(Disclaimers: Nobuhiro Watsuki is the man, see Chapter 1 disclaimer for details)

6/1/02 – take two due to lost data sigh

Chapter 7

Political Habitat: A Wolf Circles

Kyoto; Border of Gion and Okazaki Districts; Ikedaya Inn

"I gave her to you gift wrapped," irritation punctuated the man's every word, "I can't help it if your men failed in their duty."

The man seated across from him calmly took a sip of green tea. The visitor was irritating but necessary. "She wasn't exactly unguarded." It was an understatement that the other man could not fail to understand.

 "Don't worry about her guardian. Take out the woman! A quick but successful attack is all that is required. The man will self-destruct with the realization that he was incapable of protecting her. If not he will at least be sufficiently diminished to where I can eliminate him in the future." The man straightened his blue mountain striped haori, his manner leaking impatience.

The Choshu clan leader doubted that Hajime Saitou could be so easily dispatched even if he were distraught over the death of his bride; however, the Bakufu traitor had information and was useful in other ways. "We can hardly reach her within the very confines of the Shinsengumi headquarters. You'll have to find a way of getting her out of that cocoon, and soon, before the wedding can take place."

Eyes drooped as they regarded the Ishin Shishi. "It will be extremely dangerous for me to move against the girl."

Katsura observed the calculating Shinsengumi, whose motivation was clear, "Great rewards cannot be had without risk," he offered silkily, hiding his distaste.

 "If I can pry her out are you sure you're prepared to finish the task?"

It was a borderline insult and it struck a chord. The third and last person in the room was a slightly built red-headed warrior leaning up against a wooden tansu in the corner. He gripped his katana tightly and looked to his leader, his eyes glinted a golden sheen.

Katsura heard his warrior stir; he could feel the boy's anger swelling. "You play your role and we will play ours," he replied calmly to the Shinsengumi guard, but his voice left no doubt that the man had trespassed as far as he was able.

The man felt the young bodyguard's ill will as well. He had another biting remark on his tongue but suddenly thought better about voicing it. Surely it was a trick of the lantern light but the boy's eyes seemed bitterly cold and filled with death. "I will send you word when she is accessible…again." He stood, bowed, and quit the room quickly.

Katsura sighed, "What think you, Himura?"

The slender whipcord youth regarded his leader, "I don't trust him. He would sell his soul for a price."

 "Ah, but wouldn't we all, and isn't it fortunate that the Bakufu is so mismanaged and under funded that they cannot afford to pay more than we can. In that regard you could say he is almost guaranteed to be trustworthy."

 "If you say so master."

Kyoto; Mibu District; Shinsengumi Headquarters

It had been a little over a week since Hajime had brought Tokio and her mother to Mibu. Tokio felt a bit adrift. In Fushimi she had so many demands on her time she often didn't have a moment to herself. Now she had so much time she didn't know what to do with herself.

She had requested that her father's current bookkeeping ledgers be brought to her but she was so fast with figures on her soroban that the accounts were up to date in no time. Still with nothing to do her mother suggested she work on her embroidery. Tokio was normally a very competent embroiderer but the silken threads seemed to tingle with her agitated state until they were a snarled mess and her mother was forced to liberate the abused fabric from her hands. In self defense Reina suggested the girl go outside in the garden's spring sunshine and work on a new song for her shamisen, perhaps something of an entertainment gift for her groom. A somewhat chagrined Tokio took her mother's advice. Grabbing her musical instrument she left the room, a small black and white shadow trotting right at her heels.

Standing on the stone step leading into the garden she took a moment to appreciate the large private estate that served as the Shinsengumi headquarters. She regarded the kitten at her feet. "Well Tenbin, where should we go sit?" The kitten simply regarded her keenly, determined that she was going nowhere without him. "Nowhere near the dojo today," she smiled guiltily, "Commander Hijikata hasn't forgiven us for the mayhem you created the last time."

The girl shook her head; it was amazing how fast the kitten could move, or how loud he could cry when his tail was trod upon. The feline had wandered into the dojo when Tokio had paused in the open doorway to watch the fighting practice. The kitten had let out a piercing yowl when stepped on by a nearby sparring guard causing the fighting pair to collapse together. Then the black and white streak had raced across the wooden floor upsetting more partners. Claws had dug into smooth wood but traction was much more difficult than on trees. The kitten then resourcefully used other surfaces to gain momentum or change directions on his race about the dojo seeking protection or a way out! Unfortunately that turned out to be the legs of the practicing guards. By the time the little one had gotten back to Tokio's side, and she had scooped him up, the dojo had looked like a battle ground and wouldn't you know that Commander Hijikata had chosen just that moment to drop by the training room.

Toshizou had demanded an explanation and several not-so-forgiving glances where cast in her direction, the owners were mostly those sporting new bloody scratches. However, several of the men had stepped in front of Tokio and her little black and white hurricane to begin detailing how beneficial the unknown variable had been to illustrate the weakness of their stance or concentration. If a cat could upset practice in a dojo then the same thing could happen on the streets they said. The Shinsengumi leader had noted that over half of the girl's defenders were from Hajime's own unit; loyalty by association. He hoped she proved worthy of it. He had allowed her to retire without further reprimand but cautioned her against letting the creature wander into the dojo again.

Stepping onto one of the garden's side paths Tokio followed it around the back of the dojo, and further back still, where it entered a long wisteria arbor in full bloom. Heavy hanging white clusters enfolded the near half and pale purple clusters thickly draped the other half. Turning into the shade she heard voices and came to a stop, her eyes adjusting to the sheltered light. Two men stood near each other, one caressing the other's face lovingly. Lips met in a tender exchange. Tokio turned around and fled.

Toshizou looked up from his lover's face quickly, and even though he caught just a glimpse of a sky blue kimono hem, the kitten trailing it was easily recognizable. This was unfortunate, he thought, but it only served to heighten his resolve in what he meant to do.

***

Finding another part of the garden that was blissfully vacant Tokio sank down upon a stone bench flanking a large koi pond. Tenbin promptly jumped up onto the bench and lay down to reap the warmth that the stone had soaked up from the sun. Slightly out of breath, having hurried away from the two lovers, Tokio placed the back of her cool hand against her flaming cheek. The neck of her shamisen bit into the palm of her other hand and forced her fingers to loosen. She had no thought of trying to play now.

At that moment a shadow fell across her, "Well, what a lovely siren." Tokio looked up into the handsome face of Captain Takeda.

 "Now what could have you looking so flushed I wonder?"

At that comment Tokio's blush was hotly renewed. Kanryuusai didn't know specifically what she had witnessed but he had seen his commander come to the arbor entrance and nonchalantly look about before heading to the main house, and he had a good idea what might have taken place.

 "Excuse me," her voice trembled slightly, "it must be too much sun. I should go inside."

She moved to stand but the Captain placed a hand on her shoulder, "Don't go just yet, I haven't had the chance to hear you play. We could sit in the shade." He saw her start at his touch and thought Saitou would have no warmth from this one, not that he would be looking to her for it in the first place. "Forgive me," he removed his hand, "I really would like to hear you play. My work has been harsh of late and music would be a welcome balm."

His manner was smooth and yet it irritated Tokio. She didn't like his touch and she didn't like him. From the first day that she had arrived he always seemed to be around her…watching. He touched her whenever possible and pretended that it was an accident. He was always just shy of being outright insulting with his overly familiar manner. He cornered her alone with seemingly innocent coincidence and then pushed her into ever more intimate conversation. She didn't give him permission to call her by her given name as she had with Captain Okita and Captain Harada, but he took that liberty upon himself anyway. She hesitated to say anything to Hajime because there was no insult of any solidity that she could point to. It was just so much smoke in the wind. She didn't want to cause problems but she also didn't want to be rude. She had a feeling that Captain Takeda could be a potent enemy and she didn't need any more enemies.

He was persistent though, from the very onset of her stay he had made a comment about what a shame it was that her face had been so abused but that her body looked fine. Hajime had fortunately been elsewhere but Captain Okita had overheard that comment and he cautioned the other captain to have a care. Of the fight between Harada and Saitou, Okita had been unsure of the outcome. Of a fight between Takeda and Saitou, Okita had no doubts. Captain Takeda had flashed her an apologetic look and sworn to both of them that Okita had misunderstood his meaning, that his only concern had been for her health, but in hindsight she knew that Okita had the right of it from the beginning.

Kanryuusai looked around and moved to seat himself next to the girl, but the fur ball already occupying that place had objections. The kitten hissed and growled loud and low in his throat. Hair on end, he swiped small but sharp claws at the hand that moved to displace him. "Damn beast!" Kanryuusai's reflexes were fast enough to avoid having his flesh snagged but the silk of his haori was not as fortunate.

 "I'm so sorry Captain!" Tokio picked up the still growling kitten. Tenbin didn't need any more enemies either.

Kanryuusai smoothly slid onto the seat that was so hastily vacated. "I can't blame him," his manner modified to its breezy smoothness once again. "If I had a mistress as lovely I would jealously guard her myself." His gaze drifted across her form in an obvious vicarious caress.

 "Please Captain, I told you before that I feel uncomfortable when you say such things." She looked away from him, clutching both kitten and shamisen in one arm, the other clutching the bench, her knuckles white. "It displays disrespect for my future husband. I'm sure Captain Saitou would not appreciate such sentiments."

 "That Saitou fails to fully appreciate you I find even more disrespectful. It may not be too late to change your mind you know. I understand that it is a marriage of financial convenience." Her eyes flashed to his in surprise. He cast her a seductive look, the face of a heavenly tenshi with an earthy promise, "Tokio, don't throw your life away on a brutal cold hearted killer who can't possibly return your affection. You know what I mean," he voiced knowingly, his glance slid in the direction of the arbor. "Tell the Commander that you've had a change of heart and that you prefer another. As long as the basic arrangement stays intact I'm sure he won't care who your groom is. I rather believe that he would prefer to have Saitou remain unencumbered, don't you?"

If Tokio had been surprised that Captain Takeda had knowledge of the financial agreement between her father and the Daimyo of Aizu, which was supposed to be a closely kept secret, that was nothing to her shock of the Captain's suggestion that he take Hajime's place as her groom. She stood up to leave and the Captain grasped her hand in his.

 "I hope for your sake, Takeda, that there is a very good reason for you to be touching my bride," came a cold voice from the shadow of the main house behind them. Hajime Saitou stepped out into the sunlight, a narrow look of intense displeasure stabbed Kanryuusai where he sat. Souji Okita stood at his side grinning an I-warned-you look.

Kanryuusai had no doubt who was the tell-all in getting Saitou's attention. Okita must have seen him approach the girl from the start and wasted no time in fetching the Wolf.

Taking advantage of Captain Takeda's shift in focus, Tokio snatched her hand out of his grasp and walked to where Hajime stood, "Hajime."

The warrior pinned her with a similar look of displeasure, "Okita would you please escort my intended back to her mother?"

Okita hesitated briefly, hovering between wanting to remove the girl from a potentially dangerous environment, and needing to remain as the voice of reason in lieu of another. He made his decision, "Yes, I will. I'll be right back." He hoped Saitou would get the hint but he would hurry the girl to her room and fetch his commander just in case.

Tokio placed the kitten on the ground and then laid her slender hand on Hajime's sleeve, "Hajime…" She didn't know what she wanted to say but she realized just then that the other reason she had never mentioned Captain Takeda's forwardness was because she didn't want Hajime to get into another fight for her.

The tall warrior brushed her hand from his arm and lifted her face to his. The black and blue marks on her face were mostly gone. In their place was an ugly yellow of healing bruises with touches here and there of faint purple. He looked upon her face coldly, "I have been remiss," he said with biting softness, "on what I require in a wife. Remain in your room and I will discuss this with you in detail when I'm finished here."

Her eyes widened in disbelief, her face in the callused grip of his long fingers shook in denial, "You can't possibly think…"

The grip on Tokio's face tightened slightly. Not enough to cause her pain but enough to stop her from uttering another word. "Tokio, do not cross me," his bored tone of voice cutting deep, "I can be rather unpleasant."

Tears filled her eyes threatening to spill. Suddenly his hand was gone and she felt the gentle tug on her shoulders as Souji turned her toward the house. She looked at him with extreme embarrassment and shame for his witness to that exchange.  She looked over her shoulder one more time but Hajime had already dismissed her and was now totally focused on the man now standing across from him.

Hajime never took his eyes off of Kanryuusai, but he waited in silence until he was sure that Tokio and Souji were in the house and out of sight. It had the added effect of unnerving his opponent. Hajime reached for his katana, his grip tightened around the rayskin wrapping, and he slowly pulled it up and out. He found the sound oddly comforting, and he leveled the blade at Kanryuusai, his wrist locking the blade's position with a metallic snap. He didn't bother to change his stance to a fighting position and Kanryuusai couldn't fail to note the insult. "Well, Takeda, draw your weapon."

Kanryuusai didn't move, survival depended on not provoking the beast to attack, "Don't you think you may be over reacting just a bit? I simply requested a tune from the lady."

 "For a scholar you are extremely stupid if you think I will let my woman fill any of your 'requests'. Draw your weapon or be cut down where you stand. It doesn't matter to me."

 "You'd really cut down a fellow Captain over a little misunderstanding?"

Hajime smirked, "The only misunderstanding is your assumption that I have been blind to your attempts to sway Tokio's commitment to me. Women do seem to have an affinity for your face and manners, but regardless of your impression on her make no mistake, she's not leaving my side."

Kanryuusai looked about the garden and got a little bolder with his reply, "What do you care if she chooses someone else or not? Everyone knows that this match wasn't your idea. You act as if she doesn't exist under the same roof as you do. Even for a traditional match that's cold treatment." Pausing for a moment he finished much more forcefully, "I guess you force my hand," and with that he gripped his katana and slowly extracted the blade.

Footsteps on gravel sounded from behind Hajime, and the 3rd squad captain realized that Kanryuusai's bold finish was for someone else's benefit. "Saitou!" Commander Hijikata voice cut through the air like a tachi through a reed bale, "Sheath your weapon." Toshizou would be alarmed to say the least if he knew just how close Hajime was to disobeying that command.

At first the warrior remained frozen in place. Toshizou had no intention of repeating his request. If he needed to repeat himself it would be at the end of a blade. The atmosphere was charged with tension. Toshizou was somewhat relieved when a tardy Hajime re-sheathed his blade with surety. The amber eyed warrior cast an unreadable sideways glance at both Toshizou and Souji, who was right on his heels. What had earlier been an admirable action taken by the young warrior when he had fetched Hajime was now an unappreciated annoyance when repeated with his commander in tow.

Toshizou faced the other Shinsengumi Captain, "Takeda, your presence is not required at this time but rest assured it will be later so don't go too far."

Kanryuusai bowed and departed for another part of the compound.

Toshizou refocused on Hajime who had folded his arms over his chest waiting for the delivery of a blazing reprimand… or worse, but first Toshizou turned to Souji and said, "Okita, as we discussed."

The smaller lithe youth bowed and departed for the other side of the main house.

The Commander finally turned to Saitou, "We need to discuss a few things. First, and strangely least of which, is this arrogant display of yours. If you had actually injured Kanryuusai, on the heels of your bout with Harada, I wouldn't be able to keep Kondou from demanding your head on a spear."

Hajime looked completely unrepentant, "Kondou's lapdog needs to be taught some manners."

 "That's enough!" Toshizou never tolerated even an indirect jab at the Shinsengumi leader. The chain of command was sacred. "Takeda isn't the only one that could use some manners or at least some common sense. You seem to have misplaced yours.

 "Furthermore, so far the girl has been nothing but a disruptive force here." He held up a hand to stave off Hajime's biting reply if not his glaring look, "I don't know why, she doesn't seem to do anything on purpose but disaster follows in her wake. She isn't pretty yet men trip over themselves to fetch her fan… or fight for her attention. She doesn't make unusual demands and yet the entire household seems to shift to her requests. If she likes snow peas suddenly we have them at every meal. She's a force of nature!" He waved his hand with an elegant disgust. He paused, his voice reaching for a more even tone, "I believe that having her married will mitigate some of these problems. Until then I've made arrangements for Tokio and her mother to stay at Nijo Castle until the ceremony."

 "No."

 "What did you say?" Toshizou had about all he was willing to accept from Hajime. A thick silken fringe of hair shaded dark ocean-colored eyes that spoke of a brewing storm.

 "Commander, she will not be as secure in Nijo-jo as she is here." Hajime didn't want Tokio outside of the Shinsengumi compound. His instincts were near flawless when danger was near and he sensed a crouching force waiting to spring against the girl.

 "I disagree. It's my decision to make and I've already made it." It was a commanding statement ringing with finality.

A minute of silence passed by uneasily, the slender tilt of amber eyes declared that an unseen limit had also been reached as the tall warrior replied softly, "Very well."

 "Good, she'll be moved tomorrow." In somewhat of a conciliatory manner he added, "There are plenty of palace guards there."

Hajime said nothing. He had no intention of relying on the palace guards.

The Shinsengumi commander was a good judge of men and he knew that he had pushed Hajime with this decision. The guard captain was rarely in the girl's presence but Toshizou sensed the foundation of a solid commitment, and it was about to be given a shatter worthy blow. "There is another more pressing matter that needs to be discussed." The handsome commander sat down on the stone bench, palms smoothing the fabric of his hakama, "Of more immediate concern to me are her affiliations in Fushimi."

 "When she becomes my wife her involvement with the business world will come to an end." Razor sharp cheek bones stood out in high relief with the firm set of Hajime's expression. It was contrary to the tenets of bushido to allow her to continue working.

 "Her involvement in commerce is not nearly as troubling as her involvement with the Ishin Shishi." Toshizou took measure of Hajime's reaction. If there was one it went undetected.

At Toshizou's words Hajime felt a creeping coldness steal numbingly through his being. He knew that the Commander Hijikata could spread disinformation with amazingly successful results if it were to the benefit of the Shinsengumi. He shared that ability. However, Toshizou had never been able to do it without Hajime knowing the truth and the guard captain knew that his commander was not laying down a false track now. "You have proof?" he felt forced to still inquire.

 "All the women that work for her are widows of former Ishin Shishi supporters, supporters that that were compelled to restore their honor though seppuku." The commander added for emphasis, "All of them."

The younger man's gaze dropped to the ground. Tokio had engaged in suspicious activity with damning implications. The only thing he required of her was the protection of his honor, and yet here he was standing before his commander discussing her involvement in possible traitorous activities, and if not then certainly sympathetic ones. When he did raise his face again the look was hooded and predatory. Cool intent replaced blank passivity. "What did you wish done about it?" Hajime usually had a pretty good idea of what course Toshizou would choose, but he truly had no idea this time. The two men were extremely close in nature. Would Toshizou require her elimination? Could Hajime do it if he had to? He thought the answer was yes, but not without a tremendous cost to his soul.

Toshizou indicated the bench with one manicured hand and Hajime sat down.

 "I'm not prepared to move against the girl… at this time, although there is no possible mistake of her voluntary involvement. I would have told you sooner but I wanted verification first."

Hajime nodded his understanding. The brief disturbing thought of having to assassinate Tokio was momentarily set aside. Toshizou didn't need proof to order Tokio's elimination. In this time of bloody upheaval it was better, and safer, to slay suspicious persons first and not to bother asking questions.

Gazing upward, Toshizou regarded the tall pine tree absently, the shadow of which covered the near end of the koi pond, allowing the viewer to see beneath the surface. The sunny side simply reflected the sky above and the watery depth remained unseen. "With this information we need to re-evaluate the recent events. We can no longer assume that her enemy is our enemy."

Hajime had already reached that same conclusion and more. "If she is assisting the Ishin Shishi then it is unlikely that they are her attackers."

 "Her would-be assassin could be from another faction within the Bakufu."

Hajime thought of that too, plans for getting more information already forming in his mind. Silence reigned for some time as the two trickled over their thoughts internally.

 "Do you think her father could also be involved as well?" The commander wondered how crooked the plot could be.

"Tokio has a few women who make small glass objects, which she then fronts to her father. He doesn't know anything about her added involvement. I hope you won't say anything." Those had been the words of Tokio's mother.

"No, I think he is stupidly capable enough to play both ends of the conflict on his own but I don't think he has any idea of Tokio's involvement."

"Then that means there is someone else involved, another contact. What about the potter?"

"Possibly." Hajime replied but his mind involuntarily shot to Kanryuusai instead. Was there something to that thought? Could the two be involved in more ways than one?

"I would like your wedding to continue for Matsudaira's sake, but if you would rather I found another groom I can do that."

Take the offer his mind growled, "That won't be necessary." Hajime knew that he could not give her up, for whatever reason she was already his; visceral thoughts warred with more gentle emotions for mind share where she was concerned. "Toshizou," his voice dropped, making it personal and drawing a surprised look from the other, "You said you thought a lot of problems surrounding Tokio would dissipate with marriage. Does it not stand to reason that a strong husband could eliminate even the hint of seditious involvement?" Having never failed at anything, Hajime knew he could force this to work, but only if he could neutralize Toshizou from moving against Tokio.

"Yes, but it would be a mountainous trek with no guarantee. We're not even sure what the entire picture looks like yet. Are you sure you want to go that route?" Part of the smooth looking commander felt guilty about putting the younger man in this position in the first place. It had been Toshizou's insistence and the Daimyo's selection. Hajime had not been given a choice. Another part of him thought originally that Hajime was still perfect, especially after this issue surfaced. He was tough as stone, cold as the snow-covered peak of Mt. Fuji, and getting traction on him would be like trying to find purchase on glass, it wasn't impossible but it was fundamentally improbable. What Toshizou failed to realize until that moment was this very coldness left the warrior vulnerable to an unlooked for warmth from the outside. Tokio was like sunlight to Hajime's shadow. The commander let his gaze drift across the koi pond again.

Hajime nodded, "Leave it to me. I will resolve the issue to your satisfaction, and my own."

The captain's frosty tone felt strangely out of step with the bright spring day. Toshizou wondered if the girl was ready to give the Wolf his due. She better be.

Toshizou stood and placed a hand on the other man's shoulder, "Let me know if there is any thing you need. I would like the ceremony to take place next week."

Hajime wasted no time in making a request. "I want one of my men with her at all times until the ceremony."

It was a small enough request, and although Toshizou thought it was completely unnecessary he bluntly nodded his agreement and then left the garden.

Hajime collected his thoughts and formed several plans of action. Tokio's mistrustful behavior should have made him reach for his katana, but instead he found that he was just as determined to have her as before, perhaps more. In a sense, now that he was aware of her deceit, he could cease treating her with a feather light touch.

He went in search of his wife-to-be.

***

Author's Notes:

As usual, my beta-tortured (DementedChris, Kage-Sama, and the definitive Saitou expert , Mara) are worth their weight in gold. Any errors remaining, either technical or content, have been perpetrated by me in spite of their near god-like editing abilities. I would also like to thank them for allowing me to cry on their virtual shoulders for the loss of all my data. Particularly disheartening was the loss of my historical notes and I'm afraid it took me awhile before I felt like tackling this story again. Gomen.

A tansu is a Japanese storage chest. They come in different shapes and sizes but probably the most recognizable style is the one that resembles a staircase.

A soroban is the Japanese equivalent of a Chinese abacus.

A shamisen is a traditional Japanese lute that has three strings, a very long slender neck, and a small sound box, the front of which is covered with a taunt skin. The strings are plucked by "bachi", a triangle-shaped pick. Literally Shamisen means three strings.

Tenbin means "balance" in Japanese. Since Tokio's pet is black and white, and cats are noted for their balance, I choose this for the kitten's name. It is also the modern Japanese name for the Libra constellation.

The tenshi are angels.