Takani Megumi was doing paperwork in the clinic that she ran with her older brother, Saranou. She'd been overjoyed to learn that he was alive and well when she'd returned to Aizu six years earlier. They'd had a great reunion where she'd met his lovely wife, Meika, who was also in training to be a doctor. Saranou and Meika had no children yet, but were hoping to get pregnant soon. Megumi was delighted at the idea of being an aunt someday.
Saranou, who was a doctor in his own right, had returned to Aizu about a year before Megumi had and had reopened the old Takani family clinic that their parents had run. He and Megumi now ran the clinic as partners. The clinic was important because it was the only one that would take those who couldn't afford to pay the astronomical doctors' fees the other clinics charged.
Megumi was pretty satisfied with her life as it was now. She was very happy to have found one relative left alive and to be working as a doctor for those who needed one most. Every June, she'd take the train down Tokyo and visit with the Himuras, Yahiko and Tsubame. She kept her promise to Kaoru to examine Kenshin every year in June to be certain his body wasn't suffering any side effects from his years wielding Hiten Mitsurugi. As far as she could tell, he was still very healthy, which was a great relief to them all. All in all, Megumi was pretty satisfied with her life as it was now. But was she truly happy? The more she reflected on it, the more she doubted that she was. There was an empty spot in her heart, a spot that she was beginning to realize could only be filled by a certain tall, muscular, spiky haired man with roguish brown eyes and a silly, lopsided grin.
When Sano and Megumi had first met in 1878, they hadn't been able to stand each other. Sano blamed Megumi for the death of his friend Yoita, who had overdosed on the spider's web opium Kanryuu Takeda had forced her to make. Sano called had her Opium Woman and acted very curt toward her. But when push came to shove, Sano had fought valiantly at Kenshin's side to protect her from the Oniwabanshuu and Kanryuu.
When Hyotoko attacked by breaking in through the front gate, Sano went up against him without hesitation. He kicked Hyotoko in the gut. Hyotoko burned him by breathing fire on him. However, Sano was able to dodge away, suffering only burns on his legs. Hyotoko was startled and spun around to see Sano standing behind him.
"Not nice, fat boy," said Sano as the smoke rose from his burnt legs.
"Ho ho, you dodged my fire breath, but now your legs are burned," said Hyotoko.
After this, Kenshin took over for a bit and was able to make Hyotoko run out of oil by whirling the Sakabatou in front of him like a shield. After, Sano stepped in front of him and took the fight back.
"Refueling complete," said Hyotoko. "Poor fool, walking to your own cremation!"
"You're the fool," said Sano. "Tricks don't work once you know how they're done."
"'Tricks' he says. 'Freak' he says! I'll burn you both up!" roared Hyotoko.
"I'LL CREMATE YOU ALL!" he roared again as he spewed out flame.
As Hyotoko began his new attack, instead of dodging, Sano ran straight into the source of the flame. He reached deep into Hyotoko's throat and yanked out the oil bag.
"Cheap magic always has a gimmick," he said, holding up the oil bag. "Talk about a dirty trick. You got no chance. Give up now."
"Fool! You're the one with no chance! You can't repeat that punch from befo--," Hyotoko was cut off by a kick to the chin from Sanosuke.
"You forgot about the kicking. Not that a sausage leg like you would think of it," said Sano as Hyotoko keeled over backwards.
"You see? They're both stronger than they look," said Kaoru.
"They're beyond strong. Who are those two?" said Megumi as she stared wide-eyed.
"Who they are to you, I have no idea. But I'm proud to say that they're my friends," said Kaoru as she ran forward to stop Sano from beating Kenshin up.
That had been the first time, Megumi actually saw Sano fight. He proved himself to be a great fighter and a loyal and trustworthy comrade. The fearless Rooster would go up against any opponent, no matter how big or fierce.
But what impressed her even beyond that was how inspirational Sano could be at times. Eventhough he had the brain of a chicken, Sano could say things that made one think.
In the observatory, Megumi had her tanto trained on the base of her neck.
'The cause of all your trouble will soon be gone. Look at what I reduced myself to, making drugs, selfishly hoping to see my family again. But in the end, I'm glad to have met such good people,' she thought as she began to plunge the dagger into her neck.
Megumi felt something holding the dagger back from plunging into her skin. She looked up into the angry brown eyes of Sanosuke, whose hand was now bleeding from gripping the tanto.
"YOU STUPID BITCH!" he roared as he yanked the tanto from her hands and threw it to the floor. "Kenshin and Yahiko nearly got themselves killed to rescue you and you want to make it all a waste!"
As the months passed, Sanosuke waxed in strength and courage (though he seemed to wane in IQ). He learned the Futae no Kiwami from Yukyuzan Anji and faced Shishio alongside Kenshin and Saitou. By the time they all got back from Kyoto, he was a very strong fighter, though his right hand was frequently shattered in fights. It fell to Megumi to treat his hand over and over again.
When Yukishiro Enishi struck with his Jinchuu and kidnapped Kaoru, they all went to the island together to save her. There Megumi again saw Sanosuke fight, this time one of Wu Heishin's Four Gods. Sano learned how to use his left hand to absorb some of the impact of the Futae no Kiwami, thus minimizing the damage to his right hand. Thus, he played his part in helping Kenshin to rescue Kaoru so they could all return to Tokyo together.
The Rooster had been gone for nearly six years now. He'd left so suddenly, she hadn't even had the chance to say goodbye. One day she'd received a telegram from Kaoru and Kenshin saying that Sano had left the country to escape arrest and they didn't know when he'd return, though Kenshin held out hope that Sano would indeed return one day. Megumi had been deeply hurt that Sano hadn't at least left a note telling her he was leaving. She made up her mind to simply not think about him at all. At first it was pretty easy. She dismissed all thoughts of Sano from her head and busied herself with her medical practice and reuniting with Saranou. Whenever Sano was brought up in conversations during her annual visit with the Himuras, she responded politely, but ignored him otherwise.
Lately though, thoughts of the Rooster had been invading her dreams. She'd dream of seeing Sano on a boat, drifting into the horizon. She'd go out into the water and try to swim after him, but could never catch up. She'd always be downcast after waking up from such dreams. Would she ever find happiness, or was she doomed to dream over and over again of that idiot Rooster?
Megumi took the train down to Tokyo for her annual visit. Kenshin, Kaoru, Kenji, Yahiko and Tsubame met her at the train station as was their custom and took her to the dojo. Megumi felt very much alone as she watched Kenshin, Kaoru and Kenji as well as Yahiko and Tsubame as they talked and laughed with each other. Both couples seemed so happy and close. Although not yet engaged, Yahiko and Tsubame were the quintessential young couple. They spent practically every spare moment together. Kenshin and Kaoru were joined at the hip and both loved and doted on little Kenji. Every year, it got harder for her to watch them and know that she'd probably never have anyone to share her life with except for Saranou and his wife.
At the dojo, the conversation turned to what to have for lunch. Yahiko innocently commented that he wanted chicken. Megumi felt her heart squeeze at the mention of fowl and promptly left the room. No one but Kenshin noticed her leave. He found her standing on the engawa in the backyard, looking at the sakura tree that grew in the corner.
"Are you alright, Megumi-dono?" he asked, coming up behind her and making her jump a bit.
"Still as stealthy as ever, eh Ken-san?" asked Megumi. "I'm fine. I just needed some air."
"Did something upset you?" Kenshin pressed.
"Not really," said Megumi. "C'mon it's time for your checkup."
Megumi and Kenshin went into the bedroom, sliding the shouji shut. Kenshin stepped behind the privacy screen, disrobed and sat down. As Megumi looked him over, she noted that at age 35, Kenshin was in better shape than most men ten years his junior. Giving up Mitsurugi two years ago had allowed his body to regain much of its strength. He was still a damn fine swordsman and was strong enough to make the thugs and yakuza that infested Tokyo think twice about messing with him and those dearest to him. None dared to set foot near the Kamiya Dojo.
Megumi had Kenshin follow her finger with his eyes, which he did fine. She traced her fingertips along Kenshin's spine, noting its alignment. She checked Kenshin's pulse at the points on his neck and wrists, asking the usual questions about his eating and sleeping habits and how he felt in general.
"Fine, thank you," said Kenshin.
"That's good to hear," said Megumi with a small smile as she wrapped the cuff of the sphygmomanometer around Kenshin's left arm.
She squeezed the bulb several times, taking his blood pressure. Just as it was starting to get a bit tight, Megumi stopped squeezing and let the air out, noting the results.
After unwrapping the cuff from Kenshin's arm, she put the stethoscope in her ears and touched it to his back, having him breathe deeply and cough. She repeated this as she moved the stethoscope to different areas of his back so she could listen to his breathing from different angles.
"Raise your hands above your head," Megumi instructed.
Kenshin raised his arms over his head while Megumi watched the movement of his muscles and joints for any halting, or signs of discomfort on Keshin's features. There were none.
"Now lower your arms and twist them behind your back," she instructed.
Kenshin lowered his arms and twisted them up behind his back while Megumi watched the movement of his muscles and joints and checked for any hesitation or discomfort. Again, there was none.
"Your arms and shoulders seem fine. Lie back now," Megumi instructed.
Megumi took hold of Kenshin's right leg and moved it in different directions, rotating it gently at the pelvis, knee and ankle. She asked him if there was any discomfort, to which Kenshin responded in the negative. She repeated this on his left leg with the same result. Kenshin watched her with that gaze that was able to probe the soul. Try as she might, she couldn't hide her sadness from an observer as keen as he.
Touching the stethoscope to his chest, she listened to his heartbeat. The health of Kenshin's heart was a source of concern for her, given the punishment his body had gone through in his younger days. For now though, his heart sounded strong. Megumi moved the stethoscope farther down and listened to the churning of his stomach and the growling of his intestines. After putting the stethoscope aside, she began gently pressing on his abdomen with the flats of her fingers, moving in small circles, examining internal organs.
"You seem down," Kenshin observed as she probed his belly.
"I'm fine," she answered as she slipped on gloves.
Megumi's gloved fingers softly touched Kenshin's sensitive flesh, feeling for any abnormalities. Finding nothing amiss, she reached down further, positioning her index finger.
"Bear down," she instructed.
Kenshin bore down and Megumi's finger slipped forward to examine him from within. He closed his eyes and breathed slowly and deeply while Megumi gently felt around inside him. Finding nothing of any consequence, Megumi withdrew her finger and removed the gloves.
"Everything's going well at the clinic. Meika's coming along quickly. She'll be a full-fledged doctor within the year," she continued.
"You're lonely, aren't you?" said Kenshin.
Megumi was taken aback by the direct question from the usually demure and polite man.
"You're still bad for the heart, Ken-san. You can get dressed," she said, putting her stuff away.
"Aren't there any men in Aizu who have caught your eye?" persisted Kenshin as he pulled his gi back on.
"None of the men there want to be with a 'woman doctor'. Aizu's not as open-minded as Tokyo. They're happy to receive the free service, but actually having a relationship with a 'pioneer' like myself just isn't done," said Megumi.
"That's a shame," said Kenshin.
"Yes. Well if it's meant to be, it'll happen. If it isn't, it won't. I have my brother and my practice. How much more of life have I the right to ask for?" said Megumi as she and Kenshin exited the room.
'Much,' thought Kenshin.
Himura Kenshin, Kaoru and Kenji were walking home together on a July evening after a glorious day in the fields. It had been hot and sunny, the perfect day for a picnic. Kenshin and Kaoru had spent the day romping with Kenji, playing tag, hide-and-seek and all manner of childish games. When their lion cub wore himself out and fell asleep on the blanket, stuffed rooster tucked securely in the crook of his arm, Kenshin and Kaoru walked around the field hand-in-hand. Of course they never strayed out of sight of the blanket, lest Kenji awaken to find himself alone.
The Kamiya dojo was just coming into sight when Kenshin sensed it: strong ki. As he analyzed it, the ki felt more and more familiar. Letting go of Kenji's hand, he began to run on ahead of Kenji and Kaoru. Kaoru picked up the little boy as the questions about where Daddy had gone started to babble forth and ran forward, trying in vain to keep up with her husband's godlike speed.
Kenshin approached the dojo and saw that the front gate was open. He launched himself into the air and landed on top of the perimeter fence, his eyes scouring the grounds for any sign of the intruder. His kenki flared up again. To the right! Kenshin looked to the right and saw a giant figure standing in the shadows.
"I know you're there," he said simply.
"Your senses are as sharp as ever," said a familiar voice as a tall figure stepped out into the light of the dying sun.
Instantly Kenshin was off the fence and standing in front of Sagara Sanosuke. The two men clasped each other's hands in joyous reunion.
"Said I'd come back," said Sano, wearing that silly lopsided grin of his.
"Welcome home," said Kenshin, violet eyes shining.
The two men smiled and looked each other over. Kenshin looked pretty much the same as Sano remembered him, though there were some differences that the Rooster noted: the cruciform scar seemed to be fading, his eyes had a softness in them born of his years living peacefully with his family and he no longer wielded the Sakabatou, having bequeathed it to Yahiko two years ago.
Sano had filled out in the six years he had been gone. No longer the tall gangly teen of Kenshin's memory, he was very muscular and built like a bear. Sano still wore the red headband of the Sekihoutai. He had traded in his Aku jacket for a large tiger-skin cloak. His hair was now long enough to pull back into a small ponytail, though characteristic of the slacker he was, he just let it spike out every which way. He also sported a full, brown beard.
"How are you?" asked Kenshin when he could speak again.
"I'm doin' great. Had a lotta fun travelin’. Saw the world and all that good shit. But when all's said and done, Tokyo's home," said Sano. "You look like you're doin’ great too, buddy!"
"Yes. I am," Kenshin said quietly.
Just then he sensed his wife and son's approach.
Kaoru stepped into the yard and almost dropped Kenji when she saw Sano standing there.
"Sanosuke!" she cried out and ran forward to greet the Rooster.
"Missy!" he said.
Then he looked at little Kenji.
"No doubt whose kid you are," he said, noting Kenji's titian hair.
"You look like a rooster!" laughed Kenji, not in the least afraid of the man his parents seemed so happy to see.
"Aw, you've been letting him hang out with the punk," winced Sano. "Well, you look like a little Midget."
"Rooster!" shouted Kenji, scowling at Sano.
"Midget," returned Sano.
"When did you get back?" asked Kaoru.
"Week ago. I had to run like hell before the crew found me stowin’ away in the cargo bay and made me pay, so I jumped off before the ship pulled into Kyoto harbor and swam the rest of the way, then I hightailed it over to the Aoiya and got some free grub off Okina. Seems like the Ice Man and Weasel are finally engaged. ‘Bout the hell time," said Sano.
"You actually made it from Kyoto to here without getting lost?" asked Kaoru.
"I hitched on a merchant's wagon and jumped off when we arrived in Tokyo," said Sano.
"Once a freeloader, always a freeloader," quipped Kaoru.
"Meh..." shrugged Sano.
"Sano, would you like to come for some food?" offered Kenshin.
"That's why I came here first," said Sano.
"You'll never change, will you?" said Kaoru.
"Prob’ly not," laughed Sano as the four of them went into the house, Kenshin shutting the gate behind them and locking it.
After Kaoru put Kenji to bed, the three adults sat down and talked over tea. Sano told them in great detail of his journey around the world. He told them about all the bar fights he'd been in, all the jails he'd broken out of, all the bones he'd broken, and of course all the money he'd lost gambling and all the booze he'd drunk. He aroused a lot of laughter with his story of going to Venice, Italy and almost drowning when he walked out of the inn in the morning, forgetting that the city was perpetually flooded.
By now it was quite late and everyone was tired. Kenshin and Kaoru invited Sano to stay the night. After shaving off his beard, which was beginning to itch since he'd never washed it, Sano took the futon in the guestroom. He didn't get much sleep though. Visions of a certain Vixen kept popping into his mind. He would force them out, only to have them return en masse.
Kenshin and Kaoru lay in bed, talking about Roosters and Vixens. Kenshin had told Kaoru about his conversation with Megumi two weeks ago.
"She was trying to hide her sadness, but it was so obvious. She and Sano had feelings for each other, but never had the chance to explore them before he was chased out of the country," said Kenshin.
"I hate to see Megumi all alone," said Kaoru. "She's a beautiful and smart woman. I can't believe all those pig-headed men refusing her because she's a doctor. Kenshin, do you think we could do anything to help her and Sano?"
"I hate to meddle in other people's affairs," started Kenshin. "But maybe if we do this right, we can point them toward each other and they'll come together on their own. I'll try to find out if Sano still has feelings for Megumi-dono tomorrow."
"We need to be careful, darling. If we do this wrong, we could end up hurting them," said Kaoru.
"I promise to be careful," said Kenshin, kissing his wife.
Roosters and Vixens forgotten for the time being, Kenshin and Kaoru made sweet love together.
The next day after breakfast, Kaoru took Kenji out shopping with her to give Sano and Kenshin some time for "male bonding". Kenshin and Sano took rods and bait and went down to the river to fish. It was a beautiful morning with nary a cloud in the sky. The sun was shining, the birds were singing. It was a perfect day for fishing.
Sano and Kenshin settled themselves at a comfortable spot under a large tree. The two men baited their hooks and cast their lines into the water. They fished in silence for a while, watching as the occasional bird flew over the water, catching a fish in its beak. Finally, Sano decided to open things up a bit, as Kenshin seemed content with just fishing.
"So, what's been goin’ on while I've been gone? Yahiko and the lil' girl hitched yet?" he asked in his usual subtle way.
"Heh heh, no. They're still dancing around the question. I'd say they're courting right now," said Kenshin.
"Oh, yeah. They say first loves are always the toughest," said Sano.
"I know," said Kenshin so softly that Sano almost didn't hear him.
"Well, Yahiko'll propose. He's a smart guy, even if he don't act like it."
"That reminds me of another friend of mine," said Kenshin with a smile.
"Yeah? Who?" said Sano.
Kenshin grinned and shook his head. Maybe he was wrong on that count. The two continued fishing for a few more minutes.
"Your midget's real cute. Looks just like you," said Sano, trying to get a conversation going, which was painfully hard with the reticent Kenshin.
Kenshin stirred and a smile pursed his lips.
"He has Kaoru's eyes," the swordsman answered dreamily.
"Which one of you's he take after?" asked Sano.
"His mother. He has her temper," said Kenshin.
Sano glanced at the smaller man out of the side of his eye.
"I bet he's a lot like you in other ways," said the Rooster.
Kenshin looked up and shook his head.
"I pray that he's nothing like me," he said in a dropped voice.
"Aw, Kenshin. You're a great guy. You gotta have a lil self-respect there, buddy," said Sano, giving Kenshin a pat on the back.
Kenshin smiled at his friend, somewhat comforted by what he said.
"Thank you for your words. But it's better for all if Kenji takes after me as little as possible," he said quietly.
Sano sighed and let that topic drop.
"Alright. It's good to see ya happy though," he insisted.
Kenshin smiled again.
"Thank you. I am happy," he finished in a whisper, as if scared that saying it would shatter the dream he was now living.
After a few moments of silence, Kenshin spoke up.
"What about you? Are you happy?" he asked.
"Eh? Yeah I'm happy. I'm back home and out fishin’ with my best buddy. What else could a Rooster ask for?" he declared jubilantly.
"What will you do now that you're back, go back to the life you had before, or try something new?" he asked.
"I dunno. Haven't thought that far ahead. Figured I could just go back to my old pad. You think Yahiko'd mind a roomie?" asked Sano.
"I don't think you two would make good roommates. Yahiko keeps that place spotless. You two would be at each other's throats before the first day was out," warned Kenshin.
"Yeah you're prob'ly right. Me 'n Yahiko are like oil and water," said Sano. "Eh, guess I could live under a bridge. Wouldn't be the first time."
"Don't be silly," said Kenshin gently. "You'll stay with us till you can find a place of your own. Although Kaoru will probably want you to do housework in return for all the food you'll eat."
"Wha? I don't eat THAT much," protested Sano.
"Please, only a horse would eat less," teased Kenshin.
Sano gaped. When had Kenshin developed such a sense of humor?
Kenshin and Sano fell into silence for about half an hour more, each catching a few fish. Just then, from out of the bushes came a pretty little red fox only about 15 feet away from the two men to drink from the river. Sano and Kenshin stared at it. It was rare to see a fox this close, for they were shy creatures.
"Well I'll be," said Sano. "A pretty little kitsune."
This elicited a quiet laugh from Kenshin. Sano turned and glared at the kenkaku who gazed back at him with amused eyes.
"What the hell you laughin' at, Red?" growled the Rooster.
'Red?' thought Kenshin.
Aloud, he replied simply, "Nothing."
After a few moments of silence Sano asked the question that had been bothering him since last night.
"Kenshin, how's Megumi doin’? Did she find her family in Aizu? Did she find a guy and get hitched?" he asked, with a slight quaver in his voice.
"Megumi-dono only found one living relative, her older brother. They're running a medical clinic up there now that's open to everyone, even those who can't pay. She's never married," said Kenshin, carefully emphasizing the last sentence.
"Why the hell not? She's a pretty woman, but she ain’t gittin’ no younger. She shoulda got hitched years ago," said Sano.
"She was waiting for the man she loves to return," said Kenshin.
"Return? Where's he been?" asked Sano, causing Kenshin to sigh in exasperation.
"He's been abroad for a few years now," replied Kenshin.
"What a moron! The Medicine Box is quite a catch. She's worth stayin’ in Japan for," said Sano. "If I ever see this guy, I'll pound his ass."
"You may see him sooner than you think," said the Kenshin, trying not to laugh.
"Yeah? When? I wanna break his face. If there's one thing I hate, it's a guy so dumb, he don't know love when it's bitin’ him on the ass," said Sano, smashing his fist into his hand.
Kenshin choked on the fit of laughter that was threatening to erupt from him. Sometimes he wondered if Sano hadn't taken a few too many blows to his skull.
"I think we have enough fish," he said quickly. "Let's get back to the dojo."
"Eh, OK," said the clearly-confused Rooster.
After lunch, Sano took Kenji outside and told him stories of his world travels, being careful to leave out all the racy stuff, lest Kaoru inflict great bodily harm on him. Kenshin told Kaoru all about his and Sano's conversation during fishing, laughing himself sick over the memory of Sano's utter cluelessness.
"I knew he was dumb, but that's bad even for Sanosuke," said Kaoru in amazement.
"We have to find a way to get those two together," said Kenshin when he was able to speak again. "But how?"
"I have an idea," said Kaoru. "I'll send a telegram to Megumi saying that you're very ill and ask her to come down here."
Kenshin hated the idea of lying to Megumi, but there was really no other way since Megumi wouldn't be back for a whole year. He nodded his tacit approval.
Kaoru went to the telegraph office in town and sent this telegram to Megumi:
"To: Takani Megumi
Kenshin has fallen gravely ill. Oguni-sensei doesn't know what's wrong with him and he's getting worse day by day. You're the only one who can help him! Please come down to Tokyo at once.
From: Himura Kaoru"
Megumi was getting ready to close down the clinic for the day when a telegram courier arrived and handed her the telegram. Megumi sat down and read it. When she read about Kenshin's impending doom, panic flooded into her eyes.
'Ken-san's ill? How can that be? He was fine when I examined him two weeks ago!' she thought frantically.
There was no time to be lost. Megumi packed up a change of clothes and her medicine box, informed Saranou of what had happened and then bought an express train ticket for Tokyo. All the way there, she brooded over Kenshin and wondered how she could have missed this. When the train pulled into the station, Megumi got off and saw Kaoru waiting for her. She ran over to the younger woman.
"This way, Megumi-san. We don't have a moment to lose," said Kaoru in mock horror.
Kaoru and Megumi ran as fast as they could in their kimono, which restricted their leg movement. Kaoru felt rather bad for dragging Megumi down under false pretenses. She hoped that getting Megumi and Sano in the same place would make this all worthwhile.
Back at the dojo, Kenshin dragged Sano out to the front yard and handed him a broom.
"Kaoru-dono wants you to sweep the front walk," he lied.
"Whaaaat? Noooooww? Can't I do it tomorrow?" moaned Sano.
"No, best do it now if you don't want her to clobber you," said Kenshin.
"Aw, shit," said Sano, taking the broom.
It was only his second day living here and already Missy had turned him into slave labor.
Kenshin picked up Kenji who was standing watching them.
"C'mon Kenji. Let's go inside and start dinner, shall we?" he said, smiling at his little boy.
"OK Daddy," said Kenji. "Bye, Rooster."
"See ya, Midget," said Sano, starting the onerous task of sweeping.
"What are the symptoms Ken-san is displaying?" asked Megumi as she and Kaoru hurried through the crowded streets.
"He's very hot to the touch," said Kaoru, suddenly coming to a stop. "That reminds me. I need to get more ice to pack him with. You go on ahead to the dojo while I get it and I'll meet you there."
"OK," said Megumi, and she took off again.
Megumi came through the front gate and slammed on the brakes when she saw Sagara Sanosuke standing in front of the dojo, sweeping the walkway. Sano dropped the broom when he saw Megumi and the two of them spent almost a whole minute just gaping at each other.
Kenshin and Kaoru (who had actually taken a shortcut back to the dojo) were sitting on the roof, watching the Rooster and the Vixen silently, hoping their little plan would come to fruition.
After what seemed like an eternity, Sano found his voice.
"Whutcha doin' here, Vixen?" he asked, brown eyes almost popping out of his face.
"I might ask you the same thing, Rooster. When did you get back?" replied Megumi, recovering from her shock.
"Week ago," said Sano. "Been stayin' here for two days. You visitin' here or somethin'?."
"No. I'm here because of... Ken-san! He has a raging fever that I need to treat right away. Excuse me, Sanosuke," said Megumi, starting to head into the dojo.
Sano grabbed her.
"Fever? What the hell you talkin' 'bout? Kenshin's fine. Me 'n him been hangin' out with Kenji all day. He ain't got a fever," said Sano.
"But Kaoru-chan sent an urgent telegram," protested Megumi.
Suddenly the light bulb turned on in Sano's head (a rare occurrence indeed).
"Wait a minute... Yesterday when me 'n Kenshin were talkin', he kept askin' me shit like if I was happy and how I was gonna live my life now that I was back," he said.
"He asked me if I was happy too when I visited here last month," said Megumi. "Kaoru sends me a telegram about Ken-san's health, knowing I'll rush right down... Oh, I smell a pair of rats."
"Me too. When I get my hands on Kenshin, I'm gonna kill him," said Sano.
"Those two have some nerve!" fumed Megumi.
On the roof, Kenshin and Kaoru looked at each other and smiled. Wordlessly, they descended the roof and snuck into the dojo, quickly packing enough food for three in a picnic basket. They took Kenji and went out to the woods in the back of the dojo, having left the dining room table set for two. Two picnics in one month; Kenji was thrilled!
Sano and Megumi walked into the dojo, looking for their victims. Just then the scent of fresh fish tickled Sano's nostrils. He gestured toward the dining room.
"Let's go 'n make 'em choke on their dinner," he said, the right corner of his mouth twitching into a grin.
"Sounds good to me," agreed Megumi.
Upon entering the dining area, Megumi and Sano found the table set for two. There were plenty of freshly cooked fish, seasoned as only Kenshin could get them. There was a jar of sake and two saucers on the table.
"Can you believe this?" said Megumi in awe.
"Yeah, they just took off without eatin'," said Sano, causing Megumi to roll her eyes in exasperation.
"Well, there's no sense in letting all this delicious food go to waste," she said. "Why don't we just finish it off for them and kill them later?"
"I'm with ya. That fish smells great," said Sano.
He was about to plop down in front of the table and start stuffing his face, when something stopped him. Sano held out his hand and helped Megumi into sitting position across the table from him.
Megumi poured Sano a saucer of sake and Sano reciprocated.
"Thanks for the food," they said together and started in on their meal.
Out in the field, the Himuras were resting after filling their bellies. Kenji was curled up with his stuffed rooster in his arms. Kenshin was lying with his head pillowed on his wife's lap.
"I wonder how everything's going," said Kaoru softly as she ran her fingers through Kenshin's hair.
"I'm sure they're fine," said Kenshin without opening his eyes. "We set everything up for them, so I think they'll be OK."
"You're trusting that Sanosuke will use his brain," said Kaoru, causing Kenshin to rumble with laughter.
"I think it will work. I have faith in them," he said, sinking into a doze.
Sano and Megumi sat staring at each other across the table as they ate slowly. Each had so much they wanted to say to the other, but didn't know how to start. The atmosphere was thick with emotion and unanswered questions.
Presently they both started to speak at the same time.
"You go first, Megumi," said Sano with uncharacteristic softness in his voice.
His calling her by her name also rather surprised her.
"What was it like to travel the world? Did you have any great adventures or meet interesting people?" asked Megumi.
"Yeah," said Sano. "I did some cool shit in the States. I went on gold minin' expeditions, drove cattle 'cross the plains and hitched on freight trains 'cross the countryside."
"I suppose you can't ever be expected to work or pay for things like an honest man," teased Megumi.
"Eh, just ain't in my nature," said Sano with a chuckle. "What about you? Kenshin told me you found your brother. That's great! What's he like?"
"Saranou was always a good, kind brother to me," said Megumi. "We're running our parents' clinic and things are going well."
"That's good," said Sano, lapsing into silence as he bit into some fish.
After a long pause, he spoke again. "Are you happy?"
"What? Of course I'm happy. I..." Megumi stopped speaking.
Sanosuke was staring into her eyes. His brown eyes had no waggish humor in them, but actual depth, like he really wanted to hear about her. Something in his gaze loosened her emotions just a bit.
"Sanosuke, why did you just leave without even saying goodbye?" she asked suddenly.
"I wanted to. You got no idea how bad it hurt just leavin' like that, but the cops were closin’ in. I had no choice. I had to ditch Japan," said Sano. "I wanted to say goodbye, but there just weren't time. If I'd had the time I woulda... I woulda asked you to go with me."
"What?" asked Megumi.
"I woulda asked you to go with me, if they just hadn't shown up when they did and chased me off. When I left that dock and you weren't there, I felt like my right arm had been cut off," said Sano.
"I felt like my heart had been ripped from my chest when Kaoru told me you left. I hated you at that moment. For the past six years, I've tried not to think about you at all. But lately..." Megumi trailed off.
"Same here," said Sano. "I figured you'd be pissed at me, so I didn't think about you either. I just went from country to country, drinkin', fightin', seein' the sights, havin' adventures, just drowned myself in travelin' and tried to forget. It was easy at first, but you just kept poppin' back into my mind. And then I saw you come into the frontyard today and it was like 'woah'. You got into my dreams and you won't get out, Vixen."
"You won't get out of mine either, Rooster," teased Megumi.
Megumi and Sano ate and drank in silence for about 20 minutes after, each pouring liberal amounts of sake for the other, neither knowing what to do. They both still had feelings for each other! Suddenly the door had been thrown open and just on the other side was Possibility, limitless in her wonder and potential. As the sake flowed, tongues loosened.
"So wutcha think, Megs? You think me 'n you'd be good together?" asked Sano, his eyes hazing over a bit.
Megumi blushed, feeling the sake's effects on her too.
"Foxes do love chickens. Oh ho ho!" she said, fox ears popping out.
"Yeah, to eat," said Sano, pouring Megumi another saucer. 'I'd like t’eat her.'
After another long pause, Sano spoke again, this time about the Himuras.
"I always knew Kenshin and Missy'd get hitched. It was just a matter of time," he said. "They're a great couple; made for each other ‘n all that good shit."
"Yes. They're very happy together. It's what both of them needed, to come together and be one," said Megumi.
"Yeah. Come together ‘n be one ‘n be happy," repeated Sano.
Suddenly he looked up at Megumi. "I wanna do that. I mean, I want us to do that! Be one and be happy. How 'bout it, Vixen?"
"Are you proposing?" asked Megumi.
"Yeah. No. I dunno what the hell I'm doin'!" said Sano. "I wanna at least try. I can't keep runnin' from what's in here," he said, laying his hand over his heart.
Megumi's eyes widened. Was this Sanosuke talking? Bar brawling, gambling, drinking, freeloading Sanosuke, talking as if he had a brain?
"Sano..." she whispered.
Quite suddenly, Sano was on his knees next to her, taking her hands in his.
"I know I ain't got the right to ask nothin' of ya, not yet. I ain't sayin' git married or even engaged yet. We could just kinda see each other a lot and you know, see how it goes. I just want a chance. That's all I'm askin'," said Sano as sincerely and sensitively as his capacious intellect allowed.
"I guess it couldn't hurt to give it a try," said Megumi, recalling bitterly the men who had used her services as a doctor but would never be seen courting a woman who practiced medicine. They were hypocrites. Megumi knew that Sano hated hypocrisy and would never sink to that level.
"Cool!" said Sano. "Well I guess this little dinner could count as our first 'outin’'."
"That sounds reasonable," said Megumi. "Hey, do you still want to kill Kenshin and Kaoru? I don't."
"Nah. We'll let them get away with meddlin' this time," said Sano. "But they do it again and we kill 'em."
Out in the back, listening quietly at the door, Kenshin and Kaoru had to fight to stifle their laughter. They had heard the last part of the conversation. Their plan had actually worked!
"C'mon. Let's go in the front door," whispered Kenshin, leading his wife and sleeping son silently around the side of the building to keep from disturbing the Rooster and Vixen.
That night, as he was returning to bed from the outhouse, Kenshin met Sano who was on his way to the same place. The two men stopped and faced each other in the darkness.
"Thanks for everythin’, Kenshin," said Sano. "But if you ever fuck with my love life again, I'll break you in half."
"You're welcome, Sano," said Kenshin, pointedly ignoring the friendly threat.
The shingeki theater
After getting advice (and money) from Kenshin, Sano went to the clinic where Megumi was staying and picked her up to take her to the evening play at the shingeki theater. They paid for their tickets and entered the audience area.
They sat down, the lights were dimmed and the first round of actors came on stage. The first part was funny with the characters pretending to fight and throw things at each other. Privately, Megumi thought they reminded her of Sano and Yahiko.
When Sano got hungry, he pulled out a few riceballs that he had swiped from the Himuras' well-stocked pantry and surreptitiously offered one to Megumi.
"What are you doing? Food's not allowed in here," she whispered.
"Well if they don't want people to sneak in food, they oughta give us some when we go in. Now you want one or not?" said Sano unceremoniously as he held one out.
Megumi shot him a death glare, then grabbed the riceball and quickly popped it into her mouth, hoping they wouldn't be caught.
A battle scene started. Two swordsmen danced and clashed blades on the stage. Sano, having seen so many great sword fights, thought the one on stage was so fake it was hilarious.
"Heh heh heh! Who the hell do they think they're foolin'. What a buncha hacks," laughed the Rooster.
Megumi clapped her hand over his mouth.
"Quiet, moron! Do you want to get us thrown out?" she hissed.
"They're amateurs. The kabuki actors do the sword fights better. These guys are beggin' to be laughed at, doin' that shit. Kenshin'd laugh if he saw 'em," protested Sano.
"Well I'm here, not Kenshin. I'd like to be able to see the rest of the play without being thrown out of the theater," said Megumi indignantly.
"Sorry, Medicine Box. Guess my mouth ran ahead of my brain again," said Sano with a sheepish grin.
"So what else is new?" muttered Megumi.
After the battle scene, the play downshifted into a more dramatic mode. Megumi was enraptured by it. Sano was... asleep, leaning on the shoulder of the man sitting next to them. He pushed Sano off and he tilted over and leaned against Megumi's shoulder. She pushed him off and he tilted back over to the man's shoulder. Things kept up like this for the rest of the play.
When the lights came back up, Megumi elbowed Sano in the ribs to wake him up.
"Huh? Wha?" said the Rooster, rubbing his eyes and looking about him in confusion.
"The play's over, Sanosuke," said Megumi.
"Already? That was fast," said Sano.
'Yeah, because you slept through most of it,' thought Megumi.
Oh well, she had enjoyed herself at any rate.
"Where now?" asked Megumi as they exited the theater.
Sano grabbed Megumi by the arm and pulled her toward a restaurant not far from the theater.
Once they were seated, Megumi ordered sushi and sake and Sano ordered tuna sashimi and sake. He cleaned his plate neither once nor twice but thrice.
Megumi ate in a ladylike way while Sano did little more than hold the plate to his mouth and shovel it all in with his chopsticks, taking a gulp of sake now and then to wash it all down. When he got to his bowl of rice, nature called.
"Gotta piss," he said and unceremoniously left his chopsticks standing in the rice bowl as he got up and went for the outhouse.
Megumi removed the chopsticks from the bowl to avoid rude stares, some of which had already been flung their way. When Sano came back, he chowed down on that bowl of rice followed by two others.
'Where does he put it all?' thought the astounded Megumi.
Sanosuke would make a fascinating experimentation subject!
When they were done and the check was delivered, Sano counted out the money Kenshin had lent him but came up a few yen short. He grinned sheepishly at Megumi, who sighed, pulled out her purse and covered the difference.
As they walked home, they gazed up at the clear night sky. It was so dark and the stars so bright, they seemed to go on forever. Sano and Megumi were reminded of the legend of the two lovers who could only see each other once a year because of the king's prohibition on their relationship. Sano was glad he could have a second chance with Megumi.
"So didja have fun tonight, Megumi?" he asked her, chewing on his usual fishbone.
"It was very... interesting," said Megumi.
Sano's behavior had been quite embarrassing and juvenile. Yet despite that, there was something so charming and winsome about him, she couldn't help but smile when she thought of his antics. He was like an overgrown child who would never mature; burdensome at times, but fun and lighthearted at others.
"That's good. I had shitloads of fun. Maybe tomorrow I could take you on a picnic or somethin’?" asked Sano.
"Oh, I can't tomorrow. I promised Oguni-sensei I'd help him in the clinic. I won't be done till quite late," said Megumi regretfully. "Perhaps the day after?"
"Sounds good," said Sano as they came to the door of the clinic.
"Well, good night, Sano," said Megumi.
"Night, Megumi," said Sano.
The two started to pull away, but then stopped dead. It was so quick, one could almost say it didn't happen. They very quickly kissed each other on the lips, then pulled apart, each retreating in the opposite direction.
When Sano returned to the Dojo, he found Kenshin sitting in the dining area drinking a cup of tea and reading a book. Had the redhead been waiting up on him?
"How did things go?" Kenshin asked, looking up from his book.
"Went good. I love spendin' time with Megumi. Didn't like the play too much though. Shingeki sucks compared to kabuki. The sword fight was so fake," said Sano, proceeding to do a silly pantomime of what he had seen on stage.
Kenshin chuckled and shook his head.
"I have to agree with you there. The kabuki players go more for realism," he said. "Did you two eat out?"
"Need you ask?" said Sano.
"Foolish question," admitted Kenshin, who could only pray that Sano's manners hadn't been too lacking.
"Well, thanks for lendin' me the money, buddy. I'll pay ya back when I can," said Sano, rising to his feet.
"Of course," said Kenshin aloud. 'When Hell freezes over, right?'
"Night, buddy," said Sano.
"Good night, Sano," said Kenshin.
The next day...
Myojin Yahiko had just returned from a week-long battle campaign on the western shore. Some stupid yakuza groups were always causing trouble there, and Yahiko as Kenshin's successor, was the logical man for the job. It had taken a week for the young Kamiya Kasshin master to subdue the yakuza thugs with the strong but dull blade of the Sakabatou Shinuchi. He had gone on almost no sleep for the entire time.
As one can thus imagine, he wasn't too pleased to hear pounding on his door so early in the morning. Who the hell came calling at the hour of the snake? He grabbed the Sakabatou (you never knew who it would be on Ruffian Row) and called out.
"Who is it and what do you want?" he said in his threatening voice.
"I'm gone for six years and ever’body forgets me. I'm hurt," said a voice that Yahiko thought he could remember from the other side of the hikido.
'It can't be...' he thought as he slid the door open.
"Mornin', Yahiko-chan," grinned Sano.
"Sanosuke..." said Yahiko, eyes bulging out of his head.
It was Sano, though he looked quite different. Yahiko noted the same differences Kenshin had noted a week earlier.
"In the flesh. Uh, you gonna let me in or stand there gapin' the whole time?" asked the Rooster.
Remembering his manners, Yahiko bade Sano to enter his old pad. Sano stepped in, pulling off his boots and laying them aside. Now Sano's eyes bulged out of his head as he looked around the flat. It was clean! He could see the floor!
"You cleaned it," he said incredulously.
"Yup. Unlike when you lived here, this place is fit for human habitation," said Yahiko.
"Huh?" said Sano.
"People can walk in and not have to fear stepping on something that'll give them tetanus or stepping in rotten food," explained Yahiko.
"Hey, I only left a couple fish on the floor," said Sano as he continued to survey the place.
It was definitely fixed up. The holes in the wall had been plugged up and the fireplace had been cleaned out and was functional again. The floating world pictures were still up though.
"I see you kept my pictures up. You know what they say about great minds," said Sano.
"Yeah. They're pretty hot, so I figured what the hell," said Yahiko.
"Does Tsubame know about 'em?" teased Sano.
"No and if you value your manhood, it'll stay that way," said Yahiko, clicking the Sakabatou from its sheath.
"Shit..." said Sano.
"So when did you get back?" asked Yahiko.
"Week ago. Been stayin’ at the dojo. Missy makes me do housework," pouted Sano.
"Oh, no! The great Sagara Sanosuke doing housework! The world's coming to an end," said Yahiko.
"Hey, if I wanna hear people bitchin' at me for moochin', I'll go to the Akabeko," protested Sano.
"Heh, we can do that. I have to go to work there in an hour," said Yahiko. "I'm sure Tae will be overjoyed to see that her best non-paying customer is back."
"Yeah, I'm such a likeable guy," said Sano, causing Yahiko to fall over sideways.
Tae's reaction was as Yahiko thought it would be. She was pleasant, warm, wonderful and wanted to know when the hell Sano was going to pay off his tab so she could retire to the Ryukyu Islands.
"Heh heh, with the money I'm gonna win gamblin' tonight," promised Sano, flashing Tae his disarming smile, the smile that made people forget that he owed them money, large sums of money.
"Sanosuke-san, is that you?" asked a shy, soft voice.
Sano looked and saw a young woman with large, doe-like eyes wearing a Western waitress uniform. He recognized her immediately.
"Well, looks like the little girl ain't so little no more. How you been, Tsubame-chan?" he asked.
"Very well, thank you," said Tsubame, demure and polite as always.
'Hell, give her red hair and a cross scar and she could pass for Kenshin,' thought Sano.
"That's good. Listen, if Yahiko's ever less than faithful, you just tell me and I'll beat the hell outta him fer ya," he said aloud, only to receive the butt of the Sakabatou on his skull.
"That'll be enough out of you, Rooster," ground out Yahiko, as he vein-popped. "C'mon Tsubame, let's get in the kitchen and get to work."
"Alright, Yahiko-kun. It was nice to see you again, Sanosuke-san," said Tsubame, trying not to giggle at the lump that was now welling on the back of Sano's skull as he glared daggers at the younger man.
After Yahiko had finished his shift and Sano had finished mooching, they walked Tsubame to her house. After the young couple had kissed each other goodbye, much to Sano's disgust, Yahiko and Sano set back out for Ruffian Row.
As they were passing a field, they heard the distinctive sounds of a row. They headed toward the commotion. When they got to it, they saw seven ronin holding up a merchant's wagon. Three of them were holding his panicked horses by the reins while the other four were trying to force him off the wagon so they could jack it.
Sano and Yahiko glanced at each other and said in unison, "Let's do it!"
The two men rushed toward the robbery, Sano balling up his fists and Yahiko drawing out the Sakabatou. The next thing the four ronin who were trying to pry the merchant off his wagon knew, they were lying on the ground in pain after the Sakabatou took them all out in one swing. Sano Futae no Kiwamid the three who were harassing the horses, two with both fists and a third with his head.
The merchant thanked them and insisted on giving them yen. Yahiko told the merchant to go into town and alert Chief Uramura of the incident so the police could pick up the ronin, whom Sano had finished hog tying.
"That was some damn fine swordsmanship back there!" exclaimed Sano. "Kenshin knew what he was doin’ when he gave you the Sakabatou."
"Thanks. You weren't too bad yourself. I see you mastered Futae no Kiwami with your head," said Yahiko.
"Yep. Took me a couple weeks when I got to the States, but figured it's better to have many body parts to shatter instead of just one," said Sano.
"Are you sure it's a good idea to use your head though?" asked Yahiko.
"I don't notice a difference," said Sano.
"Not likely you would. But, I have to admit, we made a really good team back there," said Yahiko.
"Agreed. I think me and you should team up since Kenshin's kinda retired ‘n all. We can really kick ass. Wutcha say? Partners?" said Sano, sticking out his hand.
"Partners," Yahiko agreed, shaking hands with the Rooster.
"Great, now let's go celebrate," said Sano, pointing to the street that had all the seedy bars and gambling houses.
Sano and Yahiko went into Sano’s old gambling hangout, the Shueiya. Everyone's eyes popped out of their head as the Rooster walked in, recognizing him immediately.
"Sano?! That you?" said Sano's old gambling buddy, Tomo.
"Yup, the Rooster's back on his fence post," said Sano. "This here's my new fightin' partner, Myojin Yahiko."
"Good to know ya. Any friend of Sano's is a friend of mine," said Ginji, Sano's other gambling buddy. "You ever gamble before?"
"Uh, nope," said Yahiko.
"Well no worries, we'll go kinda easy on ya," said Tomo. "Let's gamble!"
The dice rolling commenced. Yahiko had heard from Kenshin what a poor gambler Sano was and expected him to lose the money he had gained quickly. He was surprised when Sano called all the moves correctly. Apparently his time overseas had taught him a few tricks. Sano raked in some big money.
Now it was Yahiko's turn. Yahiko, being new to this had no luck and wisely pulled out when he had lost half his money. So all in all, it was a good night: Sano doubled his money and Yahiko learned the harsh lessons of dice without losing his gi.
"You must've learned some tricks in the past six years. Kenshin said you suck at dice," said Yahiko, as they walked in the night air.
"Yup, I sure did," said Sano, enjoying the weight of the bag on his hip and mentally vowing to pound Kenshin's skull in later.
"What do we do now?" asked Yahiko.
"The night's still young. Let's go out and celebrate our partnership and my lady luck with the dice," said Sano, gesturing to a seedy bar that he had frequented in his younger days.
After they were seated, Sano and Yahiko ordered a jug of sake. Yahiko decided to make the night interesting.
"Drinking contest?" he offered.
"I'll put you away," warned Sano.
"In your dreams," said Yahiko.
"You mean your nightmares," said Sano.
Sano and Yahiko began downing saucers of sake at an alarming rate. Down the hatch it went, over and over again. Ultimately Sano won because of his large body and experience with drinking. Yahiko, although much better able to tolerate sake at 17 than at 11, still lost out and was only half-conscious as he lay on the floor, drooling on himself.
'Heh, kid'll never learn. Nobody beats Sagara Sanosuke at chug-a-luggin',' thought Sano victoriously.
Just then he felt hot breath on his neck and smelled sweet, sweet perfume. Sano turned and saw this gorgeous, dolled up woman with her obi tied in the front just inches away from his face, smiling seductively at him.
"Hey there, big boy. How'd you like me to help you spend that wad you have there?" she said, gesturing at the bag of yen on the table.
Sano in his nearly-stupefied state was captured by her beauty and the scent of her perfume. A voice in his brain cried out, warning him not to be seduced by her comely appearance and pleasing perfume, but was quickly silenced by sake-induced lust. Sano nodded stupidly and without even a glance back at Yahiko, who was lying in a puddle of his own drool, he took his bag of yen, got up and ambled after the beautiful woman. Yahiko was just aware enough to register Sano getting up and walking off with her.
After not moving or drinking for an hour, Yahiko was unceremoniously kicked out of the bar. He was sober enough by now to stumble about stupidly. He began blundering his way toward home. Weaving in and out, he managed to make it back toward the main part of town, drawing only sideways glances from people who were more than used to seeing drunks stagger home from the seedy area. Just then, he heard a familiar voice call his name.
"Yahiko-kun?" it said.
Yahiko looked and saw Megumi standing there, looking incredulously at him. "You're drunk, aren't you?"
"Only to excess," joked Yahiko, trying to keep his balance.
"You can't get home in that condition. I'm taking you to the dojo with me," said Megumi, putting Yahiko's arm around her shoulder to help him balance.
"Thanks, Megs... you's a real good friend," slurred Yahiko.
'Aren't I always?' thought the Vixen, as she dragged the half-dead teenager to the dojo with her.
The next morning, Yahiko was suffering from quite the hangover. Kaoru wanted to shout at him and pound the table, but was talked out of it by Kenshin and Megumi, who knew that would do no good. Still though, he did get a lecture.
"You're just lucky it was Megumi who found you and not a bunch of thugs," Kaoru said icily.
"I know," said Yahiko as he rubbed his temples.
"Really, what went on yesterday that made you go and get so plastered?" continued the kendo master.
"We were celebrating," answered Yahiko.
"Who's 'we'?" asked Kenshin.
"Sanosuke and me," elaborated Yahiko. "We were on our way back to my place from dropping off Tsubame when we ran into seven bandits robbing a merchant's wagon. We clobbered them together. We're gonna fight side-by-side from now on and clean up this city. The merchant gave us an shitload of yen, so we went to the Shueiya. Sanosuke doubled his winnings and I... did OK. After that, we decided to have a few drinks to celebrate."
'The Shueiya? I'm going to pluck and boil that rooster,' thought Kaoru.
"Let me guess, Sano suggested a drinking contest," posited Megumi.
"No, I did actually. I wanted to see if I could best him. Guess I should've known better," replied Yahiko as he sipped at the cup of scorching ginger tea Kenshin had made for him.
"I wonder where Sano went to," said Kenshin absently.
"Oh, he went off with a hooker," said Yahiko absently. "I think she saw his big bag o' yen and wanted to help him spend it."
The room suddenly went so silent, Yahiko thought he could hear a pin drop. He looked at the three older folk, Kenshin, Kaoru and finally Megumi. Megumi...
"Excuse me..." she said as she jumped up and ran out of the room.
"Uh, did I say something wrong?" asked Yahiko.
"Sanosuke went off with a prostitute?" asked Kenshin after finding his faculty of speech once again.
"I couldn't tell exactly because of the sake haze, but she was really pretty and her obi was tied in front. I'm pretty sure it was a hooker. Why are you guys even surprised? This is Sanosuke we're talking about," said Yahiko.
"Yes, but Sano is now courting Megumi, or was till about a minute ago," explained Kaoru.
"Sanosuke and Megumi are... Oh, shit..." said Yahiko.
"Exactly," said Kenshin and Kaoru in unison.
After Kenshin and Yahiko had left for Ruffian Row, Kaoru went after Megumi. She wasn't entirely sure what to say to the older woman. She had never had any experience with the man she loved cheating on her. Kenshin would never do such a thing; such a wonderfully perfect and sweet man. Sano on the other hand, was crass, rude, loud, self-indulgent, hedonistic, lazy... The list just went on and on. Kaoru was afraid that a guy like Sano just didn't know the meaning of the word "commitment".
Kaoru found Megumi sitting on the engawa in the backyard. She could tell that the doctor had been crying, though Megumi would deny it vehemently. Kaoru sat down next to Megumi. What to say? As it turned out, she didn't have to say anything.
"That stupid Rooster. I thought maybe he'd changed, that he'd grown up in the last six years. When we spoke over dinner, his eyes were so focused and his voice so serious. I should've known it was all just an act. I liked being with him too. I had fun at the play and at dinner afterward. Sure his behavior was a bit juvenile, but that made it all the more interesting. I really thought we had a chance, but now..." mourned Megumi.
"Let's not give up just yet, Megumi-san. Kenshin will find Sano and get the story out of him," said Kaoru. "Please just be patient till then. We both want you to be happy."
"Thanks, Kaoru," said Megumi with a weak smile.
After seeing the still hung-over Yahiko home, Kenshin was walking aimlessly through Asakusa. Should he stop and pick up some miso, rice, soy sauce and salt? Perhaps there were some exotic fruits on sale! Kaoru and Kenji loved the exotic fruits, especially oranges. Out of the corner of his left eye, he saw the flash of a red headband. He looked and saw Sano sitting dejectedly outside a rather sleazy inn.
Sano looked up and saw Kenshin standing over him, looking down at him sternly. Kenshin held out his hand, which Sano took, and pulled the taller man to his feet. Without a word, Kenshin turned and started heading back to the dojo. Sano walked beside him.
"I s'pose Yahiko toldja about last night?" asked Sano.
"What you did last night is your own affair," said Kenshin coldly.
"To be honest, I don't remember what I did last night," protested Sano.
Silence from Kenshin.
"Does Megumi know?" asked the Rooster.
Kenshin nodded stiffly.
"She pissed?" Sano asked.
Kenshin could take no more. Suddenly, he whirled around on Sano and fixed him with a cold, direct gaze.
"What the hell do you think?" he bit out in a dropped tone.
"Uh, maybe a li’l bit?" said Sano lamely.
"More than a little," said Kenshin stiffly.
"I don’t remember if I actually did anythin’," said Sano.
"Don't tell me. Tell her," said Kenshin.
Sano couldn't think of anything to say, so said nothing until they were back. Kaoru was at the gate waiting for them. She smiled at her husband, then turned the evil eye on Sano. Before the Rooster knew what was happening, he was being brained with the bokken that she suddenly pulled out of thin air.
WHACK! WHACK! WHACK!
"You stupid, inconsiderate, hedonistic... You and Megumi haven't been courting for even a week and you pull something like this? Is there a brain anywhere inside that thick skull of yours?" yelled Kaoru as she chased Sano around the front yard.
WHACK! WHACK! WHACK!
"Call her off, Kenshin! Call her off!" yelled Sano, trying to get away from the irate Kaoru.
Kenshin quirked an eyebrow, but didn't intervene. Sano had gotten himself into this, now it was up to him to make amends. Himura Kenshin would not clean up Sagara Sanosuke's mess for him.
Just as Sano was doubling back with Kaoru hot on his heels, he came to a sudden halt, causing Kaoru to crash into him and sending both to the ground in a heap.
Kenshin looked in the direction Sano was staring in. Sure enough, there was Megumi, her face completely unreadable, although Kenshin could sense the hurt in her ki. Kaoru spotted Megumi and quickly jumped off Sano as Sano pulled himself slowly to his feet. His and Megumi's gazes locked. Megumi's gaze fell, showing her pain and betrayal. Sano's was of confusion.
Megumi turned her back on Sanosuke and walked silently into the dojo. Sano went after her, trying to think of what to say.
Megumi returned to the back engawa, where she had spent most of her time since she found about Sano's little "excursion." Sano followed her out and approached her cautiously. Megumi could be as violent as Kaoru when her temper was aroused!
"Hey there," said Sano lamely.
Megumi didn't acknowledge Sano's presence. Sano pulled a little closer. He rubbed the back of his neck and tried to think of a way to smooth things over between them.
Kenshin and Kaoru peeked around the side of the building. Kenshin eavesdropped with his catlike hearing while holding Kaoru back to keep her from leaping on Sano and tearing him to pieces.
"So uh... how's it goin’?" Sano tried again.
"How do you think it's going?" asked Megumi in a dropped voice, not turning to look at Sano.
"It's goin' good on my end," said Sano.
"That idiot," hissed Kaoru when Kenshin told her what was being said.
Kenshin continued to hold her back.
"They have to work this out between themselves," he whispered.
Megumi jumped up, ready to belt Sano.
"Oh it's 'goin' good' on your end, is it? Obviously it is, if you have a bag of yen to spend on a prostitute! We only have one week between us and you're tired of me already?" asked Megumi.
"It's nothin' like that. I don’t even remember what happened. 'Sides what difference does it make? It's not like we're engaged. I still wanna go out with ya. I like spendin’ time with ya," said Sano.
"Me and every hooker in the red light district apparently!" roared Megumi.
"Why's that such a big damn deal? I wouldn't say nothin' if you slept with another guy," said Sano.
"Is that so?" said Megumi, tears filling her cinnamon eyes despite her resolve not to cave in. "Well that's just fine. We're through!"
"Does this mean the picnic's off?" asked Sano.
"Figure it out for yourself since you're so clever," shouted Megumi as she jumped up from the engawa and tore out the back gate.
Sano stood there for a second, dazed. Then his rage boiled up.
"DAMMIT!" he roared as he smashed his fist through the wall.
"My wall! He put a hole in my wall! I'm gonna put a hole in his head!" roared Kaoru, breaking from Kenshin's grasp and charging Sano down.
Sano lay in a twitching heap at Kaoru's feet. Kenshin approached his wife slowly. Five-and-a-half years of marriage had mellowed her quite a bit, but she wasn't a woman to piss off.
"I'm going out! You clean this mess up!" commanded Kaoru, gesturing at the wall and Sano lying on the ground.
"Orooooo," groaned Kenshin as he headed to the shed to get tools and patching materials.
Apparently, he would be cleaning up Sansouke’s mess after all!
Megumi walked away from the dojo as fast as she could without looking like she was upset. She was going back to the clinic, packing her stuff, getting a ticket and going back to Aizu.
Sano became aware again slowly, going up through layers of unconsciousness. He heard the sound of Kenshin repairing the hole that he, Sanosuke, had smashed into the wall. Finally he opened his eyes and raised his head. The world was pretty spinny, so he lowered it again for a few minutes.
"Ugh... anybody get the number of that carriage?" he groaned.
Kenshin didn't respond. He was pissed at Sano like the others were. Of all the stupid, inconsiderate. If Sano had just apologized and sworn never to do it again, maybe this mess could have been avoided, but no, he had to be a stupid rooster.
Finally Sano was able to sit up, leaning against the post.
"Where'd the women go?" he asked.
"Out," answered Kenshin.
"Man, I left a big hole in your wall. Sorry 'bout that," said Sano.
"Not as big as the one in your head," growled Kenshin.
"Huh?" said Sano.
Disgusted by Sano's stupidity, Kenshin put aside the tools and grabbed Sano by his cloak.
"Please tell me you're acting. Please tell me you're not really this thick skulled!" the rurouni said, trying to contain his anger.
"Aw, not you too," groaned Sano. "Jeez what's the big damn deal? There's nothin' formal between me and Megumi. What's the big deal if I sleep with another woman? I wouldn't care if she slept with another man."
"Do you really mean that? I mean really," asked Kenshin. "Look me in the eye and tell me you mean that."
Sano forced himself to look his friend in the eyes.
"Yeah, I mean..."
He stopped. Why was this so hard?
Did he mean it? Could he honestly tell himself that he wouldn't have been pissed if Megumi had slept with another man?
"Maybe I'd be kinda pissed," he shrugged.
Sano pictured it: Megumi sleeping with another man behind his back. This handsome, debonaire stranger wooing her with candy and expensive jewelry, taking her into his arms, their lips getting closer and closer. His blood started to boil.
"I'd be... I'd be damn pissed!" he roared suddenly, jumping up and knocking Kenshin slightly off balance.
"Where is that rich bastard?! I'm gonna kill him! She's mine!" roared Sano, eyes blazing.
‘Rich bastard?’ thought Kenshin.
"Um, Sano. You were the one who was unfaithful, remember?" corrected Kenshin.
"Aw, shit," said Sano, slumping back down on the engawa. "I really did fuck up, didn't I?"
"What do you think?" asked Kenshin, going back to working on the wall.
"Yeah, I did," he admitted. "I, I guess I don't understand what bein' in a relationship with a woman is."
"It's a partnership, based on love and trust," explained Kenshin. "You must love each other more than your own lives. You must be able to trust each other with those same lives. In order for Megumi-dono to be able to trust you and you to be able to trust her, both of you must put all of who you are into your relationship. Otherwise it will be doomed before it starts."
"Damn..." said Sano. "I dun’ want it to be doomed before it starts. Ain't there nothin' I can do to make this right?"
"You could try apologizing sincerely to Megumi-dono, beg her forgiveness and swear that nothing like this will happen again," said Kenshin solemnly.
"I can do that," said Sano.
"Then why are you still here?" asked Kenshin.
"Oh, yeah," said Sano. "Thanks, buddy."
Sano took off like a rocket. The Rooster had to catch his Vixen.
'Those two are definitely meant for each other. Megumi-dono's intellect and self-control balance out Sano's stupidity and impulsiveness. Not to mention they just look good together,' thought Kenshin as he continued his work on the wall.
Sano ran to the Oguni clinic as fast as his long legs could carry him. It was times like these he wished he had Kenshin's godspeed. Desperate to get to Megumi, Sano kicked the door in and ran into the building.
"Megumi! Megumi!" he bellowed, looking in each room for her.
Just then, Oguni-sensei came out of the back room, wanting to see what all the racket was.
"Oh, Sanosuke," he said in surprise.
"Where is she, Gramps?!" asked Sano, eyes wild with desperation.
"If you mean Megumi, she packed her things up and headed for the train station. She was in a terrible mood when she came in, so I didn't dare ask what was going on," answered Oguni-sensei.
"Shit!" said Sano, turning on his heel and running through the broken front door.
"Hey! You owe this clinic a new door!" called Oguni-sensei after the disappearing Rooster.
"Just put it on my tab!" Sano called over his shoulder as he ran to Shinbashi Station.
Sano got to the train station just in time to see Megumi board the passenger car. Sano knocked off a couple conductors trying to hold him back from the train as it started to take off and jumped onto the car, prying the door open with all his strength as he pushed his way inside and started forward.
Sano went down the aisle, looking right and left among the bewildered passengers staring at him. Then he saw her, on the left side sitting by the windows. His heart stopped for just a second, then he pushed forward.
Megumi looked up when she saw Sano's looming presence standing over her. The next moment, that looming presence was on its knees as a beseeching presence.
"What the hell are you doing here?" she asked.
"I shouldn'ta gone off with that hooker. I was an idiot. I didn't get what bein' in a relationship meant, but now I do," said Sano.
"Oh, you figured that out in two hours, did you?" returned Megumi sarcastically.
"I had some help," admitted Sano. "Look Megumi, ain't there no way to make this up? I swear I'll never even look at another woman again. Just gimme another chance!"
"Do you even know what being in a relationship involves, Sanosuke? Somehow I don't think you do," said Megumi sadly.
Sano wasn't a soft or clever man, but he could repeat Kenshin's words.
"It's lovin' each other more’n our own lives. It's bein' partners and trustin' each other with our lives and puttin' all of ourselves into our relationship," said Sano, looking up at Megumi.
"Did you read that off a matchbook cover?" asked Megumi sarcastically.
"It don't matter where I read it. It's what I really feel. I shouldn'ta gotten drunk and gone off with that hooker. And... and I would care if you slept with another guy. I'd wanna kill him. I just know that I really liked the time we spent together and I don't think I can live without ya, Vixen," said Sano, his words falling over each other in his desperation to appease her.
"You broke my heart, Sanosuke. I'd like to forgive you, but how can I ever trust you again?" asked Megumi sorrowfully.
"I swear on my life, Megumi... it'll never happen again. That's all I can do. C'mon, lemme me make this up. Please?" begged Sano.
Megumi considered. She really did love being around Sano. Somehow his childish and impulsive behavior made her feel young and carefree too. Sano was obviously an idiot who didn't know anything about how to behave in a relationship and had to be taught from scratch, not so different from housebreaking a puppy.
"There's one thing you can do. Since you're already on the train, come with me to Aizu and meet my brother. If we're going to formally court, you should seek his permission since he stands in my father's stead," she said at length.
"OK, Medicine Box. I'll do anythin’ you want," said Sano, a big smile breaking across his features.
"Then it's settled. And stop calling me Medicine Box!" fumed Megumi.
Just then, the conductor came up.
"Sir, do you have a ticket?" he asked.
Sano grinned sheepishly at Megumi, who rolled her eyes and pulled out her change purse to buy a ticket for Sano.
"How 'bout some grub too?" asked Sano hopefully.
"Don't push your luck, Rooster," said Megumi, putting the change purse away.
One week later…
Kaoru came flying into the dojo, carrying a letter. Kenshin looked up from playing with Kenji when he saw how ecstatic his wife was.
"It's a letter from Sanosuke!" Kaoru cried, eyes shining with excitement.
"Oro? Where's he been?" asked Kenshin.
"He's in Aizu! He and Megumi are trying to patch things up and he's working on gaining her brother's approval to become engaged to her. I'll read it," said Kaoru.
"Dear Kenshin and Missy,
Sorry for taking off like I did. I just had to get to Megumi. I got on the train with her and told her I was sorry for what happened and she told me to come to Aizu with her. I'm not sure how long I'm gonna be here, but I need to get my head on straight and get some shit done right.
Saranou's a nice enough guy, but he's a real hard-ass when it comes to stuff like responsibility and working hard. I'm working in the medical clinic doing the cleaning, filing and record-keeping. It's kinda weird working, but you know what, it's not as bad as I thought it'd be. If it lands me with the Vixen, it's worth it in the end.
I hope me and the Vixen can come back down to Tokyo real soon to see you guys again, but for now Aizu's home. Thanks for everything, Kenshin.
Take care and be safe.
Kaoru folded up the letter. Both she and Kenshin were dumbstruck. Sanosuke was in Aizu. Sanosuke was working. Sanosuke was working... Kenshin and Kaoru both passed out cold. Kenji looked at his unconscious parents.
"Mommy? Daddy? Are you sleeping?" he asked.
No answer. Kenji shrugged his shoulders. If he couldn't beat them, he might as well join them. After retrieving his stuffed rooster from his bedroom, he snuggled up between his unconscious parents, closed his eyes and drifted off. Kenshin and Kaoru dreamed about Sano scrubbing floors, sweeping and doing record keeping. Even in their dreams, it was an unbelievable sight.