Snow. Nothing but snow.
Kenshin walked into the white cloud of his own breath, stumbling in the half-blurred footprints carved in blowing drifts. Flakes caught in his eyelashes, melting into the blood running down his cheek.
The cold would kill him. Soon.
The cold won't have the chance.
But he couldn't remember why.
Lanterns flickered along his path, appearing out of blowing snow. Chill flakes shifted, turned to the soft caress of chrysanthemum petals.
I've been here before.
He knew it; even as he knew the petals were illusion, that he was walking into blizzard and hypothermia and his own bloody death.
But he had to walk. If he didn't walk, he'd be - alone...
A blue scarf, whispering in the wind. Dark eyes, never laughing, sober with secrets. Long black hair, flowing free for one fire-touched night.
If I don't go with her, I'll have to go on alone.
"I'm waiting for you..."
It would be so easy. So easy to walk back into the blood, the death; to drown in his own guilt.
But I promised...
And there was something. Something he didn't remember.
Something that had melted the snow, so long ago, bringing back the soft bloom of cherry blossoms.
A long. elegant hand reached out to him, snow dripping off it red as blood. "Come to me, anata..."
Something that could save him.
Giles rolled out of bed, smacking his wrist against the side-table as he involuntarily reached for his blade. Gods, what-
A soft, strangled whimper reached his ears; the sort that in any other soul would be an agonized scream.
But Himura's hidden from us so many times. He knows he can't make a sound. No matter the cost.
Memory still blurring now and then, Giles stood to one side of his spare room's doorway and twisted the handle.
And jumped back, as a wakizashi impaled the door panel where an unwary man's heart would have been.
Good to know he can still throw,Giles thought as the door hurled open. I think. "Himura! Wake up, you damn idiot!"
The whimper cut off, turned to an inhuman growl, lit by paired glows of amber. "Oniwabanshuu, die-"
The shogun's ninja? Damn!"Kenshin!" Giles gritted through his teeth. "Rurouni!"
"Kenshin," Giles said again, firmly. "Whatever it was, it wasn't real. You're under my roof. In California. You're safe."
More silence. A harsh pant, easing into slow, ragged breaths.
Giles let out a breath of his own. "If I come in there, is anything else edged heading my way?"
A torn gasp. "Gomen. Gomen nasai..."
Giles snorted. "You don't think I'd be foolish enough to stand in your line of fire, Battousai."
"It's over," Giles stated bluntly. "No one's bleeding. No one's dead." He peered at the thin light filtering into the apartment. "And it's about time to get up now, anyway. You can help me make breakfast."
"It will all taste like blood."
I'm going to ignore that. I'm going to... no, I'd better not."It is over, Himura. You were forgiven. A long time ago."
"Then why does it still hurt?"
A man's grief, with just a hint of a child's plea in it. Someone, please, make it stop hurting.
"It's the price we pay for life, Battousai." Giles studied the blade embedded in his door, the faint blue sheen that whispered of more than ordinary steel. "Life. Sword-skill. The will and courage to save our friends and ourselves from the darkness. Nothing comes without a cost."
Silent as shadow, a red-haired wraith stepped into view. "And what price have you paid?"
One far too high."I pray you never know."
Violet weighed him. Nodded slowly.
"Now come on," Giles said briskly. "Or I'll make you eat cold meal."
Transfer students, Principal Snyder thought, signing various pieces of school paperwork as he glared at the quiet young redhead sitting neatly in the chair before his office desk. I hate transfer students.
Sitting up neat and proper, good. Long hair and scar, bad. Blue long-sleeved shirt, gray jeans, charcoal belt and sneakers - neutral. About what you'd expect of the local moderately employed families in Sunnydale. Almost enough to outweigh the nerve and inconvenience of coming in after the school year had already started.
At least the records on this one only said one family member. And a bachelor at that. With any luck the man wouldn't even notice when his ward inevitably added to the next list of school obituaries.
Maybe I can look forward to a nice entry next week.The school paper could use a little angst. Just the thing to get people's minds off that... fiasco of a Halloween. The one night everything in town was supposed to be quiet. A key factor in keeping the Mayor's plans on an even keel; after all, if nothing happened on Halloween, supposedly the most supernatural night of the year, then nothing happened, right?
There were times he almost believed it himself.
And... why wasn't this teenager fidgeting?
He'd revamped the office with a vengeance after Flutie's "accident". Taken out anything that even hinted at soft and cuddly and nurturing repulsive little brats' feelings, redecorating with hints from a particular Philadelphia prison warden known for his firm grip on convicts, even beyond the grave. Anybody should be fidgeting in here. Harris shivered in that chair; Rosenberg turned white and stammered. Even Summers couldn't sit still-
Violet eyes lifted to his, quietly innocent. "Is everything in order, Snyder-san?"
Snyder rapped the folder of paperwork together. "That's Principal Snyder to you, Heemura."
"Himura," the redhead pronounced mildly.
"Whatever." Snyder glared, noting with satisfaction how violet grew more distant, as if the boy was trying to will a wall between himself and authority. "Let's get one thing straight here. This is a public school. People like you come here because the law says you get one last chance to get an education before we toss you into the streets. If you can't handle it, the door's always open. Out." He waved the ridiculous records. Home-schooled in Japanese. As if I can't tell when someone's trying to pull a fast one. Kid probably flunked out of somewhere preppy and the family's trying to cover up the embarrassment. "A pair of our teachers have graciously offered to see you get some tutoring help. Frankly, I don't see why they'd bother. That's the kind of woolly-headed thinking that leads to being eaten." He sneered. "So congratulations. You're not even in class yet and you're disrupting this school."
"Ame futte ji katamaru. Rained-on ground hardens." Himura smiled. "You would say... adversity builds character."
That smile, Snyder fumed, was really getting under his skin.
But he had just the thing to crack it. He was the principal, after all; he had the power. And there was nothing to crush a new kid's spirit like starting him out in the worst class schedule possible; the one that would combine teachers at their nastiest point of the day with the homophobic bullies who'd make a pretty boy's life a living hell-
You didn't spend years as Sunnydale High's VP without learning to recognize the sound of a Chem Lab explosion. "You! Stay put. Don't do anything."
"One hears you, Principal-san. Suru noha shippai nanimo shinai noha daishippai."
Whatever. He left the papers scattered over his desk, marching down to drag the perpetrators to detention by their blown-out ears. Shouldn't be too hard to determine who was guilty; all he had to do was look for the soot...
Only the smoke-stains were evenly distributed class-wide, the damage seemed to have been confined to a lab bench no one had been using, and none of the usual suspects was talking.
Can't have been accidental, Snyder scowled, going over the lesson for that day with the confused teacher. None of this should have blown up without help and... why is Summers grinning?
One white flash of teeth against a face as smoke-black as the others, before she saw him and sobered. Yet there was still an odd, manic glitter in her eyes, even as she ducked behind a groaning Harris, blinking Rosenburg, and dazed Chase.
Snyder blinked, looking again. Green. Just like they should be. Though now the worst troublemaker in the school's hair seemed longer, and darker... unless that was just the smoke...
"I just don't know what happened," the chemistry teacher babbled. "One minute, nothing, the next-" He shook his head.
Snyder nodded, not bothering to place a name with the face. It was in the school files if he really needed it. Odds were sooner or later this guy would run into a giant she-mantis or something equally carnivorous, and he'd be just as glad not to know the name of the body. "Summers near any of it?" Forget the decision handed down by the mayor's office; all he needed was one excuse.
"What? No! Well, she was back there at the beginning of class, sure, just like half the rest of the students, getting material for the experiment... but unless you think the girl who's barely scraping by in here on C+ can put together a time-delay smoke bomb..."
Point. Damn. "Detentions at your discretion. Starting with her." He let Summers feel his glare. "I'm sure she can use the time to do some constructive school work."
A minute more to impress upon the sluggards they weren't getting out of school this easily, and he swept back to his office, head held high.
His... empty... office.
"Where is he?"
"Kenshin?" The school secretary looked up with a fond smile. "His class was going to start soon, and he had his books, so he left. Such a nice young man..."
"Had his books?" Impossible. No one could have the right set of texts for the schedule he was going to break that shrimp of a redhead with-
"The schedule's all set, and I've notified all his teachers," she nodded. "I guess Miss Calendar's right; all you have to do is give the computer a little attention, and it works like a dream."
"Schedule?" He hadn't made up a schedule yet! Mid-year transfers had particular forms to file, signed by principal, student, and guardian so no one could claim later their precious little brat hadn't known what he was getting into. Though Mr. Ni'itsu had made Snyder's fun-to-come incredibly easy, by sending his unsuspecting ward in with already-signed paperwork-
Snyder took the triply-signed form with an odd sinking feeling, recognizing the mix of classes and times inked in. Not the schedule from hell he'd meant to pack on thin shoulders, but a more sane round of classes any student who was a little shaky on his educational feet might take.
The same schedule kept by Harris. And Madison. And Summers.
Someone, Snyder thought darkly, is going to pay for this.
People. So many people.
Edging his way into the cafeteria, bento box under his left arm, Kenshin glanced about, trying to remember if he'd ever seen this many teenagers in one place. Chatting, flirting, exchanging the kind of sneers and shoves that, in the Bakumatsu, would have led to bloodshed-
But this is not the Bakumatsu. This is a high school, a place of learning, and no one here intends to draw a blade.
Kenshin's fingers brushed rayskin and braided silk, and he winced. No one. Save, perhaps, me.
He couldn't help it. He'd lived with a blade at his side so long. To face so many strangers without it...
"Leave the wakizashi, if you must,"Giles had said that morning. "But you are not entering that building without a sword. I know you, Battousai. You have the training to strike without a blade - and the instincts to use those claws you now bear if cornered. And they will corner you. They haven't the sense not to. Better to carry steel, and let that calm you, than gut a fool of a football halfback.
"And don't think I'm just doing this for you. That young pup Xander needs someone to show him a swordsman's manners."
The "pup" was easy enough to spot, white hair gleaming like a signal fire across the table-filled room as he walked toward Buffy and Willow with a tray full of... something. Several somethings, from the look of it, though if that was what passed for food these days... I've eaten field rations that looked healthier.
Kenshin slipped into a seat next to him, inclining his head to the still-smoky girls. "One thanks you for the distraction."
"Gaah!" Xander dropped the yellow cake-like creation he'd been shredding plastic off of, giving the ex-assassin a gold-eyed glare. "Don't do that!"
"Eep!" Willow nodded.
"Fiddling the papers worked?" Buffy regarded the contents of his box with interest.
Kenshin nodded. "As you said, while he is glaring, he has no idea what he is signing."
"Still can't believe anyone's fast enough to switch papers right under Herr Snyder's hands," Xander groused. "Even Sesshoumaru has to work to be that fast-" He stopped. Grimaced. Slowly and deliberately, started banging his head against the laminate table-top.
Willow flicked his ear. "And what do you think it's like for the rest of us? I almost called house-elves for breakfast!"
Ears twitching, Xander raised his face from the table. "Think you'd get one if you did?"
"Um, no," Willow admitted. "I'm pretty sure we don't have them in the real world. But with magic, the intent alone might set up an invitation. And then what might happen is I'd get the attention of a boggle or a boggart or something, and sometimes they do things around the house, but other times they're worse than a poltergeist, and we might have to tear the whole house down to get rid of them, and-"
"Will. Breathe," Buffy advised.
"Breathing. Breathing... you brought your own lunch?" Willow peeked at the wrapped items Kenshin was taking out. Turned slightly green. "Um... is that sushi?"
"Hai," Kenshin nodded, unwrapping a set of chopsticks. Fish and rice rolled with seaweed might not taste as good with the smell of cheese wafting through the loud hall, but at least it was honest food.
"What are you complaining about?" Xander sniffed. "It's sushi, not sashimi. It's preserved." He pointed at the brown and red... thing, on his plate. "If you want raw, I think this thing's still wriggling." He grinned. "But not for long."
A snatch of claws, and Kenshin suddenly found himself missing a chopstick.
"Blades of Bamboo!"
Kenshin blinked. Stared at polished wood, still vibrating, driven half its length through the slice of odd loaf, the plate, the tray, and - he ducked to check - the table itself. Reddish juices oozed from the wound.
"Heh." Still grinning, Xander started tearing it apart with his fingers, slurping multicolored bits off his claws.
"Itadakimasu,"Kenshin said warily.
A slight movement beside him; a second pair of chopsticks slapped into his hand, offered by a shrugging Buffy. "Xander. Food," she said pragmatically. "These things happen." She peered at his lunch. "You know, I... think that looks good. Not that I'm sure Duo's sci-fi food tastes anything like the real thing, though the smoke bomb definitely worked right... oooh, don't want to think about that..."
She'll let me feed her? I may have a chance after- stop thinking that, baka. She said she wanted your food, not that she wantedyou to feed her.
But he wanted to feed her. He wanted... to carry her away from here. To nuzzle the nape of her neck, right where a geisha would leave skin unpainted. To soothe all the longing for home and family that baka vampire could never give her...
That baka vampire is why you have to get this right the first time. Think of wild children. Of birds in winter. Move slowly. Carefully. Donot frighten her. "I wondered if some of you might want some, to help weave spell-memory and true-memory into one. There is more than enough-"
Claws swiped. Flinched back with a yelp, as the hilt of a katana hit the knot of nerves under Xander's wrist. "-To share," Kenshin finished dryly.
Growling under his breath, Xander shook out his hand. "All right, all right. Touchy. Guess a little guy like you had to scrap for everything - hey! What's he think he's doing?"
Brows raised, Kenshin glanced across the room in time to see Jonathan present a startled blonde girl with a pure white rose, seemingly pulled from the substance of a folded paper napkin. A girl with a scent of- He inhaled sharply, matching that dark oddness of air with a nettle-prickle in his ki-sense. Witchcraft. Not the same as the sorcerer I slew - yet it is that darkness.
"No way is Amy going to fall for that," Xander said in a voice dripping rough envy. Stared, as pink bloomed in the young witch's cheeks. "Buff! Tell me she's not going to fall for that."
"Oh, I don't know, Xander," Buffy observed, leaning back as the cafeteria gabble rose and fell, the female half of it refocusing from Cordelia's mini-court with Harmony and the football team to the school nobody's unexpected opening move on the Sunnydale dating scene. "Roses rate pretty high on the breaking-ice scale... Wills? Am I seeing what I think I'm seeing, or did an apocalypse finally slip past Giles' books?"
"Sitting down, good," Willow agreed faintly.
Kenshin glanced about, trying to determine what it was that had upset his friends. Their ki didn't feel as if there was real danger, but there was definitely shock. "What is it?"
"More like, what it isn't," Xander said wryly. "Queen C, not the center of attention. And not kicking up a fuss about it."
"She almost looks... relieved." Willow's eyes were wide.
And this surprises you?Kenshin gazed toward the lavender-haired young woman, memory providing the translucent ghost of a tall, elegant doctor, long hair black as her sorrow for every death Spider's Web had caused. Smiled as an emerald gaze brushed his; the faint, shadowed smile of the rurouni, who also knew guilt too deep for words.
Cordelia. Megumi. Shido. Whatever you have done, whoever you have been... you have always been my friend.
Here, within Buffy's heart... it's bright, I know. Almost too bright to bear. It hurts. It bleeds.
But the light is a good place to walk.
Cordelia placed her hands on the table. Started to straighten.
"I mean, who does he think he is? James Bond?" Harmony snickered, causing the rest of the table to dissolve in titters.
I can't, Cordelia mouthed, shoulders hunching as her coterie made snide observations on how long Jonathan could keep up the charm before chewing on his knees. I just - can't.
Kenshin sighed. Inclined his head. Time, he reminded himself. They need more time. We need more time.
Time, hell. That was one of his family bleeding over there. He wanted to fix this, and he wanted to fix it right now-
Patience.Wait. Trying to fix all the world is what got you into Kyoto in the first place, ne?
"That's so sad," Willow said softly. "I never realized... how sad Cordelia looks."
"Probably because she's too busy dicing us into bite-size chunks with the latest fashion riffs," Xander quipped. Smacked a palm over his breastbone. "Spike heel. Straight to heart... what are you doing?"
Stroking a pen across a marbled-green square of what Giles had called sticky pad paper, Kenshin signed his name, and folded it into a neat triangle. "Informing her that our kendo club has Snyder-san's signed permission to come into being, and that Giles-san has decreed it shall first meet in the library, so we might determine a good location to practice our more-" How best to put it? "-area-affecting techniques." One could practice Ryuu Kan Sen inside, certainly, but one properly-done Ryuu Tsui Sen, and the floor would be shattered. To say nothing of a Dou Ryuu Sen, or Xander's own Kaze no Kizu.
A technique I truly wish to see again. Itfelt like the Earth Dragon Strike; a manipulation of ki. Yet more. There was... a scent to it? As if the blade cut more than earth and air... Kenshin shook off the thought. Time enough later to pounce on Xander and learn how he'd cut through Rayne's wards and door in one savage slash. As he would learn, if only by watching; just as he had learned Okita's Tennen Rishin, Saitou's Gatotsu, and Serizawa's iron fan techniques.
Never stop learning. Never.
And from what little he'd seen last night, Cordelia's Shido might have her own techniques to teach. "Could one of you pass this to her?"
"Actually, 'one of us' had better be you," Buffy pointed out pragmatically.
"Less social stigma," Willow nodded. "I mean, so far you're not a geek, or... not really athletic... or known for school-related pyromania..."
"It was just the auditorium," Buffy said defensively. "It wasn't even this auditorium! It's not like I dropped a Gundam on the school, unlike some people I could... oh, I am so going to play the anvil chorus on Ethan's head when I catch him!"
"Long story short? You're about the only one of us who can rotate in Cordelia's orbit and not die from spontaneous social combustion," Xander observed. "Though as far as her evil bleached-blonde minions go, after sitting with us, you're basically screwed."
And he'd thought the point of the Revolution was to make all the classes equal. So. Even a century later, the Revolution has not ended. Shrugging, Kenshin balanced the folded triangle on thumb and forefinger. Calculated the angles and air currents. Waited for a brief lull in table-hopping, and flicked.
Green folds spun through the air. Whipped sideways in the breeze from a school ventilation grate. Skimmed past a band member's glue-spiked hairdo. And dove - not into the open hands he'd intended - but between the opened buttons of Cordelia's shirt.
Kenshin swallowed. Felt his heart sink at Xander's bark of laughter. "Oro..."
"Way to go, Kenshin!" The grinning teen pounded him on the back. "Man, I knew you had it in you!"
And given Sano's usual dealings with Megumi before they'd married... Kenshin saw the outburst of yelping and giggles as Cordelia fished his note out of her clothing, and wished he had a ninja's training to vanish in plain sight. "One is dead, ne?"
"Maybe even deader than you think." Willow gulped as some very large teens, one sporting a bruise that looked suspiciously like a hanyou's fist, scraped their chairs back and headed for the Scoobies' table.
"Great. The Neanderthals." Buffy started to stand. "I'll handle it-"
Kenshin shook his head. "I have seen such testings before, Buffy-dono." In the Kiheitai, and elsewhere. Though then, he'd often been too young to reply in kind, assassin or no. "They are less than intelligent... but often, unavoidable." Unhurried, he stood.
The muscled teens started to grin.
Kenshin stepped away from their table, and nodded slightly. Come, then. If you will.
The bruised blond stopped, suddenly wary. A friend of his slowed, glancing between the bruise and the slight redhead waiting so patiently.
But two came on, all but licking their lips.
No killing, Kenshin reminded himself, letting the first insults pass with barely a flicker of eyes. Try not to draw the blade, if you can... must remember to ask Shishou if anyone forges sakabatou these days...
One reached out to shove him-
And found his hand tangled in a folding cafeteria chair, which was skidding into the path of the passing swimming coach, who stumbled, clipboard sailing from his grip to ricochet off the wall, smacking into a hapless senior's lunch tray and sending meatloaf, vanilla pudding, and a hot wave of coffee over the entire mess.
Kenshin sidestepped the flailing, screeching, steaming mass of humanity, wincing at the volume as the pudding-smeared duo tried to defend themselves from their fellow student and teacher. Gave the bruised blond a tilted look of question, complete with arched red brow.
Smoldering, the blond stalked off.
"You are so getting detention," Buffy muttered.
You know you're having a bad day when you can track down the librarian by the growling.Angel lifted himself out of the trapdoor set among the library's dustiest shelves, double-checking that no hint of afternoon sun shone through the overhead lights. Knowing which tunnels led under and into the library was a two-edged sword; great for getting in at any hour when it was research or die, lousy if it was still daylight and everyone else was too engrossed in the next upcoming Apocalypse to pull the shades. He stepped softly out of the stacks, debating whether or not to clear his throat.
Setting the library phone down with a decisive click, the Watcher tapped his fingers against the desktop. "I suspect you may as well stay in practice for your demonic cohorts, Angel, but I assure you I can hear you perfectly well."
Great. Just great. Well, at least Jenny's illusion-stones were working. Though now that he was looking, Angel could make out the hellhound's fangs and cropped ears under the librarian's shadow of normality. "So. Bad luck with your contacts on the curse-breaking?"
"Hmm? Ah." Giles glanced at the phone. "No, that was a rather misguided attempt on my part to verbally throttle some good sense out of the Sunnydale Police Department. I don't know what I was expecting, any officers who could consistently put down 'gangs on PCP' for vampire attacks are hardly going to be interested in tracking down one idiot chaos mage..." He smiled wryly. "Or should I say, I do know what I was expecting. The Tokyo Metropolitan Police they are not."
"Kind of a given," Angel agreed. 1894 Tokyo had been a lot harder for a vampire to stay active in than most modern-day cities. Police armed with guns were annoying. Police armed with swords, as Saitou had been, were potentially fatal. "Any luck on the curse-breaking?"
"The situation will require long-term research, it seems." Giles arched a dark brow. "You're concerned."
Concerned? Yeah, concerned was one way of putting it. "Giles, in case you hadn't noticed, you've got a Jedi in the computer room-"
"Hmm, yes; she's been chasing down a few nasty viruses Moloch left in the system."
"-Demons in your classes, not to mention your mirror-"
Giles polished his glasses, set them back in his shirt pocket. "Hanyou, to be precise."
"-And a fifteen-year-old lunatic assassin in Buffy's head!"
"She is the Slayer," Giles said coolly. "One could quite well argue Duo is in good company."
In good- Duo's a killer! She's a sixteen-year-old girl!Angel fisted his hands at his sides, blew out a breath he didn't need. Stay calm. Stay calm. He's British. He probably doesn't like anime any more than you do. "Have you ever seen Gundam Wing?"
"Xander's provided me with a brief synopsis." Giles leveled a look at him. "Much as I understand your concern for the girl, Angel, my responsibility lies with the Slayer."
"Who doesn't need to know how to fight wars in space!" Angel pointed out. "Look, maybe you don't have any mind-wiping spells, but if Jenny's a Jedi she should be able to come up with something-"
"Neither you nor I have any idea what a Slayer might need to know," Giles cut across his words coldly. "And I suggest you examine that thought very, very carefully. Even if you were not proposing to inflict mental manipulations on a girl who has suffered more than enough of those already, I don't need to have been immersed in the movies to tell you how perilously close tampering with memory skates to the Dark Side."
But it's the right thing to do!"You can't just let things go on like this!"
"I am a Watcher, Angel. While I have some small knowledge of magic, I have no counter-spells, no incantations, no power to undo what has been done." Giles slashed a hand across, cutting off protest before Angel could voice it. "And I will not deal with those creatures that might. Good lord, man! You're a student of the occult; you must have some idea how few entities would dare tamper with those the Phantom Queen has claimed for her own!"
Damn few. Call her Morrigan, Hecate, Lamashtu; the Queen of Air and Darkness played no favorites, blessing and cursing angels and demons alike. Storm-cloud robe glistening with rain and blood, serpent-necklace dripping poison on the wind, she roamed the night where and when she would, aloof and untamed as the owls and wild black hellhounds of her Hunt...
Angel stiffened, unbeating heart clenched in a vice. All the lore and stories of eighteenth-century Ireland roared to life in his brain, screaming that no matter how much an ally Giles had been, he was an enemy now. Lost. Inhuman. Tainted. "You're hers."
"I," Giles growled in the vampire's ringing ears, "belong to no one."
That - hurt, Angel realized numbly, cold flesh stinging as blood rushed to repair the injury. That actually hurt.
A human's backhand, even a Watcher's, should never have hurt.
Giles shook out clawed fingers, deliberately turning his back. "I suggest you root that notion out and give it a proper pyre before you encounter Buffy again. For your own sake, if you will not do it for her." He glanced over his shoulder, ruby gleaming in dark eyes. "After all, nothing engages Shinigami's attention like a quivering coward."
Okay, that was it. Maybe he hadn't been the most noble and upright guy out there when he'd met Darla. Maybe he'd spent a lot of years since the curse just drifting, lost in the horror of what he'd become; unable to even end his own unlife, for fear of ending up in hell right alongside the demon within him. Maybe he'd even admitted being afraid to Buffy. But she was the Slayer. She was supposed to face off against evil.
Not have it lodged by spell in her own mind...
Light footsteps in the hall; Angel ducked out of sight, peeking through an empty space in the social studies shelves. "Yes?" Giles asked testily.
"Mr. Giles." The slightly spike-haired student in rock band-scruffy jeans and long-sleeved shirt nodded. "Kendo?"
"Good lord. Er, excuse me, Mr.-"
"Oz," the teen supplied.
The librarian blinked, but made no wizard jokes. "I knew Willow meant to post news of its formation on the school bulletin board - I understand that's required for any new school organization - but I hadn't realized the location would reach the school grapevine as well."
"Didn't." Oz held out crumpled green paper.
Giles unfolded it. Gave Oz a more careful once-over, as if noting something suspected, but not unwelcome. "You read Japanese?"
Oz shook his head. "Kenshin. Cordelia. Xander. Swords on Halloween."
"Neatly deduced. I believe we'll be starting..." The librarian glanced at his watch. "Well, as soon as your fellow students are released from durance vile." He gave the boy a wry smile. "In the meantime - we set this up in rather a hurry. Perhaps you'd be willing to help me sort out some of my practice gear?"
Great. The quiet type.Angel leaned against his concealing shelves, resigned to lingering in the most boring books ever found in the demesne of public learning as the student and librarian-turned-hellhound turned out some of the Watcher's less suspicious armaments. "I'm not afraid of her," he said in an undertone, just loud enough for a half-demon's ears to catch.
"Of course you're not." Giles' lip curled. "Ahou."
Ooo. Big hunk of wood. A Slayer's best friend, Buffy thought, jabbing air with the shaped oak Giles called a bokken. She pirouetted across the auditorium stage, trying to find her balance with this new toy. Kind of short on the sharp and pointy angle, though.
Giles cleared his throat. "While there are numerous techniques to use the point, the usual aim of the katana is to slash, not stab."
"Spoil my fun," she grumbled.
"Yes, well... I would be remiss in my duties if I failed to point out that even with simple wood, such slashing techniques, properly applied, tend to result in one's opponent rather resembling a turkey turned loose in a nest of slavering maniacs with hammers."
Buffy pictured said result applied to one annoying bleached-blond vampire, and felt the grin light up her face like sunrise.
Half-hidden in the shadows of tied curtains, Kenshin studied her movements. "Giles-san. If we are truly unconcerned with proper tournament form, the Hirazuki might well be learned early."
Giles arched a dark brow.
Kenshin gave him an innocent, violet blink. "Training must fit the times, ne?"
"Hirazuki?" Buffy put in, looking askance at the trade of Significant Looks. This was her Giles. Her Watcher. It was just plain weird for someone to come along who acted like he knew Giles better than she did.
Only he doesn't. Not really. He knows who Gilesused to be. Big diff.
And it had to be a big diff. 'Cause if it wasn't, that would mean Kenshin knew her, too. And he didn't. Because she was so not interested in a fuzzy-wuzzy little cute ex-assassin half-demon who dropped notes down Cordelia's blouse and charmed her mother with shy manners.
Not. At all.
"A rather atypical move in most sword-styles, but one well-known to the Shinsengumi," Giles said dryly. "A flat thrust that aims for the heart."
Buffy put that together with wood, and Slayer strength, and felt somewhat mollified.
"B-b-but why here?" Willow squeaked, eyes darting off the stage to the rows of empty seats ranked facing them. Her hands were knotting together, her face was pale, and her hair was all but standing on end.
Yep, I never got overOedipus either, Buffy thought, remembering Giles, a guillotine, and one nasty organ-eating demon. "Will has a point, Giles. Isn't this Drama Club turf?"
"They won't be here today, and likely not for two or three weeknights hereafter," her Watcher stated. "Apparently the vast majority of them spent Halloween in various historical outfits. Musketeers, Crusaders, French noblewomen; one rather shy young thing even blackened her teeth and went as a tayuu, which may make things rather interesting... er, never mind. In short, while they may not remember who they were that night, the persona seems to have dragged a very rough brush over their subconscious. The end result being that Jenny's having to re-teach them all that computers are not possessed by demons." He paused. "At least, not currently."
And what the heck is atayuu? Buffy cast a frown Kenshin's way, not trusting that look of bland innocence any farther than she could throw it.
Amend last thought: any farther thanWillow could throw it, the Slayer thought dryly. Without using magic.
"In any event, this should do for us to start the most basic maneuvers, and determine whether some - er - interested persons we seem to have acquired intend to remain, or not. In which case I suppose we may as well train them; Slayer or not, Sunnydale could do worse than to have more kenjutsu students on the streets-"
"Oz will stay."
Giles shot a frown Kenshin's way. "You've met the young man? In this day and age, the musically inclined tend not to engage in martial arts... Oh, please tell me it was only my overworked imagination..."
"Of course. It only lacked Myojin to complete the set." Giles rolled his eyes. "What in all the kami's names did I do to deserve this?"
"Upheld Makoto, in this world and beyond," Kenshin observed, tilting his head toward the hall doors. "Oz has found them."
Buffy eyed the scruffy musician following Jonathan through the doorway, preceding Xander and Cordelia. Memory kicked in, matching Oz's face with a guy she'd caught a glimpse of during the whole Ampata-World Culture Dance-Inca mummy incident. Since when did I start sorting students by supernatural incident rather than social clique? she thought, depressed. Oh yeah. Since knowing who was where when at the last outbreak of weird became Clue Numero Uno in figuring out who was most likely to be eating someone's brains.
Sighing, Buffy tried to push that thought aside, instead focusing on the twitch of Xander's ears, the slight flush of Cordelia's cheeks as she carefully looked anywhere but at one of Sunnydale High's lamest. And just what have they been up to?
"Good. We're all here," Giles said briskly. "Let's begin."
Boooor-ing, Xander almost yawned, working his way through the basic stances beside Kenshin. Boring, boring, boring-
"Focus on the present, Xander-san." Kenshin finished the kesagiri, for all the world as if he'd never broken stance to rap anyone over the head with the blunt side of his blade.
"You focus," Xander muttered. "I know this stuff already!"
"Not so well as you may think, or that would not have caught you," Kenshin pointed out. "And Oz does not know that you know."
Yeah, point; the less people who knew the Scoobies were actually dangerous, the less chance it had of getting back to the vamps. Which was all of the good; from what he'd seen of Angel and the many, many vampires Buffy had dusted, one bloodsucker might be no problem, but twenty could slow down even a hanyou who didn't look sharp. "It's just- I-" He raked claws through white hair, trying to put into human words something rooted in too much human noise, too little feel of earth and grass under his feet, and that ever-present nauseating stink of Angel in the school air. "Damn it..."
And it didn't help that he could scent that same restlessness wafting off Kenshin; a need to move, breathe, run.
"Out, both of you."
Xander sheathed his blade. "G-man?"
"You're not here, Xander. That's perilous to everyone else in this room." The Watcher switched his glare to Kenshin. "Three laps around the school. At least. Now. I don't want to see either of you again until you're both dripping."
Kenshin bowed, and headed for the nearest door. Xander shrugged at Buffy as she slashed air, gave a shaky-gripped Willow an encouraging wave, and dodged Cordelia's smirk. Minefield. I'd be better off in a minefield.
Xander skipped out into the hall with guilty relief. "Hey! There's a side door out this way. Takes us right into the courtyard."
"Arigatou."Kenshin followed him outside with almost-indecent haste. "The secretary gave me a school map, yet I am still matching symbols to reality. There seem to have been some... repairs needed, since the last time it was drawn."
"Oh yeah. Thank you, thank you..." Xander buffed his claws on his shirt, flushing out his lungs with warm night air. Still smelled faintly like vamps, not that he expected anything else in the middle of Sunnydale. But at least it didn't smell like that vamp. He glanced around for potential witnesses, saw none, and set off at an easy lope. "Damn it, I figured the G-man would snap back into British-stuffy today. Enough weirdness. Time to tilt things back to normal. Or as close as we can get. But where does he get off telling us we're off?"
"While he teaches skill you have not yet learned, he is the sensei," Kenshin pointed out as they jogged. "And... concentration has not been the easiest to grip fast this night, that it has not."
Yeah. Three guesses why. And the first two didn't count. "He's here," Xander growled, heading toward the football field. Careful to make sure they stuck to the shadows, away from the grunting as the Razorbacks practiced; the last thing they needed was to catch Larry and co.'s attention. The idea was subtlety, after all; and it was hard to be subtle about putting half a dozen Neanderthal-wannabes in traction.
"The school stinks of him!"
Xander breathed through his teeth, glad of the restraining weight of a sword at his side. Well, sort of glad. "He's probably heading in there right now, leaning over her to correct her swing-"
"How the hell do you know?"
"I do not," Kenshin admitted, matching him step for step even as Xander pushed their pace beyond human. "But she is the Slayer, ne? And Giles-san has known Angel is a vampire, and not asked his assistance to train her before?"
"Well, no... how the hell did you know that?"
"I did not," Kenshin said softly. "But cursed or not, friend or not, Angel is a vampire. And I know a Shinsengumi's sense of duty."
Xander worked through that as they rounded the building once, then twice, not grudging the extra distance it took to stick to the shadows. A week ago even one lap like this would have left him panting; now, it was just enough to start warming up. He lets Deadboy help with the research, he knows Buffy's fought with the guy against vamps and other uglies...
But when you're in the middle of a melee, you just get glimpses of what's going on,Inuyasha's memories pointed out, drawing on all the chaos and confusion of every supernatural battle Xander had ever been in. Unless you're really good, or the thing trying to gnaw on you is really pathetic, you don't have time to watch what the rest of the guys fighting by you do.
Watching somebody spar -that's when you can find all the holes.
Which is why Naraku and bastards like him take over people's minds. Nobody can do more damage than your best friends..."Shimatta. He's protecting her? From Angel?"
"And guarding himself, as well," Kenshin observed, skirting a dance of light from the headlights of a late-arriving football parent. "From what Shishou has told me, the Watcher has not the strength of a Slayer, that he does not. Which means his only defense against the creatures she faces is that they do not know what skills he has."
Sneaky. Xander liked it. Though he'd like it better if Angel wasn't within three miles of the girls. Any of them.
Any of them, oh treasurer of the We Hate Cordelia club? a wry part of him asked. Of course, given what you were up to a little while ago, your club membership is probably on very thin ice.
"I... admit to some small confusion," Kenshin said carefully, as they entered the third round. "Your manner speaks of great admiration for Buffy-dono, and Willow-dono's speaks of the same for you, yet the scents between you and Cordelia-dono..."
"That's none of your f- damn business, all right?" Willow? Nah. She's my bud! The Willmeister. Pals forever. Wills would probably be glad he was letting Cordy gnaw on his neck; she hated to see people suffer, and while stored blood took the edge off the half-Unseleighe's thirst, he could smell that it was like eating potato chips. Sooner or later you had to give in and get real food.
And what the heck does he mean, admiration? Buffy is- is-
Well, she was hot. And straight-up. Very definitely not the shrinking violet or ditzy blonde most of his classmates were, and without that acid tongue Cordelia honed to a fine edge. Hottest of all, the small blonde was tougher than a pile of quarterbacks; loathe Larry as he would for the remark, Xander could see why every lame-brain within ten miles would delude themselves into thinking they were manly enough to make a play for the Slayer.
"Perhaps it is not," Kenshin acknowledged. "Yet I know the taking of blood leaves fox-spirits, at the least, vulnerable of heart to the donor. I would not be a good friend to Cordelia-dono if I did not ask your feelings toward her."
A good friend? To Cordelia? Come on. They were teenage guys. Kenshin had tossed a note down her shirt, for goodness' sake!
But... Kenshin's scent when he spoke of her, or Willow, wasn't any more interested than Miroku's when he spied the next pretty girl. Not at all like the scents that accompanied the hentai monk's silent glances - and not-so-silent gropes - at one particular demon-slayer.
Though when you allowed for the kitsune flavor, it was all too like the scent of the monk about to thwack him over the head with a shakujo when he made Kagome cry...
Finishing the lap, Xander glanced for watchers, then leapt for the school roof. Turned to invite Kenshin to follow-
Red hair was already behind him.
Man. That guy istoo quiet.
Xander tossed his hair back, lightly fisting his claws. "Have you ever gotten involved with somebody you really, really shouldn't have?"
Violet eyes went distant. "Hai."
Okay, sore spot."So." Xander shrugged. "That's what me and Cordelia would be like. Her, top of the social ladder. Poise, class, and mucho dinero. Me, nobody. The fact that we're even breathing the same air is a colossal joke on the part of whatever sadistic maniacs invented public schooling."
"I am... familiar with such situations."
"Yeah, right," Xander snorted. "Come on. Samurai? Maybe you went ronin and had to eat road dust, but nobody had the right to talk down to you-"
"I was not born to a clan name, Xander-san."
Xander shut his mouth before an errant moth could fly in. "But... you..."
"Hiko found an orphan on a battlefield, and brought him home. Taught him. Gave him a name, to ward off the suspicions of those who carried two swords." Violet was fathomless. "I have loved two women in my life, and both of them were samurai."
Okay, now we're really getting too deep for me."Guess we should be getting back in."
"Do you intend to splash in a basin first?"
"Huh? Oh. Yeah. He did say dripping." And three laps hadn't even winded either of them. Xander shook his head. Man, this is going to take some getting used to. "Damn it, I was hoping to run off being cooped up in walls all day."
"There is another option," Kenshin observed. "If you trust me enough with edged steel."
Violet lightened, glinting steel-blue. "You did say you knew the basic moves that make up paired kata." Kenshin tilted his head, indicating the shingled roof under them. "And the terrain should introduce some small level of challenge."
Xander's grin flashed fangs. "Oh, you are so on." This should be fun. If short.
Two parries and a fall later, he revised that to, Okay, maybe it'll take a couple more minutes.
Several leaps, a few mid-air sword passes, and a blade-disarm after that, there were shreds of shingle fluttering in the wind and a wicked amber gleam in blue eyes. "Damn," Xander panted, shaking out a stinging wrist as he went after his sword. If I could connect, I'd squash him; kitsune are a hell of a lot more fragile than inu. But he's not letting me. "Where the hell did you pick up that kind of speed?"
"Trying to outrun Shishou."
Xander blinked. Is he-? Yeah, he's serious. "Just tell me you're not holding back."
"This is practice, Xander-san," the swordsman said reluctantly. "And we left the bokken with the others. I cannot use my full skill or speed to face you. Not with a katana."
"Why the hell not?"
Kenshin sighed. Walked up to one of the small metal stovepipes set into the roof to draw in air those few times the school needed to run the heat. Nodded, and backed up, motioning Xander aside and away. "Watch."
One moment Kenshin was twenty feet from steel, the next-
The seared heat of sliced air and auras smacked into Xander's nose, curling from the blue slash of focused ki trailing Kenshin's blade.
"Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu, Battou-jutsu!"
With a thin ping, the top of the pipe slid away. The remaining tube shivered. Shrieked.
Shattered, scattering slivers of steel across the shingles.
Xander blew out a breath, making a mental note to bring the fire-rat robes for these little after-school bouts. At least G-man will be happy. We're both dripping now. "Okay. So... you can use youki to fight. So don't. I'm not using Kaze no Kizu."
"I cannot not use it, Xander-san. That is Hiten Mitsurugi." Blade sheathed, sober violet turned his way. "Every move focuses ki. Every move... kills." Kenshin shook his head. "With a bokken, I could face you with Kamiya Kasshin. I would be unlikely to forget that I was only sparring, and not battling for my life. With a katana - no. It is too dangerous."
"Oh, gee, somebody trying to kill me. Like that's never happened before," Xander quipped.
"We do not know how reliable your spell-wrought memories are," Kenshin said firmly. "Giles-san says you have faced evil here, hai - but I was a killer for years, Xander. Death is the first weapon to my hand. Mercy, I only learned later." He looked aside. "I have lost much. If I misjudged a strike... and youki is less tame than ki, battou-jutsu should only have sliced..." Clawed hands fisted. "Forgive me, if I seem to shame your skills when I doubt my own ability to pull a killing blow."
"Oh," Xander managed. "So... this really is back to school for you, too."
Kenshin grimaced, but nodded. "Back to school, yes. Although... is it always like this?"
Xander cracked his knuckles. "History fit to bore you to death. Chemistry, where one idiot who may go down in infamy dumped sodium down the drain to blow out the plumbing. English, where believe it or not, the Lord of the Flies actually has nothing to do with demons. Though it ought to. Ugh. Yeah, it's always like this." He shuddered. "The wonders of modern education. If the demons don't get you, the pop quizzes will."
"Hai."Kenshin's smile was wry. "You endure years of this torment?"
"Yep. High school. Four years of hell, horror, and humiliation. It might be easier if we weren't smack on top of a Hellmouth. Maybe." Xander grinned. "And the fun part is... we get to do it all again tomorrow."
"Youkia... youki... pox on it all, look up the spelling later. Try Japanese demon..."
The cursor blinked at Ethan, cheerful counterpoint to the still-throbbing knot on his head. The chaos mage glared back at the screen, not caring if anyone in the Nevada cyber-cafe at this ungodly hour of morning caught him threatening a harmless search engine. No one sane was up at six, anyway.
"Right, far too many thousands of pages," Ethan muttered. "Be a bit more specific, then. Demon of Kyoto... red hair... very very sharp sword... hmm, may as well throw in heaven, can't be that many hanyou with blessed blades..." He frowned. There had been a name that night. What had Ripper called the hanyou?
"Battousai's killed more people in one night than you or I ever managed in all our arrogance and idiocy..."
Battousai.Ethan typed his best approximation, breathed a quiet incantation to bias the machine to sites relating to true magic, and hit Enter.
The computer chewed on that a minute, then blinked up a set of sites.
"Huh. Never knew the Japanese had a Revolution as well... oh, bloody hell..."
The chaos mage read, and gulped, and swore a silent oath to be sure that idiot Bengal was dead beyond any hope of resurrection.
Legendary assassin... sword and shield of the Ishin Shishi... living guardian ofTenchuu... master of the ancient demon-slaying style Hiten Mitsurugi... the Demon of Kyoto.
Scrolling down through various listings of chaos, mayhem, and bloodshed Battousai had reportedly committed over five years of revolution, Ethan rubbed his tingling neck. Damn me. Ripper wasn't bluffing.
But how had he known-?
Hang on a moment. Here was a site that didn't look like the others. More on the light side than he liked to play with; maintained by stuck-up, sober ascetics too concerned with the soul's fate beyond life to pay attention to the demons chewing on their own backsides. Almost, he clicked on past; what did questions of Heaven and redemption have to do with the bloody menace sure to be on his trail?
But his spell would have biased the search engine to things he needed to know. Ethan rolled his eyes, braced himself for a blast of piety, and touched the mouse.
FAQ: Surely you can't mean thatany sin will be forgiven? What about assassins?
A: No less an authority than Origen argued that even the Morning Star might be forgiven at the last. True, it might be argued that Lucifer was a Power, and so more likely to experience true and complete remorse than any human. But even the bloodiest murderer, if he regrets and atones for his deeds with a true heart, might be granted grace.
In fact, this very question has been posed to an Oracle known to be of true power and pure heart, who reported that indeed, some whose hands were stained in blood later repented and were saved by the grace of the Powers That Be, residing to this very hour in the Place Beyond we call Heaven. Some named were a dhampir born to Dracula's own damned bloodline; a dragon-slayer known as Bowen; a former assassin called the Demon of Kyoto, Hitokiri Battousai...
Ethan blinked, screen turning fuzzy as he thought. And leaned back. And finally, slowly, smirked.
"Oh, clever. How very, very clever..."
A soul escaping Hell shivered the ether so loudly, it'd wake any sensitive within miles. One leaving Heaven should have created vibrations so strong psychics in Canada would be shocked awake for weeks. To say nothing of drawing half the intelligent demonic attention in the world, all bent on slaughtering a living, breathing example of the Powers that had driven them from this reality.
Should have. And Ethan should have felt it. The Mayor should have. Even I'm-so-tweedy-I'm-not-Ripper-anymore Giles should have. But they hadn't.
Because last night, Chaos itself was set free.
On a Hellmouth, no less. With - as his belated research had revealed - the magic of the Morrigan herself to back it; one of the few creatures neither the Powers nor the Senior Partners dared cross lightly. One brilliant, inspired spell, that had spawned enough Light and Darkness and pure, raw magic to make all of Sunnydale a blaze of power so bright, any psychic might as well have stared into the sun.
So bright, one tiny, tiny hole might have opened between this reality and that Other. Just a crack of Light. Just for a moment.
Just enough that a soul determined to escape, willing to allow itself to be embodied once more - not in magic, nor mortal flesh and blood, but the shadowy in-between of a hanyou...
A soul that had once been avowed the very guardian of Chaos, wreaking Hell on earth in the name of Heaven's own Justice...
Might slip, like an assassin, right past all eyes watching to prevent it.
"Refill, sugar?" The graveyard-shift waitress gave him a jaundiced look, shifting her weight to the least sore of her feet.
"If you'd be so kind." Ethan smiled, nodding toward one of the finer blends available. "It seems the week is looking up."
After all... it wasn't every day the Powers ended up owing you a favor...
Anata- "You". Used by a wife for her husband.
Gomen. Gomen nasai.- Forgive me.
Suru noha shippai nanimo shinai noha daishippai.-- lit. Doing is a mistake, not doing is a huge mistake.
Itadakimasu- "I am about to partake"; said before a meal.
Ryuu Kan Sen- Dragon's Nest Flash (or Strike); a rapid-strike technique.
Ryuu Tsui Sen- Dragon Hammer Strike.
Dou Ryuu Sen- Earth Dragon Strike.
Kaze no Kizu- Scar of the Wind; striking where two auras clash together, to do an impressive amount of damage. According to its first mention in the Inuyasha manga, it can be done with any sword, not just Tetsuseiga.
Ahou- idiot, fool.
Tayuu- sometimes Romanized as tayu. A high-class courtesan of about 16th to 18th century Kyoto, still known of and familiar in historical and fictional literature in the Meiji era. Much of their dress and mannerisms was adopted from the traditions of the Heian era noblewomen.
Makoto- "truth", "sincerity" - multiple other translations exist. The kanji the Shinsengumi lived by.
Kesagiri- "Scarf cut"; a diagonal slice from the shoulder down across the torso, like the "scarf" of a Buddhist monk.
Shakujo- Ring-tipped staff, carried by certain Japanese monks to ward off evil. Also makes a good youkai-basher.
Tenchuu- "Heaven's Justice"; message left by the Revolutionaries on assassinated enemies.
Spider's Web - extremely strong opium invented by Takani Megumi's instructor. After he was tortured to death by Takeda Kanryuu (a villain who planned to move up from drug-dealing to arms dealing) she was the only one who knew the formula. For three years she made it for Kanryuu to keep herself alive; then managed to escape, running into Kenshin and Sanosuke at a dice game. For more, see Rurouni Kenshin volumes 3 and 4. Suffice it to say Sano and Megumi's relationship got off to at least as rocky a start as Xander and Cordelia's.
Letting him eat cold meal - Hiyameshi wo kuwaseru. A Japanese proverb, "the cold shoulder".
Guardian of Chaos - Katsura Kogoro, Kenshin's superior in the Ishin Shishi, did indeed identify Kenshin as this when he explained himself to Tomoe. Though Katsura was an excellent swordsman himself, it was decided he had to keep his hands free of bloodshed so that he might "blamelessly" take power later after the Revolution succeeded. Thus the Hitokiri Battousai.
A/N: I wrote this as if Halloween took place on Tuesday; I've since had it pointed out that Halloween would have been on a Friday that year. Ah well. A quirk of the Hellmouth?
Who was who in Meiji and today:
Buffy - Kaoru Kamiya.
Xander - Sanosuke Sagara.
Cordelia - Megumi Takani.
Willow - Tsubame Sanjou.
Oz - Yahiko Myojin.
Rupert Giles - Hajime Saitou.
Hiko Sejuuro - didn't reincarnate. Still the same arrogant swordmaster.
Kenshin Himura - pretty much himself.
Note that Angel became a vampire long before Meiji, so he isn't anyone's reincarnation.