The Stretch in the Strings
Summary: A tangle in time and reality. Battousai was killed ten years ago? So what's Kenshin doing here and now? If something isn't done, Kenshin and everyone around him will fall victim to the warp in the weft.
Disclaimer: My inability to draw and limited funding prevent me from owning the rights to this wonderful manga.
Continuity: Post Kyoto Arc, pre Jinchuu, which has been shifted forward in time to make room for this.
Author's Note: This story stems from too many readings of Q-Squared and an angsty midnight-insomnia image that I wanted to draw; that of a mortally wounded Battousai dragging himself into a darkling woods (poetic) to die alone. By the way, Q-Squared is a Star Trek: The Next Generation novel that chronicles what happens if you take two omnipotent beings, three roughly parallel universes with three parallel ships and crews, and the Multiversal Center of Chaos, toss them all in a blender, and press 'Maximum Puree'. It's brilliant. That being said…
ON WITH THE SHOW!
"…I leave it to you. What would you like to do this fine day?"
"I want to understand."
"Everything…? Everything as in…?"
"Everything as in everything."
"…Very well then… everything it is."
"And what shall we do after we understand everything?"
"Die, most likely.
-from Peter David's Q-Squared
Chapter One: I Am Become Death…
The past alone/is writ in stone. –Anonymous
The paths of all are defined by the threads that trail behind us with every step we take through time and space. The length is infinite until death, telling the stories of our fates without writing them themselves. They tangle with others and so change their course. At the crossroads in our lives, they wind around the turning points that hold them in place so a man's life may be traced by the places where his thread holds tightest. Even the strongest soul may not unbind a thread once it is tied tight. Once a thread is bound, it is bound forever; therefore the past may not be changed…
Ironic, really. He was looking out from the other side of the glass now; instead of being the attacker, the ghost in the darkness, he was on the defensive. As one used to being a hunter, he felt hunted, although he could sense no one and nothing amiss.
Ahead of him, a single torch burned low, lighting their path. Senses open fully, hyperalert, he could smell the ash and sulfur that kept the sullen flame burning, hear the crackle of scorching wood. It flickered, casting shifting shadows on stone walls, slightly damp with the night's condensation and the autumn showers that struck unpredictably, pattern-free. The only warning before five to thirty minutes of light rain drifted lightly down was heaviness in the air. He rather thought it would stay dry tonight; certainly they would reach the safehouse without being drenched. Although the air weighed heavily on him, he couldn't smell the rain.
There were other weights to carry, other burdens to bear.
Along with the ash and the smell of the city, a wisp of blood floated on the breezy night air that made his long hair toss slightly. Reflexively, he subtly checked no one was watching, then raised his left hand to his cheek, reassuring himself that if it wasn't just a figment of his imagination, it was merely a residual scent, soaked into either the cobblestones or his nerves over time. His face had healed quickly.
Correction. The scar no longer bled outwardly, but the cross remained burned in red on his left cheek and in fire and darkness on his soul; a darkness that would consume him if he let it.
Kenshin's skin prickled. He knew he was being watched, he also knew who was doing the watching. He was willing to hazard a guess as to why he was being so closely observed. He also didn't care.
Not that it would matter if he did, as even the Ishinshishi's prime swordsman couldn't really go up to one of their leaders and say, 'Stop staring at me'. However, maybe if he put it a little less bluntly, Katsura Kogoro would stop. So he felt guilty for putting him into the situation that had ultimately done a good job of nearly destroying him body and soul. So he felt guilty for bringing him into the war at all. So he had either forgotten or was choosing to ignore the little fact that a fourteen-year-old Kenshin had, in fact, volunteered.
It was still making Kenshin nervous, and a nervous swordsman was one step short of jittery. One could simply not be an effective guard under the adjective of 'jittery'.
Still devoting most of his attention to his continual sweeps of the area, he stepped slightly closer to the taller man in the center of the group.
"Is there a problem, Katsura-dono?" the small red-haired swordsman asked quietly, his voice carrying no further than a few feet. His perfect poker expression remained firmly in place, determined not to reveal his uneasiness.
Katsura looked rather perplexedly at him. "Not that I am aware of; would you disagree?"
"No, sir," Kenshin replied, then paused, and added, "but you will be the first to know."
"I appreciate that, and your work in protecting our troops."
Kenshin acknowledged the compliment with a curt nod and moved back to the perimeter before his superior could give him any more praise. It would ultimately lead back to feelings of guilt over resolving to leave the Ishinshishi once their victory was certain. That would end up with why he was still with them; that was the perfect route to the void within him. He knew that if he got too close, poked the wound too many times, it would swallow him.
The brief conversation failed to lift his ominous feeling. Refusing to chalk it up to paranoia, the dismissal of such having almost gotten him killed at least once, he remained on guard.
Why tonight, of all nights? For all he could tell, there was nothing special about tonight's guard duty. The Choshu clan's latest intelligence indicated no Shinsengumi patrols in the area tonight, yet Katsura had insisted on their prime swordsman accompanying the small party.
Maybe he wasn't the only paranoid one out there. Well, definitely not.
The attack came with little warning, and he had no time to gloat over being right, which he rarely indulged in. His body reacted before his mind was still processing the new arrivals.
The Shinsengumi had changed their patrol schedules. Again. In the last half hour. They were getting faster.
Kenshin didn't even think, leaping into battle on automatic. His sword sliced through air to strike flesh while he analyzed what was going on.
As he spun, sword not even hissing through the air to provide a warning, he counted fourteen soldiers in light-blue jackets with the all-too-familiar jagged motif on the sleeves, backed up through both ends of the narrow street. Two were already slumping to the ground in puddles of their own blood, Kenshin's lightning-quick speed having taken them down. With an increased amount of casualties due not quite only to the Revolution's 'dragon', the Wolves of Mibu were drawing from less and less well-trained candidates. The rookies didn't often last very long, forcing the Shinsengumi to fill the newly reopened gaps with even more rookies. Since Kenshin had returned to the city, they hadn't been able to get ahead, barely keeping up in the struggle to keep up the ranks that the former hitokiri was steadily depopulating.
Katsura and his new aide were already fleeing from the scene of the battle, the former forbidden to raise his sword due to an oath sworn in exchange for the command of the young redhead. The other Ishinshishi guards flanked them in their retreat, giving Kenshin's Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu a free field that he intended to use. He'd learned to kill in empty back streets like this, and avoided making a scene in the open daylight hours. He was not only all too recognizable, with his distinctive red hair and cross-shaped scar, but because he hated to cause collateral damage.
Armed with only his katana, shorter wakizashi remaining sheathed at his belt, and this snapshot analysis, he covered his superiors' retreat. Acting more on instinct and the hard-gained second 'ki' sense of a skilled, experienced swordsman than sight, the samurai called Battousai by most of the warriors in the revolution, and other, harsher, things by those of his enemies that survived and their commanders, launched into a deadly whirlwind of bright steel.
A blade hissed by his ear, missing by a hairsbreadth, and he didn't even turn to see whom he was under attack by, sweeping back and under his arm to cut down the inaccurate swordsman. With a large number of opponents spreading out to enclose him on four sides and his commander's safety assured, he began to look for ways out of the street and into hiding before a shrill whistle—there it went—alerted other human wolf-packs to the melee.
Kenshin shook his head, clearing the disorienting ringing that the echoes of the whistle had caused in his sensitive ears. His red hair flew out of its tail, falling around his face, but he had no free hand to push it back as he fended off an overbold threesome, fatally wounding one but only scratching the other two due to a correction in mid-strike to avoid another attack.
It was definitely time to cut and run. If they'd established perimeter guards on the rooftops, he would be in more trouble, but from his guesses, they hadn't really been expecting to run across a Choshu party, much less one of the three leaders—and the dragon—himself. If he could get off the ground, they'd be left snapping at only the night air.
Gathering himself for a leap, he set his sights on a second-floor window, ledge jutting out over the street just enough for him to gain purchase. With that achieved, he planned quickly, he would be able to get to the roofs, and the Shinsengumi would never be able to track him there.
He never got to the first ledge. As Kenshin launched himself into the air, a sword cut through the air at a speed none of the rookies would have been able to achieve in a hundred years. Although both his assailant and Kenshin had miscalculated, one for the strike's distance and the other for his timing, the razor-honed blade dragged down his left arm, scoring a long gash from his shoulder to just beyond his elbow.
Allowing himself one strangled gasp, Kenshin dropped to the cobblestones and rolled, catching the blue-coated soldiers by surprise. They scattered to both sides of the street as the swordsman advanced on the redhead, who crouched against one wall, blood dripping down his left hand, which he supported himself with. The other hand clung with a death grip to his katana.
The smaller swordsman glared daggers at the tall, lean captain, who returned the stare implacably. Wordlessly, Kenshin rose to his feet and prepared for battle, ignoring the twinge of pain from his arm. It wasn't his sword arm; he could endure it.
"Captain," Kenshin said after a few seconds, inclining his head slightly.
"Battousai." Saito Hajime, captain of the Third Unit, wasted no words, falling into his famed—but rarely described, due to the unfortunate deaths of the witnesses—Gatotsu stance, feet planted in the blood of his own troops with blatant disregard. The losses were becoming standard, and duty would be honored later. It was well known to both Choshu soldiers and Shinsengumi troops that Saito would like nothing better than the Revolution's dragon spitted on his sword blade…knowing Saito's ruthlessness, probably roasting slowly over a bed of coals.
Unsettled, as always when face to face with the captain with the wolflike eyes, Kenshin moved forward slightly, disliking the feel of the wall at his back. He had the most chance in the open, where his agility and size would give him the greatest freedom of movement. The two swordsmen had rarely clashed—although often enough to give the two a profound dislike of each other—but they had crossed paths often enough to know that each was a formidable match for the other.
Spreading his senses out to check for anyone else that might be nearby, a shudder ran down his spine. A second ki signature split the night, and this too was both ready for battle and wholly familiar, not to mention approaching fast.
All this in the span of a heartbeat. Not an instant later, Saito lunged, katana shooting out like lightning. Kenshin leapt to meet him, blades crashing to scatter sparks across the gap between them, and all the breath left his body as a heavily booted foot slammed into his gut, throwing him backwards, which at least got him a few feet away from Saito, who had only lowered his boot to the ground to push off in a second lunge.
Now almost frantic to escape, with the second ki, that of Okita Soshi, the Shinsengumi's young prodigy, approaching at speed, Kenshin unleashed a flurry of attacks, none with any style or substance. He sought only a smokescreen to cover his retreat. He was feeling boxed in, trapped, and with one wolf on his tail and the second only a few streets away, he wanted to get out.
Brushing the haze of Kenshin's swings away almost carelessly, even if betrayed by the somewhat strained expression on his face, Saito barked orders to his men, commanding them to spread out, filling the streets a little way off. He didn't want the Battousai to escape, but neither did he want them to interfere in their duel. The only one who would do that would be the one with an equal grudge against the little redhead, and who happened to be rounding the corner.
Saito fell back slightly, allowing Okita to stand beside him as they both faced down Kenshin, who stood alertly, sword raised, and trying not to let a profound feeling of anxiety that was not, not, not fear show on his face.
"Well, good evening, Red," Okita said somewhat cheerfully. It was easy to be cheerful when you were backed up by more soldiers than most people could count on both hands and facing one enemy.
"Captain," Kenshin said softly, no more, no less than he'd afforded Saito. His eyes flickered all too obviously across the rooftops, the streets, and the soldiers. He couldn't see any route that wouldn't end with him getting killed.
All right, he was a little more than anxious now.
And the captains saw it. A feral smirk creased Saito's face, slanted golden eyes glittering brightly. Okita raised one eyebrow, still smiling.
"Getting ideas, Battousai?" he asked. "No, I see not. Don't try it." He fell into a 'ready' stance. "You could surrender. You're outnumbered."
Kenshin fixed his eyes on Okita steadily, sparing one hand to tuck his loose hair behind his ears. "No chance." Soldier and assassin of legend he might be, but he was still a teenager, and he still reacted like one sometimes.
The young captain shrugged, keeping the movement from disrupting his sword stance. "Thought I'd offer. I didn't really think you'd take it, Himura-san. You do have courage, I will give you that."
"His courage just got his hide tacked to a wall," Saito muttered inaudibly as they leapt to the attack.
Kenshin wasn't there. Ducking to one side of Saito's stabbing blade, he leapt upward the instant his foot hit the pavement, but was forced to land again as Okita slashed down. The ring of blade against blade cut through the night air, and sparks from the friction as the captain of the First Unit pushed the swords together, holding the redhead in a body-to-body lock. Desperately, he twisted away, evading Saito's blade, but, with the lock broken, Okita was free to lash out, and this time, Kenshin couldn't block in time.
Blood—his own blood, and too much of it—filled Kenshin's eyes. Blinking furiously, and holding back a cry of agony for the cut that had slashed a shallow trench into his forehead before missing his throat by inches, he parried a second strike.
He couldn't see…
Relying on only his ears and instinct, he tried to pull back enough to try to wipe the blood from his eyes with one sleeve. A scream wanted to burst out, for the pain, for the fear, for the bone-deep knowledge that I'm going to die I'm going to die but he couldn't, he had to get out of here, go up, up, up they can't follow me there…
Still mostly blinded, he tried to leap straight up too late. Ironically—although he didn't find it funny—he'd cleared enough of his vision to see the sword that punched straight through the center of his chest. The blade gleamed dully in the spare light.
He collapsed as Saito pulled the sword from his body with a sharp jerk. Gasping for breath automatically, beginning to choke on the blood he was breathing out, he struggled to his knees. In some distant corner of his mind, he tightened his grip on his katana. Raising his eyes stubbornly, he glared up at the two Shinsengumi captains. Okita saluted him formally. After a pause, just to show how little he cared, Saito did the same thing.
And it was probably that—the sight of his own life's blood on the sword of his enemy, raised to salute his passing—that pushed him over the edge. Gathering his quickly ebbing strength, he pulled himself halfway to his feet and spat blood on the cobblestones in front of them. Before Saito and Okita even had time to express disbelief over his even being able to stand with a sword having been stabbed all the way through him—he could feel hot blood spreading over his back—he went one better.
"The hell!" Okita yelled as the little redhead landed on the balcony he'd meant to reach (seconds? minutes? hours?) ago and took off into the city. "That's not possible!"
Saito didn't waste time in disbelief, spinning to order the staring patrolmen to disperse. "Get that man!" he snapped, not raising his voice any further than he had to. Saito hated to shout, but his lowered voice was a lot scarier and more effective than some men's temper tantrums.
"He can't get far," Okita said in the voice of someone trying to convince himself as much as others.
Saito grumbled wordlessly at the rooftops in general, presumably in honor of Battousai.
"Not even a dragon can survive a sword through its heart, Saito-san." Okita sounded a little more confident now. "Even if he escapes the men, his corpse will be found face down in a gutter somewhere…I think we've seen the last of Red."
Saito lowered his gaze to his bloody katana, and smiled satisfactorily: an expression that could freeze blood. "I've been looking forward to doing that for years," he said almost happily.
INSERT LINE HERE
He was running, running, running, and he didn't know where he was.
Kenshin couldn't remember how he'd left the city, or how he'd escaped the wolves following him. He rather thought he'd blacked out on the run, or simply gone berserk. With blood gushing from his chest, it didn't really matter. He'd lost too much blood, and darkness was creeping at the edges of his vision.
He fell, finally, outside the city beyond sight of anywhere human-made. The odor of damp, dark earth, tainted by his own sweat and the smell of blood soaking the earth, filled his nostrils, and he staggered to a clumsy all fours just to get his face out of the dirt. Red hair, wet with perspiration, fell over his face like a shroud. Gritting his teeth, Kenshin tried to regain his feet, if only to face death like a samurai.
It was fruitless; he was too weak. Still gripping his katana, he flung an unvoiced challenge into the face of his own death.
I will not die like this! Do you hear me? I WILL NOT!
He fell in the bloodstained mud churned up by his defiance. Darkness took him as he screamed in inaudible fury.
The world shifted as his soul fled through the weave of Time…
To Be Continued.
Author's Note: Yes, I formally apologize to Kenshin-as-Battousai for having to kill him. Don't get mad at me. There is a point. If you must get mad at me, critique my battle choreography. I've never had to direct a swordfight before, and the last person I actually had to kill off was the Enterprise-D. Eh heh. Don't ask. Comments? Criticism? Continuation? The last will happen without you. I need your help on the first two.