Chapter 6 : Spring Thaw
Saitou looked away from the window and towards his assistant with a frown. The younger man balked a bit before continuing.
"You wished to know when the final judgement was passed on the murderer."
Saitou turned back towards the window. It wasn't as if the verdict would be surprise. But even as the word guilty echoed in his office, he still harbored some hope that the judge might have seen what was really going on.
If the judge had known, he would have been paid off but Saitou wasn't about to award him that much intelligence to begin with. He had fallen for the trap, just as the opposition party had. An act of revenge and none except the Genkai nada believed it to be anything else.
"He'll be hung this afternoon," the assistant finished and Saitou dismissed him with a wave.
Left alone in silence, he reviewed the event of the morning. He had let Seta go, with the children of the convicted no less. Was he going soft? Or was he still clinging to the hope that Soujirou might somehow replace Okita?
It was neither.
Those children were not evil and in the end neither was their father. Yes, he killed a man but that was no a true judge of goodness. If Seisuke were evil on the basis of killing one man, then what would Saitou be?
Outside the police station, the snow was starting the melt, the last storm apparently nature's final effort to claim dominion over Northern Japan. But the people here persevered and she would have to wait another year before she could try again.
Was that all there was to life? A fight against an opponent you could never win against? Just as Saitou fought against evil, the people in Hokkaido fought nature, struggling to live in a place where the climate was less than ideal for humans. And though both knew that ultimately they would succumb to their foes, they still fought. The people here would age and die and nature would be the ultimate victor. And Saitou…
The shattered form of Sagara…the incessant crying of Kamiya…the gold taking over the violet of his eyes.
Would Saitou eventually succumb to the evil? So many expected that of him, many more assumed he already had. Oh yes, he was cruel, twisted and willing to do anything to assure that evil did not win. Just like Hijitaka had…
No, he was not evil. He just knew his opponent would never back down. Evil would think of ways of hurting people that even Saitou couldn't imagine. So Saitou would have to press the people around him just as hard, force them to face their demons and find the strength to fight it, work to destroy it just as he had.
But why fight at all? Shouldn't it have ended when the Shogun fell and the rebels won? Why continue, why push himself so much that he would find himself in this frozen hell? What was it in the end that drove him?
* * *
The hospital smell assuaged his senses like the slap to the face. His body cried out and tried to move his feet away from this place. It was dangerous, deadly and he should not be here. Run away, his body screamed! But his mind overpowered it and he strode down the walkway, past the rows of beds until he reached the balcony.
Okita was there, half of what he once was. The happy shine of his eyes lost forever. His hair matted down to his pale face. His hands lying limply on his lap. He heard the visitor and turned to face him, a forced smile on his lips.
"Saitou-sama," he said softly, the cough racking his body no sooner than the words had left his lips.
Saitou held up a hand to tell him not to speak. He turned and found a seat, pulling it close to the younger man's wheelchair. They sat in silence for a few minutes, watching the sun slowly arc towards the horizon.
"… Okita-kun," Saitou finally said. The younger boy smiled again. "Why?"
Okita let out the faintest sigh. "It would have demoralized them."
"We were already fighting a battle when knew we would lose," Saitou snapped. "How would knowing you were sick have made any difference?" He stood up glaring at his friend.
Okita's smile faltered as he turned away. "You're angry."
Saitou took a deep breath in, biting back the retort. Angry? Angry didn't begin to cover it. To find out that after a year of hearing nothing from him, Okita was in this accursed hospital rotting away to a disease he had known he had for years…
"I am," Saitou finally settled on. "But not at you. At myself."
Okita looked up at him again. "Why?"
Saitou looked at the setting sun with a frown. "For all the time we lost. Instead of fighting, we could have…could have…"
"Gone out drinking?" Okita whispered. "Visited the geisha's, laughed at their stories? Lived next to each other, raised our sons together?"
The coughing started again and Saitou turned away when Okita's hand came down nearly black with the blood. A nurse came by and Saitou motioned for some tea.
"That was never to be our life, Saitou-sama," Okita said softly, his eyes staring emotionlessly at the horizon. "We had a different calling."
"To fight all those years so that we could end it like this, all dead and ruled by the opposition," Saitou replied bitterly.
"To fight for the shogun was only a method to further our cause, you know that," Okita said. "No matter who won that battle, our enemy still exists and we must continue to fight our war."
Saitou looked at him and watched as the boy struggled with breath. "Our war will never be over," he continued softly. "But we must fight. Because we can not allow evil to gain any ground."
Saitou watched the nurse return and took the cup and saucer away from her, bringing it to the railing and letting it rest there as Okita continued. Saitou found he could not look at him anymore so he merely stared out at the horizon.
"Hijitaka was right," Okita whispered. "He was the one who knew what had to be done. And you are just like him now. So I am not worried about evil gaining ground after I die. I know you will be there to stop it."
Saitou closed his eyes as if it would block off his hearing. He knew what Okita said was true. But… but how would he go on? The rest of the Shisengumi was dying off and Okita had been his one true friend among them. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the tiny packet there, staring into the clear green tea by his hands.
"But promise me one thing." Saitou turned around and looked at him. Okita smiled. "Try to find that life you wanted. I might not be the one next to you… but try to find that life you dreamed we'd share."
Saitou nodded and brought the tea over to Okita. The boy's eyes flittered down to the murky green tea and he smiled.
"It would have been a painful way to go," he sighed. "Thank you… for doing what no one else could."
Saitou turned away and pulled the chair next to him as the boy drank the tea. The empty cup sat on his hands as Saitou looked at him from the seat.
Okita's eyes stared at the sun. The last embers of light slowly flicked into the thin line of the horizon. Okita smiled and took in a deep breath.
"Aku. Sou. Zan."
Saitou waited until the last bit of light had faded from the sky. The stars began to slowly come out of the darkness and the candlelight inside the hospital filtered out of the windows. He turned to look at Okita, seeing the same cheery smile there but the emptiness of his eyes.
"Aku. Sou. Zan," Saitou said softly, reaching out with one hand and closing the boy's open eyes. "I promise… my comrade. My second. My friend."
* * *
There was a loud clanging and Saitou's reverie broke at the noise. He looked at the window, trying to discern what the danger was. Before he could find the source of danger, he realized that the clanging of the bell was not a signal of warning. A ship was pulling into harbor, flying the Japanese flag.
There was a knock at the door and Saitou allowed them entrance. His assistant relayed the same message the bell had and Saitou told him he would be there momentarily. As soon as the younger man left, Saitou returned his attention to the desk, down at the letter he had finished writing only moments ago.
He reread each word carefully, making sure it conveyed his wishes. Then he slowly folded it shut, held the wax to the candle and sealed it shut. Without another thought, he grabbed his coat and went outside.
* * *
Soujirou pulled the hat down over his face as he scanned the crowd. Looking behind him, he motioned for the children to stay still while he looked ahead. Ichiro nodded and pulled them into an alleyway. The moment they were gone, Soujirou took off.
His quick motions when unseen by the general populace, save for the occasional puff of snow that mysteriously lifted into the air before resettling again. Soujirou tore through the streets, not bothering to stop until he reached his destination.
The bakery's aroma hit him immediately as he came to a stop. He looked around, and sure that no one would know what was going on. As soon as the coast was clear, he looked into the window of the building and snatched up a few rolls.
It wasn't much, but it would be enough to tide them over until they reached the farm. According to Ichiro, it was only a day's travel from here and there would be some grain from their last harvest.
It was insane in a way, Soujirou could admit that to himself. Here he was, nothing more than a penniless ronin and he was going to take care of three children. He frowned, looking towards the center of town, knowing that it was off limits to him now. If Saitou saw him, he was finished.
This was the right path, he kept repeating to himself. No matter how insane it seemed. He wouldn't let those children suffer. Not like he had, abandoned and put to work like a slave. He'd figure something out when they got to the farm. Somehow.
He moved back towards his new charges and passed around the warm bread. The children quickly ate it up, barely breathing a word of thanks as they did.
"So dad said he'd meet us at the farm?" Ichiro asked.
Soujirou nodded, glad he hadn't taken a bite of his bread, knowing that he would have choked on it in surprise. Now he could just plaster his silly smile and reassure them with the lie.
There was movement near them and Soujirou quickly ushered them into the shadows as they two men passed by. They stopped for a while as one fished around his pockets for a cigarette.
"So, how's Tokyo doing these days?" the smoker asked.
"Eh, it's been better."
"The whole freaking government was falling apart for a while there. Good thing Choshu and Satsuma clans were there to clean it up."
"Yeah. The whole cabinet resigns and suddenly, there those two are with a whole new one ready to go."
"Well that's strange."
"Nah, not really. The government has always been screwed up and messed around with by outside people. At least this time we didn't go to war."
"You know a lot for a sailor, dontcha pal?"
The sailor laughed, talking a cigarette from the smoker. "I'll tell you what I don't know. Where's the Hall of Celestial Delights? I have to met some people there."
"Down the road. Hey, I'll go with you, got to visit a 'friend' there too."
As the two men walked off, Soujirou let his face fall into a frown. It did sound too convenient. He wouldn't be surprised if it was all tied in with the Genkai nada. It was probably a plot to…
Soujirou blinked and turned to see Ichiro pulling at his sleeve. "Nani?"
"We need to get going! It'll get dark before we get there if we don't leave soon."
Soujirou blinked and looked down at the three of them, hearing the laughter of the two men fading in the distance.
He should do something, tell Saitou that the Genkai nada were trying to…
He stopped himself, blinking back to reality. He could do that. But did he want to? He thought of what would happen. Saitou might overlook the fact that he returned, might let the children live but any chance they had at a normal life would be lost.
Three children weighted against the safety of all of Japan. How do you make a choice like that? It was obvious what the answer should be, wasn't it?
Soujirou stood up and brushed a bit of snow off his hakama pants.
"Are we going home now?" Ichiro asked.
Soujirou looked at him and smiled, a real smile. One mixed with happiness and a bit of relief. "Yes, let's go."
The small group bundled up and began to trudge towards the edge of town. As the last bit of Sapporo dipped below the horizon Soujirou let himself breathe again. Saitou had kept his word. And as the sun arced past the zenith, Soujirou also knew that Seisuke's punishment would be carried out soon.
"Soujirou," he corrected quickly.
Ichiro frowned. "Sou-chan," he settled on. "Papa will be okay, won't he?"
Soujirou forced the smile to stay in place. "Hai," he lied.
"You'll wait with us, right?"
Soujirou stopped walking and looked at them. "I'll wait with you, until he comes back."
Ichiro nodded and started walking again, followed closely by his sister carrying the baby. Soujirou watched as they moved ahead, reaffirming his decision.
I will wait with you, even if you don't know that it's forever now. This is what I can do in the end. I'll never be like Shishio and try to rule the world. But I'll never be like Saitou either, always trying to protect it. I don't know what I will do in the end but protecting these three, giving them a home, that enough for now.
"SOU-CHAN! HURRY UP!"
And without another thought, he bounded ahead, taking them by the hand and leading them down the road.
* * *
I trust this letter finds you in good spirits. If the captain of this ship was correct, it will reach you just as the spring thaw begins. The doctors say it will be a matter of time now so maybe when things have settled, we can come see you during the summer as I know your job will prevent you from returning to Tokyo.
The boys send their best and we look forward to your next letter.
* * *
Saitou fold the letter and tucked it in his pocket. He opened the second letter and read it, ignoring the man in front of him. As soon as he was done, he refolded the letter.
"I trust this will not be a problem."
Saitou's golden eyes locked on the other man. He pulled out the sealed letter and handed it to him. The man's brow furrowed as he opened it and read it out loud.
"I guess not," the man replied.
"I felt my job here was done," Saitou said. "I was planning to send the transfer request on the next ship."
"And here your replacement has arrived before that," the man smiled. "Though I must say I envy you. Tokyo in the spring is the only place I'd like to be. But Sapporo will have to do."
Saitou nodded, ignoring the small talk. "I'll need the day to set things right."
"This ship won't leave until tomorrow."
"Then if you'll excuse me," Saitou said, motioning towards the door.
"Of course. I have an appointment with Kotaro-san, wants to talk about mining rights or some equally boring topic."
Saitou blinked and looked up at the man. So Kotaro wasted no time. Suddenly, he doubted that the police back in Tokyo had anything to do with pushing through a transfer.
The man took Saitou's silent response as an end to the conversation and walked towards the door. It opened and Saitou's assistant walked in.
"Is it true?" the assistant asked.
"Yes," Saitou replied.
The assistant frowned a bit, not knowing what to say. He nodded and was about to leave when Saitou's voice suddenly brought him back.
The assistant balked and stared at Saitou.
"What?" Saitou demanded.
"Nothing, sir. It's just… that's the first time you've used my name. I thought you forgot what… I'm sorry, sir. What were you saying?"
"I think that Sapporo is not the best place to further your career," Saitou replied. "You will return to Tokyo with me."
Takana looked at him with puzzlement. He wanted to say something, thank Saitou for finally recognizing his worth. But the words died on his lips. Instead, Takana settled for a nod before walking out the door.
* * *
Dawn broke and a fog settled over the area. The temperature overnight had remained high enough so that the snow began to melt. Shoes hit the once firm dirt only to find themselves sinking in a mixtures of slush and mud.
A group of sailors stood next to the port, ordering the dockworkers to load the vessel. The sails of the grand ship fluttered down from the mast and caught the gentle morning breeze.
The two policemen walked down the dock, heading towards the ship. One smoked on a cigarette, the other stood close by, throwing a glance over his shoulder to make sure that their bags were following close behind.
"Ah," Takana said suddenly. "It looks like they'll start digging the canal again."
Saitou paused and looked over at the half-dug ditch, where all this had started. Indeed a couple of foremen were already walking around to test the ground. He nodded and reached into his pocket.
"Cigarette?" he asked, holding open the case.
Takana looked at it. "I've never had one before."
Saitou raised an eyebrow. Takana paused a second more before taking one and lighting it. He took in a drag and started to cough. Saitou's lips almost turned up into a smile.
He walked up the gangplank, leaving Takana to struggle behind him, muttering apologies. By the time they had settled on board, it looked like the boy was actually getting the hang of it.
The two officers leaned on the railing as the dockworkers removed the lines and the ship began to move away. Saitou took in a long drag of his cigarette before flicking it off and letting it sink into the ocean. He turned his back and headed down below as Sapporo faded into the horizon.
* * *
Well that's it! May seem like an abrupt ending but in that time, the Japanese government actually supported secret societies. All this is based on actual historical fact, even that last second upheaval of the government. If you're interested in seeing exactly what this was all based on, you can check out these great links!:
Great source for info on Okita : http://zainin.com/Okita/
Japanese Secret Societies : http://www.fortunecity.com/tattooine/leiber/50/bds1.htm
Shinsengumi information : http://www.fortunecity.com/tattooine/leiber/50/bds1.htm
Thanks again for all the great reviews! I'm glad people enjoyed reading this story.