Sano’s behavior today had been entirely inexplicable from beginning to end, and at this latest, Kenshin had to whisper his name in some embarrassment.
“What?” Sano wondered as the girl ran off with a giggle and a wave. “Just saying hello.”
“Since when do you say hello to girls in the street by kissing them?” said Kenshin in the same chagrin.
With bright innocent Sano replied, “Isn’t that the best way to do it?”
“Maybe,” Kenshin allowed. “But you were in such a bad mood before…”
“Kissing makes things better; didn’t you know that?”
“Sano, I have known you for almost two years, and I have never seen you kiss someone — especially not a casual acquaintance in the street — to put yourself in a better mood before.”
“You never saw me kiss anyone at all, huh?” Sano asked curiously; Kenshin believed, despite the jovial tone, the bad mood hadn’t entirely disappeared after all.
“Not that I can remember.”
“Huh. I thought everyone knew.”
“Knew… that I hate relationships because all people ever do is fight and then do stupid shit to make each other jealous.” Sano seemed to be struggling for continued lightness of tone with this incongruous remark, and Kenshin was puzzled. “Anyway,” Sano continued, his voice intensifying even further, “let’s get out of here before someone decides to arrest me for public indecency.”
This couldn’t be aimed at anyone other than Saitou; Kenshin had been aware of the officer’s presence unobtrusively observing the street in a recessed doorway close by, but hadn’t thought Sano had noticed. He certainly hadn’t associated the circumstances of the wolf’s proximity and Sano’s strange behavior.
Saitou evidently heard and likewise assumed he was the target of the statement, for he replied immediately, “I can’t arrest you every single time you go out in public, ahou.”
“Not even for making out with girls in the middle of the street, huh?” Sano made no move to depart as he’d just proposed; that and the words spoken were adding up to an almost incredible explanation for all of this.
“If you want me to arrest you,” Saitou sneered, “I’m sure I could come up with a charge — but whatever you were doing just now, I didn’t notice.”
Sano snorted. “Well, that’s good. Wouldn’t want you trying to insult my taste because she was too short or had the wrong color hair or something.”
“It’s true brunettes tend to be idiots,” Saitou sniffed.
“Thought you didn’t see her,” shot back Sano in dark triumph. “How would you know what her hair looked like?” And Kenshin had to admit that for Saitou to make such a slip, just for the sake of insulting Sano’s hair, was rather telling.
Whether the officer agreed or not, all he said was, “Hn.”
“Che… let’s get the hell outta here, Kenshin.” And this time Sano really did turn and stalk away.
Kenshin, after a baffled glance in Saitou’s direction, hastened after his friend. “That did not work very well,” he commented carefully once they were in the next street.
A sidelong glance served as Sano’s acceptance that Kenshin now understood the situation, and the young man replied gruffly, “You didn’t think so?”
“Did it make you feel any better?”
“Fuck,” Sano muttered, and said nothing more for several moments. Finally he grumbled, “I should kiss you next time.”
Kenshin struggled to recover from how much this startled him in time to nip the idea in the bud. “Sano,” he said very seriously, “I am not getting involved in this. I will not let you kiss me to make Saitou jealous.”
Sano seemed a little startled as well at Kenshin’s severity, and after staring at him for a few moments, again said, “Che…” and fell silent.
Kenshin had no desire to kiss his friend, or to take part in any petty jealousy scheme; he had no idea what were the circumstances of Sano’s relationship with Saitou, nor what exactly might be going on between them now; indeed, it was a little difficult to wrap his head around the idea of them being together at all — and all of this provided a formidable barrier to helping Sano as he naturally wanted to. Therefore it took him a while to decide what to say next. Eventually, “Sano,” he ventured delicately, “whatever kind of fight you may have had with him, it is obvious you still care about him.” Even that felt strange: that Sano cared about Saitou…
“No shit,” the young man mumbled.
Kenshin smiled wryly. It did rather seem typical of Sano to have gotten himself into a relationship that wasn’t ever likely to go smoothly. Still, even with that in mind… Saitou? But he forced himself to go on. “Have you talked to him since…” He trailed off; he assumed it had been a fight, but couldn’t really be positive.
“Talked to him just now, didn’t I?”
“I mean really talked to him,” said Kenshin sternly.
“I dunno if you’ve noticed, but talking to Saitou doesn’t work very well.”
“It cannot work any worse than what you are trying now. You should not need me to tell you that playing this kind of game is not the right way to heal a relationship.” He didn’t want to accuse Sano outright of being childish and vindictive… no matter how clearly Sano’s reply proved the point:
“I don’t figure I need you to tell me much of anything.” Sano was obviously stung by the reproof. “Why don’t you go heal your relationship with jou-chan?”
While this did not quite hurt or insult, Kenshin didn’t much feel like sticking around for something that might. “That is a very good idea, Sano,” he smiled. “I will see you some other time.” And he broke away from his companion without waiting for a response.
He planned on leaving it at that. Sano had obviously never mentioned the Saitou thing for reasons of his own, and just as obviously didn’t want advice on the subject; Kenshin found it somewhat bizarre and better left uncontemplated at any rate; so there was no reason the issue should come up again.
But Sano’s absence from their circle from that day forward was so prolonged, so marked by lack of any contact from him whatsoever, that Kenshin could not but think things must have gone from bad to worse and Sano didn’t feel he could come to the dojo anymore. And though Kenshin wasn’t sure it was either his place or his inclination to intrude (mostly because Saitou was involved), he did keep an active eye open for Sano — and worried quietly when he still never saw him.
It occupied his mind enough, in fact, that once or twice he actually probed delicately at the distasteful idea of what a relationship of that sort would be like with Saitou, how it could be patched up once broken, and why in the world it would have this kind of effect on someone if it wasn’t. At times he even thought it might have been better to let Sano kiss him than to let him decide there was no support among friends, run off and brood to decide who knew what, and stay away for who knew what reason — not that Kenshin thought he really could have gone through with any charade that involved kissing Sano, and not that the current circumstance might not eventually have resulted in any event.
Then, as if purposely to augment his concern, the artist/bomber/newspaper friend showed up. It was a rare occasion that brought Katsu to the dojo, and previously he’d never been unaccompanied by Sano, so Kenshin’s immediate reaction to the sight of him was a frown of intensified worry.
Katsu came over to where Kenshin was hanging laundry and said without preamble, “I take it you haven’t seen him either, then.”
Kenshin shook his head with a sigh.
Echoing the sound, Katsu appeared more exasperated than worried. This was a good sign, as it suggested he knew something of Sano’s absence — more than Kenshin did, at any rate. Presently he said, “You know what this is about, don’t you? This is another stupid attempt at getting that stupid cop’s attention.”
Accepting the explanation with a nod, Kenshin remarked ruefully, “If he thinks Saitou will go looking for him, it really is stupid.”
“The one consolation to us is that he can’t stay in hiding long and still eat; he has to show up again soon.”
The redhead agreed. “And since we have an explanation for his absence, we do not have to worry about his safety in the meantime.” And they shared a glum look that spoke clearly just how much they weren’t going to worry.
“Well, I’ll send him your way if I see him,” Katsu sighed.
“I will do the same for you,” replied Kenshin.
Despite this very logical speculation about food, however, Sano stayed gone. Katsu became almost as much a regular at the dojo, exchanging news (or lack thereof) with Kenshin, as Sano had ever been; and Saitou, whenever they saw him, scowled more than ever.
The idea of discussing the matter with the officer seemed so impractical that it had never seriously crossed the rurouni’s mind; the fact that Katsu hadn’t suggested it seemed to indicate he felt similarly — on the point of the futility of talking to the wolf, at least, Sano’s friends agreed with him. But the third or fourth time Kenshin, running his usual errands in town, caught sight of Saitou glowering over a bowl of inferior soba at a cheap open-air restaurant, he felt almost compelled. Despite the fact that Saitou seemed every bit as disinclined to have the conversation as Kenshin was, the latter approached and cleared his throat.
“Have you seen Sano lately?”
Saitou’s expression of displeasure strengthened, and he did not look up. “Why would I have seen him?”
“Well, you have been eating at this restaurant a lot, and it is one of his favorites…”
With a snort Saitou remarked, “Given the quality of the food, that’s no surprise.”
“I have been questioning Sano’s taste lately,” Kenshin couldn’t help but admit, trying not to smile.
“He’s an idiot,” muttered Saitou somewhat pointlessly, his scowl and the accompanying lines on his face deepening even further.
It was obvious there was nothing to be gained from this. Saitou had no more idea where Sano was than Kenshin did… which actually made the theory about why Sano was gone less plausible: why go to such lengths to attract somebody’s notice if that somebody couldn’t find you? “I just hope he is all right,” Kenshin murmured, half to himself.
“Why wouldn’t he be?” the officer demanded with a little more attention, glancing up at last.
Saitou, apparently recalling the frame of mind he would prefer to convey, went back to his soba with a reiteration of, “He’s an idiot.”
The redhead made a noncommittal noise and turned to leave.
Well, odd as it seemed to think about, Saitou cared too — which made the entire situation even more foolish. Kenshin didn’t have much experience with romantic spats, and it was still Saitou, but it wouldn’t take a relationship genius to figure this one out. How the two stubbornest men in Tokyo — and a pair with that kind of history, no less — had ever managed to start something, Kenshin could not begin to guess.
At that moment, just as he turned the corner away from the restaurant, he found himself joined unexpectedly by Katsu. “I found him,” was the artist’s somewhat breathless announcement; he appeared to have been running.
“Oh? Where is he? Is he in trouble?” Given the reflections Kenshin had just been entertaining about the stupidity of quarreling lovers, his queries would not have been so energetic if he hadn’t been aware of Saitou right around the corner listening.
Katsu seemed similarly aware of this (having run past him), for his reply, “I think he may be; he wouldn’t let me in to see him,” didn’t feel entirely honest. “And now someone’s caught up with him, he may relocate again, so you should come talk to him while I still know where he is.”
The rurouni raised a curious eyebrow as if to ask, Do you really think this will work?
To which the artist replied with a wry smile and a shrug that said, Do you have a better idea? Out loud he just requested, “Come with me.”
Any internal debate Saitou might have had about whether or not to follow them must (by necessity) have been conducted in haste; Kenshin sensed the wolf’s presence behind them barely a street away. Was Saitou aware he was being baited? Possibly. It was no more important than whether or not he cared; all that mattered was that he did follow. This had gone on far too long.
Katsu led them straight to the wretched area of town where Kenshin would have looked first if he’d been actively searching for Sano — which didn’t speak well for their friend’s creativity or, perhaps, sense of hygiene — and into a grimy hotel that barely warranted the title. The attendant in the lobby was asleep or something similar, and if his opium-scented slump was any testimony to his backbone, he probably wouldn’t have stopped them in any case. Kenshin wondered whether Saitou was concerned enough about Sano to look the other way; it would say something about the relationship if he was.
Of course, his mere presence in a place like this looking for the recalcitrant kenkaya at all said something about the relationship.
It seemed the officer was willing, for the moment at least, to overlook the opium in the interest of following them upstairs. In doing so, rather than join them and admit openly what they were aware of anyway (that he’d been there all along and they all three knew it and this whole thing was idiotic), he was forced to employ greater stealth than the perfunctory level of care he’d given to tailing them thus far — to the point where Kenshin’s awareness of him sank to purely ki-based. Katsu glanced around as if wondering whether or not they were still being followed; at Kenshin’s slight gesture, though, he returned to his guide duty.
It was the last room on the second floor — which floor, incidentally, seemed in danger of collapse at any moment — where Katsu stopped. Standing still, glancing around, Kenshin frowned. What kind of unhealthy and poorly formulated decisions might one come to, moping all alone in a place like this?
Katsu knocked emphatically.
“Who the fuck is it now?” was the grumpy-sounding demand from within.
“Sano, exactly how long do you plan on sitting around in there doing nothing?” Katsu replied in nearly the same tone. “And how the hell are you eating, anyway?”
“I already told you–” began Sano severely, apparently moving closer to the door the better to debate with his friend.
Kenshin cut him short. “Sano, a lot of people are worried about you; it is rather rude of you to go into hiding without a word.”
“Oh.” It was a barely audible exclamation as the footsteps within the room stopped abruptly. “Hey, Kenshin.”
Given that the true purpose of this visit had been to deliver Saitou, the rurouni didn’t quite know what to say next. It seemed Sano, even after so long, was still in the mood to be difficult and refuse any assistance… it also seemed a shame, however, to have coaxed Saitou this far and then just leave before at least showing the two of them the path of reconciliation (if not necessarily forcing their feet onto it). But Kenshin assumed the officer wouldn’t step forward and speak up, admit he’d come looking, unless they prodded him into it somehow.
Hadn’t Kenshin specifically told Sano at one point that he wasn’t getting involved in this?
“I’ll tell you if I decide to leave town,” was the defensive grumble from behind the door. “Not like I’m just gonna disappear.”
“‘Leave town?'” Katsu echoed in disbelief. “My god, Sano, you’re running away?”
There was a long silence before Sano finally replied, “It’s better than what I’ve been doing…”
“What, sitting around sulking?” Katsu sighed in exasperation, but instead of continuing the conversation with Sano turned rather to Kenshin and remarked in a quieter tone (though still loud enough, doubtless, to penetrate the door and permeate the hall), “He’s behaving like a woman.”
“I was going to say a child,” replied Kenshin, wincing at the thought of how the women he knew would react to that statement.
“Hey…” Sano protested from within.
“No wonder Saitou didn’t come looking for him,” added Katsu decisively.
Kenshin saw where this was going; considering how far Katsu’s last idea had brought them, he decided this one was also worth a try. “I am certain there are other reasons for that,” he suggested calmly. “I doubt Saitou is any more capable than Sano of maintaining a serious relationship; he was probably glad of an excuse not to try.” Which was entirely true (that is to say, he did doubt it), and seemed to cause a sort of invisible twitch down the hall.
Katsu shrugged. “Let’s be honest, though; you can’t blame even a preoccupied bastard like him for having a hard time dealing with Sano.”
“Backing down might actually be the easiest thing for Sano.”
“It isn’t like that asshole would ever pretend to be human and admit he wants Sano back.”
Though uncertain yet whether Saitou was aware of being shamelessly goaded, Kenshin could sense a nearly palpable ill will and disquiet from around the corner. It was matched by what emanated from the room whose door he still faced. “But I am starting to believe Sano may not have any idea what he wants,” he sighed. “He is easily confused.”
“Well, we know what he doesn’t need,” was Katsu’s emphatic declaration.
“And it is therefore fortunate Saitou does not know a good thing when it punches him in the face.” Kenshin had a hard time keeping the smile from his lips after that one.
“They bring out the worst in each other,” concurred Katsu solemnly, the corners of his mouth twitching as well.
Finally the door burst open. Looking disheveled, hollow-eyed, half starved, disturbed, and very annoyed, Sano glared at them. “Anything else you guys want to decide for me?” he demanded.
“We weren’t deciding anything for you, Sano,” the artist nearly drawled, evidently trying to mask how much seeing his friend like this bothered him.
“We were merely reaching our own conclusions,” Kenshin agreed, feeling much the same.
Sano’s expression made a sudden and drastic shift to an indescribable blend of positive and negative emotions, most of them much more serious than the irritation that had prompted him to open the door, and his eyes were focused neither on Kenshin nor on Katsu. The former wondered vaguely how Saitou had come all the way up the hall to stand behind them without either of them noticing.
“These two terrible actors have a few good points,” the officer remarked drily as he pushed his way past said terrible actors.
“You mean like about you being a preoccupied bastard?” Sano growled, looking up into Saitou’s face. The officer did not deign to reply in words, only snorted and dragged Sano back into the room, slamming the door behind them. The sound of their angry voices, which rose immediately into animated argument, receded gradually to the far side of the chamber.
“I believe we have done all we can,” said Kenshin quietly.
Katsu nodded, then added conversationally, “If they ever do this again, I’m bombing both their apartments.”
“I will not stop you,” Kenshin agreed. And to the continued sounds of the reunited couple making up, making love, making new dents in each other’s heads, or whatever they were doing in there, the two men turned and walked away side by side.
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This story is included in the Saitou/Sano Collection 1 ebook.