A/N: RK/ Naomi Novik's Temeraire universe; none of them belong to me. Premise: how would the Revolution happen, where dragons fly?
This is not happening. Teeth on edge, Himura Kenshin stood on the outskirts of the crowd of Ishin Shishi filling the forest clearing, listening to the soft crackling coming from the center of the ring of eager men. In his mind he could see the soft white of shell, fine as porcelain; almost feel its hard warmth rocking under his hand....
No. Not for you. Never for you.
Not for himself - and definitely not for the all-important man in his charge. Sedge hat drawn low to hide his scarlet flag of hair, Kenshin set his elbow, and waited-
"Why, you-" one of the older, silk-clad samurai following his victim started, one hand nearing his katana.
"Battousai," the man whispered, falling back a step.
He was used to the whispers, Kenshin told himself. Used to the stares, the pointing fingers, the shudders at the red hair tales said marked demon's blood. He was.
Then why does it still ache?
"Katsura-san," the young skirmisher said stiffly instead, hands empty, eyeing the coughing Choushuu leader who was his charge. "You can't go over there."
"It's a hatching," Katsura Kogorou complained, rubbing his abused gut. Settled his far less elegant green cotton gi back into place as neatly as Shigure's silk; like his bodyguard, he'd had to move fast, and unnoticed, which meant dressing like another poor ronin rather than a well-off lord.
"A sign of hope for our cause!" the older samurai proclaimed, regaining his courage. "That we could take this egg for our own, despite the Shogunate's forces - this is our victory!" He scowled at the unmoving swordsman. "Not that a backwoods samurai would understand-"
"Enough, Shigure." Katsura looked down at his slight bodyguard. "It is a victory, Himura. Even if it's only a Shyokuryuu, and not one of the war breeds; a courier dragon will mean better coordination of our forces, less risk of messages lost to enemy falcons. More important, the fact that we could steal a dragon egg shows how much of Heaven's favor the Shogunate has lost, opposing a true Emperor."
If Heaven's favor meant that much, I'd have been blasted with lightning years ago, Kenshin thought wryly. Granted, those about him truly believed Meiji's dragon Amidamaru was a sign of divine blessing - and could he say they were wrong? For a Celestial to be hatched of two Imperials was an event rare as snow in midsummer, and far more precious.
Make that dangerous, the former assassin thought darkly. China wants blood for the insult of a Celestial in foreign hands... and while sixty years ago their army would have been no threat to us, British ships can reach our shores all too easily.
How some foreigner had managed to get himself declared an adoptive son of China's Emperor, Kenshin had no idea, and truly didn't care; somehow one had, and though Britain seemed inclined to drag their feet about presenting their allies with enough ships to invade Japan, it would only be a matter of time. The Emperor knew it. The Shogunate knew it.
And we've already repelled too many of China's "over-exuberant off-duty officers", starting with that band of hotheads - and their Scarlet Flowers - at the Shimonoseki Strait. Not that anyone thanked us for that. Or even bothered to lodge protest with the Chinese ambassadors the British keep bringing into port....
An insult and an indignity to the Shogunate itself; further evidence that the foreigners meant Japan nothing but ill. For centuries, the understanding between empires had been clear: individual Chinese might trade with Japan, and vice-versa, but China did not. The land of the Yellow Emperor did not trade with states that were not vassals of the Chinese throne - and no offspring of Amaterasu's own blood would ever bow to the kingdom across the waves. No Chinese politician was to set foot on Japanese territory. Ever.
Yet the British keep bringing them, oh so helpful, and the ambassadors keep smiling and threatening and are oh, so regretful when one of their flights gets "lost" patrolling....
Lost. Right. From the land that never lets you forget it invented the compass!
One flight, Kenshin might have believed; storms could hit anyone, and just having a compass didn't mean you knew how to read it. But five? Ten? Twenty?
Not that more than one in ten of those "lost" flights had attacked - but that even one had, struck fear into the hearts of the common folk whenever Chinese dragons were sighted. And the way the government had chosen to compound Choushuu's indignity, for those who would dare raise hand against the invaders....
Paying indemnity to the British - the Shogunate's out of its mind!
At least his work for Katsura had kept him clear of those coastal battles. Every dragon in the Chinese aerial forces was ridden by women, it was said; and enemies or not, something in him twisted at the idea of drawing steel on a fair face.
On another fair face... Automatically he started to reach for his throat; cursed silently, remembering summer heat had made him leave the blue scarf in Kyoto. No. Don't think about it.
"It's a true victory, Himura. One of the best; a victory without bloodshed. The men should see me there to celebrate with them." Katsura smiled. "And I've never seen a hatching."
"And you can't see this one," Kenshin said flatly. "Not until after it chooses."
"Foreign nonsense!" Shigure sniffed. "Oh, we should let it pick those it likes, yes; but it won't choose a companion for months yet."
"Dragons hatched into dragons' care don't choose," Kenshin said levelly. "This one's been surrounded by humans for - what is it, two weeks now?" Or possibly even longer, if some of the rumors he'd overheard were true. If, indeed; granted, Shigure's men had probably disguised the egg as much as possible, but how would a whole shipload of British sailors not have known what they were smuggling down the coast? "And none of our sorashi are here yet." He gave Katsura a speaking glance. If they're not here, they've been delayed. Which means the Shogunate may know where they were headed. Which means we have to get you out of here!
"Give them time," Katsura said, voice mellow. Leaned a bit closer, and lowered his voice. "You've never said you knew anything about hatchings."
"It wasn't important-"
Kenshin let out a soft breath of relief. The hatchling was free of shell, now, and likely cleaning itself off. In another few minutes it should be checking the men for a likely sorashi-to-be, and he had Katsura far enough back that it'd surely find one before it got near them....
And... why was the crowd suddenly so silent, and shrinking back?
"What's wrong?" Katsura asked Shigure in an undertone. "I may be a novice at this, but I know they're supposed to be going toward the young one, not away."
"I have no idea," the elder samurai bristled, striding forward, "but you'll not call any of my men cowards - kami!"
The last few stragglers melted out of the way, and Kenshin bit back a gasp. It's white!
No, not quite; there was still a patch of a Shyokuryuu's typical dark brown from eyes to the nape of the spike-ridged young neck, like a puff of rooster feathers. But neck to long tail-tip, the hatchling was a summer-lost patch of snow.
Or, for the more superstitious among the Ishin Shishi, a wolf-sized, winged package of divine disfavor - for who but the most malicious kami would have graced their stolen dragon with mourning colors?
"Gods, we'll have a riot on our hands," Katsura breathed, watching the little dragon nearly tangle itself in its own wings, before it figured out which talon went where and scrabbled across the clearing to peer curiously at one shrinking man after another. "Himura. Stay here."
Its tongue is still black, Kenshin thought, watching the forked flicker as the dragon backed off from one cringing samurai and bent its head to taste-test a rock, some leaves, and a discarded helmet. And its eyes are brown, not red. Not a truly white dragon, then. Shishou's books did say some wild dragons in the mountains around China have white patches, like our mi-ke cats; some of them are almost white- What is he doing? "Katsura-san!" he hissed.
"We can't let this become a Shogunate victory," came the low murmur back, as Katsura kept moving. "It has to have someone."
He's not thinking straight! Kenshin thought furiously. Satsuma and Choushuu still don't trust each other, and let's not even get into Tosa and the others - if the leader of the Choushuu Ishin Shishi takes a "cursed" dragon, the whole alliance will fall apart-
"Hello," Katsura said firmly.
I should have knocked him out when I had the chance!
"Huh." The hatchling cocked his brown-patched head, and eyed the Choushuu leader. "Well, at least you're not running." The black tongue flickered. "You just smell as scared as any of them anyway."
Jaw dropped, Katsura searched for words-
With a twitch of white tail, the hatchling walked right past Choushuu's leader, sitting down to look amber straight in the eye. "So how come you're the only swordsman here who's not scared spitless?"
Shigure must have let them play dice around the egg, Kenshin thought with an odd sinking feeling. It's the only way he could have picked up that kind of language. "They are only surprised," he said neutrally. "Your coloration is not common. Give them a moment; there are a very many good people here, and I am certain you will find a fitting companion among them."
Which earned him some of the dirtiest looks he'd seen since he'd won a gold ryo training with Takasugi. Kenshin had to stifle a laugh. At least it's honest dislike!
"What's so funny?" the hatchling said suspiciously. Jerked his head around, and hissed. "Hey! Why are you saying that? That's mean!"
Suddenly cold, Kenshin knew what the little one had heard. He could hear most of it himself; human ears weren't as keen as dragons', but a hitokiri knew how to listen.
"Let a curse near good luck, see what happens...."
"Only a matter of time 'til he kills Katsura-san...."
"They're calling me a-" Wings and talons were spread, hissing swathes of white. "Good men, hell! I'm not a demon!"
Kenshin swallowed dryly, catching a snow-scaled shoulder before the hatchling could leap. He'd held swords from being drawn by men three times his size; he could hold a little dragon. Barely. "They are not... calling you a demon." Soft. I didn't know he'd be so soft. Like fine brocade. "Please. Wait for our sorashi to get here. They will find you an honorable companion."
"Like these guys?" The hatchling snorted, and moved back out from under his hand.
Turned with all the speed and agility his breed were known for, and leaped into stunned arms.
Ack - weighs half as much as I do - young idiot-
"I'm Sanosuke," the hatchling announced, tongue flicking out to taste Kenshin's sweat. "What's your name, and when are you going to feed me?"
Kenshin froze. No. Oh no, this can't be happening....
"Late," Kamiya Koshijirou muttered under the whistling wind, bent low to warm aquamarine scales. "We're definitely going to be late."
Megumi snorted, her violet-webbed wings scooping back air as the Suiryuu poured on a bit more speed. "Yes, the next time we need to steal a ready egg out from under the Shogunate's wing, I'll drop them a note; I'm sure they'll let us fly right through."
Her irony made him laugh, as he knew it was meant to; Koshijirou patted the side of her neck and sighed. "I know, I know; we're lucky to have snuck by this easily."
"I doubt Kyoukoku and Biten would call it easy," she sighed back, eyes searching ahead for the rendezvous point. "Let's just hope they remember they're a distraction, not the whole war... well, well."
"Kami, don't tell me it's hatched already?" He'd been afraid of that - even expert sorashi could misjudge how hard an egg was, and Shigure's crew were no experts. Spirits, he wasn't even sure that house had raised a dragon in decades.
"Oh, yes." There was an odd, amused thoughtfulness in her tone. "Hatched and chosen, looks like. Get ready to bowl the boy over, Koshi; poor tattered mite's a ronin if I ever saw one, and young on top of it."
Young would help, at least - but ronin? Unless by some stroke of luck he'd spent time in an aerie dojo, the boy would have no idea what to do with the scaly creature that had suddenly attached itself to him. Which is likely why he's standing there like a lump on a log, Koshijirou thought ruefully as Megumi backwinged in to land. At least he hasn't dropped the hatchling-
Which was odd in and of itself. Even a small hatchling weighed as much as a full-grown hunting dog.
So he's stronger than he looks, Koshijirou thought, taking off his harness and heading for the youth in tattered Choushuu blue and gray. Well, that's a start - Goddess of Mercy!
White scales. White claws. Translucent white wings, dotted here and there with specks of brown like birch bark, spread protectively as the hatchling regarded Megumi with mingled interest and suspicion.
Huh. So that's why there's not another soul within twenty feet of them. Koshijirou scowled at the ranks of the timid, eyes finally lighting on the large water-cask of fish some brighter soul had brought for the hatchling's first meal. "Come on, let's get him fed." Careful not to startle the pair, he placed a firm hand on the young ronin's shoulder and started pushing. "He's got to be starving by now."
"All right, somebody sane," the hatchling said cheerfully, wings fluttering closed as his companion stumbled into motion. "So who are you guys?"
"Takani Megumi, fire-quencher of Edo and current member of the Ishin Shishi air wing," the Suiryuu bowed her head. "That's my human, Kamiya Koshijirou. And you?"
"Sanosuke," came the distracted reply, just before the hatchling nearly took a header straight into the cask. "Hah! Wow, slippery little - gotcha!" Crunches, crackles, and slurps echoed out of the depths; the ronin made a choked groan, and grabbed swiftly to steady Sanosuke on the wooden edge.
Quick, too, Koshijirou thought, surprised. This might not be as much of a disaster as I thought. "And you are?"
"Oh, him?" Sanosuke poked his head back out of the barrel, chewing on a trout's tail. "Don't know yet. All I've gotten out of him is, 'Ah - um - oro...'"
Very backwoods samurai, Koshijirou realized, heart sinking again as he heard whispers rising behind him. Kwannon, Lady of Mercy, please let him not be afraid of heights. I can deal with anything else, I swear it. "Come on, speak up."
The hand not holding Sanosuke made an abortive move toward the hilts of his blades, as if for comfort. Blue-clad shoulders hunched, silent.
Very plain blades, but - very good ones, Koshijirou realized. A bit young to be in the thick of the fighting, isn't he? Not that you can really tell anything under all that sedge. "Young man, I'm going to be training the two of you for the next several months. The least you can do is take off that hat and look me in the eye-"
With a silent sigh, the hand tugged free the string under the ronin's chin.
"Oh, mou," Koshijirou breathed.
Young, yes. Slight and slim as a girl, unless you looked closely. A sharp-chinned face that seemed almost as out of place among the rest of the Ishin Shishi as the few foreigners he'd seen walking the streets of Edo. A long sword-scar slashed down the left cheek, crossed by a shorter that had managed to miss nose and eye, but not by much.
And caught in a ronin's topknot, the damning flag of scarlet hair.
I'd heard the rumors, but I never believed... the dealer of Heaven's Justice, the Demon of Kyoto, the Hitokiri Battousai....
...Is just a young ronin boy.
"Koshi?" Megumi's voice was innocent - too innocent, if you knew her well. "Is something wrong?"
"Nothing," Koshijirou said firmly, straightening his shoulders. "Nothing at all. Get a good hold on him, there; he'll probably go straight to sleep, now that's he's stuffed himself."
"I'm not-" Sanosuke yawned. "Not tired! I want to know your name!"
"Himura," the redhead said softly. "Himura Kenshin."
"Oh... s'nice...." Snoring, the hatchling settled back into his arms.
Heart of Sword? Who picked that name for him, I'd like to know - give them a piece of my mind.... Koshijirou shook off the thought. "Take them and start heading out, love," he told Megumi. "I'll settle things with Himura-san's commander."
"But- Katsura-san-" the Demon of Kyoto protested.
Himura, Koshijirou told himself forcefully in the face of amber eyes. He is Himura Kenshin, and in my charge, and I will not flinch. Sanosuke deserves that. "Megumi can be there and back in the time it'll take me to get any reason out of this lot, and the sooner the pair of you are in an aerie, the better." Go, he motioned Megumi. And had a moment's doubt; if rumors were true, Battousai - Himura had taken on the Shen lung of the Miburou, Saitou Hajime, and walked away intact....
But the redhead let talons close over the pair of them without moving toward his blades, face set and pale as his dragon.
Well, that's one down, Koshijirou thought as Megumi took off, wing-beats flinging dust into unprepared eyes. Pasted on a look of supreme unconcern, and turned to meet the wedge of samurai heading his way. Now for the hard part.
"This," Katsura Kogorou said through clenched teeth, "is not acceptable."
"Find another hitokiri," Koshijirou said levelly, keeping his voice low enough not to carry beyond them. "Arguing with a dragon's choice is like asking the earth not to shake. It doesn't work - and if you think it will, you're bound to get hurt."
"Himura hasn't been hitokiri in years," Katsura gritted out. "He's nobuseri. And my bodyguard. I need him."
A skirmisher? And Sanosuke's a Shyokuryuu, even if he is near-white... speed, agility, endurance.... The first glimmers of an idea shone through the cloud of shock; Koshijirou noted them and breathed silent relief. This could work. "Sanosuke needs him more." He dropped his voice to a near-whisper. "And if you think you'll find another man in your whole army who'd be willing to companion an unlucky dragon, after he's already picked the Demon of Kyoto - please, tell me his name. If you haven't sent him off to a temple as a madman."
Katsura stood straight as ever, but defeat darkened his eyes. "He's not a demon."
"I know that," Koshijirou said firmly. Bloody swordsmen are bad enough... Sei and Keishi-kun are there, and Megumi will know what to tell my Kaoru-chan. She'll be safe.
"No," Katsura shook his head. "You don't know. He's gentle, when he can be...." The Choushuu leader sighed. "Were you seen?"
"If we had been, I'd have left with Megumi, and we'd have dropped you off midway," the sorashi said firmly. "No. I came alone because this was supposed to be just a Shyokuryuu hatchling; no sense calling down a flight of dragons when all we needed was to get one courier into training safe." Though if Himura trains as a courier, I will eat Megumi's harness without salt.
"Then you have time for a drink?"
Koshijirou let a brow climb. "You can't talk about him sober?"
"No," Katsura admitted softly. "No, I can't."
I have a very bad feeling about this....
Even so, the dojo master couldn't help but hide a smile. The best swordsman of Choushuu, now on dragon-back.
Our Emperor is going to win.
And the dragon-warriors of China - and their gaijin allies - were going to have a very bad day.