A light mist silently worked its way through the forest surrounding Kanna village as Kyuzo settled against a tree to catch a few moments of rest. He felt a whisper of irritation at the fact he needed to do such a thing but knew through experience he could not ignore the ache he felt from the wound in his arm forever.
Finding a comfortable spot, Kyuzo glanced up, watching through the occasional breaks in the mists the stars that were visible through the branches above him. He felt his thoughts drift in a way they never had before, not really settling on anything particular as he continued to stare at the sky.
He was beginning to question why he was here. There had been no reason for him to be involved, he could have easily stayed in the background instead of being where he was now, teaching farmers the art of the bow.
And there was certainly no reason for him to begin to connect with these people and feel a small bit of pride at the farmer's improvement under his tutelage when all he truly wished for was to test his strength against that of the former General, Shimada Kambei, one on one.
It was something he could not afford to do. Emotional connections only slowed one's responses, forced one to split one's attention in battle, which only made one vulnerable to mistakes in judgment.
However, he had agreed to honor the older samurai's request to stay his hand, at least until this little quest of Kambei's was over. And he supposed that put him under Kambei's command for now.
But thinking of Shimada Kambei only disturbed his drifting thoughts, sending them into unfamiliar territories.
I'm in love…
The words echoed through Kyuzo's mind, stirring emotions that he found himself unwilling to indulge. Kyuzo knew the words had simply been spoken by Kambei during their first encounter to disrupt his concentration, nothing more. And yet he had failed to dismiss the words from his thoughts, finding them whispering across his mind whenever he was in the elder samurai's presence.
And disturbing him even more when Kambei was nowhere in sight.
A presence moving up the trail suddenly focused his thoughts, erasing any inner confusion as he reached for his swords and listened carefully to the approaching footfalls. It was swiftly apparent the person knew where he was and did not want to startle him while still managing to move almost silently through the trees.
Clearly one of the other samurai.
"How's the arm?"
Kyuzo glanced over at the sound of Shichiroji's voice and inwardly frowned; he had no intention of revealing the truth to Shichiroji- Kambei's right- hand man.
"It is fine." he answered, closing his eyes, dismissing the question and the man before him as he leaned back against the tree.
"Ah, that's good. I was hoping you would say that."
Kyuzo opened his eyes slightly at Shichiroji's words. He found the man glancing over to an open field just visible through the wandering mists before looking at him with a smile. "I'm finding I'm a bit rusty and was hoping you might indulge me in a friendly little sparring match." Shichiroji said.
"Me?" Kyuzo had to ask.
Shichiroji shrugged nonchalantly. "You seem free at the moment, Kyuzo-dono."
Kyuzo studied the blond samurai for a moment, trying to decide if there was something more to the request. But Shichiroji gave nothing away and Kyuzo found himself rising to his feet.
A friendly match would give him an opportunity to test out the extent of damage his arm had taken.
Shichiroji grinned, "Great!"
Stepping into the open field, where the mists were thinner and the almost full moon providing more than enough light to fight by, Kyuzo studied his opponent as Shichiroji moved to the opposite side of the field. He found his thoughts drifting once again as he remembered the way Kambei had introduced the man before him. He had referred to Shichiroji as his 'old wife', a title he had often heard used to identify an old comrade from the war. Kyuzo had noticed the unconscious trust Kambei placed in the man before him and the unquestioning support Shichiroji gave in return; and for just a moment Kyuzo felt a stab of jealousy as he watched Shichiroji turn to face him. Kyuzo ruthlessly buried the emotion as a soft sliding click broke the silence around them as Shichiroji extended his spear to its full length, revealing its three pronged blade, before settling into a waiting stance.
They moved at the same time, both accepting the potentially deadly consequences of what they were doing as metal clashed against metal. Kyuzo quickly discovered Shichiroji's reason for challenging him when the blond samurai began testing the strength of his damaged arm. Kyuzo easily held off the attacks and began testing Shichiroji's own defense, but found that his opponent neither pushed an attack nor yielded, he simply remained balanced between his choices.
Finding himself unexpectedly frustrated by that realization- that Shichiroji was satisfied with holding him in a stalemate with no intention of going on the offensive- Kyuzo quickly reviewed his options. Though he did not show the finesse Kambei had, Shichiroji knew how to use to his advantage the distance his spear gave him and it was clear the only way to gain the upper hand in this little altercation was to get inside the reach of the blades and do something unexpected. He was also aware Shichiroji had no intention of seriously harming him, having already accepted him as a comrade; it was knowledge he could use to his advantage.
Acting on his thoughts, Kyuzo sheathed one sword and slipped under the backslash of Shichiroji's countermove. Never breaking Shichiroji's gaze as the man attempted to shift his grip on his spear, flipping it over to bring the blunt end into play, Kyuzo took one step past Shichiroji, grabbing him as he did so, before taking the tactic Kambei had used against him in their duel one step further by kissing the slightly off-balanced samurai firmly on the lips.
And immediately knew he had miscalculated when Shichiroji responded enthusiastically to the kiss.
Startled, Kyuzo jumped back into a defensive stance, his heart beating rapidly and his thoughts suddenly confused by the unexpected result of his actions. He had expected surprise, shock, possibly even anger from Kambei's 'old wife' at that move- all of the feelings that had flashed through him when Kambei had uttered 'I'm in love' during their duel. He certainly had not expected the reaction that he got or the spark of understanding in Shichiroji's blue eyes when he once again met the man's gaze.
"Ah, Kambei-sama used that tactic on you, did he Kyuzo- dono." Shichiroji said evenly, apparently unaffected by the kiss. Staring at the man, Kyuzo realized his mistake had come from believing the term 'old wife' had simply been used by Kambei to identify a comrade; he had not taken the term literally but it was clear now that perhaps he should have. And he recognized the reason he had not was simply because it meant Kambei may have been speaking the truth during their duel; and he was not ready to accept that.
Kyuzo felt his thoughts slip once again into the unfamiliar turmoil he had been experiencing ever since that event.
Could he actually have feelings for the man he was determined to face in a duel to the death?
A look of quiet humor passed over Shichiroji's face as he set the end of his spear against the ground and leaned casually against its support. "You must have made quite a first impression. I see Kambei-sama certainly had one on you."
Sensing there was no point in continuing this fight; Kyuzo sheathed his remaining sword and forced his thoughts back under control as he gazed at the man before him. Not ready to follow his thoughts regarding what exactly Shichiroji's relationship with Kambei was, he found himself thinking back to several conversations he had overheard Shichiroji having with the Mikumari during the track to the village. Kyuzo suddenly found himself asking, "You do not seem concerned with my wish to kill him."
"No, not really." Shichiroji answered with a shrug. "I believe I know the reason why he accepted your challenge and see no need to talk either one of you out of it." Shichiroji smiled slightly then said unexpectedly. "There's a lot of the old man in you, Kyuzo-dono. What war did you happen to lose?"
Before he could answer, he sensed another presence approaching their location. As he was reaching for his swords though, he heard a soft chuckle from Shichiroji.
"It's just Kambei-sama. Probably drawn to the noise we were making."
"Yes I was." the white clad samurai answered as he stepped out from under the dark shadows of the trees surrounding them. Coming to a stop a few feet away, Kambei crossed his arms and gave Shichiroji a curious look. "And may I ask why you two are making so much noise at the moment?"
Shichiroji shrugged again, the amused look firmly in place. "Just blowing off some steam."
"Is that so." Kambei answered thoughtfully. Kyuzo found himself momentarily under Kambei's searching gaze and decided to do the same to Kambei.
He met Kambei's gaze, actually looking deep into the ash brown eyes for the first time since the duel; and suddenly his memories spun back to the end of their duel. He remembered the brief caress when Kambei had let him go and turned his back on him. The older samurai had trusted him not to attack, had trusted him with his life and had walked away simply because he had expected Kyuzo to react honorably as a samurai would.
It had been a long time since anyone had accepted him in such a way.
Staring into Kambei's eyes Kyuzo found that acceptance and more, emotions Kyuzo could not remember anyone directing towards him before, and felt a band of pressure squeeze tight around his heart when he found himself unable to look away.
Kyuzo was relieved when the older man finally turned to face Shichiroji, who had been watching them both with a grin on his face. Kambei raised his eyes to the sky for a moment in what appeared to be mock annoyance, even as a slight smile curled the corners of his lips as he looked at his 'old wife' and said, "It would be better if you both could postpone this until morning."
"Sure thing." Shichiroji replied as Kambei shook his head and turned, heading back to the village. Kyuzo watched Kambei slowly fade into the deeper night shadows under the trees as Shichiroji stepped to his side.
"What reason?" Kyuzo asked abruptly before he could change his mind.
"The same reason you joined him on this little lesson in futility." Shichiroji answered softly. Kyuzo looked at the man beside him as he felt a slight frown pass over his face.
I wanted to try living.
He knew Shichiroji had heard him admit that- how could that be Kambei's reason for accepting his challenge?
"That makes no sense." he finally said. "Kambei-sama has already admitted he cannot win against me."
Shichiroji faced him, his expression shifting like quicksilver from the lighthearted man of a moment ago to the battle hardened veteran Kyuzo knew him to be. "Doesn't it?" Shichiroji asked, his blue eyes focused and intense. "You were searching for a reason to exist beyond that of a lowly bodyguard to a merchant, correct? Something that gave meaning, something that had an honor that lasted beyond the elimination of the next threat." Shichiroji turned, staring at the path Kambei had taken as he added, "And it is the same with him. Even if we win here we lose. This is not our battle and once it's done we will no longer be needed and will be casually tossed aside." Shichiroji shrugged. "This is a temporary thing, this usefulness."
"And once it is over what remains? This duel the two of you are determined to fight has awaked you both, has given you both a reason to exist beyond that of simply being." A smile tugged at Shichiroji's lips. "It makes you both fight in the now with a purpose that neither of you have probably had in a long time so that, after this little war is done, you can face one another on the battlefield with honor, as true samurai, not just as the memory of the samurai you once were."
"And unlike any other battle Kambei-sama has fought, he knows what the outcome will be fighting you, and that brings him a certain peace."
Kyuzo was uncertain what to make of the slightly sad, wistful smile now on the other man's face as Shichiroji looked at him and said softly, "And that is something I cannot give him." Settling the spear on his shoulder, Shichiroji nodded once in his direction as he started down Kambei's path back to the village. "Good night, Kyuzo-dono."
Before Shichiroji disappeared, Kyuzo asked softly, "And will killing Kambei bring me peace?"
Shichiroji paused briefly to look back. "That is entirely up to you." Shichiroji turned and continued on, waving one hand briefly in farewell.
Kyuzo watched Shichiroji fade into the shadows and the mists but did not truly see it happen as his thoughts turned inward once again; and this time Kyuzo did not resist the path his thoughts took.
Looking closely he realized he wanted what had been offered to him, not just the chance to duel Kambei but the chance to experience friendship, to be a comrade and not just a tool to be used by another. But if he was truly honest with himself, what he wanted even more than that was what Kambei and Shichiroji seemed to have. He knew that could never happen though, he had been taught too well and would never allow himself to become that dependent on another. And it would be dangerous to become attached to Kambei when they were destined to face one another.
Still, he wondered about Shichiroji's answer. Would killing Kambei bring him peace from this confusion or simply add to it? Kyuzo looked up to the stars overhead as Shichiroji's answer wandered through his mind until it settled on the memory of Kambei's touch.
I wanted to try living.
Kyuzo slowly breathed out, releasing his tension with the simple action. Shichiroji was right, it was up to him. He could live now and accept what Kambei had to offer him, or he could regret it for the rest of his life. All that held him back now was himself and that was the one thing in life he had complete control over.
Deciding he had wasted enough time struggling with himself, Kyuzo made his way back to the village, and felt his thoughts finally settle back to their normal place, proving to himself that he had made an acceptable decision. It simply remained to be seen how far he would be able to follow this path he had chosen.
And only time would tell whether it had been the right choice or not.