Walking was easy.
One step followed by the next step followed by another step. Arms sway a little. Head forward to avoid obstacles. The eyes don't even have to focus. Just step, step, step. A slight rattle of breath, a cough that never makes it past the throat. Step, step, step.
Off to the side a girl in dirty rags screams. Struggling and hitting and kicking. The man laughs. Clothes dirty, but whole. Knife shoved through the back of his belt, staining his shirt a muddy red. A young child, too young, runs out of the door screaming and hitting. The man barely notices as he backhands it away. The screams stop.
Just one little step by step. The road changes. Step-tap, step-tap, step-tap. The sound of shoes against the road become overpowering. A steady tap, tap, tap.
If he focuses on the tapping, he won't hear any screaming.
But his eyes still catch on the red as it streaks through the air. The sun glints off the metal point before it disappears and a body falls. His gaze follows, watching as red begins to pool. Sudden movement, and eyes are dragged up to see a swaggering back.
Something, someone, hits his shoulder. Step-tap, step-tap, step-tap. Eyes watch the old man stumble forward. Step-tap. Step-tap.
Katsushiro stops, watching the old man. And he will fall. He stumbles. Three steps forward and Katsushiro could catch him. Just reach his arms out- but it's too late. The old man is already an the ground.
Katsushiro stares at him. Watches him inch forward on his belly. Try to stand. Probably hungry. Everyone was hungry these days. He takes two steps forward. A careful step and he's over the moving body and then it's step-tap, step-tap, step-tap.
A breeze. Step-tap, step-tap, step-tap. It's getting colder. A glance to the sky and all he can see is stars. When had the sun set?
A little girl sits outside the tavern, watching the light peeking through the cracks in the door. Katsushiro finds himself staring, mind lost to memories, to sitting outside an old building staring at the light flickering beneath the door. Of whispering and secrets and plots. A part of him wishes to be his younger self again. To know the war was going to end, that his father would soon be powerful.
But it's cold. And night. And he should find somewhere to sleep.
He settles against a wall. It doesn't matter where he is. His sword is clutched anxiously in his hand and his eyes close.
"Years! I planned for years." Snarls and stomps. "Fine, just abandon all my hard work. Run off with sword in hand, playing the hero. The Samurai are dying! We, the Merchants, replaced them. Are better than them." Anger and hate. "Well, what are you waiting for? Get! You'll come crawling back soon enough."
A rattle and his eyes are open. Blind in the moonless night, all the street lanterns gone. Something furry scurries by and his eyes close again.
"The… capitol ship…" "Gone! Nuthin but a smoke trail, dun believe it." "Can you believe it? Think he's really dead?" A shift, tightening his grip. "The gates were closed-" "Did you see that crowd?" "All those peasants, desperate for protection." "Where would they fit?" A groan. Bodies left lying, decomposing and soupy and the stench. "Gonna throw up kid?" A harsh laugh, giggles, steps. "You don't really need that sword." It was just a swing. Defensive, accidental. But then blood, oh god the blood, and the man is holding his neck in confusion but the blood doesn't stop and he drops. They don't seem to care. Two more come forward, a knife and pipe in hand. His sight goes red. The sword seems to vibrate, but it's just the arm shaking. His entire body is shaking and he can't escape the dream. He slowly realizes he's just standing there, surrounded by dead bodies. How many did he kill? How many were already here? He looks up and catches terrified eyes.
The sword stills and he drags himself up. The sun is up. People are walking past him, scurrying with brisk steps and lowered heads. Don't want to catch the wrong person's eyes. Don't want to catch his.
Katsushiro stands there, back against the wall. When did he last eat? Was there even anything he could find to eat? When the peasants had finally broken through the gates – the battle – well. There wasn't many left to work the fields.
A thud and a cruel laugh and a cringing person.
He was pretty sure someone had removed the bodies from the market. Maybe there was someone selling food there. But would he see anything but phantoms?
"Com'on lady, what's wrong with me? Not big enough for ya?" Another cruel laugh and her arm is being held high, the other clutching a ripped shirt.
But there was that old lady with the pots and plants and maybe she had extra again? She had been so nice, but with that cough… maybe she would be dead and he could have her small little room? It was mostly hidden, no one else seemed to know of it.
Red and a cough that ended in a gurgle. The lady screamed. Katsushiro could only see the straight sword. Edge sharp and taken care of and dripping blood. Flicked. The man wore white. Brown hair. Long brown hair and sharp eyes and softly, softly speaking and the women is calm, nodding.
His grip is strong, sure. The sword is sheathed and suddenly, Katsushiro wants more. Wants more than walking, than waiting to die.
For the first time, the first time, somebody helped another in this godforsaken city. A samurai. A real sword.
He takes a step forward but the man is gone.
No. The samurai is gone.
Katsushiro looks down at his hanging sword. Remembers the feeling, the confidence and pride and hope he had.
And he walked. Step, step, step.
The hunger pains were gone. He hadn't really felt them in two days now. Thoughts of food were really an afterthought. Perhaps he should find some, it seemed important.
He stops. He turns and looks behind him and there is another monster of a man, arms thick and laughing, tugging at a bag and the child sneers and swings and doesn't seem to care the man is three times his size. There isn't the panicked screaming or helpless sobbing Katsushiro tries so hard not to hear. Just growls and threats and eyes. Glaring, fierce eyes.
They meet his, but quickly refocus on the threat. But Katsushiro finds himself answering. There's life in the boy's eyes and he can't walk away from that.
"Stop." It comes out a low growl, threatening like. At another time in his life he would have blinked and blushed and cleared his throat. Now he reaches for his sword and the monster looks at him and pales.
The boy is cheering and he wonders what just happened. His sword is still in its sheath but the man is running. The boy starts to talk to him but Kastushiro can't hear anything, lost in confusion. He… he wasn't lost to that rage. There was no red commanding him.
"And what are you waiting for? My home's this way!" The boy tugs him and Katsushiro remembers what he was doing. He was saving someone.
"Right." And he blushes and clears his throat. "Right. Are you okay?"
The boy laughs, he laughs and it's free and innocent and sweet. A smile is flashed and Kastushiro wonders where the boy has been hiding. "I already told you, I'm fine. Come on already!"
The boy grabs his arm and he realizes it's still on his sword and he lets go, hand sliding till the boy catches his grip and pulls. He's suddenly afraid. Will he just fall back into walking? But the boy is pulling and jumping and all over the place. So he follows and the boy chatters and he absorbs it.
The boy seems to quiet a bit and Kastushiro's eyes narrow, glancing around and catching the three men watching. He snarls and reach for the sword, tugging the boys hand with it, but the men turn away and the boy gasps. "You're the best guard I've ever had. You just look and they turn away. My sister will be so impressed!"
But sitting across the table, a tiny pot slowing heating water for tea, the sister was not impressed. The man beside her, of no relation for his skin was dark and his hair white with a large smile matching the scar covering his cheek – he was impressed. His eyebrows danced as the boy chattered and the sister's scowl deepened and he let out a booming laugh at the end.
A tea cup is set before him and tea is poured. Real tea. A sip and warmth spreads through him and Katsushiro realizes that maybe, he really wasn't dead yet.
"Why." Her snarl and glare demanded an answer to the harshly spoken word.
Katsushiro wasn't sure what to say. He didn't know why. The boy wasn't dead. He kicked and he fought but so many did.
"Does the intention really matter if his actions were worthy?" The man asked, leaning forward and nudging the sister.
"Yes. Why would such a fearsome warrior stoop to help a little boy he doesn't know?" The words carry strength and fight and protectiveness and Katsushiro wonder how it happened. How did this pocket of life survive in this dead city?
The man was staring, unwilling to step in a second time but there was a small smile teasing the corner of his lips. The boy tugged Katsushiro's sleeve and smiled widely when his head turned. His eyes were open and trusting and Kastushiro smiled back.
His voice was soft and he shrugged, looking the sister in the eyes, "I heard you needed a guardian."
The sister huffed and the man laughed and the boy was lunging across the table hugging his sister with please oh please repeated over and over.
The man leaned forward, chuckles calming, "And who is our wondrous guardian? For I am but a humble entertainer by the name of Gorobei and as the days get shorter I've been worried about my ability to protect them." A fond look and Katsushiro remembers his earlier thought, that the samurai had done the first decent thing and realizes he was wrong.
His lips smiled. Perhaps the end of the merchant era wasn't the end of everything after all.