And now, Chp. 2 of RuroSen: A Strange Partnership, in which Saitō and Kenshin have their first of many conversations (or should that be confrontations? *g*) about things, and we find out a bit about what Hiko has to do with things. Oh, and the Sentinel/Guide instincts continue to act… and Saitō experiences still more disturbing revelations. *EG*
[Minor Edits: Fri. June 06/07.]
1) Kenshin has a rather disturbing dream, in which the imagery might be a bit unpleasant.
2) 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…). More ANs below.
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 2: On the Trail of Truth
“He turned nineteen five months ago.”
The words echoed in Saitō’s head as he found the door that led to the main courtyard of the inn and walked out, trying to use the movement to drive the thought away.
Surely it was impossible. Battōsai couldn’t be that young.
Oh, Saitō had known that the hitokiri was younger than him, but had always thought Battōsai was about the same age as Okita, who had been nineteen the year the Shinsengumi had been formed. And if Battōsai was nineteen now, he would have been only thirteen when the Ishin Shishi had first recruited him as a hitokiri….
Saitō came to an abrupt stop by the exit from the main courtyard to an area that appeared to be more private, as he realized that he’d once again been drawn into following the sound of Battōsai’s heartbeat. The hitokiri was kneeling in front of a large bucket of soapy water, apparently doing laundry.
Luckily, Saitō’s approach had placed him in a location where Battōsai wouldn’t be able to see him without turning directly around, but where he could easily observe the hitokiri. He had to know the truth.
Saitō was an excellent undercover agent partially because he was able to place himself outside of a situation he was involved in and assess it objectively, and that was exactly what he needed to do now. There was obviously something that made Kurosaka and the Toyomori family believe that Battōsai was that young, but he suspected that anyone who had known the hitokiri during the Bakumatsu would be unable to see it.
Yet now, looking at the hitokiri as though he were a stranger he needed to analyze, Saitō was stunned to see the evidence that Kurosaka was, for once, correct. Despite the hitokiri’s strength, which Saitō knew from their duels was considerable, he had the slight build of an adolescent, and his skin had an adolescent’s smoothness–
“Were you planning on standing there all night, Fujita-san?” Battōsai demanded abruptly, without turning around, interrupting Saitō’s study of him.
Saitō frowned. He’d carefully avoided staring at Battōsai during his examination, knowing the hitokiri would be able to sense that easily, and he knew his approach had been soundless…. “How did you know I was here?” he snapped, staying where he was.
Now Battōsai turned to face him, violet eyes wide in surprise. “You weren’t really trying to hide yourself,” he replied, sounding almost bewildered by the question.
Saitō frowned. “What do you mean by that?” he demanded.
“This one would have thought,” Battōsai said evenly, reaching into the bucket for a piece of cloth, “that a captain of the Shinsengumi would be fully aware of the fact that walking around with your ki unmasked is like shouting, ‘Here I am’ at the top of your lungs – especially when you’re around this one.”
“Which is why I never do,” Saitō returned, thoroughly puzzled by the comment. What did that have to do with anything? “Certainly Kurosaka’s terrified enough of me as it is.” He smirked in sudden amusement at the thought of what the imbecile’s reaction to that would be. “He’d be unwilling to even be in the same room as me if I ever did, Ōkubo’s orders to watch me notwithstanding.”
Battōsai suddenly looked… confused. It was strange to see that particular emotion so clearly on the hitokiri’s face, and even if Saitō hadn’t seen the signs of his true age, the expression Battōsai bore now would have raised doubts. He could see now why Kurosaka might have mistaken Battōsai’s age for fifteen….
“Then why are you?” the hitokiri asked then, drawing Saitō out of his thoughts.
“Why am I what, Battōsai?” He was starting to get irritated again with the way Battōsai was dancing around the subject of how he’d known of Saitō’s presence.
“Walking around with your ki unmasked!” Battōsai snapped impatiently.
Saitō blinked, stunned for a moment by the hitokiri’s words, and then shook his head. “I have no idea what makes you think that,” he stated coolly, “but I assure you that I am not.”
Battōsai wiped his hands off on a small piece of cloth that had been set to one side of the laundry tub, and stood up. “You’re unshielded to the point where you’re almost projecting across the entire inn,” he replied, equally cool. “You’ve been unshielded since shortly after we took rear-guard.”
I’ve been what?! Saitō thought, confused and still somewhat stunned. He knew full well that he had very definitely not unshielded his ki since he’d let Battōsai know he was the one guarding the hitokiri’s back; so why did Battōsai think that he had? Such a thing would be, as Battōsai himself had just pointed out, the height of folly. And yet the hitokiri appeared to be firmly convinced that that was exactly what he had done.
“What makes you think that?” he demanded.
“I can feel you,” Battōsai replied, his tone a peculiar mixture of confusion and irritation. “I don’t even have to make an effort – you’re right there, Saitō. Almost blindingly so. And,” he added, the irritation in his voice getting stronger, “I don’t seem to be able to block you out at all!”
Saitō blinked. Battōsai’s description sounded very much like the way he was feeling about the hitokiri’s heartbeat. Was there a connection? He’d already figured out that Battōsai obviously played a key role with respect to his senses; did this have anything to do with that? It seemed a reasonable deduction….
Which left the question of how to broach the topic.
Before Saitō could think of anything to say, however, he heard the sound of light, running footsteps from the direction of the innkeeper’s family’s area – where Battōsai had taken the two children when they’d first arrived at the inn. He turned to look in that direction, and was surprised to see the older child – the girl – come running out of the building and directly towards Battōsai.
“Ken-san!” the girl – who couldn’t have been more than about four or five, Saitō guessed – wailed, grabbing onto the hitokiri’s leg.
Battōsai – who had been giving Saitō a rather peculiar look – glanced down at her, and then crouched down, removed her arms from his leg, and took her hands in his. “Akemi-chan? What’s wrong?” he asked, his tone gentle.
“Bad dream!” she whimpered.
Battōsai’s mouth tightened at that, but he didn’t let anything else show on his face – though Saitō heard his heartbeat speed up slightly, and scented a sharp hint of anger…. “I see,” he murmured. “What happened in this bad dream?”
“The bad mens hurted you!” the girl said. She looked to be quite close to tears. “Like ‘Tou-chan was hurted!”
“Which bad men?” Battōsai asked quietly. “The ones we saw this afternoon?”
The girl nodded emphatically. “They hurted you!” she repeated. “And… and your arm went all red, like ‘Tou-chan’s….”
Battōsai’s eyes narrowed and his mouth tightened further for just a moment, and then he seemed to relax – though Saitō could tell, even without his heightened senses, that the hitokiri was forcing himself to appear that way. “I promise you, Akemi-chan, I’m all right. See?” he added, letting go of her hands and holding his arms out. “My arms aren’t red….”
“But they hurted you!”
“Akemi-chan, it was a dream,” Battōsai said. He paused for a moment, and then glanced up at Saitō with a speculative expression on his face.
Then he put his hands on the girl’s shoulders, turned her around, and pointed at Saitō. “Remember Fujita-san, Akemi-chan? The policeman who helped take care of the bad men?” Saitō’s eyes narrowed suspiciously as Battōsai lowered his voice. “He’s a very strong man, Akemi-chan, and do you know what this one thinks? This one thinks that the bad men will be too scared of him to come here. So they won’t hurt anyone.
“What do you think?”
Saitō felt a surge of discomfort as the girl studied him seriously. He didn’t understand children, and had no idea how to react to this twist. What was Battōsai trying to do?
After a moment or two, the girl gave a nod. “He looks scary,” she agreed, and Battōsai’s mouth twitched into a smile.
It was all Saitō could do to refrain from glaring at the hitokiri – he had the feeling that doing so would make the situation worse.
“So, do you believe this one, that he will keep the bad men away?” Battōsai continued.
The girl nodded again, more definitely this time. “Yes.”
“Good. Then let’s get you back to bed before your mother sees that you’re awake, shall we?” Battōsai stood up and took the girl’s hand, then looked at Saitō again. “Coming, Fujita-san?”
That was a challenge, even without swords – and Saitō had never been able to resist a challenge from the Ishin Shishi’s most skilled hitokiri. Besides, it might give him that chance he’d wanted to speak to Battōsai in private. “Yes,” he replied simply.
He followed Battōsai back into the building and along the hallway until they reached the end. Battōsai slid the shoji aside and went in with the girl, while Saitō waited outside.
He was still standing there when another set of footsteps – adult ones – approached, and a man who looked to be about his age turned a corner into the hall. One arm was in a sling, and Saitō guessed that this was most likely the children’s father, based on what the girl had said about his arm being ‘red’.
The man stopped short when he saw Saitō, and he frowned suspiciously. “Who are you?”
Before Saitō could answer, Battōsai came back out of the children’s room. “Kiyoshi-san,” he greeted the man quietly, and then gestured to Saitō. “This is Fujita Gorō, one of the policemen who… saved Keiko-dono and the children.”
Saitō heard the slight hesitation before the word ‘saved’, and only the man’s presence kept him from smirking at Battōsai’s clear dislike of the story that had been told – despite the fact that he had made it equally clear that he didn’t want anyone to know who he was.
“Fujita-san,” Battōsai continued, obviously determined to be polite, “this is Toyomori Kiyoshi, Toyomori-san and Keiko-dono’s son.” Turning back to Toyomori Kiyoshi, he continued, “Akemi-chan had a nightmare about the bandits, and Fujita-san was helping this one reassure her.” He gave Saitō a smirk of his own. “Akemi-chan agrees he’s scary enough to keep the bandits away.”
This time, Saitō had no hesitation at all in glaring at the hitokiri – which only made his smirk widen.
“I see,” Toyomori said. He gave Saitō a bow. “Thank you for your assistance to my mother and children,” he said politely.
“You are welcome,” Saitō responded, equally polite.
Then Toyomori turned to Battōsai. “Noriko was wondering whether you’d finished the laundry yet, Himura-kun.”
Interesting… Saitō reflected, studying the two of them. Despite the fact that the rest of the Toyomori family seemed to regard Battōsai as one of them, Toyomori Kiyoshi’s dislike of the hitokiri was very clear in his ki, no matter how neutral his tone. Saitō couldn’t help but wonder what Battōsai’s response to that would be.
“Almost,” Battōsai replied easily, ignoring the silent provocation. “Akemi-chan was most distressed, that she was, and this one thought it best to deal with her nightmare first.” He bowed slightly, and then slipped past Toyomori with an ease that made it clear to those who had the eyes to see that he was highly trained in kenjutsu.
Toyomori frowned after him, and Saitō hesitated for a moment. That odd protectiveness of Battōsai that he’d felt during the bandit attack reared its head again, making him more than a bit wary of leaving someone who disliked the hitokiri at his back… but the thought that Battōsai might take the chance to evade him, and the fact that he knew the hitokiri was perfectly capable of dealing with any violence dealt him, managed to overcome the instinct. Instead, he gave Toyomori a cool nod, and followed Battōsai back down the hall.
As soon as they were out in the courtyard, Saitō reached out and grabbed Battōsai’s shoulder. He was fully prepared for the hitokiri’s reaction, and let go of his arm instantly to shift away from the instinctive attack, sliding automatically into a defensive posture. However, as soon as Battōsai realized what had happened, he stopped.
“What was that for?” the hitokiri demanded as he met Saitō’s gaze. His ki was unshielded enough for the Shinsengumi to sense his fury, honed as sharply as any sword, and his eyes were glittering a steely blue that was much closer to the amber colour Saitō was accustomed to seeing, as opposed to the violet they’d been earlier.
“We need to talk,” Saitō said flatly.
Battōsai’s expression hardened. “There was no need for you to grab me,” he snapped.
“It got your attention.”
“Do you really think I’m about to ignore you, Saitō?” Battōsai countered. “I’m not insane.”
“There are some who would dispute that,” Saitō remarked calmly.
“And you claim to know me,” the hitokiri muttered. He turned away. “I have to finish the laundry. You can talk while I do that, if you must.” Walking over to the laundry basin, he knelt down and put his hands back into the water.
Saitō scowled, irritated by the casual dismissal, but walked over to join him, leaning against the wall of the small courtyard and crossing his arms. How to start….
Before he could say anything, however, Battōsai paused, then looked back up at him with a thoughtful expression. “How did you know that Akemi was coming?” the hitokiri asked, studying him. “You didn’t sense her ki – you’re unshielded, I would have felt it. But you knew she was approaching.”
Well, this was as easy a way as any, the Shinsengumi decided. “I heard her,” he replied simply.
Battōsai frowned. “From over here?” He glanced back toward the building, and then returned his gaze to Saitō, his frown deepening. “That seems… unlikely, considering the distance.”
“As unlikely as the fact that I was able to smell white plums at Ikeda-ya?”
Battōsai tensed abruptly, and Saitō saw a flicker of amber in his eyes, and smelled a sudden bitter tang of sorrow in his scent. So, something to avoid… for the moment, at least. “And as unlikely as being able to smell the blood Okita coughed up during your last fight?” he continued, making a mental note to go back to the events at Ikeda-ya later.
The hitokiri blinked, obviously distracted by the memory of that particular situation as the bitterness ebbed from his scent, and when he looked back up at Saitō, his thoughtful expression had returned. “What exactly are you saying, Saitō?”
“Did you ever wonder how I always knew when you were nearby?”
“Quite often,” Battōsai replied dryly, as he started scrubbing another piece of cloth. “I never could work that out, particularly considering the fact that I know how to conceal my ki.”
For the moment, Saitō ignored that – he’d come back to it in a few minutes, when he explained that he couldn’t tune out Battōsai’s heartbeat. “Every time we came within a certain distance of each other, all my senses were heightened,” he explained. “When you were nearby, it happened – and stopped once you disappeared again, usually about two or three minutes afterwards.”
Battōsai blinked and stopped scrubbing, obviously taken by surprise.
“And it was only you,” Saitō continued. “It never happened with anyone else. And it definitely wasn’t just the atmosphere in Kyoto, or the times – how do you think I was at that clearing earlier today? It wasn’t luck or coincidence, Battōsai; you saw where we left the horses. I knew you were there – knew you were nearby – for the first time since Toba Fushimi.”
“You could tell I was around from that distance?”
Saitō shook his head. “During the Bakumatsu, it used to be about three or four city blocks,” he replied. “Today… I don’t know why I was able to sense you from that far away, but the fact remains that I could.”
The hitokiri nodded slowly, another frown crossing his face – but this one was thoughtful, rather than sceptical or irritated. “Sense me…” he repeated. “How?”
Saitō shrugged irritably. “I can hear your heartbeat,” he answered. “I… can’t shut it out. At all.”
The thoughtful expression on the hitokiri’s face grew more intense. “That… sounds familiar,” he said slowly. “I think I’ve heard something like that before….”
“Aside from the words you used to describe how you’re sensing my ki?” Saitō prompted him.
Blue eyes blinked again, and Battōsai’s thoughtful look was replaced by a startled one. “What?”
“My ki is not unshielded, Battōsai – any more than yours is,” the Shinsengumi continued evenly. “From what you said about the way you can’t shut it out, I suspect it has something to do with… whatever this is that’s going on between us. You’re obviously as involved in it as I am – why else would your presence make the difference in whether my senses are heightened or not?”
Kenshin was feeling more than slightly overwhelmed by these sudden revelations of Saitō’s, and what he really wanted was to have some time alone, to think about it.
He’d always felt something of a connection to the Shinsengumi captain, but he’d thought it was simply the fact that despite being on opposing sides, they were alike in many ways. To find out that it was something else – something more – was disorienting.
Saitō definitely wasn’t lying – about anything, including the fact that his ki was shielded. Kenshin had originally thought that he was – somehow – unaware of the fact that he was projecting, but if he had been, Saitō would have dealt with it when he had first brought the matter up. No, everything suggested Saitō was right, that it was a matter of Kenshin being able to sense through his shields.
Including the vague memory of the description of this phenomenon – a memory that was all too likely to lead Kenshin to the two places he really did not want to go: Kyoto, and Hiko Seijūrō’s hut.
The thought of Saitō and Hiko meeting each other was almost amusing – almost. It wasn’t quite enough to cancel out the dread he felt at the thought of facing his shishō again, however, after all he’d done….
“Battōsai?” Saitō prompted.
Kenshin shook his head, trying to control the thoughts that were whirling around. “Maybe,” he admitted reluctantly. Then he looked back down at the soapy water in the basin. He was tired, and confused, and between the description Akemi had used for her nightmare – his arm being red with blood – and the memories that Saitō’s presence had brought back to the forefront, not to mention the comment about white plums, he was dreading going to sleep… and Saitō was still there, still watching him, and he couldn’t even block any of his sense of the Shinsengumi’s ki….
Not that he wanted to block it entirely – as he’d said, he wasn’t insane – but he did want it to stop feeling as though Saitō was shouting in his ear. It was disorienting. Kenshin was accustomed to sensing the ki of most people – his shishō had always said he had an extremely high sensitivity in that respect. However, most people were not trained in using ki. Those who were – samurai, shinobi, swordsmen, and martial artists, for the most part – had much stronger, more powerful ki than the general population because of that training; ki which was generally shielded, masked, except when using it as a weapon in the middle of a fight. And for a very good reason.
He was not accustomed to having a sword-master’s fierce, flaring ki – especially one he knew from experience as well as he did Saitō’s – near him, unmasked, when not in battle. It had him tense and on-edge, battle-honed instincts expecting an attack, while what he was actually sensing from Saitō’s ki told him that there wouldn’t be one….
“I don’t think there can be any doubt,” Saitō put in, and the confidence in his tone was echoed more forcefully in his ki. “You’re involved, Battōsai.”
Enough was enough. “Will you stop calling me that!”
Surprise flickered through Saitō’s ki at his outburst, adding to the tension he was feeling, and Kenshin’s hands clenched into fists.
“Just… go away, Saitō,” he said, keeping his tone even with an effort, doing his best to maintain control. It wasn’t easy. “It’s late. I’m tired. And I’m sure you can think of an excuse to stay a bit later than daybreak if you still want to talk to me tomorrow.”
He was used to being able to read intentions, and sense strong emotions, from people’s ki. This… insight he now had into Saitō was different… more like being able to read thoughts. He could sense every little flicker of emotion, and… it really was too much. If Saitō was going to insist that he join them – and Kenshin had the uneasy suspicion that the Shinsengumi intended to do exactly that – he was going to have to figure out how to control this, and quickly. He couldn’t continue to remain as intensely on-edge as this for long….
Frustration flickered through Saitō’s ki, accompanied by hints of confusion and determination, swirling around him, brushing against his own ki and increasing his tension even further.
Then, abruptly, they retreated, replaced by a strong sense of decisiveness. “Very well,” Saitō said, his voice calm – though the frustration was still evident in his ki, just not as prominent. “But we will continue this tomorrow.”
Kenshin heard him walk away, and his hands unclenched as the pressure of Saitō’s presence eased. It didn’t disappear – as he’d told Saitō earlier, he could easily feel the Shinsengumi from the far end of the inn – but it moved away enough to let him think.
With a silent sigh, Kenshin plunged his hands back into the soapy water – he had several pieces of laundry left to finish – and concentrated on trying to bring the vague memory that had been prompted by Saitō’s mention of hearing his heartbeat into focus.
It had been one of the stories his shishō had told him that first year, Kenshin recalled that much. And he seemed to remember that it had been about an earlier Hiko Seijūrō, just after he’d become a master of Hiten Mitsurugi-Ryū….
He frowned. The memory refused to become clear; all he could definitely recall was that it had involved the second or third Hiko Seijūrō, and… a partner? Yes, a partner who could hear heartbeats… but that was it. Nothing about what it meant, whether it was important or not, or whether the partner had had any other senses heightened, the way Saitō claimed he did….
While he’d been thinking, Kenshin had managed to finish the laundry. Now, pushing the thoughts of Saitō and Hiko away to deal with tomorrow, he lifted the basin full of clean clothing and sheets and brought it inside to the kitchen, where he hung them up next to the cooking area, so that they would be able to dry in the heat tomorrow. After that, he took the bucket of soapy water he’d been using to do the washing, and dumped it across the stones of the courtyard.
Then, at long last, Kenshin was able to go to the small room Toyomori Ichiro was letting him use in exchange for his help, and go to sleep.
Blood. So much blood. The rain was a crimson waterfall that stained the streets and the unseasonable snow the bright red of newly-spilled blood, dripping from the blade of his sword to flow in a wash over his hands, a wet warmth sliding down his cheek from crossed scars, as its sweet coppery scent mingled with the sensual perfume of white plums….
Kenshin jerked himself back to awareness with a near-silent gasp.
He was leaning against the wall of the small room, his sakabatō balanced against his shoulder, as always. The room was too small to be the one he’d had at Kohagi-ya, and he took a set of deep breaths as he focused his attention on the here-and-now, concentrating on the little things to ground himself.
That… was a bad one, he reflected grimly, once his thoughts were centred. It had been quite some time since he’d had a nightmare that bad – almost four months, he thought. Yes… the encounter with that group of samurai near Nagasaki, the ones who had recognized him and attacked the group he’d been travelling with….
He was distracted as he felt a strange combination of concern and worry threading through Saitō’s ki. Kenshin frowned, wondering why the Shinsengumi was still up. It was the middle of the night, after all….
Not my business, Kenshin told himself firmly. If Saitō was tired tomorrow, it would be easier to avoid being dragged along with him when he left. Concentrate on something else, and try to get back to sleep… this time without the nightmares….
But try as he might, all that came when he closed his eyes were the contrasting sensations of cold snow soaking his feet and warm blood sliding over his hands; of the sweet-sharp scent of copper and the soft smell of Tomoe’s perfume….
Saitō was up with the sun the next morning, woken up by the noises of the Toyomori family awakening and starting work. He quickly got dressed and slipped out without rousing Kurosaka, and headed down to the inn’s stables to see to the horses. They still had a ways to go to reach Tokushima, and Saitō suspected he would need most of the time between now and breakfast to persuade Battōsai to come with them.
Thinking of the young hitokiri, Saitō felt his expression darken.
He didn’t like the fact that Battōsai now appeared to be able to read his ki whenever the hitokiri might want – it left him feeling vulnerable in a way he hadn’t been for years. But that was definitely not the most disturbing issue – particularly not if Battōsai was feeling even a fraction of the same sort of protective impulses that he was. Nor was it the fact that those same protective impulses had woken him up in the middle of the night to the realization that Battōsai was having a nightmare; although the knowledge that he would have gotten up and gone over to wake him up if the hitokiri hadn’t managed to wake himself was not something he wished to think about at present.
No, what had come back to haunt him was the matter of Battōsai’s age. He’d ended up so preoccupied with the revelation that Battōsai could sense his ki as though it were unshielded, and the discussion about his senses, he’d completely forgotten his discovery that Battōsai had apparently become a hitokiri at thirteen – and was, even now, only nineteen – until he’d woken up this morning.
Yet another thing they were definitely going to have to discuss. No child should ever have reason to kill; and the fact remained that expert sword skills and ability to kill or not, even Battōsai had only been a child at thirteen. He should not have been tossed into the middle of a war and turned into an assassin.
Saitō was just fetching the tack for his horse when he heard Battōsai approaching the stables, accompanied by someone else… Toyomori Kiyoshi. He tensed instinctively, but stayed where he was – he wanted to know why the other man seemed to hold such a strong dislike for Battōsai, and there was a much better chance of discovering the answer if Toyomori didn’t know he was there.
“…And make sure you groom them very carefully,” the innkeeper’s son was saying, the dislike in his voice obvious – he evidently didn’t believe it necessary to keep to a neutral tone when he didn’t think anyone else was around. “Then more laundry needs to be done, and after that, Nori will need your help with cleaning the breakfast dishes. Understand?”
“Yes, this one understands,” Battōsai replied calmly. “Is there anything else this one will need to do?”
“Come see me when you’re finished that,” Toyomori ordered, and Saitō heard him move away.
He waited another minute, until Toyomori was out of normal hearing range, and then walked out of the tack storage room and leaned against the wall of the stable, eyeing Battōsai, who was holding out a bit of fruit to Kurosaka’s horse.
“I wouldn’t have thought that you would let anyone speak to you with such disrespect,” Saitō commented easily, crossing his arms over his chest, “much less a simple innkeeper’s son.”
“Which simply proves that you don’t know me as well as you appear to think,” Battōsai retorted coolly, though he didn’t turn around. “It’s not precisely unusual.”
Saitō’s eyes narrowed as that strange protectiveness roused again. So…. Between his nightmare and this, it’s obvious these new instincts aren’t just concerned with physical danger….
“Oh?” he inquired, keeping his tone casual – though he knew Battōsai could undoubtedly sense that it was anything but. “Something to do with that overly humble tone you use now?”
Battōsai snorted, startling the horse, and immediately held out his hand for it to smell, then stroked its nose in apology. “It’s hardly new, either.”
Saitō blinked in surprise at that. “What do you mean?” he demanded sharply.
At that, Battōsai finally turned around and met his eyes, his own that same steely blue they’d been last night, the intensity of the colour almost – but not quite – distracting from the dark circles that had formed under them.
It appears he didn’t get back to sleep after the nightmare….
“I guess your spies in the Ishin Shishi didn’t report everything to you,” the hitokiri commented, his tone still cool – and a touch bitter.
Saitō frowned. The Ishin Shishi? he wondered. What did they have to do with Toyomori’s attitude?
Battōsai’s mouth twitched into something that was more snarl than smile. “The Shinsengumi and the Mimawarigumi were not the only ones who referred to me as the ‘Demon of Kyoto’, Saitō.”
For a long moment, all Saitō could do was stare at the young hitokiri, stunned by the implications of his words. While he, Okita, and a few of the other Shinsengumi captains had used that particular epithet as a term of respect for Battōsai’s fighting skills, most people had referred to him that way out of fear, both of his skill with a blade and of the bloodthirsty reputation that skill had given him. But for some among the Ishin Shishi – the ones Battōsai had protected with both life and blade – to have seen him that way…. A child….
While he’d been grappling with this latest addition to the disturbing revelations of the past day, Battōsai had already turned back to the horse, and his attitude told Saitō that he had no intentions of discussing the matter any further.
Well, if he’s determined not to talk further about this at the moment, Saitō reflected, mentally adding the matter to his list of topics to discuss with Battōsai ‘later’ – a list that was beginning to get alarmingly large, all things considered – then I believe it’s time for a return to last night’s conversation. “You mentioned last night that you thought you’d heard something before about being able to hear heartbeats,” he started.
Battōsai tensed, then shrugged. “It was… a story my shishō told me,” he replied after a moment, his tone one of reluctance.
Shishō? Saitō recognized the term, of course, but it was one he hadn’t expected to hear from Battōsai. Though now that he thought of it, it did make sense that the hitokiri would have been taught his style by an old-fashioned sword-master, to have become such an expert by the age of thirteen. Added to that was the fact that he had never heard of Hiten Mitsurugi-Ryū before Battōsai had begun skirmishing; and he had searched all the records of sword-styles he could find, in an effort to discover more about the hitokiri who had terrified Kyoto’s streets, when the Shinsengumi had started investigating the assassinations Battōsai had committed before the Ikeda-ya affair.
“I don’t remember any of the details,” the hitokiri continued, as he started grooming Kurosaka’s horse. “It was– I heard it…” he hesitated, “…several years ago.”
“What do you remember from it?”
Battōsai hesitated again, focusing his attention on the grooming for a minute or two before answering.
“One of the earliest masters of Hiten Mitsurugi-Ryū,” he began slowly, “after he became a master, had a partner who could hear the beating of his heart in his chest from a distance of fifty shaku away.”
Saitō blinked in surprise at that. Not at the distance – Battōsai had been much farther away than that from him during the Bakumatsu when he’d sensed him, and even further away yesterday – but at the hitokiri’s use of the word ‘partner’.
“They… spent many years working together,” Battōsai continued, still speaking slowly, as though he was struggling to remember the story even as he recited it, “and then… something happened, I don’t think Shishō told me what, and the master took on a student.” He shrugged. “That’s all I can remember.”
As Battōsai moved around to groom the horse’s other side, Saitou walked over to stand by the stall. “That’s everything?” he asked, studying the hitokiri carefully.
“Everything I can remember,” Battōsai repeated, looking slightly uncomfortable.
Saitō nodded thoughtfully. “Unfortunately,” he commented, “that doesn’t give us the information we need.”
“‘Us’?” Battōsai questioned, looking at him directly. “‘We’?”
Saitō growled in irritation. “As I told you last night, there can be no doubt that you are involved, Battōsai,” he declared curtly. “That hasn’t changed; in fact, what you’ve just told me only supports it. So yes, ‘us’ and ‘we’.” He paused for a moment, trying to identify what the changes in Battōsai’s scent meant – he could identify anger and fear because they had been frequent in Shinsengumi confrontations with the hitokiri, and sorrow from the aftermath of one of his assassinations, but he had no experience with any of the other emotions that affected scent – before refocusing on his goal: persuading Battōsai of the need to leave with himself and Kurosaka. “Is this shishō of yours still alive?”
Battōsai’s eyes closed, and for a second, an expression of resignation crossed his face. When he opened them again, his eyes had returned to that odd violet colour they’d been in the clearing yesterday afternoon. “Shishō is a master of Hiten Mitsurugi-Ryū. I am not. Of course he’s still alive.”
Saitō felt a flicker of shock at that – Battōsai wasn’t a sword-master?
Of course not, he realized a second later, he was only thirteen. Even Okita was not a master until he was fifteen. “So, perhaps you could send him a message once we reach Tokyo.”
The hitokiri’s expression hardened instantly, and his eyes narrowed, flecks of amber becoming visible to Saitō’s sight. “Aside from the fact that I have not agreed to leave here with you – involved or not, I’m needed here,” he added coldly – “Shishō won’t accept a letter, doesn’t like having strangers around, and the farthest he goes from his mountain is into the outskirts of Kyoto to buy sake.”
Saitō frowned. What he wanted to do was inform Battōsai that there wasn’t a choice, that he would be coming with them, like it or not; but he couldn’t spend the rest of the trip back to Tokyo watching the hitokiri every second to prevent an escape, and he had no desire to wake up and find himself at the end of Battōsai’s blade. To say nothing of the questions Kurosaka would have if he appeared with the hitokiri in tow, bound and gagged – no matter how appealing that image might be….
All of which meant that the only path he had available to him was convincing Battōsai that the best choice was to agree to join him.
“You’re ‘needed’ here?” he started. “You haven’t been here very long, and it appears that the Toyomori family were able to handle things perfectly well without you before that.”
“Kiyoshi-san broke his arm five days ago, shortly after I arrived,” Battōsai said sharply. “He will be unable to do any work other than the most minor things for the next month and a half. They need someone to help.”
“Then perhaps they should hire one of the boys from the village,” Saitō countered.
From the way Battōsai’s expression shifted for just a moment, Saitō knew he’d hit a weak point, and pressed his argument. “It would provide employment and at least a bit more money for one of the village families, which would most likely benefit everyone.
“Besides, according to you your shishō doesn’t like strangers; and whether you’re ‘involved or not’, as you said, I definitely need the information it seems he has.” Saitō crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against one of the stall posts. “Which means that I will need you to introduce me to him.”
Kenshin glared down at the brush in his hand as he brought it along the horse’s side. As much as he hated to admit it, Saitō did have a point about Ichiro-san being able to hire one of the village boys to help out – and they would be able to stay permanently, whereas sooner or later he would have to leave. The longest he’d been able to stay in one place since Toba Fushimi was three weeks, before the threat of being recognized became too great.
He was also right that Hiko would not be interested in seeing him – although Kenshin wasn’t so sure that Hiko would agree even if he did accompany the Shinsengumi… or perhaps especially if he did….
To make it worse, there was a large part of him that wanted to go with Saitō. Despite what he’d implied, he was fully aware that Saitō was right about his involvement in… whatever this was; and the idea of spending time with someone who knew exactly who he was and didn’t hate him for it had its appeal, even if that ‘someone’ was Saitō Hajime.
But then again, the last time he’d gone with someone because he wanted to, he’d ended up making the rain of Kyoto bleed….
“I thought you said you were going to Tokyo,” he commented, doing his best to keep his tone casual in an effort to hide just how much he did want to give in to Saitō’s demand. “Not Kyoto.”
“It shouldn’t be too difficult to convince Ōkubo to assign me to something in the area of Kyoto,” Saitō replied easily, and Kenshin sensed a hint of triumph in his ki. He believes that he’s won. “Even less difficult if he believes that you will be watching me.”
At that, Kenshin stopped grooming the horse and looked up to glare at Saitō. “I am not going to bring myself to the attention of the government,” he said flatly. “They may see you as still being a ‘potential threat’, Saitō – but I was a hitokiri. Their hitokiri. The Demon of Kyoto. I am a threat. I know too much.”
The Shinsengumi’s ki roiled with a sudden fury, though it couldn’t be heard in his voice as he spoke. “Is that the reason you left?”
“One of the reasons,” Kenshin answered. When Saitō gave him an inquiring look, he let his expression harden again. “The only one you need to worry about.” He met Saitō’s eyes, his tone becoming grim.
“I have no desire to end up in a shallow grave just because I’ve reappeared.”
“They wouldn’t dare try,” Saitō declared flatly.
Kenshin snorted in disbelief; Saitō couldn’t be that naive. This was a man who’d spied on his own, after all. “You’re talking about the men who dared to overthrow the Tokugawa Shogunate, Saitō – killing one of their tools is nothing to that.”
Saitō straightened up and met his gaze. “Do you really believe that Ōkubo Toshimichi would do such a thing?” he asked – and both his tone and his ki indicated the question was absolutely serious.
Looking down at his clenched hands, Kenshin shrugged. “Ōkubo-san? Possibly not. We’ve met, and he… respected me, at least somewhat. And I doubt Katsura-san would agree to it either; he did give me leave to disappear, after all. But powerful as they might be, they are only two, and there are many more who have heard the stories of the Demon of Kyoto, and would be only too glad to have that threat removed. Even if neither Katsura-san nor Ōkubo-san ordered it, someone would.”
The fury in Saitō’s ki seemed to grow even stronger, but through that, Kenshin could sense him thinking carefully.
The horse was almost completely groomed, and Kenshin started to work on its mane as he waited for Saitō to reach the conclusion that he was right. This was the horse Akemi had ridden yesterday; he could see the remnants of several braids scattered throughout the mane. It would take some time to finish.
He had managed to untangle and comb most of it out before Saitō spoke again.
“So, you think that Ōkubo and Kido – Katsura – can be trusted?”
There was a strange flare of anger in Saitō’s ki when he mentioned Katsura-san’s name, but it lasted only a moment, and Kenshin had only just managed to distinguish it as somehow different from the rest of Saitō’s fury when it vanished again.
“Yes,” Kenshin replied, with reasonable confidence, though that additional flare of anger puzzled him. Why would Saitō be so angry with Katsura-san?
“Then if the two of them – and only the two of them – are told about your presence, do you believe it would work?”
Kenshin gave him a look of disbelief. “Do you know how many times I’ve been recognized, or almost recognized, since Toba Fushimi? I doubt there’s anyone in the upper levels of the government who hasn’t at least heard my description, Saitō, and a large number of them have certainly seen me, if not spoken to or met me. I doubt I could go anywhere around Tokyo – much less Kyoto – without being recognized.”
Saitō’s expression was sceptical. “You managed for three years in Kyoto, with your description plastered all over the city and all our forces on the constant lookout for you,” he replied. “I’m sure you can manage for a day or two in Tokyo.”
Kenshin’s hands clenched again. Why was Saitō so determined to drag him along, even if he was involved? “My description may have been ‘all over’, but I stayed in the Ishin Shishi sections of the city unless I had a mission. I can’t exactly do the same sort of thing in Tokyo – especially not if you expect me to see Ōkubo-san.”
Saitō gave him a long look, and then shrugged. “Put a bandage on your cheek to hide the scar, and wear a hat… or, perhaps better yet, dye your hair black. That should take care of the problem.”
Kenshin scowled. That was, in fact, a reasonable idea, but still…. “And if you are being watched by the government, there are undoubtedly people – aside from Ōkubo-san – who need to know who is doing the watching,” he pointed out. “What of them?”
Impatience and irritation were starting to flavour the fury that was still the primary focus of Saitō’s ki. “First of all,” he said curtly, “there are very few who know that I survived the siege of Castle Wakamatsu, much less that I am now working for Ōkubo. Of those who do know, all he should have to do is reassure them that I’m being watched by someone he trusts. And if they feel the need to know names, there is nothing that says he cannot lie.”
“So much for the ideals of the Meiji government,” Kenshin put in, a touch of bitterness entering his voice despite his best efforts.
Saitō shook his head. “The world is not a perfect place, Battōsai; you know that as well as I do. You said you trusted Ōkubo; he knows his fellows well enough to determine what they will need to be told.
“So,” he continued, “we disguise your scar and your hair, and tell the truth only to Ōkubo. That takes care of that objection. Are there any others?”
He seemed to be spending an inordinate amount of time looking down this morning, Kenshin reflected, staring at the horse’s withers for a long moment. First with Kiyoshi-san, who regarded him as being little better than a beggar, and now with Saitō….
“Battōsai?” the Shinsengumi prompted him.
Well, at least that’s one good thing about this plan…. “You’re going to have to stop calling me that now,” Kenshin murmured in surrender, as he watched his hands untangle the last knot in the horse’s mane. “It will do no good to dye my hair and hide my scar if you’re constantly using that name.”
Flickers of irritation mingled with triumph in Saitō’s ki, though the fury was still the most prominent. However, his voice was mild as he agreed, “Very well.”
Kenshin looked back up at the Shinsengumi, puzzled again. He’d agreed to go, so why was Saitō still so furious?
“Now, I suggest you advise Toyomori-san of the fact that you’re leaving,” Saitō continued. “And you had best put the bandage on before Kurosaka sees you; I doubt he noticed your scar yesterday, but he’s not entirely unobservant and the fewer things I have to intimidate him about, the better.”
Kenshin gritted his teeth as he felt his own irritation rise; Saitō might have phrased his words as suggestions, but his tone made them clear orders. I may have agreed – or even given in – on the matter of going to Tokyo; but I am not going to let him order me around. So, what would be the best way to get that across…?
Yes, that should work quite nicely. “In that case,” Kenshin declared, his tone as innocent as he could manage with a straight face, “you can see about getting the dye for my hair. Keiko-dono should be able to help with that.” He patted the horse on its neck and exited the stall, then turned back to Saitō with a poisonously sweet smile. I am not one of your Shinsengumi, and I do not take orders from you, Saitō. “And you can let her know that I’m leaving at the same time.”
He managed to resist the temptation to laugh directly in Saitō’s face as the Shinsengumi stared at him in shock, saving it until he was most of the way across the courtyard.
Author’s Notes (cont’d)
3) Regarding Saitō’s reactions to the discussion in the stables…. A) Yes, the fury Kenshin senses does have a reason. B) No, the fact that Saitō changes it from telling both Ōkubo and Katsura to telling just Ōkubo is not a mistake. You’ll find out the reasons for both in Chp. 3 (if you haven’t already figured it out…).
shaku: A Japanese unit of measure equivalent to approximately 30.303 cm (just under one foot).
Kido Koin/Takayoshi: Katsura Kogorō’s real name.
[Edited Thurs. Mar. 09/06] Go to Chapter 3 Further Along the Trail (In which my readers find out why Vathara has been saying, “Poor, poor Kurosaka” since she started beta-ing… (*eg*) and there are some more ‘conversations’ between Saitō and Kenshin….)
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