A/N – Years later, Kenshin thinks back on his decision to leave the mountain and join the revolution. Quick reflections on youth, idealism, and the futility of regret. My very first venture into RK-verse.
Disclaimer – I don't own Ruroken. I'm just borrowing it from Watsuki-sensei.
He had been an idealist, once. He had believed that the world was a simple place; that the Shogunate was evil and oppressive and the Imperialists were good and just as committed to peace and the new era as he.
He had believed that he could build an era of peace and prosperity and justice on the corpses of all those sacrificed to sonno-joi…
He had been very young.
The young boy made his way through the familiar streets of the village, enjoying the rare day of freedom from his arduous training. It was not often that his master granted him a day off, and he intended to enjoy it to the fullest.
To a boy who lived in isolation on a mountain with only an anti-social hermit for company, even the small farming village, insular and backward as it was, was fascinating – he loved to watch the interactions between all the villagers, watch the old men sit in the sun and gossip, watch the children play, and sometimes he would wonder what it would be like to be one of them, to be wholly accepted as part of a community, or even a family.
He had always stood out, in some way, even before the cholera and the slavers; even now his red hair, his delicate build, and his status as the mysterious swordsman's student all served to set him aside from the conventional farming community that was all he had ever known of the people of Japan. Well, there had been the barely remembered birth family, and the group of slavers, and the bandits…
But he preferred not to think of those times. It was better not to remember such things, sometimes – it only served to make him angry, uselessly angry at things he could not change. Because that was the way the world had always been, and would always be. Perhaps Shishou had the right idea, isolating himself up on the mountain. Because saving individuals one by one would never be enough to change the world.
One sword could never do it alone.
But many swords…
There had been whispers, even in this small village, of the shishi – the men of spirit – who opposed the Shogunate, who were willing to support the Emperor's mandate and expel all the barbarians and their polluting presence from this sacred land of Japan.
Honour the Emperor, expel the barbarian.
And if they succeeded, they would make Japan into a land stronger than it had ever been, strong enough to throw out the encroaching, invading foreign barbarians, strong enough to police its own lands and populace, and strong enough to bring order, justice, peace and prosperity to the whole of Japan. And then, finally, there would be no more cholera epidemics, no more children sold into slavery, and no more bandits roaming the roads, killing indiscriminately.
The thought of it sent shivers down his spine, excitement causing his stomach to clench and his heart to race. He could do it. He could add his sword to the fight, could use what his master taught him to protect the people on an even grander scale than he had ever dreamed of. For if he could make the entire country into a better place, protect all the people, then surely that would be so much better than helping individuals one at a time?
It had all seemed so simple, so easy then. To his young mind, sonno-joi had offered a creed much easier to understand, and to fulfill, than his master's more problematic ideals. How could he help individuals, help the people, when he was one sword, one person, against the whole of the world?
And what did his master know, isolated up on the mountain, drowning himself in sake?
"Baka deshi," Hiko Seijuuro had snapped, awesome in his height and presence, "do you honestly believe that this rebellion is any better than the shogunate itself?"
"Yes!" Kenshin had cried then, terrifyingly naïve in his passionate idealism. "They are good men trying to overthrow a corrupt government and create a new era of peace and prosperity. I want to help them, Shishou; I want to do everything I can to help bring about that dream."
"Someone else's dream, baka deshi. Not yours. Someone else's guidance of your sword – Hiten Mitsurugi should never be controlled in such a manner. That is not its purpose, nor its ideals. You must make your own decisions, not blindly put your faith in revolutionaries who will use you and then toss you away when they have no more use for you."
"That's not – "
But his master was not finished. "Men who have their eyes on a higher, all-consuming goal don't care who or what they destroy in their quest to succeed. They care nothing for the people, for individuals, but concentrate only on the greater good – they'll do anything, use anything and anyone to achieve their goals. And then, when it's all over – what then? What then, Kenshin? Will the people be any better off?"
Looking back now, from a distance of ten years and more, he could view that prediction with grim, ironic amusement. Once again, his master had been proved correct.
There were times when he desperately wanted to return to the mountain and tell him so.
But then, no doubt his master knew already.
"You don't understand!" he had shouted, resorting to the age old, ultimately false accusation of adolescents the world over. "I want to help the people, all of them, not just save one lone individual at a time. If I can carve a new era out of the chaos of the old, if I can guarantee peace and happiness after the killing, then I will do everything in my power to enforce that promise!"
Hiko Seijuuro, his mentor, his master, his father in everything but blood and memory, had shaken his head regretfully, and then turned his back on his wayward apprentice. "Go, then. If you will not listen, then go. Do what you will."
He had stood there for a few moments, watching in a numbed daze as his master walked away.
And then he had gathered up what things he had, and left the mountain and his old life behind, heading towards Choshu, the Kihetai, and the Bakumatsu.
Did he regret anything he did during that time, in his idealistic innocence, and in the fanaticism he had developed to protect himself?
Yes. He wished that he had not compromised himself and his sword so thoroughly, and every night the ever present guilt of Tomoe's death haunted his dreams, but…
Would the Restoration have succeeded, without his assistance? Was it ego to think that he had played an absolutely vital role in bringing the Meiji into being – was it truth? – or was it a necessary sop to his peace of mind, to think that there was nothing else he could have done, no other path he could have taken?
Would he act any differently, given the chance to go back and correct his younger self's actions?
If changing the past would mean sacrificing the peace that innocents like Ayame and Suzume took for granted, if it meant that the weakened Shogunate gave into the gai-jin's demands and Japan became like China, like the rest of Asia – nothing more than slaves and lackeys of the Western empires – then no, he would not renege on his choices, or change anything he had done in the name of Meiji.
And no, there were times when he did not regret it, either.
There were times, when he watched the two young girls play so innocently, when he saw the order and stability of the streets and markets around him, and when he saw Kaoru take such joy in teaching her pacifistic ideals that would have had no credibility twenty years ago, that he thought it had been worth it.
That everything that he had ever done, all the blood spilt, all the grief and pain and fear, might possibly have been worth it, if only for this.