Their last patient for that day was a little girl with a
frighteningly high fever, which sent her parents in a frantic scurry to the
clinic. Dr. Genzai ordered buckets of ice and the
bathtub to be filled with water. Luckily for them, Sanosuke was there to run
the errand, while Megumi filled the tub. Minutes later the child was laid in the
ice bath, with Dr. Genzai's granddaughters whispering
assurances to their playmate that she'll get better soon. She was promptly
taken out, dried with a towel and clothed in a yukata.
Outside the bathhouse, Sanosuke waited for the child to emerge so he can help
carry her to their home. Megumi walked with them and upon laying the child in
the futon, she instructed the mother to keep a small basin of water and a face
cloth to gradually lower her temperature. From her obi she produced three
packets of powdered medicine and instructed them to make her drink it after
meals, and that she drink all of it.
"Will she be all right, sensei?"the child's mother asked nearly teary eyed.
"She's a strong girl, she will pull through. However, you must follow these instructions to make sure she fully recovers. The medicine is potent. Get her to sweat with blankets and change the cold compress often. Now, should she get worse at any time, we're just down the street. Please don't hesitate to knock."
The young doctor grasped the mother's hands to try to ease her brow. "She'll be fine. I'll come again tomorrow to check on her, all right?"
With a nod, she and her tall companion took their leave. They set out for the clinic, the sun setting steadily in the horizon. People were retiring to their homes for it was close to dinnertime. For the time being, the avenue was theirs alone.
Fists in his pockets, he kicked a small pebble out of the way. He wondered if he'd encounter the same pebble in a few steps, or if he'd kick it again if he saw it tomorrow. Such a trivial thought that required no more than a second to execute a decision crossed his mind often. He then cast a glance at the woman walking beside him. How does she do it, always quick to think and on her feet? He assumed that it came with the job. When it came to a brawl, he was also quick on his feet, though deciding to defend one's self was just instinct. It takes no effort to think, no more than kicking that insignificant pebble out of the way. It definitely carries minimal or no responsibility for that matter.
"Is it difficult?"
"Is what difficult?"
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I mean, when someone comes to you sick or hurt, is it hard to figure out what to do with them?"
"Well," she said as she avoided a broken piece of glass on the street. "It's kind of like playing detective. You have to figure out what caused the person to be sick. And in the meantime, you try to alleviate the symptoms."
She was about to answer but was stopped by an offending stone that she did not see. She lost her balanced and instinctively reached out. Sanosuke caught her arm. He steadied her firmly back on her feet until she no longer clung to him for help, though he didn't seem to mind the softness of her form against him. She stood straight and tucked a straying hair behind the lobe of her arm.
"So what was I saying?"
"I asked you then what."
"Then you be careful and watch where you're going," she said with a sheepish smile as she began to walk again. She looked at her tall companion and saw him grinning.
"And after you watch where you're going, then what?"
"Then after you find out what you think the disease is, you give them the medicine you think is necessary to get them better."
"Well, what if what you thought was wrong? Will the medicine then be bad for them?"
"That's why you give them medicine that isn't used for a long time. But it doesn't always work that way. Usually to get you started in the right direction, you ask the patient what happened before they got sick. But even then you get lost."After letting out a sigh, she added, "Sometimes it can get pretty rough. Especially when it's someone close to you."
His brown eyes strayed to gaze upon the back of her head as his stride gradually slowed in its pace. He thought back to Megumi's past and all that she had gone through just to be alive today. No family, no home to go back to in Aizu. He realized she was no longer astride with him and he caught up with her. Fists back in his pockets, he looked at the setting sun as he remembered that it was around this time one of his buddies was stabbed and was rushed into the clinic. She put him back together like cloth was to a skilled seamstress. And what did he have to show for? Anger and accusation. He's been through this so many times, and every time he thought about this, his insides seemed to shrink in humiliation and gnawed on his guilt. Man, this would be so much easier if I didn't screw up back then. And it would really help if I didn't have it bad for her. Words really were a two edged sword. What hurtful words one says now will hurt sooner or later. In his case, it was chronic.
"Hey, are you all right? You're quiet all of a sudden, and that's very unusual for you."
He laughed. "What, I can't have a quiet moment to myself?"
"To do what? You're not actually thinking, are you?"
"And so what if I was?"
"Good Lord, you're capable of thinking?!"
He gave her a look that sent her running away from her companion. He gave her a head start and ran after her, hearing her laughter ring out from the top of her lungs. "Of course I can think, you evil fox! I think all the time!"
She replied with a giggle over her shoulder. Her eyes widened at the sight of him nearing her fleeing form and it made her run faster, though the wooden sandals on her feet proved a challenge to do so.
He was delighted in seeing her reaction; his veins surged with vigor as he pursued his fleeing fox. That's right, fox, you can run, but I will catch you, wait and see. At this point they were within a few meters from the clinic. Stronger and faster than she, he overtook her and grabbed her arm which he caught in mid-swing while she ran. Much to her shock, he pulled her up and swung her easily like she was but a human pillow and caught her with her legs cradled in his arms. It was all too fast to see, and her shortness of breath allowed her little time to think.
"All right,"he said, trying to catch his breath. "Having won this little race, I think I'll be demanding a prize now."
"What?" she gasped, her face incredulous to the ingratiating proposition.
Before he could belt out a demand, he saw Dr. Genzai walking rather hurriedly towards them, brows furrowed and eyes full of concern.
"Megumi-chan, are you all right? Sano, what happened?"
Suddenly taciturn about the scene that just unfolded before them, he decided to take the initiative before his precious bundle could protest and went along with the old doctor.
"Why no, Dr. Genzai. She was faint and lost her balance on the way back to the clinic."
"That's not true, I just tripped on a stone!"
"Now, now, you don't have to hide from Dr. Genzai. You need your rest."
The old doctor nodded. "He's absolutely right, Megumi-chan. Bring her inside, Sano. I'll prepare her futon for her."
When Dr. Genzai disappeared into the house before their eyes, she slapped her captor on his shoulder. "What are you doing?"she asked, her voice a whispered shout.
"Since you lost our race, you have to play along."
"And why should I?"
"Because, fox,"he countered, "I let you have your fun on my expense, and now it's my turn."
The old doctor came into sight and like fussing children they hushed when he urged Sanosuke to take her to her room. He feigned obedience and did as the doctor ordered. "Wait right there, Megumi-chan, I'll fix you some tea."
They were again alone, and she squirmed in his arms as she tried to push away from him to no avail, his strength and will alone dictated when she was to be let down. "Chicken head, put me down right now!"
"You're not going to sleep like that, are you? No, no, that simply won't do. You'd have to shrug out of your kimono or else it'll get wrinkled. That's what Jou-chan always says, and it sounds like a good idea, don't you think?" he asked in a matter-of-fact tone.
"Sanosuke, get out of my room!"
"All right, but Dr. Genzai will be upset if he sees you so worked up like that,"he said, grinning with a hint of mischief in his eyes. He let her settle her feet firmly onto the floor and she pushed him out of the room with much resistance from the snickering prankster.
"You're in big trouble, chicken head!"she hissed as she slid the door shut.
The former gangster laughed silently but quickly recomposed himself when the old doctor rounded the corner with a tea tray in his arthritic hands. He glanced at Sanosuke, who was the picture of innocence by the door.
"Megumi-chan, may I come in?"asked the old man.
"Yes, Dr. Genzai. Please do."
Sliding the door open, the men gingerly came in and sat beside the futon where she lay. Upon setting the tray down, the senior doctor laid a fatherly hand on Megumi's shoulder. "You poor girl, I'm sorry that you've been burdened with so many patients lately. I can't let you get sick, Megumi-chan. Doctors have to take care of their own. I'll try to lighten your patient load for you. So you just rest, all right?"
She opened her mouth to speak but the voice the men heard was not her own. One of Dr. Genzai's granddaughters cried out.
"Jii-chan! Come quick! Suzume-chan stepped on a prickly plant!"
Megumi started to rise but her mentor stayed her.
"No, Megumi-chan, this'll be easy. Try not to exert yourself. I can do it. Just rest."
The aging doctor slowly got up. He reached the door when Megumi suddenly spoke.
"Dr. Genzai, Sano felt bad about the whole thing and volunteered to chop firewood for us. Isn't that right, Sano?"
Sanosuke's eyes seemed to bulge out in surprise, and before he could voice a retort, the aging doctor offered his thanks. "That's very kind of you, Sano. Now, make sure Megumi-chan doesn't strain herself, okay? I know how an overachiever she can be."He gave his junior colleague a smile and left.
The moment her mentor left, Megumi brought her hand to her forehead and covered her eyes. "Sano, where are you going with this little charade?"
He inched closer to her bed, his face sour from the recollection of his unexpected voluntary chore. "Yeah? Well, what's the big idea with chopping the firewood?"
"You've had your little humor therapy for the day, and you've got to pay your doctor's fees somehow." She crossed her arms and looked away from him. "At any rate, chopping firewood for Dr. Genzai is easier than brawling in a bar."
The rogue paused to scratch his head. "Will you be there when I chop the firewood?"
"Why is that important?"
"Because if I can see your face and picture it on a block of wood, I can probably chop a lot more firewood."
Her face twisted at him with a mixture of hurt and irritation that he wished he could retract what he just said.
"Hey, I was just kidding. Don't take it too seriously."
After a second of hesitation, a sigh escaped her lips. "Don't worry, it'll really take a lot for me to take you seriously."
She looked back at him after a long moment of silence. His gaze fell to the floor. There was a palpable uneasiness about him, and she was sorry for belittling him. She waited for him to speak, but instead he poured tea into her empty teacup.
"Here, your tea is getting cold,"he muttered as he slid the cup towards her.
She let herself stare at the peace offering before her, wondering how and why they let this bickering go as far as to hurt each other. This was supposed to be playful, right?
"I didn't mean what I said, Megumi. I'm sorry I offended you." He seemed to lower his head, eyes closed.
Her gaze softened. "Sanosuke, are you becoming soft?"
Not looking back, he ran his fingers through his thick mane and finally opened his eyes at the ceiling.
"I don't know..."His voice was low, almost quivering. "It's just that, what you think of me... it carries a lot weight... and I know you might just think of me as a bully, or a bar fly who gets into fights a lot. And I know we argue a lot, and I wish I didn't have to, because I just want a normal conversation with you without having to provoke you..."
Pausing to steal a glimpse of her face with her eyes full of concern, he shied away only to look at the steam rising from the teacup, as if looking at her any longer would render him speechless.
"And I really can and do think. I think a lot, actually. I just don't think the way you do."
Her eyes moved from him to the same teacup. Perhaps she was rather curt with him. He has been nice to her, and she was surprised and relieved that he felt the same way about their arguing. She almost smiled when she thought they were childish. Friends at first, then quarrel, and then say they're sorry. Were they not just a few minutes ago having fun chasing each other? She felt like this callous way of dealing with him when he was around was just awkward. Sanosuke was her patient. She knew that he relied on her, and she was now sure that what she thought of him mattered when it came to helping him get better. What good will physical medicine do if the doctor belittles the patient's feelings? Recovery takes longer with a troubled mind. He was also her friend, which made it more difficult than easy to be professional with him because they were constantly slinging retorts at each other. He made an honest, pride-swallowing decision to admit he was wrong.
So, yes, he was becoming soft. But only towards her, and only because he wanted to be.
She felt somewhat privileged about that.
"That took a lot from you, didn't it?" she asked, fingering the rim of the teacup.
He answered with a nod.
"Well then," she said, taking a sip of her tea. "I'll be taking you seriously now." Her demeanor was calm and gentle; she wanted him to understand.
He eased at her reply, a faint smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
"I'm sorry for being too rough on you. And I was only teasing about the 'thinking' thing. I'm sure you think about a lot of things, and you probably wonder if I was born with a sharp tongue." She nearly giggled at her words and sipped the last of her tea.
Her companion was lost in her words. Good Lord, she has no idea what I wonder about her... He often thought of how she can manage to help out so many people in a day and not seem winded at all. He thought about the gentle way she held his hand whenever she inspected it. He marveled at how she can explain difficult things to a person without any medical knowledge. He couldn't find a reason why her words and her voice echo through his mind day and night. He wondered if there was something wrong with him whenever he saw her and his heart beat uncontrollably. And was it witchcraft she used on him that made him want to see her everyday, even if it was just to look at her for just a moment?
"Sano? Hey, Sano... are you all right?"
"Huh? Oh, yeah... yes, I'm fine." He fiddled with the bandages on around his hand. "And no, I don't think you were born with a sharp tongue. I probably made it that way." He flashed her a smile and he chuckled softly, and she joined him with a giggle.
It was pleasing to hear, their quiet laughter. In their circumstance, it truly felt good to be honest. She glanced at him as he poured her another cup of tea, and when he looked up to see if she would take it, she found something in him that was unique and almost astonishing that made it somewhat difficult to meet his gaze.
He was a beautiful and gentle man.
Not overstaying his welcome, he politely took his leave from the doctors' household, with the promise of coming back to chop the firewood.
Alone on the street, he took to the night, breathing in the cool crisp air into his lungs. The events of the evening played over and over in his head. After their reconciliation, they spoke for a good while. He seemed to understand her a little more, and her work ethic was something he definitely admired.
Work. Not having a stable one never bothered him, though he knew it couldn't go on like this forever. And surely it was no way to make his impression on her.
Not sure of the plans culminating in his head, he kept walking with no particular place to go until he found himself in front of the Himuras backyard. The moon was high above him, and he guessed that Kaoru and Kenji were already sleeping. He thought for a minute to decide whether to consult with Kenshin, but it took less than that to see the latter emerge from the house, the reversed blade and its sheath close to his hip.
"Good evening, Sano. Is everything all right?"
He nodded and walked through the wooden gate. "I thought everyone was sleeping."
A soft smile on his lips, the smaller man replied, "You know me."
"Yes, I do."
A few moments later they found themselves sitting on the porch with a carafe of hot sake between their sake cups. Asking his smaller comrade what the occasion was for, the red-haired man mentioned that since he very seldom drinks, he wanted to liberate the jug of sake from its dusty sanctuary and it was always better to share. Good idea.
"Is there something troubling you, Sano?"
"No, not really..."he gulped a hot one and let the liquid leave a fiery path in his throat. "I just thought you might know of someone who needs muscle for hire."
"To do what?"
"I'm not sure."
"Like a bodyguard?"
He paused and smiled as he swallowed another gulp. "Yeah, something like that. Know anybody?"
"You're quite fortunate, Sano. I was asked by Yamagata-san to watch over that new shipping company owner's son. I was told that he's quite a famous piano player."
"What's a piano?"
"It's some sort of instrument that has these little polished wooden keys that make music."
"Hmm... never seen one before."
"Neither have I."
"Is he any good?"
"Apparently, if he needs to be watched so closely."
"What, they afraid he'll steal?"
The smaller man laughed. "Not quite. They just want to insure his safety when he travels from Tokyo to Kyoto."He quickly drank his shot of sake. "Would you be interested?"
"Aren't you going to take the job?"
"I'm hesitant to, I don't really want to be away from Kaoru and Kenji."
"How long will you have to be gone?"
"Three days out of the week."
He knew how protective he was of his new family, and he was never too far away from her at all times. It was something he had yet to experience for himself, though he understood his way of thinking.
"So they came to you, huh? They must be offering you good money,"he said as he raised his cup to gulp another one down.
"It pays around two months' worth of salary."
Impressive, he thought. "For a month's work?"
"For a day's work."
Sanosuke nearly choked and it sent him coughing the liquid fire in his throat out of the wrong pipe.
"Are you pulling my chain?!"
"Not at all. So are you interested?"
"Hell yeah, I'm interested! Whom do I talk to?"
"I'll just tell them that it's safer with the two of us watching him for now. I think they'll appreciate that."
"So you are taking the job."
"Only to introduce to them my replacement."
Both men laughed at his logic.
"Don't you need the money, Kenshin?"
The samurai took a sip and turned his head towards the high moon. "At the moment, we are not desperate for it. And this is the seventh time Yamagata-san asked me to do a job for him. I know he'll ask again."
"Did they pay as well as this one?"
"Hey, Jou-chan must be pretty happy then."
"Yes, but I can't stand being away from her and my son. No amount of money can ever buy the time I spend with them."
"This is true."He swallowed a mouthful, hoping Kenshin wouldn't surprise him anymore with incredible details.
After a bout of silence, the samurai asked his comrade if he didn't mind telling him why he wanted the job. Sanosuke leaned on the opposing wooden post.
"Since you're my best buddy, I'll tell you the truth,"he said with a smile.
"You need to pay your debts?"
His face frowned. "Well, yeah. That, too."
"Well, what is it?"
His long lean arm reached for the carafe and poured himself another serving. After drinking it, he answered, "It's a secret, and you can't tell anybody, 'cause this is all new to me. Promise you won't laugh?"
His friend was grinning with curiosity.
The redhead nodded.
Filling his lungs with the cool air, he exhaled with a quiet sigh.
"I think I'm in love with this woman."
So he finally admitted it, the smaller man thought as he nodded knowingly.
"Do I know this woman?"
Sanosuke looked away, all of a sudden embarrassed to tell him. "Yes, you do." He glanced sideways at his companion, a smirk slowly taking form on his lips.
"And just to make sure I'm thinking of the same woman, does she live with an old doctor and his two granddaughters?"
The tall man closed his eyes as he smiled and nodded in silent confirmation.
"Well, this is definitely good... I'm happy for you, Sano."
They lingered a while longer, talking about what happened that day at the clinic, and of the people they were going to meet tomorrow. When the last drop of sake was consumed, Sanosuke bade his good friend good night, or what was left of his night, for it was very late. After thanking him for the sake and the job tip, he strode out towards the street. Indeed, he was fortunate that day. He thought it was a Godsend job for him, and with a salary like that, he'll be able to make that pile of money he thought he could never have. This truly was a good way to end the day.
I will catch you, fox. Wait and see.