Author's note: Before reading further, please note that this will be a dark fanfiction. Beneath every good fairytale is a hint of menace that sometimes goes unnoticed. Let's face it, fairytales are popular as children's literature; hence, the emphasis on the evil (e.g. parents abandoning their little children in the woods or children encountering cannibalistic old women bent on fattening them up) gets buried beneath the ingeniousness of leaving a trail of shiny pebbles or defeating the old witch in her own game. As such, let this be my only warning that if you do NOT like dark fanfiction (and everything else that accompanies that genre) please refrain reading this piece of work. I have no wish to offend anyone.
Beauty and the Beast has been my favorite fairytale ever since my mother bought me the book over twenty years ago. It was the first fairytale I've ever read. Hopefully, I do it justice in this retelling. Please note that this does not follow Disney's Beauty and the Beast version. While Disney's Beauty and the Beast is one of my favorite Disney movies as it does justice to this timeless tale, this version will follow that fairytale I read a long, long time ago…coupled with a few of my own twists and turns.
Roses in Winter: a Fairytale Revisited - A Rurouni Kenshin Fanfiction
Chapter One: Journey's End
It was not a good day to die.
That thought reverberated around his head as he slowly trudged through the snow-covered land, pulling at his miserable excuse of a donkey at the same time. The wind was howling a monstrous cry as it bit every exposed piece of flesh he had. His face felt numb, his fingers like icicles and yet he moved on, one step forward at a time. Failure was not an option. He had duties, responsibilities…daughters to be exact. Motherless daughters who were waiting for him, counting on him. He needed to live, to survive if only for them.
Not for the first time, he cursed his rotten luck. As he made his way through the seemingly endless deluge of snow, the constant barrage of if only's danced around his brain. If only he had waited a few more days to travel back to Tokyo. If only his caravan was not attacked by a band of robbers skilled in the art of the sword. If only there had been more than one skilled swordsman (namely him) present in his caravan. If only his horse had not suffered the same fate as all the imported goods he had bought. If only this god-forsaken winter storm had held off for a day or two. If only, if only, if only.
As it was, here he was, stuck in the middle of nowhere between Kyoto and Tokyo, dragging what had got to be one of the sorriest looking animal he had ever laid eyes on in his life. He encountered the mangy beast of burden as he staggered across the deserted road (or what he assumed to be a road). The people in his caravan had scattered like the four winds during the attack. He hoped most of them had made it to safety. He couldn't say that he really blamed them for leaving him by the side of the road. He must have looked like a corpse after the leader of the bandits had knocked him senseless. That's what he gets for playing the hero.
He gave himself a self-deprecating grin. Hard to do anything else when he was the only one of his fellow travelers carrying a weapon. Granted that the weapon was just a shinai. He sighed. He couldn't really blame the leader for not taking him too seriously. He was just lucky that all they did was knock him out. Of course, now, he wondered whether they did him a favor. Miraculously waking up in the middle of what could only be one of the worst blizzards he had ever seen, he had at first silently wondered whether hell was a cold, cold place. As odd as it seemed his bleeding, cracked lips were his first indications that he may very well see another day. For surely, he couldn't be this cold and bleeding in the afterlife?
And so, he started again on his journey, going in the direction he thought may be the right one. Hours later was when he encountered the ungrateful donkey whom, at first sight, had also seemed like a corpse. It was upon closer inspection that he realized that the animal was stuck in some sort of rut buried under three feet of snow. Well, never let it be said that Koshijiro Kamiya was one to ignore any living thing in need (his oldest daughter, Megumi, would have something to say about that); and so, he proceeded to do what was the only thing in good conscience he could do and that was free the said donkey. And what was the thanks he got? A good kick in the gut was what! As if he didn't feel like he was beaten to hell and back already.
So here he was, on his way to the gods only knew where, stuck with a wretch of a companion (which was better than none, he supposed). Although, given the amount of pulling he had been doing lately, he had to wonder whether perhaps he should have left the animal at the side of the road. He stopped and turned to look at his companion, pathetic looking creature that it was.
"Hey," he whispered, his voice quivering at the cold. "We need to move." He watched the warmth of his breath swirl above his face. He heard the animal make a whining and feeble sound. He turned again and pulled at the rope determinedly. "We need to move," he said again, only to feel his face run smack in front of…an iron gate?
Falling down in his behind, he felt himself sink slightly as the snow-covered ground gave way to his weight. He stared ahead of him almost bemusedly, wondering if there was such a thing as a mirage in a blizzard. Slowly, he stood up and made a move to approach the gate, only to have his donkey of a companion whiny and pull the rope he held him with back.
"What?" he asked. "I'm just making sure I actually see that it's there," he reasoned, before catching himself. "I'm talking to a donkey," he told himself. Again, he made a move towards the huge iron bars, rubbing his eyes along the way. His donkey made another whine of protest, which he ignored this time. He dropped the rope he had been pulling the donkey with and approached the gates, his face peering between the heavy bars.
What he saw almost made him lose his breath. It was a rose garden in full bloom. In winter. A winter rose garden. He stared at the sharp contrast the blood-red roses made against the snowy whiteness covering the vast expanse that was the garden. In one blinding moment, he thought that maybe, just maybe, he won't have to come home empty-handed. Maybe, he could bring one of his daughters her dearest wish.
He laughed joyfully at his daughter's antics against each other. Truly they were a blessing to watch. Megumi, who took after her mother and her healing arts, was always good at baiting her two younger siblings—most especially his middle daughter, Kaoru. Kaoru, torn between the lady-like influence of his late wife and the more manly pursuit of running the family business like her father, seemed to always rise to Megumi's teasing. As for the youngest, Misao, that one was going to be a tomboy through and through. Already chafing at the restrictions of female clothing, Misao had convinced her elder sisters to make her something that would be a compromise between the modesty of women's clothing and the practicality of men's clothes. Kaoru, always a push-over when it came to her baby sister, first attempted this endeavor, only to end up giving the task to Megumi after the task of sewing defeated her.
"Father," he heard Megumi's voice break through the incessant chatter of Misao. "Will you be gone long this time?"
Kaoru looked up. "I didn't know you were leaving," she said accusingly.
"That's because I just found out today myself," he explained to her suspicious eyes.
"I'm going with you," she stated and made a move to leave the room. He knew, he just knew that she was about to pack her bags.
"Kaoru," he said in as stern a voice as he could, "No, you're not."
She approached him deliberately. "Father," she began reasonably, "how will I ever learn about the ins and outs of running this dojo when you don't take me with you on these business and training trips?"
He shook his head. "I don't want you traveling, Kaoru," he firmly stated. "And that's final."
He saw her open her mouth as she made a move to gainsay him, but he raised his hand up to stop her. "No, Kaoru," he said. He stared her down and gave her a look that brooked no argument. For all her argumentative nature, Kaoru always knew when to back down with her father.
"Now," he said in a much lighter tone, "what would you girls like for me to bring you when I get back?"
"Presents?" Misao's eyes gleamed. That one did like presents.
He laughed. "Yes, presents," he responded.
"I'd like more kunais!" she gleefully replied. "I keep losing the ones I have."
"That's because you throw them everywhere," Megumi said despairingly. "I found some of those decorating the side of the dojo this morning."
"Really?" asked Misao. She jumped up and down and made a beeline for the doorway. Before she was completely outside, however, she ducked her head back in to say, "I'd still like new ones, Father. Please?"
He smiled and nodded his agreement. New kunais for Misao it is. He looked expectantly at his other two daughters. While Megumi's eyes were deep in thought, Kaoru's ire could still be observed. "Kaoru," he said coaxingly, "it's not nice to pout."
An indignant gasp escaped her lips as her older sister smirked.
"I know what I want," said Megumi.
He turned to her with a nod of his head.
"I'll write down the ingredients I need for a new poultice I wanted to try out," she continued. "Since you're going to Kyoto, they should be more readily available there." She exited the room with a thoughtful look on her face.
Which left him alone with his irate second daughter.
"You're being over-protective," she said reproachfully. "I am an Assistant Master to the Kamiya Kasshin Ryu. I can take care of myself."
He nodded. "Yes, I understand that, Kaoru," he said gently, "but with that, you must know that our art is one of protection. These are dangerous times and there are other deadlier styles out there that use a real sword." He paused and walked in front of her. Lifting her chin up, he said, "Part of being the Assistant Master to our Art is to know our limitations." He smiled.
She shook her head.
"Kaoru," he said mock sternly, "look at it this way. Let me do the traveling while I am able. It does me good to know that I can do this thing for you and your sisters. When I am old and decrepit, I will insist that you do the traveling—unless…you have a husband. Then that unworthy idiot can do the honors."
A small grin broke across her face. "Ha! As if I'd marry a spineless idiot of your dreams," she exclaimed.
"Truce?" he questioned, holding both hands up.
She nodded, a smile appearing in the corner of her mouth. "Promise to come home safely, okay?"
"Of course!" he said incredulously. "As if the Master of the Kamiya Kashhin Ryu could do any other." He looked at her expectantly. "Well, what would you like me to bring you when I get back?" he asked.
She shook her head again. "Just come home safely," she repeated.
"Ah…come on," he cajoled, putting his arm over her shoulders. "It would make me feel better for not allowing you to come with me."
She gave a small smile and leaned against him. "Well, I don't really need anything," she said thoughtfully.
"Something frivolous then," he suggested helpfully.
"I know," she said, jumping up and facing him. "Bring me a flower."
"A flower?" he asked with a frown. "How about something nicer? Like a new ribbon with your favorite color?"
She shook her head. "No," she responded. "Just a flower. A rose, in fact. A nice, beautiful rose."
He sighed at her antics and shook his head. "Alright," he said. "A rose it is."
And so, he stared at the wondrous rose garden, hardly believing his eyes. The cold, which moments ago dominated his thoughts, was forgotten as he pressed his face even closer against the iron bars. His cheek barely felt the icy metal as his hands gripped the gate tightly. His body slowly leaned against the structure when, much to his surprise, the gate swung heavily open giving way to his weight.
He stumbled, almost losing his balance. Catching himself, he proceeded slowly inside, looking furtively to the sides as if expecting someone to show up. He heard a protesting whine from the donkey, which again he ignored.
Magical, he thought. This place was magical.
Upon entering the garden, he felt the sudden difference in the air, a shift in the atmosphere. While a blizzard raged outside, here beyond the gate and its high walls, the snow fell gently, lightly caressing the flowers in bloom. The flowers were radiant, full of life. There was a calmness in the air, a peace.
For Kaoru, he thought, as his fingers gently ran over the petals of the closest flower at hand. He smelled the sweet scent of it, the soft hint of mystery. His heart pounded madly in his chest as slowly, reverently, he sliced the stem using a small blade of the kunai hidden in his sleeve. And then, just then as his kunai cleanly cut through the stem, he saw a flash of amber just before he felt his arm yanked painfully back. His whole body went flying across the garden at the sheer force of strength that dragged him from the roses.
Gasping in pain and fear that he had dislocated his shoulder, he looked up at the shadow that loomed before him. His eyes caught the glint of the steel blade pressed precariously close to his jugular and he followed the line of the sword to the hand that held it. And from that hand, his pain-filled eyes looked up even more to see the face of his attacker.
For a moment, his breath stopped as his pulsed raced and he wondered for the first time since he found himself lying beneath an overturned cart and several inches of snow, he wondered if perhaps the cold won't be the one to kill him this day.
"Thief," those feral amber eyes hissed at him.
He shook his head vehemently. No, no, no. He was no thief. He just wanted a flower. A simple flower for Kaoru. He didn't know that anyone owned it, that anyone would even live here. He had to make him understand. He wouldn't have taken…he would have paid…and he gasped as he noticed the scent of blood in the air. His blood.
In his silent denial, he had accidentally cut himself slightly against the sword held against his neck. He watched the blood drip from the edge of the blade. He tried to back away slowly as to avoid the sharp steel only to find it follow his movements. He swallowed carefully.
"Please," he said carefully, "please, I did not mean to steal. I did not know…"
"You think your ignorance will save you, thief?" the low voice growled at him.
He stared helplessly at the stranger's face, hidden in the shadows except for those dangerous eyes. This man, this thing, this beast with a man's voice stood firmly, steadily against the cold holding his sword ready to kill him. From where he sat, he felt the wind pick up and regain its bite. He watched the tangled blood-red mane of the beast move with the wind, as if in agreement with the escalating storm.
"Please," he said again, "I have children whom I love."
"Those are not my concern, thief," he replied, his voice as cold as the wind.
He closed his eyes at the futility of begging from this monster. My daughters, he thought. Again, one last time, he attempted, "I would have paid. I just wanted to give my daughter a rose—" he heard the quick sound of blade cutting through air and felt the sword stop just before it would have severed his head.
He opened his eyes to find the monster staring at him intently.
"You wish to live?" he asked, his voice deceptively soft.
"Yes," he whispered. For my daughters, he thought. He felt himself dragged by the scuff of his neck and found himself staring eye to eye with a killer. He flinched when he saw the scarred visage.
"Will you do anything to live?" he whispered softly.
And, in a moment of foolishness, he said, "Yes, I would." For my daughters only, he thought.
He saw a hint of a cruel smile form around the edges of his mouth as he was unceremoniously dropped on the ground.
"Your daughter will take your place," the monster's word echoed around his brain.
"Wait!" he called, as his would-be killer turned his back. "No!" He approached him from behind, crawling on his knees, and grasped at the sleeve of his clothing. "No," he repeated, "I will not—"
"Too late," he growled in reply.
Just then, a horse, dark as midnight appeared from nowhere and Koshijiro found himself lifted up and dumped on the saddle.
"This horse will take you home," the beast stated. "It will also bring your daughter here."
He felt his face pulled up and found himself once again staring into amber eyes of death. "It will bring me the daughter for whom the roses were for," he hissed. "Tell her …tell her that Battousai awaits her presence. Renege on this and I will find you."
And with that, the Hitokiri Battousai of legends slapped the horse's reins just before Koshijiro felt himself lose consciousness.
To Be Continued