Author's note: Hello again all! Well, this one is going to be different, if you've ever read anything by me. First of all, Kaoru is one of the stars… in fact she's not even going to be in the fic. There are two people from the RK universe in this ficcie…
Soujirou and Saitou.
This is in response to the fanfic challenge on TFME, http://ellone-loire.net/tfme/, where you have to explore a relationship that is usually done in fan fiction. I figure this one hasn't been don't that much. Those of you wondering, no, it's not going to be yaoi or shonen ai. Just didn't fit the way I wanted this story to go.
By the way… if you are at all curious, this is actually based on real history. The secret society and its leaders that will be revealed existed. I just took liberties with history and warped it around the story. I'd give you my source but… well, I don't want to ruin the surprise or anything.
So without further ado…
Chapter 1 : Paths cross, plans are laid
His feet left small prints in the snow as he trudged up the incline. Though hardly dressed from the blazing winter around him, the young man never shivered as he made his way down the path. Three months of walking through the forest of Hokkaido had once again led to a dead end. And with the heart of winter fast approaching, even he knew that it was time to head for shelter.
Of course, the life of a rurouni had left him without any money or any place to stay but he would manage. He always managed. In the three years since he left Kyoto to start walking, he had always found a way, just never an answer to the questions he sought.
Seta Soujirou shifted the bag over his shoulder and let out a small sigh, watching as it crystallized in the air. He reached out for a moment to try to catch it but it evaporated quickly, the cold air sucking the last of the heat away.
Soujirou paused and turned around, facing the person who had called him with a smile. "Ohayo gozaimasu," he returned, walking as the small cart came to a stop.
"Are you headed for Sapporo?" the man asked, slowly loosening the reigns in his hands.
Soujirou looked down the road. Sapporo. The city was still new, they would need builders and despite his diminutive size, he knew he could outwork anyone they had.
"Sapporo," Soujirou repeated, "is a good place to be headed, ne?"
The man chuckled. "When winter is this fast approaching it most certainly is. Please, you can join the rest of my family in the back. It will save you time."
"I'd hate to trouble you."
"It's no trouble at all," a woman called, suddenly appearing from the back of the cart. "There's more than enough room here."
Soujirou paused for a moment longer before finally relenting. Truth be told, his feet were starting to go numb and the chance to rest them seemed all too tempting. He walked around to the back and clambered inside. He removed the sword from his side and settled into the corner.
There were three children along with the mother. The oldest was a boy though he could have been more then seven or six. A little girl clung to his shirt with one hand and suck on her thumb with the other. The baby in the mother's arms yawned before turning to go back to sleep.
"I'm Hayami. This is Ichiro, Koharu and Toniko," she said motioning to the children in descending order.
"Seta Soujirou," he said with a deep smile as the cart started to move.
Ichiro moved away from his mother's side, Koharu dragged along with him as the boy walked over to Soujirou. Soujirou remained smiling as the child examined him from head to toe.
"Are you a samurai?" the little boy asked.
"Ichiro!" Hayami called. "Don't be impolite. Besides there are no more samurais. You know that."
"But dad said…"
"Dad likes to tell stories. Now leave the poor man alone and come here."
"No, I don't mind," Soujirou said. "It's no bother at all."
"See!" Ichiro said turning away from his mother. "But you have a sword. Are you a ronin?"
Soujirou looked down at the sword by his side. "Something like that."
"Did you lose your master?"
"Ichiro!" Hayami called out.
"'Cause dad says ronin lose their masters and have to wander the world to make up for it."
"Ichiro, if you do not stop pestering Seta-san, then you won't have dinner tonight."
The boy paused and quickly calculated the price of continuing and decided food was better than hearing the strange man's story. He walked away but Koharu stayed in place, looking at Soujirou, who just remained smiling.
The little girl giggled and ran back to her family, occasionally casting a glimpse over at him. Hayami sighed and pulled the blanket around the two children, letting the baby hold onto her chest. As soon as they were tucked away, she started to sing softly, lulling them into sleep.
Soujirou watched the scene but the smile was slowly fading from his lips as he saw the happy family scene play out. There was a deep ache in his chest and the troubled youth found himself remembering his own childhood.
Jealousy? That was something he hadn't felt in a while. But then, he hadn't felt anything until that day. The day he had lost his master and become ronin.
* * *
Sapporo unfolded in front of him, a bustle of activity as builders scrambled to finish buildings in the face of the impending winter. A cloud of smoke appeared around his head and he moved away, letting the wisps of gray slowly disintegrate into the air. The cigarette arched in the air and fell to the ground, where it was quickly quashed by his foot. The young officer next to him quickly fell into step behind his superior, waiting for him to request something.
Saitou Hajime pulled his navy blue jacket off the hook by the door and brought it across his body, straightening it as soon as he had finished with the last button. He opened the door and stepped outside, letting the snow crunch at his feet.
"Then all is quiet to the north," he said gruffly.
His assistant quickly finished button his jacket, trying to ward off the cold. "Hai," he said. "All the Ainu have settled in for the winter. There should be no more problems with them."
Saitou nodded firmly and pulled a new cigarette from his pocket. "And there are no problems in Sapporo itself."
"No, sir," the officer replied. "Everything is quiet. It always is during the winter." He paused for a moment. "Will you be returning to Tokyo?"
Saitou looked over at the man, reading the implications in his voice. It was true, he should return to Tokyo. His wife was pregnant again and the two sons she had had been nothing but trouble since their father left.
"Perhaps," Saitou settled on, walking down the streets. He watched as a small cart pulled past him. For moment, a feeling of déjà vu hit him but before he could act, the cart was gone.
"Hiraoka Kotaro has requested an audience with you," the officer was saying. "He wanted to speak with you about mining operations in the north."
Saitou nodded with little interest. A wealthy man who had turned his eye to mining once the samurai class was abolished, Hiraoka had always rubbed Saitou the wrong way. There was something behind all the pleasantries that man dished to the people around him. Saitou didn't like dealing with him, let alone agreeing to help him with anything.
"I think that an inspection of the men here," the officer was saying, "would be a good idea. They've been working very hard to meet your standards and it will assuage your fears of returning to Tokyo if you know…"
The officer trailed off as he caught the dangerous glint in the gold eyes of his boss. "Not that you are afraid of anything," the younger man stumbled, trying to dig himself out of the hole he was in.
The younger officer breathed a small sigh of relief as one of the policemen ran up to them.
"Some of the workers just found a body when they were digging for the canal," the man said.
Saitou let the cigarette fall from his hands as he followed the other man. It fell onto the snow and heated some of it to water which in return, extinguished the flame.
* * *
"Sayonara!" Hayami called as the cart pulled away. The children waved as Soujirou smiled at them as they passed. He waved back at them and continued on his way, walking down the snow filled streets of Sapporo. The smell of fresh wood filled his nose as he walked past some of the worker. First things first then, he needed to secure himself a job.
But after several attempts, Soujirou realized it was not going to be as easy as he thought. Construction was winding down now that winter had reared its face. There wouldn't be any new work until after the spring thaw.
"You should try the canal," one of them had suggested. "They're still looking for people but it'll only be for a few weeks. After that the ground will be too hard to dig."
"Thank you," Soujirou replied. "If I could ask one more thing, is there someplace to stay that would not be too expensive?"
"Most of the temples are full as it is. A couple of the bordellos may take people in since it's the off season and they'll need the money."
So Soujirou had thanked the man and continued towards where they were digging the canal. But when he arrived there, it was obvious that all work had stopped. Men in uniforms were running around, pushing the crowd back. Too short to see over them, Soujirou silently wove his way through the crowd until he got to the front.
From there he could see where the police were congregating. In between the mounds of brown dirt, a white streak lay across a freshly dug earth. From this distance, Soujirou could make out five separate parts and realized it was a human hand.
Luck was not with him today, it appeared and Soujirou attempted to pull away from the crowd but suddenly found himself riveted in place. The tall man turned away from the body and looked into the crowd, golden eyes locking on Soujirou's face.
Soujirou silently pushed his way out of the front, a small frown dotting his face. Saitou. In Hokkaido. Soujirou had never been prosecuted for his crimes against the Meiji Government mainly because no one knew about them.
But that man knew.
Soujirou's feet came to a stop. He felt the unfamiliar pull on his face and realized he wasn't smiling anymore. Three years and it still felt strange not to have it there, as if his muscles had grown into that pattern.
He relaxed and let the frown slowly fade. With his calm restored, Soujirou continued on his way, coming in front of a building called "Hall of Celestial Delights". He paused, remember what the man had said about lodging and decided that this was a good place to start.
He tapped the door softly and waited, hearing the shuffling from inside. The door was flung open suddenly and an overweight woman looked down at him with disdain.
"We're closed, come back later," she said, turning to close the door.
"Please, just a moment of your time," he said politely, smiling deeply. "I heard that some places were offering lodging."
The woman paused and looked at him. "Do you have money?"
"Some," Soujirou said, slightly stretching the truth.
She looked him up and down, resting her eyes on his sword. "Are you a soldier?"
Soujirou shook his head. "No, not at all."
Soujirou sighed. It seemed like that was what people generally thought he was. "Yes," he said, deciding not to argue the point.
The woman looked up and down the street and ushered him inside. "I think we may have a place for you," she said sliding the door shut behind him.
* * *
Saitou leaned down, looking at the once beautiful face that was half eaten away. The assistant who had been next to him had stumbled off, turning green at the sight. Saitou carefully looked at the body, taking in all of it as he pulled a drag off his cigarette.
"She was found only a few hours ago by several construction workers."
Saitou nodded and continued his investigation. Kneeling in close he looked at the black bruises around her neck. "Strangled," he said. Looking down he watched the naked curves of her body slowly disappear into the mud.
"Has anyone reported a missing woman?" Saitou asked.
"No, Fujita-san," the policeman said. "But then, most of the woman here are… well…"
"Whores," Saitou finished for him. He paused and picked up a shovel that had been tossed next to the body. Slowly, he wedged it under the woman's body and used the leverage to lift it slightly.
There was a small mark on the nap of her neck and he motioned to the man next to him to hold the shovel in place. Kneeling down he looked at the two kanji there. "Celestial maiden," he said.
The man holding the shovel laughed. "Well, that's inappropriate for a woman like her."
Saitou stood up and looked over into the crowd. "Perhaps not. Wasn't there a bordello here with the name…"
He trailed off, seeing someone in the crowd that was oddly familiar but… no it couldn't be. What would he be doing here?
Saitou looked down at the man and nodded, letting him drop the body back onto the ground. By the time Saitou looked back into the crowd. The familiar face was gone.
"What were you saying?" Saitou asked, turning his attention back to the investigation.
"I said, the Hall of Celestial Delights," the officer repeated. "That might be a good place to start looking."
Saitou nodded and motioned to the small crew waiting to retrieve the body. He walked out of the pit, his mind replaying the scene in the crowd. It was impossible but for a moment, he thought that Okita had been there, watching the investigation.
But no, Okita was dead. Saitou had buried him himself after the disease had finally killed him off.
"Fujita-san," his young assistant said rejoining him. "Are you all right?"
Saitou looked at him with a raised eyebrow. "What do you mean? I was not the one to turn green and run away."
The assistant blushed slightly and shrugged apologetically. "I'm sorry about that. It was just the smell. But… I thought that you… just for a moment, looked upset about…"
The assistant trailed off feeling the glare of gold on him again. Two times in one day, he thought unhappily. There was no way he was getting home on time tonight. Fujita-san would book him for three straight shifts at this point.
But much to his surprise, his superior turned away. "Let's return to the station. I want to hear as much about this Hall of Delights as you know."
"I take it you will not be leaving for Tokyo anytime soon then," his assistant said. Saitou continued onward and the young man sighed. Why did he have a distinct feeling that his captain was always trying to stay away from his family?
* * *
Soujirou settled into the small seat at the edge of table, wrapping his legs around until he was comfortable. A young girl walked in and left a cup of tea on the table.
"Arigato gozaimasu," he said but she was gone before he even finished the sentence. He shifted slightly, suddenly realizing that the situation was getting rather uncomfortable. He had been let in and ushered to the back, no more mention of lodging had been made.
He let his hand slowly move towards the end of the table and nearer to the hilt of his sword, just in case. He heard footsteps in the hall and let his hand fall off the edge of the table as the shoji door swung open.
A man walked in and looked at him, taking a seat across from him. Soujirou's face never moved, still maintaining the smile while his mind quickly calculated a dozen moves he might have to counter in the next few minutes.
"You are ronin," the man stated, not asking a question at all. "Who was your master?"
Soujirou's smile remained in place as he took his tea, bringing to his lips in a sign that he was not going to answer that question.
"I heard a story once," the man said, "of a young boy whose skills marveled the best swordsmen in Japan. But when his master was defeated, he was forced to wander Japan. So I wondered, are you the same boy in that story?"
Soujirou put the cup down. "No I'm not," he said. He wasn't lying. His story was very different. Shishio hadn't been defeated until after he left. His decision to wander was not based on the fact that he had failed his master, rather than his master had failed him.
The man across the table looked at him. "But you have the same smile… so maybe it is just the story that was wrong."
Soujirou would have frowned but once a day was enough for him. Instead, he picked up the tea again and took another sip.
"Well, if you are not the same man, it would be a shame," the man said. "I was looking for strong men to help me in my…"
"I am not interested," Soujirou said politely. "I am just a simple wanderer, I would have no place in your fight no matter what it was."
The man paused. "You don't strike me as the type to wander aimlessly," he said. "Perhaps I read you wrong. But I thought you had the look of a man who needed something to believe in."
Soujirou paused, ignoring the truth of the man's words and waited for the pitch. He mused about what it might be this time. Kill the foreigners? Restore the Shogunate?
"We strive for three things," the man was saying. "To honor the Imperial Family, to respect the Empire and to guard the rights of the people. What more could one want?"
Soujirou put the cup down. "It sounds like a noble cause," he said politely, "but as I said, I am just no looking for a cause. Thank the mistress of the house for the tea."
The man nodded. "Take some time to think about it. Return here if you change your mind."
With a small smile, Soujirou walked out of the door.
* * *
"The Hall of Celestial Delights has been here almost since Sapporo was founded. It's one of the oldest bordellos in the area and I don't think it's the only one in Japan or the world for that matter. There are rumors about the place, that is home to a himitsu kessha."
"A secret society," Saitou repeated, tipping the cigarette on the edge of the tray. "These groups have been sprouting up since the beginning of the Meiji Restoration. Why not just eradicate the bordello, end it here?"
His assistant frowned slightly. "We tried… but the governor stopped us."
Saitou raised an eyebrow. "So, the governor has been bought off."
His assistant tilted his head from side to side. "Perhaps… but I think it goes much further than that. There's one man we think is involved, you probably know him, actually. The hermit, Toyama Mitsuru, he's usually at the brothel and is said to be recruiting ronin."
Saitou paused for a moment, letting the name register to a face. "What agents do you have within the organization then?"
"That's the problem. It's by invitation alone and any one we have tried to bribe ends up betraying us or dead."
"Then you haven't found the right man," Saitou said, standing up. His assistant jumped up to follow but Saitou waved him off. He needed a walk alone.
Leaving the cigarettes behind, Saitou started down the street, watching the people around him move. He passed by a few street vendors, noting that most of them lowered their voices when he passed.
It was Kyoto all over again, only this time there was no Shinsengumi around him. They were all dead, the captains at least. He frowned slightly, too much thinking of the past. That stranger who looked like Okita had started it all.
And then as if fate itself stepped in, Saitou looked up and saw the same person walking towards him. He stopped in his tracks and watched the ghost from his past walking towards him.
The other man stopped, riveted in place and suddenly Saitou got a good look at him. No, it wasn't Okita at all. But someone else that he knew.
Soujirou paused and realized there was no way to get out of it now. With a sigh, he walked up to Saitou waiting for him to act but the other man was looking over his shoulder now. Saitou started to walk but moved right past Soujirou.
Soujirou blinked but continued walking. Things had gone from dangerous to much worse. He highly doubted that Saitou had forgotten him. Was the Wolf letting his prey escape so he could hunt him later?
Saitou kept walking, barely looking up as he passed by Toyoma. His mind was working around the possibilities. Planning, plotting until a grin started to spread across his face. The Wolf had just caught his prey.