A/N – "He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He puts one of your men in the hospital, you put one of his in the morgue. That's Kyoto." A Bakumatsu drabble-ficlet, from the Shinsengumi pov. With apologies to "The Untouchables". (25.4.10 - minor edit)

Disclaimer – I don't own Ruroken, any of the canon situations, characters or settings. No money was made in the writing of this fanfic. Don't sue.

Mean Streets

The rumours have been circulating for months. Choshu and Satsuma are in ferment, rebellious samurai straining against the Bakufu's hold. The Ishin Shishi zealots, spiritual followers of the executed Yoshida Shoin, have graduated from riots and bashings to death threats against prominent government officials.

The first body is found dumped unceremoniously in the street, a parchment scrawled with the characters for Tenchu pinned to his back. It is identified as Matsumoto Shinichiro, prosperous merchant with many government contracts; Matsumoto had been eviscerated, a perfect battoujutsu delivered with extraordinary speed and skill.

The streets of Kyoto stir and seethe, and with every assassination that follows, the Ishin Shishi grow in fear and influence.

In reply, the Bakufu create the Shinsengumi, a special squad of samurai brought in to destroy the terrorists and maintain the peace, no matter what they had to do to achieve it.

If need be, they would be even more ruthless than the terrorists they fought.

No hesitation.

No quarter.

Aku Soku Zan.

They gather in the midnight darkness. Stealthily, in twos and threes, two squadrons of grim-faced swordsmen flaunting their blue and white haori make their way through the narrow streets towards their target, a safe house for the cursed Shishi terrorists. Few are awake to see them fan out and encircle the building – but soon enough the peace of the night is shattered.

"Open in the name of the Bakufu! This is the Shinsengumi!"

From inside, they can hear a great deal of panicked shouting and scrambling. The leader allows himself a moment of satisfaction before he gives the order: with brutal straightforwardness, they kick down the door and rush inside. There is no mercy for the rebel terrorists: the night dissolves into chaos, into the clash of swords and the shouts and groans of their prey. Driven by the rightness of their cause, the Shinsengumi cut down every Ishin Shishi they can find.

Later that night, the scouts catch a quick impression of movement in the shadows – some of the Shishi managed to flee the raid, and must still be out on the streets. Buoyed by their success, a little overconfident, the victorious squads give pursuit – the wolves of Mibu are swift and relentless, tracking the fleeing terrorists through endless crooked streets, over the rooftops and through two crowded districts until they are finally brought to bay. But when it seems they have the Ishin scum cornered, the hindmost turns, draws his sword, and they see in the scant light that his hair is a violent crimson –

The next morning, two more Shinsengumi squadrons are dispatched to the grisly scene.

"Our friend must have been in fine form last night," Saito drawls. "This is beautiful work." Despite his characteristic irony, his mouth is tight and grim; he is nowhere near as detached as he seems.

His concentration still focused on the sprawled, blood-spattered bodies of what had once been the third and fourth squadrons, Okita can only agree. The hapless samurai had been dispatched with ruthless, almost surgical efficiency. The distinctive technique is unmistakable; Okita and Saito have seen enough men killed in the same manner that there seems little doubt, now, that the incredible whispers of the so-called Battousai have their basis in truth.

"And so the Assassin exists," Okita says. "No myth, but a flesh-and-blood man. And if he is flesh and blood, he can be killed."

Saito smiles, his narrowed eyes catching the sun and glowing hellish amber.

The Shinsengumi crack down on the city. Anyone with ties to the Ishin Shishi, anyone who has expressed sympathy with their views, anyone who even looks crosswise at the Shinsengumi is arrested and detained, or even summarily executed, cut down in the street.

In response, the assassinations increase, grow even more daring and terrifying. A high-ranking regional administrator murdered in a crowded brothel, while his companions in the next room laugh and play drinking games. A Shogunate minister assassinated in his own well-defended house, cut down in his study while outside ten guards waited and watched.

And it seems as though every night there is another running skirmish, a clash between Shogunate forces and the terrorists. Sometimes the terrorists are caught out by the Shinsengumi's greater strength, cornered and destroyed; sometimes the tables are turned, and the Ishin Shishi escape into the city.

Sometimes they catch glimpses of the ghostly Assassin, the shadow in the night. By now Battousai is a symbol, a focus for Shogunate frustration and thwarted rage; the Shinsengumi have standing orders to kill him no matter how many are lost, and many, many good men die in the endless pursuit.

It becomes a never-ending cycle. The citizens of Kyoto grow to hate and fear both the Ishin Shishi and the Shinsengumi in equal measure.

In the end there are no true victors, and the streets of Kyoto run red with blood.