He Can Be Taught

He Can Be Taught

Section 1

A serious dreariness had been creeping over Sagara Sanosuke of late, and had proven extremely difficult to talk himself out of or even shake by more vigorous methods. He shouldn’t be so melancholy, now Shishio was defeated and so-called peace had returned to the country, now they were finally going back to Tokyo to see all their friends and settle down again. Really, with as well as things had turned out, especially contrary to many of their expectations, Sano should have been quite happy, perhaps extremely happy. Placidly happy, at the very least. But he couldn’t even manage to be moderately satisfied.

He tried to believe his depression was based in a right hand that would probably be messed up for the rest of his life. He experimented with the concept of disappointment that he’d never get his rematch against Saitou in order to prove himself to the skinny bastard. He even played with the theory that he was annoyed with Chou for beating him home and presumably waiting there rubbing his hands together in evil anticipation of aggravating Sano farther as part of the Tokyo police force. But not one of these was the true cause of Sano’s dejected state.

The fact was that he loved Kenshin, and couldn’t have him.

Those gorgeous violet eyes, their expression veiled partially by the charming ragged bangs that fell carelessly across them and more completely by the mysterious yet not unfriendly reserve that was one of Kenshin’s most engaging features, were enough to melt Sano with a single glance. He longed to seize that compact form, bury his hands in that luscious mass of hair, and envelope Kenshin’s strong lips with his own. What would follow he tried not to imagine, at least in public, since it seemed injudicious to be getting aroused any old time, but even in the presence of others his fancy ran free with tamer thoughts of holding Kenshin in his arms, kissing him, watching the sun set…

And then Kaoru would open her damn mouth and shatter all his dreams. And Sano would have to face the truth: Kenshin would never be his.

So life wasn’t as beautiful for him as it seemed for all of his companions, particularly the one whose apparent confidence in the return of her affections was actively tearing down any hope Sano might have in the return of his. The only solace he’d found thus far had been in drinking himself silly at the numerous victory parties Misao and the rest of them (well, mostly just Misao) had insisted on holding at the Aoiya. For this excess nobody seemed to blame him; they all assumed he did it out of relief rather than misery.

The situation would not gall quite so much, he thought as he watched Kenshin and Kaoru walk in front of him hand in hand on their way to the train station, if his object of affection were to act as hopelessly trapped as Sano believed (or wished he could believe) he was. He couldn’t be unconscious of the irony in the thought that a show of discontentment from Kenshin would make Sano feel less discontented, but he didn’t spend long dwelling on it. The point was that Kenshin gave every indication — every indication such a constrained character as his could give, anyway — of actually being very fond of Kaoru.

Sano couldn’t quite comprehend this. He loved her, of course, but that stemmed merely from being around her all the time; you just came to love people like that, as long as they weren’t too annoying (like Saitou). But a closer look at Kaoru revealed very little that could induce someone to spend a lifetime with her. She was pretty, yeah, but nothing out of the ordinary. She didn’t have any real talents besides kenjutsu, which made her a bit brutish anyway. Certainly she wasn’t a good cook. What did Kenshin see in her?

“Are you listening to me?” Yahiko demanded from his side.

Sano realized that, during the last few minutes he’d spent staring engrossedly at the couple in front of them, he hadn’t heard a word his young companion had said. So he replied bluntly, “No. It’s not like you’re saying anything worth listening to.”

Yahiko bristled. “Dammit, Sano, it’s a funny story!”

“Yeah, yeah, you better start over,” Sano replied, giving a final glance to his desire and his rival, then settling in for whatever Yahiko was babbling about. “I’ll try to pay attention this time.”

“So I was saying–” Yahiko now looked and sounded annoyed– “how Okon and Omasu decided at the same time they wanted Hiko-sama, and when they found out they both wanted him and realized only one of them could have him — though I think he probably would have taken them both if they’d asked — they each decided they were going to outdo the other and get his attention. So Omasu was planning to make him this amazing meal…”

This time when Sano stopped listening, it wasn’t because Yahiko’s words weren’t interesting, but because they were so interesting that they’d struck him like lightning, and he’d become deafened to anything else by an entire unrelated world of thunderous thought. ‘Outdo the other and get his attention,’ had he said? Why the hell hadn’t he thought of it before?

Sano was very good-looking. This strong internal conviction was born not of vanity, but of the experience of many years spent in colorful venues where whistling at and even casually propositioning a passing bishounen wasn’t considered inappropriate behavior for denizens of either sex. And he had talents. At least he thought he did. More than that obnoxious girl, anyway — specifically, some she pointedly lacked.

He grinned widely. Kamiya Kaoru, you’d better watch yourself, he reflected. Zanza has just entered the game.

Yahiko, misinterpreting the grin, went off on a tangent in his story.

But how to go about it? Unlike Hiko, Kenshin probably wouldn’t take them both if they asked, and one thing Kaoru had that Sano definitely lacked was the former Battousai’s attention and a good head start. Sano would have to do something flashy just to get Kenshin to begin noticing him and the qualities that set him above Kaoru, and that something couldn’t be merely show; he would really have to impress him.

Considering all the things he’d ever seen impress Kenshin in the past, he determined that, in his case, the first thing to do was to learn to defend himself properly. This would mean swallowing his pride, actively amending his fighting style, and engaging in some real training with someone, none of which struck him as even a little bit fun — but would certainly be worth it to attain his end. A display of such personal improvement would not only grab Kenshin’s eye, get him thinking about Sano in a very serious light, it would prove that Sano was a responsible adult worthy of affection, that Sano was willing to change for the better for the man he loved. Where he would find someone to train him was a mystery at this point, since it would ruin the surprise and send entirely the wrong message if he asked Kenshin himself, but he would deal with that concern later.

And eventually, obviously, he would have to seduce him. Of course that would come only after he’d gotten his attention, gotten him thinking about all of Sano’s multiform, scintillating points of attraction and contrasting them with Kaoru’s deficiency, but it would be a crucial sort of capstone to Sano’s efforts. To prove he was more desirable than Kaoru meant showing Kenshin he was superb in bed, whereas she would probably alternate between demanding and demure and have any idea what she was doing in neither state.

The only problem here was that Sano, pickier and more circumspect about romance than anyone might have thought to find him, had never slept with anyone, woman or man. Though the solution to this problem too was a concern to be dealt with later — much later, since it was a secondary stage in his plan at earliest — he still found himself laughing a little as he wondered how, exactly, he could assert his superiority in an area where had no experience.

Yahiko laughed along with him, and continued talking, unheard, all the way to the train station.

***

“No, no, no, no, no, no.” The first ‘no’ held the kind of genuine, straightforward annoyance Sano could relate to, but by the sixth, the statement had degenerated into a sneer for which he had much less patience. “Are you completely deaf? You can’t tense up like that.”

Sano ground his teeth against a counterproductive snarling reply. During this training session — which had lasted, so far, all of twenty-five minutes — Arakaki had insulted Sano’s powers of sight, hearing, and comprehension several times; but honestly what bothered Sano most was the supercilious tone and the use of labels like ‘thug’ and references to ‘the streets’ that (while not necessarily inaccurate) made it clear how far above his pupil Arakaki considered himself. If there was one thing Sano hated more than (well, perhaps on a similar level to) the Meiji government, it was people that tried to perpetuate the old class system whose abolition or at least partial breakdown was one of the few decent things the revolution had accomplished.

Genji had sworn up and down that Arakaki’s training worked absolute miracles, but Sano had yet to feel particularly inspired by it. It wasn’t just the classism; it was the nasality of Arakaki’s tone on a purely aural basis, as well as the fact that he had yet even to touch the sword he wore so boldly at his hip. He’d talked and talked, harping on Sano’s stance and breathing patterns and the arrangement of fingers in his fists (for fuck’s sake), and become more and more offensive while doing so.

Yet this was the first step in Sano’s plan to impress Kenshin. That Arakaki was the best he’d been able to come up with in his quest to learn better defensive techniques was not terribly promising, but he couldn’t quit so soon after starting just because the man was incredibly irritating and not actually very educational so far. Wasn’t part of the point of all of this to demonstrate he was a responsible adult capable of deliberate improvement? He would just have to try harder.

Unfortunately, his annoyance had caused him to tense up even farther. Observing this, Arakaki leaned back and crossed his arms, foot tapping impatiently, with an exaggerated sigh. “Are you sure you’re up to this?” he wondered aloofly.

“I’m paying you good money,” was Sano’s surly reply. “Just get on with it.”

“You’re paying me borrowed money, I believe. I could just as easily find someone to work with who’ll pay me out of his own pocket, if this is all a little beyond you.”

At this, Sano felt his resolve to put up with this asshole dissolving. He could do better than this. Surely there was some option that wouldn’t make him want to pull his hair out — or perhaps pull Arakaki’s hair out in big, painful, bloody clumps. The only salvage he thought he could make of this scene was to get at least some of his borrowed money’s worth out of Arakaki by forcing him into a fight that might be interesting even if it wasn’t particularly edifying. So, as he growled, “Like hell you can!” he hurled himself at the other man.

But somewhat to his surprise and even dismay, Arakaki’s expression went from startlement at Sano’s sudden move to blankness as Sano’s fist connected solidly with his cheekbone. Without ever a twitch toward his weapon, Arakaki went down.

In some bemusement, not quite grasping what had just happened or what to do with the energy he’d built up for combat that now obviously wasn’t going to take place, Sano stood over the fallen form, staring. A thunderous scowl grew on his face as the truth dawned on him, and curses presently began pouring from his mouth. More in belated response to Arakaki’s sneering than anything else, Sano kicked his fallen ‘mentor’ a couple of times, then searched through the man’s pockets until he found the money that had been meant to pay for this and future lessons. Finally he stalked away to look for Genji, intending to give him a good backhand for hooking him up with a defense trainer that was all talk.

Halfway across town, however, and upon further reflection, his anger at his friend had cooled. He hadn’t actually specified that he was looking for someone more skilled than himself, someone that could easily defeat him. That would have been a difficult requirement to meet in any case. And even if Genji should really have known that book-learning and teaching thereby didn’t mean shit to Sano, such methods probably meant something to someone. All that nasal absurdity about stance and breathing and proper arrangement of fingers surely had its place, and Genji shouldn’t be blamed if he thought that place might be in a training session with Sano.

But Genji also didn’t know how much of Sano’s heart was wrapped up in this, how much of Sano’s future happiness depended on his following through with his plan. What to do now?

He thought back through the major conflicts he’d taken part in, listing one by one the people that had managed to defeat him during his adult life as a warrior: Kenshin, Aoshi, Saitou, Shishio… it was not an extensive list, and even less so in the possibilities it presented for a new defense tutor. Kenshin was, self-evidently, unfeasible. Shishio and Saitou were dead. Which left only Aoshi. Which meant going back to Kyoto, damn it all.

As if subconsciously seeking an excuse not to return to a place he associated with very few pleasant memories and that was, additionally, two hundred and fifty miles away, he found his mental vision filled with Aoshi’s frigidity of glance and strange gaunt figure, his mental hearing with the Okashira’s hushed, almost eerie voice. That man gave him the utmost creeps, and how likely was he to want to help Sano anyway? During the weeks between the defeat of Shishio and the Kenshingumi’s return to Tokyo, Aoshi’s attitude had struck Sano not so much with penitence toward Kenshin as something much more… covetous. It could have been his imagination, but he wouldn’t be surprised to find that Aoshi thought of Kenshin very much as Sano did.

Not Aoshi, then.

Sano’s thoughts kept returning to Saitou. If only that bastard hadn’t been fried to a crisp and presumably flattened like an okonomiyaki back in Shishio’s fortress, he would be absolutely ideal. Sano wasn’t quite sure where this concept of Saitou’s perfection for the job came from, but figured it had something to with the officer’s casual willingness to beat him up. Why the fuck hadn’t Saitou done something back there? He’d never seemed the type to give in, but he’d just lit a cigarette and walked straight to Hell; it had practically been deliberate suicide. Of course there wasn’t much chance he could have jumped that damn chasm, but he could at least have made the attempt…

On the spur of an annoyed and bitter moment in the midst of these thoughts, Sano decided just to go get drunk with the money Genji had loaned him for defense tuition. Maybe if he found a crowded bar full of toughs as volatile as himself, he could start a brawl that might teach him a thing or two. But even as he turned his feet toward the best area of town for this activity (which he knew well from long experience), he was rolling his eyes at the recollection of fight after fight with large groups of men that hadn’t taught him anything but arrogance.

The plausibility of the ideas he came up with as he drank lessened with each degree of sobriety that slipped from him. There was Heihachiro-sensei, who’d always been a friend to Sano even if he was a bit washed up… Hiko Seijuurou, an ass Sano didn’t particularly ever want to see again… that Shigure guy that had caused so much trouble right after they’d come back from Kyoto and was, of course, dead… For one silly drunken moment, Sano even seriously considered tracking down that psychotic Soujirou kid, who’d definitely known how to fight like a fucking badass even if he was completely out of his mind… but finding him would be even more trouble than going back to Kyoto and trying to convince an equally out-of-his-mind Aoshi that Kenshin was better off with Sano than with a depressed necrophiliac that had twice tried to kill him.

Sano demanded more sake of the bar staff by the time-honored method of slamming down his current empty jug so hard it cracked. If only fucking Saitou were alive! Sano’s anger at the absent police officer seemed to increase alongside, but separate from, his anger at the situation in general. What was he going to do? Only a little way into his plan and he was already at an impasse! An impasse he would never have hit if Saitou were just around, damn him!

Nobody had brought him any more sake, but it didn’t matter; he seized a jug from the tray of someone passing nearby, who was too afraid of him in his current state to protest. The room suddenly felt dim and stuffy, much too small to house his mood that expanded like a roiling stormcloud. He seemed to have grown huge, bloated with anger, and as he stood he felt like he was dwarfing the other customers as well as the staff–

–when in actuality he was reeling, falling back to his seat and almost losing hold of his latest provision of drink as he tried to catch himself. Damn. He pushed up again heavily with his free hand against the table, took another gulp for increased steadiness, and, once he’d gotten his legs, staggered toward the exit. A red haze floated around him and supported him to a certain extent; it was, he thought, the buoyant energy of his hatred for everything in the world except Kenshin — maybe even Kenshin, who’d dared to capture his heart without his permission and put him into this irate quandary. Damn that peace-loving redhead!

Sano’s shoulder hit the doorframe with his ill-aimed attempt at departure, and this distracted him from his rage long enough to hear the proprietor’s voice– “Sir, your bill…?”

Yes, he should probably pay, since he had money for once. He’d forgotten why he had money, but there was no reason to drag others down into his miserable state when he did have the means to interact properly. Fumbling in his pocket, he extracted what he had and dropped it somewhere before staggering out the door.

An intense desire was building inside him much more potently than the distant awareness that this upright posture was pushing his alcohol-saturated blood throughout his body in such a way that he wasn’t likely to remain upright all that much longer. There was something he specifically wanted to do… what was it… fight someone? Yeah, that was it. His aching fist was pleading for a skull, and as he swallowed more sake he could have sworn that the jug was speaking its concurrence with each glug.

But it wasn’t just anyone he wanted to fight… not Kenshin or Gohei or Anji — these were the names that came blearily to mind, only to be dismissed by a rakish wave of hand in the dark street. There was someone he specifically wanted to fight, someone he desperately wanted to give a good thrashing. Someone whose fault it was that he was so miserable tonight.

In the shadows ahead, beside an object his increasingly wavering vision eventually recognized as a wall, he thought he saw him: tall, slim, clad in dark blue and black, nihontou worn high at his side, the man he so intensely sought. Smoke curled hazily from somewhere beneath two gleaming gold spots; yeah, that was the bastard. He grinned — at least he thought he grinned; some of his muscles either weren’t responding to his brain or just weren’t reporting what they were up to — and stumbled forward, hands clenching into fists.

His charge gained momentum, but even as he heaved his weight into a solid punch to the head that would fucking show him, that would pay him back for going off and dying and leaving Sano in a dilemma like this, he felt his eyelids falling inexorably closed and an irresistible leadenness overtaking his entire frame. Too late, too late. Too much sake, too angry, too stupid, too late. As he crumpled, he cursed himself: Of course Saitou’s not there, ahou; he’s… But even as he mentally formed Saitou’s pet name for him, everything went black.

And the tall figure that had sidestepped his punch leaned casually, quickly, and caught him with one arm before he hit the ground. The other hand flicked away the butt of a cigarette, then smoothed out, as if to see it better, the rumpled kanji covering the limp back. A faint, monosyllabic laugh came from the darkness beneath the golden gleams. “Ahou ga.”

***

As Sano awoke to a splitting headache fueled by the rush of light into his suddenly opened eyes, he tried to remember where he was, why he was wherever that was, and whether anything had happened last night that he might need to answer for. Memory came trickling back, and he groaned. Imagine attacking a wall thinking it was Saitou! To have believed even briefly that Saitou was somehow alive and just happened to be not only in Tokyo but on the very street that held the bar where Sano had been drinking, Sano must have had more to drink in that bar than he’d realized — a theory that, as he blinked slowly and experimentally once or twice, was fully sustained by the flare of nauseating pain in his head.

Though well aware that he might be happier in ignorance, he turned sluggishly to see if he couldn’t figure out where he was. There had been instances in the past when this fact had remained a mystery for some time after his awakening, and in those cases his inability to recognize his surroundings had presented a source of interest that could at least distract from even if it didn’t override the discomfort of the hangover. Unfortunately, this small bare chamber separated from the hallway beyond by thick bars provided no such interest. The knowledge that he’d been incarcerated, rather than distracting him, could only add to his current feelings of general wretchedness. After he got out of here, he was going to need another drink.

“Yo, tori-atama!”

Fucking shit… he was definitely going to need another drink.

“The hell d’you want?” he demanded, directing his face toward the ceiling again and reclosing his eyes.

“Just thought you might wanna know why you’re in here, is all.” Chou leaned casually against the bars, grinning as he peered inside at Sano with one eye.

A lamp mounted on the wall across the hallway was placed so as to shine as fully as possible into the cell for optimal inmate visibility; Sano knew from experience how many of these lined the corridor, and that the cops only lit each one when its corresponding cell was occupied. At the moment, though Sano certainly wasn’t about to point it out, Chou stood precisely in the right spot to block the light from falling onto this inmate’s sensitive eyelids — a circumstance that made an unusual love-hate relationship out of one generally a good deal more straightforward.

“Like it’s never happened before,” he finally muttered in reply to Chou’s flippant comment.

“What,” the broomhead wondered, “you attacking a police officer in the middle of the night?”

Sano sat bolt upright, his heart suddenly, inexplicably pounding, eyes wide despite the stabbing discomfort. “At-t-tacking a policeofficer?”

Squint momentarily not so tight, Chou stared at him in bemusement. “Yeah… officer patrolling over in Akasaka says you came out of a bar drunk as a fucking dog and tried to attack him for no reason, but–” chuckling derisively– “you passed out before you could even get in one single hit.”

Fucking hell. Sano lay back down on the hard bench, closing his eyes yet again and breathing deeply despite how rancid the air currently tasted and smelled thanks to whatever had gone on inside his mouth and nasal passages while he’d been unconscious.

Now the story was told, lack of detail notwithstanding, Sano felt foolish and more than a bit confused at his own reaction to Chou’s original statement. He wouldn’t even try to pretend he hadn’t taken those words as an immediate confirmation that it had actually been Saitou, and he wondered both where he’d gotten such a foolish notion as well as why that foolish notion had so roused him. Obviously he would have liked to think Saitou might be available to train him in defense so he could impress Kenshin… but why had he seemed, to himself and possibly to Chou, just plain excited at the thought of Saitou alive?

“Whatever,” he said, trying to sound casual.

“‘Whatever’ won’t get you out of this, ahou,” Chou laughed.

Sano sat up again, as if hearing himself called ‘ahou’ in an unaccustomed voice pricked him more than it ever had when Saitou had said it. “Don’t call me that.”

Chou shrugged, still laughing. “Whatever you say, bakayarou. You know, I had no idea you were so fucking famous around here! Seems like the whole force knows who you are, and nobody was even a tiny bit surprised when you got dragged in last night.”

Sano just grunted.

“That’s good, though, ’cause you ain’t getting out of here for free this time.” The broomhead grinned broadly. “So it’s a good thing this is like your second home, huh?”

On the extremely uncomfortable bench, Sano turned toward the wall, putting his back decidedly to Chou. The latter, at this futile gesture of denial, walked off with another laugh.

Once he determined Chou had really gone — gone, undoubtedly, to annoy someone else, though leaving behind a sinking feeling that this hadn’t been his last appearance down here — Sano gave a sigh, rolled onto his back again, put his hands behind his head, and crossed one leg over the other. This position put his closed eyelids into the direct path of the light Chou no longer blocked, but he had to get used to it sooner or later. And he felt he might be able to go back to sleep if he lay still enough. As he drifted in and out of a hangover-hazed doze, he imagined…

“Yes, Sano, I love you. Of course I love you.” Kiss, kiss. “I was immediately interested when we first met at the Akabeko, and by the time we first fought, I was in love. Maybe I did not know it then, but I was. It broke my heart when you and Katsu were planning on bombing that government building. I thought it was simply because you were my friend, but the truth is… I already loved you then. As I do now… as I always will…” Kiss, kiss, kiss. “And when I was unconscious in Shishio’s fortress, it was the memory of you that brought me back from the brink of death… yes, you were the one that saved me then. I love you, Sano.”

“I love you too, Kenshin.”

“Ah, Sano! Now make love to me like the violent animal you are.”

“All right, Kenshin!”

Eventually Sano turned his back again to the barred doorway so as to imagine the next part more freely…

…for a week.

By the seventh day, he’d been through this imaginary process more times than he could count, and, though he didn’t scruple to attach the label ‘masterpiece’ to some of his mental compositions and the brilliant concurrence of physical sensation he was able to orchestrate as he came up with them, he was just about ready to throttle someone. Why the hell was he still here?? Why hadn’t one single person he knew shown up at least to ask what it would take to get him out of jail if not immediately volunteer the required money? Every hour he was forced to stagnate here was one hour more Kaoru had to get a tighter squeeze on Kenshin’s heart and one hour less Sano had to work on his plans for conquest. Where was everyone?!

He supposed he should consider himself lucky that, after public drunkenness leading to unwarranted aggression against a police officer, he should be facing merely detainment until a fine could be paid; and admittedly there was more surety of a daily meal here (however unappetizing and undernourishing) than at home… but it would take circumstances immeasurably more desirable than these to make up for the lack of attention from his friends and the presence of attention from goddamn Chou. Sano was almost to the point where if getting out required fucking up his damaged hand even farther in breaking the bars, so the hell be it.

And then one day they let him go. Half asleep, as wasn’t infrequently the case where he had no other pastime, he was dreaming about Kenshin in a manner he wouldn’t have dared had he been crashing at the dojo (even his subconscious having a very healthy fear of discovery in that area), when the sound of Chou’s impudent voice and the rattling of the bars burst through the beautiful images in Sano’s head like a runaway horse crashing through a silk merchant’s stall: bright fragments scattered abruptly in every direction, fluttering into obscurity.

Starting, jumping up with clenched fists, Sano didn’t concern himself with the disorientation of awakening, only growled out an incoherent oath as he looked around murderously for whoever had interrupted him and Kenshin. But Kenshin wasn’t there. Sano was still in jail. And being bothered by Chou for the eight millionth time.

Now what the hell do you–” But as full wakefulness snapped into place and Sano became conscious of sights other than the gallingly bright clothes and hair of his personal plague, he realized Chou had unlocked and opened the door and was standing aside watching Sano with a faint, contemplative grin. “It’s about fucking time!” Sano roared, not hesitating to stalk out of the cell and direct his anger at Chou in order to work off the worst of it. “If I never have to see your stupid face again, it’ll be too fucking soon.”

Then he turned to loose what he considered a very appropriate remaining amount of wrath on whoever had only bothered to show up to get him out of jail after seven goddamn days, but he found the hallway empty except for the customary officers assigned to watch the prisoners. These men, possibly aware that they might fall next on Sano’s list of potential objects for his rage if they weren’t careful, or possibly just in an attempt to keep straight faces, affected the stoniest and most oblivious guard-stare directly before them that Sano had ever seen.

With a scowl he whirled to face Chou again. “How the hell am I out?”

Chou shrugged, his grin widening. It was an expression he’d worn on and off all week during his absolutely pointless visits; maddeningly, it declared without words that Sano was being mocked for some reason he did not comprehend. “Fine’s paid,” he said in a deceptively mild tone.

“By who?”

Again Chou shrugged. “Someone who’s sick of watching you lay there jacking off all day, I guess.”

Momentarily thrown off-balance and losing track of his anger, Sano fought a violent blush. Was that just a careless figure of speech, or did Chou or someone else actually know what Sano had been doing all week?

One side of Chou’s crooked grin pulled up even farther as he moved to close the cell door, and Sano didn’t know what this meant. In any case, it wasn’t a topic he wanted to dwell on, so as soon as he had control of his voice again he demanded, “But who?” Who would pay his fine but not stick around to tell him they’d done it?

The glimpse of Chou’s expression Sano caught when the broomhead turned back toward the hallway’s exit past the stone-faced guards proved that the mockery hadn’t faded. “I guess you do have a friend somewhere after all, eh?”

“No, seriously,” Sano insisted as he followed, “if you know who it was, fucking tell me!”

But Chou, continually with that stupid teasing grin on his stupid face, refused to answer — and he was (somewhat surprisingly, actually) slick enough in dodging the question that Sano wasn’t sure whether it was a proper refusal or a real lack of information. And since he likewise couldn’t be sure whether or not Chou knew some of the specifics of Sano’s idle pastimes over the last week, and honestly would rather not be sure, he felt it was dangerous to continue prying. Besides that, the cops were all staring at and whispering about him in the rooms of the station through which he dogged Chou’s footsteps, and he had other business elsewhere anyway. So eventually he left.

***

All the way through town away from the main police station, across the river into Asakusa, and up the hill to the Kamiya Dojo, someone followed Sano. It was unmistakable, even from the distance necessary to maintain secrecy, that Sano was filthy from an unwashed week in prison, and this in combination with his loud grumbling to himself and his murderous gait served both to ward off others and to inhibit Sano’s ability to notice his tail. And the chances were infinitesimal that anyone else would notice the two of them and come to the conclusion that one was following the other.

Outside the main doors, which Sano had already flung (and left) open in order to stalk inside, the follower paused. It took a few moments to determine that, with Sano crossing the dojo grounds in a direction unpropitious for entering any of the buildings, the entertainment to be had in spying on him was not yet at an end. So the follower moved around the perimeter to locate a tree that would allow good visibility over the wall into the yard, and arrived at that height just in time to observe Sano heading purposefully for a red-headed figure busy with a couple of tubs of water and a basket of washables.

“Good morning, Sano,” Himura said, in a friendly enough tone but without looking around. Whether he could sense the watcher in the tree as well as the approaching young man was neither evident nor terribly important; possibly the purely idle curiosity of one was completely masked by the distinctly combative aura of the other. In any case, Himura finished hanging up the latest garment extracted from the second tub, and began to turn to greet Sano properly. “You’ve been–” But here, as he ducked in a movement so reflexive, apparently, that his surprise at the blow he dodged was synonymous with his surprise at his own motion, his feet twisted in the muddy results of the current chore, and he ended up putting one hand and one knee down into the stuff in order to keep from falling.

Though Sano withdrew the fist that had struck out against Himura, he didn’t unclench it, as if still contemplating another try if the moment and his emotions seemed to call for it. As he watched Himura stand again and look ruefully down at the mud, he demanded, “What the fuck is the big idea? Leave me sitting in jail for a week like you don’t fucking care?”

The distress mingled with the anger on Sano’s face was easy for the hidden watcher to read, but Himura, being somewhat oblivious to emotion that didn’t pertain to combat, either missed it entirely or misinterpreted it. “Jail?” he echoed in a surprised squeal. He’d been about to plunge his hand into the soapy water, but paused with the dirty appendage poised comically just above the top of the tub as he looked at Sano with wide eyes.

“You didn’t notice.” The flat resignation of Sano’s tone barely cracked with the faintest touch of unhappiness.

“Why were you in jail?” Now Himura completed his intention of washing his hand — he had to get the other one involved as well — and then started rubbing ineffectually at his soiled knee.

Sano sighed. “You didn’t even know I was there.”

Without ceasing to rub, Himura looked Sano over more carefully than he’d yet done. “I see it now,” he said. “And smell it,” he added a bit reluctantly. “You have been in jail for a week?”

As Himura’s eyes rose to where they would have met Sano’s, the younger man looked away. “Oh, who fucking cares? I’m out now, no thanks to any of you guys.”

“Well, I apologize for neglecting you.” The sense that Himura was attempting to placate and humor Sano with this placid statement was, the watcher thought in some amusement, unlikely to do much good in this situation.

“Sanosuke!”

Sano’s cringe at the sound of Yahiko’s voice from across the yard was visible even from afar — but perhaps not visible to Himura, who’d turned back to his work. It was almost as clear as if Sano had said it aloud: he regretted making this visit at this time, in this mood, and had no desire to talk to Yahiko right now.

“Where have you been?” the kid wondered as he came running up.

“Jail,” was Sano’s grumpy reply. “And since none of my ‘friends’ bothered to notice I was gone for a week, I only just got out.”

“Wow, you must have done something really stupid,” laughed Yahiko, “if they actually kept you for a whole week… don’t they usually let drunks out once they’re sober?”

The glance Sano threw now at the house was as easy to read as his wince at Yahiko’s appearance: “Kaoru might show up any time, and I don’t want to be here when she does.” Though Sano called her ‘jou-chan,’ didn’t he? In any case, he answered briefly as if to facilitate the haste of his departure: “I attacked a police officer.”

This retrieved Himura’s attention. “Did you? Why?”

Sano toed the earth near where it turned to mud around the laundry project. It seemed he didn’t really want to answer, but, having been asked by the honesty-inducing rurouni, couldn’t help himself. “I was really drunk. Thought it was Saitou.”

With a sour expression and an emphatic nod, Yahiko said, “I don’t blame you, then.”

In some concern, Himura was looking Sano over again. Eventually, not having found any serious injuries, “But I suppose it was not actually Saitou,” he said.

“Um, no…” Sano gave his friend a strange look. “Unless it was his ghost. That would be just my fucking luck.”

For a moment Himura appeared confused, but then made a sound of understanding. “You didn’t know that he is still alive.”

Sano’s reaction — the abrupt stiffening of his body, the slow, convulsive reclenching of his hands into fists, the twisting snarl that took his features — would have made the whole evening after work watching him worth it, even if it hadn’t already been so entertaining. It was almost enough to prompt vocal laughter in the tree.

“You are fucking kidding me.” The young man had stepped back a pace, his complexion cycling through various shades, some more natural than others. “You cannot be fucking serious.”

Himura just gave him a mild look as if to ask, first, what could be prompting this extremity of emotion and, second, why Sano thought he might have invented something like that.

And Sano seemed to tremble from head to toe, his anger clearly having increased to an improbable and inexplicable degree from the not inconsiderable level it had been at when he’d entered. Slamming a fist wordlessly into a palm, he whirled and stalked away out of the dojo grounds.

***

If he’d been asked why he was so angry, Sano couldn’t have explained — possibly because his attitude made even less sense to him than it would have to anyone else. To find that Kenshin, far from feeling curiosity or concern about his whereabouts, had not even noticed his absence over the past week had hurt, and this emotion should, logically, dominate… but for some reason, rage against Saitou had swallowed up everything else he might have been feeling. Perhaps, having learned that the officer yet lived, he had subconsciously adopted Saitou as a better object than Kenshin against which to channel all the pent-up aggression of seven days in jail.

This explanation, the only that came to mind, didn’t quite seem sufficient to cover the circumstance. Though there was also the fact that it was practically Saitou’s fault Sano had gone to jail in the first place. At least, Sano enjoyed heaping the blame on an absent, irrelevant party with whom he’d clashed in the past rather than on a violent fool mooning over a guy he couldn’t have, spending borrowed money to drink himself irrational, then staggering into the street and attacking uninvolved strangers at random.

And at the moment, stalking haphazardly through town without any clear idea where he was going or what his next step must be, irate at most of the world again — particularly Saitou — he found himself about as unreasonably emotion-driven as he had been that drunken night when the trouble had started.

Saitou. That was the next step, wasn’t it? –find Saitou and get him to train Sano with some of that supposed superiority of his. Too bad Sano hadn’t questioned Kenshin farther, found out if he knew the officer’s current whereabouts, before he slammed the doors and raged off impetuously into town. Not much point having a plan of any sort if he was always too thoughtless to carry it out effectively. Would he ever learn? Maybe he should just go get drunk again and…

He stopped himself with a bitter laugh. No, it seemed he wouldn’t ever learn. What he actually needed next was a bath, a wash of clothes, probably some decent sleep on a soft surface for the first time in a week, and definitely a meal. Then, with all of that done, he could go look for Saitou. He had to be reasonable.

But he was still fuming, and more specific cogitation than the jumble of desires and provocations that had come out of his time in a cell led him to more specific annoyance at the cop. How could someone allow his allies to believe him dead and just go on with his life like everything was fine? Even worse, possibly, than letting all his allies believe him dead, tell only a select few of them he’d survived as if the rest weren’t worth informing? What a prick!

Sano’s reflections, their tone alternating between accusation against Saitou and pity for himself, went on much along these lines as he scrubbed and then soaked at the expense of the bath-house owner, whom he promised to pay back before the month was out though he was damned if he knew what with. Once up to his neck in hot water, having removed the dried sweat and grime of a week of… what he’d been doing in jail all week without bathing… once his knotted muscles loosened and the relaxing, soap-scented humidity started to have the same effect on his mind, he began gradually to calm.

Why, after all, should he be angry with Saitou? The guy was alive; that should make Sano happy. Not informing his allies he hadn’t died in Shishio’s fortress still seemed like something an asshole would do — nothing could change that — but his continued existence removed what had seemed a serious blockage from Sano’s path.

He started to plan.

“Hey, Saitou! Good to see you’re still alive after all even though I totally thought you were dead for a while. Kindof a long time, actually — it’s been, what, three months since Shishio’s fortress? Funny how you never bothered to let me know you were alive, though I notice you told Kenshin. Anyway, ever since you kicked my ass way back when, I’ve been thinking about what you said, and thinking maybe, since it was your idea in the first place, you could teach me to defend myself better?”

Wow, stupid. Just walk up to him and admit I was wrong, huh? And maybe I shouldn’t dwell so much on the not-being-dead thing.

“Hey, bastard, you owe me big for kicking my ass; why don’t you teach me better defense so you can’t do it again?”

That sounds a little bit better, but I think I have to at least mention the not-being-dead thing…

“Hey, wow, it’s Saitou totally not dead! When were you planning on telling me? Yeah, that’s right, you owe me! Uh-huh, yeah, I think you’ll have to train me in defense to make up for it!”

Hmm, almost there… but he owes me for way more than just that.

“Hey, Saitou, I need a favor. I need to learn better defense, and you seriously owe me for kicking my ass twice — once when I didn’t even ask for it! — and then insulting me all the way to Kyoto and then making it seem like you were dead when you actually weren’t. How about it?”

Yeah, that might work. No way could he have any argument against all that.

Having determined what points he would raise when he found Saitou, he set off to actually find him. This wasn’t likely to be as easy as saying it, since he had no idea where to start his search or even whether or not Tokyo was the most likely place. Saitou could still be working in Kyoto, for all Sano knew, or, really, anywhere else in the country, and where to look first was… Where to look first was the police station, of course.

“Damn,” he muttered. After what he’d just been through, the police station ranked extremely low on his list of places he would like to revisit, and on a list of people he was interested in encountering, Chou did not feature at all. Of course, a few hours had passed since he’d left, and Sano had noticed several of the officers leaving for the evening; Chou might not even be there…

Who do I think I’m kidding? Chou has as much of a life as I do; of course he’ll still be there. It took him only a moment to reassess that. More of a life, actually — he’s got a job. Indecisive and not terribly happy with his unexpected self-condemnation, he loitered aimlessly outside the bath-house, irritably putting off for as long as possible a trip back to the police station. Lengthy shadows stretched from the west, and the sun had shrunken to a sliver, by the time he overcame his reluctance and started off.

This would be easier if he could count on no one at the station recognizing him as a prisoner that had just been released earlier that day… but not only did most of the police know him far too well for that, he also owned only one outfit, and that not exactly tailored for subtlety. Maybe, though, he could just stand around outside in a shadow, waiting to jump Chou when he emerged and demand to be told where Saitou was. No wonder Chou joined up, Sano reflected as he walked. One bastard attracts the next, and soon they’re all together in one building wearing the same clothes.

In annoyance he kicked hard at a stone, then hopped into a mud puddle. Brown water splashed everywhere, including his pants all the way up to the knees. Though he’d bathed his person, his clothes hadn’t yet been washed, so what was a little more dirt? Perhaps if he provided Chou such an obvious target of mockery, he could avoid the more precisely irritating jibes against other aspects of his character.

And then a voice off to his left drawled, “Are you having difficulties walking, ahou, or is your aim as bad with stones and mud as it is with punches and kicks?”

Fists formed automatically. Sano’s body pivoted on a muddy point. Everything sensible he’d earlier planned on saying spiraled as abruptly from his mind as if a plug had been pulled from a disproportionately large drain. Only a messy growl emerged from his mouth as he hurled himself at the nearby calm, irritating shape in blue.

“Yare, yare.” Saitou easily sidestepped Sano’s blow. “Don’t forget what happened the last time you tried to attack me like this.”

Since Sano had completely failed to deliver his planned opening speech for whatever reason (if ‘reason’ was any accurate description of the apparent commandeering of his entire being by overwhelming and already not-completely-logical emotion), he had planned on saying nothing, at least until he could get a grip on himself. But now, unable to stop it, he blurted out, “That was you?”

“As observant as ever, I see.” A gloved hand smoothly caught Sano’s next blow, and the young man was slammed to the ground. Before he could rise, Saitou had pressed a foot to his chest and applied much of his weight, leaning on his knee and looking down. “And as skilled,” he added, blowing smoke into Sano’s face.

“And you’re an even bigger bastard than before,” snarled Sano as his struggle to free himself proved unsuccessful. The features above him were just as he remembered — just as harsh, as if they’d been chiseled by a skilled but maladjusted sculptor, just as infuriating — right down to the fine eyebrow that rose at Sano’s words.

“You think so? I’m being much gentler than the first time we met.”

“Fuck you, Saitou,” Sano spat, trying even harder to remove the foot that dirtied his chest and probably bruised it at the same time. “It was too much effort for you to let your allies know you were still alive?”

An expression of mild surprise crossed Saitou’s face as he continued to lean thoughtfully on his raised knee and smoke his cigarette. “And why should they care?”

Wondering exactly how to answer that, Sano paused. Because they need you to help them seduce each other, was his first thought, but Saitou might well believe him drunk again if he said it. “Did you ever think some people might be worried about you?”

“Again, why should they be?”

“Fuck it, you bastard, get the hell off me so I can talk to you like a normal person!” Sano lost patience, lost track of his points again, and started beating at Saitou’s leg with both fists, flailing his own legs at the same time to try to interfere with the officer’s balance.

The cigarette in Saitou’s hand was nearly spent, but its end glowed threateningly as he brought it close to Sano’s face. This stilled the young man and forced him to cease attacking the blue-clad leg holding him down as he switched his efforts to trying to keep the burning stub away from his skin. And as he did so, Saitou remarked, “Start behaving like a civilized person, and perhaps I will consider your request.”

“You’re holding me down in the fucking mud and trying to burn my fucking face with a fucking cigarette!” Sano swatted frantically at the latter as Saitou teased him as a child might a cat (though hopefully not with a burning cigarette). “How the fuck is that civilized?!”

Saitou appeared extremely entertained. “You attacked me for no reason. Again, I might add. I’m just defending myself. The burden of reopening civilized communication is yours at the moment.”

Having finally managed to knock the cigarette butt away and been about to start thrashing around again, Sano forced himself instead to lie still. Saitou, goddamn fucker, had a point. With several deep breaths, Sano pressed his hands flat to the ground. “Will – you – please – get – off – me,” he said between gritted teeth.

“That’s better.” Finally Saitou withdrew his foot and stood back. As if nothing had happened out of his ordinary routine, he produced his cigarettes and extracted a new one. The package, Sano noted, though paper and having been in Saitou’s pocket, was uncrushed and crisp-looking — much like Saitou himself, damn him.

By now on his feet, Sano brushed dirt awkwardly from his back as best he could. He supposed he deserved this, to some extent, for having muddied Kenshin earlier — though it would have been more appropriate for Kenshin, not Saitou, to exact that revenge. And he still needed to wash his clothes in any case.

“And what did you have to say?” Saitou inquired.

Sano knew he’d had good phrases planned, but, having by now forgotten them, just came clean. “I want you to teach me better defense.”

“Ahou ga.” Saitou gave a short laugh. “You practically live with the former hitokiri Battousai and you’re asking me…” But he stopped, looking Sano over with calculating eyes. “Sou ka?” he drawled at last, his mouth spreading into a wide smirk. He appeared to be reading Sano, putting together facts — and possibly, if the activity of thought in his expression was any indication, more facts than just Sano’s sudden blush at his words about practically living with Kenshin. “You want to learn better defense to impress Himura,” he summarized, “as your inevitable infatuation with him has finally developed.”

Sano couldn’t think of any response to this besides ‘Fuck you,’ which he’d already said enough this evening, so he just glared. This wasn’t going as planned.

Looking both thoughtful and as if he found all of this extremely amusing, Saitou turned and began walking down the street, skirting the mud puddle and holding his fresh cigarette at a thoughtful angle from his face. “You want me to teach you because… if you asked Himura, you would lose your element of surprise, you don’t trust Shinomori not to be after the same thing you are, and everyone else is either dead or inaccessible.” He glanced back as if questioning why Sano wasn’t following. “Am I right?”

“Yeah.” Sano’s tone was surly as he hurried to catch up.

“And that explains your anger that I didn’t inform you I was still alive.”

“That’s only part of it! We were all in it together — you, me, Kenshin; even Aoshi, once he got a clue; and there were other people who weren’t in the fortress with us but who were fighting too — we were all allies against Shishio together. Why would you just tell Kenshin you weren’t dead? You assumed none of us would care, sure, but you still told him…”

“I see one of your problems already.” Saitou’s sidelong amused smugness was extremely annoying. “Anyone looking at your little group might assume that telling Kenshin was the same as telling all of you, but apparently he doesn’t share with you nearly as much as an outsider would think… or as much as you would like.”

Sano blushed and scowled.

“And as a matter of fact, I didn’t tell him I was still alive. But he was bound to notice when I ran into him during that little uprising a month ago. His surprise was almost comical.”

“Oh.” Sano couldn’t exactly say he liked this piece of information, since Saitou was being an aloof jerk and making fun of Kenshin in the same breath, but for some reason it still fell relatively pleasantly on his ears. That Saitou hadn’t, at least, thought Kenshin worth more consideration than the rest of them — even if Sano himself might have agreed Kenshin was — relieved Sano unexpectedly.

This moment of pensiveness gave Saitou a chance to return to their previous topic. “So you want my help with your substandard defensive abilities so you can get this Kenshin of yours to notice you.” In response to Sano’s noise of affirmation, Saitou nodded slowly. His mocking expression did not bode entirely well, but he seemed to be taking the subject seriously enough for the moment. “It’s not a bad idea. And by that I mean it’s an idiotic idea, but I suppose it might work. The question is, what are you willing to do in exchange for my services?” He still sounded far too entertained, which still felt a little worrisome.

“I’ll pay you,” Sano said hesitantly. However mocking Saitou might or might not be, this was probably the longest conversation that had ever taken place between them at this level of placidity, and as such Sano considered himself in uncharted waters.

“With what money?” was Saitou’s immediate, dismissive response.

Sano would have retorted that he did sometimes do work and get paid for it, and that, being a decent guy unlike some people he knew, he also had friends willing to extend him loans — he’d borrowed money just recently specifically to pay for defense training! But he remembered even as the words formed in his head that he’d spent all of that money to get drunk and was now as broke as usual.

“No,” Saitou went on, “I think you’ll have to do my housework for me.”

“Where the fuck did you get–” Sano stopped short of throwing another fit as he recalled that he was supposed to be behaving like a civilized person — that Saitou was doing just that, more or less, and was probably owed, for once, some degree of politeness. “Uh, you came to that conclusion quickly,” he corrected himself.

“It’s the only logical one,” Saitou explained with a narrow-eyed smile. “I can’t afford to spend time with you unless I get something out of it. You have no job, and won’t have time for one if you’re training as hard as you’ll have to be in order to learn anything from me. You can spend what spare time you have on my laundry and dishes.” These words were calculated to make Sano grimace, and in response to the expression Saitou added, “I rather think I’ll be getting the worse end of the bargain still.”

Laundry and dishes. Despite the accuracy of Saitou’s assessment, Sano couldn’t help fuming at how easily he’d been second-guessed and outmaneuvered. What had happened to Saitou being in his debt for all that shit? He decided to bring it up and get some leverage. “Hey, what about all that crap you gave me? You kicked my ass twice for no reason, you know, and then dumped shit on me the whole time in Kyoto, and then pretended to be dead. What about all that?”

“What about it?”

“I mean you owe me.”

Saitou spared him another amused glance as he led them around a corner and down a residential street. “I owe you because I defeated you? I have to admit, I was grateful to find you there just when I needed a gift for Himura, but that was hardly more than coincidence.”

“‘Grateful,'” Sano snorted. “As if you didn’t plan it all.”

“I planned to hurt one of his friends, yes,” replied Saitou somewhat grimly, “to make an important point about the dangers of trying to challenge an enemy and look out for weaker fighters at the same time. If you hadn’t been that friend, who do you think would have been?”

With a faint shiver, Sano tried not to contemplate the answer to that question. For a fleeting instant — as if, seated on a fast-moving carriage, he had caught a glimpse of scenery lining up perfectly for a sudden, piercing clear view straight into some distant scene that was normally hidden from his eyes — he could see Saitou’s point of view, see the ruthless measures he was willing to adopt in his pursuit of evil and for the sake of Japan… but this provided him no comfort. Understanding was not the same as concurrence. “I don’t agree with your extreme methods,” he insisted, “so that doesn’t make up for the fucking wound in my shoulder.”

Saitou shrugged. “And yet the country is free from Shishio, and here we all are back to our normal lives.”

And there was the second time — in the street outside Katsu’s place? You were a total asshole there, you know.”

“If you still haven’t grasped the point I was trying to make, there’s nothing I can do about it. Unless,” he added, “you’d like me to reopen your shoulder again.” When Sano’s only answer was a snort, Saitou went on. “I did what I thought was necessary to try to prevent you from following Himura. You did prove useful in the end, but another time I might still take the same steps.”

For a moment Sano was shocked into silence. Was this Saitou admitting that Sano had been useful at some point? That he, Saitou, had been mistaken? In his surprise, Sano couldn’t find words for his next argument. (He knew what Saitou would probably say anyway — that Sano had been belligerent enough to merit every bit of shit Saitou had dished out in Kyoto, a fact Sano couldn’t exactly dispute.)

Finally, in lieu of this, Sano tried to pull himself together and revisit his final point. “But what about pretending to be dead? That’s pretty fucked up, if you ask me, to go along helping people and then suddenly just let them think you died.”

Apparently they’d reached their destination, for Saitou did not immediately answer as he headed for the door of a small but comfortable-looking house in the equally comfortable-looking lane along which they’d been walking. He unlocked it, creating a deep rectangle of darkness and gesturing Sano to enter before him. As the door shut behind them, immersing them for several moments in near-blackness, Saitou finally replied. “You shouldn’t assume my escape from Shishio’s fortress was easy. I wasn’t in any state to see anyone for some time after the battle.”

Sano felt his annoyance fading, though at the concise defeat of his last argument he really ought to have been more angry with the slippery bastard. But the tone in Saitou’s voice held just the tiniest bit of strain — so faint Sano could barely hear it, and only noticed because it contrasted so pointedly with the amusement that had colored nearly all of the officer’s previous comments. Still, Sano didn’t give up easily. “Couldn’t you have sent a message?”

“Hn.” Saitou’s soft footsteps sounded through the darkness down what seemed to be a short hallway, then paused at its end. “Dear Himura-tachi– Not that you’ll care, but I am not dead, only horribly burned. Do not come see me. Do not send that doctor with the intolerable laugh to look at me. As a matter of fact, you might as well forget I exist. But I’m not dead. –Saitou. Would that have made you feel better?”

“‘Horribly burned?'” Sano echoed, curious, hastening the removal of his shoes so he could follow.

Another rectangle appeared, this one of light, as Saitou slid open a door at the end of what did, in fact, turn out to be a short hallway. Sano barely had time to look around at the two other closed doors to left and right before Saitou’s form blocked the light again as he entered the far chamber. The younger man hurried after.

This great room filled the back half of the house and was divided between a neat kitchen and an open living area with a fireplace. Saitou walked immediately into the former with the querying statement, “I assume you’re hungry.”

Sano’s stomach jumped excitedly, thoughts of food wiping out all others. It had been over a week since he’d enjoyed a proper meal. “Yes!” he replied eagerly. “Hell, yes!”

“Since I also assume you can’t cook, I’ll make supper for both of us, and then we can agree on the details of our arrangement.”

Just as at the dojo, Sano saw no reason to mention here that he wasn’t a bad cook himself. What Saitou’s skills in that area might be he had no idea, but still he made a grateful noise at the prospect of real food.

At the sound, Saitou rolled eyes in Sano’s direction. “Sick of that stuff we serve at the station, are you?”

These words triggered a memory. “Hey,” Sano wondered, “you don’t happen to know who paid the fine to get me out of there, do you?” Actually it was a little annoying to think about having been held for a fine just for attacking Saitou; some random officer, sure, but Saitou was an old acquaintance that knew perfectly well Sano wanted to fight him again. But there was nothing to be done about it now, and Saitou might not even have had anything to do with the assignment of that punishment. “It wasn’t any of my friends, as far as I know.” He tried to keep the bitterness from his tone as he recalled how Kenshin hadn’t seemed to have noticed or cared about Sano’s absence.

“Your haphazard life is certainly funnier to watch when you’re out of jail than when you’re in it,” Saitou mused from where he’d been unwrapping some thin strips of beef he hadn’t appeared surprised to find on the kitchen counter. “And Chou is completely useless when there’s someone in the cells he wants to bother on a regular basis. There are a number of reasons someone besides your friends might have paid the fine or tried to get it dropped.” He shrugged as if out of suggestions.

Sano supposed he might as well get used to the idea that he would never know for sure, and to assuage his annoyance started to admire the room. It was furnished in cherrywood, which set off the red ink of the paintings hanging on the walls, and in general much cozier than Sano would have expected Saitou’s home to be. “Nice place you got here,” he commented eventually.

“Why don’t you take a look around?”

Whistling some random notes, Sano obeyed the suggestion and returned to the hallway, where he tried to reach the two closed doors simultaneously but couldn’t quite. Once separate movements had opened both, he observed that he hadn’t been mistaken, from outside, about the size of the house. “Hey, you only have three rooms!” he remarked, loudly enough to be heard by Saitou in the kitchen.

“I was aware of that,” came the wolf’s dry answer.

“So this is your bedroom?” Sano wondered next as he poked his head into the tidy chamber on the right. The red ink paintings must have been a series, as there were a few more in here.

“No, it’s just a room with a bed in it,” Saitou replied.

“And what the hell is this?” Sano stepped into the last room, glancing around in some surprise at the full shelves and the desk that looked like it had seen a lot of use.

“A study, ahou, not that I would expect you to know what that is.”

“You have so many fucking books!”

“You have so few words in your vocabulary.”

“What the hell language is this?”

“Can you even read Japanese?”

Feeling no need to examine anything in great detail when he would, presumably, have plenty of opportunity to do so in days to come, Sano returned to the great room. “Nice place,” he said again.

With the bucket he now held, Saitou gestured toward the door leading outside. “Refill this from the well by the gate.”

Sano nodded, accepting the container, and stepped outside. “Hey, this is nice!” he shouted back into the house as he crossed the yard. “You cops make some pretty good money, huh?”

Saitou’s answer from the kitchen was barely audible: “Why don’t you announce it to the whole neighborhood?”

After glancing over the private bath and the adjoining properties that compared unfavorably to Saitou’s, Sano located the well and fetched what he’d come out for. Then he headed back inside. “Who did that rock gardening?”

“I did.”

“I’m impressed! You’ve got a-whole-nother side to you I never would have guessed.”

“We can’t all be as one-dimensional as you are.” Some of the water Sano had brought went into a teapot and was set to boil next to whatever else was cooking on the stove.

Rather than reply in annoyance to the accusation of being one-dimensional, Sano only found himself wondering whether Kenshin too thought of him that way. This reminded him of the reason he’d come here in the first place, and he glanced around the room again with an eye specific to the potential chores involved in its layout. “So you want me to clean stuff for you, huh? And do your laundry? How much laundry can a guy like you possibly have? And dishes? I mean, you only eat here a couple times a day, don’t you?”

“I am a bit picky about the state of my house. It may be more work than you’re anticipating.”

Sano scratched his head. “I hate to say it, but it seems like what you said — I’m getting the better end of this deal.”

“You always reach these conclusions so quickly.”

“I’m just wondering what’s in this for you.”

From where he stood at the stove, Saitou turned just enough for Sano to catch the positively evil twinkle in his eye. “The chance to beat your sorry ass again, perhaps?”

Sano felt a strange shiver go through him, almost as if he were looking forward to that. This scared him to the point where only the promise of food kept him from bolting out the door. In a tone that tried for casualness as he looked quickly away from Saitou, “All right, so when do you start beating my ass again?” he asked.

“Tomorrow.”

Now Sano looked quickly back at Saitou. “Shit, you’re really serious about this!”

“Did you think I would bring someone like you into my house just to feed you?”

“I never know what to think of a bastard like you,” Sano shrugged. “And I’m thinking tonight you must be drunk or something, ’cause you’re being all nice to me and shit. I almost can’t believe my luck.” Suddenly his eyes narrowed. “Hey, you’re not going to change your mind all of a sudden when you sober up, are you?”

“Ahou, if I were drunk, you wouldn’t be alive right now.”

“Ohhh,” Sano moaned, “scaaaryyy.”

Saitou threw him an exasperated look. “You’re not likely to learn anything from me if you can’t take me seriously.”

A little surprised by this remark, Sano moved a pace closer and leaned on the kitchen counter next to the board where Saitou had previously been chopping vegetables. “I thought I was taking you seriously,” he said. “But since all I really know about you is that you’re a heartless asshole who likes to stick swords in people and then batter them and taunt them and trick them into thinking he’s dead–”

“I believe we already discussed this,” Saitou interrupted shortly.

“Whatever you say,” Sano grinned. “My point is that I don’t know much more about you than all that, so when you give me a macho line about how you’d have killed me by now if you were drunk…” Well, actually, based on those very characteristics Sano had just listed, a remark like that should logically be more threatening from Saitou than it would have been from anyone else. Sano cleared his throat.

The set of Saitou’s shoulders looked somewhat triumphant, but he didn’t pursue the topic any farther. Instead, he pointed out where he kept his table settings, and instructed Sano to lay them out.

The table itself, a neat little red rectangle that couldn’t have seated more than two, proved Saitou wasn’t in the habit of entertaining, and Sano quickly centered it (roughly) in the living area and started loading it up. Then it was only a few minutes more before Saitou brought over what he’d cooked, arranged their supper, and took a seat. Feeling a bit nervous all of a sudden for what reason he didn’t quite know, Sano joined him.

The noodles and steamed vegetables and beef weren’t as delicious as Kenshin would have made them, but Sano had to admit that Saitou was no mean hand in the kitchen. And as they ate, the officer enumerated the specific tasks he wanted done on a daily and weekly basis, with details on how they were to be performed. He told about the foodstuffs he had regularly delivered since he apparently didn’t like shopping much; and about the neighbors that shared access to the well and which of them would make themselves obnoxious if Sano gave them the chance. He also explained his own schedule, what time he was likely to be home on most days in order to engage in regular training sessions, and what events might occasionally delay him. It all sounded very reasonable, and the idea that Sano was getting the better end of the bargain hadn’t yet been challenged.

After everything had been elaborated upon and agreed to, they finished their meal in silence, but the nature of that silence eluded Sano’s probing curiosity. It wasn’t what he would call ‘friendly’ or ‘comfortable,’ but not exactly ‘cold’ or ‘stiff’ either. Perhaps ‘polite’ would be the best word for it — hardly an expression he would think to apply to anything between himself and Saitou. Maybe the best way to describe it would be ‘businesslike,’ since business associates were what they’d now become.

“So, want me to get started right away?” he asked eventually, gesturing to the table. Saitou gave a bit of a smile and a silent nod as he poured himself another cup of tea. “These are some nice dishes you got here,” Sano remarked, mostly just for the sake of having something to say, as he began to clear up. “You better hope I don’t break ’em.”

Saitou’s withering look was palpable on the back of Sano’s neck. “You had better not.”

“I’m kidding!” Sano could laugh, because Saitou’s threatening statement had restored a more accustomed atmosphere between them. “Loosen up, why don’t you? You’re in your own house, after all!”

“Not everyone can be as loose as you are — something has to get done somewhere in the city.”

“Then at least pull that damn stick out of your ass.”

“You put things in the most interesting way,” was Saitou’s bemused reply.

At the sound of a match striking behind him, Sano finished pouring the remaining water from the bucket into the basin where he’d stacked the dishes, and turned. “Give me one of those?” he requested, leaving the kitchen and approaching the table again.

A black eyebrow arched. “You smoke?”

“Doesn’t everyone? I just can’t afford it like some loaded cops I know, so you won’t see me doing it very often.”

“Doesn’t that bother you?”

“A little.” Sano grinned at him brazenly. “Not enough to get a real job.”

“Ahou ga.” Despite this verbal response, Saitou brought out his cigarettes again and handed Sano one from the package. He even went so far as to light it for him. “Don’t expect any more of these. I’m not buying double just so you can freeload.”

Sano made a noise of acquiescence, took a long drag, and sighed blissfully. “Thanks,” he said sincerely, and even as the word left his mouth realized it was the first time he’d ever thanked this man for anything. He rose quickly from where he’d been kneeling to receive the somewhat unexpected present, and moved toward the kitchen again to wash the dishes with his back turned.

***

The next day was rainy and grey, and Sano awoke at home with bleary eyes and little recollection, at first, of what he’d been doing the previous night. Trying to remember had to be postponed, however, since reluctant curiosity about why he felt so wet must form his primary concern. Even as his vision focused enough to observe that his ceiling had apparently decided to spring a significant leak in not one but two spots immediately over his bed, he also found his other puzzlement increasing as he noted in himself an absence of hangover and the inexplicable flavor of good tobacco in his mouth. Well, it was stale by now, but it tasted like it had been good at the time.

As he sat up, it all came back to him, and the next thing he wondered was whether Saitou’s mouth tasted like this in the mornings. Not much difference would be made even if it did; Saitou never seemed to have any end of cigarettes, and would just smoke a fresh one to override the old.

So this was Sano’s first day of work for the guy. Despite how strangely he felt the entire thing had turned out, he was pleased with it in equal measure; actually, it had all fallen into place with unexpected neatness and convenience, regardless of how he felt about Saitou. He might as well get up and head over to the bastard’s house to prove or disprove the theory about who’d gotten the better end of the deal.

He whistled as he set out across town, and offered a cheerful wave and mocking greeting to some of his friends in a dockyard he passed. They had to spend the day in the rain, whereas he would be nice and dry doing much easier work. His pity for them fled his thoughts after not too long, though, as he began to remember last night’s dreams: lovely visions of being held in warm arms in a comfortable atmosphere. This had probably contributed to his confusion upon waking, but such a contribution was totally worth it.

By the time he reached Saitou’s house, his head swam in warm, misty thoughts of Kenshin and their future together. This was the first step toward that happy ending, odd as it might seem to be doing a psychopath’s laundry in order to win the heart of the man he loved. He felt almost giddy at the thought of stepping so definitively onto the path to his goal.

Opening Saitou’s door with the key he’d been provided last night gave him an unexpected little thrill. It wasn’t everyone that could boast access to the home of a former Shinsengumi captain, now, was it? Of course, anyone personally acquainted with Saitou’s obnoxiousness probably wouldn’t have boasted of such a circumstance, but it was an interesting rarity nonetheless. And, hey, Sano was even doing this to get closer to the former hitokiri Battousai, an even greater rarity and certainly more thrilling than Saitou could ever be!

Sano’s smile at these thoughts slowly faded as he walked through the little house again and started to think seriously about the actual labor involved in this job. True, the load didn’t seem too heavy, but was more than he’d voluntarily done on a regular basis for quite some time. There was a reason, after all, that he didn’t hang around the dojo on any given day longer than it took to get his Kenshin fix. But since this was for Kenshin, he steeled himself and got to it.

Dusting the study took longer than he’d expected, for he found the motion of his hand falling to almost nothing as the titles and the eye-wearying unfamiliar characters of many of the books distracted his eye. This room was something of a pain to sweep, too, what with all the crevices formed by desk and shelves, none of which could be moved; he was glad he wasn’t expected to scrub the floor in here unless Saitou specifically requested it.

On the other hand, practically nothing needed to be done in the bedroom. Saitou, every bit as neat as Sano had expected, had left his bedding folded in the same chest that held the rolled futon, and, as this bedding only wanted washing once a week, it required no attention today. Some laundry waited in a basket by the door, but the continued rainfall outside rendered this, perforce, a task for later.

So he washed the breakfast dishes, straightened up the kitchen to the extent this was required, and swept the great room floor while he waited for the weather to clear. When it still hadn’t quite, he decided he might as well do some scrubbing; since this wasn’t technically necessary today, his efforts at it might have been somewhat lackluster, but it did, at least, pass the time relatively constructively until the rain finally stopped. Then he went outside to wash and hang the laundry.

All right, so maybe Saitou hadn’t been lying when he’d said this would be more work than Sano expected. If the young man hadn’t arisen so late in the morning, it wouldn’t be too long after lunchtime now; but since he had, by the time everything was finished, the day’s progress had been marked by the appearance of the market boy that delivered meat and vegetables for Saitou’s supper. Sano was a little surprised — Saitou had mentioned the kid usually showed up in the late afternoon or early evening; had so much time really passed? — and a little flustered as he tried to think how to introduce himself, especially when the boy referred to ‘Fujita-san’ and assumed Sano was ‘the new help.’

Whatever Sano’s job title (assuming he had one) and whatever name his ’employer’ chose to use, obviously this work was going to dominate a good part of his daylight hours in the weeks to come. And any hours that remained would probably have to be devoted to practice — Saitou had mentioned this would be the case, and Sano wasn’t such a fool as to disbelieve him. Having already dismissed the effectiveness of book-learning, he must embrace vigorous practice as essential to his quick grasp of the concepts he needed to know. He could probably pick up better defensive techniques just by watching, eventually, but ‘eventually’ wouldn’t do when a tanuki-girl lurked insidiously around the man Sano wanted to seduce.

To this eventual seduction, Sano deliberately avoided giving any real thought just yet. Such things were really the last he needed to be worried about while hanging Saitou’s clothes out to dry — and in fact were surprisingly easy to set aside, as Saitou’s clothes proved bizarrely engrossing. The blue police pants and jackets were only interesting in that Sano thought he and Saitou were almost exactly the same size and he could therefore borrow one of these uniforms for any number of mischievous or even nefarious purposes, were he so inclined; but the other contents of the laundry basket, though their mere presence there indicated they’d been worn recently, Sano simply could not imagine the uptight officer in.

This red yukata, for instance — who ever heard of Saitou wearing a warm color? Obviously he must own a yukata or two, but if Sano had ever for an instant considered such a thing, he would have assumed them to be black or a boring dark brown… possibly blue, like the uniforms, but definitely still a subdued example of that color. Never red.

The silver kimono and dark grey hakama appeared more the wolf’s style, having about them a stark, subtle sort of elegance, but still Sano struggled to picture Saitou in them. No, he corrected himself as he pensively hung them to dry, it wasn’t that he couldn’t picture Saitou in them, but that the resulting mental image looked too unexpectedly good to be plausible. He’d never really thought of Saitou as handsome, but in those… he might well turn out to be just that.

So now he had something to tease Saitou about this evening. What did he get all dressed up for in silver? Was he embarrassed enough about wearing red — a closet fan, perhaps? — that he only wore it around the house? And did he start to lose track of who he was whenever he put on anything besides the somewhat appalling number of uniforms he seemed to own? True, there wasn’t much fodder for teasing in any of this, but Sano wanted to tease him, so anything would do. He would certainly need some kind of edge when training began.

Whether he looked forward to or dreaded the upcoming session he couldn’t quite decide, especially remembering the strange sensation of last night in response to the gleam in Saitou’s eye when he’d mentioned pleasure at the prospect of beating Sano’s ass. Sano must really be pining for Kenshin, to have seen that ruthlessly eager sparkle, heard that casually deadly tone, and still be here.

The time remaining before the officer would arrive home was small enough that Sano decided just to stick around waiting for him. (This choice was definitely not influenced at all by the idea that Saitou might be willing to feed him again, an opportunity the very hungry Sano would surely miss if he went somewhere and came back later.) He stretched out on the floor of the great room, which had by now dried, and stared, lazily contemplative, at the ceiling.

Acting so freely in the home of someone he’d always thought of as his rival, even his nemesis, seemed odd to him — odd, and yet somehow natural. Presumably this naturalness arose from the knowledge that this was all part of his plan to get at Kenshin, and therefore potential awkwardness was set aside. With this explanation in mind, he didn’t worry about dozing off in the midst of some of his usual daydreams.

Perhaps he should have worried. A dull pain awakened him, a rhythmic pounding against his left hip; and as his eyes sluggishly opened, he yelled aloud when he saw the length of the sword stretching up from where its tip just brushed the skin of his neck to the gloved hand on the hilt. The pain — which he recognized now as a heel, still very solid even just in a sock, slamming down repeatedly — continued for a few moments just for good measure. “Lesson one,” Saitou said from above him: “never fall asleep in enemy territory.”

The victim of this bastardly behavior moved to slap the blade away from the vicinity of large veins, but Saitou pressed it closer so that it cut minutely into him, and Sano was forced to lie still. “Right, fine,” he said. “I get it. Lesson learned. Stop that!”

With that mocking smile of his, Saitou drew back and sheathed his weapon. “I suppose I’m not surprised to find you don’t even know that.”

“This isn’t what I’d normally call ‘enemy territory,'” Sano grumbled as he climbed to his feet.

“Isn’t it?”

What Sano had just been thinking before his little nap recrossed his mind; no, despite all prior indications, this really wasn’t what he would consider enemy territory. But he certainly wouldn’t admit to Saitou just how at-home he’d come to feel here after the course of a mere day. Next he’d be admitting that, in defiance of all logic, he suddenly didn’t really think of Saitou as ‘the enemy’ anymore either.

Especially when he noticed that the officer had apparently gotten through most of the supper-cooking process before deciding to awaken him.

Observing Sano’s pointer-like gaze into the kitchen, Saitou rolled his eyes. “Set the table,” he ordered. “Keep in mind, though,” he added as he turned away, “that if you gorge yourself now and then vomit it all onto my floor while we’re training, you’re the one who’ll be cleaning it up.”

“Oh, it takes more than some hard training to get food back from me,” Sano told him, relatively cheerfully, as he brought the little table out into the middle of the room.

“I thought that might be the case: adaptive for your subspecies.”

Though the words thus arranged meant little to him, Sano could tell this was an insult. With great difficulty, however, he refrained from demanding to know what Saitou meant; the jerk was undoubtedly waiting for him to ask, and therefore Sano would disappoint his disdainful hopes by not doing so. He thought he even made out the traces of that disappointment on Saitou’s face as he fetched dishes from near where the officer stood, and that was a sort of triumph.

Their meal consisted of the same mixture of awkwardness and unexpected ease as last night’s had, alternating mostly between that odd silence Sano had noticed then and the usual exchange of insult and rudeness. When they’d finished, Saitou instructed him to clear the table but leave washing the dishes for later or tomorrow. And once the table itself was out of the way, there was ample space for practice.

As Saitou announced that they would start with hand-to-hand, he examined Sano up and down with thoughtfully lowered brows; it made the kenkaya a little uncomfortable. In response to this feeling, Sano backed away slightly and took up a combative position, smacking a fist into a palm. “Bring it on, old man.”

Saitou’s expression slowly worked its way toward that look of evil he’d more or less terrified Sano with yesterday, and, despite his bravado, Sano suddenly felt a resurgence of that emotion. Surely he was staring pain in the face and encouraging it! But Saitou only said with innocent levelness, “Let’s look at this stance of yours first.”

***

The moron had initially been extremely reluctant to follow Saitou’s instructions, but the officer had discovered after a while a more or less forgivable reason for it: Sano feared, in consequence of the statement about stance, that these lessons would resemble those he’d attempted to engage in with some supposed expert trainer not too long ago. His worry on this point had entirely disappeared the moment Saitou started punching him. It was funny how often punching things seemed to solve problems where Sanosuke was concerned.

A whim, based on how entertaining Sano had been to watch in jail and upon his release from it, had led Saitou to enter into this arrangement in the first place, and so far he was nothing but pleased with the circumstance. His chores would be done for free by someone on whom he could, if he wished, take out all the frustrations of his day at work — someone, in fact, specifically asking for it — and Sano continued to be pretty consistently entertaining, if at times equally annoying. Saitou hadn’t quite decided yet whether he believed Sano capable of improvement under his tutelage, but he would be interested in seeing what progress did take place, and what (if any) affect the display thereof would have on Himura. Yes, Saitou would definitely keep this up for a while.

When Sano hit the floor with a full-body thud after an intense couple of hours, Saitou dropped his fists and stood straight, watching the young man carefully in case he might be faking to gain an advantage. But it seemed weariness and that last blow really had done the job; Sano was out cold. So Saitou lit a cigarette and walked away.

He went first into the yard, where he found, as he’d suspected, damp laundry still hanging. He would need to have a word with Sano on the subject of using his brain (if he had one) about weather patterns and what time of day he hung clothes out. Saitou would have to bring these inside now, because if he left them overnight they would probably be soaked by rain before either he or Sano awoke in the morning. But they did seem to have been washed and hung properly; the moron wasn’t completely ignorant.

This task finished, Saitou locked the back door and went to his bedroom. A spare blanket, rendered unnecessary by the current weather, he retrieved from the chest and, returning to the great room, shook open with one hand so it fluttered down over Sano. Then he put out the gas, shut the hallway door behind him as he left the comatose young man on his floor, and moved silently through darkness toward bed.

With a smile that lingered unusually, he prepared his futon, undressed, and lay down. Perhaps sleep came quickly for him, after his hectic day at work and the exercise he’d subsequently taken — not a gleam issued from his eyes in the blackness, and his breathing was soft and regular. But perhaps he lay awake for a time, his thoughts pleasantly busy with… something.



2>>

Section 2

That wasn’t the last time Sano spent the night at Saitou’s house. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t the last time Sano spent the entire day and then the night at Saitou’s house. The routine developed quickly, almost enforcedly: wake up, usually with a throbbing skull and aching body that was bizarrely more encouraging than dismaying; do the chores, which became easier and quicker as he developed a viable pattern, but never seemed like less overall work; practice whatever Saitou had ordered, by which he was reminded of Yahiko’s ten thousand repetitions of some move or other at Kaoru’s bidding; eat dinner, often with Saitou, who hadn’t shown himself nearly as averse to feeding Sano on a daily basis as Sano had expected him to; and then spar in a somewhat one-sided, vigorous and educational manner until he passed out and was able to rest for the next day’s fresh start.

In one corner of his mind, he’d rather expected Saitou wouldn’t be willing to maintain this arrangement for very long. They still annoyed each other, after all, and now Saitou not only gave up time and energy to Sano’s goals, but also food (alternately known as money) to Sano’s admittedly rapacious stomach. He even, despite what he’d said the first evening, allowed Sano the very occasional cigarette. And he got his house cleaned and his laundry and dishes washed, sure, but still was probably doing this only out of a passing interest in beating Sano up routinely for a while, and must eventually get tired of it. Either that or he wouldn’t trouble himself too much about the teaching, and that aforementioned beating up of Sano would be the full extent of their training together.

But this, Sano found, was not the case. Saitou might not be the most personable teacher ever to harass a student, but he knew very well what he was doing. His criticism, though irritating, was always accurate and comprehensible. He showed Sano how better to balance his weight so as to be ready to receive attacks as well as deal them out; he helped Sano recognize subtle changes in an enemy’s stance so he might have some chance at knowing what was coming. He gave cogent explanations and practical demonstrations, and even refrained from taking too great an advantage, with those iron fists of his, when Sano entirely failed to predict and properly react to the next incoming blow. They hadn’t yet progressed to a point where Saitou was ready to draw his sword, but that Sano was making progress couldn’t be denied, and Saitou didn’t seem to be tiring of the pastime.

Only after almost three weeks of this did Sano realize he hadn’t seen his friends, or even Tokyo in general, in quite some time. And though he was more than a little pleased at the maturation of his plan, he felt all of a sudden like a hermit. His scummier friends probably thought he’d finally lost his life by picking a fight too tough for him (which, in a way, was true), and surely Kenshin must have noticed his absence this time. So he made a special effort to rise early one morning, got the chores done as quickly as possible, and left the house in an anticipatory mood for the Kamiya Dojo.

It was odd, but with all the work he did these days — cleaning, practicing, and dealing with Saitou — he’d hardly given Kenshin a thought lately. Not that the rurouni had never crossed Sano’s mind, but there hadn’t been nearly as much leisure to dwell on him, and Sano hadn’t once… well… imagined him as he had during those days in jail. He hadn’t dreamed about him much either, but that might have been because ‘sleep’ and ‘unconsciousness from too many blows to the head’ were difficult to distinguish one from the other nearly every night. But since the whole rigmarole aimed at eventually getting Kenshin’s attention, that goal could easily take the place of obsessive thought.

Presently he caught sight of a familiar figure not far ahead of him, she having just turned from another street onto the one he walked, perhaps heading the same place he was. As quietly as he could, he ran up behind her and slipped his hands over her eyes with a sly, “Guess who!” But he withdrew his arms quickly the next moment as he felt his fingers grow slick with moisture.

Megumi gave him a furtive glance like a wounded animal even as she began hastily wiping her eyes dry with a sleeve of her doctor’s smock. “Oh, Sanosuke,” she acknowledged. And that was all. No real greeting, no pointing out that he was the only person impudent enough to play that childish game with her and therefore she had no need to guess who it was, no inquiry as to where he’d been for the last couple of weeks, and no explanation of her tears.

“What’s wrong with you?” he wondered. And though he didn’t say it without sympathy or concern, perhaps he could have worded it a bit better.

She turned away from him and resumed her walk. “It’s nothing,” she replied as he jumped to follow.

“Someone like you doesn’t cry about just nothing,” he prodded.

“Even you should realize I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Talk about what? Seriously, what’s wrong?”

Her face screwed into a tight, painful grimace. “I knew you were a jerk,” she spat at him, “but I didn’t think you’d go this far.”

“Look, I’m trying to be nice here.” Sano’s concern gradually gave way to anger. “You don’t have to get all bitchy on me!”

“If you really haven’t been paying attention all this time… if you really don’t know how I…” Her expression hardened so her face was transfigured into a mask of anguish, skepticism, and disgust. “Or are you just taunting me? I thought some things were beneath even you, but I guess I was wrong.”

“Why the hell would I… taunt you… about what? I really truly have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Very convincing. Maybe you are just that clueless.” Megumi quickened her pace. “There’s no need for you to walk with me any further.” And the tears never ceased their steady trail down her cheeks as she left a confused and very angry Sano behind.

He stared after her until she disappeared around another corner, then muttered, “What the fuck was that…?” He looked around for a stone to kick, but, not finding one, just kicked at the ground instead. Here his first sojourn out of his new little life was already turning out weird and unpleasant.

Well. Kenshin would cheer him up. The rurouni might even know what was bothering Megumi, which might help Sano eventually patch things up with her. Maybe. Not that he cared. Clueless about what?

The first thing he noticed as the familiar outer walls of Kaoru’s property came into sight was a dejected-looking Yahiko sitting in a little ball outside the doors. Glancing up at the high sun and down at the glum boy, Sano was puzzled; shouldn’t Yahiko be practicing about now? He usually was at this time of day, and it took some serious distraction on Kaoru’s part for him to get out of it. Of course, Sano was truanting on his own practice time at the moment, so he couldn’t really accuse.

“Sano!” Yahiko yelled, jumping to his feet and running to meet him. “Where have you fucking been?”

“You better watch that mouth,” Sano grinned. “You’re starting to sound like me, Yahiko-chan.”

“Oh, you–” Yahiko cut himself off without bothering to vent his frustration at the honorific. “Never mind. Where have you been? You haven’t been around here for so long, you haven’t heard the news!”

Stopping just outside the doors, Sano looked at Yahiko askance. He couldn’t quite tell what the expression on the kid’s face meant. Was it unhappy? Frightened? It was definitely agitated. Agitating news, then… and Megumi was crying somewhere across town, and had expected Sano to know why. He suddenly gripped Yahiko’s shoulders and demanded, “What’s happened?”

“Calm down,” Yahiko protested, trying to shrug the heavy hands from him. “It’s not like something happened, exactly…” There was a touch of resignation to his demeanor in addition to the agitation.

Sano didn’t understand. “Well?”

“All it is is that Kenshin and Kaoru are getting married.”

Kenshin and Kaoru are…

Kenshin and Kaoru are getting…

“Ittaai, Sano! Get your hands off me! Hello?! Sano! Let go!”

Kenshin and Kaoru…

Kenshin…

Feeling somewhat dizzy all of a sudden, Sano finally released the grip that had been mercilessly squeezing poor Yahiko’s shoulders. He straightened and thrust his hands into his pockets, where they immediately clenched into fists. His teeth ground with a horrible sensation, which was perhaps the reason for the sudden painful pounding in his head. It didn’t explain the painful pounding in his chest, but you had to start somewhere.

“Sano?” The boy’s voice sounded tentative now. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, kid; it’s just a surprise, that’s all; nothing’s wrong.” Sano knew he spoke a little too quickly in a little too-high-pitched a tone, but it was the best he could do. He felt like he’d just been kicked in the balls.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Not recently… So, when’s the wedding?” His attempt at sounding casual failed miserably, and Yahiko’s head had practically started to smoke with frustrated curiosity. Smoke… Sano suddenly wished for Saitou’s presence, just so he could beg a cigarette off him.

“Something like three months,” Yahiko said, still staring at Sano’s face with his jaw thrust out contemplatively. “I don’t know the exact date.”

Sano had just reached down to ruffle Yahiko’s hair and thank him, then turn and walk away to find a wall somewhere to pound his head against in an attempt to beat away the pain and perhaps improve his equilibrium. But at that moment a voice called from inside the dojo grounds: “Yahiko? Yahiko, where are you?”

“Coming, Kenshin!” the kid replied as he glanced in that direction. This gave Sano, in addition to a hard shiver down his spine, the chance he needed to escape. He heard Yahiko behind him wondering where he was going, but the query faded as Sano pelted away as fast as he thought he’d ever left the Kamiya Dojo before.

He could probably run forever. The pounding of his feet seemed to mix with his heartbeat in a drumming rhythm that punctuated his shock and despair: Kenshin! and Kaoru! Kenshin! and Kaoru!

So she had won. And Sano hadn’t even really gotten started yet.

This was what he got for acting slowly, for putting things off, for living a lifestyle that left him little recourse for the plan he’d conceptualized and the end he wanted to achieve, for being a lazy good-for-nothing, a pathetic little boy with no talents, no future, no personality. He deserved to lose Kenshin… but was Kaoru any fitter to win him? He decided to keep running forever… or at least until he came to an ocean, where he could end it all like the miserable bottom-dweller he was.

He had not yet reached an ocean, however, when he changed his mind and headed for a bar instead.

***

Saitou ate slowly, occasionally scowling but trying not to. He really shouldn’t, he kept telling himself, be annoyed at Sano’s absence. Just by looking around he could tell the young man had done the chores, and any time Sano chose to spend away from Saitou’s house thereafter could only hurt his own cause, not do any damage to anything Saitou cared about. And it was only natural that he should want a break after eighteen days of the rigorous routine they’d fallen into. But it would have been polite to inform Saitou of such a plan before carrying it out, so Saitou could make his own plans for the evening.

Not that Saitou would have. If he wasn’t required to stay late at work or go out on some spying venture after dark or attend some event, he cherished his evenings as the only time he could relax and think about something other than the state of the country. Well, he never really stopped thinking about the state of the country, but at home he could at least allow other considerations to take center stage. And perhaps he’d grown more accustomed to having company over and after supper than he’d realized, and didn’t appreciate being abandoned. He left the dishes for Sano.

Probably because he’d developed a new habit of exercising just before bed, Saitou found himself very restless — far too restless to sit quietly reading. He stalked back into the great room and went through some moves, but apparently it wasn’t enough. Wasn’t the same. Glowering, he returned to the study.

Paperwork, though nothing he particularly relished, at least usually had the power of seizing his full attention since it reflected the pursuits to which he was devoted, but even this, tonight, was insufficient to occupy him. He decided in his frustration that he might as well just go to bed early. As he stripped down to nothing in his bedroom, he couldn’t help feeling a little confused about his own state of mind. When had he ever been so bound to a routine that he couldn’t function when it was disrupted? This was stupid.

It seemed he’d barely fallen asleep when his ever-wakeful instincts warned him of someone standing outside at the front door. Footsteps sounded loud and clumsy on the porch, and there was a fumbling at the latch. With a soundless dexterity inversely proportional to that of the unknown party, Saitou rose, slipped into yesterday’s pants, took sword in hand, and moved toward the hall. The intruder had the way unlocked by now, but seemed to be having difficulty getting through it. Sliding the bedroom door open a fraction, Saitou peered through into the faint light cast from outside.

Then he dispensed with secrecy, flinging the door fully open with an impatient gesture and stepping out. “Ahou, what are you doing here?”

The figure dimly silhouetted by starlight in the doorway reeled in startlement, clutching at the frame as Saitou’s sharp voice assaulted him. After a moment, appearing to remember who Saitou was and where they both were, he slurred out in reply, “Wz comin’ to do th’ chorzz.”

Saitou moved toward Sano, grimacing as he caught the remarkably strong smell of sake. Reaching out a bare arm, he seized Sano’s gi and yanked him inside, tossing him carelessly to the floor as he closed the door with his other hand. “Get your drunken ass in here before you wake up the neighbors. Do you know what time it is?”

Not bothering to pick himself up, Sano whined something unintelligible in as miserable-sounding a tone as Saitou had ever heard from him. The officer stalked past him into the great room and lit a lamp, waiting for the moron to get to his feet and follow. Eventually the moron did, unsteadily and with his head hanging, and, staggering into the middle of the room, collapsed again into a heap.

“I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised,” Saitou said, looking down at him, “that this is how you choose to spend a night off. Attack any walls this time?”

From where he’d buried his face in his arms, Sano made another wretched sound, and Saitou was a little startled to realize what it portended.

“What’s wrong with you?” he demanded, moving a bit nearer.

Sano looked up, eyes clouded and tears streaming down his face, and almost wailed, “Ke’shin’s ge’ing married!”

His annoyance suddenly tempered by amusement and perhaps even some pity, Saitou knelt down. He reached out to punch Sano’s shoulder, though the blow and his subsequent tone were a little softer than usual. “That was inevitable, ahou. Even you must have seen it coming.”

Without warning, Sano broke down entirely, sobbing his heart out. More surprising still, he threw himself forward onto the other man, burying his face once again in his arms, but this time in Saitou’s lap. Though taken aback, Saitou made no move to forbid Sano his little drunken bout of self-pity. In fact, he had to combat a sudden extremely unexpected desire to stroke the spiky locks close beneath his hands that had risen in his initial surprise. The gesture probably wouldn’t have helped to comfort Sano in any case.

When Sano’s wailing eventually subsided, his sobs shaking less of his body and his state more propitious for hearing anything said to him, Saitou asked him calmly, “When is the wedding?”

“I dunno,” came Sano’s muffled voice. “Yah-Yahiko sayziz in three monsur sothin.”

“Then all this does is give you a deadline,” was Saitou’s businesslike reply, “and an incentive to work harder.”

Sano sat up, gazing lopsidedly at him. “Harder?” he echoed. “I’m nafuckin ge’ing anywhere!” His lip trembled. “I’m nalernin; I’m jussa stupid kid; I’m…”

“While I would have to agree that you are a stupid kid,” Saitou interrupted, “you’re wrong if you think you’re not learning. You’ve come much farther since we started than I could have expected.”

The brown eyes widened, and perhaps grew a shade less bleary. “Serious?”

“Yes,” Saitou replied with conviction. “Now go to sleep.” He leaned forward and pushed Sano hard, easily sending him to the floor. Standing, he moved to the hearth where the folded blanket Sano used for sleeping here generally stayed, and threw it at him. “Since I know you’re the kind of idiot that never gives up, I know you’ll show your usual resilience and get back to work tomorrow.”

“Buh Saitou…” Sano clutched at the blanket like a child with an indispensable toy, looking up at the wolf despairingly.

“Shut up and sleep,” Saitou commanded as he moved toward the lamp to put it out. Despite the harshness of his words, his tone was almost kind; it surprised even him. “You’re drunk, and you’re not thinking straight.” Certainly Sano wasn’t, to bury his face in Saitou’s lap!

Sano’s compliance was evinced by the silence, but for sniffling and a slight shuffling of blanket, that accompanied the click of the lamp’s snuffing, and Saitou returned to his bedroom in relative peace.

***

All right, he’d now been awake for twenty seconds at the most, and had already done a lightning-speed search of his memory in order to confirm that this was the worst hangover he’d ever had.

Yes – it – was.

How the hell much had he drunk last night? And why the hell had he gotten that drunk? He didn’t dare move for fear of making it worse, nor open his eyes to what felt through his lids like the light of mid-afternoon. He wasn’t even sure where he lay, couldn’t remember a thing about the entirety of yesterday. His head felt far worse than usual after a spell even of heavy drinking, his bladder swollen to twice its usual size, and his stomach threatened to do what it never did and actually regurgitate something. Also, where was he, and what had happened last night?

Well, the surface beneath him seemed to be a hard floor, and the blanket atop him smelled clean and felt soft. These combined clues led him to believe he’d slept at Saitou’s house. Why did he have a gladiatorial hangover at Saitou’s house? Saitou wouldn’t have allowed a drunken Sano into his house, would he? Ah, but Sano had a key. So that explained how he’d gotten in… but what time had that been?

He didn’t remember training yesterday, and the pain in his head wasn’t the type that usually came from Saitou’s fists. Some extremely blurry images of wandering around town becoming increasingly drunk were beginning to trickle back. People he’d talked to… acquaintances he’d had drinks with… in bar after bar after bar… after bar… why?

Then there’d been Megumi, right? She’d been crying and wouldn’t tell him why. And Yahiko, who’d been sitting outside the dojo for some reason, and…

“Shit!”

In a single rapid, jerky movement he sat up, his eyes springing open as he remembered, and immediately fell back to the floor with a loud groan, pulling the blanket over his face.

Kenshin and Kaoru! How could he have forgotten?

Well, the multiple jugs of sake might have had something to do with it.

So he’d been so miserable yesterday after hearing the news that he’d run off and gotten drunker than he’d ever been, then somehow found his way back to Saitou’s house for no reason he could comprehend in a more sober state, and collapsed here. Saitou must have been irate. Nothing later than about the fifth bar could Sano remember, but he’d be willing to wager he was in for a more intense beating than usual later. He’d better get the chores done quickly… especially if it was, as he’d guessed upon first awakening, mid-afternoon; he could probably start now and still not be quite finished before Saitou came home.

But he seriously didn’t want to get up. Wow, this one was bad. And he doubted Saitou had any of the ingredients for his usual remedy.

But if he didn’t get up soon, there was no chance he’d be done in time, and Saitou might refuse to train with him. Since Sano was already probably in trouble for skipping out last night and then barging in drunk at whatever wee hour, he doubted the wisdom of further angering the officer. As much of a bother as it was, it seemed he would have to act like a responsible adult, get up, and do his job.

The great room blazed cruelly bright despite the shouji not letting in any more light than usual, which was yet insufficient preparation for actual daylight; making his way to the necessary facilities outside was a tortuous process. Even once he’d recovered the safety of indoors, he still squinted hard as he shuffled into the kitchen to see if anything might be lying around that he could make half a breakfast of. It must actually be half a lunch he sought by now, but he didn’t care what the meal was called as long as it was edible. Saitou usually left at least some rice around…

What he didn’t usually leave around was a single cigarette atop a box of matches in the cupboard next to the tea jar.

Sano stared at the thing for what were probably minutes, though he kept no track of time in his efforts to fight his overall discomfort and make sense of what he saw. The thought that finally sluggishly struck him was this: Saitou never took a cigarette out of the package without smoking it. And he kept his matches in a desk drawer in the other room. There was simply no reason in the world for the presence of this solitary cigarette and box of matches in this cupboard at this time… unless Saitou had intended Sano to find them there. And there wasn’t any reason for that either.

He tried to tell himself Saitou had meant to smoke this after breakfast, or that there was some other unfathomable rationale behind its being here like this, but he knew the officer’s habits too well by now to think he would ever put one cigarette and some matches in the cupboard like a portent… or a present. There was obviously nothing for it but to smoke the thing.

So did this mean Saitou wasn’t mad at him? What a miracle for his hangover, anyway. Maybe Sano had explained about Kenshin’s engagement, and Saitou was just being… who the hell did he think he was kidding? Saitou just being sympathetic? Just being a decent person? Just proactively trying to comfort Sano? Beyond nonsensical.

But he enjoyed the hell out of the cigarette.

Later, having finished washing up after what appeared to be last night’s supper and this morning’s breakfast, reentering from dumping the dirty dish-water, he could tell by the fresh scent of tobacco that Saitou was home. Unsure what to expect, he hung around fidgeting by the back door until the officer returned to the great room, then tried his hardest to sound casual as he greeted him.

Saitou eyed him, said nothing, and moved into the kitchen to start making supper.

Shit. Maybe Sano was in trouble after all. “Sorry for ditching practice last night,” he tried.

Still the officer remained silent.

“I didn’t do it on purpose.” Was that a touch of panic in Sano’s tone? He fought it off as he continued, “That was just how things worked out.”

Finally, more or less easily, Saitou broke his silence. “Some temperance might be advisable, but, considering the circumstances, I think you can be forgiven this time.”

A pressing feeling of concern suddenly eased out of Sano’s chest, and he realized that his smile was the first he’d worn all day. “Seriously? I thought you were going to kill me!”

Far too much amusement sounded in Saitou’s tone as he replied, “I thought about it at first, but after your little crying fit I didn’t have the heart.”

“Crying fit?” Sano echoed hoarsely.

“You don’t remember?”

Mutely Sano shook his head.

Saitou merely laughed, obviously enjoying this. But Sano wasn’t. Just how drunk had he been? ‘Fit’ might be a malicious exaggeration, but he didn’t think even Saitou would invent such an episode wholesale; some tears must have been involved. In front of this guy, of all people? What potentially embarrassing things might Sano have let slip during such a lapse in control?

“What did I say?” he asked before he could think of a more diplomatic way of finding out.

“You confessed your own stupidity, among other things.”

What other things?”

“Just some pathetic wailing about Himura, I believe. It was rather late,” Saitou added pointedly; “I can’t be expected to remember your every word.”

Wondering what to say next (and certainly not about to say, “But I bet you do, you bastard”), Sano remained silent for a moment. He still couldn’t be sure whether Saitou was mad at him or just having fun being a jerk as usual, nor what should be done to allay the man’s possible ire. Finally, “Well, sorry about that,” he decided on.

Saitou made no reply.

Glancing at the tofu that waited on the counter to be worked into tonight’s meal, Sano volunteered, “Why don’t I help you make supper?”

“I think I prefer my kitchen in one piece.”

Sano bristled, forgetting his attempt at penitence. “Hey, jerk, I can cook just as good as you can!” When the only response was a skeptical sound, Sano strode forward and seized a knife, turning toward the tofu.

“Careful with that,” the officer cautioned. “It’s called a ‘knife,’ and one of the edges will hurt if you touch yourself with it.”

“Very funny, asshole.”

Saitou grinned and made a conciliatory gesture. “If you think you can mange it, ahou, go ahead.”

A little later, when they sat down at the table, instead of starting right in on the meal, Sano watched intently as his companion did so. He was confident Saitou would confess what an excellent cook Sano was and admit he couldn’t possibly be upset with him any longer, and then everything would be fine. But Saitou merely continued eating without a word or any change in demeanor.

Finally Sano couldn’t stand it. “Well?”

With a mildly dubious expression Saitou said, “Outside. I should think you’d know where it is by now.”

“I mean the food,” Sano growled. “I’m a good cook, huh?”

Saitou looked down at his supper with a soft, “Hn.”

“What the hell ‘hn?’ What do you think of it?”

“I think…” Saitou continued to stare pensively at the food in front of him. “I think I will add making supper to your list of chores.”

Sano’s jaw dropped. That was not the commendation he’d had in mind.

The corners of Saitou’s lips twitched, but he prevented the expression from becoming a full-blown smirk by taking another bite. Then he said in an admonitory tone, “You’d better eat, ahou. We have a lot for you to learn tonight, considering how much time you’ve got left.”

Oh, yeah… he had a deadline now, didn’t he? He had to win Kenshin away from Kaoru before they could get married and ruin Kenshin’s life forever! He had to work harder.

It occurred to him to wonder why he wasn’t as depressed about this as he’d obviously been yesterday. Had drinking really made him feel better? That would be… unprecedented. Something had made him feel better, though. As he thought about it, his hand slowed in bringing his chopsticks to his mouth and eventually hovered just short of it. Was he merely thinking wishfully, or did he hazily start to remember Saitou saying something… something nice… about him… last night?

He took his bite and chewed, still struggling to remember. Finally he felt he had to ask. “So how am I doing, anyway? Think I’ll beat you any time soon?”

“No,” Saitou answered immediately and bluntly. “But you’re not hopeless.”

“Guess that’s the best I’ll get out of you,” Sano said wryly. In actuality it was a pretty meaningful concession, but he wasn’t going to say so.

“Probably. Your friend’s wedding is set for July the 22nd, by the way.”

Sano stared. “How do you know?”

“Sometimes, ahou, if you ask someone something, they tell you.”

“Who’d you ask?”

With the customary raised brow Saitou said, “Battousai?”

“Oh. Fuck. Well… thanks, I guess.”

Saitou merely nodded.

Sano was still eating when Saitou, who’d had a head start, laid down his chopsticks and sat back, as he usually did after supper, to light up while he drank the remainder of his tea. This, of course, reminded Sano of something he didn’t really want to mention (in case he’d been wrong) but felt like he must. Fixing his eyes on the contents of his bowl he said, “Oh, and thanks for that cigarette this morning.”

Saitou’s tone was easy as he replied, “Don’t mention it.”

***

Things progressed for the next few weeks much as they had for the first few, save that now Sano worked doubly hard to meet Saitou’s increasingly harsh demands. He’d decided July 15th would be the big day — the day he would tell Kenshin his feelings — and that sometime before that he must, obviously, take Kenshin out somewhere and get into a fight in order to set things in motion by making a solid bid for the rurouni’s attention and admiration.

But he felt that, before he could do this, he needed to get a move past Saitou. He had to. Though this wasn’t a line he’d deliberately set for himself — at least not consciously — it had popped up from somewhere, and he saw it as an undismissible marker of progress, one he must reach before he could stop this relentless training. He’d hit Saitou before, of course, but only ever on his own terms. He wanted to get in a decent shot by Saitou’s rules. And he felt like he was running out of time awfully quickly.

It frustrated him, therefore, when Saitou mentioned one night that they wouldn’t be able to train the next evening, as he was expected to attend a party that would probably run late. Observing that Saitou didn’t seem much more pleased at the prospect than Sano was at the disappointing news, the young man inquired about the details. Apparently the officer would be officially representing the police at the inauguration of a respectable Kyoto manufacturer’s new branch of operations in Tokyo, but his real objective was to try to sniff out any connection between this manufacturer and a recent increase in modern weaponry on the streets.

Though he’d asked, Sano was surprised Saitou had answered so openly — and pleased as well at this sign of trust. And seeing the importance of trying to control the presence of firearms throughout the country, he tried to stifle his annoyance at having to miss another training session. At least this would give him a chance to go remind his friends that he still existed and see, once again, whether or not Kenshin had missed him.

But his visit to the dojo came to a cataclysmic end when Kaoru actually kissed Kenshin. Right in front of everyone! Sure, it was a quick, shy little peck, but everyone saw. If anybody wondered why both Sano and Megumi got up suddenly with half-formed excuses for why they must depart so abruptly, they didn’t voice their curiosity. Indeed, the two lovebirds seemed so sickeningly wrapped up in each other and the moment that they didn’t really notice much of anything. And Sano headed for the bars.

His mood was foul, but not the type that encouraged him to get phenomenally drunk; it encouraged him, rather, to pick fights. By the time he was ready to declare the night over (and technically it was, for early morning had commenced), he’d been kicked out of more places than he could count, and might not be welcome back to any of them another time. Still, he hadn’t been able to help himself when, on top of what had happened earlier to upset him, every single person he’d run into had insisted on being so damn irritating.

That last one had been the worst, and Sano still fumed in the wake of the infuriating exchange. Retaliation hadn’t been an option, since the guy was so clearly not a warrior that engaging him in physical combat would be outright bullying… and in verbal combat, the enemy had just as clearly consistently had the upper hand. Most frustratingly, it had actually stung, and worried Sano at the same time, to an unusual degree; he generally didn’t care nearly so much about other people’s opinions of him. He would have liked to discuss it, actually, with a sympathetic listener, but Katsu would be either asleep or prohibitively wrapped up in newspaper work at this hour, Kenshin would not do for a conversation that would inevitably eventually touch on the topic of Sano’s chances with him, and no one else would take him seriously.

Finding himself at Saitou’s house took Sano rather by surprise in the midst of his agitation and anger, as he hadn’t realized that his thoughtless steps were directing him to it. He did have his own place, after all; it wasn’t like he actually lived here. That this, rather than his apartment, had been his unconscious destination just showed how accustomed he’d grown to spending his nights on Saitou’s floor, and that seemed a little pathetic. But since he was here now, he might as well stay instead of traipsing all the way back across town to his trashy longhouse.

Perhaps, upon entering, he slammed the door a bit harder than he should have. And perhaps his socked footfalls in the hallway were a bit louder than they should have been. Whatever the case, Sano had barely flung open the great room door when Saitou’s irritated voice sounded from behind him: “Ahou, did you ever consider that there are certain volumes more appropriate for daytime than two in the morning?”

Grumpily and without responding, Sano threw himself onto the floor near where he usually slept.

Saitou glared at him from the doorway. “Are you drunk again?”

In trying to avoid meeting Saitou’s eyes, which, even in this semi-darkness, seemed to emit live sparks of irritation at him, Sano noticed as he looked downward that the pants Saitou had thrown on in order to come harass his noisy houseguest were not buttoned quite up to the top. This, combined with the lack of a belt and the slight sag of the pants, gave Sano a better view of the officer’s abdominal muscles than he’d ever had before, and the shadows in the room lit only by the moon through the shouji made the sight even more intriguing. However, the conclusion that Saitou really was quite physically attractive could only specifically make things worse.

“No,” was Sano’s surly reply to the question.

“Then what’s your problem?”

To say Sano replied unthinkingly would be understating the fact, as he would never in a million insane years have voiced what was on his mind if he’d given it even half an instant’s thought. “Saitou, am I sexy?”

Saitou’s expression of surprise and skepticism wasn’t terribly difficult to make out even in the shadows, and Sano experienced a moment of shock and horror as he realized what he’d just said. That it might have been entirely counterproductive and he was probably now in for a second round of denigration such as he’d suffered at that last bar, he couldn’t fail to be aware, and in extreme annoyance and some trepidation he dropped his gaze to his knees to await Saitou’s taunting.

Only then Saitou said, “Yes.”

His brain suddenly a confusion of disbelief and the scattered remnants of the defenses he’d been building up, Sano shook his head, unable to formulate a reply.

“Why?” wondered Saitou, curiosity and some amusement having replaced his prior annoyance. It was interesting how often this particular emotional exchange seemed to take place in him in response to Sano.

Well, if Saitou wasn’t going to make fun of him, and in fact, against all expectations, might be inclined to take his side, Sano might as well tell him. “There was this dickhead in the bar who decided it would be hilarious to keep talking shit at me the whole time I was there. One of those guys who probably sits at a desk all day because he knows all these big words and how to put ’em together right.

“He wouldn’t leave me alone, and I couldn’t beat him up because he was too small and scrawny, and somehow we got onto this topic of who gets more sex, and he was basically saying that I’m not attractive at all and only a dog would ever want to have sex with me and shit like that.” It certainly hadn’t helped that Sano had been talking much bigger than his actual experience the entire time, a fact his obnoxious rival might well have picked up on, but Sano didn’t plan on mentioning that aspect of the conversation to Saitou.

Saitou was grinning at this account, and more, it appeared, entertained than disdainful. “This ‘dickhead’ — what did he look like? Small and scrawny, you say?”

“Yeah, he was a short little guy. Looked straight-up like a woman, too, even with the really short haircut — I would have thought he was a woman except for the whore on his lap. She was kinda the reason we got onto the sex topic in the first place, and, you know, she could have stuck up for me. I mean, with the way she was looking at me, I’m pretty sure she didn’t agree that I wasn’t sexy at all. But I guess she didn’t want to ruin her chances with him.”

“Did he have a scar above his left eyebrow?”

“Yeah… how’d you know?” Sano wondered suspiciously.

Instead of answering the question, Saitou informed him, “That was a woman.”

“Oh, great, you know her?” Though not terribly surprised at finding his assessment of the cross-dressed bar-goer correct, Sano had to wonder why all the people in his life that drove him crazy ended up being connected somehow.

“Rather well.” The amusement in Saitou’s voice had taken on a tone of fond tolerance. “She typically wears men’s clothing. And she does have a very sharp tongue.”

“Yeah, I fucking noticed.”

“Poor ahou: always getting beaten by everyone.”

“She didn’t ‘beat’ me! Just annoyed the hell out of me.”

“And yet you made a strategic retreat. That was unusually rational of you, in fact.”

Sano gave a frustrated sigh and, rather than continuing to argue, confessed what really had him worried. “The thing is, if she thinks I’m ugly enough that it’s worth sitting there insulting me forever about, what’s to say Kenshin doesn’t think I’m totally unattractive too? It’s not like he’d ever tell me what he thinks of my looks unless I asked him, so I have no way of knowing. He could have thought that all along and I’d never know.”

“Don’t take Tokio’s opinion of you so seriously,” Saitou said somewhat dismissively. “She’ll aim for any target that gives her a chance to exercise her wit.”

“‘Tokio?'” Sano wouldn’t have guessed Saitou was close enough to any woman to refer to her so familiarly.

Saitou obviously read Sano’s meaning in the single word. “It would be odd to use an honorific with my own wife.”

This electrified Sano right onto his feet. “Are you fucking kidding me?!”

“No, ahou, I’ve been married for ten years.”

“Ten… years…? Didn’t you fight at Hakodate and everything?”

“Fighting at Hakodate and being married are not mutually exclusive.”

“Shit.” So overwhelming and unexpected and bizarre a concept Sano was having a very difficult time getting his brain around. As the idea slowly penetrated, however, he did reflect that if Saitou were to be married to anyone, that offensive woman he’d met at the bar seemed like the ideal candidate. Finally he asked, “Why doesn’t she live here with you?”

The fondly tolerant tone had returned as Saitou replied, “Tokio enjoys taking a lot of women to bed with her — sometimes all at the same time — which would be inconvenient under my roof.”

“Shit,” Sano muttered again. He didn’t know what else to say. It made sense, in that case, that the woman personally might consider him unattractive; and Saitou’s hint that she enjoyed haranguing people on topics she wasn’t necessarily legitimately invested in, just for the sake of employing her verbal skills, rendered Sano’s entire interaction with her completely understandable… but this couldn’t relieve his newly arisen concern about whether or not Kenshin found him attractive. If anything, it reinforced his fear by reminding Sano that tastes differed significantly from one person to the next. Just because Saitou admitted Sano was sexy didn’t mean Kenshin would. And Saitou was… “I can’t believe you’re fucking married,” he couldn’t help expressing aloud.

“It’s more of a business arrangement.” Saitou sounded downright tickled by Sano’s reaction, if such a word could be thought to apply to him. “We make foreign investments jointly, and that’s about the extent of it.”

They were both still and silent for a moment as Sano digested this. Why did these words seem to relieve him somehow? Because it would have complicated the arrangement if some really obnoxious woman might have dropped by any old evening and wondered what the hell Sano was doing sleeping on her husband’s floor? “So I guess…” he postulated, “you guys aren’t… in love… or anything.”

“‘In love?'” The scornful way Saitou drawled out the phrase almost made Sano blush. “You met her. What do you think?”

Sano grinned, relieved again. He’d been afraid at first it might be love in general that Saitou looked down on, and wondered for a fraction of a second what the officer must think of him for spending so much time and effort in the pursuit of it. But it made perfect sense that Saitou should speak so disdainfully of the idea of being in love with the person in question. “Yeah, she did seem really annoying.”

Saitou’s tone relaxed as he allowed, “I actually like her well enough. But she isn’t interested in men, so we’re merely friends.”

Friends with Saitou. Funny, but up until several weeks ago, Sano wouldn’t have considered that possible for anyone. Now, however, as he analyzed the atmosphere between them, he could positively state that this was a friendly silence.

Eventually Saitou broke it with an unexpected query. “Ahou,” he said slowly and somewhat pensively, “are you planning on making sexual advances toward Himura?”

“I mean, I wouldn’t put it exactly like…” Sano looked away, scratching his head. “Yeah, I guess. I’m going to have to, if this is going to work.” Since waiting for Kenshin to make sexual advances toward him certainly hadn’t.

“How?”

Sano was glad the shadows probably hid his blush at the thought that immediately entered his mind — a very nice thought, certainly, but he had to get to that point first. “I dunno,” he muttered.

“Why don’t you try it?”

“What, you mean march over to the dojo and–”

“I mean here and now. Try to seduce me and see how far you get.”

His blush abruptly deepening as his body stiffened in sudden surprise, Sano’s eyes snapped back to where Saitou still stood in the doorway. “You… you’re not serious…”

Saitou shrugged slightly, giving no indication that he might be joking. “It’ll be pretty pathetic when you’ve gone to all this trouble to impress Battousai and then can’t follow it up with a decent performance in more important areas.”

“Who says I can’t?” Sano demanded, insulted.

“I didn’t. But if you fail, you can be sure I’ll be laughing at you.”

“Fuck you.”

Saitou narrowed suggestive eyes. “I thought you didn’t intend to.”

Again Sano blushed. “I… I couldn’t. Kenshin… it wouldn’t be right…”

“Well, if celibacy is worth the strong possibility of failure, good night.” Saitou started to turn as if to go back to his bedroom.

“Hang on.” Sano took a step toward him with a sudden unexpected resolve that had arisen along with the horde of butterflies in his stomach. He would fuck the bastard’s brains out if he had to, just to prove him wrong. And it wouldn’t be so bad to get some practice in, after all… it might be nice to know what he was doing when he eventually made his move on Kenshin, and actually it would be really convenient to get it from the same source as his defense training. So he strode up to Saitou and did something he would never have dreamed he could possibly ever have considered: he kissed him.

It wasn’t his first kiss, but it couldn’t have been anything more than his eighth… and it sure as hell felt like the first. Might as well have been the first, for the mixture of uncertainty, awkwardness, nervous elation, and absolutely uncontrollable physical response involved. The tobacco and soba taste of the officer’s mouth and the warm sensation of his lips was surprisingly pleasant, and Sano dragged the kiss on longer than he’d meant to. Saitou, on the other hand, stood there motionless.

When he finally pulled back and asked, “How’s that?” it was with a bravado that was at least three quarters feigned.

The shadowy, thoughtful look the action had won him rather annoyed Sano, even in the midst of his other, more confused emotions, as Saitou demonstrated so little reaction to what Sano had considered a really good kiss. What he did instead was make a pensive sound and reach out. “Hardly enough to tempt someone into bed. Move your lips more.” And as he simultaneously slid bare hands around Sano’s shoulders and leaned forward, he murmured, “Like this,” and returned the kiss.

It was difficult to define the subtle differences to the action that made Sano’s heart throb and his knees weaken and his groin tingle; Saitou did move his lips, yes, and pushed gradually closer, but surely that couldn’t be the extent of it…!

Breathless, weak-limbed, and wide-eyed, Sano staggered back a step when Saitou released him. “Fuck,” he whispered. “You really know what you’re doing.”

The familiar smirk returned. “Try again,” Saitou commanded.

And things went from there.

***

It was with a mixture of emotions inexplicable and unfamiliar that Sano awoke the next morning much earlier than he generally did. For a few moments, eyes squeezed shut against any potential evidence to the contrary, he lay still and hoped it had all been a dream. Unfortunately, senses other than vision would provide their evidence — the futon beneath him was soft, for example, and smelled of cigarettes — and even his eyes, though closed, informed him that the light hit their lids from a different direction than it did in the great room. No, no good. He really was in Saitou’s bed.

Fuck,” he muttered, looking around at last at the room he’d never seen from this particular angle before. He hadn’t been drunk last night, but obviously he’d been pretty damn close to let Saitou do that. Do to him what had left behind a physical memory so powerful it could not be ignored, especially as he shifted into a sitting position and hugged his bare knees to his bare chest.

He tried, at least, to push away all the other memories crowding and clamoring for his attention… the sensation of hands and lips creeping over his body; the shocking realization of just how attractive Saitou really was, especially naked, how well built his body and how well suited to this particular activity; the rise of intense passion and simultaneous frustration as he was brought almost to his peak with aggravating expertise that never quite allowed him to climax until slick fingers had loosened him up sufficiently for…

“No!” God, how had he done that? “Oh, Kenshin,” he groaned, remembering just how fucking good it had felt. “I’m so sorry.”

And it had all started so innocently! Well, at least, it had all started so non-sexually… with Saitou’s willingness to listen to Sano’s concerns giving rise to the idea that Saitou might actually be someone Sano could at some point consider a friend. He hadn’t been thinking he might ever consider Saitou something more. He couldn’t consider Saitou something more. He loved Kenshin, for fuck’s sake, and this insanity didn’t change that.

The blanket needed washing, he reflected dully as he rose. He didn’t know what do to about the futon. It didn’t matter; the first thing to do was cover up the nudity that still made him think of how Saitou’s muscles felt beneath his skin, shifting hot on top of Sano, and the way trailing fingertips had sent little prickling shivers all across his body. Covering up the mottled bruise around his left nipple seemed eminently desirable, too.

“You always go to sleep like this afterwards,” Saitou said, somewhat breathlessly, when it was all over. With a deft movement of strong arms, he nestled Sano close up against him, then pressed his face to Sano’s sweaty head.

At first Sano was too dazed to say anything, but eventually, on regaining his voice, he commented hesitantly, “I… kinda hoped… I’d be the one to…”

Saitou gave a muffled laugh into Sano’s hair and raised his mouth enough to speak. “Not if you’re practicing for Battousai. Hasn’t the glimpse you’ve gotten at his true inner self shown you how things will be between you?”

Not sure what he made of Saitou’s apparent surety that sex would be any way between Kenshin and Sano, the latter said in continued hesitation, “But Kenshin’s–“

“Repressed,” Saitou broke in. “And he’ll show it in bed. His personality issues won’t let him give control to someone else at such an intimate moment, even for something as enjoyable as penetration. You’ll never get on top of him.”

Sano would have protested the disdainful reference to Kenshin’s ‘personality issues’ if he hadn’t been so busy wondering in some concern just how much of Saitou’s rather unkind assessment was true.

Now Sano considered that, since he was up so early, he should avail himself of the bath out back. It wouldn’t help with the nakedness, but obviously he wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about this any time soon in any case. “We make foreign investments jointly,” had remarked the bastard that had fucked him last night; thus he could afford a private bath. Sano might as well make use of it.

The advantage of bath-houses over private baths was, of course, that somebody else got everything ready for you, so the relaxation stage was reached much sooner and with less trouble. But eventually, even here, Sano lay back in the hot water with his eyes closed thinking about the same things he’d been thinking about almost exclusively since awakening. The biggest question at the moment remained how he could feel so good about something and yet so fucking awful at the same time.

It was all so totally wrong. Not even the proof Saitou had continually offered that this really was just practice for Kenshin — the tips he’d given Sano (usually with accompanying demonstrations) on how to go about this sex thing, the comments he’d made about Sano’s future with Kenshin, his businesslike manner throughout (considering the nature of the situation, at any rate) — not even that could change the wrongness Sano felt now, the morning after. But the undeniable awareness that it had been wildly, amazingly fun, that he desperately wanted further demonstrations of Saitou’s expertise, left him miserably conflicted.

And it wasn’t like he was having an affair or anything. He wasn’t actually with Kenshin yet, and this was just practice…

He groaned. To lose his virginity to Saitou Hajime was nothing he’d ever expected — not when he’d entered into their little agreement, nor at any time in his weirdest and most perverted dreams. He hadn’t even tried to pretend Saitou was Kenshin. And the most ridiculous thing was that he didn’t mind.

He tried to tell himself he did. The whole situation was sick — he should mind — he minded not minding. But it was clear already that his first taste of sex had changed how he felt about a lot of things… including sex. He wanted more of it, and at the moment he could accurately say he didn’t care how or with whom. Eventually he hoped it would be with Kenshin, but for now Saitou would have to do.

And how had he reached this conclusion so quickly? How had he gone from last night’s “It wouldn’t be right…” to this morning’s perfect readiness to bend over for Saitou (or, hell, to bend Saitou over if he’d let him)? Had it been at all aided by the memory of Saitou’s hot tongue on his–

“I’m not fucking thinking about that!” he growled. His face seemed more heated than the water that splashed up onto it when he slammed a fist down into the bath. He’d been in here for a long time, and had really better get out and start his chores.

***

That Saitou could sit there over supper without a single word, could act so normally, after what had happened between them last night, astonished Sano to no end. Not a syllable, not a look, not a movement on the officer’s part indicated their relationship had changed. Well, Sano reflected a bit defensively, because it hadn’t changed. Just practice for Kenshin, remember?

“You had better have been practicing,” Saitou did finally say as he smoked his after-dinner cigarette while Sano washed the dishes. “I’m not going easy on you tonight.”

At the way his brain chose to interpret that remark, Sano blushed so hard he thought blood must ooze from his eyes, and he had to fight off a totally unnecessary increase in respiratory rate. There was another thing he definitely needed practice in — he couldn’t get uncontrollably worked up like the barely-post-virginal amateur he was at the slightest thought or mention of sex. He had to be confident and in control, or Kenshin would just smile at him with that gentle condescension he excelled at and move on to something closer to his own level — or, worse, to Kaoru, who wouldn’t even be post-virginal yet.

With how much work he still had to do to become the mature sexual being Kenshin surely deserved, Sano didn’t want to jump right into combat practice. His astonishment at Saitou’s apparent indifference to the new step they’d taken hadn’t abated yet. How could the officer think to start training just like that, without a word?

“So, Saitou…” Though he’d finished the dishes, Sano didn’t turn; it was easier to bring this up — especially to bring it up without sounding shy and hesitant — with his back to Saitou. “About last night…”

“Yes?” The officer’s casual tone made it evident he really hadn’t thought much of it. It really had just been practice.

Relieved, Sano wondered, “Well, how was I?” with greater ease than before. This was the next step if he wanted to get some more. Practice, that is. More practice.

The amused curl of Saitou’s lip sounded in his reply, “Adjusting for the fact that it was your first time, or speaking objectively?”

“How do you know it was my first time?”

“Your pathetic performance made that pretty clear.”

“Hey!”

In his annoyance Sano had turned around at last, so he was able to see Saitou’s shrug. “You asked.”

“Fuck that,” grumbled Sano.

“Later,” said Saitou, in the same easy tone as before, “if you like.”

Attempting to look as cool and disinterested as Saitou and not to show the excited reaction that spread through his entire body at the words, Sano folded his arms across his chest and said, “Yeah?”

“You won’t get anywhere with Himura with your level of performance.” An interesting gleam appeared in Saitou’s eye as he added, “And I am certainly not averse to helping you improve.”

“You old lech,” Sano grinned. “Hurry up with the training, then!”

“Hurrying will make it worse.” Saitou reached for his sword, which he’d started using during these sessions only in the last week or so. “I expect you to learn just as much.”

“Bring it on,” Sano growled.

“Then don’t pass out, ahou.”

***

Sano wondered, a few days later, how sex could be so damned addictive. Since everything he’d ever heard had indicated this was the case, it came as no great surprise, but he definitely hadn’t been prepared for its influence in his own life. Alcohol had always been an effective diversion for him, but it had never been this compelling; fighting had always been a good escape from reality, but it had never been this irresistible. ‘Addiction’ was the only way to describe it, and he’d never been addicted to anything before.

This was exciting and frightening, and he couldn’t be sure exactly what he would do about it. Transfer the entire condition over to Kenshin, he hoped. And meanwhile, he planned on enjoying himself (enjoying Saitou, that is) and disregarding any guilt. He didn’t have much choice, really. Memories of sex were his constant companions during the day, dreams of sex not infrequently invaded his brain at night, and even during after-supper spars his thoughts were never fully occupied by his combative education and progress anymore — especially when Saitou took off his jacket and gloves to expose muscular arms and dexterous hands whose effectiveness in areas other than this Sano was coming to know intimately.

But one night all such distractions tumbled vigorously into the background when Sano, smoothly sloughing Saitou’s intended sword-blow away as he’d been taught — if not for the first time, at least for the first time to such a decisive degree of success — felt his follow-through connect. The next moment, of course (probably facilitated by his surprise at his own triumph), he was thrown to the floor by Saitou’s much more proficient counter-counterattack, but it was with an idiotically big grin on his face and a bubbling sense of victory and accomplishment.

Saitou stepped back, his sword-arm falling to his side. And though he undoubtedly wasn’t as full of glee as Sano, the nod he gave and his voice as he remarked, “It’s about time,” indicated satisfaction.

Bouncing to his feet, Sano struck a bicep-flexing pose as he gave a celebratory roar that turned into a laugh. “Oh, fuck, yes!” he exulted. “Did you see that? Did you fucking see that?” The brow Saitou raised worried him not at all. “Ohhh, Zanza is back in business! Anybody looking for someone to fight any ex-Shinsengumi captains? Contact me tonight and I’ll do it for free!”

“Whenever you and your deluded ego are finished…” Saitou’s tone was sardonic, but there was a touch of amusement to it as well.

“You have to admit I’ve come a long way. I couldn’t even touch you before.” Though Sano hadn’t intended a pun of any sort, he wondered if Saitou’s mind made as rapid a jump as his had from one kind of touch to another.

The officer gave no indication of such an inference as he said calmly, “True. You have improved.” Which was high praise, coming from Saitou, and only increased Sano’s excitement.

“Come on, let’s go celebrate!” Seizing Saitou’s right arm, Sano made tugging movements toward the door into the hallway.

Saitou shrugged him off easily, pointing his sword at the young man’s chest to keep him from reattaching. “Ahou, don’t you ever think of anything else?”

Attempting to hold off a blush, Sano protested, “Hey, bastard, don’t think you’re so fabulous I can’t keep my mind off you!” And was that ever a half truth at best. “I meant let’s go hit a bar somewhere.”

“You… and I… ‘go hit a bar somewhere?’ I must have been training you too hard.”

“I knew you’d say that. Come on, let’s go.”

The disbelief in Saitou’s stare increased. “Ahou, what part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?”

“The part you didn’t say, which I’m pretty sure was ‘no.’ Come on!”

“I have to go out of town tomorrow,” Saitou told him with a shake of the head. “I’m not going to spend my last night in Tokyo at some trashy bar full of lowlifes like you.”

These words fell like cold rain onto Sano’s sizzling enthusiasm. “What? How long will you be gone?”

“At least a week.”

“A week?! And you weren’t even going to tell me about this?”

“Of course I was. I couldn’t have you getting the wrong idea when I didn’t come home and going to look for me or something.”

“Like I’d ever look for you.”

“Like you’d ever have a chance at your darling Battousai without me.”

Sano made a frustrated sound. His cheer had been dampened, tempered by annoyance, but not eradicated. “Well, I still want to celebrate,” he said stubbornly. “I finally hit you!” His tone turned wheedling. “Just come out for an hour.”

“Why is it so important to you that I come drinking with you?”

Gradually Sano stilled. Why was it so important? It wasn’t as if there weren’t a dozen other people he would rather drink with than Saitou. Why should Saitou seem such a specifically desirable companion in this instance? He scrambled for an answer, and managed to come up with an excuse that might actually have been the truth. “Because… because you know what we’re celebrating, and I couldn’t really tell anyone else.”

Unsurprisingly, Saitou answered only with, “Hn.” Abruptly he sheathed his sword and moved toward the hallway door. “How late will you be out?”

Sano knew exactly what that question meant, but if Saitou didn’t plan to ask plainly Sano didn’t plan to answer plainly. “I dunno. All night, maybe.”

“Fine.” Saitou hadn’t turned to look at Sano since he’d started walking, and now did not even pause before entering the hall, which resulted in a somewhat muffled goodbye: “I’ll see you in a week or so, then.”

An inexplicable sense of bitter disappointment filled the young man he left behind. “Have fun in wherever the fuck you’re going!” Sano shouted after him. And when he’d stared at the hallway from beneath thunderous brows for several moments and received no reply, he finally whirled and stomped out of the house, slamming the back door behind him.

“Asshole,” he growled as he hopped the fence and took off through the neighborhood. He didn’t even know why he was so annoyed; he could drink just as easily without that jerk — more easily, in fact, since Saitou would probably complain about venue and company wherever they went and eventually insist they leave. Still, Sano wished Saitou had joined him, if only because he was curious about the cop’s level of tolerance.

Maybe he would go roll some dice with the guys. He’d landed the long-desired hit on Saitou; perhaps that luck would carry him to a series of wins. It was Monday, so he would probably find his friends down at Demura’s place clear across town. He could stop for a drink or two on the way, and if he ran into someone that seemed likely to treat him continually, he might cancel his gambling plans entirely. In any case, it should be a good night.

So why did he keep glancing back up the street toward Saitou’s house? It wasn’t like Saitou would have a sudden change of heart and come running out after him. And though voluntarily doing without the nightly pleasure he’d become accustomed to lately was no happy prospect, still it wasn’t like Sano would have a sudden change of heart and go running back in there to Saitou. The coming week was going to suck too, but he could stand it. He’d done it for twenty years; he could do it for seven days.

The silence weighed on him oddly as he made his way out of the residential area and into a more commercial district, to the point where he almost felt like talking to himself to fill it. Not quite that far gone yet, however, he just stomped his feet as he walked instead. He felt like being noisy, since obviously he had no chance at conversation. Damn that bastard! Was it so hard to come drinking for an hour with his star pupil or whatever the hell Sano was to him?

He paused for a moment in order to knock on his forehead. “Hello in there!” And now he really was talking to himself. “You don’t fucking care, remember? It’s not important!”

Saitou had accused Sano, the day they’d started all this, of not being able to take him seriously. But who wasn’t taking whom seriously now? All Sano wanted was to have a few drinks to commemorate this checkpoint in his training… it meant a lot to him, and what was so fucking hard about it? What seemed the most logical answer — that Sano’s company did not at all appeal to Saitou, that Ex-Shinsengumi-san would rather sit around alone and then go to sleep in a cold bed than be seen in public with someone like the former Zanza, that Saitou could find more entertainment in his own solitary thoughts than in anything Sano had to offer, that Sano in general just wasn’t good enough — was something Sano simply refused to think about. Not that he cared what Saitou thought of him in any case.

What he really needed, he realized, was to see Kenshin. It had been too long, and Sano would have to face Kaoru again eventually. That would rid his head of these tumultuous thoughts about stupid Saitou, too, so multiple birds could be taken care of with one stone. Was it too late for a visit to the dojo? Probably not… he’d have to see what the hour was by the time he made his way over there.

Ah, Kenshin. He could erase any number of problems. Sano thrust his hands into his pockets as he continued walking and began to contemplate his friend. The first smile since before his argument with Saitou crossed his face as he recalled how it had felt, in response to Kenshin’s potent words, to realize there was more to life than he’d been getting out of it, that if he looked outside himself he might actually be able to enact some change in the world, Meiji era or not. He remembered how inspiring it had been to watch Kenshin fight the Oniwabanshuu for Megumi’s sake, culminating in that dreadful (and, embarrassingly enough, only partially observed by Sano) battle with Aoshi.

He thought back to the time when old loyalties had confused him, set him on another misguided quest of violence, and how Kenshin had not only rescued him once more, but had done so in a manner that allowed him to retain his other best friend. He recalled how frighteningly noble Kenshin had been during that ridiculous pirate affair, how he’d managed to turn Shura’s heart just by being his extraordinary, strong, generous self. And of course there had been Kyoto. Even knowing the rurouni, Sano couldn’t have imagined it until he’d seen it; the image of a battered and nearly dead Kenshin rising slowly but forcefully from the ground to face Shishio yet again would forever give him shivers.

Truly, no one was as amazing as Kenshin.

With a sigh, Sano glanced behind, back up the street, one last time.

***

The footfalls that had started when speech had ceased were coming this way, hastening into a run. Sano, who hadn’t previously bothered trying to hide as he listened in, now stepped into a nearby shadowed doorway and waited. Presently, as he’d expected, a female figure passed him, moving as quickly as her zouri and restrictive kimono would allow. The glimpse he caught of her face showed warring panic and determination; she didn’t believe fleeing would help, but neither did she plan on simply giving in. Lucky for her Sano had been around to notice her predicament.

Also as he’d expected, when he stepped out of his brief place of concealment to intercept the woman’s pursuer, he found himself facing a drawn sword. He’d heard its rasp at the culmination of the argument that had set the woman running, not to mention the suddenly overtly threatening tone of the man’s voice that had previously been merely haughty and demanding. And Sano wanted to know why, between these two people that seemed to know each other and have some manner of business to discuss, things should escalate into violence. If the woman were a prostitute, it would make sense — still wouldn’t be acceptable, but it would make sense — but she didn’t look it, and this wasn’t the right part of town.

The man, like the woman, appeared to be relatively affluent, clean and classily dressed, but the katana he held was nothing out of the ordinary. And given there was no way he could mistake the demeanor of the much more scruffy-looking person that had just stepped from the shadows and held out an arm, fist clenched, to block his path, he lowered his weapon as he came to a halt and scowled. “What do you want?”

“I want to know what the hell you think you’re doing.”

“Nothing that’s any of your business.”

“You’re armed; she’s not. That kind of bullshit’s always my business.”

The man drew himself up, and his sword rose to mimic the straightness of his spine. “Do you have any idea who I am?”

“No.” Sano grinned darkly. “Do you have any idea who I am?”

Too busy narrowing his eyes and curling his lip, the man didn’t actually manage to reply to this question. It was a panting female voice from behind Sano that provided the answer: “You’re… kenkaya… Zanza.”

Sano twitched a brief glance over his shoulder to where the woman had ventured back this direction and now stood, bending as if to ease a stitch, a few cautious paces away. He gave her a more friendly grin. “Glad someone still recognizes me. What the hell is going on?”

“Butt out, mercenary!” Evidently the announcement of Sano’s former identifiers had done nothing to cow the man. “She’s my fiance; I have every right to–”

“To chase her around with a sword?” Sano turned fully to face the man again, taking a menacing step toward him. “I don’t fucking think so.”

“And I told you,” the woman put in, still breathless, “I wouldn’t marry you if you were the last man in Tokyo, no matter what your father does.”

Just Tokyo, huh? Small world.

Having evidently reached the end of his patience, the man pointed his weapon at Sano. The position of his hands and orientation of his body spoke a certain degree of expertise, and Sano, much to his pleasure and somewhat to his surprise, fell automatically into one of the defensive stances he’d been practicing with Saitou. Even the unfairly demanding wolf couldn’t criticize that reaction.

And then another voice spoke up. “I believe you should put your sword away. I would not recommend fighting this man.”

Sano’s heart, which had given a little jump at the very first word, began to pound rapidly as he turned his eyes toward the new arrival. He couldn’t believe this luck. Ever since Saitou left town, Sano had actively planned on dropping by the dojo, yet somehow been sidetracked every single evening; and now here on the fourth night was Kenshin running into him. What a gorgeous, perfect coincidence.

“Oh, hey, Kenshin,” he greeted, as casually as if he’d been expecting him. “Don’t bother trying to talk to this guy; I think he’s the stubborn type.”

Taking another step out of the shadows, where it appeared he’d concealed himself in order to see what would happen exactly as Sano had a few minutes before, Kenshin gave Sano an adorable mild expression of skepticism at the description of someone else as ‘the stubborn type.’ “I heard what he was saying to the young lady. He does seem very sure of himself.”

Sano gave a derisive laugh worthy of Saitou, at which the bratty man made a snarling sound of defiance and lunged.

To drag this fight out as long as possible so as to showcase every single move he’d been practicing lately was Sano’s goal, and he pursued it ruthlessly. The rich guy, though not on a level with Sano’s combative skills, wasn’t too bad with his little sword, and Sano allowed him to think they were more evenly matched than was actually the case as he encouraged more complex attacks just to show how well he could deflect or avoid them. And once sure he’d shown off everything — he didn’t want this to get too repetitive, after all — he knocked the jerk out cleanly with a single hit.

“I did tell him…” Kenshin said ruefully as he approached from where he’d been calmly watching.

Sano nudged the form at his feet with a brief laugh.

“That was amazing!” The woman too had come forward, and was now staring down at her fallen harasser with a wide-eyed expression of almost disbelieving pleasure and sudden freedom. “Thank you!” And she joined them in watching the shallow breaths of the lump on the cobblestones for a few moments.

Finally Kenshin asked her, “Will this make your situation worse?”

“I don’t know that it can get worse,” she sighed, “and this is certainly better than whatever he was planning to do to me just now.”

“If you require any assistance…” Seriously Kenshin gave directions to the Kamiya Dojo. “You will find friends there.”

She looked from one man to the other and nodded gratefully.

“Meanwhile,” Sano advised, “don’t let this jerk push you around. Just kick him in the balls if he tries.”

“When he’s awake and armed,” she replied regretfully, “that isn’t usually an option.” Her smile became very sunny all of a sudden as she added, “But right now…” And she lashed out with a heel with such suddenness, viciousness, and precise aim that Sano and Kenshin both winced. For an intense instant she looked as if she was considering doing it again, or even several more times, but then apparently thought better of it. “I’ve got to go home. Thanks again!”

Sano waved her away, and he and Kenshin waited in silence until she’d turned a corner. Then, not for the first time, Sano murmured, “Women are scary.”

“I hope she will be all right,” Kenshin worried.

Though Sano hoped so too, this wasn’t what he wanted to talk about. Time to get the long-anticipated reaction from Kenshin. So he replied, “Well, hopefully this guy won’t bother her again now I’ve taught him a lesson.”

Kenshin glanced down. “We should do something with him.”

“Why?” Sano started moving away from the recumbent form. “Though I did leave him in pretty bad shape, didn’t I?”

Joining him with only a brief backward look and slight shrug, Kenshin smiled up at Sano. “You did. You have clearly been training.”

“I sure have,” Sano beamed.

“And it has been well worth it,” Kenshin assured him. And he sounded impressed! He really did!!

“I’ve been working hard!”

“I see,” the rurouni went on, speaking slowly as if planning his words with care, “that you are learning to defend yourself more thoroughly, and avoid taking injury, as you fight.”

Though Sano honestly didn’t see anything wrong with taking a reasonable amount of injury as a means to the desired end, he wasn’t about to say so; rather, he launched into some smooth self-promotion: “Yeah, I’m not as bull-headed as everyone thinks.”

“I never thought you were,” was Kenshin’s automatic reply. Then he gave an embarrassed laugh as honesty evidently compelled him. “Well, maybe occasionally I did. Or maybe more often than that, but…”

But now you fucking don’t! Slapping Kenshin’s back in a friendly, I’m-not-planning-on-seducing-you-eventually sort of way, the overjoyed Sano said, “I’ve been working so hard, I haven’t seen you in forever. How ’bout we go get a drink somewhere?”

Once he regained the balance Sano’s slap had thrown him off, Kenshin smiled up at him again. “All right,” he said.

As they headed toward the nearest decent drinking establishment Sano knew (and Sano knew most of them, decent or otherwise), Kenshin continued the conversation on the same topic, which was exactly where Sano wanted it. “Have you been training ever since we got back from Kyoto?”

“Not the whole time… it wasn’t ’til after that bullshit with that Shigure guy. But I’ve been doing damn well for how long I’ve been at it, if I do say so myself.”

“You are! I was very impressed.”

He was impressed! He was fucking impressed!!

But then he said the one thing in the world Sano didn’t want him to — well, besides talking about how in love with Kaoru he was or something — “Whom have you been training with?”

Not blushing was out of the question, given the images the words conjured up in Sano’s head, even if the secondary training he’d been busy with had only been aimed at becoming better for Kenshin. And though there was surely no way Kenshin, knowing nothing of what was going on, would suspect the true depth of Sano’s arrangement with Saitou, he was struck with a wild, guilty fear that the redness of his face would reveal everything and Kenshin would utterly scorn him for the rest of his life.

“Some bastard I met on the street,” he said somewhat indistinctly, avoiding Kenshin’s eye. Technically it was the truth. “Look, there’s the Haiirobou; they do some good mitarashi.” And he hastened forward.

Giving no sign of having noticed anything odd in the answer to his last question, Kenshin followed his friend inside and joined him in requesting some snacks and sake, even openly volunteering to meet the bill like the angelic being he was. But whether his mind remained on their previous topic or he’d been brought back to it by the dango they’d ordered, he continued on it. “You are really serious about this training, if you haven’t stopped by the dojo for food even when Kaoru is not cooking.”

To hear Kenshin refer to Kaoru with no honorific was disconcerting and depressing; Sano had come to consider the ‘dono’ an integral part of the relationship between those two, and didn’t like it dropped.

“Hey,” he protested, “I was there… um, well, I guess it was a few weeks back, wasn’t it?” He tried not to think about the kiss that had broken up that party, how he’d slumped off to drink and fight away his pain, and then Saitou had… “But I’ve also got a job,” he half lied, making the addendum hastily so as to force images of that hot night out of his head, “so I’m really busy. Actually I’ve been meaning to come see you sometime soon, since my trainer’s out of town and I have some free time.”

“Everyone misses you,” Kenshin said, evidently completely oblivious to the shiver such words occasioned up Sano’s spine. “Especially the little girls.”

Though Sano wouldn’t have minded getting some more admiration out of Kenshin regarding his improving skills, the interrelated topic of Saitou that he would prefer to avoid actually made it something of a relief to abandon the subject. So he said teasingly, “Ayame-chan and Suzume-chan just can’t get enough of a real man when he shows up, huh?”

Kenshin laughed along with him. “I believe Ayame-chan may be developing some interest in Yahiko.”

“And he can’t see anyone but Tsubame-chan, so he’ll never notice.”

“That does seem to be the case.”

They both laughed again, but Sano couldn’t help noticing the irony of the exchange. Reminded by this of one other that shared his plight, he asked, “By the way, have you guys seen kitsune-sensei lately?”

Appearing somewhat worried, Kenshin shook his head. “No. Kaoru and I are concerned about her; she seems to be overworking herself. Something is troubling her, I think.”

For this Sano had no reply. A variety of reasons existed not to tell Kenshin bluntly that Megumi was in love with him and undoubtedly trying to distract herself with a heavy workload from thinking about his engagement to Kaoru — especially when Kenshin went on musingly, “Actually, I believe the last time we saw her at the dojo was that same night when you were last there.”

Yeah, funny coincidence, Sano was tempted to say aloud. He hoped Megumi would pull through this. Things would probably be especially bad for her when Sano jumped in and proved that Kenshin and Kaoru could be broken up with the right application of leverage. At that point, if she could never bring herself to examine and treat his hand again, he would completely understand. He should probably visit her for a checkup sometime before he alienated her permanently.

“Speaking of Kaoru worrying,” Kenshin said, looking around, “I promised her I would not be out too late.”

Sano clenched his jaw to keep it from dropping open, and sounded almost as appalled and unhappy as he actually was when he protested, “But you just got here! You’ve only had two drinks!”

“You were right,” said Kenshin as he prepared to rise. “The mitarashi here is delicious. But Kaoru will be expecting me back.”

Struggling mightily for a jovial tone rather than the deep bitterness that wanted to spill out in his words, Sano replied, “Funny… I didn’t notice that collar around your neck until just now. Where does that leash lead off to?”

Kenshin’s smile acknowledged the tease while at the same time reproving very slightly. “It is not a leash, Sano; it’s basic courtesy.”

“Yeah, of course.” Sano forced a smile in return. “Have fun. I’ll talk to you later.”

Kenshin nodded and bade him a casual goodbye that seemed somehow very cold in spite of its informality. Even the wave he offered from the door before he slipped out was no consolation. And Sano was left staring down at the last of the dango and the sake he fully intended to finish before he left, wondering where all the pleasure in his night had gone.

***

How Sano endured the remaining four days before Saitou returned, Sano wasn’t at all certain. Though he did make it to the dojo on two separate occasions, all that happened there was the assignment of chores and babysitting jobs and the opportunity to observe Kaoru making eyes at Kenshin, who was as gorgeous and oblivious as ever, and Sano came back extremely frustrated. Eventually he was so agitated, and judged himself so impossible to be around, that he lay in the bath the entire last day of Saitou’s absence, emerging only to stoke the fire for another period of hot water, alternately napping and languidly masturbating.

The only coherent dream he had during any instance of sleep, however, was about Saitou rather than Kenshin, and explicit enough that he awoke with an erection to go along with his confusion. He needed Saitou here, to put things in perspective, to calm him down, to get everything back on track. With Saitou around, things were a lot easier to understand — everything except Saitou himself.

So he took care of his condition, finally vacated the bath, and checked over the house to make sure it was up to the bastard’s exacting standards of cleanliness and organization. He’d done this yesterday, hoping Saitou would be home then, and probably didn’t need to do it again… but figured he couldn’t be too careful. He even gave the great room floor one last and somewhat unnecessary sweep before he went into the bedroom.

He’d been shamelessly sleeping in Saitou’s bed all week, and didn’t think twice about preparing to do so knowing its rightful owner might join him there tonight. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t been using it when Saitou was around, and anyway this was all just an arrangement. But it did feel odd to be surrounded by that cigarette smell, which never really washed out of the linens, without actually having the smoker in the house. It felt… wrong… somehow. Of course the whole situation was wrong, but it wouldn’t last much longer. Because Kenshin’s wedding careened toward them faster every day, and Sano would be damned if he lost him after working so hard.

Having stripped to his wraps, he tossed his clothes aside on the floor and himself down onto the futon. Though the night was hot, he always felt the need, in bed, to be covered with something, and pulled the blanket loosely over his stomach. Then he closed his eyes, lay still, and tried to escape the confusion of today’s thoughts by forcing himself to contemplate Kenshin coherently and purposefully.

Exactly when he fell asleep, or what he was thinking at the time, he didn’t know. But at some point he sensed vaguely a draft of cooler air, soft sounds nearby, the advent of a warm body beside him, strong arms around him, and breath on his neck as a deep voice said… something… before he returned to his dreams. He couldn’t make out the words, and didn’t remember them in the morning, but somehow he felt better than he had the previous day despite again awakening alone. The only indication that Saitou had returned was the new laundry in the basket and a few dirty dishes in the kitchen.

That day, unfathomably happy, Sano whistled as he did his chores, every vestige of yesterday’s agitation and confusion gone. He washed his own clothes along with Saitou’s, borrowing the officer’s red yukata until the sun had dried everything else. Not that his clothes particularly needed this attention — he’d laundered them just last week — but for some reason he wanted them clean. It was the same non-reason he’d taken another bath this morning despite having lived in the water yesterday. Some of Saitou’s fastidiousness must be rubbing off on him.

Then he spent longer than usual making supper. Things weren’t turning out the way he wanted them, for some reason. And the table didn’t look right no matter how many times he reset it; it took four attempts before he considered himself (grudgingly) satisfied. Saitou must really be rubbing off on him — he’d never cared this much before whether the rice was perfect or whether the chopsticks were at the correct angle!

He sat down to wait.

“Is that empty bowl particularly interesting this evening, ahou?”

At the first syllable of this question, Sano jumped, rattling the table, then nearly upset the latter as he rose clumsily to his feet. “What bowl?” was his stupid response.

“The one you’ve been staring at for the last three minutes.”

“You were standing there that long?”

Saitou raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t even notice? That’s an achievement even for you.”

Flustered, Sano protested, “I was thinking, all right?”

The mocking expression on the harsh face intensified, though there might have been some interest there as well, as Saitou asked, “Ah, and was Himura impressed with your new skills?”

Sano shook his head. “How the hell do you always know fucking everything?”

“I look around, unlike a certain idiot I know.”

Turning, Sano dropped back into his place at the table. “Well, get over here and look around at this food before it gets cold.” Despite his exasperated sigh, however, he’d enjoyed this exchange, and he definitely enjoyed having Saitou in the same room again. Against all odds, it appeared he truly was glad to have the bastard back.

The officer sat, and they commenced eating just as they had so many times before. They often spent the first half of the meal in relative silence, since little came between Sano and his food; but it seemed to Sano that, though Saitou wasn’t saying anything more than usual, his gaze crossed the table with a strange frequency. After a while it began to get irritating, so finally Sano asked, “What are you staring at?”

“You.” Saitou was unfazed by his companion’s belligerent tone.

“Yeah, I noticed that much. What about me?”

“I was just wondering how else you’ve wasted your time this last week. Not practicing, I assume.”

Would Sano never again be able to hear words like ‘training’ and ‘practice’ without blushing? He bent over his vegetables to hide his face. “Maybe I have been. You don’t know.”

“I think we covered what I know just a few minutes ago.”

Sano choked on his latest bite, gripped suddenly by the uncanny thought of Saitou being able to see him wherever he went and whatever he did — especially, though not exclusively, what he’d been doing yesterday. “Hey, don’t go claiming to have any supernatural powers or anything,” he said weakly, through a cough.

“Only in bed.” This was uttered at such a deadpan, without the slightest change in facial expression as Saitou sipped his tea, that at first Sano didn’t quite know what to say.

Finally, as the implications of the phrase sank in, Sano grinned. “Kyoto was cold, huh?”

Saitou’s face remained tilted slightly downward into his cup, but Sano caught the amused gleam in his eyes as they rose toward him in acquiescence.

“Then hurry up and finish, old man. It’s been cold here too.”

Section 3

Days passed, and suddenly it was July. How could time have been moving so slowly when it was already July? Looking at the calendar on the wall in Saitou’s office, despite how meticulously the officer kept to the current page, Sano still felt there must be some mistake. It could only be the beginning of June at the very latest! Even the weather didn’t seem to believe it could possibly be July; this was the mildest summer he could remember.

Though he never definitively brought it up, and Saitou never questioned, Sano began pushing himself harder than ever in all areas. Technically he could probably entirely abandon the combative part of his training, since the goal of impressing Kenshin had been accomplished… but Sano felt he wasn’t quite getting something, that something lay just barely beyond him; he was sure if he only reached far enough, trained thoroughly enough, he would understand. If only Saitou would giver him some positive feedback! As Sano had predicted all those weeks ago, ‘not hopeless’ was the best he would ever get. Even just a word or two of specific encouragement would do him a world of good.

This overwhelming desire for an expression of approbation from his mentor brought Sano to the realization of just how reliant he’d become on Saitou, and forced him to a reluctant decision: regardless of what remained for him to learn, he needed to extricate himself from this dependency. So on July 8th, having finished his chores early enough to be done before Saitou appeared, he went home… though that phrase didn’t feel entirely accurate anymore; his run-down apartment seemed almost unfamiliar after so long. It was definitely cold. Very cold, particularly at night. And the lack of a certain heat during those hours was not the least of the circumstances he needed to acclimatize himself to. He should only be thinking about Kenshin now, even at night — especially at night — and he needed a clear head for the upcoming trial.

And he was prepared, wasn’t he? In the important areas, at least. He’d built up better defensive skills than he’d ever had, could easily continue practicing them on his own, and had caught Kenshin’s eye with his abilities and his willingness to change and grow. He’d learned so many lovemaking tricks that he hadn’t even gotten a chance to test half of them yet, but he sure as hell knew what their effects on him were; he figured if Saitou could do it to him, he could do it to Kenshin.

So why did he still feel there was something serious, something vital, that he hadn’t figured out yet?

In searching his own head for the answer, in trying to lay everything out neatly in the hopes that he would be able to spot the missing piece, he found only confusion. Of course lately he’d been confused on a fairly regular basis, and he assumed it would clear up once he was triumphantly and happily settled down with Kenshin, so he attempted not to worry too much about it.

Settled down with Kenshin? Now that he thought about it, this circumstance seemed unlikely. Sano’s intentions were going to destroy or at least severely damage some of the friendships they had here in Tokyo and — he hadn’t considered this before — effectively evict Kenshin from the Kamiya Dojo, at the very least until Kaoru recovered. A single glance around assured Sano he couldn’t very well invite Kenshin to stay here with him in the limited space under this leaky roof… it was about time he made some concrete plans.

First, the confession.

“Hey, Kenshin, can I talk to you?”

“Of course, Sano.”

Then I put my hand on his shoulder and step up close. “I’ve been wanting to tell you for a long time. A really long time. Maybe ever since I first met you.” Dammit, even in my own fucking imagination I can’t spit the damn phrase out.

So Kenshin says, “Yes?”

“Kenshin… I love you. And I don’t want you to marry jou-chan.”

Then he stares at me like I’m crazy and says, “But I love Kaoru! I am sorry, Sano.”

Fuck! No! Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. How about this…

“Hey, Kenshin, can I talk to you?”

“Of course, Sano.”

Then I take him for a walk away from the dojo and make sure jou-chan doesn’t follow, and once I get him somewhere private I give him a kiss — a really good kiss, like the kind where Saitou…

He shifted in discomfort and annoyance where he lay on his moldy futon staring at the ceiling. It took several moments to get his thoughts under control again.

Yeah, so I kiss the hell out of him, and while he’s all breathless afterwards I say, “I love you, Kenshin. Please don’t marry jou-chan; it’ll break my heart.”

And he’ll look at me and realize he’s loved me all along and was only going along with jou-chan because… whatever; anyway, he’ll see that me and him just have to be together, and he’ll say, “Oh, Sano, I am so glad you told me this! I might never have realized, but of course I love you! I must cancel my wedding to Kaoru-dono.”

Again he was derailed. Because that was going to fucking kill Kaoru.

He’d never given more than marginal reflection to this topic, but now he supposed it was time to focus on it squarely. Kaoru loved Kenshin. Kaoru had supported Kenshin, emotionally and financially, almost from the very moment she’d met him. Kaoru had waited ages for a return of affection from Kenshin. And once Sano had won Kenshin away from her, had broken her heart, how could he live with himself?

And yet… shouldn’t she have picked up, after those platonic ages, that Kenshin would only marry her if she pressured him into it? By this time she should be braced for the possibility of never actually having him. And it wasn’t as if a lengthy period even of the impressive type of unwavering support Kaoru had been providing entitled her to romance; she shouldn’t expect it! And, honestly, did Kaoru really love Kenshin? Was there a proper bond of souls there, or was she merely dazzled by Kenshin’s awesome amazingness?

Besides, Kaoru was strong and resilient… she’d recovered nicely once before when Kenshin had left her. Even if the emotion she felt toward Kenshin and the expectation of living happily ever after with him were both serious and deep, even if the series of events Sano planned on initiating did break her heart, she would eventually be fine. She would go on to find a love more properly suited to her, and perhaps even, someday, reinstate her friendship with the two men.

Though far from satisfied, Sano steeled himself. That was the best he could do, so he pushed thoughts of Kaoru’s part in all of this firmly aside and went back to meticulous planning of his conversation with Kenshin. “Hey, Kenshin, can I talk to you?”

This set of reflections left him much closer to satisfied. He believed he had things worked out reliably well, having come up with a general plan of attack, specific arguments against any weak excuses Kenshin might provide, and some really delicious mental images of how things would go from there. Then he would suggest they remove to Kyoto for a while — he could do some work for the Oniwabanshuu or something to support them — as a sort of honeymoon. It gave him shivers just thinking about it.

Over the next couple of days, he took to practicing the persuasive statements he had in mind whenever he was alone — which, given that he’d come home specifically to concentrate and not be distracted by anyone (mostly by Saitou), he usually was. As long as he didn’t botch his delivery (and possibly even if he did, depending on how near the surface lay Kenshin’s subconscious love for him), he didn’t think anything could go wrong.

That at least some aspects of the affair still had him feeling undeniably, skin-crawlingly wrong he continued attempting to ignore.

And July 15th arrived. Sano didn’t have to make any special effort to rise early, for he’d been awake all night. Once the light of dawn touched his unsettled figure in its twisted blanket, he gave up trying to sleep and commenced pacing instead. Hands in the pockets of his freshly washed pants, he chewed his lip in between hours’ worth of broken further rehearsals of what he was coming to consider his lines for the day.

Finally, “What the fuck am I doing?” he grumblingly demanded of himself. Throwing open the door with decisive vigor, he strode out toward the Kamiya Dojo and his conquest.

***

Though Sano raised his arm toward the dojo property’s outer door, his fingers seemed to shrink back toward the palm of his hand rather than extend to open it. Was he really that nervous? His steps had been sluggish all the way here, and his mind was in a turmoil. He was more than ready for this, so why the hesitation?

He brushed the handle, which was good for a start. He had to stop overthinking. Had to set worry aside and just go in there and do this. It was his own happiness he sought; delay would do nothing for him. What was wrong with him? After a deep breath he intended as steadying and encouraging (little as it functioned thus), he clenched the muscles in his arm to fling the door open.

“Sanosuke.”

He froze. Not having heard the other man’s approach was nothing unusual, but the use of Sano’s actual name was.

“Sano.”

And his nickname, even? Sano turned slowly. Under other circumstances, he might have been annoyed with Saitou for throwing him even farther off balance than he already was with the unprecedented name-calling, but he found himself bizarrely pleased at the officer’s presence. The very sight of him there puffing away at the ubiquitous tobacco fix braced Sano unexpectedly.

“Hey,” was his weak greeting. “Come to wish me good luck?”

“Since you didn’t bother to say goodbye a week ago…” That the generally articulate Saitou didn’t finish the sentence struck Sano as odd, but he took his point. Actually it was touching — and surprising — that Saitou would wish him well, so far even as to show up here specifically today.

Sano smiled faintly. Saitou had been really nice all along, hadn’t he? Nice and supportive and a lot more of a friend than Sano had ever expected to find him. It would have been appropriate to thank him for that at this point, but an unspeakable ocean of things Sano needed to say already threatened to drown him. So he just gave the older man a wave that probably didn’t convey much as he turned toward the door again.

And then Saitou said his name for a third time. The sound of those syllables in that voice was so unusual and so compelling that Sano turned back immediately. He noticed now, as he looked closer, that Saitou’s appearance differed somewhat from that of last week: he was worn out, Sano thought, and perhaps a little thinner… haggard, almost. He’d clearly been up all night as Sano had. He must be working on a difficult case.

Though Sano sympathized, he couldn’t handle delay. Still, he tried to keep any unfriendliness from his tone as he asked, “What do you want?”

The period Saitou then spent staring, cigarette near but not quite touching his lips as if he’d forgotten about it, lasted so long that Sano would have thought his own patience shouldn’t have covered it… and yet he made no move, nor attempted to break the silence. And finally Saitou said, “You’re finding this difficult.”

“Yeah, no shit,” Sano muttered.

“Why?”

“If I knew what was wrong, I’d have kicked its ass by now.”

One corner of Saitou’s mouth lifted. “Pithy, as always.” He came a step closer, looking abruptly so pointedly determined that Sano shivered. Those golden eyes seemed ready to stab into him every bit as devastatingly as Saitou’s sword had once done. “My point,” he said, “is that you don’t actually want to go through with this.”

Sano stiffened. “What? What the hell do you mean?”

“Maybe you haven’t realized it yet, but you don’t really want Himura.”

“What the fuck would you know about that?” He managed to make this demand in a decently defiant tone, and the feeling of fists forming from what had previously been lax, sweating hands encouraged him somewhat, but mentally Sano was even more of a mess now than before.

“I was sleeping with you for two months, a week, and three days. It makes sense that I would know some things about you.” Saitou’s smirk lacked something; it looked put on, like a mask behind which his true feelings were completely unreadable.

“And you came all the way over here to tell me this at the last minute?”

“I came all the way over here at the last minute,” Saitou said slowly, as if struggling for words, “to tell you that I don’t want you to go through with this.”

At this the final strands of Sano’s annoyance and impatience unraveled, leaving behind thin-stretched nervousness and a condition, newly revealed, that seemed very much like unhappiness. But there was curiosity too, and something else he couldn’t quite define, in response to Saitou’s words and unusual demeanor. “What? Why?”

The officer stepped even closer, so that only a short distance remained between them, never removing his piercing gaze from Sano’s. “I am in love with you.”

Inability to breathe or, for several moments, to formulate a coherent thought in the wake of the sort of reality implosion that had just taken place inside him left Sano stammering and dizzy. What kind of a development was this?

All these months practicing at… at… everything… had all been real to this guy? All along? Or else since when? And Saitou claimed Sano didn’t want Kenshin, which carried the obvious implication that there might be someone else Sano did want… and Saitou had an infuriating habit of being right most of the time. And Saitou was not only capable of love, willing to admit he could and did love, but loved Sano? Enough that he would actually say it in such unmistakable, uninsulting terms? How had that happened?

Everything was spinning, and Sano suddenly found himself leaning on the frame of the door he’d been trying to open just minutes before. The figure in front of him had become more of a concept, a puzzle he was being forced to solve, than a proper visual, and seemed to be flickering in and out, repeatedly replaced with a different concept, a different puzzle, a torment to Sano’s eyes and brain. Kenshin, Saitou, Kenshin, Saitou… what was he going to do?

***

As the silent mental wrestling match progressed, Saitou watched in raging anxiousness, unmoving and equally silent. He didn’t miss a single expression that crossed the young man’s face as Sano furiously contemplated this upheaval, but what to make of those expressions he didn’t know. He feared his own interpretation must be miserably biased, but interpretation was all that could occupy his mind at the moment.

No, that wasn’t true. In addition to this, his mind was full to bursting of any number of things, many of them emotion-charged images and memories: Sano jumping in mud puddles and kicking rocks; Sano yelling until he was pink in the face; Sano lounging around Saitou’s home as if it were his own; Sano complaining in colorful language about the littlest, silliest things; Sano sitting across from Saitou at the supper table, laughing at something Saitou was telling him about work; Sano twisting and attacking during their training, somehow simultaneously stubborn and responsive; Sano straining upward as Saitou thrust deep inside him… Everything was Sano: cheerful, infuriating, funny, beautiful Sano. It was all Saitou could do to keep from shaking in fear at the thought of losing what he’d so unconsciously come to treasure.

The only person that could hide anything from Saitou with any success, he reflected bitterly, was Saitou himself. He’d certainly repressed this well, at any rate. Exactly when it had started — exactly how long he’d spent denying what he felt, coolly claiming that the entire arrangement with Sano was nothing more than a source of entertainment, eventually easy sex, and perhaps something like unexpected friendship — he still didn’t know. He probably would never have admitted it even internally if he hadn’t been forced to.

When Sano had disappeared so abruptly without a word of explanation, Saitou had tried to tell himself first that he wasn’t surprised, then that he didn’t regret the loss, then that he missed Sano only as he would miss anything he’d become accustomed to having around, that he would soon cease to notice his absence. But just the consciousness of that absence — the awareness that Sano might never come back, that Saitou might never see him again or perhaps encounter him only as Himura’s lover — had roused in his suddenly racing heart a sharp, squeezing pain that increased with every lonely moment and every thought of Sano. He’d been overcome with a furious and nearly unconquerable desire to go after the idiot, drag him home, and never let him go again, and this had made plain to him the full scope of his own emotions.

And now what? He’d been encouraging Sano’s plan to win Himura — at first because it was so amusingly ludicrous, but eventually because it seemed to mean so much to Sano — and therefore hadn’t made any provisions against falling in love with Sano himself. If he’d even recognized that as a possibility, he would have been more guarded, probably wouldn’t have slept with him, would at least have watched himself for symptoms and nipped any budding of what he would have considered a very inconvenient and counterproductive attachment.

Or, if the attachment had been inevitable, which he was more than a little inclined to think, if he’d merely known his own heart earlier, he could have spoken then and avoided the badly timed outburst of today… the one that, every moment, he expected to have thrown back in his face with anger and derision… or, even worse, stupefied pity.

But he hadn’t been lying when he’d postulated that Sano didn’t really want Battousai. Wishful thinking it might be, but not dishonesty. To him, Sano’s behavior over the last few months, not to mention the way Sano spoke of Himura, indicated nothing more than a superficial infatuation. Saitou certainly didn’t believe Himura had any romantic interest in Sano, but, again, wishful thinking might be skewing his perception.

If Sano continued his plan, walked in there now and made his confession, what would be the result? And if it turned out Saitou was the only person around here that actually understood his own feelings, might not irreparable harm be done to more than just him by the decisions made behind these doors?

Of course, even if Sano didn’t love the rurouni, and even if he could acknowledge that, it did not necessarily follow that he loved or could acknowledge he loved Saitou. There were any number of ways in which these events could end very badly.

Sano’s emotions tended to be printed across his face like words on a page. Saitou therefore watched all the more carefully, looking for any sign of favor in those eyes, those lips, that set of jaw and level of brow. But though every feature seemed active, the whole was also almost unreadable in its chaos. As Saitou had predicted, Sano didn’t really know what he wanted, and was at the moment overwhelmed with confusion — better than outright rejection, than a dogged clinging to his supposed love for Himura, but horribly tormenting in the interim. What would he say?

Nothing, it turned out. Instead of speaking or even attempting to speak, Sano spun jerkily and ran away.

Saitou released a tense little sigh as he watched the white-clad figure tear off down the street like a madman. That Sano wanted time and privacy to think things over meant more hope for Saitou, but the latter would rather be with Sano than know he was dealing with turmoil and confusion alone. The presence of one of the causes of that confused turmoil probably wouldn’t improve Sano’s mood or assist his thought, but still Saitou would like to be with him during this difficult time. At the very least, he would like to know immediately what conclusion Sano came to.

Deciding that, in any case, he would prefer to remain as close to him as possible until the crisis had ended, he tossed away his cigarette and lifted his leaden feet to follow.

***

It felt as if Sano had done a lot of running lately — a lot of leaving behind of problems, a lot of avoidance of things he didn’t want to face. But he couldn’t go to a bar and drink this away. He was literally running, but he couldn’t outdistance this issue. He had to stop moving, stop mentally reeling, and face this.

What did that mean, “I am in love with you?” Sano knew it meant, “This changes everything.” He knew it meant, “I won’t lose you to Himura.” He knew, as surely as if Saitou had said it aloud, that it meant, “Stay with me.” Maybe forever, because that was the kind of person Saitou was. It held an entire world of meaning, the earnestness of a strong heart and unwavering character directed toward Sano with the piercing purpose and desire he’d observed in Saitou’s eyes just now. It held the offer of everything Saitou was, and the life that could create for Sano, for both of them. Because that was the kind of person Saitou was.

But how could it be possible? After all their training on various battlefields for today’s trial, that Saitou would be the one to back down had never seemed remotely likely, had never occurred to Sano. He hadn’t even thought the officer particularly invested; Saitou had just been getting his chores done and some nightly entertainment, hadn’t he? But now it turned out that in fact Saitou loved him. It didn’t make sense.

Without having given any thought to where he was going, Sano found himself approaching the river near the spot where, just over a year ago, Kenshin had taught him one of the most important lessons of his life. Perhaps the singular appropriateness of the place had drawn him. He clambered up onto the wooden wreckage that had changed very little since he’d last seen it — certainly far less than he had — stared out over the sparkling water, and essayed to make some sense of his racing thoughts.

He tried to think of Kenshin, or at least to give equal time to the two most prominent men in his life, but apparently his memory had other ideas: Saitou moving with that spare but graceful stride; Saitou mocking him with a gleam of eye stating that, although he meant the insult, he didn’t mean any hurt by it; Saitou sitting across from him at the little table, surprisingly easy and pleasant company; Saitou training him, his concise words and precise movements teaching Sano more than he’d ever learned from anyone else; Saitou conjuring up reactions from his body that he couldn’t have imagined… Although he’d come to accept some time ago that Saitou was not the heartless bastard he’d long thought him, he hadn’t realized until it was laid out in front of his mind’s eye like this what a wonderful person Saitou really was.

But Sano wanted Kenshin, didn’t he? He’d always wanted Kenshin! Since that first day here at this very spot, when his life had been turned upside-down, he’d wanted him. Kenshin was gorgeous; he had eyes you could melt into and the world’s sweetest smile. He could move like nobody could, and he’d done things nobody else could have done. Kenshin was kind and admirable and amazing. You just couldn’t help loving Kenshin. Of course Sano wanted Kenshin.

Even if Kenshin never paid Sano much attention, didn’t know where he was or what he was doing or notice when he was gone. Even if conversation with Kenshin rarely progressed past the superficial, and Kenshin was never willing to spar with him. Even if the connection Sano felt with Kenshin didn’t really go far beyond that of one comrade deeply indebted to another. Even if memories of Kenshin came in discrete little bursts like recalled interesting moments from an otherwise unmemorable play he’d seen at some point — unlike those memories of Saitou, which grasped him in an unshakable grip, rolled him over, climbed on top of him, and started kissing his neck. Fuck it all. Everything was snapping into focus.

Sano was in love with Saitou.

The whirling of reality seemed abruptly to cease, and as Sano gazed out over the calm river he thought his eyes were continually adjusting as if he’d been falling and had suddenly been righted.

No, he never really had loved Kenshin. Not the way he’d believed he did. He gave a hoarse, wild laugh, in fact, as it occurred to him that the feelings he’d vaguely attributed to Kaoru in his attempt to excuse what he planned on doing were actually, more accurately, his own: not love — not romantic love, at any rate — but rather an awareness of the heroic, mysterious image of the hitokiri-turned-rurouni, who had taught him such an important lesson and done such impressive things, that had dazzled him. Dazzled and blinded him so he couldn’t see anything else, even what should have been glaringly obvious.

Of course there was some legitimate physical attraction there, but what did that mean? A lot of people Sano met or noticed in passing were physically attractive, and he wouldn’t necessarily want to spend his life with them. Of course Kenshin was a comfortable friend to have around, but Sano was realizing now that this friendship had a sort of stagnation to it, an unchanging complacency and a lot taken for granted. And of course Kenshin had revolutionized the way Sano lived, and Sano would always be grateful for that… but love didn’t necessarily follow. He could appreciate without idolizing. Hell, he could even, if it came to it, idolize without desiring.

He needed someone to saturate his existence, someone whose presence in his mind was more than just a disconnected series of isolated events; someone that didn’t consider him merely a groupie, and had a real emotional reaction to his presence, whether that was good or bad; someone that knew him well enough to understand his thoughts, and was actually interested enough to pursue them; someone that would surprise him instead of sticking to an endless routine; someone uncontrollable and perfect. He needed Saitou, and if he went back to the dojo now he would be making the biggest fucking mistake of his life.

***

A tall blue figure stood on the long bridge over the river, a smoldering cigarette held to his lips, watching the unceasing sparkle of sunlight on the water beneath him. The bright spots burned his eyes and remained in negative, obscuring his vision, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to look away.

He should be at the police station right now; he should be working. God only knew what kind of mess Chou would be making there without him. Somehow Saitou couldn’t quite bring himself to care.

Presently he found his cigarette had shrunken to a butt, which was farther than they usually got before he threw them away — though it was possible he’d only let it burn down rather than actually smoking the thing to this point. He allowed it to fall from lax fingers into the water, and there lost track of it. Another would be nice, for the comfort of the thing, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to search one out and light it. He merely stood still, perfectly still, waiting in silence.

Sano wasn’t far off. He’d stopped at a point just out of sight of this bridge that seemed to hold special significance to him, and Saitou had come here to wait without even taking care not to let Sano see him following. And here he waited.

He tried not to think about Sano, tried not to think about the situation or the last few months or the possible future. But the burning sun and its unpleasant effect on his body in a relatively heavy jacket, the coruscating whiteness of the river water, the case he was currently working on and the harm Chou might do it while left alone, the state of the country in general… none of it could take his thoughts off Sano. Just as the officer had been unable to do anything recently, even sleep, without thinking of Sano, so Sano dominated his thoughts all the more in this crucial moment.

What would he do if the young man went through with his plan, went back to the dojo and the clueless, undeserving Battousai? Wait around like a faithful hound in case he might have a chance at second place? No, never. He was Saitou Hajime, and he could deal with this as he’d dealt with any pain or loss he’d ever experienced. If Sano rejected him, he would leave Tokyo and move on. He’d been alone for years; he could do it again.

And yet, if Sano did go through with his plan, and was, as Saitou believed he would be, rejected by Himura, he would emerge from the dojo heartbroken and probably in greater need of support than he’d ever been. Could Saitou bear to abandon him at such a moment? Just because the plan was idiotic didn’t mean Sano would suffer any less when it failed.

But approaching him at that point, even purely as a friend offering comfort, would be like pressing his suit, taking advantage of Sano’s frame of mind to insinuate himself as a replacement for the originally desired prize. There were many circumstances under which Saitou would have no objection to such underhanded methods in pursuit of a worthwhile end, but in this case his pride would not allow it. He would not be satisfied with attentions from Sano under any pretenses not completely straightforward. He would not take second place, and he would not take advantage.

But if Sano needed him…

Finally he lit another cigarette, using jerky, irritable movements and viewing the package and matches only imperfectly through the burn spots on his eyes. Then he turned back toward the water and continued to damage both his vision and his lungs.

Not quite knowing what to do was an unusual state for him. He was half inclined to go seek Sano out, half to go home. Which was the wisest course he couldn’t tell, and the awareness that nothing he did was likely to make much difference, that the outcome of this situation lay entirely out of his lands, made the decision seem pointless in any event. He was Saitou Hajime, who had outwaited enemies in the most uncomfortable of circumstances and whose work often required immeasurable patience… but this extended ignorance, he thought, might well kill him.

How long he’d been standing here he wasn’t sure — it could have been minutes or hours — but eventually he felt as if he was at last ready to move. Where he would go and what he would do he likewise wasn’t sure, but the moment finally seemed right. So he lifted his hand to toss what remained of his latest cigarette into the water unfinished before he turned to walk away, but found himself frozen as a figure appeared in the corner of his eye and footfalls sounded across the planks of the lengthy bridge.

He knew Sano’s tread as well as his own, and he thought his heart slowed with each step toward him until it stopped entirely. He ached to look, to see the noontime brightness picking out the subtle differences of shade in Sano’s hair, gilding his smooth skin, sparkling in his eyes, but he didn’t move. He couldn’t move. What he might see in those eyes when he turned his own in that direction kept him paralyzed. He was Saitou Hajime, dependent on no other person for his own fulfillment, and yet he could not move.

These continual reminders of his identity were having little effect. The terrible, wonderful presence nearly at his side was enough to make him forget himself in an instant.

Hotter even than the July sun, ready to burn Saitou into nothingness with his verdict, ready to send him from this place in agony, Sano paused a few feet away for several moments without a word. Finally he came to lean on the railing beside Saitou, reaching out a casual hand to nab the forgotten cigarette from dangling gloved fingers. “So,” he said after a long drag, “why the hell did you wait so long to tell me?”

Under other circumstances the question might have been ambiguous, but here Sano’s tone and the language of his body made its meaning plain. And as if Saitou had been entirely suffused with anxiety so great it was almost despair, swollen and tight with it, he seemed now to feel this wretchedness draining out of his sensitized tissues and spirit and dissipating. He was conscious of relief in every part of himself, every muscle and bone, every corner of his mind; it left him embarrassingly weak. And yet his motions were strong and sure, energized by the same outside source that had freed him from his fears, as he turned and reached out.

Crushing, jealously clutching, he drew Sano to him, flush up against him, fitting them together as they were meant to fit, as perhaps they always had been. One hand at the base of Sano’s spine and the other on his neck, Saitou did not allow any space to remain between them as he tilted Sano’s face upward and descended on slightly parted lips with his own. Sano gave a muffled sound of surprise, but the squirming motion of his body was clearly intended only to wedge himself even closer as his own arms circled Saitou’s back and held tenaciously.

Overwhelmed as he was with relief and happiness and desire, Saitou had no other way to express himself at the moment. He could only kiss Sano as he never had before, as he’d never allowed himself to, as he’d never felt the need to, trying to communicate thus what he could not, at present, convey in words: all the fervor and adoration that had been building during the last few months and had now broken over him like a thunderstorm.

Eventually, dizzily, panting, lips swollen and internal temperatures significantly increased, they were forced after some unknown period of time to stop kissing each other, at least for now, and acknowledge that the world around them still existed. Saitou, however, only saw it reflected in Sano’s eyes, which were at the moment extremely bright and clear and still very close to his own, as the two hadn’t loosened their mutual embrace. Sano stared at him with a shocked expression that might presently turn into a grin but at the moment was still too much blown away for anything but astonishment.

“You… never kissed me like that before,” he gasped.

Before Saitou could even reply, he had to kiss him again, but he made it brief this time. Then, “I couldn’t have you staying with me just for the sex,” he explained, every bit as breathless as Sano.

“Shit.” Somehow Sano’s eyes managed to widen even further. “Have you been holding back there too?”

“Come home,” said Saitou, conscious of a thrill like electricity at a phrase that suddenly held an entire new world of meaning, “and I’ll show you.”

***

During a kiss that had seemed to last forever, to promise forever, and yet hadn’t been nearly long enough, Saitou’s feelings had required no clarification, but the fact remained that Sano couldn’t read Saitou nearly as well as Saitou could read him. As they embarked on the long walk across town, Sano couldn’t shake the impression that Saitou was still worried, and he wondered if he was imagining things.

It would make sense, though… he didn’t like to think what his poor wolf must have suffered waiting for Sano to make up his stupid mind. How long Saitou had loved him Sano didn’t yet know — it was one of a number of questions he wanted to ask — but every moment that emotion had been recognizably present in Saitou’s heart while Sano mindlessly pursued someone else must have been a torment. And recovering from that kind of ongoing concern and agitation must take more than just one kiss, especially given that the conclusion Sano had come to had been reached over the course of less than an hour’s reflection.

The silence that settled over them as they walked, however, seemed to forbid speech. The thousand things that needed to be said — reassurances, queries, explanations — busily lined up in Sano’s head and quickly lost patience, but he couldn’t bring himself to say a word. He wasn’t uncomfortable walking next to the officer, but he did feel… well, impossible as he would otherwise have considered it, he really did feel… shy… and he believed the revolutionary nature of the kiss on the bridge had caused it. Their relationship, the entire scope of their interaction, and, in fact, Sano’s whole spinning world had changed… and he doubted what to do or say now.

But the need to reassure Saitou was overwhelming; the thought of him still skirting the edge of fear and sorrow, and Sano doing nothing to steady him, was unbearable. Somehow he had to demonstrate the seriousness of his decision. So he reached out — almost without looking, lest he deepen the blush that already rode his cheeks — and took the closest gloved hand in his own. As he interlaced their fingers, he thought he saw from the corner of his eye an expression turned toward him that seemed to say, “Right out in public, ahou?” Yet Saitou didn’t pull away. In fact he never pulled away, throughout the entirety of that lengthy walk.

As the familiar house came into view, Sano’s heart gave a little throb. “Come home,” Saitou had said. This was home. At the same time, the silence became discernibly heavier and more expectant than before, and Sano wondered what Saitou believed to be the cause of the increasing sweat on his palm that must be palpable through the glove. In any case, he finally disengaged his grip as they went inside, closed the door behind them, and removed their shoes in continued wordlessness.

Sano had to admit he wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted at the moment. Well, he knew of several things he wanted very much, but in what order they should be accomplished and how each should be carried out he couldn’t tell. His body longed for the sex Saitou had promised him — somewhat annoyingly perpetually demanded it, actually — but those thousand things he had to say clamored with equal noisiness in his mind. His heart, full of a variety of emotions, was making the obviously erroneous claim that it would be quite content doing nothing more than simply being here with Saitou, while simultaneously informing him that the unprecedented post-bridge shyness had only become stronger.

With all four doors closed, almost no light shone in this hallway, and Sano had never before felt so grateful for that circumstance. It meant the intensity of his blush couldn’t be seen as Saitou pulled him close in the darkness, though the pounding of his heart would undoubtedly be felt. Saitou didn’t kiss him this time, but drew him into a tight embrace as the silence dragged on. And Sano got the feeling, somehow, that he was still worried. Sano himself was nervous, but that overwhelming need to prove himself and the truth of his feelings was as strong as ever. Words still weren’t quite working, so, until they were, actions would have to do; that at least helped to clarify what the order of events was to be at the moment.

He stepped back out of Saitou’s arms, but, catching hold of one, urged the man toward the door for which the fingers of his other hand fumbled. Then the dim light of the shuttered bedroom filled the passage, and they moved together into it.

Sano caught his breath at the sight of the room, and was at last able to speak. “You left your futon out this morning.”

“Is that really what you want to talk about, ahou?” Though the tone was one of skepticism nothing alien to Saitou, yet there was a hint of evasiveness to this answer — as if he was reluctant to admit to a morning state of mind so distracted and unhappy that he hadn’t bothered to put his futon away… a state of mind that was, perhaps, still lingering in traces.

Instead of forcing Saitou to discuss the unpleasant details of earlier hours, Sano turned to him with a grin. “Your housekeeping’s hopeless without me, isn’t it?” He trailed down the arm he had hold of until he caught Saitou’s hand, then began walking backward onto the futon in question.

“Don’t get too high an opinion of yourself,” Saitou admonished, smiling crookedly as he allowed Sano to pull him down to his knees on the bed.

Kneeling, Sano immediately leaned forward to kiss Saitou. And though this was something he’d done many times over the last couple of months, he was blushing harder than ever now — which probably explained why the kiss started out so soft, though it didn’t stay that way long. For Sano pressed closer eagerly to taste the cigarette flavor of Saitou’s mouth, and Saitou teased Sano’s tongue out with his own.

With so much blood heating his face, that there was any left to form an erection down in the sudden tightness of the wraps beneath his pants was astonishing. Sano’s chest rose and fell rapidly with the intensity of his breaths; and, wanting to get some part of Saitou in between his legs, he squirmed closer to him in an attempt to rearrange their limbs a bit, rendering their kiss messy and difficult to maintain as he moved. The desire he felt to be closer to Saitou was like an explosive force expanding within him… and it was this very desire, seemingly contradictorily, that slowed him.

Because words from earlier, “I couldn’t have you staying with me just for the sex,” had come back to him all of a sudden. Saitou had clearly been teasing with that statement, but the memory of it reinforced Sano’s awareness that his current actions could be interpreted in more than one way and might not be as reassuring as he intended. He throbbed for Saitou in every part of his body, and he fully planned to use that body to convey his emotions… but he had to preface that with words. He couldn’t proceed one step farther in this process, couldn’t so much as kiss Saitou one more time, before he’d done so.

His lips tingled as he drew back, and his heart felt much the same as he looked Saitou in the eye. He found himself abruptly overwhelmed with a feeling of vulnerability like nothing he’d ever experienced even when he’d been specifically encouraging Saitou to attack him. Everything that had gone before had been mere play compared to this moment; with this he would be opening himself up to Saitou, exposing his heart, as he never had. It was a breathtaking sensation.

“I love you,” he said in something of a rush, quietly and hoarsely. “Don’t think, just ’cause I realized it all of a sudden, I don’t mean it. I’m just sorry I didn’t notice sooner.”

Saitou smiled, and if there had previously been any trace of worry in his expression, it had now vanished. “I only realized a few days before you did,” he said. “For once, I’ve been just as stupid as you.”

Sano grinned in return. “I don’t think either of us have been stupid.” He was able to speak more easily now that the soul-baring moment was over. “This shit is crazy; we couldn’t have predicted it.”

The smile on Saitou’s face widened to match Sano’s. “And for once I think you’re right.”

Leaning forward again, Sano half growled as he approached Saitou’s lips, “Why don’t you stop insulting me and fuck me already?”

Saitou’s chuckle was muffled and then cut off completely.

Of all the garments between them, Sano’s gi was historically the easiest to remove, and it wasn’t long before sliding gloved hands had pushed it down off his shoulders and Sano had pulled his arms free so it could be tossed aside. Then he replaced his own hands on Saitou’s neck, where they ran continually up to the man’s ears and chin and back down to just beneath the collar of the blue police jacket. Though he’d actively taken Saitou’s clothing off on numerous occasions and knew exactly what the officer looked and felt like underneath, Sano found himself inexplicably nervous about initiating this process at the moment — and simultaneously hungrier for Saitou’s nakedness, more eager to get at his skin, than he’d ever been before.

And then, in a hasty movement almost impatient, Saitou gave a brief, teasing twist to one of Sano’s nipples, ran one knuckle down the wraps beneath it over stomach and waistband, and took hold of Sano’s erection. Sano stiffened, his lips breaking away from Saitou’s with a groan, at the very unsubtle touch. As Saitou began a massaging motion through the cloth of Sano’s pants, he murmured, “I think you’re even harder than usual.”

Sano’s attempt to answer was an incoherent failure, and where he had previously been working on the buttons of Saitou’s jacket he was now clutching pointlessly. Eventually, in a clumsy-fingered trance of pleasure, he resumed his previous activity, though his aim wasn’t likely to be accomplished any time soon. Presently Saitou turned his full attention to stripping his companion, and Sano took advantage of the brief removal of direct stimulus to hasten his own efforts in that direction as well. He’d barely managed to remove the jacket when Saitou’s arms, returning from shrugging that garment to the floor, encouraged Sano upward so as to shed his pants.

The moment the latter had fallen around his ankles, Sano would have relinquished the standing position, but Saitou held him steady as he rose up on his knees; and suddenly it was Saitou’s mouth rather than his fingers that worked against Sano’s cock, now with minimal material between. The sound of pleasure Sano let out was sharper than before, and his legs trembled and stiffened as the world seemed to be tilting sideways and threatening to take him with it. This made Saitou chuckle, and the vibrations of the laugh tingled against sensitive skin and only increased Sano’s imbalance. His hands came down heavily on Saitou’s shoulders as he struggled not to fall right over.

Gloves, soft but rougher than the hands they covered, lightly brushed against Sano in one spot after another, teasing, as Saitou deftly unwound the wrappings around Sano’s abdomen and crotch. No sooner was Sano’s erection freed to throb in the open warming air than Saitou’s tongue ran along it, eliciting further absurd noises from Sano’s throat and more pronounced trembling of his legs. Then, though Sano wouldn’t have thought there had been a chance for Saitou to remove his gloves (not that he was probably observing time properly at the moment), bare, calloused hands were exploring his exposed buttocks and the space between them, making it nearly impossible for him not to writhe.

In response to growing pleasure he thought soon must become overpowering, Sano forced himself to make the somewhat half-hearted protest, “You’re gonna… make me come… way early… like that.”

Again Saitou chuckled, with much the same effect as before — an effect that was augmented by the vibrations of his words: “I want you to come early. Then you can come again late.” And so saying, he took the head of Sano’s cock in his mouth and began sucking it deeper in.

At this, Sano’s fingers dug into Saitou’s shoulders, and he made another inelegant noise. This was followed by a few more, voluntary sounds, which had been intended as words but didn’t come out resembling anything of the sort. Eventually, though, he managed to articulate more or less comprehensibly, “Rather… have you… inside me… better that way…”

“Hmm,” Saitou said, wringing an inadvertent groan from Sano once more. The officer drew back so as to disengage his lips and tongue, then remarked, “I can’t say no to that.” He licked the tip of Sano’s erection again briefly before he added, “We’ll see if you can last that long.”

Determined to prove he could, Sano was nevertheless unsure; he was so affected by Saitou’s stated intention to make him come multiple times, by the awareness that Saitou specifically wanted to give him pleasure, that every touch threatened to send him over the edge. It came extremely close when Saitou’s fingers, on returning to the crevice between Sano’s buttocks, proved now to be slick with oil that eased their quick slide into the opening there.

In fact the only thing that kept Sano from orgasm was the sudden distracting mental query as to why the oil had been near the futon at all. Whenever they weren’t actually busy fucking, it was always put away neatly in the cabinet. The room didn’t stretch far in either direction, but the cabinet was definitely too distant to reach from here… so the jar must already have been on the floor nearby.

The ensuing theory — that Saitou must have had some personal use for it very recently — would have been enough to make Sano come hard as the mental image of Saitou masturbating hit him like a hot blow, but for the accompanying pathos at the thought of the man he loved attempting in desperate loneliness to recall physical sensations that were all he had left of someone he believed he might never see again.

Prompted by this miserable image, “I love you,” Sano gasped even as Saitou’s fingers pushed deeper inside him.

“And I love you.” Saitou sounded as if he would like to know why Sano had felt the need to make that statement just at that particular moment, but he didn’t ask; he just licked Sano’s cock again as if he wanted something less comprehensible instead. He got it. It wasn’t merely the tongue, though, or even the fingers; it was the words. Sano had never realized how amazing it could feel to hear them like this, to exchange that declaration in such a context. It rendered all of this so much more meaningful, as if they were operating on a totally new level. Now more than ever he wanted Saitou inside him.

And it was time, as evidenced by the withdrawal of fingers and Saitou shuffling backward slightly into a cross-legged position right at the end of the futon. Gratefully Sano dropped to his knees even as Saitou unfastened his own belt and the buttons of his pants. Before he could bring out the instrument with which he would more thoroughly penetrate and pleasure Sano than his fingers could, Sano growled, “You let me do that,” and pushed Saitou’s hands aside.

Yet again Saitou chuckled, though the sound disappeared as Sano leaned forward and kissed him while his hands dove into the blue pants and found what he sought. He thought as he did so that Saitou, too, was harder than usual. Never had he loved any texture as much as the hot, silky skin of Saitou’s cock, and couldn’t help rubbing it up and down, smearing the pre-ejaculate from the tip as far across the length as it would go. Of this substance he could taste traces of his own in Saitou’s mouth, and he could feel the moan in Saitou’s throat as he continued to massage his erection with one hand while the second pushed impatiently at his pants.

He had to break off the kiss a moment later in order to look around for the oil jar, and while his head was turned Saitou began mouthing his jaw and neck. Locating the lubricant and scooping some messily up to dribble onto Saitou’s cock, Sano rubbed the latter down again — partly to ensure even coverage, but partly just because he wanted to return the pleasurable teasing Saitou had given him.

Saitou groaned, and his teeth closed on the flesh of Sano’s shoulder, causing Sano also to make an abrupt noise in surprise. The older man’s hands pulled at the younger’s body, trying to draw him into the closeness they both wanted, and, as Saitou had remarked not long ago, it was an invitation Sano couldn’t deny. He clambered forward fully across Saitou’s lap, ignoring the slight discomfort of a starched waistband and a belt buckle against his exposed flesh, and positioned himself somewhat awkwardly while keeping hold of and guiding Saitou’s erection.

The moment he’d been waiting for was exquisite, and, as he ground down onto the long solid shaft, he felt he was allowing more into his being than just that. Physically the sensation was the same as ever — the stretching tightness and fullness, both somewhat uncomfortable in an absolutely wonderful way — but the feeling of deriving mutual pleasure from taking part of his lover inside him was maddeningly heightened. The awareness of having opened himself to Saitou as never before had only increased, and the intense intimacy this led to was augmented to a nearly unbearable pitch by the certainty that Saitou would not take advantage of that vulnerability. There were times, of course, when any weakness of Sano’s was fair game, but this was not one of them; at the moment, Sano thought, Saitou was every bit as open as he was, relishing this honest show of Sano’s feelings and pleased at a soul-deep level by Sano’s presence.

Overwhelmed by all of this, Sano pressed hard against Saitou in a full-body shiver, flexing around the stiffness that now filled him and giving a helpless groan. This mingled with Saitou’s sound of pleasure, and they more or less stilled with the officer’s hands tense against Sano’s lower back and Sano clutching at Saitou’s shoulders. The messy, hungry kiss that followed did little to stop Sano’s noisy gasping or Saitou’s moan as Sano continued to clench around him and shift in his lap. And when one of Saitou’s hands sneaked into the limited space between them to grasp Sano’s aching erection, Sano went from panting to crying out.

Clearly Saitou’s ability to articulate was in a state similar to his partner’s, but it seemed fairly sure that what he whispered roughly into Sano’s ear was along the lines of, “Is this what you wanted?”

Sano felt as if he’d been stripped not just of his clothes, but right down to his most sensitive organs, and once again the consciousness of Saitou’s devotion to his pleasure seemed to lance straight into his bared heart — which was, of course, connected directly to his entire sexual system. There was absolutely no way he could respond coherently to the question that had affected him so strongly, but Saitou seemed to understand that the answer was a riotous affirmative. As he pumped his oil-slicked hand up and down Sano’s length, he growled something that sounded very much like, “Then come for me.”

At times Sano didn’t enjoy being ordered around by Saitou, but now he did as he was told. With a cry, stiffening, clutching at Saitou tightly, Sano let the ecstasy spread explosively across his body and the less physical realms of thought and emotion that appreciated it, perhaps, even more.

Upon returning from the prickling mists of insensible pleasure to the more mundane but still astonishingly enjoyable world he knew, Sano found Saitou slowly kissing his neck beneath his upturned chin. And as Sano looked down again, Saitou transferred his attention to the young man’s lips, leisurely working them open, trailing his tongue over them and over Sano’s. His movements seemed smug, somehow, and he was still hot and solid inside Sano’s ass — and the fact that he, yet unsatisfied, was so pleased with having brought Sano so hard made Sano shudder and cling to him again.

Though this current position, seated and entwined, was a little awkward, Sano didn’t want to move from it just yet. He didn’t want to move at all, in fact, savoring the fading throb of orgasm, and couldn’t be sure how long he sat flush against Saitou breathing in the scents of the hot air. Moreover, he loved the feeling of precision that came with penetration in such a position — they way they fit together so perfectly, as if they’d been cut from a single pattern of the same material — and how even the minutest motion tested the boundaries of that connection and reaffirmed it with little jolts of sensation.

He also loved — particularly loved — how Saitou reacted to each of those minute motions, those little jolts. Sano was very tight around him since coming, and even the movement of his calming breaths seemed to tug at the hardness inside him and make Saitou moan.

“So…” Sano said at last, softly, when his mouth was free for a moment. “Was I really pathetic that first night?”

“Yes,” replied Saitou at a whisper. He was unfastening the last of the wraps around Sano’s upper body — unnecessarily, since they covered nothing relevant to the task at hand, but Sano did not begrudge it him.

Slowly he squirmed, reveling in the fullness and solidity and, most of all, how affected his lover was. “Really?”

Saitou’s hands clenched almost convulsively against Sano’s back, and his whisper was broken as he replied again, “Yes.”

Sano stopped his teasing movements and scowled. “I thought for sure you were just being an asshole when you said that.”

“You…” Saitou kissed the corners of Sano’s pouting lips. “…were an awkward scared virgin who was thinking about someone else and came after about thirty seconds.” As he drew back a bit and observed Sano’s increased glower, he grinned and added, “And I enjoyed it very much. You could have done a lot worse and I would probably still have enjoyed it.”

Placated, Sano also determined, now, to wring more distinct praise out of his lover. He ran one hand up under Saitou’s black shirt, which was sticky with Sano’s ejaculate, to pinch one of the officer’s hard nipples even as he started squirming again more pointedly against the hot length that filled him below. “You don’t think I’m pathetic now,” he growled.

“No,” Saitou gasped, his eyes closing briefly and his whole body tensing beneath Sano. “Not at this, anyway.”

Sano couldn’t help laughing. “I’m not even going to ask what you still think I’m pathetic at.” His motion had taken on a rise and fall that began gradually to mimic thrusting. “I’m so not-pathetic at fucking now that you want it all the time.”

“That’s right.” It was half a chuckle and half a groan as Saitou pulled Sano closer against him. The rubbing of Sano’s flaccid cock on Saitou’s stomach as he did this wasn’t entirely comfortable, but that didn’t matter much.

“You can probably never stop thinking about me.”

“Possibly.”

“Even at work when you’re supposed to be thinking about other things.”

“Maybe.”

“And even Aku Soku Zan and all that isn’t as important anymore.”

“You’re getting… too high an opinion of yourself… again…”

Sano grinned. “Just checking.”

Breathless as he returned the expression, Saitou replied, “Ahou.” And as his unblinking gaze bored into Sano’s, there was a feeling of something snapping, as if even the patient, powerful Saitou couldn’t bear this any longer. His arms tensed around Sano and his entire body shifted, and Sano was suddenly propelled downward to land heavily on his back on the futon with Saitou atop him. Then there was barely time for a desperate kiss and some brief disentangling of limbs before Saitou was thrusting into him hard and fast.

Sano’s abruptly shattered thoughts as he shouted in surprise and pleasure had something to do with the idea that if this was what happened when he got Saitou’s cock inside him and started teasing, he would definitely have to try that more often. He wasn’t quite ready for a second erection of his own yet, but in this new heat and speed and intensity — not to mention the awareness that Saitou had been driven to it by Sano’s words and actions — he knew it wouldn’t be too much longer.

A noise of frustration forced its way through the happier ones Saitou was making, and suddenly, dismayingly, he was pulling back — pulling out — and getting to his feet.

The sight of Saitou yanking his clothes off with quick, determined movements was exactly the opposite of disappointing, but Sano was yet compelled to make a disappointed sound at the constriction and emptiness caused by the removal of the hard length that now stood out from Saitou’s bare body beyond Sano’s reach. And Saitou was so desirable, so perfect in every way that mattered to Sano… beautiful, even, if such a word could be thought to apply… from the hair he’d mussed with the removal of his shirt to the scars that dotted his shins — the only scorch marks he’d borne from Shishio’s fortress, as Sano, upon inquiry, had discovered the first night. (‘Horribly burned,’ indeed!) Even the white socks, which often seemed out of place with Saitou’s dark clothes and that now looked downright silly, Sano loved.

At the pitiful noise Sano made, the officer looked down as he kicked his pants aside. And it seemed the complaint had actually been counterproductive, for the quick return movement toward which Saitou’s body had tended was now stilled, and he stood staring in silent pensiveness. The lust in his demeanor had not diminished, but he obviously felt the need to take this moment to scrutinize, from that height, the young man lying propped up on one elbow at his sock-clad feet, naked and ready for him.

Sano’s shyness and the piercing awareness of their increased intimacy was ongoing, and he knew he was blushing as Saitou’s glinting eyes traversed his body. But this was no one-sided or disconnected appreciation; the mutual approval and admiration and desire were palpable between them, tying them together like a hot cord along which thoughts seemed to run from mind to mind without words. It sent a shiver through him that was something like discomfort or nervousness, or what these conditions would be if nearly all unpleasantness were stripped from them.

Saitou’s intent gaze didn’t leave Sano as he dropped to his knees and blindly sought out an auxiliary helping of lubricant, the application of which made him gasp, before crawling forward. Somehow the half smile on his otherwise serious face served to render his entire expression more intense, and Sano groaned not only at the sight of it but at the mere touch of Saitou’s hand on his leg. That second erection was very close now.

And then Saitou was pushing into him again, and Sano was groaning not just in pleasure but in something like relief. Saitou didn’t wait this time, but immediately began thrusting. His skin, now free of encumbrance, slid against Sano’s with hot friction as he curled down atop him and kissed his face with such imprecision it was as if finding his lips was not merely impossible but unthinkable at the moment. Up and around Saitou’s tense back Sano slid his arms, fingers spread wide to feel the shifting of muscle beneath them. Then he drew his knees up as far as they would go and began running his curling toes at random over Saitou’s lower body.

The change this occasioned in the angle of constriction on Saitou’s cock made the wolf groan out his lover’s name in between his panting breaths, and that was enough for Sano, in a prickling rush of sensation, to start becoming hard again. His moan matched Saitou’s, and immediately he tried to press closer to the shifting body above him so as to trap this new erection tightly between them. Unfortunately, this left not quite enough of him against the futon, and Saitou’s next thrust slid him right off one edge.

The floorboards were unexpectedly cool beneath his shoulders, and he gave a little cry of surprise in which was mixed some pleasure, equally unexpected, at the temperature contrast. Saitou laughed breathlessly and, without bothering about the fact that Sano was half off the bed, adjusted his position. He braced himself more firmly with strong arms on either side of Sano, and kept at what he was doing.

Some tiny segment of the burning, spinning, out-of-control part of Sano that claimed to be his mind insisted that later he would have to remember this new angle and try for it again, because it was fabulous. Everything besides Saitou atop him and inside him, Saitou loving him, had faded rapidly from his awareness; he’d practically forgotten his own identity, except as far as he was Saitou’s lover, and didn’t particularly mind. And by the gorgeous expression on his face and the increasingly pleased and eager noises he was making, Saitou seemed to be enjoying it too.

How long this went on Sano couldn’t guess; such mundanities as seconds and minutes (and caring about them) seemed inapplicable to this ecstasy. He held tightly to his beloved, moved with him, felt with him, and nothing else really mattered. And then, as that full-body tingle of second orgasm swept through him, compelling him to cry out in an attempt (not very successful) at Saitou’s name, he tightened every part of himself that was locked to Saitou, clenching most notably and somewhat painfully where Saitou still moved inside him. It made his outburst of pleasure even louder, in which he was joined by his partner as Saitou ground into a suddenly much smaller opening. Saitou quickened his pace for the last few deep thrusts it took him to come as well, with a moan as formless as Sano’s had been.

They celebrated this accomplishment with a few kisses almost exhausted and certainly uncalculated, then lay mostly still, breathing hot mist against each other’s skin for quite some time. Things besides Saitou and Saitou’s body and Saitou’s love were reminding Sano that they existed, and he wanted to laugh as he discovered how well he and Saitou together seemed to fit into them. Everything was perfect right now, even if they were still lying half off the futon and had, he was fairly sure, spilled the oil jar at some point.

Eventually, with a sigh and the kind of wincing care he never exhibited under any other circumstances, Saitou lifted himself slowly out of direct contact with Sano as he pulled gradually out of him. Then he shifted so that when he settled again, it was lying properly on the bed, and he pulled at Sano to join him. Sano squirmed over and into the arms that awaited him, pressing back against Saitou’s hot flesh and kissing him briefly on the neck before stilling with an echoing sigh. They fell silent, except for breaths calming only in their own good time, and Sano, analyzing the silence as he had often done since he’d met Saitou in the street that day that seemed so long ago, classified it as ‘exquisite.’

All silences, even the most beautiful, must end eventually, especially between two such men, and Sano didn’t mind when he felt he couldn’t refrain from speaking any longer. “So you weren’t lying. You really were holding back before.”

“Because I was trying to simulate the boring sex I imagined you having with Himura.”

Later Sano would have to explore the interesting idea of Saitou imagining him having sex with Kenshin. At the moment, however, the reference was extremely awkward. “Shit, please don’t mention Kenshin at a time like this.”

“Good.” Saitou sounded very pleased as he ran a hand up and down Sano’s back in response to the younger man’s shudder. “I’d rather have you thinking exclusively about me anyway.”

“You might want to be careful… I can get kindof obsessive…” Though Sano grinned as he said it, there was a touch of embarrassment to the warning.

“I’ve seen how you can get when you think you’re in love; I’m very interested in how you get when it’s real.”

“You’ll probably still think I’m an idiot, though.”

“Of course. I wouldn’t love you half as much if you weren’t.”

“I’m going to quote you on that.” Sano wondered if he would be receiving nearly this many declarations of love once the current atmosphere of intense emotional connection between them had faded, and believed keeping this latest one firmly in mind would be extremely useful in the future when Saitou was talking down to him as usual.

“I’m sure you are,” Saitou chuckled.

Sano angled his face upward to look into Saitou’s, and found the older man smiling fondly at him. He smiled back, upon which Saitou nipped at the tip of his nose and then kissed it. Sano kissed him back, but on the mouth, and then drew away with a thoughtful expression. “You know what you never have showed me?” he mused.

“Hmm.”

“How to fuck you.”

“No… in the previous context it seemed unnecessary.”

“This is not the previous context.”

Saitou’s eyes narrowed. “It certainly isn’t. Do you think you can handle more lessons from me?”

“I’m pretty sure I could spend the rest of my life figuring out better ways to be with you.” The lightness of Sano’s tone did not hide the fact that he meant this statement, in all seriousness, on multiple levels.

Again Saitou smiled at him. “Well, we’ve discovered you can be taught, so I think it’s worth a try.”

***

Sano’s gorgeous new life (which, honestly, almost mirrored the old life, except that he understood it better) had progressed only a few days before he ran into Kenshin. He hadn’t expected this quite so soon — he’d believed nothing but the wedding itself, which he obviously couldn’t miss, could tear him away from Saitou for the next long while, but the work of Mibu no Ookami waited for no man and didn’t always keep the most convenient hours for newly declared lovers. The fact that Saitou was likely to be out all night drove Sano from home with afternoon just turning to evening; visiting the dojo wouldn’t help with the pining and worrying that would torment him later when he went to bed alone, but it could at least prevent him from starting in on those pastimes several hours earlier than absolutely necessary.

Kenshin was just emerging from the main doors with a shopping bag over his arm, and Sano immediately reflected how funny it was that, only a few days before his marriage, nothing had changed for the rurouni. Somewhat unthinkingly, he stepped forward and remarked on this aloud — which was fortunate, because after that thought came a whole slew of others that he had to work through before he could possibly speak again.

Perhaps nothing had changed for Kenshin, but everything had changed for Sano. He almost couldn’t believe he’d previously considered himself in love with this man. Of course he loved him — in fact, a warm wave of affection washed through Sano as he looked Kenshin over now — but it was a comradely love, even a brotherly love, and that he could ever have mistaken it for anything else seemed absurd. Sure, looking with less bias now than before, Sano could still admit Kenshin to be damned attractive (though ‘tall and lean’ took a firm first place on his list of desirable physical attributes these days), but this was nothing more than an impartial observation such as he might make about anyone he met. There was no trace of active desire.

What there was was guilt, and even a certain measure of horror. The awkwardness Sano had planned to thrust upon Kenshin had been unkind and unfair, and the heartbreak and betrayal he’d callously declared perfectly appropriate for Kaoru had been unforgivable. How grateful he was that they knew nothing of it! How immeasurably more grateful he was that Saitou had snapped him out of his lengthy trance of inconsiderate stupidity before friendships could be strained or even destroyed. Saitou hadn’t rescued him merely from emotional turmoil, but from actually making a worse person of himself. Not that having considered it in the first place didn’t weigh pretty heavily yet… but at least now Sano had the chance to improve, to avoid a repetition of such reckless thoughtlessness in the future. Thank god, once again — and Saitou! — that Kenshin and Kaoru would never know.

In direct contrast to the mixed nature of these feelings, Sano was struck by a straightforwardly pleasant irony in the reflection that he had originally intended to get to Kenshin by way of Saitou, then ended up doing just the reverse. It only made the sight of Kenshin, regardless of any other emotions simultaneously called up, that much more welcome to Sano’s eyes. He could make amends, whether or not Kenshin and Kaoru guessed what for or even that he was doing it. He’d been learning a lot lately; surely he could learn to be a better friend too.

At the moment, Kenshin was wrapping up his explanation of what he needed to shop for and why it was necessary that he rather than Kaoru do it; and, though Sano hadn’t caught most of the exact words, he could easily read his friend’s mood.

“I’m glad you’re happy, Kenshin,” he said with earnest sincerity. “Really glad.” It was all he could do not to ask how he could help keep things that way, which would just sound silly.

“Thank you,” said Kenshin, equally intent. Then he gave his companion a brief, sidelong look whose meaning Sano didn’t recognize until Kenshin continued in a somewhat cautious tone, “And you, Sano? It looks as if you have made up with Saitou, so I assume things are going well for you…”

Torn abruptly and violently from schemes of better friendship and personal improvement, Sano stilled with a jerk and stared, gaping, as Kenshin kept walking a step or two before stopping as well. Hoarse and quiet, Sano echoed, “‘Made up with…'” and could say no more.

Turning to face his friend, Kenshin looked as if he regretted having decided to ask. “If you would rather not talk about him…”

“No, that’s not…” Sano cleared his throat and shook his head vigorously, feeling a blush creeping over his face to replace what had probably been an unusual paleness there a moment before. “I just… didn’t know you knew about us.”

“I couldn’t be sure I was interpreting things correctly,” Kenshin admitted, “until that night at the Haiirobou, when you were so embarrassed when I asked whom you had been training with. I thought you must be worried I would disapprove.”

This conversation had gone in a direction so completely, so stunningly unexpected that Sano could say nothing but, “And… do you?”

“I did at first.” Kenshin sounded apologetic. “Especially because you did not come to see us very often, and seemed so agitated whenever you did. But I believe I am used to the idea now. It is your choice, after all.”

They’d resumed walking, and Sano was speechless. Kenshin trusted him in a way he hadn’t done Kenshin the honor of trusting him: to make a rational decision about his own love life. And he’d known all along — the entire time Sano had been training and scheming and deliberately overlooking sense and morality — all along that Sano was involved with Saitou. As Sano perceived clearly the precise depth of the abyss he’d so narrowly avoided flinging himself into, the true scope of the embarrassment and misery he’d only been saved from by the care of another, he was hardly able to breathe for horror and chagrin.

“Saitou was stalking around for a week or so as if he was ready to kill someone,” Kenshin went on when Sano said nothing. “That is, he always looks like that, but this was worse than usual. But when I’ve noticed him over the last few days, he has appeared much happier.” In a tone of pitying resignation he added, “I assume there will be plenty of fights between the two of you, but, once again, it’s your choice… and after that business with Hasekura, I did worry less.”

Sano still had no grip whatsoever on this discussion, and could only repeat blankly, “‘Business with Hasekura?'” The name was vaguely familiar; he thought he remembered Saitou mentioning it at some point… one of the government officials on the ‘to be investigated eventually’ list, wasn’t he?

Now Kenshin gave him an inquiring look that turned quickly to one of surprise and even disbelief. “You did not know?”

“I still don’t know. What are you talking about?”

“Saitou never said anything at all about Hasekura Susumu?”

“I’ve heard the name, but he never told me anything specific about…” Sano’s presence of mind got no support from the nearly astonished expression on Kenshin’s face.

“Sano, the man you fought in the street that night — the same night I mentioned, when we went to that restaurant — his father is Hasekura Susumu, of the Ministry of Finance. Hasekura was so angry at what you did to his son that he was going to bring charges against you — you really know nothing about this?”

Mutely Sano shook his head.

“The police were searching for you for a week. They came to the dojo almost every day.”

“But…” Thinking back, Sano remembered that he hadn’t left Saitou’s house for quite some time after the incident in question. “But Saitou knew where I was that entire time!”

“I suspected as much when he suggested you were in hiding. He contacted both me and the young woman we met that night for an unofficial hearing. Any charges against you were dismissed when the police chief heard two witnesses describe the circumstances and the fact that the Hasekura boy actually attacked you first. And you will be happy to hear that he was ordered to stay away from her.”

Sano nodded blankly. It was good news, but nothing he could concentrate on at the moment.

His mind reeled and his heart throbbed with the thought of what Saitou had done for him. The officer had gone out of his way to free Sano from trouble he must have assumed had arisen during the pursuit of a goal he considered ill-judged in the first place. He’d taken time from the busy schedule of essential work he had to do for the country to smooth over that little issue for Sano, who at that point had not even been his lover. Saitou’s sense of justice had undoubtedly come into play, but Sano liked to think consideration for a friend had also been a part of why he’d taken such pains. And he hadn’t said a single word about it — had neither held it over Sano’s head as a favor that would one day need to be repaid, nor taunted Sano for getting himself into such a situation.

“Thank you,” Sano managed at last. “For telling me, I mean.” In the midst of his shock at everything that had just been revealed, he was conscious of a hot joy spreading through him as he considered everything he would be saying to Saitou when they next met. First there was this little matter of secretly rendered services to address… Saitou might never have established it as a matter of future repayment, but would be paid for it, with interest. And then there was the fact that Kenshin had known about them all along — known about them even before there was really a ‘them’ to know about — and held his tongue the entire time. This would probably amuse Saitou to no end.

Lastly, the point Sano could least likely express aloud but that he would surely find some other way to show his appreciation for, there was the unexpected newly arisen idea that Saitou, of all people, might be able to teach him to be a better friend. For Sano’s new goal of making amends to Kenshin and Kaoru and himself as true to them as they deserved, it appeared he needed to look no farther than the man that had helped him with his previous goal, the man that had saved him from destroying that friendship entirely, the man that had already taught him so much. The man he loved with all his heart and only respected more with every new thing he learned.

There was a big stupid grin on his face as he considered this. Kenshin, probably thinking he knew the reason for the expression — and certainly understanding at least part of it — smiled in return as he said, “You are certainly welcome, Sano.” And together in silence they walked on into the evening.



<<2

He Can Be Taught was one of the first Rurouni Kenshin stories I ever wrote. It was quite popular as I originally posted it, and won the 2002 Rurouni Kenshin Readers’ Choice Award for the yaoi category. Then, in 2013, as I reread it intending just to touch it up a bit, I realized it needed rewriting entirely. The result is what you find here.

The events of the story have remained completely intact, though a couple of them may be approached from a slightly different angle now. The biggest overall change, besides a quality of prose that I consider much better and the transition from chaptered to nonchaptered, is that certain interesting ideas only teasingly touched on in the original have been expanded in the rewrite. There’s a greater depth to it, very much for the better, I believe. And though nearly every other RK fanfiction I ever wrote was based on the manga rather than the stupid anime, in this case I found anime-specific references too numerous (and generally too innocuous) to do away with.

I’ve rated this story , one of the few perfect fives on my site. I consider the romantic development in this rewrite the best and most touching I’ve ever written.

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 wheth