A serious dreariness had been creeping over Sagara Sanosuke of late, and had proven extremely difficult to talk himself out of or even shake by more vigorous methods. He really shouldn’t be so melancholy, now that Shishio was defeated and so-called peace had returned to the country, now that they were finally going back to Tokyo to see all their friends and settle down again. Really, with as well as things had turned out, especially contrary to many of their expectations, Sano should have been quite happy, perhaps extremely happy. Placidly happy, at the very least. But he couldn’t even manage to be moderately satisfied.
He tried to tell himself he was depressed because his right hand would probably be messed up for the rest of his life. He experimented with the idea that he was disappointed he would never get his rematch against Saitou in order to prove himself to the skinny bastard. He even played with the theory that he was annoyed with Chou for beating him home and presumably waiting there rubbing his hands together in evil anticipation of aggravating Sano farther as part of the Tokyo police force. But not one of these was the true cause of Sano’s dejected state.
The fact was that he loved Kenshin, and couldn’t have him.
Those gorgeous violet eyes, their expression veiled partially by the charming ragged bangs that fell carelessly across them and more completely by the mysterious yet not unfriendly reserve that was one of Kenshin’s most engaging features, were enough to melt Sano with a single glance. He longed to seize that compact form, bury his hands in that luscious mass of hair, and envelope Kenshin’s strong lips with his own. What would follow he tried not to imagine, at least in public, since it seemed injudicious to be getting aroused any old time, but even in the presence of others his fancy ran free with tamer thoughts of holding Kenshin in his arms, kissing him, watching the sun set…
And then Kaoru would open her damn mouth and shatter all his dreams. And Sano would have to face the truth: Kenshin would never be his.
So life wasn’t as beautiful for him as it seemed to be for all of his companions, particularly the one whose apparent confidence in the return of her affections was actively tearing down any hope Sano might have in the return of his. The only solace he’d found thus far had been in drinking himself silly at the numerous victory parties Misao and the rest of them (well, mostly just Misao) had insisted on holding at the Aoiya. For this excess nobody seemed to blame him; they all assumed he did it out of relief rather than misery.
The situation would not gall quite so much, he thought as he watched Kenshin and Kaoru walk in front of him hand in hand on their way to the train station, if his object of affection were to act as hopelessly trapped as Sano believed (or wished he could believe) he was. He couldn’t be unconscious of the irony in the thought that a show of discontentment from Kenshin would make Sano feel less discontented, but he didn’t spend long dwelling on it. The point was that Kenshin gave every indication — every indication such a constrained character as his could give, anyway — of actually being very fond of Kaoru.
Sano couldn’t quite comprehend this. He loved her, of course, but that was merely because he was around her all the time, and you just came to love people like that, as long as they weren’t too annoying (like Saitou). But a closer look at Kaoru revealed very little that could induce someone to spend a lifetime with her. She was pretty, yeah, but nothing out of the ordinary. She didn’t have any real talents besides kenjutsu, which made her a bit brutish anyway. Certainly she wasn’t a good cook. What did Kenshin see in her?
“Are you listening to me?” Yahiko was demanding from his side.
Sano realized that, during the last few minutes he’d spent staring engrossedly at the couple in front of them, he hadn’t heard a word his young companion had said. So he replied bluntly, “No. It’s not like you’re saying anything worth listening to.”
Yahiko bristled. “Dammit, Sano, it’s a funny story!”
“Yeah, yeah, you better start over,” Sano replied, giving a final glance to his desire and his rival, then settling in for whatever Yahiko was babbling about. “I’ll try to pay attention this time.”
“So I was saying–” Yahiko now looked and sounded annoyed– “how Okon and Omasu decided at the same time they wanted Hiko-sama, and when they found out they both wanted him and realized only one of them could have him — though I think he probably would have taken them both if they’d asked — they each decided they were going to outdo the other and get his attention. So Omasu was planning to make him this amazing meal…”
This time when Sano stopped listening, it wasn’t because Yahiko’s words weren’t interesting, but because they were so interesting that they’d struck him like lightning, and he’d become deafened to anything else by an entire unrelated world of thunderous thought. ‘Outdo the other and get his attention,’ had he said? Why the hell hadn’t he thought of it before?
Sano was very good-looking. This strong internal conviction was born not of vanity, but of the experience of many years spent in colorful venues where whistling at and even casually propositioning a passing bishounen wasn’t considered inappropriate behavior for denizens of either sex. And he had talents. At least he thought he did. More than that obnoxious girl, anyway — specifically, some that she pointedly lacked.
He grinned widely. Kamiya Kaoru, you’d better watch yourself, he reflected. Zanza has just entered the game.
Yahiko, misinterpreting the grin, went off on a tangent in his story.
But how to go about it? Unlike Hiko, Kenshin probably wouldn’t take them both if they asked, and one thing Kaoru had that Sano definitely lacked was the former Battousai’s attention and a good head start. Sano would have to do something flashy just to get Kenshin to begin noticing him and the qualities that set him above Kaoru, and that something couldn’t be merely show; he would really have to impress him.
Considering all the things he’d ever seen impress Kenshin in the past, he determined that, in his case, the first thing to do was to learn to defend himself properly. This would mean swallowing his pride, actively amending his fighting style, and engaging in some real training with someone, none of which struck him as even a little bit fun — but would certainly be worth it to attain his end. A display of such personal improvement would not only grab Kenshin’s eye, get him thinking about Sano in a very serious light, it would prove that Sano was a responsible adult worthy of affection, that Sano was willing to change for the better for the man he loved. Where he would find someone to train him was a mystery at this point, since it would ruin the surprise and send entirely the wrong message if he asked Kenshin himself, but he would deal with that concern later.
And eventually, obviously, he would have to seduce him. Of course that would come only after he’d gotten his attention, gotten him thinking about all of Sano’s multiform, scintillating points of attraction and contrasting them with Kaoru’s deficiency, but it would be a crucial sort of capstone to Sano’s efforts. To prove he was more desirable than Kaoru meant showing Kenshin he was superb in bed, whereas she would probably alternate between demanding and demure and have any idea what she was doing in neither state.
The only problem here was that Sano, pickier and more circumspect about romance than anyone might have thought to find him, had never slept with anyone, woman or man. Though the solution to this problem too was a concern to be dealt with later — much later, since it was a secondary stage in his plan at earliest — he still found himself laughing a little as he wondered how, exactly, he could assert his superiority in an area where had no experience.
Yahiko laughed along with him, and continued talking, unheard, all the way to the train station.
“No, no, no, no, no, no.” The first ‘no’ held the kind of genuine, straightforward annoyance Sano could relate to, but by the sixth, the statement had degenerated into a sneer for which he had much less patience. “Are you completely deaf? You can’t tense up like that.”
Sano ground his teeth against a counterproductive snarling reply. During this training session — which had lasted, so far, all of twenty-five minutes — Arakaki had insulted Sano’s powers of sight, hearing, and comprehension several times; but honestly what bothered Sano most was the supercilious tone and the use of labels like ‘thug’ and references to ‘the streets’ that (while not necessarily inaccurate) made it clear how far above his pupil Arakaki considered himself. If there was one thing Sano hated more than (well, perhaps on a similar level to) the Meiji government, it was people that tried to perpetuate the old class system whose abolishment or at least partial breakdown was one of the few decent things the revolution had accomplished.
Genji had sworn up and down that Arakaki’s training worked absolute miracles, but Sano had yet to feel particularly inspired by it. It wasn’t just the classism; it was the nasality of Arakaki’s tone on a purely aural basis, as well as the fact that he had yet even to touch the sword he wore so boldly at his hip. He’d talked and talked, harping on Sano’s stance and breathing patterns and the arrangement of fingers in his fists (for fuck’s sake), and become more and more offensive while doing so.
Yet this was the first step in Sano’s plan to impress Kenshin. That Arakaki was the best he’d been able to come up with in his quest to learn better defensive techniques was not terribly promising, but he couldn’t quit so soon after starting just because the man was incredibly irritating and not actually very educational so far. Wasn’t part of the point of all of this to prove that he was a responsible adult capable of deliberate improvement? He would just have to try harder.
Unfortunately, his annoyance had caused him to tense up even farther. Observing this, Arakaki leaned back and crossed his arms, foot tapping impatiently, with an exaggerated sigh. “Are you sure you’re up to this?” he wondered aloofly.
“I’m paying you good money,” was Sano’s surly reply. “Just get on with it.”
“You’re paying me borrowed money, I believe. I could just as easily find someone to work with who’ll pay me out of his own pocket, if this is all a little beyond you.”
At this, Sano felt his resolve to put up with this asshole dissolving. He could do better than this. Surely there was some option that wouldn’t make him want to pull his hair out — or perhaps pull Arakaki’s hair out in big, painful, bloody clumps. The only salvage he thought he could make of this scene was to get at least some of his borrowed money’s worth out of Arakaki by forcing him into a fight that might be interesting even if it wasn’t particularly edifying. So, as he growled, “Like hell you can!” he hurled himself at the other man.
But somewhat to his surprise and even dismay, Arakaki’s expression went from startlement at Sano’s sudden move to blankness as Sano’s fist connected solidly with his cheekbone. Without ever a twitch toward his weapon, Arakaki went down.
In some bemusement, not quite grasping what had just happened or what to do with the energy he’d built up for combat that now obviously wasn’t going to take place, Sano stood over the fallen form, staring. A thunderous scowl grew on his face as the truth dawned on him, and curses presently began pouring from his mouth. More in belated response to Arakaki’s sneering than anything else, Sano kicked his fallen ‘mentor’ a couple of times, then searched through the man’s pockets until he found the money that had been meant to pay for this and future lessons. Finally he stalked away to look for Genji, intending to give him a good backhand for hooking him up with a defense trainer that was all talk.
Halfway across town, however, and upon further reflection, his anger at his friend had cooled. He hadn’t actually specified that he was looking for someone more skilled than he was, someone that could easily defeat him. That would have been a difficult requirement to meet in any case. And even if Genji should really have known that book-learning and teaching thereby didn’t mean shit to Sano, such methods probably meant something to someone. All that nasal absurdity about stance and breathing and proper arrangement of fingers surely had its place, and Genji shouldn’t be blamed if he thought that place might be in a training session with Sano.
But Genji also didn’t know how much of Sano’s heart was wrapped up in this, how much of Sano’s future happiness depended on his following through with his plan. What to do now?
He thought back through the major conflicts he’d taken part in, listing one by one the people that had managed to defeat him during his adult life as a warrior: Kenshin, Aoshi, Saitou, Shishio… it was not an extensive list, and even less so in the possibilities it presented for a new defense tutor. Kenshin was, self-evidently, unfeasible. Shishio and Saitou were dead. Which left only Aoshi. Which meant going back to Kyoto, damn it all.
As if subconsciously seeking an excuse not to return to a place he associated with very few pleasant memories and that was, additionally, two hundred and fifty miles away, he found his mental vision filled with Aoshi’s frigidity of glance and strange gaunt figure, his mental hearing with the Okashira’s hushed, almost eerie voice. That man gave him the utmost creeps, and how likely was he to want to help Sano anyway? During the weeks between the defeat of Shishio and the Kenshingumi’s return to Tokyo, Aoshi’s attitude had struck Sano not so much with penitence toward Kenshin as something much more… covetous. It could have been his imagination, but he wouldn’t be surprised to find that Aoshi thought of Kenshin very much as Sano did.
Not Aoshi, then.
Sano’s thoughts kept returning to Saitou. If only that bastard hadn’t been fried to a crisp and presumably flattened like an okonomiyaki back in Shishio’s fortress, he would be absolutely ideal. Sano wasn’t quite sure where this concept of Saitou’s perfection for the job came from, but figured it had something to with the officer’s casual willingness to beat him up. Why the fuck hadn’t Saitou done something back there? He’d never seemed the type to give up easily, but he’d just lit a cigarette and walked straight to Hell; it had practically been deliberate suicide. Of course there wasn’t much chance he could have jumped that damn chasm, but he could at least have made the attempt…
On the spur of an annoyed and bitter moment in the midst of these thoughts, Sano decided just to go get drunk with the money Genji had loaned him for defense tuition. Maybe if he found a crowded bar full of toughs as volatile as himself, he could start a brawl that might teach him a thing or two. But even as he turned his feet toward the best area of town for this activity (which he knew well from long experience), he was rolling his eyes at the recollection of fight after fight with large groups of men that hadn’t taught him anything but arrogance.
The plausibility of the ideas he came up with as he drank lessened with each degree of soberness that slipped from him. There was Heihachiro-sensei, who’d always been a friend to Sano even if he was a bit washed up… Hiko Seijuurou, an ass Sano didn’t particularly ever want to see again… that Shigure guy that had caused so much trouble right after they’d come back from Kyoto and was, of course, dead… For one silly drunken moment, Sano even seriously considered tracking down that psychotic Soujirou kid, who’d definitely known how to fight like a fucking badass even if he was completely out of his mind… but finding him would be even more trouble than going back to Kyoto and trying to convince an equally out-of-his-mind Aoshi that Kenshin was better off with Sano than with a depressed necrophiliac that had twice tried to kill him.
Sano demanded more sake of the bar staff by the time-honored method of slamming down his current empty jug so hard it cracked. If only fucking Saitou were alive! Sano’s anger at the absent police officer seemed to increase alongside, but separate from, his anger at the situation in general. What was he going to do? Only a little way into his plan and he was already at an impasse! An impasse he would never have hit if Saitou were just around, damn him!
Nobody had brought him any more sake, but it didn’t matter; he seized a jug from the tray of someone passing nearby, who was too afraid of him in his current state to protest. The room suddenly felt dim and stuffy, much too small to house his mood that expanded like a roiling stormcloud. He seemed to have grown huge, bloated with anger, and as he stood he felt like he was dwarfing the other customers as well as the staff–
–when in actuality he was reeling, falling back to his seat and almost losing hold of his latest provision of drink as he tried to catch himself. Damn. He pushed up again heavily with his free hand against the table, took another gulp for increased steadiness, and, once he’d gotten his legs, staggered toward the exit. A red haze floated around him and supported him to a certain extent; it was, he thought, the buoyant energy of his hatred for everything in the world except Kenshin — maybe even Kenshin, who’d dared to capture his heart without his permission and put him into this irate quandary. Damn that peace-loving redhead!
Sano’s shoulder hit the doorframe with his ill-aimed attempt at departure, and this distracted him from his rage long enough to hear the proprietor’s voice– “Sir, your bill…?”
Yes, he should probably pay, since he had money for once. He’d forgotten why he had money, but there was no reason to drag others down into his miserable state when he did have the means to interact properly. Fumbling in his pocket, he extracted what he had and dropped it somewhere before staggering out the door.
An intense desire was building inside him much more potently than the distant awareness that this upright posture was pushing his alcohol-saturated blood throughout his body in such a way that he wasn’t likely to remain upright all that much longer. There was something he specifically wanted to do… what was it… fight someone? Yeah, that was it. His aching fist was pleading for a skull, and as he swallowed more sake he could have sworn that the jug was speaking its concurrence with each glug.
But it wasn’t just anyone he wanted to fight… not Kenshin or Gohei or Anji — these were the names that came blearily to mind, only to be dismissed by a rakish wave of hand in the dark street. There was someone he specifically wanted to fight, someone he desperately wanted to give a good thrashing. Someone whose fault it was that he was so miserable tonight.
In the shadows ahead, beside an object his increasingly wavering vision eventually recognized as a wall, he thought he saw him: tall, slim, clad in dark blue and black, nihontou worn high at his side, the man he so intensely sought. Smoke curled hazily from somewhere beneath two gleaming gold spots; yeah, that was the bastard. He grinned — at least he thought he grinned; some of his muscles either weren’t responding to his brain or just weren’t reporting what they were up to — and stumbled forward, hands clenching into fists.
His charge gained momentum, but even as he heaved his weight into a solid punch to the head that would fucking show him, that would pay him back for going off and dying and leaving Sano in a dilemma like this, he felt his eyelids falling inexorably closed and an irresistible leadenness overtaking his entire frame. Too late, too late. Too much sake, too angry, too stupid, too late. As he crumpled, he cursed himself: Of course Saitou’s not there, ahou; he’s… But even as he mentally formed Saitou’s pet name for him, everything went black.
And the tall figure that had sidestepped his punch leaned casually, quickly, and caught him with one arm before he hit the ground. The other hand flicked away the butt of a cigarette, then smoothed out, as if to see it better, the rumpled kanji covering the limp back. A faint, monosyllabic laugh came from the darkness beneath the golden gleams. “Ahou ga.”
As Sano awoke to a splitting headache fueled by the rush of light into his suddenly opened eyes, he tried to remember where he was, why he was wherever that was, and whether anything had happened last night that he might need to answer for. Memory came trickling back, and he groaned. Imagine attacking a wall thinking it was Saitou! To have believed even briefly that Saitou was somehow alive and just happened to be not only in Tokyo but on the very street that held the bar where Sano had been drinking, Sano must have had more to drink in that bar than he’d realized — a theory that, as he blinked slowly and experimentally once or twice, was fully sustained by the flare of nauseating pain in his head.
Though well aware that he might be happier in ignorance, he turned sluggishly to see if he couldn’t figure out where he was. There had been instances in the past when this fact had remained a mystery for some time after his awakening, and in those cases his inability to recognize his surroundings had presented a source of interest that could at least distract from even if it didn’t override the discomfort of the hangover. Unfortunately, this small bare chamber separated from the hallway beyond by thick bars provided no such interest. The knowledge that he’d been incarcerated, rather than distracting him, could only add to his current feelings of general wretchedness. After he got out of here, he was going to need another drink.
Fucking shit… he was definitely going to need another drink.
“The hell d’you want?” he demanded, directing his face toward the ceiling again and reclosing his eyes.
“Just thought you might wanna know why you’re in here, is all.” Chou leaned casually against the bars, grinning as he peered inside at Sano with one eye.
A lamp mounted on the wall across the hallway was placed so as to shine as fully as possible into the cell for optimal inmate visibility; Sano knew from experience that the corridor was lined with them, and each was lit only when its corresponding cell was occupied. At the moment, though Sano certainly wasn’t going to point it out, Chou was standing precisely in the right spot to block the light from falling onto this inmate’s sensitive eyelids — a circumstance that made an unusual love-hate relationship out of one that was generally a good deal more straightforward.
“Like it’s never happened before,” he finally muttered in reply to Chou’s flippant comment.
“What,” the broomhead wondered, “you attacking a police officer in the middle of the night?”
Sano sat bolt upright, his heart suddenly, inexplicably pounding, eyes wide despite the stabbing discomfort. “At-t-tacking a policeofficer?”
Chou stared at him in bemusement, his squint momentarily not so tight. “Yeah… officer patrolling over in Akasaka says you came out of a bar drunk as a fucking dog and tried to attack him for no reason, but–” chuckling derisively– “you passed out before you could even get in one single hit.”
Fucking hell. Sano lay back down on the hard bench, closing his eyes yet again and breathing deeply despite how rancid the air currently tasted and smelled thanks to whatever had gone on inside his mouth and nasal passages while he’d been unconscious.
Now that the story was told, lack of detail notwithstanding, Sano felt foolish and more than a bit confused at his own reaction to Chou’s original statement. He wasn’t even going to pretend that he hadn’t taken those words as an immediate confirmation that it had actually been Saitou, and he wondered both where he should have gotten such a foolish notion as well as why that foolish notion had so roused him. Obviously he would have liked to think Saitou might be available to train him in defense so he could impress Kenshin… but why had he seemed, to himself and possibly to Chou, just plain excited at the thought that Saitou might be alive?
“Whatever,” he said, trying to sound casual.
“‘Whatever’ won’t get you out of this, ahou,” Chou laughed.
Sano sat up again, as if hearing himself called ‘ahou’ in a voice he wasn’t accustomed to pricked him more than it ever had when Saitou had said it. “Don’t call me that, bastard.”
Chou shrugged, still laughing. “Whatever you say. You know, I had no idea you were so fucking famous around here! Seems like the whole force knows who you are, and nobody was even a tiny bit surprised when you got dragged in last night.”
Sano just grunted.
“That’s good, though, ’cause you ain’t getting out of here for free this time.” The broomhead grinned broadly. “So it’s a good thing this is like your second home, huh?”
On the extremely uncomfortable bench, Sano turned toward the wall, putting his back decidedly to Chou. The latter, at this futile gesture of denial, walked off with another laugh.
Once he determined that Chou was really gone — gone, undoubtedly, to annoy someone else, though leaving behind a sinking feeling that this hadn’t been his last appearance down here — Sano gave a sigh, rolled onto his back again, put his hands behind his head, and crossed one leg over the other. This position put his closed eyelids into the direct path of the light Chou was no longer blocking, but he had to get used to it sooner or later. And he felt he might be able to go back to sleep if he lay still enough. As he drifted in and out of a hangover-hazed doze, he imagined…
“Yes, Sano, I love you. Of course I love you.” Kiss, kiss. “I was immediately interested when we first met at the Akabeko, and by the time we first fought, I was in love. Maybe I did not know it then, but I was. It broke my heart when you and Katsu were planning on bombing that government building. I thought it was just because you were my friend, but the truth is… I already loved you then. As I do now… as I always will…” Kiss, kiss, kiss. “And when I was unconscious in Shishio’s fortress, it was the memory of you that brought me back from the brink of death… yes, you were the one that saved me then. I love you, Sano.”
“I love you too, Kenshin.”
“Ah, Sano! Now make love to me like the violent animal you are.”
“All right, Kenshin!”
Eventually Sano turned his back again to the barred doorway so as to imagine the next part more freely…
…for a week.
By the seventh day, he’d been through this imaginary process more times than he could count, and, though he didn’t scruple to attach the label ‘masterpiece’ to some of his mental compositions and the brilliant concurrence of physical sensation he was able to orchestrate as he came up with them, he was just about ready to throttle someone. Why the hell was he still here?? Why hadn’t one single person he knew shown up at least to ask what it would take to get him out of jail if not immediately volunteer the required money? Every hour he was forced to stagnate here was one hour more Kaoru had to get a tighter squeeze on Kenshin’s heart and one hour less Sano had to work on his plans for conquest. Where was everyone?!
He supposed he should consider himself lucky that, after public drunkenness leading to unwarranted aggression against a police officer, he should be facing merely detainment until a fine could be paid; and admittedly there was more surety of a daily meal here (however unappetizing and undernourishing) than at home… but it would take circumstances immeasurably more desirable than these to make up for the lack of attention from his friends and the presence of attention from goddamn Chou. Sano was almost to the point where if getting out required fucking up his damaged hand even farther in breaking the bars, so the hell be it.
And then one day they let him go. He was asleep, actually, as wasn’t infrequently the case where there was so little else to do, dreaming about Kenshin in a manner he wouldn’t have dared had he been crashing at the dojo (even his subconscious having a very healthy fear of discovery in that area), when the sound of Chou’s impudent voice and the rattling of the bars burst through the beautiful images in Sano’s head like a runaway horse crashing through a silk merchant’s stall: bright fragments scattered abruptly in every direction, fluttering into obscurity.
Starting, jumping up with clenched fists, Sano didn’t concern himself with the disorientation of awakening, only growled out a half-formed oath as he looked around murderously for whoever had interrupted him and Kenshin. But Kenshin wasn’t there. Sano was still in jail. And being bothered by Chou for the eight millionth time.
“Now what the hell do you–” But as full wakefulness snapped into place and Sano became conscious of sights other than the gallingly bright clothes and hair of his personal plague, he realized that Chou had unlocked and opened the door and was standing back watching Sano with a faint, contemplative grin. “It’s about fucking time!” Sano roared, not hesitating to stalk out of the cell and direct his anger at Chou in order to work off the worst of it. “If I never have to see your stupid face again, it’ll be too fucking soon.”
Then he turned to loose what he considered a very appropriate remaining amount of wrath on whoever had only bothered to show up to get him out of jail after seven goddamn days, but he found the hallway empty except for the customary officers assigned to watch the prisoners. These men, possibly aware that they might fall next on Sano’s list of potential objects for his rage if they weren’t careful, or possibly just in an attempt to keep straight faces, affected the stoniest and most oblivious guard-stare directly before them that Sano had ever seen.
With a scowl he whirled to face Chou again. “How the hell am I out?”
Chou shrugged, his grin widening. It was an expression he’d worn on and off all week during his absolutely pointless visits; maddeningly, it declared without words that Sano was being mocked for some reason he did not comprehend. “Fine’s paid,” he said in a deceptively mild tone.
Again Chou shrugged. “Someone who’s sick of watching you lay there jacking off all day, I guess.”
Momentarily thrown off-balance and losing track of his anger, Sano fought a violent blush. Was that just a careless figure of speech, or did Chou or someone else actually know what Sano had been doing all week?
One side of Chou’s crooked grin pulled up even farther as he moved to close the cell door, and Sano didn’t know what this meant. In any case, it wasn’t a topic he wanted to dwell on, so as soon as he had control of his voice again he demanded, “But who?” Who would pay his fine but not stick around to tell him they’d done it?
The glimpse of Chou’s expression Sano caught when the broomhead turned back toward the hallway’s exit past the stone-faced guards showed that the mockery hadn’t faded. “I guess you do have a friend somewhere after all, eh?”
“No, seriously,” Sano insisted as he followed, “if you know who it was, fucking tell me!”
But Chou, continually with that stupid teasing grin on his stupid face, refused to answer — and he was (somewhat surprisingly, actually) slick enough in dodging the question that Sano wasn’t sure whether it was a proper refusal or a real lack of information. And since he likewise didn’t know whether or not Chou was aware of some of the specifics of Sano’s idle pastimes over the last week, and honestly would rather not know, he felt it was dangerous to continue prying. Besides that, the cops were all staring at and whispering about him in the rooms of the station through which he dogged Chou’s footsteps, and he had other business elsewhere anyway. So eventually he left.
All the way through town away from the main police station, across the river into Asakusa, and up the hill to the Kamiya Dojo, someone followed Sano. Even from the distance necessary to maintain secrecy, it was obvious that Sano was filthy from an unwashed week in prison, and this in combination with his loud grumbling to himself and his murderous gait served both to ward off others and to inhibit Sano’s ability to notice that he was being tailed. And the chances were infinitesimal that anyone else would notice the two of them and come to the conclusion that one was following the other.
Outside the main doors, which Sano had already flung (and left) open in order to stalk inside, the follower paused. It took a few moments to determine that, since Sano was crossing the dojo grounds in a direction that didn’t seem to indicate he would be entering any of the buildings, the entertainment to be had in spying on him was not yet at an end. So the follower moved around the perimeter to locate a tree that would allow good visibility over the wall into the yard, and arrived at that height just in time to observe Sano heading purposefully for a red-headed figure busy with a couple of tubs of water and a basket of clothing.
“Good morning, Sano,” Himura said, in a friendly enough tone but without looking around. Whether he could sense the watcher in the tree as well as the approaching young man was neither evident nor terribly important; it was possible that the purely idle curiosity of one was completely masked by the distinctly combative aura of the other. In any case, Himura finished hanging up the latest garment extracted from the second tub, and began to turn to greet Sano properly. “You’ve been–” But here, as he ducked in a movement so reflexive, apparently, that his surprise at the blow he dodged was synonymous with his surprise at his own motion, his feet twisted in the mud that was a result of the current chore, and he ended up putting one hand and one knee down into the stuff in order to keep from falling.
Though Sano withdrew the fist that had struck out against Himura, he didn’t unclench it, as if still contemplating another try if the moment and his emotions seemed to call for it. As he watched Himura stand again and look ruefully down at the mud, he demanded, “What the fuck is the big idea? Leave me sitting in jail for a week like you don’t fucking care?”
The distress that mingled with the anger on Sano’s face was easy for the hidden watcher to read, but Himura, being somewhat oblivious to emotion that didn’t pertain to combat, either missed it entirely or misinterpreted it. “Jail?” he echoed in a surprised squeal. He’d been about to plunge his hand into the soapy water, but paused with the appendage poised comically just above the top of the tub as he looked at Sano with wide eyes.
“You didn’t notice.” The flat resignation of Sano’s tone was barely broken by the faintest touch of unhappiness.
“Why were you in jail?” Now Himura completed his intention of washing his hand — he had to get the other one involved as well — and then started rubbing ineffectually at his soiled knee.
Sano sighed. “You didn’t even know I was there.”
Without ceasing to rub, Himura looked Sano over more carefully than he’d yet done. “I see it now,” he said. “And smell it,” he added a bit reluctantly. “You have been in jail for a week?”
As Himura’s eyes rose to where they would have met Sano’s, the younger man looked away. “Oh, who fucking cares? I’m out now, no thanks to any of you guys.”
“Well, I apologize for neglecting you.” The sense that Himura was attempting to placate and humor Sano with this placid statement was, the watcher thought in some amusement, unlikely to do much good in this situation.
Sano’s cringe at the sound of Yahiko’s voice from across the yard was visible even from afar — but perhaps not visible to Himura, who’d turned back to his work. It was almost as clear as if Sano had said it aloud: he regretted making this visit at this time, in this mood, and had no desire to talk to Yahiko right now.
“Where have you been?” the kid wondered as he came running up.
“Jail,” was Sano’s grumpy reply. “And since none of my ‘friends’ bothered to notice I was gone for a week, I only just got out.”
“Wow, you must have done something really stupid,” laughed Yahiko, “if they actually kept you for a whole week… don’t they usually let drunks out once they’re sober?”
The glance Sano threw now at the house was as easy to read as his wince at Yahiko’s appearance: “Kaoru might show up any time, and I don’t want to be here when she does.” Though Sano called her ‘jou-chan,’ didn’t he? In any case, he answered briefly as if to facilitate the haste of his departure: “I attacked a police officer.”
This retrieved Himura’s attention. “Did you? Why?”
Sano toed the earth near where it turned to mud around the laundry project. It seemed he didn’t really want to answer, but, having been asked by the honesty-inducing rurouni, couldn’t help himself. “I was really drunk. Thought it was Saitou.”
With a sour expression and an emphatic nod, Yahiko said, “I don’t blame you, then.”
In some concern, Himura was looking Sano over again. Eventually, not having found any serious injuries, “But I suppose it was not actually Saitou,” he said.
“Um, no…” Sano was giving his friend a strange look. “Unless it was his ghost. That would be just my fucking luck.”
For a moment Himura appeared confused, but then he made a sound of understanding. “You didn’t know that he is still alive.”
Sano’s reaction — the abrupt stiffening of his body, the slow, convulsive reclenching of his hands into fists, the twisting snarl that took his features — would have made the whole evening after work watching him worth it, even if it hadn’t already been so entertaining. It was almost enough to prompt vocal laughter in the tree.
“You are fucking kidding me.” The young man had stepped back a pace, his complexion cycling through various shades, some more natural than others. “You cannot be fucking serious.”
Himura just gave him a mild look as if to ask, first, what could be prompting this extremity of emotion and, second, why Sano thought he might have invented something like that.
And Sano seemed to tremble from head to toe, his anger clearly having increased to an improbable and inexplicable degree from the not inconsiderable level it had been at when he’d entered. Slamming a fist wordlessly into a palm, he whirled and stalked away out of the dojo grounds.
If he’d been asked why he was so angry, Sano couldn’t have explained. This was, possibly, because his attitude made even less sense to him than it might have to anyone else. To find that Kenshin, far from feeling curiosity or concern about his whereabouts, had not even noticed his absence over the past week had hurt, and this emotion should, logically, dominate… but for some reason, rage against Saitou had swallowed up everything else he might have been feeling. Perhaps, having learned that the officer yet lived, he had subconsciously adopted Saitou as a better object than Kenshin against which to channel all the pent-up aggression of seven days in jail.
This explanation, the only that came to mind, didn’t quite seem sufficient to cover the circumstance. Though there was also the fact that it was practically Saitou’s fault Sano had gone to jail in the first place. At least, Sano enjoyed heaping the blame on an absent, irrelevant party with whom he’d clashed in the past rather than on a violent fool mooning over a guy he couldn’t have, spending borrowed money to drink himself irrational, then staggering into the street and attacking uninvolved strangers at random.
And at the moment, stalking haphazardly through town without any clear idea where he was going or what his next step must be, but knowing full well that he was irate at most of the world again — particularly Saitou — he was about as unreasonably emotion-driven as he had been that drunken night when the trouble had started.
Saitou. That was the next step, wasn’t it? –find Saitou and get him to train Sano with some of that supposed superiority of his. It was a shame Sano hadn’t questioned Kenshin farther, found out if he knew the officer’s current whereabouts, before he slammed the doors and raged off impetuously into town. Not much point having a plan of any sort, was there, if he was always too thoughtless to carry it out effectively. Would he ever learn? Maybe he should just go get drunk again and…
He stopped himself with a bitter laugh. No, it seemed he wouldn’t ever learn. What he actually needed next was a bath, a wash of clothes, probably some decent sleep on a soft surface for the first time in a week, and definitely a meal. Then, whenever all that was done, he could go look for Saitou. He had to be reasonable.
But he was still fuming, and more specific cogitation than the jumble of desires and provocations that had come out of his time in a cell led him to more specific annoyance at the cop. How could someone allow his allies to believe him dead and just go on with his life like everything was fine? Even worse, possibly, than letting all his allies believe him dead, tell only a select few of them he was still alive as if the rest weren’t worth informing? What a prick!
Sano’s reflections, their tone alternating between accusation against Saitou and pity for himself, went on much along these lines as he scrubbed and then soaked at the expense of the bath-house owner, whom he promised to pay back before the week was out though he was damned if he knew what with. Once up to his neck in hot water, having removed the dried sweat and grime of a week of… what he’d been doing in jail all week without bathing… once his knotted muscles were loosening and the relaxing, soap-scented humidity was starting to have the same effect on his mind, he began gradually to calm.
Why, after all, should he be angry with Saitou? The guy was alive; that should make Sano happy. Not informing his allies that he hadn’t died in Shishio’s fortress still seemed like something an asshole would do — nothing could change that — but his continued existence removed what had seemed a serious blockage from Sano’s path.
He started to plan.
“Hey, Saitou! Good to see you’re still alive after all even though I totally thought you were dead for a while. Kindof a long time, actually — it’s been, what, three months since Shishio’s fortress? Funny how you never bothered to let me know you were alive, though I notice you told Kenshin. Anyway, ever since you kicked my ass way back when, I’ve been thinking about what you said, and thinking maybe, since it was your idea in the first place, you could teach me to defend myself better?”
Wow, stupid. Just walk up to him and admit I was wrong, huh? And maybe I shouldn’t dwell so much on the not-being-dead thing.
“Hey, bastard, you owe me big for kicking my ass; why don’t you teach me better defense so you can’t do it again?”
That sounds a little bit better, but I think I have to at least mention the not-being-dead thing…
“Hey, wow, it’s Saitou totally not dead! When were you planning on telling me? Yeah, that’s right, you owe me! Uh-huh, yeah, I think you’ll have to train me in defense to make up for it!”
Hmm, almost there… but he owes me for way more than just that.
“Hey, Saitou, I need a favor. I need to learn better defense, and you seriously owe me for kicking my ass twice — once when I didn’t even ask for it! — and then insulting me all the way to Kyoto and then making it seem like you were dead when you actually weren’t. How about it?”
Yeah, that might work. No way could he have any argument against all that.
Having determined what points he would raise when he found Saitou, he set off to actually find him. This wasn’t likely to be as easy as saying it, since he had no idea where to start his search or even whether or not the man was in town. Saitou could still be working in Kyoto, for all Sano knew, or, really, anywhere else in the country, and where to look first was… Where to look first was the police station, of course.
“Damn,” he muttered. After what he’d just been through, the police station ranked extremely low on his list of places he would like to be, and on a list of people he was interested in encountering, Chou did not feature at all. Of course, a few hours had passed since he’d left, and Sano had noticed several of the officers leaving for the evening; Chou might not even be there…
Who do I think I’m kidding? Chou has as much of a life as I do; of course he’ll still be there. It took him only a moment to reassess that. More of a life, actually — he’s got a job. Indecisive and not terribly happy with his unexpected self-condemnation, he loitered aimlessly outside the bath-house, irritably putting off for as long as possible a trip back to the police station. Lengthy shadows stretched from the west, and the sun had shrunken to a curved sliver, by the time he overcame his reluctance and started off.
This would be easier if he could count on no one at the station recognizing him as a prisoner that had just been released earlier that day… but not only did most of the police know him far too well for that, he also owned only one outfit, and it wasn’t exactly tailored for subtlety. Maybe, though, he could just stand around outside in a shadow, waiting to jump Chou when he emerged and demand to be told where Saitou was. No wonder Chou joined up, Sano reflected as he walked. One bastard attracts the next, and soon they’re all together in one building wearing the same clothes.
In annoyance he kicked hard at a stone, then hopped into a mud puddle. Brown water splashed everywhere, including his pants all the way up to the knees. Though he’d bathed his person, his clothes hadn’t yet been washed, so what was a little more dirt? Perhaps if he provided Chou such an obvious target of mockery, he could avoid the more precisely irritating jibes against other aspects of his character.
And then a voice off to his left drawled, “Are you having difficulties walking, ahou, or is your aim as bad with stones and mud as it is with punches and kicks?”
Fists formed automatically. Sano’s body pivoted on a muddy point. Everything sensible he’d earlier planned on saying drained as abruptly from his mind as if a plug had been pulled from a disproportionately large drain. Only an inarticulate growl emerged from his mouth as he hurled himself at the nearby calm, irritating shape in blue.
“Yare, yare.” Saitou easily sidestepped Sano’s blow. “Don’t forget what happened the last time you tried to attack me like this.”
Since Sano had completely failed to deliver his planned opening speech for whatever reason (if ‘reason’ was any accurate description of the apparent commandeering of his entire being by overwhelming and already not-entirely-logical emotion), he had planned on saying nothing, at least until he could get a grip on himself. But now, unable to stop himself, he blurted out, “That was you?”
“As observant as ever, I see.” A gloved hand smoothly caught Sano’s next blow, and the young man was slammed to the ground. Before he could rise, Saitou had pressed a foot to his chest and applied much of his weight, leaning on his knee and looking down. “And as skilled,” he added, blowing smoke into Sano’s face.
“And you’re an even bigger bastard than before,” snarled Sano as his struggle to free himself proved unsuccessful. The features above him were just as he remembered — just as harsh, as if they’d been chiseled by a skilled but maladjusted sculptor, just as infuriating — right down to the fine eyebrow that rose at Sano’s words.
“You think so? I’m being much gentler than the first time we met.”
“Fuck you, Saitou,” Sano spat, trying even harder to remove the foot that was dirtying his chest and probably bruising it at the same time. “It was too much effort for you to let your allies know you were still alive?”
An expression of mild surprise crossed Saitou’s face as he continued to lean thoughtfully on his raised knee and smoke his cigarette. “And why should they care?”
Wondering exactly how to answer that, Sano paused. Because they need you to help them seduce each other, was his first thought, but Saitou might well believe him drunk again if he said it. “Did you ever think some people might be worried about you?”
“Again, why should they be?”
“Fuck it, you bastard, get the hell off me so I can talk to you like a normal person!” Sano lost patience, lost track of his points again, and started beating at Saitou’s leg with both fists, flailing his own legs at the same time to try to interfere with the officer’s balance.
The cigarette in Saitou’s hand was nearly spent, but its end glowed threateningly as he brought it close to Sano’s face. This stilled the young man and forced him to cease attacking the blue-clad leg holding him down as he switched his efforts to trying to keep the burning stub away from his skin. And as he did so, Saitou remarked, “Start behaving like a civilized person, and perhaps I will consider your request.”
“You’re holding me down in the fucking mud and trying to burn my fucking face with a fucking cigarette!” Sano was swatting frantically at the latter as Saitou teased him as a child might a cat (though hopefully not with a burning cigarette). “How the fuck is that civilized?!”
Saitou appeared extremely entertained. “You attacked me for no reason. Again, I might add. I’m just defending myself. The burden of reopening civilized communication is yours at the moment.”
Having finally managed to knock the cigarette butt away and been about to start thrashing around again, Sano forced himself instead to lie still. Saitou, goddamn fucker, had a point. With several deep breaths, Sano pressed his hands flat to the ground.
“Will – you – please – get – off – me,” he said between gritted teeth.
“That’s better.” Finally Saitou withdrew his foot and stood back. As if nothing had happened out of his ordinary routine, he produced his cigarettes and extracted a new one. The package, Sano noted, though paper and having been in Saitou’s pocket, was uncrushed and crisp-looking — much like Saitou himself, damn him.
By now on his feet, Sano brushed dirt awkwardly from his back as best he could. He supposed he deserved this, to some extent, for having muddied Kenshin earlier — though it would have been more appropriate for Kenshin, not Saitou, to exact that revenge. And he still needed to wash his clothes in any case.
“And what did you have to say?” Saitou inquired.
Sano knew he’d had good phrases planned, but, having by now forgotten them, just came clean. “I want you to teach me better defense.”
“Ahou ga.” Saitou gave a short laugh. “You practically live with the former hitokiri Battousai and you’re asking me…” But he stopped, looking Sano over with calculating eyes. “Sou ka?” he drawled at last, his mouth spreading into a wide smirk. He appeared to be reading Sano, putting together facts — and possibly, if the activity of thought in his expression was any indication, more facts than just Sano’s sudden blush at his words about practically living with Kenshin. “You want to learn better defense to impress Himura,” he summarized, “as your inevitable infatuation with him has finally developed.”
Sano couldn’t think of any response to this besides ‘Fuck you,’ which he’d already said enough this evening, so he just glared. This wasn’t going as planned.
Looking both thoughtful and as if he found all of this extremely amusing, Saitou turned and began walking down the street, skirting the mud puddle and holding his fresh cigarette at a thoughtful angle from his face. “You want me to teach you because… if you asked Himura, you would lose your element of surprise, you don’t trust Shinomori not to be after the same thing you are, and everyone else is either dead or inaccessible.” He glanced back as if questioning why Sano wasn’t following. “Am I right?”
“Yeah.” Sano’s tone was surly as he hurried to catch up.
“And that explains your anger that I didn’t inform you I was still alive.”
“That’s only part of it! We were all in it together — you, me, Kenshin; even Aoshi, once he got a clue; and there were other people who weren’t in the fortress with us but who were fighting too — we were all allies against Shishio together. Why would you just tell Kenshin you weren’t dead? You assumed none of us would care, sure, but you still told him…”
“I see one of your problems already.” Saitou’s sidelong amused smugness was extremely annoying. “Anyone looking at your little group might assume that telling Kenshin was the same as telling all of you, but apparently he doesn’t share with you nearly as much as an outsider would think… or as much as you would like.”
Sano blushed and scowled.
“And as a matter of fact, I didn’t tell him I was still alive. But he was bound to notice when I ran into him during that little uprising a month ago. His surprise was almost comical.”
“Oh.” Sano couldn’t exactly say he liked this piece of information, since Saitou was being an aloof jerk and making fun of Kenshin in the same breath, but for some reason it still fell relatively pleasantly on his ears. That Saitou hadn’t, at least, thought Kenshin worth more consideration than the rest of them — even if Sano himself might have agreed that Kenshin was — relieved Sano unexpectedly.
This moment of pensiveness gave Saitou a chance to return to their previous topic. “So you want my help with your substandard defensive abilities so you can get this Kenshin of yours to notice you.” In response to Sano’s noise of affirmation, Saitou nodded slowly. His mocking expression did not bode entirely well, but he seemed to be taking the subject seriously enough for the moment. “It’s not a bad idea. And by that I mean it’s an idiotic idea, but I suppose it might work. The question is, what are you willing to do in exchange for my services?” He still sounded far too entertained, which still felt a little worrisome.
“I’ll pay you,” Sano said hesitantly. However mocking Saitou might or might not be, this was probably the longest conversation that had ever taken place between them at this level of placidity, and as such Sano felt himself to be in unfamiliar waters.
“With what money?” was Saitou’s immediate, dismissive response.
Sano would have retorted that he did sometimes do work and get paid for it, and that, being a decent guy unlike some people he knew, he also had friends willing to extend him loans — he’d borrowed money just recently specifically to pay for defense training! But he remembered even as the words were forming in his head that he’d spent all of that money to get drunk and was now as broke as usual.
“No,” Saitou went on, “I think you’ll have to do my housework for me.”
“Where the fuck did you get–” Sano stopped short of throwing another fit as he recalled that he was supposed to be behaving like a civilized person — that Saitou was doing just that, more or less, and was probably owed, for once, some degree of politeness. “Uh, you came to that conclusion quickly,” he corrected himself.
“It’s the only logical one,” Saitou explained with a narrow-eyed smile. “I can’t afford to spend time with you unless I get something out of it. You have no job, and won’t have time for one if you’re training as hard as you’ll have to be in order to learn anything from me. You can spend what spare time you have on my laundry and dishes.” These words were calculated to make Sano grimace, and in response to the expression Saitou added, “I rather think I’ll be getting the worse end of the bargain still.”
Laundry and dishes. Despite the accuracy of Saitou’s assessment, Sano couldn’t help fuming at how easily he’d been second-guessed and outmaneuvered. What had happened to Saitou being in his debt for all that shit? He decided to bring it up and get some leverage. “Hey, what about all that crap you gave me? You kicked my ass twice for no reason, you know, and then dumped shit on me the whole time in Kyoto, and then pretended to be dead. What about all that?”
“What about it?”
“I mean you owe me.”
Saitou spared him another amused glance as he led them around a corner and down a residential street. “I owe you because I defeated you? I have to admit, I was grateful to find you there just when I needed a gift for Himura, but that was hardly more than coincidence.”
“‘Grateful,'” Sano snorted. “As if you didn’t plan it all.”
“I planned to hurt one of his friends, yes,” replied Saitou somewhat grimly, “to make an important point about the dangers of trying to challenge an enemy and look out for weaker fighters at the same time. If you hadn’t been that friend, who do you think would have been?”
With a faint shiver, Sano tried not to contemplate the answer to that question. For a fleeting instant — as if, seated on a fast-moving carriage, he had caught a glimpse of scenery lining up perfectly for a sudden, piercing clear view straight into some distant scene that was normally hidden from his eyes — he could see Saitou’s point of view, see the ruthless measures he was willing to adopt in his pursuit of evil and for the sake of Japan… but this provided him no comfort. Understanding was not the same as concurrence. “I don’t agree with your extreme methods,” he insisted, “so that doesn’t make up for the fucking wound in my shoulder.”
Saitou shrugged. “And yet the country is free from Shishio, and here we all are back to our normal lives.”
“And there was the second time — in the street outside Katsu’s place? You were a total asshole there, you know.”
“If you still haven’t grasped the point I was trying to make, there’s nothing I can do about it. Unless,” he added, “you’d like me to reopen your shoulder again.” When Sano’s only answer was a snort, Saitou went on. “I did what I thought was necessary to try to prevent you from following Himura. You did prove useful in the end, but another time I might still take the same steps.”
For a moment Sano was shocked into silence. Was this Saitou admitting that Sano had been useful at some point? That he, Saitou, had been mistaken? In his surprise, Sano couldn’t find words for his next argument. (He knew what Saitou would probably say anyway — that Sano had been belligerent enough to merit every bit of shit Saitou had dished out in Kyoto, a fact Sano couldn’t exactly dispute.)
Finally, in lieu of this, Sano tried to pull himself together and revisit his final point. “But what about pretending to be dead? That’s pretty fucked up, if you ask me, to go along helping people and then suddenly just let them think you died.”
Apparently they’d reached their destination, for Saitou did not immediately answer as he headed for the door of a small but comfortable-looking house in the equally comfortable-looking lane along which they’d been walking. He unlocked it, creating a deep rectangle of darkness and gesturing Sano to enter before him. As the door shut behind them, immersing them for several moments in near-blackness, Saitou finally replied. “You shouldn’t assume my escape from Shishio’s fortress was easy. I wasn’t in any state to see anyone for some time after the battle.”
Sano felt his annoyance fading, though at the concise defeat of his last argument he really ought to have been more angry with the slippery bastard. But the tone in Saitou’s voice was just the tiniest bit strained — so faintly that Sano could barely hear it, and only noticed because it contrasted so pointedly with the amusement that had colored nearly all of the officer’s previous comments. Still, Sano didn’t give up easily. “Couldn’t you have sent a message?”
“Hn.” Saitou’s soft footsteps sounded through the darkness down what seemed to be a short hallway, then paused at its end. “Dear Himura-tachi– Not that you’ll care, but I am not dead, only horribly burned. Do not come see me. Do not send that doctor with the intolerable laugh to look at me. As a matter of fact, you might as well forget I exist. But I’m not dead. –Saitou. Would that have made you feel better?”
“‘Horribly burned?'” Sano echoed, curious, hastening the removal of his shoes so he could follow.
Another rectangle appeared, this one of light, as Saitou slid open a door at the end of what did, in fact, turn out to be a short hallway. Sano barely had time to look around at the two other closed doors to left and right before Saitou’s form was blocking the light again, entering the far chamber. The younger man hurried after.
This great room filled the back half of the house and was divided between a neat kitchen and an open living area with a fireplace. Saitou walked immediately into the former with the querying statement, “I assume you’re hungry.”
Sano’s stomach jumped excitedly, thoughts of food wiping out all others. It had been over a week since he’d enjoyed a proper meal. “Yes!” he replied eagerly. “Hell, yes!”
“Since I also assume you can’t cook, I’ll make supper for both of us, and then we can agree on the details of our arrangement.”
Just as at the dojo, Sano saw no reason to mention here that he wasn’t a bad cook himself. What Saitou’s skills in that area might be he had no idea, but still he made a grateful noise at the prospect of real food.
At the sound, Saitou rolled eyes in Sano’s direction with a disdainful smile. “Sick of that stuff we serve at the station, are you?”
These words triggered a memory. “Hey,” Sano wondered, “you don’t happen to know who paid the fine to get me out of there, do you?” Actually it was a little annoying to think about having been held for a fine just for attacking Saitou; some random officer, sure, but Saitou was an old acquaintance that knew perfectly well Sano wanted to fight him again. But there was nothing to be done about it now, and Saitou might not even have had anything to do with the assignment of that punishment. “It wasn’t any of my friends, as far as I know.” He tried to keep the bitterness from his tone as he recalled how Kenshin hadn’t seemed to have noticed or cared about Sano’s absence.
“Your haphazard life is certainly funnier to watch when you’re out of jail than when you’re in it,” Saitou mused from where he’d been unwrapping some thin strips of beef he hadn’t appeared surprised to find on the kitchen counter. “And Chou is completely useless when there’s someone in the cells he wants to bother on a regular basis. There are a number of reasons someone besides your friends might have paid the fine or tried to get it dropped.” He shrugged as if he was out of suggestions.
Sano supposed he might as well get used to the idea that he would never know for sure, and to assuage his annoyance started to admire the room. It was furnished in cherrywood, which set off the red ink of the paintings hanging on the walls, and in general much cozier than Sano would have expected Saitou’s home to be. “Nice place you got here,” he commented eventually.
“Why don’t you take a look around?”
Whistling some random notes, Sano obeyed the suggestion and returned to the hallway, where he tried to reach the two closed doors simultaneously but couldn’t quite. Once separate movements had opened both, he observed that he hadn’t been mistaken, from outside, about the size of the house. “Hey, you only have three rooms!” he remarked, loudly enough to be heard by Saitou in the kitchen.
“I was aware of that,” came the wolf’s dry answer.
“So this is your bedroom?” Sano wondered next as he poked his head into the tidy chamber on the right. The red ink paintings must have been a series, as there were a few more in here.
“No, it’s just a room with a bed in it,” Saitou replied.
“And what the hell is this?” Sano stepped into the last room, glancing around in some surprise at the full shelves and the desk that looked like it had seen a lot of use.
“A study, ahou, not that I would expect you to know what that is.”
“You have so many fucking books!”
“You have so few words in your vocabulary.”
“What the hell language is this?”
“Can you even read Japanese?”
Feeling no need to examine anything in great detail when he would, presumably, have plenty of opportunity to do so in days to come, Sano returned to the great room. “Nice place,” he said again.
With the bucket he now held, Saitou gestured toward the door leading outside. “Refill this from the well by the gate.”
Sano nodded, accepting the container, and stepped outside. “Hey, this is nice!” he shouted back into the house as he crossed the yard. “You cops make some pretty good money, huh?”
Saitou’s answer from the kitchen was barely audible: “Why don’t you announce it to the whole neighborhood?”
After glancing over the private bath and the adjoining properties that compared unfavorably to Saitou’s, Sano located the well and fetched what he’d come out for. Then he headed back inside. “Who did that rock gardening?”
“I’m impressed! You’ve got a-whole-nother side to you I never would have guessed.”
“We can’t all be as one-dimensional as you are.” Some of the water Sano had brought went into a teapot and was set to boil next to whatever else was cooking on the stove.
Rather than reply in annoyance to the accusation of being one-dimensional, Sano only found himself wondering whether Kenshin too thought of him that way. This reminded him of the reason he was here in the first place, and he glanced around the room again with an eye specific to the potential chores involved in its layout. “So you want me to clean stuff for you, huh? And do your laundry? How much laundry can a guy like you possibly have? And dishes? I mean, you only eat here a couple times a day, don’t you?”
“I am a bit picky about the state of my house. It may be more work than you’re anticipating.”
Sano scratched his head. “I hate to say it, but it seems like what you said — I’m getting the better end of this deal.”
“You always reach these conclusions so quickly.”
“I’m just wondering what’s in this for you.”
From where he stood at the stove, Saitou turned just enough for Sano to catch the positively evil twinkle in his eye. “The chance to beat your sorry ass again, perhaps?”
Sano felt a strange shiver go through him, almost as if he were looking forward to that. This scared him to the point where only the fact that Saitou was standing there cooking food he might be able to eat in a few minutes kept him from bolting out the door. In a tone that tried for casualness as he looked quickly away from Saitou, “All right, so when do you start beating my ass again?” he asked.
Now Sano looked quickly back at Saitou. “Shit, you’re really serious about this!”
“Did you think I would bring someone like you into my house just to feed you?”
“I never know what to think of a bastard like you,” Sano shrugged. “And I’m thinking tonight you must be drunk or something, ’cause you’re being all nice to me and shit. I almost can’t believe my luck.” Suddenly his eyes narrowed. “Hey, you’re not going to change your mind all of a sudden when you sober up, are you?”
“Ahou, if I were drunk, you wouldn’t be alive right now.”
“Ohhh,” Sano moaned, “scaaaryyy.”
Saitou threw him an exasperated look. “You’re not likely to learn anything from me if you can’t take me seriously.”
A little surprised by this remark, Sano moved a pace closer and leaned on the kitchen counter next to the board where Saitou had previously been chopping vegetables. “I thought I was taking you seriously,” he said. “But since all I really know about you is that you’re a heartless asshole who likes to stick swords in people and then batter them and taunt them and trick them into thinking he’s dead–”
“I believe we already discussed this,” Saitou interrupted shortly.
“Whatever you say,” Sano grinned. “My point is that I don’t know much more about you than all that, so when you give me a macho line about how you’d have killed me by now if you were drunk…” Well, actually, based on those very characteristics Sano had just listed, a remark like that should logically be more threatening from Saitou than it would have been from anyone else. Sano cleared his throat.
The set of Saitou’s shoulders looked somewhat triumphant, but he didn’t pursue the topic any farther. Instead, he pointed out where he kept his table settings, and instructed Sano to lay them out.
The table itself, a neat little red rectangle that couldn’t have seated more than two, proved that Saitou wasn’t in the habit of entertaining, and was quickly readied. Then it was only a few minutes more before Saitou brought over what he’d cooked, arranged their supper, and took a seat. Feeling a bit nervous all of a sudden for what reason he did not quite know, Sano joined him.
The noodles and steamed vegetables and beef were not as delicious as Kenshin would have made them, but Sano had to admit that Saitou was no mean hand in the kitchen. And as they ate, the officer enumerated the specific tasks he wanted done on a daily and weekly basis, with details on how they were to be performed. He told about the foodstuffs he had regularly delivered since he apparently didn’t like shopping much; and about the neighbors that shared access to the well and which of them would make themselves obnoxious if Sano gave them the chance. He also explained his own schedule, what time he was likely to be home on most days in order to engage in regular training sessions, and what events might occasionally delay him. It all sounded very reasonable, and the idea that Sano was getting the better end of the bargain hadn’t yet been challenged.
After everything had been elaborated upon and agreed to, they finished their meal in silence, but the nature of that silence eluded Sano’s probing curiosity. It wasn’t what he would call ‘friendly’ or ‘comfortable,’ but not exactly ‘cold’ or ‘stiff’ either. Perhaps ‘polite’ would be the best word for it, but that was hardly an expression he would think to apply to anything between himself and Saitou. Maybe the best way to describe it would be ‘businesslike,’ since business associates were what they’d now become.
“So, want me to get started right away?” he asked eventually, gesturing to the table. Saitou gave a bit of a smile and a silent nod as he poured himself another cup of tea. “These are some nice dishes you got here,” Sano remarked, mostly just for the sake of having something to say, as he began to clear up. “You better hope I don’t break ’em.”
Saitou’s withering look was palpable on the back of Sano’s neck. “You had better not.”
“I’m kidding!” Sano was able to laugh since Saitou’s threatening statement had restored an atmosphere between them that he was more accustomed to. “Loosen up, why don’t you? You’re in your own house, after all!”
“Not everyone can be as loose as you are — something has to get done somewhere in the city.”
“Then at least pull that damn stick out of your ass.”
“You put things in the most interesting way,” was Saitou’s bemused reply.
At the sound of a match striking behind him, Sano finished pouring the remaining water from the bucket into the basin where he’d stacked the dishes, and turned. “Give me one of those?” he requested, leaving the kitchen and approaching the table again.
A black eyebrow arched. “You smoke?”
“Doesn’t everyone? I just can’t afford it like some loaded cops I know, so you won’t see me doing it very often.”
“Doesn’t that bother you?”
“A little.” Sano grinned at him brazenly. “Not enough to get a real job.”
“Ahou ga.” Despite this verbal response, Saitou brought out his cigarettes again and handed Sano one from the package. He even went so far as to light it for him. “Don’t expect any more of these. I’m not buying double just so you can freeload.”
Sano made a noise of acquiescence, took a long drag, and sighed blissfully. “Thanks,” he said sincerely, and even as the word left his mouth realized that it was the first time he’d ever thanked this man for anything. He rose quickly from where he’d been kneeling to receive the somewhat unexpected present, and moved toward the kitchen again to wash the dishes with his back turned.
The next day was rainy and grey, and Sano awoke at home with bleary eyes and little recollection, at first, of what he’d been doing the previous night. Trying to remember had to be postponed, however, since reluctant curiosity about why he felt so wet must form his primary concern. Even as his vision focused enough to observe that his ceiling had apparently decided to spring a significant leak in not one but two spots immediately over his bed, he also found his other puzzlement increasing as he noted in himself an absence of hangover and the inexplicable flavor of good tobacco in his mouth. Well, it was stale by now, but it tasted like it had been good at the time.
As he sat up, it all came back to him, and the next thing he wondered was whether Saitou’s mouth tasted like this in the mornings. Not much difference would be made even if it did; Saitou never seemed to have any end of cigarettes, and would just smoke a fresh one to override the old.
So this was Sano’s first day of work for the guy. Despite how strangely he felt the entire thing had turned out, he was pleased with it in equal measure; actually, it had all fallen into place with unexpected neatness and convenience, regardless of how he felt about Saitou. He might as well get up and head over to the bastard’s house to prove or disprove the theory about who’d gotten the better end of the deal.
He was whistling as he set out across town, and offered a cheerful wave and mocking greeting to some of his friends in a dockyard he passed. They had to spend the day in the rain, whereas he was going to be nice and dry doing much easier work. His pity for them didn’t occupy his thoughts for long, though, as he was beginning to remember, while he walked, the dreams he’d been having last night: lovely visions of being held in warm arms in a comfortable atmosphere. This had probably contributed to his confusion upon waking, but such a contribution was worth it.
By the time he reached Saitou’s house, his head was busy with thoughts of Kenshin and their future together. This was the first step toward that happy ending, odd as it might seem to be doing a psychopath’s laundry in order to win the heart of the man he loved. He felt almost giddy at the thought that he was so definitively on the path to his goal.
Opening Saitou’s door with the key he’d been provided last night gave him an unexpected little thrill. It wasn’t everyone that could boast access to the home of a former Shinsengumi captain, now, was it? Of course, anyone personally acquainted with Saitou’s obnoxiousness probably wouldn’t have boasted of such a circumstance, but it was an interesting rarity nonetheless. And, hey, Sano was even doing this to get closer to the former hitokiri Battousai, who was an even greater rarity and certainly more thrilling than Saitou could ever be!
Sano’s smile at these thoughts slowly faded as he walked through the little house again and started to think seriously about the actual labor involved in this job. True, it didn’t seem too heavy a load, but it was more than he’d voluntarily done on a regular basis for quite some time. There was a reason, after all, that he didn’t hang around the dojo on any given day longer than it took to get his Kenshin fix. But since this was for Kenshin, he steeled himself and got to it.
Dusting the study took longer than he’d expected, for he found the motion of his hand falling to almost nothing as he was distracted by the titles and the eye-wearying unfamiliar characters of many of the books. This room was something of a pain to sweep, too, what with all the crevices formed by desk and shelves, none of which could be moved; he was glad he wasn’t expected to scrub the floor in here unless Saitou specifically requested it.
On the other hand, there was practically nothing to be done in the bedroom. Saitou, every bit as neat as Sano had expected, had left his bedding folded in the same chest that held the rolled futon, and, as this bedding only needed to be washed once a week, it required no attention today. Some laundry waited in a basket by the door, but the continued rainfall outside rendered this, perforce, a task for later.
So he washed the breakfast dishes, straightened up the kitchen to the extent this was required, and swept the great room floor while he waited for the weather to clear. When it still hadn’t quite, he decided he might as well do some scrubbing; since this wasn’t technically necessary today, his efforts at it might have been somewhat lackluster, but it did, at least, pass the time relatively constructively until the rain finally stopped. Then he went outside to wash and hang the laundry.
All right, so maybe Saitou hadn’t been lying when he said this would be more work than Sano expected. True, if he hadn’t arisen so late in the morning, it wouldn’t be too long after lunchtime now; but as it was, by the time everything was finished, the day’s progress had been marked by the appearance of the market boy that delivered meat and vegetables for Saitou’s supper. Sano was a little surprised — Saitou had mentioned that the kid usually showed up in the late afternoon or early evening; had so much time really passed? — and a little flustered as he tried to think how to introduce himself, especially when the boy referred to ‘Fujita-san’ and assumed Sano was ‘the new help.’
Whatever Sano’s job title (assuming he had one) and whatever name his ’employer’ chose to use, it was obvious that this work was going to dominate a good part of his daylight hours in the weeks to come. And any hours that remained would probably have to be devoted to practice — Saitou had mentioned this would be the case, and Sano was not such a fool as to disbelieve him. Having already dismissed the effectiveness of book-learning, he must embrace vigorous practice as essential to his quick grasp of the concepts he needed to know. He could probably pick up better defensive techniques just by watching, eventually, but ‘eventually’ wasn’t good enough when a tanuki-girl lurked insidiously around the man Sano wanted to seduce.
To this eventual seduction, Sano was purposefully avoiding giving any real thought just yet. Such things were really the last he needed to be worried about while hanging Saitou’s clothes out to dry — and in fact were surprisingly easy to set aside, as Saitou’s clothes proved bizarrely engrossing. The blue police pants and jackets were only interesting in that Sano thought he and Saitou were almost exactly the same size and he could therefore borrow one of these uniforms for any number of mischievous or even nefarious purposes, were he so inclined; but the other contents of the laundry basket, though their mere presence there indicated they’d been worn recently, Sano simply could not imagine the uptight officer in.
This red yukata, for instance — who ever heard of Saitou wearing a warm color? Obviously he must own a yukata or two, but if Sano had ever for an instant considered such a thing, he would have assumed them to be black or a boring dark brown… possibly blue, like the uniforms, but definitely still a subdued example of that color. Never red.
The silver kimono and dark grey hakama appeared more the wolf’s style, having about them a stark, subtle sort of elegance, but still Sano struggled to picture Saitou in them. No, he corrected himself as he pensively hung them to dry, it wasn’t that he couldn’t picture Saitou in them, but that the resulting mental image looked too unexpectedly good to be plausible. He’d never really thought of Saitou as handsome, but in those… he might well turn out to be just that.
So now he had something to tease Saitou about this evening. What did he get all dressed up for in silver? Was he embarrassed enough about wearing red — a closet fan, perhaps? — that he only wore it around the house? And did he start to lose track of who he was whenever he put on anything besides the somewhat appalling number of uniforms he seemed to own? True, there wasn’t much fodder for teasing in any of this, but Sano wanted to tease him, so anything would do. He would certainly need some kind of edge when training began.
Whether he was looking forward to or dreading the upcoming session he couldn’t quite decide, especially remembering the strange sensation of last night in response to the gleam in Saitou’s eye when he’d mentioned pleasure at the prospect of beating Sano’s ass. Sano must really be pining for Kenshin, to have seen that ruthlessly eager sparkle, heard that casually deadly tone, and still be here.
The time remaining before the officer would arrive home was small enough that Sano decided just to stick around waiting for him. (This choice was definitely not influenced at all by the idea that Saitou might be willing to feed him again, an opportunity the very hungry Sano would surely miss if he went somewhere and came back later.) He stretched out on the floor of the great room, which had by now dried, and stared, lazily contemplative, at the ceiling.
Acting so freely in the home of someone he’d always thought of as his rival, even his nemesis, seemed odd to him — odd, and yet somehow natural. Presumably this naturalness arose from the fact that this was all part of his plan to get at Kenshin, and therefore potential awkwardness was set aside. With this explanation in mind, he didn’t worry about dozing off in the midst of some of his usual daydreams.
Perhaps he should have worried. A dull pain awakened him, a rhythmic pounding against his left hip. As his eyes sluggishly opened, he yelled aloud when he saw the length of the sword stretching up from where its tip just brushed the skin of his neck to the gloved hand on the hilt. The pain — which he recognized now as a heel, still very solid even just in a sock, slamming down repeatedly — continued for a few moments just for good measure. “Lesson one,” Saitou said from above him: “never fall asleep in enemy territory.”
The victim of this bastardly behavior moved to slap the blade away from the vicinity of large veins, but Saitou pressed it closer so that it cut minutely into him, and Sano was forced to lie still. “Right, fine,” he said. “I get it. Lesson learned. Stop that!”
With that mocking smile of his, Saitou drew back and sheathed his weapon. “I suppose I’m not surprised to find you don’t even know that.”
“This isn’t what I’d normally call ‘enemy territory,'” Sano grumbled as he climbed to his feet.
What Sano had just been thinking before his little nap recrossed his mind; no, despite all prior indications, this really wasn’t what he would consider enemy territory. But he certainly wasn’t going to admit to Saitou just how at home he’d come to feel here after the course of a mere day. Next he’d be admitting that, in defiance of all logic, he suddenly didn’t really think of Saitou as ‘the enemy’ anymore either.
Especially when he noticed that the officer had apparently gotten through most of the supper-cooking process before deciding to awaken him.
Observing Sano’s pointer-like gaze into the kitchen, Saitou rolled his eyes. “Set the table,” he ordered. “Keep in mind, though,” he added as he turned away, “that if you gorge yourself now and then throw it all up onto my floor while we’re training, you’re the one who’ll be cleaning it up.”
“Oh, it takes more than some hard training to get food back from me,” Sano told him, relatively cheerfully, as he brought the little table out into the middle of the room.
“I thought that might be the case; adaptive for your subspecies.”
Though the words thus arranged meant little to him, Sano could tell this was a jibe. With great difficulty, however, he refrained from demanding to know what Saitou meant; the jerk was undoubtedly waiting for him to ask, and therefore Sano would disappoint his disdainful hopes by not doing so. He thought he even made out the traces of that disappointment on Saitou’s face as he fetched dishes from near where the officer stood, and that was a sort of triumph.
Their meal was the same mixture of awkwardness and unexpected ease as last night’s had been, alternating mostly between that odd silence Sano had noticed then and the usual exchange of insult and rudeness. When they were finished, Saitou instructed him to clear the table but leave washing the dishes for later or tomorrow. And once the table itself was out of the way, there was ample space for practice.
As Saitou announced that they would start with hand-to-hand, he was examining Sano up and down with thoughtfully lowered brows; it made Sano a little uncomfortable. In response to this feeling, Sano backed away slightly and took up a combative position, smacking a fist into a palm. “Bring it on, old man.”
Saitou’s expression slowly worked its way toward that look of evil he’d more or less terrified Sano with yesterday, and, despite his bravado, Sano was suddenly feeling a resurgence of that emotion. Surely he was staring pain in the face and encouraging it! But Saitou only said with innocent levelness, “Let’s look at this stance of yours first.”
The moron had initially been extremely reluctant to follow Saitou’s instructions, but the officer had discovered after a while that this was because Sano feared, in consequence of the statement about stance, that these lessons would resemble those he’d attempted to engage in with some supposed expert trainer not too long ago. His worry on this point had entirely disappeared the moment Saitou started punching him. It was funny how often punching things seemed to solve problems where Sanosuke was concerned.
A whim, based on how entertaining Sano had been to watch in jail and upon his release from it, had led Saitou to enter into this arrangement in the first place, and so far he was nothing but pleased with the circumstance. His chores would be done for free by someone on whom he could, if he wished, take out all the frustrations of his day at work — someone, in fact, specifically asking for it — and Sano continued to be pretty consistently entertaining, even if he was at times equally annoying. Saitou hadn’t quite decided yet whether he believed Sano capable of improvement under his tutelage, but he would be interested in seeing what progress did take place, and what (if any) affect the display thereof would have on Himura. Yes, Saitou would definitely keep this up for a while.
When Sano hit the floor with a full-body thud after an intense couple of hours, Saitou dropped his fists and stood straight, watching the young man carefully in case he might be faking to gain an advantage. But it seemed weariness and that last blow really had done the job; Sano was out cold. So Saitou lit a cigarette and walked away.
He went first into the yard, where he found, as he’d suspected, laundry that wasn’t quite dry still hanging. He would need to have a word with Sano on the subject of using his brain (if he had one) about weather patterns and what time of day he hung clothes out. Saitou was going to have to bring these inside now, because if he left them overnight they would probably be soaked by rain before either he or Sano awoke in the morning. But they did seem to have been washed and hung properly; the moron wasn’t completely ignorant.
When this task was finished, Saitou locked the back door and went to his bedroom. A spare blanket, rendered unnecessary by the current weather, he retrieved from the chest and, returning to the great room, shook open with one hand so that it fluttered down over Sano. Then he put out the gas lamp, shut the hallway door behind him as he left the comatose young man on his floor, and moved silently through darkness toward bed.
With a smile that lingered unusually, he prepared his futon, undressed, and lay down. Perhaps sleep came quickly for him, after his busy day at work and the exercise he’d subsequently taken — not a gleam issued from his eyes in the blackness, and his breathing was soft and regular. But perhaps he lay awake for a time, his thoughts pleasantly busy with… something.