You've probably picked already, but I had serious trouble with this chapter. I was totally frozen on it until February this year, when I finally asked for help on a forum site for breaking my writer's block. It's safe to say that everything I wrote before February (and it was only two pages) was thrown out, and I started again.
And then life tried to disembowel me. (Y'know, I think life has something against me … -looks shifty-) So I put aside the first scene for a couple of months and did no writing at all, except for that drabble. The last ten pages of this chapter were all written in the last week, and I am much relieved that my muse sparked back into action to do this.
Hence, I do apologise for the incredibly lengthy break between chapters. And thank you to Conspirator and Omasuoniwabanshi, who offered writer's block breaking techniques. It is much appreciated, and without that intervention it could have been another year as I tried to keep writing the same scene over and over that just didn't work.
So …here's hoping you're still interested in reading! And … still interested in reading at the end …
The Road of Good Intentions
The snowfall was slow and steady throughout the morning, finally stopping in the early afternoon. Saito had swept the snow out of the doorway with his scabbard and one foot so that they could close the splintered door and give them true shelter for the first time in days. The warmth should have felt glorious; a brief snatch of comfort in a long and weary trek that would only continue again tomorrow, if not sooner.
Kenshin took no pleasure from it. He sat against the wall, legs stretched out to ease the stiffness of his knee. In silence, he ran a rag down the length of his katana. Cleaning the blade was less a necessity than it was something to do while he waited out the snowfall. Trapped in the silence of a blood-spattered cabin with a man he had no cause to like, he would much rather keep himself occupied with such familiar tasks than attempt any sort of conversation.
Saito obviously felt the same way. The wolf had helped him shift the bodies of the older couple into the tiny storage shed out the back, laying them out carefully. There was little else they could do for now. Since then, Saito had remained by the door, glancing through the thin gap as if he expected trouble, keeping to himself. Given his apparent habit of starting irritating conversations, it struck Kenshin as out of place. On the other hand, not too long ago they'd reached an accord of their own, despite being enemies. The silence had turned heavy, charged with an awkwardness that seemed to indicate any attempt at speaking would destroy the very fragile balance of their agreement.
Neither of them had said a word in over three hours.
When the snow stopped, Saito stepped away from his place, pulling the door open quietly to stare at the fresh blanket of white outside. The sky was still cloudy, although the blue sky could be seen struggling through in places. Chances were likely it would snow again later. If they didn't go now, however, they might miss their chance. Bandits and deserters both would peer nervously at the sky and stay exactly where they were, hoping for a better prospect for travel in the morning.
Leaving now meant that the two of them had a good chance of finding their quarry before it moved, catching them unaware in the passes. After that … Kenshin rose to his feet without a sound and slid his sword back into its sheath. He wouldn't lie to himself. He was going up the mountain to slaughter men who would be outmatched from the start, in order to take what had belonged to this cabin. Even given the ugly death meted out to the widow and her parents, it was not a battle he looked forward to in any way.
Yet he knew that even in the unlikely event that the deserters would not fight them, there was little choice. Putting aside the fact that leaving the men behind alive in the middle of nowhere with no supplies and nowhere to go would leave them with an effective death sentence in any case, Kenshin knew already that Saito would walk up into the passes, find his prey and kill it without hesitation. It was the sort of thing, he suspected, that Saito did. His own version of justice.
Kenshin wasn't going to argue with the wolf. Not on this point.
He waited for Saito to step out into the cold before following him silently. He closed the door on the way out.
The snow had long erased any footprints, but the men they were following had been careless. The same violent temper that had caused the posts on the road to be kicked was still at work; there were enough signs of split bark and score marks on the rock outcroppings that it was obvious at least one of the deserters lacked any form of self-restraint.
Even if a path had not been left for them, there was only one way for the men to go. And an hour into their journey up the slowly rising slope of the pass, they saw the first wisp of smoke in the air, some distance up. A clear marker. Ahead of him, Saito came to a halt. Kenshin slowed his steps, finally stopping at the wolf's shoulder.
"It will be disappointing if they are entirely stupid," Saito said mildly, staring up at the smoke.
"They won't be expecting pursuit in this weather," Kenshin pointed out. "And others may well assume this band cut the bridge down themselves—"
"Making excuses for them, Battousai?"
He gritted his teeth, retreating into silence. It seemed nothing had changed after all.
"They will at least keep a watch," Saito said after a moment. "That much will be ingrained, no matter who they fought for. How far do you think that fire is?"
A good question. The smoke was distant. He could see no trace of flames, but he'd have been very surprised if he could. The deserters would have found themselves shelter for their campsite. He lifted a hand to shade his eyes against the brightness of the landscape, trying to drink in as many details as possible. There was no sound except for the wind, echoing hollowly through the pass. Nothing to be seen except rock and shadow and snow.
But he could pick the smoke out easily against a backdrop of patched cloud. Not close. Not far, either.
"About two hours from here," he said finally. "Slow travelling conditions."
The ground wasn't easy to travel across, dipping into valleys and grooves like a river bed, and the new snow was treacherous, fresh crust cracking under his feet and sliding down in a way that made the ascent frustratingly slow. He wasn't surprised that the deserters hadn't managed to travel further.
Kenshin gave Saito a sharp glance. There was satisfaction laced through the wolf's voice, but he didn't know why. He refused to ask. "If they have posted a watch, it will be close to the campsite."
"They have the higher ground," Saito replied. "They will see us coming long before we see them. If they are armed with ranged weapons, it will complicate matters."
"It would be foolish of them to use a gun in a place like this."
"You are assuming that they are not foolish."
Good point. Kenshin shifted his gaze to the rock outcroppings that lined the pass. "We can hide our approach easily enough."
"You think so?" Saito lifted an eyebrow. "I have a better idea."
Kenshin kept his head low, weaving carefully around the ice-covered rock jutting from the ground. Taking the higher path was less noticeable than heading straight up through the snowy pass, but he admitted to himself that Saito was right; the cover was far from perfect. All it would take was one man staring at the rocks in boredom to notice a figure furtively slipping between them. Thus, Saito had chosen his own path up the mountain.
He knew that if he wanted to escape Saito's company now would be the best time to turn and head back down through the pass. The wolf would not see him go; once he realised that Kenshin was gone, he would have his hands full with murderous deserters, which would at least slow him down. He might still be able to make it back to Kyoto within four days…
Kenshin kept climbing.
The higher he traveled, the more the wind bit through his clothing and make him hunch against the stone. He wrapped his right hand firmly around the hilt of his katana, clenching and unclenching the fingers to keep the blood flowing against the cold. The rabbit fur and grease was insulating enough, but his fingertips were less protected. It was pointless to arrive at the campsite only to find he couldn't fight.
Ahead, he could hear the faint echo of voices, drifting down to him on the wind along with the acrid tang of smoke. The deserters were still some distance. He couldn't make out the words; a steady patter of noise, broken by occasional laughter that did stand out, loud and raucous. The sound set his teeth on edge. Amusement had no place out here. These men had killed a family this morning.
When he could finally distinguish between voices, Kenshin sank down behind the stone with his katana balanced on his lap. He cupped his hands in front of his face and blew on them gently, wincing at the needling feeling of his fingertips. At least crouched between the rocks he had shelter from the wind; a few hours spent in the warmth of a cabin had made him feel the icy gusts more. And he still wasn't dressed for this. Pragmatically, he knew, that was about to change.
For now, he had to wait. And listen.
"…hell are you looking at, kid?"
"I'm just looking." The speaker was sullen. He also sounded young. Kenshin blinked. He wasn't expecting that. And yet of course he should have; he himself was only sixteen, and there were younger people than that involved with the Ishin Shishi.
"Stop it then."
"I'm allowed to look," the boy said stubbornly. His voice was trembling. "It's my job anyway."
"Don't mouth off, you little shit." The first voice was rough, with an ugly edge to it. Kenshin suspected the raucous laughter of before belonged to this man. "I'm not taking that from some kid."
"Leave him alone, Hachiro," someone said evenly.
"Maybe I'm bored," the rough one – Hachiro – shot back. "He should entertain me, not stare at rock all day."
Kenshin shifted carefully against the stone and dropped one hand back to the hilt of his katana. He was sure he hadn't given away his presence. Then again, there was nothing to say that the people he was listening to wouldn't gaze at the rocks out of sheer boredom. Saito had been right; a fact, he decided, that was not going to get back to Saito.
On the other hand, if people were gazing in his general direction surprise would be lost. And he still didn't know what these people were armed with.
"He's not here for your entertainment."
"Well, I guess I already had plenty."
There was laughter from the group. He could pick five men from that sound alone, though Kenshin was sure that the young one and the man defending him had kept silent. At least seven, then.
"Is that what's bugging you, kid?" Hachiro continued cheerfully.
"No, sir." The reply was a bare whisper.
"Eh, look." The note of condescension in Hachiro's voice was enough to set Kenshin's teeth on edge. "It's not our fault. The old guy shouldn't have held out, right? We weren't gonna do nothing they couldn't fix—"
"One might consider touching his daughter something … unfixable."
The words were cold. Kenshin narrowed his eyes. The speaker was the same one who had defended the boy earlier; a man clearly unhappy with Hachiro's decisions. Given enough time, he suspected this group of men would turn on each other. Hachiro is the nominal leader. But he sounds … clumsy. Undisciplined. The unknown speaker sounded more of a threat; his words were carefully edged in a way that suggested the man was contemplating cold blooded murder.
"Well, listen to you!" The ugly tone had crept back into Hachiro's voice.
"You should have left it alone, Hachiro."
"Bit late to argue now, isn't it? I didn't see you running forward to stop me."
There was more laughter. Kenshin edged along the stone as it died away, leaving empty silence. It stretched to uncomfortable lengths.
"Nothing to say?"
There was a pause.
"I bet," someone else cut in with a snigger, "Kai's just upset because he didn't get to her before she did herself in."
Kenshin's fingers clenched on the hilt. Laughter had broken out, although this time it was more uneasy than amused. It was cut short by the harsh and fast slither of a katana being jerked from its sheath.
All attention would be focused on that one action. A distraction was all he needed. Kenshin moved from the rock. He caught a brief glimpse of the tableau by the fireside; two more than he'd originally estimated, huddled under a rock shelf along with the stolen supplies behind the flames. The others were sprawled around the fire; in front of it, a hulking, older man with graying hair stood facing a samurai in his late teens with a drawn sword. Kai, he assumed.
Behind Kai, a boy of maybe fourteen sat huddled on the ground, hands working in the cloth of his hakama. He looked sick.
There were nine altogether.
Kenshin vanished into cover again, working his way around behind the campsite.
"You really want to do that?" Hachiro rumbled almost pleasantly. "You're guilty as the rest of us. Who was it pointed out the cabin? Who was it suggested we take what we needed?"
The mood had turned dangerous. Kenshin found himself hoping that Kai would do the hitokiri's job for him. He quashed the thought as he edged closer to the rock shelf, carefully hidden from the group. Kai clearly had skill … but if he could kill these men on his own, Kenshin suspected he would have already done so. Whatever else the man might be guilty of, his fury at the insult to his integrity was sincere.
The boy finally spoke again, his voice pleading. "Nii-san?"
Brothers. Will he stand down? Kenshin found the edge of the rock shelf with his foot and tested it with his weight. Then he jumped, landing partway up the incline. His knee twinged, but held steady. He climbed silently upward.
He heard the sound of the sword being sheathed as he reached the top, and gave a faint sigh. Kenshin risked a glance over the edge. He was on top of the deserters' makeshift shelter now; two of the men were out of sight. He let his gaze sweep the camp properly before pulling back, confirming the numbers. Most were armed with swords. Kai had a pistol tucked into his belt. Kenshin winced. That, he would have to deal with.
He saw a snowflake drift down to earth, and cursed.
"I apologise," Kai said stiffly. "I am on edge."
"Everyone is." Hachiro sounded relieved. "Just sit down. Look … it's snowing again."
Someone swore. "Great. Hope it doesn't last."
"Look on the bright side. Nobody's gonna follow us in this."
"They might," the boy said nervously.
Hachiro snorted. "Who'd be stupid enough? Look around. Nobody'd climb up here except us runaways. Even if they did, we'd see 'em coming." His voice turned conspiratorial. "Right, Kai?"
Kai didn't respond. Kenshin reached up to brush the icy touch of snow from his neck. It wasn't snowing hard; it was barely snowing at all. But the sky was growing dark. They needed to finish here, and fast.
"There's someone down there!"
Kenshin jerked upright at the panicked shout and stared down the slope, eyes catching the familiar white and blue of Saito's haori. The wolf was stalking brazenly up through the middle of the pass, sword already drawn, gaze lifted toward them. The distance was still too great to see his expression, but it wasn't necessary. His intent was clear.
The camp descended into panic. Kenshin glanced down as the deserters scrabbled to stand, hurrying to Hachiro's side as the big man stared down the slope. The boy stayed where he was, hands clenched white-knuckled on his sword hilt.
"He's alone! It's okay!"
"Do you realise who that is!?"
"He can't be here for us!"
"By himself, he's just a target!" Hachiro barked, face white. His sword was out. "Kill him! Shoot him down! Do it!"
Kai drew the pistol uneasily. Kenshin whispered a brief apology, vaulted over the edge of the shelf and landed crouched by the camp fire behind Kai and his brother. In the chaos of Saito's dramatic appearance, his arrival went utterly unnoticed. The katana was drawn in one swift, sharp motion as he straightened, slicing cleanly through Kai's midsection and up into his back.
Kai made no sound as he died. The gun dropped to the ground as his fingers jerked on the pistol butt and lost their grip. Kenshin's sword came free with a twist of the hitokiri's wrist; face blank, he flipped the blade back as Kai fell. Blood spattered across the snow.
It was only when the boy screamed, wild and hysterical as he saw Kai topple into the snow, that attention turned back to the campfire.
The men jerked around at the sound. Kenshin made no attempt to hide. Most likely these men had fled from Kyoto, and in these circumstances he was willing to have his growing reputation work for him. He strode forward to stand with his back to the fire and lifted his sword, staring coldly down at Hachiro with all the venom he could muster. It wasn't very hard, given the circumstances.
For what you have done, you will die.
One of the deserters made a faint squeaking sound, stumbling backward until he was almost sliding away through the fresh snow. Two others gripped their swords warily, trying to edge around him without being noticed. Hachiro's eyes were wide and shocked; his gaze jerked from Kenshin and then down to Saito and back with bewilderment that was fully understandable.
Behind him, the boy's scream dwindled into broken crying.
Kenshin spoke, voice soft. "Hachiro."
Hachiro stiffened and took a step backward. He smiled weakly. "Look, I understand. I can help you, right?"
Kenshin blinked at him in honest disbelief. "Do you think I am here for him?"
In response, Hachiro turned and fled down the slope. Kenshin took two steps after him and then halted as he heard the yell from his left; he swung around, blade up to catch the sword that descended on him with desperate force. Hachiro was a coward; his friends were merely underhanded. He parried the blow effortlessly, batting the terrified man's sword away before running him through.
There was no thought involved. Instinct carried him through as he jerked the katana free and spun around in a wide arc to score a wound across the other man's stomach. His opponent had the reflexes to pull back just enough from the strike to save his life. He parried Kenshin's second strike barely, sword nearly jarring from his hands as he braced an arm over his gut. His eyes were wide with fear.
The third stroke carved deeply along the deserter's chest while he was still trying to recover his guard. The sword dropped from his hand as he slumped to his knees, fighting to breathe. Still living, though not for long. The hitokiri's next strike made sure of it, katana slicing through his victim's throat. Blood fountained, hissing as it fell into the fire. Kenshin flicked his blade clean once more, face impassive.
The rest were running. He didn't care. He could catch the slowest of them with ease, and the others would only run into Saito. The wolf had already broken pace, sprinting through the snow with surprising agility to take down his own prey. Between the two of them they would cut the deserters down within minutes.
He heard a sound behind him and turned on reflex, his weapon already slicing upward in a lethal arc. Instinct; a fast stroke, almost automatic, to take the person creeping up behind him off guard. As he turned, his eyes caught the pale, tear-stained face of his target. There was blood spattered across one cheek and dripping down to his jaw. The boy's mouth was slack with shock. He wasn't attacking. He hadn't even drawn his sword; it was clutched in its sheath with shaking hands.
The hitokiri flinched, shaken back to full awareness. The blade whistled up; it would cleave the boy in two. He tried to wrench the blade off course, lashing out with a foot to kick the boy in the gut and knock him backward. His strike caught the boy just under the shoulder, slicing shallowly up across the arm. Kenshin staggered backward, breathing hard as the boy dropped to the ground, sheathed sword falling gracelessly into the snow.
He swallowed. Too easy to become the killer, and even now his instincts screamed at him to finish the job. Saito would have killed the boy without a second thought.
But this boy had no part in the massacre.
"Stay down," he said roughly.
The boy blinked, eyes becoming clearer as his hand slowly drifted to the wound on his shoulder. He stared at Kenshin – through Kenshin – and then reached for the sword on the ground.
Kenshin gritted his teeth and lifted his sword. The hilt cracked into the boy's head, laying him out flat in the snow.
Saito wasn't precisely having fun, but he had to admit to a certain satisfaction at the situation. His arrival had distracted them from the hitokiri, who had in turn distracted them from him – which meant the fools now running away from Battousai had yet to fully realise they were now running toward Saito. He made short work of the first one, sword out and through a man's chest before the man had even lifted his sword to parry.
The others were far more wary, attempting to circle and take him from multiple sides. An amusing thought. He briefly wondered if they would just try to break and run. It didn't matter either way. He would see them all dead in a matter of moments, near effortlessly. Nobody would be allowed to leave here alive. And it seemed as if Battousai had already engaged and dealt with the more challenging opponents.
The big man, halfway down the slope, was the only one not running toward him. Picking his way across the snow carefully, he was slowing with every step, clearly intent on letting the others fight Saito first. A coward. An intelligent one, but nevertheless. Saito's lip curled. These people were barely worth his time. He should have sent the hitokiri up here on his own.
The three that edged around him were apparently in no hurry to make the first move. Saito crouched down by the corpse of the first one, nonchalantly wiping his sword clean on the back of the man's gi in a move designed to infuriate. He smirked as he heard a growled insult, and straightened to face the man who'd spoken.
"You missed your chance," he said.
The man's lips thinned and he spat on the ground before attacking. Saito's arm blurred. His opponent's sword dropped to the ground as the man shrieked, fingers of his newly severed hand still wrapped around the hilt. He caught movement to his right as another tried to run and twisted around, cutting him down before he could take more than a few steps. The third backed away, eyes wide, still clutching his sword in front of him.
His first opponent was on the ground, clutching at his wrist desperately as he edged toward the severed hand in the snow. Maybe he thought he could reattach it. Saito didn't really care. He stepped forward, putting the bloodstained steel to the man's throat, point pricking into the skin.
"Who decided to attack the cabin?" he asked flatly.
"Go to hell—"
"You still have a hand left."
The man went still.
"It's Hachiro!" the other one burst out, still backing away. "He did it! Go kill him! We didn't do anything!"
"The Shinsengumi live by a particular motto," Saito said. "Do you know what it is?"
His eyes went wide with fear. "No, don't—"
The campsite was quiet. Kenshin glanced around at the bodies. Three, plus the boy lying unconscious in the snow. Five left, then. He paused by Kai's body, crouching down long enough to lay a hand on the fallen samurai's hair. Out of all of the men, this one had seemed decent enough. The boy, he would have to deal with somehow; he hadn't hit him too hard. For now, he would help Saito deal with the rest.
If he actually needs my help. He glanced into the dim lighting under the shelf of rock at the bundled goods stolen from the cabin, and took a breath. Then he turned, half-sliding down the snowy slope toward the wolf, brushing away the few flakes that were beginning to cling to his shoulders. Saito was surrounded by corpses. Four. None of them were big enough to be Hachiro.
Kenshin halted his slide, gaze searching the pass, and saw him by the rocks. He was smiling, katana still held casually in one hand, his eyes on Saito. The smile was frozen on his face. Hachiro knew he was going to die.
"Battousai." Saito, trudging up the slope toward the big man, voice carrying through the crisp air. "All accounted for?"
"Except this one," he replied quietly. The wolf was close enough to hear him now. "He leads them."
"That would make you 'Hachiro' then," the wolf mused.
The emphasis put on his name was enough to make the blood drain from Hachiro's face. "Listen—"
"To what?" Saito cut him off, coming closer. "Your excuses? I don't care who you are. I'm only interested in what you've done."
"I didn't do anything wrong. I was—I'm on your side! I was leading a –a scouting party—"
"Were you?" was the mocking response. "If you're on my side, you're certainly not on his."
Hachiro turned and met Kenshin's amber gaze, and pressed himself further back against the rocks.
"Go down fighting or be cut down like a dog," Saito said mildly.
There was silence. Then Hachiro snarled and leaped forward, sword swinging wildly for Kenshin's head. The hitokiri sidestepped with ease, snapping his own blade up and around, burying it deep in the big man's torso.
There was a faint breath of laughter from the dying man's throat. Then he fell bonelessly to the ground and was still.
Kenshin jerked his sword free and wiped it on Hachiro's clothing before sheathing it. A victory, no scratch on either of them. It was expected. The ease of it left him feeling mildly ill.
"I'm surprised you didn't kill Hachiro yourself," he said softly.
"I'm surprised you're complaining," Saito retorted. "He wasn't worth my time."
And the others were? He put little thought into it, however; examining Saito's motives wasn't something he cared to do at length. And the snow was coming down harder, now. They had to gather what they needed and retreat back to shelter before it was too late.
"Come on," he said, and turned to trudge back up to the camp.
The sound of the gun took him entirely by surprise. He flinched at the crack that echoed through the pass, dropping to the ground. Behind him, Saito gave a faint grunt.
A scream came careening down the pass. "You bastard!"
The gun. Kai had fallen on it. He'd left it there.
"Battousai," Saito said between his teeth. He risked a glance and saw Saito staggering upright to draw back between the rocks. Blood was seeping through his haori at the arm. A glancing shot. An unlucky one; Kenshin was sure Saito hadn't been fired at. He was the target.
Kenshin launched himself up, running at breakneck speed through the treacherous snow. The shot's echo had only just begun to die. There was an ominous sound like thunder before it, too, died away. Above, silhouetted by the fire, the boy weaved on his feet, trying to aim again. He wasn't used to the gun; he could only hit by sheer chance. That wasn't what Kenshin was worried about.
"You killed my brother!"
The second shot went wide; he heard it slam into the rocks nearby. And then Kenshin was flying into the camp, tackling the boy off his feet and ripping the gun out of his grasp. The sound was deafening, accompanied by a further sound of thunder and then a series of cracks.
Kenshin glanced far up the slope just in time to see an entire shelf of snow give way and crash down into the pass, sending a white powdery cloud high into the air.
The blood in his veins turned to ice. For the first time in years he was frozen at a loss, staring at the rain of white as it began to come back to earth; snow dusting down across his head and shoulders. The snow was moving—
It took the intervention of the boy trying to kill him to snap him from his shock. With a wild cry the boy struck out at him with a knife. Kenshin caught the blade in one hand, feeling the edge bite along his palm, and jerked it away. He stood up, hauled the struggling boy to his feet and flung him bodily underneath the rock shelf. It might save the boy's life. It might not. He had no time for anything else.
Then the avalanche overtook him, smashing him off his feet and tumbling him under a river of snow and ice and rock.
Well … I've never written one of those before. ::hides::
Your humble authoress will attempt not to have such a huge break in chapters again, but she won't promise. I keep thinking that I've done the hardest work for the story with each chapter I write, and as I go I realise the next chapter will be difficult for entirely different reasons. What I can tell you is, of course, that I will see this story through to the end, no matter how long it takes.
Next chapter: Saito doesn't like being shot at. Unfortunately the person he wants to snarl at most is buried under a lot of snow … but at least it means his return home to Kyoto will be quieter now, right?