DISCLAIMER:  This is a fan fiction based on the Rurouni Kenshin manga and anime series.  Rurouni Kenshin characters are the property of creator Nobohiro Watsuki, Shueisha, Shounen Jump, and Sony Entertainment.  This is a non-profit piece for entertainment purposes only.  Permission was not obtained from the above parties.  If any of the above parties or their representatives have a complaint regarding this story, please contact me, and I will comply with any stated requests.  And no, I won't even try to make these funny.  I'm not good at funny….

OIRAN:  Chapter 1 – Flames in the Darkness
By Haku Baikou
1872:  Fifth Year of the Meiji, Tenth Month.…

Nishida Jubei returned from a long, unpleasant journey.  He had traveled far, visiting his family's lands and his father's estate.  It had been a taxing voyage both physically and mentally, filled with uncomfortable moments between himself and a family he barely knew anymore.  Awkward silences abounded during the visit, and although such silences had always been the norm whenever he went to see his parents, this time those moments had been particularly painful.  He could not really blame his family for once.  He could not have expected them to react well to his news.  He had, after all, gone home to say farewell.  To tell them all that he was dying.
His brothers had looked away.  Mother had cried.  And Father….  Well, Jubei supposed he would never know Father's reaction, since the man had still refused to see him.  It was a mercy, in a way.  Spared from what would surely have been an unpleasant encounter, Jubei had cut short the visit and was soon on the road again, heading back to the very place his father so emphatically disapproved of, the place Jubei considered his true home now, a place of warmth and comfort.  Ironic, considering its reputation across the country as a center of decadent notoriety….
Shin Yoshiwara, the famed Pleasure Quarter of Tokyo, the notorious red light district. 
And as far as Nishida Jubei was concerned…home.
Known for the ageya, the teahouses within the walls of the quarter perimeter, and the oiran, the courtesans within the walls of those teahouses, Shin Yoshiwara had been the center of elegance and flair in its heyday, the center of high, yet immoral, culture and risqué fashion.  It was past those days now, its splendor fading slowly as competition from the rougher (and far cheaper) brothels of the Eastern Banks of the Sumida River forced the teahouses to lower their standards in clientele.  But it was still the best place in the world to be for a woodprint artist like Jubei, and its magnificence, though waning, was far from gone.  Shin Yoshiwara was slowly dying, its days numbered and its glory ebbing, but like Nishida Jubei himself, the Pleasure World wasn't quite ready to go and still had quite a bit of life in it yet. 
He sighed and pulled his hood closer about his face.  Morbid thoughts were appropriate on a night such as this.  Rain drizzled from a cloud-darkened sky and the moon was nowhere to be seen.  It was unusually cold, even for the tenth month, and Jubei would not be surprised if he were to wake up tomorrow morning and find snow on the ground. 
Damned foolish of him to be walking on a night like this.  Though he felt strong enough at the moment, his health was delicate these days, and such exposure would surely set off another round of coughing.  He was lucky that it hadn't yet, and he resolved to keep it that way.  It wouldn't do to finally see Yumi and Mari again after all this time, only to show up at their door with blood all over his clothes.  The two of them would kill him if they knew he was out in this rain.  He could picture them now, a double-fronted attack that he could never defend against:  Yumi's silver-tongued scolding and Mari's quietly reproachful looks.  They would usher him in, he imagined, fussing over him as they treated him to a hot cup of tea, or better yet, warm sake.  He chuckled softly at the imagery, then shivered involuntarily from the chill air. 
It really was uncomfortable, this cold.  He was cheered to see the Yoshiwara walls finally, rising in the distance, dark silhouettes against the warm light spilling out of the Great Gate.  In his mind's eye, he could see the festive lanterns lining the main thoroughfare, the wide and lively Nakanocho Boulevard, leading from the Great Gate to all the pleasures within.  He could picture the great teahouses lining the boulevard, could imagine himself stepping into his House, the ageya that was home to the two most beautiful women in the world…. Mari…Yumi….
A distant clamor brought him out of his pleasant reverie, and he blinked in surprise.  He heard the unmistakable metallic sounds of fighting, something he never expected to encounter so close to the Yoshiwara gate.  He squinted and looked around, trying to discern the location of the fray.  And there, to the east towards the river, he saw the shadowed figures.  Dozens of them in an empty field in what looked to be a frenzied skirmish. 
Jubei surreptitiously fingered the hilt of the katana he wore under his outer coat.  A popular woodprint artist he was now, but years ago, he was something quite different, something just a bit more vicious.  He rarely carried a sword these days, but occasionally still wore one on his belt, especially when traveling potentially dangerous roads alone.  The road leading up to Shin Yoshiwara had not been what he would consider dangerous, but the rest of his journey had taken him through some rough countryside.  He was grateful now, that he had not packed his sword away upon entering the city borders.  He'd grown used to the weight of it during his voyage, and he'd kept it with him out of pure habit.  Old habits did die hard, and Jubei was glad of that tonight. 
He studied the fighting from a distance, uncertain of whether or not he should get involved.  His better judgment told him to stay far away, that this altercation was none of his business, especially since he didn't even understand what was going on.  And he was woefully out of practice, his fighting skills far from what they used to be, his health touchy at best.  He never knew when a coughing fit would overtake him.  Reasons all to keep walking and move on.  And so he kept his hand on the katana, but quickened his pace, resolutely disregarding his own inquisitive nature, as he moved unobtrusively as possible past the fighters, determined to pass by unnoticed. 
Sudden flames erupted in the night. 
And then were quickly extinguished.  Jubei hissed in involuntary surprise and turned at the abrupt orange flare that had just seared across the edges of his awareness. 
But there was nothing there now.  And if not for the sea of green after-images imprinted in his vision, he would have thought he'd hallucinated the whole thing.  He blinked into the darkness, clearing his sight, trying to see what had caused such a strange and intense phenomenon.  But all he saw were shadows, the forms of the fighters, still moving in earnest as dozens of men surrounded a tall figure in the center.
He frowned.  One man?  He had not realized the odds were so uneven before.  Dozens of warriors against one lone man? 
From the looks of things, the lone fighter was actually holding his own, was doing surprisingly well against the ring of attackers, but Jubei's sense of honor bristled at the unjustness of the conflict.  He felt an unreasonable urge to join in the fray even as his mind screamed at him that he was being a fool.  Curiosity and an insulted sense of justice finally won out over caution, and he stepped off the road towards the fighters in the field. 
As he neared, he saw that the tall figure was not actually alone.  Huddled at his feet was a smaller shadow, what seemed to be a child slumped against his leg.    His decision to render aid was cemented then.  His grip on his sword tightened, and his steps grew more confident. 
Jubei frowned as he came close enough to recognize the circle of attackers as hirelings from across the river.  It made his decision even easier when he realized who his opponents were.  He almost sneered, so great was his disgust.  Mercenaries from the Eastern Banks.  They had been skulking about the roadway to Yoshiwara for months, trying to intimidate potential clients and keep them from entering the city.  They had been for the most part ignored, their skills no match for the guards of the various daimyo who still frequented the Pleasure World.  Jubei shook his head.  All bravado with no actual skill to back it up, these men. 
"Oi, you there!"  The fighters from the outer edge of the circle had finally noticed him as he neared. 
He kept his hand on his sword, but did not draw it.  Stepping lightly over the bodies of several men who had been downed by the stranger, Jubei paused at the edge of the circle and briefly studied the tall man in the center.  He was a mystery, that was certain.  He was covered from head to foot with bandages, and yet he seemed unhurt.  He held his sword easily, his stance immediately marking him as an obvious master of his art. 
Jubei inhaled softly in awe and wondered if the mercenary fighters could sense what he did.  The man's fighting chi was something to behold.  Stronger than almost anything Jubei had ever sensed before, even from back in the days of the Bakumatsu.  It was akin to the presence of his old superior officers, on a level with Okita-san or Hijikata-san.  Jubei shook his head in wry amusement.  He had been a fool to involve himself.  This man would have no need of his assistance, he realized.  He had just placed himself at risk for nothing. 
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" one of the mercenaries said, pointing his sword threateningly at Jubei. 
For lack of anything witty to say, Jubei opted to respond with the truth.  He pitched his voice to address himself as much to the tall stranger as to the mercenary waving a sword in his face.  "Pardon my foolish intrusion.  I was merely curious." 
The mercenary who'd accosted him arched his rough eyebrows in disbelief, and Jubei couldn't completely blame the fellow.  He knew he no longer looked the part of a warrior these days, dressed the way he was, his body thin as it was.  But if the mercenary had any ability to sense chi, he ought to have known that Jubei, despite appearances, was by no means an amateur, and that his sword was not strictly just for show.
The mercenary narrowed his beady eyes and shook his head, sending a shower of rain droplets flying.  Jubei looked downwards, hiding a smile as his damned over-active imagination conjured sudden images comparing the mercenary with a wet dog. 
"Finish this idiot off, boys," said the mercenary with obvious disgust as he turned his attention back on the tall stranger.  The fool had misinterpreted Jubei's movement as a sign of submission. 
Jubei drew his sword then, and faced the half dozen men who now turned to surround him.  The bandaged stranger, he noted, had not moved from his earlier position.  The man still stood quietly, sword in hand, waiting for another rush from the mercenaries.  Jubei had no more time to wonder about the stranger as his own set of opponents rushed towards him then, swords drawn, their furious battle cries polluting the stillness of the night.   
His battle sense and fighting reflexes returned with ease, he was pleasantly surprised to find.  Either that, or his opponents' fighting skills were abysmally incompetent.  Jubei suspected a little bit of both.  In any case, he had no difficulty parrying their thrusts and avoiding their slow and clumsy movements. 
He had finished off all but one of his attackers before his lungs suddenly betrayed him, causing him to hesitate a moment as he bit the back of his hand, trying to stave off a coughing fit.  Too late.  He saw the downward flash of metal and knew he'd made a fatal error then, that his brief moment of hesitation was all his opponent needed to successfully pull off a killing stroke.  He lifted his sword to parry anyway, knowing that it was far too late.  His enemy's weapon had already begun its downward arc, and in his current state of weakness, Jubei would not be able to keep the attacker's sword from penetrating his defense.  But the reflexive movement was impossible to break, and so Jubei defended himself to the last despite his hopeless situation and only briefly regretted his foolish notion of helping a complete stranger. 
His sword connected.  And miraculously, it held.  The force of his attacker's killing stroke was surprisingly weak. 
Jubei looked up in confusion, and it took a moment for the artist's stunned brain to comprehend the image of a sword point protruding from the front of the mercenary's chest.  Jubei blinked and lowered his sword, watching in bemused silence as the mercenary slowly slid forward towards the tip of the sword embedded in his chest and fell in a heap to the ground. 
With a quick twisting motion, the bandaged stranger pulled his sword free of the dead man's back and casually flicked the blood off before sheathing his blade.  He regarded Jubei with eerie, crimson eyes, expression unreadable behind the strips of cloth covering his face. 
"Thank you," Jubei murmured, wiping his blade clean and sheathing his sword.  He lowered his hood, revealing his face to the stranger.  "My name is Nishida.  Nishida Jubei," he offered in brief greeting.  He was having a bit of difficulty catching his breath. 
"I didn't need your help," said the stranger, his voice flat. 
Jubei blinked.  This was not the reaction he'd anticipated.  "I realized that," he said mildly, "A bit too late.  At the time, I thought you could use some assistance."
"Expect no gratitude.  I owe you nothing."
"That you don't," sighed Jubei.  "And even if you did, you saved my life.  Which makes us even, I suppose."
The stranger frowned, as if perplexed by Jubei's mild responses.  Most men would have been insulted by the stranger's ungrateful attitude, they both knew.  Most men would have responded to the stranger's thinly veiled aggression in kind.  The stranger's eyes narrowed.  Distrustful.  Unsure as to whether Jubei was a simpleton or so mild-mannered as to warrant suspicion. 
He was neither, really.  What Jubei was, was dead tired.  The burst of energy he'd had during his fight had faded now, and he was left with a bone-weary fatigue.  The coughing resumed in earnest now, and he turned away from the stranger as he finally gave into a fit that was too strong to hold in.  Jubei smiled humorlessly to himself as he wiped blood off of the back of his hand.  The stranger had saved his life, but he had merely postponed the inevitable.  I'm a dead man, my friend, the thought came.  I've no time to waste on useless anger.
He turned to face the stranger once again.  They looked at each other briefly, neither man speaking.  There was nothing left to be said, after all.  And all Jubei felt in the aftermath of the fight, besides weariness, was a detached amusement of sorts.  An odd feeling he'd never experienced before.  He briefly wondered if this was what Captain Okita had felt in his last few battles, if this was partly the reason for the mysterious little smile that had always graced the young captain's face while he was ill.  Jubei shook his head free of old memories and shrugged, feeling more than a bit ridiculous at the entire situation.  For some reason, he found tonight's events increasingly hilarious.  He turned to leave, deciding it was best to go before he could confuse the stranger even further by smiling or worse yet, laughing out loud. 
Both men turned at the faint voice from the child who sat huddled in the field, surrounded by dozens of mercenary bodies.  Jubei frowned in concern, all traces of humor gone.  He was ashamed that he'd forgotten the child was there. 
"Get up, boy," said the bandaged warrior quietly.  "Get up and walk, or I leave you here."
"Hai," said the child as he braced himself against a wakizashi, trying to stand on wobbly feet.  He didn't succeed.  Merely toppled over into the wet grass, curling up into a little ball.  Jubei arched an eyebrow and walked past the warrior to stand over the child.  In the darkness, he couldn't tell if the boy was injured or ill. 
"This boy needs medical attention," he said.
"I'm aware of that," said the stranger.
"He needs a warm room and a dry bed."  Jubei bent down to pick the boy up.  The child weighed next to nothing, was a mere slip of a thing, light in Jubei's arms.  The stranger watched him, unmoving. 
"Look, Shishio-san, is it?  I'm headed for Yoshiwara," he said, indicating the Main Gate with a sideways nod of his head.  "I could take you both there.  Plenty of rooms for you to spend the night.  The rain won't let up any time soon.  You shouldn't be out in this weather."
"Yoshiwara?"  A brief flicker of emotion crossed the eerie red eyes.
"Yes, I have a small guest suite in one of the ageya.  You could say I have a special relationship with some of the occupants there."  He didn't feel like explaining his particular position in the teahouse, and he was becoming increasingly chilled and uncomfortable.  He felt an increasing need to go quickly, to seek warmth and shelter from the cold rain.  His patience began to wear thin.  "Look, any enemy of these East Bank bastards is welcome to a warm bed in my book.  I don't know what you did to upset them so, but whatever it was, it was probably a good thing.  No one will know of your presence there, if that's what you're afraid of.  The Yoshiwara has its own security personnel.  There are no police within its walls."
"Why are you helping us?" the child in his arms asked, startling Jubei.  He hadn't realized the boy was awake and following the conversation.
"I'm not sure.  It's in my nature, I guess," he answered softly. 
Large round eyes peered up at him.  "But that makes no sense," the boy breathed, then closed his eyes again and buried his face against Jubei's shoulder.  He sensed from the sudden slackening of the boy's body, that he was out cold, overwhelmed by fever and fatigue. 
"Take him," said Shishio suddenly as he turned to walk away.  "But if the boy dies, so will you."  It was almost a challenge, the way he said it.  "Take him then, if you still want him."
"Where are you going?" asked Jubei, stepping back onto the roadway with the boy bundled in his arms. 
The other man kept walking eastwards, towards the riverside, and didn't look back. 
Jubei frowned, troubled and confused.  He found it difficult to maintain any coherent thoughts in his chilled and tired state.  He had no hope of catching up to the stranger, so despite the unanswered questions floating in his head, he hefted the boy up in a more comfortable position and slowly made his way to the Main Gate.  The child was not a particularly heavy burden, but Jubei's exertions from the battle were catching up to him, leaving him utterly drained and exhausted.  It was no more than a half a mile to the Main Gate, but the distance seemed interminable to Jubei's tired mind.  By the time he reached the entrance, his lungs felt as though they were on fire, and the edges of his vision were a bit hazed.  He could barely hold his head up let alone maintain his balance with the weight of the child in his arms. 
He vaguely registered the sound of angry voices as the Shirobei of the Gate, the red light district's internal law enforcement guards, challenged him as he tried to enter.  He lifted his head in response, trying to call out and identify himself, but his voice was a hoarse rasp, barely recognizable, and he was badly winded. 
"Nishida-san!" came a startled voice.  Someone recognized him then, he thought with relief. 
"Nishida-san, we didn't realize you'd be back so soon—Oi, are you all right?  Nishida-san, what the hell—"
"Go fetch Kitada-san!  Now!"  Someone called as strong hands lifted the boy out of his numbed arms.  Jubei was ushered to the guard house and led to a seat and table.  Jubei closed his eyes and rested his head against the table, breathing deeply, centering himself, trying to restore his flagging energy.  A warm cup of tea made its way into his hands, and he muttered his thanks to whoever had thoughtfully placed the drink there. 
"You're welcome, Nishida-san." 
He knew that voice.  He looked up to find a familiar lined face, frowning with worry. 
The worried expression broke into a gruff smile as the old warrior saw that Jubei was all right, relatively speaking.  "You look like hell, boy," said the older man.
"Is the child all right?  Where is he?"
"Probably at the House by now.  You think you can walk home?  If not, we can get a stretcher."
"No, I'll walk."  He couldn't stand the embarrassment of being carried back.  He stood, if a bit unsteadily.  His vision was still swimming, images coming in and out in strange waves of shadows and light.  But he found he could place one foot in front of the other and walk with Kitada to guide him through the bustling chaos of the main boulevard.
"We weren't expecting you back so soon,"  said the older man as he guided Jubei through the maze of streets. 
"Yes, well, I missed your ugly face, Kitada-san." 
He heard the old warrior's amused laughter. 
"And what happened to you out there, boy?  You look like you've been fighting.  And who's the child?"
"Later, Kitada-san.  Please, I'll tell you everything later.  Hell, I'm not even sure what's going on."
The older man grunted and mercifully backed off on the questioning.
"We're here."
Jubei blinked, trying to focus his vision.  He was standing at the front entrance of the House, his House.  He breathed deeply, the familiar sounds and scents of the place washing over him, calming frayed nerves. 
"Are they home?" he asked the warrior next to him.
"Of course.  They both are.  They're waiting for you."  Kitada smiled.  "Welcome home, Nishida-san."
Nishida Jubei smiled in return, and with the old warrior at his side, stepped across the threshold, and finally arrived home. 

Japanese Terms:
ageya – teahouse (Ahem, they served a bit more than just tea)
Bakumatsu – the period of revolution in which power shifted from the shogunate to the Meiji government
katana – long sword
Nakanocho Boulevard – the main teahouse-lined thoroughfare as one entered the Main Gate of Shin Yoshiwara
Oiran – the highest class of courtesans
Shin Yoshiwara – the walled off red-light district in Tokyo where prostitution was licensed and legal
Shirobei – guards of the front gate of Shin Yoshiwara
wakizashi – a short sword

Should this be rated R?  I do not plan on including any sexually explicit content in this story.  Definitely no lemons.  I originally rated this R because this story may be slightly more violent than my last one, may be a bit of a downer, and because of the nature of Yumi's occupation.  I felt that any story featuring a courtesan as a main character (and set in the red light district) automatically warranted an R rating, regardless of the actual content.  But then I was afraid this story wouldn't get any exposure since it wouldn't show up on the main search page.  I don't know.  I'm torn on this.  Input from readers would be helpful, so please let me know which rating you think would be more appropriate.  
Second—and I hate to admit this—the historical background of this story was gleaned solely by surfing the web.  I'm afraid with my current work schedule, I do not have the time to always check the accuracy of the information or to do any more extensive (and proper) research.  I apologize for mistakes in advance.  (And I'm sure there are plenty of them!)  So keeping this in mind, I hope you can forgive my errors, chalk them up to artistic license rather than laziness or ineptness, and manage to suspend your disbelief as you read.
Finally, I did a little picture for this story.  Cover art, if you will.  The image link is in my profile.
I hope people enjoy this so far.