Out of Time
Chapter 6: And So We Meet
"I know their names," Battousai said calmly to Sano as they sat on the steps outside the Aoi-ya. "You don't need to teach them to me. Misao has the braid and calls me 'Himura.' Megumi is the lady doctor. And the other girl is Kaoru."
Sano winced at Battousai's reference to "the other girl." But at least it was a start. "Right," he said. "Except that you refer to them all as –dono." He paused, thinking it over. "Actually, you pretty much use –dono for girls in general."
Battousai nodded. "Fine. Misao-dono, Kaoru-dono and Megumi-dono. And I am to call you Sanosuke."
"You're not 'to call' me anything," Sano snapped. "I'm your friend. Call me whatever the hell you want. This isn't some military maneuver, Himura. This is called learning the names of people who care about you."
The boy didn't answer, his eyes fixed on his hands.
Sano stopped his tirade when he noticed how uncomfortable and withdrawn his friend looked. "Himura? Are you okay?"
Battousai swallowed and nodded shortly. "Are we done?"
"What's wrong? Are you feeling sick again?"
"I'm fine," Battousai said coldly. Then, after a long pause asked, "When can we go back inside?"
"Everyone is staring at me. I shouldn't let them see me like this. I'm too exposed."
Sano looked around at the people on the street. "I guess I just got used to it. People always stare at you. I mean, how many swordsmen with red hair do you think people see? That's why I never understood why you bothered covering your scar. If they're too stupid to figure you out by your hair, I don't see what difference the scar would make." Sano motioned to the bandage on his friend's face.
"I shouldn't be out here," Battousai said again. "You can't understand."
The redhead finally looked up. "I can feel a lot of negative ki. That's all. It's almost as though the Shinsengumi is here."
Sano laughed. "Is that all? Well, we can safely assume the Shinsengumi aren't going to be a problem, since they haven't been around for years. And the negative ki is probably just one of the police officers upset about your sword." He leaned back against the stairs, grateful to have resolved that so quickly.
Battousai's narrowed blue eyes shifted slowly to the crowd. He saw an officer watching him from the distance. Maybe Sanosuke was right. Maybe it was just an angry officer. But this man's ki felt somewhat familiar.
"So, all that's left is Yahiko."
The youth shifted his focus from the officer to Sano, who'd begun talking again. "What?"
Sano grinned. "You just have to meet Yahiko, and you'll know just about everyone. Hopefully we'll get you home before you have to meet anyone else."
Battousai glanced back where the police officer was, but he had disappeared. "Yahiko?" He turned back to Sanosuke, blocking the officer from his mind. "You mean the one you called a little brat?"
The other man laughed. "Yeah, that's him." His face went solemn for a moment. "But don't call him that. I mean, it's true, but whether or not Yahiko shows it, he hero-worships you, and he'd be crushed if he thought you didn't respect him. He's a pain in the ass, but he'd a good kid. If you just acknowledge him now and then, he should be okay." Sano smirked. "Oh, yeah. And don't call him Yahiko-chan unless you want to see him explode. As fun as that can be, I don't think you're ready for it. I've actually had him jump on my head and bite me once, for lack of a better weapon."
Battousai blinked wide, blue eyes at him for a moment before a soft laugh escaped his faintly curved lips. "That sounds like something I'd have done as a kid."
Sano just stared at the normally serious youth. Had he actually laughed? "For some reason I have a hard time picturing that."
He was ready to say more when Megumi started yelling for him from inside of the Aoi-ya. Sano sighed and sweatdropped. Honestly, she was screaming. He sent an apologetic look at the boy beside him. "I'll be right back. Don't go anywhere." To his credit, he only hesitated a moment before entering the building.
Battousai leaned back against the steps, and closed his eyes, trying to feel as at ease as Sano did. He still only felt exposed. Not exactly relaxing. Especially when a strong ki burst out of the Aoi-ya and tripped over Battousai's head, falling face first onto the ground. The youth's eyes snapped open and he sat up to see an angry boy with spikey black hair standing in front of him.
"Waddaya think you're doing, taking up the whole doorway?"
Battousai stared at him, wide-eyed. "Yahiko?"
Some of the boy's anger faded as he saw the man struggle to put the name to his face. Yahiko quieted down and sat beside Battousai, watching him critically. "They said you have some kind of fever. That it's got you all confused."
"I'm fine," Battousai said, softly.
Yahiko made a face. "Yeah, I kinda figured that."
Neither spoke for several minutes, as they listened to the sounds of the street.
"So," Yahiko finally said, breaking the silence, "have you eaten or anything yet? You missed breakfast."
Battousai shook his head. "I haven't been very hungry."
"I'll get you something. If you're sick, you're supposed to eat." The boy stood and ducked back into the Aoi-ya. He returned in record time with some soup, which he handed to the redhead.
Battousai hesitantly took the offering. "Thank you," he said, carefully eating a little.
Yahiko watched him. "It's kinda hot. Kaoru just got done making it."
The young man glanced over at Yahiko. "What is it?" he asked, making a face. "It tastes… bad…"
"Kaoru made it," Yahiko said again, as though that were supposed to explain something.
"But…" He was at a loss for words. "But what is it? It tastes… burnt. She burned soup." He gave it the most peculiar look, as though trying to figure out how that was possible.
Yahiko watched Battousai try to eat. The redhead had almost finished choking it down, grateful for the food, and trying to think of some way to voice gratitude without sounding disgusted. He had a feeling it would be like thanking Katsura-san for an assignment. Just say it quickly and leave.
"Who are you?" Yahiko finally asked.
Battousai tensed, shifting his attention to the boy without answering.
"Because you aren't Kenshin. You look like him… well, mostly… But you're not." At Battousai's blank stare, Yahiko added, "Kenshin would never say anything bad about Kaoru's cooking, even if he was dying. And you don't really smile much."
Yahiko nodded, not looking at the man beside him. "Yeah. Kenshin always smiles, even when he doesn't want to. It's just a bunch of little things. Your hair's too neat, and your eyes aren't even right. Sano says you're Kenshin, so the girls believe him, but you're not Kenshin. Who are you? Are you related to him somehow?"
Battousai stared at the boy. Sano had told him to show the boy respect. That wouldn't be so difficult. This Yahiko was observant. "You'd make a good swordsman," Battousai said finally. "You notice things."
Yahiko glared at the redhead all the while trying not to grin at the compliment. "You didn't answer my question! Who are you? I'm not leaving you alone until you tell me." Another thought seemed to cross his mind just then, and he added, "Where's Kenshin?"
Battousai set the empty bowl down on the step beside him. "I don't know where your friend is right now. I'm sorry."
Yahiko paled slightly, covering it up with anger. "You'd better not be lying! 'Cause if you did anything to Kenshin, I, Myojin Yahiko, will personally make you pay! I've watched Kenshin fight, and if I have to, I can attack you with Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu. Or at least something that's pretty close to it. Either way, it'll hurt." He jumped up, pulling out his bokken.
Battousai smiled faintly. "Don't learn Hiten Mitsurugi. It's not a skill that lends itself well to friends."
"I'll do what I want!" Yahiko yelled. "You aren't Kenshin! You can't tell me what I can and can't learn!"
Battousai's smile broadened. It was like seeing himself at that age. Was this how Shishou had seen him?
Yahiko was still hollering at him, now swinging his bokken around. "I'm gonna get Kenshin to actually practice with me someday! Just you wait! And if he won't, then I'll go straight to Hiko Seijuro and make him teach me!"
Battousai's smile faded immediately, silencing the boy. "Hiko Seijuro? He's still alive?"
Yahiko made a face. "You know him? Did you train under him, too? Did he train your whole family?"
The youth didn't answer him. "Is he alive? Now? Where is he?" He didn't mean to sound so desperate, but this might be his only chance. Sanosuke seemed like a decent person, but he wasn't doing anything to help send him home. And without Katsura-san to talk to, Shishou was the only other person who could possibly have the knowledge to help him. Assuming he was alive… and that he wouldn't kill the hitokiri on sight.
"Yeah," Yahiko said. "Of course he's alive. He's some kinda weird old hermit."
"Weird old hermit," Battousai whispered. God, how old was Hiko now? It had been over five years… no, over fifteen in this time. Had his shishou gotten old in all that time? Battousai wasn't really sure how old he'd been when they'd met. There had always been a kind of agelessness to the man. He couldn't imagine Hiko any older. Honestly, he didn't want to. He didn't want to have to imagine the man he'd seen as a father, growing weak.
"Hey!" Yahiko's voice broke into Battousai's thoughts. "Did you listen to anything I just said? You still haven't told me who you are! Are you Kenshin's little brother or something?"
Battousai stood just as Sano came back out, nursing a nasty bump on the head. Sano took one look between the aggravated boy, and Battousai's torn expression and sighed. "You called him Yahiko–chan, didn't you?" he asked.
Yahiko glared up at Sano. "No, rooster head. He's not as stupid as you are, whoever he is."
Sano dove down the stairs, almost knocking Battousai down, and kicking his bowl into the dirt. "You little—" He had Yahiko in a death grip when he froze. "What do you mean 'whoever he is?'" He looked toward the troubled youth. "Did you tell him?"
Yahiko snorted, squirming out of his grip. "He didn't have to. It was obvious. He doesn't act right. I've known Kenshin longer than you have."
"By what, a week?"
"That's not him."
The two were face to face, glaring at each other.
"Sanosuke," Battousai said softly, "why didn't you tell me about Shishou?"
The two froze, mid-strangulation, to stare at Battousai. "Huh?"
"Why didn't you tell me that my shishou is alive? I assumed… if Katsura-san was dead…" He shook his head, and broke off.
Yahiko pulled away from Sano's arm, which he'd currently been biting, and looked with confusion between the two. "Who's Katsura?"
"Leader of the Choshu Ishin-shishi during Bakumatsu," Sano said, cracking the boy upside the head. "Don't you know anything?"
"I know lots of things!" the boy shouted, drawing even more attention from the crowds in the street who were trying to ignore the scene. "But how am I supposed to know anything about the stupid revolution? I wasn't even born then! Did he fight, too?" Yahiko jerked a thumb at the youth standing near the bottom stair.
Sano didn't look like he quite knew what to say.
"He thinks I'm your friend's younger brother," Battousai said.
"He's not Kenshin," Yahiko said stubbornly, "so who else could he be? Especially if he knows Hiko!"
"Where exactly is Shishou?"
Sano just held his head and sat down on the step. This was going to be a long explanation for everyone. Dealing with these two was finally giving him an appreciation for why Hiko Seijuro had become a recluse.
Kenshin watched the sun set from the outskirts of Kyoto. He'd searched as much of the woods and other areas surrounding the city as he could while there was still light, but the boy was nowhere to be found. Now that night was falling, it would be easier for the ex-hitokiri to slip into Kyoto itself unnoticed and hunt the boy down. He could only hope that the child hadn't left town while Kenshin had been visiting with Hiko. If that boy really was his only way home… Kenshin didn't know what he'd do if he were stuck in the past forever. He probably would go mad.
The small man sighed, watching the sky flare into reds and oranges as the sun dipped past the horizon. He'd told Hiko that if all went well, they wouldn't see each other for awhile. What Kenshin hadn't mentioned was that if he failed and was forced to stay in the past, if he broke his vow and killed again, Hiko would see him one final time.
Hiko Seijuro was the only person Kenshin knew could stop him if necessary. And if Kenshin finally gave into the bloodlust, then Hiko would have a responsibility to finish him.
The reds were gone now, fading to violet and deep blue, with tones of amber glowing on the clouds. Kenshin's hand tightened on the sakabatou, as he turned toward the city where lanterns were already being lit. He had to find the boy. He didn't want to have to put his friends through that… or his shishou.
Silently, Kenshin slipped into the busy city. It was still too early for people to go home to the safety of their houses, but he could use that to his advantage as well. Disappearing into the crowd was almost as effective as disappearing into the shadows. There were only a few who really knew what he looked like at this point in time. As long as Kenshin could avoid the Shinsengumi and Ishin-shishi, he'd be alright. At that, he sighed. Right. Just avoid both sides of the revolution when you're on the top of the Shinsengumi assassination list, and you are the top Ishin-shishi assassin. Thankfully the lanterns didn't provide enough light to make him stand out.
It was an hour before the streets began to empty, and Kenshin started to lose his cover. Still there was no sign of the boy. The patrol units would be out soon. He was going to have to take to the shadows and hope to get lucky, now. Kenshin's spirits were down. If the boy were out at this time of night, then he was still trying to get himself killed. He wouldn't have lasted this long if that were the case. And Kenshin didn't think he could bring himself to check the riverbanks.
Perhaps he'd try some inns first… He was walking the streets alone now, keeping to the shadows, and slipping between buildings occasionally to listen for footsteps or voices. So far there had been nothing, but that wouldn't last. Quickly his eyes were adjusting to the darkness, and his ears had grown attuned to the smallest sounds. His body was reacting almost on its own to his senses, allowing his mind to focus more on detecting distant ki. The Shinsengumi were definitely out. And they weren't far. His right hand closed on the hilt of his blade. Speed would be of essence, if he wanted to survive an encounter.
Kenshin slipped into the shadows of a darkened inn. He could almost hear them, and their ki was especially easy to sense. For some reason they were agitated. Silently, he leapt onto the roof of the building, and peered down. The Shinsengumi's first unit was approaching. He watched as they came into view. Kenshin's eyes narrowed. Something was wrong. Okita was missing.
Kenshin scanned the surrounding area as the first unit disappeared from sight. Nothing obviously visible. Not that he'd really expected it. But he still felt a lot of ki. Then he saw motion. Four men slipping through the shadows, guiding a fifth. They were Ishin-shishi, running someone out of Kyoto. Someone important by the looks of it. Four guards, and Kenshin recognized one as Ushiro Ryu, one of Katsura's best, whom Kenshin often had done protection work with during Bakumatsu.
Kenshin knew from the sudden flare in ki, that they'd been spotted, moments before he heard the shout. The third Shinsengumi unit materialized from a darkened street. Clearly they had been waiting, using the first unit as a distraction. Kenshin could feel the ki of both the first and third unit leaders. This didn't look good.
Ushiro motioned sharply for the others to go as he stayed behind to hold the Shinsengumi off. Suicide. That's what it was. Ushiro was the best simply because he melted into the shadows and could help others do the same, but he was no hitokiri. The dark haired man let out a shout before drawing his katana. He would die. Everyone there knew it. He would die to buy them time to escape.
Kenshin's brow furrowed. Except that Ushiro had died a year into Meiji. What was going on here? Actually, the tall man was doing well holding his own against a portion of the third unit, but the leaders were readying themselves for attack. There was no use wasting time. The Shinsengumi were no sword police who played games with their victims. The Mibu Wolves were efficient.
Okita fell upon Ushiro, wounding him badly. This would end quickly now.
Kenshin grimaced, at war with himself. He couldn't enter this battle. He wasn't sure that even his sakabatou would protect his mind. But at the same time… his oath was to protect life. Anyone's life… "I'm sorry," he whispered, thinking of his friends, "but I could not accept standing by, watching this, that I could not."
With that thought, he entered the fray.
Saito Hajime had just sent half of his unit after the escaping Ishin-shishi and was drawing his sword, making ready to join when a second swordsman leapt from the shadows, blade slicing down. Saito easily evaded and turned to see who his attacker was. He recognized the man immediately. "Battousai," Saito said, smiling coldly. "So, you aren't dead. Good. I was afraid someone had taken the honor from me."
The redhead didn't answer, standing frozen, blade drawn.
Saito nodded to him, raising his katana and running his hand along the blade in the Gatotsu stance. Battousai sheathed his own sword and prepared for the battou-jutsu. Saito smirked. Ah, Battousai, we're both so predictable, aren't we? This is how it will be until one of us dies. Who will be the one to draw blood first this time? He was in motion.
Battousai's retaliation was almost immediate, but Saito noticed that for him it was slow. Why?
Both men hit their marks. Battousai turned, immediately falling back into a defensive position. There was a deep slash in his side, and he was breathing hard. Saito had felt a rib crack, and had finally been surprised into momentary stillness. He touched his side, and pulled his hand away. No blood. His amber eyes widened as they fell upon Battousai's blade, glinting in the pale moonlight. Impossible.
Battousai carried only one sword, a sakabatou. It explained the slowness of his draw, but nothing else made sense. Battousai completely disappeared for twenty-four hours only to reappear out of nowhere with a blade that doesn't kill?
And still, the redhead wasn't making the first move. Battousai wasn't trying to hurt him. He was only trying to distract Saito from his ally. Saito bristled, and pushed it from his mind, attacking again.
Battousai was faster this time, but still not quick enough to dodge, acquiring a second, deeper wound in his shoulder. His ki was wavering uncertainly. He was ready to kill, but for some reason was holding back. It didn't make any sense. This was not the Battousai that Saito had faced in the past.
"What game are you playing at, Battousai?" he said cooly, knowing the young man wouldn't reply. Few of the Shinsengumi had ever heard his voice. Battousai killed and left. That was all.
But not this time. "I play no games. I have no wish to kill you, Saito Hajime, that I do not." His voice quietly rang out over the sound of Ushiro and Okita's own fight.
Saito scowled in disgust. How had Battousai gone soft in two nights? What had happened to him? Then another thought struck him, as again he felt the only faintly familiar ki waver. He didn't seem much like Battousai at all, other than physical appearance. And even that wasn't quite right. This was no child. In fact, Saito got the unnerving impression that this man was even older than he was.
And it annoyed him.
Saito attacked again, but this time there was an amber glint in the stranger's eye, and he came at Saito with incredible speed.
"Ryu tsui sen!" The man was suddenly in the air, slashing his blade down on Saito's katana.
Who is he? He can't be Battousai… but this is one of Battousai's moves…
The attack had so much force behind it that even though it was only a sakabatou, he managed to snap the katana blade in half.
The third unit leader scowled, hating himself for being taken by surprise by this man. Holding the broken remains of his sword in the Gatotsu position again, he finally voiced his thoughts. "Who are you? Where is the real Battousai?"
The redhead's eyes widened, softening a bit to a dark violet. His ki forcefully shifted, as he bowed his head, and replied softly, "I should have expected you of all people would notice." A sad smile played on his lips. "You will have to wait to fight hitokiri Battousai another day, that you will."
Saito readied another attack, expecting this redhead to finish him, when the man turned away from him and dove into the fray between the badly wounded Ushiro and Okita, felling members of the third unit as he went.
Saito didn't follow, leaving him to the first unit leader. This fighter was skilled, Saito had to give him that, but he wasn't Battousai. Okita should have no trouble dealing with him. The captain warily watched him fight the remainder of the third unit. His moves were definitely Hiten Mitsurugi, but they were different. Was this Himura Battousai's father? It would explain a lot.
In moments the remains of the third unit had fallen under the sakabatou, and only Okita and Saito were standing. His speed. His skill. Both increasing and growing deadlier with each attack. Saito gritted his teeth as Okita fought this stranger. Who the hell was he?
The young captain had the upper hand for a moment, but lost it when he began to cough, and the redhead managed to disarm him. An assassin's ki was bubbling to the surface.
"Get back to base," he commanded Ushiro.
"I'm not leaving you here to face them both," Ushiro snapped. "You've been wounded. And he will be up soon."
The smaller man's eyes flashed amber for a moment before fading to a deep blue. "Just go."
He was rewarded with a defiant glare. "I'm not just leaving you here."
They stared at each other for a moment. The redhead closed his eyes, grimacing. When he finally looked up, he was staring straight at Saito with clear violet eyes. The need to kill was gone. "Then if you will not leave me, we both go," he said as Okita finally stood.
The redhead grabbed Ushiro and gave him a forceful push before sending a brief nod of acknowledgement to Saito. "Run," he commanded, following the man close behind.
Okita looked like he wanted to follow, but his breathing was ragged, and even he could see that there would be no point in trying. Saito only stood and watched.
There had been no malevolent intent in those eyes. No anger or hatred. No wish to kill.
Aku soku zan. Slay evil immediately. It was the code of the Shinsengumi as well as that of the hitokiri. Something they had in common. Fight honorably, to the death if need be, to slay the evil that plagued Kyoto.
But there were times that it was difficult, even for Saito Hajime, to tell who deserved to be at the other end of the blade.
Author's note: Me again! I hope you enjoyed this chapter. I'm sure there were a few of you waiting for Saito Hajime to show up, so hopefully he lives up to expectations. And Battousai is finally dealing with more of Kenshin-gumi, so there's another treat. I hope this chapter was acceptable. Thank you so much for reading, and please continue your wonderful, thoughtful reviews! Sayonara!
Oh, and half-breed-demon-fox, don't worry, I didn't forget about Switch. I'll try to get the next chapter to you in a week or so! About the pairings... take it as you will. The story is mostly just coming to me, so I guess it all depends on how it comes out!
xZiz-Zagx, thanks for adding me to your community. I'll have to check that out!
animeinsomniac, yes, you're right about the little boy;)
TMaurader, isn't Hiko always hot? - - blushes - -
Nekotsuki, hopefully this chapter will have more good lines;) Glad you liked it!
WhiteRabbit5, sorry that your back hurts! What exactly did you do to it? (clueless about "toe turns" and "black diamond")
Sailor-Earth13, yeah, I kinda feel bad for Hiko, the way his baka takes off on him all the time...
Wistful-Eyes, I'm glad you liked your "gift" and Maigo-chan's site rocks! Really great! Thanks!
For the rest of the wonderful reviewers, sorry I couldn't mention you all by name (that was probably my first and last time doing that...whew!) but thanks to you all for the great reviews!