Here’s Chp. 3 of RuroSen: A Strange Partnership, in which Saitō broods, Kenshin broods, and Kurosaka wonders what the heck is going on.
[Minor Edits: Wed. Jan. 24/07.]
1) I like Kurosaka. I really like him. I am, however, rather mean to him. Consider yourself warned.
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…).
3) Warning #2: I just love being evil….
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 3: Further Along the Trail
Kurosaka waited impatiently in the courtyard for his ‘partner’, wondering what could be keeping him. He’d already been gone from their room when Kurosaka had woken up, and hadn’t been at breakfast. His horse had been in the courtyard, already groomed and saddled, when Kurosaka had come out… but there was no sign of the man himself. And he didn’t dare go looking.
He disliked the thought of admitting it to anyone, but Kurosaka was thoroughly intimidated by his partner, though he’d been given no real cause to fear over the past two months. But he was very well aware of who ‘Fujita Gorō’ had been during the Bakumatsu – Ōkubo-kyo had made sure that he received that information when he’d got this assignment – and the thought of facing the man who had been the captain of the Shinsengumi’s Third Unit while he was in a temper – which seemed to be the usual state of things – was not one that made him feel all that safe. Particularly as he was well aware that the man once known as Saitō Hajime disliked him – intensely.
Even as he thought that, the door of the inn slid open and Fujita strode out, looking slightly irritated – which had Kurosaka starting to feel nervous already – followed by Himura-kun, the boy who had been helping the Toyomori family.
Between his humble mode of speech, his youth, and the katana that Kurosaka hadn’t yet seen him without, that boy was quite the mystery. When he’d asked about him after dinner last night, Keiko-san had mentioned that she suspected he was from a poor samurai family–
Himura-kun’s hair, Kurosaka abruptly noticed as he watched them approach, was now black as opposed to the fox-red it had been yesterday, making the boy look quite pale – Why did he dye it? Kurosaka wondered absently; he had a large bandage covering his left cheek; and he was also looking somewhat irritated, glaring narrow-eyed at Fujita’s back.
“Fujita-san?” Kurosaka asked cautiously, eyeing his partner warily as he stopped next to his horse. “What’s happening?”
“Himura is going to be coming with us to Tokyo,” Fujita stated.
Kurosaka frowned, wondering why. From what he’d gathered from the Toyomori family last night, Himura-kun appeared to be quite content helping them with the running of the inn, so why had he apparently decided to join them? For that matter, why had Fujita agreed?
And there was also the matter of their mounts….
“We only have two horses,” he pointed out.
Fujita shrugged. “We’ll commandeer one of the post horses in the village.”
Kurosaka was about to protest that they couldn’t do that – the post horses were there to serve an important purpose, not to provide extra mounts to police officers – but the irritation that was still on Fujita’s face stopped him before the words left his mouth.
“We’ll be back in a few minutes,” Fujita continued, then started walking again, brushing right past him.
Himura-kun stopped next to Kurosaka and gave him an apologetic-looking smile, the irritation vanishing as though it had never been. “I apologize for this,” he said quietly, puzzling Kurosaka even further with the sudden absence of his humble tone. “It was not my intention to cause any problems.”
“Are you coming, Himura?” Fujita snapped impatiently.
The boy frowned and muttered something under his breath, but hurried forward to catch up to Fujita and followed him out of the courtyard.
About ten minutes later, they were back, Himura-kun leading a dark horse by the reins, and Fujita looking as though he wanted to put his sword through someone, which didn’t exactly bode well for the rest of the trip being pleasant – or peaceful.
“Do you have everything?” Fujita growled over his shoulder to the boy, as he walked to his own horse and mounted easily. Kurosaka followed suit, knowing better than to cause any delay.
“Yes, Fujita-san,” Himura-kun replied, a touch of irritation in his own voice. Kurosaka watched him absently touch the hilt of his katana, and then pick up a small bag that had been left on the inn’s engawa.
Before the boy could mount his own horse, however, the door slid aside and the two Toyomori children burst out and ran over to him, grabbing his legs.
“Don’t go, Ken-san!” they wailed in unison.
Then the girl looked up at him, and blinked. “What happened to your hair, Ken-san?”
Himura-kun crouched down in front of them. “This one is sorry, Akemi-chan, Yoshi-kun, but this one has to go,” he said quietly. “This one told you when he came, remember, that he might not be able to stay for very long?”
Both children nodded reluctantly, and Kurosaka felt even more bewildered at the switch back to humility in his speech. If he hadn’t heard the boy speaking that way to the other members of the Toyomori family, when the children weren’t around, he would have thought it was simply an affectation to amuse them, but as it was….
“And as for this one’s hair….” A sudden, mischievous grin crossed Himura-kun’s face, and he shot a quick glance at Fujita before returning his attention to the children. “You know, Akemi-chan, red hair scares bad men too. But Fujita-san wants to scare the bad men all by himself, so he asked this one to make his hair black.”
The girl gave Fujita a wide-eyed look, as Kurosaka stared at Himura-kun in shock. He had not just said that….
Sai– Fujita’s going to kill him!
“He’s going to scare more bad men?” she asked, sounding almost awed.
“Yes,” Himura-kun said, nodding, the grin still on his face. “And he asked this one to come along so this one can make sure everyone knows that he’s scared all the bad men away.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Kurosaka could see that Fujita looked even more furious, as he’d expected, but the other man didn’t say anything as Himura-kun stood up and gave both children a full, formal bow.
“Now, remember,” Himura-kun continued, “you two be good for your ‘Baachan and ‘Jiichan… and maybe, just maybe, this one will stop by and see you the next time this one is near Kawanoe.”
“Yes, Ken-san, please come back!” the girl said hopefully.
“This one will try,” Himura-kun promised. “Now, this one has to say sayonara.”
“Bye-bye,” the children called, as Himura-kun came back toward Kurosaka and Fujita.
“Are you quite finished?” Fujita snarled – quietly, which surprised Kurosaka – as the boy reached them.
Himura-kun blinked. “Why? Are you in a hurry to leave?” he asked, his tone just a bit too innocent to be genuine.
No, first Fujita’s going to torture him, then kill him!
Fujita’s eyes narrowed dangerously, but his voice was still surprisingly mild as he replied, “We need to be in Tokushima tomorrow by midday to catch the boat to Wakayama.”
Wakayama? But we’re supposed to be going to Osaka, and catching the boat there for Tokyo… Kurosaka thought, confused by the unexpected – and not previously discussed – change of plans.
Himura-kun shrugged and patted his horse’s neck. “These are all strong horses; a few minutes will not make much of a difference in the distance we go today.” He mounted with an ease that told Kurosaka he was very familiar with horses, and then turned in the saddle for a moment to give both children a quick wave. “Sayonara, Akemi-chan, Yoshi-kun!” he called again, then nudged his horse’s sides with his heels.
“Well, Fujita-san?” he said, as his horse started toward the gate that led out to the road. “You were the one who said we were in a hurry….”
Kurosaka winced as Fujita growled again and urged his horse after the boy’s. No, this was definitely not going to be a pleasant trip back to Tokyo….
He quickly caught up to them, and was relieved to realize that they’d evidently decided not to continue their discussion, or argument, or whatever it was, as they rode. The three of them passed through the village in relative, almost-companionable silence.
The silence continued even after they left the village, and Kurosaka felt himself beginning to relax slightly. Maybe, just maybe, this wouldn’t be quite as bad as he feared… as long as Himura-kun could keep his apparent need to taunt Fujita under control. The boy obviously liked to live dangerously.
Although, he reminded himself, it’s likely that Himura-kun has no idea just how dangerous it is. After all, it isn’t as though the boy knows who Fujita was….
In an effort to distract himself from the situation between Fujita and the boy, Kurosaka turned his attention to their surroundings. Dealing with the problem in Matsuyama had been only one part of their orders from Ōkubo-kyo. The rest had involved gathering any rumours of bandit groups – like the one he and Fujita had dealt with yesterday – and observing the current conditions along their route.
So far, the villages they had passed through, including Kawanoe, seemed to be doing reasonably well for themselves. They were surviving, at least, and in good order.
So were most – though admittedly not all – of the roads they had travelled on. The one they were on at the moment was definitely well-maintained, making it easy for the horses to walk along. There were trees and bushes on either side, but the road itself was completely clear of all vegetation. Certainly nothing like that track he’d followed Fujita along yesterday.
Which reminded him of something he’d been wondering about since then. What was it Fujita had noticed that had told him they might be – or were, rather – needed? He hadn’t bothered to ask Fujita about it, given that he knew the other wouldn’t answer; but if he could figure it out by himself…. Well, the potential rewards could definitely be worth the effort. At the very least, it would help him prove to Fujita that he wasn’t useless or an idiot.
Kurosaka spent the next several minutes musing over the question and coming, unfortunately, to no definite conclusions – except that Fujita had proved to be more observant than he was yet again.
His musings were interrupted, however, when Himura-kun abruptly nudged his horse into a gallop, and took off down the road. The realization that he was leaving their protection made Kurosaka’s eyes widen in alarm; and he was about to start after the boy when he saw Fujita shake his head out of the corner of his eye.
“Let him go on ahead – he’s taking point,” his ‘partner’ declared curtly, and then scowled after the boy.
Kurosaka blinked. “He’s ‘taking point‘?” he repeated in disbelief. “Fujita-san… he’s only a kid! He can’t ‘take point’ – what if there are more bandits on the road?”
Saitō fought the urge to snarl something about how he would pity the bandits as his partner continued to protest the fact that he had let Battōsai go on ahead.
Considering that it was either let him go ahead, or continue to suffer the hitokiri’s infuriating remarks, Saitō had been more than willing to let him take point – and had told him so, when they’d gone to get the horse Battōsai was riding. Battōsai wouldn’t be able to get out of range of his hearing without Saitō knowing he was trying, which they both knew, so there wasn’t any danger of him trying to get away.
“I should go up and–” Kurosaka started, bringing Saitō’s attention back to him, and the Shinsengumi turned to give him a glare.
“Leave him,” he snapped. “Himura’s capable of taking care of himself, and he knows that if there’s a problem, he’s to come back and get us.” If he doesn’t decide to deal with it himself, Saitō added silently.
Despite the fact that he’d managed to convince Battōsai to come back to Tokyo with him, Saitō had not been having a good morning so far. Between the remarks Battōsai had been making at every opportunity, Toyomori Keiko’s outrage that ‘Himura Kenshin’ was leaving with him – which Saitō suspected the hitokiri had anticipated – and the difficulty he’d had persuading the locals that he had a perfect right to commandeer their post horse…. No, this morning had been, for the most part, distinctly unpleasant. And it was early yet….
Saitō could only hope the day would get better as it wore on.
Up ahead, he heard Battōsai’s horse slow to a trot, matching their speed again, and he found the sound of the hitokiri’s heartbeat soothing away some of the irritation that remained from his confrontations with Toyomori Keiko and the Kawanoe post officials. Though it did nothing for the frustration he felt about the fact that Battōsai now appeared to have that much power over him….
It was strange, Saitō found himself musing, how one day – less than one day – could change things so much. Yesterday at this time, most of his attention had been focused around the murders he and Kurosaka had just dealt with in Matsuyama, and how very annoying those overenthusiastic monologues of Kurosaka’s really were. If he’d thought of Battōsai at all, it had only been distant curiosity about what the hitokiri was doing now, and a vague hope that they’d encounter each other again at some point, to finish their battle. Very different from today, Battōsai having become the primary focus of his attention; and even different from the Bakumatsu, Saitō realized, as he found himself remembering what it had been like then.
From the first time he’d seen Battōsai’s handiwork – the aftermath of an ambush arranged by the Oniwabanshū, using members of the Ninth Unit – Saitō had found himself fascinated by the hitokiri; a fascination that had only increased when they’d first met face-to-face after the events at Ikeda-ya. He’d thought at the time that it was simply a matter of being intrigued, as a swordsman, by a strong, challenging opponent – after all, the redheaded hitokiri had been the one challenge Okita had consistently wanted to face as well – but now he wasn’t so sure of that anymore. Okita had, on numerous occasions, accused him of being obsessed with Battōsai. He had always denied it – at least, denied being any more obsessed than Okita himself; but after what had happened since yesterday afternoon, Saitō had to wonder if his constant determination to face Battōsai had less to do with his interest as a swordsman, and more to do with his senses and those odd – and irritating – protective instincts….
“Fujita-san?” Kurosaka hesitantly interrupted his thoughts.
Saitō scowled. “What is it?” he demanded.
“Were we not meant to take the boat from Tokushima to Osaka, not Wakayama?”
“I changed the plan,” Saitō growled.
“Why?” Kurosaka demanded. “We won’t be able to catch a ship to Tokyo from Wakayama – we’ll have to go to Osaka for that anyway! So why not go directly there?”
“Because we’re going overland to Tokyo,” Saitō said curtly. Hair dye and a bandage or not, he had no intentions of taking Battōsai anywhere near Kyoto until Ōkubo had been informed that the hitokiri had been found. He was confident the disguise would work, but there was no sense in taking unnecessary chances.
Kurosaka was frowning, acting uncharacteristically bold. “Why?” he questioned. “That will add days to our return, and Ōkubo-kyo wanted us back as soon as could be managed.”
Because we have the Demon of Kyoto with us, Saitō thought grimly, and because everything considered, being in the confined space of a boat with him for days is not a good idea. But he could hardly tell Kurosaka either of those reasons. Luckily, anticipating the need for an excuse, he’d already thought to prepare an answer. “Himura gets seasick on trips lasting longer than a few hours,” he said calmly, reminding himself to quietly inform Battōsai of that little fact later. It would be fair revenge for the remarks he’d been suffering since last night, the Shinsengumi felt.
To his relief, Kurosaka didn’t suggest they simply leave ‘Himura’ to go on by himself, while they followed the original plan. But then, he wouldn’t, Saitō reflected. Kurosaka’s protest about Battōsai possibly facing bandits, having taken the point position, was quite telling. He believes that wide-eyed, innocent look Battōsai is using; after all, he’s the one who thought Battōsai was only fifteen.
Instead, his ‘partner’ asked, “Why did you agree to let him come with us? For that matter, why did he want to come?”
May as well make use of his belief in the ‘innocent’ look…. “He didn’t tell me why he wanted to come,” Saitō evaded smoothly. “But you said it yourself – would you leave him to possibly face another group of bandits on his own?” He would have, of course, but he was well aware that Battōsai was a better killer than any bandit could ever be.
Well, he would have… if not for those protective instincts. And the… need he felt to have Battōsai with him, within range of his senses….
“No,” Kurosaka replied, nodding as though he understood. “I wouldn’t.”
“Which is why I… ‘agreed’,” Saitō lied calmly. He paused for a moment, then finished sharply, “He’s coming with us, and we’re going overland.” And the subject was now closed; Kurosaka had surely heard that tone from him often enough to recognize what it meant. Though it was clear enough that he didn’t understand why Saitō was using it now….
Unfortunately, rather than shut up – which was what Saitō had been aiming for – Kurosaka seemed to take that as an invitation to start another one of his monologues, this one on fishing. Why he thought Saitō would have any interest in fishing the Shinsengumi didn’t know; but then, he also didn’t know why Kurosaka felt the need to lecture about the greatest swordsmen of the Bakumatsu to someone who had a place on that particular list, either.
With a silent sigh, Saitō tuned the other man’s voice out, his hearing focusing back in on Battōsai’s heartbeat seemingly of its own volition as his thoughts also returned to the hitokiri, and everything that had been revealed about him over the past day; of which there’d been more than in the six and a half years since Battōsai had first made his mark on Kyoto.
The major one – the one upon which most of the others seemed to centre, and so far the only one he hadn’t heard about from Battōsai directly – was the fact that Battōsai had been a child when the Ishin Shishi had turned him into a hitokiri. When Katsura Kogorō made him a hitokiri, Saitō thought, feeling another flare of that bone-deep rage that had been affecting him since their discussion in the stables this morning. Battōsai’s comment about Katsura having given him leave to go after Toba Fushimi had confirmed Shinsengumi intelligence on the identity of Hitokiri Battōsai’s commander, which had only fed the protective fury Saitō had already been experiencing.
To bring a child into a war was wrong, pure and simple – war was a matter for adults, not children; and to turn a child into an assassin – a weapon, for that was essentially what Battōsai had been – in a war…. That was, in Saitō’s opinion, criminal on the same scale as someone who killed for the pleasure of it. Evil.
Unfortunately, much as he might want Katsura punished for what he’d done – which Saitō did want, and not solely because of the protectiveness he was feeling for Battōsai – he couldn’t do that; he hadn’t the power. What he could do was keep Katsura away from Battōsai, which he fully intended to ensure would happen, even if he had to acquire Ōkubo’s assistance to make certain of it.
However, aside from that, there wasn’t exactly anything he could do to help the hitokiri with this, no matter how much he felt the need to do so… not now. Katsura and the Ishin Shishi had made Battōsai an assassin, and that could never be changed.
Made him an assassin, and then reviled him for it, even while they relied on him for protection, Saitō reflected grimly, remembering what Battōsai had implied, that even the Ishin Shishi had called him ‘the Demon of Kyoto’. And he’s right about the fact that there are undoubtedly many in the Meiji government who would sleep better if he were dead. After all, as Battōsai himself had pointed out, he knew many secrets that the Meiji government would not want revealed, including the identities of those he had assassinated on their orders.
Not to mention the fact that if he so desired, Saitō was certain Battōsai would have little to no difficulty decimating the ranks of the members of the government; after all, he had been the Ishin Shishi’s best. If the Oniwabanshū and the Shinsengumi between them – separately or together – couldn’t stop the hitokiri, then what hope did those forces the government could call upon have?
Of course, Saitō didn’t believe for a moment that Battōsai would have any such desire, but he could easily understand how there might be certain government officials who would think so. He was, however, confident that Ōkubo didn’t fall into that category; a confidence that was strengthened by the fact that Battōsai shared it. After all, Battōsai knew Ōkubo better than he did, and had excellent ki-sense. If the hitokiri said that Ōkubo respected him, Saitō believed it.
Luckily, between the hair dye and the bandage, there were very few who should be able to recognize ‘Himura Kenshin’ as Battōsai. After all, everyone knew that Hitokiri Battōsai had red hair and a cross-shaped scar on his cheek – without those distinguishing characteristics visible, Battōsai appeared to simply be just another young samurai.
Still, I’ll have to keep a close watch on things, just in case, Saitō decided after a moment’s thought. A dark smile crossed his face, widening when he sensed a sudden increase in nervousness from Kurosaka. And anyone who wants Battōsai will have to go through me first.
By the time the sun had risen to its midday position Kenshin was feeling at least a bit more at ease, the fact that he was on the road and moving again having a soothing effect on his nerves. It certainly helped that Saitō had agreed – well, more insisted, truthfully – that he take the point position. It was a role he was reasonably familiar with, and more importantly, it got him far enough away from Saitō that he was able to ignore any flaring of the Shinsengumi’s ki.
Of course, he thought in rueful amusement, it also gets him far enough away from me that I’m not taunting him…. Which, Kenshin suspected, had been the main purpose of Saitō’s insistence. The Shinsengumi had not been in the least bit pleased when – just before they’d left the inn to get the horse he was riding – Kenshin had responded to Saitō’s own taunts by asking, “Did you treat Okita this way?!”
Not that Kenshin had been attempting to bring up memories, or even compare himself to Okita, not really; but Saitō had spent most of the morning treating him like a cross between a young child and an unruly adolescent, and it had grated. Particularly when dealing with the matter of dyeing his hair, although that might have been an attempt at revenge for forcing the Shinsengumi to deal with Keiko-dono’s outrage that he was leaving – which still didn’t justify what Saitō had been doing, no matter what he might claim….
Either way, the result had been that Kenshin had spent the past few hours actually enjoying the ride, especially after the fury Saitō had been feeling most of the early part of the morning had faded into a dark amusement, just tinged with a hint of frustration. He left his ki-sense open enough to detect any bandits that might be nearby, and let the rhythm of the horse’s motion add to the soothing of his nerves. He would worry about Tokyo when they got closer; for now, he preferred to do what he could to relax. After all, things were undoubtedly going to become tenser soon enough.
He didn’t even think about using the fact that he was ahead of Saitō and Kurosaka to try to escape the Shinsengumi’s reach. Kenshin was well aware of the fact that if Saitō had been able to hear his heartbeat from the road when he’d been in the clearing yesterday, there was no way he could get far enough, fast enough to evade him. Besides, he had effectively given Saitō his word that he would go with him to Tokyo, and then take him to Hiko.
Not to mention there was the matter of Saitō’s senses, and whatever it was about them that was causing this… connection between them…. A ‘whatever’ that was telling him that this was where he belonged, with Saitō, in spite of all the history between them.
Kenshin sighed softly. He was convinced this whole thing had some link to the stories Hiko had told him of previous masters of Hiten Mitsurugi-Ryū, but he couldn’t seem to remember any more of them than what he had told Saitō last night, except that there had definitely been more than one who’d had a partner able to hear heartbeats.
Just then, he heard the sound of two sets of hoofbeats coming closer, even as he sensed Saitō approaching, along with Kurosaka’s only partially shielded ki. He really needs to be taught better, Kenshin thought absently. There was no hint from either of them of any problems; in fact, Saitō seemed to be in an unusually relaxed mood.
Well, unusual as far as I know, Kenshin reflected, as he twisted around in the saddle to look at the approaching police officers, which isn’t that much, given that until yesterday, every time we were in close proximity, we were trying to kill each other….
“We’re approaching Ikawa,” Saitō remarked, as the two of them drew even with Kenshin. “Kurosaka is going to go ahead and get us something to eat for lunch; then he’ll meet us on the far side of town.”
Kenshin nodded in silent understanding as he once again felt the strange dichotomy between his battle instincts and what he was actually sensing from Saitō. It was really no surprise he’d been taunting the Shinsengumi, considering how edgy that clash of reflex and feeling had him. Placing Saitō in an adversarial position – even if only in a battle of words and taunts – made him feel at least a bit more comfortable all round; and it seemed to be doing the same for Saitō, despite the irritation it provoked. It made the situation seem somewhat more familiar to them both.
“Would you like to come with me, Himura-kun?” Kurosaka offered.
His thoughts were easy to read on his face (it was evident that he’d never needed to develop the facial mask both Kenshin and Saitō had); he clearly thought that Kenshin wouldn’t want to stay alone with Saitō.
But in spite of the confusion and tension caused by his conflicting instincts, that was, in fact, exactly what Kenshin preferred; he felt a great deal more comfortable with the conflict caused by Saitō’s presence than with Kurosaka’s almost… patronizing attitude. So he gave Kurosaka his most innocent smile and replied softly, “That is quite all right, Kurosaka-san; I don’t mind staying with Fujita-san, that I do not.”
“You’re sure?” Kurosaka persisted.
Feeling a flare of irritation from Saitō, Kenshin forced his smile a bit wider and said, “Yes, Kurosaka-san, I am quite sure.”
“All right,” Kurosaka said; his ki still reflected a touch of doubt, but he seemed willing enough to accept Kenshin’s insistence. “I’ll meet you at the road on the far side.”
“Of course,” Saitō declared, in a tone that said, ‘We already know that, idiot.’
Kurosaka nodded, clearly choosing to ignore the tone, and urged his horse forward.
Once he was out of earshot – normal earshot, at least – Saitō inclined his head slightly. “You do that very well,” he commented.
Kenshin shrugged; he had no particular interest in discussing how he acted as rurouni, much less the reasons for it, with Saitō.
“By the way,” the Shinsengumi continued, “you get seasick if you’re on a boat for more than a few hours.”
Kenshin blinked, not entirely certain he had heard right. Seasick?! When he realized that he had, he stared at Saitō in disbelief. “I what?!”
Saitō smirked at him. “I had to give Kurosaka an explanation for why we’re not going to Osaka, much less taking a boat from there to Tokyo, considering our orders from Ōkubo concerning speed. I could hardly give him the truth, after all.”
“So you told him that I get seasick?” Kenshin blurted. He knew his reaction was what Saitō had been anticipating when the Shinsengumi’s smirk widened. Kenshin glared at him, then frowned. “And he believed that?”
“Why shouldn’t he?” Saitō replied easily. “It’s hardly unusual.”
Kenshin sighed again – quieter this time, due to Saitō’s presence. “I don’t even know that I can act being seasick,” he commented.
“Going to Wakayama, you shouldn’t have to,” Saitō stated with a shrug. “I did tell him that it took a few hours for it to affect you. And since we’ll be going overland from Wakayama to Tokyo, you won’t have to worry about it then, either.”
Kenshin nodded absently. Personally, he was just as glad that they weren’t going to be taking a boat the entire way; not because he did get seasick – despite the excuse Saitō had used, he’d never been seasick in his life – but because until he could find a way to block some of what he was sensing from Saitō’s ki, Kenshin suspected he wouldn’t be able to tolerate such a long period of time in such close quarters. Going overland, at least he would have some space when he was riding point.
They rode in silence for a few minutes, and if it wasn’t precisely a comfortable silence, it wasn’t exactly a tension-filled one either.
“You mentioned that you had heard rumours of more bandit groups in the area,” Saitō continued finally, as the silence wore on. “Have you sensed anything so far?”
“No,” Kenshin replied, shaking his head. “It’s been reasonably quiet, but not too much so.”
“So what happened yesterday?” Saitō inquired then. “It’s not like you to walk into an ambush unless you already have a way out – and never into such a large ambush with civilians in tow.”
Kenshin grimaced, remembering. “I had Akemi on my shoulders,” he explained, “and Yoshi saw something in the bushes that he thought looked interesting. He pulled away from Keiko-dono and ran into the underbrush, and Keiko-dono ran after him. I couldn’t put Akemi down, and definitely couldn’t just leave her there.” He shrugged. “By the time I managed to catch up with Keiko-dono and Yoshi, they were already in the clearing, and I couldn’t get them out of there before the bandits spotted us.”
“In other words,” Saitō said, amusement clear in his voice, “you let a three-year-old lead you into an ambush.”
“And you wouldn’t have done the same?” Kenshin demanded. Saitō may have been his enemy, but Kenshin had never had any doubts about the strength of his honour.
Saitō thought about that for a moment, then shrugged. “I’d have tried calling the child back first, but if that didn’t work… yes, I probably would have,” he admitted.
The silence resumed for several minutes as they continued along the road, but Kenshin could sense a growing determination in Saitō’s ki that had him starting to feel more than a bit wary again.
Finally, Saitō spoke – and his words confirmed that Kenshin had definite cause for his apprehension. “So… what did you do to those bandits that left them merely unconscious? Considering that you used your battō-jutsu attack on the first two, I expected to find them, at least, as dead as the rest.”
Kenshin just managed to avoid wincing. He’d been hoping that Saitō would decide not to pursue this just yet… or at all…. What do I tell him?
The memories of Saitō as one of his three most dangerous opponents urged him to brush the Shinsengumi off; the knowledge could easily prove to be a too-valuable weapon in his hands. On the other hand, this new… compulsion that told him he belonged at Saitō’s side, which was rapidly growing stronger, was almost screaming that Saitō had to know, for the safety of them both.
“Well?” Saitō prompted.
Kenshin hated the thought of being controlled by anything he didn’t understand, especially when it involved exposing a potential vulnerability to anyone, much less someone who had never been a friend. Nonetheless, he found himself giving in once again to the urging of these new instincts.
Reining in his horse, he dismounted, not wanting to try manoeuvering himself around in the saddle to get at his sword – he wasn’t quite confident enough of his skill to handle that. As Saitō did the same, Kenshin stepped away from the horse, removed his sakabatō from his obi, and unsheathed it enough for the Shinsengumi to see the blade.
“It’s a sakabatō, a reverse-blade,” he said quietly.
Saitō frowned, his eyes narrowing as he studied the steel. “Why would you carry a blade like that?”
Kenshin took a deep breath, and then let it out slowly. He really didn’t want to explain… but now that he’d shown Saitō the sakabatō, he didn’t have much of a choice left. “So that I don’t kill.”
Saitō’s eyes narrowed even further, their gold colour giving them the appearance of glowing in the sunlight. “Explain,” he demanded curtly.
Narrowing his own eyes, Kenshin met Saitō’s gaze with a glare. Orders again, Saitō? His lips tightened, sending the Shinsengumi an unmistakable signal that he wasn’t going to answer that.
Saitō scowled. “Battōsai…” he said, drawing the name out, both his tone and his ki projecting impatience and warning.
Kenshin re-sheathed his sakabatō, slipping it back into his obi, and continued to glare at Saitō as he crossed his arms over his chest. Perhaps it would be best to actually spell things out for him…. “I don’t take orders from you, Saitō,” he declared coldly. “I suggest that you stop trying to make me.”
He smiled tightly as frustration swirled through Saitō’s ki.
“Very well,” the Shinsengumi said, irritation clear in his voice. “In that case, I will ask: why do you carry a sword meant to prevent you from killing?”
He would just restate it… and in a way I can’t argue as easily. Kenshin took a deep breath, and let it out slowly.
“Battōsai…” Saitō repeated, prodding.
“I thought you agreed not to call me that,” Kenshin objected, in a – probably blatant – effort to stall.
“Kurosaka is nowhere near; neither is anyone else,” Saitō said tightly. “Are you going to answer the question?”
Between the determination now radiating from Saitō’s ki and the new instincts pushing him to respond, Kenshin was starting to feel cornered; a feeling he hated, that tended to make him react as though he were about to be attacked. Unfortunately, those very same instincts that were urging him to answer wouldn’t let him make his usual response, which would be to attack Saitō in return, even if only verbally – not over this.
A deliberately blatant surge of impatience joined the determination Kenshin was sensing from the Shinsengumi, increasing the pressure on him, and he found himself tensing even further in reaction for a moment.
Saitō frowned darkly. “Well, Battōsai?”
Chikusho! Kenshin’s hands clenched into fists as he glared at Saitō; he could almost feel his eyes changing to amber. I don’t have a choice, do I. I’m going to have to tell him sooner or later… and he’s going to keep bothering me about it until I do tell him…. He took another deep breath, steeling himself, then said flatly, “Because I will not kill. Ever again.”
engawa: Covered porch that surrounds a Japanese building.
[Edited Tues. Jan. 23/07] Go to Chapter 4 To Journey Forward (In which Saitō broods some more, Kenshin broods some more, and Kurosaka decides to try to find out what the heck is going on.)
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