The standard disclaimer applies - I don't own Rurouni Kenshin or Highlander.
Kenshin got to the dining hall late on a gloomy May afternoon. Kisho and Sasuke looked like a pair of schoolboys caught after class to finish homework - both of them hunched over printed pages with pencils clutched tightly to assist in concentration.
"Where have you been?" Kisho asked. He'd finished his duties as school janitor within an hour of the last bell ringing. He'd expected Kenshin to be right behind him, not an hour later and covered with flecks of sawdust and paint.
"Building sets for the play," Kenshin replied.
"What play is that?" Sasuke asked.
"The high school is doing 'Our Town'," Kisho said. "Daisuke tried out because he's over the moon about the little girl playing the lead, but he only got a bit part."
"Oh, I remember now."
"He's helping with sets, too, as is Hiroki," Kenshin said. "What are you guys up to?"
"Loyalty questionnaire. The deadline to turn them in is coming up and we still don't have any answers about the hard ones, so we're toughing it out. Want to join us?" Sasuke asked, with a notable lack of enthusiasm.
"Nah, I'm done. Turned it in weeks ago."
"Really?" Sasuke looked impressed, and then looked back at his paper. What did you put for number twenty-seven?"
"Which one was that?"
"The one about serving in the armed forces."
"I said I would but my religious beliefs dictate that it should be in a non-combative position. I will fight only when forced and I will not kill. Period."
"You're going to get deported," Kisho said gloomily. "What about twenty-eight? The one about foreswearing the emperor? That makes us people without a country."
"Tom's never sworn loyalty to the emperor," Sasuke said. "He's American."
"Yeah, it's a bad question, and I told them that. Both points, really – that it puts Japanese-Americans in the position of implying loyalty to the emperor that they never have given and makes Issei people without a country and traitors in Japan if they get deported. And that if they really want to know what we're thinking here, they just need to come ask us."
Kenshin was cheerfully matter-of-fact. He wasn't about to mention that he had, in fact, sworn loyalty to the Emperor eighty years ago, and that his answer hadn't foresworn him, either. He loved the country of his birth, even if he hadn't lived there for a while and didn't agree with the current political agenda. He didn't know if it was the Emperor pushing the agenda or the army, but it didn't matter. In many ways, he was still a true son of Japan.
He didn't know for sure what the consequences of his answers would be, but there were benefits any way he looked at it. While he loved his family, the longer he stayed with them, the more likely something would happen that they would find out who he was. In his fifty years as an Immortal, he'd only ever confessed the truth about the matter to two non-Immortals – ones whom he'd been sure would never reveal it. Every Immortal he'd spoken to about it, and they were limited, had agreed that the fewer people who knew, the better. If he was sent to another camp, well, that wouldn't be so bad. Maybe there would be a possibility of escape along the way. With any luck, Hosokawa would go, too, and they could find a more private place to settle their differences. In fact, he had little doubt that Hosokawa would be shipped out with any dissidents, if that's what the administration was considering. The other Immortal had been too open in his criticism during the elections not to have been noticed and marked. Not that he was particularly quiet now, with all the upheaval the questionnaire had caused. At least the questionnaire had turned his focus to things political and he had left the Himura family alone.
Kisho eyed his paper. "You fit all of that in this little space?"
"I write small," Kenshin smiled. "What's that about being deported?"
"The rumor is that if you don't put down the answers they want, they'll deport you."
"Oh. Well, there are always rumors. It's not hard to guess what they want you to say, but I just feel like that's lying. If they want to deport me because I told the truth about what I thought, well, I guess this isn't the country I thought it was. After all, they make you swear to tell the truth in court."
"If we ever get a day in court, which we haven't so far," Kisho said.
"True. Well, if I go, I'll have an opportunity to learn Japanese after all," he said flippantly.
"I might be there to help you," Kisho said, marking a couple of places on the paper. "I'm putting 'Buddhist' for religion even though I know they want me to put 'Christian'. It's too late to change me now and I rather like the idea of reincarnation. It's better than burning in a permanent hell and I'm not sure I wouldn't, if I believed in it. At least with Buddhism, hell is temporary and you can work your way out of it. What did you put?" He leaned over to peer at Sasuke's form.
"I said 'Methodist'. It's what Masumi and I used to get me the job at the YMCA, seeing as they wouldn't have hired me if I'd said I was non-Christian."
"Whoops, did I make a mistake, then, when little Shinta passed?" Kenshin asked, concerned. "I said you were Shinto and I think they did the funeral that way."
Sasuke grinned. "You know Shinto – we accept any tradition's celebrations. The Christian ones are so elaborate - they appeal to our sense of pageantry, especially the Catholic ones. But we chose Methodist because it was easier than Catholic, which has a lot more class work and memorization. We were graduate students with a new baby – not much time for religious studies on top of everything else. I won't say there isn't something that appeals – besides the fun holidays – but we grew up Shinto so the old habits are hard to break. I don't guess it's anything to get hung up about. I suppose we'll be expected to show up at the church, though." He sighed. "I'd really rather spend that time playing with my kids, not watching them squirm through a lecture."
Kisho folded his paper and put it into an envelope. "So are my boys really being any help on this play?"
"Oh, yeah. They're actually both rather handy," Kenshin smiled. "It's the older fellows I'm having trouble with. Some of the dads have offered to help build sets, but you'd think they were building to last a thousand years and everything is so heavy. They don't seem to take into account that some of the pieces need to move every now and then. And that they'll just be torn down in a week or so. Hiroki's been pretty good about scrounging things to make props from – and then making them. He's got a good imagination."
"I've been a little worried about him," Kisho admitted. "He seemed to disappear a lot last winter and he's still carrying that stick around. That foot must be healed by now."
"He hasn't shown any lameness in practice," Sasuke said. "In fact he's been working so hard, I was thinking about testing him for menkyo kaiden. There really isn't anything else I can teach him."
"He's only fifteen. Isn't that young to be testing for master?" Kisho asked doubtfully.
"Not at all." Sasuke shrugged. "Myojin Yahiko, who was my grandmother's first student, tested at that age. Some of them just have it then. I used to watch Myojin-sensei and my father when they practiced, after the students had gone home – that's the advantage of living at the dojo. They were phenomenal. Hiroki's like that. He's a natural. What do you think, Tom?"
"I think he's grown up a lot in the last year or so since I met him. I can't necessarily speak a lot to his skills with the wooden sword, but his unarmed skills are quite high. And he's gotten quieter. I wonder if some of the mouthiness was simply a defense against an outside world that didn't see him the way he saw himself. Here, he's accepted. I think all the practice has given him self confidence and he's thinking more clearly. I hope that will translate outside this camp, too, whenever they finally let us out."
"Well, let's get through the wedding, at least," Kisho said. "Yuki has been so busy making paper flowers that she hasn't had time for anything else. The apartment's so full of flowers that it's almost impossible to walk in. I don't know if we can hold out another two weeks. We'll be popping flowers out of our ears by then."
"Masumi's been doing a lot of sewing, too," Sasuke nodded. "You don't think Daisuke will be upset that I haven't tested him yet? He did start training first."
"He won't mind." Kisho shrugged. "He's always known that Hiroki is the more physically talented of the two of them. His grades are still better – that's always been his bragging point with his brother. Although his kid brother is catching up, when he can curb his impatience with the teaching methods."
"Hiroki likes getting his hands dirty," Kenshin said. "Experience teaches him better than lectures."
"That's what I've always been afraid of," Kisho said gloomily. "Especially with that boy, Henry, graduating and enlisting. He and the boys were pretty thick from Tanforan to here, and I think Hiroki, in particular, would have been right behind him in line if he was old enough to enlist. I'm not sure Daisuke won't next year, if the war's still going on."
"I'm not sure that's really fair, them coming around and recruiting from the camps," Sasuke said, thoughtfully. "It makes the young men here feel that they have to enlist or they appear disloyal. And what's the point in fighting for freedom abroad if you don't have any at home? I'm glad Tatsuya's only four and this will, with any luck, be over with by the time he's eighteen."
"What if they assign them to the Pacific?" Kisho asked. "I'll bet my brothers' boys are champing at the bit to fight us, if they aren't already. As much as we left Hiroshima because we couldn't get along with my family or Yuki's, I still don't want my boys fighting their cousins. Gods, what a mess."
That was certainly something they all agreed on. Sasuke signed his paper and put it into the envelope. With the kitchen staff making an extra clatter in the back, and the servers coming forth to shoo people out of the hall, it was time they got cleaned up for dinner and returned with their families.
In Rec 33, there was a meeting going on that had nothing to do with the various religious icons on the tables and walls. Instead, there were rows of men in seiza facing an old man at the head of the room. He was the only one with a cushion, in deference to both age and rank. Most of his hair was gone, and his face was a mass of liver spots and wrinkles, hiding old scars, but the black eyes beneath white brows were sharp and knowing. The gnarled hands resting on his thighs trembled with age, but rumor had it that in his youth, he could break a man with his bare hands. Flanking him were two others, not as old but stronger, with solemn, impassive faces. Had they been in kimono, hakama, and kataginu, it would have been impossible to date them. Only the pressed trousers and open-collared shirts indicated 1940's. They were the mob boss' trusted lieutenants.
He dismissed them all, but motioned to Hosokawa as the man began to rise with the rest.
"Hosokawa, we need to talk. Stay."
Hosokawa subsided rigidly back into seiza as the others filed out.
"Hosokawa, you've done very well in your time in San Francisco. You've sent us some very good prospects. I have been very happy with the decision to send you there. Until recently, that is. Since this relocation, I've been getting some disturbing reports about your conduct. I need to remind you that we do business in the Japanese manner, not the American manner. I think we need to go over the rules again, yes?"
It was a question, but Hosokawa knew it wasn't really a question.
"Hai," he said, throat suddenly dry. He bowed his head to the floor.
"Ah, you do remember some things of Japan. Good. Sit up. Now, rules: always deal from position of strength. You have done this well. You have proven yourself to be a strong fighter, and there are times, I regret to say, that we need strong fighters. They keep our territory secure. Here in Topaz, we run most of the gambling operations and we do so quiet, so those who know, turn a blind eye. We share the territory of the town by mutual consent. There is a rule of no gambling here, but we and the other gangs can run our games if we don't stir things up. But you are starting to stir, and because you ignore some rules, our restless youth follow your example. This attracts attention we do not want. Next, outside people – non-gamblers – we don't involve them in our business. You understand? People outside can cause problems for us. People look bad on us if we harm those outside, and then they report us to authorities. Then our business decreases. We are not Chicago mob who forces protection on people and act with more muscle than brains. Yes?"
"This you have problem with. I hear of Niitsu-Himura family. You started the problem at the race track and it has gone on some time. I thought it was just the place, but you continue the quarrel here. This is a bad idea. Niitsu, I don't know, but I have watched these weeks. He is a bad man to have as an enemy. I can see this in his eyes and how he carries himself and what he does. He teaches unarmed combat to Himura's class and every morning, he runs around the outside of the whole city several times to stay fit. I think he would be a bad man in a fight. Much more than when he broke up that attack on Obata-sensei. Then there is Himura. He practices his fighting skills in peace and for self-improvement, but he is not untalented and not stupid. If Himura comes home to hurt wife and children, then we have problem. Our group has run afoul of this family in Japan, and I have no reason to think the American side is less. Grandfather of this man is still well-remembered…"
The old man continued but Hosokawa tuned him out. How little he knew! Niitsu was exactly the man, he wanted to shout. Are you so blind you don't see? You weren't even sucking a teat then and you're trying to tell me about Battousai? I was there when he took that brat kid from us, and in Kyoto, too, though he doesn't remember me from either place. Why would he? I was just a nameless face, then. And in all this time, following all the brotherhood's rules, I've gotten nowhere. Nowhere but dead, and then moving on to another branch. I want to be…I should be…you!
"No, no, no, no!" Tatsuya pushed away the white shirt in Masumi's hands. "Don't want to dress up. Want to go play outside."
"But Hana-chan is getting married and would like to see us there," Masumi coaxed. She was already dressed and with the exception of hat and gloves, ready to go. Cho had unbent on the subject of dresses for this occasion and wore one that matched her mother's, with a hair ribbon instead of a hat and white Bobbie socks instead of hose. She was in the communal living space buckling on freshly shined shoes. Sasuke stood in front of the mirror over the wash basin working on his tie while Kenshin, who wasn't going to the service, sat backwards on one of the chairs, arms resting on the back of it to watch the proceedings.
"Don't care 'bout weddings. Don't like scratchy clothes." He folded his arms so Masumi couldn't peel off the t-shirt he was wearing.
"Tatsuya, remember how your behavior reflects on us all. Just get dressed so we can go," Sasuke ordered.
"Don't wanna!" Tatsuya's voice rose in both pitch and volume.
"You know, I'm not going. He can stay with me," Kenshin offered. He could feel the little boy's restless energy and sympathized. It had been a week of rain and everyone had been cooped up inside. "We'll play off some of the energy and meet you for the reception later."
"He's going to have to learn to do his social duty some day," Sasuke said, coming out to get into his shoes now that the tie was conquered.
"Plenty of time for that. Weddings just aren't a boy thing. Let us work this off and he'll be on his best behavior later. You're going to be late."
Sasuke checked his watch. "You're right there. Good thing Rec 5 is only a block and a half away. Alright, he's yours, Tom. We'll be having dinner at Block 5's dining hall with the wedding party, so we'll meet you at the high school for the reception. Come on, Masumi."
"All right." Masumi was followed out of the children's room by a mutinous-looking Tatsuya who hadn't yet grasped his reprieve. She turned back to her son as Sasuke helped her into a light jacket. "Please be good for Uncle Tom and dress up for the party when he asks you." To Kenshin, she said, "I've left his things out on the bed."
"I'll handle it when the time comes. I'm sure he'll be in a much better frame of mind by then."
"And miracles will never cease," Sasuke muttered. "All right, ladies, let's go."
After the door closed, Kenshin rose from the chair. "Okay, grab your jacket and get your shoes on. We're going to go play for a while before dinner."
Tatsuya brightened visibly and did what he was told.
They went to the fire break between the perimeter road and the fence with Kenshin's baseball and bat, a gift from Fitz the previous Christmas. Kenshin also grabbed a short piece of four by four post that he had stashed under the front porch. He laid the bat and post aside and worked with the little boy on throwing the ball for a while. Like any young child, Tatsuya needed guidance and practice to release the ball at the appropriate time. Most of the throws went into the dirt between man and boy.
"You need to let go sooner," Kenshin said, moving his arm in an arc. "Up here instead of down here. Try to throw it to…" He took a quick look behind him. "…the guard in the tower. See how high he is? You think you can knock him out of there?"
Tatsuya grinned and lobbed the ball again. This time it sailed just above Kenshin's head as he knelt on the dusty ground. He caught it in one hand.
"Excellent! Do that again." He tossed the ball back gently and Tatsuya watched it go past his outstretched hands. The little boy turned to chase it down.
"Okay, when you catch, you have to get behind it. Try that nice high throw again," Kenshin said.
They practiced throwing and catching until Kenshin sensed Tatsuya was getting a little frustrated. The percentage of high throws was starting to outweigh the low ones, so he was picking up on the idea even if he couldn't do it every time. Kenshin picked up the bat.
"Ready to try the bat? It's going to be a lot harder, especially since it's kind of big for you."
Tatsuya nodded. "Bat like Hiroki," he said.
Kenshin grinned. "He's your batting hero, isn't he? You'll have to work very hard. Hiroki is very good. But remember, he didn't start good. He started young, just like you, and practiced a lot." He set the post on end, grinding it into the already dusty ground to get it to stand solidly, and set the ball on top of it. Altogether, they were about chest high on Tatsuya.
"A good batter like Hiroki can see the ball coming and know when to swing and what angle to get the ball to go where he wants. We have to start first with knowing how to swing…"
Patiently, Kenshin showed Tatsuya how to stand and how to swing, adjusting the little hands until the boy could hold the bat level at full extension. In his mind's eye, though, he could see a tall, muscular young man showing a small red-haired boy how to hold a sword with his hands just right, and then how to swing…
The reception was held in the high school gym and open to all. Yuki and several of the teachers had decorated it with paper flowers and streamers, and the camp's music school provided a band. One of the nearby classrooms had been set up as a play room for the younger children, staffed by volunteers so that parents could enjoy the dance without worry.
Kenshin had arrived with a bathed and neatly groomed Tatsuya as promised, greeting Hana and her new husband, and coaxing Tatsuya to present the couple with a wedding gift, wrapped in a bit of Masumi's leftover material. When they unwrapped it to reveal a carved wooden figure of two cranes with their necks entwined, Tatsuya was reluctant to let it go, as he was with all of Kenshin's carved animals. Cho managed to distract him with a description of the play room and an offer to take him there before he made a scene.
"Whew! Storm averted," Sasuke said, as the adults watched brother and sister skip down the line of waiting guests towards the gym door.
Kenshin laughed. "If he'd known that's what he was carrying, he would never have given it to you."
"It's beautiful. Thank you so much," Hana said, her husband echoing her. The gift was passed on to others in the wedding party, who exclaimed over it before setting it with the other wedding presents on a table against the wall.
Sasuke, Masumi, and Kenshin moved out into the room, as there were still people waiting to greet the newlyweds. Only when everyone had been through the line and had a chance to congratulate the couple did the band start playing. The newlyweds did the first dance alone, with others joining them for subsequent ones. Sasuke and Masumi abandoned Kenshin for a dance, apologizing, but he had waved them on. They hadn't had much time together with Masumi working so hard on the wedding dress, the ones she and Cho wore, and a new suit for Hiroki since he'd done nothing but grow all winter and was self-conscious about his wrists and ankles showing. Kenshin hadn't minded standing near the wall, watching the dancers and listening to the music.
Sasuke and his fellow Peace Patrollers had arranged to keep a watchful eye out as they danced or talked amongst friends. Topaz had a population of 6000 people; there were bound to be differences of opinion even without the problems caused by the questionnaire. Of course, not everyone showed up, but a large part of the east side had, and the gym was crowded. After a couple of hours, Kenshin and Sasuke had ended up at the same end of the gym; Sasuke because he was making a circuit to check up on things and Kenshin because it was the end farthest away from Yuki and her never-ending attempts to introduce him to nice young women who would make a discerning man a fine wife. He'd put up with two such attempts, fortunately on waltzes, which he could do. Jitterbugging was out of the question. But he'd hardly known what to say to the girls; they'd seemed so young. They didn't stick in his mind after the music ended, and after the second one, he'd drifted down the room to get away from Yuki's sphere of influence. He had a sense of impending disaster about the whole thing.
"It's quiet so far," Sasuke said, when they met. "I just checked with Sato and Yamaguchi."
"I'm glad things have calmed down from this spring, though honestly, with the deadline coming up, I was thinking the dissenters would stir the pot again."
"Do you think they have a target? I'm glad the officials acted so quickly in getting Obata-san out of here once he got out of the hospital, but I never would have guessed they'd attack him in the first place."
"Missouri is a long way away, and much safer for him. And he and his wife are closer to their boy. That's good for them. As to a target, I can't think of anyone besides you-all in the Peace Patrol, but they know better than to attack you. Well, they might think of me as – what do they call it? Enu?" Kenshin mispronounced the word.
"Inu, with a long 'E' sound," Sasuke corrected. "It means dog. I supposed in America the connotation would be the same as rat."
"Dogs, rats…can't figure out if I'm in a zoo or a zodiac," Kenshin snorted. "Anyway, they might like to see me as a target, but somehow I don't think they do."
"I'm sure they do," Sasuke corrected again. "They just don't want to risk you. You're a scary fellow."
Kenshin made a scoffing noise, but didn't have a chance to reply.
"Daddy? Uncle Tom?" Cho appeared came out of the throng, looking worried. Like many of the older children, she'd divided her time between the play room and the gym, dancing with her friends or running up and down the halls. "Something's not right. It smells like the sewers and I can't find Tatsu-chan. He was in the play room earlier, but he's not there now and he's not with Mama."
"Smells like the sewers?" Sasuke took an experimental sniff, but the air smelled more like too many hot bodies in too small a place, a mélange of sweat and warring perfumes. The town really only smelled like the sewers when the wind came strong from the west, where the sewage plant was.
"You know, Uncle Tom. Like at Tanforan. We talked about it..."
Kenshin's gaze sharpened and Sasuke blinked at the sudden, intense focus and the pinpricks of gold in his friend's eyes.
"Cho, go back to your mom and stay with her. We'll find Tatsuya." Kenshin watched only long enough to make sure she was heading towards Masumi and Yuki, and then pulled Sasuke out the gym door and into the cooler corridor beyond.
"It's Hosokawa, and I'll bet he either has Tatsuya or is planning something."
"Tom, you can't accuse the man just because you don't like him. He's a troublemaker, but…"
Kenshin was already striding down the hall, moving faster than Sasuke thought a short guy could. He lengthened his own stride to catch up and better hear the words Kenshin was tossing back at him.
"It's not because I don't like him. Cho said it smells like the sewer. That's exactly what she said Hosokawa felt like just before he grabbed her at Tanforan."
"Yes, but what does she mean?"
"Your daughter reads ki, Sasuke. I've been working with her a bit to help her understand what she's feeling. She usually describes emotions or energy by how things smell or taste because she doesn't have the frame of reference to know what they really are. I've been helping her clarify that."
"Ki is just a myth the old samurai tell, Tom. Grandpa Sano always said my other grandfather's ki could make leaves snap in half, but he always exaggerated when he told stories. Myojin-sensei said he could, too, and the two of them would laugh about it. It was a joke. No one can snap leaves with their mind."
"It's not done with the mind; it's life energy, particularly that of emotion. I've had a bad feeling all night and she just pinpointed it. There are too many people here and it's too cluttered for me, but Cho senses it on a simpler level. She cuts through all the noise. That's why she got it and I didn't. He can't have gone too far since she's only just felt it, so check around the buildings closest. Look inside the laundries and showers since they're less populated at this hour. You check the school and the blocks east; I'll start north and work my way towards Block 6 since the guy lives over there. He might go that way or he might head towards the fence – it he can get past it, he can do all kinds of stuff in the desert and no one will know."
Kenshin exited the school and ran across the open lot of Block 25 towards Block 19. Sasuke could see him flash though the lights from the windows of the barracks on Block 26 before he disappeared into the darkness. Sasuke shook his head and turned back into the school, peering into classrooms and closets. Nothing. It seemed like nothing more than a wild goose chase, but Tom's urgency was almost as convincing as Cho's face. She was a responsible child; she would have looked for her brother before coming to him. That, more than anything else, kept him moving through the halls until he was sure his son wasn't there. Then he headed outside through the east door.
There were so many people clustered at the high school that even away from it, Kenshin couldn't get a sense of where Tatsuya was. All he got was a continued feeling that something bad was going to happen, and soon. All he wanted was his sword, left at home so that no one at the dance would bump into it and make it visible. He kept his senses open as he bolted towards Block 7, but it wasn't until he was approaching the laundry and shower building on that block that he caught a bright, angry ki.
"Tatsuya?" he called as he pushed through the door.
Mine was standing at one of the washtubs running clothing through the rollers to squeeze out the excess water. She looked at him curiously, suddenly alert.
"He's not here, Tom. Did he go missing again?"
"Yeah…" Kenshin's eyes darted about the room, finally spotting the source of the angry ki – another toddler, whose expression indicated an explosion was imminent. "I was hoping he was here."
"You guys are over at the high school – that's a long way for him by himself."
"I thought he might have decided to go home. You can't tell with him – he's a determined little guy and when he sets out to do something, he usually does. I saw the lights on here and thought he might have come in. I thought you'd be over there, too."
Mine made a face. "Nah. With everyone over there, I have better access to the washing machines. It's too crowded any other time."
Kenshin grinned. "You're almost as anti-social as me."
"I'm not anti-social. I just have priorities, most of which do not include large mobs of noisy people. Besides, I'm single and I like it, and Yuki views dances as an opportunity to match people up. I'm surprised you're braving it."
"I'm security. You know there's usually as much fighting as dancing at these things. All it takes is one guy looking at a girl the wrong way. Hey, I gotta go find him, but on the off-chance he does wander in, hang onto him, will you?"
"Yeah, no problem." Mine gazed after the empty doorway and swinging door. "No problem if he wants to be hung onto; all kinds of it if he doesn't," she said drily, wincing as the toddler behind her gave voice to dissatisfaction.
Kenshin left the building and ran to the apartment block. All was dark and quiet. He called Tatsuya's name as he entered, but he knew already that the building was empty. In the corner of his room, where he and Kisho had framed the wall between his room and the children's, he moved an unattached sliver of drywall out of the way and pulled his sword from between the 2x4's. Time to go hunting.
Cho threaded her way through the crowd at the edge of the dance floor. Some were watching the dancers and tapping their feet, but most were simply gossiping: how changeable the weather was; how they couldn't get the garden to grow in this soil; the children were so willful and not obedient to their parents anymore; can you believe they were already discussing building a bigger school in Blocks 24 and 25… Cho let it all float over her head. Getting back to Mama was the important thing, but she had to stop because there was no way through a couple knots of people who were too close and too oblivious to the people around them to realize that no one could get by. The bleachers were creating an obstruction and with no way to move them, there wasn't enough room to pass when people stopped moving between them and the dancers.
"But Mary, why won't you dance with me? It's just a dance." Hiroki's voice, coming from next to the bleachers, away from the crowd and only pitched enough to be heard over the music, but she knew she could recognize that voice wherever it was. She'd known it all her life. There was also something like the humidity they sometimes had gotten in the summer, a tang of winter wind, and a prickle like when she got tears behind her eyes. Frustration, anger, and…yearning? Hopelessness? She tried to put words to the feelings like Uncle Tom had been teaching her. She'd been too upset earlier, when she'd told him and Father about Tatsuya, but he'd understood her shorthand anyway. This was easier since there wasn't the fear and urgency behind it.
"I can't, Hiroki, unless you ask Father first. That's his rule. He wants to talk to the boys so he gets to know them."
That was Mary Sagawa, a pretty, willowy girl in Hiroki's grade. Cho didn't know her except by sight, and she knew from some overheard teasing between the brothers that Hiroki was sweet on her.
"How can I talk to him if he doesn't speak English? Even with your help, I don't know enough Japanese to do more than say hello and comment on the weather."
Cho thought the feeling of humidity was getting a little more oppressive. She was personally getting a little more impatient with the crowd, so she understood it perfectly.
"That's a start," Mary said encouragingly. "Maybe if…" She yelped, Hiroki exclaimed "Hey!", and Cho craned her head, trying to see around the bodies nearby to find out what happened. Now the winter wind was stronger. Hiroki was mad, but somehow, she could tell that it wasn't at Mary.
"Get lost, sister," Cho heard someone say, and there was a surge in the crowd away from the doors that threatened to push her into the dance floor. She was small enough, though, to wiggle between the people now that they were moving and she got to the corner of the bleachers in time to see a couple of the upper class high school girls helping Mary up from the floor.
"What was that all about?" one asked.
"I don't know. That boy just shoved me and hauled Hiroki out of here," Mary answered.
"Jealous boyfriend?" the other girl asked.
"I don't have a boyfriend, and I didn't know that boy. I think he's from the L.A. school. I never saw him in San Francisco."
"Boy stuff then. Best to stay out of the way," the first one said.
'Maybe,' Cho thought, 'and maybe not. Those Santa Anita boys are mean.' She stepped up onto the bleachers, going up a couple of levels until she could see over the crowd. Uncle Tom and Daddy were trying to find Tatsuya, so that left her with finding Mr. Fukuzaki, or perhaps Mr. Sato or Mr. Yamaguchi, to help Hiroki. Surely Daddy and Uncle Tom wouldn't get mad at her for not going directly back to Mama if Hiroki was in danger. The first person she saw, though, was Daisuke, dancing near the end of the gym close to her. She hopped down and wove her way through the crowd, which was thinner now. Most of the people who had been blocking the way had moved on. Mary was gone, too, absorbed into a group of girls who had gone to find their chaperones. She hesitated at the edge of the dance floor, but then plunged ahead. If she waited too long, he'd dance right past her. She tugged at his sleeve.
"Daisuke, you've got to come."
"What? Cho?" Daisuke looked down at her, bemused, and she got the feeling that she'd just burst the balloons and stepped in the cake. She was getting a similar feeling from the girl he was dancing with, whom she didn't know. Well, that was embarrassing.
"I'm sorry, I think Hiroki's in trouble and Daddy and Uncle Tom are looking for Tatsuya and I can't get to your dad…"
Daisuke held up his hands, stopping the rush of words. "I get it. Sorry, Emily. We'll have to finish this dance later. Let me rescue my brother, beat him up for getting in trouble again, and then I'll be back."
Cho didn't wait for anything more. She grabbed him by the sleeve again and towed him towards the door. It was cooler in the hall and much less crowded, although there were a few groups, mostly men, standing around or sitting against the wall, talking. Some of the older Japanese, Cho had noticed, seemed capable of just sitting down anywhere for a conversation without the need for things like chairs.
"Now which way?" Daisuke asked, surveying the hall.
"I don't know; I didn't see which way they went. Mary just said they hauled him out of the gym. Wait a minute…" If she concentrated…
"Hey, did you guys see a bunch of boys come out of here, maybe horsing around and dragging one of them?" Daisuke asked the loiterers.
A couple of the men pointed down the hall to their right just as Cho pointed in the same direction.
"He's mad," Cho said as they went down the hall, Daisuke walking with long strides and Cho trotting beside him. "Maybe…scared? He didn't have his stick with him."
"You don't usually bring a fighting stick to a dance," Daisuke muttered. "Then again, this is my numbskull brother we're talking about. Maybe he should have. Cho, could you go find Mr. Sato and Mr. Yamaguchi? Maybe some of the guys from class? Hiroki's been messed up in something all winter, I think, and it would be good to have back-up."
"Okay." She turned and ran back towards the gym.
Hiroki was wishing for his stick. It had become so much a part of him that no one seemed to notice that he carried it everywhere, but when he'd picked it up on his way out the door, Kisho had told him to set it down.
"You won't need a stick at a wedding," his father had said sternly. "It'll just get in the way and you'll be tripping people. If you need it that badly, we'll take you up to hospital and get you checked out. It's been eight months since you stepped on that nail. Your foot must be healed by now."
Hiroki had put the stick back in its corner without protest. He knew that any doctor would pronounce him fit, and he certainly didn't need his mother attacking him with medicine again, but he still wished he had it. The junior mob boys had brought reinforcements this time. And their own sticks - an assortment of ball bats, tool handles, and even rebar. Their big mistake when hauling him out of the building had been letting go of him. The ones that had grabbed him had dragged him away from the school to an empty lot and shoved him into a group of their friends as if sheer numbers would be enough to make him cower.
'Time to put Himura-sensei's aikido lessons into practice,' he thought, and took several deep breaths to calm his nerves and loosen his muscles. Relax. Open. Everything and nothing. It was an odd feeling, the way his senses seemed to expand and time seemed to slow. He could almost taste the tang of an approaching storm, mixed with the ever-present dust, a touch of the desert sage, and a whiff of the sewage plant upwind of town. A spiral of wind tossed tiny sage leaves into the air, some of them popping oddly. Closer, he could feel the restless, eager energy of the boys circling him, hear the music of the wedding reception in an odd state of muted and clear, and felt the people inside the building as a happy mass at his back. He'd never felt this in practice, and yet when the first boy moved in, Hiroki knew just what to do, and felt like he had plenty of time to accomplish it. It felt good, and he smiled.
'Too slow; wrong angle,' he thought, and grabbed the boy's wrist with one hand and elbow with the other. A quick sidestep and a twist took the other's momentum and used it to Hiroki's advantage, multiplying it as he went. The boy slammed into the hard-packed dirt, the rebar flying from his hand and the breath leaving his lungs in a whoosh. Another was coming; no time to grab up the rebar and remain in a defensible position. In fact, they were already starting to get the idea that going after him one at a time was not a good plan. The whole group was moving in, looking for an opening. Defense, sensei said. Look for your own opening. They will get in each others' way – if they don't, maneuver them into each other's way. Hiroki moved as gracefully as any dancer at the party, slapping aside arms and spinning around bodies, ducking and weaving until an unexpected blow across the ribs brought him back to real time. Dang, that hurt. Narrowly avoiding another blow aimed at his head, he threw himself into a forward roll to give himself space and some time to suck in air.
'Track and field would be a better sport right now', he thought, 'but there's no good way out of this.'
He'd thinned them out a bit, but the rest fell on him in a mass. When it resolved itself, they jerked him upright, two thugs holding his arms while their leader stood back and watched. That one hadn't taken any part in the fight – he'd simply stood back with his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his black leather jacket. Now he stepped forward, the dust from the fight settling onto his slicked-back hair in a fine powder and giving a glimpse of what he might look like in thirty years.
"Hiroki Fukuzaki," he drawled. "Sounds like a song. Do you sing, Fukuzaki?"
"No, but I can tell a joke." When the silence drew out as they obviously waited for him to do so, he couldn't help but smirk.
He didn't see the leader move in or the backhanded blow that cut the inside of his cheek against his teeth, but he tasted the iron in his mouth.
"You call that a punch? Cho Himura hits harder than you," he taunted.
"Yeah? Well, we have plans for Baby Bitch."
"You leave her alone," Hiroki warned, a cold knot of fury suddenly in his belly. Cho was like his little sister; no one was going to harm her with him around.
"Oh, I think you have bigger things to worry about than her," the leader said, and motioned to the rest of the gang.
The two holding onto to him clung like leeches, and despite every dirty trick he'd learned from Mr. Niitsu, he could never get more than one off him at a time. He just couldn't move freely and do the damage he wanted to do. Another would always grab him and hold him, letting the rest of the gang use him for a punching bag. When they hauled him upright again, Hiroki could barely stand on his own feet. The two thugs supported him, one eye already swollen closed and the other stinging with blood from a cut somewhere above it. Everything else simply hurt, and between the pain in his stomach and the taste of iron, he really just wanted to throw up.
The leader tapped him under the chin with the handles of a set of nunchucks.
"Now, let's talk about the money," he said conversationally.
"I don't have your money." Hiroki threw as much defiance into the words as he could. It was perfectly true – a lot of it had gone into the kettles and the rest was still under the Admin building – but he knew that didn't matter. They had wanted to beat him and they would continue to, if he couldn't find a way out. Admitting he knew anything about it would only make it worse.
This time it was the nunchucks that slammed into the side of his head. Hiroki's knees buckled but the thugs held him up.
"Wrong answer. Try that one again."
Hiroki spat blood, narrowly missing a wingtip. Out of the corner of his good eye, he saw the nunchucks draw back again.
"Drop it! Drop it now!" Daisuke's voice, angrier than Hiroki had ever heard him.
"Get out of here, Dice!" he yelled.
"No way. Nobody gets to beat on my little brother but me."
Hiroki drew up all the energy he had, using his bent knees to push off the ground and the thugs to brace against, he kicked out at the leader, catching the other off-guard. One foot slammed into a kneecap and the other into the groin.
'Yes!' he thought, just before they dropped him and someone kicked him in the head.
He awoke again lying on his side, dust thick on his tongue and mixing with the blood inside his mouth in an unholy paste. A small hand was patting at his shoulder and Cho was calling his name. She sounded so worried that he couldn't tell her just how much those little pats hurt. Instead, he forced himself to sit up, which made her scoot back a little.
"Hiroki, are you okay? We came as fast as we could."
"I'm fine," he managed, just before his angry stomach made him lean away from her and throw up. He wiped his mouth with his hand, and then his hand on his pants. Well, that took care of the mud paste. "Just fine," he reiterated.
Daisuke squatted in front of them. "You look like hell. Mom's going to kill you."
"Better her than them. Gods, I hurt."
"Yeah, your looks are killing me, too, but that's normal."
"You just said you were fine," Cho protested.
The two brothers grinned at each other, Hiroki wincing at the contraction of abused muscles. Daisuke held out a hand and pulled him to his feet, bracing his little brother until Hiroki found his balance.
"Daisuke, can you get him over to the infirmary while we take these guys to lock-up?" Yamaguchi asked. "Cho, you need to get back to your mother."
"But we haven't found Tatsuya yet."
"Your father and Mr. Niitsu are looking for him. They'll bring him back. I need the rest of you boys to get back inside, too. Make sure Cho gets back to her mother safely."
Hiroki turned his head to get an idea of his surroundings. Having one eye completely closed was not good. Sato and several of the other adult students on the Peace Patrol had the gang members huddled together and encircled, the gang members looking quite a bit the worse for wear. Several of the kendo class' teenage students loitered nearby. Some of them were a little dirty, but from the looks on their faces, they were hoping the gang would put up a fight again. Hiroki got the impression Cho was hoping they would, too, but she reluctantly joined her classmates and they headed back towards the school.
"I don't need to go to the hospital," Hiroki said. "I just need to get cleaned up before Ma gets a look at me or she'll paint me red again."
"Just go, Hiroki. You're a mess and you took quite a beating. I need to make sure you're okay." Yamaguchi turned away and then turned back. "You did well. We could see you from a distance but couldn't get here fast enough. If you'd been using lethal force, that would have all been over within a minute and none of them would have been standing. Your technique was exceptional and your restraint under the circumstances, very commendable. Good job." He nodded and went back to Sato and the others.
"Come on, little brother. Let's get you checked out."
Daisuke steered him around and they set out for the hospital. After a few steps, Hiroki was glad of his brother's support.
"Looks like you are a hero," Daisuke said. "I thought you did pretty well, too."
"How did you know?"
"Cho saw them haul you off and came to get me. I told her to alert Mr. Yamaguchi and the others."
"Heh. I'm surprised she didn't come after them herself. She's got a bit of a temper."
"Make no mistake, she was there - wouldn't go back even when Mr. Sato told her to. She was the one standing over you with a ball bat, fending off anyone who got close. That girl can do some damage."
Hiroki's grin was lopsided. "Never doubted that."
"She's better than I am. When did she catch up to me?"
"While you were playing football and chasing girls. She's been practicing hard this winter. And besides, you're just lame."
"Hmph. You want me to blacken your other eye?"
The Block 27 dining hall was empty except for a sad-faced older man with a mop washing down the floor and a cook setting bowls of bread dough to rise overnight on a shelf above the ovens. Sasuke came out the front door and paused, listening to the night. The wind was rising, scraping along the tarpaper of the barracks, and he could feel its cool, gritty breath on his cheek. He went through the showers and laundry, asking a woman if a little boy was in the ladies' area, and then peered into Rec 27, trying to see if there was movement within despite the lack of light inside. His eyes searched what he could see of the block ahead of him and the street. To his left, near the fence, he saw a flash of white, a small boy being tugged along by a larger man. Tatsuya had been wearing a white shirt.
"Hey!" he yelled.
The other man looked back at him, then picked up the boy and shoved him between the strands of barbed wired before following himself. They were lost in the blackness before the searchlight swung around. The moonlight was dim, but Sasuke knew the narrow face and slightly buck teeth: Hosokawa. Tom was right.
Sasuke glanced about – he'd seen a flash as the search light had swept by. In the ditch was a length of steel pipe, leftover from the work crews. He had to walk normally until the lights moved away. Anything too quick and they would stay on him to see what he was doing. Once they turned away, he grabbed the pipe and sprinted for the fence, ducking through the wires and the open area east of it until the encroaching sagebrush started to trip him up. After that, he was fast but cautious. He didn't catch up until they were well away from the camp. The noise of the dance was dulled by distance but the wind was picking up. Out here, only the stars and a half moon flirting with tumbling clouds provided any light, but Sasuke didn't need it. He could see the white of Tatsuya's shirt against the dark color of Hosokawa's coat.
"That's far enough! Put him down!" he ordered.
"Ah, a follower. Not the one I wanted, but I can handle you. Maybe your little friend will come out to play. He's been avoiding me, you know." Hosokawa set Tatsuya on the ground and stepped back toward Sasuke. The little boy made no noise at all, just stared with round, frightened eyes.
A soft shing! of metal against metal was the only warning Sasuke got before a blade came speeding at him. He fended it off with the steel pipe, falling easily into a back stance. He blocked the following blows as well, countering each with a series of attacks that didn't get through the other man's guard but did make him wary. His pipe didn't have an edge, but it could still do some damage if it hit. Unfortunately, it also didn't have good balance or any kind of shock absorption in the grip, and wielding it was tiring and numbing.
"So you have some measure of skill. How very surprising. I thought all that talk of using the sword for self-improvement was a cover for the lack of any real swordsmanship in both the style and the instructor. Too bad you don't have an adequate weapon or I might enjoy the warm-up. I didn't think to bring a spare. After all, practice wasn't what I had in mind."
"You talk too much," Sasuke grunted, blocking another sweeping cut and then spinning inside Hosokawa' guard and slamming the pipe into the man's ribs. Hosokawa stumbled away. The sound of the crack was satisfying to Sasuke, but he didn't see the foot coming at him until it was too close to miss. He jerked his head instinctively to avoid it and managed to only take a glancing blow, but it was enough to knock him off his feet and made him lose his grip on the pipe. It went spinning into the darkness.
"Enough!" Hosokawa spat, all pretense of urbanity gone. "You die now!"
Sasuke tensed, fingers digging into the dry soil as he glared at the man in front of him. He wasn't in the best of positions, but he was damned if he'd go quietly. If he could roll and fling a handful of dirt at the same time, he might be able to get inside the blow…
He didn't need to. Metal met metal once again before the strike was completed, but this time it was two swords meeting; Hosokawa at the end of one, and Tom holding the other. Sasuke had never seen such a look on his friend's face before, and maybe it was a trick of the moonlight, but the gold flecks he'd seen earlier in Tom's eyes appeared to have taken over the violet entirely. It was hard to tell; they were narrowed and hard, with his brows drawn down and his face set and angry.
"Battousai! You did come out to play! I am overjoyed," Hosokawa exclaimed, his good humor apparently restored.
"You're a freakin' nutcase," Tom ground out. "What do you mean involving others in this? Our battles aren't fought in public."
"But you wouldn't play with me. It was the only way I could get you to come out. I was beginning to think your reputation was undeserved. Well, in all honesty, I'm still not sure it is," he confided. Then his tone changed entirely, becoming more deadly. "Come on and show me what you can do." Then he lunged at Tom…who wasn't there.
Sasuke blinked. How in the world did the man just disappear like that? And then Tom fell from the sky, his sword slamming down towards Hosokawa's head. The other man managed to get his sword up to block it just in time, and from then on, the blows came almost too fast for Sasuke to separate and recognize each move. Such an interesting fight, with both of them using what seemed to be a variety of kenjutsu styles, some of which he recognized and others he didn't, as well as western fencing and saber techniques. Each of them used fists and feet wherever an opportunity presented itself, trying to throw the other off balance. It was a superb show of swordsmanship and he kept one eye on it as he crawled in the direction of Tatsuya's white shirt, using the sage for cover and hoping the two combatants were too absorbed to notice him. He had to grab his boy and run. The wind was blowing more strongly now, with the moon blotted out and thunder growling closer. Perhaps they could disappear in the storm if it rained hard enough.
Hosokawa's crowing made him pause. The man was closer than he'd thought.
"Yes! That's the Battousai of whom I've heard. Show me your Hiten Mitsurugi techniques. Let me learn them before I kill you."
"I left that name behind a long time ago. I have no desire to take it up again," Tom said. "Nor will I pass on Hiten Mitsurugi; especially not to such as you."
"You know I'll just get it along with your Quickening. It would be nice of you to give me a preview."
"If you want nice, get yourself reassigned. We've got enough to deal with without some half-crazed Immortal dashing about making trouble."
"Well, then, if that's the way you feel about it, maybe this will up the ante a bit." Hosokawa swooped down and grabbed up Tatsuya just as Sasuke made a diving grab for the boy and missed. Sasuke rolled into a crouch just to Hosokawa's left.
"Whoopsie! Just a little too late, Daddy." The gleaming tip of Hosokawa' blade hovered in front of Sasuke's eyes. "Now, who do I do first? Better put that blade away, Battousai, or I might get nervous. Then we won't know what will happen, will we?"
Tom slowly sheathed the sword and took a step forward with his left foot, edging just that much closer to his opponent. "Leave them out of it. This is you and me fighting."
"But they're so young and tender. I love the look adults get on their faces when I kill children in front of them, especially if the child is theirs. But really, I might have to do the man first. Don't want him attacking me while I do the kid and really, the toddler can't get too far, can he?"
Sasuke glanced at Tom and saw the man sink a little lower into his back stance, left foot forward, sword sheathed but his right hand still on the handle low down near his left hip. The wind kicked up the dust and sage around him, tiny leaves shredding in it. His eyes – they really did look golden – seemed to be giving Sasuke a message as Tom looked pointedly from him to the squirming child for just the briefest of moments. Sasuke coiled his body a little tighter.
Then Tatsuya bit Hosokawa's arm, hard.
Hosokawa's sword dipped out of line as he dropped Tatsuya, and in that moment, with the boy safely out of the way, Tom and Sasuke both struck. Sasuke came off the ground in a tight dive, wrapping his arms around his son before the boy even hit the ground and rolling away from the two combatants. Tom drew his sword with god-like speed when they were clear, sweeping it in a diagonal arc from Hosokawa's right hip to left shoulder, slicing through muscle, bone, and soft tissue as if it were nothing more than rice paper. But that wasn't the end of the move. Sasuke saw the second part as he rolled to a stop, pressing Tatsuya's face against his chest. Tom kept turning with the momentum of the first strike, spinning around to deliver a second, backhanded blow across the neck. Hosokawa's head rolled across the desert sand while his body slumped to the ground.
For just one moment, the expression on Tom's face was horrified. Then the lightning struck.
I don't think there are any Japanese words that I didn't explain in context
This chapter comes with a bit more Author's Note than previous ones. I want to apologize for my long break from this story. I know some of you are still hanging in there waiting to see what happens and believing me when I say I won't ever NOT finish a story. Keep believing. This is kind of what happened.
I really had a hard time with Chapter 20. I didn't like the way it came together, or didn't come together. I finally published what I had, determined to keep going forward and at least get through the story in a state of rough draft, if nothing better. I didn't like it so much that I actually forgot that I'd published it, so I've kept on in the last year, trying to come up with a better version and failing. Finally, in about October, I re-read the entire (so far) Kaze Hikaru series and then the Rurouni Kenshin series, trying to get myself back into the mood and time period – Bakumatsu to Meiji to (hopefully) 1940's USA. Then I went onto and that's when I realized that I had already published Chapter 20. Well. Huh. Duh. Face-palm.
Fortunately, in the meantime, Chapter 21 was largely writing itself. You see, I don't write a story chronologically. I don't start at the beginning and keep going through character and plot development, ups and downs, and finally a great conclusion. If that's the way it's supposed to be done, I'm an abject failure. I have an idea and I write the scenes as they come to me, bouncing back and forth through the story timeline tying it all together until – voilà – a story occurs. This works best if I don't start publishing before I have, at least, the rough draft done – a lesson learned from "Caged", here. Some of the scenes you just read were written several years ago; others over the spring and summer while I was agonizing over Chapter 20. For the latter part of November up until now, I've been tying them together, filling in some holes, and revising. I think it's not bad now. I'd as much as promised one reviewer there would be an update before the end of the year. I hate that it's taken me so long to finish this story – longer than the war was, even. That's pretty ridiculous, even given a full-time job and the other things that make up life. I should have made more time for this and not gotten so hung up on the last chapter. As always, I will try to do better.