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May 14, 1878

Sumida, Tokyo

Kaoru came to the little glen in the forest where there were lots of fireflies every spring and summer. She had come to this spot many a spring evening as a little girl and chased them. She looked out and there they were, scores of them, flying about slowly, their yellow lights winking on and off like tiny beacons in the darkness. Kaoru watched them, transfixed.

"The fireflies look lovely tonight," came a soft voice from behind her.

Kaoru turned around slowly and saw Kenshin standing in the fireflies' dim light.

"Kenshin! I knew you'd come!" she said happily.

Her happiness was short-lived as Kenshin stepped farther into the light and she beheld the shadow that had fallen over his normally expressive eyes.

"Governor Okubo was killed this morning," he said sadly.

"Yes, we saw it in the paper," Kaoru responded.

"Shishio and his men are the real killers. They can't be allowed to run loose. This worthless one is off to Kyoto," Kenshin announced.

"Will you assassinate Shishio Makoto then?" Kaoru asked tremulously.

"No... Perhaps. If this worthless one can remain rurouni, it will be enough to meet and speak with him, defeat him if need be. But if oneself is lost as in the battle against Saitou..." Kenshin's words trailed off and he fixed Kaoru with a warm, but very sad gaze. "During the time spent here, my heart was at peace and it seemed that life as a normal swordsman was possible. But as was shown in the battle against Saitou, in the deepest recesses of this worthless one's heart there can be no doubt, the hitokiri still lives."

"But you can turn back! However close you get to Battousai, Kenshin is still Kenshin. This battle with Saitou was no different than the one with Jinei. You'll be fine," Kaoru protested.

Kenshin shook his head sadly.

"No. It was different. With Jinei, Battousai emerged to save you and retreated once your voice was heard, but with Saitou, Battousai emerged just to fight him. Your voice didn't reach. So this is different," he responded, his gaze boring into Kaoru's eyes. "When we first met, you understood even after finding out about Hitokiri Battousai. You said that you didn't care about people's pasts. This worthless one was amazed by that. But to the government, to Shishio and his men, to everyone else in this country who hated Hitokiri Battousai, this worthless one is only he. If this worthless one stays here any longer, each incident after this will put you all in danger and this worthless one will get closer to reverting to Battousai each time."

Before Kaoru could respond, Kenshin wrapped his arms around her and pulled her into an embrace so paralyzing, it was all she could do to breathe. The lights of the fireflies swirled and danced around them.

"Thank you for everything you have done for me up till now. This worthless one is a Rurouni. Once again he will drift. Farewell," Kenshin spoke softly, his breath warm on Kaoru's bare neck. (Ima made, arigatou...Sessha wa rurouni..Matta nagareru de gozaru..Sayonara.)

Kenshin broke the embrace and turned and walked slowly into the night. Kaoru raised her hand and tried to summon her voice.

"Ken-shin..." she tried to call after his retreating form, but the words strangled in her throat.

As though her spirit were suddenly being drained from her body, Kaoru collapsed to her knees, sobbing heartbrokenly with only the fireflies to witness.

On May 14th, 1878, the man known as Himura Kenshin once again became a rurouni and disappeared alone into the foreboding darkness.


As Kenshin moved forward, one heavy step at a time, he heard Kaoru's strangled sobs behind him. It took all of his willpower not to turn around and go tearing back to her, pull her to her feet and tell her that he had changed his mind and would stay.

He wanted with every ounce of his being to stay at the Kamiya Dojo with Kaoru-dono and all his friends, but his sense of duty wouldn't permit him to stay safely at the dojo while the rest of Japan was plunged into chaos by Shishio.

As Kenshin continued down the path, the sound of Kaoru's sobs became more and more distant until at last, it was gone from his ears. Kenshin felt tears stinging his own eyes and sliding silently down his cheeks and he wept openly as he walked down this fateful path.


Asakusa, Tokyo

After seeing Megumi back to the clinic, Sanosuke immediately turned and headed straight back for the dojo. He wanted to get back as quickly as possible and talk with Kenshin about the situation. It was critical that everyone stick together at a time like this!

As Sano walked down the street, he noticed an eerie silence and darkness about him. Usually, there were drunks and prostitutes out at this time, but it seemed as though the entire populace of the floating world had been spirited away.

'This is fuckin' weird,' he thought to himself.

As Sano walked over the Sumida River bridge, he looked down into the water and saw papers with that morning's headline on them still floating on the current while others littered the shoreline.

'Okobu asked Kenshin to go to Kyoto and stop Shishio and now he's been assassinated. Can that be a coincidence?' the kenkaya thought grimly as he moved along.


Sumida

After what seemed like an eternity, Sano saw the familiar gates of the Kamiya Dojo compound and breathed a sigh of relief. Just on the other side, Kenshin, Yahiko and the Missy would be waiting for him. Then the four of them could sit down and decide what to do about this mess. Sano had hoped Kenshin wouldn't want to go to Kyoto, but there was a solid chance that Okubo's death might set the Rurouni's path for the Millennial City.

'Well that's fine. We'll go to Kyoto, kick Shishio's ass and then come back,' Sano thought as he slid the gate open.

"Kenshin! Missy! Yahiko!" he called out.

Only the wind soughing through the bushes in the front yard answered him. Sano looked around and realized that not so much as a candle was lit anywhere in the building. The eerie darkness and silence that had dogged him in Asakusa had followed him into a dojo that was usually bustling with light and life. Sano felt a chill run down his spine. Had Shishio's men attacked the dojo while he had been away? Would he find Kaoru and Yahiko's bloody and mangled bodies hung out as a warning to all who might interfere with Shishio's plans? And where the hell was Kenshin?!

"Dammit! Where are they?" he swore as he entered the building, not even stopping to remove his shoes.

Just then, the stillness was pierced by a single sound: a young boy's hearty snores. Sano slid open the door to Yahiko's room and found the boy lying in his futon, limbs tangled up in the blanket, dead to the world. With a sigh of relief, he slid the door shut again.

'OK. If Yahiko's sawin' wood, then I doubt the dojo was attacked, but still, where are Kenshin and Missy?' he thought as he blundered out onto the engawa that looked into the backyard. 'I think they said somethin' about watchin' fireflies in the glen...'

Sano made his way through the backyard, slid the gate open and stepped out into the forest behind the dojo, illumined only by lunar light. Right away, his eyes fell on a trail of small footprints, made by a woman's getta. Sano began following the footprints down the dirt path, tall dark trees looming up on either side of him as though the darkness wanted to swallow him up.

As he got closer and closer to the little grove he knew lay down the way, a muffled sound reached his ears: a heartbroken sob. But not just any sob.

'That's the Missy!' Sano thought, breaking into a run.

If Shishio or any of his men had laid a hand on Kaoru, he would personally snap their fucking necks when he got ahold of them. Kenshin had taken a vow not to kill; he had not.

Sanosuke rounded a final clump of bushes and came to a dead stop. Before his eyes was the most heartbreaking picture one could imagine: In the dark glade, surrounded by the flickering fireflies, was the prostrate form of Kaoru, sobbing into the dirt, tears falling from her scrunched up eyes and down her reddened cheeks as loud ululations racked her body.

"Missy!" Sano cried as he knelt down beside Kaoru to see if she had been hurt.

"Hic! Hic! Keennnn... shiiiinnnn!!!" Koaru sobbed brokenly, seeming not to even notice Sano's presence.

At the mention of the Rurouni's name, Sano froze, looking beyond where Kaoru lay, down the path. Footprints! Slightly larger than Kaoru's, made by a man's zori. Sano felt his heart drop into his stomach at the sight of those footprints, leading away into the darkness.

'He didn't... Please Kami-sama, tell me he didn't!' Sano thought desperately.

"Keeeeennnnn... shiiiiin... c-come baaaaaaaaack!!!!" Kaoru wailed.

Kaoru's broken words were all the confirmation he needed.

'Kenshin, you selfish motherfucker!' Sano swore to himself, the first vestiges of anger stirring in his heart. 'We were s'posed to do this together...'

Sano shook his head sharply to clear his mind. He would get angry at Kenshin in due time. Right now, Kaoru needed looking after.

"Missy! It's me, Sano. Get ahold a yerself!" he said, giving Kaoru a shake.

This seemed to rouse Kaoru out of her hysterics just enough to register Sano's presence at her side.

"Oooooooh, Saaaaanooooooo! He's gone! He's gone!" Kaoru wailed, flinging herself into the befuddled kenkaya's arms.

"Woah! Missy!" Sano yelped.

But Kaoru's grip was inexorable. With a sigh of defeat, Sano lowered himself to the ground and held Koaru in his arms, sometimes rubbing her back until he felt the rigidity melt out of her slight form. When the last of Kaoru's sobs died away, Sano scooped the fallen girl into his arms and carried her back to her dojo, bridal style.

'Thank Kami-sama it's the middle of the night and no one saw this, or I’d have some ‘splainin’ t’do,' Sano thought as he entered through the dojo's rear gate.

As soon as they were inside Kaoru's room, Sano was again greeted by the din that was Yahiko's snoring through the thin rice paper wall.

'He slept through everything. Typical stupid kid!' Sano thought peevishly

Sano kicked Kaoru's folded up futon to the middle of the room and kicked it out flat. As gently as he knew how, he laid Kaoru in her futon and covered her up, then beat a hasty retreat, sliding the shoji shut behind him. Outside, Sanosuke looked grimly into the darkness that had swallowed his best friend up and angrily punched his balled up right hand into the palm of his left.

'Kenshin, you little asshole... If I ever run into you again, I'm gonna make Shishio look like a rank amateur when I lay you out!' Sano thought, rage boiling up like a geyser as he too walked off into the darkness.

~Owari~