One aspect of love, Kenshin reflected, was the ability to restrain yourself and stay out of something you would really much rather be involved in. Would rather take over completely in order to spare your lover the less pleasant effects of the situation.
It had very little to do with faith in Sano’s combat prowess; Kenshin wasn’t sure whether or not he believed Sano could win this fight, but certainty either way would not have changed his behavior. It had very little to do with the fact that Kenshin would be over this railing with sword drawn the moment Sano’s life seemed in legitimate danger; he would do that for anyone. What he might not do for anyone was let it get to that point.
He probably would not have stood by watching Kaoru, for instance, battle a stronger opponent. Assigned her the task of dealing with a particular enemy while he faced some other threat, perhaps; been aware that she was elsewhere fighting and quietly worried, certainly. But stood still observing? Actually watched her fight someone he wasn’t certain she could defeat? Probably not. Allowing Sano this chance without protest or interference was a mark of respect he might not even be capable of showing just anyone.
And even in this case it was difficult as hell.
The huge monk was obviously a world ahead of Sano in mastery of the interesting two-hit move they called Futae no Kiwami, and his ki was every bit as ragingly angry as Sano’s. The latter’s superior agility would only get him so far. More promising — to Kenshin, who believed in the influence of attitude in combat — was the fact that when faced with the corruption and misery of the world, one of them had chosen destruction while the other (with some encouragement) had chosen life. But even this could not be entirely reassuring.
Then a hard voice to his left called down in the direction of the combatants, “Do you want me to take your place?”
Kenshin glanced over, very startled. He certainly hadn’t forgotten Saitou was there… but in his concern for Sano, Saitou had blurred into a vague, comforting essence of strength and solidity.
Yes, comforting. Why bother denying it?
“Shut the hell up!” Evidently Sano didn’t find him comforting.
Startling as it had been, the suggestion did not surprise him. Kenshin had suspected — strongly suspected — and now he knew; it was the elbow that gave Saitou away, really. The offer could just as easily have been exactly what it seemed — a condescending jab at Sano’s abilities — but Saitou’s elbow rested in his other hand as if needing support, and the hand seemed clenched tighter than was strictly necessary. One arm lay close across his body as if he wanted to project his subtly defensive stance at Sano, the other raised a cigarette to his lips. Kenshin had noticed that Saitou normally took no more than a drag or two on any cigarette before tossing it away. This one was steadily shortening, almost as if he didn’t notice himself smoking it.
Then there was the fact that Saitou had voiced concern even before Kenshin could. No, there could be no question now.
Did Kenshin resent this sudden apparent worry where none had been present before? Did he consider telling Saitou to mind his own business? Did he look down at Sano with new jealousy in his gaze, unsure whether he envied more the circumstance of being the object of Saitou’s concern or the one feeling it for Sano?
No. He knew any or all of these could have been his reaction, but the only thing he could do was appreciate Saitou’s attitude even as he felt the same. In fact, Saitou’s presence rendered a little less painful the unendurable thoughts of what if? that hovered just beyond the bright areas of his mind. It didn’t matter what each of them was to Sano; the fact that they stood here side by side, both with his well-being in mind, made all the difference.
“Sano!” he called out, feeling minutely better about things all of a sudden and wishing to share that, if possible, with his lover. “Even in kenjutsu, a man with two swords is not necessarily stronger than one with only one! I am sure you can find a way to win!”
Though not as fierce as the one he’d directed at Saitou a moment before, Sano’s reply to this encouragement was definitely a scowl. Realizing belatedly that his words, though kindly meant, might seem to imply a surety of the monk’s superior abilities, Kenshin felt a little sheepish, and was actually rather glad to busy himself in a brief, meaningless exchange with Yumi about the suitability of cheering Sano on.
He was watching avidly the next moment, though, when Sano landed a hit. Both the spectators were, Kenshin thought, interested in the effects of Sano’s new move on a human body — Kenshin probably with a good deal more speculative horror than Saitou — and they both, he knew, were shocked at the result. Though it seemed feasible to cancel out the energy of the blow, the precision with which the opposing force would need to be directed to avoid damage to self would demand an incredible level of mastery. To see Sano’s opponent displaying such expertise could only dishearten.
Despite Sano’s swift retreat from striking distance, the monk’s big fist grazed his stomach. Kenshin clutched hard at the railing as Sano staggered a step back and coughed up a handful of blood. At his side, Saitou shifted.
“Retreat,” the monk said darkly. “I’ll let you go this time.” It sounded more like an order than an offer, and it seemed to upset Yumi quite a bit. She and the monk argued the point for a few moments before Sano broke in with a glib and rather insulting comment on Anji’s self-proclaimed authority over life and death.
Though Kenshin focused primarily on the debate that would undoubtedly return to blows any moment, he couldn’t help noticing Saitou’s increasing tension. The wolf now had his free hand in his pocket, and had started another cigarette. Noting Kenshin’s attention he murmured, “I meant it when I offered to take his place. He’s not going to get through this with that attitude.”
Kenshin might have been inclined to agree with the statement had Sano not at that moment been voicing sentiments both convincing and familiar: a combination of what he’d told Kenshin bitterly when they’d first met and his more enlightened later thoughts on the state of the country, culminating in the defiant and utterly self-assured declaration, “I absolutely won’t lose to you!”
Letting out a deep breath, Kenshin turned a slight smile on Saitou, whose face now barely even concealed the worry he felt at the recommencing fight. “Sano said that to me when he and I first fought,” he remarked quietly. “‘I absolutely won’t lose…’ But this time it means a lot more.”
For a long, dark moment Saitou stared at Kenshin, brows drawing together and some kind of struggle going on behind his eyes. Saitou, Kenshin was fairly sure, had a hard time feeling faith in anyone besides himself; how lonely that must be. But he was also a very strong man, just as capable of changing himself for the better as he was of changing the world. Finally he too let out his concerned breath, his face relaxing and smoothing slightly as it turned back to watch the action below. He didn’t say anything, but Kenshin knew he’d decided to take the reassurance seriously.
Now to see how long they could endure in silence.
With his body aching from head to toe, the halls they walked were a claustrophobic nightmare. Why the pain should make such a difference Sano wasn’t sure — nor could he guess why, under such circumstances, he should want to draw closer to his companions as they walked rather than further away.
He flexed his hand and let out an involuntary sound of pain. Trying to avoid worries about the long-term ramifications of this damage — worries that, even in the midst of this very present turmoil and the need for concentration, would continue nagging at him — Sano stretched and contracted his fingers again, forcing himself to adjust to the unpleasant sensation. He wasn’t out of the action yet; he needed his fist to function.
Saitou at his side kept looking at him. For a moment Sano avoided his eyes, not really wanting to endure any more derisive comments than he already had, but eventually the fleeting (and, admittedly, somewhat irrational) thought that this might be his last chance to look into Saitou’s eyes overcame his reluctance. And the pensive, serious expression he found there, far different from the irritating disdain he’d expected, could not but surprise him.
In direct contrast, Saitou’s words were no surprise whatsoever: “If you’re hurt, you’re only going to get in the way. You should leave now.” What Sano did not anticipate, however, was the way they were spoken. Sure, it sounded like Saitou’s usual jerk-face attitude, but something about the suggestion was… off… somehow.
For a few moments just a minute ago, after Anji’s news, Sano had been stupidly determined to turn back. Sense had returned, but the burning cold fear in his heart for their friends at the Aoiya had not disappeared. Was Saitou subtly trying to convince him to give in to that? Well, no, that didn’t make much sense; what would Saitou care about their friends at the Aoiya? If it had been anyone else, Sano might have thought there was some concern for his concern… but this was Saitou; he would no more care that Sano cared than care in his own right. Right? Sano was probably just imagining things anyway. He’d spent far too much time lately trying to solve puzzles in the light of Saitou’s uncanny eyes.
But perhaps Saitou simply didn’t want him to get hurt. Because of Kenshin, that is, of course; that would make sense. Saitou knew — better than any other third party, probably — the effect it would have on Kenshin if anything serious happened to Sano. The latter couldn’t help recalling the way his two companions had stood together looking down at him as he fought Anji… neither seeming any more or less worried about him than the other… and Saitou’s offer to take his place…
Yes, that was undoubtedly the answer: Saitou was simply looking out for Kenshin, who was, after all, the government’s specific answer to this Shishio situation. That was Saitou, all right: just doing his job; nothing personal about it.
Sano found himself making another little pained noise. He’d been flexing his hand throughout these reflections, and didn’t think it was getting any better for it.
Saitou snorted, evidently accepting this non-verbal answer for the dismissal of his suggestion that it was. “This is what you get for ignoring what I told you and neglecting your defense,” he said.
Sano made a face at him. Disinclined to repeat the responses he’d already given to the admonition, however, he merely said, “Hey, fuck you.”
“Here and now? I wonder what Shishio’s thoughts on that would be.” Though Saitou’s murmur was carrying, evidently meant to be heard by the two people walking down the hall in front of them, Sano chose to interpret it at being directed toward Yumi alone. She didn’t seem to have much of a sense of humor, and her huffy, stiff-shouldered response was pretty funny… a good deal more than the thought of the remark having been aimed at Kenshin and what that might mean.
“Could only make his day better,” Sano replied with a shrug and a grin… and realized even as he said it that, while there was nothing wrong with levity in general, these particular words were probably not the wisest. They could only bother Kenshin and bring to mind things neither of them were supposed to be thinking about at the moment. Honestly, he was a little shocked he’d even said such a thing to Saitou. Hell, he was shocked Saitou had said what he had to him.
He couldn’t help being surprised as well at how amiable that brief exchange had been. Perhaps Saitou was surprised too, for he raised a brow and gave Sano a lopsided smile. It was a strange look, holding something more than skepticism and amusement, and it gave Sano the strangest feeling. There was something of finality in Saitou’s eyes all of a sudden… finality and acceptance. Seeing that expression, Sano almost expected the man at any moment to say goodbye and just disappear.
Earlier on in this venture, Sano would have been glad of the disappearance and told Saitou to skip the goodbye. Now… Well, it would probably get in the way of all that waiting he’d resolved to do if he thought about what he would prefer now. Break his concentration on the tasks at hand, complicate things with Kenshin, and all that.
But after the oddly friendly moment of banter and those looks, and in this current silence that (according to Sano’s earlier, admittedly irrational fear) might be his last chance, it was difficult as hell not to think about this sort of thing.
Kenshin glanced back at them just then, the very nonexistence of his expression expressive. He looked like a man holding his breath, reminding his companions that the air would slowly poison them if taken in. There was no trace of what Sano knew he must be feeling, the worry and confusion and god knew what else… only the determination to finish what he’d started, to complete the accepted task. Not even the awareness that their friends at the Aoiya were in worse danger, perhaps, than anyone here in the fortress — a fact that, quite frankly, Sano was trying his best simply to ignore, though it lingered under everything else he did or said or thought as a live current of potentially detrimental concern… not even that showed in Kenshin’s face.
Sano smiled faintly at his lover, then stared at his back when Kenshin turned away again. Kenshin was so strong… strong in ways Sano had never thought about — never been aware of, really — until recently, until Kenshin himself had made him recognize them. Sano admired and loved Kenshin as much for teaching him these things he might not otherwise have learned as for bearing that strength in himself. And observing Saitou’s fixed, serious stare in the same direction as his own, Sano couldn’t help thinking…
No. No. He could help thinking that, because he wasn’t supposed to be thinking about anything but this situation here and now at the fortress. Sano might not be as strong as Kenshin was in many ways, but he’d be damned if he let him down here and now by getting distracted and jeopardizing the endeavor. He returned his attention very pointedly to the continual, painful flexing of his hand.
“We’ve arrived,” Yumi announced at last, drawing to a halt in front of another pair of doors in a particularly dark stretch of corridor. “Inside is your second opponent. Once you enter this room, you won’t be allowed to turn ba–”
“Enough,” Kenshin interrupted her, somewhat fiercely, and, to Sano’s surprise, kicked the doors down. They clattered to the floor a few feet into the room beyond.
The latter, as dim as this length of hallway, was decorated with stylized eyes on floor and wall and ceiling. In the solid circular center of one of these a man, blindfolded and bearing a large-headed spear and a shield, wore more of the same symbol on his clothing and sandals. He didn’t sit; he crouched, evidently ready to spring into action at any moment. Piecing together certain things Misao and Chou had said, Sano identified this as Mouken no Usui.
“One… two… three…” the man counted. He raised a hand and pointed at the people in the doorway, skipping Yumi but indicating the rest of them one by one with a precision that made Sano a little uncomfortable. Was the guy blind or wasn’t he? Surely he couldn’t see through the damn blindfold in any case…! “Anji couldn’t even get rid of one of you?” Usui put a hand thoughtfully to his smiling face. “Well… that’s fine, that’s fine.”
“We don’t have time for your bravado,” Kenshin replied in an even harsher tone than his previous. Glancing at him, startled, Sano noticed he was already prepared to draw and fight. “Will you step aside and let us pass? Decide quickly.”
Sano struggled to fight off a deep, cold shiver. He knew that voice. It was Kenshin’s first-step-down-Battousai-path voice. Perhaps the news of the planned Aoiya massacre was affecting him more than Sano had thought; or perhaps Kenshin, in steeling himself for the eventual encounter with Shishio, was inadvertently (inadvertently, Sano hoped to god inadvertently) pushing himself into Battousai territory.
“Kenshin–” he began uncertainly, but cut off in surprise as Kenshin’s forward momentum brought him into sudden, unexpected contact with Saitou’s abruptly outstretched arm. Kenshin stumbled back a step, staring at Saitou just as Sano was.
“It’s good that you’re angry,” Saitou explained, his eyes never moving from the still figure of Usui, “but don’t waste it on him.” His tone was utterly flat as he continued, “Go on and leave this one to me.”
“Saitou…” Kenshin’s voice was a great relief, for it had returned to normal; and the expression he gave Saitou, as he touched briefly the spot where the officer’s fist had met his face, was all Kenshin. Silently Sano sighed. Was it all right to feel grateful to Saitou for this? Kenshin could undoubtedly have taken care of it himself, but the fact remained that the wolf had deliberately pulled him back from those first steps.
“Go,” ordered Saitou, and suddenly the import of his previous statement struck Sano. Go? Leave him here to fight alone? Move on to whatever came next without him? Just like that?
Sano opened his mouth, but found himself devoid of words.
Kenshin nodded. “Excuse us,” he said to Yumi, and took off at that improbable speed of his toward the far doors.
“Hey, wait!” the woman protested. “You can’t just–”
Deeming it best to bring her along, given the likelihood of their getting lost without her, Sano hefted Yumi up into his arms as he moved to follow Kenshin. “You’re coming too!”
Through the door Kenshin had flung open, carrying the struggling, loudly protesting Yumi, Sano had time for nothing more than the briefest glance back. And he couldn’t even deny to himself the painful clenching of his heart as he took in the lean, tense, motionless figure in blue that they were leaving behind perhaps never to see again.
The room stank of blood, but Saitou did not rush to leave it; unnecessary haste would only set him back at this point. He was quick about treating his injuries, though… It probably would have been better to bandage his legs under his pants, but, squeamish as he wasn’t, the thought of removing the garment in the presence of the pinned and blindly staring half body on the wall was unpalatable to him.
“Could only make his day better,” he seemed to hear in Sagara’s tones, and he smirked faintly to himself. He still couldn’t quite believe they’d said those things to each other.
After retrieving his sword with some difficulty from aforementioned corpse, he finally left the room. As he lit a cigarette outside, covering up the last traces of the bloody scent, he spent several moments staring down the corridor to the right. Based on what he’d heard earlier, he believed his companions had gone that way. Unfortunately, based on what he remembered, he needed to go the other way. To be sure, he traded his cigarette case for the map in his pocket.
It would be a struggle to concentrate on the information he needed to collect when he wanted so badly to follow Himura and Sagara. Supposedly only Seta Soujirou remained to be defeated before Shishio himself, but, even assuming he believed those really were the only dangers left to face, he wasn’t terribly happy letting the others face them alone. He knew part of this was his usual, deeply-ingrained disinclination to delegate difficult tasks; he was always surer of things he did himself. He knew what the rest of it was too — he could finally even admit it to himself — but it was no good thinking about that right now.
He headed down the hallway to the left. Careless haste was still to be avoided, but he could hope to wrap up this part of his task quickly and rejoin the others before too long. And if either of them had been seriously hurt during this separation…
He took a long drag on his cigarette. He needed to visit three areas of the fortress before he could do what he really wanted to do, so, though it was difficult as hell, he pushed Himura and Sagara from his mind (as far as that was possible) and moved, purposeful and silent, toward his first duty.
That things went smoothly was not, he thought, in this instance, a bad sign. The complex was practically uninhabited — emptied, perhaps, toward the unsuspecting Aoiya — and those that remained were too distracted by the presence of Himura to notice Saitou. So it was with relative ease he found what he sought — none of which could occupy his mind anywhere near as thoroughly as the emptiness he was enforcing in place of what he didn’t need to be worrying about at the moment.
On the way to the last and largest office-like room he intended to inspect, a door stood ajar. A glance at his map confirmed it led to a library, but even half a hallway away Saitou could tell that its recent purpose had been something very different. Moving even more stealthily than before, he stepped inside to have a look.
The two rooms he’d seen in which the prearranged battles had taken place had been specifically suited for that purpose, tasteless personalized decorations aside. This chamber, with its narrow, shelf-walled lanes, was not suited for the purpose, so presumably this battle had not been prearranged. Saitou had been wondering all along, in the back of his head, about the location of almost the only unknown factor in this great equation; therefore, the presence in the dark chaos inside the doors of one Shinomori Aoshi was not terribly shocking. Nor was the fact that Himura had been able to defeat him.
It was one hell of a relief, though.
Judging by Shinomori’s state and that he was just getting to his feet and moving as if to leave the room, Saitou judged that it couldn’t have been too long since the end of this bout. The Okashira actually moved two steps forward before observing Saitou’s presence; Saitou wished very much he could have seen the battle that had left him in this condition.
During the few moments before Shinomori noticed his presence, Saitou debated whether or not to speak to him. Time was nothing could spend extravagantly, but he was so pleased to see Himura had won this battle that he actually felt rather positive toward Shinomori at the moment. Additionally, the Oniwaban’s presence in the fortress had surely contributed to the general distraction of which Saitou had been able to take such convenient advantage… and the man might even have a further use against Shishio, assuming Himura had managed to convince him of the error of his ways. Since Himura could probably convince Enma of the error of his ways, Saitou was assuming.
So, when Shinomori signaled by a barely visible start that he was finally aware of Saitou’s presence, looking up from the wreckage of slashed books and shattered shelves he attempted to navigate, Saitou greeted him. “I see you got your ass kicked again.”
“Saitou Hajime.” Shinomori didn’t seem terribly pleased to see him, but it was a little hard to tell.
“Hm?” Saitou lit a fresh cigarette. “You should know me as Fujita Gorou.”
“That Seta boy told me you were here,” Shinomori replied shortly.
“Sou ka,” said Saitou even more shortly, smirking at the other man.
“You’ve been taking your time.” Shinomori seemed somehow even less pleased now than before. “Battousai’s long gone.”
Saitou nodded. “Everything’s going according to plan.” Now he essentially had confirmation in Shinomori’s own words of Himura’s victory, he could get back to work in relative contentment. The Okashira was fading as an object of any interest, but he might still be useful. So Saitou pulled his map again from his pocket and flicked it at the other man.
Shinomori caught the paper and snapped it open with a hand that was evidently regaining its vigor. As his eyes took in the fine lines representing the rooms and passages surrounding them, he managed by some means or other to appear almost astonished with no visible change of expression.
Saitou turned to leave with another satisfied smirk. “Your intelligence network is effective,” he answered Shinomori’s surprise, “but the government’s system is the best in the country. It’s one of the reasons I work for them.” He gestured briefly. “I don’t need that now; it will lead you to Shishio, if you’re interested.”
“So you’re using Battousai as a decoy.” The Okashira’s flat statement made him pause.
“Something like that.” It certainly had been the plan all along; it was still the plan… it was just that Himura had become so much more since that encounter in the Kamiya Dojo. This was nothing he felt like explaining to Shinomori Aoshi, though. “This battle will decide the future Japan,” he forced himself to go on. “Nothing can come before that.” And he was not so much expressing the opinion as trying to convince himself he actually believed it. He’d known this would happen; he could only hope, now, that he really was as strong as he’d told himself he was.
“Then what about your match?” Shinomori wondered next. “The grudge between you and Battousai from the Bakumatsu? If he dies here, what will you do?”
Saitou wasn’t certain whether Shinomori was trying to reiterate the efficacy of his network by showing how much he knew, or if he was aware that these questions would be bothersome and was just lashing out since Saitou had caught him in such a vulnerable position. Either way, Saitou considered remarking cryptically that the Okashira’s information was outdated, and leaving it at that… but the thought of Himura dying here — the thought of losing what he’d only just allowed himself to admit he cherished — was too disturbing for him to answer quite so facetiously, even if Shinomori didn’t understand.
“Then whoever lives wins,” he said flatly. Under normal circumstances, it would be true, which made it a good response. But he was less pleased with Shinomori upon leaving the room than when he’d entered it.
Everything he needed to know was not readily available here in the fortress, but he hadn’t really expected it to be. He’d still learned enough to justify the trip, and after the office near the library felt it was all he was likely to. Which meant he was free to rejoin the others and, hopefully, see the end of this drama.
A large space that had appeared on the map to be an arena of some sort lay outside these dark corridors in a valley that cut right through the underground fortress; Shishio having already displayed an eye for showmanship, Saitou believed the battle against him would take place there. Picturing the route he must take to reach it required no particular effort of memory, since, under the assumption that Himura and Sagara were or would soon be there, his eyes had inevitably traced it every time they’d fallen to the map; he could probably walk it without looking.
Anticipation and concern tensed his body further with every step he took along aforementioned path, until finally he turned the last corner. Daylight flooded this corridor… more of a room, really, where the hallway opened out into an atrium of sorts before a giant set of riveted metal doors that stood open. But while the real, natural light of the sun served as a pleasant reminder of the world outside this dreary fortress and the events taking place therein, the fresh air that should have accompanied it from the valley or gorge beyond the doors was tainted by a hot, acrid smell he didn’t quite recognize at first.
Uncertain though he was at what he might find beyond them, he took the fact that the doors were open at all as a confirmation of his guess about the final battle’s location. He had only to step through and learn what was going on. Now for the end; now to hope his other duties, which it would have been impossible for him to shirk and which he was yet inclined to curse as he thought about the amount of time he’d spent away from Himura and Sagara, hadn’t delayed him too long.