A/N: Chapter 12 is finally up! It took me a while to finish this so I hope you will forgive me if you think this arc is taking too long. I don't want to post chapters longer than 5,000 words so I decided to cut this one. Again, again, thank you for all the reviews and welcome to the new followers! To my three loyal reviewers (you know who you are!), you all rock! Anyway, is there someone out there who's got killer sketching talents? Can you please sketch Akane for me if you have time? haha. dunno, i just thought it would be really cool to have my original character interpreted.
P.S. currently typing the next chapter now. Might post it sooner than planned. :)
'I say more sake! We need more sake for this occasion!'
Akane kept her head bowed low and tried her best not to spill the alcohol she was pouring as the man holding the cup beside her drowsily staggered left and right. She put down the bottle and stared politely at the floor afterwards. Sakura told her that staring people in the face is considered rude for maikos. Thus, she tried to compensate by keeping her ears alert and picking up even the littlest thing uttered within the room. Thankfully, this wasn't a very hard thing to do for her. After all, she had all the practice she needed with the multiple voices plaguing her in her head while she was still young.
'This is for the birth of the new Kageno senshi Tachi!' the man across from her sat up from his position and raised his sakazuki cup in the air. The others around him also raised their cups to answer his toast, their raucous laughter and slurred statements joining together into a great ball of noise.
'With the help of our new benefactor, it will be easy for us to take over Kyoto. We will start the greatest era Japan has ever seen. We will be the new lords of the land!'
Akane tried her best to keep her face from showing her disgust. Ambition, when too much, is a deadly thing, she thought. It is an incurable disease that will eat you from the inside and poison you until it leaves you cold and soulless. Though they have not bluntly expressed their aim to assassinate the emperor in the past half hour she has been there, there is no doubt that the men in the room are planning an attack against the shogunate.
She felt her hands twitch involuntarily and tried to cover them by putting them on her side, underneath her flowing kimono. Besides from just spying about the target's plans, Hijikata also specifically told her to try to pick up something about the ochimizu and the mastermind behind it. Once she got something valuable, she just needs to excuse herself, and flash the small round mirror she had hidden in her obi to signal her group camouflaged in the trees surrounding the ochaya. A messenger from the Aizu clan who is waiting with their group of soldiers will immediately run to their base to get reinforcements.
Akane felt sweat starting to form on her nape as the complexity of things silently nagged her. Her timing is very crucial tonight. With the Shinsengumi still trying to keep the ochimizu a secret, she has to give the signal early enough for the messenger to get reinforcements and her group to attack their targets while they still haven't taken the medicine. She also felt a little frustrated at the final instruction for her to hide in a room after she gives the signal. Though she tried to argue that she wants to join the fighting, the vice-commander shut her down, saying that she can't possibly properly fight being dressed as a maiko.
She inwardly sighed and looked up as the man beside her said something. She didn't catch a word he said so she just decided to give him a soft laugh instead. It worked. The man leaned back, looking pleased with himself.
'Once this thing is over, I will buy your freedom. A pretty face like you is too good for this kind of place,' he said after taking a sip on his cup. She estimated him to be around his mid-thirties. He had a portly stomach and a round face now tinged with red due to the alcohol. From what she heard, he is one of the generals of the group. Akane tried her best to stop herself from shivering under the blatantly lewd looks he was giving her.
'That would be amazing. I hope you finish whatever project it is you're working on as soon as possible. I will be waiting for you, sir,' she sweetly said, deciding to play along with him. So far she hasn't heard anything other than hot air from the men around her. She needed to gather solid information before she leads the others to a full-blown attack.
She needed to do something.
'You can trust on that, my beauty. After this, I will be one of the most powerful shoguns in Japan. Won't you like to be the mistress of a man like that?' he sneered and leaned a little towards her. Akane leaned back, put her hands against his chest and playfully pushed him away.
'It would be my honor to be the woman of a man of power,' she said breathily. 'But wouldn't it be dangerous for you? This thing you will be doing, won't it cause you grave dangers?' she gazed at him from under her lashes, trying to keep her expression embarrassed and worried.
The man blinked at her for a couple of times, his mouth slightly open. It was all she could do not to grin at the way he's letting himself be easily controlled.
'No. I mean, yes. It is dangerous,' the man pulled back and leered at her. 'But the more dangerous it is, the greater the glory, right?'
She chuckled. 'Yes, I agree with that. It has always been my wish to meet a man that can equal, if not surpass, the glory of our emperor. It's a wild dream of a poor girl like me.'
The man threw back his head, laughed, then tossed back the rest of the sake in his cup to his mouth.
'Our emperor? His time is numbered. In just a few weeks, Kyoto will fall to our hands. You see, we have just the right weapon that will bring the shogunate to their knees.'
Her ears perked up and she felt her body tense a little. Just a little more prodding and he'll be spilling everything. She inconspicuously looked around to see if anyone is giving them any attention but everyone seemed to be distracted. She turned back to him and tried to make her face look scared and worried.
'That sounds really scary. You won't burn the city down, will you? I don't want to lead a life amidst a new war.'
'Oh, no, no. Remember, you only get a war when the two parties are near equal in power. This thing that will be coming? It will leave everyone who will try to oppose stripped of everything even before they get the sense to realize what's happening. A bottle of medicine. A bottle of medicine, my love. With just that, we will turn things around!' he made a gesture with his pointer finger and thumb to describe the bottle he was talking about. Akane's eyes narrowed a little.
'My, my. That sounds promising. Is it you, sir, who created this miracle medicine? I should remember to thank you properly then,' she said, pouring him some sake once more. He drank all of it in one go.
'No, I am merely in charge of its distribution. But distribution is still very important, no?' he said, looking at her and waiting for her approval. She nodded her head and smiled at him.
'You must have been here and there. You look like a very busy man.'
The man laughed, looking arrogantly proud once more. 'I've been to Edo and Nara. We will be starting soon on Osaka. If you want, you can go with me there. I will give you a vacation worthy of a queen.'
'You are too kind. I'd love to, sir,' she said, bowing politely.
He motioned for her to give him more sake and she obliged. If he continues to guzzle alcohol as fast as this, it will not take him too long to collapse on his face, she thought. She needed to milk information from him while he's still coherent.
'May I ask a question? This medicine, you say it is something that is incredibly effective, right? It's just that…I have a younger sister. She is very sick. I was just wondering if the provider of your medicine offers something that can help us cure her,' she looked at him with innocent and expectant eyes. It seemed to have worked because his face softened and his brow creased.
'What is it that your sister is plagued with?'
'We still do not know. That is why I need to find someone who is incredibly good at this science. No doctor was successful in curing her.'
'Hmph. I'm sure Ayato-sama can take care of it,' he said. She stopped at the sound of the name. It took her a couple of seconds before she spoke again out of fear of showing excitement in her voice.
'Ayato-sama. Is he a doctor?'
'No. He is the medicine's creator and developer.'
She bowed her head and poured sake on his cup, trying to hide the smile on her lips.
'I hope I can meet him. Your Ayato-sama, sir.'
Hijikata looked up to find Yamazaki behind him. He was not surprised at all that he did not take notice of the boy's approach until he was only a few feet away from them. His black garb made him easily look like something that is naturally a part of the shadows.
'Yamazaki. How is it?' he asked and trained back his eyes at the closed shoji doors of the restaurant where laughter and music were drifting from. They were currently hidden behind the wide trunk of a tree on the far fringes of the ochaya. Saitou, Souji, and Heisuke were with him along with ten or so men. Shinpachi, Harada, and Sannan were guarding the other sides with their own groups.
'I estimate all of them to be around 60. They are occupying all the rooms on one side of the hallway.'
'She was assigned on a room where the generals and the assistants are.'
'Hijikata-san, I don't feel good about this. It's almost an hour now and she hasn't emerged yet. What if she's already in trouble?'
Heisuke asked agitatedly, scratching his hair in a distracted motion. He was pacing back and forth, muttering to himself.
'There is no need to worry too much. She isn't the only maiko there,' Hijikata merely said, his eyes still on the doors which are about 20 feet away from them. It would have been better if they can stay somewhere closer but they will risk exposing themselves to the people they are watching. The darkness is also not helping too much. He tried not to waver his gaze at the sight in front of him to make sure he won't miss anything. Beside him, Saitou and Souji were also silent, their eyes locked on the doors.
'But she is the only maiko who looks like that there,' the young captain reasoned out. He stopped walking, waiting for any reaction from his comrades. When he received nothing, he just ruffled his hair again and continued pacing.
Souji ran his thumb on the hilt of his sword once more to keep his mind from straying the way Heisuke's is doing. He felt the muscles on his shoulders tense and his fingers itching to do something. He didn't have any idea how he got in their current place as he seemed to have walked in a daze earlier, but everything came rushing back to him once they've taken their hiding places and Heisuke started rambling about 'hands straying', 'obi falling off,' and drunk men inappropriately grabbing certain body parts. There was an uncomfortable knot on his stomach that seemed to be spreading slowly up to his chest and arms with every passing second and the eight division captain's mutterings were not helping. His mind was currently racing with bad, dark thoughts and his heart has started beating erratically against his chest. He stopped for a moment and tried to give names to the emotions running through his veins.
It was worry. And concern. Pure, intense, bordering on hysterical concern.
He found himself silently asking why he was feeling that way but he immediately found the answers even before he can finish the question.
With a face like that, anyone will have the urge to touch her.
She's unarmed and outnumbered.
She's in danger.
One wrong move and she's done.
He gritted his teeth as the idea of someone touching her flitted across his mind. To keep his brain from completely going blank, he decided to grab the lowest branch just a little higher than the level of his shoulder and wrapped his palm there. The roughness of the bark brought back a little sense to him.
'Something might be happening right this very minute while we're waiting. She might be gagged and bound this very moment. Then they'll have all the freedom to do anything to her there,' Heisuke muttered to himself behind him.
Saitou looked at the man beside him who seemed to have crushed a not so thin twig from the branch he was currently gripping.
'Heisuke, keep quiet!' Hijikata hissed as he looked back at the boy.
Suddenly, they saw light flash from the darkness. All members of the group visibly tensed at the sight. One flash. Then a second one. They all held their breaths for the last one, their hands on the hilts of their swords. Akane had to do three signals before they can attack.
Before they even saw the third flash, however, they saw the light of the mirror swallowed by something dark. Then they saw a dozen or so pieces of light falling to the ground.
It took them a while to realize what was happening. When they all figured it out, the captains all charged in unison despite of not saying anything to one another.
The mirror has shattered into small pieces. And from the dark movement of shape beyond, they can tell that its former holder is now being dragged back by someone tall and strong.
It didn't take Akane long to finally pour the last drop of sake into the man's cup. Taking the chance to finally excuse herself, she murmured a quick excuse to him, taking the Tokkuri jug with her. She closed the door carefully behind her and silently trodded to the hallway to the spot where she knew Hijikata and the others are waiting across. She faced the small garden, pulled out the small, round mirror from her obi, and positioned it in such an angle that the light of the moon can reflect from its surface.
She turned it once, twice, and was just about to complete the signal when she felt a hand suddenly grab her upper arm. She gasped and tried to look back but her captor's other hand closed around her mouth, keeping her head in place. Then she felt the hand holding her move to her hand and grasp the mirror she was holding. Akane's eyes widened as he saw the hand close around the mirror's edges tighter and tighter until finally, it shattered into tiny pieces. It took her a while to finally digest what was happening out of shock, only gaining her train of thought as she watched the cuts of the bloody hand heal right before her very eyes.
That was when she started flailing. The last thing that registered to her before the doors of the room she was dragged into closed are the shadows charging towards the place.
'You're brave enough to spy on me, my lady?'
Akane suddenly stopped struggling when a familiar voice whispered against her cheek. The hot flutter of breath against the shell of her ear was a stark contrast to the sudden chill that crept across her body in an instant. She knew that feeling. It was only he who can ignite such a sense of fear within her.
She felt the hand clamped around her mouth loosen. Before it finally let her go, she heard him whisper again, 'If you try as much as whimper, I'll signal all my men to come rushing out of their rooms. You wouldn't want to put your friends at a disadvantage, right? They need the element of surprise.'
She felt her eyes widen and he chuckled before finally letting her go. Akane instantly whipped around once she's free and sure enough, there he is. The black-haired, red-eyed man she met on the alley. His eyes flitted lazily down her body and up, a smirk curling the edges of his mouth. She thought she saw a look of hunger cross his red orbs before it finally settled on her face again.
'Just as I thought. You're lovely.'
She took a couple of steps back.
'You. Are you the person behind all of this?' she asked, her voice hoarse.
He inclined his head and took a step towards her.
'And if I am?'
She raised her chin in an effort to hide her fear.
'We've been looking for you. You're finished now.'
He raised an eyebrow at her before laughing. He took another step which she matched with another retreat of her own.
'You think I'm scared of your fake samurais? You really think they have a chance against me?' he softly said.
'You're planning to take down Kyoto, kill the emperor, and form an army of rasetsus. My friends are the last thing you should worry about. You're an enemy of the country. Everyone will be after you,' she said, trying her best not to show the sudden weakness that enveloped her body. She felt faint. Akane instinctively felt for her waist to get her sword but was only able to clutch the silkiness of cloth. That was when she just remembered that the only weapon she had with her is a thin dagger she had hidden in her obi. The hopelessness of the situation made her dizziness even worse.
'We onis are not under the power of anyone. I'm sure you know that.'
'Why are you doing this?' her eyes had started to blur a little now. She closed them briefly and opened them again.
'Because I need to create a new world for our kind. For decades, us demons have been pushed back into the darkness by humans, forced into hiding. We who have been the lords of them before. I'm just bringing back what was once lost,' he said, a dangerous light dancing in his eyes. Akane didn't know what she feared more. His mocking attitude or his serious persona.
'Don't you dare say us. I am not like you,' she stared back at him defiantly. He merely smiled at her.
'Those expressions of yours are so beautiful. Such a defiant spirit,' he raised his hand and made a motion as if to run his finger across her cheek. 'It would be so much fun to break you,' he whispered.
Akane flinched even before he touched her and staggered backwards. She felt her heart drop to her stomach, however, when she felt her back hit the cold wall. Before she can move, she saw two arms rest on the wall on either side of her head, effectively caging her body. She looked back wide-eyed at the man in front of her who was currently studying her with such an intensity that made her want to just disappear. He slowly leaned his body forward, his face now just an inch or two from hers.
'Everything you do seem to be taunting me to whisk you away from here now,' he whispered, his eyes ensnaring hers like a magnet. Then his gaze started moving down until it finally rested on her lips. 'I think I've been patient enough. Maybe I should just give in and take you away with me.'
She felt her heart stop as he moved closer and closer, closing the distance between their lips.
Souji crossed the distance between their hiding place and the yard in a matter of seconds. Beside him, the others were whipping their heads, trying to look for any sign of a soul around them. The hallway still looked deserted, the laughter and voices of the men still safely confined in the private rooms. He looked up when he heard footfalls rushing from his left and found Harada, Shinpachi, and Sannan running towards them with their men tagging behind.
'What happened? We saw the signal but it stopped. We rushed here as soon as possible,' Harada said in a voice barely above a whisper.
'We did too. We saw her being dragged back by someone. She must be in one of the rooms here,' he said, his eyes scanning the surroundings wildly.
'Hijikata-san, what should we do?' Saitou asked the vice-commander beside him.
'Sannan, have you sent off the messenger?' the man inquired, his amethyst eyes sharply roaming the place.
'Yes. The reinforcements will probably arrive in ten minutes at the latest,' Sannan answered.
Hijikata nodded and looked at the captains around him. 'Each one of you, take three men and charge all the rooms in this hallway. We can probably hold them on our own for a while. Look for Akira as you go along. We have to stop them before they take out the ochimizu.'
All of them nodded and was just about to move when they heard a resounding crash and a muffled groan from the room at the end of the hallway. Souji felt his stomach drop. He recognized the voice. He will recognize it anywhere.
'Captain?' he briefly heard one of the men beside him ask as he stared at the room.
'Souji!' he was shaken from his reverie at the sound of Saitou's voice.
'Go. I'll temporarily cover your place.'
He did not need telling twice. He ran flat out to the end of the hallway and nearly ripped the shoji door open from its frame. He felt his eyes widen as he saw a man leaning against a trembling Akane, his face buried on her neck.
Akane looked back in shock at the man outlined against the open door. Earlier, she took the advance of the red-eyed man as her opportunity to whip out her dagger from her obi. A few seconds before he can finally touch his lips to hers, she thrust the blade, effectively digging it onto his stomach. She heard him give a grunt of pain before he collapsed into her. The force caused her to fall a little sideways and hit a crate which toppled and fell to the ground in a loud crash. Akane was just about to push him away when she suddenly felt vibrations on her shoulder where his head currently was. She almost collapsed when she realized what was happening.
He was laughing.
'Not enough, girl. Not enough.'
That was when light suddenly filtered inside the room and the voice of someone shattered through her swelling fear. She felt a ray of hope break through her shell of terror as she recognized the person in front of her.
'Okita-san,' she called out. The next thing that registered to her was the quick flash of a blade and the man jumping away from her. Okita immediately dashed in front of her, his body covering her small form which was still cornered against the wall.
'Are you alright?' she heard him ask in a low, urgent voice. She swallowed the lump of terror stuck on her throat.
'Who are you?' she was only mildly surprised at the fast changing of his tone. His voice sounded cool, almost arrogant as he stared at the person in front of him.
The red-eyed man merely smirked at him and cocked his head as if entertained at the sight. She barely caught Okita's body tense up in front of her. He knows he is not like the other opponents he had before.
'I'm the one behind all this. Kazama Ayato,' both of them started a little at his bluntness and straightforward answer. Okita was the one who immediately recovered though.
'Nice meeting you, Ayato-san. I'm Okita Souji,' he said, the normal teasing tone tingeing his voice. Then, he smirked. 'I do hope you're ready to die now.'
And just like lightning, he charged towards the black-haired man, his sword glinting in the moonlight.
She didn't know why she even felt surprised at how easily the one called Ayato avoided the attack. He was like dancing in the wind, his sneer still in place as the other man attacked him with precise blows. After a while, he seemed to have gotten tired of the dance and he also pulled the sword from the sheath hanging on his waist. Sparks flew from the two blades as they collided roughly.
'You're good for a human,' Ayato smirked at the other boy.
'I don't know what you're talking about but yes, I am good enough to kill you,' Okita sneered back at him. They jumped away from each other, their gazes both calculating and sharp. Then they charged again. Akane whipped around, looking for something she can use as a weapon. She can now hear screams and sounds of fighting outside. Someone grunted from just outside their open door and she saw a man collapse, his bloody hand letting go of a sword which clattered on the ground. She was just about to dash for it when a voice suddenly stop her.
She stopped in the middle of making another step and looked back at Okita. He was still dueling with Ayato but his eyes were moving towards her every now and then.
'I said don't move! Just stay there!'
The urgency in his voice and the look on his eyes rooted her on the spot. She finally nodded. He moved back his attention to his opponent, pushed him back, and swiped his sword in the place where Ayato's head was just a couple of seconds ago. The man, however, just swiftly avoided the attack. Then he looked at her and the boy in front of him.
'Why are you protecting her?' he asked, his tone of voice so casually curious you would think he's just asking a passerby about the weather. Okita just gave him a bark of laughter.
'That is none of your business, mister.'
Ayato stared at him as if trying to figure him out.
'Oh, but it is. You see, I'm going to take her sooner or later.'
Akane saw the first captain's stance change at the words of his opponent. A few seconds passed. Then suddenly, he charged with much ardor than before.
'What are you talking about?' Okita hissed, their faces now only separated by their crossed swords.
Ayato scoffed, mildly entertained by the look of pure anger on the other's eyes.
'I'll take her and will never give her back,' he dragged his words slowly, taunting him even more. He saw the boy's eyes widen a little at his words, then narrow back. He watched as a dark cloud seemed to have shadowed the light in them.
What happened was like a flash of lightning. He saw his sword pull back only to swipe him across the face. He was barely able to step back to stop it from lethally cutting him. Then he felt something wet trickle down his cheek. He touched it and looked at his finger.
It was red.
He looked up at the man in front of him who is now heaving heavy pants. He didn't know whether it was from exhaustion or anger but he cocked his eyebrow at him and looked at the sword he was holding.
'You cut me,' he said, a faint trace of amazement in his voice.
Okita laughed. 'I'm just getting started.'
Ayato trained his red eyes at the girl who never moved an inch from her position in the wall.
'Who is he? Why is he protecting you?' he asked, his gaze sharp and demanding. Akane opened her mouth but nothing came out. She also didn't know what to say.
Yes. Why are you protecting me?
She looked at Okita who had his back slightly angled away from her. He was panting but the look in his eyes told her he is calling for the blood of the man in front of him. Before she can say, do, or even think of anything though, his voice stopped her.
'You know why?' he sneered and raised his hand slowly again, angling his sword in almost the same level to his shoulder. Akane identified the move as the starting position of his signature technique. The Mumyo-ken.
'Because no one is allowed to touch what's mine.'