Disclaimer: I don't own Rurouni Kenshin, nor do I own the song, "Tie a Yellow Ribbon (Around the Old Oak Tree)." I am not making money off of this fic. Blah blah blah.

Notes: Yup, I'm still alive! ^_________^ This (loooooong, sappy fluffy WAFFy) oneshot is based on the song, "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Around the Old Oak Tree," music and lyrics by Russell Brown and Irwin Levine, and performed by Tony Orlando and Dawn. It was a big hit in 1973, and was inspired by the tale of a guy just released from prison, and heading back to his wife. The story has always touched me, so here it is, RK-style, and with plenty of Christmas-y sap added on, though it's not even a Christmas song to start with. Anyway, the story turned out so damn cheesy even I can hardly stand it. :-P So… Read if you dare! (Btw, this is NOT a songfic, though I will post the original lyrics at the very end, without the repeated refrains.)

                                                                        ~ Tie a Yellow Ribbon ~

            They used to tell me that winter is a season of hope… A time of miracles and of joy…

            What sort of fuckin bullshit is that?

            Every Christmas, I look out in the streets, and I see poor starving souls, freezing to death in the snow, so white, so pure. I see the ragged laborers toiling through the night even as their employers dance away at lavish parties. Stray mongrels fighting in the alleys for scraps thrown out from Christmas dinner. The orphans, mere specters, wandering about aimlessly with big empty eyes.

            Soldiers, returning from the war to unwelcoming families and unforgiving friends.

            Convicts, gazing out upon the warmth and happiness they have lost forever from within their lonely cells…

            I ask you: what hope do you see in this? What joy?

            Why do you laugh and sing, when there is nothing but sorrow and despair?

            Why?

            I ask you…

            "Dear Uki,"

            He peeked outside the window and watched a world of white whirl past as the bus he rode sped on through the darkening twilight. Familiar Christmas melodies crackled from the radio, but other than that, there was silence, for the bus was empty save for him and the taciturn driver. There had been other passengers earlier, but they were all gone already. He was the last one. After all, it was Christmas Eve, and no one in their right mind could possibly be anywhere but at home, with family and friends.

            No one, that is, but a man who had been released from prison only the day before.

            Three years. Had it really been three years already? It had seemed like forever, sitting there in his cold cell all by himself with nothing but his regrets. And yet it seemed to him now as if the time had flown by so quickly – almost too quickly.

            "I don't really know where to start… But, I'd like to say that I'm sorry… for everything."

            He shook his head and looked over at the driver. He didn't want to think about it. He'd had more than enough time to do that already. Three years…

            As he stared, he realized suddenly that the bus driver was a young man as well, only a few years older than himself. He noticed for the first time, also, that the man was tall and handsome, with unruly black hair and icy blue eyes, and a perfect smooth face that belonged on a movie star, but for its cool and unfeeling expression. He had assumed that the driver was an old or middle-aged man: scruffy, unshaven, and tired, like the bus he drove. But then again, he hadn't really paid any attention to the other man before, even though they'd been on the bus together now for hours. Shivering involuntarily from the cold air, he wondered.

            "Hey, Mister Bus Driver," he said, trying to strike up a conversation. "So… What's a guy like you doing driving a bus like –" he gestured at the tattered seats and cracking windows "— this on Christmas Eve?"

            The driver did not even spare him a glance, and replied simply in a low monotone, "It's my job."

            "But… it's Christmas Eve! Doncha have family? Or friends? Someone you should be spending time with?" he continued, curious now. The man was simply too intelligent-looking, too handsome to be a lowly bus driver in the middle of nowhere. A businessman, perhaps, or a doctor, something respectable…

            But the man did not answer.

            He shrugged. Three years ago, he would have been irritated by the man's silence, taking it as an insult that the other was ignoring him, but he knew better now. Some things were just too private to talk about. And sometimes, you just didn't want to talk. He understood that. He did. Nevertheless, he began to fidget in his seat, looking for something to distract himself with.

            "Yeah, it's me. Sano. You probably don't even remember me."

            … Because he didn't want to think about it.

            He glanced outside the window again, and it was already dark, though it was still early in the evening. Still the glistening snowflakes swirled about, drifting gently to the ground. And everywhere he looked, bright Christmas lights shone with a dazzling colorful brilliance that blinded him. He noticed then the crackling strains of "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire" floating over to him and he sighed.

            He hated Christmas.

            Really.

            "Well, life's been fine, I guess. Well, no, it hasn't. Nothing to worry yourself over, though."

            Well, not really. He hadn't always, but…

            He didn't want to remember.

            "A sister."

            He blinked, momentarily confused, before recalling the question he had asked several minutes ago.

            "Oh," he replied, not knowing what else to say.

            "But enough about me for now. Baby Outa – he's probably all grown up now, isn't he? Seven years… It's really been a long time, hasn't it? What about you? How have you been, my sweet little sister?"

            "She's… sick. Tuberculosis*."

            "Oh," he said again, suddenly understanding. "I… I'm sorry."

            It sounded so trite, coming from his mouth, and he wished instantly that he could take it back. There were so many things he wished he could take back. So many damn things he regretted.

            "No – No, I shouldn't call you that. I don't deserve to – I don't deserve to call you my sister."

            He wanted to say something, to show some real sympathy to the man. But he couldn't think of anything, and so he said nothing, and the two of them sat in silence, but for the cheery singing transmitted from the radio. He glared at the radio. He felt like slamming his fist into the damned thing, but the bus was shabby enough already, and he didn't want to cause any trouble for the driver.

            "Uki: There's something I have to tell you. I… I don't know how to say this, but…"

            He wanted to scream. Damn the radio, damn Christmas, damn the driver, damn Saitou, that bastard of a cop, damn that idiotic warden with blonde, gravity-defying hair, damn that foolish letter he had written, damn himself for being such a moron, damn everything!

            "I got involved in some pretty damn stupid things. Guess you probably aren't surprised. But… I'm sor – never mind. Don't worry about it. I got arrested, and thrown into jail. I won't go into details here. Just… don't worry about it. It doesn't matter anymore."

            He wanted… He wanted to… All he wanted was…

            "I got sentenced to five years. But… they said they'll be letting me out soon. For good behavior. Two years early. They said I'll probably be out in time for Christmas…"

            He clenched his fists. Damn it.

            "What's her name?" he asked at last, trying to calm down.

            "… Misao," he heard the driver whisper, almost inaudibly.

            "I –" he began, suddenly, on a whim. "I have a sister too," he said softly. "Her name is Uki."

            Though the driver said nothing, he thought he could sense the man listening attentively, and so he continued, encouraged. "I have a little baby brother too, named Outa, except… I haven't seen them in seven years. Outa… Outa should be nine now… Not exactly a baby anymore. And Uki… Uki should be nineteen…" He paused then, realizing for the first time that his sister was no longer a willowy twelve-year-old waif constantly tagging along behind him, and he chuckled, almost bitterly, with a sense of surrendered sadness. "A grown woman now, practically… I wonder if she turned out as pretty as Mom…"

            "And, well, I have nowhere to go home to after I get out, and I was thinking…"

            He wished… He wished… All he wished for was…

            "Misao… is the same age."

            "Well, you probably don't want to have anything to do with me, now, but…"

            He forced his thoughts back to the conversation at hand. "Is she pretty?"

            Sneaking a glimpse at the driver's face, he thought he detected a faint hint of a smile. "Yes," came the reply.

            "Do you still want me to come back? Will you still… accept me as your brother?"

            He smiled, too, wistfully. "Maybe they could be friends, if they ever meet someday," he said.

            "I… If you…I plan to take a bus, if… So you don't have to worry. I mean, that's if you want me to – Don't bother replying to this letter, though. I mean, I know you probably never want to speak to me again. And in any case, I don't know how soon you'll get this, so I might not receive your answer anyway. I might already be sitting on that bus, heading back… But… Well… Remember that big old oak tree in the front yard? I'll tell the driver to go past our – the house and… Uki, tie a ribbon round the tree. If you'll still accept me, I mean. A yellow one, so I won't mistake it for a Christmas decoration. Just a simple yellow ribbon. I'll tell the driver to drive past, and if I don't see a yellow ribbon tied around that tree, Uki, I won't stop. I'll just leave, pretend I never went back. And you can just forget about me, pretend you never got this letter. I'll understand, I know there's no one to blame for this but myself. Uki… I'm sorry… It's too late to change anything, but… But, if you will forgive me… Just remember: Tie a yellow ribbon round that old oak tree…"

            "… Maybe."

            "Yes… maybe."

            He wondered how much longer it would take before he reached his destination. They were almost there – he could feel it in his wildly pounding heart.

            He wondered if…

            "Have you…" he began after a long silence, staring out the window somberly. "Have you ever… done something you thought was right, but ended up hurting your loved ones so much instead that you wish… And you regret it and you wish with all your soul that they'll understand and forgive you but you know it's selfish of you expect something like that but you wish for it anyway and you wish for it so badly it breaks your heart? And you know they can't possibly ever ever forgive you but you still want them to, you want them to give you another chance but you've made so many mistakes already that…" His fists were shaking, he realized. And softly, very softly, more to himself than to the driver, he whispered, "You know there's just no way."

            There was no reply. He hadn't expected one anyway. He wondered, offhandedly, exactly how much the warden had told the driver about him and the rest of the passengers when the warden had hired the man to drive a busload of released prisoners back to their homes. A special Christmas present for them, the warden had said, so they wouldn't have to walk all the way back in the cold themselves.

          The warden hadn't meant it though. Hadn't meant what he said. There had been orders from above. Christmas present? Bullshit.

            "… We're here. Where do you want me to drop you off?"

            He looked up and saw that indeed, they had finally arrived. He had a sense of nostalgia as he looked around the town he had grown up in, recognizing familiar buildings and landmarks. Yet it had changed so much, at the same time. The place had grown through the years, and there were more buildings that seemed unfamiliar to him than there were ones that he recalled. There were so many lights. Red, yellow, blue, green… There was even a big Christmas tree set up in the town center.

            So many lights.

            "Right across from the post office, there's a house with a big oak tree right up in front… Drive by it and tell me if you see a yellow ribbon tied around it…" Hoarsely, he continued, "Cuz I can't bear to look by myself…"

            For several minutes there was silence as the bus crawled slowly down the snowy street. He held his breath, staring at the clenched fists in his lap, and he felt as if his heart would burst.

            "I don't see anything," came the quiet voice of the driver at last, over the cheerful tinkling melodies of the radio.

            And with those words, his whole world collapsed.

            For a second he saw nothing but black and he thought that his soul had fled and that everything was coming to an end. He released his breath, unclenched his fists, and felt his heart slow down to a steady, aching beat. He looked out the window, at the endless white landscape, lit up by festive colorful lights and he whispered, "I thought so."

            He'd known there would be no chance.

            And still the joyful carols played on from the radio in the background.

            And still the snow fell.

            And he wondered why he did not cry.

            "… There aren't any lights on in the house, though. I don't think anyone's living there anymore – They could have moved."

            "… I guess so…" But he could no longer bring himself to care.

            "Wait here," said the driver with sudden conviction. And the man parked the bus and got off and walked away.

            After a few moments, he stepped out as well. The snow swirled about him, blanketing him in powdery white. He gazed up at the big old oak tree. Grand, majestic. He remembered the swing. He and Uki had played on it for hours. But the swing was no longer there.

            He hadn't even considered that they might have moved. That they would be living anywhere but here. Here. This beautiful little house he had grown up in.

            He was such a moron.

            He wasn't sure if hours or if only minutes had gone by, but the driver had returned.

           "I asked around. The Higashidani family, correct? They moved to another city two years ago. The post office is closed, otherwise I'd be able to figure out their new address."

            There was a long pause as he watched the white snowflakes float to the ground in the darkness.

            "What… will you do now?" asked the driver.

            He said nothing in reply and stared at his feet. What would he do now? He had nothing left. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

            He thought then of his friends. Friends he had abandoned, just as he had abandoned his family. He shook his head. He couldn't. But… he could return to the city where he had met them all. The only place he was familiar with, now. And he'd stay the night, only one night, and tomorrow morning, he'd hitch a ride on someone's car, and wander someplace far, far away, and start everything anew…

           Foolish, foolish hopes. Foolish, foolish dreams. He suddenly felt very old. Too old for second chances. Too old for life.

            But there was nothing else he could do.

            At last, he looked up, gazing directly into the bus driver's icy blue eyes. "Take me to Stockholm**."

            The driver stared back at him for a moment, face as unreadable as ever, and inclined his head slightly. The two of them climbed back onto the bus.

            He sat down and stared blankly at a distant point in space before him. He noticed that the driver had turned off the radio, and was thankful. But without the music, there was nothing but silence, and the silence unnerved him. He was tired. Sick of trying to put up a brave front, sick of lying to himself. And the silence unnerved him.

            "I ran away from home when I was fifteen," he said distantly, into the silence. "Got in an argument with my dad. About Vietnam, but it wasn't really just that. It was a lota other things too. Little things. School, my future, my girlfriend, my gambling habit, his alcoholism… Yeah. Stupid things like that.

            "I hitchhiked my way to Stockholm. Figured that it was far away enough already, ya know? Met a guy named Sagara. Souzou Sagara. And damn… that man was amazing. He was like a second father to me. Maybe a big brother. I admired him so much that I took his name… I didn't want Dad's name anymore. I wanted to forget about him. I just… I wanted to be a Sagara, not a pathetic Higashidani!

            "But then… I got the notice. They were gonna send me to Vietnam. And Souzou… he wouldn't let me go, damn it! 'You're young,' he said. 'You have a whole life ahead of you. Don't waste it fighting a war you don't even understand.' And I asked him, 'What the hell? I thought you supported the war! I thought you said we were fighting for something worthwhile! And if that's the case… I want to fight too! I don't care if I don't understand!' And then he smiled at me, and he told me not too be so foolish… I never really understood him. I don't think I ever will. He went in my stead. Even though he supported the war, he wouldn't let me go. Even though he wouldn't let me go, he didn't want me in trouble with the government. And he went in my stead. He pretended to be me, and he went in my stead.

            "Two months later, me and Katsu, my best friend and another one of Souzou's 'wards', got the letter… He had died, trapped in the jungle. Betrayed by civilians he thought he was protecting… Damn it! It should have been me! I was the one who got drafted! I was the one who should have gone! It should have been me…" He felt a lump rising in his throat and shook his head.

            Softly, he continued. "I met some really amazing people after that though. Really kind, understanding people. There was this other guy… Kenshin Himura. He reminded me so much of Souzou, and yet he was so different… He was a pacifist. He didn't support the war, but he understood why we were fighting, and he supported the soldiers, all the guys who were over there. I really learned a lot from him… But not really enough. I don't think I ever really understood him, either…" He chuckled bitterly.

            "Well, I was always a bit of a wild kid. But with Souzou, I'd been starting to settle down. After he died… Well, it got a bit hectic. Kenshin probably knew, but he couldn't do anything about it. He'd been having some problems of his own. So yeah… I got into my old gambling habits, lost all my money, and I didn't even have a job… Before I knew it, I was so deeply in debt that I couldn't have gotten out of it if I'd sold the whole state of California to the Soviets. I thought of running away again, but that's really not my style, ya know? They'd just come after me, I knew, and I couldn't keep running forever…

            "To make a long story short, I fell in with some bad folks. Well, worse than the ones I normally hung out with. Ended up trying to rob a bank… Stupid, huh? But we were caught in the end. By a cop named Hajime Saitou. Hell, that Saitou sure was a bastard… But I gotta admit, he was a good cop. A helluva good cop." He sighed. "And me? I'm just a stupid bird-brained moron who thought I knew everything though I really didn't.

            "I wish… I wish I could see my brother and sister again. And Dad. And Souzou. And Kenshin, and everyone else. Tell them that I'm sorry, sorry for leaving them, sorry for wasting the chances for life they gave me… But it's too late now."

            He was surprised when he heard the driver speak up. "I… I was in Vietnam, too…"

            Shocked, he glanced at the other man.

            "I knew Sagara. Only for a week, but I met him, and… he truly was a great man."

            Shocked speechless.

            "We fought in that jungle together. Everyone died, except for me… I was severely injured, so they sent me back to America. And when I recovered, I found that my sister had contracted tuberculosis from volunteering at a local homeless shelter. My parents died when we were young, so there was no one taking care of her except for our grandfather. But what could one old man do? We were not rich; we could not afford to pay the rent, much less for the treatment. So I had to find work. But I was still not in completely good shape, and I had missed out on college, so I was unable find anything…"

            "Except… for this?"

            "Yes… except for this…"

            "Oh. I…" A sudden thought struck him. "I knew a lady back in Stockholm – a friend of mine! She was studying to become a doctor… When we get there I can – I can take you… I can take you to go meet her. Maybe she can help…"

            "… Thank you…"

            He smiled, a genuine smile. "No problem, Mister Bus Driver."

            The driver smiled too, more hesitantly, but in an equally genuine manner. "It's Shinomori. Aoshi Shinomori."

            "Sanosuke Sagara," he replied. "I… I'm glad I met you, Mr. Shinomori."

            "…Aa," acknowledged the driver.

            But now he had something else to worry about. He had not planned on meeting any of his old friends… What would she say? And surely everyone else would hear that he had returned… What would they think? And they had already arrived at Stockholm…

            He told himself to relax, and informed the driver of the directions to her house.

            Minutes passed.

            And then he heard a sharp intake of breath.

            "Mr. Sagara, look!"

            He looked.

            And he thought he was dreaming.

            The bus screeched to a stop and he jumped out, followed more slowly by the driver.

            "Megumi!" he yelled. It had stopped snowing and his face was wet but he did not notice as he ran, disbelieving.

            "Kaoru, Yahiko, Tsubame, Tae, Sae! Katsu! And… Kenshin! But… what's going on?"

            Laughter. Tinkling like sleigh bells.

            "Kenshin did it! He found them after you were arrested – he got them to move here, and they got your letter and –"

            Stunned. "W-what are you talking about?!?"

            "Don't be an idiot, Sano – look!"

            He looked. And he wept.

            "… Uki! And… Outa? And… DAD!!"

            And the hot tears came down his face and he smiled and laughed and cried until he couldn't see anything anymore. And he shouted at the driver to join in and the driver smiled and laughed and cried with him. And they all smiled and laughed and cried. And they danced, in the beautiful white world, lit by thousands of bright lights.

            "Look, Sano, look!"

            And he looked up and he cried again.

            For on the Christmas tree in the front yard by the house were tied a hundred yellow ribbons, floating in the breeze.

                                                            I'm coming home I've done my time

                                                            And I have to know what is or isn't mine

                                                            If you received my letter

                                                            Telling you I'd soon be free

                                                            Then you'd know just what to do

                                                            If you still want me

                                                            Oh tie a yellow ribbon

                                                            'Round the old oak tree

                                                            It's been three long years

                                                            Do you still want me

                                                            If I don't see a yellow ribbon

                                                            'Round the old oak tree

                                                            I'll stay on the bus, forget about us

                                                            Put the blame on me

                                                            If I don't see a yellow ribbon

                                                            'Round the old oak tree

                                                            Bus driver please look for me

                                                            'Cause I couldn't bear to see what I might see

                                                            I'm really still in prison

                                                            And my love she holds the key

                                                            A simple yellow ribbon's all I need to set me free

                                                            I wrote and told her please

                                                            Oh tie a yellow ribbon

                                                            'Round the old oak tree

                                                            It's been three long years

                                                            Do you still want me

                                                            If I don't see a yellow ribbon

                                                            'Round the old oak tree

                                                            I'll stay on the bus, forget about us

                                                            Put the blame on me

                                                            If I don't see a yellow ribbon

                                                            'Round the old oak tree

                                                            Now the whole damn bus is cheering

                                                            And I can't believe I see

                                                            A hundred yellow ribbons

                                                            'Round the old, the old oak tree

                                                                                    Owari

And they lived happily ever after. Aw. XD

* Tuberculosis actually wasn't that serious of a problem by the 1960s. By the 1970s, which is when this story takes place, it was pretty much already a thing of the past. So that detail was a little tweaked, on my part.

** Er. No particular reason I chose this name. I don't even know if there's an American city by this name. It just kinda popped up into my head.

Ugh. I hate prose. XD Sorry if it got confusing/wordy/awkward/repetitive/etc. (Hitomi is such a hypocritical dork. XD) I didn't really have time to edit it thoroughly cuz it's waaaaay loooong and I was trying to get it out by Christmas Eve.

I took out the romantic fluff implied in the song, and replaced it with family/friends fluff. Hope y'all don't mind. (I would have done Sano/Megumi except it would seem highly unlikely for an educated doctor like Megumi to be married to a guy who was in trouble with the law like this. I also considered doing Sano/??, but since my story featuring this pairing hasn't been written yet… I didn't wanna give it away… *cough NOT an OC, NOT yaoi, but a pairing that I've never seen before and cough no, it is NOT Misao or Kaoru or what's-her-face from the Christian arc cough*  ^________^) I finally decided that the story didn't need romance to be absolutely sappy, and so left it like this. The way I ended up writing it, I think, made it so that romance would have been somewhat inappropriate, actually. Well, hey, now I can say my fic is the first (and only) serious nonromantic Christmas story in the entire RK fandom! ^_~

Well, Merry Christmas to all those who celebrate, and happy holidays anyway to those who don't!

Aoshi as a bus driver?

…Don't ask.

And can you guess who the warden was? XD (Hint: It's not Saitou. Saitou was the cop.)

… Btw, who has seen the animated IMAX feature "Santa Vs. The Snowman"?

… I will never look at a snowman without totally cracking up ever again.

Yes, indeed. XD

Once again, MERRY CHRISTMAS!!! AND HAPPY NEW YEAR'S!!!! I wish you all a wonderful holiday season!!!!!!

(Yes, Hitomi is in an overly WAFFy mood. Which is why she has been refusing to touch her other fics: too dark and angsty. Bwahaha. Don't worry, she'll update. Someday…)