Himura Kenshin would not be the first soul to wish he could remember his entire life as a human, nor would he be the last. He would also not be the first person to look for those he had once lived with in the rukongai. He would, however, be one of the few people who had visited every single district and could still remember those he'd gone in search of.
He still hadn't found them.
That only left one area to search…one very large area run by the Soul Society's military-like government. He'd exhausted the rukongai, combed through it as best he could, and he knew he would have to join the Shinigami to continue his search. That didn't mean he didn't dread it.
It took him almost a decade after the completion of his second search to finally join the Shinigami Academy. The idea of devoting himself to a military establishment did not sit well with him, although he couldn't seem to remember why. Considering the districts' average size, it was no small feat. Finally, after much deliberation, he'd come to the conclusion that she was worth it, and enlisted.
Some of the classes were difficult to say the least, especially those focusing on technology. Others seemed almost too easy, such as his kendo class. He'd beaten the instructor by the end of his first year. His Kido class seemed to be the only one where he didn't feel particularly ahead or behind.
During his second year, he discovered the program that made it possible to graduate early and applied. Unfortunately, due to his not-so-impressive reviews from the instructors of his more modern classes, his request was denied.
Fortunately, at the end of his fifth year, they asked for recruits early because so many shinigami had fallen due to a series of unforeseeable (and very destructive) events. Because of his mediocrity in kido and near-failures in the advanced technology classes, he only qualified for a few squads. Of them, the easiest for him to gain entry to had been the eleventh squad. With his kendo record, he'd practically been guaranteed a position, and at the time that had been all he'd cared about.
He would not soon forget that foolishness.
He knew the eleventh squad was the combat squad of the Gotai 13, but he hadn't realized that their lives would quite literally revolve around fighting. He also hadn't realized their captain was crazy. Oh, he'd heard rumors, but had figured that they, like most such stories, had been exaggerations.
They hadn't been.
If anything, they didn't do justice to Zaraki Kenpachi's true personality. The man lived to fight, and had both challenged and threatened Kenshin within the first week after his joining (as had most of the other members of the squad, but he'd expected more from the squad's leader). On top of that, the captain had refused to grant Kenshin's transfer request once the red-head had realized his mistake. He refused to let this deter him, but he did not like the idea of having to put up with nearly constant attacks from his fellow squad mates as he didn't like hurting people, even if he never touched one of them with the steel of his zanpaktou.
He did find it strange (and more than a little disconcerting) that he never lost those fights.
Then, a few months into living with his horrible lapse in judgment, the situation finally began to look up. The squad's fifth seat delivered orders stating that he'd been assigned to watch over and protect a group of fourth squad members as they went about their duties. At first he'd been pleased as the new situation had been highly ideal for him. With the new arrangement, he could move around the Seireitei and continue his search without suspicion while simultaneously protecting his fellow shinigami. It only took two skirmishes for the lower ranked eleventh squad members that normally antagonized the fourth squad to realize that his skill far outshone theirs.
He should have realized that that wouldn't be the end of it. His afterlife, it seemed, didn't work like that.
It started with the twelfth seat. The large man approached and began to torment the healers under Kenshin's protection, and thus, by proxy, Kenshin himself. It wasn't too difficult for the red head to render him unconscious. After that the ninth seat came, then the seventh and finally the third seat. Madarame Ikkaku was the first to succeed in putting him into the fourth squad recovery unit. That had been the third time since becoming a shingami that he'd drawn his sword and actually used the techniques he'd practiced daily for as long as he could remember.
As peaceful as his admittance to the fourth squad healing unit was, and as nicely as every person (up to and including their Captain, Unohana Retsu) treated him, he hated the feeling of helplessness that came with being restricted to bed rest.
When they finally released him, he'd been both relieved to be away and independent again, and worried as he dreaded the violence his future seemed to promise with his return to duty.
Then he'd been given new orders and a detail on Earth. That had both frustrated and excited him. He still had a good deal of the Seireitei to search through, but the new assignment hadn't been entirely unwelcome. The possibility of his friends remaining on Earth as spirits had crossed his mind but seemed highly unlikely. As such, he continued to believe that he would have the most luck in the Seireitei.
Still, despite his own feelings on the subject, he applied himself to his duties and fulfilled them to the best of his ability. He did so in relative peace for seven months when it all hit the fan. Huge hollows and arrancar began to show up randomly all over Japan and their appearance had caused at least two shinigami to lose their lives. One of the deceased had had a detail fairly near Kenshin, so he wasn't all that surprised when he was informed that he would temporarily take over the area.
The name of the area bothered him as soon as he read it, although he didn't know why. The new detail ran from the barest corner of his regular assignment all the way to the edge of a city called Kyoto. He wouldn't realize until much later how much the deities in charge of his existence loved their irony.
It didn't take long for Kenshin's negative feelings towards the city to cement themselves permanently into his very being…and he could not, for the life of him, figure out why. Why should he be so upset by a simple extension of duties? After all, more responsibility should mean he had handled his own area exceptionally well and was fulfilling his duties more than adequately. He had to remain on good terms with his superiors so he could continue the search.
Still, his uneasiness concerning the matter bothered him almost as much as the new assignment itself did. He knew he should take the temporary detail as a compliment, but no matter how he tried, he could not seem to bury his feelings.
It didn't make sense. Why would any area on Earth fill him with an emotion that bordered on dread? He'd seen his records; they stated that he had died in Tokyo, so it couldn't have been his death subconsciously pestering him (the number one reason for a soul to have an uneasy feeling about a particular area on Earth). Perhaps he'd visited the Kyoto? Lived there earlier in his life maybe? Unfortunately, he had no way of finding out. Between his passing from Earth to the Soul Society after his death and the long years spent searching the rukongai, he simply couldn't remember. So he could only speculate, and he hated that too. In all truth, the whole situation caused him to feel unprepared at best. As such, he couldn't shake the feeling that just being there put him at a disadvantage.
Still, whether he liked it or not, he would follow his orders as he could see no concrete reason not to (and he had searched for a reason rather thoroughly). The Soul Society knew he would not follow an order simply because he had been trained to do so; his conscience wouldn't allow him to. He'd informed them of that fact himself. If he'd been able to find an excuse that didn't sound like a weak, pathetic whine even to him, he would have insisted, but 'it makes this unworthy one uncomfortable' just didn't cut it.
Sighing, he pushed his personal thoughts to the side as he finished the patrol of his original area and headed for the new assignment, still annoyed that the continuing days had not lessened his discomfort regarding the area in the slightest.
Japan was an old country, with a great deal of history. As such, it wasn't unusual to come across ghosts who had wandered for decades with only minimal wear on their soul chain. Some of the older ones had somehow been able to stave off the madness for centuries. Besides, they hadn't had to worry so much about hollows until the recent shifting of the high-density spirit land had attracted the monsters. Of course, hollows had always existed, but at the barest fraction of their current levels.
Approaching the area just outside the city that marked the end of his temporary assignment, he slowed slightly, senses alert for hollows. He hoped he would only find normal, weak hollows tonight. Not that any of the huge hollows he'd come across had been a problem for him to handle (the one menos he'd been directed to had only been a
slightly bigger challenge at worst, thankfully), but he didn't like the idea of letting the situation go that far. He hoped all of the souls that had come together to form the gigantic creatures could find peace in the Soul Society.
Of course, that was his wish for every hollow he came across.
Pausing, he glanced around again. The sun had set only a few minutes before, leaving the land nestled in between the mountainous area shaded in twilight. Above him, the crisp, early-spring night promised a clear view of the stars, but he paid them no particular heed. His state of mind wouldn't allow for the distraction.
Then he felt it. A twinge from the left had him heading in that direction almost before his mind processed it. The actual city of Kyoto was out of his limits, but the somewhat urbanized area outside of the city's technical limits still fell under his protection. So he turned towards the twinge and the ancient capital that he otherwise desperately wished to avoid.
It was a normal hollow, he realized as he approached the source of the riatsu, relief flooding his soul. The faster he could take the being out and finish his patrol, the better.
The area the hollow haunted had a smattering of well-cared for land and newer homes dotting the mountain side. The houses looked simple, if rich. So very Japanese, he couldn't help but think to himself with a smile that only remained for a few moments before vanishing as if it had never been.
Landing in the branches of a tree, he surveyed the scene before heading in. Below him he could see the hollow, its mask twisting elegantly in front of a long, snake-like body that reminded him of a dragon. He'd expected a chase, but instead, it remained in basically one spot, snaking its way through the growth in the area as it attacked three spirits. It took Kenshin a moment to realize (with more than a little surprise) that the three ghosts had formed a sort of tag-team against the hollow.
They would lose, Kenshin concluded, but he commended their fighting spirit. They only had rudimentary weapons; sticks and branches that had probably been lying around. They had to be old, powerful or experienced spirits if they had the concentration to interact with the physical world while battling with the monster. Kenshin couldn't help but be impressed.
Taking a closer look, he could see one spirit looked as if they had died in a fairly recent decade. The other two, though, were ancient. Well, by human standards. They both wore top-knots and sported highly traditional styles of clothing.
It took him another few moments to realize that he recognized that clothing. The blue and white material on the one seemed so familiar…
Shaking the thought from his head, he flicked his zanpaktou hilt up so he could draw it quickly and jumped into the fray. In the blink of an eye, he'd already used his batto-jutsu, turned the weapon and slashed through the mask twice. Then he landed as it vanished and turned to face the ghosts.
"This unworthy one apologizes for entering your fight," he said softly, bowing slightly, "But it is this one's duty." Standing up, he smiled warmly. "Because of the danger involved in remaining here, this one recommends…" he faded off at the looks the others sent his way.
The newer spirit, a woman in a skirt coming down to her knees, shoulder-length hair and bright red lips, seemed nothing short of grateful. The second spirit, an older man in rich, traditional clothes with the top-knot seemed wary.
The third man couldn't have looked angrier.
"You…" he hissed. Kenshin fell into a somewhat defensive stance out of habit. This hadn't been the first dramatic reaction to him (more than one person in traditional clothing had taken one look at him and run in the other direction), but it was by far the most hostile.
"My name is Himura Kenshin. This one is a Shinigami who respectfully recommends you move onto the next life," Kenshin continued his previous thought, still forcing a smile. "This one can help all of you, if you would like."
The other two ghosts glanced between Kenshin and the blue and white clad man warily, any friendliness now gone.
"You know him, Chosui-san?" the first man asked slowly.
"Of course," Chosui said, words dripping with disdain. "Even a low-ranked Shisengumi member such as myself could not ever forget the face of the man who killed him, Hitokiri Battousai."
The uneasy butterflies in Kenshin's stomach suddenly transformed into a raging hurricane.
"Forgive this one," he said, trying to keep the dread from his voice. He wasn't sure how well he succeeded as the man's expression didn't change. "But this unworthy one cannot be the one you speak of, that he cannot. This one has been living in the Soul Society for over a century."
"Liar!" the man spat. "You look like him; move like him, the only thing you're missing is the stinking imperialist uniform and the stupid scar!" Kenshin's eyes widened and his hand immediately went to touch his left cheek, now smooth and whole, but he could practically feel an uneven surface where a badly-healed cut would have been. How had the spirit known?
Very suddenly, Kenshin found himself unwittingly believing the man. At the thought, he wanted to be sick.
"Chousi-san," the first man spoke in placating tones. "This man saved us from certain doom, and he must be a spirit, like us."
"Which only makes sense!" the man shot back. "How else could that scar of his vanish, Yoshida-sama? !"
"Soul Society?" the woman interjected, cocking her head at Kenshin. "What's that?"
"It is the next life, that it is," Kenshin said, grateful to be back on familiar ground. "A place to build your life anew."
Chosui picked that moment to interject. "And why should we trust you, Manslayer?"
"Chousi-san!" the first man reprimanded sternly. Chosui backed down, but did not apologize or look repentant. The other man must have realized that he shouldn't expect more, because he turned to Kenshin apologetically. "Please forgive him. He has always been high-strung."
Kenshin raised one eyebrow. "Why do you apologize for him?"
"I was a high-ranking Samurai before I died. My name does not matter now, but Chosui pledged his sword to me for the duration of our time as spirits." The man had a kind, but authoritative smile. The red-head could see why the second man had offered his loyalty.
"And you, Miss?" Kenshin asked the woman politely, trying to build a rapport so he could send them on quickly. He hated initiating a soul burial without the soul accepting their opportunity to move on, but he needed to digest the information the man had just given him.
She smiled at him, appreciating the gesture. "I just happened to be in the wrong place at the right time. I've never met either one of those distinguished gentlemen before tonight." With that, she turned to Chosui, who refused to take his smoldering glare off of Kenshin. "Did you really belong to the Shinsengumi, Chosui-san?"
Taken aback, the man blinked and turned to her. He seemed torn between her suddenly adoring, excited eyes and her addressing him by name without being introduced. "Yes."
"It is an honor to meet you," the woman said with a polite bow. "I always loved to hear stories of the Shinsengumi."
The anger in the man's eyes retreated for a moment. "I was afraid our cause and our story would die with the coming of the new age."
Another twinge hit Kenshin's senses, and he turned sharply. Another hollow. Of course.
"Forgive this one's interruption," he said with a hurried bow of apology, "but another hollow approaches. This unworthy one must send you on now, or risk your very existences."
Chosui's angry glare returned to Kenshin while the other two blanched.
"Then by all means, send me on, please," the woman said, stepping forward.
Kenshin forced a smile onto his face. "This one wishes you luck and peace in the life to come." With that, he withdrew his sword, and stamped the hilt on her head before either of the other two could protest. He held the hilt there for several seconds so as to show the two warriors what was involved.
The woman smiled peacefully as the soft glow of a soul burial enveloped her.
"Where did she go?" Chosui asked, still seething.
"To the Soul Society," Kenshin replied. The hollow's cry echoed through the night, causing all three men to look up. "Please, we must hurry."
"My Lord, please don't trust him," Chosui whispered to the older man, who sighed.
"Chousi-san," he said, "I am tired. Tired of wandering around a world I cannot interact with; a world that has changed so much that I hardly believe it was my world to begin with.
"You have been a good and faithful samurai to me, and as such, I will not require you to follow me. I release you from your oath."
Kenshin's eyes widened. If this man had indeed been a lord of some sort, he did have the ability to release those below him from their oaths, but he'd never actually witnessed an honorable release before. Of course, he hadn't had a great deal of interaction with Samurai before…
Before what? There weren't Samurai in the Soul Society. Where had that thought come from? He searched his mind for the thought again, but it had already slipped away like pebbles in a river.
He put a hand to his head and tried again, but the hollow's scream cut through his efforts, and he forced himself to shove the thoughts aside and return to the task at hand. The older-looking man stepped forward. "Please, send me on."
"As you wish," Kenshin replied, moving to place his hilt against the man's head.
"I will not let you, Battosai!" Chosui said, lunging at Kenshin with the stick he'd held in his hand throughout the conversation swinging in an obvious kendo style Kenshin thought looked familiar (which only bothered him more).
"Chosui!" Yoshida yelped both in admonishment and worry.
Kenshin had no problems dodging the whole's swings, and truthfully, he saw no other way either. In moments, he'd tapped the man's head. He froze, shock plain on his face as he stared ahead. Then he yelled in frustration and tried to turn. By the time he'd completed his move, he'd already vanished in the white light.
Kenshin and Yoshida stared at the empty spot for several seconds.
"Will he be alright?" Yoshida asked, a cold note in his voice.
"The Soul Society is a peaceful place. Murderers and others who have caused serious crimes cannot go there. It is…disorienting at first, but one can build a life there if they strive and work at it, just as they could here," Kenshin answered truthfully.
"Will I awake in the same area?"
Kenshin shook his head. "This one does not know."
Nodding, the man continued to watch the empty spot for several seconds before he sighed. "Please do not hold his words against him. If not for him, than for me."
Kenshin smiled warmly. "This one has already forgotten."
Yoshida smiled. "Thank you, Kenshin-san."
Moments later, he too disappeared in a ball of bright light and a black butterfly materialized around him, just as it had undoubtedly done with the other two.
Berating himself for not paying attention to the details as he should, he turned to face the monster barreling in his direction.
It was powerful, but large and slow. It only took one flick of his sword to dispatch it.
Thunder boomed in the distance, but Kenshin didn't move to find shelter. He had picked a random alley to rest in for that night. Other than that particular fact and the knowledge that nothing dangerous lay in the side street at the moment, naught about the area seemed to penetrate the numbness that had fallen over his senses. He sat hunched over with his back against the wall and sword propped up against his shoulder as his hand brushed idly over the smooth skin on his left cheek, thoughts racing in a chaotic blur.
Chosui's accusations had been far too accurate for him to dismiss. How else could the spirit have known about the non-existent scar that should be on his cheek? He'd told so very few about the mark from his faded memories, and the man couldn't have had any contact with the Soul Society who would know.
The only logical conclusion Kenshin could draw was that spirit had spoken the truth. The realization only succeeded in making his stomach churn wildly all over again. A hitokiri? During his life, he'd been a manslayer?
Of course, that didn't make sense either. Shouldn't he have been dragged and chained to Hell then? That was where those who committed the most heinous crimes went after their soul burial or defeat as a hollow. How had he escaped that fate?
Perhaps the plus had been exaggerating? Somehow, Kenshin didn't think so. The spirit's words had carried something that resonated with his soul, and he could not deny their truth, no matter how much he wanted to. And he wanted to. Desperately. How could he ever come to terms with such a horrible past; with the knowledge that when he'd lived, he had been an assassin; a demon; a monster?
Putting his head against the hilt of his zanpaktou, he felt the first drops of rain splash onto his neck and slide down his skin, but still didn't move. How could he have known? He could hardly remember more than flashes of his previous life. That was actually fairly normal for a shinigami due to the process of crossing over and the long years that spirits of the Soul Society tended to accumulate.
Besides, the few things he could remember had nothing to do with killing. Then again, he didn't recall events so much as people. He knew there had been several men and women he'd counted as close friends when he'd lived, but those memories had long since faded to blurred images and his own vague feelings about them.
Only two people from his previous life remained firmly ingrained in his mind; both were women. He couldn't even remember their names, but one had soft, brown eyes that beckoned demurely while the other's bright, blue irises shone with determination. Both women seemed to refuse to be truly forgotten.
Each memory was accompanied a distinctly different feeling. The first woman's face always brought a sense of gentle finality. He would like to find her, but was convinced that she had long since moved forward on her own.
The latter memory, though…he knew somehow—without being able to remember anything else about her—that she would be searching for him as desperately as he was for her.
Now, for the first time in his recollection, what he knew of both women confused him. If he'd been such a horrible person—a killer—how could he have known either one of them? How could he have such feelings towards them? And how could they have ever loved him? Had they loved him? He knew he would have done anything for either one of them, but had they returned his feelings? It hadn't been difficult to believe so before. Now though…
The rain began to pour in heavy sheets. He allowed it to coat his skin, the water running over it in cold rivulets.
Why? he asked both himself and his zanpaktou, trying desperately to reach his inner mind so he could converse with his sword. He couldn't figure this out on his own, he had to speak to someone. Slowly the rain faded and he found himself in a city. It had originally been a quiet, if ominous, evening landscape where every building had stood shrouded in shadow. He'd always wondered why his inner mind had taken on that form, and why he'd felt so comfortable there. He most certainly didn't now.
As he reached his inner-most self, his eyes widened as he tried to take in the chaotic scene that had once been his calm mindscape. He'd never seen it in such shambles before. Fire and smoke raged around him, burning down building after building. He heard gunfire in the background, and swords clanking as warriors clashed in battle. The sounds confused him. He'd never met anyone but his zanpaktou inside his mind's city.
'Wh-what is happening?' he asked aloud, searching the ruined surroundings for his sword's spirit.
'Your mind is in chaos,' a completely emotionless voice behind him replied.
Kenshin blinked and whipped around, causing the smoke in the night air to twirl and twist with his movement. He saw no one. As if in automatic response to his thoughts, an equally emotionless mask wove through his own features. 'The instructor at the academy told this one that chaos in one's mind usually resulted in a storm of some kind, that he did.'
'Normally, yes,' the voice conceded. 'But neither you nor I have ever been normal.'
Kenshin focused on one particular shadow. He still could not see anything, but his senses told him his zanpaktou hid there, watching him. He'd never actually seen the spirit, only conversed with her as she never left the shadows.
'Instead of a storm, this one's mind becomes a battle?' he asked, heart sinking. He knew the answer and the implications.
'Fitting,' she whispered.
Silence fell between them for several seconds. 'He spoke the truth, didn't he,' Kenshin voiced softly. An explosion nearby shook their surroundings, but neither one flinched. 'You knew.'
He felt more than saw the spirit cock her head. 'I suspected.'
'You suspected that this one used to be a killer?'
The spirit shrugged. 'It made sense, Kenshin.'
The red-head closed his eyes upon hearing his name. Kenshin; heart of a sword. Something else that suddenly seemed horribly fitting.
'Your past is your past,' the voice continued. 'Accept it and move on.'
Definitely something he would expect to hear from a sword; terse and cold. He answered truthfully. 'This one does not know if he can.'
He felt the sword frown. 'Then you will remain weak.'
Kenshin's brow furrowed at the words. He didn't understand. Weak? He wasn't weak. With his skill he could defend those he had to and he'd had very little trouble defeating even the huge hollows and one menos he'd come across. Admittedly most of them had been fairly new in their forms, without any serious or unique powers, but he still felt confident in his abilities.
Feeling his confusion, the sword spoke again. 'When you comprehend, you will find your answer,' she said.
And that suddenly, Kenshin felt the rain on his back and arms again. Opening his eyes to the dim, evening light of the real world, he blinked.
It took him several minutes of contemplation for him to realize that he wouldn't simply find his answer by stewing about it. It only took him approximately an additional ten seconds to realize that with his mind in such chaos, he also wouldn't be able to sleep.
Sighing, he climbed to his feet and headed off for his original assignment. If he couldn't rest, he would at least do something useful.
Three weeks, and Kenshin continued to dutifully patrol his new detail. He had been specifically told that he wouldn't have the temporary detail more than a week. He knew delays were typical of any governing system, but he wanted nothing more than to be relieved of this particular duty.
According to the spirits he'd come across (those old and sane enough to remember in any case—really it was amazing how many old ghosts still haunted the Kyoto area), this had been the city where Hitokiri Battosai had lived during the time of rebellion known as the Bakametsu; a major turning point in the country's history.
From there, the information degraded.
He'd heard from some that Battosai had been a giant of a man who could mow through a whole troop with a single swing of his sword. Others said Battosai had been an actual youkai, ghosting through the armies on both sides and taking lives with a single touch. Still others said he'd just been an immovable figure of pure muscle and scars that lusted for the blood of those who would dare to oppose him. The image of Zaraki-taichou came to mind at that description, and he wasn't sure whether he should find that amusing or horrifying.
At some point, he stopped counting how many different (and often opposing) descriptions he received. Most hadn't actually met Battosai during their lives and as such, they could only speculate at best. Though many claimed to have seen him, he knew who truly had from their reactions. In the three weeks since his new assignment, he'd come across a total of three souls whose information he believed. The first had been Chosui. He'd apparently been a former member of the Shinsengumi, a group who had interacted with and opposed the group Kenshin had apparently allied himself to: The Isshin Shishi. The other two had been on the side of the imperialists. It bothered Kenshin that those men had supposedly fought with him, but seemed to be even more afraid of him than anyone else.
After meeting them, they only stopped shivering once Kenshin had patiently explained why he'd come. One had even commented on his relief. When Kenshin had asked why, the spirit had responded without thinking.
"Well if you have a good afterlife, then I've got it made."
After he'd realized what he'd said, the man had been reduced to blubbering apologies. Kenshin had sent him on quickly.
The more he learned of 'Battosai', the harder it became to smile and give encouragement to the souls he met. He forced himself to anyway, but he soon found himself wishing to meet more hollows than souls on his patrols simply because he wouldn't have to speak with them.
At first he'd asked the souls he met about Battosai just because he wanted—needed—verification. He knew the Shinsengumi member had spoken the truth, but some part of him still desperately hoped he could find proof against the accusations. He'd met the second man a little more than a week later. After that, he'd stopped asking.
The third man had been the icing on the cake…or the final nail in the coffin, so to speak.
Even now Kenshin didn't really know what to make of the whole situation. The discovery of his past had not been pleasant. How could it be enjoyable to discover he used to be some sort of monster? The worst part was how this knowledge brought to light questions he didn't have answers to. For many of them, he wasn't sure he wanted answers.
What had driven him to kill? Just orders? Why had he agreed to such a thing? Had he actually enjoyed it? How much of that had he carried over to the afterlife? Was he still some kind of monster even now?
The fewer answers he had, the more uncertain of himself he became. It was as if he were steadily slipping; dragged downward by some nameless, inescapable force that only increased in power every time he stepped into the city. He had also begun to feel horribly isolated, as if no one could possibly help him; and even if someone could manage to, why would they want to?
His rest had become plagued by nightmares as well. In them battle after battle raged around him while he rushed, stabbed and swirled through row upon row of oblivious men, dancing in a sea of blood. Often he would wake in a cold sweat as the horrific images faded away into his subconscious, ready to attack him the moment he tried to sleep again. As such, he'd begun to rest less and patrol more, unsure of what else to do. Despite the extra time he put in, he avoided his temporary assignment as much as possible, but duty called him to Kyoto again and again. The idea of leaving the souls there vulnerable bothered him far more than the nightmares ever could.
Only that one thought ensured his daily return to the city.
The real trial had come with his meeting two hollows who had known him. He didn't know how they'd known him as he couldn't get much information from them; they were too far gone—lost to the madness that accompanied a hollow's hunger. What little they did say, though, did not help his fears by any means.
"We heard you had returned."
Just a simple phrase loaded with intent that bordered on ominous. How had they 'heard', so to speak? Who had they heard from? Some kind of network only hollows used? Had they come across some poor soul that had managed to escape Kenshin's notice? But the question that really set his nerves on edge when it crossed his mind was 'how many more will come?'
Fighting the two hollows at once had not been easy either. They had been fueled by a vengeance and hatred that Kenshin feared he understood far too well; the anger of those who had been wrongfully robbed of something precious. Half of him wished he knew how and why he understood, the other half of him shied away from the questions with such a dread as to almost render him immobile. Almost. He had far too much self discipline to ever allow such feelings to overcome him.
Now, it seemed, he knew why.
He'd finished his battle with them quickly. Fortunately, he hadn't come across any soul or hollow who had known him for a few days now, and he wanted to keep it that way.
With a sigh, he pushed those thoughts aside and pulled his mind back to the here and now, no matter how much he didn't want to. As he jumped and sped across rooftops that felt somehow all too tall and yet all too familiar at the same time, he found himself both trying to take in the details of his surroundings while simultaneously ignoring them. He wasn't succeeding.
A beeping from his pocket thankfully allowed him a reason to be distracted. Bringing out the phone, he checked the message.
Kyoto, like any other place in the world, had its share of old hollows that somehow managed to evade or kill all of the shinigami sent after them. They were few and far between, but they existed. The one predicted to attack a in the next ten minutes happened to be one of them.
Kitsune-hime, or Fox Princess, they called it. With a very delicate looking mask that had dark markings reminiscent of a fox, it had hunted in the area for at least a century, supposedly. That alone made Kenshin uneasy. He was positive he could handle any hollow he came across, but the hollows that managed to live that long also tended to be either very strong or very intelligent, or (if he was particularly unlucky) both.
It was also a time period that could mesh with when he'd lived. Hollows tended to not develop in other areas of the world as quickly as they did in the area with the spiritual land. That undoubtedly had a lot to do with his sudden uneasiness.
The fact that (according to their readings) it had come to attack a plus also rang warning bells in his head. Hollows that old rarely attacked souls. After anywhere from a few months to a few decades, depending on the hollow, they would stop going after souls and start going after other hollows because souls just couldn't sustain them anymore. If an older hollow went after a plus, the soul would have to have a good deal of spiritual power in and of itself.
Either that or it wanted to lure a shinigami in to eat them. In Kenshin's mind, that made more sense. Once hollows reached a point when regular souls weren't enough turned on their own and formed Gillian. But hollows that went after shinigami tended to get stronger faster if they could beat all the shinigami sent after them, and were also more likely to retain their identity. Most of the hollows with bounties on their heads tended to fall into this category.
He had never put much stalk in premonitions, but he'd be lying of he said he didn't have one now. Still, duty called. Kenshin adjusted his course, and in minutes his feet touched down at the site. A large street with modern buildings surrounded him. He knew what area of the city he stood in, even though it didn't look familiar at all. It felt familiar.
Closing his eyes, he stretched his riatsu out, letting his senses find traces of any souls in the area. His eyelids snapped open when he felt the touch of a hollow. But he'd arrived early! The hollow shouldn't be there yet!
The bad feeling at the base of his stomach increased as he dashed towards the sound. Ahead of him, a street turned off to the side. That was where he would find the hollow and the soul. He only hoped he wasn't too late.
Rounding the corner, he barely managed to see the rest of the plus disappear into a gaping maw, surrounded by what looked to be skull-white bone and sharpened teeth. The markings slanted delicately down to meet at the nose, giving the narrow head a triangle-shaped illusion. Dark, matted fur grew over a sleek body, and at least three tails shot out from its backside. The appendages ended in what looked like human hands and sported enormous claws that seemed both dainty and deadly at the same time. Rancid riatsu poured off of the creature in powerful waves. This would be no easy fight.
Kenshin shut his eyes for the barest moment in a silent prayer of apology to the plus he'd been unable to save, before falling back into his attack stance, hand hovering just above the hilt of his zanpaktou.
Shinigami and hollow regarded each other for several moments, neither one willing to make the first move. This only put Kenshin even more on edge. Most of the fallen spirits simply attacked him, charging ahead as any aggressive predator would. There had to be a great deal of intelligence behind that mask if the creature did not give into its instinct to hunt.
"So," the mangled but distinctly female voice came from behind the mask, "you have returned."
Kenshin's eyes narrowed dangerously. He really did not need another spirit that knew of his past. Best to take care of this quickly. But before he could do anything, it spoke again.
"I am so happy." Kenshin blinked in surprise. That was new.
"Happy?" he asked slowly.
"Of course," the beast said. "I thought I would never see you again, once you moved on."
Yes, definitely new territory.
"You knew this unworthy one after he died?"
The hollow glanced away for just a moment. "And before."
"You still have your memories from that long ago?" This was getting stranger by the moment, and he didn't like it.
The dark eyes behind the mask met his again. Kenshin refused to look away, no matter how much he wanted to. He saw such pain in those eyes; sorrow and longing and hunger and madness all at once. It only made him want to end this pitiful creature's existence more.
"How could I forget?"
"It is rare, for hollows," Kenshin responded.
The creature's eyes hardened. "Kenshin," it said with building anger, although the use of his name both shocked and worried him. "Do you not recognize me? You who became my entire reason to linger?"
A lump began to form in his throat. "No…" he whispered.
"You married me! You loved me! You killed me! How could you forget? !"
Those eyes…those brown eyes.
"No!" he yelled, pulling his sword and slashing in the blink of an eye. Somehow, the hollow saw it coming and dodged, falling back and into the street on the other side. Thankfully because of the late hour, no one lingered on the road.
"You remember now?" she practically purred.
Kenshin tried to push the memories aside. He didn't have many left, but those he did have abruptly seemed to want to force themselves to the front of his mind. He refused to let them distract him. So he knew this hollow? All the more reason to purify her and send her soul on. He slid his zanpaktou back into its sheath and shunpoed past the hollow, into the street.
He swung at her as he passed, but again she somehow managed to duck and fell back, a low, mad laugh reaching his ears as he landed and turned to face her.
"This one will end your pain," he said softly.
"Say my name, Kenshin!" the hollow screamed. "Say you remember me! Then you can come to me and be with me for eternity. Just as we promised…"
Kenshin clamped down on the sudden surge of feeling that rushed through him at her words. Pain, anger and a guilt so deep it felt as if it would tear his soul in two. Instead of letting it overcome him, he used it and leapt forward, sword withdrawing at the last second to slash.
Her image blurred and vanished as his sword went right through her, but instead of her riatsu vanishing, it moved. But he'd felt the riatsu, and it had been right there—
Pain laced through his side, back and stomach as something sharp clamped down on his skin.
"I can finally fight for both of us," her voice said from behind him. Ignoring the pain, he looked back and saw her large maw buried in the black material that consisted of his shinigami uniform. Vaguely, he wondered how she could still speak with half of his torso inside her mouth. "I have gained strength. I can protect you now."
Kenshin grit his teeth against the pain and began muttering under his breath. He refused to die here. Not before he'd saved her; this woman whose name he couldn't even remember.
"Join with me," she said, biting down harder.
"Hadō 31: Shakkahō!" Kenshin yelled as he finished the incantation. A large ball of energy shot almost point blank from his hand and in the direction of the hollow. He felt his flesh tear, the teeth quite literally ripping out of him as the energy from his kido shot him away from the hollow. He still managed to land on his feet somehow, although he immediately fell to one knee as he clutched his side. It took him a moment to find his center and will away the pain as his breath came out in almost visible gasps. The hollow screamed in pain and surprise.
He forced himself to his feet, and felt as if something snapped inside of him. Her scream, distorted as it was, still sounded familiar. Images that he'd been unable to recall in decades came flashing through his consciousness. Images of soil on his hands as he planted a garden followed by scenes of a peaceful village and a lovely mountainside. The memories played out in his mind in moments, but they were still only flashes. The brown-eyed woman walked beside him, not smiling, but she still seemed peaceful. She sat cooking him dinner, snuggled close to him at night…then images of snow and blood and of her rushing out to stop the sword meant for him as he thrust forward, unable to stop…
"NO!" he yelled, screaming as loudly as he could.
Suddenly it seemed as if he had hyper-sensitivity to his surroundings, and knew exactly where the hollow was. She'd stopped screaming, and seemed to be ready to attack.
"You would kill me again? !" she hissed.
He could only look up at her, unable to keep his mask of nonchalance on his face any longer.
"T-tomoe," he said, unable to do more than whisper.
The hollow paused, but still circled him like a predator stalking its pray. Anger and betrayal rolled off of her in almost tangible waves.
"W-what happened?" he asked. "How did you…a hollow?"
"When you killed me, I followed you until you died. I protected you. When you left me behind, I…became like this. I couldn't follow you anymore, so I got stronger! Strong enough to protect you when we met again! I ate all the shinigami that came after me…they tasted so good, but you taste the best." A long tongue sauntered past those sharp teeth as if to lick the taste of him off of them. The red that had splattered there disappeared, and Kenshin found his stomach churning even more than before, and he had to struggle to swallow his revulsion.
How could his sweet Tomoe have turned into this? She'd explained it, but his mind still seemed to refuse to understand.
"Now come with me, Kenshin!" she yelled and dashed at him.
He reacted on instinct, holding his blade up as the hollow came forward and crashed into it. He could feel the pavement crack and buckle under his feet at the impact as more pain shot through his side as he strained to hold her back, eyes flicking briefly to his blade. He hadn't flipped it around. If he had, he could have sliced through her mask
He wasn't sure whether to be grateful or upset at himself for his carelessness.
Then he noticed the cracks beginning in her mask where it met his blade. He couldn't feel surprised as the force she'd hit him with had almost thrown him back.
Moments later, a good half of the mask shattered, and he saw the face underneath. Any doubt in his mind fled. Just for a moment, he saw those soft brown eyes exposed and black hair framing a face so white it could have been porcelain.
It was Tomoe. His Tomoe. His wife.
Then she jumped back, screaming and covering the exposed flesh with her hands. Kenshin stumbled forward, catching himself with his blade before he fell onto the ground face-first. Then he took a deep breath and centered himself. He was hurt badly, but he would not give up. He never took his eyes off of her, and prepared to rush forward and finish his job when a black hole opened up behind her.
"NO!" he yelled again, stumbling desperately torward her and lifting his sword. It fell through empty air as the hollow disappeared back into Hueco Mundo. This time, he did fall on his hands, knuckles of his sword hand scraping the pavement.
He sat there for several minutes, fighting the shock that wanted to shroud his mind. He wanted to scream, release his anger and shout at the world, the Soul Society, the whole awful system in general.
As he sat there, in the middle of the street, he couldn't help the cold numb that began to settle over his mind. Then, he realized he didn't want to. He welcomed it. With the numb in place, he could think, he could deal with what he needed to.
For instance, the first order of business would be his wound. He crawled over to the sidewalk lining the street and collapsed with his back against the wall, breathing heavily. It took him several moments to painfully shrug out of the mangled remains of his kosode and tear it into strips. He spent the rest of the evening binding his mid-section and chest, thankful for the fact that spirits had much higher tolerance of pain and damage than humans. His wound would have easily been fatal had he still lived.
He knew a little (very little) healing kido, but used what he could to mend the flesh. It was a simple spell, meant only for small scrapes and bruises, so he only managed to speed the healing a touch, but it would have to be enough, he concluded.
Sometime after finishing his bandaging, his mind stopped processing and he collapsed against the wall in an unconscious exhaustion.
In the days to come, he would be immensely grateful that another hollow hadn't come along that first night and given him another rude awakening. He didn't often have good luck, and so he would take it where he could get it.
He stopped sending reports to the Soul Society. It wasn't an easy decision, but if he reported in, they would eventually ask for a scan of his body to check for damage and injuries (it still amazed him that such a small device could accomplish such a feat). If they saw his still healing wound, they would immediately recall him, and he couldn't risk that. No, he would go about his duties as best he could until Tomoe came for him again.
And she would come for him.
In the mean time, it became both harder and easier to kill the hollows he came across. Physically, he was barely up to the challenge, although he still found it easier to purify them with his sword than with something much slower like Kido. Mentally, though, he seemed to have fallen into a sort of emotional rut he couldn't pull himself from.
Truthfully, he wasn't sure he wanted to. It was easier to kill like this.
He wondered briefly if this had been his general state of mind as a hitokiri. The idea of him being able to take lives before had seemed impossible. Now he found it not just conceivable, but likely. It bothered him that he knew the thought should downright scare him, but didn't.
He dismissed such speculations as soon as they crossed his mind. After all, it meant so little now. Hardly anything could pierce the cold that had wrapped around his heart.
It took her two weeks to come for him again. The moment he got the warning, the numbness finally began to melt. He still hadn't healed fully, but the scabs on the side of his body would hold under anything but the worst fights.
Keeping to the shadows, he kept his senses sharp for enemies as he made his way towards the blinking dot on the phone's screen. Somehow he'd fallen into familiar habits long since forgotten until just recently. It was as if his body remembered what his mind could not.
He'd almost reached the area where she would appear when he felt a familiar, harsh riatsu appear a short distance away. A distinctly not-hollow and obviously sealed but still monstrous riatsu.
Gritting his teeth, he ignored it and continued toward his destination. He reached the area before Tomoe had managed to break through to Earth this time. Either he'd weakened her, or she was taunting him. If he had to guess, he'd believe the second option.
It didn't take long for him to get situated in a position on top of a building overlooking a park she would come to. It gave him a good view, but that didn't mean he had to like it. He knew she'd chosen to appear here on purpose. The open area played more to her strengths that to his. Yes, he was fast and could use Shunpo, but he was used to close combat and she knew it.
Now all he had to do was wait.
He'd heard of his captain's less than dependable sense of direction, and as such was about as surprised as he could manage in his current state when the large man came running up the side of the building not minutes later. He practically launched himself over the side of the structure and landed with a loud thump a few feet away. He didn't see Kenshin, and apparently he couldn't sense him either.
This seemed to frustrate him. He searched the rooftop with a sweeping gaze two or three times before he glanced down at a small device in his hand. Kenshin heard him mutter something about it being broken along with a few colorful expletives.
He debated on whether he should reveal himself or not. Obviously his captain had come for him, but Kenshin had no wish to speak with him or anyone else from the Soul Society at the moment. The deciding factor came from the fact that he could not have the man interfering in the coming confrontation.
"This is my fight," he said as he stepped out of the shadows.
Zaraki turned towards him with an expressionless face. The only thing that betrayed this man's thoughts would be that his single, exposed eye held an excited, hungry glitter.
"Now yer soundin' like a member of my squad."
If Kenpachi had been expecting a reaction of some sort, he would be sorely disappointed. Kenshin barely paid the man any attention as he could see the distortion below now. She would come through at any moment. "I don't care," the former assassin replied stonily. "Don't get in my way."
The man grinned and shrugged, but didn't say anything. Taking that as a yes, Kenshin shunpoed down to stand before the distortion as she stepped through, eyes finding him immediately. Her mask had repaird itself, and any damage his kido had done to her had vanished.
"You came to meet me," she stated hopefully. "Does this mean you accept?"
"Where is she?" Kenshin asked.
Tomoe blinked behind the mask. "She?"
"The other woman from my memories. The one with blue eyes."
All hope drained out of her eyes and her dark fur bristled in anger. "Is she more important than me? You would choose your second wife over your first? !" Kenshin didn't respond, but slid into his stance. He hadn't really expected an answer.
Then the hollow laughed, and to his great surprise, relaxed. "Of course not. You've chosen me. It's obvious. After all, you don't even remember her name. It would break her heart if she knew. It is a good thing I killed her, then. Now you can be with both of us. Come, let me eat you."
The cold around his heart began to steam as a red-hot anger rose inside him. He knew he was in no danger of losing control to that anger because it still felt steely. He didn't have much of a temper, it seemed; only a slow boil that began in the frigid temperatures and built up as whatever managed to stimulate his rage continued.
"What of my children," he asked. He wasn't even sure he'd had any but he felt he had to ask just in case.
Tomoe scoffed. "I could never find them. But do not worry, my love. If it is for you, I will search for them."
"No," Kenshin said. "You will not."
He placed his hand on the hilt of his sword and gripped the familiar handle. He did not flick it out to prepare for his battojutsu. Instead, he began to build his spiritual pressure behind it.
"What?" Tomoe asked, the anger creeping back into her voice. It seemed that was all she could feel at the moment. Kenshin would remedy that.
"I will send you on." Oh how those words hurt. The idea of raising his sword against Tomoe again…but he had to for her sake and for his other precious people as well. A large part of him wanted to avenge Kaoru's soul…
Kaoru. Blue eyes and a brash attitude that never gave up. That had been his Kaoru!
"You refuse…you…betrayer!" The hollow screamed, breaking through his thoughts as she dove at him.
He would need all the help he could get against her. He knew this. It wasn't that he didn't have the physical training and strength or even power to take her down. He did. He just knew that if he prolonged the confrontation, he may not be able to follow through in the end.
Taking a deep breath, he focused on the steel in his hand released his zanpaktou.
"Chakushoku shimas, Shiriume*!"
She had almost reached him when he pulled his sword out, battojustu accelerating it to lightning speed. The blade sliced through thin air, although his senses and the image in front of him said that she should be there.
He didn't hesitate, but leapt forward, rolling into a crouch and spinning around to see her mask snap down on where his head had been moments before. He brought his sword around. The blade, now on the correct side, slashed deeply into her side.
Screaming, she leapt away, turning to face him. "How did you know! My Will-o-the-wisp always worked before!"
It hadn't taken long for Kenshin to figure her little trick out from their encounter before. "It is your special trait to leave an illusion of yourself along with your riatsu sense in your enemy's mind while you attack them from behind. It will not work on me again." With that, he slid back again into his battojutsu stance.
"No!" she screamed. "I will have you! You will be mine!" She tossed control to the wind and jumped at him. His sword hummed reassuringly in his hands. She hadn't listened to him and used her technique again. He closed his eyes. He'd noticed that her special ability only focused on riatsu sensing and vision, not hearing. He strained his ears to hear something, anything—
There! On his left! He pivoted towards her and drew the sword. She'd noticed it at the last moment and had avoided him slicing her mask in two, but she could not miss it all. His sword had slashed deeply through the chest; a fatal wound for any creature but a hollow.
Screaming, she fell onto the dirt. After only a few moments, she began struggling as she tried to get up again; either that, or she was waiting for her high-speed regeneration to kick in. He had to take care of her before that happened.
It only took a moment for him to shunpo to her side and strike. He had to take care of this now, and yet…. He stood there for too long. It may only have been the barest moment for an onlooker, but to Kenshin it felt like an eternity. Then he placed his hand on the hilt again, and drew. Almost without realizing it, he turned the blade just after he drew it; a habit he didn't often use. It hit the mask and for a moment, the world froze. Then, the bone-white material shattered, falling to the grass where it disappeared.
She sat there, dazed and bleeding for several more seconds before she turned to look up at him.
That was all it took for the numb around his heart to vanish and he collapsed in front of her. He couldn't do it. That's why he'd turned the blade. He couldn't kill her again.
"Tomoe…" he whispered. "I'm so sorry…I—"
She cut him off. "No, it is I who should be sorry."
His heart almost froze at her words. "My death was my fault. In life, you came to know this, but I still wished to protect you. I became chained to you, my love. Over the years, this hole in my chest had become so large and painful, the chain always yanking and pulling at it, but I could fight the madness until you died. Seeing you in such pain was too much for me, and I was gone before your spirit fully separated itself from your body.
"It is not your fault. It was my weakness. In my rage and anger, I killed your new love. It is not you who needs to ask forgiveness, it is I."
He hesitated for the barest moment. Could he forgive her for her crimes? For taking Kaoru's life? It wasn't an easy decision, but it was one he made quickly.
"You have my forgiveness if I have yours," he whispered.
She chuckled, then winced in pain. "You never had anything for me to forgive you for." A large, black hand reached up to stroke his cheek. "Your scar has returned, and the name of your sword…I am honored. Please know that you will always have my heart, as I always know I will remain in yours."
He wanted to say the same to her, but he wasn't sure if he could because part of him would always belong to Kaoru. Could one give their heart away twice? Then again, he knew a part of him really would always belong to Tomoe as well.
He opened his mouth to voice as much, but before he could say anything, he'd noticed that she'd reached for his discarded sword.
"What are you doing?" he asked, alarmed.
"I do not wish to be a monster any longer," she whispered. "And I will not let you burden yourself with my death a second time."
He sat there for several seconds, torn between denying her words and agreeing with them. He knew it had to be; knew what would happen if she didn't pass on. He knew…but that didn't make it any easier.
She held the sword up to her chest, just below her neck. She stayed like that for a moment, bracing herself for the strike. Unable to resist, he laid a hand on hers. Feelings of gratitude, guilt, sorrow and love almost overwhelmed him when she didn't protest.
Then, together, they plunged the zanpaktou through her.
Her body dissolved around him and he stood slowly as he watched her leave, pain ripping through his heart anew. For a moment, he wished for the numbness again.
"No," he muttered aloud. "I will not dishonor her memory with such thoughts."
He felt the other riatsu come up to him, heard the tinkling of a bell, and knew what was coming. He still couldn't find the will to turn and block the strike, or even move to dodge. Then he jerked forward and gasped, looking down to see the ragged tip of a sword sticking out from his chest. Then it vanished with a harsh yank, and he collapsed.
"Yeh could've blocked that," he heard a gruff voice accuse and glanced up at his captain.
"T-taichou," he managed to say, ignoring the iron taste of blood in his mouth. "T-this one does not wish to fight, that he does not."
The spiky-haired man scowled down at him, deep disappointment plain on his face. "Yeh really mean that, doncha."
He didn't say it as a question, but Kenshin smiled and nodded anyway. Spots began to crawl in from the side of his vision.
"This one only wishes to protect…that he does." It was getting hard to speak. The captain must have pierced his heart. His spiritual body would last much longer than a human body would, but without proper care, he would die. It wasn't as if the fourth squad were just around the corner. There wouldn't be time to get him back to the Soul Society.
He didn't really know how he felt about that. It wasn't like he wanted to die, but now that he knew his women were safe… Maybe he should have dodged.
"Where do you wanna go?" Zaraki muttered, sounding as if Christmas had been canceled.
"To where Kaoru is," Kenshin managed to mutter. "Not…possible."
With that, Kenshin's vision faded to black.
He made sure he had a smile on his face; for Kaoru and Tomoe, he would not die sad.
The fact that he regained consciousness at all both surprised and confused him. The realization that he didn't recognize his surroundings didn't help. Was this where souls went after they died? The afterlife's afterlife so to speak? The general theory accepted in the Soul Society was that the spirits returned to Earth as new life forms. This was entirely unexpected.
"Well, it is good to see you awake," a tenor voice from the door spoke cheerfully, drawing Kenshin's attention. A man with the most ridiculous hat the red-head had ever seen stood at the door (sort of a bucket shape with green and white stripes running across it). The rest of his clothing seemed to be a take on Japanese tradition, with green clothes and a black hyori similar to a shinigami captain's. He also wore traditional, wooden geta that clicked against the floor as he walked. Why was he wearing them inside?
Shaking the thought from his mind, Kenshin forced himself to focus. "Is this unworthy one dead?" he asked.
The man raised an eyebrow at him for a moment then shook his head. "Dead? Do you feel dead?"
"How would one feel? This one cannot remember dying as a soul before."
The man chuckled and pulled out a fan, hiding his face behind it as he sat down facing Kenshin. "How did someone like you end up in the eleventh squad?"
Kenshin blinked, then smiled and shook his head slowly. "This one could either join the eleventh squad, or wait a year. This one did not wish to wait."
"This one was looking for someone, that he was."
Kenshin glanced away, both old and new memories of the women he had loved drifting through his mind. "This unworthy one was looking for his important people, that he was."
"Hmm, yes. Kenpachi-san did mention something."
That brought Kenshin back. "Where is this one? At a shinigami medical facility?"
The man laughed outright at that. "Oh no, no," he said, waving one hand dismissively. "You're still on Earth. This is Urahara's shop! The best prices this side of the Soul Society!"
Kenshin blinked, unable to help his body tensing. He'd heard of 'Urahara', former twelfth squad leader, banished for horrific crimes committed. He remembered an announcement stating that that had changed his final year at the academy, but that knowledge didn't exactly put his mind to rest.
"May this one ask your name?"
The man raised an eyebrow that disappeared under his hat. "You did ask first, so I'll ask for your name first as well."
"Himura Kenshin," he said with a respectful nod of his head, conceding the point.
"Urahara Kisuke," the man returned. Kenshin nodded and made to stand up, but the man reached out and pushed the red-head back with the tip of his fan. "No, no. Rest. You are here to recover. And you don't worry about anything, either. Zaraki-san has arranged everything."
Kenshin couldn't help but blink as he tried to process that. "Zaraki-taichou? Arranged? Is this one to return to the Soul Society once he is healed?"
Urahara shrugged. "If you want to. However, Zaraki-san said something about getting you back to the rukongai so you could find your…women?"
He couldn't even blink this time. Taking that as a cue to continue, the man in green did so. "He reported you dead to the Soul Society. I helped him come up with something rather ingenious and alas, he could not recover your poor, broken body."
Kenshin still couldn't respond, so again Urahara went on. "He said to tell you that because you finally told him the truth, he'd get you where you wanted to go. He then told me he would personally foot the bill. You must have made quite the impression on him."
"This one did nothing," Kenshin muttered, utterly confused. That did not sound like the Zaraki Kenpachi that he knew. "Why would he...for this one?"
"Zaraki-san isn't a bad guy," Urahara replied, and Kenshin could hear him grin behind that fan that had snapped out again. "He just hates to be bored. Unfortunately for him…and us, doing anything but fighting equates to boring for him. He lives to fight. That is just how he is."
Kenshin shook his head. "But he is doing so much for this one. How can this one ever repay him?"
Urahara raised an eyebrow mischievously. "Well, I do have one idea..."
Kenshin lay panting on the ground, trying desperately to not breathe in the thick dust that filled the air and failing rather spectacularly if his painful coughs were anything to go by. They'd pretty much destroyed the room fighting each other and now he expected Zaraki-taichou to come and finish him off any time now, but could not for the life of him find the strength or energy to lift his sword, let alone get up.
Surprisingly, he'd been able to stand up to the captain, even if only barely. Kenshin didn't have nearly the power the other man did (especially after he took off that eye-patch), but he made up for it with control and speed. Once he'd started to go all out, he'd been able to fend off the other shinigami's attacks, and then he'd pulled out his ultimate move: Amakakeru Ryu no Hirameki.
The captain had blocked his initial strike, but that was what the ultimate move had been designed for; only the strongest of opponents that could challenge the god-like speed of his style. He'd long since forgotten the name of the style, but the reasoning behind his ultimate move still stayed with him; one had to truly want to live. His follow-up strike had been too fast for even Zaraki Kenpachi to block.
He'd managed to get in some good strikes after that, but it had taken all of his energy, and he'd quite literally collapsed. Now he couldn't stand to finish the fight. Somehow, he was okay with this.
Then, from what could only be a few feet away, he heard the other man laugh lowly, as if thoroughly enjoying a personal joke.
"'Heaven's Gliding Dragon Fang', huh? I haven't seen anything like that before."
"It is the final technique in this one's style," Kenshin answered. Then he coughed a few times before he could continue. "This one hopes it lived up to your expectations."
This time the laugh was loud and deep. "Kid, I haven't had that good of a fight in over a year. I can't even move right now."
Kenshin chuckled himself, wishing it didn't hurt so much to do so. "This one cannot either."
"So you really did go all out, huh?"
"Of course, Zaraki-taichou."
"I ain't yer captain anymore. Call me Kenpachi."
Kenshin smiled. "Then you may call me by my personal name as well."
"'Heart of a Sword'. Good name."
The red-head's smile widened and he was about to respond when a presence landed near them, distracting both of them.
"Ken-chan can't get up?" The pink haired girl was barely visible through the haze.
"Kusajishi-fuku-taichou," Kenshin said. He'd only ever met the girl in passing.
"Hi, Red-san!" she said as her grinning face appeared above Kenshin's, startling him somewhat. Then he blinked.
She giggled. "Yup! I don't call Tattoo-san that anymore, so that can be your name!"
Tatoos? Did she mean Abarai-fuku-taicou?
"She ain't your lieutenant either," Kenpachi growled.
Another giggle from the pink-haired girl. "Ken-chan sure is in a good mood." Then she bowed low to Kenshin. It was so sudden he couldn't help but be taken aback. "Thank you so much for playing with Ken-chan today!"
"It certainly was an interesting watch," a new voice broke through the dust that had started to settle.
"Bucket-san!" Kusajishi said brightly. Now that Kenshin listened, he could easily hear the green-clad man's geta clomping softly along the new, uneven ground.
"You know, you took out most of my cameras. I'm adding that onto your bill."
Kenshin could practically hear Kenpachi smile. "I said I'd pay for the brat, didn't I? This makes any bill worth it."
Urahara's face appeared over Kenshin's, but he found it difficult to look with all the dust getting into his eyes. "Is that so?"
"Within reason, of course," Kenshin interrupted.
The blond man's gaze returned to him and became thoughtful. "Did you realize, Kenshin-san, that I was able to temporarily unseal Zaraki-taichou's full power while down here? That means you're on a captain level?"
Kenshin blinked in surprise. "No. This one is not all that good with Kido, cannot understand technology and has not attained Bankai."
"I never said you fit the criteria," Urahara said with a wave of his hand. "I just said you were on that level."
"But this one hardly has any power…" he said unsurely.
Urahara grinned and held up his fan. "Perhaps not, but you have the skill and control that many even in the Seireitei will never obtain. You fought sword to sword with the Eleventh Squad Captain and not only lived, but finished in a draw. I've known very few other people who can do that."
"Yer thinkin' of Ichigo."
"Yay! Ichi!" the pink-haired girl yelled happily.
The shopkeeper didn't respond for a while, spurring Kenshin to open his mouth to ask, but then he thought better of it.
After a few moments of silence, Urahara reached down and held out his hand to Kenshin. "Let's get you two upstairs so you can recover."
"I can take Ken-chan!" Then, to both of the mens' mild surprise, she easily lifted her captain over her comparatively tiny back, and had bounded away before either one of them could do anything about it.
Urahara chuckled as he helped Kenshin to his feet (no easy task seeing as his body still did not want to respond).
"May this one ask what you think is so funny, Urahara-san?" the red-head asked, mainly to distract himself from the pain he was beginning to feel."
"I just find the whole idea behind this little match funny."
"What do you mean?" Kenshin cocked his head (immediately regretting it when his neck twinged).
"Well, it was Kenshin vs. 'Ken-chan'. I just found it entertaining."
"I see," Kenshin tried to say with a straight face, but even he could not hold the corners of his mouth down to hide his own amusement. Then he allowed it onto his face, noting the touch of sadness that entered it. "I want to thank you, Urahara-san, for your help."
"I am getting paid."
Kenshin laughed quietly. Somehow he didn't think that had been the only reason to help him out, but he decided not to call his bluff…much.
"Indeed, Urahara-san," he said with a knowing smile, and left it at that.
*Chakushoku shimas, Shiriume = Stain White Plum Blossom
Companion story to: "Fight One: To Battle" www .fanfiction. net(slash) s/8054529/1/Fight_1_To_Battle without spaces (or you can just check out my stories)
I'd like to take a moment to explain why I named these stories the way I did: I came up with the idea of "Ken-chan" vs "Kenshin" and thought it was hilaroius. Both names (well, Kenpachi's is more of a title) have meaning with sword and implications to fighting ('Ken' meaning 'sword' I believe-let me know if I'm mistaken please, but that's how I understood it) and both men are strong fighting wise. Their biggest difference (in my opinion) comes not with their personality (which is number two) but with their reasons for fighting. I explained why Kenpachi does it (because it's more or less his obsession and the only thing that really keeps him from being bored), but Kenshin's are a little more difficult to see. In my view, he always saw fighting as a means to an end (hence why he stays with a style that is supposed to win conflicts in one stroke). Kenpachi fights to battle, while Kenshin fights to kill out of habit. That is, after all, the style he knows. He doesn't LIKE to kill, and avoids it as best he can, but getting down to the roots, that is why he fights-to end things.
If that makes sense.
So Kenpachi (the first one I wrote)-To Battle and Kenshin (the second one I wrote)-To Kill
I thoroughly enjoyed writing these from both points of view, and exploring their differences was entertaining to say the least. :) Thanks for reading!