Here's the chapter you have been waiting for!

Please be aware that due to adult situations and innuendo, this chapter is rated M.

CHAPTER 13 – STORMS ON THE HORIZON (M RATING)

Tokyo 1888

Gensai Clinic

Outside the clinic, as evening finally turned to night, the thunderstorm began to move away from the city and up, up over the hills of Tokyo. The rain, once fierce in its assault, slowly began to retreat, becoming soft and rhythmic, the life giving watery cadence bathing the world and washing away the taint of industrial pollution, restoring a measure of balance to the city and the inhabitants who dwelt within it.

Raindrops, now lush and cool, fell down splattering against the wooden clinic shingles and shutters. The wind, no longer angry and electrically charged, became zephyr like, blowing softly around the medical building, creeping under doors and in between half cracked open windows, replacing the odors of blood and dirt and fear, with the far more welcome scent of earth and water and tender bamboo shoots.

Mindlessly moving, the breeze danced happily down the clinic hallways, waltzing with the occasional dust mote, carrying the scents of spring into every crack and corner. Into the examining room it swept, causing the temperature to drop slightly and the sick yellow kerosene flame to sputter and dance, casting warped and wavering shadows against the smooth clinic walls.

And against one man lying within these walls, the wind also moved, swishing around long legs hanging over the edge of an old examining table, tangling itself in the Sano's shoulder length hair, and brushing over his exposed arms and chest. But try as it might, the evening breeze could not distract the dark eyed man and so, with a weak little bluster, it blew itself back out, back to the open spaces, leaving the injured ex-gangster to his own thoughts.

Oblivious to the cool breeze blowing about him, Sano lay silently on the table, struggling to make sense of a senseless day. Sore, bruised, though thankfully no longer bleeding, he was in pain, both from injuries that he'd suffered at the hands of assailants, but also, and perhaps more so, from the knowledge that he'd caused the suffering of another.

"Let's see if anything's broken," he muttered as he shifted slightly on the table, carefully testing the integrity of bones and sinews with the practice of one accustomed to violence. Once finished, assured that his body was only badly bruised and not broken, Sanosuke turned his aching head towards the window, trying to see out past the residual rain and through the deepening dark, to know that the woman who'd been outside for quite some time was safe, that she was no longer weeping and afraid for his sake.

"Hells bells, she's probably having trouble getting the fire for the furo started up," he hissed in pain as he managed to sit up, the ache in the back of his skull throbbing dully. Groaning, he pressed a bruised hand to the side of his head and blinked several times, trying to clear his vision and force his tumultuous thoughts into a semblance of order.

This day, which from all of his reckoning should have been a good one, filled with the best things that life has to offer, had gone south from the moment he'd hitched a ride in Edward's carriage. (That bastard had better keep his distance from now on…) Sanosuke had been uncharacteristically charitable with the blond Englishman at their angry parting. A few years prior, the Englishman's betrayal would have resulted in a terminal beating.

Sanosuke slowly slid off the examining table, testing the strength of his legs before shakily walking over to the table where his shirt and jacket were lying, barely illuminated by the room lamp. Aside from having one hell of a headache and some busted up knuckles, he was none the worse for the wear. His clothing on the other hand, had not been so lucky.

"Oh Gods", Sanosuke softly swore. The once snow white linen shirt was filthy and covered in black mud, the sleeves soaked in blood, the collar stained with the charcoal and vermillion face paint of the young prostitute who'd tried to tempt him. As bad as his shirt was, his jacket - his wonderful jacket was in far worse shape.

Sanosuke picked up the wreck of Mara's birthday gift and carried over to the examining table and gently laid it out, surveying the damage. Carefully, he dipped a sleeve in the lukewarm surgical water that Mara had left behind when she'd gone outside to prepare him a bath, scrubbing the dried mud with his fingers, trying to salvage the jacket that he treasured.

After a few minutes of frantic scrubbing, it became clear that this was a fight he was going to lose. The once smooth fabric of the jacket was and rough to the touch, the hand sewn seams, no match for the ferocity of fighting, were torn and tattered; the delicate embroidered kanji that had graced his lapel was unraveled, and unrecognizable. (It's ruined…) Sanosuke stared down miserably at the remains, lamenting the loss and his lack of care.

In this life, he had been graced with the gift of clothing three times. The first had been when he turned five and his mother, wan and pale from overwork and illness, had lovingly presented him with a red gi and matching headband, her thin face beaming with motherly devotion. He had worn the garment until it was faded and threadbare and far too small for comfort, the combination of his growing body and the wear and tear of time too much for even the loving stitches of his mother to overcome.

The second article clothing had of course, been his dearly departed white jacket. Given to him in the winter of his 15th year, it had been both a symbol of his emerging manhood and festering rage at an unfair world that would murder an innocent captain for the sake of political capital. This time, the gift came from a hardened yakuza boss, in celebration of him killing his first man, a pitiful excuse of a corrupt politician who foolishly refused to repay a huge gambling debt.

The years that stretched between the second gift and the third were many. Strength was obtained, both in body and spirit, and a measure of wisdom granted. The suit that Mara had given him had seemed to reflect these changes, becoming the outward manifestation of his internal improvements.

He'd worn the suit a few times before today, the last being when Kenshin and Kaoru had invited him to the Akabedo to celebrate Kenji's seventh birthday. And while Sano had never been and would never be a vain man, he had nonetheless, felt mighty fine going into Tae's with Mara on his arm, feeling for the first time in his goddamn life like he truly was a man of the Meiji era.

Sanosuke's mouth twisted into an angry, distorted snarl. "What a load of bullshit!"

He peered down into the muddy washbasin, showing no mercy to himself as he took in the angry bruise on his jaw, and a cut that Mara had sewn up with shaking hands beneath his left temple. (Even now, after all these years…) His reflection stared back up at him, revealing a nose that was slightly crooked from a badly healed break, a split bruise on his left temple that was sore and swollen, and half washed, wild black hair, that upon closer inspection had the slightest touch of gray at the temples. (I'm nothing more than a street thug…)

With a violent curse, he lashed out, hitting the washbasin so hard that it flew across the room and crashed into the wall, spilling the dirty water onto the floor that was still stained with his blood. (...a stupid, lazy son of a bitch who can't even take care of a fucking piece of clothing…) Furious, Sanosuke grabbed what was left of the shirt and jacket, and stormed over to Mara's desk, determined to shove them both in the wastebasket. In his anger and haste, he knocked over a discarded dress box, spilling its contents onto the floor. His heart sank when he realized what is was and who it belonged to. (…or do right by the woman who gave it to me in the first place…)

The dress, like Mara was understated and somber, a midnight hued gown that was modestly cut and expertly crafted, devoid of the usual frills that were the rage among Tokyo's more fashionable female set. It was as subdued and beautiful was the woman who had desired to wear it.

"She would've looked so pretty in this," Shame and sorrow overtook his anger, leaving Sanosuke feeling exhausted and miserable.

Awkwardly, he put the dress back in the crumpled box, his calloused hands clumsily trying to smooth the voluminous folds so they wouldn't wrinkle, then almost reverently, placed the lid back on top of the box and placed it on the top of Mara's desk.

Sano had wanted the day to be a special one, a day where he could show his sweetheart how much she meant to him. For weeks, he'd looked forward to dancing with her, anticipating the sweet feeling of her in his arms. He'd worked odd jobs, saving every sou so he could take her to dinner, read every western book he could get his hands on that would help him understand how a proper woman should be courted.

He'd long imagined what it would be like to finally set things straight with the grey eyed doctor, to tell her that she was dear to his heart, to show her that he was the type of man she deserved and could take good care of her. And at night, as the weeks passed by in preparation for this day, he had wondered as he slept alone in his bed, whether or not he even might manage to win a kiss from the woman he loved, and perhaps if he was very lucky and the gods decided to cut him a break, hear her tell him that she loved him as well.

Sanosuke silently disposed of his ruined jacket and shirt, and then made his way slowly out the door and down the hallway towards the bath house, leaning heavily against the wall as he moved, his balance still somewhat precarious from the concussion he'd suffered. The day had not gone as planned, and whether due to the whim of the gods, fate or his own damnable temper, what should have been a wonderful evening turned into nothing short of a nightmare.

He could still see the hurt, abandoned look in Mara eyes when he lashed out at her earlier that morning, could still hear her calling out for him as he stormed out of the clinic, leaving her to tend to a demented opium woman who would no doubt, spread ugly rumors and cause further damage to Mara's already tarnished reputation.

As he stumbled down the hallway, his mind replayed the day's passage over and over again, dredging up unwelcome memories of a black eyed whore offering herself up to him, the bitter taste of cheap sake and the dull cracking sound of bones breaking beneath his hands as he fought for his life. There were other images, fragmented and dim, the acrid scent of cigarette smoke, the sensation of being lifted up out of the mud by strong and vaguely familiar hands, the sound of Mara crying in the darkness as she held him to her breast, the softness of her mouth when she kissed him.

Sanosuke paused then, pressing his aching forehead against the cool clinic wall. (I guess I did get a kiss after all…) But, the kiss, though sweet, was still offered up to him in tears and her long sought after admission of love was accompanied by sobs and brought on by fear. (Perhaps she felt sorry for me…) This thought brought him up short, and caused his heart to tighten painfully within his chest. (…perhaps she didn't mean it…) The pain in his chest became almost unbearable when he forced himself to admit that he wouldn't blame her one bit if she took back her words after all he'd put her through. (Hell, it wouldn't be the first time that I woman changes her mind about me…)

Thoughts of Megumi bubbled up from the darker corners of his heart, painful recollections of their acerbic relationship, the tender way her cinnamon eyes would light up whenever Kenshin would walk into the room, that damn annoying laugh of hers, the taste of her sake tinged lips, how perfectly their bodies fit together, how utterly and absolutely, she had broken his heart. It had taken him nearly ten years and a million miles to pull his mind and heart back together, to be willing to take a gamble and allow himself to love another woman.

"What in the hell am I gonna do?" he wondered aloud, his deep voice sounding tired and desperate in the deserted hallway. He needed to make things right with Mara, but wasn't sure quite how to go about it. He stood there for several minutes, leaning against the wall, his head down and body aching as he prepared himself, as though he were going to start a fight that he knew damn well he wouldn't be winning.

Meanwhile, outside by the Furo…

Mara meanwhile was having a rather difficult time herself. Bending down, her skirt and feet covered in fresh mud, she was struggling to keep the bath fire going. (I hate phosphorus paper…I hate matches…I hate outdoor plumbing!) She struck the delicate match head against the rough, red phosphorus covered paper, swearing up a storm when the slightly soggy match broke in two.

"Gods, what I wouldn't give for a blowtorch!" she snipped as she tried to prod the faltering fire with a stick. Smoke, wet and dark from wet wood, billowed up into her face, causing her to sputter and cough and try to cover her eyes from the acrid smoke. In doing so, she lost her balance, which since the accident had been nothing if not precarious and fell backward…only to be caught by a pair of strong arms.

"What's a blowtorch?" Sanosuke asked, trying like hell to sound casual as he carefully helped Mara to her feet. Her thin face was dusky with soot and smoke residue, save a couple of thin clean lines that extended from her red rimmed eyes down to her cheeks.

"A better alternative to these damn things," Mara muttered as she angrily flung the broken match into the pathetically sputtering fire. "The wood's too wet to start a proper fire and the…..um…" She felt her cheeks flushing when Sanosuke's grip on her arms tightened slightly. "…the rain also isn't helping matters."

Sano glanced at the sad, sad excuse for a fire and then down at Mara. "So I see." Unable to help himself, he gave her a cocky grin and added, "After all this time you still can't get a fire going. Hells bells, Woman, what am I going to do with you?"

"Do with me?" Mara forgot to be embarrassed and went with indignant instead. "I'll have you know Sagara Sanosuke that lighting a fire under these conditions is impossible!" She angrily motioned toward what was now a smoking heap of wet wood. "Not even a pyromaniac with a gallon of gasoline and a lighter could get this damn thing going."

"Wanna bet?" Sanosuke leered at her, since he absolutely no idea what she was rattling on about, and an idea began to form.

"Are you serious?" Mara rolled her eyes. "You think you can get a fire going? In this weather? Your concussion must be worse than I thought."

"I'm fine," Sanosuke muttered, letting go of her arms and kneeling down by the soggy remains of Mara's attempt at getting the bathwater warm. "So…are you gonna make a bet with me or not?" He asked, avoiding eye contact with the doctor as he thought about the plan he'd come up with, wondering if it would work or make things worse.

More eye rolling commenced. "What are the terms?" Mara sighed, all too familiar with Sano's predilection for wagers and games of chance.

"If you win…."

"Which I will, by the way," Mara said confidently, folding her arms across her soaked chest.

Sanosuke snorted and continued, "If you win, I'll help you build you one of those new-fangled glass houses that are real popular in London and Paris, you know…the ones you can grow stuff in year round for your herbs and whatever it is you doctor women like to make medicine out of." He took a stick and began knocking the wood that Mara had so carefully piled on the tinder aside.

"A greenhouse?" Mara asked, forgetting to be crafty and hide her excitement at the idea of being able to keep fresh healing herbs, roots and flowers available year round. Considering that they were in a practical deluge, the chances of Sano succeeding to light anything was nil. Still, she'd known this man for well over a year now and was leery of entering into any sort of bet with the rascal without knowing the details of the arrangement. "And if you win…what are you planning to get from me?"

He looked up at her, taking in her rain soaked curls, pale mouth and tall, willowy frame. Sano's heart ached to know that she'd been weeping on his behalf and that this night, which he'd hoped would be the beginning of something deeper than friendship between then had been ruined by his damnable temper. So in the end, what he hoped for went unsaid, replaced instead with a simpler, yet critical request to the foreign doctor.

"Your forgiveness," Sanosuke said quietly as he gently captured what little kindling remained dry and pulled it together into a little mound. Shielding the wood from the wind and rain, he struck one of the matches that Mara had dropped and carefully lit the beginnings of a fire.

His back to the woman he loved, Sanosuke carefully stoked the little fire from a bit of smoke and the hint of a flame into something more substantial before he spoke again. "Dammit Sweetheart, I didn't mean to …." He stopped speaking as the flame sputtered, and held his breath as he carefully adjusted the kindling and added a couple of twigs that weren't sopping wet to the fire.

Mara watched silently as the ex-gangster urged a heretofore impossible fire into existence, amazed at his skill and the gentleness in his large, scarred hands and fingers as he coaxed, twig by twig, a blazing little fire out of the wreckage of her earlier attempts.

"I didn't mean to snap at ya', earlier today," Sanosuke continued quietly once it was safe to add small broken up branches that he'd collected earlier in the autumn for the clinic. "As for this evening…." He sighed and added another branch as he thought about the tears Mara had shed on his behalf. "I didn't mean for that to happen either. I never wanted to scare you and I sure as hell didn't want to ruin the jacket that you got me for my birthday. It meant the world to me, you know."

Sanosuke, paused and then added so softly that Mara nearly missed what he added, "You mean the world to me as well, Mara. You have for a long time and I figure you always will."

"You don't need to ask for my forgiveness, Sano," Mara tried to protest. "I shouldn't have asked you to leave the clinic."

"The hell I don't," Sanosuke shot back as he added larger branches to the steadily growing fire. "Dammit Mara, you've always deserved far better than what I could ever hope to give you." The last sentence came out far more resigned and bitter than he'd intended.

"A jacket can easily be replaced," Mara gingerly knelt down beside him, wincing as her still sore knee protested the action. "You on the other hand…" she reached over and carefully selected a branch from the pile and offered it to him, "…are one of a kind." She smiled shyly when he accepted it and added it the growing fire. "Besides, you've already given me more than what I could ever have hoped for."

Sanosuke took a deep breath, trying to ignore the sudden blush that crept across his cheekbones, the slight stutter in his breathing, the increase in his own heartbeat as he carefully took her hand and held it, the tightening, almost electric sensation that danced through his stomach as their fingers tangled, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

"I don't deserve you..." Sano tried to protest as he stood up and helped Mara up from her kneeling position, but was cut off when Mara placed her finger over his lips and shook her head.

"Why don't you let me decide that for myself?" Mara whispered her voice shaky with nerves as she leaned over and gave him a soft kiss on the cheek, shivering as she felt his muscles in his jaw leap in response. She let her lips linger against his skin for a moment, then withdrew, savoring instead the half rough sensation of Sano's palm pressed against her own, the tender almost hesitant way his fingers brushed against her skin.

"In all honesty, you're the one who deserves far better than what I can offer you."

"Gods and demons, Mara, what would you be crazy enough to want to offer to a man like me?" Sanosuke asked incredulously.

"Just this," Mara murmured softly as she took his hand and placed it over her heart, "just
me."

Sano could feel her heartbeat racing like a Mongolian pony as well as the soft curve of her left breast under his hand. He gently moved his fingers over the wet lace and linen that covered her rain cooled bosom, looking for and finding desire in her dark grey eyes as he touched her. Sanosuke carefully put his other arm around her thin waist and drew her close, next to his body, closing his eyes as he felt the welcome weight of her arms around his neck.

"Are...you...sure?" He said slowly. He'd made assumptions once about a woman he loved and was loath to repeat the mistake. A part of him hoped she'd say no, the other half acknowledging that he wouldn't...no... couldn't pull away from the woman in his arms even if he wanted to.

I'm sure." Mara whispered back, fighting to keep her voice steady. She could feel her cheeks warming with embarrassment, but forced herself not to give into her fear that she'd disappoint this man she'd grown to love with all her heart. "That is if you'll have me."

"Damn straight I'll have ya'." Sano growled as bent his rain soaked head and sealed the deal with a kiss that left no doubt as to his intentions.

This kiss, unlike Mara's earlier attempt at intimacy was not hesitant or shaky, but it was soft, the pressure firm. Mara shut her eyes and gave herself up to it, savoring the warmth and firmness of Sanosuke's mouth against her own. She sighed and returned his kisses, tentatively at first, then with a little more confidence when she realized that he was in his turn, receiving just as much pleasure as she.

Sano groaned softly and brought Mara closer, reaching up and sinking in not quiet steady fingers into her unbound hair. He'd wanted to do this for ages, to feel her inky curls wrap around his fingers and savored the silky texture. Eyes closed he hummed his approval as Mara kissed him back. Just as before, she tasted like rain, tears and mint leaves, a flavor he knew he'd crave for the rest of his life.

Growing aroused, he nipped and ran the tip of his tongue along the seam of her lips. Then as he felt her mouth open cautiously, he entered it, eliciting a low, pleased moan from the normally stoic doctor. Much to his surprise, she cautiously returned the gesture, though skillfully enough to leave him suspecting she'd engaged in such sensual kissing before.

Hoping she wouldn't go into cardiac arrest, Mara explored the taut line of Sanosuke's strong jaw. She felt almost brazen and dare she think it, perhaps even beautiful when Sano murmured her name and kissed her deeply. She could feel the rapid, almost feverish pulse of his heartbeat beneath her fingertips, and then it seemed unbearable to her not to touch more of him. She slid her hands down his sternum and over his bare, muscular chest. He was hot to the touch, his skin slick with rain and perspiration. The rise and fall of his chest quickened as she kissed him and touched him with the hunger that only one who has been long deprived of love and tenderness possesses.

"Gods, Sweetheart," Sanosuke growled as his kisses deepened, becoming almost carnal in their intensity. He moved his hands down from her head and neck to the small of her slender back. Fingers splayed against her corseted body, he pulled her closer, wanting….needing…the intimate contact so long denied him. "I've wanted to do this for so long."

"Me too," Mara panted as she hungrily kissed his neck and jaw, her cheeks redder than he'd ever seen them, "I never thought that I…that we would find ourselves like this…"

"What, sopping wet and smooching in the rain like a couple of kids" Sanosuke teased, his voice deep, yet warm with humor.

"Yes, something like that," Mara laughed and rested her head against Sano's shoulder. She was shaking with the bewildering mixture of desire and nerves. "I'm having trouble believing that this isn't a dream." Memories of her other life, the one where she was always alone and in mourning bubbled up from her subconscious mind like searing tar, causing her to tremble. (If this is a dream, then please never let me wake up…)

Sano felt her shudder against him. He embraced her, wrapping his warm arms around her waist. "Yeah, me too." He wanted to say more, confess that he'd been in love with her for a year and a half, but words failed him at the moment. He softly kissed her forehead instead and simply held her close.

Over at the British Embassy

Ever since it was legated in 1959, the red brick building that housed the British Embassy had been a center of society in Tokyo. Tonight, despite the now abating thunderstorm, the embassy was buzzing and bustling with activity and the grounds were filled with the carriages of many well to do inhabitants of the new great imperial city. Lead lined windows reflected out to the streets the hint of massive crystal chandeliers, some reported to weigh over a ton and cast light in a hundred thousand different directions.

As carriages came and went men of means and great reputations, resplendent mostly in formal tuxedos and their ladies, some clad in the latest fashions houses of the continent and others in silk kimonos so beautiful and colorful that they would be described as walking woven dreams in London and Moscow entered the large and spacious diplomatic center of the British Empire in East Asia. The couples went up two flights of stairs, lined by cherry trees laden with white, pink and decadently fuschia blossoms that scented the very air that the rich and powerful patrons of the embassy breathed.

People on the streets tried to gawk and stare at opulence and perhaps imagine what it would be like to live with such means and in the company of such illustrious companions as were to be found at the embassy that evening. The new Consul-General, Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary appointed to protect British interests and citizens overseas had arrived and was ready to take his new post. Rumors ran rampant that he would become the first Ambassador to Japan despite his relatively young age of 48 years of age.

Sir Francis MacDonald was already a legend in Tokyo for having brokered several trade treaties and having been present for some of the bloodiest fighting of the Bakumastu and Satsuma Rebellion. He was fluent in Japanese and had taken a Japanese wife, much to the delight of the local people. He was quite a bit less popular with many of the less than upstanding politicians due to his strict interpretations of trade regulations, particularly in respect to the import of fire arms, the export of opium related goods and his complete and utter inability to be bribed.

At the servant's entrance, on the other side of the embassy, it was (as usual) rather a different story. Groomsmen and carriage drivers mingled with weary cooks and servants, drank cheap sake and took bets on illegal games of chance and propositioned harried serving girls and maids.

One of the servants waited with a couple of tickets he'd won during a card game, a bounty he was saving for his friend who had promised to introduce him to a mysterious foreign woman that the servant had heard many stories about by the other friends of the ex-gangster. If most of the rumors were to be believed, the black haired stranger was Sanosuke's woman and a doctor from the Americas. The servant sighed and craned his head looking for and hoping to see his friend.. His break was nearly over and once he went back to cleaning dishes and washing half-drunk glasses of champagne, he knew he'd be working non-stop into the next morning.

Suddenly, a brass bell rang, signaling to the servants that one of their masters had requested them. One of the embassy staff called for a Mr. O'Shea the manservant of one Mr. Edward Thornton. A short, stocky white haired man stood and walked over to the servant's entrance, read the paper than was handed to him and quickly, after straightening his wild hair, went quickly inside and disappeared.

Another brass bell went off.

Break time was over.

O'Shea hitched up the carriage in record time and without asking any questions (at least to those who thought themselves in charge- the servants were another matter entirely) quickly made his way to a side entrance near the back of the embassy. After staying the horses, he quickly took to the stairs and knocked softly on the door, just as he'd been instructed to do.

The door opened and much to O'Shea's surprise he found himself face to face with a rather irate little Oriental man.

"Are you Thorton-san's servant?" Enomoto asked, a visible sheen of sweet covering his face and staining the collar of his white silk shirt.

"I am, Sir," O'Shea started bowing and bobbing like a jack in the box and had the sense not to look the other man in the eye. "How may I assist you, Honorable Sir?"

"Take your master home and see that he stays there." Enomoto motioned for two men behind him to move forward. He stepped aside, revealing an unconscious Edward Thornton hanging limply between them, his face and hands a mass of bruises and blood. "He ran into a little accident while conversing with me and needs to be attended to. I will be sending one of my physicians..."

"Master Thornton has a doctor who will gladly attend…" O'Shea didn't have the chance to finish interrupting. One of the tall men accompanying Enomoto hit him square in the chest and he fell backwards, hitting the bottom stares with enough violence to make him see stars.

"As I was saying, you disgusting pig, I will be sending one of my physicians to attend to Mr. Thornton. It would be in your best interests to ensure that the doctor's visit takes place without any complications or conversations on your part." Enomoto took a silk handerchief and mopped at his wet brow, despite the fact he'd done none of the heavy lifting or hitting. "I'm doing Thornton a favor in letting him walk out of this building alive."

He looked down at the stunned, groaning Irishman, "to say nothing of not killing his ill-mannered man servant for daring to speak directly to me." Enomoto dabbed at his brow again. "I'm not accustomed to having to be so direct with matters of trade and finance and find Mr. Thornton's lack of care to be terribly, terribly distressing."

The two tall men carried Thornton to the carried, tossed him aside as if he was the day's bit of refuse and then picked O'Shea up as well from where he'd fallen. "Do be a good fellow and inform your master that I will be taking 25% off my final price due to this evening's inconvenience. If he has lied to me regarding Sagara and things are not attended to my satisfaction by noon tomorrow, I'll be taking his head and yours and cancelling my order completely! Do you understand me?"

Another man appeared, presumably Enomoto's physician. He seemed nervous and kept licking his lips. O'Shea didn't blame him.

Wheezing, clutching at his side, O'Shea could barely even nod due to the pain in his ribs. Despite the agony of breathing, he risked speaking; hoping against hope to gain more information about what had befallen Thornton and what might be planned for Sanosuke, if indeed Sanosuke was the Sagara in question. "Yes, Sir, I'll take Master Thornton home directly. Do you have any other instructions?"

One of the tall men caught him by the arm and twisted it until O'Shea cried out and fell to his knees, the ligaments and tissues in his shoulder nearly tearing.

"Mr. Thornton's lack of planning has put my entire plan in jeopardy. I am on a very tight time frame and can't afford another incident. If you want you or your master to continue doing business in the land of the living I suggest you learn your place and keep your mouth shut."

Enomoto motioned to his one of his body guards to go with the doctor and O'Shea to the carriage. "Watch both of them. If either man leaves or speaks to anyone other than yourself or the doctor, notify me immediately?"

"Yes, Enomoto-sama," the tall, menacing man bowed then disappeared into the carriage.

In the Furo

Over the course of Sanosuke's life, he'd seen the bodies of many women. Some beautiful, others passable, he was no stranger to the gentle curves and sensual valleys that made up the form of the fairer sex. And yet, on this evening, with the moon, clouds and rain as a backdrop rather than fans, opium smoke and ribald laughter, he watched, his dark eyes drinking in every detail of the woman undressing as if it was the first time he'd ever seen such a sight.

He knew this woman's body, had helped bathe it and dress it when Mara had been injured during a terrible winter storm. He knew of the scars that she'd hidden from him and wondered about the scars he still couldn't see, those that marred her heart and spirit. He'd seen this woman's body bruised, weary and battered had held it against his chest as she wept from sorrow and weariness.

Tonight was different.

Half hidden in shadow, the woman before him silently unbuttoned a plain linen blouse, exposing a tantalizing slope of a pale shoulder that gleamed in the moonlight. Her skirt and petticoat followed suit, sliding down slender hips and lean thighs, pooling like a cotton puddle around her bare ankles.

Hungrily he took in the shadowy details of her corset, shift and pantaloons. White, though not as fair as the woman who wore them, they were utilitarian, devoid of any embellishment or artifice. Sanosuke caught a relieved, soft sigh as the laces of the constricting corset were undone, the breathy exhalation as erotic a sound as he'd ever heard.

She turned then and wordlessly took off the corset and pulled the cotton shift over her head, leaving her back exposed to him. He counted the entry wounds that marred the perfection of her shoulders and hip and watched as the pantaloons were hesitantly removed, revealing the back of a badly scarred knee and thigh, the blossom pink striations marring the line, but not the form of her leg.

Sanosuke's heart however was blind to these moonlit imperfections, seeing only a woman who was exquisitely tall and lithe, with legs that seemed to go on forever. Delicate and yet made of stuff sterner than steel, she was an intoxicating contradiction of strength and vulnerability, modesty and sensuality as she undressed, washed and cleaned her body prior to joining him in the furo.

Mara rubbed soft soap on her hands and worked on the grime and dirt, her brisk actions and thorough cleaning reminiscent of a surgical arena rather than a 19th century wooden bathhouse. She rinsed her hands off then hazarded a glance over at Sano.

He was sitting in the tub, leaning back on the wooden rim, and was watching her, his expression openly covetous. Mara blushed and clumsily dropped the container of soft soap that she'd made the winter before. It went rolling across the floor. Embarrassed, she dropped her head down, hiding her eyes beneath a veil of curls as she blindly felt for the container.

"Here, Babe," Sanosuke rose and hopped out of the bath and caught the rolling container then went over to where Mara was trying to hide from him behind her hair.

"Thank you," Mara muttered quietly, not quiet daring to raise her head to look at Sanosuke.

Kneeling down beside her, Sanosuke gentle brushed her hair out of her eyes and tilted her chin up, so he could look her in the eyes.

"Do you want me to go?" he asked softly, not wanting her to be afraid or worried.

"No! Of course not. You need a good soak in the tub after what you went through this evening," Mara protested as she tried to look like the voice of authority, while hiding her breasts and lower body with her arms. "It's just…"

She sighed and closed her eyes when Sanosuke leaned over and placed a soft kiss on the tip of her nose, then another one on her cheek. "It's just difficult." She motioned to the spider web like scars that marred her shoulder and abdomen. I'm…I'm sorry."

Sanosuke kissed her again and dipped his fingers in the pot of soft soap. "You've got nothing to be sorry about Mara," he said firmly while he rubbed the soap into a lather and began washing her long curly hair. "You've also got nothing to be embarrassed about. You're a damn fine looking woman."

Carefully he soaped up the jet black curls. They were soft and silky beneath his fingers and now smelled of mint and chamomile and other green things. It was a smell he'd long associated with the woman he loved and couldn't help but savor the experience.

"I've wanted to do this from the moment I met you," he confessed as he reached for the bucket and poured some warm water over her soapy curls. "Of all the people I ever thought would save me from going under, I didn't think it would be a doctor woman with legs that didn't quit and hair that was as wild and pretty as she was."

Mara relaxed a little, a laugh escaping her. "I'm sure your opinion changed when I opened my mouth and gave you what for."

Sanosuke chuckled and finished rinsing her hair. "Both of us were in rare form that day. Still, I managed to get you and that old crone out of the water…" He leaned over and kissed her again on the cheek, "and you saved me from drowning." The thought of that day made him sober. "I thought I was a dead man when the ship blew."

"I thought so as well," Mara whispered, reaching for and finding his wet hand, "it made me horribly sad, even though I didn't know you." This time she leaned over and kissed him tenderly on the lips. "I'm glad you didn't drown."

Sanosuke brushed his free hand on her scarred knee. "I'm glad I didn't lose you to the storm." What an understatement. The thought of being without her, of losing the one person in the world who understood and loved him for who he was chilled him. He kissed her back, his kiss quickly deepening.

"Gods, I love you," Sanosuke whispered as he pulled her into his arms and off the little stool she was sitting on. He settled to the floor, with her in his lap, covering her mouth with his own as he kissed her soundly. He felt her arms wrap around his neck and her wet body settle against his as she kissed him.

"I love you too," Mara whispered back, her expression radiant with happiness that was palpable, even in the barely lit bathhouse. She kissed him passionately, opening herself to the experience of being loved and in his arms and began to forget to be cautious and wary to the point that she didn't freeze up when he cupped one of her breasts.

Sanosuke groaned and ran his fingers over the puckering skin. Her breasts were small, firm and so responsive beneath his hands. To his surprise, Mara seemed at ease with this intimacy and even appeared to encourage his actions when she groaned her approval when he ran his thumb over one pale nipple. Emboldened, he explored her other breast as he kissed her, learning her body by touch, sound and sight.

Taste came next.

Trailing kisses down the side of her delicate neck, he urged her to turn towards him, till she was straddling his hips. He was hot and hard and feeling her so close to him, the slide of her wet skin against the lower part of his body was nearly enough to nearly finish him. Like a long missing puzzle piece, she fit against him perfectly.

"Lean back a little," his voice was low and insistent in the quiet bathhouse, "yes, just like that…"

Mara complied, moaning when his mouth and lips replaced his fingers. When he took one of her nipples into his mouth, she gasped, when his tongue rasped against the sensitive skin, she shuddered, her hips twitching instinctively against his. "Oh, that's so good….so good…." She sighed, her head lolling back with pleasure.

Pleasure, however became panic when she felt Sanosuke's hands drift down to the apex of curls between her legs. At the first brush of his fingers against her mound, she froze, her languid limbs becoming stiff with discomfort.

Mara reached down and caught Sanosuke by the wrist, her expression fretful, "…you don't need to worry about that." She was ashamed of herself, of the worry and fear that even now plagued her when it came to the most intimate of actions. Eric had found her lack of skills to be off putting, her innate reserve to be an insurmountable obstacle to his pleasure.

Unable to understand what he'd done wrong, Sanosuke stared at her, "the hell I don't," While Sano knew he wasn't the most polished gentleman this side of Paris, he knew damn well that when it came to matters of sex, a lady always came first. "Doesn't that feel good?"

Mara bit her bottom lip so hard Sano was worried that she'd start bleeding. "Sweetheart, what's wrong?"

"I'm not….I'm not very good at this." She thought about how many nights with her husband had ended in shouting and tears and motioned vaguely down in the direction of their hips and looked away, embarrassed enough that tears filled her eyes. "…and I don't…I don't want to disappoint you."

Sanosuke moved his hand up and stroked his fingers over the curve of her hip. Frustrated that he couldn't beat the ever living hell out of Mara's deceased spouse, he fumed. Words of anger and disgust at the treatment she'd received at the hands of her husband warred with the praise and assurance he wanted to shower on her as he recalled Dr. Gensai's letter warning him about the mistreatment that Mara had suffered at the hands of her husband. Anger, white hot and protective ignited. (That dumb, dead son of a bitch...)

Mara saw the anger in his eyes and misinterpreted it. "You are angry." She tried scoot off of him, but was prevented.

"I am, but not at you," Sano said earnestly, "never at you." He took a deep breath and pulled her gently back against him, trying to get his temper back under control. "You don't need to worry about whether you're good at this or not and you sure as hell don't need to worry about disappointing me."

Sanosuke shifted his hips a little, the part of him that was hot, hard and insistent pressing against her thighs. "See?" He chuckled at the look of startled pleasure on Mara's pale face. You're doing just fine, Sweetheart."

Mara stared at him a moment, torn between desire and uncertainty, then nodded slightly. "Are you sure?" She smiled one of her rare crooked smiles when he shifted his hips again and in rather colorful language assured her of his utter lack of disappointment and kissed him, softly at first, then deeper, her lips and tongue expressing her relief.

Later That Evening

Tokyo Central Police Precinct

Hospital Detention Centre – Floor 3

The Tokyo central police precinct was one of the few centers that staffed a working hospital for prisoners. One floor out of three was reserved for those suspects or prisoners who were sick, wounded or dying, while the others were used for standard police work.

In one of the cell blocks, a young officer was starting his rounds after having been briefed by a now departed lieutenant on the afternoon's activity. There were the usual cadre of sick individuals, one prisoner dying of an apparent malignancy of the stomach, another suspect who was being held for questioning in the death of a prostitute, his eyes gouged out in the dead woman's last ditch effort to protect herself and surprisingly several men who had been admitted earlier in the evening with severe injuries due to a fight.

The officer glanced at the admitting notes and was surprised that the official police report indicated that the injuries of four men had come from only one man. This of course was impossible in the officer's professional opinion. How could one man manage to break two arms, three wrists, one shoulder blade and dislocate three jaws (and dislodging an unknown number of teeth) without ending up in the hospital or more likely, the city morgue?

No, there was more to this incident than met the eyes, the office decided as he rounded the corner of the cell block, heading to where the suspects (they had been found with an illegal firearm and charged with attempted murder by the arresting officer) were being held. He checked the notes and saw that the officer who'd booked the men had indicated that the man who he supposed was technically the victim responsible for this melee was at a local clinic and receiving medical attention.

A soft coughing sound was the only hint that something was terribly wrong. Upon rounding the corner, he saw that two of the prisoners were dead; their open mouths twisted in post mortal agony, their glazed eyes bulging. They'd been strangled.

The other two were in the process of being murdered. Two men, their faces hidden, were methodically strangling the two prisoners', one with a garrote the other bigger man with his bare hands.

"Stop!" The officer exclaimed, his tone horrified. Where were the guards? Why hadn't anyone been alerted to the fact that two unauthorized people were in the ward? He looked over to the bench where the office on duty should be monitoring the prisoner's and saw that they guard was missing. "Who let you in here?"

He fumbled for his police whistle determined to alert other offices of what was occurring but was prevented from doing so by the larger of the two assailants. Without a word, the tall man had the smaller officer pinned. A quick, yet brutal wrenching of the policeman's neck was all it took. The dull crack of breaking vertebrae was the only sound heralding the ending of a life. The room fell silent, save for the heavy breathing of the two men who'd just murdered five people in under three minutes.

"Oi - Enomoto was quiet clear about no officers being injured," the smaller of the two men mentioned casually as he took of his face covering and quickly changed into the clothing of the dead officer.

"Couldn't be helped," he bigger man replied, as if he was talking about the weather. "Sides, the most of the cops are already on our payroll and won't bother investigating what we just done."

The smaller man (who technically was an officer on the payroll of Enomoto) nodded, though his expression was far from satisfied. "The arresting officer is not one of our men. Word is he's a real son of a bitch who can't be bought."

The larger man laughed as another police office came into the room and began helping him drag the bodies of the dead into another room that was adjacent to the autopsy area. "I don't care what you've heard. Every bastard has his price. Not shut up and let's get this cleaned up. We've still got work to do."

He picked up the dead officer's notes and looked them over. To his chagrin, the address of the clinic where Sagara was being treated was not included in the police report, nor was the name of the doctor attending him. They'd have to check the clinics in the city for the one man who was left who could testify about illegal guns being used in the attempted murder of a Japanese citizen.

Back at the Clinic

The storm was over.

Spent of rain, what clouds were left after the evening's thundershowers slipped quickly over Tokyo's hills and went out to sea, where Sanosuke knew from experience they would form great ocean storms that would drive the winds and rain from Japan all the way to the Americas.

He sighed at the memories of towering blue-black columns of cloud that writhed with thunder and lightning over the flat horizon of the ocean, and then turned his thoughts from sleeping under strange skies and open waters to the small medical clinic where he would be spending the night.

The storm's passage had transformed the smells and sights of Tokyo. Gone were the omnipresent hints of burning oil and charcoal ovens from the atmosphere, replaced with the more earthy scents of cool wet dirt and freshly formed and rain puddles. The cobbled stones beneath his bare feet were slick and smooth and the grass growing around the pebbles was wet.

He inhaled deeply, wincing only slightly as the residual ache at the back of his head protested the actions and looked up at the stars that could now be easily seen. How he'd missed the familiar constellations in his travels around the world and ached for a sight, no matter how banal that reminded him of home. More often than not, he found this in the night sky, finding a measure of comfort in the moon, the tracking star and the planets that he'd been taught to identify by different sailors.

Sasosuke smiled and tracked a band of spattered brilliance that arced across the sky. The Milky Way, Mara called this celestial object and if what she said was true then the sky was filled with more suns, planets and heavenly bodies than the human mind could lay count to. It was a magnificent idea, shared by an amazing woman. Not for the first time, Sanosuke wondered at how Mara might know such mysteries and why she bothered to share them with a man such as himself.

His thoughts turned again, away from the sky and into the clinic walls where the woman who'd opened up the skies and his heart was preparing for bed. His heart quickened at the thought, for this evening, unlike so many others before, would not be an evening where either of them fell into sleep alone, but an evening where they would slumber, when and if slumber came to either of them, in each other's arms.

(It's finally happened…) Sanosuke thought as he walked to the front gate of the clinic and double checked to make sure the bolts were fastened and the doors were properly locked. Upon securing the front, he turned and began walking back to the rear entrance. (…we've finally told each other how we feel.) Barriers that they'd both set up to protect broken hearts had been torn down in a wooden bathhouse illuminated by moonlight, as had long held inhibitions against touching and loving one another.

(In all my dreams, she was never so beautiful as she was this evening…) For so long, Mara's long sought after companionship only had come after sleep had taken him. In his dreams, he'd known her many times and in many ways, but those night visions had paled in comparison to feeling her naked body against his and tasting her trembling lips.

They'd bathed together until the furo water became cool and their fingers and toes wrinkled. In the bath, they'd touched and learned more about each other's bodies and each other. He'd told her of his father, who'd been a sugar beet farmer, shared the story about his mother sewing him a red gi. With sadness, he spoke of his sister who had married young and died in childbirth while he was travelling and a younger brother who had once been a pupil of Karou's before joining a military academy and venturing off to the Korean peninsula to prepare for a war that Sanosuke objected to on every possible level.

Mara had spoken of her mother, a beautiful, curly haired professor of astronomy and her father, a tall, grey eyed police officer who had been killed in New York City while trying to save people caught in two great buildings in a strange sounding battle called Nine Eleven. To his surprise and sorrow, he'd come to understand that Mara and her father had been estranged at the time of his death, due to his intense dislike of her husband, Erik. Sano couldn't blame her old man for having the good sense to hate the asshole, but wished that Mara could have patched things up with her father before he died.

Carefully, he locked the back gate to the clinic. He wanted Mara to feel safe tonight, and promised himself that he'd make this round every evening hereafter. (And there will be other nights here, with her…) That was the wonder of this evening. He was no longer alone and neither was she. They were together and if Sanosuke had his way, they'd remain as such, until death took them. He was damn determined to make sure that this evening, unlike the one he spent with Megumi, would not end in regret.

Having locked up, he walked back to the clinic and after washing his muddy feet, walked inside, pushing the door shut behind him. The clinic was dark, save for a solitary lantern that was shining in Mara's room. He paused at the doorway and looked inside at the woman who was preparing a single futon for sleep.

Mara looked up at Sanosuke and smiled. Her hair, still drying and curling wildly fell freely down her back, the black curls contrasting sharply with the plain white yukata she was wearing.

"Everything go all right?" she asked quietly as Sanosuke came inside her room and slid the door shut.

"Yup, we're good for the evening. Everything is locked up tight." Sanosuke sauntered over and knelt beside her. He too was dressed in a yukata since his trousers were drying in the bathhouse. He leaned over and kissed Mara softly.

"You sure you're up for this?" he said seriously. "You know, me sleeping here with you?"

Mara's pale mouth quirked slightly, her sense of humor warring with her innate shyness. "We've slept together before, you know…"

"What?" Sano thought for a moment, and then laughed at the memory of them spending a sneeze filled night in Kaoru's woodshed. "I guess we have, haven't we."

Mara nodded teasingly. "So, this isn't a big deal. It's just like before."

Sanosuke ran his fingers along the hem of Mara's yukata. "Oh, I think it might be a bit different this evening." He hooked a finger beneath the soft fabric, pulling at the cloth, revealing a bit more of Mara's chest.

"Oh?" Mara nibbled on her lower lip, "how is it going to be different?"

Sanosuke smiled wickedly and kissed her again. "Well for starters…" he pulled at the yukata again, until the curve of Mara's breast could be seen, "I have a notion to get you out of this."

"Do you now?" Mara teased despite being a little nervous. She shivered as Sanosuke undid the sash of her yukata. His hands were warm against her skin, his movements slow and sensual. "Is that all?"

"No," Sano said as he slid the yukata off her slender shoulders and shrugged out of his sleeping robe. Her skin was pale in the lantern light and soft and cool beneath is almost steady fingers. "I intend to kiss you."

He took her in his arms and did just that. Softly at first, he kissed her lips; her cheeks and her jaw then moved downward, planting open mouthed kisses down her long neck. To his delight and relief, Mara responded as he hoped she might, kissing back, softly at first, then more deeply.

"You'll just kiss me then?" Mara whispered against his mouth. He tasted like sake and sunshine to her and she couldn't help but taste him again and again.

Groaning, Sanosuke urged Mara to lie down on the futon and joined her on the bed, cradling her unclothed body in his arms. "I intend to touch you."

And touch her he did. He touched her body as if she was made of silk, softly and with great care. His fingers lingered long over her sensitive breasts, traced lazy arabesques over her scarred stomach and slid over her hip bones, down to the valley that sheltered her womanhood.

Mara closed her eyes and exhaled slowly, shuddering from the sheer pleasure of being caressed so gently. He touched him as well, her long, delicate fingertips wreaking havoc on his control. Down his spine, up and over his chest, down his hard stomach, she relearned his body with tenderness and care. He was such a handsome man, his body so desirable, that there were times as she caressed the most sensitive parts of his being that she felt she surely must be dreaming.

"So, is there anything else you intend to differently this evening?" She asked the last question very quietly, while her pale cheeks turned pink.

"Aa," Sanosuke said hoarsely as he lowered himself on to her, "I intend to make you mine." He shuddered as his body moved against hers, the coolness of her skin against his a delightful contrast. His body wanted, needed to move. His hips ached with restraint.

Gently, Mara shifted beneath him, opening her legs up to him as he settled his weight on his elbows. She caressed his cheeks, then his mouth with her fingertips, her eyes tender and trusting.

"I love you, Sano," she whispered, her voice low and soft.

Sanosuke looked down at her beautiful face, his heart aching with emotion. He could tell Mara was nervous, but determined to follow where he led her. That trust, the trust she placed in him was humbling.

"You sure about this?" He asked for the final time, while he could still stop if she wanted him to.

Mara nodded, though her eyes held a hint of worry in them. "I don't want to disappoint you."

Sano shook his head, "you couldn't disappoint me if you tried. I love you, Mara, and aim to spend the rest of my life proving it to you." He bent his head, kissing her deeply, as he felt her wrap her legs around his waist in preparation for what was to come.

To be continued in the next chapter. Have faith, there's a reason.

Please leave reviews! Let me know if this is story worth finishing.

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