Early Christmas present! (Oh, and the first three chapters will be edited over the next week.)
Here’s Chp. 4 of RuroSen: A Strange Partnership, in which we have arguing, a lot more brooding, and an unexpected visitor….
[Minor Edits: Wed. Jan. 24/07.]
1) Please note that what the characters think may be happening is not necessarily what is happening….
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 4: To Journey Forward
Saitō stared in disbelief as Battōsai stalked back to his horse, re-mounted, and gave it a nudge with his heels, urging it into a walk.
This new twist was as difficult for him to understand as the truth of Battōsai’s age; perhaps even more difficult.
How could Battōsai simply stop killing?
Not that Saitō enjoyed killing, nor did he believe the hitokiri felt that way; but the fact remained that they were both killers. That was part of the reason he was so furious at what Katsura had done to the boy Battōsai had once been: once you became a killer, once you became good at it, there was no going back.
The Shinsengumi absently took his own horse’s reins, mounted, and set it to following Battōsai as he continued to grapple with the shock he had just received.
He caught up with Battōsai about two minutes down the road, but as the hitokiri made it very clear that he intended to ignore Saitō completely, not even looking over at him, they continued down the road in silence.
Saitō didn’t mind the silence itself – a large part of his problem with Kurosaka was that the man just couldn’t be quiet – but the fact that Battōsai was ignoring him was increasing his frustration. Although it did give him a chance to continue thinking about the situation….
A decision to never kill again was impractical at best, especially for Hitokiri Battōsai. At worst, it was suicidal. Sooner or later, he would have run into a situation where the only choices were to kill or to be killed; and it would definitely have been sooner if he was ever recognized. What would he have done in that case? Just let his attacker cut him down?
The thought of that ever happening caused another surge of that instinctive, protective fury to race through Saitō, and he saw Battōsai shift a bit in his saddle in discomfort, though the hitokiri still refused to look at him.
Because of what he’s sensing from my ki? Saitō wondered curiously. It was an interesting question – why would sensing his ki the way Battōsai claimed he was make the hitokiri uncomfortable? – but it was one for another time. For now, he was more concerned about this ridiculous idea Battōsai had, of not killing.
Finally, after about ten more minutes of riding in silence, with Saitō trying to figure things out and Battōsai focused on ignoring him completely, they reached the crossroads that led back to Ikawa. Saitō reined his mount in, and for a moment, thought that Battōsai was going to try continuing on; but even as the thought occurred to him, the hitokiri brought his own horse to a stop.
Saitō had managed to come to only one conclusion over the past ten minutes: he had to know Battōsai’s reasons for making the decision he had. Once he knew those reasons, Saitō was confident he would be able to convince the hitokiri to see sense.
Casting his hearing about, Saitō was relieved to find that Kurosaka was still nowhere close. A slight nudge with his knee sent his horse sidling closer to Battōsai’s.
“Why?” he asked bluntly, when he was close enough to grab the reins if Battōsai did take it into his head to attempt running. Saitō was fully aware of how dangerous the hitokiri could be if cornered – he had the scars to prove it. However, the fact that Battōsai hadn’t attacked him for his earlier question – despite it being obvious he had wanted to – made the Shinsengumi suspect he’d been right about Battōsai having the same protective instincts he did; and he had no intention of leaving any other avenue besides that of answering his question open.
Battōsai looked up, and Saitō felt a flare of excitement at the challenge he now faced as the hitokiri’s gaze met his. “Why what?” Battōsai demanded, the cold, quiet tone as familiar as the burning amber eyes that stared back at him.
Saitō kept his own expression cold. “Why decide that you won’t kill again?”
Battōsai’s eyes narrowed. “That is none of your business, Saitō.”
“Are you sure of that?” Saitō countered. “It seems to me that it is very much my business, given that we are to be partners.”
He’d surprised Battōsai with that, Saitō saw, surprised himself as the hitokiri’s eyes widened in unguarded shock. “Partners?!”
Surely he had realized? Battōsai had been the first to use the word, when he’d spoken of the story his shishō had told him. Wasn’t he aware of what he had said? And even if he wasn’t, what had he thought Saitō was proposing when he suggested they request Ōkubo assign them to work together?
“Yes, partners,” Saitō began, then paused as his hearing caught something – hoofbeats, coming from the direction of Ikawa. Most likely Kurosaka returning…. Damn his timing! At least he seemed to be far enough away that Saitō might just get a chance to finish this before the imbecile came within earshot. “Did you listen to what you told me of the story you’d heard from your shishō?”
Battōsai flushed slightly, surprising Saitō once again; he hadn’t realized he’d managed to get the hitokiri that far off-balance.
“I’m not a master of–” Battōsai started, then stopped, his mouth snapping shut, as the hoofbeats got a bit closer. His head tilted in the too-familiar gesture, and his lips tightened. “Kurosaka’s coming,” he declared flatly, nudging his horse slightly farther from Saitō’s.
Chikusho! Damn his timing! Saitō repeated to himself, as Battōsai drew in a deep breath, and the amber faded from his eyes. He’d had Battōsai, had him off-balance enough that he might have managed to get some answers from him… if only Kurosaka had taken a little longer. Damn him!
When Kurosaka arrived at the crossroads, it was to see Himura-kun sitting in his saddle, looking down at the reins he was twisting in his fingers, tense and paler than he’d been this morning… and Fujita glaring at him, almost as though he was the one who’d upset the boy. Assuming he cares about Himura-kun at all, that is, Kurosaka reflected, feeling a touch of irritation himself. But I couldn’t have done anything, considering that I haven’t been here….
“Did you get lunch?” Fujita snapped.
“Yes,” Kurosaka replied, keeping his tone as mild as possible.
“Good. We’ll eat on the way,” Fujita ordered. “You’ll stay with us this afternoon, Himura.”
The boy looked up at that, his eyes narrowed. “I told you not to order me around,” he snarled.
“Then consider it a very strong suggestion,” Fujita snapped in return.
“So why don’t you ride point then, Fujita-san?” Himura-kun demanded.
Maybe I should volunteer, Kurosaka thought; then, eyeing his partner and the boy, he rapidly reconsidered. No, I don’t think I want to get into the middle of this. The way they were glaring at each other, Kurosaka suspected that Fujita would end up drawing his sword if he even opened his mouth, much less said anything.
Almost as though he’d read Kurosaka’s mind, Fujita’s response was a curt, “Kurosaka can.”
“Either you do it, or I will,” Himura-kun said, equally curt.
Fujita scowled, then abruptly reached out and grabbed the reins of Himura-kun’s horse. “Our conversation is not finished, Himura,” he stated bluntly.
Himura’s expression flickered, too quickly for Kurosaka to read, and then he lowered his head, bangs covering his eyes. “We can finish it later,” the boy countered – but the fight seemed to have gone out of his tone.
Fujita looked completely taken aback by the sudden change. “Himura–” he started, his eyes narrowing warily.
The boy looked up at him for a moment, and then back down at his reins. “Later,” he repeated. He paused for a moment, and then added, “Besides, I’m hungry.”
If Fujita had been anyone else, Kurosaka would have laughed at the expression of utter bewilderment on his face as he released Himura-kun’s reins. As it was, he simply felt relieved at the defusing of the situation, and let his amusement focus on the evidence that despite the oddities he’d noticed, Himura-kun was a normal teenager; the boy’s plaint sounded almost exactly like the ones issued by his younger brothers.
Reaching into the saddlebag where he’d put the food, Kurosaka pulled out three cloth-wrapped packages, one of them larger than the others, and handed that one to Himura-kun. “Here you go.”
“Thank you for the lunch, Kurosaka-san,” the boy said, with a polite nod, before looking back at Fujita. “I’ll go ahead now and take point again,” he declared evenly, taking clear advantage of the opportunity to avoid further argument, and had his horse trotting ahead before Fujita could react.
Fujita scowled, then shot a glare at Kurosaka as he handed over one of the other packages; but didn’t say anything other than, “Let’s go. We don’t want Himura getting too far ahead of us.”
Kenshin slowed his horse down to a walk as he got far enough ahead of Saitō and Kurosaka that the pressure of Saitō’s fury eased.
Saitō’s reactions to the revelation of his vow never to kill again had him confused and more than a little off-balance. Kenshin had expected the Shinsengumi to react with disbelief, or perhaps even contempt, considering his personality and what Kenshin knew of him; he had not expected fury, of all possible responses.
And that statement about them becoming partners…. That was the very last thing Kenshin had ever expected to hear from Saitō Hajime, especially directed toward him.
Despite his rank as a Unit Captain with the Shinsengumi, Saitō had always been more of a… lone wolf. A lone Miburō? Kenshin felt a touch of amusement at the pun – It does seem an appropriate one… – but quickly returned his attention to the puzzle Saitō had presented him.
The Shinsengumi – especially Okita Sōji and Saitō – had been among his deadliest enemies during the Bakumatsu; and Kenshin had made a point of not only relying on his impressions from meeting them at swords’-point (accurate as they might have been), but also paying attention to any intelligence the Ishin Shishi managed to gather about them – again, Okita and Saitō in particular. He knew Saitō been friends and had worked with Okita, but other than that – whether he was working undercover for Hijikata Toshizō, or in his capacity as Unit Captain – Saitō had never shown any indications of actually wanting to work with anyone else, either in a team or with a partner; an impression his attitude toward Kurosaka had done nothing to change.
And now he’d effectively offered Kenshin a partnership.
That still had him feeling stunned. Saitō had said it as though it were a given, as though it was impossible to even think otherwise….
“We are to be partners…. Did you listen to what you told me of the story you’d heard from your shishō?” Saitō’s voice echoed from his memory, and Kenshin frowned.
He knew what he’d said, and he knew what the implications were. But he also knew that he was not a master of Hiten Mitsurugi-Ryū; and it was only after they had achieved their mastery that the previous wielders of Hiten Mitsurugi – the ones who’d had partners – had gained them, not before. Now that he was thinking about it, he could remember Hiko emphasizing that fact. Several times.
Of course, the fact that there was definitely a connection between them – and that he couldn’t seem to resist Saitō’s ‘requests’ as strongly as he should be able to, much less flee from him – made Kenshin think that Hiko might have been mistaken about that…. As impossible as Shishō would claim that to be, he added wryly to himself.
And he definitely should prefer to flee from Saitō; logically speaking, it was the only way to avoid the attention of the government – the very attention he didn’t want. The problem was, aside from the fact that he couldn’t do so, he didn’t want to. It appeared to be an effect of the connection… a rather unpleasant effect.
Everything was happening much too fast. Yesterday at this time, things had been normal; or at least as normal as they had been over the past year and a half.
And now, in less than a day, his life had once again spun on its axis and ended up twisted all out of recognition.
First Saitō had appeared – that had been a definite shock – and Kenshin had discovered that he was working as a police officer for the Meiji government. Not that the choice of occupation was really much of a surprise, Kenshin admitted, considering Saitō’s personal philosophy of Aku Soku Zan, ‘Swift Death to Evil’. No, Saitō becoming a police officer made sense (though Kenshin was surprised that he hadn’t waited a few more years before joining, which would probably have obviated the need for a watcher entirely); Kenshin had simply never thought he would see the Shinsengumi again after the battle at Toba Fushimi.
Then had come the revelations about Saitō’s senses, and his own… ‘insight’ into Saitō’s ki….
Kenshin shivered involuntarily. Truth be told, that scared him. It wasn’t just that he was constantly on-edge in Saitō’s presence because the Shinsengumi’s ki felt unmasked, as though he were about to attack; it was more – much more – than that.
For example, the fact that he could sense Saitō’s emotions almost as though they were his own; most of Saitō’s emotions, or perhaps even all of them, not just the strong ones.
Admittedly, over the course of the morning, he had realized that this insight wasn’t like sensing Saitō’s thoughts; he’d been wrong about that last night. Unlike the strongest emotions, the ones felt during battle, there was no intent shadowing most of what he was sensing from the Shinsengumi; no way to tell why Saitō felt what he did, or how much effect any of those emotions were having on his actions. And in many ways, Kenshin suspected that this was worse than sensing actual thoughts; since he could not distinguish which emotions were fueling which of Saitō’s words and actions, it left him uncertain how and what to react to.
This was most definitely not something Hiko’s tales of those partnerships had ever mentioned; Kenshin was absolutely certain of that.
And it only got worse from there.
For years now, ever since Tomoe’s death, he’d done his best to avoid establishing ties with people. What had happened with and to her had shown him how far people would be willing to go to get him; and even now, when he was no longer a hitokiri, there was still the danger that his enemies would be willing to go through innocent people in order to see him dead. Along with his need to avoid the new government, that had been one of the major reasons for taking up the lifestyle of a rurouni.
But now he and Saitō were linked in a way that Kenshin suspected would be difficult, if not impossible, to break. If he had needed any further indications of that, his inability to even think seriously about attacking Saitō when he’d felt threatened by the questions earlier was an excellent one. He’d kept the sakabatō Arai Shakku had given him to ensure that his instincts and reflexes didn’t end up killing anyone else, because he was well aware of just how dangerous he was; yet he couldn’t attack Saitō – who had been an enemy, after all, and whom he knew was good enough to evade him – sakabatō or not.
That was bad enough. But something potentially far worse had happened just a few minutes ago.
Kurosaka had been there, right there, right in front of them… and they’d both completely forgotten about him for a minute or two. It was only the fact that Kurosaka had shifted in his saddle when Saitō had grabbed his reins, making it creak, that had reminded Kenshin they had an audience – which was why he’d given the appearance of backing down.
Whatever else this connection was, the fact that this had happened made it dangerous. He and Saitō had been so focused each other that they’d shut everything else out… including the presence of another swordsman. Admittedly, they probably would have sensed someone who meant them harm, but there was no guarantee of that. And absolute awareness of his surroundings was something Kenshin couldn’t afford to lose, not even for a second. It could all too easily mean his death… or someone else’s.
This latest twist to the… connection, link, whatever it was tying Saitō and himself together… it terrified him.
But I have no idea how to stop any of it from happening – or even how to control it. And that… I think that terrifies me even more than all the rest.
Night had fallen by the time they reached Kawashima.
Kenshin had brooded about the issue of the connection between himself and Saitō for most of the afternoon, finally giving up two hours ago when Saitō and Kurosaka had come up to join him. There were two reasons for that: the first being that he didn’t want to get into a discussion about it with Saitō until he had things straight in his own mind; and the second being that he simply didn’t know enough about what was going on. He could speculate all he wanted, based on Hiko’s stories and what he, personally, was sensing; but even the bits and pieces of the stories that he did remember didn’t give him enough definite information to let him understand the link, Saitō’s senses, his own insight, or what the reason for all of it was.
So when the others had joined him, Kenshin had pushed all of that to the back of his mind. He didn’t forget about it, of course, and he knew he’d undoubtedly start thinking about it again later; but for the present, it was best to concentrate on his surroundings.
Now, besides being rather sore from the length of the ride, Kenshin was beginning to regret having tucked the packet containing his lunch into his bag rather than eating the contents, lack of appetite or not. He hadn’t taken it out, however, because he didn’t want either Saitō or Kurosaka to know that he hadn’t eaten lunch; especially not after he’d made a point of being hungry in order to get the opportunity to take the point position.
And especially since Saitō appeared to be willing to keep his peace for the moment concerning the continuation of their discussion about his vow. Kenshin didn’t want anything destroying the respite, however brief it might be.
“We’ll get rooms at the local inn,” Saitō remarked, as he led the way into town, breaking the silence that had lasted for the past two hours.
Kenshin just nodded absently, too tired to care overly much about the arrangements. Saitō would no doubt do whatever he wanted anyway, and with his hair dyed black, it was highly unlikely he would be recognized by anyone, which would have been the only reason to object to spending the night at an inn. He certainly wouldn’t mind being in a room as opposed to sleeping against a tree.
Too tired to care about the arrangements for the night, however, did not mean too tired to memorize the route Saitō took. He might have suddenly developed a whole new set of instincts in dealing with the Shinsengumi, but for everything else, his old instincts still held strong, including the need to make sure he knew exactly where he was and how to leave – fast – if he needed to. That had saved his life more than a few times, both in Kyoto and after.
As soon as they reached the inn, a boy came out to take their horses. Kurosaka went in to arrange for rooms and dinner, and Kenshin leaned against one of the columns holding up the roof of the engawa, hoping the arrangements wouldn’t take long.
He could feel Saitō’s eyes on him, and felt a surge of wariness, wondering if the respite was over already and the Shinsengumi intended to start questioning him again.
To his relief, all Saitō said was, “Tired?”
Kenshin gave him a slight shrug. “It has been… some time since I last rode; and that was never all day,” he admitted after a moment’s thought. He was fairly sure that Saitō was aware he hadn’t been born a samurai; and for all that they had supported and fought for the Shogunate, the Shinsengumi had been more interested in whether one had the skill to fight than in what one’s birth-rank was.
Saitō nodded. “This inn has hot baths,” he commented, his tone casual, though the feel of his ki suggested that the statement wasn’t quite as casual as it seemed. “That might help.”
Kenshin could still remember Takasugi-san giving him the same advice the first time he’d ridden a horse, and gave a nod of his own. “That sounds like a good idea. Thank you.” Then he looked toward the door as he sensed Kurosaka’s ki approaching again.
“We seem to have encountered some luck,” the police officer remarked as he joined them on the engawa. “The inn is not terribly busy, so I managed to get us three rooms.”
Kenshin was rather relieved by that fact: he did not want to share a room with either Saitō or Kurosaka, particularly not when he suspected he’d be having nightmares again tonight; and he had a feeling that neither of the other two were interested in sharing a room with each other, either.
Saitō, however, obviously felt otherwise as a sharp flicker of irritation flared in his ki for a moment, but he didn’t say anything, just shot a glare at Kurosaka. And Kenshin blinked in surprise as he realized why….
Does he really think I’d be interested – much less willing – to discuss anything here, where the possibility of being overheard is even worse than while riding? The Ishin Shishi may have used inns as bases, but we knew who everyone in the inn was, and all of them, including the staff, were members of the Ishin Shishi.
So far as we knew, at least… came the additional thought, as Iizuka’s face flashed in his memory for a moment.
Kenshin felt his own anger flare at the memory of the traitor, and quickly lowered his gaze to the wooden floor of the engawa, hoping neither of the other two had noticed. “What about dinner?” he asked, forcing his voice to sound as casual as he could make it.
Kurosaka chuckled slightly, which confused Kenshin enough that he felt his rage retreat. What was so funny?
“I’ve already requested some be prepared for us. As soon as we’ve put our bags in our rooms, we can go down to the dining hall to eat,” Kurosaka replied.
“Good,” Kenshin murmured, feeling another touch of hunger. Keiko-dono had spoiled him over the past week, constantly trying to convince him to eat more, claiming he was too thin; which was one of the reasons Kiyoshi-san had disliked him so much – he hadn’t appreciated the doting attitude his mother had adopted for Kenshin. She had insisted on feeding him at least three times a day, rather than the sporadic meals he’d become accustomed to, and despite the fact that it had only been a week, he’d grown used to that.
“Hungry again?” Saitō asked, a touch snidely; and something about his tone, or his ki, told Kenshin that the Shinsengumi knew he hadn’t eaten his lunch.
How did he– Kenshin’s eyes widened as the answer came to him, then narrowed as he looked back up at Saitō. He was listening to me! Not just to my heartbeat, but to me….
Before Kenshin could snap at Saitō – or even say something under his breath about spying – Kurosaka shook his head. “Of course he’s hungry, Fujita-san,” he said, gesturing for them to enter the inn. Saitō stepped forward to join him, and Kenshin started to trail in behind them. “Teenagers are always hungry, especially teenage boys. All that growing to do.”
Just about to step into the building, Kenshin froze.
He did not just say that. He did not just say that. Oh, kami… please tell me he didn’t say what it sounded like he did….
Kuso… kuso… kuso….
“Come on, Himura-kun!” Kurosaka called over his shoulder, as Saitō strode down the hall ahead of him. “I’m told the innkeeper’s wife is an excellent cook, and I’m sure you would prefer to eat as soon as possible, right?”
Chikusho…. Oh, kami-sama…. Kenshin forced himself to move forward again, even as he tried to figure out what had happened.
Takasugi-san had known how old he was. So had Katsura-san. Okami-san had guessed from the very beginning, though she hadn’t let on that she knew until he’d brought Tomoe back to Kohagi-ya, and even then she had kept it to herself.
No one else had known; not even Iizuka… not even Tomoe. They’d all thought him older than he was, despite his height and appearance; thought that he’d been at least fifteen, or even sixteen or seventeen, when Katsura-san had first brought him to Kyoto to serve as Chōshū’s hitokiri. And he knew that the Shinsengumi had never guessed his true age; he suspected most of them, including Okita himself, had thought he was around Okita or Tōdō Heisuke’s age.
No one else should ever have known. Generally, between his scar, his sword, and his somewhat patched clothes, people just assumed that he looked younger than he really was. In the more than year and a half that he’d been wandering, Ichiro-san and Keiko-dono had been the only ones he’d met who hadn’t believed he was older than he looked….
Keiko-dono must have told Kurosaka; Kenshin couldn’t think of any other way the man would have known he was not yet twenty. Well, at least that explained why Kurosaka had been calling him ‘-kun’, though it certainly didn’t make him feel any happier about it–
Abruptly, Kenshin realized that he’d sensed no surprise at all from Saitō at what Kurosaka had said. And there should have been surprise; he knew perfectly well that Saitō had thought the same as the rest of the Shinsengumi, that he was about Okita’s age. If Saitō had known how old ‘Battōsai’ really was, his honour would not have let the Shinsengumi go after him the way he had in the last three and a half years before Toba Fushimi.
Then he remembered the shock he’d sensed from Saitō’s ki last night, shortly before the Shinsengumi had found him doing the laundry; the shock that had, at the time, made him think Saitō didn’t realize that his ki was unmasked. Had that been when Saitō had found out?
Kurosaka eyed his companions warily as they sat down to dinner. This afternoon’s ride had been a reasonably quiet one once Himura-kun had forced the issue of who was riding point; even during the last two hours, after he’d persuaded Fujita that it wouldn’t be wise to leave Himura-kun alone up ahead as dusk came on, given that it was a time favoured for bandit attacks, things had still been calm. He really didn’t want that to be ruined now.
To his relief, neither Himura-kun nor Fujita seemed to be in the mood to taunt each other while they ate, and dinner started out as quietly as the rest of the afternoon and evening had been. Yes, it was definitely a relief.
Once their immediate hunger had been taken care of, Kurosaka decided that it was time to work on getting to know Himura-kun. After all, they were going to be travelling all the way to Tokyo together… it behooved him to at least see if the boy would prove to be a more pleasant travelling companion than Fujita. When he and Fujita weren’t arguing, that was.
“So, Himura-kun,” he began, as the serving maid took away the empty bowls from the first part of their meal, “I was wondering… why do you want to come to Tokyo?”
The boy looked startled at being addressed, and Kurosaka saw his eyes flick to Fujita for a moment, before he gave a slight shrug and replied quietly, “I’ve been to many places… I’ve been wandering for a while now… but I’ve never seen the new capital. It sounded… interesting.” He paused for a moment, then added in a reluctant tone, “I don’t think I would have decided to go if you and Fujita-san hadn’t been there, however. It’s… a long journey.”
“And much shorter on horse – or by boat – than on foot,” Kurosaka agreed.
Himura-kun shrugged again. “I get seasick when I’m on a boat for too long,” he admitted. “Fujita-san mentioned that you would only be going to Wakayama by boat, and travelling the rest of the way by horse; so,” he smiled faintly, “I thought that now would be as good a time as any to see Tokyo.”
Kurosaka was quite surprised by the implication that Fujita hadn’t mentioned that going to Wakayama was a change of their original itinerary… and that Himura-kun had apparently mentioned that he got seasick before Fujita had agreed to let him come along. The way they’d been taunting each other he wouldn’t have thought that much… openness was possible. He did his best not to let any of that surprise show on his face, however.
“Besides,” the boy added, “I should be quite safe from bandits, travelling with two police officers; especially ones who dealt with a whole band by themselves.”
“All part of the job,” Kurosaka replied easily.
Fujita, who had been studiously ignoring them, turned his head slightly to glare at that. He didn’t say anything, but he didn’t have to; his scornful look was quite clear.
Kurosaka hid a wince, but took the hint and changed the subject.
“So, how long have you been wandering for?” he asked.
Himura-kun shifted, looking a bit uneasy at the question. “Several seasons,” he replied, after a moment or two.
“Where have you been?” Kurosaka prompted him, wondering a bit at the uneasiness. Maybe he’d run away from something?
That was evidently the right question, because the boy began talking about his travels through southern Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku, and some of the people he’d met along the way. Between his comments about his travels, and Kurosaka’s questions, the rest of dinner passed in a rather pleasant fashion; at least, pleasant for himself and Himura-kun. Kurosaka had no idea what Fujita thought; as usual, he stayed silent.
Kurosaka had actually found it rather surprising at first. One didn’t tend to think of any of the Shinsengumi as being ‘quiet and retiring’, least of all one who had been a unit captain, but that was the impression Fujita tended to prefer giving people. Although… Kurosaka had occasionally thought that perhaps it was because one would never associate that attitude with one of the infamous ‘Wolves of Mibu’ that Fujita did it….
Either way, the fact that Fujita didn’t join in the discussion let Kurosaka relax somewhat, and he found as he stood up from the table that he’d rather enjoyed the meal. By this point, however, Himura-kun was looking rather tired, and Kurosaka was about to suggest that the boy go to bed when Fujita finally spoke up.
“We’re going to need to leave early tomorrow morning if we’re to catch the ferry on time,” he remarked coolly. “Himura, I suggest you get some sleep, as we will be leaving shortly after sunrise.” With that, he strode out of the dining hall.
Kurosaka looked at Himura-kun and shrugged. “He’s right that we’ll need to get some sleep,” he remarked.
“Yes,” the boy agreed, hiding a yawn. “And I am tired…. I will see you tomorrow morning, Kurosaka-san.”
“Sleep well, Himura-kun,” Kurosaka replied, as the boy followed Fujita out. Turning back to the table for a moment, he took out his money-pouch and put down the payment for the meal, then headed up to his own room and what would hopefully be a peaceful rest. At least he didn’t have to share with Fujita tonight….
Kenshin’s eyes widened in surprise as he looked around. He recognized where he was – how could he not? This was Kyoto!
But it was a Kyoto that was subtly, strangely different from the one he’d known; a difference that could not be explained by the end of the battles that had raged in the city’s streets up to a year and a half ago. The city seemed devoid of life, though it did not look abandoned… and everything, including the light that came from no discernable source, was tinted blue.
His eyes narrowed thoughtfully as he looked around again, taking in more details of his immediate surroundings. He was standing in a narrow alley, near the back wall; an alley that seemed more familiar than could be accounted for by the fact that it was simply a part of Kyoto. A glance upward showed him that the buildings were of a height he could easily jump, which intensified the feeling of familiarity.
Before he could identify precisely why it was so familiar, Kenshin heard an oddly rhythmic clicking sound approaching along the main street. Despite the strangeness of the situation, he felt no threat from whatever it was that was making the sound. Giving in to the curiosity he felt, Kenshin slipped out of the alley and looked in the direction the noise had come from.
His eyes widened again, in shock this time, as he got a look at the source of the clicking.
Walking towards him from the direction of the Emperor’s palace was an enormous black wolf, whose shoulders quite likely reached up to about mid-chest on him. Golden eyes, gleaming bright with intelligence, met Kenshin’s own, and he felt a flicker of something that was almost like recognition pass through him, despite the fact that he’d never seen a wolf this big before.
The wolf stopped about two shaku away from him and sat back on its haunches, letting Kenshin get a good look at it.
Its coat was completely black, with no grey, white, or brown hairs visible at all. It was lean, but not skinny, and well-muscled… obviously very fit and well-fed.
And it was just sitting there, in the middle of a city street, waiting patiently… which was even stranger than the lack of people and the peculiar light.
“What is happening?” Kenshin muttered out loud.
He didn’t expect an answer, and he definitely didn’t expect what happened next.
As Kenshin stared, feeling a sudden wariness mingled with confusion, the wolf’s form blurred and shifted… until Saitō Hajime was standing in front of him, dressed in the blue and white haori of the Shinsengumi uniform, with his hair pulled back in a topknot, exactly where the wolf had been only a moment ago.
“Saitō?!” Kenshin blurted; then tensed, as he realized he couldn’t sense anything aside from the ‘lack-of-threat’ that the wolf had been projecting. Despite appearances, this couldn’t be Saitō, not if he couldn’t feel the Shinsengumi’s ki—
He couldn’t sense Saitō at all! Not even the tight restraint and flickers of intent that had been how he’d always sensed Saitō’s ki before yesterday….
Panic began to rise as he reached out with his ki-sense, desperate with the need to find Saitō, to sense his presence – the real Saitō, not this… apparition in front of him.
Why am I feeling like this? It’s only been a bit over a day since I’ve been able to sense him that strongly… since this link was formed, Kenshin’s logic pointed out; but that logic was not enough to overcome the swiftly building panic.
“No,” the… wolf?… said suddenly, in Saitō’s voice. “It has been much more than a day since your connection to him was first given form. Almost six years, from the first time he heard your heart beat, and you sensed his ki, masked though it was.”
“What’s going on?” Kenshin demanded, the panic not soothed at all by the response – not the least because this… ‘not-Saitō’ had answered his unspoken thoughts. “Who are you? And what do you mean by that?”
The wolf holding Saitō’s form smiled, revealing sharp white teeth. “You have spirit, Cub. That is good; you will need it.”
“What do you mean?” Kenshin demanded, his hand going automatically to the saya of his katana, thumb ready to unlock the blade. “Why aren’t you answering my questions?”
“And impatience,” the wolf murmured, in disapproval this time; its tone sounded so much like Hiko’s for a moment that Kenshin almost looked around in expectation of seeing his shishō suddenly appear. “That, Cub, you will need to learn to curb better.
“As for your questions…. First of all, it should be not who, but what am I.”
“Very well,” Kenshin declared, holding himself taut, ready to respond at the slightest hint of a threatening move; if this wolf-thing could look like Saitō when it obviously was not him, its projection of ‘non-threat’ could just as easily be a false one. “What are you, then?”
The wolf’s sharp smile widened at that. “Well, not quite the slow student the present Hiko Seijūrō has claimed you to be, then.”
Kenshin gaped at the mention of his shishō, startled and still nervous at its ability to read his thoughts; but he didn’t speak, doing his best to wait for an answer to the very important question of exactly what was facing him.
“The answer to that, Cub, is that I am shugorei.”
Shugorei! Kenshin was even more surprised by that than he had been at the mention of Hiko’s name. But… shugorei are powerful guardian spirits! Why would one of them be speaking to me?
“Why, because of who and what you are, Cub,” the spirit replied calmly.
Kenshin looked at it carefully, taking in the form the shugorei wore once again and remembering what it had first said, and sighed. He should have known; everything else that had happened over the past day and a half was centred on the connection between himself and Saitō, so it shouldn’t really be all that surprising that this – whatever ‘this’ was, because he still didn’t know that – would be as well.
“Very good, Cub. You have it right.” Then the spirit waited patiently.
After a moment’s thought, Kenshin asked, “Why do you keep calling me ‘Cub’?” He wasn’t terribly eager to start thinking about the connection again.
The spirit blinked, looking momentarily surprised, then its smile reappeared. “I believe that I begin to see the ‘how’ of the current situation…” it murmured quietly, then met Kenshin’s eyes. “Because I am ōkami-shugorei, and that is how I view the world. Because that is what you are: you are young, and not yet of adult age, so to the eyes of the wolf, you are a cub.
“Now,” it continued, its tone becoming somewhat stern, “we do not have that much time, and there are things that we need to discuss, Cub. And you had another question you had asked of me.”
In other words, as with Saitō, I am going to talk about it whether I want to or not. “You said something about the… connection…” it was the first time he had actually admitted out loud that it existed, and his voice was hesitant as he continued, “between myself and Saitō being six years old, not one day?”
“Indeed,” the spirit declared. “The ‘connection’, as you call it, between the two of you is a two-way, threefold bond that has existed in potential from the moment you were born. The one whose shape I wear… his side of the bond was formed the first moment he heard your heart beating in these very streets, six years ago. And when you sensed the approach of his ki, just before you fled, your own side of the bond was formed in turn.”
Kenshin looked around again, and recognition dawned; the alley he had come out of was the site of one of his earliest assassinations – one that the Shinsengumi had come upon just after he left.
Then he looked back at the wolf-spirit. “But… Saitō and I have faced each other many times, and it wasn’t until yesterday that… all this… happened!” he protested.
The spirit didn’t look at all concerned at Kenshin’s argument. “You cannot deny the fact that since your first meeting face-to-face, you have felt that there was something between the two of you, Cub,” it countered. “And even the strongest cloth requires time to be woven. Each time you met, each time he heard your heart, and you felt his ki, you strengthened the bond between you. Very gradually, true… the fact that you fought on opposite sides meant that you did not trust each other enough to relax your defenses… but even the slowest weaver will finish a piece eventually, and it may be all the stronger for the time and care taken with it.
“But just as water, when pent up too long, will wash away the dam in a flood once the pressure it bears is strong enough to set it free, the bond between the two of you – once it was freed by what you did yesterday – produced in hours what would have otherwise taken many years to set.”
Kenshin stared at it, speechless.
“And now it is fully woven… ki to ki, soul to soul, heart to heart.”
There was a long moment of silence as Kenshin worked out exactly what he’d just been told. Finally, he said quietly, “How was it freed?”
“You fought back-to-back to defend each other, and you trusted each other enough to let your defenses slip, if only slightly,” the spirit answered. “The bond itself did the rest.
“For six years, Cub, it has been as though the slight links that were all you both allowed to form between you were trickles of water seeping out through a tiny crack in a dam, where your high ki-sensitivity was one crack, and your partner’s senses were the other. The pressure has been building… and when the two of you let your defenses slip at the same time, it was able to break those cracks wide open.”
The spirit could only be referring to the fact that he and Saitō had both unshielded their ki slightly during the fight with the bandits. But while Saitō had done that to let him confirm his identity, Kenshin’s slip had been due to shock, pure and simple. That wasn’t trust!
“Was it not?” The spirit cocked its head and studied him, golden eyes glittering in the strange light, then sighed. “Cub, you are too well-trained to let slip the shields on your ki just because you have been startled; you would have been in your grave years ago if that were so. You may have been surprised, but the only reason that you would have let them slip at all is that you hold a certain amount of trust for the one whose form I wear. Perhaps you are not fully aware of it, but it is definitely there.”
Trust Saitō Hajime?! Trust the Shinsengumi captain who for years had been more focused than Okita and the rest of the Shinsengumi combined on fighting him?
Yes, he’d shown Saitō his sakabatō, and told him about the vow… but that was after, and was due solely to the connection. Without it, he didn’t trust Saitō!
Except to be honourable, and true to his word, and to follow his personal code and not attempt to kill me without a good reason… came the thought.
“And that, Cub, is more than enough,” the spirit said. “You may not yet have complete trust in him without the bond, but there are some ways in which you do trust him; and together with the fact that you are no longer fighting on opposite sides, it was enough.
“Now, do you have any further questions you wish to ask of me? Anything else that you wish to know?”
Kenshin hesitated. There was at least one other question he wanted answered….
“Ask, Cub. I may not answer, but you will never know if you do not ask.”
All right…. Kenshin took a deep breath, and then asked, “What exactly is going on?” He gestured to at the surroundings. “This is Kyoto, yet not. And the last thing I remember, I was sleeping in the inn in Kawashima. How did I get here, and why am I here? Why are you telling me all this?”
The spirit grinned, sharp teeth gleaming. “Good questions, all of them, Cub. And I can answer, at least in part.
“This place… is not a place, not really; it is more a… frame of reference, let us say, that permits us to communicate properly. Most spirits, both shugorei and others, have the ability to reach this place, and to pull others in with them. It can be difficult, and is not something done lightly, but it is possible. It is easier to pull in someone who is sleeping and close to dreaming – and that is the ‘how’ of your being here, and also what limits the time that can be spent here, as time does not pass as swiftly here as in the material world. Sooner or later you must wake up, and that will drag you away.
“As for the ‘why’… I did tell you there were things we needed to discuss, Cub. And they are the sorts of things that cannot be communicated in the ordinary fashion of spirit to non-spirit; they are too complex for that form of communication. They require speech, to frame the concepts so that they can be understood.”
“So what are the things we need to discuss?”
“We have already spoken of one: the bond between yourself and the Pack-Leader whose form I wear.”
Kenshin frowned at that. “‘The Pack-Leader’?” he repeated, puzzled.
The spirit shook its head, looking amused. “I did tell you I am ōkami-shugorei. Besides, you yourself know him as a wolf, do you not – a Miburō, one of the Wolves of Mibu, whose presence brings fear to those who harbor guilt? And he is a pack-leader, Cub, make no mistake about that. Not because of the rank he held among those he served with, but because it is who and what he is.”
A pack-leader. Kenshin could see that; and he couldn’t help but wonder what Saitō’s reaction to that particular description would be. It might be amusing to find out…. I wonder how I could bring it up?
“And the second is the why of that bond; or, at least, a part of the ‘why’,” the spirit continued, returning to the original topic. It didn’t mention anything about Kenshin’s last thought, which made him wonder a bit… but he was more interested in hearing what it was clearly about to tell him now.
“Your partner’s senses are heightened far above what is normal for one of your kind. There are reasons for that, but I fear that I am not permitted to give you the explanation; that is a task for another.”
Kenshin frowned again at that. Why couldn’t the shugorei tell him?
“What I can tell you, aside from the fact that there are reasons,” it continued, ignoring Kenshin’s silent question, “is that, like all such gifts of ability, that sensitivity brings not only certain strengths, but also the corresponding weaknesses.
“Your partner is not the first to be so gifted, not by far, and it is known that the best way to deal with the weaknesses imposed by that gift is a partner who can compensate for them. Often, the partner has their own gifts… frequently – like yours – a high sensitivity to ki.”
Kenshin’s frown deepened at the description of his ki-sensitivity as a ‘gift’, considering what the spirit had just said about such gifts. “Ki-sensitivity is a gift like Saitō’s senses?”
The spirit shook its head. “Not the normal ki-sensitivity of one trained to the sword,” it corrected, “but you – and most who share your role – have an innate, heightened sensitivity; yours is quite strong. And yes – that heightened sensitivity, like your partner’s senses, does render you vulnerable in some ways.”
“What–” Kenshin started.
“That is another thing I cannot tell you, cub. Both his vulnerabilities and your own are ones that you need to discover yourself.
“Just know that those vulnerabilities can be compensated for by your partner’s strengths, as your strengths compensate for his. The bond between the two of you is there to aid you in that, and because for such partnerships to work, there needs must be absolute trust between partners.”
This was not helping him feel any better, Kenshin thought grimly. He might trust certain aspects of Saitō’s behaviour, but the bond was forcing more than that….
The spirit cocked its head, and then it frowned. “These circumstances are… not normal, Cub,” it said carefully. “Ordinarily – as you gleaned from Hiko’s tales – you would have found each other after you became a master of Hiten Mitsurugi-Ryū. You would not have fought each other as enemies, and the bond would have grown steadily over the course of several years as you worked together, rather than the small, occasional growth in the middle of a fight, followed by the surge that happened yesterday. The trust, and the new instincts you have been struggling against, would have also grown during that time, more naturally, rather than suddenly come into existence as they did.”
“So what does that mean?” Kenshin demanded. “Can I do anything to change it?”
“No, you cannot, Cub.” The spirit met his eyes. “Whichever way it happened – steadily over years, or suddenly yesterday – the end result is the same, and cannot be changed.”
Kenshin dropped his eyes to his hands, absently noticing that his arm-guards looked a bit worn – the leather would need replacing soon. Now what was he to do?
“What is it that troubles you so much about this?” the spirit asked abruptly.
“Maybe it’s the fact that this ‘bond’ is forcing me into something I didn’t ask for!” Kenshin blurted out. “It’s effectively giving me no choice but to do what it wants… what Saitō wants! I didn’t even have a chance to say that I didn’t want it!” He looked up again, angry, knowing that his eyes had gone amber but not caring. “I didn’t want to go to Tokyo… I certainly didn’t want to tell Saitō about my vow never to kill again… but I couldn’t stop myself from doing so! It’s taken away my choices, my control over myself….”
Golden eyes studied him for a long moment. “I am sorry you feel that way, Cub… but you must realize that you are wrong. You feel the bond has given your partner control over you?”
“No,” the spirit said bluntly. “It has not. You are meant to be partners, Cub; and no matter how the Pack-Leader treats the other who travels with you, to be partners means to be equals. He has a certain power over you, yes. The bond and the instincts it has awakened in you – for as I said earlier, this is something you were born to be – are geared toward his protection. But,” it continued, holding up one hand to stop Kenshin from responding, “the bond also affects him, and he too has newly awakened instincts that tell him to protect you. If things were different, what would have happened in the clearing that he found you and the Toyomori family in?”
Kenshin blinked and thought about that for a minute or two. Well, Saitō had said that he had heard his heartbeat….
“If your partner still had his senses, I mean… but didn’t feel the need to protect you. What would have happened?”
If he didn’t feel a need to protect me? But…. Kenshin’s eyes widened as he understood what the shugorei was trying to point out. Saitō knew that I would be able to handle those bandits if I needed to; he’s seen me handle worse odds and escape without a scratch before. He didn’t need to watch my back, and he knew that. So why did he?
“Very good, Cub,” the spirit murmured. “And now that I’ve given you some things to think about, I believe it’s time that you woke up….”
shugorei: Guardian spirit.
Point of Information
for all that they had supported and fought for the Shogunate, the Shinsengumi had been more interested in whether one had the skill to fight than in what one’s birth-rank was: Neither Kondō nor Hijikata (commander & vice-commander of the Shinsengumi) were born samurai; they were both adopted into samurai families. (Information from Shinsengumi: The Shogun’s Last Samurai Corps by Romulus Hillsborough.)
Next up: Chapter 5 Uncertain Destinations: In which Saitō discovers that sunlight on water can be quite pretty….
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