Disclaimer: I don't own Rurouni Kenshin or Samurai X plot or characters.
A/N: This story takes place after Tomoe's death, but before the Battle of Toba Fushimi where Kenshin lay down his sword and became a wanderer.
This is for Lilmatchgirl who inspired me to try again – even though my writer's block is driving me crazy. Thanks to everyone else who gave suggestions and commiseration in emails and reviews. Pointless one-shot number two, here we go!
"In The Shadows"
Beyond the Gion district lay the stews, the worst part of Kyoto. It was utterly lawless, dominated only by the strongest of the criminals who lived there. The buildings lay close together, throwing the narrow streets into shadow, deepened in the dark of twilight. Soon it would be completely dark.
It wasn't fear, but wariness that made the skin between Kenshin's shoulder blades twitch. His job tonight was simple: Escort Katsura's informant back to the stews, then leave.
The informant, a small sharp-faced man who reminded Kenshin of a rat, seemed uneasy in the bright lights of the Gion district where strains of music and the lilting, overly-bright laughter of the geishas spilled out of the open windows. He seemed to relax exponentially the closer they came to the darkened alleyways of the high crime area. For Kenshin, the stews had the opposite effect.
"Here's good enough," the informant said, and stopped before an alley opening. The darkness and smell of rotting garbage wafting out made the alley anything but welcoming.
Kenshin's eyes narrowed then widened under the straw brim of the disc shaped, slightly conical hat he wore to hide his hair. He could almost feel his pupils dilating to gather what little light there was to see. He stood still and let the informant pass him by, waited several seconds, then followed. Katsura charged him with the man's safety, and whether he wanted it or not, he would have an escort all the way home.
The little man was quick, darting from shadow to shadow, sinking against buildings whenever larger men went by. It suited Kenshin, who already knew how to disappear into shadows from his days as an assassin. Eventually, the man paused and glanced furtively around a corner, then darted through a crossroads and into a dilapidated building.
Kenshin turned around and began retracing his way out of the stews. In the center of an alleyway, he paused, his hand lightly resting on the skah, the rayfish skin and silk cord-wrapped hilt of his katana. A group of men in tattered clothes crossed the opening of the alley before him, their voices raised in a drunken argument. Two of them confronted each other, fingers pointed accusingly and faces hard. Their friends circled them, watching avidly. It looked like a fight was about to break out.
Moving back against the building to his right, Kenshin pressed his back against the uneven wood screening the windows, and waited. The voices grew louder. This was an altercation that wasn't going to end any time soon he decided, and backed quietly down the alley, seeking an alternate route.
As he reached the alley's end, he rested against the building. Someone was coming toward the alley's mouth, two someones actually, judging by the footsteps. In another second he saw them, a broad shouldered man with small features, and a boy. Coming from them was a sense of menace, of danger. Kenshin's instincts were never wrong about things like this. One of them was a skilled warrior.
It was with a jolt of shock that he realized that the sense of strength was coming from the boy. He walked with his face angled downward, his bangs obscuring his forehead and eyes, and his ponytail riding high on the crown of his head. His clothes were dark, a navy blue hakama with a black haori coat covering a grey shirt beneath.
The boy lifted his face to answer a question from the larger man walking next to him. As he did so, light from an upper storey window fell on his face. It was Okita, captain of the first squad of the Shinsengumi.
He was out of uniform, but Kenshin would have recognized him anywhere. He'd crossed swords with him once before, in a short abortive duel that ended when Hajime Saitoh stopped it and took over for Okita when the boy began coughing. Kenshin's duel with Saitoh was intense, but also inconclusive. Remembering his duty, he'd left without killing Saitoh, needing to return to Katsura, his boss he'd been assigned to protect, to see if he was alright. Back at the Choshu headquarters, he'd asked about the boy he'd fought, curious about an opponent who looked to be as young as himself.
Kenshin shrank back into the shadows of the alley and stood absolutely still, masking all his fighting instincts with non-threatening, inconsequential thoughts as Hiko had taught him. As Hiko said, warriors, like animals, can sense danger. It seemed to work well, since Okita and his larger companion passed by without incident.
When he eased into the crossroads, he saw Okita pause by an opening between two buildings as the larger man faded into it. As Kenshin watched the boy trudge away, he wondered if by some chance Okita was on the same duty as him, escorting an informant back home. Since Okita was setting off away from the drunken brawl developing at Kenshin's back, he decided to follow at a distance. Perhaps Okita knew another way out.
The boy moved swiftly, unhesitating and unafraid. Okita walked through the back alleys of the stews as if he had nothing to hide. He walked with the arrogance of a Shinsengumi captain, though his clothing and youthful appearance made him seem more of an easy mark than a danger to the denizens of the stews. Yet no one touched him, and he walked past hard faced men hunkered down in the dirt plotting who knows what, snoring drunks too poor to rob, and low grade prostitutes, too old or ugly to remain employed by the brothels of the Gion district.
As Okita walked toward that district, Kenshin followed. The sound of music and laughter got louder and at last Okita entered an alleyway with light shining from paper lanterns at its end. Kenshin hung back, counting footsteps to allow Okita to make it all the way out of the alley before he followed.
That's when the screaming began. This was no scream of rage from a lover's quarrel, a woman's voice was crying out for help, over and over.
Okita's footsteps turned into a run. Kenshin glanced around the corner of the building he was pressed against, and placed a foot in the alleyway. The black of Okita's haori coat disappeared at the end of the alley as the boy raced forward.
Curious, Kenshin put on a burst of speed and made it to the alley entrance, his sandals skidding to a stop on the filthy cobblestones a second before he would have exited into the light. He stood in the darkness and watched the scene unfolding before him.
The alley ended in a large half moon shaped open area with a small round well in the middle. The straight edge of the half moon was a line of buildings, the backs of brothels. The Gion brothels lay to Kenshin's right. To his left the curve of the half moon was created by dingier buildings of the high crime district, with dark alley openings between them like missing teeth in a mouth. Dead center in the path running along the brothels stood a large man in a silk kimono carrying a jug of sake and shouting at a man standing by the well who was dragging a woman across the cobblestones by her hair. The woman's hands were on top of her attacker's as she continued to cry for help, legs kicking out ineffectively as her hip scraped against the ground.
Okita, his back to Kenshin's alley, was moving forward with his hand on his sword when the man with the sake jug stomped forward to confront the attacker.
"Hey, let her alone!" Though slurred, the man's speech was rich, cultured. He was evidently a patron of one of the brothels who'd exited the building out the back.
The attacker, a smaller man with scrawny legs protruding like sticks from beneath his short, coarse kimono, shook the woman by her hair. "What are you going to do about it?" he taunted. "Rescue her?"
"Why, you…" the larger man began and stepped forward, dropping his sake jug with a crash of shattered pottery.
"I'll…" Okita started to say as he kept moving, angling right so the well no longer obscured him from the skinny man and his female victim.
Whatever Okita meant to say was cut off as two dark shapes swooped down from the flat roof of a surrounding building and landed on the large man in the silk kimono.
At first, Kenshin almost thought that two extra large cranes had landed, but he soon realized that these were men, and the shape he'd mistaken for a crane's beak was actually a knife in the hand of one of the men. The knife flashed in its downward stroke and plunged into the silk-coated shoulder of its victim.
The man who'd dropped the sake jug howled and clutched at his wound, kicking out with a lucky shot and connecting with the other attacker, who'd landed on the path on his left-hand side. The second attacker made a whooping noise, the breath knocked out of him by the kick to the stomach.
Okita omitted a soft curse, drew his sword and changed his forward motion from a walk to a run, stopping just before running into the rich man and his attacker, who pulled the knife from his victim and turned to confront Okita, blood dripping off the weapon. The man in the silk kimono fell to the ground and lay still.
"Stop, in the name of the Shinsengumi."
Now that he was past the well, Okita held his sword horizontally, in the classic stance of the parallel thrust style of fighting the Shinsengumi was known for. Unable to decide who to attack first, Okita kept his blade pointed between the knife wielder on his left, and the man with his hand still clenched in the woman's hair to his right.
The woman began to laugh, the shrill mirthless sound cutting through the dramatic silence Okita's command had caused. Shaking her attacker's hand out of her hair, she sat up on the ground. "Well boys, looks like we caught ourselves a little Shinsengumi fish in our net tonight."
The pieces clicked into place in Kenshin's mind. In the stews, a woman's scream wouldn't raise much interest, but to the wealthy and supposedly honorable merchants who visited the Gion district, a woman's cry for help would be answered automatically. The way the attacker had placed his hand on the woman's scalp, with both her hands over his, ensured that when he dragged her across the ground, he'd actually be dragging her by her hands and not her hair. It was a scam, to trick wealthy patrons to come to the woman's rescue so they could be murdered and robbed. It wouldn't surprise Kenshin to find that the brothel keepers sometimes directed patrons out the back exit for just that purpose.
Evidently, Okita came to the same conclusion. By the way his ponytail shifted slightly, Kenshin could tell that he was glancing both right and left, sword ready to move in either direction, depending on which of the criminals attacked him first.
"You're breaking the law. You're all under arrest. Now lay down your weapons."
Kenshin had to hand it to him, outnumbered three to one, four counting the woman, and without his squad to back him up, Okita's voice was steady, and all business.
The clack of a roofing tile dislodged by a foot came from above. It blossomed into the sound of the tile shattering on impact as it hit the ground at the base of a building at the far end of the half moon shaped clearing.
A man had come out onto the flat-topped second story roof, appearing from a doorway of the third story, which covered only half the roof. The stood at the edge of the roof/platform and stared down at the scene below.
He was an older man. There were streaks of grey in his beard and hair, which lay loose on his shoulders. His arms, crossed casually over his chest, were massive, as were his legs, encased in Western style trousers under a gi top. His very presence radiated strength and menace. "I'm the law here. You're the intruder," he told Okita in a flat, cold tone.
Lifting his hand, he snapped his fingers once, without breaking eye contact with the boy, and ten men appeared on the roof behind him, each with a katana thrust through their obi belts.
A flash of movement from his right caught Kenshin's eye. It was the woman, crawling to her feet and fleeing into an alley opening, the man who'd pretended to attack her following close behind. It was not a good sign.
"What are you? An Ishin Shishi sympathizer?" Okita asked, the question ringing out as an accusation.
The man snorted in disgust. "Your petty political quarrels have nothing to do with us. We don't care who rules Japan. Shogun or Emperor – it's all the same to us. Nothing ever changes here."
The words were chilling, a reminder of the argument Kenshin once had with his master, Hiko. It was winter, and the harshness of their words puffed out with their breath in the icy air. Kenshin wanted to go and fight to free the peasants from the grip of the bakufu alliance, and Hiko had asked him, "Will you choose the less loathsome of the two evil factions in that futile conflict and do its bidding? I do not bestow master Hiten Mitsurugi's sweetest principles on you so that you can become the pawn of nefarious men. You can change nothing. The troubles of the outside world are perpetual."
In the end, Hiko had let him go, but the words stayed with him, branded into his heart, along with the knowledge that he had disappointed his master, and that his master had been right all along. Kenshin had become what Hiko predicted, a murderer.
Kenshin blinked at the words, so in keeping with his musings. Then his eyes and mind registered the shapes of the men jumping off the roof and running at Okita. He tensed, past and present merging in his mind. Okita was his enemy, a member of the Shinsengumi, that hated shogunate police force created to protect the old, evil power structure known as the bakufu, and yet…more of Hiko's words came flooding back. "Many years, long before you were born, my sword was tearing asunder the lives of men. Yes, all of those men were evil, but they were human beings first and foremost, Kenshin."
All human beings' lives had value. All of them. Even the men planning to attack and overpower their hideously outnumbered prey. 'Forgive me, master.' Thought Kenshin. 'Forgive me for not understanding. But I am not as strong as you. I must choose which lives to save, and which to take, and of the lives before me, I choose to save Okita's.'
Then all thoughts of the past vanished as Kenshin found himself racing forward, sword in hand. Okita's tennen rishin style allowed him to hold his own against the men running toward him, but in addition to the ones from the roof were men streaming out of two alleyways at the base of the building where their leader stood. These men were angling around to surround Okita from the back.
Kenshin stopped them. A horizontal cut at mid torso took down the man in the lead, who stupidly held his katana over his head as he ran, leaving his chest open. Kenshin whirled to confront the two following on his first victim's heels. They attacked simultaneously. Kenshin blocked a downward stroke from the man on his right, dropped underneath a horizontal cut from the one on his left, and brought his sword around, cutting the man's legs out from under him, and plunging the tip of his sword through his chest as he fell.
The man who'd made the downward stroke had by then recovered his balance, and was attempting to circle around, sword held in front of him at a diagonal upward angle. Kenshin used his speed to jump the corpse at his feet and thrust forward, impaling the man before he had the chance to lower his blade in a cut.
Then another attacker threw himself at Kenshin, and another. He had to be sure none of them got between him and Okita, or when he plunged forward he might kill the very person he'd sworn to protect.
Screams, grunts, the clashing of metal, these were all sounds Kenshin was all too familiar with. The dance of death had its own music, and it played on in the darkness behind the Gion District lights and gaiety.
At one point, Kenshin met Okita's eyes, and saw the startled gratitude in them. The remaining attackers had backed Okita up next to the well, hoping to force him to trip over the small wall-like lip.
Okita was too smart for that, and leapt the well, but landed badly, his foot skidding on the blood pool spreading from a corpse lying on the ground. He staggered, and an attacker ran up to strike his back.
Kenshin barged, ramming his shoulder into the man behind Okita while pulling his sword out of the neck of a corpse at his feet. Now the attacker staggered, and in that instant Kenshin reared back, swung his sword around, and took his head off.
Whirling to face the next attacker, Kenshin fought back to back with Okita. He could hear but not see him. Okita's breath was becoming labored. He began to cough, just as he had in his previous fight with Kenshin. But that was months ago, had Okita's cold really lasted so long?
The presence behind Kenshin changed. It seemed shorter. He glanced back and saw that Okita was fighting doubled over. Taking advantage of that, he jumped up, changing directions midair, and landed right next to Okita, swinging his sword downward to execute a perfect ryutsuisen over and across the boy's bent back, cleaving Okita's attacker in two. Meanwhile, the man Kenshin had been fighting saw his chance and lunged for Kenshin's back. Sensing the move, Kenshin ducked. The man's sword missed him, but plunged through the hat's brim, breaking the chinstrap and knocking it off his head.
Coming to a stand, Kenshin turned and struck upward diagonally, his sword cutting across the man's torso in a killing stroke. A warm spray of blood dashed over his chest, adding to the bloodstains he'd already collected from the other men he'd killed.
There were no more men left standing behind Kenshin, so he turned back to find Okita recovering from a lunge, yanking his sword tip out of the neck of the last man standing in front of him.
"So, the great Hitokiri Battousai saves the life of a Shinsengumi." The flat, contemptuous voice from the roof caused both Okita and Kenshin to lower their swords and look upward.
He stared down at them, a sneer of contempt marring his face.
Sensing Okita's head moving slightly, Kenshin glanced to his side and saw the boy's eyes wide with shock, blood trickling from the corner of his mouth. Okita's face was pale, and his breath came in harsh gasps. Dragging his eyes back upward, Kenshin stepped forward, away from the Shinsengumi captain, and confronted the man on the roof.
"Your men are all dead. If you want to live, you'll leave." Kenshin felt his eyes narrow as he put as much menace into the words as he could.
The sneer on the man's face merely grew broader. "Men are replaceable. I can always get more, but if you want to live, Battousai, you'll stay out of my territory from now on. You're not as invisible as you think."
So, Katsura's system of informants worked both ways. While Katsura got information from the Yakuza, the criminal organizations that ran the underworld of Japan, his informants were in turn reporting to the Yakuza any information they could find out about Katsura and the Ishin Shishi. Kenshin supposed that the Shinsengumi informants were doing the same to them.
A harsh coughing broke his concentration. Okita was down on one knee, hand over his mouth, hacking.
When Kenshin looked back up at the roof, the man was gone.
"Just…give me…a minute, Battousai."
Incredulous, Kenshin glanced back down at Okita, who raised his chin to give him a sunny smile. He wiped his mouth and stifled another cough. "I'll be ready to finish our duel in a minute."
Okita stuck his sword tip between two cobblestones and got to his feet, swaying. "You prefer battoujutsu, right?" he said as he wiped his sword on his sleeve and sheathed it.
Kenshin merely watched and waited. He'd seen that same look before on Tomoe's face that night in the rain. A few seconds later, Okita's knees buckled and he fell forward, right into Kenshin, who stepped forward to catch him.
Careful not to drop him, Kenshin bent his knees and lowered Okita to the ground one-handedly. Rising, he glanced around to be sure another attack wasn't coming, then wiped his blade quickly with some rice paper stored in his sleeve, and sheathed his katana.
Okita was out like a blown candle, his face the same waxy color except for the bit of blood still on his chin.
He couldn't just leave him there, but where to take him? Shinsengumi Headquarters was out. Though Kenshin had a healthy respect for the fighting ability master Hiko had taught him, he didn't think marching into his enemies' stronghold was a particularly good idea.
If Okita was anything like Kenshin, he wouldn't appreciate being dumped in one of the spare rooms of a nearby brothel. Except when accompanying Katsura to one for a secret strategy meeting with the other Ishin Shishi rebels, Kenshin avoided those places like the plague.
Sighing, Kenshin grabbed Okita's wrists, turned his back and placed Okita's arms over his neck so the boy was resting against his back. Then he rose up, bending over at the waist to keep Okita's feet from trailing on the ground, and set off along the edge of the Gion district.
At the end of the line of brothels, Okita began to stir. As he woke, he began to cough, muffling the sound against Kenshin's shoulder. From the wet patch beginning to seep through the fabric, Kenshin knew he'd be washing yet another bloodstain out of his gi.
"Red." Okita said blankly, his breath tickling the hair by Kenshin's ear.
His arms jerked under Kenshin's grip as he realized who was carrying him, so Kenshin stopped and moved backward, resting Okita's back against the plaster and wood wall of a brothel. He released Okita's arms and stepped back quickly, waiting until Okita regained his feet.
"I don't want to fight you." Kenshin told him.
"That's good, because I'm having a little trouble standing up." Okita confided guilelessly.
Kenshin blinked. He hadn't expected Okita to be quite so honest about it.
Okita cleared his throat and stared at Kenshin's cheek. Used to the way people's eyes dropped to that side of his face, Kenshin endured it. Sooner than most, Okita's eyes scanned back to Kenshin's and they stared at each other quietly.
"Why didn't you let them kill me back there?"
There it was, the question Kenshin knew would come once Okita woke up. Of course he'd wonder. Of course he'd want an answer, but how could Kenshin explain something that had been an instinct? Thinking about the past was what got him into this situation, so he'd go to the past for his words.
"Because you're a human being." The words sounded foolish and pretentious now that he was saying them instead of Hiko. Embarassment and honesty compelled Kenshin to continue. "And I didn't like the other guys much."
Okita grinned weakly. "You remind me a lot of Master Saitoh. He takes our motto very seriously."
"Aku Soku Zan." said Okita.
Destroy Evil Instantly. Kenshin registered the meaning with a sense of shock. This was what the Shinsengumi thought they were fighting for?
"It's a lot easier when you know what is evil and what is not. Some days, it's hard to tell." Okita admitted.
"Yes." Kenshin agreed, surprised that a Shinsengumi member, and such a young one, should be paraphrasing Hiko's words.
Okita drew a deep breath, held it, and let it out slowly, wincing. "I don't think I'll be fighting you again, Battousai."
Kenshin looked at him questioningly.
"I'm dying, you see."
Kenshin blinked. The blood on Okita's face wasn't from a cut in his mouth. It was from him.
It was inadequate. It was ridiculous considering that they were enemies, but it was the best Kenshin could come up with.
Okita smiled sadly. "Don't be. I've had a lot of time to get used to the idea. The doctor keeps telling me I have to rest, that I can't keep pushing myself, or I'll fail. I guess I should be grateful it happened away from my squad. I wouldn't want them to worry about me."
"Do you want me to take you to them?" Kenshin asked reluctantly.
A mischievous expression lightened Okita's eyes. "I'd love to see Saitoh's face if you marched into headquarters with me, but no. I'll be alright." He pushed off from the wall and stood, swaying slightly. "See, I'm fine."
Kenshin allowed his skepticism to show on his face. "You're not."
"Maybe not, but I can find my way home." Okita smiled again. "Thank you, Battousai." he said lightly, and began to walk away, his back stiff with the effort.
Kenshin stood and watched him go. Waiting until Okita was almost out of sight, he began trailing him as he had in the stews. He followed Okita's slow path out of the Gion District and all the way back to Shinsengumi Headquarters, stopping half a street away in the shadows of a maple tree until Okita made it to the gate. A tall man came out to greet him, wearing the distinctive blue and white haori coat of the shinsengumi.
Concentrating, Kenshin managed to catch their words on the cold night air.
"Okita. You're late."
"It's good to see you too, Master Saitoh." Okita's light-hearted words were a contrast to the taller man's flat disapproval.
"Harada was getting worried." Saitoh paused. "You smell of blood."
"I ran into some trouble, but it was nothing I couldn't handle."
Kenshin could almost feel Saitoh's gaze as the tall man stiffened and looked up and down the street.
Okita clutched at his sleeve. "It was nothing, Master Saitoh. A friend helped me home."
The boy brushed past his fellow captain and through the gates. "I'll tell you all about it inside."
For a second, Saitoh's face turned toward the maple tree where Kenshin stood.
Kenshin forced his body to relax, and concentrated very hard on thinking harmless, boring thoughts, projecting a completely non-threatening image. Then Saitoh stepped back and closed the gate behind him, his eyes glinting yellow in the lantern's glow as he disappeared within.
Heaving a sigh of relief, Kenshin turned and disappeared as well, into the night shadows.
A/N: I'm sure that Kyoto, like London, Paris, etc. had a high crime district, but I haven't a clue where it was. I invented 'the stews' for the purpose of the story, and stuck it by the Gion District because criminal organizations like the yakuza usually control prostitution in major cities. Any other historical or grammatical inaccuracies are completely my fault, and feel free to point them out when you review.