Author's Note: This story is set during the OVA Reflection during the span of time that Sanosuke is in the story. I thought the scenes with Sano were some of the most powerful in the movie. Especially that final time that Sano hugs Kenshin... when Kenshin finally manages to get out his name and thank him. Anyway, I always felt like the Sano/ Kenshin scenes were too short. There was so much they didn't tell about what happened during that time. So, this is my take on the whole time Sano spent with Kenshin. I tried not to skip scenes or cut any lines (and please note that some lines I took liberties with just to get the gyst, some are direct quotes), but I did take some liberties with scenes by adding a bit here and there to already existing scenes, adding a lot of thoughts to Sano and several lines... and of course filling in the blanks for the scenes that were missing.
And for those of you who read my fanfiction, "The Price of Peace," this is also my way to add a bridge between the OVA and that story... so my story will not be treated as AU. Thanks! Enjoy!
Sano tried to call it a fluke. He didn't want to get his hopes up. But he knew that at least for awhile, Kenshin had been fighting the war in China. And who here would know that Sano was friends with a "scared redhead?" His eyes glowed at the thought of seeing Kenshin again. It had been too long. Sano had left Japan ten years ago. He had traveled the world, and now, after he tied up a few loose ends, he'd expected to return home to his friends within a year. It had to be a sign of good fortune if one of those friends had been sent to him early.
Up ahead, the small shack that Li had described rose above the hills. Sano leapt from his horse and ran to the shack. No one. Desperately, he ran to the rocky waterfront. And there he was, his back toward Sano. His hair was shorter, but it was Kenshin.
Sano advanced, knowing better than to think he could sneak up and surprise the ex-hitokiri.
Kenshin didn't react. He didn't seem to even hear Sano coming. Sano froze. "Oh god," he whispered, finally really seeing Kenshin. Too thin, sitting somewhat hunched over. "What happened to you?"
Sano helped Kenshin into the shack. The joyful reunion he'd expected hadn't panned out. The last time Sano had seen this man, he was strong and healthy. A little sad, like he always would be, but finally content. What had the war done to him? Kenshin could hardly walk now. Sano had half-carried him inside. It wasn't the first time. When Kenshin had been nearly killed in Kyoto, Sano had done the same. But that time he'd been surprised at how strong Kenshin was. How the small man had seemed to be solid muscle. It was different this time. This Kenshin was frail. Like an old man. It had been like a slap in the face. The first time he'd really realized that Kenshin was older than him... by ten years.
And it wasn't just his strength. His reflexes were down. His senses weakened. He could hardly speak. And his mind... Sano shuddered even now as he helped his friend onto a tatami to rest. Kenshin didn't remember him. He'd smiled gently at Sano. But the look in his half-mast eyes wasn't recognition. Kenshin's eyes were hazy with pain and confusion.
And it had hurt Sano to think he was so easily forgotten. Until he'd caught Kenshin stumbling over his own name as well. He was than far gone that he was losing himself.
As Sano got his friend settled, Kenshin struggled to speak. Sano shook his head. "No. Kenshin, you need to rest. I'll get us some food and then I'll be right back. It's okay."
The redhead nodded weakly and closed his eyes like an obedient child. It bothered Sano to realize how accurate that description was. He'd caught on quickly that Kenshin couldn't follow anything complex. This man, who had been so brilliant... who could once talk a man out of death... now had to be spoken to as one would speak to a very small child.
Another knife in Sano's heart. There was nothing left. This wasn't Kenshin. Just some frail shell that the swordsman had left.
As hard as he looked, Sano couldn't find Kenshin in there at all.
When Sano first came in with the fish for dinner, he panicked. Kenshin wasn't where he'd left him. He hadn't been gone long, and Kenshin was moving slowly now. How far could he have gone?
It took him a moment to see Kenshin near the window. Staring at the ocean. What was so fascinating there? "Kenshin?"
Slowly, Kenshin turned, startled at the visitor. He opened his mouth and tried to speak but instead was overcome by a wracking cough that brought him to his knees.
Sano dropped the fish and ran to his friend, supporting him as he coughed. Noticing that in that short amount of time, Kenshin appeared to have faded further.
It seemed to take forever for the coughing to stop. And even when it did, Sano didn't move for a long time while Kenshin tried to catch his breath.
Sano watched his friend critically. He was thin, frail, and the coughing took a lot out of him that he didn't have to give. And there were the bandages. Sano had only noticed them on Kenshin's left arm before, but now he saw their full extent. His arms... upper chest... and there were probably more under his gi. This couldn't all have come from the war.
"Damn," Sano swore under his breath. The war hadn't done this to him. Some small part of Sano knew he should have realized it sooner. Anyone who could survive the revolution as Kenshin had could survive this war. Even at his age.
Kenshin was sick. "Kenshin?"
"Yes... Ken... Shin," the older man wheezed. "I have to... go home..."
Kenshin's breath seemed to be coming easier now, so Sano helped his friend back to the tatami. "Listen," he said in a far gentler voice than he could ever remember having used before. "I need to get you a doctor. Stay here. Please..."
Kenshin turned his head to look out the window.
Gently, Sano made Kenshin look back at him. "I need you to focus. Please. Stay in here. Don't move. I'll hate myself forever if you die here and now. So, rest... Please."
Kenshin had turned away again, and this time Sano let him. That had been a long time for Kenshin to stay focused, and Sano had seen the strain in his eyes. Let him think about home.
Sano got up and left the shack, running for his horse. As he rode toward the nearest town, he prayed Kenshin wold listen to him. This may not be the man he remembered, but Sano owed him. And Kenshin would not die under Sagara Sanosuke's care.
Sano didn't like the doctor's grave expression. He'd seen that same look on Megumi's face in Kyoto. That time she'd come out of Kenshin's room to tell them that his survival depended on his will to live. Kenshin had slept for a month after that, and although Sano had never admitted it, that had been the worst month of his life. Every night he'd had dreams of Captain Sagara. And each night he woke during the beheading when the captain's hair had suddenly gone red.
This doctor had that same look. All doctors must be trained to give it as a warning of bad news. Sano shuddered. His expression had grown more and more solemn as Sano had described Kenshin's symptoms. Then, out of the blue, the doctor had predicted the bandages. Clearly, he knew what this was.
Sano got up and paced the small room. "Don't look at me like that Just tell me what I can do to help him. He's hurting." Sano realized he sounded desperate right around the same time he realized that he didn't care.
The doctor sighed. "I'm sorry. There's nothing you can do for your friend now, except make his last days as comfortable as possible."
Sano shook his head. "What?" he growled, his dark eyes flashing. "No. I won't accept that. He's not dying. Do you have any idea who this man is? What he's already gone through? He's the most dangerous swordsman in Japan. One of the noblest men I've ever known. And... his will to live is incredible."
The doctor bowed his head. "I'm sure that's true. But even that can't save a man from a fatal disease. It can only help him hold on long enough to say goodbye. And from what you've said, it sounds as though the disease is reaching its final stages. Your friend doesn't have long." The doctor looked away for a moment to avoid the raw pain in Sano's eyes. "I can tell you care about him," he said carefully. "That's good. Too many victims of this die alone, because others are afraid of catching it. He needs help and support now."
"I don't give a damn about catching it," Sano snapped. "I owe Kenshin too much to care about that. I've already touched him. And I won't stop now as long as he needs me."
The doctor smiled sadly. "I'm glad. He does need it. His mind is failing, but that doesn't mean he won't know you."
Sano stopped pacing to stare at the doctor. "What?" he asked. "He doesn't even remember himself!"
The doctor nodded. "Oh, I'm sure you're right. Faces are hard to place. Names are even harder. But if he's as strong as you say, I'm sure he knows you at some level. Was he afraid to let you touch him?"
Sano blinked. "No."
The doctor smiled. "Then he probably still remembers you to some extent. Your friend is in pretty intense pain. Your touch, although well intended, adds to the pain. If he didn't trust you, he'd never have let you touch him."
Sano didn't answer, remembering the two times Kenshin had flinched slightly at Sano's touch, then had allowed him to support his body.
The doctor continued. "Touching him is almost a healing pain. Physically it will hurt him, but you mustn't let that stop you. It can help his focus. And the longer his mind lasts, the longer he will last... Now..." The doctor stood and walked to a shelf of different medical herbs, salves and instruments. "I hope you aren't squeamish."
Sano shook his head dumbly.
"Good. You aren't infected. Your friend is beyond the contagious stage if the disease has already attacked his mind, so you'll be able to safely help him with his pain. You said he's bandaged. If he's been alone long, those are probably old and only paining him now. Most of his body will be covered in a dark rash. Even the touch of the old bandages will hurt him. You're going to need to help him change those bandages daily. And—"He grabbed some fresh bandages and salve as well. "—he will need this put on him first. It will ease the irritation and sooth him."
Sano nodded. "I'm not squeamish. A rash won't bother me."
The doctor shook his head. "It's not the rash that worries me. Can you handle his pain? Every time you touch him, especially with those bandages off, you'll see his pain."
Sano's eyes hardened. "I see... You say this stuff will help? You promise?"
"Then I can handle it."
"Good." The doctor handed over the supplies.
Sano hefted the salve before tossing it into his satchel with the bandages. "Not much there," he said. "What if I run out?"
The doctor smiled sadly. "You won't need any more than that."
Sano didn't panic this time when he opened the door and saw the tatami empty. As he suspected, Kenshin was leaning against the windowsill again, staring at the water. Sano came up and watched him. Kenshin's eyes flickered briefly to Sano. There was no real acknowledgement, but after talking to the doctor, Sano realized that even this was probably a good sign. Sano watched the water for a few minutes with him in silence, lost in his own thoughts. Finally, he turned back to Kenshin, who still gazed out at the ocean.
Sano put a gentle hand on his shoulder, heeding the doctor's suggestion, but wary of causing Kenshin more pain. "Kenshin."
The man slowly turned toward him, puzzling. "Ken... shin?"
Sano shook his head. "Don't. I saw the doctor. He gave me something to help you." Sano struggled with the uncomprehending stare. "To make you feel better, Kenshin. But it might hurt a little at first, okay?"
After a long pause, Kenshin nodded.
Sano gently guided Kenshin away from the window toward some crates near the far wall. "We need to change your bandages," Sano said, grabbing his bag and pulling the supplies out. When he looked back, Kenshin was staring toward the window distantly.
Sano swallowed hard. This was killing him. He gently reached out and touched Kenshin's cheek, turning his face back. "Kenshin..." He felt his voice break. "I can't do this without your help."
Maybe it was the combination of the touch and the plea for help, but for the first time, Kenshin's eyes seemed to clear and he looked directly into Sano's. Sano lost no time. "We need to change the bandages. Can you pull your gi off?"
Another slow nod, and Kenshin began fumbling with the gi, slowly taking it off.
Sano readied the bandages as the doctor had shown him to do, but his mind was on his friend. He's still in there. Somewhere... Somehow... And that put Sano's mind at ease. For once, it had been the Kenshin he knew staring back at him. Sano no longer felt so alone, like he was with a stranger. His friend was still with him.
Sano looked up and saw Kenshin finally drop the gi. He was fighting the hakama now.
"No. You don't have to—" Sano tried to stop him, but Kenshin gave him such a peculiar look that Sano bit it back. The hakama dropped.
Sano didn't know what to say. Kenshin's legs were bandaged as well. He hadn't thought of that. But Kenshin had.
The red-haired man sat, tired now. His violet eyes clouded over. That had been a struggle for him. To focus that long just to help.
Sano smiled at him and started unwrapping bandages. It was slow work. Many of the bandages were not only old, but dirty as well, so Sano had to be careful taking them off. It wasn't as bad as he'd expected. Kenshin didn't cry out or even flinch. Apparently, the pain wasn't as bad as the doctor had expected.
Sano carefully began applying the salve. It was then that he first noticed Kenshin tremble. No, he hadn't flinched, but he was shaking. Sano's eyes snapped up to Kenshin's face. It was a stoic mask. Eyes closed. Expressionless. But tears of pain were tracking down his cheeks.
Sano forced himself to look back at the salve, cursing himself. Of course Kenshin wasn't crying out. When did he ever cry out? But then again, when did he ever cry?
"Hang in there, buddy. When we're done, you'll feel better..." You'd better... or I'll personally have that doctor's head for making me hurt you...
Kenshin rested after that, while Sano cooked the fish. Luckily, in the earlier chaos, he'd managed to not destroy their meal. That was good, because Kenshin needed to eat
Sano let his thoughts stray as he cooked. Memories of the past assailed him. It was funny. For the first time, it wasn't the Sekiho-tae he was remembering. These were just little memories of his friends. Megumi's sneaky little giggle. Or the concern she'd tried to hide when he or Kenshin was hurt. He and Yahiko trying to stomach Kaoru's food, while Kenshin treated like a gourmet dish. Sano glanced back at his friend. Kenshin had really loved Kaoru. Even back then. Did he remember her now? Did he remember his little boy, Kenji? At that, Sano chuckled. Not so little now, Sano. You've been away for a decade. Kenji's probably as big as his dad now. Would Kenshin know them, or were they only fuzzy memories for him as well?
Again, Sano risked a glance back at him. Kenshin still rested on the crates. He was staring out the window again. What does he see? Sano shook his head and went back to the fish. Don't think about it. "Food'll be ready soon, Kenshin."
"Ken... shin..." His weak voice was hesitant, testing this foreign name out. "Ken... shin..."
Sano tried to tune it out. He sounded so sad and helpless.
Sano's eyes widened. God, why was Kenshin wasting his energy trying to remember him? "Don't worry about it, Kenshin." He tried to keep his voice light to raise Kenshin's mood. "Once you get back to Japan, your memories will come back. For now, eat. You need to keep your strength up." Sano almost had himself convinced that things would be alright as he tossed a fish toward his friend.
Kenshin didn't notice it until too late, and even when he did, his hand didn't reach out until the fish had nearly hit the ground. The look on Kenshin's face was too painful for words. Even in his state, Kenshin knew he should have caught that. He looked sad and ashamed at having missed it.
Sano closed his eyes for a moment and composed himself. Then, without thinking, he got up and knelt next to Kenshin. He picked the fish up and brushed it off, smiling warmly at him. Making sure his friend knew that it didn't matter. That Sano didn't think less of him for such a small thing.
Kenshin stared at him, wide-eyed for a moment before taking the fish. Then, finally he relaxed. It was okay. He began to eat.
Sano watched him, wondering how long it had been since Kenshin had eaten. "Good?"
Kenshin looked up, startled. Again, that moment of unexpected clarity as he looked Sano straight in the eye. Then, for the first time in hours, Kenshin smiled and nodded.
You're still in there, aren't you? Damn! How did you let yourself get trapped in there, Kenshin? Sano was almost as surprised as Kenshin when he suddenly gathered the older man into a warm hug. "There's nothing left for you here. Go home. Go back to Japan. Back to Kaoru."
"Ka... oru..." Kenshin hesitated over that name, too, but this time it sounded more like he was relishing the sound, not puzzling over the person.
Sano pulled back finally. Kenshin blinked back at him a couple of times. The clarity lingering in his eyes. "Ken... ji..."
Sano grinned. "Yeah, that's right. Kenji. Your son's waiting for you, too. Go back to them, Kenshin. I promise I'll help you go back to them..."
There was a hollow tinkling sound, and Kenshin's eyes were drawn back to the window. "Ka... oru."
Sano turned as well, and finally understood. Kenshin hadn't been looking at the ocean. He hadn't been staring off into space. He was watching the shell wind chimes that hung just outside the window. Chimes just like Kaoru used to always hang. Kenshin had been trying to stay focused on Kaoru. Fighting to remember.
"Keep fighting, Kenshin," Sano whispered, getting up to grab another fish for Kenshin to replace the one he'd crushed in the hug. "Just hang on a little longer..."
That night, Sano didn't have to worry about dreams. He wasn't sleeping. He kept thinking of his promise to Kenshin. "I'll help you go back." Sano knew he could get a boat. He'd beg and plead if it meant getting Kenshin on the first one going to Japan. But Kenshin really needed to sail out of Shanghai. And that was a two-day ride if Sano pushed his horse to the limit. Kenshin didn't have the strength for that.
Sano looked at Kenshin. His breathing was loud and ragged, but he was blessedly asleep. Sano hoped he was having good dreams of his family and friends. "Don't forget me in there," he whispered.
Early the next afternoon, Sano was on the road. This time it was urgent that he hurry. Once again, when he'd left, he'd begged Kenshin to stay in the shack. There was some fish left over, but not much. Sano couldn't afford to be long. Kenshin needed him for his food and medicine.
But Kenshin also needed strength, and Sano was ready to do anything for that. Even kill a tiger. He'd once heard that some of the strength of the tiger would be transferred to the one who ate its liver.
He brought the horse as far as he could and set out to walk the rest of the way. The tiger was easy to find. It was the fight that would be difficult, even with his spear skills. Sano knew he was lucky in the end that the tiger hadn't bitten him and had only badly clawed his leg and back before it had been killed.
Finally, after cutting out the liver and treating his injuries, he set out for Kenshin again. But his wounds slowed him more than he would have liked, and he was moving at a snail's pace. It took him a day just to reach his horse and another just to get back. It was sunset of the third day by the time Sano finally tied up his horse and dragged himself to the shack.
Kenshin was huddled on his tatami, coughing so hard his body was trembling from the exertion. As he caught his breath in short gasps, he seemed to finally notice the open door and looked toward it.
Sano smiled a bit mischievously, while leaning heavily on the doorframe to support his injured leg. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to be late."
Concern flickered in Kenshin's eyes just before it was replaced by hazy confusion. Sano wasted no time worrying. He dragged himself inside and shut the door. He sat down heavily near Kenshin and began preparing the tiger liver for his friend.
He didn't bother with re-dressing his wounds until Kenshin's bandages were changed and he was eating.
Sano sat away from Kenshin, finally unwrapping the bloodied bandages from his leg. The gashes were deep and he didn't have any medicine for them. The best he could do was try to clean them out. He began boiling some water while Kenshin ate. He was so absorbed, he didn't notice Kenshin get up until the man gently laid a hand on Sano's shoulder. Sano looked up, surprised to see concern in Kenshin's eyes again.
Sano gritted his teeth and smiled tightly. "It's okay. Just... need to clean it out. Don't worry."
Kenshin stared at the raw, red skin around Sano's injuries for a long time before finally moving away. Sano heaved a sigh of relief. He didn't want Kenshin worrying about this on top of everything else. "Why don't you lay down and rest, Kenshin?" he suggested.
He didn't expect the soft, hesitant voice right behind him. "San... Sanosuk..." Kenshin trailed off, frustrated.
But Sano turned anyway. In Kenshin's hand was the salve for his rash. Sano sighed. "We just did that, Kenshin. Remember? Before you ate..."
Kenshin's hand was on Sano's shoulder again and his eyes on the wound. Then, he slowly bent, and with a trembling hand placed the salve next to Sano's leg.
Sano looked down at the medicine, finally understanding, and then back up at Kenshin, who seemed to be trying hard to stay focused long enough to make his intentions clear. Sano couldn't protest. Not after that. But he'd only use a little. "Thank you, Kenshin. I—I didn't think of that."
The redhead smiled faintly and sat beside Sano. If he didn't know better, Sano would have thought it was so Kenshin could be sure he used the medicine. He laughed shortly. "You're really something, Kenshin," he muttered, dipping a rag into some scalding water and carefully cleaning his wounds. "Only you would worry about my cuts when you're so sick."
Kenshin didn't acknowledge this. His focus was waning. Mostly, he watched the chimes. Once in awhile, he pulled back enough to hand Sano a bandage.
It was no surprise to Sano that Kenshin began falling asleep where he sat. This had been a lot of work for him. Sano gently helped his friend to a tatami before cleaning up and lying down to rest, himself.
He actually slept that night. He dreamt of Megumi, and once of a certain friend who reminded him that life was worth living as they sat and talked. Sano wasn't sure which dream he enjoyed more.
The tiger's liver must have helped something, because the next day, when Sano loaded Kenshin on his horse, Kenshin was strong enough to lend some help. And the trip wasn't bad. Sano had saved some of the liver, which he added to Kenshin's fish each night. Sano felt his spirits lift. It looked like Kenshin was going to make it.
He spent most of the ride talking to Kenshin about his travels in the last ten years, about their friends, about the past. Kenshin mostly seemed to be listening when he was awake, so to Sano, it was worth it.
In no time, they were in Shanghai. Sano tied his horse and helped Kenshin down. Kenshin was lighter than ever, and needed to be constantly supported. Sano brought him to a fence facing the ocean. "Soon," he said. "Soon you'll be on a boat crossing to Japan. And you'll be with Kaoru and Kenji and Yahiko and Megumi again. And it won't be long before I'm, too."
Kenshin looked at the ocean.
Sano smiled and told him to stay there, before running to find a boat. Getting Kenshin passage was harder than he'd expected. And finding someone who cold help him on the trip was even worse. If he hadn't run into an old friend on his way to Japan, he didn't know what he'd have done.
After half an hour, Sano finally made his way back to his friend with a light heart. "Kenshin!" he cried, overjoyed as he neared the fence. He threw his arm around Kenshin's shoulders, grinning. "I got you passage on the first boat that leaves for Japan. You'll be back home to Kaoru in no time!" He paused before saying the hard part. "And I've found someone who will help you on this trip. I can't come with you, my friend. I have business I need to complete here." He pulled back to look Kenshin in the eyes. Sano prayed he'd understand. "So... this is goodbye."
Sano swallowed hard. That last part had been the worst for him. Because this time it really was goodbye. Somehow, he knew that this would be the last time he saw Kenshin alive.
"Th—thank you..." Kenshin stammered. "Thank... you... Sanosuke..."
Sano's eyes widened and filled with tears, as Kenshin smiled up at him, his violet eyes clear. Sano pulled him into a tight hug. He'd spent enough time the past few days to know what that had meant for Kenshin. He'd probably used most of his energy to focus like that. To finally remember who Sano was and give him the chance to really see Kenshin, not just his frail shell, one last time before he left.
Sano watched the ship slowly leave, bringing Kenshin back home. Sano raised a hand in farewell. He smiled when Kenshin's own uncertain hand raised in the distance. When the ship finally disappeared, he turned away. I should be thanking you, Kenshin. For all you've done and all you've shown me. You've changed me, changed us all. And I will live my life until the very end. Just like you.
Sano looked at another small cargo ship in the harbor as he walked away. That ship left tomorrow, and Sano intended to be on it. His business would not take him longer. He would make sure of it. He needed to get on that ship. Something in Sano told him that even leaving tomorrow, the next time he saw Kenshin, it would be under different circumstances once again. By that time, Kenshin would have left his frail shell behind.
And Sano would need to be there. In time to give comfort to Megumi and Kaoru. And in time to let them know that no matter how bad it had seemed, Kenshin had been in there until the end, fighting his last and hardest battle just to get back to them.
And for that, they should all be proud of him.
Author's Note 2: Please read and review! It was a hard fiction to write, it would be even harder if I thought I didn't have any readers! Thanks again!