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Disclaimers: Don't own 'em. Never have, never will. I just like to play with them every once in a while. Suing me is pointless--I have no money.
Spoilers: Um. . . mild spoilers for the Kyoto arc. (Kind of hints at the outcome, but doesn't really go into it much.)
Warnings: Slightly AU in the sense that Saitou is not married. Takes place sometime after the Kyoto arc. Although I often try to keep these guys in character, I usually fail miserably, so here's the OOC warning. Also, this is YAOI, which means men loving men, if you don't already know. If you don't like, don't read. Some mild violence, and Sano's language is a little gruff in spots. ^_^ If none of the above bothers you, by all means, read on. If it does, don't. It's as simple as that. CC is welcome, flames will be laughed at. A lot.
Rating: NC-17
Pairing: Saito X Sanosuke

Last updated: 16 July 2003

Paint Me a Picture
Nakki no Miko

I hadn't really planned on things getting that grim. It was a simple bar brawl, and I've been in my share of those. It should have been easy for me to wipe the smirks off those asshole's faces. But I forgot the most important thing about a fight-- it doesn't matter how brash, strong, or skilled you are... if there are too many of them, you'll still go down. I threw another punch, and as my already sore hand connected with another jaw, pain screamed through my joints and sparked clear to my elbow. My hand hadn't completely healed from the whole Shishio thing, and hitting these jerks wasn't helping it any. I didn't take the time to rejoice as my attacker went down, for there were two more right behind him.

Okay, so maybe I should have stayed out of it. But I have this thing about unfair fights. And while the kid I was currently defending probably deserved to have the shit kicked out of him, I still couldn't let the little creep go up against seven other men all by himself. The kid was probably homeless, and it reminded me a lot of myself at that age. He was just trying to survive, any way he could. Maybe after tonight he'd remember that cheating hoodlums out of their money wasn't the best way to do so. And maybe, after tonight, I'd learn to mind my own damn business.

There were too many of them, and the fact that I was more than a little drunk did nothing to help matters. I'd come to drink away the pain of my past and the confusion of my present, and had intended on nothing else. I'd just recently discovered that someone I had thought dead really wasn't, and it had stirred up a whole bunch of emotions that I didn't want to deal with. Hence, the drinking. But there was that kid, in way over his head, and my stupid sense of justice had goaded me to step in. And I realized half way into the fight that I was outnumbered. Had I been sober, it might have been okay. But I wasn't sober, and it wasn't going to be okay.

"You're going down, punk," one of the men hissed, and I clenched my teeth against the pain as his fist connected with my stomach. Almost instantly they were upon me, and strong hands wrapped around my arms and held me immobile. More pain exploded behind my eyes as another fist was shoved into my stomach. "You should have minded your own business!"

"Fuck you," I hissed. I still don't understand why I do stupid things like that. I should know when to shut up, after all the times I've taken beatings. Self-destructive behavior, Kaoru had called it once. Jou-chan doesn't understand it, why I have to fight like this. Kenshin understands, but doesn't like it when I do it. You risk too much, that you do, he had said to me once. What are you looking for, Sanosuke? What is it that you are hoping to accomplish? I couldn't answer him. I didn't have a clear answer-- at least, not one that I wanted to talk about.

"That can be arranged." The thug's hissing voice brought the present sharply into focus, and I didn't like the gleam in the man's eyes as he gave me a once over. Fuck. I jerked my head back as his meaty hand reached up to touch my face. "Such a pretty thing, aren't you?" he hissed at me. And for the first time in quite some time, I felt fear. I swallowed hard as his hand moved downwards and his fingers caught my chin in a bruising grip. "I was going to kill you, but I think I like your suggestion better." I struggled against my captors as he leaned down and took my lips in a brutal, invasive kiss. Nausea rose in my chest as I desperately fought to free myself. Oh, you've done it this time, I thought to myself. I was abruptly sober as the reality of what was happening settled in. This was bad. This went beyond bad. Beatings I could handle. This... This I was pretty sure I would not take well. This went beyond proving who was stronger. This was about humiliation, and I knew from experience with a certain yellow-eyed bastard that I did not deal well with humiliation. I had the scar on my shoulder to prove it, along with a whole mess of jumbled emotions that had resurfaced with a vengeance when it had become apparent that he had survived his brush with death. It had been the reason I had been drinking in the first place.

"Stop." The word was softly spoken, but it was menacing, and it shocked my captors enough that it gave me the moment I needed to free myself.

"Fucking bastards!" I hissed as I broke free. I pulled back and hit my assailant as hard as I could. Blood spouted from his nose, and he went down wailing. His friends made to attack me again, and I braced myself for it. The sound of steel being withdrawn from a scabbard gave them pause, and I took the opportunity to take down another. My knuckles were screaming by now, and I knew that if I threw another punch, I'd probably be done. But I wasn't about to back down now-- my stupid pride wouldn't let me.

"Stop." My would be attackers paused, and several glanced towards a shadowed corner of the room. I chanced a glance, and I felt a shot of adrenaline through my system as he stepped into the light, amber eyes promising death, and his ever stoic features set in stone. One of the thugs sneered at him, and I couldn't help the dark smile that crossed my lips. Stupid, stupid man.

"Or what?" Amber eyes narrowed slightly, and I felt my smirk become more pronounced. I knew that look. I'd been on the receiving end of it too many times to not know what was coming. He moved so fast that he was nothing but a blur, and a moment later the thug let out a keening wail as he was pinned to the wall with a katana through his shoulder. I winced. I knew that feeling, too. The thug's friends scattered and disappeared into the woodwork. They were thugs, but they were smart thugs.

"Or I kill you." The words were delivered flatly, matter of fact, and without an ounce of arrogance. I closed my eyes against the sight of him. I hadn't wanted to see him tonight. I had been trying to forget. As I said before, he was why I had been drinking in the first place. A cry of pain made me open my eyes again, and I found that he had withdrawn his blade from the thug. The man slumped to the floor and stared up at him with fearful eyes, a trembling hand held over the seeping wound. I wasn't really surprised that there wasn't more blood-- the bastard knew the human body well, and had probably missed every major artery when he had pinned my would be attacker to the wall. Amber eyes narrowed again, and when he spoke his tone was dark. "Get out of my sight." The thug was quick to oblige, and I suddenly found myself pinned under that amber gaze. Emotions stirred within me--anger, annoyance... lust. I closed my eyes against the last. I hated it. I hated how he made me feel. I hated the fact that I wanted to make him look at me with something other than the disdain I saw on his features now. I hated that I always felt a constant need to prove myself to the bastard. I hated the disappointment I always felt when I realized I could not. He always found something to berate me on. I would always be just a kid punk to him. He would never see beyond that.

But I wanted him to see beyond that, Kami help me. I wanted that more than anything in the entire world. I longed to see respect and approval in those eyes, rather than the cynical mockery I was so often a target for. I wanted him to understand. I wanted him to understand that I was more than a street fighter.

"You're bleeding." I looked down at my injured hand and found, that indeed, I was bleeding, and pretty badly at that. Crimson blood fell with a regular pat a pat onto the barroom floor. The pain hit me, then, and I felt nauseous again. "The Fox-lady will never let you hear the end of this."

"Fucking great," I murmured. I lifted my hand and cradled it close to my chest. Megumi was dangerous when she was angry, and she was going to be angry. She had told me to stop fighting, to give my hand time to heal. It was broken again, I was sure of it, and she was going to be furious with me.

"What was it this time, Rooster? Did someone prick that insufferable sense of pride?" he asked. I clenched my jaw at the mockery in his tone.

"None of your fucking business," I spat. I wasn't going to try and explain myself to him. It never did any good, and he always found some way to twist the truth to make me seem even stupider than before. He merely smirked, his hand disappearing inside his uniform to snag a handkerchief from some inner pocket. He continued to smirk as he wiped his blade clean.

"I think it is," he returned evenly, his tone, as always, cool. He sheathed the katana. I snorted and glared at him.

"And how do you figure?" Oh, man. I was doing it again. I was opening my mouth when it would have been much better for me to keep it shut. Another thing I knew from experience was that it was extremely stupid to play games with Saitou Hajime, and yet, there I was getting ready to do so.

"I just rescued you," he returned, his voice still even and matter of fact. Oh, my pride bristled at that. I wanted to tell him that I would have been just fine on my own, that I would have somehow managed to stop the bastards before they had been able to follow through with their promise of rape, but something in his amber gaze made me swallow the words. I closed my eyes against another wave of nausea, and my hand was pounding with an insistent pain that was steadily getting worse. I opened my eyes and met his amber gaze.

"Thank you," I managed, and it was very difficult to say those words to him, but I wasn't the type to not give credit where it was due. His expression never changed, and I suddenly wanted out of there and as far away as possible from Saitou Hajime and all of his mockery. I was beyond tired of being the target of his cynicism and criticism. I turned to walk away from him, but the room suddenly seemed to swim around me and my vision blurred slightly. I didn't even realize I was falling until I felt strong hands catch me beneath my arms and steady me on my feet. None-too-gentle fingers were suddenly probing my skull, and I hissed as they found a tender spot behind my right ear, and my stomach turned over again. This time I wasn't able to stop the urge, and I found myself kneeling on the bar room floor vomiting. Oh yeah. Some one hit me over the head with a chair...

"Ahou! When will you learn?" he murmured as he crouched next to me. I wondered at the sudden change in his tone. There was no mockery there, only a kind of exasperation that I was more used to hearing from Kaoru or Kenshin. I wanted to answer him. I wanted to tell him to fuck off and leave me alone. But I couldn't. All I could do was retch, and the humiliation I felt in that moment was almost unbearable. How could I let him see me like this? What was he thinking of me?

I didn't have time to think about it much, for my battered body finally rebelled on me. I was dimly aware of his softly muttered curse before my world went black and I fainted dead away.

"Wake up, Rooster!" I moaned as the voice penetrated the ache in my skull. An ache that was soon eclipsed by the screaming pain in my hand. I swallowed hard against the sob that wanted to leave me. It hurt. Bad. "Sanosuke, you have to wake up."

"I'm awake," I managed, my voice a barely audible croak. I opened my eyes slowly as I tried to remember why it was my head hurt so much and my hand was once again a mangled mess. My vision focused slowly, and eventually I was able to see the pair of golden eyes looking down at me, and my eyes grew momentarily wide as I remembered what had happened earlier.

"About time," he said, and he smirked.

"Fuck you," I hissed, my emotions already starting the confusing whirl they always did in Saitou's presence.

"Such gratitude for a person that has saved you," he returned dryly. "I should have left your worthless hide on the barroom floor. I'm sure your attacker would have liked the second chance to follow through on his promise."

"Fuck you." Maybe it was the pain that was making me so reckless, but I didn't like the way he was looking at me, as if I was beneath his notice. "I didn't ask for your help!" He made a soft, amused sound.

"No, you didn't." His tone implied that I was being stupid about something again, but I failed to see what it was. He rose from where he was kneeling beside me, and only then did it occur to me that I was in an unfamiliar place. The room I was in wasn't huge, but it wasn't small, either. He had seated himself at a table on the other side of the room and was pouring tea. The rice paper doors behind him were wide open, and I could see the porch and the lush garden beyond and the sound of running water from a fountain. The room was cool, and the air coming in from the garden was scented with the greenery that resided there. I could smell rose, juniper and what I thought might be magnolia wafting in on a soft breeze. I was resting on a soft, plush futon and was covered by crisp cotton sheets and a quilted comforter, and as I shifted to sit up, I realized that my hand had been cleaned and tightly bandaged, and that I had somehow been miraculously bathed and dressed in a dark red cotton yukata.

"Where am I?" I asked. I was admittedly awed by my surroundings. It was a nice place. The kind of place I would never be able to afford.

"My home," he answered.

"Your... home?" To say that I was stunned would have been an understatement. It would have been difficult for me to say what astonished me more-- the fact that Saitou lived in such a nice place, or the fact that the man had taken me to his home. He only nodded in response. I was feeling confusion now. If I was in his home, then it stood to reason that Saitou had been the one to clean and bandage my hand, that he had been the one to bathe me and dress me in the warm yukata and tuck me into a comfortable futon. Why? Why would a man that so obviously thought I was worthless trash even bother?

"Come drink some tea." His soft, authoritative voice disrupted my thoughts, and the command pricked at my pride.

"I think I'll leave instead," I huffed. I ignored his amused look and the arched eyebrow and shifted to stand. I didn't even make it to my knees before the nausea hit me. I couldn't stop the groan that left me as I sank back down to the comforter. My breaths were coming in harsh gasps as I tried to control the bile rising in the back of my throat. I really didn't want to throw up again, especially not in front of him. I curled myself into a fetal position and swallowed hard a couple of times.

"Ahou. You have a concussion. You can't go anywhere in that state," his voice informed me, cool as ever. I heard a whisper of material and then the barely audible sound of his bare feet on the floorboards as he crossed the room. I felt a subtle shift in the futon as he knelt next to me, and I flinched when I felt hands on my shoulders. If I was expecting roughness, I was disappointed. I was carefully eased out of my curled up position and helped to an upright position. "Quit being so difficult, Rooster," he chided. I felt a warm cup pressed into my hands, and the soft scent of herbal tea wafted upwards. Surprisingly enough, the aroma settled my stomach some. "Drink it. It will help with the nausea." I did as I was told, for once. It scalded a little on the way down, but compared to the sudden relief it brought, the pain was nothing. I think I actually moaned with relief as I felt my stomach completely settle. I finished the tea with another gulp and then braved a look up at the man kneeling next to me. His expression was, as always, completely unreadable. He was watching me, his amber eyes glittering like the semi-precious gemstones they so strongly resembled. "Well?"

"It's better," I murmured. He nodded as he took the empty cup from me and rose to return to the table.

"How is your hand?" he asked as he knelt at the table.

"Hurts like a bitch," I returned.

"If you fight again before it heals, you will cripple it," he said.

"And why in Hell do you care?" I shot back, irritated at his statement of the obvious. He didn't answer me. Rather, his amber gaze pinned me into place for several moments before he looked away and refilled my empty cup. I gave a frustrated sigh and slowly got to my feet. My head still pounded, but whatever was in the tea he had given me kept my stomach from rebelling this time. "I'm not going to take this," I hissed at him. "I'm leaving. Kenshin and Kaoru probably wonder where I am."

"They know where you are," came the smooth reply. That gave me pause, and I slowly looked up at him. Again, his features betrayed nothing, but he met and held my gaze. "I sent word to the dojo earlier this morning. He's already come and gone, while you were sleeping."

"What?" The word fell out of my mouth before I could stop it, and I was feeling confused again. Why would Kenshin leave me here, with a man that had once been his most tenacious adversary? "You lie," I finally managed, but my voice sounded unconvinced, even in my own ears. "He wouldn't leave me here... Not with you." Saitou made a sound that might have been a laugh, but I wasn't sure. His amber eyes were suddenly dancing with what I was sure was amusement.

"It would appear that he has," Saitou said, and he was definitely amused. I could hear it in his voice.

"And why in the hell would he do that?" I yelled.

"Because he's obviously not as clueless as you, ahou!" he said, his tone still amused.

"What in Hell is that supposed to mean?" I hissed back.

"Calm down." He hadn't really raised his voice, but there was an intensity to the command that seemed to penetrate my irritation, and I snapped my mouth shut and just glared at him. What was it about this man that made me want him and hate him all at the same time? It was infuriating, and frustrating, to be around him! He returned my glare with a calm, level gaze. "You are in no condition to be moved at this time. Even the Battousai can understand that. You need rest, Rooster."

"I can rest at my own home," I hissed back.

"Oh? Last I knew, you had been evicted from your rat-infested home," he returned, his eyebrow arching in that infuriating way it always did. "And I'd send you back to the dojo, but I don't think it would be very conducive to resting-- a point that Himura-san brought up himself. The little girls wouldn't leave you alone, and I hardly think you need to be badgered to death by the Tanuki girl. Leaving you here was the most logical solution." I wanted to be angry at him. I wanted to be angry with him for somehow knowing that I had lost my apartment. I had been trying to clean up my act, and because of it, hadn't been gambling much. I'd been working at the docks, but the pay wasn't much, and I was already too far behind on my rent as it was. I had been evicted two days before the incident at the bar. And he had known that. I felt confused, yet again. How had he known that? It would imply that he had an interest in me and my existence, and it went against everything I believed of him. What was he thinking? What did he expect in return? Suddenly, I was no longer annoyed with him.

I was afraid.

"What do you want?" I whispered, my voice barely audible in the airy room. His expression betrayed a moment of surprise, and then that smirk I hated so very much curled the corner of his lips.

"What makes you think I want anything, Rooster?" he returned.

"You're being nice," I answered, my voice a little stronger. "Well, as nice as a bastard like you can be, anyway." I couldn't resist the dig. I was feeling off center and I wanted the sudden uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach to go away. He just stared at me for a moment, his features set in stone, and I found myself thinking that he was handsome in spite of myself. He was, at the moment, dressed in a dark blue gi and hakama, and it made him seem more the old-world samurai I knew he was. It suited him far better than the police uniform I was used to seeing him in.

"You figure it out," he finally replied, still smirking. "You've got several days. I'm not letting you leave here. Not until I'm sure the concussion has healed, and that is final, Sagara." His tone told me that he meant it.

"What's going to stop me from leaving here when you go to work?" I asked, my eyes narrowed. He chuckled.

"Well, then, it's most fortuitous that I've just started a month's vacation, isn't it?" The words were spoke blandly, but his expression just dared me to continue arguing with him. I swallowed hard at the realization that I was not going to win this battle. I couldn't deny that I was suffering from a concussion, and I knew that I really wouldn't be able to remain standing long enough to actually leave the place. And I turned my head away to hide the fact that I was struggling against sudden frustrated tears pricking my eyes.

"Fine," I managed after a moment. "But don't expect me to fucking like this," I hissed.

"Of course not," Saitou returned, his tone mocking.

"Fuck you," I hissed. I couldn't stand any longer, and I sank back down to the futon, my tired muscles trembling with the effort to keep me from just falling. I closed my eyes, and almost immediately felt sleep pulling at me. I heard him move again, and a moment later felt the covers being drawn up and over me. The warmth permeated my battered body, and I found myself drifting off to sleep.

It was late when I next woke. The sun was long gone, and the room was lit by a few lamps, one of which was on the low table Saitou was still seated at. The doors had been closed against the chill night air, and the room's temperature was comfortable. Outside of evenings spent at the Kamiya dojo, I couldn't remember the last time I had stayed any place as comfortable as this. I sat up slowly, expecting a bought of nausea at any moment, but much to my surprise, it never came.

"You're awake." His voice was soft in the dimly lit room, and he never looked up from the table top. He had parchment spread out before him, and was writing with a small brush. He would stop occasionally to re-wet the bristles on an ink stone before continuing. I imagined that his calligraphy was perfect and precise. I was curious enough about it that I actually found myself cautiously rising from the futon. I had to pause for a moment as my vision swam dangerously, and the nausea I thought I had avoided was suddenly upon me. It was all I could do to avoid being sick right there. He said nothing, just continued to write. I stood there for several moments before I regained enough of my equilibrium to slowly shuffle to the table. There was a second cushion directly opposite him, and I slowly lowered myself into a cross-legged position.

"Do you have more of that tea?" His hand paused in its motion, and he looked up from the parchment.

"Keiko." He spoke the word loudly, and after a moment I heard the soft sound of feet on the porch outside the room, and the door slid open to reveal a woman. She was easily old enough to be my mother, if not more so--her hair streaked with silver at her temples and crows feet at the corners of her dark eyes. She bowed once before lifting her dark eyes to give Saitou a questioning look. "Bring more of the herbal for Sagara-san. And vegetable broth."

"Hai." Her voice was soft as she responded, and she bowed again before sliding the door shut and padding away. Saitou turned back to his work, his eyes never once looking my direction. I turned my attention to the parchment, and found that I had been right--his calligraphy was perfect. I would have went so far as to call it beautiful. He made it look easy.

"What are you doing?" I found myself asking.

"Issuing warrants for your assailants' arrests." I felt my eyes go wide.

"Why?" I breathed. He paused in his writing and looked up at me with his narrow amber eyes.

"Should I let rapists go free, then?" he asked, his voice soft and yet intense. I snapped my mouth shut and shook my head once. He looked away and resumed writing. Keiko returned a moment later with a tray laden with tea and a bowl of broth, and she placed it before me.

"Thank you," I murmured, and she gave me a slight smile as she bowed.

"Would you like anything else, Saitou-san?" she asked. Saitou looked up from his work, and my breath hitched slightly as a small but genuine smile crossed his features.

"Iie, Keiko. Arigatou. You may retire now, if you wish," Saitou said. She bowed low before leaving us again. The smile disappeared almost as quickly as it had come, and I actually frowned. It had been a nice smile, and it had completely transformed his usually stoic features into something far more attractive. My frown deepened as I realized the direction my thoughts were going. This is beyond stupid, I thought to myself. He despises you. I don't even understand why he's agreed to keep me here! "Are you going to drink the tea?" I blinked once, aware that I had been staring at him for the past few seconds, and hoped that the dimness of the room hid the fact that I was now blushing. I hastily reached out and picked up a steaming cup and drank half of the liquid immediately.

"Will I have to testify, once they are arrested?" I asked after a moment. I placed the cup back on the tray and picked up a spoon and sighed before I lifted a spoonful of the broth to my lips. It was a little bland, but I didn't have an immediate urge to throw it back up, either. I took another spoonful.

"It is my hope that you will not have to," he replied after a moment. He glanced up at me. "Do you want to?" I think that my skin must have paled slightly, for he set the brush aside and turned his full attention on me.

"No," I finally managed, and my voice was barely a whisper in my own ears. How could he even think that I would want to relive that moment? How could he even think that I would want to tell a room full of strangers just how very close I had come to the ultimate humiliation?

"I thought not," he said, and his voice was very quiet. "You still have not told me why you were fighting with them. I had thought that after the last verbal lashing you received from the fox-lady that you would have avoided such things. Or do you wish to be crippled?"

"They were going to beat a kid," I whispered without thinking.

"So ka?" He fished a cigarette from the folds of his gi and found a match to light it with. He inhaled deeply before he blew the smoke towards the ceiling. I looked away from his piercing gaze and concentrated on the bowl of broth before me. I clenched my good fist in my lap.

"I hate an unfair fight," I hissed. "Even if the kid was asking for it, they shouldn't have jumped him like that."

"Thugs very rarely fight with honor, Sanosuke. Surely you know that?" I looked up slowly and met his amber gaze. It was the first time I could ever remember him saying my name without contempt or mockery.

"I'm glad I did it," I found myself saying, my voice defiant. He made an amused sound before he shook his head slightly.

"Only you would say that," he said with a chuckle.

"What's that supposed to mean?" My irritation was more than obvious in my voice.

"Don't get your feathers in a ruffle, Rooster," he snapped. I closed my mouth and stared down at my bowl again. I could feel the weight of his stare on my bowed head, and after a moment he spoke again. "Always so quick to anger, aren't you? You think you've got it all figured out, don't you? You know nothing, Rooster." For some reason the sharply spoken words cut to the quick, and I kept my head bowed. I didn't want him to see how deeply his speech had affected me. I didn't want him to see that I was suddenly fighting uncharacteristic tears. I had somehow disappointed him again. And as I had the thought, I found myself wondering again just why it was I cared. I heard him get up from where he was seated, and the rice paper doors were slid open. I looked up as he stepped out onto the porch.

"Where are you going?" I asked, my voice carrying far too much of my unshed tears for my liking.

"Nowhere," he replied, his tone still clipped. I looked back down at the broth and made myself eat more of it. He stood on the porch until I was almost finished, his form a shadow in the darkness of the night. He finished his cigarette, and came back into the room, the door sliding shut behind him.

"Whatever it is I have done to anger you, I am sorry," I whispered, surprising myself.

"As am I," he returned, his voice more gentle that I would have ever thought possible. "You just infuriate me so, Sanosuke Sagara." I looked up sharply at him, and he was staring at me with an odd expression in his eyes. He stared at me for several moments before he just shook his head. "Finish your tea and go back to bed." His tone was cool again, and I wondered if his earlier tone had just been a figment of my imagination.

"Bossy bastard," I muttered, but did as I was told. His only answer was a smirk.

I slept for most of the two following days. Sleep was the only way I could escape the pain in my hand, and it was a constant, nagging thing. Saitou and I talked very little, and for the time being, I liked it that way. If we weren't talking, he wasn't insulting me, and I could at least pretend that he liked me.

I tried to walk out on my third day, but Saitou stopped me with a solid punch to my right shoulder. I went down far too easily, and he didn't even have to say anything to me. I crawled back to the futon I had been using. If a simple punch had laid me out, I was far from one hundred percent. He wasn't going to let me leave yet, and after that, I decided that I'd let him tell me when I could go. The punch had hurt, and I wasn't stupid enough to think that he wouldn't do it again.

"You're bored." He spoke the words to me as we were sharing mid day meal. I had been five days in the care of his household now, and now knew both servants' names-- there was Keiko and her husband, Makoto. I had learned that the old couple had actually been in the service of Saitou's family for many years, and when most of Saitou's family had been lost during the Revolution, they had followed him to Tokyo. It made me stop and think about the man for quite some time. If this kind old couple had willingly stayed with Saitou, what did it say about his character?

"Yeah," I admitted, turning my attention back to the man sitting across the table from me. He nodded once as he chewed a mouthful of soba.

"Besides gambling, have you any hobbies?" My eyes narrowed at the thinly veiled jibe, but I let it go.

"No." I resisted the urge to explain to the arrogant bastard that gambling wasn't a hobby-- it was survival for me. He made an impatient sound.

"There's nothing?" he sounded doubtful.

"Sorry to disappoint you," I snapped. "I've not had a lot of time to do much of anything but survive." His amber eyes narrowed slightly at my outburst, but he didn't comment. After a moment he gave a disgusted snort.

"When you think of something you might like to do to pass the time, let me know." He finished his food and stood from the table and stepped out onto the porch. "I'll be in the garden when you figure it out." He disappeared from the porch. I stared down at my plate for some time before I heard the familiar sound of steel cutting through air. Curiosity got the better of me, and I got up and went to stand in the doorway.

"I think I found something to pass the time," I murmured to myself as I crossed the porch and sat on the top stair. He was stunning to watch, really. Each movement he made as he ran through the katas was precise and graceful, and I could see the muscles rippling in the cords of his neck and arms as he maneuvered the sword through the air. I watched him for some time before his motions slowed, and he sheathed his sword before turning to look at me.

"Enjoying yourself?" I felt my cheeks heat with an unmistakable blush. His lips curled in a small smirk as he crossed the space between us. He paused at the bottom of the stairs and looked up at me, and I managed a shrug that I hoped came off as indifferent. If he noticed the blush, he didn't say so, and for that I was extremely grateful. I didn't feel like explaining it to him. He smirked again and looked up at the sky before looking at me again. "You should stay out here for a while. The sun will do you some good." He climbed the stairs and brushed by me, so close that I could feel the warmth of him. I shivered at the sensation, and he paused to look down at me. "Are you cold, Rooster?"

"I'm fine," I snapped, the words coming harsher than I had intended them to. He just arched an eyebrow before continuing on to his own private room. I sat there and stared down at the garden, trying to figure out just exactly what it was that had made me shiver like that. I was coming up with answers that I didn't like, answers that made me hope for things that couldn't possibly be.

It was by complete accident that I discovered something that interested me. It happened right after breakfast the following morning, and Saitou had gone out to run errands. I was sitting on the porch stairs again, soaking up the morning sun when I noticed Keiko kneeling beneath a tree in the garden, a sheaf of papers in her lap. I watched her for quite some time before I realized she was sketching something. My curiosity got the better of me, and I quietly joined her beneath the tree. She was using charcoal to sketch the irises in the bed along the gate, and it was a beautiful drawing. She looked up as I knelt next to me and offered me a small smile.

"It's very nice, Keiko-san," I said, smiling back at her.

"Arigatou," she said, beaming happily under my praise. She pulled a sheet of paper from her pile and handed to me. "Would you like to try, Sagara-san?" I looked at her like she was completely nuts, and she laughed.

"My sentiments exactly," I said with a wry smile. "I don't think I can."

"Have you ever tried?" Her eyes were dancing with mischief as she pressed the paper into my hands. She handed me a piece of charcoal. "You should try. It doesn't have to be perfect, Sano-chan. But it's a good way to pass the time." I gave her a doubtful look, but I settled next to her in the grass and lay the stiff parchment in my lap. She silently returned to her own sketch, and my eyes wandered the garden looking for something I thought I might be able to draw. I decided to try the irises. It was difficult to hold the charcoal properly with my injured hand, but I managed somehow, and it didn't hurt too badly. It was sometime later that a shadow fell over my paper, and I looked up sharply to find Saitou standing over us, his golden eyes on my drawing. I felt a blush warm my cheeks as he scrutinized the sketch. It was terrible, and while it looked vaguely like the flowers blooming in the garden, it wasn't anywhere near as good as Keiko's.

"Interesting," he said after a moment, his tone thoughtful. Keiko had quietly excused herself the moment Saitou had appeared, and I looked back down at the drawing.

"It sucks," I said. "It was stupid for me to even try." I moved to crumple the paper, but his hand was suddenly on my wrist and he was crouching next to me.

"No, actually," he said, and he met my gaze with his own. "It has potential, really."

"No," I denied, shaking my hand once. I was acutely aware of his hand on the flesh of my wrist, the warmth of it seeming to seep in and up my arm. His eyes glanced down at the drawing again before he looked back up at me.

"Have you ever drawn before?" He asked me. I shook my head.

"Ahou. Do you think that Kenshin or I learned our sword art in a day?" he asked softly. My eyes grew wide as he asked the question. "Don't underestimate yourself, Rooster. Art is no different than sword play," he said. "It takes practice." He released my arm and rose and walked back to the house, leaving me kneeling there, in the midst of deep purple irises, to think on his words.

When I woke the next morning, Saitou was not there.

"Saitou-sama regrets that he was called to duty this morning," Keiko said as she served me breakfast. "It was a matter that could not wait for his attention. He respectfully asks that you remain here until he returns." I snorted. I somehow thought that Keiko had added the 'respectfully' on her own. She looked up at me expectantly and I gave her a smile.

"Well, if he's asking so nicely, I suppose it would be rude of me to decline," I said. She hid a smile behind her hand, and then lay a wooden box on the table, followed by a tablet of drawing paper. My brows drew together in confusion.

"Open the box," Keiko said, still hiding her smile. I did, and found it filled with charcoal sticks. "Saitou-sama bought them for you." I felt a sudden wash of emotion, and felt a suspicious sting in my eyes.

"It's too much," I said, and I closed the box and pressed it back into her hands. She shook her head and forced me to keep it, her tiny hands closing mine over the box.

"He said to practice," Keiko said softly. She smiled again before bowing and slipping out of the room. I ate my breakfast in silence, my eyes ever glancing at the paper and the small wooden box that rest atop it. I was more confused than ever. Paper was not cheap, and the charcoal looked to have been imported from England. It was an expensive gift, and I felt slightly overwhelmed that Saitou had bought it for me. I seriously considered not using any of it, but a few hours later, after sitting on the porch steps and gazing out at the garden, I went back to my room and retrieved the paper and charcoal. It didn't take me long to find a shady spot, and after one last moment of hesitation, I opened the box, picked out a piece of charcoal and started to draw.

I was in the same exact spot when Saitou reappeared three days later. I looked up from my sketching to find him standing on the top step of the porch, his gaze thoughtful as he looked across the garden at me. He looked tired, even from where I was, and I found myself wondering just exactly where he had been. What task had the government set him to this time? He nodded in my direction before turning and disappearing inside the house. I gazed at the empty spot where he had been for some time before I realized I wanted to hear his voice. I quickly gathered up my drawings and supplies and went in search of him.

I found him sitting at the low table in the room I'd been sleeping in for nearly two weeks now, sipping at tea and gazing out the open doors at the garden. He glanced at me as I joined him at the table and set my things on the flat surface. After a moment he put his tea cup down and reached out and pulled the tablet across the table. He opened the cover and started to flip through the drawings, and there were a lot of them now. I had used up two thirds of the pad already. He paused at one drawing, his gaze lingering for some time before he looked up at me. He lifted it from the book, and I could see that it was the one I had done of a bird in the magnolia tree. I was especially proud of that one-- it was my best yet.

"You've been busy," he murmured, his eyes going back to the drawing. "This is much better than your first."

"I've been practicing," I returned. He smirked then, and for the first time that I could remember, it didn't bother me. He carefully lay the drawing down on the table before he started to look through the rest.

"I can see that," he said after a moment. "And it's paying off, Rooster." He looked up at me again. "Beautifully." Something in the way he spoke the word made me go utterly still. His golden eyes were glittering with an emotion I couldn't name, and the intensity of that gaze suddenly frightened me. I looked away and down at the table top. He turned his attention back to the tablet of paper, and damn if he didn't look at every single drawing there. He picked out two others and set them atop the picture of the bird before closing the tablet and sliding it towards me. He picked up the three he had selected. "May I have these?" My head shot up so fast that he actually started, and it would have been funny had I not been so utterly shocked at his request. I blinked at him a few times before I finally answered.

"I... I guess," I finally managed. He nodded as he stood. He tucked the paper under his arm and gave me what I thought was a rather forced smile.

"I'm retiring for the night," he said. "I will see you in the morning, Sanosuke." I followed him onto the porch, and watched until he disappeared into his own room.

"He is tired." Keiko's voice interrupted the sudden silence, and I looked down to find the woman standing at my elbow. "He works far too hard. He should have told them to find someone else." She sounded annoyed. It was the first time I had ever observed a negative emotion in the woman.

"He's like that a lot?" I asked, my eyes going back to the rice paper door that separated his room from the porch. Keiko nodded brusquely.

"Hai. He's always been like that," she said. "But..." Her voice trailed off, and he looked back down at her. "Forgive me for saying so, Sagara-san, but he's seemed so much happier since you've come." I stared at her, stunned, for several moments before I could find my voice again.

"That's ridiculous," I said, my voice barely a whisper. "He hates me, Keiko-san!" The expression on her face turned incredulous before she schooled it back into neutrality. She shook her head and hid a smirk behind her hand.

"You are clueless," she said, and before I could ask her what she meant, she was gone into the kitchen.

I continued to draw. I was obsessed with it now. I finally had found something other than fighting that I was potentially good at, and I let my new found passion consume me. A new tablet of paper appeared on my pillow the evening after Saitou had returned, and with it came watercolors and a pair of sable brushes. I stared at the latter two, overwhelmed, for quite some time. I turned my head to find him gazing intently at me from where he sat at the table, and his jeweled eyes held a challenge. Can you do better? those eyes seemed to ask me.

And damn if I didn't want to try.

I lost track of the days after that. At one point I had a fleeting thought that I might be well enough to stop imposing on Saitou's hospitality, but it was at the back of my mind. I was too wrapped up with my drawing. I experimented with the watercolors for a whole afternoon before I finally figured out how to best use them. The first few paintings I did were terrible, and even Saitou did not object when I burned them. But his eyes still held the challenge as he watched me work. Can you do better? Can you make something of this, Rooster?

I think it was a whole week later when I produced what I thought was a decent painting. It was the irises again, and this time I had reproduced them in color instead of black charcoal. Keiko gave a delighted cry when she first saw the painting, and that, of course, brought Saitou out of his room. He studied the painting for some time, and when he finally looked up at me, my heart all but stopped. Approval. There was blatant approval in his expression. His amber eyes all but glowed with it, and I found myself getting lost in them.

"Leave it to dry," he said after a moment. I blinked and felt as if I was waking from a dream. He lifted a hand and crooked a finger at me. "Come, Sanosuke. We have things we must discuss." His usual aloofness was gone, and his eyes were still warm as we sat at the table in my room. "The painting--it is good."

"It's all right," I said with a shrug. He smirked and shook his head.

"It's good," he repeated. "But that's not what I wanted to speak to you about. You've healed well," he said. I swallowed hard as he spoke the words. It was time for him to send me on my way. I had known that this speech was coming soon, but for some reason, I dreaded hearing it.

"When do you want me gone?" I asked, and my voice came out choked.

"It depends," he said. "Do you want to go, Sanosuke?" I looked up sharply as he asked the question. I couldn't answer him. I was too afraid of what he might think, and I was too afraid of what I was feeling at that moment. He waited for my answer for several minutes before he gave a slight smirk. "It's a simple question, really. It only requires a simple yes or no answer."

"No." I barely whispered the word, but I know he heard me. If it were at all possible, his amber eyes seemed to glow even more warmly as I spoke the word.

"Then stay." He shrugged as he spoke the words. "This house is far too large for just one person, anyway." I opened my mouth to protest, but he cut me off with a glare. It was the kind of glare I knew better than to cross, so I shut my mouth. He pulled out a cigarette and lit it before continuing. "I went to the docks today, and spoke with the foreman. You still have a job there, if you want. I expect you to help cover the costs of meals while you are here, so I suggest you take it, Rooster. No one that lives under my roof is allowed to gamble."

"I'll go there tomorrow," I found myself replying. He nodded, the approval in his eyes again. It was addictive, that expression in his eyes, and I found myself wanting to do whatever I could to keep it there. He gazed at me for several more minutes before he spoke again.

"Don't stop painting, Rooster," he said. "You will only improve with more practice." He didn't wait for a reply. He stood from the table and slipped from the room. I stared after him for some time before I wandered back out to the garden to start another painting.

It was three days later when Kenshin came calling. To be honest, I was surprised that he hadn't come before now. I was, after all, living under the roof of his once enemy. He was led into the garden by Keiko, as Saitou was gone on another assignment. It was late afternoon, and I had just finished bathing to wash the grime of another day's work from my body. I was settling in to do some sketching when he arrived. I had to smile at the dumbfounded look he had as he gazed around at the colorful garden. Had I looked the same my first day here? His eyes lit up when he spotted me, and he gave Keiko a bow before he settled himself in the grass across from me.

"Sano-kun, you look well, that you do," he greeted. His eyes went to the tablet in my lap, and he looked back up at me. "Have you become an artist, de gozaru?"

"Kind of," I admitted, blushing slightly. "It passed the time when I was healing." I pulled a few loose pages from the back of the book and handed them to him. He looked down at the sketches, his eyes going momentarily wide before he looked back up at me.

"Sano, they are beautiful," he whispered before handing them back to me. I gave a nervous laugh as I put them back in the tablet. I never did take compliments well. He looked around at the garden. "And so many beautiful things to sketch!"

"Yeah. It kind of surprised me, too, this place. I hadn't thought that Saitou would have someplace like this," I admitted. I shook my head. "I've been surprised by a lot of things here." Kenshin's expression turned thoughtful as he gazed at me.

"You are staying, then?" he asked, and I nodded my head. He seemed to consider that for a moment before he gave me a sunny smile and nodded.

"You're not upset?" I found myself asking. He laughed as he shook his head.

"No, Sano-kun, I am not. This is not the Revolution, de gozaru. I do not expect you to hold my grudges," Kenshin said. "Besides, I'm not even sure I hold it any longer. Why should you?" I didn't have an answer for that.

It didn't occur to me until after he was gone that Kenshin had never once asked if Saitou had treated me well. I spent the rest of the evening wondering why.

A week later I returned from the docks to find craftsmen in the house, and they were replacing the doors on Saitou's room. The ex-Shinsengumi was watching with keen amber eyes as he smoked a cigarette, and when the door was installed and the men had left, I found myself the object of that gaze. My eyes went to the new doors for a moment before I met that gaze again.

"They're blank," I said, frowning. Every door in the house was decorated with beautiful paintings, but the new door was nothing but blank paper. His gaze became so intense that I actually had to restrain myself from fidgeting under its weight. He took a final pull on the cigarette he was working on before he flicked it into the dirt at his feet.

"So they are," he agreed. "I'm leaving town for two weeks."

"So long?" The question was out of my mouth before I could stop it, and I snapped my mouth shut when he arched an eyebrow. What on earth had possessed me to say such a thing?

"I'm needed in Kyoto for a while," he continued after a moment.

"The last time you were needed in Kyoto, you almost died." Again, I didn't know where the words were coming from, but I was having a hard time controlling them. He paused and looked at me with narrowed eyes before he just shook his head and continued.

"I assure you, Rooster, I will be back in two weeks," Saitou said, his tone of voice telling me that I had somehow amused him. He glanced at the new door before meeting my gaze with his own. I swallowed at the challenge I saw there. "As for the door... Do something about it while I'm gone."

"You're kidding." He arched an eyebrow. "You're not kidding!" I exclaimed.

"You can do it," he said with a shrug, and his eyes challenged me to disagree with him. He smirked as he turned and opened the blank door. "Two weeks Rooster. It should be more than enough time." And with that, he stepped into his room and shut the door behind him.

I agonized for three days afterwards. Saitou had been gone for two days already and I still had no clue what I was going to paint on that door. And in the end, it was a dream that saved me.

I dreamt that I was deep in the forest, running, and that there were wolves after me. I could hear their panting breath as I ran from them, see their eyes in the darkness around me. I was terrified, and I knew they were gaining on me. I tripped and fell, twisting over onto my back. They were materializing out of the forest as I propped myself up on my elbows. I was too tired to run any more, and had resigned myself to being torn apart by the pack when I heard his voice.

Stop. It sounded much as it had the day he had saved me in the bar, and much to my dream self's surprise, the wolves obeyed him. I sat up and twisted my head around to see him, but all I found was a large gray wolf sitting only three feet from me. But the eyes... I knew the eyes. They belonged to Saitou. I woke from the dream with a gasping breath, confused at the meaning, but knew suddenly what I would paint on the new door.

I started the next evening, and worked on it diligently every night afterward. Keiko had to force me to stop long enough to eat several times. I don't think I would have, otherwise. I finished it two days before Saitou was due back from Kyoto, and after making the final brush stroke, I stood and stepped back, and my breath caught as I gazed at what I had created.

"Sanosuke!" It was Kenshin, his voice soft with awe, and I turned to find him standing at my elbow. Keiko must have let him in, and I had been too engrossed in finishing the door to hear his knock at the gate. He stepped forward and sank to his knees in front of the picture, his eyes drinking in the details of the moonlit landscape and the yellow eyes staring out from the gray wolf's face. I couldn't tear my eyes from it, either. It had been insanely easy for me to paint, the image seemingly there before I had even started it. My whole heart and soul had gone into that painting, and as I gazed at the yellow eyes staring back at me from the rice paper, I realized the truth. I sank to my knees, and I couldn't quite stop the sudden trembling that had started in my limbs.

"Kenshin?" I whispered his name, and I think I sounded as terrified as I suddenly felt. He turned to look at me, and I saw understanding in his eyes, and he gave me a gentle smile.

"You love him," Kenshin whispered. I swallowed hard as I gave him a nod. I wasn't entirely sure my voice would work any more.

"He... Gods. I've been such an idiot," I finally whispered. "It's been there, the whole time, staring me right in the face. I should have realized when you didn't come to get me. I asked him about it, you know? And he told me that you weren't as clueless as I was. I didn't understand it then, but gods, I get it now." I paused and swallowed hard. Kenshin reached out to catch my tears with slender fingers. "He doesn't hate me," I finally managed to whisper. Kenshin smiled and shook his head.

"No, Sanosuke. He never has," Kenshin replied. He turned his head to look at the painting again. "It's so perfect," Kenshin whispered after he admired it for a few more minutes. "If he doesn't know your feelings already, he will when he sees this, Sanosuke."

"I know it," I whispered back. I took a deep, shaking breath. "Kenshin, this is scary." He laughed then, and placed a palm against my cheek in a soothing gesture.

"Love always is."

The day of Saitou's return dawned, and I found myself sorely distracted at the docks. I found myself wondering if he would like the finished product. I found myself wondering if he really would understand, just by looking at that painting, that I loved him. Kenshin had seemed sure that he would, and I hoped that he would, for I wasn't entirely sure I would have the courage to say the words otherwise.

I ran home after work, and was met at the gate by Keiko. She smiled up at me, her eyes twinkling.

"Is he..."

"He's here," she interrupted. "But only just arrived. You've got time to take a quick bath. He hasn't even seen the door yet." She smiled warmly at me as she placed a clean folded yukata in my hands. "Makoto's already heated up the water, and there are fresh towels on the shelves. Hurry, Sanosuke."

The sky was starting to darken when I emerged from the bath-house, my lanky form wrapped in the same dark-red yukata I had worn my first night there, and I walked back to the house proper with my heart in my mouth. I went to my room, expecting to find him at the table there, but Keiko met me and pointed further down the porch. He was there, waiting. He was kneeling just outside his closed door, his amber eyes gazing intently at the wolf painted there. It was dark enough that the lamp in his bedroom illuminated the painting from behind, and the wolf's eyes seemed to glow in the darkening night.

"Go on," Keiko whispered, her small hands giving me a gentle shove in his direction. I went, my bare feet almost soundless on the floorboards, and I paused a small distance from him. I knew he knew I was there, and I worried my bottom lip between my teeth and waited for him to speak. It was a long time coming, but he finally tore his eyes away from the sliding door and looked up at me.

"I'm not clueless anymore," I suddenly blurted, and I felt a blush warm my cheeks.

"So ka?" He held out his hand, and after a moment's hesitation, I stepped forward and placed my own in his strong grasp and let him pull me down. I knelt next to him and finally found enough courage to look him directly in the eye.

"What do you think of the painting?" I whispered.

"I think it is perfect," Saitou murmured, his eyes never leaving mine. He reached up with his free hand and pushed my damp bangs from my eyes before he placed the palm against my cheek. I swallowed hard as his thumb gently traced my lower lip. "Sano?"

"H-h-hai?" I couldn't tear my gaze from his amber eyes, even though I felt as if I was suddenly drowning in them. I felt his grip tighten slightly around the hand he was holding, as if he were afraid I would bolt. I returned the squeeze, willing him to understand that running was not an option, for either of us.

"I'm going to kiss you," he whispered as he leaned closer.

"H-h-hai," I whispered. The hand against my cheek slid lower and behind to entangle fingers in the hair at the nape of my neck before it pulled me forward. My eyes slid closed as our lips met, the softest touch of skin on skin before he backed away and looked me in the eyes again. That simple, chaste kiss left me completely breathless, and I knew that my face was flushed now. He smiled at me, a very slight thing, but it was there.

"It's beautiful," he whispered as he turned his gaze back to the painting. I felt his hand tighten around mine again. "I knew you could do it, Rooster."

"Saitou..." I was silenced by fingers on my lips. I was irritated by it. I wanted to tell him how I felt. I didn't want any misunderstandings, and I wanted him to hear it from me. I wanted to be certain that he understood what that painting meant. He must have seen it in my expression, for he smirked slightly.

"Let me go first," he whispered. "There are things you need to understand Sanosuke." I nodded. He moved his fingers from my lips and traced the contours of my cheek before he let his hand drop to where my injured hand lay in my lap. He carefully covered it with his own before he captured my gaze and held it with his own. "First of all, you must understand that life with me will not be unlike Kaoru's life with Kenshin. There will always be that chance that a past enemy will come looking for me. It will be an ever lurking shadow that I must constantly be ready for." I nodded. I had known that. It was something that I had thought about before.

"Okay," I whispered, just so that there would be no doubt that I understood what he was saying.

"Secondly, despite what you might think, I have always admired you," he continued, his voice still a soft whisper. My breath caught as he spoke the words, and then my eyes narrowed slightly.

"You've a funny way of showing it," I said, and I probably sounded as annoyed as I felt. He smirked slightly.

"And you've a funny way of annoying the hell out of me," he returned, arching an eyebrow. "And it's usually when you take unnecessary risks with your life that I become most annoyed." His hand tightened slightly over my injured hand, not enough to cause any real pain, but enough to remind me that just a scant month ago I had acted rather stupidly. I swallowed hard as the smirk disappeared from his features and was replaced with a more serious expression.

"I thought you hated me," I finally managed. "It always seemed as if you thought I was beneath you."

"No," Saitou whispered, and he gave me a wry smile. "I am not a man of words, Rooster. Expressing my emotions with speech has never been easy for me. I allow my actions to speak for me." I felt my own brows arch as he said the words, and I smirked.

"If that's the case, I'd say you're very cranky," I drawled. He let a puff of laughter escape him before he shook his head.

"I never claimed to be easy to get along with," Saitou said, his expression serious again. He released my injured hand and carded his fingers through my still damp hair. "But you..." He paused and leaned forward to place his lips against my forehead. I leaned into the touch, my eyes closed. "You are the reason I did not let Shishio's flames claim me." I started to tremble then, for I was beginning to understand just how wrong I had been about Saitou and his feelings towards me.

"Saitou-sama?" We looked up to find Keiko standing just outside his room, her hands carrying a tray laden with food and tea. "Where will you take dinner this evening?" Saitou, his hand still holding mine, nodded towards the wolf door.

"My room this evening, Keiko-san." It was a turning point. I had never seen the inside of Saitou's room--I had never opened the door the whole time I was painting it. I was many things, but I was not disrespectful of a persons privacy. In the entire time I had been there, the thought of peeking into the man's room had never even crossed my mind. And before now, he had never invited me.

"Of course," she answered, and her eyes were dancing. "Shall I bring sake later?" She asked the question as she set the tray beside the door and carefully slid it open. Saitou gave me a questioning look, and I shook my head. Oh, and if I wanted to see approval in those eyes, I received it then.

"No," Saitou said out loud. "The tea is enough, Keiko. You may leave the food on the table and go. We will not need your services again this evening." She carried the tray into the room and placed it on a black lacquered table before bowing deeply to both of us and slipping away to the kitchen. Saitou stood and tugged me to my feet with my good hand. He had never let it go, and he continued to hold it as he led me from the porch and into his room. I paused on the threshold, my eyes taking in the black-lacquered table and matching book-shelves, the large futon in the far corner covered with a thick quilt. My eyes lingered on the quilt for a moment before I was able to make out an intricate design repeated in the pattern.

"Your family crest?" I whispered, looking up at him. He nodded. I went back to looking at the room, and gasped when my eyes found the back wall. There were three sketches hanging there, perfectly and professionally framed in black lacquer wood.

And they were mine.

"I like them there," he said softly, and I felt him tugging me further into the room. "Sit," Saitou commanded. I did so, my eyes blinking against the stinging I felt there. My sketches. He had framed my sketches like they were priceless works of art. I was overwhelmed and speechless and very aware that I was dangerously close to shedding tears. I looked up when he chuckled slightly, and he was looking over the tray of food Keiko had left. "She's out done herself," he murmured. I looked down and found that he was right. Keiko must have realized that the evening was going to be special, and she had cooked accordingly. There was sushi, and miso, and teriyaki steak accompanied by mounds of fresh steaming rice.

"It all looks good," I commented, my voice finally returning to me. He nodded as he handed me a pair of chopsticks.

"Eat, Rooster." I did as he told me to do. We said very little as we ate, and for the first time I could remember, the silence between us did not bother me. I am a man of action, Rooster. The words came back to me, and I realized the truth of them. He was not conversing with me, but he had kissed me, and I was eating dinner, in his room-- a place that I knew Saitou held as sacred. And he had invited me there.

We took our time eating, and it was a good hour later before I finally lay my chopsticks on the table and finished my last cup of tea. Saitou had already finished, and I could feel the weight of his stare. I looked up and met his amber gaze.

"You were going to tell me something earlier," he finally murmured. "Before I interrupted you." I nodded as I swallowed the sudden uncertainty I was feeling. Once I said it, there would be no going back. I swallowed hard again before I spoke.

"I love you." The words were barely a whisper, but he heard them, or rather, he most likely read my lips. He went utterly still, his eyes never leaving mine. "I don't want there to be any confusion on that point," I continued. And an honest-to god smile curled his lips. My breath hitched at the sight.

"Any confusion I might have felt on the matter was cleared up the instant I saw your painting," Saitou said, and his eyes were glowing with emotion. "But, it is nice to hear it from you." He shifted on the cushion he was kneeling on and then stood before producing a cigarette from somewhere and lighting it. He went to stand in the doorway as he smoked. I bowed my head and waited. I didn't expect him to say the words-- and I would have been suspicious had he uttered them immediately.

"Thank you for inviting me here," I said after a few moments of silence. I stood from the cushion I was kneeling on and turned towards the door. "Should I return to my room now?" He made an amused sound as he blew smoke towards the night sky.

"I'll skewer you if you leave now," he said, his voice holding no real threat. I don't know if it was nervousness that made me utter my next words, but I blushed hotly as I said them.

"I think you'll skewer me if I stay." He actually choked in surprise, and he turned his head to pin me with an amused amber gaze. After a moment he gave a soft chuckle and threw his cigarette into the dirt outside before sliding the door shut. It was all I could do to stand my ground as he crossed the distance between us, and he was suddenly so close that I could feel the heat from his body.

"Would you mind that?" he asked, and his voice had taken on a soft purring quality that made me shiver. I could only shake my head, as my voice seemed to have abandoned me yet again. I felt his hands frame my face, and I closed my eyes as he leaned forward to kiss me. This kiss was not chaste, and nor was it completely gentle. Possessive is what it was, and I responded almost instantly to it. I parted my lips with a gasp and moaned softly as his tongue twined with mine and he drank me in. He broke the kiss slowly, his lips lingering on mine before he pulled completely away. I felt his hands leave my face, and then his arms snaking around my waist to pull me closer to him. I opened my eyes to find his amber gaze smoldering down at me.

"Saitou?" Did I sound as frightened as I suddenly felt? There was an intensity in that gaze that I had never, ever seen before-- not even when he fought with Kenshin.

"Mine," he whispered. "Do you understand that, Sanosuke? You are mine, from this moment on. I will give you everything-- my heart, my soul, my very life if need be-- but in exchange, you are mine. I will settle for nothing less." I felt my whole being trembling as he spoke the words. I had known this was coming, for it was just the way he was, but to actually hear him speak the words was something else. To realize that he was offering me a real commitment rather than a flippant affair was humbling. I had never believed that anyone would think me worth so much. "Do you understand?"

"I understand," I finally managed. "And it suits me just fine, you old wolf."

"Just so we understand each other, Rooster," he purred, and then he was kissing me again.

In the past I had thought that the moment would be difficult for me, that he and I would struggle for dominance and that I wouldn't be able to give in. But I had been wrong about myself. I found that surrendering to Saitou was perhaps one of the easiest moments of my life.

"Relax," Saitou whispered into my ear, and I obeyed, sighing softly as his deft fingers made quick work of the tie at my waist. His lips moved over the pulse in my neck as he pulled the yukata open to expose my nudity to the dim lamp light. He sat back, then, and looked down at me with glowing amber eyes. My breath left me in a shuddering gasp as he lifted a hand to run fingers lightly over my chest, the tips grazing my nipples and sending sparks of pleasure straight to my groin.

"And how am I supposed to relax when you're doing things like that?" I managed to gasp. He chuckled softly as he leaned down and swirled his warm tongue around a nipple. "Oh, gods! Saitou!" His hands were warm against my skin as he mapped out the planes of my chest and abdomen, and every touch seemed to make my blood grow warmer.

"Kirei," he whispered against my skin, his lips at my navel now. I blushed hotly at the compliment, and he chuckled again.

"So happy I amuse you," I drawled. He didn't answer me. He would not be distracted from his goal. My breaths started to come quicker as he worked his way lower, and he paused to look up at me. His eyes seemed to glow in the lamp light, not unlike the wolf that now graced his door. His amber eyes narrowed slightly, and it was the only warning I had before he opened his mouth and slowly took my arousal in. I gasped as I felt his tongue trace the contours of the head, his movements slow and deliberate. His cheeks hollowed slightly as he applied suction and I closed my eyes as the pleasure nearly overwhelmed me. "Saitou!" He pulled away slowly, his tongue lapping at me one last time before he sat back on his heels and started to strip out of his clothing. I watched with rapt attention as he removed each article of clothing until he was completely undressed. He was all whipcord muscle and masculine grace, and I couldn't quite stop the moan that left me as he knelt between my knees. My cock ached painfully now, and I felt myself grow even harder at the sight of his own arousal standing at attention.

"Are you ready, Sano?" He whispered the words as he plucked a vial from the surface of the small table next to the futon. He opened it, and the subtle scent of sandalwood filled the air as he poured oil over his fingers. I could only nod. He set the vial aside and lifted one of my legs up to rest on his shoulder while his oiled fingers searched for and found my tight opening. I felt the digit circle the muscle once, twice and then a third time before the tip sunk inside. "Relax," he whispered as he worked it deeper.

"I'm trying," I managed. I closed my eyes as he added a second finger, a slight stinging pain accompanying it. He slowed down then, and took his time with me, slowly stretching me until I relaxed back into the bedding with a sound that was half sigh, half moan. His fingers went deeper then, and my eyes snapped open with shock as the tips brushed against a spot that made me see stars. The pleasure was so sharp it almost hurt, and I bit my lip against the scream that wanted to leave me.

"I think you're ready now," he whispered. His fingers moved to slick the remaining oil over his own arousal, and then his hands found my hips. He lifted them upwards and positioned the blunt head of his arousal at my entrance. It was the most erotic sensation I had ever experienced. He captured my gaze with his own, and shifted his hips forward. I whimpered as the head breached my opening.

"Hurts," I whispered.

"Relax," he reiterated, and one of his hands moved to encircle my hardness. I groaned softly as he slowly moved his fist up and down my length, and I felt myself relaxing again. He pressed forward, and I closed my eyes as his length slowly slid into me, inch by inch, until he was completely buried in my warmth. It still stung a little, and he went completely still to give me time to adjust.

"Gods," I murmured, the sensation of being completely stretched and filled by him almost too intense. He leaned over to capture my lips in a kiss, and the movement shifted his hardness with in me. I gasped as jolts of pleasure shot through me.

"Good?" He asked, his lips still against mine. He sounded amused again, if not a little breathless. His amber eyes were hooded as he looked down at me, his expression not nearly as guarded as it usually was. There was warmth there, and a fondness for myself that I would have never thought to have seen in his eyes.

"Good," I replied. "Move." The word came out more of a plea than a command, and he smirked slightly as he snapped his hips forward. My eyes rolled once before I closed them tightly. It felt so damn good. Better than anything I had ever experienced.

"Definitely good," he husked as he propped himself up on his elbows and established a slow, steady rhythm. I clung to him as he moved, my world narrowed down to this one man and the emotions and sensations of the moment. At some point, I started to weep, and he silently kissed the tears away as he moved within me, his pace becoming quicker. The pleasure that had started as a subtle sensation continued to build and build until it was wound tight in my abdomen. I gasped as he started to thrust harder and deeper, each snap of his hips nearly undoing me.

"Saitou!" It was barely a whisper, and all the warning I was able to give before I felt the tight spring snap and I was lost in the throes of blissful release. I felt him tense above me, and then a sharp gasp escaped his lips as he reached his own release. I caught him as he collapsed, my arms wrapping tightly around his shoulders as he buried his face in the crook of my neck. After our breathing had slowed, he propped himself over me and looked down at me.

"Good?" he asked again. I couldn't stop the wide grin that crept across my features.

"Good," I answered. He nodded before carefully withdrawing from me and rising from the futon. He went to the dresser in the far corner and poured water from a pitcher into a basin, and a moment later returned with a damp linen cloth. I lay still as he cleaned up the evidence of our love making from first my body and then his own. He joined me back on the futon then, pulling me close before covering us both with the quilt. I settled in, my cheek resting against his chest, and had nearly dropped off to sleep when he spoke.


"Hai?" My voice was muzzy with sleep.

"I love you." I went very still, and I slowly opened my eyes. I lifted my head enough so that I could see his eyes, and he smirked slightly at me. "Just so there's no confusion." I nodded once before I closed my eyes and settled into his embrace again and let myself drop off to sleep.

I was painting again, my supplies spread out over the table in my bedroom, when Kenshin came calling again. It was the morning after Saitou and I had cleared the air between us, so to speak. My now lover was reclining across the table from me reading a book when a shadow darkened the doorway of the room.

"Himura-san to see you," Keiko announced before she bowed and left the rurouni standing on the porch outside my room. Saitou looked up from the book he was reading, and I held my breath. It was the first time we had all been in a room together since I had had my revelation, and I wondered what they would do.

"Don't stand there like an idiot," Saitou finally said. "Come in and sit down." I laughed as Kenshin's eyes grew momentarily wide with surprise, but he recovered, and had enough grace to laugh at himself before he joined us at the table.

"You are painting again," Kenshin said. I grinned and nodded.

"I like it," I said with a shrug.

"And it keeps him out of trouble," Saitou said, his tone dry. "His hand might actually have time to heal this time." Kenshin hid a smile behind his hand. "I presume you've come for a reason, Battousai?" Kenshin nodded.

"Kaoru and I would like to invite you both to dinner this evening," Kenshin said, quite serious. "We've missed you, Sano-kun." I opened my mouth to reply, but was stunned into silence when Saitou beat me to it.

"We'd be honored," Saitou said. He leveled a serious gaze on Kenshin. "I hadn't meant to keep him from his friends." Kenshin chuckled.

"I never thought you had, Wolf," Kenshin returned easily. I kept quiet as the two men regarded one another with serious gazes. Something was happening here, and I didn't want to disrupt whatever it was. It was Kenshin that finally spoke again. "Times have changed, have they not?" he murmured. Saitou gave him a slow nod.

"Indeed, they have," he replied evenly.

"So much so that I find myself forgetting past grudges, that I do," Kenshin said. I held my breath. This was the one thing that could make my life utterly miserable, if Saitou continued to hold his years old grudge against my best friend. How was I to choose between the two? Saitou's lips curled into a slight smirk.

"As do I," he replied. Kenshin gave Saitou a nod, and he rose from the table.

"We will see you both at dinner then?" Kenshin asked, and Saitou nodded. Kenshin flashed me a smile before he turned to leave, but he paused just inside the doorway.

"Battousai?" Saitou's voice held a question. I saw a smile curl the corner of Kenshin's lips.

"You really do love him," Kenshin murmured, and then he was gone. Saitou stared at the empty space for several moments before he snorted and turned his attention back to me.

"Thank you," I murmured after a moment, and I was once again graced with a rare, genuine smile. He sat up and leaned over the table to give me a soft kiss.

"Don't thank me," he murmured against my lips. "Just paint me another picture." I couldn't stop the puff of happy laughter that left me, but my words, when they came, were earnest, and earned me the look of approval and pride that I so adored.

"For the rest of my life." It was an easy promise to make, and as he kissed me again, I found myself thinking that it would be even easier to keep.


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