Brittle Edge

An outsider samurai visits, looking for a challenge. Echizen gives it to him and comes a little closer to figuring things out. Drama with Action and Blood, I-4

The room was noisy and hot.

Ryouma sat a bit back from his group, far enough that no one could easily
refill his sake cup, though that didn’t really seem to stop Horio.
He watched. Warriors of the garrison laughed loudly, some staggering
between the low tables, drunk feet catching on worn places in the floor.
Merchants of the town smiled at each other with congratulation or gloating,
hands waving over steaming cups. Matrons and servants with market baskets
for dinner rested on the benches by the door.

It was just the kind of scene he’d watched before, in another town…

"Echizen! You’re not drinking!" Horio leaned precariously far over to
elbow Ryouma in the ribs and fill his cup to the brim again.

…though never in quite these circumstances. Ryouma sighed to himself
and sipped. It seemed he didn’t have a choice, these days. Whether
it was Horio dragging him along to drink or Momoshiro to the bathhouse
or Kikumaru-taii to the theater with Ooishi-bushou, he seemed to be
firmly stuck taking part in the life of the garrison.

It was really a little strange. An improvement over watching his father
chase girls in and out of the public houses, but strange.

The door curtains flapped, catching Ryouma’s eye, and a samurai he’d
never seen before stepped through them. Ryouma tipped his head; a new
warrior?

The man prodded one of the drunk samurai by the door with his toe. "Hey.
There’s supposed to be some strong warriors around here. Who’s the
strongest?" His flat tone made the back of Ryouma’s neck prickle.

The nudged samurai, on the other hand, looked too far gone to notice,
and smiled cheerily. "Oh, that would be Tezuka Kunimitsu-sama, our
Taishou."

The sudden light in the man’s eyes pulled Ryouma forward onto his knees, tense.
"Where is he?" the visitor asked.

Arai pushed up from the next table. "Wait a minute. Why do you want to
know?" He squinted at the man in the doorway. "You a ronin or something?
Taishou doesn’t take challenges from the likes of you."

Steel flashed and blood sprayed across the table of suddenly shouting
samurai. Arai was on the ground without even a scream. The man’s expression
didn’t change at all. "The likes of you don’t tell me what to
do."
He raised his head and looked around at the samurai with swords out
and the commoners scrambling back. The man’s eye fell at last on Kachiro,
fresh sake bottles held loose in his
hands as he stared down at Arai bleeding out nearly at his feet.
"You. Where’s this Taishou of yours?"

Kachiro paled and Ryouma’s eyes narrowed. "He isn’t here," he
said, clearly, standing.
"Other people are, though."

The intruder looked down at him and smiled, thin and crooked. "Oh?" His
arm lashed forward again.

Ryouma turned the first cut on his sheath and the man swayed back out
of range as Ryouma’s own sword licked out. "Yeah."

The man laughed and swung down heavily. Ryouma darted in under it
only to take a kick to the stomach from an impossible angle. The intruder’s
hilt cracked into the side of his face so hard Ryouma saw fireworks
behind his eyes as he stumbled back into a table. He wrenched himself
back up, bracing for the next blow, knowing it would get through.

Only it never came.

Kawamura-taii stood frozen in the door, hangings half pushed aside as
he and the intruder stared at each other. "Akutsu…" he said at last,
hesitantly.

The intruder snorted and sheathed his sword with a violent snick.
"I’ll come back later for your answer." He brushed past Kawamura-taii,
striding out into the late summer dusk. The captain looked after
him with a troubled frown for a long moment before shaking himself
and calling sharply for people to carry Arai up to the castle doctor.

Ryouma pushed himself onto his feet, holding back a wince. A strong hand
caught his shoulder, steadying him.

"Are you all right, Echizen?" Kawamura-taii asked quietly.

Ryouma’s eyes followed Arai’s bloody body out the door. He wasn’t at
all sure the doctor would be able to do anything. "I’m fine," he bit
out.

Or, at least, he would be.

He looked up to meet Kawamura-taii’s concerned eyes. "I need to talk
to Taishou."


"… so you knew him."

"For years, yes. My mother still talked to his, after she married
a… well. But listen, Ooishi, Akutsu is dangerous."

"Well, obviously, if he took Ochibi down like that," Kikumaru-taii
chipped in. "But why is he here? You’d think a ronin making trouble
would know better."

"Well, there was a rumor that Ise-no-kami, took him on." Kawamura-taii’s
hands twisted the cloth of his sleeve. "And he has a reputation
for sending his warriors on training journeys whether they want to
go or not."

"Hmmm."

Ryouma knelt on the mats, ignoring the conversation of the officers as
it swirled around him, staring intently at the General, who was staring
at one of the lanterns with a distant expression.

"Well, somebody’s going to have to meet him, one way or another."

Ryouma caught the firming of the General’s mouth and the faint, sharp
nod of decision, and leaned forward. "Taishou." He wasn’t
sure himself whether it was a plea or a demand, in his voice.

Tezuka-dono met his eyes evenly. "Echizen will meet him."

Ryouma settled back, breathing out a sigh of relief. He didn’t know what
he would have done if he’d had to sit on his anger.

It was so much worse when it wasn’t just for himself.


They met in the training yard.

"The kid again, hm?" Akutsu looked down at Ryouma with cold eyes.

Ryouma shrugged. "We didn’t finish, last time."

This time he was watching properly, and this time he was ready for the
attack that came out of nowhere. Three exchanges—five, and he thought
he might have Akutsu’s rhythm—and then he was knocked back, a slice
burning across his shoulder from a stroke with no rhythm or reason.
The harsh crack of Akutsu’s laughter taunted him as he straightened,
eyes narrowed.

There was something strange about this, about the way Akutsu was always
looking through him and not at him. Something that let the man attack
without reason.

The thought echoed back to him in the General’s voice. Without reason…

Ryouma shook his head. He didn’t have time to think about it now. He
focused and drove himself to move faster, seeing nothing but the wild
flex and bend of Akutsu’s form. This time it was Akutsu who fell back
with blood welling up to trickle down his side. Akutsu pressed his
hand to the slash and glanced down at blood streaking his fingers.

Abruptly those flat, cold eyes focused on Ryouma and turned bright. Ryouma’s
breath caught and the sudden fierceness of Akutsu’s grin drew him
back in like he was pulled on a string, faster still, muscles burning
with the new pace.

One flashing, brutal strike followed another, staggering both of them
back with bared teeth only to dive in again. Around and around each
other, looking for a way to cut and thinking nothing else. The watching
warriors were shouting and Ryouma couldn’t hear them over the driving
beat of his own heart, faster and faster.

In the end Ryouma’s speed
finished it, as he’d been almost sure
it would, and Akutsu’s sword crashed to the dirt behind him. Both of
them stood frozen for a long moment before Ryouma nodded and stepped
back.

"You lose."

A few chokes around the edges of the yard answered Ryouma’s bluntness.
Akutsu’s hand flashed out to fist in the fabric at Ryouma’s neck and
drag him close with a snarl.

Ryouma ignored the shouts behind him, and balanced on his toes in Akutsu’s
grasp, waiting. His opponent’s eyes were still bright and intent on
him.

Just as abruptly as he’d done everything else, Akutsu let him go and
threw back his head, laughing. Ryouma watched him with raised brows
as he collected his sword and walked away, still chuckling. Momoshiro
appeared at his side, glaring after Akutsu.

"That guy’s crazy."

"Mmm." Ryouma frowned a little. He didn’t really think Akutsu
was crazy… He didn’t have much time to reflect, though,
before he was buried in congratulations from the rest of the garrison.
Ryouma bore with it as patiently as he could, but when he caught sight
of Kawamura-taii moving off quietly in the same direction Akutsu had
gone, he muttered something about getting cleaned up and escaped.

It wasn’t that he was worrying, he decided as he cut behind houses to
catch up. Kawamura-taii was an officer, he could look after himself
just fine. Ryouma was just… just curious.

Which was why he leaned against the wall around the corner and out of
sight, when he finally caught up with the two men.

"Akutsu…" Kawamura-taii said, hesitantly.

"Captain for Uesugi, hm?" The well-bucket rattled and splashed
downward. "Place
suits you."

"I heard Taira Banda-dono took you on."

A snort. "Old bastard." More splashes and a sound Ryouma readily identified
as the stifled hiss of pain from washing a wound. "Don’t know if
I’ll be going back."

"But," Kawamura-taii protested. "Ronin… Akutsu, that isn’t…"

"Kawamura," Akutsu interrupted. "I’m satisfied."

There was a long pause Ryouma had no idea how to interpret and then a
soft "Oh," from Kawamura-taii. It sounded like he might be smiling,
though, when he added. "Good luck."

Another snort. "Whatever. Don’t get killed."

"I won’t." Definitely smiling.

A new voice, bizarrely bright and cheery called out, "Akutsu-sama! Are
you done already?"

Ryouma blinked and risked a quick look around the corner. A boy who looked
even younger than him was standing next to Akutsu, arms full of gear,
beaming up at him.

Akutsu glared and growled. "Yeah, I’m done. Thought I told you to stay
with the damn horses."

The fierce tone didn’t even make a dent in the boy’s smile. He didn’t
answer the growl either, just bowed to Kawamura-taii. "I’m Dan Taichi,
sir." Then he ignored Kawamura-taii, too, to fuss over the slash in
Akutsu’s side.

Akutsu snorted and smacked his hands away. "I’m fine, Taichi."

Dan sighed, looking ever so slightly exasperated. "Yes, Akutsu-sama."
He cocked his head and looked up—way up—at Akutsu. "So, if you’re
satisfied, are we going home?" he asked, matter-of-factly.

Ryouma was fascinated—it was
like watching a rabbit boss around a wolf.

When a fresh glare didn’t work Akutsu turned
to shrug his coat back over his shoulders. "Yes," he bit
out. Then he glared at Kawamura-taii instead, who quickly stifled the
smile twitching at his lips and looked back without saying anything.
Akutsu snorted, with a bit less emphasis this time, and waved a casual
hand as he turned and walked away. Dan took a more formal leave and
trotted to catch up.

Ryouma took a look at Kawamura-taii standing, smiling after them, and
quietly took himself off.

As he made for the baths, and hot water to keep him from stiffening up
too badly, Ryouma tried to get his mind settled. He felt oddly divided,
which was not how he usually felt after a hard fight. This time, though,
the passing calm of accomplishment was already ragged.

Unsatisfied.

His sword had satisfied someone. But that someone… wasn’t him. He turned
the thought over, poking and prodding at it. It had been a good fight.
And that seemed to be enough for Akutsu, enough to rest against. Obviously,
Ryouma needed more than just a good fight.

A reason… the General’s voice murmured in his head.

Ryouma walked on, frowning.

 

End