Although his knuckles grated against the board and his hands were growing raw from time spent underwater, the only feeling in Sano’s heart just then was pride. Months ago he would never, never, never have been able to bring himself to do this — at least, not in a place so public and certainly not without a good deal of griping. But now he actually smiled and hummed something tuneless while he worked the clothes around in the hot, soapy water. And he wondered when he’d reached this level of maturity.
He could certainly trace its roots: he’d been watching Kenshin wash clothing and linens on a regular basis for nearly two years now — not just his own, but anyone else’s that happened to be there, even if it had been sneaked in under entirely false pretenses — and he’d noticed a bit more recently that Hajime also did his own laundry. Still, he wondered just when he’d put two and two together to realize this activity was not emasculating. He started to whistle. Yes, he was definitely growing up, and not in any way that spoiled his fun — as a matter of fact, he expected this would only add to that fun when Hajime came home to a bunch of clean garments washed by his very own roosterhead. Sano grinned. Not that the bastard was likely to say anything about it, but he’d probably show his thanks somehow or other.
One of Saitou’s neighbors, a girl of about sixteen, emerged from her back door and immediately started giggling. “Good morning, Sagara-san!”
Sano looked around and realized that, while filling and making use of his tub, he’d almost entirely flooded the little plot around the water pump the four residences shared. He laughed a little sheepishly. The girl picked her way over to him and watched with a smile as he pulled the last item from the rinse and wrung it out. The clothesline was getting heavy, and Sano looked at it with pleasure.
“You shouldn’t twist that kind of material; it’ll warp,” the girl chided him. “That’s probably imported, you know.”
“Is it?” Sano looked back at the black shirt. Hajime owned at least five of them; he wore them under his police uniforms when it was too hot for long sleeves.
“Fujita-san won’t be too happy with you,” she laughed, “if you ruin those.”
Sano felt a chill of apprehension, wondering if his excellent plan had already backfired. But he aimed for casualness as he replied, “They’ll be fine,” picking up the tub and heading for the gutter.
She continued to watch him. “I’ve never seen you doing Fujita-san’s laundry before.” Fujita-san’s precise relationship with the younger man the neighbors saw coming and going from time to time had never been established, but they all seemed to assume Sano was a part-time housekeeper.
Sano shrugged. “He never asked me to.” He hadn’t this time either, which was why it had been such a brilliant idea.
“So, if you’re going to start doing it now, we’ll see more of you around here…”
“Maybe.” Again Sano shrugged, feeling another swell of pride. Just months before, he would have been annoyed, perhaps insulted, at the idea of himself as a housekeeper, even part-time. But now it held a certain charm to it, with no unpleasant connotations at all. If it didn’t get any worse than laundry, he felt the rewards were well worth it.
Now he began seeking his gi, unable to remember where he’d put it when the water pump had started getting out of hand. He turned to find the girl holding it out to him with a smile. “Here you go, Sagara-san.”
“Thanks. See you later.” And he headed into the house.
“Goodbye,” she replied, emphasizing the word peculiarly.
As he carefully locked the back door, knowing Saitou would flay him if he came home to find one of the house entrances accessible to just anyone, a realization slowly dawned on Sano: that girl… that girl had been flirting with him. At first he couldn’t quite believe it, but as he thought about her words, the way she’d moved, and the tone of that goodbye… yes, she was definitely attracted to him! His mouth split into the widest grin of the day so far, for two reasons: first because doing laundry apparently made him attractive, which was not only very promising but caused him to see Kenshin and Kaoru in an entirely new light; second because it tickled him that he could be so caught up in thoughts of a certain someone that he didn’t even notice when a young cutie was coming on to him.
His grin turned to a yawn as he headed for the bedroom. Here was just enough time for a nap while the clothes dried; then he could fold them and have everything perfect for when Hajime got home.
Staring up lazily at the ceiling, Sano played with a grey glove — twisting it, stretching it, turning it inside out; it didn’t matter what he did to it, since this one’s mate had been destroyed and a new pair procured for work — and thought about its owner. After a while he pressed it against his own palm, comparing; they were nearly the same size, Sano’s hand just a bit bigger. With this size analysis came an unbidden query: what had Saitou been like at Sano’s age? The idea was fun, so Sano started to picture Hajime in his early twenties. His face would be softer, perhaps, the harsh set of his lips not having developed. Lighter eyes, maybe, not yet having faced the darkness of the war? Sano decided to keep the dark eyes. But he’d understood that Saitou had worn his hair long back then, and he grinned at the thought of running his hands through it or tugging at it during more intimate moments. Brushing it, even. He closed his eyes and continued to imagine. What would it be like if Saitou were his age now?
Better yet, younger…
Sano began the scenario at the beginning: he would be the mature one, the one with experience, the stronger warrior, the more respected man. He would be the one to seduce the young and innocent Saitou Hajime, a local samurai trainee of, oh, say, sixteen… wouldn’t that be nice… Though it hadn’t been bad the way it had actually happened.
Sano would be the master then; no more, “Ahou, go spy out such-and-such for me, and don’t come back until you have the information I need,” or, “Go buy me cigarettes, ahou, and don’t try to pocket the change,” or, “Come here and bend over, and try not to make so much noise this time, ahou.” Sano chuckled. Being with Saitou automatically made him part spy, and it was actually pretty fun. Running errands wasn’t really so bad either. And as for bending over… Sano chuckled again. He certainly didn’t object to that, though a reversal of roles now and then wouldn’t hurt his feelings.
He could be the tormenter, if he wanted, and ahou ga Saitou’s ears off. He would be the one that always knew when the other was following him, the one prepared for what the other thought would be a surprise attack. And Saitou would be the one who got his ass kicked in every spar. Sano scratched the scar on his shoulder thoughtfully, remember the first time he’d seen Saitou, the bite of the sword. His hand slipped down his chest, touching another scar, remember a very different bite, the first time he’d seen Saitou…
So… Hajime would be the one working hard to please Sano, instead of the other way around — the one slaving away the entire day just in the hope of one smile. Sano grinned at the thought of Saitou doing his laundry. “Saitou, you have to get a job,” he could say. “I can’t pay all your bills for you forever…” Or, “Saitou, you can’t go gambling tonight — I need you to hang out at this particular bar and see if a certain person is still in town.” Or, “I’m too tired tonight, Saitou.” Not that Sano didn’t know perfectly well he should get a job and pay his own bills, or that he minded using his good looks and reputation to find things out that Saitou might have had a harder time with. And Hajime was so rarely ‘too tired…’
Lounging around fantasizing, however restful it may seem, is not a nap. When Sano rose to collect the fluttering laundry from the dusky yard, it was with more yawns than when he’d lain down. His eyelids drooped as he carefully folded Saitou’s clothing and put it away. The towels came next, followed by a blanket that hadn’t completely dried; this he hung over the chair at Saitou’s desk. Finished, he strolled out onto the porch and looked down the twilit hill at rows of similar houses. Sitting down on the step, he started to play with a blade of grass, rolling it up tightly and seeing how long it would retain that shape before falling flat again in his hand. After not too long, he was leaning against a pillar staring listlessly at his toy with narrow eyes. Minutes later he was asleep.
Less than a half hour passed before a dark figure ascended the road toward his house. His pace was quick, almost militaristic, his stoical face giving no indication of the extreme boredom he’d taken from his paperlogged day. He approached the younger man in absolute silence, stopping before the sleeping figure. His expression did not change as he looked down at Sano, whose mouth hung the open against the wood of the pillar, but something about him softened just a bit.
“Ahou,” he murmured, and, leaning forward, placed a small iris on the open palm lying in Sano’s lap. Strong fingers curled instinctively around its stem and drew it up against a wrapped stomach like something precious. Saitou stepped onto the porch and through the open front door.
The first thing he noticed was the blanket. Removing his gloves and laying them on the desk, Saitou put a quizzical hand to the cloth. Yes, it seemed to have been washed. One tiny quirk took the corner of his mouth and was gone again. He strolled into the bedroom, removing his hat, and then he did smile, briefly. The kid had gone and done all his laundry. He put the hat on the shelf where his newly-cleaned clothing lay, and went back outside.
Kneeling next to the snoring young man, Saitou leaned in and kissed him, pressing harder and harder until Sano’s eyes flew open and he sat up straight with a start. “You left the door open,” Hajime murmured.
“Sorry,” Sano yawned.
“Come on.” Saitou stood straight.
“Where are we going?”
“Akabeko. My treat.”
Sano beamed and jumped off the porch after his master. His brilliant plan had worked! He couldn’t help grinning. Oh, yes, he certainly was the dominated one in this relationship — the subservient who bought what he wanted by doing laundry and other stuff like that. He was ahou‘d and insulted and often used like a tool in his lover’s service.
He glanced down at the flower that seemed to have appeared from nowhere in his hand, golden and glowing in the fading sunset like Hajime’s eyes.
Yeah, Saitou was the master; Sano was the servant.
And hell if that wasn’t the damned best way to live.