Special thanks to Kamorgana for betaing.
Chapter 11: Hell hath no fury
Saitoh woke up three hours later from a dreamless sleep, feeling more refreshed than he had in weeks. He got out of his futon, donned his uniform, and promptly left the Shinsengumi headquarters. It was not yet noon and he still had over an hour before Takeda's morning patrol ended, but he started towards the Takagi estates anyways. As much as Saitoh detested his current assignment as Tokio's protector, he considered it a matter of honor to uphold all his duties to his utmost ability. Besides, he had endured worse. Watching Tokio whittle Takeda away was infinitely more preferable than watching politicians' brains atrophy. Plus, his early arrival should give him plenty of time to sharpen his kitten's claws for Takeda's appearance.
The mere thought of an afternoon filled with endless amusements put Saitoh in such a predatory mood he almost bared his fangs at a random passerby.
That was until he reached Tokio's neighborhood, where a dark haze of dread and panic abruptly darkened his midday fun. He watched as local residents peeked warily from the safety of their doorways, too terrified to venture out of their households, but too anxious to simply barricade themselves inside their fortresses. However, at the first sight of him, they all scurried back into their holes like frightened rabbits. The sound of an entire neighborhood bolting their front gates simultaneously could put the loudest war drums to shame. From experience, Saitoh knew that he rarely inspired this much fear overnight.
Especially since he had not killed anyone in this neighborhood lately.
No, it was not his presence that aroused their dread. It was his uniform. Or more precisely, the bastard that was currently abusing the authority that came with that uniform.
Saitoh could smell that rat's stink. The cretin must be trying to force himself upon his latest victim again, and from the reactions Saitoh had seen so far, everyone in the neighborhood could testify to the escalation of Takeda's criminal activities. This level of stupidity broke records even for that imbecile. The moron must have grown truly bold from his past successes, or very desperate from his current failures, to commit such a low-handed crime in such an influential neighborhood.
In broad daylight.
Not to mention that the idiot still had over an hour left of his morning shift. Only a moron with a death wish would cut patrol to harass a pretty face. And to do it in front of hundreds of witnesses who had connections to half of the power brokers in the city …
Saitoh lengthened his stride. Critics of the Shinsengumi were going to have a field day with this.
Unfortunately, any possibility of suppressing this incident had died a violent death long ago. The tumult from the Takagi estate hit Saitoh before he even got within half a block of the place, and the sight that greeted him from within the broken gates of the residence was even more negative. Fleets of screaming servants scrambled about the courtyard - some seemingly with no other purpose than to create more chaos, while others were busily trying to exterminate the huge rat that was dragging their unwilling mistress towards the door. Two kitchen knife wielders, four cooking pan holders, and one broomstick brandisher encircled Tokio and Takeda. And while Tokio kicked and struggled against Takeda's hold with all her might, her protectors took turns trying to inch into striking distance of the rat; in response, Takeda cagily held off the servants by sweeping his katana in wide arcs about him. But the threat of possible death failed to intimidate any of Takeda's adversaries. The servants actually seized the advantage of their superior numbers and slowly tightened the noose. Their courage, determination, and initiative spoke well of their character and their love for their mistress; too bad they were all heading towards their doom. The servants' strategy had one fatal flaw: they would all soon be inside the killing zone of a well-trained samurai armed with a razor-sharp katana, while they still had a long way to go before they could place Takeda within the throwing range of their miscellaneous household equipment. To make matters worse, Tokio's idea of self-defense placed herself in even greater danger. She kicked, scratched, and elbowed her captor in entirely unpredictable patterns. Although most civilians would have applauded her valor and defiance, a tactician would have deemed the situation a complete nightmare. Tokio's attempts at a self-emancipation not only made it difficult for her rescuers to approach her, but it also increased the likelihood of Takeda maiming her by accident.
And possibly killing everyone else.
When ones' lives were entirely at the mercy of an imbecile like Takeda, it was unwise to make that task too complicated.
Still, it was gratifying watching Takeda defend himself from his victims. The moron had his hands full juggling between his grip on the belligerent Tokio and his guard against her seven silly servants. The scene would have been hilarious if the girl in Takeda's arms wasn't Tokio. But as it was, the tip of Takeda's blade had come within an inch of her throat once too often for Saitoh's liking. And as much as Saitoh would enjoy watching Takeda dig a bottomless grave for himself, Saitoh could not allow the volatile situation to deteriorate any further. It would only take one small misstep on either side for the day to end in bloodshed. And with Shinsengumi's popularity at its nadir, the daimyo would not be thrilled by another Shinsengumi blunder.
It had to stop.
"Takeda." Satioh roared from the doorway.
And the imbecile almost dropped his katana.
The moron slowly turned, face contorted by shock and fear. "C…captain Saitoh …" Takeda's lips twisted into a sickly smile as he hastily reversed his grip on the katana so the flat side of the blade faced his "enemies".
As if threatening innocent civilians with the flat side of the katana made the situation any more tolerable.
Not that Saitoh expected any better. Takeda had never met resistance from his victims before, and the lack of practice clearly showed.
"How … why … when … where … ahh …" The idiot quickly exhausted his limited vocabulary and fell to a tense silence, his eyes darting furtively between his adversaries and his escape routes.
Satioh sneered. Takeda had no hope of extricating himself from the crime scene, especially not with a hostile victim in tow. So Saitoh waited disdainfully for the cornered rat to realize the inevitability of its defeat.
And the day might have ended happily that way, with Saitoh hauling Takeda off to face Hijikata's wrath, if not for the presence of an even bigger idiot.
For no good reason whatsoever, the headless chicken chose that precise moment of victory to launch an ill-considered "rescue".
A rescue that couldn't possibly succeed.
With no plans, no weapons, and no backup, she charged towards Takeda with her broom raised high and a battle cry on her lips.
A cry that sounded more like a squawk than a roar.
"Stop." Saitoh ordered her.
But as usual, Tokio's maid failed to obey him. She rushed headlong towards Takeda.
And everything shot straight to hell.
Takeda might be a moron, but he was a highly skilled and battle-tested moron. In times of confusion, reflexes honed from decades of training simply took over. Takeda whipped his katana around without any hesitation and went straight for the maid's throat. Even with his grip on his katana reversed, and flat side of the blade facing out, the full force behind the sword swing could easily break the girl's neck.
"Stop!" Saitoh demanded again, without expecting Takeda to be able to break off his attack in time, or that the headless chicken would suddenly learn to duck. Short of Takeda suddenly struck dead by lightening, the maid had no prayer of surviving this intact.
"Reiko-chan!" Tokio screamed in terror and anguish as Takeda's katana broke through the maid's broomstick without slowing.
Then with a thud, the blade connected with the maid's collarbone. The force sent the girl flying through the air. She crash landed in a mess.
Saitoh gritted his teeth. Still, he clung to the possibility of a tolerable ending to this debacle. After all, it was only one dead maid - a recoverable event.
Sadly, Tokio failed to grasp such a simple principle. She cried and screamed like it was the end of the world. Then with one last angry howl, she bit down, with all her might, on the arm that Takeda used to restrain her.
She drew blood.
And it became Takeda's turn to scream. He flung Tokio away from him like a poisonous snake, backhanded her across the face, and turned his katana on her.
This time, with the sharpened edge towards her neck. .
Saitoh snarled. He would see Takeda dead before he let that rat slaughter an innocent civilian.
Saitoh drew his katana and surged into his gatotsu stance. But so intent was Takeda on decapitating his victim, he didn't even react to Saitoh's approach. That placed Saitoh in an unpleasant dilemma: he could either butcher a distracted comrade without a proper fight, or merely disarm Takeda as honor would have required.
Honor, the standard all samurais lived and died for - with the exception of scumbags like Takeda.
Saitoh had no intention of lowering himself to that rat's level.
Suppressing his bloodlust, Saitoh changed his stance at the last moment.
He sheathed his sword, raised his scabbard, and bashed it against Takeda's skull.
With as much brutality as he could honorably justify.
Takeda crumpled to the ground like an ungainly dummy, without ever realizing what had hit him. But to be on the "safe" side, Saitoh kicked Takeda's unconscious body a couple of times to ensure that the bastard would not wake up anytime soon. If ever. Perhaps today was Kyoto's lucky day, and the city could soon sing a happy dirge. But for the time being, Saitoh had to satisfy himself with merely saving one woman.
One very unresponsive woman.
The kitten wasn't even breathing. She stood like a marble statue staring transfixed and ashen faced at the spot that Takeda had occupied but a moment ago. With any luck, she would remember to inhale before she ran out of air. But at least she wasn't clinging to him and sniveling ceaselessly. Saitoh hated clingy women. Their vulture like talons made him want to chop their arms off just to get rid of them. Besides, he had bigger problems to deal with than declawing bottom feeders. Problems like the half dead maid lying on the ground and a courtyard full of servants all gaping at him like glassy-eyed fishes.
"Someone go and fetch a doctor." He bellowed.
The courtyard immediately exploded into an uproar - with most of the servants undoubtedly doing nothing useful. The whole of Japan could not have produced enough doctors to justify that much noise. But it was better to have the servants scurry around like a pack of headless dimwits than to have all of them underfoot.
And talk about headless dimwits …
Saitoh bent over the prone form of Tokio's maid. The girl's collarbone had swollen to several times its normal size, and her breathing came in labored gasps; but her neck and spine region looked otherwise undamaged, and her skull held its proper shape. All in all, she looked capable of living for at least another hour –time enough for the doctors to arrive. Even if that was not the case, Saitoh could do little for her. Most PHYSICIANS did not have the proper medical training to treat spinal and head injuries, anything a samurai did could only aggravate her condition.
The girl's fate was out of his hands.
It was time to remove all traces of Shinsengumi involvement from the scene of Takeda's latest crime. As much as Saitoh would love to see Takeda publicly punished, he had sworn to protect Shinsengumi's reputation first and foremost, and that meant limiting the amount of exposure this incident created. Besides, it would be so much more satisfying watching Hijikata deal with Takeda. The vice commander could apply punishments that civilians would never dream of. Plus, Saitoh planned to describe Takeda's ordeal in great details to his latest victims, to ease their suffering.
It was overall a great plan - a plan that he forgot as soon as he turned around and saw the fiasco that the kitten was creating. Tokio had picked up her maid's severed broom and was calmly beating Takeda's prone form with its bamboo handle.
Saitoh's jaw dropped.
He had never seen any civilian with the audacity to openly hit a samurai with a chopstick, much less pummel one with a broomstick.
Striking a samurai merited a death warrant. To repeatedly pummel one …
Saitoh didn't even want to think of the consequences. It was bad enough for Tokio's servants to defend themselves with kitchen implements in the heat of the moment, but for Tokio to beat an unconscious samurai with such cold indifference was inexcusable. To top it off, the servants at least had enough common sense to hide their crime - evidenced by the complete disappearance of all kitchen equipment and their wielders. But unlike the others, Tokio didn't seem value strategic retreats. Instead, she had decided to escalate her crime - alone and in full public view.
In other words, she had no way of hiding her felony and no underlings to shift the blame on.
How she managed to live this long baffled Saitoh. But if he wanted to deny Takeda all gains from this latest crime, he must secure Tokio's continual and independent existence. He must remedy this situation. Immediately. Should Tokio's actions become public knowledge, the Shinsengumi would have no choice but to execute her; or worse, force her to marry Takeda. Hijikata would never allow the Shinsengumi to suffer the humiliation her action would have caused. So to salvage the situation, Saitoh needed to get rid of all evidence of Tokio's crime as soon as possible.
Starting with the weapon.
Saitoh strode up to Tokio and grabbed the broomstick as it descended towards its intended victim again. He gave the stick a sharp tug, expecting to yank it right out of the kitten's grip. But to his surprise, his efforts barely moved it. Instead, he had nearly yanked Tokio off her feet. Her death grip over her weapon never loosened.
How like Tokio to fight him tooth and nail while he tried to save her life. If Saitoh didn't abhor the idea of Takeda profiting off of corruption, he would gladly leave Tokio to die by her own stubbornness.
"Give me the broom." He commanded her.
She simply ignored him. Her arms continued to move up and down mechanically despite his iron grip preventing the broomstick from moving an inch. But she didn't seem to notice.
In fact, she didn't react to his presence at all.
Or to any other stimuli.
Saitoh sighed. He had seen this type of behavior before - usually after the Shinsengumi recruits faced the carnage of their first battle.
Tokio was in shock.
Some people reacted by fainting, others by screaming hysteria; his kitten chose to whack the life out of an unconscious samurai instead. With her obi half torn, the beginning of a bruise forming on her cheek, and her hair swirling around her in total disarray, she hardly looked like someone capable of meting out fierce retributions. Saitoh smirked. Hell hath no fury like his kitten angered. This ought to teach Takeda to never underestimate her again.
On the other hand, her vehemence also made it difficult for Saitoh to intervene on her behalf. He learned from past experiences, trying to wrestle the "weapon" away from someone in her condition would be extremely difficult. People in shock clung to protective objects with all their strength. It was simpler to remove the person from the situation instead. So he let go of his grip on the broomstick, ducked under Tokio's guard, wrapped his arms around her waist, and lifted her off the ground.
He belatedly realized that he should have taken his own advice: never underestimate Tokio. He should have knocked her unconscious, or at least restrained her from behind. But he had opted for a quick frontal tackle instead, mistakenly confident about the ease of hoisting and moving her out of the courtyard.
A distance of fifty feet had never felt so long.
Now freed from her fixation on Takeda, Tokio had turned her ire towards him. She had started fighting him with all her adrenaline-enhanced strength. She squirmed, kicked, and whacked at him with her broomstick. He didn't mind the squirming – having her rub against him actually felt rather pleasant. But he could do without the kicking and the whacking.
"Behave yourself." He shouted into her ear, fighting to sound authoritative despite the loud slaps of her broomstick.
To his astonishment, she ceased struggling and calmed down immediately. The reaction was so unexpected, it took several moments to register, and several more before he ceased his own attempts to further subdue her.
Usually, such victories would bring a self-satisfied smirk to his face, but he had known her far too long.
And far too well.
Her sudden obedience raised all the hairs on the back of his neck, and he immediately readied himself to battle an oncoming catastrophe. Now that Tokio had ceased all her struggling, he noticed how eerily quiet the courtyard had become. He had a feeling that Tokio's sudden meekness had naught to do with him. Something had shocked her into immobility.
That suspicion only worsened as he felt a furious ki blasting a firestorm towards the back of his skull.
"Father," Tokio whispered in a half broken voice.
Saitoh winced. When did Tokio's father get back in town? The man had come home at the worst moment possible. If the spectacle of a half destroyed house didn't launch Takagi into a blind rage, catching a Shinsengumi "exploiting" and "abducting" his daughter certainly would. And Tokio's appearance could only fuel the flames of fury. The kitten looked like she had endured unimaginable tortures. Her left eye was swelling shut from the bruise on her cheek that threatened to take over her entire face, her hair had escaped from its bounds and tumbled around her in an absolute mess, and her half torn obi … it didn't hold her clothing nearly as intact as Saitoh would have liked. In fact, her kimono had unfastened in all the wrong places.
Saitoh growled. He was no fool. He knew how bad this looked. All the circumstantial evidence had painted him so thoroughly as evil personified, no one would have believed anything he said. Much less his innocence. He was amazed that Tokio's father wasn't already attacking him like raving lunatic.
It would take an extraordinary optimist to even hope that Takagi was in a listening mood.
Trying to talk his way out of this situation would be an exercise in futility. No matter. Saitoh never enjoyed bantering words anyways; he preferred to simply threaten his way out of situations.
There were millions of ways to intimidate a merchant into short-term silence.
The Takagis could sort all this out among themselves later.
Saitoh dropped his grip Tokio, straightened to his full height, and schooled his features into a mask of hostility that never ceased to cause Shinsengumi recruits to quake in their sandals.
With a plan of terrorization well rehearsed in his mind, Saitoh turned around.
And all his would-be threats died on his lips.
Standing next to Tokio's father was Vice Commander Hijikata Toshizo.