man looked for a moment as if he wasn’t going to answer, was perhaps going to advise wordless progress, but then — perhaps realizing that Sano might explode if he tried that shit again — answered just as softly, “Our organization has three teams; I’m in charge of one of them.”

“And what the hell are you guys trying to do?”

They’d reached the second floor, and here, upon seeing another camouflage-clad person crouched beside a potted plant in the corridor to which the stairs led, yellow-eyes relaxed somewhat. Acknowledging the watcher with a nod, he answered Sano’s question as they continued down the hall. “Our goal is to annihilate Ketterect Labor and free all the slaves.”

Although this was what Sano had guessed, he couldn’t help shivering slightly at hearing it. If he hadn’t seen all the people with guns… if he didn’t know this man was in charge of at least part of the operation… he would have thought it an impossibly grandiose scheme likely to get more of them killed than freed.

“What are you going to do with me?” he asked next.

“We’ve arranged for temporary homes for all the slaves; it was the longest and most difficult part of the preparation for this mission. You’ll all be acclimatized to free society, and hopefully during that time the laws will change.”

“No, I mean, what are you going to do with me.”

Yellow-eyes paused outside the door they were evidently about to enter and looked back at him. “Whatever you want me to,” he said.

In response to Sano’s somewhat baffled expression, the man smirked faintly and explained. “It’s really up to you whether you want to put up with me after this.” He held Sano’s gaze for a moment, and Sano really didn’t know what to say. “For the moment,” he finally continued, turning back to the door, “I’m going to work on keeping you alive long enough to decide.”

Sano followed him unhesitatingly into the room. This might prove to be a rather long day, but he wasn’t sure he minded.

Katsu also felt he was in for a long day. The lights had gone out, leaving them in near-complete darkness in the windowless slave quarters, and, while he and Kaoru maintained their dubious cover of the door, the other slaves bombarded Soujirou with questions.

Just listening — on the outside now, as it were — Katsu could clearly see how easily and glibly Soujirou answered only exactly what he wanted to and evaded the rest. Some of what the other slaves wanted to know, Katsu guessed, might indeed be dangerous or demoralizing; but not all of it was, and there seemed no good reason for evasion. He wondered whether this repressiveness was simply Soujirou’s nature. In any case, it didn’t seem to be hurting the other slaves’ opinion of him; there was already a touch of hero-worship to their interaction with him. Katsu tried very hard not to let this make him jealous.

Every moment that passed seemed like an hour as he held the gun, watched the faint glint of tears on Kaoru’s face, and felt the tension grow; eventually he lost all concept of the passage of time. There was no way to see outside without opening the door, there were no clocks, and the questions being posed by his fellows to Soujirou were getting disconcertingly repetitive. Katsu felt he was beginning to go a little crazy. Was it morning or afternoon? Or another day or year? Or had time stopped completely?

The gunfire, at least, had stopped completely, after a gradual diminution, and it had been some time since Katsu had heard anything beyond the increasingly loud noise here inside the building. Their little set of rooms might have spun out from the rest of the world for all he knew, and he might stand here pointing this gun at that unmoving rectangle of dim light at the other end of the chamber for the rest of eternity.

Even these thoughts seemed removed by an incomprehensible gulf of time from the eventual sounds at the door.

The room fell gradually quiet as the realization that someone was outside filtered through its inhabitants. Most of them, Katsu thought, were turned toward Soujirou in apprehensive appeal by the time the knock came.

It was a peculiarly rhythmic knock, obviously a signal of some sort, and in response Soujirou’s smile widened. “Looks like it’s over,” he said cheerfully, and moved toward the door. Gratefully, Katsu lowered his gun.

The sunlight that streamed into the room seemed almost alien after the shadows, but the hour of day, at least, could now be guessed at. Katsu couldn’t be surprised at seeing what looked like the light of mid-afternoon, given that he’d had no idea what time it was.

“Hey, Sou,” said the figure that entered, partially blocking the light.

“All clear,” Soujirou replied.

“We’re on to Phase 4,” the man’s voice said. Katsu couldn’t make out any details beyond his silhouetted figure in the open doorway, but felt predisposed to like the person. The combination of his seeming informality and the words ‘Phase 4’ seemed strange, but it really made little difference. “We’ll take over for you here, if you wanna report to the captain at the office building.”

Soujirou tilted his head curiously. “Why?”

“Captain’s informant wants to hear his friends are safe or something. Said you’d know who to take up there.”

If it weren’t for the fact that Katsu always heard everything, he might not have caught the second sentence. Overwhelmed with relief at the implications of the first, he let out a breath like a sigh and felt suddenly rather weak. Beside him, he could sense much the same reactions from Kaoru and Yahiko.

“Sounds good.” This time Katsu didn’t just hear the smile in Soujirou’s voice, but saw it on his face along with a glint of blue eyes as Soujirou turned toward him and gestured. “Katsu, why don’t you come with me?”

Quickly Katsu joined Soujirou at the door, through which the latest arrival had moved into the room. “Hey, folks,” the man was saying to the other slaves. “How you doing?”

Outside, shielding his eyes against the sun, Katsu found himself facing a number of people clad in camouflage the colors of the forest and carrying various firearms. He couldn’t help stopping to stare for a moment, though Soujirou just waved and started up the hill. They stared back, some of them smiling, some grim, some curious.

Katsu shook himself and jogged to catch up with Soujirou.

The latter remarked as Katsu reached him, “It’s good to hear that Sano’s all right, isn’t it?”

Yes,” replied Katsu emphatically. He glanced back at the slave quarter buildings as they moved farther up the hill, taking note of the number of camouflage figures he could see and their movements. After a few more paces he felt compelled to comment, “Your organization seems really… informal.”

“I guess,” Soujirou shrugged. “It works, though.” He added with a slight laugh, “People don’t disobey the captains.”

“That guard of Sano’s…” Katsu had to pause to grimace briefly at his own choice of words. “He’s one of the captains?”

Soujirou nodded. Katsu thought he understood why people didn’t disobey, in that case.

Although there were two staff buildings that contained offices, apparently Soujirou knew what to understand by ‘the office building,’ as he was headed unerringly to the one nearer the complex entrance. Everywhere Katsu looked there were more camouflaged people, standing around, moving purposefully somewhere or other, watching him and Soujirou… It made him a little nervous — not that he was exactly free of that emotion to begin with — and when they reached the doors to the building he was actually relieved to find not a single one in sight (from that angle at least). There were sure to be more inside, though.

A desire had been growing in the back of his head all the way up here, and now as Soujirou reached for the door handle Katsu took a deep breath and said his name. When Soujirou turned a questioning smile on him Katsu said, “Hey, listen.” But that wasn’t really what he meant. Frowning, reaching for Soujirou’s hand to pull him close, Katsu bent and kissed him briefly and almost reluctantly.

Soujirou looked a little surprised. “Does that mean you’re not mad at me?”

“Not necessarily,” replied Katsu. He sighed, letting his head fall back to look up at the underside of the roof that overhung the doors so he wouldn’t be tempted to kiss Soujirou again. “I’m not really sure what it means. Just… thanks.”

Squeezing Katsu’s hand briefly and probably smiling, Soujirou released him and said, “Let’s go find Sano.” Katsu looked down to see him turning back toward the door and again reaching for the handle. He took a deep breath and followed.

Chapter 15

Time didn’t seem to be passing any more quickly for Sano and Katsu once they were together, but they didn’t mind. As a matter of fact, they might have said fairly positively that they were content now to weather out the long day watching the comings and goings of the operatives around the complex.

Yellow-eyes — whose rank of “captain” apparently allowed him to stay in one place and give orders rather than run around like everyone else — was the only consistent sight throughout the afternoon; even Soujirou had to go do something at some point, throwing a bright smile at Katsu before he left.

Realizing that here was another question he could probably get answered now, Sano strolled over to yellow-eyes’ side once Soujirou was out of the room. “So were his orders to seduce Katsu, or what?” Hearing his friend behind him make a noise somewhere between a laugh and a sigh, Sano guessed Katsu and Soujirou had already been over this.

Turning fully to face them both with a frown that seemed to indicate existing suspicions now confirmed, yellow-eyes answered, “No.”

Katsu sighed again. “Is that going to get him in trouble?”

“We’ll see,” replied yellow-eyes darkly.

But with taking cryptic, uninformative statements from this man Sano was finished. “We’ll see what?” he demanded. Yellow-eyes was unable to answer, however, since at that moment someone entered the room to make a report (or something) and he became busied in a professional conversation.

“It’s probably a little difficult for him to decide,” Katsu speculated, “when he’s pretty much guilty of the same thing.” Sano could clearly hear the disapproval in his barely-lowered voice, and felt his own expression tauten into what might have been called a rueful grin.

“I don’t wanna say I think he did something horrible to me,” he murmured reluctantly. His words grew even quieter as he continued, glancing over at yellow-eyes to see if he was still occupied with the other person. “I was really pissed at him earlier, and I don’t know exactly how I feel about him or what I want to do… but… well, I dunno.”

Katsu snorted. “That’s about how I feel about Soujirou.” Then he sighed again, and returned Sano’s rueful grin as he shook his head. Whatever he might have said next was prevented, though, by the return of yellow-eyes to their end of the room and his full attention to them.

“I also,” the latter remarked as if he’d been part of their discussion all along, “have to take into consideration exactly what he did and to what extent it could have been consensual.”

“What do you mean?” asked Sano, a little suspicious.

Katsu gave the false guard an appraising look. “He means,” he explained slowly, “that the more mindless he finds me, the less forgivable whatever Soujirou’s done will be.”

Yellow-eyes nodded briefly and turned back to his perusal of some of the paperwork he’d rounded up from the various offices. Sano had no idea what he was looking for — but, then, he really had no idea what kind of paperwork the staff kept in their offices. To be honest, he almost had no idea how to read.

He also had no idea how he felt about what Katsu had just said.

They sat in silence for a while, Katsu at the chair from one of the room’s large desks and Sano atop the latter, Sano watching yellow-eyes work and Katsu staring out the window. From this room there was a good view of about two thirds of the complex, which Sano thought was probably the reason yellow-eyes had chosen to remain there.

Everyone that entered drew Sano’s attention — as much because he wanted to watch their interaction with yellow-eyes as that he wanted a better idea of what kind of people these were. For the latter… well, that he had no real idea what ‘normal people’ were like or what to expect from them did occur to him, but he thought most of the members of this group could pass for a fairly good approximation. For the former… it didn’t surprise him to find that yellow-eyes was something of a jerk to his subordinates, nor that they obeyed his orders without argument or hesitation.

All except Aoshi.

Sano couldn’t help grinning a little at the other false guard when he entered. Aoshi didn’t look at him, and kept his conversation with yellow-eyes low — neither of which surprised Sano either. Aoshi seemed to have a sort of passive-aggressive one-man rebellion going on against yellow-eyes’ authority, which yellow-eyes tolerated with crumbling patience. This also didn’t surprise Sano, given what he’d learned earlier.

Aoshi did cast a cold-eyed and unreadable look at Sano before he left the room, and Sano didn’t even bother trying not to laugh. Understandably, he found Katsu bemused and curious when he returned his eyes to his friend.

“That’s sit-in-a-chair-all-night guy,” he explained. “Aoshi.”

“Oh!” Katsu glanced at the door through which Aoshi had disappeared, then back to Sano. “Did you figure out what his deal was?”

“I’d completely forgot about him earlier, with all this other shit going on, or else I would have asked yellow-eyes there,” Sano began in a low voice, once again glancing at the third man in the room to see if he was listening. He didn’t appear to be, but that didn’t really mean anything. “But then Aoshi came in here, a little before you showed up, and I remembered. He acted all worried about whatever yellow-eyes was ‘doing with me,’ like I wasn’t even here or couldn’t hear what he was saying. He asked if yellow-eyes was really in love with me after less than a month and’d decided to keep me.”

Katsu blinked widened eyes, apparently uncertain whether to be more annoyed or surprised at the words.

“Yeah,” Sano agreed. “And yellow-eyes said he didn’t have to explain anything, and Aoshi says something like, ‘Of course you don’t have to. But I think you’re lonely and you’re trying to fill the gap with someone you just met, and it’s not going to work.’ Then — this is the best part — yellow-eyes says, ‘Lonely? You have a very high opinion of yourself.'”

Katsu’s eyes widened even further as the implications of this exchange struck him immediately. “So that’s why…” A grin similar to Sano’s was beginning to pull at his mouth.

Sano nodded. “I laughed. Right out loud. You shoulda seen the look Aoshi gave me.”

“It’s good to know people other than slaves can have relationship issues.” It was only a partly facetious comment, and Katsu’s grinning, head-shaking expression was half-pained.

Sano just grinned back.

Sobering completely, Katsu noted, “You were glad he was jealous.”

“Maybe I was,” Sano agreed, and couldn’t even regret admitting it. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed yellow-eyes smirking faintly.

Eventually out the window they could see the other slaves exiting the quarters in fairly placid, organized lines, and at this point yellow-eyes announced it was time to go down. Looking forward to seeing how Kaoru and Yahiko were doing, they followed him from the building. Perhaps because of their greater understanding of the situation, the time they’d spent away from their other friends seemed like an age or more.

By the time Sano, Katsu, and yellow-eyes reached them, the slaves were milling about at the entrance to the complex. They were still roughly organized by quarters division, probably simply for convenience, and a kind of count or roll call was being conducted by some of the camouflaged operatives.

Whether deliberately or otherwise — Sano wasn’t going to ask — yellow-eyes led them to a spot very near where their friends stood, then turned pointedly away to converse with one of his own people. Sano didn’t have time or inclination to attempt to listen in, since at that moment Kaoru and Yahiko staged a sort of hugging-and-talking-at-once attack on him.

“Ah! shit! shoulder!” Sano grunted in reminder.

With an apology Kaoru drew back far enough to stop hurting him and to look up into his face, and actually startled him with hers. She’d obviously been crying, and that didn’t do much for anyone’s complexion — but somehow, despite the red blotches that were her cheeks and the puffiness around her eyes, she looked better than he’d seen her in months. She looked, in fact, more like the strong and determined Kaoru he’d met a year ago than he’d ever thought to see her again.

With a shock, staring at her uplifted expression, he realized suddenly that he’d never expected her to survive this far. Perhaps her lack of faith in her friends’ ability to escape and come back to rescue her had been in response to their lack of faith in her. Perhaps slaves couldn’t ever really have faith in each other. He didn’t know. But now… now everything had changed, and in an instant a totally unanticipated and overwhelming joy filled him. He pulled her back into the hug she’d abandoned, ignoring the pain.

Things became very noisy for a while as all the slaves seemed to be discussing this turn of events at once, shouting to friends from other quarters or sometimes, it seemed, just for the pleasure of shouting without repercussion. Kaoru and Yahiko were not the only ones to be checked on, and for a while Sano and Katsu were pleasantly busy. Marveling, plan-making, weeping, speculation, congratulation: it assaulted them from every side. Not everyone was happy, and most were nervous if not downright terrified… but the general air was of relief, wonder, and joy. This, Sano thought, was what a holiday must feel like.

As the sky began to blacken, even the redness of sunset fading from the close forested horizon, a number of buses pulled up in a neat row just outside the entrance of the complex and reilluminated the scene with their bright headlights. Sano barely remembered buses, and these looked bigger and a lot nicer than the ones he recalled hazily from the LeMere streets so long ago, but at the moment very little he saw could fail to give him pleasure — especially anything that would help remove the slaves from this place, hopefully never to return. So he grinned at the buses and at the operatives once again calling the crowd to order.

Turning, he found yellow-eyes watching him from nearby. Sano had rather lost track of the man in the last couple of hours, though in the back of his thoughts never really misplacing him or the indecision connected with him. Now Sano moved toward him a few steps, for no real reason other than a certain feeling of being drawn by the sight of him.

He wanted to say something, but this wasn’t really the moment for all of his serious reflections that tended toward working out the aforementioned confusion. Eventually what came out, pointless but at least something, was, “So… buses…”

Yellow-eyes nodded.

“Where are you taking us?”

“A number of different sites. It isn’t safe or practical for everyone to relocate to the same place.” Now it was Sano’s turn to nod. Most likely, naming the destinations here in front of everyone also wasn’t safe or practical, and the names probably wouldn’t mean anything to Sano anyway… but he couldn’t help feeling a little annoyed. It must have shown on his face, too, for yellow-eyes smirked slightly and said, “I’ll tell you on the way.”

“Tell him what?” Katsu wondered as he appeared at Sano’s side — probably in response to Soujirou, who’d just appeared beside yellow-eyes.

“Exactly where we’re going,” Sano answered. “And where everyone is going,” he added as an afterthought. “And all the details of this project of theirs that he hasn’t told me yet. Like where they got buses from and shit.”

Yellow-eyes snorted. “You certainly don’t ask much.” The sarcasm wasn’t meant to cut, though.

“You specifically told me I ask too many questions, actually.” Sano stared up into the man’s face, more flippant than defiant but not willing to be denied his answers. The yellow eyes rolled.

“So…” began Katsu. He glanced from Soujirou, at whom he’d been looking fairly steadfastly, to a nearby operative that was shouting orders to the slaves in the immediate vicinity. “Do we get on the bus with them?”

Yellow-eyes’ mouth tightened, and Soujirou’s smile turned a little self-conscious. “That depends,” the false guard said at last.

Sano and Katsu just waited.

“You two are a… special case.” Yellow-eyes shook his head, and the expression on his face seemed to reflect an almost helpless sort of frustrated amusement that held a touch of self-deprecation. Neither he nor Soujirou, after all, had probably expected to find what they had at Ketterect Labor Complex; Sano was sure neither of them was entirely satisfied with his own behavior. “We’ll probably bring you with us in one of the trucks… back to our headquarters instead of to a relocation site, and then… you two are free now; it depends on what you want.”

“Free…” Had Sano ever really understood that word before? It tasted strange on his lips, sounded unfamiliar in his ears. He glanced from the interesting look on yellow-eyes’ face to Soujirou’s tentative smile to Katsu, and saw the same uncertainty in his friend’s expression that was probably in his own. They had Kaoru, Yahiko, and others to consider, not to mention the ambiguity of their own attitudes toward their deliverers. “I… don’t know,” Sano answered at last. Katsu shook his head to indicate similar feelings.

“Well, you have three hundred miles to think about it,” Soujirou smiled.

Yellow-eyes nodded.

Glancing at Katsu again, Sano couldn’t help smiling too. The one thing he could be sure of was that, whatever strange complications had arisen thus far, neither of them would regret these events or even meeting these men, whatever they decided. They had three hundred miles — and more — to think about it; Sano believed, at this point, that neither Soujirou nor his superior officer would pressure either of the two former slaves.

They had all the time in the world. This was what Souzou had wanted; this was what Souzou would always have wanted for them. They were free — free — to come to their own decisions, to determine their own future.



<<14

When I first got an account at fanfiction.net in 2002 and started posting things there, the popularity and the headiness of multiple reviews per chapter provided a rush of motivation, and I produced eleven rickety chapters of a story called You Won’t Regret It in record time. And perhaps it was the haste with which I wrote it, or possibly a special kind of naivete that fanfiction.net didn’t help, but it really sucked. It was so full of implausible circumstances and so incredibly shallow and fangirly that a few years later I took it down.

But having a finished story eleven chapters long sitting around not posted really bothered me, and eventually I decided to rewrite the thing and see if I could manage to hate it less. And here is the result: a rewrite barely less spurious than it was before, even more hedonistic in places, consisting for many chapters mostly of recycled text from the original with other shit added and some slight pretext of dealing with some of these serious issues just a touch less shallowly. If you’ve made it this far, I’m impressed… and actually kinda feel I should apologize. Still, it has its moments; one of these days even their sad glitter may fade, and then it’ll come down.

I’ve rated this story (though the last few chapters, the best parts of the fic, merit more like a ).

Fourteen Strange Looks


1. A woman loading groceries into her trunk glanced over at a young man emerging from the car that had just pulled into the space next to hers. “I still don’t get why I have to come with you,” he was complaining.

“You’re the one who said it would be ‘really cool’ if they visited over Spring Break,” the car’s driver replied as he also disembarked, dropping a cigarette and grinding it out with his foot.

“Yeah, but just because I like your kids better than you do,” the first said, “doesn’t mean I should have to come grocery shopping with you!” They were now walking past the woman toward the building, and the younger was eyeing the store warily. “You totally owe me sex for this.”

2. A courtesy clerk collecting carts from the parking lot caught part of the conversation of the customers he’d paused to let past. “I don’t owe you sex just for making you pull a fraction of your own weight,” one was saying. “And I don’t want to make ten trips from the car to the house to get all of it brought inside.”

“Like you need me here for that,” the other was grumbling. “I coulda just helped you when you got home.”

“Somehow I have a hard time believing you’d have been any more eager to abandon your beloved video games in that case either.” The man had stopped to glance at the carts lined up by the employee, and, with a nod to the latter, disengaged the one at the end and propelled it in front of him into the building.

“Hey,” the other was protesting, “you bought me that X-Box.”

“Proof that I do sometimes make mistakes,” the first muttered, almost inaudible to the clerk as he entered the store.

3. A shopper emerging from the checkout lane to the sound of a bagger’s friendly goodbye was nearly run down by another customer bounding over to a display that stood in the middle of the store entry. “Ooh, donuts!” the young man was saying. “I wonder if they have any filled ones.”

“No donuts,” another man, wheeling an empty cart past the first, said flatly. “And try not to kill people.”

“But they’re on sale!” the first pointed out, throwing an apologetic grin at the shopper he’d almost run into and then returning to what was evidently a much more important matter.

“They’re ‘on sale’ every weekend.”

The younger man laughed. “Why am I not surprised you know that?” He threw one last longing glance at the donuts before following his companion.

“Because you’re entirely too credulous?”

“No, because you’re a cop!” Their voices were fading as they walked away.

“Maybe I don’t need your help. Maybe I should just kill you.”

“You said not to kill people!”

4. The florist, thinking she was being addressed, looked up quickly with a professional smile at a young man’s voice saying, “I want some roses.” She found, however, that the young man in question was not talking to her. “How come you never buy me roses?” he was complaining to an older companion.

“First of all, because you’re an idiot,” the latter answered. “Second, because you don’t really want them. Third, because I think giving someone dead plants is stupid.”

“You could get me one of these candy bouquets,” the first suggested. He’d stopped next to a display full of the item in question while the other moved on without even looking. “I could eat that, so I’d definitely want it.”

“But you’d still be an idiot,” the second replied from where he’d already left the floral department and hadn’t slowed.

5. Store security, making the rounds as usual and noticing the overly-casual way the brown-haired teenager in produce seized a plum and started tossing and catching it repeatedly, thought he’d found a vandal or a grazer. However, the man with the cart behind whom the boy was strolling turned suddenly and snatched the fruit from the air, fixing his companion with a rather dangerous-looking expression of irritation. “If you start throwing things, I really will kill you.”

“God, fine,” the boy acceded with an injured, surly air. This didn’t last, however, as when the two continued walking he immediately noticed a display full of cherries and started chuckling. “Hey, hey, Saitou,” he chortled, taking up a bag and bounding back to his companion’s side. “Dyou want my cherry?”

The man elbowed the boy in the arm. “Put those back.”

“How could you say no to that?” the boy demanded in a falsely hurt tone, stepping back and obeying the order.

The man threw a disdainful smirk over his shoulder. “You’re a few years late to be offering, aren’t you?”

6. The pharmacist, in the absence of customers of her own, had been watching an odd pair of shoppers that had spent several minutes arguing over something at the end of produce nearest her counter before moving on. She wondered if the older man was aware of the seemingly random items the younger was continually snagging off shelves and slipping into the cart. Somehow she got the feeling the younger didn’t really care what he grabbed just as long as the other didn’t see — and somehow she got the feeling the other did see and simply wasn’t bothering to say anything at this point.

7. A father whose children had dragged him down the candy aisle noted that he wasn’t the only one having problems controlling a juvenile sweet-tooth. The other shopper apparently in need of controlling didn’t technically appear to be juvenile, however — though his excited bounding from one side of the aisle to the other and one overpriced Easter candy selection to the next could have led anyone to believe he really was just an oversized kid.

“Why am I even on this aisle?” the second newcomer was wondering as he wheeled a cart and a skeptical expression behind his companion.

“Why would you not want to be on this aisle?” the young man answered, his question sounding every bit as rhetorical as the other’s had.

The other merely rolled his eyes and sped up. “Come on.”

“No, wait, we’ve gotta get some candy!” the younger protested. “I know you like chocolate.”

“Only in situations that aren’t going to arise any time this coming week.” The older didn’t stop, and was halfway down the aisle by now.

“No, wait, look at this!” The younger started laughing as he examined a package he’d seized off the shelf, and hastened after his comrade to show him. “These have sticky stuff on them so you can put them in weird places… check this out: Hide Easter Eggs where they’ve never gone before.” The chortle accompanying this showed plainly the context in which he was taking that statement. “We should totally get some and do that.”

“What did I just tell you about this coming week?” was the last audible comment of the other as the two progressed too far down the aisle to be heard clearly — and the bemused father realized somewhat belatedly that he should probably be paying better attention to what his own children were getting into anyway.

8. A cutter in the meat department did not look up from his work as a young man’s voice nearby sniggered, “‘Meat department.’ Heh…” That joke was so old it didn’t deserve acknowledgement.

“Don’t even bother elaborating on why you find that funny,” said a second voice.

“We should call our bedroom the ‘Meat Department,'” the first suggested, still childishly entertained.

This caused the cutter to look up, in time to see the second man — a tall, dark, very straight-looking guy — roll unamused yellow eyes as he examined a package of hamburger. “Why must you keep bringing up sex?”

“Can you blame me for thinking about something more interesting than grocery shopping?” the other wondered. The cutter, straining to hear the end of the exchange as they walked away, managed to catch the final comment, “But seriously, we should steal that ‘Meat Department’ sign and put it up over the door…”

9. A businessman not too accustomed to grocery store aisles but in dire need of something to bring to the office potluck was practically run down by a pair of little girls — one frantically propelling a cart down the lane, the other clinging to its far end, both screaming. Looking around irritably for parents or guardians, he found instead, not far behind him, an apparently unrelated teenage boy watching the swiftly-disappearing cavalcade with a rapt and covetous expression. This boy didn’t seem to notice the disapproval either of the businessman or of his own companion, to whom he now turned with shining eyes.

“Let me drive the cart.”

“Absolutely not,” replied aforementioned companion, a much more reasonable-looking man perhaps twice the other’s age, who now sped up to avoid the boy’s hands that groped after the cart he was pushing.

“Just for a second,” the boy persisted.

“No.”

“Come on, I promise I won’t crash it.”

“No.”

“Fine, asshole, then I’m going to get some snacks.”

“Do as you please.”

As the boy stalked somewhat huffily away, the companion’s eyes met the businessman’s briefly and rolled. Wondering what their relationship was — they didn’t quite seem like father and son — but certainly not about to ask, the businessman returned to his own quest for suitably edible items as the other man moved slowly on down the aisle.

10. A woman perusing the frozen foods, on hearing a deep voice saying, “Idiot. You may not have all that junk food. Go put it all back,” looked up indignantly to see who was treating his child so unkindly — only to be somewhat surprised at finding the ‘child’ in question a man of perhaps twenty bearing a huge armload of chips, cookies, and various other unhealthy snack foods.

This young man was replying as petulantly as any child, however, “Aww, come on, don’t be such a jerk!”

“You may have one,” the older man replied sternly, still sounding for all the world like an overly harsh parent of a misbehaving youngster. The shopper wondered if the other man was perhaps mentally challenged.

“But there’s going to be three kids in the house all week!” the young man was protesting.

“You mean four,” murmured the older.

Fearing the condition might rub off, the woman abandoned her search for whole baby onions and left the frozen section.

11. The cake decorator looked up with a polite, “Yes, sir?” when someone appeared in her bakery requesting an answer to a question.

“Has anyone ever grabbed one of these pies and just–” The young man on the other side of the counter mimed an elaborate pitcher’s windup. “–just thrown it right at the guy they were shopping with?”

The decorator’s reply that this had never happened in her presence was completely cut off when an older man nearby said in a pointed tone, “You might as well ask her if anyone’s ever strangled the guy they were shopping with, too.”

“So…” It seemed for a moment that the young man was, in fact, going to ask her this. “Has…” But apparently he couldn’t. “So has…” He kept interrupting himself by glancing over at his companion with an expression of growing interest and amusement, until finally he turned away from the decorator and followed the other man with the comment, “Strangled? We’ve never tried that.”

“No,” the other agreed emotionlessly, “we haven’t.”

“So, what, did you want to?”

“Not any time in the next week. Can you imagine one of my sons walking in on that?”

The young man’s laughter seemed to be the end of the exchange, but when the decorator realized she’d absently trailed a line of blue frosting across the counter in front of her, she stopped even attempting to listen.

12. The checker at checkstand 6 was slightly baffled by the behavior of the man with the funny bangs: as he’d begun to unload his groceries onto the belt, he had also seized a basket from under the counter and placed a decent number of items into that instead. He barely looked at these things, but each one’s removal from the cart seemed to cause the young man beside him increasing distress.

One object over which the black-haired man did pause was what looked like a bottle of vitamins. “Calcium pills?” he asked the other. “The rest of it almost made sense, but this…?”

The other took the bottle with a slightly perplexed expression and examined it. “Calcium? I thought it was…” He glanced up at the checker, grinned slightly, and didn’t finish his sentence, instead tossing the bottle back into the now-nearly-empty cart.

“We’re not buying it, idiot,” the first said, retrieving it and shoving it into the basket. This he thrust at the younger man. “Now go put all this stuff back.”

“You are so no fun,” the second grumbled. “You’da bought it if it had been what I thought it was.”

“If it had been what you thought it was, we wouldn’t have needed it.” The first’s smirk was decidedly inappropriate, and the checker was beginning to think she could vaguely guess what the brown-haired man had thought the bottle contained.

13. The bagger at checkstand 6 at first received no answer in response to his query whether the odd pair needed help out, since they seemed too busy discussing items they weren’t buying to pay him any attention. But eventually, once the younger of the two had run off back to the aisles with a basket full of stuff, the older mentioned they wouldn’t require assistance. Thence the bagger paid him little more attention until the younger returned, panting.

“You put it all back?” the older demanded, hardly looking over from where he was busy with the card-reader.

“Yeah,” the younger replied breathlessly.

“Where it goes?”

“Yeah.” The younger man was distinctly annoyed.

“You didn’t just drop the basket somewhere or put it all onto random shelves?”

“Yes, fuck you very much.”

Without even needing to glance at his target, the older man struck neatly out with a fist and caught the younger rather hard in the shoulder. “Idiot,” he said. “Don’t swear in front of people with children.”

“Ow! Sh–” The younger punched the older back, seemingly rather harder, also in the shoulder. “What the f–” He glanced around with a surly sort of self-consciousness at the other shoppers nearby. “What was that for?”

The older, who didn’t seem even to have noticed the return blow, just rolled his eyes and pushed past the younger to direct the cart, now full of bags, out of the lane.

“Have a nice day…” the bagger said uncertainly as they headed for the exit.

14. A woman loading groceries into her trunk looked up when one of her children pointed out a little worriedly, “That guy is hitting that other guy.”

Indeed, one of the two men approaching across the parking lot was continually punching the other in the shoulder.

“They’re just playing, honey,” the woman assured her daughter, blatantly lying if she was any judge of the strength behind the blows.

The pair evidently belonged to the car immediately next to hers, for there they stopped. “I think we’re more than even now,” the object of the blows was saying in a slightly irritated tone.

“Oh, you finally decide to admit you don’t like that, huh?” the other teased, and stopped punching his friend. “Poor Saitou. Can only pretend it doesn’t hurt for so long.” And with a grin, he leaned up and — unexpectedly, it seemed, to everyone except him — kissed the older man soundly on the mouth.

The woman’s own mouth dropped open, and it was a moment before her wits returned enough even for her to check on whether her children were watching. Of course they both were.

“Idiot,” the older man said as soon as his lips were free, “did I not just tell you–”

“You told me not to swear in front of people with kids,” the younger interrupted. “You didn’t say anything about kissing.” And before the other could say a word in response to this he added somewhat forcefully, “And if you think I’m going all week without kissing you just because your kids are here, you better think again, ba– uh, jerk.”

“Mommy, that guy just kissed that other guy,” the woman’s daughter whispered, tugging insistently at her mother’s sleeve.

“They’re just…” No spur-of-the-moment explanation came to mind.

“They’re gay,” whispered her son, the older and unfortunately savvier of her children.

“What’s ‘gay?'” her daughter asked.

“No, one of them’s a girl,” the mother said desperately, shoving the last of her groceries haphazardly into the trunk and hastening to get the children into their seats as quickly as possible.

“They both look like boys,” her daughter stated.

“They’re gay boys,” her son stated, this time not quite in a whisper, just before his door crunched shut.

“What’s ‘gay?'” her daughter asked again.

“We’ll talk about it in a minute,” said the woman quietly, trying to sound firm.

But before she could lean in to fasten the seat belt around her daughter, the latter leaned out the door and called to the two men, “Are you boys or girls?”

After a startled hiss, hurriedly subduing and buckling her daughter, and a hasty, red-faced apology to the strangers whose eyes she could not quite meet, the woman got herself into the driver’s seat as fast as she was able. She couldn’t help hearing, however, before her own door closed, the laughter of the one, nor noticing through the window the other’s somewhat amused smirk and roll of eyes. Pulling out as abruptly as caution allowed, she tried to ignore the goodbye wave the corrupting young man gave her children as she left the parking lot.


This fic, which I’ve rated , was for 30_kisses theme #28 “Wada Calcium CD3.” It’s mostly only amusing if you find homophobia and the shocking of bigoted people funny. What I like about it, though, is how devoted Saitou obviously is to Sano here. He does little more than threaten him when Sano embarrasses him in public, he has his kids over to visit for a whole week at Sano’s insistence, he buys him a freaking X-Box… so cute.

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


Biting Off (Something Presumably Worse)


It felt a shame to spend any time in jail as a result of such a boring brawl, but he was too central to the affair, physically and in terms of culpability, to dodge the police now; and he’d had enough dull fighting for the night that the idea of knocking any of them down and making his escape wasn’t particularly palatable. So he remained seated on the floor in approximately the middle of the room, with a broken table on one side and an unconscious opponent on the other, and waited for the officers to work their way through the various results of the melee to the guy that had started it all. And even the waiting wasn’t much more boring than the fight had been.

Eventually, after the man to his left had been hauled off and the table dragged out of the way so the police could stop tripping over it, one of the officers laid a heavy hand on Sano’s shoulder and commanded, “On your feet.” The other floor-bound participants had been asked if they were able to stand, but the police knew perfectly well who Zanza was and that he undoubtedly had no debilitating injuries. Sano had never been able to decide, in situations like these, whether such treatment was compliment or insult, but he didn’t much care. At the moment he just looked up placidly, ready to acquiesce.

A familiar voice from the other side of the room, however, disrupted that placidity completely: “Leave that one.”

Sano’s head whipped around toward the door and the officer in command of this raid or whatever it was. Not that he wouldn’t recognize that voice any time and anywhere, but his body didn’t quite obey his mental command not to make the unnecessary effort in looking. He decided, at least, to stay where he was, to forget entirely about getting up and going peacefully.

“Sir?” (It must, Sano reflected, take some guts for a normal cop to question Saitou’s orders, even with a single, polite syllable.)

“Leave him to me,” Saitou said, unmoved and unmoving.

“Sir, this is–” (Guy must be new.)

“I know who he is,” interrupted Saitou. “Just get the rest of them out of here.”

“Yes, sir.”

So Sano was allowed to continue sitting on the floor in perfect tranquility — except for the thought of what Saitou might do to him once the others were gone — while the police hurried around him removing all the rest of the brawlers. More than half of the latter, Sano knew, would be given a dark eye and a talking-to and released immediately; only those with a history of this type of violence would be held for any length of time.

And he would certainly have been among those sleeping on a hard cell cot for the night if Saitou didn’t have something presumably worse planned for him. Briefly he toyed with the idea of trying to escape now the room was starting to clear out, but found he was actually somewhat morbidly curious about Saitou’s intentions. At the very least, it might turn into a fight that would be a hundred times more entertaining than the one that had brought the wolf here in the first place.

Except then Saitou would start going on about defense again, lecturing and making all sorts of points that hit even closer to home than his iron blows… Sano wasn’t sure if the fight was worth it. Saitou got under his skin like nobody else he’d ever met; was it really a good idea to sit here calmly waiting for that? Hell, Saitou might well be keeping him back just to lecture him and would then deliver him to the police station.

Why the hell did Saitou care about Sano’s ability to defend himself anyway? Like it had anything to do with him anymore. Or maybe this was what Saitou did when he got bored: pretended to be a regular policeman just so he could track Sano down — Sano specifically — and lecture him about defense. What a dumb hobby.

At a sound of finality in Saitou’s latest orders, Sano looked up and noticed the last of the other officers, towing a distraught bartender that wanted to remain behind and assess the damage, leaving the room. And as the door, half-broken from someone having been thrown against it at some point, screeched closed behind them, Saitou turned to face Sano. Languidly, tossing away a spent cigarette as he came, he moved across the mayhem-cluttered space to stand before him.

Sano didn’t allow Saitou the first word. “I know what you’re going to say, so just fucking don’t.”

“Oh, do you?”

“Yes,” Sano grumbled. “Get lost.”

“After specifically arranging privacy for this conversation,” wondered Saitou, still in that perfectly unperturbed tone, “do you really think I’m going to just ‘get lost?'”

Sano sighed slightly. “All right, fine, get it over with.”

“What is it you think I’m going to say?”

“You know and I know, so why bother?” Stubbornly Sano was staring at the floor between his knees, but he could hear the faint amusement growing in Saitou’s tone, and fancied he could picture the exact arrangement of the man’s mouth.

“Maybe I want to hear you say it.”

“Well, maybe I’m not going to give you the pleasure, asshole.” Sano’s tone, on the other hand, had become almost a snarl.

“Your ineptitude is no pleasure of mine.”

“Coulda fooled me…”

Nearly audible over the long silence that followed was a sort of countdown to the moment Sano gave in.

“Better defense or whatever wouldn’t have helped here anyway,” was his eventual surly mutter.

“Oh?” Saitou seemed only calmly pleased at having dragged it out of him, as if this were simply the natural progression of the conversation and nothing to be particularly enthusiastic about.

“This was just a brawl, not a real fight.”

“Ignoring that staggering lack of logic for the moment, you’re still missing the point.”

Sano looked up in vague curiosity to find Saitou staring down at him with a much more serious expression than he’d anticipated. Though quite aware he would probably regret it, he couldn’t resist: “What do you mean?”

“You didn’t enjoy this.” Saitou gestured to the pervasive destruction around them.

Climbing to his feet and avoiding the gaze of the far too perceptive officer, Sano finally responded, “No.”

“But I understand you started it. Care to explain?”

“Guy pissed me off.”

With a nod Saitou said, “That’s what I thought.”

“So?”

“So, when I say you need better defense, I don’t just mean in battle. You’re too reactive, too open to attack in every area. You allow yourself to be manipulated emotionally because you don’t guard yourself against it.”

Brushing fruitlessly at rumples in his clothing, Sano looked warily over at the other man. This wasn’t the usual lecture, and he didn’t quite see Saitou’s point, but wasn’t eager to say so.

“For example,” Saitou continued, taking two steps. “If I…” And unexpectedly — indeed, it was the last thing in all time and space Sano could have expected — he seized Sano’s jaw in a firm grip, yanked his face forward, bent down slightly, and kissed him hard.

It was as if lightning had struck.

The impossibly enjoyable physical sensation was nothing to the others that came rushing over and around Sano with incredible speed: the shock that kept him still and let Saitou wreak havoc on his mouth; the surprise at his own reactions and belated realizations; the thought of who and what Saitou was and how Sano really felt about that; the longing for Saitou to put his arms around him and not let go, to take him home, to keep him — it all swept up in an instant’s fraction, forming an impenetrably swift whirlwind of sudden comprehension and confusion and desire at whose center Sano was dazed and helpless.

But the most intense part of this rapid, unstoppable cavalcade, the most overwhelming and engrossing thought, was the relentlessly baffled and angry query, How did Saitou know? How did he know when I didn’t even know?

Sano stumbled back and nearly fell when Saitou let go. Everything still flurried through him at speeds that kept him from regaining anything like a sense of composure or balance, and he could do nothing more than stare, open-mouthed, at the other man.

The latter was smoothing out the collar of his jacket where Sano had unconsciously been clutching it. “Not only couldn’t you have stopped that if you’d wanted to,” he said, “but when you realize I only did it to make a point…” He left the statement eloquently unfinished as he stepped abruptly away.

There was a half moment of recognition, which Sano could perhaps have used to brace himself if he’d had the presence of mind, before it hit home. He was conscious of something twisting and perhaps snapping inside him, which was doubtless what caused the twisting change of expression on his face, and then…

As quickly as it had all come, it all vanished. And it left behind merely a sort of chilling vacuum that echoed vaguely of the previous hurricane. This didn’t exactly hurt, he thought abstractedly; it was more like the sensation a child might feel at the sudden removal of a promised treat they’d never anticipated and that had been in the first place a little incredible. He hadn’t even had time to get used to the idea, and now it was withdrawn. And in that remaining void — the eye of the storm? — he found his thoughts unusually clear and moving at a speed similar to that of his emotions just moments before.

Watching Sano’s writhing expression settle, Saitou evidently interpreted it to his satisfaction, for he smirked briefly, then turned and began walking away without so much as a goodbye. He was searching out a new cigarette, and lit it as his measured steps carried him toward the door.

Sano was surprised at the sound of his own voice as he said, “All right, I get it.” Yes, there was a hint of anger, a touch of hurt, but overall it was simply level and serious.

“Good,” Saitou replied without stopping.

“At least, I get the point you were trying to make just now. What I don’t get is why you bother.”

Pausing and turning again, Saitou regarded him, unreadable and wordless.

“You go to so much trouble trying to make sure I get things like that,” Sano continued when it was obvious Saitou didn’t intend to reply. “You track me down just to lecture me, you beat me up, you go out of your way to do all sorts of stupid shit to let me know what’s wrong with me and how you think I should be instead.” He felt somewhat detached — as if he knew this should, eventually would affect him emotionally, but for the moment was riding a current of pure logic to an unknown conclusion. “Why? What’s so important about this, Saitou? Why should it matter to you whether I stay the way I am or turn into whatever you want me to be?”

Finally Saitou spoke. “Who says it does matter?”

You do. Over and over and over again. Every time you show up somewhere and show me some ‘example’ of why the way I am doesn’t work. Obviously it bothers you. Why? Why do you care? Why is this important? I’m not getting in the way of someone you’re trying to send to Kyoto, or involved in some case of yours where you don’t want me to screw up, or even really connected with you in any way at all… so why do you want to change me so bad?”

Saitou said nothing, only looked at him with those inscrutable golden eyes, so Sano was left to ponder the answers to his own questions in silence. What seemed the obvious explanation and would have been his first guess had, with Saitou’s dismissal of a passionate kiss as solely ‘to make a point,’ been denied before the questions even arose… but that, Sano realized, was the exact and only explanation he wanted. He didn’t want some other bullshit excuse for why Saitou felt the need to prod him continually on his skill levels and way of life… though Saitou doubtless had one.

But he wouldn’t make more a fool of himself than he already had. However much he would like to believe Saitou’s concern was a sign of his personal interest in Sano, he couldn’t — not after the sight of the wolf’s cold, unmoved face after a kiss that had changed Sano’s world but had really been intended merely to prove how emotionally assailable he was. And yet what other explanation was there?

Saitou hadn’t said anything. Obviously he had no enlightenment to offer, so why was he still here? He’d made his goddamn point and more, so why didn’t he just go? Or did he plan on forcing Sano to give some admission of edification again? Irritation swelled in Sano at the thought, and he muttered rebelliously, “You’re so fucking sure you can do it, too…”

“You think so?”

“It makes sense, I guess. Arrogant bastard like you probably thinks he can change anything in the world. It explains your job and everything.”

“If I thought I could change anything I wanted to,” Saitou replied evenly, “would I be wasting my time on you?”

“I don’t know,” was Sano’s frustrated response. “You tell me.”

Saitou smirked.

The brief and inexplicable calm was over. Sano could feel the full force of his emotions returning, filling the void with throbbing, rushing pain, anger, and confusion that swiftly became a storm as rapidly churning as the last had been. “Listen to me, bastard,” he seethed, all his levelheadedness vanishing like the smoke of Saitou’s cigarette into the air. “I’ve worked really fucking hard not to be the kind of person I was turning into because of the shit I went through as a kid and growing up. I finally figured out what I do want to be, and there is no way in fucking hell you are going to change that; you are not going to change me, so you might as well just give up now.”

“So you think you have no room for improvement?” Eyes flashing, Saitou took a step away from the door, toward Sano again. Evidently the younger man’s words had provoked him, but he also looked distinctly surprised. Honestly, Sano was distinctly surprised he’d let slip something so personal.

“I didn’t say anything like that,” Sano snapped, a burning urge (born partially of chagrin) to be yelling right in Saitou’s face pushing him a step forward as well. “But why the hell do you think it’s your business to point that out in the first place?”

“You keep asking me that,” replied Saitou darkly. “Why don’t you figure it out?”

“You think I haven’t?” Sano growled. “You think I asked because I don’t already know?” And then, despite every screaming warning from his better judgment, he really did say it. “You want me, but since I’m not your type and you’re too much of a bastard just to get over it, you’re trying to change me into whatever the hell is your type so you can justify to yourself being interested!”

As he waited for the crushing riposte, the reminder that the kiss hadn’t meant anything he wanted it to, the assertion that being pathetic and desperate didn’t excuse jumping to conclusions, he noticed they were within a pace of each other now, their demeanors combative and tense. Perhaps he only observed this because he refused ot meet Saitou’s eyes. Moments dragged by more and more heavily, and he became increasingly disbelieving he’d actually said all of that. Or any of it.

Finally the blow fell.

“You’re right.”

Another few moments dragged by while Sano wrestled with an entirely different disbelief before he managed to look up into Saitou’s serious and still slightly annoyed face. And he found that the rushing was back, this time removing his latest turmoil and replacing it with another confusing set of thoughts and emotions. He was apprehensive, he was skeptical, he was perplexed, he was hopeful…

“What did you just say?” he managed at last.

“I said you’re right,” Saitou replied bluntly, speaking those unspeakable words again. “You’re on the right track, at least, which for you is close enough: I can’t justify being only statically interested in potential like yours.”

Sano stared at him, the new vortex in his head and chest whirling at even faster rates and, he thought, making his heart pound and his body heat up unnaturally. Because when Saitou put it like that, it almost seemed… flattering. Still… “If my ‘potential’ is the only thing you’re interested in, you can just fuck off.” It came out hoarsely, angrily, and yet somehow invitingly. Or at least Saitou seemed to think so, for, yet with the air of one grudgingly giving in to something he’s long known to be inevitable, he closed the distance between them for the second time during that encounter and pulled Sano into another harsh kiss. And this time arms clutched tightly and forms pressed together and didn’t separate even when their swollen lips did.

“And if you tell me that was just to prove a point,” Sano gasped, “I swear I will smash your fucking head.”

“Though I doubt you’re capable of it, no, it wasn’t.”

“The other one wasn’t either, was it?”

“Yes, it was.”

The furious tension between them, augmented by close proximity, had become pricklingly tangible. It wasn’t sexual (though Sano had a feeling it could be used in much the same way); rather, it more closely resembled anger, building up like electricity at their contact. Typical.

“But there were other ways you coulda made that point,” he persisted; “it didn’t have to be a kiss.”

“Maybe I wanted to see how it would change things.” It was so irritating when Saitou started statements about his own damn motivations with ‘maybe,’ as it always gave Sano a feeling of being toyed with. In this situation, however, the rest of the sentence was more gripping.

“You and your changing things,” he grumbled.

“It’s not going to stop, you realize.”

“Yeah, I think I get that now.” Sano didn’t bother expressing the growing impression, directly in contrast to what he’d thought all along, that Saitou’s desire to improve him was actually somewhat complimentary now he felt Saitou didn’t entirely disapprove of him. “But you realize changing me is way more than you can handle?”

“Or maybe you’re in over your head trying to prevent it,” Saitou snorted.

Or we’re just going to drive each other fucking crazy and when they find our bodies they’ll have to pry our cold dead hands off each other’s throats.”

“I’ve never considered that unlikely,” replied Saitou as he released him. Their separation was like that of two objects charged with static: although the field of violent energy surrounding Sano’s body did technically feel less fierce, there seemed to be a sort of crackling around them both, most chaotic where they were closest, invisible sparks of continued strain.

“How did you know, anyway?” It was embarrassing to admit, but he was painfully curious. “I had no idea until…”

With a raised brow Saitou replied, “You really don’t realize how easy you are to read, do you?” Sano flushed, but before he could retort Saitou went on. “It’s very tempting to tell you this was all just an extension of my original point, and see how you take it.”

Open-mouthed, Sano stared at him. The wolf was lighting yet another cigarette, replacing the one he’d dropped for the second kiss. “You wouldn’t,” Sano said in a low tone that would have been deadly if it were at all possible for Saitou to feel threatened by him.

“Not to you, no,” Saitou agreed.

“What does that mean? You’d do it to someone else?”

“Let’s go. I’m sure the bartender is more than anxious to get back in here and see how much of his property you’ve destroyed.” And Saitou headed again for the exit.

Sano hastened after him, annoyed. “No, seriously, what do you mean ‘not to me?’ You better not mean you go around doing this kind of bullshit all the time — setting people up like you’re interested in starting something and then tell them it was all a fucking act?! Saitou!!”

The expression that turned toward Sano’s passionate demand was sardonically amused. “Vulnerable,” was all Saitou said, in a tone both of irritation and reminder.

“Hey, fuck you,” Sano growled. “I really wanna know.”

“At least having you around more often should make beating you into shape a little easier,” Saitou smirked darkly as he gestured Sano to precede him through the open way.

“I already told you…”

Their voices faded as the door screeched shut.


This was done for 30_kisses theme #17 “kHz.” I’ve rated it .

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