A/N – A little ficlet in the same AU as "The Last Honourable Man".
Disclaimer – I make no claim to Rurouni Kenshin. This fic is for enjoyment purposes only; no money was made in the writing of it.
The Morning After
The pounding, thumping techno music spilled out even into the cold street. The shivering line of clubbers eager for admittance stirred restlessly as they awaited their turn, mini-skirted, knee-socked girls with caked-on makeup clinging to cocky, spiky-haired boys who cultivated an air of cool, careless bravado.
Sano sneered at them as he strutted across the street towards the club, swaying a little, and, bypassing the queue, headed right for the bouncers. They drew themselves up to meet him, leather-jacketed yakuza bottom-feeders, tough enough to impress wide-eyed teenagers and college kids, but not nearly tough enough to intimidate him.
"You can't come in here," one of them said, his eyes wavering and shifting. "Go to the back of the line."
Sano grinned drunkenly, cracking his knuckles, one by one. "Or what?"
"Or we'll make you go to the back," the other said, with stunning originality. To complete the picture, he crossed his arms and glared; the effect was ruined by the fact that Sano was a good four inches taller, and the bouncer had to look up while delivering his threat.
"Keh." Sano shrugged, knowing that the bouncers would not back down, not with the eager club-goers watching avidly. "I guess I'll just have to go through you, won't I?"
And then he swung.
Stepping over the bouncers' unconscious forms, he pushed the grungy door open and went into the stifling, claustrophobic inner rooms. The music was deafening, a solid wall of sound that sent him reeling and staggering. The air smelled of sweat and alcohol and narcotics, and there were far too many people packed into too small a space for Sano's liking – but he'd come too far to back down now.
Hitokiri Battousai was here, tonight, in this very club, and Sano intended to kill him.
Forcing his way through the packed crowd, he went up the stairs to the upper level where all the big-shots partied, his eyes searching the dimly lit rooms and alcoves, searching for the legendary assassin. His heart was pounding, and he wiped his sweating palms on his ancient white jacket, a reminder of who he was, and what he had once been. The Ishin Shishi had destroyed the Sekihoutai, had wiped them out as if they meant nothing – well, Sano meant to take his vengeance tonight, and set the ghosts of his friends and family to rest.
"Excuse me, sir." A quiet, respectful man in a black tailored suit, with hard, flat eyes stepped out into his path. From the looks of him, he was definitely higher quality muscle than the two punks outside. "I'm afraid this area is reserved for VIPs."
Sizing him up, Sano couldn't see any guns or visible weapons, but knew they would be present, all the same. He had to be one of the higher-ups' bodyguards, perhaps even old man Katsura's.
Sano grinned, looked past him to all the rich, well-dressed criminals who thought that enough money could insulate them from violence and the streets. "I am Sagara Sanosuke," he raised his voice, deliberately pitching it to carry above the music and conversation. "And I challenge hitokiri Battousai to a duel to the death."
All conversation stopped. All heads – on the upper level at least – turned his way. In the corner of his eye, he could see other, dark-suited bodyguards rise to their feet, reacting to his mad, reckless threat –
"No," said a calm, empty voice.
The bodyguards backed down, and gave way for a small, almost delicate figure who radiated more menace than anyone Sano had ever seen. At his waist, half-concealed by the fall of a long, black leather coat, were two old, well-worn swords.
Angry, reckless eyes and clenched fists, all quivering rage and sake-fuelled indignation – Kenshin looked at the hot-headed intruder and felt a low, sinking feeling in his gut. There was trouble written all over him – and he wasn't talking about the kanji on the back of his jacket.
"I am Battousai," Kenshin said quietly.
Sometimes, he had found, a calm, quiet tone – at complete odds with his notorious reputation – did more to deflate outrage and bravado than any naked show of force. At twenty-seven he was too old for macho games and battles of ego; these days he preferred not to resort to violence unless he absolutely had to.
However, it seemed the youth was not to be so easily diverted. "The Butcher of the Bakumatsu!" he sneered, his black eyes scornful and contemptuous. "The child-killer."
Kenshin suppressed the urge to flinch. "Once," he said, keeping his gaze steady on the younger man's. "A long time ago, and never again."
Thumping, echoing music carried up to them from the dance floor below, but all around them it was silent, the club's VIP patrons enthralled by their tense, straining confrontation. There had been other such challengers over the years, come to try their hand against him.
"Hitokiri Battousai," the young challenger said formally, drawing himself up, "I am Sagara Sanosuke, the last surviving member of the Sekihoutai. I have come to exact vengeance upon you for the wanton and dishonourable destruction of my family and friends, and to regain the honour that the Ishin Shishi stripped away from us."
Of course. Kenshin remembered the Sekihoutai, an unfortunate splinter group that made too many promises to too many people. He had argued against their destruction, but Katsura-san had overruled him – the Ishin Shishi could not afford to honour the reckless pledges Sagara Souzou had made, and the only way to avoid making a martyr of the man was to discredit him and everything he'd ever promised.
He had refused to take part in the attack on their compound. But Katagai had found others, easily enough – there would always be vicious, ambitious thugs willing to prove themselves. There had been no need for his sword, on that night.
He looked at the young man, the last, surviving member of the Sekihoutai, who must have been a terrified young boy on the night the Sekihoutai died. And he thought of what a terrible waste it would be for him to die here, cut down like a dog in a useless, drunken quest for vengeance.
There had been so many like him, over the years.
"No," he said.
"No," he said again, his voice firm and absolute. "I will not fight you. Go home and sleep it off."
He turned and walked away. But even then, as he turned his back, he waited for the attack – the hot-headed, stubborn youth behind him would never tamely accept such a dismissal. At least this way, Kenshin would not have to kill him.
With a roar of outrage and indignation, Sagara Sanosuke clamped a hand down on his shoulder and spun him around, fist clenched and ready to pound him into the ground. Moving with the momentum, Kenshin turned back, his hand on the hilt of his katana. Drawing it with swift, practiced grace, he smashed the hard, leather-wrapped pommel up into his jaw.
He watched in grim, silent satisfaction as the boy's tall, lanky form wavered, swayed, and then collapsed into an unmoving heap.
Sano awoke in the morning with the sun streaming into his face. Cursing himself for leaving his blinds open, he staggered out of bed and clutched, moaning, at his head –
And that was when he realized he was stark, buck naked, and that this was not his bedroom. It was too neat, too tidy, to be his dark, dingy little bed-sit; there were no clothes or old rags tossed on the tatami mats under his feet, and the screens and cabinets were genuine rice paper and lacquered wood. Increasingly mystified, he snagged the sheet off the futon and wrapped it around his hips, frantically trying to recall what he had done last night, and how in hell he'd ended up here – wherever here was.
Stumbling, he threw aside the traditional shoji screen and ventured into the main apartment, noting, with surprise, that it was quite spacious – a considerable rarity in Tokyo. That is, if he was still in Tokyo. He'd known some pretty outrageous situations, in his chaotic life. The second thing he noticed was the quiet, the empty hush of a place that rarely saw inhabitation.
Then he heard the rattle and bustle of pots and pans, and smelled the heavenly aroma of rice, fish and miso.
This was beyond belief.
What the hell had he done last night?
Finally, he found a small, cramped kitchen, and the source of the cheerful humming. At first, he thought the small, delicate figure in the flowered apron and house slippers was a young, beautiful woman, and his overwhelming impression was one of amazed relief. But then his keen eyes took in the incongruous details – the firm, sleek line of the jaw, the defined forearms, the strong wrists and the flat chest. The Adam's apple.
Sano had a very bad feeling about this.
Seriously alarmed, he began to gather his sheet about himself, trying to back away quietly without drawing the strange cook's attention. But just as he was about to bolt, the cook put aside his wooden spoon and turned to face him.
"Ah, you're awake," he said. "Do you think you can face breakfast?" He stepped forward to grab a tea towel and dry his hands, and for the first time Sano got a good look at his face.
The first thing he saw was the scar, an old, faded diagonal slash from a knife or a razor blade. The delicate, androgynous features were unmistakably Japanese, but his eyes, instead of the normal black or dark brown, were a strange, eerie golden-brown, almost amber – cool and flat, and terrifyingly perceptive. Sano had the uncomfortable feeling that his every thought and expression had been noted, analysed and minutely dissected.
And then he stepped into the pool of warm sunlight streaming in through the kitchen window, and his hair caught the light and blazed copper-bright.
Sano drew in a deep breath, stepping back in instinctive fear. "Hitokiri Battousai," he whispered, his eyes wide and shocked.
"So," the terrible assassin said. "You do recognize me. You were so drunk last night I was beginning to wonder if you'd remember anything in the morning."
Kenshin watched the young man – still a boy, really – grab automatically for the sheet, as if it could protect him from the demon hitokiri, the cold-blooded chief assassin of the Ishin Shishi yakuza. He hadn't been so afraid last night – he'd been high on adrenaline, old, bitter hatred, and close to two bottles of sake.
"Last night," Sagara said, his memory evidently coming back in fits and starts. His eyes widened, and his hand went up to the place where Kenshin had smashed him in the jaw with the hilt of his sword. "You knocked me out," he continued slowly. "With your sword."
"Yes," he replied, watching him come to the realization that it could have been far, far worse.
"And then you – what, brought me back here?"
"Yes," he said again, refusing to elaborate.
Sagara's face darkened. "Why bother?" he spat bitterly. "Why didn't you just kill me, like you killed Sagara-taichou?"
"I was not part of that raid," he said quietly.
A quick, impatient gesture. "Sagara-taichou was my foster-father. When the killers moved in, he protected me with his own life. I've lived my whole life since then seeking to avenge him – and I don't care if you weren't actually a part of that raid. You're still Ishin Shishi, still part of the fucking machine –"
Sagara's eyes were dark and intense, his whole body vibrating with the force of his conviction. He meant what he said, and he would not be swayed from his course, not by anything as paltry as a painful concussion. He was a strong fighter, instinctive, but woefully untrained and undisciplined – any trained assassin could have killed him last night, drunk as he'd been. Kenshin should have killed him, an example to any future troublemakers who challenged him in one of the Ishin's own strongholds. Instead, he'd chosen to spare his life. And now, having made that decision, he must take responsibility for it.
"Very well," he sighed. "Later, when you have recovered, you can try to kill me again, if that's what you want. But first – come, have some breakfast."
And with that, he turned back to his pots and pans.
The vicious, lethal killer Battousai, the butcher of Kyoto, sat down beside a low, carved wooden dining table and calmly began to eat. Sano watched him, dumbfounded and infuriated, unable to understand how he could be so calm and unfazed by his threat.
He was Zanza, the great street fighter. He'd survived on his wits and his fists for years, ever since the Ishin Shishi's treachery, his dream of vengeance pushing him on, motivating him to grow stronger, always stronger. And now that he was strong enough, he was set on making them all pay, every one of them –
And Battousai would allow him another chance to kill him?
His hand crept up to the painful lump on his jaw. Sano had an uneasy recollection of blurring misdirection and blinding speed, before light exploded in a flash of pain and darkness. He had a very nasty suspicion that Battousai could have killed him at any time he wanted, last night, and had chosen not to for strange reasons of his own.
"Why?" he asked abruptly. "Why didn't you just kill me?"
Those strange, golden-brown eyes lifted to his. "There was no need," he said, smiling – a sad, sweet smile that shook Sano to the core. "Despite my reputation, I am not an indiscriminate killer."
Swearing, he slammed his hand down on the table and grabbed the assassin by his apron, half-lifting him off the floor. "Bullshit!" he shouted angrily. "Tell me the goddamned truth!"
A small, delicate white hand gripped his wrist, the strong, calloused fingers twisting, squeezing, and he released his grip with a pained gasp, clutching his aching hand to his chest. Battousai resumed his former position, unruffled, staring at him with cool, predatory eyes.
Sano squeezed his eyes shut, pressed tightly against his blinding headache and the pounding frustration of dealing with this delicate, gentle, ruthless killer. "Fuck," he said quietly, almost in tears. "I can't do this."
There was a small silence. And then, "It would be best if you stayed here, Sagara-san, at least for a while. Your drunken behaviour last night did not win you any friends. If I were you, I would avoid the streets right now."
"Stay here?" he laughed incredulously, throwing his head up. "With you? I'd rather take my chances on the streets."
They stared at each other for a very long time.
"I'm afraid I really must insist," Battousai said, his voice gentle and apologetic, his eyes as hard as hammered steel.
Sano's eyes darted to the elegant stand where the lethal katana and the smaller wakizashi rested within easy, comfortable reach. They were peacefully sheathed, the steel blades at rest, but their very presence was a stark reminder of whose apartment this was, and what he had done to earn it.
"One week. At least until the trouble blows over. You'll never get a better chance to kill me."
"Why?" Sano asked for the third, and last, time.
Battousai only smiled. "I have killed, yes. Countless times. But there are times when I can also choose not to."
And, faced with that smile, and that truth, Sano gave in.