(STANDARD FANFIC DISCLAIMERS APPLY)
Business at the Akabeko was unusually slow today. There weren’t a lot of customers around, which was odd, considering it was lunchtime. At least it gave Kaoru a chance to chat with Tae, the restaurant’s owner and a good friend at that. And, Kaoru thought, hiding a smirk, it also gave Yahiko an excuse to hang around with Tsubame-chan. The shy little waitress absolutely glowed whenever Yahiko was around.
Puppy love—isn’t it sweet? Kaoru thought. She caught Sanosuke’s eye and saw him grin slyly, obviously thinking the same thing. She turned her head to talk to her husband but found that Kenshin had fallen asleep. Kenshin was still sitting straight up, his head bowed and his hands still curled around his cup of tea. His hair hid most of his face but Kaoru could tell he had nodded off by the way he breathed. It was a miracle he didn’t fall over and Kaoru briefly debated whether she should wake him up.
Never mind. Kenshin was still having trouble sleeping because of his nightmares, which were growing more frequent. She’d tried to talk about it but he still refused to say anything. Kenshin had always been so reluctant to talk about his past, so determined to bury all the violence of his hitokiri nature. In the time they had been married, he’d finally brought down so many of his walls, opening up to Kaoru more and more. But now, it seemed to her that he was closing himself off again.
Kenshin no baka, she thought wearily. You’re not a rurouni anymore. You don’t have to bear all this alone.
"I don’t believe it!" Sanosuke spluttered, spraying sake everywhere. "That’s just a bunch of spook stories cooked up by a bunch of obaasans to make kids behave!"
"Geez, rooster boy," said Yahiko, brushing off his gi in disgust. "Thanks for the sake bath."
"What was the Rooster boy clucking about?" asked Kaoru.
"Oi! Look who’s talking, tanuki girl—" began Sanosuke.
Kaoru shoved a bowl of leftover miso soup in his face to squelch him and turned to Tae. "Gomen ne, Tae. I didn’t catch what you were saying—"
"I was telling them about the latest murders in Tokyo," said Tae. She lowered her voice. "Everyone’s starting to say that all those people were killed by a blood-thirsty gaki."
Kaoru felt her blood run cold. Gakis had formed a large part of her childhood nightmares. When she had been a little girl, she and her friends had scared themselves silly telling each other tales about gaki. Of course, they were all just stories.
Sanosuke wiped the miso off his face and said, "A sick loon like Shishio could go around ripping people’s throats out. That guy was a monster but he’s definitely human."
"Maybe," said Tae. "But Shishio’s dead! Unless…he’s come back from the grave…"
Everyone had an image of a monstrous-looking Shishio Makoto, rising from his grave with torn bandages hanging from his burnt and rotting flesh. They all shuddered. Shishio Makoto had been one of the last great hitokiri of the Bakumatsu no Douran, the successor of Himura Battousai. He’d nearly destroyed Tokyo and Kenshin almost got himself killed trying to stop him. Shishio was already dead, of course, but he still gave them all nightmares.
"Eeewww," said Kaoru, turning green. "I think I’m going to be sick."
"Reality check, guys," said Yahiko. "Shishio’s burned to a crisp and there ain’t no such things as gaki. They can’t be responsible for all those murders. That’s crazy."
"Actually," came a familiar, sardonic voice. "I’m beginning to suspect that it’s not as crazy as you think."
Everyone screamed and turned to find Saitoh Hajime smoking his cigarette and wearing his trademark smirk.
"Saitoh!" fumed Kaoru. "Don’t DO that!"
"Oro?" Kenshin lifted his head, blinking wide violet eyes. "What’s going on?"
"Glad to see you’re finally awake, Battousai," said Saitoh, sitting down next to him. "We were discussing the possibility that Shishio Makoto and a bunch of gaki are the ones behind the recent murders around here."
"Aaargh! Kenshin, is that all you can say?" exploded Sanosuke.
Saitoh smirked again. "For once, the rooster head and I are in complete agreement."
Yahiko shuddered. "The rooster and the wolf agreeing. Now THAT’S scary."
"No kidding," muttered Kaoru.
"Wait a minute," said Kenshin. "What on earth are you talking about? And what’s with Shishio? He’s dead already!"
"The murders, Battousai," said Saitoh patiently. "Three foreigners. One Japanese as of last night. All found with their throats torn out. As if they’ve been got at by wild dogs."
"Or wolves," muttered Sanosuke.
"So what’s the police been doing?" said Kaoru pointedly.
"Ah," Saitoh leaned back and took a long drag on his cigarette. "We got a witness on the last murder. An old man who claims that it was a gaki that did it."
"Oh my," said Tae.
"Funny thing though," said Saitoh, giving Kenshin a cool look. "He says that the ‘gaki’ was a short man with long red hair and golden eyes. Sound like anyone you know?"
Kenshin’s eyes narrowed. "And just what are you trying to say, Saitoh?"
"I don’t know, Battousai," said Saitoh with deceptive casualness. "Where were you last night?"
"HEY!" Kaoru shot to her feet, looming over Saitoh with holy fury in her eyes. "My husband was home all night! If you think that he’s somehow—"
"Settle down, tanuki girl," Saitoh waved her away. "I’m not going to arrest him. At least, not yet."
"Jou-chan," said Sanosuke, cracking his knuckles, "I’ll bash his face in for you—just say the word."
"Count me in too," said Yahiko fiercely, his hand already on his shinai.
"And me," said Tae heatedly, for once losing any fear she felt for the intimidating Mibu’s Wolf. Apparently, Tsubame felt the same way too. The little waitress was too shy to join in the conversation, but she nodded vehemently in agreement, her hands clutching her tray.
"My, my," said Saitoh drily to Kenshin. "You’ve got so many defenders here, Battousai."
"Saitoh," said Kenshin evenly. "I’m not the man you’re looking for."
"No, you’re not," said Saitoh just as evenly. "Even I know that the Battousai is not a raving killer. But think, how many redheads with golden eyes are walking around in Japan?"
There was a brief silence.
"Exactly," said Saitoh with satisfaction. "The old man who witnessed the last murder has a history of mental problems. You’re safe for the moment. But as you can see, his story has caught on. Add your description and…" He trailed off meaningfully.
"This is crazy!" exploded Sanosuke. "Now somebody who looks a lot like Kenshin is running around Tokyo killing people like a gaki?"
Inwardly, Kenshin winced. The image was just a little TOO close to his latest round of nightmares. The Hitokiri Battousai as a killer crazed with bloodlust, reveling in all the death and suffering that he had brought about with his sword…
No, that’s not me. I never enjoyed the killing. I did what I thought I had to do. It was necessary…
Of course it was necessary, said a little voice in the back of his mind. Once you’ve tasted the blood of your prey, there’s no turning back. You have to keep on killing to feed the Hunger…
What Hunger? Kenshin screamed silently back. What the hell’s going on here? This is insane!
"Why are you warning us anyway?" burst out Yahiko, startling Kenshin out of his reverie. "You’ve always wanted to cause trouble for Kenshin! Isn’t something like this what you’re waiting for?"
Saitoh flicked off the ash hanging from his cigarette. "I’m not going to lose the Battousai to a bloody lynch mob, ahou." He gave Kenshin a wolfish, unpleasant smile. "I’d rather send him to hell all by myself."
"You’re welcome to try," murmured Kenshin, returning his old enemy’s challenge.
"Oh no, you don’t, Saitoh Hajime," said Kaoru ominously. "You’re not going to fight Kenshin again. Get it through your head—the Bakumatsu no Douran is OVER. "
"Don’t worry, tanuki girl," said Saitoh, getting up. "I’ve no intention of making you a widow—yet." With that, he sauntered out of the Akabeko, leaving behind a trail of cigarette smoke and a lot of angry faces.
"Ooooh!" Kaoru seethed. "That insufferable—"
"Son of a bitch," supplied Sanosuke helpfully.
"Yeah!" said Yahiko emphatically.
"And to think anyone would actually believe Kenshin-san’s some kind of gaki…" huffed Tae.
Tsubame finally spoke up. "Kenshin-san doesn’t even look like a gaki."
But Kenshin smiled at the little waitress. "Thanks, Tsubame-dono."
"Boy," said Yahiko. "You sure have way too many lookalikes running around in Tokyo, Kenshin."
"Oh, that’s right," said Kaoru, remembering. "What about Jay and Iggy’s Kenshin?"
"Yeah!" said Sanosuke. He frowned. "You don’t suppose that could possibly have anything to do with what’s going on?"
"Baka!" yelled Yahiko. "Jay and Iggy didn’t say their long-lost friend could be a psycho killer! And they think he’s probably dead already!"
"Watch who you’re calling stupid, Yahiko-chan!" growled Sanosuke. "And they’re not even sure if he IS dead!"
"GRRRRR! DON’T CALL ME ‘CHAN’!!" Yahiko, as usual, attached himself to Sano like a leech, biting and scratching at his head.
"GET OFF ME, DAMMNIT!!"
"Yahiko-kun," began Tsubame worriedly. "You might hurt yourself…" She turned to Kaoru. "Kaoru-san, can you--?"
"Don’t worry, Tsubame-chan," said Kaoru, smiling. "Those two just love doing that all the time."
"Ano…" Tae sweat-dropped. "Can someone please tell me what’s going on? Who are Jay and Iggy? And what’s this about their ‘Kenshin’?"
As Kaoru began to explain and Sanosuke tried to peel Yahiko off his hair, Kenshin sat back, sipped his tea and quietly began to sort out his thoughts. A mad killer was running loose in Tokyo…someone who possibly looked like him. Jay-dono and Iggy-dono had a friend who could also pass for Kenshin’s twin brother. And Kenshin had been having those strange terrible dreams where he enjoyed killing all those people during the Bakumatsu no Douran. Where he’d actually tasted, no, savored all that blood and pain. Especially the blood. Just like a…gaki. Kenshin shuddered inwardly, feeling nauseous at the very thought.
Everything fit together somehow…and Kenshin didn’t like the way things were heading. Especially after Saitoh’s veiled little warnings…
Kenshin closed his eyes and and somewhere in his mind, a hitokiri sat in a certain room, telling him to beware.
Something is making us dream these dreams… Danger is coming…watch out for it, Kenshin…I am afraid…
They all looked like children.
Unlike the others, who chose to look old and venerable, they decided that they would look like children, just on the verge of adolescence or at the most, teenagers. The Elders had been feared for their power. They were kept at a distance by the incredible majesty of their age, the centuries that they had seen pass by, the vast experience brought about by several lifetimes.
But the younger generation decided otherwise. They were all beginning to lose touch with the people they were supposed to guide, protect and defend. The days were coming when they would be persecuted, hunted down as unnatural beings to be burnt at the stake or drowned in the river. So, they chose youth—hiding their power, blending in more easily with mortals, instead of being mysterious hermits hiding in the mountains and forests.
After all, who would seek a sorcerer in the guise of a child?
Iggy stared at his reflection in the windowpane, remembering. He traced on the glass the letters spelling his formal name. Stephen. Stefan. The name of the sorcerer he was and always would be. He no longer had the face of a child in this particular place and time. It was no longer necessary and having seemingly eternal youth would be dangerous in this lifetime. But he would always look youthful, always look younger than he actually was.
It had of course, been a bit of an disadvantage in this life. But he had soon learned the advantages of being continually underestimated, of being overlooked because of his seeming youth and inexperience. And he knew how to comport himself with the lordly dignity his station commanded, knew every nuance and every slight gesture to win the respect of his peers.
But here, he could take the masks down, rid himself of all the formalities and the dignified airs. He let himself go, extending the tendrils of power, letting the memories come…
Stephen sat against a tree as he watched his friends spar with their swords, the bright blades glinting in the sunlight. The swords clashed, tangled and broke away again as the swordsmen leaped apart. One red-haired boy and one dark-haired girl stood staring at each other for a few moments before they charged again, leaping high into the air. Once more, Stephen heard the clear ring of steel on steel, a sound that pulsed in time to their movements, becoming the song to a beautiful, yet deadly dance.
The red-haired boy began to laugh even as he met every thrust and parry. "Trust Isabel to turn everything to music!"
And he was right. The music was there, in every stroke and in every move, a wild pulsing beat that spoke of freedom and joy. Isabel’s music. Isabel’s magic. And it reflected Kenshin’s laughter and his joy at living…
Iggy turned at the sound of Jay’s voice, a little startled at the use of his formal name. For a few moments, she actually looked older, her features mirroring the age of the older woman she was supposed to be. Then, she went back to being a young girl again.
"What did you see, Isabel?" he asked quietly, also using her formal name.
Jay was silent for a few seconds, nervously twisting the broad-brimmed black hat she held in her hands.
She finally spoke. "A vampire is here in Japan."
Iggy froze. "Are you sure it’s one of ours? Not a local gaki?"
"It’s definitely a western vampire, Iggy," said Jay.
"Thank God," said Iggy. He came away from the window, deciding to stand by the piano in the center of the room. "I wouldn’t want to tangle with a gaki. They’re nasty as hell."
"Don’t start cheering just yet, Iggy," said Jay gravely. She went over to the piano as well, her fingers lightly caressing the ivory keys. She bent her head as she did so, dark hair obscuring her face. "This one is old. Incredibly powerful. It’s good enough to mask itself from me. I can’t even tell whether it’s male or female."
"Oh Christ," said Iggy, as an obscene possibility came to mind. "Not a Revenant?"
"Let’s hope not," answered Jay, still not looking up. She shivered. "I’ve tried invoking post-Sight again. But it’s still not working. The vision is blocked."
"What about the dead men? Will they give us trouble?"
"No. They’ve been taken care of." Jay looked up, her delicate little face twisted in a wry grimace. "The local priest is aware of what’s going on. The trouble is, he’s a raving fanatic. Like our pals during the Inquisition."
"Wonderful. Just what we need." Iggy leaned against the piano, one hand thoughtfully cupping his chin. "You know, you’re going to have to snoop around the local police station. I don’t want the Tokyo police getting into something that’s more than they could handle."
"Do me a favor, Iggy," said Jay wryly. "Make my life easier and say it’s official business. After all, we did just get attacked the other day."
"And offend them by implying that we don’t trust their judgement?" Iggy raised a brow.
"Sweetie, you’re a diplomat. Between the two of us, I’m sure we can figure out something that will smooth ruffled feathers."
"Well, it’s going to be their problem as well," said Iggy thoughtfully. "And one of their police inspectors show promise."
"Am I hearing things?" Jay’s blue-gray eyes went wide. "There’s actually a policeman out there who might be able to handle vampires and won’t think we’re all nuts?"
"Inspector Fujita Gorou, also known as Saitoh Hajime—the Mibu’s Wolf," Iggy stated. "Formerly a captain of the Shinsengumi, one of the best swordsmen in the country. On a par with the Hitokiri Battousai." He grinned. "Actually, Saitoh and Battousai clashed during the Bakumatsu no Douran. "
Jay winced. "Ouch. I won’t ask who won, because if someone did, one of them should have been long dead by now."
"Exactly. Saitoh’s a bit…um, difficult to deal with."
"Oh good grief," Jay groaned. "By that you mean he’s a real bastard to work with."
"I think you can handle him," said Iggy. He smiled slyly. "Saitoh is smart, cunning and if he ever became a vampire hunter, the entire friggin’ race of the Undead is doomed. Trust me."
"Right," said Jay dryly.
"Aku. Zoku. Zan. That’s his motto. Kill. Evil. Instantly. If you choose to tell him the entire truth or if he stumbles on it by himself, he’s a good man to have on our side."
"I believe you," said Jay, sitting down at the piano. "I’ll take care of it." She began to tinker with a few notes, a nonsensical little bit of melody that made Iggy smile. But she stopped, losing the thread of the music.
"Hey," protested Iggy. "Don’t stop now."
"Iggy—" Jay’s voice sounded small and afraid. "What if it is a Revenant out there? What are we going to do?"
"I’ll handle it," Iggy said firmly.
"No!" Jay said sharply. "Don’t be chivalrous, Stephen. The responsibility belongs to both of us."
"Isabel," Iggy countered, again using her formal name. "The responsibility belongs to both of us but only one carries the curse. I don’t want that to happen to you."
"And I don’t want it happening to you either," retorted Jay.
Iggy went to stand behind her, putting his hands on her shoulders. She sighed and leaned against him. He smiled, enjoying the contact and the affection she showed him in the simple gesture.
"Anyway, Jay-girl," said Iggy cheerfully. "We still don’t know for sure if it is a Revenant out there. Not all the vampires with power have to be Revenants."
"You’re right," said Jay . "And it’s not like we’re alone in this."
"Mm-hm. It’s him. He doesn’t remember it anymore but he’s definitely one of us."
"He’s been reborn, Jay-girl. You know how that plays around with the memory." Iggy sighed. "Still, let’s not involve him in this unless it’s absolutely necessary. He’s got enough problems as it is being the former Hitokiri Battousai and all."
"You really did your homework, I see."
"He’s a legend again, in this lifetime. A master assassin, a swordsman without peer. All that without his older memories awakened. Certain patterns keep on repeating after all."
Jay sobered, thinking of Kaoru and the life she sensed growing within the young woman. "And he’s got a wife and coming child to think of."
"Yes," Iggy agreed. "He’s trying to live in peace now, Jay. Let’s leave him that way. He can do without this sort of knowledge from us."
"I remember when he taught us swordplay," Jay said softly. "In the forest. And when I made the music…He was so happy, Iggy."
"Yes," Iggy agreed, the scene in the forest clearing again replaying in his mind. Happy. That was how they always remembered Kenshin. The bright joyousness of his spirit, the kind and gentle heart that balanced the terrible destructive power that he wielded. The power that they all wielded.
Jay was silent, remembering when Kenshin disappeared all those centuries ago. She had feared the worst and sorrowed for his loss, the elder brother she never had. There were many burdens placed on their kind, many perils that they alone could face. She understood Iggy’s words. The man calling himself Himura Kenshin today did not need to know about sorcerers, vampires and past lives. At least, in this present lifetime.
She sighed wistfully. "I still miss him, you know."
"So do I, Jay-girl. So do I."
Turn to Chapter 5
Up next: Kenshin gets a NAAAAASTY shock. And--must bug Saitoh, must bug Saitoh, must bug Saitoh…(mwhahahahaha!)
Just a note:
Why do I hate Saitoh so much? Actually, I don’t really HATE him, as in wish that Kenshin reversed his sakabatou and took the Wolf’s head off before the start of the Kyoto arc. Saitoh’s more like one of those guys you just LOVE to hate. Besides, if Saitoh’s already dead, half the excitement in Ruroken’s gone. Besides, the other bad boys of Ruroken aren’t as fun as the Wolf is. Check it out. Shishio is dead (thank Kamisama) and he’s a mummy to boot. Enishi’s a raving loon (the man should be locked up in the schizo ward and don’t forget to throw away the key!). Aoshi’s too gorgeous and angst-ridden to hate (reminds me of a certain white-haired bishounen dhampire from a certain Playstation video game—I’m a sucker for that type). Soujirou is too cute to hate (WHEN is he turning up again in Ruroken anyways?). Ah well…where are all the GREAT bad guys when you need them—like Darth Vader, oops, wrong show. I’ll go back to bugging Saitoh now. Ja ne! --KAT