Disclaimer: I do not own this series, nor do I make any money off of this writing.

Disclaimer 2: this story depicts a male-male relationship.

Premise: This story takes place after the battle with Aoshi's group and exaggerates the damage Sanosuke suffered as a result of his fight with Hyottoko.

There were some things former hitokiri Himura Kenshin was not prepared to see, let alone accept. The young fighter's pale flesh gone scarlet with burning was one of them. Sanosuke's jacket, smoke-stained and tattered with fighting was another. His motions were tender as he lifted the battered silk into his hands. An unexpected wave of pity crashed over him, threatened to drag his legs out from under him. It was wrong. Wrong that in this era of peace the young man should be in pain. Because of me, he thought. Always. Battousai. Hitokiri. Death follows. Blood follows, and pain. . .

There were other reasons that he closed his eyes against the image of his best friend broken in battle. He had sensed it at the Akabeko, that presence like a dark, uncertain scent, making his nostrils flare. And when the youth had leapt to his feet to defend the girl, voice fierce with righteous indignation, the sound of him had sent an unexpected thrill through him. He had been awakened for battle and had become more fully alive. Sanosuke's friendship was like a bright blade that had slipped him from the terrible cocoon of his own weaving.

He had known that night in the courtyard, with the smell of cherry blossoms weaving themselves around his sense of Sanosuke. He could not have described the fighter's spirit in words, because the words came to him only in contradictions: joyful darkness, welcome sinking, the smell of earth fired with fallen stars. Sano's strength was the other half of his own; the fact that he was no stranger to blood and pain made him even more desirable. The younger man wouldn't need protection, wouldn't need to be sheltered from the truth of the hitokiri's darkness – or the depth of his strength.

But Kenshin had not spoken. It came down to a single concept. Lying in the darkness of the Kamiya dojo, he voiced it to himself, "This one is not worthy." He knew that Sano, whether he returned his affection or not, would have laughed at the notion. But it was not so easily set aside. He owned nothing. He bore a sword in an era that had forbidden swordsmen. Danger stalked him – who he had been – in a myriad of forms. He shuddered to think what that danger would do to one he openly loved, if this was what became of the first friend he'd had in years, one who merely stood at his shoulder.

The rurouni went to Sano's side after Megumi had finished tending to him. Tension radiated from his prostrate form. Kenshin knelt, the cloth of his hakama and kimono pooling about him. "How are you feeling, Sanosuke?"

The boy's dark eyes came open, lashes lifting slowly. "Oi, Kenshin." He gave a brave smile. "I'm fine."

But his eyes were fearful, like the eyes of an animal that had burned out of its burrow. Though Sano had suffered pain as a fight merchant, Kenshin knew that burns were a different species of hurt. The fire seemed kindled in the flesh itself. The pain never seemed to cease or lessen.

He knew from firsthand experience. He'd been in a grove of bamboo, hunting enemies of the revolution. They had lured his group of fighters into the undergrowth and set it ablaze. If he chose to, he could still hear the screams. He did not choose. He'd used his sword to fend off the worst of the blaze, spinning it in his hands, making a passage through a wall of fire. At that time, his skill had not been enough to keep his hands and face from being badly singed. He recognized the pain he'd felt in the way Sano held his body, as if to keep his flesh from touching any surface.

Sano's voice came rumbling to his ears. "You're getting that look. Don't say it."

A smile formed on the samurai's lips; it was the first time he'd smiled since he'd seen Sano take his wounds. "This one is not to say that he is sorry, hai?"

Sano punched him gently on the arm in answer; the absence of force in the gesture only worried Kenshin more. "Is there anything this one can do for you?"

The younger man considered a moment, wondering if he should ask. "Stay?" There was weakness in his voice, a need he hadn't heard in himself since his beloved captain's death, but pain blocked out any embarrassment he might have felt.

"Hai. This one will stay as long as he is needed."

In his vulnerable state, he might have risked it, might have said, "Always," but a fresh bout of pain wracked him and he groaned through clenched teeth.

Concern showed in Kenshin's pixie face and Sano wondered to see the shields drop from his eyes. He had become accustomed to seeing the Kenshin that Kaoru and the others saw – the face masked by fake smiles, those violet eyes that distracted the watcher long enough to prevent questions about what remained hidden in their depths. "Megumi-dono left some medicine. Do you want this one to rub it into your wounds?"

Sano turned his head side to side. "No." As much as he had longed for Kenshin's hands on his skin, he wasn't sure he could stand the touch of any hand in his state. "Could you… could you just talk? I think it would help keep me distracted."

"Hai," he agreed quickly, without thinking. He would have agreed to anything that would have kept pain from glutting itself on the body of his friend. Then he stopped short, uncertain. "What should this one speak of?"

"Anything," came the answer. Just let me follow your voice and feel nothing.

So Kenshin spoke, occasionally smoothing a cool rag over the younger man's forehead, or holding a drinking bowl to his lips. He spoke of moments of rare wonder, moments he had almost forgotten: of the way he'd once seen a hunting pack of falcons turn together in flight, seeming to carry the sun to rest in their bright talons; of the sudden awakening of wild cherry blossoms, far away from any other eyes; of the way the moon sometimes seemed to turn as blue as a horse's eye and float at the mouth of a starry river, lapped by waves of light and wind. Eventually, Sano sank into sleep. Kenshin kept watch, head bowed, sword in reach. Catching a glimpse of the blade out of the corner of his eye, he wished that it could be wielded to fight the pain that stalked Sanosuke's battle-weakened body, even in sleep.