Never Trust the Quiet Ones
Kyuzo had never understood others, and was no longer surprised when they failed to understand him. Few people were able to manipulate him successfully. The emperor had forced his hand, it was true. When the merchants had emerged victorious in the aftermath of the Great War, it seemed clear that they would dictate terms to the surviving samurai. But even the emperor's vast power could not compel him to stoop to stealing food for survival or to trade his body for a machine of metal, not nearly as invincible as they were touted to be. Kyuzo was, and would always remain, a samurai. To be reduced to anything else would mean his death. In an age where the only samurai that were needed were Nobuseri, it seemed likely that his only option was to starve to death. But he could not accept such a fate, so he instead took the seeming compromise of lowly work as a bodyguard in exchange for retaining his identity. He did not dislike his life serving Ayamaro, even if it had been a long and tedious five years after the war ended. At least at first, his lord had allowed him much leeway in demonstrating his skills in public. What good was a bodyguard without a reputation, after all? The emperor had not expected that of him; had expected him to give in to the demands of the Capital instead. His compatriots would be surprised if they knew. Some of the once-proud ronin had given in to the pressure and the lure, each becoming Nobuseri. He did not know what had become of the others. He had not bothered to inform anyone of his decision; he simply left. They would not have understood his need for a master anyway.
But that was what made Kambei so fascinating. The man had an uncanny sense of others, understanding them so quickly and effortlessly. Kyuzo had not known what he was facing at first; he had suspected, hoped even, but the moment their fight began, he knew. For the first time in…so long…the fight was not rote, mechanical. Here was an enemy who knew him, who could anticipate his movements, but even more than that, surprise him. It was like waking up and living again, to feel the threat of death in an enemy blade at his throat. He had forgotten what true battle was like. But it was only a taste, and then it was gone. That sudden absence was more poignant than he expected, catching him off guard. The loss of Kambei's hand on his wrist disconcerted him. He regretted it when Kambei turned his back, and then a strange hunger had awoken in him for more. He did not want it to end, not like that. He wanted the joy of fighting this man not just to a standstill but to destruction. He wanted a true battle. He wanted….oh, he wanted it more than he would care to admit!
And Kambei knew. He knew what he was doing, else why would he have turned his back on his enemy when he did? A lesser man would have pressed his advantage and ended the fight. A lesser warrior would have walked away in disgust. But Kyuzo…Kyuzo was caught. He would follow this man anywhere, if only for the satisfaction of finishing what he had begun. It was a unique kind of loyalty. He had never had a beloved enemy before. He was not prepared for the fierce jealousy with which he now protected that man's life. He had not known that he would disobey his lord and betray the trust placed in him to keep from being robbed of this fight. But Kambei had known all along that that was how it would be. He gambled his own life as the prize for Kyuzo's loyalty, trusting in the samurai's honor to delay the fight until after his mission was complete.
So artfully done. So beautifully played. Who but Kambei could have trapped him in such a place? His fascination was not one-sided. The older samurai had watched his own movements with a hunger, too. He wished to pull him into his group, bring him under his control…but knew that Kyuzo was beyond him. An unreachable and unattainable follower. So he constrained him the only way he could – with a promise and a delay. He did not become the third samurai that day. But had Kambei known how much the delay would gnaw at him? How time would make Kyuzo want this fight even more, until he could not stay away? Perhaps. He knew people, after all. He could read souls. Little else would have driven Kyuzo to turn traitor. The magistrate made no secret of his dislike and contempt of samurai. The knowledge that his own lord did not even value him as a samurai but merely as hired protection had been a blow, but one he was prepared to live with. He was patient; he would wait. And wait. And wait. He had waited five years for a battle that would never come again. He could wait a few more weeks, now that he knew such battles were still possible. But he would not allow the opportunity to slip past him.
Kyuzo had honed himself into a finely tuned instrument of destruction. Serving a merchant lord had given him the luxury of daily practice. He need not worry where his daily rice would come from; that and many finer things were given to him as a matter of course. Ronin living in the streets were weak and out of practice. Some of them didn't even keep their swords sharp, or in final desperation, sold them for a meal or lodging. Kyuzo could not understand such compromise. His swords were an extension of his soul, obedient to his every command. To be without them would be to be bereft of a limb. The catch was…what was he preparing himself for? There were no more battles. There were no more worthy enemies. He was too unique, an old relic before he even reached his prime. Perhaps he had been born too late; in by-gone years, he would have found a place. As time passed, he became more still, more quiet. He began to wonder if he would ever face a true challenge again, or if he were fated to become an over-sharpened blade, never to be wielded. It never occurred to him to start his own war, if he wanted to fight in one. He could not say that he approved of Kambei's methods, but he saw no reason to pass up this chance to fight in battle once again.
He had thought Kambei much older than himself when they first met, but as time went on, he doubted it. He was ragged and aged, true, but he had remained a samurai after the war without turning bodyguard or seeking some other trade. Kyuzo would himself look much older if he'd had to scrape out his existence in the aftermath of war apart from the merchants. But unlike other poor ronin, Kambei had not let his sword grow dull. He was a true samurai. Kambei's wisdom lent age to his years; some men would sound young, no matter how many years they lived. In the end he decided that Kambei was older than him, but not old enough to be his father. Perhaps old enough to wish for one last battle, even if it meant his death. The man did not seem to shy away from losing battles, after all. Kyuzo had little doubt a duel between them would end in Kambei's death. He would make sure of it, and Kambei knew this. Kambei was very good, but he did not have the luxury of recent practice. Kyuzo would honor his wish, and wait until he had fulfilled his promise, but he would challenge him again, and this time, he would not walk away.
This mission changed, he noticed. At first, it was merely to save Kanna from the bandits. A straightforward enough task, if unusual. Few samurai would even acknowledge peasants. When they next met, it was to rescue the prisoners. Then to take on the Capital itself. He began to suspect that Kambei would challenge the whole world before honoring their agreement, knowing full well that Kyuzo would not let anyone harm him. It was a bit frustrating to know that he'd had every opportunity to rid them all of Ukyo before this even began. The group itself had changed. They all saw Kambei as their leader, but they were less comfortable, less willing to joke and laugh together now. He tried to stay out of everything, to do nothing to cause friction. Kambei had acknowledged Kyuzo's skills when they first met, and spoken courteously to him ever since. But… He was slow to realize that he wanted Kambei's respect. Sometimes at night, he thought of men who had wished for death, and wondered if Kambei had become one of them. But in the light of day, the other samurai did nothing to betray such thoughts, so Kyuzo shrugged off those fears. He knew he seldom understood others, anyway.
But he did not like this. He did not like it at all. A frontal assault with no plan beyond 'kill!' was unlikely to go well. He would not have done such a thing unbidden, which should give anyone pause. If their team were an army, maybe. But trusting Heihachi to take out the engines alone? He could believe that this man had always fought losing battles, but could not understand how he had survived them all if he were always so reckless. Perhaps his friend had saved his life on those occasions, as Kyuzo planned to do now. Or perhaps he betrayed the desperation of a man who would be dead (one way or another) at the end of the day. Kyuzo stood on the front of their airship; he would take the brunt of the attack. He could not bear the thought of some pathetic Nobuseri taking out Kambei. And, if he were honest with himself, he relished the challenge.
Shichirogi suspected that something was amiss, and he knew Kambei best. They were not just partners, but friends. He had not liked his last partner, so it seemed novel to him, how close they were. How close they all were. Was it really just the girl, though? He fingered his left sleeve. He had known from the start that her hatred and mistrust of him stemmed rather from her possessive admiration of Kambei, but had not seen anything more to it. Few women understood warriors, and to be fair, few samurai understood women. It was not until the last farewell that he had understood what she wanted from the older samurai. Poor girl; the man was nothing but a warrior, and he was already promised to someone else after this battle. She was…interesting, as women went, but not worth being reckless over. Not that he would understand that. He thought of women as he thought of rice and sleep and bathing – something that his body needed, from time to time. He knew that other men were…particular…about them, the way that Heihachi was about rice. But to him, rice was rice and women were much the same. He could not recall ever trying to impress a woman. So often, people were impressed by his actions, but he did not seek out such worthless praise. Admiration was only any good if it came from the admirable, and he found so few people in this world to admire.
"Come with me," he had said abruptly, not looking to see her reaction to his words, whether her face betrayed fear or surprise or something else. He merely listened for her footsteps to follow his – they did. He did not look at other men's wives, nor would he dishonor a girl who gave any thought to her own virtue. He supposed he had chosen her because she was alone; no point in flaunting this in front of the master's son, though she would face worse reprisal than he, if they were caught. He did not intend to be. He slid the door closed behind them, knowing they would have enough privacy here. She did not resist when he pushed the kimono from her shoulders, and was obedient when he laid her down on the floor. He had not even thought about finding a bed; she seemed soft enough. He did not fully undress, and he did not kiss her. He merely looked in her eyes while she stared back, with something between curiosity and puzzlement. They were silent, at first, but eventually she started whimpering. To prevent her from crying out, he covered her mouth with his, and she seemed to relax then, becoming more pliant. When he finished, he returned her clothes to her and left.
He blinked, and the memory vanished. There was no passion to that. He did not recall her name, but she was quite possibly on the battleship he was staring at, along with the rest of Ukyo's harem. She had been a distraction, something to make his tedious life more bearable. He no longer wished to be distracted, with a battle before them that already had his blood humming and his muscles taut. He had more interest in the wind whipping around him and the metal of the ship vibrating beneath his boots. Perhaps Kambei understood that as well. Why else would he have known how badly Kyuzo wanted to fight him? Perhaps that was why he dismissed the girl without looking back. Kyuzo closed his eyes and cleared his mind for the coming fight; even if they were just Nobuseri, he would do his best.
He did not allow himself to become too reckless. His economy of movement was trained by muscle memory and gut reactions, leaving little opportunity to stop to think. He could abandon himself to the energy of battle without fear of losing his control. There were so many foes; no sooner did he strike one down, then he was on to another. He reveled in it, but still it lacked the spark of a fight with a true samurai. It was like a complicated dance; he knew the steps, but he did not lead. There was no other dancer, just machines to be cut down, one after another after another. A challenge, to be sure, but a dry one. He thought of the fight Kambei had promised him after this was finished, and he was spurred on. Finish the job, and then receive payment. That was how life worked. But only if Kambei survived. He would have to trust in Shichiroji for that.
Eventually, both his enemies and his trust ran out. His own injury lent to the doubt, and he went in search of Kambei. It was easy enough to follow the path of destruction. It would be difficult to face the samurai with the use of only one arm, but he would worry about that later. He found him, and none too soon, apparently. Tessai could be deadly, when he wished, but more to the point, he could not be trusted. It was a shower of bullets he should have feared; the guards were more of a threat, in the end. Kambei gave little thought to himself in the midst of it, though. Typical. He saved his student, and left himself open to attack. One had him at point blank range, and Kyuzo's heart leapt in fear for the first time that day. He took a step forward but halted when he heard gunfire. He did not mean to halt, but it was not Kambei who fell; it was the guard.
The strangest thing happened…he was pierced by fire and ice, and rather than ignore the pain, his body rebelled. His heart, his lungs, he…. His limbs would not obey his commands, and he pitched forward. He was lost. He did not know what to do; he had never lost before. He opened his eyes at the sound of his name; Kambei was holding him. Strange. Part of his mind realized that he called him Kyuzo, not Kyuzo-dono as the others did. But a more urgent part reminded him that there was no time. He said as much, but Kambei ignored him. This was the end, then. His coat had too many holes to be stitched; it was ruined. He could taste the coppery blood in his mouth, and tried to swallow it. Already he could not feel his feet or legs, and a strange coldness and thirst spread through him. He would never have a chance to finish that battle. He looked at the only person who had ever understood him fully. Heartbreaker, his eyes accused. "Do not forget we have a score to settle," he said aloud. Kambei would not forget, but it was too late. Riddled by bullets was not the death he would have chosen. But at least it was in battle, and Kambei was there. He suddenly realized that his own death was the only loophole that would spare Kambei's life; the other man might survive the day, now. As darkness closed in on his vision, he promised to wait for him still. At least he'd had one last chance to live.
And then after dealing out death to so many, he finally learned what it was to die. Perhaps that was….
Author's Note: My tribute to Kyuzo. Had he not died, he would have killed Kambei, of course, but I wanted to show that he held the utmost respect for the man…and that that respect was returned. I watched the English dub of the series, but I did watch his death-scene in Japanese, so that is why Kambei does not say Kyuzo-dono here. I tried to show Kyuzo's mix of compromise and adherence to his own rules. Please let me know what you think, and if anything sounds off. Thanks!