A/N – Cage-fighting!Prison!AU. Because I can.
Disclaimer – I don't own the characters, settings or situations of Rurouni Kenshin. I make no claims to them. Don't sue.
Blood dripped from his nose and mouth, abstract red spatters on the rough concrete. Panting harshly, Sano tried to clear his head, shake the sweat out of his eyes. From a distance, he could hear the referee's measured count: four! five! six! Staggering a little, he used the cage's wire walls to pull himself up again.
He'd been a week into his life sentence when he first saw Himura.
By then he'd already been involved in three fights, and had put one of his opponents in the hospital. He'd made a number of enemies, picked up some stray acquaintances, and almost – almost – convinced himself that he didn't begrudge Katsu his freedom.
He was sitting down at breakfast when another inmate pointed out the man sitting quietly by himself in the corner.
"That's Himura-san," Matsuda hissed. "Stay away from him. He's a killer."
He didn't look like a killer. He looked like a man who had long since given up hope.
"Fight! Fight! Fight!" the inmates howled. They pressed against the wire cage, hands gripping and shaking; they wanted blood, violence, excitement. Sano grinned fiercely, spat out a mouthful of blood and saliva, and moved in again. His ribs were probably broken and his whole body ached. He didn't care.
The rumours were legion. Sano heard that Himura was a mass murderer, a government agent fallen from grace, a yakuza assassin, a vigilante neo-ronin, even that he was the notorious Battousai, the blood-soaked spectre of the civil war.
The story of Himura's first day had become the stuff of prison legend. To hear the inmates tell it, it went something like this:
Six huge prisoners cornered the small newcomer in the dining hall, circling with ill-disguised intent. He did not look up from his tray, though some of the more observant watchers saw that he stiffened, muscles coiling –
When he did move, it was almost too fast to see. There was a dizzying blur of motion and speed, sickening crunches and shocked screams, and then the newcomer stood alone in the circle of his fallen would-be attackers. One writhed and thrashed, clutching his crushed throat, and choked to death while the newcomer watched; another bled out on the floor, twitching feebly until he finally succumbed. The other four escaped with severe head injuries and fractured limbs.
According to eye-witness accounts, Himura had actually considered finishing them off, before the guards intervened.
The fight was taut, brutal, and bloody. Sano and his opponent laid into each other, bare fists thudding into flesh with a dull, heavy thwack, each blow greeted with a joyous groan from the crowd. The pain blossomed and throbbed, and Sano welcomed it, all of it –
Their paths did not cross until months later. Himura kept to himself, and Sano became involved with the prison's lucrative cage-fighting ring. It earned him a certain notoriety, kept him in cigarettes and sake, and satisfied the dark, self-destructive anger that threatened to overtake him sometimes.
Late at night, after a particularly bloody bout, Sano had been nursing his wounds, coming down off the high.
"You should not let others exploit your skills, Sagara-san," a quiet voice said. "They should only be used in defence of yourself, or of others."
"Yeah?" Stung, he'd gone immediately on the attack. "What the fuck do you know about it?"
And then he'd looked up, caught the full impact of Himura's ancient golden-brown eyes.
"Everything," Himura said.
The bell rang, signalling the end of the round, and they retreated to their respective 'corners' of the cage, breathing heavily. Sano grinned, his teeth bared; his ribs were definitely broken, but he knew he could take the other guy, knew that victory – and a good cut of the winnings – would soon be his.
A whisper of awareness drew his gaze upwards, to where Himura watched from a higher balcony. He couldn't see Himura's expression, but knew that what he would see in those martyr's eyes.
The taste of victory turned to ashes in Sano's mouth.