The Cat That Danced With Death
A Rurouni Kenshin fanfic
by D.B. Sommer
All C+C appreciated. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
At Larry F's at:
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And also Angcobra is now storing all of my fics, at
Standard Disclaimer: I don't own any of the rights to Rurouni Kenshin. They are owned by Nobuhiro Watsuki, Jump Comic, and Sony Pictures.
[Author's note]A bit more moody than what I normal write. No prereaders this time, so there should be a whole lot more to criticize. ^_^
His wife was beautiful.
However, as with all women past the age of forty, she did not feel that way. Earlier, when her mood had been foul, she had told him as much, pointing out her perceived flaws in excruciating detail. Her dark hair, bound in a bun on top of her head, was now shot with streaks of gray that were increasing their numbers of late. Her face held lines of time that, even with generous amounts of make-up, were difficult to hide. The somewhat slighter figure of her youth had long ago given way to a more voluptuous maturity that even she had never guessed was coming. Over the years, bearing two children added to that. Despite the fact she still taught that art, her body continued to slowly relinquish ground to the effects of the relentless twin banes of humanity: age and gravity. Both had extracted their price. In all, her form showed the toll of leading an active life; such changes were an inevitability.
And to him, they didn't matter in the slightest. Twenty years of marriage, and he still genuflected in her presence. Perhaps she took his attentions for granted, or possibly she did not notice them at all -she could be painfully blind sometimes- but he was still enamored with her. She held his rapt attention in a way that only one other in his entire life had managed, and what feelings he had for Tomoe had been different, though no less real. They didn't matter now. Those sentiments for one long dead were in the past, locked away with the seemingly endless days of death and filling the air with a red rain delivered by his sword.
But now the years had been generous to him. In the beginning it was his wife, and then his children, who became the center of his existence for more than two decades. Other men, like Sano and Yahiko might have eyes (and only their eyes) that strayed from their spouses, but he did not. No other women existed as far as he was concerned. Perhaps he should tell her that, reassuring her and hopefully restoring some measure of her pride in her appearance.
She had been a major part of his salvation; of that there was never any doubt. Before meeting her it took everything he had to force himself awake each day, forsaking an existence solely in the slumber of dreams which gave him no consolation, but were at least fantasies. The reality of those days was worse than any nightmare dredged up by his subconscious. Every dawn was tainted by anticipation and dread the size of a mountain, always loathing how many he would have to kill before the day expired. But after first meeting and subsequently getting to know the woman who would become his wife, the fears disappeared. He looked forward to waking up, wondering what new experiences would bring him joy, especially with such an affectionate and caring woman.
He took a deep breath and drank deeply in her scent; one that carried a hint of jasmine and innocence. It always drowned out the metallic tang of blood that remained buried beneath his skin, still rising to the surface and plaguing him when his mood was foul. She was as responsible for rescuing him from his past as he was for finding he resolve to drag himself out and abandoning it, forging a new life to make his ow-
A hand pinched his cheek. "You're not listening to a word I'm saying, Kenshin."
"Oww!" Kenshin Himura hissed as he accepted Kaoru's admonishment. It seemed he had been too deeply lost in his thoughts for his own good.
She released his cheek and folded her arms under her ample bosom. "Sometimes I wonder why I even bother bringing you shopping."
Adjusting the packages he carried, he freed up a hand and placed it behind his head. "Because I need to do something to pay for my way since I'm still freeloading from you even after all this time?"
He could tell she tried to fight it -she wanted to keep being angry with him- but the snort of laughter burst through resisting lips. Once the first made it out, she surrendered and laughed, yielding to the mood he was trying to set. Twenty years of marriage had taught him much, including how to cheer her up, though he still doubted he understood half the things about his wife. Swordsmanship was easy compared to dealing with the opposite sex.
Kenshin shifted the packages again so that they were held in front of him with both hands. Shopping in the market was an effort the required a fair amount of skill. It was always crowded during this time of day, and of late they restricted their shopping to once a week, which meant twice as many packages as most men could manage. But one of the advantages of being trained in the Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu was an almost inhuman sense of balance, and that extended to carrying bags filled with food, clothing, and other not so basic necessities.
Today was worse than usual, with a constant press from teeming throngs of humanity. It seemed there were half again as many people as their last shopping expedition, which was probably an accurate observation. The winter festival was rapidly approaching and people were preparing for it, which would explain the heavy traffic. But whatever the cause, it made moving from stall to stall difficult, even for Kenshin, and he had to keep a careful step lest even he be bowled over by an errant body.
"What was it you were saying?" Kenshin deftly evaded a small child who was paying more attention to a vendor's tank full of exotic fish rather than the people directly in front of her.
"Do you think we have enough food? I want to get most of the shopping done before the festival."
"We have everything we need."
Kaoru continued fretting. "I want to be sure. This year is very important to me. I've been preparing for it for months, and I want everything to be perfect. It has to be perfect."
"It will be."
There was a hint of warning in her voice. "You mean like last year's was?"
Kenshin laughed, using the one that carried a hint of assurance that eased Kaoru no matter how troubled she was. "I somehow doubt things will end up that bad. We know better than to let Yahiko and Sano drink too much and have them try to 'prove who the better man is in a test of arms.' We will not allow Ayame and Suzume to get into an argument over who's the greater tramp and disgrace to the family. Yoshi will not be allowed to set off some fireworks to celebrate, and end up blowing one of the walls of the dojo into kindling. And we will definitely keep a closer eye on Hiro and prevent him from peeking on any women when they're taking baths."
"I can't believe how perverted he is! He must get it from your side of the family. There weren't any perverts in mine."
"What about your Uncle Watanabe?"
"He doesn't count since he married into the family," Kaoru huffed indignantly.
Kenshin laughed again. He had quietly taken precautions this year to make certain things ran smoothly this time around. It had taken his normally easygoing wife nearly two months to finally forgive all of the parties involved in the matter from the previous year. In the last several months, she was obsessing about the festival five times worse than she ever had. The anxiety had taken its toll, and of late her temper was short; even their two sons had taken notice. Luckily, there tended to be warning signs, and they knew well enough to keep clear of their mother until the mood passed.
"I just want things to go well." Kaoru's sighe was heavy with the sound of exhaustion.
"They will." He repositioned the packages again to wrap an arm around her waist. She eased into him a moment, the two of them basking in each others' warmth, before the throngs forced them to stand apart and continue walking normally again, though closer together than when they started.
They approached a fish vendor, probably to purchase tonight's meal since the fish wouldn't keep until next week. As they drew closer, Kenshin watched people walk by. It was as he scanned the crowd that his gaze fell upon the man. The instant he did, it was almost as though another force had gained control of his eyes and forced them to follow the stranger.
The man was tall; a giant standing six feet high among a crowd where most were at least a half foot shorter. His appearance was Japanese, but gave no clue as to where in Japan he might have originated. His face was gaunt, and judging by the way his clothing fit snugly around him, he was clearly emaciated. Kenshin doubted if he weighed more than Kaoru. A wide-brimmed straw hat sat on top of his head, but it rested back slightly, showing off his face and a tuft of hair the color of obsidian. Alabaster skin and cold steel blue eyes contrasted sharply with the black hakuma and top he wore. He was nearly as pale as a geisha, and his lips were just as snowy white as the rest of his face. The hilts of a katana and wakizashi rode at his hip, though his hands hung limply at his sides.
Kenshin's hand reflexively went to his waist, seeking the reassurance that only embracing a cold hilt could give, but there was nothing there. The reverse-blade he owned still rested in its place on the mantle at home. The sword itself was a reluctant concession to the reality that, as much as Kenshin might have wished otherwise, the world was still a dangerous place. In the past, he had discarded his original sword, supposedly forever, but two armed intruders in his home, one even managing to threaten his oldest son, had changed his mind. While he had managed to incapacitate the intruders with a broom, it had been a near thing, so he had a new sword forged. It had yet to bathe itself in blood, and the gods above willing, never would.
But now, with this strange man across the street, one that seemed to glide across the ground rather than walk upon it, Kenshin found himself wishing he had his blade at his side as in the days of old. It was the first time he ever had such second thoughts.
If the stranger took notice of the attention directed his way, he showed no sign of it. As far as the redhead could tell, the gaunt man had eyes only for a rotund individual ahead of him. There were at least a half-dozen people between the pair, and the chubby man took no note of his follower, nor did the gaunt man try to close the distance between them.
The moan came from the woman at his side. Distracted by the distress in Kaoru's voice, Kenshin reluctantly tore his gaze away from the man. "What is it?"
"Another headache," Kaoru moaned.
Since his wife was in no immediate danger, Kenshin looked back up, but the gaunt man, despite his height, had somehow blended in with the crowd.
Pushing the matter aside for the moment, he looked to Kaoru. "Didn't you take that medicine Megumi recommended?"
Kaoru continued holding her head in obvious pain. "Yes, but it's not working. I think it's probably all of the stress from preparing for this that's making it worse than usual, or it could be the cold. It's probably going to snow before too long, and that makes it act up."
"Do you want to go back?"
For a moment, it seemed Kaoru was going to agree, then she removed her hand from her head and blinked several times. "No. It's starting to pass. Let's hurry and finish up, though."
Kenshin nodded and picked up the pace to the stall. He allowed Kaoru to deal with the fish vendor and watched silently as she began haggling over the price of some small salmon. He hung back, tending to stay out of such things. Despite being the Hitokiri Battousai, his appearance was somewhat benign to the untrained eye, and it wasn't in his nature to haggle over things. Besides, Kaoru enjoyed the game of bringing the price of something down and getting a bargain. Over the years she had gotten quite good at it, though she would grouse for hours on end if she felt she ended up receiving a raw deal.
Once deeply involved in the haggling, Kaoru's mood seemed to relax and the pain eased, at least to Kenshin's eye. A smile came across his features, and his previous thoughts of the gaunt man were moved to the back of his mind. It was time to live in the moment again, and not worry about tall, skinny strangers he had never met before.
Five minutes later, Kaoru smiled triumphantly over her perceived victory. Kenshin was delighted that she chose to carry the fish rather than tax his sizable load by shoving another item on top. Standing around with the bags and boxes was starting to wear down his own endurance, which had decreased as the years took their toll on him; something his wife and he both shared. Still, he found the energy to practice at least three times a week with his sword so that his skills did not deteriorate. He might not have improved in the last couple of decades, but neither would one mistake him for an easy mark once they witnessed him enter his stance.
A loud commotion further up the street caught their attention. The duo looked in the direction it came from, but could see nothing due to the mass of bodies between them and the source of the disturbance. The high-pitched whinny of horses boomed louder than the noise the crowd generated. That was followed by a woman's scream that split the air, silencing everyone for one brief moment. But the moment passed and the crowds recovered from the surprise, talking more loudly than ever about what they had just heard.
As one, Kenshin and Kaoru headed towards the commotion to see if they could help. It was a struggle to move through the press of crowds, which doubled as people moved in the same direction, more trying to get closer out of general curiosity rather than a desire to help. It took many elbows, mostly dealt by Kaoru, that parted the tide of humanity and allowed the duo to approach. They stopped at the edge of an open area that the people were leaving clear. Again they could hear the whinnying of nervous horses, and could just make out a wagon in the center of the open area.
Once they made their way through the final layer of people, the pair halted. Kaoru held a hand up to her face, gasped, then moved behind her husband, shielding her eyes from the sight. Kenshin, having seen worse, dealt far worse personally, merely looked on. Only a slight crinkle at the corner of his eyes and a grim frown served as his reaction to the sight.
It was the fat man Kenshin had seen being followed earlier, his neck and much of his upper body clearly broken by the wheels of the overburdened wagon the horses were tied to. It was obvious from the expression on the man's face that he had died in agony, though Kenshin doubted he suffered long due to the severity of the injury. It was probably not more than a handful of seconds, though life could be persistent and linger in a person long after it should have passed. He hoped for the man's sake this was not one of those times.
Kenshin forced his eyes to tear away from the body of the man, looking for another he knew would be close at hand. Sure enough, standing behind several of the people at the opposite side of the circle, Kenshin recognized the gaunt stranger. Perhaps before he had been unaware of the Battousai's presence, but no longer; his unblinking eyes were clearly pointed at Kenshin, the slender man's piercing gaze seeming to bore right through him. Kenshin returned with a stare of his own, but the man did not even blink in acknowledgment. A stalemate or sorts, or so Kenshin hoped. With no sword, he could not deal with the stranger anymore than he could have Aoshi under similar circumstances. With the crowd present, Kenshin hoped the stranger would refrain from trying anything violent, though the presence of the masses had not prevented the fat man's death. No one was saying the word 'murder,' but rather they used the term 'accident.' It seemed only Kenshin knew better, and he had witnessed nothing.
There was no sign of emotion in the man's features. Not a trace of malice or kindness, sorrow or satisfaction, or even a sort of grim acceptance. It was like staring into a wooden marionette's eyes. The alabaster skin remained rigid, showing nothing like a grimace or smile. Even his nostrils seemed formed of porcelain, not flaring in the slightest, as though he could not be bothered with breathing. Never had Kenshin seen anyone so devoid of even the faintest hint of feeling. What was before him was more like an animate statue than a man...
Then it struck Kenshin all at once, just as hard as one of Sano's fists between the eyes. He knew who the man was, or more precisely, what he was. It seemed impossible, it defied explanation, there was no logical reason to jump to such an outrageous conclusion, yet still Kenshin was certain to the bottom of his soul that he was correct. It seemed right in some inexplicable way. Appropriate, might have been the word he was looking for. It fit.
And with that revelation of truth, so too did much of Kenshin's dread and fear slip away, despite the enormity of grasping the idea. Perhaps deep down inside he had expected this day to come, though he had no desire for it to pass. It was not so much an abstract concept for him as it was for others, which might have made dealing with what should have been overwhelming fear almost easy. Or maybe he was normally grim by nature, and the years had just added an illusion of his generally easy-going demeanor. Earlier in the day, he would have denied such an accusation vehemently, but now, confronted as he was, he was not so certain.
Kenshin found himself questioning 'why now of all times?' Not that there was ever a good time for this sort of confrontation, just that this was one of the worst possible moments. This should not happen on the eve of a celebration where most of his family and friends would be getting together. Kaoru herself had stated how important this festival was to her. Afterwards perhaps, but not now. The timing was completely wrong. But then he was fairly certain the fat man on the ground would have had similar qualms, and they had done him no good either.
Fear found itself replaced by determination. Just because something had to be a certain way, did not mean he would blithely accept it, not without a struggle. It was unfair, but of the many lessons as he had learned throughout his travels, one of the foremost was that life was most assuredly unfair.
Kaoru tugged at his sleeve, breaking him out of his lingering contemplations. "Let's go home."
"Yes, I think that would be for the best." No doubt the gruesome scene had served to disturb her, especially on the eve on what was supposed to be a festive occasion. She looked very pale. Kaoru was never one to be unmoved by the grisly sight of death, and had become even more sensitive to it since the birth of the children. Besides, he wanted to return to their home and prepare for what was to come.
Kenshin gave his wife an affectionate pat on the arm before reshifting his grip again on the boxes and setting out. He made them move quickly, though Kaoru needed little prodding. It saddened his heart to see her so disturbed by the sight. Her strength would be needed more than ever before in their lives if his suspicions were accurate, and with each passing step he became more certain they were. Still, she was strong, and as rambunctious as the boys could be, they were good children. They would be ready to take on whatever responsibilities might be thrust upon them, if the need should arise.
If the need should arise.
"Go on inside and lie down."
"I should help put things away."
Kenshin marked the protest as weak. "I can take care of matters." He kissed her once, very deeply on the lips, a move that startled her. Usually he was not so openly affectionate, only kissing her on the cheek or forehead outside of the bedroom itself. It was his nature, opting to show compassion rather than affection, or at least rarely showing such open displays of love. But given the circumstances, a kiss was the least she deserved. Had she felt better and they had more time, perhaps he would have made love to her, despite the fact it was the middle of the day, but neither was the case. He assured her one more time that he would put their things away, and closed the rice paper door behind him. It was a lie, or more accurately, a deception. He would do as he said, should the opportunity arise, but that was in serious doubt.
There was a sense of urgency. Time was fleeting. The clothing he wore would have to suffice. It was loose enough to fight in; most of the clothing he owned was. He despised tight and confining outfits; a holdover from his former lifestyle where being unable to move freely often meant the difference between life and death. In truth, all he really needed was a sword.
He entered the living room to find it resting right where it was supposed to, high in its place of honor on the wall. Idly, he noted that the room had been dusted recently. It was odd what one noticed in the moments before a life and death struggle was to take place. The lack of dust pleased him. It meant that, for a change, his youngest son, Yoshi, had promptly done what he had been told. It was a good sign of him finally maturing and taking some of his responsibilities seriously. It made Kenshin smile, a nearly impossible task with what awaited him.
He tucked the blade and scabbard in his belt, and strolled outside to the back steps where challengers were to approach the dojo and issue their challenge. He had a feeling this was where the gaunt one would approach. It was a challenge, of a sort. At least to Kenshin.
His older son, Hiro was at a friend's house. He had no idea where Yoshi currently was. Perhaps he was cleaning out storeroom, another one of the chores he had been given while Kenshin and Kaoru had been shopping. He hoped his son would not witness what was to come, though in truth he had no idea of how the upcoming conflict would appear to another person's eyes. He did not know what form the struggle would take, or even if there would be one. But in any case, it would be for the best if Yoshi saw nothing. No child should be forced to witness what was to come.
Time passed and Kenshin cast himself on the wayward currents of memories. That seemed natural enough. From what he understood, it was quite common in this sort of situation. There were so many events that had helped make him into the person he was today, right at this moment. The slaughter of all those around him when he was a child and his escape from death through nothing but blind luck. The first time he picked up a sword at Hiko Seijuro's command. The first man he slew. The night he gained the first half of the scar on his cheek. Tomoe. The completion of his brand, etching permanently upon his face the price of life and love. Forsaking the path of dealing death forever. Meeting Kaoru for the first time, and the slow and gradual return to light she helped bring to him. Sano, the best and perhaps truest friend he ever had. Yahiko, and a chance to help raise someone the way he should have been raised. Kyoto. Giving up the sword entirely, or at least for a long time. Marriage, and the happiest moment of his life. The birth of Hiro, and learning that there were other moments that could rival becoming one with a woman for the first time. The difficult birth of Yoshi. Years spent in blissful happiness, despite the trials and tribulations they were forced to endure. Sometimes taking the good times for granted when they occurred, but not now. Everything came back in all of its blessed glory. Over time, he had come to live a good life, and there was little he would have changed, at least when it came to the events that he had the ability to change, and there was no life that was bereft of mistakes. It didn't work like that.
His hand gripped the hilt of his sword tighter. Perhaps there would still be more good times to come, more memories to create. It might have been a good day to die, but it would be a better one to live.
After a seeming eternity, which was less than a dozen minutes, the gaunt man finally appeared. It was as Kenshin suspected. The stranger approached through the gate for challenges, not surprised in the slightest that Kenshin waited at the steps for him. The man walked casually onto the grounds of the house and home.
Kenshin rose to his feet, meeting the unspoken challenge, if it could be considered that.
The stranger paused. "You can see me."
A statement, not a question. There was no surprise in his flat voice; it was nothing more than a proclamation of a fact. That voice was as devoid of emotion as the face it belonged to. It held a certain inevitability, and the full effect of what Kenshin was about to do fully settled in. He supposed his whole reaction to this event was foolish and ill-conceived, but something in him demanded he do this and resist the irresistible.
The gaunt man spoke again, using hollowed words that held meaning but were unfeeling. "It is uncommon, but not unheard of. You have ushered many into my embrace in times past, far more than most. Those that travel with me alongside them for some time, those that summon and introduce me to others, can sometimes sense my essence and know me for what I am."
"I never saw you before today," Kenshin pointed out.
"Yes, you have," the man corrected. "You merely did not recognize me. I was around you all the time, your constant companion, and you became so used to my existence that you did not bother to look closely. But I was always there. Much time has passed since last we met, and you are no longer desensitized to what I am. My reappearance after so long has opened your eyes. Now you see me before you."
Kenshin let out a long breath. He saw mist form from it. The temperature was dropping quickly. He hadn't even realized it, distracted as he had been with what was to come. There were dark clouds overhead, and he wondered if it would be cold enough to snow, like Kaoru had thought earlier. He found he wanted to see snow again, decorating the landscape with a sheet of white that buried everything under a veil of pristine innocence. It was an illusion, of course, all the dirty things were still there, but it was an illusion he had enjoyed throughout his life.
Save when bright red blood was spilled on top of it.
A brief memory of Tomoe assailed him, and for a moment his resolve almost broke and he released his sword, prepared to meet his fate. But then thoughts, memories, and dreams of Kaoru chased his doubts away, and he was determined to fight once again.
Kenshin let out a deep sigh, making another cloud rise in front of him, disappearing before it made it to eye level. He placed his hand on the hilt of his sword, his knuckles whitening from the tight grip. "I long ago accepted the idea I would die. It's held no fear for me since I was a child. I could not have become the Battousai and feared either giving death or receiving it. By the time I married Kaoru, I made peace with everything I had done, and learned to live with myself, regrets included. I have left no thing that could be finished undone. I knew this day would come; it comes for everyone. If I don't live to see another snowfall, then I can accept that. However, it's not in my nature to lay down and die. I love my wife and family, and would fight with everything I have to spend just one more second with them."
"I cannot be defeated," the man told him.
"And I haven't been defeated yet. We have something in common."
"I am unstoppable. You are merely transient flesh."
"Then if I can't stop you, I'll settle for staving you off for a while." Kenshin drew the sword from its scabbard, opting to go with open confrontation rather than an elaborate quick draw. This fight would not be settled with the first strike of his blade.
The gaunt man drew his own katana and held it in before him. "No. It is time for me to come. I will not be turned aside."
A third deep breath, and the steam seemed to rise slightly above Kenshin's eyes before dissipating. Yes. It would snow. "Perhaps, but I'll try."
The man moved forward, with no urgency in his step. He glided across the walkway and drew closer to Kenshin. The redhead's skilled eye told him that despite the man's sword being drawn, he would not employ it in an offensive manner with the way he held it and approached. It seemed he would be content to walk right up to Kenshin, which meant that it fell to him to deliver the first blow.
The Hitokiri Battousai. He had defeated everyone in the end. Not a boast, but fact. And this time, maybe more than ever, he had to win. It was going to be the hardest contest ever- of that he had no doubt. There was no sense in holding back, not against this opponent; it was pointless. Accepting that, Kenshin opened the fight by feinted with his shoulder to the left, while bringing his sword up, then pivoting on his heel to abruptly change direction and sweep in from a high arc to the right.
The stroke was delivered flawlessly, the years of peace melting away as the weapon in his hand became nothing more than an extension of his body. It was faster than a heartbeat, a blur that swept towards the man in the time it took a hummingbird to flap its wings. The reverse blade was aimed at the soft spot where shoulder became neck, a move that had knocked out dozens of opponents over the years.
The gaunt man raised his own sword, effortlessly blocking the strike long before it ever met his form.
Kenshin was taken aback by the block, as much by the speed as the irresistible solidity behind his opponent's own sword. It was like striking a mountain, the man's blade not wavering a millimeter as it absorbed the full impact of the strike. Even Sano was nowhere near that powerful. The force of Kenshin's own blow was forced back down the sword and into his arm, throwing him off balance for a second. As automatic as breathing, the Battousai's mind raced and evaluated over a dozen attacks that could come from the man's position, and the defenses Kenshin could muster to counter or evade them. But the red-haired swordsman was surprised by the lack of a follow-up to the attack.
The gaunt man seemed completely unmoved by the blow. Kenshin remained in a guard position for a moment, waiting for the man to make another move.
All he did was take another step forward.
Again there was a moment of doubt for Kenshin, a sense that everything the man had said was right and that he should just lay down his sword and accept what was to come. Had it not been for a sudden flash of the joy of his family's faces as they celebrated Yoshi's last birthday a month ago, he might have done so, but the memory of the happiness they shared shook him out of his perceived helplessness, and he gathered his strength and returned to the offense. If not for himself, then he would continue his struggle for his loved ones and their continued happiness.
He tried a low stab towards the leg this time. Again the gaunt man blocked it with an ease that belayed the skill the strike was delivered with. Prepared for the irresistibility behind the block, Kenshin spun and attack high again, aiming at the same spot he had tried a moment ago. But the man's sword reached up even faster and turned the attack aside as easily as it had the first two times.
And then the dance truly began. A dervish of blows delivered by Kenshin followed, each one trying to lure the man out of his defense, trying to find or exploit the holes that should be there. The emotionless stranger only employed a very basic technique that should have been simple to overcome, but his speed and immovable nature made it impossible. Kenshin tried everything he knew, every technique he had been taught, but the man would not falter, not even back away a step. It was Kenshin's turn to feel like so many of the untrained, inept thugs he had dealt with in his life. The fiery-haired swordsman felt like a child using a sword for the first time, so slow and clumsy he was compared to his opponent, who still refused to show the faintest hint of emotion.
And, much to Kenshin's vexation, the man would not attack. It was all defense without a hint of offense. For someone that, in theory, was intent upon killing him, he was not trying very hard, unless he intended for Kenshin to keel over from a heart attack. In the back of his mind he supposed it was a possibility, but somehow he doubted it. It didn't feel right.
Again doubts plagued him, eating away at his resolve like hungry dogs would on a side of beef. Only the memory and training of forcing him to fight no matter what happened enabled him to continue fighting effectively. A rain of blows formed an endless storm of steel and sparks that fell to the ground in a shower of tiny yellow stars. Time lost meaning as a hundred strikes became five hundred, and then more. The Battousai switched from speed to strength to solely relying on skill, and still his opponent effortlessly countered everything, never a reaction in his face. It felt like Kenshin was fighting a statue. The man did not even break into a sweat!
Strength began to leave his arms, and Kenshin felt the inexorable toll of fighting an inexhaustible opponent weigh heavily upon him. His blows began to falter. Over a thousand slashes and stabs with a blade, more than he had dealt than in any five fights combined in his entire life, and still no progress. His blade failed to draw near the gaunt one's form. There was no difference between the first blow and the thousandth, save for his exhaustion. To the man, the battle might as well have never happened.
Kenshin knew his style was deteriorating. He could feel the holes open up in his technique as he grew increasingly tired and his blows held less power with each stroke. His breath rose in ragged gasps, and the clouds of steam now sailed high above his head. Had the man so chosen, he could have ended Kenshin's life at any moment, but still he refrained from unleashing even the most meager of offenses, impossibly content at remaining passive in their duel.
The sword nearly slipped from Kenshin's grasp. That was it. He was almost out of strength, and would truly be at his opponent's mercy. There was only one thing that remained, one attack left to unleash. He had sworn to abandon it when he refused to kill again, for it was only a killing technique, reverse blade sword or not. Part of him felt nauseated at the idea of relinquishing his most sacred of vows, one that was just as strong as what he promised his wife on the day they were married, to love her and remain at her side until death parted them. Was compromising his integrity worth the price of survival? Against another opponent, probably not. He was willing to die for his ideals under those circumstances, but against the being that stood before him now, could he even kill him with a sword at all?
What price survival?
Kenshin cast a backward glance to his home. In the end, any price could be paid for something that was priceless.
Moving back, needing a moment to summon his last reserves of strength, Kenshin locked his icy gaze with the man's. It was an all-or-nothing attack. If it failed, the fight was over. He would be unable to even pick up his sword. If it struck... Perhaps it would be over for him anyway, but he would die knowing he had tried everything he possibly could.
He was prepared. Tensed leg muscles uncoiled, and he leaped high in the air. His body underwent a metamorphosis as he rose towards the sky like a bird, turning white as his the pupils in his eyes disappeared in a white haze. There was nothing but the sword now; the body was merely a vessel with which to deliver it into a fleshy sheath. Thick sheets of snow began to fall as he reached the apex of his leap, surrounding him and traveling as companions at his side as they answered gravity's call and went downward together towards the emaciated figure below.
Through eyes made white with pain and focused on only one thing, a target one inch below the throat, Kenshin streaked through the air like a bolt of lightning. No one had ever parried the blow, or came close to evading it. It was the pinnacle of his art, a move he had created on his own. An unbeatable technique when delivered correctly, and he could feel to the base of his soul that he had never unleashed a more perfect blow in his life.
The air itself seemed to part, howling in fear of the approaching onslaught. The blade descended, and for a moment Kenshin knew the impossible and that he had slipped by the man's defense. But the moment passed, and Kenshin felt like he was moving in slow motion as his opponent's blade rose up in a blur once again, sealing the hole and meeting Kenshin's own sword in the middle.
The impact proved too much for the reverse blade sword. It broke in half, shattered by a near irresistible force meeting a truly immovable object. Both blade and wielder hit the ground at the same time, one piece of the shattered piece of metal hitting point first and embedding itself in the ground. Both warrior and weapon lay unmoving long after they struck.
The Hitokiri Battousai, Kenshin Himura, had been defeated without a mark on him.
The ground was cold; that was the first coherent thought that came to Kenshin. Nothing but peace for his fate remained in his mind now. He had tried his best. No one could fault him for that. It was not the living itself, breathing was simple, but the effort made to have a good life that had made it worthwhile. He had tried. He had made mistakes, many at times, but had enjoyed far more successes. And the quality of those successes by far outweighed the mistakes, or so he believed. So he hoped.
It was odd how now, at the end, he was concerned only for his wife and the children, and how they would have to carry on without him. Especially Kaoru, who would bear the worst of the burden. She had already lost her parents, and she would have two children to raise alone. But there would be help. Ayame and Suzume counted Kaoru as an older sister, and would be at her side in an instant. And there was Megumi, Sano, Yahiko, and other close friends and acquaintances that would come together in their time of need. They had made many of each throughout the years, helping others whenever they were in trouble with no desire of any form of recompense, although frequently they received it in the form of friendship. His wife and sons would be taken care of, if they let themselves.
"Will it be quick?" Kenshin asked, unable to pick his head up off the ground, barley able to speak with how tired he felt.
"Quick and painless." The voice held assurance in it, but one of cold hard fact. Some warmth, or even a touch of compassion, might have been preferred, Kenshin thought. Still, there were far worse ways to die.
He remained where he was, waiting for the end. His life didn't really flash before his eyes right before his final moments on Earth, but perhaps it was just as well. Despite coming to terms with his mistakes, he had no desire to relive them.
As Kenshin lay there, he could have sworn the ground grew colder, and subsequently transferred that cold into him. He wondered if the end had already come, and that it was merely his body growing colder with death. If so, the man hadn't been completely honest. True, Kenshin had felt nothing, but his body still ached with an exhaustion unlike any he had experienced before, one that felt like it would last forever. Not a painless end, for he was still in a sort of pain. He wondered how long it would last.
"Father, why are you lying in the walkway? Did you fall down and hurt yourself"
Kenshin raised his head, enough strength had returned for that. He looked up to see the brown eyes of his nine-year old son, his red hair as tangled and messed up as always. "You can see me? I'm not dead?"
Yoshi nudged his father with his foot. "Doesn't look like it. Is this some kind of game? It's stupid, if it is."
Kenshin shakily returned to his feet. It made no sense. Why was he still alive? The man had more than enough time to finish him off. There would have been no witnesses, and even if there had, what difference would it have made? Death was inevitable. The man had even assured him the end would be quick and painless. Yet, this was clearly not the end, or at least not the one he had envisioned.
Not knowing why he had been miraculously spared, Kenshin grabbed his son and embraced him. In his weakened state, Yoshi was almost able to tear away from his crying father. "Dad, are you drunk? You're acting like Uncle Sano when he goes on a drinking binge and gets all weepy."
"I'm just glad I can do this to you. Oh, Son, you have no idea of how good it is to hug you." Kenshin felt like crying.
Yoshi squirmed in his father's grasp, typical of the way all nine-year olds feel when they believe that they've outgrown the need for outward signs of affection and are embarrassed by them instead. "What's wrong? Did you and Mom had a fight?"
"No," Kenshin said through tears of joy, "Your Mother and-"
Will it be quick?
"Dad, you're squeezing a little hard."
Quick and painless.
"Dad, come on. You're starting to hurt me!"
Kenshin was still in pain.
So who wasn't?
"KAORU!" Kenshin roared.
Megumi placed her hand on Kenshin's shoulder. He felt weak. She had never seen him weak. Not in her entire life. Never, even at his lowest point, did he look so defeated. Always he had faced everything with resolve, grim or otherwise. He had stared at the horrors of the war, inflicted them, and came out of it with determination where other men would have crumbled or broken outright. Always there was an inner fire that could not be quenched. But now, now it was completely gone.
Reluctantly, Megumi said, "The pain from the headaches had been growing greater for some time, and from the way she described it, and the way the pain progressed, I had my suspicions this might happen. I've seen this sort of thing before, and there's nothing that can be done. If there was anything, anything at all, I would have done it. Believe me, I would have gone to any lengths to save her."
"I know. It's not your fault. I don't blame you," Kenshin said.
His voice sounded so hollow, empty of everything. She and Sano would have to keep a close eye on him. And Yahiko could be summoned from his wanderings as well. Ayame was only two villages away, and from what she had gleaned last week from Kaoru, Suzume was coming in from Hokkaido, intent on dropping by for the winter festival. Perhaps she could leave a few days early.
Megumi said, "When I informed her of what I suspected, she told me to keep the truth from you. She didn't want to be treated any differently from if she was dying than if she was normal. I just kept increasing the dosage of painkillers and she was able to function normally for the most part. It happened faster than I thought. I was certain she would make it past the festival. It was one of the reasons she was so determined that it be go so well this year. Perhaps I should have told you anyway, just so you would have been prepared."
"No. You did the right thing."
Megumi's eyebrows rose. There was a bit of resolve in his voice now.
Kenshin continued. "This is what she wanted, and I can understand and respect her wishes. She made her peace with what was going to happen, and didn't need our grief to upset it. I'd rather her... her last days were happy ones, spent with us in joy instead of sorrow of what was to come. I think it was better for everyone. I think she knew that would be best too. She was always smarter than me, that way."
Megumi nodded, feeling tears form in her own eyes, and she had known this day was coming long before Kenshin had. Kaoru's diagnosis had been the worst she had ever delivered in her life. "She died in her sleep. It happened quickly and painlessly."
"I know. He was good to his word, and I'm grateful for that."
Kenshin waved away her worries with her hand. "Nothing. I was just thinking about something someone said to me earlier in the day."
He turned to her, and Megumi saw that indeed, some faint ember of the old resolve was still within him. It was dull now, and would be for some time, but so long as it was still there, he would be all right in the end. Through all of the horrible trials he had undergone throughout his life, he had managed to survive them, and this, possibly the worst he had suffered yet, would not break him. He was the strongest person she had ever seen, and would be better in time. She had seen similar scenes repeated many times when at another's deathbed, her career always guaranteed she would have to see that. Kenshin was not like those that were broke from such a thing. She was certain, now.
Feeling some relief to counterbalance the sorrow that was threatening to overwhelm her, Megumi told him, "Sano and I can stay for a while to help you out."
Kenshin smiled, a sad, weak thing. "I'd appreciate that, and so would the boys. You're as close an aunt as Ayame and Suzume are to them. Maybe even a little more since they don't spend much time here. I think they need a woman around. It might remind them of their mother, but I think it'll be good for them in the long run. And, I'll probably need both you and Sano's help."
"Of course. We'd do anything for you."
"I know, and that helps a lot." He looked to the door. "I need some fresh air. Could you keep an ear open for the boys. They're in Hiro's room. I think they both cried themselves to sleep. I need to think about things, and if I see them..."
"You might not be able to think clearly." Megumi finished for him. "I understand. I'd probably be the same way. I'll let you know if they need you."
"You're holding up very well."
"Am I?" Kenshin asked, then thought about it. "It doesn't really feel like it, but maybe you're right. Someone I met sort of prepared me for this, I guess. That's probably it."
The swordsman didn't say another word. He walked around the house and to the back. It had continued to snow outside, covering everything in an icy blanket that paled in comparison to the shroud that now rested over his frozen soul. He had wanted to see it, this field of virgin white. He had wanted to witness it almost more than anything. Now, with the snowfall before him, it seemed hollow and empty. Just frozen water with no special significance at all. Completely pointless.
Eventually he ended up on the steps where he had waited for the man who had visited their house. The only sign of his passing was the body inside and the broken pieces of sword that still lay on the ground. Only the edge of the hilt of one, and the shattered half of the other that remained sticking in the stone walkway, reached above the pristine snow.
Kenshin picked up the remnants, forcing the piece embedded in the rock out, slicing open his palm and causing the blood to flow with the effort made to remove it. He held them gingerly, those sections of metal that had failed him. For a moment, he considered holding the sharpened piece up to his stomach and driving it in, pulling back and forth until his guts came spewing out, decorating the snow with blood the way Tomoe's had. It would be an appropriate fate for one such as him. But as quickly as it came, the feeling left. His sons still needed him, and he had promised never to take another life; that included his own.
Besides, Kaoru would never forgive him anymore than he would have forgiven her had their roles been reversed and she was the one that considered suicide. She had made peace with what was to come, and she had assumed he would have the fortitude to handle her passing without having to reassure him and force promises of going on without her. She had faith that he would take care of himself and their children, and he was never one to betray her trust. He was not about to start now, no matter how hard continuing on might seem.
It was time to make peace with himself.
"Useless thing," he muttered, tossing the two pieces away. It had been a silly thought, really. A sword was a poor choice of tool for staving off death, even a reversed one. He never had a chance. Nothing could fend death off forever, just as the man had said. Even the legendary Battousai could not defeat the one foe that conquered everyone in the end. He was as helpless as the weakest newborn in that respect.
He was still exhausted, his strength from the fight never fully returning, and something within him thought it probably never would. Tired beyond anything he could recall, he sat down in the exact spot where he waited earlier in the day. It was a comfortable spot. A good place to wait, when he stopped and thought about. He'd stay there for an hour, collecting his thoughts and looking towards the pathway leading to the steps, just in case his visitor returned, looking for him. If, after an hour, the gaunt man failed to show, he'd go back inside and start with the slow, painful process of getting on with his life. It would take months to regain some semblance of order, and things would never be the same, could never be the same, but he and his sons would carry on past this and forge ahead. They would meet new challenges, know new loves, and new heartbreaks, at least for the boys. That was what living life meant; suffering and enjoyment taken in continuous doses, sometimes more of one than the other.
Though, considering what he felt now, Kenshin knew he would return to the same spot the next day just to see if his visitor would come back. Yes, that seemed an acceptable concession. Most of him would carry on and live life to the fullest, while for just one hour a day, he would remember the past and see if his old acquaintance would drop by for a visit again, and this time intent on meeting him instead of another.
And so he waited.
Mitsune grabbed on to the bottom of Yoshi's shirt and tugged, trying to gain his attention in a manner that was only subtle to five-year olds. "Daddy, how come Grandpa sits outside on the back steps like that?"
"Well, Mitsune, it's kind of hard to explain. Ever since your Grandmother died-"
"I don't remember having a Grandmother."
"She died a long time before you were born. I was only several years older than you are now when it happened. Anyway, ever since then, your grandfather spends an hour out there, sitting in the exact same spot, every single day."
"I... never asked. I'm sure he has his reasons. Now why don't you take a nap?"
"I don't wanna. I'm not tired."
"All right. See if you can help your mother prepare for the festival. Daddy has to get ready for work."
Mitsune watched her father walk away, annoyed. She still had questions that had not been answered to her satisfaction. Deciding it would be best to go to the source, she bundled her sweater tightly to ward off the cold and headed towards the back porch, approaching her grandfather from behind, moving quietly to surprise him.
When she drew within ten feet of him, he said, "Hello, Mitsune," without turning around.
"How do you always know it's me?" she huffed.
"Your grandfather still has good ears." Kenshin turned away from staring at the falling snow and gave her a warm smile.
Finding that an acceptable answer to her insatiable curiosity, she approached and plopped down next to him with a thump. She moved closer to share in his warmth. When she looked up to steal a closer look at her grandfather's face, she noted he seemed different somehow. Usually he was as energetic as her father or mother, sometimes even more lively, but not today. For the first time in her short memory, he looked old.
Having all the tact five-year olds could muster, she said, "You look tired, Grandpa."
Kenshin returned to watching the snow fall. "You and your brothers keep me busy."
"Don't be. I'd much rather have you keeping me busy than leaving me alone to mope around. Not many people like playing with an old man."
"I like playing with you. You're silly."
"So I've been told. A long time ago, I used to be serious all the time, but then I learned how to be silly, at least some of the time. I like that a lot more. No matter how old you get, you should remember how to be silly sometimes."
"I know how to be silly," Mitsune assured him. She looked at the snow fall, matching her grandfather's stare at it. "It sure is snowing a lot. Everything's going to turn white soon. I like the snow."
"Then we both like the snow."
"You like the snow too?"
"Yes. I didn't always like it. There was a time when I wished to see a lot of it once, and I did. But at the time, I thought I had paid a price that was too high for it. It took me a while to realize I was being conceited. I was always intended to see it, so I might as well make the most of it and enjoy it. Someday I won't be seeing anymore, unfortunately.
"How come? Are you moving to a desert? It doesn't snow there."
"Not exactly. But I'd rather not get into that. Why don't we talk about something else?"
"How come you're out here all the time?"
"I'm not out here all the time. Just a little while every day."
"But how come?"
"I'm waiting for an old acquaintance to drop by."
"No. Someone else. He came by twenty years ago this day. I offered to dance with him, and we did."
"You danced with a man? I thought only girls could dance with boys."
"It wasn't that sort of dance. It was one with steel and sweat. I led, but he outlasted me. In the end, he chose to dance with a different partner. But I know that one of these days he's going to come back and invite me along. And then I'll get to see... someone I haven't seen in a very long time. I'm not sure when, so I take a little time out every day and wait and see if he'll come by."
"Wow. If he's not here yet, he must be pretty slow."
"Yes, slow but tenacious. He'll be here eventually. I used to want to see him when I first started coming out here, but as the days passed, I realized that there were other things I wanted to do before he came back. So even though I came out here, it was more out of respect for your Grandmother than any desire to meet him. Nowadays, though, well, I might not mind it quite as much. I've lived a long and active life. I'm not sorry for it, but it has taken a lot out of me, and I do feel a bit tired."
"I'm not tired," Mitsune said, punctuating her statement with a yawn as she rested her head in his side. It took about a minute before she was tired enough to drift down to resting on his lap when he moved, which served to rouse her slightly.
"Mitsune, it's time to go in and take a nap."
She raised her head up groggily. "I like it here. You're warm."
He mussed her hair, but for the first time that she could remember, he looked sad instead of happy. That roused her a little more, though not much.
He said, "It'll be warmer inside. You'll sleep better."
She was supposed to obey adults, and he had told her twice. Since her grandfather treated her nice, and she was feeling just a *little* cold, she assented to his demands and stood up to go to her room and lay down.
She turned. "Yes."
"Here." He handed her something tied in a piece of paper.
Her curiosity piqued, she unwrapped it. "Wow! It's chocolate!"
"I got it from a vendor who's going to be at the festival. He just returned from a trip to Switzerland and brought it back with him. It's the real good stuff."
She started salivating at the very idea. One other time her grandfather had gotten her and her brothers some chocolate. It was the best thing she had ever tasted, even if she had to share it with her brothers. "Do I have to share it with Tomo and Seiji?"
"No. It's all yours."
"Thanks, Grandfather. Good-bye." She began to run away, intent on devouring it before her stupid brothers found out she had it and tried to make her share it with them. She was almost out of earshot when she heard her grandfather's voice drift back to where she was.
"I knew you would come. Twenty years to the day? Is that appropriate or just ironic?"
"It is time. That is all it means." Mitsune noted the other man's voice was flat and dull. She had never heard a voice so empty of everything. It made her feel uneasy.
"Well, I'm ready this time. I'm glad you waited until now. I didn't realize it the first time you came, but there were a lot of things I had to do before you returned. I think I finished most of them, though. Those that aren't finished, well, they're minor. Besides, after Hiro nearly died from cholera last year, I knew I couldn't stand to outlive any of them. I did that once. Never again."
"You will not."
"That's reassuring to me. I think I sort of knew you'd be coming by this year. I've been feeling so tired lately. I never really regained all of my strength after the last time we met and dueled, but it's gotten much worse these last few months. I've never... felt so tired before, and no matter how much I sleep, I... never seem to get more energy. Just losing it at a slow trickle. I feel groggy."
"You know, with the life I've led, I always thought things would end more violently. I'm glad... they didn't. I like the peace. I think it suits me... better. Will it be quick?"
"Quick and painless."
"Good. I don't like sounding self-centered, but I've known enough pain in my life. I'd rather not feel anymore. I think I'll just... close my eyes now. And when I open them... I'll get to see... Kaoru, won't I?"
"Good. It's been a while..." his voice drifted off.
Mitsune turned then and continued to her room. On some instinctual level she knew she did not want to meet her grandfather's visitor, or see her grandfather. She didn't know what would be waiting for her if she did, but she knew she wouldn't like it, even though her grandfather had sounded relieved, almost happy, at meeting the man. If he was happy, then she could accept what would happen, no matter what it was.
She wrapped up the chocolate again, her appetite lost. Later, she would share it with Tomo and Seiji. They were her brothers, after all, and she should be nicer to them, just like their grandfather was. If he could be patient with them, then she could too, no matter how irritating they could be.
She thought he would have approved.
First time using Rurouni Kenshin, and it turns into another sad piece. I tend to do these every now and then. It's the nature of my muse. Had it in my head for a while after watching the OVAs. Original ending was different and more abrupt, which I didn't care for once I wrote it. So I added the Megumi and Mitsune bits, which definitely felt better and bring better closure for my taste. More somber than the TV series, but I preferred the more serious mood the OVAs set. Not completely satisfied with it. I think it could have better impact in the early parts, but I'm not sure how to do it at the moment. It could be I'm just being paranoid or overly critical, and I'm not dissatisfied with what is there, merely that I feel there's room for improvement (but isn't there always?). Definitely prefer this to the original ending, so there is that. And if anything comes to me or someone says something which rings true, I can probably incorporate that. Heck, one of the reasons we send these out to the list is for feedback and getting a different viewpoint from our own.
Special thanks to:
Ragun P. Moody
I think that just about does it for my ramblings. Ciao