Blood Contingency 6-10



This story was last updated on May 12, 2019

I wasn’t particularly given to discouragement, but to irritation certainly, and I was starting to become rather irritated with this case. A thorough retread of the scene of the latest murder and a similarly meticulous review of everything we knew so far had been completely unenlightening. I had to keep reminding myself that such a reexamination could never be a waste of time — given that sudden epiphanies about things like this usually arose from collected subconscious understanding — just to prevent myself from considering the entire day meaningless. Still, if Hironaku’s investigations into Tomizawa turned up nothing inspiring, I couldn’t help feeling I might as well not have gotten up this morning.

Ironically, this total lack of progress on my part did little to reverse my opinion of the prior two investigators of the issue; I was just as certain of their incompetence as I would have been had I shown up in Tokyo and solved the case overnight. Perhaps this was a double standard of sorts, but I honestly didn’t care.

Eventually Hironaku entered my office looking concerned. Though not an immediate source of worry since he often looked that way, this wasn’t terribly encouraging either; presumably he wouldn’t look that way if he’d had any success. “Well?” I asked.

He started his report standing at attention, and eventually in some annoyance I gestured for him to sit down. It seemed I’d been right about Tomizawa: at least on the surface, the man was utterly unconnected and uninteresting — though he was the same class of businessman as half of the victims. That wasn’t the inciting part of Hironaku’s account, however.

“There was something strange about everyone I talked to,” my dutiful assistant was adding after he’d given me all the facts. “I’m almost certain they’d all been questioned about this before, and not long ago. They seemed intimidated somehow. It looks as if we’re not the only ones investigating Tomizawa.”

I frowned. Although there were quite a few possible explanations for this (among them that Hironaku was simply imagining things), my mind for some reason jumped straight to one potential answer in specific and clung there. I couldn’t help recalling the furnace that had been Sagara’s eyes yesterday when he’d asked about the person who’d hurt his friend, and Tomizawa’s name had been the only thing like a clue that he’d had taken from that conversation. If he’d gotten started on it then, he could well have reached all of the people Hironaku talked to before the latter did. I wouldn’t have thought him that resourceful, but…

Well, it was still just a guess in any event. But, given Sagara’s tendencies to involve himself in anything that held the prospect of a good fight, to stand up for his friends to the point of almost suicidal recklessness, and to do exactly what I told him not to do, it wasn’t exactly unprecedented. And even if he wasn’t behind this, checking on him to make sure he wasn’t up to anything else didn’t seem overcautious.

Hironaku made his usual polite inquiry, “Sir?”

I stood up, apparently with some abruptness if Hironaku’s slight start was any indication. “Look into his business and see if he has any connection there with any of the victims,” I ordered; “we’ll drop this if he doesn’t. I’ll deal with the third party.”

Hironaku made a (rather annoying) curious face, but only said, “Yes, sir.”

Alternately relieved at having some kind of next step to take even if it had little to do with the actual case, irritated almost to the point of anger at Sagara for this as-yet-hypothetical behavior, I went first to the Oguni clinic to look for him.

The look with which Takani greeted me, however, was not at all promising, given that I hadn’t had a cigarette for hours and therefore knew her disapproval didn’t stem from that. A sort of flash of dark triumph showed in her eyes, though, as she seemed to consider something for a moment before saying anything. “They’re not here,” she finally announced.

I shook my head, annoyance and suspicions growing. “Why doesn’t that surprise me…”

“Sanosuke felt he could guard his friend better at his own home, or something like that,” she explained, sounding somewhat exasperated, “and wouldn’t listen to anything I said. It didn’t help that Tsukioka-san is just as reckless and pigheaded as he is.”

“Tsukioka may not be thinking clearly,” I reminded her.

She acknowledged the point with a nod; then that same triumph of a few moments before flickered again in her eyes as she said, “Which makes it entirely Sanosuke’s fault.”

That had been the only reason I’d mentioned it, so I merely nodded as well. Obviously she’d known I wasn’t going to be pleased about this, and was looking forward to having revenge for Sagara’s complete disregard of her concern for her concussed patient exacted through me. I had to admit, I was going to be glad to comply, since I was almost certain Sagara had moved Tsukioka to his own home so he could keep a more consistent eye on him during his comings and goings as he got in the way of my case.

“If you do go over there–” She pronounced this very casually, as if there were any question in the matter– “do make sure Tsukioka-san isn’t moving around too much, won’t you?”

“Certainly. And if you see Sagara before I do,” I added darkly, “don’t mention that I’m looking for him.”

“Certainly,” she echoed, her eyes flashing again.

I smirked slightly and left her.

It occurred to me to wonder, during my carriage ride from the clinic to Sagara’s neighborhood, why I knew where he lived at all. My ally the good doctor hadn’t needed to tell me his address yesterday, and futilely I tried to recall why I’d ever looked it up, an event which I thought had actually taken place the last time I’d been in Tokyo. It was lucky, given that circumstance, that he was even in the same apartment now as then. Not that any of it mattered; it was simply a natural train of thought consequent on going there for a second time in two days.

On reaching the disreputable longhouse, I lifted a fist to knock (pound, rather) on the patched door, but changed my mind as I remembered him neglecting to lock it on the way out yesterday. Testing, finding it unlocked again (or still), I entered without warning.

The place only had one room, so everything was immediately visible: Tsukioka on a futon in the corner, Sagara sitting next to him, apparently in the middle of a relatively quiet conversation and both foolishly drinking sake despite one’s wounded state. Sagara broke off whatever he was saying as I opened the door, turning and beginning an irritated demand, “And who the hell–” but stopped short when he saw me.

If he couldn’t tell by my face that I was upset with him, my practically slamming the door behind me would have made it evident. His tone was already defensive as he wondered, “What do you want?”

“I told you to stay out of this,” I replied stonily without preamble.

His undecided expression settling into a scowl, he growled back, “So? Like I give a shit what you tell me.”

All suspicions confirmed, I didn’t even bother to ask for particulars, but went on with the tactic I thought would probably be most effective. “While you’re out playing vigilante, interfering in police business, your friend here is likely to get assassinated.”

“Why the hell do you think we left the clinic? They won’t know he’s here–”

“Oh, of course,” I broke in with heavy sarcasm, “they’ll have an extremely difficult time guessing he’s gone to his best friend’s house. How long did it take you to come up with that brilliant plan, ahou?”

Sagara sprang to his feet, fists clenched. “Well, if they do come here–”

Again I interrupted; I was in no mood for excuses. “You’ll be out intimidating witnesses I’d prefer to have compliant? What’s your plan in that case, to have him blow up your apartment defending himself?”

“What makes you so sure they’re gonna come after him anyway?” Sagara took a step toward me, clearly ready for a fight. “You don’t even know what’s going on or who we’re up against or why Katsu got attacked in the first place. For all you know–”

“There is no ‘we’ in this, boy.” My own fists were clenched by now; if he wanted a pummeling, I was ready to give him one. “Nor are you in any position to be telling me what I do and don’t know about my own case.”

This seemed to anger him more than anything else I’d said. “So you were lying to me yesterday.” He was shaking his head slightly, and I thought that, for some reason, in addition to being irate, he was also maybe a little hurt. “My best friend gets half-killed, and you give me a bunch of bullshit to try and keep me from getting revenge. You are such a bastard.”

Absolutely nowhere was where I’d feared we might go with this, and those fears were justified more with every passing moment. It was interesting that Tsukioka wasn’t taking part in the exchange, though he was watching intently… perhaps he was still unwilling to talk to me, or maybe simply didn’t have the energy. At any rate, continuing my attempts at rational persuasion was obviously a complete waste of effort. “This is the last time I’m going to tell you without beating it into you,” I said in a tone of finality: “I don’t want you involved in this.”

Sagara’s flaring anger was almost visible in the air around him, and, as such, so was its unexpected cessation; it was like watching a fire die down as something seemed to strike him and he looked at me with a strange expression.

“‘I don’t want you involved,'” he repeated slowly, almost as if to himself, and then again, with heavier accents, “‘I don’t want you involved.'”

He was right; that had been an odd way to word it. This wasn’t his business, he was going to get himself killed, I didn’t need some idiot getting in my way, certainly… but to imply that I personally had some desire for him specifically not to be involved… It may have made my reply a little more caustic even than I’d intended: “Keep repeating it until you have it memorized, ahou, if that’s what it takes. Because if I get so much as a hint that you’re sticking your nose in my business again, I’ll break it along with the rest of you.”

Still he was giving me that look that I didn’t quite understand (or perhaps just didn’t want to), and either had no reply or was, for once in his life, restraining himself. But since the conversation was obviously over, I turned and left.

I’d really expected physical violence from that scene, and wasn’t entirely sure why it hadn’t turned out that way. On some levels Sagara was as incomprehensible as he was asinine, and I thought it was safe to say that I found him as aggravating as he obviously found me, for all I didn’t throw tantrums about it like he did. He was probably back there right now pouring out his irritation to Tsukioka the unfortunate captive audience, whereas nobody would be hearing from me about any of this.

Still, I was stalking away from his apartment with a severe scowl, cursing this maddening end to an unproductive day, Sagara for his stupid persistence, for his expressive face, for picking up on the fact that there might be reasons I wasn’t admitting for not wanting him involved, and for forcing me to say even that much.

I’m struck, somehow, by the details of my surroundings. Or, rather, I’m struck by my attention to the details of my surroundings. For while the surroundings themselves are not entirely consistent — the settings alternating from one moment to the next — no matter where I find myself, I view the area with wearyingly, almost painfully precise, acute observation.

At times the stone walls of a labyrinthine cavern surround me. The rock is a dark, slightly warm-tinged grey, uniformly rough-textured, except where mineral deposits liven its surface with off-whites, yellows, and soft oranges in smooth streaks. Fantastically-shaped columns in all these colors rise like strange, unbearably slow-growing plants, marching away in infinite variety into the darkness not far to either side. The scene is lit only by a small flickering light like a fire of some sort; I think it must be an old-fashioned lamp or torch, though no such object is visible.

A web-like network of paths, smoothed to a dull shine by the passage of countless feet, oddly clean of debris and even dust, wind their diverse ways among pointed spires tapering to water-touched tips, boulders so large their full extent cannot be seen in that limited light, misshapen pillars that presumably reach the invisible ceiling, and sudden drops into abyssal darkness. On the rare occasion when the cavern roof dips low enough to be seen, I note that it’s as uneven as the floor, hung with lethal lengths of stone reaching their fragile points down toward me as if regarding me with the same minute attention I give to them as long as they’re in view.

The air is very still, damp with a cool wetness that makes me think somehow of clammy, unresponsive flesh, and faintly acrid. The silence breaks only to the echo of my footfalls and the occasional, distant sound of water dripping into some invisible pool.

At other moments, however, I traverse the claustrophobic corridors of some strange building or complex. The wood forming the old-fashioned paneling that criss-crosses the walls and ceiling is slavishly neat and well cut, and has a preternaturally even grain like the plasticky fake oak coating on cheap plywood furniture. There is a smell like that of fresh-cut wood, but beneath this lingers the same scent of acrid minerals and damp stone as the first setting, and I’m not fully convinced that they aren’t actually the same place. The same mysterious light even accompanies me here as it does through the other locale.

Beneath the wooden decorations, the walls and ceilings are neatly plastered and painted, and I have a feeling that all of this covers hard cut stone. The hallways are eight feet wide and the ceiling precisely as high, and this, combined with their seemingly endless length into darkness and the suddenness of crossing ways’ appearance at either side, gives them an increasingly close and paranoid feeling in direct contrast to the cavern’s open moroseness. In fact, as I proceed, a sensation of discontent — of fear, even — grows steadily on me until the speed of my steps is almost double what it was when I began to explore.

Along with this comes, inexorably, the awareness that he is here. Exactly what connection this awareness has with the fear, the nature of the fear, or the continuing evolution of the fear, I can’t tell — but there’s undoubtedly a correlation.

Like me, he’s moving alternately through the corridors and the cave; but whereas my progress is aimless and random, his is purposeful and directed. He’s coming closer. He’s coming to me.

Naturally this alters the nature of my own movement; it’s now as pointed as his. I don’t think I’m afraid of him, precisely, but I don’t want to meet him. And I am afraid of something. It’s a strange, almost giddy sort of fear, intoxicating and not all together unpleasant. In fact, it feels very much like the nervous excitement I remember feeling as a child playing hide-and-seek or certain varieties of tag. Here and now I find this reaction rather annoying, since I don’t consider this a game.

And he’s getting closer.

Evidently he knows our surroundings better than I do, for he subtly maneuvers me into one dead end after another. Every time I encounter one of these spots — where the path I’ve taken ends in a precipice or dives into a glassy pool, or the hallway I’m walking turns a corner that brings me abruptly face-to-face with converging walls — I’m forced to double back, and can feel the distance between us closing more rapidly. It can’t be long now.

Eventually I catch a glimpse of him leaving a passage I just traversed, and begin to run. It seems stupid, but I can’t stop myself; the agitation of the scene has approximately doubled at the sight of him, brief and unclear as that was — though he is not what I fear. Oddly, another sensation joined the fear at that moment as well: the feeling that, for all my reluctance to encounter him, still I want to. He’s only trying to get to me, after all… he’s been following me for so long… he must be so tired…

When next he catches up with me, I take a moment to look more closely at him before moving on. This steadier observation is no clearer, however. In direct contrast to the continually sharp detail all around me, he seems strangely blurred and imprecise. In fact, all I can make out of him most of the time is a vaguely human-shaped group of colors: brown, tan, black, white, red. As I begin running again — still unable to bring myself to endure an encounter — I reflect that the details are there; the problem is in my own eyes. Or, rather, in my mind — it’s almost as if something inside me simply refuses to recognize him.

Weariness has joined the other sensations with which I’m struggling, and my steps begin to drag. The burning sluggishness gradually suffusing my limbs only increases the other agitation, and heightens the awareness that it can’t be long before this all comes to an end. What end that will be I don’t like to think.

Suddenly the boxy corridor draws up at a blank wall. For a moment my mind is equally blank as I glance from one corner to another, looking for a means of escape that does not exist, trying futilely to decide what to do. There is nothing to do. As I turn I hear his footsteps just around the corner.

Again his appearance seems to augment everything I’m feeling; now nearly in a panic and weary almost beyond endurance, I stumble back. I want to reach out to him; I wish I could pull him away from the terror that hovers around him like a cloud but is not a part of him. I do reach out, in fact… but only as I retreat. Unable to take my eyes off him in the grip of some sort of slowing paralysis, I move sluggishly from him, back, back, back… until I hit the wall.

There is nowhere else to go.

He steps toward me.

I wake up with a jerk.

As my harsh breathing and pounding heartbeat calm and the heat of nightmare fades in the cool normalcy of my dark bedroom, I stare up at the ceiling in some turmoil of mind. What the hell was that? I haven’t suffered from bad dreams since childhood, and why on earth should I be dreaming about him in any case?

Thanks to the haziness that surrounded him in the dream, I don’t know how he looked there — though I’m certain his appearance was different than it is in what I’m pleased to call ‘real life’ — but I knew him beyond any doubt. It was the feelings that identified him: that fear, which, though prompted by his presence, was not specifically — indeed, was almost aggressively not directed at him; and the simultaneous sensation of strong sympathy…

I wish I had a name to call him by, even just in my own thoughts.

I know it’s simply the atmosphere — the dim light, the weariness of my body aroused from sleep — but as I sit up with a sigh, I feel a nearly overwhelming sense of sadness, something severe that’s growing into what I might call misery.

This is very annoying.

As I rise and go in search of coffee — it’s early yet, but I might as well stay up, since I doubt I’ll get any more sleep — I count the days until the promised week will be finished and this will, hopefully, all be over. I base this hope, logically, on the idea that my current stress is caused by my lack of knowledge and combating desire to understand, and that once he’s explained the charade my life can therefore get back to normal. I base this hope, emotionally, on exactly that: hope. I’m not given to nightmares and confusion, and I don’t want to be.

Being forced to sit patiently — helplessly — and wait, sleepless and obsessing about the matter over coffee at four in the morning, isn’t helping. That young man is going to have a lot to answer for.


“I feel like someone is… stalking me.”

I wouldn’t have heard this if I hadn’t been planning on spending only a short time at the police station that morning, since I was only in the habit of leaving my office door ajar under that particular circumstance. In fact, it was pure chance I was at the station at all; after two more days of absolutely no results on any front, I was utterly sick of the place.

“Someone has been following me,” continued the woman’s voice. She was undoubtedly talking to the officer whose desk was closest to my office door. “I tried to tell myself I was imagining things, but now somebody’s been inside my house… My brother tells me I’m being silly, but I’m very particular about my housekeeping and I know when something is out of place; I know when something is missing.”

The report I’d come here to consult locked back into my desk, I was moving toward the door when the next statement made me pause. The officer had asked politely for the woman’s name, and she replied, “Tomizawa Nori.”

Of course there were plenty of people in Tokyo called Tomizawa, but since it was a name of interest in my case I wasn’t going to ignore it. Positioning myself just inside the door, I listened now deliberately.

“Yes, my brother is Tomizawa Daitarou,” she went on. “I know he’s been in here a lot, but today I’m here without his knowledge. If he’d thought this was serious he would have come himself, and he won’t be happy I came… he doesn’t think anything is really going on. But, as I told you, I can tell.”

To his credit, the officer broke in at this point and attempted to get the information from her in a more organized fashion — but there was little more to be learned than her initial words had indicated. She kept mentioning her brother — who was, after all, the same Tomizawa that had employed the late Irutou — and I was amused to observe the mixture of emotions with which she spoke of him: though evidently proud of the relationship and happy to be associated with such a successful businessman, she just as evidently didn’t appreciate the way he at least attempted to run her entire life.

Interesting as this was, however, it was not useful. What did concern me was the basic fact: that someone connected to that single name Tsukioka had mentioned was being stalked none too subtly… and I was certain I knew by whom.

Now I was angry. Everything Sagara had done so far had been foolish and annoying, but at least it had made sense. This was just random and stupid, and now was causing the precinct pointless extra work.

I considered talking to the woman on the way out, but decided not to; it would be unwise to give her the impression that her brother was under any kind of suspicion — and further questioning in any other light would not make sense. Besides, I had other questioning to do.

Sagara was one of the few people I’d ever met that could make me genuinely angry rather than merely temporarily irritated. I didn’t like to think why this was, but it was a condition I could not ignore. And the ultimatum I would give him today was one he would not be able to ignore.

Stepping into his apartment, the first thing I saw was Tsukioka apparently hard at work, probably on his newspaper, at a dingy little table that stood on two legs, a large rock, and a piece of firewood. Though seeing someone so industrious under his own motivation — especially with the added inconvenience of a cast on his slung left arm — was good for my faith in humanity, none of this was particularly surprising: setting aside the condition of Sagara’s table, Tsukioka’s continued presence and improving condition had been reported to me by the lady doctor, who had visited daily as much at my request as out of her sense of professional responsibility. I thought she was still as annoyed with the two young men (particularly Sagara) as I was; she’d been happy to assure me that Tsukioka was recovering and hadn’t been attacked again.

Tsukioka looked up at me as I entered, his eyes dark and suspicious, and remarked, “In some cultures it’s considered appropriate to knock before entering.”

Ignoring this (not unintelligent) comment, I demanded, “Where is he?”

Tsukioka gestured, indicating the rear wall and, presumably, whatever lay outside. I stepped back through the door.

A dirty yard containing a privy separated the various buildings of this particular residential area, and here I found my quarry. Not expecting me and completely oblivious to my presence in the shadows just inside the entrance of the enclosure, he didn’t notice me until my hands actually gripped his collar. He gave a startled cry as I yanked him backward and stopped him from exiting the yard; I didn’t give him a chance for any further exclamation.

“I warned you to stay out of my business,” I growled, propelling him toward the nearest wall while his surprise still left him relatively mobile.

“What the hell are you talking about?” he yelped. Jumping back, away from me, regaining his balance and clenching his fists, he assumed what I thought he intended as a defensive stance. “I haven’t done a goddamn thing!”

“Tomizawa Nori,” I said, advancing. “Did you think I wouldn’t find out?”

He frowned, actually loosening his fists a trifle and straightening as he stared at me. “Who?”

“Don’t fuck with me.” I took the last few steps necessary to seize him again.

He struggled violently as I shook him, shouting directly into my face. “I don’t fucking have any idea who or what you’re fucking talking about!” He managed to land a blow on my chest, but it didn’t stop me from slamming him into the wall and holding him there.

“Don’t bother lying to me,” I hissed. “I don’t know what you think you’re trying to accomplish, but leave the woman alone.”

For a long moment, unmoving and almost limp, he stared into my face, his breath tangible against my lips, as wordless as if I’d actually stunned him — but I knew better; Sagara Sanosuke wasn’t stunned by such a small amount of rough handling. He was obviously trying to think of what to say next, whether because he didn’t feel he could keep lying and was deciding how much to tell me or because his anger had rendered him momentarily mute.

“I…” His brows lowered in an expression almost more of confusion than anger. “I’m not lying. I seriously have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Was it the unexpectedly grave tone? Was it the look in his eyes as he stared into mine? Whatever the reason, I believed him. More than that, I felt like I could trust him. Which was as stupid as it was unprecedented.

And yet it was an impression I could not dismiss. With bizarre suddenness I wasn’t upset with him anymore… further proof that I genuinely believed him, for whatever reason. With the anger gone, I felt only the weary frustration and confusion that were such an integral part of this case.

“Fine.” Why did my response sound so surly? More importantly, why did I seem to feel a certain comfort from his proximity, as if he were a shield against the aforementioned feelings? Why didn’t I let go of him, move away from him, once the word was spoken? He was staring at me now as if he wanted to ask the same question. Honestly I thought he knew the answer as well as I did, and the months of denial and repression were suddenly seeming like a profound waste of my time and his.

I saw the resolution half-forming in his eyes and the restrained tendency of his movement toward me. His dark brows jerked down and then up again as if he couldn’t decide, not merely what to do, but what to think or feel. After all, just a moment ago I’d slammed him into the wall and told him not to fuck with me, and now I was giving him some kind of look I surely never had before. But hesitancy did not become him.

Perhaps it was to teach him better, perhaps to overcome those of my own instincts that still thought denial was a good idea… whatever my motive, I pulled his body against my own and his face to mine so decisively that it could have been described as roughness.

It seemed a stupid moment for kissing, and yet I couldn’t help feeling a growing sensation of completeness… as if some fundamental desire like hunger or thirst was fulfilled after ages of abstinence. His form was hot against me, his lips eager, his arms around my neck. Clutching at him, kissing him hard, I felt inclined never to let go.

Which was all just really… stupid… at the moment.

I was supposed to be working; he was supposed to be staying out of my way… and if he hadn’t been harassing that Nori woman, who had? But I couldn’t take my hands off him; just at the moment, I couldn’t do without him. I’d been so frustrated lately; none of my efforts had been paying off… and the feeling of him so close, his compliance as I ground him against the hard surface behind, the desire I sensed in him… it was all going a long way to make things right.

It still seemed like a stupid moment for it, though.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one to think so. When I finally pulled my tingling lips from his just far enough to draw a deep breath, he did likewise and admitted a little shakily, “I’m confused.”

I gave a short laugh. “As opposed to…?”

“Hey,” he protested, “don’t go pretending you still think I’m the world’s biggest idiot when you just kissed me like you were going to eat me.”

“I’m fairly certain I can do both,” I replied. I wasn’t really clearly aware of what I was saying, though… His arms had slid to my back and tightened… I hadn’t realized until this moment just how much I needed a chance to think about something besides exsanguinated corpses and untrackable murderers. Needed a vacation of sorts from the realization that I was failing continually to do my job and live up to my own standards. Needed to feel a lithe, willing body in my arms and discuss the minutiae of how that came about and what was going to happen next as if it were the most important thing I had to deal with right now.

“And how ’bout an apology for just assuming I was doing whatever you thought I was doing when I wasn’t?” Without giving me a chance to reply to this demand, however, he went on. “How the hell did that turn into kissing me, anyway? I mean, I knew you didn’t hate me as much as you pretended, but how did we go from ‘I warned you to stay out of my business’ to your tongue in my mouth?” He wasn’t adjusting to this change of dynamic nearly as smoothly as his cavalier words suggested; most of his face had turned bright pink — except for his cheekbones, which were more of a bright red — and his tone was uneven.

Again I laughed slightly. “I don’t want to think about my business any further at the moment.” I’d moved my face back toward his, and now spoke almost directly into his mouth.

“You’re a strange guy,” he whispered, raising his chin so that his lips came again into full contact with mine.

Absorbing heat from his solid form, responding in kind to the increasing eagerness of his mouth and hands, it was easy to forget everything else I was supposed to be worried about. As such, it was also a very simple matter to pretend — for the moment, at least — that the pleasure I derived from the taste of his kisses, the rippling of muscle across the small of his back beneath his gi, and the pressure of his hips against mine arose purely from its fulfillment of my need for a distraction.

His next statement, when our lips parted again, was made in a satisfied, confidential murmur that I rather liked. “It’s always pissed me the hell off how much I didn’t hate you. ‘Specially back when you kept beating me up every day. Took me a while to realize you might be the same way.”

At this I couldn’t help chuckling again. “You’re under a number of false impressions.”

He jerked back — not far, but even half an inch seemed quite a distance when my arms were around him. Rather than confused, this time he looked wary and perhaps a bit unhappy. That was quite a confession he’d just made, after all, and my words could easily be interpreted to mean I didn’t really care about him at all in return. And while I wasn’t ready to admit (even to myself) the extent to which I did care, I didn’t want him under the impression that I was playing with him. Not that I didn’t still save my reassuring point for last.

“I only beat you up twice,” I began, withdrawing one arm and raising a finger, “so ‘every day’ is an inaccurate description. And I could beat you up again any time, so your implication that those days are past is also in error.”

He listened wordlessly, still with that guarded look, as I counted off these points that would normally have angered him. That they didn’t in this instance told me he was even more worried about my final point than I’d thought. Raising a third finger I finished, “And don’t assume my mental processes are the same as yours… I’m more the type to deny and ignore an illogical attraction than berate myself for it.”

His consternation melted away into an open, pleased expression that went a long way toward erasing my lingering uncertainty about taking this step. “That does seem more like you,” he admitted, grinning. Again he raised his lips to mine and kissed me slowly.

He was very good at that.

“So you gonna start calling me Sano now?” was the next important matter of business he felt the need to introduce as my hands went about a leisurely exploration of his body. “Or is it still going to be ‘ahou’ all the time?”

“It will still be ‘ahou’ whenever you deserve it,” I replied immediately. Since he really didn’t deserve it at the moment, though, I added experimentally, “Sano…”

Perhaps it was my tone, or maybe the breath of the word against his ear, but he shuddered tangibly, stiffening slightly against me and letting out a little sigh. I found this somewhat extreme reaction to that one simple word rather arousing, and it was the growing sensation of intense physical desire that reminded me of the specifics of our present situation. This was neither time nor place to give in to that sort of impulse.

“God knows what your friend is thinking by now,” I murmured after another kiss; they were becoming increasingly difficult to pull away from.

Sano started. “Oh, shit, that’s right.” He moved away from me now just as indecisively as he’d moved toward me earlier — torn, I thought, between worry that Tsukioka might come looking for him at any time and curiosity about just how far I was willing to go in the relatively public yard behind his apartment. “He probably thinks I’m dead,” he continued pensively, “and if he hasn’t come out here to check yet, he probably won’t…” I could almost hear the unspoken, “So we might as well keep making out,” at the end of this, and chuckled yet again. “Or maybe he did come out and check already.” He blushed slightly as he added, “I probably wouldn’t have noticed.”

This made me laugh outright. “Ahou,” I said, and pulled him back against me for one more — just one more — kiss. “Go back in. I have to get back to work.”

“Oh.” He stared uncomprehendingly for a moment as I began to straighten and smooth the uniform his searching hands had disarrayed. “I– What? No!” He scowled at me. “You can’t just leave right after you–”

“You have a houseguest and I have work to do,” I replied in what I’d intended as a cool, authoritative tone but that came out sounding somewhat fond and amused. “I hadn’t meant for this to happen just now.”

“You probably hadn’t meant for this to happen ever,” Sano grumbled. Brightening slightly he added, “But I was just too damn sexy for you to resist!”

I rolled my eyes and said again, “Ahou ga.” But I couldn’t help smirking a little, since his statement was essentially true. “My point is that I don’t have time for you today. I’ve already been here longer than I should have.”

“When will you have time?” he wondered, part eager and part suspicious.

“I don’t know. In case you’ve forgotten, there’s still a crazy murderer out there somewhere.”

“I’ve been trying to forget,” he muttered darkly — then, throwing me a piercing look, added, “for you.”

Surprised into momentary speechlessness, I stared at him. Sagara Sanosuke, exercising deliberate self-restraint? For my sake? At last I said, “Thank you.”

Now he was staring at me. He’d probably never expected that phrase from my lips. Not that it was the first unexpected thing he’d received from my lips today. “You’re welcome,” he said. He continued in a tone suggesting he spoke almost against his will, “But if I do find out who did that to Katsu, nothing’ll keep me from going after him.”

Fleetingly he had that hard, deeply angry look in his eyes again, and I realized that his willingness to sit quietly and stay out of my business was probably actually based more on having no idea where to look or what to do than respect for my warnings. This should have annoyed me, but its only real effect was to make me laugh again. I hadn’t meant for this to happen today, but if I’d realized how therapeutic it would be I might have initiated it long before.

“Don’t laugh at me!” he protested, glowering. “Just because you’ve got no friends–”

I interrupted him with the command, “Go back inside.” Laying my hand flat against his chest I advanced, pushing him backward with every step. He only gave way, I thought, because he wasn’t really angry with me just then. He still appeared too surprised at this new development between us for any other strong emotion. There seemed to be a sort of glow about him, too — a flush of the face, a brightness of the eyes, an energy in his movements even greater than usual — and I wanted nothing more than to drink it directly from his heated skin. But there would be time for that later.

All the way across the yard he walked backward, staring at me with those shining eyes, but after he’d tripped a third time and nearly fallen he finally decided to turn and walk like a normal person. This was probably more in response to my mocking expression than the stumbles themselves. Near his door he stopped and again gave me his full attention. “When will…” he began, but trailed off with a pensive expression suggesting he was as uncertain about exactly what he was asking as he was of my probable response.

I shook my head. “I’ll come find you when I know.”

At first he seemed annoyed at this evasive answer, but after a moment he grinned and replied, “You know what’ll happen if you make me wait too long.”

I grimaced, and it was only half facetious. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“You better.” For an instant he flashed a smile at me that was astonishingly bright and evidently a good reflection of what was going on in his head — an open, guilelessly happy look that seemed to encompass not only his feelings for me, whose depth I had perhaps underestimated, but also the wholeheartedness and strength that were such an important part of his character — before turning away toward his apartment, leaving me staring after him with a heart pounding rather harder and faster than I was used to.

In the midst of the turmoil my brain has been experiencing all week, it actually feels a little strange to be meeting Renee normally for a normal date as I might on any normal weekend. And I can’t decide whether a dose of such normalcy is more likely to be a good, healthy, grounding circumstance or only make things worse by contrast.

“Let’s go make fun of antiques on Old Center Street,” is Renee’s suggestion when I, unable in my distracted state to come up with anything acceptable, wonder what she wants to do. I agree readily, drawn somewhat out of my reverie by the pleasant idea. It’s interesting how many of our excursions start with “Let’s go make fun of–“

Old Center Street, the original main thoroughfare of the city, is relatively short and narrow by today’s standards, and features a lineup of old or at least old-style buildings that, this century, mostly sell useless and spectacularly tacky junk ranging in age from twenty to two hundred years. There are a few art galleries, pretentious jewelry stores, and hipster clothing shops tucked in among these, and Renee and I have made the tour a few times since we started dating. Added to the reliable entertainment furnished by the things people are willing to pay money for, a pleasant walk in nice weather is never unwelcome.

Whether or not it can distract me from vampires remains to be seen.

Renee is a corporate officer for a line of hotels, and it’s not unusual for any meeting between us to start with the details of her latest amusing and frustrating inspections. Her sarcasm is pleasantly familiar, but even the entertainment value (and outrage at the idiocy) of the employees that populate her buildings is difficult to concentrate on from the very moment she starts speaking.

I struggle to pay attention, to stay invested, as we amble along, but I find myself watching the shadows with a concentration of vision that renders my hearing a secondary consideration at best. It occurs to me after a while, only increasing my irritation with myself and the situation, that the sun is still up; why am I already looking around like this in the daylight? I’m no expert, but I believe the majority of vampire myth dictates death or injury as a result of UV exposure, and all my encounters with strange people thus far have been at night.

An antique store we’ve visited every single time we’ve come down here draws us in as usual, and the work-related conversation gives way to sotto voce commentary on the available goods and resultant assumptions about the mindsets of people in previous decades and centuries (as well as the mindsets of people willing to buy these things today at these prices). It is somewhat engrossing, I have to admit, and there are quite a few minutes — many of them stacked all in a row — inside the store during which I give not a thought to vampires or anyone masquerading as such. But the issue rises to the top of my consciousness immediately again when I step outside and observe that sunset it upon us.

“What are you looking for?” Renee eventually wonders, indicating that my attempts to at least keep my searching glances subtle, if I can’t eliminate them entirely, have failed.

“Nothing.” The idea of explaining does cross my mind, and in a serious way, but is dismissed after not too long. Aside from the irritating fact that I’m now operating under an assumption that I’m being constantly stalked, and therefore anything I say to Renee is likely to be overheard by one of those people, I also find I can’t be sure of her reaction. Would she worry about my state of mental health, or dismiss my fixation and concern as meaningless? Would she consider this a legitimate threat that requires an actual police response, or merely a dark practical joke? I don’t know, and it’s not a conversation I want to have. We’ve been dating for several months now, but apparently we just aren’t that close yet.

Neither of us is particularly demonstrative, so when she slips her hand into mine with a firm grip, I know it’s not a casual gesture, but a bid for my fuller attention. She’s a demanding person and often possessive, which I don’t mind in general because these are characteristics that we share, but right now her desire to be my sole focus, though totally understandable, is an inconvenience. And I find myself annoyed all over again at my supposed stalkers for their ruination, when I can’t even detect their presence yet and am only just assuming, of something as personal as a date with my girlfriend.

At this thought, a new (if interrelated) consideration arises within me: why am I allowing the behavior of others — in this case, merely their presumed behavior — to dictate my own? Am I not my own man, a responsible adult capable of decisions, motivations, and strength of character entirely unrelated to what those around me choose to do? Even if I am being stalked — and even if I am being stalked by vampires — that such a circumstance should ruin my evening out with my girlfriend only means I’m allowing it to do so.

It’s probable that my resolve regarding this matter has been weaker than it should have because I’m so unaccustomed to dealing with this type of distraction. When have I ever found something so gripping, so engrossing? I’ve had little practice keeping my head under such circumstances, so even where I feel I should excel based on my own natural propensities, I’ve been failing simply through lack of experience.

In order both to provide Renee with an explanation of sorts and to take control of my own experience and frame of mind, I decide to tell her about the murders. It’s not what’s really bothering me, but it’s connected.

“That isn’t your case, though, is it?” she wonders when, after glancing around to make sure no one detectable is listening in (I can’t do anything about anyone hypothetically lurking in the shadows), I’ve outlined what I know so far.

“No,” I reply. “But I’m sure you’ve heard about the latest murder. The body was found at the grocery store in my neighborhood.”

We’re walking along the lamplit sidewalk between stores, and she doesn’t slow as she gives me an appraising look. “Yeah, I did hear about that. It didn’t occur to me that was the one you shop at, but I guess it was.”

I nod. It’s possible she believes now — and my manner of presenting this would not have deterred the belief — that I have some level of interest in the case, possibly even some discomfort or concern regarding it, because of its closeness to home. Being so disingenuous with my own girlfriend may not be the optimal way of dealing with this situation, but it’s better than nothing, than not dealing with it at all.

That I’ve sunk to ‘better than nothing’ makes everything all the more galling.

“Someone’s obviously going out of their way to make these look like classic vampire attacks,” she muses, and I appreciate that she’s humoring me and engaging in conversation about this, even if vampires aren’t the topic I would really prefer at this time. “And you have to assume the average person doesn’t have the equipment or know-how — or patience — to drain large amounts of blood from bodies.”

I nod, trying to keep from glancing down the alley we’re passing as I do so. It’s getting darker and darker, and I’m not so much wondering whether one of those people is nearby as assuming they are and just wondering whether I’ll be able to catch a glimpse of them. This has gotten extremely stupid.

“That makes it seem less random, doesn’t it?” Renee goes on. “Somebody planned and bought equipment for this.”

Even as I’m agreeing with her and entering into a discussion of what equipment might allow the thorough bleeding of a human body through small wounds in the neck — and, though neither of us is anything like a medical professional, certain questions of blood pressure and the seeming difficulty of the task arise almost immediately — I’m remembering, with a bit of a chill, something I overheard that Megumi woman saying: “Do you have any idea who’s vagabonding around here? When I felt the touch on one of the police, I thought they might be farther along than they usually get.”

I’m coming to accept the fact that some part of me is taking the vampire idea entirely seriously, so it’s no surprise that that part feels some immediate, sardonic pity for my co-worker who isn’t likely to get anywhere on his case against a ‘vagabonding’ vampire. That same part of me wonders, furthermore, whether Megumi, with her holstered wooden stakes, is in the area to deal with the problem herself. If some vampires are the enemies of humanity and others are not, it seems the latter would feel a moral imperative to protect the weaker humans from the former. Somebody qualified had better be handling the matter, if the police are destined to fail at doing so, before more innocent people die.

Of course, maybe vampires simply don’t care about human murders. I’m pretty sure tracking down whoever is ‘vagabonding around here’ isn’t the reason the young man is present.

The rest of me, the part that believes itself the most rational and still insists that vampires can’t possibly exist, is simply more irritated than ever that I’m having these thoughts at all. It rededicates itself to the conversation with Renee, which may be about vampire attacks but is probably about the more human kind of monster the police are more accustomed to dealing with, no matter how much morbid know-how, patience, and purchased equipment they may have.

We look through a few shop windows as we carry our discussion onward, then cross the street and head back in the opposite direction, still leisurely doing the same, but make no move to further our original plan of browsing and deriving amusement from store contents. It’s as if we’ve come to an unspoken agreement not to get any closer to other people than we have to, whether because our conversation is confidential or because I’m still obviously distracted I don’t know.

And I wonder, as we walk, whether the growing sense that someone is watching us, listening to us, following us, is merely the inevitable result of my preexisting paranoia, or something more substantial.

Renee is too sharp for this. She knows perfectly well that I’m disengaged, even without my constant attempts not to look around trying to find the source of my suspicions. She knows I introduced the current topic of conversation in an attempt to keep up a real interaction with her, and she knows the degree to which I’ve failed. It’s no great surprise when, eventually, undoubtedly tiring of my half presence, she pulls my person two steps down the space between two buildings and my face down to hers for a kiss that’s far more pointed than passionate.

And now there can be no mistake: I’m certain I feel eyes on me, with every bit as much focus as Renee’s lips. It’s like a burning, not on the back of my neck since I can’t pinpoint any location so exact, but somewhere on my figure. And this time it’s undeniable.

As she draws away, Renee is giving me a piercing, calculating look. Clearly the purpose of that kiss was not to make another demand for my greater attention but to assess more precisely the lack thereof. And when I can’t help glancing around in a brief but undoubtedly quite visible (and futile) attempt at locating the fiery-eyed watcher whose scrutiny so intensified during the last several moments, my returning gaze finds Renee’s somewhat narrowed as she meets it.

“We should get going,” she says, and her tone is distinctly cool. I don’t think she’s necessarily upset with me, but she’s certainly not pleased with the situation.

I couldn’t agree more.


I tried to insist I was surprised to find myself going to see Sano the very next day, but in fact it was no surprise at all: following yesterday’s unexpected, transformative encounter, I’d made little to no progress tracking down the murderer — still — and I found myself not only looking forward to having something else to think about, but actively yearning for his distracting company. Craving it. I knew I’d been long repressing an attraction to him, but I couldn’t help thinking it had broken out far more intensely than it probably would have if the dam hadn’t burst in the middle of a case like this.

This time I actually knocked, and relatively quietly too. The sun had only just disappeared behind the horizon, but I had no idea when Tsukioka was likely to be resting; no need to disturb him if I wasn’t here, for once, to wreak havoc of the peace of the household. Beyond that, I wanted Sano to come out here alone.

The way his face lit up when he saw who stood at his door was… not just gratifying, not just amusing and touching… it was exhilarating. And not simply because his face was so nicely shaped and that seeming inner light made him even more handsome and desirable; there was an answering spark in me, a flame fanned by the sight of him and his pleasure at seeing me, that was as galvanizing as it was confusing. I’d been away from him for months working in other parts of the country without any hint of discontentment; why did I find now, after barely a day and a half, that I missed him madly, was almost ecstatic to meet him again? It seemed I’d opened a greater floodgate even than I’d realized by admitting my interest in him. I would have to be careful.

This last thought, cold as it was and little quarter as I was inclined to give it right now, was reinforced by his manner of greeting me. After what had passed between us yesterday, I was expecting some enthusiasm, but I wasn’t expecting him to fling himself at me. He didn’t even bother to close his apartment door first.

Breaking the contact he’d initiated, not terribly happy with just how much I enjoyed the sensation of his breath against my face, I sighed, “You have absolutely no sense of discretion.”

“Never wanted one, either,” Sano replied lazily, grinning up at me.

I shrugged away from him, trying not to glance around to note the precise number and nature of passersby or neighbors who might have observed his attempted kiss. “Don’t get all over me in public.”

“That’s just like you.” Sano sounded annoyed. “We gotta sneak around. Keep things quiet. Don’t let anyone know that we might be human.”

“Who says I’m human?” I replied sardonically.

At this he appeared even more irritated, and, finally closing his apartment door, brought an accusatory expression toward me. “I’ve waited a fucking long time for you to get your head out of your almighty ass and pay some real attention to me,” he growled, “but no way am I going to do this if you’re going to be all embarrassed about me and pretend it isn’t happening.”

I wasn’t about to admit that he’d always had my attention, and to let him know that I didn’t think him nearly as worthless as he assumed I did would just be unsporting. “Good of you to realize how embarrassing it is for me to like someone like you…” I paused to admire the glow of anger in his eyes before continuing, “but that has nothing to do with it.”

“Well, then, what does?”

“I once stabbed you to make a point about the dangers of keeping people you care about around while you deal with serious situations.” Remembering the relative privacy we’d managed yesterday in the yard behind his apartment, I began walking in that direction.

Sano followed. “I thought it was to make a point about how Kenshin trying to protect people didn’t work.”

“It was a multi-pointed demonstration. What I mean is that it’s unwise for someone like me, someone in a position to have any number of enemies — especially right now when I have no idea who my enemy is — it’s unwise for me to publicize my close relationships.”

I thought he would protest further, but either he actually comprehended what I was trying to say or decided it wasn’t worth arguing at the moment. He only grinned complacently and echoed, “‘Close relationships…'” Then, the instant we were secluded within the yard that had been my destination, he was against me, pulling at me with strong hands mostly below the belt, dragging me into tight contact with him and leaning up to breathe into my ear, “You kissed me here yesterday, and it wasn’t even this dark out then.”

“And I would fuck you here right now,” I told him, almost growling in response to his groping hands, “if it were just a little cleaner.” My arms slid around him, reciprocating his suggestive gestures despite having just said that I didn’t intend to do what I was certain we both wanted.

His voice was husky and a little breathless as he said, “It’ll be really dark back here soon… You wouldn’t even notice how dirty it is.”

“I’d still be aware of it,” I said regretfully. “I’ve seen it in the light, and my imagination would make it worse when I couldn’t see it.”

He laughed, and the rich sound in the growing shadows was tinged with both amusement and a regret even stronger than mine. “It’s kindof insulting that you’d be thinking more about the walls and shit than me at a time like that.” His tone brightened as he added, “But it’s nice to know you do plan on fucking me sometime or other.”

“Right now is inconvenient,” I breathed into his neck.

Once again he didn’t protest when I expected him to. “Yeah, with Katsu here…” I could tell he was trying to stop pressing against me so meaningfully, stop grinding his hips against mine. He took a deep breath, drawing back slightly. “Well, at least kiss me.”

“Your self-restraint keeps surprising me,” I told him in perfect honesty. It wasn’t that I’d expected him to beg for sex right here and now — though, secretly, I might have liked him to — but neither had I expected this kind of forbearance from him, especially after I’d already been taken unawares by his consideration and constraint yesterday; I thought I’d reached my allotment for, oh, the next year or so.

“I think you’ll find I’m full of surprises,” he replied, and, despite his slightly flippant tone, I got the feeling he was quite serious; he was both chiding me for underestimating him and promising that there was more to him than he felt I was aware of.

He was wrong; I’d always been aware that there was an entire world beyond that shallow and careless exterior… but I’d certainly never let on that I knew, perhaps because I’d never before considered reaching into those depths and seeing exactly how far they extended. Now the thought of finding out everything that lay in that interesting space beyond the beautiful brown eyes unexpectedly caused me to shiver with an anticipation that, though it was not in itself physical, made me suddenly want to fuck him more than ever. Unfortunately, we’d already discussed and dismissed that possibility. So I just kissed him instead.

“You know, I honestly didn’t expect to see you again so soon,” he said eventually. “I figured I’d have to come looking for you and remind you I exist.”

After the consistency with which he’d returned to my mind even in the midst of the work I’d been doing, this idea was consummately absurd.

“What are you laughing about?” he demanded. “I’m serious. You think I don’t know your work’s more important to you than anything?” He added almost disdainfully, “I think I know you at least that well. Besides, aren’t you married? You probably already have shit to do after work.”

“Which is why I came here straight from the station today,” I replied with a touch of sarcasm.

“You are married, though, right? I thought Kenshin mentioned that sometime…” And now, though he was aiming for casualness, there was a certain concern in his voice as he essentially asked whether his involvement with me was causing infidelity on my part. Of course he wouldn’t like the thought of that. Neither would I.

“Technically, yes,” I answered. “It’s been more convenient not to divorce, but we’ve been separated for three years.”

On the east side of one of the surrounding buildings — Sano’s apartment, actually, if I was judging correctly — the shadows grew around us more quickly than in the rest of the yard. His shifting movement as he looked up at me, however, and what little I could see of his face told plainly that he was dying to ask why I’d split from my wife; he wanted reassurance that I was free to pursue whomever I preferred at this point, that this was all legitimate. Moreover, I thought, he wanted gossip.

“It was only natural,” I said, happy to give him what he wanted in this instance. “It was an arranged marriage. We never disliked each other, but there was never a strong attachment either.”

“No, no, no, you said that wrong.” I could hear the grin in the words. “You guys never disliked each other; therefore there was never a strong attachment.”

I laughed again. Trust him to put it like that.

Someone had entered the yard, no doubt on the way to the privy, and started at our presence. He couldn’t have gotten a very good look at us in the shadows, but whatever our low voices and close proximity to each other put him in mind of — a cop abusing his power, some kind of secret assignation, or the perfectly innocent (if fairly intimate) conversation it actually was — he hurried past with eyes averted.

Smirking, I went on in a quieter tone, “Tokio lives in Toyama with our three children. I don’t see them often, but we exchange a lot of letters.”

“Wow, three kids…” I wasn’t certain exactly what was in Sano’s tone. Jealously that I had three children with a woman he’d never met? Wonder at the fact that I was old enough to have three children at all? Or something else?

I decided to inquire. “Is that so unbelievable?”

“No…” He shrugged, biting his lip. “No, not really. It’s just… I mean… do you like them?”

So that was it. He still maintained some (probably more than a little) lingering suspicion that I was a heartless bastard, and was having a difficult time reconciling that with the idea of a fond father.

I chuckled again and, after the privy-using stranger had passed us once more and left the yard, started to do something I had never dreamed I might be even remotely inclined toward: tell Sagara Sanosuke all about my children.

It was, as the entire conversation had been, a profound relief. The topic was so far removed from the late local string of murders that I could almost pretend to forget the latter was taking place. Beyond that, I found myself enjoying the discussion for its own sake. I’d certainly never been one of those fatuous parents that rambled at length about every insignificant detail of their children’s lives, but my offspring were consistently fairly amusing and intelligent, for their ages, and I rarely if ever got the chance to talk about them.

Sano seemed more than a little intrigued — possibly because of that aforementioned lingering suspicion that no emotion so soft as fatherly affection could possibly exist in my heart, possibly simply because he liked children; whatever the reason, I appreciated his engagement and his interested questions.

I also got the feeling that he still wanted to do any number of obscene things to me right here and now, despite the unsexiness of our topic and the fact that we’d separated to a more reasonable distance for a conversation like this. And he was still restraining himself. The angle of his body, the pattern of his breathing, the way his eyes caught the occasional glint of light as they moved restlessly over me… these were the only symptoms he displayed, but they were clear enough.

This continued desire, the restraint, and even his evident absorption in a subject I hadn’t expected to engross him so readily made him that much more attractive to me as well. I was actually starting to consider lowering my standards of cleanliness and perhaps making use of this yard after all — despite the potential witnesses that occasionally passed through on their way to and from the amenities in back — when the conversation took a less pleasant turn.

It was inevitable, I supposed. Just because he’d refrained for a while from poking around in my business didn’t mean he’d forgotten about it, and I had mentioned that I sometimes described some of my simpler cases in my letters to my children. Even so, I could not but respond at first with an almost angry sigh when Sano asked how the murder investigation was going.

“That good, huh?” Though there was sympathy in his grinning tone, I still pinched his ass; it helped me resign myself to talking about this. “Hey!” he yelped, obviously having been expecting something else entirely from my moving close to him again. “What was that for?”

For no reason I could quite understand even in my own mind, I decided to confide in him. It was odd and seemed a little unwise, since, though things between us had changed, he hadn’t changed… but I wanted to trust him. I wanted someone to whom I could explain all my feelings of frustration and inadequacy regarding this case, and I wanted that someone to be him.

Fortunately, my good sense intervened. Maybe at some point I would be able to converse that intimately with Sanosuke, but that point was not the second day of our new relationship. Some things I would tell him; everything I would not.

“The name your friend provided may be of some use after all, but I’m still not sure yet.” Taking advantage of my regained closeness to Sano, I spoke in a low and guarded tone; I didn’t see anyone around at the moment, but this still wasn’t something I wanted to proclaim to the entire street. “Tomizawa fits the specific class that half the murder victims have been, and some of their deaths must have been advantageous to him in a business sense… but so far that’s all that links him to the crimes. Apparently he hasn’t changed his habits or acted at all strangely recently, and the people around him can verify where he’s been most of the time…”

“He hired an assassin?” Sano suggested.

“That’s the obvious conclusion,” I nodded. “The problem is that we’ve found no evidence of that yet… and he’s going to realize any time now, if he hasn’t already, that he’s under investigation, which will put him on his guard and may make evidence even harder to find.”

“Do you have to have evidence? Can’t you just go after him yourself?”

“I am authorized to carry out private executions,” I allowed, “but only when I’m personally convinced of someone’s guilt, and then only if the criminal seems likely to escape the law or cause serious trouble before he can be brought in. And I’m not convinced Tomizawa is our man.”

“Your job is so cool,” Sano murmured. He might as well have said, You are so cool,” for the tone he used.

I wasn’t about to admit how much his admiration pleased me; instead I just kissed him again.

“So what do you do next?” was his next question. He’d seemed reluctant to pull away from the kiss, and it was interesting that, even so, he’d gone right back to the topic of the murder case. Where the previous question hadn’t, this one set off warning bells.

“Keep investigating Tomizawa,” I replied, deliberately vague.

“And didn’t you say some woman with that name was being harassed? You thought it was me, but since it wasn’t, who was it? Is that part of this?”

I had long denigrated Sano’s intelligence, mostly for my own amusement, but in reality I’d been perfectly well aware that he was far from the idiot I always named him. And I knew perfectly well what the eager yet contemplative tone in his voice meant right now. Sternly I said, “I told you to stay out of this.”

“Yeah, and then you kissed me so hard it practically gave me a boner. Mixed messages, I thought.”

I couldn’t help smiling, but my voice was dark when I answered with words whose significance he had specifically comprehended only a few days before and that should mean even more now: “I don’t want you involved in this.”

The moon had risen as we talked, and now, by its light that intruded into our shadowy corner, I could clearly see the scowl on his face. “You still think I’m weak, don’t you?” He sounded more unhappy than angry, but the anger was building.

“Only relatively,” I said lightly, and even I didn’t know whether I sought to tease or reassure. Either way, he couldn’t doubt my complete seriousness as I went on, “But, Sano, this murderer is a monster. It’s my profession to deal with him. It’s not yours.”

“I used to fight — sometimes even kill people — professionally too, you know,” he tried, sounding surly.

“But not anymore. There’s no reason for you to be involved in this now.”

He pulled away, and the sudden absence of his warmth against me left a coolness even greater than physical contrast could account for. “I don’t need this,” he said quietly. “I don’t know whether you think I’m going to get in your way and fuck things up, or if you’re trying to pull a Kenshin and protect me, but either way, you don’t have to, because I’m not weak.”

I didn’t know if I was more annoyed at the suggestion that I was ‘trying to pull a Kenshin’ or the fact that he’d completely ignored the possibility that I didn’t want to see him used against me by the unknown enemy. But I couldn’t throw him on the ground and kick open an old wound this time to make my point. Well, I could — and would, if he made me angry enough — but at the moment it didn’t seem the optimal course of action.

Instead I said tightly, “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. This is my job, which I’m going to do my way. It’s not your responsibility, and there’s no reason for you to get involved.”

“No reason except maybe I don’t want you involved with this monster either,” Sano shot back, “but since you have to be, it’d sure make me feel better if I could help.”

I stared down at him. It wasn’t that I couldn’t comprehend his frustration at the idea of being left behind or even the implication that he wasn’t strong enough… it was just that I hated the thought of him being exposed to a murderer who had, so far, drained all the blood from eight bodies… hated it even more than I’d suspected I would. And I appreciated his reciprocal desire for my noninvolvement — again, more than I’d suspected I would — but that didn’t change a thing.

“I’m sorry,” I said at last, “that I can’t take your feelings into consideration here.”

“Funny how you can take yours, though,” he said bitterly.

I was going to tell him that we couldn’t have it both ways. I was going to tell him that it made sense for him to be the one to give way in this scenario because I was assigned to this and he was not. I was going to tell him that it didn’t matter whether or not he was weak when the important factor was his level of strength relative to the anonymous murderer, and that was something we couldn’t know. I was going to tell him to stop being an idiot. I was going to tell him again that I was sorry. But I ended up telling him none of these things, because the irate, hurt expression on the face that caught the moonlight as he turned it up toward me suddenly affected me as it never had before.

“You know,” he said, “I’ve really been happy you came ’round tonight. But right now…” He broke off with a growl of frustration and turned away. Two steps from me he finished belatedly, “Good night,” unwillingly, as if he thought I didn’t deserve it but couldn’t bring himself to leave without it.

With very much the same attitude, I sent softly after him the only thing that was really available for me to say at that point: “Good night.” And though I was a little annoyed and more agitated, I refrained from adding, “ahou,” tempted though I was.


A problem that started early and that I struggled with throughout this story was to keep both halves interesting without either one getting ahead of where I wanted it and revealing information I wanted very specifically timed. Hence scenes like Part 7 that are basically filler, though I tried at least to make sure they entertained and provided some food for thought.


Clinical Treatment


The force with which Saitou threw Sano to the floor of the treatment room at the Oguni clinic sent blood spattering from the gash across his chest to the wood on which he now sprawled. Sano didn’t mind a little rough handing, especially from Saitou, but being practically dragged along the ground all the way from the bar to the doctor was something he didn’t much appreciate.

At their abrupt entry into the room Megumi had started a little, but now she only watched, calm and wordless, as Sano swore incoherently at Saitou. It was neither the first time this had happened nor particularly uncharacteristic.

“I told you I could get here just fine on my own!” was the first thing Sano managed to articulate properly. It was a pointless statement, however, since he had told Saitou that several times on the way over, and Saitou hadn’t listened then any more than he was likely to now.

“I’m not done with you,” the officer answered ominously.

“Shouldn’t you be dealing with the rest of that brawl?” wondered Sano, surly but not honestly wishing Saitou were anywhere but here.

“The men can earn their pay for once.” Saitou was glowering down at Sano as the latter shifted into a kneeling position and glared back. “Do you have any idea who that was I pulled you off of back there?”

“Yeah, I–”

“Sugiyama Shinichiro is an influential tradesman with connections all over the country. He’s one of the richest men in Tokyo and one of the most ruthless. A word from him could have you killed and your body hidden so no one would ever find you, and a second word would make sure nobody even looked.”

“Well, isn’t it your job to take care of guys like that?”

Saitou completely ignored this remark. “Just because his brother is every bit as worthless a deadbeat as you are does not make him a good target for your idiotic weekend games.”

“He wasn’t a ‘target!'” Sano protested with, he thought, a fair imitation of honest outrage. He was outraged, of course, but it was just the usual anger at Saitou’s treatment of him, not because the accusations were untrue. “He just happened to be there when that fight got started, and–”

“Just shut up, ahou. This is the fifth time in the last two months you’ve gotten yourself into this kind of trouble and I’ve had to get you out of it; I’m sick and tired of wasting my influence on you. You can’t just stick to lowlifes like yourself, can you?” Sano had rarely seen Saitou this irritated; it was very picturesque. “No, you have to seek out and start pointless fights with the highest-profile people you can find and get yourself into situations you need a government agent to get you out of alive.”

“It’s not like I go out looking for them,” Sano lied. He had struggled to his feet by this point, but here Saitou stepped forward and shoved him to the floor again.

“Is there some reason you keep doing this?” the officer demanded harshly, towering over Sano with fists clenched. “Some reason that fits into any logical human rationale? Or are you really every bit as brainless as I’ve always thought you?”

It was consistently marvelous to Sano how Saitou could enrage and electrify him at the same time; how Sano could have come to crave emotions he normally would have considered negative simply because they were the best he could expect from that source, desire this rough treatment only because it was closer to what he wanted than anyone else’s gentleness… and yet grow irate when he received it. Although he opened his mouth to answer, he couldn’t be sure what he planned on saying. He certainly wasn’t about to admit the reason he kept doing this, whether or not it would fit Saitou’s idea of ‘logical human rationale.’

But Saitou didn’t give him a chance to say anything at all. “This is the last time I step forward to help you out of a mess like this; do you understand?”

Sano tried not to show just how much of a stab this statement was. “But I thought the commissioner said–”

“I don’t care that you came to Kyoto and I don’t care that you’re Himura’s friend; it’s not my job to clean up after you, so next time you can just get yourself hanged so we can all be free of your idiocy.”

Sano had scrambled back and was moving to stand again, in response to which Saitou took a menacing step toward him, but at last Megumi spoke. Her tone was placid, and the spark in her eyes expressed plainly that the delay in her intervention was no accident. “Now, now, I can’t have you worrying my patient to death.”

“It would save you a considerable amount of trouble,” Saitou replied. He stared down at Sano with burning eyes for a long moment before striding abruptly from the room.

Once it had slammed shut, Sano tore his gaze from the door with an effort and rallied himself not only for the remonstrance he knew Megumi expected him to make but also for the entire conversation that must follow.

“You couldn’t have stepped in before he started ripping me a new one?”

“No,” she replied brusquely, “because then I would have had to do it, and I have enough to do with you tonight as it is.” Her hands were gentler than her tone, however, as she helped him to the patient bed and began examining his injuries. “Besides,” she added with a somewhat evil smile, “he’s so good at it. It would have been a shame to interrupt him.”

Sano couldn’t help grinning. “Yeah, he’s made an art out of being an asshole.”

“Trouble attracts trouble, I suppose,” she said with a slight sigh.

“Yeah, I wish,” Sano muttered.

She’d been muttering something of her own at the time — “I’m going to have to stitch this,” he thought — and hadn’t heard him. “What was that?”

“Nothing.”

“But really,” she went on as she washed her hands in the basin by the door, “have you noticed we only see him when something goes wrong?”

“Yeah, it sucks.”

The glance she shot him was more confused than anything else, but there might have been a hint of suspicion to it.

“That I keep having to be helped by him,” Sano explained quickly.

“Well,” she sniffed, “maybe you should get a clue and stop getting into this kind of trouble.”

“Yeah…” Sano murmured, glancing again at the door. Then he added more quietly, “Where do you s’pose they took that Sugiyama guy…?”

“It’s probably best not to ask,” Megumi replied. “And lie still.”

There was something a little untrustworthy about her tone, and Sano speculated immediately, “He’s here, isn’t he?”

Megumi laughed musically and, Sano thought, a little uneasily. “Why would someone like that come to this clinic when he undoubtedly has a private doctor back at his estate?”

“Because it’s closest. Ow! shit! warn me before you stick fucking needles into me!”

She made a disdainful noise and continued stitching up his worst injury.

“Anyway,” Sano grunted, “he was only half-conscious when I last saw him, and he didn’t seem to have enough of a brain to get himself to the right place even when he wasn’t drunk off his ass and kinda beat-up… by me…”

There’s the pot calling the kettle black,” Megumi said with a roll of eyes, snipping off her thread deftly and concisely wiping the blood away from the newly-sewn-up wound. “And don’t jump to conclusions.”

Contemplatively Sano watched her apply bandages to the fresh stitches and what other of his hurts required them. “If they’d brought him here, he’d probably be in the opposite corner room,” he mused.

Rolling her eyes yet again, Megumi stood abruptly. Applying pressure to a rather uncomfortable spot on his chest, she forced him to lie down. “You are more trouble than you’re worth,” she remarked, and went to wash her hands again.

“Pretty sure you’re not the only one who thinks so,” Sano grinned, putting his arms casually behind his head.

“And now if you’ll excuse me, I have other patients to look in on.”

“Including Sugiyama, right?” Sano abandoned his relaxed pose almost immediately after assuming it, sitting up.

“You need to lie still for a bit,” she admonished, not entirely without the air of one making excuses, as she reached for the door.

“Why should I lie around at all?” demanded Sano, a triumphant grin growing on his face. “You didn’t give me any drugs or nothing. You’re running off to get him out of here before I can get at him, aren’t you?”

She drew herself up with dignity. “As I said, I have other patients to look in on. It has nothing to do with you. And you need to lie down because I’m your doctor and I said so.”

Sano jumped up, fully prepared to follow her wherever she was going and see if his guess was correct. As if to escape him, she opened the door quickly and took a step forward… but then fell back a pace with an inadvertent gasp. Even Sano’s progress was stopped in his surprise.

“I’ll handle this, doctor,” Saitou said, stepping through the door past Megumi, his dark, irritated gaze locked on Sano’s face.

Megumi could recover her presence of mind quicker than anyone Sano knew. “I would appreciate that,” she smiled. “Thank you, officer.” And she was gone.

Saitou closed the door and advanced. He did not look happy.

Sano was torn between pleasure that Saitou had returned (or perhaps never left) and wondering if Saitou might actually deliberately injure him this time and give Megumi more work. But all he said, in a tone of relatively indifferent defiance, was, “What are you doing still here?”

“Making sure you don’t do exactly what you’re trying to do right now.”

“Oh, really? What do you think I’m doing that’s so awful it requires your personal attention?”

Saitou gave a frustrated sigh. “You weren’t angry enough tonight to justify a follow-up visit to that overdressed idiot, so the only reason I can think of for you to be stalking him now is to draw attention to yourself again.”

“Draw attention to myself?” Sano echoed, trying to sound surprised at the accusation and, he feared, failing. “Why the hell would I do that?”

“I don’t know, ahou; why don’t you tell me? I’ve had the feeling you were getting yourself into trouble on purpose all this time, but even of you I almost couldn’t believe it. How is it possible for you to be that stupid? Or are you suicidal?”

“Something like that,” Sano muttered. When Saitou’s impatient, irritated glare indicated the insufficiency of this answer, it was Sano’s turn to sigh. “You’re the investigator,” he said. “You should be able to figure it out.”

He wasn’t sure exactly how to interpret the narrowing of Saitou’s eyes at this. There wasn’t, he believed, any way Saitou could really be completely in the dark about his motives… unless he did simply think Sano suicidally stupid. Well, Saitou had said this was the last time he would help him out of a situation like tonight’s, which meant this little game had to end here. So, Sano figured, he might as well finish digging his grave before trying to evade it. He’d known, after all, that this moment had to come eventually; he hadn’t really been prepared for it (if that was even possible), but he’d certainly known.

“I noticed you help me out way more than makes sense unless… And I thought, ‘Well, maybe he really…'” Sano gave a half laugh and shrugged. “The truth is,” he said after a deep breath, “I kinda li–”

The confession, the very syllable was cut off by Saitou’s hand over his mouth as another clamped down on his arm to hold him in place. Sano’s eyes went wide in surprise as he half-choked in the cigarette scent of the glove and stared into Saitou’s face that was suddenly very near his own. This behavior at another time might have angered him, but with Saitou so close, and Sano just having said (or started to say) what he had, all he could feel was the overfast pounding of his heart.

“Ahou,” the wolf admonished in a low, intense tone, “think, for once in your life, before you speak. Think about who you’re talking to before you finish that statement.” For a long moment he paused, while Sano waited breathlessly to see where he was going with this. “Because if you invite,” Saitou finally continued, “I’m not going to refuse.” Feeling his eyes widen and his pulse intensify even farther, Sano wondered why on earth Saitou was phrasing this like a warning. “But if you’re looking for something soft and romantic,” the officer finished, “you’re better off with that woman.”

Sano wasn’t quite sure what woman Saitou could possibly be referring to. As a matter of fact, he really only had an amorphous concept of what a woman was at this point, given that the world had narrowed to the hot, expectant space he and Saitou occupied and nothing else seemed to exist.

The hand over his mouth pulled slowly away. As his lips were grazed slightly by Saitou’s fingers in this movement, Sano found his face tilting forward slightly as if to ask them to stay. And now he couldn’t think of anything to say. Saitou’s caution, after all, was valid enough; Sano knew perfectly well that, the moment this moment was over and the strangeness and anticipation had passed, he was certain to be irate at the cop again for something or other.

But, hell, that would be then. This was now.

“I’ve been starting brawls and getting myself stabbed just to get you to show up,” he replied hoarsely, “and you think you’re gonna scare me off with a vague little threat like that?”

The smile that spread slowly across Saitou’s face sent an intense, prickling shudder running through Sano’s entire body. Though not much different on the surface from the man’s usual predatory smirk, yet it somehow suggested he was deeply satisfied with Sano’s answer — as if his warning had been a test and Sano had passed particularly well.

And then Saitou descended on him like some force of nature made flesh, kissing Sano suddenly and fiercely. Rough gloved hands gripped him, pressing painfully against his injuries; possessive arms encircled him, making him feel always just a little off-balance and, for the moment, utterly dependent; and at their uppermost point of connection Saitou seemed to be attempting to devour Sano alive and whole. Sano didn’t think he’d ever felt anything so wonderful.

“I shouldn’t be rewarding you for your stupid ideas,” Saitou murmured after a while against Sano’s lips.

“Admit it,” Sano triumphed (though perhaps that was the wrong word when he could still hardly believe this was happening) — “you couldn’t stand the idea of me getting hanged or whatever, so you kept showing up to help me even when it annoyed the hell out of you.”

Saitou hmphhd and went back to kissing Sano thoroughly.

“That’s an unusual way of handling it,” Megumi commented suddenly from the door.

It was like that old story where the guy got a look at heaven only to find years had passed during the brief glimpse. Surely it hadn’t been long enough for Megumi to deal with some other patient — possibly to the point where he could be discharged — and decide it was safe to come back into a room where Saitou was supposedly raging? And why didn’t she look nearly as surprised as Sano thought she should?

Meanwhile, Saitou had, very unfortunately, released him and turned an amused expression on the doctor. “Nevertheless, the situation is under control,” he said.

“The end always justifies the means with you, doesn’t it?” Whether the disapproval in her voice was real or feigned, or to what exactly it referred, Sano couldn’t quite tell.

“In this case a more accurate idiom would be ‘killing two birds with one stone.'”

Megumi looked as if she had some issue she wasn’t vocalizing, and in any case she didn’t smirk nearly as well as Saitou did — but she still definitely had her own style. “I trust, then, I won’t be seeing him in here again.”

Saitou raised an eyebrow with a brief laugh. “I’m taking him in hand, not miraculously giving him a brain. You still have the pointless fights he’s always getting into, self-inflicted injury, and whatever I do to him to deal with.” At this point Sano protested rather loudly, but they both ignored him as Saitou finished, “Situations like tonight’s, however, you no longer need to worry about.”

“Then I suppose I won’t have to move Sugiyama-san after all.”

“No,” laughed Sano. “Matter of fact, give him my best.”

“Get out of here,” she commanded wryly. “You’ve had all the clinical treatment you need for one night.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that.” Sano glanced slyly at Saitou, who seemed unable to restrain a faint smirk at the suggestion. Signs were good that Saitou had been in much the same state of mind Sano had ever since Kyoto, and Sano’s pleasure at the cleverness of his own plan (stupid as it had seemed all along) was overshadowed only by his pleasure at its outcome.

Megumi snorted and rolled her eyes. Then she fixed the latter somewhat severely on Saitou. “I’d better not see him back in here tonight, at least. I have other things to do.”

“Nah…” Sano felt suddenly a bit sheepish about all the trouble he’d given Megumi over the last couple of months in pursuit of an end he’d never really considered very likely. “Got no reason to go looking for fights now.” Especially since he could probably find one with Saitou now any time he wanted, and not even need to go to extreme measures to get the man’s attention.

As if reading his thoughts, Saitou punched him in the arm none too gently. “Ahou. That’s not what she meant.”

“God, asshole, that’s no reason to fucking hit me!” Sano’s hand went from rubbing the spot on his arm to striking out against Saitou, who stepped easily aside. “What the hell did you think she meant?”

“I’ll explain on the way,” Saitou smirked. “Come on.” And he started toward the door.

“Where are we going?” Sano jogged after him.

“I’ll explain that too.”

“Hey, see you, kitsune!” Sano whirled, walking backward for a few paces, to wave at Megumi. Stumbling, his back running hard into the doorframe, he was soon forced to resume normal movement; but before he turned he saw her standing still watching them leave, arms crossed, rolling her eyes at him again.

She was smiling, though.


I’ve rated this story .

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


Angles – The Color of 120° 11-14



1-6
Chapter 1 - Something
Chapter 2 - No Security
Chapter 3 - Chaos (ScornBloodConfusion)
Chapter 4 - The Beginnings(?) of Distraction
Chapter 5 - Other Beginnings
Chapter 6 - Fallout
Chapter 7 - Confrontation, Confession
Chapter 8 - Stronger Distraction
Chapter 9 - Still Not Obsessive
Chapter 10 - In A New Light
Chapter 11 - Angles
Chapter 12 - A First Time For Everything
Chapter 13 - Wait
Chapter 14 - Difficult As Hell
Chapter 15 - The Point of Strength and Fire
Chapter 16 - The Color of 120°


Chapter 11 – Angles

He could go in there and comment, “Yeah, pretty serious shit you didn’t want my help with, ain’t it?”

He’d taken a restless little walk around the station, and had been trying to decide whether or not to go back into that office and talk to Saitou again, only to hear, upon his return, through the door of said room, Kenshin doing exactly that. His lover’s surprised and horrified voice crying “Kyoto Taika?!” sent shivers up Sano’s spine. It seemed much longer than a mere couple of weeks since he’d seen him, seemed like a lot had changed. He hadn’t set eyes on the rurouni since before reading the words I love you, and he was sure their meeting would mean more than a standard reunion; he still wasn’t certain whether he felt angrier or happier with Kenshin. And “Yeah, pretty serious shit…” seemed like a decent way to enter the conversation. But for some reason he didn’t do it.

Saitou was explaining, his tone relatively devoid of emotion, how he’d learned of Shishio’s arson plans. Saitou was all business, of course. Lives and the country were in danger, and Saitou wasn’t dragging personal shit into it. Even if he had brought up his wife for no good reason just a little earlier. Sano couldn’t quite admonish himself to follow Saitou’s example, but, even so, perhaps a less pointed opening remark, such as, “With shit like this going down, seems like you can use all the help you can get,” would be better.

“It seems strange,” Kenshin remarked pensively.

“Strange like going on an epic quest without your boyfriend?” That would also be a good interjection… but still Sano didn’t move.

“You think so too?” wondered Saitou.

Sano frowned and leaned against the door in order to catch every word more fully. Not that it was important that Saitou and Kenshin had some similar unfathomable thought; he just didn’t want to miss any of what was certainly an important conversation.

“No matter how strong Shishio’s organization is,” mused the wolf, “we still have an overwhelming advantage of numbers. So their tactics will have to emphasize surprise attacks and assassination, and this Kyoto Taika will have to rely on the same things. If their plans aren’t kept a complete secret, they can’t accomplish anything nearly that big. Their security should be so tight that information leaks are a matter of life and death, so I thought someone would be sent to eliminate Chou before he could be brought to tell what he knows. I set up a close watch down in the cells… but there was no sign of anyone, and it turns out you can get anything out of Chou without much effort.”

Sano snorted. It made sense, though; in that light, it did seem strange. Sano surely would have noticed if he hadn’t been distracted. It was about time he made his entrance.

“There must be something behind the Kyoto Taika that is a secret even to the Juppongatana,” Kenshin agreed.

“Well, going places and doing shit without your allies is popular these days,” Sano could say, if he walked in there right now.

“There must be some other target.”

“Either that or there’s some other…” But that was going a little too far; he wouldn’t say that.

Sano didn’t know the reason for his continually increasing anger as he listened. It wasn’t as if anything inappropriate was going on behind this door, or as if anything had happened to render him more annoyed than he had been before Kenshin had arrived… but… couldn’t Kenshin tell he was here?

“This is modeled after the Ikedaya affair,” Saitou said decisively. “Since Shishio is taking over the country and taking revenge at the same time, he’s probably playing a game of some sort with the Kyoto Taika and this other target.”

Playing a game with an ostensible objective and a second, concealed one. That concept was just… Yeah, it must be Shishio Sano was so angry at.

There was silence for a few moments. Sano could head in there and berate Kenshin for his mean trick right now, but… what exactly would he say?

“In the battle of Tobafushimi,” began Kenshin, his words slow, dark, and thoughtful, “Tokugawa Yoshinobu deceived his own allies by retreating by ship from Osaka Bay to Edo. This maneuver was the main reason for the government victory. It would be ironic if Shishio could somehow mirror that tactic for his own victory… Here!” Sano was startled by the vehemence and volume of the sudden exclamation. “The Kyoto Taika is only the first stage of his plan! His true objective is a marine bombardment of Tokyo!”

Sano’s frown had by now become an irate glower; again, the logic in there was flawless, this conclusion even less pleasant than the last. And he couldn’t help thinking he could easily open the door and say, “Tokyo? What, you mean that place I was supposed to stay so I wouldn’t get involved?”

“I see…” Saitou sounded pretty glowery too. “The Kyoto Taika is an opening move that will draw all eyes to where Shishio’s forces are meeting head-on with the police in a flashy battle. He deliberately released the information about it to draw attention from his real target: the seat of the government and a place that can’t be put out of harm’s way.”

“Tokyo will not be able to combat a marine attack!” was Kenshin’s energetic worry. “That’s the one thing they cannot avoid! There’s no time! Hurry!”

“Hurry to leave me behind again?” He could say that. Or… could have. It was too late now. The door was opening. Actions spoke louder anyway.

***

Himura really didn’t seem to have seen it coming, truly didn’t seem to have noticed Sagara’s presence in the hall. Saitou wasn’t sure how this could be possible when the boy was so conspicuous that his mere presence in the building was like having a bonfire glowing just out of the corner of one’s eye; should he consider it significant that Himura had been so preoccupied?

The crack of fist meeting face was nearly concurrent with Himura’s startled gasp and followed by the rustle of cloth as he stumbled and Sagara caught him. It hadn’t been a light punch, and, Saitou suspected, the unfamiliar circumstance of its taking Himura entirely by surprise made its impact all the stronger. Then Sagara hauled the redhead upright and kissed him, and the poor man looked completely stunned.

Well. ‘Poor man’ was not an apt description.

Saitou didn’t bother trying not to stare, to study the contact of their lips, their clutching arms and hands. He’d never actually seen them behave like lovers before, and, though there was nothing particularly surprising about the display, he felt something that seemed a little like surprise. Strikingly unexpected was that he couldn’t quite define the feeling, which was intense, a dizzying mix of pleasant and unpleasant, and not quite jealousy. He’d feared this would be too distracting, and he’d been right. He really didn’t have time to analyze such things right now, or to put up with useless displays of affection… and yet he did nothing to break up the unorthodox reunion.

As the kiss ended and Sagara’s eyes opened, the boy caught sight of the assiduous watcher. And his expression as their gazes met over Himura’s shoulder was about as unfathomable to Saitou as the emotion the previous action had produced. Sagara himself had literally shoved the status of his relationship with Himura in Saitou’s face at one point, and therefore shouldn’t have much room to complain of feeling intruded upon; Saitou got the impression he probably would anyway. But that wasn’t the look the boy was giving him now.

Nor was it the frenetic I have him and you can’t defiance he would have expected had he thought Sagara had any idea… It wasn’t even angry. Saitou couldn’t think him at peace, even in his lover’s arms; it must be that, having accomplished what he’d intended, his fury had abated. But why he seemed to be including Saitou in his brief period of contentment — or at least not actively excluding him — the wolf couldn’t understand. Was it simply Himura’s long-sought company that had made him momentarily so unhostile?

“Sano!” Once Himura had his breath back, his astonishment was great. “How did you get here? What are you doing here?”

The strange instant had passed as Sagara’s eyes returned to his lover. “I came with him,” he said — somewhat misleadingly, Saitou thought, and was that deliberate? — “to help you.”

Saitou abhorred having such a limited grasp on the nuances of a situation, even if it was merely the personal aspect that he shouldn’t be allowing to distract him so much in the first place. “Don’t you mean get in our way?” he asked caustically, and was pleased to feel the entire mood shift at once.

Sagara broke from Himura with clenched fists and an irate face that also looked, oddly enough, vaguely betrayed. “What the fuck is your problem?” he demanded. Saitou just smirked.

Himura’s admonition, “Calm down, Sano,” didn’t seem to be the primary impetus for the boy’s subsequent deep breath and angry sigh, but in any event Sagara did calm down, somewhat, and turned pointedly away from Saitou back to his lover.

“Anyway, I got a lot to tell you while we run; we should get going.”

“You’re going to run to Osaka, ahou?” Saitou couldn’t decide whether to laugh or to go over there and hit the boy on the head. “We’ll take a carriage.”

“Is there some reason–” Sagara began, but Himura interrupted him:

“I need to send a message to some allies here in Kyoto; Saitou, can you have someone deliver it immediately?”

A little surprised by the request because it didn’t seem Himura had only made it to diffuse the argument, Saitou nevertheless merely pointed to the office they’d just vacated and said, “Hurry. I have a telegram to send as well; I can have someone take yours at the same time.”

He’d expected a much greater delay to aggravate him before they could be on their way, especially given the current status of the Kyoto police force, but they managed to get their tasks finished quickly, and the carriage was ready for them soon thereafter. Then Sagara seemed oddly hesitant about climbing into the equipage, as if he had some other course of action in mind. Surely he didn’t really think he could run to Osaka…? But he sat down next to Himura without complaint, and they were off. As their rapid journey commenced, they all seemed to breathe a silent sigh and settle into their seats as if for a much-needed rest. Which is not to say the air among them was at all relaxed.

It was too late for the Osaka police to set up roadblocks despite the telegram; Saitou was agitatedly aware they were departing late, that at best they couldn’t arrive until nearly midnight, and he said so. “And if we have to search for him randomly once we get there,” he added, “we have no chance of success.”

“He will undoubtedly have his ship disguised as something unobtrusive and hidden among the others,” Himura replied logically, “but it will have to be a certain size and ready to depart. If we can get there in time, I’m certain we can find him without trouble.”

The officer nodded darkly. ‘If we can get there in time’ was the key point.

Sagara was looking between them with a scowl. “Why the hell are you two so gloomy? So we don’t make it… it’s not like Tokyo can be destroyed by just one ship.”

Again Saitou couldn’t decide whether to laugh at him or hit him… and, really, that he was indecisive in such a matter was significant.

“Shishio is not trying to destroy Tokyo,” Himura explained patiently. “Remember that the appearance of the black ships in Kaei 6 threw Edo into panic and led to the opening of the country and the Bakumatsu. Even though Edo has become Tokyo, the terror and uncertainty of that time and of the war still lingers in people’s hearts. If an unfamiliar ship suddenly appears in Tokyo Bay and opens fire, the city will, without a doubt, fall into total chaos.”

“The government doesn’t have the power to stop it,” Saitou agreed. “Tokyo will become a lawless region, paralyzing the government in a single stroke. Especially,” he added, “with so many of the Tokyo police relocated to deal with the other problems Shishio is causing.” The man was playing this all exceptionally well.

“Yeah, I see,” Sagara muttered. “It gets worse and worse.”

“How many policemen are in Kyoto?” asked Himura.

“Five thousand,” Saitou replied. “That’s ten times as much manpower as Shishio has. With that alone we should be able to hold off the fire.” Then, as an afterthought, he inquired, “What was that message you sent?”

Sagara looked at him sharply — Saitou wasn’t sure why — but said nothing. The wolf thought the boy was just as curious anyway.

“The police can hold off 500 soldiers,” was Himura’s answer, “but they cannot stop 500 sparks. To fight the Kyoto Taika, we need the help of the people who protected Kyoto during the Bakumatsu.”

Saitou smiled slightly. “Which people who protected Kyoto during the Bakumatsu?”

“The Oniwabanshuu,” was Himura’s reply.

“What?!” cried Sagara.

With a raised brow, Saitou wondered, “So Shinomori has decided to let you live?”

Himura also gave a small, reluctant smile. “Not as far as I know. This group is no longer under his leadership.”

“I shoulda known there’d be more of those bastards…” Sagara grumbled.

Himura’s smile grew. “These are mostly women, Sano.”

“As I thought,” Saitou frowned, “that girl…” He’d realized eventually what her clothing implied, but hadn’t really been willing to believe it.

Himura nodded.

“What girl?” wondered Sagara. Suspicion sounded in his tone, and Saitou didn’t entirely understand it. If Sagara suspected Saitou’s preference, surely his reaction — his entire demeanor — would be a good deal less calm. But why would that suspicion arise if not from jealousy about the time Himura and Saitou had spent together while Sagara hadn’t been around? Perhaps the boy just hated him. That would make sense on more than one level… but somehow, despite all evidence provided by their interaction up to this point, Saitou didn’t think so.

Himura had begun to explain about the girl Misao and the other members of the Kyoto Oniwabanshuu, Sagara was listening somewhat skeptically, and Saitou watched them both. Once the account was completed, nobody introduced a new topic of conversation, and the ride continued in increasingly tense silence.

***

Kenshin wasn’t sure what had prompted him to pay specific attention to the way Sano and Saitou interacted, but by the time they reached Osaka he was tracking it minutely. He toyed with the idea that he wanted to reassure himself that Saitou had no further plans for wounding Sano, but that couldn’t be it; a mere half-minute’s observation made it clear there was no murderous (or even semi-murderous) intention in Saitou’s attitude toward Sano — quite the opposite, in fact. Though what exactly would be the opposite of stabbing him in the shoulder, Kenshin couldn’t guess. Perhaps to Saitou, simply allowing Sano to accompany him was the opposite.

Osaka Bay necessitated these thoughts move from center stage, but he couldn’t help marking the desperately frustrated tone in which Sano wondered why Saitou had to find fault with everything he said… the way Saitou, after surfacing from the dive off the ruined pier, glanced back almost inadvertently to where Sano had barely missed being struck by the cannon shot…

In his own horror for his lover’s safety and the easement thereof at Sano’s nearly miraculous survival in the face of a gattling gun, he almost missed the stricken look that flashed across Saitou’s face and the profound relief that replaced it… but still he caught them. He just didn’t know what they meant.

He couldn’t help noticing, also, the immediacy of Saitou’s withdrawal from combat-intent at his urging… but that was entirely different.

Or was it? Once Shishio had gone, Kenshin was at leisure to be surprised at the sound of Saitou’s “Ahou…” and the glance at the ranting Sano that accompanied it. It wasn’t that Saitou didn’t mean it, but it lacked intensity. He might almost have called it… indulgent… if that would have made any sense at all. It was at the very least a good deal more tolerant than the disposition Saitou had previously displayed toward Sano. Or had Kenshin been misreading that? There had been the staring… Or else what had changed to make the officer so accepting?

Largely experimentally, Kenshin said, “You are being too harsh. Without Sano, this would not have turned out nearly so well. He’s more reliable than you think.”

Saitou specifically turned away as he replied, “I’m well aware of that. It doesn’t change the fact that he’s an idiot.” But it wasn’t so much the facial expression Kenshin couldn’t see as the action he could — Saitou extracting a cigarette he could not possibly light and smoke after the swim across the bay — that led the rurouni to suspect there was more to the words than the wolf really wanted to express.

Kenshin wasn’t sure what to think or feel about that. But maybe this level of acceptance was simply the opposite he’d been wondering about earlier. And it didn’t mean much, really. A little more acceptance from Saitou still meant a disdainful ‘ahou’ for Sano.

The latter was definitely standing next to the former, though, a good five feet behind Kenshin, as they looked out over the railing of the sinking ship for any signs of fire in Kyoto.

Chapter 12 – A First Time For Everything

Toward wherever Kenshin was taking them they walked through town in an indefinable silence. It was almost as if they couldn’t say anything, as if they were both trying but it just wasn’t working. And why should that be? Well, the previous day and night had been tiring; although it would have felt more natural to talk about what had happened than to maintain this unusually wordless state, people did odd things when they were worn out.

They both, Sano noticed, seemed to be looking around them diligently at the bustle and arrangement of the city. Searching for signs of fire and destruction in the Kyoto streets was an excellent excuse not to talk. That they weren’t finding any must be a source of joy and relief, but must also eventually lead to the discussion they were trying to avoid. Were they trying to avoid a discussion? He’d believed they were just tired.

Saitou had been preoccupied when they’d left him, busy with the police chief, with numbers and reports and the wounded from last night’s anti-arson efforts, and Sano felt the situation to be a little unfair: he and Kenshin were heading for some inn presumably to rest, while Saitou didn’t seem likely to get any sort of break or sleep in the near future. Whatever he was, his dedication to this cause deserved a better reward than that.

“So…” Kenshin remarked in a tone that was almost casual. “You seem to have made up with Saitou.” Obviously Kenshin’s thoughts had been on the same topic as Sano’s.

The rush of emotion the younger man felt at this was nothing he could describe. It wasn’t anger, it wasn’t embarrassment, it wasn’t fear; yet it partook somewhat of each, and he was certainly agitated. Yes, they had been trying to avoid a discussion, and this was that discussion; it would be fruitless to deny in the face of this reaction that prompted a tenseness in Sano’s frame and caused his fists to clench and twitch as if he really were angry.

He certainly sounded angry when he demanded in a growl, “Why the fuck would I have made up with that asshole?” And why did that seem like such a… backlash? Sano tried very hard not to answer that question.

Kenshin didn’t look at him, and they said no more. The silence was now palpably awkward. Why awkward? There was no reason for — no, Sano didn’t even want to think about it.

“God, I’m fucking hungry,” he growled in nearly the same tone as his previous statement, little as he thought that would really help. “This place we’re going to’s an inn, you said? I hope they’ve got some good service.”

Kenshin shook his head slightly and spoke in the tone of one forcing himself onto the cheer of an innocuous topic. “Yes, it is, and yes, they do.” He smiled faintly. “And I am certain you will find the staff entertaining.”

“Oh, really?” There wasn’t much else to say.

“Yes. This branch of the Oniwabanshuu is very different from the ones we met in Tokyo.”

“Great.”

Oh, god, this was polite conversation. Even a reference to a shared experience — an emotional one at that — hadn’t been enough to turn it into a real conversation. Why… how… he needed to say something now to dispel this unprecedented atmosphere, to smash through this goddamn awkwardness that had come up out of fucking nowhere. When had he ever been this uncomfortable with Kenshin?

Did it really come up out of nowhere, though? a surprisingly sedate voice in his head wondered suddenly. Think back, it said. When did it start?

I know perfectly fucking well when it started, was his surly reply.

Then it shouldn’t be difficult to figure out why it started, the voice admonished calmly. He wasn’t given to such cool and logical self-counsel, but there was a first time for everything; he must have been a little too much under the influence of…

I’m not even fucking going there, he shot back.

Eventually you’re gonna have to. You’re gonna have to think about him, and you’re gonna have to admit–

I am not fucking gonna have to fucking admit anything I don’t fucking want to!!! It was the mental equivalent of a bellow, and some of it must have leaked out his mouth, for Kenshin looked toward him.

“Did you say something?” he asked, his tone still insufferably polite and benign.

“No,” Sano muttered.

Could he keep this up? There was a distinctly rebellious tone to that collected and rational voice in his head — which, after all, was merely part of his own consciousness and pointing out things he knew already; how long could he really resist it? Could he keep his thoughts under control enough not to start suspecting, to start blaming, to start resenting? Wasn’t he already cracking just by admitting the possibility of those frames of mind? And what else might he find if he allowed himself to look at this situation from all angles, as he was beginning to ache to do? Did he even want to admit there was a ‘situation?’

He felt guilty already. Determining why he did would blow the issue open, since he was fairly sure the reasons were manifold and branched out through everything else he was feeling. And the only plausible reaction to this frame of mind was an anger more profound than he’d experienced for some time.

Time… yes, that was what it would take, wasn’t it? If he could keep himself together until this ended… once Shishio was defeated, they would surely return to Tokyo and the way things had been, and he could let go and forget. Distraction, aspersion, confusion — it would all vanish once this mess was over.

Hah! It was his damned head again. Haven’t you heard? ‘You can never go back.’ And the distraction isn’t just gonna go away on its own, for you or for him.

Shut the fuck up, he told himself, but it was no use.

‘Once Shishio’s defeated?’ it demanded. You know what has to happen before that. You know what has to happen tomorrow morning.

God fucking dammit. He really had nothing else to say. He could argue as stubbornly as anything — against someone else. Against his own private logic, it was a battle lost almost before it started. Denial (and perhaps a subconsciously encouraged obtuseness) could only protect him for so long. Eventually he had to admit to himself that facts would have to be faced once they… well, tomorrow morning. But, hell, if he couldn’t find something to distract himself with until then, he might well not be sane enough to face those facts when the time came; there were a lot of weary, pensive hours between now and then.

“Here we are,” Kenshin said, and probably had no idea just how good his timing was.

***

Saitou felt as if he’d been wading carefully downstream in the shallows of a raging river, but had now misstepped and been swept away in its powerful currents — in the direction he wanted to go, admittedly, but with absolutely no control over how or how quickly. And why not? he wondered with grim abandon. Why not let all hell break loose in this matter? What was at stake, after all? Only the fate of the nation.

It was useless to try not to take so much upon himself. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t alone in this endeavor; if they failed, the responsibility would still rest with him. And he was in a dangerous state of mind.

The boy had been brilliant.

No, not brilliant — he’d been telling himself that all day, but somehow the adjective persisted. Yes, Sagara had been innovative and effective and had managed to keep himself from getting killed at the same time… all in that flashy, jarring way of his where every move was unexpected and eye-catching, but not… Well, maybe, in a symbolic, luminescent sense of the world, ‘brilliant’ wasn’t too bad a description.

No, it was still a bad description. The moron had gotten the bombs from somebody else and wouldn’t even have known how to use them properly if Himura hadn’t reminded him of the properties of gunpowder. And he’d nearly given a couple of people a heart attack with his antics. Sagara was still an impetuous child unworthy of someone like the former Battousai.

But weren’t practical use of the tools available and the ability to adapt one’s plans at the last moment traits of a proficient warrior? No matter how sloppy the technique seemed, if the desired outcome was attained and the performer remained relatively unscathed, Saitou could not reasonably object.

It was no good trying to drag his thoughts away from this topic. Now that he’d been pulled into the flood, he had very little choice left in the matter. He could let it overpower him and interfere with his duties, or he could assimilate the unavoidable — he could sink, or he could swim, but there was no getting out of the water.

And there was no denying he’d asked for it. “What does he see in you?” he’d wondered of Sagara back when — it seemed bizarrely long ago, now — he’d knocked him through the wall of the Kamiya dojo. He shouldn’t ask questions if he wasn’t ready for the answers. Of course, that had been before he’d admitted how he felt about Himura, when he’d still thought he was strong enough to open an emotional issue in the midst of the other and keep it from getting in the way.

Perhaps, in response to the half-formed resolution he’d made in the jail to find out what he wanted to know, he’d been subconsciously attempting to look at Sagara as Himura must, and was therefore being easier on him than he otherwise might… but the reason why was neither problem nor solution. The problem was that he was starting to see what Himura saw in the passionate kenkaya, and it threatened to be one distraction too many. And the solution? He hadn’t the faintest idea.

This feeling of nearly complete lack of control, of being a breath away from drowning, was irritating, agitating… And if the tasks of the day hadn’t been engrossing enough to keep his thoughts relatively well balanced, it would also have been overwhelming. Fortunately, he had enough to do in cleanup after the events of last night and preparation against further assault from Shishio that he could have continued working without pause from the moment they got back to Kyoto until it was time to depart for the mountain the next morning; how fortunate he should really consider the general ineptitude of the police force was a matter of debate, but it was convenient for purposes of distraction.

“Do you know anything about having a normal life?” This time, somewhat disturbingly, these remembered words only made Saitou smirk slightly, ruefully, and shake his head.

He had to rest eventually. God knew how much fighting, and what else besides, he would have to do tomorrow… but it was almost as if he dreaded the cessation of his work day. Though he’d never been given to brooding insomnia, there was a first time for everything, and this was just the situation to bring about that sleepless state.

“Everything I know about you so far pretty much proves you don’t know much about relationships.” Well, he knew they were damned inconvenient. Even when it was only someone else’s relationship that wasn’t his business in the first place.

Midnight had come and gone before he found his bed in the cheerless inn near the police station. Sleep did not elude him as he’d feared it might, but uncomfortable images of rushing water in which he sometimes thought he could see figures and faces followed him relentlessly there and throughout the rest of the night.

***

Why was it so cold? Kenshin already sat as close to the fire as was prudent; why was there still such a deep-set chill in his body? He rubbed absently at one arm with the other as he stared at the low flames and felt goosebumps rise across his flesh. Was it an after-effect of the swim in Osaka Bay? Had he caught something?

The door slid open and then closed again, and quiet footsteps crossed the floor.

The shiver that ran through Kenshin at the sound of Sano entering their shared room was not the usual one; it was neither pleased nor aroused, but rather… uncomfortable. Anxious, even. Why? It couldn’t be Sano’s mere presence he worried about… but, rather, interaction with him, a continuation of the atmosphere that had marked that interaction all day.

Sano was trying not to show how disturbed he felt, and had been avoiding Kenshin — or at least being alone with Kenshin — ever since they’d entered the Aoiya. Even now he did not greet him, and walked as quietly as he was able (which, as always in Sano’s case, wasn’t particularly quiet). But surely he didn’t think Kenshin hadn’t noticed. Every last word they’d said to each other had been forced, uncertain, stilted, ever since… well, all day. Sano had used the reunion with Kaoru and Yahiko and getting acquainted with the Kyoto Oniwabanshuu as his unstated excuses for saying as little as possible to his lover, and Kenshin had accepted that… but it couldn’t continue. Not when they had a potential deathmatch tomorrow. Not when dawn would bring… No, Kenshin couldn’t just let this go without at least trying to work things out.

Seeming somewhat indecisive, Sano now stood in the middle of the room. Kenshin’s back was to him, but he could sense the younger man’s perfect stillness. That stillness seemed to bring with it a fresh coldness, as if Sano were a door to the starry night, and Kenshin wanted to draw even closer to the fire. But that coldness, he could tell, lay only in the space between the two of them; no one else would have felt such a low temperature radiating from Sano. He feared Sano must be feeling the same from him.

After seconds had dragged by without word or movement from his lover, Kenshin said his name quietly. “Are you upset with me?”

“No!” Sano replied, with so much vehemence and so much haste that the rurouni, heart sinking, immediately doubted the insistence. “Upset with you for what?”

“For… leaving you behind in Tokyo.”

“Oh.” In that one syllable, why did Sano sound so relieved? As if he’d perhaps thought Kenshin would suggest something, confess something else Sano might be angry at him for? But was Sano worried Kenshin would admit having suspected him of… something… or admit to… that same something on his own part?

No, that was impossible. That something was only a fragmentary thought in Kenshin’s head in the first place; its very wild improbability was the only thing that even brought it to mind, and therefore made for a self-fulfilling prophecy: his search for the awkwardness that would certainly characterize it if it were true had caused awkwardness to develop.

Yes, he was the cause of this strange atmosphere between them, he and his… what could he call it but an overactive imagination? He wasn’t generally given to that sort of fancy, but there was a first time for everything… and the vague ideas he avoided directly scrutinizing couldn’t have any basis in reality. He needed to stop thinking about it, stop looking for signs of its presence, and then things would improve. And he never should have mentioned…

“No,” Sano finally said. “No, I’m not mad at you for that anymore. Or for anything else.” It was a stiff pronouncement, and ended on a note of indecision. “Just tired and tense,” he added in an obvious and ineffectual attempt to put a graceful end to the fledgling conversation. “I’m going to bed.”

Kenshin nodded, and forced himself to say good night in as warm a tone as he could command. After that he could sense Sano’s increased agitation, and he thought the kenkaya even reached out a hand toward him that fell back before making contact. Then came the shuffling noises of Sano preparing for bed, and at last quiet breathing. No reminder of the need for them both to be rested, no invitation to join him. Not that Kenshin thought Sano wasn’t worried about his well-being or didn’t want him at his side; he just wouldn’t say it at this point, because of… whatever had come between them. And Kenshin found he couldn’t insist on a more explicit discussion.

He wondered that he wasn’t feeling worse about this. Slight apprehension, yes, but nothing that would keep him awake when he eventually joined Sano on the futon. Certainly such unnatural communication with his lover should be a source of greater worry… and yet he found his only sensation was one of nearly emotionless cold. A clinging mist seemed to surround him, surround them both… well, if he was going to be honest about it, surround all three of them… in his mind — but it was only cold, not frightening.

Something was changing, certainly, though he couldn’t quite see what it was… but he didn’t sense that it would end in loss. The mist would clear, he would have all the facts and understand the situation more precisely; he was sure of it. For the moment he simply had to weather the adherent chill until the warm sun shone again.

Eventually, when Sano’s breathing turned to snores, Kenshin undressed and lay softly down by his side, sliding an arm around Sano’s chest. They would overcome this as certainly as they had other difficulties. Whether his surety arose from faith in Sano or some subconscious understanding he already possessed, he didn’t know; but his conviction was unfailing. He put his face against his lover’s smooth shoulder and closed his eyes.

Chapter 13 – Wait

Sano wasn’t sure how much sleep he’d managed to get, nor entirely sure why he felt such a massive wave of relief at finding Kenshin warm at his side in the early-morning darkness to which he awoke. He tried not to think about either issue.

His movement, slight as it was, roused Kenshin immediately. There followed a moment of almost panicked apprehension as he remembered last night and the awkwardness — but as they both sat up and looked immediately at each other as if seeking concord by mutual consent, Kenshin only smiled at him. And it was there, in Kenshin’s eyes — forgiveness? contrition? simple understanding? — Sano couldn’t quite define it, but it was there.

Immensely cheered, he leaned over and kissed Kenshin gently and briefly. It almost seemed, just for that moment, that the strange, cold atmosphere of the night before hadn’t really existed except in his suspicious or guilty imagination, that perhaps he’d only dreamed the discomfort, the tension. But during the next few minutes as they rose and prepared for the day (as much as anyone could prepare for the kind of day they anticipated), he realized how wrong he was.

Things hadn’t gone back to how they’d been (I told you so, whispered that unrelenting voice in the back of his head); the tension and discomfort were just as real as they really had been last night. The air between the lovers had merely settled into a sort of resigned patience — as if they both knew their situation hadn’t finished changing yet, that they could do nothing to halt the metamorphosis, and therefore they might as well just wait and see how things turned out.

Sano wasn’t sure he liked this — in fact was almost positive he didn’t — but rejoiced, at least, that Kenshin was here with him. Whatever had changed, whatever would change, they still loved each other. Sano would just have to hold onto his faith in that, believe it was enough to get them through whatever was coming.

From downstairs, the yard outside the window, and other rooms even on this level, noise indicated they were not the only ones in the Aoiya up before dawn. Sano had spent yesterday assiduously hearing what their Tokyo friends had to tell and getting to know the Kyoto Oniwabanshuu, and he wouldn’t even try to deny he’d done it specifically so he wouldn’t have to talk to Kenshin about the whatever. Now, with this tacit agreement to wait for things to stabilize and figure everything out once the dust cleared, it almost seemed cowardly to fall back on that same tactic — but, while it appeared Kenshin could get dressed and wash his face in perfect silence without feeling at all awkward, Sano couldn’t stand this.

“So they all really did come,” he commented, cocking an ear at the distant sounds to indicate which ‘they’ he meant.

Kenshin’s smile at this was somewhat bittersweet, his tone a mixture of light chiding, amusement, and resignation. “You were the one I trusted with keeping them away.”

Sano was unsure to what extent Kenshin’s attitude still bothered him. On the one hand, Kenshin had done and said nothing to indicate his reason for wishing Sano to remain in Tokyo had been anything other than what his note had indicated — protection for the others in his absence — or to validate Saitou’s theory that Sano was a source of vulnerability to his lover; on the other hand, Sano couldn’t help thinking someone would have to be fairly cold-blooded not to want the person they loved beside them going into a battle that might be their last, and he knew Kenshin wasn’t that heartless. Kenshin was that selfless, though…

Last night, at any rate, Sano had declared his forgiveness and lack of anger for being left behind, and he didn’t want further contemplation on the subject to make him a liar. It was too complicated to think about anyway. So he just answered casually, “Yeah, you shoulda known better.”

Kenshin laughed softly. “I suppose so.”

“Hell, if Saitou kicking my ass couldn’t get me to stay in Tokyo–” Breaking off almost in the middle of the last syllable, aghast, Sano found himself stiffening with horror at what he was saying, what he had almost said. The unspoken half of the sentence hung in the air — what would Kenshin hear? “There’s no way you could?” Worse, more explicit, “No way just a note from you, even if it did say ‘I love you,’ ever could?” Holy god, he hadn’t meant anything like that; he hadn’t meant to contrast those two influences; hadn’t meant to bring up Saitou. Fucking idiot, he told himself harshly. Why didn’t you fucking stay in Tokyo? All you’re doing here is screwing shit up.

Just like Saitou said.

Out of nowhere there was a tight, heavy knot of unhappiness in his chest, so abrupt and startling that he jerked reflexively toward Kenshin as if to reach out and cling to him, close his eyes and have Kenshin hold him until it went away. But part of the sudden sadness, he knew, was the feeling that he might very well have cut himself off from that source of comfort by his own stupidity.

“Sano,” Kenshin said. It was a firm but largely emotionless tone.

The only acknowledgment Sano could manage was a deep breath. He couldn’t even bring himself to look around.

“We will probably be leaving here in just under an hour for Shishio’s headquarters.”

Sano understood: Kenshin was admonishing him to set all of this aside for the moment. The overwhelming impression of the morning thus far was that he needed to wait. There were direly important deeds to be done today; this simply wasn’t the time to be distracted.

But patience was nothing Sano had in surplus, and he didn’t know that he was strong enough to stay entirely focused when the source of distraction was so close, so vital to him.

Wait. Not strong enough?? Was he giving up, then? Giving up on his desire to prove he wasn’t a liability, that he could handle this; on his desire to continue improving simply for his own sake? That is, was he giving up on the just respect of Kenshin, Saitou, and himself?

Fuck, no.

He could feel his fists clenching in determination almost inadvertently as he made his resolution: he would remain steadfast, would keep his mind on the mission, would deal with the confusion later. It helped that Kenshin obviously believed he was up to this; it helped a lot.

Finally he acknowledged his lover’s remark. “Right.” And as proof of his bravery, he turned to face Kenshin without hesitation. Although he didn’t entirely understand the expression on the scarred face, he could at least see that Kenshin wasn’t upset with him — and that was enough for now. They would get through this. Impulsively Sano said, “I love you, Kenshin.”

If Kenshin was surprised at hearing this phrase spoken aloud for the first time at what was perhaps an odd moment, he didn’t show it. He simply smiled gently and replied, “And I love you.”

And Sano found that in a heart on fire there really wasn’t much room for doubt.

***

Kaoru and Misao brought them breakfast and chatter, and eventually Yahiko joined them, ensuring they were adequately cheerful on this important day; between this thoughtful gesture and having heard Sano speak the words ‘I love you,’ Kenshin could hardly be otherwise.

He could tell Kaoru was working to keep her voice steady as, when most of them had finished eating, she reached out to him and said, “Kenshin… take this.” The object she held turned out to be a floral-patterned tin from which a faint medicinal smell rose as it changed hands.

“I brought it on Megumi-san’s behalf,” Kaoru explained, “but I haven’t had a chance to give it to you. It’s her way of saying she hopes you come back safely. She’s not the only one; we all want you to come back safely.” She looked him in the eye, and, as he’d not infrequently noticed, there was a subdued dismay in her gaze that seemed to ask almost against her will, Is there really no chance for me? But it was far weaker than the last time he’d seen it, and it occurred to him that this journey — the journey from which he’d sought to bar her — might have been very beneficial for her as well. Her being Megumi’s designated messenger in this situation (not that Megumi had had much choice) might show progress on that front as well.

Kenshin smiled and thanked her, but his words were drowned out by Misao’s: “That’s the hundredth time you’ve mentioned this Megumi-san — who is she, exactly?” And as Kaoru went on to describe Megumi in terms that might have surprised her if she’d been listening to herself, Kenshin thought that, yes, some progress had been made on that front.

Under the cover of this discussion, “Kenshin,” Yahiko said urgently and quietly. He glanced around to see if anyone was listening — Sano was, but apparently Yahiko didn’t mind him — then went on with a touching sort of nervous defiance, “Please let me come with you!”

Kenshin shook his head. They’d been through this yesterday, but not thoroughly enough, it seemed.

“Since we got here, I haven’t missed a day training!” protested Yahiko in a hiss. “I’m a lot stronger than you think!”

Reaching out to place a hand on the boy’s shoulder, Kenshin prevented him continuing. “I know that. And I am not just arbitrarily ordering you to stay here. Tomorrow when we fight the Juppongatana–” he gestured to Sano and himself– “it’s likely Shishio will send others to attack the Aoiya, and you will not be able to avoid fighting. I need you to be ready for that; you must remain here on guard.”

Yahiko bit his lip and looked at once flattered and disappointed. After a thoughtful moment, he nodded. “But busu’s right,” he added pensively. “It’s not just the girls who want you to come back safe.” He looked away as he said it, lowering his voice even farther, as if embarrassed to be admitting affectionate concern for the leader of the little group he’d named into existence in the first place. He was at that age…

Despite Yahiko’s quiet tone, Kaoru’s ears seemed to have a special setting for the word ‘busu,’ and she broke off what she was saying to Misao in order to attack Yahiko with the usual string of angry reactions.

Kenshin watched the scene with a mild smile. True, Kaoru worried more than she was letting on, and lamented that she couldn’t be Kenshin’s primary source of comfort; Misao still lacked the level of confidence Kenshin would have preferred in his ability to deal with the Aoshi situation; Yahiko might have been more hurt than he was willing to show by Kenshin’s treatment of him; Saitou’s arrival, which could occur any moment, was going to throw Kenshin and Sano back toward the awkwardness of last night and put to the test the silent resolutions they’d made together this morning; and of course the prospective battle or battles of the day, all the more ominous for their obscurity, were a looming threat to his tranquility as to his person. But all this he pushed aside for the moment, concentrating on having a good meal with people he loved in relative peace.

Breakfast and their primary, lengthier goodbyes were over and the sun had just parted with the horizon when they made their way outside to wait. Standing in silence with his friends around him in the cool morning, Kenshin reflected that, worried though he was for their safety, he wasn’t sure he really regretted their following him here, if only for this — this last measure of strength he could draw from them in preparation for the end. Whether he was equally glad Sano had followed him was more complicated — but, as it partook of matters he’d decided not to think about until a more opportune time, he pushed the question away.

He couldn’t help noticing the way Sano shifted when Saitou appeared, or smiling slightly as he recognized Sano’s air as that of a man ready for combat. Of course Kaoru and Misao evinced a certain level of displeasure and agitation at the sight of the officer as well, but, for more reasons than one, it couldn’t be anything to what Kenshin and Sano felt.

Turning, Kenshin smiled at his friends. “Goodbye,” he said simply, and moved forward to meet Saitou. Behind him, Sano did much the same.

Saitou was smoking a cigarette and appeared largely unrested, and his greeting was a slow study of the both of them, almost as if looking for something, before he spoke. “I hope you haven’t wasted the night.”

At the tone even darker than usual, Kenshin had a sudden sad vision of Saitou, lonely and bitter, working himself half to death and wondering how Kenshin and Sano were wasting their night. Still, there was nothing to be said; he had a feeling Saitou didn’t really want to know the answer to the question implicit in his statement anyway.

“So…” Sano’s reflections were probably similar to Kenshin’s; he spoke with some effort, and the rurouni didn’t think Saitou could fail to notice. How he would interpret Sano’s demeanor was another story. “No carriage today?”

“The road to the shrine is too narrow,” Saitou replied with a shake of his head; Kenshin thought he was glad to have business to discuss. “Rokutsurane-Torii-Hokora is a good place to conceal the entrance to a secret headquarters, since it isn’t visited much anymore.”

Sano grunted acknowledgment and fell silent. And that silence went unbroken nearly their entire trip.

***

Saitou had thought the carriage ride to Osaka awkward, but realized now that he hadn’t known the meaning of the term until today.

For one thing, there was an air of finality about this venture, more than there had been during any of their previous interactions, as if they really didn’t expect to return this time; it sobered and stiffened their every word and gesture. The problem was that it seemed somehow too personal for Saitou to bring up, given the uncertain relations among them. And from the impersonal distance he was forced at this point to maintain, any sort of reassurance he could offer would seem asinine and fake.

For another thing, he got the feeling Himura knew. Exactly how much he knew or how Saitou knew he knew it, he wasn’t prepared to guess… but still he didn’t doubt the impression. Obviously the clues must be there, and Saitou could undoubtedly piece together what had led him to the conclusion, but for the moment he was more concerned with Himura’s reaction. In fact, he was concerned enough with Himura’s reaction that he could think of almost nothing else as they walked, silent and tense, through and out of the city. But except for the increase in moroseness (and consequent tension) that had gripped all three of them, Himura, to all outward appearances, was behaving as he always did.

As if after listening intently to silence he’d been startled by a loud noise, Saitou didn’t realize just how hard he was concentrating on reading Himura’s every slightest change of expression or gesture until Himura made one worth reading. Sagara had commented meaninglessly on some aspect of the walk, and Himura, after a brief reply, had thrown a glance back at Saitou as if to see whether he wanted to be included in the conversation.

And what was in that look? For Saitou fancied it had been alive with emotions. Did Himura want him included in the conversation? Did he want to drag him into such mundane exchanges and minutiae? Did he believe Saitou desired that sort of interaction, and pitied him its lack?

He wanted to take Himura by the shoulders and shake him, to tell him ‘I don’t want your sympathy,’ to state emphatically — though he doubted even he could find words sufficiently acerbic properly to convey the disdain such a statement would require — that this sort of pretentious attempt at understanding was something he neither needed nor desired.

Except that he did desire it.

His one consolation at the moment was that Himura didn’t yet seem to have shared his realization with Sagara. There were so many divergent reasons Himura might have done this, and the implications connected to them so varied, that Saitou could postulate nothing with any certainty, but he was glad Himura apparently hadn’t said anything; it would further complicate an already stupidly tangled situation, and escalate the awkwardness perhaps beyond enduring. If he had been in Himura’s position, he probably wouldn’t have said anything yet either.

It was surprisingly, dismayingly, appallingly easy to imagine himself in Himura’s position. Why, why had Saitou thought it necessary to try to see Sagara as Himura must? Hadn’t he considered the possible consequences?

He was aware — once again, through clues so subtle he might as well simply have called it intuition — of Sagara’s desire to prove himself to him. Looking back over what had passed between them since their first meeting, it wasn’t terribly surprising. And perhaps it shouldn’t be too terribly surprising, either, to recognize his own growing desire for Sagara to understand him, to lose the misconceptions he’d formed thus far, to comprehend and vindicate his motives. Or, to put it another way, a desire to prove himself to Sagara that was or would be, quite possibly, as strong as Sagara’s corresponding wish.

This might have been embarrassing — irritating, even — at another time and under different circumstances, but by now Saitou had given up applying the logic of his life prior to recent times to the current situation. And he’d given up as well trying not to admit he wanted more from Sagara than just understanding… though he couldn’t quite put exactly what more he did want into words just yet.

And from Himura… well, that was much easier to specify, since it had developed so much farther. It should be; it had had a good decade longer in which to form, repression notwithstanding.

He wasn’t generally the type to find himself at a loss for words. This was probably because he rarely had anything to say that didn’t directly concern business of some sort, or at least rarely cared what the effect of his words might be if he did. A situation like this, where he had more than a passing desire to say something but feared whatever he came up with would be either too little or too much — or at least be construed as too much by one of the people to whom he wanted to say it — was unheard of.

And yet he spent most of the latter portion of the walk trying to think of something to say.

He also wasn’t the type to give up easily or for no good reason. After all, he didn’t undertake something in the first place if it wasn’t worth a certain measure of trouble. Of course he hadn’t precisely undertaken this; it had, rather, overtaken him. But that didn’t mean he was prepared to expend any less effort on it than he felt it deserved. Than he felt they deserved.

And yet he could think of nothing to say.

As the path widened at the end of the trees and they emerged into the sunlight, as they started climbing a slope of cracked flagstones under the six arches, as that woman they’d earlier observed with Shishio came into sight standing before a giant pair of doors, Saitou knew it was time to give up. At least for now.

He’d told himself perhaps a dozen times since this whole mess had started that this wasn’t the time for it. Wait! was the message — by now rather emphatic, almost desperately so — that his better judgment continually delivered to his less practiced and therefore less self-assured romantic sense. And for the moment he obeyed. He just hoped the chance he was waiving now to express even a touch of what he felt wouldn’t prove to have been his last.


Chapter 14 – Difficult As Hell

One aspect of love, Kenshin reflected, was the ability to restrain yourself and stay out of something you would really much rather be involved in. Would rather take over completely in order to spare your lover the less pleasant effects of the situation.

It had very little to do with faith in Sano’s combat prowess; Kenshin wasn’t sure whether or not he believed Sano could win this fight, but certainty either way would not have changed his behavior. It had very little to do with the fact that Kenshin would be over this railing with sword drawn the moment Sano’s life seemed in legitimate danger; he would do that for anyone. What he might not do for anyone was let it get to that point.

He probably would not have stood by watching Kaoru, for instance, battle a stronger opponent. Assigned her the task of dealing with a particular enemy while he faced some other threat, perhaps; been aware that she was elsewhere fighting and quietly worried, certainly. But stood still observing? Actually watched her fight someone he wasn’t certain she could defeat? Probably not. Allowing Sano this chance without protest or interference was a mark of respect he might not even be capable of showing just anyone.

And even in this case it was difficult as hell.

The huge monk was obviously a world ahead of Sano in mastery of the interesting two-hit move they called Futae no Kiwami, and his ki was every bit as ragingly angry as Sano’s. The latter’s superior agility would only get him so far. More promising — to Kenshin, who believed in the influence of attitude in combat — was the fact that when faced with the corruption and misery of the world, one of them had chosen destruction while the other (with some encouragement) had chosen life. But even this could not be entirely reassuring.

Then a hard voice to his left called down in the direction of the combatants, “Do you want me to take your place?”

Kenshin glanced over, very startled. He certainly hadn’t forgotten Saitou was there… but in his concern for Sano, Saitou had blurred into a vague, comforting essence of strength and solidity.

Comforting?

Yes, comforting. Why bother denying it?

“Shut the hell up!” Evidently Sano didn’t find him comforting.

Startling as it had been, the suggestion did not surprise him. Kenshin had suspected — strongly suspected — and now he knew; it was the elbow that gave Saitou away, really. The offer could just as easily have been exactly what it seemed — a condescending jab at Sano’s abilities — but Saitou’s elbow rested in his other hand as if needing support, and the hand seemed clenched tighter than was strictly necessary. One arm lay close across his body as if he wanted to project his subtly defensive stance at Sano, the other raised a cigarette to his lips. Kenshin had noticed that Saitou normally took no more than a drag or two on any cigarette before tossing it away. This one was steadily shortening, almost as if he didn’t notice himself smoking it.

Then there was the fact that Saitou had voiced concern even before Kenshin could. No, there could be no question now.

Did Kenshin resent this sudden apparent worry where none had been present before? Did he consider telling Saitou to mind his own business? Did he look down at Sano with new jealousy in his gaze, unsure whether he envied more the circumstance of being the object of Saitou’s concern or the one feeling it for Sano?

No. He knew any or all of these could have been his reaction, but the only thing he could do was appreciate Saitou’s attitude even as he felt the same. In fact, Saitou’s presence rendered a little less painful the unendurable thoughts of what if? that hovered just beyond the bright areas of his mind. It didn’t matter what each of them was to Sano; the fact that they stood here side by side, both with his well-being in mind, made all the difference.

“Sano!” he called out, feeling minutely better about things all of a sudden and wishing to share that, if possible, with his lover. “Even in kenjutsu, a man with two swords is not necessarily stronger than one with only one! I am sure you can find a way to win!”

Though not as fierce as the one he’d directed at Saitou a moment before, Sano’s reply to this encouragement was definitely a scowl. Realizing belatedly that his words, though kindly meant, might seem to imply a surety of the monk’s superior abilities, Kenshin felt a little sheepish, and was actually rather glad to busy himself in a brief, meaningless exchange with Yumi about the suitability of cheering Sano on.

He was watching avidly the next moment, though, when Sano landed a hit. Both the spectators were, Kenshin thought, interested in the effects of Sano’s new move on a human body — Kenshin probably with a good deal more speculative horror than Saitou — and they both, he knew, were shocked at the result. Though it seemed feasible to cancel out the energy of the blow, the precision with which the opposing force would need to be directed to avoid damage to self would demand an incredible level of mastery. To see Sano’s opponent displaying such expertise could only dishearten.

Despite Sano’s swift retreat from striking distance, the monk’s big fist grazed his stomach. Kenshin clutched hard at the railing as Sano staggered a step back and coughed up a handful of blood. At his side, Saitou shifted.

“Retreat,” the monk said darkly. “I’ll let you go this time.” It sounded more like an order than an offer, and it seemed to upset Yumi quite a bit. She and the monk argued the point for a few moments before Sano broke in with a glib and rather insulting comment on Anji’s self-proclaimed authority over life and death.

Though Kenshin focused primarily on the debate that would undoubtedly return to blows any moment, he couldn’t help noticing Saitou’s increasing tension. The wolf now had his free hand in his pocket, and had started another cigarette. Noting Kenshin’s attention he murmured, “I meant it when I offered to take his place. He’s not going to get through this with that attitude.”

Kenshin might have been inclined to agree with the statement had Sano not at that moment been voicing sentiments both convincing and familiar: a combination of what he’d told Kenshin bitterly when they’d first met and his more enlightened later thoughts on the state of the country, culminating in the defiant and utterly self-assured declaration, “I absolutely won’t lose to you!”

Letting out a deep breath, Kenshin turned a slight smile on Saitou, whose face now barely even concealed the worry he felt at the recommencing fight. “Sano said that to me when he and I first fought,” he remarked quietly. “‘I absolutely won’t lose…’ But this time it means a lot more.”

For a long, dark moment Saitou stared at Kenshin, brows drawing together and some kind of struggle going on behind his eyes. Saitou, Kenshin was fairly sure, had a hard time feeling faith in anyone besides himself; how lonely that must be. But he was also a very strong man, just as capable of changing himself for the better as he was of changing the world. Finally he too let out his concerned breath, his face relaxing and smoothing slightly as it turned back to watch the action below. He didn’t say anything, but Kenshin knew he’d decided to take the reassurance seriously.

Now to see how long they could endure in silence.

***

With his body aching from head to toe, the halls they walked were a claustrophobic nightmare. Why the pain should make such a difference Sano wasn’t sure — nor could he guess why, under such circumstances, he should want to draw closer to his companions as they walked rather than further away.

He flexed his hand and let out an involuntary sound of pain. Trying to avoid worries about the long-term ramifications of this damage — worries that, even in the midst of this very present turmoil and the need for concentration, would continue nagging at him — Sano stretched and contracted his fingers again, forcing himself to adjust to the unpleasant sensation. He wasn’t out of the action yet; he needed his fist to function.

Saitou at his side kept looking at him. For a moment Sano avoided his eyes, not really wanting to endure any more derisive comments than he already had, but eventually the fleeting (and, admittedly, somewhat irrational) thought that this might be his last chance to look into Saitou’s eyes overcame his reluctance. And the pensive, serious expression he found there, far different from the irritating disdain he’d expected, could not but surprise him.

In direct contrast, Saitou’s words were no surprise whatsoever: “If you’re hurt, you’re only going to get in the way. You should leave now.” What Sano did not anticipate, however, was the way they were spoken. Sure, it sounded like Saitou’s usual jerk-face attitude, but something about the suggestion was… off… somehow.

For a few moments just a minute ago, after Anji’s news, Sano had been stupidly determined to turn back. Sense had returned, but the burning cold fear in his heart for their friends at the Aoiya had not disappeared. Was Saitou subtly trying to convince him to give in to that? Well, no, that didn’t make much sense; what would Saitou care about their friends at the Aoiya? If it had been anyone else, Sano might have thought there was some concern for his concern… but this was Saitou; he would no more care that Sano cared than care in his own right. Right? Sano was probably just imagining things anyway. He’d spent far too much time lately trying to solve puzzles in the light of Saitou’s uncanny eyes.

But perhaps Saitou simply didn’t want him to get hurt. Because of Kenshin, that is, of course; that would make sense. Saitou knew — better than any other third party, probably — the effect it would have on Kenshin if anything serious happened to Sano. The latter couldn’t help recalling the way his two companions had stood together looking down at him as he fought Anji… neither seeming any more or less worried about him than the other… and Saitou’s offer to take his place…

Yes, that was undoubtedly the answer: Saitou was simply looking out for Kenshin, who was, after all, the government’s specific answer to this Shishio situation. That was Saitou, all right: just doing his job; nothing personal about it.

Sano found himself making another little pained noise. He’d been flexing his hand throughout these reflections, and didn’t think it was getting any better for it.

Saitou snorted, evidently accepting this non-verbal answer for the dismissal of his suggestion that it was. “This is what you get for ignoring what I told you and neglecting your defense,” he said.

Sano made a face at him. Disinclined to repeat the responses he’d already given to the admonition, however, he merely said, “Hey, fuck you.”

“Here and now? I wonder what Shishio’s thoughts on that would be.” Though Saitou’s murmur was carrying, evidently meant to be heard by the two people walking down the hall in front of them, Sano chose to interpret it at being directed toward Yumi alone. She didn’t seem to have much of a sense of humor, and her huffy, stiff-shouldered response was pretty funny… a good deal more than the thought of the remark having been aimed at Kenshin and what that might mean.

“Could only make his day better,” Sano replied with a shrug and a grin… and realized even as he said it that, while there was nothing wrong with levity in general, these particular words were probably not the wisest. They could only bother Kenshin and bring to mind things neither of them were supposed to be thinking about at the moment. Honestly, he was a little shocked he’d even said such a thing to Saitou. Hell, he was shocked Saitou had said what he had to him.

He couldn’t help being surprised as well at how amiable that brief exchange had been. Perhaps Saitou was surprised too, for he raised a brow and gave Sano a lopsided smile. It was a strange look, holding something more than skepticism and amusement, and it gave Sano the strangest feeling. There was something of finality in Saitou’s eyes all of a sudden… finality and acceptance. Seeing that expression, Sano almost expected the man at any moment to say goodbye and just disappear.

Earlier on in this venture, Sano would have been glad of the disappearance and told Saitou to skip the goodbye. Now… Well, it would probably get in the way of all that waiting he’d resolved to do if he thought about what he would prefer now. Break his concentration on the tasks at hand, complicate things with Kenshin, and all that.

But after the oddly friendly moment of banter and those looks, and in this current silence that (according to Sano’s earlier, admittedly irrational fear) might be his last chance, it was difficult as hell not to think about this sort of thing.

Kenshin glanced back at them just then, the very nonexistence of his expression expressive. He looked like a man holding his breath, reminding his companions that the air would slowly poison them if taken in. There was no trace of what Sano knew he must be feeling, the worry and confusion and god knew what else… only the determination to finish what he’d started, to complete the accepted task. Not even the awareness that their friends at the Aoiya were in worse danger, perhaps, than anyone here in the fortress — a fact that, quite frankly, Sano was trying his best simply to ignore, though it lingered under everything else he did or said or thought as a live current of potentially detrimental concern… not even that showed in Kenshin’s face.

Sano smiled faintly at his lover, then stared at his back when Kenshin turned away again. Kenshin was so strong… strong in ways Sano had never thought about — never been aware of, really — until recently, until Kenshin himself had made him recognize them. Sano admired and loved Kenshin as much for teaching him these things he might not otherwise have learned as for bearing that strength in himself. And observing Saitou’s fixed, serious stare in the same direction as his own, Sano couldn’t help thinking…

No. No. He could help thinking that, because he wasn’t supposed to be thinking about anything but this situation here and now at the fortress. Sano might not be as strong as Kenshin was in many ways, but he’d be damned if he let him down here and now by getting distracted and jeopardizing the endeavor. He returned his attention very pointedly to the continual, painful flexing of his hand.

“We’ve arrived,” Yumi announced at last, drawing to a halt in front of another pair of doors in a particularly dark stretch of corridor. “Inside is your second opponent. Once you enter this room, you won’t be allowed to turn ba–”

“Enough,” Kenshin interrupted her, somewhat fiercely, and, to Sano’s surprise, kicked the doors down. They clattered to the floor a few feet into the room beyond.

The latter, as dim as this length of hallway, was decorated with stylized eyes on floor and wall and ceiling. In the solid circular center of one of these a man, blindfolded and bearing a large-headed spear and a shield, wore more of the same symbol on his clothing and sandals. He didn’t sit; he crouched, evidently ready to spring into action at any moment. Piecing together certain things Misao and Chou had said, Sano identified this as Mouken no Usui.

“One… two… three…” the man counted. He raised a hand and pointed at the people in the doorway, skipping Yumi but indicating the rest of them one by one with a precision that made Sano a little uncomfortable. Was the guy blind or wasn’t he? Surely he couldn’t see through the damn blindfold in any case…! “Anji couldn’t even get rid of one of you?” Usui put a hand thoughtfully to his smiling face. “Well… that’s fine, that’s fine.”

“We don’t have time for your bravado,” Kenshin replied in an even harsher tone than his previous. Glancing at him, startled, Sano noticed he was already prepared to draw and fight. “Will you step aside and let us pass? Decide quickly.”

Sano struggled to fight off a deep, cold shiver. He knew that voice. It was Kenshin’s first-step-down-Battousai-path voice. Perhaps the news of the planned Aoiya massacre was affecting him more than Sano had thought; or perhaps Kenshin, in steeling himself for the eventual encounter with Shishio, was inadvertently (inadvertently, Sano hoped to god inadvertently) pushing himself into Battousai territory.

“Kenshin–” he began uncertainly, but cut off in surprise as Kenshin’s forward momentum brought him into sudden, unexpected contact with Saitou’s abruptly outstretched arm. Kenshin stumbled back a step, staring at Saitou just as Sano was.

“It’s good that you’re angry,” Saitou explained, his eyes never moving from the still figure of Usui, “but don’t waste it on him.” His tone was utterly flat as he continued, “Go on and leave this one to me.”

“Saitou…” Kenshin’s voice was a great relief, for it had returned to normal; and the expression he gave Saitou, as he touched briefly the spot where the officer’s fist had met his face, was all Kenshin. Silently Sano sighed. Was it all right to feel grateful to Saitou for this? Kenshin could undoubtedly have taken care of it himself, but the fact remained that the wolf had deliberately pulled him back from those first steps.

“Go,” ordered Saitou, and suddenly the import of his previous statement struck Sano. Go? Leave him here to fight alone? Move on to whatever came next without him? Just like that?

Sano opened his mouth, but found himself devoid of words.

Kenshin nodded. “Excuse us,” he said to Yumi, and took off at that improbable speed of his toward the far doors.

“Hey, wait!” the woman protested. “You can’t just–”

Deeming it best to bring her along, given the likelihood of their getting lost without her, Sano hefted Yumi up into his arms as he moved to follow Kenshin. “You’re coming too!”

Through the door Kenshin had flung open, carrying the struggling, loudly protesting Yumi, Sano had time for nothing more than the briefest glance back. And he couldn’t even deny to himself the painful clenching of his heart as he took in the lean, tense, motionless figure in blue that they were leaving behind perhaps never to see again.

The room stank of blood, but Saitou did not rush to leave it; unnecessary haste would only set him back at this point. He was quick about treating his injuries, though… It probably would have been better to bandage his legs under his pants, but, squeamish as he wasn’t, the thought of removing the garment in the presence of the pinned and blindly staring half body on the wall was unpalatable to him.

“Could only make his day better,” he seemed to hear in Sagara’s tones, and he smirked faintly to himself. He still couldn’t quite believe they’d said those things to each other.

After retrieving his sword with some difficulty from aforementioned corpse, he finally left the room. As he lit a cigarette outside, covering up the last traces of the bloody scent, he spent several moments staring down the corridor to the right. Based on what he’d heard earlier, he believed his companions had gone that way. Unfortunately, based on what he remembered, he needed to go the other way. To be sure, he traded his cigarette case for the map in his pocket.

It would be a struggle to concentrate on the information he needed to collect when he wanted so badly to follow Himura and Sagara. Supposedly only Seta Soujirou remained to be defeated before Shishio himself, but, even assuming he believed those really were the only dangers left to face, he wasn’t terribly happy letting the others face them alone. He knew part of this was his usual, deeply-ingrained disinclination to delegate difficult tasks; he was always surer of things he did himself. He knew what the rest of it was too — he could finally even admit it to himself — but it was no good thinking about that right now.

He headed down the hallway to the left. Careless haste was still to be avoided, but he could hope to wrap up this part of his task quickly and rejoin the others before too long. And if either of them had been seriously hurt during this separation…

He took a long drag on his cigarette. He needed to visit three areas of the fortress before he could do what he really wanted to do, so, though it was difficult as hell, he pushed Himura and Sagara from his mind (as far as that was possible) and moved, purposeful and silent, toward his first duty.

That things went smoothly was not, he thought, in this instance, a bad sign. The complex was practically uninhabited — emptied, perhaps, toward the unsuspecting Aoiya — and those that remained were too distracted by the presence of Himura to notice Saitou. So it was with relative ease he found what he sought — none of which could occupy his mind anywhere near as thoroughly as the emptiness he was enforcing in place of what he didn’t need to be worrying about at the moment.

On the way to the last and largest office-like room he intended to inspect, a door stood ajar. A glance at his map confirmed it led to a library, but even half a hallway away Saitou could tell that its recent purpose had been something very different. Moving even more stealthily than before, he stepped inside to have a look.

The two rooms he’d seen in which the prearranged battles had taken place had been specifically suited for that purpose, tasteless personalized decorations aside. This chamber, with its narrow, shelf-walled lanes, was not suited for the purpose, so presumably this battle had not been prearranged. Saitou had been wondering all along, in the back of his head, about the location of almost the only unknown factor in this great equation; therefore, the presence in the dark chaos inside the doors of one Shinomori Aoshi was not terribly shocking. Nor was the fact that Himura had been able to defeat him.

It was one hell of a relief, though.

Judging by Shinomori’s state and that he was just getting to his feet and moving as if to leave the room, Saitou judged that it couldn’t have been too long since the end of this bout. The Okashira actually moved two steps forward before observing Saitou’s presence; Saitou wished very much he could have seen the battle that had left him in this condition.

During the few moments before Shinomori noticed his presence, Saitou debated whether or not to speak to him. Time was nothing could spend extravagantly, but he was so pleased to see Himura had won this battle that he actually felt rather positive toward Shinomori at the moment. Additionally, the Oniwaban’s presence in the fortress had surely contributed to the general distraction of which Saitou had been able to take such convenient advantage… and the man might even have a further use against Shishio, assuming Himura had managed to convince him of the error of his ways. Since Himura could probably convince Enma of the error of his ways, Saitou was assuming.

So, when Shinomori signaled by a barely visible start that he was finally aware of Saitou’s presence, looking up from the wreckage of slashed books and shattered shelves he attempted to navigate, Saitou greeted him. “I see you got your ass kicked again.”

“Saitou Hajime.” Shinomori didn’t seem terribly pleased to see him, but it was a little hard to tell.

“Hm?” Saitou lit a fresh cigarette. “You should know me as Fujita Gorou.”

“That Seta boy told me you were here,” Shinomori replied shortly.

“Sou ka,” said Saitou even more shortly, smirking at the other man.

“You’ve been taking your time.” Shinomori seemed somehow even less pleased now than before. “Battousai’s long gone.”

Saitou nodded. “Everything’s going according to plan.” Now he essentially had confirmation in Shinomori’s own words of Himura’s victory, he could get back to work in relative contentment. The Okashira was fading as an object of any interest, but he might still be useful. So Saitou pulled his map again from his pocket and flicked it at the other man.

Shinomori caught the paper and snapped it open with a hand that was evidently regaining its vigor. As his eyes took in the fine lines representing the rooms and passages surrounding them, he managed by some means or other to appear almost astonished with no visible change of expression.

Saitou turned to leave with another satisfied smirk. “Your intelligence network is effective,” he answered Shinomori’s surprise, “but the government’s system is the best in the country. It’s one of the reasons I work for them.” He gestured briefly. “I don’t need that now; it will lead you to Shishio, if you’re interested.”

“So you’re using Battousai as a decoy.” The Okashira’s flat statement made him pause.

“Something like that.” It certainly had been the plan all along; it was still the plan… it was just that Himura had become so much more since that encounter in the Kamiya Dojo. This was nothing he felt like explaining to Shinomori Aoshi, though. “This battle will decide the future Japan,” he forced himself to go on. “Nothing can come before that.” And he was not so much expressing the opinion as trying to convince himself he actually believed it. He’d known this would happen; he could only hope, now, that he really was as strong as he’d told himself he was.

“Then what about your match?” Shinomori wondered next. “The grudge between you and Battousai from the Bakumatsu? If he dies here, what will you do?”

Saitou wasn’t certain whether Shinomori was trying to reiterate the efficacy of his network by showing how much he knew, or if he was aware that these questions would be bothersome and was just lashing out since Saitou had caught him in such a vulnerable position. Either way, Saitou considered remarking cryptically that the Okashira’s information was outdated, and leaving it at that… but the thought of Himura dying here — the thought of losing what he’d only just allowed himself to admit he cherished — was too disturbing for him to answer quite so facetiously, even if Shinomori didn’t understand.

“Then whoever lives wins,” he said flatly. Under normal circumstances, it would be true, which made it a good response. But he was less pleased with Shinomori upon leaving the room than when he’d entered it.

Everything he needed to know was not readily available here in the fortress, but he hadn’t really expected it to be. He’d still learned enough to justify the trip, and after the office near the library felt it was all he was likely to. Which meant he was free to rejoin the others and, hopefully, see the end of this drama.

A large space that had appeared on the map to be an arena of some sort lay outside these dark corridors in a valley that cut right through the underground fortress; Shishio having already displayed an eye for showmanship, Saitou believed the battle against him would take place there. Picturing the route he must take to reach it required no particular effort of memory, since, under the assumption that Himura and Sagara were or would soon be there, his eyes had inevitably traced it every time they’d fallen to the map; he could probably walk it without looking.

Anticipation and concern tensed his body further with every step he took along aforementioned path, until finally he turned the last corner. Daylight flooded this corridor… more of a room, really, where the hallway opened out into an atrium of sorts before a giant set of riveted metal doors that stood open. But while the real, natural light of the sun served as a pleasant reminder of the world outside this dreary fortress and the events taking place therein, the fresh air that should have accompanied it from the valley or gorge beyond the doors was tainted by a hot, acrid smell he didn’t quite recognize at first.

Uncertain though he was at what he might find beyond them, he took the fact that the doors were open at all as a confirmation of his guess about the final battle’s location. He had only to step through and learn what was going on. Now for the end; now to hope his other duties, which it would have been impossible for him to shirk and which he was yet inclined to curse as he thought about the amount of time he’d spent away from Himura and Sagara, hadn’t delayed him too long.

At some point in here, I decided I didn’t feel like writing any more of this story and gave up on it. Then I resumed it a few years later, writing whole chapters at a time instead of little scenes and not bothering with the daily-update stuff. I honestly can’t remember where that occurred, though, so make your best guess.

In addition to being illustrative, the picture at the end of Chapter 12 was drawn in exchange for this.


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: