The moon was a blank hole in the deep sky; it illuminated the street and was so bright as to make the night appear as a pale imitation of day. It cast an eerie light across the broad planes of Toshiro's face, reminding Hiroaki of a ghoul's mask.
They were still waiting. Battousai was nowhere to be seen.
"They're late." Toshiro's voice was wired with tension. "Usually he's come and gone by now."
"Perhaps the meeting went for longer than expected." Hiroaki cast his eyes across the empty street, and saw only blank walls and swept paving stones, polished by the moon's unexpected brightness. It was only last night that he had been wandering down a deserted lane such as this one. His footsteps had been unsteady, his thoughts clouded from the sake.
"Shigekura better show up. This is an importa…"
"Shh!" Hiroaki held up a hand and they melted further into the shadows, pushing their backs against the wall.
The three men who walked past did not notice them; they were well concealed in the small alley. Hiroaki swallowed as he realised the man leading them was young; not much older than himself. Light spilled across the street, cast by the lantern he carried.
He recognised the older man who followed; this was Shigekura Jubei, a high ranking official attached to the Kyoto Shoshidai. Although he carried daisho at his waist, Shigekura did not possess the bearing of one experienced in combat. Hiroaki could not see the man's face, but he caught a glimpse of a silver topknot and stooped posture.
Shigekura was flanked by a tall, heavy set man who Hiroaki presumed was his bodyguard. Judging from his thick hands, broad shoulders and wide, bull's neck, he possessed formidable strength.
Yet this did not concern Hiroaki. After what he had witnessed these past few nights, he had learnt not to equate skill with size.
"It's getting late." The large man spoke, his voice deep and hoarse. There was an edge to it; the unease of one who was ever vigilant. "We should hurry a little. Lately there have been more of those so-called hitokiri…"
In his head, Hiroaki corrected the man. There hadn't been more hitokiri.
There was just one.
"Like that so-called 'Hitokiri Battousai'?" The younger man's question held a note of disbelief. In the darkness, Hiroaki shook his head.
Of all the things he could have said…
"I don't care if he exists or not. We'll crush the rebellion soon." The bodyguard was implacable. Hiroaki noted the stiff line of his straight back, and his slow, heavy steps.
Shigekura held up a hand. "Now, now. Let's not talk about such things." The old man kept his tone light, making an effort to change the subject. "After all, we have reason to celebrate. Kiyosato, you're going to be married next month, aren't you?"
"That's right." There was no mistaking the excitement in Kiyosato's voice.
Hiroaki clenched his teeth and took a deep breath. Beside him, Toshiro lay a warm, heavy hand on his shoulder.
"Easy, kid," whispered his companion. "We gotta see this through."
Hiroaki closed his eyes. For an instant, he wished, more than anything, that he was not about to witness this.
A young man, getting married.
Hiroaki wondered how old the bride was.
Old enough to know grief?
The old man chuckled. "Marrying your childhood sweetheart huh? What a lucky kid." Underneath the gentle, teasing humour was a note of pride. Hiroaki wondered if these two were close. Shigekura was old enough to be Kiyosato's father.
Don't think about it!
"Thank you. But still…" Doubt clouded Kiyosato's words; their footsteps slowed. "In these troubled times, do you really think it's a good idea to…"
"Don't worry, Kiyosato-san," reassured the old man. "In this world, everyone deserves a little happiness. Isn't that what we're trying to achieve, through this work of ours?"
Hiroaki felt Toshiro stiffen beside him. This old man Shigekura, who seemed more like a father than a threat to the revolution, had said what they all felt. It had never occurred to him that those on the other side of the blade might wish for the same things.
"You must be Shigekura Jubei."
He had appeared from the shadows, materialising on the street behind them. His flat voice split the stillness, causing them to turn. Hiroaki hadn't even been aware of his presence until he spoke.
He stared as the hitokiri advanced, the searing moonlight touching his crimson hair. It blazed like a flame; an unlikely beacon. Himura was supposed to be discreet, a silent apparition slipping in and out of the shadows. But his appearance betrayed him; now, more than ever, he stood out.
It didn't matter.
There would be no-one left to speak of this strange looking boy, with his startling hair and terrible eyes.
The soon to be married man; the fatherly figure and his stoic bodyguard; they were already dead.
"Though I bear you no grudge, for the sake of the new era, I must have your deaths."
The words were spoken in a low tone; barely audible, yet Hiroaki had no doubt there was not a soul who would have missed them. He could hear his own rasping breath; his heart hammered, his head pounded. Both Shigekura and Kiyosato flinched, their pale features shadowed with fear.
Only the bodyguard glared back, his stone face implacable. "Who are you?"
There was a pause, and Hiroaki became aware of the cold wind sweeping through, tugging at Battousai's frayed gi. The hitokiri held them with his gaze.
"Choshuu Ishin Shishi. Himura Battousai."
It was a thunderclap in the still night.
Hands dropped to clutch saya and tsuka with a metallic clink. Bodies tensed; fear coursed through the three men and it was so strong Hiroaki thought he could feel it.
Death: they read it in Battousai's eyes; knew they couldn't stop it.
No matter how much they wished to live.
For as fast as they could draw, he was faster, and in less than two strides he had already become a blur, the katana whipped out, a steel flash cleaving down the length of the bodyguard, a perfect, symmetrical cut. The precision was obscene, the speed inhuman. Both were erased in a viscous spray of red. Hiroaki could almost taste it; warm, coppery.
The large man's body fell forward, his spirit extinguished. Hiroaki's eyes, turning upwards, found the hitokiri's blade, now stained crimson. For a heartbeat, a shadow crossed the moon, darkening Shigekura's features. In his hand, the old man's katana was as much use as a spring sapling. The shadow dropped, blurred edges morphing into man and blade, from impossible height.
The old man looked up.
And met a terrifying last sight. Battousai fell from the sky, plunging his blade into Shigekura's face. Hiroaki tasted bile in the back of his throat as the old man fell, his blood splattering the silver paving stones.
"Shigekura-san! Ishiji-san!" The young man, Kiyosato, was backed against the wall. He trembled; his face shone with sweat.
Stop! Hiroaki wanted to call out. You have killed Shigekura. Surely he doesn't need to die too!
But he knew better. Kiyosato's only crime had been to see the slaughter. And in this war, fought in the shadows and back alleys, there was no place for witnesses.
To feel so helpless…
And met resistance.
"Gah!" It was impossible, but somehow Kiyosato met steel with steel. The young man pressed forward, his teeth bared in a desperate grimace. His eyes were wide, frantic. The sweat now poured from him.
"Give up." Battousai's voice was like the edge of his blade; sharp, relentless. As he bore down on the young man, Hiroaki felt a stab of pity. To be on the receiving end of such an onslaught, staring certain death in the face…
Staring into those eyes.
For as much time as it took for Hiroaki to draw breath, the two enemies were frozen, locked in a silent embrace.
Then Kiyosato broke loose with a hoarse cry, and Battousai took a step backwards. Hiroaki looked across and saw the dull whites of Toshiro's eyes, wide in surprise. They shared an unspoken thought.
This had never happened before.
But the difference between the opponents was obvious. Kiyosato stood, his katana bared, breath leaving him in heavy gasps. His forehead glistened with moisture.
That defensive block had cost him. He would not be able to keep this up; there was no way he could match Battousai in speed or strength.
Hiroaki knew it; Toshiro knew it.
And yet, in the revealing moonlight, Kiyosato's eyes burned. He matched Battousai's cold stare with his own fire; intense, determined.
The difference was obvious. Battousai was unmoved, his breathing steady and even. His katana was still and silent; Hiroaki could see the uneven pattern of blood, now drying, that had settled across its edge.
His stance revealed not one whit of tension; to the inexperienced observer he might have appeared open to attack.
Kiyosato screamed and rushed forward, bringing his sword down, the momentum driving him. There was the force of his all conviction in that stroke.
Battousai defended with ease.
Pushed onto the back foot, Kiyosato turned and grunted, making a wild swing.
His blade sliced nothing but air. Battousai leapt and pivoted, facing the young man.
Hiroaki saw a red blur; heard Kiyosato's scream, cut short as he fell to the ground. The hitokiri's blade whipped across in a smooth arc, leaving behind it a vicious explosion of dark blood. The aftermath of violence now painted the street.
Hiroaki could smell it, stronger than before. That familiar, acrid scent; there was nothing in the world that could match that smell. He became aware of Toshiro, and his slow, ragged breathing. Neither of them spoke. The scene was set; the players down.
Battousai had done his job.
The hitokiri did not move. Hiroaki found himself unable to tear his eyes from that delicate figure, surrounded by carnage. Surprise crossed Battousai's features and he raised a hand to his left cheek. His fingers came away stained.
"What the hell?" mouthed Toshiro, edging forward.
They heard a low, visceral sob. The fallen figure of Kiyosato moved, one arm outstretched, as if he were reaching for something. Hiroaki saw his head raise, saw the lips move. Kiyosato was saying something, but the words were lost in the distance between them.
Battousai turned and drove his blade into the man's heart.
Hiroaki glanced at Toshiro, waiting for a cue, but the big man was frozen, staring into the shadows. He steeled himself and stepped into the open. After a pause, Toshiro roused himself and followed.
"We've come to check." His deep voice echoed in the empty street.
Battousai turned, revealing his pale face and the vivid slash across his cheek, trickling blood. "Thank you for examining them."
"Your cheek!" Hiroaki's thoughts had scattered; he was unable to contain his surprise. He fought down the revulsion, and was bewildered to find a note of concern amongst it.
"It's nothing." The hitokiri's expression was blank; Hiroaki did not understand how he could remain like this.
"But he reached your face with a sword! He must have been very skilled."
"No." There was a sharp flick, the air rended as Battousai performed chiburi. Another streak of blood crossed the path, adding to the chaotic swirls of deep red. "His skill itself was nothing. But his will to live was incredible." He sheathed his sword with a click.
Hiroaki almost missed, it but it was there. The first time he had heard emotion in that man's voice. There was some form of feeling at least, but he couldn't identify it.
How could you have done it, Himura-san?
He shuddered, reminding himself that just last night, he had been pressed against a wall, alongside this man. Now he was looking at someone else; a stranger. He stared ahead, but Battousai had already turned his back, walking away. "I'll leave the rest to you."
Hiroaki pulled the notice from inside his gi, casting his eyes over the neat lines of the kanji. The black ink was a stark reminder.
On the breeze, a voice floated to him; it was Battousai, speaking. But the words had escaped him.
"Huh?" Hiroaki looked up. "Did you say something?"
"No. It was nothing."
They watched until Battousai had disappeared from sight. Hiroaki sighed and looked down at Kiyosato's sprawled, lifeless form. He was face down on the pavement, his arm outstretched. It was a small mercy that they didn't have to see that face.
Toshiro squatted down beside the corpse and stared back into the empty street. "Will to live, huh?" His face looked drained; he displayed none of his usual black humour. "I guess a first-class swordsman can tell that just by crossing swords with someone."
"Yeah." The paper had grown moist between Hiroaki's damp fingers; he had forgotten about it. "Maybe he could tell that. But still, he killed them all without even blinking." He lay the notice on Kiyosato's back, careful and reverent in the way he placed it. A small pin secured it.
That happiness you spoke of… I hope you find it in the next life.
The paper fluttered in the breeze and then became still. Hiroaki rose, and his eyes met Toshiro's. He shook his head. "He really is a hitokiri."
Toshiro said nothing; just grunted in agreement.
Their work was done.
Yeah, so now you know. Hiroaki and Toshiro are those guys. This is essentially chapter 165 of the manga, done from a different point of view. Thanks to everyone who took the time to read and review; your comments are always appreciated.
Chiburi: that thing where one flicks the blood from his blade.
Kyoto Shoshidai: an important administrative and political office, which was expanded during the Tokugawa regime.