(-grin!-) Been a lot time since I've updated this poor, neglected fic. Been so busy with my other projects that this one got put so far on the back burner that it got knocked right off the stove. But I have not forgotten it, and was in the mood for some fantasy, so…
An Old Story
"You're going to pay, Battousai!"
He tried his best to stop trembling. It got them more excited because it made him look like he was afraid. He wasn't afraid, not exactly. Not in the way they thought he was.
He couldn't keep still because he was in pain. The broken collar bone hurt, but more than that, the shoulder wound. His clothing was ripped away from his skin, soaked with his blood, and the skin was ripped away from sheets of raw nerves and muscle, exposing it to the air. It was by far the most serious wound he had ever suffered.
Of course, that pain was about to seem as nothing, he reflected grimly, as bundles of dry sticks were piled around the stake to which he was so tightly trussed.
He sadly scanned the crowd, their jeers and taunts single-minded and monotonous and derivative as the stones they sometimes threw. They shouted the same things over and over. "You'll pay!" was the favorite cry.
Pay for what, though? He had never been to this village, and it was located too far away from any of the fighting for anything he had ever done to actually affect any of them. No, this blood-lusty little town was merely excited to get ahold of the badly-injured Battousai, excited to place a painful death upon him, and most of all excited to recount the tale until it spread everywhere, the name of their village and its "heroes" spun into legends for years to come. This was not for revenge nor for punishment. This was for sport and recognition and commerce.
It was perhaps closer to murder than anything he had done, but he was not one to judge such things. It was one thing for him to feel that perhaps he deserved death, but his imagination had been led down more justifiable means like on the end of another's weapon, of cold or starvation, or of infected wounds, or drowning or plague.
He never expected to be burned to death by a vicious small town.
Already his ears could pick up their words as they tried to get their story straight. History would say this town bested him, not the truth that they had cornered him in the forest, weak from injuries, blood loss, and thirst after fighting that dragon…what had been that dragon's name? T'Sa-ni, or something like that. The scaly monster had underestimated him because of his small size and weak appearance, thought him a good snack. He had kept up the fight because he knew this village was nearby, and T'Sa-ni would surely pick it clean and then crush it to ashes.
In the end, the dragon flew away, with one talon less than before it had challenged him. Of course, he had been badly injured too.
This wasn't exactly the most grateful town he'd ever protected, to be certain. These people were ignorant, the lack of education in everything from extremely poor hygiene to exceptionally poor speech, and poverty could be taken in of its condition in every sense. They were even going to eat that dragon's talon that had been left behind. He supposed that being the town that killed Battousai would only bring better things their way.
He had been willing to risk his life to protect theirs, but he wasn't willing to die to bring them affluence. He tried to get his feet under him, but they were tied around the pole, so that most of his weight was centered on the painful area of his shoulders. They were too good at this not to have burned people alive before.
Devastatingly barbaric. Perhaps he should have just let the damn dragon eat everyone in this town after all.
He let out a long breath, watching with sorrowful eyes as they came forward with torches, laughing lightly like this was some sort of festival event. Even had he known this was going to happen, he would still not have allowed T'Sa-ni to destroy them. Could he have changed anything, he would have found a better way to hide himself until he gained enough strength to move on. He'd just never thought they would do something like this after he went through so much to save them.
But…he was young and this was just another lesson in trust and treachery that he'd just learned…not that he would live long enough for the new knowledge to become new wisdom.
He was going to die. Very, very horribly.
His vision blurred a little as they set fire to the dry sticks and tufts of straw piled around him. Maybe…he was still bleeding, so maybe he would bleed to death before the fire became too painful…
At first, he didn't notice the young voice that was calling out. It had just been mixed in with the other noises in the crowd. But the voice got louder, as its owner forced her way through.
The flames spread quickly, eating away at its dry fuel and rising higher as she shouldered her way through and ran up to the sticks.
She was very young. Ten or eleven at most. A determined face and large, flashing sapphire eyes. She stared at him in outrage and pity for a mere second or so before turning to the crowd. "You can't do this! He's just a little boy!"
Fire licked at his legs, burning his clothes as he looked at the swinging ponytail of the girl. He was seventeen…had not considered himself a "little boy" in a long while. But he found, as the fire began to eat away at him, that her words helped his heart some. Somebody cared. At least one person, this little girl, didn't hate him… He didn't deserve her kindness, but it was nice… He was so very grateful.
"He's only a child! You can't burn a child!" she shouted again. They weren't listening. If anything, she was only adding to their amusement. He hoped she would be turned away before he could no longer keep back the screams already bubbling up inside him, taken away by her parents or some of the other adults before his form became something to haunt her nightmares.
He had most certainly not expected her to turn suddenly, reach down and pick up a sharp stone, and then leap into the flames with him!
She hissed and shrieked as the tongues of fire licked her bare feet and legs, but she didn't stop coming, climbing the sticks to him.
"What are you doing?" he screamed at her.
Tears streamed down her face as she began hacking at his ropes with the stone. "I won't let them burn you!"
"No, please stop! Please, get away!"
She ignored him, kept hacking at the ropes. Sometimes she missed in her frenzy and hit his arms instead.
Desperately, he looked out into the crowd. Why wouldn't anyone move? Why wouldn't anyone drag the little girl to safety? He expected no mercy for himself, but how much compassion did it take to save one of their own? To save a little girl?
A shadow fell over them, and he looked up along with everyone else. A moment of utter disbelief, drowning out the flames and the shocked gasp of a foolish girl-child trying to follow him into a fiery death. The sun was engulfed in the black silhouette of dragon's wings.
T'Sa-ni arched downward, landing with earth-shaking weight, scattering the crowd and trampling a few of them beneath his feet.
The wind from his wings and his landing had sputtered out most of the fire, but that was hardly a concern anymore. The girl still wouldn't move, twisting her hands in what was left of his smoldering and shredded clothing as she looked on the dragon in horror.
He had no more time to think as T'Sa-ni's ruby eyes, set in a black-scaled face bunched together in rage, turned to see him. His remaining talons raised, gleaming in the sunlight--
Kenshin jerked back, fumbling from his knees and onto his feet. His back hit into the wall so violently it almost took his breath.
He sucked in air raggedly, only dimly becoming aware of someone speaking quietly to him from across the room.
Very slowly, awareness came back to him. He suffered a short moment of embarrassment as he realized it was the guest who was talking to him. Ikiro sat on the other end of Kenshin's room, just inside the moonlight coming from the window.
"Are you all right now, Kenshin?"
Kenshin cleared his throat, settling back down. He had actually tried to sleep sitting up this night, like Ikiro, just to see what it was like. To his surprise, he had taken easily enough to it. It had almost felt…familiar, like he'd done it all his life…
He had not expected to have such a vivid dream in what he thought would be an less comfortable position.
"I…I'm all right, Inouye-san," he whispered. Without realizing what he was doing, he allowed a hand to drift up to touch his shoulder.
It was whole, untorn, but he felt the ghost of pain there still. He pushed his hand under his sleeping robe and felt the unmarred skin. It had seemed so real…of being terribly hurt, the tongues of the fire…and Kaoru.
"Kenshin?" Ikiro's eyes were soft and concerned in the darkness. "What did you dream?"
The question was gentle, but there was the subtle push of command in it. Well-used to being ordered about in the same delicate manner by the ones who'd raised him, Kenshin answered.
"Some people were trying to burn me at the stake," he said quietly, a little shaken by how the feelings of horror lingered. "And I dreamed Kaoru was trying to save me."
"Oh," Ikiro said. There was a pause. "Kenshin…was there a dragon?"
He started. "Yes. How did you…?"
"That's an old story."
"Yes. You know, of the first time Kaoru met Battousai. The First Kaoru and First Battousai. You must have heard the story…that's why the dusty corners of your mind dragged it up and made you dream, eh?"
"No…no I've never heard a story of anyone trying to burn Battousai."
There was another pause. "Oh," Ikiro said again, his voice very low. Then, "Are you sure?"
"I'm sure. Why would I dream I was Battousai?"
Ikiro shoulders lifted slightly. "Didn't you, ah…imitate him when you were a child, wave around a stick like a sword and pretend to fight the Dark Seed? Not many little boys don't dream of being the Hero of the Redeemer."
Kenshin blinked at the fast and slightly raised voice of Ikiro. It sort of seemed like the older man was trying to convince him of something.
And, well, Kenshin never had pretended to be Battousai, though he knew lots of children in Rupta did, boys and girls alike. He never had the urge. Besides, he had a feeling it bothered Kaoru some, when the other children had done that. Kenshin was already training to be a swordsman. Someday becoming Hiko Seijuro the Fourteenth was a destiny in itself.
"It's odd though…how I dreamed Kaoru was so much younger than I. She and I are the same age…and aren't she and Battousai supposed to be too? Born on the same day, at the same moment."
"Yes," Ikiro said softly. "But not the first time. The first time they lived, Battousai was ten or eleven years older than Kaoru."
"But…the things they were shouting. The villagers, trying to hurt him…they were treating him like he was--"
"Kenshin, it was only a dream," Ikiro said with he same soft force of command he had used before.
So much like Natsu, who pushed down questions about his dreams when he nightmared before. "Dreams don't mean anything more than your imagination," she'd say. "You have better things to do than worry about your dreams."
Just a little too loud, and a little too fast came her words, like Ikiro's now.
"Kaoru's celebration will be in the morning," Ikiro said, his voice toned down but cheerful. "We should get some more sleep, because likely it'll last on into the next night. Doesn't it?"
"Yes…usually," Kenshin said.
Still sitting up against the wall, Kenshin slept again, eventually He didn't know Ikiro still watched him through the dark.
A time passed, and Ikiro got up, silently closing the space between himself and Kenshin. Gently, he took the slightly smaller young man by the shoulders and lowered him from the wall to the floor, deftly snatching the pillow atop the unused futon and slipping it under the boy's head. He stepped back smoothly. Kenshin didn't stir.
Ikiro looked down on him another moment. "You had a longer childhood this time. I'm…glad. Let's stretch it out as long as possible. You don't need to dream anymore. Not right now."
The next morning, the dream seemed to have disappeared from Kenshin's mind, and so it almost had from Ikiro as he watched the boy with his friends.
Ikiro had been an attraction in himself as a seldom-seen stranger. In fact, there was an entire generation that had never see anyone outside of Rupta. He was surrounded by kids and asked questions until his tongue went dry, but they were so overjoyed for news and new stories that he couldn't bear to turn them away.
It was Kenshin who saved him, with a smile and a simple sentence: "If you'll all get on the merry-go-round, I'll come and push."
His offer was met with a deafening roar and a stampede toward a strange little platform that Ikiro had mistakenly thought to be a circular bench.
On a real bench, Ikiro sat and watched as Kenshin grasped hold of the metal rails and ran with the merry-go-round. The children all held on, shrieking with laughter as the great toy turned faster and faster, until finally Kenshin's feet left the ground and he jumped on, his hair trailing behind him and his own laughter joining theirs.
He likes to play, Ikiro, his eyes softening as he watched Kenshin jump off to push again when the merry-go-round slowed.
He tore his eyes from the happy scene to move his gaze over the rest of the abbey. Flyers and streamers were everywhere, lots of flags sewn of the brightest colors. There were so many flowers, most likely donated by his hostess. Like some sort of holiday rather than someone's birthday, he saw people exchanging gifts with each other.
Ikiro looked up in time to see a fetching young girl with bright sapphire eyes followed closely by a couple of boys he guessed to be around ten or so. Just behind them jogged a very tall, long-limbed young man with jutting spikes of hair.
"Kaoru," Ikiro murmured, recognizing her.
It had been quite a number of years, but she still looked the same. Of course she would. She was the same person…only she wouldn't remember, of course.
He decided it best not to mention that he had known her in her life before her current one as she, with Kenshin and the other three boys, walked toward him. For all his hard running and play Kenshin had neither broken a sweat or lost his breath, Ikiro noticed, before being introduced to what was probably a very, very tight-knit little group of friends.
The two youngsters were introduced as stepbrothers, Yahiko and Yutaro, the tall boy around the same age as Kenshin and Kaoru was called Sanosuke.
Ikiro smiled at them, liking the way they stood together, like an enclosing circle protecting Kaoru. He hoped their journey together--and he had very little doubt it would be these boys Kaoru took with her on her someday--would be brighter and happier than the last one had been…
"You're a rurouni?" the dark-haired kid, Yahiko asked excitedly. "You travel around and see lots of places, huh?"
"That's right," Ikiro said, smiling at the boy.
"I want to leave the forest someday, too! Only Sano's seen the outside."
"Is that so?"
The tall boy rubbed the back of his head. "Yeah, well…I didn't come here until I was three or four. I don't really remember all that much."
Such was the conversation after that, questions about what it was like outside. Ikiro answered, for the most part until the feast was called. He was vaguely surprised that, while Sanosuke and the two boys left without hesitation, Kaoru and Kenshin declined to join the feast.
"But aren't you the one it's to honor?"
Kenshin and Kaoru exchanged a glance before Kaoru turned back to Ikiro, a small smile on her lips. "They won't even notice I'm not there."
Kaoru's statement had not been a prediction, but simple past experience.
Indeed as Ikiro sat sampling the abbey's food, as wonderful as he remembered it being, no one had noticed that the girl whose birthday they were supposed to be celebrating was not there.
A holiday, not a birthday, he thought again with a rueful smile. This probably bothered the hell out of Kaoru, and if she was anything like the girl he had known before, she probably vented this to Kenshin at this very moment.
He didn't know where they were exactly. They were both trained in sword-arts, and were more disciplined than most of the people that sat around him. He supposed he could find them if he stretched out his senses enough, but around all these people, and the Amazons who had crept closer to watch the festivities, that would have been more exhausting than it was worth.
He suddenly felt very old, watching these people. The children. Especially Kenshin and his friends. They were so…different than he had expected they would be.
They didn't know. They didn't know anything, really. Not yet.
Ikiro had never believed the old saying about ignorance and bliss before, but now he thought perhaps whoever had first said it was on to something. Innocence was such a fragile thing. Ikiro didn't even remember having much of it himself. Perhaps raising Kaoru in this abbey again and again wasn't such a bad thing. But there was still the problem of the meager trickle that the Kamiya bloodline had become. He was dismayed to learn that Kaoru had lost her mother a few short years after her own birth, and did not have one sibling to carry on the line. Their only real hope, then, was to have Kaoru's father remarry and have another child before he was too old to do so. Unfortunately, that man had been deeply in love with his wife and had been stubbornly putting it off…
What, Ikiro wondered, did they think would happen when the line died out completely? The best they could hope for would be for Kaoru to spring from the lines of distant relatives, but it had been a long time, and there was no guarantee that the blood would be strong enough in any other line but Kamiya. What if someday she was barred from reentering the world through her own blood? Then where would they be?
In the Seed's grasp, more than likely. Battousai was powerful, but he couldn't do it alone. His job was to protect Kaoru. Kaoru's was to vanquish the Seed. That was how it worked.
Depressed now, Ikiro sipped at his tea. The abbess now was a friendly-faced young woman who seemed cheerful and easily pleased, not at all like the Amazon-born hotheaded abbot he'd had to deal with the last time he had come to Rupta. Nonetheless, a few centuries of tradition wouldn't be easy to break. He wasn't looking forward to pleading his case for spreading the World Redeemer's blood around.
And even if she saw reason, there was only Kaoru's father to work with. Ikiro sighed.
It was getting entirely too difficult to keep the world safe these days.