The office was quiet, save for the scratching of pen over paper.
“Oi, Saitou?” Sanosuke ventured, breaking the silence – sounding oddly hesitant.
“You’re still here?” Saitou looked up from the report he was writing and lit another cigarette. “…I’m busy, go run along – find someone else to play with,” he said dryly.
“Nah, shitty cop – ‘s not why I’m here.”
He shrugged and returned to writing. “I don’t really care, but I’m sure you’re going to tell me anyway,” he drawled.
“…Che. ‘S it too much effort not t’ be an asshole for two seconds?” Sanosuke growled.
Saitou hadn’t graced the question with a response. It was rhetorical anyway. There was a silence, during which the young man sitting by the door made no move towards the exit. Not that Saitou was observing him, but he looked pensive, almost too serious – such an expression unusual on his face. Was he worried? Upset? About what? Maybe he was just hungry. Saitou supposed he’d have to kick him out and send him to the cafeteria-
He paused. …Since when did he care? He had a report to write, damn it. He tore his gaze away, cursed himself for getting distracted and began to write again with a renewed focus.
His pen scratched over the paper once more, then stopped as Sanosuke let out a deep breath. “…Oi, I think I… Kinda like you.” The strange words broke the silence in the office.
“Hm,” he had snorted, not looking up from the papers on his desk, but stopping writing, “…So, what’s the punchline?”
“Asshole!” The feeling behind the young man’s outburst startled him enough to look up, trying to keep his look as cool and collected as it usually was. “I’m serious!” Sanosuke had thrown him off balance there for a moment.
“You were just screaming about how you wanted… What was it… ‘To ram your fist into my face so hard it would come out the other side’.” He snorted wryly again. “Forgive me if I’m skeptical.” It had been amusing, though – a phrase he had not heard before. And there was something almost endearing about the look on the young idiot’s face when he was yelling it.
Kicking the chair over in a show of childish frustration, Sanosuke continued to yell. “I mean it! I wanna punch you now too! But it’s like…” he sighed, turning his back. “I like you – too much. ‘S all. …I just kinda wanted you t’ know, I guess. ‘S all. Like… I’m… Whaddaya call it. ‘N love. With you, of all people. Yeah. I… I love you.” There was a small silence during which brown eyes avoided surprised yellow. “…But I still wanna punch you,” he added reassuringly, mumbling slightly. “…See you ‘round.”
Then he had left the office before Saitou could think of something to say. He only opened his mouth to speak when the door had swung closed.
Five days later, Sagara Sanosuke became a wanted man – and a week later, a small dinghy departed from Tokyo at a certain dock.
At first, Saitou almost couldn’t believe the loud-mouthed young man was gone. He went about his daily life as usual, half expecting Sanosuke to pop suddenly out of a nearby shop and start pestering him for a fight, half expecting him to appear in his office, yelling about a score to settle – half expecting to see him in the corridor of the police station arguing with Chou, or laying on the straw of a jail cell, looking perfectly at home and more than a little snarky as Saitou glared at him and lectured him about defense and not being an idiot.
But Sanosuke was gone. It hit Saitou little by little when he saw the empty room at the row-houses, when he saw a certain Tsukioka Tsunan drinking alone in a bar, when he walked by a gambling den and heard drunken shouts, yet the rooster-head’s voice was not among them. It hit him little by little, slowly.
What was that idiot doing to him?
Suddenly, all sorts of things seemed to remind him of the rooster-head. A woman chasing an indignantly clucking rooster out of her house – things that he never really noticed. Sometimes he even turned with a remark on the tip of his tongue, half-expecting Sanosuke to be there, standing beside him or behind him with his hands in his pockets and a grin on his face.
It gave him a headache, as if he was completely going insane.
And, two months after Sanosuke’s departure, when he saw the new ‘aku ichimonji’ on the back of Yahiko’s kendo uniform – he felt as if he had been hit in the stomach with a white-wrapped fist. It all hit him at once.
Sanosuke was gone.
His eyes widened and he took an unconscious step forward.
For a second, reflected in his eyes was a wide back and thrown-back shoulders, a white jacket with a single black character on the back blowing in the breeze. He saw a back that didn’t belong to the shrimpy boy in front of him at all.
Then he blinked and it was gone too.
Sanosuke – that idiot – he was not coming back, he realized.
And that… It affected him in such a way that he had no idea what to do.
The boy turned. “Hey, Saitou! What’s up?” he said, grinning slightly, hefting his shinai higher on his shoulder. “Uh, I mean, Fujita if we’re outside, right? So, what’s your deal? Need Kenshin’s or my help?” he asked, grinning wider at the idea.
Saitou could not speak for a moment. “You,” he said finally, his voice rough. “The ‘aku’ on your back.” It wasn’t a question, but the implication was obvious, the harshness of his voice and the tightness of his jaw – his whole body filled with tension. The boy seemed confused at his reaction, but didn't say anything.
Yahiko shrugged, then lifted his shinai with a grin, a hint of sadness in his eyes. “Well, now that he’s gone… It’s how I’m keeping him by my side, that’s all. It’s like he has my back all the time, you know? I mean – it sounds weird – but it’s not,” he said defensively, then paused, briefly seeing Saitou's expression from the corner of his eye. “Hey, what’s up? You-”
Saitou had abruptly turned and walked away with stiff steps, not wanting anyone to see the look that he knew must’ve passed across his face.
“Hey! Why’re you walking away suddenly like that, huh? Did I say something? You! Hey! Don’t just get pissed off for no reason!” Yahiko called.
The boy’s voice sounded distant, as if from a mile away – and Saitou, on autopilot, lit a cigarette, gritting his teeth, forcing his hands to be steady. What the hell was this? Why was he-
He took a drag of smoke, forcing himself back to reality.
Whatever the hell it was – all he needed to do was start doing things – and it’d go away. He had gotten attached to that idiot, damn him.
“Hey!” Somehow, the boy wasn’t done with Saitou and had chased after him, still yelling. “He was your friend too! If you can admit that, then it’s easier to say you miss him!”
Saitou whipped around with a growl, his eyes blazing. “Go home, brat,” he snarled through his teeth. "I don't need you lecturing me."
Yahiko stood his ground. “I’m kid – and I can see it,” he said quietly. “You’re missing him really bad. Just admit it, Saitou! You miss him – he’s your friend! And-and when he comes back, you can tell him that! ‘Cause he’ll definitely be back!” He ended the speech with a yell, his fists clenching, sounding almost desperate.
Taking a calming puff of his cigarette, Saitou turned to the boy, raising a skeptical eyebrow. “I’ve never had the honor of receiving life advice from a child,” he said sarcastically.
“Get used to it, wolf-cop! I might be a third of your age, but I’m a hell of a lot smarter than you think! I’m Tokyo samurai Myojin Yahiko!” Yahiko said, crossing his arms defiantly and sticking his chin up in the air. “He’ll be back – we all know it.”
“Even he’s not enough of an idiot to return to a country where he would be arrested and executed.” Saitou had no idea why he was still talking to the boy. He supposed that it was helping him get his thoughts in order, though he would not have admitted to it. “Stop having false hopes – it’s worse than the truth.” He took a breath and forced himself to continue, the words strangely hard to form. “He’s not returning.”
There was a silence, as Saitou forced himself to be resigned to the ridiculously upsetting fact. The boy looked almost sad – then sighed in frustration, glaring at Saitou. “Then do something about that!” he exclaimed. Saitou could hear him muttering, “It’s like getting the ‘hag’ and Kenshin together when neither of them can say they like each other…”
Saitou blinked. The boy was right, damn him. Not about Kenshin and the Kamiya woman – Saitou couldn’t care less about that. He had just said the same thing to himself before, about doing. Yes… About doing something. Possibly… Maybe the kid was onto something, after all. Still, he smirked derisively. “And what do you suppose I could do, boy?” he asked raising an eyebrow.
“You’re Saitou freaking Hajime! You always know what to do – and you’re a badass even though you’re also kind of a psycho. You’re a cop, for gods’ sake! Figure something out!” Yahiko yelled. “Go dig something up on them and shove it in their faces! Go do some of that ‘aku-soku-zan’-ing you’re so good at! …I don’t know!”
As if he had not just been thinking down that same exact alley, Saitou met the young boy’s eyes and snorted. “Taking life advice from a child… Do you seriously expect me to take your childish words to heart?” he almost laughed, then turned and began to walk away.
"Why you-!" the boy began.
Saitou looked over his shoulder at the boy. “It isn’t strange to wear something to remember a comrade,” he offered. “…That idiot is a good man to keep at your back.”
He could hear the sudden grin in Yahiko’s voice as the boy yelled after him. “See! I told you!”
“Tch. Only because he’s useful as a human shield, though,” Saitou muttered, just loud enough so that it would reach the boy, his lips twitching in a small smile.
Yahiko’s laugh echoed through the narrow street.
That same day, Saitou began to freelance-investigate corruption of a certain Tani, a politician who had been punched in the face.
Maybe, just maybe – he admitted to himself – he wanted that idiot to come back. Somehow it didn’t really help.
A year after Sanosuke’s departure, Tani was arrested for taking bribes, assault, tax fraud and obstructing justice, the evidence all being deposited in front of the police station, a pair of bloodstained gloves discarded nearby.
Saitou had brought the man in kicking and squealing like the pig he was. As he had cast a backwards look at Tani through the bars of his temporary holding cell, he allowed himself a momentary satisfied smirk. Who could argue with this?
Certainly not the higher-ups.
For, that year, Saitou had often brought up Sanosuke’s involvement with the bringing down of Shishio, of the young man’s involvement on Enishi’s island. He said that Sanosuke would be a valuable asset to Japan and the Meiji. Yet it had taken him a year and two days to get the higher-ups to stop hemming and hawing – and finally do something.
A year and three days after his departure, Sagara Sanosuke was no longer a wanted man, yet he still made no sign of coming back.
“Dayum, boss!” Chou said swinging his legs as he sat on Saitou’s desk. “That was cool, ya know?”
Saitou, smoking by the window and looking in the direction of the port he could not see – said nothing.
Chou kept talking. “Ya just walked in there glarin’ all ‘round – and now the Rooster’s not a criminal.” He paused. “Well, less of a criminal than he was before. Ya can’t do miracles.” He grinned. “Ya were a man on a mission all year – it was kind a scary ta’ watch, ya know.”
“Hm,” Saitou said, letting out a string of smoke.
“Now all we gotta do’s sit back and watch him get his ass back ta’ Japan!” he shook his head. “The way ya been workin’, I knew ya been real anxious fer him ta’ get back soon.” Chou winked
“Tch. You and your ideas,” Saitou snorted. It wasn’t that true. It had some elements of truth, sure, but not fully true. Maybe only a little.
“Well, I don’t see no other reason fer ya ta’ go ta’ those lengths, ‘nless it was fer him.” He shrugged.
Saitou snorted again, turning to look at Chou. “Since when have I ever gone to any lengths for that idiot?”
Chou’s skepticism radiated off him in waves, and that was even before he raised an eyebrow and laughed. “You wanna list, boss? Cuz I guess I could write one up fer ya. I’d have ta’ keep addin’ ta’ it though.”
“Tch,” he made a sound through his teeth. “…Don’t be an idiot.”
Laughing, Chou jumped off the desk. “Yo, I’m just sayin’. Yer kinda… What’s the word… Fond? Yeah - fond ‘f him. That’s the word. Ta’ put it mildly, if’n ya know what I mean – I’m tryna not ta' get stabbed here, ya feel me?”
“What did I just say about not being an idiot?”
“Well, boss – I dunno what ya said ‘bout not bein’ an idiot – since I’m bein’… What’s it called… Perceptive? Yeah – that’s it.”
The flat look that Saitou bestowed on Chou was filled with ridicule – and he said nothing, yet as he exited the police station he acknowledged that Chou was right. He lit another cigarette, walking slowly, watching evening fall over Tokyo. He wondered what the hell Sanosuke was doing right now, then berated himself for being sentimental. There was something wrong with him. Sure, Chou was rather more observant than most, yet that he could tell Sanosuke’s departure was bothering him – Saitou was really slipping. He let another sound of annoyance out through his teeth.
He decided to take dinner at the Akabeko. The soba there was good and it reminded him of something… Something pleasant. “Welcome!” Tae greeted him. “Good evening, officer!”
Saitou pasted on his ‘Fujita smile’ that Sanosuke always found creepy for some reason, and nodded to her. The small, timid girl brought his soba, squeaking something about ‘enjoying his meal’ from behind her tray, before running off. He ate the soba slowly. He had not been to the Akabeko for a few months now – work, both self-imposed and governmental keeping him at the police station. Sometimes, to Chou’s horror and amusement, he even slept there, right at his desk – sitting up in his chair, looking for all the world as if he was awake – yet with his eyes closed.
It was a rather quiet day at the Akabeko, only a few other customers besides himself – and when Tae welcomed someone else in, Saitou looked up, only to see Kenshin, Kaoru and Yahiko staring right back at him. He raised an eyebrow and went back to his soba, ignoring them completely and rather pointedly. However, they were not deterred in the slightest – and decided to bother him anyway.
“Hey! Saitou!” The boy ran over to Saitou, sitting down next to him uninvited. “Was it you?! Did you do it?!” His eyes were glowing and he was grinning. “You did it, didn’t you!”
“What are you even talking about,” Saitou snorted, continuing to eat his soba.
Kenshin and Kaoru decided to join him as well. “Saitou… The warrant out for Sano’s arrest was cancelled, that it was.”
Kaoru looked at him disbelievingly with wide eyes. “Was it you?”
Realizing that they would not leave him in peace until he spoke to them, Saitou set his bowl aside. “Who told you the warrant was voided?” he asked.
“The broom-head,” Yahiko said. “He dropped by, and he said, ‘make surre ya thank th’ bawse-man – yer Rooster friend’s nawt a wanned man no more’!”
Saitou snorted at Yahiko’s rendition of Chou’s accent. “Hm.”
"Oh, don't be acting so cool about it!" Kaoru exclaimed.
The Kenshin-gumi all sat at his table, Kenshin and Kaoru facing him on the other side and Yahiko staring up at him from the left. “Oi. You people. Who said you could sit with me?” he grumbled.
Yahiko grinned. “’Cause you’re our friend!”
“Tch. Don’t just start being friends with me without my permission,” Saitou countered.
Kenshin smiled. “This one is grateful for the work you have done, truly.”
Kaoru nodded. “Saitou-san… Thank you!”
He rolled his eyes, looking at them. “You’re all idiots,” he stated in no uncertain terms.
“But you did it!” Yahiko grinned. “Call me whatever the heck you want, but you heard me out that day and you freaking did it!”
“It happened to coincide with the case I was working on at the time,” Saitou lied, scowling at the smiles on the Kenshin-gumi’s faces. “That’s all.”
Kenshin’s smile widened. “That is not what Chou said, that it was not.”
Saitou snorted. “The fact that you people believe anything that broom-head says is only further proof of your idiocy.”
“Oh, you’re such a…” Kaoru stopped. “We all care about Sano here – okay?” she glared at him. “He might be a free-loading dummy, but he’s a good man – and you don’t have to pretend you’re not worried about him!”
Yahiko and Kenshin nodded at that, and Saitou snorted again. “Idiots.”
Kenshin sighed. “It is hard to admit to being attached to someone, especially when they are gone, that it is…” he said to no-one in particular, aiming the words unsubtly at Saitou. “But Sano will be back, that he will. This one is sure of it.”
Yahiko stared pointedly at Saitou and Kaoru nodded sadly.
Saitou ignored them and began to eat his soba again.
He was not just going to admit to these people how much he wanted that idiot to come back, how much that idiot meant to him.
Two years after Sanosuke’s departure, Saitou found himself staring out over the water and leaning onto the cold metal railing with his forearms, the port bustling around him as the sun set. The sun was red, the sea gold, the sounds of work diminishing. The port… Wherever he went, whether for work or otherwise – he always looked towards the ocean. Even though he told himself otherwise, it was because he expected a boat, a ship, a small dinghy, anything – to float casually up to the pier and an unchanged Sanosuke to jump out of it, grinning and cheerfully flipping him off, yelling about fights, food, scores to settle and shitty cops.
Something strange clenched painfully in his chest. If Sanosuke returned now, what would Saitou do? Maybe punch him. Maybe buy him a meal. Maybe both. Probably hold himself back from hugging that idiot, at this point. He found himself imagining what it would be like, Sanosuke sitting cross-legged on one side of the table, stuffing his face eagerly, then looking up at him with that annoying grin of his and saying something idiotic, like-
Someone was calling him.
It couldn’t be-
He turned around quickly, his eyes wider than usual. “Sa-”
He saw who it was and glowered, his face rearranging itself into its’ normal state of annoyance. “Oh. It’s you.”
“I kept callin’ ya! Yo! Yo! Yo, boss! Yer always here, not hearin’ anythin’ when yer pissed off. …I had to resort ta’ drastic measures, ya know? Can’t believe I actually fooled ya, though – ya must be missin’ him like crazy,” Chou grumbled, then leaned against the railing beside Saitou, looking out over the port and the sea, the setting sun as well. He ventured a glance at the other man. “Just had ta’ tell ya – the Chief sends his regards – says ‘Fujita-kun did well as usual’.”
“Hm,” Saitou said, still distracted, his eyes fixed on the horizon. The sun was sinking lower, its bottom quarter submerged in the water.
There was silence, which Chou broke. “…Look, boss, he’s gonna come back.”
“Hm,” Saitou’s jaw tightened.
“Aw, don’cha worry, boss-man,” Chou looked sympathetic, stretching out a hand to clap Saitou on the shoulder, then re-thinking that action – as he still wanted his arm to be attached to his body. “That dumbass will be back. Give him a few years ta’ return – ‘n he’ll be annyoin’ the bejeezus outta ya again, yo? Ya ain’t the only one who misses him, ya know?”
Saitou paused. Damn. He missed Sanosuke – even this broom-head could see it? He was being pathetic again. …How annoying. “Hm,” he snorted, “Don’t you think you’re going too far with your assumptions, broom-head?” The retort sounded half-assed and lame even to him, no wonder even Chou thought he was 'losing the plot'.
“Whatever ya say, boss,” Chou said, raising his hands in mock surrender, sighing slightly. The sympathy on Chou’s face and the want to punch the broom-head both increased, Saitou’s eyebrow twitching and his expression souring. Damn him for being perceptive.
There was another silence and the sun sank until three-quarters had sank into the sea. Gulls mournfully cried out to each other, all receiving answers at some point – as the sky turned a strange orangey-purple. The sea turned from liquid, rippling gold to a dull red – and still no new boats entered the harbor.
Chou broke the silence again. “I uh- I passed by the Kamiya place. They got a letter from him.”
A letter. He had written a letter. Saitou’s eyes bored into Chou’s face. “What did it say?” he asked before he could stop himself, trying to. keep a note of urgency from entering his voice.
“I dunno. They chased me outta there ‘fore I could ask- …Yo boss, where ya goin’? Boss? Yo! Yo-o! The hell?! Don’t just fuckin’ leave like that! Yo? …Fine! I’m leavin’ early today too! Fuck yer overtime!”
Saitou was going to go to the Kamiya dojo, damned be his pride. His steps quickened and soon the sound of Chou’s yelling grew fainter and fainter until he could no longer hear it. His boots sounded over the cobbles and the look on his face must’ve been so fearsome that people parted in front of him. He took a sharp turn and stood in front of the Kamiya dojo’s gate.
He hesitated for but one moment before knocking, his knuckles stopping in front of the wood for a split-second, before coming in contact with it. There was a pause before someone’s quick steps sounded and the gate opened. Kenshin was looking up at him. “Oh, Saitou?” he asked.
“No, it’s Sawagejou again, can't you tell,” Saitou said sarcastically. “…That idiot. He sent a letter,” he explained, trying not to sound too eager, but failing.
Some realization seemed to dawn across Kenshin’s face. “Ah, then, you would like to read it, would you not?” he asked. “Please come in.” Saitou nodded wordlessly and followed Kenshin inside, taking his boots off. There was clattering from the kitchen and the warmly lit inside of the house was cozy, clean and well-organized in a very ‘lived-in’ way. There was the sound of someone yelling about something, probably Yahiko – and a quick retort from a woman, Kaoru. Kenshin smiled and shrugged as if to say, 'well, what am I to do'. “This one apologizes for the mess,” he said.
Saitou wondered for a moment whether Kenshin meant the state of the rather well-kept house or his not-so well-kept family of mildly amusing (but mostly annoying) idiots. “Hm.” Saitou’s indifference seemed to amuse Kenshin as a smile showed on the red-head’s face.
“This one was expecting you.” Kenshin nodded. “This is Sano’s first letter to us, that it is.” They reached a bend in the corridor.
Suddenly, a door flew open and a heavily pregnant woman stood framed in the doorway, holding a bokken, threatening a boy who was slowly scuttling backwards and telling her to calm down. Repressing a snigger, Saitou watched as the two left off their conflict to look at him and Kenshin.
Yahiko turned and grinned. “Hey Saitou!”
Saitou recognized the pregnant woman as the Kamiya woman, Kaoru – although she was the Himura woman now. The bokken seemed to be suddenly gone and the scowl replaced by a smile. “Oh, hello,” she said, smiling sweetly. “You want the letter, right? I’ll get it!”
She was about to turn, but Kenshin held up his hands. “This one will do it, love. You should rest, that you should.” He smiled at her, laying a hand on her shoulder.
“Oh, come off it, Kenshin! I’m pregnant – my leg’s not broken!” she sighed exasperatedly.
Yahiko looked at them, then at Saitou, rotating his pointer finger around his left temple in the universal symbol for ‘crazy’ – and – passing by the couple, grabbed a sheet of paper from a low table. He handed it to Saitou. “Here you go,” he said.
Saitou’s hands were steady, damn it, as he took the letter and opened it carefully. The paper was grubby, a burn mark on one corner and something that looked like a dried grain of rice stuck to the back. Sanosuke’s handwriting was terrible, but it was so him, that Saitou almost smiled. Well, there probably was no ‘almost’ about it.
He began to read. ‘Hey there everybody – I’m alive. It’s been a while, but damn, I’m having fun. I really miss you guys. Actually, I’m in China now, it’s pretty cool.’ That idiot really didn’t know how to write proper letters, did he. ‘I’m going to America next and I’ll decide where else to go from there. Kenshin – you better’ve married Jou-chan by now – maybe even had a kid or two. If he has red hair like you, Katsu owes me money – remind him. Jou-chan, you should learn how to cook – don’t poison your husband – and good luck with the whole dojo thing. Yahiko, keep training, maybe you’ll be as strong as me someday – though I doubt it,’ Saitou snorted at that, shaking his head fondly, ‘And get up the courage to finally ask out Tsubame-chan, dang it!’ Saitou snorted again. Always up in people’s business, that rooster-head. ‘Katsu – you should find some arty inspiration from the fact that the ladies in China are hot as hell – seriously, those little cheongsam dresses are great. Don’t get arrested, okay?’ Saitou snorted yet again. “Tch. Idiot.” ‘Megitsune – if I come back, you got to promise not to say anything about my hand. It works just fine. How’s Aizu? I hope you found your family. Aoshi – you ice block. Get your ass in gear and learn to have some fun. Weasel-girl, I hope you’re having fun doing whatever the hell you’re doing with your crazy ninja moves.’ Saitou sighed quietly. The rooster-head was going through everyone he knew, yet- ‘Hey, Saitou,’ Seeing his name on the paper, Saitou’s knuckles turned white inside his gloves and something twinged inside his chest, ‘What I said before I left still stands. It’s still the same – and you're an asshole – making me realize such a thing right before I left. If I come back to Japan again, buy me a meal – and then let’s fight it out!’ Saitou’s eyes softened. “I will,” he said quietly, forgetting himself. ‘Anyway, hope nobody’s dead yet – and that’s Sagara Sanosuke signing off!’ “You idiot,” Saitou said quietly to the letter.
There was a sniff – and realizing he was not alone, he 'came back' to the real world.
Kaoru was looking at him with watery eyes. “It’s so sa-ad…!” she began to weep. “You both miss each other so… So mu-uch! We miss him to-o!” she turned to sob into Kenshin’s chest. The latter looked at him with a mixture of sympathy and apology.
“Saitou… This one thinks that you should keep that letter, that you should,” Kenshin said over her shoulder, soothingly rubbing his wife’s back.
Yahiko looked at Saitou and made a face. “I have to put up with this every day. She has all these mood swings ‘cause of the kid in her belly,” he confided in a low voice.
Saitou was at a loss for a moment – then, trying not to let his reluctance show – slowly put the letter on the kitchen counter and turned away. “I’ll see myself out,” he said over his shoulder.
Outside, as he was pulling on his boots, Yahiko caught up to him, slipping into a pair of geta – Kenshin’s, yet they fit him decently. “Hey, Saitou!”
Saitou turned, lighting a cigarette. “What?” he asked. The tip of the cigarette glowed orange as he took a drag, and he released silver smoke into the air from between his lips.
“He’s going to hold you to that, you know!” the grin on Yahiko’s face was illuminated by the backlight of the house. “He’s definitely going to make you buy him a meal.”
Inclining his head in acknowledgement Saitou took another pull on the cigarette. “Shouldn’t you be asking some girl out?” he asked, smirking slightly.
Yahiko’s face turned red. “It’s not like that! Even you’re going to mess with me?!”
Saitou shrugged slightly.
Regaining some of his composure, Yahiko stepped forward and thrust the grubby piece of paper that contained Sanosuke’s letter at Saitou. “Take it,” he said. “Kenshin says it’s okay. And… Well, you kind of need it more than us.”
Snorting, Saitou looked at Yahiko. “Tch. I need it? Are you going to lecture me again, boy?”
Yahiko bestowed him with a flat look, a look that Saitou would have been proud of in a different context. “Your face was weird, like you were having emotions or something! And you talked, you said, ‘I will’ and ‘you idiot’! You showed up here for a dirty piece of paper that the rooster-head wrote – if you didn’t care about him – you wouldn’t be here!” His voice rose. “How dumb do you think I am, huh?!”
If Saitou knew how to be embarrassed, he would have been. “I’ll take it if you stop saying idiotic things,” he said, giving in.
“Good.” Yahiko grinned at how Saitou glared and snatched the letter out of his hand, then tucked it carefully into his breast pocket.
Saitou was about to leave, but Yahiko spoke again. “Hey, I’ve got a question.” Raising an eyebrow, Saitou looked at him expectantly. “What did he say to you before he left? What’s still the same? Did he actually talk to you before he left?”
Saitou snorted and looked up at the night sky. “…That’s none of your business,” he said. “Let it suffice to say, it was something absolutely idiotic.”
“You’re smiling.” The wonder and incredulity in Yahiko’s tone was obvious.
“Am not,” Saitou lied.
Three years after Sanosuke’s departure, Saitou paid a visit to his wife in Kyoto as he was investigating a Kyoto-based smuggling ring. Chou seemed to be looking at him with more and more ‘sympathy’, now bordering on pity as the months went on – leading to Saitou wanting to punch him more and more. Kyoto did not relax Saitou as he had expected it to. The surroundings were familiar and Saitou walked with a purpose through the streets, gathering information and killing whomever he needed to, yet every day seemed to host an undercurrent of a strange sort of blankness.
He returned home late each night – watching the harbor after work as a matter of habit. Standing at the docks, he watched the water lapping at the wooden posts. As time passed, the water did not wash dirt and barnacles off the dock – but seemed to add more and more. As the tides moved, Saitou thought that maybe missing someone was like that. Over time, one didn’t get used to it, one just missed that person more and more.
Then he caught himself and derisively snorted. Was he going to start writing poetry next? “Tch.”
“Working so late again?” Tokio asked from the kitchen one night.
“Hm,” he shrugged the question off, throwing his jacket onto the pile of dirty laundry.
“Something’s been bothering you,” she said, more directly, setting the table. “Here – help out.”
He took the dishes and began to set them out wordlessly. “I’ve been busy,” he finally offered.
“You’re always busy,” she said. “You look positively murderous.”
“More so than usual, I mean,” she amended.
He snorted again.
They began to eat and Saitou spoke again. “Thanks for the food.”
“That’s what I’m here for,” she said, smiling slightly. “…Do you mind if I borrow Chou-san tomorrow?”
Saitou shrugged and they ate in silence, cool autumn air and a single orange leaf blowing in through a small gap in the shoji. The house was clean and tidy, courtesy of Tokio. She liked making things stand in neat, polished rows, though occasionally it got annoying. She had a good head for numbers and an even better head for poking into other people’s business.
“I know why you’re like this,” she said, proving his point.
He raised an eyebrow.
“It’s the young man – the street fighter. You’re missing him.”
He looked sharply up, betraying himself, yet he tried to make it seem natural. “Tch. You’ve been talking to the broom-head, then. He likes making ridiculous things up-”
Tokio was a person who wasn’t afraid of interrupting him. She smiled dreamily, staring up at the ceiling. “I find his hair rather-”
“Like a broom,” Saitou said flatly.
“Attractive, I was going to say. Very manly and exotic.” Tokio laughed at the disgusted look on Saitou’s face. “He is, rather. Something about that strong accent and the obsession with swords… Very striking. He’s very insightful and rather kind, when you get to know him, and, I must say, very forward in his intentions. He’s a good kisser, you know. Muscular, too, and his-”
“Not at the table, woman,” he said sharply, shaking his head, trying to dispel the image. “That’s disgusting. I do not need to hear the details of your affair with the broom-head, of all people. You and he can do whatever you want, as long as I don’t have to know about it.” His wife had had many lovers, but Chou being one of them was just wrong. The rice turned bitter in his mouth and he shook the image from his mind.
“Be grateful you’re not around when he shows up here. And, well, you know. …I don’t quite understand your taste either,” she retorted. “Someone who’s so different from you in almost every way. I suppose, they do say, opposites attract…”
Saitou continued to eat, thinking, trying to ignore her. Opposites attract. He supposed that it was true in some way – yet it seemed like such a cliché. The rooster-head wasn’t really that different. He was stubborn, he didn’t back down – though he showed it differently. He was not one to compromise his morals, something Saitou admired in a person. However, Sanosuke’s differences from Saitou were not so bad either, when he thought about them. Grinning, cheerful and positive, Sanosuke always seemed to be ready to enjoy himself, no matter the circumstances. He laughed and cried and got angry – and wasn’t afraid to show that he bled. He was an open book that opened itself because it had nothing to hide – and was proud of the fact.
A sharp clap of hands together interrupted his thoughts. “There you go again, Hajime,” Tokio said.
“Hm,” he said, putting his bowl down and sliding the shoji open so that the room would not fill with smoke from the cigarette he lit. Tokio did not like the smell. He glanced up at the black sky. Despite the cheesiness of it, Saitou wondered what the sky looked like to Sanosuke right now… Yes – he definitely was going insane.
Tokio sighed. “I’m sure he’ll be back,” she said gently.
He turned to look at her, his eyes aflame. “Why is everyone so sure?” he asked, his voice too harsh, his face stony. “For all he knows, he still has a warrant for his arrest. At this point, I do not even know if he has much to return for here. Someone as young and easygoing as him… He makes connections easily, can he not sever them as easily?” he let out a tense breath through his teeth. Being honest with Tokio was natural – she was a good friend (a strange thing to say about someone’s wife – but then, they weren’t exactly a normal married couple).
“You know that isn’t true,” Tokio said, looking at him reprovingly, then smiled, pointing at him. “You must really love this man right? You’re usually very straightforward – especially with yourself.”
“What of it?” He had neither the energy nor the heart to deny it.
“You’ve been lying to yourself, haven’t you? First about how much you missed him – then about your feelings. …He’ll come back – and I’m not just saying it. He’s just as straightforward as you are, in a way… At least, from what you’ve told me. I know he will come back.” She kept smiling as she put stacked the dirty dishes. “Don’t you say it yourself?” she looked up. “A criminal always returns to the scene of his crime.”
“And what crime has that idiot committed besides punching someone who deserved it?” Saitou asked dryly, the tip of the cigarette glowing sharply as he inhaled.
Tokio’s grin turned mischievous, and she winked. “…Stealing your heart!”
“Tch.” Saitou turned away and snorted, only very slightly amused. “That was idiotic.”
Idiotic but true.
Four years after Sanosuke’s departure – wearing a supposedly warm fur coat and looking up at the gray sky, Saitou Hajime watched snow fall in Hokkaido. He breathed out a stream of silver smoke and scanned the horizon for any spot of color, any sound. But all sound was muffled by the snow, and there was no color save for the gray of the sky, the black of the trees’ outlines and the never-ending white of the snow. His gloved fingers were numb with cold around the cigarette.
There was no ocean this far inland – and it annoyed him. Somehow, looking at the sea both calmed him and made him annoyed – and it wasn't the usual kind of annoyed that made him want to kill people.
No. It was the kind of annoyed that arose from no ship appearing on the horizon. No ship with an idiotic rooster-head on board, that is. It was the ‘missing Sanosuke’ kind of annoyed.
There was no news of the man coming back to Tokyo, nor any news of anyone out of the usual arriving in Kyoto…
Nothing. Sanosuke was gone. He had disappeared without a trace, adrift in the world, probably with no knowledge that he was once more welcome back home in Japan. And it was damn cold. Saitou dropped the cigarette to the ground, grinding it out with his heel, stepping back and watching the snow slowly try to cover it and fail, again and again. Where was that idiot now? Why wouldn’t that idiot get out of his head?
Well, as horribly frustrating as the answer was, he knew that. He made an annoyed sound through his teeth, shook his head and put his hands in his pockets, beginning to walk slowly downhill, the snow crunching under his boots.
He was sick of this infernal snow.
Chou caught up to him, awkwardly floundering through the snow with his ridiculous new winter coat (Saitou was extremely curious as to where on this green earth he could have gotten that thing, but he wasn’t going to ask). “I got the files on Tanizaki, boss,” he said by way of greeting.
“Hm,” Saitou nodded. “Have you got the evidence against Niizuma yet, or is Tanaka down at the precinct screwing around again?”
“I bagged Niizuma already – but Tanaka’s always fuckin’ ‘round, ya know that.”
Saitou nodded. “And the Russians?”
“Drunk off their asses down at the ryokan.” Chou grinned.
They walked through the snow in silence, but Chou broke it. “Yo, boss?"
"What’s up on that hill?” he asked.
“Absolutely nothing,” Saitou said flatly.
“Then what’s the point? Ya always go up there. Ya can’t even see the sea, so why?”
“The point is that there’s absolutely nothing and nobody there. It’s quiet. …The sea has nothing to do with anything.”
Chou nodded. “Ohhh, I see.” He looked at Saitou, then winced. “Hey, I uh… I been thinkin’-”
“Really? You can think?” Saitou snorted.
Chou glared at him. “Look, ya asshole boss – lemme talk, yo!”
“Hm.” It was an invitation to start talking again.
“When we come back ta’ Tokyo – I know a guy who owes me a favor – back from when I worked fer Shishio-sa-” he cut himself off, “…Shishio. He's in in China now, actually. Sure, China’s big, but a guy like the rooster-head’s gonna stand out. Maybe I could… I dunno, tell him ta’ find the Rooster and tell him ta’ get his ass back ta’ Japan?” Chou shrugged, pulling his muffler more tightly around himself as the wind blew.
Saitou paused. “And you’ve never thought of this before?” he asked, unable to hide the edge in his voice.
Chou looked at him. “I thought the guy was dead fer the past four years, boss,” he said reproachfully. “Guy only recently resurfaced. I woulda told ya otherwise, yo.”
“…I see,” Saitou said quietly. He looked up at the gray sky, seeing dark clouds gathering and his breath turned to steam in the air, melting away. “…Do it.”
Chou grinned mischievously. “Only if ya admit ya miss him,” he said. “If’n ya don’t admit it, I ain’t sendin’ jack shit!” he sang.
Saitou glared at the broom-head. “You work for me, you have an affair with my wife – and you’re giving me conditions?”
“Well, we get along pretty good, have a great workplace ethic ‘n all. As fer Tokio-chan… Well, it’s not like ya care, so what’s the deal?” he grinned. “You ‘mbarrassed?”
“Tch. Not on your life, broom-head.” Calling Tokio ‘Tokio-chan’ seemed ridiculous, as the woman was only a few years younger than he was and quite a bit older than Chou. Anyway, Saitou didn’t know how to be embarrassed.
“The only reason I want him to come back, is so I can throw him into jail on charges of being an idiot,” Saitou grumbled. He wanted him to come back. Damn, how he wanted that idiot to come back.
Chou laughed, throwing his head back. “Well, I guess that’s close enough, ain’t it? I shoulda known – guys like ya don’t say what they mean.”
Saitou glared, then snorted. “Think whatever you want, broom-head.”
“Oh, I will, boss – don’cha worry 'bout that. …Tokio-chan’s not been sayin’ anythin’,” he prefaced with a wink, “But it’s what she hasn’t been sayin’ – that’s what I’ve been pickin’ up on, ya know?” Chou grinned. “I’m just sayin’ – as one man in love ta’ another-”
What would it take for him to shut up? Saitou wondered. “…I only see one idiot in love in this entire damn desolate landscape. Just contact the guy in China.”
“Well, there ain’t a mirror ‘round here, boss,” Chou laughed, “How can ya see yerself?”
“Go and be idiotic somewhere else,” Saitou sighed, knowing that it was always a losing battle with the overly insistent broom-head – a broom-head whose ultimate goal in life seemed to be to chip pieces from his dignity until nothing was left (at which he only very rarely succeeded).
But, Saitou supposed, a sliver of his dignity was worth the chance that the idiot might come back.
Five years after Sanosuke’s departure, Saitou returned from Hokkaido. Tokyo was much the same as when he had left – and there was more work to do, left piled up when he was up North. Chou visited Kyoto often, making up all sorts of work-related excuses, but Saitou knew it was because he wanted to see Tokio. He decided to humor the broom-head, however. He submerged himself in work as soon as he returned, going to the police station before he even went to his house.
There was no reply to Chou’s letter from the guy in China – and Saitou had almost given up. He was tired, he really was. He was tired of questioning whether the rooster-head would come back, when he would, if he was still the same as he was five years ago… He needed to focus on work. Yet it did not stop him from looking at the ocean whenever he could and something painfully clenching in his chest whenever he did.
He sat at his desk, brushed a year’s worth of dust from its top and began to write. His pen scratched, the new clock ticked, the sounds of the city outside fading away until he was fully concentrated. He lit a cigarette, his office filling with the scent of smoke and tobacco once again. It was pleasantly warm, even in the autumn, the Hokkaido chill not present in the winds and breezes of the mainland.
There was a knock at his office door and he put his pen down. “What is it?”
“Soba delivery!” The door flew open and Yahiko stood there grinning, a sheathed sword hanging at his side and a bowl of steaming soba in his hand. “Hey Saitou! It’s been a while.”
Saitou leaned back in his chair. “You’ve grown, boy.”
“I’m a grown-ass man!” Yahiko exclaimed, setting the bowl of soba sharply down on Saitou’s desk. “Quit calling me a boy! It just makes you sound like even more of a geezer!”
“A sword doesn’t make you an adult,” Saitou said. “You’re fifteen.” ‘And I resent being called a ‘geezer’, brat,’ he added mentally.
Yahiko grinned. “It’s the sakabattou. Kenshin passed it on to me.” he said reverently, palming the hilt. “And plus – in your time, fifteen was a man!”
“Hm,” Saitou snorted. “Himura’s managed to indoctrinate you, has he. And it’s Meiji – you’re still a boy.”
“Hey, hey!” Yahiko scowled. “Don’t be so dang rude all the time. I brought you your favorite food!”
Saitou glanced at the bowl. “About that, yes,” he said. “Why?”
Grinning excitedly, Yahiko pulled something from the front of his kendo uniform. “Good news should always come with good food, don’t you think? Tokyo samurai Myojin Yahiko always has the best ideas!”
Snorting, Saitou stubbed out his shrinking cigarette and lit a new one. “Good news?”
Yahiko’s grin widened and he lay the piece of paper in front of Saitou. “Read that,” he said. “You’re going to love this.”
The paper was wrinkled, grubby. He unfolded it- Was it a letter?
Sanosuke’s terrible handwriting.
It was a letter from Sanosuke.
Saitou's hands almost shook.
His eyes widened and he began to read. ‘Hey, it’s been a long time, huh? How’s everybody? Nobody dead yet? I’m having a lot of fun, here in Mongolia right now.’ Saitou shook his head. Mongolia? ‘I took a tour to America then to Europe and then to Arabia and I’ve had a very good time so far.’ Saitou snorted. “Are you trying to cover the entire world, idiot?” he asked softly, forgetting himself. ‘I’ll be around here for a little while and then I’ll go back to Japan. So, get a delicious bowl of white rice and miso soup ready upon my arrival, okay? See you!’
Slowly, Saitou lay the letter on his desk and looked up at a grinning Yahiko. “He says he’s coming back! We were right, you pessimistic wolf-cop! Me, Kenshin, Kaoru, even the broom-head… We were right! In your face, Saitou!” he laughed.
Saitou allowed himself a very small smile. “Don’t get used to being right. This is the one exception.”
“We got the letter in the spring when you were gone in Hokkaido,” Yahiko said. “He’s probably on his way back now!”
Saitou tried not to be too excited. “Hm. Is he.”
“Oh, come off it, Saitou!” Yahiko laughed, some annoyance in his voice. “You’ve been missing him like crazy, you can show some emotion, you won’t die!”
The flat look that Saitou gave Yahiko was meant to say, ‘you’re wrong and an idiot’, but instead it said, ‘you’re right, but you don’t have to say it, idiot’. He snorted. “Don’t project your happy little Kenshin-gumi league of idiots onto me,” he said wryly.
Yahiko smiled, a wide, happy smile. “But you’re part of our Kenshin-gumi!”
“Tch. I don’t remember ever signing up for that.”
“You don’t sign up!” Yahiko laughed. His smile turned mischievous. “You’re drafted. And it’s like the mob – once you’re in – you can’t leave.”
“It would seem so,” Saitou said with a snort, not quite enough annoyance on his face.
That idiot had said he was coming back. For now, that alone was enough.
Saitou grew more and more anxious every time he saw the ocean, the port, any body of water or any boat. Sanosuke wasn’t back yet. Why wasn’t he? Had something happened? Was he just taking his time like the idiot he was? Autumn turned to winter and the snow fell, not half as cold as Hokkaido had been. Winter melted and broke, cherry blossoms falling from trees and greenery sprouting everywhere, from cracks between the cobblestones and vines ascending the walls of the station. Summer came and went, hot and humid, the burning sun beating down relentlessly, a haze shimmering and hovering above the cobbled road and making painfully bright reflections on the surface of the ocean. If one looked for too long, there would be strange yellowish afterimages burned into one's eyes.
Summer smoothly transitioned into autumn, and Sanosuke still had not come back. It had been six years now, and still, that idiot was gone. The Kenshin-gumi were decidedly cheerful, somehow expecting his return. Chou grinned and went on about how maybe he was just stuck in traffic and he would be back soon. Tokio rolled her eyes and said he worried too much – though he had said nothing. Saitou grew easily irritable and withdrawn. Sanosuke said in his infernally short letter he would be coming back. And yet the ocean was empty. The port’s ships were empty of any rooster-heads. Why had he not come back yet? Had something happened?
Something in his chest began to hurt to the point of madness at the thought of Sanosuke never coming back – and he dismissed it, growling with annoyance. Why was he-
Saitou turned around with a glare, aggressively blowing out smoke. “What?” he snapped.
Chou was grinning ear-to-ear. “Well, there’s a tea ship that just docked, in from China, ya see.” He winked.
“Tch. And I care about tea ships, why?” Saitou took a calming puff of his cigarette.
“Well, it’s the cargo that’s pretty interestin’, boss – all I’m sayin’ ‘s that ya might wanna check it out.” Chou’s grin widened and his wink became more pronounced. “This’s right down yer alley, ‘f ya know what I mean.”
Saitou rolled his eyes. “More smuggling? I’ll send the men down-”
Chou, unafraid for his life, interrupted him. “Ya should go down there yerself, boss,” he said urgently. “It’d be best if’n ya went by yerself.”
For some reason, Saitou did go down there by himself. He walked, smoking, realizing that Chou was probably doing him a favor, distracting him from pointless thoughts. Maybe he was slightly thankful. Making a few arrests – the possibility of a fight – that would be good to get his mind off things. The ship was at the docks, being unloaded, crates of tea being passed from man to man. Casually, Saitou approached.
One of the men, with his back to Saitou had taken his top off, his long unruly hair sticking out in unnatural directions and with the wrappings around his abdomen… He reminded Saitou of Sanosuke, something about the way the man carried himself, maybe the color of the hair…
Saitou shook his head. This was just stupid. He had been doing things like this much too often, whipping around in a crowded marketplace only to see someone who only vaguely looked or sounded like Sanosuke. He came closer, folding his arms, and taking a calming puff from his quickly decreasing cigarette. He dropped the butt on the ground, grinding it in with the heel of his boot.
Somehow, he kept watching the man, unable to tear his eyes away. Yes, he reminded Saitou of Sanosuke more and more – more than anyone had before. The ease with which he picked heavy things up, the raucous shouts he let out with an uncannily familiar voice, his jawline, that scar on his shoulder where Saitou had stabbed him seven years ago upon their first meeting-
The man turned and saw Saitou.
Saitou’s eyes widened.
The cigarette dropped from his lips.
He took a shaky step forward.
“Sanosuke?” It was as if his voice didn’t belong to himself, almost a whisper and filled with emotion.
The shaggy-haired man’s eyes were wide.
Then his face split into a massive grin, one overflowing with feeling and seeming to light up the entirety of Tokyo in its brightness.
The workers paused to look at what their colleague was doing to the cop, then simply left him at it, replacing him with a short mustachioed man.
Sanosuke let out a joyful bark of laughter and threw himself at Saitou as if to hug him, then curled his hand into a fist halfway.
Saitou caught Sanosuke’s fist, grabbed the younger man’s shoulder and drove him backwards until his back hit the wall of the warehouse. Lightning-fast, he punched Sanosuke in the stomach, still keeping him pinned against the wall. Only then did he take a half-step back.
Sanosuke coughed, winced, then threw back his head and laughed breathlessly. “I’m home, old wolf,” he panted. “Ain’t you happy to see me…”
Neither Saitou’s voice, nor his breathing, nor his hands shook. No. No, they weren’t shaking. …Damn. They were, weren’t they.
He grabbed Sanosuke by the shoulders and shook him, his eyes wild. “You idiot,” he growled. “You absolute fucking idiot.”
“I missed you too,” laughed Sanosuke.
Snarling something unintelligible, Saitou crushed Sanosuke to himself, holding him so tightly that it was probably painful for both of them. “You damn idiot,” he repeated. “How dare you.” How dare he just walk into Saitou’s office and say something like that and leave. How dare he make Saitou miss him so much. How dare he make Saitou love him. How fucking dare he show up just like that and say, ‘I’m home’. How dare he?!
He released Sanosuke after a long while and stared at him. He had grown a beard, his hair was longer, he had more scars… But he was still the same Sanosuke he remembered, grinning at him – his brown eyes sparkling. “So, Saitou,” he said, “Are you gonna buy me a meal or nah?”
Saitou’s eyes narrowed and he shook his head, suppressing a snort. “Tch. You…” He grabbed the back of Sanosuke’s head and pulled him roughly in for a hard kiss. In a maelstrom of teeth, lips and tongue, Saitou felt that he was losing himself – but it really didn’t matter. He found the idiot. The idiot came back. Sanosuke pulled Saitou even closer, his hand fisting in the front of the other man’s uniform.
Infinitesimally grateful for that one moment, that return, that realization, Saitou felt a wave of emotion, of raw feeling overcome him. Sanosuke seemed to feel it too, his grip on Saitou tightening. It was a ‘welcome back home’ kiss. It was an ‘I love you’ kiss. It meant Saitou wouldn’t let him go again. It meant Sanosuke was back for good.
They only broke apart when neither could breathe. Panting through clenched teeth, Saitou glared at Sanosuke. “Idiot,” he repeated.
“That’s…” trying to catch his breath, Sanosuke panted out, “A hell of a welcome back, Saitou…” he laughed breathlessly again and was about to say something else, but a whoop cut them off and he spun around, Saitou following the sound with his eyes.
Nearby, Chou squatted atop a pile of crates. “Yo! Boss! Rooster! I didn’t figger ya guys’d do that, so I brought in the welcomin’ party! Dayum, though! I ‘xpected some hugs, maybe few punches, but tongue action? …I didn’t figger! Wouldn’a brought the kiddies if that was the deal!” he called. “So-orry-y!” he grinned, looking as unapologetic as anyone possibly could.
Kenshin stood awkwardly stepping from foot to foot, trying not to laugh, a surprised and frozen Kaoru with Kenji in a sling on her back covering the equally surprised Yahiko’s eyes. The boy was pointing at them, his mouth hanging open. Finally he wrenched Kaoru’s hand from his face. “Hey, don’t cover my face, I’m not a kid! Plus, I’ve seen you and Kenshin do a hell of a lot worse! At least they’re not breaking stuff, right?”
Ears reddening Kenshin looked pleadingly at Yahiko and Kaoru glared. “Don’t swear in front of the baby! And it’s your fault for not knocking and just barging in!”
“’Hell’ isn’t a swearword! Anyway, you wouldn’t have heard me even if I did knock!”
Sanosuke laughed and they swamped him with hugs and unintelligible yelling. Sanosuke stared at the toddler Kenji for a long time. “Hey kid,” he said, “I’m your…”
“Uncle Sano,” filled in Kaoru.
“Oi, I’m not old enough to be an uncle!” protested Sanosuke.
Saitou looked at him. “Now you are. It’s what you get for being gone for so long.”
The child giggled. “Unc’ Sano!” he gurgled.
Kenshin’s ribs groaned under the force of Sanosuke’s bear hug. “It is good to see you, Sano, that it is!”
“You be’cha, Kenshin! …Katsu owes me cash!” he exclaimed. “The kid looks exactly like you! You took my advice!”
Saitou snorted. Yahiko grinned and stood on tiptoe to clap Sanosuke on the back. “You’re back!” he glared at Saitou over Sanosuke’s shoulder. “I was freaking right! Take that!”
“Like I said, don’t get used to it.”
Sanosuke looked between Yahiko and Saitou. “Are you getting along with these guys?” he asked in a disbelieving stage whisper.
“No,” Saitou said at the same time as Yahiko and Kaoru said, “Yes!”
They glared at each other, before Kenshin put his hands up, speaking in a tone that promised compromise. “It is symbiosis, that it is. I think Saitou can at least stand us now, right?”
“Tch. Listen up, idiots,” Saitou said, shaking his head, “Stop trying to fool yourselves into thinking I’m part of your pathetic little friend group.”
“You’re so rude!”
“Now, now, love, this one is sure he didn’t mean it, that he didn’t…”
“I told you, you are one of us whether you like it or not!”
Sanosuke laughed and laughed, the grin on his face shining and his eyes sparkling. The glowing happiness radiating off every inch of him was infectious and soon everyone – except Saitou – found themselves laughing. His eyes never left the young street fighter and he found himself looping his fingers around the man’s wrist, subtly, the Kenshin-gumi not seeming to notice and Sanosuke grinning at him for a moment. Well, maybe Kenshin noticed but he only looked down with a smile. Saitou couldn’t be bothered glaring at him.
After all this, that idiot finally came back.
That autumn, of the sixteenth year of Meiji was warm and sunlit – and even if it wasn’t – nobody would’ve really cared, Saitou least of all.
Every time he heard that familiar laugh, every time he felt the brush of a hand against his own, even for a brief moment… Every time he woke early and saw a tousled head on the pillow beside him, every time he returned home and found a rooster-head waiting for him… He felt infinitesimally grateful.
Winter came, then spring, then summer, then autumn again. Over and over and over, against the background of the changing seasons, the changing times and the changing city, a gloved hand and a bandaged hand stayed clasped together, stubbornly refusing to ever let go.
“I love you.”
“I do too, idiot.”