The sound of sandaled feet pounding over the cobblestone street echoed off the walls of the tall buildings of Kyoto. A small group of Patriots ran, just keeping ahead of a unit of the Mibu Wolves, wearing their mountain pattern haori and bearing the red flag with the character Makoto on it.
"There they are!" the calls of the Shinsengumi rose into the night.
"Get those rebels!"
The Shinsengumi were about to chase the rebels into an alley, but stopped when a figure emerged from the shadows to block their path.
"Turn back," came a quiet voice.
"Who the hell are you?" they growled, raising their lantern to see the warrior who impeded them.
They beheld a short, effeminate looking young man with long crimson hair and a huge cruciform scar on his left cheek. Immediately, they realized what they were in the presence of.
"If you turn back now, your lives will be spared. If you do not..." Battousai spoke quietly, left hand gripping the tsuba of his katana, ready to pop it loose.
"Red hair and the cruciform scar. It's Hitokiri Battousai!" one of the Shinsengumi cried in amazement.
"I didn't think you were an ordinary swordsman," declared the Shinsengumi captain with the glittering amber eyes and the wolfish grin as he walked between his men and dropped into his gatotsu stance.
Himura dropped into a battoujutsu crouch, his left thumb loosening his katana from the grip of its sheath.
"Let's go," growled the Wolf as he charged forward, left hand holding his sword in a thrusting position, right arm extended down the length of the blade.
Himura drew his katana to block. The two clashed, parried and dodged, neither truly landing a blow on the other. Subconsciously, Himura was impressed by this man's prowess.
Himura and the Wolf fought for what seemed like an eternity, trading blow for blow. By now, the Ishin group should be far away, so Himura suddenly flipped over the Wolf's head and darted down the alley, the Shinsengumi shouting invectives after him.
With the light of the Daimonji shining in the distance, Kenshin lit the candle, being careful not to catch the rice paper that surrounded it on fire. This done, he gently set the small chochin afloat in the Hirosawa Pond. Rising to his feet, he watched as his little floater joined the others that sailed over the water in the Toro Nagashi to guide the souls of those who had died in the previous year to the next world.
'Tomoe, I hope you and Kiyosato found each other and are now happy in the next world. Someday, the war will end. At that time, beloved, I will be able to live my life only for you,' Kenshin thought as he allowed the sorrow he usually kept in check to engulf his heart for this one night.
Kenshin watched as Tomoe's chochin floated away until it was nothing more than one bright speck among many others. When he could no longer see it, Kenshin hardened his heart, driving the overwhelming grief back to the furthest reaches of his consciousness and once again steeling his mind for the battles he knew he would endure tomorrow and the foreseeable future.
Turning his back on the pond, left hand resting on his katana's hilt, Kenshin strode off into the night.
Among the newest additions to the Ishin Shishi in Kyoto was a fat, pig faced man named Tani Jusanro. He claimed to have great skill with the sword, but broke into a sweat and became winded if he had to run more than a quarter of a mile. His arrogance and bad attitude quickly made him unpopular with the other warriors. Tani never seemed to notice this and just prattled right on, proud as you please.
"There I was, completely surrounded by 20 Bakufu warriors," Tani bragged. "All I had to do was pull my sword out and cut in a perfect circle around me and they all fell dead!"
These were the awestruck responses by some of the other Patriots.
"Oh, I can see none of you believes me! Just wait till we actually face them. You'll all beg me to save you!" crowed Tani.
The other Patriots mumbled dismissively. In the back corner of the room, a frail looking young man with long, crimson hair looked away derisively from Tani and out the window, into the blue, blue sky.
Kenshin and Tani hunkered down in the alley, both men hearing the ominous footsteps of an approaching pack of wolves.
"They're coming," whined Tani.
"Shhh!" Kenshin commanded with a sharp gesture.
The footsteps became louder.
"Listen! They're getting closer!" whimpered the pig, obese body quaking all over.
"Be silent!" hissed Kenshin through clenched teeth.
Footsteps and voices. One of which he recognized as Okita Soushi. Damn!
"I CAN'T STAND IT ANY LONGER!" cried Tani, breaking from Kenshin's side and running out of the alley in a blind panic, right out in front of the approaching Shinsengumi first unit.
'That idiot!' Kenshin snarled to himself, running out after Tani.
"I'll skewer this obese pig," said Okita cheerfully, charging at the frozen Tani.
Okita's thrust was blocked by steel. He looked straight into the glittering eyes of Himura Battousai. The two warriors pushed against each other, then broke apart.
"Tani, get out of here, NOW!" barked Kenshin, without looking back.
"R-right!" said Tani, finally coming to his senses and running as fast as his fat legs would carry him.
"It's agreeable to see you again, Battousai-san," said Okita with a smile.
Kenshin was silent, waiting for Okita to make his next move.
"That's right. You never were much for polite conversation," smiled Okita as he charged at Kenshin.
Their swords clanged and slid along each other's blades as each swordsman tried to get past the other's defense, but couldn't find an opening. Finally, they broke apart again.
"I declare, your skills have improved remarkably since we fought last," said Okita happily as he moved on Kenshin again....
Her purple shawl tucked safely into his kimono and katana in his hands, Kenshin charged through the throng of Shinsengumi on the bridge, plowing through them as through a wheat field. Bones were sawed in half and blood sprayed into the air as Kenshin cut a swathe through them, never stopping or slowing down.
Kenshin looked over to his left. One Mibu Wolf remained. He raised his sword for the kill. Then something incredible happened: Panic lighting his eyes, the Shinsengumi turned his back on Kenshin and leapt from the bridge into the raging river below. Kenshin quirked an eyebrow as the current swept him away.
'Coward,' Kenshin thought in disgust before charging forward to lead the other Patriots, who had just now caught up to him, to the other side of the bridge.
New Years Day, 1867
Except for a few maids, the inn was almost completely devoid of people, all of its warrior occupants out celebrating the New Year with song, drinking and revelry. The war raged on, but New Years Day was New Years Day and would be celebrated no matter what.
Alone in an upstairs room usually crowded from wall to wall sat a young man with sorrowful violet eyes and crimson hair. Around his neck was a purple shawl. Some of the newer recruits had snickered derisively at the treasured garment when they first arrived. A vicious death glare was all it ever took to shut them up.
Kenshin lifted the shawl to his nose and inhaled deeply. After two years of wear around his neck, the white plum blossom scent had faded almost completely away. However, Kenshin found that if he inhaled deeply enough, she would still come to him as clearly as though it had been yesterday.
When he closed his eyes, he saw her staring at him, just as she had in life with her unreadable face and jet black eyes that seemed to have no end to their depth.
'Tomoe... I miss you so much...' Kenshin thought, tears pricking his eyes.
Reaching into his kimono, Kenshin pulled out the other of her possessions he had kept: her diary. Carefully, he opened it to the first page and began to read. The diary was years old, starting back when Tomoe was eight.
The first entry was the sad account of the death of her mother at the birth of her little brother.
'Enishi,' Kenshin thought sorrowfully.
He had often wondered what had become of the boy. Kenshin hoped that Enishi had returned to the father in Edo Tomoe had mentioned.
'I'm sure he hates me. I hate myself,' Kenshin thought.
Kenshin's eyes studied the other pages. Some entries were upbeat, telling of Enishi's milestones: first steps, first words. Kenshin couldn't help but smile just a bit as he read Tomoe's account of Enishi's first time eating with chopsticks and getting so frustrated at his inability to pick up anything with them that he broke them in half and flew into a howling fit.
Kenshin's head jerked up as he sensed approaching ki. Quickly, he closed the diary and tucked it back into the folds of his kimono, schooling his face to a cold mask. The door slid open and one of the new recruits entered, a young man named Somoshi.
"Hey, Himura-kun, what are you doing up here by yourself? Don't you want to come out drinking?" he offered.
"No, thank you," was Kenshin's terse response.
"I've never heard of anyone spending New Year's Day alone," persisted Somoshi.
"There's a first time for everything, isn't there?" was Kenshin's sarcastic response.
"Fine, fine," mumbled the young patriot, leaving Kenshin to his solitude.
'A murderer like me has no right to go out drinking and celebrating. Not now, not ever,' Kenshin thought grimly.
With a heavy sigh, Kenshin closed his eyes and let his head droop forward. If he slept, the holiday would end sooner. Then he would be able to get back to work and get his mind off his torment.