All Sorts of Good Details



Chou regained consciousness to a splitting headache, the reflection that daylight was just pure cruelty in the sky for being so bright, mild curiosity at his somewhat familiar surroundings, and the oddly worried-sounding and subdued voice of Sagara Sanosuke — “You awake?”

“Yeah,” Chou groaned. “The fuck…?” It felt like a hangover, but he could not for the life of him remember… “Whydzthis look like Saitou’srom?” He’d seen it once or twice during his time reporting to Saitou, but why would he be there? And with Sanosuke?

“It is Saitou’s room,” Sano replied quietly, “and you’d probably rather not know why you’re here, but I figure I better tell you anyway.”

Chou didn’t want to sit up, but the roosterhead’s tone was proddingly strange. Still, it took a moment before he could get his eyes to focus on the distinctly agitated form of the other man. The other, barely clothed man. What had happened last night??

“It’s like this,” Sano said: “about right after you quit working for him, Saitou went fucking crazy.”

“Wzalready fuckin’ crazy,” Chou protested.

“I mean like sex-crazy. It just came out of nowhere!” Sano’s voice dropped almost to a whisper as if he were afraid someone might hear; it made Chou very nervous. “He just started going after anyone he could get… half the good-looking guys in town’ve been his bitch, and there’s nothing none of us could do about it ’cause he’s got connections like crazy and he’s too strong even for a group of us to take down.”

“Shit!” Chou growled, gripping the blanket around him and picturing Saitou’s psychotic yellow eyes all sex-hazed and predatory. “You’re fuckin’ kiddin’ me!”

“No.” Sano shook his head gravely. “I’m his favorite, I guess, probably ’cause he always hated me so he gets off on dominating me all the time. Lucky I ran into you last night before he found you; he was so busy with me he didn’t get to you, and then he had to go do some emergency shit at work. I dunno when he’ll be back, but you’d better get out of here. He’d know when the drug would wear off, so he might be back any minute.”

“Drug?!” So it wasn’t a hangover at all. “Shit, shit, this is fuckin’ crazy!” Chou was scrambling to his feet, but, losing his balance — not to mention getting tangled in the blanket that really did smell terribly of cigarettes — he fell back to the futon. “Always knew’e was off his fuckin’ nut, but this is…” His eyes went wide. “Where the fuck are my fuckin’ swords?!”

“I don’t know,” Sano replied. “Maybe in the house somewhere, maybe– oh, shit.”

Chou looked around in wild consternation at Sano’s sudden tension and the very obvious sound of footsteps in another part of the house. Before he could say anything, Sano had jumped to his feet. “He’s back; shit, yeah, that’s definitely him. Look, I’ll go distract him, try to get him into another room so you can get outta here.”

“I’m not leavin’ without my swords,” Chou insisted.

“Which is more important, your swords or your fucking ass?”

Picturing that crazy bug-bastard’s eyes again, Chou wasn’t sure how to answer this question.

“I gotta get out there, man, or he’ll be in here after you.”

“‘fhe comes in here I’ll fuckin’ kill ‘im,” Chou growled.

“No!” Sano replied frantically. “You’d never be able to beat him, and it would just turn him on! ‘Sides, you can barely even stand up yet!”

Chou had to admit that this was probably true. “Shit, this is fucked up…”

Sano was at the door. “I’ll see what I can do… you just get going soon as you can walk.”

“Th-thanks,” Chou stammered, wondering how soon that would be and whether he would be able to escape this situation.

*

Saitou watched as Sano emerged from the bedroom half clothed, closed the door behind him, and seemed to struggle for a moment to contain a fit of laughter.
“There’s my undercovers cop,” the young man finally said. “You’re back early.” (Although he didn’t seem at all surprised.) And, flinging himself on the officer, he attempted to kiss him.

Saitou, who had been frowning at the strange display of amusement, now frowned at the haphazard mess of sheathed weapons strewn across the floor from wall to wall; he refused to be kissed. “Do I even want to ask what Chou’s swords are doing in my house?”

“He was in the area,” Sano shrugged, “and I ran into him, and we went drinking.”

“For future reference,” Saitou responded, “your drinking companions stay at your apartment” — fixing him with a flat stare that, while not far from Sano’s face due to the younger man’s still being draped over him, was far from pleased. Or at the very least in the living room, he added silently; he would not say it aloud, as the smallest degree of allowance would encourage his irresponsible lover to take even more liberties.

“Aw, lighten up,” Sano grinned, and kissed Saitou’s nose.

The wolf’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Why are you so cheerful?”

“Because you’re back in town half a day earlier than I expected you,” replied Sano in a tone of overwhelmingly untrustworthy innocence.

“You’re a terrible actor,” Saitou informed him flatly.

“I’m good enough!” protested the jovial Sano. “I can convince a drunk guy of just about anything. Or a hungover guy, even.”

Saitou shook him off and reached for the bedroom door, his eyes still narrowed.

“Aww, c’mon, the poor bastard’s feeling like shit, and now you’re gonna kick him out?”

“I believe I have a right to determine who inhabits my own bedroom,” Saitou replied coolly.

“Fine, fine,” Sano shrugged. “Go in there; freak him out; whatever.”

Saitou turned briefly. “Does he know about us?”

“Oh, sure,” Sano replied in a deliberately offhand manner that failed entirely to conceal the slyness in the remark. “He knows all sorts of good details.”



Sometimes I wish I had the resources to play this kind of elaborate practical joke, but in actuality I would find it too cruel. Here it’s fucking hilarious, though. Messing with Chou was always fun, of course. This also gets points for “undercovers cop” and Sano kissing Saitou’s nose. I’ve rated this story .

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


Fate and/or the Radio


Saitou didn’t usually listen to the radio, especially not when he had a headache, especially not in his car, and especially not when he was on the phone.

…one day, summer afternoon, just me, nothing much to do…

But the fact that he’d dialed the number mostly against his will, calling someone he didn’t want to be thinking about in the first place but hadn’t been able to stop thinking about all day, had made him desperate — his scheme was that, even if the moron was awake and decided to answer, and even if he sounded completely irresistible over the phone, the music would be distracting enough that Saitou would be able to get away with just giving him a hard time, annoying and confusing him, and not asking him out.

…then he swayed on by me, brown hair and a wicked body…

Saitou changed the station with a frown. The main reason he didn’t listen to the radio was that he hated just about everything everyone played.

…my love, my love, where have you been? my love, my love, where did you go?

Three rings. One more would be a good excuse to hang up.

No such luck. A tired voice, frustrated and surprised: “It’s fucking midnight, man, and I already told you everything I know, like, a hundred times, and you even wrote it down… what the hell do you want now?”

…my love, my love, what have you seen? my love, you’re such an idiot…

“I don’t recall giving you my cell number.” If ever man spoke in the tone of a raised eyebrow, it was Saitou. “How did you know it was me calling? Or do you always answer the phone like that?”

An uncomfortable silence ensued on the other end of the line, followed by the slight clearing of a throat.

…like an idiot… I run around like a chicken with its head cut off…

“You are aware that stalking is a felony?” Saitou pursued with a smirk that, like the raised eyebrow, was evident in his voice; he changed the radio station again.

…you’re too young to love me, and I’m too old for you…

“Well, I just…”

…at least that’s what they tell us; it’s in their book of rules…

“What exactly did you think to accomplish by stealing my cell number? You can’t have been planning to call me at any point.”

…that you’re too young, too young, baby, you’re too young…

Saitou changed the station again even as the other voice said in gruff embarrassment, “Well, maybe I…”

…oh my pretty, pretty boy, I need you…

“Unless there’s some detail you neglected to mention in reference to my case?”

…oh my pretty, pretty boy, I do… let me inside…

Saitou jabbed the ‘seek’ button a little harder than usual this time.

“No! man! I told you! I’m so fucking sick of that shit… I even told you what kind of shoelaces the bastard had… can’t you fucking leave me alone?”

…when you look at me with those brown eyes, what do you want to do?

“If you wanted me to leave you alone, why ever did you have my number?”

…do you have to have me the way that I want you?

“OK, why the fuck did you call me? I mean, did you have anything real to say, or did you just want to give me shit like always?”

…I want you…

He changed the station again, but it was obviously futile. As hard as he’d tried not to have anything real to say, it seemed fate and/or the radio had other ideas. So much for his great strategy of distracting himself. “As a matter of fact, I was calling to see if you wanted to go eat somewhere; I just finished work.”

Silence.

“Kid, I know you can’t say no to free food and possibly alcohol.”

“I don’t… want to say no… I’m just trying to figure out if you’re seriou–hey, you’re a cop and I am so too young to drink.”

“Too young to purchase alcohol. And I’m an investigator, not a street cop.”

“Close enough.”

“Hn. Are you at home?”

“Why; you know where I live?”

“You’re a witness; of course I have your address on file.”

“You know stalking’s a felony, right?”

…here they come to snuff the rooster…

“I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

…yeah, here come the rooster…

“I’ll be ready.”

…you know he ain’t gonna die…

Ending the call with a shake of his head and a slight smile, Saitou set the phone down and turned the radio up.



The first time I heard that song about snuffing the rooster, I was like, Hmmm, how can I use this? And finally the idea came to me of driving Saitou crazy with songs that would remind him of Sano. Now, how likely it is that Saitou would actually find all or even most of these songs playing on any station anywhere (not to mention why nobody was on commercials as 90% of radio stations are 90% of the time), I don’t know. I just used what I needed. In order of appearance, those are:

Brown Haired Boy by Sweetbox, Idiot by Coldplay, Too Young by Elton John, Pretty Boy by M2M, Brown Eyes by Fleetwood Mac, and Rooster by Alice in Chains.

I’ve rated this story .

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


Distraction Sufficient

The idea that if he’d realized it sooner things might have been different was pleasantly, absorbingly distracting.

Sano finally admits how he feels about Saitou, perhaps only because to do so is conveniently distracting.



It was with a peculiar sort of indifferent abandon that Sano allowed his thoughts for the first time ever down a path wherefrom they had previously been emphatically banned, and it was a surprise how short that path was before the destination I love him was reached.

He was astounded. I love him? he wondered. That’s a pretty hefty thing to have been denying all this time!

He couldn’t help but think it had been ‘all this time,’ or at least something close to it, as he certainly couldn’t have fallen in love recently. One didn’t fall in love with absent men. And though he couldn’t trace it quite as far back as the shoulder-stabbing, he felt it must have been present for some time without his noticing or at least admitting it.

The fight in the street had procured his attention and his desire to impress, the endless reflections on the way to Kyoto had solidified that… the jail, perhaps, had been the beginning, the Rengoku the confirmation, and after that it had just become steadily stronger and stronger and, as a consequence, more deeply repressed. It had almost surfaced in the smoke and dust of that protracted battle of many enemies when he’d first laid eyes on him again after believing him dead for so long, but Sano had been too steadfast in his denial to allow that.

It was liberating, really, to make a clean breast, even if only with himself. It was a relief to allow that the reason he’d been so inexplicably, so drastically horrified in that burning fortress had not been merely the unnecessary loss of a strong ally. He felt a strange and unexpected clear-headedness, as if in being honest with himself he had suddenly simplified the whole world. He loved Saitou, and he didn’t even mind thinking about it.

Too bad he wouldn’t be seeing him again. Hokkaido, was that it? He thought that was what he remembered Kenshin saying. Well, it didn’t matter… Hokkaido or America or the moon; it made no difference now.

He wondered what Saitou would say about his current situation. Surely the wolf would have nothing but contempt for Tani, but Sano doubted his concern would extend as far as a stupid rooster that had made the pig mad. But Saitou, having been transferred, wouldn’t even know, so wondering if he would care was rather extravagant.

Still, Sano didn’t bother to stop himself imagining nice things that might have been. It wasn’t likely they would have been, but he’d met stranger couples. And in all honesty, he didn’t really think Saitou had hated him as much as he’d pretended. Maybe they could have been happy…

It was interesting he’d chosen to delve into this issue when he had nowhere near enough time to do so thoroughly. Perhaps it was because Saitou, and the fact that Sano loved Saitou, and the idea that if he’d realized it sooner things might have been different, was pleasantly, absorbingly distracting.

That was what Saitou would say, he realized belatedly — “You should have learned to defend yourself.” And surely he should have, or should, at the very least, have been quicker in his attempt to flee the country. He laughed weakly.

He wondered if, were it possible for Saitou to know of this anomaly of being simultaneously first and last in Sano’s thoughts, he would appreciate it.

First because Sano loved him more than he might have been able to express even had he had the chance.

Last because they were fitting the noose around his neck even now.

He closed his eyes, and burning gold was all he could see.



The idea for this story evolved at work (McDonald’s), and I got so agitated about it that they actually let me go home early so I could write it XD I’ve rated it .

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


Condition of Learned Helplessness

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kenshin sat down beside him in equal silence and waited.

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

Saitou’s entire demeanor said, I need relief.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Saitou,” Kenshin said softly.

Saitou glanced down at him.

“I will probably be marrying Kaoru.”

Silence.

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

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

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

Saitou smirked, but only very slightly. Of course.

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

And Saitou had backed off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What happened to it?

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

And you rape me.

Of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, not at all. Good day.”

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

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



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

“Oi, Kenshin.”

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

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

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

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

“You should get a job.”

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

“Where is the merchandise going?”

“Kobe.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kenshin smiled. “And the zanbatou was?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Kenshin!”

He didn’t want to wake up.

“Oi, Kenshin!”

He just felt so good, so warm and comfortable…

Kenshin!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Several nights later, everything went to pieces.

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

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

“Whatever… let’s go swimming!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kenshin blushed and immediately cried, “No!”

The driver laughed openly at this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m waiting.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The wagon driver had prudently turned and begun ignoring them.

“But why didn’t you stop him?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m going to kill him,” Sano said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or maybe he was just a glutton for punishment.

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

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

Now he was going to turn and walk away.

The door in front of him opened.

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

What are you doing here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah.”

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

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

“How ill?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Saitou, we are not at war.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“I’m still a dick.”

“Only a little.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He opened the note.

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

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

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

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

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

You should be happy, Kenshin.

I’m sorry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A good thing…!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But at least he’d given it up.

Some consolation.

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

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

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

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

Aku Soku Zan. What happened to it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A very long silence followed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where is he?” he asked.

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


Persuasive Monologue


“I can never just masturbate.” A mostly naked Sagara Sanosuke stood thoughtfully at one end of a dark bedroom. “I have to have somebody I’m thinking about, or I don’t get anywhere. It doesn’t have to be anyone I know… or like… or even really want… just a face and a body’s all I need. Like, I see a pretty girl in some shop, or pass some good-looking guy in the street, and they’re in my head next time I’m strangling the old snake.” He patted his crotch a little absently. “It sounds kinda weird, but it’s easier than making someone up. And anyway, it’s not personality; it’s just physical stuff. And it’s never the same person twice, so it’s not like I’m stalking people or anything.”

He glanced across the room. “That was why it was kinda strange when you showed up the second time. I mean, I laughed at myself in the first place — Like I’d ever really wanna fuck a cop, stuff like that. And then when you were there again the next night, I almost started to worry. It wasn’t like I thought you weren’t attractive… it was just, why you? I had no clue who you were; I’d only seen you once or twice in the street, and suddenly you were in my head when I was getting off, more than anyone else had ever been. So I paid more attention next time I saw you, trying to figure out why, and suddenly things got real freaky. ‘Cause from then on I couldn’t imagine myself with anyone else.

“It was those damn buttons of yours, I think.” Sano ran an indicative hand slowly up his chest. “And the gloves. Well, and the hat, too. All right,” he concluded, straightening his shoulders in imitation and putting on a grim expression, “it was the whole thing you always had going of ‘I’m so damn straight-laced and perfect’ with your uniform the same every day and your face that never changed ’cause nothing ever surprised you.” He relaxed with a grin. “I think I just wanted to know what you’d be like if you did unbutton those buttons and take of the gloves and the hat and maybe… smile or something. Course later I saw a whole lot of you and what you really are, but just then you were still this nameless cop I’d seen less than ten times total. But still I was imagining you… and me…” Languidly he began to rub himself with one hand, slowly rotating his hips where he stood and continuing his narrative:

“And I was getting really wild with it, too. Well, wild like I was coming up with stuff I’d never thought of before. Getting creative, you might say. Sometimes I’d think up this whole story, even, of you needing to search my place for stolen goods or something, and eventually you’d end up searching me, and of course it’d be a cavity search…” His hand slipped around behind him and his eyes narrowed as he let out a long, satisfied breath. “Or I’d be at the scene of some crime and you’d arrest me and take me to the police station, where I’d convince you I was innocent and then we’d fuck…” The hand returned to its previous position in front.

“But most of the time there was no story, nothing logical about it. You’d just walk in and take off your hat and gloves and jacket — I had to guess what was underneath that damn jacket for the longest time… or sometimes you wouldn’t even bother with all that; you’d just come in and open your pants and I’d bend over and there it’d go…” He closed his eyes and gripped himself harder for a long moment.

“So, yeah,” he resumed eventually. “That’s the kind of thing I imagined for months, and I couldn’t decide whether to talk to you or what. I’d never even said a word to you… didn’t know your name… was pretty sure you didn’t know mine — wrong about that, of course — and what was I supposed to say, really? ‘Hey, I spend most of my nights imagining your dick up my ass; what’s your name?’ But then that whole Kyoto thing kinda solved the problem, even if it was the most fucked-up way two people could possibly start a relationship. But anyway, now I can jack off and think about you and not feel weird about it, and it’s a lot nicer than picking some random face and imagining they’re sucking me or whatever. Don’t you think?”

Across the room, a highly aroused Saitou Hajime glared with lustful, unblinking, outraged eyes from where he was tied firmly to a chair. As Sano had finally fallen silent, he growled, “I think you’d better get over here now.”

Sano’s face broke into a smirk that was crueler than any of Saitou’s. “I told you I didn’t have to touch you to get you like this.”

Now.

The smirk changed to Sano’s usual grin, though the merciless teasing light still burned in his eyes. “Ask me nicely, or I might just start talking again.”


What I wonder most about this situation is how Sano convinced Saitou to try this out in the first place. What do you say to Saitou to get him to let you tie him to a chair? There must have been a persuasive prologue before any of this even started.

I’ve rated this story .

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


Attention Span


He finally seems to have figured it out.

“Hey, roosterhead! Long time no see!”

“How you doin’, broomhead?”

“As you two are both in the same room, there really is no need to shout.”

“…boss’s gotta headache, I guess, so…”

“…sure…”

Yes, quiet down, both of you. Honestly.

“…doin’ here?”

“…way to have lunch at the dojo……stop in an’ say hello…”

“…how’re things up with the…”

He used to come in here to bother me. Day after day, no matter the weather. I never could figure out why, but now he seems to realize that I don’t want his company.

“…but Aoshi’s……an’ Kenshin wants us all to…”

“…that crazy Niwabanshuu guy, right?”

“Yeah.”

Now he just comes in here occasionally to bother Chou, and hardly says a word to me. Which is a relief, since everything I ever say to him prompts some kind of unnecessarily angry reaction; honestly, if I make him so mad, why did he keep coming around? Especially when he must have known I didn’t want him to.

“…hear ‘e’s got two kodachi in one sheath…”

“…pretty good with ’em, too…”

What I really wonder, though, is what finally brought him to his senses.

“…should try’n steal ’em for me…”

“…funny……don’t think so…”

It used to be that I could always get some kind of comment from him with just a look, but now he ignores me almost entirely.

“…think he’d kill me……seen him this one time…”

What made him so thankfully well-behaved?

“…musta pissed that girl off…”

“…would not believe…”

If my offhand recollection is correct, the last time he was in here pestering me specifically was at about four thirty two weeks and three days ago… but I don’t remember that I said anything more pointed than usual during that meeting to indicate that I didn’t appreciate him endlessly hanging around my office forcing me into meaningless conversation.

“…heh heh heh…”

“…and then Aoshi says…”

But since I’m glad he’s broken this irksome habit — although for as many months as he kept it up, it was really more of a hobby — I’m not going to question my good fortune.

“…yer friend Battousai do about…”

“…just laughed and didn’t……but Aoshi was all…”

He’s certainly talking about Shinomori a lot… I wonder why…

“…sounds like ya got a crush on that Aoshi guy…”

Chou noticed too, I guess.

“Nah, I just like it when his coat goes fwoosh.”

Maybe Shinomori is the idiot’s new hobby.

“…one with a……collar, right?”

“…’s it……think it’s pretty damn sexy, even if I’m not…”

I’m sure Shinomori doesn’t like it any more than I did. Poor fool.

“…wha, sexier’n mine?”

“…heh heh, of course……gotta go…”

Well, the boy has the attention span of a butterfly, so Shinomori won’t have to suffer him long.

“…later, ya freeloadin’ tori-atama…”

“…tomorrow, houki…”

Yes, go, and let Chou get back to the job I pay him for. Don’t bother saying goodbye to me; I don’t want it. Just leave me in peace.

Peace and quiet.

Yes.

Exceptionally quiet quiet.

It’s only the contrast, of course. And I still have a headache, so I’m not complaining.

But still, it’s very quiet.

“Chou…”

“What? Want me to go buy ya a trench coat?”

. . .

Well, I do pay him to be observant.

“Just make sure it isn’t yellow.”

Really, I don’t mind butterflies so much.

Mostly I find I dislike being forgotten.


I’ve rated this story .

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


Greedy

It wasn’t enough, was it, that I admitted you’d been of some use, despite what I’d thought that made it quite a concession to say you weren’t entirely worthless? No, you demanded I respect you on top of that. Outright respect! From me!

It wasn’t enough that I admired you, was it, acknowledged to myself disinterestedly how beautiful you were? Of course not. You insisted I actually lust after you as well. Objective appreciation just wasn’t sufficient; for you it had to be this distracting physical attraction.

It wouldn’t, naturally, be enough that your loud and obnoxious presence dominated my attention whenever you were around. No, you required that I obsess over you even when you were gone. You had to have some part in every second of my contemplation.

It couldn’t be enough that I gave up my peace of mind, my tranquility, my solitude, to be with you, could it? Then you demanded I give up my unhappiness too. Change my entire way of life and the feelings of each moment solely for you!

And now I’m sure it isn’t enough that I lie here with you in my arms having thoughts like these totally inconsistent with my character. You’re going to insist I say it aloud in no uncertain terms, aren’t you? Compromise my dignity as always by making some kind of silly statement like…

“I love you.”

“Tell me how much.”

Hn. Greedy boy.

What am I going to do with you?


I’ve rated this story .

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


Irresolute

Whether a disappointed, unkissed Kamatari is better for me than a happy one who’s attained his disturbing goal, I can’t quite say.

Kamatari’s New Year’s Eve tradition of collecting kisses from every guy at the party is likely to bother Katsu a lot more this year, now that he’s realized he’s in love with him.



Looking back with my usual critical eye on the year, I can’t help but see a host of missed opportunities. This is normal for me, for my life, and though there are obviously regrets, I can’t say that it’s an unexpected state not to have fulfilled every goal — well, most of the goals — with which I set out in January. But this year having introduced a whole new brand of these thrown chances was worse than usual. Of course, if during the six years I’ve known him I’d noticed how I feel any time before this February, I might have been able to lay better plans and… but I think I’m digressing before I even start in on my real point.

My real point is, or was going to be, that because I’ve spent most of the evening pondering what a frustrating year it has been, what with the inconveniently belated realization about Kamatari, I forgot about his New Year’s tradition. Which is something I really should have remembered, considering how much pain it’s likely to cause me this year. At previous celebrations to herald in the bright, promising new annum (always bright and promising to him, which is enough for me), I just laughed and shook my head and marveled at how successful he was at this game. But this time… when he grabs my arm after only two minutes at the party and says, “C’mon, let’s go kiss-collecting!” my heart sinks like the proverbial stone.

Not that I haven’t seen him kiss quite a lot of people before. He’s a model and I’m his primary photographer, after all. (He also poses for most of my own art, though I’ve never drawn him kissing someone… I suppose the reason for that is obvious, though I haven’t really thought about it before.) Anyway, it’s safe to say that there’s a lot of kissing in his life. Not to mention the fact that he’s done this little New Year’s Eve thing for every year I’ve known him. But when he’s on a stage or in front of a camera or even out there beyond my easel, it’s different. Quite different. Entirely different. And at previous New Year’s Eve parties I haven’t been in love with him. Or haven’t realized it, at any rate.

This is going to kill me. I can’t watch him do this. But I really don’t have much choice.

And this dilemma is my own fault anyway.

Naturally he’ll head for the newcomers first, and that means Shishio, the owner of a magazine he did some cover shots for this past year. No, not the editor — the businessman doesn’t have an artistic bone in his body, I think — just the owner. He’s a recent addition to our circle, and there’s some tension between him and Kenshin, but he’s nice enough if you can get over his utterly calculating nature.

“Shishio-sama!” Tari loves calling him that, he told me once, because it makes Shishio practically preen visibly — stand a little taller, smile a little wider. Now he shouts it out in his most cheerfully enticing tone as he hip-swings his way into the rather formal-looking front room and over to where Shishio is sitting casually on a wicker loveseat with a red-haired woman at his side. (Not looking at those hips. I’m really not. And despite the fact that I’ve seen him in less, it doesn’t help that Tari’s wearing that little purple dress…)

“Happy New Year!” Tari stops just in front of them and raises his slender arms in a celebratory pose as he flashes a bright smile at the seated couple. Putting on a show already, and the night’s barely started. He can’t have any idea how I feel when he does that; how I itch to take him home and (no, not that; what are you thinking?) capture his dramatic posturing on canvas for some world other than this… right now he would look very good as the elegant queen of a nation on the edge of war, announcing benevolently to her adoring people that peace has been attained through her diligence and they need not march to battle. A long, clinging gown, perhaps of white satin with pale gold bands and billowing sleeves blowing from those upraised arms — but I’m supposed to be narrating a scene here, I recall.

“Happy New Year to you too,” Shishio replies jovially, though even his friendliest greeting always seems to carry a shrewd edge. And he’s drinking already.

“I’m so glad you could come,” Tari says happily, though still in a tone I recognize as having a slight touch of showmanship. “I was sure you’d have some big party of your own and not be able to make it.”

“And miss a chance to make Himura uncomfortable?” Shishio laughs. “Oh, have you met Yumi?”

Tari turns and smiles at the red-head, who smiles back a tad less graciously. I draw from this the conclusion that she is Shishio’s woman, or wants to be, and that Shishio really was as enthusiastically impressed with those cover shots as rumor says. I have to say that I sympathize with her. “I’m Honjou Kamatari; yoroshiku!

“Yes, I recognize you from Kagami,” she replies, maybe a little coldly. Actually, I think that, beyond just this potential rivalry to annoy her, we’ve also interrupted something; they were sitting in here alone before we entered, after all… “Komagata Yumi; yoroshiku.”

With that finished, Tari gets down to business, clapping his hands together once in a let’s-get-started manner. “Well, since you’ve never been to one of Kenshin-san’s New Year’s Eve parties before, you don’t know about my tradition! Every year, I try to collect as many kisses as I can from the all the fabulous men I know before the night ends!”

Yumi stiffens visibly. “Well, that’s interesting,” she says tightly, obviously attempting to remain polite and not start a cat-fight just yet. But seeing the smile on Shishio’s face, she’s losing her cool pretty quick. I can’t say that I like it much either.

Tari seats himself beside Shishio, primly on the edge of the loveseat but with all the suggestion he can command with such a simple movement. “So, can you help me?” he smiles.

Yumi is as stiff as a board and staring at me in order to avoid looking at them (which is exactly the same reason I’m returning her bladed gaze); if Shishio is anything but frighteningly obtuse, he’ll speak up at this point and prevent a disaster, or he’ll probably find himself cut off tonight.

“No,” he says, and I give him points for smoothness in the face of terribly alluring Kamatari, “I’m afraid not.” He leans over to Yumi and plants a semi-suggestive kiss on her ear. “Unless third-party kisses count.”

Tari pouts. “No, they don’t.”

“Why don’t you just kiss your friend there?” Yumi suggests, mostly placated, gesturing towards me. I was attempting to get over the phrase ‘third-party kisses’ that only a businessman could think up, so I’m perhaps not as guarded as I’d like to be. I try not to let it show in my eyes that it’s more than just slight surprise I’m feeling at her words, but I think she’s figured me out. I’m not the only observant person in the world, I sometimes forget, though it’s a pretty close thing.

“Oh, Katsu’s straight,” Kamatari says easily, jumping up and leaning against me with an arm over my shoulders. “Right?” And why does he have to fit there so well?

“Right,” I reply calmly, looking away from the now-curious glinting eyes of the woman who sees right through the lie. It’s only been a lie since February, you know, but it’s a statement I was making so frequently before I realized it wasn’t true that I’m quite practiced at it. Enough to fool Tari and anyone else who asks. Didn’t I mention that this entire dilemma is my fault?

“Well, have fun!” Tari calls over his shoulder, regaining his cheer, as he pulls me away; “I’ll find someone else!”

The thing is, I’m a recluse. I’ve never been in a romantic relationship in my life, and I never really thought about deciding whether I preferred men or women until my friend Sano (whom I did not at all like in that way) started hitting on me a couple of years ago. The easiest way to get out of that was to insist that I’m straight, which is what I’ve done ever since. It isn’t so easy to get out of that, though.

“Who’s that outside?” He points towards the glass side doors.

“I don’t know.” Normally I like to get an idea of who’s at a party before I start running around talking to everyone (not that I’m much of a party person in the first place, but Tari insists), but he hasn’t given me the chance this evening.

“Well, let’s go see.”

But halfway toward the patio, we can’t help but notice sounds coming from a room to our right, and even I have to smile. We know who that is. Every year, he wreaks havoc in Kenshin’s kitchen almost as if it’s his own personal New Year’s Eve tradition. Kenshin only invites him at all because he’s Sano’s best friend, but I think he’d prefer if he had somewhere else to be.

“Chouuu-chan!” Tari sings out as he detours through the swinging doors into the kitchen. “Raiding Kenshin-san’s fridge again?”

Chou pulls a plastic tub from the second shelf and sways a little as he peers through its transparent side trying to determine the contents. And I wish him luck in the endeavor, as he’s obviously so drunk he probably couldn’t correctly identify his own body parts, let alone some nameless culinary concoction of Kenshin’s. Actually, Chou appears rather ill, possibly because of the color of the casserole-looking stuff in that tupperware. “Thslooks good,” he slurs. “Whacha thing?”

“I think you’re drunk,” Tari laughs, “and probably shouldn’t eat that.”

Chou doesn’t quite take this in, as now he’s attempting to open the tub — but the mysteries of the air-tight lid are eluding him. “Oh, heeyyy!” he says suddenly, almost dropping the item with his shift in attention. “I know why yer here! Doin’ that slutty Nnear’s thin again.”

Slutty?! At this I nearly break my silence. Flirty Kamatari certainly is, and perhaps the behavior of a model can easily be misconstrued as an indication of promiscuity, but I know him — he doesn’t sleep around, isn’t even seeing anyone right now! and Chou has no right to —

But Tari, of course, has already laughed it off. He can take an insult like no one I’ve ever seen. Well, most of the time. And really, I guess I need to lighten up (as usual) and consider that Chou probably didn’t mean to offend and is drunk anyway. Yes, calm down, Katsu.

“Wll, c’mere,” Chou says, setting the tupperware down on the counter. He misses, though, and Tari dives to catch the falling dish. “Nice,” Chou attempts to say, and by now he’s leaning against the counter for balance. He gazes around blearily for a moment as if he’s forgotten where he is, and his unfocused eyes settle on a glass bottle nearby. I guess he lost track of it when he started looking through the fridge, but he remembers it now and gulps down its remaining contents with a triumphant smile. He then grabs Kamatari’s arm and pulls the model up against him.

That look in Chou’s eyes is just too much for me. It’s obvious that he thinks of Tari as exactly what he said — a slut — and he’s going to treat him accordingly. Funny how the truth comes out when you’re drunk, isn’t it? Bastard. I take Tari by the shoulders and pull him right back again. “What?” he asks, turning towards me in confused annoyance.

It’s easy to come up with an excuse, but if this is going to be the trend of the evening, I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep thinking of reasons. “He’s much too drunk for you to–”

“Oh, don’t be silly,” Tari waves my concern away. “It’s New Year’s Eve! I’ve kissed drunk people before.”

“But it isn’t a good idea to–”

Again he interrupts me, this time with, “Don’t be so dreary! It’s really OK!”

I make my last attempt. “Kamatari, I–”

This time it’s Chou who interrupts me, but not exactly in words. Unless ‘blyaaahhh’ has been added to some dictionary somewhere. Actually, I’d like to see the kanji for that one. Tari and I step back and look away as Chou loses whatever he’s been eating and half of what he’s been drinking all over Kenshin’s previously-immaculate kitchen floor. Our eyes meet, and Tari’s stricken pair are clearly saying, That could have been me. “Thanks,” he whispers as we sneak quickly away the next moment.

“What are friends for?” I reply.

In the hallway, Tari looks around with a frown. “Now I feel all icky,” he mutters.

I can’t help but laugh, just a little.

He pushes me lightly. “I’m serious! I’m going to the bathroom.” And he disappears through the door to the latter not far off. “Oh, look, it’s January!” I hear him say the next moment, and he peeks out and hands me a magazine. “Tell me what you think.” And then he’s inside again.

I lean against the wall and flip through the new year’s first Kagami. Tari’s in here somewhere, but as it wasn’t my work I haven’t seen it yet. I find it near the back, before the pages and pages of paid ads: “Great mirror gift,” it says in English, then continues in Japanese: “Give Kagami to a friend: a fourteen-issue subscription for only ¥2700!” God, this picture is terrible. I mean, Tari looks good, of course, but whoever took this needs to be strangled with his own film.

(New Year’s Resolution: Never let anyone else take pictures of Kamatari ever again.)

He told me once that I make him feel beautiful. Obviously he doesn’t realize that in his case, I just work with what’s already there. When I draw him as an angel, only the wings are fictional, and honestly I can never get them to look as good as they should; his face outshines them a hundred times and leaves them paltry and dull in comparison. I just wish he’d said those words to me after I made my big realization rather than long before. His follow-up statement as he snaked a casual arm around my waist to break the pensive atmosphere was, “It’s too bad you’re not gay… someone who can make a guy feel like that could probably get anyone he wanted.”

But in reality, he’s the one who makes me feel beautiful. He’s better at showy stuff or light, witty conversation, flirty talk, than any sort of deep artistic discussion, but his silence is eloquent enough when he looks at something of mine and just falls entirely wordless; I watch his eyes flicking over it taking in every detail, and his slight nods… and then he’ll smile at me and say, “I like it,” and that’s enough. I would never have thought that I could be satisfied with such an unspecific response to something I’ve done, but with him I invariably am.

“Hey, space cadet, what do you think?” He’s rattling the magazine in my hand and smelling freshly of whatever really nice perfume he’s been wearing lately. Makes me want to lean closer and find out exactly where he’s applied it.

“I think Shishio-san’s photographers need to be fired,” I reply with a wry smile, closing the magazine and handing it to him.

“So glad you agree!” Tari replaces it where he found it (you know, it’s just like Kenshin to have magazines in the bathroom), and gestures for me to follow him. “That girl was so clueless,” he goes on as we head down the hall toward the patio doors again. “I don’t trust these big company photographers anymore; they’re just not artists. I think I’m going to tell people from now on that you and I are a package deal.”

That phrase and the accompanying smile might be — probably would be enough to bring my confession tumbling out, if only we found ourselves alone on the patio. As it is, I have to think of my cursed self as a bird of some sort: frightened into flight by the mere presence of another.

“Package deal? I thought you were straight, Tsukioka-san,” is the pleasant-sounding knell of my doom, its ominousness well-punctuated by an ensuing sneeze.

“He meant professionally,” I reply. “And bless you.”

“Soujirou-kun!” Tari chirps. “How are you?” And though part of why he says it is that Soujirou likes to see that people care about him and is more likely to kiss him if he asks, Tari also genuinely wants to know. Soujirou is an intern at the hospital, under Kenshin, and being apparently quite the prodigal young doctor is rather overworked; thus we rarely see him. I’m glad he managed to get New Year’s Eve off for some well-deserved relaxation.

“Catching a cold,” Soujirou replies ruefully. “I’ve been living off of cough drops all week.”

“Then why are you out here?” Kamatari laughs. “You’ll only make it worse!”

Soujirou glances around. “I just thought I saw something. I was just about to go back inside and tell Himura-san.”

I scan the bushes; I’m fairly sure I know what he saw.

“Well, I’m collecting kisses, so before you do…” Tari makes a little pouty face that would clearly speak begging-to-be-kissed even in a context where its intent had not just been announced.

Soujirou shakes his head. “I’d make you sick.”

“Oh, not with just one little kiss!”

“Honjou-san,” Soujirou says very seriously, “there are at least twenty-four types of bacteria that normally live in a healthy human mouth. Once a bacterial illness has been contracted, there may be as many as–”

“All right, all right, all right.” Tari cuts him off before he can really get going. “Don’t spoil my game with that kind of talk!”

“Sorry,” Soujirou smiles. He’s eyeing the shrubbery.

“Why don’t you go give Kenshin-san the crazy neighbor alert?” I suggest quietly.

Soujirou nods and slips into the house.

Tari silently joins me watching the bushes rustle, and although this is the perfect opportunity, I just can’t bring myself to say anything. Partly because it’s just occurred to me that even beyond the embarrassment of retracting a statement I’ve been making so emphatically for years, I’ve got Tari’s response to worry about as well. Coward.

Kenshin emerges onto the patio after not much longer anyway, frowning.

“Happy New Year,” Tari greets him, as this is the first we’ve seen of him since letting ourselves into his house.

“Happy New Year,” he replies. “Where is he?” I point, and Kenshin starts slowly across the lawn. “Yatsume-dono,” he calls out politely, “please come out of the bushes.”

The contingent of amorously hopeful women that hangs out around Kenshin at almost all times has now crowded out the patio doors and is standing behind us to watch; Kenshin’s eccentric old neighbor has been a subject of entertainment to all of us for years now.

“Don’t come closer!” rasps a voice from the bushes.

“It’s cold out,” Kenshin says soothingly. “You should be inside your house.”

“I don’t want advice from you!” the man in the bushes replies. “You filthy doctor… it’s your fault my whole family is sick and dying in Hokkaido!”

Kenshin is right in front of the bushes now. “Yatsume-dono, your family isn’t sick, and they don’t live in Hokkaido. Now let’s get you home.” And with a sudden, swift movement, he pulls the man out from the greenery where he was hiding.

“No!” shrieks the old lunatic, waving his unusually long arms around his bald head. “You mustn’t look at my face!”

Kenshin calmly relieves him of the pruning shears he’s flinging about dangerously in one big hand. “Come on; I’m sure your family is worried about you.” And with a look of resigned amusement at those of us assembled on the patio, he leads the raving man back through the bushes, across the river rock that marks the property line, and up towards the house next door. One of these years the Yatsume’s really are going to have to find a better way to keep their grandfather indoors and out of the neighbor’s back yards.

With laughs and various comments on the formidable ninja bush-hiding powers of the old man, the party on the patio disperses back into the house, Tari along with them, so I follow.

“I wonder what would happen if you took a picture of that guy,” he’s speculating.

“Oh, he’d probably try to kill me,” I reply. “It would be a violation of his onmitsu honor.”

Tari has stopped moving in the middle of my statement. The women continue back into the living room, leaving us in the hallway. I follow Tari’s gaze up the stairs and see that we’re not quite alone.

“Where is Kenshin?” asks the descending figure, sounding not at all pleased.

A slow smile has taken Tari’s face as his eyes traverse the muscular body without shame, and I grab his elbow in a silent warning. This man is not one he needs to be hitting on.

“He went to take Yatsume-san home again,” I answer.

“And who are you?”

Tari steps forward to the foot of the stairs to block any escape, although I’m frantically trying to keep him back. “I’m Honjou Kamatari,” he says prettily, “and this is Tsukioka Katsuhiro.”

“We’re friends of Kenshin-san’s,” I add, maybe a little too quietly.

“What are you doing here? What’s all the noise?”

“It’s a New Year’s Eve party, sir.” By now I’ve attracted Tari’s curiosity with my polite tone. “Tari,” I say pointedly in explanation, “this is Niitsu Kakunoshin.”

Tari’s eyes widen as he turns back to the man. “Oh, you’re Niitsu-sama? Katsu never stops talking about you!” Well, that’s hyperbole, but not a lie… I do hope I’m not turning red now. Thank you, Kamatari.

Niitsu only looks slightly less annoyed than before. “Then you probably have more artistic understanding than my stupid nephew.”

Now that is certainly true. Kenshin is glad to have his uncle staying with him during this end of Niitsu’s museum tour, (mostly because Niitsu is apparently so reclusive he makes me look like a noisy attention whore), but the doctor doesn’t really appreciate the sculptor’s amazing talent the way he should.

Niitsu is pushing past us now. I wish I could think of something to say to him that wouldn’t be really stupid… maybe ask for an autograph or tell him how many times I’ve been to see his exhibit, except those would both make me sound like a groupie… oh, actually, for now I think I’ll settle for keeping Kamatari off him.

(New Year’s Resolution: Practice some intelligent statements for future possible meetings with famous people)

“Niitsu-sama,” Tari’s saying, “I wonder if you would do me a favor…” He has no fear. Haven’t I made it clear to him that this is the biggest artistic name he and I are ever likely to see? Just because the guy is Kenshin’s uncle doesn’t mean… and he’s obviously not in the best mood to begin with… and he’s way too good-looking, his hair just too similar to mine; if Tari manages to get a kiss out of this guy, I’m going to be seriously jealous.

“Tari!” I hiss, but he ignores me. He puts himself between Niitsu and the front door, for which the sculptor is obviously heading, and starts to explain his tradition. I can’t see Niitsu’s face, but the impatient way he turns aside and opens the coat closet makes it evident that he doesn’t appreciate being detained.

OK, that cape is the flashiest thing I’ve ever seen. Where’s he going, some kind of premier? Call out the press! God, for such a talented artist, that’s quite a tacky fashion statement…

The front door opens from without, forcing Tari to move away. “Oh, Hiko,” Kenshin says as he steps inside, “are you going somewhere?”

“What do you mean by having a party here without warning me first?” Niitsu replies dourly. “I’ve got Americanized cross-dressers making eyes at me.” He glances at Tari with a frown. “What’s next — women?” And he stalks out the door without waiting for a reply.

Kenshin laughs weakly and shakes his head to the sound of Niitsu’s candy-apple red BMW convertible revving up outside (I swear I did not put my hands all over that thing on the way in). “Don’t mind him, Kamatari. He’s a little…” And he trails off, not really having an excuse for his uncle’s behavior.

“Looked like a pretty big to me,” Tari replies in amusement. “But what a grouch!”

Well, that could have gone better. But it also could have gone much worse. I let out the breath I was holding. At least I got to meet Niitsu at all; I’ve been trying to wrangle that ever since I heard he’d be staying with Kenshin for a week. Plus I’ve made the interesting discovery that Niitsu is a pseudonym. Well, it’s interesting to me. I’m a bit of a gossip, you know. Anyway, add that to the fact that Kamatari hasn’t actually kissed anyone yet, and tonight hasn’t really been so bad.

“Kenshin-saaaan,” Tari is asking in a wheedling tone, following Kenshin past where Shishio and Yumi are making out in the front room (part of Shishio’s scheme to make Kenshin uncomfortable, or are they just drunk?) toward the living room. I hasten to join him. “I know you don’t like men, but I’ve had really bad luck so far this year, and–”

“Kamatari-san, are you trying to get Kenshin to kiss you?!” This is Kaoru, one of the amorous females I mentioned, who is seated on the floor with a bag of potato chips in her lap. She teaches fifth graders, and now she’s using that Stern Recess Monitor tone on Tari, though the effect is somewhat lessened by the guacamole on her face.

“You may as well give up now,” adds Megumi from the couch. I’m surprised she’s here at all, really; she’s a family doctor, and just as overworked as Soujirou. But I suppose, like Shishio, she would never miss a chance to mess with Kenshin’s head. Since she knows she can never have him. At least, that’s my theory. The reason for that is Tomoe, of course, another emergency room doctor that we all think (OK, I think) has the best chance with Kenshin. She’s closer to his age and a good deal quieter than the others, not to mention she spends more time with him. She has nothing to say about Tari’s request, but just sits there smiling on the other end of the couch.

“Kenshin-san won’t kiss anyone,” puts in Tae from her spot on the floor not far from Kaoru. “You should have heard him lecturing Soujirou-kun the other day about how much bacteria lives in a healthy human mouth!” Everyone laughs, and I ponder. Maybe Tae actually has a chance at Kenshin… better than Megumi and Kaoru at least… Kenshin loves to cook, and Tae runs a restaurant… oh, well, whatever. I really don’t care. Kenshin doesn’t have any problems about his orientation and whatnot.

“It was an interesting lecture!” Soujirou protests from his seat on the hearth, and sneezes.

Tari is pouting again, and it’s rather disturbing to see that by now the expression is starting to contain some real disappointment rather than coquetry alone. I’m torn between wishing he’d give the game up and wishing someone would kiss him just to make him feel better.

“Speaking of kissing,” Kaoru remarks slyly, “Aoshi-san and Misao-chan have been in there a long time.” But only she would be clueless enough not to realize that Aoshi is as gay as Tari is and Misao has no chance.

“Kamatari-kun,” Tomoe suggests in her calm, elegant voice at about the same moment, “why don’t you get Katsuhiro-kun to kiss you?” Yes, there’s another woman who sees things. Women scare me sometimes.

“Katsu’s different,” Kamatari sniffs, and I restrain a bitter sigh. Yes, Katsu’s different. You can use the phrase, ‘I know you don’t like men, but…’ with Kenshin, but not with Katsu. It’s just too obvious that Katsu is straight because Katsu’s been so stubbornly emphatic about it. Katsu would never want to kiss you. Katsu’s a fucking idiot. “Did I hear someone mention Aoshi-san?” And now Katsu’s almost glowering, because if Tari gets at Aoshi…

“He’s in the office,” Kenshin laughs as he sits down on the couch between Megumi and Tomoe, accepting the chips from Kaoru who has immediately moved closer. Tae has commandeered the guacamole and imitated her… the entire scene looks like some kind of emperor surrounded by his courtesans, especially with the two on the floor holding up their food items like some kind of desperate offering. Rather picturesque, actually, if you can get over the modern elements; it would be better, though, if Tae had black hair like the rest of the females. “Misao-dono claimed she had a secret to tell him.”

Everyone laughs again, and I’m beginning to think there must be something funny here beyond just the usual innuendo. Kamatari looks around, a little disoriented, and I point him towards Kenshin’s study (Sano hangs out here sometimes, and drags me with him, whereas Tari’s only ever here for parties). On the way there, though, he gets sidetracked.

“Oh, Enishi-kun!”

“No.”

“But you–”

“Go away.”

“You won’t–”

“Your dress is dry-clean only?”

“Well, yes…”

In a threatening manner, Enishi holds up the very red and possibly corrosively spicy salsa that he and Soujirou are sharing with a bowl of tortilla chips.

Tari dances backwards away from the hearth and sticks out his tongue. “Spooiiil-sport!” he sings as he heads for Kenshin’s office once again.

(Oh, and don’t let that fool you — Tomoe’s brother is a nice guy, really. Very blunt, yes, and has some strange self-esteem issues, but not bad once you get to know him. He likes parties about as much as I do, however, and only comes because his sister is. Well, and Soujirou, lately. I think.)

As Tari peeks through the glass of the study door, I turn back to the group. “By the way, Kenshin-san, Chou-san had a little accident in the kitchen.”

Kenshin sighs, and most of the women giggle.

“Nice dress,” Tari is murmuring, but there’s that disappointed tone in his voice again.

“What?” I join him looking through the door.

Did I say Misao had no chance with Aoshi? I meant she had no chance with a sober Aoshi. At least, getting him drunk is the only way I can think of that he’d be making out like that with a female college student at least ten years his junior. In the chair at Kenshin’s desk, no less. It would explain why everyone is so amused, too. Aoshi may have a seriously difficult time getting rid of Misao from now on, though. Worse than usual, I mean. And the really sad thing is, I think he likes Kenshin. All these doctors that work together and develop unrequited crushes… they should start a soap and give ER a run for its money.

Tari sighs. “I’m not even going in there.”

“Good idea,” I agree.

“Oh, they’re so cute!” Kaoru, Tae, and Megumi have crowded around us to watch through the doors as well, and Tari and I are forced to push through them. Tari surveys the room, biting his lip: Kenshin and Tomoe are gone, probably to inspect the kitchen, and Soujirou and Enishi are deep in conversation by the fire. Noises are coming from downstairs, and he brightens a little as he pulls me in that direction.

However, the big downstairs rec. room where the rest of the guests are playing pool or watching a volleyball game on TV (or is it taped? I don’t follow sports, so I’m not sure) does not afford him any lip-locking action, although he applies to every man in the place except for this creepy old guy Saizuchi, Kenshin’s neighbor on the opposite side from the Yatsume’s who shows up uninvited to every gathering. Tari doesn’t have to ask him; he offers. And Tari replies that he doesn’t kiss anyone with false teeth. When Saizuchi replies that they’re real, Tari suggests a good dentist. Everyone else has reasons not to kiss Kamatari or circumstances that prevent it even if they’re willing. And we go back upstairs.

Tari is quite despondent by now, and it’s depressing. I’ve never seen him have luck this bad; it’s like fate is against him. Or maybe on my side for once, though whether a disappointed, unkissed Kamatari is better for me than a happy one who’s attained his disturbing goal, I can’t quite say.

“Why do I feel like I’ve missed someone important?” he muses as Shishio brushes past him on a cell phone. The group in the living rooms seems to be playing some kind of loud guessing game now, so the house is rather noisy all ’round.

I point at the figure looking out the window in the entryway. Actually, I’m also wondering how we’ve missed him all along. Certainly he’s been here all night same as we have; coincidentally bad timing, I guess. And, you know, it’s kinda sad that I don’t like him like that. Well, no, it’s not, really, but he does look nice leaning casually against the wall with his face turned steadfastly out the window… there’s this charmingly impatient hopeful attitude about him like he’s a convalescent soldier waiting for the return of his triumphant companions from the battle front… he wishes he could have been with them, but at the moment he’s just glad they’re coming back. That’s how I would paint it, anyway.

Tari brightens amazingly. “Sanosuke!” he cries. “Just the person I was looking for!” He lets the put-on girlish tone leave his voice almost entirely (so only the natural girlish tone remains) as he approaches Sano. (Scary how he knows and can adapt to exactly what everyone likes, isn’t it? And yet he’s still the same person the entire time. Amazing.)

Sano laughs as he turns to face us. “You ain’t gettin’ a kiss from me this year, Kamatari; you do know that, right?” Secretly I’m thanking him already for sticking with the trend. (Or, more appropriately, thanking his new boyfriend who is undoubtedly the reason for this declaration)

“Why not?” Tari pouts.

“Are you kidding? Hacchan would kill me!”

Tari and I both wince. “Does he know you call him Hacchan behind his back?” I ask, knowing that we’re both thinking of the harsh face of Sano’s lover and how that man would probably react to this nickname.

“Nope,” Sano grins.

“Well, he’s not here now, is he?” Tari sidles up to Sano and snuggles against him.

Sano gives Tari a friendly hug before pushing him away. “He’s picking me up soon so we can go to his place and, um, celebrate his birthday. I don’t wanna smell like your perfume…”

“I’ll stand back,” Tari suggests. “C’mon, he’ll never know!”

“Oh, he will,” Sano replies, perfectly serious. And he’s probably right, too. That Saitou guy is strange. Sometimes I think the only reason they’re together is that Sano got desperate. I mean, a cop he met when he was being questioned about damage done in a brawl that he probably started at a nightclub back in July…? The thought is a little disturbing, considering that I was what he wanted for the longest time. And it makes the idea of admitting now that I’m gay all the more disturbing. It’d be like saying I was just waiting for Sano to get out of the way or something. How am I supposed to do that to my friend?

“Well, fine,” Tari decrees. “I’ll just ask him when he gets here.”

Sano looks startled. “You’re gonna try to kiss Hajime? Or you’re gonna ask him if you can kiss me?”

“Both.”

“He’s gonna be in a real shitty mood, you know. People are idiots on New Year’s Eve.”

Tari lifts his chin defiantly. “He can’t be worse than that Niitsu was.”

“Oh, you met Kenshin’s uncle, didja?” Sano laughs. “Yeah, he’s a real character. But, um, Hacchan might be worse, actually — oh, there he is.” Sano goes to the door, then looks back at Tari uncertainly. “Um, are you really gonna…”

“Yes!” Tari pronounces, and follows him outside. I’m close at his heels. Saitou is a police officer, and therefore probably won’t actually hurt Kamatari, but I’m a little nervous nonetheless.

Sano is bouncing over to the cop car parked in the driveway. Once there, he glances back at us and gestures for Saitou to get out. The man merely rolls down his window. “What?”

“Konbanwa, Saitou-san!” Kamatari greets him with a wave.

“You remember Kamatari, right?” Sano says.

Saitou nods. This does not look promising.

“Well, um, he’s trying to kiss all the guys at the party, and–”

Saitou’s eyes narrow. “Get in the car.”

Sano looks at Kamatari with a shrug. “Toldja he’d be in a bad mood.”

“I’m not in a bad mood,” Saitou growls. “Just get in the damn car.”

Sano grins. “See? That’s what happens when you give too many speeding tickets and book too many cheap drunks.”

Saitou scowls. “Every damn New Year…” And he rolls up his window.

There’s that pout again. “Oh, Sanosuke, you’re not persistent at all,” Tari protests.

“I’m just not suicidal,” Sano replies as he vaults over the hood of the car. “But I’ll have him feelin’ better in no time. Night, you guys. Happy New Year!”

I wave goodbye as they back out of the driveway and head off up the street much faster than a cop who’s just been pseudo-complaining about speeders should drive.

“Fine.” Tari kicks a rock into the street and turns towards the door.

“Hey, you two, come in here and be on my team!” Tae calls to us from the doorway into the living room just as we’re reentering the house. This is a good idea, as Tari needs cheering up. So we join her without much reluctance, and while away the time rather pleasantly for what remains of the night.

But the year’s final minutes find us again wandering the house in a frenzy, Tari newly determined to be kissed or die in the attempt — especially since he hasn’t found anyone with whom to share the all-important midnight kiss. I have no clue where he gets these ideas about kissing on New Year’s Eve — from America or something, probably — but it really does mean something to him just because he’s been doing it for so long. But still no luck. And finally we’re down to the very end of the day, and utterly kissless. Kamatari throws himself on the bottom step of the upward staircase and mopes.

“Almost midnight,” he grumbles.

His sorrow is interesting. It’s nothing like the heavy, mundane melancholy through which I plod day after day (and have occasionally idly thought might be clinical depression, but I won’t get into that). His is like something fragile, a coating of dark glass or maybe ice that spreads over him so I want to touch him very gently and breathe only the softest breaths. But he always shatters it with a smile or a laugh; he never stays sad for long, and as he dispels his own I invariably feel mine begin to lift just a little. And, really, he isn’t sad tonight. He wouldn’t let a little thing like kisses on New Year’s Eve really get him down. But I can’t stand to see him even like this.

And maybe it’s that that finally gives me the courage I need. No, don’t start thinking I burst out with a passionate revelation or anything; but I do realize that a kiss and a confession are two different things, especially when Kamatari’s first happiness of the year is at stake. So I sit down beside him and say his name; elsewhere in the house I can hear the countdown to midnight commencing.

Tari’s not stupid. He knows what I mean. And he doesn’t wait for me. Smiling, he leans forward and presses his lips against mine. And everything else in the world just melts away: the cheers of those downstairs who aren’t kissing someone as midnight marks the passing of the previous twelvemonth (though they might be cheering about the game for all I know); Shishio’s continual business-talk on his cell phone not far off while Yumi grumps because she isn’t being kissed either; my curiosity as to whether any of those women managed to engage Kenshin in midnight kissing in the living room (or whether Misao will claim tomorrow that Aoshi’s drunken kisses were some kind of contract; or whether Enishi’s worked through his confused mind enough to kiss Soujirou; or whether Chou is drunk enough to attempt making out with himself or perhaps some of Kenshin’s cooking utensils in the kitchen, unless he’s passed out already; or whether Niitsu ever kisses that pretty car of his when nobody’s looking) …yeah, so even the stuff I’m not thinking about involves kissing. Kissing is the whole world right about now. Although I have to admit that I may be just a little conscious of the at least twenty-four types of bacteria that are happily mixing inside our mouths. But all in all, my first kiss with Kamatari is an experience that I won’t be forgetting any time soon.

It isn’t as deep and doesn’t last as long as I’d like, but I have to remember that Tari still thinks I’m straight and is aiming to be polite. I try desperately to keep my face composed as he pulls away from me; I do have to admit this thing at some point, but as a speechless googly idiot is not how I plan on doing it.

Tari’s smiling again. “You’re a sweetheart, Katsu,” he says, and squeezes my knee. “Not many straight guys would do that, you know.”

I couldn’t ask for a better moment than this if I’d been arranging the evening to my specifications all along; it’s a paint-by-number from here. And the look in his eyes really gives me hope that I won’t be rejected. He’s got to like me at least a little, doesn’t he? Otherwise he wouldn’t put up with such a dreary, misanthropic, artistically-obsessed man, right? Sure, it could be because I take great photographs, but still… Well, we’ll find out now. I take a deep breath, ready to acknowledge everything…

but somehow all I manage to say is…

“What are friends for?”

And the moment is gone.

Tari leans against my shoulder, and I long to put my arm around him. But I lost my chance, and it’ll have to wait. “Happy New Year,” he says, and all the cheer has returned to his voice. Which makes me want to cry, though not all of the tears would mean the same thing.

“Happy New Year,” I reply instead, calmly and without letting it sound in my tone that there’s anything in the world I desperately want to say to him and just can’t.

(New Year’s Resolution: Tell Kamatari that I love him. Somehow.)

And for all the ambivalence of the scene, I consider this a happy ending.


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This story is included in the Rurouni Kenshin Collection ebook.