Chapter 1: There and Back Again
Author's quick intro: Sanosuke's eventual return to Japan after the conclusion of the manga has been a plotbunny hopping merrily around the inside of my skull since before I went to Japan…so for a long time now. In an attempt to combat the rut my muse has fallen into lately, I decided to finally write it down. This is going to be a fic starring primarily Sano, Kenji and Yahiko, with the rest of the Tokyo-gumi thrown in for extra spice.
Timeline note: This fic is separate from Prism, i.e. it follows primarily manga canon. In this story, Prism never happened. That pretty much rules out the events of An Inn in Hokkaido too, but that won't factor into this fic anyway so it's a moot point really. Okay, we good with that? Great.
Spoiler warnings: Just as with my other fics, I'm assuming you've read through the whole manga series. If not, go read Maigo-chan's fantastic translations or read the Shonen Jump graphic novels being put out by VIZ. No major spoilers this chapter, but I'm sure there'll be others later. You have been forewarned.
Disclaimer: Sanosuke, Kenshin and co. are copyright all the various rights holders in Japan and the USA including Nobuhiro Watsuki, Sony TV, and VIZ Communications. This story is for entertainment only, I'm definitely not making money from it, so there.
All right, now that that's out of the way…On with the fic!
The tiny passenger ship rocked wildly against the sea, leaning sickeningly from side to side in the strong summer wind. Most of the passengers had long since retreated below decks, too nauseous to even think of straying far from what passed for toilet facilities on the rickety vessel. Only one person seemed unaffected; a tall, wiry Japanese man slumped against the side railing. He hardly noticed the motion of the ship. After all, he'd been at sea almost constantly for the past several months.
He yawned lazily and stared out over the endless expanse of water. It was taking him a lot longer than he'd anticipated getting back to Japan. It had been months since he'd left the southern coast of China. At first he'd made good progress towards home, and he'd figured he'd be back in Tokyo within three months, tops, just in time for a few New Year's parties with his old gambling buddies, presuming they were still around. It had been a good plan, but as with nearly everything else he did in his life, he'd hit a few snags along the way.
"Sir!" A man, one of the crew, called from a doorway behind him. "It's getting very rough, please come down to the passenger hold!"
After so many years traveling mainland Asia, he understood the man's heavily accented Chinese perfectly. But he was quite content where he was. He ignored the crewman.
"Leave me alone," he grumbled in his native Japanese, shooting a warning glare at the sailor, who was less than half his size. After a tense few seconds the tiny man hastily retreated.
He returned to his musings. He supposed that, really, his brilliant travel plans had been doomed from the start. He tended to take that sort of thing stride, however. When one was a "professional" traveler—he couldn't repress a sarcastic chuckle at the thought—one learned to improvise. So while getting arrested in Singapore had been inconvenient, and their prison surprisingly hard to escape from, he hadn't let the delay bother him too much. Even his "borrowed" escape ship sinking off the coast of Taiwan, and his subsequent capture and interrogation by the authorities, had been an acceptable delay. He'd been in enough prisons in his life, what was one more? However, if there was one thing Sagara Sanosuke hated above all else it was getting lost, and he'd wandered the entirety of Taiwan for nearly a month, pursued by cops the entire time, before he'd finally found a Japan-bound ship to stow away on.
He'd thought he was home free then. But nooooo, there had to be that one guy on the boat who hadn't liked his face and squealed to the crew. That had led to a number of…unfortunate incidents, and he'd found himself dumped on a random island in Okinawa. It'd taken weeks to get passage from there. He smiled ruefully. Story of my life. At least he was finally on the last leg of his journey. From here it was a clear shot to Japan.
Despite the summer season the ocean winds were cold. He shivered slightly and pulled his worn travel cloak more tightly around his shoulders. Anyone looking closely at it would have quickly realized that it hadn't started life as one. Although it was gray with age and very frayed around the edges, it was nevertheless clearly recognizable as a retooled white hanten jacket. On the back was a faded kanji character, and the other Japanese passengers had immediately given him a wide berth once they'd recognized it. He smiled grimly. It really was a useful thing at times, having the kanji for "wicked" on your back. It had served him well on many occasions.
His expression grew somber with that train of thought. There had been a time, long ago, when being ignored and avoided would have seriously rankled him. He had lived to fight, and as a result he'd had far more enemies than friends. He had never seen this as a problem. If he didn't fight, then he couldn't get stronger and avenge his taichou's death. He had actively sought out encounters with others; the tougher and more violent, the better. No, solitude had certainly never been his goal in his youth; ironic that nowadays he preferred it. After nearly twenty years of traveling and dealing with people of every description, he had to admit that he was burned out. He was thoroughly sick of the company of strangers.
The wind shifted and the long ends of his tattered red headband, soaked with sea spray, flapped wetly into his face. He flicked them away and ran his fingers through his spiky hair…and winced when it crunched audibly under his fingers. Oh that's nasty. Must be all the sea salt in the air. That's it, first thing in Yokohama I'm getting a bath. Resting his chin on his hands, he peered grumpily out over the water. How'd he let his thoughts get so dark anyway? That sure wasn't like him. I may be getting older, but I'm too damn young still to be brooding like this. Pathetic.
Then he saw it, far in the distance, the very top of Mt. Fuji rising above a strip of land that had appeared on the horizon. His mood lifted immediately. I'm almost home. Closing his eyes briefly, he let the old memories wash over him like a pleasant balm. Images of his friends, of a young, pony-tailed kendoist and an enigmatic red-haired swordsman, sadness clouding his dark violet eyes.
Kenshin. Kaoru. You'd better still be in Tokyo. He watched the shoreline steadily become larger and more detailed. He felt nervous and tense all of a sudden, even though Yokohama was still many hours off. It had been so long since he'd talked to anyone in Japan. Although he'd done his best to write letters to them over the years, his wandering lifestyle had made it impossible for them to answer back. Even after all this time, he had no idea how they were, and that worried him. The last time I actually saw them was on that little dock in Tokyo seventeen years ago. I can't believe it's been that long…I really should have sent a letter saying I was coming home. Oh well. If there's one thing I'm good at, it's rude surprises. A mischievous grin lit up his tanned, weathered features and he pushed away from the railing. He shoved his hands in his pockets and yawned. Damn, now that I've brooded I'm hungry. Wonder where I can get some grub on this floating rat trap?
Sano stepped gratefully off the end of the gangplank, his stomach growling loudly. No food on the whole ship, none. Barbarians. He closed his eyes and breathed in the heavy summer air. The wonderful sound of Japanese filled the air around him, and the scent of familiar foods drifted to him from just beyond the docks. I'm home.
Grinning, he hoisted his travel bag over his shoulder and waded into the crowd. As usual his line of sight hovered well above the Japanese around him; he'd always been unusually tall for his people. He was surprised though to find himself looking at the brightly colored heads of literally dozens of foreigners fighting the crowd with him. That certainly hadn't been the case when he'd left; while the number of gaijin had been growing every year since the start of Meiji, he'd never seen them this numerous. Not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing. Hopefully though people will stop staring at Kenshin all the damn time as if he were some kind of freak…
Stepping off to the side of the crowd for a moment, he tried to get his bearings. He had only been to Yokohama a handful of times, and the layout of cities often changed whenever there was a major fire or other disaster. He wasn't sure what direction Tokyo was in from here. The only thing he knew for sure is that the train went there; if he found the tracks, he could follow it to Tokyo without getting lost.
He leaned back against a wall as he considered this and stared around at his former home. Aside from the foreigners, everything was just as he remembered. There were the noodle, souvenir and sweets shops he was so fond of, and all the Japanese in the crowd were still dressed in the familiar kimono he'd grown up with. The only exceptions were a few guys wearing English bowler hats atop their traditional outfits, which he found just plain silly-looking, along with a small group of women spinning around in front of the large glass window of an import shop, admiring their tight-fitting Western dresses. He found himself frowning ever so slightly. He didn't have any particular issue with Western culture (well, except for trains), but it disturbed him to see it taking over his home country. I wonder if it's just Yokohama, or if it's everywhere now? He wasn't sure why, but the idea just didn't sit right with him.
Sano's stomach growled insistently. "Yeah, yeah," he muttered to it. He spied an udon shop across the street and he wove his way toward it, sliding efficiently through the random movements of the crowd. It was only when he was inside that he remembered he had no Japanese currency on him. Awww crap.
"Irrashaimase!" the shop owner greeted with a broad smile. "Have a seat! What'll it be?"
"Well…uh…" Sano fished out his wallet and shook it. There wasn't much in it. "I don't suppose you take Chinese currency?"
The man's face fell. "Afraid not sir, you'll have to head up to the currency exchange."
"I just got in, where—"
"Two streets up, go left at the tanuki statue, head north toward the white Western-style building. It'll be on your right across the street; the exchange's painted black."
Sano blinked internally. Ugh…directions. "Um…thanks."
Back out in the street he blinked in the bright sunlight that had broken through early morning fog. He knew already that there was absolutely no hope of him finding the exchange on his own. Hell, he'd already forgotten the bit after the tanuki statue, but without money he couldn't even get his bath, much less breakfast. Stepping back into the flow of the crowd he let himself get pushed forward with flow of bodies. He thought furiously of what to do. I could try to convince someone to guide me to the exchange I guess…
Then it hit him and he nearly smacked himself. Duh, the Akabeko! Still have a tab there.
"Oh, there's no need to pay now Sanosuke-san. You can just pay your tab back later…with interest!"
Sano winced at the memory. Oooh boy, I wonder what seventeen years' interest is. Tae's gonna kill me. That is, if I ever make it there. Sighing, he broke off from the crowd again and ducked into a sandal-maker's shop. "Hey there, which way is to the train station that goes to Tokyo?"
It was just as Sano remembered it: a long, slightly crumbling tiled wall running alongside a small river. Soon he'd be at the Kamiya dojo, presuming it was still standing. It had been a long, hot, dusty walk from Yokohama along the tracks. He'd surprised himself with his memory of the route once he'd entered the city. He'd actually made it here without getting too lost. He'd nearly dropped in at the Akabeko, which to his relief was still here, but the threat of Tae's interest charge, which he was certain she had not forgotten about, made him think twice. I'd be better off getting Jou-chan to buy dinner for me. She'll do it; after all, it's only polite to feed a guest. He ignored the continued growling of his stomach and concentrated instead on the cicadas humming away deafeningly in the trees around him. In his youth that sound had always annoyed him; now it was strangely comforting. After all, those damn bugs don't live anywhere else but here. I guess I kinda missed 'em. He smiled. I really am home.
His expression darkened suddenly. Damn it, what if the dojo's not even here anymore? Maybe someone bought it out from under them finally, or it burned down and they had to move somewhere else. I should have checked in at the Akabeko; they could be in Kyoto for all I know. Crap, I'm an idiot. He'd been able to think of little else since getting off the boat in Yokohama, and he couldn't wait to arrive at the dojo so he could stop worrying already. He knew he should have made some effort to find out his friends' condition, but he hadn't really been able to, practically speaking. He scowled and scrubbed absently at his hair. Shit, I gotta stop deluding myself like this.
He knew the real reason, the stupid immature truth; that after leaving home he'd realized just how sheltered and restricted he'd felt in the shadow of Kenshin's selfless protection. He respected Kenshin, hell he'd even die for him if it came to that, but the guy was just too damn good. There was no way Sano could ever match him in skill, and he knew that the older swordsman would always want to protect him. It was his nature; even if Sano had been as strong as Saitou, Kenshin would still have felt obligated to play the fatherly bodyguard. In the end, it had been too much for the young streetfighter. He'd needed to get away, find his own place in the world and gain respect in the eyes of people who wouldn't always be measuring him against the legendary Battousai. His feelings had seemed so logical at the time, but now he could see what a stupid, ungrateful ass he'd been. In his quest to find himself he'd nearly forgotten his only true friends, his family really, if you looked at it like that. He'd managed the occasional letter, sure, and even a souvenir when he had the money, but that was all. Well, what's done is done I suppose. Damn it Kenshin, you'd better still be alive.
He rounded the corner and for a moment stood in the shade of the cherry trees, almost afraid to look. Steeling himself, he looked to where the dojo entrance should be, and let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. There it was, a welcome and familiar sight even after all these years. Sano felt himself smile, relief washing over him. Not only was the dojo still here, as he drew closer he saw other welcome changes. The school sign was very new-looking, the kanji no longer painted on in cracked and faded ink but inlaid deeply into the wood. All of the roof tiles were in good repair, the entrance was swept clear, and not a crack showed in the plaster wall. Beyond the wall he could see a little bit of the roof of the house, and many of its tiles were also shiny and new-looking. The whole place now carried the sparkle of money, a drastic change from when he'd last seen it. Huh, I hope they haven't become rich snobs or something.
Sano came to a stop in front of the closed gate. For a long moment, he hesitated. Then he gave himself a swift mental kick to the head. For the love of Kami man, this is stupid. What, are you becoming soft in your middle age? "No way in hell," he growled, and he slid the gate open, striding inside without hesitation just as he used to. Once over the threshold he stopped again with a mental blink. The door was unlocked. Someone must be home. He looked around immediately for Kenshin, but there was no sign of the diminutive swordsman. In fact the dojo was eerily silent. Even the cicadas seemed to have quieted down, and not so much as a leaf stirred in the packed dirt of the swept courtyard. Out of the corner of his eye, Sano thought he saw a sudden flash of movement on the roof, but when he looked there was nothing. He frowned and carefully scanned the buildings, the hairs on his neck standing on end. Something's not right here. I'm being watched. "Hello?" he called out, eyes darting around to every possible hiding spot in the place; which were many, he admitted to himself. "Anyone home?"
Silence. But the air nearly crackled with tension and Sano slowly moved toward the house, stepping under the slight overhang of the porch roof. He walked forward as casually as he could manage, trying to seem oblivious to any danger. They're hiding on the roof. He headed for the corner of the house and as he did so he flexed his bandaged right hand inside his trouser pocket. Never did learn to use the Futae no Kiwami with a knife like that old monk, but it's still deadly enough. If you've hurt them, you bastard, you aren't going to live to regret it. The question is who will strike first, me or you? He heard the faintest of noises from directly above. It was all the warning he needed. Sano leapt out into the open, fist swinging up over his head. A streak of white and blue came blurring down to meet it from the edge of the roof, emitting a shrill battle cry that made even Sano's heart skip a beat. The blur whipped out a weapon and Sano's fist drove into a chunk of solid metal; it exploded into powder and shards. The blur cried out sharply in surprise and then was gone.
Sano dove sideways and spun, barely managing to duck the long shaft of wood that came flying at his head. Shit, he's fast. Sano tried to get a look at his attacker, but the rapid blur had vanished yet again. Then he sensed the air shift abruptly behind him. Kenshin would be proud of the battle reflexes he'd honed over the years, he thought distractedly as he drop-spun and kicked out. His foot struck a glancing blow against a chest and he heard a pained grunt from his opponent. Heh, fast but not fast enough it seems. The blur streaked away around the corner of the house and Sano ran after it. He cursed when he found nothing waiting for him. What the fuck is this!? "Hey you bastard, come back here! Or are you some kind of coward, sneaking around on roofs like a thief?" He almost regretted the insult when he suddenly found himself being showered with roof tiles. Crap! In a flurry of feet and fists Sano shattered the tiles before they could get to him. He made sure to look beyond them, though. Experience told him the tiles were merely a distraction, not a true attack. And he was right; in the next instant his opponent came off the roof with what looked like a hammer in his hand. For a long, drawn-out second Sano looked into the other's face…and found himself doing a bit of a double-take. He spoke without thinking. "Kenshin?"
His opponent's bright blue eyes widened slightly, but he didn't alter his angle of attack. Sano leapt backward and his opponent landed where he had been, hammer raised two-handed like a sword, eyes blazing with fury. Without another second's hesitation he launched himself at Sano. The former streetfighter blocked the hammer with his arm, roughly suppressing instincts which told him to follow through and turn the weapon on his enemy. Sano twisted the shaft of the hammer away, throwing the other off-balance and opening some space between them. "Whoa, wait a sec, stop! I'm a friend, dammit!"
The boy—who Sano could now see was definitely not Kenshin—remained where he was. He was breathing heavily, but Sano could tell it was from anger, not fatigue. His opponent readied his weapon again, nearly snarling in rage. "Friend?!" he spat, his voice high and boyish. "Friends don't come barging into people's homes uninvited!" Sano opened his mouth to answer but the boy was already coming at him again, swinging the hammer like a bokken. Sheesh, I should have known from the fighting style alone. He's not half bad but— Sano dove past him, grabbing the head of the tool and twisting it deftly out of the boy's grasp. —he's still got a ways to go before he matches his old man in skill. Sano felt a smirk tug at the corner of his mouth. So you finally got it together, eh Kenshin? Those are Kaoru's eyes too, or I'm not a member of the Sekihoutai.
Sano propped the hammer on his shoulder and eyed his opponent with amusement. "When those 'friends' are me, they do." He grinned. "Your mom could tell you that much. Nice toy you got here." He bounced the head of the hammer against his shoulder. "What were you doing, fixing the roof?"
The boy blinked in surprise briefly before suddenly vanishing. Sano automatically dropped to the ground, and he felt the brush of fingers against the hammer. Oh no you don't. Sano shot off to the right, away from the protection of the house. The boy followed, nothing but a blur, and with a tremendous leap he latched onto Sano's back, grappling for the hammer. Oh honestly. With a surge of strength Sano flipped over in mid-stride, pinning the boy beneath him when they crashed to the ground. Sano didn't wait for the boy to get his bearings. With almost brutal swiftness he flipped himself over and hauled the gasping boy upright, twisting his arms around behind him in a vice hold and planting a foot firmly in the middle of the boy's back. He pushed ever so slightly, applying what he knew was very painful pressure to the kid's arms, and for a moment he let his opponent squirm. "You done yet, kiddo?"
In a display of spirit that didn't surprise Sano in the least, the boy craned his head around and fixed a furious blue eye on him, teeth bared in a snarl. "What the hell do you want?"
Sano blinked before he could stop himself; he wasn't sure what he'd expected from Kenshin's son, but this blatant disrespect hadn't been it. Well, I guess that means the kid's somewhat normal. "I'd love to answer that, but we can't really have a decent conversation like this. I'm not here for a fight, boy; I told you that already."
The kid actually spat at him, eyes blazing with an almost demonic brilliance. Sano considered this in silence, meeting the boy's gaze calmly. "You know, kid, now I really know you're not your dad. He would never leap into a fight so recklessly. And really, didn't any of his politeness rub off on you?" He saw confusion flicker briefly through the other's eyes, and the boy's body relaxed just a fraction. It's now or never. "Look, there's a lot of ways we could do this, but here's what I prefer." Sano abruptly let go of the boy and stepped back. He left the hammer on the ground where it had fallen.
The boy's reaction was swift and decisive; he snatched up the hammer and sank back down into an attack stance, keeping his hawklike gaze trained on Sano. Several moments of tense silence passed, and Sano could see the boy was thinking furiously. He took the time to study his friend's son. He noted, not with a little pride, that the boy was the spitting image of Kenshin, or at least what Sano imagined he must have looked like when he was a teenager. There were some obvious differences between them though, aside from the lack of distinctive scars. The boy's hair was a dark auburn, almost brown, as opposed to his father's bright ember red and his piercing eyes, completely lacking the sad weight his father's carried, were the color of the summer sky, the exact shade of Kaoru's. And that was her fiery temper showing through now in her son, Sano was sure of it. "Well?" he said finally. "You going to attack me again, or can we talk?"
The boy frowned. He didn't lower the hammer. "How do you know my father? What do you want from him?"
What is with this kid? "Nothing! I'm an old friend of his, I've been away for a while and I thought I'd pop by. Honest! It's Sagara," he supplied helpfully, trying to fend off the blatant hostility pouring from the boy. "Sagara Sanosuke."
The boy looked him up and down for a long moment. Then slowly, warily, he stepped back. However, he still didn't lower his makeshift weapon. Sano grinned wryly. So he was fixing the roof. How domestic. And he still won't lower his guard; he's been well-trained.
Sano smiled at the boy, hoping to calm him a bit. "I'm not gonna bite kid, I swear. So where is Kenshin, anyway? They at the Akabeko or something?"
"No." The boy relaxed a little more, but Sano could tell he wasn't out of danger yet. He began to get an uneasy feeling. What had happened in the years he was gone that would require Kenshin's son to have such fierce, protective caution? "Sagara-san…was it?" Sano could tell the boy added the honorific only grudgingly. "I've heard that name before. Father's mentioned you."
Inwardly, Sano sagged in relief. "Oh, well that's good." It means he's probably still alive. "So you can lower that hammer then, can't you? Heh, so I was right, you were fixing the roof."
Sano swore the other's eye twitched. "My parents asked me to."
"Ah. So what, they went out of town or something? And they left you here by yourself? No offense, but you seem a little young for that. Surely they didn't take Yahiko with 'em too?"
"I'm old enough," the boy said pointedly. But Sano could see curiosity in his eyes. "You know Yahiko-san?"
"Know him? I practically helped raise that kid! What's he up to nowadays?"
"Teaching kendo." The boy didn't bother to hide his irritation at the constant questions. "Look, they won't be back until next week. Just come back then. I've got work to do here."
Sano suddenly found himself holding back laughter. No wait, I take that back. He's just like his dad! "Oh come on, you're what, fifteen? If that? Nothin's so important that you can't be a decent host to one of your dad's friends. It's either that or I go bother the so-called Great Tokyo Samurai, who'll probably just punt me back here anyway so you might as well show some manners and offer me tea or sake or something. Or did your dad not teach you anything?"
Now the boy was scowling, his hand clenched in a white-knuckled grip around the hammer. "Don't you—how dare you—"
Sano grinned, laughing openly now. "Hey listen, I'm just glad your parents finally managed to get their act together! For a while I was worried they were going to be tiptoeing around each other forever. Seriously, I'm glad to meet you." He gave the other a little half-bow. "I've got no problem waiting until next week, but I'm not leaving without a drink." Or food, he added silently. No sense in pushing his luck at this point. "Your old man owes me that much at least."
"Does he now," the boy said flatly, but there was a trace of something else there and Sano could see that some of the dangerous sharpness had left his gaze. He finally dropped out of stance, resting the hammer's head back against his shoulder just as Sano had done. "Fine then, come on in. I'll see what I can do."
He nodded agreeably. "Thanks kid, I appreciate it."
"I'm not a kid," the boy muttered sullenly, spinning on his heel and marching towards the house. Sano grinned at his back. Oh, this is gonna be fun…
And it will, too…hopefully. So, Sano and Kenji…a character interaction pairing I haven't seen much of in RK fanfiction. I'm not actually planning to have Kenshin and Kaoru in this story directly until the very end. They'll just be talked about and flashbacked to a few times…not quite sure how many yet. As I mentioned, Yahiko will be in this quite a bit (look for him next chapter). I have a large portion of the next chapter mapped out already, basically setting up the story. I don't have a firm idea of where the plot is going yet, but I'm not too worried. As long as I keep my muse happy I think she'll provide nifty scenes and plot twists for me like she did for "Prism" :D
Kenji's character: I'm basically running on instinct here, guys. Watsuki-sensei apparently said that Kenji grew up to be a genius with a twisted personality, challenging Yahiko's son for the sakabatou and all kinds of other bratty stuff. I'm not sure I totally agree with that…but I do agree with what some people have done with Kenji in their fanfictions. I look at it like this: basically you who have Kenshin, this very intense, protective and intelligent man and Kaoru, who has a fiery, spontaneous and often violent temper but also a kind and loving heart. Add that together and you get a potentially volatile and dangerous combination…but not necessarily a bad person. I think he's probably a lot like Kenshin before he became hitokiri, only a lot more vocal about his feelings because of Kaoru's traits. Kenji's one of those big unknowns in RK fandom; he's what you want him to be within the bounds of your own imagination and what you understand of his parents' personalities. So whether you agree with my portrayal or not, it only exists within this story and I'm just going with my own logic here. Fair enough? Constructive feedback on him will be read and considered of course, I'm always open to ideas…but I don't think Kenji would be either a super-fluffy wimp or a crazed, power-hungry lunatic (I've seen both of these extremes on ). We'll see how it goes…
So what do you think, guys? Remember, I write this stuff for me…but I love hearing from all of you too. CC is a wonderful thing!! Click that lovely review button! Sorry for the long author notes this time, btw. They'll be a lot shorter (or nearly nonexistent even) next time! Promise!