Questions of Loyalty
The holidays went by in something of a blur, happier than the year before since they were all together but not as pleasant as the ones spent in their own home. Sasuke joined the Peace Patrol and was rapidly elevated to the position of captain. For Kenshin, it seemed too much like the Shinsengumi without the strutting and casual brutality. He refused to join despite encouragement from the adults in the kendo class, most of whom were members. With the turn into the new year, Masumi and several of the older women at the day care took on the preparations for the spring wedding of a younger colleague who had lost her mother years before. Every evening found her doing delicate embroidery on pieces of the dress under the single bulb in the apartment's main room.
Also with the new year came a new distress for the citizens of Topaz and all the other camps: a questionnaire of four pages and twenty-eight questions meant to gauge the loyalty of the citizenry for the United States of America, and in its ineptitude, actually causing more harm than good. Most of the questionnaire was routine – information about relatives in the country and any interests in foreign banks or businesses. Only the last two questions caused controversy, and controversy it was.
Number 27 – Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?
Number 28 – Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government, power, or organization?
Sasuke quickened his pace when he saw the confrontation ahead of him, dimly lit by one of the street lights. There had to be half a dozen of them, angry young men with no way to express themselves and no one who would listen. Several were wielding baseball bats from one of the recreation halls, others had spare pieces of two-by-fours, and one just clenched his fists. Facing them was the man he knew as Tom, looking wary but not particularly intimidated, and at his feet was a huddled bundle. Sauske could hear their raised voices in the cold, clear desert night. Behind him, other members of his troop quickened their steps to keep up with him.
"He's been playing up to the administration, Niitsu. They're the ones keeping us imprisoned here. We should be fighting them, not playing nice while they take away our rights, like this inu."
"Go home, boys," Kenshin said evenly. "No one wants a fight here. You've done enough damage already."
"Wrong! We do want a fight," one of the others said. "And if we can't fight them, we can fight you. Maybe if we beat up a couple of their inu they'll start to listen to us."
"You don't get people to listen with violence. You make reasonable, intelligent arguments like you're thinking human beings. That's what gets people to listen to you." Kenshin's voice was still even, almost calming.
"They don't listen! We argue about Constitutional rights until we're blue and they turn away from us. They ask us all if we'll serve in a combat zone – even our mothers! And they ask our parents to become people without a country."
"Yeah," another chimed in. "They ask us to foreswear the Japanese Emperor like we ever swore loyalty to him in the first place. We're Americans! What do we care about some near-sighted royal bastard in Japan?"
"On the one hand they say it's military necessity to keep us here and on the other it's to keep us safe, but the reality is, it's all bullshit. We're here because they don't want us in America and if they can keep an eye on us in the camps then they can ship us off easily once the war is over."
"And you're their little puppets, art classes and shows to keep us busy, filling out the forms, and 'helping' people. Helping us stay caged and helpless while they strip everything away until we don't even have pride left. This is no way to live!"
They were talking over each other, each striving to be heard.
"Look, I get all that, and I can't argue with you there; it isn't any way to live. I'm as stuck in the middle of it as any of you. But it's the way we have to for now. Not everyone sees this the same way you do, and not everyone has the freedom you have to speak your mind and damn the consequences. There are people with families here that need protection, whether they're children or elderly. Don't bring the same kind of racist hysteria here that was going on toward us before we came. Beating up people who don't agree with you is not what America is about. That's not what any civilized country is about."
"America doesn't care about us; that's why we're stuck here. No one else in this country has to prove their loyalty. That's why we've got to fight for ourselves. And you're in the way. So we're going to take you out of it."
Sasuke started to run as the first of the young men closed in on Kenshin, and then he stopped, unsure of what he'd seen. Kenshin had done…something…some quick series of moves that left the man on the ground curled up in a ball, moaning, and his bat in Kenshin's hands. Kenshin turned back to the others, resting the bat lightly across his shoulders and giving them a narrow-eyed glare. None of the others seemed to want to get close to him anymore. If they'd come at him in a pack, he might not have had a chance, but not one of them wanted to take the chance that he'd be the next one the short, slender man got his hands on.
"Baseball bats are for the ball field, gentlemen" Kenshin said. "You want to hit something with them, hit baseballs. But if you go after anyone in my sight with anything that could be a weapon at any time in this camp, I'm not averse to putting a few heads over the fences. No one likes being here, but your actions make it worse for everyone. Now go home."
Sasuke was close enough now to see the fierce light in Kenshin's lavender eyes, and he didn't doubt for a second that his friend would do as promised. It was surprising, to realize that his mild-mannered friend would have such a fierceness about him. Not to know he would do as he said – Sasuke had early-on judged Kenshin to be a man of his word – but to realize that his friend could be violent if need be. That was the surprise. Sasuke stepped into the ring of light just behind the group, Sato, Yamaguchi, and the others fanning out behind him.
"That goes for us, as well," he said. "We're pretty good at swinging sticks, too, and we will also protect anyone in this camp who needs help."
Several of the men at the back of the group jumped at his voice. They had been unaware of the other group's approach, and he could tell that the knowledge that Tom was no longer alone against them – not to mention everyone in the camp knew Sasuke was a kendo instructor and his unit of the Peace Patrol was made up of his adult students.
"What's going on here?"
"These boys are a little upset with their lot, so they decided to take it out on someone. From what they said, I think it's Obata-sensei, but I haven't had time to look."
"Alright. That earns you all a walk to the MP station. Drop the weapons here and come along quietly."
Sullenly, the men complied, and were soon being herded away by Sato and half the patrol. Kenshin was kneeling by the bundle at his feet – their victim – when Sasuke turned away from giving his orders.
"We need to get him to the hospital," Kenshin said. "They beat him up bad."
With jackets, ball bats, and bokken, they rigged a stretcher and carried the unconscious art teacher to the hospital. Once there, Sasuke sent one of his men to get Obata's wife. Then they waited while the doctor and nurses working that night took over.
"Thanks," Kenshin said. "You shouldn't have gotten involved, though. They might decide to go after Masumi or the kids."
"I don't think so. They're decent enough guys underneath, just stressed. As are we all."
"I guess I don't have as much faith in human nature as you do. We're going to have to keep an eye on those guys. I don't like the ugly turn things have taken here."
They stayed until Obata's wife arrived and did their best to comfort her until the doctor came out to talk with her. The injuries were bad enough that he would remain in the hospital for a few days, perhaps longer, depending on how he responded to treatment. They murmured condolences to her before taking their leave.
Kenshin gestured as they walked towards their barrack. "As long as things were half-finished here and there was something to keep them busy, everything was – mostly – okay. We all had the same adversity to fight against. But now that things are bearable – if not exactly comfortable – we're going to start tearing ourselves apart. This is just the first sign of it."
"That loyalty questionnaire didn't help," Sasuke
"It certainly doesn't," Kenshin agreed. "There's too much ambiguity in the questions and not enough answers about what will happen after they're all turned in."
"They don't always make sense. Masumi wondered why they asked her marital status and then asked the citizenship and race of her wife. She said she was sure she'd been taught the word for me was 'husband'."
"On the one that asked about foreign travel, did you say you came to America?" Kenshin asked wryly.
"Heh, no, but I'm thinking of listing Tatsuya's occupation as 'Unholy Terror'. Think that will get their attention?"
"You could call him a 'Tantrum Specialist'."
"I think you cured him of that. Well, when you're around him, anyway."
Kenshin shook his head. "Neither of us is going to live that one down. All seriousness aside, though, I'm all for doing what it takes to get out of here, but I'm not sure this is the way. I think tonight's incident is just the beginning."
"Well, you seem to be pretty good at predicting what's going to happen next, so I won't scoff at you. I just hope you're wrong. Maybe since we're anticipating it, we can head it off. Then we'll both be right." Sasuke paused, then continued. "You're pretty good when things get ugly. You should join us in the peace patrol."
Kenshin slanted a sideways look at him. "I keep telling you 'no'. I prefer to be a free-wheeling baseball bat."
Sasuke sighed. "You always try to be on the outside looking in. Sometimes it's easier if you just jump into it, Tom."
"That's why I'm here."
"Here as in the middle of the street at night or here as in Topaz?"
"Whatever you want."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"I'm trying for enigmatic."
"Like I said – outside looking in, but why? You're one of our family but not one of our family; part of the community but not part of it. Why do you keep people at a distance?"
"Because it's better that way," Kenshin said. "For me and everyone else. Let it go, Sasuke."
"Is it that Hosokawa guy?"
"He's part of it. Let it go."
"Tom, I've seen your scars. And I've seen how you handle a confrontation. We really can use someone with your experience. I don't see why you won't help us keep the peace here in camp."
"If you've seen the scars, then that should be explanation enough. I'm not to be trusted with weapons and authority. Now let it go."
They had reached their barrack but when Sasuke turned up the path to the door, Kenshin didn't follow.
"Coming?" Sasuke asked, stopping after a couple of steps.
"I've got time before lights-out. I think I'm going to work on that drawing for the art show. Obata-san may be injured, but we should all go forward as if he'll be well by the time the show is."
"Okay. See you later, then, or in the morning."
Kenshin dawdled his way up the path to Rec 7 until he heard the door close on their apartment, the sound crisp and snappy in the still night air. Then he cut between the buildings and waited for the dark between the searchlights to cross the road and slip through the fence into the desert beyond. By the time the light swept past again, only the empty desert night was illuminated.
Officially, folks could go out into the farming parts of the camp, outside the fence, during the daytime, but had to be back before dark. Even during daylight, the inmates were supposed to stay ten feet from the four foot high barbed wire fence. Passing through the gates ensured monitoring. There wasn't really anywhere to go, anyway, although it was possible to hike the sixteen miles into Delta if one didn't mind chancing the rattlesnakes. Or scorpions. Desert heat or cold. Blizzards. Dust storms. Slipping through the fence at night was the height of folly for most, but Kenshin had honed his ki skills and was nearly invisible to the guards as long as he didn't move when the spotlights swept by. He wasn't worried about snakes and scorpions; the intensity of his ki during practice drove them away. And if he hadn't wanted to be there for his family, none of the above would have kept him there.
An hour later, Kenshin spun in the darkness, executing the sword strike, and then shifting into the block that followed. Practicing kata in the darkness surrounding the camp was his only way of accomplishing it. He turned and struck, then leaped into the air for the ryu tsuisen, landed, blocked with his free hand on the back of the blade…and froze, senses reaching outward. When he moved again, it wasn't part of the kata and it was barely visible. He stopped with the tip of his blade inches from another man's throat.
"Who are you and what do you want?" he snarled. It was the mousey little man he'd first seen at Tanforan. Of course, it was impossible to get away from anyone he knew from there, but this man didn't get involved in the same things Kenshin did. Usually when Kenshin saw him, he was on the periphery of Hosokawa's circle. There was no reason for him to be anywhere nearby, unless he was spying.
"Ahhh, I was just out taking a walk. Enjoying the night air, you know…" the man sputtered.
"Try again. You're outside the fence and you weren't walking anywhere. You were watching."
"Well, ah, sure. I was walking and I saw you and I stopped to watch. I thought Himura-sensei was good, but you're…ah…really good. I mean, you're better than anyone I've even seen. That is…"
"You make it a habit to watch swordsmen practice?" Kenshin stepped forward, eyes flashing amber menace. The man back-pedaled, tripping over a sage bush and falling heavily. He flung up his arm, first for balance, and then to shield himself in case of a blow. Kenshin simply stood over him, the katana pointed negligently at the other man's throat. "Could be a really bad habit," he said.
"No, not a habit. Just…sometimes when I see guys practicing, it's fascinating, you know? I couldn't ever do it but I like to watch." He waved the shielding hand and his sleeve pulled up even more, exposing a tattoo on his wrist. It looked something like a stylized letter Y, with the uprights bent downward. It was enclosed by two concentric circles with dots between them. Kenshin had never seen anything like it.
"What's this?" he asked, tapping the wrist with the flat of his blade. The other man flinched and pulled his arm in, tugging his sleeve back over the mark.
"Nothing. Just a tattoo I got."
"What's it mean?" Kenshin caught a jump in the man's ki, an increase in nervousness and fear. It was obviously something he didn't want to explain, which meant it could be important.
"Uhh, well, nothing, really. Just, uhh, a kind of affiliation, with a union, like with Teamsters."
"Teamsters uses two horses."
"I said, 'like with Teamsters', not that I was one of them. Mine's, umm, a kind of newspaperman's group. Yeah. We just watch people and try to find interesting stories, for news and, um, entertainment. But not like, you know, dances and ball games and political rallies. This is more, uh, I guess you'd call it human interest stories. So, you know I work for the paper and I'm a reporter. So, yeah. I watch everybody and I'm always taking notes."
The man's ki was throwing out mixed signals now, as if he was comfortable with some of what he said but not all of it. Kenshin couldn't tell what was truth and what was lies, but he had seen the man with a notebook or journal in hand.
"Really?" he drawled the word out, letting his disbelief show.
"Uh, yeah. You know, can't stop the habits of a lifetime just because I'm penned up here." Mousey man made a try at jovial camaraderie. Kenshin wasn't buying it, but he really didn't have anything definite to object to.
"Get back to camp. And…don't…tell…anybody…what you saw here. Not your friends, not your business partners, and not Himura-sensei. Not even because of oh wow you've never seen anyone so good and what a great story this is. Camp's not that big; I can find you if I want you, and if this gets out, I'll want you." With the narrowed amber eyes, Kenshin's smile was anything but pleasant.
The other man swallowed audibly and scrambled backward to a safer distance before he stood and ran for the fence. Kenshin sat down in seiza position where he was, sheathing the katana and resting it across his thighs. The zen of his practice was entirely broken. After a few moments, he sighed deeply and sank into a cross-legged sitting position, setting the sword to his left with the hilt forward: easy to draw in case of emergency. He knew he could do intimidation well – he'd honed it to an art-form before he was sixteen – but it wasn't something he liked to do. It was too much of a reminder of the bad old days. He'd tried so hard to put that past behind him, and thought he had, but being Immortal brought so much of it back. The need for secrecy was almost overwhelming sometimes, but it was still there. The town had people who were old enough to recall stories of Battousai the Manslayer. Ten feet tall with hair of flame, the stories went. Kenshin smiled grimly at the darkness. He was just over half that tall, but if he let the true color of his hair show, would the stories come back? Did anyone remember the cross-shaped scar? There was no way to hide it. Sasuke had heard of it, he knew. He'd caught the younger man staring at it a couple times, and with no partitions in the showers, he couldn't hide the other scars from anyone, either. The more distance he could put between them, the better, but Sasuke wasn't letting go. Like Sano, once he decided he liked and respected someone, that person was a friend for life - even when that person didn't want friends. And he was pig-headed stubborn, like Sano. Ever since he'd come to the camp and gotten involved with the Peace Patrol, he'd been after Kenshin to join the group, join the kendo class, join whatever he was involved in that he thought Kenshin would be good at or benefit from. At least he hadn't tried to take Kenshin gambling. But Sasuke wasn't stupid and sooner or later he was going to start demanding answers.
Kenshin headed back for the camp, shaking off the stiffness that came with cooling muscles in winter. He'd rigged the wooden sheath of his nihonto with a sling that carried it down his back, the grip extending above his right shoulder. The fact that it had no guard between blade and handle allowed it to rest flat. A slight effort of will, an extension of his ki, kept it hidden from view most of the time. By the time he ghosted through the barbed wire, avoiding the sentry lights, he had shrugged off both the stiffness and the questions.
The light was on in their apartment as he came up to the door, so he made no extraordinary effort to be quiet. Masumi was probably working on the wedding dress, and Sasuke had taken to sitting with her, reading aloud to help pass the time together.
They were definitely not reading when he came in through the doorway. A glance showed Masumi sitting on Sasuke's lap and the kiss looked to be a deep one. Kenshin turned right around and went back outside, standing on their wooden square of a porch for a moment to contemplate his options. The laundry was almost always busy and warm, and although he could do without the former, the latter was a definite plus. The lights were off in Rec 7 and it was a good bet that it was locked - with all the art supplies for the school in there, they didn't take chances – but he knew where they hid the key, and that's where he'd told Sasuke he was going. Rec 7 it was.
Unfortunately, it left him too much time to think, and he went back over the scene with Mousey-man. There was something about him that set Kenshin's nerves tingling. The man wasn't hostile, unlike Hosokawa's overt nastiness. In a way, he was almost too friendly, too obsequious. Kenshin had never trusted anyone who tried to be too chummy. Iizuka had provided an ample excuse to avoid that kind. It was best to hope the intimidation had worked. Often, it was all that was necessary. He couldn't count the potential fights out of which he'd been able to talk other Immortals, or the fights that had ended in a non-permanent death and the other Immortal hadn't come back.
But did he not come back because of your intimidation, or for other reasons? asked that sly, too-knowing voice in his head. He hated that voice. It had been around since Tomoe died, causing him to second-guess himself.
'They didn't come back because they knew they couldn't beat me,' he thought back at the voice, firmly.
Are you sure?
Once, he had been, but there was one fight that he wasn't so sure about, back when he'd met Duncan and Fitz. Memory took him back to a dark race track…
It was after midnight, and with the clash of blade-on-blade stilled, the silence was almost overwhelming. There was only the faint hiss of a few scattered gas lights that lined the walkways around the big grandstand. The stables behind the smaller stand along the backstretch remained dark and quiet. Ashton Dalrymple, an Immortal social hanger-on who often visited the track with moneyed friends, was taking a short nap courtesy of the flat of Kenshin's sword against his temple. Dalrymple had been spoiling for a fight; eager to prove himself against what seemed an easy target: a short, slender jockey with a quiet manner and a habit of avoiding him. He'd finally waited in the dark near the track until the three other Immortals returned from a night out after the races, and then called out the one he wanted.
"Kenshin Himura, I am Ashton Dalrymple of Leigh's Abbey. Fight me." Then he struck, without giving Kenshin a chance to talk his way out of another confrontation.
Fitz and Duncan had jumped out of the way – the Rules demanded that they stay out of the fight - and Kenshin had had to draw his sword. Dalrymple had been good, better than many, and Kenshin had pulled out a few tricks to set him up for the blow that had finally put him to sleep. He didn't follow through with the beheading; he simply wiped the long blade of the nihonto and sheathed it again.
"You should take him now or he'll come after you again," Duncan said from the shadows under the grandstand.
"Then I will fight him again. I will not kill," Kenshin said.
"He one won't stop until you do," Fitz said, blowing a cloud of aromatic smoke from the pipe he'd lit during the fight, as casually as if he were in London watching a play.
"Then I'll fight him as many times as is necessary until he gets the message. He can't beat me."
"You will be the challenge that he trains for," Duncan said. "Eventually, he will get good enough, and he'll take a lot of heads in the meantime, which will make him stronger than you. By not killing, you're missing out on the advantage the rest of us have, especially guys like that."
Kenshin shrugged. "Then he'll be stronger. I've fought people stronger than me. It's not the only thing that determines who wins."
"Then I'll do it," Duncan said, stepping forward and drawing his katana.
"No." Kenshin stepped between the Scotsman and the fallen Immortal. "No one dies here tonight."
"He's a danger to all of us."
"Then you can fight him in your own time. No one dies here tonight."
"You're an idiot."
"I've been called that before." Kenshin shrugged. "I'm sure I'll be called that again."
Duncan stared at him, obviously weighing his chances of beating Kenshin to get to the other man based on the fight he'd just seen. He glanced at Fitz and then slid the katana back into the sheath.
"All right, you win."
Kenshin had never seen Dalrymple at the track again. Duncan and Fitz had sworn that they didn't know where he went – maybe his friends had gotten tired of him mooching off them, or his gambling debts had mounted to the point where he'd had to leave town, or he'd been thrown in jail - but that glance had stayed in Kenshin's mind. The other two Immortals had begged off seeing the mare the three had been arguing about before the fight, citing the lateness of the hour and the fact that the people of the track woke at dawn. There had been no explosions, no lightning or wind or other disturbance that often accompanied a Quickening, and Kenshin had assumed they'd just gone home to their lodgings, but what if they had simply taken Dalrymple somewhere else? Then Kenshin was as guilty of the man's death as if he'd done it himself.
Kenshin took a gum eraser and gently blotted at the stray line his pencil had scribed. This line of thought was as wayward as his pencil, and neither was getting him closer to finishing the picture in time for Obata-sensei's next art show.
He'd roughed out a drawing of Tatsuya and a couple neighborhood boys building a snowman in the firebreak between the buildings and was starting to fill in details when the door opened. He didn't look up; he didn't need to. Sasuke's embarrassed ki had preceded him.
"I thought you might be in the laundry," Sasuke said. "But they said they hadn't seen you so I came here. I thought it had to be you, or Mine working late on her sketches."
"She wasn't, tonight."
Sasuke looked at the drawing. "Cute. You do it from memory. I'd have to have them in front of me."
"I was taught to memorize detail a long time ago. It comes in handy."
Sasuke was quiet for a while, watching, and Kenshin continued to work. He wasn't a temperamental kind of artist. Hiko had taught him to draw as a way of remembering detail, and he had picked it up again after his first death as a way to remember his family. It had eased the ache of losing them and calmed his spirit. It had grown into a kind of meditation, but one that was more acceptable in busy places than practicing kata.
"Sorry about earlier." Sasuke said. He was sitting on a bench with his elbows on his knees and his hands loosely clasped, staring down at them.
"You could've warned me – sock on the doorknob or something. It's not like I don't know about such things." Annoyed and a bit embarrassed himself earlier, now Kenshin was just amused.
"It just…kind of happened. Besides, a sock's a bit obvious, don't you think? Everyone would know."
Kenshin laughed. "Sasuke, everyone does know." He waved the pencil at the ceiling. "You're both young and healthy and the walls don't go all the way up. How could they not know? But it's like those paper-walled houses in Japan – no one is going to say anything."
Sasuke grimaced. "Don't tell Masumi; she'll never warm up again!"
"Nothing could induce me to broach such a topic with your wife, thank you," Kenshin said with repressive dignity. "We'd both die of embarrassment. It might not be a bad idea, though, for me to see about moving to another apartment. You don't really need me hanging around." Kenshin stood and leaned the board his picture was taped to against the wall where other works-in-progress rested.
"That's enough for this night. Let's go home," he said.
Hosokawa looked at the papers in front of him with contempt. There was no doubt in his mind that he was going to become an American export, or whatever it was they planned to do with people who didn't answer their silly questions the way they wanted.
First, though, he was going to deal with the Himura family, including Himura Battousai. Then, when the war was over and he could move freely again, if there were more of them left in Japan, they would never know why a different form of death and destruction was raining down on them.
Okay, on the last chapter, I called it my "annual chapter" as a bit of a joke. Looks like it's true. Please accept my profuse apologies to the length of time between these chapters. It's a lot more difficult to shorten the time span than I thought it would be. I'm not entirely happy with this chapter, but it's time to just push forward. Once I get the whole thing hammered out, it might get a serious revision. That may be once I'm retired, at the rate I'm putting out chapters. :P Read, enjoy, let me know what you think. You're the only reason I haven't given up in frustration yet.
Bokken – wooden practice sword
Inu – dog. An epithet used to describe people in the camp who worked with the administration.
Kata – a set series of moves in martial arts
Ki – swordsman's spirit
Nihonto – Japanese sword
Ryu tsuisen – one of Hiten Mitsurugi's aerial maneuvers, leaping into the air and then hammering down on the opponent
Seiza – On the knees and sitting back on the heels with the tops of the feet on the floor with big toes crossed. The body is upright and straight, but relaxed and the hands usually rest lightly on the knees.
Zen – a state of balance