Introduction: Another shamelessly pointless fic. This one is not a serious attempt at a deep or meaningful story. Not by any means. This one's just for kicks. Written fast and with very little thought. And it'll be short, a few chapters only.
Warnings: Several instances of strong language. Semi-graphic descriptions of wounds.
Against a Sea of Troubles: Chapter 1 – Battousai
by Haku Baikou
It was a perfect night, decided Sato Noriya, as he sat upon the dock, drinking sake with his oldest friend. The evening air was brisk with the barest hint of warmth, the promise of summer round the bend. It usually wasn't this cold in late May, but the high winds left over from the afternoon's storm had yet to die completely down. And the air still smelled of rain, the faint scent of wet leaves mingling with the salt tang of the sea.
He tilted his face upwards, enjoying the pleasant burn of the alcohol as it slid down his throat. The sky was dark, the stars hidden behind racing black clouds. But they were slowly breaking up into patches, allowing for an occasional glimpse of the moon, yellowed and hazy still, as if tired after the storm.
It was a perfect night after a long, imperfect day. Noriya had been rudely awakened well before dawn by Takaharu, and the rest of the village councilmen, who were in need of his writing skills. He was one of the few literate men left in the town, the village scribe by default, too old to go off to war and too important to the council to be wasted in physical defense of the village. And so he'd been recruited that morning to write various documents, copy messages, and take inventory lists as the town prepared itself for the possibility of fighting once again.
But the work was finally done, and for the next few hours, Noriya was determined to forget all the council's plans he'd seen earlier in the day; to forget that the world was still in turmoil months after Toba Fushimi; that the Ishin Shishi were breathing down their necks; that their town had chosen to support the wrong side during the Bakumatsu and were now paying dearly for it.
For now, the only things that mattered were the warm blanket he'd wrapped himself in and the steady supply of sake at his side. And the most difficult decision he had to make was whether or not it was worth the effort to get up from his comfortable position to go inside and get another bottle.
"This is it," said his friend Morimoto Hideo, the greengrocer, who was pouring the last of the sake a bit unsteadily into his own cup. "The last one's now empty."
"There're three more bottles inside if you care to go get them."
He smiled as he watched his friend consider it.
"Feh," was Hideo's peevish reply, his voice as hard as the iron grey in his hair. "Too damn cold to get up."
Noriya smiled as his friend scooted closer to the lantern between them. Old Hideo was always in a surly mood even when happy. And as far as Noriya could tell, his friend hadn't been in this good a mood in a very long time. But then again, get enough sake into his belly, and Hideo would begin spouting love poetry to just about anyone.
Hideo squinted, looking more closely at Noriya. "What the hell are you smiling at?"
"Nothing," said Noriya, grinning broadly now. "I was thinking what a perfect night this is."
"Ahou. It's damned cold out here. And my ass is freezing on this damp wood. Whose bright idea was it to sit out on a wet dock after a storm anyhow? Not mine. That's for certain. It's making my joints ache, damn you."
"It's a perfect night," Noriya insisted, ignoring the scowl Hideo threw his way.
He was just about to provide Hideo with a sickeningly idealistic account of why this night was so perfect, but the words died on his lips as he noticed a dark shape floating in the water. He frowned.
"Do you see that?"
"Eh?" His friend turned to follow his gaze. Hideo squinted. "It looks like… like…. Oh shit!"
They were on their feet, then, sake bottles forgotten. Noriya crouched low and leaned forward, lantern held out as far over the water as he could. He could just make out the faint outlines of a man's head and shoulders. Whoever it was, he was probably unconscious judging by the way he bobbed and drifted with no care to avoid any of the rocks nearby. Or he could be dead. No way to tell. Noriya was about to tell Hideo to run inside and get their rescue equipment, but the other man was already sprinting down the dock back towards the house.
"You there! Can you hear me? Hold on!" Noriya called out.
No answer. Noriya swore under his breath.
Shipwrecks were relatively common off the rocky coast of their village. Too often, the alert had been sounded on nights such as this, when native and foreign vessels alike had been crushed against the massive juttings of rock, and survivors had to be fished out quickly or perish as they were dashed against the cliff edges. Too often, those who made it off the wrecks would tragically die upon the rocks, only yards away from the safety of the shore.
Noriya's small house was a ways off from the town harbor where ships usually docked. The small rocky cove on his property was not suitable for anything larger than a fisherman's rowboat. But even so, there were occasions when larger vessels strayed off course and would miss the port in town. It wasn't a rare occurrence after a storm such as the one they'd had earlier in the day. What was unusual, however, was the fact that he'd heard nothing in town about any wreckage. It was far more likely for survivors to wash up near town than all the way out here.
Hideo returned in short order with Noriya's medicine kit, rope, a long pole with a hook on it used for collecting rowboats, and, as a last resort, a fishing net.
Noriya tied the rope around himself and tossed the end toward his friend, then lowered himself carefully into the water, trusting Hideo to pull him to safety if he should be swept too near the rocks. He gasped from the cold and forced himself to move limbs suddenly heavy from the chill of the water. The choppy waves broke over his head, making it difficult to see even in the lantern light. Noriya rubbed his eyes, treading water, trying to get his bearings.
"Over to your left," called Hideo. "You're almost there."
He swam blindly in the direction Hideo had indicated, and finally spotted the dark figure ahead, still floating face down, still unmoving. Noriya approached the floating form and found that the man was hanging on a large bit of torn planking. He flung an arm about the man and disengaged him from the plank.
No, not a man, he realized in shock as he pulled the unresponsive body close to himself. Too small to be a man. Too hard to be a woman. A boy, then. And judging from the size of him, a rather young one. With a sword strapped tightly to his back. What in the hell?
"What did you say?" asked Hideo.
Noriya didn't realize he'd spoken aloud. "Nothing! It's a kid, Hideo. He's got a sword strapped to him. I can't get it off."
"Can you swim with it?" Hideo asked as he began pulling in the rope.
Noriya was too busy trying to stay afloat to answer. He pulled the boy close, gripping the small body tightly with both arms, keeping the sword away from himself so that it wasn't too much in the way. He pedaled furiously with his legs, too blind from the waves and darkness to do much else. He trusted Hideo to get him to the dock. He concentrated on keeping their heads above the water.
"Here, hand him over," said Hideo. Noriya felt strong hands at his shoulder suddenly. They grabbed the boy, lifting him out of the water as Noriya clutched at the ladder by the dock, climbing slowly out himself. Hideo already had the boy wrapped in one of their blankets by the time Noriya pulled himself completely onto the dock.
"He's alive." Hideo had the boy on his side and was pressing at his belly, clearing any water the boy may have inhaled.
The boy was alive, but certainly didn't look like it, thought Noriya, as he eyed the still figure sprawled before him. Dark bangs obscured the boy's face, but Noriya could see that the skin was unnervingly pale.
He touched the boy's cheek briefly, tapping it lightly and checking for any response. When his efforts proved fruitless, he concentrated on the sword instead, trying to work it free of the boy. His trembling fingers were barely able to undo the knots in the lavender scarf that had been used to tie the weapon in place. The cloth was tangled about the boy's neck and chest, half strangling him, and making it difficult for them to assess his injuries.
Noriya moved the lantern closer to the boy, trying to see the knots in the cloth. He frowned and paused in his work. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but the boy's hair gave off a strange reddish glint. He leaned in closer, his hand tracing a strand of it as he inspected it more closely under the light. It was indeed a deep red color. Noriya was marveling at the unusual shade when the boy stirred, turning his pale face toward the lamplight.
The scribe gasped and jerked his hand back as if he'd been burned.
"What's wrong? What's…." Hideo's voice trailed into silence.
The two of them stared incredulously at the body they'd fished out of the sea. With his face turned toward the lamp, the boys features were startlingly clear.
Blood red hair.
And a cross-shaped scar.
There was only one person this could possibly be.
"Kami-sama," Hideo whispered and backed slowly away from the boy.
Noriya crouched, frozen, too shocked to move. He stared, transfixed, as the boy's eyes opened slightly, amber slits that glowed faintly in the lamplight.
"Noriya, get back!" Hideo warned, yanking at his sleeve. He blinked and hastily complied, edging back toward the end of the dock, placing as much distance between himself and the hitokiri as possible.
The amber eyes closed again. The two men did not dare approach him.
In any other circumstance, it would have been a ridiculous situation. Two grown men, cowering back from a half-drowned, half-dead boy. But Noriya and Hideo were no fools. Too many men from their village had died under the hitokiri's hand. And the legends of the amber-eyed monster…. The hideous accounts of his savagery they'd heard from the few soldiers who'd witnessed him fight during the war….
Noriya suppressed a shudder. Still no signs of movement from the boy as he lay on the deck. Noriya slowly inched closer to the boy, reaching a hand out to feel for a pulse.
"Careful," Hideo warned.
"I don't think he's in any shape to harm us," said Noriya as he felt a thready fluttering beat.
"All the same…."
"We should disarm him at least."
Noriya managed to work the sword free of the scarf. His heart pounded in his chest and his hands shook as he slowly pulled the weapon out from under the boy's back. He tossed the sword to Hideo, feeling a little better now that the hitokiri didn't have a weapon within reach. He sat back, sighing as the tension in his shoulders eased a bit.
Still no movement from the assassin before them.
"Now what?" he murmured.
"Kill him," hissed Hideo softly. "This is Battousai. No question of it. Kill him while we can. And throw him back into the sea, Noriya. We'd be doing the world a favor."
He stared at the boy. They were sensible words, Hideo's suggestion. "You're right, of course. Or we could kill him and take the body to the council." He shifted uncomfortably. He took a deep breath, gathering courage. "Hand me his sword, then," he said.
Hideo handed him the weapon, and Noriya pulled it out of its sheath. So. This was the weapon that had killed so many of their loved ones. This was the blade that had wiped out their best warriors, their young men, their future. He looked at it more closely and frowned. Something wasn't right.
"Hideo, the blade's backwards."
Hideo took the weapon from him, inspecting it carefully and frowning just as Noriya had.
"Take my knife then," said Hideo as he set the odd sword down and handed Noriya the small knife he always wore at his hip.
"Do it," Hideo spat. "He won't feel a thing, my friend. It's a mercy he doesn't fucking deserve."
Noriya held the blade to the boy's neck.
And then lowered it.
"I can't do it, Hideo," he said softly.
"What do you mean, you can't?"
"We have to!"
"Then you do it."
Hideo snatched the blade from Noriya's hand and roughly grabbed the boy's hair, tilting his head back to expose his throat. "I will!" he cried, his voice tight. "This boy is a demon, Noriya! This boy killed our lads! This boy may have been the one who killed your son! This boy… This fucking boy…."
His arm raised, Hideo hesitated only a moment, then brought the blade down violently.
And missed. Intentionally.
The knife struck the dock inches from the boy's face as Hideo slumped forward, hands slack at his side. Noriya found he'd been holding his breath. He regarded his friend with no small amount of relief as Hideo pulled the blade from the dock and slowly slipped it back into its sheath.
"Dammit," Hideo whispered and closed his eyes. "I can't do it, either."
"I said hold him down!" snapped Noriya, as the assassin flailed about. The boy had unexpectedly awakened when they'd tried to disentangle the scarf. Why that was the case was beyond Noriya's comprehension. After all, they'd jostled him gods-knew-how-many times as they carried him back to the house, and he hadn't flickered an eyelash. And they'd manage to strip off the rest of his wet garments without waking him once. But as soon as Hideo had laid hands on the damned scarf, the assassin's amber eyes had snapped open, and the boy had flown into a panic. Noriya would have tried to cut the cloth off of him, but the boy had struggled too violently for them to get a blade near him safely.
So, Noriya worked at the last knot, quickly as he could, and finally slipped the damned thing off the hitokiri and set it down next to the boy, careful to keep the thing plainly in the boy's line of sight. The assassin quieted down almost immediately, his breathing still shallow, but even at least, and his eyes finally closing as he faded out on them again.
"Gods. What do you figure set him off like that?" asked Hideo a bit shakily.
Noriya shrugged. Damned if he knew.
They got a good look at the boy, finally free to assess the damage. Battousai's collarbone was obviously broken, a splintered fragment of it pushing through the skin between his neck and shoulder, and his right arm hanging at an awkward angle because of it. (Hideo paled when he saw the jutting bone and had to sit down while Noriya continued the inspection.) A messy gash tore across his chest on the same side, and Noriya had no doubt several of the boy's ribs were probably cracked.
Not a pretty sight, he thought, as he threaded a needle and began to stitch up the gash. But not the worst Noriya had ever seen either. Far from it actually. Considering how many unfortunates had been battered upon those same rocks over the years, Noriya thought Battousai had washed up relatively unscathed.
The bastard was lucky and would most likely survive as long as infection didn't set in. Whether or not he'd be able to use his sword arm after he recovered was another matter, but frankly, Noriya didn't give a damn about that. It would serve him right if Battousai were crippled. It would be justice, pure and simple. And such a thing wouldn't matter anyway since Noriya intended to alert the council first thing in the morning of the boy's presence, and they'd most likely drag him off to a cell and execute him soon after.
But Sato Noriya liked to think of himself as a civilized soul. So, for tonight at least, the boy was in luck. Tonight, he'd rest in a warm house and not in a prisoner's cell. Tonight, his wounds would be treated to the best of Noriya's abilities, which was no small thing considering Noriya was the closest thing to a healer the town had. Tonight, the boy would sleep in a soft futon, the spare futon that had once belonged to Noriya's son….
"Are you all right, old friend?" Hideo's quiet voice interrupted his thoughts.
He blinked and nodded. "Let me finish sewing this up, and then you can bind his ribs with these." He handed Hideo a roll of clean bandages.
"What about the, uh, shoulder?" asked Hideo as he looked distastefully at the protruding bit of bone.
"I'll set it, best I can. He won't stay awake after that. We can cauterize the wound while he's out."
Noriya took a bottle of sake down from the shelf and handed it to Hideo along with two cups. "Try to get him to drink some of it. And the rest," he smiled grimly, "Is for you. You look like you need it."
His friend narrowed his eyes, about to respond with a characteristic snappy retort when they heard footsteps outside.
"Gods, as if enough hasn't happened already tonight. Who the hell is visiting you at this hour?" muttered Hideo.
Noriya frowned and wiped his hands clean, then motioned for Hideo to stay put as he went outside. He saw the light of a lantern approaching, bouncing erratically up and down as its carrier ran full tilt toward him.
"Sato-san! Sato-san, I'm glad you're still up," cried an eager young voice behind the glare of the lantern.
"Etsuo, is that you?" Noriya squinted against the light.
"What are you doing here?"
"There's been a wreck, Sato-san!" The boy lowered the lantern to reveal a flushed round face belonging to a very out of breath young man.
"A wreck?" Noriya said carefully.
"Hai. A merchant ship. Wrecked on the rocks about a mile from the harbor. Several bodies have washed up already. We've found six so far."
"So, I'm needed then." He turned to go inside and fetch his medicine bag.
"Iya, Sato-san. No need. They're all dead. So far at least. But Kano-san sent me here to let you know just in case any survivors wash up later."
"Aa. Tell him I appreciate the warning."
Etsuo nodded enthusiastically, still gulping air. "And he also wanted to know if you'd seen anything here."
Noriya stared at Etsuo silently for a moment.
He would never know why he answered the way he did. But years later, he'd be forever glad for the words he chose that night. And he'd be forever grateful to Hideo for keeping quiet inside the house when the greengrocer surely heard every word exchanged between Noriya and young Etsuo. "No. I haven't. But I'll let you folks know if I find anything."
Etsuo nodded again, oblivious to the scribe's awkward moment of hesitation. "All right, Sato-san. I must be off then. I've still got three more households to alert after yours. If you'll excuse me, Sato-san?"
"Of course," he said relieved. "I won't keep you. You're doing good work, Etsuo-kun."
The young man smiled and gathered the lantern in hand. With a quick bow he was off again, running farther down the shoreline towards the nearest neighbor. Noriya silently watched him go, then went back inside to find Hideo staring at him oddly.
"I finished wrapping his ribs." Hideo said, then hesitated. "Why didn't you say anything to Etsuo?"
"I don't know," Noriya answered honestly. He frowned. "You can tell him if you want. He hasn't gone too far yet."
"No." Hideo looked as if he would say more, but then he shook his head and downed a cup of the sake Noriya had given him.
Noriya wasn't sure why, but his friend's reaction was a relief to him. He couldn't understand why he'd lied to Etsuo. And he couldn't understand why he was so glad Hideo had agreed to keep quiet about their discovery.
It certainly wasn't because he felt a need to protect Battousai, he knew that much. He hated the hitokiri. Despised him. And he couldn't, for the life of him, think of any reason why he'd done what he did, why he'd chosen to keep the boy's presence a secret.
"Well, I'm sufficiently drunk now," Hideo's proclamation interrupted his thoughts. The greengrocer grabbed the roll of bandages and sat down next to the boy's futon. "Let's get all this over with so I can go home."
Noriya nodded wordlessly and carefully closed the door.
He dreamed of his mother's hands. Her pale fingers lacing about his shoulders as she pulled him close, the soft fall of her wine-red hair tickling his cheek as she embraced him. The sensation seemed real, the warmth of her body as she held him on her lap, the soft sound of her laughter as he squirmed to find a more comfortable position.
"Shinta-chan," she'd gently chided, amusement in her voice. "Can you not sit still for just a moment?"
He felt her body twist slightly as she reached for something beyond his view. His attention wandered then, his gaze straying to the bird perched on a branch outside the window, to the chimes in the open doorway, and finally to the ocean view beyond the yard. The sky was blue, the water sparkling. And he thought he could see men in boats, fishermen, far from shore. His mind wandered. He wished he could go fishing. But otou-san needed help with the crops, so the sea would have to wait….
His mother found what she was reaching for and brought it into view. His eyes widened. He grabbed at it eagerly, his small hands cupping around the smooth wooden object, exploring every angle.
"What is it, okaa-chan?"
"It's a top, Shinta-chan. Here, let me show you."
He watched her hands avidly as she wrapped a piece of string around the top, then set it on the floor and pulled. He was mesmerized by the toy, his gaze following as it spun in lazy circles across the floor.
"Love at first sight," someone across the room said, laughing. "Now he'll never part with it, okaa-san."
One of his brothers, perhaps. He wasn't sure. He couldn't remember them very well, and the thought made him sad.
He turned towards his mother and hugged her in thanks. He looked up, but he couldn't see the features of her face. He blinked in confusion as his reality blurred, and he felt himself slipping away.
"Okaa-chan!" he cried. "Wait, okaa-chan! Look at me!"
But she didn't seem to hear.
"Please wait," he thought desperately. "Please, I need to see you. Okaa-san….Okaa-san, I can't remember your face!"
But she was fading from him.
He felt himself being cruelly pulled away.
Slowly, into the darkness.
To be continued.
Aa – yes (informal)
Ahou - moron.
Bakumatsu - the period of revolution in which power shifted from the Shogunate to the Meiji government.
Hitokiri - assassin.
Ishin Shishi - the side that fought against the Shogunate's forces in the Bakumatsu, the side that Battousai fought for.
Iya - no.
Okaa-san - mother. (Okaa-chan - mommy.)
Otou-san - father.
Toba Fushimi - (January 1867) - the first battle of the Boshin wars, and the last battle Battousai participates in.
I wrote this for several reasons: 1) Because I just waded in the Pacific Ocean for the first time in my life the other day and I felt like writing a fic by the sea, 2) As a response to being badly blocked with my other fic, and 3) Because I missed writing about Kenshin.
Anyway, I hope this turns out to be an entertaining distraction at least.
I realize there may be continuity issues with the lavender shawl.
In the OAV, Kenshin leaves it on a cross soon after Toba Fushimi.
I've decided to extend the timing a bit here so that he still has it with
him a few months after that battle.
Oh, and in case you couldn't tell from my intro. I'm not taking
this story as seriously as my others. This one's just for fun.