Author's Notes: As I mentioned, this story takes place in an Alternate Universe, so some explanations are in order.I love Tomoe, but unfortunately, she does not exist in this universe. This, of course, means that: Kenshin has no cross-scar, Kenshin is still a hardened hitokiri, and Kenshin has never known love The Bakumatsu War is still in full swing. Kaoru is not a replacement for Tomoe in this story.
Standard Disclaimers apply.
Busu and the Battousai
"He's barely human anymore. He's a monster," Hiko Seijuuro remarked as he brought the cup of sake to his lips. He peered over the top of the rim at the man across from him.
"Yes, it cannot be denied," the other man agreed with a grave sort of sigh. He wore a dark-hued kimono and his tone was somber, but there was cool intelligence in his eyes. The strong, square line of his jaw suggested wisdom and determination. He sat silently for some time, nursing his own cup of tea with thoughtful eyes.
The two men were seated in a quiet table in a corner of the Mitsubishi Teahouse, a respectable establishment located in a more quiet part of the city. Both were important men of wealth, so for the sake of privacy, they did not arrange to meet in the classier part of town.
Hiko Seijuuro took a sip of sake, grimaced discreetly, and put the cup down. There was a bored tone in his voice as he addressed the other man. "I frankly cannot believe that anyone would hire a child as their assassin." His tone was clipped, clearly conveying his disgust for the other man.
"I didn't do it willingly," Katsura replied sadly, "but Himura's assistance in the rebellion was needed to build the new era."
"He paid with his sanity," Hiko pointed out.
Katsura nodded once. "I supposed it's to be expected."
Hiko demeanor was deceptively indifferent. "How long has he been like this?" he asked carelessly.
"He seemed quite stable the last I saw of him, but that was about four years ago."
Hiko snorted. "So after six years of working odd jobs for you, you finally decide to set the monster loose on Japan?"
"If I hadn't, he would've been in an even worse state than he is now," Katsura said quietly. "I had no choice. And since you've disowned him, he has been wandering the country ever since with the authorities at his heels."
"Still? It's been four years."
"Amazing, isn't it?"
"You've kept contact with him?"
"Of course. There are still times when his services are needed. The war is not over yet. At the moment your student in Kobe, currently residing in a small country inn."
"Is he well?" the tone was neutral.
The other man paused. "He's fine…physically."
"Mentally, he's quite insane," Hiko finished for him, his expression inscrutable.
The man gazed back evenly. "Himura has his own issues, yes, but he's not psychotic, as you seem to think he is."
"Fine, but I want my student sane, Katsura," Hiko said in a dark voice, leaning forward slightly to make his point. "I boy I taught was happy, content, and loved life because he lived to help others. I want him back the way he was before you destroyed him."
"Hiko-san," Katsura murmured as he sipped his tea, "it remains to be seen if it is possible to accomplish that."
"I don't care how you do it," the man replied flatly.
The other man was silent as he closed his eyes, deep in thought. "May I pose a question? When you leave on business, who watches over your estate?"
"My servants, of course."
"You do not have friends or trusted associates to live as a retainer in your stead?"
Hiko pursed his lips. "I find that most people are not up to that job."
Something flickered in Katsura's eyes as he tapped his fingers on the tabletop. "Good. I may have a plan to save Himura yet…"
The teahouse was one of poor quality. Katsura caught himself grimacing as he stepped through the door. Clearly, it was old and ill kept from the wood peeling off the walls and the grime on the tables. There were a moderate number of customers today, enough to keep the tenders busy.
Katsura spotted the young man seated in a shadowed corner, his presence unnoticed and inconspicuous. There was a road-worn quality to his faded clothing that marked him a traveler. A bamboo kasa obscured his face from view. Slowly, he made his way over to the man and sat down across from him without invitation. At this range, he could see the curtain of red hair that shaded the man's eyes.
"Himura," he greeted cordially.
"Mr. Katsura," the man murmured in reply.
They sat in uneasy silence until a waitress arrived with a bottle of cooled sake. The young man offered Katsura a cup, but he declined.
"It's been awhile. How are you faring?" Katsura asked, watching the red-haired man intently.
"Well enough," was the short reply. The man sipped his sake slowly, as if he was expecting the liquor to take immediate effect. He did not bother to look Katsura in the eye but kept his distant gaze on the table before him.
Katsura cleared his throat and reached into his haori. A small stack of documents emerged from within the folds of the robe and he set them neatly on the table. "As you should know, Hiko Seijuuro will be leaving shortly on a long business trip."
The formal announcements concerning the upcoming departure of Hiko Seijuuro had been made a week ago, to the surprise of the populace. Though the Seijuuro Clan was considered one of the wealthiest in the new era, the family kept to itself, shut away in a castle estate situated high on the mountains of Kyoto. Information concerning the Clan was limited to rumors, and even then, opinions differed from region to region.
"Hiko is need of a temporary retainer, to watch over his estate while he is gone. He asked me to put the offer up to you."
"I see. But why did he choose this 'unworthy one'?" His last words were spoken in wry amusement, and for the first time, his eyes lifted from the table. The piercing orbs were lifeless and cold.
"Apparently, he trusts you," Katsura replied calmly. "It's a simple task: keep track of all comings and goings within the estate and report back to Master Hiko once a week by letter. In return, you live in the Seijuuro Castle as a retainer and receive a regular salary." Katsura eyed the man across from him.
"I'll think about it."
"He is leaving in two days. The forms must be delivered to him before then."
Himura blinked his golden eyes slowly like an irritated cat. "You leave me no time to consider."
"I would take the offer, Himura," Katsura said crisply. "You seem to have been wandering for some time. Now you are being offered a residence, if temporarily." He dropped his voice to a murmur and added, "And of course, you will not have to worry about your identity, and the problems it brings."
The red-haired man's eyes rested on the neat pile of forms on the table. To be sure, the offer was tempting. Seijuuro Castle was tucked away in the mountains of Kyoto, its exact location a mystery to the rest of the country. Living there, he would not have to worry about food and shelter, nor would he be disturbed by the authorities.
"How long will Mr. Hiko be gone?"
Katsura did not miss the formal, polite way the man addressed his former master. "Six months at least. A year at most." Gently, he pushed the small stack of forms towards the other man.
Himura's look was detached as flipped rapidly through the documents, giving it a cursory inspection. Reaching into the sleeve of his kimono, he withdrew an ink seal and stamped it carelessly onto the scalloped paper. Katsura remembered the unusual design well. It had been he who had first put the request forward to a seal-maker, for a special design to be made for the shadow assassin.
Unlike most seals, Himura's was not a symmetrical family-crest of any kind. Instead, it bore the shape of a dragon curled around a katana.
Katsura collected the sheet with the seal, leaving the rest of the contract with Himura. "Hiko-san will be most pleased," he said, standing up. "I wish you well, Himura." He nodded once to the man.
"Likewise," Himura said and returned to his sake.
"Master Hiko?" The Butler leaned against the wall next to the large doors of his master's room. "The carriage is waiting downstairs," he informed the man inside. His posture was casual and relaxed, but his voice held an odd ring of respect.
"Fine." The deep voice could clearly be heard through the closed shoji.
"Take your time. No hurry at all," the Butler chewed absently on a piece of straw as he waited. He was a tall young man, dressed in a loose-fitting white gi. A bandanna was tied through his dark, wild hair, and the long red strands hung down his back. Master Hiko had never imposed any sort of dress code upon his servants, which was one of the many reasons why he was so well received.
"Is everything in order?"
"Just about," Sagara Sanosuke reported. "The Weasel's getting the last of the luggage."
He watched as a small, slim girl dressed entirely in black came down the hall, loaded down with rolled up bundles of luggage. There was a particularly heavy-looking bundle on her back, and she carried two more besides, one in each hand. She staggered once and dropped down to one knee. Sanosuke couldn't resist a snicker at her expense and he was promptly rewarded with a few muffled oaths.
Out loud, he said again, very deliberately, "Actually, she might be having some trouble." He directed a fiendishly amused look at the girl as he said this. "May I be excused to help her?"
The girl threw down her bundles, and whirled on him, bits of silver gleaming in her hand. "I'm doing fine, thank you," she said contemptuously. Then, louder for their Master's benefit, she added, "Not to worry, I've got everything under control."
"Sure," Sanosuke said sarcastically, the grin on his face never faltering. "And I'm a roast turkey."
"Is that some kind of chicken? 'Cause if it is, then it fits you perfectly," Misao snapped back.
They were interrupted when the shoji doors snapped open with a crack. Both of them stood stiffly at attention and executed a synchronized bow.
"Master Hiko!" they said quickly.
The man in the door narrowed his eyes in exasperation and swept past them without a word, his red and white mantle fluttering behind him. On his way, he paused to regard the bags of forgotten luggage sitting in the middle of the hall with obvious disapproval. Misao noticed the point of his attention and squeaked a harried apology.
"Okon! Omasu!" she rapped out to the air. As if magically summoned, two women dressed similarly in black dropped out of the ceiling and landed soundlessly on the wooden floorboards in a poised crouch.
Sanosuke jumped at their sudden arrival and swore under his breath. He had never been very comfortable with the shadowy comings and goings of the Castle Guard. "Kami, those ninjas are creepy," he muttered.
Hiko did not seem surprised in the least as he continued on his way. "Ninja tricks are all show. You could do well to learn a few yourself, baka."
Sanosuke made a noise somewhere between a growl and a groan. Behind them, the three ninjas had divvied up the load between the three of them and were followed in their wake, darting stealthily down the hall like liquid shadows.
The Castle Courtyard was a scene of frenzied activity. The majority of the staff was gathered outdoors today, bustling about and seeing to the final arrangements of the trip. The last of the luggage was delivered to the coach and tucked securely into the interior. A team of stable hands stood by to inspect the horses while another group conferred with the coachmen.
Hiko Seijuuro watched this all with an inscrutable air. In less than a week, he had had to make all the arrangements for this sudden departure: a feat that he was secretly very proud of. There would be no second thoughts now. After all, hadn't he been the one who had demanded his student's sanity back at any cost?
At last, the coach was ready to leave. The servants had scattered to their duties, tending to things that needed to be seen to. Only the Butler, the Captain, and several other important members of his staff remained by the carriage to see him off.
Just before boarding, Hiko pulled a thick, padded envelope from his cloak and handed it to Sanosuke. The Butler turned the brown-colored package over and over uncomprehending.
"Just some final instructions," he explained casually. "I've included copies inside for you, the scribe, the retainer, the police, and any other authorities who might happen along."
The Butler stared at him. "Copies of what? What retainer? What authorities?" Sanosuke demanded a little too loudly.
"In the folder, tori no baka."
He was inside the well-furnished coach in two long strides. While Sanosuke floundered for a response, Misao closed the carriage door, and sent it on its way. Several teams of her Guard were holding the great wooden gates open. Soon, the image of the carriage had faded away into the mountain mists as nothing but a blurred outline, and that too, soon disappeared.
With a great creak of wood, the gates were pushed back into place and firmly bolted. Misao rounded up her Guard, and with neither word nor warning, the entire assembly split their separate ways and vanished into the shadows. Gradually, the other members of the staff returned to their duties in the castle, leaving Sanosuke with the brown envelope.
Muttering faint curses under his breath, he heaved a deep sigh and started for the Castle.
The Castle scribe spent the next few hours breaking down the complicated documents into a comprehensible pile of papers. Three-quarters of the package were taken up by numerous copies of a single contract. The remaining documents contained Master Hiko's expertly penned instructions for his staff.
The specific terms of the contract were difficult to sort out and certain aspects remained strangely vague. No could argue against it, however; the contract was perfectly legal. Each copy was marked with two seals: one that represented the Seijuuro Family and another that bore no resemblance at all to any Family seal in Japan. Never once did the contract mention the man's identity.
The page following it contained a list of privileges that the retainer was to be given, including complete control over all members of the staff. In addition to service, the retainer was also to be allowed the use of all Castle grounds and facilities.
There was bound to be discontent at the prospect, it couldn't be helped.
Captain Makimachi Misao was absolutely livid. For the past ten generations, the Oniiwa Clan had dutifully guarded Seijuuro Castle and its family line, training their children in all aspects of the Ninja Arts that they may be well equipped to guard the Family they were sworn to protect. So many were their numbers that the Oniiwa Guard alone made up half of the entire staff. Misao took great pride in her lineage and her Clan, and her master's decision to take a retainer did not sit well with her. That Seijuuro Hiko would have so little faith her abilities and the abilities of her Clan was almost an insult. Did he not trust the Oniiwa Guard to protect his estate, as he had always done? What had possessed him to hire a retainer in his absence? Needless to say, Misao would not be there to welcome the arrival of the retainer.
Sagara Sanosuke was positively aghast that Hiko would entrust their loyalty to a mere stranger. The contract, as Tsunan had pointed out, stated that the retainer was to be given 'complete control over all members of the staff'. It was a disconcerting thought. There were times even when he questioned Master Hiko's commands. How was he to deal with the commands of a stranger? The mere thought put him into a terrible humor as he awaited the arrival of the mysterious stranger.
Other Castle servants had their own reservations against the prospect. Some openly showed their dislike while others were happy to maintain a neutral view. But everyone agreed that tensions were mounting ever higher as they day drew ever closer.
In the middle of a dark room, a girl awoke. Rough cords chaffed her wrists when she attempted to move and a thick wad of foul-tasting cloth prevented her from speaking. Strong ropes around her legs made it extremely difficult to stand.
Slowly, painfully, with agonizing effort, she managed to lean herself against the far wall. It was too dark for her to see, and she was not aware of time. The floor was smooth and hard, and the wall sturdy. With a dry, throaty grunt, she relaxed her limbs, allowing her body to go limp against the support of the wall.
Though she ached all over with fatigue, her mind remained calm and alert. This was not the first time she had been kidnapped. On the contrary, such occasions were so numerous that they ran together in her head. Some of them burned in her memory like bright flames, so clear that she could recall every sensation. Some were faint and muddled, clouded with drug-induced euphoria.
Kaoru was only mildly frightened. She knew she would be rescued, and then the cycle would begin all over again. Her guards would be doubled, her person confined to a single room, and her meals brought to her on trays. Her father would employ increasingly better security. Her wedded sisters would send simpering letters. And she would be kept in her room until they come and take her again. It was a pattern that would endure till the end of her miserable life.
Idly, she wondered how long it would take her father to find her. The last kidnap had lasted a grand total of sixty-three hours. Her father's spies were getting better. Not that she cared. She could barely see beyond the moment; her feature looked dismally bleak.
One day at a time, Kaoru told herself. Just live one day at a time.
If her kidnappers had looked into that dim little room then, they would've seen a sad, despairing little smile flit across the prisoner's face.
Kenshin's memory had not faded: he could remember the mountain as clearly as he had fourteen years ago. He attended to his own thoughts, not the path before him, yet his steps never hesitated. Kenshin knew the path so well that he did not need to pause for thought as he walked, and his excellent physique allowed him to trek tirelessly over the ragged terrain. Consequently, he moved at an astonishing rate, covering great distances in short periods of time.
The path that was taking was not a path at all. It was an unconventional shortcut to Seijuuro Castle, one that was used by the inhabitants of the Castle for purposes of efficiency and discretion. Over the years it had broadened from use, but the people of Kyoto remained completely unaware of it.
It was getting dark. The trees blotted out what light there was left, and a light drizzle of rain had started. The assassin calculated his progress as he quickened his stride. He tightened one hand on his hooded cloak, holding it close to him. Over the next hour, the rain grew steadily worse. It soon became too dark and stormy to see, and only Kenshin's superb memory allowed him to continue through the pouring haze.
Even in the damp, biting cold, his mind remained focused and alert. A sudden flash of lightning in the sky allowed him a faint glimpse of a dark, jagged outline in the distance. Amber eyes shone with cold determination as he made his way up the path and towards the Castle.
"Oi, y' reckon the Captain would let us off just this once? The weather's getting nastier."
"I can't see a thing. Too much rain."
The guards on duty were gritting their teeth against the howling gale and trying their best not to shiver. Though they huddle miserably in clumps at every opportunity, they continued to patrol the castle ramparts in proper form.
"Nobody's getting to the Castle in this weather," a young ninja said to his comrades. "The Captain's mad if she thinks he's going to arrive tonight."
"You never know," an older girl called from farther down the wall. "Master's Hiko is known for having strange friends."
The weather had not let up in the past hour, and all twelve of the ninjas on the evening watch were soaked from head to toe. It was a cold night, making it all the worse for them to be caught in wet clothes. They could barely see each other let alone the castle gates.
"Where's the Captain? She should be coming around with the relief by now."
Several of the ninjas swiveled longingly towards the Castle Keep where warmth and dry shelter awaited. Their training made it impossible for them to abandon their posts, however, and they continued miserably with their watch.
At half past eight that evening, the Captain finally showed up, followed by a relief team of a dozen seasoned ninjas.
"Sorry for the wait," she clipped cheerfully, halting atop the narrow, rain-slicked stone ledge. She was wearing a heavy poncho and a straw hat instead of the usual black Oniiwa uniform.
"It's been absolute bedlam since Master Hiko left. First watch dismissed!"
This announcement was followed by a whoop of joy. The first watch saluted and took off eagerly for the Castle, their dark outlines quickly becoming faint in the hue of the storm. Another flash of lightning illuminated the uneven dirt road that led up to the Castle gates.
Misao's sharp eyes suddenly snapped down to the wooden gates beneath her. Something had moved there…or had it? She couldn't be sure. Her quiet indecision was broken when another flash of lightning tore the sky in two. In that brief moment, Misao saw the distinct outline of a man standing by the gate below her.
Her stomach twisted in distaste at the sight. Slightly apprehensive, she slipped down the ramparts and sent a messenger to Castle with the news. With great reluctance, Misao took a lantern, lit it carefully, and slipped through the great doors.
The glass lantern threw haphazard beams of light that barely penetrated the thick rain falling around her. The presence of watchful ninjas gathered on the ramparts above her was comforting. Misao bent her head very slightly and peered at the stranger from beneath the rim of her hat.
"Have you business here?"
The hood lifted just enough to reveal a glittery pair of amber eyes. Misao swallowed nervously.
From within his cloak, the stranger withdrew an oilskin package wrapped with string. He waited with suppressed impatience as the ninja examined the package, shielding the contents with her heavy poncho.
There were a number of sheets that Misao did not bother to read. It difficult enough to keep the documents dry while wearing a thick cloak and carrying a glass lantern. She searched only for the Seijuuro seal and found it at the bottom of the last page, right beside the unknown seal of the dragon and the katana. Finally, grudgingly satisfied, she wrapped it again and returned it.
"Welcome to Seijuuro Castle. I hope you enjoy your stay," she said mechanically, gliding backwards so that her back was to the gate. With one arm, she clearly indicated that the stranger was to enter.
He complied immediately, striding through the slight opening of the half-open doors, his gait so swift and smooth that he seemed to be here one moment and there the next. Misao, with a knot of apprehension tight in her heart, followed after him.
Sanosuke stood by the Keep's entrance, holding a lantern with ill-concealed impatience. The breathless messenger that had come by a few minutes ago had dragged him away from his nightly rounds, claiming that there was a stranger at the Castle gates. It didn't take a genius to figure out that the long-awaited retainer had finally arrived, to Sanosuke's eternal disappointment.
At any rate, the hour was so late that most of the Castle had already finished their duties and retired for the night, leaving him to greet the retainer by himself. Sanosuke cursed the man's timing and drummed his fingers against the wall as he waited.
Misao was surreptitiously careful to keep four paces behind the stranger as they walked, partly from respect, partly from uneasiness. There was something frightening about the man; she couldn't put her finger on it. She was almost relieved when she saw Sanosuke waiting for them by the Keep doors.
"That's the butler, Sanosuke. He'll show you inside, sir," Misao said very quickly. She bowed out of habit and rushed away, eager to distance herself from the stranger. Misao, out of all the staff, had objected the most strongly to the idea of a retainer, and nothing she had seen of the man so far had given her cause to change her mind.
No words were exchanged as the two men ducked through the doors into a dry, comfortable, warmly lit atmosphere. The room was sparsely furnished but very inviting.
"Sorry," Sanosuke grunted, "we weren't expecting you tonight." He went and retrieved a pair of spare sandals for the man to wear, then blew out his lantern and stashed it away in a small cupboard by the wall.
"Do you want something to eat?" he asked, watching the cloaked figure slip off his rain-soaked sandals. There was a disquieting air about the man; Sanosuke could understand why Misao had seemed so uneasy. The stranger had not uttered a word since they had met.
"Thirsty? Care for a drink?" he offered. The man's unwavering silence was beginning to bother him.
The man moved across the room as if he hadn't heard him. With each step he took, droplets of water dripped off his cloak and formed puddles on the floor. Shaking the rest of the water off, he reached up to pull his hood back.
Sanosuke was not prepared for the shock of red hair that emerged. Red hair. His body went slack. He could do little but stare as the man slowly turned his head and narrowed the most chilling eyes of liquid gold at him.
Without a word, the man removed his cloak, revealing the customary uniform of a samurai. Most of his outfit was black, or at least a very dark shade. Sanosuke could see two swords hanging at his side, their hilts sticking out from under his overcoat.
The butler swiftly regained his composure. He adopted an air of careless, but respectful servitude and said, "May I take that, sir?" He took the cloak from the man and folded it gingerly over his arm.
Now free of the restraining material, the man looked around him, one hand resting casually on his katana.
Sanosuke narrowed his eyes and frowned, as a name, known and feared, sprang unbidden to his head. While in Master Hiko's service, he had often been required to remain calm and rational in times of extreme stress, which was why he could now face the demon and still speak with his old attitude of carelessness.
"Please excuse my ignorance, but this unworthy one does not know how to address you, Master Battousai."
The man whirled around to face the butler abruptly, his eyes somehow even more piercing than before. "So, you do know who I am," he stated quietly.
The taller man stared right back at him, determined to show only indifference. Fear was expelled and banished.
"My name," the hitokiri informed him, "is Himura Kenshin, and I would prefer that form of address."
Somehow, it had never occurred to Sanosuke that the deadliest hitokiri alive might actually have an ordinary name, just like any ordinary person. In his mind, the man known as Hitokiri Battousai had always been something of a demon, as separate from the human race as the evil spirits that lurked in the night. He nodded to his new master finally in wry acceptance.
"May I show you to your room, Master Himura?"
Kenshin followed the butler through the familiar halls of the Castle up to his room. It was located in the west wing of the castle, and it was very spacious, very comfortable, and very elegantly decorated. Delicate pieces of pottery sat atop the shelves, paintings on scrolls hung from the walls, and furniture was arranged symmetrically around the room with pinpoint precision. Even the tatami were pristine and untouched.
Sanosuke waited as the man inspected the room detachedly. He went around, opening and closing all the closet compartments and drawers. The futon was found folded neatly in the bottom compartment of the wall cupboard. The dresser drawers produced a set of kimonos. Kenshin spent some time looking through his room before he noticed that the butler was still there, leaning against the shoji frame with a bored expression on his face.
The younger man stood to attention when Kenshin glanced at him.
"Is there anything you would like, Master Himura?"
"Why are you still here?"
The butler smirked and replied as if it were perfectly obvious. "A man of my status cannot leave his master's presence unless he is permitted to do so." He grimaced at the use of such obeisance language, but Battousai was clearly a dangerous man and the last thing Sanosuke wanted to do was to get on his bad side.
"You may go," Battousai said absently.
Sanosuke inclined his head, but the demon had turned away from him and did not see.