This'll be a two-shot, no long epic, this. This is kind of my part of an olive branch to soothe over the fight my cousin and I have been having. She's happy to suggest elements and scenarios she'd like to see, and I try to piece them together to make a story. And then she does the dishes this month. Hah. Good deal. Part Two up as fast as I can write it.
Disclaimer: Thanks so very much to Nobuhiro Watsuki-sensei for allowing me to borrow Rurouni Kenshin from time to time. Even if he doesn't know he is allowing it…
Kenshin woke up in the wee hours of the morning. He indistinctly remembered stumbling into his room and collapsing across his bed, and then no more.
Someone, though, had come in after him and had not only laid him out more comfortably on his bed, but had removed the shoes that he hadn't had the concentration or presence of mind to take off himself as well. Either Aoshi or Sanosuke. Probably Sano, who was more thoughtful and more conscious of comfort. Aoshi might have helped only if Kenshin was injured. He smiled slightly in gratitude, sitting up carefully and ignoring the protests of his stiff muscles.
He glanced at the clock, glowing its angry red in the darkness. He'd come home a little after 5:00PM, and now it was 2:36AM. Slept about nine and a half hours, a good deal longer than he was used to, especially these days.
He got up quietly, moving toward the bathroom where he splashed water on his face and brushed his teeth. He was tempted to avoid his reflection entirely, not certain he even wanted to see just how wrecked he really was. He combed through his long red hair with only a few, careless strokes, then tied it back as usual.
He hesitated a moment, then went ahead and faced himself in the mirror. He silently predicted the first words Sano would say would be, "You look like hell." Because it would be true. He noted the circles under his eyes, the bloodshot whites, a loss of coloring in his cheeks, making the old scars stand out all the more.
He rubbed his forehead, fingers tangling in his long bangs. He felt a soft chuckle bubbling up in his throat that turned into a quiet laugh. For some reason, he found his appearance very funny.
He turned away from his gently-smiling image and wandered into the living room.
Aoshi had chosen to sleep in the master bedroom on the other side of the house so that he wouldn't be disturbed by his housemates' nocturnal comings and goings, especially Sano's. Kenshin knew he'd find his friend seated in on the couch, playing videogames and probably eating and drinking products that weren't made of substances usually found in nature.
Sano glanced up from a gory first-person shooter game, and, Kenshin noted with a wry smile, he had been correct in his prediction of the first thing Sano would say when he saw him.
"You look like hell." Sano had the fascinating skill to continue blowing away digital bad guys while seeming to direct his entire attention to Kenshin. "Are you all right now?"
"Liar," Sano admonished, his eyes drifting back to the screen. "Keep going like this, and you won't make it, Buddy. When was the last time you ate?"
"I'm…not sure," Kenshin admitted.
Sano snorted. "I've been putting you to bed, now I'm going to have to start feeding you too?"
"Go eat, Kenshin."
Kenshin sighed. "Fine, fine."
He wandered into the kitchen and stared at the refrigerator door, which was covered with magnets holding important documents like pizza coupons and the numbers to Sano's favorite take-out joints, feeling a bit lost. He had no hunger, but obeying Sano was wiser than arguing with him when he spoke in that tone. His friend was younger, but the guy had a mother hen streak and the muscle to back it up.
Besides, he was right… One had to eat if one was to live.
He reached for the refrigerator handle, but before he could pull open the door his eyes fell on a the glossy photographs at level with his eyes.
One was of himself, Sano, and a reluctant Aoshi. Kenshin had been sitting on the hood of Sano's car when it was taken, and Sano's arm was thrown about his shoulders, the roosterhead grinning broadly as he'd snuck his other hand just behind Aoshi's head to form a pair of rabbit ears.
The other was just of Kenshin and the most beautiful raven-haired, sapphire-eyed girl who ever walked the earth, in his humble opinion. In the picture, he was sitting on the floor in front of the couch, a video game controller in his hands, and she was sitting beside him, an excited look on her face as she cheered on whatever game he had been playing that day.
He stared at the picture, tracing her lovely features with his eyes as if he'd never get enough. Indeed, he couldn't. Not if he had a thousand years with her would it be enough, and how long, how torturously, achingly long had it been since he last…?
He heard a sigh behind him and turned slightly to see Sano standing in the doorway of the kitchen, shaking his spiky head.
He moved to Kenshin in only a few strides and pushed him in the direction of the kitchen table. "Just sit down, you idiot. I'll fix you something."
Kenshin sat, wincing as he lowered himself down.
"You," Sano said, setting out a pot with which to prepare Kenshin some ramen, "are really pathetic, my friend. You realize this is what you get for robbing the cradle anyway."
"Sano," Kenshin said with weary indignity. "I did not rob the cradle."
Sano waggled a finger in the air without turning from his work. "Not an issue of how much older you are than her, Buddy, but the consequences of it. She is an eight-hour drive away at the university, and you are in a living hell having to survive on phone calls and emails and your insane weekend trips up to see her. Misao and I have a bet, you know. She thinks it'll just be another week before you just up and leave and set up camp under her dorm room window."
Sano half-turned to look at him, laughter dancing in his eyes. Kenshin stared back a moment before a smile, a real smile, broke over his face and he laughed along with him.
"Do you think they'd allow that?" Kenshin said, grinning.
Sano snorted. "Well, I can't let you. It'll be winter soon, and you'll probably end up freezing to death. Then she'll be upset and'll probably take it out on me."
After a few minutes of silence, Sano set a bowl of steaming ramen in front of Kenshin, then sat across from him at the small kitchen table.
"Eat it all, Kenshin," he warned.
"I mean it. How much do you weigh now, ninety-eight pounds?"
"I'm sure I weigh more than that, Sano."
"Yeah, okay. Maybe more like a hundred and five pounds then. Want to step on the bathroom scale and make sure?"
Kenshin only grunted, twirling noodles on his chopsticks.
"Ah, well." Sano rose, stretching. "Gonna go save my game and get some sleep. And just eat it, all right? Whatever's going on in that head of yours, you just can't live on love alone, you know."
Kenshin made himself eat the ramen, washed his bowl and the pot Sano had used, then went back to the living room. His eyes flickered across the shelf below the television, filled more with games than with videos. None of it held his interest, though, so he just sat down and stared at the blank TV. At his blotted reflection.
He smiled at it again, raking his fingers through his untidy hair. Sano was right, much more of this, and he wouldn't make it. That meant he was doomed, didn't it?
Sanosuke pried himself from his pillow around ten or so, which wasn't too bad considering the hour he'd gone to bed after feeding Kenshin.
Groggily passing through the living room in just a tank top and boxers, Sano found his silly, lovesick, overworked friend on the couch, sleeping. He watched him for a moment, shaking his head in a mix of amusement and pity.
The phone rang when he got to the kitchen. He dived for it, snatched it off the cradle and cautiously peeked into the living room. One ring and it hadn't woke Kenshin. Good. Good.
He glowered at the receiver before pressing it to his ear. "Hello?"
He brightened. "Jou-chan! How do the textbooks smell today?"
She snorted and he imagined her rolling her eyes. "Like dusty, moldering third-to-fourth hand books, Roosterhead. How's everything?"
"Exactly like you left it."
There was a slight hesitation. "Kenshin?"
"He's sleeping…do you want me to wake him up?" He said the last part slowly, careful to emphasize without exactly saying it was best to just let him sleep while he could. Kenshin needed it, but he had never been on the bad side of his friend's temper and wanted to keep it that way. No telling how Kenshin might react if he missed out on a precious phone call from his girl just because Sano wanted him to sleep.
There was a pause on Kaoru's end. Then, "How is he?"
"Tired, tired, tired. Jou-chan, why don't you forget the school thing and come back and take care of your man instead? I'm glad he never needs to shave, or else I'd be scared he'd accidentally fall asleep at the bathroom sink and cut more scars into his face."
She sighed, a long, lengthy sound that said much. "If I recall correctly," she said in an irritated, clipped tone, "I no longer wanted to go to school. I wanted to stay with Kenshin. He practically chased me away, babbling on nonsense about my future, and in case something ever happens to him, blah, blah, blah…"
Sano smiled faintly, though she couldn't see. "Well, you know Kenshin. He always knows best, right?"
"No, he thinks he knows what's best," Kaoru snorted ill-naturedly. "People die from lack of sleep."
"He's sleeping now."
"He won't tomorrow."
"…Probably not. But he's gotten in some good hours now. He'll be okay."
"I'll call back later," she offered.
"Make sure he eats."
"I'm on it."
Sano carefully peeked at Kenshin before hanging up. With his friend still sacking Z's, Sano set the phone back in its cradle and crept into the kitchen to seek food.
Trying not to rattle the cookware too much, he tried to turn the problems of lately around in his head. Kenshin had never had it easy, but life had become softer, better for him these last couple of years with the little band of friends that had drifted together. Sanosuke, Aoshi, and Kenshin rented their house together in what might have been meant to be a temporary arrangement a couple of years ago, but had somehow stretched on with no sign of changing. The three of them worked at the same place, if not always the same job and almost never exactly the same hours, at a sturdy old bar called the Ubiquitous Rumba, or just Ubi-Rumba for those who were too drunk too actually say that ridiculous word. It wasn't a bad place for guys like themselves to work, not when all they had really had to offer on a résumé were unusual combat skills--with and without ancient weapons--and enthusiasm for fighting. But it was a good place to work, with an understanding boss who believed in minding her own business and never asking questions, where they blended in as much as men like them could blend in anywhere. That they could find peace in a place that was most distinctly not peaceful was just one of those things that Sano shrugged off as something that didn't need too much thinking about.
But Ubi-Rumba was in a rough neighborhood. It was as decent and clean a place you could find under the circumstances, but watching for the hoodlums, stamping down any trouble they brought, and throwing them out was tiring and thankless. Okay for a man who got his rest and relaxed once in a while, but Kenshin, well… He needed a lot of looking after lately, or else he'd sleep only every third day and run off coffee and his sense of duty the rest of the time. There was no reasoning with him. He took up his hours, and picked up the slack for other bartenders or bouncers who would sometimes come off the losing end of brawls, and he would always make the unreasonably long drive to where he made his girlfriend to go to school to catch a few precious hours with her before making the unreasonably long drive back for a few hours' sleep, and then it all started over again. And Sano didn't even want to think about Kenshin little "nighttime hobby", which was even more grueling than their job was.
Sano wished he could fill in for some of the regular boys more often at work, take some heat off Kenshin, but there was only so much he could do, going to school himself when he wasn't working. And besides that, their boss, Tama, preferred Kenshin to be there as often as she could get him. Kenshin had a way with people. That clueless act of his, maybe sometimes laced with a "good ol' boy" attitude, combined with the fact that he was so small and harmless-looking, he could usually ease fights and unruly people out the door without any of Tama's property being damaged. Kenshin could keep the peace like nobody else could.
Kaoru used to work the bar too. Sano sighed wistfully, uncaringly burning his breakfast a little. It had been great, the four of them rounding each other when their shifts overlapped. Kenshin was happiest then. Amazingly, unabashedly happy, even when it took those two an absurdly long time to get around to actually dating.
Then, the dreaded subject of Kaoru's further education. A respectable school wanted her, but she thought she might go to a smaller place closer to home, like the place where Sano took a couple of classes. But Kenshin, well… She'd always wanted to go to that school. She'd made the mistake of telling him that a long time ago. So…well, as Kaoru said, Kenshin thought he knew best.
The phone rang again, and once more Sano found himself diving for it before it woke said know-it-all. Kenshin stirred a little on the sofa, but didn't wake. Sanosuke breathed out carefully before putting the receiver to his ear.
"Sano." It was Tama. "Listen, Hira and Sato called in sick--" Sano groaned through his teeth, "--and I know he's been tired lately, but could you please, please ask Kenshin if he could work the inside for them today?"
"A double shift? Tama--"
"I know, but if he could just do this, I thought maybe I'd give him the rest of the week off to catch up on his sleep. Tell him with pay."
Well, that was a temptation, wasn't it? Kenshin could really get some stamina back with the week off, even if he just wanted to haunt the outside parameters of Kaoru's school to catch the kisses she blew at him when she changed classes.
"Okay…I'll ask him. But if there's anymore slack that needs to be taken up, ask me, okay?"
"I would have asked you in the first place, but you've got class, don't you?"
"I could skip it."
"Do you have any idea how upset Kenshin would be with you if you did that?"
To be precise, Kenshin would only disapprove mildly if Sano skipped his classes for his own agenda. But Tama was right, he would be downright angry if he found out Sano missed a class for his sake. Of course, Kenshin could sacrifice himself and risk his health for his friends, but they weren't allowed to do the same for him. Part of that being the oldest and knowing best thing again. Truly, Tama knew Kenshin well. Or as well as it was possible to know him.
Sanosuke dragged out the redhead's nap for as long as he safely could, then finally woke him, gave him a push toward the bathroom, made him eat with the implied threat of being force-fed if the food wasn't consumed willingly.
Kenshin was blearily happy to consider working a double shift for the rest of the week off, but hesitant about taking the offer all the same.
"But who will take my place when I'm--"
"I'll do it," Sanosuke said adamantly. "Aoshi'll help too," he added, though he well knew better than to make promises on Aoshi behalf without consulting him. Anything to get Kenshin to accept Tama's offer.
"We'll work something out. Just do it, will you, Kenshin?"
Only Tuesday and the Ubiquitous Rumba was booming. Probably because some of the old haunts across town had closed down and clumps, cliques, and cretins didn't have much elsewhere to go.
Aoshi was on door duty for the time being when Kenshin arrived, which he hated. It was more to Aoshi's dignity to lean against a wall inside and keep order by letting his gaze rove over the inside once in a while, but when they were shorthanded, sacrifices had to be made.
Tama, a fierce-eyed woman a few years older than Kenshin with unruly hair and little flour on her chin and elbows gave him a quick smile before seeing to her next customer, someone able to expertly mix drinks and keep an eye on each corner of her barroom at the same time. There was nobody else working, Kenshin noticed with just a small touch of dismay, which meant he'd have to look after the door as well as help her keep an eye on the inside until the next shift change.
Aoshi's time was almost up, and Kenshin liked door duty perhaps just a little less than his friend did, but for different reasons. Aoshi simply didn't like interacting with people, especially when they were going to be uncooperative about Tama's rules for weapons checks. Kenshin had a rougher time of it because he wasn't imposing-looking enough to some of the rougher customers who hadn't come to Ubi-Rumba often enough to have witnessed just how quickly Kenshin could disperse a brawl or end a fight when it was clear the good ol' boy routine wasn't going to work Sano was better at looking the part.
Aoshi decided to check in one last group just coming in, a crude-looking bunch who probably owned the group of motorcycles he spied outside the open door. A general whine when up when Aoshi coldly asked for any arms they had on them, and Kenshin started to get up from his stool to give him a hand when someone finally consented. Among some grumbling, Aoshi came up with an assortment of firearms and a few blades, which Kenshin retrieved for him and stashed under the bar with similar instruments.
The patrons found seats and Tama, with a glance at Kenshin to convey her distaste for them, sauntered over to take their order. Aoshi glanced up and down the street for anyone else, and then wandered to the bar.
"I'm off," he said simply. He started to turn away at Kenshin's nod of acknowledgement, but seeming to think better of it, turned back. He glanced Kenshin over, mouth thinning a little, before he reached into his long coat and tossed a set of keys into the air. Kenshin caught them, blinking in inquiry.
"My car's parked in the back. Drive home. Sleep the night before you visit Kamiya-san."
Those were orders, short and concise, and Aoshi was gone leaving Kenshin with his mouth only half-opened with impotent protests. He stared at the propped-open door for a moment before shrugging weakly and dropping they key into his jeans pocket. It didn't do to refuse gift or concern from Aoshi when it was offered anyway.
The afternoon wore on into evening. Shifts of factory workers came and went with on routine, but the gang that had come in just before Aoshi left remained.
They were a bit loud and made atrocious choices on the juke box, but they kept buying and were keeping to themselves, so there was no need to ask them to leave, much as Kenshin would have rather have seen the back of them hours ago.
Tama came and laid a meat pie and a cinnamon roll almost the size of his head on the bar before him, nodding at the beer tap for him to help himself if he wanted, and with one last "eat it, or else," look at him, she went back to work.
As a general rule, most in Tama's employee weren't supposed to be eating out at the bar, since she preferred them to take their breaks in the back or out in the walled-off alley where she kept sturdy tables for their convenience, but Kenshin had always been encouraged, or more lately, bullied, into eating whenever and wherever he wanted. Since before he'd even started working for Tama, she'd always seemed to have a sisterly concern with how skinny he was, though her attempts to put extra pounds on him were futile. At least between her and Sano, Kenshin never lost any weight.
The pie gone, and he was partway into the cinnamon filling of the bun, when a boy came barreling headlong into the bar.
Kenshin stuffed the last of his pastry in his mouth as he watched Yahiko's sharp eyes scan the environs, head gradually turning as he took in what there was to see. The boy looked the same as usual; his clothes were far from new, but they were clean, sneakers worn and scuffed, but sturdy with much use left in them, and his hair was uncombed and sticking up everywhere. But the kid's eyes were harsher than it seemed they should be for a boy his age, and lacked innocence lost longer ago than Kenshin had known him.
Yahiko brightened only slightly when he saw Kenshin, walked toward him in even, masculine strides. Kenshin felt a small pang of guilt. Kaoru had been teaching him swords ever since the kid had started hanging out with their group a lot when his foster home situation left him feeling a little neglected, and now that she was away…well, his martial education was put on an indefinite hold. Kenshin would have been more than happy to help him keep in practice, but…time had just not been his ally these past few months.
"This is for you," Yahiko said without preamble, thrusting a white paper bag at him, something heavy and cylindrical inside. "It's from Megumi. It's a protein shake or something like that."
"Ah." Kenshin shook his head, both amused and exasperated. "Thank her for me if you see her before I do."
"Yeah." Yahiko's eyes strayed toward the pinball machines lines up along one wall. "Mind if I hang around for a while?"
Kenshin glanced at the rough little group, still keeping to themselves on the other side and nodded, a little reluctantly. Yahiko was no stranger to places like this, knew how to keep out of the way of people one didn't want to deal on any normal basis, but still…
He wandered over to the pinball machines, popped in a token, and Kenshin watched him play, the noises and beeps of the machine drowned out by the terrible howls and squeals of the music on the juke box. Just a pang before, Kenshin guilt weighed down on him a little more heavily. Yahiko didn't have any friends his own age. He was too mature, too jaded, a few levels beyond most of the boys he lived with, even those who were orphans or from broken homes with stories similar to his. He learned Kaoru's old sword-style, played video games with Sano and Kenshin, and still spent more time at Kenshin's place than he did at the foster house. Kenshin heard he spent a lot of time with Misao now, who had more free time the others did these days.
And once again, Kenshin keenly felt how much better things would be if only Kaoru was home…
No. He squashed the thought wearily. It was best that Kaoru went to school. Education was important. Very important. She was a smart girl, and there would be so many opportunities…
Opportunities to get lonely, try as he might to be there as often as he possibly could. Opportunities to perhaps catch the eye of another, more innocent man with a fresher, younger mind, cleaner hands, and closer to her own age. Opportunities to fall into a new circle of friends that might guide her into a life far from here, where she might slowly forget about the young student she had that had largely benefited from her guidance.
The cinnamon bun felt like a brick in his stomach all of the sudden as his logic fell apart in his mind. He leaned a little on the bar, as the heavy feeling became a little more of a queasy feeling. Of course he had considered these things--had considered them carefully, but his decision to encourage Kaoru to go to the university was laced with trust and hope against such thoughts. She'd come back, and things would be like they--
An elbow on the bar, he rested his head on his fist. Maybe Sano was right. He was an idiot, and he was really pathetic, and becoming more so in both regards every day. But this was something Kaoru had wanted long before she had met any of them. She deserved it. Wasn't it a little wrong to want to covetously hoard her to himself while she went to a far lesser school close to home?
There was a sharp, sickening, resounding crack, a human noise somewhere between a snarl and a yelp, and the hollow scraping of chairs and their occupants quickly stood up.
With tight rebukes curled in his chest for him to turn on himself later for forgetting what he was supposed to be doing, Kenshin got off his stool and started moving through the crowd that had started forming. The thick of it, at the end of the room, were those roughs that had come in before, voices raised angrily over the blaring music. Many expletives coming before the word "brat" were heard, and Kenshin's eyes flicked toward the pinball machines and video games at the other wall. Yahiko wasn't there. Damn.
Not breaking stride, he surged closer, and saw his young friend there, and the trouble. One of the men had a bloody nose, a fist closed over it, and rage in his eyes, and Yahiko stood with his own fists balled, the rage no less fierce in his own. The hand not occupied with keeping the rough's oozing nostrils clamped shut flicked out knife, somehow kept hidden in an inner part of his jacket sleeve from Aoshi's initial weapon check.
Kenshin didn't break stride. Slithering through the crowd, he caught the man with the knife by the collar of his jacket just as he was swinging his arm, placed a foot at the small of his back, and sent him careening face-first into the wall to their left. The man howled like his nose had been broken, which was entirely possible, but Kenshin didn't spare him another glance. Another man dipped low for the knife his friend had dropped, slashing it at Kenshin.
He caught the man's wrist, and brought his free first down on the man's arm, hard, so that the bones of his wrist cracked hard against a chair Kenshin smoothly hooked between them with a foot. This one, too, howled, blade falling from his numbed hand. Kenshin snatched it from the air, and with a flick of his wrist, he sent it flying over his shoulder toward the dart board at the other end of the room. He didn't look to see what he scored, but assumed that it was a good throw from some of the surprised murmurs behind him.
"Yahiko," he said softly. "Behind the bar with Tama."
Yahiko obeyed him quickly, with only a last, blazing glare at the man who crouched on the floor clutching his face.
Only Tama herself wasn't behind the bar. "You're all out," she said in no uncertain terms, coming to stand next to him. "Now. Kenshin, show these men the door if they can't remember the way out in the next few seconds."
"Ma'am," Kenshin acknowledged.
"The little brat--" one of them from the back began.
"I don't care," Tama said flatly. "Clear out."
They bristled as one, like a pack of dogs. Most eyes were on Kenshin, and again he regretted being the only one working this shift, that someone a little more bouncer-like, like Sanosuke, was there to provide a little visual backup. Kenshin put real anger into his glare, and most looked away.
Then someone brought silence to the whole affair by unplugging the juke box. It was one of their own, if his wind-blown dishevelment and grungy state of dress was anything to judge by. "That's enough, boys," he said, voice carrying without him seeming to raise it. "Night's just begun, and I don't feel like spending it in jail or getting blood on my new boots. Let's do like the lady says and clear out."
And that seemed to decide it. The group filed out, Kenshin's senses training at the door to make sure they were really indeed leaving. Tama moved reluctantly to return their weapons at the bar, though no one bothered to stick around to wait for the knife in the dart board to be retrieved. They were gone, and several exhalations of relief went up around the bar.
Somebody in the back righted a chair and another plugged the jukebox in again and chose music that didn't sound like a circular saw chewing through sheet metal.
Yahiko was still behind the bar. Tama leaned over it, eye-level with the boy. "What the hell was that all about?"
Yahiko whispered an curse, voice quivering with rage, obviously too angry to explain himself.
Tama ran a hand over her face, unintentionally wiping off some of the flour from her chin. "Never mind. Go in the back, help yourself to whatever you want, and calm down. We'll talk about it in a few minutes. Kid's getting more like Sano every day," she added when Yahiko was gone. "The wrong side of Sano."
The image of Yahiko angrily stuffing his face with chicken wings and glazed rolls melted away into more guilt. Tama was right and wrong at the same time; Yahiko's reaction to whatever slight or lewd comment he'd just had to endure might have been similar to how Sanosuke might have reacted, but there were a whole lot of "mights", besides. But she was right in that Yahiko had become sullen and easily moved to anger of late. The kid would never admit it, but he missed Kaoru, and was being bogged down by his old feelings of being neglected.
Kenshin couldn't shake off the suffocating feelings of burden even an hour past midnight, when he helped Tama get the last few stumbling patrons out of the bar. He insisted on helping with the nightly cleanup, and she allowed him only because she wasn't strong enough to physically make him go home to his bed.
Yahiko had left in time to get home before ten, his curfew, but he'd stopped by Kenshin at his post at the door to ask if he could make time to talk to him the next day.
"Absolutely," Kenshin said, meaning every syllable of the word.
Yahiko had nodded, eyes somewhere between his sneakers and Kenshin's. "I'll come over tomorrow."
"Okay. See you later."
That very short conversation, and the memory of Yahiko standing with angry fists in front of an adult twice his size and three times his weight stayed with him as he made his way to Aoshi's car in the back. Aoshi had also left his cell phone inside, on the passenger seat, surprising Kenshin with a sudden ring in the silence inside.
He let it ring again before shrugging, picking it up, and lifting it to his ear. "Hello?"
"Himura! It's about damn time you answered the phone! You were supposed to be off work half an hour ago."
"Hello, Misao," Kenshin said politely, smiling slightly.
Misao huffed. "Why you-- Oh, never mind! Listen, we need a favor. Sano made the mistake of eating some stuff wrapped in tin foil in the back of the fridge--"
"'Oh, no', what?"
"Wrapped in tin foil?"
"In the back of the refrigerator?"
"That was a piece of Kaoru's cake--"
"Cake? She hasn't been around to make a-- Wait a minute, a piece of cake from your birthday?"
"Himura, you left a piece of food months old in the refrigerator that Kaoru-san made, with Sanosuke in the house?"
"Does Sano need to be taken to the hospital?"
"No, his stomach's as durable as the rest of him. But we kind of need you to pick up some of that bismuth stuff from a drugstore, okay?"
"All right. I'll be home soon."
"And you're going to bed and not…out, right?"
"Yes, ma'am. Right to bed."
"Thank you. Are you staying the night?"
"May as well. Too late to go home tonight."
He made a soft noise of acknowledgement and set the phone back where he found it on the passenger's seat. Several minutes along the road, he tried to remember which was the closest drug store, not certain whether he should laugh or be worried about that slice of cake.
In truth, he hadn't forgotten it, and had deliberately hidden it in the back behind a mustard jar with a long-past expiration date stamped on the lid. That it had taken Sano that long to find it meant that he had hidden it fairly well, and its discovery meant the fridge was getting empty.
Kaoru had made him that cake. It wasn't very good…somehow she had managed to make it kind of runny in the middle and yet the bottom was burned to a crisp and stuck to the bottom of the pan. But she had worked hard to make it, and the smile on her face when he not only ate a sizable slice of it, but wrapped up another sizable slice to take home was worth it.
He, well… He blushed, hunching down in his seat a little. But he just wanted to keep the cake, as a physical part of memory. It was his birthday, and she'd wanted to make it special since it was that summer that she had been accepted at the university. He hadn't meant to poison Sano, but there were some things that couldn't be explained to him either, like sentimentality over an old piece of cake.
Who was foolish enough to eat something they found in the fathoms of their refrigerator behind a moldering jar of mustard, anyway?
The drugstore was brightly lit with very clear, white light that his tired eyes could barely tolerate as he found a bottle of the thick, pink stuff he hoped would help Sano's discomfort. Back in the car, he dropped his purchase beside Aoshi's phone and turned the car toward home.
He scanned he sidewalks on either side of him a little wistfully. Misao was right, he really didn't have the stamina to…patrol them like he should, but the streets weren't safe at night. Very few were the nights that he went out with the heavy weight of the old reverse-blade in his hand that he didn't find some victim or another, preyed on by monsters or wild dog packs like the ones he threw out of the Ubiquitous Rumba tonight. He hunted them as they hunted the innocent or the helpless. It was how he'd met most of his friends, out there trying to, as Kaoru had once put it, "fill in the gaps of justice".
But…every night he didn't go out, he wondered if there was someone out there that might have needed his help, and he wasn't there.
Aoshi's phone rang again.
"Himura, Sano's feeling better now," Misao said.
"Yeah, now he's hungry. He didn't get to keep the cake."
Kenshin sighed. "Oh?" he repeated.
"He wants pizza. Pizza sounds good; I want some too."
"It's almost two in the morning."
"So, what? It's not like you've got to go anywhere in the morning."
"Don't either of you?"
"Nope. Pizza, then? Pleeeeease, Himura?"
"All, right. Fine, Misao. What would you like on--" He paused, a sharp and intense light burning away his vision out of the darkness ahead. A truck, he thought, coming toward him with the high beams on, and it was coming fast.
"What--" he exclaimed, a second before the high beams veered sharply into the space before him, blinding him completely. Inhaling sharply, he dropped the phone and cut the wheel to the right, slamming on the brakes.
There was the terrible sound of squealing tires, shattering glass, gut-wrenching weightless sensations again and again punctuated by bruising impacts, the pain of the seatbelt cutting into his neck, and finally a screeching, bone-rattling force of a final, crashing stop.
He sat stunned when the world was completely still again, fighting for breath against the constricting seatbelt. There was a hissing sound, escaping steam. There was a small voice somewhere, screaming his name.
Carefully, he pried his hands from the steering wheel, trying to take stock of himself. His shoulder and chest hurt, his midsection, from the seatbelt. Blood was soaking his eyebrows where he hit his head somewhere, on the steering wheel, he thought. He touched a sizable split in his flesh above his forehead that a vague part of his mind had time to hope wouldn't leave a scar.
That voice was still shouting. He blinked in confusion, then remembered the phone. It was shouting at him from the floorboard. He tried to unbuckle the seatbelt, found it jammed, so he wriggled and stretched managed to catch the edge of the phone with his longest finger, flipped it closer so he could pick it up.
"God damn it, Kenshin, are you okay?" It wasn't Misao, but Aoshi, his highly controlled verbal skills thrown out the window for the moment.
"I think so…" He looked through the fractured windshield and at the crumpled hood. "I think…Aoshi, your car…I'm sorry."
There was a long silence. From Aoshi, anyway. Misao was demanding to know what was going on, her voice high and frightened. He couldn't hear Sano, so it was a good bet he didn't know what happened yet.
Aoshi sighed, a short, barely audible sound through his nose. "All right. We'll be right there. Where are you?"
The truck was back. Screeching, wavering across the road. Bearing down on him again.
Kenshin hissed, right hand coming down to fight with the jammed seatbelt. "I'm a few miles from the drugstore behind the bar," he breathed out in a rush, and, realizing that now was most definitely not the time to act like he was in control of the situation, he added, "Aoshi, I'm in trouble."
Then the truck crashed into him again.