In an attempt at distracting himself from just having been essentially banished from his home of nearly a decade, and in light of the fact that the knights didn’t follow them out of the town, Sano turned his entire attention on Yahiko as they walked up the mountain road. The boy, however, seemed disinclined for conversation and wouldn’t answer any of Sano’s questions. So Sano was even more frustrated than before by the time they reached his master’s home.
Seijuurou waited in the second room beside the bed, drinking, and looked over immediately when Sano entered with Yahiko in tow. His eyes fell from Sano’s unhappy face to Yahiko’s, and his brows rose. “Oh, was this all you could save?” he asked.
“Yeah, very funny,” Sano growled, closing the door behind them. “This is Yahiko; he helped me fight off some guards or knights or something that trashed my house and were threatening to do more if somebody didn’t tell them where me and that knight were.”
“Well, you need to get ‘that knight’ out of here,” Seijuurou said, gesturing with his bottle before raising it to his lips again. “He’s no good in my bed in his current state,” he added before taking another drink.
“Yeah, sure,” said Sano vaguely. “First, though, Yahiko keeps avoiding my questions.” He turned toward the boy, sank into a crouch, and put his hands on Yahiko’s shoulders. “Yahiko, seriously, how in Tomoe’s name can you fight like that?”
Yahiko avoided his gaze, staring instead at the door through which they’d just come. “I told you I learned from my dad,” he mumbled.
“Not that you didn’t,” insisted Sano. “Not at your age. I never saw anyone fight like that. I bet you could even beat Seijuurou here.”
At this Seijuurou looked quickly over, his true attention finally procured. “What was that?”
Sano rolled his eyes, though this was about what he’d expected. “Yeah, now you’re interested. You shoulda seen him.” He stood, addressing his next few earnest statements to Seijuurou, who’d gotten to his feet, set down his bottle, and come into the front room. “It was fucking amazing. He beat something like ten guys in maybe five seconds. I swear I’m not exaggerating.”
Seijuurou looked down at Yahiko for a long moment, and finally said simply, “Well?” And while Yahiko might have resisted Sano’s questioning, it took some serious backbone to stand before the mountainous bulk of keonmaster Seijuurou and be anything but totally honest.
“…Kaoru…” Yahiko said almost inaudibly.
“Speak up,” Seijuurou urged. “What about Kaoru?” His tone indicated unequivocally that the kid had better not be swearing randomly.
Finally Yahiko’s face rose, and he met Seijuurou’s eyes with that suddenly defiant manner Sano had seen him display once or twice before. “I prayed for power to fight and I got it,” he said clearly.
Violently Sano started. “I thought you said you’re a heretic!” he burst out before Seijuurou could say anything.
Yahiko glanced at him sidelong. “I lied.”
“And I think you’re still lying,” said Seijuurou, crossing his arms and continuing to look down critically from his great height on Yahiko. “Or at least not telling the whole truth.”
“The divine ladies talk to me,” Yahiko replied, a little wearily.
“The divine ladies talk to anyone who’ll listen, child,” was Seijuurou’s impatient reply.
His defiance returning, Yahiko elaborated, “I mean they all talk to me. I can pray to any of them and get whatever blessings I need, as much as I need.”
“That’s quite a claim.”
Sano snorted. “No shit.” And he stalked into the other room.
After the day he’d had, this latest revelation was more of a blow than it might otherwise have been, but in no case would he have liked it. He’d felt so sympathetic toward Yahiko; he’d compared him to his dead brother, for Yumi’s sake! And now to discover Yahiko was the exact opposite of what he had claimed to be… of what Sano was… Well, no wonder he hadn’t stuck around last week.
Seijuurou’s admonishing voice spoke to him from the doorway between the two rooms: “Don’t be petty. Didn’t he help you?”
“Whatever,” Sano growled.
A long period of quiet followed, and Sano got the feeling both Seijuurou and Yahiko were looking at him, waiting for him to turn and face them. He didn’t feel like it, though; instead, he let his eyes fall to the unconscious knight on the bed. The man’s form remained perfectly still but for the very slight movement of his chest occasioned by his shallow breathing, and his face bore an expression of pain.
Sano stared down at him while the silence mounted, thinking vaguely about Eloma and how he could never go back there. Finally, these disheartening thoughts becoming just a little too much for him, he forced himself to say something aloud to change the subject. “So what do we do with His Knightliness here?” It came out sounding almost angry, which was really no surprise.
“Hajime,” Seijuurou informed him, coming to stand beside the bed again and look down. “Apparently he’s the leader of Kenshin’s knights.”
“Right, whatever,” Sano grunted. “What do we do with him?”
“‘We?'” Seijuurou raised a brow. “He’s your problem. But I plan on sleeping in this bed tonight.”
“Well, what am I supposed to do with him?” demanded Sano impatiently.
“I’ve never heard of someone waking up from a warrior’s coma,” Seijuurou remarked, rubbing at his chin contemplatively with one hand. “Though nobody in a warrior’s coma prior to this has ever had me around…”
“Yeah, maybe he just needs your cock,” Sano muttered, rolling his eyes.
Seijuurou smirked faintly. “Maybe he does.”
Again they fell silent, staring down, Sano considering the situation morosely while Seijuurou resumed drinking. However unpleasant it was to be banished, Sano was reflecting, it beat having your life slowly ebb away in a state somewhere between waking and death that yet was not sleep.
“Is he really just gonna die?” he finally asked quietly.
“If he can’t wake up, he’ll starve to death, or worse,” was the grim reply. “You might as well get a pyre ready. Unconsciousness seems to be an unusually stable way for you to connect your energy with his, so, if you want, I can knock you out again and you can find out if he has any last words.”
“Well, there’s gotta be something we can do… we can’t just stand around waiting for him to die…” It seemed such a sorry way to go. Sano didn’t much like what he’d seen of the knight so far, but the man surely deserved better than that.
“You could just burn him now,” Seijuurou suggested with dry facetiousness. “That would be faster.”
“It’s not funny!” said Sano hotly. “He came all the way out here to find you, and now you can’t do anything for him?”
Seijuurou shook his head. “I can’t. It’s unfortunate, but every great once in a while even I encounter something that can’t be defeated. While you were gone I tried everything I could think of to wake him up, and nothing worked. It would probably be kindest to end it quickly for him.” He lifted the bottle to his mouth again as he added, “But not in my bed.”
“I can’t accept that!” Sano insisted. Because he would be damned if he couldn’t get something to go his way today.
“You’ll have to,” Seijuurou said once he’d lowered his angiruou. “Stubbornness won’t wake him up. It was his choice to push himself beyond what his body could handle out of loyalty to that foolish king of his; now he’s paying for it.”
“But–” Sano began. He stopped abruptly, however, when Yahiko moved forward.
The kid’s voice was hesitant as he said, “Hey…” but it was enough to seize Seijuurou’s attention as well. He looked up at them nervously, then took another step between them, toward the bed.
Wordlessly and with mirrored expressions of surprise, the two men stood back a pace as Yahiko moved forward and reached out to place an uncertain hand on the knight’s bare chest. The boy did not look at them again, so he didn’t see Sano’s disparaging skepticism or Seijuurou’s interested curiosity; instead, he closed his eyes and bowed his head slightly.
“Megumi, lady of life,” he said, so quietly it was almost a whisper, “please use my hand to heal this man and wake him up.” Then he went silent and motionless.
Hajime opened his eyes. His face smoothed out somewhat from its previous expression of pain, but only for a moment; then his brows drew together again in confusion. He lifted a hand to touch his side where the injury had been, then ran one arm slowly over the other, along smooth skin that had mere seconds before been covered in small cuts. Finally he sat up.
Yahiko had by this time stepped back a few paces, putting himself behind Sano and Seijuurou, and would not meet Sano’s eye. Seijuurou, on the other hand, had drawn a step closer and was again fingering his chin thoughtfully, this time with a slight smile. “Well, well, well…”
Hajime looked at each of them in turn, then spoke. “How…” But he faltered in amazement after that single word.
Sano gestured. “Yahiko here healed you with his magic powers.”
Slowly Hajime swung his legs over the edge of the bed, taking a deep breath, and looked where Sano indicated.
“It’s not magic!” Yahiko was protesting. “I told you–”
“Right,” interrupted Sano a little bitterly. “Just like you beating a whole group of knights almost by yourself wasn’t magic either. The divine ladies all talk to you and give you whatever the fuck you want.”
Appearing hurt and agitated, Yahiko turned abruptly and went into the other room. Hajime watched him go, then gave his attention again to his own chest and side. He began untying the frayed strips of cloth that had served him up until now as bandages. Sano watched in silent wonder, noting not even a trace of blood on these.
Finally Hajime glanced up once more, this time at Sano. “You did this?” he asked.
“Yeah. You kinda collapsed in the forest, and I didn’t have anything else.” More quietly and mostly to himself Sano added, “That reminds me I left my backpack buried out there somewhere…”
Hajime finished removing the bandages and bunched them in his hand, staring down at them with a slight frown. To Sano it was understandable that, having gone from the edge of death to what seemed like perfect health in a moment, the knight would be somewhat disoriented.
Seijuurou did not seem nearly so understanding. “So, are you staying in my bed all night?”
Sano gave his master a look part skeptical and part angry. “Fucking Yumi, man, he’s been awake all of half a minute! He probably can’t even get up yet.”
But all Hajime said was, “No,” possibly contradicting both of them, as he then got up. He moved slowly at first, perhaps uncertain of his balance, but soon was walking purposefully out of the room.
“Thank you for healing me,” Sano heard him say to Yahiko.
During the silence that followed, Sano too made his way into the next room, where he saw Yahiko touching the front door as if he was, or had been, about to leave. Even as Sano appeared, though, the kid dropped his hand and turned to face Hajime. “You’re welcome,” he said quietly, with a faint smile.
A little stung, Sano demanded of the knight, “What, I don’t get a ‘thank you’ for bandaging you up and dragging your ass all over the place?”
Hajime turned toward him, but, though his yellow eyes flashed analytically over Sano from head to toe, he said nothing in response. Instead, he looked past Sano to where Seijuurou stood in the doorway between the two rooms. “And now, master Seijuurou,” he began somewhat acridly, “if you don’t mind having me in your house a little longer–”
“You misunderstood my question if you thought I minded,” interrupted Seijuurou easily.
Sano rolled his eyes.
“–I need to make plans for getting back to Elotica,” Hajime finished. And, after a quick glance around the room, he moved toward the table and pulled out a chair.
Sano mimicked him, seating himself near the knight and studying him with interest. Despite having been healed, Hajime still looked exhausted; Sano supposed the whole coma thing hadn’t been anything like a proper rest, which essentially meant Hajime hadn’t slept in, what? four days?
“So you’re just gonna head back right away?” he asked.
Hajime shook his head. “Not into Elotica immediately, no. I can’t just walk back into the capital; I’m too well known there.”
“At the palace and shit, sure,” Sano allowed, “but would normal people on the street recognize you?”
Drumming his fingers briefly on the tabletop, Hajime gave a sigh of annoyance. “Probably, since the king’s tournament a few months ago.”
“Tournament…” Seijuurou snorted in quiet contempt.
“Oh, I remember hearing about that,” Sano said in great interest. “I thought about going over there and joining, even, but…” Well, the truth was that he’d daydreamed of entering with a keonblade, but had known perfectly well he wasn’t up to the task. “I didn’t feel like walking that far,” he finished somewhat weakly.
“You?” Both of Hajime’s brows rose in obvious doubt.
“Hey, I’da done great!” Sano said hotly, in spite of what he’d just been recalling about the situation.
“Yes, I’m sure,” said Hajime flatly, and moved on before Sano could protest further. “Anyway, I’ll need to find out exactly how things stand before I know what to do next.”
Distracted from his annoyance, Sano wondered, “What’s to find out?”
“Soujirou is a follower, not a leader. He has provided good service to the king in the past, and is an excellent swordsman, but I don’t think this is the kind of thing he could or would do on his own. Someone is standing behind him giving orders, or at least suggestions, and that’s going to be my real enemy.”
“Any ideas who it is?”
“Several. Which is what I need to investigate.”
By this time Sano had made up his mind, and now stated it decisively. “Well, I’ll come with you.”
Hajime’s brows shot up again, this time more honestly disbelieving than derisive.
“No need to look like that about it, asshole.” Sano scowled at him. “I didn’t fight in your stupid tournament, so nobody knows me in the capital. I can get information a lot easier than you can.” Besides, it wasn’t as if he had anywhere else to go, now…
Again Hajime’s tone went entirely flat as he declared, “I am not taking you anywhere.”
“He might as well go with you,” Seijuurou put in unexpectedly. “I’m certainly not.”
Turning quickly toward him, Hajime asked, “Why not?”
Disinterestedly Seijuurou explained. “For Kenshin to run off and deliberately ignore my advice is his own business, but he cannot expect me to come to his rescue every time what I told him not to do gets him into trouble.”
“And what was it you told him not to do?”
“Rule the country, of course. He isn’t right for it. He’s too soft, too easily influenced by the appearance of suffering — but at the same time has an unfortunate tendency to believe that every idea in his head is his own and absolutely right. It’s a bad combination for a king.”
Thin lips pursed, Hajime looked at the table, appearing very displeased but evidently unable to argue. The question of who Seijuurou believed should rule Akomera went unasked, probably because of the knight’s discomfort.
“I see you’re aware of his flaws,” said Seijuurou with a sharp nod. He leaned against the doorframe again and crossed his arms. “Well, do what you like to put him back on the throne; that’s your job, after all. But I see no reason to rush to his assistance.”
“You would disobey a direct order from the king, then?” Hajime seemed somewhat irritated, but simultaneously closer to resigned than Sano would have expected.
“My authority over him predates his over me,” Seijuurou shrugged. “Besides, he hasn’t ordered me to do anything. All he did was tell you to find me.”
“I’ll help you,” Sano put in emphatically. “That Soujirou guy has it coming for what his men did in Eloma!”
Hajime looked at him, this time with less scorn and more straightforward appraisal. “What did they do?”
“They were pushing people around and threatening to destroy shit if they didn’t tell where I was — since they knew I’d hidden you somewhere — and now I’m kinda… kicked out… because of it…” The weighty awareness of that fact, which he’d successfully pushed from his mind in the light of other interesting topics, came abruptly and heavily back down onto him, and he found himself frowning more deeply than before.
“Predictable…” Seijuurou murmured.
“Anyway…” Sano struggled to pull himself together and finish what he had to say. “Yahiko and I had to fight ’em off.” He gestured again to the kid, who had at some point during this discussion drifted over to the corner formed by the fireplace and wall, seated himself in silence, and commenced listening.
Hajime glanced dubiously from Sano to Yahiko and back, and asked, “And how much good do you think you’ll do me — a boy in training who can’t even meditate and needs help from a kid to defend his hometown?”
“Who gives a fuck about meditation?” Slamming a fist down on the table, Sano insisted, “I can fight well enough! I woulda done fine without Yahiko even!”
“You would not,” said Yahiko quietly.
Sano jumped up, knocking the chair over in his haste, and drew his sword. The blade flashed out, translucent, bright, and long, as he glared at the knight across from him.
“You know what will happen if you damage my furniture,” was Seijuurou’s warning murmur from across the room.
But Hajime rolled his eyes. “Put that away; you’re not proving anything.” And as if to show just how little he cared for Sano’s wordless challenge, he stood, turning away from him, and moved toward Yahiko. “But you…”
The kid looked up at him wordlessly.
“I’m curious about this power of yours,” Hajime went on. “What exactly can you do?”
A little uncomfortably, Yahiko answered, “I dunno… whatever… I ask the ladies for whatever I need…”
“Show me,” commanded Hajime.
Yahiko appeared even more uncomfortable at this, and nestled back farther into his corner. “It… doesn’t really work that way,” he said. “I can’t do it just to show off.”
“I see,” said Hajime thoughtfully.
Sano broke in, impatient and somewhat irritated that his drawn weapon had been so coolly ignored. “He already healed you from some coma you weren’t supposed to wake up from. Isn’t that enough?”
Yahiko turned toward him an expression half defiant and half surprised. “You say that like you believe me or something.” He sounded faintly surly.
“Well, you obviously have some kind of power,” Sano allowed. “I never saw anybody kick ass like you did; no way can I not believe in that.”
Hajime nodded decisively. “Which is why he’s coming with me.”
“What??” This surprised outcry came from Sano and Yahiko both.
“I’m sure there’s at least one divine house involved in this,” Hajime explained, returning wearily to his chair. “Soujirou has been close to several of the high-level devoted for years. And if I know anything about the people of this kingdom, and Elotica in particular, neither side of this struggle will get much support from the population until somebody has told them what to think. Which means, sooner or later, whoever’s behind the usurpation will have to make some kind of ‘divine’ display affirming Soujirou’s claim to the throne in order to buy the loyalty of the flock.” He glanced at Yahiko again. “Having my own source of miracles will even the playing field somewhat.”
“I just told you it doesn’t work like that!” Yahiko protested. “I’m not a circus act!”
Hajime’s eyes were very serious as they narrowed slightly at the kid. “There’s a real need for your power here,” he said slowly. “Are you going to run away from that?”
Yahiko frowned, and didn’t seem to know what to say.
“He’s right, you know, boy.” It was the first time Seijuurou had spoken for a while, and his tone was as somber as Hajime’s. “You may have been brought here just now for a purpose.”
“Purpose…” Sano put in under his breath. “Not your cock, I hope…”
Hajime threw him a somewhat confused sidelong glance, but said nothing.
“I’ll… think about it…” Yahiko finally answered, staring down at his crossed legs in apparent agitation.
“Think quickly,” Hajime said imperiously. “I’m leaving soon.”
“And I’m coming with you,” Sano declared.
Yet again Hajime gave him an assessing look that seemed more than half scornful. Sano scowled defiantly back. Finally Hajime’s gaze flicked away from him in a movement that was almost a roll of eyes, but all he said was, “Fine.”
In some triumph and some irritation, Sano also looked away, and found Seijuurou staring at him with what seemed to be mild interest. Staring, more precisely, at the sword Sano still held. And with a start Sano realized why: somehow, even through the parts of the conversation that hadn’t angered him, Sano had managed to keep the energy blade firmly in place. Was it because of all the fighting he’d done earlier? There really was no way to tell. In any case, he didn’t need it at the moment, so he put it away.
At that motion, Seijuurou stood straight and sighed somewhat theatrically. “I suppose this means you’ll all be sleeping in my house tonight.”
Divine lady Megumi. She is represented by a scalpel and needle/thread since she is, among other things, the patroness of the medical profession. Here’s the full-color version: