Disclaimer: This story has been disclaimed.
AN: At long last, it is finished. Not the story, mind you, but the chapter certainly. This is another slow chapter, but things to pick up a little bit. The next chapter is where all the fun begins. And I shouldn't have any trouble getting that one out in short order. I would like to thank all of my readers (those of you who are left) for their immense patience in waiting for me to get this out.
Chapter 8: To Tokyo: The Long Journey Eastward
Misao watched as Takezo took the blade to Soujiro's new sword and fit it into the white-bound hilt of the Kikuichimonji. After pounding the holding nail in, Takezo resheathed the blade and calmly presented the whole thing back to Soujiro. Soujiro accepted the weapon gratefully. "Thank you," he said, "It would have been a little difficult for me to attach the handle with only one hand."
Misao bent and looked at Soujiro very suspiciously. "So you're telling me that that sword was a parting gift from that broom-head you used to go around with?"
Soujiro, not quite sure what to make of Misao's expression backed away slightly and nodded. "That's right," he replied, "Mr. Chou's changed his ways, so you don't have to worry."
CRACK! Soujiro yelped as Misao's fist made a smashing impact on his head. "You dolt!" she snapped, "It's because that man's reformed that we have to worry! He works for the cops now…Remember!"
Soujiro was rubbing the top of his had while smiling forlornly. "I trust Mr. Chou more than that Ms. Misao. After all, the reason he called on me was to ask for help in resolving his problem with Mr. Arai."
Misao was baffled. "You mean he wanted to go show his face to those people again," she said in wonder, "After all he did to them."
Soujiro's tone became stern. "It was because of what he did to them that Mr. Chou wanted to go back. He wanted to apologize to them."
"Really?" asked Misao in wonder, "Who knew the broom-head had it in him."
"Mr. Chou is quite an honest fellow," said Soujiro, "He certainly was back when he first joined the Juppongatana. After he met us, he began to change a little."
Misao looked down at Soujiro's new sword. "I never thought a guy like him would have such a high class weapon like this."
Soujiro chuckled. "He is a sword collector after all."
Misao shrugged. "What would anyone want with that many swords?"
Soujiro smiled and laughed. "I believe I can understand," he said, "Mr. Chou once told me why he collected swords."
"Do tell," prompted Misao.
Soujiro chuckled and used his free hand to partially draw his new blade. He turned it so that the blade reflected the light of their campfire, giving the cold steel a warm orange sheen. "So beautiful," he commented offhandedly, "Just like the one Mr. Chou gave me back then."
"You mean Chou gave you your first sword," gasped Misao, "I thought Shishio was the one who did that."
"Mr. Shishio did indeed give me the Wakizashi that was my first sword," confirmed Soujiro, "But the Kikuichimonji Norimune; the sword wielded by Okita of the Shinsengumi during the bloodshed of the Revolution was given to me by Mr. Chou. It was a gift."
"A gift," Misao could scarcely imagine a man like Chou doing something like that.
"It's a little hard to believe, I know. However, it is true." Soujiro smiled as widely as he could. "When you think about it, it's also hard to believe that a man as wild and independent as Mr. Chou could ever join any kind of group, even one as loose as the Juppongatana."
"You do have a point," agreed Misao, holding her chin thoughtfully, "It's hard seeing that broom-head cooperating with anyone. I wonder how Saitou keeps him in line."
"Most likely the threat of a very painful death if he strays," suggested Soujiro, grinning, "But in any case, I was going to tell you about his swords."
"You're the one who got off topic," Misao pointed out.
Soujiro nodded vigorously. "True true." He clapped his hands together. "But in any case, let's continue.
"You see, after me, Chou was the first person to join the Juppongatana. Mr. Shishio and I met him right after we had arrived in Kyoto for the first time…Well, it was my first time. Mr. Shishio had already been to Kyoto several times before me, of course.
"Back then Chou was the legendary sword hunting demon who stole great swords and killed their owners, no matter who those people may have been. When we met him in the street, he immediately noticed Mr. Shishio's sword. When he found out what it was, Mr. Chou didn't hesitate to demand it.
"Mr. Shishio wasn't in a fighting mood then so he told me to take care of it."
"Wow," said Misao, "I'm surprised the broom-head's still alive today."
"I wasn't that good back then," replied Soujiro, "When we first met Mr. Chou, I had been traveling with Mr. Shishio for a little more than a month, so my skills weren't all that noteworthy. I hadn't even learned the Shukuchi yet. When Chou attacked with his Hakujin, he nearly defeated me. It was a close fight.
"I did win in the end. But Mr. Shishio stopped me from killing Mr. Chou. I guess he thought the Mr. Chou could be useful. Mr. Chou was impressed and he was probably wondering that if I was strong enough to beat him, what kind of swordsman Mr. Shishio might be.
"Mr. Shishio invited Mr. Chou to participate in his great overthrow. Mr. Chou didn't hesitate to agree. As a sign of good faith, he presented Mr. Shishio with the Nagasone Kotetsu as a gift."
"That's the sword you broke in your fight with Himura at Shingetsu village," exclaimed Misao.
Soujiro nodded. "That's right. Mr. Chou gave that sword to Mr. Shishio personally."
"But if I remember what Himura told us correctly, the Kikuichimonji Norimune is an even better sword than the Nagasone Kotetsu," commented Misao. Takezo nodded in agreement. "Why would he give you a better sword than the one he gave your master?" Misao continued.
"Ah you see," replied Soujiro, "That's where it gets interesting…"
"You wanted to see me Mr. Chou?" asked little Soujiro, coming into the room.
Chou leaned back against the wall casually and looked the boy over with a single critical eye. Standing up, the boy would have barely been able to reach up past the sword-hunter's waist. And yet, this was the same young man who had defeated him only a few nights ago. The man suppressed a chuckle when he noticed the Wakizashi at the child's side. Even though he wasn't even a teenager, Soujiro already looked like a little samurai. The wakizashi, a short sword from Chou's or Shishio's point of view, was the perfect full-length sword for little Soujiro.
"Yeah," said Chou finally. Soujiro seated himself, resting on his knees in the normal manner, facing Chou with the brilliant smile that he always wore. Once again, Chou had to marvel at the young man before him. Where had Shishio found someone with so much potential?
To cover up both his amusement and admiration, Chou grunted and coughed a little. "I just wanted ta give ya a liddle present ta let'ya know there aint no hard feel'ens."
Soujiro nodded again, though he looked a little confused. "A present?" he asked.
Once again, Chou was forced to reevaluate the boy. Normally, a child Soujiro's age would have gone ballistic with delight at the mere mention of the P-word. But Soujiro had barely raised his eyebrows and maintained a look of polite confusion. What environment had given birth to a child like this?
Chou kept his thoughts to himself as he answered Soujiro's query. "That's right liddle feller. I didn't want'ya ta think I was sore about you beat'en me and all. We're go'in ta be work'en tagether for a good long time, so I figered I'd give ya a present so we can be friends."
Soujiro's already cheerful mood seemed to brighten considerably. "Really," he said, "You would like to be friends Mr. Chou?"
Chou nodded. Reaching behind him, the man pulled out the sword resting against the wall next to him. Behaving almost reverently, he set the sword in front of Soujiro. The full-length katana was much too large for the boy to wield, but Chou knew that Soujiro would grow into it.
Soujiro looked at the sword in confusion. "For me?" he asked.
"That's right kiddo," replied Chou, "That there's the Kikuichimonji Norimune. It's the same sword Okita of the Shinsengumi used dur'en the Revolution. In fact, it's supposed ta be even better than that sword I gave yer boss."
"Really," exclaimed Soujiro. Carefully, the young man pulled the sword close and drew it partially from the sheath. He gasped in awe as the small amount of moonlight streaming in from the window behind him reflected off the blade, turning it a brilliant and beautiful blue color.
Chou chuckled. "I see ya know how ta appreciate a good piece 'o work kiddo."
"But why would you give me something better than what you gave Mr. Shishio?" asked Soujiro, "Won't he be angry."
"Not at all," replied Chou, "The boss'n me've got an understand'en. The Nagasone wasn't more than a howdy-dowdy. He don't need an extra special sword 'cause he's already got the best dern blade ever made. That Kotetsu I gave 'im 'll end up being a fancy ornament to keep around when he holds his court.
"What he'll really appreciate me give'en ya somethin ya'all can use. 'Cause soon, Lord Shishio's gonna be need'en ya ta be do'en all sorts of things for 'im. And when ya'all grow inta it, that sword's gonna be the best damn thing ya've ever had. He'll appreciate it because someday, that sword's gonna help ya ta serve 'im even better then ya do now."
"You mean it!" exclaimed Soujiro gleefully, "I'll be able to better serve Master Shishio?"
Chou couldn't stop a chuckle or a smug smile from creeping out of him. Now the boy really was behaving like a child his age should. It was strange, but amusing nonetheless.
Soujiro looked up from admiring his sword to glance at Chou again. "Why do you like swords so much Mr. Chou?" he asked.
"Why kid?" Chou stared thoughtfully out the window. "Why indeed?"
For a moment, Chou's face seemed to change. He seemed calmer than Soujiro had ever seen him act. Chou picked up one of the other swords lying at his side and drew it partially, considering the blade's keen edge.
"Let me tell ya somethin' kiddo," Chou began softly, "There aint no sword like a bonafide Japanese sword. Ya can travel around the world an' ya won't find nothin' better then a real Japanese sword. An let me tell ya why."
Chou fully drew the sword he was holding, letting the light of the moon play upon its entire length. "When a swordsmith makes one 'o these babies, he doesn't just churn it out like some damn piece 'o equipment. A smith puts 'is 'eart an' soul inta' each and every blade. And then, when a samurai uses that sword, he treats it like a part 'o his'self.
"The history 'o this country is written with swords kiddo. Each and every blade has a story ta' tell. And every story is worth listenin' to. That's why I like these swords so much. I like the feelen' 'o holden' that history, those stories in my hands. It feels better than anythin' else in the world.
"When I stole my first sword, I weren't much older than you are now kiddo. Back then, I was just thief. But then, one time I couldn't get a sword without gettin' through its owner, so I killed 'im. Then I realized how much fun it was ta kill with a sword and decided I'd become a swordsman." Chou finished, sheathing the sword with a flourish and a wink.
"Wow," exclaimed Soujiro, "You really are something Mr. Chou."
Chou chuckled. "That's right kiddo. An don't you ferget it."
"To think that Chou the Sword Hunter would say something like that," murmured Misao.
"There's a lot more to him than most people think," replied Soujiro.
"But he still got way too carried away when he threatened that family," muttered Misao.
Soujiro nodded and looked thoughtfully into the fire. "I suppose that's true. But he went and made things right with them. I suppose he is free from that guilt now."
Misao looked at the sword Soujiro was still holding. "I don't see why you want to carry that thing openly," she commented, "With your sword-arm out of commission as it is, do you want to advertise the fact that you're carrying a real sword?"
Soujiro considered the weapon that he had rested up against his shoulder. "I suppose you're right. But then again it feels better to have it at my side, even if I can't use it."
Misao shrugged nonchalantly. "Suit yourself." She yawned and leaned back. "Take the first watch, Takezo," she said. The mute swordsman nodded. "Wake me up for the second," she added, before letting her eyes close.
"Um, Ms. Misao," said Soujiro, "What about me?"
Without opening her eyes, Misao answered. "You're still injured and you need to rest as much as possible. We're traveling a fair distance, which is going to slow down your healing even more. So you need all the rest you can get."
Soujiro blinked and smiled softly at the ninja. "Thank you, Ms. Misao."
The day dawned brightly as Soujiro slowly awakened. Misao was already attending the fire. Suspended over the flame were several fish that had been impaled on sticks driven in the ground. A slight crackling could be heard as their flesh cooked in the heat. The aroma rising from them made the young man's mouth water.
"Good morning," said Misao cheerfully.
"A good morning to you, Ms. Misao," replied Soujiro.
Beside Soujiro, Takezo slowly began to stir. Within seconds, he was instantly awake. He looked at Soujiro, then Misao. Then he reached out for one of the fish. With a soft smack, Misao slapped away his questing hand.
"Oh no you don't," she admonished a now sheepish looking Takezo, "You're going to wait until the fish is done."
Soujiro laughed at the guilty look in Takezo's eyes. "Takezo always has been a bit quick when it came to breakfast," he commented.
Half an hour later, they were underway. They moved along at an easy pace, Misao and Soujiro walking side by side up front while Takezo brought up the rear. The road was almost completely deserted. Only the occasional traveler passed them by. Soujiro inhaled the fresh air deeply and sighed. "This always was my favorite part," he said.
"What's that?" asked Misao.
"When I served Mr. Shishio," replied Soujiro, "Some of the jobs he gave me to do were far away from where we were at our headquarters. Walking like this when I went from one job to the other was always my favorite part. I used to go all over Japan."
"Did you always do it to kill someone," asked Misao, all but wrecking Soujiro's good mood.
"Not always," he said softly, "But often enough. Sometimes, I delivered messages that Mr. Shishio thought were too sensitive to entrust to anyone else. I also went on other important errands. But yes, he usually did send me out to kill someone."
"Sorry," said Misao, realizing that he was feeling guilty about what he had done.
"It's alright," replied Soujiro, "Not talking about it won't change the fact that I did kill people. It's important that I remember what I did. Anything I did to make up for the wrongs I did would have no meaning if I simply pretended that I never did anything in the first place."
Misao smiled at him. "All you need to do is resolve yourself to do better than you used to," she said, "And as long as you keep working to follow through, you'll have already made up for everything that you did."
Soujiro returned her smile. "Thank you, Ms. Misao."
"I am a little curious though," said Misao.
"How so?" asked Soujiro.
"Well, your arm and shoulder are the only things injured. So by all rights you could just Shukuchi along ahead. You could be in Tokyo in literally no time," said Misao.
Soujiro laughed good-naturedly. "That's a very funny joke, Ms. Misao."
"I wasn't joking," replied an irate Misao.
"Please," said Soujiro, "Allow me to explain.
"As you know, the Shukuchi is a technique that exceeds even Mr. Himura's godlike speed. Even well trained eyes like Mr. Himura's can't see me when I move. On the other hand, I am in a similar position when I use the Shukuchi."
"What do you mean?" asked Misao.
"Because I am moving so fast," explained Soujiro, "Just as my enemy cannot see me; I cannot see anything around me, because according to my perceptions, it is moving too fast for me to register.
"What prevents me from killing myself by running into some kind of solid object is the fact that I can mentally envision the battlefield while I am using the Shukuchi and act on that visualization.
"But if I were to use the Shukuchi to travel, as you suggest, then I would not be able to constantly update my knowledge of the terrain unless I stopped every few feet, which of course would slow down my rate of travel, instead of speeding it up. As a result, I run the risk of severely injuring myself because I'm moving too fast to see where I'm going."
"Oh," said Misao, nodding in newfound understanding, "That makes sense."
Two days after she left, Akemi stepped off the platform into Tokyo. Her box was tucked under one arm as she stretched with the other. "Finally," she said. She knew that she had most likely beaten Soujiro to Tokyo by a week at the very least. If his pace was slower because he was injured, then it simply meant that she had that much more time to prepare for his arrival. She knew that Saitou had wanted her to wait until the Tenken was fully healed, but she still wanted to have everything ready for him before he arrived.
As she set off through the busy streets, Akemi drew admiring looks from several young men. She didn't even bother to return them as they were simply in her way. Akemi continued down the street as if she hadn't seen them.
A few blocks along the way, she heard a ruckus. Following the crowd of onlookers gravitating towards the experience, Akemi went to investigate. What she saw made her sigh in exasperation.
A squad of police, from the sword corps no less, were making trouble with some of the locals. Apparently they had caught a minor pickpocket, whom they had apprehended in brutal fashion. It seemed that they then had declared their intent to execute the man for his minor crime. The former victim had protested the harsh treatment, which had led to his arrest. A few other onlookers had objected as well, which resulted in them being arrested too. Now these sword-wielding officers had decided to execute the whole group.
Akemi couldn't believe her eyes. This was the same squad that had caused a similar disturbance over a year ago. Back then, the incident had been stopped by one Kenshin Himura, she knew from the reports. The officers had been detained, reprimanded and punished severely. They had been reinstated afterwards. But Akemi could now see that that was a mistake.
"For your criminal acts," announced the captain, "We will now execute you to ensure the safety of the government."
"And how does this action correlate with the government's safety?" Akemi inquired as she stepped out of the crowd. She ignored several warnings from the other onlookers, some whispered warnings to her, telling her to stop before she got herself killed. Akemi ignored them.
"And what makes you think that you have a right to question our authority, woman?" demanded one very apish officer. He loomed over Akemi, his body easily dwarfing her slight figure.
Akemi snorted disdainfully. "I am privileged to intervene because I represent the government," she replied, withdrawing a sheet of paper from within the sleeve of her kimono. "I am Akemi Ebisu, special agent of the Department of Internal affairs. Now, explain to me how exactly this is reinforcing the government's authority."
The officer, who had been threatening her a moment ago, stepped down amid a storm of whispers from the crowd. Several of the officers were looking at one another indecisively. There was no doubt that her papers were genuine. They were almost too shocked to speak.
Finally, the captain addressed her question. "By destroying the seeds of evil before they can take root, we ensure that evil is eliminated in its earliest form. The spectacle of their deaths will serve as a reminder to the rest of the populace of what happens when one goes against the government."
Akemi raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Is that so?" She smirked. "You disappoint me, captain. A heinous action like this will only brew discontent against the government. You say that you destroy the seeds of evil before they can take root, but in reality, you only sow the seeds of discontent that we will have to reap later down the road when the anger of the people reaches the boiling point."
"Shut up," snapped the captain, "These people are criminals. They are thieves and insurgents. And as such, they must die!"
"Two," said Akemi, holding up two fingers. The captain looked at her questioningly. "You have overstepped the boundaries of your authority on two points." She lowered one finger. "First, you have used excessive force. Even if these people you have arrested truly are criminals, their crimes are not enough to warrant such treatment." She held up the second finger. "Second, you are dispensing punishment out of order. Now that they have been apprehended, the fate of these so-called criminals is to be determined by the official magistrate. You no longer have any say in determining their fate. You should have taken them into custody then attempted to prove them guilty in the court of law.
"It is people like you, who overstep the bounds of your authority and act outside of the rules of established law that undermine the government's authority. If you continue to proceed in this manner," threatened Akemi, "Then I will have no choice but to report you to my superiors. You won't get any second chances this time."
The captain's eyes narrowed dangerously. In a single fluid motion, he drew his sword, stopping the point right in front of her face. "You can't stop us if you don't survive to report us," said the captain. He smiled evilly.
To his surprise, Akemi returned his smile. "Are you sure you want to do that?" she asked slyly, "Threatening an official agent of the government in this manner constitutes treason. This, of course, is only punishable by execution. And unlike you, I am authorized by the government to pass judgment as I see fit in these situations."
The captain laughed disdainfully, a laugh that was echoed by several of his subordinates. "And who will inform the government once you're dead?" he asked, "They won't believe the word of this crowd of riffraff," he gestured contemptuously to the crowd, "And how can you possibly pass judgments on us? We are the police swordsmen, an elite unit, chosen because of our skill. You don't stand a chance, woman."
Akemi sighed. "It's such a disappointment," she said sadly, "I'm afraid that the government has no more use for you."
"What was that?" snarled the captain, "I won't stand for anymore of this. Kill her at once!"
Akemi merely sighed in annoyance as several sword-wielding officers closed in on her position.
The sun was high overhead, but they had gotten lucky. The group had found a tea house along the road. Ducking under the roof, they relaxed in the shade as they enjoyed some tea and dumplings that Misao had bought.
"Thank you for paying our way, Ms. Misao," said Soujiro, while Takezo nodded empathetically.
Misao smirked evilly. "Oh if you two think you can mooch off of me like that Sagara does Ms. Karou, you've got another thing coming. First, there's the initial price and then later on there'll be interest. Calculate into that how long it'll be before you two can even afford to pay me…" Misao's smirk became a full blown evil grin as she began to estimate what the two swordsmen would owe her.
Soujiro gulped and paled as he felt a very evil aura spilling out of the young ninja. Takezo was also beginning to look slightly nervous.
"What'da ya want with me," growled Chou as he stamped into Saitou's office, "I'm on leave if no one told ya!"
Saitou took a long drag on his cigarette as he looked over a sheaf of reports. Looking up, he simply gave Chou an acknowledging glance. "Despite that fact, failing to arrest a known criminal on sight can be considered dereliction of duty."
Chou paled as he met Saitou's amber eyes. The man had apparently learned about his secret meeting with Soujiro. "'Ave you been spyin' on me?" he asked, glaring at the officer with his single open eye.
Saitou merely snorted. "You yourself are a former criminal, one of Shishio's Juppongatana, no less. Your actions in the ten years since the revolution would be considered high treason by anyone's standards. Did you simply think that if you became an agent of the government that they'd stop watching over you just like that?" Saitou smirked at Chou. "Even if my men are too busy to follow you doesn't mean that the agents of other offices aren't looking after you. And they always show the consideration to tell me what they have learned."
If anything, Chou's complexion paled even further. "So what're ya goin' ta do about it?" he asked curiously.
"To be honest," replied Saitou, "Absolutely nothing. I have already entrusted the matter of the Tenken's apprehension to my most capable agent. Either Akemi will persuade him to pay his debt to society by soliciting his skills for our use, or she will see to it that he no longer proves to be a threat."
Chou gulped. "Ya mean ta tell me that ya're sending that there she-wolf after that poor kid."
Saitou chuckled. "Of course. Not to mention that we already know where the Tenken is bound for."
"Huh?" Chou hadn't the slightest clue as to that fact.
"Soujiro Seta is undoubtedly going to seek refuge in the Kamiya dojo while recovering from his injuries," said Saitou, "And when he arrives, he will find Akemi Ebisu waiting for him." The man blew out a stream of smoke in Chou's direction.
Chou was shaking. "No, no way!" Even Chou was more than a little intimidated by Akemi Ebisu, who wielded one of the most lethal fighting techniques he had ever seen. Her swords seemed to defy the laws of nature and she could do things that no human could ever do. On top of that, her personality was as cold and ruthless, if not more so than her teacher, Saitou. The thought of Soujiro facing that woman made his blood run cold.
Chou turned to leave, about to dash to the train station and hop the next train Tokyo-way. He had to somehow intercept Soujiro and keep him from fighting Akemi.
"Going somewhere?" asked Saitou, his tone stopping the sword-collector in his tracks, "Due to an emergency, your leave is terminated. As of this moment you are back on active duty."
"What the?" demanded Chou, whirling around to face Saitou.
Saitou was no longer smirking. "Soujiro is Akemi's business now. Let her deal with the matter. I'm afraid that we face an even graver problem…"
Akemi quietly put her weapons back in their case. Turning away from the scene of her latest action, she walked calmly through a much thinner crowd of onlookers. Many of the few remaining looked as though they were going to be sick. Akemi ignored their terrified stares as she made her way to the nearest police station to inform the local authorities about her latest work.
Behind her, the source of the crowd's uneasiness lay splattered across the rood and the storefronts where the brief skirmish (if one could call it that) had taken place. The police swordsmen were no longer recognizable as their bodies had been cut into pieces, splattering blood and gore far and wide across the road. Some body parts leaned limply against walls while others sprawled out across the ground. It was one of the most gruesome things that Tokyo had ever seen.
And yet, unlike her previous ventures, Akemi Ebisu did not have a single drop of blood on her body.
A week later, the group's destination was in sight. Soujiro, Misao and Takezo now stood on the path leading to the entrance of Tokyo. "Well," said Soujiro, "We're here."
Misao smiled and nodded. "It'll be great to see Himura, Ms. Karou and the others."
Takezo merely looked forward. Soujiro noticed that his friend's expression and personality had been changing dramatically as they had gotten closer to Tokyo. His expression had grown more sullen, his mood more withdrawn. He rarely responded to anything Soujiro said. Indeed, he seemed to be behaving almost mechanically. Soujiro was becoming slightly unnerved by his friend's strange behavior. However, he couldn't think of anything to do about it.
"We'll stop by this great restaurant I know before we head on over to Ms. Karou's place," said Misao, as she led them through Tokyo's streets. Eventually, Misao brought them to a large beef pot restaurant.
"Ah," said Soujiro, "I remember this place."
"You do?" asked Misao.
"Yeah," replied Soujiro, "I ate here the last time I came through Tokyo. It was when I…" Soujiro's voice trailed off as his mind traveled back to the last time he had been there. His expression became forlorn. That's right, he thought, It was that day.
"When you what?" Misao prompted, unaware of the source of Soujiro's melancholy mood.
"The day I killed Mr. Okubo," replied Soujiro softly. He had spoken quietly, so the other people in the street hadn't heard him.
"Oh," said Misao, clapping a hand over her mouth. In traveling with the normally cheerful young swordsman, she had grown use to him having an almost constant cheerful attitude. However briefly, she had forgotten the truth about who he had been. He had been a ruthless assassin who had killed at every one of Makoto Shishio's whims.
Soujiro suddenly looked at her. He was smiling again. But Misao could see that it was strained and he was trying to hide his pain. Still, she pretended she didn't notice. It wouldn't be proper to force all of Soujiro's painful memories into the open, not in a public venue like this.
"Let's go inside," she said softly. On Soujiro's other side, Takezo nodded his agreement. Together, the three of them walked through the doors of the Akebeko.
Tae Sekihara, the manager of the restaurant, had an almost limitless memory for faces. It was essential for her role as the person who was in charge of the day to day affairs of the restaurant. Tae's remarkable memory allowed her to remember the faces of even the most obscure visitors. She could even remember the approximate time of their visit to the restaurant. The fact that she was able to welcome people who came multiple times, even if months passed between their visits, and remember them only added to the comfortable atmosphere of the restaurant.
Thus, she was quick to recognize Misao, whom she knew well enough, thanks to a certain sister of hers in Kyoto. "Ms. Misao," she said gleefully as Misao, Soujiro and Takezo came in the door, "It's so nice to see you again. It's been more than a year, hasn't it?"
"It's good to see you too, Ms. Tae," replied Misao, waving.
Misao turned to look at Soujiro. "I remember you," she said predictably, "You actually came in here around the same time that Ms. Misao visited us, though not at exactly the same time."
"It's nice that you would remember me," replied Soujiro, scratching the back of his head as he smiled nervously, "My name is Soujiro Seta. It's nice to be back."
"Well," said Tae, turning to regard Takezo, "You must be new here. Hmm…" Tae examined Takezo's face closely for a moment. "You look just like a man I know by the name of Himura."
Takezo didn't flinch and his face didn't change in the slightest. But Soujiro, Misao and Tae knew immediately that the woman had hit a nerve. The air around Takezo turned bone-chillingly cold. Misao shivered slightly. She didn't even feel anger or hatred in Takezo's aura. It was hard to describe. He was just…cold.
Tae gulped nervously, but shrugged the feeling off as she led the trio to an open booth. She left them to greet other customers while another waitress took their order.
Akemi couldn't believe her luck. She had just settled into the Akebeko for a nice midday meal when who should walk in, but her quarry. Soujiro Seta came in the front door as plain as day. It took all of Akemi's strength not to arrest him at that very moment. Instead, she calmly observed Soujiro and his two companions, Misao Makimachi and someone else whom she did not know, with her peripheral vision as they ate their own lunch. Experience had taught her that martial artists often had an extra sense that seemed to warn them when somebody was directly observing them. In her experience, Akemi had found that utilizing her peripheral senses and not observing targets directly greatly lowered the chances of them noticing they were being watched.
Akemi quickly arrived at a decision not to follow them whenever they decided to leave. She knew where they were going anyway. She also noticed that Soujiro still had his arm in a sling, courtesy of Saitou. Considering how long it had been since the incident with Matahachi and the fact that Soujiro appeared to be mostly untroubled by his injury led Akemi to determine that it wouldn't be much longer until he healed.
Smiling at this thought, Akemi paid her bill and departed, leaving Soujiro and his friends to enjoy their meal. Akemi Ebisu would make his life Hell soon enough. Just you wait, Tenken, she thought with all the venom she could muster, I will enjoy the feeling of giving you a taste of my justice.
Soujiro felt a chill go down his spine. It was as if somebody was driving daggers of ice into his skin. "Are you alright?" asked Misao, "You started looking a little pale all of a sudden." Next to her, Takezo nodded in agreement.
Soujiro's voice was distant. "I suddenly felt cold. For a moment I thought I felt a powerful killing intent from outside, but I don't feel anything anymore." He rubbed the back of his head nervously. "I'm alright now. It's nothing, really. I'm sure that it was just my imagination."
Misao gulped as she remembered Okina telling her that the police may have already anticipated Soujiro's move to Tokyo. "I think we should go visit Himura and the others as soon as we're done."
The air once again grew cold. This time, the source was Takezo.
"Oro!" Kenshin watched as Karou dashed from stall to stall in the market. Sometimes he found himself wondering where the woman got her seemingly limitless energy from. Even he, the former legendary manslayer, who had fought his way through countless assassins, was beginning to get a little tired. And who could blame him. A man would have to be more than human to keep up with a woman in uber-shopping mode.
"Ms. Karou," said Kenshin, "It's getting a little late. Don't you think that we should perhaps return home now."
Karou ignored him and continued to fawn over the various wares being marketed.
"Give up," growled Yahiko, by Kenshin's side, "Once that ugly woman gets going, there's no stopping her."
POW! Yahiko ended up on the ground with a tremendous lump on the top of his head as a very menacing Karou stood over him, fist cocked to deliver a second blow, should the young man decide to say anything further.
"Oro!" Kenshin could do very little in such a situation. It certainly did get her attention, though. "Ms. Karou, perhaps we should head home. It will be time to prepare dinner soon, that it will."
"You're right of course, Kenshin," replied Karou cheerfully.
"Oro." No matter how many times he saw it for himself, Kenshin never would be able to get used to Karou's seemingly random mood swings. He continued to stare as Karou walked past him, dragging a slightly less than conscious Yahiko behind her by the collar of his kimono.
"Ah," said a familiar sounding voice behind him, "There you are, Mr. Himura."
Kenshin spun around to face someone he hadn't expected to see for a very long time. "Soujiro," was all that Kenshin could force past his lips. He was astonished to see the young man in Tokyo. Granted, Chou had never said where Soujiro might have gone, but still, to just run into him in the street seemed odd. What was even odder was Soujiro's condition. The young man's right arm was in a sling. Apparently, he had been less than fortunate in his travels.
"It's nice to see you again, Mr. Himura," said Soujiro cheerfully while he smiled. Kenshin thought he detected a sense of genuine happiness behind that smile, not like the empty ones that Soujiro had born before.
"You've changed," was all that Kenshin could say.
"Hey Kenshin!" shouted Yahiko, coming up behind him, "Are you coming or not?" Yahiko suddenly noticed Soujiro. "Hey! Who's this guy?" he asked, pointing at Soujiro.
"Kenshin," said Karou as she joined them, "Is he a friend of yours."
Both Soujiro and Kenshin paused. Soujiro scratched his head, considering his answer carefully. "Well, not exactly."
"HIMURA!" Kenshin nearly toppled over as Misao collided with him. The unfortunate rurouni swore he could almost hear his bones creaking as she enveloped him in a massive hug.
"Misao!" exclaimed Karou, excitedly as she pried the girl off of Kenshin and into an embrace of her own, "What are you doing here in Tokyo."
"Hey," said Yahiko, "It's the weasel." Yahiko once again found himself on the ground, this time with two lumps on his head.
"Ms. Misao," said Kenshin carefully, "Why are you traveling with Soujiro?"
"Well," said Misao, just as cheerfully as Soujiro, "Kyoto isn't safe for him anymore, so we decided it would be best if Soujiro stayed in Tokyo for a while; at least until his wounds heal."
"Wounds," said Kenshin, raising an eyebrow. He turned to face Soujiro. "You mean to say that you've been fighting."
Soujiro sighed, his smile slipping away. The change in his expression unnerved and relieved Kenshin at the same time. "You could say that," he said dourly, "Mr. Saitou certainly did a number on me."
"WHAT!" roared Yahiko, "THAT CRAZY COP'S STILL ALIVE!"
Soujiro scratched his head nervously. "I'm afraid so," he said carefully. Looking around, he glanced at the people around them. "Um," he said, "We might want to take this conversation to a more private place. I'm afraid that I'm still wanted by the law."
Kenshin and Karou were about to extend the invitation into their home when someone brushed right past Soujiro and Misao. For a moment, Yahiko thought he was seeing double. The young man looked just like another Kenshin, with black hair instead of read and an absence of the cross-shaped scar. He also obviously preferred blue instead of purple.
Without a glance at Kenshin or anyone else, the young man passed on Kenshin's left. Almost too late, Kenshin noticed the sword the young man wore on his side. As he walked past Kenshin, the end of his sheath, ever so lightly, brushed against the sheath of Kenshin's sword.
There was no time for hesitation. Without even thinking, Kenshin stepped forward and to his right, spinning around. As he did so, he used the power of his turn to pull his sword from its sheath. Spinning all the way around, Kenshin brought his sword against the other man's. The two reverse-blade swords came together with an impressive ring of steel upon steel. Kenshin's opponent had mirrored his Battoujutsu flawlessly. The two of them now stood deadlocked, their blades still grinding against one another. Kenshin found himself more than a little disturbed, by the look of quiet intensity in the young man's eyes.
"And who," asked Kenshin, carefully, "Might you be?"
AN: Chapter 8 is finally done. I had originally planned something longer, but I decided that a cliffhanger would be better. The duel between Kenshin and Takezo starts in the next chapter. Also, Akemi introduces herself to some of Soujiro's new friends. As for the events surrounding the reappearance of Shishio, expect them to be quiet for a little while longer. All in all, I hope it was worth the wait. And if it wasn't, I promise the next chapter will be much more interesting, and out much sooner. And now on to various comments. First off...
Soujiro's explanation of the Shukuchi: One of my greatest pet peeves about stories in which Soujiro participates is the fact that so many of them trivialtize the Shukuchi. It's already in a humor story where such exageration is expected. However, when a supposedly serious (that is to say non-parody type story) has Soujiro using the Shukuchi to do every little thing (such as traveling long distances, running errands and so on), it really grates on my nerves. This little explanation bit was my justification for Soujiro not doing what do many authors portray him as doing.
The incident between Kenshin and Takezo that occurs at the end of the chapter is known as a Saya-ette. It's an old piece of samurai edicate. According to the samurai code of honor, touching's one sheath, especially with another's sheath, is paramount to an attack on the person who is wearing the touched sword. Such an offense demands instant retaliation and the offended party is obligated to strike down the offender. In a situation where two walking samurai bump against each other's sheaths in the street, it is impossible to officially declare who the offended party is. As a result this results in many one strike duels. This method is especially heavily practiced in iai (sword drawing) schools. Some swordsmen intentionally initiate a saya-ette as a test of their speed and skill. The frequency of such incidents led the government to order people to walk on the left side of the road. Because the sword is worn on the left side, making people pass on the right prevents unintentional saya-ettes from occuring. This is why the Japanese drive on the left side of the road in modern times.