(Edited Feb 16, 2004.)

DISCLAIMER: This story contains adult themes and some offensive language. I would not recommend it to persons under the age of 16.

Many of the characters contained herein are the sole property of Nobuhiro Watsuki. My deepest thanks to Watsuki-san for creating such a wonderful story in Rurouni Kenshin. Flattery, and not ownership, is all that is implied in the making of this story.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~ Chapter 1 ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

June 1864, First Year of Genji. Saitoh Hajime is age 21. Okita Souji is age 19. The Meiji Era will not start for another 4 years.

---

Hajime stood in the Shinsengumi training complex. Another month had passed, and another handful of pathetic recruits had shown up, hoping to pass the rigorous exam required to enter the ranks of the Shinsengumi. Of the three dozen which now stood sparring, only maybe a third would make it to the final phase of the test. And, of those, less than a half dozen would be accepted into the elite force which policed Kyoto.

"Did you lose anyone this month, Okita?" Hajime asked his fellow captain. Dividing the new recruits among the captains always weighed heavily on their minds. Each captain wanted men that would fit best with their troop, but felt it necessary to allow those captains who had lost men during the previous month to have first choice.

"No. Kanryuusai did, though. But, he isn't here, so he opts out by default."

Saitou's frown became even deeper. He never liked Kanryuusai. Even though it was the man's own fault that he hadn't shown up to the tests, the other captains would certainly hear his complaints about not having first choice of the new recruits later.

Clouds of dust seemed to travel randomly in the training yard, spilling over onto the covered porch where the Shinsengumi captains kept their watch over the recruits. Okita wore a dark handkerchief over his lower face, protecting his weakened lungs from the invasive dirt clouds. But, other than this, the captains all wore the light blue uniforms of the Shinsengumi, immaculately cleansed of any blood or gore that had been incurred in the previous days.

This was one of their many pacts. The captains would -always- appear in public as well dressed and impeccably clean as possible. This would help to establish their authority, set them apart from dirty mongrels such as the Ishin Shishi, who often hid themselves in peasant clothing. No. The Shinsengumi would take pride in themselves and their defense of the Shogunate.

The captain of the 2nd troop, Nagakura Shinpachi, exited the back door of Shinsengumi headquarters to find his compatriots all staring silently at the amateurish sparring. He leaned against the wall near Saitou and Okita, one foot up against a post.

"Kanryuusai's gone to the district," Nagakura explained.

"Ah," was Okita's only reply. The district. They didn't even feel the need to explain -which- district. Among the captains, it was known, THE district meant Shimabara, the part of Kyoto where one could find a cheap whore of either sex, and experience pleasures which would make even the most worldly of samurai loosen the grip on his sword.

"Apparently in advance of a great number of our men. With these new recruits being ready to show their sempais how agreeable they can be...and with it being unlikely they will get the same chance for a few months, I have a feeling that our barracks will be all but empty tonight."

Okita rolled his eyes while Saitou snarled. 'We're in agreement on that one, Okita,' Hajime thought to himself.

Saitou understood why this annoyed Okita. Although Saitou was only two years older than Okita, the younger man didn't look a day over 15. Okita tried his hardest to remain a leader to his men, an aweworthy pinnacle of strength, unwaveringly loyal to the cause, the perfect and quick blade and heart which led the First Troop of the Shinsengumi.

And, in many ways, he was. His men all but worshipped him, and even Saitou had to admit that he had no idea who would win in a true battle between Okita and himself, even with Okita fighting off his illness.

But Okita's one weakness lay in the less respectful areas of public. Although he was truly a man, as much of a man as any of the captains, his youthful demeanor caused no end of trouble if he went to Shimabara. And Okita felt it better to deny himself a few things than to have his men watch him be turned away or ridiculed by geishas, or have to prove himself to every vendor of sake.

"Are you going, Nagakura?" Okita asked, his ever-present smile returning to his face.

"I've thought on it. I might go for a while, if only to keep an eye on some of the rowdier men. And you two?"

Okita shook his head for only a moment before standing and bounding across the training yard to break up a sparring match that had become a bit too bloody.

"And you, Captain Saitou?"

"I have better things to do, Nagakura, you know that."

"You don't have to stay behind just for Okita. He'll understand."

Saitou pressed his lips together. Nagakura meant well, he knew. It wasn't as if Saitou hadn't been to the district before. He'd encouraged the camaraderie of his troop through an occasional night of celebration. It did wonders for their morale. He'd had his time with the painted women of the district and had little inclination to return more than necessary.

Women were, in his mind, completely unnecessary to the task at hand. His energies were better spent focusing on the Shinsengumi's goal of Aku Soku Zan. Frivolity and play in a time when the whole of Japan teetered on the brink if destruction? Such a waste.

"No. And if you see any of my men, tell them their captain gives them permission for the evening, but they had best return by noon tomorrow and be in capable shape to train."

"Sure."

"Aren't you married, Nagakura?"

The other captain chuckled lowly and nodded. "Yeah. You should try it sometime, Saitou. You think women will dull the flame which fuels your fight. But, a good woman, a good woman will rekindle that flame when it is in danger of burning itself out."

Saitou snorted derisively, and looked away from his compatriot. "I highly doubt that."

"Captain Saitou!" Okita called, indicating a brute of a man holding a mace, "I think we have a possibility in this man. Will you perform the final test?"

Saitou nodded and pushed himself away from the wall, his fingers already resting on the hilt of his katana.

"Hai."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Meiji 3, 7 years later.

Saitou is 28. Currently, he works as a spy for a band of samurai attempting to restore the shogunate. He has been assigned to Nagasaki and works undercover as a bodyguard for a high ranking city official by the name of Hachiko Ginrou. Saitou is currently using the name "Fujita Goro".

---

The lone wolf stood alone by the carriage, waiting for his charge to exit the opulent mansion. 'Likely built with money taken from the shogunate,' Saitou mused. Hopefully, in a few months, he would finish gathering the information his group needed on Hachiko and his associates, information they would then use to discredit the government.

'What is taking so long? Impudent lazy politicians. Making everyone wait in this winter cold.' Saitou slid his hand into his chest pocket and returned with a pack of cigarettes. Okita would have his head if he knew his friend had taken up such a habit.

Ah. But, Okita had died two years ago in a hospital in Edo. Saitou had been with his friend. Neither one had expected to live through the war, especially not live and be on the losing side. In those last moments, even in those last moments, Okita had the strength of many men. He had pulled his friend down by the collar, and rasped his last few words in Saitou's ear.

"Do not let this weaken your resolve, Saitou-san. Our time isn't over. I pass my strength to you. The wolves of Mibu must, to the last man, fight with the fury of Aku Soku Zan."

"Yes, Okita. I promise on the honor of the Shinsengumi."

They understood, between them, what would happen next. Saitou handed his wakizashi to Okita, who without hesitation committed an honorable seppuku, choosing his own time of death rather than be defeated by his disease.

Saitou did not cry for his friend. He merely sat, for several seconds, holding the shoulders of the smaller man who bled to death. After this, Saitou knew, Okita would no longer be in pain.

Okita would have loved a winter like this, a winter that threatened snow at every moment. He had once told Saitou, "Blood, blood upon the snow, it makes me realize that everything considered pure can be sullied so quickly. It reminds me that not a single drop of doubt or shame or dishonor must ever touch our minds, Saitou. Because it can blossom like a sickness. When I watch the blood upon the snow, I know that our cause is just and right. And I know that all which may seem incongruous, all these different ideologies various groups hold, they will become sullied and tattered without the strong virtue and conviction of men like us."

Okita had a way of speaking about things that always astonished his less-vociferous and more practical compatriot.

As the snow began to fall in the drive of the showy mansion, Saitou lit his cigarette. He decided he really should buy some gloves this winter. It would be no good for him if his fingers froze and he were unable to use his sword.

Finally, Saitou's charge arrived. The portly man had problems getting into his own carriage, and Saitou had to snicker. It was too bad he was only assigned to spy on Hachiko. Killing the corrupt official would have been so much more amusing.

Saitou rode on the back of the carriage, keeping an eye out for attackers. Unfortunately, he did -actually- have to protect this man, if they wanted to finish getting information on him. Hachiko would tie his own noose and the nooses of everyone associated with him. And anyone who interfered in that process would have to deal with Saitou.

The snow came faster now, thickening like a curtain. The ex-Shinsengumi captain had to rely on other senses than his sight. And rely he did, smelling the acrid metallic scent of blood seconds before the carriage was attacked by bandits just as they passed into a more questionable part of the city. A shower of blood mixed with the snow as Saitou's blade cut through opponent after opponent. The lot of them were inexperienced young men, youths that had been disenfranchised by the wars, but still too young, at the time, to fight in those wars.

Saitou called out to the driver to rush Hachiko to safety, warning him not to stop even once.

They probably wanted money, Saitou figured. A terrible corruption of the soul, that, to fight for the mere reason of wanting to become rich. The concept annoyed Saitou even more, and he quickened his blade slightly. No danger here, really. Even if all half-dozen men currently standing rushed him at once, he had no doubt he could easily defeat them.

After he dispatched most of the bandits, he found himself chasing the last one through the streets and alleyways of the city. This, in itself, would not usually have required much effort, but once again the snow storm required Saitou to use more than his eyesight to continue the chase. Finally cornering his young quarry in a back alley, Saitou advanced slowly, wanting to get in range without slipping on the quickly-forming ice.

They ran at each other, and swords clashed. Saitou found that his newest opponent had a moderate level of skill, perhaps even enough to pass the tests once required to become a Shinsengumi member. As they stood apart once more, regarding each other and momentarily catching their breath, Saitou addressed the bandit.

"You fought in the war."

"So did you. I know you. You're a Shinsengumi Captain. I'm betting that information will bring quite a price somewhere."

So, that was why the man had fled. "Do not presume you will be leaving this alley alive."

Saitou attacked again, this time with his Gatotsu. The man was skewered instantly, but the force of the blow caused both men to lose their footing on the ice and fall backwards into a pile of refuse. It took a moment for Saitou to regain his senses, but when he did, he was met with a surprising sight.

The man had three arms.

No. That wasn't right. He hadn't had any extra limbs during the fight. Saitou quickly withdrew the blade. A small sound from beneath the bandit reached Saitou's ears despite the rush of adrenaline-fueled blood which pounded in his head. A whispered gasp.

Saitou leaned into the pile of trash, lifting his rapidly dying opponent and letting the man fall to the snow-covered ground. Then he saw her.

The girl lay in the trash with her eyes closed, one hand covering her face, the other traveling quickly towards the source of the blood rapidly-spreading across her tattered yukata. He had, by accident of course, punctured the young woman with the end of his long katana right below her stomach.

"Do not touch the wound." Saitou commanded.

The girl made no response, but drew her hand away from the injury. He could hear her breathing heavily in pain, and doubted she would remain conscious much longer.

He had never injured a woman before. Sure, some of the other Shinsengumi used to torture or even kill women and children to get information from their prey, but he and Okita had decided that this route only sullied the purity of their missions. They had a personal and unspoken pact to keep women and children out of the affairs of men.

The girl's eyes fluttered for a second between the fingers she held over her face, going unfocused as the falling snow began to cling to her black hair. Saitou hesitated. He really should kill her. She probably wouldn't survive the injury anyway, plus she might have heard what the bandit had said about him being a Shinsengumi captain. Anyway, who would miss a girl sleeping in a trash heap?

But, he couldn't. He couldn't break his promise to Okita, and he couldn't take a life outside of their motto of Aku Soku Zan.

With his sword, Saitou easily cut a strip from his hakama, scooped some snow, and packed it on the wound. He lifted the girl slightly, and used his belt to tie the ice pack onto her stomach. That would have to do until they could get someone to look at the injury. He easily picked the young woman out of the trash, she couldn't have been far into her teenage years, maybe 14 or 15, and headed back down the alleyway towards a town doctor.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The ex-Shinsengumi captain leaned against the wall of the front room of the doctor's office, curls of smoke trailing upwards to mingle with his thoughts.

"You shouldn't smoke in here, sir." One of the nurses had said. He'd only glared at her and demanded a report on the girl he had brought in earlier.

Finally, after hours of waiting, the doctor appeared, his smock spattered with a delicate pattern of blood. The old man nodded to Saitou and began.

"Your sister will be alright, sir. She will live, but she will have another scar and...I doubt she'll be able to safely bear children. You may go in and see her if you wish. She's awake now, but...will need to rest soon."

Saitou nodded absently, not bothering to correct the doctor about his relationship to the patient. He had to find out what she had heard.

The darkness of the room suited Saitou fine. The young woman lay on the futon, a thin cover pulled up to her chin. As his amber eyes adjusted to the low light, he saw her face for the first time. A simple beauty, still possessing some of the features of childhood, unpainted. She had skin that put milk to shame with its creaminess, and blushing lips that parted slightly as she sensed the presence of her attacker.

But the most astonishing thing, which he had not noticed previously, were that her eyes were the exact same color as his own, golden-hued honey brown, a fragile amber that darkened only slightly in the low light of the room.

Without moving her head, she turned her eyes to watch Saitou as he smoked, standing against the wall. They regarded each other in silence for what seemed forever, until Saitou realized small tears had formed in the corners of her eyes and were rolling down her cheeks into her hair.

"Why do you cry? Are you afraid of me?"

"No. I...." Even Saitou had to strain to catch her voice. She barely spoke above a breathy whisper. "The doctor said I shall not be able to have children."

"You do not look old enough to worry about such things."

"I must," she replied, still whispering, "I must find a husband before I turn sixteen or my auntie..." The girl brought a hand to her face and pushed away her own tears. "...I'll have no place to go. Now I won't find one. Not even the lowliest peasant would want a girl who can't..."

Saitou looked away from her face and stared out the window. It was the night of the new moon, and only the stars shed their light on Nagasaki.

"Your name?"

"Tanagi Tokio."

"And your aunt's name?"

"Tanagi Junpei."

Saitou turned back towards the girl and stepped forward. The light caught his angular features, making Tokio's eyes open slightly wider in surprise. Strangely, however, he sensed she was truthful. She did not fear him. He bent down on one knee, glaring at her, watching her reactions.

"I know you could have killed me. You probably should have killed me. If you must do so now, I shall understand. But I pray of you, put all your power into the action so I may go quickly. I am tired of the suffering of this life and would not wish to linger." Her whispered voice never faltered, never hesitated. And her words, so eloquent, they reminded him of another hospital visit, they reminded him of Okita.

A plan was beginning to form in Saitou's mind. A rather interesting plan, considering he'd hardly ever even spoken to women before.

"I must ask you to suffer for one more day, Tanagi-san. In the mean time, I ask you not to speak to anyone concerning me."

Tokio thought about this for a few moments before replying, "I shall do as you ask, sir. Your kindness in bringing me here deserves at least that."

The Mibu wolf only lowered his head slightly in response, disappearing into the shadows of the room as the young Tokio fell asleep.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

He learned much about Tokio the next day from her aunt, a woman he found thoroughly disgusting. Tanagi Junpei wore entirely too much makeup, and enough perfume to wipe the smell of blood from a battlefield. Both of them smoking profusely through the entire visit (another habit he found especially detestable in women), he was able to extract information from Tokio's aunt without much problem after revealing how he would be paying the girl's hospital bill.

He told Junpei that he had merely been a witness to the attack on Tokio, and took pity on the girl. It didn't take much to be convincing in the face of the overwhelming idiocy the woman possessed.

According to Junpei, Tokio had been the daughter of a well-known samurai from Aizu who had supported the shogunate during the Bakumatsu. Her parents had been slaughtered six years previous by the infamous Hitokiri Battousai of Kyoto, where they had lived. After the attack, the house was swarmed with Ishin Shishi, who were ransacking the rooms looking for information before burning the place. Tokio had run from her hiding spot underneath the house in order to escape the fighting and fire, and had fallen in the brambles of the forest, a sharp stick cutting her throat and injuring her voice.

Everyone was amazed that Tokio survived the injury. The child had been sent to live with Junpei and her husband, who had been Tokio's father's brother. However, Junpei's husband, too, died in the wars. Now, she claimed, she sewed futons for a living to try to support Tokio and her own children. (The last claim Saitou highly doubted. Women who sewed futons had little need for or access to bottles of perfume.)

At 16, the girl would be considered a woman, and with things as they were, Junpei would have no choice but to turn the girl out to make her own way in the world.

Saitou thanked the woman, his voice dripping with as much disdain as possible, and headed back to the hospital.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Saitou sat against the wall in Tokio's hospital room crosslegged. His "boss" Hachiko had given him a bonus for being so incredibly efficient in dispatching the "enemy", which amused Saitou to absolutely no end. 'The fool. He has no idea who his enemy is.'

Tokio stirred slightly in her sleeping, her lips parting and closing as if she were speaking, but no sound ever came. She seemed to wince in her sleep for a moment and then went back to breathing normally.

'Just what in the hell am I doing here?' Saitou asked himself. 'You already know,' he replied internally, and recounted the reasons that his plan would be perfect.

Tokio woke up seconds later, opening her eyes and peering at the man in her room unabashedly. Certainly, she had a quietness about her, but her eyes revealed an honesty of intention and mind that Saitou knew would come in very handy.

"Tokio. I have a proposal for you." Well. There, he said it, and that is what it would be. A business arrangement, nothing more.

The young woman nodded for him to continue.

"I am sure, by now, you have some guesses as to my origins and my true line of work?"

Again, another nod.

"Then you must realize that I am not currently who I purport to be. I am known in town as Fujita Goro, but my real name is Saitou Hajime. My work is dangerous, but I think you could be extremely useful in assisting me."

Useful. In the same way Okita had been useful to the Shinsengumi, presenting a charming face and winning personality that would set his foes off guard.

"Assisting you?" came the whispered question.

"If you would consent, I would marry you. Nothing would be required of you in the normal sense of the concept. I would not require you to perform the understood duties of a wife. Instead, you would assist me not only in keeping my cover, but I would also teach you how to gather information, especially from the wives and daughters of my so-called clients. I know you have the education afforded to a samurai's daughter, and this would come in extremely handy in my line of work."

Tokio remained silent for some time, her amber eyes staring up at the ceiling.

"You kill people."

"As I have been trained, yes."

"You did not kill me, however."

"There will be some danger to your life if you accept, but, I believe, no more or less than a girl your age living on the streets."

Tokio turned her head to look at the man addressing her. Almost twice her age. His face seemed tense, not from the current proposition, but from years and years of intense concentration.

"You will not be ashamed of our difference in age?" She whispered.

"It doesn't particularly concern me."

"Or this?" Tokio pulled the cover down from her chin, exposing the thick scar which marred her neck. The scar seemed much bigger than Saitou imagined. No wonder they were surprised she survived.

"That does not concern me either," Saitou added.

"Then I accept."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

They were married in the spring, a few weeks after Tokio healed, on the day she turned sixteen. The ceremony took place in the morning, at a small temple on the outskirts of the city which Saitou favored due to its peaceful air and simplicity of structure. He wore a simple black gi and white hakama, and Tokio wore a white kimono with black collar and red shoots of bamboo painted on the bottom hem and left shoulder, along with a black obi. They had purchased the clothes earlier in the day when Saitou had noted that Tokio always wore the same yukata, and deduced her aunt had not seen fit to allow the young woman proper clothing.

As they walked back to Saitou's quarters, the Miburo regarded his young wife out of the corner of his eye when he was sure she wasn't looking. She had a decent height for her age, but still didn't even come up to his shoulder. Youth still permeated her body, but she had attained enough maturity to give her the svelte grace of a jaguar. And, though a certain quietness and humility emanated from Tokio, those who were perceptive enough could catch the keen intelligence in her eyes.

"What should I call you?" Tokio whispered as she inspected the inside lining of the sleeve of her kimono.

The question hadn't really crossed Saitou's mind, but it was indeed important. "Teishu, I suppose. Or Goro. It may seem overly informal to you now, but to do otherwise would arouse suspicion. Even in our own quarters, you never know when we are being spied upon. After this mission is finished, you may call me whatever suits you until the next mission."

"Shall we be traveling away from Nagasaki?"

"It is possible. Always be ready for the possibility. Would it trouble you?"

"No." Tokio put her hands back down at her side and looked ahead as they approached the Hachiko estate. His bride had arrived alone earlier in the day, and had already put her small bag of things in the front room. Her Aunt Junpei had not accompanied her.

Any other man, on his wedding day, would scoop up his bride and head straight to the bedroom. But, Saitou merely stepped aside and ushered Tokio into the small unit. It consisted of only three rooms, a kitchen, a living space, and a bedroom. The bath houses for both the women and men of the household were in a courtyard beyond the servants quarters where the pair now lived.

"Would you like tea, teishu?" Tokio whispered, removing a few pins from her hair, and allowing ribbons of darkness to cascade down her shoulders.

"Aa. That would be agreeable."

The young woman disappeared into the kitchen and returned minutes later holding a tea tray. The pair sat at the low table, Tokio pouring the tea, regarding the room in comfortable silence.

"Tokio, you should probably know, people see me as a sinister and callous man. I curse. I smoke. Because of my work, I tend to get in fights. I am by no means gentle in word or deed to any creature."

Tokio, for once, smiled. Her smile seemed small, only a gentle upturning of the lips at the corners. For a moment, Saitou had to wonder if she was mocking him.

"This does not concern me," came the whispered reply.

Clever woman, throwing his own words back at him. The Miburo's eyebrows lifted slightly in surprise, but the expression left his face almost instantly. "That being said, I've bought you something."

Any other woman would light up at the prospect of a gift. Young Tokio, however, only tilted her head slightly and now raised her own eyebrows. Saitou produced the package from underneath the table and slid it to his new wife as if he were sliding a confidential file to an co-conspirator.

He sipped his tea, not watching her open the package. At least it would be impossible for her to yell at him if she were offended.

Tokio pulled out the three silk scarves of varying lengths and inspected them carefully. She tied the shortest one around her neck, covering her scar, and nodded to her approval to her new husband.

The quietest voice in all of Japan said, "Thank you, teishu."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

They slept that first night in the same room, as it would seem strange if any of the guards under Saitou's control came during the night to find the new bride sleeping in the living room. However, their futons had been set a respectable foot and a half apart.

Tokio changed behind the screen that Saitou had bought to afford them both some privacy. She returned in her yukata, the rest of her hair finally unbound. His wife looked even younger with her hair falling on her shoulders. Barely even a woman. For a moment Saitou wondered if Okita would approve of this plan, of bringing such an innocent into the affairs of men. But she was here now. And there wasn't much else waiting for a woman her age alone on the streets. 'It was complicated, Okita. I still have no doubts about my fight, but the situation was complicated.'

Saitou watched her slip into bed as he continued to work on some paperwork at the small desk in the corner, his angular features set in sharp relief by the lantern.

"Tokio?"

"Eh?" Tokio turned over on her side to look at her partner.

"Do you know how to fight?"

"With a weapon? No. My father always said I had no center of gravity. Strangely, it affords me good balance and the ability to dodge. but weapons and punches always set me off kilter, leaving no strength behind the blow. Why do you ask?"

"Just wondering how much help I should expect from you, should we be attacked," Saitou replied dryly, turning a page. "You may sleep now, if you wish."

"Ah. Goodnight, then, teishu."

Saitou worked late into the night, pouring over copies of documents he had purloined temporarily from Hachiko's private library. Nearing three in the morning, having almost forgotten the other presence in the room, he turned and decided to sleep. This was another of Saitou's great secrets of success. He only needed about three hours of sleep a night to be fully rested, and if he needed, he could go for days without needing to sleep. The extra time in his day allowed him to plan and research meticulously.

"The more focused a man is on his goal, the less time he needs in sleep to put his mind together," he had told his men when they had expressed concern at his unwillingness to sleep.

He stacked the papers into a meticulous pile, clipped them together, and placed them in the hiding place where he had been keeping them. Now there was nothing to do but put on his night clothes and lay down to sleep.

But, instead, he sat watching Tokio's slumber. An interesting enterprise, as it appeared his wife talked constantly, though soundlessly, in her sleep, moving her lips and making small facial expressions as if deep in conversation, but never uttering a sound.

He was amazed at how little her presence annoyed him. He'd always been the lone wolf. Even in the Shinsengumi he mostly set himself apart from his men and even from many of his fellow captains. Other people were either tools to be used to achieve his goals or, in very rare instances, equals to be respected, if not feared, for their proficiency and purity. He could almost count the latter on one hand, Okita and the Hitokiri Battousai being at the top of the list.

But Tokio, she seemed to be something different all together. She had a sort of purity, sure, but she had consented willingly to be used as a tool.

It didn't make any sense.

He had to know more about her.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Saitou had almost protested when Hachiko had given him the week off to be with his new bride. He'd stopped himself in time, however. Of course, a newly married man should want time with his new wife. To protest would be overly suspicious, even though Saitou desperately wanted to continue his mission. Oh well, maybe the old fat fuck would get himself killed...or at least injured...while Saitou was away.

Besides, it would give him time to begin to train Tokio on what he would want her to do.

He found her sleeping in the main room, leaning against a wall, some sewing in her lap. As usual, she chattered soundlessly in her sleep.

"Tokio. Wake up. We're going out."

Honey colored eyes opened. A soundless nod was the only reply as Tokio put her sewing aside and readied herself to leave.

They walked through the streets of Nagasaki without conversation, heading towards the marketplace. Spring had not yet turned loose its full warmth on the world, and the chill which hung in the air seemed to match the personalities of the two newlyweds with a deadly precision.

Saitou headed through a park. Even in the crisp morning, already people had begun to cluster into the springtime grove. A small group practiced kata with bokkens in a clearing, while children flew kites. Still other people seemed to be fishing or merely taking morning strolls.

Saitou indicated a shaded bench with a mere glance and the two sat. They watched the movement in the park for some time in silence, the Miboru occasionally glancing at the young woman beside him out of the corner of his eye. She wore a mask of feminine humility and mannered obedience, her head bowed slightly her hands folded delicately in her lap. But, beyond the mask, her eyes belied a strange detached hollowness. It was as if the witnessed the world, but not from inside her body.

Although he did not have quite the same strength in sensing ki as the Hitokiri Battousai, Saitou did have some natural talent in the area, and had noticed that Tokio's ki never seemed to center itself around her body. It was as if her spirit was trying to break free of its confines, something he had only seen before in people who were dying...or who wanted desperately to die.

"Tokio, tell me who in this park is dangerous. Who should not be here?"

The young woman's eyes moved carefully, inspecting everyone and everything. Saitou wordlessly pulled a cigarette from his pocket and lit it, letting the wisps of smoke provide a tenuous veil for his own countenance.

Tokio scanned the area, letting her gaze fall first on the group practicing kata. She watched them for a few moments, but then moved on. The children flying kites seemed harmless in her eyes as well, as did the few solitary figures fishing. And then she caught sight of her target.

"The woman, there..." Tokio whispered, indicating a young woman walking alone through the park, "...she is dangerous."

"How do you know?"

"Because she is alone, yet she walks with confidence, her head high. Every other woman in this park is escorted, or at least with a large enough group of other women."

"Aa. I agree. Anyone else?" Saitou asked as he ashed his cigarette off to the side.

"Yes."

Saitou narrowed his own eyes. He hadn't actually detected any other dangers in the park, and now wondered who the young woman beside him would pick out.

"You are also dangerous, teishu." Tokio whispered, turning her head to look at a child running after its mother.

Saitou could think of nothing to say in response. It was, indeed, an astute observation. He stubbed his cigarette out on the bench and stood. Tokio followed suit.

"I've arranged for you to help out in the kitchen in the Hachiko estate in the mornings. Do you cook?"

"Mostly only desserts. A kind woman who lived next door to Aunt Junpei taught me. She worked in a sweet shop. I found it a useful skill when I needed to placate or bribe my aunt," Tokio replied as she walked a step behind her husband.

"That should do. I've told them that you are mostly mute and that it pains you to speak, so they probably won't ask you too many questions. Listen closely to the women there. Find out what you can about Hachiko and his associates."

"I shall. Anything else you wish me to do, teishu?"

"Yes." Saitou turned off a path in the park and headed towards an isolated clearing. "You said you could dodge a punch. I want to see it."

If anyone had watched the exchange which took place next, they would have been alarmed at the husband and wife pair that squared off in the clearing. The tall, lean man that looked like a wolf glared at the slender young woman with a bowed head.

He decided to punch lightly, but quickly, just hard enough so that he could knock his wife off-balance. Saitou didn't particularly want to injure Tokio, not again anyway, but he had to know exactly how she would behave if they were ever attacked. He studied her for a few seconds, sizing up how frightened she might be of the situation. But, once again, her ki seemed detached and and hollow.

As his fist flew through the air towards her right shoulder, something odd happened. He had expected Tokio to move to the side to avoid the punch, but instead her shoulder seemed to almost melt from his view, moving downwards and then forwards. He decided to immediately try for the other shoulder to take her by surprise. It moved downwards and then backwards, again in a motion that seemed so fluid it annoyed him.

Saitou attempted a dirty maneuver at that point. His wife's torso seemed twisted, so he figured that if he tried to sweep her legs, she'd be caught unaware and fall. To his amazement, he found that when he did so, she grabbed a wad of his gi and used it as leverage. Her legs did fly out from under her, but with her grasp on his clothing, instead of falling, she spun around his side, landing behind him.

He came around with his fist, harder now, intending to punch her in the side. This time she executed a flip from the shoulder, barely over his hand.

Every time he punched, she seemed to move in an impossible direction, as if her body had no bones or weight at all. She seemed to be able to flip herself from any point, pivoting gracefully like a dancer. Several times she caught hold of his wrists while he punched, and used his own speed and force to push herself out of the way.

Finally, Saitou decided to punch at her face, a right-hook that should have caught her jaw. He expected she would tilt her head to the side to dodge, but instead her torso bent and twisted to the side, causing her face to be aligned with his forearm.

And at that point, she bit him through the sleeve of his gi. Hard.

"Kuso," Saitou muttered, pulling his arm away. "That's my sword arm, Tokio. I didn't tell you to bite me."

The young woman stood back up as her husband continued to mutter profanities.

"I...I am sorry, teishu. I didn't think you were going to stop...and...I didn't know what else to do," the girl whispered, biting her lower lip slightly, "Every punch was getting closer and...I didn't know if I could dodge the next one."

He hadn't really exerted himself to his full strength, but she still had done far better than he expected. Saitou pulled up the sleeve of his gi to inspect the damage. She had drawn no blood, but he suspected there would be a pretty interesting bruise the next day.

"Yare yare, where'd you learn all that Tokio?"

"My mother. I guess...I guess she worried about us being attacked, my father being so involved with the politics of Aizu and all."

He had seen that style of dodging before, but where? He couldn't exactly place it. "You realize that it would have been fairly pointless if your attacker had a sword."

"Yes," Tokio replied, a hint of sadness lingering in her whisper. "Are you...are you going to be alright?"

To this, Saitou actually had to suppress a grin. In all his years as a swordsman, no one had ever asked him that question. The cause of his wounds usually died seconds later, and he almost never let his fellow Shinsengumi see him wounded.

"You realize I've been stabbed, sliced and punctured more times than I can count, right?"

"Oh. I...no...I didn't think about that."

Saitou shook his head and let his gi slip back down his arm. "Alright Tokio. Lets go home."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"She's really such a serious girl for her age. Never smiles. But, she's so quiet and mannered. When I was her age, I was running everywhere, trying to get my sweetheart to notice me," the head cook said, pouring some rice into a pot of boiling water.

"Oi, I'd probably be upset all the time too, if I were married to a man like Fujita-san. I heard he killed eight bandits just last week! I can hardly stand to be in the room with him. He's creepy. Got those creepy eyes that look at you like he's going to slice your throat at any second," one of the kitchen maids replied.

"Hey, not so loud, huh? Probably shouldn't talk about slicing throats while Tokio-san is around," another servant hissed.

"Where is she, anyway?"

"I sent her down to the basement to get some things. She wrote me a note that said she wanted to make some sweets after I get finished making breakfast."

Tokio leaned against the cellar door, listening to the gossiping servants. She'd been listening for weeks and hadn't heard anything useful yet. They went on and on, chattering about anything and everything until it made her head hurt. Thankfully, however, she had her early afternoons to herself. She'd spend the time walking in the Hachiko gardens or laying in a nearby grove, watching the clouds.

Tokio didn't care much for the world she lived in. Since the death of her parents she had come to realize that happiness presented itself only as an illusion, waving itself in front of a person only to lure them into a sense of false security. Suffering permeated the world, and any gain of joy would necessarily be accompanied by a loss of something else. Such had to be the balance of things, since the world seemed to remain consistent, never growing in a total of joy or sadness, ever stagnant.

In the late afternoons, she would return to the unit where she lived with Saitou, perform the few chores which needed to be done, and cook dinner. Her husband almost always returned late, would eat, and then immediately begin pouring over paperwork. It didn't seem likely that he would have much paperwork as a bodyguard, so she figured out pretty quickly that he had been stealing and copying documents from some source.

Not that it bothered her. For the most part, since the day he had wanted to see how well she could dodge a punch, he hadn't laid a finger on her, which was more than she could say for her aunt's customers. She couldn't remember how many nights she had run out of Junpei's small house, only to sleep under the porch, in a doorway, or even in a heap of trash. In retrospect, the last one had been a pretty good idea since no one had ever found her there, until the night she had been stabbed by Saitou's blade.

"Tokio-chan, what is taking you so long?" the cook called from the kitchen.

"Do you actually think she is going to be able to answer you? What an idiot you are."

Tokio took a deep breath, waited a few moments, then came out from her hiding space behind the door.

The cook exclaimed, "Oh! There you are!"

Tokio mouthed the word "Gomen", and then presented the cook with the requested ingredients from the cellar.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"Tokio-chan! Tokio-chan!!"

An incredible pounding ensued. Tokio turned away from her evening cooking and went into the front room to open the shoji.

The cook stood before her, looking flabbergasted. "Tokio-chan, you must come quickly. Hachiko Izumi has requested to meet you."

Saitou's boss' wife requested to meet her? Tokio wondered at the concept. Why would such a woman request to meet a part-time kitchen maid? The slender teenager held up one finger, indicating that she needed a second. Tokio went into the bedroom and put her hair up, checking her clothing for appropriateness. She returned only a minute later and nodded at the cook to lead the way.

Tokio had never really seen the manor proper, but its decor and opulence didn't much surprise her. As a child, she had seen many homes of wealthy samurai, and while they had been decorated much more in the Eastern tradition, she recognized the quality of the more Western objects she passed. The cook led her to a room on the west end of the house, and opened the door.

Inside, in a pleasantly tasteful room filled not at all with Western decor, sat a plump older woman with greying hair. Tokio bowed low as Hachiko Izumi motioned her inside and dismissed the cook.

"You are Fujita Tokio, are you not?"

Tokio nodded slightly in response, a bit unsure of how much of an answer was to be expected.

"Its alright, child. I've been told that it pains you to speak. Come, sit."

Tokio crawled across the mat, her head slightly bowed in respect to the woman of higher station. But, she caught a glance of Izumi as she settled herself at the low table. No one would ever call Hachiko Izumi a pretty woman, not these days. A flatterer might whisper that Izumi were handsome, perhaps, or stately. She had a softness around the eyes, though which belied a simplicity and readiness to laugh and made her all but unsuited to be called dignified.

"I'm sorry I did not send for you at an earlier time. I do so like to meet all the ladies of our household. It gets so lonely, you know, being a woman, that we mustn't worry quite as much about station between ourselves. Would you like tea?"

Tokio, again, nodded in response and held up one hand to prevent Izumi from pouring the tea that already sat prepared.

"Cook gave me some of those spice cakes you made earlier today. I must say, you have a wonderful talent with sweets, Tokio. They reminded me so of some my grandmother used to make. She was a wonderful woman. There were whispers that as a girl she had fallen in love with a pirate, and that she had even sailed with him for a time, before their ship sank and she was rescued by my grandfather. What a wonderful story, mmm?"

Izumi accepted her tea with a small smile and took a sip. "I suppose you shall think I talk too much. Or perhaps not. Perhaps you are used to people going on and on because you are so pained to speak."

Tokio put her hand to her throat and whispered, "No. Alone."

"Ah. But not anymore, hm? Now you have Fujita-san."

Tokio smiled slightly. Although Izumi took the expression to be that of a young bride thinking fondly of her husband, Tokio had mostly been amused by the thought of anyone being able to claim ownership of Saitou.

"I remember the first days of my marriage. I was young, like you. I felt myself so lucky to marry for love rather than having things arranged. So many years ago. Such a different time it was. How would I know that my husband would take a mistress?"

Tokio's expression of surprise was only partially hidden by a bowing of her head.

"Oh, no. Not that sort of mistress. He'd always been faithful to me. And he loves me, I know. But now he has a mistress named Japan. And he spends all of his time worrying about how to protect her. But for myself, I have been unable to find her, no matter how hard I look. Is she the soil? Is she the all the people, or a particular group of people? Is she an ideal? If only I knew, then I could help him to find peace for her, find a way so that she would not demand so much of him. But, she is cruel and remains mysterious."

The young woman could only respond by placing her hand softly on top of the other woman's hand, a bold move but one which seemed to comfort Izumi.

"At least your husband knows who he is protecting. He only has to look out for one man, protect one solitary thing. He must sleep well at night. My husband stays up half the night, peering out the window, wondering how many Dutch ships he should put into our harbor, wondering if the gaijin cannons he places there will protect Japan or harm her. Wondering if the trade route they will secure will bring Japan her happiness or her downfall. He takes so many risks for his mistress, looks so far to the future that he has forgotten the present...forgotten me."

The older woman slipped her hand out from under Tokio's. "I'm sorry Tokio-san. I didn't mean to burden you with my sadness."

Tokio shook her head and held up a hand, indicating that she didn't mind.

"Will you come back again, sometime? And perhaps bring some more of those spice cakes with you? Perhaps it is a silly thing, but such foods seem to help me forget my sadness and think of better times, if only for the moment."

"Yes," Tokio mouthed, bowing deeply as she stood to leave. The older woman smiled and nodded, and watched the graceful youth slip out the door. Ah. If only she could return, herself, to being 16. Then she'd be able to distract her husband from his problems without a doubt.

For her part, however, Tokio tried desperately not to run back to her quarters. For once, she would have -quite- a lot to tell her husband.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"Tokio. Pack your things. We're leaving Nagasaki. I've told Hachiko that you have a sick relative that needs our care."

Things had moved quickly since Tokio had revealed to her husband that Hachiko had been dealing with the Dutch to put ships bearing foreign cannons in the harbor in exchange for a secure trade route. Saitou had been able to easily gain evidence after that, sneaking into the harbor and stealing documents from the harbormaster.

In the following days, Saitou had only been biding his time to find a good lull for them to make a hasty retreat out of the city. Once they had done so, and a short time had passed, the information about Hachiko would be leaked to the public, creating a scandal that would at the very least get the man removed from office, and at the most, get him lynched.

"When shall we be leaving?" Tokio asked, already opening her cabinet to remove her few possessions.

"Tomorrow morning. Be sure to go and say goodbye to anyone you have met here. To not do so would be...suspicious."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Tokio placed a small basket into the hands of Hachiko Izumi and looked at her with eyes full of an unknown expression.

"No need to speak Tokio-chan. I've heard that you are leaving. It makes me sad that we shall not be able to spend more time getting to know each other."

Tokio shook her head and then took a deep breath, pretending that speech hurt her much more than it did. "To escape...the sorrow...of a cruel mistress..."

Izumi pulled back the cloth on top of the basket to find a pile of neatly arranged sweets.

"Thank you, dear. And you have a good trip."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"Where might we be going, teishu?" Tokio whispered as the pair strolled down a road leading east out of Nagasaki.

"To a region outside of Osaka for now. We will rest there until our next assignment."

As they walked down the path, Tokio watched her tall husband take confident strides. She had never asked him about his past, had never cared to know the man in front of her past the fact that she could use him as an escape from her aunt.

But, now she knew. He had a first wife, a wife he had loved and cherished and whom he felt he had lost. He had a wife named Japan, and before he could rest in earnest, he would have to restore her honor.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

A few weeks later, scandal broke out in Nagasaki involving some Dutch ships carrying cannons. The politician at the center of the scandal, one Hachiko Ginrou, hung himself in the stately office of his Western style manor after being ridiculed in the streets of his hometown by the very people he had wanted to protect. He had been pelted by produce and taunted by young and old alike.

The next day, his wife, one Hachiko Izumi, died mysteriously in the bedroom of their home. No one noticed the now-empty basket which lay across the room.

The basket once had contained a handful of sweets so delicious...she never noticed the bitter taste of poison.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

In our next chapter: After a journey, the couple rests in Osaka. As they begin to learn more about one another, their lives are forced to take a new direction.