Author's Note: Warning – this story is pure unadulterated fluff. It has no redeeming 'moral to the story'. It is not 'deep'. It's written strictly for entertainment value. It will not be painstakingly historically accurate, and this will be considerably shorter and less angsty than my last story.
Note to Wyrd – Please email me at omasuoniwabanshi "at" yahoo "dot" com and let me know where your original fiction story is posted. Fanfiction "dot" net deleted your reference to the website on your last review so I can't find it! They seem to have something against anything with a 'dot'com or a 'dot'net attached to it!
Disclaimer: I don't own Rurouni Kenshin characters or plot.
Saitoh leaned against the support post of the temple's main porch and stared at the closed front gate across the courtyard. He lightly tapped his sheathed sword idly against the wood planks at his feet. It was night, and he was bored.
Hijikata and Bureau Chief Kondo were both gone. Not that he missed them. Kondo had rebuked him just the other day for being overly harsh with the younger recruits during training. Kondo said he 'lacked sympathy'. Whatever that meant.
Saitoh smirked at the memory of Hijikata standing by Kondo, and nodding his agreement. It was Hijikata who'd come up with the draconian code for Shinsengumi members. The penalty for all infractions was to commit seppuku – ritual suicide by disembowelment.
And they thought he was harsh for training the young puppies to be tough? Joining the Shinsengumi was now popular with the young pro-shogunate warriors of Kyoto since the Shinsengumi had taken out several Ishin Shishi rebels during the Ikeda-ya affair. Problem was, their standards just weren't high enough. The new recruits were ignorant babies compared to Saitoh, and he had no qualms about letting them know it.
Some of them were even younger than Okita. Saitoh tensed as he heard muted coughing coming from Okita's room further along the porch. The boy coughed in his sleep now. It was just as well that the squad captains – Saitoh, Okita, and Shinpachi – all had private rooms in the temple grounds that served as Shinsengumi headquarters. The boy could cough at night without alerting all the troops. But Saitoh knew. Okita's coughing woke him, and now he was restless and couldn't sleep.
Nothing could stop Okita's coughing. Okita was dying. The boy didn't know that Saitoh had hunted down his doctor and demanded answers when Okita's 'cold' hadn't gone away. Aku Soku Zan, the Shinsengumi slogan, didn't work in a case like this. There was nothing Saitoh could do, so he gave Okita the illusion of secrecy he desired.
Saitoh dropped lightly off the edge of the porch to the ground, thrusting his sword through the obi of his sleeping yukata from force of habit. Even on the grounds of their headquarters, a captain of the Shinsengumi should never be without his sword.
Fragments of gravel dug into his bare feet as he crossed the broad expanse between the temple's main building and the gate set in the stone and plaster wall. The large wooden doors were closed for the evening, and he couldn't hear a sound from the two guards posted outside. He sneered. The guards were complacent even during the day when the gates remained open so curious onlookers could peer into the grounds. After all, who would be insane enough to try to break into Shinsengumi Headquarters?
The guards were mainly there to be sure the curious fools didn't wander in from the street, instead of merely gaping through the open doors. Usually onlookers scurried away whenever Saitoh glared at them, but there'd been an alarming number of young girls lately who loitered at the dry goods shop across the street, amusing themselves by staring and giggling at the squads at practice in the courtyard.
Those idiotic young recruits lapped it up, showing off for the ladies instead of paying attention to what they were doing half the time. And Kondo thought he was too hard on them. Humph.
Deciding to walk the inner perimeter of the walled precinct, Saitoh set off to his right, away from the gate.
The monks' side garden, left alone since the area was really too narrow to practice in, was quiet and still in the moonlight. Saitoh glared at it critically. There were far too many flowery shrubs for his taste. And that tree by the wall! Its branches grew right over the top of the wall and down the other side. The monks were slacking off in their gardening duties since the Shinsengumi had taken over most of their temple. He'd have to have a few choice words with them on the subject of duty.
Satisfied with his plan, Saitoh nodded to himself and continued on past the garden which faced his room and the other leaders and captains' rooms. The back hall serving as the regular troops' barracks was quiet, save for the snoring. Not for the first time was Saitoh grateful that he only had Okita's intermittent coughing to deal with. He avoided the monks' quarters and slipped lightly past the kitchens, bathhouse and other outbuildings to round the front of the main temple building.
Still not tired, he walked back and forth across the practice area, ignoring the gravel bits that dug into his feet. Eventually that grew boring as well, so he rounded the corner of the temple building and prepared to leap back up on the porch.
Hold on. Something was different about Hijikata's room. The shoji door was open a crack. Saitoh's eyes narrowed. It wasn't like Hijikata to leave his door open when going off on a trip, especially one to the Aizu family's mansion in the hills. Kondo had ties to the Aizu clan, so he and Hijikata went there periodically, and the trips always lasted several days.
Not only that, but Saitoh would have noticed if the door had been ajar when he'd retired for the night. The only time Hijikata left his door open was when he'd sit on the porch at his writing desk, working on paperwork. It always galled Saitoh that passersby could look through the open front gate and see Hijikata doing that, but when he mentioned it, Hijakata always smirked and reminded Saitoh that unless the pedestrians had the eyes of an eagle, they could only see that he was writing reports, not what he was writing in the reports. So Hijikata continued his bad habit, just to be annoying.
Was some raw recruit stupid enough to think that he could snoop in Hijikata's room while the vice-chief was gone? If so, he'd have to face the consequences. Saitoh drew his sword with the faintest whisper of blade against sheath, and stalked forward.
She hadn't been able to eat all day out of sheer nervousness. She was sure her grandfather would realize something was wrong when she didn't tuck into her food like she usually did, but he'd said nothing. Grandfather had become increasingly distracted and lost in the past. He didn't seem to notice their straightened circumstances half the time, wandering through the ruined, burnt wreckage of what had once been the family home and paper making business.
The fire had destroyed nearly everything. The business was gone. Father's workshop, the small brightly lit shed where he'd spent his days practicing calligraphy and the ink drawings that brought him such acclaim, was completely gone. It had burned down to nothing, and only a blackened patch in the compound remained where it had once stood.
Her father had died the year before the fire, but her mother…her mother had been inside the workshop when it burned.
Shuddering away from that memory, her thoughts came back to her grandfather. She wondered what he was doing now. Was he sleeping, or walking around the burnt out compound, carrying his father's old sword? The sword was one of their few possessions left over after the fire. She'd sold everything else they'd salvaged in order to buy food.
The two small rooms of the compound where she and grandfather slept at night were relatively untouched by fire, but ironically needed to have several paper panes in the shoji screens repaired. How funny that she, the daughter of one of the finest artists ever to put ink to paper, and granddaughter to the finest paper maker in Kyoto, could not afford to spend the few precious coins she had left on anything but food. There was simply no money left for buying paper.
Even the black hakama and gi she wore now – a relic from her grandfather's boyhood – were so worn and threadbare that no one wanted them. She should be grateful that she hadn't been able to sell them. She needed dark clothing for tonight. She absolutely could not be seen or caught; the shame of it would kill grandfather. She wondered if she should have brought his sword, but dismissed the thought quickly. Since the fire, grandfather never let the sword out of his sight. Besides, she didn't know how to use one. Oh, she'd been fascinated by it as a child, as she'd been fascinated by anything with parts that fit together.
She'd been caught tapping the mekugi pegs out of the skah/hilt one day when she was just ten years old. She thought for sure that she'd be punished, but grandfather had over-ruled her parents and sat down beside her on the tatami mat and calmly showed her how to disassemble, clean, and reassemble a sword.
But he'd never shown her how to use one.
Grandfather's own father, a ronin samurai, had taught him, but grandfather's son (her father) had no interest in swords. Her father had been born with a clubfoot and limped his whole life, so joining a dojo was out of the question. Even grandfather had to give up swordplay when a cholera epidemic swept through their area of Kyoto and took his parents.
Grandfather set aside his father's sword and threw himself into his mother's family business, as duty demanded. The Takagi family made the best paper in Kyoto. Tsutomu Takagi, her grandfather, not only maintained their reputation, he built on it. His son's success as an artist merely enhanced the family name even more. The Takagi family may not have been samurai, but Takagi was the name her grandfather's samurai father had taken when he wed the Takagi's only child.
To have a family surname at all was an honor not many merchant families were granted, and it had taken a lot of effort and bribery to the local daimyo to get it. She had to be sure that whatever happened tonight, the Takagi family honor would not be harmed.
Her musings about her past and her family kept her mind occupied as she walked softly through the nighttime streets of Kyoto. She was very glad she'd thought to wear her grandfather's old straw zori sandals rather than her usual wooden geta sandals. They would have clattered horribly loudly. As it was, she worried that her stomach would start to growl and give her away. Hunger settled in the pit of her stomach and gnawed at the back of her throat. Why hadn't she forced herself to eat today? She ignored it as best she could. Nothing must distract her from her goal.
Oh it was dangerous. Was she insane to think that she could best the wolves of Mibu in their den? She shook herself mentally. It was ridiculous to go all faint-hearted now. Hadn't she spent weeks loitering in front of the gates of the temple the Shinsengumi had co-opted for themselves? She'd mentally mapped out the front portion of the temple, and knew where she had to go, she just had to get there without being caught.
Saitoh waited for it, his eyes glued to the opening between the shoji door and the wood frame. There it was again, a flicker of movement inside Hijikata's room. He caught a glimpse of black fabric, then with a quick flutter it was gone.
His mouth creased into a feral smile. Not one of the idiot recruits then, but someone who'd dressed for a nighttime raid. An onmitsu perhaps? A ninja hired by the Ishin Shishi? Why else would he be in Hijikata's room? Hijikata was the one who kept the secret records and reports for the Shinsengumi.
Saitoh halted by the corner edge of the porch. Starlight illuminated the side garden and temple porch nicely, becoming lighter or darker as clouds drifted across the midnight sky.
He could easily call any number of Shinsengumi troops to assist him, but why share the fun? Let the young puppies sleep in their barracks in back of the temple hall. He'd deal with the intruder himself.
He settled in happily to wait for his prey to emerge.
It was just a tree. She'd climbed trees before as a child when her parents weren't watching. True, it had been years since she'd been near a tree, but surely it wasn't a skill one forgot easily. This particular tree's branches were dangling over the temple wall just asking to be used.
She swallowed, squared her shoulders and marched up to the leafy mass.
The bark was rough in her hands as she gripped the lowest branch and swung her feet off the ground. Hooking a knee over the branch, she clung to the underside for a long moment - feeling like one of those cocoons caterpillars glue to the bottom of stems.
The loose material of the hakama trousers she was wearing extended down towards the ground as gravity caused them to fall away from her lower limbs. It was a decidedly drafty turn of events.
She shifted her weight and heaved herself over the branch so that she was on top of it, still gripping it to her chest, but with her legs dangling down on either side of the tree limb. Now she was on top of the branch but facing the street instead of the temple.
Raising her arms, she gripped the branch above her head, welcoming the solid roughness of the uneven bark, which bit into her hands as she clenched it tightly. The sleeves of her gi were now hanging in her face. She should have tied them back, she supposed, but no. That was the last thing she should be worrying about now.
Gingerly, she half pulled her body up so that she could place her feet on the branch where her stomach had lain a moment before.
Once her feet were secure, she moved her right hand over past her left and re-attached it to the branch several inches closer toward the temple wall. Then, holding her breath, she swiveled her hips and brought her right foot off the branch, swinging it past her left, and set it down again, further along the branch.
She released her breath in a quiet sigh. She could do this. It wasn't so hard. Repeating the action several times, she inched her way closer to the temple wall, having to crouch lower and lower as the space between the two branches (one above and the one on which she stood) grew less and less the closer she came to the tree trunk.
In the end, she had to reach out to another tree branch and heave herself onto the top of the wall, stomach first. Through the thin fabric of her grandfather's hakama and gi she felt the cold, rough stones capping the wall.
Keeping a death grip on the new branch, she pulled her legs over the wall and sat on it, staring into the temple courtyard below. A quick glance to her right confirmed what she knew from reconnoitering before. The Shinsengumi closed their gates at night and posted two guards on either side outside in the street, but not, thankfully, on the inside as well. The side of the temple's main building lay directly in front of her, skirted by a wide, low wooden porch, its polished surface gleaming in the starlight.
Shadows like cobwebs clung to the scattered shrubs and stone lanterns jutting up from the side garden at her feet. She tilted her head. There were quite a lot of shrubs in fact. It made the garden look…crowded.
To her right lay a broad open space between the gate and the front of the temple. It had once been a graveled expanse with a walkway down the middle, but countless Shinsengumi feet had trampled the gravel away and now it was a dusty practice ground for soldiers. Remnants of gravels were kicked here and there in clumps. She wondered what the temple monks thought when they looked at the wreckage of what had once been their peaceful, neatly raked Zen gravel garden.
Wasn't that just like the Shinsengumi? They wrecked everything. If she'd had any doubts or second thoughts about what she was doing, the sight of the practice ground erased them.
She reached down the tree at her side and grasped one of the lower branches, then swung her hips off the wall, allowing her toes to bump into the very solid tree trunk. Her toes and the edge of her sandals scrabbled a bit against the wood, but her grip on the branch held, until she transferred it to another lower branch, and then another, until there were no more branches, just trunk.
She dropped the last few feet to the grass below. Rising from her crouched landing position, she glanced left, then right, and made her way through the side garden. Dodging shrubs, she went quickly across the grass and round stepping-stones to the edge of the temple's porch. Grabbing a support pole, she swung herself up onto the wooden planks and stepped lightly to the shoji door of a chamber near the front end of the temple.
She'd seen the one who lived in this room leave the compound a day earlier with another man. They'd been carrying baggage, as if going on a trip.
All today she'd found excuses to pass by the temple and glance inside. The shoji door had remained closed. When its occupant was home, it was always open. But what if he'd returned late in the evening while she was home cooking grandfather's dinner? What if he was in there now, asleep? Or worse, awake, waiting to carve her up into little tiny pieces, or…
She dug her fingernails into her palms and concentrated, forcing the fears away. If she was caught, she'd meet her fate bravely, as the great granddaughter of a samurai should. She wouldn't say a word. Her grandfather would never know what happened to her because she'd never reveal her family name, and wouldn't let the Takagi reputation be ruined.
Taking a breath, she raised her hand to the wood edge of the shoji screen door and gently pulled it open. A set of chests lined the right wall. Against the left hand wall was a low writing table and empty sword stand. A neatly rolled futon lying directly across from her against the far wall completed the furnishings. The room was unoccupied.
What was keeping that stupid ninja? Saitoh clenched his teeth. He'd been waiting over twenty minutes, waiting for the satisfaction of seeing the expression on the spy's face when he left the room blissfully unaware that his mission was not a success. Saitoh wanted to see the expression in his eyes change as the realization sank in that he was caught.
Anticipation had cured Saitoh's boredom for a while, but now it was getting tedious. He'd planned to let the ninja get whatever he'd come for so that there'd be no question of his guilt when he walked out of Hijikata's room, evidence in hand, and then…Aku Soku Zan. Destroy Evil Instantly. With proof of the man's guilt right there on his body, even Kondo couldn't criticize Saitoh for slaughtering the spy.
Saitoh cocked his head, eyes widening. Wait a minute…that sound, coming from Hijikata's room. It was faint but, was that…humming?
It only took her a minute or two to pick the locks on the chests against the wall. Mechanical things had always enthralled her, how their parts fit together, how they worked. She'd learned how to take apart every locked chest and cupboard in the family compound by the time she was ten. Only the strongbox lock in grandfather's office had posed any sort of a challenge. The strongbox where all the money was kept had disappeared the night of the fire.
Her hands stilled momentarily on the bits of twisted metal she was using. Then she shook herself. She mustn't think of the fire. Not now. She bent her head over the lock and concentrated. Soon all the chests were opened. She sank back on her heels in despair. There was so much paper here!
One whole chest was old financial reports and accounts. She closed it and mentally crossed it off her list of places to search. One chest seemed to be private correspondence. The last with the hardest lock to pick were reports from spies, past missions, dossiers on officials, enemies, and even some Shinsengumi members. She shut that one and went back to the correspondence chest. It seemed the likeliest place to begin, though it was also the messiest.
The papers weren't filed in any sort of order. Some were folded, others rolled up, and all had to be opened if she was to find what she wanted. It was driving her crazy so she decided to sort them into piles by type of correspondence.
There were lots of old letters, notes to self, bits of poetry and something that caused her heart to stop for a minute. It was a sketch of a woman looking over her shoulder. For a moment, she thought it was a sketch of her own mother, but when she brought it to the starlight spilling in from the doorway she saw immediately that it wasn't. Her mother had been beautiful like the woman in the picture, but this was a different beauty with a thinner face and thicker hair.
As she leaned over the sketch, her own hair fell over onto the paper, the ends making a scratching sound as they touched the sketch. She pushed the strands back over her shoulder, realizing that the ribbon tying her hair back at her neck was coming loose.
Ah well, she'd deal with that later.
She had to go back to the doorway several times, to take a better look at certain papers to be sure they weren't what she wanted. Absently, she began to hum, as if she were back home doing normal housework on a normal day. She was getting toward the bottom of the trunk when a name on a letter caught her eye.
Rising to her feet, she had to force herself to unclench her fingers, which were creasing the paper's edge. So intent was she on the letter that she barely registered the sudden darkening of the room as a shape interposed itself between the doorway and the star lit sky.
The shoji screen was shoved open violently along its wooden track, causing her to look up quickly as a low voice growled, "So, thief, did you find what you were looking for?"
She saw a man, tall and lithe in a white yukata, standing in the doorway. His eyes were narrow and gleamed yellow, like wolves' eyes. Spikes of bangs hung low over his forehead, the rest of his hair pulled back in a high ponytail. In his hand was a naked sword.
As she watched, shocked into immobility, the man dropped into a low crouch, extending his right arm so it pointed straight at her with a deadly grace. He raised his left hand to his cheek so that the silver grey blade was also aimed at her, parallel to his right arm.
Her eyes focused on the sharp metal tip of the blade, only a few strides across the room from her heart. She couldn't move, forgot to breathe.
"I'm sure you're familiar with our motto." The man's voice purred chillingly, like a midnight sea wave, its calm beauty hiding the power and full force of the sea tides below as it rolled inexorably toward the beach. "Aku Soku Zan."
'Destroy Evil instantly?' The words took a moment to sink in, then, 'I'm going to die,' she thought. She heard a flutter as the papers dropped out of her suddenly non-functioning fingers, and the ground began to roll up to meet her as everything went black.
END CHAPTER ONE
A/N So what do you think so far? Please read and review!