Two Wings A Rurouni Kenshin Fanfic by Peregrine Vision

1 - A Star Falls

The bargemen waved goodbye to Soujiro, who waved cheerfully back as the barge sailed on down the river and out of sight. Still smiling, the young man turned in the opposite direction and began walking.

Soujiro had acquired a taste for travelling. With his natural speed and warrior's endurance he made good time, and he rather liked drifting about, wandering wherever the mood took him. Recently he'd taken a fancy to boats. He liked their gentle sway, and the sound of water constantly slapping against their sides. That sound had lulled him to sleep a few times, when he had been in his occasional black moods.

His stride slowed a little and a sadder, more weary look came over his boyish face. Soujiro had promised himself to pay attention to the matter of atonement without brooding over what had gone past, but one was only human. Sometimes he would be overcome with guilt and grief, for his wasted life, for the other lives he had wasted, who would not have a second chance as he did.

Himura-san was right. More and more Soujiro saw the truth, in the lives of people that he encountered, in their little struggles and joys...they were worth protecting, these "little people". They were greater than ever he himself, or the Juppon Gatana, or even Shishio-san could have been.

Turning his face up to the sun, Soujiro closed his eyes. He walked on like that, for a little while, just because he could.

* * *

At the end of the day, though, he was dragging his feet much more, and contemplating much less. The day had not been as good as he had thought. He had gone down the road for miles without seeing more than a few rice fields, and farmers that looked as if they couldn't afford to feed themselves, much less a swordless rurouni.

Well, that wasn't strictly true. There *had* been the bandits.

A small knot of robbers had attempted an ambush on what seemed a soft, unaccompanied target--namely Soujiro. But though he had given up his sword, he had not given up his talent. He evaded them easily, vanishing the moment he saw them barreling out of the trees at him. Just to teach them a lesson, he had even given some of them a good whack with a fallen tree branch. He left them gibbering among themselves, feeling annoyed and curiously disappointed.

Perhaps it was all the same as giving up the sword. Soujiro still felt...not quite whole, without his blade at his hip or slung over his shoulder. It was like phantom if his hand had been severed, but his lost fingers still ached.

All in all, these things had come together to leave Soujiro, by nightfall, feeling almost worn out. Usually he paced himself, but today he had wanted to reach another boat, or at least a decent body of water, to feel that sway and creak under his feet. In Okinawa there was a decent number of ports, and so he had headed for the nearest one.

It turned out to be a tiny, filthy seashore town. There were several little fishing boats tied to the dock, and no one manning any of them. The nets had been hauled in for the day, and the moon was too bright for nighttime fishing. Soujiro was too tired to ask permission from anyone, and his only thought was an almost irrational craving for that gentle rocking motion to send him to sleep. He crawled into the boat that seemed to stink the least--this one exuded a gentler, almost cloying smell underneath the fish odor. The smell of fish itself seemed much thinner than in the other boats. There were also more sheets of oiled cloth, sail sheets Soujiro assumed.

If he had been thinking clearly, he would have noticed that the sheets draped the boat's benches completely, and that those benches were actually arranged like shelves, with a second plank just under the actual bench. But he was outright sleepy by this time. He stretched out on a lower "shelf" in the bottom of the boat, wrapped himself in his travelling blankets, and went to sleep, bundled warmly under a few of the sail sheets.

* * *

Being the good swordsman that he was, Soujiro woke instantly at the first step of someone into the boat.

Immediately he knew that it was an hour or so after midnight, that there were two men getting into the boat, and that the last thing on these men's minds was fishing. He also knew from the easy way they carried the swords at their hips that these men were experienced swordsmen. Worse, he knew that even with his speed he couldn't get out of his blankets and out from under the bench fast enough to stay alive.

Instead he controlled his breathing so it wouldn't be heard, kept perfectly still but ready to move at any moment, and wished he could pray.

He hadn't been this scared since he was small and living in fear of his so-called family. The old feeling of panicked helplessness washed over him, and he bit down on a sob. //You aren't that scared little boy any more,// he scolded himself. //You are Tenken no Soujiro, and you ought to know enough to get a grip on yourself. Some warrior!// But the tightness in his throat and chest did not go away.

The men rowed steadily, saying nothing, until a half hour or so later.

"Steady now, they see us. Now to get this thing up."

The boat bumped gently against a much larger vessel, and voices hissed down from above.

"Be careful will you! That cargo's too precious to jiggle around!"

"Yare, yare," muttered the man whose feet were closest to Soujiro's head. "Just throw down the damn ropes. Is Kiyooka inspecting it, or has he finally decided to trust us?"

A dry laugh sounded above as iron hooks, attached to coils of thick rope, tumbled down. "Nobody trusts drug runners."
Grumbling under their breath, the men moved around the boat, fastening the hooks securely to its sides. Next, Soujiro's breath froze in his throat as the whole boat lurched upward and began to rise. Grunts sounded faintly as the men on the larger boat heaved the much smaller one up to the side. The little boat rocked as the two toughs clambered off, onto the deck.

"Well? Where's Kiyooka? Bet he'll scrape the bottom of this thing looking through the goods. You'd think we filled the crates with dyed barley instead of opium, the way he goes through everything."

Again Soujiro caught his breath. Now that the men were out of the boat, he could move fast enough to get away. But he didn't know how many other men there were now, or how many of them were fighters, or whether they had arrows or something that would ensure his silence even if he did get into the water. And soon this man called Kiyooka would come, and find Soujiro huddled amid the boxes of opium like a terrified mouse.

"Stupid! You think there's anything he could spot in there, in this dark? Best to wait till morning. We'll be well on our way to Canton by then."

The China seaport city! Soujiro gulped. //Well, you did want to be a wanderer,// he said ironically to himself. //I'd bet even Himura-san hasn't wandered that far.// At least he was safe for the moment.

The crew let the little boat hang over the side like a lifeboat, and indeed Soujiro supposed that was what it was meant to look like. He stayed still until he could feel that everyone had gone, then he crept out of his blankets, tied his little bundle together, and slipped out of the boat and onto the deck of the ship.

For that was what he could see it was now--a ship, a middle-sized one of the Western style, with sails like several layers of wings, and four "lifeboats", two on each side. Soujiro had no doubt that all the boats secretly harbored crates of opium under their blanketing tarps. So it was a smuggler's ship, bound for China with opium. That was odd--didn't opium come in *from* China, not go out to it?

That line of thought was cut short as Soujiro spotted a patrolling guard approaching. Slipping off his sandals, he carried them as he slid along the shadowed areas of the deck. In a little dark niche he found a closet meant for the ropes that now tethered the lifeboats. He settled in there with a sigh. So much for his nice rest, rocked to sleep by the waves. Now it was itchy hemp cables for both bedding and pillows, and not much promise of rest tonight.

* * *

The next few days were spent moving over the ship, changing hiding places. During the day, Soujiro found, was the best time to sleep, because the smugglers themselves didn't move around much, for fear of attracting the attention of patrolling Imperial ships. And they never cleaned, so the wash closet below decks, where things like buckets and mops and soap were kept, was the safest place to sleep.

For food Soujiro lived off a box of dried seaweed and rice crackers that he had stolen from the galley. He had had hungrier days, in his childhood and now in his new life as a rurouni. All in all he was almost comfortable.

What he worried about was what would happen when he landed in China. He didn't know a word of the language. And he had no money to offer a ship returning to Japan.

Well, he could worry about that when he got out. The main thing was escaping without notice. And that should be easy. He was, after all, *living* there without being noticed. And he had gotten on without being noticed. Escaping shouldn't be much harder.

* * *

Of course, Soujiro realized later, it was an attitude like that which got people killed.

They docked, and he made the mistake of moving almost immediately instead of waiting for a quieter moment. He was caught, naturally, sneaking out of a porthole. The head smuggler, the one called Kiyooka, had him held in the arms of one of the two who had brought the boatload of opium, with the other one's sword hovering near his throat.

"Pretty little sneak, aren't you?" murmured Kiyooka, trailing a finger along Soujiro's neck. "Too bad you're a boy...I know people who would pay a good price for skin like this. Maybe I can find someone willing to make a deal. I'm a drugrunner, not a flesh-trader, but I wouldn't mind making a little extra."

Soujiro looked around wildly. The docks were crowded with people. Surely one of them would notice, and come to help, or at least get help. But everyone around them seemed to be keeping their head down, or looking everywhere except at the little scene aboard the smuggler ship.

Soujiro realized, with a horrible sinking feeling, that Canton must be a place where a lot of illicit dealings went on, and that no one wanted to pay too close an attention to whatever did not directly concern them. Once more, he had to defend himself alone.

He quickly decided the best thing would be to go back to his old smiley act. It never failed to throw people off balance. "That would be a good idea, Kiyooka-san," he agreed, nodding as if he were an adviser and not a captive.

Kiyooka and the rest blinked at him. "Eh?"

"It's always nice to have a little extra income," Soujiro explained, glancing at the sword held up to his face, which was beginning to waver. "I myself hardly have any income at all, so I like it when I come across a little money or a chance to earn it. Don't you feel as if it makes you more secure, having money?"

"What the hell are you talking about, you milk-faced piece of shark bait? Shut up or I'll have my men gut you and hang you over the side for the fish."

Soujiro set his teeth. It looked as if the action he had been trying so hard to avoid was necessary after all. Serve him right for not having a sword handy. He would have liked one like Himura-san's, which took no lives. But they were just not made any more...Now he would have to use a real blade on these men, who had no defense in comparison.

Perhaps not. He drove his foot into the foot of the man holding him. As the man released his hold, Soujiro grabbed his sword, still sheathed, out of his belt. He spun just in time to take the swing of the man whose sword was bared, and deflected it, leaving a gash in the iron scabbard. A quick whack to the head knocked the man unconscious.

"Grab him!" bellowed Kiyooka. Every sailor on deck ran towards Soujiro.

He took off, beating down the few who got in his way, and leaped over the side. Unfortunately, once he got into the water, he had to let go of the heavy sword. He also suddenly remembered two things. One was that the water slowed him down alarmingly. The other was that he only knew how to do a sort of doggy paddle that was enough to keep him afloat and propel him forward, but not enough to keep ahead of the men who were now jumping into the water after him.

But the dock was so close. He could almost touch the moss-covered wood pilings of the pier. Just a little further...

Ironlike fingers grabbed his hair from behind. Terror seized him then, a mad terror that was all too familiar. Once again ten years old and in deadly fear of his life, Soujiro screamed.

"Someone--anyone! Help! ANYBODY!!! HELP ME!!!"

The sailor dragged him close, and clamped a hand over his shrieks. Soujiro thrashed, but the water and his mindless panic kept him from being able to do any damage. He was hauled through the water, closer and closer to the ship.

Just then a tall figure thundered down the docks and sprang off the pier in a mighty leap that carried all the way to Soujiro and his captor. A pair of feet, clad in Chinese shoes, landed heel-first on the attacker's head and drove him straight into the water. Soujirou was almost dragged along, but he was quickly released and bobbed up to the surface again, gasping. His rescuer held him afloat with a strong arm, and with the other gave a swift jab to the forehead of another pursuer who had caught up to them. Then he began to swim with long, fast strokes toward the pier.

Twice more they were almost caught, and twice more the other fended off the chasing smugglers. At that point a gang of police came running down to the pier, shouting in a twangy Chinese dialect. Soujiro's rescuer yelled something back at them. The smugglers had turned tail and were swimming frantically toward the ship, which had already cast off.

Soujiro was helped up onto the dock by several hands. He sprawled on the old wooden slats, gasping, and began to weep with shock and relief.

//Someone came. Someone came. Someone helped me. He was right. Himura-san was right.// He shook with violent sobs of joy. //Someone helped me!//

"Hey." The voice was speaking in Japanese, a rough country accent that was crazily familiar. "Hey, you, don't cry. It's okay now. Come on and get yourself dried off."

Tears still blurring his eyes, Soujiro looked up to thank his rescuer. The words died in his throat as he blinked furiously to clear his vision. He stared at the dripping man before him, who stared back. Scraggly beginnings of a beard, much longer and wilder hair, different clothes entirely, but it was him. The man stared at him with equal amazement.

"Seta Soujiro?"

"Sagara Sanosuke-san!"

-end 1-