High in the spine of one of Japan's northern mountain ranges, over fields of swaying gold-green grass and drunkenly-bumbling insects the heat lay settled thickly over the mountain slopes in a smothering humid layer. The sun beat down hot and fiercely even in these northern latitudes, where word had it that the air was cool and sweet. It had been a rough hot summer and the heat was almost unbearable even now, moving into the harvest times.
Sweat beaded at the cropped-short nape of one Saitou Hajime, trickling down his neck to be absorbed in the already damp collar of his dark navy uniform. Despite the discomfort of the heavy uniform and the pervading heat that had dogged his steps since Tokyo, Saitou's expression was schooled into impassivity, even boredom, as he listened to the stammering report of the latest member of the secret police he had made contact with.
"--So you see, Fujita-san, during this busy time for the harvesters it's suspicious for me to be called away," the sweating fat man said, scratching at his own damp bug-bitten neck. Tanaka's eyes shifted this way and that. "Especially by a policemen, you see? So I think--"
"I very much doubt it," Saitou interrupted, dropping the veneer of pleasantries that his persona as 'Fujita Goro' was wont to use. He regarded the sweating Tanaka with narrowed slits of wolf-amber eyes, and now his scorn was unconcealed. "There is a hitokiri loose in the northern mountains, or haven't you heard? The assassin is taking off heads from town to town, and you, a secret police member, are completely clueless."
"That's just back-hills gossip!" Tanaka scoffed, swiping at the sweat that rolled off his forehead. "It's ridiculous, Fujita-san."
"I'll judge whether something is ridiculous or not," Saitou said with icy composure. He looked down at Tanaka with contempt. "You've been in the mountains too long, Tanaka. Report back to Tokyo as fast as you can make travel arrangements."
"S-sir!?" Tanaka exclaimed, shocked into proper respect, but Saitou was already brushing past him. "Fujita, sir!"
Saitou dismissed the secret police officer with a flip of his hand, foregoing even a backward glance.
He'd learned all he could from this village. Tanaka might have his head up his ass, but if he'd heard nothing more of the head-cutting hitokiri than rumors, then Saitou didn't have to worry about this region. Yet. From what he'd gathered the further north he went, he would have to progress up the spine of the mountains to track down the killer. On this kind of mission Saitou was sent out for only one reason: to hunt down the killer and take him out.
It was the kind of clear-cut justice he lived by.
At the edge of the village where dusty grass turned into the dusty brown rut of a road, a police carriage awaited. He had been traveling in it for days now.
"Proceed," Saitou told the driver as he mounted the first step. With narrowed yellow eyes he surveyed the road as it dipped, then wound deeper into the mountains.
"We go further, into snow country."
Snow country wasn't at all what Seta Soujirou had been expecting. For one thing, he had been expecting snow. Had almost been looking forward to it, in fact. Soujirou hadn't seen snow since he was a very young boy, when his mother had still been alive and he lived in her care; when his father's family was nothing but the name Seta, and no more. He remembered the rice-white flakes falling from the sky like bits of paper, melting on slate and ground and the surface of his palm. He remembered the cold prickle of snow against his face, and how numb his nose got from the cold. Snow meant good memories to Soujirou and he had been looking forward to it.
Now he trudged up the strip of road and the sun beat about the shoulders of his faded kimono jacket. His lips were cracking and he was parched. Some time yesterday he had found a mountain spring and drank deeply, filling his waterskin too, but now it was empty and he had been walking for a long time. The string of one sandal was broken.
*My earth-folding technique wouldn't get me very far now,* Soujirou thought wryly. No matter how fast he was, he could still trip over something as silly as a broken sandal.
This next town was at the base of the valley and he had been seeing it grow steadily larger and more well-defined for the past few hours. Soujirou was looking forward to finding something cold to drink, or just something wet. After that he'd worry about finding a place to work.
"This 'wandering' business isn't all it's cracked up to be," Soujirou said aloud, startling himself with the hoarse sound. He coughed into his hand. "I should have taken Himura-san's philosophy a little more liberally." At that time, Soujirou had sworn in his heart that he would never kill again. He'd never wanted to in the first place; he had only done so in order to survive. After awhile he'd done so to stay in Shishio's good graces, without even realizing that was why. Coming up against Himura Kenshin had made him realize he didn't have to kill to be strong and survive.
Which led him to this place, more or less.
After the collapse of Shishio's kuni-tori, his attempt to overthrow Japan's government with the backing of the Ten Swords, Soujirou had wandered. Partly it was in imitation of Himura-san, who had given up his killing sword to become rurouni, a wanderer. A large part of Soujirou's impetus had been the capture of all the surviving Ten Swords. The sooner Soujirou wandered, the quicker he could escape.
The boy shivered as if a cold breeze had swept the valley. In reality the wind was warm as it tugged his kimono sleeves. At last, he was on the outskirts of the village, a large one compared to the last three he had passed through. This town sprawled out to fill the bowl of the valley. Perhaps there was room for him to stay here awhile.
"Excuse me, sir," Soujirou spoke up to the first person he saw, a peasant with a wide-brimmed hat who was in the process of hefting a bundled canvas load onto his shoulders.
The peasant gave him a startled glance. "Traveler?"
"Yes, I've just come from the south."
"Best go back." The man tipped his wide-brimmed hat, pulling it lower over his eyes.
"Sir?" Soujirou said, falling into his polite smiling mask. It was a little startling to be rejected in such a straightforward fashion.
"There's trouble here in Yukimura-ko," the man said with a nod, eyes darting about. His brown eyes took in Soujirou's dusty attire from broken lace to tied obi, where his sword no longer hung, to his smiling face. "There's a killer loose."
Soujirou's smile felt fixed on his face. "Is that so?" After the first instant he realized there was no way the man could be referring to him. Like Himura, Soujirou's appearance was puny enough that without a sword he wasn't taken for a swordsman.
"Aa, and from what I hear, this hitokiri's been killing plenty, and taking their heads," the peasant added. He hoisted the burden to his shoulders again and shambled off. "So you might want to consider going back to wherever you came from. It's safer."
*I wish that were true,* Soujirou thought. There was the relative safety of police custody. That was the only thing awaiting him back where he came from.
"Thank you," Soujirou said by way of farewell.
He looked up the street. Further along there were more people, carrying out errands and chatting in the street with neighbors; children playing. Soujirou had nowhere else to go, but perhaps fate had brought him here. Himura-san had been a shield for the people. Now that he was here in Yukimura-ko, if the people here were being troubled by a hitokiri that was something Soujirou understood. Instead of letting the man prey on defenseless people, Soujirou could protect them.
He would try.
Further up the street he spotted the sign for a restaurant, the 'Akai Hana.' Scarlet Flower.
That, he thought, was a good place to start.
The next town on Saitou's list was a village nestled in the hollow of a valley. It was too small for a police station larger than an outhouse, but it was big enough for a hitokiri to get lost. The carriage, he left in the lee of a rice barn near the road's edge of Yukimura-ko. He wanted to travel on foot, prowling in the streets full of people.
This case was a puzzling one.
As a member of the secret police, Saitou had access to many resources, to the files that most people had no knowledge of. He'd scanned the file of every hitokiri who had lived beyond the Bakumatsu. As a former Shinsen Gumi captain, Saitou had personal recollection of most of those, or as in Himura Kenshin's case, had tested their fighting skills first-hand.
Saitou had studied the files recently but no likely perpetrators sprang to mind. From garbled reports, a man bearing samurai swords -- the traditional katana and wakizashi -- had been seen near the sites where the bodies were discovered. The killer had taken the heads with him, because every single corpse was headless.
Every one of the victims had been a young, purportedly beautiful boy, a bishounen.
"Curious," Saitou muttered aloud, surveying the lay of the street as he stopped to light a cigarette.
The descriptions of the crime scenes hadn't held any ring of familiarity for him. The sprawl of a boy, nearly a man, on the pavement; the gaping wound of the neck and nothing else, for the head had been taken; the hour and the type of district where the boy had been found -- none of it fitted the profiles of the surviving hitokiri, like Himura or the late unlamented Shishio. Only the family of the fallen boys had been able to testify that their loved ones had been bishounen, and that was something Saitou had gone back to verify after the murder of the third brutally pillaged boy came to his division.
Even in coming to Yukimura-ko he was casting dice, acting on his own gut instinct and the apparent pattern that the killer was wandering north. Even in its seeming random nature, the hitokiri had been heading north and towards the coast. So Saitou sent detachments to the coast...but he had come here himself, deeper into the mountains. The coastal pattern was a diversion.
He resumed walking. The people here walked tall, their eyes clear and bright. This was a small northern town set apart from and hardly affected by the policies of the Meiji administration.
Looking at them through the eyes of a predator, this was the easy hunting ground. Saitou had a feeling he'd find his hitokiri here, and if not here, then somewhere nearby. It was a place pristine and untouched by the bloodshed of ten years ago, and like the first dusting of the snow, it waited to be tracked through, for the footprints to mark that perfection.
"Oi...oi, is that really you?" The rough gutter-accent with its liquid rolling consonants was familiar -- well-known to him, in fact -- and right now, utterly unwelcome.
Saitou's legs wanted to continue as if he'd never heard, but instead he came to a halt, polished black shoes stirring up dust puffs. "What? I thought you'd be in China by now."
Sagara Sanosuke darted around to Saitou's left to face him, travel-knapsack over his shoulder, brown eyes tense. "Well, maybe I took the long route. What're you doing here?" His low growl was edged with tension.
"Police business," Saitou snapped, then continued suspiciously, "what are you doing here?"
"If you're here on police business then that's sure as hell not your business!" Sanosuke shot back.
They stared each other down. Saitou's eyes never wavered from the young man's.
"Ahou, don't get in my way," Saitou said at last, stirring as if to walk, flicking the cigarette in his fingers to an early death.
"Asshole!" Sanosuke flared, one fist flying up, clenched to fight there in the street.
Saitou's lip quirked. He began to walk past, flipping his hand as if brushing aside a fly. "I'm too busy for this."
"Bastard!" Sanosuke yelled, drawing stares from all around them, whirling in the middle of the street and spitting out his used-up fishbone. "Jagoff! Even if you are Saitou Hajime, I'll--"
Now Saitou whirled in a quickstep, wolf-amber eyes glaring fit to stop anything in its tracks.
"You really are a dumbass," Saitou hissed, eyes narrowed at their deadliest. "I'm here as Fujita Goro. To use that name from the past so casually, who gave you permission?"
"Heh?" Sanosuke held up his hands and grinned like an idiot. "So sorry."
"Your apology is useless," Saitou said icily. At the edge of his vision he could see people spreading out in the wake of their disturbance, already passing on further ripples in urgent whispers. "It doesn't do me any good if word gets around." Of course, the damage had been done. He turned to leave decisively this time. He wouldn't be distracted by a fledgling brawler.
"Huh?" Saitou didn't have to glance behind himself to see the chicken-head scratching his head like the village simpleton. "Hey, wait! Hold up!"
Saitou kept his measured pace. The brawler would be lucky if he held his temper.
"What's the police's best doing in a place like this?" Sanosuke demanded, falling into step beside him. "If you're not here to fight me, then why are you here?"
Saitou glanced sidelong. "Still with your one-track mind as always."
"What? Hey, bast--"
"If you must know," Saitou interrupted the forthcoming tide of insults, "there's a hitokiri loose in the area. That's why I don't want you getting in my way."
"Don't want me getting in your way, huh?" Sano skipped beside him, holding up his bandaged fist and grinning. "Or maybe it's because you don't want me stealing your thunder?"
Saitou paused. "Ahou," he said without heat. He considered briefly. The fledgling's skill level had improved somewhat since their battles against Shishio's Ten Swords. While fighting against Enishi's group, Sanosuke had taken out Heishin's 'Byakko' warrior with the power of his patented offense. Sanosuke wasn't on Saitou's level, but the chicken-head could hold his own.
Besides, he could feel his afternoon paling in the summer heat with Sano tagging along trying to pry secrets from him. If he disclosed a few details and got it over with, perhaps then the ahou would leave him alone.
"It's police business," Saitou began, pulling another cigarette free, tapping it thoughtfully. Flakes of tobacco sifted through his gloves to flutter to the street.
"You already said that," Sanosuke observed.
Saitou snorted, sizing up the people on the street as they passed. Sano kept pace beside him, brown eyes not moving from his face. "If you're so determined to know, then follow me." He was mildly pissed about Sanosuke's not-so-minor slip of the tongue. There were people who remembered the Shinsen Gumi even in a town so small as Yukimura-ko. And from those, there were people who remembered former third division captain Saitou Hajime.
Still, from here he would check out the ramshackle police station and do what he could. If Sanosuke remotely qualified as bishounen, then perhaps he could have used the brawler to do his work for him.
"You're not cute," he observed aloud, eyes flicking to the swaggering young man beside him.
"H-huh?" Predictably Sanosuke jumped to the offense, lifting a fist. "What the hell do you mean by that?"
"Exactly what I said."
"Asshole, I'm gonna beat--"
"The hitokiri is killing beautiful young boys," Saitou cut across his diatribe, tone forceful but not loud enough to carry further than the two of them. "He is going from town to town, seeking out bishounen, and cutting their heads off. He takes them with him, as trophies."
Sanosuke looked queasy. "A boy-lover, huh? Has the killer been...doin' em before he kills them?"
Gutter-language, Saitou mused, but it got the point across effectively. "The police doctor says so, yes."
"Too fuckin' weird..." Sano muttered. Then he bristled. "Hey! What'd you mean, I'm not cute? What did you have in mind, you sicko?"
"You used my real name in public," Saitou said calmly, looking up the street this way and that. So far, nothing out of the ordinary. So far, no one walked these streets who was more than what they seemed; a peasant, a laborer, a merchant. Having experience in disguises himself, it was easy for Saitou to recognize someone who was acting a part. "You owe me one, Sagara. But unfortunately, you're not pretty enough to attract our killer."
"That's disgusting!" Sanosuke burst out. Saitou glanced at him long enough to see the tips of his ears turn red; a fascinating sight. "You can't be serious! I ain't getting' within ten feet of this one, Saitou. Count me out."
And, hands still in pockets, the brawler turned one-eighty in the opposite direction and walked back up the street.
Saitou smirked. He halted long enough to turn his head and call out, "Still heading to China, Sagara?" It had been a long time since the brawler had left Tokyo. He was probably lost. "Or have you gotten turned around in snow country even without the snow?"
"Doesn't matter where I go as long as I'm headed away from you!" Sanosuke responded, flipping his hand at Saitou without looking back.
"Hn." Saitou's lip quirked. "I'll find you later, ahou."
The air was cooler when Soujirou emerged from the Akai Hana, belly pleasantly full but coin-pouch lighter. In each town he'd managed to make enough of a living to pay for meals and earn a little bit extra, but it was a hand-to-mouth existence and he wasn't sure he liked it. The proprietor and his wife had been helpful, but they didn't have work for him and the restaurant, usually a prime source for news, had been full of drowsy local rice merchants talking business and not much else.
The street was dusty and full of people picking up items for their evening meal, or finishing up business for the day as afternoon shadows lengthened. Soujirou wondered if he could find a barn or granary to shelter in for the night. He knew he didn't have enough money to rent a room.
Perhaps the peasant had been mistaken about the hitokiri. Soujirou hadn't heard any other foreboding news while he ate his meal. People were talking about the upcoming harvest, about taxes, about Meiji regulations spreading to the outlying provinces. A little bit of politics, a little bit of religion, and Soujirou understood even less of either. He had been raised to fight, not to think critically about anything in particular.
He was thinking so hard about the situation that he was stunned when he rounded the corner and ran into the solid barrier of a navy-clad chest.
*Police!* was his first startled thought, and even so far north his first instinct was to run. He had taken part in an aborted revolution, after all. In the midst of his startlement Soujirou backed up a few steps and assessed his adversary.
"Oh! Saitou-san!" Soujirou's eyes went wide. If Saitou Hajime was here to take him in, then he had very little hope for fight or flight.
The tall man focused on him, amber eyes puzzled at first, then surprised. "Tenken no Soujirou," the man rumbled, sounding equally shocked. "What are you doing here?"
Soujirou took a breath, though he didn't feel easy enough to relax. If Saitou-san was surprised, too, then he hadn't come here specifically to capture him. There was hope yet. When he was faced with a man like Saitou-san, it was best to use the truth. "I haven't come here for any particular reason," Soujirou answered honestly. "Since Shishio-san fell, I've been wandering."
"Hn." Those uncanny yellow eyes looked him up and down. Like a wolf's, they revealed nothing while probably taking in a great deal about Soujirou. "If you're not busy, then, perhaps you'd like to come to the station with me."
"Ahh, I'm honored." Soujirou smiled guilelessly, waving his hands. "But I'd really rather not, Saitou-san! Considering the source, that is."
"Don't misunderstand it," Saitou surprised him by saying. "I'm not here to arrest you. But knowing you're here, I might be able to make use of your presence." Unobtrusively, one hand adjusted the sheathed katana at his side.
Soujirou's eyes flickered. It might be a threat or it might have been a totally unconscious move. With such a swordsman it was hard to say. He smiled. "Saitou-san, are you trying to ask for my help?"
The former Shinsen Gumi just looked at him. That yellow gaze was starting to make Soujirou uncomfortable, so he kept smiling. "If you choose to see it that way, then I won't argue."
"I see." Soujirou smiled and smiled. He thought they understood each other; neither of them wanted to lose face. "In that case, I think I can accompany you to the police station, Saitou-san."
Saitou kept looking at him like that. Soujirou remained motionless, confused but unwilling to show it. What did Saitou really want? Impossible; was he one of those...
"You'll do," Saitou said aloud, but though his amber eyes pierced right into Soujirou it was as if he was talking to himself. The tall man turned on his heel and began walking up the street.
After an instant of hesitation, Soujirou followed. He wouldn't let himself become comfortable with the illusion of having a choice. He knew that if Saitou was involved, there really was none.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
It was an unsettling noise in the otherwise-silent interrogation room, and Saitou knew it. Still he kept tapping his fingers, and Soujirou kept smiling. "I'm sorry the tea is taking so long," he said smoothly.
"It's all right," Soujirou replied with aplomb.
Even when the boy was serious, he smiled. Saitou sensed that in this case, Soujirou smiled to conceal the swirling thoughts behind those lavender-blue eyes. Beautiful, foreign eyes. Saitou had done his research in this case as well. No one really knew where the little genius killer came from, but it was theorized he was a bastard child, probably the son of a foreign port whore judging by his Japanese name. For all that, only the eyes betrayed his heritage; that, and the pure white of his skin.
The door banged open. "Please excuse me."
A heavy-set man entered the room, Yukimura-ko's sole police officer Date Yousuke. He set down the tea tray and at a single piercing glance from Saitou he retreated. Officer Date was an exemplary policeman, who took care of his post yet knew when to withdraw in the presence of a superior officer.
There had been a murder in Yukimura-ko; it had happened a few days ago as Saitou was en route. Officer Date had done everything as he should, documenting the site where the boy had died, then removing the body quickly. According to Date the news of the murder had spread quickly, but he had reassured the townsfolk with talk of swift apprehension and decisive justice. Upon Saitou's arrival, he had been relieved to turn the case over to an officer with more experience. Saitou was pleased.
Soujirou sipped at his tea, slipping from his customary smile long enough to look at Saitou with cautious violet eyes.
"So you've already heard something of the hitokiri in the area," Saitou observed, picking up the thread of the brief words they'd exchanged shortly before entering the police station.
"Yes," Soujirou agreed. "Not much. It was just the one man who had something to say."
"Officer Date has heard something as well," Saitou continued. "There was a recent murder in this town."
Soujirou sipped more tea. "I see."
Such a bland answer. Saitou decided to be a little more direct. "I notice you're not carrying weapons on your person."
Soujirou met bluntness with more of his own. "I'm not the killer you're searching for, Saitou-san."
"I know that," Saitou responded calmly, taking a drag of his cigarette, ignoring the tea after his initial polite sip. "That's not why I brought you here."
"You brought me here because you're a member of the secret police," Soujirou said, not disagreeing with him but skirting the issue. The polite smile he presented now was a little confused. Soujirou was out of his depth and unwilling to admit it.
Saitou just looked at him, letting him stew a bit longer. Seta Soujirou reminded him very much of another genius killer, from another place and time. He still remembered that one, first division captain Okita Soushi, as clearly as if he'd been fighting beside him only yesterday. Okita had been a bishounen, too.
"Based on his previous actions I believe the killer will strike here again," Saitou said calmly. "It's not backed up by evidence, but it's a strong feeling of mine."
"Ahh, I see. Saitou-san, you think he's pulled towards snow country, too?" Soujirou smiled.
Saitou looked at him in silence for a moment. Soujirou weathered it patiently, although he bowed his head to concentrate on the rest of his tea. The comment had been uncommonly astute. Soujirou had put into words the feeling that he'd had upon reaching this town. In some way, this town called out to him in a way that said 'this is the place.'
"Something like that," Saitou allowed at last, flicking his cigarette. "At any rate, the killer takes the heads of beautiful young boys."
Soujirou lifted his head like a spooked deer. "Saitou-san..." He picked up his tea-cup and finished off the rest in a few quick gulps. A moment later he set it down with a gasp. "You mean for me to draw him in."
Saitou was well-pleased he had bumped into the young man, who was not only more quick-witted than Sagara, but suited to this kind of task in more than just looks. "Correct."
Soujirou appeared to mull it over. "How many has he killed?" he inquired in a soft voice.
"That doesn't matter." Saitou dismissed the dead with a flick of his white-gloved fingers. Ash sifted from the tip of his cigarette to scatter across the dark wood. "What matters now is making sure that there won't be any more dead boys."
"Were any of them armed?" Soujirou asked suddenly.
Saitou frowned. "No, none."
"Then I'll have to be the same," Soujirou said, looking reflective. "That will make it a little harder."
"You've decided to do it." Saitou smiled wolfishly.
Soujirou hesitated. "I suppose I have," he said, putting on his typical smile again. "It's my way of saying 'thank you' for letting me walk away from Mount Hiei without being detained by the police, Saitou-san."
"Ah, so you knew." Saitou shrugged. "Couldn't be helped. I had my hands full of criminals at the time, and you were the fastest of all of them."
Soujirou eyed him thoughtfully; said nothing.
He really did look remarkably like Okita-kun, Saitou mused. Even after ten years, remembering the loss of the first division captain was like the ache of a tooth torn out by the roots. Of all the sword-comrades he'd had, Soushi had been the closest. Only Tokio, perhaps not even Tokio, knew as much of his heart and mind.
"You'll do," Saitou repeated his earlier words. Soujirou was certainly beautiful enough, as well as being such an amazing likeness to the long-gone captain. If it weren't for the fact that this boy's father's family was Seta, rather than the mother's, he might have suspected his old sword-comrade of an indiscretion.
"Come on," he said, shaking himself free of speculation. "We have a few hours yet. I'll brief you."
"Yes." There it was again, that unsettling, seemingly gentle smile.
"Hn." Saitou almost smiled.
Night had folded its plum-dark kimono sleeves around the sharp hills that blocked Yukimura-ko into its dip of a valley. At this time, most of the villagers were in their homes preparing dinner. Soujirou roamed the streets, seeming aimless while he sought a nomiya, one of the places that would be serving sake.
According to Saitou's profile on the killer, this was the time of night when he struck. More than that, all of the boys who had been taken were found near their local nomiya or reasonable facsimile of a sakery, whether or not they were a frequent visitor.
Soujirou lingered in an alleyway, looking up at the darkening sky with its shreds of low-lying clouds heaped in the distance. He wondered if he was doing the right thing.
Saitou-san had instructed him to enter the nomiya, have a drink or two, then leave. At this point, the secret policeman theorized, that was when the hitokiri struck -- either from observing his potential target in the nomiya, or assailing him from the shadows on the way out.
It was a sound idea in theory, but in application Soujirou was dubious. Of course, the plan would likely succeed for the very reasons that gave him pause for hesitation. Soujirou had never had sake before. Shishio had offered him a cup of the stuff once, and Yumi had poured for him, but after one acrid whiff he had politely declined, and they'd laughed. However, if the hitokiri was waiting inside the nomiya he would be watching his potential targets. Normally Soujirou was a blank smiling slate, all but impossible to read; it was something he'd cultivated from a very young age. As long as he was smiling no one could see what he really felt like inside, and punish him for it.
A hitokiri would be less likely to choose a victim he could not read. Like Himura-san, he would be wary to act against someone whose emotions weren't clearly apparent.
So if Soujirou was drinking, even if it were only a cup or two, his ability to control his emotions would slip. Even a little was all that was needed. Not to mention, it would be extremely suspicious for him to enter a nomiya and decline to drink.
"Good evening." A smiling young woman greeted him at the door, hair bound up high on either side of her head, wearing a stiff white apron over working clothes. Her hands were mostly-hidden by her voluminous striped sleeves. "Can I get you a seat, customer?"
"Please," Soujirou said, inclining his head.
He looked around the place with curiosity. There was a scattering of familiar faces, a street vendor whom he'd seen selling wares earlier that day; a pair of men who had been in the Akai Hana when he'd taken a meal; the peasant who had been the first to see him in Yukimura-ko and warned him away. The serving-woman showed him to a single-seat table.
As he walked through the nomiya behind her, the men glanced at him one by one. The peasant's face registered recognition, then mild surprise, then his shoulders twitched and he turned his attention back to the sake. The street vendor was flushed red with drink, and squinted at him. The two men toying with small expensive cups barely registered his presence.
"I'd like a bottle of sake, please," Soujirou requested. He lifted a finger, remembering the coins Saitou had given him. "Not your best, but not your worst either." He named a figure.
"Of course." The serving-woman bowed and withdrew.
Soujirou kept his head down, affecting unconcern or at least obliviousness of his surroundings. The first stirring of queasiness made itself known in his gut. This was very dangerous, and he wasn't even armed anymore.
When the serving-woman returned with a milk-white bottle of sake and a small gray-speckled cup, Soujirou looked at the items as if he hadn't any idea what they were for. He picked up the cup somewhat uncertainly. With a demure smile, the woman tipped the sake bottle, pouring a measure of clear liquid into the cup with discreet taps.
"Thank you," Soujirou said, and bowing again, the woman retreated. He tipped the cup to his lips and let it trickle down his throat.
Immediately Soujirou set the cup down, a slight gasp escaping parted lips. His throat was burning and his eyes watered abruptly. How could people drink this and not cough like a dying person? He coughed twice into his hand, and glanced around to see if anyone had noticed.
The peasant man was looking at him. With a slight smile of amusement, the man averted his face.
Cheeks burning with embarrassment more than sake, Soujirou turned his attention back to the tiny cup. He'd only had a swallow. Determined not to appear so inexperienced, he gripped the cup again and drank more. Again, it made his throat burn and tears sprang up in his eyes, but he took it better this time. It was strange. He'd heard so much about the delicious taste of sake, but to him it had a bitter, almost metallic taste.
*Drink some sake,* Saitou had said. *Not enough to get drunk, of course. Enough to appear more rash and impulsive, like most boys your age. Then get up and leave...if he's here, then he'll follow. Whether he follows you from nomiya or alley-way, we'll see.*
*Saitou-san, what if he's not here?*
Saitou's merciless yellow eyes had gleamed. Soujirou remembered those amber predator eyes.
*Then we try again tomorrow night.*
Saitou-san was awfully sure of himself. Then again, he had every reason to be; he and Himura-san had outwitted Shishio-san, after all. Shishio's craftiness before then had been matched only by Houji's sheer penchant for stratagems.
It took Soujirou over an hour to finish the single bottle of sake, and even then he felt like he'd rushed it. When he rose after paying the bill, the room swung underfoot in lazy loops. He steadied himself against the table.
"Good customer?" The serving-woman paused beside him with a concerned frown.
"I'm fine." Soujirou put a hand to his forehead and gave her a smile more hectic than reassuring. His skin felt numb. Of course, it was the first time he'd tried alcohol.
As he left the nomiya, the first thing he noticed was that it was even darker outside. True night had fallen. The second was that the streets were virtually deserted. Soujirou felt his pulse quicken. He was acutely aware of his lack of a sword.
Soujirou whirled, unsteady like a spinning toy until he found his legs and focused on the source of the voice. He calmed when he saw the peasant man, now with a tattered mantle pulled about his shoulders, broad-brimmed hat covering his head to cast his face in shadow. The man moved from one spill of feeble lantern light to another.
Soujirou felt a prickle of warning reach him through the buzz.
"Didn't I warn you to go back the way you came?" The peasant man sounded puzzled, but not unfriendly. His cheeks were flushed with sake but his eyes were warm. He stopped a few meters from Soujirou.
"I'm sorry, I..." Soujirou put a hand to his wobbly head. He drew himself together and smiled. "I don't seem to have anyplace to return to."
"Ahh, that's too bad." The man walked a few paces past him, paused, then turned. He scratched his chin. "Well, I've got a rice barn. If you don't mind hard ground you can stay there for the night."
"That's very kind of you..." Soujirou hesitated, eyes darting this way and that. *Saitou-san, what if he's not here?* His head was swimming and he didn't think anyone else was nearby. He could hardly tell the man that he was staying at the police station, and it would seem strange if he indicated he had a place to stay.
Soujirou made up his mind. "I wouldn't want to impose..." he hedged.
"Not an imposition at all." The man resumed walking, glancing over his shoulder. "It's this way. Come on."
Uneasiness resurfaced. "Thank you," Soujirou said. He followed the peasant man up an alley. Surely, someone with their own rice barn wouldn't be luring him away to kill him? Saitou-san had told him that the bodies had been found with blood spattering the walls, indicating that the boys had been killed in that location even if no one had heard. But if their throats were cut first, then they wouldn't even be able to shout.
The peasant man's shoulders were broad, he noticed. Of course, they would have to be to carry heavy bags of rice all day. His thick tail of dark hair trailed over the nape of the tattered mantle.
"Excuse me, sir..." Soujirou trailed off, catching himself against the wall as he stumbled. "Ahh, I'm embarrassed. Please wait a moment." His vision was blurring, making it hard to focus on any one particular thing unless he concentrated hard. And concentration, he was learning, was difficult to come by.
"Sake getting to your head?" The peasant man turned, a smile on his lips. He moved closer to Soujirou with soft-footed steps. "You know, you really should have stayed in the south."
"What do you mean?" As if wrapped in fog, Soujirou watched the man approach, bemused.
He chuckled. "So young and innocent." Now he moved with the lightning-quick strike of a snake, slamming Soujirou to the wall and pinning him by the throat. Soujirou gasped and coughed, writhing.
"L-let go..." His voice was a mere rasp. The peasant man had a firm grip on his throat and he couldn't cry out. He was strong, unbelievably strong. "Why?"
"Well, you didn't listen when I warned you," the man said, voice still low and amiable. "Look at you, all drunk and pliant. It can't be helped." A hand touched his hip and moved lower, down over his thigh.
"Boys like you are just asking for it." Rough breath, redolent of sake, washed over his cheek as Soujirou struggled to turn his head. "So goddamn pretty..."
*Don't.* Soujirou felt his lips move, but nothing came out. His vision was edged in black now. This, he thought fuzzily, was why no one had heard anything. The young boys hadn't been able to make a sound louder than a whisper. The hand was groping below his obi now, and Soujirou began to fight.
"Such a pretty thing...now I can take my pleasure and this time...this time..." His hand slipped from Soujirou's neck to push open the neck of his kimono.
Soujirou's eyes flared wide. *Now!* Using the wall as leverage, he smashed his forehead into his assailant's, sending the wide-brimmed hat spinning into the alley.
The peasant man staggered back, shaking his head, putting a hand up over his face.
For an instant, Soujirou paused to gulp air, spots swimming before his eyes. It was an instant too much.
"Fucking pretty boy," the man snarled, then there was the steely rasp of a blade being pulled from the sheath. Moonlight rippled off the tempered edge of a short blade.
*Of course, they were cut up after he...* Soujirou fell into a fighting stance, though he had no sword. His eyes flicked over the length of the blade. A man of this skill level could never have beheaded his victims with a wakizashi.
"First I'll take you..." He lifted the blade, and licked the edge. "Then I'll take your head. And maybe this time you'll fucking stay dead!"
He darted in, moving swifter than Soujirou expected.
"Damn it!" Soujirou braced himself, sidestepping. The sake was burning off but not as quickly as he needed it to. A gleam of silver arrowed in from above, as the man blocked him against the wall with his broad-shouldered frame. Soujirou snapped his left wrist up, catching the blade on the back of the hand, diverting it from nicking his artery.
The breath rushed from his lungs as the wakizashi ran him through the shoulder. Soujirou heard the clack of the blade's tip hitting the wall, with an odd sense of detachment.
*I've gotten slow...the sake...* "You--" Soujirou gritted, clamping his right hand over the hand on the knife. His head tipped back, bumping against the wall, and incongruously he smiled. "That was your last mistake."
The snarled battle cry came out of nowhere. Soujirou was knocked off his feet as the hands were torn away from him and the heavy body spun into the dark alley. He folded against the wall, coughing harshly. Even in the darkness, Saitou's sword gleamed as he raised it again to his trademarked Gatotsu stance, the Fanged Thrust, a powerful strike that began with katana parallel to his outstretched right arm.
"Ahh..." Soujirou pushed himself to his feet. "Fortunate timing, Saitou-san." He gripped the knife by the hilt and pulled it out with a wince. The wound began to bleed and he pressed the heel of his hand to it, grimacing.
Saitou's yellow eyes flicked to him briefly but he said nothing, concentrating on the broad-shouldered peasant man who had risen to his feet. The man reached an arm up and behind his head, drawing a hidden sword with a scrape of steel, then tearing off his tattered mantle and pitching it to the side.
"So the secret police has been looking for me, huh?" The man lifted his free hand and pressed his bleeding shoulder. Dark blood dripped through his fingers where Saitou had scored him deeply. "I suppose sooner or later it was bound to happen. I'm honored."
Soujirou rubbed at his aching head. "Ahh...Officer Date said he didn't notice any unusual people coming or going lately. I guess this must be your home town?" The fog in his brain was starting to clear.
"That's right. Why should anyone think it unusual for a native son to return?" The man grinned; it was a wide, manic expression. His eyes shifted to Saitou. "And who do I have the pleasure of killing tonight?"
"I don't need to give my name to a low-level swordsman like you." Saitou's stance never wavered.
"Fucking Shinsen Gumi!" All of a sudden, the man was yelling, slashing his concealing sword in short flashing arcs. "You're all fucking snobs! Back then, my sword wasn't good enough, and it's the same story with the fucking Ishin Shishi now! Well, this sword is going to cut you to pieces!"
"Hm." Barely, Saitou's lip quirked. "Try it."
"We'll see who's good enough then," the man raged. "My sword is Shintetsu, and it's the last thing you'll see!"
He sprang forward, sword not upraised but held low. Soujirou's eyes darted as the big peasant man leapt into the air. If he thought Saitou's horizon-type Gatotsu wouldn't be able to handle an air attack, he was sorely mistaken.
"Too slow!" Saitou's eyes flared with an evil sulfurous light and he angled his sword, springing to meet the attack. "Gatotsu third stance, anti-air!"
It was too late to twist aside and avoid the thrust. The peasant man's eyes went wide as Saitou's katana pierced his chest, plunging nearly to the hilt. "You...impossible..."
The concealing sword tumbled from his hands. Saitou pulled his katana free, flicking blood from the blade with a quick snap of his wrist. The man managed to keep his feet, hands pressed to the wound that spurted blood as if he could keep it in his body by stemming the flow.
"Y-you..." The peasant man pointed a bloody finger and coughed. His spittle flecked the wall and it was black in the darkness.
Saitou had pierced the man's lung, Soujirou thought clinically.
"You're no ordinary Shinsen Gumi." The man coughed again, and fell to his knees. His eyes were wide and hate-filled. "Former Shinsen Gumi...third division captain...Saitou Hajime..."
"Die," Saitou said calmly, raising his sword.
Soujirou was shocked to hear his own voice.
Saitou turned his head to give him the dispassionate glare of one eye. "Don't bother pleading for his life. It's not becoming, Seta-kun."
Soujirou spoke directly to the dying man. "Why did you do it?"
The man turned those angry eyes towards Soujirou. "You...your face followed me everywhere." He grimaced and spat up more blood. "Even here, even coming home, you've followed me...a ghost with legs...."
Then he slumped face-forward to the dirt and died.
"Strange...that's so strange..."
"Seta-kun?" Saitou said sharply, sheathing his sword and turning fully.
Soujirou was smiling. He couldn't stop. "Huh? I'm sorry, it's strange...I know..."
"Come on, Seta-kun." Saitou dismissed the body with a negligent flip of his hand. "We're going back to the station. Officer Date can dispose of this trash."
"I'm sorry," Soujirou murmured, smiling, eyes shut so that he wouldn't have to look at the body. He'd seen death before. This was different.
Blood pumped slickly between his fingers. He felt light-headed again.
He was unable to move until he felt Saitou's hand at his elbow. "Strange..."
"Leave it to me, sir." Officer Date saluted and retreated, bringing a tarp with him to cover the body from curious onlookers. In Yukimura-ko, this time the body would be the would-be killer and not his victim.
Saitou felt satisfied.
He turned to the Seta boy, who slumped on a bench near the window, head turned. By lamplight Saitou could already see the darkening ring of bruises around his throat.
"Are you all right?" Saitou asked him, sounding clinical about it. "You're injured, aren't you?"
Soujirou looked at him, falling into that odd, unsettling smile as if by habit. It was unreal and, Saitou recognized, probably a conditioned, perverse reaction to adversity.
"Maa," he said mildly, a neutral syllable that could have been a yes or no. Then he sagged, grinding a fist into his left shoulder. His fingers were stained with blood.
"Boy!" Saitou barked, chair clattering as he overturned it to reach him quickly. He gripped the boy by the arms, holding him upright.
"Don't..." Soujirou murmured, eyes hazy and confused, looking not into Saitou's eyes but some point beyond. "Don't call me 'boy.'"
"Fine," Saitou said shortly, "let's dress your wound." He glanced at the blood-soaked fabric that clung, sticky, to Soujirou's left shoulder. Looking at it like this it was impossible to tell how much damage there was. Soujirou seemed not to notice as Saitou got up and stripped his gloves off. Somewhere in the police station, there would be bandages and other supplies that he needed.
"Yumi-san used to call me 'boy,'" Soujirou mumbled, reaching up with his right hand to push inky bangs from overshadowing his eyes.
Saitou said nothing, retrieving a kit from the far side of the room and returning. "Excuse me," he said politely, then narrowed his eyes, tearing open the shoulder of Soujirou's kimono from the slit left by the wakizashi that had injured him. "Oi, oi...you really managed to get yourself skewered..."
"It wasn't that he moved quickly," Soujirou said thoughtfully, then hissed through his teeth as Saitou's finger probed at the wound, feeling around for the extent of it underneath the blood. Barely-crusted edges broke open and began to bleed again. "Ouch. If it hadn't been for the sake..."
"If it hadn't been for the sake he would never have singled you out," Saitou said, tone level as he dabbed at the wound with antiseptic. "The way you are right now, it's different from when we first met but you're still impossible to read for a low-class swordsman like that." He pulled Soujirou towards him, rotating the shoulder with careful hands to repeat the treatment on the exit wound above his left shoulder blade. As far as he could tell, there were no slivers of steel in the wound. The wakizashi must have been a decent one, at least.
"Ah, well..." Soujirou smiled, but Saitou noticed that his hands were trembling. "That's very reassuring, Saitou-san. I suppose it's a fair trade-off for not having emotions."
"Don't be foolish," Saitou said coolly, rolling gauze into place over the wound. "For someone like him, you're impossible to read. But today's Soujirou isn't the emotionless boy I met at that time."
"Saitou-san," Soujirou said in surprise. "It's not like you to say something so kind." He gripped his hakama tightly in one fist, gathering up the pale fabric.
"Don't mistake me," Saitou told him calmly. "I don't want you thinking you have an edge over me, not able to read you the way it was back then."
"Ah, I see." Soujirou kept his gaze downcast, but now a faint curve touched his lips.
Saitou noticed. "Hn." He tied off the bandage tightly to keep the pad of gauze he'd placed fore and aft from slipping. If Soujirou bled again, and he would until it clotted, then this would keep it to a minimum. With a frown, he examined his handiwork and sat back on the bench. "That will do for now. It's too late to call for the village doctor."
"Aa..." Soujirou leaned back against the wall again with a sigh, closing his eyes. His face was calm, even relaxed, though he wasn't smiling.
Clenched on the knees of his hakama, his knuckles were white.
"Are you all right?" Saitou asked, repeating his earlier question.
"It's strange," Soujirou said thoughtfully, "it's so strange. I've seen death before. The last dead man I saw was a man I had killed with my own two hands."
Saitou said nothing. The boy hadn't been badly hurt, and he was in no danger now. The responsibility for the man's death lay in Saitou's hands, not Soujirou's. But still...
"Even so there was something strange..." Soujirou continued, obviously troubled.
"Hn," Saitou said again, hunting up a cigarette and lighting it. Soujirou's distressed expression reminded him again, briefly, of Soushi. Perhaps for that reason, he was giving more of his attention to this boy than he would be prone to. "Seta-kun...the last man you killed was Senkaku, was it not?"
He remembered the file. It hadn't been much of a file. Senkaku, under Shishio's orders, had kept an entire village in his iron grip. Kenshin had defeated him, leaving him writhing on the tatami with a blown knee and a severely welted throat, yet had shown him mercy.
That mercy would have given the man enough hours left in his life to spill his guts in police custody, then endure his execution. Yet Senkaku had escaped.
No, not escaped. That was what the file said, but the police in the area had found Senkaku's body hours later. The top of his bullet-shaped head had been sliced off. The corpse had lain slumped by the river.
All of Shishio's former allies were put to the blade without exception.
Only with Shishio's death did those still living of his former comrades, the Ten Swords, earn the right to keep their lives. And even then, they'd been forced to strike bargains to live them unmolested.
All but this boy sitting here before him. Soujirou had escaped.
"Senkaku..." Soujirou said slowly, a disturbed light in his eyes. Then he put up his hands, smiling defensively again. "Don't, Saitou-san! That's just like a Shinsen Gumi, to cut to the heart of the matter when his opponent is weak!"
"Don't mistake my intention," Saitou replied, exhaling a stream of smoke from the corner of his mouth. He looked at the boy again, considering. "You saw death back then. But none since then until now. This man, the bishounen-killer, is the first man you've seen die in front of your eyes since you regained your emotions." It had a ring of truth to it.
Soujirou opened his eyes in surprise. "I..."
"You never really lost them, of course," Saitou continued. "No man exists without emotion. But yours were locked away deep until Kenshin's succession technique forced you to tear down the very foundations of your life, and start again."
The young man was silent. He tipped his head down, chestnut bangs overshadowing his face again.
"It's not so strange, then," Saitou finished, flicking the last of his burnt-out cigarette to the floorboards.
"Very insightful, Saitou-san," Soujirou said, lifting his head. He clapped his hands, briefly, ironically. "I appreciate your keen analysis."
"Maa," Saitou said mildly, putting bare hands to his thighs and standing. "I'll run a bath. The station has quarters attached to the rear, for visiting officers. You can use the furo first; you've done a good job."
"I shouldn't--" the boy began a protest.
Saitou smiled wolfishly. "I insist."
In serving as bait to find the killer, Soujirou had repaid the debt incurred back then, when Saitou had allowed him to slip police custody. Now they were on a new playing field, and the boy was already ahead. He had been injured, and by Saitou's reckoning he owed Seta-kun blood now. Or some other small means of repayment.
Saitou drew hot water for the bath, making plans. Mibu's Wolves made use of all that came their way.
The warmth of the hot bath room wrapped around him as Soujirou hovered on the edge of the doorway, caught in indecision. Saitou's dark, uniformed back was turned to him as he bent over the bath, one glove stripped off to test the water.
"Why...why are you being so kind?"
Soujirou had barely realized he had spoken the words until they were out of his mouth and hanging in the air between them.
Saitou straightened. Steam curled up from the water, diffusing around him, reaching Soujirou's cheeks with a moist touch. This man was Shinsen Gumi, living the creed of his kind to this day -- kill evil instantly. Soujirou didn't understand why Saitou was behaving so civilly. The last time they had met, Saitou hadn't acted because he couldn't read Soujirou.
Now the man had as much admitted that he could read Soujirou, and still left him living.
"Saa," Saitou said unhelpfully. He met Soujirou's eyes with a bland expression. "Does it matter?"
Soujirou frowned, resting his gaze on the rim of the wooden tub. He shouldn't be in here like this, entering the bathing room with Saitou still in here, but the curiosity couldn't wait. He was almost tempted to run. Saitou was more then just a police officer, he was a man who still lived by his own rule of justice, and for that reason alone...
"Why haven't you killed me?" he blurted, pushing bangs out of his eyes with his right hand, then lifting his head.
"Ah," Saitou said noncommittally. He stepped away from the hot tub towards Soujirou, who was tempted to take a step back. "Because of the code of Mibu's Wolves, you mean?"
"Yes, because of that," Soujirou said, relieved that the subject had come up straightforwardly.
"If you want to die so badly, I'm sorry to disappoint you," Saitou said, startling him. Soujirou met his eyes again, startled. "The boy, no, the Seta-kun I might have fought back then was one I could not read. However, the Seta-kun I met today is not one that I would be pressed to fight under my code of justice."
Soujirou's eyes widened. Under his sense of justice...no, under the Shinsen Gumi creed, Saitou felt no need to fight him. Saitou was saying he wasn't 'evil.'
"However, at our next meeting if circumstances have changed, it may be another matter then," Saitou continued smoothly, with a gleam of...something...in the depths of his amber eyes.
"I see," Soujirou said with a smile. "I think I can put up with that."
Saitou gave him a nod, then brushed past him on the way out of the bathing room. He paused. "Will you need help?"
Soujirou blushed. The nearness of another's body, the imposition of the situation, Saitou's unsettling kindness; it was all too much for him and he was overwhelmed. "Ah, I..." he stammered, off-guard, rubbing at the back of his head with his uninjured hand. He glanced down at his kimono. The left side had been torn open for Saitou to reach the wound. He could undo his obi one-handed, but...
"I'll find some fresh clothing for you." Saitou inclined his head and left the room.
For a moment more, Soujirou stared at the closed door in confusion.
"Mibu's Wolf..." he said, consideringly. For a moment he'd almost thought...but no, surely Saitou had just been polite.
As he undressed, Soujirou paused, catching on to something. Saitou had given him an answer, and he was relieved. But he hadn't told him why he was being so kind.
Outside the bathing room in the narrow corridor of the police station, Saitou paused. The station was small yet still had an attachment for a visiting officer or two, and accommodations. This was where Saitou, and now Soujirou, would be staying for the brief overnight.
Saitou turned the question over in his mind. Indeed, why bother being kind? Perhaps, like the former brawler, it was because of the potential within him, coupled with his resemblance to Soushi, that caused this extra consideration.
Shoving half-formed licentious thoughts to the backdrop of his mind, Saitou set about finding some spare clothing for the boy. At a time like this memories of Okita-kun were bittersweet.
For now, he would provide Seta-kun with a replacement for the kimono top that had been ruined, see him on his way...and indeed, their next encounter might be an occasion to look forward to.
"The killer was a local son of a rice farmer by the name of Shijima Aki."
Officer Date recited the facts crisply, referring now and again to the report he had prepared in the early hours of the morning. In a corner of the office, Soujirou sat enjoying the feel of a good meal in his belly and observing Saitou Hajime -- the man Date referred to as 'Fujita Goro.' For a sense of closure, he had remained to listen in on the report that Saitou would be taking back to his division.
"He disappeared from Yukimura-ko during the turmoil of the Bakumatsu, and his family gave up on him after a few years. They believed him lost during the end of the dynasty, fighting for one side or the other. Yet three years after the Meiji era began, Shijima returned.
"By that time his family had died, and Shijima repossessed his holdings somewhat...illegally, with the use of force. According to the locals, he returned 'touched in the head,' but they attributed it to the fighting he engaged in during the Bakumatsu. Many fighters have been known to undergo such symptoms.
"Upon examination of the body this morning, the town doctor diagnosed him with a wasting illness, a foreign disease he recognized from time spent in port towns."
"A foreign disease," Saitou repeated.
"Yes," Officer Date confirmed. "If he had not died last night, the doctor said soon he would have been paralyzed, then he would have died within a year."
"Hn," Saitou said, seeming thoughtful. "And why was Shijima killing young men?"
"Ah, as to that..." Date rubbed his head, seeming embarrassed. "No one knows. He never touched any of the boys in town, before he killed Shinto-kun and attempted to kill Seta-kun." The officer hesitated.
"Yes?" Saitou prompted, catching the hesitation.
"It's said that Shinto-kun looked remarkably like Seta-kun," Date said slowly. "Many people I interviewed commented on the resemblance."
"Interesting," Saitou said, and would say nothing more.
From the corner, Soujirou kept his gaze on Saitou a moment longer, then smiled guilelessly when the intensity of amber eyes turned his way.
Even stranger than being affected by Shijima's death was the strangeness of being treated gently by former third division captain of the Shinsen Gumi, Saitou Hajime. He appreciated the consideration Saitou had shown him last night, while remaining wary.
They hadn't spoken of it, but it was as if Saitou had given him a chance, back then, to change himself. Meeting like this was passing a kind of test. And last night...
He still couldn't believe Saitou's considerate handling...it was unnerving.
His wound felt better today, though.
A short time later, Soujirou prepared his pack of meager belongings, adding the bandages that Officer Date had pressed on him, and some added provisions. He was glad for those, because he wanted to leave Yukimura-ko at once. He had no intention of staying here long enough to find work.
"Do you have everything you need?"
Soujirou paused in the doorway, slipping the straps of his pack over his shoulder. "Saitou-san?"
The tall man leaned against the police station wall, arms crossed over his broad chest. He lifted his head, fixing him with a keen stare. "You're leaving now, aren't you?"
"Yes," Soujirou said cautiously.
"I'm leaving as well. If you need anything else, now's the time to ask."
"Ahh...thank you, Saitou-san, but that's not necessary," Soujirou said with a smile, rubbing his head. "You've been more than generous and I wouldn't want to incur any more debt."
"Not at all," the secret police officer said smoothly. His gaze was almost unsettlingly intent, making Soujirou want to bow his head.
"Then..." Soujirou hesitated, one foot out the door, then stopped. There was something he still wanted to know. "You know something, don't you, Saitou-san? Shijima's other victim looked like me. And Shijima himself said that my face followed him everywhere..."
"I don't know the answer," Saitou interrupted. "Since he's dead, we may never know it. But if he went to Kyoto during the Bakumatsu, he may have tried to fight for the Shinsen Gumi, or against them. I don't remember him personally."
"Then..." Soujirou trailed off, confused.
Saitou lifted a fresh cigarette to his lips, lit it, and inhaled before answering. "You resemble an old comrade of mine, Seta-kun. I think Shijima may have applied to the first division captain, Okita Soushi."
"Do I look like him?" Soujirou asked directly.
Saitou's eyes were fixed on the office window as he answered. "You resemble him a great deal." He seemed distant.
"I see," Soujirou said, turning away. That explained Saitou's behavior last night, he thought. "Then I'll take my leave."
The street outside was busy again with the daily activity of a town. Soujirou shielded his eyes with one hand, glancing east and then west. It was still hot even this far north, so perhaps he should travel even farther to escape the full heat of summer.
Behind him he could sense the tall form of the secret police officer hovering in the doorway. It bothered him. Soujirou turned.
"Seta-kun," Saitou said sharply, turning to glance at him from the corner of one amber eye.
"Was there something, Saitou-san?" Soujirou asked politely.
"Next time you're in Tokyo, you won't encounter any trouble," Saitou told him unexpectedly. "If you're looking for opportunity, the secret police may have a place to offer you."
Soujirou was stunned. "Thank you, Saitou-san..." He paused. "I don't think that's the right path for me at this time. But I'll keep it in mind."
"Hn." Almost, he thought, Saitou might have smiled. Almost.
Then, without a further word of farewell, the tall lanky police officer squared off and strode up the street, polished boots stirring dust as he went. Soujirou watched for a bit, then turned east, going the opposite direction.
It was an offer to consider. For now, he still had to discover the place where he was meant to be.
He would go west, Saitou had determined, towards the ports that sheltered the ships bound for Shanghai. Officer Date had sent a sealed report in advance to Saitou's superiors in the capital, from assistant inspector Fujita Goro.
There were some other loose ends he had to take care of, and the other day's encounter with that rooster-head had not been a satisfying one. Saitou was a methodical man and while he didn't suffer fools, he was amused by the continuing education of one moronic fledgling.
The carriage rumbled onwards, carrying them further with each town from the quiet peacefulness of Yukimura-ko, a peacefulness he'd restored together with Seta-kun. It was a good thing that they were both departing it today, taking with them the stain of their blood footprints that their presence, and Shijima's, had brought to the area.
Saitou flicked the dying embers of his cigarette out of the open window, thinking one last time on Soujirou's face, such a perfect replica of his memories of Soushi. That was behind him now. Both of them were in his past.
Were they to have another meeting, he looked forward to the occasion. Mibu's Wolves lived in the present, and made use of all that came their way.