Final Chess Piece by Hitokiri-san
A/N: Merry Christmas everyone! Oh well, this is a good time as any to post up a new chapter. My Christmas holidays are not actual "holidays" in any sense, since I am expected to do more studying than any human being ever should. Screw Hong Kong's exam system. Anyway, I present to you: FchP Chapter 9!
It is truly incredible, a human being's ability to adapt to changes. Given a few days on the battlefield, a soldier will grow immune to the sight of flowing blood, the sound of incessant gunfire. Given a year in the shelter of peace, however, an ex-soldier will find himself astonished at the sight of violence. For further proof, just ask any veteran.
…Just ask me.
Chapter 9 Revelation
He raised the cup to his lips, carefully pondering the other's request. The beverage rippled with the movement - green tea, slightly too mild for his liking, though he wouldn't voice the comment aloud. He frowned. It had more to do with the absurd demand than the tea's lacking flavour.
"I don't understand." He said finally, the slight crease on his forehead the only sign of his bafflement. "Why go undercover when we have perfectly utilizable allies in the school? The Shinsengumi - "
He was cut off bluntly, much to his surprise. The other boy usually had more patience than this.
"The Shinsengumi is no longer, as you say, "utilizable". We lost command the moment we lost the war, that is the heart of it all. We can no longer offer them wealth and status for their services…the Mibu wolves are, therefore, no longer mine to command." His companion smiled; to him it looked more like a compulsive jerking of the lower lip. "Should I expect any less, though?"
He set down the drink deliberately, as was typical of his character. He was calm, calculating, logical; the voice of reason in the midst of chaos. "Kondo-san has always been devoted to the lord. I doubt that altered circumstances would have shaken his loyalty. Going unnoticed by the government is difficult enough, there's no point in complicating the situation further by trying to deceive the Miburo as well. We need allies on our side."
His argument - sound as it was - went ignored. Eyes darkening, the other boy glared down at the carpet, anger now apparent in his voice.
"They failed the very person they had sworn to protect. This alone proves how useless they are, how limited their loyalty is. No more objections, my friend. I place my faith in you alone – will you do it for me?"
In another time, he would have pointed out the numerous flaws in his friend's logic. He would have pointed out that the plan was entirely rooted in bitter rage and the desire for revenge, that the boy was letting raw emotions get the better of him.
Looking into the pain-ridden, haunted eyes, however, he found that reason no longer had a stand in this situation. All he could do was incline his head, nodding his grudging acceptance of the request made of him. He would obey, not because he approved of the plan in any way, but because he had already failed once. He could not bear to disappoint his friend again.
In another time, he would never have let Tokugawa Yoshinobu die.
Aoshi smoothed the cuff of his lab coat with his palm absently, going down the mental hierarchy of potential dangers in his mind. Soujiro, Kondo, Hijikata. They were all treacherous in their own right; dealing with all three together was a nightmare he'd rather avoid, given a choice.
Both he and Soujiro had conceded that glancing across the lab at each other – however briefly - was likely to attract unwanted attention from the two Miburo. Neither was willing to risk the consequences; too much was on the line for either of them. The two teenagers settled for fixing their gazes at the lab's equipment, each deep in their own thoughts. A temporary truce, made out of sheer necessity. It didn't change the fact that they were still a dire threat in each other's mind.
A few more students - apart from Himura, of course – had been escorted out of the lab, if only for appearance's sake. Aoshi didn't know where they'd gone, and didn't particularly care. He could feel the class' restlessness practically radiating off in waves. Not that he could blame them – the kids had been ordered to stay put for forty minutes straight with the knowledge that someone was killed in their midst. Nervousness was a given; he should be surprised that no one had gone into hysterics, though a hysterical student might actually manage to distract the Miburo quite nicely. The lanky boy smoothed his cuff again as he registered Kondo's presence at the front bench. He had somehow missed the man's return to the room, which was a very grave lapse indeed. He must have been too distracted by Soujiro's presence to notice. His former – and very much deceased - comrades would probably have a field day knowing that their Okashira had zoned out amidst hostile company.
Aoshi snorted mentally, guiding his thoughts back to the situation at hand. He did not need others to remind him of his failing, dead people or otherwise. His ice-blue eyes flickered to Kondo.
Why was Kondo here in the first place, though? Battousai was important, overtly so. To the Shinsengumi, he was a possible spy from the government and a source of valuable information. Surely such a target would deserve the undivided attention of the Commander. Why would Kondo wander up to watch over a couple of bewildered science students when his presence was required in whatever place Battousai was held in?
Unless, Aoshi thought coolly, Kondo had found a bigger threat in this very lab. A second murder in the school – right under the Shinsengumi's nose, no less – was trespassing way too far into the wolves' territory. Wounded pride alone would compel the once-warriors to take drastic actions in digging out the murderer.
Personally, he would like to see them try. Having them try it here and now, however, was not a notion he favoured. He knew that Kondo's decision to return to the lab implied one important thing – that the Shinsengumi had figured out something entirely unrelated to the true identity of Himura Kenshin, and were here to follow up on their realization. This did not bode well for either of them. One of them – or both, if they were unfortunate enough – would not be able to get out of this place without having to face the Miburo's interrogation first.
He risked a neutral glance at the general direction of Soujiro, analyzing. The boy was no one's fool; he would have reached the same conclusion as Aoshi did by now. So the question that remained was: could they worm out of the current situation, unscathed and undetected?
Feeling a brush against his senses, the former Oniwabanshu looked up. Kondo had risen out of his perch on the wooden stool, and was now weaving his way across the nervous groups clustered around their workbenches. Hijikata followed, trailing at his side like a silent guardian. With rising apprehension, Aoshi realized that they were, in fact, coming in his direction. So much for the vague hope that they'd bother Soujiro instead. He straightened slightly, feeling the cool blades strapped onto his back, deftly concealed in the cover of his jacket. Kondo stopped before him, eyes looking down in the same sympathetic look he'd given Kenshin. Aoshi thought for a split second before replying with a look of guiltless perplexity.
He could fight his way out of here, if need be. But until then, he was going to play innocent as best as he could. Battousai got himself into a tight spot by being overly impulsive; he was not going to repeat that mistake anytime soon.
"Shinomori, it's your turn."
He nodded quietly, weighing possible scenarios in his head as he stood. He had a plan to follow, and minor interruptions were not going to change it.
His thoughts were cut short as the lab lights overhead blinked off abruptly, throwing the room into darkness. Startled, the lab's occupants looked up to the ceiling…
…just as pieces of plaster and wiring rained down from above, eliciting frantic screams from the students. They fled, the way ants did when they sensed a forthcoming storm; pushing others out of the way, they headed for the exit, tripping over various fixtures as they did so.
An explosion. And judging from the far-off bangs of bombs detonating around the school, the word should be in plural form. Aoshi took a quick sweep of the room. Soujiro was nowhere to be seen, as were a couple of other students; Kondo and Hijikata were halfway across the room, trying to locate the source of the catastrophe.
The ceiling was crumbing above him. Sensing the danger, he sprung from his position, raising a bemused brow as the stool he had been standing against cracked under the debris' weight. Had it been anyone else, the collapse of the ceiling would have been fatal. Shards of glass, no doubt coming from their lab equipment, exploded across the room like mini fireworks; not enough to kill, but more than sufficient to cut and maim. The teenager raised an arm to shield his eyes, retreating to the window behind him.
The teenagers were still screaming, their shouts jarring against Aoshi's eardrums. Some small part of him was concerned at his classmates' plight. They didn't deserve to be included in this disaster, these innocents. They had nothing to do with grievances that should long have been past.
The sentiments were, however, entirely unrelated to his job and therefore none of his business. His eyes swept through the rapidly deconstructing room again. The other person was not there; he had slipped out of the room the moment danger arose.
Aoshi's lips quirked up in a cold smirk. How intelligent of him, being able to sense the oncoming danger and react accordingly.
Assured, Aoshi turned back to his task. Making use of the Miburo's preoccupation, he vaulted over the windowsill, lab coat flaring upwards as he freefell down the building's exterior.
As he landed in a crouch three floors below, the dust billowing out from under him, a single thought dominated his mind.
As far as he knew, explosions were not something included in the plan.
Himura was being difficult.
It was interesting, how he had automatically likened Battousai's stubbornness to a student's sullen tantrum. The notion of Battousai being young and petulant had never quite crossed his mind before; it seemed that, like the common people of Kyoto, he'd stereotyped Battousai as the standard manslayer – a cold, ruthless killing machine that considered lives, including his own, worthless. A miscalculation on his part; a man of his intelligence should really have known better.
He should have realized that Battousai was an annoying, headache-inspiring brat.
Okita sighed, trying not to snap at the teenager in irritation. Such a childish act would be highly unbecoming of him. As far as he was concerned, this little interrogation session was going nowhere. The few questions they'd asked had put Battousai on the defensive, and hence the current predicament.
"Why are you in Tsutoki High in the first place, Battousai-san?"
This question was, as he soon realized, an utter mistake. Battousai had looked at him as though he were an idiot; and when he answered, his tone was deadpan. "To get an education."
"Right," the younger Miburo gritted his teeth, torn between an urge to smack his forehead and another urge to draw his katana and be done with the cheeky brat. "Try again."
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about this situation, Okita realized, was that they had little to threaten Battousai with. The boy was entirely unimpressed with the prospect of bodily harm, which came as little surprise to the two captains. He was trained to be a professional killer, after all, and professional killers tended to value their lives the way kamikaze pilots valued theirs.
Okita was starting to think that keeping the ex-hitokiri alive was more trouble than it was worth. Of course, he preferred Battousai alive – corpses had precious little to say where interrogations were concerned – but he could kill him. Battousai had wronged the Shinsengumi enormously, had even caused them to lose the civil war in the end. They had a good reason for wanting to kill him - past grievances alone could have spurred them to make the kill.
Except that revenge had never been the theme of the Miburo's lives. Revenge had not been their cause for fighting against the patriots – they had done it primarily because it was right, not because they hated the Ishin shishi and wanted revenge for their fallen comrades.
The civil war started because the Ishin shishi and the Bakufu forces held different ideals, and both parties were willing to give their lives for it. The civil war ended because the Ishin shishi was stronger and eventually won out.
It was as plain as that, and they understood it well. In a world of chaos, good and evil simply did not apply.
Himura was a dangerous manslayer, responsible for the death of many of his comrades. Himura had killed Tokugawa Yoshinobu. But despite all this, Okita was not going to kill Battousai out of revenge. The blade of a Miburo was pledged to eradicate evil; to use it for revenge would undermine its original purpose.
That, however, didn't mean he would let the ex-hitokiri go unharmed if he insisted on keeping this stunt up. He had a schedule to keep, and answers to deliver.
The boy was leaning back, expression blank, elbows perched on the sides of the chair. He was pointedly avoiding either Miburo's eyes, the way students did when they didn't know the answer to the teacher's question.
"You are seriously trying my patience, Battousai." Saitou said, voice deceptively soft. He leaned on the principal's desk, one lanky leg crossed over the other, and stared down at the indifferent face. "Do you assume that if you keep silent long enough, we would eventually spare your life and let you go? How cowardly of you."
Kenshin glared behind carnelian bangs, wary and exasperated. Finally, some reaction. Saitou leaned in closer, growling lowly as he held the violet gaze.
"Let me remind you again. Sagara is killed because of you - you have caused the death of an innocent simply by being here. The least you could do is to help us bring justice to the culprit." Something vaguely vulnerable flashed across Battousai's countenance, but the boy did not avert his eyes. The tall Miburo pushed off from the desk, nearly face to face with the boy. "I will say it one last time, Battousai. Speak."
"I told you I don't know! How many times do I have to repeat it, Saitou? I have no idea who is impersonating me, why he is doing it or why he had to choose Sano." Kenshin's voice wavered slightly before he pressed on, crossing his arms in a show of defiance. "I cannot provide you with any useful information, and you probably know it. What, pray tell, is the point of this interrogation?"
"You know more than you let on, don't try to deny it," Saitou countered, snarling. "You hold information vital to our investigation, yet you…"
He would have further shoved the boy's fault into his face, if not for a sudden cloud of dust and concrete particles that choked off his next words. Saitou was thrown to the wall, his back connecting with the vertical surface with a resounding thud. Disoriented, he strained his eyes towards the source of the unannounced disaster. The wall opposite him, he saw now, had exploded inwards under the force of the blast, jagged cement framing a gaping hole like a jack-in-the-box popped open - except that no clowns had sprung up through the hole.
He looked down. Both his arms were sporting scratches and bruises, courtesy of the flying fragments, and he couldn't really feel his back. Apart from these minor injuries, he was mostly all right. It was something of a surprise, however, to see his katana secured in his right fist – he must have grabbed it, subconsciously, in the moment of frenzy. His sword before his life. He sure had an interesting way of arranging his priorities.
His eyes scanned across the disaster area, looking simultaneously for ally and prey. Okita, it seemed, had been thrown behind the principal's desk; looking slightly dazed but otherwise unharmed. The younger captain raised a hand in sardonic greeting, dark eyes alert and searching. Ensured that his fellow Miburo was fine, Saitou's gaze snapped back to the other end of the room, just in time to see a blue-clad figure emerging from behind a shattered bookshelf. Himura got quickly to his feet, quickly making for the new exit. Narrowed amber locked with wide amethyst at that moment, and Saitou growled menacingly.
"Oh no you don't, Battousai."
The wolf pounced, katana out of its sheath in a single fluid motion. However, Kenshin was anything but easy prey. Arm flashing out, he snatched the Miburo's wrist, the blade inches from severing his windpipe. His entire arm trembled with the effort of pushing the other man off – he did not have the brute strength that Saitou possessed, after all. Thinking fast, he elbowed the lanky man across the face with his other arm, sending him a few step backwards, stumbling. He used the moment of distraction to spin through the gigantic hole, intending to throw the homicidal captain behind.
Kenshin's breath caught in surprise as a body slammed at him from behind, bringing him flat to the ground. Realization dawned as he twisted his body to see his assailant better: in his hurry to escape, he had forgotten that Okita was even there. There was no time to dwell on the issue, anyway; Okita had snaked his arm around his neck in a millisecond, choking his air off in a painful headlock. He thrust his elbow backwards, catching the captain hard in the stomach. Taking advantage of the suddenly loosened grip, Kenshin slipped free, swiping Okita's legs out from under him for good measure. It was then he fled down the corridor, all resemblance of grace and composure forgotten.
He was faster than they were, he knew. He could probably lose them if he ran long enough – the campus was enormous, filled with rooms and staircases and corridors. He could not face the two captains simultaneously, without a weapon. But he could hide himself until it was safe, blend into dark corners like the shadow he had been trained to be. He was certain of that.
So why was he sprinting madly down the hallway, chest heaving, like a newborn doe chased by ravenous hyenas? His training must have deserted him, somewhere along the way. The Miburo were hot on his heels – thankfully out of sight, but only barely. He went around a corner, one hand bracing against the wall to brake his turn.
The teenager was momentarily astonished when a tug on his supporting hand caused him to lose his balance, falling sideways into secluded darkness. A pair of arms caught him gently; the door closed behind him with a soft, undetected click. He was ready to spring out of self defense, but the stranger promptly let go of him, making a soft hushing noise. Realizing the logic, Kenshin froze, hurriedly masking his ki as he waited with baited breath. Fortunately, Okita and Saitou continued past the shut door, the soft pattering of footsteps the only sign of their passing.
Slumping against the closed door – in relief or exhaustion, he really didn't know which – Kenshin struggled to catch his breath. What the hell? He had been perfectly calm throughout the whole ordeal, never flinching even in the face of Saitou's death threats. Then there was the explosion, and he had panicked as he struggled against the Shinsengumi for freedom. What did he have to fear anyway – death? Katsura would have been astounded by the mere idea. Hiko might have been pleased to know that his baka deishi had finally learnt something other than the art of self destruction.
And he himself – did he honestly fear the notion of death? Yes, the ex-hitokiri recognized now. He had feared death as he beheld the blade, mere inches away from his throbbing artery. He had feared death as he found his windpipe squeezed, leaving him gasping for air.
He didn't want to die; and his fear of death had sparked his survival instincts. The fact was that he was no longer the emotionless hitokiri a year ago. Kenshin raised a brow at this profound revelation. Did it mean that he'd changed for the better?
The voice was unexpectedly small and shy, piquing his curiosity immediately. If he didn't know better, he would say that the stranger – whoever he was – was having second thoughts about approaching him.
Kenshin squinted slightly, allowing his eyes to adjust to the pit blackness of the room. He was extremely adept at seeing things in the dark, since he practically thrived in darkness. Already he could discern a mop and a bucket in his peripheral vision – a store room, then, and a small one at that. His eyes finally focused on the face across him, mouth hanging open as he realized just who he was staring at.
"Kiyosato-kun," he said slowly, the tentative smile from his companion puzzling him further. "What on earth are you doing here?"