Gak, ok, Quick edit is confusing as all hell. Hopefully this works. Sorry for the confusion folks. Combining chapters is not fun…….
Right. So normaly I'm not a big fan of the author's note, especially if it's before the story, but in this case, I think it's pretty necessary. I'll try not to bore you. Unfortunatley, these may come up frequently with the new introduction of different character types. You'll have to pardon me, this is my first fanfic, and first time working on FF.
First, the story is rated R for language and gore. There are some pretty violent (at least in my opinion) scenes in here, and Ken, among other people, has a pretty foul mouth. If you're sensitive to blood, injury, and bad language, you should probably avoid this fic.
Next: Ken is a ninja in this story. So let me explain a few things that I was unable to work into the story context:
Ninjas probably did not run around in black or/and white outfits all the time. In fact, since they're trying to be inconspicuous, they often went around dressed as samurai. Although they worked in secret in service to their employer or Tomo-sama, they also often held the same high rank as samurai as well. They also often dressed as traveling salesmen, which during this period, equates to men and/or women selling medicine, tea, herbs, etc. There are also rumors of them having dressed as bards as well. At the palace of the Shogunate (as in the head of the Tokugawa government), ninjas were employed as gardeners, to keep watch on the grounds, the guests, and other Shogunate employees. Generally, any disguise which enabled them to carry weapons without invoking suspicion was preferred.
About weapons, as far as I can see, the rumor of the Ninja-to was invented by sword manufacturers. Ninjas did carry swords when they could without suspicion (i.e. dressed as a samurai), but not often. Swords are large and difficult to conceal. This makes them a liability when confronting an enemy, as the element of a surprise weapon is gone. Often, however, ninjas would do things such as keep a wakezashi (the smaller of the pair of swords a samurai carries) in a katana sheath. A wakezashi is smaller, lighter, and unexpected. Ninjas had no qualms about how they killed. 'Any means necessary' was fine.
Now, for some vocab. Sorry about all this…
Shoji : The paper-covered sliding window frames in traditional-style Japanese architecture.
Ryokan : A traditional-style Japanese Inn. In these times, it probably meant more of a public inn than anything else.
-kun, -san, -sama : the –kun prefix is used to refer to subordinates; those younger than you, or beneath you in rank or place of employment. This is why Omi can call the rest of Weiss –kun and get away with it. Technically, he's the highest ranking out of all of them. Often, this term is more of an affectionate or friendly meaning. But not always. The –san prefix simply means Mr./Mrs., etc., and is used as a term of respect, regardless, sometimes of friendship. I'm living in Japan right now, and all my friend's names have a –san on the end of them, and they do the same for me. Finally, the –sama prefix is an honorific that is not used often in Japan anymore. It's equivalent could be close to sir, lord, or lady, but it can also be used by someone who has a deep love or respect for another person. That usage is rare, however.
Jyonin : As I understand it, this is the highest ranking ninja beneath the ninja leader, or Tomo-sama. Not too clear on this, because one of the Japanese teachers here said she'd never heard of it. Although I've come to understand they don't know as much about this sort of thing as well all think they do. looks embarrassed For now, it's staying.
Tomo-sama : The head of a ninja clan, or the man who employs them.
Geisha : Contrary to confusion, Geisha do not offer sexual services, and are highly, highly respected in Japanese culture, as well as socially. Some geisha, even in modern times, have body-guards. They sing, dance, flirt, and play musical instruments. It is their job to be gay (happy and light, people) and entertaining.
Zabuton : The cushions that the Japanese sit on when sitting on the floor.
Haori, Gi, Hakama : The elements of traditional Japanese clothing. Probably not completely correct. Hakama are wide, pleated baggy pants worn by samurai, priests, and those who practice martial arts. Gi, are the white, plain under er…kimono that are worn underneath the Hapori, or Happi, which are the equivalent of a Jacket. Think Inuyasha. Sesshomaru and Inuyasha both wear all three of these items, and then some.
Wakezashi : The smaller sword in the pair of swords worn by samurai. (Called the Daiso, or large-small) It is a bit straighter and shorter than a katana. As a gesture of peace, a samurai was required to leave his katana on a rack at the entrance of most establishments he entered. The wakezashi, however, was worn on his person at all times, thus ensuring his protection.
"Gochisosama deshita" : This signals the end of a meal and one's departure. It means roughly "Thanks for the food, it was tasty.", which sounds lame, but there really isn't an equivalent in English. Kind of like "Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu." Who the hell says "please regard me favorably" in the English language?!
Ok, so that's all for now. Are you still around? Wow. I'm impressed. Sorry about the length. Trust me, I could write a ten pager on all the cultural foot notes for this thing. I'm so in love with Japanese culture. Hence why I'm living here now I suppose… Ok, you've waited long enough. On with the show! Hope you like it!!
"A snake slipped away.
Only his eyes having looked at me
Remain in grass."
It was early morning on the outskirts of Edo, Japan. The blood red rays of the sun crept slowly through tall, narrow pine trees, transforming the already red-brown bark into a foreboding looking crimson. It cut through the darkness of the small forest to fall gently upon the shoji at the back of a small ryokan at the edge of the woods. It forced its way through the thick yet delicate paper to fall directly upon the sleeping face of Hidaka Ken.
He scrunched his eyes shut and wrinkled his nose in slight irritation before rolling over on the small, flat futon and pulling the blanket over his eyes. This, of course, only served to leave his feet bare, which was almost as annoying. With no fire lit yet, the air in the room still held the deep chill of a mid-autumn morning. Ken tried to pretend his feet weren't cold in the name of getting just a little more sleep. He really should not have had that last bottle of sake. Honestly, what had he been thinking? Certainly not that he was going to be up with the sun the next day.
He lay in the stillness for a little while more, trying to gain rest and comfort from the soft sounds of the woods and the early risers on the street in front of the ryokan.
His peace was disturbed with finality as the sounds of the cook and maids going about their business at the front of the inn increased in volume with the ever expanding sun light. He sighed and rolled onto his back.
A muffled groan sounded from the general direction of his lower right leg. Ken chuckled and reached out to gently whack a sleepily rumpled mass of soft black hair.
"What's the matter Ryuuta-kun? Can't hold your sake? he teased without even having to look. Another groan, this one less muffled and more pronounced, told Ken that Ryuuta was probably glaring at him.
"I can hold it just fine when I get some sleep afterwards! How'm I supposed to function with a hangover at the crack of dawn?!" he grumbled in exasperation. Ken looked over just in time to see Ryuuta's dark head hit his futon forehead first in tired aggravation. He chuckled again.
"Just like the rest of us kiddo. It builds character. It's only tough the first few times." Ken replied good naturedly.
"Che." Ryuuta snorted. " I think maybe it's a sign that we shouldn't be drinking while on business. Anything that causes this much pain afterwards probably shouldn't be repeated."
"Shut the hell up and take it like a man son.", another voice, this one slightly roughened by a mountain accent, rumbled into the conversation. "Fuck off Takehiro! I didn't say I couldn't take it, I just said it was fucking painful." Ken chuckled again, this time joined by Takehiro at Ryuuta's heated response.
"Well if you can take it, then stop bitching so much and shut the hell up. Some of us are trying to get a little rest in here!" Takehiro growled when he finished laughing.
"I think you all need to shut the hell up and have some consideration for the rest of us." another voice, this one somewhat quieter and deeper, growled from the far corner of the room.
"Sorry Yanagi-san." they all replied in unison, somewhat subdued.
Yanagi had become the oldest and most serious member of their group. His family was one of the oldest in the Kouichirou Village clan, and one of the most respectable. Or it had been until recently. Ken knew Yanagi's increase in a more severe temperament as of late was probably due to the fact that he hadn't made the rank of jyonin; a first failure in his family for generations. Traditionally, the eldest son of the Yanagi clan had always made high rank as one of Tomo-sama's jyonin, but this year, he had not. Ken had instead risen in his place. It was the first time such an honor had been bestowed upon anyone in Ken's family. That Ken was at least a good eight years younger than Yanagi hadn't helped to ease the embarrassment. And it certainly hadn't done anything to quench the rumors flying around the village about the Yanagi family's sudden and mysterious loss of favor with the Tomo-sama. As a result, Yanagi had been particularly irritable in the face of having to be on a mission during which Ken was in charge; his orders having come from the Tomo-sama himself. Yanagi had not taken that very kindly. He had been conspicuously absent from their small post-mission pre-return home drinking party the previous evening. Such an insult had not gone unmissed by anyone, and the atmosphere had been particularly strained, despite the soothing presence of several lovely and locally talented geisha to lighten the atmosphere. They still had all drank far more than was likely wise.
Ken groaned and rolled over, pulling the blankets over his head once more. He was not looking forward to a day spent beneath Yanagi's spiteful, jealous glare. The period of heavy, uneasy silence that descended upon the room afterwards did not make his day look any more promising.
A short while later saw their bleary-eyed, rough-looking party downstairs in the inn breakfast room, sitting less than enthusiastically on the forest-green zabuton around the low wooden table as they wearily eyed their large, traditional breakfast. The inn-keeper's wife and a maid scurried to get them all rice and pour tea, all the while chatting amiably about this and that. Ken listened with half an ear, for although their chatter was boring him, he knew often that local gossip was one of the best sources of information available. He watched his men as he listened and chatted politely with the boisterous women. Nearly all of them were eating as if they hadn't eaten in three days. Only Ryuuta sat and picked weakly at his food, looking slightly green. Yanagi ate slowly and purposefully, taking his time. Ken already knew they would have to wait for him to finish as they had at dinner the last evening. Which should have been unnecessary, as he had been the first one ready and downstairs in the breakfast room. It really agitated Ken that a grown man would be so immature as to let his spite and anger affect everyone instead of simply the target of such emotions. It was an underhanded thing to do and Ken had not expected it from the seemingly stern, professional man.
It usually took more than a hangover to dampen Ken's ravenous appetite but coupled with the tense air and his continuing discomfiture, he picked at his roasted fish half-heartedly. A shame, as salmon was usually one of his favorites. He wound up forcing himself to eat a tiny bit only so as not to insult the innkeeper or the cook by leaving it untouched completely. He tried telling himself that he was going to need the energy, but somehow, he couldn't help feeling that the rock that had taken up residence in his stomach was not going to like any company.
He tried telling himself that his uneasiness about Yanagi had much to do with the fact that he felt he had betrayed a clansman by somehow taking what was rightfully his. Perhaps he had been awarded his rank, but Ken somehow felt as if he did not deserve it; as if he had cheated the Yanagi family out of an age-old honor not to be broken. Yanagi making everyone else miserable as a result did nothing to alleviate Ken's guilt. Yanagi knew they all had to wait until he finished. Although he was not ranked as leader, he was still ranked as eldest, and therefore was able to command a certain degree of respect. The act was blatantly spiteful, which dragged the party's already dark mood further downwards. Ken was beginning to anticipate a fight from the murderous message forming itself in Takehiro's eyes as they all finished eating. All except Ryuuta and Ken, who politely covered all their dishes and gently pushed them back slightly. Ken was sure the inn keeper and his wife would understand.
As he waited, Ken tugged nervously at his haori and fidgeted with his wakizashi sheath. He looked around sharply yet discreetly to insure that they were not being watched or under suspicion after their previous evening's activities; the ones that had taken place before they had gotten drunk. The mission had really been almost too easy. There hadn't been a single complication. All of the intended victims were in the correct place at the right moment. Ken could have done his job with his eyes closed. It was this ease coupled with the already tense atmosphere that had depleted Ken's appetite. He felt rather ill now. He was lucky he had managed to even eat the small amount of food that he had.
All morning he had felt they were being carefully observed. The hair on his neck hadn't stopped standing straight up from the moment he gotten out of his futon. Ken hadn't excelled to the rank on the base of loyalty alone. He was nothing if not incredibly sharp and alert. His senses were keen and astute, and they had been telling him since the start of the trip that something was off. The previous evening at the tea house, while the others had congratulated themselves on their skill over sake, Ken had been drinking to dispel the nervous tension that was hanging around his shoulders. He tried to tell himself it was only because it was the first mission he had led without the aid of another jyonin. One whom was older with more experience. No matter how many times or how thoroughly he checked, he could find no threats. Now, as they waited for Yanagi to finish, however, the feeling was stronger than ever, and it made Ken maintain a nervous grip on the hilt of his wakizashi, longing to take up his katana once more. It hung innocently on a rack for swords near the entrance, along with many of the other, mostly-ordinary looking katanas. His eyes swept the room once more before glancing to check on Yanagi's progress.
Yanagi was staring at Ken in a way that set his skin to crawling along his body, and a small earthquake began rumbling in his stomach. Not from hunger either. Ken swallowed and his grip tightened reflexively. He suddenly had an odd feeling he needed to get them all home soon. Yanagi slowly went back to eating, his eyes never leaving Ken's face. Ken looked away after a moment, his eyes sliding once more to their immediate surroundings. Yanagi finally put his chopsticks on the chopstick rest and pressed his hands together, performing a slight bow. This was accompanied by the traditional "Gochisosama deshita." spoken solemly, signaling the end of the meal, and their imminent departure. Ken uttered his own remark cheerily, grateful to be leaving despite the fact that he had not touched his food. They all followed his example and rose as one from the tatami and the floor cushions. Ken settled their debt and made small pleasantries with the inn-keeper. They left, quickly and silently sliding their sandals on at the door with long practiced ease. To anyone who was watching, they appeared to be a mid-ranking group of young samurai, hung over from a night of youthful debauchery. Anyone who came close enough to discover the truth died before he could speak it. They each picked their swords out from the rack solemnly and fastened them beneath their wakizashis before they wandered out into the bright, cheery autumn morning.
A cold rush of air hit Ken full in the face as he stepped outside. The sun, now a bright, cheerful yellow in a rare endless blue sky, failed to warm him. He gathered his haori closer to his body, still discreetly maintaining a solid grip on his wakizashi. Despite the secure weight of his katana hanging back in its proper place, Ken knew if there was trouble he would be able to draw and use a wakizashi that much faster. His sharp vigil continued as he led them through the already busy streets of Edo towards the main road that would take them back to the village that lay a day and a half journey's west. The Kouichirou hidden village. Home. His men chatted amiably behind him, laughing occasionally, but Ken's trained ears could hear the strain in their voices. They wanted to get home as much as he did. They brushed past several gaily dressed geisha out for a morning stroll. Some of them giggled and batted their eyes at his group as they bowed a friendly "Good morning." Ken recognized some of the geisha from their fun in the tea house the previous evening. His men smiled back and bowed politely, but were not tempted to distraction, despite the recognition. Ken felt a small rush of pride in their ability to adhere strictly to business when it was necessary, knowing without being told that their leader was on alert.
A geisha with crimson lips that matched the brilliant scarlet leaves dancing around the hem of her delicate autumn kimono smiled at him silkily and batted her eye lashes slowly. Ken smiled, and then started as he recognized the geisha he had been err... fond of… the previous evening. He had of course, been rather drunk, and his behavior had been excused as such, but he still could not help the slight blush that rose to his cheeks. He had, after all, tried to lay in her lap. She smiled knowingly when she saw him, and leaned forward seductively. Her scent was wonderful and he found himself drowning in it slightly. Here, he thought, was perhaps one of the most dangerous things of all. He wondered vaguely how many men of power and influence, depravity and even insanity had shared their secrets with these women. Before he could apologize and tell her he was on his return home, and could not afford to be distracted, however, she began whispering in his ear behind the screen of her finely painted silk fan.
"Some elders should not be respected. Be careful of the company you keep." Her hand brushed his lightly, and he was surprised to feel a feather-light weight settle into it. Then she was pulling away, and laughing gaily behind her fan, painted blood red, as if she had just told a wonderful joke. Ken felt the corresponding smile and laughter fill his face immediately, and he forced a slightly embarrassed flush to fill his cheeks so as to appear flustered by a non-existent seductive murmuring. All the while he was wondering inwardly as to what she had meant. She continued leisurely on her way, pausing in a slightly odd gesture to give a bit more of a respectful bow to Yanagi. Perhaps in deference to his age. .Ken watched, his inner sudden alarm completely unrevealed on his face, as Yanagi gave her a hungry, predatory look. He glanced discreetly down at his hands. She had given him colored rice. The three hard, colorful seeds seemed to mock him with the message they gave cheerily.
Oh, shit. Ken's early morning hangover paled in comparison to the illness he felt overcome him at the sight. This had to be wrong. Not Yanagi. Yanagi was a clansman, his family bound in honor to the village and the Tomo-sama. He would never do anything to endanger them.
But would he?
Ken didn't know. Why the hell did shit like this always happen to him? Was somebody testing him? What if he made the wrong choice? He certainly couldn't accuse Yanagi openly of so severe a crime. If he was innocent, it would embarrass both of them. If he wasn't, he certainly wouldn't admit it. No matter how much the men disliked Yanagi's recent behavior, they would still have difficulty believing such a heavy accusation with no proof.
Still, the fact that Yanagi had been passed over for the position of jyonin began to stand out in Ken's mind. That had been no small dishonor. And Yanagi was not handling the snub very civilly either.
Ken's stomach was about at his knees as they continued walking. He fought hard to maintain an outwardly passive image. It was a battle he almost lost when a hand fell on his shoulder quite suddenly some time later. It was all Ken could do not to turn around with his wakizashi out and ready for business. He muttered a silent prayer of thanks to any deities that were listening when he found that he'd narrowly avoided taking Ryuuta's head off. Ken's relief was short lived, however, as he noticed the dark look on Ryuuta's face.
"Yanagi-san isn't with us. Takehiro noticed he was gone just as we left town." the youth said softly. Ken looked over Ryuuta's head at the rest of his group. He could see that all of his men were on a sharp, uneasy alert.
" Is something going on? I saw they way Yanagi san was looking at you at breakfast. Did something happen that the rest of us don't know about?" Ken turned to look at Ryuuta.
" I don't know Ryuuta-kun. If it did, I know as little about it as all of you. Does anyone know where he went last night?" here Ken addressed the group. They all shook their heads at him grimly. Ken knew better than to ask them if they had seen or heard anything significant. If such was the case, he would have known about it immediately. Ryuuta shifted uneasily from foot to foot.
"What should we do?" he asked softly. What indeed? Yanagi's character was becoming more and more suspicious in Ken's mind. It looked as if his men were feeling the same way. Although that could also be the hangover clinging to their faces. Most of them looked slightly ill still. He couldn't help but wonder if this was a ruse to lure them back into the crowded streets of town where danger could be less easily spotted. However, if they pressed on without the man, Yanagi's pronounced absence could be a sign of a later ambush; one in which Yanagi would not be around to be wounded or killed. Finally, Ken came to a decision. He turned and motioned to them to gather closely.
"It seems to me that trouble is stirring. We're going to press on as quickly as we can. We must get back to the village and inform Tomo-sama of what's happened. He will decide from there what the best course of action will be." He murmured softly, keeping the sound of his voice within only his men's hearing. His hand clenched reflexively around the grains of rice in his palm. 'Traitor.' whispered somewhere in the back of his mind, like the smoke sliding from a pipe. The others nodded in a stern yet grim agreement. Ken nodded in return. "Good. Keep a sharp watch boys. Expect anything, since we don't know for sure. Don't leave the group for any reason." he intoned sternly. They all nodded again and moved apart, some pausing to have a drink or snack, some simply resting on the grass, relaxing beneath the mid-day sun. Ken laughed at Takeshi and Ryuuta's heated bickering, the old man and the youthful boy. It was a laugh that made him feel cold inside.
It was noon when they stopped again. It seemed to Ken that the after-effects of their previous evening's drinking bout was wearing thin on his men. It was slightly puzzling in the face of all the food they'd eaten. Food usually made him feel better after a hang over. Here it seemed to have made his men worse. Ken studied the position of the sun in the sky and squinted at the road ahead of them. Another fifteen minutes would take them into the shade of the woods. This was a riskier part of the journey Ken had been fearing since Yanagi's marked absence. The woods were an easy place for a waiting ambush to hide, even as it hid his own group from view. It would be an ideal place for attack. It was also the furthest point between villages, in which they were an equally far distance from civilization both behind and ahead of them. If they made it through the woods unscathed, they would be nearly home, and fairly safe from another ambush so close to their own hidden village.
'Unless they've already attacked the village'. a voice in his mind whispered in a hiss. Ken refused to consider the possibility. He didn't even know for sure if they were in any danger, let alone their entire village. Once they had adequately rested, they began moving on at a slower pace than they had taken earlier that morning, and Ken's anxiety seemed to be reaching its apex. He couldn't hide it even if he wanted to now. Ryuuta stayed close to his side, his eyes constantly darting around them, especially around Ken, in search of any sudden or hidden threats. Takeshi stayed close to Ryuuta for the same reasons, although it was obvious to anyone with eyes that he was looking out more for the younger boy's safety than Ken's.
They reached the cool, dark shade of the woods without incident, and continued walking, all on alert. Although Ken was beginning to notice a marked difference in his men. Whatever illness had claimed them this morning seemed to have increased dramatically, and even Takeshi was looking a bit harried and pale.
It was ten minutes later when the first man dropped.
Ken spun around, this time with his katana out and at the ready before he could even think to perform the action, everyone else having followed suit. He could hear Takeshi's heavy, labored breathing beside him, and Ryuuta's fainter, more controlled breathing on his right. Nothing moved. Not a sound could be heard. Everything was peaceful and calm.
Koji lay in the center of the road, face to the side, eyes open in death, lips slightly parted. His skin had become grey in a matter of seconds, horrible dark bruises beneath his eyes. There were no weapons protruding from his body, nor any wounds to speak of, but Ken already knew that there had been no attack. Not from the woods anyway. His sword slid back into its sheath with a sickening hiss as Ken rushed forward to Koji's side.
But Ken had already known that as well. He turned slowly to look at the faces of his men; pale, drawn faces, hollowed eyes, and dry, cracked lips. They were dying. They were all dying slowly. Someone had poisoned them.
The breath seemed to stop in his throat as if all the air in his body was trying to get out at once. "Everyone, sit down, and drink some water. It's time for a rest." he said slowly, surprising even himself at the calm strength in his voice. No one spoke. They simply sat resting, in shock. One or two sat near Koji, eyes glassy with ill-contained, unshed tears. Ken would not allow himself the tears yet. He had failed. Utterly and miserably. But he would do what he could for his men. "Can anyone guess what kind of poison it is?" he asked slowly.
" Don't think there's anything we can do boss. S'no good…Even if we did know, it's too late. By the time we figure it out and try to get an antidote, we'll probably be dead if Koji-kun over there is any sign." the lightness in Jiro's voice was so strained it made Ken feel even sicker. He turned to look at the man, unable to hide the pain in his eyes. He crouched down to their level and looked into their faces, opening his mouth to say something only to have nothing come out. It was like a nightmare, and Ken kept hoping to wake up safe at home in bed. Anywhere but here, looking into the faces of death; faces that had followed him so willingly and trustingly. Tears burned the corners of his eyes and his throat swelled painfully, and still, no words would come. How could he say anything? They were dying because of him. Because of his stupidity, they were dying. Ken suddenly wished fervently that he'd been the only one to eat breakfast that morning. He'd have deserved it.
"Will you knock it the fuck off!? The two of you. S'not like any of us saw it coming. We ain't fortune-tellers, or seers, or any other kind of those nut-jobs. We're just men. Hung over men. We didn't think about what we were doing either. Don't flatter yourself by thinking you're the only man who can think for himself here." Takeshi's rough, rasping voice was somehow full of strength, and the hand that thumped Ken companionably on the back nearly toppled him forward the rest of the way to the ground. He choked and righted himself, turning to give a heated denial to Takeshi's attempt to lighten the burden of his own faults, but the fire burning in Takeshi's eyes brooked no argument. Ryuuta made a soft, strangled sound from somewhere behind him.
"You listen to me, Hidaka. I don't give a shit what anyone says, or tells you to do. This is the request of a dying man. You find the sonofabitch who did this, and you fucking make him wish for death, clear? You too boy." Takeshi nodded at Ryuuta over Ken's shoulder. " You find him, and you get some damn answers. Find out who that pansy Yanagi's workin' for, and fucking kill him too. Nobody crosses the Kouichirou clan and lives. " he growled. But the growl was weak, and the fire in his eyes was fading. "Nobody…"he finished, and leaned back, his face drained and pale. There were tears moving slowly down Ken's cheeks, but he didn't feel them as he took in the nods of approval from the rest of his men.
"Make them pay Hidaka-sama. Show them that we aren't weak. Show them that they can't get away with betrayal." someone else called out weakly. Whoever it was, Ken guessed maybe Jiro, ended in a fit of dry, hacking coughs. There was a soft mummur as the sound died away.
" I want Yanagi's head on a pike right in front of my fucking grave, you hear me Hidaka? I'll haunt your ass into eternity until it happens." Takeshi spat. Ken could only nod for several long seconds.
"A-aa. I'll bring it, Takeshi." he managed hoarsely.
"Hidaka-sama?" another, weak voice called. Ken turned to face a younger man, one only slightly older than Ryuuta's youthful 15 years.
"Aa, Chihiro-kun." He replied, rising and crouching by the younger man's side. Judging by his pallor and labored breathing, he would not be alive much longer. A fine sheen of sweat glistened on his forehead as he struggled to speak. Ken leaned forward to spare him a bit of the effort.
"When we d..ie…, you m-must…leave us h-here…" Ken frowned.
"No, Chihiro. Don't you want to be buried honorably? You died serving Kouichirou-sama and your brothers in arms." Chihiro chuckled weakly.
"Later, Ken-sama. If to…f-find….us, they will know…..for certain….that you have survived…if we are gone…and that….is dangerous….we will slow…your journey….find back with more men….l-live t-to seek…..revenge….and bury us…honorably…" Chihiro was choking now, handsome face twisted and grey with the pain. Saliva oozed from one corner of his mouth. Ken shook his head and pressed his fingers against Chihiro's blue lips gently.
" Don't worry, I will. I wasn't going to try and bury you now. I'm not that hard-headed." he assured, the quavering of his voice sapping the humor from the remark. Several more nods of approval. When Ken looked back at Chihiro, his eyes stared emptily at some point through Ken's chest. Ken sighed and closed the youth's eyes with a shaking hand. He made a small, choking sound in the back of his throat, and it sounded like a gun-shot in the silence.
"You still here Hidaka?!....Thought I told you to get the fuck out….find that bastard Yanagi…the hell are you doing waiting around here for us to die for…? Won't do us no good, and it ain't gonna make you feel better…so take the kid and get the hell back to the village….I'll handle things from here…" and Takeshi was standing, grunting, and then swaying unsteadily. Ryuuta was at his side in an instant.
"What the fuck is the matter with you old man!? Sit down before you fall down!" Ryuuta's voice was laced with panic. Ken knew Takeshi could not die in Ryuuta's presence, even though that was the most honorable thing Ryuuta could do for Takeshi. Waiting for his men to die was an honor that Ken wanted desperately to give them. He walked over quickly.
"Sit down, idiot." He groused roughly. Takeshi glared at him.
"Not until you leave." his chin shot out defiantly, and some of the fire had lit in his eyes again. Ken met him evenly, stare for stare.
"I will give my men the honor of witnessing their death in my service, and in the service of Kouichirou-sama." he replied firmly, although the affection in his voice softened the edge a bit.
"Dammit Ken!! You don't have time for this shit! Get the hell out of here before they come down and kill you!! You wanna end up dead like an idiot!? The biggest gods-dammned honor that you're gonna give us is the death of that bastard traitor. Bury us later! I don't fucking want you here wasting your time because protocol says you gotta stay and watch us die! Fuck that! GET OUT OF HERE!!" Takeshi roared, nearly falling into Ken's face as he lost his balance and instead winding up with his nose inches from Ken's own.
Ken stared into those eyes; fierce, fiery eyes, the eyes of every warrior of legend that Ken had heard as a boy. Eyes that flashed lethally at him now, daring Ken to disobey, daring Ken to defy the man who'd stood up to him and ordered him to do what was right. He was startled from the intensity by the light weight of Ryuuta's hand settling warmly into his shoulder.
"Hidaka-sama. Let's go."
Ryuuta's voice was strong and firm, and Ken turned to look at him. He was crying as well, silent tears that coursed down his cheeks, his eyes full of a pained yet determined spark. "Pops here can take care of this. And we're gonna go take care of the rest. We have to. They're asking us to." Ken looked back to Takeshi and then nodded slowly. He looked over the faces of his men one last, final time; committing their, proud, loving faces to his memory as they stared at him with stoic acceptance and love. Several of them nodded at him, and he nodded in return.
"We're leaving. We will not fail you." And then he turned and ran into the forest and away from the easy detection of the road, not once looking back. Ryuuta was at his side the whole way.
Wow, sorry about all the changes, but for some reason, my Japanese system seems to keep screwing all my documents up a bit. That or can't seem to process it. In any case, combined the Author's note and Chapter one because the Chapter menu was freaking out on me... hope this works....