It began with a dream.
For as long as he could remember, Father Andrei Rosetti could foresee the presence of the Evil Ones in his dreams. It was a gift he had, bestowed on him by the Lord. His dreams were true dreams, the warnings he received whenever the creatures of Hell were near.
And now, with the first death, he knew that his dream had been correct. As always.
The young priest had presided over the funeral himself. He had watched and prayed as they laid the dead man out for his coffin, had seen the tell-tale wounds. If he had not been forewarned, he would not have believed it. This was Japan-for the love of God! Not his poor afflicted village back in Romania!
But he had been warned. He never doubted his premonitions. Father Rosetti blessed the corpse and secretly performed the sacred rites that would ensure his peace in the grave. He had never thought he would have to do this again but apparently, it was God's will. The demon that he had thought he would never see outside his native land was now here in Japan.
The demon he saw in his vision was a true prince of darkness, not one of those poor gibbering blood-crazed fools rising from their graves. He was ancient and incredibly powerful. This one would not be cowed so easily beneath the sacred power of cross and holy water.
Such a creature must not be permitted to feed on helpless mortals any more. He had already sent for the best and finest warriors of Holy Mother Church to aid him. With God on their side, they would hunt the demon down and destroy him.
Yes. The priest kissed the cross of his rosary fervently, shuddering as the image of the demon came to his mind's eye. He could still remember the demon's blood-red hair and those feral, golden eyes…
It was midnight and he was hunting the streets once more. The legendary Hitokiri Battousai. The assassin who struck from the shadows with unholy speed, who could seemingly take half a dozen men, if not more, with one sweep of his sword. People dared not even breathe a whisper of his name.
They feared him, as they should.
The Battousai's golden eyes gleamed as he caught sight of his prey. His sword flashed and blood splattered on his clothes, on his face and hair. The blood trickled down to his lips. His tongue snaked out, savoring the taste of it…
"Oro?" Kenshin started, blinking soft violet eyes in surprise.
Kaoru stared at him in concern. "You zoned out in the middle of the street, Kenshin. Are you all right?"
Kenshin looked at the bright morning scene, at the crowds of people walking the streets. He shook his head, trying to shake away the image of a past that had never been.
Bloodlust…berserker furies…this is not us, Kenshin. Never us…
"Oi, Kenshin, you're starting to scare Jou-chan," warned Sanosuke.
"I'm all right," said Kenshin quickly. "I'm sorry. I'm still a little sleepy, I guess."
His wife shook her head. "You haven't been sleeping very well these past few nights. Maybe you should rest once we get back home."
Yahiko snorted. "And have you cooking? We might as well go back to the Akabeko for lunch too!"
"And just what are you trying to say, Yahiko-chan?" Kaoru shot back.
"Don't call me 'chan'!"
"Maa, maa," began Kenshin, slipping into his peacemaker role as usual. "We're in the middle of the street-"
"And people are staring," snickered Sanosuke.
Kenshin slipped back into his thoughts as the rest of his little family went through their usual round of bickering and bantering. The dream, no-nightmare, came back to him with horrifying clarity. It was a familiar memory-he could recall the precise day that it happened. He knew the face of the man he had killed, remembered every detail of that night, right up to when he first received the black envelope that was the man's death warrant. But in this nightmare, it was as if he was seeing it through a distorted mirror, the event turned and twisted beyond recognition.
I like to practice the sword arts, but I have never enjoyed killing people.
It had been such a long time ago since he'd spoken those words. All the while, everyone else bought into the legend of the cold-blooded master assassin, the killer in the shadows who spared no one in his wake. But the truth was, the Hitokiri Battousai killed in order to protect and defend…the people, his fellow samurai, for justice, for change, to rebuild the world anew according to his vision. A million reasons, all good and true and right. That was what he had thought at the time. That was what he had believed in. He killed with cold, ruthless precision, destroying what he saw as a threat and a danger to the country he loved.
Not these dark visions where he enjoyed the blood and death, relished the screams of the dying.
Bloodlust…berserker furies…never us…never us…
Suddenly, all of his instincts screamed a warning. Without hesitation, Kenshin grabbed Kaoru by the waist and dove for the ground, crying, "Look out!"
The words were barely out of his mouth when an incredibly powerful explosion sent everyone else sprawling on the street.
"What the fuck was that?!!" exclaimed Sano.
"Owwww….my ears," moaned Yahiko.
Kenshin hadn't even managed a single "oro". He was too busy seeing to his dazed young wife.
"Kaoru-chan? Are you all right? The baby--?" he asked, violet eyes wide with worry. They had only recently found out that Kaoru was pregnant with their first child. All of them had been overjoyed by the news but Kenshin had turned even more protective of Kaoru after that.
"Daijoubu. We're both okay for the moment," answered Kaoru, shaking her head to clear it. She caught her husband's worried look and smiled at him reassuringly. "What on earth happened?"
"Oh shit," breathed Sano, as the smoke from the explosion cleared. "Look at that, Kenshin!"
An open carriage had overturned in the middle of the street. A young foreign boy was struggling to drag his unconscious companion away from the wreck. As the smoke cleared some more, several men armed with an assortment of knives, swords and nunchukus. At least four men were carrying pistols.
"Kill them both!" screamed a burly, orange-haired man.
The gunmen raised their arms to fire. There was a sudden flash of steel and the gunmen found their pistols sliced in half.
Everyone stared in surprise at the foreign boy, who was unmistakably wielding a Japanese katana.
"Try that again and I'll take your hands off next," said the youth…in a high sweet voice that plainly marked "him" as a girl. Black hair that had been carefully pinned and coiled now fell in long waves down her back.
"Holy shit," said Sanosuke. "A gai-jin girl?"
"And she apparently knows kenjutsu as well," said Kenshin, watching as the girl take a familiar defensive stance.
"No way," breathed Yahiko.
The goons had lost their guns but they still had their other weapons. After the initial shock, they lost no time in attacking her. The girl grimly took them on, moving with consummate speed and skill. She had already brought several goons down but it seemed that every time she turned, more of them seemed to show up.
"She's good but she's not going to last long like that," said Kaoru. "Kenshin--?" She turned to look at her husband but he had already gone. She abruptly realized where he went and began to move when Yahiko stopped her.
"We gotta stay back, Kaoru," said the boy with uncharacteristic restraint. "Kenshin's not gonna forgive me if anything happens to you and the kid you're carryin'."
While the foreign girl had been kept busy fighting, another goon was already sneaking up on the unconscious man lying on the ground. He raised his sword for the killing blow-
--and was blocked by Kenshin's sakabatou.
The goon's eyes widened as he took in Kenshin's long red hair and the cross-shaped scars on his cheek. "Holy shit!" he yelped. "It's the Battousai!"
Sometimes, thought the part of Kenshin that was Battousai in dark amusement, it is good to be recognized.
The rurouni winced mentally in answer as he quickly sent the goon sprawling on the ground with a dislocated shoulder. Not funny. He took down several more with a few quick slashes of his reverse-edged sword. They didn't die but they were going to be in a lot of pain for several very long weeks.
"Hey!" yelled Sanosuke, jumping into the fray, "Leave some for me!"
Kenshin smiled inwardly as his rooster-headed friend wreaked havoc among the rest of the goons with his bare hands and feet. Sanosuke was definitely in his element as he cheerfully broke bones and loosened teeth among their enemies.
Several shots were fired into the air. Kenshin noted with relief that the police had finally arrived. That had finally sent the rest of the goons running for their lives. Their orange-haired leader was nowhere in sight. Apparently, he had been the first to disappear.
"Aw, crap!" Sanosuke grimaced. "Just when I was starting to really have some fun…"
Kenshin turned as he felt Kaoru tug at his sleeve. "Kenshin, you'd better go before the police arrest you for carrying that sword."
Kenshin nodded briefly. It was illegal to carry swords nowadays, even a sakabatou. He'd had more than his fair share of brush-ins with the police for that. He spared a glance at the foreign girl who was kneeling beside her friend. The young man had finally regained consciousness. He was sat up and groaned, shaking his head. The girl soothed him, saying a few words in a language Kenshin recognized as English. He understood a little of it from his days as a Choshu Ishinshishi.
"Don't worry, Kenshin," said Kaoru. "We'll take care of them."
He smiled sweetly at his wife. "See you back home, then." He turned to go.
"Hey, swordsman, wait!" The foreign girl ran up to him. He noted with surprise that she was very young, her face delicate and elfin, with large blue-gray eyes. She might have been only a little older than Yahiko, except that she wielded that sword with the skill of the finest Japanese samurai.
Then again, Kenshin was barely fourteen when he began his bloody career as a hitokiri.
"I want to thank you-"began the girl. She stopped and stared at him, her eyes growing wide with…recognition?
"Holy crow-Kenny?! Kenny, is that you?!!" the girl blurted out.
"Oro?!" It was the only thing Kenshin could manage to say. He was sure he'd never seen her before and he would certainly not forget a gai-jin girl who knew kenjutsu so well.
"Ken-nii?" said Kaoru in puzzlement. "Only Ayame-chan and Suzume-chan call you 'big brother'…"
"Not big brother," said the foreign girl, staring at him so intently that it was beginning to make him uncomfortable. "Well, he was like that to us…"
The girl's friend came up to them then. He was rather tall, with chin-length reddish-brown hair and bright sky-blue eyes. Like his friend, he also looked very young, his face boyish and open. With surprise, Kenshin saw that he'd somehow managed to survive the attack relatively unscathed.
The young man looked at Kenshin closely for a few moments. Then, his eyes lit up with wonder and amusement.
"Kenny? Man, it's been ages since we last saw you!" he said in delight.
"But I've never seen you before in my life!" Kenshin protested.
The girl and her companion exchanged quick, startled looks. But before they could say anything further, the police had reached them.
"Mr. Ambassador," said the police inspector. "Are you all right?"
"Yes, I'm fine, thanks to this man and his friends," said the young man. The boyish demeanor had changed into that of authority. "They saved my life."
The looks of sheer astonishment on the faces of Kenshin and his friends sparked an amused light in the young ambassador's eyes but his face maintained that look of sober dignity. He bowed formally to Kenshin.
"Domo arigato, samurai-san." The ambassador straightened and continued, "I am Stephen Huntington, England's ambassador to Japan." He gestured at the young girl. "And this is my good friend, J. Isabel Draven, Countess Rosscraft."