"Long ago, in the bloodshed and violence of the Bakumatsu, there arose among the Ishin Shishi a warrior called Hitokiri Battousai. He fought like a demon and slashed open the era known as Meiji with his bloody sword. With the end of the chaos, he disappeared into legend."
January 5, 1868
Near Toba Fushimi
Katsura Kogoro, head of the Choshuu Ishin Shishi, looked out at the sun setting on the battlefield, casting its bloody red rays over the bloody red snow, bathing the whole landscape in crimson. Another day of fighting had drawn to a close, each side retreating to its encampments for the night. Winter had set in, bringing a chill on the air, causing Katsura's heart to beat fast, pumping his boiling blood.
After so many years, victory was so near he could taste it. The Patriots had turned the tide and were now chasing the Bakufu warriors farther and farther north, reclaiming Japan, province by province, for the Emperor and for the people. Soon the Bakufu would be nothing more than a memory. As Katsura took in the crimson landscape before him, he was reminded of the chief reason for the Ishin Shishi's success, a reason that weighed his heart down with remorse.
For three years, Katsura's best and loyalest warrior, Himura Battousai had fought in the Bakumatsu as a free-striking swordsman on the front lines of the major fights, protecting the Royalists from the Shinsengumi and other Bakufu troops. If not for Himura's unshakable loyalty and insurmountable skill, they would not have succeeded against the Bakufu. Because of this, Katsura had come to a decision about Himura. The Clan was to the point where Katsura believed he could safely say they had won the nation. Now it was time to make amends for the sins he as a leader had committed against an innocent, idealistic boy five years ago. To that end, he sent word for Himura Battousai... no, Himura Kenshin, to join him in his office.
Expression neutral, Himura Battousai moved silently to the fusuma that separated the hallway from Katsura-san's office. He wrapped on the door frame and awaited permission to enter. After hearing the quiet invitation, Himura slid the door open and stepped in, sliding it shut behind him. Himura observed that though his commander was still very handsome, he now looked more worn out than when Himura had joined five years ago.
Katsura looked up from his desk and winced inwardly when he saw the taciturn young man who stood before him. Himura's eyes, once so bright with idealism and hope, were now dim with suffering. Katsura had to look away because he knew he was responsible for that suffering. It had been his idea for Himura and the silent, doll-like girl with the deep black eyes to live in Otsu, posing as apothecaries. He had never dreamed things would go so tragically awry.
Since returning from Otsu three years ago, Himura had become even more distant than he had been before. He was laconic, speaking only when spoken to and always in short, quiet tones. He fought with as much grace, skill and devotion as ever, but as time dragged on, it had become apparent that his soul wasn't there at times. Himura's desire to leave Kyoto had become obvious to Katsura, though the young warrior had never voiced it. It was way past time to end this life of suffering.
"Sit down," Katsura said softly.
Himura pulled his sheathed katana out of his obi and knelt down gracefully into seiza, setting the katana to his right, on the tatami mat. Putting his hands on his legs, Himura lowered his head, ruddy bangs obscuring his eyes.
"Himura, thanks to your great skill and dedication, the Choshuu Clan has enjoyed success after success against the Bakufu. We have routed their strongholds and are now chasing their remnants toward Aizu. Victory is well within our grasp, so if you wish to disappear after the next battle, I will make certain you are not found," said Katsura.
Startled, Himura looked up and locked gazes with Katsura-san. For a seeming eternity, a heavy silence hung between commander and subordinate.
"Thank you, Katsura-san," said the young swordsman at length, prostrating himself.
"No. Thank you for your faithful service to the Ishin Shishi, Himura. Without you, we never would have been able to accomplish this important victory," said Katsura with gratitude in his voice.
He paused for a second, then continued.
"I do however, have one final command for you before you leave," he said.
Himura looked up, eyes wide with curiosity.
Katsura reached into his desk and pulled out a package consisting of fresh new clothes, comprised of hakama, kimono and even a hanten, a fully laden bento, and a bag of gold coins, all tied together with a string, which he proffered to Himura.
"Take these with you to get you started on your journey," said the Ishin commander.
"Katsura-san..." Himura started, trying to think of a polite way to decline.
"Ikumatsu prepared everything especially for you. Would you dishonor her by refusing?" asked Katsura firmly.
The young swordsman bowed respectfully. He had no desire to offend or dishonor Ikumatsu-dono, who had been so kind to him after his return from Otsu.
"Thank you, Katsura-san and please thank Ikumatsu-dono for this Himura as well," said Himura, taking the package.
With sadness in his eyes, Katsura smiled at the young warrior.
"With my deepest gratitude, I release you from service. I wish you luck on your journey, Himura," said the Ishin leader sadly.
"I will say farewell to you now then, Katsura-san," returned the 19-year-old ex-hitokiri, clutching the package firmly.
"Farewell," said Katsura softly as he watched the redhead grasp his katana, rise fluidly to his feet, slide the sword into his obi and depart like a mist.
'I hope you find what you're looking for, Himura,' Katsura thought sadly before returning to his paperwork.
January 6, 1868
Waving the chrysanthemum banners, the Patriots hooted and hollered after the Bakufu forces' retreating backs.
"WE WON! IT'S THE DAWN OF A NEW ERA!" they cried.
Katana dripping with blood, Himura Battousai looked up.
'It's over. Finally,' he thought in relief.
"Himura, over here! The fourth Shingensumi unit is still fighting in Fushimi!" one of the troops called.
"Right," said Himura.
Just then, he caught a glimpse of something through the crowded battlefield. A young boy with snow white hair and sharp teal eyes stared at him through the crowd, open hostility printed on his grimy face. Himura started when he recognized the boy's face, even though it had changed so much in four years.
"ENISHI!" he screamed.
Then Enishi was swallowed up in the chaos.
"What is it?" asked the waiting Ishin soldier.
'Enishi. Pure white hair. Is that the form of your pain? It's not over. It won't be over any time soon,' thought Himura sadly as he followed the Ishin soldier to Fushimi.
As Kenshin followed the Ishin soldier deeper into Fushimi, the coppery tang of blood again assaulted his olfactory sense and the clang of steel rang in his ears. Apparently, these Bakufu bastards hadn't gotten the message that they were fighting a losing battle.
Kenshn's eyes widened a bit at the sight of the Bakufu samurai ahead of him. This man was the largest human being he had ever seen, even bigger than his old master! He wore the armor of the Bakufu and had his hair up in the topknot. His mouth was large and broad, not so different from a whale's. His sword strokes were swift and sure. This would not do at all!
Kenshin charged forward and interposed himself between the large samurai and his compatriots.
Whale Mouth's eyes widened at the sight of the small, redhaired warrior who stood before him, gazing at him with narrowed eyes.
"I will ask you once to put down your sword," offered Battousai.
Whale Mouth's eyes narrowed in anger. Was this Battousai so arrogant that he thought he could use his reputation to make people surrender? Kujiranami Hyogo was a true samurai and would rather die than dishonor himself!
"Never! I will fight to the end!" cried Whale Mouth, raising his sword to strike down Kenshin.
Anger sparking, Kenshin drew his sword as he charged right at the large samurai and slashed upward, instantly severing the man's sword arm from the rest of his body at the elbow.
'RYU SHO SEN!'
"Gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!!!!!!!" the large man cried as he stumbled back and collapsed to his knees, clutching the stump of his right arm as blood gushed from it in a crimson torrent.
The man's eyes widened in desperation as he beheld the small redhaired figure with the large cruciform scar on its left cheek. To think that he should have his sword arm lopped off by the Ishin Shishi's demon!
"Kill me. The Ishin Shishi have won at Toba Fushimi. It's over. From now on, wars will be fought not with swords, but with guns and cannons that require neither soul nor skill. I don't want to live to see such times. I want to die as a warrior. It will be an honor to die by the hand of the one called the strongest," said Kujirinami as he gazed down at his now useless limb. "Kill me."
Battousai closed his eyes for a moment.
"I'm sorry, but I won't kill any more than I have to," came the quiet voice as Battousai turned and walked away. "Live in the new era."
"YOU PATRIOTS HAVE ALREADY STOLEN MY PRIDE AND MY WORLD! WILL YOU ALSO ROB ME OF A WARRIOR'S DEATH? BATTOUSAI!" yelled Kujirinami, reaching after the retreating hitokiri.
Kenshin moved as quickly as he could, eager to get away from the screaming warrior, who was making him feel as guilty for having spared him as he would if he had killed him.
Battousai's kenki spiked as he recognized the strong ki of what could only be one of the Shinsengumi officers. Up ahead, he saw the unmistakable charging thrust being executed. Saitou Hajime was here, still trying to hold back the Patriots. Oh, would this Wolf never give up?
"Saitou Hajime! Himura Battousai will be your opponent!" Battousai called to him.
Saitou looked up and grinned menacingly at the sight of the frail youth standing before him.
"Ah, Battousai. So good to see that you're not dead. I couldn't stand knowing that anyone but me had had had the pleasure of running his sword through you," growled the Wolf.
"Enough talk. Will you retreat, or will you fight? Choose quickly," snarled Battousai.
"The first rule of the Shinsengumi is to behave like a proper samurai and finish all one's battles. Today, this battle will conclude with my Swift Death to Evil," grinned Saitou, dropping into his gatotsu stance.
Battousai dropped into his battoujutsu stance, unlocking his katana from its sheath.
"Let's do this," hissed Saitou as he suddenly charged forward.
Battousai yanked out his katana and blocked Saitou's thrust, immediately dodging to the side and slashing at the Wolf, striking him in the torso. Saitou jumped back before Battousai could finish and cut him again.
Before they could charge each other again, another Shinsengumi approached, panic etched on his features.
"Captain Saitou, we've just received word just received that Tokugawa Yoshinobu-sama has sailed to Edo! We must head north immediately!"
"Damn!" growled Saitou, his pleasure interrupted. "Be grateful this happened, Battousai, or your head would have been on a pike in Edo!"
"I could say the same to you," said Battousai indifferently as Saitou and the other Shinsengumi broke away and started charging to the north.
The battle was finally over! With the cannon blasts and shouts of his compatriots ringing in his ears, Himura Battousai thrust his katana and wakizashi into the ground and disappeared amidst the rowdy celebrations. Covered in grime and blood, the first thing he would need to do was bathe and change into his new clothes. He would find it difficult to start his new life while covered in the evidence of the old.
Fortunately, Katsura had set Himura up in one of many secret Ishin safe houses to conceal his whereabouts from the other Patriots while he prepared to leave the ranks. As he moved away from the battleground, the snow gradually lost the sickening red-pink hues he hated and returned to its pristine whiteness, which he wasn't sure if he loved, or hated even more. The air likewise, became quieter and quieter until all he could hear were the sounds of nature in its winter sleep.
Himura stopped and closed his eyes, feeling the quiet wind and the icy gusts it bore against his skin. He was lost in the ice, the snow, the cold and the quiet. Suddenly, she was there, surrounding him with her presence, drawing him in, piquing and drowning his senses. Himura wrapped his arms around his body and hugged himself tightly, tears spilling silently from haunted eyes; tears for her, for the relationship they might have shared if only things had been different.
'I hope you can forgive me someday. I will live only to repent for what I did to you and so many others,' the warrior thought as the tears continued to cascade down his cheeks, freezing before they even hit the snowy ground.
If he could permit himself to be selfish, Himura Kenshin would have stood in that white, quiet place for hours and hours, perhaps even long enough to let himself be numbed out of his misery by her quiet touch. But that wasn't what she had wanted for him. She had wanted him to live on, so live on he must.
With that in mind, Himura forced himself to move forward, one heavy step at a time.
Himura moved quickly and quietly, keeping out of sight as much as possible. He was relieved when the city of Kyoto finally came into view. Keeping to the side streets and back alleys as he had in his assassin days, Himura made his way to the safe house where he uttered the password to gain entry.
Himura headed for the bath to bathe and change his clothes. In the bath, Himura stripped out of his battle clothes, balled them up and threw them against the wall, which they hit with a nauseating splat. Next, he scrubbed himself from head to toe, hoping in vain to rid himself of the feeling and scent of blood. It never worked. No matter how hard he scrubbed himself and how he wore his skin down to its innermost layer, he still felt and smelled blood all over himself.
When he was as clean as he could get himself without bleeding, Himura slowly sank into the scalding water of the tub. The heat of the water burned his skin, which was already irritated from the excessive scrubbing, but loosened his battle weary muscles. The steam seeped into his nostrils and helped to distance, if not eliminate, the scent of blood that always permeated his olfactory sense.
Despite his intention to just sit in the tub for a few minutes, exhaustion overcame Himura and his eyelids closed. His head drooped forward and he was asleep.
When he awakened, his cheeks were damp with tears.
Early the next morning, before the sun was even peaking in the horizon, Himura was already awake to make his final preparations. He removed his yukata and slowly untied the bundle of clothes Ikumatsu had made to start him on his journey.
'She should not have done this for me, but I am thankful,' Himura thought as he eyed the gray hakama, light blue kimono and darker blue hanten that awaited his use.
Himura wasted no time donning the new clothes. Now there was one thing left to be done.
Picking up his old, blood-stained warrior clothes, Himura carried them out back, gathered logs from the woodpile, put the clothes atop the logs, struck his quartz stones together and watched as the bloody clothes burned, smoke ascending into the wintry air. When everything was burnt out, Himura slung his bento over his shoulder, turned his back and left.
The sun was just making its way above the eastern horizon, a giant ball of fire, staining the land crimson.
Moving along quickly, Himura was somewhat annoyed when he felt the ki of someone approaching him. What he wanted to do was disappear, not exchange pleasantries or explain himself to his old comrades.
"Hey, Himura!" called a rough, gravelly and very familiar voice.
The sharp brown eyes of the great swordsmith and staunch Patriot supporter, Arai Shakku looked critically at the young man with the flaming red hair and sad eyes who stood before him. Himura had no sword at his side, having abandoned his daisho on the battlefield the day before. Shakku's fingers caressed the sheath of the sword he held over his right shoulder as he remembered the words of Himura's superior from two days ago.
'Himura will no longer be with us after tomorrow.'
"I hear you're leaving the revolution, Himura," the swordsmith said with a sneer. "We've just won our first battle at Toba Fushimi. The revolution is finally coming to be and you're running away. Where will you go with no sword?"
Himura brushed his bangs from his eyes and thought for a moment. Indeed, where would he go? What would he do? A thought of returning to his master briefly flicked into Himura's consciousness before he promptly quenched it. After parting on such bad terms, and Himura's misuse of Hiten Mitsurugi, there was no way Hiko would welcome the return of a pupil who reeked of more blood than an entire battalion. No. Himura was on his own.
"Katsura-sensei has given his permission, Shakku-dono," Himura answered quietly. "A way will be found to protect the people of the new era, without killing."
Shakku snorted in derision.
"Feh! If there is such a way, I'd like to see it myself."
Himura regarded Shakku quietly for a moment. The swordsmith's words did make sense. How would he protect people with no sword? He had little skill in hand-to-hand combat. Somehow, he had to make this work. Shakku's next words brought him out of his reverie.
"After all the men you've killed, why run away now? Live by the sword and die by the sword. That's the only path you have," said the swordsmith.
With these words, Shakku tossed the sword he had been holding to Himura, who snatched it out of the air with his left hand. Himura looked at Shakku with confusion evident in his eyes. Shakku turned his back to Himura and started to head back to his smithy.
"It's a gift. It's a failure, but for you as you are now, it's enough," Shakku continued as Himura still held the sword in his out-stretched arm. "Try being a swordsman with that at your waist. Soon enough, you'll see how naive you're being. When that one breaks and you're still able to believe your own sweet lies, come to Kyoto and look for me."
As Shakku spoke these words, Himura slowly drew the sword from its sheath. He almost dropped it in astonishment when he saw the blade: the sharp and dull edges were reversed! What manner of sword was this? Was this Shakku-dono's silent commentary on his decision to leave the war? Himura pulled the strange sword all the way from its sheath, slid the sheath into his obi and gave the sword a few test swings.
The reverse blade felt awkward and unwieldy in hands used to holding the finest katana. Himura resheathed the sword, crouched down and drew it out in battoujutsu. The battoujutsu felt slow to him and quite off. But if he was going to protect without killing, did he even need a lightning-fast battoujutsu? Perhaps if he practiced with this... sakabatou, he would get good enough with it to fight at, or at least near, the level he had as a hitokiri. The moves were basically the same, just a bit slower with the reversed edges.
'Thank you, Shakku-dono. I will wield this sakabatou as honorably as a worthless murderer like myself can and will use it for the defense of the weak,' Himura thought as he gazed in the direction the swordsmith had walked off in.
At length, Himura resheathed the Sakabatou and shouldered Ikumatsu's bento. With an inward sigh, Himura looked about him. He was leaving behind his life of bloodshed once and for all. His determination to honor her memory would drive him forward.
Feeling its awkward yet familiar presence between his juban and bare skin reminded Himura of the final stop he must make before leaving Kyoto once and for all. Himura turned and headed for that place.
This place was so quiet and peaceful, it was hard to believe it had been in the same city that had been the epicenter of the fighting. Somehow, perhaps out of respect for what it stood for, the temple and graveyard had been spared the destruction of the cannons and fires of the war.
Leaving his sandals outside, Kenshin walked up the steps to the donation box. He rang the little bell, tossed a ryo into the box, then held his hands up in prayer, though he did not actually pray. This formality completed, he entered the temple to find the monks.
The monk in charge looked up and almost gave a yelp when he saw the young man with the long red hair and the cruciform scar standing before him. Like every other denizen of Kyoto, he had heard the stories. To find this demon standing before him was almost too much. What had he done? Did the devil mean to kill him?
"What may this monk do for you, O-Samurai?" he asked nervously.
With an inward sigh at the monk's typical, but still rather annoying reaction, Kenshin reached into his kimono and pulled out the tattered diary he had treasured for the past three years and held it out to him.
The monk took the diary with shaking hands.
"Please keep this here as my last offering to the one whose grave resides in your cemetery," Himura asked quietly.
The monk nodded, never taking his eyes off Himura.
"We will take good care of it," he said nervously.
"Thank you," said Himura with a brief bow before turning and drifting out of the office, toward the cemetery.
After Battousai disappeared, the monk's legs gave out and he sank to the floor, every muscle in his body quaking.
Himura Battousai stood over the small, unmarked gravestone beneath which her ashes lay. He stood silent and unmoving for what seemed like an eternity.
Three years ago, Katsura-san had spent some of his own money to have her ashes interred in this cemetery and the small marker put over them. This was the first time Himura had been able to steel himself to visit this place.
'Tomoe...' he thought softly. 'Right now, I am unworthy to leave flowers on your grave. I am leaving this place now. I do not know when, or if, I will return. If I can ever find myself worthy, I will return and offer you flowers.'
January 15, 1868
With each step Himura Kenshin took, Kyoto became more and more distant. The memories of the tangy scent of blood, the woosh and clang of swords, the screams of the dying and the cannon blasts were still his constant companions. Kenshin had to consciously force his mind to stay on the present and not drift back into his blood soaked memories.
As he walked, he mulled over his life up to this point and the people and events that had influenced it. In doing so, he came to a realization: up till now, he had never truly been in control of his own life. The little boy Shinta had been controlled first by his parents, then by the slavers. As he grew older, Kenshin had been controlled first by Hiko, then by Katsura Kogoro. Only now was Kenshin finally beginning to live life on his own terms and to take true responsibility for his own actions. It was a rather daunting, yet simultaneously liberating feeling.
'Perhaps this is what it means to truly be an adult,' he thought as he walked forward.
Kenshin came to a small clearing on the right of the tree lined trail he was taking east of Kyoto. In the clearing was a small shrine and a temple behind it. Kenshin paused to look at the small, lonely building which seemed to have been left out of history and forgotten by everyone. He was about to continue his journey when his ki sense gave him a jolt.
Kenshin sensed the flash of bright ki just quickly enough to jump into the air and avoid being bowled over by a pair of rowdy boys who suddenly came bursting through the bushes at top speed, their cheeks flushed from running in the cold January air. The boys were startled when they saw the swordsman with the preposterously colored hair flip in the mid air and land on his feet five feet behind them.
"Hey mister, that's a neat trick!" said the younger boy.
"Shut up, idiot! You have to be respectful to samurai!" said the older boy while clocking the younger one on the head. "Sorry for almost running into you, Samurai-san,"
Poor Kenshin was so taken aback by this spectacle that he didn't know what to say for a second. Then a smile, rusty from years of disuse, found its way to his face and he held his hands up to show that he meant them no harm.
"It's fine. There's no harm done," he said in a soft, melodic voice. "I should have been paying more attention to my surroundings, but I didn't think anyone lived this far out in the countryside where only this lonely temple stands."
"This lonely temple is our home. Our fathers were killed in the war," remarked the older boy, all the light gone out of his eyes.
The younger boy nodded, tears welling in his eyes.
Kenshin felt his blood run cold at these words. He was standing face to face with people who might very well have lost loved ones to Battousai, just as... she had. His stomach knotted up on itself. He looked down at the snowy ground before him, wondering to himself if they had lost their fathers to his own sword.
'Oh, Kami-sama...' he thought, rapidly blinking away the stinging feeling of tears in his eyes.
"Um, are you alright, Samurai-san?" asked the younger boy, perplexed at why the amazing swordsman had suddenly gone so quiet.
Startled from his revery, Kenshin's head snapped up.
"Oh, yes. Forgive me. My thoughts wandered a bit," he mumbled, trying to summon his smile again, but failing utterly.
'There has to be something I can do for them...' Kenshin thought, 'but what?'
Then he thought of the perfect thing: the money bag Katsura-san had given to him just before he had left the Ishin Shishi!
'I don't deserve to make myself comfortable with this blood money. However, it can still be used for the good of others,' Kenshin thought as he reached inside his shoulder pack and pulled out the heavy money bag and proffered it to the older boy.
The boy hesitantly raised his hands and looked the swordsman squarely in the eye.
"Why do you want to give me this?" he asked.
"Because you need it more than I do," answered Kenshin simply. "Take it and be happy."
At that, Kenshin decisively pushed the bag into the boy's hands, then with a bow, he turned to leave. Just then, he heard the voice of the younger boy.
"Hey, Mister! What's your name?"
Kenshin turned to the boys and looked at them for a moment. He had no desire to tell anyone his name, lest any old enemies, or comrades, hunting for him get wind of his trail and threaten these innocents whom he had only briefly spoken with. From now on, he was simply a wandering ronin.
"Rurouni... is my only name. Now I must be on my way. Take care of yourselves," Kenshin said with a deep bow from the waist before turning around and starting off.
"Thank you, Rurouni-san!" he heard behind him.
Rurouni Kenshin held up his right hand in a gesture of farewell without looking back.
February 4, 1868
Kenshin stood in a small clearing, the snow falling silently around him. To the side lay his hanten and bento. His kimono and juban hung limply from his waist, chest and shoulders bared for maximum freedom of movement. His eyes were closed in deep concentration. His left hand gripped the Sakabatou's hilt. His thumb loosened it from its sheath with a soft ca-chink. Kenshin's eyes opened, staring intently forward.
Slowly, Kenshin lowered himself into his battoujutsu crouch, knees bent, left leg slightly forward, right hand hovering over the loosened hilt of his sword. He stood as still as a statue for a few seconds. Suddenly, the statue came to life, right hand gripping the hilt and wrenching it from its sheath in a silver blur while he stepped quickly forward. The whole process was over in the blink of an eye.
Though perfection to the untrained eye, to Kenshin's finely honed instincts, that battoujutsu had been slow and awkward. He stood straight and resheathed the Sakabatou, locking it in its sheath. Again, his eyes closed in concentration. After a moment, he loosed the blade with his thumb, then repeated his battoujutsu.
For the rest of the morning, Himura Kenshin practiced his basic battoujutsu over and over again. Each time he practiced it, it felt a bit smoother and more natural to him. Battoujutsu with the Sakabatou would never be as fluid as with a regular katana, but for a non-killing rurouni, it would suffice very well.
Satisfied with his basic battoujutsu, Kenshin ran through the more advanced forms: the So Ryu Sen, the So Ryu Sen Ikazuchi and the Hi Ryu Sen. Once he was certain of his battoujutsu, Kenshin practiced his leaping moves: the Ryu Sho Sen and Ryu Tsui Sen. All of his movements were graceful and fluid, not a hair or muscle out of place.
After leaping came thrusting. Kenshin thrust the Sakabatou forward in rapid, wild strikes, executing a beautiful Ryu So Sen.
By the time the sun was crawling toward the western sky, Kenshin felt better about his ability to use the Sakabatou in a fight. Already his body was becoming used to the difference and compensating for it. He made up his mind to spend a few hours each day training until it was second nature to him.
As he shrugged back into his juban and kimono, Kenshin vaguely wondered when his first test would come.
February 11, 1868
The sky was iron gray, the temperature was well below freezing and the snow just would not yield! Kenshin's straw hat offered scant protection from the wind that seemed to want to whip his red hair, lifting it and undulating it in a thousand directions. His eyes squinted and tried to see even three feet before him, meeting with only failure.
As he stumbled ahead a few more feet, Kenshin suddenly found himself pitching forward and was only able to save himself from faceplanting with his fast reflexes, which allowed him to brace himself with his arms. Kenshin groped around blindly and found that the land had dropped off in a sharp, but thankfully small declension. Snuggling his body to the small cliff, Kenshin closed his eyes and covered his face with his arms to wait out the blizzard. Trying to move anymore would be foolhardy at best, suicidal at worst.
After a seeming eternity, the wind died down and the blizzard was reduced to a gentle snowfall. Opening his eyes and peeking out from behind his sleeves, Kenshin gazed sadly at the white world around him. The white of the snow seemed to take on a pinkish hue, as if blood were seeping into it. Kenshin shook his head harshly to dismiss the illusion and looked again. The snow was once again white.
With a weary sigh, Kenshin stood up and walked slowly away from the little embankment to continue his solitary journey.
This village looked promising! Perhaps Kenshin would be able to find a place that would allow him to work for shelter or food. As he stepped into the village's limits, he spotted a stooped over little woman, sweeping up outside what appeared to be an inn or restaurant. Putting on his best smile, he stepped toward her.
Hearing the approaching footsteps, the woman looked up from her sweeping. Immediately, her eyes narrowed at the sight of the topknot and the sheathed sword at the boy's waist. Could these damn samurai never stop coming here and reeking havoc?!
Kenshin felt the woman's ki change. Suddenly, she was charging at him, broom raised and eyes blazing.
"Murderer! Away with you! Haven't we suffered enough at your hands?!" she screeched as she swung her broom at him.
Kenshin leapt over her head and took off at full speed. Maybe he would have better luck in the next village.
Warm hands, soft voices, coos of love, screams of agony, hot summer sun, cold winter snow all passed before his dreaming eyes in an eternal and random succession. Was he awake or asleep? He didn't know. He didn't care. He wanted this state never to end. The gushing of a waterfall, the clanging of swords. His parents and brothers, the three sisters, his master, Tomoe...
A woman's scream shattered the stillness of his dreams.
Kenshin's eyes snapped open. He was instantly on the alert, jumping to his feet and gripping the hilt of the Sakabatou as he ran in the direction of the scream. As he came to the clearing, he saw a large ronin bearing down over a woman who had been planting in the field. Her seeds were strewn on the ground behind her. The ronin reached down to pick her up and tear her clothes off.
Kenshin's mind turned back to the first time he had used his sword in a serious battle. A huge ogre of a man had been slicing at a woman's kimono with his katana. After all the war and bloodshed he had gone through, overthrowing the Bakufu and reinstalling the Emperor, there were still thugs out there, pulling this crap!
Eyes sparking with rage, Kenshin shot forth at the ronin and swung the Sakabatou down. He was stunned when he heard the crunch of the man's left shoulder blade instead of the tearing of flesh and gush of blood. That was right! He was using a sakabatou. He could smash and crush, but not cut.
With the woman out of the way and running as fast as she could, Kenshin could fight without holding back. He effortlessly dodged the sword swing of the ronin, whose left arm hung uselessly at his side.
The ronin swung in blind rage. Kenshin feinted to the side and hit the ronin square in the chest with the hilt of the sakabatou, sending the man flying backward and slamming solidly against the trunk of a nearby oak tree. Pivoting off the tree, the ronin launched himself directly at Kenshin.
Kenshin leapt into the air, and brought down the Sakabatou on the ronin's right shoulder.
'RYU TSUI SEN!'
The ronin collapsed, both arms useless. Turning his back sharply, Kenshin resheathed the sakabatou and hastened away from the scene.
Kenshin ran for a mile before finally stopping. He couldn't believe he had fought without killing. This had been one of the few times a fight he had been in hadn't ended in a death since Katsura-san had recruited him as an assassin.
Looking over to his left, Kenshin saw water shining through a copse of trees. With the adrenaline of battle now worn off, Kenshin realized that he was tired and thirsty. A splash of water on his face and a quick drink were just what he needed.
Kenshin picked his way gracefully through the trees and emerged on the other side to behold a lovely little pond with crystal clear water that was so still and quiet, it seemed like glass instead of water.
Kenshin drew the Sakabatou out of his obi and set it at his right side as he knelt down at the water. Just as he was about to dip his hand in for a drink, the young man was caught by the sight of his reflection, which showed a heart-shaped face, looking very severe with his hair pulled back in the topknot he had worn since joining the Ishin Shishi, his eyes flat and dull and that huge scar marring his left cheek; the face of Hitokiri Battousai.
Kenshin felt dread and rage surge up in his heart. In Kyoto, he had avoided looking at his reflection because he had hated the strange face that stared at him with a flat, dead gaze. It didn't matter if it had his shape of face, his hair, his eyes; it was not he!
For a moment, Kenshin was paralyzed by the hated reflection staring up at him with those empty eyes, like a bird caught in a cobra's hypnotic gaze. Then, something in him snapped.
With a snarl, Kenshin grabbed the sheathed Sakabatou, yanked it free and thrust it into the water, dissolving his reflection into a chaotic jumble of reflected light. Again and again, he stabbed the Sakabatou into the water, sending that hated face scattering from the water's shimmering surface. Then, in one fluid motion, he roughly yanked his hair out of its topknot, letting it fall in a crimson cascade around his shoulders.
Then, he stopped. Everything was still. No wind blew; no animals stirred. Sitting back on his heels, Kenshin inhaled deeply and slowly, holding his breath in his lungs for a few seconds before exhaling just as slowly. He repeated this several times, eyes closed tightly. Finally his eyes came unscrunched, though they remained closed and his rigid shoulders drooped. Kenshin stayed in that position, not moving, only breathing slowly and shallowly, the maelstrom in his soul slowly abating.
Only the water of the lake moved slowly, tiny waves bobbing and lapping peacefully, the sun's white light reflecting off the deep blue water. Kenshin's eyes slowly opened. As he gazed out at the serene lake, he felt the quietness overtaking his soul.
After what seemed like an eternity of sitting still, Kenshin gripped the Sakabatou's hilt, slowly pulled it from the water and flicked the moisture from the blade before resheathing it. Grasping the hair tie he had let fall to his side, Kenshin caught his loose mane and bound it into a low ponytail, tied just at the nape of his neck.
Finally, Kenshin forced his eyes down to his reflection, which had stabilized from its earlier chaos. It seemed gentle, placid and lifelike. A smile briefly broke on the rurouni's lips. For the first time in years, the face that stared back at him was his own.
Noises in a field to his left caught the young wanderer's attention and made him look in that direction. In the sunny field, he saw two boys around 12 years old having a pretend sword fight with branches, just as he had once done with Gen and Somaku in Otsu.
"Right through the heart! You're dead!"
He felt the breastbone give way as he pushed the point of his katana into the Shinsengumi warrior's chest, ending his life. Blood sprayed everywhere.
Heart slamming in his chest, Kenshin's left hand reflexively grasped his sword's hilt.
"No way! I just lopped off your head! You're dead!"
Blood spurted from the headless trunk of the Bakufu supporter who had been his target that night, some of it spraying on his face.
The boys got into a rough and tumble argument and started whacking at each other harshly with the branches.
Kenshin's thumb unlocked the Sakabatou from its sheath.
Battousai blocked Okita's sword, pushed forward and was able to knock the Shinsengumi captain back a few feet. Smile never leaving his face, Okita immediately charged again. Battousai leapt into the air, avoiding his thrust and was able to slash Okita on the shoulder. Okita pivoted to avoid having his arm cut off and was able to slash Battousai across the chest, though not enough to do damage.
All these memories raced through Kenshin's mind while he stared at the boys and their sword fight as one in a dream. Before he knew what he was doing, he had dropped into his battoujutsu crouch.
"CUT THAT OUT NOW AND GET TO THOSE RICE PADDIES!" came the ominous bellow of what could only be one or both of their mother.
The two boys froze at the sound of that frightening voice, then quickly dropped their branches and scampered off to the neglected paddies.
The woman's voice also snapped Kenshin out of his reverie. Gasping for breath, heart slamming in his chest and sweat beading on his brow, the rurouni instantly righted himself and looked down in horror at his loosened Sakabatou. If the boys' mother hadn't yelled at them at that moment, he would have attacked them with his battoujutsu!
'I have to get ahold of myself! If I can't tell the difference between a pretend sword fight and a real one, there's something wrong with me!' Kenshin thought in horror as he quickly locked the Sakabatou back into its sheath and shook his head vigorously.
The young swordsman quickly started his journey again, eager to get as far away from any reminders of war as he could.
Kenshin settled himself comfortably at the base of the old maple tree's trunk. At long last, it was warm enough to sleep outside under the stars. He had been rather tired of finding caves, shrines and other abandoned buildings to sleep in, huddling over a meager fire while he clutched the Sakabatou and tried to ignore the external and internal coldness. Now he could surround himself with the beauty of nature and perhaps, ease the ache in his soul just a bit.
Kenshin neatly piled his clothes on the large rock, then stepped slowly into the river. The cool water chilled his bare skin, but he ignored it. He was hungry and the fish with their shimmering silver scales had "dinner" written all over them. Moving slowly to keep from startling them, he stalked out into the water. When he was near enough, he plunged his hands into the icy cascade.
Kenshin retracted his arms from the babbling water, clutching a writhing fish that was already precariously close to regaining its freedom. Crushing the slippery creature to his chest, Kenshin quickly made his way toward land. He emerged from the water, dripping wet and cold, but exultant at his success at having caught his dinner.
After setting the fish a safe distance from the river, Kenshin quickly redressed, then grabbed the fish and started preparing his meal.
That night, Kenshin rejoiced over the rare treat that was fresh fish.
As Kenshin made his way briskly down the sunny dirt road, a muffled sound of sobbing reached his ears. He stopped and listened. It sounded like the heartbroken sobs of a little girl. Moving slowly and carefully, Kenshin followed the sounds around a large copse of trees and came upon the little girl, sitting under a tall oak tree and sobbing pitifully into her kimono sleeve.
Kenshin was about to inquire as to the nature of her distress, when the situation made itself known quite plainly.
Kenshin's gaze traveled up, up, up into the highest branches of the tall oak to behold a tiny kitten with fur almost the same color as his hair, clinging precariously to a limb and crying pitifully.
Kenshin approached the tree, then coiled up his legs and launched himself into the air. The resultant whoosh from his sudden movement alerted the little girl to his presence and caused her to look up in disbelief at the small swordsman with the flame colored hair sailing up into the air, plucking her flame colored kitten from the branch, descending and landing gracefully in front of her.
"Here you go," said Kenshin with a wide, disarming smile as he presented the squirming kitten to her.
At the horrific pain of sharp claws raking across his brow over his right eye, Kenshin fumbled and the kitten took the opportunity to jump from his arms and land in the little girl's outstretched ones.
"Oh, thank you, Kenkaku-san!" cried the little girl as she took the kitten into her arms. "I'm so sorry Hyoneko scratched you. He doesn't like strangers to touch him, even if it's to help him!"
"I see. I was glad to help either way. Now if you'll excuse me, I must be on my way," said Kenshin with a bow as he dabbed at the blood trickling from the scratches.
Blood dripped from Battousai's katana before he flicked it vigorously after that night's assassination.
"Wait! You should come to my house so my mama can patch up those scratches. It's the least we can do. Plus Mama makes chilled edamame beans on days like this. After I tell her you got Hyoneko down for me, I'm sure she would give you some."
Kenshin considered. The scratches over his eye did hurt and he hadn't had chilled edamame beans in a dog's age and they did sound good on a hot day like this.
"Well, alright. But I can only stay for a few moments," he said.
Holding Hyoneko securely in her arms, the little girl ran ahead of Kenshin toward her house, calling for her mother as she did so.
"Mama! Mama! This kind swordsman got Hyoneko out of the tree for me, but this naughty kitten scratched him all up!" she called.
At the sound of her daughter's voice, the girl's mother emerged from the house, carrying bandages and a bowl of said edamame beans.
"Did he now?" she asked, eying the squirming kitten in her daughter's arms. "Thank you for helping my daughter, Kenkaku-san. I'm sorry for any inconvenience you suffered."
"None whatsoever, ma'am. I was glad to help," said Kenshin with a sunny smile.
"Sit down on the engawa and let's look at those scratches," said the mother practically.
After sliding the Sakabatou out of his obi, Kenshin sat down and raised his face so the mother could see the scratches. Using a cloth, the mother dabbed the blood off Kenshin's brow, then stuck a cotton patch over the three scratches.
"Leave that be for the next two days and the scratches should disappear without a trace," instructed the mother.
"Yes, ma'am. Thank you," said Kenshin softly, grateful for this rare kindness.
Now that the medical attention was finished, the little girl held out the bowl of beans for Kenshin.
"Here you are, Kenkaku-san!" she chirped happily.
"Thanks for the food," Kenshin said happily before lifting one to his lips and biting in.
These were the best edamame beans he had had in a long time!
"Kenkaku-san, would you like to stay for dinner?" offered the mother.
"Thank you, but no," declined Kenshin with a shake of his head. "The road is my home and I must return to it. Thank you for the edamame beans."
Turning to the little girl, he smiled brightly.
"Keep an eye on Hyoneko from now on. You don't want him to get up that tree again," he said sweetly.
"I will. Thank you, Kenkaku-san," said the little girl with a bow.
"Take care," said Kenshin, returning the bow.
Before anyone could say or do anything else, he turned and hastened away from the house, eager to get back on the road before he found himself getting too comfortable.
A/N: Hyoneko means "fire cat" and kenkaku means "swordsman".
July 16, 1868
As Kenshin sat in the corner of the tavern with his straw hat pulled down to shield his face, his ears caught a disturbing conversation.
"Did you hear the news from Edo?"
"No. What happened?"
"Two weeks ago, Yoshinobu's warriors, the Shogitai, were routed by the Imperialists at Kaneiji Temple at Mt. Ueno. They were ordered not to fight, but took a final stand anyway."
"What? Fools! Couldn't they just accept that the Imperialists have won?"
"I admire what they did. It was an honorable death."
"I suppose so. Those idiot Bakufu supporters needed something to salvage what little honor they had left. Maybe this was it."
"Yes, to die for their lord, even knowing they had no chance to win. That is what it means to be a samurai."
Kenshin sighed inwardly and mentally blocked out the rest of the conversation. He had hoped most of the bloodshed would have been long over by now. To hear that there was still fighting of such magnitude going on made him feel ill inside. Leaving some coins on the table, Kenshin rose fluidly to his feet, slid the Sakabatou into his obi and exited the pub unseen by all.
Surveying the long stretch of sandy beach before him with the beautiful blue ocean on the left, Kenshin felt his heart rise within him. Quickly, he pulled his zori from his feet and stuffed them into the folds of his kimono, repeating with his tabi. He then started down the beach, feeling the coarse, wet sand as it pushed its way up between his toes and the cool water as it lapped around his bare ankles.
For a moment, Kenshin stopped and looked up at the white gulls that were circling and squawking in the vault of blue sky over him. A small smile graced his lips as he watched them. Birds had not a care in the world other than to fly about, looking for food. How he wished he could be one of them just now!
August 10, 1868
Three weeks! It had been three weeks since the last rain had fallen! The land was baking, heat rippling off the ground in waves. The trees and smaller plants seemed to sag under the weight of the oppressive heat, their leaves shriveled up like prunes. All the lakes and rivers had turned to mud, the fish in them long dead and unfit to eat.
Himura Kenshin sighed unhappily to himself as he walked along. Due to the drought, he hadn't been able to find any fruit, fish or anything to eat for three days. All the animals had migrated or gone into hiding. He had no choice. If he wanted food, he would have to risk human interaction.
Just then, his weary eyes caught sight of a small inn at the side of the road. Surely, they would have some food to spare! Of course, he had no money, but perhaps he could barter work for food. He wouldn't know if he didn't try. Marshalling his courage, Kenshin stood before the door, raised his hand and knocked.
Seconds later, the door slid open to reveal a stone-faced woman with iron gray hair pulled back in a severe bun and sharp gray eyes. She eyed the young man who stood before her suspiciously, especially when she caught sight of the sheathed sword at his side.
"We're booked solid," she said, before Kenshin could even introduce himself.
"It is not a room I seek, merely a meal," Kenshin said.
"That might be doable," said the innkeeper.
"I have no money to pay for food," Kenshin said.
The hikido started to slide shut. Kenshin blocked it with his hand in desperation.
"However, I would be willing to work for my food," he said.
"What kinda work kin ye do?" asked the innkeeper, looking dubiously at the short, frail boy who stood before her, staring at her with plum-colored eyes that seemed too big for his small, pale face.
"Just about anything. I can cook, clean, do laundry, patch the roof," said Kenshin, quickly going over his best non-combat skills.
"Well... the floor's been gittin' a bit dusty lately and me back's been a killin' me. Alright, if ye kin git the floor clean to me likin', I'll give ye some food tonight," said the innkeeper, sliding the door open and allowing Kenshin in.
"Thank you..." said Kenshin.
"Matsumodo," said Matsumodo. "And ye?"
"Just a rurouni," said Kenshin.
"Ye on the run from the law?" asked Matsumodo, suspicious of the young man's hesitancy to name himself.
"I am but a rurouni and have no need for a name," said Kenshin quietly.
"Pah! Whatever! Ye kin store yer pack in the back room and that sword too. I been havin' nothin' but trouble with samurai and ronin comin' in here, gittin' drunk, fightin' and trashin' me place! They skeer off all me customers! If ye do the same, ye'll be out on yer backside!" warned Matsumodo, pointing to the back room.
Kenshin growled inwardly, the warrior in him not wanting to be separated from his sword for even a second. However, he was desperate for food, so would have to obey.
"Very well, Matsumodo-dono," he said with a bow and then headed to the storage room to stow his belongings.
Scrtch! Scrtch! Scrtch!
The rhythmic sound of the broom sweeping dust from the floor lulled Kenshin's otherwise tense nerves, allowing his mind to rest as his body performed the chore automatically. If his former compatriots could see him now, they would laugh him to scorn; the great, mighty Hitokiri Battousai, sweeping and doing menial chores in exchange for room and board!
Kenshin didn't think it was such a bad trade. It was certainly better than the work he had done in Kyoto.
Kenshin was aroused from his slumber by the feeling of enraged ki and shouting voices from outside his door.
"I dare you to say that again!"
"I will say it again! The Ishin Shishi won the war by a fluke! If not for that demon Battousai, the Bakufu would still be in power and we wouldn't be suffering as we are now!"
"The Ishin Shishi earned their victory fair and square and Battousai is merely a legend! The suffering is caused by stubborn idiots who refuse to live in the new era!"
"Draw your sword!"
CLANG! CLANG! CLANG!
Instantly, Kenshin was on his feet, sheathed Sakabatou in hand. He tore the hikido open and caught two large men slashing at each other with katana, right in the lobby of the inn!
"You need to take your fight outside so others don't get hurt," he commanded softly.
"Stay out of this, you little..." the man's words died in his mouth when he saw the blood red hair and cruciform scar he had heard of in the songs.
The other man turned and looked and he too quailed at the sight of the Demon of whom they had just been speaking moments ago.
Shaking in their hakama, the men sheathed their swords and backed away. Though they would vaunt themselves as brave, honorable warriors, their true nature was revealed in their unwillingness to face the small redhead who stood before them.
"Git ye outta here!" screeched Matsumodo's voice as the innkeeper suddenly stepped into the room. "What did I say about usin' swords in me inn?!"
"Lady, you don't even realize what you have under your roof!" said one of the men.
"That's Hitokiri Battousai!" cried the other.
"I be not deaf! Off wi' ye!" screeched Matsumodo, grabbing a bowl and flinging it at the samurai.
After the bowl smacked one of them in the head, both men hastened from the inn.
Matsumodo looked over at Kenshin, who stood where he was, face lowered, fists clenched at his sides.
"Be it true?" she asked.
Kenshin nodded without looking up.
"This worthless one will pack his belongings and leave right away," said Kenshin softly, turning to head back into the room.
"Hold on there, boy!" barked Matsumodo.
Kenshin looked back at her over his shoulder. In his eyes, Matsumodo saw all the sorrow and world weariness of someone twice Kenshin's age.
"I dinna say ye should leave. Ye stopped those other two hooligans from trashin' me inn. I believe I could use a guy like ye," said Matsumodo.
"Like me?" Kenshin parroted.
"Yeah. Who knows what them two wouldha done, had ye not come out? I'll have ye stay 'round here a bit 'n' warn them fellas off. Thin respectable people won't be skeered to come here," offered Matsumodo.
Kenshin's eyes widened and his mouth opened at Matsumodo-dono's kind offer. She actually wanted him to stay!
"Very well, Matsumodo-dono. This worthless one accepts your generous offer. Though I can stay but a short while," Kenshin said softly with a bow.
"Now, git ye into the kitchen and get ye some squid balls. They're pipin' hot and wantin' to be eaten," commanded Matsumodo.
Kenshin found himself smiling awkwardly.
"Yes, ma'am," he said softly, heading into the kitchen for some well-deserved squid balls.
For the rest of the month, Kenshin kept order at Matsumodo's inn. Word spread quickly about the presence of Hitokiri Battousai and the swordsmen too cowardly for a true honorable fight stayed well away.
A few did challenge Kenshin to fight. Kenshin always declined, but sometimes had to lure them away from the inn and beat the shit out of them when they refused to back down. By the end of the month, the inn was known to be under Battousai's protection. They all stayed away.
September 1, 1868
Kenshin and Matsumodo bowed to each other from the waist.
"Farewell, Matsumodo-dono. This worthless one humbly thanks you for the food, shelter and opportunity to work," said Kenshin with a smile.
"Farewell to ye, Himura-kun. I hope the road will treat ye kindly," returned Matsumodo.
Kenshin smiled and nodded, then set off.
'I deserve no kindness,' he thought sorrowfully as he made his way toward the northeast.
September 12, 1868
After moving through the mountains, Kenshin was glad to be back on flat ground. He was also glad to see that this han was very lush and verdant, unlike that wasteland he had been in last month. There was plenty of fruit for the taking and rivers and lakes teeming with fish. Kenshin decided to stay here for a bit before moving on. He picked a red apple from a nearby tree and happily crunched on it as he walked along.
After rounding a bend, Kenshin saw a rice farming village in the distance, its denizens all in the watery paddies up to their ankles, harvesting the rice. Since the Bakufu system had been felled, the farmers would actually be able to keep and eat what they had grown, instead of having to turn it over to samurai in tax as Kenshin's family had had to do when he was a child.
Kenshin allowed a small smile to grace his pretty features. It was for people like these that he had fought and shed blood; so they would be able to profit from their own labor instead of being crushed by taxes that benefited those over them, leaving them with next to nothing, unless their social betters felt charitable that year.
With this joyful thought in his usually melancholy heart, Kenshin continued along the road, leaving the happy villagers to their bountiful harvest.
October 2, 1868
Sere autumn leaves crunched beneath sandaled feet as a lone figure made his way down a deserted road. The wind blew the leaves from the trees and to the ground in polychromatic torrents of sunny yellow, dirt brown and blood red. There was a chill in the air, a reminder that winter wasn't far off.
The lone figure drew the folds its haori tight over its chest and pressed forward.
November 25, 1868
Kenshin pulled his hanten up around his neck, grateful for the scant warmth the threadbare garment offered him. His breath came out in vapor streams in the chilly November air. The only way to keep warm in this crisp weather was to walk briskly, which his current job gave him ample opportunity to do. Kenshin and three other swordsmen were currently in the employ of a fat, wealthy merchant and his caravan of precious goods that were making their way through northeastern Japan.
Kenshin noted the weight and soft jingle of the bag of gold coins in his kimono sleeve. The merchant had paid his bodyguards half the promised wages at the start of the journey and would pay them the rest upon their safe arrival in Oma, at the very tip of Honshuu. Kenshin was glad to have this money because it would mean that he would be able to spend the next few days in a warm inn with hot food on a hakuzen instead of in caves and abandoned temples.
Kenshin felt a flash of unstable and fearsome ki all around them suddenly. His left hand instinctively went up and grasped the Sakabatou's tsuba, thumb unlocking it from its sheath.
The swordsman behind Kenshin noticed this and raised his hand warily to the hilt of his katana as well. Suddenly, everything seemed to happen at once as bandits emerged from the bushes surrounding the trail, brandishing swords and spears. Recklessly, they charged at the caravan.
Before the other bodyguards could do anything, Kenshin went into action, dropping into battoujutsu stance and yanking the Sakabatou from its sheath. In one swift arc, the two nearest bandits bit the dust. Before anyone could do anything, Kenshin charged another bandit down, striking him in multiple spots rapidly.
'RYU SO SEN!'
Leaping over the wagons, Kenshin struck one of the other bandits in the shoulder as he came down to earth.
'RYU TSUI SEN!'
Another bandit charged at Kenshin, pointing his spear at the small rurouni. Kenshin struck the ground with the Sakabatou's blade, channeling his ki toward the oncoming bandit. Rock and earth flew up, pelting the bandit from head to toe, bowling him over and knocking the spear from his hand.
'DO RYU SEN!'
The last bandit, seeing his comrades defeated by a single swordsman, dropped his weapon and ran away in the opposite direction, screaming.
With an inward sigh, Kenshin resheathed the Sakabatou, walked around the wagons and resumed his place, none of the other bodyguards getting a chance to even unsheathe their weapons. So much for fitting in!
"He really is a demon," Kenshin heard one of the bodyguards on the other side of the wagons whisper.
"That's enough, gentlemen. We can make it to Muso before evening if we keep moving," commanded the merchant.
With muttered agreements, everyone started forward again.
Kenshin loosened the hanten from around his neck. After that workout, he certainly wasn't cold anymore!
December 15, 1868
Kenshin stared blankly at the few scant snowflakes falling gently from the thick, gray clouds overhead: the first of the season. A faint nausea arose in his stomach, his heart lurching in his chest as he thought of unfathomable black eyes and the scent of white plum blossoms. Closing his eyes and forcing his mind back to the present, Kenshin forced himself to move forward.
After a long while traveling, he found a small village with an inn that also served as a restaurant and tavern. Having the fortune of having a bag of ryo on him from his bodyguard gig, he could treat himself to a hot meal and a night in a warm room, which would allow him to take his mind off the cold, the white, the dead...
New Years Eve, 1868
Alone at the base of a gnarled old oak tree, which clung tenaciously to its dead leaves, sat a swordsman with long crimson hair and haunted eyes of the deepest, darkest violet. The snow fell thickly around him, turning his mind back to that horrible day four years ago, when his world had ended. There had been snow everywhere, a world of white, stained by red when his sword had sliced her in twain.
Rivers of tears coursed from his eyes as the grisly tableau played itself over and over in his mind. The scars all over his body throbbed and ached as it shook with his silent sobs. His arms wrapped around his knees as he hugged himself, attempting in vain to find some solace from his grief.
There would be no comfort for him, none to ease the pain of her passing. He would linger on in darkness and in doubt, as nightfall in winter that comes without a star. He would pass through the years, bound to his grief, under the fading trees until all the era had changed and the long years of his life were utterly spent.