DISCLAIMER: The Rurouni Kenshin characters, setting, and themes are owned by Nobuhiro Watsuki and Shonen Jump Comics.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~ The Last Temptation of Sanosuke ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Tree. Tree. Tree. Tree. Ugly tree. Ugly tree with moss growing on it. Tree. Tree. Fuck, that's a bush. Tree. Dead tree. Tree. Tree. Tree. Tree with ivy growing on it. Tree. Another goddamn tree. Fuck. Tree. Tree. Tree. Tree with flowers. Tree. Tree. Goddamnit. Goddamnit!!!

Who put all these trees in this forest? It's like a damn Meiji conspiracy in here.

All these trees and not a single one with berries or fruit or something. I'm so hungry, I could eat rancid onigiri. Scratch that. I could lick rancid leftover onigiri cooked by Jou-chan off the floor of the dojo.

If only I knew where I was, then I could go to where the food is.

Let's see. There's got to be some way to figure this out. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. So, if Kyoto is west of Tokyo, I just have to walk away from the sun in the morning, and towards it in the evening.

Yeah, but what the fuck do I do at midday?

Maybe I should have asked Katsu to come along. He always was the smart one. Captain Sagara taught -him- all the clever stuff, like how to read other languages and all about philosophy and science and shit. I'm not bitter about it, though. Cause, I asked Sagara-san about it once. I asked him "Why are you training me to be a warrior, and training Katsu-chan to be smart?"

And you know what he said? He said, "Sanosuke, someday the Sekihoutai will need new leaders. It's no good for that power to be in the hands of just one man. No, any good military organization will be led man with a warrior's pure heart, and a man with a visionary mind. With these two elements working together, balancing each other out, you can achieve our ultimate goals of truth, brotherhood, and peaceful stability for the people of Japan."

Captain Sagara had me in his plans for the future, and Katsu too, even though we couldn't do much more than be pages and stable-boys at the time. That man was always thinking of everyone else but himself. I swear, if he and Kenshin ever got together in a room, they'd probably end up best friends within seconds.

Damn Captain Sagara. Damn Kenshin. Always running off to try to save the world, when the world would much rather wallow in its own shit.

Always trying to protect me, when -they- are the ones who need protecting. Idealists who refuse to ask for help, refuse to see that it -does- matter if you go off and die for your cause. Saving Japan is all well and good, but if you get yourself killed, who is supposed to carry on your interrupted idealism tomorrow?

Certainly not me. How am I supposed to find peaceful stability for the people of Japan? I can't even fucking find Kyoto!

Damnit!

Tree. Tree. Tree. These trees look familiar. Fuck. Have I been here before? Am I going in circles? What am I saying, all trees look like -trees-.

I swear on the grave of Captain Sagara, I am going to punch Kenshin in the mouth for being such a clueless shit. Oh yeah, I love the stupid rurouni, but I'm not under the impression he's some sort of bastion of wisdom and perfection. The kid and jou-chan can put him on a pedestal all they want, but the truth is, Kenshin is just a normal guy, trying to do right by the world, and often just as clueless and bumbling as the rest of us.

He just happens to also be exceptional with a sword.

I mean, look at the way he fumbles around Kaoru. Idiot. And the way he can't help but stick his nose into fights that don't even concern him anymore. Damn fucking idiot. And the way he leaves me behind when it is obvious that the more help he has, the easier it's going to be for him to save Japan. I may not be as strong as that bastard cop, but every little bit helps, right?

Idiot.

He's going to get himself killed.

And I won't ever forgive him. Ever.

Stupid, stubborn, hard-headed, self-recriminating, loveable bastard.

I punch a tree. Probably not fair to the tree, but what do I look like, some sort of Buddhist monk?

Hn. Trees got it easy, anyway. What do they care who rules Japan? What do they care if people are free or in shackles, if we live in fear or in peace? Bunch of fucking arrogant plants, going about their lives without a care in the world.

Damn trees.

Damn Kenshin.

Damn, I'm hungry.

It's the middle of the afternoon, now, and I haven't got a clue if I am even going in the right direction anymore. This whole place smells like dried leaves and blooming flowers, but I'd rather it smell like sweat and sake. Because then, at least, I'd be someplace less infuriating. Or, it could smell like beef pots. I'd even pay off my tab at the Akabeko just for a bite of food right now.

There's a breeze, at least, keeping the bright sun from melting what's left of my brain. I pass trees, and trees, and trees. I think the forest may be laughing at me. That's what it sounds like, at least, when the wind shakes the branches above my head. There's animals around, but mostly squirrels and birds. Scrawny eatin', but I might have to break down and catch one if...

Hey, is that a snake?

It -is- a snake.

Snake can be pretty fuckin' tasty.

Coiled around one of the lower branches of an elm, the serpent appears to be resting, taking a bit of a break from the sun. It's got dull markings, nothing to denote that it might be poisonous. Nonetheless, I approach with caution, since I really don't want to end up dying of snake bite in the middle of this stupid forest. Geez, the damn thing's as long as my arm.

Now, how should I go about this? Probably should catch it by the head and break the neck. I feel a bit sorry for the poor guy, though. He's probably lost in this damn forest, too, with no way to escape. I wonder, did all your slithering friends run off, too? Do you know some uber-poisonous snake version of Kenshin that refuses to kill mice and subsists on berries and acorns, instead?

What the hell am I rambling about? I must be delirious from hunger.

"C'mere...dinner."

"Sssst," the snake replies lazily as I pull him off the branch. He doesn't even struggle or try to bite me. What the hell is wrong with this critter? Don't you have any instinct towards self-preservation? When something tries to kill you, fight back or run away, you numbskull.

"I see you've met Makoto-chan," a voice says from somewhere to my left.

I turn, already in my fighting position, ready to defend myself against whatever, whomever, might wish to do me harm. Fortunately, the person standing in the small glade appears to be merely a handsome young woman in a rather ostentatious kimono. Not that young women are always harmless. If I were any other person, I'd be dead from jou-chan's whacks to my head already. It's thoroughly amazing that Yahiko still has the ability to speak, what with all the brain damage he must be racking up.

Then again, I've always suspected that she doesn't hit him quite as hard as she hits me.

The young woman, standing a good ten meters away, smoothes the front of her blue-green furisode gingerly as she steps delicately towards me. Despite the humble smile crossing her lips, and the downcast gaze she's affecting, I can tell this woman isn't some simple forest-dwelling peasant. First of all, her clothes look more expensive than Kaoru's best kimonos. But, beyond that, her gait suggests a good knowledge of a warrior's center of balance. Women untrained in some martial art tend to walk in ways that would allow me to push them over with one finger.

She's slight in form, but not exactly thin. No breasts to speak of, which makes me think that she may be Kaoru's age, or younger. But, she has a pleasant enough looking face, not pretty but, perhaps 'winsome'. Too bad her hair is so short, the ends flipping out right above her shoulders like abbreviated bird wings. Nope. Not really my kind of gal. But, really, in a pinch, who's to argue?

"Your snake?" I ask, placing the creature back on the branch. "Not really the kind of pet you expect for a young woman such as yourself."

"Yes. It is rare to have days so nice where I can get out. Shishio-chan hardly ever gets to play in fresh air. So, I thought I'd bring him along when I came to meet you, Zanza-san."

Shishio?

Zanza?

Damn. Damn. Damn.

My hand curls instinctively into a fist as I turn from the snake to the young woman. She stops in her tracks and puts up her hands, wiggling her fingers playfully. But, I am pretty certain, despite the fact she's trying her hardest to look harmless, that this woman is scrutinizing my reaction.

"I'm not here to fight you, Zanza-san." She tilts her head to the side and sticks out her tongue, licking her upper lip in thought. "Just to talk."

"Fine. You can start by telling me who the hell you are."

"Little old me?" The young woman puts down her hands, resting them open-palmed against her obi. "Oh, let's see. I've been called so many nasty things in my time. Temptress. Freak. Monster. Angel." She slides her hands up her torso towards her nonexistent breasts, "Some call me a young woman." Those same hands slither down, down, down, until they hover above the most indecent bits which lay beneath the cloth at the junction of her legs, "Some call me a young man. They do so like to name me to fit their purposes. But you, Zanza-san, I'll let you call me Kamatari."

"You're a guy?" Could have fooled me. Wait, no. -Did- fool me.

Kamatari's hips wiggle a bit. He looks at them, as if surprised, as if they have a mind of their own. "Yes, but only in body. Don't let it scare you Zanza-san. The snake between my legs is as docile as the one on that branch."

"And what is your relationship to Shishio?"

"My, my, aren't you a virile one, shooting out question after question like that. So...forceful." I absolutely do not like the way he quirks his eyebrows while talking.

"Relationship. You. Shishio. Spit it out."

Kamatari's hands move to his hips, as a far-away look flitters across his visage. "Relationship? Don't I wish. More of an association, really, than a relationship, right now. But, come. I was just in the middle of lunch. And if my notions of what you were going to do with my pet are correct, you must be hungry."

"I'm not hungry enough to eat anything of yours." Nor am I stupid enough to get myself poisoned.

"Oh, come on, Zanza-san, why won't you let Kamatari-kun satisfy that hungry look on your face? Unless you're hungry for something else, hm?" Kamatari looks me up and down slowly, evaluating my body in ways that have nothing to do with how good of a fighter I might be. It gives me the creeps, and not even because he's a -guy-. I don't think anyone has ever looked at me like I'm their sexual prey before. "If you're worried about being poisoned, I can feed you like a mother bird. Mouth. To. Mouth."

"Forget it."

"Very well," Kamatari says, shrugging and tossing his hands up a bit. He steps forward, the pretenses of attempting to move like a woman now dropped, and lifts the snake off the branch. "You can watch -me- eat, then."

He turns, and as he places the snake around his shoulders, walks back the way he came. I follow at some distance, keeping my guard up, checking the forest for signs of a trap. But, besides the birds, the squirrels, and the ever-present trees, it doesn't seem like anyone else is around.

"Here we are," Kamatari says, motioning towards a blanket spread on the ground with a quick flick of his wrist. Damn. He wasn't kidding about the food. He's got the entire contents of the Akabeko's kitchen out here, I think. My mouth waters despite the fact that I keep telling my body this food will probably kill us.

I also notice something else. Leaning against a tree only a few meters from the blanket is a giant scythe. And I mean -giant-. When the sunlight peeks through the leaves, the blade glitters from excessive polishing.

So, I guess I was right about this guy.

But, who fights with a scythe? I know a lot about heavy weapons. The zanbatou is about as heavy as you get. You have to be extremely strong just to lift something like that.

"Although I like the view, don't you think it would be better if you sat, Zanza-san?"

I look down, to find Kamatari already kneeling on the blanket. This puts his head at right level with my crotch. I feel the temperature in my face rise at least a dozen degrees. Damn. This guy is getting under my skin. Why can't Kenshin and I ever have -normal- foes? No, they all have to be ex-assassins, or psychotic cops, or freaky ninjas, or...whatever -this- guy is supposed to be.

Nonetheless, I sit down cross-legged on the edge of the blanket, allowing myself a good view of Kamatari and the scythe which is, thankfully, out of his reach. Not that I don't think I couldn't take this freak. It's just better to be safe than sorry.

"No one calls me Zanza anymore. I go by a different name now."

"That's right," Kamatari says with a mysterious smile. He nudges a bowl of fruit my direction. Apples. Shiny, delicious, apples. Damn, I'm hungry. "You go by Sagara now. I think it was utterly sweet of you to take your Captain's name."

How the hell does he know that? "How the hell do you know that?"

"Oh, I know a lot about you, Sagara-san. I've been watching you for quite...some...time." A disturbed shiver runs down my back. Watching me? Ugh. "Imagine my surprise when I found out that not only are you a wonderful fighter, but you're also a former member of the Sekihoutai."

"Why would this matter to you?"

Kamatari picks up one of the fruits and takes a bite. The crisp sound reverberates through the glade, and pounds the need for food into my skull like a hammer. He chews slowly, taking his time before swallowing. "Because we're interested in you, Sagara-san. A man like you could be quite an asset to Shishio-san."

He offers me same apple he's already bitten with a tilt of his head. I don't think I should take it, but my stomach betrays my brain. Snatching it away from his grasp, I take a large bite. Damn, it's sweet. I don't think food is supposed to taste this good. I hardly even chew before swallowing, though. I need something in my stomach, and fast. "Well," I say, before taking another bite, "I'm not particularly interested in working for Shishio. You've got the wrong man."

"Oh, I don't know about that. If I'm correct, I'm betting you're still pretty cross with the Meiji government for what they did to the Sekihoutai. No matter how deep you bury it, there's still some small part of you, just a flicker of flame, which burns for revenge."

"Yeah, maybe so, but just because I'm still angry doesn't mean I gotta act on that anger. I know the difference between right and wrong. People think about doing bad stuff all the time, but it doesn't mean they gotta indulge their every whim." Case in point, I know it's crossed Kenshin's mind quite a few times to flip the sakabatou's blade. But the point is that he -doesn't-.

Right?

The snake around Kamatari's shoulders lifts its head and looks directly at me. The damn thing's tongue flits out of its mouth and tickles the air.

"But, what about this, Sagara-san... What if I told you that once Shishio-san assumes control of Japan, he's fully prepared to condemn what the Meiji government did to the Sekihoutai? Captain Sagara and his comrades will be exonerated, and the truth of the Meiji army's misdeeds will be burned into the history books. Your former master will be redeemed, and will be cherished as a courageous martyr. All you have to do is give your allegiance to Shishio."

Captain Sagara, redeemed in the eyes of Japan? Alright, I'd be a complete liar if I said the idea didn't appeal to me. A little. Just, a tiny bit. With pieces of apple still tumbling around in my mouth, I say, "You make it sound so easy. But, why should I trust you?"

"What reason would I have to lie? You don't like the Meiji government, -we- don't like the Meiji government. You want to be stronger, and we can teach you amazing new techniques to make you infinitely more powerful than you are now. It seems logical that we would work together towards a common goal."

I toss the core of the demolished apple aside and pull another one out of the basket. I gotta slow down how fast I'm eatin', or I'm not going to be able to move later. "Our goals ain't even remotely related. 'Sides, I got other considerations."

"Mmm, yes. Like your friends, I know." Kamatari leans to the left, sliding down on the blanket until he's lying on his side. "I've seen the little boy and the young woman, the doctor-lady, and old man with those adorable grand-daughters. I can see why you'd want them protected. Such an innocent, naive sweetness they all have."

"You should stay the fuck away from them." I'm so angry that I accidentally crush the apple in my hand, causing bits to fly everywhere. In particular, the left side of Kamatari's face.

He runs one finger across his cheek and pushes the pieces of apple onto his finger, which he proceeds to lick lazily, as if -he- were the goddamn snake. "And we will, too, if you just come to our side. Think of all the pain you'll be saving them. Your friends would be our friends. We wouldn't attack our friends, now, would we? Weigh these images, Sagara-san. Your friends screaming in pain as the Juppon Gatana slices through them one by one or...your friends living happily in some grand mansion somewhere sunny, perhaps by a beach..."

"Fuck you."

"I'd like that, but lets get through the matter at hand, first. Have another apple, Sagara-san. They're delightful, aren't they? So...succulent and tempting."

I do, actually, pick up another apple. "I have one friend who won't be satisfied, even if I do agree to your plan."

"Ah yes, Himura-san. Or, should I say, Battousai-san?"

I shouldn't be surprised that Kamatari knows who Kenshin is, but I am, nonetheless. I try to hide it as best I can, but I never did have a good bluff. That's why I keep losing at gambling. I'm too easy to read. "If you know who he is, or anything about his recent history, you know that, no matter what I do, Kenshin is going to fight Shishio."

"Even if it means fighting you? And not just fighting you as Zanza, or even as Sagara Sanosuke. But, if it means fighting you as a soldier loyal to Shishio Makoto?"

"Yeah. He would." I have no doubt Kenshin wouldn't hesitate to knock me out, just like the last time when Katsu and I -almost- caused a boatload of trouble for the Meiji government. Or, would he hesitate? He'd be sad, I think. I'd probably be able to get in a few punches while he stood there and begged me to change my mind. And, even if he did defeat me, he'd obsess about it, over and over, and let it eat at him. Why he does that, I'll never know.

But, if I fight Kenshin, it might just distract him enough to let Shishio get the upper hand.

Oh, I see the plan, now.

"I'm not going to help get Kenshin killed. He's my friend."

The snake slithers down Kamatari's torso, and spends a while exploring the cross-dresser's lean thigh. Talk about distracting. No wonder Shishio sends Kamatari to do his recruiting. The guy is so weird, you can't even think straight.

"Killed? No. You'd be helping to save his life."

"Yeah? How do you figure that?"

Kamatari places one extended finger against his lips and looks up at the sky, pretending to be deep in thought. "You see, Sagara-san, even if Himura-san -could- defeat the entire Juppon Gatana -and- Shishio-san, it doesn't matter. One of Shishio-san's henchmen will just shoot him. They'll shoot him when he is wounded, when he can't defend himself. Besides which, do you really think that Saitou Hajime is just going to let Himura-san return to life as normal? Will the Meiji government let him go back to being a simple rurouni after he 'defeats' Shishio-san? Or will they use him, again and again, playing off his sense of guilt and duty, until Himura-san is dead? Any way you look at it, Himura Kenshin won't win, not in the long term."

"Well, there's nothing I can do about that," I say, switching from apples to dumplings, and trying desperately not to look at where that snake's head is resting. That's some serious -trust-, right there. That's three seconds away from becoming a woman for -real-. "I told you, I have no control over whether Kenshin fights or not."

"Oh, but you do." Kamatari reaches down the front of his kimono. This would be sexy if it were, say, the foxy doctor looking for a lost packet of medicine in her cleavage. Unfortunately, Kamatari has no cleavage, leaving the action so perverse that I look away to study the tree line. "Here."

When I look back, Kamatari's hand is out, palm up, offering me a light blue glass vial filled with liquid.

"Two drops of this in his tea, every two weeks, and Himura Kenshin will be out of commission until our Kuni Tori is complete. Afterwards, you stop, and no one is any the wiser. Once Shishio-san rules Japan completely, Himura would have to join an all out war to dislodge Shishio-san. And, it's just a hunch, but I don't think Himura is prepared to rehash the Bakumatsu."

I take the vial. The glass feels cool in my hand. Briefly, I am reminded of a fall day, right before the summer heat died, when the Sekihoutai all went swimming in that watering hole in some enchanted wood. All the guys were there, so alive and carefree, if just for a moment. Nobody was thinking of war, or death, or liberating the people of Japan. All they wanted was to escape the afternoon sun, to feel cool water upon their skin, to smile and joke.

The water was the same shade of blue as the liquid in the vial. So clear, and simple.

So easy to be...friends...in still waters.

I could do it. I could join Shishio's side and become so much stronger. Captain Sagara and the Sekihoutai would be exonerated. Kaoru, Yahiko, and all my friends would be protected. And Kenshin...

Would not die.

But, he would. I know he would. He'd die inside. Even more than he is now. And, I'd be the one who forced him to watch while everything he worked for was obliterated.

I know it.

That day, when all the Sekihoutai went swimming, Captain Sagara just stood on the shore, leaning against a tree. We all kept begging him to come join us, but he just wouldn't. He just smiled sadly and said, "I can't be truly carefree. Not yet. I haven't earned it yet."

It's the same thing that Kenshin murmurs under his breath when he's doing Kaoru's laundry.

I can't tell him to be carefree. I can't beat it into him. I can't make him be happy with himself. I can't protect him from what is coming.

All I can do...is help him earn his reprieve.

I never did get to go swimming with Captain Sagara.

And I'll be damned if I will be the one to strand Kenshin on the shores of that brilliantly clear lake. I'll be damned before I resign his mind to eternal hell just to save his body.

"No, I think I'll let Kenshin make his own choices," I say, placing the vial down on top of one of the closed baskets. "I reject your offer, Kamatari. Now, which way is Kyoto?"

The smile on Kamatari's face completely creeps me out. You'd think he'd be disappointed, but he seems more delighted than anything else. With a deep sigh, he turns over on his back and stares up at the sky. "Do you think I'd really tell you?"

"Nevermind, I'll find it my damn self. But, before I go, I just have to tell you, you're a real freak. A complete freak of nature."

"Hmmmmm," Kamatari replies, gathering up the snake in his hands and kissing it lightly on the head, "Why do they always resort to name-calling in the end, hm, Makoto-chan?"

"Whatever. I'm out of here."

As I storm off, towards the...uh...west (I hope), I hear Kamatari's voice calling after me, "See you in Kyoto, Sagara-san. Do keep my offer in your thoughts. You still have time to change your mind. But, the clock is running out..."

If he says anymore, I don't hear it. I'm already making my way through trees, and trees, and trees. There's still as many goddamn trees as before, but at least I'm not so hungry anymore.

Plus, thanks to Myojin Yahiko's School of Pick-pocketing, I have food for tomorrow and the day after that...

Six bean jam buns. All thanks to the funding of Shishio Makoto's glorious Kuni Tori.

I'll have to be sure to thank him when I finally meet him.

In fact, I think I'll give him something to chew on in return for his hospitality and kind offer.

Yes.

Shishio Makoto can eat my fist.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"Did you have fun?"

Kamatari opens his eyes to see an upside-down face plastered with a smile in front of a backdrop of blue sky. The eyes on the face blink, once, twice, and then the face smiles even wider.

"Soujiro, you imp, when did you get here?"

Soujiro raises his eyebrows and sits down next to the previously napping cross-dresser. "Oh, I was watching all along." Picking up one of the apples, and turning it around and around for inspection before setting it back in the basket, Soujiro adds, "I don't understand why you would waste your time. He was never going to join us from the start."

"That isn't the point, Soujiro."

"Then, what -is- the point?"

Sighing, Kamatari sits up and stretches, his lean torso extending like a serpent. "The point is that now Sagara Sanosuke will wonder. He will always wonder...what if...what if I had taken the offer. Doubt has entered his mind, and after that, no man can ever be the same. Ignorance is bliss, they say. So, sometimes you can, just by giving a man knowledge of his options, send him into hell."

"Eh, interesting. Very interesting," Soujiro replies, though it is obvious, despite the smile on his face, that he isn't actually interested at all. "Shishio-san sent me out here to find Anji-san. Have you seen him."

"No. The big lug is probably towards the mountains somewhere. There's more rocks in that area."

"I didn't think I'd see you here, Kamatari. But, at least now, I won't have to go all the way back to Tokyo to get you. Shishio-san is gathering the Juppon Gatana. You'll come, won't you?"

"Mmm," Kamatari replies as he picks his pet snake out of the grass, "If I have some time yet, I think I'll make a stop for one more little game."

"Really? Who are you playing with next?"

"Oh, Soujirou, it'll be so much fun. You should come along." Giggling, Kamatari claps his hands together and bounces in place, causing the snake no small amount of agitation. "I'm going to see..."

"Saitou Hajime," Soujiro interrupts.

"Ahhh, you spoil all my fun. You already knew."

"Sorry, I guess I'm not so good at games."

"That's okay," Kamatari says, putting Makoto-chan back in the basket, "Have some food, but I'd stay away from the apples, if I were you."

"Oh? Really? Why?"

"You never know, Soujiro, when you'll find one with a worm inside."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The End.

**Author Notes: Kind of a strange one, I know. I just had a thought one night of "What would happen if one of Shishio's people offered Sanosuke everything he ever wanted?" And then I had to write something to answer the question. I'm not so good with one-shots, and I didn't really evoke quite the tone I wanted. Oh well, maybe I'll do a re-write later.