Chapter Four: Contemplation

"Never meant to hurt you? Come on, Yahiko, even you aren't that slow- witted."

"I don't know, Shoki-sama," Yahiko said to his commander. "He seemed ... it was convincing, that's all."

Yahiko's commander was nine years older than him, and a good seven inches taller. He was slightly paler than Yahiko, with long black hair that fell into his glittering green eyes. He was broad-shouldered and handsome, but there was no trace of kindness in those emerald eyes, only a fierce sense of determination.

Shoki snorted, toying with the knot of Yahiko's obi. "Don't let yourself get drawn in again," he said. "Bear in mind that the Battosai is our enemy and your target."

"Is there some reason I was assigned to him? I mean, it made sense when I was living with him, but now—"

"It's simple."

"I'm sure."

"You're the best we have." Shoki shrugged. "Besides me, of course."

Yahiko half-smiled. "Of course." In fact, he knew very well that his skills far outstripped Shoki's, but let the man delude himself, at least until Yahiko didn't need him and his political connections anymore. Connections that turned a blind eye to the asassination of Meji supporters in the government.

Shoki glared out the half-open sliding door behind Yahiko. "Damn. It's raining again. The others should be getting back soon."

Yahiko glanced around the empty dojo. "Where are they?"

"Training in the outskirts of town."

Yahiko nodded. He remembered the stages of his instruction where he and his peers had been taken to an abandoned part of Kyoto (the rebels moved around every so often to avoid capture, and they'd only recently returned to Edo) to accustom themselves to fighting in the narrow streets of a city.

Shoki brushed his fingertips lightly against Yahiko's cheekbone. "But until then—"

Yahiko turned away. "I'm not really in the mood," he said.

Shoki grabbed hold of Yahiko's hair, jerking the boy's head back. "Your mood wasn't ever part of the agreement."

"I don't remember any agreement."

"You owe me, Yahiko. I took you in, I fed you, I trained you—"

"And I've been paying off my debt since I was eleven years old."

"Hn." Shoki grinned, nibbling at Yahiko's ear. "And you've got a good few years to go."

"Y'know, you let everyone else pay with manual labour, but me—"

"You get to work off your debt in my bed," Shoki murmered, shoving Yahiko onto the floor. "If that's a problem, you can leave."

Yahiko snorted. He was wanted for murder in half the prefactures in Japan, where could he go and be safe? Perhaps not safe, he reflected after a moment, because he certainly wasn't here. But alive. He didn't want to die.

"Sensei?"

"Damn, they're back." Shoki rolled off of Yahiko, tugging his own yukata back into place. He pushed himself to his feet and went to prepare tea for the returning trainees.

The trainees were soaking wet, dripping rainwater onto the tatami mats. The samurai in charge of teaching them, Hiroshige, bowed respectfully to his commander and motioned for his charges to do the same. "Sensei," Hiroshige said.

"Hello, Hiroshige-san. How'd it go?"

Hiroshige cast an amused glance at Yahiko lying on the ground, face flushed, yukata pushed up nearly to his hips. "Quite well, I'd say. They're not anywhere near the level they need to be, but they're coming along nicely."

"Good." Shoki smiled and began pouring tea for the weary trainees. "All of you, get cleaned off, I won't have you tracking water all over my dojo."

The trainees bowed and trotted off to their respective rooms. As they passed Yahiko, they each nodded respectfully at him and muttered, "Myojin- san."

Yahiko sat up, pulling his yukata down and glaring at Shoki. "And you expect them to respect me after that?"

Shoki grinned at him. "They're afraid of you, that'll have to do."

"Afraid of me?" Yahiko murmered.

"Of course. You're as good as a hitokiri, aren't you?"

"I don't want to be a hitokiri," Yahiko snapped, getting to his feet. "I just want to be a samurai."

Shoki handed him a cup of tea. "That's why you're here."

Yahiko accepted the tea, and shook off Shoki's hand when it lingered a bit too long on his. "Of course." He strode across the room and paused, one hand on the door. "I'm here because I believe in this cause." His piercing brown eyes bored into Shoki's green ones. "Not because I believe in you."

He slid the door shut behind him.