Okay, finally fairly pleased with what I have written so far of RuroSen…. Sorry it’s taken so long! It’s been a busy week…. (Hope all my fellow Canadians are enjoying their Thanksgiving….)
Please note that this is a Rurouni Kenshin/The Sentinel crossover (Vathara’s Crossover Commando somehow found his way into my Plot Bunny Corral, and Saitō and Kenshin actually let him in). It is the first story in a series that will have at least one sequel, and a short prologue that I’m also working on….
[Minor Edits: Wed. Jan. 24/07.]
1) Okay, first things first. This particular story takes place during the Meiji era; the appearance of characters from The Sentinel won’t happen until the sequel. Part 1 starts August 1869 (making Kenshin 19 and Saitō 25, if anyone’s interested…).
1B) Having done some research since I started, I have discovered that historically speaking, Saitō was essentially confined to Aomori until after 1870, which means that he could not have joined the police before that even if he wanted to. And Ōkubo wasn’t Minister of the Interior until 1871. So, consider this even more AU than I had originally thought it was…. (Kenshin being 19 happens to be a fairly important plot point….)
2) This may or may not end up as Saitō/Kenshin shounen-ai – they’re being very tight-lipped about that at the moment, though it’s definitely starting to seem quite likely. If it does, however, it will be low-key.
3) As always, comments are more than welcome. Like RuroBatt, I’m posting this here first, and will be waiting until I have more written to post on FF.Net (so any suggestions qualify you for credit as gamma-readers… I love gamma-readers…).
4) Those of you who read the original posting will (if you remember it, given how long ago it was!) notice that there have been changes to the names of most of the original characters, as well as several additions.
Rurouni Kenshin is © Nobuhiro Watsuki. This story is fanfiction, and is not intended as infringement on that copyright.
PART ONE: Follow the Heartbeat (2nd Year of Meiji)
Chapter 1: Catalyst
Saitō glanced over at the man next to him as they rode past the marker that indicated they were halfway between Matsuyama and Tokushima. He held a very strong dislike for Kurosaka – the man who was supposedly his ‘partner’, but was in reality assigned by Ōkubo to watch him.
It wasn’t the fact that Kurosaka was spying on him that was the problem; Saitō had fully expected the measure, and approved of it – after all, it had been less than a year since he’d been fighting against the Meiji government, and Hijikata had died only just over three months ago. They could hardly be sure of his loyalties yet.
No, it was the fact that the man talked incessantly, about everything and anything – including subjects of which he held no real knowledge. Currently, that topic was ‘the greatest warriors of the Bakumatsu’, and Saitō had been hearing him blather on about men that he had known, but Kurosaka hadn’t, since they’d left the inn where they’d had a late lunch three hours ago.
He was about to tell the other man to shut up – as rudely as he could, since being rude tended to silence Kurosaka for a while – when he experienced a sudden moment of disorientation, as everything seemed to whirl around him.
When it stopped, as abruptly and as quickly as it had begun, everything was sharper, more intense. He could see the individual veins on the leaves that adorned the trees lining the path; could taste the remnants of the ohagi the innkeeper had insisted on serving them on his lips; could feel each and every muscle his horse was using, and each little detail of the texture of his gloves; could smell the hint of fear his presence inspired in Kurosaka; could hear the beating, soft and rhythmic, of four other hearts: two of them the horses’, and two human – Kurosaka’s and one other….
Saitō sat firmly in his saddle and pulled gently on the reins, bringing his horse to a stop as he looked around. He’d had this particular experience, the abrupt heightening of all his senses, many times before, on and off for the past six years; although the last time it had happened had been over a year and a half ago, at the battle of Toba Fushimi….
Before Kurosaka even realized that he had stopped, Saitō had dismounted, looped his reins around a convenient, nearby branch, made certain his ki was completely masked, and started toward a faint trail heading north.
“Fujita-san?” Kurosaka turned his horse around, having finally noticed that Saitō wasn’t riding next to him. It was times like these that had Saitō wondering whether he was supposed to take Kurosaka’s assignment as his watcher as an insult or an indication of trust – the man could be unobservant to the point of blindness when in the middle of one of his monologues. “Is something wrong?”
Hardly wrong…. “No,” Saitō replied coolly. When Kurosaka began to dismount, obviously intending to come with him, Saitō’s eyes narrowed in a dark glare. “Stay here,” he ordered sharply; the last thing he wanted at the moment was to have his ‘partner’ coming with him… or following him.
The scent of Kurosaka’s fear grew stronger, but he was a very stubborn man. “If you’ve seen something that you feel bears investigation–” he started.
“I haven’t,” Saitō responded curtly. “Now stay here,” he repeated, and turned away, already focusing in on the sound of that fourth heartbeat.
Someone, he thought wryly, as he slipped through the undergrowth that was rapidly overtaking the trail, ought to mention to Ōkubo that Kurosaka is thoroughly intimidated by me. Kurosaka had taken two minutes to get his courage up enough to do his duty and follow. Despite the fact that Saitō would have much preferred it if Kurosaka had stayed back with the horses, that he was willing to do his duty in spite of his fear was a mark in his favour. Nonetheless…. Perhaps I should mention it to Ōkubo myself. At least then he may assign me someone else – someone who doesn’t talk so much.
It took him almost five minutes to trace the location of the steady heartbeat. Not because it was moving – in fact, it was surprisingly still, despite being a waking rhythm – but because it was so distant. He’d never heard anything quite so far away before….
By the time he managed to reach it, Saitō had focused his hearing so intently on his target that he didn’t realize that the person whose heartbeat he was listening to wasn’t alone. It wasn’t until he reached the clearing that contained his quarry and stopped next to a large tree, in order to work out the best way to approach without being attacked, that he noticed the confrontation.
At the far end of the clearing, there were about twelve people whom Saitō easily identified as samurai-turned-bandits; judging from their numbers, they were most likely one of the larger local bands he and Kurosaka had been warned about. Facing them were an elderly woman with two small children clinging to her and his quarry, whom Saitō was utterly unsurprised to see was a small, slight figure with a sword thrust through his obi and a mass of long, flaming red hair tied back in a loose tail.
Every other time this peculiar heightening of his senses had occurred had been due to the close proximity of the young Ishin Shishi swordsman known as the hitokiri ‘Himura Battōsai’; it had been only reasonable to expect that this time would be no different – although the definition of ‘proximity’ had definitely changed….
“Hmph…. So the little boy wants to play hero?” one of the bandits remarked, eyeing Battōsai with what he clearly thought was a dangerous look.
It had to be one of the most ridiculous things Saitō had ever seen or heard in his life, and under any other circumstances, he would have been laughing out loud. A backwoods samurai trying to intimidate the Demon of Kyoto?!
“This one believes you should reconsider your intentions, that you should,” Battōsai’s familiar quiet voice said, though Saitō did notice his tone was milder than what he’d been accustomed to hearing from the hitokiri. And….
‘This one’? Saitō wondered, as he leaned casually against the tree – the next few minutes were likely to be entertaining. The abjectly humble attitude does not suit you, Battōsai.
It was clear that none of the bandits were taking Battōsai seriously, because they all began laughing at his words – except for the man who had spoken before, who appeared to be the leader. He simply grinned and continued speaking. “Go home, little boy. You cannot even hope to defeat me, much less all of us.”
Saitō smirked at the boast. Fools, he thought contemptuously. You should at least think to consider whether or not his confidence is a bluff, rather than simply assuming–
“Fujita-san!” came Kurosaka’s voice – thankfully too distant to be heard by the occupants of the clearing – and Saitō looked back to see his ‘partner’ approaching. Frowning, he gestured for the other man to be quiet; then turned back to the confrontation occurring in the clearing in time to see Battōsai’s head tilt slightly to one side – a mannerism Saitō recognized from seeing it far too many times in Kyoto.
He’s sensing someone else’s ki, but who– Kurosaka! The idiot who was his official partner hadn’t even bothered to conceal his ki! Moron!
“This one thinks not,” Battōsai said calmly, returning his attention to the bandits – obviously realizing that Kurosaka was no threat.
“Fujita-san, what’s–” Kurosaka started – much quieter this time – as he reached Saitō; only to stop and reach for his sword when he saw what was holding Saitō’s attention. “Bandits!”
Saitō glared at him. “What do you think you’re doing?” he demanded, keeping his volume to a low murmur. Battōsai would recognize his voice almost as easily as his ki, and he would prefer not to distract the hitokiri at the moment.
The sound of a sword being pulled out of its sheath forced Saitō’s attention back to the confrontation occurring in the clearing before Kurosaka could answer. The leader of the bandits, he saw, had made the mistake of drawing his sword on Battōsai. “Too bad you didn’t listen, little boy,” the fool said coldly.
Well, at least I’ll still get some entertainment– Saitō thought, only to turn his head and stare in disbelief as Kurosaka unsheathed his sword and went blundering into the clearing with a shout of, “Leave them alone!”
Obviously, calling him a moron is being far too generous…. Not only had Kurosaka walked right into the middle of a potential battle that he seemed to think would be odds of twelve-to-one, but he had also moved to stand between Battōsai and the bandits. And this is the man who just spent over half an hour telling me the exploits of Hitokiri Battōsai?!
All the other bandits in the clearing had reacted to Kurosaka’s sudden appearance by drawing their own swords, and Saitō winced. Kurosaka was a better than passable swordsman – one of his few redeeming traits – but that wasn’t enough to make him capable of dealing with a dozen men who were likely equally well-trained. And Battōsai….
Battōsai was just standing there, watching, his stance tense as Kurosaka and the bandits faced off right in front of him. It was apparent that he wasn’t going to intervene, however.
Why not? Saitō wondered. It’s not like him; he was in the process of defending those civilians, and he has to know that Kurosaka isn’t capable of handling them all himself. So it can’t be simply that he’s acting the guard….
Saitō’s eyes flicked around the clearing, giving it a closer look, even as he reached out with the rest of his senses, forcing them past his focus on Battōsai’s heartbeat. His ki-sense could only pick up the bandits, Kurosaka, and the very faintest traces of Battōsai’s presence, as well as the confused muddles of the elderly woman and the children – but the hitokiri had always been much more sensitive to ki than anyone else Saitō knew, including Okita, so it was more than possible he was picking up something Saitō wasn’t.
It was his hearing that gave him the first clue of what the problem was. He was hearing far more human heartbeats than there were people in the clearing – almost twice the number, in fact – coming from behind the bushes on the far side. Focusing his attention on that area, Saitō was able to pick out several people – clearly, from what he could see of their clothing and weapons, the rest of the bandit group.
That explains why they are so confident, at least, Saitō thought grimly, as his gaze returned to the confrontation in time to see the leader of the bandits turn his sneer on Kurosaka. And why Battōsai hasn’t made his move yet. Not that Battōsai hadn’t handled larger groups before while acting as a bodyguard – but all those times had been in the city, where the buildings limited his enemies’ movement and avenues of approach, not to mention provided him with routes of escape; not in the middle of a reasonably large clearing which had none of those limiting factors. Saitō had no doubt that if Battōsai hadn’t been guarding the three civilians, he would not have hesitated – but in order to keep them protected, he had to ensure that there was no way for the bandits to get to them.
“So, we’ve got another hero here, have we?” the leader demanded, studying Kurosaka.
“I said leave them alone,” Kurosaka repeated sharply. “If you do not, I will be forced to make you.”
Imbecile! Saitō thought, even as he kept an eye on both the hidden group of bandits and Battōsai, trying to work out what would be the best move for him to make. If they were going to come out of this mess with the three of them and the civilians all reasonably unharmed, he was going to have to make it count….
The leader grinned. “Well, then, hero…” he said, as he raised his sword to attack, “you’ll just have to make us!” Clearly taking that as a signal, the entire group of bandits in the clearing surged forward at once, encircling Kurosaka, Battōsai, and the woman and children.
Kurosaka gave a shout and moved forward to meet the leader’s attack, and was rapidly made the centre of a smaller circle of the leader and three other bandits, while the rest concentrated their attention on Battōsai and the civilians.
Battōsai hesitated for a split-second, something that made Saitō frown – surely he realized at this point that he was going to have to deal with this group first, and then worry about the rest of them – then made his move. Before the lead bandit had him in range, Battōsai had slipped his sheathed sword out of his obi, crouched in the familiar stance of battō-jutsu, and attacked with the blinding speed that recalled the countless duels he and Saitō had fought in Kyoto. Two of the bandits went down.
The rest of the group, suddenly realizing that Battōsai was obviously not the easy target they had thought he was, slowed down, which left the hitokiri in the same unenviable position as before: go to meet them, the way Kurosaka had, and let the group hidden in the bushes attack the civilians he was defending; or stay where he was, wait for them to come to him, and have to pick them off bit by bit.
Saitō’s hand clenched around the hilt of his katana as he waited to see what Battōsai would do.
He should have been more worried about what the hidden group of bandits were going to do.
With a loud yell, the lot of them charged out of the bushes, heading toward Battōsai and the civilians, obviously intending to overwhelm the hitokiri with sheer numbers. And seeing the large group – twenty-six or so of them, according to the number of heartbeats Saitō had been able to distinguish – bearing down on Battōsai, he found himself unsheathing his sword and running forward.
What am I doing?! This is Battōsai…. The hitokiri, the Demon of Kyoto…. He is more than capable of handling them, especially if he does something to cause them to forget about the civilians….
Despite the arguments mustered by his rational side – the side that had watched Battōsai take on worse odds and emerge without a scratch, to his frustration at the time – Saitō found himself at Battōsai’s back, his stance protective, as the group of bandits closed in.
He felt the shift in Battōsai’s stance that told him the hitokiri knew someone was there, though Saitō doubted Battōsai realized just who was guarding his back – his attention was focused on the approaching threat.
Emboldened by the fact that their companions were coming, the six remaining bandits from the original group attacked as one. They chose to focus most of their attention on Saitō, undoubtedly hoping that if they defeated him, it would leave Battōsai’s back unguarded and they would be able to get the hitokiri from behind before he was aware his ally had fallen. It showed a modicum of intelligence on their parts, Saitō admitted to himself.
Unfortunately for them, while Saitō didn’t have Battōsai’s god-like speed, he was one of the very few who had faced the hitokiri over a drawn sword and lived thanks to his own skill. These fools didn’t stand a chance.
It took the two of them just over a minute to take care of those six.
As they waited for the large group that remained – who had slowed down, much as the original group had, made nervous by the way the two of them had just defeated eight men – Saitō decided that it might be a wise idea to let Battōsai know who he was. Better now, before they were in the middle of the next fight, when it could distract the hitokiri, or after they finished dealing with these idiots, when Battōsai might just react as though they were still in Kyoto. At the moment, neither of them could afford to take their eyes off their opponents, which meant that at least Battōsai wouldn’t try to put a sword through him until they were defeated. And he knew the perfect way to go about doing so….
“Did it ever occur to you,” he commented dryly, just loud enough for the hitokiri to hear as he unmasked his ki sufficiently for Battōsai to feel it, “to simply tell them, ‘Go back the way you came – or die’?”
The shock that he felt resonate through Battōsai’s ki, which let him sense it clearly for once, was amusing enough to almost make up for the current situation.
Kenshin watched warily as the larger group of bandits approached. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the uniformed man who had come dashing into the clearing – ruining even the slight chance of avoiding a fight – battling against four bandits. The man was holding his own, but only just; how had he expected to be able to defeat twelve of them?
And at his back, Kenshin could feel the guarded presence of someone who was presumably the first man’s partner; a presence that had a sense of familiarity to it, despite the fact that the ki belonging to it was thoroughly masked.
Well, whoever it was, Kenshin had felt an instinctive sense of… harmony, that was the word for it, as soon as the last group of six bandits had attacked. He’d had no need to know who it was, or even see his ally, to know where and when to move in order to ensure that they were able to defeat their opponents with the minimum possible effort and risk.
Abruptly, he felt a flicker of… something… from the other’s ki….
“Did it ever occur to you,” said a dry, familiar voice, “to simply tell them, ‘Go back the way you came – or die’?”
Saitō Hajime?! Kenshin thought, stunned by this sudden recognition, and the familiar feel of the Shinsengumi’s partially unshielded ki against his own before it was masked again. Saitō was the last person Kenshin had ever expected to meet after he’d left the Ishin Shishi.
There was no time to ask any questions, or even respond to Saitō’s statement; the remaining bandits had evidently decided that no matter how good he and Saitō were, they could still be defeated by sufficient numbers.
At least they’re not attacking Keiko-dono and her grandchildren, Kenshin thought, as he re-sheathed his sakabatō and slipped back into the battō-jutsu stance. Behind him, he could sense Saitō preparing his own attack….
And then there was no more time to think of anything but the fight itself as the bandits made their move.
The two of them tore through the group like a blade through paper, still moving in that instinctive harmony Kenshin had felt before Saitō had identified himself. He knew precisely what move Saitō would make a split-second before he made it, and was shifting to compensate just as the move began. And Saitō was doing the same thing when it came to his own moves.
Within less than three minutes, all the bandits were lying on the ground around them; the ones Saitō had dealt with dead or dying, while Kenshin’s targets were all unconscious.
Steeling himself, Kenshin turned to face Saitō.
The Shinsengumi was wearing the same police uniform as the other man still battling the last four bandits, and his hair was shorter than the last time they’d faced each other, at Toba Fushimi over a year and a half ago. Those were the only visible changes, however. In all other ways, Kenshin thought, as he met Saitō’s wolf-gold gaze, the Shinsengumi still appeared to be the same man he had spent over three years facing off against during the Bakumatsu.
Saitō frowned slightly, puzzling Kenshin, and then glanced over toward the other uniformed man – who was still holding his own, although according to Kenshin’s ki-sense, he was tiring rapidly. Saitō’s frown shifted to a scowl. “It seems I have to rescue Kurosaka from the consequences of his own idiocy.” Then he turned back and gave Kenshin a stern look. “You stay right here, Battōsai,” the Shinsengumi ordered; his voice was quiet, but that didn’t make it any less an order.
Kenshin’s anger flared at that – what did Saitō think he was doing, giving him orders? – but he didn’t get a chance to object before the Shinsengumi was heading over to help his… partner? Though the thought of Saitō with a partner was rather hard to believe….
“Himura-kun?” Toyomori Keiko, the wife of the owner of the main inn at Kawanoe, where Kenshin had been helping out for the past week or so, said hesitantly. “Are you all right?”
Kenshin turned to face her, uncertain as to how much she and her two grandchildren had truly seen of the fight. He’d been moving at his usual speed once the battle had started, and hadn’t drawn any blood; but at the same time, it had most likely been obvious that he was wielding his sword, and she could hardly have missed the way he had taken down the first two bandits…. “This one is fine, Toyomori-dono,” he replied quietly, as behind him, he sensed Saitō attacking the remaining bandits.
And, strangely enough, he was. Not that he’d expected to be wounded, or anything like that – not after he’d realized the one guarding his back was Saitō Hajime – but… there was none of the dim burning sensation he had become accustomed to feeling when violent deaths occurred nearby.
“You’re certain, Himura-kun?” she prompted, concern clear in both her tone and her unfocused ki.
“Yes, Toyomori-dono,” Kenshin assured her. It puzzled him, but not enough to make it a true concern; he was just pleased that he wasn’t experiencing any pain, and proceeded to push the thought to the back of his mind. After all, there were much more important things to concern himself with – such as Saitō Hajime’s presence. “This one was not wounded.”
“Well, it was very lucky for us that those policemen came along when they did,” she continued – which answered the question as to whether she’d truly seen him fight.
Lucky? Kenshin turned slightly to watch as Saitō and the other man came back toward them. That may be debatable, Keiko-dono…. Saitō was certainly dressed in a police uniform, but as to whether he was actually a police officer…. And even if he was, Kenshin found it hard to believe that he would be ready to simply ignore their history.
“Are you all unharmed?” the other man asked, as soon as he reached Kenshin, Keiko-dono, and Akemi and Yoshi.
“Yes, we are all right,” Keiko-dono said politely. “Thank you for your assistance….”
“Kurosaka Isamu,” the man introduced himself. “This is Fujita Gorō,” he added, gesturing at Saitō.
‘Fujita Gorō’? Kenshin wondered, puzzled again. A new name? He shot a quick, questioning glance at Saitō, who didn’t appear to notice – he was busy studying the bodies of the bandits scattered around the clearing.
“Toyomori Keiko,” Keiko-dono replied, bowing. “My husband runs the inn in Kawanoe. These are my grandchildren, Akemi and Yoshi, and this is Himura Kenshin, who has been helping my husband. We were coming back from a visit to my daughter in Iyomishima when those… bandits stopped us to demand money.”
“We’re going in that direction,” Kurosaka said. “We can escort you the rest of the way, right, Fujita-san?”
Saitō looked up from his examinations at the question. He didn’t appear to be overly pleased at the thought, from what Kenshin could read of his expression and ki; at least, not until he met Kenshin’s eyes. Then he smirked, and replied, “An excellent idea.”
Kenshin fought back a scowl, and instead turned to three-year-old Yoshi. “Do you want to ride on this one’s shoulders again?” he asked the boy. Yoshi and his five-year-old sister had been taking turns riding on Kenshin’s shoulders all the way from Iyomishima; it was quite a long walk for young children.
“Yes!” Yoshi exclaimed, holding out his arms. Kenshin picked him up and swung him onto his shoulders with an ease that had come rapidly after the first few times doing it.
“So what brings two policemen here, Kurosaka-san?” Keiko-dono asked, as they started out of the clearing, toward the main road.
Kenshin heard Kurosaka answer something about Matsuyama, but he missed most of the reply as Saitō commented coolly – and quietly – from behind him, “Hiding behind children, Battōsai?”
He turned to face the Shinsengumi, his eyes narrowing in irritation as he did so. “Hiding behind a new name, Fujita-san?” Kenshin countered, equally cool and quiet.
“Only for the general public,” Saitō replied calmly, not rising to the bait. “Kurosaka may call me ‘Fujita-san’, but he knows exactly who I am.”
He paused, long enough for Kenshin to hope that he’d move up ahead to walk with Kurosaka and Keiko-dono, and then added, “There were a number of bandits who were merely unconscious back there. All of the ones you dealt with. Why is that, Battōsai?”
Kenshin’s mouth tightened at that. He had no particular desire to get into explanations with Saitō, of all people. Especially not when he still wasn’t sure what the Shinsengumi was doing in a police uniform. Was he really working for the Meiji government? “It is none of your concern,” he declared, his tone still cool.
“Is it not?” Saitō countered. “I am a police officer – and those were bandits, Battōsai. Bandits that you left alive.”
Kenshin lowered his voice even further, conscious that Yoshi was on his shoulders and could hear most, if not all, of what was said. “And what do you think their reactions will be when they wake up to discover that all their friends are dead? This one believes it likely that they will choose not to continue with their banditry.”
Saitō’s ki reflected irritation, but he didn’t argue with Kenshin’s statement, which Kenshin took to mean that he agreed.
They were both silent the rest of the way to the main road.
Once they got there, Kenshin eyed the two horses hobbled at the side of the road, and then his eyes went to Akemi, who was holding on to her grandmother’s hand and looking more than a bit tired. There was a possibility – faint, but still there – that the group of bandits they’d just faced were not the only ones on this road. If so – if there was another attack – it would be best if Akemi and Yoshi were out of the way. And even if there wasn’t, having the children on the horses would mean that they could walk faster, so reach the inn quicker… and he and Saitō wouldn’t have to spend too much time in each other’s presence.
“Kurosaka-san,” he said, moving forward and catching Keiko-dono and Kurosaka’s attention, “perhaps the children could ride on the horses? It would be faster….”
“Yes, that is a good idea,” the police officer said, nodding in agreement. “Toyomori-san?”
Keiko-dono nodded as well. “That would be nice, Kurosaka-san; Akemi and Yoshi will appreciate the rest, I’m sure, and I know that Himura-kun will. He’s been carrying one or the other of them since we left Iyomishima.”
Kenshin tilted his head back to look up at Yoshi, who was leaning forward and lightly kicking his feet against Kenshin’s chest. “Would you like that, Yoshi?” he asked. “Getting to ride a police officer’s horse?”
Yoshi didn’t look happy at the thought. “Want to ride Ken-san’s shoulders!” the boy declared.
“I’m sure a horse will be more fun,” Kenshin countered. “Why don’t we see?” With that, he swung Yoshi off his shoulders and onto the saddle of one of the horses. “Here you go – and Yoshi,” he added in a quieter voice, “this is a real police officer’s horse. You won’t get to ride one of those very often.”
As Kenshin hoped, that caught Yoshi’s interest, and he forgot that he wanted to continue riding on Kenshin’s shoulders.
“Now,” Kenshin continued, slipping the horse’s reins off the branch they’d been looped around, “you’re going to need to hold on to these, to make sure you don’t fall off, all right?”
“Here, I’ll help him,” Kurosaka offered, coming up next to Kenshin. “Fujita-san has some questions about those bandits he wants to ask you, Himura-kun,” he added.
Kenshin glanced back to see Saitō giving him a pointed look. Kuso….
He reluctantly waited as Kurosaka led the horse Yoshi was riding over to where Keiko-dono was holding the other horse, with Akemi already up in the saddle.
“So, you think there may be others, Battōsai?” Saitō said calmly, as he came up next to him, in the same quiet tone he’d used while they were walking along the trail.
Kenshin’s mouth tightened. This was getting very irritating…. “This one prefers that you not use that name.”
Saitō gave him another slight frown. “They can’t hear us, Battōsai,” he pointed out, as Keiko-dono and Kurosaka started leading the horses down the road.
“That does not matter, Saitō,” Kenshin replied, pointedly emphasizing his own use of the Shinsengumi’s real name. “Hitokiri Battōsai disappeared after Toba Fushimi. This one’s name is Himura Kenshin.”
Saitō’s frown deepened, but once again, he didn’t argue. “Do you think there may be others?” he repeated instead. “That’s why you wanted the children on the horses, isn’t it.”
“There is a possibility,” Kenshin offered after a moment of silence, as he began following Keiko-dono and the horses. Saitō fell into step next to him. “This one isn’t certain how strong a possibility it is, as that group was quite large, but one has heard rumours of a number of bandit groups in this area for the past two months. It was the main reason this one offered to escort Toyomori-dono and her grandchildren to Iyomishima and back.”
“Hmm…. And I’d thought Ōkubo was exaggerating that part of the problem,” Saitō muttered, his tone absent-minded.
“Ōkubo?” Kenshin repeated. Ōkubo Toshimichi was the Chief of Internal Affairs for the Meiji government – and, as Kenshin knew personally, a good man. One whom Saitō had been trying to kill less than a year ago…. “You are working for Ōkubo Toshimichi?”
“I am a police officer,” Saitō replied coolly. “Now, as you do agree that there may be more bandits, I suggest we take rear-guard.”
Kenshin nodded in reluctant agreement, knowing that Saitō was right about the need for that, and stretched out his ki-sense as he put himself into the mindset and role of guard. He felt and put to one side Kurosaka’s inexpertly masked nervous brashness, Keiko-dono’s concern, and the children’s muddled excitement. He consciously chose not to ignore Saitō’s complex mix of guarded emotions the same way as the others’, still wary of the Shinsengumi captain, but did concentrate most of his attention on detecting the ki of any approaching strangers.
Saitō was not particularly pleased at the moment, although for the first time in the past two months, it was not Kurosaka who was irritating him past endurance. No, at the moment, that honour seemed to be reserved – once again – for the redheaded hitokiri currently walking beside him.
When Battōsai had turned to face him after they’d defeated the bandits, Saitō’s first thought was that, impossible as it might seem, he had made a mistake. He’d been expecting a vicious amber glare. What he’d got was a mildly confused look from violet eyes – eyes that bore no resemblance to those of Hitokiri Battōsai, despite the recognition that had been clear in them – and an overly humble ‘this one’….
…At least, until he’d ordered the other to stay where he was. Then he’d seen the anger he’d expected from the hitokiri right from the beginning; but the other’s eyes still hadn’t been amber, although the intensity had been familiar.
That was the first thing that was irritating him.
The second was the puzzle of what Battōsai had done to the bandits he’d dealt with – and why. As he’d pointed out, all of them were unconscious (most with broken bones) as opposed to dead, but the way Battōsai had been moving during the fight, Saitō wasn’t sure how that was even possible. The only way he could think of to have achieved that sort of result was to reverse one’s sword and hit one’s opponents with the back of the blade; but doing that would have slowed Battōsai down significantly. Even the two that he’d dealt with at the beginning, using his battō-jutsu attack, had simply been knocked out, rather than killed as they should have been. And it was clear from the way Battōsai had reacted to his question that it had definitely been done on purpose.
Which brought him to the third issue; the fact that Battōsai refused to acknowledge that name.
It didn’t surprise him that Battōsai didn’t want the civilians he was traveling with to know who he was, but Saitō had made sure when he’d spoken that not even the boy would be able to distinguish the name he’d used for the hitokiri. So the question became – why? Why did Battōsai refuse to be called that? It made no sense!
Well, he would make sure to find out. There was no point in questioning Battōsai at the moment, but once they arrived at the inn run by the woman’s husband, he’d see about making sure they had some privacy to speak.
At that thought, Saitō cast a quick glance at the redhead out of the corner of his eyes. Now that they were actually moving, and on rear-guard, the hitokiri was demonstrating the intensity Saitō found more familiar – and, in a way, more reassuring – than the mildness he’d seen earlier. But there was something in the way Battōsai was avoiding his gaze – his ki was completely guarded again, and had been since the second group of bandits had attacked – that told Saitō the hitokiri was off-balance about their sudden alliance. And Battōsai wasn’t the only one; despite the fact that they knew each other well, this was not only the longest time they’d ever spent in each other’s presence, it was also the only time they’d even been within such close proximity without trying to kill each other. It made things… strange.
Which meant that it was most likely going to be more difficult than he hoped to talk to Battōsai privately….
And he definitely needed to do that, because Battōsai’s unusual reactions weren’t the only thing they needed to discuss. Saitō now had unambiguous confirmation that his senses were affected by Battōsai’s presence.
He’d begun suspecting that there was a connection five years ago, after his third encounter with the hitokiri, when he’d realized that the only times his senses were heightened were just before one of those confrontations, and they went back to normal levels shortly after Battōsai disappeared once more; but he hadn’t been absolutely certain that it was Battōsai who had been responsible. There had also been the possibility that it could have been an effect of the danger he was in when he faced the hitokiri; Battōsai had been the only one he had regarded as a real threat during the Bakumatsu.
However, there was no danger at present – it was obvious that Battōsai had no intentions of attacking him, and not only had the bandits they’d faced never posed any serious threat, they had been dealt with – yet his senses were still working at their heightened level. And, in much the same way as he’d heard Battōsai’s heartbeat – and only Battōsai’s – from the clearing when he was on the road five minutes away, and been compelled to follow it, Saitō now found it impossible to block out the quiet rhythm. He had no difficulties ignoring the heartbeats of Kurosaka, the woman, the children, and the horses… but he couldn’t do the same for Battōsai’s.
In fact, he was vaguely surprised to find that he didn’t want to block it out; it was – though he would have never admitted this to anyone, Battōsai least of all – strangely reassuring. Saitō had no idea why he felt that way… he simply did; which made this entire situation even odder than it had been already.
Yes, they were definitely going to have to talk about this. It was not precisely going to be an easy conversation to have – the fact that they’d already had a semi-civil conversation astonished Saitō, and he was aware that Battōsai was still quite wary of him – but it was necessary. He needed to understand what was happening to him, understand what this enhancement of his senses meant and how to use them to his advantage, and it was clear that Battōsai, one way or another, was the key to that. So whether or not the hitokiri wanted it, they were going to talk; he was just going to have to figure out how to go about arranging it.
Well, at this pace it was likely to take them the rest of the afternoon to reach Kawanoe – that should be enough time for him to come up with something.
Kenshin blinked as they walked into the yard of the inn, finally letting himself slip out of the rear-guard mindset he’d fallen into shortly after they’d joined up with Saitō and Kurosaka Isamu. It was nearly dark out, but they’d definitely made much better time thanks to the horses than they would have without them. Which was a relief; Saitō’s presence was making him quite edgy.
He wasn’t exactly certain why that was; he’d had the time during the journey here to analyze what he sensed from Saitō – which was quite a bit, as the Shinsengumi had dropped most of the shields around his ki for some reason – and had found nothing that led him to think Saitō was now anything but what he professed to be. Not that that would tell the whole story – not with Saitō, who had deceived Itō Kashitarō into thinking he was willing to desert the Shinsengumi – but it told him enough to know that Saitō wasn’t about to attack him, or let anyone else in the small group know who he was. And that should be all he cared about….
As Toyomori Ichiro – Keiko-dono’s husband – came out, Kenshin automatically headed over to the horses to get Akemi and Yoshi down. Part of the work he had offered to do for Ichiro was to watch the children so that their parents, Ichiro’s son and daughter-in-law, could help out with the running of the inn. He enjoyed spending time with the children; they had an innocence that judged him based only on how well he played with them, not what he had done in the past – a pleasant change from those (admittedly few) adults who had discovered the truth.
He listened to the conversation between the innkeeper, his wife, and Kurosaka as they explained what had happened, and was relieved to find that neither Keiko-dono nor Kurosaka had really noticed his fighting; although having Saitō get the credit for ‘saving’ him grated. And Kenshin had no doubt that Saitō knew that – the Shinsengumi’s ki flickered with amusement as Keiko-dono described the ‘valiant rescue’.
Taking the children’s hands, Kenshin led them over to their grandfather, who broke off his conversation with Kurosaka to greet them. “How was your trip?”
“Fun!” Akemi declared. “Ken-san let us ride on his shoulders!”
“And then he let us ride on police horses!” Yoshi added, determined not to be outdone by his sister.
“Well, that was very nice of him, don’t you think?” Ichiro said. Then he looked at Kenshin. “Could you take them up to their room, Himura-kun?” he requested. “And then if you could help Nori finish cleaning the dining room….”
“Of course, Toyomori-san,” Kenshin replied easily, doing his best to ignore Saitō’s puzzled curiosity. It was none of the Shinsengumi’s business what he was doing, and after tonight, they wouldn’t see each other again.
He walked Akemi and Yoshi inside and up the stairs, and had them both settled in bed within five minutes – between the excitement, the walking, and then the riding, the children had had a very tiring day. They weren’t the only ones; Kenshin had been up at dawn, as usual, to do his kata, and then the surprise of Saitō’s appearance had sent him for a loop….
Coming back downstairs, he found that Noriko-dono – Ichiro’s daughter-in-law, and Akemi and Yoshi’s mother – had already finished clearing the dining room, and that Saitō and Kurosaka were sitting at one of the tables with Ichiro and Keiko-dono.
“Himura-kun,” Noriko-dono greeted him at the entrance to the kitchen. “Could you please wash the dishes?”
“Of course, Nori-dono,” Kenshin said. He was just as pleased to not be in the same room as Saitō, and washing dishes, just like doing laundry, or other ordinary chores, gave him the chance to think undisturbed; it had ever since he’d started training with his shishō. And he needed time to think. “This one will be quite happy to do them.”
“Thank you, Himura-kun,” she said, and moved out of his way to let him into the kitchen. “There was a large crowd this evening, and they only just left; and now Ichiro-san needs me to prepare a meal for our two new guests, as well as the family.” She followed him in, and Kenshin sensed a touch of curiosity in her soft, unguarded ki. “Keiko-san says that they saved all of you from a group of bandits; that Kurosaka-san dealt with the leader, and that Fujita-san stopped the rest of a very large group. Is that what happened?”
Kenshin hated lying, and he wasn’t too happy about the fact that the story Keiko-dono was telling amused Saitō so much, but he wasn’t about to admit that he’d accounted for a good half the bandits himself. He couldn’t, not without revealing who he had been. “Yes, Nori-dono,” he replied simply.
The young woman shook her head. “It’s becoming more and more dangerous to walk outside of the towns and cities,” she commented in dismay.
Kenshin nodded in agreement as he headed for the tub that contained the dishes to be washed. The bandits were a growing problem, one that the Meiji government had been too busy to deal with during the Boshin War; one that they were going to have to do something about, and soon. In fact, hadn’t Saitō implied that it was one of the reasons Ōkubo had sent himself and Kurosaka here?
Well, for the most part, it was none of his business. If he or those he protected were attacked by bandits, he would deal with them as he had today; otherwise, it was the government’s responsibility. Right now, his main concern was Saitō’s presence, and what it meant for him.
Saitō had made himself as unobtrusive as possible throughout the meal; a skill he’d cultivated as Hijikata’s best undercover agent that had stood him in good stead throughout the past year, both before and after taking the position with the police. Kurosaka had been happy enough to not have to deal with him, and he got the impression from the innkeeper and his wife that they thought he was shy; a rather ridiculous thought, considering who he was, but probably better than the truth, that he was absolutely uninterested in most of what they had to say.
And that his senses were distracting him.
He’d never realized before just how overwhelming enhanced senses could be; but then, the only time his had ever really been heightened had been when Battōsai was around, which – until today – had never been more than fifteen minutes at a time, at most. Today, it had already been several hours, and the hitokiri was still around. Not in the same room, true, but still there, and the effect on his senses hadn’t stopped. It was more than slightly disorienting, and it definitely didn’t help that Battōsai’s heartbeat continued to be a quiet, almost soothing background rhythm; although that very same heartbeat seemed to be keeping the rest of his senses from overwhelming him completely.
The good thing was that dinner was finished, and he could now get up and escape to the room Toyomori-san had offered himself and Kurosaka, as thanks for saving his wife and grandchildren.
He excused himself politely and stood up, and was just about to walk away when Kurosaka brought up the first topic of conversation that was of any interest to him: Battōsai. Luckily, with his senses as heightened as they were at the moment, he could always hear them clearly from the hall….
“Your grandchildren certainly seem to like Himura-kun,” his ‘partner’ said.
“Yes, he’s very good with them,” Toyomori Keiko agreed. “And he’s willing to not only look after them, but do a number of chores around the inn as well. He’s been a great help to my husband and I.” She shook her head. “It’s hard to believe that he’s only nineteen.”
Saitō froze in the doorway between the dining room and the hall. He could not have heard her right.
“You’re sure he’s nineteen?” Kurosaka asked.
So the imbecile wasn’t a complete idiot, at least….
“He looks much younger than that. Closer to fifteen or sixteen.”
If Saitō hadn’t trained himself to have absolute control of his expression – another legacy of his duties for Hijikata – he would have been gaping in disbelief. Fifteen or sixteen? Battōsai?!
“No, he’s definitely nineteen,” Toyomori Keiko replied calmly. “My husband made certain to ask before agreeing to let him work, because he does look so young. He turned nineteen five months ago.”
[Edited Sun. Dec. 18/05] Go to Chapter 2 On the Trail of Truth.
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