The Phenomenal Improbability of This Coincidence

Could she tell them? Would they believe her? Not now; not yet. But she must be included in this expedition.

Three lonely years after returning to England, Jane Porter longs to find Tarzan again. And though she’s able to set out as a consultant to Elsa and Anna of Arendelle, who plan to search the same area for any news of their long-lost parents, will she be able to explain to them what she believes is the missing piece of the puzzle that brought them together on this voyage?

Unique to this story: Hints of racism/antisemitism.

Fog sneaked among masts and rigging, pier supports and walls, hats and umbrellas and even legs, very much as the African mists had sometimes done among the mighty trees and world of dangling vines and the subsequently obscure items of their own camp three years before. Each did unforgivable things to her hair, but whereas in Africa she’d been free to keep her pith helmet on as long as she felt the need — and beyond that hadn’t exactly had any social engagements — here the drooping locks that never failed to get down into her eyes would be visible not only to every passerby on the street, but also to the delegate she hoped to impress.

Beyond that, the fog chilled her to the bone despite the layers she’d donned against it, while the African mists had been a pleasant contrast to the hot equatorial atmosphere. She adjusted her hat, took a firmer grip on her closed umbrella, and pressed her unoccupied hand into a coat pocket. The crinkle from within as glove closed on paper acted as a sort of warmth, anyway.

She’d lost count, in recent days, of how many letters she’d received beginning with some approximation of, My dear Miss Porter, though I have the utmost respect for the scientific achievements of your eminent father, it is with deepest regret I must inform you… Just to have one that started differently, however desirable its proposal might or might not turn out, had lit a fire of hope in her breast as nothing else had during these increasingly bad years.

She would not, she believed, have received so many denials of her request for sponsorship if she could have said — or even in good conscience implied — that her father would once again be heading the proposed expedition. But his health had grown poor enough of late that she didn’t want him to risk the long voyage, even back to an area she believed had been especially salubrious for him, until she was certain it would be a one-way trip. And how could she know that without making a preliminary survey herself? How could she dare believe in the possibility? Was it within her conscience?

In any case, even with suffragettes becoming increasingly vocal in England and elsewhere, scientific expeditions headed by single young women did not raise much confidence — or money — with the various stodgy men of the Royal Society, or even the BA. And there was another reason the letter in her pocket warmed her heart: it was signed by a woman.

Though relatively uninitiated in the functionality and visual design of sailing ships, with or without supplemental steam engines, Jane believed the one to which she’d been invited today had a subtly affluent and dignified look while also appearing sturdy and practical. Her green and purple paint was subdued, and the carved crocus that formed her figurehead was a subtle rather than a glittering gold that didn’t immediately draw the eye. For her own part, Jane preferred bright colors, but for the conveyance of a delegation from a small norther country, this seemed properly unobtrusive.

The gangway stood extended and ready for her, and a figure, appearance blurred in the fog, waited at the top. As Jane climbed the oblique walk and kept her eyes steadily forward and upward, she took in more and more details: the stranger was a plump, fit-looking woman in her forties wearing a braided crown of red hair striped with grey and one prominent patch of pure white. This tight coiffure, along with her modish green coat over a short split skirt and neat tall boots, suggested an active person and an active function in the delegation.

The woman held out a hand as Jane drew near, and her pleasant face seemed to take the edge from the air around them with a welcoming smile and the wrinkled pattern of many such gone by beside her eyes. And there was something in those eyes — medium blue with just the slightest touch of green, the passion and energy behind them increasingly visible as Jane drew up to her — that thoroughly and abruptly engrossed her.

Jane had always been easily distracted. It wasn’t that she hadn’t spent her entire childhood taking lessons, tacit and overt, in proper behavior and social consciousness; it was just that as soon as she encountered something that grabbed her interest, she forgot herself. Staring silently between the delegate’s dark lashes, standing stupidly still without taking the last step off the gangplank, not reaching out to shake the offered hand, was patently rude, but so caught up was Jane in the seeming familiarity, the almost enchanting familiarity of those eyes that she didn’t even recognize the extent to which she’d lost her head until the woman spoke.

“You must be Jane Porter.” The delegate took that last step forward in Jane’s place and reached out. She did perhaps appear a little curious as to what had stopped her visitor so short, but only added, “I’m Anna of Arendelle,” as she shook Jane’s hand.

“Oh! Oh, yes, of course, good morning.” Fidgeting in response to her own behavior, Jane brushed a strand of damp hair out of her face, pushed her hat up by half an inch, and released both Anna’s hand and Anna’s eyes seconds too late to avoid awkwardness. “We’ve corresponded. I’m very happy to make your acquaintance.”

“I’m so glad you were able to come on such short notice,” Anna replied, taking Jane’s elbow and leading her onto the ship and across the foggy deck. “Though I guess it wasn’t such short notice for you, since you were already looking for a sponsor, but since we only determined on this voyage a few weeks ago, it seemed like a miracle when we came across your name. Come inside!”

Jane smiled to find her new acquaintance so chatty already, and allowed herself to be led out of the greater chill of the morning. “It seems we may be able to help each other,” she agreed as they went.

Inside, under a low ceiling in what nevertheless appeared a relatively comfortable cabin — the captain’s, perhaps — two more women sat behind a table covered in charts, with a man standing straight-spined nearby, his grizzled head brushing the beam just above him. Anna moved forward after closing the door behind them, gestured at the central figure, and said, “May I present Queen Elsa of Arendelle.”

Jane nearly choked. She’d taken a confident step or two behind Anna on entry, but halted as if on a sixpence at these words and gaped. Any other potential source of distracting interest — and she felt immediately there might be one or two before her — immediately slipped her mind, but that didn’t stop her from gawking at the indicated woman for at least one impolite second.

Not one tiny hint had been dropped in Anna’s correspondence that this was a royal delegation, that Jane would come face-to-face with the ruler of a nation aboard this ship. A drawing-room-sized nation, granted, consisting primarily of uninhabitable mountains and which she’d barely even heard of before looking into it on receipt of Anna’s first letter, but the fact remained that Jane’s preparations for this interview — credential, sartorial, and emotional — would have been significantly different had she known this in advance.

Queen Elsa said Anna’s name in a fondly reproving tone, and the likeness between the two struck Jane even through her haze of astonishment and agitation. This combined with the previous introduction ‘Anna of Arendelle’ rather than Christian name and surname struck Jane with the sudden realization that they were sisters. Anna too, informal and personable as she’d shown herself thus far, was Arendelle royalty.

“I thought she should know before we begin,” Anna said with a twinkle in those compelling aqua eyes. “This is Jane Porter.”

With a monumental effort, Jane got something of a grip and made her curtsey, first toward the queen and then, more shallowly and belatedly, toward the princess or whatever Anna’s official title might be. “Your majesty,” she said. “Your highness.”

“Please, Miss Porter,” the queen replied in a firm but gentle voice that mixed formality and welcome in a manner striking Jane as quite regal, “this expedition is a private undertaking; I’m not here in my capacity as Queen of Arendelle, nor my sister Anna as Princess.” She gestured elegantly to her right with one pale hand. “Neither is Duchess Judith Feinberg here in her capacity of royal advisor, but rather that of personal friend. I didn’t plan on mentioning our official ranks to you until we’d made all our arrangements, but–” shooting her sister a wry look– “Anna obviously had other ideas. I hope you’ll be willing to call us by name rather than title, or ‘ma’am’ if that makes you more comfortable. And naturally our good Captain Bengtsson–” with another wave– “prefers to be addressed by that title.”

While she spoke, Jane examined her more closely than she’d been able to while overcome with confusion and surprise. Queen Elsa of Arendelle appeared to be a little older than her sister, with the same slender figure filled out by middle-aged solidity, and hair gone entirely silver — on which she wore no crown — pulled up into a practical arrangement similar to Anna’s. Her clothing represented equal functionality in a coat of the same cut, hers of a deep purple with blue and green scrollwork in shining thread, and Jane had no doubt she wore, beneath the table unseen for now, a split skirt and stout boots like Anna’s. The only concession her garments made to her position was the embroidered crest of Arendelle on her left breast.

But her eyes…

They were the same as Anna’s, which Jane was beginning to think were also the same as…

It was that slightly greenish blue again, pure and clear, but more than the color it was the intensity that took Jane dizzily back to hot jungle days and a family of (mostly) gorillas. The depth of emotion, the penetrating energy of the spirit behind the startling irises and pupils… Jane knew it. There was little more resemblance in the soft, feminine features to the ones she recalled so clearly, but the expression in those eyes was the same. She would rather have liked to look over at Duchess Feinberg or Captain Bengtsson and take in what she could of their appearances, but couldn’t break away from Elsa’s face. She couldn’t stop the series of shivers that ran, one after another, up her spine.

Just as when she’d been connected to Anna’s gaze as if by a bar of steel, she only realized the queen had stopped speaking after some undetermined period of time had passed. She shook herself, glancing at last toward the princess and finding her watching this time with open curiosity. Fidgeting with hair and hat for a second time in five minutes, untying the latter somewhat absently, Jane took a breath and managed, “Of course, ma’am.”

“Please have a seat–” Elsa gestured at the cabin’s vacant chairs– “and we’ll discuss particulars.”

Jane obeyed, drawing up to the table so she could easily see the charts and other documents thereon, while Anna and the captain did the same at opposite corners. She hoped she could keep her gripping distraction under control and have a professional conversation.

The queen next swept her hand across a map showing the west coast of central Africa, a section of the world Jane was very accustomed to seeing on paper like this. “Our voyage, as Anna informed you by letter, is to the Kingdom of Loango, here, and, if necessary, the surrounding area. We understand your scientific expedition a few years ago was to that area as well.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Here Jane was on far more solid footing, and spoke without hesitation. “Our expedition to study western African gorillas, which was largely funded by legatees of the African Association, took place on the coast here–” she drew her finger along it– “about seventy miles north of the mouth of the Congo River. On our way there, we stopped in a European port in Kakongo — a dreadful place; full of slavers, you know — and stayed there for some time planning and making arrangements and gathering supplies. We stopped in the same area on the way back, and that was an even longer stay. A lot of the locals speak an Africanized French, which I can communicate in tolerably. I know a little about some of the local customs as well, though I’m afraid most of their dialects are beyond me. I am aware that Loango often resists European landings, but there are go-betweens you can procure without much trouble.”

When she looked up, she found both royal sisters as well as the captain nodding, as if this matched what they understood of the area. Elsa discontinued the gesture and stared down at the map with a furrowed brow. After a moment she sighed, looked up, and said, “During the reign of my father, Arendelle imported copper and a few other goods from Loango. Thirty years ago, disputes arose that threatened to break off all trade between our nations, and grew so involved that my parents felt the need to make a diplomatic voyage in person to settle them. They landed in Kakongo in order to approach Loango by land from the south, and dealt with their business there successfully over the course of several weeks. Then something delayed them. I’m sure you know how difficult communication is over such a distance and across such uncertain territories, so you’ll understand that we never knew what it was. But for some reason they only set out several months later for the return voyage, and the confused report we received after that was that their ship had gone down with all hands somewhere off the west African coast.”

Jane’s attention had been seized again by intense aqua during this speech, and as she found herself unable to look away for the moment, she also found herself thinking, I know exactly why they were delayed: they realized your mother was pregnant. Of course they wouldn’t risk the return voyage with her in that condition. And I know just about where their ship must have gone down. And I know your brother.

She couldn’t speak, not to acknowledge what she’d just heard nor to offer her condolences on the loss of three decades before. The shivers up her spine had grown so strong she was almost tempted to call them shudders, and she simply couldn’t manage a single word. Was it true? Could it be true? The phenomenal improbability of this coincidence, if it were, deafened her with the shout that it couldn’t possibly be… yet how did the saying go? Il est impossible que l’improbable n’arrive jamais? Science was full of improbabilities, and so, perhaps, was life.

That didn’t mean she could say a word, however. How could she tell them this on only the evidence she had? An area of the world, a timeline clicking into place, a color of too-familiar irises… Every moment her belief grew stronger, but with no other proof than a collection of impressions. No, best to hold her tongue on this matter until she was more certain. Especially since her own long-term plans remained hazy in the extreme.

Finally Elsa, seeing Jane did not intend to speak, finished her tale. “Events in Arendelle after our parents’ death led us to drop the connection with Loango as inconvenient, and we never renewed trade with that area of the world.” As a sort of aside she added, “We agree with you that slavers are simply dreadful. In any case, just a few weeks ago, a trader brought us what he considered an antique clearly of Arendelle design but which we recognized immediately as having belonged to our mother. It was just an old trinket, but it was our father’s gift to her, and unmistakable to us. There was a story connected with it of a sailor having survived a shipwreck and salvaged what he could on the west coast of Africa somewhere in the Loango area.”

Jane’s heart clenched. That they’d essentially taken one look at the trinket that had made a five-thousand-mile, thirty-year journey into their hands and immediately planned to trace that long course back could only mean they harbored some hope that one or both of their parents, even in old age, might yet live — and Jane knew full well they did not. And yet there was a relation for them to find down there, a brother so full of life he might almost put paid to those three decades of sorrow. But did Jane really want to find him again? And what would she do if she did? And why couldn’t she say his name even in her private thoughts?

Tarzan. Tarzan of the apes was an unknown Prince of Arendelle, secret brother of Elsa and Anna, son of the late king and queen. Tarzan was the trace of their lost parents these women were seeking.

Could she tell them? Would they believe her?

Not now; not yet. But she must be included in this expedition.

Rallying herself once again with great force of will, she managed at last to express her understanding of and engagement in the story, her condolences on the apparent loss of their parents, and her continued interest in joining their crew. She emphasized her qualifications and the manner in which she could be of assistance to them in an area with which she was somewhat familiar but they were not, and produced what letters of recommendation and credentials she’d brought with her.

As she went through all of this, she tried very hard not to get lost once again in Elsa’s eyes, and as part of that effort bestowed her glance equally upon everyone that sat in a convenient position to be looked at. And she was surprised and a little dismayed to find that there was another source of distraction in the room, as she’d suspected earlier, in the person of the duchess to the queen’s right. This was a thin, dark woman of about Elsa’s age, her bearing as upright as the captain’s but seeming nevertheless at ease. Still, from the fringed scarf covering her hair, to the coat as elegant and fine as those of the royal women yet cut to a completely different design, to her slightly but discernibly dusky coloration and the very features of her face, she did not appear someone Jane had not expected to find as a ‘royal advisor’ and ‘personal friend’ of the pale northern Elsa.

The latter took no exception to any evident distraction on Jane’s part, but seemed satisfied with her qualifications as stated verbally and presented in writing. She only regretted, she said, that they had not the means of financing a proper expedition such as Jane had been hoping to conduct; but she would be glad to take her back into a part of the world that clearly greatly intrigued her, and hoped the salary they offered would represent some advancement of her goals. Jane certainly wasn’t about to tell her that the first expedition had represented thirty years’ worth of savings on the part of her father and, before an untimely death, her mother, and the salary provided by one voyage, generous as Elsa’s offer was, seemed unlikely to make much of a dent in the sum necessary for a second. Elsa’s other point still stood, and it relieved Jane significantly to have secured a position on this ship.

Thereafter, a more technical description of the intended journey was given by Captain Bengtsson, and Jane, after sorting through the nautical terms she didn’t understand, generally agreed that it sounded sensible. They discussed the details of her employment and signed a contract, and her luggage — packed in advance for the type of voyage specified in Anna’s letter in case of a desirable issue of this interview — was sent for from her hotel. A tide was set for departure, and Jane was more than satisfied.

That night, however, found her hopelessly insomniac. Usually the movements of a ship under sail — between bouts of steam power — were restful and soothing to her, but mental agitation in this case overcame physical comfort even before the wind died and the engines were required for further motion.

She’d been assigned one of the ship’s two staterooms to share with Princess Anna, and certainly that formed part of her agitation. Anna had behaved toward Jane throughout the day with casual friendliness, and at times an almost sisterly comradeliness, and if she’d been anyone else in the world Jane would have valued her as a roommate. Yet she was royalty, and Jane couldn’t determine yet exactly how to interact with her. So she’d donned her coat, tiptoed from the room onto the quarterdeck, and found a spot at the railing where, not too blinded by the light of the nearest lantern that she’d avoided, she could look out over the dark water and up at the stars.

Royalty. Jane’s own blood ran a distilled blue, her father tracing his line back to a lesser French prince that had fled to England with wife and children a hundred years before, and this formed the basis of nearly all her problems. Not only did the pride of lineage her mother had always attempted to instill in her increase her uncertainty at how to deal with proper royalty in this context, it was that same pride that had driven her from Africa in the first place. “I belong in England… with people…” — those words would never have crossed her lips without her mother’s influence strong in the back of her mind reminding her of her place, her prospects, her deserts.

And now she was returning. Why, exactly? What would she do if she found Tarzan again? Confirm he still lived, then say a more permanent goodbye? Or turn her back on her dignity and become a woman of the jungle, bringing her father, in whom her mother had also felt so much happy pride, with her into the same darkness?

Beyond that, the aforementioned almost sisterly behavior at times displayed by Princess Anna made her more uncomfortable than ever with that second possibility. Did she aim to become Anna’s sister in reality? She had no idea what the two Arendelle women would think of their unknown brother if they were to meet him… What, furthermore, could they possibly think of an English gentlewoman bent on spending her life with such a savage-seeming man? Was any sort of acceptance to be expected, or would they withdraw in horror both from Tarzan and from the idea of Jane requesting Captain Bengtsson to perform the ceremony aboard this ship and them to return a message to her father in England that he should join her and his new son-in-law at once on the west African coast?

Returning meant she had to decide whether to seek Tarzan out once again, what to do if she found him, and whether to tell Elsa and Anna what she believed about the situation. And her mother’s voice seemed to speak to her out of the past, urging her to decide one way, while her heart seemed to be pulling her in precisely the opposite direction.

“Jane?”

She jumped at the sound of her own name and whirled with a gasp to find Anna approaching so quietly that her steps had been drowned out by the rushing of the sea beneath them. Her heart suddenly beat faster than the rhythmic rumbling of the steam engine through the deck. “Oh! Your– Anna. Good evening.”

“Good evening,” Anna returned, and her starlit smile reflected all the curiosity she’d never yet expressed aloud. “Can’t sleep?”

“I don’t much fancy traveling under steam power,” Jane admitted — and it was the truth — “but I’ll get used to it.”

Anna came to join her at the railing. “I can’t say I’m fond of that development myself.” Her interested face turned eagerly toward the stars reminded Jane yet again of Tarzan: always fascinated by the beautiful and impartially understood, no matter how commonly encountered. “But I’m looking forward to seeing Africa. How about you?”

“I…” Jane sighed. And if Anna hadn’t gone and hit near the very center of her reverie… “Yes,” she finally said honestly. “I am.”

“But you didn’t expect to be traveling with royalty.” Now Anna sounded half apologetic and half prodding: she did want to figure out what Jane’s dazed reactions earlier had been about.

At this Jane managed a smile. “No, not at all. In fact I felt in danger of fainting when you presented your sister; I really did.” And then, because she simply couldn’t bring herself to mention Tarzan just yet, no matter how much the friendly Anna wanted elucidation, she hastened on with, “If I may ask, are you two the only sisters? In whose care did you leave Arendelle?”

“We are,” Anna replied easily, leaning both arms on the rail. “And we have a whole collection of dukes and duchesses, including my husband, who are happy to look after the kingdom for us while we’re away. Arendelle is… unusually fond of my sister–” she grinned privately– “and when people heard we might be able to find some information about our parents by going to sea, they were tripping over themselves offering help so Elsa could go with a clear conscience.”

“That’s so kind of them.” Unsure what volunteering to look after a small kingdom on behalf of its sea-bent ruler precisely entailed, Jane couldn’t think of much else to say. So again she hastened on somewhat at random. “And the duchess? Does she have a financial interest in this trip?”

Anna gave her a puzzled look. “No, she’s just along as Elsa’s particular friend. Why would you think that?”

“Well, isn’t she…” Awkwardly Jane twisted her hands. “Forgive me if I’ve jumped to an incorrect conclusion, but isn’t she…” She lowered her voice a trifle in order to finish, “a Jew?”

Standing straight and folding her arms, Anna stared at Jane with one brow raised. “Yes, she is. What difference does that make?”

“Oh, none at all, I’m sure,” said Jane, hastier even than before. “I’m sure the Jews are lovely people.”

Anna’s second brow went up, and her skeptical look took on a touch of disapproval. “Are you?”

Very seriously Jane said, “Please understand I intend no offense. To be perfectly frank, I’ve barely ever spoken to any Jews, and have no real opinion — if any opinion is even necessary. It was my mother who always…” She trailed off and sighed. It kept coming back to that.

Anna’s expression softened. “Judith is basically a member of the family, and sometimes I forget that the rest of the Christian world doesn’t have Jewish sisters. Was your mother particularly opposed to Jews?”

Jane pursed her lips. “She might have been. Of course she was always civil, but I’m afraid she had her prejudices.”

“So many people do,” Anna murmured.

“It’s hard to look back on her and know what to think.” Again Jane leaned on the polished wood before her and regarded the ocean. “She spent my childhood teaching me ladylike behavior and the rules of society because she wanted to see me a successful, accomplished, happy woman, and she loved me so dearly…” It seemed an imposition to be discussing such personal matters on such short acquaintance, but she wanted to offer some explanation for what she now saw had been a markedly impolite remark. “But so much of what she believed contradicts so much of what I want to believe now.”

Mrs. Porter had highly valued her husband’s scientific pursuits, and, given the longstanding family tradition of devouring any book one could get one’s hands on, had always encouraged Jane therein as well. But would she have approved of a young lady actually physically taking part in an expedition to Africa? Jane had often asked herself that under the green canopy she so loved as she bathed from a small basin behind a screen at their campsite.

Mrs. Porter had always taught her daughter to treat her inferiors with kindness and charity, but Jane wasn’t sure her mother had ever truly believed Park’s assertion that whatever difference there is between the negro and European, in the conformation of the nose, and the colour of the skin, there is none in the genuine sympathies and characteristic feelings of our common nature. Would she have approved of a descendent of Prince Adam of France hob-nobbing with the people of the Congo area?

Mrs. Porter had stressed the importance of marrying a respectable man of good upbringing — and very hopefully of good family — that would treat his wife well and be able to support her at the level to which she was accustomed. Would even the blood of Arendelle serve to compensate for a complete lack of gentility in lifestyle and connections? No, Jane didn’t think it would. And that was why she’d gone back to England. She’d regretted the decision the moment she’d made it, but had never been able to reconcile herself to contradicting her mother’s wishes either.

Her voice trembled as she finished her explanation. “She did everything she thought was best for me, and I feel as if it’s disrespectful to her memory to abandon what she taught me — as if what she did and what she wanted for me are all I have left of her.” She glanced penitently at Anna and added, “But that doesn’t mean I have any wish to speak disrespectfully of anyone you think well of.”

A certain depth to the sad smile on Anna’s face seemed indicate both that Jane was forgiven and that this discourse had struck a chord. As she had that morning, she reached out to take Jane’s hand. Her own was ungloved, and Jane wondered whether living so far north made her less susceptible to the cold. As she applied friendly pressure, she said, “It’s hard to know what to think about my parents too.” Her gaze, even as it met Jane’s, seemed to withdraw, as if, though every word had weight, she watched far-off events rather than her companion’s reaction. “They did everything they thought was best for Elsa and me — especially Elsa — and they were, to be blunt, wrong. They loved us so much, and they tried so hard… but what they did supposedly in our best interests caused us years and years of suffering. I don’t resent them — obviously, or I wouldn’t be on a voyage right now looking for any clue to what happened to them! — but I don’t feel the need to cling to their bad ideas. I don’t think it’s disrespectful at all to let go of something someone’s taught you that was simply incorrect, even if you dearly loved that person and they you.”

Jane watched Anna’s eyes, so similar in color and energy to Tarzan’s, and considered her words in something of a stupor. Older and more experienced, royalty, herself married, sister to the man Jane loved and sisterly in and of herself, having been through something at least vaguely similar to what Jane had thanks to the misguided actions of a parent… Anna was perhaps the only person in the world that could have driven this advice home. She let her glance drop to where Anna held her hand tightly as if with an urgent desire to convey more gently the lesson her own past had so painfully taught her. And she suddenly remembered, with a fresh throb of the heartache that had plagued her ever since that moment, a glove flying from her hand in the wind and spinning away to land in the surf at Tarzan’s knuckles just as if she really had been letting go of her hold on her mother’s mistaken precepts and resolving to stay with him as her father had urged.

She hadn’t been. But could she now?

“Goodness, we’ve gotten personal out here,” Anna said, abruptly releasing her with one more squeeze and half a sheepish grin. “I’m so emotional all of a sudden thinking about my parents, and it’s been thirty years.” She laughed a little, but as she turned away Jane thought with some concern she saw sparkling around the edges of the princess’ eyes beyond what starlight could account for.

“Oh, dear. I hope I haven’t upset you.”

“Not a bit!” Anna was definitely wiping away tears with her back turned to Jane, perhaps eschewing the use of a handkerchief in an attempt at concealing the motion. “Not that I’d consider it your fault if you had, with me being the one to bring up my parents. Still, I think I’ll go back to the cabin now. Good night!”

Jane almost asked her to stay, but wasn’t quite to the point of pouring out the tale of Tarzan just yet, and so only returned her goodbye. She watched the spry figure disappear through the door that led to the cabins, then turned with another sigh, hugging herself against the chill of the night and the sea spray, to look out into forever again.

She kept picturing that glove, and how it had almost taken her back to him. But the other one had remained, a stark symbol of everything her mother had stood for, and once aboard the ship she had replaced the one she’d lost. And she’d never felt good about it. Now she imagined tearing off the gloves she currently wore and tossing them into the ocean below, throwing away that symbol and truly going back. She didn’t actually do this, since the cold did bother her, but one by one the mental gloves were discarded as she examined her mother’s truths and rejected them.

Royalty, or simply someone that had married a royal descendent, could make poor choices regarding their children, even coming from a place of love. A descendent of royalty could do unladylike things such as every single activity Jane had taken part in the last time she’d been in Africa. A descendent of royalty could get distracted by matters she truly valued and drop some of the trappings of polished society. A descendent of royalty could make friends with Jews and Negroes and not consider them inferiors to be regarded only through the lens of noblesse oblige.

But could a descendant of royalty marry a man completely uncivilized, unmoneyed, unknown to the enlightened world, and usually unclothed? This was the point where she repeatedly stuck, the glove that just wouldn’t come off.

She had squeezed herself into a corner and laid her cheek forlornly against an upright beam, in spite of the chill, and this time, rather than her failing to notice those that emerged from the cabins, it appeared they missed the presence of anyone standing in a narrow little spot beside the railing. They climbed the stairs onto the upper deck without seeming a glance in her direction, and moved to gaze out over the prow. The lantern on the poop revealed them as Elsa and Judith, strolling easily to their destination arm in arm.

Jane watched them forlornly, envying their easy steps and evidently easy consciences. Elsa had been, if not as warm and talkative as her sister, nothing but civility and grace, and the duchess’ politeness, though quiet, had never been tainted by any coolness or restraint. But they hadn’t talked to Jane as pleasantly and freely as they seemed to be talking to each other now. Their low, indistinguishable conversation nevertheless proved how intimate and comfortable they were with each other, and the dark sea surely had no such effect on them as it did on Jane.

She should return to bed, she considered as she continued somewhat absently to watch the two women in the lamplight on the higher deck. She had over four thousand nautical miles to work the matter out, and anyway she was weary from the long train of thought she’d already engaged in tonight. That should help her sleep, and by tomorrow night perhaps she would be reaccustomed to the movements of the ship under all varieties of power.

Frozen in place, however, she found herself abruptly stock-still as she would have moved toward the door to the cabins, staring upward with widened eyes, unable to take a step. For of all things that could have arrested her complete attention and even torn it from contemplation of Tarzan and what to do about him, nearly foremost on the list was Judith turning a smiling face toward her queen and interrupting the latter’s laugh by kissing her full on the lips. She withdrew only after several loving moments, then laid her head on Elsa’s shoulder.

That had been no familial kiss, and it was clear that when Anna had referred to the duchess as being like a sister, she’d meant only to herself. To Elsa Judith was obviously something different, something more. And Jane could not have been more astonished.

Oh, she’d heard of such behavior. Suffragettes talked about it at times when the desired freedoms of women arose in conversation, and of course there was the poetry of Sappho. But she’d never in life thought to encounter women living out a Lesbian tradition in front of her very eyes. It gave her an even greater shock than had Anna’s earlier words concerning the very real possibility of a loving parent making choices that would traumatize their children for years. It was… it was…

It was sending her thoughts hurtling in the direction of Tarzan again as if they were made of India rubber and now sprang back with a violence proportional to the force with which they’d been thrown away.

Because Queen Elsa of Arendelle, not merely the descendent of a prince that had (like so many royals and nobles) fled a people’s revolution a century ago, but the much-loved monarch of a nation, felt herself free to take a lover that would surely meet with approval neither from Mrs. Porter nor society at large — both a Jew in a Christian nation and a woman. She was not standing up there on that deck worrying about the propriety of her match, nor clinging to the poor decisions her parents had made trying to do what they thought was best for her.

Jane didn’t know how she felt about this issue of Lesbian love that had just exploded upon her, but had a sneaking suspicion that, as with Jews, she wasn’t actually called upon or perhaps qualified to have an opinion. All she knew was that Queen Elsa, someone her mother would have wept with joy to see her daughter grow up to be like in many respects, was following her heart.

Taking care to walk as quietly as she could so as not to disturb the sweethearts on the poop deck nor reveal to them that she now knew their secret — though, in full view of the watch as they were, the ship’s entire crew must be in on it already — Jane moved with a sudden warm sense of internal peace she hadn’t felt in longer than she could remember into the hallway off of which the cabins opened.

Inside her state room, she found her princess roommate and possible sister seated at the dressing table brushing out her greying red hair. A smile and those energetic crinkled eyes met Jane in the mirror as she entered, and Jane took a deep breath.

“Anna,” she said quietly, “may I tell you a story?”

My final November Quick Fics 2018 prompt, which took me approximately forever to write a story for, was from my co-worker Julia, who said, “Jane actually leaves Tarzan at the end of the movie and spends about 5 or so years trying everything to get back to him. She finally finds a way back because Elsa and Anna are trying to find him too.” Technically Elsa and Anna don’t know here that they’re looking for Tarzan, but close enough, eh? :D This one now holds the record as my longest November Quick Fic!

For a few author’s notes on this story, see this Productivity Log. I’ve rated it and actually wouldn’t mind seeing a follow-up.

Naked Rooftops

He was a little miffed at the drunken mercenary that had somehow, beyond all reason, tempted him into doing this right in the middle of an undercover assignment.

After (what should have been) a pretty simple assignment takes an unexpected turn, an ambiguous couple in an unusual situation must work out how they got here and what to do next.


Saitou hadn’t expected Zanza to have such ridiculously, compellingly smooth skin. Marked though it was, here and there, with scars of various sizes (and apparent levels of direness of the original wound), even these were unexpectedly smooth and more or less begged to have a tongue run languidly over them, one by one, for the rest of the evening. Saitou definitely hadn’t been expecting that urge. But honestly, Saitou hadn’t expected a fair number of things about this day.

Zanza, whose ridiculously, compellingly smooth skin had barely started to cool from the intense heat of a few minutes before, also hadn’t yet fully stilled, squirming against Saitou as if determined not to allow the sensations to fade. He’d thrown a leg across Saitou’s, hugging him with the lower half of his body if not quite as insistently as earlier, pretty tenaciously yet. It wasn’t a terribly convenient arrangement of limbs, but Saitou was disinclined to move — and he hadn’t expected that either. He wasn’t sure how he felt about all of this.

Well, he was absolutely certain how his body felt about all of this. It had been a while since he’d had sex, and a much longer while since he’d had sex that enjoyable, and every millimeter of his frame — from a scalp that still tingled faintly where Zanza’s fingertips had threaded through his hair against it, to lips throbbing and swollen after the pressure of unrestrained kisses, to the groin with its residual pulsations of the pleasure it had recently experienced, to the bare toes that hadn’t stopped curling luxuriously in the warm air — every last part of him gloried in the memory and aftereffects of the activities just concluded.

But as for his mind… In the more logical thoughts — the ones not caught up with how excellently Zanza’s well muscled yet delightfully limber body had accepted Saitou’s own and how close to perfect that experience had been — he was a little miffed at the drunken mercenary that had somehow, beyond all reason, tempted him into doing this right in the middle of an undercover assignment.

He had recognized kenkaya Zanza almost immediately when that young man, with his obtrusive kanji-marked attire and absurd hair, had made his way over to where Saitou sat very unobtrusively, ostensibly minding his own business and reading the news, at a small table with a good view of the inn’s dining room and bar, but he hadn’t had any idea what the young man might want. At first, of course, he’d considered the possibility that his cover was blown and someone had sent this darling of the violent Tokyo underworld after him — not that it would do them much good — but he’d dismissed the suggestion quickly as a little too random and unlikely. That was ironic in hindsight when what had actually transpired had turned out to be a good deal more random and unlikely.

The mercenary’s eyes had been bright with drink, and he’d smelled not unpleasantly of sake as well. He’d moved with the faintly exaggerated swagger of a person whose confidence is in no way impaired for all his abilities might be, and, though he’d looked like an idiot, he’d looked like an affable and very visually appealing idiot. For this reason Saitou had not objected to his taking the opposite seat uninvited — and also because objecting might have drawn attention to him (which Zanza, of course, with his mere presence, had already been threatening to do).

“Hey.” As drunken greetings went, Saitou supposed, Zanza’s could have been a lot less articulate, though not much more trite. “Haven’t seen you around here before.”

Naturally Saitou had been in Polite Mode at the time, and therefore only smiled and lowered his newspaper. “Oh? Are you here often enough to know the difference?”

“Enough to know what-all hot older guys hang around the place.” The grin Zanza had flashed him was disarming, flirtatious, and intoxicated all at once.

Saitou had laughed — out loud but not loudly — at the idea that he was a ‘hot older guy.’ Given that Zanza definitely qualified as a hot younger guy, however, he’d had to admit to himself some sense of the flattery in the statement. “This is an inn,” he’d said with low-key sarcasm. “There are reasons other than ‘hanging around the place’ drinking yourself stupid for someone to be here.”

Zanza’s grin had turned sneaky. “You away from home on business, then? Away from the wife for a while?”

“That’s right.” Saitou had been amused at both the suggestiveness in the question and the truth beyond what Zanza could know in the answer.

“Well, business is always better with sake, so lemme buy you a drink. I mean, put you a drink on my tab.”

Unable to keep from chuckling at this blatant admission of impecunity, Saitou had also been unable to come up with any reason to give for refusing — and, again, not wanting to do something that might cause Zanza to direct the room’s attention toward them, he’d gone ahead and accepted the offer. Besides, his target (a secretary suspected of making a quiet trade in classified information and with probably no upstanding reason to be spending so many long weekends at this inn away from his boss in the Ministry of Finance) hadn’t yet appeared on this particular evening in the dining room to be observed; Saitou had figured that being engaged in drinks and conversation with someone at his own table — someone over whose shoulder he could still easily watch the entire gathering, even if that someone was an absurdly dressed mercenary — might be a decent way to avoid suspicion.

The arrangement had turned out to be less than optimal, which perhaps he should have expected. Zanza hadn’t exactly been quiet to begin with, and each drink had seemed to drain from him further ability to be so. And every time he’d laughed — which had happened with increasing frequency as their surprisingly entertaining if equally stupid conversation had unfolded — it had been louder than the previous instance. Additionally, the ridiculous flirtation hadn’t stopped, and the drunker Zanza had become, the more suggestive his remarks — and the more suggestive his remarks (especially with his volume increasing), the more they’d attracted the attention of people at nearby tables. The fear that Zanza might make an even louder fuss if Saitou attempted to chastise or dismiss him had remained firmly in place, however.

At least the secretary had not yet shown up at that point. Saitou had considered his options, and the idea of taking Zanza upstairs to the room he’d rented — something Zanza had been hinting at all along and eventually had switched to openly demanding in increasingly graphic terms — had at the time seemed like the best plan. Now, in hindsight, Saitou wasn’t so certain he’d truly lacked a better option, and wondered if he hadn’t been — and wasn’t still, perhaps — a bit muddled by alcohol. He’d discarded, whenever the mercenary had looked away for even a moment, most of what Zanza had insisted on having brought to the table, but some of it had, by necessity, gone down his throat.

And he’d really felt that taking Zanza upstairs would be the best solution to his problem. Of course nearby diners, who’d been aware whether they’d liked it or not of the kenkaya’s desires, would probably laugh behind their hands at Saitou for giving in — but wouldn’t that just make him look less like someone here to spy on someone else? No, it had certainly made sense at the time.

He’d fully intended to knock Zanza out immediately they got up here. He wouldn’t have been able to go back down to the dining room right away, of course, but he hadn’t planned on putting up with a drunk and amorous — and, overall, very loud mercenary for very long, whatever he’d chosen to do thereafter.

And then…

He wasn’t honestly sure what had happened then. No matter how many times he traced the actual events, there was a disconnect in there somewhere that made it impossible to find a logical path from ‘intending to knock him out’ to ‘very enthusiastically fucking him.’

No matter how closely the police kept tabs on people like kenkaya Zanza (and that closeness already varied depending on how dangerous to public order the person in question really seemed), there would always be plenty of areas left uninvestigated. Naturally, therefore, Saitou was ignorant of personal details such as Zanza’s sexual habits and what he did between fights. Even not knowing, however, the officer had assumed without question that the flirtation at the table had been nothing serious. There was simply no way someone as attractive and flamboyant as this kid was really interested in an unhandsome older man that, as far as Zanza could believe at this point, held no compelling position and had no noteworthy experiences or abilities.

So perhaps it had had something to do with surprise at the apparent sincerity and definite eagerness with which the kenkaya had kissed him the moment they’d reached the upstairs room that Saitou hadn’t pushed him away as he’d planned. He hadn’t previously believed himself so susceptible to that kind of enthusiasm.

And here he was naked, very satisfied physically, annoyed mentally but unsure to what degree, with a very attractive young man cuddling up to him as if ready for a highly contented nap against his bare skin. There wasn’t time for that, of course; Saitou should get up, get dressed, and go back downstairs, since, as pleasant (in some ways) as he couldn’t deny this interlude had been, he did have actual work to return to. But was he going to be able to get Zanza to leave in any subtle fashion? Hell, was he going to be able to get Zanza to leave at all? He wouldn’t be surprised if, the moment he alluded to this evening’s next step, the young man started insisting they go for a second round. And after what had already happened, he might not be terribly surprised if he wasn’t able to decline the suggestion.

So in a continued mixture of bodily comfort and psychological dissonance, he tried to decide exactly what words to use to get himself out of this situation, and in what frame of mind he needed to be well entrenched to avoid further temptation.

*

Everything was going not only precisely according to plan but also far and away better than Zanza had expected. When had he last experienced this fantastic level of afterglow? When had he last been this happy about cuddling some guy he’d just met for more than twenty seconds after sex ended? When had he last been this pleased, in general, about the outcome of an encounter?

In the world he inhabited, sex was something you did the same way you used the latrine — every bit as clean, elegant, and fun to think about afterward. You had to do it, had to get it out of the way, and sometimes, if you were lucky enough to arrange circumstances optimally, it was even enjoyable (or at least satisfying) in the moment… but when it was over, you moved on until you found yourself really needing that release some other time. And he’d thought today’s instance would run exactly along those lines.

In fact he had expected even worse. He’d been certain the guy he’d been sent to seduce would turn out to be ugly as hell and thoroughly unpleasant. Then he would have been forced to decide whether or not to go through with it. Threats to his life didn’t scare him all that much, but it would have been risky, he believed, to decline this job. At the same time, he hadn’t been eager to try to seduce some ugly old man. So he hadn’t really wanted to be pushed into that decision.

But then Fujita had turned out to be… well, ‘just fine’ had been the kenkaya’s initial thought: in exactly the right age category (ten to twenty years older than Zanza) and with a striking face that was, if not necessarily gorgeous, unexpectedly fascinating. Zanza hadn’t been able to make out details of his figure at first in the decorously low-lit dining room, except that clearly the man was as lean as he’d been told, but on the whole he’d decided he didn’t at all mind. So he’d approached… and then, to his further surprise, during the course of their conversation, ‘just fine’ had gradually improved to ‘very fine’ as Fujita’s features and what Zanza could now see of his body grew on him — until eventually the mercenary was ready to label his target quite, if unconventionally, handsome. Instead of the grueling task he’d been half expecting, it had been remarkably easy to get into his role of drunk, bored, and horny.

And then the sex had been amazing. That was another thing about sex in the underworld: it was solely a means to an end — orgasm, mostly — not a pursuit in itself, and as such required a minimal amount of talent. For all Zanza might pride himself on his flexibility and stamina, being good at sex was a secondary if not tertiary skill set in his sphere. But, damn, this guy…! Or had it been more a combination than an individual thing? A very happy meeting of bodies, preferences, and abilities that came together remarkably well?

In any case, Zanza was considering very seriously whether, after not too much longer, he might not suggest they go for a second round. In fact, something in the back of his head that was getting louder by the moment was considering, with an increasing level of seriousness, whether or not he really wanted to collect payment for this job — thereby, most probably, destroying all chances of ever meeting this guy Fujita again on amicable terms — or whether, regardless of the promised amount, it wouldn’t be a better long-term plan to abandon it and instead try to find out whether said Fujita guy might not be amenable to some sort of arrangement having to do with future encounters like today’s on a regular basis.

He believed, after all, that Fujita had enjoyed this every bit as much as he had — and everyone needed a break from work now and then, right? (Or maybe slightly more often than ‘now and then.’) For his own sake, Zanza, of course, was always happy with anything distracting, anything that could get his thoughts off of what he lived to forget. He doubted this Fujita had such traumatic motivations, but that didn’t make the sex less fun on its own… Could they go somewhere with this?

At that moment, beneath Zanza’s still-searching hands and against his still-squirming body, Fujita stiffened abruptly. He pushed himself upward into a seated position so quickly his suddenly rising shoulder almost knocked the kenkaya even sillier than the rest of his body had rendered him by different methods. Zanza was sent sprawling to the side, off the edge of the futon onto the much cooler floor, as Fujita struggled to his feet. And then the door to their right burst from its tracks and into two or three pieces under the blow of a large hammer-like weapon carried by one of the several men — too many to count just now — that poured into the room before the door’s clattering pieces had even hit the floor.

Though it did take half an instant for Zanza to get his bearings, still an ambush like this was nothing unusual in his life or even something he particularly disliked. Indeed, the unexpected nature of such an attack added a piquancy to the resulting skirmish that he usually rather relished, even if he was a little angry simultaneously at his enemies’ underhanded methods. He would have been glad to fling himself, lack of clothing notwithstanding, against the swordsmen now arrayed before him and that guy with the interesting mallet thing — except they weren’t alone. As gunshots sounded deafeningly closely to Zanza’s ears, he reflected first that firearms were a really tacky way to change the dynamic of a battle and he didn’t like them much, and second that, while, yes, it would have been fun to rumble with the more traditionally armed enemies in the room, Fujita had the right idea in scrambling for its only other exit.

There wasn’t time to grab anything; there wasn’t time to consider anything except escape from the pistols suddenly aimed at them. So when Fujita crashed through the light wood and rice paper of the closed window to land precariously on the narrow strip of third-floor roof separating the wall from a drop to the street twenty-some feet below, and Zanza followed closely at his heels, it was unarmed, almost completely unattired, and with bullets whizzing past their heads and even, at times, grazing their skin.

Zanza thought his mostly bare feet had a better grip on the tiles of the slanted roof than his shoes would have, but that was small consolation. As he followed Fujita at a run away from the window they’d just burst through, he was uncomfortably conscious of the flapping of his only-recently-flaccid penis with every jarring step, as well as of the fact that their attackers hadn’t given up: further gunshots accompanied swearing and straining and then clattering footsteps behind them, and it was a downright miracle neither of them had been hit yet; he attributed it to the unexpected chase across unusual terrain and the deceptive light and shadow of dusk.

But now the sound of gunfire came from somewhere beneath him and to his right as well. Risking a very quick glance in that direction, Zanza thought he saw running figures down on the ground tracking their progress across the roof and sending up the occasional shot. Of course whoever these people were would have backup outside the inn as well, just in case their quarry escaped somehow — and of course that backup had been on the alert.

To his dismay (and also perhaps a bit to his excitement; peril always made a day more interesting), Zanza saw ahead of them an open space: Fujita, running in front, was approaching the edge of the rooftop, which, instead of turning the building’s corner, just ended with the wall and left that side of the inn a flat expanse from street to summit. They couldn’t go much farther in that direction. Except Fujita wasn’t slowing. In fact his feet, even barer than Zanza’s, pounded with greater speed and intensity as he neared the brink. The area below was relatively narrow — particularly with the walls of this business and the next closing in to make it little more than an alley — but still it had to be at least fifteen feet between this roof and the slightly lower one across from it. Was the guy completely crazy?

Well, to be honest, Zanza kinda liked completely crazy. So when Fujita did indeed push off the last inch of the inn’s third-floor roof and go flying, with no great grace but impressive speed and accuracy, across the gap, Zanza could do nothing but admire and imitate. And maybe his jump was even less graceful, and not quite as efficient, as that of his companion, but he doubted he would even have tried it in the first place if Fujita’s movements hadn’t conveyed so much confidence in its success.

Their destination roof was the highest point of the opposite building, the latter being only three storeys tall, and tiled with wooden shingles rather than ceramic. Fujita, to curb his momentum, had dropped into a splay-legged crouch, and Zanza was forced to do the same rather earlier than he would have liked to keep from running smack into the other man. A number of splinters pierced his skin simultaneously in various places, and this combined with the fading shockwave of having made contact with a hard surface after such a long jump without shoes made him grunt aloud. But he couldn’t pause to assess his many minor injuries: Fujita was already rising, and so must he — the gunshots from behind had not ceased.

Erratically along this new roof they ran, Zanza at least feeling very exposed without a fourth storey wall to hug for some minor protection or illusion thereof, to the sound of chaos and the continual awareness of bullets breezing past. There were, however, no more footsteps on their level — on the ground far below, yes, but not up here — indicating that the completely crazy fifteen-foot airborne street-crossing had been beyond the courage or perceived abilities of their pursuers. And when their zig-zagging path took them up over the decorative ridgepole into a half-run-half-slide down the other side, the gunfire from behind them on the third-floor level ceased entirely, indicating they’d passed from line of sight.

When Fujita, still in the lead, approached the lower end of this side of the roof, however, gunshots erupted toward him yet again, and he jerked away so hard and suddenly that he fell into a sitting position on the shingles, then scrambled further upward so he ran into Zanza, knocking him onto his ass as well. “Get back,” he commanded, rather unnecessarily, as more bullets flew from the street below. Together they fumbled their way up the roof some distance into the shadow of a sort of turret offset the middle of the building, an octagonal structure just wide enough for them both to hide behind. Fujita, from his crouch, craned his neck to scan the area, while Zanza merely sat down with his feet against the turret and let out a long breath. The sake in his belly had been churned into a slightly ill sensation as he ran, but at least he also felt, with so much adrenaline onboard, relatively sober.

“If they’re not on all sides of the building already,” Fujita muttered, gazing meticulously around with a scowl, “they will be too soon for us to get anywhere.” The nearest end of the roof appeared to overlook a yard of some description — it was difficult to tell from this angle — and didn’t seem to offer any avenue for escape; the opposite end or up over the ridgepole again was the direction from which they’d come, where gunmen waited; the low end, the side they’d just approached, was obviously out of the question.

Bending to pick a splinter out of the flesh of his left calf, Zanza wondered, “So what do we do, then?”

“We wait.” Fujita abandoned his half-standing position for a seated one similar to Zanza’s. “With this kind of commotion in the streets, the police won’t take too long to show up; our would-be assassins will run off or get themselves arrested, and we should be safe to find a way down.”

Zanza stared at him. “Seriously, that’s your plan?”

Fujita was still gazing around critically at nearby buildings. “There aren’t a lot of places they could fire at us from, and that’s assuming they can access any of them quickly enough in the first place. If they aren’t sure exactly where we’ve gone, they might not even try.” He tapped the wooden siding his foot was resting against. “We’re lucky this turret doesn’t have windows, or they’d already be halfway up here by now.”

“But, seriously, you want to just wait here to get rescued?” Zanza wondered with increasing skepticism. “By the police?”

Fujita turned narrow, irritated eyes on him. “I don’t want to, no. If you have a better idea…?”

Zanza’s mouth, which had popped open immediately and unthinkingly for a retort, closed gradually. He didn’t have a better idea. If it had been anything but guns

Fujita nodded in a fairly annoying That’s what I thought type of gesture, and they both fell silent.

So this was interesting. Why it was happening was a great big mystery at this point, as was the identity of their pursuers and even which of them was the intended target. The only absolutely certain thing must be the purpose of those attackers: murder, plain and simple. Zanza had been on the receiving end of that purpose plenty of times, regardless of how well it worked out for the instigators, but he couldn’t think of a single entity — individual or group — that was both upset enough with him to wish for his death and well enough staffed and armed to have attempted it in this manner. And who exactly was this Fujita guy, after all, if he was the target of this well staffed and well armed attack? Did it have something to do with whatever he’d been working on at that inn that Zanza had interrupted in order to seduce him?

This thought — of that inn room and what had taken place there — reminded Zanza of something he hadn’t considered until now, and his mood rapidly changed from one of interest and energy (and admittedly some aggravation) to one of extreme frustration and even more aggravation. Finally, as the transition completed, he made an irate noise and slammed a fist into the roof beneath his buttocks. “Dammit! Fucking dammit!”

“Quiet down,” Fujita commanded harshly, startled. “What is wrong with you?”

“My clothes!” Unable to express his sudden anger any other way, Zanza pounded on the roof again. “They’re gonna get destroyed or stolen or something!”

“That’s hardly worth drawing attention to our position for.”

“But I don’t have any other clothes! And you know how expensive that gi was to get made? I’ll have to go back for a-fucking-nother one now!”

Fujita took him by the arm and shook him roughly. “Listen to me, you idiot,” he said in a low tone, close enough to Zanza’s ear for his breath to be somewhat distracting. “I don’t care if you live or die out here, but for the sake of my survival, I would appreciate it if you’d shut the hell up.”

“You didn’t care so little if I was alive or not when you were fucking me,” Zanza spat back.

“Yes, but I only fucked you in the first place to get you to shut the hell up.”

“Well, it’s a good thing I only had sex with you ’cause I was going to get paid for it, because otherwise I’d be pretty pissed you said that.” Actually Zanza was stung by the remark, but not about to admit it.

And at his words Fujita looked a little surprised, perhaps even a little annoyed. “When did kenkaya Zanza turn whore?” he wondered, and Zanza realized belatedly that he might believe the statement to have meant the mercenary expected to be paid by him — which would carry some unfortunate implications Zanza had certainly not meant to make.

Still, it was quickest and easiest to quote, “‘Everyone is a whore for the right price,'” and leave it at that.

“That sounds just like something my wife would say,” Fujita muttered, now clearly more irked than ever.

The words hit Zanza like a cannonball as all the circumstances of today and yesterday suddenly came together into a startling picture he hadn’t seen perhaps because subconsciously he hadn’t wanted to see it. “Shit…” he whispered as the certainty grew within him that he was right, that he’d been a fool, that he’d been used.

Fujita had glanced again toward the street and back, and when he caught sight of the expression on Zanza’s face his own darkened into one of suspicion and concern. “What is it?” he demanded.

Zanza was going to have to tell him; he couldn’t think of any other way. And Fujita, pinned down naked by surrounding gunmen on a third-floor rooftop, probably deserved the truth in any case. With a deep breath and a hard swallow, he began — in a much quieter tone than he’d previously used — to explain.

*

If the exterior of the house and its landscaping hadn’t indicated just how rich this person was, the furnishing and decoration inside would leave no doubt in any visitor’s mind — and Zanza got the feeling that was their purpose. Surely actual Europeans didn’t stuff every last corner so full of rickety undersized tables and shelves of vacant-eyed figurines and plates and things, or paper all the walls quite so relentlessly in so many ugly patterns, or put up ornate-edged mirrors in every available space? But honestly he didn’t know for sure, and the point was that this person he’d been summoned off the street to talk to had lots of money, the desire to show it off, and presumably a need for a mercenary for some task or other.

The very courteous servant that had originally hailed him and then led him here, a pretty young thing in a dark western-style gown with an apron and white cap, now ushered him through a door into a large, sunlit room just as tackily and profusely decorated and furnished as everything else Zanza had seen here, then bowed herself out. And the kenkaya was left facing the employer the girl had been sent to bring him to.

She was in her mid-to-late thirties and dressed exactly as Zanza would have expected in this setting: in a frilly frock of western design that bared a certain amount of cleavage and anything of her arms not covered by the lacy shawl draped across them. The ruffles of her seemingly excessive skirts, a delicate shade of pink that complemented her skin tone excellently, spilled over the sides of the divan around her. She was handsome, especially with that hair so artfully arranged in a high bun from which black ringlets fell in a shining mass, but nothing stunning, and in fact Zanza rather thought the surrounding show — the carpets and furniture and clothing — was intended to enhance what nature had provided. She certainly made a striking first impression, in one way or another.

“Good afternoon, kenkaya Zanza-san.” She greeted him in a polite, cultured tone with no hint of a foreign accent — however she dressed and decorated, her voice and features proved she was Japanese underneath. “Thank you so much for agreeing to come speak to me.”

“Uh, no problem?” Zanza, moving forward to stand nearer where the woman sat — ‘presided over the room’ might be a better description of what she did — wasn’t really sure what to make of all of this.

“Please have a seat,” she added. The gesture by which she indicated a nearby stiff-looking chair facing her divan was more a mandate with an overlay of elegance than real graciousness, but polite nevertheless. “Wine?”

Zanza sat, as adjured, on the extremely ugly and (it turned out) rather uncomfortable chair, and glanced at the servant whose presence in the room he hadn’t noticed until now: a tall, thin man in a western-style suit standing at a table that held a narrow bottle and two stemmed glasses on a silver tray.

“Sure,” he said. “Why not?”

Though his hostess smiled her amusement at his attitude, the servant did not react at all, only poured a generous measure of dark red liquid into each glass with stony indifference. When he handed hers over in a gesture that was half bow, she said something condescending in a language Zanza didn’t speak and couldn’t identify (not that he was an expert). The man murmured something subservient in reply and, after giving Zanza his glass with a fractionally shallower incline of his upper body, silently left the room.

The woman’s eyes followed her servant out the door, then returned, slightly narrowed, to look at Zanza. “Now that we’re alone…” She didn’t finish the statement, just lifted one eyebrow and took a sip of her wine.

Still not certain how to interpret this scene, Zanza lifted his drink and inhaled its scent. He’d never had wine before, and it smelled weak and fruity compared to his usual fare. Still, free alcohol was free alcohol. He mirrored the woman’s sip.

“Good?” She looked up at him coyly from over the rim of her own glass.

For a moment Zanza debated how to answer, which was a little unusual for him. He preferred straightforward dealings, didn’t like this kind of posturing, and the fact that he was considering his words at all arose only from the dual awareness that there was more to this woman than just a lot of money she might be willing to offer him for some potentially interesting gig and that it wasn’t impossible she was flirting with him right now.

So what could he say? That, though it had a flavor a lot classier than anything he’d ever drunk, the wine wasn’t really to his taste since, other than alcoholic concentration, he was largely indifferent to the components of a drink? That, regardless of what scant purpose there was to this indulgence beyond becoming incoherent and forgetful, he had sometimes wished, recently, that he could share drinks with someone that actually mattered to him instead of an endless succession of fellow lowlifes he might be beating up later and the occasional prospective employer — and that the setting in which she had offered this particular beverage only drove home the idea that here was yet another of those he really didn’t care about and never would? That he would prefer she abandon this coy restraint and lay everything out?

He forced himself to be relatively polite, however, and said, “Yeah, it’s all right.” Which wasn’t technically a lie. But he really would demand she get to the point if she put it off much longer.

Her smile widened. “It’s a vintage I’ve always enjoyed — rare, yes, and very expensive to import all the way from Italy, but, you know…” She leaned forward, and her smile and tone turned conspiratorial, though her big brown eyes remained merely calculating. “I never mind going to some trouble to get exactly what I want.”

“Uh-huh.” Zanza swallowed the rest of the wine in an undignified gulp just to get it out of the way, then looked around for some place to set down the glass. Finding none within arm’s length, he kept it in his hand, and fidgeted with it as he demanded, “Are you trying to seduce me or something?” Honestly he could think of many far worse reasons to be invited off the street into such a nice house by such a polite servant to meet such an impressive lady, but it seemed strange, and he’d rather get the objective of this conference into the open.

The woman gave a laugh that, like many of her other mannerisms, seemed to be unyielding solidity covered in a layer of friendliness. “Of course not!” she said in an almost merry tone. “I know perfectly well you prefer taking it rough from older men.”

At the incongruous and very surprising sight and sound of those details emerging from that perfectly painted mouth, that ostensibly entirely proper personage, Zanza’s face went hot and red. He had to clear his throat twice before he was able to speak. “Well… yeah… that’s totally true… but, you know, we take what we can get…” Looking at the wainscoting, the ugly wallpaper, the bric-a-brac on the shelves in the corner — anywhere but at her — he went on to admit, “And it’s actually… kinda hot to think about some mysterious older woman spying on my sex life.”

Again she gave that comradely laugh with the steel beneath it. “I was spying on your sex life because I was looking for someone with that specific preference. You have quite a reputation, Zanza-san!”

“I dunno whether that’s a compliment or not,” Zanza muttered.

“I’d like you to seduce someone for me,” she said, finally, bluntly getting down to business.

He returned his gaze to her in order to give her a skeptical look, and found her sipping her wine again with thick lashes downturned. “You, uh, know I’m not a whore, right?”

Still smiling, she replied dismissively, half into her glass, “Everyone is a whore for the right price.”

A trifle annoyed at the sound of superior worldly wisdom in her tone, Zanza wondered somewhat sarcastically, “Izzat right? And what’s the price today?”

Without batting an eye as she met his, she told him.

It was lucky Zanza had drained his drink, since he promptly dropped his glass at this juncture. It thumped onto the thick carpet and rolled under his chair and out of sight; he couldn’t expend much effort searching for it, because he was too busy gaping at the woman. “That’s… that’s a pretty right price,” he conceded at last.

She nodded. “As I said, I never mind going to some trouble to get exactly what I want.”

“But why…” Zanza was still so staggered by the quoted sum that his statements continued to have large gaps in the middle. “Why me? Why not… an actual prostitute or something?”

“The target is an exceptionally strong warrior,” she explained, “and very touchy. If you’re not careful, he may become violent. A fragile little prostitute would never do.”

“All right…” Zanza had to admit, his interest was piqued — and not just because of the astonishing promised payoff. “But why do you want this guy seduced at all?” He asked more out of curiosity than a need for information about a prospective job.

With the first frown he’d seen on her face — indeed, it was a rather disconcerting transition between the polite but private look to this dark, almost hateful scowl — she replied in a measured tone that reminded him of calm waters atop a viciously strong undercurrent. “Have you ever met someone, Zanza-san, who considers himself so far above you it’s impossible even to have a conversation with him? Someone who, though he might have been born into the same level of society you were and has done significantly less with what his parents gave him, holds himself superior to you in every way? Who looks down on everything you do, everything you are?”

“Course I have,” replied Zanza immediately, half a grin twitching at his lips while the other side threatened to pull down into a scowl much like hers. “So this guy’s a high-and-mighty ass, is he?”

She nodded, and went on emphatically. “I want to put a dent in his self-righteousness by proving he’s not above a one-night stand with a total stranger of just the type he thinks he’s so much better than.”

Zanza returned her nod, and his version was one of understanding. He did get the feeling, though, despite how sensible he found her explanation, that she had more reasons for seeking his compliance than she’d stated aloud. The reason she had given was enough for him — he was completely onboard with sending that kind of message to some holier-than-thou bastard — but at the same time he wondered what she wasn’t telling him and whether this whole thing was really a good idea. Sometimes just the passion with which someone wanted something done was a decent indication of how foolish the undertaking might be. Zanza didn’t fear danger, of course, but there were other discomforts in the world that he often preferred to avoid, and intrigue could certainly be one of them.

The woman, evidently no slouch in the reading of face and bearing, clearly picked up on the uncertainty in Zanza’s. “Obviously this is very different from the type of work you usually do.” She’d returned to her friendly, professional tone with that timbre of command in its background. “Naturally I understand your reluctance — I don’t want to push you into something that would make you uncomfortable. Please remember that I sought you out because you seemed specifically suited for this job, but if that turns out not to be the case, I would never want to inconvenience you.”

Again Zanza found himself waiting for the point. And when he said nothing, she got to it. “You’re welcome to approach him where he’s currently working — of course I’ll give you all the details you need — and decide then whether you want to go through with it. Come back here afterward, either to collect your payment or let me know I need to find someone else.”

“Sounds reasonable,” Zanza replied slowly. It did, too. It was already his policy to request payment after the service was performed, since he normally didn’t have a fixed rate. In this case it made even more sense. But something still felt off.

“That way you can make up your mind when you have all the information,” she pressed, looking at him earnestly.

And Zanza decided it didn’t matter much what she was hiding or what kind of life she led beneath this veneer of European sophistication. Everyone had their secrets, right? What mattered was this job with the prospect of a high distraction value and a ridiculous amount of compensation that would keep him in sake and under a roof for many months to come.

“All right,” he said. “I’ll at least have a look at the guy.”

*

Saitou wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting when Zanza had given that stricken look and started his rambling narrative of the events of yesterday, but it hadn’t been what he’d actually gotten. And he certainly hadn’t been expecting to find himself far more entertained than annoyed by the stupid story, and even less put out with Zanza personally.

One item of special (if peripheral) interest was the fact that Zanza, on seeing him, had decided to go through with the assigned seduction. Of course there had been a large amount of money involved, which might have rendered Saitou more attractive — attractive enough, anyway — in the mercenary’s eyes, but Zanza had obviously had misgivings about the whole thing even with that money in mind, and it interested Saitou to know his allure had tipped the scales.

“So I guess,” Zanza was finishing up bitterly, “the real reason she wanted me to seduce you was so you’d be distracted and easier to kill. And she sure didn’t give a shit whether I died at the same time. She never was planning on paying me, I bet… I should have known… it was stupid to think anybody’d ever offer that much money for that kind of job. I was such a dumbass!” And he rammed a fist downward just as he had when lamenting the loss of his clothes, though this time he stopped short of actually pounding on the roof.

“She manipulated the fuck out of me…” He paused, and his anger seemed to abate slightly as he realized he’d inadvertently made a pun. “Literally,” he added, with half a grin — while the rest of his face still appeared irate — and even reddened a touch as he went on, “and don’t get me wrong — it was damn good sex… but I can’t believe she made such a fool out of me! Are you really married to that nightmare?”

Saitou had to admit, he appreciated that description of their sexual encounter. He wondered a little both at this appreciation and at his reflections regarding Zanza’s assessment of his attractiveness. It was odd that these things seemed to matter to him; had his ego been in need of a boost lately, and then this gorgeous idiot had shown up at precisely the right moment to stroke it? Saitou supposed it wasn’t hugely important, except as far as he should probably give some serious thought to how pliable he was when promising lips demanded they go up to his room.

And, gorgeous or not, Zanza was an idiot. Who walked blindly into an unfamiliar setting at the bidding of a total stranger? Well, someone completely confident in his own abilities, Saitou supposed. It fit with Zanza’s level of strength. But who discussed business with someone whose name he hadn’t even bothered asking? Not that Tokio’s name would have done Zanza much good under the circumstances, but still… who accepted a job completely different from what he usually did at only a few minutes’ notice? Though Zanza had obviously been at least slightly confused and discomfited by the atmosphere in that house, the one Tokio so excelled at cultivating. The whole thing had been stupid… but perhaps not as stupid as it could have been.

And Zanza obviously had some intelligence hidden in there somewhere — or at least some good instincts — that hadn’t been completely blinded by all of Tokio’s posing. He must, to have been able to question the situation even after the offer of that much money. Though the staggering amount itself, as Zanza had even admitted, should have been a tipoff that all was not right, many a mercenary more financially secure than this young man might still have had his head turned by the mere number.

In addition to this, Zanza obviously had a streak of pride, beyond what his class or lifestyle promised, that had been genuinely wounded by Tokio’s machinations. And there was also the excellent sex and the unneeded but not unwelcome ego-boost to consider.

Zanza probably deserved the truth.

Saitou gave a quick look around at the growing darkness, and, when he still spotted none of their enemies in any of the places he’d determined they might seek to occupy in order to get the drop on their targets, began a carefully curated story that would tell the mercenary what he needed to know.

*

The walk home seemed obnoxiously longer than usual this evening, something Saitou attributed mostly to vexation with his current work pursuit. Small fry employed by the criminal organization that had recently come somewhat hazily to light were thick on the ground, which should have been encouraging… but so far they’d proven every bit as useless as they were common and easy to arrest.

The one Saitou had just been interrogating even believed himself a big-shot of some type, arrogantly maintaining his own importance farther into the interview than they generally did… and yet he, like everyone before him, knew nothing about anyone or anything in the organization above a certain level beyond him. This group was not only pretty good at smuggling, hosting rigged games of chance, the occasional assassination, and intimidating business owners into highly suspect and very imbalanced ‘deals,’ it was also frustratingly efficient at sealing off data within certain portions of its faculty — the specific portions Saitou was attempting to access, or at least learn something about.

But he was beginning to doubt he would ever move beyond these meaningless conversations to where he needed to be if he was going to get anywhere against the upstart yakuza. Not one iota of useful information, not one tiny fact about their upper-tier superiors could he extract from these evidently expendable thugs… and, confident in his own interrogation techniques, he believed it was because they truly didn’t know, thanks to the caution of those same superiors, rather than that they were holding out. He was inexpressibly weary of the redundant exchanges, and if he never again in his life had to see one of the simplistic eight-pointed snowflake tattoos they all wore so proudly to indicate their membership in an organization they didn’t know how little they actually knew about, it would be too soon.

As he approached his apartment with thoughts far more fatigued than his body, due to his unproductive evening, he was briefly startled at seeing light through the windows. But it was no surprise whatsoever, upon entering, to find that the source — in her extravagant way she’d lit every lamp — was his wife. After all, though he might be paid a visit by thieves or assassins, they wouldn’t turn the lights on. And it wasn’t as if he had any other friends that might wait for him inside.

Not that Tokio counted as a ‘friend.’

“Your place being fumigated?” he suggested as the sarcastic explanation for why she was here rather than at her far larger, more opulent, and arguably more comfortable house across town.

She’d made herself at home, as she did whenever she exercised her legal right to invade his space, by dragging the chair from his desk into the main room near the stove — she boycotted seiza and yokozuwari, largely due to her couture — and helping herself to one of his spare cigarettes, which she smoked in a long holder. This she took from her lips as she answered, presumably because the coy smile she affected would have been marred by its presence. “Does a woman need an excuse to seek out her handsome husband?”

“Hn.” When Tokio acted like this, not one single word out of her mouth could be believed, so pursuing the matter and trying to find out why she was truly here would be futile and demeaning. Saitou didn’t care much, however, since, whatever she was scheming, he mostly just wanted her gone.

He had to admit, privately, that it would be nice to believe she really had come to spend time with him. Well, not necessarily Tokio herself, but somebody he wasn’t quite so disdainful of. It would be nice to have somebody he wasn’t quite so disdainful of that he could trust and connect with; in that case, he would be quite happy to come home to an unexpectedly occupied apartment and flirtatious behavior. But Tokio, who had always been vindictive and underhanded, was probably present because she needed to keep her head down in the wake of some less than entirely ethical business transaction, and her presence, whether she knew it or not — and it wasn’t impossible that she did — served to exacerbate the absence of anyone else’s.

“But you’re just home from work for the night!” she said, giving a good imitation of caring concern — or at least concern with an iron ulterior motive — and jumped up from the chair. “Here, sit down… let me take your jacket.”

Since he did, in fact, want to remove this garment and have a seat, he let her play her little game. Most nights there was no one to hang up his jacket and set his sword on the stand and fetch him his newspaper, so her showing up every once in a while to do these things for him was really just a reminder of what a mutually supportive relationship they’d never had even back when they’d lived together. She was obviously bored.

“Have you eaten?” she wondered with the same false solicitousness as before.

Saitou merely grunted an affirmative, glad this was the case. He wouldn’t have wanted to sit down at floor level for a meal with her standing triumphantly above him. It was bad enough to have her hovering over him in this chair. But as he unfolded the newspaper she’d put in his lap, he made a concerted effort to pay it some actual attention — and her less or none. Eventually she must get tired of annoying him and go find some other place to lie low.

Her next move to get his attention was to reach right into his field of vision and place a cigarette to his lips. He accepted it, and her subsequent lighting of it, without a word. In addition to enhancing, by contrast, the awareness of his usual aloneness, this behavior aggravated him — and she knew it — because he didn’t like being babied; he preferred to perform tasks with his own hands rather than relying on those of others as she was so fond of doing back at her mansion packed with servants.

“Oh, my,” she remarked next, bending across him to read the paper over his shoulder so her long shawl slid half off her back to trail onto his arm. “How dreadful! They planned to burn the palace?” But her tone was far from horrified; rather, it sounded intrigued and maybe even somewhat pleased.

“They deserved the pay they were demanding,” Saitou couldn’t help but reply, especially in response to her gleeful-onlooker tone. “But the method they used–”

He had glanced to his left, irritated, hoping to give her a disapproving glare but finding himself looking down her cleavage instead. Even more irritated, his eyes slipped from the undesirable sight that she, knowing his disinterest in her person, had undoubtedly deliberately placed in his view, and onto her left arm now bare of the shawl that had previously obscured it — and the tattoo on her inside forearm, just south of the elbow: a highly complicated eight-pointed snowflake.

He jerked away from her and to his feet, staring at this far more elaborate version of the yakuza design he’d been getting so tired of lately. Just for now, he was so surprised that he could make no further move.

She was surprised too, straightening and staring back briefly in confusion before glancing down to see what had caught his attention. When she found what the disarray of her shawl had revealed, and clearly realized that he had recognized it, she pulled the garment quickly back into place with a movement far less suave than hers usually were. She must not have been aware of his efforts to track down the organization she belonged to — perhaps an inverse of the information moratorium that had been so plaguing him was inadvertently in effect as well — or she would never have left the mark so easily exposed when coming here; this must be as much of a shock to her as it was to her husband.

Abruptly she turned on her stockinged heel and ran for the door.

*

Everything made sense now, though that didn’t change the way Zanza felt about most of it. Having slept with an undercover cop or whatever Fujita was — and having enjoyed it so damn much — did make him faintly uneasy, but he could decide later on the finer points of his attitude toward that revelation.

For the moment, newly disclosed government agent Fujita was coming to the end of his story with, “She managed to cover her escape with a pistol — she seems to have them in no short supply — and kept me far enough behind for her to jump into a cab eventually.”

“Damn,” Zanza said wonderingly. “That’s one hell of a thing to find out about your own wife.”

“It gets worse.” Fujita’s tone was grim. “Eventually I discovered she actually runs the organization.”

Zanza laughed in frustration. “Well, that’s no surprise now…”

By this time their rooftop hideaway was lit only by moon and stars, but these were bright enough to show clearly Fujita’s nod. “I’ve been trying to track her down and dissolve her organization ever since, though I’ve never seen her in person again and she’s changed houses. And she’s sent multiple assassins after me. I hoped to make significant progress while she was in Europe not long ago, but she had things locked up too tight. She’s back now, and back to her old tricks.” A sardonic expression took his face as he added, “This latest attempt at killing me is more elaborate than usual, though, and she may have overreached… We’ll see who gets arrested down there, and what they can tell us.”

“You know…” Zanza looked at the other man pensively. “She obviously, definitely wanted to kill you… and I’m sure she’d have been happy if it worked… but I bet the reason she claimed she wanted me to seduce you was true too. A sort of backup, right? She said you were so high-and-mighty and self-righteous, and she wanted to prove you could be dragged into having sex with some random lowlife. So even if she didn’t manage to kill you, she’d still have that to hold over you.”

Fujita gave him an assessing look and finally said, “You read her well. I think you’re exactly right.” His thin lips twisted into a smirk as he added, “But she chose poorly if she wanted to find someone I would be ashamed of having sex with.”

While specifically pleased at the implication that Fujita didn’t regret having slept with him even under these strange circumstances, Zanza couldn’t help pointing out with a shrug, “I am kindof the dregs, though. I thought she chose pretty well.” For both of them, he did not add aloud.

“Tokio would assume you’re in the criminal class I would automatically look down on.”

“Well, I’m not exactly the most law-abiding citizen,” Zanza admitted uncomfortably, unsure why he was saying it but feeling he had to be open about this. “I fight people for money… sometimes even kill ’em.”

“I know what you do,” said Fujita somewhat dismissively. “And I also know you never attack anyone who can’t fight back, and that your targets are primarily from your same walk of life. You’re a complete waste of talent, and, yes, often on the wrong side of the law, but you’re practically a clean-up service for us. Criminal, perhaps, but nothing like Tokio and her ilk, who wreak havoc on the economy and victimize the community indiscriminately. She thinks your lack of money and class make you someone I’d be ashamed to associate with, but you’re certainly a better person than she is — and I’m married to her.”

Zanza wasn’t sure whether to laugh or get angry or just gape in baffled admiration. This guy, who evidently in one capacity or another worked for the government Zanza loathed above all things, had some seriously solid principles in there. Despite having come to doubt everything that woman had said to him, the mercenary realized he’d still been subconsciously clinging to her description of Fujita — her husband, had he known — as inappropriately condescending. Turned out maybe that wasn’t entirely the case. Still… “So you’re all right with me and what I do?”

“No.” Fujita fixed him with a stern look, gold eyes glinting in the moonlight. “If I met you in another context, where I had certain knowledge you were breaking the law, I might not just arrest you; I might kill you.”

“I’d like to see you try,” Zanza scoffed. He had to admit, though, that look — especially combined with the body he’d come to some extent to know in the last few hours and the skill and determination Fujita had demonstrated during much of that time — was pretty damn convincing, and might have been, to someone less confident in his own abilities than Zanza, frightening.

“In any case, I don’t choose to do things I’ll be embarrassed about afterward, so that aspect of Tokio’s plan was destined to fail regardless of whom she chose to send.”

“Weeelllll…” Zanza grinned ruefully. “You are hiding naked on a rooftop waiting for the police to rescue you. I mean…” He reached over to pull a splinter from where it was marked in the darkness by a tiny trickle of blood on Fujita’s thigh. “I got no problem at all with you being naked up here with me, but I figure it’s gotta be pretty embarrassing for you…”

“It is extremely annoying.” Unexpectedly, Fujita returned the favor, reaching out to grasp between his nails and draw out a large splinter whose tip was the only thing visible in the side of Zanza’s right buttock; it was practically a pinch to the ass. “Some of it.” He looked at the splinter briefly, abstractedly, before flicking it away. “But it’s one of the risks of the job.”

Zanza burst out laughing. “That’s a really weirdly specific thing to have to be prepared for when you get into a job!” And to his surprise, Fujita joined his mirth for a moment. This made it easier, once they’d fallen silent again, for Zanza to break down and admit, “I’m kinda embarrassed. I’m fucking Zanza, man, and here I am on a roof I can’t get down from without getting shot with no fucking clothes on! I’m sure she wasn’t even thinking about embarrassing me or anything, but she sure as hell twisted me right around her stupid finger.” He growled his increasing frustration with the woman and the circumstances.

Fujita sounded both amused and somewhat reassuring when he replied, “This situation doesn’t change anything. I’m not going to stop working against her.” And though the combination of those two tones made him come across as distinctly patronizing, it seemed clear he did understand Zanza’s desire for revenge on his wife.

“Weren’t you on some other job at that inn, though?” Zanza wondered. “You probably need to get back to that first.”

Fujita frowned. “I’m afraid that setup will fall apart after this. If the man I was there to watch believes that inn is a place where people get attacked in their bedrooms, he certainly won’t hang around there much longer. I’ll have to start all over with him. But after that, I’ll be right back on Tokio’s trail.”

“You know…” It was exactly the same pensive look as when he’d said these words before, but this time Zanza couldn’t help a flirtatious touch to it and to his tone, despite the pragmatic nature of the offer he was about to make. “I’m a mercenary… Normally it’s fighting, yeah, but I’m ready to do all sorts of dangerous shit for pay… and I happen to know where at least one place she operates out of is, since I was just there yesterday…”

Though dry, the other man’s voice, Zanza thought, also held a hint of incongruous flirtation as he replied, “After what she offered to pay you, I doubt I could afford your services.”

“Actually I’m available at a newly discounted rate,” declared the grinning Zanza. “The chance to get back at a mob boss who made me look like an idiot and some really good sex is all it’d cost you. Oh, and a new gi.”

With an almost languid movement, Fujita rose partially up again into a crouch, peering around the side of the turret and down as far into the lamplit street as he could from this awkward angle. As he settled back into his seated position beside Zanza he said, “No sign of the police yet.” He turned toward the mercenary, and, though he appeared exasperated with the situation as a whole, there was a faint smirk on his lips. “It seems we have plenty of time to reach some kind of reasonable arrangement.”


This story is dedicated to plaidshirtjimkirk (WordPress / Ao3), whose enthusiasm was a delight and whose fic on the subject was top-notch back when we used to do this Saitou & Sano thing.

For some author’s notes on this fic written not longer after it was, see this Productivity Log. I’ve rated it .

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


Aku Soku Zan(za) (1)



This story has no chapters, but is posted in sections due to length.

Last updated on October 28, 2019

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The paper itself was of such high quality that, even when Zanza’s decisive hands had crumpled it into a tight, lopsided little ball, it still felt hefty and undefeated as he tossed it away, and clattered noisily into a dusty corner to crouch, bright in the shadows, under an empty jug that he should really take back to the bar he’d gotten it from one of these days.

Grumbling incoherent profanity, he whirled, putting his back to the offending object, and started moving away from it so precipitously he almost tripped over the long sword that nearly bisected his small room. In growing irritation he hopped over the zanbatou and stalked from the apartment. An unsuspecting neighbor immediately outside, attention procured by the slamming of the door and accompanying swearing, took one look at Zanza’s glower and made a quick, judicious retreat back into his own home.

He had no particular destination in mind other than away from that damned letter, and as such he turned more or less randomly at each intersection of narrow, dirty streets; and every time he did so, something in his head urged him to go back, to pull the thing from the dust, smooth it out, and give it another try. He needed money, after all, and it was stupid to get so angry at an apparent job offer that he couldn’t even finish reading it… but for the writer to have employed what seemed like such extravagantly excessive kanji…

In order to get his message to its destination, the guy must have dug Zanza’s address up from somewhere; couldn’t he guess, based on that, at its recipient’s level of education? Nobody in this neighborhood could read that many or that kind of kanji, and that Zanza perhaps knew a few more than his neighbors was due only to his actual origins lying elsewhere — if any of the people around him here could read at all, it was some kind of miracle. Did the letter’s sender want to rub this in, or was he really just that ignorant of what life was like outside his insular world of fancy paper and cultured handwriting?

“Ohayou, Zanza!” Technically it was afternoon, but Yoita, like most of Zanza’s friends, knew that this time of day approximately counted as morning for him.

Without turning, Zanza snarled out something that might have been a return greeting.

Accustomed to the kenkaya’s moods, Yoita didn’t even flinch at the unpleasant sound as he fell into step beside him. Nevertheless, he insured his own safety before he said another word by extracting from the pocket in which he’d been digging a piece of candy wrapped in brown paper and offering it to the kenkaya. “You look pissed,” he remarked as Zanza accepted the premium with a rough gesture. “Landlord been on your case again?”

The sweetness of the candy and the friendliness of the inquiry were already working, and Zanza merely shook his head instead of exploding.

After watching Zanza brood and suck hard on the candy for half a street, Yoita finally remarked, “I guess you’ll tell us all tonight. You are coming to Sochi’s place, right?”

“Maybe,” was Zanza’s surly answer as he considered grumpily that if the engagement proposed in the letter was for tonight, he might never know it.

“Those same girls from last time said they’d be there,” Yoita cajoled.

Suddenly Zanza turned a thoughtful look on his friend. It seemed like a long shot, but not completely impossible. “Hey, do you own a dictionary?”

“What?” Yoita gave a surprised laugh. “Why would I need a dictionary?”

“You suppose any of the other guys have one?”

“Why would any of us need a dictionary?”

I need one.”

Yoita was still laughing. “Why?”

With an irritated sigh that marked the transition from raging to trying to be productive, Zanza explained. “Some guy sent me this long fucking letter, I think wanting me to fight someone, but I can’t read all his damn kanji. I just spent an hour giving myself a headache trying to figure it all out, but I’m obviously going to need a dictionary.”

Yoita made a noise of understanding. “Well, I doubt you’re going to find one anywhere in our group, but you know there’s a charity school just up the street, right? That guy who runs it’s really nice; he could probably help you.”

“Oh, shit, you’re right.” Zanza stopped abruptly, looking around, orienting himself and considering where the school in question was located. “Why didn’t I think of that?”

“Because you were mad as hell?” Yoita grinned.

Cheered enough all of a sudden that he was able to return the expression, Zanza gave Yoita’s shoulder a little shake and said, “Thanks, man,” before spinning and setting off at a run back toward his apartment to retrieve the letter.

That it took longer than he’d expected to locate his destination might have been a good thing, because it gave him time to smooth out the abused paper and render it (relatively) legible again. He was even, in his anticipation, considerably less annoyed by the time he reached the big old house with its modest, venerable sign proclaiming its secondary function as an educational establishment, despite the embarrassing circumstance of having gotten lost in what was essentially his own neighborhood.

Thanks to the lack of any formal schooling in his childhood, he entered the place without much thought for time of day, and as a result found himself stared at by at least ten young pairs of eyes bearing expressions ranging from startled and almost frightened to curious to admiring, a few even a bit disdainful. It was unexpectedly nerve-wracking, perhaps creepy, and Zanza was immediately conscious, for some reason, of the state of his clothing and how long it had been since he’d bathed.

“Can I help you?” The voice came from the head of the room, and pulled Zanza’s embarrassed gaze to the man that had evidently paused at the mercenary’s entrance in the dissertation he’d been conducting. He was as Zanza had seen him a few other times in the past: middle-aged, stocky, with an apparent strength subdued by his contemplative calmness.

“Uhh…” Suddenly tongue-tied, Zanza scratched his head. “I need a hand with a… thing… if you’ve got some time when your… class is done?”

Though the instructor raised his brows, there was more friendly inquiry than skepticism in his gaze. “We finish at three, if you want to wait or come back.”

Unexpectedly glad to have a non-living object to transfer his eyes to, Zanza looked at the clock on the wall. “Yeah,” he said. It was just over an hour to the specified time. “Yeah, thanks. I’ll wait outside.” He owned no watch, after all, and had no place else in mind to go for the interim.

Though the kenkaya, eyes still fixed on the minute hand, didn’t see the man’s expression, he could hear the irony in the reply, “Make yourself at home.”

In the warm sun and calm air outside, Zanza’s discomfort quickly faded, and it wasn’t long before the seated position into which he’d immediately sunk on the front porch transitioned into a reclining one and then a dozing flatness. He didn’t necessarily mean to fall asleep, but he’d expended so much energy on anger that it was the inevitable result of having an hour to wait doing essentially nothing else in nice weather.

It put him in a dangerous position, however. He was rudely, almost terrifyingly awakened, when the countdown ended, by schoolkids pouring out around and even over him, many of them shrieking in delight for no apparent reason other than the glee of a school day’s end. He could do nothing against this unexpected onslaught other than roll onto his side and shield his head and neck from the enthusiastic young feet until the shouting and pattering had proceeded far enough down the street to make him believe they weren’t coming back.

He sat up to find the instructor standing before the closed front door looking down at him with an expression of repressed merriment. When the older man observed Zanza’s gaze, he moved forward to take a seat against the pillar beside the steps, patting the adjacent space with a strong hand. “You’re a mercenary, I believe,” was how he began the conversation. “I’ve seen you a few times around; I think you don’t live too far from here.”

“That’s right.” Zanza picked himself up and took the few paces necessary to drop down again beside the other pillar opposite the instructor. Outside the formality of the classroom setting, it was much easier to face and talk to the guy. “I got a problem…” He fished the folded letter, by now very victimized, from a pocket. “I’m pretty sure this guy wants me to fight someone, but I can’t read the damn thing.” He finished at a bit of a mumble, not happy to admit either his deficiency or the fact that it embarrassed him a little. “I was hoping you could help.”

Wordlessly the instructor accepted what Zanza held out, and unfolded it. Above the eyes he immediately turned on the letter, his brows rose to form once again the expression of amused skepticism he’d worn inside the building an hour before. “I can see why,” he murmured.

Feeling vindicated, Zanza made an annoyed noise as the instructor apparently began to read in earnest, and then several silent moments passed while the kenkaya leaned over to watch in anticipation and the eyebrows of the other man did not descend.

Both the amusement and the skepticism seemed to increase as the man made his way through the entire length of the thing; until finally, shaking his head, he laid it on his lap and turned a sort of I-don’t-know-what-to-say expression toward the eager Zanza. What he did eventually say was, “Well.”

“Yeah?” The man’s demeanor had done nothing to lessen Zanza’s eagerness and curiosity.

The instructor opened his mouth, then closed it again as if commentary absolutely defied him. Finally he seemed to give up, and just said, “I’ll read it aloud.” And with a preparatory stiffening, as if for some conflict much more difficult than the oration of a letter, he began.

To you, esteemed Zanza-san, I extend the salutations of the salubriously mild-aired spring day on which I write, a day I believe to be full of auspice in a spring that can only be an amplification of that excellent promise in a year that has already seen so many momentous changes to our collective way of life that, though not every alteration wrought since January can be viewed as propitious for the advancement of our civilization, the year itself nevertheless must be recognized as an adumbration of no idleness of hand! This communication stands in apologue of such an idea, and therefore of the season and year and era in which we live, since in hailing both from and to hands that have never been idle it seeks to effect change just such as the auspicious 1878 has already observed.

At this point, as the instructor took a deep breath to continue, Zanza raised a trembling hand and solicited weakly, “Could you possibly just summarize the rest? Actually, could you possibly summarize all that shit you just read too?”

The man’s mouth twitched into a smile he obviously couldn’t repress. “Well, as for all that shit I just read, he says hello, misrepresents the weather, and that things have happened this year. He goes on to say…” His eyes became more mobile, more searching, as he turned them back to the letter. “He heard about your fight with a swordsmith in Komatsugawa, and the exceptional strength you demonstrated in that fight… there’s a reference to anvils that I don’t quite…”

Zanza chuckled, recalling clearly and fondly the fight and the anvils in question.

Smile widening at this reaction, the instructor went on. “He says he would have dismissed the story as an entertaining exaggeration if the person telling it… here’s some unnecessary detail about the person telling the story and where they were at the time… ah, yes, if the person telling the story hadn’t gone on to mention your reputation as an outspoken critic of the government.”

Interest somewhat aroused, Zanza waited more or less patiently as the other man reread the next section of the letter in silence. “He has a lot to say about the government,” he said at last, “but what it seems to boil down to is that he puts up with it without liking it much.”

“Yeah, don’t we all,” Zanza grumbled, reflecting at the same time that someone rich enough to be naive enough to write and send a letter like this to a street fighter might also be in a position to do something more than unhappily put up with, but he didn’t bother saying it.

“Don’t we all,” echoed the teacher at a murmur, still evidently amused. “Anyway, he reiterates that he heard about your feelings regarding the government, and this got him interested, so he started asking around about you… and apparently you’re always looking for challenging fights..? That seemed perfect to him, because he’s had a plan in mind for a while without seeing any way he could carry it out, and you might be exactly what he needs…”

“All right,” Zanza broke in, losing patience, “what exactly does he need? And why the hell does he think I want his life story on the way?”

Now the instructor laughed out loud. “I can’t possibly answer that second question, but the answer to the first is that he wants to hire you to fight Saitou Hajime.”

Despite having asked for it, the point of the message so neatly encapsulated in so few words took Zanza a bit by surprise, and it was a moment before its meaning really sank in. Then he sat up straight in an almost convulsive movement. “What, Shinsengumi Saitou Hajime?”

“That’s the one. He makes it–” the teacher glanced at the letter again with a wry smile– “very clear.”

Now Zanza jumped to his feet. “Well, why didn’t he just fucking say so in the first place?” Despite this complaint, a wide grin had spread across his face. “If he’s heard so much about me, he’s gotta know of course I’d wanna fight Saitou Hajime — that guy was supposedly super strong, right? And he’s still around? What’s he doing these days? How old is he? I mean, is he even stronger than before, or has he gotten all old and weakened up?”

Again the teacher laughed. “Well, let’s see… as to why he didn’t just fucking say so in the first place, it doesn’t seem to be in his nature to do anything of the sort. And he does seem to be aware that of course you’d want to fight Saitou Hajime — that’s the gist of about half the letter, really. And what is Saitou Hajime doing these days? Working for the police, it appears.”

Excitement suspended for a moment, Zanza wondered if he’d heard that right. “For the police? The police, who’re part of the government? The Meiji government? The same people he was fighting against in the war?”

“That police,” the teacher nodded. “Those same people.”

Snatching the letter back in a rough movement that seemed to startle the other man a little, Zanza snapped it taut in front of his own face and searched, incredulous and angry, for written confirmation of what had just been spoken. Unfortunately, the half-familiar kanji blended together into a headache-inducing mass just as they’d done every other time, and he had no idea what section he and his assistant had progressed into. Resisting with some difficulty the urge to crumple the thing again, he instead let his hand fall angrily to his side, taking the paper fluttering down with it, and stared out into the street.

“Before I… before I actually got involved with shit,” he muttered, reminiscing bitterly, “me and the other kids would play that we were going to Kyoto to fight the Shinsengumi, and we had to take turns playing Kondou. They were fucking legends to us. They represented the old times, and shit staying the way it was… they were the champions of everything the country was that people were fighting about.”

He turned to find the teacher regarding him impassively; this time when Zanza, with an abrupt gesture, threw the letter back down toward his feet, the man didn’t even flinch.

“Not like I started liking the idea of the Shinsengumi any better once I realized what a bunch of backstabbing assholes the Ishin Shishi were… the old days weren’t any better than this bullshit we have today, so I never thought they were heroes or anything… but they were still the champions of the other side! They fought harder against those fuckers than practically anyone, and we all sure as hell saw them as representations of the Bakufu…”

Still offering no attempt at interpretation or judgment, the teacher nodded his comprehension.

“So how could he switch sides like that? Someone who practically was the other side — how could he join up with the fucking Meiji like that??” Zanza’s hands were clenched now into hard fists. He’d never even met this Saitou guy, but a number of unexpected fragments had converged into a very unpleasant picture, and he was angry.

After reaching for the fallen letter, the teacher held it again in his lap without a word, looking down pensively at it and smoothing it out somewhat absently, evidently still listening to Zanza rant. And all the time he maintained a neutrality of expression and bearing that was half encouraging and half irritating. Not that Zanza could possibly be irritated much by anything besides his current fixation.

When his tirade had devolved into little more than apostrophic name-calling that neither helped his mood improve nor advanced the conversation, and his fingers were clenching so tightly in his fists that the knuckles creaked and ached, he forced himself to shut up and calm down. Well, he didn’t calm much, but he did start to focus a little better on his surroundings and situation. He needed more information — a lot more information — and he wouldn’t get it if he didn’t finish the letter. Frankly, he was damned lucky this guy had put up with him for as long as he had; he probably shouldn’t push that luck any further.

So he turned back toward the instructor — he hadn’t even realized he’d been facing the street as if in dramatic soliloquy — took a deep breath, loosened his fists, and said in a sort of enforcedly placid summary (though his teeth were clenched), “So, yeah, I’d really fucking like to fight Saitou Hajime. What do I have to do?”

***

Saitou rubbed the bridge of his nose with two fingers, trying to alleviate the headache that had developed over the course of the day. Massaging his face seemed unlikely to help when the headache had been idiot-induced, but he did it anyway — as if somehow the motion would get rid of every frustrating police underling in the station, every petty drug dealer on the streets, and every stupid thug in every bar and slum in Tokyo. He longed for some proper sleep, something he hadn’t had much of in the last couple of days and something that would probably be a great deal more effective toward the diminution of his headache than was his gloved hand.

The notes he’d been reading hit the desk with a rustling slap as his eyes slid gratefully off the final line of the final page. He’d predicted he would come to the end of this perusal this evening, and might have read the last few entries a little more quickly than he otherwise would have, but it didn’t matter: it was clear now, if it hadn’t already been, that the entirety of the documented evidence they had on their current subject of investigation was sufficient neither to condemn him in court nor to make Saitou feel justified in assassinating him privately quite yet. That he couldn’t pick out a paper trail here neither surprised him nor made him less suspicious of the man in question; the tips they’d received, though in no way constituting proof, had been too definitive and, to his mind, too reliable not to investigate thoroughly.

He might even end up doing some of said investigating personally this time, depending on what kind of information Tokio brought back. That would be a nice change from the tiresomely lengthy paperwork at the end of the previous job and the beginning of this one that he’d skipped sleep lately trying to get finished. If he must be deprived of sleep, he would much rather it be due to a stakeout or a lengthy chase than because he was writing out the details of whatever he’d just finished doing in the driest language he could command and triplicate.

After reorganizing the notes and fastening a descriptive paper obi around the stack, he locked it away in a drawer, whence he would eventually retrieve it as material supplemental to whatever further facts he obtained during the course of the ensuing inquiry. Then he stood, stubbing out the remaining third or so of his latest cigarette in an ash tray overly full from an overly long stint at the office, put out the lamp, and headed for the door.

The station proper, busy even nearing what might for the rest of the city be considered the end of the day, seemed shockingly hot thanks to multiple bodies often under stress or in vigorous movement, despite the open windows and especially to anyone wearing a police uniform with a heavy jacket (which nearly everyone in the room was), so Saitou hastened through to the main entrance and beyond. There was always at least one idle carriage hanging around outside the police station, Tokyo drivers being well aware of how loath many officers were to walk more than a short distance unless, as on patrol, the walking rather than the arrival was the purpose of the trip. And Saitou supposed hiring a cab to and from work might be considered a lazy habit, but there were some days (possibly most days) when he just couldn’t stand to stick around any longer and had to get away as quickly as possible. So today, as not infrequently, he paid the driver and was whisked away toward home.

As he felt he’d had more than enough of this Rokumeikan business over the last little while, he tried not to think about it on the way, tried to relax and look forward to a quiet evening; this was difficult, however, in that no other compelling subject was jumping to replace Rokumeikan in his mind. There just wasn’t a lot going on for him right now besides work… and there, he supposed, was another subject for thought.

Weeding corruption from the government was not only his primary occupation but his primary source of fulfillment. He required and actively sought nothing more from existence than this. But that didn’t mean he objected to more when it was presented, nor failed to feel its absence when it wasn’t. When the standard policework that occupied his time between more meaningful cases consisted of small-time busts and big-time paperwork, minor investigation after unstimulating minor investigation, the almighty pen far oftener than the much more interesting sword… when sleep was wearily dreamless and solitary, night after similar night, and therefore a luxury frequently dispensed with… If it weren’t for the one friendship he maintained, his one source of enrichment, then that core of his existence, meaningful as it was, would be the barest of bones anyone had ever attempted to called a life.

He turned these reflections over like something interesting but largely irrelevant. There might have been a touch of amused self-denigration to them, but no sense of importance. He was, after all, fulfilled even if he wasn’t terribly enriched. This was merely a mild method of entertainment to get him through his carriage ride.

And the carriage was slowing, drawing to a stop. At the hasteless speed they’d been maintaining, Saitou knew they hadn’t yet reached his house, but at the sound of the voice speaking to the driver outside he knew the reason for their halt. A moment later there was a weight on the steps, and the door opened to admit the figure of his wife, who sank onto the seat opposite him with a sigh of relief and weariness.

“Going home so early!” she remarked. “What’s gotten into you?”

“Paperwork,” was his brief, sardonic reply.

She made a darkly understanding sound, but answered in an easy tone. “It’s so early, I couldn’t even be sure I had the right cab. I’d have been nicely embarrassed if I didn’t!”

He felt no surprise that she’d deduced his presence in the carriage, but did perhaps feel some that the driver had stopped for her. Tokio sometimes faced difficulties getting people to do as she asked when she was in uniform, and at the moment she wore the relatively unobtrusive kimono-hakama combination she favored when spying; it was some surprise the driver had even noticed her. She didn’t appear entirely respectable, either, and Saitou commented as the carriage got underway again, “I can’t say I like the new style.” He drew a couple of gloved fingers through his own hair to indicate his meaning.

The hand she then ran up to her frazzled bun dislodged the two leaves he’d been specifically referring to, and she laughed faintly. “I’m pretty sure I know the privet shrub on the east side of Rokumeikan’s house much better than his gardener does by now.”

“What did you find out?”

“I was going to wait until tomorrow to file my report.”

“I’m not asking you to file anything, just for a general overview.”

“Oh, fine.” She rolled her black eyes at him. “I was thinking about what I’m going to make for dinner when I get home, but I know perfectly well you never notice what you’re eating anyway.” When her husband, rather than rising to the bait, just lifted an impatient brow, she went on in a more businesslike tone, “He has some kind of influence with the Karashigumi. I couldn’t figure out exactly what he is to them, but I think he has some real power there.”

The surprised Saitou, unable quite to recall, asked, “Who’s their leader?”

“A guy named Eisatsu. But it looks like he answers to Rokumeikan on the sly, so…”

“No wonder those accounts weren’t leading anywhere,” Saitou murmured.

Tokio nodded. “If they’re doing all his dirty work…”

“We’ll want to deal with them all at once.”

“Mmm. Fantastic.”

He understood her sarcasm; going up against yakuza was complicated and frustrating, and something they didn’t deliberately undertake unless it specifically related to a pre-existing case. Here, if a politician was using organized crime to raise money and influence, it was wisest to take out both his manpower and the criminal society’s leadership all in one sweep.

This time when the carriage drew to a creaking stop, it had been plenty long enough to get home, so Saitou and Tokio each slid sideways toward the door that presently opened at the hand of the courteous driver. But as Saitou paid the latter, he frowned slowly. Something nearby, the sense of which grew as he focused on it, was angry, aggressive, and directed toward him.

“Must they come to the house?” Tokio murmured, sounding tired and annoyed.

As the cab driver moved to resume his place on the box and depart, Saitou replied, “Better than the station.” And he turned to see who it was, following both Tokio’s gaze and the sense he had of angry ki to where a young man stood in the shadow of the property wall with the air of one waiting with waning patience for the occupants to come home. Or undoubtedly, in this case, just one of the occupants.

Tokio was giving the stranger a calculating look. “Ten minutes, you think?”

Watching with similar calculation the young man beginning to emerge from the shadows, Saitou thought it best to say, “Better make it fifteen.”

“Don’t push it.” Tokio turned toward the house. “I want to go to bed.”

He knew she meant by this, “You probably won’t bother with supper if I don’t force you to, so I won’t go to bed until I’ve seen you eat.” It was a common enough contention between them, so Saitou merely nodded. Then he turned from where she’d begun making her way inside and faced the approaching mercenary.

Zanza, that was the name. Of course the police kept tabs, more or less, as they had time and resources, on the prominent mercenaries in town, but Saitou wouldn’t have remembered what this one called himself if it hadn’t pretty clearly been taken from the sword he reputedly only used when he believed the battle would be worth getting it out for. Evidently he thought this one would be, so at least Saitou Hajime still had some reputation among mercenaries and those that hired them.

The light of the nearest streetlamp brought out details of face and figure as the young man neared, and Saitou’s interest was caught even as he reflected that Tokio might have found it worthwhile to put off starting supper and remain out here, tired though she was. He might not recall everything he’d heard about this kenkaya, but he believed with some surety he would have remembered if anyone had ever given an adequate description of how very attractive he was.

Zanza’s right arm curled up behind his head holding the long, cloth-wrapped sword that lay across his shoulders, and thus his gi was pulled wide away from his smoothly muscled chest. Under the yellowness of the lamp, his skin looked golden-tan and of a superb texture, though even in this imperfect lighting there was some scarring visible; really, that just added piquancy to the view. And the young man’s face was of excellent shape, its features masculine yet beautiful, bearing an active, eager, angry expression that promised something diverting at the very least.

Overall, it was quite a pleasing picture, and Saitou could think of several things he’d rather do with this person than fight. But thugs didn’t hang around Saitou Hajime’s house waiting for him to get home for nearly so satisfying a purpose, so Saitou would have to deal with him as he always did those sent by his enemies (or old comrades that now had the wrong idea).

Ceasing his advance, which was evidently meant to be threatening, at a decent combat distance, Zanza fixed Saitou with a glare the officer could not remember having done anything to earn but which he didn’t particularly mind. The kenkaya’s fighting ki was raw and rough, straightforward and strong, and Saitou found he rather liked this too.

“Former captain of the Shinsengumi’s third unit Saitou Hajime,” Zanza announced clearly, “I’ve come to pick a fight!”

“So I see,” Saitou replied, withdrawing his cigarette case from the breast pocket of his jacket without removing his eyes from Zanza. It was indulgent, yes, but he had to smile as he looked him over again.

“What are you grinning about?” Zanza demanded.

“You. What makes you think I want to fight you?”

“You will when you hear my message!”

“And what,” Saitou inquired in a bored tone, lighting the cigarette he’d extracted, “does Yonai Fumihiro have to say?” Though not exactly a shot in the dark, this was no more than an educated guess based on the awareness of Yonai’s recent move to Tokyo… but when Zanza’s scowl deepened, Saitou knew he’d been right. He went on before the mercenary could answer. “That I’ve betrayed the principles of the Shinsengumi and the long history of the Bakufu, and I’m not going to get away with it? Probably in not so few words?”

Zanza looked even more annoyed than before, which was saying something. “Well… all right… but that’s just half the message!”

Flicking away the first ash of his fresh cigarette, “If you insist,” Saitou said, “I’ll have the rest of it too. But before you unveil your precious partner, let’s find a better place than the middle of my neighborhood street.”

Now Zanza looked a bit taken aback, perhaps at how much was known about him personally in addition to his errand, and this seemed to make him even angrier; but he followed willingly enough, and gave no indication of being about to attempt a surprise attack, as Saitou turned his back and began leading the way down the road. This neighborhood opened out onto a pleasant wooded area not far off, and a clearing in the beeches was wide and yet private enough for their purposes. As a matter of fact, it was where Saitou had fought the last two mercenaries sent against him. This particular mercenary should consider himself lucky Saitou was not the type to abuse his superior strength in the name of personal passion; Zanza’s attractiveness and ready tailing of a complete stranger to a secluded place combined into quite a temptation.

For obvious dramatic purposes, Zanza waited until Saitou had reached the far end of the clearing and turned before grasping at the wrap on his sword and pulling it away in a practiced gesture. Laughable as the blade was — an oversized club disguised as a sword, really — it did seem appropriate to its bearer: strong, conspicuous, and sadly in need of honing. Saitou liked the way Zanza’s muscles bulged and his body shifted as he took its long, thick haft in his hands and swung it off his shoulders into what he probably thought was a stance.

Finishing a last once-over of the beautiful young man, visible now in the light of a rising moon, Saitou placed a languid hand on the hilt of his own sword. He was promising nothing, but Zanza seemed to twitch forward in anticipation; that was interesting. In a level tone, neither mocking nor threatening, Saitou said, “If you come at me, I’m not going to go easy on you.” He always wondered at these arrogant young men that came to attack him for money and generally didn’t depart with their dignity or combat abilities intact even when Saitou left them their lives. He might have been a tad more curious than usual about what drove this one — if he remembered correctly, Zanza had a passion for good fights — but still it seemed so suicidal.

Very much to the confirmation of both of these last thoughts, Zanza now hefted the zanbatou above his head and tensed for action, growling out as he did so, “You’d better fucking not!”

***

Now that Zanza had actually met the guy, what he felt was more than merely anger at a defector that had run to the heartless government for a high-paying position under a false name. He didn’t like the indication given by the house he’d seen in the neighborhood he’d been waiting in as to just how high-paying was the position Saitou had attained. He didn’t like the way this Meiji bastard looked at him, those freaky golden eyes glinting even in the growing darkness, somehow calculating and dismissive at the same time. He didn’t like the jerk’s careless manner of holding that cigarette as if he weren’t about to get his head bashed in by an eighty-pound horse-and-rider-slaying weapon. He didn’t like the casualness with which Saitou had suggested they step into the trees as if for a quiet conversation rather than a battle.

But most of all (and it probably shouldn’t have been most of all, since it had nothing to do with how seriously Saitou was or wasn’t taking him, but he really couldn’t help it), he didn’t like those weird bangs. What was going on at that hairline? Was is deliberate? What was Saitou trying to say with a look like that? Zanza would definitely enjoy kicking this guy’s ass.

No definitive sign indicated the beginning of the battle, but Saitou, in his evident complete lack of concern for what was coming, obviously wasn’t about to make the first move, and Zanza had never been the least concerned with dueling etiquette. He gritted his teeth and charged, putting all his strength into the first swing not because he thought he might be able to end things before they really got started but because he wanted to effect an abrupt and startling change in Saitou’s attitude toward him.

It felt amazing to have his weapon out again. There were so few opponents around these days (or at least so few opponents around these days against whom people wanted to pit him for money) of the caliber to stand up to a zanbatou, and the poor thing had been collecting dust for far too long. The shift of it in his hands with unexpected speed as the blade raced downward; the air rushing by with a hollow-sounding, metallic whistle; the weight and balance that challenged both muscle and stance; the techniques he looked forward to using again after what seemed like forever — these all delighted and invigorated him despite his anger.

It was obvious his blow had missed even before the great sword’s contact with the ground sent a mess of dislodged earth, twigs, and leaves exploding out in all directions from the point of impact. What had been far less obvious was the movement by which Saitou had dodged; he’d been there one instant, absent the next. Zanza wrenched the sword back up, looking for his enemy, his shouldered weapon giving a sound of rushing metal as it spun with him. And there behind him was Saitou, standing still and smoking as before.

“Draw your sword!” Zanza demanded, irate that, even after such a decisive first strike as he’d just made (whether it had connected or not), Saitou could still be so casual about this. He charged the man again, making the swing of his own sword part of his approach in a fluid horizontal attack.

He thought he’d been pretty quick, but as the zanbatou swept at the officer, the latter crouched with surprising speed (though Zanza at least saw the movement this time) beneath the trajectory that, sadly, could not be altered mid-swing, then stood calmly again — still smoking and not even appearing to notice the rain of twigs and small branches that had been occasioned around him.

The sound of Zanza’s teeth grinding as he again shouldered his weapon seemed loud in the quiet clearing. This bastard was just like the damn government he represented: untouchable and annoying as hell. “Draw your fucking sword!” Zanza growled.

“Why?” Saitou replied, blowing smoke in the kenkaya’s direction. “It’s more entertaining watching you.”

What the hell did he mean by that? “I’m not here for your entertainment!” To drive his words home, Zanza struck — horizontally again, just in case Saitou might think he would always alternate — but found once more that Saitou had thwarted him, this time moving swiftly back out of the zanbatou’s reach.

“That doesn’t lessen your entertainment value,” the cop said, finally flicking away his current cigarette and — yes! — laying the now-vacant hand on the hilt of his sword. Yet again, however, he made no move to draw the weapon.

Zanza had to get this guy to fight. First of all, he was going exactly nowhere with the one-sided attacks, and might have better luck if his enemy’s attention was split between defense and reciprocation. Secondly, he’d been hired to fight Saitou Hajime, not charge endlessly at Saitou Hajime and marvel at how adeptly he got out of the way. Thirdly, by now he really wanted to see how strong this smug bastard was; he was beginning to long to see the grip of a sword in that gloved hand and observe some of the techniques he’d been hearing about lately during his inquiries about this man. And lastly, he wouldn’t have any idea how much payment to ask for this if it remained the aforementioned charge-and-miss routine.

So he said the most calculated thing he could in this state of annoyance: “Are all Meiji cops too chickenshit to actually fight, or just the ones who betrayed the Shinsengumi?”

Based on a slight shift in Saitou’s stance, Zanza thought he’d scored the first hit of the evening, and the man’s response seemed even more promising: “Strong words from a teenager.”

The implication was clear: Zanza had no room to speak, having been nothing more than a child back when Saitou had done his betraying (as far, of course, as that betraying could be considered a single-instance action and not an ongoing process that had continued this entire past decade). In any case, Saitou’s words meant he didn’t know quite everything about Zanza, even if he knew who had sent him, what that guy had to say, and even how verbose he’d been about saying it… but this was small comfort to the kenkaya when it was all too painfully common for no one to know the truth about the Sekihoutai.

Not only that, but, despite his apparently being a bit stung by Zanza’s remark, Saitou still didn’t draw, and the next swing of the zanbatou (vertical this time) was as ineffectual as all the previous had been. Zanza wasn’t entirely sure what to say next.

Finally he stood back, scowling, as if in recognition of an impasse, and tried, “I’m going to have to tell Yonai it’s worse than he even thinks: you didn’t just betray the Shinsengumi; you turned into a complete coward.” And he struck out again, a quick, hard surprise blow. At least he’d thought it was.

“You can tell him whatever bullshit you want and he’s sure to believe it,” Saitou replied from behind him. “Yonai always had more money than sense.” At least now he sounded distinctly annoyed; Zanza was, perhaps, finally getting somewhere.

“I wouldn’t wanna go by your idea of sense,” the kenkaya persisted, whirling, “since you obviously just join up with whoever’s stronger at the time to keep your own ass safe!”

Though it was absolutely the truth, he’d really only said it to anger the man, and at an impatient movement given by the cop he thought he’d succeeded. He leaped forward with another great heave of his sword, hoping this time for a better response. And it was with a darkly gleeful sense of anticipation that he heard at last the rasp of Saitou’s weapon leaving its sheath. It was a purely aural indication that he might finally get what he wanted, as not only did the swinging zanbatou obscure his vision somewhat, Saitou still moved startlingly fast.

Unexpectedly, Zanza felt the clash and slide of sword against sword as his blow was diverted with a screech down an oblique path formed by a diagonally-held blade. Not many people were willing to go head-to-head with a zanbatou using a mere katana, and of those that were, even fewer could actually do it instead of failing miserably at the attempt, so Zanza was already impressed.

He was even more surprised at the next blow, which, despite the strength with which he aimed it, was not only pushed aside but actually entirely thrown off. Losing his balance, he staggered away and nearly tripped, but had regained his footing almost immediately. His heart, he found, was pounding harder than the mere exertion of battle could explain, and the blood throbbing in his ears was all he could hear. Because nobody had ever done that before; nobody had ever met a zanbatou attack so skillfully, so forcefully.

The sight of the treacherous, motionless officer, blurring with the shadows in his dark blue uniform but for the brighter line of his casually-held nihontou, angered Zanza but excited him too. He’d wanted to know what Saitou’s combat abilities might be, and now that he’d had a taste of what seemed to be a fairly remarkable answer to that question, he wanted more. This might prove to be one hell of an awesome fight. Zanza charged again.

Blow after blow fell and was repelled, the air grew thick with earth tossed up from the churning ground and the noise of ringing collisions, and Zanza drew closer and closer to what he sought, what he always sought from battle — beyond making money, a point, or a reputation, beyond even surviving. It looked as if he’d finally found the opponent he needed: someone strong enough to engage every aspect of his skill and activity so as to drag him forcefully away from everything else in his life. He hadn’t entirely anticipated this, but with the prospect of any battle against an apparently skilled opponent, he hoped.

It was like taking in the heavy scent of some exquisitely delicious dish: there was an unmistakable promise of the meal he could almost taste that, even while it teased nearly unbearably, was yet intrinsically enjoyable. Coming close to losing himself completely in battle, though not as fulfilling as that completion, was yet a marvelous experience. Zanza’s hands on the haft of his weapon tingled like the rest of his energized body, and for a few glorious moments, he felt as if he could do anything, could rise above pain and uncertainty and reclaim what he’d lost.

Proof of how much conscious thought had already slipped from Zanza’s movements was that he went for an apparent opening in Saitou’s guard without even considering how little he wanted this battle to end. The huge sword descended, certain to connect this time, and battles had been ended by far less decisive blows of a zanbatou. Well, it was a shame, but he’d still enjoyed himself here more than he had in a very long time; Yonai would be getting a huge discount on this fight.

But for some reason, as a wrenching, steel-shearing sound filled the air, Zanza found himself staggering forward instead of being stopped by the shock of impact or the alternate option of his zanbatou driving into the dirt. He stumbled, and for some reason was unable to right himself as he would normally have done by pressing his weapon into the ground. In the disorientation of falling and seeming to lack a resource he usually counted on, he could not for a moment determine exactly what had just happened.

His eyes widened in shock and he drew in a sudden gasping breath of surprise as the answer embedded itself deeply into the earth before him with a thud. His startled gaze ran down the haft of his weapon to where the blade had been severed near its point of origin so that only about six inches of metal remained at the end of the wooden grip. For a moment, he could do nothing but stand and gape, his body still pulsing with excited energy as if it hadn’t quite gotten the message yet.

His… zanbatou… was… was…?

“And your idea of sense, it seems,” Saitou remarked, resuming the conversation as if it had never been interrupted, “is to engage in meaningless battles for nothing more than the childish pleasure of fighting.”

At the sound of this statement from behind him, whose calm tone almost belied its disdainful purport, Zanza felt that excited energy, which had been buoying him up so delightfully thus far, curdle into a sick sort of rage. He rounded on Saitou with a roar. “My sword! My fucking sword!”

Saitou gave his own weapon a slight swish and no indication that he’d exerted himself at all in the previous skirmish. “You were the one who insisted I draw mine.”

In contrast with the coolness of this sarcasm, the entire world went hot and red in Zanza’s perception. Tossing aside the haft of his beloved and now useless zanbatou, he clenched his fists. “Do you know how hard it is to get ahold of one of those fucking things?”

“Yes, they are rather rare these days, aren’t they?” Saitou replied conversationally. “But it’s an idiot’s weapon to begin with, so I don’t know why anyone would take the trouble.”

Not only had Saitou destroyed a precious possession, he was now mocking it — and through it, mocking its wielder in that easy, disdainful tone of his. It was about the best example of ‘adding insult to injury’ Zanza could think of. He charged.

Even through his anger he was conscious of astonishment and subsequent suspicion as Saitou remained motionless, sword still pointing toward the discomposed earth, and barely even seemed to brace himself before deliberately receiving the punch to his high cheekbone. Even as Zanza sprang back immediately after connecting, anticipating some trick, he noted the officer’s nod that seemed to suggest he’d just had some theory confirmed. And at the total lack of concern in Saitou’s demeanor after a considerably strong blow to the face, Zanza couldn’t help glancing briefly down at his own fist, wondering if something was wrong with him.

In the past he’d defeated enemies with a single hit. He was one of the few people he knew of that could even carry a zanbatou with any degree of ease, let alone use it in battle. But this guy… this Saitou Hajime… first he threw off full-strength blows from the biggest sword in the world, and now he completely ignored an enraged punch from Zanza’s not inconsiderable fist? How could anyone be that strong? Was Zanza in way over his head here?

If that was the case, however, didn’t it mean he could retrieve that glorious battle intensity he’d been so achingly close to just a few minutes ago? He could take it back, pick up where he’d left off, and feel that elusive oblivion at least briefly before this fight ended. With this thought, far from being discouraged by Saitou’s evidently superior strength, he pounded his fists together with a grimace and attacked again.

Saitou, however, after testing Zanza’s punch or whatever he’d been doing, had evidently decided to go back to the constantly-dodging style of responding to the kenkaya’s blows. How did a man about the same size manage to move so much faster than Zanza could? How could he read seemingly all of his opponent’s intended moves?? The strongest blow from the hardest fist imaginable wouldn’t do much good if it never landed!

Eventually, burning with frustration that threatened to build into rage at the promise of the fight he wanted that never came to fulfillment, Zanza fell back a pace and stared at Saitou with angry, unblinking eyes.

“You’re as strong as the rumors say,” the officer remarked. The faint smirk on his face widened as he continued, “But I hope you understand that that’s Meiji-era strength. In Bakumatsu’s Kyoto, these little punches you’re throwing would have been completely meaningless.”

He’d been so close… so close to what he really wanted… How had he gotten Saitou to fight him properly before? Through his rising anger Zanza sought for the right words. “Good to know you haven’t forgotten everything from those days.” He clenched his fists again, preparing for another attack. “Yonai’ll be glad to hear it.”

“There is one thing you can tell him,” replied Saitou as he deftly caught the flying right hand in his own left, knocking away Zanza’s other fist with his opposite elbow, and abruptly driving his sword into the kenkaya’s shoulder. With a quick half roar of pain and a flailing of limbs, Zanza was borne to the ground. There, he was held down by the foot Saitou placed on his chest as he yanked his weapon free. “You can tell Yonai Fumihiro,” he went on, again almost conversationally as he stepped back and sought out a handkerchief to wipe the blood from his sword, “that a wolf is always a wolf, Shinsengumi or otherwise, and that in this Meiji era I continue to act as I always have by hunting down evil wherever it is found. There is no better way to do so than as one of the government’s own agents, fighting corruption within the system itself. You’re welcome to tell him all of this,” he reiterated, sheathing his nihontou and turning, “if you can get up.”

The actual words — whether they were surprising or enraging or puzzling or merely incredible — Zanza would have to think about later. His body was full of pain and his head was full of the awareness that he’d been toyed with. This incredibly strong man, who could have given him exactly what he wanted where few others could, had instead refused to take him or his errand seriously, mocked and belittled him, destroyed the object he prized most, and then badly wounded him (just how badly was yet to be seen) without seeming to think anything at all of it. In fact he was now daring to walk away from a fight as if the entire thing didn’t fucking matter.

Zanza wasn’t defeated yet. He would never lose like that, to someone like this. With a grunt, streaming blood, he jumped to his feet, clapped a hand over his wounded shoulder, and faced his enemy’s calm back with fire in his eyes. “Wait one goddamn second, you fucking bastard!” he roared. “I’m not finished with you yet!”

The expression on the face that glanced back over a blue-clad shoulder suited the words, “I’m getting bored with this. You’ve delivered your message, and I’ve given my reply. We have no further business together.”

Clenching his left hand even more tightly over his injured right shoulder so he saw little shining points at the edge of his vision, Zanza threw himself after the retreating figure.

The same indifference with which he’d made many a move this evening marked Saitou’s reaction: he turned easily, blocked Zanza’s punch, and replied with one of his own straight into the wounded shoulder just as the extension of Zanza’s arm caused his left hand to slip from it. A moment later he followed up with a gloved palm to the kenkaya’s brow, hurling him once again to the ground in a violent motion.

Zanza bellowed out his pain and anger as his opponent thus took advantage of the wound already inflicted, but the noise fell to a whimper as he hit the dirt hard — so hard, in fact, that the next moment he found everything fading to black around him. And he swore into the growing darkness that he’d get the bastard for this if it was the last thing he ever did.

***

Tokio glanced at the clock as her husband entered the room. Thirteen minutes and seventeen seconds. Given the forty-five or so seconds that had passed between his pronouncement of how long would be required and her first instance of looking at the timepiece, that made for around fourteen minutes total.

“Looks like your estimate was about a minute off,” she said.

“I got tired of humoring him,” Hajime replied shortly. He seemed annoyed, and stood in the doorway almost indecisively for a moment as if considering just going straight to bed from here.

To prevent this, Tokio said hastily, “Set the table.”

Hajime’s lips tightened a fraction and his frame stiffened infinitesimally, which was a typical reaction to any direct order from his wife, even after all these years; but it was only a moment before he complied. After placing his sword on the rack and his jacket on the peg, he removed his gloves — Tokio, still watching to make sure he did as he was told, noted that one of them was red across the entirety of what might be called its punching surface — and washed his hands before reaching for dishes. His motions were all fairly quick, and seemed to bear out the impression of annoyance she’d already formed.

Curious about a fight that could have left Hajime in this sort of mood, she asked as she turned back to her cooking, “So who hired this one?”

“Yonai Fumihiro.”

She had to ponder a moment. A good memory for personal details was essential in her line of work, but she didn’t think Hajime had mentioned this name more than a few times before. “Wasn’t he in your division?”

“Yes,” said Hajime, even more shortly than before.

“I suppose it was the usual story, then? Somehow he heard who Fujita Gorou really was, and assumed…”

Hajime nodded.

“And?”

“And what?” he replied somewhat irritably.

“And how did the fight go?”

A moment of silence passed during which Hajime was undoubtedly giving her a sarcastic look of some sort — probably, if she knew him, glancing down at his unharmed body as if to say, “How do you think the fight went?” Tokio, however, was familiar with his ways and could often defeat the sarcastic looks by the simple tactic of anticipating them and turning away in time to avoid seeing them. So Hajime was more or less forced to answer aloud if he wanted to convey his scorn: “How do they ever go?”

“Well, I can see you’re unharmed.” With food in her hands ready to set on the table, she turned and gave her husband a pointed look that he was not quite in time to avoid. “And annoyed. What happened, exactly?”

“I destroyed his sword,” Hajime replied succinctly as Tokio set her burdens in their places and took her seat opposite him. “I stabbed him and knocked him out.”

That did sound like the usual story for such a battle. But normally mercenaries sent to fight Hajime didn’t leave him in so grouchy and pensive a mood. And since she got the feeling he wasn’t likely to say any more unless she worked to drag it from him, she set about, as they ate, that very work. Either she would get more information, or she would punish him for being so laconic.

“He must have brought you some message from Yonai that annoyed you,” was her first suggestion.

“It was the same message as always.” Hajime was not, Tokio believed, eating quickly in an attempt to get away from her questions, but that didn’t mean much, since he always ate quickly.

“Then you must have cared for Yonai’s opinion more than I thought.”

Hajime snorted derisively.

“The mercenary can’t have managed to actually insult you somehow?”

Now the sound from Hajime’s nose sounded like a faint laugh. Unfortunately, Tokio had never been able to read him very well, and how to interpret this noise she wasn’t sure.

“Maybe he knows some secret from your past,” she persisted, “that he brought up at just the wrong moment.” When Hajime made no reply she went on, “And you’re trying not to admit how much it bothered you, but…”

“Don’t be stupid,” he finally said, and she knew she’d succeeded in annoying him.

She went on with a grin. “And it was so bad, you really would rather have killed him. You bloodthirsty thing. But the kanji on his silly outfit was an outright lie — a promise he couldn’t keep.”

Hajime set bowl and chopsticks down with a clink and said shortly, “It ought to say ‘souzen’ on his back.”

Perhaps, then, the young man had merely annoyed Hajime with an unusually forcefully presented personality. A lot of people’s personalities annoyed Hajime, and, though it might take some doing to make him show it like this, it didn’t seem impossible.

“So since your enemy wasn’t properly Evil, the great gods of Aku Soku Zan–” she drew out the syllables with portentous drama– “could not justify a killing, and you just had to put up with him for as long as it took to destroy his sword, stab him, and knock him out.”

Hajime, taking a last long drink of his tea, made no answer.

“No wonder you came in here so distracted and annoyed! Having to put up with someone you couldn’t kill for that long…”

The very fact he was ignoring her now, she thought, was a sign that she’d achieved her goal — if not the goal of goading him into speech, at least of getting her revenge. He disliked being prodded about Aku Soku Zan, as if she didn’t know and respect how much it meant to him, every bit as much as she disliked having emotional details kept from her by one of the few people she’d ever met whose feelings she couldn’t pretty easily read most of the time.

Now he rose coolly, setting down his teacup, and made his way to where a folded newspaper waited for him on the kitchen counter. Normally, if he intended to read the paper at all before bed, he would do so where he could discuss interesting news items with her; it seemed she’d punished herself along with him by her nonsense, and as he left the room without a word she reflected in some annoyance of her own that perhaps she should have tried a little harder to ask straightforwardly before resorting to obnoxious conversational tactics. She sometimes made things a little too much of a contest between herself and her husband. She sometimes did that with most men.

She fully expected this to be the end of it. Hajime would not bring it up, so she would never solve the mystery of his mood after that fight; and she was unlikely ever to catch sight of that mercenary ever again. It was irritating, but she resigned herself to disappointment — and also strove to remind herself that it wasn’t really that important.

In fact she’d completely stopped thinking about it by the time she realized it hadn’t ended there, which subsequently came as a bit of a surprise. Several days after the mysterious fight — enough that she didn’t even consider exactly how long it had been — she was on patrol when the matter arose again. This was perhaps her least favorite police duty, and felt like a waste of her talents, but she was doomed to it whenever not actively occupied by some task relevant to their current case. And since Hajime was making use of what agents the police had in place that could obtain any information about the Karashigumi, in order to determine better that group’s connection with Rokumeikan, she would walk a beat today. At least she’d been allowed to choose an area of town that was generally acknowledged to be Karashigumi territory, little as she was likely to pick up about them while wandering the streets in uniform.

The other benefit to this mostly uninteresting pursuit, at least today, was that the leisurely but watchful progression of her patrol took her, without any deliberate detour, right past (or, rather, right to) the stand of an art vendor whose wares she was very happy to have an excuse to look over. She’d been here several times before, and always appreciated this particular vendor’s taste in stock, though she rarely actually purchased anything. Today she tried to make her perusal brief, but almost immediately realized how difficult that was going to be.

New to the shelves since the last time she’d been here were a number of prints by some truly excellent artist she wasn’t familiar with. All his subjects seemed to be war heroes rendered with the accuracy either of personal experience or excellent research, and there was a feeling of intensity or investment to the work that seemed, at least to Tokio, to indicate a personal interest in these subjects beyond merely how best to put them to paper. She wondered if this artist had as great a fascination as she did with war heroes, or with anyone that had fought with all their heart during any of the conflicts that had marked Japan’s recent history.

She was actually holding in her hand a particularly tempting piece depicting Hachirou Iba in battle, marveling at how well the artist had managed to confer beauty on so brutal a scene, when she realized that somebody — someone other than the solicitous and indulgent vendor — was watching her. Being a spy herself, she could generally tell when this was the case, but in this instance he made no attempt at concealing his presence or his attention, so as she turned to look she easily spotted him. That would have been easy anyway: with his predominantly white garments and unruly hair, he did rather stand out. And as he, noting her attention, began to approach, she caught sight of another attention-grabbing feature: the bandages across his chest and shoulder that were visible as his apparently just-washed gi flapped open. They seemed more extensive than a single stab-wound could account for, and she wondered if Hajime had understated the amount of harm he’d done this young man the other night. Though the mercenary did at least appear to be moving without much trouble or discomfort at this point, which in itself was impressive so soon after any wound Hajime had dealt.

“Hey, police lady,” he said as he drew near. For all the currently near-growling tone, he had a pleasant voice that, though deep, sounded simultaneously young.

She looked up into his attractive face and responded with an interest almost too pert to be polite, “What can I do for you?”

“You’re that bastard Sa–“

Smoothly she cut him off before he could say the entire name. “Fujita’s, yes.” And musingly, with a smile, she finished the statement by listing its various possible endings. “Friend? Roommate? Personal chef? I suppose the aspect of our relationship you’re most interested in is ‘partner.'”

The mercenary appeared embarrassed — probably because she was being so personable; he hadn’t expected that, and perhaps regretted his somewhat rude greeting — and simultaneously interested in his turn. “Uh, yeah,” he said, seemingly thrown off course.

“I’m Takagi Tokio,” she told him, her smile broadening. “And you, I believe, are kenkaya Zanza.”

“You’ve heard of me?” he wondered, some pleasure creeping into his tone and onto his face.

“Probably nothing to crow about,” replied Tokio. “I am a member of the police force, however ineffectual.”

His brown eyes gave her a glance up and down that was clearly exaggerated. “Ineffectual? You look like you could knock the pants off of just about anyone.” And she didn’t think the potentially flirtatious nature of this wording was an accident.

“Well…” Her grin turned wry and reluctant without much trouble, since, however facetious their exchange, this comment was entirely straightforward. “I am a woman.”

“Oh, I noticed that,” he assured her. “Anyone’d have to be blind to– oh, wait, you mean people give you shit about that.” And the pleasantly flirtatious atmosphere was abruptly dispelled.

Since this was the case, Tokio moved back toward the point. “But you didn’t come to discuss my troubles…”

The young man’s face darkened right back to its previous morose irritation, and he reached up to scratch under a bandage on his chest as if one of the hurts Hajime had done him suddenly itched in reminder. “No, I didn’t.”

“So what,” she asked again, as bright as before despite the shift in mood, “can I do for you?”

“I want to fight him again,” was Zanza’s dark answer. He added in unnecessary clarification, “Your partner.”

“That’s hardly something you need to tell me. He’s the one in charge.” Though there was a touch of irony to her tone, she managed to restrain herself from making the lengthy sarcastic follow-up comment to which she was tempted about how a woman, after all, was only an acceptable police officer if carefully kept under close male supervision, and even then only because that close male happened to be highly independent and intimidating.

Whatever, if any, of this Zanza picked up on, he did give her another once-over that seemed more aimed at actual assessment this time. “Why the hell would a nice-looking girl like you be partner to an asshole like him, anyway?”

To the attitude willing to call a woman six or seven years his senior a ‘girl’ Tokio chose not to respond. Instead she said, with a decidedly flirtatious grin this time, “So you did come to discuss my troubles.”

There was a faint answering grin on his face even as he spoke again darkly. “I mean, you seem a lot nicer than him… I wanna fight him again, but I don’t wanna have to talk to him again. So I thought maybe you could arrange it for me.”

He was cute, and she decided she liked him: a little less urbane than men she was generally interested in, but funny and very good-looking. She set down at last the print she’d been holding all this time and turned fully to face him. “And what do I get out of this?”

“Um…”

“You really can’t think of anything you could do for me?”

“Well, nothing I’d really wanna say in front of… you know…” He gestured around, and briefly at the art vendor that had listened to this entire exchange with a bemused smile. “People.”

Yes, she reflected as she laughed aloud at this statement, definitely cute. “How about this,” she said: “I set up your fight in exchange for–” here she too glanced at the merchant with a grin– “a night out sometime that would be totally appropriate to mention in front of… people.”

He seemed a bit surprised — possibly that her flirtation had been serious and not merely an idle method of amusing herself somewhat at his expense — and also a bit taken aback as he replied, “You mean, like, I pay for dinner or something?”

“You must not be…” But here Tokio’s words faded and died as she saw the abrupt change in his expression. Something just past her had caught his attention, and his entire demeanor had altered all at once: his brows lowered over suddenly widened eyes and his body tensed. She glanced to the side to see what could possibly have had this effect on him even as he reached for it: one of the prints on display at the stand they were more or less monopolizing with their stationary conversation.

Trying to read him, very curious, she stared at him as he stared at the paper in his hand. Agitation, surprise — astonishment, even — and a growing something like anger but that she believed was really just a tendency toward intense activity were all very evident in his face and bearing. And after not too long that last burst out in the form of a growlingly intense demand directed at the vendor: “Where does he live?”

“I’m–” The merchant had been listening to the conversation with benign puzzlement this whole time, and was very startled to be all of a sudden addressed. “–sorry?”

The kenkaya stepped forward and seized the front of the vendor’s kimono, hauling him up to eye level and almost bellowing, “The artist!” He had released his grip and let the man fall into an unsteady standing position before Tokio could even put out a hand to try to detach him. “The guy who made this print!” He rattled the paper in the merchant’s face. “Where does he live?”

Even as he stammered out, “Th-the Dobu Ita rowhouses,” the vendor was shooting Tokio an appealing look. She could tell, however, that Zanza meant the man no harm — was desperate, not angry — and probably wouldn’t lay hands on him again. “But he never — he never sees anyone — he barely even talks to me — I don’t know if you can–“

“He’ll see me,” Zanza interrupted in a tone of finality, and, whirling, stalked away without another word.

More curious than ever, Tokio watched his swift, purposeful steps until he turned a corner and disappeared. “Well!” she said, and with a somewhat confused smile turned back to the vendor. He hadn’t resumed his seat, but was also looking after the mystifying kenkaya with a helpless expression and a slow but ongoing shaking of the head. “What on earth was that about?” Tokio wondered next as she began searching her pockets for something with which to pay for the print Zanza had just made off with — it was either that or arrest him for theft the next time she saw him, which might ruin their planned date.

Still shaking his head, the merchant set a hand down gently on the stack of remaining prints from which Zanza had taken the one that had gotten him so worked up. “That Bakumatsu group that claimed it was a government-sponsored volunteer army — this is a portrait of the leader.” And they both looked down pensively, as he removed his hand, at the top picture in the stack. “Though now I look closer,” the merchant murmured, “this boy next to him in the picture…”

“…could possibly be a much younger Zanza,” Tokio finished, equally quiet. She began counting out coins.

“Thank you very much,” said the vendor in relief as he accepted the payment and resumed his seat, looking a bit worn out. A small pipe, extracted from a pocket, might help to soothe him once he got it filled and lit, and he focused on that task as he added, “That’s literally the first I’ve ever sold of that one. I don’t know why that artist insists on making them.”

“My guess is I’m soon going to find out.”

“Seems you’re having an interesting day.”

“And I thought this patrol was going to be boring,” Tokio grinned. Then, with a friendly nod at the merchant, she turned and bent her steps in the same direction Zanza had gone.

***

It was one of those days when people had been in and out of Saitou’s office almost nonstop as long as he’d occupied it; and while some of them were his own agents with reports (though not always particularly productive reports), the rest had been unrelated to his current case. That didn’t mean they weren’t on important business, just that they dragged his thoughts constantly from what he actually wanted to think about. So with some irritation he glanced up when the door opened yet again in the afternoon, but when he saw that the latest visitor was his wife he calmed. She wouldn’t have left her patrol if she didn’t have some important or at least interesting news for him.

Tokio smiled when she saw his expression. “You look like you’re having a lovely day,” was her greeting.

He snorted faintly. “Information on the Karashigumi is coming in at a trickle. We may have to send someone to infiltrate.”

“Or we could just concentrate on Rokumeikan and forget about the yakuza.”.

Since there really wasn’t much to say in response to that bit of mutual wishful thinking, “Why are you here?” Saitou asked.

Her smile grew into a look he recognized as intrigued amusement. “I had a run-in with that bishounen you fought the other day.” Saitou raised his brows at her word choice, but waited silently for her to continue. “He’s dead-set on fighting you again, but that’s not nearly as interesting as the rest of what I found out.”

Saitou wouldn’t have admitted it aloud, but this tantalizing beginning had him hooked. What could she have discovered that wasn’t common knowledge? The level of interest he had in learning more about Zanza was unprecedented; though he hadn’t given a great deal of thought to the young man since their battle, the few times Zanza had crossed his mind over the last several days was far more than usual for some mercenary sent by an ex-comrade to fight him.

“You’ve heard of the Sekihoutai?” she went on when he remained silent. He nodded. “Zanza was a member. Well, he must have been nine or ten years old at that point, so ‘member’ is maybe… but he was obviously close to their leader, Sagara, a sort of assistant to him; and it seems like he looked up to him like family.”

Saitou frowned. “Sagara was executed, wasn’t he?”

With a nod she confirmed, “For false promises in the name of the Ishin Shishi to win the loyalty of his volunteers.”

“But would a nine- or ten-year-old have seen it that way?”

“Exactly.” Tokio’s demeanor was a funny mix of pitying and amusedly interested. She loved this kind of emotional drama. “It explains why he’s so determined to fight you again, doesn’t it?”

It at least started to. A child might not have understood what was going on at the time, nor recognized the crimes his captain was committing; to Zanza, it must merely have appeared that the Ishin Shishi, supposedly his allies, had murdered someone he loved and respected like family. And even in the young adult of later years, though he might in hindsight better understand what had happened, the bitterness and hatred born in him earlier in life could be far stronger than any logical recognition of justice. He would have every reason to hate the government the Ishin Shishi had become, and to despise especially someone that had originally fought against it and then joined its ranks.

“How did you discover this?” Saitou asked at length.

She told him about the incident with the print, and how she’d followed Zanza to the artist’s home. “The artist — he’s going by ‘Tsukioka Tsunan,’ but Zanza calls him ‘Katsu’ — he was in the same position as Zanza as a child with the Sekihoutai. He seems just as angry as Zanza, but more focused. They kept referring to ‘Sagara-taichou’s betrayal’ and ‘the betrayal of the Sekihoutai’ — so, as you said, a nine- or ten-year-old…” When Saitou nodded his understanding, she finished, “They were still talking about the past — half nostalgia and half bitterness — when I left. I got the feeling they’re going to be reminiscing all night.”

Saitou sat back in his chair and thoughtfully lit a new cigarette, staring at nothing in particular as he took the first few long, contemplative drags. It seemed a shame to let an undeniably strong young man like Zanza run around without any purpose to his life beyond reminiscing bitterly and picking meaningless fights to scrape out a living that couldn’t possibly be worth (or, sometimes, even pay for treatment of) the damage he occasionally took from opponents like Saitou Hajime. The latter had felt the potential in those blows; some signs of their effectiveness were even visible on his face and the arms hidden by his jacket. With proper training, the kenkaya could be formidable. He wasn’t entirely stupid, either; even through his obvious anger and battle-lust, he’d still managed to throw out attempted insults, in order to achieve his ends, that had been far more effective than Saitou would have expected from him.

“You’re planning something,” Tokio remarked with a curious grin, “and in this context I’m not sure…”

“We need,” replied Saitou slowly, “to determine how best to go up against the Karashigumi.”

Tokio’s brows rose as she picked up on the idea. “Zanza would be pretty well placed for that… Joining them might not work when he’s already so high-profile, but he’s in just the right walk of life to make the right friends and find out useful information…”

“But…?” Saitou caught this unspoken word in his wife’s musing tone.

“But he’s a loose cannon,” she said bluntly, “and he already hates you.”

Saitou smiled wryly. “So we give him the second fight he wants, and then a chance at working against a corrupt agent of the government he hates so much.”

She nodded slowly. “I think it could work. It’s worth a try, at least. Any particular time you’d like to fight him again?” When he shook his head, she straightened from where she’d been propped on one gloved hand against his desk. “All right, then, I’m back to patrol. I’ll see you tonight.”

In her absence, Saitou remained leaning back in his chair, puffing at his cigarette, pondering. What little useful information he’d received so far about the Karashigumi, and what he could make of it, suddenly held no interest for him, and he thought he might take a few minutes’ break to think about this new idea before forcing himself to return to that.

As Tokio had said, recruiting Zanza as a temporary agent was at least worth a try. The mercenary was well placed for the purpose, and strong enough to take care of himself should a certain amount of trouble arise. Just how willing he would be to enter into the project was another story, since, as Tokio had also pointed out, he already seemed to have a disproportionate amount of antipathy toward Saitou; but Saitou had a feeling Zanza’s situation and attitudes could be turned to their advantage.

And it was that feeling that had him a little worried, because he feared he might be allowing his personal interest to cloud his judgment. Was he letting his desire to know more of Zanza, to make something of Zanza, and his undeniable sexual attraction to him, lead him to believe the kenkaya could be of more use to him professionally than was actually the case?

He hadn’t had a lover for years, and most of the time this didn’t bother him; or at least he believed it didn’t. But just the other evening he’d been thinking about how stripped-down his life was, how little enrichment he had… and then this incredibly attractive and intriguing young man had appeared as if on cue, as if to fill that void; it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if Saitou’s subconscious had taken that timing as a sign and started looking for ways he could involve Zanza in that bare bones of a life of his.

Why, beyond the obvious physical attraction, he should be interested in an uneducated urchin that named himself after a stupid weapon, wore tacky clothing, and engaged in meaningless combat for a living, he couldn’t be sure. Having a history of being picky about his lovers made him listen to his instincts when he did feel an interest in someone… and perhaps those instincts were compromising the others, the ones that now said he could make professional use of the young man as well.

He would simply have to be careful. At the moment there didn’t seem to be any way to divine the truth — whether he honestly believed recruiting Zanza would benefit his case, or whether certain parts of him were finding reasons to do what they hoped would further an entirely different agenda — but he’d already made the suggestion, set the thing in motion. He would fight the stubborn young man again, and he would have a thing or two to say at that time to try to get Zanza’s attitudes into better alignment with his own needs. That was probably something that needed to happen in Zanza’s life in any case, and Saitou might as well be (in fact rather wanted to be) the one to do it.

But before that (and now he wished, just a little, that he had specified time and date for the encounter so as to give himself some working space), he would forewarn himself; he would go to that fight armed with all the information he could find so as to make the best decision he possibly could about what he wanted to happen afterward — personally and in regards to the Karashigumi. That seeking this information might well be yet another thing his unprofessional desire and interest was foisting on his professionalism under the guise of a job-related need he was well aware, and not terribly concerned.

The fact was, he’d been bored half to death today playing the role of coordinating spymaster waiting around for other people to bring him news and receive updated orders; some actual research on his own, even if it involved merely heading over to one of the government offices to dig up what files there might be on this Sekihoutai he only vaguely remembered hearing about in the past, would be a vastly welcome change.

This story is a rewrite of the one I began in 2002, whose first story arc was completely finished and second well underway before I realized it needed more than just touch-ups in all its older sections. For some author’s notes on the segments in this post, please see all these Productivity Log posts.


And the Moments Drift Like Snow


Three. Hours.

Three hours, consisting each of sixty minutes, for a total of one hundred and eighty, which was ten thousand eight hundred seconds if you wanted to calculate that out — which Saitou didn’t need to, as he’d counted each as it passed. For three long hours he sat in his room, scarcely able to breathe, cold, silent, still, struggling against a deadly pattern of thought from which a brief, inadvertently well timed visit had pulled him for the course of the morning. As he found himself slipping back into it in the afternoon, he fought. Now that he had a weapon with which to combat it, the battle was fierce and attenuated.

Although he wasn’t sure exactly what he would do, he knew survival would be part of it. Now that his world had in some measure regained its wholeness, or at least now that he was seeing things in less of a miserable haze, he wondered for a second time if he’d really been serious about suicide. He believed he had, but didn’t know if even before the visit it would have been right. He didn’t quite know how he felt about anything at this point, and he hated not knowing.

But he had to see him again. It seemed he would be allowed to associate with his ex-lover, and he knew he needed to contact him as soon as possible, if only to prevent himself from going crazy or sinking back into the suicidal mindset. He wasn’t sure how he would make this happen, but he knew he must.

To court Sano before, he’d merely made a point of showing in places the roosterhead went, knowing Sano was interested in him already, counting on the combination of constant proximity and previous desire to do the trick. That wouldn’t work this time, as Himura was still likely — indeed, more likely than ever, and with good reason — to frown upon his seeking Sano’s company.

He didn’t know what to think of Himura. He knew exactly how he felt about him — he hated him, and that wouldn’t be changing any time soon — but wasn’t sure how he should react to the choices that man had made. Naturally he couldn’t be pleased with the seemingly selfish decision to withhold from Sano the entire truth about their relationship — but how much that decision pleased Saitou was not the issue; whether or not it had been the right course was the important thing. Just because Himura had probably jumped at the chance to keep Saitou out of Sano’s heart, in order to attempt to put himself there, didn’t necessarily mean he had the wrong idea about Sano being better off without Saitou in his life.

The officer still wasn’t sure who had informed his former lover of their previous ‘friendship,’ but, given his belief in Kenshin as the mastermind behind the neat deception currently being inflicted on Sano, Saitou had to think that half-lie, like the rest, had had at least its origins with the rurouni. And why? Himura must disapprove, and to give his rival such a second chance… why? Saitou doubted it was out of kindness toward him, but perhaps it had been out of kindness toward Sano. Did he dare hope Sano missed him somehow, perhaps not knowing what he lacked, and that Himura had been driven, eventually, to that carefully curated form of the real story in order to placate him?

More likely it was a reminder from Himura to keep quiet about the truth.

And maybe he’d jumped to a false conclusion anyway in assuming Kenshin wanted Sano. Maybe he’d been thinking too jealously, had misread the looks, had attributed to desire what was merely natural protectiveness. Perhaps the rurouni’s motives were purer than Saitou thought, and his discernment should therefore be lent that much more credence — certainly more than Saitou’s heavily biased judgment. He didn’t know. Normally he would trust his instincts in such a matter, but he found he couldn’t bring himself to rely on his own understanding at the moment. He just couldn’t be sure.

That was what it came down to: he didn’t know that Himura wasn’t entirely correct in the way he was handling this. And as Saitou had turned Sano over to Himura’s care in the one hour when Sano had been unable to care for himself — that is, the one hour when Saitou, as his lover, might have been justified in making decisions on his behalf — he felt he’d waived his right to protest. A lover’s rights would not ordinarily be so lightly repealed, but he’d given up that status as well when he’d put Sano into Kenshin’s arms.

Eventually it seemed best to let Himura have his way — at least temporarily — and to keep up with the deception that catered to Sano’s repression. If Saitou could spend some time with Sano, as it appeared he would be allowed to, he could hopefully, through observation, form a less clouded opinion of the rightness of the situation and plan his actions accordingly.

And meanwhile, at the very least, Sano would still be a part of his life, something he’d feared was impossible. At least he had that to keep him alive.

This same life, he was reflecting in response to a sense of duty that at the moment he found almost painful, was something he should really be getting back to… now he’d decided he was definitely going to be living it.

They rarely questioned his actions at the station. As a matter of fact, though they unfailingly greeted him when he entered and said goodbye when he left and jumped to answer any question he might have or follow any order he might give, few of them there were even willing to look him in the eye. So his return to work, even after so many days’ absence, went unchallenged. Two or three gazes followed him into his office, but nobody said a word.

“Hey, boss, where you been?” Chou greeted him, glancing up from whatever he was doing, which looked to be essentially nothing. “Chief told me to send you his way whenever you showed up.”

Saitou nodded, casting dull eyes around at the room. Rousing himself after several long moments, he asked, “Any progress?”

“Actually, maybe yes,” Chou replied, beginning to dig through a nearby stack of papers.

It was with unexpectedly engaged attention that Saitou stepped forward to see what Chou might have found, and he realized he had subconsciously been steeling himself for a future devoid of all interest consequent upon the loss of Sano. The discovery that he was still intrigued by, still felt a sense of purpose concerning the issues he dealt with in his job was both reassuring and painful. On the one hand, the fire of Aku Soku Zan, whatever color it burned these days, was gratifying and familiar heat. On the other hand, Sano had meant more to him even than that, and it felt like betrayal to be taking comfort in another pleasure, to find something else meaningful, however important it had always been and still was to him.

Eventually, as he started to fall back into the customary pattern of work, Chou’s initial statement — that the chief wanted to speak to him — registered in his mind. This was something he would not so easily have forgotten had he been mentally on top of things, and he wondered how long it would take him to get it together. He wouldn’t lie to himself; it was entirely possible that would never happen.

The police chief was merely suffering from acute curiosity about Saitou’s orders concerning the arsonist. Considering the situation’s less-than-brilliant resolution and Saitou’s disappearance in the midst of the action, this was understandable. With forced composure and fighting off desperate unhappiness Saitou informed him it had been in pursuit of a lead regarding his current case. That was enough for the chief, who knew full well Saitou had duties separate from and often superseding precinct business, and it was also the truth, but Saitou still didn’t like to be reminded of the fact that everything had been his fault.

Moving slowly back to his own office from that unpleasant interview, wherein his conscience had berated him while his superior had not a word of reproof, it occurred to him it would probably be wise to tell Chou at least part of what had happened. With the broom-head’s tendency to run his mouth, Saitou couldn’t count on chance to keep Sano away or the secrets safe. Even if he did decide Sano needed to be told the truth, he wouldn’t want it done haphazardly by Chou.

Then, maybe he just wanted to talk about it with someone. He didn’t like that thought — it made him feel very weak — but he wasn’t going to deny the possibility. And maybe he was weak. He wouldn’t deny that one either.

Weeks were passing with their usual quickness, hastening toward winter, and Sano was dissatisfied with his life. At times he even felt downright unhappy. He supposed this was natural for someone with as large a memory gap as he had, but (also naturally) he didn’t want to accept it at that and just continue placidly living on the border of sorrow.

He’d sensed all along, and far from indistinctly, that there was something his friends weren’t telling him, but his brain had exhausted itself trying to guess what kind of thing it might be. Kenshin had absolutely refused to open up, maneuvering his way out of every conversation on the topic with a slickness Sano would not (but probably should) have expected of him. So continuing to conjecture that this big secret was something of which Kenshin did not approve seemed to be a good line of thinking.

But what could it be? He’d already logically ruled out nearly everything he could come up with. So, since the only thing Kenshin made any overt signs of disapproving was Saitou, Sano assumed the secret pertained to him — or at least that Saitou also knew what it was, and Kenshin worried he might reveal it.

Therefore, sensibly, Sano spent as much time with the police officer as he could.

It was a little amusing and a little disturbing how startled Saitou seemed the first few times Sano showed up — amusing because he’d rarely seen Saitou startled, disturbing because, damn! had he really been sick enough that for someone to see him walking around alive and well could be consistently shocking? Other than that surprise, Saitou didn’t seem to mind Sano randomly appearing at his side at any given time; and that Saitou made no discernable objection stood as fairly convincing evidence they really had been friends before (which Sano at first couldn’t quite bring himself to believe): there was no way the man would put up with Sano’s near-stalking if he regarded him with nothing more than tolerance.

Yet Saitou was different than Sano remembered him. His previous intensity was… not gone, Sano had corrected his initial assessment after a few meetings, but restrained somehow. This, even when Saitou was at work or tossing unusually mild insults in Sano’s direction, left him with something like placidity, even gentleness, that seemed unnatural.

Puzzling and sometimes disconcerting as this must be to Sano, it was yet another sign that they could have been friends. On the other hand, any particular friendliness, which might naturally be expected as typical of such a relationship, seemed likewise withheld. Actually, every aspect of the personality Saitou presented these days felt characterized by restraint.

Was that part of the secret, then? But why would Kenshin disapprove of a restrained Saitou? Of the man Sano remembered — of the stabbing, the offenses, the general lack of respect — perhaps… but with a wolf so subdued, what could be the problem?

Well, the fact was, if Kenshin wasn’t prepared to tell him, in any kind of satisfying detail, why associating with Saitou was unwise, no way in hell would Sano stay away. Beyond his initial motive of hoping to absorb information, he found himself too curious about the alteration that had come over a man he’d always thought the essence of stability.

Besides, after the disbelief in their friendship had at last worn off, he’d come to realize he liked Saitou, changed though he was.



It had never been Saitou’s habit, before, to alter his routine for something as inconsequential as winter weather… but this year, for whatever reason (as if he really didn’t know), he couldn’t stand the cold, and had taken to spending his lunch breaks at an indoor restaurant rather than the open-air stands he usually favored. And somehow Sano had discovered where this was and taken to joining him there not infrequently.

It still made Saitou’s heart pound every time Sano showed up, as if the sight of him were startling, even shocking. And watching him walk casually over to the booth, slide his shoes off, and sit down without ever realizing that his every movement was torment to the watcher, Saitou wondered how long he could last keeping regular company with him. It was a daily struggle not to pour out his entire heart and the protracted story of the past two years to the ignorant young man.

And maybe one of these days he would; he had yet to decide.

At the moment he still leaned toward letting things run their current course, the reason for this being that Sano didn’t seem unhappy. That made it no easier to buy him lunch day after day and try to keep himself from seizing him and declaring he would never let him go again, never let anyone else have him.

“Funny thing…” Sano had obviously noticed something unusual about their interaction. “Most people, when you say you’re friends with ’em, it means you’re nice to each other and shit… but with you, it’s more like you’re just refraining from killing me or something.”

“‘Or something?'” Saitou echoed mildly.

Sano shrugged. “I can’t figure out whether you still hate me and are just pretending not to, or what.”

Saitou struggled to keep the bitterness from his laugh as he wondered, “If I hated you, why would I bother hiding it?” That would make about as much sense as loving you and hiding it.

“Guess this is as nice as you get, then, huh?” speculated Sano in a jovially insulting tone.

“Be careful, or I might decide even that’s too nice.”

“I wouldn’t put it past you! And, hell, at least you don’t treat me like Kenshin does.”

“Oh? How is that?” Saitou hated Himura more than anything else in the world, hated it when Sano brought him up in conversation, hated the very sound of his name… but couldn’t be anything but desperately curious what complaint Sano might have about Kenshin’s treatment of him.

But Sano merely shrugged again. “I can’t figure him out either. He probably just treats me funny because I was so sick.”

Or because he wants you, Saitou suggested silently, grimly. The doubts he’d once entertained about Himura’s intentions toward Sano were by now completely gone; everything Sano had said about the man since that time confirmed this. And it made keeping quiet all the more difficult. Sano was right — Saitou was refraining from killing; it was just that Sano wouldn’t be the victim of choice if he were to let himself go.

What he said aloud was, “I think you like the extra attention.”

“Hell, no! Everyone’s always acting all careful around me, like I might fall apart or something… and they’re all so sorry for me. Losing a couple years’ worth of memory is shit, but I’m not made of fucking glass.”

“I’ve hit you enough times to believe that,” Saitou nodded. “And I’m glad to hear you’re dealing with this better than your friends expect.”

Sano sighed and leaned back, putting his hands behind his head and looking thoughtfully annoyed. “Well, I guess it’s really just Kenshin, actually,” he corrected himself. “And you, of course, but you’re different.”

“Am I?”

“Yeah… Kenshin treats me different than I remember, but you are different than I remember.”

“Am I?” Saitou repeated.

“Yeah… either something happened to you over the last two years that changed you, or I just didn’t know you all that well before.”

“People do change,” Saitou said with some difficulty. If I have, it’s because of you. Although at the moment what Sano was probably sensing was merely Saitou’s struggle to keep up the charade, not the natural metamorphosis of seven hundred and seventy-odd days. “Two years is a long time.”

Kenshin’s the same… I’m pretty much the same…”

“Don’t be too sure. Not on either count.”

“Why do you say that? You think we’ve changed a lot?”

The tone of that question was a little too eager, and it made Saitou pause before answering. Why did it seem Sano was fishing for information? Surely, ever direct as he was, Sano would simply ask if there was something he really wanted to know? Or did he assume Saitou wouldn’t tell him just as Himura wouldn’t tell him? But that would imply he was resorting to guile to get answers — and Saitou doubted that of Sano… at the very least, he would ask directly before attempting to employ artifice. Of course, Saitou could merely be reading him wrong; Sano could really just be eager to hear the answer to that question for its own sake.

Why couldn’t he be certain about anything anymore? Why did he have to question himself at every turn?

Because he’d been certain, so damned perfectly sure of himself, a month and a half ago, and it had cost him everything.

“You’ll have to watch for the changes yourself,” he forced out at last, adding in an attempt to take the focus off his long silence, “if you think you’ve changed enough in the head to recognize them.”

Sano stared at Saitou as he made this statement, wondering… not only did the words remind him only a very little of the Saitou he remembered, they also lacked the vigor that would previously have marked them. Beyond that, something else was missing… what was it?

Saitou raised an eyebrow at Sano’s unbroken gaze and lack of response.

“Oh,” Sano explained, even as he realized what it was, “I think I just figured out why you’re not as good at insulting me as you used to be!”

Saitou’s expression remained quizzical.

“Cutting remarks just don’t have the same edge without you waving a cigarette around as you say them. What happened, djyou quit? Speaking of changing…”

Saitou nodded without offering any explanation.

“Your teeth start to rot out?” Sano prodded.

With only the mildest of scowls Saitou replied shortly, “I don’t like smoke as much as I used to.”

That seemed an odd answer, but instead of pursuing it directly Sano mused, “I wonder about that whole smoking thing… How did it ever get started, anyway? What idiot first decided that breathing smoke was a good idea? It comes from some plant, right? Who picked the plant and thought, ‘I wonder what would happen if I burned this and breathed the smoke!’ Seems fucking idiotic to me. It’s one thing to– what?” He’d looked across the table to find Saitou staring at him with a hint of the same startlement Sano had previously found so entertaining.

Saitou shook his head with a slight smile. “It’s just odd to hear you say that as if you’ve never said it before.”

“When did I say it before?”

Saitou seemed to calculate days in his head before answering, “May of the year before last, I believe. You were trying to argue me into quitting.”

“Did it work?” Sano wondered eagerly. “Is that when you quit?”

“Unfortunately, no.” And again with the lack of explanation.

“But I had you half convinced, right?” Sano grinned, then spoke again before Saitou could even attempt to deny it: “So when did you quit?”

“Recently.”

“You really don’t want to tell me anything about this, do you?”

“Why do you find it so interesting?”

“Well, it’s not the most exciting thing I’ve ever discussed, but it seems like you specifically don’t want to talk about it. You hiding something, or what?”

“Yes, ahou, the dark and scarring secret of the cigarettes.”

Even with the ahou, Sano had to laugh. It wasn’t as if he thought he’d really been following a lead or something with this branch of the conversation.

“It’s one thing to accept a cigarette from someone who tells you, ‘Try this; it’s nice.’ If they’re your friend, you take their word for it and try it, and — if you’re like you — it is nice, and then you can’t stop, and you bug the hell out of your boyfriend with the nasty things forever more. That I can understand. But who the hell goes around burning shit and breathing over the fire?”

“Hn.”

“Seriously! If I went around picking plants and burning them and telling people to breathe the smoke–“

“I have to admit I see your point.”

“–hell, trying to charge people to breathe the smoke — they wouldn’t pay for it, they’d–“

“And having made your point, you can shut up now.”

“–throw me in a fucking asylum! But some guy whenever over in America somewhere–“

“I admit that smoking is one of the stupidest things anyone can do.”

“–instead of people calling him crazy and stupid like he was for thinking — wait, what?”

“Yes, smoking is stupid. Cigarettes are stupid. Much like you rambling on about it when there are so many more interesting things we could be doing.”

“So you admit I’m right?! Does that mean you’ll give them up? Wait…” Sano looked around, not failing to note their solitary state. “What more interesting things?”

Saitou’s answer was to latch his mouth onto Sano’s shoulder — he couldn’t kiss his lips, as this conversation had originally been prompted by the cigarette he’d just been smoking — slide his hands down the young man’s body, and silence him quite effectively, at least on the topic of tobacco.

Saitou sighed quietly, watching Sano chuckle at his remark about the dark and scarring secret and wanting to do here and now just what he’d done back then. How am I supposed to keep this up? he wondered hopelessly. He’d better get around to resolving for certain how he felt about maintaining this secrecy, and quickly.


Saitou had been right: Sano wasn’t the same as he’d been two years ago. Well, that was logical; he should have agreed at the time. But of course he had always to figure things out on his own. He’d realized this one upon coming to recognize a sensation he’d been feeling lately that he’d certainly never felt before the lost time: restlessness for lack of anything to do. This was utterly baffling. As far as he could remember, he liked nothing better than to lie around on someone’s porch all day completely idle, but now he couldn’t stay still for very long, had to have something to keep him occupied.

He could only guess he must have developed something like a work ethic over the past two years and it was plaguing him now. Why this had happened he could not begin to guess. Kenshin had told him Kaoru had compelled him to work to pay at least a semblance of rent to her, and to help with repairs — but had he really come to like it? Become addicted to activity because Kaoru insisted?

Whatever the cause, the result was that he now found himself performing odd grunt jobs around town on a near-daily basis, and more money in his pocket at any given time than he (thought he) was accustomed to. It still puzzled him. Additionally, he couldn’t lounge around the dojo as he had in the past. Either he had to be assisting somebody there with chores or whatnot, or he ended up wandering away in search of something else to do.

This was the case one chilly afternoon when he found himself discontented, within a mere half an hour, with the pastime of restfully drinking tea after having helped Kenshin bring the clean laundry inside.

“You are leaving already?” Kenshin looked up from whatever he was folding.

“Yeah…” Sano stretched his arms and back as he headed out. “I’m gonna go see what Saitou’s up to.”

“Sano, I would like to talk to you about something, if you wouldn’t mind staying.” It sounded more like a command than a request, which was irksome. And Sano believed he knew what Kenshin wanted to talk to him about, too. Again.

“Yeah, yeah, I know you don’t like him or like me hanging out with him… I don’t really need to be lectured about it even more.” Sano waved an irritated hand at Kenshin as his steps toward the door did not slow.

“Sano, I love you.”

That, of course, was enough to halt Sano dead in his tracks.

“I have always loved you.”

“K-Kenshin…” He couldn’t turn. There was simply no way he could look Kenshin in the face, having just heard those words. “Are you serious?”

Of course Kenshin was serious. As if Kenshin would joke about something like that. At least, so Sano interpreted the silence behind him.

“Well…”

He really had to answer this, didn’t he? Not that Kenshin had asked anything outright, but the statement had been as good as a question.

“Look…”

There was a strange feeling in the pit of his stomach… almost sick, he thought… he didn’t quite understand it. How was he supposed to say this?

“Kenshin, I’m…”

Kenshin finally spoke again. “Sano, can you love me?” And how could he ask that so calmly?! A question like that, really! shouldn’t sound so damn placid.

“I–” The substance of his answer was obvious — a yes-or-no query laid out for him so neatly like that — but the wording was a bit more difficult if he didn’t want to be a complete asshole about it. Finally he settled for, “I’m sorry, Kenshin.”

He still couldn’t look back, and this silence couldn’t be interpreted as easily as the previous. Had he crushed him? Was Kenshin surprised? Hurt? Sano wasn’t sure he wanted to add guilt to his current discomfort, and therefore turning around must be out of the question. But Kenshin continued to say nothing. What could Sano do? This had been so unexpected and, honestly, unwelcome…

“I’m sorry,” he repeated as he left in a hurry. And he had no real idea where he was going.

This explained very adequately Kenshin’s odd treatment of him lately. Actually, he wondered how he could possibly have failed to consider this a viable answer before. Probably because he would never have wanted to think Kenshin had been in love with him for years and was just now telling him. Well, that Kenshin loved him at all.

And why should that feel so wrong, anyway? It was hardly unnatural for a man to fall in love with his friend… Sano didn’t think so lowly of himself to be amazed it had happened… And it wasn’t as if he was obligated to reciprocate; Kenshin was reasonable, and would certainly understand that his feelings were not returned. It was unfortunate Kenshin must suffer, but such things happened in life… none of this was unusual. So, really, why did it seem so completely inappropriate?

Of course there could be no staying at the dojo after that. It was perfect, just perfect, that Kenshin had said what he had on the day leading to the first intolerably cold night of the year — when Sano couldn’t just find a secluded spot or quiet corner to curl up in, but actually had to locate someplace with a roof and walls and a welcome. And as he was not in the mood to wrack his brains, Saitou’s house seemed most convenient to fill the first two requirements at least.

There was no answer to his knock, but that was just as well: he could explain his freeloading better once he’d warmed up and settled down. And maybe Saitou wasn’t coming home tonight, gone on business or something, and Sano wouldn’t have to worry about explaining at all. It took a few tries to pick the lock, and he was inside.

“Freezing in here too,” he muttered, and why did that seem so sadly appropriate? Fortunately, there was wherewithal on the hearth to build a fire, which he soon had in order; the only thing missing was matches. Sano looked around, puzzled. Matches were not something he would have thought Saitou’s house would be deficient in. But, then, he remembered, the man had quit smoking. Still, matches near the firewood seemed logical, didn’t it?

He went into the next room, the bedroom, and continued his search. This was a nice modern house, for all it was so small, with those fancy self-striking lamps and everything, but there had to be matches somewhere… unless Saitou had gotten rid of all of them to keep himself from lighting cigarettes with them? Sano had heard quitting was difficult, so that explanation could make sense. But there had been signs of a fire on the hearth recently, and, fanciful as Sano was, he didn’t think Saitou had lit it with those burning eyes of his…

He was about to close the standing cabinet that seemed much too large for what appeared to be all the clothing Saitou owned, when his eye caught on something that, though not likely to contain matches, still seized his attention: a small wooden box tucked away at the back of an empty shelf.

Don’t pry, Sano, he was telling himself. It’s absolutely none of your business. But despite the timely manner in which he’d recognized and attempted to discourage his nosy intentions, the box was already open in his hand.

And something was… wrong…

It was merely a pair of matching golden rings. He had never seen them before… that he could remember… but he must have… otherwise what could be so totally riveting, so very nearly appalling, about objects so plain, so insignificant?

Something was definitely wrong. His chest suddenly hurt, and as he stared at his hand and what it contained, a strange feeling very much like despair rushed through him. He didn’t know what was happening, why he was now on his knees clutching the little box so fiercely, or how he could be gripped with such inexplicable anguish, but it frightened and disturbed him and sent shivers throughout his entire body.

He recalled with an abrupt hastening of the already-painful pounding in his heart the gesture he made sometimes and had never previously understood: the twisting motion around one of his fingers, as if he were wearing a ring. A ring like these? Possibly one of these? The latter option didn’t make sense, but otherwise why was he so very worked up?

And at that moment Saitou entered the room.

“What are you…” The semi-irritated tone in which he began faded just before the words failed as he stepped fully inside and went completely still.

The consideration that perhaps Sano was trespassing onto very personal territory and Saitou might now, justifiably, be very upset with him only barely crossed his mind. As he set the box down hurriedly and staggered to his feet, all he knew was that the expression on Saitou’s face — nearly blank but for the hint of something a little like surprise — was somehow… just… unbearable. It rendered a previously uncomfortable scene overwhelmingly unpleasant, all the more so because Sano had no idea why.

Somehow finding movement difficult, Sano stumbled out the door as quickly as he could, gasping as he did so, “I think I’m sick…” This was a plausible excuse for his hasty exit as well as a decent explanation for why he felt so strange and distressed, but he didn’t believe it and wasn’t sure even why he’d said it. Saitou gave neither word nor gesture to stop him.

He broke into a run immediately outside the house, with no idea where he was going, only the determination to outdistance his pain and confusion. When he felt the tears on his face, however, he stopped.

Crying?! Sinking to the ground against some wall near which he found himself, he put his head in his hands. How could he be crying? Wasn’t he a grown man? What was there here to cry about? The last time he could remember having cried was…

But he should really stop looking to his memory to help him make sense of things. Because that’s what this was about, wasn’t it? It had to be: whatever it was he didn’t remember, whatever Kenshin hadn’t told him. Something about Saitou.

From that night on he knew no peace. Whereas before he’d been living merely at the edge of sorrow, now he dwelt in it day after incomprehensible day. Previously his attitude about this had been relatively casual, as if recovering his memories were a game of sorts… now, frustrated and nearly distraught as he thought about that unexpectedly upsetting discovery, he could not treat the matter so lightly.

The Tokyo friends he remembered were gone or nowhere to be found, doubtless drawn away over the last two years by the demands of chance. Kenshin might even have reminded him who had gone where, but at the moment Sano was still pushing thoughts of Kenshin uncomfortably away. He wasn’t even sure where or how he spent the next several nights, since most of his time was devoted to a search of the blackness in his head — a fruitless search. The only thing he could come up with, besides a headache, was the hazy image of a ring on his finger… but was that real memory, or wishful imagination?

When he found himself outside Saitou’s lunch restaurant one day at about the right time, he wondered if his feet didn’t know better than his brain what the next step was. Saitou had never been particularly forthcoming about the issue either, but Sano realized he’d never really asked him very direct or specific questions the way he had Kenshin. Newly hopeful, he went inside.

“I haven’t seen you for a while,” Saitou remarked carefully as Sano slid into the booth across from him.

“I’ve been avoiding everyone,” admitted Sano.

Saitou said nothing, wary, as if waiting for further explanation before he spoke.

“Tell me,” Sano demanded quietly.

“Tell you what?”

“Everything. Everything I don’t know. Everything about those two years I’m missing that nobody thinks I need to know. What’s with those rings? Why did I… freak out… like that, looking at them? And where do you come into all of this?”

Saitou gazed at him very seriously for a long moment, then turned his face away and remarked so softly that he might not have been addressing Sano at all, “I no longer trust myself.” Looking back at his companion, “I can’t tell you,” he said.

The younger man drew breath to protest, but checked his exclamation. If Saitou didn’t trust his own judgment… this was serious. Not that he’d thought it wasn’t, but that revelation did a lot to drive it home. He closed his mouth and frowned.

“What I will tell you,” Saitou said heavily, as if pondering each word before and even as he spoke it, “is this: what you’ve forgotten, you don’t remember because you don’t want to. Nobody but you has the right to decide whether or not you should remember it, but at the same time, nobody but you can recover it. If you really want to remember, you can and you will; I can’t give your memory back to you…” Then, almost as if speaking against his will, he added more quietly and with a touch of bitterness, “…and he can’t keep it from you.”

“You mean Kenshin?”

Saitou looked away again, but did not manage to conceal from Sano the brief flash of absolute hatred that passed across his face.

Sano attempted to puzzle through this out loud. “Obviously there’s something there… something that happened… something really bad… or nobody would mind telling me anything I wanted to know. And you say I’d remember on my own if there wasn’t something like that I wanted to forget.”

Saitou, his eyes still turned from Sano, nodded stiffly.

“And it has something to do with you.”

Saitou stood abruptly. “I won’t play guessing games with you. If you want those two years badly enough to face what has to come with them, you’ll let yourself remember.”

“Dammit, Saitou, you’re just–” But the older man was gone before Sano could finish his sentence, leaving him with a sudden chill in his heart that simultaneously angered and pained him. Why had Saitou turned so cold so suddenly? Why had those last words seemed so harsh? Had Sano been right, then, that whatever the big secret was concerned Saitou, more closely than he’d been speculating all along? And was it true the answer lay within his own mind?

“Bastard,” he muttered as he stood and looked to the door, but the remark held little energy. Glancing back down, he realized with a start that Saitou had left not only in the middle of his soba but without even paying for it. Hoping vaguely that he had enough on him to cover it, Sano wondered what in the world could be so upsetting as to distract that man that much. And once again, as Saitou had suggested, did the answer lie somewhere within reach inside Sano’s head?

He’s probably right, Sano reflected as he paid the bill (by a hair) and left the restaurant. Dismissing as annoying the quieter mental voice that added, He’s usually right, he decided it couldn’t hurt to put Saitou’s theory to the test.

Well… it could hurt. But supposedly ignorance could kill.



And here he was at the dojo again. He hadn’t set foot here in over a week, not since Kenshin’s disconcerting confession, and he wasn’t entirely sure he really wanted to be here now. Something about what Kenshin had said just gave him unpleasant goose-bumps. It was faintly disturbing, having that kind of reaction to your best friend, but Sano had no control over it; feeling vaguely uncomfortable was the best he could do.

Remembering on his own hadn’t worked. Sorry, Saitou, you were wrong, he reflected ruefully as he stared at the dojo’s outer doors, trying to bring himself to open them. He didn’t know what he would or could say to Kenshin to get any more information than he’d ever gotten before, but retrieving the missing pieces of his past had become paramount… he had to crawl free of this growing depression.

He steeled himself and went inside.

Yahiko looked up from where he was raking soggy leaves into a pile, and Sano observed, “You should have done that before it snowed.”

“Yeah, no shit,” the kid grumbled.

“Where’s Kenshin?”

“In his room, I think.”

“Thanks.”

As he made his way toward the aforementioned, Sano tried to figure out what he would say. Kenshin had always resisted him quite expertly before, and Sano didn’t excel at speaking cleverly. Unfortunately, he hadn’t come up with much by the time he knocked.

“Come in, Sano.”

Kenshin sat very still, appearing as if Sano was interrupting him staring at the walls. “Hey, Kenshin,” Sano greeted him a little nervously.

“It’s been a while.” Was it really necessary for Kenshin to gaze at him so steadfastly, so attentively? It was unsettling. The younger man scratched his head as he sat down, already at a loss for words.

“Sano,” Kenshin said quietly, “I am sorry if I made you uncomfortable the last time you were here.”

Sano cleared his throat. “That’s… all right…” A very awkward, wordless moment followed, thickening ice that it was a struggle to break. But eventually Sano managed it. “I wanted to ask you about the last two years.”

“Oh?” Kenshin’s tone seemed guarded.

“Lately… it’s getting really important to me to figure this out, and I feel like there’s some bullshit I really need to get out of the way.”

“What do you mean?” Still that wariness of voice. If Sano had needed any further confirmation of some secret in his past, this would have been enough.

“I didn’t lose my memory because I was sick, did I.”

After a very long silence Kenshin answered softly, “No, you didn’t.”

“Why is everyone lying to me?”

Kenshin’s eyes dropped to the floor as he replied, “Because we all want what is best for you. We thought it would be easier this way.”

“Do you know that’s what’s best for me? You’re a really smart guy, Kenshin, but can you really say what’s best for another person?”

Appearing just slightly uneasy, Kenshin seemed unable to decide how to reply.

Sano went on. “Saitou said… well, suggested… the reason I don’t remember is because something shitty happened at some point and I’m repressing it… and that if I want to remember it, I will.”

“Has Saitou not yet learned his lesson about meddling in your life?” The tone of Kenshin’s voice was quiet and possibly the most bitter Sano had ever heard from him.

“So it is something to do with him. I don’t remember you guys hating each other as much as you do now… what the fuck happened with him? Did he…” But Sano couldn’t come up with a single idea of what Saitou could have done that would be so bad the memory of it would need to be repressed… at least, nothing Saitou would have gotten away with. Or that would result in nothing more than disapproval from Kenshin.

“Sano, I am not going to play guessing games with you. It’s just better you don’t know.”

“Kenshin, that’s not good enough!” Sano jumped to his feet as the anger that had been building this entire time finally broke surface. “Who are you to decide whether or not I should know something that happened in my own fucking past? Is it something so horrible it’s worse than anything any other human has had to deal with in all history? If not, why not just let me deal with it? For once can’t you let me carry my own fucking weight? You don’t have to protect me, you don’t have to feel responsible for me… you don’t… I’m my own person…” Sano was running out of things to say, and Kenshin’s unhappy placidity wasn’t helping.

When the younger man had finally fallen silent, Kenshin said quietly, “There are some things people should not have to bear, and this is one of them. If I can spare you the pain of it, I will. I cannot stand to lose you again.”

“‘Again?'”

Kenshin just shook his head.

“Kenshin!” Sano’s voice was rising despite all his attempts to keep the anger out of it. “Can’t you ever… what, do you think I’m not strong enough? It always comes back to that! Why do you think you’d ‘lose me’ or whatever? How can it be that bad?”

“Sano, the last time you recovered this memory, you tried to kill yourself. I am not going to let that happen again.”

Sano let out a long breath of surprise and irritation, but could think of no further argument and therefore lapsed into several moments’ silence as he stared down at his friend. Could he ever have guessed a time would come when Saitou’s words, Saitou’s treatment of him, would seem more reasonable than Kenshin’s? When Saitou would have more faith in him than Kenshin did? Clearly if he wanted answers, this was not the place to find them. He turned toward the door.

“Sano…” Kenshin began, uncertain and appealing.

Forcing himself to speak calmly again, to spare his friend’s feelings, whatever they were, Sano said, “I’ll see you around.”

“Sano, please trust me,” Kenshin murmured, and he sounded so miserable that Sano had to turn and regard him. And the expression on his friend’s face drained the anger out of him and left him cold. Unfair as his behavior seemed, Kenshin did care about him and really was, probably, trying to spare him pain as best he could. Sano just didn’t want any such efforts, any more than he wanted the affection that prompted them.

“Kenshin, there’s a lot of people in the world, I bet, who’d be glad to let you make this choice for them. But I’m not like that. So if you’re not gonna tell me, I’ll go to someone who will.”

Kenshin’s brows twitched downward, and he looked for a moment as if he might say something very emotional, let something slip, perhaps — no doubt in response to the implication that Sano was going again to talk to Saitou — but eventually did not even open his mouth. This was at first frustrating… but it also gave Sano the beginnings of an idea.

If neither of them will straight-out tell me, he reflected as he left the dojo and the sad-eyed rurouni behind, maybe I can trick it out of one of them…

Saitou seemed the obvious choice. He didn’t disapprove of the general idea of Sano recovering his memory — only insisted Sano do it on his own — and had, of the two men, been easier to deal with lately — especially given Kenshin’s revelation — and more reasonable on the subject. Whether or not Sano could adequately deceive such a man was a matter of question, but he considered it worth an attempt if it meant he could get rid of this damned incessant curiosity and confusion and the pain that came with.

He had to steel himself before approaching, prepare himself for the kind of subterfuge he planned. He didn’t like deliberately lying to his friends; it didn’t seem fair. And the fact that his own situation was also unfair, that Kenshin and others were deliberately lying to him, made things no easier, because Saitou didn’t seem to be a part of that. But what else could he do? This was his last idea.

“Saitou!” he called out to him, running to catch up as Saitou was evidently walking home from work.

“Hello,” was all the other said.

Walking beside him, Sano took a deep breath. “So I was at the dojo earlier…” He let the sentence hang unfinished, knowing Saitou’s hatred of Kenshin and incomprehensible concern with Sano’s memory issue would eat at him until he demanded,

“And?”

“And Kenshin finally told me everything.”

Saitou stopped walking, stiffening where he stood, motionless as a statue, in visible shock. He was silent for so long that Sano was beginning to think he would never speak again, when he finally repeated, “And?” in an unnaturally quiet tone.

“And…” What to say now? It was what he wanted, but why did it seem he had the officer’s attention more completely than he’d ever had it before? Why was this matter so important to Saitou? “I understand now why you didn’t want to tell me,” he finished.

“Do you remember?” Saitou asked.

“I’m getting bits and pieces of it back when I think about things he said,” Sano replied cautiously. “There’s some stuff I still can’t remember, though… Kenshin said I tried to kill myself before, but… was I…” How could he put this to get the most informative answer? “Was I really that weak?”

“Stronger spirits than yours have been broken by an experience like that…” Saitou faced away from him, and his speech was still oddly soft and perhaps even a little uncomfortable. “But I don’t think you would even have considered it if you hadn’t remembered… the way you did.” What was that tone? Guilt? From Saitou? This was so unfathomable it hurt — what part had Saitou played in whatever had happened to Sano?! “Most people have time to deal with something like that, instead of having it overwhelm them all at once.”

“I’m not mad at you,” Sano found himself saying… and although it seemed the perfect next line in the conversation, in response to that guilt, he was surprised to realize that the statement arose more from a desire to… comfort Saitou… than anything else. That was decidedly odd.

“Sano–” Saitou, who had with the word turned suddenly to look at him, cut himself short. And what was that expression on his face? Finally, after studying Sano for several moments, Saitou said in a calmer tone, “What are you going to do now?”

It was a good question. Sano feared that with Saitou looking into his eyes as he was — looking hard, as if searching for something, searching avidly — he wouldn’t be able to lie any more. But still he’d found out so little… only that the spirit-breaking experience he was repressing was something he’d already brought out of repression once before (though Kenshin had said something indicating this as well); that Saitou hypothesized it was the suddenness of his previous recollection of it, not necessarily the memory itself, that had caused his attempt at suicide. And that Saitou really had had something to do with it… or, at least, had been there the first time Sano had remembered? Felt terribly guilty about it in some way..? This was just too confusing. “I need to think,” he finally answered both Saitou and himself. Still a trifle afraid Saitou might detect his deception, he turned as if to walk away as he added, “A lot.”

“Sano…” It was the second time he’d heard Saitou say his name within a few moments, and Saitou never called him by his name. Sano hadn’t thought he would ever find Saitou so emotionally involved in something as the man seemed to be in this… and why was it that when he did get the chance to see so rare an occurrence, he couldn’t understand it no matter how hard he tried?! “Did Himura tell you… all about the last two years?”

Maybe he would, after all, get more information out of this conversation. “Yeah, just about everything,” he replied, glad his back was turned.

“Are you…” Had he ever heard Saitou so uncertain before? He didn’t think so. He wouldn’t have thought it possible. “I…”

“I’m not mad at you,” Sano said again, and although there was nothing he could think of for which he should be mad at Saitou and therefore the statement should logically be meaningless, for some reason he found himself putting his entire soul into the phrase.

“Is that all?”

Why did it feel like the rest of his life was riding on the answer to that question? Why did he have to be caught in the middle of a stupid riddle game nobody would play by the rules? It wasn’t fair. “Like I said,” he finally settled on, “I need to think.”

And why did he feel, then, as if he’d said exactly the wrong thing?

Only impenetrable silence lay behind him, so after a few moments, disappointed and disturbed, he really did walk away.

Without a word, without moving a muscle, Saitou watched him go. He obviously wasn’t welcome during this proposed meditation, so what could he say or do?

Despite how much he liked to attach every possible negative trait he could think of to Himura in his mind, realistically he knew it wasn’t much like the rurouni to back down from his resolve. But he was also perfectly well aware that men did stupid things when they were in love, and Sano had been insistent lately. Sano was always insistent. If he wanted something, it was usually almost completely pointless to try denying him. And when it came down to it, Saitou rarely begrudged any of it, for all he might pretend otherwise.

He couldn’t even smile at that reflection. At another time he might have, but just after Sano had given “I need to think” as his only answer to the question Saitou had clumsily been asking? …he wasn’t sure he would ever smile again. Not so difficult a prospect, really, when his face felt frozen in this blank stare.

Well, Sano had what he wanted now; Saitou only hoped with all his heart it was not more than he could handle. Then, maybe Himura telling him first as a sort of warning precursor to actual memory was the best way to go about it. At least the deception was at an end. But had Sano really been ready for it? Saitou didn’t know. He’d had no faith in his own discernment since that burning building; how could he possibly guess now whether this turn of events was for good or ill?

Gone away to think, Sano was.

And didn’t need Saitou’s company as he did so.

Saitou didn’t want to consider this a sure indication that Sano’s regard for him had not and would not return… but how could he think otherwise? He couldn’t deny he’d had the more-than-occasional daydream about Sano remembering everything, running immediately to his open arms, and staying there for however long it took to recover… but these had never been anything more than fantasies. And the reality was that if Sano had been told, was remembering, and was already avoiding him… how likely was it that he would ever return?

It was over.

Given the intensity of the previous exchange and the emotions he’d felt at Sano’s words, he thought he was taking to the idea remarkably calmly. There was no stabbing sensation in his chest, no overwhelming pressure or any more pain than he was accustomed to feeling day after day.

He supposed a heart could only break once, after all.

It was really over.

He realized he was walking, after a few minutes, but it didn’t seem he was heading home any more. He didn’t know where he was going, but what did it matter? He could be walking straight to Hell, and what difference would it make? He was too numb to care, or to mind the snow that began to gather as it fell onto his slow-moving frame.

Attempting to tell himself it was too early to declare the thing completely done with was futile, as he realized he’d been bracing himself, ever since he’d made the decision to go on living, for the eventuality of Sano’s never coming back; he’d actually, on some level, been expecting it. A pessimist at heart, then? It was what he would previously have called realism or prudence. Now he didn’t know what to think. Only that he felt so cold… so very cold… it seemed natural to have assumed he would never be loved again.

“I just didn’t want to get my hopes up.”

And there he was, stopped short at the edge of the street looking out into a little wood to the spot where Sano had been standing as he’d said those words. So this was where his steps had been directing him. It was no surprise.

His eyes did not see the snow, nor his ears hear the silence. His mind was reliving a far-off day whose effects had now been terminated, and what flesh remained to him was finally turning completely to stone.


What had started as a lie to cover up a lie was about to become truth. This had to end. For some reason Sano could not even begin to guess at, he’d just made things worse with Saitou in his attempt to gain a little more information. It seemed it really was time to think about things — a lot and alone. Every time he went to either Kenshin or Saitou for answers, the entire mess just became more complicated, more confusing, more painful… to the point where he was hurting not only himself but also his friends in the process.

His initial attempt had been far from successful; in fact he’d fallen asleep. But now it seemed that to try again was the only thing left for him to do, besides being a venture he absolutely had to make — because, of all possible motives, he couldn’t stand to let Saitou suffer any longer. Of course Kenshin was suffering as well, but Saitou was obviously central to this thing and his unhappiness weighed heavier on Sano. What memory he did possess found it ironic that he would be searching for something painful in his soul in order to spare Saitou discomfort, but the recollection of that man’s tone and bearing just now would not leave him.

He was right after all, I guess; it really is up to me in the end. Except now I’m not really doing this for myself, am I? He shook his head and looked around. It was snowing, but the day had yet to fade, and everything under the clouds was a dull sort of glowing grey. I’ll find a place and sit down, and I won’t move until I remember, he told himself determinedly. And a nearby stack of crates in an alleyway between two shops seemed as good a place as any. He settled in against the cold wall, wrapped his arms around his chest, and closed his eyes.

The beginning of this process, at least, he’d been over many times, like fingers run across a sealed wound without nearly enough force to break it open again. The last thing he could remember clearly before the gap was Yumi offering to let them leave without any further battle. Her back was to a huge pair of metal doors, and beyond these, memory dissolved. Picturing himself there with a clarity he would fight to retain, he steeled himself and stepped forward through them as they grudgingly parted with the shriek of unoiled metal. He must not fail this time.

His eyes flew open, wide and trembling, his breaths shortened, as he finally remembered.

It was… terrible… so terrible… This was what Kenshin had sought to protect him from, and with good reason. Misery, humiliation, self-abhorrence, hatred of the entire world… it raged out at him from the depths of his mind that were now becoming less black — cold, clawing, his own weakness and pathos, his abject helplessness, nearly crushing him.

Hands clutched each at the opposite arm as he bowed his head and squeezed his eyes shut once more, gritting his teeth against the recollection of physical sensations so strong he could swear it was happening all over again. Tears seared their way from beneath his eyelids and fell like crystals into his lap, and he bit back an anguished cry as his entire body shook.

No wonder Kenshin had tried so hard to keep him from recovering this. These feelings were worse, he had to think, than death… making his previous attempt at suicide beautifully understandable. He remembered that now as well, remembered the feeling of the sword in his hands and the sweet promise of oblivion.

Saitou’s sword.

No. He absolutely couldn’t allow himself to fall into that oblivion now. Because he hadn’t done this for himself. Of course he’d wanted to remember, but what had finally opened those doors was his concern for Saitou. If he gave in to despair now, it would make the entire effort, maybe his entire existence, meaningless. Saitou blamed himself — Sano remembered now — because he hadn’t arrived in time, because he’d forced the memory on Sano before, because… because Sano himself had told him it was his fault.

This recollection was a blow, if not equal to the one dealt by Shishio, immediately secondary to it. Had he really… had he really said… A trembling hand crept to his cold face, clenched against it, felt the tears pouring. He could hear his own voice screaming, “You might as well have fucking done it yourself!” Yes, it seemed he really had.

He forced himself to his feet, finding his balance badly off but taking to an immediate run nonetheless. The irregular beat of his pounding steps reminded him of the sound of Shishio’s footfalls as he’d approached… to… and how could Sano believe he was fit for anything other than to be thus used, when he’d said things so unforgivable to Saitou… to a man who’d… who’d loved him so completely?

The overfast and terribly painful pounding of his heart almost dragged him to the ground at that moment, the sense of his own worthlessness threatening to devour him whole. But he pressed onward, seeing before him the expression on Saitou’s face from earlier that had probably been a mirror of what his own must be now.

“I need some compensation for all this trouble I’ve taken to entertain you people.”

No, he could not start reliving it here. It would sap his strength and fell him, curl him up again around his once-shattered fists, and he might just die there in the snow. He had to find Saitou. But–

“If you get back on your knees, I’ll let you enjoy it.”

Concentrating on a different memory — the quiet despair in Saitou’s voice as he agreed with Sano’s wild accusation, “Yes, this is my fault” — he kept moving. As he found himself in Saitou’s neighborhood, his speed increased; he could not reach the man’s house quickly enough, and it didn’t matter if he was panting too hard to speak when he got there.

He burst inside without knocking, not even knowing whether he’d broken the door, stumbling and yelling out Saitou’s name. But in none of the rooms he frantically entered was Saitou to be found.

This house… everything here was familiar now — from the angle of every corner to every worn spot on the floor to every last item in every room. He knew it all, because this had been his home, the place he’d spent nearly two years in peace — in peaceful ignorance, at least — with Saitou, the place where he’d been happier than anywhere else he’d ever lived. But for the moment, without Saitou here, he couldn’t stand it.

“What does it look like I’m doing?”

No… oh, god, no…

The minor composure he’d built up in the house shattering, he slipped in the growing snow on the walk outside, but caught himself before he could fall; he wasn’t sure he’d be able to rise again if he did. Think of something else! Just for now…

“Are you… I…”

Saitou…

Back in the street, his desperate eyes searched for any sign of the man, but found nothing. There was no way to tell where he might have gone after the fraudulent conversation that — well Sano knew now — must have hurt him so deeply.

“Sano! Sano!”

Only at a third repetition of his name did he realize someone was calling him, and he skidded to a halt. Turning, he found Kenshin at his side looking as if he’d just run to catch up. The rurouni’s eyes were wide and his face extremely worried. “Sano, what is going on? Are you all right?”

“The thing you are missing… the person you are missing… is Saitou.”

“You’re kidding me, right?”

“Sano, I honestly wish I could say I was. During the last two years, you and Saitou became friends, and you spent a lot of time with him. None of us ever really approved, but…”

“‘Friends?'” Sano whispered, absolutely stunned, as that instance not long after he’d awakened from his ‘illness’ drifted across his mind’s eye. Then a bit louder, “‘Friends?‘”

“Sano, what is wrong?” Kenshin sounded almost desperately concerned.

“Sano, I love you. I have always loved you.”

He understood it all now: the lies from a man he’d thought totally honest, the disapprobation of a friendship that had seemed harmless, the inexplicable and apparently recently-arisen hatred of someone that had never appeared to be more than a rival in combat… the selfishness and glaringly contrasted selflessness of two men that wanted the same thing.

“You absolute bastard,” Sano whispered, rage swelling for the moment above his pain.

Kenshin looked dumbstruck.

“How could you do that to me?” Sano demanded, unable even to raise his voice, so great was the commotion within him. “How could you do that to him? How could you call yourself my friend doing something like that?”

“Sano, do you… did you…”

“Yeah, I remember everything now.” He couldn’t even think of anything more to say to Kenshin; his mind was in too much turmoil, his heart hurting too desperately for much more speech with the man. “I’m just on my way to find Saitou,” he added as he turned away, emphasizing the name almost spitefully.

“Sano!” Kenshin’s voice was harsh, demanding, nearly reminiscent of how he spoke as Battousai. “All that man has ever done is hurt you! If you remember, you should see that! He’s no good for you; if you go back to him now, he’ll–”

Sano had whirled and struck Kenshin in the face with a clenched fist, full force, before he’d even realized what he was doing. Even Kenshin, who saw every blow coming, looked shocked as he staggered back a pace. “Don’t you dare even fucking talk about him,” Sano seethed. “All that man has ever done has been anything and everything that was good for me, unlike some so-called friends or would-be lovers who couldn’t even let me live my own life without trying to play out their own fucking selfish plans.”

Kenshin was absolutely speechless.

“Sano, I love you. I have always loved you.”

“Some love,” Sano growled, disdainful and bitter and utterly crushed, as he turned away again, and the freezing tear tracks on his face doubled as he resumed his run.

Forward movement, after that encounter, was physically difficult; it felt as if he floundered through a waist-deep snow-drift, memory piled upon stinging memory and each demanding to be examined at length.

He remembered Kenshin and Saitou fighting… fighting over him… fighting for his love… a battle that would have been a death-match had Sano not intervened.

He remembered another battle that had been a death-match, on a high and fiery platform on Mt. Hiei, a battle that had taken more than lives.

He remembered every tortured moment of the events just a few months ago, when Saitou had done everything he could to help him, to save him, and had eventually, evidently, given him up for that very purpose.

He remembered falling to the ground onto shattered hands, and Shishio pulling him back up by the hair.

He remembered those rings: how much it had meant to him back then, and that whole glorious day… but the recollection of how happy he’d been only heightened by contrast his current misery.

He remembered Shishio.

He remembered his first confirmation of Saitou’s feelings for him, and what they’d done in that grove… it had been months after Shishio, but still he’d been in so much pain… he’d assumed, back then, that was due to its being his first time, but of course he’d been wrong about everything… Shishio had been there first.

Shishio… Oh, god, he didn’t think he could ever… no, no, never again…

I have to find Saitou! Continually telling himself that was the only thing keeping him going, now not only because of his desperate need to reassure the officer that none of it had been his fault, but also because he feared that, at least until he could get himself together, he might just fall apart without him.

Time seemed to stretch until he could not tell a second from an hour, and his body worked only sluggishly so it felt he moved as slowly as the languidly-falling snow. And his only coherent thought amidst a flaming sea of horrifying images and ghost sensations threatening every moment to overwhelm and destroy him was that he must find Saitou.

And at last, by some miracle of chance or perhaps by the kindness of destiny, he did. The wolf stood very still on a secluded street that ran alongside a little patch of woods. As Sano came to a halt upon sight of him, his blood seemed to start flowing again, and his mind cleared just enough for him to entertain one or two lucid reflections.

Saitou’s figure, his movements, his presence, everything, everything Sano saw and remembered of him, knew about him without having any way of knowing — Sano loved it all. It seemed so natural for him to love him, so nearly primal, he almost couldn’t believe he’d ever forgotten he did. All he wanted now was to be in Saitou’s arms, know he could stay there, to cry out his sorrow until it washed away and have Saitou still with him when it was all over.

But would Saitou forgive him for his deceit? For the pain he’d inflicted in attempting to figure things out, when he could have remembered on his own without that kind of duplicity? Could Saitou still love him, after putting up with months of indifference and carelessness?

It didn’t matter. There were things Sano had to say, regardless of their future together.

“Saitou!” he hailed him, nearly too breathless to form the call. Likewise was his body nearly too exhausted to finish the run to the other man, and he stumbled as he approached.

Saitou, though apparently surprised as he turned toward Sano’s voice, stepped forward and caught him quick as lightning, looking in horror at Sano’s tear-stained face and desperate eyes. “Sano, what’s…”

Regaining his balance, Sano did not step back, but clutched at Saitou’s arms and gasped out, “Saitou, I’m sorry… I’m sorry… it was all a lie… Kenshin never told me anything. I was just trying to get you to talk. I’m sorry.”

The older man’s eyes widened a fraction, and then he frowned. “I told you that you–” he began, apparently with some difficulty.

“But I couldn’t stand it bothering you so much,” Sano interrupted him, plunging on wildly with his explanation, “so I took your advice and forced myself to remember… so I could tell you… make sure you know… that I really don’t blame you… really.” After that, the words just came pouring out; he had to make sure Saitou understood; it was simply imperative. “I know I said I did, but I wasn’t thinking straight; you know I wasn’t thinking straight; you said so yourself, that I wouldn’t have tried suicide if I hadn’t remembered it all at once. I wouldn’t have said any of those horrible things… I would never have fucking hit you. You can’t blame yourself; there was no way you could have known what kind of thing I was repressing… you needed me to remember, and I needed to remember, and I need to remember now and you…” His tone was more desperate than he recalled allowing it to become. “I’m sorry if I sound like a complete idiot, but just… just tell me you’ll stop blaming yourself.”

Saitou was staring at him wordlessly, but his expression now was less inscrutable than it had been in months: he was clearly heartbroken, and at last Sano knew why. And imagining what Saitou must have been going through since their separation… no, he couldn’t even begin to imagine it. But at last he understood the man’s face.

“Please,” he said, very seriously. “It’s the only thing about this I won’t be able to deal with, if you keep thinking it was your fault.”

“You’re… sure you’re remembering what happened to you accurately?” Saitou finally asked with forced calm.

“Yes, I am,” replied Sano. “Don’t worry about that; I’m handling it.”

“You seem to be handling it… very well.” Saitou really couldn’t be blamed for mistrusting Sano this time, but that didn’t make things any less strange and awkward.

“I remember every fucking detail,” Sano insisted. “Do you want me to describe it? He told Houji to take Yumi inside and–”

“All right,” Saitou cut him off, harsh and quiet. “You don’t have to. And you’re… all right?”

“No. Nobody’s all right who gets raped, least not for a while,” Sano answered bluntly. “I feel like crawling into a hole and rotting. But right now it’s more important to me to make sure you don’t feel like any of this is your fault when you’re the only one who was actually looking out for me all along.”

Saitou let his eyes fall shut and nodded slowly, as if finally accepting what Sano was trying to get through to him. But the expression he was still fighting off, that tortured restraint, was just too much for Sano. The younger man’s breath caught as he began, “And– and if you– if you still love me, I–”

There was a half-second’s flash of gold from which every minute shred of restraint had fled as Saitou’s eyes opened, and then Sano was… whole again… held tightly against the man he loved in a heated, possessive, almost crushing embrace that shattered any doubts he might have that everything would, someday, be all right.

“Ahou,” Saitou was growling into his ear. “The moment I stop loving you, I’ll cease to exist.”

Sano buried his face in Saitou’s chest, choking out something he thought might have been an apology before the sobs tore all words from him.

And as the sun set completely and frigid night fell, the healing of two fragmented hearts, reunited in the silent, drifting snow, slowly began.

This story’s not terrible; in fact it gets a . It’s good enough, at least for now, that I keep its abysmal predecessor around so this one can be read properly. You never know when that may change, though.

I had at one point started writing the scene where Saitou tells Chou what’s going on. It turned out not to fit in the story, and never got finished, but I think it’s interesting enough that I’m including it here. I just adore Saitou and Chou as friends.


“What? What?! I thought that guy was tori-atama’s friend! I’d fucking kill someone who did that to me!”

“If you knew he had.”

“Well, you’re gonna tell him, right?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“What do you mean you don’t know yet?! You’re not gonna fucking let Battousai win, are you?”

“It isn’t about him. It’s about what’s best for Sano.”

“How the fuck is that good for him?! How can you be so calm about this?”

“The only reason I brought this up is to let you know that you need to keep out of it.”

“But… but this really pisses me off! It’s a fucking dirty trick! It ain’t right! Don’t just stand there and tell me not to get involved!”

“Do you remember what Sano thought of you in that jail cell in Kyoto two years ago?”

“He didn’t like me much…”

“Well, that’s probably all he remembers of you now. You’re not his friend anymore.”

“But I’m fucking still yours! This… this seriously pisses me the fuck off!”


Also, two bonus versions of the figures from the title pictures:


As the Years Go Up in Smoke

As the Years Go Up in Smoke

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sanosuke is hardly your son, Himura.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kenshin shrugged. “I came to see you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He is going to hurt you, Sano.”

“I’m sorry you think so, Kenshin.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oi, Saitou!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Saitou.”

“Himura?”

“Turn around.”

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

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

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

“Draw.”

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

Kenshin did not falter or hesitate. “Draw.”

“Very well.”

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

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

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

“What the fuck are you guys doing?”

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

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

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

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

“I hate you,” Saitou murmured.

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

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

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

This was going nowhere. “And with Shishio?”

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

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

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

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

“May I ask what this is about?”

“The Rengoku,” Saitou replied shortly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saitou kissed his cheek. “Of course not.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saitou shrugged. “Does it matter?”

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But Shishio-sama…”

“Shishio-sama, I’m fine!”

“Take her inside.”

“Yes, Shishio-sama.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But he already was.

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

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

He gave up.

But it was worse than he could ever have imagined.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What did you remember?” Saitou asked quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You need to sleep,” he whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What would you know?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I just think it might help.”

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

“Sano…”

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

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

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

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

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

“Sano…”

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

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

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

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

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

I love you, Sano…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes… I always thought it odd.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

He wanted to turn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saitou smirked. “With excitement, ahou?”

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

A little ahead of them, Kenshin sighed almost inaudibly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kenshin nodded.

“That can’t be right…”

“Why?” Kenshin sounded a bit worried.

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

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

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

Kenshin nodded. “Do you remember nothing?”

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

“Yes.”

“And then… then…”

But Kenshin had looked away.

Sick, huh?

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

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

Something was wrong here.

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

What he seemed to be feeling was… loneliness?

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

But Kenshin wouldn’t lie to him.

He must have been sick, then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um, yeah.” Sano did not lie down.

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

“I feel fine, Kenshin, really.”

“I will answer three questions.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, it was his life, wasn’t it?


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

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

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

Saitou nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?”

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

Kenshin obeyed. “Yes?”

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

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

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

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

Kenshin evaded. “What kind of thing?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The glowing bars of his cage of torment converged.

Saitou Hajime would burn.

He turned the blade inward.

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

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

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

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

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

He told him he’d been born that way.

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

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

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

Nothing less from Sagara Sanosuke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love you, Sano…

Only time could tell.

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

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