On a Friday afternoon like most Friday afternoons — most Friday afternoons before Kenshin, that is — just as Sano was headed out of class, as usual, toward the bus stop, already pondering what he was going to have for lunch and whether homework or the playing of video games was likely to come first today, the phone he’d just barely powered back on started to ring.
Looking at the number, Sano frowned. It seemed familiar, but wasn’t one of his contacts, nor something he immediately recognized. He didn’t think he had any bills overdue, so this probably wasn’t anyone he would be too annoyed talking to. So he went ahead and answered.
It took him a second to recognize the voice, not only because he’d never talked to her on the phone before but because something was different in her tone.
“Yeah. Hi.” She sounded simultaneously less hopelessly miserable than every time he’d been around her, and a lot more hesitant and uncertain. She probably thought he would think her weird for calling almost a week after everything had ended.
“Hi,” he echoed in immediate concern and desire to put her at ease. “How are you doing?”
“As good as you could expect… maybe a little better than before. I’m calling because I was hoping I could… talk to you…”
“Yeah, of course,” he assured her earnestly.
“Have you talk to me, mostly, actually. I know I was a little… out of it… when you guys left on Saturday. I was hoping you would tell me everything that happened that I couldn’t really listen to before.”
“Yeah, sure.” He looked around. Not about to be That Guy having a phone conversation during his entire bus ride — especially a conversation about the ghost that had been haunting him and the mob secretary he’d met during the course of dealing with it — he made for a nearby bench. As he threw down his backpack he began, “Actually a lot of the stuff you’ll want to hear I only got from Hajime; I didn’t see it myself. But I’ll try to make it interesting anyway.”
“OK.” She sounded grateful and just the tiniest bit amused. Which was a very good sign, as Sano had never heard even that tiniest bit from her before.
He gave her all the details of the visit to Gains at the U.S.Seido headquarters, including what had happened after he’d passed out; this led to an explanation of how he and Hajime had come to investigate that seemingly very random avenue in the first place, which led to a hasty reassurance about what the police did and didn’t know, including, to the best of Sano’s ability, a word-for-word imitation of what Hajime had said to Chou about Kenshin’s death. He also relayed much of what Hajime had told him about his discussion with Kenshin, omitting only the parts that would be of interest solely to someone with a magical talent for interacting with the dead. This all took a while, and his phone had done that heating-up thing it sometimes did on lengthy calls before he was finished.
When he concluded, “And I’m pretty sure that’s everything that happened that you’d want to know,” she gave a drawn-out sigh. He was also pretty sure she’d been crying through at least part of what he’d had to say.
Now she said, “Thank you so much. This has all been really strange and horrible for me, and I really appreciate you talking to me about it.”
“Any time,” he replied. And to underline his sincerity he added, “And I mean that. I don’t know how much it’s likely to help, but, seriously, call me whenever you want to talk.” After all, though he hadn’t managed to get to know Kenshin in time to be his friend, there was no reason he couldn’t get to know Kaoru and be hers.
“Thank you,” she said again. “I think I’ll probably have to, some time.”
“‘Have to?'” he echoed. “I’m not that bad to talk to!”
And without a sour edge to it for the first time he’d heard, she laughed. “No, sorry,” she said. “It’s just… I may need a lot of talking before…”
“Yeah, definitely,” he agreed. “I totally understand.” Just as he had at her apartment last week, he felt a little awkward trying to offer the dubious service of his conversation to someone with as long and hard an upward road as she had before her, but he didn’t shrink from the task. “Seriously, call me any time.”
She thanked him yet again, and added, “And say thank you to your friend for me, too, would you? I have his card still, but… I don’t know… it seemed like…”
“He’s a lot more professional than me?” Sano tried to keep the bitterness of the last five days out of his tone.
“Well, he was polite and everything, but… yeah, professional’s a good word. It was all just work to him; it seemed like you cared more.”
This was such a pricklingly accurate summary that Sano could barely confirm it and promise that he would, nevertheless, relay her thanks to Hajime. If he ever happened to talk to him again.
“I’ll let you go,” she said next. “Thanks again.”
“No problem at all.”
When the call had ended and Sano sat staring unseeingly at the phone he didn’t want to put back in his pocket until it had cooled down a bit, he found himself in an ambivalent mood. This conversation, he felt, had been a very good thing; Kaoru now had all the information available, which would surely help in her recovery — not to mention, for what it was worth, the awareness that Sano was there for her whenever she needed him. And she even seemed to be doing a little better than the last time he’d seen her. This was all calculated to please him… but then, naturally during the course of such a conversation, Hajime had come up, and thinking about Hajime right now was not calculated to please. Not that Sano hadn’t been doing it all week; but he’d at least been free of it (mostly) for the last several hours.
That Hajime could possibly be ignorant of Sano’s interest in him, Sano could in no way bring himself to believe. Therefore, the fact that he’d heard nothing from the man since their awkward goodbye on Saturday could only be, he thought, an indication of Hajime’s specific disinterest. Which shouldn’t be even the tiniest bit surprising: that was what Sano had believed of him pretty much the entire time. As Kaoru had said, it was all just work to him.
But they hadn’t known each other very long… how could Hajime dismiss him with so much surety after only a week’s acquaintance? Of course that same limited time period meant Sano didn’t know that it wasn’t just as likely things really wouldn’t ever work between them, but that was no reason not to give it a try! All Sano wanted was a chance; was that too much to ask?
Or, if Hajime really was dead-set against the idea — didn’t like men, for example (which, Sano had to admit, would be a pretty solid reason to dismiss him with so much surety) — he damn well could have said something to that effect.
Not that Sano had actually said anything. He’d been on the verge of doing so a number of times, but hadn’t ever gotten the words out. Somehow the casual statement of interest he’d never had a hard time giving anyone else had just been really difficult with this guy that was comradely one minute and all business the next. And now he hadn’t heard from him for six days. It seemed that ship had sailed.
And that was when the phone in his hand began to play the mournfully angry song his pique halfway through the week had authorized him to purchase as a ringtone for Hajime’s number.
His heart-rate seemed instantly to double and time simultaneously to slow as the name appeared on the screen just when he’d convinced himself that would never happen again. His fingers fumbled unbearably across the keys, nearly initiating a couple of different ‘reject call’ options by accident on the way to answering. And his “Hello?” definitely came out a good deal more quiet and hoarse than he could have wished.
“You don’t have call waiting.” Still no actual greeting. Sano had never decided whether or not he thought that was a good sign, but at least nothing had changed.
“Yeah,” he found himself explaining at unnecessary length, “for some reason, my crappy service charges, like, two dollars extra a month for that. Same with call forwarding and voicemail. You’d think those would all be basic features, but I guess if they can make some extra money on ’em, why not?”
“You need a new provider.”
“I’ll think about that as soon as this phone dies. It’s still got a couple months left.”
“You should be able to afford a new one sooner than that; it’s the 26th.”
“Oh, yeah, it is! Shit!” Sano wasn’t sure whether he was more astonished or amused to find that, in light of his annoyed disappointment about Hajime, he’d actually managed to forget the massive check that was currently sitting on his kitchen counter.
“So you need to cash a check and see a doctor,” Hajime said, and it was clear that amusement was his foremost reaction. “I thought you might want a ride.”
Well, so far, so professional — both of those things had to do with the ordeal last week, and the offer of a ride was probably merely another part of Hajime’s unspoken apology for stabbing Sano in the shoulder. Sano wasn’t going to tell him just yet that he’d pulled the stitches out himself because they’d become annoying, and that therefore Hajime didn’t need to pay any doctor to do it for him. Though it probably would have hurt less if he had.
“So you called to offer to drive me around,” Sano said probingly.
“That, and ask if you wanted to assist in a job I’m working on.”
Sano bit back the immediate affirmative that sprang into his throat, and asked instead, “What kind of job?”
“People shouldn’t move into a house where someone has recently died without having the place checked out first,” Hajime remarked, sounding a little irritated despite the fact that such people kept him in business. “I took care of the red shade in the house, but one of the children had already internalized enough of it to cause some serious problems.”
“And you don’t want to stab the kid,” Sano grinned.
“Not particularly. There’s a share of the fee in it for you, if you’re interested.”
‘Interested’ was a bit of an understatement. Just the thought of doing that kind of real, official work in the field of necrovisual magic with Hajime made Sano almost giddy. He remembered Hajime referring to him as his partner a week ago and the rush that had given him at the time… and now Hajime was essentially asking Sano to fulfill that function. Either that or ‘using a specialist’ as he’d also mentioned once in Sano’s hearing. In any case, it was money and work he didn’t hate and recognition of his abilities and time spent with Hajime all in one. Of course he was interested.
On the other hand, the offer, obviously even more than the ones that had preceded it, still fell very much in the realm of the professional. There was no saying that Hajime would have called him, that Sano would ever have heard from him again, if there hadn’t been last week’s business to clean up and this week’s business to pursue. This was all about business, and that was a huge puncture in Sano’s ballooning glee.
But that didn’t mean he was going to make the same mistake twice. Not after he’d spent the entire week wondering whether he should call Hajime to say what he hadn’t managed to say on Saturday. The level of discouragement Hajime had doled out — deliberately or otherwise Sano had never been able to decide — had made it pretty evident that a direct statement such as, “I’d kinda really like to make out with you,” was probably not a good idea… but now that this line was open, he wasn’t going to hang up until he’d at least said something.
“You know a share of the fee’s not all I want, right?” And maybe even that was too direct, but he’d said it now.
“There may be some pizza and beer in it for you as well,” Hajime replied.
It wasn’t just the words, but their immediacy — Hajime’s complete lack of hesitation in speaking them — that flooded Sano with a hot, energizing excitement and happiness. This seemed a pretty clear indication that Hajime was not averse to giving Sano a chance at winning him over — or, at the very least, that he would be happy to spend time with him. Because there was no promise of a ghost now. Nothing professional. Just Sano. Hajime had already specifically established, in fact, that Sano was not even a little bit professional.
“And anime?” Sano didn’t bother trying to keep his emotions out of his voice.
There was a hidden grin in Hajime’s reply, “That depends on what I’m in the mood for. It may be Law and Order.”
“I can handle that. And what about lunch right now?” With this he was pushing just for the sake of pushing.
“You are a worthless freeloader,” Hajime declared. “And I’ve already had lunch.”
“I can’t absorb shade on an empty stomach!”
“We’ll find you a drive-thru on the way to the clients’ house.” It didn’t even sound as if Hajime was giving in, merely adjusting his plans as required.
The ecstatic Sano would have adored to continue this conversation right up until the moment Hajime actually appeared in the flesh in front of him, but the beeping that had arisen in his ear forced him to say, “Hey, my phone’s about to die. You know how to get to the school?”
“Well, I’m in front of the Statton Building.”
“I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
“My pants have big red chains on them that match my hair today; you can’t miss me.”
“Idiot.” And Hajime hung up.
Sano squeezed his phone and shook it in a gesture of triumph and delight, laughing simultaneously under the same influence. A chance was what he’d wanted, and a chance, it appeared, was what he was getting. Well, he had wanted, and still wanted, more than that, but a chance was all he’d thought it totally reasonable to ask for. And now he had it: proof that this wasn’t actually hopeless, and an opportunity that he was certainly going to make the most of. That exorcist was going to find Sano capable of haunting just as tenaciously as any ghost.
Huge happy smile undiminished, Sano nudged his backpack onto the ground, lay down onto the cool bench with one arm behind his head, turned his gaze up into the cloudless blue of the sky, and waited for Hajime.
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