Author's Note: There are a lot of songfics out there, but what about poetry fics? This short (and I do mean short) introspective bit centers around a night in Hitokiri Battousai's shoes, aligned with poem "Tiger, Tiger" by William Blake (although, this poem was made in song lyric format and design). Mainly descriptive, I wanted a more…erm, graceful story exploring the mind of a manslayer and how each kill affects his psyche. As in the poem, we see a creation of fearsome strength and destructive power, but what purpose, that power? I can't help this inward-searching urge when I get it (like with that other story of mine, Arigato), so here we go!
Disclaimer: I don't own Rurouni Kenshin and the poem is copyrighted to William Blake, found in the collection Songs of Experience. Also, it should be noted that this fic is based on my own interpretation of Blake's poem, rather than someone else's.
"Tiger! Tiger! Burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?"
"Get out of here, boy, if you value your head!"
Common thugs, nothing more. Vagrants preying off some hapless citizen after hours, said haggard old man already sprawled on the ground, divested of his wallet. Four other men besides the one who had spoken, clothing torn and rugged, drawn blades chipped and unkept. Their stances were uneven, balance unsuited for combat in such close quarters, cramped between two roughened walls of battered wood and a single cold stone obstruction far down the alley, lingering a moment before it tapered off into the corner. The focus of his midnight trek lay around that corner, more than likely inadequately protected from his planned assault, as they always were. Only the night and secrecy could protect them, but the evening was a cruel mistress, bringing with her the shadow that was he, and foolishness had already betrayed the time and place of passage.
But these unsuspecting fools were in his way.
"I said leave, child!!" The ringleader bellowed, alcohol weighing heavy on his breath, steps ponderous as he brandished his damaged, worthless sword, the blade so mistreated that the darkened streaks of old blood still remained etched onto the edge. "Or you'll die, too!!"
He contemplated this for a moment, eyes the color of molten gold, glowing strangely in the dark, emerging from the fall of crimson strands that shadowed his face. Three of the men gained some semblance of fear even through their inebriation, seeing the deadly promise behind those eyes, but the other two were not granted any form of temporary salvation. He would have allowed them such freedom; a simple turn of the body, a quick, perhaps dignified retreat out and away from his path. No word spoken, no sword raised, no gaze meeting his own in a gesture of defiance.
He was not here for their lives and what man would believe a drunken fool's story of death coming in the night, its form that of a red-haired creature bearing eyes the shade of purest amber? Or, more accurately, who would dare to care?
Yet, with the option before them, they refused it, the pair of most confident and doomed vagrants charging at him with raised weapons, their breathing hoarse, their eyes filled with a lust for the kill. Excitement was pounding through their veins, pushing at them to run faster, strike with more power. Stimulation of that kind could blind a man, or delude him; they thought they were unstoppable, full of their own worth and power. They had killed before, for money and enjoyment, and they believed they had every right to do so again, especially in these times when no one knew just what could be defined as right.
However, confronted by those angry, golden eyes that spoke of silent, endless oblivion, they were proven terribly, irrevocably wrong.
"In what distant deeps or skies,
Burned the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?"
The world was all of fluid motion, no sound, no change of breathing marking the point when his entire existence filtered down into the gleaming edge of his blade. They moved so slowly to his eyes, thick limbs ungainly and useless; so often was he misjudged because of his size, his shape, yet they were the ones who suffered from such miscalculation. Even as their weapons fell the first was already dead, head sliced cleanly from his shoulders so no noise, no rattling death cry, emerged to compromise his presence.
The second followed no more than a breath later, glinting steel through his throat and out the other side, blood spurting around the metal to dribble down onto the hardened ground. With an ease of endless nights, he gracefully pulled his weapon free, turning the eyes that froze the hearts of men towards the others, rooted as they were only a few body widths away. They were silent, as he knew they would be, the primal fear only an animal, doomed for slaughter, could know. They could resist, if they wished, or attempt to run, but their fates rested with him, already decided the moment his sword had whispered from its sheath.
Two turned to run, the other to attack, and he slid by the assailant with a speed like the forest wind, unstoppable, unavoidable, unattainable. The pair required only one strike, clear and wide, spines sliced cleanly through just as easily as he could split the blade of an opponent's weapon. Once again, no sound grew into the many vaulted night, save for the dull impact of lifeless flesh upon unfeeling dirt, blood spreading an ebon mirror over the ground, reflecting in shivering pools the scythe-like moon above. No blood reached his own clothing, his movements already carrying him in a crescent back towards the final opponent, his light, non-existent steps real only in his own mind.
The last had moved beyond his instinctual terror, fighting now as only a man could, desperate and wild. This man, this hindrance in his eyes, this example of everything he never was, had become unreal to his amber gaze, no longer a man. Instead, only a thing, a task to be completed, a threat to be stamped out before it could become a threat. Not all attacks came from swords alone; words were as weapons as well, rumors and accusations and inquiries, things that could find him more surely than any foe could.
He could not be known, he could not be found, not even the idea of what he was seized by the hearts of those who still existed beyond the siren moon and scarlet-hued blade. No one could see him and remember, no one could see him and live.
He looked to the victim as the last assailant fell—a corpse's smile twisting the fear-ravaged face of what had once been a man—dripping sword still held at his side.
The old man was not even aware of the flash of red and gold, the whistle of sharpened steel through the still air; he died too quickly to even feel the blade as it cut into his flesh.
"And what shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? And what dread feet?"
A flick of his wrist, a small arc of scattered crimson droplets through the air, and his sword was returned to its guarding sheath, the golden fire of his eyes dimming for the briefest of moments. In an expansion of time that often encompassed all that he was, a twinge of old feeling echoed somewhere in his chest, painful almost, if only because he could not feel it; not any longer. To know that feeling would be to know something beyond the shine of his weapon, deeper than the amber flare, to a place where a pale color still existed somewhere, waiting to reclaim its place within his gaze.
But not this night.
The world moved again, fluid and still, as the light of a lantern began to dance at the edge of the distant corner, quick, muffled steps announcing themselves with the usual useless caution. His attention was there instantly, focused as only his could be, his body flowing over the ground like the shadow that he was. Around the bodies, farther into the small enclosure, to the corner to press against the wall, waiting for the moment. Sometimes, he would let them know he was there, give them a chance to fight, but the troublesome pity had subsided for the moment, already wasted upon those earlier six, and perhaps all the others before them.
There was no counting now, how many; in theory, assassinations were of a singular nature, narrowed to one target, one kill upon midnight's hour. But reality was not so clear, complications arising in the form of witnesses, of guards, of passerby. They would join the ranks of his intended, their presence, their resistance, their lives forfeit in the face of his purpose, the justice that he clung to with all the strength of his gold-laced perception. The fire that was his duty would not be diminished, not for these lives, which meant nothing to him.
The amber flames of his soul would cleanse him of these deaths, masking the stains until some time unknown, only the goal paramount in an existence made of that fire and that dark.
His waiting done, five more edged out beyond the corner, his target at the center of four, all with hands upon the hilts of their swords. The first, glancing almost haphazardly to the side, caught the gleam of his eyes, the shifting movement of his hair and clothing in the miniscule sigh of wind that rustled into being. For a moment, this unsuspecting, nervous man did not comprehend what it was that he saw, the baser part of his mind reeling back from the death it instantly recognized.
It took his consciousness several seconds more to realize how near the end had come before completion claimed his soul, his body falling in a haze of curtained red. His target was hastily thrust away from the battle, back hitting the looming wall, while the others rushed forward to protect a man who, in his eyes, was already dead. They were brave, they were focused, they believed with all their hearts that they were right and just, with clear motives and goals and reasons that could not be defeated by a man wreathed in the scent of blood, his hair and his eyes a testament to his nature and his sin.
Watching them, seeing this, there came an ache from far away; not of regret, or hesitation. Not even of pity or anger. Just an ache, like a wound from long ago that he could not remember receiving. Or perhaps it was from one yet to be made, some flash of precognitive insight warning him of what might be to come, the true rewards he would reap should he continue on this path of what he saw as justice, needed and supposedly true. That maybe, some time far removed from this night and these stolen lives, he might know truly what lay under his fire.
But not this night. This night, there was only the fire and their fear and that blood, seeming to stain and taint the very stars above.
"What the hammer, what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?"
They were gone quicker than the evening's sigh, lost into the darkness like the sanguine sun when it disappeared from the unassuming sky. Just like so many other times, each instance blurring into one long night of given fates, each no different from the last. How could they be, when they were all the same? Every task, every murder, every thrust of his assassin's sword, matched the last, the purpose wearing away at any individuality of occurrence.
There was not any way he could allow them to become separated from each other, lest the he lose the unity of drive that kept him whole. To do so would relinquish the hold he had on himself, to loose the bonds upon the lighter shade hidden within the flames of his smoldering heart. To continue, to exist in the world he had formed for himself, with the blood and pain and loss and sin and murder, he had to keep real only his deeds, not his feelings.
Alone, of all the others, his target remained, torn of his dignity and strength by the holocaust he had just witnessed. In most battles, a man would continue to fight, but he had seen the golden eyes, the promise there, and was very sore afraid. When faced with something born upon a killing blade, no escape or salvation could be found, no release from a sinking existence. Yet it was in him still to fight the coming dark, in the only way left him.
"Please, please don't kill me, I beg of you. I'll pay you anything, I'll leave Kyoto, I'll join you, please, please, anything…anything…just let me live…please…"
Low, frantic, terrified, punctuated by whimpers and prayers and a trembling that encompassed his whole body. He pleaded for mercy, any at all, the sacrifice upon the altar his pride, his future, his fortune, his loyalties, his freedom, just for his life. There was no other way, not with something…someone so true in form that he could not be deterred from a set path, not with his purpose being the only concept that could matter to him. The fire was burning and burning and burning, directed still by his cause and his will and the truly felt conviction that, if he did not follow this path unerringly, a pain unequaled would claim him.
That…he would not face.
So, he took a step forward, his sword rising slowly, elegantly, unhaltingly, above his head, where it hovered for a moment, piercing the sky and moon. The night breathed again, shifting his hair and clothing and allowing the uncertain light from fallen lanterns to flicker across his form just so. Gray hakama, navy blue gi, black guards upon his arms and scarlet hair tied atop his head, moving in tandem with each other upon the current of the wind, yet disjointed from the ever-still orbs of glowing amber, those eyes without hesitation, without blemish or imperfection.
There would be no mercy this night.
"When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?"
It was done, at once and without flourish, just as it always was. Others would come soon to clear from this place the signs of the deeds, just as the fire in his gaze would sear away the scars from his heart. As long as it existed, he would not feel the force of the lives taken, would not fall beneath their weight. There was still much he needed to do and regret would hinder this process, weaken it. If the fire shielded him, then those he fought would die quickly, easily. Doubt would make him slow, make him sloppy.
They did not deserve that. They deserved clean deaths, fast and honorable, by the hand of a master rather than the imitation skills of one who was at war with himself. To regret would be to defile their sacrifice, their last forms of resistance, through fight or flight or even humbled pleading. He would not allow their blood to flow from beneath a sword eschewed from its true purpose: to kill. For it to be anything else would profane the world in which he lived, the world they died for, and the world he killed to make.
So there would be no doubt, there would be no regret. He would keep his fire and his silence and the inhuman shine of his eyes. He would continue with his missions, never pausing, never questioning, never veering from the path he knew…no, that he needed to be true.
He would make it true, or at least believe with all his burning soul that it was so.
But on this night…
Almost unwillingly, his golden gaze followed the spreading tendrils of blood, watching silently as the life flowed out across the ground. He saw their faces, awash with so many emotions, even in death; fear and anger, pain and sorrow, want and confusion. Frozen as they were in the timeless grip of oblivion, they lived again in their final moments, their possible thoughts running through his mind faster even than he himself could move.
Who is he…?
How can he do this…?
Why did he kill me…?
Can he be stopped…?
Will he let me live…?
For that moment, as the lives he had claimed filtered deep into the fire, the flames themselves faltered, grew faded and dim. In his eyes surfaced another color for a moment, the shade that of the slowly-lightening sky above, the indigo that gradually grew into a violet colored by the sun: the shade of coming dawn, new and vulnerable. Unprotected, unprepared, unshielded, it was the color of an innocence found only in separation, in an isolation from all that he had immersed himself within over what felt like the eternity that had passed since he had taken up a killer's sword.
In that moment, the pain he had feared more than all else grew, overpowered the fire, dowsing the flames so that only violet remained, wide and terrified and just touched with the deepest regret only he could know.
But it was only for that moment.
The amber returned, the gold as hard as steel, raising again the impenetrable wall that protected him when the stars dimmed and the darkness retreated into truth. He faded into the lessening shadows, his manslayer's soul waiting for the next night that would require him. The world was not yet reborn and he still had a place in it, for however brief a time. Just the same, he knew that this time would pass and the crushing weight that accompanied those violet eyes would return.
His only recourse, then, was to continue burning brightly, keeping his fire fierce and strong, to protect him for all the nights soon to be replaced by day.
"Tiger! Tiger! Burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?"
Erm…yeah. Not much to say about this one; has to be one of the more interesting things I've written, that's for sure. Heck, looking back, I'm not even sure I get it myself…then again, perhaps I do, but, seeing as it is now late and I probably can't think too straight, I won't press the matter.
For those of you wondering what the hell I'm doing writing this fic rather than some of my others, let's just say this helps me get in the mood, 'kay? I'll be back to all my other stories soon, I promise! School's just killing me right now, is all.
So, anyway, thanks for reading! Ja ne!
Rem-chan, 6th of April, 2004 (final edit on the 16th, posted on the 17th)