It was one of those situations in which the person following him was so obvious that the concealment could barely be considered more than nominal, and perhaps existed merely for the sake of anyone else the two of them might happen to pass. It certainly did nothing for Aoshi, who grew more and more impatient for the eventual encounter and had been, for a few minutes now, seeking an appropriate venue.
When he found one — a side street devoid of pedestrian traffic and heavily shadowed in the purpling dusk — he turned to face his tail and smoothly drew a kodachi. He definitely didn’t need two; he might not even need one.
And the voice of his pursuer said, “Please, Shinomori, do you really think, if I planned on attacking you, I would do it this openly?”
“You overestimate your skills,” Aoshi replied, searching for identifying detail in the darkness whence the somewhat familiar voice had come, “if you think you could approach me without my knowing.”
“If you say so.” Discarding any attempt at secrecy, the follower drew Aoshi’s eye directly to him by lighting a match. Briefly it illuminated a harsh face as the man, whom Aoshi now recognized, brought it to the end of the cigarette between his lips. “No,” Saitou went on, “I’m here to advise you.”
“Advise me of what?” Aoshi put his weapon away. He’d been right: he didn’t need it — though apparently not quite for the reason he’d believed.
“You may have a chance with Himura, but the stalking has got to stop.”
Completely blindsided, the former Okashira simply stared.
“Half the city knows you’re there, and many of us are wondering why a man with your abilities can’t be more subtle.”
That was all the time it took Aoshi to recover at least his outward composure. “You’re a police officer,” he said coolly; “what does it usually mean when someone with the ability not to be is consistently near being caught?”
“That he wants to be caught,” Saitou replied with some impatience. “But that’s the wrong way to approach this; you’ll only make things awkward.”
“I’ve tried to kill him twice. ‘Awkward’ is the baseline here.”
“So many people have tried to kill Himura that he considers it a perfectly legitimate form of introduction. I even heard him refer to me as a ‘friend’ recently. So, no, your relationship is not yet awkward enough that it won’t be worsened by the ridiculous stalking act.”
For a long moment Aoshi was silent, pondering this. He had to admit that between the Bakumatsu and the pursuit of Shishio, Saitou had spent more time around Himura than he had and was, perhaps, qualified to offer this admonishment. Why he would do so was a wholly different and rather bizarre question, but maybe he did, at least, know what he was talking about.
“Very well,” Aoshi said at last, in a tone he hoped would convey his willingness to listen but no promise to comply if he didn’t like what he heard. “What do you suggest?”
“As strange as it is to say surrounded by lunatics, you’re going to have to act like a normal, straightforward person. Innuendo won’t do. I’ve been reliably informed that Himura is ‘kindof a dipshit about things like this.'”
“I don’t know the boring details, but apparently he has some great romantic tragedy in his past, and buried his romantic sense along with the rest of his old life. The way I heard it described was, ‘These days he doesn’t even recognize romance if it swats him on the ass.'”
Though he’d reconciled himself to the fact that he was actually having this conversation, Aoshi didn’t yet feel entirely comfortable asking where these quotations were coming from.
“In other words,” Saitou went on, “Himura sees people almost exclusively as either friends or enemies, and he’s starting to believe you’re an enemy again, thanks to the stalking you’ve been so eager to let him notice. It will, as I said, make things incredibly awkward if that behavior suddenly turns into romantic overtures. You need to become his friend first, then make your romantic overtures in such a way that he can’t possibly misunderstand you. There is no place for stalking anywhere in this.”
“You said he referred to you recently as a friend,” wondered Aoshi suspiciously. “How do I know you’re not purposely giving me incorrect advice to further your own cause?”
Saitou’s laugh in response to this was so derisive as to drive home the sincerity of his subsequent words. “I’m not nearly so imbalanced and depressed yet as to find Himura attractive. He’s only shifted to ‘friend’ for me because I’ve been around him–” and here he added somewhat grudgingly, “and more or less forced to be relatively polite to him — so much lately.”
Irritated but feeling he might as well proceed, Aoshi asked, “Then what do you advise regarding my real rivals? He’s been living at that girl’s dojo for almost a year now.”
“You haven’t been there much — under normal, social circumstances, at least — since you came to Tokyo, but what has the weasel you brought with you been up to this whole time?”
“She’s spent nearly every minute of every day with Kaoru; sometimes she even sleeps–” He cut himself short, his eyes widening. From merely relieved that Misao seemed to have lessened the intensity of her attentions to him, he became all of a sudden sharply curious, and a little shocked that this hadn’t occurred to him before. “Do you mean to tell me that they–”
Saitou chuckled. “You’re an excellent spy, Shinomori, but sometimes you’re a little too single-minded.”
Deciding with a struggle to let go that comment on his abilities — or at least to store it away for later examination, along with the question of whether or not he approved of the relationship just implied involving someone for whom he couldn’t help feeling at least a little almost paternal responsibility and fondness, and whether he was or wasn’t completely failing to live up to those sensibilities by failing to notice this earlier — Aoshi asked, “What about Sagara?”
With a skeptical hmming sound as derisive as his earlier laugh, Saitou cocked his head to the side and said, “You think he’s interested in Himura?”
“At the very least I would not be surprised.”
“If you take my word for anything tonight, believe that he is thoroughly otherwise occupied.”
“Very well. And the doctor?”
Now the cop sighed faintly, as if he would rather not be quite so well informed as he was on this score. “Her burgeoning romance,” he said with sarcastic dramatic emphasis, “is even more unfathomable than the concept of anyone being attracted to your noisy protégé.”
“Let’s just say your path is clear. The ladies have lost interest and are looking elsewhere after waiting too long for Himura to make the first move, which we’ve already established will never happen since he is, and I quote, ‘dumbassedly blind to sexy even when it’s trying to kill him.'”
“Who the hell said that.”
Saitou just snorted.
A more pertinent question, which Aoshi could no longer refrain from asking, was, “And why are you, of all people, bringing this up?”
“Himura and I are practically related these days.” It was approximately the same tone as before — as if Saitou didn’t exactly want to be saying this, but had no choice. “I can’t get rid of him, so I more or less have to look out for him. It would be in your best interest to make him happy. It might also be a good idea to be sure this is what you really want before you marry into this family.”
Again Saitou snorted. “Single-minded,” he reiterated. “Take two minutes to stop staring exclusively at whatever it is you find so attractive about Himura, and look at the people around him, and someone with your skills should be able to sort things out. Then go ask him to drink tea with you or something instead of climbing a tree on the Kamiya property and tracking his ki all night ‘like a trench-coat spider trying to figure out what would be the creepiest way to suck Kenshin’s blood.'”
Aoshi didn’t bother to ask how Saitou had known what he’d been planning for this evening.
“I will undoubtedly see you around,” was Saitou’s abrupt, sardonic goodbye as he turned with a facetious wave and disappeared into the darkness.
Silently and in perfect stillness, pondering, Aoshi watched the point of the cigarette vanish from sight. ‘Practically related?’ Why on earth did Saitou have to look out for Himura? What could possibly link them thus? That the officer was bent on safeguarding Himura’s happiness — inexplicable as that might seem — was reassuring, but what did Himura make of such a guardian? This odd tangle Aoshi had blindly walked into by coming to Tokyo with the intentions he had — might it not be better to extricate himself from it while he still could? As Saitou had so cuttingly pointed out, after all, Himura hadn’t the faintest idea of Aoshi’s interest.
And yet, recalling a peculiarly alluring blend of strength and gentleness, a determination to help and heal rather than harm even in bitter extremities, Aoshi couldn’t entertain any thought of giving up, of walking away. Especially now he knew, thanks to a spy more resident than he was (and evidently in some ways he hadn’t quite parsed yet), that those he’d been considering his rivals had already conveniently dropped from the running.
He was not too proud to accept advice when it seemed reasonable, and becoming Himura’s friend first didn’t strike him as preclusively irrational. Aoshi might not be terribly skilled at friendmaking, but Himura was certainly worth taking on that challenge for. Besides, if it didn’t work, or if Saitou (and his anonymous source of slangy Kenshin-wisdom) turned out to be wrong or deliberately deceptive, he could always fall back on stalking.
With new plans forming in his head and a new determination — perhaps slightly less single-minded than before — Aoshi resumed his path toward the Kamiya dojo. He looked forward to attaining his goal, of course, with all his heart, but now he anticipated satisfaction as well from seeing Saitou around and gaining some idea of what was going on with him, possibly even greeting him as a relation for all practical purposes sometime in the not-too-distant future. He would figure it all out; that should be easy enough, really, with the leads he’d been provided tonight.
No one, whatever their reason for being involved in the tangle, would scare him away from this. He would make Kenshin — and himself — happy. It was what he really wanted.
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This story is included in the Saitou/Sano Collection 2 ebook.