Kaoru had just started on lunch, dropping a few grumbling hints that Sano could get up and help rather than lying around waiting for her to do all the work on a meal he was only going to complain about eventually anyway, when Megumi appeared.
After greeting the doctor, looking immediately back to the seasonings she was measuring out, Kaoru added, “Kenshin’s not here right now.”
“Jou-chan sent him out for the usual shit-ton of groceries she doesn’t actually need yet,” Sano elaborated from his prone position on the floor.
“I see!” Megumi gave that amused-with-everyone-for-no-reason-she-would-ever-divulge smile, and, stepping to the stove, lifted the lid on the rice just a fraction and peered in. Expression unchanged, she said, “I might as well give you a hand with this, then,” and crouched to poke at the fire with an immediacy suggesting she thought dire things were or would be happening to the rice at the current temperature.
Appearing somewhat torn, Kaoru said nothing. Sano continued to lift no finger to join in the cooking endeavor.
Finally, after a lengthy silence during which the look on Megumi’s face had gradually shifted to one more pensive as she kept it mostly hidden from the others in attending to the stove fire, she remarked in a tone lighter than her expression, “It’s a shame Ken-san isn’t here… I was going to ask his opinion on something.”
In concert the others protested that this comment seemed to dismiss their opinions as not worth the asking, and Kaoru went on with, “And it isn’t as if you can’t stay until Kenshin comes back!”
Megumi laughed. “I feel so much more welcome around here than I used to!”
Perhaps Kaoru appeared torn again, but she’d bent so far over the fish she was seasoning that it was impossible to tell. At any rate, she said nothing.
“Well, I suppose I will ask your opinions, then,” Megumi said. She went on at once as if it were no great matter, “I feel like someone has been watching me lately.”
Not only did Kaoru’s face snap up in response to this, but Sano propped himself onto an elbow to look at Megumi. Their expressions were startled, but where Kaoru’s had also a touch of concern, Sano’s seemed more annoyed or even angry. “Seriously?” he wondered, in a dark tone as if this confirmed some fear.
“Are you sure?” Kaoru said at the same time.
“No,” Megumi admitted, answering one rather than the other (and possibly ignoring the other entirely, for all the attention she paid him). “I’m not a warrior of any description, of course, but I’ve had a… unique living situation for a while now, and…” She shrugged, still easy even if she had become a little more serious. “You start to pick things up. Or maybe just become paranoid. That’s what I wanted to consult with Ken-san about.”
“But I’ve thought the same thing!” Kaoru gripped the board before her knees as she stared up at Megumi intensely. “That someone’s spying on me or something… I never actually see anyone or anything suspicious, but I can’t shake the feeling!”
Megumi returned her surprise, and now there was some of the same concern in her eyes that already lay in Kaoru’s.
“Me too,” Sano put in before either of them could say anything more, sitting up completely and adding the concentration of his gaze to the one they were sharing. “I’ve been having that same experience for the last week or so.”
Megumi let out a breath. “Then I suppose I haven’t been imagining things.”
“But who is it?” Kaoru demanded. “And why? What do they want? Does Kenshin know? Is he being watched too?”
“I hate to admit it–” and, indeed, Sano sounded reluctant and irritated to be doing so– “but Kenshin would have noticed way before we did.”
The others nodded. “And done something about it,” Kaoru added.
“It could be the type of thing he might not have said anything about to the rest of us,” Megumi mused, “but he would certainly be aware of it if someone were spying on him.”
More nods. “I think he’s gotten over that not-including-us-in-important-dangerous-shit bullshit, though… Seems more likely we’re being spied on and he’s not.”
There was a moment of silence before Kaoru said, “The biggest thing the three of us have in common is…”
“…Ken-san himself,” Megumi finished. “Our friendship with him.”
“Um, and maybe more specifically…” Now Kaoru was visibly flustered as she again stared down at the fish and herbs on the preparation board in front of her. “I think maybe all three of us…”
Another brief silence passed before Sano, clearing his throat, took his turn finishing for her: “…thought we were in love with him for a fucking long time? Uh, yeah.”
Without bothering to deny it, Megumi said, “I doubt that has anything to do with whoever’s spying on us, though; I think it’s common enough among Ken-san’s acquaintances.”
“Do you?” Kaoru looked relieved at this, as if it at least began to lessen the embarrassment of having misunderstood her own heart for, as Sano put it, ‘a fucking long time.’
Appearing a little embarrassed herself, Megumi sought out the vegetables lying nearby, then began looking for a knife. “Ken-san has a tendency to rescue people from whatever is the worst thing in their lives when he meets them.”
“Or at least he’s so damn different from everyone…” Sano scratched his head as if struggling to put his thoughts into words. “People just get this kick in the balls all of a sudden — not literally, I mean — by this guy who’s like nothing they’ve ever met before.”
“He makes such a profound first impression,” Megumi went on, once again almost as if she hadn’t heard Sano’s input, “that I think nearly everyone who becomes his friend believes themselves in love with him for a while at first.”
“I don’t think they even have to become his friend. You guys’ve probably never heard houki-atama over at the police station talk about him.”
Kaoru broke in to clarify. “You mean that Juppongatana guy with the silly hair?”
“Yeah, him. Every time I’m at the police station — I mean, not like I’m there a lot or anything; I just sometimes happen to wander over there for no reason, you know? Anyway, houki’s always talking about Kenshin like… well, he’s always acting all pissed that Kenshin beat him so hard, and going on about how he’d love to have a rematch some time… but it’s totally obvious that Kenshin impressed the hell out of him, maybe even more than he annoyed him… and maybe he wants to meet up with Kenshin again way more than makes sense for just a rematch.”
“He can’t have much hope, though,” Kaoru said dubiously. “Kenshin would never look twice in his direction! Would he? Do you think?”
“Hmm,” was Megumi’s ambiguous opinion.
“I don’t know…” Again Sano sounded reluctant and even annoyed to admit this. “Chou’s a fucking idiot, but the police investigation shit is pretty cool. Something you can admire, you know? He’s on the right side now, doing a job that helps people and shit…”
“Hmm,” said Megumi again.
“No, I just can’t see it,” Kaoru decided, returning to her fish-seasoning endeavor with vigor as if to make up for time lost staring and being surprised. “Not a murderous jerk like that guy. But I think you’re exactly right, Megumi-san–” with a quick and perhaps somewhat appreciative glance in Megumi’s direction as if to congratulate her fleetingly on her excellent assessment– “about people getting the wrong idea about how they feel about Kenshin.
“I never thought about it before, but now that I do… It does seem like everyone who meets him kinda becomes obsessed with him. It’s easy to mistake that for love, especially if he lives with you…” Again she bent her head over her work, possibly to hide a blush, and her next words came out hastily as if she wanted to segue quickly. “Even his master, when we met him in Kyoto, acted a little like a resentful ex… like Kenshin had dumped him and he’d nobly forgiven him but was still a little bitter about it.”
“He did, didn’t he?” Sano gave a surprised laugh, then grinned widely as he evidently thought back to what memories he had on the subject. “He fucking did!”
“I didn’t spend much time with Hiko-san,” Megumi said a little doubtfully. “Do you think he and Ken-san ever did actually…?”
“I don’t know.” Kaoru’s quick statement was accompanied by a definite blush this time. “Kenshin would have been awfully young…”
“I could see the attraction,” Megumi admitted. “Someone who teaches kenjutsu, who works with students and prepares them for the future, is much more impressive than just some brute warrior.” Now she was perhaps coloring a bit herself as she continued with the vegetables. “But, yes, Ken-san would have been very young, wouldn’t he?”
Sano coughed. “Normally I wouldn’t say it’d be a big problem a guy in his teens with a guy in his thirties, but with Kenshin I kinda can’t picture it.”
“And I think Kenshin was fourteen,” Kaoru grimaced. “That’s a little different from seventeen or nineteen…”
There ensued an awkward wordless period wherein total silence was prevented only by the chopping and crunching sounds from the boards. Finally, as if reminded by food and wanting to shift the subject again, Kaoru said, “You know, Tae-san has always been kinda silly about Kenshin too… and she never came to gossip with me nearly as much at the Akabeko before he showed up.”
Megumi appeared happy to have something new to talk about. “I haven’t seen that Ken-san has ever taken any particular notice of her, though.”
“Well, she’s so…” Sano seemed to consider this dangerous territory, and to be wording his sentiment with appropriate care. “Normal, I guess? Don’t get me wrong — she’s a nice girl, and she’s got good business sense and all, but if Kenshin’s going to go for a lady, he’s got you guys around, and you’re way more interesting.”
“Sanosuke!” Megumi’s surprised pleasure might have been genuine, but the degree to which she displayed it was certainly deliberately exaggerated. “That sounded like a compliment!”
“Yeah, yeah, don’t get used to it,” was the gruff reply.
“Tae-san is an excellent cook, though,” Kaoru said, blushing harder than before. “And she’s good at that right in the middle of the other work she does… That’s certainly attractive…”
“Well, I don’t think Ken-san is aware of her in that light.” This veto from Megumi was just as decisive as Kaoru’s of Chou had been earlier. “But as long as we’re on the topic of the Akabeko…” Abruptly, startling the other two a bit, she raised her voice. “Yahiko! Yahiko, are you inside?”
Footsteps pounded along the passage, and Yahiko appeared with evident haste. Kaoru looked as if she didn’t know whether to be more resentful that Yahiko was so much more attentive to Megumi’s call than her own or admiring that Megumi commanded her recalcitrant pupil so well.
“Yeah?” he asked as he came in. “What’s up?”
“Hey, kid.” Sano got bluntly to the point before the women could approach the issue with any sort of tact. “Were you ever in love with Kenshin at all?”
Yahiko’s face, ears, and neck went far redder than anyone’s in the room had been thus far, and he stiffened as if someone had run a cold finger up his spine. “What?!”
“Sanosuke, is that any way to ask?” Megumi demanded. “You’ve just lost any credit I gave you for complimenting us before.”
Sano stuck out his tongue. “I don’t talk to get credit from you, you know!”
“Yahiko,” said Kaoru, turning from her work to face her student, “what we mean is… well, actually, what we mean is exactly what Sano said, but… I’ve noticed you and Tsubame-chan definitely like each other, and it’s been a really long time you haven’t done anything about it, and I thought maybe there was some reason for that–”
“Wh-why should I ‘do anything about it?'” Yahiko broke in, still blushing as if his nose might start gushing red at any moment. “Tsubame and me are none of your business, and neither is anything else like that — why would you even ask? What a stupid question!” His fists were clenched, but his entire reaction seemed far more embarrassed than angry. “Kenshin’s a-a hero! He’s someone I want to be like, not– You guys are the ones who– I’m not even old enough for stuff like that! Why would you ask me something so stupid?!” And abruptly he spun and ran from the room as quickly as he’d entered it.
“Well, I think we have our answer there,” said Megumi into a silence that, this time, wasn’t even broken by cooking sounds.
“I’m afraid he’s going to feel a bit betrayed by us for a while,” Kaoru said with some apparent regret, “for prying like that.”
“He may say it’s none of your business,” Megumi replied critically, “but you’re like a mother to him — of course it’s your business!”
“I might have said a sister,” mumbled Kaoru, blushing yet again.
“I was the one who asked, anyway,” Sano reminded them.
“Yes, like a complete lout!” Megumi shook her head with an annoyed sigh and went back to dicing vegetables. “Kaoru-chan, you were much kinder, but you were right… Yahiko hasn’t gotten involved with the girl at the Akabeko, and I think there is a specific reason for it.”
Kaoru nodded. “It’s… it’s really hard to consider even trying to get involved with someone… even admitting there might be someone, after…” And she trailed off.
“Hell,” Sano picked up in a tone of agreement, “it was hard enough thinking for a while you wanted Kenshin and wondering what the hell to do about it, and then realizing that wasn’t true and trying to be just friends with Kenshin after you thought you were in love with him. The whole thing’s just really, really…”
“Awkward,” Megumi finished, summing up the group predicament.
After yet another long pause in the conversation, it was Sano’s turn to shake his head as if shaking off the previous subject. With a wry grin he said, “Wow, we really got away from the point, didn’t we? Who the hell is stalking all of us? That’s what we were talking about, wasn’t it?”
Megumi laughed. “Well, we’ve at least determined what we have most in common… and I think it’s been good to get this all out into the open.” She gave Kaoru a smile that looked almost shy, and another touch of color came into her cheeks — a rare look for her — before she reached for a pan and some oil for the final stage of lunch preparation.
“Y-yes,” Kaoru stammered. “I agree. I mean, who the hell is stalking all of us? It can’t have anything to do with us all thinking we were in love with Kenshin, can it?”
“Seems as likely as any other reason…” Sano scratched at the back of his neck. “People either want to kill Kenshin or fuck him.”
Kaoru tittered at the blatant sexual reference. Megumi said sardonically, “Usually both. Not necessarily in that order.”
“But if someone is spying on us because they want to–” Kaoru proved unable to repeat Sano’s wording– “to be with Kenshin, and they think we’re in the way or something… that could be anyone! We just went over a few people off the top of our heads who probably think they’re in love with him, and there could be dozens more!”
“Or it could be a totally different reason,” Sano reminded.
“Yes, it could be the ‘kill’ option,” agreed Megumi. “This could be someone trying to gage the strength of his allies before they attack.”
“Dammit!” Kaoru cried. “I may not be in love with Kenshin, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love Kenshin! I don’t want to see him attacked again!”
The other two nodded.
At this moment the door into the room slid open, and Yahiko reappeared. Everyone gave him a startled look — they hadn’t expected to see him again so soon — especially as they noted his face hadn’t really returned to its usual color.
“Um, this guy…” Yahiko muttered, and stepped aside. From the shadows of the hall another figure emerged, greatly increasing the surprise of everyone present.
“The fuck are you doing here?” Sano demanded, jumping hastily to his feet and taking a step forward. The two women, though they did not speak and their demeanors were not as completely innervated as his, seemed to be wondering the same thing.
“I came to discuss something with Himura,” replied Saitou, tone mild and bearing entirely noncombative.
“He’s not here,” said Kaoru warily.
“So the young man told me.” Saitou gestured briefly at Yahiko, who had retreated into the shadowed doorway. “It may actually be more convenient this way,” he added with a faint smirk, “since the three of you may be better able to decide what to do with this information.”
“You know who’s stalking us,” Megumi guessed.
“Well done, doctor.” Saitou stepped farther into the room (causing Sano to become, evidently, even more tense and energized than before) and glanced at the lunch preparations as if assessing the Kaoru-Megumi teamwork based on what he saw around the kitchen. “Yes, an old acquaintance, after spying on a number of people in Kyoto apparently to his satisfaction, according to my sources there, has traveled to Tokyo to keep up this antisocial behavior. His targets here are you three and a few random others that nonsensically include myself and my assistant. What his reasons for this or his specific choice of victims are, I can’t begin to guess–” Here Saitou looked back and forth between Kaoru and Megumi, then transferred his sardonic gaze to Sano, where it remained– “but the only person he does not appear to be taking any interest in is your Himura Kenshin.”
“Shit, it’s Aoshi, isn’t it,” Sano muttered, half at a growl, as if trying to decide whether he thought this news was acceptable or something to get angry and worried over. “Shinomori fucking Aoshi.”
“A spark of deductive reasoning.” Like Megumi’s surprise earlier, Saitou’s was clearly deliberately exaggerated.
“We were just talking about this. We knew someone was– wait.” Sano, whose eyes had fallen from Saitou’s, now met his gaze again with a look in which suspicion was trying to deny the presence of concern. “Did you say he’s been watching you?”
“Again, I can’t imagine why,” Saitou replied blandly. And again, when he denied having any idea what might be the motive for Aoshi’s strange behavior, it seemed like a blatant lie. “But since everyone he’s been spying on is either a friend of Himura’s or someone Himura has fought sometime in the last year or so, and since it’s impossible to believe that’s a coincidence, I thought it best that Himura — or at least the inner circle of his fanclub — be apprised of the situation.”
The silence that now fell was more awkward than any previous, probably because of the presence of Saitou, who watched them all with a surface impassivity that didn’t entirely mask his amusement and disdain about the entire situation.
“So, what,” Sano finally demanded belligerently of the cop, “are you waiting around for us to thank you?”
“Some gesture of thanks might be appropriate,” replied Saitou easily, “but a police officer learns not to expect it — especially from an idiot like you.”
“Well, thank you anyway.” There was a lilt of amused appreciation in Megumi’s tone, as if hearing Sano insulted lifted her spirits. “We will certainly put this information to good use.”
“I’ll leave the matter to you, then.” With an ironic smile, Saitou turned to depart without any further goodbye. It was probable he would have to escort himself out, since Yahiko was no longer anywhere to be seen.
Sano made a jerky movement toward the door and opened his mouth as if to protest, but eventually said nothing and stopped himself short; so the officer went unhindered.
Presently, “Aoshi…” Megumi murmured. “We should have seen that coming.”
“Yeah, we really should have.” Sano sounded annoyed as he tore himself from his scrutiny of the recently closed door. “He was obsessed with Kenshin from day one. And I could see him taking this long to decide to do something about it. Figure out who his real rivals are and shit, you know?”
Suddenly Kaoru started making an almost frantic gesture of hand as if to request silence and attention for what she was trying to find words to say. “And… and… and you know what?” she finally managed. “I never thought about it before, but Kenshin talks about him more than — more than anyone else I can think of. Definitely more than he talks about anyone else he’s defeated who isn’t around. Like Aoshi is more than just someone he had a conflict with for a while.”
The other two seemed to be rethinking memories, sorting through scenes with Kenshin seeking confirmation of Kaoru’s words. Sano was still frowning. “You know, I think you’re right.”
“Ken-san is so subtle about this sort of thing, but… yes…”
“And it wouldn’t be totally stupid… Aoshi does have that tall, dark, and handsome badass spy thing going on.” With this reluctant statement Sano glanced into the shadows of the doorway again, perhaps expecting to find Aoshi hiding darkly and handsomely there.
“He does have beautiful blue eyes…” Megumi sounded dubious, as if this concession was the greatest she was willing to make.
“I guess I can see it… a little…” Kaoru frowned. “I don’t know him very well, but while we were in Kyoto, he made it obvious that he was going to try to follow Kenshin’s advice and work to atone for what he’d done by living in the best way he could from now on — like Kenshin does — instead of dying, like he’d planned before. That kind of strength is definitely… something I could see being attracted to… But, even so, in Aoshi’s case, he’s tried to kill Kenshin twice!”
“That’s not exactly…” Sano shrugged a little awkwardly, reaching a hand into his gi to scratch an itch on his shoulder. “You live in a warrior’s world, you get used to things like that. It’s not such a big deal anymore, you know?”
“No, I don’t know! Kenshin may have forgiven him, but that should always be a barrier between them!”
“Nah, not really… I mean, I don’t think Kenshin would think of it that way. You get into these big conflicts and shit, and… suddenly it’s like… someone stabbing you or whatever? It’s less serious than it would be otherwise. Like you’re all on a different level, so that kind of shit just doesn’t count like it would for anyone else.”
“I guess you can’t really hang onto every time someone tries to hit you,” Kaoru murmured thoughtfully, as if lost in a memory. “And just because you were rivals at one point doesn’t mean… And with Kenshin… you’re right, I guess he does operate on a more serious level…”
“No, don’t put the vegetables in just yet,” Megumi advised. “Wait until you’ve turned the fish a few times.” She guided Kaoru’s hand — perhaps somewhat unnecessarily — toward the action specified, and remarked as she did so, “There’s one area where Ken-san is on exactly the same level we are — he isn’t pursuing any romance either.” When Kaoru remained uncharacteristically silent in response to this, she went on, “If he is interested in Aoshi, he’s done absolutely nothing about it.”
“That’s ’cause he’s too damn nice,” grumbled Sano. “That’s always been his problem. He probably knows — at least on the inside, even if he doesn’t know consciously or whatever — he knows how people around him think about him, and he feels like it would make him a total asshole to everyone who thinks they’re in love with him if he went and found someone of his own and crushed all their hopes.”
“That does sound like Ken-san…” It was possibly the most seriously Megumi had taken any statement of Sano’s during this entire conversation. “He grasps so firmly at the first decent, unselfish response he sees to a problem… He doesn’t realize there might be a better way.”
Kaoru, having recovered her tongue, agreed critically, “He always thinks the best solution is whatever’s the most inconvenient for him. It would be like him to just assume that denying himself his own romance is doing what’s best for everyone else.”
“…not realizing that if he were to find someone of his own, he would set the rest of us free to do the same.”
“Yeah, that would make things way less awkward, if Kenshin got with someone finally.”
“But…” Kaoru took a deep breath, and her face, in contrast to its previous redness, now paled. “Isn’t it maybe a little selfish to wait around for Kenshin to set us free? When the whole problem came from the fact that we were wrong about how we felt in the first place?”
Sano stared at her, parts of his face shifting in and out of a variety of expression components so that no single emotion showed clearly. “Are you saying we should all go after — I mean, not saying there’s necessarily anyone to go after — but if there was, you think we should all go for it so Kenshin will get the message?”
“It might solve the problem…” Megumi’s voice, which was directed toward the frying fish rather than either of the other two, was quiet and a little hoarse. “It probably couldn’t,” she added, lifting her eyes at last and looking steadily at Kaoru, “have any negative effect.”
“It would show Aoshi-san we’re not his rivals.” Kaoru’s voice was just as hoarse as Megumi’s as she returned the intent gaze. “And it would show Kenshin he wouldn’t be hurting any of us if he went after his own happiness…”
“And our happiness… if we were brave enough to reach for it…” Megumi didn’t seem to intend this as an immediate continuation of Kaoru’s thought, but rather as the beginning of another she didn’t need to finish.
Watching Kaoru’s paleness after her daring suggestion darken back to its prior redness, Sano didn’t bother to point out that the fish seemed to be crackling rather alarmingly in the pan during the wordless few moments that followed. He just waited out that time with his expression still shifting as it had before until finally it settled into one of determination. “I’ll leave the matter to you, then,” he eventually said, and, without further goodbye, headed for the dark doorway behind him with a speed and vigor of movement probably a little excessive for simply vacating the room and perhaps the dojo.
And the two women remained behind in silence, but for the sounds of their lunch starting to burn, staring at each other, wondering whether they had the courage to reach for their own happiness.