It started with the grilled fish, followed by udon. When her favorite unagi became unpalatable, Sanouske grew concerned. And throughout, Chiziru would not but sip her tea as she stubbornly insisted, “I’m just not very hungry today, Sanosuke-san,” putting an end to conversation.
When natto--which she could never stomach--stopped turning hers, he truly though she’d gone around the bend. Suddenly, fermented soybeans took a spotlight in every meal, and she didn’t even seem to find her behavior strange. In fact, the amicable Chizuru grew positively cross whenever she heard the subject mentioned, and Sanosuke learned rather quickly what Hijikata meant when he referred to the female as an “Edo woman.”
“I knew Saito was the man for swords,” Shinpachi claims, stretching muscular arms behind his head. They’d returned at dawn from a night patrol, each spent after a long day of training followed by a longer night of vigilantism. Sanosuke good-naturedly kicks his best friend’s shin; Shinpachi mutters an amiable protest (“Heeey~!”), yawns, and spreads his body bonelessly across the floor, much to Sanosuke’s amusement. “Who woulda thought the man could tell ya anything about women.”
“More than you can,” Sanosuke says with a smirk, stretching himself before reclining on the floor beside the fusuma.
“Oh, very nice, Sano,” Shinpachi bemoans, “Very nice.” He sits up abruptly. “You’d think I’d get more women with you off the market now, but no. It’s always”--his pitch shifts--“‘Oh, where is Master Harada? Oh, where did Harada-san go to??’ I swear, it’s enough to drive a man to drink.”
“I don’t think you’ve ever needed drive for that before, Shin,” Sanosuke laughs.
“You’re killin me, Sano.”
The screen door slides open, and Souji peaks in. “You know,” he says, “You guys could talk a little louder. I don’t think the entire building heard you yet.” His tone is lilting, and his eyes are bright.
“Cut us some slack, Souji,” Shinpachi says. “We’ve just been up all night.”
Souji shrugs. “You say that like Harada-san would have gotten any sleep last night anyway.”
Sanosuke lunges toward the door, but Souji is hopping backwards, and his laugh is gleeful, and can anyone even really blame him? Because God knows Shinpachi walked right into that one.
“You’ll be late for breakfast if you don’t hurry up,” he sings, laughing again before impishly strolling away. Sanosuke only stands there. He sighs and shakes his head, some of the indignation falling as he watches Souji’s back turn a corner in the hall.
Shinpachi also stands to watch Souji’s figure retreating. “...Would this be a bad time to say he’s not wrong, you know? OU-OUCH! SANO!” He cups his skull.
Sanosuke takes a deep breath and shakes out his fingers. “Knucklehead.”
Their meal consists of white rice, fried tofu, miso soup, and daikon. The men dig in eagerly, but none so much as Heisuke and Shinpachi, who begin to pick at each others’ meals within minutes. The rest maintain some semblance of quiet composure at this time of the morning, but as the meal winds down and they’ve had a chance to rouse themselves, conversation truly begins. “It’s times like this I miss Chizuru’s cooking,” Heisuke starts. Seeming to catch himself, he turns toward Genzaburo, waving his hands in the air. “Not that I have anything against your cooking, Inoue-san! It’s just nice to have a woman’s special touch, you know?”
“I take no offence, Heisuke-kun,” Genzaburo says. “I too agree that having Yukimura-kun around the compound was a pleasant thing.”
Kondou nods repeatedly, eyes closed, arms and legs crossed atop his cushion. “I agree that Yukimura-kun is a wonderful girl, but she’s making a home with Harada-kun. We mussent begrudge them that.” He smiles and looks at Sanosuke warmly.
“You sound like her dad, Kondou-san,” Heisuke inserts, chopsticks roaming toward Shinpachi’s dish. This does not go unnoticed by the latter, who smacks the younger man’s hand away with his own utensils.
“Yeah, Kondou-san,” Souji inserts, not a touch bitter. “I’m sure Harada-san’s taking good care of Chizuru-chan.” His eyes glint mischievously as they pass in that direction.
Hajime, sitting quietly all this time, looks up then, assessing Harada’s countenance. He says nothing, narrowing his eyes slightly as he returns to the tofu he’s saved for last.
Sanosuke smiles. "I think really she's taking care of me."
Genzaburi chuckles, and Kondou jumps in again. “I remember those days,” he waxes, smiling softly. He gazes off into the distance in a way suggesting he sees something the others cannot. “Otsune spent so much time getting everything ready at our home when we were first married. It took her the better part of two years to organize everything to her liking. I had just taken charge of the dojo, you understand.” He sighs with a wistful expression. “And not long after that, Tama-chan came along.”
Heisuke sputters around a mouthful of rice, spewing grains across the floor as he coughs. “K-kids!?” he gasps, choking just a bit. “You don’t think it’s a little soon to be talking about something like t-that, Kondou-san??”
Souji dispassionately picks a stray grain of rice from his jacket sleeve, flicking it away. “They are married,” he inserts. “I don’t see why it makes much of a difference.” His sharp eyes meet Heisuke’s own.
Heisuke blushes to his roots and stops talking. Souji smirks.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” Kondou continues. “I wouldn’t trade those says for anything. And Otsune was such a wonderful mother from the start.” He grins. “Right from the very beginning, she did everything she could to make our home so welcoming. Nesting they call it, you know.” He glances conspiratorial at Hijikata beside him as though imparting some great wisdom. “And that’s not all they have to deal with.” He nods emphatically to the rest. “Why, I remember how harrowing those times were as well; Otsune never wanted to eat anything, said it smelled awful, until she got hooked on pickled radish and then I swear we had it for every meal…”
And as this unfolds, both Hijikata and Hajime can’t help but notice that Sanosuke has gone incredibly still, chopsticks ceasing their repetitive motion toward his rice bowl. Hajime, ever tactful, narrows his eyes again and says nothing. Hijikata, content until now to listen, has no such qualms. “Something you want to tell us, Harada?” he suggests.
Kondou quiets. Sanosuke pales. For a moment, no one speaks.
“I need to get home,” Sanosuke says. He stands abruptly without meeting anyone’s eyes and moves purposefully toward the door. As he passes behind Heisuke, Souji could swear the younger’s eyes become as wide as saucers.
When the door shuts, Kondou has the grace to look abashed. “Was it something I said?”