Disclaimer: I'm the creator of Rurouni Kenshin! And if you believe that, I have a nice bridge I can sell to you for the low, low price of ten dollars.
In this Truth We See
[No! Stay back, Xiao Yan!]
[Li Xiao Yan, do as your mother says!]
[But . . .] The gangly teen shrunk back, her dark chocolate eyes wide. Before her stood her mother; carefully coiffed hair completely ruined and falling in graceful red-black wisps around her beautifully rounded face. She was panting heavily and she clutched a slim darn jian in one hand. Her clothes were mussed with a tear in one arm, displaying a bleeding wound while dirt smudged her trouser hems thoroughly as if she'd rolled repeatedly across dew-strewn grass. Rusty brown stains blossomed here and there on her clothing. Dried blood that had soaked into the bright pink silk.
A clatter from behind the older woman caused both mother and daughter to spin around.
For a moment, Xiao Yan caught a glimpse of the courtyard beyond. Tears sprung to her eyes and she covered her mouth as bile rose to the back of her throat.
There was blood everywhere. On the sprawled, lifeless forms whose horrified eyes stared up to the sky emptily. It ran along the walls in careless streaks and crimson droplets streamed down to soak into the ground beneath. She could barely recognize Jing Yu, the head foreman. His pinched face now twisted grotesquely, speckled with scarlet drops from the large slash running diagonally from his right shoulder to his left hip. Xiao Yan covered her mouth with her other hand as she realized he hadn't died right away.
Jing Yu hands remained clawed at the gaping wound, where he'd desperately tried to close it.
[Unh!] Xiao Yan gasped. Squeezing her eyes shut tightly, tears slowly leaked out. Hot against her suddenly cold cheeks.
"Shigeta! We've found the woman!"
Xiao Yan stared up at the three men who had crowded through the door. She could not comprehend their words, but could recognize it as Japanese. Their garbs were also foreign, consisting of wide pants that fell in pleated folds and a top that tucked into the skirt-like pants.
"Where is she?" From behind the three men, another appeared. His clean-shaven face was expressionless as his retainers parted to let him through. He was neither young nor was he old. His dark Japanese eyes drooped at the corners as if he harbored a secret pain so great it became etched into his features. Slim eyebrows further accentuated this, and the narrow curve of his nose tapered out like a falcon's beak. His dark eyes met Xiao Yan's briefly.
Something, a nameless emotion, almost akin to dread, struck her heart and she became still, barely daring to breath. He would touch her life dramatically. What he would come to mean to her, she did not know, but somehow, he would be important. Xiao Yan shook her head as if that would halt events about to occur.
Then her mother moved, blocking her view. "Japanese filth!" she spat.
Xiao Yan knew her mother had insulted the men, but they didn't react. In fact the smirk on the retainers' faces just got larger.
"Li-san," Shigeta said quietly. His eyes remained dark and serious. Despite the sweat gleaming against the shaved portion of his head and his heavy breathing, his knotted hair remained immaculate and his clothing unstained.
Somehow, Xiao Yan found this extremely vexing. Of all of them gathered, he had not a mark of blood anywhere on his body. Even Xiao Yan had smears along her blue silk sleeves from when she tried to pull a girl out from under the wreckage of a wooden door. She wanted to scream at this spotless Japanese man and take Jing Yu's blood and throw it at him. Smear it all over his neat clothes and his dark eyes.
He pulled his curved sword and approached the two. "This day, I will let you live no longer."
His retainers backed away, snickering when her mother widened her stance and brought her sword up.
"Hey, woman, whaddya think yer gonna do wit that needle?" one said, his slanted eyes narrowing further with his leer.
"A real bitchy one, men! That's why her husband was such a spineless fop!"
"Haha!" another sneered, "Maybe she'll want some real men to teach her her place. Let's have some fun after all this is over." The others guffawed and ignored Shigeta's sharp glance.
[Xiao Yan,] her mother said quietly. [Do not dishonor your family. Do not dishonor me.]
Trembling, tears sliding silently down her cheeks, Xiao Yan removed her hands and swallowed.
[Ye--] She sobbed. Then took a shuddering breath. [Yes, Mama.] Brave words, when she felt like crawling under her blanket and curling into a little ball. If her mother could hear her thoughts, she would be ashamed.
With a cry, her mother launched herself at the Japanese man. Swords flashed like the coy flirting of silver fish as they accepted a fisherman's bait. The ring of metal upon metal echoed loudly in Xiao Yan's ears as she stood frozen, panting desperately, her large chocolate eyes riveted on the battle before her.
Any moment the man would slice her mother. From shoulder to hip just like Jing Yu. Any moment, her mother's lifeblood would join the others in painting the ground scarlet. Any moment. . . . and she could only watch.
She inhaled sharply and turned away. Bent over, clutching her ears as if to rip them off. If she couldn't hear . . . if she couldn't see . . .
'Go away,' she pleaded silently, 'Please . . . go away. . . .'
Choking on another sob, she raised her head when silence suddenly fell.
Shigeta stood before her mother, who had fallen to her back onto the floor. His blade reflected the scarlet rays of the late afternoon sun as he unwaveringly held it a finger's length from her mother's neck. Her darn jian had been flung away and now rested at Xiao Yan's feet. It gleamed dully as if reflecting its master oncoming doom.
Everyone froze. Breath sawed through parched lips to burn the throat.
Xiao Yan waited. A million thoughts raced through her mind, but all passed by like the fleeing wind and left nothing behind. She knew for certain the bright gleam of Shigeta's sword would plunge. It would fall straight down to the white neck below and plant a crimson flower there.
But her legs would not move. Xiao Yan's knees trembled and she knew it was not the exertion of her will to make them move.
Her mother's eyes flicked to her. The expectation was clear. The demand was there.
But Xiao Yan could not move. She could not make herself run over there and fling herself across her mother, thus taking the blow. The expected sacrifice. And she. Just. Could. Not. Move.
Her mother's eyes darkened as realization set in.
Then the moment passed as Shigeta stepped back abruptly, ramming his sword back into its sheathe.
Xiao Yan bowed her shoulders and sank to her knees. She felt her mother's darkly beautiful eyes drill into her lowered head, but could not make herself look up.
Xiao Yan's head shot up at Shigeta's voice. But he only allowed her to see his profile as he spoke again.
"Yes?" It was the man with the narrow eyes. His skin stretched taut over his sharp features as he gave a slow and ugly grin. As he did so one slim brow twitched slightly and in one corner of XiaoYan's mind, she giggled inanely at such a strange action.
"You and your men . . . take care of the woman, too . . . in whatever way you deem necessary."
The retainers smiled lasciviously and advanced on her mother. Daisuke licked his lips looking like a cat who'd just found a very plump mouse and grinned again, making his brow twitch.
Alarmed, Xiao Yan grabbed the darn jian before her and moved to stand before her mother despite the woman's venomous glare.
But she never reached her mother's side.
Shigeta blocked her way, dark eyes boring into her own, his lips turned down.
"Leave her," he said.
[G-get out of my way,] Xiao Yan whispered. She brought her mother's blade up and readied her stance. [P-please, just go away.]
Xiao Yan did not want to fight. This Japanese man scared her. He was tall and his sharp eyes were strange. He'd beaten her mother, a master swordswoman. How could she defeat him?
However, at the sight of the three men pinning down her mother and ripping away her pink silk shirt, Xiao Yan's vision blurred. The tiny scrap that had been her mother's mandarin collar floated gently past Shigeta's still form.
She slowly lifted her eyes.
[I can no longer call her 'Mother', but,] she met his steady gaze with a glare of her own, [neither will I let you disgrace her so! So stop it or I'll . . . I'll be forced to kill you.] Xiao Yan clenched her hands when she realized the fine tremors in her body were communicating themselves along her blade. She blinked new tears away and whispered, [Please. . . . Just. Stop. . . .]
Shigeta's expression did not change. His dark eyes remained focused on her own chocolate orbs. For an eternity, it seemed, she and Shigeta stared at each other.
She was broken out of the spell when her mother's muffled cry of pain echoed to her ears and she renewed her struggle to break free of her captors.
Xiao Yan took one step forward when one of the men shoved her mother's head against the hardwood floor hard enough to elicit a pained moan. Then she realized her mistake as Shigeta suddenly pushed off from his seemingly casual position. She leapt back and brought her sword up defensively, but the older man simply knocked it away with his own, sheathed blade. Fluidly he spun his sword about. And rammed the hilt into her stomach.
Xiao Yan choked. She felt her feet lift off the ground as her body doubled over. Her mouth opened as if to scream, but nothing came out. The soft cloth of Shigeta's robe-like top brushed against her cheek. It should not be so soft, she thought.
A bright flash beyond Shigeta caught her eye and she looked at the twirling ancestral blade of her mother. It spun about, dropping with infinite slowness as if to prolong its own demise and as if to tease her with its winking brightness before shattering into a million shards.
But shatter it did not. It clanged hollowly against the wooden floor, ringing loudly in Xiao Yan's ears as blackness crept into the edges of her vision. A bright pink slip of cloth lay on the ground like a limp flower that had been dead for hours.
An arm caught her gently about the waist, but she felt it from far away as if her soul had abandoned its body and now held on with the most tenuous link. That, too, eventually faded and her eyelids fluttered down gently.
"Do not touch this one. . . . Little one. Hurry and grow up. Then come kill me. . . ."
Then she sighed and knew no more.
(Ten years later)
The past five years had done little to change Seta Soujiro's outward appearance. His wide, almost blue eyes still stared almost childlishly from a leaner, more mature face and the ever-present smile on his lips had not dimmed noticeably. And lately, he wondered if maybe it might be more than a bit reflective of his inner changes. Or lack thereof.
He'd wandered most of Japan, taking an odd job here and there and keeping his promise, to a certain flame-haired Battousai, to search vigilantly for his own truth. Yet, nothing had presented itself to convince him that the special something, which both Himura-san and Shishio-san had possessed was even a possible reality for him. At times he found himself feeling almost . . . bored of it. How easy it would be to just . . . accept their truths. . . .
But . . . no. If he could not finish this journey himself, even Shishio-san would be disappointed.
Which was why he found himself in Kyoto that morning, doing general menial tasks in an inn in exchange for a meal and a place to sleep that night.
He paused on the veranda. A small pile of firewood sat comfortably in the crook of his arms as he glanced beyond a half-open shoji door, to find a young boy curled in one corner, his head touching his knees. He did not move at all and if not for Soujiro's keen eyesight, he would have almost missed the slight rise and fall of the little boy's shoulders. And though, he did not make a single sound, Soujiro knew the boy was crying.
Soujiro opened his mouth, wanting to say something, yet unsure what he would say. Thankfully he was saved the task when another voice spoke up angrily.
"Haji! I should have known you were hiding there!"
A young man strode past Soujiro, suprising him greatly. The voice hadn't been particularly high, but it definitely hadn't sounded very masuline at all. But the newcomer did look . . . boyish. Almost. . . . His loose Chinese tunic over a long-sleeved, dusty white Mandarin shirt hid any telling curves, and his dark trousers tucked into laced and dirt-worn stockings, which concealed his ankles effectively. However, the flowing clothing could not hide the . . . youth's narrow shoulders and his small tanned hands when they flashed into view from underneath his voluminous sleeves.
"Do not be a coward, Haji and come finish your exercise!" Sensing another pair of eyes, the youth turned to Soujiro.
He blinked large chocolate brown eyes and brushed away the longer strands of hair that insisted on curling around his ears and framing his face. Just then, a scarlet-gold shaft of early morning sunlight broke through the rapidly disappearing mist and wreathed his head, bringing out a deep red flare from the dark locks. Light touched his delicately rounded Chinese features, making him seem almost like a very young child then. Or a woman. . . .
Then she, no he, Soujiro corrected himself, frowned. "You are being very rude." He glanced down at the pile of wood in Soujiro's arms. "I think you have someplace more important to be rather than standing there gawking at me like a simpleton."
Soujiro smiled politely and bowed his head slightly. "Please excuse my behavior." He turned and walked off, but not before catching a glimpse of the boy in the room.
The young boy's narrow, slanted eyes stared back like a cat's glare. If not for his rounded cheeks and flame-tinted dark hair that fell messily into his brown eyes, Soujiro would have never connected his relation to the other youth. Haji's feature seemed too much sharper. Too much more like a Japanese.
"Oniisan," Haji said. "I can't. My stomach hurts."
"Your stomach hurts? That is your excuse? Now you are just being lazy!"
"No. I'm not. . . ."
"Then what are you saying, huh? You can't handle a little pain? What about Mother? She never complained even through the humiliation and disgrace of the last ten years! Do you want to shame her further?"
Soujiro paused, smile slipping slightly. It wasn't any of his business and he should really take the wood to the kitchen, but the youth's voice had risen and he could clearly hear the sneer in it.
"No!" Haji said quickly, "No, of course not. But oniisan, it's been hurting since I woke up."
"Any discomfort you or I may feel, it is nothing compared to what Mother has endured. Are you prepared to explain the extent of your selfishness, your vanity, when we find her? That you couldn't bear to finish one lesson because your stomach hurt?!"
"But I can't. . . . Please. . . ."
The youth sniffed. "Of course. I understand. After all, you can't help who you are. Stay here and snivel. Be weak."
Soujiro heard him start off in the opposite direction of the kitchen then the footsteps stopped.
"Haji, if you don't become strong . . . if you remain as you are . . . you will die for sure. . . . Mother does not tolerate weaklings."
The footsteps continued, becoming fainter, but Soujiro remained rooted. A bird chirped, fluttering its wings on the branches of the sakura tree in the modest garden that the veranda surrounded. The sun slowly brightened, soaking its warm rays into his blue kimono and touching hints of blue in his black hair. Sakura petals drifted past his still form, the sweet scent lifting up to his nose like a playful tickle.
But he could only smell the sharp scent of fresh fallen rain. Hear the pounding of a downpour long ago and feel a wetness that was not the rain.
"If you're strong, you live. If you are weak, then you die..."
"If you don't become strong . . . you will die for sure. . . ."
A/N: So? What do you think? I'm trying to use this fic as way to build my characterization skills because I really, really need to work on that. So please give me a lot of criticisms. Especially on my dialogues and my characterization skills. Thanks for reading!