Zaibatsu. The great family-controlled banking and industrial combines of modern Japan. In 1937 the four leading zaibatsu controlled directly one third of all bank deposits, one third of all foreign trade, one half of Japan's shipbuilding and maritime shipping, and most of the heavy industries, along with heavy influence in the major political parties.

The leading Zaibatsu were Mitsui, Mitsubishi, Dai Ichi Kangyo, Sumitomo, Sanwa and Fuyo. After Japan's surrender in World War II, the breakup of the zaibatsu was announced, and reemerged some time later in the 1950s as keiretsu. The decision of these groups in post WWII era to pool their resources greatly influenced Japan's subsequent rise as a global business power.

Over the next century, times changed. People changed. Information was power, and the corporations had it. Politics became superfluous, nothing more than a figurehead for those that truly held the reigns. Corporate war and takeover became far more lethal than ever before. Alliances were dissolved. The keiretsu drew back and retook the name zaibatsu in violent resolve. Rivalries became a bloodbath between the hired muscle of the zaibatsu as each vied for power.

Corporate secrets were trade bait. Many of the street hackers took such advantage that new software was developed for use within the modern, virtual computer world. Those that tried running the net ran the risk of being tagged themselves for destruction. Feedback programs were developed to short out a hacker's board and cause potentially fatal backlash to the unfortunate soul still plugged to the board. Later still, sentry programs were developed, a lethal firewall of sorts that would attack the hacker's mind itself while the hacker was travelling the networks. Those that managed to evade such firewalls - and there were very few - always described the program they had encountered visually as a demon, whether that demon be a firebreathing hell hound, a twisted cartoon character ... or a humanoid assassin.

One of the most infamous of these programs was drawn aesthetically straight from late nineteenth century Japan. That of a daisho wielding samurai, hair red as blood and chilling eyes that struck fear into the mind of any unlucky enough to encounter it. There were whispered rumours of its existence, but nobody could confirm it. There were no netrunners that had encountered it and remained alive. The program was said to move with such speed that the only glimpse of its presence you would receive before its 'swords' delved deep into your neural patterns was the flat inhumanity of its golden eyes.

The Battousai program was the deadliest of its kind.

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Zaibatsu Project

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The décor was pretty standard. Dim lighting, small candles flickering on the low tables. Comfortable leather couches. A long, polished black marble bar with all manner of exotic colours encased in crystal bottles on the shelving behind it. If he reconfigured his audio interface to include music, he knew, there would be some late nineties love song keeping its steady, insipid beat at a comfortable volume. Such a place had been common at the turn of the century; an old-style aristocratic bar with supposedly high standards, a meeting place used by both socialites and businessmen attempting to impress their clients.

There were some differences. There was no bartender, and every bottle of alcohol was full to the brim, there for aesthetic purposes only. One couldn't really drink on the Net, after all. Or rather, the computer could simulate the act and feel of eating and drinking, but such a sustenance program had been outlawed since 2014, after the number of people that had died from VR-related malnutrition had exceeded what the zaibatsu could comfortably cover up from the media.

It was a pity, Kenshin mused, that they hadn't also outlawed certain other sensory activities. Certainly, the décor might have been nice, but if they had attempted to imitate such an old-style pub, they could at least have tried to keep the high standards. The place was crowded with any number of different 'people'; avatars designed by and based solely on the individual user's tastes in the bedroom. Across the floor, he could see everything from movie and cartoon characters to high school girls in stereotypically skimpy skirts. In other chat rooms, he knew, the tastes could dip to the more perverse. He supposed he should thank Zanza for having enough class not to arrange a meeting in another more … deviant room.

At the bar, there was an Amazon. She towered over the room at eight feet tall, with copper-bronzed skin and shining gold jewellery clasped at her throat and on the muscular bicep of her left arm. Her hair was flaxen blonde, braided artfully so that it hung straight down her back to swing gently and tantalizingly between her hips as she moved her head, laughing at some joke told. Her eyes were glittering silver.

Her breasts were a ridiculous E cup. He accessed her username out of weary amusement, and was hardly surprised. 53xyEsmer4lda. At least the avatar was more tasteful than some. He let his gaze slide away before the silver eyes could meet his, and that was when he saw her.

He smiled. In a realm of amazons, movie stars and bizarre creations that crossed the line into perverted, the simple avatar with its back to him was a breath of fresh air. Almost too simple; the jeans and t-shirt were slim fitting and dark, accentuating the slight figure of a woman shorter than he was. Her hair was long and lustrously black, spilling free to the small of her back. The avatar was a custom job, not one of the defaults. What drew his attention was that it was so simple, so understated. That took work, not that most people here would realise this. The hair was her only vanity; he could pick no extra detail to the clothing, not even shading, and wondered what she was doing in a room like this.
Clearly, she wasn't here to make time with the locals. She looked as out of place as he was. Every other person in the room was ignoring her. He couldn't tear his eyes away.

Of course, there was nothing that said she was actually a woman in real life. He had more than enough expertise to attempt verification, but that was prying and he had always been unfailingly polite. He settled for a handle query, fingers tapping away at his side.

-ACC/UNAME: JOUCHAN

Interesting. Then he stiffened in surprise as he detected a traceback on his query. The woman swung around to meet his gaze. She was using a cheap camouflage effect, throwing the planes of her face into dark shadow, only accentuated by the dim smokiness of the room. It was effective masking. The only feature he could make out was the brilliant blue of her eyes, staring at him in accusation.

He raised both hands in surrender. "I'm sorry. I meant no offence."

After a moment he felt the subtle touch of her own handle query. He offered her a gentle grin as she relaxed. "I thought you might be somebody else," she told him.

"Not somebody you're happy with, I take it?"

"I don't much like his sense of humour," she muttered darkly. "I hate meat markets."

He laughed. "Ah, you're meeting someone? You do seem a little out of place."

"You don't look much better, Rurouni," she retorted, waving at his pale, faded hakama. "Your clothes look about 150 years out of place."

"More like 180," he said agreeably. "But I imagine it was a better time."

"That wouldn't be hard." The bitter edge to her words made him blink. "So, you're pretending to be a samurai? Going to act out some sort of ancient tale of romance and tragedy?"

"Not quite." He tried not to be insulted. She had no reason to think otherwise, given the room they found themselves in. He was curious, in fact, as to why she was really here. Most people 'just meeting' would avoid such a place … unless they had something to hide. But then, it wasn't really his business. Not yet, at least.

She looked at him with suspicion. "You're not one of the street samurai, are you?"

"No." He had been, once. It wasn't a fact he had interest in sharing. "I just have a fondness for that time period."

"Oh." And then suddenly, she laughed. A nervous sound of relief more than anything else. "That's funny. Well, not funny, but … just coincidental. Do you use the daisho in real life as well?"

He smiled at her, understanding her relief; she'd found common ground. Apparently, Jouchan was feeling very out of place. "I practice a little. I'm not that good, though."

"I teach—used to teach," she amended, "before the law came in. I guess I'm not allowed to any more. But I still go through kata every day. Old style, none of the neo-Bushido stuff."

"I'm glad to hear it," he said honestly, liking her more and more. "Especially about the training. You didn't want to keep teaching?"

"Not under the conditions," she said flatly.

And that was very interesting. It spoke of either a strong distrust of authority or an unwillingness to sell out, especially if she'd been teaching a more outdated style. He contemplated following that thread a little further, and then decided to butt out; after having her relax so much in his company, he found himself disinclined to make her uncomfortable again. The girl was a breath of fresh air in a very stale atmosphere.

Instead, he diverted to an entirely different subject. "So … why the shadow effect?" he asked teasingly. "Did you have problems designing the face?"

"What?" She looked startled. "Oh, uh … I just … like it." She made a gesture to her jeans and t-shirt. "I didn't put much detail in. I guess the face was the same, really."

You certainly put a lot of detail into the hair and the eyes. He was beginning to form a theory on that, and was wondering whether he was brave enough to voice it when a small chime on his alert list informed him that the man he was waiting for had arrived.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I was meeting someone here too, and they've just arrived. It was nice meeting—"

"Zanza!" she shouted, leaning around him to wave across the room. He was still gaping in total surprise when she glanced back apologetically. "Er, that's all right, my friend is here too—"

"Yo!" A meaty arm thumped down around Kenshin's shoulders, and he jumped, glancing sideways. The owner of the arm was a tall, muscular man with spiky brown hair and a long red headband holding the fringe back, white and unbuttoned hanten jacket apparently programmed to blow slightly backward to expose his tanned chest and stomach. The man smirked at him knowingly, coffee eyes crinkling in amusement at some joke the two of them were apparently supposed to share.

Kenshin stared at him in something close to distaste – and then noticed Jouchan was staring at them very curiously. He opened his mouth to say, It's not what it looks like—

And then it clicked.

-ACC/UNAME: ZANZA

This was his contact? This … walking, street fighter video game reject? Kenshin stared at him, trying to equate the email he'd received with the over-the-top avatar in white now draped heavily on him with a familiarity that made him itch to actually draw the katana sheathed at his waist. But Zanza's attention had shifted from him to the woman, whose curious glance was beginning to take on a seriously nervous edge.

"Heya, Jou-chan," he greeted. "Nice to see you could make it."

"Yeah, but you seem to have double booked me," she snapped back.

There was a small pause, as Kenshin watched the slowly dawning realization on Zanza's face that he had seriously messed up. And then the guy smiled brilliantly, eyes narrowed in calculation as he apparently thought of a way out of the whole mess. Lazily, his free arm reached out and snagged the woman, pulling her in close.

Kenshin was treated to a very close up view of those brilliant eyes widening in outrage and found himself very grateful that his avatar was incapable of blushing.

"That's all right," Zanza said agreeably, lowering his voice. "It'd be boring with just me and, uh … Rurouni, here. I could go a threesome, couldn't you, bud?"

"Oro?" Kenshin squeaked. It was all he had time for. She wrenched away from them both, jerking back to put space between them all, her furious gaze swinging from one to the other.

"Damn you, Sano!" she hissed. "This was important!"

"Um…" Kenshin tried. "Jouchan, I'm—"

"Go to hell!" she yelled at him, hands reaching up to her ears.

He was still trying to apologise when her avatar blurred and then vanished. He stared at the place she'd been standing and tried to comprehend that. Nobody logged out like that anymore; the fact that she'd had to reach up to her head meant that Jouchan was using an antiquated VR set; one that had been out of production for a good twenty years.

Illegal to use one, too. Not that most people cared, but … right in front of him, and he was meant to …

There was a polite cough.

"Sorry 'bout that," Zanza grinned crookedly. Or was it Sano? "I think she's mad at me."

"She's not the only one," Kenshin said, voice cool. "I can't begin to list the number of things I just saw that I should be dealing with right now."

The smile vanished. "She's a good kid. She just can't afford to upgrade. If you mess her up, I'll find a way to return the favour. I don't care how high up the chain you are."

The words seemed at odds with Zanza's earlier mood. Yet studying the man's now stiff posture, brown eyes cool and steady, he knew that the man meant every word. Kenshin wondered just how much of the brash 'street fighter' persona had been an act. He found it oddly reassuring that Jouchan had such a staunch defender.

Even if that defender was on the wrong side of the law. Which brought him neatly to the whole reason they were meeting in the first place.

Kenshin raised an eyebrow. At least the threat had provided him with an excuse to forget Jouchan's lapse. "I won't," he said succinctly, "report your friend's illegal hardware. And I also won't report her for apparently having business dealings with someone like you, Zanza. For a bonus, I'll even forget I heard what I suspect might be your real name."

"Well, that's really nice of you," Zanza said warily. "Catch?"

"Cut your price in half."

"Aww, come on—"

Kenshin smiled at him. Sweetly. And waited for the man to weigh up the loss of profit against the other, more important things that he would lose. Friendship. Business. Privacy.

Eventually, Zanza gave a sigh. "Bartender," he said sharply. "Access private room. Occupants: Zanza, Rurouni. Close curtains."

Access granted. Proceed, and enjoy your hour!

They vanished from the room.

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Aheh.

I've been writing this for a while on livejournal, because fanfiction dot net would not be able to deal with the amount of formatting that this particular project entails. Ergo, until I wrestle the formatting in line (and write more Snowblind, come to think of it) this fic will not be updated here; anyone who's already reading this will know the next part that comes up will be terrible to deal with. I just thought I'd preview this while I start working out how to package the rest. If you like this, you can follow its progress more easily on LJ under the user name 'zaibatsuproject' ... but it will be transferred here as well, eventually.

That aside, uh ... as you can see, I'm messing with AU. Please don't hurt me. Snowblind is still more important. I hate leaving things unfinished.