It was stupid and crazy and he knew it. After a day of chaos and a night of worry and little rest, he was barely cleaned and patched up, and decidedly exhausted. Beyond that, he had to evade a doctor, several concerned friends, and a house full of fucking onmitsu just to get to the door. And that was all before taking into account his terrible sense of direction. But despite everything, here he was sneaking from the half-ruined Aoiya, pockets stuffed with spare bandages, heading out of town.
There wasn’t much he could do to deny the reasons for this foolishness, but he didn’t really want to think about it, so he concentrated on walking, on the physical pain, on not thinking about too much of anything. One foot in front of the other, don’t stumble, try to keep to a relatively straight line.
But a burning image was seared across the insides of his eyelids every time he blinked, and an unusually ambiguous rage tore at his heart. He might have identified that anger if he’d wanted to; might have associated it with memories, with missed opportunities — none of them from too long ago, yet all bearing the mental stamp of circumstances deliberately distanced from associated recollection because they were too painful to consider.
He would have stayed if he’d been the only one, or even if Kenshin hadn’t needed him quite so desperately.
Walking. Physical pain. Not thinking about anything. Not getting lost.
Smoke rose from the site; it was visible from the edge of town, but soon hidden again by trees. His progress was slow, and he found himself pushing, frustrated, for greater speed, as if there were something up there that couldn’t wait. As if there were anything up there at all.
He couldn’t be sure, after not too long, that this was the right direction, but he kept moving. The sun was high and the path bright between the trees’ shadows: the perfect day for a nap, something Sano was certainly in a condition to appreciate… but instead here he was plodding up a mountain, probably killing himself, looking for…
Eventually he lost track of how long he’d been walking; awareness of a lot of things was fading, actually, and it was perhaps this general dimness that prompted the worried voice in the back of his head that vaguely suggested he stop. Or perhaps it was something else. For, slowing to a standstill as he rounded a bend, he raised his gaze from where it had preceded his footsteps along the ground and saw before him, among the mountain foliage and the imaginary gloom created by his own weakness, what he took at first to be a hallucination. For a while he merely stared. It was almost as if he’d been expecting it, for there was no surprise at the sight… no surprise, only a slow, magnificent fury.
How could he make an ambiguous exit like that and then get out just fine? Finally play the hero and then just walk away??
“Asshole,” Sano growled. Everything about Saitou was so maddening, from the indifferent expression to the slow way he stood straight from the tree he’d been leaning against as if Sano was barely worth his attention, that the young man could not restrain himself. He would show that arrogant bastard…
Saitou twisted so Sano’s arm passed over his shoulder, and unexpectedly met him chest to chest, his weight driving them both back a pace. Thus Sano’s fist barely brushed the bark of the tree, and his eyes went wide. If Saitou had answered his attack any other way, a very solid trunk would have met the very sensitive hand about which Sano himself had, in the ire of the moment, almost forgotten.
“I doubt that’s the way you want to fight me,” Saitou murmured.
Sano could find no answer. This guy knew everything; he’d been unconscious when Shishio had crushed Sano’s hand, yet had noticed at some point and now had the presence of mind to spare Sano further injury.
Also, he was still pressed against Sano for some reason, seeming almost limp.
“What the hell are you doing?” demanded Sano, nonplussed.
“Didn’t you know?” Saitou replied in what was barely an echo of his usual tone. “This is my new hobby.”
This was the first intimation that Saitou might not be fine, and at that thought Sano’s rage drained instantly away. Returning common sense seconded the supposition: Saitou had been wounded in the fortress; getting out of the fortress, through that inferno, couldn’t have improved his condition. In a movement almost panicky, arms rose to clutch at Saitou’s form. Now that Sano was paying attention, he could smell charred clothing and flesh, and he thought something wet was soaking through Saitou’s jacket onto his chest. For half a moment he had no idea what to do.
“Make yourself useful, ahou,” Saitou commanded faintly.
Annoyance restored Sano’s presence of mind. “I’m waiting to see if you’re gonna die before I waste my time on you,” he retorted, though his voice sounded nearly as weak as Saitou’s. Honestly, just supporting the other man’s weight as well as his own was almost more than he could handle. Trying to remember how far back along his path lay the nearest potential place of rest and medical care was futile; he could barely remember how far he’d come from the city, let alone what he’d passed along the way. “How far can you walk?” he asked doubtfully.
“If I could still walk, do you really think I’d be leaning on you?” Saitou’s sarcasm was distinctly blunted under these circumstances.
Sano snorted. “Fine,” he muttered, looking around for a decent place to… what? Make camp? Play doctor? Preferably not in the middle of the path.
Eventually he chose a somewhat clear spot among the trees to their left and helped Saitou to the ground. The officer really didn’t look good. Beyond merely wondering, Sano was baffled as to why he hadn’t noticed at first. His emotional response at finding Saitou still alive at all might have been some explanation — if he wanted to think about that.
Before he could do anything else, he had to take some rest himself. Both of his hands hurt desperately, the pain in his skull was steadily growing again, and his entire body ached. He felt he could sleep for a year — and probably would, forgetting Saitou and everything else in the world, if he lay down. But, though there were times when it seemed forgetting Saitou would make his life a good deal easier, that didn’t strike him as the best plan at the moment. So he leaned against a tree and drew an arm across his face, closing his eyes in search of comfortable darkness.
His breathing, which he hadn’t realized was so uneven, became gradually more regular, and the sounds of the wooded mountain were soothing — until he felt himself tilting, succumbing to gravity, falling asleep on his feet. Straightening, dropping his protective arm, he opened his eyes to the somewhat jarring day. Surprisingly, he did actually feel rested — readier, at least, for the task at hand. His steps weren’t as steady as he could have wished, however, as he made his way back to Saitou.
The officer’s eyes had closed, but Sano thought he was still conscious. And at least he didn’t seem to have any respiratory problems. “Any idea what’s worst here?” Sano asked almost conversationally as he knelt at Saitou’s side and began unbuttoning the man’s jacket. It was almost a pointless exercise — the front of the thing was a mess, the dexterity of Sano’s fingers far from its usual level — but he didn’t want to start destroying clothes before he had to.
Saitou took a breath as if to answer, but then let it out without a word; Sano guessed he’d had some unhelpful sarcastic impulse that he’d thought better of, and had nothing to say in its place. He did open his eyes, though, and these seemed alert enough for the moment.
“Holy fuck,” was Sano’s next remark. He was taking in the extent of the wounds on Saitou’s chest as he started to peel the jacket away from them. “How’d you even make it this far?”
“Good question,” Saitou replied, and it was nearly a whisper; Sano thought he was perhaps trying to cover up his hiss of pain as torn, bloody cloth that was already hardening onto similar bloody tears in his flesh tugged at the latter.
“Water…” Sano muttered. He wasn’t going to get much farther without it.
“Listen,” admonished the officer, and just in that single, weary word the implication was strong: “You should have thought of that earlier.”
It was true, and there was no purpose getting annoyed about it now. Sano closed his eyes, alert this time and concentrating. His head was pounding, and it interfered somewhat with the pursuit of distant sound, but he forced himself to perceive past it, and restrained his breathing until he felt he must faint; never in his life had he listened so hard. And Saitou was right, of course: he did hear water, some way ahead and to the left — whatever direction that actually was.
It took him longer to physically locate his goal than it had to perceive it, and by the time he reached the little stream he was frustrated and tired. But the thoughts of rest he entertained as he sank again to his knees were dispelled when he glanced down and saw Saitou’s blood patterned across his borrowed gi. Having no container of any kind, after some thought he pulled off the garment and held it in the water until it was entirely soaked. Then, wadding it up and trying to keep it as much as possible from dripping, he rose and returned (after a few false starts in wrong directions) to where he’d left the other man.
Although Saitou’s eyes were again closed, he was still obviously awake, and Sano grudgingly had to admire that; lying flat, Sano would long ago have been out cold. The officer even went so far as to grunt and speak an entire sentence when Sano wrung out one corner of the waterlogged gi over his chest: “Do you have… any idea… what you’re doing?”
“Yes,” Sano replied indignantly. “Any decent street-fighter knows how to treat wounds… basically.”
“‘Decent…'” Saitou muttered, eyes still closed.
“Hey, fuck you,” Sano shot back, responding to the disdain he assumed Saitou intended; “I could just leave you here.” But somehow, facetiously as he’d meant it, this was a disturbing idea, so he added more seriously, “But don’t worry. After I get you cleaned up and you have some rest, we’ll get you down to a real doctor. In the meantime, I’ve got all sorts of bandages.”
Now one of Saitou’s eyes cracked open, but it seemed all he could manage was a very faint expression of skepticism and consternation. “I’m not sharing your dirty bandages, ahou.”
“No,” protested Sano, piqued again, “I grabbed a bunch from the Aoiya before I left, just in case–” He broke off, his face heating for some reason.
Saitou, even in his present state, didn’t miss it. “‘In case–?'”
Choosing to ignore this, a luxury he didn’t often have with Saitou, Sano bent his full attention to the duty before him. His stupid blush was undoubtedly answer enough anyway.
It was a laborious process conducted mostly in silence. Sano was forced, after all, to use the nihontou from the officer’s belt to cut free the front sections of shirt and jacket, and getting these out of the clotting wounds was an ordeal for both of them. Sano’s hands didn’t fancy the exertion, and obviously it was a good deal less pleasant for Saitou. But eventually it was done, and the newly-cleaned cuts were beginning to ooze fresh blood, which, after the mélange of blackening cloth, looked positively healthy.
Sano hastened to empty his pockets of the various rolls of bandages he’d managed to pick up on his way out on this absurd quest. Presently he found that he’d either overestimated the amount he’d brought or underestimated how much length was required to treat any significant hurt, for by the time he got Saitou’s chest sufficiently wrapped, very little remained. He could only hope, as he turned his attention to Saitou’s lower half, that the officer had no other severe injuries. The hastily tended wounds on his thighs were obvious and should probably be re-wrapped, but other than that he couldn’t tell.
“Don’t,” Saitou murmured as Sano’s hand touched his belt. Glancing back at the wolf’s slitted eyes, Sano got the impression Saitou’s struggle against unconsciousness was nearly lost.
To see Saitou like that, vulnerable and hurting, gave Sano the oddest feeling and the oddest impulses. His bandaged fingers had reached out and grazed the harsh face before he even realized what he was doing. “Just checking for other shit you might die from,” he replied softly, trying to fight off another blush at his own foolishness. “Didn’t figure you for the modest type.”
Saitou’s answering twitch of lips was a far cry from his usual smirk, and faded quickly. “I just don’t think… you need another reason… to be jealous of me,” he whispered. Then with a slight sigh he closed his eyes, this time clearly abandoning wakefulness.
Reflecting that Saitou would be sarcastic even on his deathbed, Sano continued with his planned course of action. Saitou was probably right; removing an unconscious man’s pants was always an awkward procedure, and given the lack of large bloodstains on them it was to be assumed he didn’t have any life-threatening wounds below the waist… but Sano would be perverse even on his deathbed, and Saitou’s parting shot was an indomitable inducement at least to look.
He bit back a… remark. Figured Saitou would be right about that too. Though it wasn’t exactly jealousy Sano felt.
Of course he really had only given himself unnecessary work by disturbing the bandages on the officer’s thighs. But he persevered until he had those wounds cleaned and re-wrapped (simply rotating the same bandages, unfortunately) and had at least wrung the last of the water he could from his now very bloody gi onto the burns that covered Saitou’s legs in painful-looking patches from the knees down. Then it was even more awkward to get the pants back on, but finally his work seemed finished.
Almost without another thought, he stretched out on the ground beside the other man and went to sleep.
Saitou awoke, cold and in pain, in an unfamiliar and decidedly outdoor setting, and wondered for a long, disoriented moment why this didn’t bother him more.
Concentrating first on the physicality of his situation, the sensations of the ground beneath him and the pain throughout his body, he determined in what position he lay and recalled each of his wounds in succession, and the world seemed a bit less nonsensical. What he couldn’t quite make sense of was the warmth all along his left side. But as the events preceding his period of unconsciousness slowly, vaguely returned to him, he realized what it must be.
His mind was almost blank; he didn’t know what to think, and it was easier just to hurt. The one solid reflection he was able to entertain was that he’d been helpless: truly helpless, with only an extraneous factor standing between him and a variety of possible causes of death, the circumstances entirely beyond his control; a state he hadn’t been in since… he couldn’t remember when. Though trying to remember did awaken his cognitive faculties somewhat.
He didn’t think he would have made it more than a few steps further on his own. Whether he would have survived his inevitable collapse, he didn’t know — but even if the idiot hadn’t saved his life, he had certainly saved him from complications and greater discomfort. Sagara Sanosuke, of all people.
Though Saitou knew perfectly well why Sano had done it. It was the same reason Sano was huddled up against him now, rendering imperfect the chill that had settled across his body.
Slowly and with a great deal of discomfort, Saitou sat up. His next breath was a gasp as the wounds on his chest flared with a burst of pain, and he had to lean heavily on his hand to keep from falling back to the ground. Once it had died down (or he’d become accustomed to it), he assessed his condition. It took only a brief examination to see that Sano had done an unexpectedly good job with his ‘just in case’ bandages. Saitou was still in rather dire shape, but he wouldn’t die and might not get infected.
Next the officer turned his eyes to his companion. Sano lay on his side, curled up, shirtless, shivering occasionally but untroubled by Saitou’s movement in the deep sleep of exhaustion. Saitou stared at him for a long time — until weariness and pain dragged him back to the ground and his eyes closed, in fact. What kept his gaze riveted until that extremity was the unfamiliar and unanticipated reaction he had to seeing the young man there like that: far from clinical indifference, or even the vague tolerance he would have expected if he’d thought about it at all, the sudden rush of emotion he experienced was, rather, something discernibly positive… something that went beyond fondness, even, and held traces of possessiveness and sympathy.
When had that started?
At some point while Saitou had been in the aforementioned rare helpless state, undoubtedly. Helpless, evidently, in more ways than one, if, as it seemed, the big brown eyes and stupid remarks had finally gotten to him. Well, there was nothing to be done about it now but let it run its course, whatever that might be. It wasn’t entirely unexpected, anyway. Himura had predicted it. Saitou himself had not ignored the possibility in his calculations for the future — he just hadn’t thought it a very probable possibility. And here it was.
He could already hear Tokio’s comment: “So you just woke up one day” — it was a phrase she used consistently, which was why it crossed his mind at all — “and decided you liked this kid?” And when he replied that, yes, that was exactly how it had happened, she would say… but he didn’t have the energy to play out that hypothetical but inevitable conversation, entertaining as it was and would be.
A burning sensation lay just beneath his flesh throughout his body, and he thought illness might be the greatest danger to him at this point. In direct contrast, the surface of his skin was uncomfortably cool, and sweat stood clammy across his form. Though the day was warm, the sun’s light, diluted by the trees, did little to comfort him. And at his side he thought Sano shared his condition. But there was nothing to be done about it; he wasn’t yet rested enough to finish the walk back to Kyoto — and because of his wounds, he couldn’t even find a better position to lie in for shared body heat. He did, however, seek out Sano’s wrist, in lieu of a broken hand, and hold onto it as he fell asleep again.
When next he woke, he felt, if not exactly better, more like he might be able to stand and walk. Sano still slept soundly at his side, now with Saitou’s hand lying between both of his — which, though unclenched, yet managed to seem tenacious. When Saitou pulled his away as he sat up, Sano gave an angry-sounding mutter but did not stir. It was dusk, and getting steadily colder; Saitou thought that was what had awakened him. High time to get back to civilization.
“Sano,” he said, but his voice came out weak and faint. Bending, awkward and painful, until his lips brushed Sano’s ear, he repeated the hoarse call.
Sano stirred slowly, mumbling, as Saitou drew away, and eventually opened his eyes. Disorientation seemed to last about twice as long for him as it had for Saitou, but when on sitting up he caught sight of the older man, recollection flashed in his face. “Shit, how long–” He broke off as he looked around at the evening shadows.
“Long enough,” Saitou replied quietly.
“How’re you feeling?” was Sano’s next query. It was made with some abashment, but the young man seemed to have gained greater mastery over the apparent embarrassment of having come up this mountain in this state specifically to find Saitou, and the blush from earlier did not reappear.
Saitou pondered a moment on what reply was most likely to recall that blush, and decided honesty would probably do the trick. “Grateful,” he said. “You may have saved my life.”
It worked, for which victory the concession was only a small discomfort in exchange. “Well… I wasn’t…” Sano’s tone was amusingly defensive, as if Saitou’s statement had been one of accusation rather than gratitude. “I couldn’t just…”
“I know,” said Saitou, and his tone only served to intensify the blush. He smirked, albeit faintly.
“Look…” Sano began, but hesitated, evidently unsure how to continue.
Unfortunately, this was not the best moment for the wavering idiot to work himself up to a confession, so Saitou changed the subject. “Let’s go.”
At this Sano seemed to return to reality. “Yeah,” he agreed hoarsely, and scrambled to his feet. Saitou noted his expression when his hands touched the ground; and, thinking Sano in this mood might want to try to help his companion up and hurt himself in so doing — he was reckless like that — Saitou made his own way to a standing position.
Immediately he foresaw difficulties: his legs were very stiff and reluctant to move, and a nearly overwhelming wave of pain, originating in his chest, swept through him with every breath the instant he was upright. “I’m going to need your help.” His voice grated out in a whisper once more, but Sano was at his side in half an instant, literally almost tripping over himself. Saitou smirked again. “You’re just the right height for this,” he remarked, still very softly, as Sano supported him. Sano seemed to overlook the possible offensively objectifying interpretation of this statement, for it threw him into another dither of abashment as they set off.
So the first time they ever had their arms around each other, it was because Saitou could barely walk. It made for a long and awkward trip back to Kyoto, but at least Sano’s warmth at his side was a comfort in the growing dark; and, though his thoughts became hazier with every moment he spent perpendicular, he used the time to accustom himself to the idea of seeing a lot more of Sano’s from now on.
They did not speak until they’d entered town, and it was Sano who broke the lengthy silence. “Where now?”
Saitou’s energy was almost entirely gone, and his answer, “Police station,” was a barely intelligible mumble.
“Are you insane?” Sano demanded. “I go to all this trouble to get you back here alive, and you want to kill yourself going to work?”
“Ahou…” He was about to continue with an explanation about police doctors in as few words as he could condense the idea into, but Sano cut him off at the epithet:
“‘Sides, the police station’s gone. Juppongatana destroyed it.”
This news was so startling, it seemed somehow to put up a wall in the officer’s brain. He couldn’t get his thoughts past it, and they ran in circles at its foot. At a complete loss, near the end of coherent reflection, he couldn’t speak.
“Aoiya, then,” Sano pronounced, sounding at once dogmatic and concerned.
This, at least, Saitou was aware he didn’t want, and it roused him somewhat. “No,” he whispered, and with a great struggle managed to come up with the name of one of the doctors that answered to the precinct. And that was the real end of his logic for the day; he was content thereafter to lean increasingly heavily on Sano and let him take charge. In the fog of confusion that seemed to have fallen over Kyoto, relying on someone that was confused under normal circumstances didn’t even seem strange.
The next thing he knew was waking up alone. Though not as disorienting as waking up on the forested mountain, this was also more jarring than that unusual occurrence had been. Why did finding himself lying beside Sano feel so natural where in a similar condition finding himself in a clinic bed felt somehow off? Well, the answer to that must be obvious… if a somewhat alien concept.
Noting simultaneously the improved state of his various wounds and his lower level of pain, he looked around languidly at his sterile but comfortable environment, taking in details but not straining himself. He didn’t remember and couldn’t really imagine how Sano had managed to find the right place. Actually, he wasn’t even sure this was the right place. But it was obviously the right type of place, and not that ninja inn, and for the moment that must be enough. Though he didn’t feel significantly better, it was now a placid discomfort aware of drugs and a soft bed and the promise of as much rest as he needed. His mind still wasn’t entirely clear either, but at least now this didn’t result from him being about to collapse.
The end of last night’s events at first completely eluded his recollection, and, content to drift in and out of a half-sleeping state, he didn’t fight for it. But finally the thought of Sano’s face and voice managed to conjure up certain expressions and statements that he was fairly sure had been made during the period in question. He knew he’d spoken to Sano as well, replying to his remarks, and that there had been a doctor and possibly a doctor’s assistant that had also probably had something to say… but he still couldn’t remember most of it. In his struggle for recollection, all he heard was Sano.
“I’d stay, but I kinda feel like shit too, and they’re probably having fits about me being gone this long.”
Saitou reflected with a slight smirk that they would probably have fits when they realized why he’d gone, too. Himura would understand… but would he approve? That was a question for another time.
“But I’ll come by tomorrow if I can and make sure you’re not dead, all right?”
This had been spoken in such an odd tone… as if Sano had been more than a little anxious to reassure him. What had Saitou said or otherwise indicated to have prompted that? He simply couldn’t recall. And then…
Then Sano had kissed him. Right in front of the doctor and god knew who else.
Saitou sighed, rolling his eyes, but found he also wore a small smile. It was an inevitable result of being helpless in Sano’s hands… and conceivably an inevitable result of involvement with Sano in general. He might as well get used to it.
The effort of remembering had tired him, so he closed his eyes and drifted again, musing vaguely, speculatively, and not entirely unpleasantly about the future.
“I’ll come by tomorrow.”
He wondered how long Sano would keep him waiting.