Halfway to Ending the World
Author's note: the second part of this first chapter is pretty serious and wordy, but for some reason I want it to be in here. However, if you'll just hang on until the second chapter, things will get interesting again!
Chapter 1: don't give up
Himura Battousai was back in his room at the Kohagi inn. He woke up instantly as the shouji snapped open. His hand was already on the hilt of his sword- had he been sleeping with it in that position? He didn't care. He sprang to his feet. His instincts told him that the person facing him now was extremely dangerous.
Standing in the doorway was a scruffy-looking samurai with a broad grin and feverishly bright, wild eyes. His grey hakama had probably once been white and his disheveled hair was partially hidden beneath a strange brown hat. There were two swords at his hip and Battousai knew instantly that he was a master swordsman, but there was something else about him that worried the young hitokiri. There was something indefinable about this weathered, unkempt-looking man… but it was something powerful.
"Hello hello hello!" Sakamoto Ryouma exclaimed. "Saaa! You're absolutely the cutest thing ever!"
"eh?" Battousai asked, blinking.
"I can't believe I haven't met you yet!" Ryouma rushed forward, extending his right hand eagerly. Battousai squinted at him suspiciously as he approached. "Come on! Let go of that sword for a second so I can shake yer hand!"
"Shake my hand?" Battousai repeated, dumbfounded.
"Of course!" Ryouma was right in front of him now, beaming down at him like a proud parent. "It's the western way to say 'hello'!"
"Western?" Battousai said, even more suspicious.
"Say, have you ever been on a ship? Would ya like to see the world? Of course you would! My boy, you'd be perfect for the Navy!"
"Exactly!" Ryouma shouted, raising a fist in the air and then smashing it down into the palm of this other hand. "What do you say, son? Will you sign up? We can do a hell of lot more for this country with ships than with swords, ya know! YA HA HA HA! So what do you say?" Ryouma peered eagerly into the boy's face, his eyes shining with brilliance that bordered on insanity.
"Who the hell are you?" Battousai snarled.
"Hoh? You don't know?" Ryouma asked, genuinely surprised. Then he gave a whole-hearted smile. "Of course, I'm Sakamoto Ryouma! Nice to meet you, ne?"
The boy's mouth fell open. This was the person with the idea of uniting Satsuma and Choshu? This was the radical revolutionary, the most wanted man in Kyoto? Not much actually surprised the hitokiri Battousai these days, but this guy sure did. The boy released his hold on his weapon, and immediately the strange man grabbed his hand and gave it an enthusiastic shake.
"Jyaaa- I'm so happy that Katsurasan finally told me about you!" Ryouma exclaimed. "And he gave me permission to 'scout' you, too. Ah, lucky me!"
"Su kao to?"
"Yes! It means that I want to recruit you!"
"For the navy?"
"For the nation!" Ryouma's voice practically thundered with conviction. Battousai frowned and looked away.
"I'm already doing what I can…" he said quietly.
Ryouma slapped the boy on the arm playfully, eliciting a dark scowl from the scrawny redhead. "Oh, I'm sure you are, kid!" Ryouma said, beaming. "But here's your big chance to do something even better! Building something new is always more challenging than tearing apart something old, ya'know? You've been 'tearing' for a while now, so why not try 'building'?"
Battousai looked down sullenly. "There's still too many people that need to be torn apart," he muttered. "If I live to see the revolution complete, then…"
Sakamoto's expression sobered and he nodded wisely. "That's exactly what Katsura told me you'd say," the wanted man sighed and searched the boy's eyes. "He said you won't quit until the end. You'll just kill and kill, until you see for yourself a clear victory. But let me ask you something. How long are you going to hold on, before you finally go crazy? What if it takes years to win? When it's finally time to stop, will you still be able to?"
Battousai blinked, and then his eyes narrowed in determination. "I'll hold on as long as I can," he said quietly. "Although sometimes I think it's already too late."
The scruffy-looking samurai's expression turned to one of exaggerated pity, and, lower lip quivering, he leaned in towards the little hitokiri with both arms outstretched. "Don't give up hope!" Ryouma said loudly, on the verge of tears.
"H-hey, Sakamotosan-" Battousai protested, trying unsuccessfully at the last minute to scramble out of the way as the man went to hug him. Sakamoto caught the boy in his arms and lifted him into the air, hugging the hitokiri against his chest. Battousai froze, his eyes wide and panicky.
"You're so cute and so patriotic!" Sakamoto bawled, tears running down his face. "Selflessly doing whatcha do, all for the future of Japan!"
"L- let me go!" Battousai demanded in a high-pitched, girly voice.
"It's definitely not too late for you," Ryouma said warmly, setting the boy back on his feet. Before Battousai could duck out of the way, Ryouma plopped a hand down on top of his head and ruffled the red bangs fondly. "So don't give up, ok?" Ryouma said with a cheerful grin.
Battousai just stared at him in shock.
"Faster!" Shrieked the little girl, wrapping her tiny arms even tighter around her horsie's neck. "Go, horsie! Go!"
Souji laughed and trotted ahead at a faster pace, as the little girl shrieked in delight and accidentally pulled his hair. Souji winced, smiling, and whirled around.
"My turn! My turn!" the other kids squealed, catching up to him and jumping up and down excitedly.
"Phef!" Souji panted, lowering the girl to the ground. "Sorry, everyone, but I think the horsie has to catch his breath for a minute."
"Me next!" a pudgy-faced toddler whined in a loud voice. Souji smiled at him.
"Ok, you can go next," he said kindly. "Just a minute-" Souji stood, stretched, gulped air into his lungs. It felt good. For the moment. Which was all that mattered. He smiled and crouched down so the little boy could clamber up onto this back. "Now then," Souji said happily, looking around. "Ah! I know! Do you think the horsie can jump over that bench?"
"Yeah!" shouted the kids. The toddler riding piggy-back laughed and slapped Souji's shoulders with both of his fat little hands. "Let's go!" Laughing, Souji took off at a run and cleared the bench easily. But on the other side, he came to an abrupt halt. Wide-eyed, he stared at the person walking down the street towards him, an average-sized man dressed like a peasant and wearing a large rush hat that hid most of his face.
"What'sa matter, horsie?" the tiny boy asked worriedly, kicking his little feet.
"Oh," Souji said, swallowing. "Nothing." He turned his attention back to the man in the middle of the street, who was even closer now, and heading straight for him. There was no mistake. Souji's expression turned serious.
"come on! Let's go!" the boy said.
"Actually," Souji said, lowering the child to the ground. "I'm really sorry, but I have to talk to somebody for a minute. Go play with the others, ok?"
"Okay," the boy said reluctantly, but then hurried off to join his friends. Souji watched him go with a bit of a wistful expression, and then it was back to business. The man had come to a stop just a few feet away.
"Okita Souji?" the man asked in a calm, even voice. Souji nodded his head once, and the man tipped back his rush hat to reveal a handsome face with a genteel smile.
"Katsura Kogoro-dono," Souji said politely, his voice low and cautious. "So it really is you."
"Yes," the man said. "Do you mind if we get off the street for a moment?"
"Of course not," Souji said, his eyes half-closed and dangerous-looking. Together they stepped into the nearest restaurant and Katsura ordered some soup for the both of them.
"I must say, it's rather daring of you to approach me, Katsura-dono," Souji said softly once the waitress had left.
"Hardly," Katsura said kindly. "At the moment, you don't even have a sword."
"There are still passersby in the street who have swords," Souji replied. "I could easily borrow one."
"Ah. But there are still children in the street as well," Katsura said with a smile. "I know you wouldn't kill me in broad daylight, dressed as a peasant, in front of those kids."
Souji looked down at his hands, which he had folded placidly in his lap. He blinked a few times, and when he looked up again, it was with a friendly smile. "Anyway. What did you want to talk to me about, sir?"
"Sakamoto Ryouma told me about you." Katsura said, leaning forward intently.
"I've had a few interesting encounters with Ryoumasan," Souji acknowledged. "He wants me to join the Navy, but unfortunately, I've a commitment to the Shinsengumi at present." He smiled apologetically at Katsura.
Katsura nodded. "I understand you recently made a deal with a young associate of mine."
Souji narrowed his eyes. Where was this going?
"I was wondering if you could tell me why you were so merciful," Katsura said.
"I just… felt sorry for him," Souji said, starting to feel a little uncomfortable with the conversation. "I didn't want him to be taken away from what he'd chosen."
"I see," Katsura said, and smiled kindly. "You know, you remind of that boy. The two of you are very similar. And that is why… I want to make a deal with you."
Souji stared at him, perplexed.
"As you know," Katsura continued cordially, "My people are fairly adept at manipulating information. I wonder what effect it would have on morale in the Shinsengumi if it turned out that the beloved captain of the first squad, the trusted confidant of Commander Kondou and both vice-commanders, was actually a Choshu spy?"
Souji laughed, shaking his head. "Katsura-dono, that's ridiculous. I'm sure you wouldn't try to spread such a preposterous story. No one would believe it!"
"I've already had five incidental witnesses observe this conversation," Katsura informed him. "You let the hitokiri Battousai escape from your headquarters, and a few days later you're seen meeting with me…I think, if told in the proper format, the story would be entirely believable."
Souji's eyes grew very round. Before he could say anything, the waitress brought their soup. Souji glanced up at her in horror, and she smiled at him smugly, and then turned and gave a very obvious wink to Katsura. Katsura nodded to her, and then looked back at Souji with an amused expression on his face.
Souji frowned bitterly. "What do you want?" he asked, his voice and expression glum.
Katsura smiled. "You would be such an incomparable asset that I have to ask: Would you be willing to lend your sword to our cause?"
"And abandon my friends?" Souji asked quietly. "Of course not."
Katsura sighed. "I didn't think so. And, that being the case, the deal is this: I won't spread the story of you being a spy, if you will let me thank you for what you did for Himurakun." He smiled at Souji, bowing his head forward neatly.
"eh?" Souji asked, confused.
"Thank you for freeing Himurakun," Katsura said, and his eyes were sincere. "I am truly thankful that he was able to meet someone like you."
Souji frowned again and shook his head, still puzzled. "But… why the threat of blackmail? I don't understand."
"I wanted to see what you would do," Katsura said, smiling and slurping his soup. "If you had some underhanded motive for letting Battousai escape, your reaction to the threat of blackmail just now would've been more complicated than 'what do you want?'. For example, if your loyalty to your comrades was fading, you might have tried to used the situation just now for your own benefit; or simply told me that you didn't care. And if that was the case, then I would have tried to gain the advantage, and see how I might use you to further our goals. I'd heard that you're a trustworthy, kind-hearted person, Okitakun. But now I am completely convinced. For letting Himura escape, we are already indebted to your kindness, and I would be ashamed of myself for taking advantage of you."
Okita gaped at him, awed. "I can see why… they say you are a great leader, Katsura-dono."
"I try my best," Katsura said modestly. "That's the most any of us can do, isn't it?"
Souji nodded, relieved. It warmed his heart to know that the leader of his enemies was someone who would rather respect people than merely use them for his own purposes. Souji studied Katsura's eyes, and noticed that beneath the intelligence and determination burning there, a deep sadness lingered. Quickly Souji realized exactly what it was, and he smiled.
"Katsura-dono," he said gently. "I can tell that you dislike using people, but in certain cases you've chosen to do so for the good of all. Listen to me: Don't regret it. Don't have any regrets. You're blaming yourself for making that boy a killer, but it's not your fault. It's just fate: the times we live in, the passion in his own heart, the experiences of his childhood- who knows? You are playing only one small role in his story, and you shouldn't regret it."
"No, Okitakun. What I chose to do to Himura was a horrible mistake. There is no way I can ever be forgiven for it."
"He wouldn't want your apology anyway," Souji said. "What you need to do, what you owe that boy… is to keep fighting your hardest for what you both believe in."
"Of course," Katsura said , smiling sadly. "I won't fail him. I will bring about a new era."
Souji matched his smile, and nodded. His shining violet eyes seemed to say, I hope you do. "But, Katsura-dono," Souji said. "To make that a little easier for yourself… please, in the future, stay out of my way!" Rather than a threat, it seemed like a friendly joke. Katsura understood.
"Don't worry, Captain Okita," he said with another smile, "I will make every effort to avoid giving you and your friends the opportunity to kill me."
"Good," Okita said happily, standing up. "And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm afraid I'm running out of time to think about 'new eras'. I have a few more piggy-back rides to give before dinner time."
Katsura nodded and Souji bowed. "Thank you again," Katsura said. "And… you should seriously consider the Navy."
Souji laughed and shook his head, and then made his way outside, where the group of kids pounced on him, wondering where he'd been and welcoming him back. Katsura listened as their high-pitched, excited little voices faded down the street. Then he looked back at Souji's untouched bowl of soup.
I'm running out of time to think about new eras.
Katsura knew he hadn't imagined the pain in the Shinsengumi captain's voice as Okita had said that. But with so much weighing on him, the young man could still empathize with his enemies, smile, and play with children. And if Okita could do that, there was hope for Himura.
Katsura smiled, and his eyes seemed a little less sad than they had a moment earlier. Taking a deep breath, Katsura left some money on the table and put back on his wide rush hat, slipping away down the street.