A/N – Another modern AU setting. Yes, I have posted this first chapter before, but I took it down and reworked it extensively. I don't think this will run to many chapters.
Disclaimer – I don't own Ruroken, any of its characters, situations or settings. Don't sue.
Halfway down the street to her apartment block, it began to rain.
Cursing, Kaoru hitched up her skirt and ran as quickly as she could in her high-heeled shoes, holding a newspaper up over her head in a vain attempt to shield herself. But the wind picked up, driving the rain harder, and soon she was almost completely soaked. Flustered, she ducked into a familiar doorway, hoping to wait out the downpour before heading back out into the street. The warmth and atmosphere of the room reached out to her as she stepped inside the genkan and removed her shoes.
It was an old, traditional-style bar, dating back to before the war. The lights were dim and mellow, the furniture old and a little battered. It looked as though it had been here forever, clinging to its little backstreet niche despite the relentless twin pressures of progress and Tokyo's soaring property values. Kaoru had known and loved this place all her life – ever since her father had first brought her here when she was six years old.
"Kamiya-dono," a voice spoke, startling her. "You forgot your umbrella again?"
She jumped before she could stop herself. "Himura-san!" Hands patting uselessly at her dripping clothes and hair, she turned to face him.
Wiping down the bar with an old cloth, a faded, much-washed apron tied around his waist, Himura-san smiled warmly as he exchanged casual greetings with one of the old regulars. Then he reached down below the ancient cash register and withdrew a long, brightly coloured umbrella with a carved duck's-head handle, offering it to her across his palms, bowing slightly, his eyes laughing.
"Thank you," she managed faintly, trying very hard not to blush. "I'm sorry, I can't seem to keep track of where I leave them." Their hands brushed as she accepted the umbrella's weight. She tried not to look down at his long, almost elegant hands, at the neatly severed tip of his smallest left finger.
He saw it anyway. She saw the flicker in his strange, golden-brown eyes, saw the warmth fade, and cursed herself –
"I'm sorry, Himura-san," she murmured, bowing a little. "It is none of my business, I know."
He looked so young, and his manner was so open and friendly, that it was hard to believe how very reserved he truly was. Despite the outrageous, almost waist-length crimson hair, there was nothing deliberately rebellious or flamboyant about Himura-san; in fact, she'd come to see there was something conservative and old-fashioned in his sense of honour and responsibility, in his constant courtesy and his fiercely held, hardly expressed opinions.
"Iya, Kamiya-dono," he said, shaking his head, smiling again. "It is nothing. An old injury, long forgotten."
It was the first outright lie he had ever told her.
He recognised her presence as soon as he stepped out into the alley behind the bar, pulling the door firmly closed and turning the key. She would be watching him, he knew, with that faint, puzzled crease between her great blue eyes, radiating concern and a sincere desire to help.
"Kamiya-dono," he said, not turning around, not yet. "You should not still be out this late."
"I know it's late, but I just wanted to apologise," she said hastily, her words tumbling over one another with nervous eagerness. "I wanted you to know," she stopped, swallowed, "I wanted to tell you that I don't care what you were before you came here, Himura-san. I think you're –"
And there she faltered and lost her courage.
He turned to face her, looked at her pale, upturned face in the neon-lit night. Her hands were clutched tightly together, twisting unconsciously; he was more than ten years older than she was, and at the moment he felt every single bit of it.
"Kamiya-dono," he said gently, flexing his left hand, reminding himself of what he was now, and what he had once been, a long time ago. He searched for something to say that would let her down gently, without shattering her innocent courage, her belief in a basic human goodness that simply did not exist.
And then he saw light glinting, metallic, in the shadows, and leapt before he could think twice about it, crashing into her, sending them both staggering against the overflowing garbage skip behind her. There was an emphatic, muted phut, a shower of dust and fragments of metal, and he was up, moving on instinct, his hand flying to his left hip –
Where he had once carried two killing blades –
Finding only cloth, denim and the clinking metal of his key ring. Pulling the jingling key ring from his pocket, he charged towards the hidden gunman, coiling, gathering his strength and resolve. His hand clenched around his keys, and he leapt, driving himself forward with every ounce of speed he had, only to find the smell of gunpowder, spent cartridges and the sound of distant footsteps, echoing in the mazelike streets and alleys of downtown Tokyo.
He heard the sound of her high-heels clicking on the pavement behind him. "Himura-san?" Her voice was small, uncertain, and when he turned, he saw a trickle of bright red blood running from her scalp and down her ashen face.
"Kaoru-dono! You're hurt – here," he murmured, gently wiping the blood away, "let me –"
She smiled tremulously. "It's nothing. Just a scratch." She put a hand up to her hairline and winced. "I've had worse teaching my kendo class."
"Please," he said, catching her hand, holding it still. "Let me help you."
Slowly, her eyes very wide, she nodded.
He took her back to his rented rooms.
Flipping on the lights, he looked around at the old, faded carpets and the cracked walls. It was hardly an impressive dwelling, but then, he had never placed much importance on material things – his foster-father, his shishou, had instilled in him some distinctly old-fashioned notions of honour and duty.
Katsura-san had been amused by his pride, Kenshin remembered. He had rewarded his most faithful hitokiri not with wealth and luxury, but with what little trust he had – though the others had resented that trust far more than they would have resented wealth. After Katsura-san's death, Kenshin had fled the Ishin Shishi –
And plunged into the real world where education, professional skills and references mattered more than battoujutsu. For ten long years he had drifted, taking odd jobs, one month here, two months there, working his way up and down Japan, trying to outrun his past.
But it seemed as though the past had finally come back to haunt him.
"This is where you live?" she asked.
"For now," he said absently, his eyes going to the one truly valuable thing he had: a sheathed katana, the wrapped hilt worn and frayed in places, evidence of long use. Almost instinctively, he crossed to the display rack and ran his hand lovingly, caressingly along the black lacquer sheath, reassuring himself of its presence.
He would have need of itin times to come.
"Is that – Oh!" He turned to see her staring at his hands on the sword, at the confidence and familiarity with which he handled it.
He stood very still, waiting for the accusation, for the familiar mix of fear and dismay that always came with recognition. The legend of the Ishin Shishi's red-headed demon swordsman had begun in the streets and alleys of Kyoto and had spread throughout Japan, growing more and more exaggerated as time went on. But it seemed as though Kamiya-dono, kendo instructor or not, had not yet connected him with the tales of hitokiri Battousai.
Or else what she said – that she did not care about what he had been, before – was more than just empty words.
"The wrappings on the hilt are worn," she murmured. Her blue eyes were steady, direct, and absolutely devoid of guile.
He could not meet that clear gaze. "It has seen hard use," he said, turning away.
Abruptly, he replaced the sword on the rack, his bow almost perfunctory –
"Himura-san," she said again, her voice gentle. She put her hand on his arm, and he stiffened in rejection of her touch. "Please."
Surrendering to her gentle, inexorable pressure, he turned back to her.
As he dabbed at her temple, cleaning away the dried blood, she looked at him through eyes coloured by the memory of his swift, fierce reaction in the alley. The quiet, smiling bartender had been replaced –
No, not replaced.
For as long as she could remember, she had lived and breathed kendo. She was assistant master of the Kamiya Kasshin Ryu, and owned and ran her own dojo. She knew the Japanese martial arts scene. Some part of her had always known, from the first time she'd seen his red hair and his severed finger, that Himura-san was the infamous Battousai – the man who had taken the practice of kendo to its darkest, most ultimate conclusion.
"Will you tell me what happened in the alley?" she asked, catching his hand, feeling the rough pads of callous on his fingers and palms.
His eyes met hers. He sighed, and gave in.
"Fifteen years ago," he began, "I left my shishou to join the Ishin Shishi yakuza."