PLEASE NOTE: if you are an old reader of this story, you will probably need to reread the previous chapter to aviod misunderstandings and inconsistencies. After much deliberation, I decided to rewrite the second half, and changed the plot a good deal.
That said, please enjoy this chapter. Though it was long in coming, and though it is a bit shorter than the rest, I hope it is worth the wait.
Hiko was in no mood for wasting time. His temper was stirring inside him like a trembling volcano, itching to explode, and only years of practice kept him from jumping into a crazed whirlwind of death. He wanted to see Kenshin. He wanted the boy here now.
Unfortunately, there were a few dozen idiots here who were furtively-yet-stubbornly determined to stop him at any cost.
Any other day, and he would have been glad for the chance to let off some steam. Even if the opponents were only half-witted men with less-than-mediocre skill behind their swords and cowardly guns. But today was not the day. He hadn't driven an hour through pouring rain for a fight. He had come for his charge. Who was nowhere in sight.
Two minutes, he thought to himself with gritted teeth. Two minutes tops.
And he lunged, cold fury spilling off his ki in waves.
At the last second before contact, on a spur of the moment instinct, he flipped his blade to strike with the dull end instead. No need for his record to contain over a hundred murders.
"Shishio-san? There is a swordsman outside ripping his way through our ranks," Sōjirō stated calmly to his master, who was reclining on his bed after a nice steam bath, clearly not showing any signs of moving anywhere any time soon. "I would assume he's here for the Himura boy."
Shishio glanced dispassionately at him. Just as Hiko was in no mood to wait, he was in no mood to fight today. Oh, there was no doubt he could, should he choose to, but there was something about the cold dampness of rain outside that made his scarred body tingle uncomfortably. A little boy's problem wasn't going to be enough to drag him out of his nice, warm room. "And where is the boy now?" he asked, though one didn't need to know him as well as Sōjirō did to tell he did not care about the answer in the slightest.
"Gein has him in the basement, I believe."
The bandage-covered man sighed, before waving him out. "You take care of it, Sō. If Gein has the boy, he's all but broken anyway."
"Very well, then, Shishio-san." And the young man bowed himself out.
The master of Hiten Mitsurugi-ryuu smashed down the wooden door.
He did not care that it could have been opened with a simple twist of the knob. He was not in a knob-twisting mood right now. If he wanted to smash the door, it was damn well going to end up in splinters at his feet.
He was not in the least surprised by the presence of the person now standing in front of him, dust and broken wood strewn between them. There was something cold about the young man's ki that disturbed him, though, something subtle, something emotionless. Something about the way his smile stopped at his lips and the way his ice blue eyes stayed glazed though they were piercing into his own.
Seta Sōjirō. His reputation preceded him.
"Welcome," the boy known as the Tenken greeted him calmly, as though there was nothing in the least unusual about the circumstances. "I'm going to assume you've come for the young Himura."
There were so many responses Hiko could have spat out right then. So many sarcastic, venomous, disgusted replies that all tried to spew out of his lips at once, and ended up twisted into a murderous growl that nevertheless succeeded in getting his message across.
"Usually, it is not out custom to hand over any of the enemy we capture," the young man continued serenely, though his gaze grew imperceptibly sharper and his sword arm tensed ever so slightly. "The boy's father killed many of our men with his support of the Ishin. In our world, that makes him worthy of death."
"But I see you are not to be stopped," Sōjirō added in response to Hiko's exponentially increasing rage. "We have no desire for a fight with one we have no business with. You may take the boy."
It took all of Hiko's effort not to strike the man – the insolent boy! – and silence him forever. But he needed information. Needed to know some things, because Kenshin's been gone far too long and he wasn't willing to waste a single more minute.
"Where. Is. He." His voice is nothing short of a snarl.
"That, you'll have to find out on your own. You may want to hurry, though, one of my associates was assigned to him, and chances are that he's unrecoverable by now –"
He might've said more, but Hiko had finally reached the end of his fuse and exploded. All his fury and frustration he slammed behind his sword, and the young man crumbled to the floor without a single sound. Hiko had to grudgingly admire him, though: he'd been aiming for the head, but the Tenken had leapt back a split moment before he landed the strike. He got the shoulder instead. Said shoulder was now severely broken and dislocated, the shattered bone cracking through the skin. The young man's head bled from where it had cracked open with the force he'd been slammed against the wall.
Hiko had to admit the Tenken's reputation was not for nothing. He was the first in many generations to escape the full wrath of a Mitsurugi master alive. A shame such talent was wasted on an impudent moron.
With a sigh, the sword-master stormed down the hallway of Juppongatana headquarters to begin his search, mood growing impossibly darker when he realized that he still couldn't sense the boy's ki.
Where the hell is he?
His hurried steps jerked to a stop when he found himself confronted by a choice of three directions, none looking more promising than the last. Each hall way was identical to the next: dimly lit so that he could not see the end.
With a jolt, he realized the trap he'd walked straight into.
The place was a labyrinth. And his only guide lay several meters behind him in a pool of his own blood.
The first ray of the dawning sun was smoldered by the unrelenting rain. From where he stood by the window, Okita stared listlessly at the point behind the distant mountains where the sun should have risen. He would not see it today.
Hiko had promised return by dawn.
What now? Call the police? The ambulance? Surely something was up. Hiko would have returned by now if he'd found nothing. But then again, if it was a situation Hiko Seijūrō couldn't handle, Okita wasn't sure what good police would do.
Still, something had to be done.
He sighed again (it was becoming a habit now), before spinning around abruptly, decision written firmly in his eyes. He could not stand here forever, and Hiko had promised by dawn. A quick stop by his house was needed. He would call the police on the way. There was something he needed to pick up.
It had been two years since he'd picked up a sword.
But Hiko had Winter Moon, the police had their guns, and he damn well wasn't going to be the only incompetent and useless annoyance around.
Okita would have started the search for him by now.
The thought did nothing to sooth his raging emotions. He'd lost count of the number of turns he'd taken after thirty-one. The number of people he'd seen and been forced to take down along the way stood at sixty-six (he'd stumbled across what appeared to be a residence hall where several drinking parties had been taking place). Once, he thought he caught a flash of Kenshin's ki but it disappeared down the next turn and he never found it again. All things considered, he was about ready to scream, however undignified that would be.
With nothing else to focus on, Hiko's thoughts turned to the boy he was searching for. What was Kenshin doing now? Was he scared? He must be. Did the boy know he was coming? He hoped so. Was he fighting? Did he need to fight? Could he fight? Surely he'd trained the boy hard enough that the scamp could put up a half-decent fight under pressure.
What was the boy thinking right now? About his parents or about his new friends? About life or about death?
They'd better not have hurt him, he though grimly, the Tenken's words flashing through his mind. Because somehow, the boy had become precious to him. Somewhere along the way, he'd learn to think of the boy as his boy. Sometime in the past, he'd learned to recognize his smiles, his laughs, his voice, his tears, his actions, his reactions, his heart. His soul.
Somehow, he holds so much of him that he's afraid – if the child breaks, so might he.
When had that happened? When had Kenshin become his Kenshin, his apprentice, his responsibility?
When I named him.
Yes. That was it. The moment he'd given the boy a name, it had been over. There was no fighting it. Once he thought I must protect him, it was hopeless.
He turned another corner. Left this time. A man coming down the hall jerked to a halt at his sudden appearance, started to raised an alarm. Hiko has sensed him five meters back, however, and in a breath and a whirl of steel, he was lying sprawled on the floor, staring sightlessly up at the ceiling with eyes half rolled back.
Hiko wiped his blade grimly, eying the end of the hallway. Left or right?
A door behind him creaked open.
He spun around, ki flaring, cursing himself for his clumsy oversight. Getting sloppy at this point in the game was flat-out inexcusable. He prepared for a strike, but something made him pause. There was no hostility in the air, only a weariness, a worried curiosity.
A young boy peeked out from behind the door to stare up at him, no doubt drawn out by the sound of the scuffle a moment earlier. They locked eyes briefly before the child looked to the outstretched blade in the man's grip. Recognition dawned in his brown eyes, and when he looked up again it was with a wide smile.
"Ya're Shin-chan's Shishou-san."
Shin-chan. Shinta. Kenshin.
"Where is he?" Hiko rasped out, restraining the urge to pick up the child and shake the information out of him. "Where is the boy?"
"I think t' basement, Shishou-san. That's where Gein takes all his pris'ners. I'll show ya t' way, Shishou-san."
The little foreign boy came up boldly and took his free hand, tugging him down the hall the way he'd just come. But he took a right where Hiko had chosen left.
"He told me 'bout ya, ya know, said he knew ya'd come f' 'im. 'M glad ya did. He was scared."
So he did know I was coming.
Somehow, that made him feel much better. Like now they had a fighting chance.
They found the wounded men first. Each in various stages of wakefulness, those who had regained their senses were too beaten to even stand. Injuries ranged from concussions to broken legs to smashed ribs. One man had his spine completely bent at a forty-five degree angle. Sideways.
Okita couldn't help but whistle. A master was a master, but few masters were Hiko Seijūrō.
Next they found the demolished door, and beyond that, the puddle of half-dried blood. The person who shed it was nowhere in sight.
"What next?" Okita wondered out loud. The police chief next to him pointed down the dimly-lit hallway, before turning and ordering several men to station themselves as outlooks. The paramedics called in were attending to the injured with the police standing by to stop any attempted escapes. They could do nothing about the foul mouths of those who were awake or waking up, though. The curses sailing through the air would've made a sailor blush.
Okita made his way down the hall with the chief by his side and two squads of men behind them. Far too soon they found the three-way fork Hiko had come to hours earlier.
"Wonderful. Just what we needed," the young advisor grumbled humorlessly, at last realizing why it was taking Hiko so long. The place must be an entire underground maze. Leave it to the Juppongatana to build something so ridiculous.
"Alright, who's got a coin we can flip?"
Hiko felt a thrill when he turned the corner and finally, finally touched the edge of Kenshin's ki. It was definite this time, growing stronger with each hurried stride he took. The boy called Mattie jog along beside him, nearly having to run to keep up with the huge man more than three times his size. "No much longer now, Shishou-san, just down here…" But he didn't need to boy to say it to know. Kenshin's presence was unmistakably here, alive.
"The chances are that he's unrecoverable by now."
The Tenken's words came back once more, and Hiko realized something. Kenshin was alive, yes, but there was something bout his ki, something he didn't like, something shrinking and musky. Something that resembled death.
What have they done to you?
He refused to believe that there was anything he couldn't pull the boy through. As long as he lived, was that not enough? As long as he was alive, wishes could keep being made. As long as he breathed, there could still be learning and growing and maturing. As long as the boy lived, there could be redemption and salvation. Was that not enough? It had to be. It must.
They rounded the final corner.
He kicked the door down.
Never mind the fact that there had been a knob. He didn't feel like using a knob.
Okita would've laughed if he'd known that Hiko had had the exact same thoughts only hours before.
The air was clouded with steam. Coming, he saw, from the hot steam bath in the middle. It appeared to be a bedroom of sorts, or someone's private chambers. He thought it was empty at first, before a voice interrupted his thoughts.
"It's rude to enter without knocking. Ruder still to enter by violently breaking in."
Okita looked up and froze. He could feel the men beside and behind him tense as well.
Bandages from head to toe. Lips charred black. Smoldering, vortex eyes. Serrated blade unsheathed in one hand, a machine gun in the other.
He'd walked straight into the lair of one of the most dangerous man in the country.
You'd better get out of here safe, Hiko-kun, and take Kenshin-chan with you. I refuse to believe I'm doing this in vain.
It's been two years since he's drawn a blade. The thrill of battle hasn't changed. But it wasn't a friendly game anymore. Adrenaline flooded his system as he dropped easily into the stance his body remembered better than he did. This is between life and death, with a paper-width of thickness in between.
The policemen with him cocked their guns. The chief started speaking to Shishio Matoko, about his arrest, his rights, but he never got past the first few words.
The backdoor to the room opened, and the men Shishio must have called poured silently in. In an instant, they'd gone from a twenty-against-one favor to a three-to-one disadvantage.
The flickers from the embers of the crackling fire cast an eerie light over the small room. The shadows danced their patternless dance over the walls and the floor, defying the laws of nature in their leaps and twists.
There was the woman with the sunset-hair.
Except it wasn't. The woman who'd come to him had been vibrant with life, emitting an energy so strong he would've thought her living. This was only a shell, a husk, a crude game of make-belief.
It was Mattie who took his attention away from the frozen play on the stage of the master puppeteer. The boy tugged sharply at his hand, and pointed left to the darkest corner of the room when he turned to look down. Hiko followed his finger, and his eyes found the small form huddled up against colorless walls. There was a plain-looking sword on the ground a few feet away, but he paid it no mind.
Yes, he understood now, caught on to their malicious game. They did not kill the boy. They aimed to break his spirit. They meant to crush him into so many pieces that no one could ever pick them up, put him together again.
But there was something they didn't take into account. They didn't understand the strength of will that had led him to apprentice the boy in the first place, the strength that the boy's mother had passed on to him. They didn't see why he had named the boy Kenshin. They didn't grasp that the boy hadn't lost everything, that there was still hope, and as long as there was hope then there would be healing. He almost smiled. Broken pieces of glass could always be melted back together into something even stronger, more beautiful.
He left Mattie by the door. Four strides took him where he needed to be.
All the anger and rage he'd been harboring and nursing for the past few hours flared up in an explosion, then suddenly fled. He was left drained and uncertain. While he'd been searching, there'd been a goal. Now that he was here, he realized he had no idea how to proceed.
He knelt, and felt clumsy for the first time since the day he'd picked up a sword as a child. The boy did not look up.
At the sound of his voice, the boy stirred a little. Very, very slowly, violet eyes peered up at him. Unfocused. Uncertain. There was a flicker of recognition, but that was all he got. The boy did not seem to realize he was real, because he dropped his head again.
Whatever reaction Hiko might've been expecting, this wasn't it. Was that all? Not even a "Hello, Shishou. Thank you for coming to get me"? Yes, he realized it sounded stupid, but didn't he at least deserve that much? All of a sudden, he felt annoyed.
"Kenshin, you little baka deshi, look up!"
The boy jerked as though he'd been struck. Startled eyes looked at the sword-master as though seeing him for the first time, and his face paled. A timid hand reached out, stretching tentatively toward him, pausing before his shoulder, wavering, fearful. With a newfound determination, Hiko grabbed the trembling hand firmly, gently, understanding the need to prove he was real, that it was not a dream, a wistful imagination. "What, is this all the thanks I get after coming all the way over here to get you? Ungrateful deshi!"
Kenshin stared up at him, lips trembling, eyes wide with shock. Then he melted, fell forward into Hiko's strong arms and buried himself in the fabric of the man's shirt. He clung so hard his knuckles turned white, shook so hard that Hiko began to fear he'd literally fall apart. The child began to speak so rapidly that it was only half comprehensible, the other half coming out as senseless babble. Amidst a torrent of tears and words, Hiko caught one word over and over. Kill. Another several minutes, and he'd managed to piece together the story. The wave after wave of emotions from the child was overwhelming. Fear, confusion, despair, anger, swirling within such a small body. The child was nearing hysteria, and Hiko couldn't blame him. He could only imagine what it must have been like for the boy these past hours, sitting in a scene straight out from a nightmare, with nothing he could do to make things right again.
"Kenshin. Kenshin. Calm down, it's alright." He rocked the child gently as he'd learned to do in the days when Kenshin woke with nightmares. "I'm here. I came. They have no power over you. They cannot make you do anything. That sword is not your sword. Yours is back home where you left it after practice. Yours is the sword of life. That is not your sword. You will never have to use it."
The boy managed to nod his understanding, and he breathed a sigh of relief.
"And Kenshin. That is not your family. Those are only dolls. Do you remember your mother? The women with the shining red hair and the bright eyes. That is not her, Kenshin. Close your eyes. Do you see her? There she is, and no one can take her away from you. Do you know the difference, Kenshin? You have the real thing. All they can ever make are dolls."
He paused as the child's sobs quieted to sniffles, as the spasms wrecking his body subdued to trembling. Laying a hand on the boy's head, he ran fingers through the bright red hair he now knew came from the boy's mother.
"Kenshin," he said softly, and the boy instinctively looked up at him, his eyes red from crying, his face stained with tears. But Hiko caught the determined set in his expression and the promise that he would recover despite all odds, and thought he'd never been more beautiful than now.
"You did well, baka deshi. You made it. Well done."
Ah, inspiration. Once it strikes, it's over. I did in two days what I couldn't do in the past year. I am very proud of the last line, but if the rest seems rushed or if there are mistakes you see, please let me know. There should only be a chapter left now, maybe two. Thanks for your continual support!
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