LA! This is a stand-alone yaoi/shounen-ai piece. It denies pretty much everything that happened after the Jinchuu arc. I hope you enjoy it.
Lyrics are Smashing Pumpkins, from Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.
He laid his hand on the old wooden gate of the dojo and just breathed for a minute. It had been a long time since he'd been here. He looked up, all around. The day he'd left it hadn't been like this. It had been raining and miserable. Mud had squelched under his feet, and under Kenshin's feet when Kenshin tried to hold him back. Sano hadn't meant to throw a punch like that; or at least, he had expected Kenshin to dodge it. But, nothing happened the way it was supposed to all those days ago, with her or with him. Megumi had been cremated and Kenshin had bled, his nose broken, his eyes wide with shock that Sano would do such a thing.
Sano had just walked away.
He didn't know why he was back now. He'd never had the sense of responsibility Kenshin had--but then again, he supposed the road didn't suit him as it had Kenshin. He'd only wondered around for four years before turning himself back towards Tokyo. He'd come in on a ship, and walked two miles out of his way to avoid the street where he had lived with Megumi for two years, and then another when he realized he was nearing the place where she was buried.
He stood there, thinking about running away. How it would be easier than facing the scorn and questions from Kaoru and Kenshin and Yahiko. Without facing the shame of having left such a burden with them, because they, surely had taken in the children when he left. He thought about all that. He thought about the son he had never seen, because Megumi's lifeblood had come out with him, and Sano had run away at that moment, when Gensai started yelling for help, and hadn't come back, and had refused even to look at his son's face.
He thought about all that. He almost turned and walked away. Instead, he knocked on the gate and held his breath.
It took so long for someone to answer, that Sano was thinking the dojo was empty. He would have gone away, then, would have turned and never looked back. He was just about to do that. Then the gate swung open, and eyes he recognized, but didn't know, looked up at him.
Yahiko. It was Yahiko. Sano suppressed the urge to reach out and hug the kid as well as he could. He had to remind himself, and it hurt, that he didn't know this young man.
Yahiko scowled. He'd grown into his promise. He was fine looking young man, tall and strong, broad about the shoulders. He looked tough, but gentle. He looked like Kenshin with attitude. Sano grinned weakly. "Hey, brat."
Yahiko stared for a minute. He'd been thirteen when Sano left, those years ago. Now he was a man of seventeen, engaged to Tsubame, who was expecting their child already. He was a master of Kamiya Kasshin Ryu, and his own style, a molding of Hiten and Kamiya, Himura Kasshin Ryu, which had the power of Hiten but the principle and style of Kamiya. He was highly regarded in the community, even at his age, as a mediator and peacekeeper.
He didn't quite know what to think. So, he didn't. He followed his first impulse, which was to punch. It connected, much to his surprise, and Sano stumbled back a few feet and fell on his ass--and then Yahiko realized why.
He was missing a leg.
Sanosuke was missing a leg.
His eyes got enormous. He flew forward, and knelt beside Sano. "Sanosuke--god--I'm so sorry--"
Sano shrugged. "S'not a big deal." He allowed Yahiko to help him to his feet, and pressed a hand to his face. He gestured toward a long stick on the ground--a crutch. He stuck it under his arm when Yahiko handed it to him. They stared at each other for a long time, now of a height to do so.
"Ask what happened," Sano said.
Yahiko blinked. Of all the answers he had expected, that was . . . well, it was very low on the list.
"I was swimming--middle of the ocean. There were thirty guys in the water, just swimming around. Boom. Didn't even see it coming. There went my leg."
Yahiko stared. "Sano--I'm sorry. Is that why--you came home?"
Sano shook his head. "Nah. That was two years ago. I've been in Kyushu, Okinawa, Australia . . . What's been going on here?"
"Lots of things. Sano, I think we should go somewhere and talk before you come inside--"
Somebody dropped a tofu bucket. Sano and Yahiko both jerked their heads to look at the gate.
Sano felt something drop in his stomach. Kenshin didn't look like himself. He was much thinner--his skin was translucent, stretched tight over his thin bones. He'd cut his hair off, and there were strands of gray all in it. He just stood there, staring, his hands held as though the tofu bucket were still within them. Those hands shook slightly. "Sano--"
Sano didn't say anything. Kenshin took a few steps forward, then a few more, then closed the distance between them entirely, and slid his thin arms around Sano's waist and just held him. "Sano," he said simply.
Behind him, someone giggled. "Hnn! Touchan's hugging a stranger!"
Kenshin pulled back, and Sano could see the little girl the voice belonged to. She was a wisp of a thing, her dark blue eyes and bright red hair telling better than words who her parents were. Kenshin beamed at her. "Rika--this isn't a stranger. This is Uncle Sano."
And just like that, Sano knew he was home.
If Kenshin forgave him, then--then everything was alright. That was all that mattered. Sano started breathing easier.
Kenshin and Kaoru's daughter--she'd been a toddler when he left--now look at her! Walking and talking, and dressed in a little girl's kimono and looking mischievous. She bit her finger and stared at Sano for a minute. "I don't remember you."
Sano felt immensely sad. "I'm sorry."
Three more heads poked around the gate--none of them as old as Rika. Three boys. Kenshin sighed.
"Come inside, Sano. I'll go get tofu, and Yahiko can make you tea."
Rika began to cry.
Kenshin turned his face away, ducking his head to cover his eyes with his hair. Yahiko hissed beside him. Sano wondered what he had done to insert his foot into his mouth.
Kenshin retrieved the tofu bucket. "I'll be back," he said, and started toward the market, walking as slowly as Sano had ever seen him.
Yahiko pinched his arm--not gently--and knelt, lifting Rika into his arms. The little girl wailed piteously, and the three boys in the gate were beginning to look weepy, too. Sano felt like a heel.
Yahiko gestured with his head, telling Sano to follow
them. He sat the girl down on the
porch, took off his sandals, and sat beside her. The boys followed suit.
After a moment, Sano sat down, too.
The boys stared at their feet; Sano did likewise.
Finally, though some trick or another, Yahiko had Rika laughing, and she dragged her . . . brothers? Cousins? Neighbors? . . . off to play. Yahiko watched them for a minute, then turned to Sano and said, "Kaoru died two months ago."
It hit Sano like the shark had--reeling out of nowhere, causing immense pain, and leaving him gasping and missing a part of himself. He stared.
Yahiko continued. "Gensai died not long after you left. Kaoru had her next baby--Shinta--just fine. He's three. He's great. Then, she got pregnant again. The baby was fine, but . . . something tore. The midwife couldn't save her. Her blood soaked through futon and into the tatami. We were lucky the temple decided to give us the money to replace them."
Yahiko sniffed, turned his head to the side. "Yeah."
Afraid to ask, almost. Sano said, "The baby?"
"Her name's Tomoe. She's beautiful. She's asleep right now."
"Is . . . tired."
"And you? She was like a sister to you . . ."
He shrugged. "I'm coping. I have Tsu to worry about now."
"Um--So. Rika and Shinta are Kenshin's?"
"So the other boys--the bigger boys, probably--"
"They're yours," Yahiko told him, standing. "Akira and Souzo. We didn't know what to name the baby. Kenshin thought you'd be happy with that."
Yahiko went to make tea.
Over the course of the next few hours, more of the story came out. Kenshin had legally adopted Yahiko, whose name was now Himura Myoujin Yahiko. A mouthful, Sano thought, but he supposed the boy had grown into it. After the wedding, Tsubame would move into the dojo house, and bring the total of people living there to eight--not much room. And, Tsubame was expecting. So. Soon nine, and most likely ten, people would be living in the small dojo.
But, Yahiko had lots of students. "Kendo is popular currently, with the build-up of the army. Everyone wants to fight like samurai. I'll add on to the house, I suppose. We need the space." He talked about extending the shed, and making half of it a bedroom. The only thing that had kept it from happening thus far, was that Yahiko was afraid Kenshin would insist that he, Kenshin, move into the spare room. Yahiko was afraid Kenshin's failing health wouldn't take well to the cold and the isolation there.
When Kenshin came home with tofu, Sano was still sitting on the porch, drinking tea and talking to Yahiko. The children came squealing from every corner of the yard to greet him. He held the tofu up, out of harm's way, and smiled as they wrapped their round arms around his knees. Yahiko watched them with a solemn face.
Now--now--Sano could see his features in his boys' faces. And Megumi's. He felt his chest tighten.
Kenshin slowly separated himself from his adoring horde, and made it to the porch. He sat beside Sano and slid his sandals off. He rolled his shoulders and turned to look at Sano. "You'll stay here, of course."
Sano felt something warm inside of him.
Yahiko jumped. "Kenshin--we can't--"
Kenshin didn't look anywhere except in Sano's eyes.
"Yes, we can. It's Sano. Of course we can."
And that was that.
Sano resolved to make himself useful.
The children were asleep, Tomoe resting in her father's arms. Yahiko had gone off to visit Tsubame, and that left Kenshin and Sano awake to watch the moon rise. Sano felt awkward. He felt useless and like a leech, like a great betrayer. How much had they endured in the four years that he'd been gone?
But, Kenshin didn't say anything for a long time. When he did speak, it was so low that Sano had to strain to hear. The cicadas screeched over his voice, almost. "Akira and Souzo are fine boys. I've told them you would come back for them"
He could only think, then, to thank Kenshin with all of his heart. Kenshin waved it off. "I knew you'd come back. I wasn't saying anything that wasn't true."
"I might not've," Sano said. "I might've died in the middle of the ocean."
"Don't say things like that." Kenshin sounded very hurt by the thought.
So, Sano didn't say anything for a while. He did ask about Sano's leg, and Sano told him. He unpinned his pants and showed Kenshin the stump; Kenshin, having seen many injuries in his life, was not disgusted, as Sano had feared. His leg had been sheared off just above the knee. They had cauterized it onboard, a bunch of Dutch sailors who barely spoke any Japanese. He'd sworn at them the whole time, in the harshest terms he knew. Lucky, probably, that they hadn't known any Japanese.
Never did they mention Kaoru, or Megumi.
Saitoh, they talked about. The old bastard had been transferred to Hokkaido, and there, had been diagnosed with a cancer of the lungs. He was dead now. He'd committed seppuku in fine samurai fashion. Kenshin applauded him for it. They talked about Hiko Seijurou, who was now stricken with tuberculosis, and would die in a few years, surely, and who had gone off and forbidden his baka deshi of seeking him out. Jiya, in Kyoto, was dead, too, but Aoshi and Misao were producing hordes of genki little children. Kenshin could hardly wield a shinai, and Sano had half a leg.
Sano said, "Just wondering. Who would take on the bad guys, if the bad guys came around?"
Kenshin smiled. "Yahiko would. I would help."
Sano snorted. "Yeah. You hobble in there and make them pity you until they die. Yeah."
Kenshin snorted back, mock glaring. "As if you'd be able to do much more, Gimpy."
Sano chortled. "I resemble that remark."
"Yes, you do."
They watched the moon run across the night sky. Kenshin watched his child sleep. Then, finally, they both watched Yahiko cross the dojo gate and secure it behind him, and stroll up the path. There was good-natured teasing, and the boy's cheeks flamed.
Not a boy anymore, Sano thought. Not a boy, by far.
Yahiko had been a man longer than Sano had, probably.
Sano ended up on a spare futon in Kenshin's room. It was the room he'd kept as a rurouni, before he and Kaoru had decided to marry. Kenshin slept curled up on his side, one hand extended in Sano's direction. Probably, Kaoru had slept on that side. Tomoe slept on a pile of blankets between Kenshin's head and the wall.
Sano lay awake, sleep eluding him. The scent of home overwhelmed him. The sound of Kenshin's breathing filled his ears, and the sounds of the cicadas outside. It had been years since he'd slept on a futon. Years since he'd been so close to Kenshin . . .
Yes, that was coming again, too. The old attraction he'd felt all those years ago, when he'd been Kenshin's friend, the one who'd watched his back. It hadn't just been his back that Sano had been watching. They'd gotten drunk together, once, and Sano had learned--for just a precious instant--what Kenshin's lips felt like. He'd tasted the sake, sweet enough to tempt Kenshin's palate, and the tears Kenshin wept. Sano couldn't remember why Kenshin had been crying, only that he had, and that the taste had been intoxicating, and that Sano had fallen asleep only a moment later. He had never seen Kenshin that drunk again. He'd never had the opportunity to touch as he willed, to kiss, to see if those lips were as sweet and soft as he remembered, or if that had just been the sake.
It felt . . . wrong, somehow. The worst for of debauchery, to want his friend, his widower friend, who had three young children to care for. The last feast in mourning for Kaoru had been a week ago, and here was Sano, ready to move in. He felt his lip twist in disgust. He felt himself to be the worst sort of pervert.
Sometime well after midnight, the thunderstorm began. Kenshin stirred in his sleep, and woke at the second crash of thunder. Sano understood why a moment later. Rika threw the dana open with a great clack, and threw herself in bed with her father. "Touchan!" she wailed. Kenshin moaned a little. It sounded terribly pained, and Sano's eyes drew low in concern.
A moment later, the boys came in, and Sano sought his childrens' faces in the night.
Akira, the oldest was five now. He knelt on the tatami between Sano and Kenshin's futons and stared at Sano for a long moment.
"Ken-ojisan, who's this?"
Kenshin sat up, holding his children's small bodies against his. "Akira-chan, Souzo-chan." Sano sat up as well. "This is your father."
The boys stared at him for a long, long minute.
Then Souzo lunged into his arms.
It was the best feeling in the world.
Akira just stood up and left the room. Kenshin called out, "Where are you going, Akira?"
"I'll sleep with Yahiko-niichan tonight."
Akira bowed a little, and closed the shoji quietly behind him.
Kenshin turned to Sano. His face was luminous in the pale glow of the lightning. "I'm sorry," he said.
Souzo hugged him tighter.
Sano woke sometime just after dawn. The rain was still coming down. Sano turned his head, looking for Kenshin. Kenshin's futon was still out, the covers turned back. He'd probably left it for the kids to sleep in, but the kids weren't there. Souzo wasn't there, either, Sano noticed belatedly. He sat up, blinking.
Nature, eventually, called. Sano struggled to his feet and grabbed his crutch. He hobbled down the hallway, wondering what had woke him. It was not his nature to wake so early; no, very much not. He wondered if he had been home long enough to grumble about the hours certain people kept. But--that might get him put in another room, away from Kenshin. He grimaced.
The children were all huddled together, peeking around the shoji. Rika looked up when Sano approached them, and went to him. She put a finger over her lips. "Yahiko-niichan is trying to stop Touchan from leaving."
Sano blinked. "But it's raining buckets. Where's Kenshin think he's goin'?"
Rika's eyes got enormous. "To visit Kaachan."
Oh, fuck. Fuckity fuck fuck fuck.
Sano hobbled past Rika; her small fingers clutched in the fabric of his pants, and he looked down. She was shaking her head violently. "No. Mustn't interrupt Yahiko-niichan and Touchan when they're discussing."
"Discussing," Sano snorted. He gently took the little hand off his pants and made it past the gawking children and out the door.
Yahiko was standing on the step, his eyes narrowed, his arms outstretched. Kenshin stood on the porch, a parasol in one hand, his eyes narrowed. Their voices were raised. All around the house, the rain came down and down, turning the path into a mire.
This, then, was what had woken Sano. Their arguing. Discussing.
"Oi," Sano said. "What's goin' on?"
Kenshin jumped a little, and took a step back. His expression was furious--at jumping? At Yahiko's vehement refusal to allow him past? He didn't say anything.
Yahiko did. "This old man thinks he's gonna walk through all this rain and go to the shrine."
Kenshin bristled at that label. "Old man! I'm thirty-seven!"
Yahiko shrugged. "Well, you look like you're fifty! You're not going! Kenshin, you'll get sick!"
"I won't!" His face twisted. "Yahiko, please, I have to go--"
Kenshin's eyes blazed for a moment; his ken-ki sang. Yahiko just stared at him levelly. "You can't go in this weather. She wouldn't let you go, either."
"But I have to! I promised her!"
"Yes--and we all know you keep your promises! Kenshin! She would hit you over the head for acting like this, and you know it!"
Kenshin made a fist with his right hand. "I'm not too old that I can't take you in to the dojo and throw you around a few times--"
Yahiko's shoulders slumped, and his eyes closed for a moment. When he opened them, they were full of pain. "Kenshin--Otousan--forgive me. Yes, you are."
At that, all the fight in Kenshin left him. He dropped the parasol to the porch and turned away wordlessly, heading for the dojo proper. Sano and Yahiko stared after him.
There it was.
Kenshin was . . . he wasn't ken no shin, anymore. He wasn't a swordsman, or a warrior. His body couldn't handle it. Sano felt a low, violent rush of hate for Hiko Seijurou. He had taught the boy Hiten; he must have known, surely, that such a style would destroy Kenshin's smaller body little by little. It was Hiten that had done this to him, Hiten and all the accumulated wounds, and of course, Kaoru's death.
Yahiko sat heavily on the porch. He was shaking. Sano put a hand on his head. Yahiko shook it off. "The idiot. I want him to live--"
"He can't be so reckless--if he gets sick now, he'll die--"
Sano made his way past Yahiko and to the dojo. Kenshin was kneeling in front of the shine there, his shoulders shaking violently, his head bowed to the wood floor. Sano limped in and knelt as best as he could beside him. Finally, Kenshin rose and Sano was not surprised to see tear-streaks along his cheeks.
"I promised her," he said. "I promised her would go see her every morning."
Sano put a hand on his shoulder. "Kaoru won't mind," he said. "She'd probably be pissed if you came out to see her in the rain."
Kenshin shuddered, and Sano realized that there has been a complete absence of Kaoru's spoken name in Kenshin's presence until that moment. "But I promised."
"She'll forgive you."
He wiped his face with the sleeve of his gi. "I know she will. She was always more forgiving than I ever could be."
"On yourself anyway."
Kenshin didn't say anything, and they sat quietly together for a long time.
"I'm glad you're back," Kenshin said after a moment. "It's been . . . lonely. Surrounded by all these deaths. I had become accustomed to the . . . the heat that was between all of us. The warmth."
Sano lowered his head. "I'm sorry. I couldn't stay."
Kenshin turned toward him, his lips set in an angry line. "What you did was cowardly and selfish."
Oh, if it had been anyone besides Kenshin to say that to him . . .
"I know," Sano said instead of knocking Kenshin flat on his back. "I couldn't stand it. She was so pale . . ."
Kenshin stared at him for a moment. "We picked her bones from the ashes," he said. "Kaoru, Yahiko, Gensai, Misao, Aoshi, and I. Many of her patients visited and gave donations, to help with the children."
Sano felt his chest tighten. He covered his heart with his hand, half-afraid that it would burst out if he didn't hold it. Kenshin's hand covered his own--his bones like a birds, trembling slightly over Sano's hand. His sword hand, too, the knuckles enlarged. "When the rain stops," he said. "We should go visit them."
Sano looked up sharply. "They're--"
"Yes, they were buried together."
And Sano knew without asking, that there would be a place for Kenshin somewhere nearby, and probably one for Sano himself . . .
The rain did stop, and by mid-afternoon, Tokyo was a miserable, muggy place. Sano was reluctant. He wanted to wait until the road had dried. But Kenshin was adamant. He collected the parasol and took Sano's hand and led him forcibly from the house. They walked slowly, due to Sano's reliance on the crutch. As they neared the cemetery, Sano realized he had been unintentionally slowing his pace. He snarled at himself, and forced himself to speed up.
The shrine was modest, set against the low wall. Megumi's name was written beautifully, and beside Kaoru's. Kenshin knelt to pray. Sano, unable to do so, just stood there for a minute.
It hurt, to look at this. But the hurt was not what he had expected. Four years ago, he had honestly thought that the earth would open up and swallow him whole if he looked at her grave. His heart ached, yes; his throat tightened. He found himself fighting off tears
Kenshin stood, and Sano brought his own contemplations to a close. They looked at each other for a long time. Best friends, widowers, crippled. Men who had once been the strongest a nation of warriors had to offer.
"Let's go home," Kenshin said. Sano wrapped his arm around Kenshin's shoulders, and they leaned on each other on the way home.
Kenshin's health began a slow climb, and Yahiko blamed it entirely on Sano's presence. Sano, for his part, got a job washing dishes at a restaurant. He was sorely tempted to drop it when he saw how much money Yahiko was bringing in as a teacher, but . . . it was nice to be able to do things for them, and asking Yahiko for money was probably the most embarrassing thing he'd ever experienced.
Kenshin spent his days playing with the children, and doing the chores. He usually had Tomoe on a sling on his back as he went around the dojo. The children were crazy about him, and rushed to help him in every way. Working together, they would draw water for the bath or the laundry. They would run and race across the yard, and the buckets rarely arrived even half-full, but they did arrive. The kids had fun doing it, and it spared Kenshin quite a bit of labor.
When Sano hobbled back to the dojo every afternoon, Souzo wrapped his arms around Sano's leg. It had surprised the hell out of both of them the first day--for different reasons, of course. Souzo had not expected one leg to be missing. Sano had not expected the hug, period, and it had thrown him off balance and onto his back. Souzo had been in tears, but Sano had tickled those away. When he stood up, Kenshin smiled at him.
"Okaerinasai," he said quietly every day.
Three chirping voices would take it up. Rika, Shinta, and Souzo would run around calling "okaerinasai!" to everything, and eventually even Yahiko joined the ritual.
Akira was never anywhere around during their afternoons. He would reappear for dinner, then go bathe with Kenshin and the rest of the children. Sano always took his baths last, and alone, for fear that the sight of his leg would disturb the children.
He had been home for three months when Akira's absence began to make him angry. He hobbled around the dojo, Kenshin a silent shadow behind him, the chirping children left in the front yard. He found Akira in the tall tree behind the house. The boy stared down at him with hate in his eyes.
It infuriated Sano.
"Come down from there," he said.
"Make me," Akira answered.
"I'm your father!"
Akira screamed at him! Screamed! "SHUT UP! You're not my father! You're just gonna run away again!" And he climbed higher in the tree.
Sano turned away from him, and saw only Kenshin's sad eyes.
That night, Kenshin bathed the children and put them to bed. Sano went to get his bath, and was only a little surprised to hear the door slide open behind him, and to see Kenshin come in. He scooped water into a bucket, and dumped it over his head. It matted his hair to his head, and ran down his back in thick rivulets, over scar and skin. He drew another bucket, and sat on the other stool and began to scrub his hair.
"He hates me," Sano said. He'd finished washing, so he hopped on one leg to the tub and slid inside.
Kenshin sat frozen on his stool. After a moment, he continued scrubbing his hair. "He doesn't know what it means. He just knows that you were there, and then you weren't. He doesn't mean it."
But it continued to gnaw at Sano. When Kenshin rinsed the soap from his frail, thin body and slipped into the tub, Sano hardly noticed.
"He doesn't hate you," Kenshin said. "He's angry, that's all. Angry, and afraid of being left alone again. . . I think he loves you desperately."
"I'm not gonna leave," he said, throwing a rag on top of his head. "You couldn't drag me away."
Kenshin chuckled. "I know that. And Akira will learn eventually."
"It's been three months, Kenshin . . . how long's it gonna take?"
Kenshin shrugged and sank in the water until he was submerged to his chin. His hands moved underneath in lazy patterns, pale white fish there. Sano moved his own hand, but it was big and blocky and not graceful at all.
Kenshin smiled and curved his small hand around Sano's, and moved with him until Sano's hands were beautiful, too.
Yahiko's marriage took place only a few days later. It was a beautiful ceremony, Sano thought. He sat beside Kenshin, who sat where Yahiko's father should. Kenshin was dressed in a very fine gi and hakama. He'd combed his hair back and tied it in a topknot--illegally, but no one in the small ceremony seemed to care. The children were all on the best behavior, even Tomoe, who just slept through it. Sano had been bullied into formal clothes as well, and he sat stiffly just behind Kenshin, beside the children. Aoshi and Misao had sent a handsome gift, and their apologies that they could not attend the wedding, as Misao was ready to give birth to their seventh child. Tae and a few of the workers from the Akabeko were the only other people there.
After the ceremony, Tae served a lavish meal. She sat at Sano's right, smiling sweetly the whole time. When she poured sake and tea, she held the hem of her pretty kimono back so that Sano could see her wrist. The sight pleased him greatly, and he met her shy flirtations with his own.
Yahiko and Tsubame made a polite, blushing retreat, and the party wound down. Tae put the children in bed, and paid special attention to Akira and Souzo. They seemed to regard her highly. Sano wondered what role she had played in his son's lives during his absence.
A young man from the Akabeko arrived to walk Tae home. Sano walked them to the gate and exchanged goodbyes. He offered to visit her, and she agreed, blushing to the roots of her hair. They were both pleased by the time she left.
Sano turned around and saw Kenshin standing on the porch. He blinked, half-turned, and pulled the gate closed behind him. Kenshin turned and went quietly into the dark house. Sano followed.
He found Kenshin pulling off his clothes. Sano sat heavily on the floor. There was no accounting for the pain in Kenshin's eyes, for the tension in his shoulders--except--Ah. Kenshin had moved Kaoru's things out of the other bedroom--the larger bedroom. He and Yahiko had carried the trunks holding her kimono and her combs and perfumes into the shed. It was Yahiko's home now, Kenshin said. So, the room would belong to Yahiko and his wife.
And tonight, Yahiko and Tsubame were claiming it.
That explained it, then.
As Sano watched, Kenshin removed his hair from the topknot and ran his fingers through it. It was getting long again. Sano was loathe to see him cut it off.
"Nice ceremony, wasn't it?" Sano said, breaking the silence.
Kenshin made a noise of agreement and pulled his yukata on. His body was skin pulled tight over thin bones. There was too little of him.
"Tsubame--she's really grown up."
"Yes," Kenshin said. "Yes, she has."
"How far along is she?"
"She'll start to show soon."
"And Tae--" There was no accounting for the tightening of Kenshin's jaw at that, so Sano ignored it. "The children seem to like her."
Kenshin nodded. He knelt primly, stiffly, beside his sleeping daughter. He reached out with one hand to touch her face, and she shifted towards him.
"They were all sick at the same time--everyone except me. Even Yahiko and Tsubame and Kaoru were ill. Tae helped me care for them. Akira and Souzo took a special liking towards her, and she would come by to play with them occasionally. She hasn't been back so much since--since Tomoe was born."
Sano was quiet for a moment. Then he asked, "Do you think she'd be a good mother?"
Kenshin looked at him sharply. His eyes flashed once, then he looked away. He stood and lay down on his futon, his back to Sano. He didn't say anything.
Sano made a face. "Kenshin? What's wrong?"
Kenshin shrugged. "Tae-dono would be whatever you wanted her to be."
Sano blinked. "Dono? Kenshin, what the fuck--?"
"Sessha would prefer it if you would not use such language around sessha's children, de gozaru."
Sano worked it all out in his mind, and the conclusion he came to was so impossible, that he squashed it immediately, ruthlessly. He stood and found his own yukata and put it on, and hopped back to his futon. He lay on his back and stared at the strong, wooden beams in the ceiling. "What's with the sessha stuff, Kenshin? You never used that with me before . . ."
Kenshin didn't say anything. A few moments later, the quiet sounds of Tsubame and Yahiko's love making came to them through the thin paper walls, and Kenshin was unable to stifle a sob. Sano sighed and rolled over. He pulled his futon next to Kenshin's and took Kenshin's thin, shaking shoulders in his hands. He pressed his face into the fragrant pile of Kenshin's hair--as he had always wanted to--and held him, trying to comfort him. "It's okay, Kenshin, it's okay . . . They're trying to be quiet . . ."
Kenshin shook his head.
Of course, Sano thought. Kenshin's grief was much newer than his own. Sano's grief was now a sharp ache when he thought of her. Kenshin had probably convinced himself that he was the lowest sort of person, to celebrate something like a wedding so soon after Kaoru's death.
Sano wrapped his arms around Kenshin's small, shaking body and held it. Kenshin's sobs increased, though he stifled his cries in the pillow so that Tomoe wouldn't wake. After a moment, he said, "Please--don't--"
Kenshin rolled over, and his eyes were flat, miserable. "Don't do this to me."
"Do what?" Sano was perfectly confused.
"Tae--you want her to be a mother to your sons--"
Sano made a face. "What are you talking about?"
"You shouldn't--want her and hold me-- It's cruel . . ."
Sano blinked--and he realized it wasn't so impossible after all. "You're jealous . . ."
Kenshin stared at him steadily, even through his tears. "So what if I am?"
In the background, Tsubame cried out quietly.
Kenshin averted his eyes. "Tae can and will give you a mother for your sons. I won't allow you to string me along as well. I won't be the lover."
Sano's eyes went impossibly wide, and he gaped at Kenshin for a long time. Finally, irritation wormed its way into his mind, and he said, "Who the hell do you think you are, huh? I've been chasing you since I first laid eyes on you--only quit because of Kaoru--and now that you don't have anybody else to--now you think you wanna be with me--"
Kenshin's eyes widened, too. "Sano--I'm sorry--I didn't even know what I wanted then--Sano--you're hurting me--"
And Sano realized that he had tightened his arms around Kenshin, and that some of the pain on Kenshin's face was physical. Sano loosened his grip, but Kenshin didn't pull away. They stared at each other for a minute. Kenshin finally said, "If you want her, then go after her, but don't give me hope and then take it away--"
Sano put his finger on Kenshin's lips. Kenshin did not seem to appreciate that gesture, most definitely did not. He bit Sano's knuckle, and pouted furiously behind his finger. Sano knew better than to laugh, but he had to bite his cheek to keep from it.
He thought about Tae. What did he feel for her? Friendship? Fondness? Gratitude that she had been kind to his children, and that she had fed him many years ago, when all of his money had gone to the dice? She'd given him food. Nothing more . . .
Kenshin . . .
Oh, Kenshin had given him everything . . .
Ten years ago, Sano got Kenshin to go out with him. Through much cajoling, he managed to get Kenshin to drink sake with him. As usually happens, one cup became ten, and things were very blurry to both of them. Kenshin looked like he was about to fall over, so Sano scooted himself along the floor and let Kenshin rest his head against Sano's strong shoulder. Kenshin's hair was a bright mass against his cheek, because at some point, Sano had let his head fall.
Sometime after that, Kenshin started crying. Sano would never remember why he did, only that he did, and that he looked so utterly alone and vulnerable, Sano did the only thing he could think of ease that suffering. He tilted Kenshin's head up, and brushed his lips against Kenshin's.
He did, distinctly, remember pressing his palm against Kenshin's scar. He remembered it vividly. It rose over Kenshin's cheek, the physical symbol of the spiritual crossroads his life had reached at that moment. Drunken haze conjured up an image of Kenshin at sixteen, or, what Sano thought he must have looked like--smaller, thinner, paler, his eyes amber and sharp in a childish face. Pictured him holding the body of a woman who was vaguely beautiful. He imagined that Kenshin had stabbed her, not that he had, in fact, cut her from shoulder to groin; that he had nearly cut her in half. He imagined Kenshin bent over that body and thinking about the life of shadows he had led, and same dark life that lay before him. He imagined Kenshin choosing.
At the culmination of this fantasy, he leaned forward, slanted his lips against Kenshin's and kissed him properly.
He thought Kenshin responded--but he wasn't sure. Could be sure of nothing except the taste of sweet sake and tears, of how small Kenshin felt pressed up against him like that. He thought to ask Kenshin about it. He ran a hand down Kenshin's throat as they kissed, and he put his hand inside Kenshin's gi and felt the throb of his heart.
At that point, Sano passed out.
Sano put his arms around Kenshin again. Kenshin's eyes narrowed--then widened, when Sano slid his finger under Kenshin's chin and tilted his head upwards.
"Don't . . ."
"I won't go with her tomorrow."
Kenshin blinked. "Don't do this to pity me . . ."
"Never," Sano said. "I've never pitied you."
Kenshin blinked once. Sano held his eyes as he bent his head closer, and pressed their lips together.
It wasn't the sake that had been so sweet, after all.
Kenshin sighed and melted against him. He wrapped his arms around Sano's neck and held him. He kissed back. Sano was quite certain of it this time. He rolled a little so that Kenshin lay beneath him, and pulled back, staring down at Kenshin's thin face, at his wide eyes. Sano touched his face, "You sure about this?"
Kenshin nodded. "Yes."
"No Tae, then."
"And don't think you can get sick and die on me--"
Kenshin shook his head. "No, I won't do that. But--don't you dare run off again!"
He leaned down and hugged Kenshin against him. Kenshin ran his hands through Sano's hair and smiled.
Sano rolled off of Kenshin, to his side, and pulled Kenshin's body against his own. Kenshin spooned against him, his back to Sano's chest, his legs curled slightly. Sano's leg draped across Kenshin's thighs; his arm fell over Kenshin's waist.
Kenshin took Sano's hand and brought it to his mouth. He kissed the knuckles tenderly, and held Sano's large hand against his chest. His heart was beating like a bird's. "Do you think Kaoru would be happy?"
Sano breathed in the scent of Kenshin's hair--it smelled different, now, for some reason, than it had a few minutes ago. "I think Kaoru would be happy if you were."
Sano felt himself smiling. "Megumi . . . she'll probably watch."
Sano fell asleep with Kenshin laughing quietly against his chest.
Speak to me in a language I can hear
Humour me before I have to go
Deep in thought I forgive everyone
As the cluttered streets greet me once again
I know I can't be late, supper's waiting on the table
an excuse away
So I pull my collar up and face the cold, on my own
The earth laughs
beneath my heavy feet
At the blasphemy in my old jangly walk
Steeple guide me to my heart and home
The sun is out and up and down again
I know I'll make it, love can last forever
Graceful swans of never topple to the earth
And you can make it last, forever you
You can make it last, forever you
And for a moment
I lose myself
Wrapped up in the pleasures of the world
I've journeyed here and there and back again
But in the same old haunts I still find my friends
Mysteries not ready to reveal
Sympathies I'm ready to return
I'll make the effort, love can last forever
Graceful swans of never topple to the earth
Tomorrow's just an excuse
And you can make it last, forever you
You can make it last, forever you