Disclaimer: Rurouni Kenshin characters are the property of creator Nobohiro Watsuki, Shueisha, Shonen Jump, Sony Entertainment, and VIZ comics. This is a non-profit work for entertainment purposes only. Permission was not obtained from the above parties.

Soul of a Hitokiri
By Haku Baikou

Conversations died as he entered the room.


Unspoken, the word nevertheless tore through the ranks, seizing the thoughts of every man present in the tea house. New and seasoned warriors alike took note of the crimson hair, the crossed scars marring the young man's face. And as if they suddenly realized they were staring, the men of the Ishin Shishi looked away again, resuming their talk, only muted a notch, a little more nervous than before. And what was once a comfortable warm atmosphere was now charged with a subtle tension, an undercurrent of fear as the men tried to behave normally, but failed.

He was on their side, they knew. Efficient and dependable in his work. He had never harmed one of their own and had never shown any inclination to do so. But that didn't make his presence any less unnerving. Didn't make those eerie golden eyes any less intimidating. Didn't make them feel any more at ease to know that he wasn't coming for any of them. His presence may have been a godsend when they fought in the streets of Kyoto, but in this crowded room, it was too much. Overwhelming.

Added to the discomfort was the knowledge that Battousai had recently undergone some kind of personal crisis, so the rumors went. That he was mad with grief over the loss of someone dear to him, though none could guess as to who could have possibly gotten close enough to the young man. And none could relate the exact details of the event. Suffice it to say that whatever had happened to him, the change was noticeable even to those who didn't know him.

So. He was finally back. He'd disappeared for over half a year after the Ikedaya incident, and now he'd returned, alone, and with no explanation regarding his long absence. He was different, was all. The young warrior who was once a soft-spoken boy with an iron resolve and a quiet determination, was now something darker, a force to be reckoned with, a thing to be feared.

The golden eyes smoldered. The men wondered if he was stable.

If Battousai sensed anything from them—and surely, he did—his expression remained neutrally composed as he made his way across the crowded room to the foot of the stairs. The swish of cloth and soft clink of metal from his swords seemed to reverberate throughout the room despite the louder sounds of scattered conversation.

A collected sigh of relief, then, as the hitokiri disappeared slowly up the steps. The tension abated, the men resumed their talks. And the proprietor of the place noted with bemused interest that more than the usual rounds of sake were ordered that night.

She sensed immediately that he was upset. Quietly sliding the shoji shut as she entered, Ikumatsu turned to face him and knelt, waiting.

"There are times I wonder if all of this…" he waved his hand absently, a general sweep of the entire city of Kyoto, "…If all of this is worth it."

His voice was quiet and low, tinged with a sadness that she rarely saw in him. Not that he didn't feel it often, she suspected, frowning. But he was usually far more adept at hiding his pain.

"Did your meeting with Himura-san not go as planned?" she asked hesitantly.

"Iya, that went well enough," he said as he rubbed his eyes and massaged his forehead tiredly. "He confirmed his earlier decision. He'll be rejoining us as a bodyguard and a fighter in the front ranks. I was afraid that he'd change his mind. When I first asked him at his cottage… I think it was too soon after she'd died. I wasn't sure if he realized what he was promising me."

"Ah. Then it's guilt rather than disappointment," she said.

His sharp eyes looked up at her.

"Am I that obvious?"

"Hai. But only to me," she said, smiling gently.

He returned the smile in spite of himself, but his expression remained painfully downcast.

"I'll be the death of that boy," he thought out loud. "No. Not a boy anymore. Not after what we've—what I've done to him."

"You did what had to be done."

"I did the unforgivable, Ikumatsu. I destroyed him. Twice. Once by making him an assassin. And once by being foolish enough to try to curb the damage I'd wrought. I should never have sent him away with that girl."

"The girl was the best thing that ever happened to him."

Katsura laughed bitterly. "And now look at what he's become because of it. She's dead, and he's broken. And I," he swallowed. "I continue to lead. As always. I continue to sacrifice lives I've no right to sacrifice."

"His heart may be broken, his soul may be torn," she said quietly. "But they can be mended with time, my love. The damage is not irreparable. It can be undone. And it will be undone. Someday."

He frowned and lowered his eyes in a rare display of self-doubt. It hurt to see him like this, her proud Choshu lord. Ikumatsu moved closer to him and touched his face gently.

"You did what had to be done," she repeated gently, but firmly. "No regrets, you always told me. No regrets and no looking back. You are Katsura Kogoro of the Choshu Clan. Or have you forgotten that, my love?"

He smiled, a shade of his normal composure returning.

"You are my strength, as always," he murmured. He straightened his back and sighed. "Still, the boy needs help, Ikumatsu. And I am the last to give him such help. I only destroy. Someone else has to rebuild."

He was looking at her, his eyes direct.

She understood the hidden request.

She hesitated. "You want me to speak with him."

"Tomoe-san is dead. Okami-san isn't here. I can think of none other who could fulfill such a task." He studied her face briefly. "But only if you're willing, love. I'd understand if you do not wish to. Most people would rather avoid him."

"Iya," she said. "I'm not afraid of him."

He smiled then. "I didn't think you were."

She had lied, as it turned out. She was indeed afraid of him.

Ikumatsu was glad she was kneeling, else her knees would threaten to give. She kept her eyes focused demurely downward, avoiding the amber gaze of the young man who entered and knelt silently before her.

"You wished to see me… Ikumatsu-dono?"

The young voice was respectful, soft and hesitant, sounding almost innocent like it had been when she'd first met him over a year ago. And the formal, antiquated honorific he'd attached to her name, as if he was nervous in her presence and chose the most honored form address he could think of in order to be assured of no insult.

Intrigued by the tone of his voice, she looked up finally and was surprised by what she saw in the golden eyes. They were flat and dull and filled with pain. Nothing like the descriptions she'd heard from the men downstairs. Nothing like the glowing demon's eyes that had all the warriors on edge.

She wondered in silent amazement at how very wrong the men's descriptions had been. Could they not see beyond the amber glint? It was nothing but a gilded shield the boy had constructed around himself. To keep others away, at a distance his raw nerves could handle. Ikumatsu saw through it immediately. And she knew that Katsura had seen the same.

"Welcome back, Himura-san. It is good to see you," she said carefully.

He nodded mechanically in thanks.

She wasn't sure how to continue. Instinct led her to choose the most direct approach.

"I am deeply sorrowed by your loss, Himura-san. And I wondered if there was anything I could do to help."

She'd gotten his attention, that much was obvious. The golden eyes stared in frank surprise at her. Himura swallowed and looked quickly away, his gaze intent on the window, on the moon, on the tree outside. On anything but her. His fingers clenched and unclenched unconsciously, and Ikumatsu got the strange impression that his hands longed for the small top that he so often had played with in idle moments when his mind was occupied elsewhere.

"Thank you for your concern." His voice was tight, carefully controlled. "But I don't need any help."

"Katsura-san is deeply worried about you."

A fleeting, pained hint of a smile as he shook his head. He still would not look at her.

"I promised her I'd live." The words came as a mere whisper. "Be assured. I will not act rashly or take unreasonable risks. I will not endanger my life. Or anyone else's."

Ikumatsu was caught off guard by that response. Her eyes stung suddenly, her heart going out to the boy. To assume that she had meant suicide when she'd said nothing of the sort. Himura's thoughts were far away indeed, then, lost with the dead.

She realized her task would prove more difficult than she'd initially thought. How was she to heal him, if he didn't even consider himself truly among the living?

"Himura-san…." She said at a loss for further words.

"Was there anything else?" he asked her.

She acted desperately, sensing that he was preparing to leave. She didn't think. Just moved forward and reached for the boy and put her arms around him and held on to him tightly. He gasped, tensed suddenly, his breath hitching in his chest, too shocked to move at first, then too polite to insult Katsura-san's lady by trying to free himself.

He was trapped in her embrace, forced by a deeply ingrained courtesy not to break away. His breathing shallow and uneven, his entire frame trembling by emotions pent up for too long.

Ikumatsu spoke to him then, whispering in his ear while he was vulnerable and could not tune her out, could not close her off like he had everyone else.

"It's not just your life, Himura-san. It's so much more. So much more."

He was shocked into listening. She could feel it in the way he held himself, back straight and tense.

"Katsura-san, Takasugi-san. You may not believe me, but they do care." She spoke in low soothing tones as she would have to a child, saying what she had to say quickly before Himura could regain his composure.

"They've used you, yes. They will continue to use you, yes. They will not hesitate in asking you to do things that will hurt you, yes. But they care about your life not just because of your duties to them, not just so you'll kill for them."

She backed off a little then, grasping his face in her hands and looking him in the eye.

"Katsura-san looses sleep over you, worries for you, wonders about your future. We all do. I know you may not believe me now, not so soon after being betrayed. But someday, when the night is dark and cold, and you think you're all alone. Know then, that Tomoe-san was not the only one to care about you, child."

She blinked and let go of him then, surprised that she had called Battousai a child, surprised by what she'd done. But Kogoro had spoken so often of the boy that she felt like she knew him. Could feel his pain wash over her in relentless waves as she'd held him.

"She wanted you to live," she said finally, feeling weak all over. "So please, Himura-san. Live."

He was staring at her now, amber eyes flashing, breathing still labored. But the mask was back in place, the expression cold and distant. And Himura Kenshin the boy was gone, replaced by Battousai, who knelt before her silent and uncommunicative, every inch the terrifying demon that the men downstairs had been so afraid of.

She'd misjudged. Oh, how she'd misjudged….

"Sumimasen," she said softly. "I'm sorry to have taken up your time. I believe I've only made things worse."

She stood up to leave.

"Iya," came the word softly from behind her.

She turned to regard him, finding him still kneeling on the mat, gazing forward, unwilling or unable to meet her eye.

"Tell Katsura-san…." The boy shook his head. "I will try to understand."

It was enough for now. It was a beginning. She felt her throat tighten, a painful little knot that echoed the pain in her heart. So there was hope after all.

"He'll be pleased to hear that, Himura-san. Now please get some rest. Tomorrow will be a busy day."

With that, she left the boy.

And as she walked down the hallway back to Katsura's room, Ikumatsu finally allowed her tears to fall.


Author's Note:
I sat down this morning ready to work on Oiran, but this rascal of a story just popped into my head, clamped down on my brain, and wouldn't let go. So I had to write it or else I'd be distracted all day. Sheesh, this is worse than getting song lyrics stuck in my head. A little out of character and melodramatic, I suspect. But oh well, not like I planned to write this. It was more of an accident. Anyway, this is not my first fan fic, but it is my first one-shot. It feels kind of weird, writing a story that only has one part to it. Feels almost like I'm writing a school essay or something. Man, I hope it doesn't read like a school essay. That would be boring. Anyway, hope people like it. Please review, whether you liked it or not. Criticism is better than dead silence, in my humble opinion. Thanks.

Addendum -

This story was partly inspired by another fan fiction written by a fantastic author, Conspirator. Conspirator's epic fic, Descent Into Madness, tells the story of young Kenshin's introduction into the Ishin Shishi and how he changes from a naive innocent into Battousai. It's a long story, but it goes by quickly because it's so damned good. My story, Soul of a Hitokiri, takes place soon after the end of Conspirator's story.

And strangely enough, author Moonsilver has been kind enough to write a continuation of my story. A sequel of sorts, her Changing Sides tale takes up where mine leaves off, and is a further exploration of Kenshin's character and of his relationship with Ikumatsu. A wonderful story that made me a bit teary-eyed.

I highly recommend both of the stories above. If you enjoyed this one-shot and are thirsting for more good Battousai stories, then do check out Descent into Madness by Conspirator and Changing Sides by Moonsilver. Thanks to both those authors for inspiring others. And thanks to the readers for, well, for reading!