WARNING: This chapter contains strong language as well as major spoilers for Trust and Betrayal.
Against a Sea of Troubles: Chapter 10 – A Matter of Resolve
by Haku Baikou
"Oi, Himura, we didn't fish you out of the sea just to have you drown in the bath," came Morimoto-san's amused voice from outside the doorway.
He opened his eyes sluggishly, relishing the feel of the hot water and steam. His sore limbs felt halfway normal, relaxed from the heat, tension melted away for the first time in days. The ache in his shoulder was a constant throb still, but the pain had lessened to a blessedly pale shade of what it had been. He'd almost forgotten what it felt like to be free of pain, or relatively free, at least.
He sighed, too comfortable to move. Sank down a bit further in the bath, his eyes closed to mere slits, content to watch dust motes land upon patches of glimmering light on the steamy surface of the water. Long strands of ebony drifted under that shimmering surface. He ran his fingers through them and came fully awake, remembering that the strange dark hair was in fact his own. Morimoto-san had helped him dye it just before the bath.
It had never occurred to him to dye his hair before. His hair had always marked him as different, and had always been a risk when he was in enemy territory. But he'd always been more than able to defend himself against attack. And so, when Fumiko-san and Morimoto-san had asked him to alter it, his initial inclination had been to refuse.
But he'd remembered then, that he was a guest in Sato-san's house, and that Sato-san's village considered the Ishin Shishi to be their enemy. He remembered that his presence here was a constant danger to Sato-san and his loved ones, and that his discovery would place them in an awkward, if not downright hazardous position. In that light, it seemed a small enough request, he thought. Sato-san risked his life in harboring a known killer. Dyeing his hair to avoid notice was the least this killer could do in return.
He stared at the glistening strands, shifting them in his fingers, fascinated. It was a strange sensation, as if he were watching someone else's hand running through someone else's hair.
"Himura? You all right in there?" Morimoto-san opened the door and peered inside, looking at him with a bit of concern. The greengrocer held a towel and a clean yukata in hand. "Do you need help getting out?"
"Iya, I'll manage," he replied quickly. And manage he did, although not quite as smoothly as he would have wished. The days spent bed-ridden after his injuries and the three fights he'd had last night had taxed him nearly to his limit. And even he couldn't ignore the obvious fact that he hadn't eaten well and had lost a great deal of weight in the last several days. It was shameful how weak he was if Morimoto-san felt it necessary to offer assistance just so he could climb out of his bath. He'd been too miserable to care much about his health before, but now that his thoughts were no longer bogged down by a haze of pain and medicines, he found himself consumed by a restless energy, wanting more and more to rebuild his strength as quickly as possible.
So with an effort, he carefully hauled himself out of the water and sat shivering slightly until Morimoto-san settled the large towel comfortably about his shoulders. He managed to dry himself off and dress himself without any help as Morimoto-san politely turned away and retreated outside to wait. It was the first time since his injury he'd managed such a mundane task without assistance. He smiled to himself. A minor, yet satisfying victory.
He felt refreshed. Shaky still, but more alive than he'd felt in days.
He felt…human again.
The roll of bandages was still a problem, however. Try as he might, he couldn't wrap his arm tightly enough. And so he swallowed his pride and handed Morimoto-san the roll as he emerged from the bath. Morimoto-san, who seemed to be in an unusually good humor, took the roll before he could ask and started wrapping it tightly around Kenshin's arm and chest as if it were a matter of routine.
"Damn, you do look different this way." The greengrocer cocked his head to one side. "Makes you seem a little older, I think. You could actually pass for, oh, I don't know… fourteen, fifteen even."
Kenshin looked askance at the greengrocer and held his tongue as Morimoto-san chuckled gleefully.
"Hideo-san," came Fumiko's voice from the house. "Come inside, both of you, before Himura-san catches a chill."
Kenshin blinked. Yesterday, Fumiko-san had wanted to kill him. Today, she didn't want him catching a chill. He didn't think he'd ever understand the woman.
As Kenshin and Morimoto-san entered the house, they were greeted by a wide-eyed Isamu-chan who gawked with the unabashed intensity only young children possessed.
"You changed colors," the boy noted, apparently enthralled.
Kenshin's hand went automatically to his hair. Strange, and more than a little ironic, that he should feel self-conscious about it now that it was actually a normal color.
"Can you make my hair red? No, yellow!" the boy chirped.
Fumiko-san scooped her son up in her arms and tapped him lightly on the nose. "That's enough. You're making our guest uncomfortable. Come with me, little one. You can help me with the laundry."
"Hai! Can you tie my arm in some cloth like his?" Isamu's voice could be heard as Fumiko carried him out the door with a mortified, apologetic glance over her shoulder.
Kenshin knew he was blushing by the warmth of his face and the smug look of amusement on Morimoto-san's.
"Come, Himura." The older man motioned for him to sit. "You must be hungry. We saved you some lunch."
Ito's stomach growled. Ito the jailor was a giant of a man. The sound was therefore quite impressive.
It woke Noriya from the light doze he'd sunk into as he worked on copying his transcription notes of the prisoner's interrogation session. Noriya blinked himself awake and frowned as he discovered he'd ruined the piece of paper he was working on when he'd fallen asleep. The neat, precise writing was marred by a sloppy black smear as his grip on the brush had slackened.
Noriya sighed. "Ito-san, your stomach is a very frightening thing."
Ito's craggy, rough face managed a blush. "Gomen, Sato-san," his deep voice rumbled. "I missed lunch."
"Why don't you get something to eat then? I'll stay here and look after the place."
And at the jailor's hesitant glance toward the lone occupied cell: "It's all right, Ito-san. This Sakamoto fellow's in no shape to cause trouble, I think. Besides, you've got four men outside guarding the building. I'd hardly be alone, now would I?"
"You sure you'll be all right, Sato-san?"
"Hai, hai," Noriya waved absently at the jailor and proceeded to gather his scrolls and brushes in order.
Ito nodded appreciatively. Stood up, stretched, and cracked his knuckles. "I'll be at the soba shop. If you need me—"
"If anything should happen—which I highly doubt—I'll be sure to call for help." Noriya assured the jailor.
The corner of Ito's lip twitched. It was the closest thing the big man had to a smile. He nodded then and ducked out of the doorway.
Noriya stopped what he was doing and looked down the hallway.
He was alone now, save for the prisoner in the cell. He flexed the fingers of his right hand, rubbing them to loosen up the cramps he'd acquired from an entire afternoon of writing. He considered approaching Sakamoto to ask him a few burning questions of his own.
Old Takaharu had been relentless in his interrogation of the prisoner, but for all the old man's skill and tenacity, the bandit had revealed nothing. After hours of questions and "encouragement" from Ito's fists, the man was still stubbornly silent. Takaharu had finally called an end to the session, stepping outside of the room and beckoning for Noriya to follow.
Noriya had been relieved to leave the room. He really hated this part of his job. Hated recording the stilted dialogue between interrogator and prisoner. Hated the violence, however necessary it was for the safety of the town. He'd cringed every time he heard the sound of Ito's fist making contact with the prisoner's flesh, a soft thudding noise that may as well have been as loud as thunder for all the discomfort it caused. The sound had made Noriya feel sick to his stomach.
"That's enough, Ito. Hold off," Takaharu-san had said grimly when it was apparent they were getting nowhere.
Ito had obeyed instantly. The blows ceased, and the jailor wiped his hands on a bit of spare cloth, eager to clean them of the blood and grime that coated them. Ito hadn't seemed pleased to be doing this either, Noriya had noted. The tension-filled lines of the jailor's brutish face had eased the moment Takaharu had told him to stop. And the tall man had exited the room so quickly, so eagerly, he'd almost forgotten to duck his head as he walked through the doorway. Ito obviously wasn't fond of beating people into submission.
Actually, none of them were. Takaharu had found violent interrogations distasteful and had often made his dislike of them quite clear. But the old councilman still would not hesitate to use brute force when verbal persuasion failed, so occasionally, the three of them found themselves in unpleasant situations such as this, trying to obtain precious information from stubborn prisoners in any fashion they could manage.
Sakamoto had information they needed. Sakamoto had refused to cooperate, knowing full well what would be in store for him if he didn't speak. Sakamoto had knelt in the middle of the cell and stared daggers at Takaharu while the old councilman told him he'd be beaten to death if that's what it took to get the truth out of him.
It was admirable, the man's loyalty, Noriya had to admit. For Sakamoto's sake as well as the town's, Noriya had wished the man would cooperate. But for Himura's sake, he wished Sakamoto would not.
The blood and the violence were normally bad enough. His divided loyalties in this particular instance, had only made Noriya feel worse.
"Stubborn fool, this brigand," Takaharu had said in a low voice laced with reluctant respect. "He won't talk even if this kills him, will he."
"No, I don't think he will," Noriya had agreed.
"We can't really keep beating him," the old councilman had said. "I may be ruthless, but I'm not completely heartless. A clean, painless execution is one thing. These… these bloody torture sessions make me ill."
"I know, Takaharu-san."
"If only our warriors weren't all gone, Noriya." The village elder's voice had been wistful. "Yukito-san would have rounded up a force and dealt with the brigands easily."
"Not if Eisuke-san beat him to it." Noriya smiled fondly at the memory of the village's two greatest swordsmen. Yukito and Eisuke had been the best of friends and the greatest of rivals. They'd kept the town safe for a decade before the war, but they were gone now, along with most other men of their age. And the village was never quite the same again. Never felt quite as safe as it did in the old days.
"Hai." Takaharu had sighed. "Battousai saw the end to that, didn't he. Those two never had a chance against him…. Kami-sama, what I wouldn't give to know how that demon is related to all of this. Is he leading these brigands after all? I find such a thing difficult to believe."
Noriya had said nothing in response.
"Better luck tomorrow, I suppose," the old man had said, rubbing at tired, reddened eyes. "I've had quite enough for one day, my boy. I'm going home…. I'm far too old for all this nonsense." He'd seemed tired, the weight of his many years apparent in the slumped set of his shoulders. Noriya had rarely seen Takaharu-san look so disheartened. It had been an unnerving thing to see.
Noriya finished putting away his brushes and stretched, trying to fight exhaustion. He hoped Takaharu-san was getting some proper rest at least. Noriya longed for the comfort of his own bed, but he had one last thing to do before he could go home.
He picked up a pot of tea from his desk and poured a cup, then walked slowly to the prisoner's cell. Sakamoto sat leaning against the far wall, wrists chained, head hanging forward with his face hidden from view. Droplets of red dotted the wooden planks of the floor. The stale air of the cell reeked of sweat and blood.
"I have some tea here, if you'd like," Noriya offered as he bent down and carefully slid the cup across the floor between the bars of the prisoner's cell. "Here. Please take it."
"Here," said the greengrocer. "I thought you might like to see how it looks. Black suits you, I think."
He set down his bowl and looked warily at the object in Morimoto-san's hand.
"It's just a mirror, Himura-san." The older man opened the small square box to demonstrate.
Kenshin took the mirror in hand, hesitating. It was stupid, this aversion he had, and he couldn't explain it in sensible terms to anyone else. But Kenshin hated mirrors. He always had.
"Is something the matter?" the greengrocer asked.
Curiosity finally made Kenshin look down. The shock of the dark hair kept him from turning away. The black dye really did make an incredible difference. And Morimoto-san was right. He did look slightly older this way. And he would have looked like a different person entirely if it weren't for the demonic amber of his eyes. And, of course, the scar.
The scar. The damned thing drew his attention as always. There were times, especially when he was alone, when he could almost forget he had it. But seeing his reflection only brought home the fact that to others, it was always visible, always there. He was constantly reminded of it when he was around people, when he noticed them staring at it. Or worse yet, trying to act as if they weren't staring at it, but failing to do so. They never did let him forget.
He ran his finger along the crossed lines.
His face must have betrayed something of what he felt, for the old man was looking at him oddly.
"I didn't realize it bothered you so much," came Morimoto-san's quiet voice. It was obvious the man was not referring to Kenshin's new hair color.
"Sorry, Himura. I should have considered…." Morimoto-san gestured uselessly with his hand. "Hell, I wasn't thinking. I'd pretty much forgotten it was there."
Now this was a surprise.
"Well, no, not exactly," said an uncomfortable and suddenly self-conscious Morimoto-san. "No, of course I didn't actually forget it. But it… it seems as if it's just another part of your face. Like your nose or your mouth. I don't really notice it most of the time."
"Idiot," Morimoto-san muttered to himself under his breath as he took the mirror back and put it away.
Morimoto-san paused. And then, as if he couldn't help himself, the greengrocer turned back to face Kenshin again and asked in a rush: "Well, fuck it. Now that I've made an ass of myself, I might as well ask everything. How the hell did you get that thing anyway? It's a damned funny shape for a scar."
Kenshin blinked. And continued to stare at Morimoto-san, dumbfounded.
No one, absolutely no one, had ever asked Hitokiri Battousai that question quite so bluntly before.
His own stammered answer, therefore, was equally direct: "My wife gave it to me."
And to his surprise, he discovered that bringing up such memories didn't quite hurt as much as he expected it to. The sharp stab of familiar pain was there, but it didn't bring the bleak depression that would usually crash down upon him afterwards. Kenshin wasn't sure if this was because he was starting to feel more comfortable around Morimoto-san, or because he was finally feeling better after days confined to bed, or perhaps because he could hear Isamu-chan and Fumiko-san's distant cheerful laughter coming from the engawa outside. He only knew that he'd normally be reduced to a quaking mess by such thoughts, but right now, he wasn't.
"Your wife?" Morimoto-san asked, taken aback.
"Yes, the day I killed her."
Morimoto-san suddenly looked vaguely ill. He swallowed hard and mumbled, "Look, I uh, should clean these dishes, yes? Or I could… brew us some tea."
Kenshin looked down at his teacup. It was full.
"Right, no need for tea," the greengrocer babbled. "Of course, there's plenty left in the pot too, I think. Oi, pot's still warm, right…."
Kenshin had never seen the man quite so discomfited.
"Morimoto-san," he said.
Morimoto-san froze, tense as a rabbit in a trap.
"It's all right."
The greengrocer's features relaxed a bit, softened into a thoughtful frown. "No, Himura, it's not all right. I've got a big fucking mouth. Noriya would kill me if he knew I asked you that. What happened between you and your wife is none of my damn business—"
"It was a gift."
Morimoto-san blinked. "Huh? I don't understand."
Kenshin smiled at the older man despite a tightening pain in his chest and throat.
It did hurt. Not as bad as it had in the past, but still, it hurt. He didn't think he'd ever be able to speak of that day without it hurting.
"I was blind and deaf that day. My wife… she saved me from being lost forever."
Kenshin knew Morimoto-san would have no idea of what he was talking about, and he didn't see fit to explain to the greengrocer about the assassins in the Forrest of Barriers who had ambushed him with crippling explosives. Couldn't tell the old man that the snowy ground had been soaked through with her blood, the metallic scent drowning out the familiar, comforting fragrance of white plum she always wore. Couldn't speak of how chilled he was, of how he couldn't feel her with numbed hands, of how all his senses were muted, how his entire soul was on the verge of being lost in his grief, how his sanity was fragmenting, threatening to die along with her.
She had seen it, he knew. That near-madness in his eyes. Had seen that he was floundering, was finally losing himself, that her impending death had pushed him to a dangerous point he'd managed to avoid despite all the horrors he'd committed during the war.
And Tomoe, who always understood him, knew exactly what had to be done to save him. She'd known, even better than he, the one path that still remained open between himself and the rest of the world.
It was the one thing he could still feel at that moment, the one feeling his guilt-ridden mind could accept.
So she gave him that. Left him that last gift and touched him in the only way possible. Broke through his panicked, anguished haze with the blade and gave him a solid sensation on which he could anchor himself. Made contact and brought him back from the brink, and allowed him to focus on her, to finally see her and hear her: It's all right, so please don't cry….
With those words, and with her blade, she'd sealed the vengeful cut that Kiyosato had wrought, and given Kenshin a permanent reminder of who he used to be, of why he was no longer that person, and of what he was capable of becoming in a brighter future to come.
She'd placed her hopes for him in that new scar. And with it, she had given him one of her rare, beautiful smiles.
He managed a slight smile of his own, surprised that despite the ever-present guilt, he could actually think of that moment now with a kind of fondness he'd never been able to muster before.
Izuka-san had once told him that a wound made in strong hatred would never heal until revenge had been exacted. What Izuka had never said, however, was that a wound made in love and hope could also remain until that hope was someday realized and achieved.
Of course, Kenshin hadn't been aware of any of this on the day he received the scar. He'd been in too much agony to think of anything besides losing Tomoe.
But he'd had months since the war to come to this conclusion. And sometimes, when he was feeling especially calm or at ease, he could even allow himself to consider the possibility of fulfilling Tomoe's hopes for him. Of finding a way to live in the world and atone for all his wrong-doings. Of making the scar fade away.
For a while at least, he could entertain such thoughts, until shame set in again, and his conscience forced him to reject the idea of possibly succeeding in such a quest. Reality would always set in eventually. The hope would fade, and he'd be left with the same doubts that had plagued him since Toba Fushimi. How was he to atone? How could one such as he co-exist with the untainted?
He'd wandered for months and found none of the answers to the questions he'd sought. And to be honest, he wasn't even sure just exactly what his questions were. He had the sinking feeling that he could wander for years and years more, and still never know just what he was searching for.
Morimoto-san was looking thoughtfully at him, an oddly gentle expression on his face.
Kenshin realized with a start, that his mind had wandered again. That he had completely forgotten the greengrocer's presence.
"Gomen-nasai, I was thinking about—"
"No need to explain, Himura-san," said the greengrocer quietly. "I shouldn't have asked. I shouldn't have pried."
Kenshin took a deep breath and tried to regain the calm he'd felt earlier when he'd been relaxed in the bath.
His memories had a tendency to throw him off balance, and he was becoming rather sick of that. He knew he'd never be completely comfortable with his past, but he had to do something to keep himself from falling into a deep, melancholic fit each time he was reminded of something painful. For he had so many painful memories, he could easily be incapacitated by them if he didn't make an effort to maintain his equilibrium.
It was time to stop running away from old, familiar hurts. Time to confront those memories and do something productive with them instead of wallowing in self pity. Time to make good on his promise to his wife.
He was ready, he thought. For the first time since the end of the war, he felt at peace enough with himself to face his uncertain future. The mind was certainly willing, was ready to make the initial effort.
A pity that he had no idea what that effort was supposed to be.
The brigand eyed the teacup, gaze intent. His left eye had swollen nearly shut from one of Ito's hits. Sakamoto licked dry, cracked lips and rose awkwardly to his knees crossing his cell to pick the drink up. He sipped at it, careful of a gash on his lower lip. He seemed grateful, but remained silent and wary.
Noriya lowered himself and sat on the floor, facing the man. "I can understand why you'd wish to protect your comrades."
The prisoner looked up briefly, disdainfully, and resumed drinking his tea.
"But why do you continue to protect Battousai? To remain silent would mean your death," Noriya said quietly. "Takaharu and the councilmen are peace-loving men at heart. But times have been hard, and our town has lost a great deal from the war. This town… is not as gentle as it once was. Executions have been fairly frequent in the last few years. We simply don't have the manpower it would take to keep guard over convicted prisoners. We don't have the resources to feed prisoners either. So we take no prisoners at all. Execution is cheaper. You know what awaits you."
Nothing from the bandit.
"Why protect the assassin at risk of your life? He's the one who wounded you last night, isn't he?"
"If you're trying to make me talk…" growled Sakamoto.
"You fear him, is that it?" pressed Noriya.
Sakamoto snorted in wry amusement.
Noriya watched the man closely, trying to read any hints from the bandit's face. He took a deep breath and pressed onward, taking a terrible risk: "I know you saw Battousai last night. I know he's here."
Sakamoto paused briefly before taking another sip. "You wouldn't know Battousai if he bit you on—"
"His name is Himura. He has red hair and golden eyes," said Noriya. "And a cross-shaped scar on his left cheek."
"He's shorter than one would expect. A small man, of slight build, no taller than a boy," responded Noriya.
Sakamoto still did not appear impressed.
"He's a quiet young man," Noriya continued. "Soft-spoken and considerate of others almost to a fault. He rarely speaks. Almost never smiles. Doesn't seem to sleep too well at night either. Hardly like the stories they tell. Not at all like the amber-eyed monster I've heard described."
Sakamoto was staring blankly into the teacup, his face too carefully composed. Noriya knew he had the man's attention now.
"He's a good man, isn't he," pressed Noriya.
"What would you know?" Sakamoto said cautiously.
Noriya scooted forward toward the bars of the cell in front of him. "I thought at first, that you were afraid of him. That you refused to mention his name out of fear he'd hunt you down for betraying him. But I suspect that's not the case."
Sakamoto looked up, dark eyes hard as slate. "What do you want, old man?"
"I want to be certain of your intentions."
"My intentions? Regarding what? My men? Battousai? I fail to see how my intentions would matter considering I'm sitting here, rotting away in this damned cell. I don't know where my men are. They would have struck camp and moved the minute they realized I'd been captured. And Battousai… Battousai isn't even here," the bandit's intent gaze was unwavering. "Are you people deaf? How many times must I repeat myself? I had a little too much sake last night. I cut my chin when I tripped on a rock and fell."
Noriya swallowed, loosening his grip on the bars as relief washed over him. "So you really won't betray him."
"Him? Him who? I don't know who the fuck you're talking about." Sakamoto looked at Noriya for a long time.
There was no question of it, Noriya knew. Sakamoto was the key to capturing the bandits. No matter how the man's principles had strayed after the war, his confidence and the aura about him seemed unshakeable, the qualities of a natural born leader. The man was beaten bloody and shackled in a prison cell, and still, Noriya was the one who was feeling exposed and uncomfortable under this prisoner's intense gaze, instead the other way around as it should have been.
"And what exactly are your intentions, Scribe, if I may be so bold as to ask?" The bandit said slowly. "You're a citizen of this town, and yet… Do your allegiances lie elsewhere?"
"No! No, they absolutely do not," protested Noriya, sparked to rare anger. "This is my home."
"Then why reveal your knowledge of the hitokiri? You've just put yourself at risk, you old fool. I could tell your council leader what you've said to me. Get you in as much trouble as me."
"I don't think you'd do that."
"You're a miserable judge of character then," Sakamoto laughed faintly. But the laughter died quickly from his face.
"I just don't want to see any more good men die. That includes Himura-san," said Noriya. "And it also includes you, Sakamoto-san."
"Ha! You should have been a monk, not a scribe," said the bandit sarcastically, but Noriya had seen: The bandit's careful façade had slipped a notch.
"Sakamoto-san, the council will most likely vote for your execution. They'll go through the motions of a trial, but in the end, I'm sure you know what the verdict will be. It's happened here before with other convicted criminals. It's revenge for all the pain the Ishin Shishi dealt us in the war. But I do have some influence in this town. I'll do what I can to lessen your sentence. Perhaps get you transferred to a town that—"
"Transfer?" spat the prisoner. "You expect me to thank you?"
"I don't expect anything. I only hope that you can continue with your silence. For both your men and for Battousai… wherever he may be." Noriya said quietly.
Sakamoto narrowed his eyes. "Hitokiri Battousai saved my life back in the war. He saved the lives of many of my men. And… recently, quite recently… he spared my life when I did something incredibly foolish."
The bandit finished his tea and slid it out between the bars.
"Thank you," said Noriya softly as he took the cup from the prisoner. He'd seen the truth in Sakamoto's eyes as the man had spoken.
Noriya had his answer. And he was satisfied.
"Don't," said Sakamoto. "I don't care a wit for you or your stinking village. I owe the hitokiri a debt I can't possibly repay. If he were here in this town, the last thing I'd ever do is betray him to the likes of your pathetic little council. Battousai did what he had to do during the war. Just like any of the rest of us. Only difference was that he happened to excel at certain unsavory skills. So he was used for those skills. And now he's the lucky one who gets to deal with the consequences. If you know him at all, then you know your council has no right to pass judgment on him."
"You're right. They don't," agreed Noriya quietly. He smiled humorlessly at the prisoner. "Himura-san tends to bring out the best in everyone, doesn't he?"
"Even in the most despicable of men." Sakamoto sighed and looked away. "It's a damned annoying trait."
The brigand leaned back against the wall, his manacled wrists resting on his knees. He closed his eyes.
Noriya took the teacup and was about to leave when….
"If you think my men will simply sit in the forest and twiddle their thumbs while your council sends me to the executioner, then you provincial rubes are even more foolish than you look. Four guards outside this jailhouse. Ha, you people amuse me so…."
The words were spoken casually, tiredly. But they chilled Noriya's blood all the same. "What do you mean by that? Sakamoto-san, what do you mean?"
But the prisoner ignored Noriya's question and turned his back away, curling up his knees and closing his eyes.
"Thanks for the tea," said Sakamoto softly, and proceeded to fall asleep.
Harada Katsu's fist smashed into the trunk of the tree with a resounding thud.
Leaves fell timidly from the branches overhead. Men nearby flinched and looked away in nervous guilt as their temporary leader struggled to maintain his calm.
"How badly?" he growled slowly through clenched teeth.
Ryo—the only spy Katsu had sent out who had come back with any useful information on Sakamoto's whereabouts—ducked his head miserably. It was obvious the man wished he were anywhere else in Japan right now other than here under Katsu's scrutiny.
Katsu had a vile temper. He knew he was a frightening man at the best of times. This moment was definitely not the best of times….
The men were terrified of him at the moment. As they very well should be. Fucking incompetents had lost Sakamoto last night, and they had dared…had fucking dared to come back without him….
"Ryo," Katsu repeated. "How badly was he injured?"
"I'm not sure. He had blood on his face and chest. He was walking carefully, stiffly. But he didn't seem to need any help, Harada-san," the spy stammered nervously.
"And you say a group of young boys managed to do this to him?"
Sakamoto was one of the best fighters Katsu had ever served under during the war. How such a warrior could have been so thoroughly beaten by a gang of village brats was beyond Katsu's comprehension.
"I don't know, Harada-san," said Ryo. "Apparently so, since they were the ones who escorted him into town. Although I must admit, I find it difficult to believe."
So did Katsu. Ridiculous notion, the thought of Sakamoto Kinya being bested by incompetent babies.
"What did Basho and Murai say?" he asked, disgusted at the two men who had lost Sakamoto.
"Eh, not much, I'm afraid. Those two still insist that Sakamoto-san disappeared without a trace. And when they'd gone to search for him, they swear they were attacked by an entire squad of armed warriors."
"An entire squad. You don't honestly believe that."
Ryo sighed. "Iya. I scouted the area where they were supposedly attacked. I saw no footprints to indicate a large number of men. But then again, it's clear the two of them were attacked by someone. Basho's ribs are broken, and Murai's got a lump on his head the size of—"
"Forget those two," Katsu spat. Murai and Basho were lucky Katsu didn't wring their necks on the spot. "You say the villagers took Sakamoto to the town jail?"
"Hai. Plus the jailor. He's a giant of a man," said Ryo. "And he, unlike the others in town, does seem to know how to handle a weapon."
"Still, five men. Should be easy."
"Should be," Ryo agreed. "Unless one of them happens to have been the one who beat the shit out of Mirai and Basho. They say their attackers were fast, Harada-san. They never even got a good look at who bested them. I have a feeling it was only one man, and not a group. Perhaps he's the one who got Sakamoto-san."
Katsu frowned. He walked deeper into the forest, away from his men.
"Harada-san?" Ryo called after him.
"Shut up, Ryo," he snapped uncharitably. He needed to think. Needed to find out what was going on, to find out who this new threat was. Needed to get Sakamoto out of the village before the townspeople could do anything stupid.
"Sakamoto Kinya, you bastard," he cursed at his absent friend for all the inconvenience he was causing them all. How could Kinya let this happen?
Sakamoto was the leader. Sakamoto was the thinker of the group. Sakamoto—stupid son of a bitch—was a fucking idiot for getting himself captured and leaving Katsu to deal with the mess.
Katsu sighed. Sakamoto was the one who usually planned their raids. His plans always involved stealth and speed. Go in. Get what they needed. Get out. Quick and easy. And most of the time, no one got hurt. Sakamoto was good at that kind of thing.
Katsu was not.
Katsu had no idea how to help his friend other than taking all the men, arming up, and simply invading the town in the dead of night with no subtlety whatsoever. It was the only plan he could think of. People could be hurt. People could die. Sakamoto would never approve of such a brainless plan.
But then again, Sakamoto wasn't here to stop them, now, was he? And Katsu's blood was up. Katsu didn't care if he had to bash a few skulls together to get his friend back….
"Ryo!" he called back toward the clearing.
"Get everyone together. We're getting him out of there. As soon as night falls."
Ryo smiled wolfishly.
"Hai, Katsu-san!" the spy said eagerly and went to gather the men.
To be continued.
I couldn't decide if I should reference the OAV or the manga for Tomoe's death scene. So I cheated and used a bit of both. Sorry if that confused anyone.
I've apparently unintentionally traumatized people with the hair dye. (Kind of funny, really, since I was more concerned about the small bit of violence in the dream sequence. Guess I worried for nothing.) I love Kenshin's beautiful red hair, and to be honest, even I didn't really want to dye it. But for the sake of the story, it had to be done. Not to worry. This fic takes place nearly 10 years before he wanders into Tokyo, so there's plenty of time for it to change back to it's normal color.
Damn, I'm rusty. It's been a long time. This chapter's a bit rough. Sorry about that.
Regarding the three month delay. Cough Apologies. School and real life come first. :-) Thanks for your patience. And thanks, as always, for the thoughtful reviews, everyone.