Note the First: Okay, so this is tagged as humor and angst. There isn't a genre for "eeeewwww, that's nasty!" so I've just made do with angst. Please do yourself a favor and don't read this just before or after eating. Okay?
Note the Second: I'm very, very sorry (extremely sorry) for not having a new chapter out for Revolution. The simple excuse is that this bit me and I had to answer its call before it would let me concentrate on the other story. A more complicated excuse features a great deal of stress at work, which really isn't a good excuse. Sorry to the nth degree.
Kenshin had become intimately acquainted with sleepless nights during the last four months, but before tonight the reason had always been internal. The blood that coated what seemed like every aspect of his waking life often took over his dreams as well, and he'd formed a love-hate relationship with the nightmares. Certainly, they were not pleasant, and they often left him sitting awake in his room spinning his top and wondering when everything would be over. But they were also a sign that he was still a human being, capable of remorse and not yet insane with the killing. Nightmares, he was used to. Nightmares, he could tolerate, or even embrace.
But not the flies.
There was no second, brighter side to the flies that seemed to infest the entire city of Kyoto this season. A small part of his mind attributed the flies to the heavy rains and warm weather, but the vast majority knew the truth from previous encounters with the airborne menaces. Very simply, flies meant death.
He flicked a thumb against the tsuba of his wakizashi as he slowly knelt near the ignorant insect he was currently stalking. Too swift a movement would set the fly buzzing again, and he'd waited too long for it to settle to risk that. Kenshin calculated the distance between fly and blade, and unsheathed the shorter sword in a downward mini-battoujutsu, sending the two halves of the fly tumbling to the tatami. A quick inspection revealed that he'd judged correctly, and the wall remained unscathed.
He was glad of this. Kind and gentle Okami-san, who always had a smile for him and even called him –chan, was neither kind nor gentle when her inn was damaged. Her reaction when one of the men had torn a panel of shoji had been frightening, and even if the hallways had been wider, Kenshin would not have risked using the katana indoors against an enemy as slight as a fly. The repercussions of misjudgment here were on par with those during a sparring session with his shishou. Mistakes might not be fatal, but he would wish they were.
Kenshin straightened up, casting his eye around the hallway for his next target. He'd gotten nearly all of them in this area of the inn already, but then, his fellow Choshu-Shishi were sleeping with their windows open in an attempt to keep cool in the muggy damp. His experience so far tonight had taught him that the number of flies he killed here at the moment didn't matter. There would more when he returned from the other hallways.
It had been this way in the village, too, just before the cholera outbreak. Flies in every room, and more outside. It didn't matter how many of them were smashed with a roll of rice paper, or were shooed outside. Once your back was turned, they were replaced two for one. Kenshin had never seen so many flies in one place, and his childish fear that the world was ending had been proven somewhat valid when villagers started getting sick. And his own family. So many people died so quickly that there wasn't enough time to bury them all. Soon, there weren't enough people to bury them either, and the unattended bodies only bred more flies.
His only warning of the attack was a low, rumbling buzz, and his swing was off center, leaving the fly grounded, but still very much alive. Kenshin edged the tip of his blade under the fly, tossing the insect into the air and cleaving it with a downward slice. Its only living comrade in this hallway clung to the ceiling, staring down at him as if daring him to leap. Kenshin glared back at the fly, lamenting once again that he was not taller. If he feared the consequences of scratching Okami-san's walls, he lived in terror of harming the tatami with his landing. And he'd been scolded for jumping indoors the first week he'd arrived. Once was enough. Okami-san was not a woman he wanted to displease.
Kenshin gave up his glaring, coming once again to the conclusion that flies did not respond to hostile ki. He sheathed his wakizashi and padded down the hallway, continuing a set of rounds he'd established hours earlier. He was grateful for the tiny lamps Okami-san kept lit during the night to keep returning soldiers from stumbling around. Those lamps meant he didn't have to carry a candle around or worry about the change in lighting waking any of the men. It also kept him on his toes, since the flies were much harder to spot in the dim glow thrown across the hallways.
He casually flicked the sword out to cut a fly circling about the hallway some four feet above the tatami. The motion sent a dozen of its compatriots zooming around him, and Kenshin let himself fall into the easy pace of a basic kata, shifting his forms a few necessary inches to intersect with the flies' paths. If he was careful with his footwork and kept the movements close to his body, he found he could do the most damage to the flies while not harming the walls and shoji around him. Only the smart flies avoided him, and of these three, two settled out of reach on the ceiling.
The single remaining fly made deceptively lazy loops just beyond Kenshin's range, moving inside only briefly before retreating to a safer distance. Kenshin stalked it with his eyes, holding himself ready for a burst of action. The fly would make a mistake. They all did, eventually, even those on the ceiling. Similarly, they all fell into a pattern of flight if given enough time to do so, and his training in Hiten Mitsurugi had honed his ability to predict such movements.
His eyes flickered back and forth, tracking his enemy's motions and guessing the directions of its future flight. The best case scenario was that the fly would tire of this and land somewhere, preferably not on the ceiling. They were infinitely easier to kill when they were still, though the challenge they posed in flight was intriguing. Kenshin blinked and the fly dipped down into striking distance for a moment too long. It continued its path to the tatami, sliced into six pieces by the wakizashi.
Kenshin was caught by the reflection of light from the blade as it danced in that zigzag. Nearly four years ago his shishou's sword had reflected the moonlight just like that but from a different direction. It hadn't been the first of the events that led to the flies, but it had been a memorable one. No matter how quickly he dug, how hard he tried, he hadn't been able to bury them all before the flies found them. He'd had to fight his way through whole clouds of the insects just to reach some of the corpses, and even on reaching them, the flies had been inside, white and crawling. It was just as well there'd been no salvageable food left, because he wouldn't have been able to keep it down.
He shook his head, swallowing his revulsion and forcing his mind to turn away from that particular memory. In the first case, death had followed the flies. In the second, the flies had followed death. Either way, the two were intricately connected, there was no denying it. Flies meant death. Death meant flies. It was only a matter of time. The flies had followed him to Kyoto, because now he was death. He brought the flies the same way he brought tenchu night after night.
With a grimace, Kenshin spun on his toes and marched back the way he'd come, leaving the dead end of the hallway he had just cleared. He didn't want to bury Katsura, Okami-san, or the men who were nominally his companions. But there was nothing else in common but the flies. His family was dead because of flies. The dead slavers and bandits were surrounded by flies. All of Kyoto was now crawling with flies and drowning in the blood of his kills. It was the least he could do to keep the flies out of the Kohagi Inn. It wasn't much, but it was some small protection, and it was better than dreaming about the flies.
Kenshin stopped suddenly, only now registering the shsh of a shoji sliding open behind him. He lowered his sword and turned, blinking when he saw Katsura standing in the doorway in a rumpled sleeping yukata. He opened his mouth to reply to his employer, but nothing came out. Kenshin flinched from the pair of flies that soared into the hallway from outside.
"Katsura-san," he finally managed. "It's a bit late."
"I know," he answered in a clipped monotone.
That hadn't been the answer Kenshin expected, and it set him back a mental pace. Once again, he wasn't sure how best to respond. "Didn't you have a meeting in the morning?" he asked, stuffing his confusion back out of sight.
Katsura's eyebrow twitched upward, but his expression remained otherwise stoically impassive. Kenshin knew that eyebrow twitch. It was apparently a universal gesture, one he remembered well from his training on the mountain. With his shishou it had signaled irritation with a hint of mockery, but Kenshin could detect no mockery in Katsura's ki, only exhausted frustration. It seemed a very long while before Katsura answered his question with one of his own.
"Do you have any idea how difficult it is to sleep with a restless hitokiri wandering the hallways late at night?" The man glanced pointedly at Kenshin's wakizashi and continued. "And swinging a sword around, no less?"
"Um…" Kenshin found himself blinking again, suddenly wishing he'd thought to slide some rice paper into his sleeves so he could clean the fly entrails from the blade and sheath the wakizashi. This was starting to feel remarkably like being told not to jump indoors.
"You're keeping the men awake," Katsura said in that same quiet, disapproving tone. "You're keeping me awake, too."
Kenshin examined the tatami halfway between Katsura and himself. "Gomen. I didn't realize." If they were all actually awake, then they'd felt the ki he'd been directing toward the flies on and off all night. There was a good chance they had heard him sheathing and unsheathing the wakizashi. Probably, they'd felt stalked themselves as he hunted the flies.
Katsura's voice melted a bit, but still held a note of censure. "Go to bed, Himura-kun." He paused, waiting until Kenshin looked up at him before continuing. "If you can't sleep, fine. Believe me, it's understandable. But find something to occupy yourself in your room."
"Hai, Katsura-san." Kenshin watched as this, his latest father figure, turned to go back to his own room. He wondered how badly the meeting tomorrow would go now that he'd kept Katsura awake more than half the night. More troublesome was the distinct sense he got that he had displeased the man, something he wanted to do even less than he wanted to upset Okami-san.
The shoji was pulled closed with a thud, followed by Katsura's voice from the other side, soft and almost gentle. "Goodnight, Himura-kun."
Kenshin stared at the shoji for several heartbeats, trying to remember the last time anyone had said goodnight to him. A small smile crept across his face. "Goodnight, Katsura-san," he whispered, before obeying the order.