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Paper Hearts

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.*Prologue*.

Winter 1879
12th Year of the Meiji

Trembling lips and rosy chapped cheeks. Half-lidded dark eyes and heavy heaves. Frigid air in, puffs of warm breath out. Feet numb from the cold, staggering along a river-side path blanketed in ivory.

None of these things could stop Sano now.

Not the veil of snow that had adorned his hair and the coat unsuited for winter, not the shivering of his bones, not the aching of his frozen hands. Without thought, his tongue poked out to wet the split in the center of his lower lip.

The water had iced over and the world had gone silent—and somewhere along this never-ending journey, Sano had too. He’d blinked when his eyes glazed and vision blurred, but soon, batting lashes only once wasn’t enough to ameliorate his vision. Without clear sight, his wet boots pressed on, one step after the other after the other, as the exhaustion mounted and weighed him down.

Still, the resolve that had brought Sano to this point could never shatter. He was not weak. Proving that had been the obsession which led him to this very moment, but now it was the furthest thing on his mind.

Sano lifted his chin to scope out the path ahead and his feet cemented in place. Dark tree branches arching over the road were expected, but the motionless figure contrasting the atmosphere hadn’t been. Black hair, black coat, black boots…golden eyes. Ashes from the end of a cigarette between his lips broke away.

Sano’s mouth parted wider, but his voice was lost. His shoulders rose and fell.

Neither moved, neither spoke. The concept of time was lost as the moments passed while snowflakes fell between them.

The taste of irony spilled over Sano’s tongue, instead of the words he had traveled this long arduous way to speak—a bitter, unpleasant flavor telling him that what had drove him to this place had been wrong.

He hadn’t come here to say goodbye.

Sano huffed and began to breathe heavily, the faint sound of his voice riding out with several exhalations, as he stumbled forward until his breath mingled with Saito’s. Hands marred by painful cracks tightened into hardened fists and lashed out. But they didn’t swing at Saito’s face as they had been planned to; instead, they latched onto his warm coat with digits digging deeply into the material and twisting.

Sano’s forehead crashed against a broad shoulder.

“I have,” he panted softly, “a response to your letter.” Sano pulled tighter on the coat as he squeezed his eyes together and an upheaval of overwhelming emotion caused his voice to crack. “…you fucking asshole.”

~

Paper Hearts

.*Chapter 1*.

April 15, 1879
12th Year of the Meiji

Ink coated the tip of a moving brush, leaving angular trails of onyx characters in its wake on mulberry paper. The hand slowed to a stop and lifted, hesitant to complete the last stroke.

A tongue poked out to wet dry lips—lips which curled in as top teeth gently bit down.

…Was this too soon?

Indecision kept the black tip suspended above the paper for moments, until a careless horizontal swipe finalized the short message. All it read was a date.

Sano placed the brush down with a pointed tap and expelled the deep breath he hadn’t even realized he’d held. From his sitting position on the floor, he glanced around his one-room dwelling and then flopped back on the futon. A forearm fell over his closed eyes while he attempted to swallow equal parts of anticipation and uncertainty seeping up within him.

He was unsuccessful in blocking either.

This had been the third letter of its kind that he’d written since the end of February. Perhaps, three in seven weeks was a bit excessive, but as this one had been completed, it only made sense to send it out.

Sano’s other arm raised and fingertips settled over the scar on his right shoulder. His lips opened slightly and like this, he remained in the silence of his home.

~

April 16, 1879
12th Year of the Meiji

The wooden chair creaked with the pressing of shoulder blades against its high back, while honeyed eyes danced over the first of many long pages. Report review days were an unfortunate side condition of this profession, but such inconvenience was far outweighed by the benefits.

A tobacco fix would help him through the monotony, as it always had.

Without diverting attention from the task at hand, a fresh cigarette was placed between soft lips before the matchhead struck the side of a small box, producing a blaze and familiar scent. Saito drew a breath to light up, shook his hand to put the flame out, and dismissively dropped the used match into an ash-filled circular tray.

Bamboo blinds reduced strong morning sunlight to a mere kiss of warmth within the small office, catching winding trails of gray smoke permeating the air, but the perfect spring moment would be short-lived. Tokyo had seen an early start to the rainy season this year, and this space would soon turn damp, clammy, and dark as noon approached.

The seasons were the seasons, however, just as human nature was human nature: predictable and yet unpredictable—always changing and yet always the same. It would be illogical to protest either.

A shadow stopping before the door and subsequent knock disrupted the background noise of chirping birds and a croaking frog somewhere beneath the open window—and finally pulled Saito’s concentration away from the stack of papers he held.

“Yamazaki,” a muffled low voice announced from the other side.

Identification was an unnecessary formality as Saito could tell who his visitor was just by the outline of his frame, but such gestures were paramount in today’s society of civility. He would comply.

“Come.” Saito took another draw from his cigarette and then perched it on the ashtray.

The door opened and a man of medium stature entered, a canvas messenger bag slung across the breast of his navy police uniform. “Pardon my intrusion, Mister Fujita. Today’s mail…”

“Ah. Thank you.”

Humming softly to himself, Yamazaki quickly withdrew three letters and rifled through the rest to ensure none were left behind. “Here you are, Sir.”

Saito extended his hand to accept them, his gaze breezing over the unruly penmanship of the top envelope before snapping back up to maintain eye contact. “Much appreciated.”

Yamazaki bowed his head. “Sorry again for the intrusion. Good day.” He turned and made his exit, closing the door with a soft tap and leaving Saito alone again—or so it might have appeared. A presence had piggybacked on these letters however, and the arms of a ghost now wrapped about Saito’s shoulders from behind.

He stared down at the top envelope and his brows twitched at his surge of desire to open it. The reaction was instant: Saito shifted his focus back to his reports. The cigarette was placed between his lips once more, but as his mind attempted to zero in on petty theft in Musashino, that presence hugged him tighter and tighter until it was impossible to neglect.

Saito reached for the envelope. Long gloved fingers used a letter opener to neatly access the inside and then withdrew a small sheet of paper with only a date written on it.

April 19.

Three days from now. Golden eyes flicked up and across the office to land upon a paper wall calendar, confirming what he’d known to be true. The frequency had changed. The last correspondence arrived only two weeks ago, upward from what had been once per month since February.

It appeared that the winds of change would whisper before they blew, but he was a patient individual—and it was only a matter of time.

After exhaling a long draw, Saito tucked the message into a shirt pocket and went back to his work. For a brief moment, he felt the sensation of phantom lips pressing to his shoulder and reached up to massage it away.

And then he was alone.

~

April 19, 1879
12th Year of the Meiji

A gentle evening rainstorm pattered upon ceramic roof tiles and dotted the nearby river with tiny ripples. Running parallel to the dirt road, the lazy movement of water had been adorned by the falling of pink cherry blossom petals distorting the reflections of hand-lit streetlamps.

There was something inherently calming about the combination of tatami mats and cedar wood walls; the mixture of scents and contrasting color was easy on the senses and could make anywhere feel like a piece of home, even a lackluster inn.

This wasn’t home, however—far from it. And that such a tranquil location had become the chosen place to frequent was nothing short of paradoxical.

Huge fistfuls of futon bedding were trapped in the grip of Sano’s hands as the back of his head pressed against a western-style pillow. He threw his face to the side with lips opened and eyes shut tight, while his chest expanded and contracted from rapid deep breaths.

“Does it hurt?”

Sano refused to let his lashes part; he wouldn’t dare look at Saito like this, or risk seeing his own calves hiked up and resting against strong shoulders still covered by a black undershirt. There was a risk that he would never forget the sight.

Being the only one naked was nothing out of the ordinary, but Sano finding himself on his back with a very different view from what he’d been accustomed to proved too alarming. Eyes were the windows to the soul, he’d been told, and Sano didn’t know if he was more afraid of baring his own or the potential of seeing deeply into Saito’s.

“Hey,” the deep voice tried again quietly, impatience in its tone betrayed by the stillness of Saito’s body. “Sagara.”

Swallowing, Sano shook his head. “It’s fine. Keep going,” he half-lied over a harsh whisper.

Indeed, it wasn’t pain that he was experiencing, but something altogether different. Assuming this position was too intimate, too personal; it made it too easy for Sano’s hands to release the blankets and latch onto the undone navy trousers about Saito’s thighs. And how Sano wanted to—in theory. But even an inkling of acknowledgment of his desire to reach out for Saito in reality caused apprehension to mount.

They weren’t together, didn’t have those kinds of feelings for each other. This was nothing more than a convenient hookup, a little frequent fact-checking into enemy territory before the old score between them would finally be settled. Saito had already disappeared once, and Sano wasn’t about to reach the next plateau of his training to find his opponent had vanished again.

Frequenting the Tachibana Inn together was the best way to keep tabs, and as for the physical exchanges…Sano had chalked them up to whatever kept that asshole around long enough. If he were honest with himself, there was more to it than that. However, he’d discovered long ago that avoidance of things he didn’t want to deal with was useful.

Their running score had been a focal point in Sano’s life for months on end now; it’d been the springboard to Kyoto and an obsession that overtook him in the aftermath. The chance to prove his worthiness ignited an inferno within him and became the perfect justification to keep seeing Saito, even if their current moonlighting involved less combat and more of Sano getting on all fours.

Someday, that would change. After all, the first time he’d arrived here had been to do nothing more than fight—and win. The first time Sano left here, however, it was with a little more than he’d bargained for.

Tachibana was where they’d faced off after the great unexpected reunion—when Sano’s soul had nearly left his body upon the sight of a ghost flicking cigarette ashes at the dojo entrance last November. Under gently falling leaves, Kenshin had stepped in when harsh words were traded and fists were raised. Aware the rivalry couldn’t be resolved without interference at Missy’s or on some public street, Sano had demanded Saito meet him privately to conclude their business.

One day after, he’d arrived here inundated by emotion, had been so furious that he knew he wasn’t thinking straight. And while Sano had fully intended to break Saito’s jaw, the gloved hand which caught his knuckles and stopped his plan then and there proved he still had a long way to go.

As the grasp on Sano’s clenched hand tightened, an unimpressed hum had emanated from deep within Saito. “I suggest you write to me when you’re ready to stop fucking around and get serious.

And that was when the tension between them finally detonated like a supernova.

Back then, Sano hadn’t known how he’d gone from screaming and throwing punches in reply to something so arrogant, to having his spine pressed against the wall with Saito’s lips crushing against his. The memories all felt disconnected. His head had gone into a dizzying haze, his anger metamorphosed to yearning with the desperate clenching of a blue jacket while his own slipped from his shoulders.

Sano supposed his thoughts were just as muddled now, as his heart pounded and he longed for the taste of that day which he would never have again. Another kiss was out of the question; the feeling of Saito’s mouth against his had been addictive and dangerous—and even now, he hadn’t forgotten the exotic flavor which had graced his tongue.

The pressure against his entrance suddenly withdrew and Sano exhaled as his legs were lowered back to the futon. Brown eyes opened slowly to the far wall, his starved lips still parted. He couldn’t bring himself to look up at Saito from this location and certainly couldn’t remain frozen like this; both routes gave Saito too much control over the situation…and him.

In fact, Sano had no idea what that smug mouth might say next to the lull in action, but whatever it would be, he knew he didn’t want to hear. Employing the best avoidance tactic he could come up with on the spot, he flipped onto his stomach and pushed up on his hands and knees. Sano’s thighs slid apart, offering the most erotic view he could imagine before saying, “Like this.”

Seeing the familiar sight of the room instead of Saito’s face resolved his unease, and whatever drop in excitement Sano had experienced was reclaimed when he felt two deft fingers enter him again. His lips curled in and he breathed out through his nose, wanting to bark that he was already ready for it but not willing to run the risk of sounding desperate.

Sano’s mouth fell open when the third was added, and just as it occurred to him that Saito was repeating this action because he was concerned with his comfort, the comment came.

“That’s a nice sight.”

Grunting in reply, Sano closed his eyes and rocked his hips.

“Too bad you look nicer on your back.”

“Excuse me?” Sano snapped, his chin hitting his shoulder.

Saito hummed indifferently. “Well, time to get this over with.”

Lowering his head, Sano’s brows pulled inward as the outlandish pleasant thought he’d considered about Saito actually caring was not only proven wrong but inwardly embarrassing as well. A dusting of pink haze colored from ear to ear. Why had his mind gone there?

“Look, asshole,” Sano began and started pushing himself up. “If you don’t want—ngh.” His words were stolen and his body stilled as he felt the head of Saito’s cock pressing against his hole, slowly and little-by-little breaching him. The tension in Sano’s muscles dissipated, like the soft sigh that left his lips.

It took time but once he finally felt the presence of Saito’s thighs against him, Sano collapsed forward to his chest, out of breath and holding tightly to the pillow. With flushed cheeks, he took the fabric of the sheet between his teeth and suppressed the dramatic moan begging for escape from the back of his throat.

Saito’s movements were controlled and slow from there, but once Sano’s body had fully adjusted to the penetration, there was no holding back.

The pillow muffled sounds which Sano decided he never wanted to recall.

~

Rain continued to trickle off the roof.

Sano had cleaned up as best he could when Saito left to bathe. Tachibana was an unembellished older inn on the outskirts of Nishigokencho, offering hot baths infused with herbal treatments that changed every several weeks. The pleasant scent during his afternoon soak had told Sano the water was treated with jasmine this time, and he was now looking forward to immersing himself in that luxury again.

He supposed he could have joined Saito; the baths were open to all patrons, after all, and it wasn’t as if he had any issues with being naked in front of him. Still, Sano had chosen to wipe himself off with a towel for the meantime and neaten up the futons as if nothing had ever happened on them. He laid across them, clad only in his white trousers.

It was better this way, staying detached. Lying supine with his toes pointed upward, Sano stared at the dark wooden ceiling and clasped his hands over his abdomen tightly. He could still feel Saito inside of him and the way large hands held his hips—could still feel heavy breaths spilling over his left shoulder, and hear hushed sounds of pleasure feathering into his ear.

Now, all that was physically left of him was a neatly folded police uniform.

Sano closed his eyes. Outside, a light breeze made the porch chimes jingle. …Perhaps, he thought, he really should have joined Saito to bathe, just this once.

Despite the grudge that bore a physical presence upon his right shoulder, there was no denying that Sano harbored a desire to be near Saito; it was only natural, given his past experience. He couldn’t condemn himself for what had stemmed from the shock of death and subsequent surprise of life. Sano had already lived through losing someone he admired once, had already known how permanent a scar it could leave across the heart.

But where Sano’s esteem for Captain Sagara was rooted in respect and fatherly love, his admiration for Saito came from his strength and the desire to surpass it. If Sano could do that, it would prove that he could take anyone. And then, maybe, the captain’s soul would rest easily and Sano could finally forgive himself for being incapable of protecting a life precious to him.

Captain

The door slid open and Sano raised his chin, watching as Saito turned, stepped out of his slippers, and entered. A towel had been slung over the back of his neck and his katana held tightly in hand. He wore a gray, inn-issued yukata, the fabric belt highlighting just how thin his waist was.

Despite his slender figure, Saito was tall and angular with muscles in the most flattering places, and these attributes meant his body was endlessly complemented by wearing a yukata. Upon that thought, Sano lowered his head back to the futon.

He tried to drown out the sounds of clothing being unfolded and donned as Saito dressed, tried not to imagine what garments were being slipped on and how they must have looked against Saito’s pale skin.

Rustling of a paper bag on the other side of the room finally inspired Sano to look up again, and when he saw Saito kneeling on the tatami and biting into a rice ball, his stomach rumbled loudly.

After several moments of silence, Saito’s eyes slid to him while he quietly chewed. “So,” he finally said in a voice laced with apathy, “about this score.”

Sano’s brows knitted downward as he sat up tall. “What about it?”

Saito popped the last bite of onigiri in his mouth and then quickly slipped white gloves over his hands. “I suppose it won’t be settled tonight.”

“I guess not, after you decided to take a bath and all that.” Sano felt a clear expression of irritation spreading over his features, and threw his face to the side.

The only reply he received was a hum. Each glove was given a firm tug at the wrist.

Sano’s knees bent and spread as his feet slid back, so he could comfortably rest his forearms upon them. “I need more time anyway,” he muttered.

Another hum came in response as a match lit the end of a cigarette. Saito took a draw and upon breathing out, he added, “You’re right about something for once.”

Brown eyes saw red and Sano’s attention snapped forward. “Hey, you know, you probably don’t even realize this but I’ve been training every damn day.” His growling stomach went as ignored as his unwrapped left hand marred by blotches of purple, blue, and crimson. “If my right hand wasn’t all messed up, this would all be over already.”

Inhale, exhale. “Right.”

“You could sound a little more enthused.” The annoyance that had crossed Sano’s face earlier disappeared as a smirk pulled outward into his cheeks. “Because when our fists finally meet in this fucking fight, you’ll know the true power of the futae no kiwami and be left feeling like a real asshole for not taking me seriously.”

“Well, what more could be expected.” Saito stood and moved his head from side to side, cracking his neck. “Only an idiot would train endlessly and not even realize he’s going about it the wrong way.”

With fingers curling tightly into his palms, Sano shoved himself on his knees. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?!”

“It means you’re putting too much energy into the wrong place.”

“Listen, you bastard,” Sano growled through clenched teeth. “For the last fucking time, defense isn’t my style! I’ll fight how I wanna fight!” Banged up fists collided. “And that’s how I’m gonna beat you—my way.”

One slender brow barely twitched on Saito’s face as he peered down at Sano in silence. After moments passed without further rebuttal, he dismissively lifted his chin. “In any case, I have more important things to do than listen to the ramblings of a dreamer.” Saito had accurately predicted his jab would incite another outburst, and interrupted it before it happened by firing the paper bag in Sano’s direction.

The bag fell into Sano’s hands. “The hell is this?” He peered inside to find rice balls.

“The civilized world calls it dinner.” Saito fastened his katana to his belt and then swiped his hands over his uniform-clad shoulders to ensure the fabric was smooth. “I don’t know what that translates to in the language of Neanderthal, so don’t ask.” With that, he removed the half-smoked cigarette from his mouth and crushed the end in a nearby ashtray.

“…They look homemade.”

“It’s because they are.”

Sano closed his eyes and the right corner of his mouth twitched upward. “Cops can really get away with anything, huh. I wonder whose kitchen you jacked these from.”

“A moron like you wouldn’t be interested in the story.” Saito ran gloved digits through his hair to ensure the strands that agreed to stay in place—unlike his bangs—were actually in place and then without looking to Sano, walked to the door. “Anyway, until next time.”

“Saito.”

Saito’s fingers rested on the hollow in the door but before he pushed it open, he looked over his shoulder.

Their eyes met for several seconds before Sano finally raised the bag. “…Thanks.”

No words followed. Saito simply stared at him with a contemplative gaze, and then finally slid the door aside to take his leave.

“What kind of look was that?” Sano mumbled to himself, gazing across the emptiness Saito’s departure left in its wake. His stomach voiced its impatience again, and after shaking his head clear, Sano withdrew one of the two rice balls from the bag. It was shaped into a perfect triangle with dried nori meticulously cut to wrap neatly around the center.

Sano bit into the top and his brows raised when the flavor of salted plum enticed his tongue. He chewed faster and swallowed, eagerly taking another large bite. If only Missy could cook this way! Making a mental note to ask Saito where the hell he’d gotten a hold of such damn good onigiri the next time they met, Sano devoured the rest and then crashed back against the bed.

Fingertips pressed to his lips and he exhaled. He reveled in the thought that he’d sleep well tonight after bathing—and instantly blocked the start of a frightening thought that he might regret Saito’s scent being washed from his body.

After all, they weren’t together…didn’t have those kinds of feelings for each other. This was nothing more than a convenient hookup, a little distraction while Sano trained his left hand to be as useful as his right had been before it was broken.

Sano stared at the ceiling for so long that he lost track of the time.