Disclaimer: Rurouni Kenshin and all affiliated characters and settings are the creative property of Watsuki Nobuhiro and all companies affiliated with its license and translation. The setting and characters are used without permission, at no profit to the author of this fanwork.
A Strong Will
Chapter 1: Deception
Near Nara, 1866
The weather had been exceptionally warm that year in Nara; hot, oppressive air choked lungs mercilessly by day, but had mercifully cleared that evening with a light breeze. Himura Kenshin distantly enjoyed the slight drop in temperature, allowing the gentle wind to ventilate his sweat-soaked navy gi as he crouched atop the grassy bank of a hill overlooking his current assignment's impressive estate half a day's walk from Nara city. He had originally taken this post to scout out the road and all possible routes of invasion, but as the layout for the area set firmly in his mind, he took a small measure of rest to enjoy the sunset. His piercing amber eyes subconsciously continued to watch for any sign of enemy movement, though his thoughts traveled elsewhere.
He had taken the assignment from Katsura only after strong reassurance that Tanaka Shinichi's protection truly aided the cause. Apparently, Tanaka had been supplying Katsura's faction with weapons and information for quite some time, and the Shinsengumi had managed to catch wind of Tanaka's dealings. Normally, Kenshin would have thought nothing of the assignment – it resembled much of his typical work these days. When he learned that Tanaka had specifically asked Katsura to send hitokiri Battousai to his aid, instinct cried a warning in Kenshin's mind. Katsura, who had some political business in Osaka and was near enough to Tanaka's place of business, had agreed to lend his assassin. Something about it seemed off, and despite Katsura's faith in the man's integrity and Kenshin's own agreement to take charge of Tanaka's guard, Kenshin was still uncomfortable about the assignment.
Regardless of how he felt, he had already promised long ago that he'd act as Katsura's sword – and he would keep his word, even as he felt his humanity slip through his fingers with each passing day. He couldn't disobey Katsura. Not now.
With that in mind, Kenshin brushed aside the strong suspicions and distrust along with the loose silken strands of blood-red hair the wind tossed in his face. Doubt would only cloud his judgement at the moment, and he couldn't afford to lose concentration if the Shinsengumi were indeed targeting the establishment below him. He had made travel plans for that evening with Tanaka; hopefully they would be long gone before any of the bakufu's prized guard set foot on the property. He really did not want to destroy lives tonight if he could avoid it, especially when every new drop of blood spilt by his hands brought him further away from redemption – if he could achieve such a thing after all he'd done – and from her. Tomoe.
His fingertips lightly traced the cross-shaped scar marring the smooth, pale skin of his left cheek. It was one of the few physical connections he had left to the woman who had saved him from himself. Sometimes he could see her – smell the sensuous aroma of her white plum fragrance – when he touched it. At other times, he would see her lying prostrate on the ground before him, struck down and bleeding from the blow he'd dealt with his own hands, the scent of her coppery blood struggling against white plum for dominance. This time, she appeared before him with a sad, concerned expression. He lifted the lavender scarf from his neck, pressing it to his face in the hopes that he could catch even a small hint of her scent.
Tomoe… I can only pray that it'll be a matter of time until I'm by your side. Would you still accept me then, as tainted as I am?
And in his mind, she smiled lightly for him; he knew he still had many things to do before then. He sighed in weary acceptance, watching her nod sadly in reply to his consternation. Swallowing his selfish desire to follow her into death, he lowered the scarf from his face and straightened into a standing position. The sun had set, and as dusk quickly faded into night, Tanaka was probably wondering by now what was taking him so long.
As he turned quietly from his post, a strong sense of hostility pricked at his senses from a distance. He whirled, focusing his well-trained sight sharply to see if he could find the source of the aura within his field of vision. His heart sank as he spotted a collection of faintly glowing lights about five or so kilometers from the estate.
The timid voice almost made him jump as he whirled on the intruder, hand instinctively moving to cover the hilt of his katana. The small, wiry captain of Tanaka's personal guard flinched and backpedaled in response, forcing Kenshin to pull his hand away from his sword, softening some of the dangerous ice from his eyes. He took a calming breath and quirked an eyebrow in querying response as the captain pawed the ground with his foot, obviously nervous to be in Battousai's presence. To be truthful, Kenshin felt a tad guilty about startling the poor man, but he didn't want to admit that he'd also been startled. You really need to focus more, or you'll be in trouble if you have to fight, he scolded himself.
"Yes?" Kenshin asked neutrally, once he was sure he'd calmed his hammering heart enough to provide an even tone of voice.
"So sorry to trouble you, Himura-san, but Tanaka-sama has been asking after you," the captain said quickly. "He says he has nearly finished preparations to leave, and desires to make sure you inspect everything before we leave."
Kenshin nodded lightly, but frowned over his shoulder at the approaching cluster of lights. The aura coming from that direction was unmistakably distinctive of an enemy; he wasn't sure they would have time to escape before the lights caught up to them.
"Is something the matter?" the captain inquired, nervous as he saw Battousai tense.
Fight or flight? Kenshin quickly calculated a plan in his mind and turned back to face the captain. "Aa," he said gravely. "It would appear that we don't have much time before the enemy arrives. Please close the gates and ready the guards, and inform Tanaka-sama that I will be right there." Regretful – Tanaka's men would undoubtedly suffer casualties tonight, if it was the Shinsengumi approaching. Possibly devastating casualties, if deadly celebrities such as Okita Souji or Saitou Hajime accompanied the division.
The captain hardly suppressed his wide-eyed surprise as he nodded curtly, hastily saluted, then turned to run back towards the main entrance to the estate. Kenshin watched him leave before he steeled his nerve, switching with frightening ease to battle mentality as he faded into his surroundings to get a closer look at the approaching enemy.
After the frazzled captain left his office, Tanaka sighed deeply. The news of the approaching enemy did not surprise him; in fact, they were as prompt as had been promised. The plan was in motion and moving smoothly – he should feel confident, but didn't. Battousai didn't trust him. He'd known from the moment they'd been introduced and the boy-assassin regarded him with a wary, icy-golden gaze that he would have to be extremely careful if the plan were to succeed.
Yet part of him didn't really want to succeed. He was still unsure about his own feelings on the whole situation. True, Battousai was incredibly frightening and possibly a menace to society. On the other hand, he was just a boy doing what he'd been ordered to do. He turned the thoughts over in his mind slowly, guilt twisting his innards sharply as he ultimately chose to continue. He couldn't risk turning back now – not with the Shinsengumi so close at hand.
Somewhere mingled with the feelings of guilt and resolution, he felt the creeping sensation that he wouldn't make it through the night. Somehow, he knew he wasn't going to. He smirked wryly with the realization, sighing once more as he tried to settle the whirlwind of emotion tearing through his chest. He didn't have a choice, really. It had to be done. He could only hope that his one small sacrifice wouldn't be in vain. One more thing remained to be done before he could proceed with the plan.
As he reached for the brush and ink, his hand wouldn't stop shaking.
Damn it all. Please forgive me someday, Katsura. I hope you will understand why… why I had to do this. Please… I'm so sorry.
Cooled air blew Kenshin's crimson bangs from his face as he rushed back towards the estate. He hoped he hadn't alerted them to his presence as he scouted out the enemy – it had been Shinsengumi, and a lot of them – but it wouldn't matter as he knew confrontation was inevitable regardless. Once he'd approached the wall, he debated jumping over it in stealth to get to Tanaka with his report faster, but decided not to risk being mistaken by the guards for the enemy. The guard at the front gate jumped in surprise when he suddenly appeared, and quickly fumbled to let him into the estate without question.
Kenshin jogged towards the main building, guards parting shoji hurriedly before him. As he quickly made his way to Tanaka's office, he turned his findings over in his mind. There had been a damn large number of Shinsengumi; surely Tanaka hadn't been so important a figure of the Ishin Shishi to warrant such a large assault against him from the enemy? That only left one option in his mind – perhaps the target wasn't Tanaka, but Kenshin himself. If that was the case, then there had to be a mole in Tanaka's guard or in Katsura's chain of command; nobody else should have known about this assignment. The Shinsengumi's numbers made more sense if he was the real target in this case.
Doubt born from instinct crept back into his mind, clawing at his current thoughts on the predicament. Perhaps the mole had been Tanaka himself; after all, he had been the one to ask specifically for Battousai's aid, and everything about the man's actions seemed suspicious to Kenshin now. Katsura's firm expression appeared in his mind, insisting his faith in Tanaka's proclaimed loyalties. Damn, but his instinct said…
I have to go with what Katsura-san insists is true, or I will be betraying his trust. I have to trust Katsura's judgement. I must!
Kenshin finally approached the closed shoji that enclosed Tanaka's office with some measure of shaky resolve. The guards posted outside the room noted his presence with quick nods, slid the shoji aside for him to allow him to enter, and then slid them shut behind him.
"Tanaka-sama, did you receive my warning?" he asked, keeping his voice low enough to stay within the paper-thin walls of the office.
Tanaka looked up from packing documents with a hint of worry evident in his expression. "Aa, Captain Hoshino informed me about the enemy… have you found out anything more about it yet?"
"Two divisions of Shinsengumi are approaching. We do not have time to evacuate the premises before they arrive, but I do want you to be ready to run in the case that the opportunity to escape arises," Kenshin replied. Tanaka looked fairly frightened by the prospect, but appeared to be trying to cover his anxiety with a calm disposition. "Can you be ready in fifteen minutes?"
"Aa," Tanaka affirmed. "I think I can be ready that quickly."
Kenshin nodded. "I will return in ten. Wait here." He turned and left before Tanaka had a chance to reply, missing the rueful look that spread across the man's face as he hastily went to find Hoshino.
By my estimation, we have about twenty minutes before they arrive if they continue at the pace they were going when I saw them last. Hopefully Hoshino will understand the fact that they will have to give up many lives tonight if they wish for Tanaka's safety – they will be acting as a distraction and wall to the Shinsengumi, and will only need to last long enough for me to get Tanaka out of here and on the path to safety. Gods, I hope that they didn't sense me earlier…
With the plans set in his mind, he spent five minutes locating Hoshino and informed him of the situation. Hoshino looked mildly afraid, but he'd since had some time to summon steely determination to protect his liege lord.
"I'm sorry," Kenshin murmured quietly. "I wish we had more time to get away and avoid casualties, but…"
"I understand," Hoshino replied with a grim smile. "This is what we've been trained to do; so make sure you do your part and keep Tanaka out of their hands."
Kenshin suppressed his own smirk at the comment, slightly pleased that the man hadn't made some ridiculous statement about Battousai's rumored immortality and untouchable abilities. The small spoken action made him feel slightly more human in someone else's eyes, for once. He shook the warm feeling – small as it was – out of his system as he turned to head back towards Tanaka's office. But as soon as he set foot in the building, he felt an overwhelming sense of hostile ki hit him with full force just before he heard the guards shouting. The signal flare flew up from the main gate a split-second after.
Damn! He took off in a run towards Tanaka's office, not even bothering to remove his zori indoors for the sake of speed. They must have discovered my presence; gods, I hope that Saitou isn't with them. We could be in serious trouble if he is.
Distantly, he heard the sounds of gunfire behind him, and cursed angrily as he realized that he hadn't noticed the gun battalion in his earlier assessment of the enemy. Each passing moment brought battle cries from the courtyard near the main gate, and Kenshin sped up more in his anger at the situation spiraling out of his control.
As he approached Tanaka's office, he picked up on several hostile ki near the room. Fervently hoping he wasn't too late, he whipped his katana from its sheath and kept his eyes focused on his surroundings for any sign of movement. With a quick jerk against the shoji, he burst into Tanaka's office and nearly exhaled in relief when he saw Tanaka sitting at his desk, back to the door, unharmed.
"Change of plans," he said as soon as Tanaka turned his head slightly to acknowledge his presence. "We need to leave now, and take the third exit route. I think the other one has already been discovered…"
An apologetic look spread across Tanaka's features – not what Kenshin would have expected – and he rose slowly. Violent ki flared, warning bells screamed furious obscenities in Kenshin's mind; he tried to dodge to the side as a bright light and loud report exploded from Tanaka's hand. Too slow – an invisible hand pounded into his gut, knocking the air from his lungs and sending the world spinning out of focus.
Reality left him in a whirl of bright white pain.
.end chapter 1.
-san: an honorific added to names to denote Mr., Mrs., or Miss; in Japan, it is considered polite to use this suffix on a regular basis in conversation with other individuals.
ki: (chi, in Chinese) the aura or spirit of an individual
That is indeed in quotation marks because I was afraid that if I put it at the beginning of the chapter, nobody would actually read the story. I mean, who actually reads the author's notes in an actual book? I promise this won't take too long, though.
This chapter (and the next chapter) have been heavily edited again as of May 30, 2006. I made a historical boo-boo in a later chapter, and had to repair it by going backwards. My apologies for my failure as a proper historian and writer. Original version is complete, this is version 3.5ish. Overall, the changes have been pretty major. I might eventually post the first draft on my personal site just to show how different these two versions are. In addition, the new rating for this piece is now raised to M, due to more graphic violence, after the style of the Tsuiokuhen OVA movies.
To all new readers (if there are any, hehe), welcome, and I hope I don't scare you off too quickly! If you have any questions, feel free to send me a PM or ask it in a review – either format is fine. My apologies for flooding this site with further horrid fiction, though if you do have something negative to say, please offer suggestions on how I might fix it (since I really do want to try to improve).
Please do leave a comment, and I would appreciate it greatly. Like, a lot. Comments are love.