CHAPTER FIFTEEN — AWAKENING THE SENSES: Warm, Sweet, and Surprising
Author's notes: I apologize for not meeting my Friday update time, but the chapter got too long and I decided to cut it in half and post what I had rather than make everyone wait another few weeks for it. So here you go!
Also, I do not own the song Furusato by Teiichi Okano. I realize this wasn't written until 1914, but I found the lyrics too full of foreshadowing for Sanosuke and Megumi post-Jinchuu to resist. Not that I'm going into all of that here . . . this story is only set in the Tokyo arc, after all.
Hope you enjoy!
He heard the wind chime first. He could not see it, but the delicate sound of tinkling glass was unmistakable as his eyes blinked in the day. The shoji doors were a bright white with the sun attempting to stream in, and the trees outside cast fluttering shadows on the paper. Sanosuke cracked his neck to the side, but stopped slightly in surprise when he felt something fall from his chest.
"Huh?" he picked up the blanket from his lap. The cloth was pale and lightweight, and it seemed to have been placed around his shoulders before he had moved. "Don't remember pulling this old thing out . . ." he muttered. Beside him, he found another tokkuri pitcher and remembered his doctor's advice. He sucked down the water in one swig.
Glancing around the room, he saw Katsu still lying in the middle of the floor on the futon. Kneeling down next to him, he removed the cloth on his head and touched his skin, checking his temperature. It seemed slightly more normal, but still a little warm. He dipped the cloth back in the bucket of water and was about to put it on Katsu's head, but stopped halfway. Holding it back over the bucket, he wrung it out first before putting it on his head with a smile.
Noticing the water in the bucket was low, he picked it up and headed to the door. The bright sunlight streamed in as he stepped outside, causing him to pause and readjust his vision.
His eyes met with a shifting sea of colours resting on rustling green waves. Purples, reds, and golds danced atop the stalks of garden herbs, swaying and reaching just beyond their tidy boxes around the edge of the yard. The flowers bent and shifted restlessly in the breeze, and as the wind picked up the scent of the medicinal plants, carrying it in the air before Sanosuke's senses, he noticed that it carried something else.
It was soft and somewhat low, and wavered pleasantly, as if brushing in and out of the realm of audibility. It flowed back and forth among a few pitches, languidly settling on one or two before jumping up a register briefly, and cascading back down. At each upward leap, there was a new rustling that did not match that made by the wind and a small sound of something falling in a pile. Sanosuke briefly looked around the waving herb garden, and his eyes settled on the shifting of a pale blue michiyuki apron.
Megumi's black hair shone in a low braid that fell over her shoulder, keeping most, but not all, of her hair from her face. The wind blew the remaining strands to the side, skimming briefly against her cheeks, which were flushed with effort. Kneeling down, her head bowed somewhat low atop her slender neck, swaying slightly with each motion she made. The sleeves of her kimono were bound back, exposing her slim, pale arms that worked with swift little motions against the ground, pulling up offensive weeds and dropping them in a basket with other discarded garden intruders. Deep in her throat came a low hum that matched her movements, and, from time to time, Sanosuke could catch the faintest hint of the words escaping into the wind.
". . . on that mountain.
I used to fish for minnow in that river.
I still dream of those days even now.
Oh, how I miss my hometown."
Sanosuke smiled as he recognized the tune and started to slowly make his way across the garden. As he approached, he managed to keep the well between them, and he stepped lightly with a smirk on his face, keeping himself hidden as he listened.
"I wonder if my parents are doing well.
I wonder if my old friends are all right."
His back against the well, he set the bucket down and took a seat on the edge to slide around the side, angling himself just beyond her peripheral vision. The wind picked up again, causing her dark strands of hair to leap about, flourishing with the undulating shine of ink moving from fluid brushstrokes.
"When it rains, when the wind blows,
I think of my hometown."
Taking up his laziest position, Sanosuke reclined slightly on the lip of the well, supporting himself with his arms behind him, grinning in anticipation catching her off-guard. As he heard the beginnings of the first notes of the final verse, he rumbled in with his low baritone.
"Once I've done what I set out to do,
I'll return home one of these days,"
Megumi's voice abruptly halted, and Sanosuke was not disappointed by the startled and embarrassed look on her face. He continued without her anyway.
"Where the mountains are green: my hometown,
And the water is clear: my hometown."
When he had finished with a grand, flourishing vibrato, he grinned at her, as if expecting applause.
She blew some stray hair from her face in an attempt to cover her discomfort with irritation at his smug look.
"Aww, c'mon," he leaned forward at her. "I wasn't that bad."
"I didn't say you were," she turned away to pull out another weed, dirt clods sticking to the roots.
"Heh," he put his hands on his knees, allowing him to lean in further. His position on the side of the well was already close, and this new action put him very near her face. "Then you must be mad 'cause I sing better than you."
The weed, dirt clod and all, smacked him in the face.
"Pfft," he spat out the dirt that had stuck on his lips. "Jeez, you're touchy in the morning."
"I just don't care much for eavesdroppers," she did not look up.
Brushing the rest of the dirt from his lips, he turned around with a shrug to pull up water from the well, his original purpose.
"How is he?"
Sanosuke paused, letting the bucket within the well swing a little halfway down. "His fever's not as bad. Still not up, though." He resumed pulling.
Megumi tossed another weed in her basket. "You should leave the door open to Mr. Tsukioka's room if you're going to be wandering around the clinic."
"Yeah, yeah," he dumped the contents of the well's bucket into his smaller pail before scuffling back to the clinic room.
Megumi brushed back a loose strand of hair, breathing in the early afternoon air before shifting her attention back to her plants. She brushed aside the tall stalks of lavender flowers, reaching her hand down to the encroaching weeds. Trying to grasp as much as she could with her slim hands, she gave them a sharp tug, only to be greeted with stubborn resistance. Frowning slightly, she made another attempt at it, resting her other hand on the wooden edge of the flowerbed and using it to give her pulling more force. With her fingers secure around the leafy intruder, she wrenched it up. Only the tops of the leaves came off in her hands as the force of her yanking caused her to fall backwards with an embarrassing 'whump.'
Footsteps shuffled up behind her. "You're doin' it wrong."
She exhaled, blowing her bangs from her eyes. "And I suppose, in addition to singing, you pull weeds better than I do too?"
He crouched down by the flowerbed. "If you want to get 'em up by the roots, you gotta twist it a little," he set his hand down on the now cropped patch of weeds, holding them together with his long fingers. With a quick flick of his wrist, the plants came up, roots dangling from the bottom. "See?"
"I know how to do it," she protested. "I'm just not used to the roots being so deep. I don't normally give them a chance to spread so much, but the vacation we took let them settle in for over a week."
He blinked at her. "You take care of this whole thing?" His eyes wandered around the expanse of the garden and the sheer number of neat flowerbeds that surrounded the edges.
She got back to her feet, but stayed low with him by the flowers. "Well, someone has to. Doctor Gensai can't risk straining his back again by gardening, so I do it." She took a look at the vast array of flora herself, and smiled slightly. "I don't really mind . . . and it's easier to maintain if you keep at it. When you leave it alone for a while, though," she sighed, indicating the basket of discarded weeds.
"Well, the way you pull 'em up, it'd take you the whole day to get rid of all of them here," Sanosuke grinned.
Megumi tossed her braid behind her shoulder and huffed. "I bet I could pull more out than you could."
"A bet, huh?"
"That's awful!" Kaoru clasped her hands in front of her chest in concern.
Doctor Gensai nodded. "He's been unconscious since he got to the clinic. Poor boy was in a terrible state."
Kenshin's face was hard, his eyes narrowed. "And Sano?"
Doctor Gensai rubbed the inner corners of his eyes with this thumb and forefinger before he responded. "He took it rather hard, but Miss Megumi managed to convince him to wait until Mr. Tsukioka woke up before doing anything rash."
"That's good, that it is," Kenshin stated in a tone that only sounded half as relieved as it was meant to be.
"Kenshin?" Kaoru glanced at him with concern.
"Thank you for informing us, Doctor Gensai," Kenshin seemed not to notice Kaoru's deep blue eyes on him.
"Well, if you could, just make sure you bring some food around for Miss Megumi," Gensai's voice held a softness that normally arose when talking about his granddaughters. "That girl will work herself to death before she remembers to feed herself. With all the patients I have to visit on my rounds today and an intensive care patient at the clinic, I wouldn't be surprised if no one remembered dinner and we all starved!"
"Of course, Doctor Gensai," Kaoru bowed as the man made his departure, "and good health to all your patients."
Kenshin also bowed at the retreating older man heading down the opposite direction of the street, but still seemed distracted. A tug on his sleeve snapped him back to attention.
"You're going to drop the bucket," Kaoru pointed out.
Kenshin flushed sheepishly and tightened his grip on the as-yet-still-empty tofu bucket. "Oh. Sorry about that." He started down the street with a few shuffling steps. "We should get the tofu soon, that we should, before they sell out of it." He indicated the crowded street they were on.
Green coats, brown hats, and red kimono swished by, carrying the tail ends of conversations behind them. The street was full of people making their afternoon shopping rounds, from long-married couples to young children and every age in-between. Shopkeepers shouted out the best prices for their wares while young girls giggled under their parasols, thinking of the best hairpins to buy. Kaoru and Kenshin walked among the crowd, their conversation buried in secret beneath the noise.
Kaoru's brows creased in worry as she felt how tense his shoulder was beneath his sleeve. "Kenshin? Is everything all right?"
Kenshin's eyes were still set with that hard gaze. "I'm not quite sure."
"That's outrageous," they passed by a market stall where a customer and the shopkeeper were haggling. "I'll pay five, and that's my final offer!"
"You mean about Sano's friend?" she still held onto his sleeve as they walked past. A group of giggling women walking the opposite way brushed against her, pushing her closer to Kenshin's shoulder. "Tsunan Tsukioka?"
Kenshin nodded. "You said before that he was involved in a fight at the Akabeko earlier," he stated in a manner that asked for more information.
"Fresh figs! Best price in town!"
"Y-yeah," Kaoru answered, a little unsure as to the relevance. "I don't know what it was about, though. I mean, he must have told Sanosuke, but I don't know anything about it, really."
"Are you sure your mother wouldn't mind a smaller one, Akiko? I mean, we just got the house, and we can't really afford . . ."
"I imagine that they didn't like Mr. Tsukioka's answer at the Akabeko," Kenshin thought aloud, "and decided to ask again at his home." He stared at his sandals as they walked, ignoring the passers-by on the busy market street.
"From what Doctor Gensai described," Kaoru's voice was subdued, "it didn't seem like they were asking for anything. It seemed more like they were sending a message."
"Yes, but to whom? Mr. Tsukioka or Sano?" Kenshin's jaw began to clench. "Mr. Tsukioka doesn't have many friends, and leaving him in that state . . . they surely expected someone to find him."
"—and I'll throw in the umbrella at half price!"
"Then," Kaoru's voice shook slightly, "you think they could be after Sanosuke too."
"I can't know for sure," Kenshin responded. "But if there are people who are seeking out former members of the Sekihoutai and doing this sort of violence, we ought to be cautious. Once Mr. Tsukioka wakes up, we should ask him a few questions, that we should."
"Kenshin," Kaoru bit her lip, hearing the sternness of his tone. "What if . . . these people—"
"Could I interest you in some wagashi candy, ma'am?"
Kaoru blinked at the tray in front of her, her train of thought interrupted. Forced to stop along their way, Kaoru's eyes followed the arm blocking her path back to the open door of a sweet shop with a round, smiling man beaming at her.
"Made 'em myself fresh!"
"I—" Kaoru looked back to the tray held at her chest. "They're beautiful," she took in the bright pinks and yellows of the round little confections, lined up in the box like an assortment of miniature, edible flowers.
"Spring collection," the man explained. "If you'd like, you can try a free sample."
"Oh, I'd hate to ruin such a lovely collection," Kaoru spoke, but her hand twitched in temptation.
"Nonsense," the shopkeeper dismissed her concern. "And what about you, sir? Would you like to try some? Or how about some anpan? We just got a batch of the rolls out of the oven."
"We really should get to buying food for dinner," Kenshin hesitated, his eyes flicking over to Kaoru as her hand succumbed to the desire to snatch one of the little sweet buds from the box, "instead of filling up on sweets, that we should."
Kaoru squealed in delight as she popped the treat in her mouth. Her eyelids fluttered shut as she felt the sweet confection dissolve in her mouth, and she could not help the little sounds of pleasure that emanated from her throat as it did. "This is delicious! Oh, Kenshin," her cheeks bulged as her mouth refused to decide between speaking and savouring, "you've got to try some of these!"
The sweet shop owner waved the tray slightly in offering, his smile never faltering. "Go on and try one!"
Convinced by Kaoru's proclamations and her inability to contain her sugared joy, Kenshin sighed and picked up one that looked somewhat like a chrysanthemum. Taking a small bite, he let the sweet red bean paste settle pleasantly on his tongue until the slight strawberry taste of the outer rice cake shell followed. He quickly inhaled the remainder of his treat without even realizing it.
"Hah! So you like to too, huh?" The shopkeeper leaned back towards his open door and brought the lid down on the box of wagashi. "If you like that strawberry one, you'll love the peach castella cake."
Kaoru's eyes were becoming wide with gluttonous desire. "Peach . . . castella . . ." her voice trailed off dreamily.
"Miss Kaoru," Kenshin held her wrist. "We only brought enough money for the tofu today," he reminded her, though his stomach also yearned to try the scrumptious-sounding, exotic recipe.
"But . . . but . . ." Her deep blue eyes entreated, shining at him with the exuberance of a small child. Jutting her lower lip out in a small pout, Kenshin had a hard time resisting.
"We can come back tomorrow, though," the redhead offered with an appeasing smile.
"Promise?" Kaoru asked.
"Promise?" the shopkeeper asked, half mimicking, half serious.
Kenshin laughed a little at both of their eagerness. "With a sample like that, I don't think we could stay away."
"Well, you'll have to come in and try the cookies sometime too! I've got this great new recipe that—"
"Coo—kie?" Kaoru questioned, her hands trembling at the thought of a new sweet.
"Yeah, a little dough-y thing Westerners make with lots of sugar and that chocolat stuff."
"Sugar . . . and chocolat . . ." Kaoru was inching toward the open door.
Kenshin pulled her back a little, his hand still on her wrist. "Miss Kaoru," he reminded, "the tofu."
Kaoru sighed, brought back from her chocolate fantasy to the land of insufficient funds. "Oh, all right. But we're definitely," she cast a longing look back on the shop as they continued walking on their way, "coming back tomorrow."
The shopkeeper waved at them calling out in a beckoning voice, "Me and the cookies'll be waiting!"
She was gaining on him.
Sanosuke wiped his brow, the afternoon sun and his quick effort causing him to sweat. He cleared the next section of herbs to reveal more spiky-leafed weeds and tugged, throwing the mass of dirt and roots into his increasing pile. He repeated the action with the next one, his arms moving in an almost rhythmical pattern of clearing, clasping, and casting out. He smiled as he snuck another glance at his opponent's work. He had pulled back ahead of her.
She worked with just as much fervour, her shoulders rotating and her arms quickly flashing from the tall green foliage. Her braid, which swung with her movements, would periodically fall before her shoulders only to be swatted back again. The rapid pace of her work and the heat of the day caused her face to flush a deep rose upon her cheeks that nearly matched her lips.
Those very lips were pulled in a smile. Not a broad, or excited smile, but the faintest hint of a whispered expression, as if caught in the space between emotions. As the wind blew errant strands of her black hair across them, the small sweep of her crimson lips hovered from wistful to sardonic, ardent to uncertain, tender to tempting. There was a strangeness to the slight upward curve that seemed to sweeten as she engaged in her work, then went back into a melancholy as she discarded the pulled plants, all without ever physically moving. That small spot of rose invited the eye to curious questioning, mystifying and yet clearly unhidden.
What's she smiling about? the thought circulated involuntarily in his mind.
Sanosuke blinked himself back. He had been staring, and she had pulled ahead in their race.
He snapped back to weeding almost instantly. Not gonna lose, he insisted. I know I can win this. His hands wrestled with the dirt and pulled out another satisfying leafy clump. He added to his pile and dug into the rest of his work.
Megumi focused solely on the task her hands were performing. Her hands twisted, pulled, and removed the offending plants in a measured pattern. As she moved further down the flowerbed, past the lavender stalks, the scent of chamomile encircled her, and her hands, though they did not stop, trembled slightly. She closed her eyes briefly. "Hideki, don't pick that one! That's not the real one!"
"You're not the boss of me, Shinichi! Besides, it looks just like the picture Mom showed us."
"Don't be stupid," Shinichi had tugged on his brother's ear with disdain. "Even Megumi knows the difference, and she's three years younger than you!"
"Can't you smell it?" little Megumi had asked, picking up one of the plants Hideki had collected. "This one's not a-anthemis nobi-nobilis," her tiny tongue had stumbled a bit on the name. "You've got the anthemis cotula—the stinking chamomile!"
Hideki had wrinkled his nose, both at the smell and in frustration as his elder brother and younger sister poked fun at him until their mother had come along.
"It's an easy enough mistake to make," her voice had been calming as she set a hand on her middle child's shoulder. "But you can't just rely on the pictures, Hideki. You've got to read the whole text."
"But Mo—m," he had drawn out the name in complaint, "they're so long and boring!"
"I bet dad wouldn't want to hear you say that," Shinichi had begun to grin again, messing up his younger brother's hair. "You know the minute you complain about something, he makes you study it twice as hard."
Hideki's face had fallen at that. "Aww, I'll be in the books for weeks!"
Megumi closed her eyes and breathed in the soothing fragrance of the flowers, awash in the memory of stern studies, sunlit excursions, teasing siblings, and warm laughter.
"Giving up already?" Sanosuke's voice taunted from the other side of the garden.
Megumi blinked back to her task. "Not a chance," she scoffed back at him and extricated another weed. Taking a glance at his increasing pile, she paled slightly. When did he become so good at this?
Sanosuke shook his head and pulled out more clumps of leaves and dirt with increasing speed. Gotta stop staring—it's slowing me down. He angled his way around to reach the next flowerbed, burying his head in the lemongrass there to search for more weeds and keep his eyes focused. Don't know what I'm starin' at anyway. It's just the fox. He tugged on a small nettle, only to be met with full resistance.
"Tricky, stubborn little . . ." he grumbled, feeling the itchy pain in his hand from the tiny, prickling thorns. His frown deepened. He wrapped his fingers around the sides of it, ignoring the painful sticking sensation as he did so. His fingers slid a little as he began to twist, and he recalled sliding, slender fingers from the night before, supporting her weight on his shoulder as she leaned in ever closer to press against his lips. The silk of her kimono sleeve had been cool, but he remembered the warmth of her breath on his skin, and the image before his face was a blur of wine-coloured eyes and unreadable red lips.
With a flick of his wrist, he wrenched the stubborn weed from the ground and chucked it into his pile.
"Don't know what that was all about," he muttered to himself, pulling up two more plants. The sun beat down on him as he cleared the rest of the planter and moved on to the next. The scent of peppermint fell around him, causing a familiar tickling in his sinuses. He recalled that mint smell from that evening in Izu, with the poppy-orange sun slipping behind the trees, the cool evening sliding over the land silently, and the spreading of the mint-based salve over his shoulders with the coolness of silk. Her hands had been smooth as she stroked the medicine over his bare skin and pressed into the muscles of his back. He shivered slightly despite the sun.
Can't say much about her personality, he thought back to her slapping his hands, and making fun of him for not being able to read, but she was able to help out Katsu, so I guess I should give her a break some time. He flashed a quick look to his pile of discarded weeds with a grin of satisfaction. After I kick her butt on this bet, that is. Still gazing smugly at his large stack, he stuck his hand into the bed of peppermint to snatch another prickly weed, but was met with something soft and smooth.
Something hot rushed up his arm and the heat culminated somewhere in his chest, spreading erratically with each hop-skip of a heartbeat. It expanded down toward his stomach, which seemed to flutter like a flame responding to the warm air of a bellows. Then, before he could even register this newfound heat, a shiver of goose bumps rose from the point of contact and up the rest of his flesh, washing over the warmth within like the chills of a fever.
When he looked down, he saw his hand had clasped over Megumi's. She pulled hers away quickly with a sudden blush. "S-sorry," she had trouble muttering out the apology.
At the break in contact, the Sanosuke's fluctuating temperatures and the corporeal agitation ceased. Coming back to external reality, he readjusted focus from his internal organs to the sights and sounds in front of him. Megumi looked away, holding her right hand in her left and looking like the sun had been on her face too long, judging by the warm red flush on her cheeks.
Getting back in the game, Sanosuke pulled up the last weed triumphantly before throwing it in his pile. "Looks like I win," he smirked, pointing out the slight difference in height between the two stacks of discarded weeds.
Slipping her hand into her kimono, Megumi sighed. "Well, I suppose so," she admitted before removing a small silk pouch and pulling out two coins. She flipped them over to Sanosuke, who caught one. The other smacked him in the head before falling to the dirt. "Though, I'd have to say I'm the one who really won this game."
Sanosuke rubbed the spot on his head where the coin had hit him. "How's that?" he picked up the other coin from the dirt, grinning as he pondered what bets he would place with it later.
"It would have taken me twice as long to weed this whole thing on my own," she explained. A calculating finger rose near her lips. "You know, I didn't really think you would be useful for anything, but if you could help out with the garden when the clinic's too full of patients for me to get to it—" she turned abruptly before finishing her sentence.
"What is it?"
"Did you hear it?" she stood up, still looking in the direction of the clinic. "In Mr. Tsukioka's room . . ."
Sanosuke was on his feet as well, but was still two steps behind Megumi as she rushed inside the building.
"Katsu!" Sanosuke exclaimed, apprehension, relief, joy, and confusion all circulating in his voice. He knelt down quickly beside Megumi as he heard his friend groan slightly and saw his eyebrows tighten.
Megumi sat by her patient's head, preparing a cup with water and dropping something from a small vial into it. "Sanosuke, he'll probably have trouble seeing at first. Let him know you're here," she indicated his good hand.
Tsukioka's eyes fluttered and sweat fell from his brow as he tried to sit up. Megumi placed a firm hand over his chest, but spoke in a soft tone. "Please don't strain yourself, Mr. Tsukioka. I'm preparing something for the pain." She gave another pointed look at Sanosuke.
"Oh. Right," Sanosuke gripped his friend's hand firmly. Unsure of what to say, his voice faltered a little. "Hey . . . you big turd."
"S-sano," Katsu's eyes had yet to open, but his hand flexed back in recognition. His face grimaced as the pain flared from his opposite hand, flashing up each broken finger to his relocated shoulder, pulsing from his split ribs and his slashed ankle. Resisting the wave of nausea that hit him and the throbbing from the back of his skull, Katsu slowly opened his eyes to hazily look at a wooden ceiling, a goofily grinning Sanosuke, and a calm-looking lady doctor.
"Mr. Tsukioka," the doctor stated evenly, "please take this. It should help with the pain." She placed a cup of something in front of his lips. She tilted it slightly and he complied by opening his mouth slightly, only to grimace at the taste.
"Don't worry," Sanosuke gripped his friend's hand tighter. "She's not trying to poison you, even though it may taste like it."
Megumi threw a sidelong glance at him.
Sanosuke ignored it, too relieved at his friend's newfound consciousness to care. "Welcome back, buddy."
Katsu sputtered a little bit after the pain medication, but his features relaxed as the throbbing slowly dulled and his eyes regained full focus. He threw a weak grin at his friend. "I feel like shit."
Sano gave a small laugh. "Well, you are a turd, after all."
Author's post-script: I invented the names of Megumi's siblings. I figured they would have something similarly classic like Megumi's own name, and stuck to the theme of ending the names in an 'i' sound. Other than that, there is no real reasoning behind their names. I hold that their ages have a range of 2-3 years each, with Megumi as the youngest, Hideki three years older than she is, and Shinichi the eldest, being two years older than Hideki. This would have made them 12, 15, and 17 at the time of the Boshin wars in Aizu, and would have made both Hideki and Shinichi old enough to assist in the field as medics-you know, so they could go missing later and create some of Megumi's angst.
All of the plants in Megumi's herb garden hold medicinal properties, in addition to smelling amazing. You can look it up if you want, but I swear, they are all used in some way or another for medicine. And yes, there really is a "stinking chamomile." It really smells bad, but looks nearly identical to regular chamomile.
As a reminder, I still run a tumblr site to host fanart, cosplays, recommended fics, music videos, and doujinshi about our beloved Sanosuke/Megumi pairing. Check it out if you haven't already: fuckyeahsanomeg(dot)tumblr(dot)com.
Also, how's my writing? Let me know in a review . . . ^_^