Note: This is, at last, the long time promised slightly AU sequel of "To Look Into Her Eyes". (That has stayed for long at the bottom of my computer since I had to take a strong determination to END it) Don´t worry, if you haven´t read the prequel, it will look to you as a totally independent story. I´m aware that the word "sequel" can only be applied in a very loose sense.
The story takes place within the Seissou Hen timeline, in the last year of Kenshin´s life. Just by reading this chapter, you will see what changes and what stays the same.
Effusive thanks to Margit Ritzka for beta.
Prelude: The Doomed Man
It's ironic, isn't it? Just to see how life pushes us around, and protects us through a thousand perils only to strike us after a pleasant dinner, or even save us in the shape of someone who is beyond help - there's irony in this, maybe the laughter of some higher being who watches and enjoys the kabuki play. Understanding such a thing left me quite scarred back then, indeed… though now, after so long, even the deeply imbedded shock wanes and leaves me with the condescending smile of an old man.
You can't imagine how young and proud of myself I was at the time. Second helmsman on my first trip, walking the deck of the vessel that brought the last troops back home, together with General Fukushima, and who knows how many people would stand at the dock in Yokohama to watch our arrival? My spirits were high, and I even remember myself humming that idiotic little tune all day since we arrived to China. No matter how weary the soldiers were, or the occasional resentment I found in the eyes of the native population, I kept on humming. It was a time for celebration, wasn't it? Our glorious victory.
The morning on which we had planned to set sails, I recall I had a mighty hangover. My friend Arato, who speaks Chinese like a native, had been able to buy loads of drinks for everybody, and, young as I was, I didn't have that much experience in hiding all the effects the next day. Now, the technique does not hold any secret away from me anymore, of course, but at the time my head hurt like a thousand demons. I thanked the gods I wasn't the first helmsman.
"So when are we going to set sails?" I asked Yasuhiro, the first helmsman, a bit dizzily. The sun had risen enough as to become a mite too brilliant to my eyes, and the air was exasperatingly calm, not even stirred by a slight breeze. I was starting to feel the sweat under my clothes as I sent a last glance to the lonely docks. There were only a few people walking across them, Japanese, I imagined, but the ship hadn't set sails yet.
"We're apparently still waiting for someone," he told me, lighting a cigarette and putting it into his mouth. "And the air announces storm."
"Or it's just the goddamn climate of this goddamn place," I cursed, my humour a bit affected by the feeling inside my bowels. Only for speaking so much, there was a new attack of nausea that I had to repress, and I spent some time staring at the soothing undulation of the blue waves. I must confess I might have fallen asleep… until some turmoil snapped me out of it.
"He's the guy we were waiting for," Yasuhiro told me, pointing at the man who was climbing the stairs to get on board. Curiously, I turned back and fixed my eyes on him, and they widened in surprise.
He was a frail little man in an astoundingly dirty kimono and hakama, who was valiantly carrying upstairs a bag that caused him to stumble almost at each step he made. His long and dishevelled hair was of the strangest red colour, and his neck was covered with bandages. When I saw him, several of the soldiers who were on deck had already run towards where he was, and, while one of them took the bag on his own shoulders, two more helped him go up, in spite of his evident protests.
"Who is he?" I asked Yasuhiro. My curiosity was piqued, both by such a strange display and by such a strange person. I had even forgotten about my hangover for a while, which I suppose was good.
"Syphilitic," Yasuhiro spat, his eyes fixed on the newcomer. "He's all bandaged up under those clothes."
"Then, why do they get so close to him?"
The helmsman put off the light of the cigarette with a tap, and threw it to the sea below us.
"I have no idea."
With this, we finished our brief conversation. Only five minutes later, the manoeuvres to set sail and leave the port were right on their way, and every attempt of thinking about anything else than our job was drowned in a flood of shouts, orders and movements. My face was contorted in a grimace all the time, I fear, for they seemed about to yell my head off that ominous hangover morning.
When at last we were in deep waters, speeding on our way home, I could see him leaning dangerously on the railing, his eyes fixed on the horizon with an intent glance.
Well, let's admit it once more: I was curious. From that moment on, during the first two days of travel, I always saw that funny thing there, deeply plunged into his own little world and muttering things to himself as he probed the limits of the sea with his fixed, stubborn eyes. Whenever I had to walk next to him, I covered my nose with a hand to avoid the ghastly smell of putrefaction, but there was always a soldier or other who got next to him to bring him food at intervals. They apparently liked him, as much as most of us couldn't stand his presence. I rarely take part in deck operations, my thing being the helm, but, according to my friends, whenever they had to do something he and his peculiar smell were always in the way. When they shouted at him to get lost, most of the times he apologised profusely and did as he was told, but there were some times when he couldn't understand what they were saying, and stayed there until someone pushed him. That usually brought problems and delays, since everybody agreed that it would bring no good to touch him and normally refused to do so. Each time that someone had bad luck in something, it was always because he had got too close.
As for me…well, as much as it will make you laugh, let's accept it also like a condescending old man. I was as credulous as anyone else, if not more. With the avidity that only curiosity can provide, I swallowed all the tales that were invented in those days about the red hair, the sickly waned cross-shaped scar on his left cheek and the too advanced symptoms… for yes, as Yasuhiro had said, all his body was covered with bandages, and under them it was easy to guess that his whole skin was broken and bleeding, exuding a less-than-pure kind of blood. His hands, which he hadn't bandaged for some reason, were always red, and once he even fell to the floor in agony, clutching his chest and yelling in a ragged breath. The soldiers took care of him then, and that's how I heard from one of them that the illness was eating his insides.
Afterwards I saw it clearly, of course, without being blinded by the clouds of superstition. The poor man was just mortally ill, like each one of us will be one day, and I sooner than most. After he had contracted syphilis, his life span could have been longer if he had wanted- as was that of many harbour girls I know - but, as I also heard from a soldier, he had travelled to China and helped many of them when they were wounded. That surprised me to no end, though I dismissed it as the greatest stupidity I had ever heard a man do… how could he take care of others when he obviously was very far from being able to help himself?
Anyway, weird decisions or not, the solid fact was that his fate was sealed. The most optimistic person would have given him three months of life, and it was a mystery for most why he would undertake such a useless return voyage at the very end of his life. Of course, I didn't know at the time that he had a family lovingly waiting for him. Heck! What deathly sick person would leave his family if he had one, and go to a war completely alone?
The night after the second day of sailing, the oppressing, hot calm was increasing, and most men were talking about an incoming storm. The captain ordered that all passengers should gather inside, and the people who were on duty were told to be more careful than normal. I was one of them, for bad luck had wanted me to keep the direction of the ship constant precisely that night. Believe me, I didn't doubt my capacities or fear anything even for a moment – but I cursed nonetheless. You would have, too.
As I went to take my post, I could feel the thick tension floating in the air. A mass of threatening clouds had closed above our heads, covering the light of the stars, and immediately afterwards any sign of wind, of breeze, had died away. I could feel beads of sweat rolling down my forehead, and cursed once more.
But this curse was actually to turn into a loud-voiced expletive when I saw someone perched – yes, perched - on the railing, ignoring our captain's orders. My irate glance went at once towards my companion who was on duty in that zone, but he shrugged his shoulders as if it didn't concern him and continued walking.
"Hey, you!" I shouted. I got closer to him, though of course I didn't touch him – and he needed some time to react. At this moment, in my fury, I think I may have believed that he was responsible for all this, and was there now to watch and enjoy what he had done. The human race is a race of ignorants and fools, after all, so why not me?
Yes, go ahead. Call me a hypocrite.
"Yes, sir?" he asked politely, in a soft voice. With all regret imaginable, he tore his glance away from the waves, and as soon as he did so, I don't know why, I lowered mine. The smell of putrefaction was still more hateful in this suffocating atmosphere.
"Didn't you hear the captain's orders? All passengers must get inside immediately!"
A long rumble punctuated my words, and I could feel that the first wind had broken free at last. The man gave a step forwards, and I gave one backwards, in fear that he would want to lean on me. But, fortunately he made no such attempt.
"I'm sorry," he said with a bow. "I… had forgotten."
Sighing in exasperation, for somehow I saw there was no way to blame him for his trespass, I watched him leave, his uncanny red hair getting tangled in the wind and whipping his back and head as he approached the door slowly and carefully. Then, I shook my head murmuring something you certainly don't want to hear, and hurried to the back of the ship to take my post.
Half an hour later, as announced, the fury of the elements fell pitilessly over us. First, in came a strong rain, and the people who were tying the sails to the masts got into a hurry to finish their work. Then, the force of the wind increased, and the waves that crashed against the ship became so large that I had to grasp the helm until my hands were white. The clouds above us glowered in a deathly yellow hue, now and then broken by the spark of lightning.
I must confess that I had never been so frightened in my whole life. With a ragged breath, I begged for the protection of all the gods whose names I could recall - just the fact that I remembered them in such a situation must prove that they really exist , and despaired at how the difficulty of directing the ship and keeping her stable was increasing by seconds. Now and then, the wind brought the cries of other sailors, who were engaged in different frenetic activities.
Damn. A ferocious wave crashed against the back of the ship and almost took me away with it. While I was trying to save my life, the ship turned and tossed, and I heard renewed cries, probably of people who were trying not to be swept off deck… or who were being swept already.
Damn. That was all I could think at that moment. I couldn't do it alone, we were going to die, and who had had the fucking idea of setting sail when there was a threat of storm? Had it been our captain, or had he been pressured by General Fukushima or even someone more important? Whoever it had been, damn him for killing us.
My whole strength was engaged in trying to keep my post and do something for the wretched ship that would soon be our grave. In a fraction of a second, I briefly wondered what the old wolf Yasuhiro would have done if he had been in this post today instead of me. Maybe he would have laughed at my terror, I tried to console myself with little success.
Still, in spite of my gloomy thoughts, hope wasn't completely dead yet. Just as I was thinking about him, I heard Yasuhiro's hoarse voice calling my name. Unable to believe my good luck, I turned back, thinking it had been a trick of my imagination, but lo, there he was, grabbing a rope.
"Can you get closer?" I yelled. He waved a hand at me, and made signs to me that I wasn't able to understand. His face was red of exasperation, and I felt frustrated again.
"Goddamn son-of-a-bitch, come here!" I shouted. No one would need to be a great expert to know I wasn't behaving as the circumstances required. Now, as my supreme gesture of stupidity, I disengaged myself from the helm, and, taking advantage of a short period of calm, I began to walk towards him.
"No! Don't do that, you idiot!" he cried. I could hear him now, and stopped.
"What should I do?" I asked hysterically, not caring to show my weaknesses anymore. Yes, I was terrorised and I was a dreadful helmsman without experience. Who had had the bad idea of entrusting this to me, anyway?
"Tie it!" he roared. "Tie it securely!"
This last straw to my ego almost made me slap my head in desperation. You can't know how many times I had seen this being done before, and I had forgotten entirely about it! I had even forgotten my own name, but in my name didn't lie the clue for our survival.
Cursing a tad more, I turned my back to him, and started the perilous task of regaining my place at the helm. I would do my duty now. I would tie the accursed thing with the rope that should be….
But, to my horror, that was the exact moment that the sea chose to strike again with all its forces. As in a dream, or should I say a nightmare, I saw the gigantic wave coming towards me, and crouched instinctively. I felt the black immensity exploding against my back, rolling in front of my face and leaving me breathless, and then, the most horrible of all sensations.
I was being swept away.
I tried to shout; but all that came were helpless gurgles. I tried to breathe and regain my strength, but all that got into my lungs was salty water. My hands couldn't grab anything in those vertiginous last moments, and I was drawn back irresistibly, towards the black pits of my doom. I couldn't pray, not even curse.
A strong hand took mine, and I grasped it avidly.
As the last remainders of the fierce wave were swallowed by the ocean, I opened my eyes in anguish, for a moment thinking that I was already dead. But I was just dangling in the air, half of my body inside and the other half outside. My fall had been stopped in time, and a red hand held me with surprising force now, only one step away from my doom.
"Ya…Yasuhiro?" I asked in a ragged breath. Two haunting, violet eyes filled with determination met mine, and I had to suppress a shiver.
"You!" I shouted in disbelief, feeling their irises piercing my innards and tearing them apart as he scooped me up with his bandaged arms, and the familiar putrid stench reached my nostrils. Before I could say a single word, though, the sea attacked again, and in a fraction of a second he was holding me securely. His other hand was grabbing the rope I had planned to use. I was almost sure that his frail body wouldn't stand it, but it did.
"I... I…" I muttered, too upset to say a word. Like an automat, I went towards the helm and tied it as well as I could, my mind in a complete turmoil. Now, I didn't even fear the storm, I welcomed it as a distraction from my own inner storm, that raged terribly within my soul.
When I returned to the place where I had left him, I saw that he had fainted, probably worn out by the effort. Carefully, I took him into my arms and lifted him, forgetting my earlier superstition and repugnance, even the stench, and set out to start our perilous journey back to safety. His body felt light and warm, like that of a child, and now that his eyes were closed he looked again like nothing more than a wretched sick ruin of a man. But – that's where the irony lies- he was much more. I knew now, Heaven help me. In the dark vortex of death, I had been witness of something more powerful than death or disease, shining in those eyes. Something that would never die in that man.
That night, taking the rapidly calming sea as my witness, I made an oath. While I laid his unresponsive body on sure ground, and began to sense people coming towards us from all directions, shouting and filling my ears with pointless questions, I closed my eyes, and swore that the will who had saved my life that fatidic night wouldn't make its last steps in this world alone.
(to be continued)