Author's Note: This story is a bit of an experiment, sort of a series of vignettes. Just a warning, if you're not very familiar with the canon, you may find bits of it a little confusing…
Change of Heart
Battousai stopped in his tracks at the familiar voice behind him, turned and pushed windswept bangs back from his face as he met the dark, mocking eyes of the man on the road behind him.
"Shakku-dono," he replied.
"So you're leaving the Shishi, Himura…"
The breeze tossed Battousai's vivid ponytail across his shoulder, stirring their words in the space between them as they spoke of battles won and foolish ideals. When Shakku lifted the sword from his shoulder and threw it to him, Battousai reached up and caught it deftly. As he grasped the hilt and drew the blade partway out of its sheath, inspecting the useless piece of scrap, with its dull side at the front and its cutting edge at the back, Shakku's last words drifted over to him on the wind.
"When that sword breaks, if you still believe that weak joke of yours…come and see me again in Kyoto."
He slid the sword back into its sheath and glanced up at Shakku's retreating back, a slight smile curving his lips. Without another word, Kenshin secured the sakabatou at his hip and turned down the road again, continuing on his way.
It was the fifth year of the Meiji, and Kenshin was sitting at a table in the back corner of a quaint little country inn, nursing a small flask of sake. Occasionally he could feel the eyes of the other patrons sweeping over the length of his bright red hair, or the scar on his cheek—but he had grown used to this by now. For a long time he had felt fidgety at every sidelong glance, certain that everyone he met must recognize him for who and what he was—but he was far from Kyoto and the chaos of the Bakumatsu now, and he had eventually come to realize that the strange looks were simple curiosity, devoid of recognition.
He poured another small measure of sake from the ceramic flask on the table and lifted the shallow dish to his lips, wincing only slightly at the taste.
"Why do you still drink that stuff?" asked Battousai.
Kenshin blinked up at the dark, emotionless gaze of the younger man opposite him. Battousai still wore the midnight blue of the Ishin Shishi, the familiar scar on his cheek. Kenshin looked away again, unperturbed but silently declining to answer.
"It still tastes like blood, doesn't it," Battousai said.
Kenshin met his eyes again, lips quirking slightly into a wry smile. "A little," he admitted—then dropped his gaze to the shallow surface of the chilled liquor. "But it's gotten better."
"Do you think it will ever go away completely?"
The wry smile faded, and he didn't look up this time. "I don't know," he said.
"Is there anything else I can get for you, sir?" a woman's voice interrupted, and he blinked up at her sweetly smiling face, which neither saw nor heard the sullen-faced youth sitting across from him. But then, he wouldn't have expected her to.
"No, thank you," he said with a polite smile. "I'm quite alright."
Kenshin stared down at the man dressed in white lying supine on the ground before him. He was battered and clearly outmatched, his Zanbatou in pieces on the ground—yet his fists still clenched at his sides, his brown eyes sparking with an insolent fury.
"Are you going to finish him or aren't you?" Battousai asked, watching the labored rise and fall of Zanza's chest as he stood at Kenshin's shoulder.
"Of course I'm not," Kenshin said calmly. "He's angry. He's in pain. But he doesn't deserve to die."
"It might be kinder," Battousai said, his tone devoid of expression.
Kenshin glanced over at his younger self, who was still watching Zanza with the same blank look in his amber eyes. "Maybe," he said at last—and then he followed the Battousai's gaze back to his fallen opponent. "But I will not finish him."
Kenshin took a step toward Zanza, Battousai disappearing beyond the edges of his peripheral vision.
"Let's end this meaningless fight," he said, addressing the man in white. "I don't want to lift this sword against you any further. Accept defeat with grace…"
Kenshin crouched on the ground, panting for breath as he clutched his wounded shoulder. Kaoru's voice called to him, but he could barely hear it through the pain. And then, he realized, he couldn't hear it at all.
His head snapped up, eyes searching for her only to find her clutching at her throat, struggling to breathe, much less speak.
"She has about two minutes," Jine taunted, a cruel grin spreading across his face. "It won't be as easy to break as it was last night."
Kenshin bowed his head, his stomach clenching, mind racing for a solution.
"There's no choice," Battousai whispered from above him, just to his left.
Kenshin squeezed his eyes shut, letting out a painful breath. "There has to be another way. There is always another way."
"There isn't always another way. There's only one way," Battousai replied, the slightest hint of urgency seeping into his voice.
"You can't let it happen again."
Kenshin's eyes flew open wide at that, and suddenly he was staring at a layer of soft, white snow, its pristine surface scarred red. He squeezed his eyes shut against the sight and curled in on himself a little further. "I know," he whispered. "I know…"
He struggled for breath for a moment longer, fingers clenching around the hilt of his sword. And then Battousai opened his eyes.
The dulled blade of the sakabatou slammed into Jine's face, breaking his nose before he'd even managed to raise his own sword in defense.
"The time for talking is over," Battousai said, turning calmly back to face his enemy, sword resting on his shoulder. "Come here so I can kill you now."
Battousai could see Kenshin observing the fight from a distance, fists clenched at his sides—but the rurouni said nothing, made no move to intervene. When Jine was finally at his mercy, his sword arm shattered irreparably, Battousai glared down at him with a cold fury, lifting the sakabatou high above his head, the cutting edge flashing in the moonlight.
"Wait!" Kenshin gasped, and Battousai flicked his yellow glare across to the rurouni at his shoulder, whose blue eyes quivered with fear. Fear was something Battousai had no use for, and it confused him to see it in his own face. Not fear of Jine, or even of Battousai, but fear of the moment after this one, when Jine would be dead and Kaoru would be saved and the rurouni Kenshin would cease to exist. Forever. Because there was only one way.
"You can't do this," Kenshin said, looking Battousai in the eye.
"I must do this," Battousai replied. "Kaoru will die."
"Kaoru won't die," Kenshin insisted—and once again the sword was in his hand, raised high over his head, and it was Battousai who stood at his shoulder. "I'll protect her. I won't allow Kaoru to die."
"Then you must kill him," Battousai said. "That is the only way."
Kenshin's chest rose and fell sharply with each labored breath as he stared down at Jine's cackling face practically begging him to complete his swing, stared at Kaoru's pale desperation as she tried to cry out for him, still unable to draw breath.
"To protect Kaoru-dono," Kenshin gritted out, his gaze returning to Jine's bloodied face, "I will be the hitokiri once again!"
And then Battousai's hand tightened on the hilt, his muscles tensing with the downward swing.
Kaoru's voice reached him just in time to stay his blade, and Kenshin turned to her in mid-movement, wide-eyed.
"Don't go back to being the hitokiri," she pleaded breathlessly, "and using the killer's sword…"
"Kaoru-dono!" Kenshin shouted, turning his back on Jine and Battousai and tearing across the clearing, catching her limp form in his arms just before she tumbled to the ground.
When he looked up again, Battousai was gone.
Kenshin leaned against one of the supports at the edge of the engawa, staring out across the yard with a slight smile on his face. Sano was taunting Yahiko about his crush on Tsubame, holding him at bay with a hand on the boy's head while Yahiko snarled and swung fruitlessly at the taller man's midsection. Kaoru was whacking each of them in turn with her bokken, shouting at them to quit fighting and do something useful for a change.
Kenshin laughed quietly to himself as Kaoru got in a good solid thwack to the back of Sanosuke's head, hard enough to be heard clearly all the way across the yard and make Sano stagger slightly, nearly losing his grip on Yahiko. The tremor in his abdominal muscles aggravated one of his still-healing injuries from the fight with Shishio, and Kenshin winced slightly, one hand moving protectively to his side.
"Don't you ever wonder what she sees in you?" Battousai asked from somewhere behind him.
Kenshin glanced back over his shoulder to see the dark blue sleeve of Battousai's gi and the edge of his orange fringe as he rested against the other side of the support pillar, facing the opposite direction.
"What makes you say that?" Kenshin said, his mood untarnished as he returned his gaze to Kaoru. She was now thoroughly winning the argument, beating the other two around the head and shoulders as they cringed away from her and tried to protect themselves.
"From her perspective, you're an old man," Battousai replied darkly.
"Her perspective," Kenshin smirked, "or yours?"
Battousai ignored his interruption. "Look at the three of them," he said, though Kenshin knew he was still facing the other way. "They're all like little kids, running around in circles after each other, beating each other up over schoolboy crushes and who took the last piece of fish."
"Are you asking what they see in me, or what I see in them?" Kenshin asked.
Battousai didn't answer, and Kenshin glanced back over his shoulder again just to see if he was still there. The long, vivid ponytail twisted lightly in the breeze, but Battousai still didn't turn to face him.
"I never had a childhood," Kenshin said, turning back to the others again. Then a slightly wry smile crossed his face as he amended, "You were my childhood. I like the fact that most of the time they have nothing better to fight about than schoolboy crushes and the last piece of fish. Those are things only worth fighting for when there's no bloodshed in the streets, and there's food on the table in the first place. All we did during the Bakumatsu—we were only fighting for the chance to argue over the last piece of fish."
Battousai huffed a breath at that, still skeptical. "For them, maybe. Not for you."
"Why not?" Kenshin replied.
Kenshin heard the soft shifting of fabric behind him, and he glanced back again to see Battousai staring out across the courtyard at Sano and Kaoru and Yahiko. For a moment, there was something almost like longing in his eyes.
"Because it's too late," Battousai said, and the glimmer faded into evenness once again.
Kenshin smiled back at him softly, though Battousai was still watching the others. "It's never too late."
Kenshin felt empty, hollow. There was nothing left inside or outside his body—he was just a discarded shell, withering in the space between this world and the next. The shadow of a killer who had once aspired to be a man.
Footsteps approached him, but he barely heard them, barely saw the torn and ragged edge of a white hakama as it drifted into his field of vision. He barely heard as fabric rustled, the silent visitor settling himself on the ground beside Kenshin with his back pressed against the wall.
"I told you it was too late," Battousai said quietly, and his voice sounded as hollow and weary as Kenshin felt.
Kenshin made no reply, just continued to stare unseeingly at the dusty ground in front of his huddled form, one arm wrapped around the chained sakabatou that rested against his shoulder. He was so tired. He only wanted to sleep.
"A hitokiri is a hitokiri until the day he dies," Battousai continued, but his voice passed through Kenshin's body like everything else in this nothingness. "There was only ever one way. We should have died in the forest. Tomoe should have let us die. It would have been kinder."
Kenshin's eyes fell closed. He wanted to sleep. He just wanted to sleep.
"It's the hope that causes pain," Battousai said. "If you can't see past the moment in front of you, if you think only of what has to be done, then it doesn't matter what happens next. It doesn't matter if you're alone. It doesn't matter if you live or die. Hope is for other people, not for us. It's too late for us. It was always too late."
Kenshin pressed a soft kiss to Kaoru's shoulder as he wrapped his arms a little tighter around her sleeping form, and she sighed, curling deeper into his embrace. He watched her for a long time, counting each breath as it moved in and out of her body, letting each serve as a reminder that she was alive—that he was alive. That time kept moving, and carried the two of them with it.
"Are you happy?" said a voice from somewhere in the shadows across the darkened room.
Kenshin barely moved as he looked up, and he could just make out the yellow eyes of the huddled form sitting against the wall across from them, watching them silently as they lay there together on the futon. Kenshin smiled a little, as if greeting an old friend.
"I am," he said.
Battousai continued to gaze down at Kaoru's still form, his eyes as expressionless as ever, yet somehow flickering with the same longing Kenshin had seen in them once before.
"What does it feel like?" he whispered.
Kenshin's smile spread a little wider, and he brushed his left cheek gently against the side of Kaoru's throat, eyes falling closed with the sweetness of the sensation. He opened them again just in time to see Battousai lift a hand to his own cheek, brow slightly creased.
"You already know," Kenshin replied.
Battousai looked up at him, still a little wary, still a little confused. "How do I know?"
Kenshin breathed deeply of Kaoru's scent and let his eyes fall closed again, relaxing completely against her, feeling only her and the warm silence of their contented home. The home they had made together, inside one another.
"Because it wasn't too late," he said, eyes still closed. "As long as there is life, it's never too late."
A/N: So, yeah. This turned out quite different from my original plan. At first I wanted to explore the age difference between Kenshin and the others. I've been a little obsessed with this aspect of the story lately, because the first time I read the series I was about sixteen—younger than Kaoru—and this latest time through I realized that at twenty-five, I'm now actually closer in age to Kenshin. Who, by the way, is not old… ;)
That led me to the idea of a shadow-Battousai following Kenshin around and carrying on a little Socratic dialogue with him about his lost childhood—but then that sort of turned into an exploration of the Kenshin/Battousai dichotomy, which has also fascinated me lately. (I don't buy the prevailing fanfic theory that Battousai is somehow a more passionate, less inhibited side to Kenshin's nature—in fact, I would almost say the opposite is true. But I digress…)
Ah well. I'm still happy with it. Maybe I'll tackle the age thing somewhere else.
(Oh, also, a translation note—in case anyone is curious, for lines from the series I was using a fan translation of the manga. I own all the Viz volumes, but for my purposes it was easier to look up specific bits online than to dig through all the hard copies… ;)