"Oi! More sake!"
"Move over, baka!"
The drunken laughter of the boisterous thugs resounded off the walls of the teahouse. None of the guests dared to speak. Firelight from the hearth illuminated their dirty, scarred faces and glinted off partially-concealed weapons, made visible by the drunken state of their owners. The fighters joked, laughed, argued, and exchanged good-natured punches.
"You shoulda seen the guy's face after I said we was Aizu," hissed a bony, sunken faced man from his spot on the floor. "He almost fainted!"
"Well did ya see the other'n?" a grimy, heavyset one chuckled, fondling his sword along with the memory. "He even begged for me to kill him instead of his fam'ly! Ya should've seen his face when we gutted 'em."
They all laughed and downed yet another round of sake, kicking over the empty bottles that littered the floor.
A tall, lean man had been sitting by himself, quietly sipping his sake. Now he turned to his captain, the leader of the drunken Aizu squad. "Taicho?"
The captain turned. He was a big, beefy man lined with large yet almost invisible scars from an endless list of combatants. He wore a neat, black beard and a red gi, and carried a sufficient amount of weaponry. At his side were twin katana and a set of nanchaku, not to mention the pair of daggers hidden within the sleeve of his gi. His presence was one of the most commanding in the room.
"What is it, Yamada?" he said dully.
"Sir, I don't believe the men need to be drinking anymore than they've had. They might say something, let something slip to the wrong ears-"
"Relax, the men need their time," he admonished him. "We'll pull out in a few hours. The Shogunate wants us stationed in Kyoto by morning. We're less than two hours away, so we can afford to linger."
"What are our orders from the Shogunate?"
"We are to take out the leaders of the Ishin Shishi in Kyoto. They're living in some inn near the outskirts of town, delivering names to an assassin posted there. Apparently he's been taken care of. We wipe out anyone associated with the Imperialists, then we get paid and get the hell out of here," he said wearily.
"Hey boss! Come on over'n hava sake! S'good stuff!"
"Yeah, c'mon over!" the men shouted, grinning and brandishing their weapons, and laughing as someone accidentally knocked a water jug off the table with a loud crash.
"No thanks, boys," he called. The captain glanced over at a table across the room. "Not when there are more interesting things to think about," he muttered.
The tall man gave him a questioning look. "Sir?"
"Look," he said in a low voice, pointing to a man seated in a dark corner of the teahouse. "That man hasn't moved since we came in. He's been sitting completely still in that exact same position for over an hour."
"And he has daisho,"the other man mused. "He must be a samurai."
"Yes, but for which side?" said the captain darkly. " I'm keeping an eye on him."
I sense something strange from this man. Something not right. He's strong,
very strong; his sword has defeated many. And the look in his eyes...there
is death within those eyes.
The captain's brow furrowed. I must be wary of this one.
The bullet wound in his side was screaming as it slowly stained his gi. His cloak and hat had managed to conceal the vast damage to his abdomen as well as his fiery hair as he'd strode through the door and taken the table furthest to the back. He'd been mentally kicking himself for over an hour now, and though his sake was untouched, the edges of his vision were beginning to blur.
Damn fool, he thought furiously, tightening his grip on the hilt of the katana resting against his shoulder. You should've been more careful!
He felt the warmth of blood begin to soak through the heavy material of his cape, and a great, black-red blot was plainly visible within the folds of cloth.
He didn't care.
Kenshin no baka! he gritted. How could you have been so stupid?!
He'd known the men this morning were from the Shogunate, he'd known that they were always armed with rifles, he'd even memorized their patterns of attack!
How could you have missed the man on the left? You fool! Kami, I'm a damn fool!!
His eyes narrowed, glinting yellow amber, and the furrow in his brow deepened. His lip curled in a snarl. His anger sent more thoughts whirling through his head.
Maybe you deserved it, you murderer. You're no different from them, part of his mind told him. You should've died, you should've--
Too much self-hatred, another part said. You can't stand your own being. You wanted him to kill you, you wanted to die just like Tomoe--
He winced at that. Okay, that had gone too far.
The table was swaying. He blinked, trying to get it back into focus and
failing, which made him even angrier. Another thousand curses went
through his head.
Get it together,
You fool, you fool! It was an easy block! One stroke could have ended it right then and there! Shimatta, you FOOL!!
Okami-san. Yes, I have to get back to the inn, back to Okami-san, he agreed.
Get it together,a voice in his head whispered. You need to return to Okami-san. The thought was both illogical and perfectly sensible.
It had been weeks since he'd gone to the inn; for him the days had passed like months. During the days after his beloved Tomoe's death, he'd tried to embrace her teachings, struggled to form his own feelings and sense of reasoning, but it was so painful that he'd simply stopped trying. Unless he was told, he wouldn't eat or sleep. Not that he got much sleep when he tried.
He'd still performed his daily routines at the inn. Yes, he'd done whatever chores Okami-san told him to, he'd taken out whomever he was ordered, but the being performing these tasks was nothing more than an empty shell. It was worse than the guilt he'd had before over the many lives lost at his hands; there was no purpose to drive him, no living, feeling being behind it, no reason to live and fight and kill.
He simply stayed alive because he was told to do so.
If anything disrupted the routine, he would merely watch, letting events wash over him like waves that wore him away. His free will and conscious self had fallen to the wayside, and that's how things were...until this very rude awakening.
He gathered his strength, intending to rise from his seat. He would go back to the inn and talk to Okami-san. He'd always been fond of her; he loved her like his mother, though he dare not admit it even to himself.
Suddenly pain blasted from the wound, making his vision flash white. A
soft cry was wrenched from his throat, his left hand clutching at the
soaking fabric. His head fell, bent over the table. Not good.
Come on, Kenshin, get up. Get...get up...
A waiter came over to his table. He must have attracted some concerned looks from the other patrons. "Sir, are you alright? What's wrong?"
"No...I'm fine, da...daijou...bu..." Come on Kenshin, GET UP! One, two,thr-
He saw red bursts of light of that hurt his eyes as much as his side. His teeth were tightly clenched together and sweat slid from his brow, but he was standing. His breathing emerged in short, ragged half-gasps.
"Sir, are you sure you don't need help? Should I fetch a doctor?"
"Nn...no..." Come on, Kenshin, you can't afford to black out now. Just walk out the door and leave...No. His body couldn't take any more.
With a groan he slid to the floor and lay facedown, lost in the darkness surrounding him.
"--I don't know, the guy just collapsed!"
"Hey, he's just a kid!
"Oh, that poor boy--"
A small crowd was gathering around him. The captain watched as one man bent down to examine the fallen youth.
He heard a rustle of clothing as the man removed the concealing cover from his face. Suddenly there was a gasp, and the man pulled back. The crowd parted to reveal a cascade of flame-colored hair underneath the hat's brim, and a puddle of blood that was spread across the floor.
Immediately the captain's full attention was focused on the boy. He rose and strode across the length of the room to where he lay. Grabbing the boy's shoulders, he turned him over.
The young, delicate features were whiter than a cherry blossom, and his
left cheek was hidden by a ragged bandage. The captain inhaled sharply.
If he was right...
Slowly he peeled it away, revealing an X-shaped scar that completely
covered the boy's cheek.
Red hair and a cross scar.
It's him. Hitokiri Battousai.
His men approached him from behind. Yamada cautiously leaned toward him, hand on the hilt of his katana. "Taicho?"
"What the hell?!"
"Battousai!" yelped the sunken-faced man. "Captain, get away from him! That's the Battousai! Quick, run!"
"He's unconscious, you idiot-"
"Taicho, we must get rid of him," spat Yamada, drawing his sword. "We won't get better chances in combat with him than this."
"Yes, let's skin the demon now!" The other man began unsheathing weapons.
"No." The captain's reinforced steel tone made his men freeze. They stared at him.
"Taicho, what are you saying?"
"Have you gone crazy?! That's the hitokiri Battousai, for crying out loud! He'd just as soon gut you as look at you! You want us to leave him?!"
"Doesn't matter; look, it's just like they said. He's wounded."
"Yeah, even if we don't kill him he's done for."
"We're not leaving him," the captain said abruptly. "We're taking him with us."
His man gaped in absolute horror as their superior pulled the hitokiri up and put his arm around the captain's neck. He held him up and took him under his arm, his other hand grasping the boy around the waist.
The captain turned and glared at his men. "We're leaving."
No one moved.
His stare contained a cold, lethal edge. "That was an order. Anyone feel
like questioning my authority?" Apparently no one did.
The patrons watched in fear as the men left, taking Battousai with them.
The captain squinted down at his unconscious burden, trying to see him through the rain. They'd been traveling for almost two hours, and their destination was coming into view.
The men were totally drenched, and each was totally mystified as to their captain's intent. What did he plan to do with the manslayer? The captain's pace was steady, despite the boy's extra weight. For some reason he seemed no heavier than a ball of cotton.
The hitokiri's face had been expressionless for the majority of the trip, completely lost in sleep, but now a pained look was slowly overtaking his features, dark and grief stricken.
The captain watched his expression intently, almost coming to a halt. The boy looked so miserable, so pitiful. What was making him hurt so much? What was so terrible that it haunted him, the most dangerous, blood-stained warrior in the entire Bakumatsu, in his dreams?
"Hold on, boy. We're almost there," the man murmured.
Something was moving.
He could feel the faint touch of an unseen force pressing in on him, and
from somewhere beyond his dark lair a drumming hum played in his ears.
The purity and solidness of the black began to fade into a dull gray-blue, the touch becoming more and more forceful, beginning to pound. Cold was spreading into him from his fingertips, his extremities, as slowly he was informed of their presence.
The touch was pain now, cold, crushing, hammering...wet.
The rain was clawing at his back like an animal, its roar echoing in his
ears. Life was a blur of grey, moving onward before him. His head pounded,
and an ache was growing near his heart. Part of him wondered why he was
moving forward. His vision was hazy, and the edges were washed in red.
Blood, he realized.
Blood was staining the puddles beneath his feet, painting them a dark crimson.
An anguished, painful moan escaped him. Tomoe's blood.
Suddenly a pair of arms tightened around his waist that he had not felt
before. Sounds floated in through gaps in the pouring rain. Voices.
There are others...no.
"No...no, get away...from me...get away--" He struggled against the hands that held him tightly in their grip. The force of his pushing knocked the other man to the ground and freed him from his grasp.
He stood shakily for a few moments, unaware of the horde of armed men
who were carefully watching him, and tried to clear his vision. Then he
swayed, his legs buckling as he fell to his knees. His breath was ragged,
and his fingers dug into the flesh of his left side, red rainwater gushing
from between them.
Ahhh...pain...why? He looked down at his abdomen in wonder. The blood loss prevented his brain from comprehending why he hurt.
Finally his arms couldn't take anymore, and they collapsed under him,
shaking with exhaustion. He could feel someone rolling him onto his back,
and he pleaded that they leave him alone.
A beautiful face sprung to his mind, dark hair flowing down her shoulders. He sobbed.
"Ko...To...Tomoe...koishii," he croaked. With a final moan his head fell to the side, and he returned to his dark world once more.
The captain stared at the unconscious hitokiri wonderingly. The boy should be dead by now.
He really hadn't expected him to last this long; they were approaching
their destination. If he brought him to the Shogunate they'd have him
executed, and he couldn't do that--
Snap out of it, he told himself. He was the enemy, after all.
A fear had begun to grow deep inside him. He was finding himself worrying
about the flame-haired hitokiri's condition: is he still in pain? Did the
bleeding stop? How deep is the wound?
But endlessly more troubling to him were the two things that the boy had done. His face...that pitiful, heart-breaking sob that had been wrenched from the very depths of the boy's being...
Tomoe, he had said. Koishii. Beloved.
The captain had heard rumors of what happened to the wife of Battousai. He knew now that they couldn't be true, though. The boy called her name in his sleep; what chance was there that he could have...
The captain shook his head. Stop thinking and start walking.
"Taicho?" The captain turned to see Yamada at his shoulder. "Yes."
"What, um...exactly what are you going to do with the Battousai...?"
The captain sighed. He honestly didn't know.
Suddenly he eyed a cave, made in the rock overhang overgrown with vegetation. It wasn't that big, but it was big enough, and it faced away from the city. The plants made it almost unnoticeable, and he realized he'd been staring at it for quite a while and never realized it.
Completely hidden. Both ways.
The captain stopped and turned around, facing Yamada. "You know what? I don't know what I'll do with him."
"I honestly don't know what to do right now. But I know what I'm not going to do. I'm not going to let the boy die. You men can do whatever you want; I don't care if you stay, I don't care if you go report me for treason."
The captain smiled dryly. "But it's pouring rain and I for one am going to get out of it. I won't leave the boy to the Shogunate just yet."
The men were in absolute shock.
You didn't defy Shogunate orders, you just didn't. And yet here was their captain, their Taicho, saying he was going to save the most notorious assassin in the entire Bakumatsu revolution. For the Imperialists, of all people! The Ishin Shishi!
The captain waited. These men had been with him for almost twelve years.
Now their loyalty was being tested. Would they follow? Or...
Slowly one man stepped forward, looking very unsure, then straightened, and bowed to him in salute. One by one, the others did the same.
The captain smiled. He turned and resolutely began trudging up the muddy slope.
She was running. Why...?
Tomoe...wait...for me... Why couldn't he reach her?
He couldn't see her. He couldn't see anything. But he knew she was there.
He breathed in the beautiful, wonderful scent of her white plum perfume. It was everywhere, wrapping him so completely in its gentleness that he couldn't think.
He didn't want to think.
He was there with her, if only for the briefest of moments. She was allowing him to rest for the first time in an eternity, and he wouldn't push that away. Tomoe, let me be with you. I want to stay...
"No. Not yet, koishii."
He was startled from his obliviousness by the sound of her voice. Not a dream or illusion, but a real voice, so close to him that he could touch...
"You have more ahead of you, beloved. There are others that need you."
It was dark. A black room. Tomoe, I...I can't...
"You've been blaming yourself, beloved. You've been suffering for so long, please, don't blame yourself anymore. I see now how you've felt for all these years, how you've grieved. All the heartache you've suffered shouldn't have had to be."
Tomoe...I need you...
"I love you, koishii. Stay alive. For me, beloved. I cannot explain it to you now, but please...live."
Tomoe...Tomoe, wait! Tomoe!
No... He let out a choked sob. Please...don't leave me...
Yamada sat at the mouth of the cave, watching the pouring rain. It had been almost two hours since they'd taken refuge in their cave hideout, and it showed no signs of letting up. In fact, it was getting worse.
The tall man cast a glance across the room where his captain was tending to the boy. Two or three other men had gathered around Battousai, perhaps concerned for him, perhaps concerned for the captain. It was always possible he would wake up, those feral eyes flashing, and kill the traitorous Shogunate allies with one stroke...
Yamada sighed and turned his attention back to the rain. I hope he knows
what he's doing. I don't know about this, I just don't.
Meanwhile the captain had other things on his mind.
The hitokiri's wound had become infected. His skin was a dangerous yellow tinged with grey. His body temperature seemed to have sky-rocketed, and his breathing was far too shallow. Barely noticeable.
"Is he dead, Taicho?" A man in a tan tunic knelt, hands on his knees, to
face his seated captain.
From the glances he threw Battousai's way, the man was obviously nervous, but he didn't edge away from the boy.
"No. But unless we do something soon, Inoue, he will be," the captain grated.
Inoue looked down at the flame-haired hitokiri. He could partially understand why their captain felt the way that he did, why he wanted to save him. He was only a child.
But this also conflicted the man. The tales told of this hitokiri Battousai were the most frightening of all the children's stories, for not only were these the most horrible of all the tales, these were more than just legend or rumor.
They were true.
That realization sent chills down his spine. All of the men the hitokiri had ruthlessly slaughtered, the tales of the uncountable numbers of people who'd died at his hands.
The way he'd received that mark on his cheek...
The captain had told his men of the rumors, back before the attack on that
last village. Inoue hadn't been happy with how the assignment had gone.
Most of the men just kept slashing; a few of them had enjoyed it.
But somehow he just couldn't understand how anyone could keep killing for sport.
He looked at the boy's face, studying his features, half hidden by his long,
golden-red hair. The Battousai...he's so young, yet he's managed to survive
by being a murderer all these years...What kind of person does a life like
that make, I wonder?
The captain had bound the hitokiri's wound as best he could, propping his head up with his own gi, which he'd removed from the boy to dress the injury. He noted grimly that there were no visible scars on his body.
Which means that he either has never seen battle...yeah, right...or he's so good no one's ever gotten a shot in.
The captain's eyes narrowed. It's obviously the second, but...if he's so skilled, why was he hit this time? No one in that Shogunate attack was good enough to beat him.
He knew that thought would keep him up tonight.
It's just as well. Someone will need to stay with the boy.
Meanwhile the men had settled in. A few of them had started playing gambling games with what little they had; others were fast asleep in corners of the cave, away from the drafty entrance, covered with their own cloaks.
The heavyset man and the man with the sunken face were among the gamblers, tossing dice carelessly. The big man was looking across the room at the comatose hitokiri, studying him and their captain carefully.
By the look on his face he didn't trust Battousai one bit, nor did he like the fact that his Taicho was helping him.
"What's wrong, Takashi-san?" the bony man queried. "Battousai getting on your nerves?"
"We should have left him," the man growled. "If he doesn't kill us the
Shogunate damn well will. And the Ishin? Hah! Better to commit suicide."
He spat across the floor. "I don't like this, Tori. Not at all."
"We could always kill him when the captain falls asleep," suggested Tori, breath whistling through his nostrils. "'Don't see the need, though. He'll be dead in the morning."
"Let's hope you're right. The stories I've heard...all I can say is that if he
lives through this, we sure as hell won't."
It wasn't looking good.
The boy had almost stopped breathing and he was getting worse. Nothing
they did seemed to be helping; it was as though the hitokiri was refusing
A sickening rasp kept resounding in the boy's chest, and almost as bad was the pale, yellow-greyish cast his skin had acquired.
Chances are it's lead poisoning. Who knows how long the pellets were in
there, the captain thought, rewrapping his bandage. Something's behind all
this. The kid's got conflicts, that's for sure.
Suddenly the boy cried out, gasping, as though there wasn't enough air. The men gasped and drew back from Battousai as he lashed out. His breathing had stabilized somewhat, but his wound had suddenly begun to bleed again, red soaking through the white bandage.
Battousai's hands grasped at the dirt, and his teeth were clenched as tightly as his fists. The captain tried to calm to him, make him lie still. He held the hitokiri down tightly. The boy sobbed almost incoherently as he writhed in agony, calling for--
"--Tomoe...no, stay...Tomoe, TOMOE!!" He struggled to free himself from
the captain's grasp.
He isn't awake, the captain realized.
Finally Battousai thudded back to the earth, his chest heaving. "No.....Tomoe..."
A single tear trickled down his cheek, his eyes tightly shut. The captain
watched, mesmerized, as the drop made its way down the boy's neck and
into his hair.
He reached up, trying to touch something...or someone...that only he could see.
"Tomoe," he cried softly. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to, I didn't..." He sobbed.
"I didn't want you to die..."
The captain couldn't take anymore. He reached forward and grasped
Battousai's outstretched hand. "She knows, kid. She knows, it's okay," he
The men looked up at their captain, startled. What...?
The boy's eyes opened with a confused look. Slowly they focused and he
stared up at the man's face. He looked uncertain, his brow furrowed.
So, the legends were wrong, thought the captain. His eyes aren't yellow at all; they're lavender.
He was reminded briefly of the wisteria that grew in the hills of his childhood home.
The boy looked up at him for a while, studying him, then suddenly his
confusion was replaced with panic. He felt the ground next to him,
"Taicho, he's searching for his swords," Inoue whispered.
He's right, he realized. A cold chill ran up his spine. "What're you doing, kid?"
"Who are you?" The captain jumped. Battousai's voice ran colder than ice, venom dripping from the words.
"I won't ask again. Who are you?" The hitokiri's eyes were glowing a bright yellow now, narrowed to slits. "Give me back my swords."
"I'm sorry kid, I can't do that. You might hurt someone."
"I'll do more than hurt you if you don't give them back," he gritted, his eyes burning.
"I don't mean to be obvious, but..." the captain said, raising an eyebrow. He nodded at the red-stained bandage. "You are wounded."
"I could still take you out," Battousai muttered.
"Really?" the captain said smoothly. "I don't think she'd like it if you did that, do you?"
All the hitokiri could do was stare in shock and uncertainty.
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