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This life of ours would not cause you sorrow

if you thought of it as like

the mountain cherry blossoms

which bloom and fade in a day.

-- Murasaki Shikibu (974-1031)

April, 1864

Kyoto

On a warm spring night, the full moon looked down on the cobblestone streets of Kyoto. The Bakumatsu had been raging on for eleven years now. Each night, the city streets overflowed with blood as Japan was torn asunder by warring clans, some of whom sided with the Emperor, others who sided with the Bakufu.

Through the darkness of the winding alleys sprinted a being that had the form of a human boy, but the power and skill of a demon. It ran so quickly, it seemed to be flying just over the street as it came silently up behind its quarry: a fat old man and his two bodyguards, one of whom was built like an ogre, the other a mere stripling.

In the shadows, the demon froze when it heard its name mentioned in their conversation.

"There have been more and more rumors of hitokiri recently, especially 'Hitokiri Battousai'," cautioned the ogre. "Whether or not he exists, the Bakufu must come up with a plan to crush this rebellion."

"Now, now. We've had some nice sake tonight. Let's not ruin the mood by talking about the war," soothed the fat, old man, who was this evening's target. "I hear you're to be married next month, Kiyosato."

"Yes," was the enthusiastic response of the young bodyguard, Kiyosato.

"You're lucky to be marrying your childhood sweetheart soon," said the old man.

"Thank you. I do feel bad though. If the whole country is in disarray, what right have I to be happy?" mused Kiyosato.

"Now stop that. Things are always bleak around here. That shouldn't stop a man from finding a bit of happiness for himself, should it?" said the old man.

So, the Bakufu was aware of Battousai's existence, even if they hadn't confirmed its veracity yet. The demon decided it was time to show these walking dead that Battousai was more than just a rumor.


"Are you Shigekura Jubei of the Kyoto Shoshidai?" asked a soft, yet menacing voice from the darkness of the alley.

Shigekura and his two bodyguards, Kiyosato and Ishiji, froze in their tracks and turned slowly around to view where the voice had come from. A short, delicately built boy with long red hair, who looked to be no older than 12 years old, emerged from the darkness. At his side was a daisho, indicating that he was a warrior.

"Though I bear you no grudge, you must die for the new era," came that chilling voice again.

"Who are you?!" demanded Ishiji.

"Choshuu Ishin Shishi. Himura Battousai," answered the small swordsman.

At this, Ishiji grasped the hilt of his katana.

It was too late. The diminutive swordsman suddenly went from being five yards back to right in front of the large bodyguard. Before Ishiji could react, his skull had been split in two and Himura Battousai was already charging down his target.

Seeing his most experienced bodyguard cut down so easily, Shigekura suddenly shoved Kiyosato aside and grasped the hilt of his sword.

"Get out of here, Kiyosato! You can't die now!" he commanded, starting to draw his blade.

Suddenly, Himura Battousai leapt into the air. Before anyone knew what was happening, he came down, plunging his katana straight through Shigekura's skull.

'RYU TSUI SEN ZAN!!'

"Ishiji-san! Shigekura-san!" cried Kiyosato in horror as he regained his feet.

Seeing there was one left, Himura lunged at him, pinning him against the wall. The assassin's eyes widened in surprise for a split second when steel met steel as Kiyosato was able to raise his blade and block Himura's slash.

"Give up," Himura hissed.

"No!" cried Kiyosato as he pushed back and was able to extricate himself from Himura's grip.

The two swordsmen faced off. Kiyosato gripped his blade, panic and fury mixing on his features. Himura could tell by Kiyosato's stance that he was a rank amateur at best. His block of Himura's initial strike had likely just been a fluke. Surely, with the next slash, Battousai would be able to dispatch him.

"HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!"

Himura and Kiyosato charged and slashed, each time blocking or dodging each other's swings. As they fought, Battousai found himself grudgingly beginning to respect his adversary. Though his skill was nothing in itself, Kiyosato was displaying a strong desperation to survive this fight.

"I cannot die. I must not die. I will not die."

Realizing that he was wasting too much time and increasing his chances of being caught by other Bakufu patrols, Himura charged at Kiyosato, who returned the favor. They met in an instant. Himura felt more than heard his katana cleave through the young swordsman's body. He was surprised to feel sharp steel bite into his left cheek. Quite the next moment, he felt something warm trickling down his face. Himura Battousai reached up with his left hand and wiped his fingers down his cheek. His eyes widened in surprise when he saw his own blood on his fingertips.

"Don't let me die. Not yet. Not now," Himura heard Kiyosato groan to himself.

Even now? Even after being slashed clean through, Kiyosato still clung to life! Himura turned and saw Kiyosato crawling in vain toward his sword, blood spilling from the huge slash in his body. Everyone else Himura had slashed that way had died instantly. What was it about this man that was so different? Himura approached the dying warrior.

"I was going to be married. I thought we would be together forever. Tooomoooeeeee!!!!!!!" Kiyosato sobbed.

His sobs were silenced as Himura plunged his blade into the bodyguard's neck. Himura stood still and looked down at the now silent body of the young warrior. This was a battle he would never forget.

Quite the next moment, Himura felt irritation rise up in him as the familiar ki of the observers came into range. His direct overseer, Iizuka, followed by two other men, emerged from the shadows.

"Wow! Someone was able to cut you!" cried Iizuka in astonishment.

"It's nothing. I'm fine," said Himura shortly.

"But he must have been very skilled if he was able to cut the great Battousai," persisted Iizuka.

"No. His skill was nothing, but his will to live was... incredible," said Himura. "Iizuka, clean this up please."

"Uh, sure," mumbled Iizuka as he put a folded paper with the kanji Tenchuu or Divine Justice on Shigekura's body.

Himura turned his back on the carnage and strode off into the night.

"May you find happiness in the next world," Himura murmured as he walked away.

"Huh? You say something?" asked Iizuka.

"No. Nothing," said Himura with an edge of finality in his voice as he walked away.

As he left, Himura's sharp ears picked up parts of the conversation between the observers.

"Strong will to live. Hm! I guess a highly skilled swordsman would be able to tell that just by crossing swords with someone."

"Yeah. Maybe he could tell that, but he killed them all without even blinking."

"He truly is a hitokiri."

Himura shut out the rest of the conversation as he distanced himself from his comrades.


Kohagiya

The few Patriots up at this late hour moved well out of the way of the hitokiri who walked in through the side door of the inn. As they noticed the fresh cut on his left cheek, whispers wafted into the air. They wondered who would be skilled enough to touch the fearsome assassin.

Battousai, for his part, ignored the whispers. Though it was annoying, he was used to people staring surreptitiously and whispering behind his back. He headed straight down the hall to the storage room without acknowledging anyone's presence.

Once in the solitude of the room, Battousai grabbed a roll of bandages and a basin full of water. Hesitantly, he looked into the water and, for the first time in a year, beheld his reflection. The face that stared back at him was that of a stranger, eyes flat and pinned, features pale and sharp. The bloody vertical slash only added to the otherness of the face in the watery mirror. Shaking himself out of his reverie, Battousai set to work on the new wound.

After wiping the excess blood away from his cheek with a cloth, Battousai applied a bandage that would probably have to stay on for the next few days. Finished, Battousai looked his work over. It would be obvious to whomever saw him that he had been cut in battle. But it didn't matter. He had finished his assignment successfully and didn't give a damn what others thought! Satisfied, he plunged his hands into the water to perform his nightly cleansing ritual, or mizugori.

Plunge and scrub. Plunge and scrub. Over and over again, Battousai subjected his hands to this abuse until one could be certain he had scrubbed off the entire top layer of his skin. Only then did he pick up the basin to empty and clean out before retreating to his room to settle in for the remainder of the night.

Once in his room, Battousai slid the fusuma shut behind him. With a sigh, he pulled his katana out of his obi and sat down in the window seat with the sword propped against his left shoulder. One of the few things the assassin took pleasure in anymore was gazing at the night sky, where the stars seemed to stretch into infinity. When he looked up at them, Himura felt lost and insignificant and was distracted from the cold numbness that had seeped into his heart in the past year.

Tonight though, Kiyosato's dying face kept flashing into his vision. Never had Battousai run into anyone with such an incredible desire to live, save for his old master. No one had come that close to challenging him, much less being able injure him. Unconsciously, Battousai touched the bandaged wound.

Finally, the need for sleep grew too great to ignore. Shutting his eyes and lowering his head, Himura Battousai fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.


Over the next month, Battousai continued his bloody career. Day after day, Iizuka would approach Battousai, face solemn and hand to him the hated black envelope. Night after night, the hitokiri would prowl the back alleys of Kyoto until he found his quarry. Then it was only a matter of attacking and dispatching them.

Blood rained on the Kyoto nights. It was Divine Justice, over and over again.


After returning from his latest assassination, Battousai was at the basin, scrubbing his hands vigorously, but was unable to rid them of the viscous feeling of blood, nor could he rid his olfactory sense of the coppery tang of the life sustaining fluid.

'The stench of blood soaks everything,' the young assassin thought bitterly.

"Hey, Battousai. There you are. C'mon! Katusura-sensei's waiting," came the unwelcome voice of Iizuka from the doorway.

Normally, Battousai would have flashed anyone who dared to intrude upon his private ablutions a death glare. However, at the mention of Katsura's name, Himura looked up with something akin to interest. It wasn't often that Katsura Kogoro paid a visit to the Kohagiya these days. Himura dried off his hands and followed Iizuka outside.

The two men made their way through the hallway to the courtyard, where Katsura was waiting. Once in the garden, they approached Katsura, who was standing with his huge ogre of a bodyguard Katagai and enjoying a cup of tea while awaiting Himura. Upon seeing his prize assassin, Katsura smiled pleasantly.

Himura thought Katsura's features were a bit more wizened than when he had last seen his leader a few months ago.

"It's been quite a while. Have you been doing well?" Katsura asked kindly.

"Yes. I've been "doing them" well," answered Himura sarcastically.

"Hey, hey!" chided Iizuka.

"Do you have an assignment for me tonight?" Himura asked, ignoring Iizuka.

"No, not an exactly assignment," answered Katsura.

"If there's no assignment, please don't call for me," replied Himura sharply.

"Hey!" yelped Iizuka, startled by the usually polite young man's boldness.

Undaunted, Himura persisted, remembering overhearing his name mentioned by the Bakufu supporters he had cut down a month before.

"I have killed almost 100 people in the past half year. No matter how carefully we hide, the Bakufu will become aware of our presence. It isn't a good idea for me to be near you right now. Their forces grow stronger by the day, especially the Wolves of Mibu."

"The Shinsengumi?" asked Katsura.

"I have yet to cross swords with them, but I fear they could be the strongest of all," answered Himura.

"I can't believe you're worried about a bunch of nobodies," sneered Katagai.

"I understand. We'll watch out for them," said Katsura with a smile, holding up his hand to stay Katagai.

"But is there an assignment?" asked Iizuka, wishing Katsura would get to the point already.

Though he didn't blink, Himura found himself getting irritated with this whole meeting and wanted nothing more than to retreat to the solitude of his room.

"Actually, tonight there's to be a secret meeting at an inn," explained Katsura. "Toshiwara and Miyabe-san will be attending."

"You need me to guard you?" asked Battousai.

"No," replied Katsura with a smile. "I would like you to attend the meeting with me."

"Ooooooo, congratulations! What an honor! You'll go down in history!" exclaimed Iizuka.

"I decline," said Himura simply.

A stunned silence descended upon his three superiors.

Seeing no point in prolonging the meeting, Himura turned on his heel and began to walk away from the men.

"I am your hitokiri and must stay in the shadows if I am to serve you. I've no interest in honors or going down in history. It will be enough for me if we can achieve an era where all can live in peace."

The words floated back to the three men on the wind even as Himura departed from the garden like a mist. They looked at the closed door the hitokiri had floated out of. Iizuka sighed and shook his head.

"It's no good. He's changed from all that killing. The damage is too much to be undone just by tossing him a bone," he said grimly.

"A bone?" growled Katagai. "Katsura-sensei was just..."

"Even if you change the words, the meaning is the same," replied Iizuka.

"Iizuka's right," said Katsura with a sigh. "But seeing him again told me one thing: Even if his personality has changed, his heart is still the same as when I met him a year ago. The change in his demeanor may just be due to his growing up. I know this for certain: His heart hasn't changed at all."

"That's good to hear," said Katagai with a smile.

'Because his heart is so pure, he's beginning to sense the huge gulf between his ideals and the reality of being a hitokiri. If he continues, his soul will be divided in two; one part will be his true self, the other, a ruthless killer,' Katsura thought as he gazed sadly at the door through which Himura had exited.


Battousai sat at a table in a bar, bottle and saucer in his hands. He poured the drink mechanically and swallowed it with a wince.

'These days, no matter what I drink, I taste only blood,' Battousai thought to himself with a grimace.

Though the taste was awful, the sake went straight to his head, fogging his brain and distracting him from the cold numbness in his heart. Through the fog, he faintly registered the sound of getta softly clacking across the floor and the shuffling of fabric as someone sat at the table directly behind him. His olfactory gland twitched, detecting the faint bouquet of white plum blossoms.

"Chilled sake, please," came a young girl's soft voice.

'I started drinking soon after I was wounded on the cheek. It always tasted pretty bad, but only recently has it started to taste of blood,' Battousai thought to himself as he poured yet another saucerful.

An image of his Master enjoying some sake briefly flitted into his consciousness.

'My Master taught me swordsmanship, but I taught myself how to drink.'

Battousai subconsciously registered the sounds of everything going on around him.

"Hey, woman!" came the deep voice of a large man from behind, accompanied by the sound of a sake bottle being set ungently on the table.

"Pour our drinks for us," came another male voice.

The girl didn't respond.

"We are the Ishin Shishi of Aizu! Every day we lay our lives on the line for you commoners! Pouring our drinks is the least you can do!"

"Aizu's on the Bakufu's side, moron!" someone responded.

"What did you say?!"

A silence descended on the bar.

Feeling anger at these idiots rising in his soul, Himura rose gracefully to his feet and turned to face them. He saw two men, one quite large and strong, the other small and wiry, standing over the young woman. In their hands were their wooden boxes that they wanted her to pour the contents of the sake bottle into.

The young woman sat rigidly and pointedly ignored the two interlopers.

"That's what I thought."

"Keep your peasant mouths shut."

"That was a close call for someone."

So that's what these two were: wannabe warriors who didn't even know the difference between the Bakufu and the Ishin Shishi, who just enjoyed bullying common people. Himura was just not in the mood for this.

"Yes, it was a close call. If you had drawn fully, you would have been facing me," the young assassin responded in a quiet, menacing tone.

"What?!" roared the big man, reaching to draw his sword and turning to face Battousai, who quickly reached out and blocked him from drawing fully.

"Let me give you some advice," said Battousai. "The violence will only worsen. Kyoto is no place for posers. If you want to survive, leave the city quickly."

At this, the other patrons felt a surge of boldness and started jeering the two men.

"Yeah! That's right!"

"Get out of here, you hypocrites!"

The two men hurried out, sliding the wooden door shut with a bang.

Realizing that he had drawn too much attention to himself, Battousai decided it was time for him to leave as well. He left some money on the table for the bar owner as an apology.

"Please pardon the commotion I caused," he said quietly as he left.


Himura made his way down the deserted streets, grievously troubled in his soul. As the Ishin Shishi's top assassin, it was imperative that he keep to the shadows for as long as possible. His rash actions tonight had drawn undue attention to him and could cause him trouble down the road.

'Now the sake tastes like fouled blood. Lowlifes like that would never have angered me this way before,' he thought.

Himura stopped and looked up at the stars. It was a clear, beautiful spring night. A memory of something his Master had once said to him came to mind.

'Master...'

Kenshin had been 13 and he and Hiko had been resting at the river after a hard day's training. The Master was, typically, drinking sake and prattling on about the virtues of the drink.

"Cherry blossoms in Spring. Stars in Summer. Full moon in Autumn. Snow in Winter. These are enough to make the sake taste good. If it tastes bad, it means there's something wrong in your heart. Someday, you will understand this, then I will pour sake for both of us," Hiko had said before pausing to take a drink.

At the time, young Kenshin hadn't quite understood what the Master had meant. With the passing of much time and the shedding of much blood, the meaning had finally become clear to the young assassin. Battousai closed his eyes.

'Something wrong in my heart. That could very well be. But saving people from suffering is the very purpose of Hiten Mitsurugi. It's already been a year since we argued and I left. Why did the Master try to stop me from leaving?'

With more questions than answers, Himura started forward again. He hadn't gotten more than five steps when the clang of swords and a blood curdling scream caused him to stop in his tracks. One of the men from the bar incident came running toward him, panic etched all over his features.

"Help! Help me! H---"

He was never able to finish his words, for a sword shot through his skull, splitting it in two and sending blood splattering everywhere. Himura looked and saw a warrior dressed in black with a mask over his mouth and nose to conceal his identity wielding two swords attached to each other by a chain at the base of their hilts.

'Shinsengumi?' Himura thought to himself as the warrior launched one of his swords.

As Himura blocked the first sword with his own, he realized what he was dealing with.

'No! Not a samurai. A shadow assassin like me.'

Then everything seemed to happen at once. The sword that Battousai had deflected stuck in the ground. The assassin leaped into the air, wrapping the chain between the swords around Himura's shoulders, binding his arms to his sides. Himura was now immobilized while the assassin stood on the roof. The black warrior leapt from the roof, the sword still in his possession pointed straight at Battousai.

Using his left hand, Battousai was able to grab at the length of chain between him and the sword in the ground and give a strong yank, freeing the sword from the ground. Himura grabbed the sword from the midair, successfully gripping its hilt.

"HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!" Himura roared as he raised the blade of the sword, cleaving the assassin above him in two even halves.

Blood sprayed everywhere as the two halves of the corpse hit the ground. As the chains fell away from his body, Himura felt a spike of ki behind him. Someone had seen! He glanced back and saw the young girl from the bar, her pink kimono and purple shawl now splattered with the ninja's blood, standing as still as a statue and staring at him with deep, jet black eyes.

'The girl from the bar. She saw! I can't let anyone know of my existence!' Battousai thought to himself as his heart hammered in his chest.

He gripped his katana.

"I followed you because I wanted to thank you for helping me," the girl spoke in a quiet, yet clear voice. "In kabuki, they say it rains blood at the battle scenes. You truly make blood rain."

Battousai stood unmoving as he gazed haplessly at her. He wasn't even aware of the assassin's sword slipping out of his left hand and falling with a clang to the ground. She had seen everything! In his year as an assassin, Battousai had never been caught in the act of his work. Now for the first time, he wrestled with himself. He couldn't leave witnesses, but the whole reason he had joined the Ishin Shishi had been to protect people like this girl!

'Should I kill her?'

Battousai was spared the painful decision when the girl's eyelids started to lower and her body to pitch forward. Realizing what was about to happen, Battousai lunged forward and caught her on his left arm.

'I'm not surprised she fainted; a natural response to seeing so much blood. I debated whether or not to silence her. But I knew... I couldn't. Now what shall I do? I can't leave a witness, nor can I leave a woman alone at night in Kyoto,' Battousai thought to himself, going over his options.

He realized there were none.

'I have no choice,' he thought, blushing as he hitched her into his arms and began carrying her bridal style.

As Himura walked along, the scent of the girl's perfume mingled with the stench of blood, knocking him a bit off balance.

'Perfume... white plum blossoms, I think,' he thought, feeling his eyelids growing heavy.

Battousai stopped and shook his head sharply, trying to shake off this dizziness.

'No! This isn't normal! The smell of blood and white plum blossoms must be making me dizzy.'


Battousai made his way quickly and quietly back to the Kohagiya, keeping to the back alleys and warily casting his senses out for any enemy presence. Thankfully, there were no further incidents and he made it back to the Kohagiya safely.

The okami looked up in startlement from the mending she was doing by the light of an andon as the hikido suddenly slid open and the young assassin came barging in, dripping blood on her clean floor and carrying what appeared to be an unconscious girl in his arms.

"Okami-san, I have an emergency. Please prepare a room at once!" Battousai demanded.

Moving with deliberate calm, Okami set her sewing aside, rose gracefully, approached Battousai and examined the girl in his arms. A heady scent of white plum blossoms mixed with sake and blood permeated the air.

"Well, Himura-san, you Choshuu boys certainly are a lively group. You kill all night and still make time to find yourself a whore," chided the landlady.

"Hurry up and get a room!" snapped Battousai, cheeks blazing crimson.

"I have no vacancies, absolutely no vacancies. This is an inn, not a whorehouse," said the landlady calmly. "Why don't you be a gentleman and take her to your room? I'll prepare a change of clothes and a hot bath."

Before Battousai could object, Okami turned her back on him and walked smartly off to heat up a bath and fetch clothes for the girl.


Battousai looked up as Okami slid the fusuma to his room open and motioned him over. In her arms, he saw the girl's bloodied clothes. In her hand was a sheathed dagger.

"I'm finished," she declared.

"Thank you," said Battousai.

"I found this on her," said Okami, handing the tanto to Battousai. "I'll let you decide what to do about it."

Without another word, the okami left to go wash the girl's clothes.

Battousai entered the room, sliding the panel shut behind him. He pulled his katana from his obi and sat down, glaring at the sleeping girl whose dagger he now held.

"Keh! Just a drunk," Battousai snarled to himself, resentful that he now had to share his private space with someone.

Well, that wouldn't last. First thing tomorrow, he was giving this girl a bento, some money and showing her the door!

Battousai kept thinking that over and over again, totally unaware that the still-lingering scent of white plum blossoms was seeping into his brain through his olfactory gland and making his eyelids heavier and heavier...


The screams of his victims, the sound of their bones being split, blood spraying everywhere.

"You truly make blood rain..."

Battousai's eyes snapped open and he jumped to his feet, clutching reflexively at his katana. His gaze darted wildly about the room and fell on the futon, now neatly folded away in its corner.

'I fell asleep?!' Battousai thought incredulously.

Not since his first assassination had Battousai permitted himself to sleep in front of others. This girl was having some sort of intoxicating effect on him. This would not do at all! In his line of work, any distractions could prove deadly. Battousai immediately jumped to his feet, sliding his katana into his obi as he went. He pounded down the stairs, keeping his eyes and ears peeled for the girl.

Battousai slid open the door to the kitchen just in time to see Okami handing a stack of hakuzen, laden with trays and pots of breakfast food, to the girl.

"Now, take these to the dining hall," instructed Okami.

"Yes, ma'am," said the girl, carefully holding the stacked trays in her arms, ignoring the slack-jawed assassin completely.

Upon seeing Himura standing there with his jaw hanging open, Okami smiled pleasantly at him.

"Ah, Himura-san. Your girlfriend has been a great help this morning," she said sweetly.

'My what?!' thought Himura.

Ignoring the Okami's polite, but pointed, teasing, Himura turned to face the girl.

"Um..." he started awkwardly.

"My name?" said the girl. "Tomoe."

After answering, Tomoe turned on her heel and began carrying the hakuzen down the corridor to the dining hall, with the young assassin following miserably behind her.

For his part, Himura was seething inside. He had planned to rid himself of this Tomoe girl first thing this morning, only to find that Okami-san had apparently hired her on as a maid! And since there was no more room in the maids' quarters, guess where she would still be sleeping! Things were definitely not going the way he had planned.

"So, Tomoe-san," he ventured as he followed her. "What are you doing?"

"Can't you see?" asked Tomoe without looking back.

"Helping out in the kitchen?" Battousai ventured.

"See? You already know," said Tomoe disdainfully.

"I need to talk to you," pressed Himura.

"I'm busy. Talk to me later," said Tomoe dismissively as she set down the trays, went down on her knees and began to slide the fusuma to the dining hall open.

"Excuse me, I've brought breakfast," she said as she finished sliding the panel open.

The reaction of the men inside was predictable. Their eyes ran up and down her, then they howled like a pack of wolves.

"Oooooooooooo!!!!!!!!"

"So this is Himura-kun's woman!"

"She's beautiful!"

"And classy!"

"But just as mean-looking as Himura!" the guys joked.

Himura was beside himself with embarrassment. Though his compatriots were a group of rough, good-natured men, they never spoke directly to him, except out of necessity. Now, they were teasing him as though he were some dumb kid, all because of this Tomoe girl! Himura felt his cheeks reddening and his right hand twitching to grab his katana, yank it from its sheath and threaten all the idiots in the room for teasing him about Tomoe-san.

"My name's Tomoe. It's nice to meet you," said Tomoe quietly as she started setting up the hakuzen.

"Hey! Stop that!" fumed Himura, truly put off by Tomoe's boldness in speaking directly to the men.

"What'r you actin' all embarrassed about, lover boy," teased Iizuka, sitting down by Battousai and fluffing his red hair.

"Iizuka," the assassin warned through clenched teeth, loathing the intimate touching.

"So, how was she?" asked Iizuka, grinning ear to ear.

CACHAK!

It took only that sound to silence the yammering in the room and send the men scattering away from Battousai's loosed, but not yet unsheathed, sword.

"Sorry! Sorry!" they cried.

Battousai glared at them.

"Almost forgot we're dealing with Battousai!"

"Yeah, one wrong joke and you're dead!"

Battousai gritted his teeth and shut his eyes, trying to tamp down his annoyance with the others for their inappropriate comments, and with himself for acting so rashly. They had only been teasing and it really hadn't been necessary for him to threaten them.

"What are you doing here?" he asked Iizuka testily. "Security must be tight during Katsura-san's stay."

Iizuka sweatdropped and pointed over to Katsura, who had been sitting there, watching the whole spectacle, all while calmly sipping his tea. Battousai yelped inwardly. How could he not have noticed Katsura-san's presence?!

"I had no idea the Ishin Shishi were so lax," he muttered.

"Even a great warrior should make time for love. I have Ikumatsu," said Katsura, taking a sip of his tea.

"May we speak seriously?" fumed Battousai.

"Frankly, I'd prefer it," agreed Katsura, rising to his feet.

Battousai followed his commander outside, grateful to get away from the teasing of the other men, and the annoying presence of Tomoe-san.


"Is this true?" asked Katsura as he stared incredulously at his young hitokiri.

"Yes, I was ambushed by an assassin of the Bakufu," answered Himura. "Information about Choshuu is being leaked, even about 'Battousai', once a carefully guarded secret. There is a traitor in our midst."

"Now it makes sense," mused Katsura. "Furutaka, who was supposed to attend our previous meeting, was captured by the Shinsengumi yesterday."

"Do you want me to guard you?" Himura offered.

"No. I'll be alright," Katsura answered. "I want you to be careful though."

Himura nodded and watched as Katsura walked away.

'Their prime target is the leader of the Ishin Shishi. The traitor must be found quickly. One mistake and history will take a terrible turn.'

With that in mind, Himura decided that he must immediately rid himself of all distractions, the chief of which was a certain girl with deep black eyes and heady scent of white plum blossoms. Himura went in search of Tomoe-san, who, now that breakfast was over, was likely to be found taking up space in his room once again.


Himura did indeed find Tomoe-san in his room, sitting at a hakuzen, taking her own breakfast of rice and fish. Wordlessly, Himura slid the fusuma shut, pulled his katana from his obi and sat down in his window seat. He then fixed Tomoe with his piercing gaze.

Tomoe took a few more leisurely bites before deigning to acknowledge the assassin's presence.

"Yes?" she asked, finally looking up at Himura.

"I want you to swear that you will forget everything you saw last night and leave immediately," said Himura, not mincing words.

He drew Tomoe's tanto from his kimono sleeve and laid it on the floor between them.

Tomoe's eyes widened a bit at the sight of her dagger, but she betrayed no other feeling.

"Does my presence bother you so much?" she inquired. "Okami-san seems to like me."

"Your family must be worried about you," Himura tried lamely.

"If I had a family to go home to, I wouldn't have been out alone at night, drinking sake," answered Tomoe disdainfully, as if that should have been abundantly obvious.

'This isn't going well...' Himura thought, feeling annoyance start to build up.

"I don't know what your situation is, but we can't take of you here," he said bluntly.

"Then will you get rid of me, like you did the black warrior last night?" Tomoe asked suddenly, an unusually passionate tone arising in her voice.

Himura bristled at this girl's ignorant insinuation. He sat up straight and glared down at her.

"You can think whatever you like of me, but I kill to bring about a new era where everyone can live in peace. I'm no wanton murderer. I only target warriors of the Bakufu who oppose us. I will never strike an unarmed civilian, enemy or not."

At this, Tomoe put down her chopsticks, picked her tanto off the floor and stood up, looking Himura directly in the eye, all demureness stripped away.

"So, bad people carry swords and good people don't?" she asked, holding up the sheathed dagger. "Then if I had been holding this blade last night, would you have..."

Himura's eyes widened as the full meaning of Tomoe-san's question hit home. What would he have done if she had been holding a blade last night?

"I... I don't..." he stammered, stopping when he realized that he couldn't decide what he would have done.

"Well," said Tomoe, tucking her tanto into her obi as she turned to leave, "When you arrive at an answer, please share it with me."

Tomoe turned and headed for the fusuma.

"Wait a minute? Does this mean you're staying?" Himura called out as Tomoe slid the door shut behind her.

"Damn it!" Battousai swore, putting his hand to his forehead.

'Am I going crazy, or regaining my sanity?'


Over the next two weeks, Himura avoided Tomoe as much as possible. Gradually, though Tomoe's presence was still quite discomforting to Himura, he learned to tolerate, or rather ignore her, which was easily enough done since he rarely saw her. Most nights, Himura was out, performing his duty for the Ishin Shishi and Tomoe slept in their shared room. During the day, Tomoe generally worked downstairs and Himura stayed holed up in the room.

On the odd occasion when they passed each other on the staircase, each would continue forward silently as if the other were not there.

Even as Himura avoided Tomoe, he couldn't shake her words from his mind. Would he have killed her that night if she had been holding a sword? As for the people he did kill, were they really all bad? When he had joined the Ishin Shishi, he had convinced himself that anyone he killed deserved to have divine justice cast on them, but now Tomoe's words gave him pause. If a man held a sword, he was fair game. If he didn't, he was off limits. But was being armed or unarmed really a good mark of whether or not someone was an enemy to be cut down? Could he have been wrong in thinking that all this time?

Although he didn't notice it, Himura's sword slashes were no longer as crisp and sure as they had once been. He was beginning to hold back just a bit. It was so tiny as not to be noticeable, but to the trained eye, it was indeed noticeable.


There were times when Himura couldn't avoid interacting with Tomoe, such as when she was ordered by Okami to sweep out his room.

Himura sat in his window seat, mulling things over.

'Then if I had been holding this blade last night, would you have...'

'That was two weeks ago,' Battousai thought to himself, frustrated that he was no closer to an answer now than he had been when this question had first been posited to him.

Just then the fusuma slid open and in came Tomoe, wearing a headscarf and carrying a broom.

"I'm going to sweep your room. Get out!" was all she said.

Himura glowered with annoyance at this girl's impertinence.

"I don't recall asking you to..."

"Okami-san asked me to," Tomoe replied as she started her sweeping.

Standing up to leave, Himura stopped when he saw a book he didn't recognize on the table in the midst of his other books.

"What's this book?" he murmured to himself.

Hearing him, Tomoe looked up from her sweeping.

"That's my diary. Please don't read it," she said.

"As if I would!" declared Himura.

Tomoe tucked the book into the folds of her kimono.

"Just to be safe," she said.

The fuming Himura left the room, sliding the fusuma closed with more force than necessary. He couldn't even get privacy in his own room anymore! As Himura stormed down the corridor, he heard the sound of tabi clad feet thumping over the wooden floor in order to catch up with him.

"Hey, Himura!" called Iizuka.

"Iizuka?" returned Himura, who really wasn't in the mood for company right now.

"Why the sour puss? You have a fight with Tomoe-chan?" Iizuka teased, easy-going grin spreading across his face.

CACHAK!

"Woah! Sorry! Sorry!" cried Iizuka as he quickly backed away from the loosened katana. "Man! What's eating you?"

"What do you want?" growled Himura, locking his katana back into its sheath.

Iizuka held up one of the hated black envelopes.

"Tonight. We're counting on you," he said seriously as he handed the envelope to Himura.

Himura felt the annoyance drain from his heart, only to be replaced by the cold numbness.


Himura was again doing his mizugori after returning from the assassination. Into the icy water he plunged his hands and scrubbed them furiously over and over again, all the while knowing it would do nothing to remove the feeling and scent of blood.

To his left, he heard the wooden door slide open. The scent of white plum blossoms told him who it was, standing in the door, staring at him.

"Will you go on killing people like this forever?" he heard her voice question him.

Himura didn't answer and she said nothing more.


The next day, rain poured hard on Kyoto's streets from fat, iron gray clouds. Seeking shelter from the rain under the roof of a tea shop were three men, all sitting with their backs to each other. Upon closer inspection, we see that these three men were in fact Katsura, Katagai and Iizuka. They had gathered here away from the inn, where they now had reason to believe they were being spied on. A common, out of the way tea shop was a safer place to meet and speak for the time being. Their meeting today was not about the war or the Bakufu, but about a certain girl with jet black eyes, purple shawl and constant scent of white plum blossoms.

"Her dialect, behavior and cooking are not those of a Kansai woman. She's literate and has beautiful handwriting, which leads me to believe she's the daughter of a samurai family in Kantou. But the name Yukishiro doesn't appear in any of the registries. I asked at the whore houses around here if any of them had a girl who smells of white plum blossoms and none of them does," said Iizuka quietly to the other two.

"If she's working as a spy, she might have changed her name," pointed out Katagai.

"There's been no sign of her trying to contact anyone outside the inn. I seriously doubt she's the mole. She was probably sold into prostitution when her family couldn't pay off some debt and drifted here on the trade routes," replied Iizuka.

"We're still learning about her, so it's too early to draw any conclusions. Has she had any effect on Himura?" asked Katsura.

"Not too bad an effect, but..." Iizuka stopped, wondering if he should mention this minute detail.

"But what?" persisted Katsura.

"It seems like the swings of Himura's blade have dulled somewhat," concluded Iizuka.

Katsura's eyes widened slightly. Any change in Himura's behavior was an object of great concern for him. Perhaps it was time for him to find out more about Tomoe for himself.


The next night, after retiring from her daily duties, Tomoe sat in her and Himura's room, sewing. Presently, she heard a soft knock at the fusuma. Who could it be at this late hour?

"Come in," she answered softly.

The door slid open to reveal the handsome samurai in black kimono and striped hakama whom she had last seen when she had served breakfast her first morning at the inn. What was his name? Katsura...

"Forgive me for intruding so late," he said in a dropped voice.

"If you're looking for Himura-san, he's out for the night," began Tomoe.

"I know. I'm Himura's commander and know all about his work," answered Katsura.

'Work is what you call it...' thought Tomoe.

"It's actually you I'm here to see. I was wondering if I might have a word with you," said Katsura.


Tomoe and Katsura sat facing each other, each with a bamboo teacup in front of them.

"Madness?" Tomoe echoed.

"That is the principal of Shouka Sonjuu, taught to me and Takasugi by our master, Yoshida Shoin, who was executed six years ago," explained Katsura. "He said that in order to destroy the Bakufu at the peak of its madness, we too must give ourselves over to mad justice so we can fight without hesitation for the New Era. Himura is the leader of this mad justice. His duty is the harshest of them."

‘You would give a child a sword to preserve your justice?’

"And what duty would you have me do?" asked Tomoe at length.

Katsura smiled sadly and sighed.

"I'm not asking you to do any duty. I just want you to understand what we're doing here," he replied, rising to his feet and exiting the room.

Tomoe sat quietly for a long while after the fusuma slid shut. At length, she sat at the desk, opened her diary and wrote down everything she and Katsura had discussed.

Meanwhile, in the storage room below, a young man with blood red hair and red blood on his hands scrubbed furiously.


The next evening, Tomoe was finishing with her sweeping in the kitchen. Presently, Okami approached her.

"You've been working hard all day, Tomoe-chan. After you finish sweeping, you can retire early if you'd like," said the landlady kindly.

"Thank you," said a grateful Tomoe.

Accordingly, after she had put away her broom and removed her headscarf, Tomoe made her way up the stairs to what she expected to be an empty room. To her surprise, when she slid the fusuma open, Himura was there, sitting in the window seat, sword propped on his shoulder, his head bowed.

Tomoe quickly realized this was one of Himura's rare nights off and he was catching up on much-needed sleep. She took the opportunity to study the young man up close.

Himura's face was completely relaxed in sleep, so different from the cold, tense visage he wore while awake. Seeing him asleep like this reminded Tomoe of just how young her fiance's killer really was.

'Mad justice,' she thought to herself, considering Katsura-san's words as she gazed at the sleeping boy before her. 'The leader of this mad justice. But when I see him sleeping like this, I realize he's just a child.'

An image of Akira's smiling face flashed into Tomoe's mind, darkening her thoughts.

'A child who kills...'

Shawl in hand, Tomoe leaned over to drape the garment around Himura's shoulders.

Suddenly there was a flash and flurry of movement followed by the unmistakable feeling of cold steel being pressed to her throat. Tomoe's heart stopped in her chest as she stared straight into the cold, feral eyes of a killer. In an instant the spell was broken as Himura's eyes widened, first in surprise, then in horror as he realized what he had almost done.

"Oh!"

Tomoe found herself being shoved harshly away from Himura's sword and almost toppled over to the floor. She looked on in a mixture of fascination and horror at the man who a mere second before had been on the verge of slicing her throat open and was now gasping for breath, sweat pouring down his brow in torrents.

"I'm sorry. After everything I said about not killing civilians, I... Please leave now, before I end up..."

In that instant, Tomoe realized that the madness of the justice Himura was fighting for was slowly consuming him, robbing him of his sanity with each life he took in the line of his duty. It was then that she decided what her duty was to be.

Himura never got to finish his sentence because Tomoe draped her shawl into his lap. He looked up at her with confusion mixing in with the fear and self-loathing in his eyes.

"I'll stay a while longer. You need a sheath to contain your madness now," Tomoe said quietly.

Himura hesitated for a mere second before grasping her shawl, the last lifeline tying him to the pier of sanity in a maelstrom of madness. In a small, shaky voice, so unlike the cold, clipped voice he usually used, Himura spoke to her.

"You asked me two weeks ago, would I have killed you if you had held a sword on the night we met. The answer is no. I would not have killed you. No matter what may happen, I will never kill you. Never... you..."


After that incident, Himura and Tomoe's relationship began to gradually change. The icy awkwardness between them thawed bit by bit. Now, when they met each other on the stairs, they would nod at each other briefly before continuing on their way. Himura would no longer object when Tomoe entered the room to sweep, but would graciously step out and wait for her to bid him enter again.

On the rare evenings when Himura didn't have an assignment, he and Tomoe would sit together silently, he reading and she sewing, or he looking after his sword and she writing in her diary.

One night, about three weeks after the sword incident, Tomoe looked up from her book to the young man sitting against the wall and saw that Himura's chin was touching his chest, which rose and fell rhythmically as he breathed. For the first time since she had known him, Himura had actually fallen asleep in front of her of his own accord.


July 5, 1864

Gion Festival

Summer was in the fullness of its vigor, with blistering heat during the day and stifling humidity during the night. It was on a hot July night that Tomoe and Himura sat quietly together in their room, Tomoe sewing and Himura sleeping, the lambent flame in the andon casting dancing shadows on the walls.

The peace of the atmosphere was disrupted when the fusuma slid open to reveal Iizuka, usual easy-going smile on his face.

"Hey, Himura," he said casually. "Let's go to the festival, then we can hit the brothels and..."

"Please be quiet," said Tomoe, holding her finger to her lips. "Himura-san is sleeping."

Iizuka stared at Himura with a dumbfounded look on his face before sliding the fusuma shut and retreating outside.

Tomoe returned to her sewing.

Quite the next moment, Tomoe heard a slight shuffling and saw that Himura's eyes had snapped open.

"What is it? Iizuka was just..."

Suddenly, the fusuma was slid open with enough force to almost knock it off its track. This time, Katagai stood in the doorway.

"Himura!" he shouted, panic and desperation etched on his face and evident in his voice.

Himura was already on his feet.

"Katagai-san, why are you here?" Himura inquired. "You're supposed to be guarding Katsura-san at the meeting."

"The Ikedaya was raided by the Shinsengumi!" Katagai shouted, seemingly on the verge of hysterics as he finally realized that the Shinsengumi weren't a bunch of nobodies after all.

"So our information is being leaked out!" cried Iizuka.

"What about Katsura-san?!" cried Himura, almost frantic with worry for his leader.

"Katsura-san was running early so he took a nap at Tsushima Clan headquarters, but Yoshida-san, Miyabe-sensei and the others..." choked Katagai.

Eyes glittering with fury and lips curled back in a snarl, Himura grabbed his katana and lunged forward, only to be held back by Iizuka.

"No! Himura!" shouted Iizuka, blocking Battousai's exit with his arm. "It's too late! Even if you go charging down there, you'll never make it in time."

"There are 3,000 Bakufu soldiers heading this way. Attacking now will only hurt Choshuu!" agreed Katagai tearfully.


Wearing a large straw hat to conceal his startling red hair, Himura Battousai stood in the crowd as he watched the Shinsengumi march proudly through the street, their blue and white mountain pattern haori still covered in the blood of last night's raid on the Ikedaya.

'The Shinsengumi,' Himura thought. 'These men are the greatest threat to the Ishin Shishi.'

Suddenly, Himura felt his kenki spike. One of the men in the group was an exceptional swordsman, close, or even equal to, his own level of skill. Himura's eyes traveled to the front and locked with a pair of glittering amber eyes that might have belonged to a wolf. The man, obviously a high ranking officer, grinned ferally at Battousai before turning and marching off with his compatriots.

'He and I are destined to meet again,' Battousai thought to himself, lowering his hat to further conceal his face.


July 18, 1864

Even with Himura Battousai fighting on their side, the Ishin Shishi were routed by the Bakufu in a battle that lasted barely a day. The Bakufu lost only 60 men compared to the Patriots' 400.

A group of rogue Patriots set Kyoto ablaze as they retreated in a last ditch effort to kidnap the Emperor in the confusion and take him to Hagi to move the capital. Their effort was a failure, ending only with Kyoto burning to the ground and all the Patriots being declared enemies of the Emperor.

In the chaos, the Kohagiya went up in flames, forcing Battousai, Tomoe, Okami, Iizuka, Katagai and Katsura to evacuate.


"The real objective of the Ikedaya meeting was to set Kyoto ablaze and take the Emperor in the confusion. You were the only one who was opposed to such an atrocity and the only one to survive the attack. Katagai-san says it's the will of the heavens that you survived," commented Himura, looking down into the little gully where Katsura was leaning up against one of the pillars of the Nijo bridge, under which flowed the Kamogawa.

The Katsura Kogoro hiding under the bridge was a completely different being from the Katsura-san Battousai had always looked up to. Gone was the proud, dignified leader who had always worn his finest clothes and kept his hair immaculately pulled back in a top knot. In his place was a broken man, barefoot, clad in a straw mino, and covered in the dust and ashes of his dream.

"But look at me now. Choshuu's Kyoto faction has been destroyed. We are being pursued as enemies of the Emperor. The conservatives are gaining power in Hagi due to the reversal in our province's government. I'll have to go into hiding for a while. I can't return to Hagi, but if I stay here, I will be caught," mourned Katsura.

"What should I do? The Kohagiya has been burnt down," asked Himura.

"I'll have someone prepare a farmhouse in Otsu for you. You'll hide there until we decide our next move. I'll contact you through Iizuka," said Katsura, slowly standing up to leave. "Tomoe-kun?"

"Yes?" asked Tomoe, clutching her diary in her arms.

"If you've nowhere else to go, I'd like you to live there with Himura. A young couple will blend in more easily than a single young man. The arrangement can be entirely for appearance. Please, take care... of Himura," said Katsura's sad voice.

Tomoe and Himura watched as the once regal leader of Choshuu shuffled away into an incognito existence that would end who knew when.

"Now what shall we do? I've nowhere to go," said Tomoe.

"Everyone has somewhere to go. If you need traveling money, I will give you some," offered Himura.

A pause.

Himura sighed.

"I know. That's the coward's way out," he said, lifting his violet eyes to communicate with Tomoe's black ones.

Silence descended between them for a moment as their gazes communicated.

"Stay with me. I don't know how long we can be together, but I don't want it to be just for appearance. I want to be with you until death parts us," said Himura, his eyes lit by unaccustomed warmth.

With no further words between them, the young swordsman and the woman whose life he had saved and who was saving his sanity, watched the giant red sun slip into the western horizon and the stars wink on their lights, one by one.


Under cover of night, Himura Kenshin and Yukishiro Tomoe made their way down the road. Their only possessions were the packs and bento they carried over their shoulders, Himura's daisho and Tomoe's diary and tanto. They moved quickly, stopping neither to rest nor eat, until they came upon a small Shinto shrine a few yards back off the road side.

Kenshin turned his gaze to Tomoe, then over to the shrine. Tomoe nodded and the two entered the shrine and politely accosted the attending priest.

With the young couple kneeling before him, the priest performed the wedding rights in a very hasty ceremony. The young man and woman quietly exchanged vows, each taking three sips of sake from a saucer. This done, the priest hastily drafted and signed a marriage certificate bearing both their names: Himura Kenshin and Tomoe.

Before the ink was completely dry, Kenshin rolled up the certificate, left four gold coins for the priest and led his new bride out into the night air to continue their journey. Their marriage was, if not properly celebrated, at least official.


Otsu

There it was up ahead! A tiny wooden farmhouse with a thatch roof! It didn't look very different from the house Kenshin had spent the first nine years of his life in. Kenshin felt an unaccustomed pang of nostalgia grip his heart for just a second, but quickly tamped it down, for there was much to be done.

To Tomoe, who had been used to living in a regular house in Edo and being attended by servants, this seemed a positively barbaric way to live. However, she said nothing and instead went to work, sweeping out the house and making it ready for the furniture.

Kenshin and Tomoe spent the day moving in furniture that had been provided for them by the clan and generally setting up housekeeping. Kenshin also found that they had been left with a supply of herbs, mortar and pestle, etc. to sell as medicine as part of their cover.

Finished setting up the furniture, Kenshin slid his katana and wakizashi from their customary place on his left hip. With mixed feelings of relief and anxiety, if it were possible to have both at once, he set the sheathed blades into a box, which he shut and then hid at the back of the bottom drawer of the bureau. An apothecary had no need for swords.

Kenshin then got to work, grinding the herbs and bagging them to start selling to the nearby villagers whose houses they had passed.

While arranging her diary on her low writing desk, Tomoe watched Himura out of the corner of her eye. She wondered how the change of environment would affect the young man who was used to carrying swords and watching over his shoulder, even among his compatriots.


It had been a good day! Himura Kenshin had taken his pack of medicine into the village to sell. After only three hours, all his herbs had been sold and his money bag was full and heavy. Kenshin's heart sang in his chest as he made his way back to the farmhouse from town. The vault of blue sky arching over him and the green of the grass beneath his feet caused Kenshin to pause on his journey and just take everything in.

As he looked around him at the open field, lined by trees with huge mountains in the background, Kenshin felt something in his heart, long dormant, begin to stir. It had been over a year since he had left the countryside for the big city. To now be back in a place so similar to where he had grown up, reached deep into the cockles of his heart and warmed them. Without even realizing it, Kenshin was smiling up at the sun, down at the flowers and all around him at the grass and the trees.

As Kenshin made his way down the path with his full money bag in his sleeve, he became aware of several presences surrounding him. His left hand reflexively reached for his katana, only to meet with empty air. Kenshin swore inwardly, remembering that his daisho was tucked away in the bureau.

Much to Kenshin's relief, from the bushes and trees emerged, not Shinsengumi or ninja assassins, but five children: two boys and three girls, each one clutching some kind of toy.

One of the boys had a brush haircut, the other black hair pulled back in a short messy ponytail. The boy with the brush haircut smiled a broad, gap-tooth grin at Kenshin.

"Hi! You're the new herbalist, aren'tcha?" he asked.

A small smile found its way to Kenshin's lips.

"That's right," he said softly. "My name is... Kenshin."

"I'm Gen. Good to know ya!" said the kid.

He then gestured to the boy with the messy ponytail.

"This is Somaku. And these dumb girls..."

WHACK!

Gen didn't get to finish his sentence as one of the girls' sandals made communication with his head, bowling him over.

"My name's Ayaka," said the girl, bending over to get her sandal.

"My name's Chiharu," piped up one of the other girls, this one with shoulder length brown hair and a striped kimono. "And this is Emiko."

This reference to the last little girl, who peered at Kenshin with wide eyes, but said nothing.

"It's nice to meet all of you," said Kenshin, bowing from the waist.

"Likewise," said the five children together, returning the bow.

"Wanna fly kites with us?" asked Somaku, holding up his kite.

"Well," said Kenshin, glancing up at the sun.

He knew he should get home soon, but the sun was at its zenith, so there was time. He set his shoulder pack down.

"Alright!"

"Yeah!" the kids yelled.

The five kids took off running, each grabbing their own kite and Kenshin followed them, easily keeping pace. Kenshin, who had never flown a kite in his childhood, learned quickly and easily under Gen and Somaku's tutelage. Soon, he was racing up and down the field with the kids, kite borrowed from Somaku flying majestically in the sky.

After kites, they bounced a shiny red ball around, each catching it as it bounced up from the ground, then bouncing it to the other.

Eventually, the boys tired of catch and insisted on teaching Kenshin how to play dueling tops. Each would shoot a spin top at the other, trying to knock the other's top over. Whose ever top remained spinning upright was the winner.

Kenshin stayed out playing with the kids much longer than he had anticipated. When he finally looked up from his latest victory in dueling tops, he realized that the sun was about to slip below the tree line. In a hurry, he rose to his feet.

"I've had a great time playing with all of you, but now I must be going. My wife is waiting for me at home," he said with a bow.

"Aw!" said Somaku.

Gen, nothing daunted, smiled his gap tooth smile at Kenshin.

"See ya round!" he said happily.

"Bye!" said Chiharu.

"Let's play again tomorrow," said Ayaka.

"I'd like that too," added Emiko quietly.

"I live in the farmhouse with the persimmon tree next to it," offered Kenshin.

"I know right where that is!" exclaimed Gen. "We'll be there tomorrow!"

"See you then," said Kenshin with a smile and a wave goodbye.


Kenshin hurried home and made it back to the farmhouse just as the sun slipped below the mountain line, leaving a pink swathe in its wake.

"I'm home," he said softly as he entered the house.

"It's a bit late," replied Tomoe.

"I apologize. I met some of the village children and lost track of the time playing with them," explained Kenshin, stepping out of his sandals.

"I see," was all Tomoe said. "Dinner is ready."

"It looks good," said Kenshin, sitting down as Tomoe began ladling out the food.

"Thank you for the food," the young couple said quietly in unison before tucking into their meal.

As they ate their meal of fish and vegetables, Tomoe felt that something was missing. The fish tasted rather flat.

"I'm sorry," she said presently.

"Hm?" asked Kenshin, looking up from his meal.

"I have no daikon to season the fish," Tomoe explained.

"I don't mind," Kenshin answered.

"The fish tastes flat without it," Tomoe said before falling silent again.

Kenshin blinked, then continued with his meal.


CHOP!

The down slash of Battousai's sword easily cleaved the man's body in two.

CHOP!

Battousai sliced the black ninja in half with the ninja's own sword.

CHOP!

Battousai's sword split Ishiji's skull in two and he was charging down his next target, leaping into the air and finishing off Shigekura with his Ryu Tsui Sen Zan.

CHOP!

Battousai charged through a group of Bakufu warriors, slashing and thrusting through them as though they were paper instead of men.

Ignoring the grisly memories, Kenshin chopped slowly and steadily along.

Presently, the sound of the wooden door sliding open and shut from behind caught his attention. Kenshin stuck the ax in the stump, stood up and pulled his kimono sleeves loose from their tie. He then turned to face Tomoe, who stood silently watching him.

"I'm sorry to have kept you waiting," she said softly.

"It's such a beautiful day. The firewood will dry out nicely," was all Kenshin replied.

He then turned and began walking with Tomoe following behind him, hands folded demurely.

Kenshin and Tomoe made a day of it in the countryside. When they climbed the rocks, Kenshin helped Tomoe since she was wearing geta and a kimono, which constricted her legs' range of motion. When they arrived at a statue of Buddha with a small shrine in front of it, Tomoe lowered her head in prayer while Kenshin stared at the huge stone edifice.

The couple made their way to Lake Biwa and stood in front of the huge body of water, watching as the sun's light glinted on the waves. Kenshin and Tomoe stared at the huge red tori that some Shinto priests had built in the water long ago.

Kenshin took Tomoe by the vendors' stands in Otsu. They checked the prices on various items, such as fish, but Kenshin decided it was better to fish for them and save money. Just then, something caught his eye in one of the vendors' stands.

"Wait here," he told Tomoe.

When Kenshin returned, he held a disk wrapped in a cloth out to Tomoe, who accepted it silently and clutched it to her breast.

The two made their way silently back to the farmhouse in the dying sun's crimson light. Tomoe was glad when the house appeared, for she was exhausted from having been on her feet all day.

Once they were inside, she unwrapped Kenshin's package to find a mirror. Tomoe looked at her reflection in the glass for a few moments, tracing her finger vertically over her left cheek.

After a delicious dinner of hiyashi chuka, Tomoe and Kenshin drank sake, which Tomoe had warmed over the fire pit.

"It tastes good," said a surprised Kenshin.

"I'm glad to hear that," Tomoe replied as she tasted her own drink, which tasted rather flat to her.


After recording her thoughts on the day's events, Tomoe closed her diary and tucked it away in its drawer. She then picked up the candle and approached her laid out futon. The futon beside it was empty, Kenshin still unable to let himself relax enough to sleep supine, even out in the middle of nowhere. Instead, he sat up against the wall, katana propped against his shoulder.

Tomoe knelt down next to Kenshin, setting down her candle softly. She surveyed his sleeping features. His face was completely relaxed, thanks in part to the sake, which still lingered on his breath. She felt the familiar light weight of her dagger resting in her obi. It would be so easy to pull it out and plunge it into the assassin's heart while he slept. Even if he had his sword, the sake would have dulled his reflexes to the point where by the time he awakened, the dagger would be thrust through his sternum and his fate sealed. Tomoe sat motionless for what seemed like an eternity. There her fiance's murderer was, reflexes dulled, vulnerable in sleep. Why wasn't she reaching into her obi and pulling out her dagger to avenge Akira? As suddenly as the impulse had arisen, it dissipated, leaving her mind spent.

Tomoe shrugged her haori off her shoulders and draped it carefully over Kenshin's. She then fetched the blanket from Kenshin's futon and draped it over his legs. Through this, Kenshin never stirred. This was not lost on Tomoe as she leaned back on her heels to survey the young man as he slept.

She wondered if he would ever be able to bring himself to sleep in a futon.


"Let's plant some crops," Kenshin suggested on a sunny day as he and Tomoe stood outside, surveying their land. "I helped my father and brothers to farm when I was a boy. I should be able to do it myself. Maybe we could even grow some daikon."

Tomoe's eyes widened. The assassin had once been a farmer? Who knew?

Kenshin and Tomoe broke into the long-fallow ground with their hoes. Churning the soil was easy enough for Kenshin, but Tomoe, who was only used to light work such as sweeping, found herself breaking a sweat and breathing hard. If her peers back in Edo could see her now, they would laugh her to scorn!

After churning the soil, it was time to drop in seeds. Kenshin and Tomoe each took a row, dropping in a seed every few feet so the seedlings would have room to grow.

When they finished, Kenshin surveyed the garden happily. It had been a long time since his hands had done something productive instead of destructive and it felt good!


In the evening, Kenshin ground more herbs to sell tomorrow. Tomoe sat at the window, working on a flower arrangement. A full moon blessed the sky outside and provided enough light for her to work by. Presently, Kenshin abandoned his herb grinding and joined her at the window to look up at the moon.

"I'd forgotten how beautiful the full moon is," he said softly.

Tomoe swallowed her sadness. Akira had loved the full moon too.

"I saw red dragonflies this evening," she responded. "I can't help wondering, how long will we be able to stay here?"

Kenshin tensed at this question, feeling unnerved at being reminded that this life could end at any time.

"Until Iizuka returns to take us back," he answered crisply.

The magic of the moment broken, Kenshin returned to his grinding and Tomoe to her flowers.


The next morning saw Kenshin standing outside the farmhouse, pack on his shoulder, as he patiently waited for Tomoe to finish getting dressed for their first foray into town as a couple. Did girls always take this long to get ready?

Inside the house, Tomoe sat before her mirror, combing out her hair before tying it back into its braid. She then dabbed some white plum blossom perfume on. Finished, she put the mirror back into the desk drawer, grasped her purse and stood up.

As she headed for the door, a thought struck her, causing her to stop. She reached into her obi, pulled out her tanto and gazed thoughtfully down at it. She and Kenshin were living as apothecaries now. Kenshin no longer carried his swords with him. If Kenshin didn't have his swords, did she really need her dagger?

Tomoe remembered back to when she had left Edo. It had been when spring was at its height, pink petals falling from trees that lined the walkway. She had carried with her just her purple shawl, journal and dagger. The journey from Edo to Kyoto had been an arduous one, Tomoe having to be clever and crafty to evade the government checkpoints that made it impossible for people to travel from one province to another without permission.

Now though, she was here and had found Akira's killer. She could have had revenge any time she wanted since Kenshin had come to trust her enough to sleep in her presence. And yet, she had never raised her dagger against him. The thought had certainly crossed her mind from time to time, but she had never found the will to act on it. Wanting to kill someone and actually going through with it were two very different things.

"If we're to make it back by sunset, we need to leave now! Are you ready yet?"

Kenshin's voice cut into Tomoe's thoughts, pulling her back to reality.

"Yes. I'm coming!" she called back softly.

Tomoe quickly made her way over to her bureau where all her clothes and possessions were stored and set the dagger down in the bottom drawer. If Kenshin could go to town without his swords, she could go without her dagger.

Tomoe joined Kenshin outside and the young couple walked silently into town to peddle their wares. Once there, Kenshin and Tomoe set up their sale and were immediately accosted by many townsfolk, all of whom seemed to have one malady or another. Once again, Kenshin was amazed when all the herbs were sold out and they found themselves with bulging bags of gold coins.


"The people believed we were really apothecaries," said Kenshin as he and Tomoe walked back to the farmhouse under the crimson light of the setting sun.

"Yes. We sold more medicine than I thought we would. I'm glad," was Tomoe's response.

Silence fell between them for a space.

"You didn't bring your dagger with you," Kenshin observed.

Tomoe's eyes widened and her lips parted. How could he possibly have known about that? Immediately, she recovered her composure.

"That's right. An apothecary's wife doesn't need to be armed," she responded.

"It's getting cool. Let's hurry home," was all Kenshin said in response.

The couple returned to their home, ate dinner and retired in silence.


Kenshin and Tomoe settled into their new life and created a daily pattern, from which they seldom deviated. They would awaken at the crack of dawn, put away their futons and eat breakfast. After breakfast, they would take the herbs Kenshin had ground the night before and walk into Otsu to sell medicines, or sell them to the people living in the area near them.

After a day selling medicines, they would walk home. Tomoe would cook dinner and Kenshin would play with the village children until Tomoe called out the door that dinner was ready. Kenshin and she would eat, drink sake and retire for the evening. Each night, he commented on the improving taste of the libation.

On days when they didn't go into Otsu, they would spend hours working in their garden or walking through the breathtaking countryside, sometimes stopping and chatting with the neighbors.


August, 1864

As she watched him work in the garden they shared, Tomoe still couldn't believe the new life she was leading with Himura Kenshin, known in the war as Hitokiri Battousai. True, it was a life in hiding while the Patriots were scattered after the Kinmon Battle, but out here in the country, it was a life of peace. Though they'd only been here for one month, Kenshin seemed like a different man. The same young man who had almost slit her throat with his katana back in May now hoed and raked peacefully in their vegetable garden. His features were so much more relaxed now, his eyes soft and gentle instead of hard and cold. Most importantly, he was beginning to smile and wasn't even aware of it.

'Am I really falling in love with him?' Tomoe asked herself.

It seemed so unfaithful to Akira's memory, to fall in love with his murderer. Yet, she couldn't help it. The Kenshin she saw before her wasn't a cold blooded killer by any stretch of the imagination. He loved playing with the village children and was always happy when he heard that someone had been healed by the medicines he and Tomoe made. That was not the disposition of a murderer.

More and more, Tomoe realized that Kenshin wasn't the monster she had thought he was, but a pawn. The monsters were those who used him for their own selfish ends. In Tomoe's eyes, Katsura Kogoro was the real monster, turning this young man with the gentle eyes and quiet voice into a cold killer. 

Sensing Tomoe's gaze, her husband looked up and smiled at her. Tomoe was almost able to return the smile. Almost... An image of Akira smiling gently at her as he bade her goodbye flashed into her mind. Tomoe wanted to smile, but the darkness in her heart weighed her lips into a perpetual frown. Perhaps one day, she would break those weights and return Kenshin's smile.


Kenshin and Tomoe made their way back from Otsu, laden with food they'd bought with the money Kenshin had made making medicines for the farmers. It felt wonderful to Kenshin to be able to spend money he had earned doing something aside from his usual job. Kenshin also proved quite the expert fisherman, coming home each time with no fewer than three large catfish that he had caught in the rice paddies.

That evening, Tomoe looked up briefly from her plate of fish, rice and daikon, to watch her husband eat. His appetite, which had been nearly non-existent in Kyoto, had spiked sharply since they had begun work on their garden. Though a very polite eater, Kenshin nevertheless ate with the appetite of a young boy. Tomoe couldn't help but smile slightly as she thought of a young boy with jet black hair and eyes like hers who had eaten the food she cooked with the same enthusiasm as Kenshin now showed. This young boy was back in Edo and no doubt in a great deal of distress over his sister's absence.

The thought of her little brother's distress erased the small smile from Tomoe's lips, replacing it with the customary frown. Should she have told him? No. If she had, he would have gone into a howling fit and clung to her kimono with an iron grip, making it even more difficult for her to leave.

"Tomoe?"

Kenshin's soft voice startled Tomoe from her reverie. She looked up into her husband's concerned eyes.

"Y-yes?" she asked.

"Are you alright?" inquired Kenshin.

"Yes. Thank you for asking," said Tomoe, hastily reaching for the sake and pouring it into Kenshin's saucer.


September, 1864

After Kenshin had retired on a rainy night, Tomoe sat down at her desk with only the andon lighting the room. Listening absently to the raindrops' staccato beat against the thatch roof, she slid open the drawer and pulled out her journal. She opened it and was startled when it flipped to a particular page: the page she had written on the day she had found out of Akira's death.

Tomoe gazed at the page as her mind turned back to that horrible day...

April 15, 1864

Tomoe sat in her room, staring mutely at the journal she had just hastily updated with the tragic news that Akira would not be returning next month after all, her entire being numb with shock.

Somehow, she was able to force herself to function when Akira's aunt proffered her a tanto, a gift from Akira's grieving parents.

"Take this, Tomoe-chan. Akira's parents want you to have it to remember him by," she said softly.

"Thank you very much," Tomoe said mechanically as she clutched the dagger and bowed to the older woman.

Tomoe remembered hearing the voices of the gossipy old women as they talked about the tragedy, thinking she didn't hear them.

"If only Akira had stayed, none of this would have happened."

"Why did he go to Kyoto in the first place?"

"To impress Tomoe because a second son wasn't good enough for her."

"That girl is so arrogant and insolent. She caused this tragedy!"

"Don't say that. This calamity has hurt Tomoe-chan more than anyone else."

"Tomoe?" came a small voice behind her.

Tomoe didn't respond.

Tabi clad feet crossed the wooden floor. She felt hands gripping her shoulders.

"Tomoe! Don't worry about what those gossipy old broads said! They're all stupid!" begged her little brother behind her.

Still, she couldn't respond, the women's voices playing over and over again in her head.

"Tomoe, please talk to me..." his voice came out in a strangled sob.

Tomoe felt the fabric of her kimono becoming wet as the boy sobbed into her shoulder. Still she couldn't bring herself to turn around, smile and soothe her little brother's fears. The only thing she could think about was what the women had said, that her silence was what had sent Akira to his death.

Over the next few days, Tomoe felt her grief turn into rage, directed both inwardly and outwardly, toward Akira's killer. That was when she had packed a few things and departed for Kyoto without so much as a goodbye for her distant father and distracted little brother. She would find Akira's murderer and make him pay!

The murderer she was now married to and sharing a home with! Away from the war and bloodshed, Kenshin's personality was almost identical to Akira's! Tomoe felt the tears slip from her eyes as she buried her face in her arms and sobbed silently.

"When you aren't killing people, you're so gentle," she murmured brokenly.


October, 1864

Kenshin reached into the ground and pulled each vegetable out by the roots and dropped it into the basket Tomoe held.

"What a great harvest!" he exclaimed jubilantly.

"Yes, it is," agreed Tomoe softly.

"I thought this was a crazy idea that was doomed to fail, but I guess my farming instincts are still intact," said Kenshin with a smile as he picked the last radish.

That night, the fish was seasoned deliciously with daikon from their garden.


November, 1864

Kenshin introduced Gen and Somaku to pretend swordsmanship, a game he had frequently seen the boys of his old village play as a child. He showed them how to pick long, sturdy branches and shave all the little protrusions from their surface and showed them the correct way to hold a sword.

Standing still with a single branch in his grip, Kenshin easily deflected both Gen and Somaku's pretend swings.

As the sun descended into the night sky, the village children came over to Kenshin and Tomoe's farmhouse and ate with them due to the huge excess of food they had. Gen and Somaku had a contest to see who could eat the most the fastest. The girls did their best to ignore the rude boys and eat in a ladylike manner the way Tomoe did. It was a lively meal in the usually silent little house.


December, 1864

On a bitterly cold December day, Himura Kenshin and Iizuka sat together by a currently fallow rice paddy. Kenshin was listening intently to the news of the capital that Iizuka was currently relaying to him as he smoked his pipe.

"The cavalry battle of four provinces took place in August. Then in October, the government began purging the populist movements. We'd barely evaded the first Bakufu suppression when rumors of a second attempt reached us. Then on the 18th of this month, Takasugi got pissed off and led the Kiheitai to take back Choshuu's government. Our province is in a state of total anarchy right now."

Kenshin digested the news silently. About the only good news was the fact that Takasugi-san was out of prison and fighting to reclaim Choshuu's government from the conservatives.

"Is there any word from Katsura-san?" he asked hopefully.

"Nothing," said Iizuka with a sad shake of his head. "No one knows what's become of him. Since he was the sole survivor of the raid on the Ikedaya, people have accused him of turning coward and running away. Maybe it's true. Choshuu is history."

With this joyful news, Iizuka tapped the last smoked tobacco out of his pipe.

"No," said Kenshin firmly. "Takasugi-san will win and Katsura-san will return. How are things in Kyoto?"

"Hm? Oh, terrible," answered Iizuka. "Kyoto is the Shinsengumi's stomping grounds right now. Patriots are being hunted down nightly by packs of wolves in light blue mountain pattern jackets. The Mimawarigumi and other Bakufu troops are competing with them. It's so different from before. The city is overflowing with blood. You should be careful too."

Kenshin shook his head and looked straight forward.

"Their first mission is to keep order in the city. The countryside is a very low priority for them," was his response. "Right now, the enemy I fear most is the one who strikes from the shadows of the Bakufu. Someone who would never be recorded in history unless they were caught. Someone like me, who could do anything."

At length, Iizuka grabbed his shoulder pack and banner and stood.

"All this bad news is depressing me. What about you? You don't seem depressed at all," he commented, noting the easy-going smile and softness of Himura's eyes, so unlike the coldness the hitokiri had always worn like a shroud back in the city.

"Why, it's because of you," said Kenshin with a smile.

"I didn't expect to find you so content. I thought you'd be restless way out here in the country after being a hitokiri."

Kenshin rose gracefully to his feet, grasping his basket. He looked down at the rice paddies, his expression full of thought as he pondered what Iizuka had said.

"Not at all," he said at length. "I love kenjutsu, but not killing. And these past five months have been anything but boring; so many eye-opening moments."

Iizuka's eyebrows shot up. Himura had definitely changed since coming out to the quiet life of Otsu. This was a welcome surprise.

"Even so, I hope this quiet life hasn't caused your skills to wither," he commented.

Kenshin was about to answer when they were interrupted by the approach of two farmers.

"Oh, it's the apothecary," said one of them. "Are you gathering stock again? It must be tough to come so far out here."

"Yes, but they say in Kyoto that the ointment that Kenshin-san makes for sword wounds works wonders," said Iizuka.

With this, Kenshin and Iizuka went their separate ways, Iizuka back to Kyoto and Kenshin back to the small farmhouse that he had shared with Tomoe since the summer. As he walked, he took in the beauty of the open space about him, so much like the beauty he had grown up in as a child and trained in as a teenager.

Soon, Kenshin saw another one of the farmers.

"Ah, Kenshin-san! Good to see you!" called the farmer, raising his hand in greeting. "I've had an upset stomach since last night."

"I understand," said Kenshin with a smile. "I'll mix some medicine for you and you can come by later and pick it up."

Kenshin then saw two more men, evidently on their way to the mountains judging by the gear they carried on their backs.

"Been gathering herbs again?" asked one.

"You work very hard," commented the other.

"As do you. Please be careful in the mountains," answered Kenshin with a smile before continuing on.


As Kenshin trod the path that led to his and Tomoe's farmhouse, the familiar sounds of shouts and laughter reached his ears. Ahead of him, he saw the five children playing ball and having pretend sword fights. Standing awkwardly among them was Tomoe, trying her best to play with the kids, but clearly out of her element.

After a brief smile of amusement, Kenshin made his presence known.

"I'm home!" he called.

"Ooooooooo! Welcome back!!!!!!!!" the kids cried, chucking several projectiles at the hapless redhead.

"Where've you been?!"

All the eager questions washed over Kenshin like a river of gladness.

"I was out gathering herbs. Didn't Tomoe play with you?" he asked the laughing children.

"Well, yes, but... she's no fun at all. Too gloomy," answered Ayaka.

The youngest girl, Emiko, stood a bit away from the group, shuffling her feet nervously.

"What's wrong?" asked Kenshin.

"My dad doesn't think I should play with you anymore," Emiko answered. "He thinks you're strange."

"I see," said Kenshin with a sad smile.

"But my mom says you're a good man and that you take care of people," Emiko continued.

Kenshin's eyes scrunched up and his smile became wider than ever.

"I do my best," he said, patting Emiko on the head. "Well, I'll be home all day tomorrow. So, come over and play with everyone."

Emiko smiled, reassured by Kenshin-san's gentle smile, soft words and pat on the head.

"Now," continued Kenshin. "It's getting late, so you should all head home."

"OK! See you tomorrow!" called Gen over his shoulder for the group as they headed to their farmhouses.

"I'm sorry. It's hard for me to smile," said Tomoe, who had been silent up till then. "I love the children, but..."

"That's OK," laughed Kenshin, finding the whole thing amusing.

"I love their innocent smiles," Tomoe continued. "Especially since you are smiling so much now."

Kenshin stopped in his tracks and turned to look at Tomoe. He had never even noticed when the change had come upon him, but she had observed it all.

"Yes, you're right," he said quietly, face softening as he thought things over. "I've been through a lot of hardship in my life. I was born into the middle of a famine. My parents and brothers died of cholera when I was nine. By age ten, I was training relentlessly in Hiten Mitsurugi. Now, I'm a shadow hitokiri of Choshuu. Up until now, my experiences with people haven't given me much cause to smile. I trained in Hiten Mitsurugi and wielded a deadly blade, all so I could create an era where people could live happily and in peace. But to tell you the truth, until very recently, I didn't really know what peace and happiness were. Living with you in Otsu has shown me what I'm really fighting for and what I must keep fighting for."

Kenshin's features lit as he smiled anew.

"I know I'll have to fight again one day, but I hope we will be able to ring in the New Year peacefully," he said as he and Tomoe went inside to eat dinner.


Kyoto

A large man warmed himself over a brazier on the streets of Kyoto. Katagai sighed in frustration as he pondered the Isshin Shishi's recent losses and continued life in hiding.

'How much longer do we have to live in hiding like this? I hope Katsura-san returns soon,' he thought unhappily as he rubbed his hands together for warmth.

Katagai was distracted from his thoughts at the sight of Iizuka making his way through the crowd. Katagai stared incredulously at the man who was supposed to be spending the next day or two in Otsu.

'What's Iizuka doing here? He said he was going to spend the night with Himura. Something's wrong,' Katagai thought as he started following Iizuka, being careful to stay well back to keep from being caught.

Katagai followed Iizuka out of Kyoto, into Otsu, into the forest and then to an abandoned shrine at the base of Mount Hiei. He hid behind a tree until Iizuka had entered the building and shut the door behind him. Then he slowly approached the shrine.

'Something's definitely wrong. Choshuu has many hideouts, but I've never heard of this one,' Katagai thought as he peered inside through a gap between the wooden planks that made up the building's walls.

Inside the shrine, Iizuka sat on a mat surrounded by three fearsome looking ninjas, one with short black hair, one who was bald and finally one with long brown hair, a full beard and fierce eyes.

"Choshuu's finished. Katsura escaped, but I know where Battousai is. He's gone soft over the past six months. Now is the best time to attack him," Iizuka told the ninjas.

Sweat broke out on Katagai's brow and panic flowed through his veins. The mole had been among them all this time!

'Iizuka is the mole! We can't win in Kyoto without Himura! I have to warn him!' Katagai thought as he turned to make a beeline to Kenshin's home.

Katagai was never even able to set foot off the porch before a hand shot down from the roof and clamped over his face.

"Gah!"

This alerted the other ninjas in the shrine to Katagai's presence.

"Who's there?!" cried the black-haired ninja, Nakajou.

"You really should be on guard!" came a voice from the roof as a masked head peered down through the slatted window.

"Mumyoi?!" said Nakajou, going into action as soon as he saw Katagai, still being held still by Mumyoi's hand on his face. "Damn it! I'll kill him! Die!"

Nakajou fired a small dart from a miniature crossbow on his left wrist. The dart embedded itself in the base of Katagai's skull. Nakajou flicked his left arm back, pulling the arrow out by a string, killing Katagai instantly.

"That's a neat little toy," commented the balding ninja, Sumita.

"Yeah. It's called a baika chuzen. I got it from a friend, who loves shadow instruments," grinned Nakajou.

Iizuka knelt over Katagai's corpse grimly.

"This is Katsura's bodyguard. Someone will notice that he's gone missing very quickly," he commented.

"It was unavoidable," said the lead ninja, a man named Tatsumi. "We must move forward with our plan to kill Battousai. At the same time, we must be very careful when we fight him. Battousai was able to finish off Murakami and his chain sword in one blow."

"Meaning?" inquired Nakajou.

"Meaning, we will use the seed we planted six months ago. Enishi!"

At the call of his name, a small boy with spiky black hair, jet black eyes and a sullen and dirty face stepped out from behind a shoji.

"Your time has come. Go now!" commanded Tatsumi.


Otsu

The week had passed peacefully, the weather turning colder and colder. There was no doubt that soon, the first snowflakes would fly. Kenshin sold medicines and played with the village children while Tomoe silently kept house and cooked her and Kenshin's meals.

"I am Katsura Kogoro of Choshuu!" said Somaku, wielding a branch.

"And I am Takasugi Shinsaku!" announced Gen, also brandishing one.

Kenshin, holding a branch in each hand, sneered threateningly at the boys.

"Beware, you fools. I am Kondo Isami, the ogre leader of the Shinsengumi. My beloved blade, Kotetsu thirsts for blood tonight," he growled in his best mimicry of the feared Shinsengumi captain.

Gen and Somaku swung down their branches, which Kenshin effortlessly blocked with his.

"Yaaaaaah!!!!"

"Taaaaaaaaah!!!!"

As he played with the boys, Kenshin thanked the kami silently that these children could see kenjutsu as something fun to do, the way he once had, before it had been tainted for him.

Just then, the three girls, who were playing ball nearby, stopped and seemed to be staring at something. This caused Kenshin to stop his pretend sword fight and look where they were looking. Standing on the path that divided Kenshin and Tomoe's house from the neighboring houses was a boy, who looked to be about ten or 11, with spiky black hair, deep black eyes and a sour expression on his dirty face.

"Who's that?" asked Kenshin.

"I don't know. He's not from the village. Maybe he wants to play with us," suggested Chiharu.

"I'll go ask him!" said Somaku, always eager for new playmates.

Somaku ran over to the boy and spoke to him. The boy responded by bashing him upside the skull.

THWACK!

"Hey!" yelled Kenshin, dropping his branch and rushing to Somaku's aid.

"Enishi?" the boy stopped his tirade when he heard the familiar and longed for voice call to him. "Enishi, is that you?

"Tomoe!" he cried, whole face lighting up at the sight of his beloved sister.


In the farmhouse, Kenshin stood before Tomoe and Enishi, who stood defensively between them.

"This is my little brother, Enishi," Tomoe explained softly as she gripped Enishi's shoulders.

Enishi glared at Kenshin with open hostility, the reason for which Kenshin could only guess.

"Your brother... Now that you mention it, you have the same eyes," he said, reaching out to pat Enishi on the head.

Enishi responded by smacking Kenshin's hand aside and glaring at him.

Deciding it would be best to give the siblings some time alone, Kenshin excused himself.

"You two probably have a lot to catch up on. I'll play with the kids outside," he said.

Kenshin retreated outside with the children, including the still irate Somaku, who rubbed the bump on his head. Soon, the children were settled into playing ball and kenjutsu in one of the fallow fields. Kenshin sat down on the grass to watch them.

'So, Tomoe has a little brother. She's never mentioned him before. Then again, she's never really told me anything about herself,' he thought. 'But how did he know where to look for her? This is a safe house that no one but Katsura-san, Katagai-san and Iizuka are supposed to know about.'

Kenshin's gaze traveled to the closed door of the farmhouse.

'The only other person who knows about this place is Tomoe,' he thought ominously. 'But judging by her surprise at seeing him, it seems unlikely she was the one who told him.'

Kenshin's train of thought was disrupted by the children's calls.

"What's wrong?" called Chiharu.

"Aren't you gonna play with us?" asked Somaku.

"Ah! Sorry! Here I come," said Kenshin, scrunching up his eyes and smiling as he rose to play with the children.

Still, his thoughts remained on the Yukishiro siblings.

'No matter how I try, I can't make sense of it. I have a feeling though, that we may not be able to ring the new year in peacefully after all.'


Inside the farmhouse, Tomoe and Enishi sat facing each other, foreheads touching, Tomoe caressing Enishi’s face gently.

"It's been a long time," she said at last, sitting back and smiling tenderly at her little brother. "You surprised me, but I'm very glad to see you."

At this, Enishi closed his eyes and smiled widely, basking in his sister's love. How he had missed this!

"You must be hungry. If you'll wait a bit, I was just making dinner," Tomoe said, placing her hands on his shoulders.

Tomoe returned to the fire pit, where a pot of oden was simmering, and began stirring.

"How is Father? When did you leave Edo?" she asked as she stirred.

"Uh, he's alright, I guess," said Enishi indifferently. "I left Edo six months ago, right after you did."

Tomoe tensed at this. Something felt wrong to her.

"Enishi... where have you been staying?" she asked, turning to look at him. "And how did you know where I was? I haven't contacted anyone outside."

"You didn't need to, because I am the contact," said Enishi as his face twisted into a sneer. "Be glad, Tomoe. It's finally time to get revenge on that bastard Battousai!"

The wooden spoon dropped from Tomoe's hand and clattered on the floor.

"Enishi! Then, you're the..." she trailed off.

"You didn't know? The man said he'd already told you," said Enishi.

The man's words returned to Tomoe's mind with startling clarity.

"I don't care what method you use. Just get close to Battousai and study him. Watch him until you understand his every movement. Once you find his weakness, your goal and our victory will be accomplished. When the time comes and Battousai trusts you, I will send someone you know to fetch you."

Never had Tomoe dreamed that the someone would be her own little brother!

"Let's go, Tomoe! It's almost over!" Enishi cried exultantly, holding out his hand.

"Go back to Edo," Tomoe said softly.

"Huh?" asked Enishi, a look of shock crossing his face.

"You're the eldest son of the Yukishiro family. You mustn't taint the family name by getting involved in this mess," Tomoe explained.

"I don't care about the family name!" spat Enishi. "I just want to help you!"

"Go home, Enishi," commanded Tomoe, putting the iron into her voice and refusing to meet her brother's stricken gaze.

A heavy silence fell between the siblings as Enishi tried to make sense of his sister's senseless attitude toward him and the news he had thought she wanted to hear.

"What is it? What happened to you?" he said softly, fists clenching at his sides. "Why won't you come with me?"

Suddenly, the boy looked up, tears of frustration and confusion spilling from his eyes.

"Why are you protecting that bastard? He's your mortal enemy! He stole your happiness!" Enishi cried at the top of his lungs, unable to comprehend his sister's change of heart.

Tomoe couldn't bring herself to respond to, or even look at, her brother.


The sun was setting as Kenshin watched the children return to their homes before turning to go back to his own home.

"See you tomorrow!" called Somaku as he raced off after the other kids.

"OK. Take care!" called Kenshin.

After Somaku had disappeared into his house, Kenshin turned and started down the path toward his farmhouse, where he would dine with the Yukishiro siblings and hopefully learn a bit more about them.

"Hm?" Kenshin exclaimed when he saw what appeared to be Enishi walking up the path, head down, fists clenched at his sides.

"Where are you going? It's almost time for dinner," Kenshin asked.

Enishi shot Kenshin a glare of pure hatred, eyes pinned, teeth clenched, tears threatening to fall. Kenshin was taken aback. What cause had Enishi to be so irate with him?

"If only you... hadn't been there!" growled Enishi.

Before Kenshin could respond, Enishi broke away and dashed down the path. Kenshin watched Enishi go until the boy had disappeared from sight.


Kenshin slid the farmhouse door open.

"Hey, where's your brother going?" he asked.

A startled Tomoe slammed her diary shut and looked up at Kenshin with panic in her eyes, clutching the book to her chest.

What was going on here?

"What is it?" Kenshin asked as he sat down to remove his sandals.

"Um..." Tomoe began. "Enishi is going back to Edo."

"Edo?" Kenshin asked.

"You've probably been wondering about me," Tomoe said. "I've never said anything about myself, and being so polite, you've never asked. But perhaps it's time. Let's talk a little."

Before the conversation got under way, Tomoe set tea to steep for both of them. Hearing the wind beginning to rage outside, Kenshin slid the door open to look and saw white flakes of snow falling to the ground.

"Snow. This will be a long one," he murmured before sliding the door shut.

"My family is from Edo. My father is a retainer for the Bakufu. He's neither a skilled swordsman, nor an artist, but he is kind and hardworking. We were never rich, but we always lived happily. My mother was kind too, but her health was fragile. She died while giving birth to Enishi. He never knew her and I raised him in her place. To him, I am both sister and mother," explained Tomoe as she poured the tea for Kenshin. "Enishi is my darling brother, but he's very emotional and he can be a problem. When my engagement was announced, he threw the worst tantrum he had ever thrown."

Tomoe rose to her feet and approached Kenshin with the bamboo cup of tea.

"Here," she said, proffering the tea.

"My fiance was the second son of another samurai family. I had known him since we were little. Like my father, he wasn't skilled in swordsmanship or painting, but was kind and hard working. When he proposed to me, I was very happy. But, for all my joy, I couldn't smile at him. My heart is so dark that it's very hard for me to smile. Maybe that's why I never told him how happy I was," said Tomoe softly. "'If the second son of a samurai can't make you happy, I should at least be known as a strong warrior,' he told me. Then he postponed our wedding and joined the Mimawarigumi, entering the bloodshed in Kyoto. And... he never returned. I couldn't rest after I heard the news."

'So I came to Kyoto, and devoted myself to plotting your death.'

"He died in a distant place and my happiness died with him," said Tomoe, voice starting to break and tears welling in her eyes despite her best effort. "It was really my fault. If only I had cried and begged him to stay. The more I thought about it, the more I had to hate someone, anyone, or I would go insane."

Suddenly, she was pulled into a strong, but tender embrace.

"It's alright, Tomoe," Kenshin whispered. "I understand."

The gentleness of Kenshin's voice, the feeling of his strong embrace, the grief over Akira and her guilt at what she knew she was leading Kenshin into, all conspired to break down Tomoe's carefully constructed walls. She buried her face in Kenshin's shoulder and sobbed in abandon while he held her.


How long they stayed thus, neither could tell. At last, Tomoe's tears dried and her sobs died down. Tomoe realized that she felt much better than she had in a long time. She and Kenshin returned to the fire pit and wrapped up in a large blanket for warmth. Kenshin poked the fire with a stick to keep the flame going. At last, he spoke.

"A year and a half ago, wanting to protect the well-being of the nation's people with my sword, I quarrelled with my master and left him. I journeyed to Choshuu and allied myself with the Ishin Shishi under the alias Hitokiri Battousai. I wanted to end the chaos and create a peaceful new era. I believed my skill with Hiten Mitsurugi would help me to do this. But in reality, it wasn't that easy. I killed and killed, but the new era never seemed to get any closer. I had become nothing more than a heartless tool of murder. The stench of blood permeated everything."

Kenshin glanced at Tomoe and a small smile crossed his features.

"And then I met you. Your questions pierced the fog in my mind, allowing my sanity to return to me."

'I no longer smell blood, but the faint scent of white plum blossoms.'

"For the first time, I understand what happiness is. I can weigh this happiness and now I know that no matter how powerful his sword style is and no matter how skilled he is, no single man can change an era. No single man can bear the well-being of Mankind alone. All a man can do is protect those he sees before him," Kenshin concluded.

A pause and a deep sigh.

"However," Kenshin continued. "Until the war is over, I must continue to be the hitokiri who treads atop mountains of corpses. But when the new era truly comes, I want to find a way to protect people without killing and seek a way to make up for the terrible things I did as a hitokiri."

Kenshin turned his gaze to Tomoe.

"Tomoe?" he asked.

"Yes?" returned Tomoe.

"The happiness you lost once to this violence, I will protect from now on," Kenshin promised.

Tomoe's eyes widened and for the first time since he had met her, Kenshin saw her smile.

"Yes," she agreed happily.

No further words were necessary. Kenshin and Tomoe gazed quietly into the fire far into the night.


January 1, 1865

New Year's Day

As the light of a cold, crisp new years day peeked into the farmhouse, Tomoe rose from her place beside Kenshin in their futon. Their lovemaking had been tender and pleasurable. Silently, she wrote in her journal, then dressed, doused herself in her white plum blossom perfume and retrieved her dagger from the bureau. She cast a tender gaze at the redhaired man who still slept peacefully in the futon.

'This man stole my happiness,' she thought to herself as she made her way to the door, 'then gave me a new happiness in its place. He will kill again, but he will protect more people than he will kill. I can't let him die here.'

"Farewell to you, my second love," Tomoe whispered as she slid the door shut.


Tomoe made her way through the forest toward the shrine where she knew they would be waiting. She would tell them that she had changed her mind about wanting to kill Battousai and upbraid them for involving Enishi in this matter. Then she would return to Kenshin and confess everything. Hopefully, he would understand.

As Tomoe approached, Nakajou descended from the trees.

"She's a day and a half late. You should be thankful, kid. If she'd been any later, I'd have killed... Huh?" Nakajou looked around. "Hey, where's that brat?"

"I sent him to Battousai's house. I have overlooked nothing in our plan," said Tatsumi with a wicked grin. "Now, for this woman. What news does she have for us?"

Tomoe silently followed the Yaminobu back to their shrine. When they were in front of the shrine, the grilling began.

"Tell us your news," demanded Tatsumi.

"First, I must ask you one thing," said Tomoe. "Why did you involve Enishi in this?"

"The boy was running around Kyoto asking for his sister's whereabouts and an elder of the Shogunate sent him to me, just like when you were recruited," explained Tatsumi. "Tell us your news!"

Tomoe was silent.

"Tell us Battousai's weakness," demanded Sumita.

"You aren't going to tell us you don't know after you've been with him for six months?" asked Nakajou, fingering the baika chuzen on his left wrist.

"Well?" growled Tatsumi.

Tomoe knew it would be too risky to stall them anymore. She had to think of something to say quickly.

"Himura Battousai's weakness is..." she began.

'He's too kind to be a hitokiri.'

"Sleep," she continued. "Even the best swordsman can't defend himself while sleeping."

"I see," replied Tatsumi with a mysterious smirk. "Let me ask you another question: Is Battousai in love with you?"

Tomoe's eyes widened, her heart nearly stopping in her chest as panic started to grip her.

"Why do you ask me that? That has nothing to do with his weakness!" she said desperately.

"Oh, but it does. If Battousai is in love with you, then he will come after you. If we can lure him into this forest, the odds are stacked in our favor. I've already sent a messenger with our invitation. Battousai surely knows you're gone by now and is blazing with rage."

"No..." Tomoe's words caught in her throat. "Then you never needed me to learn his weakness. Your real goal was..."

"Rather than looking for a weakness that probably didn't exist, it was easier to use you to create one," sneered Tatsumi. "We aren't as stupid as you seem to think we are."

'Oh, Kami-sama! I've trapped him!' Tomoe thought to herself.

Making up her mind, Tomoe reached into her obi for her tanto.

'Then I can at least decrease the number of the enemy by...'

POW!

Tatsumi's fist connected with Tomoe's jaw, sending her flying.

"You think we didn't anticipate this? Sleep? Please! The twisted words from a young girl's weak heart!" the Yaminobu leader barked. "Nakajou, Sumita, Yatsume! Now is the time to show our dark arts! Come to our Binding Forest, Battousai!"

With that, Tatsumi sent his men off. He then stooped down to pick up Tomoe's tanto, which had fallen to the ground at his feet when he had hit her. Tatsumi then dragged Tomoe into the shrine and shut the door to await the arrival of Battousai, if he made it that far.


The wooden door snapped shut so hard that it made the house's timbers rattle. In the snow stood Himura Kenshin, no Himura Battousai, daisho at his side and a look of murder on his face. His right hand clutched the Yaminobu's "invitation", which he had found lying on the floor just inside the slatted window that morning. Crunching the offending document in his hand, Battousai started forward. How could they have gotten into the house and kidnapped Tomoe when he had been right there beside her? Perhaps Iizuka had been right about an idle life causing his skills to wither!

From behind a tree, Enishi watched the warrior walk toward the forest.

'He's moving,' the boy thought happily.

As soon as Battousai was out of the area, Enishi headed toward the farmhouse to fetch Tomoe.

'Let's go home, Tomoe. Let's go back to Edo!'


Battousai stood at the edge of the forest.

"This is it," he said to himself after confirming the directions on the paper, which having no more use for it, he discarded.

As Battousai entered the forest, he became aware of a discrepancy. Something was missing, as if the forest had gone silent in his mind.

'What is this feeling?' he thought as he looked around. 'Something's wrong. This forest feels strange somehow, as though I've lost one of my senses.'

SLASH!

A sharp, biting pain slid down Battousai's back before he could turn and jump away.

"Welcome to the Binding Forest, Battousai," announced Nakajou. "This no ordinary forest. It's a demon forest with a magnetic field far stronger than even the forests of Fuji. Your swordsman's intuition is useless to you here. The only ones who can use their sixth sense here are those who have trained here, we of the Yaminobu! Your back is to the wall!"

"So... what?" growled Battousai through clenched teeth.

Drawing his sword in lightning fast battoujutsu, Battousai lunged forward, sword arcing across Nakajou's chest.

Nakajou went flying backward and landed on his ass, blood spurting from the horizontal slash on his chest. The next thing he knew, Battousai's sandaled foot was grinding into the wound.

"Gah!" the shinobi cried.

"I will protect Tomoe's happiness. I vowed that last night! You and this place mean nothing to me! Anyone who gets in my way, I will kill!" Battousai snarled, eyes glittering with murderous rage. "Will you take me to Tomoe, or will you die? Choose quickly!"

Nakajou stared at the katana and the swordsman behind it.

'That was a killing blow,' the shinobi thought. 'If he'd pushed it one step further... No, he... Could it be?'

Nakajou grinned when he realized it.

"Then try this!" he barked, firing his baika chuzen at Battousai.

Battousai felt the sting as the dart buried its head in his right shoulder.

"I thought so! You didn't stop a step short!" gloated Nakajou. "As I thought, you misread your own movement. In this forest, you can't use your intuition. You're weak. You can't win!"

Nakajou's rant fell silent as he watched the young assassin reach up for the dart, grasp it, yank it out of his shoulder and toss it away as if it were nothing.

"I said... SO WHAT?!" roared Battousai.

Before Nakajou could react, Battousai had sliced off both the shinobi's forearms with his katana. Nakajou keeled over backward, pain radiating through his whole body.

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!" he screamed as blood spurted from the stumps where his arms had been moments before.

Battousai advanced on him, death written on his face. Overcome by panic, Nakajou jumped to his feet and ran.

By the time he came to the cave, Nakajou had lost so much blood, he felt like he was going to pass out. He didn't even get a chance to rest when he heard something behind him.

PLOP! PLOP!

Nakajou turned and saw his severed arms lying on the cave floor. Behind them stood Battousai, now entering the cave.

"You forgot these," said the assassin. "Tell me where Tomoe is, then I'll give you a quick death."

Nakajou knew he was defeated. Without his hands, there was no way he could fight Battousai.

"Leave the cave and go right," he said. "But it's not over yet! There are three of us left and even if you beat the last of us, we will still win! In the east, there is the Oniwabanshuu, in the west, there is the Yaminobu! We are ninja among ninja who will stand for nothing short of victory! Even in death, I will bind you!"

As he spoke these words, Nakajou grasped the end of a rope in his toes and gave a goodly yank.

KABOOM!!!!!!!

Kenshin ran, keeping just ahead of the blast. At the mouth of the cave, he leapt forward. Using his hand to stabilize himself, he skidded to a halt.

"Hm! Sore loser," Kenshin said to himself.

Then he realized something was wrong. He was hearing his voice mostly from inside his skull. He looked around and listened for the sounds of debris falling and settling from the explosion. Everything sounded... off.

"So that was his goal," Kenshin said as he grasped his ear. "That's what he meant when he said he would bind me."

'The noise of the explosion has harmed my hearing. I can still hear, but I can't tell from what direction the sounds are coming. I won't be able to rely on it for a while.'

"Your instinct and hearing. You've lost two of your six senses," a voice from behind Kenshin said.

Kenshin looked about, finally finding where the voice had come from. A huge ogre of a ninja stood among the trees with a large ax in his hands.

"Don't make me repeat myself," Battousai said. "So what?"

"Here I come," said Sumita.

The balding ninja raised his ax and charged, chopping at trees as he barreled forward. The chopped logs flew in Battousai's direction. Battousai flew into action, dodging and weaving among the flying logs.

"Even without my instinct and hearing, I can still see well enough to dodge these flying objects!" shouted Kenshin.

"That may well be," came a guttural voice from above. "But what happens when the objects themselves attack?"

Kenshin looked up and saw a strange creature with long claws, riding one of the flying logs.

The creature slashed at Kenshin with its claws.

Kenshin slashed the log in two with his katana.

The creature dodged the slash and landed in the branches of a nearby tree and grinned at Kenshin, displaying a mouth full of ominous looking fangs.

"Two against one," said Kenshin.

"Haaaaa!!!!!!" Sumita slashed again with his ax.

"Perfect. That will let me kill both of you at once," said Battousai.


Enishi slid the farmhouse door open and entered. The house was empty, the fire pit cold and dark.

"Huh? Tomoe? Sis?" he called. "That's weird. Where could she have gone?"

Then he realized something.

'Could she have gone into the forest?!' he thought in a panic.


"Hooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!" Battousai cried as he charged toward Sumita, dodging all his wooden projectiles.

No matter what was thrown at him, Battousai dodged it or sliced it in two and kept charging at Sumita.

"He's chosen to target one of us at a time," said Sumita. "When the first one's defeated. He'll go after the other."

"Just what we're hoping for!" shouted the creature, jumping from tree to tree. "Wide open above!"

Kenshin felt the creature's steel claws bite into his left shoulder. This distracted him from dodging and left him open to the huge log hurling toward him. Kenshin saw it too late to dodge and was hit full on in the jaw.

"Heh!" laughed the two ninjas, certain they had defeated Battousai.

They were wrong however. Battousai skidded back a few feet, but didn't fall down. Instead, the assassin lunged forward, targeting Sumita's legs with his katana.

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!"

SLASH! SLASH!

"Gaaaaaaaaaaaaah!!!!!!!" Sumita cried as he felt his legs being severed from under the knee.

Battousai's katana dug into the ground and became stuck. The assassin's body kept traveling to the right and smashed into a tree behind him. Kenshin internally cursed himself, remembering one of the first swordsmanship lessons he had been taught as a child: Never let go of your sword. Before he could rectify it, he felt the steel claws bite into his right shoulder.

"So stubborn," sneared the tree climbing creature. "I expected no less of Battousai. What a pity you dropped your sword."

"You're pissing me off," growled Battousai.

He yanked his wakizashi from its sheath and thrust it through the right hand embedded in his shoulder.

"GYAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!" cried the creature, long tongue protruding from its maw.

"Just stay put. I'll kill you in a minute," said Battousai, clutching his right shoulder as he stepped away to reclaim his katana.

The creature tried desperately to wrench the wakizashi out of its right hand, but the blade was stuck fast in the tree trunk.

"It won't come out. Damn you!" the creature growled.

It looked and realized that Battousai was staring right at it, taking in the form of its body: abnormally long arms and legs, giving it an arachnoid appearance.

"I see what you are. You scuttle around in the shadows and attack from unexpected places," said Battousai.

"You saw me?" said the creature.

Suddenly, it gave a mighty yank and pulled its right arm up, the blade of the wakizashi severing its hand in half.

"Guaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!"

"This body is the legacy of the Yatsume clan!" the creature cried as it launched itself into the air. "It is our law to kill anyone who sees our form! I will retreat for now, but I will kill you! In this era, or the next, I will kill you!"

From his place on the ground, Sumita saw the whole spectacle.

'He's strong! Too strong!' the ninja thought. 'Even now with his instinct and hearing gone! But he's fighting so recklessly. He couldn't have assassinated 100 people fighting like this. He's completely different from the Battousai we so carefully researched. What is he?!'

Battousai now turned his wrath on the legless ninja.

"The first one said there were three others. Where is the last one?" the assassin demanded.

"In the shrine up ahead," Sumita answered in defeat. "The girl's there too."

Battousai turned his back on Sumita and started walking away.

"Wait!" called Sumita, causing Battousai to stop and look back. "You might miss the third barrier. Take a good look!"

With these words, the defeated ninja pulled the rope on a barrel that had been hidden in the snow. There was a bright flash and the sound of thunder.


Making his way through the forest, Enishi saw the flash in the distance and heard the thunder.

"That flash! Battousai must be fighting the ninjas," he said to himself. "Tomoe!"

Enishi broke into a run.


Battousai sat against a tree, his left hand clutching his aching head. He slowly opened his eyes. Everything before him was hazy.

'Instinct, hearing and now sight,' he thought as he got slowly to his feet. 'If I wait here, my vision should return to normal. But!'

Battousai gripped his katana and moved forward, going on his sense of touch alone.


Akira's smiling face, his soft touch, his quiet, cheerful voice.

"I'll be back by Spring. Until then, we must both be patient. I'll bring you a hozuki..."

Akira melted away and was replaced by another softly smiling face with gentle violet eyes and flowing red hair.

"I will protect your happiness..."

Pain, coldness.

Tomoe was at last able to pry her eyelids open. She sat up slowly, bringing her hand up to her throbbing jaw. Looking around, she realized she was in the shrine. Her eyes then landed on Tatsumi, who had been sitting the whole time, arms crossed, watching her.

"So you're finally awake," sneered the Yaminobu leader.

"You used me and Enishi," accused Tomoe.

"That's right. What do you think you can do about it?" challenged Tatsumi.

Tomoe lowered her gaze. Indeed, what could she do? She had no strength or skills to speak of and she knew Tatsumi had taken her dagger, her only means of self defense.

"Perhaps you wish to forget the origin of your involvement with us. Are you haunted by Kiyosato?" Tatsumi asked.

Tomoe started and stared at the Yaminobu leader.

"Just what was Kiyosato to you? Wasn't he the man you loved more than anything? I know he loved you very much. He wanted to be recognized as a great warrior, even though his swordsmanship was weak. That's why he joined the Mimawarigumi in the first place," said Tatsumi.

Tomoe lowered her gaze, tears welling in her eyes.

'If I'd only spoken to him, he could have stayed in Edo and we would have been happy together,' she mourned to herself.

"And now you've gone and fallen in love with his killer," said Tatsumi, causing Tomoe to flinch. "I understand why it happened of course. Human emotion is a foundation of shifting sands. The difference between love and hate is no thicker than a piece of paper. The emotions of a woman are even less reliable. A vicious assassin can seem as harmless as an infant to the woman who loves him."

"You think that little of me?" asked Tomoe incredulously.

Tatsumi was about to answer when they were interrupted by the distant sound of thunder, which caused them both to look at the window.

"It seems Battousai has defeated Sumita and Yatsume," he murmured, standing up. "To defeat those two, he has to be good. Well it's as I thought; I will be the one to deal the death blow. Feel free to watch. I will avenge Kiyosato for you as well."

Tomoe sat mutely as Tatsumi exited the shrine to await Battousai's arrival.

He didn't have to wait long. The assassin appeared, bloody, dishevelled and exhausted, but still wearing a dangerous aura.

"I am taking Tomoe back!" roared Battousai, even as blood seeped from the wounds all over his body.

"Taking her back?" echoed Tatsumi. "Look at you! You've used up all your strength just to arrive at your execution. Now you know that when a man has to fight to protect something, the battle is harder. Yet, from the very beginning, you had nothing to preserve, unlike us. By order of the Bakufu and as chief of field operations, I will see you dead this day."

Finished speaking, Tatsumi charged forward, slamming his upper arm into Kenshin's neck and knocking him backward. Suddenly, the flesh on Tatsumi's chest split open, sending blood spraying out from a horizontal wound he hadn't realized he had. Already, Battousai was rising to his feet, blood dripping from the tip of his katana.

Tatsumi quickly realized that even though Battousai's senses were dulled, he still had enough skill to strike if the ninja got within range. Tatsumi decided to change tactics.


Meanwhile, Tomoe sat in the shrine, watching the battle from the ajar door. In her mind, the image of Kenshin kept wavering, melting into an image of Akira, then changing back again.

'I couldn't stop Akira from going to his death. Then I threw everything away to cause Kenshin's death. But I ended up falling in love with him. I can't let the man I love die again.'

Tomoe closed her eyes and smiled to herself, reaching a decision.


Tatsumi attacked quickly, landing two punches on Kenshin, then jumping out of range just as Kenshin attempted to slash him. While Kenshin was open from slashing, Tatsumi kicked him in the thigh.

Kenshin slashed in response, but again hit empty air as Tatsumi dodged back. He gritted his teeth in a snarl of disgust.

Tatsumi sneered when he noticed Kenshin's grip on his sword's hilt weakening.

"The extreme cold and your blood loss means you can't even feel anything now. With your sense of touch gone, the fourth binding is complete. You can't win, but you've fought well up till now. Death inching slowly closer and closer, or a quick, painless death? I will let you decide," said Tatsumi.

Kenshin stood straight and faced his enemy.

"You're right. I can't win," he admitted, a feral smile crossing his face and his eyes glittering.

'But I can at least take you to the next world with me,' he thought as he gripped his katana in both hands.

"A quick death then," said Tatsumi, reaching into his tunic for Tomoe's dagger.

'Might as well finish the assassin off with his girlfriend's dagger,' he thought.

'If I can't use my senses, I will risk everything on a final blow. I'm sorry, Tomoe. Please be happy in the new era,' Kenshin thought, closing his eyes and cutting off all his numbed senses.

"Let's go!" Kenshin cried, charging forward.

Pointing the tanto toward Kenshin, Tatsumi charged as well.

Kenshin raised his sword to slash downward.

"YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

Suddenly, a familiar and heady scent hit his one remaining sense: his sense of smell.

'The scent... of white plum blossoms!' Kenshin thought.

It was too late! His sword was already in its downward momentum. He felt it cleave through flesh and bone, felt the warm blood spatter on his face and a light body fall back against his own; not Tatsumi's body. A sharp, stinging pain as cold steel bit into his left cheek, slicing a new cut across the one he had received back in April.

Kneeling in the cold, wet snow, Kenshin groped about like mad and felt the body, her body. Slumping down, Kenshin pulled the dying Tomoe into his arms. His eyes were barely able to focus on her face as she smiled up at him.

"Tomoe? Why? Why?" Kenshin asked, tears spilling from his eyes for the first time in years.

Tomoe reached up and caressed the new wound on Kenshin's left cheek.

"It's alright. Please don't cry," she whispered with a smile.

Then she let out a rattly breath and her head lolled to the side.

"To-mo-e?" Kenshin asked in a raspy voice.

No response. She was still, too still.

Oh Kami-sama, this couldn't be happening!

"TOMOE!!!!!!!!!"

'This isn't alright!' he thought sorrowfully. 'I should have died. You didn't deserve to die! Tomoe!'

Kenshin pulled Tomoe into a sorrowful embrace, slumped over her and broke down completely, sobs of grief and self-loathing racking his bloody form as he grieved for his only love.


In the distance, unseen by the grieving swordsman, a little boy stood with tears flowing unheeded from his black eyes as he watched Battousai clutch his dying sister.

He had seen everything: Tomoe standing between the two charging men, using all her strength to hold her dagger, which Tatsumi clutched in his hands, over her head, Battousai's sword biting right down the middle of her body, slashing her from shoulder to pelvis, sending blood spraying everywhere, turning the white snow red.

"Tomoe? My sister?" Enishi mumbled to himself, turning and blundering away through the forest, needing to get as far away from the hated Battousai as he could.


Otsu

January 15, 1865

Kenshin sat mutely, staring at the cold, dark fire pit. Two weeks ago, it had been crackling with light and life, warming the house. She had been by his side and for the first time in over a year, he had felt warm and alive inside. Now, like the fire pit, his soul was cold and dark. He didn't want to eat, drink or live.

Unconsciously, he brought his left hand up to the new scar on his left cheek and touched it. Even two weeks later, it tingled. The scar from her tanto had intersected with the one from the Bakufu bodyguard's sword, creating a perfect X.

Only now, two weeks later, was he even able to think things over. The past two weeks had felt like a hazy nightmare. He had been quite helpless when brought back to the farm house by the children's parents and had required someone to look in on him every morning to change his bandages and give him the medicine from his own stock. Finally, the fever had broken and the haze had lifted.

The nightmare was real.

Vacant eyes travelled over to the urn where her ashes now rested; the children's parents having been kind enough to take care of the funeral rites.

'No matter how much I think, I don't understand. How? Why?' he thought.

A wind blew in through the barred window, turning the pages of a book lying on the table that Kenshin hadn't noticed till now.

'Tomoe's diary.'

Moving stiffly, Kenshin got to his feet, limped over to the table and picked up the diary. He leafed through the pages till he came to an entry dated nine months earlier.

"News of the murder of Kiyosato Akira arrived from Kyoto. I simply could not believe it and regret not stopping him from leaving, but it is all too late..."

'Kiyosato. The name of Tomoe's fiance. It sounds vaguely familiar. It was... It was...'

Images of his struggle with the young Mimawarigumi swordsman last April suddenly flashed into Kenshin's head; the feeling of the scar being sliced into his cheek and the sound of the man's voice as he strangled out his dying word.

"TOOOOMOOOEEEEE!"

The realization hit Kenshin like a bolt of lightning, causing him to drop the diary.

'I killed him! I was the one who killed Tomoe's fiance! I stole her happiness!' Kenshin cried out in his mind as he brought his hand up to the cruciform scar. 'Tomoe...'

The scar would tingle for years to come.

Kenshin was startled from his reverie of self-loathing by the sound of the wooden door sliding open. For a moment, he thought it was the village children coming in to check on him, as they had every day since their parents had dragged him back, half dead.

Instead the gentle, but authoritative, voice of his commander spoke, uttering words that were meant to comfort, but instead only hurt him more.

"It was an unlucky coincidence that you fell in love with Tomoe after killing her fiance. It's not your fault. I heard all about what happened here and have already sent someone after the traitor," said Katsura.


Wearing a straw hat, Iizuka made his way up the mountain. His footsteps were those of a man with a bounty on his head. Iizuka hadn't been in the game as long as he had by being stupid. He knew that his role as the Shogunate mole would be discovered sooner rather than later and that it was high time to make a hasty departure from Japan.

"Heh heh! It's way past time for me to get out of this. It doesn't even matter whether it's the Shogunate or Patriots who win. The samurai are finished either way. These are much better than swords," Iizuka said to himself, glancing down at the two rolls of gold coins he had received as payment from the Bakufu for spying on the Ishin Shishi.

The sound of snow crunching and a sword being unsheathed from up ahead caused Iizuka to stop in his tracks and look forward.

"Heh heh heh!"

Before Iizuka stood a fierce looking swordsman, one fold of his gi hanging off his bare right shoulder, even in the cold weather, to give him maximum freedom of movement. The blade of his sword glinted in the snow. In his eyes smouldered the flames of Hell.

"Yep. That's the Kogoro I know; he won't just let me walk away," Iizuka smirked to himself, reaching for his sword. "I guess I'll have to use my sword ONE LAST TIME!"

Iizuka charged forward as he unsheathed his sword.

The red-eyed swordsman's mouth turned up in a feral grin as he charged forward to meet his opponent.

"Heh heh heh HA HA HA HA HA!"

The last thing Iizuka saw was flame erupting from the sword's blade.

Burning, slashing pain!

Then darkness.

"They've underestimated me, giving me such an easy first assignment," declared the crimson-eyed swordsman. "Well, that's fine. They can use me as their servant for now. In the end, it will be neither the Bakufu nor the Ishin Shishi who take Japan, it will be I!"


After Katsura kindled a fire in the long-unused fire pit, he and his prize warrior sat across from each other. For quite some time, neither spoke, Katsura examining Himura who sat, face lowered, eyes obscured by ruddy bangs, long unwashed. Although two weeks had passed since the tragedy, Himura was still covered in the blood and dirt of the fight, as though he had totally neglected himself since returning from the Binding Forest.

At length, Katsura took a long breath and spoke.

"The man we sent after the traitor is a swordsman new to our clan, Shishio Makoto," the clan leader began.

"Shishio Makoto?" Himura repeated mechanically without raising his eyes, voice barely audible.

"Yes. No one knows where he comes from, nor what sword school he uses. He's a dangerous man, but his skills are on par with yours," explained Katsura.

A pause.

"It has been decided that he will do the assassinations from now on."

"Which means I'm no longer needed," said Himura softly.

"No!" said Katsura quickly. "We need your swordsmanship now more than ever. The Bakufu's hunt for the Ishin Shishi in Kyoto grows more intense by the day. If we cannot stand against them, our cause will be lost and we will all be executed. Himura, I will have you function as a free-striking swordsman, protecting the Patriots on the front lines. I know it's cruel of me to ask this of you now, but there's no one else we can entrust this duty to. Please, become a demon for the time being and wield the Hiten sword!"

Before Himura could respond, the door rattled open in its track, revealing the village children, now wearing boots and holding their bouncy balls and kites in defiance of the snow. For the past few days, it had broken Kenshin's heart to have to decline them, as he could barely move without stiffness and pain radiating through his body.

"You can't come play with us today either?" asked Ayaka.

"Let's fly kites today, even though it's snowing!" said Gen.

"Um, we're busy right now. Please come back later," said Katsura, waving his hand dismissively at the children.

He was stopped from saying anything further by Himura, who stiffly rose to his feet, still clutching Tomoe's diary.

"I accept," he said softly.

"Himura?" asked Katsura.

"If I put down my sword now, I will have taken all those lives in vain. Until the new era comes, which is lit up by all the small happinesses Tomoe taught me about, I will continue to lend my sword to your cause. But, when the new era comes..." Himura said softly as he walked stiffly toward the door.

"You'll put down your sword?" asked Katsura.

"I don't know, but I will never kill again. Ever," Himura answered quietly as he hobbled out of the house to catch up with the children.

The finality in Himura's voice left Katsura with no room in his heart for doubt. Himura would find a way to stick to that vow, no matter what. Katsura watched as his best swordsman joined the children outside, taking two of the little girls by the hand and leading them out to the fields to play for the last time. Katsura felt what he could only describe as remorse flood his heart. It had been his decision to take Himura to Kyoto and make him an assassin that had done this to the young man. He would bear the responsibility for Himura's soul for the rest of his life.

The words that his closest friend, Takasugi Shinsaku had said to him when he had taken Himura from Choshuu echoed in his mind.

"This line of work will ruin that boy's soul."

'Things turned out just the way you thought they would, Shinsaku. I was wrong to doubt you. This was my fault. Hiten Mitsurugi should only be used to protect the new era, never to destroy the old one. I'm so sorry, Himura,' Katsura thought, pangs of regret knifing through his heart.


Kenshin walked stiffly with the children, who moved at a slower pace so he could keep up.

"Where's Tomoe?" asked Ayaka. "What happened to her?"

Kenshin flinched at the mention of his wife's name.

"She's gone far away and isn't coming back," he answered, grateful that his bangs concealed the tears threatening to spill from his eyes.

"She left you? How crummy," said Gen.

"Something like that," replied Kenshin softly. "And after today, I must go far away too."

"What? You can't!" cried the horrified children in unison.

"I'm sorry," said Kenshin softly. "So today, let's play together, until the sun sets."

And that's just what they did.


That night...

The red flames danced and flickered against the backdrop of the navy blue sky, consuming the farmhouse that had been the birthplace of Himura Kenshin's short lived happiness. Standing on a hill, Kenshin watched impassively as this last vestige of his life with her was consumed into ash, as her happiness had been.

When the fire burned itself out, Kenshin turned and started for the wagon that would transport him back to Kyoto, back to a life of bloodshed.

~Owari~