A/N – In this chapter, Kenshin goes back to his training while others prepare in their own way. Thank you to all who have been waiting for over two years for the next chapter. Again, I apologise for the length of time between updates.
Disclaimer – I don't own Ruroken, any of the canon characters, situations or settings.
Once, long ago, Hiko Seijuuro had been a master of his art. He'd been younger then, and the world a brighter, better place; before the bottle, before his hope for the future ran off half-cocked to become a hired assassin. Since then, he'd existed in a semi-alcoholic haze, not caring much for anything beyond his sake and his pottery. However, the morning after his deshi finally returned, properly penitent, he rose from his bed feeling thirty years younger.
Kenshin slept lightly in the spare room, clutching his swords close, far from the boneless teenage sprawl Hiko remembered. He was pale, clearly exhausted, and perhaps that was why he did not wake, not even when Hiko loomed over his tightly curled body with a basin of icy water. He woke quickly enough when Hiko doused him, springing to his feet with an outraged yowl of protest. His katana whipped out with truly commendable speed, but Hiko blocked the strike easily, sending him sprawling on his behind in a pool of soaked fabric and spreading water.
Kenshin scowled up at Hiko through his dripping hair, and there it was – the old, disgruntled attitude that was all his young, troubled, hot-headed apprentice.
"Shishou! What –!"
"Wake up, baka deshi. It's time to resume your training."
"It's too good to be true," Saito muttered, pacing his tiny office. "Do you know how long I've been trying to get my hands on that list? Should I honestly believe that Battousai – Battousai, of all people! – would just hand it to me so easily?" He whipped about, fixed Masamune with a piercing glare. "Well? Is it genuine?"
The young computer specialist looked up from his screen with something close to a scowl. "If you would just let me do my job, sir –"
"Get on with it!"
Masamune swallowed, ducked his head and went back to his computer. As the sound of swift tapping keystrokes filled the room, Saito forced himself to sit down, forced his restless hands to stillness. Before vanishing into the tree-shadows of the park yesterday, Battousai had given Saito one last gesture of good faith: an encrypted list of all the crooked cops on Katsura's payroll.
"Again." Hiko's voice was insufferably bored.
Kenshin drew in a harsh breath, held on to his bruised ribs, and forced himself to his feet. His shishou was standing tall, sword held easily, implacably calm. Breathing slowly, he wiped the stinging sweat from his eyes, gripped his sword and resumed the most basic position – feet balanced, sword up, the most fundamental, basic stance of all kenjutsu schools. Calm and centred, he exhaled harshly and attacked –
Hiko countered with blinding swiftness. Kenshin blocked, moved again, a rhythm as instinctive as drawing breath, ingrained in his very bones. This was the dance of Hiten Mitsurugi, and Hiko the master against whom he had always measured himself –
Hiko moved unexpectedly, put him minutely off balance; in defence, Kenshin took to the sky where his size and agility gave him the advantage. But Hiko blocked him easily, sent him flying away. He slapped the floor when he landed, absorbing momentum, tumbled head over heels and sprang upright once more.
"Baka deshi," Hiko scowled, shaking his head. "Have you forgotten everything I've ever tried to teach you? You take too many shortcuts; rely too much on flashy tricks."
"Flashy tricks, I say. This isn't a martial arts movie, boy. Now –" Hiko sheathed his sword and moved towards an old deck chair from where he could observe in comfort "– start from the beginning. Show me 1st position."
"First position, baka deshi."
It had been a while since Sano had last seen Katsu. His old comrade hated the Ishin Shishi and disapproved of his friendship with Kenshin; Battousai had not been among the assassins sent to wipe out Sagara-taichou and the Sekihoutai, but he had done nothing to stop it, either. For the sake of their friendship Sano had long since forgiven Kenshin, but Katsu could neither forgive nor forget. All too often their conversations dissolved into arguments and recriminations that left nothing resolved.
Still, Katsu had access to all sorts of valuable information. And so Sano got off the train in Tokyo and made his way to the reinforced cellar where Katsu housed his underground press. He was not – exactly – disguised, but he was not wearing his distinctive jacket and bandana. He was too well known in Tokyo as one of Battousai's protégés, and he had no wish to attract Shishio's attention.
"Sano!" Katsu said, hurrying forward to greet him. "I was so worried. You disappeared chasing after Battousai, and then it all went to hell –" Throwing his usual cool reserve to the wind, Katsu grabbed Sano in a hug.
"Katsu," Sano ground out, awkwardly returning the hug. "Sorry. I didn't get time to tell you where I was going."
Katsu held on for a moment longer, then let go. "Probably for the best," he sighed. "That mongrel Chou came sniffing around here a couple of days ago. Thought he could throw his weight around now that Shishio's taken over."
"Bet you showed him, though."
"Yeah." Katsu grinned evilly. "We Sekihoutai protect our own, Sano. Even your damned assassin friend."
"Thanks, Katsu." Sano swallowed. "Really."
"It's nothing." Katsu waved it off. "Now why don't you tell me why you've come back?"
Hiko sipped at his tea with a great sense of satisfaction. His baka deshi had had it far too easy in the last fifteen years, going for the quick kill, the easy victories. He'd forgotten or discarded the exquisite subtleties and technicalities of the art, and Hiko was determined to pound them back into his rock-stubborn skull.
And so in the centre of the dojo, rumpled and sweating, Kenshin ran through basic kata with pointed vehemence, every step crisp and precise. This particular kata was one of the very first Hiko had ever taught him, the steps drilled into him so often in the early years that Kenshin could recreate it from muscle memory more than twenty years later. Its simplicity was almost hypnotic, drawing him deeper and deeper in – even as Hiko watched, the vehemence faded, giving way to smooth, sure movement and balanced grace. His muscles bunched and relaxed as he stepped and blocked and thrust, the fundamental steps performed with perfect discipline and control.
Somewhere, somehow the brittle, flawed boy he'd taken in off the streets had become a man. He'd lost some of the freakish swiftness and agility of his adolescence, but gained strength and muscle mass in return. And not just physical strength, either – there was hard-won fragile wisdom in those golden-brown eyes, and a growing awareness of the true value of life.
Though he would never, ever admit it, Kenshin was his greatest masterpiece, all the more beautiful because of his flaws.
Saito had long suspected a number of cops on Battousai's list. He had itched to do something about the widespread corruption for years – well, now he had his chance and he was taking it.
"Passing over the madness of trusting Battousai," Shinomori began, his eyes narrowed against the haze, "and not even mentioning your mad plan to join forces with him –"
"Thank you," Saito drawled.
"Are you sure this is wise, Saito?" Shinomori finally asked. They were tucked into the corner of an anonymous karaoke bar, surrounded by half-drunk salary men mangling Western pop songs.
"It is necessary, Shinomori. Frankly I don't care who leads the Ishin Shishi, but this network of corruption must be excised. I don't care how high the rot goes."
The other detective looked grim. "And how will you – excise – the rot? The courts will be no help."
Saito pulled out a cigarette and lit it with steady hands. "Aku Soku Zan." He took a long, deep drag, breathed out a cloud of acrid smoke. "I will cut out this cancer like a surgeon; with my blade, with my gun, with any and all weapons at my disposal."
"Then you will be no better than Battousai."
Saito smiled grimly. "So be it."
Shinomori surveyed him through unsettling blue eyes. "You are set on this," he said, more to himself than to Saito. And then, as though coming to a decision, he nodded. "We will help you."
Saito paused. "We?"
"Surely you don't think you can do it alone. Wasn't that why you asked me to come to Kyoto?"
"Are you finally going to tell me your hidden connections?"
They regarded each other in silence.
It was close on 11pm before Kaoru finally emerged from the police station. Walking back to her hotel, she wondered at what she'd done. She'd promised to help a notorious yakuza assassin against the entire Kyoto and Tokyo police, had gambled her entire career – and most likely her life – on the chance that Battousai and Saito were strong enough to defeat Shishio and all his evil minions. She'd been convinced by a gentle, rueful smile, by Sagara's over-protective friendship. And somehow, between revulsion at what he was and reluctant admiration of what he was preparing to do, she'd put her faith in hitokiri Battousai.
It was never quite dark in downtown Kyoto, but there were shadows aplenty, and something in the night set her instincts humming; cursing, she wished that she had her bokken. She knew all too well how quickly an attacker could emerge from the darkness. Still, the route was well-lit if not particularly safe; she hitched her bag up on her shoulder and hurried on. She was coming up on a dark alley mouth with a flickering, stuttering street-light – out of the corner of her eye, she saw the shadow flicker slightly, and started.
And then the shadow stirred, moved, and held up its hands, palms first, and came out further into the light. "Don't worry, Kamiya-san," Battousai said. "It's only me."
She breathed out, a long, sighing breath, fully cognisant of the irony of her relief.
"I thought it might be one of Shishio's men," she said.
He shook his head. "No, Shishio has no reason to go after you. There were some street toughs hanging about tonight, watching you – but I persuaded them to look elsewhere."
"How did you – no, don't answer that. How did you know I would be coming this way?"
He stared at her. "I promised to protect you, Kamiya-san. I have been watching over you every night as you walk back to your hotel."
She opened her mouth to tell him that she was quite capable of taking care of herself, thank you very much, but somehow could not bring herself to rebuke him. The thought of this dangerous assassin shadowing her, watching out for her was… She was not sure what she thought of it.
Instead she said, "I thought that you had gone into intensive training with your shishou? Surely you can't be getting much sleep?"
He shrugged. "I'm used to late nights. Besides, I wouldn't be able to sleep unless I knew you were safe."
Almost without her noticing they had started walking again, Kenshin making sure that she was between him and the road and any passers-by; she noticed that he moved in absolute silence, seemed to instinctively slip in and out of shadows, and used his hair to disguise his features. Other than that, and the slight suggestion of his swords under his leather coat, they could be any couple in Kyoto out for a late-night stroll.
There was a small 24-hour café just near the hotel. As they neared it, Kaoru was struck by a sudden impulse.
"Er, Himura-san," she began awkwardly, not quite sure how to address him. "Would you like to stop in here for some coffee? My hotel is just around the corner. If, that is, your shishou won't mind you staying out too late."
He did not quite laugh, though she thought she saw his eyes crinkle in amusement. "Shishou will not be happy, I'm afraid. But that's nothing new."
So they stepped into the café, Battousai somehow managing to avoid the strongest light so his hair appeared to be black. Kaoru ordered a latte and Battousai, who was (for all his lack of sleep) on a strict regimen, ordered tea. And they spoke quietly about everything but Shishio and the Ishin Shishi: about kendo and their respective teachers, about their very different childhoods, about Kaoru's days as a tomboy at school and Battousai's eclectic and varied education by oil light, because Hiko could not afford electricity.
"He filled my mind with honour and bushido and poetry," Battousai said ruefully. "Between shishou and the geisha –" his eyes gleamed with mingled sadness and amusement, "– I was in no way prepared for the real world, even though I spent my earliest years on the streets."
She thought of a young boy, small for his age, gripping his practice bokken with heartfelt determination. She thought of a crusty bachelor swordsman who must have had no idea what to do with his young charge.
"It must have hurt you to leave," she said. "Was it – hard – to go back to him?"
His mouth tightened. "I was a hot-tempered boy who stormed out in a passionate rage, burning my bridges behind me," he said quietly. "Though the years passed, and the rage and the passion cooled, I thought I could never go back." His expression turned aggrieved. "Of course, shishou has taken it out of my hide."
Despite herself, she laughed. "He's being hard on you?"
"He was always a slave driver; now he's impossible. But… I can feel the improvement. I haven't been this technically perfect for more than a decade. And if I can endure his torture long enough, perhaps shishou will finally teach me the ougi."
She smiled, reached out as though to put her hand on his. In the course of their conversation she'd begun to see him as a man, not a monster; still, he froze, and she pulled back at the last moment.
"If you had the courage to go back to him, Himura-san, I believe that you can stick it out."
He ducked his head, actually smiled shyly. "Thank you."
Eventually their conversation trailed into companionable silence. Kaoru had the odd thought that she had never felt so comfortable with a man before; despite the blood on his hands, she felt perfectly safe with him.
When it was time to leave, Battousai – Himura-san – held the door open for her and shepherded her outside. He walked with her through dimly lit streets back to her hotel, and waited until she was safely inside before raising a hand in farewell and fading back into the shadows.
She watched him go, and some part of her wished that he could stay.
Hiko scowled ferociously as Kenshin picked himself up off the dojo floor, but inside he was almost dancing with glee. His baka deshi had returned very late last night, sneaking in through the back window while trying to mask his ki. For a notorious shadow assassin, it was a very poor attempt at subterfuge, and it was damned naïve to think that Hiko was unaware of Kenshin's late night excursions. The dark circles under his eyes alone would have given him away.
However, his watching over the policewoman was a very good sign that Kenshin had finally found something he wished to protect. Not Katsura's general, idealised dream of his teenage years, that had led him into such folly and grief, but a man's true, heartfelt wish to protect a woman he –
Well, Hiko had no wish to know the details.
(But thank all the gods. He had begun to wonder about his baka deshi).
And this motivation – for all the dark circles under his eyes – was pushing Kenshin much harder than any general desire to succeed. If he continued to improve at this pace, then Hiko would soon have little left to teach him except the last two final attacks.
For the first time since Kenshin had stormed out more than fifteen years ago, Hiko was truly satisfied with his baka deshi. Finally, he was reconciled with the idea of passing on the last secrets of Hiten Misturugi Ryu.
"I've made some discreet enquiries," Katsu said, pouring sake for himself and Sano. "Shishio's network is more extensive than anyone thought. He must have been preparing for something like this for years."
"Bastard," Sano muttered under his breath, downing his sake in one gulp. Kenshin – a closet sake snob – would have been horrified, but Sano was not so particular. "Compared to Shishio, old man Katsura was a saint."
Katsu scowled. "If I had my way, I'd see them both dead. But," he interrupted Sano's startled interjection, "here. Give this to your assassin friend." He slid a tiny memory stick over to Sano. "It's everything I've managed to dig up on the Juppongatana, and the layout of Shishio's lair."
"Thanks, Katsu. I owe you one." Fuelled by a wave of drunken affection, Sano thumped him heartily on the back. "You're my oldest friend. Did you know that?"
"Keh." Katsu looked away, blushing a little. "Just make sure that you bring Shishio down."
"Heh. No problems. Between Kenshin, the psycho cop, and me, he doesn't stand a chance."
Katsu let that one pass.
"Oh, and one more thing, Sano. I've heard rumours that the Oniwabanshuu are sniffing around Shishio as well. Be careful, will you? Those guys are bad news."
Sano sputtered. "Oniwabanshuu? What, you mean ninja?"
"Yes, Sano. Ninja." Katsu sighed. "Is it so hard to believe?"
A/N - Next chapter, the ougi! Thank you to all my reviewers. Feedback is greatly appreciated.