Zanza - fighter-for-hire, wielder of the zanbato, able to take down trees with a single punch - was dead. Professionally, of course. Sanosuke Sagara was still very much alive and now very much broke thanks to the limited amount of jobs his new vow would allow him to take. Still, jobs did come along, which is how he ended up in a silk shop bored out of his mind. He received a letter from a woman asking for him to escort her somewhere safely. Fine, he thought. Seems straightforward enough. However, he didn’t realize that “escort” really meant “accompany me while I go shopping tee-hee.”
He wanted to die, either from boredom or embarrassment. It was a toss-up.
There was no one else in the shop and nothing to look at beyond a bunch of different silk fabrics on display. He supposed that would be interesting to anyone who didn’t wear the same clothes basically every day.
The Woman was talking to the Shopkeeper, for what felt like hours now, and the man’s face was getting redder and redder as they spoke. She, on the other hand, seemed just as calm and collected as when they arrived. Jeez, what were they even talking about? Was she haggling?
Wait. Stop. He didn’t care.
The owner stormed through the back door and that’s when it happened. The Woman casually moved towards the table in the corner, and with a flick of her wrist, took something. Her eyes met his and Sano almost laughed at her relaxed gaze, as if she had every right in the world. Great, he was now an accomplice to theft. All for some bored housewife to get off on shoplifting. This is what his life had become.
The unknowing victim returned and apologized to her profusely. Apparently he didn’t have whatever it was she was asking for, but promised to have it the next day. She agreed to meet at the same time. The Woman turned to Sano and they calmly walked out of the shop.
What. The. Hell.
Sano waited until they were some distance away before he grabbed her arm to turn her towards him. “What was that about?”
She looked amused. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Listen, lady, I don’t know what you heard about me, but I’m no thief.” He thought, unbidden, of his tab at the Akebeko. But that didn’t count because he really did intend to pay Tae back, right?
“Oh, this?” She pulled a furoshiki, one of those wrapping cloths used for gifts, from her kimono sleeve. “This isn’t what we’re stealing. That comes tomorrow.”
“Forget it. I don’t want any part of...whatever you’re planning. You hired me to be a chaperone, not a lookout.”
“Yes, because that’s exactly what I need. A chaperone.”
Okay, now he was really confused. “What?”
She put the cloth back in her sleeve and looked at him with a seriousness he didn’t expect. “What did you notice about that shop?”
He thought for a moment. “You were the only customer, he left you unattended long enough for you to steal something...and aren’t you a little old for this?”
If she was offended she didn’t show it. “What else?”
Sano sighed and tried to remember everything from the time they walked in to the time they left. Then it hit him. “There were two guys standing outside.”
“And they didn’t seem like the silk buying types.”
The Woman smiled. “No, they didn’t, did they? I don’t anticipate them being a problem, but nonetheless they are two pairs of eyes to take into account.”
“Take into account for what?”
Sanosuke considered her for a moment. Dark hair, perfectly in place. A shawl around her shoulders (Seriously? In this heat?). Kimono, unwrinkled. Eyes, slightly wrinkled, but also intelligent and dangerous.
He was done for.
“No. No way. You should have been upfront about this job. If I can’t trust you, then I can’t work with you.” Before she could respond he turned and walked away in a huff.
Sano found her outside the shop the next day. She didn’t even have the audacity to look surprised.
“Ready?” The Woman looked different from yesterday. Her hair was in a messy bun and her kimono fitted her loosely. But her eyes were just as determined as before.
“Ready for what?”
“Just follow my lead.” She took him by the arm and they walked into god-knows-what.
The Shopkeeper looked happy to see her and quickly greeted them. He seemed confident that whatever he had would meet her high expectations. Sanosuke didn’t know the first thing about fine silk, but even he could tell this was nice. It was red with beautiful white cranes and golden flowers.
“Lovely,” she said reverently. “Perfect!”
The shop owner looked smug. “I had a hard time getting it ready for you, but here it is. I told you I was the best in the business.”
“I’m sorry for ever doubting you!” She raised her hands in exaggerated praise. She took her purse from her sleeve and together they approached the table to pay. Sanosuke was honestly surprised to see her hand him the money. Weren’t they stealing the silk?
The owner carefully placed the fabric in a box and looked under the table for something. Confused, he seemed unable to find whatever he was searching for. “A-apologies,” he stuttered. “I usually keep it right here, but I…”
The Woman looked at him expectedly.
“But I can run and grab another wrapping cloth! Please, wait here and I promise to return in just a moment!”
The Woman looked none too amused, but ultimately nodded.
He hurried out the door and shouted something to the pair of men standing outside from yesterday. They inched closer to the entrance as the shop owner took off down the street.
“Okay, let’s hurry,” she said as she moved towards the door in the back.
Sanosuke followed. “What are we looking for?”
“There’s a cellar somewhere.”
Sano looked around at the boxes stacked everywhere. He scanned the walls, looking for an entrance, but his foot found it first. There was a small hinged door, flush with the surface of the floor. He called out to The Woman and pulled on the handle until a ladder was revealed leading down into the darkness.
“Help me down,” she insisted.
He held her hand as she lowered herself down without a second thought. Sano quickly followed behind her and saw…
Well, frankly he felt underwhelmed. All last night, he tossed and turned thinking of what the score could be and, well, he hadn’t imagined this.
The cellar reeked of dye and there was a giant wooden contraption for silk reeling. And in the corner set a girl, pale and thin. She looked up at them with eager eyes.
“Um...hi?” Sanosuke said lamely.
“Tokio!” The girl didn’t even acknowledge him and lunged toward The Woman.
Tokio (I guess that’s her name now?) embraced the girl and Sano got a better look at her. Her hair was dirty, her fingers stained with dye, and her clothes were threadbare.
Then, it finally clicked. “Wait, we’re stealing her?”
Tokio grinned. “Surprised? We’re here for the silk maker, not the silk.”
There were a thousand questions on his tongue, but before he could decide on which one to ask first he was interrupted.
“We need to hurry. There’s not much time,” Tokio said as she began to untie her obi.
And now they were both untying their sashes. And removing their kimonos. And their under robes and oh god what is happening.
Tokio smirked at the expression on his face as she continued to undress. “Futaba can’t exactly walk out of here dressed like that, can she?”
Somewhere, deep in his moral conscience, he knew he should politely turn around. He should definitely NOT stare at them like a creep.
Sano didn’t move. “Just...walk out of here?”
They began to exchange clothing and he completely unintentionally noticed that The Woman had a nice rack.
“Futaba will be me and you’re going to escort her right out the front door without anyone suspecting a thing,” Tokio replied unfazed by his attention.
“Wait, what about you?”
Tokio helped Futaba into the kimono and began to tie her obi. “I’ll be fine. Just make sure no one gets a look at her face and I’ll meet you at the Asakusa Shrine.”
Sano watched as she helped Futaba put her hair into a bun and draped the shawl around her shoulders. He had no idea how he was going to pull this off, but he suddenly felt a surge of righteous energy well up inside him. He blamed Kenshin for this terrible influence.
“You ready?” He asked. The girl nodded, worried but determined. “Let’s do this.”
He helped the girl out of the cellar and then Tokio. The older woman stayed behind in her dirty clothes and winked at them. “I’ll see you soon.”
Sanosuke put his arm around Futaba’s shoulder and they boldly walked through the door back out into the shop. Thankfully, the owner hadn’t returned yet giving them time to arrange themselves so the girl’s head was turned towards his shoulder. She used the shawl to cover most of her face.
The Shop Keeper walked back in triumphantly. “I have it!” He stopped suddenly and stared at them. “Fujita-san?”
Sano spoke up. “She suddenly felt ill. Her health is fragile and I guess the wait was too much for her.” It didn’t make any sense, but the girl coughed weakly to back him up. Nice teamwork.
He seemed suspicious, but continued to move towards the table to carefully wrap up the box. “I really am very sorry. But I’m sure you’ll be quite pleased with your purchase.”
Forever the salesman.
Tokio had already paid him, so Sano grabbed the package and moved towards the entrance with his arm still around the girl.
“Don’t forget to tell your friends about me!”
The girl nodded beneath her shawl, but said nothing. “Will do,” Sano added.
The pair made their way outside past the two men guarding the store. They didn’t even spare a glance their way. By the time they made it to the shrine the girl was trembling with excitement. She pulled off her shawl and laughed, “I can’t believe it!”
“Stay here for a minute. I’m going to go back and check on...uh, Tokio.”
Futaba seemed surprised, but didn’t argue. Sanosuke turned around and ran back towards the shop.
Then he heard the shouts. And saw the smoke.
There was a small crowd outside the store, including the owner and Thing 1 and Thing 2, desperately hauling buckets in and out of the building. They seemed upset.
Sanosuke was about to rush inside when he spotted Tokio quietly making her way through the crowd towards him. He grabbed her arm and they ran back to their meeting place, unnoticed.
Reunited, he let out a sigh of relief he didn’t know he had been holding. Then he got angry. “Are you crazy?” He yelled. “You started a fire? Do you know how dangerous that is?”
She was panting a little from the run. “Of course. That’s why they panicked and called on neighbors to help put it out. No one noticed one more person in the crowd.”
“Tokio, I can’t thank you enough,” Futaba said before Sano could continue arguing.
“I promised you, didn’t I? You deserve better.”
“But he’ll be looking for me now.”
Tokio waved her hand dismissively. “Let him. You’re a free woman now with much more important concerns.”
Sanosuke had no idea what was going on. “So, um...what’s happening?”
Tokio looked at him and smiled. “Futaba and I are both from Aizu. Since the end of the war I’ve been trying to reconnect with as many survivors as I can find. Unfortunately, I found her working in a silk factory under deplorable conditions and I’ve been working on a scheme to get her out for weeks. And I couldn’t have done it without you.”
She gently squeezed his hand and Sano blushed. Blushed. This woman was middle aged and probably married, but also she had nice breasts.
What were they talking about again?
“Your reputation precedes you, Sanosuke Sagara.” Tokio let go of his hand and took the girl by the arm. “I’ll have to call on you again if I run into anymore...dangerous situations.”
As they walked away, a thought occurred to him. He called after her. “Wait, how did hear about me?”
Tokio turned back to him with a wicked smile before continuing on without answering.
Well, that was a hell of a thing. His stomach rumbled and he began walking towards the dojo. Hopefully, Kenshin was in charge of dinner tonight.
Dammit, she hadn’t paid him for the job!
Sanosuke turned around, but the women had disappeared into the crowded street.