Author: Arashi (marenski@hotmail.com)

Website: www.kenkaya.com

Beta Reader: Karina Kineshi (I just had to post, let me know if you find any errors and I'll correct 'em!)

Disclaimer: Sano? Saitoh? Yahiko? Aoshi? Kenshin? The girls? Watsuki-sama made 'em up, I just play with them! If I was making money off of this it wouldn't be posted on ff.net, silly!

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Chapter 19: Respect

The carriage was definitely too small.

From the outside, the vehicle had seemed amply large, but once Sagara Sanosuke found himself inside its confines, he realized how wrong his first impression had been. Of course, it might not have been entirely the carriage's fault for the oppressing discomfort he was feeling.

Damn that smug bastardalways making me look like an idiot. The Pacific Ocean is barely enough distance between me and Saitoh, let alone this carriage! I swear, one of these days I'm gonna kick his ass once and for all!

After the initial disappointing exchange, Saitoh's attention had immediately left the ex-gangster. With a nod, he acknowledged Aoshi as the tall ninja pulled himself inside and positioned himself on the far side of their 'prisoner'.

"Shinomori."

Aoshi returned the gesture. "Saitoh."

It was a fairly cold reception, but at least it wasn't a rude one. Sanosuke could tell that Saitoh held a fair amount of respect for the former okashira of the Oniwabanshu. The two men would never be friends, but at least they shared common goals and ideals.

Respect yeah, the psychopathic killers respect each other go figure.

Yahiko entered next. The young swordsman slid into place beside Sanosuke and gave Saitoh a calculating look. He kept his mouth shut, and for a moment, the ex-gangster wished he'd been as wise.

It was Saitoh who broke the silence before it could settle in. "It seems the brat has finally grown up." He commented, as he ran a critical eye over Yahiko. At that point, Sanosuke knew he would have made some sort of 'terse' reply, but the young swordsman only narrowed his eyes. Even though he was almost ten years his senior, Sanosuke couldn't help but admire Yahiko's composure. The boy knew better than to provoke the wolf.

Saitoh sensed that fact as well. An almost friendly look pulled at the edges of the cold mask he tried to pass off for a face. "That was a compliment."

The sincerity in Saitoh's voice helped to prove the validity of the comment, but Yahiko still glared at the former Shinsengumi for half a heartbeat before he replied. "Your compliments need work, Saitoh."

The remark elicited three distinct sounds from the back of Saitoh's throat that Sanosuke unhappily realized were laughs of amusement.

Well damn, even Yahiko gets along with Saitoh better than I do.

The last member of their team seemed to be concluding some business with the driver, and a moment later she entered the carriage and sat down on the bench beside her husband. A single impartial nod, much like the one Aoshi had been given in greeting, was Saitoh's first response.

"Hello Tokio." The comment carried only the barest hint of acknowledgement, let alone affection.

The muscles in Sanosuke's jaw involuntarily went lax, casing his mouth to hang partially open.

The hell? What kind of greeting is that for your damn wife, you twisted bastard? Sounds like ya don't even know her!

Tokio bowed her head politely. "Hello Hajime."

Her reciprocated indifference doubled Sanosuke's feeling of confusion.

"Are you two married or what!?"

If men could pluck their words from the air, Sanosuke would have. Saitoh's reaction to the comment sent chills down the ex-gangster's spine. It vaguely reminded him of his first run in with the wolf when the unfamiliar man had called him by name and pulled a concealed sword from his back. The word 'terrified' would have been an understatement for the emotion the ex-gangster was suddenly experiencing. Saitoh's amber eyes bore into him with such intensity that Sanosuke found himself holding his breath, lest he make another comment that would seal him to some unspeakable fate.

The wolf of Mibu's look was death itself.

Holy shit! What the hell did I say??

The carriage started moving, but inside, no one even blinked. Yahiko and Aoshi could both sense that Sanosuke had stepped over some invisible boundary and they had no intention of sharing in Saitoh's wrath.

How much time passed exactly, no one would later recall. But after what seemed like an eternity, Saitoh turned to his wife as though nothing had happened and jumped right into a small debriefing session.

"Excellent work Tokio. Judging from the reports you've been sending, everything has gone according to plan. Our tracks have been covered enough that I doubt our enemies will be able to discover anything about this operation."

As Saitoh spoke, the other three men could only stare in astonishment. Once it became obvious that his life was spared, Sano allowed air to fill his lungs once again. He exhaled in a long sigh that was cut short as Yahiko elbowed him in the ribs for being annoying. The last thing they needed was to draw Saitoh's attention again.

Fortunately, the husband and wife ignored them as Tokio bowed her head once again, modestly accepting the compliment from Saitoh. "Thank you."

Saitoh turned to address his three part-time agents. His tone left no room for argument. "Tomorrow morning we will be leaving for the provincial prison. We will be making a very brief stopover at one of our safe houses for some specific instructions and your final briefing. From there it will be a direct insertion into the prison and hopefully only a two week span of time inside." Saitoh took one slow drag on his cigarette before tossing it out the window. The curtain he'd raised to clear a path dropped back in place as he refocused his attention on Sano. "The rooster-head will be spending the night under the care of the Hakodate Police." He shifted his gaze to Aoshi. "You and the boy will guard him tonight and make sure he doesn't do anything stupid." The wolf of Mibu ignored the ex-gangster's visible flinch. "Tokio and I will arrive in the morning to pick you all up."

"You don't hafta worry about me behaving myself" Sano muttered.

Like I want to screw stuff up when I've already come so far? What does he take me for, a complete idiot?

"Of course I do." Saitoh stated with a high measure of superiority. "You are a complete idiot, after all."

It's like the bastard is reading my mind! Dammit, I hate him!

"Why you" Sano would have held up one of his fists threateningly, but the wooden handcuffs made that motion impossible. The joint movement of his hands only served to anger the ex-gangster further as he was reminded of his predicament.

Saitoh only seemed amused by the street fighter's frustration, a fact that did not bode well for continued harmony in the cramped prisoner carriage.

"Moron"

"Chikusho Not only do I have to deal with being locked up like a damn prisoner, but I have to deal with your insults as well?" Sano growled.

"Like a prisoner?" Saitoh's cruel smile held unmasked irony. "You are a prisoner."

"Dammit, you know what I mean!"

"No, I'm afraid I don't."

"Don't piss me off Saitoh!" Sano gave the Shinsengumi fair warning. "Do I have to remind you that I'm here willingly? There's nothing stopping me from walking outta here except the agreement I made with Tokio-san that I'd help!" The hint of challenge did not go unnoticed by anyone in the carriage. Sanosuke's jaw and fists clenched as he mentally dared Saitoh to continue his harassment.

"Nothing?" Saitoh was genuinely amused by the ex-gangster's audacity. "Believe what you want, idiot." He laughed, placing the last straw on the proverbial camel's back.

Sanosuke's pride was irrefutably damaged.

A moment later, something snapped.

His self-control was the first thing to go, followed shortly by his restraints. Twisting his arms in opposite directions, Sano used his forearms and brute strength to crack and splinter the solidly constructed handcuffs. His movements were so fast and unexpected that neither Aoshi nor Yahiko had time to react.

Only Saitoh was ready.

The amusement was gone from his face, replaced by an expression of calculating seriousness that could only be compared to the look of a wolf that had spotted its prey. His previously dormant ken ki spiked into existence as his unnamed katana snapped free of its sheath, the deadly point searching out and finding the ex-gangster's vulnerable throat. The air in the carriage seemed to swirl in the eddies left from the wake of his sword's path

And the sudden flash of movement inside the carriage came to an abrupt halt.

It only took Sano a single heartbeat to realize that he was a dead man. His brain registered the incredible speed with which the former Shinsengumi had drawn his blade. Crossing Saitoh meant taking your life into your own hands, but Sanosuke didn't regret his actions. If he had to die to settle the score between himself and Saitoh, then so be it.

Sagara Sanosuke doesn't take shit from anyone.

By the time his heart had beat a second time, he came to the stunning conclusion that he was, in fact, still alive and surprisingly unharmed. Sano swallowed once, feeling the tip of Saitoh's blade scratch across his Adam's apple as it bobbed up and down. The former Shinsengumi's precision was inhuman. He'd managed to draw his blade in an instant while bringing the tip within a few millimeters of piercing Sanosuke's flesh.

Sanosuke understood that he wasn't the smartest man in the world, but at least he knew when he was defeated. The wood splinters from his handcuffs were still falling from his wrists but whatever he'd been planning to do with his freedom slipped from his mind before he'd gotten the chance to truly consider it. His reaction had been natural, almost instinctual, and the need he'd felt to lash out suddenly coalesced as a single thought in his mind.

From the minute he'd hauled himself inside the carriage, he'd had one driving motivation and one goal. He'd said he was there because he'd made an agreement with Tokio, but he knew that was only a small part of the real reason for agreeing to help. To come on this mission, he'd given up his time, his safety, his freedom, and most importantly; he'd allowed himself to be separated from the woman he'd spent five years thinking about. He was there for a reason, and he decided that it was time to get what he deserved.

If he could convince Saitoh, it would be like convincing the rest of the world.

Saitoh's amber eyes were locked with his and he returned the stare unflinchingly. One wrong move could mean death, he could tell from the way the former Shinsengumi held his katana, poised to strike. He was walking dangerous ground, and he knew it.

Sanosuke gathered his wits about him, standing firm and sending every ounce of his confidence and strength into his gaze. Though he had the obvious disadvantage, the two appeared to reach a stalemate. Neither the former third captain of the Shinsengumi or the ex-fighter for hire would back down. The tension in the carriage was palatable, and the other three people inside knew better than to interfere.

After another painful silence elapsed, the ex-gangster decided it was time to make his demands. "All I want is a little respect, Saitoh." He spoke calmly and evenly while he stared down the wolf.

That's why I'm here That's why I'm doing this. It's about damn time that I get a little respectespecially from this bastard who has done nothing but mock me from the first time we met. He's never admitted that I was anything other than a nuisance If he really wants my help, he's going to have to beg for it now or at least show me a little appreciation.

The former Shinsengumi's reaction wasn't exactly what Sano had been hoping for. He lowered his katana and sheathed it quickly, smirking the entire time. "Moron"

Sanosuke felt his hopes fading.

Argh! At least a moment ago he was taking me seriously even if he was considering ending my life! Now, I'm right back to where I started!

He felt his frustration building once again, and he knew he'd be powerless to restrain himself when he snapped a second time. His reason for coming along on the mission was rendered pointless.

Before Sanosuke could do anything else, Saitoh spoke up once again. "You want respect?" His voice carried a hint of mockery. The ex-gangster lowered his angry gaze hoping to lessen the brunt of the reprimand he knew he was about to receive. His ego wouldn't make it though in one piece if Saitoh decided to pull out all the stops.

"You're a fool"

He could still hear the smirk in Saitoh's voice, even if he couldn't see the look on his face. Sano's muscles tightened like steel cords.

Here it comes he's about to tear me apart

"What makes you think, for a moment, that I would have gone through all the trouble of getting you here for this mission if I didn't at least have some respect for your abilities?"

It took a moment for the words to sink in Sanosuke had been so mentally prepared to ignore everything he was about to hear.

What? Did he just say what I thought he said?

He glanced up hesitantly, expecting the cruel man to take it all back and laugh in his face.

"You really must be an idiot if you haven't realized this for yourself" Saitoh pulled out a pack of cigarettes, ignited and took his first puff while the wheels in Sano's brain started moving.

He's got a point why didn't I think of this sooner? Why would he go through all the trouble to track me down and convince me to come on this mission if he didn't need me and respect me? In fact, it's almost like he was waiting for me to come back just so he could get my help! He could have gotten Kenshin or Aoshi or Yahiko at any time but he waited until I showed up! Maybe he really DOES respect me!?

"Of course," Saitoh interrupted his thoughts. "Respecting your abilities and respecting you are two completely separate things. Don't let this go to your head. You are a complete moron, after all."

As the former Shinsengumi spoke he reached below his seat and retrieved a set of metal handcuffs from a compartment. Sanosuke was too busy navigating the different thoughts that were coursing around in his brain to notice when the other man attached the new restraints firmly to his wrists. When he finally did notice them, all he did was blink and stare, wondering how Saitoh had chained him again without him seeing.

"I had those specially designed for you." Saitoh's cigarette balanced between his two gloved fingers confidently. "I figured the wooden ones would be too flimsy to hold you."

Sano grinned from ear to ear and leaned forward expectantly. "Was that another compliment?"

He's a bastard but maybe he really can treat me with the respect I deserve. As Yahiko already pointed out, it's hard to tell when he's actually complimenting us!

"No." The former Shinsengumi's face was emotionless. "If you weren't such an idiot I wouldn't have had to worry about you trying to break out of the wooden ones."

~//~

When they arrived at the Hakodate Police Station, Saitoh reminded them all to act accordingly and avoid drawing unnecessary attention. The three men exited the carriage and headed inside the building, disappearing from sight.

"They're finally gone" Saitoh slumped back against his seat and inhaled a breath of smoke from his cigarette, closing his eyes in satisfaction. The nicotine coursed through his body, relaxing him doubly well now that his three walking headaches were gone. He found himself wondering how he would survive a day or two of briefings when he'd barely been able to deal with them for one short carriage ride.

He felt movement at his side and opened his eyes to appraise his companion. She closed the distance between them, sliding over on the carriage seat until the side of her leg brushed against his. With a smile, she reached out and plucked the cigarette from his lips.

"I thought I told you to cut back Hajime?" She leaned across his body tantalizingly, tossing the cigarette out the window with one smooth motion.

"I have." He smirked, putting his hands on the sides of her torso and guiding her onto his lap.

"You know you can't lie to me." She smiled at him seductively, forcing Saitoh to capture her lips with his own. It was all the former Shinsengumi could do to keep himself from tossing her down on the seat and making love to her on the spot.

"Mmm" He finally pulled away from his wife and gave her face the attention it deserved. How he could wake up without seeing it first thing every morning, he still wasn't sure. "I missed you so much."

"Trying to change the subject are we?" She alternated between playful and seductive more naturally than most women blink.

"For a chance to spend time with you I'll even put up with that idiot rooster-head."

"Oh Hajime That's so sweet of you to say that." She cupped his face with her hand, her eyes sparkling with amusement. "But you know You really should go easy on Sagara. He wasn't trying to be rude to the two of us. You shouldn't let him bother you so easily."

"What are you talking about?" Saitoh raised an eyebrow. "I was simply checking to see if he could break out of his restraints. I wasn't particularly angry with him."

"There you go again You really are a terrible liar." She smiled warmly, her voice without any trace of sarcasm or reproach. "I felt the way you tensed when he asked if the two of us are actually married. From that moment I knew you were going to make things difficult."

Saitoh snorted. "That moron doesn't know when to keep his mouth shut. How dare he question the two of us?"

Tokio wrapped her fingers around his sword calloused hand, quieting him before he had the chance to start yelling his frustrations. "I know Hajime I know. But how can you expect someone like him to ever understand the two of us?"

"Good point." He squeezed her hand gently. "Well then we've got the rest of the evening to ourselves. Whatever shall we do to pass the time?" It was more of an invitation than a question. Both people knew exactly what the other was thinking.

Tokio leaned against her husband, placing her head on his shoulder. "I can think of at least one thing." Turning her head up toward his, she gently brushed her lips against his neck, trailing up toward his face with a series of tender kisses. Only one person on the face of the planet knew the secret to controlling Mibu's Wolf.

~//~

The evening came and went, each agent passing the time in their own way. When dawn broke, Saitoh and Tokio arrived as planned and picked up the other three to begin their journey north. The Keishichou Safe House was another half day's journey. Time passed slowly in the carriage as minor conflicts between personalities came and went. It was late afternoon by the time they reached their destination. When they pulled up to a western style mansion bigger than Tani's, Sanosuke could only whistle.

"Where'd ya get the money for a place like this?" It didn't take him long to recover his voice.

Saitoh had a habit of staring at the ex-gangster for about thirty seconds before answering his questions during their trip. "How much money do you think the Meiji Government has?" He answered questions with questions in the hope that Sanosuke would start thinking for himself.

There was a pause as the ex-gangster considered the question. "A lot."

Saitoh brushed past the extremely intelligent answer provided to his question. "They have a habit of taking care of their operatives. We do hold the country together, after all."

"You too will be amply rewarded for your services." Tokio added from her place beside the former Shinsengumi. She had taken it upon herself to make sure that no fighting broke out during the ride.

Yahiko and Sanosuke blinked once and then gave each other a dumbfounded look.

"We're getting paid?" Sanosuke questioned.

"Of course, moron." Saitoh reached for his front pocket but stopped before he could pull out one of his cigarettes. The men in the carriage didn't guess his reason for refraining, though she was sitting right there with them. "Did you think you were simply being forced to offer your services for nothing?"

"Yeah" Yahiko nodded. "It's not like Kenshin or any of us have ever been rewarded for our efforts before."

Saitoh scowled. "Do you really believe that? Remember the Shishio incident?" He didn't wait for the two of them to reply. He didn't need to. "Before you even made it back to Tokyo the substantial debt that had been piling up on that rundown dojo was erased. The Kamiya girl received a few anonymous donations as well I'm sure she didn't feel any need to tell you freeloaders. Every trip you took to the Akabeko for the next few months was subsidized by the Meiji."

Sanosuke worked his jaw in silence, angrily considering eating out at the mercy of the government that he so despised.

Oh man I bet Jou-chan didn't tell me just because she knew I would have been furious if I found out I guess it makes sense

He soon realized that there was no point in worrying about something that had happened five years earlier and instead, he focused on the new information he'd been given.

I'm getting paid! I'm getting paid! I'm getting paid! Wait till Megumi finds out! She's gonna be so proud of me. Yeah, who says I don't know how to make money!? This'll teach everyone not to doubt me.

Saitoh pushed open one of the carriage doors and exited with his wife on his heels. Sanosuke tore himself away from his thoughts as Aoshi beckoned him out of the vehicle. Yahiko was the last to step out into the fresh mountain air.

"So uh, if this place is owned and operated by the Keishichou how about you take these damn things off?" Thoughts of freedom were never far from Sanosuke's mind. He held up his wrists with the offending metal handcuffs holding them together.

"No. Someone might be spying on us." Saitoh had an unlit cigarette in one hand and his matches in the other.

"No one is spying on us here. This area is top secret." Tokio informed them with a scowl at her husband. It was the most emotion they'd seen from her since they'd met up with Saitoh. She didn't wait for permission while she removed a key ring from her husband's belt and unlocked the ex-gangster.

"Thanks Tokio-san." Sano rubbed his wrists while the small woman unfastened his leg restraints.

"It's the least I can do Sagara-san. You'll be experiencing more restriction soon enough."

"But for now" Saitoh interrupted. "We have to go over the rest of the plans for the mission."

Sanosuke's shoulders slumped, but he quickly threw them back and placed his fists on his sides, standing akimbo. "Mission schmission, is that all you ever think about Saitoh?" Perhaps he could convince the former Shinsengumi to give them a break.

Saitoh pulled the cigarette from his lips and eyed the ex-gangster darkly. "Not at all. Sometimes I think about randomly killing morons to make the world a better place." He took a drag on his cigarette and blew the smoke into Sanosuke's face. "But since I know not all of you have the same mental prowess as Shinomori, I've scheduled some relaxation time for you all."

Sano suddenly perked up. "Really?" He didn't want to get too hopeful. Saitoh couldn't really be trusted.

"No, I lied." The cigarette was back in his mouth and bobbing up and down while he spoke. When Sanosuke's shoulders slumped once again, Saitoh rolled his eyes. "Moron"

"Of course you get some free time." It was Tokio who smoothed things over, once again.

~//~

The free time they were awarded came first, followed immediately by the first in their series of final briefings. Tokio had explained a good deal about their mission on their trip to Hokkaido, but they soon discovered how many details she had left out.

"This is the layout of the prison." Saitoh circulated intricate maps of the Hokkaido Provincial Prison. Aoshi stared at it intently while Sanosuke and Yahiko gave them slightly less interested glances. "Memorize it." The former Shinsengumi ordered, apparently not appreciating the younger agents' indifference.

Sanosuke looked around the room as Saitoh began speaking, more engrossed in his immediate surroundings than the information he was being provided. Oddly enough, the room wasn't even that interesting. There was one large desk, a chalkboard, and display stand along with a few rows of simple wooden chairs. Aoshi, Yahiko, and he were sitting in the center three seats in the front row, directly in front of the desk. Saitoh's lanky form stretched out over the desk that was piled high with stacks of paper and folders. Tokio stood to the side, assisting her husband.

"The Hokkaido Provincial Prison is built directly over hot springs. They used the natural heating and special construction to keep the place warm. Due to the elevation, there is always snow cover outside the prison. This creates a very interesting situation." Saitoh paused, collecting his thoughts before continuing. "Prisoners live warm inside while around them the temperature can be lethally cold. To help make sure that prisoners can't survive outside the prison, the uniform is a simple long yukata made of very thin material."

Tokio procured a light purple and green yukata and held it aloft for them to inspect. Sanosuke cringed at the color and the style. "You're kidding." He glanced at Saitoh, looking for conformation. "Are you saying that I'm going to have to wear that??" He pointed incredulously at the horrendous prison uniform. Yahiko snickered while Saitoh glared in the ex-gangster's direction.

"As you can see" Saitoh continued his briefing as though he had not been interrupted. "The warmth provided by the uniform would not be enough to keep body temperature at a safe level if worn outside in the snow."

"No way in hell am I going to wear one of those" Sanosuke muttered under his breath. He slid his hands into his white drawstring pants for reassurance, appreciating the feel of his familiar comfortable outfit. Pants, an open gi, bandages wrapped around his waist and ankles; the clothes were symbolic of his carefree nature and he had no desire to part with them. He pitied the fools who might try to separate him and his outfit in the prison.

It was only when Saitoh lifted a white sheet of paper to reveal a large photograph of a building in the mountains that Sanosuke realized the former Shinsengumi was still talking. If he'd missed anything important, the ex-gangster figured he could ask Yahiko about it after the meeting was over, until then he would refocus his attention.

"making it the first stopover before entering the prison." Saitoh finished his sentence, leaving Sanosuke to wonder what he'd been talking about to begin with. "After this check-in station, you will be escorted up into the prison itself by way of this trail." The former Shinsengumi had a wooden pointer in hand and he roughly indicated the trail that seemed to lead up the mountain behind the building. "This is the only publicly known pathway to the prison. If a prisoner were successful in escaping and somehow managed to survive the elements, they would have to come down this trail and they would be recaptured at this check-in station." Moving the pointer, he indicated the building.

Aoshi silently raised his hand, causing Saitoh to raise an eyebrow at the ninja's formality. With a subtle head movement, he urged the former Okashira to voice his question or concern.

"Do we have another pathway down the mountain?" Aoshi was collected and cool as the snowy mountain in the picture.

"Of course." Saitoh stated, a ghost of a smile pulling at the corner of his mouth. "Its location is detailed on the back side of your map handouts."

Aoshi immediately flipped his sheet and glanced over the writing. A moment later he nodded his head in understanding and shifted his gaze back to the former Shinsengumi.

"The pathway is top secret Keishichou information. Not even the head of the prison staff knows about it." Saitoh seemed particularly proud of the fact, though he was trying not to let it show. Clearing his throat, he continued with the briefing. "The check-in station is home to most of the prison records and information. If there is any hard evidence to be found of the conspiracy, it will likely be somewhere there."

"So one of us is going to have to stay at the check-in station?" Yahiko asked casually as he leaned back in his chair, putting his hands to the back of his head. "Well, I want to stay where I can keep an eye on Sano."

"That's fine." Saitoh's words were brisk, hinting at the fact that it wasn't any of their places to say what they would or would not do. "You're not good enough to do what I need done anyhow."

Yahiko lowered his hands and sat forward, accepting the admonishment in silence with his hands clenched at his sides.

Turning his attention to Aoshi, Saitoh continued. "I'll be briefing you in private about the check-in station, Shinomori." The former Okashira nodded.

"Alright gentlemen." Saitoh's predatory smile and ironic stressing of the word 'gentlemen' unnerved two out of three of the new Keishichou agents. "Now on to the serious stuff."

Sanosuke blinked. "The rest of this wasn't serious?" He turned to Yahiko who could only shrug.

Saitoh, ignoring the ex-gangster as usual, flipped the picture of the check-in station up and revealing a large painting or photograph of a traditionally uniformed man. "This" Saitoh used his pointer to draw their attention to the visual aid. "Is Enomoto Takeaki, former Navy officer of the Bakufu, and a man who tried to set up his own government here in Hokkaido after the fall of Tokugawa. He is currently a prisoner at the Hokkaido Provincial Prison and it is likely that he is behind this conspiracy. Even if he is not directly responsible for whatever is going on inside, he will most definitely be involved. It will be your job," Saitoh used the pointer to single out Sanosuke. "As a prisoner, to earn his trust and find out his plans and his intentions. As a prison guard," The former Shinsengumi turned to Yahiko. "It will be your job to find out the hierarchy in the prison. We suspect that the prison guards treat Enomoto quite differently than the average prisoner."

Yahiko seemed to take the message to heart as he leaned forward, intently memorizing the man's face for future reference. Sano only yawned.

"Are you paying attention?" Saitoh shot the former gangster a dark look.

Sanosuke took his time finishing his yawn, stifling it slightly with the back of his bandaged right hand. When he was finished he grinned at the Keishichou agent. "Yeah, yeah He's the bad guy. Got it."

If Saitoh were a man to be flustered, he would have become so instantly. Instead, cold anger and frustration were brought to bear against the ignorant ex-gangster. "You apparently don't understand the situation very well." It took a lot for Saitoh to maintain his composure. As it was, his words were edged and lined with steel. "This man will decide if you live or die in that prison." Saitoh's scare tactics were rewarded as Sanosuke's smile leaked from his face. "This man is a genius. If he has orchestrated the entire conspiracy from inside the prison then there is no telling what he is capable of."

The three newly recruited Keishichou agents knew Saitoh well enough to know that when he spoke so highly of someone, it was not without cause.

"I'm assuming you've all heard the information about the missing naval vessels?" Their silence was answer enough for the former Shinsengumi. "It is quite likely that he has been building up a small fleet somewhere off the coast of Hokkaido. If he is responsible for the hijacked shipments of weaponry, he should have enough of an arsenal in his control to take over Hokkaido easily." Saitoh paused, letting his words sink in. He took just long enough to allow his emotions cool slightly. "This man is dangerous and we are the only ones standing in his way. If we do not discover proof of his conspiracy, the Meiji government may suffer the same fate as the Tokugawa Shogunate"

Sanosuke's brown eyes clouded over at the mention of the government. His jaw clenched and unclenched as the five occupants of the briefing room sat in silence, absorbing the new information. "Maybe that's not such a bad thing, Saitoh." His words visibly affected the former Shinsengumi, drawing an angry stare. "I mean what do you and I really care about the Meiji government?"

It's an issue now One that I'd better confront before I go any father with this stupid mission Can I really put my past behind me and defend the Meiji government?

Yahiko opened his mouth to protest but he stopped when Saitoh held up a white-gloved hand.

"Moron If Enomoto overthrows the Meiji Government, many innocent lives will be lost. I thought you wanted the people of Japan to be able to live their lives in peace?" Saitoh searched the face of the former member of the Sekihoutai, finding hope as Sanosuke's look softened slightly.

"You're right" Sanosuke nodded. "I do want the people to be allowed to live in peace. But what about you, Saitoh? Why are you doing this? I've never understood why you joined the Meiji after fighting against them as a Shinsengumi If you can explain that then maybe I'll be able to forget about my grievances and really be able to focus on the mission"

Saitoh considered the request in silence and for a moment Sanosuke thought the man would refuse to answer his questions.

This feels like the last hurdle I have to pass If Saitoh can explain why he's doing this, I feel like it'll make it that much easier for me to do what needs to be done. I've never loved the Meiji and if they're the ones being sacrificed here, I could care less. But I don't want to see innocent people suffer Saitoh's obviously figured something out that I just can't see Maybe that's one more reason why I actually respect the bastard?

"The Meiji government may be far from perfect" Saitoh finally spoke. "But as long as I am able to deliver justice I am serving my purpose. 'Aku, Soku, Zan' This will always be my motto. Even today I continue to live as a Shinsengumi." Saitoh's hand drifted to the katana at his belt. His fingers wrapped around the hilt, it's constant presence giving him all the solace he needed. "It is enough for me to realize that the Meiji government may one day become the government it claims itself to be. Fighting against them will only bring about needless bloodshed and hardship."

With Saitoh, it's as simple as 'Aku, Soku, Zan' but I guess That's good enough. 'Maybe one day the Meiji will live up to our expectations?' I don't know about that but I guess there's nothing wrong with a little hope. At the very least, I do feel like I need to do my part to make sure that the people trying to live their lives in Japan can do so in peace Kenshin and Jou-chan, Yahiko and Tsubame and maybe one day Me and Megumi

Thoughts of a bright future that he'd never really considered began to dance around in his head, and once again he smiled. It was completely genuine, uncharacteristically devoid of mirth and ego. "Alright." Sanosuke clenched his fist and held it aloft, pulling it down sharply as he spoke to emphasize his commitment. "Let's do this! Let's figure out what this bastard is up to and put a stop to it!"

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Sorry for the looooooong wait people. Ever hear of finals? April is the worst month to be a college student... I should be working on one of my papers right now. *sigh* But I just couldn't... not when I know that some people out there (not many, but at least two or three) were waiting on pins and needles for this next chapter. Hope everyone enjoyed it, and do let me know what I did right and what I did wrong, ya hear?

And here's a Special Thanks to all the people who nominated and have been voting for "Run to You" in the RKRC Awards. Thanks so much for the support! If you haven't done your voting yet go check it out here:

http://sekihara.dreamhost.com/rkreaders/

Vote for your favorite RK fics of the year! Voting ends April 27! (I believe)

A Question Answered: carlyd, here's an answer for your question. I will be jumping back to the dojo and dealing with the people who were left behind. Maybe not next chapter, but almost assuredly the chapter after. Don't worry, everyone still has their own important parts to play! (Sano can't hog the spotlight, that'd go straight to his head)

Shameless Plugs: If you haven't read the tribute fics out there, I suggest you do! I wrote one called "Our Sanosukes" and Karina has "Our Megumis"! It's good stuff! Tributes not only to the characters, but to the authors who have made the characters their own. You can also find tributes to Kenshin, Kaoru, Tomoe, Yahiko, maybe Tsubame, and who knows who else! Go read 'em!

Next Chapter: If Aoshi, Sano, and Yahiko can survive the rest of the briefings, it's gonna be prison time! Join us next time as the 'shit hits the fan'. You won't wanna miss it!