One of Them
Author's Note Hello, all! This fic is based on the premise, "What if Mikagami had joined the Uruha as Meguri Kyoza had planned?" It's dedicated to Lockheart for her b-day on Sept. 4th... Enjoy!
"Ichi... ni... san... yon... Ichi... ni... san... yon..."
With carefully measured strides and strokes, the Ensui master put himself through his paces. Strike high-- strike low-- turn around-- slice on the backswing-- feint left-- feint right-- slice straight down-- finish with feet together.
Just as Meguri Kyoza had taught him.
He stopped for a moment to wipe his hands on a small towel. According to the clock on the wall, he'd been in training for five hours now. He squirted some water from a bottle into his mouth.
Five hours was nothing. If he didn't practice, how could he ever possibly wish to avenge his 'nee-san? He took a last squirt of water, wiped his mouth on the back of his arm, and picked up his Ensui once more.
"Ichi... ni... san... yon... Ichi... ni... san... yon," he murmured to himself, resuming his exercises. The Ensui made a lovely hissing sound as it sliced through the air. He closed his eyes. He could only imagine what it would feel like to make such contact with 'nee-san's murderer as he did with the air.
He heard the door of the training room squeak open, and though Mikagami never broke stride, his focus swiveled to see who had intruded upon his solitude. It was ridiculous to think that he was the only one allowed to take advantage of this exquisite facility... still, the presence of others rather inhibited his practice.
It was a small boy with mussed brown hair, holding a large golden weapon. Koganei, with his Kougan Anki.
Mikagami shut his eyes and refocused on his invisible target. "Ichi... ni," he murmured, under his breath.
He could hear the jangle of Koganei's weapon even from across the room. Mikagami mentally smiled, although he would never have permitted himself to do so physically. The boy had taken up a position in the furthest corner of the room... perhaps out of respect for his superior.
Koganei was only a benchwarmer. Granted, a benchwarmer with real potential-- but a benchwarmer, nonetheless. He was only in the Uruha Reserves.
Mikagami was Jyushinshuu, one of the Ten.
The two practiced in relative silence, each in their own corners. Mikagami couldn't hear Koganei's murmured counting, but he could hear the clinks and jangles of the younger boy's weapon as Koganei put himself through his own paces. Even without looking, Mikagami could sense what the boy was doing.
Half an hour passed as the two assassins practiced in their respective corners of the room. Then, Mikagami heard the younger boy heave an enormous sigh and reassemble his Kougan Anki into its first form. The sounds of practice stopped, and Koganei walked over towards the ice chest near Mikagami's corner, where the bottled water was kept.
"Konban-wa," said Koganei, waggling his fingers in greeting. Mikagami gave him a curt nod.
Koganei looked a bit disappointed, and without really understanding why, Mikagami stopped what he was doing. He didn't need water again so soon, and he certainly wasn't tired-- but it looked like the younger boy might appreciate a bit of company.
"Pass me some water," said Mikagami, holding out his hand. He wasn't quite sure how to begin a friendly conversation, and felt rather awkward.
"Here ya go," said Koganei, tossing a bottle of it to Mikagami, who caught it expertly. Koganei slid to the floor and uncapped his own bottle, drinking thirstily. "Mmmmmm!" he said.
"How's it coming?" asked Mikagami politely. People always liked being asked about their progress with their weapon.
Koganei shrugged. "There's this tricky sequence with the fifth form, but I think I've got it down," he said. "I think I found the fastest way of doing it." He looked quite proud. "Kurei said that no one's been able to get so far since the Hokage."
"Keep up the good work, and perhaps someday, you can be somebody," said Mikagami, nodding encouragingly.
A shadow flickered over Koganei's face. Does he mean that I'm no good right now? But Kurei said... He looked rather disappointed. "Maybe you can teach me some pointers," he suggested. "I beat Mokuren the other day."
"A dog could beat Mokuren," sniffed Mikagami. He didn't care much for that particular underling. "His problem is, he gets too emotionally involved with what he does. It makes him weak. You have to learn to be cold, and get your job done. Don't get distracted by your feelings."
"Mokuren has feelings?" laughed Koganei. His eyes sparkled merrily.
Mikagami gave him a stern look, and Koganei's laughter diminished. Did I offend him? the boy thought anxiously. I was only making a joke...
"You know how Mokuren is... he takes such pleasure in killing. You should neither enjoy it, nor abhor it-- it's merely something that needs to be done when you're told to do it," said Mikagami practically. "Don't feel sorry for your victim, and don't feel happy about your work. Just do what you need to do, and get it over with."
Koganei studied the tips of his sneakers. "Thank you," he said. He looked curiously at Mikagami. "What... would be the best way... for me to grow up to be like you?" he asked hesitantly, not quite sure of how to phrase the question.
Mikagami's eyebrow raised. "Why do you ask?" he inquired coolly. "Not everyone can become Jyushinshuu... you need to be born with the ability, and then shape your talent with training."
"It's just..." Koganei exhaled in frustration. I don't know how to put it, but... "I'm tired of being weak. I've been weak for so long. I'm trying to get stronger... but how do I become the best?"
"There will always be one better than you," said Mikagami, reflecting. "But you can hone your ability until there is only one." He grudgingly admitted, "I don't think that any of the Jyushinshuu could beat Kurei in an all-out fight."
"What made you join the Uruha?" inquired Koganei. "If you don't mind my asking."
Mikagami gazed off into the distance. "It wasn't too long before you joined up," he admitted. "I happened to know Meguri Kyoza... he was my trainer. My sister was murdered, and I had only one thing I wished to do in life: get revenge. Meguri Kyoza has been instrumental in allowing me to develop the strength I need to achieve that goal. A little while before you came to us, he told me about the Uruha. He said that if I joined it, it would help me with my mission. All I needed to do was to pledge loyalty... and I would have a hundred men who would help me in my quest. I thought that a hundred men could track down my sister's killers much more easily than one could, so I agreed." He paused. "Because of the level I already had, from training for so long... I was promoted straight into the Jyushinshuu. I rather think Meguri Kyoza had planned it that way. I wonder for how long..." His voice trailed off into silence as he lost himself in his own thoughts and memories.
Koganei gazed curiously at his superior. "So... did you ever find your sister's murderer?" he asked softly.
Mikagami returned the boy's gaze. "No," he said stiffly. "And so I shall continue to search."
"I hope you find him," said Koganei. He squired some more water down his throat, and the two sat in silence for a while. "Hey," he said, conversationally. "Did you see that girl I brought back the other day? Yanagi?"
"Yes," said Mikagami curtly. "The healer."
He remembered her. How could he forget? He had passed Mokuren in the hall as the Kotodama-weilder had carried her to her room... It had taken all of his willpower to not cry out, "Nee-san!" and take her from Mokuren's dirty arms. It couldn't possibly be his sister... his sister had been dead for seven years! And yet... and yet... He bit his lip. Just seeing the girl had shattered something within his heart.
"What's she like?" Mikagami couldn't help but ask.
Koganei blushed. "I walked in on her when... um... and I saw... and I shouldn't have... and she hit me and called me a pervert."
Mikagami smiled once more, mentally. Sounds like 'nee-san, he thought to himself. He'd accumulated quite a collection of bumps-on-the head from his older sister, too.
"Serves you right, I'm sure," said Mikagami, his voice almost gentle. Koganei grinned, too.
"I can take it," he said proudly. "Kurei said he won't hurt her, though... To be perfectly honest, I'm glad. I kind of like her," he confided.
"Never get yourself emotionally attached to your victims," reminded Mikagami calmly. Even if they look like they're your only purpose for living...even if they remind you of the ones you love most...
The thought was unsettling.
"But she's not our victim!" protested Koganei, unsettled by Mikagami's word choice. "We're only using her a while... to find out about her healing powers. Because that's what Mori Kouran wants."
"Mori Kouran, bah," muttered Mikagami. He reached out hesitantly and touseled the boy's hair. "I'm sure the girl will be fine, if Kurei says so," he reassured him. "But if things change... don't let it surprise you. Things do tend to change, after all."
"Mm," answered Koganei, looking a bit disturbed. "But he promised."
"Come on, I'll practice with you," said Mikagami, standing up. He didn't like where this conversation was going, either. He didn't want anything to happen to the girl. If Kurei hurt her... Mikagami unconsciously clenched and unclenched his fists. Even though she wasn't his sister, she reminded him of Mifuyu. And if she was hurt, it would be like hurting Mifuyu. And how could he stand by silently and allow that to happen?
The others were different. This one was special.
"I won't go easy on you," teased Koganei, assuming his stance, his eyes sparkling brightly. He'd never fought Mikagami before-- this would be fun!
Koganei lunged forward with his Kougan Anki, slicing at Mikagami; the Ensui Master was taken somewhat aback. He hadn't expected such a spirited assault so quickly. He blocked the blow, and the next, and the next, but staggered back a few paces.
Why am I being so weak? he raged internally, as he reacted mechanically to Koganei's actions. Block, block, thrust, parry, block, feint, block. Why am I so worried about that girl?
He misjudged a distance, and the backside of the Kougan Anki's blade smashed his fingers. Mikagami couldn't help but yelp and recenter his attention. Perhaps he should pay more attention to their fight than he was.
"You're not paying attention," accused Koganei.
"Gomen," said Mikagami curtly. "I'm a bit preoccupied right now... why don't we continue this later?" He gave a short nod of his head, gathered up his things, and left the training room.
Koganei stood there, watching him leave, staring at the older boy's disappearing form in disappointment.
What did I say wrong?
* * *
the next evening
* * *
Mikagami entered the training room, only to find Koganei sitting perched upon a stack of mats in one corner.
"Hello," he said. "I heard about what happened today. Congratulations."
"Yeah," smiled Koganei. "Thanks... what you said really helped me out. The bit about fighting seriously. And subduing the emotions."
"I expected them to get past Ganko," said Mikagami. "But I didn't expect them to defeat Sekioh so easily. But you took care of them all. What happened to them now?"
Koganei counted on his fingers. "The girl and the two guys are down in the dungeon," he said. "I think the doctors are taking care of them. Kind of. Kurei doesn't want them to die-- at least, not the skinny guy-- before he gets a chance to talk to them." A shadow flickered over his face. "I think I hit Ganko too hard, though. The doctors don't think she'll come out of her coma. They don't think she'll last more than a day or two more. I felt kinda bad... I didn't think I hit her so hard."
Mikagami shrugged. "That's what you get when you turn against Kurei," he said practically. "You did the best thing. She can serve as an example to the others."
Koganei didn't feel completely satisfied with the answer, but he nodded brightly. "Thanks," he said.
Mikagami poured a bottle of water over the handle of his Ensui, and the blade took shape. "We never got to finish our fight yesterday," he said. "Let's try it again."
"Really?" Koganei picked up his Kougan Anki and leapt lightly into defense-stance. "Terrific!"
Mikagami slid one foot back, with his weight lightly on his toes.
The girl no longer mattered to him. All that mattered was his revenge. If he went against Kurei to save this stranger, he'd only end up like Ganko. After working so hard to get this far, he wouldn't allow his emotions to undo his efforts. With a wordless shout, he launched himself forward, and was expertly countered.
Everything else faded into oblivion.