I sighed as I pulled my braid over my shoulder and tied it off with a red temple ribbon. "No, Kenshin, this isn't what I want to do to at all. And, I do not plan to do to it if Saitoh will be reasonable. But, you know him even better than I do, it's not likely. 'Reasonable' is not in his vocabulary. I see no other way."
I turned back to look into the mirror I was sitting in front of. The swelling on my lip had been reduced to a small cut and light bruise. Megumi had done her job well.
I could see Kenshin standing a bit behind me, nodding his head in unwilling agreement, "That it's not." He was watching me with worry in his eyes.
After putting Hitomi and Keitaro to bed the night before, the two of us had stayed up far into the night deciding what to do about this interrogation. Hikaru had offered her help and advice, but we had told her that she could go ahead and retire. She was our voice of reason, but reason wouldn't help against the Wolf. After bidding her a good night, we had settled ourselves at the kotatsu table in the meeting room for hours. We had said there was always the chance that Saitoh might be willing to meet me half way, in which case there would be no need for a back up plan. However, we both knew that there were records that incriminated me at least for theft of a large sum of money. Saitoh was many bad things, but he followed all laws except for one - it was his job. If he had those records, he would sentence me. We had thought of so many things, but none had seemed a good solution - one that would work on someone like that Wolf. However, finally, I had thought of something. An idea that had turned my stomach with disgust for myself, but also one that would work. I had been reluctant to tell Kenshin at first, so ashamed of it as I was, but I would not keep it from him. I had been half hoping that he would be able to talk me out of it, that he would think of a better, honorable solution as he so often did. But, it was already very late and our minds were exhausted after the day we had had. He had given me a surprised look when I did say it - one I couldn't quite read even after knowing him intimately for so long. I had said with my head bowed, "It's terrible, I know, but I will not see our family ripped apart. Not after we've worked so hard for this happiness that we both deserve!"
Silence had hung in the room for a long minute. I had continued to stare at my lap, afraid of what he might be thinking of me, despite all he knew I had done. Then, I felt him gently take my clenched hands in his and simply say, "I understand, that I do." Then a pause, "And I know that you would only use it to get to Saitoh, you would not really go through with it. Your heart is too kind." he finished.
I had thought I heard a subtle warning note in his voice and had quickly answered, "No! Never. I would not destroy so many lives to save my own."
And I had meant it. If this plan didn't work, I would not carry through with my threats. I would find another way, if one existed. If one did not… I chose not to even consider that for now. How could I even consider going as far as I was? I had raised my eyes to meet Kenshin's gentle violet gaze. He smiled in response to my answer and squeezed my hands in his own. That was how I could consider it: Fear of being taken from him, and from my children. I had lost him once and barely survived it. Ever since then, I had gone to lengths to never lose him again because I knew it would kill me. On impulse, I had leaned over the table and kissed him, despite the stinging in my lip. "I love you." I had said quietly, the small words seeming inadequate for the way I felt about him and our children. The feeling that was driving me to even consider this plan to keep them safe.
He had brushed my bangs out of my face and said, "I love you too, that I do, which is why I understand."
After that, we had gone to bed ourselves, but I had lain awake long after Kenshin had fallen asleep. I had been unable to banish the thought that if Saitoh called my bluff, this would be the last night I would be curled up warm and protected in my husband's arms for a long time.
I finished tying my braid and stood up, taking a few deep breaths. Kenshin came up from behind and hugged me, "I still think I should come with you."
I placed my hands on his and ran my thumb lightly over the smooth skin of his wrist, "You know that your support would help me, Kenshin, but someone has to watch the kids… we can't take advantage of Moriko, Kaoru, and the others all the time." Especially considering what I might have to do today. I thought miserably.
He released me and I walked over to take my katana off the wall where it hung on a rack below Kenshin's reverse blade. I still practiced daily and had gotten a license to carry it here in the Meiji Era, "Don't worry, I'll be safe."
Kenshin nodded reluctantly. He knew I was a match for anyone, except my father, in a confrontation, but was still worried about me emotionally after what I had suffered the day before. "Watch Saitoh carefully. He wasn't called the Wolf of Mibu just for his appearance. He's tricky, that he is."
I stuck my sheath through my belt and said wryly, "Don't I know it!"
I walked back over to him and lightly touched his cheek where the faint lines of a now-faded scar were visible, "I'll be back in no time." I kissed him lightly and walked out of the room without looking back.
Before leaving, I checked in on the children. Amazingly, they were both still asleep, although Keitaro woke when I lightly pushed his black hair back from his face.
"Where are you going, Mommy?" He asked sleepily, rubbing an eye with one small fist.
"Oh, just in to town for a little while. Be good for your Daddy." I kissed his forehead and the sleeping Hitomi's before quietly leaving their room, sliding the door shut behind me. Kei was old enough to have his own room, but intensely disliked being alone, so we continued to let him share with his sister, who had said she didn't mind when asked.
I walked down the dirt streets towards the town, passing Moriko's still quiet house and Kaoru's dojo. The assistant master of Kamiya Kasshin Ryu was standing in her gateway, greeting her students as they arrived. She waved enthusiastically to me, "Good Morning, Yuki-san! Yahiko and I will both be there for Kenshin's party!"
Yahiko's head peaked around behind her. He had grown into a handsome, very talented young man, but had never lost his mischievous streak, "Wouldn't miss it, Yuki! Ugly here wanted to cook something to bring, but I talked her out of it!"
Kaoru narrowed her eyes and sent him flying with the butt of her shinai, "Get back to your training! You're not a master yet, Yahiko! You should show more respect, especially to Yuki-san, who is." I laughed in spite of myself and managed a smile, "We'll look for you then!" I waved as I continued on my way down the street.
We had so many good friends. They were all more than happy to watch the children any time. The real reason I had stopped Kenshin from coming is that I knew with him listening, the shame of what I was doing would show in my words. They would lose their effectiveness and I couldn't risk that. With just Saitoh there, I could revert back to the ruthlessness I had once had without hesitation if need be.
I crossed a large bridge leading into Tokyo proper, my feet becoming a bit heavier with every step. As I passed the Akabeko, Sanosuke waved to me from the door just as Kaoru had done, "Hey there, sister! We'll all be there for Kenshin… and the sake!" He said with a grin, then his expression hardened, "Hey, what happened to your face?"
I sighed. I should have known that Sano would not miss it, "Just a little problem I ran into on the street yesterday."
Sano punched a bandaged hand into his palm, "You just point me to who! I'll take them out for you!"
I smiled, "Thanks, Sano, but they're already in jail. If they ever show back up though, I will definitely take you up on that offer!"
He grinned, "Well, I hear Tomiko calling. I better get back to work!"
He waved again before disappearing back inside the restaurant. After the Akabeko had been destroyed seven years ago, Tae had returned to her family in Kyoto. Tsubame and Tomiko had taken over in her place and they had managed to rebuild the restaurant with everyone's help. Sanosuke had married Tomiko a year after he had returned from his world adventures and now helped them run the place. A most effective way to deal with his tab!
So many friends who would stand up for us to the last. And here I was going to likely betray one of them. I had thought my years of deception, lies, and betrayal were over, that the past was at rest. So stupid of me. Had I not watched Kenshin suffer for so many years because his past would not rest and leave him alone? Why did I think I would be immune from my demons?
"You are a fool, Sasaki." I muttered sharply to myself. I rested one hand on my katana hilt as I walked. Even though I carried it only rarely since my children were born, it still felt familiar, a comfort even. It had saved my life many times and saved Kenshin as well. However, it had no power to save us from this threat.
I paused in front of the Tokyo Police Station to pull myself completely together. Squaring my shoulders, I pulled open the main door.
I relaxed a bit when I did not see Saitoh immediately, but rather our friend, the Tokyo police chief. His glasses flashed as he looked up at me and gave me what passed for his smile, "Lady Himura! Fujita told us that you would be coming in this morning. Dreadfully sorry about what happened yesterday."
I managed to smile faintly back, "Thank you, sir, I'm sure Inspector Fujita and I will be able to work it out."
"Well, then, if you'll just follow me, I'll take you to him."
I followed, only listening to his friendly conversation enough to answer his questions about my cut lip and the well being of Kenshin and the children. Finally, we stopped in front of a small office and the chief knocked on the door, "Fujita, Lady Himura is here to see you."
A muffled, too polite voice from the other side of the door called, "The door is open, sir, she can come on in."
The chief pulled the handle, opening the door for me. Sitting behind a desk in a small, bare office reeking of cigarette smoke was Saitoh. More or less. He smiled in a warm way at me in his persona of Goro Fujita and I felt disgusted. Yet, I managed a similar smile in return to keep up appearances for the chief.
"Good morning, Inspector Fujita." I said, forcing myself to bow my head slightly. I would have rather wiped that fake smile off his face with the flat of my katana.
Saitoh linked his hands on the desk in front of him and bowed his head back, "A fine morning to you too, Lady Himura. I'm glad to see your lip seems to be healing nicely." He replied pleasantly, but with just enough of an edge to my name to make my eye tick. What a fine line we were walking.
"I must return to my duties now, if you'll excuse me." The chief said, bowing to me before closing the door quietly behind him.
The change in the atmosphere of the room was immediate. The pleasant feelings disappeared and the Wolf and I glared at each other. For he was a wolf again now with his cold expression. There was nothing left of the kind Inspector Fujita. I could almost feel the electricity cracking between us.
"Sit, Himura." he said, pointing sharply to the other chair in the room. "Where's the Battousai?"
I kept my eyes levelly on him as I sat down, "I've told you before, Wolf, the Battousai died when the Revolution ended. He no longer exists." This was my answer to anyone who insisted on continuing to refer to Kenshin by his old nickname.
I saw a blood vessel stand out in Saitoh's temple in annoyance, "I think you might deserve those bitch insults you received yesterday." He said, pulling out a cigarette from his top drawer, "But, I know you were not a whore. Not for long any way. No prostitute would have time to master the sword and martial arts like you have. Start talking and I want the truth." He smiled dangerously at me. "Your freedom depends on your answers."
Saitoh picked up a stack of papers from the desk, "Your father came well prepared. These are records documenting the theft of a large sum of money from an okiya by one Yukiyo Sasaki." His eyes burned into mine over the paper, "You will have to do time for this, but if you cooperate, I'll make it short."
My hands clenched in my lap, "If I pay back that money, can the charges be dropped?"
"They could, but your father and the okiya don't want them to be and I follow the law." He lit the cigarette as he considered me.
Holding the cigarette poised, he said as if it were supposed to make me feel better, "It won't be that long. I've been away from my family much longer than you will be."
Committing adultery with another woman. I thought nastily, unpleasantly surprising myself. Aloud I said, "Let us speak plainly, Wolf. There's no way I will get out of this with no jail time?"
He shrugged, "No. But, like I said, I'll reduce your sentence if you answer my questions. Start talking. What did you do with that money you took?"
My head spun. We had known Saitoh would not be reasonable, but I had still harbored a small hope. It was gone now and my insides turned cold as I prepared to take my drastic steps. Oh, my freedom would depend on my answers, that was certain. Telling the truth would incriminate me further of things worse than theft. I cleared my throat and started in on my ploy.
"Before we go further, I want to thank you for helping me yesterday." I said coolly, intensely disliking thanking him, but hoping to throw him a bit off his guard with it.
"Police duty, nothing more." He snapped, "And you're changing the subject, Himura. This is not going to get you a reduced sentence. If you can't manage to answer my questions, I'll just lock you up right now." He took another drag on his cigarette and smiled wolfishly. He enjoyed these kind of predatory games. Evil bastard.
I folded my hands in my lap and met his amber eyes, which bore into my own fiercely, trying to intimidate me. It wouldn't work. I had been in death matches and many other intense situations too many times in my life to be intimidated by anything.
"Saitoh, someone I believe is an acquaintance of yours has been living down the street from me for about six years now -"
"Stop avoiding this, Himura." Saitoh cut me off sharply, "I couldn't care less about any acquaintance."
Oh, you'll care about this one, Wolf. I thought grimly, "Her name is Moriko Sagara." I finished, my stomach clenching. There was no turning back now.
I watched as the most particular change came over Saitoh's face. The second time in two days, indeed in all of our long acquaintance, that I had seen surprise in his golden eyes. He recovered himself quickly and narrowed those eyes to slits.
"You know her, don't you Wolf?"
He irritably flicked several ashes off his cigarette and answered, "Yes, she works under me. This better have some point to the truth you're going to eventually get around to telling me, Lady Himura. I am not a patient man."
I managed to return his sour expression, "Don't get your bangs in a knot. I was only reminded of Moriko because she has a little son, just six years old, who has beautiful golden flecks in his eyes. Just the color of yours. How could I not be reminded of them with you staring at me like that?"
I said all this calmly and slowly, but inside my heart was racing. I felt just sick with myself, but a voice whispered in my head, No other way. In my best off-handed tone, I finished, "Anyhow, I wish there was a way for all this trouble with my father and my past to just… disappear."
Saitoh's expression didn't change, but I could see him mentally doing the math in his head as my words sunk in. As he drew his conclusions, he took a deep drag on his cigarette. "So, that's how it is, Himura." he growled, after a long moment.
He ground the cigarette into his ashtray, the only outward show of anything besides his usual composure, "Nice try, but blackmail is an even worse crime that theft. And now I'm going to enjoy locking you up." He sneered.
I leaned forward towards him and replied in a deadly calm tone, "But, you can't prove that I've done it, can you, Wolf? Not without exposing yourself as guilty of a much worse crime."
He actually smiled unpleasantly as he leaned back in his chair, "You're not as much of a moron as I thought you were, Himura." Then his expression changed and in a strangely softer tone he added, "But you're also more ruthless. How could you do this to her? I know she trusted you."
I felt my body jump involuntarily. I had expected many things from Saitoh, but not this. I held myself together through sheer will and met his gaze, "You of all people know about doing what you have to do to survive, Wolf. I will not see my family and peace torn apart by this."
"But you'll destroy someone else's. How hypocritical." He sneered. "Does your precious moralistic husband know what you're doing to 'save him'?"
I nodded silently.
"And he approves? Guess the old merciless Battousai from the Revolution isn't as dead as you're so very fond of saying he is." Saitoh smirked.
"I didn't say he approved." I answered coldly, tiring of this. He was trying to throw me off guard and I knew it. It wouldn't work, I would never reveal that I had no intentions of carrying out my threats. "Will this problem be able to just disappear or not, Wolf?" I repeated.
Saitoh glared down his nose at me, "Yes. I guess you've got yourself a deal here, Himura. It will be dealt with. Now, get out of my office." He pointed to the door, eyes burning into mine.
I stood and obeyed him, "Thank you for your help, Inspector Fujita." I said, holding the door open.
I saw the veins in his head stand out furiously as the door swung shot behind me.
Out in the empty hall, I leaned back against the wooden wall for a moment, my hand over my mouth. I had betrayed many people during the chaos of the Revolution, but never a friend. I took consolation in the fact that maybe what I had done would never be revealed to anyone as I turned and walked numbly out of the station. I would certainly never utter a word of it and it was in Saitoh's best interest to keep it a secret. Except perhaps from Moriko herself, and that thought nagged at me. I barely even heard the chief bidding me a good day.
I walked slowly back home, my eyes avoiding Moriko's house as I passed it, thankful that neither she nor Kiyoshi were around. Finally, I reached the sanctuary of my own home and closed the heavy gate behind me with a thud. I could hear Kenshin and the kids playing around back, the sounds of their laughter carrying to me over the rooftop. Some of my depression lifted. I wouldn't lose them. Folding my hands inside my sleeves, I walked around the side of the house quickly, wanting nothing more at the moment than to just be with them.
Hitomi saw me first. "Mama!" she called excitedly and waved, forgetting the ball game they had all three been playing. She ran to meet me, her brother doing his best to keep up. "Mama, mama, guess who just stopped by!! Misao!"
"And Aoshi too!" Keitaro said as he caught up, slurring the Oniwaban's leader's name a bit. "And they brought Isamu!" Hitomi added, referring to the couple's young daughter.
I knelt to hug them both tightly, "Did they? What a surprise!" I said, winking at them. They both giggled as they knew that I had written the old Kyoto group several weeks ago asking them to Tokyo for Kenshin's birthday. I had sworn the kids to absolute secrecy from their father. I knew that he knew, of course, but the kids loved the idea of planning this for him.
As I stood up, Kenshin joined us with a smile on his face, though I could see the concern behind his eyes, "It's funny how everyone always shows up here in Tokyo around June 20th, that it is." he said, with a mock-accusing look at me.
Amazing myself, I managed to laugh, "I know! Very strange, really!"
"Miss Misao and Aoshi are staying with Miss Kaoru." he told me, "I thought that would be best, all things considered. Especially with Master Hiko and Hikaru-san already staying in the guest house. She went into town shortly after you did, that she did. To visit a few old friends, she said. I haven't seen Master, but that's like him."
I nodded, thinking that I had only seen the man twice in the two days that they had been here. Just as well, considering that I knew I would not like his opinion about these events. I wasn't looking forward to hearing Hikaru's either. I hoped I would never have to.
"Mama! Misao said that we had gotten so big and that we were cute!" Hitomi announced, her brother nodding in agreement.
I smiled at her, "And she's right!"
"We're going to go play ball some more, okay?" She said, in the rapid-fire way of changing topics children have.
"Okay." I continued to smile fondly as Hitomi took hold of her brother's hand and the two ran back across the yard.
Kenshin put his arm around my shoulders and I leaned into him as we watched them for a minute. "How did it go?" he finally asked quietly.
Not turning to look at him, I replied softly, "Saitoh was as unreasonable as we thought he would be. But, it will be taken care of."
He understood what I meant and hugged me tighter, "Everything is going to be okay, that it is."
I sighed, "I hope so."