She saw the man, shadowed under a stand of pine trees. The air was thick with smoke, a terrible smell… not of wood but something terrible and greasy, casting great black clouds over the moon. Like a cooking fire gone terribly bad. “Who goes there?” she called out, wishing she had thought to bring a lantern. Or someone with her, or have sent someone out. Her place of exile was so isolated… and strangers were rare, on this estate near the slopes of Mt. Hiei, that it made her nervous when someone would wander across the property.
The figure paused, and there was a flash of light and the earth shook again as another explosion sounded from the mountain. It had been like this all afternoon, and she began to think that there was something to the rumors had circled among the servants for weeks now, of more activity, of almost an army of men going into the mountain. Impossible now, these were peaceful times after all, but something about this, the smell of smoke, reminded her of a time long ago… News was so rare out here that there could be another revolution going on for all she knew.
Maybe it was her memories, buried that brought something to her mind, seeing his profile by the distant firelight. Impossible memories, making her step waver.
He saw the woman, silhouetted in the darkness by the light of the fires from Shishio’s headquarters burning in the distance. He was alive, of course, just like he told that ahou he would be. Alive but obviously affected, because he was seeing things, such as imagining this farm woman to be someone he once knew.
A dim light appeared behind her, and a voice that was as it always was, faintly disapproving. “Come, Ohide-san…” one of the servants took her arm to lead her away, taking the lantern with him, and any chance she had of seeing the man better.
“But there’s a man in the woods, he’s hurt," Hide told the old man. “We must -”
“Now Ohide-san - those were dangerous men that have been seen around; we must be careful.”
“No.. he…” he looked like Hajime. No no I can’t think that, she thought, her head feeling like it was spinning, it’s just another dream. Just another illusion, like the dreams that had haunted her all these years, of longing for the one who was forever lost to her. Ghosts. She turned away, trying to keep her hands from shaking. They must not know that she was upset.
I’ll come back... words echoed through her head, rising to a buzzing noise. "Take me back to the house, but please see what that man wants?" Suddenly she wanted to lay down, have someone bring her tea and sleep, sleep and not be haunted like this. It had been so long since she had thought of him… no, that was a lie. He was not the sort of man one forgot. She let herself be led back to the house.
It was true that he had survived much worse, in the many times that he’d cheated death. Although the cumulative total over a short time.. Usui’s injuries to his legs, and Shishio‘s blows… even in his pain he had to grin slightly. That crazy ahou was smart... Too smart.
Good thing he’s dead.
Saitou’s head fell back against a tree. There was something calming about these woods, but it had taken too long to get out of that place, it was dark by the time he left the ruins.
And then the woman… Stop it - it was just a woman and she got scared off. It wasn’t -her-. There are plenty of short women, after all.
Pain makes a man think crazy things, after all. He made a grunting noise. No, this wasn’t pain… he had felt much worse.
He went to pull out a cigarette - his last one. I’m half-dead in the middle of nowhere and now I’m out of cigarettes. -Wonderful-, he thought as he lit the stick of tobacco. Inhaling deeply, he felt in his pocket for something else. The glow of the fires was already dimming, but he didn’t need light - he knew every carved line of this small object.
I’ll wait… A reminder - of a morning of sunshine, a moment of tranquility inbetween battles. Of what he was fighting for, of what was there for him when he came back. Hajime… if you’re going to help me look suitable you need to take care with my combs, not break them! Her laughter… only invited him to join in. In Aizu they do nice lacquerware… when I return I’ll bring you something pretty… I’ll take this half to remind me.
Of course... There was no time for shopping for presents during those days. A foolish hope… just as it all had been. Yet he still carried this, couldn’t let it go, just like the memories of those stolen moments in Kyoto. Sakura carved into a comb, blooms that would never fade. No, it was something else that must have faded.
“Sir?” a wavering voice interrupted him. His hand automatically settled on his sword as he opened one eye. An old man, stooped and weathered stood before him, holding a lantern, and trying to look like he had a great deal of authority.
“What?” He had no patience to be polite. Even if this was someone’s property and he scared some woman it wasn’t as if he were going to lay here and die, nor was he going to start any trouble.
“My mistress wished to see if we could offer assistance…”
For a moment he wanted to see that woman. But Tamesaburou-kun said that she was in Kobe - not outside Kyoto. In Kobe with her husband, and probably children by now. Saitou exhaled smoke as he looked up. “Kyoto. I need to get back to Kyoto.”
The old man nodded. “I’ll help you to the main road. I am Hiro, of the Kuroki household.” He offered a hand to Saitou, who waved it away. He wasn't bad enough to need an old man to drag him around... "If you're injured Kuroki-san said we were to tend you..." Something in Hiro's voice sounded grudging. Saitou stood, trying not to wince as the wounds in his legs stung and not noticing as a small object fell to the forest floor.
Just wanting to get me out of here, he smirked at that. “No, I just need to get back to Kyoto. You can tell your mistress that I’m with the police and mean no harm, and that there shouldn’t be any more trouble from the mountain.” After all he was still in uniform, even if it was ripped and dirtied. How he hated that.
“I’ll let her know; it will ease her mind,” the old man seemed only slightly less disapproving but not much. Saitou didn't care what the old man thought, the sooner he was back to Kyoto the sooner he could wrap up this mission. At least the part that had to do with Shishio.
Authors Notes: A blending of NHK's tagia drama "Shinsengumi!" and of Rurouni Kenshin. All characters are owned by their respective owners. A work in progress!