dojo.jpg


May 7, 1878

Kamiya Dojo

The sun was just above the western skyline as Kenshin made his way back to the dojo, wanting nothing more than to collapse into his futon.

"Kenshin!" came a familiar voice from up ahead.

Kenshin looked up and saw Kaoru-dono standing in front of the gate. Had she been waiting there all day?

"Kaoru-dono," said the Rurouni.

"We were worried. Oh, you're hurt! Chain marks?" said Kaoru, grasping Kenshin's hand and inspecting the imprints on it.

Kaoru stared at the marks for a moment.

"Do I even want to know what you were up to?" she asked suspiciously.

"Oro?" yelped Kenshin.

"Anyway, someone's after you. You shouldn't go out for a while," warned Kaoru.

Kenshin started.

"Kaoru-dono, where did you hear that?"

"The police. The chief sent someone to warn you," said Kaoru as they walked into the training hall. "He's an assistant inspector of the metropolitan police and a police swordsman, Lieutenant Fujita Goro."

Kenshin's kenki instantly flared as he stared at the back of a man he hadn't seen for over a decade. Saitou Hajime slowly turned around, the sly wolfish grin spreading over his face.

"Well, it seems you had some trouble with Akamatsu. You're not what you once were, are you?" he said in his flat voice. "The last time we fought was on the battlegrounds of Toba Fushimi, so that makes it about ten years ago."

Saitou rose casually to his feet, facing Kenshin.

"Kenshin, do you know Fujita-san?" asked Kaoru.

"So Fujita is your new name, third captain of the Shinsengumi, Saitou Hajime," said Kenshin as the two men glared at each other across the room.

"Shinsengumi, then..." began Kaoru.

"He's the one after Kenshin!" finished Yahiko.

"Ten years. When said, it's only two words, but to live through, it is a long time," said Saitou.

"Yes, long enough to make a man rot," agreed Kenshin. "Udo Jinei was crazy to begin with, but you weren't like that. There were twists to you that couldn't be fathomed, but in battle you were honorable and came straight at your opponent. Hurting your enemy by hurting his friend, using another warrior as bait, taking hostages. You never used tricks like these! You are not the Saitou Hajime I respected as a warrior!"

It started as a low chuckle, then progressed to a maniacal guffaw, echoing off the wooden walls, adding to the tension that thickly permeated the dojo's atmosphere.

"What are you laughing at?" barked Yahiko.

"After those words, how could I not laugh, boy?" replied Saitou. "I knew his sword had gone dull, but never his head. Akamatsu as bait? Don't be stupid. A worm would've made better bait."

"What?" stammered Kaoru.

"We the Shinsengumi who fought Hitokiri Battousai knew his strength better than anyone. To know that you struggled against Akamatsu... This Rurouni refusal to kill has clearly made you weak," finished Saitou, glaring at the Rurouni.

"Kenshin?" began Kaoru.

"Weak?" finished Yahiko.

"Saitou, think whatever you wish," said Kenshin. "It's enough to have a rurouni's skill to protect those who require it. A hitokiri's killing power isn't needed."

Kaoru and Yahiko smiled at their friend's declaration.

"A 'rurouni's skill', eh?" echoed Saitou, drawing his katana and holding the blade out before him.. "If that's so, you're a failure even as a rurouni. While you were falling into my trap and struggling against Akamatsu, I was here the whole time. Because I'm a policeman, these people didn't suspect a thing, so... I could have killed them any time I pleased."

Kaoru felt a chill creep up her spine. Yahiko broke out in a sweat. The entire evening, they had been unsuspecting hostages in their own home!

"This isn't the first time either. The incident with Jinei, the other with Kanryuu, you've had those you would 'protect', as you call it, taken by the enemy. You've let scum like Raijuta cause a life-long injury," spat Saitou as he tossed his sheath to the wooden floor with an ominous clatter.

'Raijuta? The police never knew about that!' thought Kaoru in horror.

'This guy's been spying on Kenshin the whole time!' realized Yahiko in equal horror.

Practically since Kenshin had settled at the dojo three months ago, this Wolf had been stalking him from the distance, keeping tabs on all he did, without ever making his own presence known.

"Strength held back is the same as a weakness. Your hypocrisy makes me nauseous," growled Saitou, glaring at Kenshin as if he were the lowest form of life.

Finally, Yahiko could take no more of Saitou's insults and found his voice.

"Shut up! Nobody died any of those times because Kenshin was there!" the Tokyo Samurai shouted, coming to his hero's defense.

"But what guarantee it will stay that way?" returned Saitou, never taking his eyes off Kenshin.

For his part, Kenshin was silent. He couldn't deny that he felt responsible for what had happened to Yutaro's arm. Was there some truth to Saitou's words?

'Kenshin,' thought Kaoru, seeing the redhead's eyes grow dim from Saitou's verbal abuse.

"I thought the Battousai would see this, so I sent Akamatsu. But as you put it, ten years is long enough to make a man rot, drowning in phony self-righteousness. How can Hitokiri Battousai protect people without killing?" Saitou said. "Have you forgotten the single code of justice that was shared by the Shinsengumi and hitokiri? Swift Death to Evil! I can't stand seeing you like this, not anymore."

Saitou raised his katana.

Kenshin stood fast.

"No matter what you say, this worthless one refuses to take more lives," he said softly.

"Is that so?" said Saitou, as he dropped into his Gatotsu stance. "Then come. I will deny all that you are!"

Kenshin stood still, observing his old enemy in the distant, yet familiar battle stance.

From behind him, Kaoru could feel her heart beating wildly in her chest.

"What's wrong? Are you just going to stand there and let the Gatotsu hit the girl?" asked Saitou.

Kenshin took a step forward, only to feel a weak grip attempting to hold him back. Looking back, he saw Kaoru gripping his kimono, face lowered.

"Kaoru-dono?" he questioned.

Kaoru didn't answer.

Gently, Kenshin removed her hand from his person.

"It's alright. He is after this worthless one. This fight cannot be avoided," he said softly.

"But, I..." stammered Kaoru.

'I have the strangest feeling...'

Kenshin smiled sadly at her.

'...that Kenshin won't be with us anymore after this fight...'

Kenshin walked away from Kaoru and faced Saitou.

"Come," grunted Saitou.

"You're the challenger," observed Kenshin.

"Fair enough," said Saitou, again assuming Gatotsu stance. "LET'S GO!"

Saitou thrust his sword at where Kenshin was standing, but met with empty air. Kenshin was in the air, drawing the sakabatou.

"Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu - Ryu Tsui Sen!" said Yahiko happily. 'Who's weak? Kenshin's the strongest of all!'

"You think you can avoid me, Battousai?!" called Saitou as he thrust the tip of his blade into the air.

'An anti-air Gatotsu!' thought Kenshin.

He saw the blade coming, but from that close, was helpless to stop it.

"KENSHIN!" cried Kaoru as the blade made contact with Kenshin’s flesh.

Kaoru and Yahiko watched in horror as Saitou's katana appeared to go through Kenshin's chest. Blood spurted from the cut.

"Twisting your waist to avoid being impaled was a better response than I'd expected," admitted Saitou. "But..."

Saitou slashed his katana to the right and into Kenshin's unguarded side.

"YOUR FINISH WAS WEAK!"

As Kaoru and Yahiko looked on in horror, Kenshin went flying like a rag doll while Saitou landed effortlessly on his feet.

"An avoided thrust that can instantly become an attack from the side. The hirazuki, as devised by the tactics genius, Hijikata Toshizo, has no weaknesses," said Saitou as Kenshin's blood dripped from his blade.

Kenshin was already sitting up, clutching his side, his lungs laboring to draw in the oxygen his body so desperately needed, even as Saitou dropped into Gatotsu stance again.

"My Gatotsu is invincible," the Wolf growled.

'That stance! He's doing it again!' thought Kaoru in distress.

'In true combat, it's very rare to fight the same enemy twice,' thought Saitou as he charged. 'When that does happen, if there is one technique that can beat them, you disregard all others. You polish your own special technique until it becomes the ability to kill. The Shinsengumi's true strength isn't fighting in units, it's in this ability.'

Kenshin raised the sakabatou to break Saitou's blade.

'He's using the sword breaking technique!' thought Yahiko.

However, Saitou's thrust was too strong to be blocked by Kenshin's sword break, instead sending Kenshin flying into the wall behind him.

"USELESS EFFORT!" barked Saitou. "My sword has no name, but it has served me well in countless battles from the Revolution through today. I'm not about to let you break it."

'It's no good. He's too strong,' thought Yahiko with the horrific realization that this was one enemy Kenshin wouldn't be able to bring down with one or two Hiten moves.

"KENSHIN!" cried Kaoru, running over to where Kenshin was slumped against the wall. "Ken..."

Kenshin's eyelids were narrowed, his irises a pale, cold lavender instead of the usual warm violet as they glared at Saitou. His breath came in short, sharp pants. Kaoru stared wide-eyed, not fully understanding the change taking place in her rurouni.

"Get back, little girl," commanded Saitou.

Kaoru stood up, flashing Saitou an angry glare.

"You're in the way," growled the Wolf.

Kaoru felt a hand on her right shoulder and saw that Kenshin was on his feet.

"Here I come," he said in a dropped voice.

Kaoru backed away from the two men.

'His reponse to my second attack, trying to break my sword was faster than the first one. He's taken a deep wound to the chest and yet... Since he's settled here, he's fought Zanza, the Oniwabanshuu and Raijuta all in a short time. Each time he battles, the soul of the assassin that lies dormant in the depths of his heart stirs a bit. Just as I thought, each time he wields his sword, though he doesn't know it, his soul begins to revert to its hitokiri state,' Saitou thought.

Suddenly, Kenshin charged forward, right hand pulled back, left hand out.

'He's gotten faster,' thought the Wolf as he took his Gatotsu stance.

Kenshin disappeared.

"What?"

Saitou felt the motion coming at him.

'From below...'

"YAAAAAAAAAAAH!"

Saitou was able to stop Kenshin from hitting him by kicking him in the side of the head with his left foot. Kenshin again flew back into the wall, his hair band snapping from the pressure of the attack, allowing his hair to spill over his shoulders in a crimson torrent.

'What was that just now? That was quite startling,' thought a visibly shaken Saitou as Kenshin struggled to his feet yet again, gasping audibly for breath.

'He's breathing really hard. His body couldn't keep up with that sudden burst of speed. It must have taken more strength than he realized,' thought Kaoru.

Kenshin slowly got his breathing under control and raised angry, evil eyes toward Saitou through the curtain of his crimson mane. Slowly, he began walking toward his enemy, a new purpose in his steps.

'No! It can't be!' thought Kaoru as she observed the silent change in Kenshin's demeanor.

'Has his spirit from ten years ago been revived by fighting with me?' thought Saitou. 'Has he become Battousai once more, or is this just rage?'

Saitou smirked and raised his katana.

"To find out, only this will do. The true Gatotsu, no holding back," he said, dropping into a variation of the Gatotsu stance with his katana raised over his head.

"Wha? He's been holding back until now?!" yelped Yahiko.

Saitou charged at Kenshin, pulling back his right hand to hit at his target. This time, Kenshin read the path and dodged to the right.

'He's fast, but he's completely forgotten about the side attack,' thought Saitou as he swung his katana to the right in a repeat of his earlier successful attack. 'I guess it was just rage after all.'

Suddenly, Kenshin pivoted to the right.

"RAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!" he roared as he swung the Sakabatou, hitting Saitou in the back of his neck with the dull side of the blade.

"GAH!" cried Saitou as now it was his turn to go crashing into a wall.

CRASH!

In an instant, the tables seemed to be turned.

"After seeing the Gatotsu four times in a row, any idiot can think of one or two counter attacks," spat Kenshin. "Get up, Saitou! It would be disappointing if our first battle in ten years ended this way."

"Heh heh heh," chuckled Saitou as he stepped back into the dojo through the hole his body had made in the wall. "My orders were to evaluate your strength, but now I don't care. I'm going to kill you."

"Don't be stupid. I'm going to kill you," growled Kenshin.

At the change in Kenshin's speech pattern, Kaoru put her hands up to her mouth and dropped to the floor.

"Kaoru?" asked Yahiko.

'It's just like when he fought Jinei...' she thought in despair.

"Stop them... Someone stop them..." she pleaded as tears fell from her eyes.

'If this continues, the Kenshin we know will be gone!'

"RAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!" both warriors cried as they went at each other, Saitou with his thrust, Kenshin with his slash.

"SOMEONE STOP THEM!" screamed Kaoru, tears spilling from her eyes.

Kenshin and Saitou landed a mutual blow as they passed each other in a charge. They stopped at opposite ends of the dojo and were still.

CRACK!

The tip of Saitou's blade broke off and landed right next to Yahiko, who narrowly avoided being cut.

"WHOA!"

"The next thing to fly will be your head," hissed Kenshin, who was now holding the Sakabatou with the sharp edge out.

"You used the sharp edge of your sword," observed Saitou.

"Wow. Something's wrong with Kenshin," said Yahiko.

"That's not Kenshin! That's Hitokiri Battousai!" cried Kaoru.

"Huh?"

Kaoru grabbed Yahiko and started shaking him.

"I said he's Battousai!" she cried.

"I don't get it..." said Yahiko as she shook him.

"STOP THEM! SOMEONE STOP THEM!" Kaoru screamed again.

"It's no good, Missy," came the long-absent voice of Sagara Sanosuke.

"Sanosuke?!" said Kaoru.

Indeed, it was Sano, leaning on Megumi's arm as the two had heard the commotion in the training hall and had come to see what the trouble was.

"They ain't in Meiji Tokyo no more. They're fightin' in Kyoto durin' the Revolution," Sano explained. "No matter how loud you call, your voice won't reach 'em. Only someone who lived through the chaos and tasted the bloodshed of the Bakumatsu can stop this fight."


Asakusa

Tsubame was just stepping out into the street on an errand.

RUMBLE RUMBLE!

THUD!

Tsubame found herself knocked aside as a large stage coach sped by, never even slowing down. Townspeople had to dive out of the way to keep from being knocked over.

"Are you alright, Tsubame-chan?" asked Tae in alarm, kneeling at Tsubame's side.

"Y-yes," stammered a shaken Tsubame.

"How rude! Those big stagecoaches have no business rushing through the busy streets like that. I don't care how much of a hurry Mister Rich Man is in!" Tae huffed.


In the speeding stagecoach, two men sat across from each other, one sporting a full set of whiskers, the other, fat and bald and sporting a goatee.

"Kawaji," said the man with the beard.

"Yes, sir?" asked Kawaji, the fat, bald cop.

"How long since Saitou entered the Kamiya Dojo?" asked the man.

Kawaji glanced at his pocket watch.

"About four and a half hours," he answered.

"I hope we're not too late. Tell the driver to hurry. I want to get there in ten minutes," said the bearded man.

"Yessir!" answered Kawaji.


Kamiya Dojo

Saitou charged forward with the Gatotsu.

"Is he crazy, using the Gatotsu with a broken sword?" said Yahiko.

"The Shinsengumi never did know when to retreat," growled Kenshin.

"The first principle of the Shinsengumi is to behave like a proper samurai!" said Saitou. "A true warrior never flees from battle!"

Saitou thrust the broken end of the blade at Kenshin, who batted it away with his left arm.

"He used his bare hand!" cried Megumi.

"He woulda left himself open if he'd used his sword," explained Sano.

"So the Shinsengumi choose honor over life. Fine with me," said Kenshin.

Saitou thrust, Kenshin swung down.

'This fight's over. He can't beat Kenshin's sword barehanded,' thought Sano.

SNAP!

The sakabatou was knocked from Kenshin's grip as Saitou's belt buckle struck his hand.

"Wha?" cried Sano.

"His belt!" said Megumi.

"When did he?" cried Yahiko.

"I HAVE YOU NOW!" bellowed Saitou.

The Shinsengumi captain landed random multiple punches on Kenshin's torso, causing Kenshin to cough up blood.

"Ken-san!" cried Megumi.

"He's in trouble now. Without his sword, Kenshin ain't got a chance," said Sano.

Saitou swung his jacket off his shoulders and quickly wrapped it around the still stunned Kenshin's neck, lifting him into the air.

"IT'S OVER!" Saitou roared as he pulled the jacket tightly.

"He's strangling him!" said Yahiko.

"No. Nothin' that merciful. He's tryin' to break Kenshin's neck," corrected Sano.

Kenshin raised his shaking left arm into the air.

"GIVE UP! YOU'VE LOST!" shouted Saitou.

Kenshin's left hand plunged down, grabbing the top of his sheath, swinging the base backwards and connecting with Saitou's chin. This knocked Saitou back, forcing him to drop the jacket and freed Kenshin from the noose.

Sano, Megumi and Yahiko were all equally horrified. Never had any of them, not even Sano, seen fighting this brutal.

"Is this what the Revolution was like?" the former kenkaya wondered.

Kenshin and Saitou faced off, each gasping for breath.

"They're both outta strength. Their next attack will be the last," said Sano. "One will live, the other will die, or they'll kill each other."

Sitting on the floor, Kaoru heard Sano's words with horror in her heart. There was Kenshin, just a few yards away from her, yet as distant and unreachable as the stars.

'Kenshin...' she thought in anguish.

"It's time to finish this," said Saitou, cracking his knuckles.

"Yes," agreed Kenshin, gripping the sheath like a sword.

Suddenly, Kaoru was on her feet, running toward Kenshin, reaching for his back in one last desperate attempt to stop him.

"Kaoru!" cried Yahiko.

Just as Kaoru's hand was about to reach Kenshin's hair, he shot forward and was again beyond her reach.

"YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

Closer and closer they came, fists and sheath ready for the death strike.

"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" screamed Kaoru.

"STOOOOOOOOOP THIIIIIIIIIIIIIISSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!!" came a new, loud voice.

Kenshin and Saitou stopped in mid charge and stared at the doorway where Kawaji now stood, glaring angrily at Saitou.

"Snap out of it, Saitou! Your order was to test Battousai's abilities!" barked Kawaji.

"I'm having fun. Don't interfere!" growled Saitou.

"I understand your pride as a former Shinsengumi," came a deep, authoritative voice. "But I cannot allow you or Himura to throw your lives away here."

"Who's this guy?" growled Yahiko.

"So you're the one behind all this," growled Kenshin. "Originally Satsuma Ishin Shishi, now head of the Department of Internal Affairs, Okubo Toshimichi."

He stood in the doorway, larger than life itself, one of the greatest warriors of the Revolution and now one of the most powerful men in the Meiji government. Tall, dignified in bearing and sporting a full black beard on his face with the light of the setting sun flooding in from behind him, his presence as commanding now as it had been ten years ago.

"What the hell is everyone gaping at? Who the hell is this old geezer?" snapped Yahiko, flipping said old geezer the bird.

"Try readin' a newspaper for once in your life, punk," chided Sano.

"What?" growled Yahiko.

"The last of the Ishin Sanketsu, the triumvirate of the new era and those highest in the new government," explained Megumi. "He has complete control of the country in all but name as the director of Internal Affairs. In other words, this is the most powerful man in Japan."

"Oh... OK," grunted Yahiko. ("I still don't really get it.")

"I apologize for the harsh treatment, but we needed to know how strong you are," explained Okubo to Kenshin. "I hope you will hear me out."

"Oh, I would like nothing better, even if I have to drag it out of you," hissed Kenshin, glaring daggers at Okubo.

Saitou snorted in derision and picked up his jacket.

"The best duel I've fought in years has been reduced to a conversation," sulked the Wolf. "Our conclusion will have to come later."

"You're lucky," growled Kenshin.

"That's my line," smirked Saitou.

"Saitou!" snapped Kawaji.

"Oh yes, my report. Himura Kenshin is useless. But Himura Battousai may be able to help. Report over," said Saitou as he stalked out of the dojo and into the night.

"Damn it. He's one of our best cops, but I can never understand his motivations," fumed Kawaji.

"Come. We have a carriage waiting outside," said Okubo.

"No way. I'm not the only one involved in this," growled Kenshin.

Kenshin stopped, seeming to realize that something was wrong.

"Kenshin?" asked Sano.

Suddenly, Kenshin balled his hand into a fist and punched himself between the eyes.

POW!

Everyone gasped in horror as more blood dripped to the floor.

"This incident has also involved this worthless one's friends. You will speak with all of us, right here," demanded Kenshin, raising eyes that were their normal soft violet hue.

'This worthless one...' thought Kaoru, the realization dawning on her.

"Kenshin! You're back!" she cried, suddenly hugging the Rurouni from behind, her hand landing right where Saitou had cut him on the chest.

"OROOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!" cried Kenshin as he stumbled forward, the wound on his chest throbbing and bleeding.

"EEEEEK! Megumi-san, help!" cried Kaoru.

"What are you doing, idiot?" fumed Megumi as she rushed in to patch the poor Rurouni up.

"Governor Okubo?" asked Kawaji.

"We have no choice. Right now we need Himura's strength desperately," answered Okubo.


A crescent moon was peeking from behind fat gray clouds by the time they sat down to talk.

"I don't want to waste time, so I'll get straight to the point," began Okubo. "Himura, Shishio is plotting rebellion in Kyoto."

"You call that straight to the point? Who the hell is this Shishio?" glowered Sano.

"Watch your mouth!" barked Kawaji.

"Shishio Makoto," Kenshin broke in. "After this worthless one emerged from the shadows to fight the Shinsegumi on the front lines, the job of shadow assassin fell to another member of the Choshuu Clan, Shishio Makoto. He was Hitokiri Battousai's successor."

"Hitokiri Battousai's..." began Yahiko.

"Successor?" finished Megumi. "Someone could succeed you?"

"Yes. He hid so perfectly in the shadows that few even knew of his existence. Even this worthless one had no direct contact with him," explained Kenshin, turning his gaze to Okubo. "However, this worthless one heard that he died ten years ago in the Boshin War."

A pregnant silence between the two old Patriots.

"Ah. Shishio wasn't killed in battle. He was erased by his comrades," concluded Kenshin.

Everyone gasped and stared at him.

With a sigh, Okubo explained.

"It was safer to eliminate the one who did the dirty deeds than to allow them to be leaked out. During those wild days, such practices were commonplace. Back then, we had no choice," he said. "Shishio's sword skills and quick reflexes made him an assassin who was nearly on par with you. But he had a dangerous cunning and desire for power that was beyond understanding. He accepted the role of the shadow assassin only to let his strength be felt by the leaders of the Ishin Shishi. Unlike you, he didn't care at all for the weak or his comrades. If the public ever found out about his assassinations, it would shake the very foundations of the Meiji government. If we had begun the new era with Shishio alive, he could have used this weakness to play Japan into the palm of his hand."

"For that reason, he was killed, correct?" asked Kenshin.

"That's right. We shot him. We even poured oil on his corpse and burned him to make sure he was dead," answered Okubo. "However, even with his entire body burnt to a black crisp, Shishio Makoto didn't die. Now he has amassed a great army by gathering bloodthirsty warriors and arms dealers who hate the peace, making his headquarters in Kyoto's underground. He is planning a war of revenge against this country to tear it to pieces, using murder as his secret weapon. All the troops we've sent in to suppress him have been killed. You are our last hope. For the sake of the people of Japan, Himura, please go once again to Kyoto!"

"In other words, you're asking Kenshin to assassinate Shishio Makoto," said Kaoru.

A beat.

"Yes," answered Okubo.

"Of course that's not all. We'll pay him handsomely. On top of that, we'll close our eyes to certain transgressions. For example, we could pardon Takani Megumi from charges of manufacturing opium..." added Kawaji.

SLAM!

Megumi's hand hit the floor hard, the sound echoing off the wooden walls.

"What are you trying to pull? If you're planning to use my crimes as a bargaining chip against Ken-san, you can hang me first!" declared the lady doctor.

"It was your dirty dealings that started this in the first place. Now you want Kenshin to wipe your ass?" growled Sano, his fingers clenching and unclenching in anger. "Kenshin chose to live as a Rurouni without killing. I won't stand by while you drag him back into your shit."

"Shut up, you ignorant punk!" barked Kawaji. "The very existence of the Meiji government is in danger!"

"Fuck the damn Meiji government," spat Sano. "All that matters is the well being of the general public."

"WITHOUT THE MEIJI GOVERNMENT, THE PEOPLE WON'T HAVE ANY WELL BEING, IDIOT!" shouted Kawaji, grabbing Sano by his aku jacket. "If you don't shut up, I'll have you arrested!"

"THAT'S WHAT YOU THINK!" bellowed Sano, grabbing Kawaji by the lapels of his uniform jacket. "Go ahead and try it, baldy!"

"I'm just a kid and I don't understand this Meiji government stuff," said Yahiko, digging around in his ear with his little finger. "But I do understand one thing: If things had been different, Kenshin would have been the one being erased. All you guys have ever done is kill people for your own benefit. It's pathetic."

"Okubu-san, I understand that you need Hitokiri Battousai now, but Kenshin isn't an assassin anymore. We will never allow Kenshin to go to Kyoto," said Kaoru resolutely as she and the rest of the Kenshingumi gathered around the Rurouni and glared defiantly at the men from the government.

"Fools! You have no idea how important..." stormed Kawaji.

"Enough, Kawaji," said Okubo softly.

"Governor Okubo!" cried Kawaji.

"I understand that this decision is too big to be made in one night. Take a week to think about it. I'll return on May 14th, one week from now to hear your answer," said Okubo, rising to leave.

"Okubo-san," Kenshin called after the departing man. "You've lost weight these past ten years."

Okubo smiled sadly back at his old comrade.

"It's far more difficult to build a new era than to destroy an old one. I'll see you in a week," he replied. "I'll anticipate a favorable answer."

Kenshin's face was grim as Okubo and Kawaji exited. As he watched them go, he realized something: no matter how far he wandered or for how long, he would never be free of these chains that bound him squarely to Kyoto.

~Owari~