Sano tested the weight of the hammer in his hand before he took aim and started pounding the new link of barbed wire through the fence studs. Ever since the bull escaped Saitou had driven the entire ranch hard like a tyrant insuring that they had all the fences on the entire premises as secure and sturdy as possible. The fences were all sturdy now but Saitou had wanted an extra two layers of barbed wire added.
He glanced to his right at all the fencing that needed the second layer of barbed wire and let out a long sigh. He still had a long ways to go before he would be done for the day. The only thing that made it all tolerable was that his birthday pool party was scheduled for the next day. It had been a long couple of weeks since he last talked to Kaoru. He wouldn't say she was avoiding his calls necessarily, but she was never home when he called. And when someone did answer it was always Shinomori and he couldn't be sure he was passing on his messages. As far as he knew she was still coming to his party, but he didn't know for sure.
The sound of hooves running toward him caused Sano to look over his shoulder and see Soujiro coming his way with Megumi riding behind him. There had been a sick heifer that the good doctor had come over to look at even though her speciality was human-she still knew a thing or two about veterinary medicine.
"You need to keep yourself hydrated, cowboy," Megumi said sliding off the back of the horse and pulling a tin water bottle out of the satchel she had slung across her shoulders.
Sanosuke pulled out the bandana from his back pocket and wiped the sweat off his face before accepting the water. "Don't mind if I do," he said before taking a generous gulp.
"You've been busy," Soujiro said taking notice of the finished fencing to Sano's left.
"I'd be further along if you'd been helping me instead of baby-sitting the good doctor here," Sano said handing the water back to Megumi.
"He'll help you after you get a hardy meal into you," Megumi said. "We came out here to collect you. We're having lunch over at Tae's. Misao is probably already on her way there."
"Maybe I don't want to have lunch over there. Maybe I just want a good old fashioned ham sandwich from my fridge? I've got the fixings all ready-bread, ham, and mustard," Sano countered.
"Don't be a spoil sport." Megumi hit him lightly on the shoulder. "Have you heard from Kaoru?"
"Still don't know if she'll be coming tomorrow or not," Sano answered. He looked from Soujiro to Megumi and saw twin stubborn expressions and decided to save his energy and eat with them. It wasn't worth arguing. He started to shove his tools into his pack and then made his way over to where his horse was tied up enjoying the shade of a small groove of trees ten yards from the fence line.
"I wonder if her possible reluctance might stem from the fact that you implied that our boss has an unhealthy attraction for her when she's been busy trying to gain the love of his rival," Soujiro said reaching down to help Megumi back up behind him. "I'm less sweaty than him, so you might want to ride with me."
"And I smell like a sick cow," she said declining his offer and moving toward Sanosuke's horse. "Sweaty cowboy is much preferable, trust me."
"It's not an unhealthy attraction," Sano said. "She's my sister and she's a real catch."
"Technically, she's my sister and we look a great deal alike. Are you saying I'm a real catch?" Soujiro asked.
"Misao seems to think you are," Megumi said when Sano helped her onto his horse and then sat behind her with his arms encasing her in position.
"And that is why you have to come to lunch, Sano. You cannot subject me to an interrogation session between these two women alone." Soujiro adjusted his cowboy hat to ride low in the front and reduce the sun's glare. "It's awkward to be the rebound crush when the crush was your sister."
Kaoru fingered the embossed invitation to Sanosuke's birthday party at the Star S Ranch. By the degree of fanciness of the card you'd think it was a wedding invitation rather than a small gathering by the pool. She wanted to go, but Sano's words kept ringing inside her head. Since returning to California she'd been to the beach a few times, but each time Aoshi had declined in joining her. Sometimes when Kenshin visited he'd go with her, but more often then not she found herself alone.
Academically she couldn't have been doing better. Her Masters' project was almost complete and was turning out to be a real success. Her relationship with the man she'd fallen in love with was a total disaster.
Shinomori hardly spoke to her even though they shared the same living space. He was gone more often than he was present and it looked as if he'd lost weight. His frame went from being lean to a few shades away from gaunt. His flesh was turning a sickly white and he cringed when she asked him to accompany her to the beach as if they very idea was something torturous.
She wanted to see Sano and Soujiro and the others, but frankly she was afraid to leave Aoshi alone and she already knew he wouldn't come with her.
"You should stop staring at the card and just start packing," Aoshi said. His voice surprised her into looking up and across the room at him. He was sitting at his computer desk decidedly not looking at computer and staring straight at her. His blue-green eyes were bright and intelligent, not the empty hollowness she'd grown accustomed to.
"Go and visit your brother. You should get away from me and try to have some fun."
"Why don't you come with me then? You never do anything fun anymore and each and every day you look worse and worse."
"Thanks, I didn't realize I was such an eyesore for you."
Kaoru narrowed her eyes. His depressing demeanor was too much and she'd had enough of it. "Maybe if you actually ate some real food once in a while, or exercised, or even went on a walk with me to the beach looking at you wouldn't be so repulsive! God, Aoshi! I'd follow you to the ends of the earth and you can't even follow me down two blocks to the beach! When did you give up on life?"
"When life gave up on me," Aoshi said rising to his feet and moving toward the couch. Her new bikini top swimsuit and boy-cut swimming shorts to go over it were draped over the back. He picked them up with his long-fingered hand and tossed them toward her. She caught them on reflex. "Put them on. Let's go to the beach then if it will make you happy."
"Fine!" Kaoru shouted back storming into her bathroom and slamming the door shut. She leaned back heavily against the door. He just agreed to go with her to the beach! It was unnerving that their entire conversation for the last couple of minutes was spoken in an angry shouting match, but at least it meant he still had some spirit. If the only way to see he was alive was to make him angry, then she would do her best to piss him off.
Kaoru stripped out of her knitted hooded shirt, blue jeans, and then underwear before slipping on the brown and green floral designed bikini top and bottom. She then pulled on the solid green boy-cut shorts and picked up the flip-flops there sat under the sink. A quick glance at her ruby red toenails made her glad she'd been bored the night before and gave herself a pedicure.
She exited the bathroom to find Aoshi was in a pair of casual blue jeans and a green Stanford t-shirt with a pair of leather flip-flops on his feet and waiting for her at the front door.
"Did you put on sunblock?" Kaoru asked gazing at his pale skin.
"Did you?" Aoshi asked with an arched brow and looking pointedly at her exposed skin.
"My daily moisturizer has SPF protection," Kaoru said matter-of-factly. She reached out and took his wrist and dragged him back toward her bathroom. "You might have finally agreed to go to the beach but I'm not going to take care of the blistering sunburn you're going to get if you stubbornly refuse sunblock."
Aoshi allowed himself to be pulled back to her bathroom. He even allowed Kaoru to set him on the toilet seat cover and sat still and compliant when she took out her Coppertone sunscreen and slathered a generous amount into her palms before applying it to his visible arms, neck, and more gently to his face. She didn't like the way his bone structure was more prominent.
"This is pointless. I'm not going to die of skin cancer."
"And you don't want icky leathery skin from sun damage either," Kaoru said snapping closed the top to the sunscreen lotion.
They rode the elevator down in silence. The doors opened to the lobby and Aoshi wrapped his arm around Kaoru's shoulder and pulled her close. The move might have been romantic if it didn't seem like he was using her to support his weight.
"You're rather tone," Aoshi complimented casting Kaoru a quick up and down glance.
"Aside from studying, I've nothing else to do but exercise." She hooked her arm around his waist as they continued walking toward the beach while avoiding those on roller blades that were cruising down the sidewalks. He wasn't quite as thin as she thought, his abdomen was still firm and well-muscled. "What's up with you trying to pull off the Christian Bale Machinist look?"
"Unintentional weight loss as a side effect of experimental treatment of my terminal condition."
Aoshi sighed and avoided her gaze. "I don't wish to talk about it, Kaoru."
"You can't say stuff like that and then ignore me when I want to know more. I lo-, she stopped herself hoping he wouldn't notice the blurt, "-care about you a great deal."
"If you care, then I must insist you stop this line of questioning."
The sandy shore came into view and they both slipped off their flip-flips upon reaching the area where the gentle waves washed ashore and the sand was a comfortable sludge for their toes to dig into and they walked alongside each other the length of the water front. The sun was creeping towards the West as dusk rapidly approached. The fresh salty breeze was a small comfort in the awkward lull their faced in conversation.
"You're almost done with your thesis project," Aoshi commented.
"Two weeks until graduation," Kaoru agreed. "It's hard to believe I'll finally have completed my goal-several years behind schedule."
"There's something I want to tell you. I had wanted it to be a surprise for your graduation, but now seems a good time," Aoshi started. Kaoru stopped walking and turned him to face her and shook her head while lifting her free hand to press her fingers against his lips.
"Then keep it for a surprise."
Aoshi sighed, his shoulders rising with the inhalation and sinking with the exhalation of air. "I wish you'd stop looking at me with your heart in your eyes."
"Forgive me for caring."
Hajime Saitou never thought he'd do something as frivolous as having an indoor swimming pool built on his ranch. There was still plenty of natural light from the many window panels outlining the area-it looked almost like a green house but without the heat and humidity. After hours of working the ranch the place was an oasis and he was glad he made the investment. Presently, the area was decorated for his foreman's birthday party with colorful streamers and balloons-it would seem that between Kamatari, Megumi, and Misao he could have held a high school homecoming dance within hours much less decorate for a low key birthday.
The only thing he didn't like was that instead of preparing for her eviction Tokio had taken to laying out on the deck chairs at the pool side. The bikini she wore left little to the imagination and as much as he hated to admit it actually flattered her instead of showing what a rotten woman she was. It was another example of not being able to judge a book by the cover.
She pushed up her sunglasses into her dark hair when she noticed him enter the area. "Hajime, dear. Would you care to join me for a soak in the hot tub?"
Saitou glanced in the direction of the hot tub regretting that the man he commissioned to build the pool center had talked him into agreeing to have the hot tub added. The convincing argument was that it was therapeutic for sore muscles.
"Tokio, you need to vacate the pool area. It has been reserved for Sagara's birthday celebration and you're not invited," Saitou said itching for a cigarette. The woman just caused his blood pressure to rise. It would be good for his health when she would finally leave him alone in the very near future.
"Don't you think that's a little mean?" Tokio asked with a pout while she rose from her reclining position with a cat-like grace and started to slink towards him.
Saitou was grateful that he hadn't changed and was wearing his familiar flannel long-sleeved shirt with blue jeans and boots. It was all that was protecting him from the woman in front of him-at least that was until one of the doors opened to the pool area. The sound of a familiar yet rarely heard laugh filtered toward his ears as well as the deep rumble of Sagara's voice.
"So you're saying that you're celebrating your twenty-fifth birthday-again?" Kaoru asked as she and Sano stepped into Saitou's line of sight. She had on short shorts, flip-flops with a thick sole, and a modest halter top styled swim suit and while she wasn't incredibly dark she did have a golden cast to her bared skin courtesy no doubt to the California sunshine she'd been enjoying. Saitou hardly paid attention to his foreman who was dressed in cargo shorts, flip-flops, and a white muscle shirt-he did note that Sano's arm was draped casually over Kaoru's shoulders.
Sano was the first to notice that he and Kaoru weren't alone. "Hey there, Boss. I didn't know you were here."
"I have a feeling Dr. Takani won't appreciate you seeing the decorations before the celebration," Saitou said. He reached up and tipped the brim of his cowboy hat in Kaoru's direction. "Miss Kamiya, welcome to the Star S."
Kaoru snorted quietly. "It's a shame you didn't use that greeting when we first met." Her attention drifted toward Tokio and her posture stiffened.
"Don't mind me," Tokio said drifting back to the lounge chair she'd recently vacated.
"Let's not let past hostilities affect this joyous occasion of celebration," Saitou said taking off his cowboy hat completely and running his fingers through his thick hair. It was a little sweaty, but he figured it would be best to utilize all his charm and try to bridge the chasm that had formed between him and Sagara's sister. She really was a pretty, sweet, and intelligent young woman and for some reason it had become important for him to make her like him.
"All right," Kaoru agreed giving Saitou a suspicious glance. "So when do these festivities officially begin?"
The door connecting the pool area to the house swung open and Soujiro, Megumi, Misao, Kamatari, Katsu, Yahiko, and few other ranch hands came in carrying ice chests, towels, a portable radio, and a volleyball.
"Let's get this party started!" Yahiko yelled before setting down the stereo and playing Skillet.
"Christian rock?" Kaoru asked Sano when he started mumbling the words along to the music.
"Yeah, I've found religion since Saitou likes to make us go to church I don't feel so bad listening to music during the sermon as long as its Christian," Sano explained. "Yahiko is the one that introduced me to the band. House of Heroes and Fireflight are also pretty awesome."
"I don't think you're supposed to be listening to your IPOD during church, even if it's Christian music."
"Don't be so judgmental, Kaoru! It's all about forgiveness!" Sano shouted scooping Kaoru up in his arms and running towards the deep end of the pool and jumping in so that they were both submerged. She didn't have a chance to scream as she took a deep breath before the inevitable.
Kaoru kicked at Sano until he released his grip on her and she swam to the surface and rose gasping for breath. She pushed her wet hair out of her eyes and treaded water in wait for Sano's emergence. He rose up behind her and forced her back down again. Kaoru elbowed him in the gut and he let go and she came to the surface again. The next thing she knew Soujiro had jumped into the pool beside her with his back against hers.
"Since he's so much bigger than us I say we defeat him with superior numbers," Soujiro said.
"Couldn't you children have waited until after we ate to go swimming?" Megumi said with her hands on her hips and glaring down at them at the pool's edge.
"You're not supposed to swim right after eating," Yahiko said before running behind her and pushing her into the pool.
Megumi screamed throughout the descent into the chilly water. When she swam to the surface Sanosuke had come behind her and wrapped his arms around her form and held her in front of him and as a shield between Kaoru and Soujiro.
"Don't dish out what you can't take, son," Saitou said before shoving Yahiko into the water. He stood back from the edge and looked down at all the wet guests and shook his head.
"I'd say it's time for some volleyball!" Misao shouted jumping into the water. Kamatari and Katsu were busy stringing up the net across the width of the pool.
"All right, I say Sano and I are the team captains," Kaoru said swimming under the net and dragging Soujiro with her. "Sou is on my team."
"I've got Megumi," Sano said still holding the doctor in his arms and kissing her neck.
"Misao?" Kaoru called waving the girl over towards her.
"Katsu," Sanosukes said.
"Hajime," Kaoru called next. The rancher in question nearly dropped the bottle of Shiner he'd just picked up in surprise. He wasn't planning on participating. "You do have a swim suit on under that don't you?"
"I do," Saitou said setting down the beer bottle and stripping off his shirt and pants to reveal a pair of gold and blue striped swim shorts. He started down the stairs into the pool and stood on Kaoru's side of the net.
"Kamatari, stop dawdling with that cake and get in here!" Sano shouted.
Tokio started to rise from her deck chair. "Sorry, Tokio. We've got to keep this game even," Megumi said stopping her from entering the pool. Tokio looked pointedly at Yahiko.
"Don't mind me, I'm the referee," Yahiko said swimming to the fence and sitting on the edge of the pool.
Tokio sat at the other fence post opposite Yahiko. "Two sets of eyes are better than one," she said with a casual flip of her hair over her shoulder.
"I'm surprised you picked me for your team, Kaoru," Saitou said when Misao handed him the volleyball.
Kaoru shrugged. "You're tall, athletic, and you hate to lose. Why wouldn't I pick you?"
"Good point," Saitou said before he tossed the ball into the air and then served it towards Sano's team.
Megumi hit it back to their side and then Soujiro hit it straight up into the air and then Kaoru jumped to spike the ball right in front of Sano's chest.
The ball then went back and forth between the two teams until Kamatari spiked the ball just out of Soujiro's reach. Megumi served the ball and after boasting about her time as captain of her university's volleyball team she quickly lived up to her former reputation as the scores slowly crept up into the low twenties.
Megumi's latest serve was near Kaoru, but just out of range. It would have scored and put Sano's team ahead in the game if Saitou hadn't lunged toward Kaoru and stood under her and propped her up on his shoulders all within seconds before she had a chance to register what he was doing. The impromptu lift caused her to have perfect reach for the volleyball and she managed to spike it right in front of Kamatari.
"Interference. I say the point goes to Sanosuke's team," Tokio said flipping her hair off her shoulder.
"It was creative, but there were no rules against the unconventional use of the Chicken game in volleyball," Yahiko argued. "As I am the actual referee and judge, I say the spike counts and the ball goes back to Kaoru's team."
Kaoru's hands rested lightly upon Saitou's dark hair. She knew the rancher was strong but having the muscles of his broad shoulders squeezed tightly between her thighs brought that realization to a whole new level. His bronzed physique was in stark contrast to the sickly frame of her beloved Aoshi in the last few weeks. "Hajime? You can let me down now." His hands tightened their grip on her thighs and he made no move to release her from that position.
"I say new game. Let's play Chicken," Saitou suggested with a pointed look toward Soujiro.
Soujiro glanced toward Misao and grinned. "Sure thing, Boss!" Sou said swimming next to Misao and lifting her onto his shoulders much to the delight of the giggling brunette.
Katsu looked between Sano, Megumi, and Kamatari. It became obvious that Sano would claim the lovely doctor and that would leave him with Saitou's feminine cook/housekeeper. Katsu started to creep toward the pool's edge.
"Where are you going, honey?" Tokio said dropping into the pool and grabbing hold of Katsu's arm. "I'll need a strapping young man like you on my team if I'm to properly compete."
Kaoru leaned over so she could look directly into Saitou's eyes from an upside down view point. "Look at what you started. You know she's going to come straight for us," she whispered.
"Then I suggest you not fall off," Saitou said squeezing her thighs. "Let's see what sort of team we make when we work together."
"Just don't drown me," Kaoru muttered straightening.
"When is this graduation of yours?" Saitou asked, as Kaoru sat in the pool lounging chair next to him and started to dry her hair with her beach towel. Her body was wrapped in a Hawaian flower patterned wrap that kept her legs hidden from view-it was probably for the best that he didn't have a good view of her mile long legs.
"It's in two weeks. Why? You planning on getting me a graduation gift?" she asked turning toward him with a raised brow.
Saitou scoffed. "I was curious of more practical things like what you plan to do after you finish your education."
Kaoru shrugged not knowing the answer herself. "I'll be working for Shinomori in some capacity-I owe him that much."
"I see." He wasn't really surprised by the answer but he was still annoyed. No matter what the conversation it seemed like somehow his rival's name would appear. "I'd like to avoid future hostilities between our ranches. Would you consider attending the Cattleman's Ball with me this year?"
Kaoru dropped her towel and stared at him, eyes wide in shock. "Why? So that you can humiliate me more this time than you did at the last one? I have no intentions on setting myself up again. Besides that is six months away."
"First off I have no intentions to humiliate you again. It was wrong of me to do so. I blame the grumpy, miserable old man that I've become for behaving as foolishly and apologize again. And secondly, just consider the invitation, please."
"Very well. I will consider it, but no promises. Six months is a long time. Who knows what might happen in that time frame."
She shifted as she stood up and he caught sight of an ugly scar at her ankle. He knew it would be impolite to ask about it, but something nagged at his subconscious about the angry looking flesh. She tripped over a pool toy that had rolled under her chair and Saitou reacted fast to catch her as she lost her balance and toppled towards him. Her chest crashed into arms and he could feel his ears burn at the contact and he quickly set her to rights. "Be careful," he mumbled looking away.
"Thanks," Kaoru said straightening up. "I need to find Sanosuke to tell him happy birthday again before I head out. I have a plane to catch. Thank you for hosting this event. I know it meant a great deal to my brother, Mr. Saitou."
"I believe we're beyond that Kaoru. Call me Hajime."
"If that is your preference, Hajime," she said heading inside the house. Saitou watched as she walked away and wondered if that was the moment that she walked out of his life forever.
He could see Tokio arguing with the young boy Yahiko at the edge of the pool. One thing he did know was that his ex-wife was about to be out of his life finally.