Rurouni Kenshin: The Phoenix Saga

Episode 8 – Thoughts on the Phoenix: Two Men Become Brothers

(Note:  If I end up with errors about Sanosuke's past, I apologize; I had to get it from a couple manga synopses I found.  If I made the wrong guesses… well then that's just how it'll be in this universe. ^_^;;  And I apologize for the non-episodic pacing; I'm not doing too well in many respects.  Me twy though.  And thanks for the sincere reviews everyone, especially Kanzen ne Tsuki  ^_^, I'm bogged down by lots of college work but I'll keep on writing, slowly but surely, to the end.

--Sonja)

Kaoru felt cold and alone as she lay under her blanket.  Cold and alone, even though the house was warm enough and she had slept by herself for all these years.  All except that night with Kenshin.  Just lying there next to him, talking to him and then sleeping in his comforting presence made his absence already feel unnatural and empty.  She shivered slightly in reflex to it, curling tighter against her now wadded blanket.

"Kenshin…" she quietly murmured, "I know I promised to get through this time happily… But I didn't know it was possible to miss you so much already.  Enough to talk to you while you're not even here."  She chuckled quietly at how silly that was.  And yet, she continued, her sparkling blue eyes gazing at a space next to her, imagining the gently smiling Kenshin lying there, floating in the pool of his spread red hair.

"This is hard, you know," she whispered, "to have you gone the very morning after we proclaimed our love.  It's like having only one bite of rice at a meal.  You're still hungry, there's so much left… In fact you become even hungrier than you were beforehand.  That's how I'm feeling right now… Are you feeling the same way, Kenshin?"

She got no answer, of course, even though part of her wished she would receive one.  But she knew he would agree with her.  She knew he loved her just as much as she did him, and so she was not the only one feeling an absence on that night.

***

Sleeping in the streets would have created unease for residents, and hospitality was not sought after, so once again skeletal trees served as the roof over the travelers' heads.  Through the sparse thatch, Kenshin could easily see the stars on that clear, cold night.  They seemed to shiver rather than shimmer, the sky a dark, icy blue rather than unfathomably black.

But blue could be unfathomable too.  Like Kaoru's eyes, holding love that Kenshin could not possibly deserve.  And yet, he could never remove that from her; it was a part of her now, as it was a part of him.  The red thread of fate tied them together through years and miles, even though the far end had been severed and slackened long ago.

Now the pull was tight, tugging at his heart.  To be away from Kaoru right after they had revealed matching ends of fate's thread ached him so.  No longer was he adrift, but firmly anchored.  Distance lengthened the chain, but already he longed for return, reprieve from the absence of her wonderful voice, strong arms, and starry eyes.

Ah, the sky… Ah, her eyes…

" 'Tweet tweet' goes the lovebird," Sanosuke teased mildly.  He was lying on his side with his head propped by a hand and an elbow.

"Oh," Kenshin leaked with minor surprise, blinking at his friend as his thoughts jumped to the back of his mind, "How did you know I was –"

"Well, yer eyes were awful sparkly," Sano elaborated with a smirk, "Like that, you couldn't've been thinkin' about the more recent issue."  He was now frowning.

"Hai, sou de gozaru," Kenshin admitted, partly feeling guilty then for his thoughts about himself instead of their absent acquaintance.  "Is that why you are not asleep yet?"

"Yeah," the younger man sighed, picking up a long twig from the ground and studying it in the flickering yellow light of the campfire.  It was quite curvy and rough in texture.  "I just don't get why he'd go through all that crap for such a cold-hearted bastard."

"The bond between family members can reach beyond reason," Kenshin answered, "perhaps more so than romantic love."

"Still…" Sanosuke stopped, having begun to speak before letting Kenshin's words sink in.  Approval from his own father had been second priority to Sanosuke as a youngster… But he had been wrong.

"Kenshin…"

"Hai?"

"I know nobody's pasts seem to matter in our group," Sanosuke quietly began, touching smoldering wood at the edges of the fire with the long, crooked twig, opening small holes which bled glowing orange cinders, "But it still feels a little like… like we're cheat'n out a little, an' bein' cheated.  I mean… Like, we should be able to trust each other with this kinda stuff.  It's hard to just carry somethin' alone, ya know?"

Kenshin nodded slowly, looking reminiscent and understanding.  "I do know," he answered.  He had planned to tell everyone about his past eventually, but had wanted to wait with the pity and sadness until more happy memories could be built, so they would all know he could be alright when he wasn't thinking about it.  But it had been a long time.  Perhaps long enough for his young friend.

"Wanted to do my freeloadin' without it bein' outta pity or anything," Sanosuke continued, "but I guess you won't affect that, really…"

"Is this about your family, if I may ask?" Kenshin was not insistent, only speaking up thus because he already knew Sanosuke disliked drifting in his emotions; he preferred to move along, swift and strong, though that was obviously difficult with this particular subject.

"Yeah, it is."  Sano removed the stick from the fire, looking at its blackened, smoking end.  He held it out a bit toward Kenshin.  "Lookit this, Kenshin.  Been stickin' it in there for a while now, but it still didn't catch on fire."

Kenshin looked at it quietly, a bit curiously.  "Hai…?"

The young man put the end back into the fire.  "But then if ya leave one tiny ember burning when you leave a campfire alone, or leave one stray spark, the whole forest can go up in flame when nobody's trying."

The rurouni blinked a few more times with wide eyes.  Then his face grew neutral as he got the point.  Then his eyes went big and blinky once more; it was not like Sano at all to be philosophical!  Sanosuke, using allegory to make a point?  Uncanny.

The rooster-head looked at Kenshin again, then chuckled dryly.  "I'm still a patriot, Kenshin; I can be idealistic when I want to.  Symbols and all."

Kenshin nodded, a small smile admitting some wondering as to why he had not seen that as possible before.  "Well… You do not have to force yourself to talk about things when it's difficult to start.  If you need the accidental burst, I will be prepared for it, that I will."

"Nah," Sanosuke replied, looking back at the campfire around the twig, "I wanna start a fire.  If I gotta burn, there may as well be light too."

He let go of the branch, though not throwing it in, and lowered his head onto his now folded arm, lying down fully and keeping his eyes on the fire.  Somehow wanting to avert his usually confronting eyes.  His voice was tired and filled with sighs as he spoke, as if speaking of a mild irritation, although his aversion alone made this far from the truth.  "I'm sure ya wonder once in a while what my family situation is, figurin' I was orphaned and taken in by Taichou.  But that ain't how it is; I had a perfectly good family, parents an' a little sister.  But when the war came, I really wanted to help out, wanted to stand up for my beliefs.  Dad wouldn't have that though, so I ran away."  His tone began to convey more genuine sadness as he said, "An' even though I don't regret it, I still do… The crap he warned me would happen did, an' I had to lose my family to believe him.  That's kinda why I thought of Taichou as my dad; he believed in the same stuff I did, unlike my real dad.  An' I ended up losing both of 'em."

He was silent for a while, the firelight still reflected in his deep brown eyes, subdued by his partly lowered lids.  Kenshin remained silent, unsure of what to say, and knowing that Sanosuke now had to deal with the feelings he had brought to the surface.  Despite his philosophy of avoiding feelings and judgment until he knew all the facts, Kenshin could not help but feel sorry for his friend.

After lying there for a while in silence, Sanosuke finally forced his guilt-ridden eyes to look at Kenshin.  His voice sounded very young now, and sad.  "I was close to my sister.  Me an' her, we were best buddies, an' just trusted each other with… with everything.  Uki-chan looked up to me.  An' here I went an' abandoned her, left her all alone.  An' I just can't face them all, if they're still around.  I don't even know if they are.  But even if I did know, I don't think I could make myself do it.  Family love or not, this had to've hurt 'em bad enough for 'em to hate me.  Of all people, I hurt my own family."

His eyes lowered once more, horizontally since he was lying down, the earth-colored orbs exhausted from the strain of contact with such heavy emotion.  Kenshin's own violet ones had met his with openness and understanding, and they now filled with even more sympathy.

"Gomen nasai, Sanosuke," Kenshin said quietly, his tone showing his sincerity, "The guilt of causing pain for a loved one… it is one of the worst burdens to carry."

The young man's eyes once again met Kenshin's at that statement.  A statement by one who obviously knew what that was like, or at the very least was good at understanding the feeling.  "Yeah… Thanks for knowin' it.  You've always been good at bein' sympathetic.  But, I dunno if I'll ever get the guts to smooth this out.  I don't think they can forgive me, an' seeing their hurt might end up bein' worse than this guilt, and make their pain fresh again."

Kenshin, moving slightly closer and fully facing his friend, softly pointed out, "However, there is no way to know without doing so, that there is not.  If they loved you enough to be pained, then that love can quite likely carry forgiveness in time.  It may be bittersweet, but at least the uncertainty would be gone."

Sanosuke nodded slowly, as well as could be done in his position.  "You're right," he said after a bit, "I'll try… Maybe after this is settled, I'll get myself to go their way.  At least it's a little hope…" His head lowered to his chest, eyes closing.  "I'll try."

There was silence for a while, except for the crackling of the fire.  Then, Kenshin gently said, "In case it is any solace to you… Whether or not they accept you back as family, the rest of us care for you the way a family would.  No matter what happens, you will still have the rest of us, that you will."

Sanosuke slowly opened his eyes and looked back at Kenshin.  A small smile came to his mouth.  "Thank you," he said, without abbreviating,  "Yeah, Jou-chan is quite a bit like my little sister, as I remember her.  And Yahiko's a little brother, annoyance an' all.  But… I've never had a big brother.  Unless you count Taichou.  Dunno if he was more like a father or big bro."

"Well," Kenshin said with a small smile of his own, "If it is alright with you, you now have one.  In the future, you can consider it in-law, but the bond is still the same, I believe."

Sanosuke thought for a while, then sat up, looking at the red-haired man.  He and Kenshin did indeed get along well, and quite family-like too.  He had the same ideals as his late hero, and was good to spend time with even if he was a bit stand-offish at times.  This did help keep him in line, he realized, like one would expect from an older sibling.  And, he realized right then that he felt much closer to Kenshin, as well as the rest of the group, than he did to his other more long-standing friends.  It felt almost too good for him to consider Kenshin a family member.  Yet here was a direct offer.

"So…" he queried, "even if I got mean or somethin' like 'Rique's dad, you'd still find it in you to care about me?  Or even if I had somethin' about me most would hate?"

"If you attacked an innocent I would of course intervene like before," Kenshin answered, "But I would always care for you, that I would.  Would you do the same for me?"

"Well yeah," Sanosuke said, smirking a bit, "Hell man, I'd do pretty much anything.  For Jou-chan, the kid, and even you.  The fox-chick, different category, but same vow.  Yeah… you're my brother."

Kenshin smiled and nodded in a small bow.  "We are brothers."

Sanosuke was grinning, and blushing a bit, looking down at the ground.  Such a proclamation was so mushy, but it also made him feel warm and happy.  He had a big brother.  And that was Kenshin, of all people.  How cool is that?!  He chuckled, then looked at the campfire.  The crooked twig was on fire now.  He picked it up, holding it up like a torch.

"I got my fire," he proclaimed, "Took all that waitin' around, but there it is."

"Indeed," Kenshin agreed, "Though what will you do with it?"

Sanosuke only looked at the flame for a while, watching it as it clung to the branch, its flaming tendrils blowing with the cold breeze like bright hair.  Or like the long plumes of a beautiful wild bird.

"I dunno," he finally said musingly, "Maybe I'll light myself on fire and emerge from the ashes as a new person."

They were silent for a bit, as this referred to a conversation they had with Enrique.

***

They were comparing Eastern and Western myths, concepts, and holidays.

"So no Christmas like ours?" Enrique confirmed.

"Nope," Sanosuke answered, "There ain't many Christians around here that I know of."  Kenshin remained quiet about the misfortunes he knew went on concerning that group; there was only so much he could do, although at least in his younger years he made an important save for them. (Note: Check for a future fanfic on that. ;) –Sonja)

"You do have a fine set of holidays," the Spaniard commented.  "Hmm… Let me think of another question…  Oh!  Have you ever heard tales about the Phoenix?"

" 'Fiinikusu'?"  Sanosuke repeated in a puzzled tone.  "Nope, never heard o' that."  Kenshin shook his head once.

"Then what about Hou-ou?  Um, did I say that correctly?"

Recognition sparked on the Japanese faces this time, Kenshin's positive and Sanosuke's negative.

"The bird born from the sun," Kenshin defined, "whose arrival on Earth was said to signify a new era of peace."

Sanosuke muttered, "I sure didn't see it, and no wonder…"

Enrique smiled and nodded to both of them.  "I learned a bit about Hou-ou while learning Japanese.  And I found it a little comparable to the Phoenix, a bird that exists in Western beliefs."

"Others believe in the bird as well?"  Kenshin asked with surprise.  That certainly added credibility to its existence, which even he had not expected.

"Well, it is quite different, though it seems to herald similar things," the French Spaniard answered, "Let me see if I can explain this right:  The Phoenix is an immortal bird, the color of fire, but it does not live forever the same.  When it must, it builds a nest of herbs, which catch on fire.  The bird burns itself, and from the ashes comes a new Phoenix."

There was some awed silence, aside from their tapping footsteps, as they imagined the amazing spectacle.  "Whoah," Sanosuke finally whooshed, "I dunno if that can really happen or not, but that's a neat story!"

"It is still a symbol of change and renewal, that it is," Kenshin observed, "though in a far more dramatic image.  I think I like that version of the sun-bird's story more than our native view."

"Well, maybe it really is the same all over, and just has never been witnessed here," Enrique suggested, "Of course it probably doesn't really exist, but considering many places in the world all have similar tales, you never know."

***

Maybe I'll light myself on fire and emerge from the ashes as a new person.

Kenshin chuckled quietly.  "That has the potential to happen in the lives of all," he pointed out, "for better or for worse, that it does."

Sanosuke watched the flame dancing on the stick for a while, nodding slowly.  At first he only seemed to be considering what Kenshin said, but slowly his eyes took on a look of curious resignation.  Kenshin almost felt he had to stop him from burning himself after all.  But just before the will could become action, Sanosuke stabbed the stick into the hard, cold ground as well as he could, rolling it until the fire was put out.

Kenshin sighed in some relief, although he was not quite sure why.  Maybe he was letting stress get to him too much and his perception had had no grounds.  That odd feeling was bizarre and troublesome, though, making him shiver for a moment.  He pulled his blanket around his shoulders to disguise the shiver as one of cold.  It certainly was growing cold quickly, anyway…

"Well," Sanosuke said quietly, "when we see 'Rique again, he'll probably need lotsa friendly support.  Poor guy."

Kenshin nodded, already pushing past his strange period. "Hai.  We will be ready to keep our friendship with him known, that we will."

"I'm gonna get to sleep now," Sano announced in his usual out-of-the-blue manner, lying down abruptly and squirming until he was comfortable again.  At least a burden had clearly been lifted from his mind, allowing him the peace of mind for rest at last.  "Good luck guardin'.  G'night."

"Goodnight, Onii-san."  Kenshin smiled briefly.

Sanosuke twitched a smile back, then closed his eyes and began the process of slumber.

***

::In the morning…::

"Are you sure??"  Kaoru asked with nervous disbelief, "Only cooking jobs are open?"

" 'fraid so," Tae apologized in her Kansai dialect, "We've got plenty o' people washin' dishes, an' plenty o' servers too."

"But I can't cook," Kaoru whimpered, looking down, "How am I supposed to do a job I can't do?"

"Well, you're bound to learn sometime," Tae offered encouragingly, "All o' us women can cook at some point in our lives.  It's in our blood, ya know."

"Maybe…" Kaoru said consideringly, "Maybe if I focus on my future as Kenshin's wife, the instinct will kick in."

"Ya still on that train o' thought there, girl?"  Tae wondered, "Even with you two still bein' so shy?"

Kaoru's eyes widened.  "Oh!  I haven't told you yet!"  She took her friend's hands in her own and excitedly burst, "Guess what, Tai-san?  He loves me!  We told each other before he left!"

It was the waitress's turn to have wide eyes, followed by an excited smile.  She couldn't help herself as she vigorously shook both of Kaoru's hands.  "Congratulations, Kaoru-chan!  Waaii!  This is awesome!  I knew ya could do it someday, I knew it!"

Blushing and proud at the same time, Kaoru remained smiling and laughing along with her enthusiastic buddy, as Tae continued her proclamations of victory and 'I-toldja-so's.'  Many of the workers in the kitchen looked at them funny.

Finally, as the emotion calmed once more, Tae finally let go of the girl and clasped her hands under her own chin.  "Well," she said in a brusque manner, despite her demure pose, "It's definitely about time to get you cookin', girl.  Even if it means some customers take a break."

"D-d-demo Tae-san," Kaoru protested, looking worried once more, "I don't want to do that to you and your business.  Maybe I can take some kind of lessons from someone."

"Are you thinkin' o' Megumi?"  Tae wondered.

"Well, maybe," Kaoru answered, putting a finger to her mouth and turning her head slightly aside, muttering, "But I don't know… She already does a lot of cooking for us, and she's really busy and I don't want to bother her about that…"

"Askin' shouldn't hurt," Tae said with a shrug.  "Now I might seem mild enough, but take this as an order from your sempai: Learn to cook somehow, somewhere, in three days.  Whether you decide to take the chance doin' it here or somewhere else, I want you to be a cook here within that time."

O_O  "Th…th…three days?"

"Yup," Tae answered with an emphatic nod, "So you should get started practicin' right away.  The Akabeko's countin' on you!"  She then whirled back to work, her white apron swirling with the motion, vigorously picking up a tray while humming happily.

Kaoru sat there, wide-eyed, a bit blue in the face.  "…Three days," she muttered, "…Learn to cook in three days…"