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The Flames of the Meiji Restoration

Chapter Text

Glossary

  • Aku- symbol that means evil, also can translated as either wicked or bad
  • Andon bakama- undivided hakama, like a skirt, they differ from umanori (not only in being like a skirt) in that they typically have different fabric designs and method of tying. They are traditionally only worn by shrine maidens or rarely for tea ceremonies
  • Battosai- The warrior name given to Kenshin during his days as an assassin during the revolution
  • Bo- a long staff could be up to 70 inches long
  • Bokken- a wooden practice sword
  • -chan- honorific. Can be used either as diminutive (e.g. with a small child “Little Hanako”), or with those who are grown, to indicate affection (“My dear…”)
  • Dojo- martial arts training hall
  • -dono- Honorific. Even more respectful than –san; the effect in modern-day Japanese conversation would be along the lines of “Milord So-and-So.”  As used by Kenshin, it indicates both respect and humility
  • Furisode- kimono worn by unmarried women on special occasions that has almost floor length sleeves.
  • Hakama- similar to pants but pleated and worn only by men during the time of the Meiji
  • Hakubaiko- perfume made of white plums
  • Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu- Kenshin’s sword technique, used more for defense than offense. An “ancient style that pits one against many,” it requires exceptional speed and agility to master
  • Hitokiri- An assassin. Famous swordsmen of the period were sometimes thus known to adopt “professional,” names
  • Kama- a short hand scythe
  • Kamiya Kasshin-ryu- Sword-arts or kenjutsu school established by Kaoru’s father, who rejected the ethics of Satsujin-ken for Katsujin-ken
  • Katana- traditional Japanese long sword (curved, single-edge, worn cutting-edge up) of the samurai. Used primarily for slashing; can be wielded one- or two-handed
  • Kenjutsu- the art of fencing; sword arts; kendo
  • Kishi kaisei- Literally: Wake from death and return to life. The meaning is to come out of a desperate situation and to make a complete return
  • Kodachi- medium length sword, shorter than a katana but longer than a wakizashi. It’s easy maneuverability also makes for higher defensive capabilities
  • Ko-naginata- a spear weapon used by women, mainly for self defense.
  • Kunoichi- female ninja. In the fact that they are not referred to as simply onmitsu their name hints at the relative scarcity
  • Kunai- a throwing knife typically used by ninja’s
  • Obi- sash
  • Okashira- the name given to the leader of the oniwanbanshu, the defenders of Edo castle in the Meiji revolution, it means “the head” ie leader or boss
  • Oniwanbanshu- elite group of onmitsu or “spies” of the Edo period, now known as “ninja” or “shinobi”
  • Onmitsu- ninja
  • Oro- a phase often used by Kenshin, it has no real meaning, just an exclamation of surprise
  • Rurouni- wanderer, vagabond
  • Sakabato- reversed-edge (the dull edge on the side the sharp should be, and vice-versa); carried by Kenshin as a symbol of his resolution never to kill again
  • -sama- honorific. The respectful equivalent of –san, -sama is used primarily in addressing persons of much higher rank than one’s self, or in the romantic sense, in addressing those upon whom one has a crush
  • -san- honorific. Carries the meaning of Mr, Ms, Miss, etc, but is used more extensively in Japanese then its English equivalent (note even an enemy may be addressed as –san)
  • Sansetsukon- a three section staff, it is three pieces of hard wood or metal held together by a thick rope of chain
  • Sen-unit of Japanese currency, equal to one hundredth of a yen. No longer in circulation.
  • Sensei- teacher
  • Seppuku- suicide
  • Shinai- Kenjutsu “practice sword,” said to have been developed around 1750.  Traditional constructed of four pieces of well-seasoned bamboo, a small piece of metal inside the “butt” of each stave keeps them aligned
  • Shinobi- another word for ninja like onmitsu
  • Shinsengumi- elite, notorious, government-sanctioned and exceptionally skilled swordsmen-supports of the military government (Barkufu) which had ruled Japan for nearly 250 years, the Shinsengumi (“newly selected corps”) were established in 1863 to suppress the loyalists and restore law and order to the imperial capital of Kyoto
  • Shinuchi- “principal forge”, when making a holy sword a sword smith will forge two or more blades the best of which is the shinuchi and is offered up
  • Tabi- ankle-high, divided toe socks that are worn with sandals
  • Tekagi- steel claw type weapon often used by ninja
  • Wagasa- an oil paper umbrella
  • Wakizashi- similar to the more familiar katana, but shorter (blade between 12-24 inches)

Chapter Text

Chapter 1

The Hinten Mitsurugi-ryu Master

Alone in the mountains sat a hut nestled among the trees with a kiln set up to the side of the hut.  A lone potter lined up his finished pots up to place inside the kiln to finish them.  He placed the finished pots inside the hot kiln and stocked up the fire a little more with some wood.  Satisfied that it was at the correct temperature to finish the works he had spent so long to create, he glanced up at the sky, taking note of the position of the sun and mentally calculated the time when the pots would be finished.  Satisfied that for the moment at least his work was done, he sat down on a small bench with a bottle of saki and a small cup and relaxed, sipping on saki as he watched the flames of the kiln burn, certain that nothing would happen to disturb the peace of his day.

***

Kenshin had the instructions that Okina had given him to Seijuro Hiko’s home tucked away in his kimono.  He had already memorized the directions and had no problem finding the roads that he needed to take.  He felt a growing apprehension with each step he took, similar but not quite like what he experienced at returning to Kyoto.  They were similar in that both were things he had feared and dreaded, because he could not predict what the outcome would be and feared the worst would happen, but different in that this was worse, much worse.  He tried to push away the memories of when he had last seen Seijuro but they continued to invade his mind and he was not sure that even the passing of years would lessen the bitterness he was sure Seijuro would feel towards him when they met. 

Kenshin stopped for a moment at a small creek for a drink of water after his long hike.   After he had drunk his fill and refilled his bamboo water flask he stopped for a moment, staring at his reflection in the moving stream.  He saw his hair, despite his attempts to keep it tidy, had in the past few days of living on the streets become messy.  His face needed a shave, and his clothing was the same old and ratty clothes that he had worn when he had first arrived at Kaoru’s dojo’s.  Clothing whose appearance had prompted Kaoru to make him a new set of clothes that actually fitted him.  Even before when Kenshin had been a Rurouni he had always taken great care in his appearance to prevent himself from looking like an unkempt vagabond and maintain the level of hygiene his Master had installed in him.  But over the past few days he had let such things slid, his goal of staying out of sight of Shishio’s spies and living in the shadows had superseded such small details.   I can’t see him like this, Kenshin thought.  He walked off the path to a place more secluded location, took the time to wash up in the stream, and even pulled out the small shaving kit he had brought as he cleaned up his appearance.  After he was freshly shaved, hair brushed back neatly into his customary low ponytail, Kenshin decided to complete his preparations with a fresh set of clothes. 

He reached into his pack and pulled out one of the sets of kimono and hakama that Kaoru had made for him.  He ran his hand over the soft material of the kimono, it’s scarlet color seemed so vibrant to his eyes after 2 weeks of spending almost every moment in his faded and nondescript colored clothes.  Just seeing them reminded him of happier times, moments when he felt as though he had a real place in the world instead of just being an ethereal being floating through the lives of others, helping here and there but never able to stay long.  He closed his eyes for a moment against the sudden wave of homesickness.  He carefully pulled out the red kimono with cream-colored hakama set and slipped the other set back into his bag carefully.  He changed his clothes quickly, as he pulled the red kimono closed he thought back to when Kaoru had given it to him…

 

Kaoru handed the bundle to Kenshin who took it in puzzlement.  He looked at it closely and realized that it was a carefully folded red and dark blue kimono with an almost black and cream-colored hakama.  “Oro?  You made these for this one?”  He asked in puzzlement.

“Of course I did, I just can’t take those rags you call clothes anymore so I made you some new ones.  The red one might be a bit to flashy for you, but the fabric was such a good price that I couldn’t pass it up.”  Kaoru informed him shyly. 

Kaoru would never know the flash of surprise, shock, and gratuity that flooded Kenshin’s soul at the simple gift she gave him.

 

Once Kenshin had finished changing he neatly folded his other clothes, placing them back into his sack.  Convinced that he was now as prepared as he would ever be, he held his head up high and with a sure stride he set back down the road.

***

The potter finished off his cup of saki and started to pour another drink before he realized that his bottle was empty.  With an internal sigh, he resigned himself to the fact that his break was over and it was time to see to the other chores before he had the soft tread of footsteps coming up the narrow path that led to his home.  His eyes narrowed as he traced the position of the intruder. He didn’t turn around, not yet.  He knew that whoever was coming was walking with soft feet and would have been able to stroll right up to the average person without ever alerting them to his presence, but this potter was no ordinary person.  He thought for a moment that perhaps it was some thief or bandit there to rob him, in which case it was better for them to make the first move.

As the intruder strolled up softly to just behind him, the potter knew that they were up to no good, a normal person would have called out their presence long before but this person did not.  There was an almost imperceptible noise that the potter knew was the sound of a sword being shifted in an obi, the sound that came just before the sword was drawn.  The potter reacted in an instant to that sound, knowing that the intruder was close enough to strike him.  He half got to his feet, just enough to bring one leg up to the top of the bench and using that leg he propelled himself up into the air as the sword swung, slashing through the air to where the potter had been just a moment before.  The potter meanwhile, had managed to jump and twist himself over the head of his attacker, who had half crouched as he had attacked, and landed safely on the ground behind his attacker.  Once his feet hit the ground he pivoted to face his attacker who remained crouched and facing the bench where the potter had been only moments before, his sword still held out in the slash.

All the potter saw of his attacker was a man with long red hair tied in a low ponytail and wearing a bright red kimono with cream colored hakama, which the potter thought was a bit flashy for a bandit or thief to be wearing.  The potter hadn’t the faintest idea who this man was or why he would attack him, not that he was concerned that this man was armed while he was not, he knew that he was in no real danger.  He could handle anything that this attacker could dish out, probably without even breaking a sweat. 

“You’re quite rude,” the potter scoffed in a condensing voice to his attacker.  “To attack a defenseless potter without warning from behind like that.”

The attacker straighten up and sheathed his sword calmly, another reaction that the potter thought was odd, an ordinary thief or bandit should have been gaping at his effortless dodge and display of acrobatic skill.  Instead, this intruder acted as thought the potter’s reaction was exactly what he was expecting.  The potter’s eyes narrowed as he appraised the man before him closer, trying to understand the meaning behind all of this, he saw that the man at his tallest barely would come to his shoulders.  The attacker half turned and the potter’s eyes widened when he saw the man’s face and flash of recognition shot through him.  “The Seijuro Hiko I know is no ordinary potter,” the man responded in a neutral, and almost but not quite, cold voice.  There was a pause between them as they both surveyed the other.  “It’s been a long time Master,” the man continued, his voice level, betraying no hint of emotion.

“You,” Seijuro breathed.

 

The cold autumn moon shone down over the countryside, the only illumination in the dark night.  Seijuro heard the screams up ahead on the road and he had hurried to find a group of bandits slaughtering a cavern.  By the time he had arrived they had slaughter almost everyone, he watched one of the bandits who was holding a woman from behind by her hair before he stab her through the throat.  Just beyond the woman was a young boy, no older than 6 or 7 staring in complete shock, the only remaining survivor of the cavern that Seijuro could see.  Seijuro quickly jumped into action and strolled calmly into the scene with drawn sword.  Some of the bandits looked up in surprise when they heard the crunch of approaching footsteps.

“Who the hell are you?” one of them sneered at him as two moved forward to block his path. 

“There’s no point giving my name to someone who is about to die,” Seijuro told him coldly. 

“Why you…”

But Seijuro never learned what the man was about to say because his sword had already cut through the man and Seijuro was still moving forward.  He whirled around one attacker, stabbing him through the skull with ease of long training and skill.  Seijuro never stopped for a moment despite the fact that he was badly outnumbered by the bandits.  He charged the bandits cutting through the ranks with ease.  It only a matter of moments every one of the bandits laid dead with their victims and Seijuro and the boy were the only ones left alive among the carnage. 

Seijuro pulled out a cloth and cleaned his sword before he looked back up at the boy.  His heart twisted a little, the boy seemed even smaller than when Seijuro had first seen him as he kneeled with hunched over shoulders staring at the bodies of three women around him.  His tiny shoulders were shaking and Seijuro was sure the boy was crying.  It’s no wonder, he just watched his family die, Seijuro walked over to the boy, intending to help him.

When Seijuro drew near the boy glanced up, his eyes streaked with tears, widened, and he snatched up a katana next to him, jumped to his feet and held the blade out in front of himself, pointed at Seijuro.  “Stay away from me!” the boy screamed at him in hysteria.

“I’m not going to hurt you boy,” Seijuro assured him, sheathing his katana and holding his hands up in peace.  “I just want to lead you to a nearby village where you can get some help,” he added stepping a little closer.

“Stay away!” the boy screamed again, this time swinging the sword clumsily at Seijuro and Seijuro backed away from the blade.  He saw the boy’s arms trembling from the weight of the sword and he could tell that it took all of the boy’s strength to hold the sword.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” Seijuro repeated again with a hint of impatience, it was late and he would rather be home in front of a warm fire than out in the middle of nowhere surrounded by a bunch of dead bodies trying to reason with a hysterical child with a katana. 

“Don’t come near me!” the boy screamed again, swinging the sword, the weight throwing him off balance this time and the sword impaled into the ground.  Seijuro tried to take advantage of the moment by springing forward and grabbing the boy’s collar.  But the moment that the boy felt Seijuro’s hand grip his collar a fresh wave of strength flowed through his thin frame and he jerked hard at the katana causing it to be pulled abruptly upwards and the back of the blade striking soundly Seijuro’s arm that held the boy. 

Seijuro released the boy when the back of the katana struck him arm with a numbing pain.  He stepped back quickly out of the reach of the boy, rubbing his wounded arm with his other hand.

“Please leave me alone,” the boy pleaded in a soft voice, his body was trembling but now he was holding the sword with more sure hands.  “Please, I don’t want to die.”

Seijuro realized that it was pointless to try and reason with the child, it was going to take more time and patience than Seijuro processed, he sighed internally.  “Fine, if that’s what you want,” Seijuro looked around again at the carnage, he hated to leave the child alone in this but the boy wasn’t giving him much a choice.  Before he left he wanted to say something to the boy, maybe something that would help him to understand what happened, Seijuro had no practice in dealing with children so due to his ignorance on the matter he addressed the boy as though he was an adult.  “You are unlucky child, the Shogun’s laws have been lax these past 3 years since the arrival of the Black Ships and more and more self declared Ronin prowl through this area as bandits.  Some fate has brought me here and I have taken revenge for you.”  The boy glanced around at the dead bandits who were laying among their victims.  “But the dead won’t be brought back by either mourning or hatred,” Seijuro continued.  “And such things like this are happening everyday and you cannot change that so be thankfully that you at least live.  If you follow this road that way,” Seijuro pointed, “take a left at the first signpost then you will come upon a small village, if you tell them what happened here they will look after you.”  With that final word Seijuro turned on his heel and walked away, but the image of that boy with red hair, with his terrified expression and desperately gripping a katana as though it was the only thing he had left in the world would be burned into his brain for a lifetime.

 

Seijuro recovered quickly from his initial shock of seeing his long-lost apprentice, his shock turned to anger as he recalled the circumstances of their entanglement.  “It’s been 10 years, and you show up out of nowhere.  This can’t be a social visit so what do you want from me?” Seijuro asked bluntly. 

“Straight to the point then,” Kenshin replied half to himself before he removed his sword from his sheath and knelt on the ground, pressing his face to the ground.  “I have come to ask you to teach me the final secrets of Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu which was left incomplete 10 years ago,” Kenshin declared, never lifting his head as he addressed Seijuro.

Seijuro felt a flash of anger, how dare he ask such a thing after what he has done!  Seijuro didn’t even spare a moment to consider why Kenshin would return and ask such a question of him.  “No,” Seijuro snapped in reply.  “You have one minute to leave and I never want to see your face again,” Seijuro continued in a cold voice before he spun on his heel intending to leave his former apprentice there groveling in the dirt.  But a strong hand reached out and grabbed the hem of his hakama.  Seijuro looked back, ready to unleash all of his anger and rage after Kenshin’s request but paused when he saw the look on Kenshin’s face.  Until that point Kenshin’s face had been stern and emotionless, that couldn’t be said for now as Kenshin looked up at Seijuro from where he still knelt on the ground with the pleading look of a desperate man. 

“Please Master,” Kenshin half whispered.  “I don’t ask this lightly of you.  You have more than enough reasons to send me away and never look at me again, but before you do I beg you to at least hear out my reasons for this request.”

“Why should I listen to the pleas of the apprentice who ran away instead of completing his training?”  Seijuro asked coldly, unmoved by Kenshin’s words.

“Because you know that I wouldn’t seek you out unless I was desperate,” Kenshin answered.  “And I am, please Master.”

Seijuro’s eyes quirked at that, Kenshin’s desperation was obvious even to a blind man, and Seijuro was suddenly curious about what would drive him to such an extreme as to face his long-estranged Master.  “This something that is pressuring you into doing this must be something indeed, fine, I’ll hear your story at least.” 

***

 “…and after that Himura-san left the Aoi-ya.  Who knows where he’s been between now and the signal fire, probably sleeping under a bridge somewhere like an ogre or something,” Misao shrugged as she concluded the tale she had been telling Yahiko and Kaoru.  She had told them everything from the time she had meet Kenshin till now.  She failed to mention her connection to Aoshi and the Oniwanbanshu, not thinking it would be something of any interest to Yahiko and Kaoru anyways, they wouldn’t know anything of them anyways. 

Yahiko’s face screwed up in thought, “So who is this Kakunoshin Ni’itsu that Kenshin’s looking for?  The name seems familiar but I can’t quite place it.”

“I think he’s supposed to be some big-time artist or something,” Misao shrugged.  “He’s a potter now I think.”

Yahiko’s eyebrows shot up, “Why is Kenshin looking for a potter so bad?”  He asked, his voice thick with disbelief. 

Misao’s face grew devious, “Well apparently Kakunoshin Ni’itsu is just an alias, the guy’s real name is Seijuro Hiko.” 

Yahiko stared at her with a blank expression, “who?”

“Seijuro Hiko,” Misao repeated.  “Apparently it’s the name given to all those who master everything in the Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu.”

Yahiko stopped suddenly and Misao and Kaoru stopped and stared at the boy, “wait, so that means that he’s Kenshin’s Master?”  Yahiko started slowly, Misao nodded in agreement.  “But since Kenshin is just Kenshin and his name isn’t Seijuro or anything then he hasn’t master everything of Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu?” 

“That’s the obvious conclusion,” Misao answered brightly.

Kaoru had been silent through the whole conversation, following just a little behind the two.  She seemed lost in her own little world but she had been absorbing everything that had been said about Kenshin.  Drinking it in like a man who was dying of thirst in a desert who had suddenly come upon an overflowing spring of fresh water.  “Seijuro Hiko, that was the name of the man in the story Kenshin told, the one about the founder of Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu.”  Kaoru whispered to herself.

“Did you say something Kaoru-san?” Misao quirked in her direction.  Kaoru smiled a little at the girl and shook her head.

Meanwhile Yahiko had just finished processing the fact that Kenshin had not yet master everything in the style he had singlehandedly made famous.  “So then if he’s seeking out his old Master, that must mean that he still has some techniques to learn then, the ones that would make him a Master?  And for some reason or other he didn’t learn them before but now he wants to learn them?”

“A logical deduction,” Misao agreed, turning her attention from the withdrawn Kaoru to the eager Yahiko. 

Yahiko’s eyes lit up with boyish fever, “so that would make Kenshin even more unstoppable then he is now, I wonder what kind of techniques they could be?  The other moves are amazing so this has got to be something that blows them all away!” 

“We should really be moving,” Kaoru broke in softly, “it will already be dark by the time we get there and we shouldn’t spend any more time on the road then we have to, in case there are people out looking for us.”

Misao and Yahiko glanced at Kaoru, “right, we still got a ways to go, so let’s pick up the pace,” Misao ordered cheerfully.

Kaoru followed behind the other two as they kept talking cheerfully, theorizing what sort of technique Kenshin might have gone to his Master to learn.  She knew that she should be happy, as ecstatic as they were over seeing Kenshin after all this time but all she felt was a sense of growing dread and apprehension about the meeting.  After all this time we’ll finally see each other.  But does Kenshin even want to see me again?

***

Kenshin followed Seijuro into the little hut, inside it was a simple hut like a farmer would own, there were shelves against most of the walls that were filled with everything from dazzling exquisite pottery pieces to the simple bowls and jugs favored among the poor for both their price and durability. 

“Kakunoshin Ni’itsu is already a well-known painter, so why pottery?” Kenshin asked in curiosity.

Seijuro walked to the back of the hut and sat on a small tansu chest crossing his legs as he surveyed his wayward apprentice.  “I long ago discovered that the life of an artist is the best way to live without those annoying social obligations, unfortunately I was making too much of a name for myself as a painter so I came here, changed my name, and took up pottery.  Besides with true genius like mine there is nothing I can’t accomplish if I set my mind to it,” Seijuro replied carelessly, flipping his long hair back that was tied in a ponytail like Kenshin’s. 

“Still as arrogant as ever I see,” Kenshin replied drily, his face speaking volumes.

Seijuro’s eyes narrowed, “don’t change the subject,” he snapped in reply.  “You’re dodging because whatever story it is that brought you here is hard to speak of.”  Kenshin’s eyes widen a hint and Seijuro knew that he had guessed correctly.  “Don’t look so surprise, I’m your Master after all, and even after all these years I can still read my stupid apprentice’s mind with ease.”

Kenshin took a seat on the floor, noting that his Master hadn’t even offered him a cushion to sit on.  “The story is a long and complicated, it began almost the day that I left your tutelage…”  Seijuro leaned back a little as Kenshin began to tell of everything that had happened to him since the day when Seijuro had last seen him. 

***

Aoshi Shinamori walked into the room that Hoji used as an office area.  He knew Hoji was the leader of a mass underground crime syndicate and he controlled most yakuzua and smuggling rings in the country from the shadows.  How he had fallen in with Shishio and allowed himself to be controlled by him, Aoshi neither knew nor care.  All he cared about was finding the Battosai.  So he had taken to several times a day demanding what information Hoji’s spies had been able to find.  Today was the fourth day that Aoshi burst in to Hoji’s office uninvited. 

Hoji didn’t even bother looking up when Aoshi walked in without preamble.  He had gotten used to Aoshi’s rudeness.  He continued scanning through something. 

“Any news of the Battosai?” Aoshi asked, his impatience so well hidden that none could tell that beneath his icy exterior he was seething underneath.

Hoji continued reading through the papers and Aoshi resisted the urge to grab him and force him to answer his question.  Finally, Hoji looked up and acknowledge Aoshi’s presence, “yes, today some inhabitants of the Aoi-ya were seen giving the Battosai some information.  After that he left and we lost him traveling west out of Kyoto.  We don’t know what his destination might be, but it seems clear that the former Oniwanban of the Aoi-ya know where the Battosai is heading now so we have made plans to have the Aoi-ya be attacked tonight by the Owl Clan.”

“Owl Clan?” Aoshi asked, unfamiliar with that group.

“We have trained men with superior night vision into a night raiding and information gathering unit.  The Aoi-ya may be an old Oniwanbanshu headquarters but now it’s just an inn.  It’s just like a rat’s nest now, and a few owls are more than enough to hunt a few rats.”  Hoji turned back to his work, “there is no need to bring the Juppongatana in to deal with such a small matter.”

Aoshi’s eyes narrowed a little at Hoji, you underestimate those ‘rats’.  He thought coldly.  He knew each member of the Aoi-ya, their individual strengths and weakness.  That is not some rats nest those Owls are walking into, it’s a demon’s lair that is ready for any attack at any time.

***

As they neared closer to their destination Kaoru’s feet dragged more and more, finally Yahiko and Misao looked back in frustration at her slow pace.

“Come on Kaoru, stop being such a girl and come on!”  Yahiko yelled at her.  “We want to get there before Kenshin leaves you know!”

Misao took a more diplomatic approach, she jogged back down the path to Kaoru.  “Come on Kaoru-san, don’t worry that he doesn’t want to see you.  Himura-san would love to see you again,” she told her in a bright voice, her tone sure of itself. 

Kaoru smiled sadly at her, “it’s nice that you can be so sure of that, but I don’t think Kenshin would like us coming here and intruding.  Maybe this is all a mistake…”

“Don’t think like that,” Misao urged her.  “Of course he wants to see you, he loves you, why else would he call out your name in his sleep?” 

Kaoru’s eyes widened a little in surprise, “he does?” she asked in wonder.

Yahiko rolled his eyes as he joined them.  “Kaoru, you don’t know anything do you?  No matter what a guy says, or how much he might complain that a woman is a pest for following him he’s still happy that she came.  He’ll just probably never admit it.”

At their coaxing Kaoru picked up the pace a little and Misao and Yahiko, sure that she was following a little quicker than before at least, they hurried ahead.  They rounded a corner and saw the path led up a long hill where a hut sat, smoke curling towards the darkening sky as the sun set. 

Yahiko turned around to see that Kaoru had fallen behind once again, “Kaoru!  It’s just here.  Hurry up already!”  He urged before he and Misao took off running up the path towards the hut, determined to find Kenshin. 

***

 “Hmm,” Seijuro mused as Kenshin finished telling his tale of Shishio’s plot to overthrow the Meiji Government, why Kenshin had taken his vow to never kill again, and how this fight was bringing Kenshin’s killer instincts to the surface.  “So it goes like this,” Seijuro began to sum up everything that he heard.  “Due to the reappearance of the man called Makoto Shishio you are slowly returning to the ways of the hitokiri again.  And in order to defeat Shishio without becoming hitokiri again you sought me out to complete your training, to become stronger than you are now.”  Kenshin nodded in agreement.  Seijuro’s eyes narrowed, “he who chases two rabbits will acquire neither,” he quoted the old proverb.

“But Master…” Kenshin started but fell silence when Seijuro raised his hand. 

“I thought I taught you better, a sword is merely a weapon, the art of kenjutsu is the art of killing, no matter how you try to dress it up with a haze of righteousness this is the truth.”  Kenshin’s face went cold at his Master’s words.  “You have to choose between your sweet little dream and the harsh reality of today, saying you want to protect both is just plain simple selfishness.”  Seijuro ended bluntly.  And the first mistake was ten years ago…

 

Seijuro faced his stubborn apprentice with a frustration that equaled the look on the boy’s face.  “No,” Seijuro answered the boy’s question.

“But Master!” Kenshin protested, his voice warbling from the deep pitches of the man he had yet to become and the boy he was. 

“You need not concern yourself with the outside world, you still have your training to complete.  Focus on that.” Seijuro advised the boy in a harsh voice.

“How can you say that?” Kenshin demanded in anger.  “Even as we stand here people are being killed in the chaos.  Doesn’t the Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu teach us to protect the innocent from suffering?  When should we use our swords if not now?!”  Seijuro glared at the boy, “Master!”  Kenshin screamed, demanding an answer.

“You really think that you alone can relive their pain?” Seijuro shot back.  He’s not ready to go into the world as he is.  With his skills, they will turn him into a killer, but his mind is not yet mature enough to deal with that, even if his body can.  “Don’t be so arrogant.” 

“You’re one to talk,” Kenshin sneered back, “you’re too arrogant to even acknowledge that I can help those in need, NOW!

Seijuro gritted his teeth in frustration before he let it all out with an exhale.  “Fine,” he replied in a calmer voice.  “Go if you have to, but defeat me first.”  With that he turned his back on his apprentice and started to walk away.  Behind him Kenshin’s face wrinkled up and he lifted the sheathed katana his Master had given him and hit Seijuro across the head as hard as he dared.  With a howl of pain Seijuro spun on his heel, one hand rubbing his wounded head to face his apprentice.  “I can’t really believe you hit me, from behind of all things!”

“It’s your own fault, you’re the one who doesn’t get it!” Kenshin yelled back with his teenager logic.  “I have to do something, I can’t be like you and sit ideally by and watch people suffer.”

Seijuro fumed.  “You’re the one who doesn’t get it!  Listen to me,” He began, his voice low, trying to make Kenshin see the truth of his words and warn him away from the path he wanted to follow.  Seijuro knew where that path would lead, and what it would do to Kenshin.  “Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu will always bring victory to the side it chooses because of its superior strength, it is the “Black Ship of the Land”.  However, it is the sword that owes its allegiance to no one to prevent it’s misuse.  If you were to go into that conflict don’t you understand what they would do to you?  They will turn you into nothing more than a killer, and they will tell you whatever it takes to make you think that they are right to kill others and have you carry out their dirty deeds.  And because you are such a moron you will believe their sweet lies and follow their orders until you are nothing more than one of the monsters you want to leave to fight so badly.  Do you get it now?”

Kenshin’s face hardened at Seijuro’s words, “Oh I get it,” Kenshin replied in a deadly whisper.  “I get that there are people who are living in fear, I get that there are innocent people being killed like dogs, and I get that you may be able to hide in these mountains and ignore the screams for help but I can’t.  Even from here I can hear them calling for help and I have to do something!”

The fight between them continued for the rest of the day and even when they both went to sleep that night, there was no resolve reached between them.  Seijuro refused to let Kenshin leave and Kenshin resented him for it but Seijuro had been so sure that Kenshin would never leave without his permission, it was his mistake.  When he woke in the morning it was to find his apprentice gone and a simple note left, it said simply that Kenshin couldn’t stay, he had to help those caught in the tumult of the Bakumatsu.  Seijuro had never felt such a sense of failure as in that moment he read the note and realized that not even his best efforts had protected Kenshin from the fate he feared. 

 

Seijuro watched Kenshin’s face as he reacted to Seijuro’s words.  He hated that he had been so right ten years before, that everything he had said to him before Kenshin had left had come true. 

Kenshin bowed his head a little, reflecting on his Master’s words.  ‘A sword is merely a weapon…’  he remembered a time not long before but it seemed like lifetimes when he had said much the same thing.  “…but to tell you the truth, I much prefer Kaoru-dono’s sweet and innocent lie over the truth, indeed I do.”  Kenshin sighed.  Kaoru-dono believes a sword is more than a weapon and can be more than an instrument of death but a tool for life, and I want to believe that too. 

“You were brat all those years when you ran away,” Seijuro continued as Kenshin raised his head.  “And this is the result,” Seijuro told him coldly, pointing a finger in his direction.  “Your skill in swordsmanship is superior but is still that of an immature 13-year-old apprentice who has suffered deep wounds that will not heal, both on his left cheek, and on his soul.  This has caused you to become an unstable swordsman, swaying from a merciless hitokiri to a Rurouni who does not kill.  And it is your Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu, as a consequence of this that helped to create this phantom of the Revolution called Makoto Shishio.  Do you get it now?” Seijuro asked Kenshin, his words echoing that fight between them ten years before.  Kenshin’s eyes widened at the accusation, and Seijuro could see a trace of something that was almost fear cross Kenshin’s face.  “Now do you understand why I told you that Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu should only be used as a free sword and not bound to any power?  The revolutionaries that you aided, believing in justice, quelled the chaos of the Bakumatsu and built the Meiji Government.    But in order to hide the venal acts that had been committed they tried to bury those who embarrassed them.  And now all the suppressed evil of those days is embodied in Shishio who may yet lead us into another age of chaos.  And you, with only your incomplete understanding of Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu are to blame for this.”  Seijuro shook his head in disgust.  Kenshin’s face looked so vulnerable and Seijuro knew that his words were causing him unimaginable pain because of the truth in them.  But still he could not stop himself, he couldn’t stop his words or the pain he was causing.  “This is what I warned you about before, this is why Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu must remain a free sword.  It is why 13 generations and 300 years of masters have taken the name Seijuro Hiko as an alias, to remain independent.  And you who never understood this don’t deserve to learn the final secrets of Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu.”

Kenshin looked down on the floor, he felt every word like a deathblow and he knew his Master was right, and that he had been a fool all those years before to leave like he did.  If the man he was before he had traveled to Tokyo and met Kaoru and the others had gone to Seijuro begging to complete his training he would have walked away at the point and given up all hope of keeping his vow not to kill.  But not now.  Kenshin clenched his hakama, “This is a warning, it’s sad that they had to involve you in this, after all that looked like a real nice family you had there Himura-san.”  Kenshin’s vision burned as he remembered the threat Sojiro had given him after Ashikaga had been assassinated.  No matter what it takes, I have to learn the final secret.  I have to convince Master to do this for me.  No matter what it takes I won’t let Shishio hurt my family.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

Half of a Feeling

Misao skidded to a halt outside the door to the small hut.  This has got to be the place, Misao thought as she eyed the building, there was the sound of men’s voices beyond involved in a conversation.  She reached out one hand to the door right as a shout echoed clearly out of the hut.  “Leave now!  It was a mistake for me to teach an idiot like you the Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu!”

Misao and Yahiko froze for a second at those words before with a rush of fury they threw open the door to the hut and entered like a raging bulls.  “What was that you said?!” they both screamed.

Inside the hut, Kenshin was sitting on the bare floorboards while a man who looked to be in his early thirties with long black hair tied back in a ponytail and black eyes sat causally on a small tansu chest. 

“What did you call Kenshin?!”  Yahiko screamed at the man. 

“How could you say that it was a mistake to teach Kenshin Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu anyway?  He may be clueless but still,” Misao added at the same time.

Seijuro quirked an eyebrow at the two of them but said nothing.  And who the hell are these two brats?

Kenshin turned upon their entry and for the moment was speechless at their arrival, “Misao-dono?  Yahiko?  What on earth are you doing here?”

“I’ll deal with you later,” Yahiko warned Seijuro, who seemed unimpressed at the boy’s words as Yahiko pointed one finger at him before he turned his eyes to Kenshin, “but first…”  Yahiko walked straight up to Kenshin then with all the force he could muster, he punched Kenshin in the face.  Kenshin’s head reeled back from blow, he didn’t even attempt to block it, partly from the shock of seeing Yahiko there, and partly because he would never have thought Yahiko would hit him.  “That was for leaving and making Ayame and Suzume cry over you.  You know that they think they did something wrong to make their Uncle Kenny leave without a goodbye?  How could you do that to them?”  Yahiko demanded harshly, his eyes burning as he remembered Ayame and Suzume’s tears.

Uncle…. Kenny…..?  Seijuro thought, stumbling over the idea.  I now no longer know what’s going on. 

Kenshin turned back to him with a hurt look in his eyes but also confusion, “you came here all the way from Tokyo just for that Yahiko?” 

“Oh right, and to help you kick Shishio’s butt of course, Team Kenshin all the way,” Yahiko bragged happily, now that he had done his duty as a big brother he was ready to serve as Kenshin’s rearguard. 

Team Kenshin?  Another idea that Seijuro couldn’t fathom.  The fact that this brat punched Kenshin is amusing, but as for everything else he’s said…  I may finally be going mad, that’s the only explanation. 

Kenshin’s eyes became more puzzled at Yahiko’s words.   “You are only angry for Ayame and Suzume?” 

“Yeah,” Yahiko shrugged, “they can’t fight back yet.  As for everyone else you pissed off, they can pummel you themselves.  And if I’m not mistaken there’s going to be a line,” Yahiko added evilly.  A shadow fell across the door and the boy glanced back.  “Oh the next contestant has arrived,” Yahiko greeted, stepping towards the newcomer.

Kenshin glanced past Yahiko to the figure in the door and his heart dropped to the floor, for a moment he forgot how to breath.  “Kaoru-dono.”  He whispered.

***

As darkness fell over Kyoto the members of the Aoi-ya went about with their normal nightly routine, unaware that out on the street a man was watching them closely, waiting for the moment when everyone in the inn would be asleep so that he could inform the others that it was time to strike.  He was prepared to wait as long as needed.  Soon we will have the information that Lord Hoji and Lord Shishio demand.  These people should have never defied them.

***

Seijuro had been half a breath away from throwing Kenshin out of his home by force when he had shouted his final challenge at Kenshin who had refused to leave until Seijuro agreed to continue his training.  That was before a strange girl and boy burst into his home shouting.  The girl had the lanky unfinished look of an adolescent and the boy looked like most his age, dirty behind his ears, and hair that had probably not been combed in months.  The only thing of note was the shinai the boy wore strapped across his back.  Seijuro had no idea why these two would come bursting in and jump to Kenshin’s defense as they did, though he had to admit a moment of amusement when the girl admitted that Kenshin was clueless.

As Kenshin called both by name Seijuro assumed they were friends of some kind, a fact that was only emphasized by Yahiko punching him in the face, something that made Seijuro forget his earlier intention to throw Kenshin out.  Seijuro laughed to himself, maybe I should have taught this upstart brat Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu instead of Kenshin, Seijuro though in amusement.  He’s got spunk.

Then a newcomer arrived on the scene and Seijuro watched as Kenshin looked up and his face took on an expression that Seijuro had never seen on his apprentice’s face before. 

“Kaoru-dono,” Kenshin breathed.

He’s in love with her, Seijuro realized with a flash.  The woman at the door paused for a moment, as though she couldn’t believe her eyes. 

“Kenshin!”  She greeted, finally trusting what her eyes were showing her.  She ran forward, pushing the boy carelessly out of the way.  She ran to Kenshin, falling to her knees before him and reaching out to greet him but suddenly Kenshin turned his head away and the woman paused.  She pulled her arms back and folded her hands in her lap, a flash of pain in her eyes. 

Seijuro studied his apprentice for a moment in order to understand why he would turn away from this woman he so obviously had feelings for.  Kenshin’s hands trembled from where he clenched his hakama, his head was bowed low, but from the hunch in his shoulders, Seijuro guessed the cause.  He’s not rejecting her, he’s just trying to regain his composure.  He’s been under so much stress lately that he’s having trouble dealing with seeing the woman he loves under these unexpected circumstances. 

Seijuro turned his attention to the woman, studying this strange creature before him.  She had a simple but pretty face, her hair was neatly tied back with a colorful hair ribbon into a high ponytail.  Her appearance was neat and groomed.  But on her face and neck Seijuro could see fading bruises and scrapes, the knuckles of her hand were cracked with a semi healed look, like she had been in a fist fight lately.  He had no idea why she would like that but he was willing to wait to get answers to his questions about this woman.  After all, he didn’t want to say or do anything to break up the drama before him, he wanted to see how this would play out.  The only thing he did was lean back and wait for the show to continue its next act.

Kaoru was hurt at first by Kenshin’s seeming rejection of her but then she saw his clenched and trembling hands, the hunch in his shoulders, and the way he bowed his head hiding his eyes behind his long bangs like when he didn’t want to show how much something had hurt or shaken him.  “Kenshin?” Kaoru asked softly, reaching out on hand and laying it on top of one of his.  “Won’t you look at me?”  She asked in a whisper.

“Why did you come Kaoru-dono?” Kenshin asked, his voice thick.  He turned his head towards her but kept his head ducked, preventing her from seeing his face.

“Because I had to see you again Kenshin, no matter what.”  She told him in a quiet voice.  She had completely forgotten that there were others in the room, or a world outside.  All that mattered to her in that moment was Kenshin.

“Shishio is looking for you, he wants to use you against me,” Kenshin told her.

“I know, and that doesn’t matter Kenshin.  You’re the only thing I care about right now, I’ve been so worried about you,” Kaoru answered.  “As for Shishio and his plans, well, I can’t stop him but he won’t get to me so easily.”  She reached out a hand to Kenshin’s face.  “Won’t you look at me?”

Kenshin grabbed her hand before it touched him, he turned it over and ran his thumb across her cracked knuckles, keeping his face bowed.  “You shouldn’t have come Kaoru-dono, if something were to happ-”

“I know about Tomoe,” Kaoru cut him off.  Kenshin suddenly tensed at those words.  “I know everything that happened to her, and to you.”  She freed her hand from his and touched his left cheek, tracing his scar with her fingertips.  “Your old master, Kido-san, came to visit me while I was under government protection and I learned the whole truth from him.”  Kaoru explained.  Kenshin slowly relaxed as he processed that information. 

In the corner, Misao and Yahiko just watched the confrontation before them.  At the mention of Tomoe, Misao leaned over and whispered in Yahiko’s ear, “psst, who’s Tomoe?”  Yahiko looked back at her with wide eyes and shrugged, Misao rolled her eyes and turn her attention back to the couple, boy’s are useless.

“And you came despite knowing the truth about me?” Kenshin asked in a whisper.

Kaoru’s face turned to confusion for a moment before the full meaning of his words hit her.  “Did you think I would blame you, or hate you for what happened?”  Kaoru asked in disbelief.  “I know you did everything you could to prevent what befall you both, how could I ever blame you?”

“How can you really believe that Kaoru-dono?”  There was no anger or disbelief in Kenshin’s voice, just an honest curiosity, as though he couldn’t understand how she could possibly feel that way.

“Because I know the man you are, and I know how far you will go for the people that you love,” Kaoru answered simply.  Kenshin turned his head away slightly, still unable to look Kaoru in the eye. 

“You seriously don’t this Tomoe person?” Misao whispered to Yahiko.  She sounds pretty important.

“Never heard of her till now,” Yahiko whispered back loudly. 

There was silence in the hut for a moment, before one sure voice broke the spell that had fallen upon the group.  “I take it that you know these three?” Seijuro asked, directing his attention to Kenshin.

Kenshin jumped a little at Seijuro’s voice and glanced up at his Master with a puzzled expression, suddenly realizing that his Master had just witness everything that had transpired over the past few minutes.  “Ummm.”

“Well, it seems like I have a lot of uninvited guest today,” Seijuro sighed with contempt before his eyes focused back in on Kenshin with a piercing gaze.  “Go fetch water, the path by the kiln leads to the stream, and be quick about it,” he ordered harshly.

Kenshin’s face became even more puzzled.  “What?”

“The wet stuff, that you use for drinking and bathing, go get some,” his Master repeated.

“Why?” Kenshin’s face quirked into confusion. 

“Because I don’t have any here,” Seijuro explained with a condescending air of a frustrated adult trying to reason with a toddler.  “And these ladies have come a long way and are probably thirsty.”

“But why?” Kenshin protested.

“You really want these ladies walking a half a mile to the stream in the dark?”  Seijuro asked, his voice laden with sarcasm.

Kenshin shook his head, “No what I mean is, shouldn’t it be you to fetch the water?  This is your home afterwards,” Kenshin reasoned.

“Ten years and you still haven’t learned anything,” Seijuro scoffed before his voice turned harsh.  “KENSHIN, WATER!”  He yelled, pointing to a bucket and then the door.  Kenshin jumped to his feet and before he knew it he was standing in the doorway with an empty bucket in his hand before he froze, wondering how after so many years Seijuro could still order him around.  “NOW!”  And with that Kenshin went running off to the stream.

***

After Kenshin left suddenly, Misao turned her attention to Seijuro who had been for the most part quiet until then.  The Master of Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu, she appraised him from head to toe with a keen eye.  Who is this guy?

Yahiko meanwhile had all of his attention on Kaoru, “did you seriously come all the way out here just to talk to Kenshin?  No yelling, no hitting, no threats?  Just talking?” Yahiko asked incredulously.

Kaoru rolled her eyes at the boy, “I don’t attack everyone you know.”

Yahiko stared at her pointedly, “Hmm, uh huh.  So this government guy who told you about what’s-her-name, did you too just talk there as well or do you smack him around like everyone else you’ve ever known?”

Kaoru’s face flushed and Yahiko had his answer.  “It wasn’t intended, I don’t know how the teapot ended up in my hand.”

Yahiko’s eyebrows rose, “a teapot?”  He asked his voice thick with sarcasm, he rolled his eyes with a sigh.  “And that is my sensei everyone, we’ll never understand how she’s still allowed out on the streets.”

Kaoru decided to ignore the boy and turned her attention to Seijuro.  “I’m so sorry sir for the intrusion,” she bowed towards him slightly.  “We came all this way to see Kenshin and when we learned that he was coming here we came right away.”

“So you’re the guy who taught Himura-san everything he knows about fighting then?” Misao asked before Seijuro had a chance to reply to Kaoru.

“Yeah,” Seijuro answered.  “I have a few questions for you three.”

“Yes sir,” Yahiko piped up, “but mind if we ask you a question first?”

Seijuro’s eyes quirked a little, “no, what is it?”

“How old are you anyways?”    Misao injected, pointing a finger at him.

“Eh?  I’m forty-three what’s so important about that?” Seijuro questioned.

Yahiko and Misao were beside themselves at this news.  “Forty-three!”  They both shouted staring at this man who appeared to be in his early thirties. 

“How can he be forty-three with a face like that?!”  Misao shouted in surprise.

“He’s like Kenshin, he looks a lot younger than he is!”  Yahiko added.

Misao rounded on Yahiko, “wait Himura-san is older than he looks?  What is he then 17, 18?”

“Twenty-four,” Yahiko answered and Misao’s jaw hit the floor.

“What is the Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu anyways, some kind of fountain of youth!” she screeched. 

Seijuro stared at the two for a moment as they were shouting their disbelief over his age for a moment before he turned his attention on to Kaoru.  “Can I ignore them?” he asked bluntly.

Kaoru’s face turned strained as the two got louder, “please do.”

“So I understand that you are all friends of Kenshin’s but why are you all here?” Seijuro’s words seemed as though they included the whole group but Kaoru was sure that he had a special focus on her with that question.  Misao and Yahiko had finally settled down and were listening to the conversation.

“We came to see Kenshin of course,” Kaoru answered simply.

Seijuro’s head quirked a little at her answer, “so what now?”

Kaoru’s brow furrowed, not sure what Seijuro was driving at.  Misao glanced at Kaoru before injecting into the conversation, “he wants to know what your plan is now Kaoru-san?  Were you planning on telling Himura-san how you feel about him?”

“No,” Kaoru answered in a soft voice, “he already knows that.”

Yahiko stepped forward, “of course he does, she’s not here for that,” he told Misao.  “She’s here to fight alongside him of course.”

“No,” Kaoru answered, remembering a promise that she had made to Kenshin, a promise to try and keep herself out of any future fights and danger.  “I just needed to see him again that’s all, even if it was the last time.”

Misao and Yahiko stared at her for a moment before they both smacked their hands to their heads.  “And this is what happens when your sensei is a girl,” Yahiko moaned.

“That was seriously your only reason?” Misao asked in a pained voice.  “You came all this way, despite the danger from Shishio’s men, just to see him?”

“Of course, I had to let him know that no matter what he’s not alone anymore.”  Kaoru replied in a quiet voice.

Misao’s eyes widened at those words, “ooh,” she clasped her hands to her chest in understanding, “that’s the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard.”

Yahiko stared back and forth between the woman in disbelief, it’s a whole other language.  Girls are just plain weird.

Seijuro on the other hand smirked at Kaoru’s response and started rubbing his chin with one hand as he observed her with an amused look.  “I don’t pretend to understand what you all see in him but it appears my apprentice has become quite popular, for a stubborn, self-willed mule that it is.”

Yahiko’s face flushed, “What do you mean mule!” he shouted in challenge at Seijuro.  “You keep insulting Kenshin like that and I’m going to have to wipe the floor with you!”

Yep this kid as spunk, Seijuro thought in amusement.  What do they see in that blockhead anyways?

“Yahiko!”  Kaoru reached up, grabbed Yahiko by the ear, and dragged him to the floor screaming in pain.  “You don’t just burst into people’s homes and start yelling at them for every little thing,” she scolded before releasing him.

Yahiko rubbed his ear, staring at Kaoru glumly, “you do, all the time.  And hit high ranking government officials, and have former assassins and disreputable people stay the night in your home no strings attached, and cook sludge you expect us to eat, and….”  Kaoru cuffed the boy across the back of his head as he started counting down his list of her faults, her face glowing red.

She turned to Seijuro with an apologetic look on her face, “I apologize for my student’s actions.  He knows better but despite that he refuses to behave.”

“You know the kid kind of has a point,” Misao pointed out diplomatically.  “After all who is he to talk?  He hasn’t seen Himura in what 9 years or more?  He might have known him well before but he doesn’t know what he’s like now,” Misao reasoned.

“Good point,” Seijuro agreed, giving them all a piercing glance, the conversation finally reaching the topic he wanted to hear about the most.  “He’s told me what happen after he left his apprenticeship up to the end of the Revolution but nothing after that, except for this fight with Shishio.  The idiot apprentice who ran away 10 years ago, tell me what he has done with the Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu he was taught.  I want know everything.”  Seijuro told them in a deadly serious voice.  “And not from him, I want to hear it from those who have seen a side of him that I don’t know.”

Misao flopped down on the floor with Kaoru and Yahiko, “well I’ve known him the shortest, so you guys?”  Misao turned to them and Yahiko elbowed Kaoru.

“You start Kaoru, you’re the one who started everything you know.”

Kaoru licked her lips, “well about nine months ago or so there was this man killing people in Tokyo who claimed that he was ‘Hitokiri Battosai’ and saying that he had studied at my family’s dojo.  So I was trying to track down this man stop him from slandering my family’s name, so when I met Kenshin all I saw was a man with a sword so I thought that he must have been the murderer that I sought so I confronted him.”  Seijuro’s eyes burned with intensity as Kaoru continued her story about the night she met Kenshin.  He only interrupted occasionally for a clarification, otherwise he remained silent, drinking in every word that the three told him about their adventures with Kenshin. 

***

Kenshin walked slowly down the narrow path, trying not to get lost and wander off the path in the dark.  The path was rocky underfoot and there were places that Kenshin had to stop and backtrack because an animal path crossed over and he had gone down the wrong trail only to have it end suddenly in a bush.  Finally, he had managed to make it to a peaceful little mountain stream.  Kenshin carefully filled the bucket with the cold running water.  He glanced up at the sky where the stars shone brightly and the full moon traced its path through the night.   

With Kaoru-dono and Yahiko here, then Sanosuke must not be far behind.  He thought as he started to make his way back to his Master’s home, careful to avoid spilling any of the water.  This makes things much more difficult with them being here.

Kenshin sighed, he was puzzling what was the best thing to do with them being here.  He couldn’t decide if the best thing to do would be to march all of them down to the nearest police headquarters and have them put into protective custody, take them back to the Aoi-ya and trust Okina and the others to look after them, or keep them both near him so that he could protect them.  No choice seemed like the right one and he felt a growing anger that they had even come at all.  Why, why did they have to come?  Why did they have to put themselves in danger just for me?  Why?

***

Night fell over Kyoto, most inns that were still entertaining guests were alight with noise and voices but the Aoi-ya had no guests and all of its inhabitants had retired early.  Outside of the inn a single man saw every light go out in the inn, he waited over an hour before he hurried to down the streets to side of town that was dark and quiet.  He slipped into a small shed where a group of men were dressed in black clothes and masks.

“They are all asleep,” the scout reported.

“Good, suit up, we move out as soon as you are ready,” the leader ordered and the scout jumped to obey.  While he was donning the black clothes and mask worn by his fellows the leader continued to address the group.  “We have no use for anyone other than the old man, kill everyone else.  Understood?”

“Understood,” came the whispered response and then the group set out.  They traveled on soundless feet along the dark walkways, blending with the shadows perfectly until they reached the Aoi-ya.  Upon reaching the Aoi-ya they pulled out their tools and quickly drilled small holes in the wall to drive in hand grips.  Once they were done the whole group scaled the wall and dropped down on silent feet into the courtyard.  Using only hand signals the group spit up into smaller units as each set out to eliminate their target.  The leader moved forward with his backup into the inn, they crept down the hallways until they reached their destination.  Slowly the leader slid the screen door back to the sleeping quarters.  He saw the blankets pulled up and a mess of white hair peeking out from under the covers.  Satisfied that he had found the old man that he sought he stepped into the room as quiet as death as he reached out and grabbed the corner of the blanket and started to pull it back quickly.  The leader’s eyes widened when suddenly the old man’s head went rolling out of the bed and past his feet.  What!

Suddenly the room blazed as bright as day to the leader’s eyes that had grown accustomed to the dark.  Blinking he turned his head to that source of light to see the old man that he sought was wide awake with a dark lantern in his hand from which the light emitted where the screen over the candle inside had been slid back, lightening up the room.  Glancing to the floor the leader saw that what he had mistaken as the old man’s head while under the blanket was actually a ball of twine with a patch of white horse hair tacked onto it.

“Who are you?” the old man asked quite calmly, as though they had come to the inn openly, looking for a room for the night.

The leader recovered from his initial shock and with a snarl he leapt forward, flicking out his steel claws as he swung at the old man.

The old man blocked his attack with effortless grace and retaliated with a punch to his diagram that knocked all the air out of his lungs and cracked his ribs.  “Answer the question,” the old man demanded before the leader hit the floor gasping in pain. 

The old man’s eyebrows rose at the sight, “not very experience ninja are you?  If you had been under my command I would have sent you back to basic training long before now,” the old man scolded. 

The leaders back up gasped in surprise at how quickly the old man took out his commander before he raised an arm, intending to attack the old man but a strong hand reached out from behind and grabbed his arm.   Before he knew it, his arms had been yanked behind him and bound and he was knocked to his knees.

“Don’t even bother to fight back,” a beautiful woman with a handful of kunai told him pointy as his bonds were secured.  “All of your friends are asleep by now.”

Two young boys ran into the room right up to the old man, “we even took one down ourselves Gramps!” one of the boys told the old man proudly.

“Yeah, Mom and Dad didn’t help us at all, he fell into our trap just like planned!” the other bragged.

“If this is the quality of Shishio’s men then it’s a wonder that the government is as afraid of him as it is,” a man with glasses added critically.

“So what now Okina?” the other woman in the group asked.  “What should we do to this lot now that we have them?”

The old man’s eyes narrowed dangerously as he eyed the two men in the room.  “Now we find everything they know about Shishio.” 

***

Kenshin saw his Master’s home just ahead and his feet quickened once he was out of the woods and into the clearing around the hut.  That was when he noticed for the first time that there was a well behind the house.  Kenshin stopped for a moment when he saw it before shaking his head.  So Master wanted me out of the way for a while and invented the excuse of sending me on a mile trek for water.  Typical.

Kenshin walked into the hut and everyone’s head looked up to watch him walk in and leave the bucket near one of the shelves holding pottery.  He avoided looking at Kaoru or the others, he could feel their eyes on him but he just couldn’t bring himself to look at them just yet.  He focused all his attention on his Master who was giving him an appraising look, as though he was trying to see something that was invisible to him but that he knew was there. 

“So for the past 5 years you’ve been wandering around the countryside as a Rurouni helping people,” it wasn’t a question and Kenshin knew that Seijuro had taken the time with the others to learn everything about Kenshin he could.  “Was it because you finally internalized the teachings of Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu or was it to atone for the lives you have taken?”

“Both Master,” Kenshin answered in a strong voice.  “As I said before when we parted ways 10 years ago, when people are suffering I cannot ignore their pleas for help.”

“Hump,” Seijuro looked amused at Kenshin’s answered.  “You’re still barking the same old words.”  Suddenly Seijuro stood up, “so follow me and I’ll teach you the final secret of the Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu!”  Kenshin’s eyes widened, surprised by his sudden change in moods.  “After all, if Shishio kills you then I’ll have to train another apprentice and I just don’t have the time,” Seijuro shrugged at Kenshin who still stood dumbfounded.  Seijuro grabbed his sword that was on a sword stand along the wall and slipped it into his belt.  “Granted it would be a lot easier if I just deal with Shishio myself but I’m at a different place in my career and my days of cleaning up your messes are long behind me.  No, the job of dealing with Shishio falls to you,” he finished with deadly earnest to Kenshin.  “Your training starts now.”  With that Shishio swept out of the hut.

Kenshin didn’t hesitated for a second, following in his Master’s footsteps out of the hut.

Kaoru jumped to her feet as Kenshin left and the others were right behind her as she ran out of the door before Kenshin and his Master disappeared into the darkness of the night.  “Kenshin!” she called out and Kenshin stopped but didn’t turn around.

She came up behind him, stopping a few feet behind him as he still refused to turn around and look at her.  “Are you angry, that we came to Kyoto?” she asked in a quiet voice.

“Yes,” Kenshin answered in a hard tone and Kaoru flinched.  Then he turned around slowly, still not meeting her eye, “but only half, the other half is somewhat relived,” he told her in a soft voice.  Kaoru’s eyes softened at his words and Kenshin quickly looked forward to his Master who had stopped and was watching them over his shoulder.  “There is no telling where Shishio’s men might be hiding,” he continued in a business-like voice.  “Promise you’ll be careful.”

“Never fear we can take them all!” Misao and Yahiko cheered and Kenshin stepped forward and continued to follow his Master until they both disappeared into the darkness. 

Kaoru watched him leave until he disappeared.  I’m waiting for you to turn around and smile Kenshin, just so I know that everything will be okay.  Please Kenshin, won’t you at least look back?

***

Okina leaned against the wall, hidden in the shadows as one of Shishio’s men was tied to a post, his body suspended in the air in the secret underground room of the inn.    A single lantern was hung in the room and both he and Okon waited until the man regained consciousness to began the integration.  Okina watched as the man slowly stirred, blinking his eyes a few times as he looked around at his surroundings.  Okon stepped forward and grabbed the man’s chin, observing him for a moment, “I think he’s ready Okina.”

Okina stepped out of the shadows and addressed the man.  “You are one of Shishio’s men,” Okina began, it wasn’t a question.  “There are a few questions I would like you to answer, the first is why did you attack the Aoi-ya?”

The man clammed up, Okon put a finger under his chin and tilted his head towards her.  “Oh come on and tell us, we’re not ogres after all,” she purred at him. 

The man spit in her face and Okon stepped back, pulling out a handkerchief and wiping her face off calmly.

“Only fools resist us,” Okina warned the man.

The man sneered at him, “do you worst old man.”

Okina smiled wickedly at the man, “you are mistaken, I’m not going to lay a single finger on you.  The beautiful Okon is the one who will be asking the questions, she has such a way with men, pleading means nothing to her.  In fact, I suspect on some level she may actually enjoy this, so the longer you resist the more fun she gets to have.  In the end, the choice is yours.”

I enjoy this?  Okon thought in amusement.  Okina is really playing this up.  As if I enjoy hearing a man’s wimpy screams and pleas for mercy, I’d much rather be washing my hair at the moment.  Or sleeping.  Okon stepped forward with a lit candle and several long nails laying them out on a small table as she looked up and appraised the man.  “Shall we begin?”

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

The Hour of the Ox

Okina left the inn dressed in his ninja uniform, something he had not worn in years, carrying his weapon of choice and disappeared into the night, his commands laid out to the others.  Kuro, Shiro, Hideyoshi, and Masaru had taken the other members of the Owl Clan to the nearest police station, left them where they would be quickly found, with a little note stating that they were Shishio’s men, and trusted that the police would see to them. 

Meanwhile Omasu and Okon discussed what was happening quietly among themselves in worried voices.  “He really betrayed us, but why?”  Omasu whispered.

Okon shrugged as she cleaned her instruments and put them away.  “It would appear as though he has lost his mind, and to use people as weak as that ‘Owl Clan’ against us, I barely touched the man before he was spilling out the entire story to us.”

“Mom, Aunt Omasu,” Yuuto and Sora crept around the corner and stared at the two women with worried faces, not understanding what was going on.  “Who betrayed us, why did those men attack us like that?”

Okon and Omasu looked at each other for a long moment.  “They were some of Shishio’s men, that bad man that Himura-san came to Kyoto to fight,” Omasu started as she knelt on a cushion and gestured the boys over to her.

“We figured that out Mom,” Sora replied in a sure voice as he and his brother joined her.

“We’re not stupid, what we don’t know is what you have all been talking about, like who betrayed us.  Was it Himura-san?”  Yuuto asked.

“Oh no, not him,” Okon piped up as she joined the others.  “It wasn’t Himura-san.  It was someone else but if we tell you, you have to promise not to say anything to anyone else about it, even Misao.”

The boy’s face turned quizzical, “why can’t we tell Misao?  Shouldn’t she know what’s going on if someone is trying to hurt us?” Yuuto asked.

Meanwhile Sora’s eyes lit up as his mind jumped to a sudden thought that explained everyone’s behavior, “its Aoshi-sama isn’t it?  He would know that we know all about where Himura-san is, and that would explain why Gramps went off all a sudden in his ninja cloths with that serious look on his face.”

“And why you let one of those Owl guy’s go,” Yuuto added as he followed his brother’s thoughts, the two boys were staring at each other as they worked through the theory together.  “It wasn’t to send a message to Shishio, but to Aoshi-sama.  And we can’t tell Misao because…”

The two boys turned around to their mother and aunt.  “Are we right?” they intoned together.

Omasu looked at them with a sad face, “you two really are too smart for your own good.”

“Misao will have to know eventually,” Okon mused in a sad voice, she knew how deeply the girl looked up to Aoshi.  “No matter how this all ends Misao is going to suffer bitterly and there isn’t a thing we can do to lessen the blow. Before morning comes, Misao’s heart will be broken.”

***

Yahiko sighed behind Kaoru and Misao, dragging his feet in protest as the three headed down the road in the dark.  “Why are we going back right now?” Yahiko moaned.  “Why couldn’t we stay for the night at Kenshin’s Master’s place?”

“Because Kenshin will be busy training now and we shouldn’t be in the way,” Kaoru replied over her shoulder in a business-like voice.  She glanced over her shoulder in annoyance at the boy, “I swear Yahiko if you don’t pick up your feet I’m going to take that shinai of yours and beat you all the way back to Kyoto with it.”

Yahiko groaned but quickened his pace till he was just behind the ladies.  Misao glanced up at Kaoru, her face seemed calm but Misao couldn’t tell what she might be thinking.  “Are you all right Kaoru-san?” she asked softly.  After all that meeting with Himura-san wasn’t exactly the stuff romance novels are made of, Misao thought to herself.  Himura-san was as about as happy to see her as a bird is to see a snake in its nest.

“I wanted to see Kenshin and I did see him after all,” Kenshin answered briskly.

“Okay,” Misao knew when someone needed a little space to sort through things so she decided to change topics.  “Well you both are welcome to come with me back to the Aoi-ya and stay as long as you want, anything for Himura-san’s friends after all.” 

“Thank you very much,” Kaoru replied in a gratefully tone before her face twitched in irritation at Yahiko groaning behind her.  “Yahiko what is it?” she demanded coming to a stop and rounding on the boy, “why are you groaning so much?”

“Constipated?” Misao asked helpfully.

Yahiko made a face at them, “No,” he replied in a sassy voice.  “It’s just there was something really important I was supposed to tell Kenshin and I can’t remember what it was.”

“What is there, someone else in town that wants to kill him or us?” Kaoru asked sarcastically, crossing her arms.  Knowing the brat it was just some silly little kid thing.

Yahiko’s eyes widen at Kaoru’s words as he remembered what had happened earlier that day.  “Aoshi, Aoshi Shinomori, that killer is in Kyoto and he’s looking for Kenshin!”  Yahiko piped up.

Misao froze, ‘Aoshi Shinomori?’ ‘that killer’?  ‘Looking for Himura-san?’  My Aoshi???

“Are you sure?” Kaoru’s asked in a deadly serious voice, all of her earlier irritation gone at their seriousness of the boy’s words.  “The Okashira of the Oniwanbanshu here?”  Kaoru flashed back to that horrible moment in the ballroom, Aoshi holding his dead sister’s body in his arms, his fallen comrades around him.  She laid a hand on his, trying to let him know that even in that moment he was not alone.   And that whispered “go with them,” as he ordered her away, it was the words of a broken man.  A man now bent on revenge. 

“I only caught a glimpse through the crowds but I know it was him,” Yahiko told her in a sure voice.

“How could you possibly forget something as important as that?” Kaoru demanded before she took off running back to Seijuro’s home.  “We have to warn Kenshin!”

Yahiko took off after her and Kaoru came to a halt as there was a yelp from the boy and the sound of bodies tumbling to the ground.  She turned to see that Misao had tackled Yahiko to the ground. 

“What are you doing now crazy girl?” Yahiko demanded.  “Can’t you see we’re in the middle of something important?”

“Did you say you saw Aoshi-sama in Kyoto?” Misao asked in a desperate voice.  “And what’s this about him after Himura-san?”

Yahiko’s eyes widen, Aoshi-sama?  He pushed Misao off of him and jumped to his feet, pulling his shinai free and holding it at the ready, placing himself between Kaoru and Misao, ready for anything.  “Get out of here Kaoru, she’s one of the Oniwanbanshu!”  Yahiko yelled over his shoulder.  “I’ll hold her off, just warn Kenshin!”

“What are you talking about?” Kaoru demanded, turning her eyes to both of them.

“Just get out of here Kaoru,” Yahiko demanded but Kaoru ignored him, her eyes turning to the dumbfounded look on Misao’s face as she knelt on the ground. 

“Yahiko stop being a hero,” Kaoru retorted.  “Does she look like she’s about to attack us?”

It was a valid question as Misao’s mouth hung open in shock, she looked as though she had been hit multiple times by a sack of bricks.

Yahiko sneered at her, “fine then.  So you,” he addressed Misao.  “Why are you pretending to be Kenshin’s friend anyways?  Are you trying to lead him into some kind of trap for Aoshi?  Or are you looking for revenge on your own?”

“Revenge?” Misao croaked out in a weak voice.  “What are you talking about?” she looked back and forth between them, “why would I want revenge?”

“Don’t play dumb with me!” Yahiko shouted.  Kaoru decided to take change of the situation.  She stepped between the two, grabbing Yahiko’s shinai with one hand to hold him back and reaching out another hand to help Misao off the ground.  Misao took the hand and Kaoru helped to pull the girl up. 

“You really don’t know what’s going on do you?” Kaoru asked gently.

Misao looked at her with wide eyes, “What is going on Kaoru-san?” she pleaded.  “Please tell me.”

“Kaoru, she’s one of them, why are you helping her?” Yahiko demanded.

“Shut up Yahiko and let me handle this,” Kaoru snapped back before she turned to Misao with a softer face.  “If it wasn’t for Misao-san then we wouldn’t have found Kenshin, and besides can’t you see it on her face?  She doesn’t know what you’re talking about Yahiko.  She doesn’t know what happened at Kanryu’s mansion.”

“Did something happen, to Aoshi-sama, Hoshi-sama, and the others?” Misao asked.  A sense of dread, all she could think of was all the times that Kenshin’s face darkened when she talked about Aoshi and the others, and all the times he refused to tell her what he knew about Aoshi.

“I can tell you, but are you sure you want to hear?  You won’t like it.” Kaoru warned her.

Misao gulped, “tell me everything.”

***

Hoji was annoyed that Aoshi continued to remain in his office waiting for word of when the Owls returned.  Hoji had tried pointing out several times that Aoshi would be more comfortable waiting somewhere else but Aoshi pointedly ignored him and continued to remain leaning against the wall with a causal stance as though he was prepared to wait there all night, which Hoji was sure that he was. 

Hoji glanced up at the clock for what seemed like the thousandth time noting that it was almost midnight.  It’s not that far to and from Kyoto from here.  “They should have been back by now,” Hoji mutter under his breath.  “What are they doing?”

Aoshi’s eyes flickered towards Hoji for a moment and Hoji wondered what Aoshi knew that he didn’t.  Suddenly the door burst open, “Hoji-sama, come at once.  One of the Owls returned!” the man shouted and Hoji rose quickly to his feet while Aoshi followed casually behind him as though not interested in the proceedings.  Dispute his seeming lack of interest he was right behind Hoji as they came to where the one member of the Owls collapsed.  There were long nails driven into his hands and arms and wax poured into the wounds.  He had collapsed on the ground and there was a note tacked to his back.

“It can’t be,” Hoji gasped in surprise.  “The entire Owl Clan annihilated?”

Aoshi’s ice blue eyes took little interest in the Owl, other than to note that Okon’s skills remained sharp.  She had only done as much damage as necessary but still left the man intact enough to make the trek back to Shishio’s lair.  His real interest was in the note in handwriting he recognized as Okina’s.

 

At the hour of the ox, I will wait for you at location X.  Come alone.

                                                                               

“Some predators these Owls turned out to be,” Aoshi observed coldly.  “To be eaten by a few rats.”  Hoji turned towards him with a growl but Aoshi could care less, his mind already turning over his next step.  “You shouldn’t have underestimated them so,” he lectured.  “They may have been living in peace but they have also received years of training on the art of concealment and blending in.  And Okina may be an old man now but he was once my master, and the only one who could be called an equal with the late head of the Oniwanbanshu.  Not even your precious Juppongatana will be able to beat him,” Aoshi informed in coolly. 

Hoji glanced to the note on the man’s back, “I take it this note was meant for you, is this some kind of code?”

Aoshi didn’t answer, he just strolled right past Hoji, deep in thought.  It would seem that I alone will have to face you, Okina.

***

In the little shrine hidden on top of a hill and surrounded by a forest of bamboo Okina waited for Aoshi’s arrival, certain that he would come.  He clenched his tonfa in his hands, his head held high, the only light was the full moon that shone its eerie light on the earth.  His heart was hardened to what he had to do and he forced all thoughts about the boy he had once known and trained behind him so that he could do what he had to.  As I promised Aoshi, you forget the pride of the Oniwanbanshu and your vows to your comrades and have become just another killer, and now I will have to stop you. 

***

Misao ran as fast she could, “you are one of the fastest people I know, you would make an excellent runner of messages,” Aoshi had told her that once.  Because of that she had been trained to both sprint and for long distance running and she was putting all that training to use.   It can’t be true, what they said it can’t be true!  Misao told herself over again.  What Kaoru-san and Yahiko said can’t be true.  There is no way that Hoshi-sama and the others would let themselves be killed like that.  There has to be some kind of mistake.  Aoshi-sama would never go crazy and want to kill someone as decent as Himura-san.  It’s all a mistake, it has to be a mistake.  They must have been talking about someone else, but not them!

She kept pushing everything they said out of her head but it kept coming back, and somewhere inside of her she knew that it must be true but she didn’t want to accept it, didn’t want to accept the story that made all the half truths and sidelong looks at her from the others make sense. 

 

“It’s a lie, they can’t be dead,” Misao gasped shaking her head.

“It isn’t a lie Misao,” Kaoru tried to assure the girl with a soft voice.  “The six members of the Oniwanbanshu died to protect Aoshi Shinomori.”

“No they didn’t, they were better than that!” Misao protested, stepping back from them.

“I was there too and I saw how good they were,” Yahiko piped up before his own face turned sad and he shook his head.  “But still when its people against a Gatling gun, people are going to die, there’s no way around that.”

“And because of what happen to the other’s, Aoshi wants to kill Kenshin for the ‘title of strongest’.  He’s turning all of his grief of what happened against Kenshin, and this couldn’t have come at a worse time,” Kaoru moaned to herself.

Misao shook her head, backing away from them, “it’s a lie.”  She said in a sure voice still backing away from them.  “It’s all a lie.”  Before they could stop her, she turned and took off running as fast as she could back to Kyoto.

 

Misao didn’t let up for a second.  She ran faster than she ever had, a need stronger then she had ever felt before driving her past her own limits as she raced down the road.  Gramps will know the truth, he’s the only one I can trust right now!

***

Aoshi stood on the top of the hill, the bamboo forest behind him and the cool night breeze blew at his coat and ruffled his hair as he looked over the city of Kyoto where city lights burned into the night.  The Kyoto Oniwanbanshu’s ‘Place of Sight’.  Aoshi thought to himself.  A natural rise from which all of Kyoto is visible.  He turned around to where hidden back among the bamboo was a small shrine.  He walked over the shrine and slid open the door to find Okina waiting for him.   I never thought that the day would come when I would be challenged by Okina and forced to kill him, but he should not have stood in my way.

***

Misao reached the Aoi-ya and she didn’t hesitate for a second, she rushed into the inn and came skidding to a halt as she saw Kuro helping Omasu reset some of the traps in the inn. 

“Misao-chan,” Omasu greeted in worry, she took in the girl’s flushed face and serious expression. 

“Where’s Gramps!” Misao demanded, skipping the pleasantries.  “And what happened here?” she demanded wondering why they would have to reset the traps in the middle of the night. 

Omasu’s eyes widened a bit, “he had to step out for a bit,” Omasu replied a little too quickly.  “And we were just having a little practice for the boys.”

Misao’s face grew even harder.  “It’s one in the morning.  He didn’t ‘just step out’.  Stop lying to me!”  She screamed. 

Shiro and Masaru hurried into the room at the sound of Misao’s voice.  “Misao-chan, what are you doing roaming the streets so late?” Masaru demanded in worry.

Misao turned, her face glowing and she grabbed Masaru’s kimono, unsheathed a kunai and held it firmly in her hand as she glared at him.  “You’ve been lying to me, haven’t you?” she demanded in a deadly whisper.  She looked around the room at the others who remained motionless, their faces clearly answering Misao’s words.  “You’ve all been lying to me.  Stop lying please and tell me where Gramps is!”

“He’s gone to location X.”  Masaru answered, his voice filled with regret.  “To kill Aoshi who’s betrayed us to Shishio tonight because Okina would not give him information on Himura-san’s whereabouts.”

Misao let go of him and stepped back, shaking her head.  “It can’t be true,” Misao gasped, ignoring that this was independent confirmation of everything that Kaoru and Yahiko had told her.  She looked around at everyone who just kept staring at her with sad expressions.  “This can’t be true,” Misao repeated even though she was starting to lose her conviction.  Before anyone could stop her, she turned and ran out of the inn.

Omasu started after her but Masaru grabbed her and held her back.  “Let her go,” Masaru told her.

“What?” Omasu gasped.  “How can you let her just leave?  How can you let her go there and see…?”

Masaru’s face grew grim as he looked up to the door Misao had run out of.  “No matter how fast she runs she won’t be able to stop what happens.  And she won’t believe the truth until she sees it with her own eyes.  As much as I hate it, we have to let her go.”  Tonight Misao’s heart will be broken, because no matter how this ends she will lose at least one of them forever, the one who help raised her, or the one she loves.  And if we are very, very lucky, it will be only one of them.

***

Aoshi crept out of the room, his bruises starting to fade as he walked out of the house.  Okina noticed the boy out of the corner of his eye but he focused most of his attention on Hoshi.  Hoshi’s face was flushed, she had asked Okina to train her in weapons, saying that she wanted to give up being a geisha and join the Oniwanbanshu as a kunochi. 

“Right, well the spear is not your weapon Hoshi,” Okina stated.  Hoshi nodded a little in agreement.  “Why don’t we try something a little more covert?”  He offered.  He turned to the chest filled with an assortment of weapons and rummaged through it for a moment.  They had been at this for most of the day; he had been trying different weapons with Hoshi until they found one that suited her.  So far nothing had seemed to really fit and while Okina was ready to give up and tell Hoshi that she might want to reconsider her decision, Hoshi remained stubborn.  “One day my brother is going to be the greatest Okashira the Oniwanbanshu has ever known, but if all people see when they look at him is our failure of a father he will never be given the credit he’s due.”  She had told him.  “That’s why I have to do this.  I have to take the brunt of that so he can be seen for his own qualities.”

Okina turned around and held a set of kunai.  “Why don’t we try some kunai with you?  It’s small, easy to hide in your sleeves and clothes, and perfect for covert operations.”

Hoshi stepped forward and took the small knives from Okina, Okina quickly set up a small target several yards away and after demonstrating once for Hoshi how to properly throw them, he stood back and let Hoshi try on her own. 

Hoshi took a deep breath and focused her eyes on the target, she held up the kunai, a little hesitant, but threw it with everything she had and the kunai imbedded itself directly in the middle of the target.  Hoshi’s eyes opened in surprise and she turned to Okina, her mouth gasping.  Okina gave her a stern expression, “Try it again, anyone can get lucky.”

Hoshi closed her mouth and turned back to the practice board, this time a little more sure of herself she threw each of the remaining kunai in her hand into the target, all of them making a tight little group in the center of the target.  She turned to him with a brilliant smile, “looks like we just found something I’m good at,” she bragged with a toss of her head.

“Well that would be a first,” Aoshi teased halfheartedly as he stepped out of the house.

Hoshi turned in surprise, not realizing that Aoshi had been there watching the whole time.  She knelt on the ground to be eye to the boy, “Aoshi, I didn’t know you were up, how are you feeling?” she asked in concern.

Aoshi walked over to her and Hoshi scooped him up in a hug.  “I miss mother,” he whispered in her ear.

Hoshi’s face grew sad, “so do I,” she replied sadly.

Aoshi looked over at Okina who was politely looking away, “so were you trying to find a weapon to suit Hoshi?” he asked innocently.

“That we were, looks like I have a knack with kunai,” Hoshi smiled.

“Can I try?” Aoshi asked hesitantly.

Okina paused for a moment thinking about it before he nodded and gestured the boy over to his chest of weapons.  “Go ahead and look through it, let’s see if there is anything that you like.” 

Aoshi hurried over to the chest and started through it slowly, picking up a few things but then putting them back.  Finally, he pulled out a small sheath weapon.  “What’s this?” Aoshi asked, starting to draw the blade.  “It’s too short to be a katana but it’s too long to be a wakizashi.”  He looked to Okina for an answer. 

“It’s a kodachi,” Okina answered gently.  “It means ‘shield sword’ and only the best of warriors can use a weapon like this.”

Okina watched the boy stare at the weapon for a long moment.  “I want to learn how to use it,” Aoshi said in a sure voice.

“Are you sure?  There is a lot of other things that might be better suited to you,” Okina offered gently.

“No, this is my weapon,” Aoshi replied in a strong voice.  “I can feel it.”

***

Okina stepped forward as Aoshi walked into the shrine.  “Are you ready Aoshi?” He asked in a deadly voice.

“Yes,” Aoshi replied in a cold voice.  “Today is the day I kill my former master who has betrayed me and the Oniwanbanshu.”

He’s gone completely mad, Okina thought with a trace of regret.  Oh Hoshi-sama, you wanted to shield your brother from his father’s failings, but in the end he fell on his own.  Aoshi held out his long sheath and drew a kodachi from both ends.  He held one horizontally and one vertically in front of himself.  Duel kodachi?  Okina thought in surprise.  The former Okashira used duel kodachi, has Aoshi attained the skill of the former Okashira on his own?  Well he was always a genius.  But as great of a genius as he may be, he will only bring harm to those who once served him if he is allowed to continue on this path.  I have to stop him, even if it is the last thing I do.

***

 “Your attack on the Aoi-ya failed,” Shishio replied in an almost bored tone as he reclined on a small couch.  In the corner of the room, Yumi played a game of shogi with Sojiro. 

“Yes my Lord, I apologize, I underestimated their strength,” Hoji bowed.  “I, the Hyakushiki of the Juppongatana wish to make up for this personally.  If you allow me to take a few members of the Juppongatana to the Aoi-ya we can obtained the information on the Battosai.”

Shishio waved him off, “there is no need for that,” he inserted.  “After all isn’t Aoshi Shinomori already there?”

Hoji hesitated,” well yes my Lord, but I don’t trust that man.”

“Nor do I Hoji,” Shishio replied.  “But there is one thing I can trust about the man.  If he can find where the Battosai is he will deal with him, and then we have one less thing between us and our own goals.  So stay out of Shinomori’s business Hoji, he will be an asset for us before the end.”

***

Okina charged forward, dropping low to the ground at the last minute before reaching Aoshi, he straightened up a little striking to Aoshi’s chest and abdomen with his fists.  Aoshi swung his kodachi down to chop at Okina’s arms and felt them strike something solid hidden under Okina’s sleeves.  Okina continued to strike at Aoshi with kicks and punches, constantly ‘changing the level’ by crouching then standing then crouching again to try and find an opening.  Aoshi kept reacting with slashes and thrusts towards Okina but always Okina would block or sweep his kodachi away with his arms, and Aoshi would always feel his kodachi hit something solid.  Okina kept striking without pause until one punch collided and knocked Aoshi back a few steps.  Okina took advantage of that time to flick his sleeves back and reveal what was hidden beneath them.

Aoshi’s eyes narrowed a bit, tonfa, he identified.  Steel tonfa, that is how he’s been blocking me.

“You know that I was the only one who stood next to the late Okashira as an equal, these steel tonfa are my weapon of choice.  And I know very well how to use them against your duel kodachi,” Okina explained in a deadly voice.  “In the end Aoshi, you have brought all of this on yourself, like your father before you.”

Aoshi’s face twisted, the taunt reminding him of the child he had once been, the boy powerless to save the mother he adored, the man powerless to save the sister he worshipped.  He sprung forward, slashing with his kodachi, but even in his rush of anger, he left no opening for Okina as they exchanged blows, dancing around each other.  Aoshi stepped back with a violent slash at Okina’s neck, Okina ducked low and Aoshi’s slash cut a deep gash in the wall.  Meanwhile Okina attempted to strike at Aoshi’s legs to incapacitate him but Aoshi danced lightly on his feet out of the way and used his other kodachi to strike in a head to toe slash at Okina causing him to raise his tonfa above his head to block.  Suddenly Aoshi went on the defensive, only blocking Okina’s blows and dancing around him with a mixture of fast and slow movements.

Okina’s eyes narrowed, he knew what this was, he well remembered when Aoshi first had the idea to develop this kind of attack. 

 

Hoshi went through the steps of the dance she had memorized.  Despite the fact that she was now a full-fledged member of the Oniwanbanshu, and the hero who saved the Shogun from an assassination attempt, she continued to practice the arts she had learned as a maiko.  She said that it helped her to blend in better at court when she was assigned to protect the Shogun.  After all, with her previous training she could act as well as any of the geisha or ladies of the court.  And with her skills in music and dancing she had even entertained the Shogun himself.  Aoshi sat and watched her while pretending to be reading the scrolls that Okina had assigned him.  Every time Okina’s eyes glanced his way he only found his student hard at work studying, but every time he looked away Aoshi’s eyes would look up to his sister.  Noting the mixture of speeds in her dance from one moment to another and in his mind he was turning over an idea.

Finally, Okina glanced over and caught Aoshi watching his sister and not doing his assigned work.  Okina got up from where he was and walked over to Aoshi.  “Does the assignment of various types of light tools bore you Aoshi-kun?” Okina asked harshly.

Aoshi straightened up, his face serious, but then his face was always serious these days.  Okina had never known a ten-year-old boy who could focus as well as Aoshi, or who showed as little true emotion.  “Not at all sir,” Aoshi answered respectfully.  “I was just thinking of a new kind of fighting technique from watching Hoshi dance.”

Okina tipped his head at the boy, “then prove it to me,” he replied.

Aoshi scrambled to his feet and grabbed his kodachi next to him.  Okina pulled out a tanto from his belt and stepped out into the courtyard to give them more room.

Hoshi stopped her dance as she saw them facing off and stepped back onto the porch to watch the spectacle. 

Aoshi drew his kodachi and stood waiting.  “Attack then,” Okina commanded.

“Actually, what I was devising begins as a defensive technique,” Aoshi correct.  “If you would attack me first Okina-sensei.”

“Very well,” Okina answered, he stepped forward with a thrust towards the boy, Aoshi brought his kodachi down and sideswiped the tip of the tanto away from himself as he took three steps to the right.  Okina slashed again at the boy, this time he moved to the left but at a pace slightly slower than before.  Again, Okina stepped forward a little faster than before but this time Aoshi spun, avoiding the attack altogether, when Okina turned to face him Aoshi took a slow step to the left.  Okina kept attacking him but the boy’s movements confused him for a moment before he took note of what he was doing.  Clever, this sudden change in both speed and direction would confuse most fighters, Okina thought.  But is this really all he was thinking of?

Suddenly as Aoshi stepped to the side, Okina watched the boy’s entire stance change as he sprung forward to attack Okina.  Okina was able to spin and block the boy before he used his other hand to palm heel Aoshi in the gut.

Aoshi saw the blow coming as so was able to tighten up before impact so that the blow only knocked him back but didn’t hurt him.  Okina smiled at the boy, “an interesting idea Aoshi.  However, the moment you switch from defense to offense needs to subtler, otherwise it’s just a very fancy way of blocking.”

Aoshi nodded, “yes sir, I’ll work on it,” he assured him

“Well I hope so, otherwise you’ll just end up as Okina’s punching bag,” Hoshi laughed from the sidelines. 

 

Okina braced himself for what was about to come as he continued to strike at Aoshi, looking for an opening in the almost perfect defense and keeping a close eye out for that tiniest movement that would indicate that Aoshi was about to go on the attack.  The Ryusui no Ugoki- the flowing river current.  Does he think that I who know this better than most would miss the moment he switches to offense?  Okina wondered.  Just because it would confuse most fighters, does not mean it will have the same effect on me Aoshi!

It was subtle, and even the most skilled fighters would have missed that slight shift in Aoshi’s stance, but not Okina, not the man who had trained him and taught him the arts of the shinobi.  Aoshi suddenly brought a kodachi down in a downwards slash and Okina raised one of his steel tonfa’s to block it and they met with a loud clang.  But Aoshi wasn’t done yet.  With a yell, he swung his other kodachi down, not to strike Okina but to hit across his other kodachi still locked with Okina’s tonfa. 

Kodachi Nito-ryu, the shadow light cross, with the added force the first kodachi was able to slice through Okina’s steel tonfa and Okina jumped back from the attack before Aoshi could take advantage of his broken weapon. 

“It was the duel kodachi technique of the late Okashira that you could equal,” Aoshi rasped out.  “But I have surpassed him in skill.  Whether it is a steel, a former comrade, or Himura the Battosai, there is nothing my kodachi’s can’t cut through,” Aoshi told him a cold and sure voice.

And in that moment Okina was sure that Aoshi’s words were not ideal boast.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

The Last Okashira

Misao sat on the porch, sniffling and tying a bandage around her bleeding hands, trying not to think about the events of the afternoon but her mind kept playing the embarrassment over and over again as if to mock her.

“Misao,” someone called behind her.

Misao stiffened, she quickly whipped the tears from her eyes so that the person that voice belong to wouldn’t see her crying.  She turned her head and tried to force a smile on her face but failed miserably.  “Aoshi-sama, how’s your day been?” She asked, proud that her voice at least was level.

“Typical day,” Aoshi answered as he joined her sitting on the porch, taking out his kodachi out of his belt as he sat next to her so that he could be more comfortable.  He observed her coolly with those ice blue eyes that missed nothing and Misao ducked her head, hoping that she wasn’t as much of an open book to those eyes as she feared she was.  “I heard your day was a little more difficult,” he commented mildly.

Misao wanted to bawl at those words, “great, so everyone’s talking about how much of a screw-up I was today?” she moaned, unable to control her voice.  She bit her lip to try and hold back the tears as her chin trembled.

“I’m sure you didn’t do as badly as you think,” Aoshi commented.

Misao looked away, “so I’m not the only trainee that managed to get the johyo wrapped around their ankles when they tried to throw it at the target?  Twice?”

“Maybe not,” Aoshi admitted.

“And then hit myself in the head five times with the chigiriki, and fall flat on the ground I don’t even know how many times when we were supposed to scale a wall,” Misao cried.  “And that was just the practical classes, the theory and tactical classes the instructor seemed to enjoy showing that I didn’t know anything because he kept singling me out to answer questions, and when they found out that I can’t read it got even worst.  Everyone called me a pathetic loser with no talent.  I can’t believe you ever talked me into thinking I had potential to be a shinobu.  I bet the Okashira is thinking of kicking me out isn’t he?” Misao turned to Aoshi with tears in her eyes.

Aoshi stared at her for a moment and Misao suddenly hated his calm poker face that hide every emotion.  “What happen to that bright sunny girl this morning who was sure she could take on the world as she left for her first set of lessons as a shinobu?” Aoshi asked mildly.

Misao pouted, “she had a rainy day.”  She crossed her arms and looked away, sniffling.

“And you can read,” Aoshi corrected, “Hoshi and I have been teaching you, remember?”

“I can’t read well enough for it to make a difference to them.”

“Then they are the ones who are pathetic losers.”  Misao’s head turned slowly towards Aoshi.  “Don’t let their skill at this level fool you, unlike you, they have been trained almost from birth, you only started a few weeks ago with some basic skills, like reading.”  Aoshi pointed out.  “And you have something they don’t have yet.  You have a will to stand against adversity when challenged, you lived on the streets alone for over a year and survived.  Even when attacked by that pack of dogs you still fought back when outnumbered, and even wounded you still sought freedom from a perceived threat,” Aoshi reminded her.  Misao flushed a little, knowing that he was referring to her trying to fight against him when he was trying to help her after the dog attack.  “You have the strong and courageous sprit of a shinobu, all you lack is technique but that is easily learned if you strive for it.”

Misao slowly smiled at him, “You know you’re right.  I’ve only just started training, I can’t compare myself to those other guys, they don’t know what hardship is yet.  Give me a few weeks and I’ll leave them all in the dust!”  Misao jumped up, her eyes shining again and she was ready once again to take on the world.  “Hey Aoshi-sama?” she asked a little shyly, “do you mind giving me a few pointers, just a little help with some stuff?”

“Of course, where would you like to start?” Aoshi asked.

***

Misao weaved in and out of the streets, a dark shadow as she pounded along the city streets leaving only a faint metallic click of her weapons and the swing of her braid behind her.  Her muscles burned and her lungs ached from all the running but she refused to stop or slow down.  Necessity drove her on.  Don’t die Gramps, don’t die Aoshi-sama.  Just wait till I get there.  I know I can stop this, I just have to get there in time!

***

Aoshi pulled himself off the floor as Okina had managed once again to knock him to the ground.  Shakily he raised his kodachi once again, ready for Okina’s attack.  “Again Okina.”  Aoshi told him in a tired voice.

Okina looked at the boy who seemed ready to collapse from exhaustion.  “It’s time to take a break Aoshi, you only risk injuring yourself if you continue in your state of exhaustion,” Okina told him.  “A shinobu must listen to his body and know when it is time to withdraw and recoup.”

“And a shinobu must also be able to exceed the limits of his own body when needed for the mission,” Aoshi countered.  “Please, I just want to master this, and I don’t want to stop before I do.”

Okina sighed, “Aoshi your dedication is admirable, but perhaps we should try another weapon with you for your primary weapon.  After all the kodachi is a difficult weapon to master, perhaps we should try…”

“I can get this Okina,” Aoshi told him in a firm voice, his ice blue eyes shining.  “Don’t give up on me, I can master this.”

Okina measured the boy up, “all right, but I will not hold back.”

***

Okina was breathing hard as he stepped back and observed the monster he barely recognized as the bright young pupil he had once trained.  Incredible, he’s nothing at all like the Aoshi I remember.  By doing away with reason and becoming obsessed with revenge he’s far surpassed the skills of even the former Okashira.  What a monster I had a hand in creating.  I’m sorry, if I had only known where this road would have led, I would have never allowed you to become the Okashira.  This is all my fault.

Aoshi stepped forward, his face blank, hiding everything, his typical poker face but his whole aura whispered of death and darkness.  “Tell me where the Battosai is and I will end your life quickly,” Aoshi told him in a voice as cold as ice.

Okina raised his tonfa in defiance.  “I may be an old soldier, but unlike you I will never sell out an ally to the enemy.  You are an even greater traitor to the Onwanbanshi than your father was!”  Aoshi’s eyes tighten a little at those words.

“Fine,” Aoshi replied in a deceptively calm voice.  “Then after I kill you here I will go to the Aoi-ya and question those there, eventually they will tell me what I want to know.”

“Only if you can kill me here!” Okina yelled in challenge as he sprung forward in attack.  Aoshi easily blocked his attack and once again they were locked in the violent dance as they exchanged blows.  I must defeat him even if it costs me my life, for Himura’s sake, for those at the Aoi-ya’s sake, and to protect this country from the demon Shishio.  That thought galvanized Okina’s tired muscles, giving him new strength.  Forgive me for what I have to do Misao.

The fool, he should have just told me what he knows about the Battosai, as if he stands a chance with only one intact tonfa.  Aoshi thought as Okina spun his one intact tonfa in one hand as Aoshi thrust his right kodachi towards him, knowing that Okina would be hard pressed to deflect it with his broken tonfa.  Okina didn’t even try to block it, he reached out one hand and let Aoshi’s thrust go through his hand all the way to the hilt where he gripped the hilt so Aoshi couldn’t move unless he let go of his weapon.

You fell for it Aoshi, Okina thought with triumph.  It doesn’t matter if I only have one tonfa, at this close distance so long as I give it all I have I can win.  He swung his tonfa in his right hand as many times as he could at Aoshi’s body and head, causing Aoshi to stumble back at the force of the impacts.  Aoshi had just enough sense to twist his kodachi that Okina’s hand was impaled through causing Okina to winch in pain and lose his grip on the hilt.  This allowed Aoshi to withdraw the blades and escape a step back from Okina’s attack, Okina crouched to his knees, his left tonfa held before himself in a defensive stance as he pulled his right hand back and out of the way, trying to ignore the pain as his blood dripped onto the floor. 

It wasn’t until that moment that Okina noticed that Aoshi had reversed the grip on his left kodachi somewhere in the middle of Okina’s attack.  Is this…?

Aoshi lifted his head slightly as he looked at Okina right before his body shifted forward, Kaiten-ken Kodachi Nito-ryu, the Spiral Sword Dance, six successions.  Aoshi’s eyes gleamed with the madness that had consumed his soul.  He twisted, spinning around again and again, his two swords held out, slashing at Okina who stumbled back from each blow but Aoshi continued his advance, coming to a stop suddenly after the sixth blow and he straightened up, looking at his former mentor and feeling nothing.

Okina stood there, staring at Aoshi without a trace of recognition in his eyes, he blinked and for a moment he saw the eager boy who was determined to prove everyone wrong, that the Shinomori were nothing but failures, to prove that he had what it took to be the greatest ninja the Oniwanbanshu had ever know.  But when Okina blinked again the boy was gone and a crazed monster had taken his place.

***

Misao stood out in the pouring rain throwing her kunai at the targets she had hung all around the courtyard of the Aoi-ya.  She was rolling and leaping through the courtyard dodging the imaginary enemies as she threw every kunai perfectly at the target.  When she ran out of her kunai she pulled out her kusarigama and started slinging it at the various wooden posts around the courtyard that most guest thought were there for aesthetic purposes but were actually for the members of the Aoi-ya to practice their various weapons crafts on.  After she had “killed’ every one of the posts, she gathered up her kusarigama, placed it on the porch, and then started running around the courtyard in laps.  She leapt over the small walls and rocks that got in her way until she reached one end of the courtyard where there was a what looked like a set of poles for hanging laundry, and in fact that was what the members of the Aoi-ya used them for.  But they also served a dual purpose, the side posts were taller than needed and there were several hidden notches spaced at even intervals up the posts that could be used to raise the horizontal bar higher. 

She leapt up and grabbed the horizontal shaft of bamboo and started doing pull ups with a slight twist, every time she pulled herself up it was with more force than necessary causing the bamboo shaft to jump up to the next set of notches on the posts.  There was a total of ten notches up the post and Misao had made it all the way until the eight notch when her grip slipped because of the rain.  Because of this the bar wasn’t raised enough to fully catch the ninth notch, causing her and the bar to tumble down to the ground where she had just enough sense to get her feet under her to help break the fall.  Despite this she still landed on her back on the wet ground, still holding the bamboo bar and staring up at the grey sky, the rain falling in her face as thought it would never end.

Misao laid there for a moment, trying to ignore the sense of helplessness she felt.  Why did he leave me?  Why wasn’t I as good as Hoshi-sama in following them?  Why can’t I even beat the bar?

Suddenly the rain stopped hitting her face as an wagasa shielded her from the rain and Misao looked up into the concern eyes of Okina standing over her.  “It’s a bit wet out here for practice don’t you think?” Okina asked gently as he held out a hand to help her up.

Misao sighed as she reached out and allowed Okina to help pull her to her feet.  He held out the wagasa out to shield her even though it meant that he was now starting to get wet from the rain.  “I’m never going to get any better if I don’t practice,” Misao pointed out.  And if I’m not the best I can be I’ll never find Aoshi-sama again, let alone convince him that I’m tough enough to follow him no matter what.

“Well that’s true,” Okina commented.  “But with the Oniwanbanshu officially disbanded then who is it that you are trying to better yourself for?”  The questioned seemed innocent enough but Misao knew what Okina was implying.

I am going to see Aoshi-sama again, just you wait and see.  I’ll find him if it’s last thing I do!  Misao thought fiercely.  “I’m doing this for myself, to prove that I’m strong enough to be worthy of those who have taught me, and to honor those who once believed in me and gave me a chance.”

Okina smiled a little at the girl, “well that’s not a bad reason,” he agreed before he leaned towards her with a twinkle in his eyes.  “You want to know a little secret about Aoshi?”

Misao’s eyes quirked in surprise, “sure, what,” she asked with a little smile that she always wore when her favorite subject was mentioned. 

“Aoshi may be renowned as a genius among the shinobu but there is one thing that he can’t do, no matter how hard he tries,” Okina told her in a conspiratorial whisper.

Misao leaned in a little closer, thoroughly intrigued.  “What is it Gramps?” she asked, convinced that there was nothing that Aoshi couldn’t do, he seemed to be every aspect of perfection to Misao. 

“Sing,” Okina declared in a serious voice as though announcing the signal for an execution.

“What?” Misao gasped in surprise.

“I’m serious,” Okina laughed.  “Once on a mission we needed something to distract a group of guards and Aoshi drew the short straw.  So he ended up walking right up to them telling them that he was a traveling minstrel, and when they asked him to prove it by singing a song he did, it was the most horrendous noise I ever heard in my life, it even made the dogs howl!”

Misao laughed, “you’re just making that up aren’t you Gramps?”

Okina shook his head, “No I swear it’s true, he may have an ear for music but not the voice for it, all of that went to Hoshi-sama it seems.  In fact, we seriously debated about using Aoshi’s singing as a way to torture men for information but then decided that it would be too cruel.”

Misao laughed, “Gramps, you’re ridiculous.” 

Okina laughed before putting an arm around Misao’s shoulders and starting to lead her back to the porch, “let’s get you inside, cleaned up, and dry.  No sense standing around out here and getting soaked.”

***

Misao would never remember how she managed to make her tired legs race up the last few steps, in fact the entire race from the Aoi-ya to the shrine would be a hazy recollection for her, but what came afterwards would always stand out painfully clear to her memory.  She ran up the three steps of the shrine, one hand reaching for the door, before she was even up the stairs, and she flung the door open panting but also proud with how fast she had gotten there.  I made it in time!  She thought in triumph as it looked as though Okina and Aoshi were just starting to face off, the pale light of the full moon lit up the room clearly.  She could see Aoshi’s and Okina’s stern faces but she felt a rush of relief that nothing bad had happened yet.

“Gramps, Aoshi-sama!” she called happily, taking one step and one step only into the shrine as what happened next froze her entirely.  

Okina suddenly spit blood straight at Aoshi, hitting him in the face before he collapsed flat on the floor and for the first time Misao noticed that he was bleeding badly from numerous cuts all over his body.

“Gramps,” Misao whispered to herself, too horrified by what she saw to react.

Aoshi turned slowly to look at her, his face splattered with blood and a strange crazed look in his eyes.  Misao trembled when she saw him, suddenly believing everything the others had told her about Aoshi, about he would scoop so low as to betray them and want to kill Kenshin, even siding with someone as evil as Shishio. 

There was just a moment when they looked at each other and Misao saw not a trace of the man she had once loved in this figure before her.  He took a step towards her and Misao trembled at the aura of death he radiated and stepped back until her back hit the doorframe.   “Are you going to kill me too?” Misao asked, there was no fear in her voice, only regret.  “Like you did Gramps, because he wouldn’t tell you where Himura-san is?”  Aoshi stopped for a moment, his eyes hardening as he looked at her.  Misao raised her chin in defiance, “kill me if you want, but I won’t betray Himura-san.”

Suddenly Aoshi looked away from her, he continued forward, dropping his kodachis to his side and Misao stood still as he walked right past her and out of the shrine.  “Never show your face in front of me again,” Aoshi told her harshly as he walked past her and out of the shrine, disappearing into the night.

***

Sanosuke finally stumbled into Kyoto in the graveyard hours of the night.  He looked around with his sack slung over his shoulders.  Kyoto looks like a pretty nice place, too bad I ain’t here for the sights, Sanosuke thought to himself as his feet seemed to instinctively find the shortest route to the red-light district that was beginning to see a slow in traffic of even the most hardened gamblers and party goers. 

Sanosuke already had a plan in place for how to find Kenshin.  He knew that in a city as large as Kyoto he would never be able to find Kenshin on his own by going door to door.  But he had come up with a surefire way of finding someone who would have no problems tracking Kenshin down for him.  Just got to get close to them, and then he can do all the work for me, my kind of plan.  Sanosuke strolled down the streets of the red-light district until he found exactly what he wanted, some kind of disturbance that had called in the police.  It looked like a minor affair but Sanosuke was sure that he could fix that. 

He walked up to the group that seemed to be arguing over something and Sanosuke slung his bag as hard as he could in the face of one of the policemen.

“Sorry about that,” Sanosuke apologized with a grin as the man stumbled back a step and glared at him with a red face.

“Why you!” the police officer stepped forward and Sanosuke punched the man in the gut.

“Now is that anyway to react to someone who apologized?” Sanosuke asked in amusement.

In the next minute, the other policemen and the first wrestled Sanosuke to the ground and bound his hands (not that Sanosuke was offering much in the way of protest).  “Apology accepted,” the policeman that Sanosuke had hit snapped back as they hauled Sanosuke to his feet.  “And to show that I’m really a swell guy you can cool your heels in jail on me.”

Sanosuke grinned from ear to ear, “well that’s awfully nice of you, just don’t forget my bag, don’t want it stolen in this neighborhood you know?”

Sanosuke was still laughing to himself all the way to jail over his cleverness.  Now I just wait, and bonus: free food while I wait.  Not great food but at least it’s free, and it’s better than the Missy’s cooking.

***

Masaru thanked the doctor as he left.  The doctor had left some medicines for them and orders that if there was any change not to hesitate to call him as he left.  Masaru joined the others who waited just outside of the room where Okina laid.  Misao had been able to get a message out asking for help and they had helped transport Okina back to the Aoi-ya.  Now everyone in the Aoi-ya, including Kaoru and Yahiko who had showed up at the inn not long after Misao, waited together keeping watch.  Misao was the only one who sat in the room with Okina.  After the doctor had done everything he could for Okina, Misao asked to be alone with him and they had respected her wishes. 

“He has one hundred and thirty-eight stitches all over his body,” Omasu moaned in a soft voice.  “It’s a miracle that he even made it back to the inn.  She glanced up to Masaru.  “Did the doctor have anything else to say?”

Masaru’s face grew grim.  “Only that he probably won’t even make it till evening.  He believes there is very little chance that Okina will recover from this.”

Yuuto and Sora started sniffling and Omasu quickly wrapped the boy’s up in a hug to comfort them.

“Well the doctor doesn’t know him like we do,” Kuro piped up with a hint of hope in his voice.  “Okina’s a tough old buzzard, if anyone could pull through this he can.”

“If he knew you were calling him an old buzzard he whamp you across the head,” Okon joked hollowly. 

“Aoshi must have completely lost his mind to do something like this to Okina, after how close they once were,” Shiro shook his head. 

Misao’s hands clenched into fists at those words and for a moment Kaoru wondered if the girl could hear the whispered conversation right outside the partially opened door. 

“Do you think she’s crying in there?” Hideyoshi asked, his heart like the others was twisted in pity for what Misao was going through, if there was anything the members of the Aoi-ya wished it was to prevent the heartbreak that Misao was now feeling.

“Probably,” Omasu agreed sadly.  “And can you blame her?”

“No way,” Yahiko scoffed at Omasu’s words.  “She’s got more balls than that.”

Kaoru rolled her eyes, “Yahiko, girls don’t have those, they have sense,” she corrected.

“Of course she’s crying,” Okon corrected.  “She may act tough but she’s really quite sensitive,” she stated a little too loudly.

“Shut up all of you!” Misao screamed from the next room and everyone fell silent. 

Everyone looked at each other for a moment before they all retreated a little further from the door, “best for us to just leave her alone for now to sort out her feelings,” Omasu stated.  “She can wait a bit before she finds out what happened next.”

Everyone’s heads nodded in agreement, none of them wanted to break the news of what had happened after Misao had left the Aoi-ya and Aoshi had turned up…

 

Kaoru and Yahiko hurried as fast as they could through the strange streets of Kyoto until they finally found the familiar storefront of the Aoi-ya and ran into the inn in relief.  “Is Misao here?”  Kaoru gasped out.  Shiro and Juro hurried forward when they saw them come into the main entrance of the room and it wasn’t long before the rest of the inn’s occupants piled into the room at the sound of newcomers. 

“No, Misao has already left,” Shiro replied.

“What?” Kaoru gasped.  “Left where?”

“Aoshi Shinomori betrayed us to Shishio and men were sent to attack the inn tonight so Okina sent a challenge to Aoshi to meet him tonight.  That’s where Misao went,” Shiro explained quickly. 

“What?” Kaoru shirked.  “Are you insane?  How can you send Misao into something like that?”

Omasu bit her thumb as she replied.  “It won’t make any difference, even with her speed she won’t get there in time.”

Shiro pulled out a watch and checked the time, “it must have been decided by now,” he announced.  Right as he made the announcement a shadow fell across the entrance and everyone looked up to see a familiar figure stroll in calmly in a long white European style coat, a long sheath held behind himself with one hand, and blood splatter across his face and clothes that was obviously not his own. 

“You all know of Himura the Battosai’s whereabouts,” Aoshi stated coldly, his eyes burning with fire.

The Okashira here?  Shiro thought in fright, then that means that…  In seconds, every member of the Onwanbanshi drew weapons and stood at the ready to defend themselves.

At the back of the group. Omasu and Okon together shouted, “Kishi kaisei!”  Yuuto and Sora, well trained to react to that phase took off running and disappeared into the inn and the others trusted that the boys would find their way to the secret tunnel that lead out of the inn.  From there they would make their way to one of the outposts in the city kept by allies of the Aoi-ya and seek shelter there until someone from the Aoi-ya came to fetch them and give the all clear. 

“Answer or I will kill you,” Aoshi continued in a cold voice, seemingly unfazed by the number of armed opponents he faced.

There was only one person in the room who didn’t hesitate at this threat, only one who wasn’t frozen in indecision or grief at what Aoshi’s appearance there meant for Okina and possibly Misao.  Yahiko strolled forward to face Aoshi down with determined eyes.  “Aoshi Shinomori,” he greeted in a rasp.  “You’ve sunk to a new low,” Yahiko spit out in contempt.

Aoshi looked at Yahiko in distaste, “you are as bold as before,” he shifted his sheath slightly around and started to loosen the blade for its sheath, and action that caused everyone else to start to move forward.  “And you also know of the Battosai’s whereabouts,” Aoshi said as he loosened his sword, ignoring the other’s reactions to him.

Yahiko crossed his arms in defiance.  “I do know,” Yahiko replied offhand, his words pausing those behind him from moving any closer to Aoshi and began a fight they all knew would end badly.  “But he’s in the middle of important training at the moment, and I won’t tell you how to find him, no matter what you do to me,” Yahiko told him with such a look of determination that Aoshi knew the boy’s words weren’t just false bravado.

Kaoru stepped forward.  “Listen Aoshi,” she snapped and Aoshi glanced at her, a flicker flashed across his eyes as he recognized the woman who had tried to comfort him after the death of his sister but the feeling quickly died, buried by his need for revenge.  “You don’t have to go looking for Kenshin,” Kaoru told him a sure voice.  “Because Kenshin will be coming to settle with you after what you’ve done,” She looked at him with a mix of distaste and pity.  “Your sword is a cursed sword Aoshi, it brings misery to everyone each time you use it.”

Aoshi slid his sword back into its sheath with a click.  “Cursed or not,” he began.  “My only desire is to kill the Battosai.  Tell him I will be waiting in Shishio’s lair for him.”  With that Aoshi turned and left the inn, disappearing into the darkness.

 

Everyone made their way into one of the main rooms of the inn where they had laid out some tea and things to eat, no one touched anything but the tea, none of them had much of an appetite, except for Yahiko who somehow managed to consume everything by himself. 

“Aoshi has fallen into the devil’s path completely,” Masaru mused as he stared into his tea.  “I wonder what will happen from here….” He trailed off in thought.

“I dunno,” Kuro responded softly, “but I guess for now we wait until Misao pulls herself together.”

***

It was early afternoon when Omasu opened the door to Okina’s room where Misao continued to stay on watch.  By some miracle, Okina still breathed but as she looked at him, Omasu wasn’t sure Okina would be able to hold on much longer.  That was when it was decided that they should give something to Misao, something they had been instructed to give to her in case anything ever happened to Okina.

“Misao,” Omasu stepped quietly into the room kneeling next to the girl who never took her eyes off of Okina.  “This letter is for you Misao, it’s from Okina, he wanted you to have in case anything…” Omasu trailed off as her eyes turned back to Okina’s face that was a deadly pallor though she could tell that he still breathed.  Misao never once looked in her direction.  “I’ll just leave it here for you,” Omasu laid the letter down next to Misao and left as quietly as she had entered the room.

Misao sat there for a long while, she knew in the back of her head that she should be exhausted, hungry, anything, but she couldn’t feel anything.  She just kept seeing over and over in her head that terrible moment when she had opened the door to the shrine.  It was a long while before her eyes drifted over the letter where Okina’s hand had clearly written: ‘To Misao’ on it.

Finally, she reached over and held up the letter.  With a deep breath, she turned it over and opened it to read Okina’s final words to her.

 

            Ciao Misao, my beloved, my pretty.

 

Misao groaned and closed her eyes for a moment as she read the greeting, complete with a little heart drawn on it between the characters.  Gramps, even in our final words to me can’t you be serious?  Misao shook her head and looked back at the letter.

 

If you are reading this then I presume I’m no longer in this world.  But do not mourn for me, as I was preparing to defeat the enemy, I was also preparing to be defeated.   I hereby declare the Oniwanbanshu disbanded as of today.  You must leave the rest to Himura-kun and try to distance yourself from this dangerous life.   Forget about the Oniwanbashu, forget about Aoshi.  Live your life as a normal girl with a normal life and find your own happiness.   That is all I ask of you by beloved Misao.

                                -Okina, your loving ‘Gramps’

 

Misao felt tears welling up in her eyes after reading those words.  But those words while they opened up a new wound in her heart, they also hardened something she didn’t even know she had within her.  Suddenly she knew what she had to do.  I love you Gramps, but you really don’t get me.  But don’t worry, because in the end you’ll be proud of me.  Just wait and see, I’m not finished yet!

***

Everyone looked up as Misao came down the stairs and instantly everyone’s mind jumped to the most obvious conclusion.

“Okina is he…?” they trailed off as they noticed that Misao had changed out of what she called her ‘street clothes’, her kimono and andonbakama and was now dressed in her shinobi uniform, complete with the fingerless gloves that held her kunai. 

“Gramps is fine”, Misao replied in a surprisingly calm voice. 

“Misao-san, are you all right?” Kaoru asked as Misao ignored everyone, walked over to one of the doors looking out over the courtyard, and opened it, bathing her face in the light of the sun for a moment. 

Misao breathed in deeply for a moment before she turned around with a look of determination and authority about her that the others had never seen before.  “I may not have been born into the Oniwanbanshu, but its members are the friends and family I can’t replace with anyone else,” she told them.  “Okina wanted the Oniwanbanshu disbanded if anything happened to him and for us to leave everything to Himura-san but I refuse!”  She told them fiercely.  “We can’t give up like this!  We have to go on and be Himura-san’s strength and end the mad ambitions of Shishio!  My heart is always Oniwanbanshu and nothing will ever change that.  Whoever the enemy may be, even Aoshi-sama,” Misao’s voice softened for a moment on that name before her face hardened and her fist clenched.  “Yes even Aoshi Shinomori, I will defeat them!”

“Misao are you feeling all right?” Hideyoshi asked in concern.

Misao paid him no mind as she continued her speech.  “I’ll be protecting the Oniwanbanshu from now on and I’ll protect ever member of my friends and family.  Since Aoshi Shinomori betrayed us I’m taking his position as Okashira!”

Every member of the Aoi-ya’s Oniwanbanshu’s mouth dropped open at this proclamation.

You’ve…

Got…

To…

Be…

Kidding… They thought as one.

“Umm Misao,” Okon started to try and reason with the girl.

“Don’t call me Misao, call me Okashira!”  Misao corrected her loudly.

“Okishira,” Okon restarted.  “You can’t do this.”

“Why?  Do you want to challenge me to be Okashira?” Misao retorted with a lift of her chin as she stared Okon down.

Okon looked around, “well no.”

Misao turned her attention to everyone else, “does anyone want to challenge my position and be the Okashira?”  No one answered.  A little smile crossed Misao’s face.  “Then it’s settled, I’m the Okashira now.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 5

The Mitsurugi-ryu Apprenticeship

Kenshin followed his Master out through the woods until they reach a small clearing.  Once they reached the clearing, his Master kicked around at the ground for a moment, trying several different places as though he was looking for something.  Kenshin just waited patiently, certain that his Master was up to something and interrupting him by asking about it would only receive silence or a sarcastic response.  Finally, his Master seemed to find what he was looking for and he bent over and picked up a sturdy looking stick.  He brushed off the leaves and dirt clumps on it and swung it a few times to test the weight, then seemingly satisfied with it he turned to address Kenshin. 

“Before we began, I have something to say,” Seijuro began.  “Once you learn this final technique you will stand beside me in skill,” Seijuro paused for a moment, thinking over what he had just said.  “Well maybe not that high, around my ankles probably.” His Master mused and Kenshin suppressed a groan of frustration at yet another example of his Master’s overwhelming arrogance in his skill, which was unfortunately well deserved.  “Still don’t let it go to your head,” Seijuro snapped, returning to the subject at hand.

As if my ego could ever compare with yours, Kenshin thought. 

“This so called Meiji Era isn’t simple enough that one man’s self sacrifice can save it,” Seijuro continued in a deadly serious voice.  “But then nothing is that simple, is it?  Because even the happiness of one person is complicated these days, and if you were to fall as a sacrifice than how unhappy would that make the young woman who came here all the way from Tokyo just to see you?”

“Master are you…?” Kenshin started in puzzlement at Seijuro’s words.  What is he getting at?  This isn’t like him at all.

“Think about it,” Seijuro cut him off.  “No matter how skilled you become, you are still just a human being.  There is no need for you to become either Buddha or a murderer.”  Kenshin’s brows quirked in confusion, not understanding why his Master would say such things to him, “that’s all I had to say, now we began.”

Seijuro shifted his stance and raised the stick as though it was a sword.  Kenshin stared at that weapon choice for a moment.  “So you are going to fight me with a stick?”  He questioned.  “You haven’t done that since I was a child.”

Seijuro’s lips quirked in a smug smile, “if you don’t want to be treated like a child than you’ll have to prove to me that you are man.  So show me what kind of man you are with that silly sword of yours.”

Kenshin’s face turned serious, he stepped back, one hand on his sword, ready to draw.  So this is the first test then Master?  And knowing Master they would only get harder from here on.

Kenshin drew his sword and charged forward, sticking rapidly.  His Master blocked every blow with effortless skill until with a single blow he knocked Kenshin back across the ground and to his knees.  Kenshin jumped back up to his feet and charged once again, this time leaping at him in a head to toe slash.  Seijuro blocked the attack, before he shifted his stance and brought the stick spinning around at dazzling speed towards Kenshin’s chest in a slash.  Kenshin tried to move his sakabato fast enough to block but the best he could do was deflect the stick upwards and hit himself under the jaw sending him stumbling back a step in confusion.  Seijuro didn’t hesitate, he stepped forward in a thrust that caught the stunned Kenshin in the diagram and made him collapse to his knees, gasping for air. 

“I can’t believe you have let your skills become so rusty,” his Master commented mildly.  “You are going to have to do better than this Kenshin.”

Kenshin looked up, his jaw clenched, he knew his Master was right.  He gripped his sword a little harder.  His Master’s face quirked into a little smile as he stepped forward, stick pointed out, and one hand gesturing at Kenshin, beckoning him forward.  Kenshin answered that call, he sheathed his sword and then as he charged forward he drew it in battajutsu, there was a sharp crack as his sword hit the branch and Kenshin kept striking with every ounce of his strength, pushing Seijuro back with his attack.  Finally, the branch cracked one final time and broke but before Kenshin could take advantage his Master disarmament, Seijuro twisted his left leg around and side-kicked him hard in the gut and Kenshin fell backwards, tripping on the uneven terrain.  He hit the ground hard but twisted his body after landing so that he twisted and got his feet back under him, bringing himself back up to his knees and using his sword to help prop himself up as he panted from the pain of his Master’s blows.

Kenshin looked up at Seijuro to judge his Master’s reaction.  Seijuro just looked at his broken branch for a moment before tossing it behind him calmly.  He pulled out his sword from his belt, “well you just graduated from the branch, now it’s time to start the hard stuff.”

***

He worked furiously, he took his improvised shovel of a chipped and worn katana and a flat board that he was using to dig graves.  Panting, he wiped the sweat from his brow as he walked over to the body and, grabbing the feet of the copse, he dragged it step by step over to the swallow grave.  It took every bit of strength of his thin body to move the bodies that seemed to grow heaver with each second to the graves he had built.  Finally, he was able to manipulate the body into the hole he had painstaking dug.  Almost wanting to crawl on the ground from his exhaustion he started to push the small mound of dirt over the body.  He patted it down at the end before picking up the little cross he had fashioned out some branches he had found in the woods and a little bit of twine from the wagons, he hammered the cross into the ground to serve as a headstone. 

The boy heard the sound of approaching footsteps and in fear he turned to see a samurai walking towards him, wearing a long white clock, the boy recognized him as the same one from the night before.  In panic, he grabbed his katana and held it up with protesting arms.  ‘Don’t come any closer,” he pleaded.

Kenshin came awake with a start and bolted upright.  He glanced around in confusion at the small clearing, momentarily disoriented to his surroundings before he remembered what had happened the night before and he winched at his numerous bruises from the ‘training’ with his Master. 

Kenshin glanced around looking for Seijuro who he found off to the side of the clearing sitting casually on a log and sipping a bowl of something while he observed Kenshin calmly.  “Finally awake?” he asked in a mild voice.

Kenshin got to his feet shakily and stumbled over to where his Master was.  Whatever he was eating smelled delicious and Kenshin’s stomach rumbled.  Kenshin saw a pot of stew with another bowl next to his Master and he reached one hand out eagerly before his Master slapped it away.

“Ow,” Kenshin groaned rubbing his wounded hand. 

“Did you forget everything about your training?  Get cleaned up first,” Seijuro pointed off to one direction.  Kenshin’s face scrunched in distaste but he followed his Master’s directions to a small stream where he washed his face and straightened up before he returned and was allowed to have some breakfast.  Kenshin finished off the rest of the soup in the pot easily, when he finished, he sat for a moment staring into his bowl thinking.

“Kenshin,” Seijuro prompted to catch his apprentice’s attention.

“I had the strangest dream last night,” Kenshin started, sure that his Master was about to ask what was on his mind.  He looked up to meet Seijuro’s gaze, “it was about the day you took me as your apprentice.  I was burying the bodies, it seemed like no matter how long I worked there was always another grave to dig.  Just digging graves forever.”  Kenshin closed his eyes and turned away, the potential meaning of the dream striking him hard.

“Kenshin,” Seijuro prompted again.

“Yes Master?” Kenshin answered, still looking down at the ground, wondering what words of comfort or wisdom Seijuro would offer him.

“Take the bowls and pot back to the house and wash them, and be quick about it we still have more training to do.”

Kenshin raised his head slightly before he sighed internally, why would I think he would say anything else?

***

By the time, Kenshin had finished washing the dishes and returned from the cleaning his Master was waiting for him with his sheathed sword in hand.  He slipped the sheath through his belt and drew his sword.  Kenshin knew that was his signal that whether or not Kenshin was ready to began he was.  Kenshin drew his sword as Seijuro charged forward, looking for the slightest hint of which way his Master might strike.  There was the faintest hint of motion of the sword and Kenshin immediately moved to block the left sided slash he saw coming, so when Seijuro suddenly pivoted on his left foot and twisted so that he struck Kenshin with a roundhouse kick from the right Kenshin was so surprised that he was knocked to the ground.  He twisted to get his feet back under him as he had been taught, breathing hard against the pain.

“Just because a sword is raised against you doesn’t mean that it will be used for an attack,” Seijuro lectured.  “You relay too much on reaction speed.  Try using your head a bit.”

Kenshin struggled to get back on his feet but his legs gave out under him and he collapsed down to the ground, using his sword to hold himself half upright.

Seijuro looked down on him in contempt.  “Is this really all you have?  You had more guts as a snotty nosed brat,” Seijuro mocked.  He flashed back to Kenshin as a small boy only nine or ten when he would keep attacking Seijuro with a stick over and over again and no matter how many times Seijuro knocked him back or he fell to the ground, he always rose to keep fighting.  It was that spirit, that strength of will that had interested Seijuro so much in Kenshin and inspired him to teach Kenshin the art of kenjutsu. 

Kenshin struggled to his feet, using his sword to balance himself, grimacing against the pain, “I don’t have time for this, Shishio’s influence is already spreading over Japan,” Kenshin looked up at his Master with deadly earnest in his eyes.  “Just teach me the final secret Master.”

Seijuro’s face hardened a little, He sheathed his blade and then pulled the sheath out of his belt and stepped back into a battojutsu stance for an instance before stepping forward to strike.

Drawing the blade from a sheath removed from the blade, it’s the double battojutsu of the Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu, the Soryusen, the Double Dragon Strike.  In the split second before Seijuro would draw his blade Kenshin moved his sword into a cross block, the back of the blade pointing outwards so that his free hand could support the blade from the dull edge when Seijuro’s blow collided.  To Kenshin’s mild surprise it was Seijuro’s sheath that struck his sakabto instead of the blade but the surprise only lasted for a moment as Kenshin saw his Master’s true motives as Seijuro stepped back, sheath held horizontally across his body for a split second.

This is the other two-part battojutsu where the sword follows a sheathed attack, Soryusen Ikazuchi, the Twin Dragon Lightening.  But knowing what his Master was about to do didn’t save Kenshin as Seijuro dropped the point of the sheath down as he drew the blade in the blink of an eye, swinging it downwards and striking Kenshin solidly on the shoulder, driving him to the ground where he laid. 

“You really think that you can learn the final secret of Hiten Mitsurugi with your skills as rusty as they are now?” Seijuro demanded.  “You can’t even land a hit on me as you are, and unless you can manage that much you will always remain just a boy who can only dig graves.”  Kenshin flinched at those words.  Seijuro expected it to galvanize Kenshin, he wanted to make him mad enough to pull himself up and continue the training.  But Kenshin didn’t move, just laid on the ground panting and clenching his shoulder.  Seijuro’s face quirked a little in worry, I pulled the blow, he shouldn’t be that injured.  “What’s wrong with you?  I reversed my blade so hurry up and attack.”

Kenshin pulled himself up to his knees, one hand holding his wounded shoulder and the other gripping his sakabato.  He looked up at Seijurio with eyes of determination and for the first time since Kenshin had arrived at his home the day before, Seijuro saw a glimpse of the boy he had known all those years before.  Seijuro felt a little flash of pride in that look, his skills may be rusty but not his eyes.  Well rusty isn’t the right word, it’s more like he’s holding back, even with me beating, taunting, and mocking him he still won’t strike me with everything he has.  He needs to learn to not be afraid of his own skills but to trust that he can control the outcome of the fight, even if he fights at his best.  If he can’t, he will never make it through this training. 

“Master please, continue I beg you,” Kenshin answered pulling himself to his feet with every ounce of his will.

Seijuro lips’ quirked into a half smile, “now you’re acting more like that idiot apprentice I once had.  That will make the torture, excuse me,” Seijuro corrected himself.  “That will make the training worth my time.”

Kenshin’s eyes widen a little at those words.  I can’t believe that after all these years he finally admitted that this isn’t training.  “Did you just…?”

“Forget it,” Seijuro snapped.  “Just attack me already, as you said there is no time to lose and if you dawdle here you will be too late to help your friends.”

***

Night had fallen and Seijuro had called a halt to the training until morning.  They both gone back to the house and had dinner.  Afterwards Kenshin went outside and started practicing every technique, first slow, making sure his body was doing it perfectly then at full speed.  After an hour of reviewing he finally went back inside to join his Master.  He saw his Master at the small hearth set in the floor heating some saki.  The sight was so familiar that for a moment Kenshin felt as though he had been transported in time back to when he was nothing more than an apprentice who dreamed of saving the world with the skills his Master taught him. 

Seijuro filled a small cup with the warm saki and Kenshin moved to one side of the room to sit on one of the cushions he had pulled out for himself at dinnertime.  Seijuro looked up at him and held the filled cup of saki out to him.  Kenshin hesitated for a second before accepting it, this was something his Master had never done before, always saying that Kenshin would have time for drinking when he finally grew up and became a man.  Seijuro acted as though he done nothing out of the ordinary as he pulled out a second cup and filled it for himself. 

Kenshin took a precautionary sip of the saki.  “It’s good,” he complimented.  He looked at the clay cup, it was simple in designed but it fit perfectly in Kenshin’s hand as he sipped on the saki.  “Did you make the cup?” he asked in curiosity. 

Seijuro sat back and made himself comfortable before answering Kenshin’s question.  “These days this is enough for me, to drink the saki that I made with the cup I fashioned myself.”

“I remember you always lecturing about that,” Kenshin answered with a little smile as he stared down into his cup.  “About how if you can see the beauty of the seasons, cherry blossoms in spring, fireflies in summer, rain in autumn, snow in the winter.  Then the saki will taste good.  It’s only when your soul is sick that saki will taste bitter to you.”  Seijuro watched Kenshin closely as he took another sip of it.  “Saki didn’t always taste good to me,” Kenshin admitted in a quiet voice.  “I started drinking after I became a hitokiri but I never enjoyed the taste.  It always tasted like blood to me.”

Seijuro looked down at his own cup for a moment, “after I started hearing the rumors of the Hitokiri Battosai in Kyoto I knew it was you, but I could never reconcile the stories I heard of a merciless hitokiri to the boy I knew.”  He looked up at Kenshin who met his gaze, a look on his face that clearly spoke that he felt the same.

***

Seijuro Hiko walked alone down the road, his sword sheathed at his side, in one hand carrying a pouch containing some food and drink and in the other hand he carried a shovel slung over his shoulder.  The white cape he always wore in all but the heat of summer fluttered in the cold air as he made his way back to the slaughter he had come across the night before when a gang of bandits had attached a cavern.  He had arrived too late to save any of the caravan, all except one.  He glanced up briefly to the sky as he remembered a flash of red hair and a look of absolute fear while in his tiny hands the boy held a katana.  Seijuro had gone down the village that morning, hoping that the boy had taken his advice and sought shelter in the village, instead he had found that not a single soul had seen the boy.  He must have given into despair and taken his own life in the night, a tragedy like so many these days.  For years, I have wielded my sword according to the principals of Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu but even so, I cannot even save one soul.  I kill and kill but these villains spring up like maggots and all I can do is bury the victims. 

Seijuro sighed.  Everywhere there was chaos and death, underneath the 300-year reign of the Tokugawa Period there was rage and unrest simmering that would soon come to a boil.  Seijuro could almost feel the war that would soon come to his land.  And all I can do is bury the bodies of the dead, I keep digging graves that will not end. 

He returned to the place where he had killed the bandits, prepared to spend the rest of the day in the gruesome task of grave digging.  As he stepped into the clearing where the fight had taken place his eyes widen in shock, instead of the carnage he expected of day old bodies there was instead dozens of haphazardly dug graves spread throughout the field.  Seijuro felt his jaw drop a little at the sight of the graves, even more so because they were marked with crudely made crosses, made from fallen branches and bits of rope and string. 

Seijuro walked to the nearest gave and touched one of the crosses, as if to make sure it was real.  A Christen symbol, a forbidden sign?  He wondered.  Why would a Christen mark the graves of those not of their beliefs and risk their own heads?  He looked up when he heard the sound of someone grunting and the sound of something heavy being dragged.  He saw the boy, the same red haired one from the night before, dragging a body into a shallow grave.  Seijuro straightened up, tilted his head in curiosity, as he stared at the boy.  He watched as the boy succeeded in navigating the body into the grave he had dug and then started to use his improvised shovel, a chipped katana from a bandit and a short piece of wood broken off from a wagon, to bury the body.  Seijuro remain where he was until the boy was finished scooping all of the dirt he had dug over the body before picking up one of his makeshift crosses and banging it into the ground to serve as a headstone. 

He’s been here all night and day, digging graves?  Seijuro walked over to the boy on soft feet, he was only a few yards away when the boy suddenly sensed his presence and turned around, upon seeing an armed stranger the boy’s eyes widened and he grabbed his katana and held it before him, his arms shaking from exhaustion.

“Don’t come any closer,” the boy warned, his voice betraying his exhaustion even more than his shaking arms.

Seijuro eyed the boy closely, he has guts at least.  “You didn’t go to the village last night like I told you to, you stayed here to dig graves instead?”

“You are the samurai, from last night?” the boy’s voice twinge with curiosity and he lowered the katana.  “The one who killed all of the bandits?”

“You buried the bandits along with your family?” Seijuro asked instead, looking around.  There were no bodies left to bury, the boy had seen to them all.  “Why?” he asked, giving the boy a piercing look. 

“Because in the end they are all still people,” the boy responded with simple innocence, “and they weren’t my family,” he corrected.  “My family died months ago from cholera,” his voice turned sad and soft and he dropped the katana to his side.  “I was sold to them, just another slave.”

“Still you made graves for them,” Seijuro told the boy softly, struck by his respect for life and others, something that was hard to find these days.  “Are you hungry?” Seijuro asked, already knowing the answer, what little boy isn’t always hungry?

The boy’s head rose slowly and Seijuro saw the overpowering want in the boy’s eyes, judging from his thin frame he may never have been able to eat everything he wanted to satisfy himself in his entire life.  Seijuro stuck his shovel into the ground and pulled out the pouch where inside some food was carefully wrapped.  He pulled out the bottle of saki before giving the entire pouch to the boy.

The boy snatched it away greedily and pulled out the first rice ball.  He started to unwrap it until he noticed that his hands were filthy, covered in blood, sweat, and dirt.  He looked at Seijuro carefully and slipped the rice ball back into the pouch.  He ran a short distance across the field to a bucket, knelt next to it, and started washing his hands in the water he had fetched earlier to drink.  Seijuro followed him, impressed that even as hungry as the boy seemed to be he would take the time for such a thing. 

Satisfied that he had cleaned his hands the boy sat down and pulled out the rice ball, devouring it in seconds, licking every morsel off his hands, wasting nothing.  Seijuro continued to watch the boy as he ate every bit of food as quickly as the first.  Finally, he pulled the last rice ball out of the pouch and his face dropped.  He looked up at Seijuro, “here you can have the last one,” the boy offered.

Seijuro shook his head, “not hungry, you have it.”  Even if he had been hungry, Seijuro didn’t have the heart to take food away from a hungry child like the one before him, especially one so good hearted as to offer up the last of his food to a stranger. 

The boy looked down at the rice ball in his hand, debating for one moment before it disappeared as quickly as the others.  Seijuro waited until the boy had finished his meal before he nodded over to the three stones in the center of the field.  “What’s with the three stones?” he asked.  “Why are they different from the others?”

The boy glanced over at the three stones, his little face growing somber, he got to his feet and walked over the three stones and Seijuro followed him.  “This is Kasumi-san, Akane-san, and Sakura-san.” The boy explained, pointing to each stone in turn as he introduced the person they represented.  “All three were taken from their parents as payments for debts,” the boy explained sadly.  “I only knew them for a day, but since I was the only one here, no family to go back to, I thought that even if it costs me my life I wanted to protect…” the boy’s voice broke off and he struggled not to cry, his small hands curled into fists with his frustration at his own weakness.  “I wanted to make their graves beautiful,” he added softly, his voice trembling.  “I even looked for flowers but couldn’t find any, just these three ugly stones.  They deserve so much better, they were so nice to me…” the boy’s voice trailed off into a whisper. 

Seijuro saw it all clearly, like a flash of light in the darkness.  The boy had the look bespeaking he had been pushed around and bullied, probably for his whole life.  Then he was sold into slavery, Seijuro wasn’t sure the exact reasons why a family would sell a boy into slavery, he was small of course but in a few years and a few good meals he could be of some use in the field.  However, as Seijuro looked around at the crosses he had a suspicion why a family would be so ready to get rid of the boy.  Seijuro reached into his clock and pulled out the bottle of saki from earlier, he stepped forward, uncorking the bottle and poured the entire contents out over the graves.  “No one should leave this life without knowing the taste of good saki, it’s the least I can so as tribute to the bravery of these women.”  He remembered from the night before a scream of a woman to ‘spare the child’ even as the bandits held her by her hair, stabbing her through the throat without a thought.  Based on the bodies of the other two women who laid on the ground next to her and the boy’s words he suspected that all three women had begged the bandits to spare the boy at least.  It was bravery worthy of the mightiest samurai.  He glanced at the boy who was looking at him with an odd expression, a mixture of surprise and wonder.  “What’s your name boy?” Seijuro asked. 

“Shinta,” the boy responded promptly.

Seijuro snorted.  “That’s no good, it’s too soft of a name for a samurai,” the boy’s eyes widened in surprise and Seijuro continued.  “From now on your name is Kenshin.  And I’m Seijuro Hiko, an apprentice should know the name of his master.”

“Samurai?” the boy repeated in shock, “but I’m the son of a farmer…”

“Not anymore, from now on you’re my apprentice,” Seijuro replied firmly, ending all argument.  “Since there is nothing left to do here it’s time to leave.  If we hurry we can make it back before dark.”  Seijuro took a few steps back to the road, noticing that there was no pitter patter of footsteps behind him.  “Kenshin, pick up your feet!” he barked.

“Yes Master!” came the happy little reply and the sound of a child running as Kenshin caught up with him.

***

Seijuro sat on a log watching as Kenshin laid on the ground panting.  He tried to get up but his body was obviously too tired and he was in too much pain to force his muscles to work properly.  So Seijuro had decided to give him a little nap, but now he was bored and ready to resume the training.  “Hey, how long do you plan on sleeping anyways?  Nap time is over,” Seijuro told Kenshin.  Kenshin tried again to get up but collapsed down on the ground panting. 

“Hey!” A pebble hit Kenshin in the head, “get up!”

Kenshin groaned, I’m trying Master, really I am.

“If you’re not going to get up then I’m having a drink and reminiscing,” Seijuro answered with a touch of frustration in his voice.

Go ahead, do that.  I’m just going to die here, but don’t mind me.

“Let’s see,” Seijuro thought about where to begin his walk down memory lane as he took out a small cup and little bottle of saki that he always carried with him and poured a glass.  “I remember the last time you wet your bed, it was a bright autumn day and you were about 8 years old.”

Kenshin turned his head in horror to stare at Seijuro sipping on saki as he continued to ‘reminisce’.

“And then there was the time that you were starving to death and you ate those funny mushrooms and almost laughed yourself to death.  One of the few moments you were actually entertaining.  And then there was that time you help a girl in the village carry some things home that you had a thing for and she thought you were a girl, you were what, about thirteen at the time or so?”

Kenshin sat bolt upright, his face red.  “You know that’s it taken years for me to forget things like that?”

“Oh so you’re up?” Seijuro looked unimpressed.  “I’m still reminiscing if you want to continue to rest.”

Kenshin made a face at him, “Seijuro Hiko the thirteenth, the successor of Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu.  Your skills may be beyond question but there is something decidedly wrong with your personality.”

“Hey, what’s that suppose to mean?” Seijuro asked.

“You’re crude, antisocial, and so vindictive that you remember more embarrassing things about a person than they are actually capable of remembering.  And with your arrogance it’s hard to believe that you’ve had a selfless moment in your entire life.”  Kenshin shot back.  It was something he had wanted to say to Seijuro for years.

  “What are you talking about?” Seijuro protested with an annoyed look on his face.  “I’ve been spending that last week retraining the stupid apprentice who ran away 10 years ago, there isn’t a more forgiving master around.  You don’t think putting up with you for that past several days hasn’t been a selfless act?” Seijuro asked.  He stood up, his face growing grim.  “I’m starting to get bored of all this, it’s time for you to earn your keep already.  So if you can’t manage to connect with your next attack then forget about learning the secret from me.”  Seijuro drew his sword and held it at the ready. 

Kenshin drew his own sword as he faced down Seijuro, feeling the pressure.  I have to connect with this next attack, I have too!  Seijuro’s face was grim, giving away nothing.  Little tricks won’t work against him, he’s forgotten more tricks than I’ve ever learned, I know that.  It’s time to make this last strike count!

Kenshin charged forward, throwing everything he had into his attack, leaping at the last second high into the air and swinging his sword down in one of his favorite techniques, the Ryushosen, the dragon hammer strike.  Seijuro swung his sword upwards, in the Ryutsuisen, the Dragon Flight, with one hand behind the sword to support it when all of Kenshin’s weight came down on him. 

But Kenshin had a plan for that, he would have been the first to admit it wasn’t a good plan but it was all he could come up with at the moment and he was hoping it was dumb enough, or crazy enough that Seijuro wouldn’t be ready for it.  The moment their blades collided, Kenshin’s legs, which had been drawn up close to his body in his leap, struck out hitting Seijuro in the chest with all the force that Kenshin could muster. 

Their blades slipped off of each other and Seijuro stumbled back two steps from the force of Kenshin’s blow, Kenshin meanwhile was unable to recover in such an awkward position and ended up hitting the ground hard with a few choice swear words.  He swung his legs back around and scrambled to his feet.

Meanwhile Seijuro was holding his left arm up with a look of mild distaste on his face as he observed something.  “Humph,” he snorted as he twisted his arm for Kenshin to have a look.  Kenshin could see a small nick in the fabric of the sleeve and he realized that when their blades disengaged the tip of Kenshin’s sakabato must have cut that small hole in the fabric.  “It barely even counts as a cut but between this and that kick I guess I’ll count it as a hit.  But I wouldn’t try something like that again Kenshin, unless you enjoy landing on your ass.”

“I agree with that Master,” Kenshin agreed, rubbing his aching back.  But at least it worked.

“So I guess it’s time to start your initiation into the final secret,” Seijuro continued, his voice growing serious.  “Now don’t move an inch, if you do, you’ll die, simple as that,” Seijuro told Kenshin.  Kenshin immediately froze, after all Seijuro was never one to make ideal threats.  “First off let’s start with a review.  There are 9 targets for a swordsman to aim to kill or incapacitate, what are they?”

“Head, left shoulder, right shoulder, left forearm, right forearm, left hand, right hand, groin, and heart.”  Kenshin answered promptly. 

“Correct,” Seijuro continued.  “No matter what style you use one of these nine points will always be the target, so naturally every defensive stance is based upon protecting these targets.  And yet!”  Suddenly Seijuro rushed forward with blinding speed and swung his sword nine times at Kenshin as he passed by, coming to a halt five feet behind him, all in the space of a heartbeat.

Kenshin felt his jaw slowly drop.  He looked down, each of the nine targets he could see a cut to his kimono or obi of his hakama and even a slight cut to his chest just over where his heart beat.  He touched that cut with one hand in shock before he turned back to his Master.

“When you use the god like speed of the Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu to its full advantage, you attack the 9 targets simultaneously.  This makes any defense pointless,” Seijuro continued as though he had done nothing impressive.  “This is the Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu’s Kuzu-ryusen, the Nine Headed Dragon.”

Kenshin could barely breath, I couldn’t move at all, I couldn’t even breath.

“Unlike the other multiple strike attack, the Ryusosen, the Dragon’s Lair, every strike of the Kuzu-ryusen carries fatal impact, and as a charging attack it is nearly impossible to dodge.”  Seijuro gave him a wicked little smile, “of all my attacks, this is the one I’m best at.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 6

The Price of the Amakakeru Ryu no Hirameki

Kenshin stood there frozen, as if by a spell as he heard those words.  “Of all my attacks, this is what I’m best at,” Kenshin felt a shiver run through him.  It’s true, there was no way I could have blocked or dodged his attack, if this had truly been a fight between us I would have died.  This is truly the final secret. 

“If you’re done spacing out and gaping like a cretin it’s your turn to try it,” Seijuro’s voice broke through Kenshin’s musing.

“What?”  Kenshin gasped in surprise, his attention back on the moment.  “You want me to try it just like that?”

“Sheesh, are you daydreaming?” Seijuro scoffed.  “This is how we’ve always trained.  You don’t learn moves step by step, you are shown them once and then have to be able to copy them perfectly, if you don’t,” Seijuro shifted his grip on his sword a little, bringing it up in a defensive stance.  “Then you get hit.  After all, if you can’t learn under pressure than what’s the use of teaching you kenjutsu?”

Kenshin suddenly had a flashback to his days of training.  The first time I tried the Ryushosen, he almost broke my jaw and I saw stars for almost an hour afterwards.  The Ryuitsuisen, concussion.  The ryukansen… I couldn’t even remember my own name for awhile.  Kenshin flinched at the memory.  “It’s a wonder none of those times were fatal,” he grumbled in protest.

“I always adjusted the force of my attacks to take into account your age,” Seijuro protested.  “Well, most of the time anyways.  Besides if I always went easy on you then you would have just ended up being a wimp when someone did hit you.”  Kenshin gave him a look at that but wisely chose not to answer.  Seijuro’s face turned serious.  “If you think you got it then come at me, full force,” Seijuro warned him.  If you can, you’ve got to stop holding back, even with me Kenshin.  If you are truly going to complete your training then holding back even the slightest amount will get you killed.  But then pushing yourself to far will do the same.  You have to learn that fine line between life and death, when you have that then you will finally be complete as a swordsman. 

Kenshin took a deep breath and closed his eyes for a moment to focus better on that memory of Seijuro’s attack, he replayed it over and over in his head, picturing every movement in his Master’s body.  Just because I couldn’t move doesn’t mean I didn’t see the attack.  I saw every moment, I saw everything.  Kenshin opened his eyes.  He drew his sword and charged Seijuro at full speed.  Seijuro came running towards him and as they passed both swung through their swords in the Kuzu-ryusen.  This was how they had always trained, if Kenshin’s attack was perfect than he wouldn’t be hit. 

But despite the fact Kenshin did his best in imitating Seijuro’s movements as closely as he could he still felt everyone of Seijuro’s blows break through and after they passed by Kenshin hit the ground moaning in pain.  Kenshin pulled himself up by sheer will power as Seijuro turned around to face him.  “My Kuzu-ryusen, what was wrong with it, where did I go wrong?” he asked.  Why couldn’t I stop even one of those attacks?

“Absolutely nothing, it was perfect,” Seijuro replied much to Kenshin’s surprise.  In all of his training he had never done a move perfectly the first time, at best his Master could find some minute problem with it.  Kenshin’s face clearly told his disbelief because Seijuro went on to explain.  “But even if the move is the same, the wielder is always different so naturally the attack will be different.”  Seijuro walked over, held out his hand, and helped Kenshin to his feet, the first time since Kenshin had returned.  “It’s a charging attack Kenshin.  What determines the strength of a charging attack?”

“Speed,” Kenshin started.  “Power and weight.”

“Exactly,” Seijuro agreed.  “Speed, we are evenly matched as practitioners of Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu but as far as power and weight,” he looked Kenshin’s slight frame up and down.  “That is a complete difference between us.”  Looking at Seijuro’s taller and more muscular frame Kenshin couldn’t disagree with him.  “Because of this obvious difference no matter how perfect your Kuzu-ryusen is, it will never beat my Kuzu-ryusen in a million years.”

So my attack will never be as strong as Master’s. Does this mean I will never be able to use the final attack? Kenshin bowed his head in shame, starting to feel that it was all for nothing.  Why would Master even teach someone like me Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu when my best can’t even begin to match him and never will?

Seijuro saw the defeated look in Kenshin’s shoulders.  “Of course,” he continued in a slightly lighter tone.  “There is only one way to break the Kuzu-ryusen, and even someone of your frame and size can defeat my best Kuzu-ryusen with it.  The true secret of Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu, the Amakakeru ryu no Hirameki, the Dragon’s Flight of Heaven.”

Kenshin’s head shot up at those words.  “The final secret?  But I thought that…”

Seijuro made a face at him, “What are you talking about?”

“So the Kuzu-ryusen isn’t the final secret?” Kenshin asked innocently.

“Did I ever say it was?” Seijuro asked. 

Kenshin thought about it for a moment, he never said anymore about it then its name really.  I just assumed, based on the attack that it had to be…  “No Master, you didn’t,” he finally admitted in a downtrodden voice realizing that on some level he had been tricked by Seijuro, and it’s not the first time he’s done something like this to me, why on each do I keep falling for it when I should know better?

“If I didn’t say then why would you assume it?”  Seijuro asked.

“I don’t know Master,” Kenshin mumbled in reply.

Seijuro shook his head, idiot apprentice.  “There was a point to teaching you the Kuza-ryusen first though.”  He began to explain.  “You see Kuza-ryusen was never created for battle, it was actually created as test for the initiation into the final secret.  It is only when an apprentice can break the Master’s Kuza-ryusen with the Amakakeru ryu no Hirameki that they can be considered a full Master and heir of Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu.”

“But,” Kenshin started but Seijuro cut him off.

“The Amakakeru ryu no Hirameki can’t be shown or its secret told,” Seijuro told him bluntly.  “It must be discovered on your own using everything you have been taught about Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu to develop the one and only countermove to the Kuza-ryusen.  Think about the nature of the Kuza-ryusen and the basic form of the Amakakeru ryu no Hirameki will come to you,” Seijuro urged.  It was the only hint he was allowed to give.  It was the only one that his master had given him, and every master before him.  From this point on it was left to the apprentice to become the master on their own. 

The nature of the Kuza-ryusen?  Kenshin thought about it for a moment.  He ignored the clouds rolling in and the cold breeze in the air that hinted at the coming storm rolling in off the mountains.  Suddenly Kenshin stepped back into the stance for battojutsu, his specialty, and sheathed his sword, his right hand hovering inches from his sword.  Since the Kuza-ryusen cannot be blocked or dodged then the only way to break it must be to strike before it does, and the fastest attack is battojutsu.

Seijuro’s lips quirked into a smile at how quickly Kenshin figured out the problem, it had always impressed him even from the early days how quickly Kenshin’s mind was at figuring out problems and techniques, though it was something he had never bother to tell him.  “Very good Kenshin, you have the right idea,” Seijuro commended.  “But as fast as your battojutsu is, it has to be faster still, that is the true secret of the Amakakeru ryu no Hirameki.  And you wield a sakabato, a natural handicap for battojutsu, how will you overcome these handicaps to break the Kuza-ryusen?”

Kenshin’s face hardened at those words and Seijuro could see his mind at work, trying to finish working out the problem.  He’s right, as fast as I am at battojutsu, with a sakabato it’s not nearly fast enough.  Even if I had a normal katana it still wouldn’t make any difference.  So Amakakeru ryu no Hirameki has to be some special kind of battojutsu.  Kenshin remembered his fight with Jin-e.  Even at his fastest Jin-e had almost beaten him, if Kenshin hadn’t been using a double battojutsu he would have died there.  But double battojutsu is too slow for the Kuza-ryusen, regular battojutsu is too slow as well.  What would make it faster?

Suddenly Kenshin straighten his stance, dropping his hands loosely to his sides and standing with feet shoulder width apart facing square off with Seijuro who still held his sword at the ready for the Kuza-ryusen as soon as Kenshin had best decided to counter it.

Seijuro studied his apprentice’s body for a moment, he wished he could see his eyes but Kenshin had hidden them once again behind his long bangs.  “The Mugyou stance then with sword sheathed.  So, it’s back to the river then?” Seijuro asked, implying that Kenshin’s action was a risking everything and if he failed there would be no recovery.  “Very reckless.”  Does he truly understand?  Is he really ready?

“I’m aware of that,” Kenshin answered in a deep voice, deeper than what Seijuro was used to and with an undertone he didn’t recognize.  Kenshin raised his head and there was a look in his eye Seijuro had never seen before.  If was the first time Seijuro had ever looked at his apprentice and seen the boy who had become Hitokiri Battosai, the first time he had seen the look of a killer on the oftentimes foolish face of his apprentice.  “However,” Kenshin continued in that same dark voice.  “I’m not afraid of death Master, not if it means learning the final secret.”

Seijuro’s jaw dropped a little seeing the look of a killer in Kenshin’s eyes, all he could remember was the innocent look of a boy among the graves he had dug telling him that no matter what people where people.  What did I create?  What did I do to that child?  Seijuro dropped his sword to his side, looking at Kenshin with a look of disappointment, and you were so close Kenshin.  So close to succeeding me, if only I could have made you stay all those years ago...  “You are my idiot pupil,” Seijuro mocked turning to leave.

The look disappeared in Kenshin’s eyes at those words.  “Master?  What are you talking about?”

Seijuro paused for a moment to address Kenshin over his shoulder.  “When it comes down to it you don’t understand a thing,” Seijuro told him in a harsh voice.  “There is no way you can learn Amakakeru ryu no Hirameki as you are now.  I give you one night, search your soul and find what it is you are missing, what you have lost.  If you cannot find that one thing then tomorrow, not only will you fail to learn the final secret, but here is where you will lose your life.”

Kenshin’s eyes widen as Seijuro walked away after those words and went straight into the house and Kenshin knew from the bottom of his soul that it was no idle threat Seijuro had made.  Seijuro would never make such an idle threat.  But what is it that I am lacking?

***

Kaoru sat at the window in the Aoi-ya with the screen pulled back, staring out at the street below as the rain started falling over the darkening city streets, her thoughts a million miles away.

“You know that’s dangerous, daydreaming by the window,” Kaoru glanced around to see Misao walk into the room, a friendly smile on her face.  “After all you never know when the enemy will strike.”

“Misao-san,” Kaoru greeted, forcing a smile on her face. 

Misao stepped in to the room, one hand on her hip as she observed Kaoru, “you know Yahiko has spent almost the entire week training and practicing with the others to be ready if there’s a fight but all you seem to do is stare out the window, you worried about Himura-san?”

“Yes I am,” Kaoru confessed.  Her mind kept turning back to those two moments, those horrible two moments when she had seen Kenshin’s true Hitokiri side come out in full force.  The first had been when Jin-e held her life hostage and Kenshin had fought to save her.  The second had been in the fight with Saito when the Hitokiri emerged just to kill Saito and there was nothing Kaoru could do to stop it.

Misao came over and sat down next to Kaoru, “you really shouldn’t worry about him so much you know?  It’s not good for you.  Besides Himura-san will be back really soon once he’s learn that final secret and he’ll be stronger than ever!”  Misao told her cheerfully.

“Yes but still,” Kaoru looked away, unable to focus her mind on the present.

“Yes but what?” Misao prompted.

Kaoru sighed.  “Even if this final secret that Kenshin learns means that the fight against Shishio will be easier it still won’t fix the real problem.  It will only make the real struggle between the Hitokiri and the Rurouni in his own heart worse.  And I fear that before this is all over either Kenshin will break his vow not to kill again or…” her voice grew even softer, “he will give his own life as a sacrifice.”  She suddenly looked up, realizing that she was unloading the deepest fear of her heart on this girl who was already carrying an overloading burden.  “I’m so sorry Misao-san,” she apologized.  You already have so many of your own concerns.  I shouldn’t have tried to put this on you as well.”

Misao’s perpetual smile only grew a little wider.  “Don’t worry about it Kaoru-san.  Me, you don’t have to worry about.  Besides as Okashira the concerns of all those under my command and our allies are mine as well.  Don’t worry, I can take this and way more,” she laughed.

Kaoru’s eyes turned sympathetic, she wasn’t sure if Misao was being perfectly honest or putting up a brilliant act.  In fact, she knew that the members of the Aoi-ya couldn’t tell either.  Whenever Misao wasn’t around they were always debating it in whispered tones.  From their words, Kaoru had learned that Misao had been hopelessly in love with Aoshi for years, even to the point of running away on multiple occasions whenever she caught wind of a rumor of where he was.  And Okina’s life was still hanging by a thread.  He had yet to fully wake up, at best he would waken to a semi-consciences state where they were able to give him a little food and drink, but that was it.   

And here was Misao, a brilliant cloud amidst all the darkness around her, trying to lead a group of ninja against a deadly foe with little real experience, only great enthusiasm.  “Don’t worry about Himura-san,” Misao assured her.  “If there is one thing I know about Himura-san is that he isn’t capable of letting you down Kaoru-san.  He could never betray your faith in him, and he would never do anything to hurt you.  He’s not like that.”  She told her with a bright smile.  Unlike Aoshi…  Misao felt a quick pang to her heart like a dagger but not a trace of it crossed her face.  And I envy you for that…

“Thank you Misao-san,” Kaoru replied with a smile.

“Anyways, you should really take a leaf from Yahiko’s book, when things start to go down here, you’ll need to be ready for it and get out of this slump you’re in,” Misao told her.

Kaoru smiled, “and when it comes to that, you don’t need to worry about me.  I have always done better in a fight the more emotionally battered I am.”

Misao cocked her head, “really?  Usually it’s the other way around.”

Kaoru gave the girl a little smile, “it’s true.  I have an Uncle that’s… well it’s enough to say that he was officially disowned from the family and his father never spoke to him again for the rest of his life.”

“Okay, I’m following.”

“After my father died when I was fifteen, I didn’t speak at all.  Not until we returned with the funeral procession to find my Uncle there at the dojo stating that he was going to be taking it over, despite the fact that he had been official cut off from the line of inheritance and the dojo rightfully belonged to me.  It was the only thing that snapped me out of it.  I grabbed a bokken and told him that if he wanted the dojo he would have to best me first, the true dojo master.”  Kaoru’s eyes became lost in that memory for a moment, “it wasn’t that I was much better than him, or that he never hit me.  It was only that I never let myself be knocked down.  I had already lost both parents, no real family left, and if I lost the dojo then I would have nothing.  And I would not lose the last link I had to my father.”

Misao smiled at the story.  “Well just think of everyone of Shishio’s men as your jerk uncle and we can knock ‘em all down before breakfast.”  Kaoru and Misao both laughed at those words.

“You know, you’re the first girl my own age who gets me so well,” Kaoru told her.  “The first one who understands that I can be both a girl and a fighter, I’m glad we met, and not just because you helped me find Kenshin.”

Misao’s face softened a bit, “I know how you feel.  I’ve never really had a friend my own age before.”  Her face suddenly turned a little more serious.  “We’ll have to talk some more later, it’s my turn to look after Okina now.  And Kaoru-san,” Misao told her as she hurried to the door, with a backwards look as she paused in the doorway before she disappeared from sight, “do try and perk up, and get some sleep, don’t think I haven’t noticed those bags under your eyes.” 

***

The rain was pouring down from the sky and Kenshin set under the cover of the well by himself thinking.  What is it that I missing?  What have I lost?  The answer was so many things.  Kenshin closed his eyes, my innocence, my faith, my blind belief in others, my blind belief in myself, the list goes on.  Kenshin looked up at the sky, the rain falling as though it never intended to stop.  But why would I need any of those things to master the Amakakeru ryu no Hirameki?  He sighed and rested his head against one of the posts of the well.  I’ve never thought of myself as better than anyone.  I am nothing more than a killer who hides my nature deep within my soul, putting on a happy smile and acting as if that part is no longer a part of my soul but it is nothing more than a lie.  More to myself than anyone.  What am I missing?

Kenshin had no answer for that question, he scratched absently at an itch on his arm, his fingers brushing against the hair ribbon he was keeping tied there.  He stopped his brooding for a moment to hold that hair ribbon.  I have to find what I’m lacking or I’ll let her down.  I’ve already hurt her so much, and yet she still comes after me.  I shatter her heart and she still only thinks about my welfare.  She walks through fire for me, and I can’t even look at her in my shame.  I can’t let her down now, she has so much faith in me, I have to live up to that, just once.  And not just her, but Yahiko, Misao-san, Okino-dono, Sanosuke, Megumi-san, and everyone who has helped me along the way, they all have so much faith in me.  I have to figure out what I’m lacking…

***

Inside the house Seijuro sat drinking, wondering if Kenshin could do it, if he could grasp the one simple thing that as a child he had processed but the war had taken from him.  It was something that Seijuro had seen before in his friends, even his own family.  When that one thing is lost, then it brings pain to not only the person, but all those around them.

Seijuro took another sip of saki.  In his mind reliving every moment of Kenshin’s training and the years they had been together.  The young boy who bluntly told him he was planting the radishes wrong and then proceeded to show him how to do it, which promptly led to him being the only one to mess with the garden.  The child who trained until his hands bleed and he fell asleep against the cedar tree.  Seijuro had to carry him to bed and tuck him in to keep him from getting a cold from spending the whole night out in the chilly mountain air.  The young teenager who was always pushing his limits with the recklessness of youth, convinced he was invincible, and Seijuro had to lecture him on his idiocy when he had to take him to a doctor for his broken wrist to be mended.  Because Kenshin had broken his right wrist Seijuro trained him mercilessly until he could use the sword almost as well with his left as his right. 

And even though Seijuro had never told Kenshin, had never even hinted at it, he had been proud of Kenshin throughout his training.  Proud that he had found in a chance meeting, a boy with a sharp and agile mind and body that made him a perfect candidate for his training, who met ever challenge he had set for the boy, even those he was certain he would not be able to pass yet.  And a boy whose soul was so pure hearted in it’s simple wish to help others that sometimes Seijuro couldn’t believe that Kenshin had even lived through the horrors he had at an early age and still managed to escape unscathed.  It spoke of a resiliency in the boy that Seijuro would have never have guessed at otherwise.  But when Kenshin had left…

Seijuro took another drink, for months he had kept a candle burning in the window, in case Kenshin ever came to his senses and came home.  He knew the boy had a proud streak, but he didn’t always allow it to rule him so Seijuro had held out hope.  But the rumors of a deadly killer in Kyoto began to surface and Seijuro knew in his heart that it was Kenshin.  And when Hitokiri Battosai finally emerged as a free swordsman and Seijuro heard the full description of the killer there was no doubt.  That was the night he had finally blew out the candle and gave up all hope of seeing his apprentice again.  Then the end of the war came and Seijuro saw the end of the samurai would soon follow and there would be no reason to find another apprentice to train, he would be the last of the Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu Masters, living out the rest of his life in anonymity.  And he never suspected he would see Kenshin alive again, he had always assumed that he had probably been killed by the government once the war was over, it would explain his sudden disappearance.

It would even explain the day Seijuro left the home where he had raised Kenshin, intending to move villages and start a new life, this time as a potter instead of a painter with the war over.  But as he passed the graveyard where he had made Kenshin his apprentice he had seen a blue scarf, a woman’s scarf tied around one of the broken crosses in the field.  The graveyard was a little off the beaten path and most locals avoided it, convinced that it was haunted.  There was only one other person that it would have any significance to and Seijuro had always assumed that before Kenshin had been killed he had returned one last time to pay his respects to those there, and to whoever that blue scarf had once belong to. 

But to see him again, after all this, to see that he is now a broken man, afraid of his own abilities, Seijuro sighed.  I don’t want to kill you Kenshin.  I want you to become what I always saw in you before, to be the man I always believed you would grow into.  But tomorrow will be the last day, one way or another we will part ways forever…

***

The sun began to peek over the horizon and Seijuro slid open the door of the hut, walking on the little path around the house to the well in the back to see Kenshin drawing up water from the well, one looked and he knew.

“You didn’t sleep last night,” Seijuro observed.

Kenshin gave him a serious look, “neither did you.”

They were both silent for a moment before Kenshin pour the water into a bucket and brought it around to the back of the house where Seijuro had a little table with several bowls.  Kenshin poured some water in two bowls and they both took a few moments to splash some of the cool water on their faces to help wake themselves up.

Seijuro straightened up and gave Kenshin a serious look, “so did you ever find what it was you are lacking?”

“No,” Kenshin answered, his face still over the bowl of water, the water dripping off his face like the rain the night before.  He dried his face with his sleeves.  “No Master I did not,” he answered looking Seijuro straight in the eye.

Seijuro didn’t look at him for a moment, he just turned and walk several paces away to where the was open and level ground.  “So this is your limit as a man,” Seijuro answered, drawing his sword as he turned to face Kenshin who had joined him in the open ground, standing several yards away.  “Nothing more than half a man, and as such not only do you fail to learn the final secret, but you will fail to defeat Shishio.  Even if you do somehow managed to defeat Shishio that won’t change your fate,” Seijuro told him in a cold voice.  “Because half a man can’t defeat the darkness of his own soul, as you are, you will live in agony for the rest of your life, tortured and consumed by loneliness, and eventually you will kill again,” Seijuro told him with cold certainly and Kenshin felt those words pierce his soul.  “So it is then my final duty as your Master to spare you that, by taking your life.”  And I remain a man who couldn’t even save one small life, just a man digging graves for the victims while the villains continue to spring out of the ground like maggots.  “Are you prepared for your fate Kenshin?” Seijuro asked in a deadly whisper, his voice the voice of the reaper coming to claim its victim.

Kenshin’s eyes widened and his left hand started trembling.  His Master took a step forward, his foot splashing in a puddle and Kenshin knew he was about to start the charge of his Kuza-ryusen and then it would be over.  Kenshin felt paralyzed by the fear, the fear of Seijuro Hiko and the promise of death he represented.  Move Kenshin, you have to move!  He told himself in fear.  I’ve lived though the chaos of the Bakamastu, I didn’t fear death then, would even have welcomed it.  So what has changed, why am I afraid now?  Kenshin’s left foot slid back a little as he started to master his fear, and he clenched his fist.  I must master this fear of death!  Kenshin told himself firmly.  Even if it costs me my life!

Seijuro saw the subtle change in Kenshin, the momentary hesitation from the fear of death Seijuro promised to the acceptance of that outcome, Kenshin you little fool.  Have you prepared yourself for this?  For the Nine Headed Dragon?

Seijuro charged and all of Kenshin’s resolve crumbled, all he saw was death.

***

Shinta looked up with a little smile to Kasumi walking next to him and holding his hand to keep him from stumbling.  Next to her was her sister Akana and on Kenshin’s other side was their friend Sakara.  All of them had been sold to pay off their parent’s debts to the same group that Shinta had been sold to a few days before.  They hadn’t been with the group for more than an hour before they had taken Shinta under their wing and looked after him, even giving him part of the food the slavers gave each of them when they stopped.  Right now, they were being forced to keep going even though night had fallen because they were running behind schedule.  Shinta didn’t care, for the first time in months there were people being nice to him, even carrying him when his feet got too tired to walk anymore.

That was before the screams began and they all looked to the front of the carven to see a horde of men come running through the group, swinging swords at all they passed.

“Bandits!” Sakara screamed, and before Shinta could even react Kasumi scoped him up in her arms and she took off running with Akana and Sakura, trying to get to safety.  The women stopped when they realized that they were surrounded by the bandits.  Kasumi put Shinta on the ground and pushed him behind her and the others, trying to keep him safe.

“Please spare this child,” Akana begged the men.  “We’ll do anything you want, just please spare the child.”

Shinta took a frightened step backwards and his foot knocked against something, he saw one of the guards of the cavern’s body and his katana laying on the ground next to him. 

“Please spare this child,” Akana begged, stepping to the front while Sakara and Kasumi held back, trying to block Shinta from these men.

One of the bandits slashed through Akana with as much feeling as if she was a stack of wood and she fell to the ground, her voice gurgling as she choked on her own blood.

Shinta felt a rush of anger and terror go through him at that sight.  I have no family, nothing to lose, but maybe I can at least save them!  He grabbed the katana and came running out from behind Sakara and Kasumi.

Kasumi saw one of the men starting to swing his blade at Shinta and she stepped in front of it, taking the full force of that blow.  Sakara grabbed Shinta from behind and pulling him back into the safety of her arms, he dropped the katana as she pulled him back into her embrace.  She turned her body so that her back was to the bandits.  “Don’t do that Shinta, you have to live, no matter what, you have to live.”  She turned to the bandits with tears in her eyes.  “Please spare the child, please spare him at least,” she begged. 

The bandits didn’t answer, one just grabbed her hair and pulled her to her feet screaming, “spare this child!”  Before the sword pierced her throat and silenced her screams.

Shinta shivered in fear as he looked at the men, knowing that the woman’s screams had been useless and he would be next.  I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die!

***

In that moment that Seijuro charged a dozen memories flashed across Kenshin’s brains, dozens of words, all with the same message.

“Please spare this child!”  The last cries of Akana, Kasumi, and Sakara.

“You have to promise to live in this new world for me.”  Tome’s dying wish, the promise she had secured from Kenshin.

“I was asking you, the Rurouni to stay!” Kaoru’s words that had convinced Kenshin to give up his days wandering, for a time at least.

“Does that mean you’ll play with us forever and ever?”  Ayame and Suzume’s eager question when they learned that Kenshin was going to stay at Kaoru’s dojo.

“Damnit it, I just want to be stronger, why won’t you train me?”  Yahiko’s frustration with Kenshin.

“So don’t you go wandering off without my permission, got it?” Sanosuke’s cocky attitude as he walked away, those words that had began their friendship.

If you are going to use me as a bargaining tool with Kenshin, then I choose execution instead!”  Megumi’s defiant words when they tried to use her past as an opium maker against Kenshin. 

“I’ll be watching from the edge of hell to see how long you can keep saying you are just a Rurouni,” Jin-e’s final words that had haunted Kenshin for so long.

“I leave the rest to you Himura Battosai,” Han’nya’s words, trusting Kenshin to stop Kanryu.

“Battosai, until I come to kill you, don’t let anyone else beat me to it,” Aoshi’s letter to him. 

“From here on chaos will descend on Japan,” Saito’s promise of the terror Shishio would bring to the country. 

“I won’t let you get away with being miserable just because you wouldn’t ask for help.  And don’t you forget it!  IDIOT!”  Misao’s promise to him as he left the Aoi-ya.

“Know that my heart is always on your side, and not just mine but also the others at the Aoi-ya, Seiku and his family, and probably the friends you have left behind, we are all wishing for your safety.”  Okina’s words of comfort to Kenshin as he gave him the directions to his Master’s new home.

“For the sake of the people of this country, will you please go to Kyoto once again?” Okubo’s plea.

A desperate whisper in the night, “I love you Kenshin, please don’t leave me.”

 

Kenshin felt a desperate surge rush through his body and he took a step forward screaming and drawing his sword in a desperate attempt to live as he charged forward.  I can’t die, not yet.  There are people waiting for me.  I can’t even think of dying yet.  I have to live, no matter what!

Kenshin came to a halt several yards behind Seijuro, both of them stopping their charges, Kenshin panted, his sudden revelation seemed earthshaking to his mind.  I have to live, I have to live, I have to live.  He trembled as he touched his chest to see there was no cut except the small one from the day before.  I did it, I broke the Kuza-ryusen, he trembled in relief.  There was a thump behind him and Kenshin turned to see his Master lying on the ground.

A flash of terror shot through Kenshin’s body.  “MASTER!” he screamed as he rushed to Seijuro’s side, dropping his sakabato on the ground as he kneeled next to Seijuro’s motionless form.  He rolled him over, “Master can you hear me, MASTER!” Kenshin screamed in panic as he shook Seijuro’s shoulders, hoping for some kind of response but Seijuro’s body was limp and still.

As Kenshin shook him, something in Seijuro’s kimono peeked out and Kenshin touched the white corner realizing that it was a piece of paper.  He pulled it out and saw a letter with his name on it in Seijurio’s clear writing.  With trembling hands, he opened the letter, blinking back tears as he read it.

 

Kenshin,

If you are reading this then it means that you have discovered what it is you lost all those years ago.  Because you have slain so many people, and carried the guilt of that all alone, you put great value on others lives, but none for your own.  You’ve taken your own life for granted, even though it is also a human life.  This has stopped you for years from using your true power, always holding back because you fear taking another life with no care for your own.  This has been what has allowed the hitokiri within yourself to continue to live.  And it is only the will to live that will truly defeat that monster within you that you fear.

Even if the power of the hitokiri is used to sacrifice yourself to protect those you love, they will live the rest of their lives in sorrow, never having true happiness.  And if you are to sacrifice yourself then it is only one grain of sand in the endless stream of time.  Lost and forgotten, but the will to live is the heart of existence.  Live on Kenshin, use the Amakakeru ryu no Hirameki as you please to defeat Shishio, and the hitokiri in your own soul. 

And don’t blame yourself for my death either, this is the fate of all who walk the way of Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu.  When I mastered the Amakakeru ryu no Hirameki it was also my own master who paid the price.  Think of this as something that happened outside of your vow to never kill again. 

You have learned everything I can teach you as a Master of Mitsurugi-ryu.  The rest is up to you as a Rurouni.

 

Kenshin felt his jaw grind together at those words.  He crumpled the letter in his hand as he tilted his head and laid his ear against Seijuro’s chest.  He heard a steady heartbeat and raspy breathing.  He lifted his head, a fierce look on his face.  He grabbed Seijuro’s arm, wrapping it over his shoulders.  “Listen to me Master,” Kenshin ground out between clenched teeth.  “You think you can just lay there lecturing me on the value of my own life while you let yourself die?  You think you can torture me for years calling it training and then let yourself out so easy?  Well I’m not letting you,” he told him as grunting he pulled himself to his feet, swaying a little under Seijuro’s greater bulk.  “This ‘idiot apprentice’ isn’t done making your life miserable.  I’m going to keep annoying you for years to come because you aren’t allowed to die yet.  Not yet!”

Chapter Text

Chapter 7

The Demon of the Juppongatana

It was early in the morning, two days before Kenshin faced his Master and rediscovered his will to live when a carriage pulled up to the main police department in Kyoto and a single passenger alighted from the carriage and immediately strolled into the police department.  He showed his credentials to the sergeant at the front desk and waited for a few minutes before the Chief of the Kyoto Police came running down the stairs to greet him with a bow.  “You’ve had a long trip?” the Chief greeted politely, “you arrived later than expected.”

“There was an incident,” the man replied shortly.  “I understand that you captured one of Shishio’s men, a swordsman named Cho?”

“Yes sir, this way, I’ll take you to him,” the Chief offered as he laid the newcomer to the back of the station and into the jail.

“How exactly did you capture him?” the newcomer asked as they walked, curious as he had not received the full details of the capture.

“There was a fight between him and samurai at one of the old shrines in the city, some kid had been kidnapped in the mess.  By the time we arrived on the scene the samurai had beaten the swordsman Cho to within an inch of his life.  That’s all we know, unfortunately the samurai didn’t stick around for us to question him.”

No, he wouldn’t would he?  The newcomer thought to himself as they stepped into the jail.  There was no doubt in his mind as to who the mysterious samurai was.  They calmly walked down the rows of cells, most of the occupants staying quiet as they passed by, but not all.

“Well, well, look at what the cat dragged in?” a prisoner sneered as the newcomer walked by.  The newcomer turned his head slightly to look at the prisoner who was calmly chewing on a fish bone as he observed the other with a self-satisfied expression on his face. 

“Is something the matter sir?” the Chief asked in concern, not understanding why they would have stopped for the petty comments of a prisoner. 

“You,” the newcomer stated as he observed the prisoner with a cold expression.

The prisoner grinned back, “yep, just little old me.  Sanosuke Sagara makes his grand entrance into Kyoto.  Bet you weren’t counting on seeing me again so soon were you Saito?”

***

The sun was shining beautifully on the world and Megumi looked up a little from her work of washing bandages to drink in the warmth of the mid autumn sun.  She heard the sound of little girl’s chatter and she looked over with a fond smile on her face as Suzume and Ayame sat with their grandfather talking. 

“So when is Uncle Kenny coming home?”  Suzume asked her grandfather with wide eyes, it was a question she asked about twenty times per day as far as Megumi could tell.

Doctor Gensei pretended to think about it for a moment, “maybe tomorrow, or the day afterwards,” he answered.  “Kyoto is a long way away you know.  It’s even further than your Great Aunt in Izu.”

“But you said that yesterday,” Suzume protested.

“Did I?” Doctor Gensei feigned ignorance before he laughed and hugged the little girl.  “Well no matter, I’m sure your Uncle Kenny will be back as soon as he can.”

“Really Grandfather?” Ayame piped up with a hopefully expression.

“Of course he will,” Doctor Gensei assured the girls.

“I hope Uncle Kenny comes home really soon to play with us!” Suzume declared in excitement.

Megumi looked up at the sky and whispered a little prayer.  Please, keep them all safe.  Ken-san, Yahiko, Kaoru, and even that good for nothing free loader, hopefully he will be a use to dear Ken-san and not just land himself in jail.

***

Sanosuke laughed openly at the expression on Saito’s face.  “I was taking a bet that you would eventually show up here,” Sanosuke started to explain, proud at his own genius for how well his plan had worked.  “I knew there was no way someone like you would trust something this big to Kenshin alone without sticking your nose into it too.  And I knew there was no way I was going to find Kenshin by myself in a town as big as Kyoto.  But if I hung around the cops long enough I was sure you would turn up and so long as I stick close to you than sooner or later we’re bound to run into Kenshin.”  Saito’s face never once changed expression as Sanosuke gave his explanation and Sanosuke’s grin turned a little wicked.  “What, not happy to see me?” he taunted.  “I’ve been training all the way down the Nakasendo road, so how bout it, want to see what I learned?” Sanosuke offered, as he got to his feet and punch his right hand into his open left hand as a challenge.

“Saito sir, do you know this man?” the Chief asked in surprise.

“Never seen him before in my life,” Saito replied calmly before turning and walking away with the Chief on his heels.

“Hey come back you ass!” Sanosuke shouted, running to the bars to watch Saito walking away.

 “He’s either mistaken or sick in the head,” Saito continued, ignoring Sanosuke behind him.  “Either way let’s keep him locked up to cool his heels.”

“No problem,” the Chief agreed as Sanosuke kept shouting after them.

“If you aren’t going to let me out to fight then I’m just going to let myself out!”  Sanosuke shouted, right before there was a loud cracking and splintering sound and Saito and the Chief half turned to see that the stout wooden bars of the prison cell were nothing more that splinters and dust as Sanosuke stepped out.  “If you keep underestimating me Saito, and think I’m the same person I was then you’re going to end up looking like this cell.”  Sanosuke warned  him.

“You,” The Chief spat in rage, infuriated by the nerve of this man.  Saito reached out a hand and held the Chief back as he observed Sanosuke with cold eyes. 

“Chief, leave him to me.  I’ll take care of this upstart,” Saito assured him.  “It appears as though he wants to settle a score with me.”  Saito stepped forward, one hand on his katana at his side.  “Go upstairs, I’ll be up there soon.”

The Chief only hesitated for a moment before he followed Saito’s orders and took a roundabout route back to bypass Sanosuke.  He knew Saito’s reputation and was sure that he could leave this matter to him. 

Sanosuke grinned at him, “I’ve got plenty of questions to ask you, but before then I’ve got to settle the score for our fight in Tokyo!”  Sanosuke declared.  Saito stepped forward, his eyes locked on Sanosuke and Sanosuke bounced a few times on his feet in anticipation for the attack before he stepped back into a fighting stance.  Saito on the other hand simply kneeled down, picked up one of the larger chucks of wood, and studied it.  “Hey you, the fight’s over here!”  Sanosuke shouted, annoyed that Saito was ignoring him again.

“I see,” Saito mused half to himself.  “The basic concept of the attack seems similar to Sukashi in karate, although there is a great deal of difference in power.”  Saito looked up at Sanosuke who was glowing red in annoyance.  “So tell me, what have you done to improve your defense similarly?”

Sanosuke’s face went blank before he slowly shrugged and shook his head.  Saito stood up and grabbed Sanosuke’s kimono.  “Feesh, you think I was going to do something just because you told me to?”  Sanosuke asked as he shoved Saito back.  “Defense isn’t part of my nature, I’ll fight the way I want to!”  He yelled in defiance. 

Saito turned away with a snort.  “You really are a useless idiot aren’t you?”

“Hey are you running away again?” Sanosuke demanded as Saito started to walk off again.

“I’m busy, I don’t have time to play games with you,” Saito told him over his shoulder as he continued to walk away.

Sanosuke crossed his arms over his chest with a humph.  “Well I guess if you won’t fight me then I win by default,” he told Saito, sure that this would antagonize Saito into fighting him.

“Whatever you say,” Saito called out.

Sanosuke’s teeth gritted together so hard he gave himself a headache.  He went running after Saito in fury.  “You bastard, you think I’m letting you off so easy?  Turn around and face me like a man!”  Saito came to halt outside of a cell locked with a steel door as he pulled out a key and unlocked the door.  Sanosuke stopped his rant long enough to notice that this was the only cell he could see that looked like that.  “Wait a second, why is that cell so much sturdier than the others here?”  Sanosuke questioned innocently. 

Saito glanced over his shoulder, “because the man in here is the bigger danger of all the prisoners here.”  He started to open the door to the cell slowly and Sanosuke found himself tilting his neck to try and see who was in the cell.  “The man captured by the Battosai soon after his arrival in Kyoto.  He’s one of Shishio’s elite of the Juppongatana, Cho, the sword hunter.”

Inside the dark cell sat a single man.  Sanosuke wasn’t sure what was so important with this guy, as far as he was concerned he looked like your typical street thug with bleached hair that was spiked straight up.  He looks like a broom, Sanosuke snickered to himself. 

Despite Sanosuke’s first thoughts of the man, Cho’s hands were bound by a wooden hand stocks and a leg iron was tied to his right leg.  He looked up in distaste as the door to his cell was opened.  “Why are y’all be so rowdy out there?” He demanded in a thick Osaka accent.  “I was trying to have a little nap in here so can’t you two keep it down out there?”

Saito stepped into the cell with an amused expression on his face, “relaxed aren’t you?” he asked.  “We’ll leave you in peace, but first answer a few questions.”

Cho’s eyes twinkled in amusement.  “You can ask all you want.”

“There was an incident the other day in Kobe,” Saito began, ignoring Cho’s cocky attitude and undertone.  “A unit was gathered to fight against Shishio and his men.  It was composed of 50 handpicked by myself from the police and military, in a single night they were killed, to the last man.  A single man did all this in less than two hours.  Tell me, does Shishio have anyone under his command capable of this?”  Saito asked.

Sanosuke’s eyes widened at the words, 50 men?  In less than 2 hours?  What the hell!?  His head spun around to Cho, as eager to hear the answer from him as Saito was.  This whole thing with Shishio is even more dangerous than I thought if Shishio’s got men like that under his command.

“Sure do,” Cho answered with a wide grin.  “Killing people is easy as breathing for Cho of the Juppongatana so I’m obviously the mass murder you’re looking for.”

Saito’s face hardened a little at Cho’s easy-going defiance.  “If you don’t want to take this seriously…” he trailed off.

Cho gave him a half smile, “but I am being serious.”

“I don’t think you understand your situation or what I can do for you,” Saito countered.  “I can pull the right strings to have you released, if you give me the right answers.”

Cho leaned back and hooked his bound hands behind his head without a care in the world.  “Outside ain’t so great so I’m in no hurry to go.”

“Translation: you’re afraid of Shishio,” Sanosuke piped up for the first time and Cho’s eyes shot over to him in a flash of anger.  “After all it doesn’t take someone with a lot of brains to see how this one would play out.  No matter how you get out of here, whether you are released or escaped there’s no way Shishio would let someone who was caught by the enemy to go free.  And so there is no where safer for you to be than here.  Where the government has a vested interested in keeping you alive, at least as long as you might still have information of value for them.  So you’ll just keep playing the cocky, but helpful prisoner who answers all the questions, but never giving any useful information for as long as you can, just like a coward.”  Sanosuke ended in a sneer of contempt for the man before him.

Cho snarled at him, “who is this rooster-head anyways?  He’s obnoxious.”

Sanosuke tilted his head, shifting the bony fish tail he was still chewing to the other side of his mouth.  “You’re the one who’s obnoxious,” he retorted.  “Just a broom head coward squawking away.”

One the other side of the cell, Saito leaned against the wall and pulled out a cigarette, feeling as though he had suddenly gone from a heavily guarded jail cell in Kyoto to a local schoolhouse brawl between two adolescent boys.  And it won’t even be worth it to break this up.

Cho’s eyes tightened as he glared at Sanosuke.  “Listen you rooster head, I’m not afraid of Shishio-sama, or death either.  The only thing that scares me is taking orders from jack assess like you.”

“Did you just call me a jackass?” Sanosuke replied before he spit the fishbone out of his mouth.  “Listen buddy,” he snarled at Cho with clenched fists.  “I haven’t exactly been in the best of moods since I left Tokyo so why don’t we just fight this out like men, broom head!”

“That’s fine with me, rooster head!”  Cho screamed back

Saito calmly pulled out a match and used it to light his cigarette as Sanosuke and Cho started calling names back and forth.  Definitely not adolescents, Saito amended his earlier thought.  Even my youngest son could come up with a better insult for these two than ‘rooster head’ and ‘broom head’, and he’s only now lost his first tooth.  Saito thought as the two continued to shout at each other.

“Fine then, if you manage to beat me I’ll answer all of your questions!”  Cho finally shouted, breaking the endless repeat of ‘broom head’ and ‘rooster head’.  “But don’t start crying if I beat you to a bloody pulp!”

“As if, hit me with your best shot!”  Sanosuke shouted back they both turned to Saito.

“Well don’t just stand there willow head give us a damn signal!”  They shouted together.

Saito had just finished lightening his cigarette and held the lit match up for a moment in one hand, pulling the cigarette out of mouth with his other hand.  “Don’t overdo it,” Saito tossed the match carelessly and both Cho and Sanosuke watched it.  The moment it hit the ground they both charged at each other. 

Cho pulled his arms back as though he was intending to hit Sanosuke who had pulled his right fist back in a punch, but it was merely to hide the right leg that he snapped up at the last moment, causing the heavy iron ball attached to that leg to go sailing straight for Sanosuke’s face.  Sorry partner, hope this don’t break your face too bad, Cho sneered.

Cho’s sneered lasted for half a second before Sanosuke grabbed the iron ball before it hit his face with his left hand, you think this is the first time I fought I guy using some kind of a chained weapon?  Sanosuke thought to himself, remembering the time he had faced off against Shikijo of the Oniwanbanshu.  As he grabbed the iron ball with his left, feeling the pain shoot up his left arm from the impact of the ball, he punched with his right hand with all the force he could muster. 

Cho’s eyes widened as Sanosuke’s punch hit its target, his hand stocks exploded into splinters and powder.  He was aiming for my shackles the whole time?  Cho thought in wonder.  And where did he learn Anji’s special move?

“We can’t really call this a fair fight if you can’t use your fists, can we?” Sanosuke asked with a half grin.  He dropped the leg iron that crashed against the floor with a solid thud.  “You want me to get rid of the leg iron too?”  Sanosuke offered with his right fist raised.

There ain’t no way I can win a fist fight with someone like him, not if he can wield that special power.  Cho snorted.  “This is stupid,” he turned around and sat back down on the bench against the wall.

That is the first intelligent thing either of them has said them since we started this interrogation, Saito thought in the corner where he was still smoking his cigarette.

“What’s that?” Sanosuke demanded, annoyed that for the second time that day someone was walking away without finishing a fight.

“I really can’t stand people like you, I’ll answer your questions, but only to make you go away,” Cho snorted.

“Now that’s more like it,” Sanosuke straightened up, a thousand questions for Cho passing through his mind.

“Very well, then I’ll start.  Why don’t you answer my first question?”  Saito stated from the corner where the other two had all but forgotten about him.

How the hell did I let this happen?  Sanosuke thought as Saito once again took charge of the situation.  I do all the work and he gets all the profit.

Damn it!  Cho thought in annoyance.  Gritting his teeth, he answered the question.  “There are two men in the Juppongatana that could have done it.”

***

Outside of Shishio’s hideout at the foot of Mt Hiei, several guards stood hidden among the rocks and trees, keeping a lookout.  One of the guards yawned, it was the middle of the day, clear sight, and there wasn’t so much a hint that there was anything else alive out there.  He twisted his neck, popping it and hoping that he would be able to get of patrol duty soon, this is so boring…

Without warning, without so much as a whisper, a hand reached out and slit his throat smoothly and he dropped to the ground bleeding and choking.  The attacker simply melded back into the shadows of the trees and rocks as if he were one of them and the guard’s final thoughts was that he must have been killed by a demon.

***

Sanosuke’s eyebrow rose at those words.  “Only two?  Somehow I thought there would be more.”  Wow, maybe the Juppongatana aren’t all they’ve made out to be.

“You said 50 men in less than 2 hours, with no real witness, right?” Cho clarified.  “If you weren’t talking about so short a period of time than I could do it no problem.”

Sanosuke’s face grew mildly amused at those words.  “But if there was no time limit couldn’t just about anyone do it?”

Cho’s head whipped around to Sanosuke, his eyes blazing.  “And what exactly do you mean by that?” he demanded.

“I’m going to take a wild guess here and say that you’re at the bottom of the Juppongatana aren’t you?”

Cho leapt to his feet at those words.  “I’m going to mop the floor with you rooster head!”

“As if you could broom head!”  Sanosuke shouted back, pushing up his sleeve in anticipation.

Not this again, Saito sighed.  “Can you just finish your story first, then you two can kill each other all you like,” Saito broke in, the two glared at each other before they decided to back down, for the moment at least, though neither looked pleased about it.

***

A single man strolled down the paved walkway into Shishio’s hideout.  He had a headband pulled over his eyes emblazoned with a set of kanji on it, on his clothes were emblazoned with an eye pattern.  Across his back, he had a strange tortoise shell looking shield and in his hand, he carried a short spear with a small ball weight attached to the end.  He walked right in Shishio’s hideout as though he had been invited, although the trail of bodies of the fallen guardsmen behind him spoke of a different story.

***

Cho finally took his eyes off Sanosuke in disgust and went back to his story.  “The first one is Sojiro, the kid with the Tenken, the ‘sword from heaven’.  He’ll kill you and never lose his smile,” Cho shook his head.  The way the kid was always smiling no matter what, had always crept him out a little.

I thought it might be him, Saito thought as he kept smoking his cigarette, he remembered the little he had seen of the boy’s skill when he had dueled Kenshin in Shingetsu village and broke Kenshin’s sakabato. 

“He may just be a kid, but he’s the one who’s been with Shishio the longest.  He even knew him back in the days when Shishio’s burns weren’t quite healed up yet and he was still fleeing from the government.  Don’t know it it’s ‘cause of that or not but he remains the most trusted member of the Juppongatana, handpicked for the Yuudai Ashikaga assassination.  But as good as he is, Sojiro ain’t the assassin you’re looking for.”  Cho looked up at Saito who remained perfectly calm as he waited for Cho to finish his explanation.  “See Sojiro has been busy after the Ashikaga assassination searching the eastern half of Japan gathering the Juppongatana, so time wise his being in Kobe, on the other side of the country, for that attack you mentioned ain’t possible.”

Saito took another drag from his cigarette, the smoke filling his lungs and he exhaled slowly.  “True enough,” he agreed mildly, the cigarette almost burned down to his fingers.

“Then who is it already, stop stalling and spill!”  Sanosuke shouted, not having the patience for Cho’s roundabout way of telling a story.

Saito reached out his hand and put out the cigarette against Sanosuke’s headband.  “Be quiet you,” he snapped.

Sanosuke yowled as the cigarette burned and jumped back, ripping off his headband and rubbing his head, “you sadistic, stuck up, asshole!” he shouted at Saito.

Saito meanwhile calmly flicked the cigarette away, noting there wasn’t even a red mark where he had touched the cigarette to Sanosuke’s head so he didn’t know why he would be jumping around so.  After all, Saito had never meant to harm him and knew the headband was made of a thick enough material to protect him from the heat of the cigarette.  He turned his attention back to Cho.  “Finish your story, who is the second man?”

“Yeah the second guy,” Cho rubbed his chin.  “He’s equal to Sojiro in skill and he’s got to be your killer all right, no mistake.  And of all the members of the Juppongatana, he’s the only one that Shsihio-sama fears.”

Saito’s eyebrows quirked at that last comment.  He wondered why Shishio would have someone working for him that he feared, or why such a man would be taking orders from Shishio in the first place. 

***

Yumi sat in Hoji’s office area which also served as a library, amusing herself with a book.  “When should the rest of the Juppongatana arrive?”  She asked Hoji as she continued to stare at her book.  She was bored always stuck in the hideout.  She wasn’t used to this kind of living, she was used to always being around people and parties and this being cooped up was starting to drive her stir crazy.

“It should be today,” Hoji replied.  “There are only four more that we are waiting on.”

“Mmm,” she replied absently, wishing they would just get there so they could start Shishio’s plan and she could get out of the cave.

Suddenly one of the guards burst into the room and Yumi looked up from her book as the man gasped out his message to Hoji.  “Lord Hoji, there’s a problem, we have an intruder!”

***

A group of guardsmen rushed into a hallway where the intruder had just been but they found no one alive.  The entire hallway was littered with bodies, their blood staining the floor and walls.  “He was just here,” one of the guardsmen gasped out.  After all, they had heard the men’s screams only moments before.

“Where did he go?” Another asked, looking around frantically but other than the bodies and blood nothing looked out of place. 

“He’s not in the north section,” a group of guardsmen reported as they hurried down from one of the other hallways.  “We just cleared the whole section. “

“He couldn’t have just disappeared,” the leader of the group shouted.  “Fan out and find him!”

***

Yumi and Hoji hurried at once to the inner room where Shishio was relaxing.  “Who in the world would be crazy enough to sneak in here?”  Yumi asked as they two ran but Hoji didn’t bother to answer her.  They burst into the room breathless and Shishio looked up from the couch where he had been reclining, his sword propped upright against the couch near his hand.

Hoji bowed quickly to Shishio in greeting, “My lord, I’m terribly sorry to intrude but we have an intruder, he’s already killed several of the guards.  With your permission I would like to send the Juppongatana after him.”

Yumi glanced around the room, frustrated that a familiar face wasn’t there.  Where is Sojiro anyways?  He was here this morning.  What a time for him to be gone.

Shishio smiled a little at Hoji’s offer.  “There’s no need for that Hoji, after all the Juppongatana shouldn’t fight with each other.”

“Fight with each other?” Hoji repeated his eyes wide. 

“So it’s him?” Yumi gasped, clasping her hands to her chest in fear.  Why isn’t Sojiro here!?

“Besides,” Shishio tipped his head slightly, “he’s already in the room with us.”

“He…?”  Yumi trailed off as she looked up and for the first time noticed that high above them with his spear impaled into the ceiling twelve feet above where Shishio sat and half hidden by the shadows of the room was a swordsman.  “Shishio-sama!” she screamed in warning as the spearman dropped down on Shishio.

In half a heartbeat, Shishio was on his feet, drawn sword in hand, and both he and the spearman passed each other in a charge, stopping a few feet from each other.  The only evidence that anything had happened was a cut on Shishio’s kimono and the spearman’s spear tip ignited on fire with blue flames.

Shishio smiled, straightening from his lunge and looking behind him at the spearman.  “You’ve improved your technique again.”

The spearman flicked his weapon, extinguish the flames, he half turned around to them, the strange blindfold hiding most of his face. 

Blood rushed to Hoji’s face as his fists curled into balls or rage.  “Usui!” he shouted at the intruder.

***

 “Usui, the ‘blind’ sword’?” Saito repeated for clarification from where he leaned against the wall of the cell. 

“That’s right,” Cho agreed.  “Before the Revolution he was a great swordsman, so when everything went to hell, he was hired by the shogunate as an anti-hitokiri to fight the Imperialists.  He hunted down and killed many of the hitokiri from that time but somewhere along the way he and Shishio-sama tangled and he was slashed across the eyes, blinding him.  He’s been training every day since then in hopes of one day striking his revenge against Shishio-sama.  And that training has lead to him one of the ultimate forms of swordsmanship, Kenjutsu Shingan, the ‘Eye of the Heart’.  And now the guy is pretty much unstoppable,” Cho shrugged.  “I’ve never even seen anyone come close to beating him.”

***

 “What are you so angry about?” Usui asked in mild surprise at Hoji.  “I am allowed to attack Shishio at any opportunity, under any circumstance.  That was the only condition to our agreement and the only reason I decided to work for him.”

“That’s right,” Shishio agreed as he sheathed his sword and slipped it through his obi.

“I know about that!” Hoji snarled.  “What I’m angry about is that you pretended to be an intruder and killed our own men!”

Hoji seemed completely unconcerned.  “It just means that I need to work harder to make up for those men, after all the lives of pawns don’t amount to much, wouldn’t you agree?”

Hoji growled at him but wisely said nothing.

“Oh speaking of pawns,” Usui turned his head slightly in Shishio’s direction as something occurred to him.  “I killed off some more in Kobe rallying against you, I’d say about 50 men in total.”

“You’re not supposed to do that!” Hoji shouted.  “How many times do you have to be told not to act on your own?”

“Usui,” Shishio started, ignoring Hoji and his protests.  “Was there a man with a cross shaped scar on his left check, or a tall wolf like policeman named Saito in that group?” he questioned. 

Usui cracked a slight grin at those words, “how would I know?” he pointed out simply.  “What difference does it make anyways?”

“Those two are the greatest enemies of the Juppongatana,” Shishio informed him.

“I see,” Usui responded.  “That I’ll take care of those two before dealing with you,” he pointed his spear back at Shishio.  “Getting rid of all three of you sounds like an ideal situation.”  He laughed.

***

 “Sword of Heaven Sojiro and Blind Sword Usui, they are definitely the two strongest of the Juppongatana,” Cho leaned his back against the wall, his arms crossed, and his legs crossed casually in front of himself.  “But no way Sojiro moves with Shishio-sama’s orders, so in that way he’s safer of the two.  But Usui, he’s always been the outcast of the group and is always acting on his own.” He suddenly looked up to Saito.  “I can tell you’re no slouch either as a fighter but make no mistake, they are both better than you.”

Saito’s lips quirked back in amusement.  “Huh, sounds like they might be a challenge.”  He pulled out another cigarette and lit it, this time Sanosuke stood out of arm’s reach of Saito in case he decided to play the same trick on him.  “I have one last question.  I got a hold of some information that I would like you to elaborate on.  It’s concerning Shishio’s plan to destroy Kyoto.”

Sanosuke’s head whipped around and his jaw fell open at those words.  Whatever he was expecting Saito’s last question to be, that was not it.  Destroy Kyoto?  How does some lone outlaw and his pathetic band destroy an entire city anyways?  It would take an army!

Cho quirked his head to the side, “so you know about that then?  Well how ‘bout that?”

Chapter Text

Chapter 8

The Legacy of the Ikeda-ya Inn

“You haven’t answered yet,” Saito remained Cho.  “Just how exactly does Shishio plan to destroy Kyoto?”

Cho watched Saito smoking for a moment before he closed his eyes with a little laugh.  “Well I did promise,” he muttered to himself.  He looked Saito right in the eye.  “You know of the Ikeda-ya affair during the Revolution?”

Saito exhaled a lungful of smoke, “I know of it,” he responded mildly.  It was an affair he knew very well.  He had been there at inn that night and he had lead one of the squads of the Shinsengumi against the Imperialists.  It was the first real victory for the Shinsengumi and lead to a turning point amidst the bloodshed, temporarily quelling the Imperialist moment. 

“Ummm, the what affair?” Sanosuke asked in ignorance.

Cho’s eyes glanced at Sanosuke, clearing stating that he thought he was an idiot for not knowing what Cho was referring to.  “First year of Genji (1864) in June, a group of the more radical Imperialists gathered at the inn, the Iked-ya for a secret meeting,” Cho explained as though to a small child.  “They were planning to engulf Kyoto in flames as a cover to assassinate key officials in the government.  But their plan was never executed because they were attacked by the Shinsengumi.”  Cho shook his head at Sanosuke’s ignorance.  And because of that incident, the group that had been dubbed murderers with no honor and called ‘The Wolves of Mibu’ became heroes of the country due to putting their lives on the line to protect Kyoto and proving themselves in battle.  He looked at Saito for a moment, and he’s one of the wolves. 

“Oh,” Sanosuke nodded his head, now following the conversation, “so what does that have to do with Shishio now?”

“Shishio set his sights on that affair and decided to use the Imperialists own plan against them.  He’s going to get 500 soldiers together to light fires all over the city.  And then when the city’s on fire and everything is confusion the Juppongatana come in and assassinate their political targets.”  Cho shook his head with a little admiration for the plan.  “You have to give it to Shsihio-sama, who else could declare war on the government and do it so ironic like?  I could have sworn that they said we’d be starting the fires as soon as all the members of the Juppongatana arrive in Kyoto, and near as I figure it that should be soon.”

“I see,” Saito mused.  “Of course, the Emperor has moved to Tokyo but there has yet to be an official renaming of the capital so it remains Kyoto.  In addition, Kyoto is a city so symbolic to all Japanese it’s called the Millennium Imperial Castle.  And the people would lose all faith in the Meiji government if it failed to protect this city.”

“Who gives a crap about the government?” Sanosuke retorted, his voice carrying the undertones of the rage he felt after hearing the plan so coldheartedly spelled out by Cho.  “If Kyoto really does burn down then it won’t be the government who does the suffering, but the people who live here.  They’ve been bloodied by the Bakumatsu, destroyed in the Boshin Wars.  They have just gotten a taste of peace and happiness back in their lives and their ‘betters’ are ruining it again.  Shishio and the Revolutionary Ishin Government, they both have to get their act together!”  Sanosuke yelled, emphasizing his depth of feeling by punching the wall with his right hand leaving an impressive gash in the solid stone wall and smashing several of the bricks to dust.  “I swear by the ‘Aku” on my back, I will not let Kyoto burn!”  He glanced at Saito, “our score will have to wait till after this.  First we have to find Kenshin.”

Saito tossed away his second cigarette carelessly, “I could care less about our score, though you are right about finding the Battosai,” Saito agreed.  “And I must say, in order to bring peace to the souls of the Shinsengumi Wolves who fell under the flag of truth, Kyoto must be kept safe.”  Sanosuke gave him a look at those words.  “What is it?” Saito questioned.

“Nothing,” Sanosuke shrugged a little, “I just never thought I’d see the day when you and I would agree on something.”

Saito’s eyes narrowed at that, he turned and reached for the door of the cell.  “Fine, if we’re agreed why don’t you be useful and find the Battosai?”

“Hey you can’t boss me around!” Sanosuke protested. 

“You prefer to stay here then?” Saito asked, looking over his shoulder as he stepped out of the cell.

“Hang on, I can’t stay here with broom head,” Sanosuke hurried out of the cell before Saito could shut him in.

“Then let’s get going moron,” Saito replied as he started walking away after locking the cell securely behind him.

“Who are you calling a moron, moron!”  Sanosuke retorted.

“Moron.”

“Stop calling me that!”

***

Kenshin dragged Seijuro back into the house he laid him as gently as possible on the rolled-out futon, Seijuro’s breath was raspy and pained and he wouldn’t wake.  Kenshin started tearing through all the drawers, baskets, and corners of the hut, hoping against hope he could find something to help his Master.

Finally, he pulled out a drawer and saw a small bag of medicine.  Kenshin opened it and sniffed the contents, his eyes widen as he remembered that smell.  This is the medicine Master gave me that time I almost died from pneumonia, Kenshin thought.  There’s not enough time to go down the mountain and find a doctor.  He thought as he worked, quickly fetching some water and starting to boil it, but maybe with this medicine and his own strength it’ll be enough. 

He boiled up some water and poured it into a cup.  He then added a small spoon full of the medicine to the cup, stirring and letting it brew for a moment and for the water to cool.  When he was sure that the water was cooled enough, Kenshin gently held up Seijuro’s head and dropped the medicine drop by drop into his mouth, going slow to prevent him from choking and making sure he swallowed every bit. 

Kenshin went back to the medicine bag and mentally measured the rest of its contents.  Only two more doses left, I have to hope that it’s enough.  Kenshin remembered when his Master had given him the bitter brew it had been every two hours until he was better.  I have to wait then, there’s nothing else I can do, just hold on Master.  Just hold on.

***

Yumi glanced down the hallway, she saw a familiar figure and she hurried down the hallway to meet them, determined to give them a piece of her mind.  “You,” she started.

Sojiro greeted her with his big grin that never really seemed to touch his eyes, “I’m back!” he greeted in his falsely happy voice.  “Is something wrong?” he asked.  “You look upset.”

“And just where have you been Sojiro?” she demanded by way of answer.

“Where?” Sojiro responded and held up the bundle in his arms, pulling the fabric back to show her.  “I just thought that everyone might get a little depressed staying in a place like this for so long so I decided to run out and get some sweets for us to share,” he explained.

Yumi’s face fell a bit, recognizing the symbol branded on the little box as one of the local sweet shops in Kyoto.  “You mean to say it took you three days to buy sweets?” she shirked.

“Well at first I couldn’t decide what everyone would like, and then I got a little lost on the way back,” Sojiro laughed.  Yumi raised a hand to her face, shaking her head and groaning internally in pain.  “Why did something happen while I was gone?” Sojiro asked innocently. 

“Listen you,” Yumi started, recovering herself.  “While you were off buying sweets that Usui showed up and started causing trouble!”

“What about ‘that Usui’?” a man’s voice asked behind her.

Yumi’s heart quickened in fear and she turned her head to see Usui striding calmly down the hallway, his spear held loosely in his right hand.  Yumi quickly stepped behind Sojiro, her hands on the teenager’s shoulders.  Certain that even if Usui decided to attack, Sojiro could protect her.  Sojiro at least she could trust wouldn’t hurt her, because that would anger Shishio and Sojiro lived only to serve Shishio. 

“Usui-san,” Sojiro greeted with no concerns.  “It’s been a long time.”  He opened the box of sweets and held them out.  “Would you like one?” he offered.

Usui sniffed at the air, catching the scent of food.  “Yatsuhashi?” he identified before his head turned to face Sojiro, if he could still see, his eyes would have been fixed on Sojiro.  It had always creeped out Yumi how even though he could no longer see he always knew where everyone in a room was, even if they never spoke or made a noise.  “Whenever you leave Shishio’s side it is always on a special mission, not for something as simple as a run out for some local delicacies,” he observed.  “My Eye of the Heart is able to see the emotions that a normal human eye cannot, and even you who supposedly lacks all emotion can’t hide anything from my sight.”

“Is that so?” Sojiro laughed, completely unconcerned with Usui’s words.

Usui turned away, “but no matter, whatever you and Shishio are hiding is of little importance to me.”  Behind him, Yumi made a face at his back.  “Also, the Juppongatana is gathering in the Great Hall, the last 3 of our comrades have finally arrived.”  He informed him.

Sojiro turned his head to look at Yumi over his shoulder. “Shall we go and join the others then?”

Yumi’s smile became a little fixed as she thought about who would be in that company, “yes lets.”

She followed Sojiro through the hallways until the both walked into the Great Hall and she looked around, taking stock of all the members of the Juppongatana that she saw there.  “Kamatari-san,” Sojiro greeted and behind him, Yumi blanched.

Kamatari turned, her hair was chopped at neck length and left loosely while she wore a kimono with furosode sleeves and an elaborately tied obi.  The sleeves of the kimono were tied back with a thick piece of white rope and Kamatari’s weapon of choice was held loosely, a tall scythe with a chain and counterweight attached.

Kamatari’s head turned at Sojiro’s greeting before stepping forward in getting.  “So-chan, long time no see,” came the happy greeting before Kamatari’s eyes shifted to the figure behind Sojiro.  “And you Yumi-san, same to you.”

Yumi felt her skin crawl the way it always did every time she saw Kamatari, what a freak, you fool most people but I know exactly what you are.  “Uh huh,” Yumi greeted noncommittally.

Kamatari seemed not to notice Yumi’s cold greeting, “This time we’ll settle our differences and see who wins Shishio-sama’s heart for sure.”

Yumi’s skin crawled at that little laugh Kamatari gave, “I agree,” Yumi replied in a cold voice.  “And there is no way I’ll losing to a man like you, you stick swinging queer!”

Kamatari just laughed in response.  From the dress and mannerisms, most assumed Kamatrai was a woman but Yumi knew that Kamatari was just another man like the rest of them, just with a completely different fashion sense and a voice several octaves above what would be consider normal for any man.  And she hated when anyone called her a man, despite the fact biologically that was what she was.  She only wanted to be referred to as a woman and Yumi found the whole thing completely unnatural, Shishio on the other hand, seemed not to care, all he carried about was Kamatari’s skills in battle. 

Off to the side there was a little laugh at the exchange between Yumi and Kamatari, “young one’s have so much energy.”

Sojiro turned to see a wrinkled figure of an elderly man in his nineties but still spry looking even as he supported himself with a cane.  “Elder Saizuchi,” he greeted.  “Glad to see that you are doing well.”

Saizuchi pulled a little at one end of his mustache.  “You are the only one here who is so polite,” Saizuchi observed.  “Most of the others won’t speak to me, they barely even look at me,” Saizuchi complained, and indeed the others were all standing apart from the elderly man.  “They are all just jealous of my powers.”

“Where is your partner?” Sojiro asked looking around, “I don’t see Fuji here.”

“Oh he’s staying outside of the cave, he has no love for confined spaces,” Saizuchi replied.  “But anything that needs communicating I’ll tell to Fuji myself after this meeting.”

Sojiro looked around to see that indeed everyone else had gathered in the room.  Usui was standing off to one side of the room, his head slightly down as he listened to everything around him.  Anji, Henya, and Iwanbo stood together in a small group and Yumi was trying to put some distance between herself and Kamatari. 

The doors opened and everyone’s head twisted to see Shishio stroll in with Hoji at his side.  Shishio looked around, taking note of everyone in the room.  “Looks like everyone’s here,” Shishio intoned in his deep voice.

Sojiro stepped forward, still carrying his bundle in his hands.  “I’m sorry Shishio-sama for taking so long to fetch these, would you like one?”  Sojiro held out the box in his hand.

“Sojiro we’re in the middle of something,” Hoji replied with an inpatient note in his voice.

“But they are delicious,” Sojiro insisted, opening the lid to show them what was inside.  While the box was indeed filled with delicate sweets there was also a note tacked onto the lid of the box, including the hastily added words Sojiro had added in the hallway after Usui had left and he was sure that he wouldn’t hear the scratching of his pen.

 

The preparations for the ship are complete, we can sail anytime. 

 

Usui-san may have sensed something but I wouldn’t worry.

 

Shishio smiled as he read the note, “thanks Sojiro,” Shishio took the box from Sojiro and handed it to Hoji as he closed the lid.  “I’ll have some later.”

Sojiro smiled back and bowed, off to the side Usui smiled to himself, now certain that the box had contained something hidden for Shishio about the outcome of Sojiro’s real mission, something that he didn’t want the others to know just yet.

“Thank you all for coming,” Shishio began, addressing those in the room.  “I know that I have made you all wait for a long time for this, but our time has finally come.  We are missing Cho due to some unexpected circumstances but I am still proud to have the rest of the esteemed Juppongatana gathered here today.”  Shishio started looking around the room to address individuals.  “Some of you admire and look up to me,” his eyes turned to the ‘Sword of Heaven” Sojiro and the ‘Great Scythe’ Kamatari.  “Some of you want to kill me,” his eyes drifted over the ‘Blind Sword’ Usui standing alone by the wall.  “Some of you are disillusioned by the Meiji Government.”  His eyes went over to Yumi, and the “Bright King’ Anji, and the ‘King of the Underworld’ Hoji.  “And some have complete confidence in their own abilities.”  His eyes turned to the last few in the room, the “Ogre’ Inwanbo to ‘Free Flight’ Henya, and past him to ‘Hagun Yin’ Saizuchi and the other he represented, ‘Hangun Yan’ Fuji.  “You each have your own passions and desires but the time has now come for use to act as one.  Everyone!” Shishio commanded.  “Tomorrow at 11:59 we will commence the Kyoto Grand Fire Project and began our path to victory!  Tomorrow night we will burn Kyoto to the ground with flames the color of blood!”

As one, the members of the Juppongatana cheered, ready to began their path towards victory and to make the government pay for its crimes.

***

The birds outside started chirping their songs as the morning sun peeked over the horizon, lighting up the world with the promise of a new day.  In the corner of Seijuro’s home Kenshin slept, his back to the wall, one knee up and his elbow propped against it with the other leg stretched out.  It seemed as though in the stress of everything that had transpired the day before Kenshin had found a moment of peace.  That moment that wouldn’t last long.

A foot came down on Kenshin’s head, bringing him rudely to wakefulness and knocking Kenshin over on the floor.

“Oww!” he yelled as he rubbed his head, “who the-?” Kenshin broke off and he pulled himself up a little when he saw his Master standing over him with an irritated expression on his voice.   “Master?” he whispered in awe.

“Why are you still here?” Seijuro yelled in response.  “You don’t have the luxury of sleeping in late.  You have people waiting for your return and a psycho to stop.  Quiet wasting time and get off the mountain already!”

Kenshin seemed not to have heard a single word that Seijuro said, still processing that his Master was still alive and obviously feeling all right.  “Master!” Kenshin’s face broke into a big grin as he sprung to his feet. 

Seijuro saw Kenshin leap towards him with outstretched arms, and he quickly stepped out of the way and Kenshin, unable to stop his forward motion in time, slid into one of the shelves, knocking his forehead against the shelves, and landed on his back with a groan.  “I don’t hug men,” Seijuro told him in a firm voice.  “Don’t ever do that again.”

Kenshin rubbed his head after being hit on the head for the second time that morning.  He pulled himself back up with a laugh, he was in far too good of a mood that morning to care about his Master’s caustic personality.  “I’m so happy that the medicine worked like it was supposed to and you’re all right Master.”  Kenshin told him in relief.

Seijuro made a face at him, “medicine?” he held up the now empty bag of medicine that Kenshin had used and left next to Seijuro when he had used the last dose.  “You mean this stuff?  It was just something that I threw together that time you thought you were dying.” 

Kenshin’s face balanced at that.  A placebo?  I was dying and he gave me a placebo?  There is something really wrong with him.

Actually, the medicine was something that Seijuro had traveled all night in the dead of winter to the nearest doctor to obtain when Kenshin had been deathly ill with pneumonia and Seijuro had spent a small fortune to buy.  Not that he was ever going to admit how much he cared or what he had done to try and save Kenshin’s life all those years before. 

“So if it wasn’t the medicine then how…?” Kenshin asked weakly.

“If I had to guess, it would be this sword,” Seijuro picked up the sakabato that Kenshin had placed next to the sword stand where he had put his Master’s own katana. 

“The sakabato shinuchi?”

Seijuro held it out, twisting the sword so that Kenshin could see what Seijuro’s sharp eyes had seen in a moment.  “Look here,” he pointed at the handle, “the holder pin has come out to the point where the blade is almost loose enough to come out.  This weaken your strike just enough to keep it from being fatal.  It is a good sword,” Seijuro added, looking at the sword and admiring the handiwork.  “One that truly understands the feelings of its wielder.”

Shakku-dono, Kenshin whispered a silent prayer of thanks to the creator of the blade. 

“And of course the intensity of my training and tireless efforts were what really helped to loosen this holder pin.” 

Kenshin rolled his eyes.  It never ends with him.

Seijuro’s voice turned more serious.  “We cut it very close, by your initiation into the secret is now complete, the Amakakeru ryu no Hirameki is yours.”  He held the sakabato out and Kenshin took it gratefully, standing up and slipping it through his obi.  “You can see that it is a powerful attack which gives even a sakabato the power to kill, but remember, that everything about this attack can be used as a Rurouni.”

Kenshin nodded his head, understanding his Master’s meaning perfectly.  “Yes Master.”

“It’s time to get going, you have things to do,” Seijuro told him firmly.  “And by the way, did you clean my house?” he asked looking around, he normally kept things tidy but there wasn’t a speck of dirt anywhere and everything was meticulously organized.

Kenshin’s face grew a little shamefaced, “it calms me down,” he admitted.

“And the laundry?” Seijuro asked indicating the freshly washed laundry on the line outside.

“It’s really quite soothing,” Kenshin admitted.  “And I had nothing else to do but wait and see if you would recover after all.”

Seijuro sighed but much to Kenshin’s surprise said nothing.  All those years as my apprentice and it was like pulling teeth half the time to get him to work.  Now he cleans the house and even washes laundry without being asked because ‘its soothing’.  Seijuro thought back to the conversation that he had when Kaoru, Yahiko, and Misao were there and Yahiko had joked in the middle of Kaoru’s story how she had turned Kenshin into a maid and he would fight with her over chores.  I kind of want to know how that girl did it, what trick did she use on him to brainwash him so well?

When Kenshin realized that his Master wasn’t going to retort with some sarcastic remark he grabbed his bag from the corner.  “Master thank you for everything,” he bowed.  “But,” he paused for a moment before going on.  “Even though I have fully mastered the last secret of Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu I have no intention of claiming the title of Seijuro Hiko the 14th, or carrying on the Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu.  All I wish to take with me are the ideals of Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu.”

Seijuro’s face darken a little at that, “you are still the same selfishness apprentice you always were.  Well, it’s not like I’m surprised anymore.” He scoffed, turning his head away.

“Speaking of selfishness,” Kenshin went on and Seijuro glanced in his direction.  “I’m sorry but I have one more favor to ask of you, while I am fighting against Shishio’s group, could you protect my friends at the Aoi-ya?”

Seijuro raised one hand, thumbs up and Kenshin’s eyes opened in surprise about how easy that had been.  That was before Seijuro rounded on him, flipping his hand over for thumbs down.  “It’s time for you to grow up damn it and stop taking advantage of my kindness!” Seijuro yelled at him. 

Kenshin’s face flinched, taking advantage of your kindness, for what?  Not throwing me to the wolves this time?

Seijuro’s face soured.  “From the moment you refused to carry on the traditions of Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu, you and I ceased to be Master and apprentice.”  He turned his back on him.  “You must forget that I was ever your Master.”

“Master!” Kenshin started to protest.

“Still,” Seijuro’s voice a bit softer this time.  “I didn’t teach you the Mitsurugi-ryu for you to be unhappy.”  Kenshin’s face softened a little at those words.  “Don’t worry about your friends, just take of Shishio.”

Kenshin’s face broke into a smile, certain that his Master would see to the others.  He bowed once more.  “Thank you Master,” and then he turned and left.

After Seijuro heard him walk out of the hut, he finally turned and watched Kenshin hurrying back down the road to Kyoto.  “Kenshin,” he whispered.  “Don’t die.”

***

Okon and Masaru were out in the marketplace picking up food for the day.  They seemed like everyone else, concerned with their own errands but their eyes saw everything, and even the movements of the police drew the attention of others in the market as well.  “I wonder what’s going on?” a woman asked.  “There sure are a lot of officers around today.”

“Did something happen?  The police seem worked up about something.”

Okon walked closer to Masaru to whisper discreetly to him.  “Tadashi just reported that another two hundred officers arrived today.  The city is literally crawling with police and military, did you hear anything from Reiko?”

Masaru shook his head, their contact Reiko had a husband who was high ranking police officer and she had served as a contact for them since before her marriage back when she was just the daughter of a minor samurai.  “She knows nothing, whatever this is they are playing it close to the chest.”

Okon took a deep breath, “Shishio must be making his move soon then, if we only knew what form it will take.”

***

Inside the main police station, Saito sat reading over some reports, his mind trying to work through everything he knew of Shishio’s plans and the man himself.  He was missing something, he knew it but he couldn’t figure out what it was.  And a small part of his mind knew that the likelihood he would figure it out was slim, because he couldn’t understand Shishio’s mind, he never really understood the inner working of a hitokiri’s mind.  He knew honor, loyalty, and discipline.    He was a samurai at his core and always would be, so men like Shishio made little sense to him.  He’s insane and there’s no telling what he’ll do.

Saito set down the report and pulled out a cigarette, lightening it and staring at the wall.  Himura would the only one who could even remotely understand Shishio’s thoughts, and I have no idea where he is.  He’s just disappeared, again.

Saito looked upon as Fuijita came in, “I’ve reassigned as many men as I can to the Kyoto patrol per your request,” he told the Chief.  “With reinforcements from other prefectures we’ll have approximately 5,000 men by evening.”  Fuijita smiled a little at that, “even Shishio won’t be able to run wild with that many men.”

Saito shook his head, “I wouldn’t be so sure,” he mused.

“I have some news of interest to you Saito-san.”  Fuijita went on.  “The man you’ve been looking for showed up at the Amagatake Station this morning.  They are bringing him over in a carriage as we speak, he should be here any minute.”

Finally, Saito glanced out the window at the sound of an arriving carriage even as he wondered why Kenshin would have been in such an odd location as the Amagatake Station.

“Speak of the devil,” the Chief muttered as a carriage pulled up outside of the station.  Saito got up and went to the window, opening it so that he could look down as Kenshin got out of the carriage.  He watched him carefully for a moment, there was a difference in him, there was an air of confidence and ease that Saito had never seen in him before. 

“Hey there,” Saito called down and Kenshin glanced up to the window.  “Riding up in a carriage on a weekday afternoon, playing the rich man then?” Kenshin’s eyes looked amused at those words as no one could mistake him as a rich man on sight, he was finally wearing the clothes that Kaoru had made from him, the dark blue kimono and blackish hakama but they were not the clothes of a wealthy man.  “So what is your decision?”  Saito asked in a more serious tone.  “Will you become the hitokiri we need once more?”

Kenshin’s face broke into a smile though Saito saw nothing amusing in his question, “I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.” 

Saito’s face harden, it wasn’t the answer he wanted.  “Whatever, I’ve urgent business to discuss with you so get up here.”  Kenshin nodded and Saito closed the window as Kenshin disappeared into the station.  Good timing too, the loud mouth is off at lunch so we may be able to get something done.

***

As Saito finished catching Kenshin up on everything he had learned from Cho about the Kyoto Fire Project, Kenshin felt as though he had been hit by a ton of bricks.  “He wants to set fire to Kyoto?” he repeated numbly.

“According the prisoner Cho, yes,” Saito confirmed as he smoked another cigarette.  “In addition, this morning a suspicions looking man was arrested who turned out to be one of Shishio’s agents who confessed that he was making preparations for tonight’s fires.”  Saito flicked some of the ash from his cigarette as he talked.  “It seems that the fires are scheduled to commence at 11:59 tonight.  This information seems solid, confirmed from two different sources.”

Kenshin shook his head as the information sunk in.  “Something’s out of place,” he muttered half to himself.

“You think that same?”  Saito didn’t know if he was relived or more worried by those words.  He had tried to explain his feelings on the matter to ranking members of the government in order to bring in more support but with no evidence to support his feelings he was ignored.  But now that he knew that Kenshin, someone who had also lived through the Bakumatsu and who would understand Shishio’s mind even better than Saito felt the same way it made him feel more uneasy than before.  “No matter how good Shishio’s men are we still have the tactical advantage in numbers and weapons.  So their strategy should be to focus on surprise attacks and assassinations, arson does fit with that, but if all of their secrets leak out as easy as this they would have no chance to succeed.  Secrecy is a matter of life and death to them.  I’ve been waiting all this time for a member of the Juppongatana to assassinate Cho, or for him to turn up one day dead from poison, or anything but nothing has happened.  It’s almost as if Shishio wants us to have this information, but then why?  What is his real purpose that he keeps hidden even from his inner circle?”

Kenshin’s face deepened as he thought about it.  “He will trust few, only those absolutely necessary to carry out his true plan.  That is the way of the hitokiri, trust no one if you can help it, even a friend can turn on you.  But using something to distract your enemy from your true target, that is something a hitokiri is also trained to do, in fact often times the mission and your life depends on it.  The larger the target, the bigger the distraction must be to convince the enemy that it is the true target.”

“So what outranks the burning of the Millennium Capital and a city sacred to all of Japan?” Saito asked.

Kenshin gave him a serious look, “I don’t know and we have little time to figure it out.”  He glanced around the office.  “Is there a map around here?  Perhaps that will help.”

Saito quickly retrieved out of a drawer a large map of Japan, he laid it out over the desk, and he and Kenshin stared at it for several minutes.  “He has an obsession with the past,” Saito remarked.  “Burning Kyoto is based on the Ikeda-ya incident.  Perhaps he is also planning on recreating some other past event?”

“With his dramatic streak that is a certainty,” Kenshin agreed.  “Taking his revenge and destroying the nation by recreating events from the past would be something he would enjoy very much.”

Kenshin’s eyes scanned through the map, taking note of everywhere that had been the site of a major historical event, finally his eyes made their way across Japan to Tokyo, still labeled Edo on the map and he suddenly saw all of Shishio’s plan in one horrible moment.  “Saito,” he gasped.

“Did you think of something?” Saito asked quickly, looking at him.

“During the turning point of the Boshin Wars and the Battle of Toba-Fushima, the main reason that the Imperialist won was because Shogun Yoshinobu Tokugawa abandoned his armies and retreated to Edo by way of Osaka.  His armies lost hope and were defeated.  The Shogun intended to fight from his home in Edo but the war ended there.”  He looked up at Saito with a determined look in his eyes as he explained his theory.  “That is what Shishio would be doing, his ‘army’ would attack here in Kyoto while he and a handful of his most loyal men would sail with him here,” Kenshin’s finger slapped down on Edo on the map.  “Tokyo is his true target.  He means to attack the city.  And twist history by this time winning the war, unlike the Shogun.”

Saito’s face hardened at the explanation, “so leaking the information was only to focus all of our attention and manpower on Kyoto, depleting our reserves elsewhere and leaving Tokyo more venerable.  His target was always Tokyo, the heart of the government, and I fell for his deception,” Saito finished in frustration that he had not seen it before.  Now that it was pointed out to him it all made perfect sense to him.  A very clever plan, to tear down the government by imitating the very action that allowed it to rise.

“We have to hurry, if that ship sets sail then all is lost,” Kenshin turned and ran to the door, swinging it open before Saito could stop him.  As he opened the door, he stopped in surprise as behind the door stood Sanosuke with one hand as though reaching for the doorknob before Kenshin threw the door open.  They both looked at each other in surprise for a moment, not expecting to meet each other there.  “Sano,” Kenshin greeted.  “What are you-?”

Before Kenshin could finish his question Sanosuke punched him hard on his cheek knocking Kenshin back several steps, he would have fallen if Sanosuke hadn’t grabbed his kimono and held him upright, his glaring face inches from Kenshin who still felt nothing more than surprise. 

“I’m here to be your strong right arm that’s what,” Sanosuke answered in a snarl, his face still inches from Kenshin as he glared at him in anger that he would have left him behind.  Kenshin looked back for a moment and an unspoken apology passed between the men for their actions. 

“Thank you Sano,” Kenshin replied.

Sanosuke snorted, a satisfied look on his face as he left go of Kenshin, knowing that everything between them was back to normal. 

“More like his two left feet,” Saito muttered as he put out his cigarette.

“What was that?” Sanosuke demanded, fist clenched towards Saito.

“Never mind,” Saito replied, “we don’t have time for your antics, we have to get to Osaka at once.”

“Osaka?” Sanosuke asked in puzzlement as Saito left the room with Kenshin on his heels.  Sanosuke hurried after them, “but I thought Shishio was burning Kyoto, why are we leaving for Osaka?”

“I’ll explain later,” Kenshin answered as they hit the ground floor and Saito started giving orders to the police chief and several officers there.  “The Kyoto Fire is only a diversion, his real target is Tokyo, he means to bomb the city by the ship which is in Osaka.”

“What!” Sanosuke gasped in surprise.  “Then what are we waiting for?  We got to get running to Osaka then to stop him!”

Saito finished with the officers and turned around at those words, “run all the way to Osaka, are you really that much of an idiot or do you work at it?”

Kenshin blanched as Sanosuke’s face went completely red.  “Why do you have to nick pick everything I say?  What the hell is wrong with that?”

Saito gave him a look of complete contempt.  “Because it’s too far to run to Osaka and even if we did we would be completely exhausted and unable to fight when we get there, so we go by carriage.  It will be quicker by any route.”

“Fine then why aren’t we leaving?” Sanosuke retorted in anger.  Kenshin took a step back, if this escalated to a fight between them, Kenshin didn’t see the need to be involved. 

“Because the horses need to be changed, it will be only a few minutes.” Saito explained as though to a small child.

Sanosuke growled but stayed quiet, Kenshin decide that it was time to make a small request.  “While we are waiting may I have pen and paper, there is a letter I wish to write, can you make sure that it is delivered?”  He asked Saito.

Saito’s face twisted a little in puzzlement but he nodded and sent for paper for Kenshin at once.  As the paper arrived and Kenshin started writing, Saito lit a cigarette and stared at him for a moment.  “I’m a bit surprised,” Saito commented at last, “all this time and you haven’t asked about the girl yet after threatening to kill me about it before?”

Sanosuke looked between them with a little confusion, threatened to kill him?  He wondered.  “Oh yeah, Kaoru, you know something about her?” he asked, just realizing that he hadn’t asked abut her at all in the past few days since meeting Saito.

Kenshin smiled a little to himself as he wrote, “yes I meet her several days ago, she is with some people that I trust now who I’m sure will look after her well.”

“Is that so?” Saito responded blankly.   He was fully aware where Kaoru was currently from his own resources and knew that she was well at present.  Well at least he’s not worried about her at the moment, good, his head is in the game.

***

Hoji stood on the top of an outcrop in the front of the cave where it still had the natural rock formation before the line of hallways and rooms of the inner cave that made it seem as though it was actually a building.  Behind him stood Shishio and the whole of the Juppongatana, Hoji took a deep breath before he addressed the hundreds of masked men assembled there, the men who would carry out the burning of Kyoto under the direction of the Juppongatana.  “Men, the time has come!”  He announced.  “No longer will we hide in these caves, now is the time to show the world our power and to show the leaders of this decadent age what we are truly capable of!  Tonight, as the people of Kyoto sleep unaware we strike.  Tonight, we go to battle!”

As one the men roared in approval, weapons raised.  Behind Hoji, Shishio smiled, all of them pawns in the greater game. Japan will be mine.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9

As If in Flight

Sanosuke rode on top of the carriage as the driver whipped the houses as fast as they could go down the road towards Osaka.  Sanosuke had initially been upset when Saito refused to let him ride in the carriage, saying he would just get in the way in Osaka.  Kenshin had a more diplomatic approach, it involved when Sanosuke looked to him to protest he had simply looked quickly at the top of the carriage with a significant expression on his face as he followed Saito into the carriage.  Sanosuke had gotten the hint and as the driver whipped the horses to take off, Sanosuke had jumped onto the carriage and sat atop.  At that point, there was no sense in taking the time to stop the carriage and force him off, so even Saito had decided to let it go.

Sanosuke looked at the driver, “Can’t you make this thing go any faster?  We’re in a hurry here,” he shouted to the driver. 

The driver shook his head.  “Go any faster we’ll wear the horses out before we get there.”

Sanosuke growled, “As if in flight, we’ve got to move as if we were in flight!” 

Sanosuke suddenly jumped as a blade came through the carriage roof.  “What the hell?”  He shouted.  The blade was pulled back into the carriage and Sanosuke leaned over the side to look in the carriage window to where Saito slid his tanto back into his sheath.  “Are you trying to kill me?” he demanded.

“Damn it, I guess I missed,” Saito replied calmly.  Kenshin in the carriage was looking at Saito with wide eyes, his hands on his sword that he had half drawn when Saito suddenly pulled out a blade. 

“Saito,” Kenshin protested weakly.

“Saito answer me!” Sanosuke demanded.

“We’re trying to think in here and with all your shouting it’s hard to focus, shut up will you?” Saito retorted.  Sanosuke started to growl at him, “you’re getting a free ride to Osaka, just sit back and enjoy the view like a good boy.” 

“You’re an asshole, you know that?”  Sanosuke growled at him before he went back to sitting quietly on the roof, contemplating all the ways he was going to get his revenge on Saito when the business with Shishio was done.

“Now where were we?” Saito asked for a moment as he tried to recollect his thoughts.  “Oh yes, we have been able to bring in almost 5,000 men from all over the country, a combination of police and military into Kyoto in order to stop Shishio’s plans,” Saito went on as he continued to catch Kenshin up on the state of the situation.  “That is ten times the size of the group Shishio’s is estimated to have so we should be able to stop his men.”

“About that letter I wrote before we left,” Kenshin started.

“I assure you, it will be delivered, but what exactly was it for?” he asked in curiosity.  Saito didn’t think he would be sending a personal letter at a time like this, he had overheard Kenshin telling Sanosuke while he was writing the letter that he had seen Kaoru and Yahiko in Kyoto and he was sure they were staying with a friend that he trusted.  Saito offered police protection for both of them but Kenshin declined, saying that it was more important to stop the fire and that for the moment at least, Shishio’s attention was off of Kaoru and the others as he had turned his attention to his main target. 

“The police may be able to stop 500 men but not 500 fires,” Kenshin pointed out calmly.  “So I sent the letter to ask for help from those who have guarded Kyoto from the shadows since long before the days of the Bakumatsu.” 

Saito looked as though he wanted to question that further but they had far more pressing matters to discuss and he had to trust that Kenshin knew what he was doing.

***

It was late in the afternoon and Misao sat reading through some odds and ins she had picked up from around town, contemplating things.  She had heard the reports from the others about the continuing police activity in the city and she knew it must mean that they were trying to prepare for when Shishio made his move, which she suspected would be soon.  And there was also the matter of Aoshi’s betray to deal with, he would know all the inner workings of the Aoi-ya, including the secret passageways, but it was unknown if he would share that information with Shishio.  Misao wished she knew what to do, at best she felt that she was fumbling around, trying to make the correct preparations, which was all but impossible because she didn’t know what she should be preparing for.  She had taken the advice from the others and she knew that she was being treated, at best, by the others as the Okashira in name only, if I truly want to deserve the title I have to earn their trust.  I have to prove myself.

It was frustrating situation but Misao was determined to succeed.  I’ve lived my whole life trying to live up to what others wants and expectations were for me.  Hoshi-sama thought I could be a musician but I don’t have an ear for it like her, I’m at best adequate.  Aoshi thought I could be a great kunoichi...  Her heart froze a little whenever she thought about him.  She tried to ignore when the others whispered about him when they thought she wasn’t around.  To ignore every time that they said he was beyond reason and should be killed on sight.  Because even though Misao acknowledged in her head that they were probably right, a small part of her heart still hoped that there was some part of Aoshi’s soul that would see through the madness and he would come back to being the Aoshi she remembered.  It was a feeling she was ashamed of and would share with no one.

Gramps wanted me to just be a normal girl and give up this dangerous life.  But I’m trying to put all their expectations behind me, and live up to my own.  That I am a strong enough kunoichi to protect the ones I love the most, to protect the life I was brought into. 

Misao tapped a finger against her leg as she came across something interesting and she scrambled to her feet and ran out into the courtyard to ask her question of the others.  The only ones out in the courtyard was Omasu and Kaoru. “Hey Omasu, I’ve got a question.”

Omasu looked around,” yes what is it Misao-cha-Okashira,” Omasu caught herself just in time, still not used to referring to the girl as Okashira.

Misao chose to over look the greeting, she ran up to Omasu holding out the paper she was reading with its drawing.  “How much is a Gatling gun running on the black market these days?”

Misao’s seemingly innocent question elected the response of Omasu’s jaw dropping open and her making gasping sounds as the question took her completely off guard.  She stared at the paper with the drawing of a Gatling gun on it, where on earth did she get something like that?  “Misao, why would you ask something like that?” she finally managed to gasp out.

Misao’s face furrowed as she rubbed her chin, “well it’s not like I like the idea of relaying on firearms or anything like this but I’ve got to consider all the options as Okashira and Shishio’s definitely planning something big and we’ve got to be prepared for whatever it is.”

Omasu thought she was about to have a stroke, she wasn’t quite sure how to talk Misao out of the insane idea but fortunately Kaoru stepped in.  “I agree that a Gatling gun is a powerful weapon,” Kaoru stepped in gently, “probably the most powerful weapon you can buy, but it only took 5 Oniwanbanshu members to defeat it, and almost half of those were caught by surprise.   The true inner strength of the Oniwabanshu isn’t something you can buy, and that is why I think Kenshin has so much respect for your group.”

Misao’s face softened as she thought over Kaoru’s words, our true inner strength.  “You’re right Kaoru-san.  I’ll try to keep that in mind.”

Omasu shot Kaoru a ‘thank you’ look and Kaoru nodded her head a little in reply, before they had a chance to discuss the situation further, Yahiko came running towards them with a letter in hand and the rest of the Aoi-ya on his heels.  “Misao, Misao!” he called as he ran up to her, holding the letter out.  “A policeman just arrived with the letter from Kenshin.  He addressed it to Okina but I figured since you’re the Okashira now you should read it.”

“A policeman?” she questioned.  “Why would the police be delivering a letter from Kenshin?”

“Don’t know,” Yahiko shook his head.  “But this scraggly writing is definitely Kenshin’s.” 

Misao took the letter and opened it quickly, behind her, Kaoru’s head dipped a bit, trying to ignore the pang that Kenshin would write to someone else while he wouldn’t even look at her when she had come so far to see him.  She closed her eyes for a moment remembering the last time she had seen him, and she had asked if he was angry that she had come.  “Yes, but only half, the other half is somewhat relived.”  She took a deep breath.  Are you still angry at me Kenshin?

“Burn Kyoto?” Misao gasped out suddenly and everyone crowded behind her to try and read the jumbled characters. 

“What?”

 “What does it say?”

“How can you read that mess anyways?”

The others started pushing to see better so Misao decided to read the letter out loud, even Kaoru came out of her momentary depression to listen to the contents of the message.

 

To Okina and all those at the Aoi-ya,

Shishio plans to use approximately 500 men tonight to set fire to Kyoto at 11:59 PM.  He plans to have his Juppongatana carry out assassinations after the city is burning.  The police are moving into position to stop these men and I ask your help as well and that of your network to stop the fires before they become uncontrollable.  Meanwhile I will be seeking to confront Shishio before he carries out the second part of his plan.  Be careful and watch your back, Shishio has his men everywhere, and good luck.

         

          Kenshin

 

“It can’t be,” Shiro gasped.

“I wondered why there were so many police around these past few days,” Okon mused.

“Setting fire to Kyoto…” Kuro shook his head as he contemplated it. 

“It’s madness…” Omasu whispered.

“It’s kind of awesome.”  Every adult and Yahiko turned around to glare at Yuuto and Sora who looked suddenly shamefaced.  “Well awesome in a totally evil way you know?  Not like we’re condoning it or anything,” they explained quickly.

“Well with the way things have been going lately I’d say this is just the beginning,” Yahiko observed.  What could be so important that Kenshin won’t be here?  He wondered.  What is the ‘second half’ of Shishio’s plan that’s keeping them away?  And where the hell is Sanosuke anyway? 

Kaoru turned to Misao, seeing that was her moment, just like when I walked into the dojo after Papa’s funeral and found Uncle waiting there to challenge me.  She either rises to this challenge or she crumbles.  “Well Misao, what do we do?” she prompted. 

Misao took a deep breath, she folded the letter up and walked a few steps forward into the courtyard, leaving everyone behind her as she collected her thoughts.  Then she turned with a serious look of authority on her young face.  “We stop them of course!”  She told them in a firm voice.  “The Oniwanbanshi will prevent the Kyoto Grand Fire tonight.”  She pointed a finger at Masaru,” send out the carrier pigeons, tell everyone in Kyoto about this and put them on the alert.”

“At once Okashira,” Masaru nodded.

“Everyone, get your shinobi robes out and arm yourself, tonight we’ll execute the Kyoto defense plan 31.  Everyone know their part?”

“Yes Okashira,” they all replied at once.

“Tonight, we fight to save our homes, now everyone move, we have to be quick, as if in flight!”  Misao ordered.

Everyone scattered, even the twin boys.  Kaoru stepped up to Misao as everyone left.  “We’ll help as well,” she offered.  “Yahiko and I, just tell us what you need us to do.”

Misao nodded at the offer.  “Both of you are welcome.  You can stick with me tonight.  Get whatever gear you need ready and meet back here within an hour.” 

Kaoru and Yahiko nodded before they hurried into the inn.  “I never thought that after Tokyo there would ever be a day when we would fight alongside of the Oniwanbanshu,” Yahiko commented with a hint of boyish excitement.

Kaoru smiled a little at that, “me too Yahiko, me too.”

***

As the carriage hurried along, Saito pulled out a cigarette and lit it, “I had a telegram sent to Osaka,” he continued the conversation.  “To inform them about Shishio’s plans but there isn’t time to set up a blockade of the harbor.  Besides most of their men are in Kyoto so they won’t be able to help us much.  On top of that, the carriage won’t arrive until close to midnight with any luck.  There’s no way we can search every ship in the time we have.  So what do we do Battosai?”

On top of the carriage, Sanosuke listen to every word.  “Nothing is going to get done if you keep wining about it, after all, even if we fail it’ll take more than a few cannon balls to bring down a tough old city like Tokyo.”

Saito stabbed the roof again and Sanosuke jump as the blade came through a hair’s width away from his leg.  “Once you get away with but TWICE?!”  He screamed.

“I recall telling you to be quiet up there moron, we were talking.  Now you made me lose my train of thought again.”  Saito drawled in annoyance.

Kenshin took a different approach. He realized that Sanosuke didn’t understand the true impact of Shishio’s plan.  “Sano, destroying Tokyo isn’t what Shishio is after,” he explained.

“Huh?” Sanosuke asked confused, hanging his head down so he could look into the carriage. 

“In the 6th year of Kaei, 1853.  An American named Perry arrived at the shore of Uraga, the arrival of the Black Ships as it is known.  They demanded that we open trade to foreign countries.  When it was refused, they fired on the city and incited a panic when we realized how powerful those ships were.  This incident incited deep panic in the city of Edo, that remains there even though the city is since called Tokyo.  If even one unfamiliar ship were to sail in and open fire, the entire city would panic and it would be pandemonium.”  Kenshin explained.

“The current government is still young and won’t have the power or influence to calm the city and Tokyo would become a lawless city and the government functions would shut down.”  Saito went on.

Sanosuke thought about for a moment, “like that song I hear some people sing, that ‘steamboats break the slumber of the great sea, tho’ they be but four, there’s no sleep this night’.  So that’s what they are singing about, that Black Ship thing?”

“Yes Sano,” Kenshin confirmed.  “So even if Shishio doesn’t have the power to destroy the whole city himself, all he has to do is cause a panic and the people themselves will destroy the city in their hysteria.”

Sanosuke sat back, “Okay I get it now,” he confirmed.  “So if that ship leaves Osaka then it’s all over.  So if every second counts its all the more reason why we have to be as if in flight!”

Saito stuck his head out of the carriage and addressed the driver, “if it’s not too much trouble could you shake the trash off the top of the carriage?”

“WHAT DID YOU SAY!” Sanosuke roared.

Kenshin sighed and rested his face in his hand for a moment, it was going to be a long ride to Osaka. 

***

Kaoru hurried out of the room of the inn dressed in the hakama and simple kimono she wore when training.  She had no weapon besides her tanto tucked away.  I hope they have something around here that I can borrow.  She hurried through the inn looking for the others.  Finally, she found most of them in one of the smaller upper rooms of the inn where they had brought down hidden staircases and pulled out chests and hidden weapons and equipment.  Kaoru paused for a second, she knew that they were former onmitsu but she never dreamed that they would have a small armory hidden under the roof of a peaceful inn.

Hideyoshi looked up at her as he tucked away hidden knives in his dark, almost black, tunic and hakama ensemble that was similar to what the others were wearing.  “Do you need something Kaoru-san?”  He asked politely. 

“Umm,” Kaoru recalled why she was there.  “Yes, with everything that’s happen the bokken I brought with me from Tokyo was taken by some men working for Shishio and I was hoping that you had a weapon I could borrow?”

“Of course,” Masaru offered in a friendly voice.  “What would you prefer?  We have plenty of kunai, chigiriki, bladed tekko, jutte, even a spare johyo or two.”

“You wouldn’t happen to have a spare bokken, or a ko-naginata?  Those would be my preference. Though if you had a steel tessen I can work with that as well.”  Kaoru asked, a little awed as they continued pulling out a wide variety of weapons.

The others just gave each other a quick look before they started pulling things out of the chest for Kaoru.  Okon held out several things for Kaoru.  “We don’t have any bokkens here but we do have ko-naginata and steel tessens by the dozen.”  She told her frankly holding the weapons out to Kaoru who accepted them gratefully. 

“Would you like anything else, a kama or tanto?”  Okon offered politely. 

Kaoru looked around and saw that almost everyone seemed to be arming themselves with several different weapons.  It’s like a sweets shop, only for weapons.  She tucked the steel tessen away in case the ko-naginta was broken in the fight.  “No this is all I’ll need, thanks for the loan.”

***

Lady Miku sat going through the stack of papers, reviewing the records of the holdings of the Okazaki Clan, beside her Daisuke was helping as he slowly learned the business of the clan and helped his aunt in writing the various letters of business as needed.    Suddenly Miku put the papers down and looked up at the wall, her mind unsettled.  Daisuke looked up in curiosity, normally his aunt was all business and wouldn’t allow him to try and shift his responsibilities no matter how tedious he found the tasks she set to him.  So this behavior was far from normal for her. 

“Aunt Miku, is something wrong?” he asked timidly. 

Miku sighed, “just worried about other matters, that’s all.”  She tried to turn her attention back to the matter at hand and help Daisuke in keeping the books but her heart wasn’t in it.

“Aunt Miku, is this about Kaoru-san?”  Daisuke persisted, “we did receive that note that she was all right and staying at the Aoi-ya and you did go a and visit her remember?”  It was true, two days after Kaoru had left her home she had received a note from Kaoru through the former shinobi clan that she sometimes contracted work from.  The note had thanked her for her hospitality and help in finding her friend and let her know where she was now staying.  Miku had gone to visit herself and found Kaoru well and that she had even managed to find the apprentice that she had been looking for.  She had not been able to stay long but she was sure that Kaoru was safe where she was.    

“It’s not that, I’m sure she is fine,” after all she is her father’s daughter.  Miku could only imagine how Koshijiro had fashioned such an independent woman at her young age.  “I jut have sense that something is about to happen.  This increase in police presence worries me.”

“Oh yes, the visit from Uncle,” Daisuke mused.  Saito had arrived late one night to pay his respects when he had arrived in Kyoto.  Daisuke well remembered the look on Saito’s face when the topic of Kaoru had come up.

 

“What do you mean you let the girl go?” Saito fumed.  It had been a long journey, he had to deal with an unpleasant business in Kobe and this was the cherry on top of his rotten day.  He had been hoping to at least get a decent meal and a bed to sleep on since he had arrived so late into town.

Miku calmly sipped on the tea that the servants had prepared for her in Saito while Daisuke sat in the room watching the two of them with great interest wondering how the scene was going to play out. 

Just that,” Miku responded coolly, “she received information about her ‘friend’ and I let her follow up on that.  Don’t worry, the girl is fine.”  Miku waved off his concern.

“Did she not tell you that there are killers after her right now to use her in a hostage game?” Saito continued.

“She did mention something to that effect,” Miku observed.

“So how can you be so sure that she is ‘fine’?” Saito demanded.

“Simple, she is currently being protected by some of Kyoto’s oldest guardians and I know this because I’ve had them do odd jobs for me now and again.  She would the safest with them, they can make sure a person under their protection stays safe I can assure you. And if sooths your worries any, I did go and visit her the other day and she is well and content where she is currently.”

Saito glared at her for a long time and Daisuke was unsure what was going on behind his narrow eyes, meanwhile Miku continued to sip her tea without concern.  “Now to the more important business,” Miku’s voice turned serious, “what bring you to Kyoto in the dead of night and asking these questions about the daughter of an old acquaintance of ours?”

“You know what I do Miku, use your imagination.”

Miku’s eyes turned flat as she contemplated his words.  “How bad is it?”

“If I do my job properly, the world goes on without a hitch.”

“And if something goes wrong?”

Saito pulled out a cigarette and lit it, “then it’s the Revolution all over again, only worse.”

Miku set her tea cup down, “then you better do your job properly and stop worrying about ‘lost little girls’ then.”

 

“You think things are really that bad like Uncle Goro mentioned?” Daisuke asked with a hint of concern.  He may not know everything that Saito did, or have as full of an understanding of the man as Miku did, but he did know that Saito was the man that the government used to deal with problems that no one else could solve, the kind of problems that required his keen mind and a sword. 

“He isn’t one to exaggerate, if he say’s it’s bad then it’s bad.” Miku responded.  She lifted her head as she heard a slight commotion in the house, before she or Daisuke could investigate, a servant slid back a door to the room.

“Your pardon my lady, but there are police officers here who wish to speak with you.”  The servant informed her.

Miku’s face hardened, she knew her suspicions were about to be confirmed now, “Very well send them in.”

***

An hour later everyone had assembled in the courtyard of the Aoi-ya waiting for orders.  Well to be more precise, I think Yahiko and I are the only ones who needed to be given orders, everyone else seems to know what they are doing.  Kaoru thought as she looked around at the group, the sun was starting to set and the black clothes of the Oniwanbanshu members would allow them to perfectly blend into the night, meanwhile Kaoru and Yahiko stuck out like sore thumbs compared to the others.

“All right everyone,” Misao began as they assembled.  “We stick together in groups and control our sector with the help of our allies.  Shiro, Omasu, and Okon, you get sectors 1 and 5.”

“Yes Okashira,” the three intoned together.

“Masaru, Kuro, and Hideyoshi, you three will get sectors 2 and 3.”  Misao ordered.

“Yes Okashira,” the three men agreed.

Misao turned to Kaoru and Yahiko, “you two are with me, we’re taking sectors 4 and 6.”  She turned back to the others.  “If you have any problems send it by pigeon, the relay point is the Aoi-ya,” she turned her attention to the two boys’.  “Yuuto and Sora, you two will relay any messages and look after Okina.  Remember that if there is an attack on the Aoi-ya, you two are to get out of here, take the tunnels.  Get Okina if you can, but if you can’t,” Misao paused for a bit.  The boy’s faces got very serious for a moment.

“Tomorrow is another day to fight, but you must first make it through the night,” Hideyoshi quoted an old saying of the Oniwanbanshu.  The boys nodded, understanding the meaning of the old proverb, that sometimes sacrifices had to be made so that one could fight anew later on. 

“We’ve got something to help,” Sora piped up quickly, hoping to change the topic to something less dark.  “Yuuto and I have been working on something that may help with tonight’s mission.”

“What’s that?” Shiro asked, looking at his son’s in curiosity.  The boys reached into the tunics, pulled out small grenades, and held them out for the others to see.

Kuro sighed and rubbed his forehead, “thanks guys, but we will be trying to put out fires, not start them.”

“That’s what they are for, they are the Fire Stopper Bombs we’ve been working on,” Yuuto replied quickly.  “Here we’ll show you.”  Quickly the boys ran into the inn and came out with a lit torch in hand.  While Sora held the torch, Yuuto pulled out one of the small grenades and threw it straight at the torch.  Once the grenade hit the heat of the flame it exploded, covering Sora and the torch with a white powder and the fire went out in an instant.

The boys turned and grinned at the adults, proud of their accomplishment.  “So what do you think?” the asked together.

Everyone blinked for a moment, “what is in those things?” Omasu asked in wonder.

“While you start like you are making a regular flash bomb with the covering and all,” Yuuto began.

“Only the chemicals inside are different, see you take some ammonia…” Sora started.

“And then what?” their mother prompted. 

The boy’s faces suddenly turned devious, “and the rest is transmitted orally.”

“Huh?” Kaoru asked in surprised, what do they mean by that, aren’t they telling us the recipe orally now?

Shiro sighed, “you two are still upset that I wouldn’t tell the final steps in making your own 4-Sun Fuse Cylinder aren’t you?”

The boys shifted their feet as the grinned up at their father, “not anymore, we came up with something even better.”

“Okay, we can deal with you two playing with chemicals and bombs later, for now, answer me one thing, can you make more of those Fire Stopper Bombs?” Misao asked excitedly.

The boys nodded.  “We’ve been getting everything prepped while the rest of you were getting ready, we can make them no problem, but how are we going to get them out?  We only have a few of them already ready to give out.”

Misao chewed her lips as she mauled it over, damn it, we are already stretched thin enough as it, with three people having to cover 2 whole sectors.  We don’t have enough to have runners too.

As if answer to an unspoken prayer there was a voice calling out from the front of the inn and everyone turned in shock.  “I’ll handle this,” Masaru stepped forward.  He disappeared back into the inn and was gone for several minutes before he came back out on the porch and called to Misao, “Okashira, I may have a solution to our problem.”

In curiosity, Misao hurried and joined Masaru leaving the others waiting in the courtyard.  “What is it?” Misao asked as he led her back into the front entrance room of the inn where the newcomers waited. 

Masaru showed her into the room, “this is Asahi-san, he is one of the men who work for Lady Miku Okazaki and these are some of his men,” Masaru introduced the imposing looking man and the escort with him, Misao could tell at a glance that all the men were carrying hidden weapons and she assumed that they were some sort of guards and not ordinary servants.  “Asahi-san, please forgive us that Okina could not greet you personally but I’m afraid he is not well at present.  This is Misao,” Masaru introduced her. 

“What brings you here Asahi-san?” Misao asked.

Asahi’s dark eyes looked to Masaru as if to confirm it was all right to speak before Masaru gave him a slight nod. “As I was explaining to Masaru-san here,” Asahi started to explain.  “My Lady had a police squad show up at her home asking if they could use it for the night as a relay station if needed due to reports that there may be some disturbances in the city.  My Lady allowed it but also wanted to do something else to help, since she was sure that your group here might have heard what is going on, the police were tight lipped about what the disturbances they spoke would be, so she sent us here to learn the truth if you know and to offer our assistance if needed.”

Misao cocked her head at the man, she knew that Lady Miku was a favored client of the Oniwanbanshu.  “There might be something I think you could help with.” Misao mused.  She looked to Masaru who nodded, clearly, he had already thought the same thing. 

“There is currently a group that wishes to burn Kyoto to the ground,” Masaru explained bluntly to Asahi and his men.  “While the police are prepared to deal with the men themselves, we are currently organizing our group to deal with the issue of the fires.  We have some items that can be prepared to help control the spread of the fires, however they can only be made here and we are spread thin as to how to distribute them, Misao here was put in charge of the runners and was trying to come up with a solution to this problem.”

“But if you could help, we can have you carry these items out to our agents in the field,” Misao finished.

Asahi’s eyes widen and there were a few gasps from the men at the news, they all looked to their leader, Asahi took only seconds to absorb the news and make his decision.  “That is a simple enough task for us, are you sure that is all you require of us?”

 “That should be more than enough,” Masaru bowed to the men.  “If you come with me, I can explain the system to you, Misao, informed the others of what has happened.”  With that, Masaru led the men into the inn to explain the system and where they would be taking the supplies to.

Meanwhile Misao ran out into the courtyard, certain that Masaru would see to the details on filling in the Asahi and the other guards.  “Hey guys, we got runners!” she yelled as she ran into the courtyard before filling them on what happened and laying out the revised plans for the night.

***

In Osaka Bay, a fleet of vessels were docked at the port.  Yumi looked around in curiosity wondering which of these vessels was the famed Purgatory that she had heard Shishio speak so fondly of.  So it was to no great surprise when they stopped at none of the graceful and elegant ships that they passed, but what Yumi thought had to be the oldest and ugliest looking ship in the whole of Japan.   As the ropes were lowered from the ship and they started the preparations to lift the skip up to the deck, Yumi chewed her lip as she surveyed the ship up close.  Even by the feeble lights hanging in the ship and those scattered around the port on other ships, plus the light of the waning moon, a slender crescent in the sky, she could see the deep cracks and gashes in the wood.  She wasn’t sure how the ship was still floating, much less how it would ever get them as far as Tokyo. 

The skiff was brought up to the level of the deck and Hoji was waiting for them.  He offered a hand to Shishio to help him onto the ship, which Shishio pointedly ignored as he easily step over onto the deck.  Sojiro was next and took Hoji’s hand as he gracefully swung himself over onto the deck.  Shishio turned and held his hand out for Yumi.  She took it, with slight misgivings about setting foot on so ungainly a vessel, and joined him on the deck.  

The men on the other hand, seemed to have no misgivings about the ship.  Sojiro looked around, his false smile firmly planted on his young face.  “Excuse me Shishio-sama, but aren’t you worried that Himura-san will be able to find this ship?” he asked in curiosity.  “After all we can never be too careful with a clever man like him around.”

Shishio shook his head, “even if he manages to sniff us out there is nothing he can do to stop us now.  The only way he can stop us is to sink the ship, and that won’t be accomplished with a broken sword.”

Sojiro gave a little laugh, “well I guess that’s true, the ship is sturdier than she looks.”

Yumi looked around, she was the first to admit that she knew nothing about sailing or the sea, but she wasn’t sure what the men saw in this ship that she didn’t.  Shishio caught the expression on her face.

“Is something wrong Yumi?” Shishio asked.

“While I am very honored that you decided to bring me along on the assault of Tokyo which was kept secret even from the Juppongatana.  But do you really think that this broken down old boat will actually make it to Tokyo?”  She asked honestly.  It looks like one roll of the sea will sink this heap of lumber.

She expected her words to anger Shishio who was clearly proud of this ship.  Instead, he grinned at her words and cocked his head at her.  “Tell me Yumi, did you fall in love with me for my looks?”

She tilted her head at him in confusion.  “What?” she asked, not sure what he was talking about.

“You fall in love with what is inside me didn’t you?” Shishio continued.  He took her arm and led her to the cabin door leading below deck that was opened quickly by one of the masked guards.  “Then you should have a chance to see what lies beneath the Purgatory’s skin as well, before you make hasty decisions about her.”

Yumi followed Shishio inside and she gasped at what she saw, sure her eyes must be playing tricks on her, she looked to Shishio who was grinning wider at her.  She turned back to the sight before her and her heart skipped a few beats, how could I ever doubt Shishio-sama, of course he has thought this out more than those dogs of the government could have ever thought possible. 

“This is the true face of the Rengoku… the “Purgatory”.”  Shishio told her in a sure voice.  “Tell me Yumi, is this worthy of your love?”

Yumi turned to him, her face flushed, “yes,” she breathed at him.  She wrapped her arms around his and rested her head against his shoulder, “can we set sail now?” she purred at him.  “And put an end to this hated government know as the Meiji?”

Shishio smirked at her sudden change in demeanor, “don’t be so hasty,” he looked over his shoulder and addressed Hoji who had joined them.  “What time is it?”

Hoji pulled out his pocket watch and studied it for a moment, “it is 22 minutes past 11 o’clock.” He answered promptly before shutting the watch with a snap and putting it back into his pocket.  “Only 37 minutes until the fires are set and the Rengoku sets sail, 37 minutes before it all comes together,” he smiled at his lord.

“Well then. Let make ready for our maiden voyage then,” Shishio replied, “we wouldn’t want to disappoint the government that has been waiting for us for the past 5 years after all.”

***

Kenshin and Saito sat in the carriage still in deep conversation as the sun outside had long since set and the carriage continued its journey to Osaka.  Saito checked his watch before glancing outside to assess how much longer till they reached Osaka.  He sighed and pulled out a cigarette and lit it, Kenshin wonder briefly just how many cigarettes that Saito went through during a day. 

“As I thought, we will make it to Osaka at least half an hour past midnight at this rate, which means we won’t have much time to search all the vessels.  So Battosai,” he turned his deep eyes on Kenshin.  “How do we find them quickly before they set sail?”

Kenshin had already been turning over that dilemma in his head, “I learned two things fighting in the revolution, two things that are essential to the work of a Hitokiri.  The first was the ability to blend into the darkness, and the second to blend into the crowd.  Of all the Hitokiri of the Revolution, it was Shishio who took my place, and so the way I would have carried this out is the same as he.  I would use both methods to hide a ship that I meant to wage war against the government with.  The first condition I think we can agree has been met,” Kenshin nodded to the darkness outside, “but the second… he will most likely be anchored amongst the other merchant vessels, to the untrained eyes his vessel will appear as any other merchant vessel.”

Saito continued to smoke his cigarette, “so how do we know which one it will be?” he prompted when it was clear Kenshin was done talking.

Kenshin sighed, “I’m hoping that I will be able to tell once we get there, that I am.”

Saito flicked away the ashes, “Gods help us,” he fairly moaned.  We could use all the help we can get at the moment.

Chapter Text

Chapter 10

The Kyoto Grand Fire

Up on a hilltop overlooking the twinkling lights of the city of Kyoto that continued to burn even in the approaching graveyard hours of the night, stood a group of men who looked over the city, looking for the slightest hint that all was not as peaceful as it appeared.  One of them pulled out a watch and checked the time.  “It’s time,” they announced as the clock hands struck midnight.  Everyone peered harder at the city but there were no signs that anything was out of the ordinary.  Patiently they waited, when it was 20 minutes later, one had had enough.  “Where are the fires?”  Henya demanded from where he stood among the branches of the tree, his black clock firmly wrapped around himself.  “They are late.”

Kamatari waited with her scythe resting against her shoulder.  She was wearing her customary kimono and obi in the female fashion and to most, appeared as another woman, only those who knew her however knew that she wasn’t, but knew better than to refer to her as a man or face her wrath.  “Patience Henya, fires need a little time to get started, that’s all.”

Usui stood apart from the others, seemingly unconcerned with proceedings, his demeanor was only matched by Anji who kneeled on the ground his hands folded and head bowed as though in prayer or mediation.  Iwanbo sat against the tree picking his teeth.  Saizuchi stood next to Kamatari stroking his mustache while behind him in the shadows lurked his other half, Fuji.

Henya seemed the only one whose patience was growing thin as time wore on.  Finally, a group of masked men came running up the hill and the group turned in curiosity as some of Hoji’s troops approached them.  One of the men came forward and he pulled down his mask as he addressed the group, panting from the run.  “My Lords,” he spoke in a puff, still gasping for air from his run.

Kamatari turned towards him, “report,” she demanded. 

“There are too many police all over Kyoto,” he gasped out.  “The 1st unit can’t act!”

“Or the 2nd,” added another man who ran up behind the first.

“Lady Kamatari, the third unit is…”  Started a third man who joined the others.

Kamatrai swung her scythe down in front of herself in frustration, cutting the man off.  “Uggh, you men are useless,” she screamed at them.  “How hard can it be to set a few simple fires?”

Usui walked up next to her, “no matter,” he soothed over calmly.  “It just means a slight change of plans.  We will have to create a diversion and allow you men to do your work.  Together we should be able to break the police lines.”

Anji raised his head at that moment, “Usui,” he remonstrated in his deep voice.  “The Juppongatana are to carry out the assassination of the government officials, civilians and police officers are not our targets.”

Usui smirked a little at Anji’s words, “whether by our swords or the fires themselves, they will die anyways, what does it matter?”  Anji glared at the blind man.  Usui, despite his lack of sight seemed to realize that he would get no help from Anji in the matter.  “I won’t force you,” he told the monk.  “I’ll take care of it.”  He started to walk off leaving the others behind him.

Kamatari’s eyes widen a little at the change of events before she sighed and swung her scythe over her shoulder and started after Usui, “I suppose we have no choice, we wouldn’t want to disappoint Lord Shishio after all.”

Saizuchi scoffed at the change of plans, “Fuji and I decline to help, we shall wait until the fires start to carry out are part of the original plan.”

Iwanbo got to his feet, his rotund belly pushing at the seams of his hori.  “I’ll help,” he announced loudly though no one looked his direction.

Henya jumped down from the tree as he walked off to join Usui and Kamatari, “stay here idiot, you’ll just get in our way.

“Oh okay,” Iwanbo sat back down by the tree, grinning stupidly and started scratching his belly, seemingly unconcerned with events around him. 

Anji watched the other’s walk off with a sense of foreboding as Usui disappeared into the night. 

***

The Police Chief of Kyoto turned as one of his junior officers ran up to him and saluted.  “Report,” the Chief barked at him. 

“We have received word that the 3rd and 7th unit has been able to hold back the assaults so far.  The 4th unit has taken some losses, some areas started burning but they were able to suppress the arsonists and keep the fires from spreading, just some storage buildings with minor damages.  There is still fighting with the 1st, 2nd, 6th, and 9th units.  The 5th and 8th units have reported no disturbances yet.”  The Officer reported.

The Chief’s eyes narrowed, “it’s too quiet so far, things are about the change, get any wounded back to the hospital and stay on alert.  We surprised them by our presence but not for long.”

“Yes sir!” the officer saluted before he ran off to carry out his orders. 

***

The 9th unit stood their ground as the group of masked men approached them.  Several officers had lined up on the street and were firing their rifles and pistols at the approaching them, mowing down the front row of the masked men before they were even aware that the police were there. 

“Fire!” screamed the officer in charge, “Don’t let these intruders come any further!”

When the guns were emptied into the oncoming assault there was no hesitation on the part of the police as the masked men sensed a moment of relief that was short lived.  “Sword unit charge!” shouted the officer in charge.

The masked men turned in alarm as from down side streets came charging in a sword wielding police corps. 

“There’s too many of them!” one of the masked men yelled.

“Run for it!” another added and most of them broke and ran back to safety.  But they didn’t make it far, suddenly a whole line of the men who was fleeing was cut down, blood sprayed the area and even the police paused as newcomer walked onto the scene leaving a trail of bodies and blood in their wake.  “You can run if you like,” Kamatari announced in a ringing voice.  “But you live only if you can make it past me and my death scythe.  She licked her lips as she surveyed the masked men who quaked as they realized they were stuck between a likely slaughter and certain death.  She shifted her scythe around, ready for the next attack.  “So does anyone else want to run or do you want to fight now?”  She asked with a devilish smile.

The masked men shook and the policemen eyes widened as they realized the true ruthlessness of this group who would cut down their own men without a second thought.  Reaching an unspoken decision, the masked men turned and ran towards the policemen with their weapons held high, choosing a likely slaughter over certain death that was represented by Kamatari the Great Scythe. 

Behind them Kamatrai straighten a little as she stepped forward to help the men in their fight against the police, “good choice pawns,” she purred at the men before she swept her scythe through the air, adding the blood of police officers to the blood of her men. 

***

In another section of town, the masked men were pushed back as the police were able to break their lines and they started fleeing.  Suddenly a shadow swooped down on the men and a group of them went down screaming as they were cut through by the shadow.  The other men drew back in fear at this devil as the shadow swooped up and landed in a bell tower over the city. 

“What are you doing?” a man’s voice rang out over the night.

“It’s Lord Henya,” one of the masked men gasped in recognition of voice. 

“Pawns like you should be afraid of death, but just like pawns you are only allowed to move forward, going backwards means certain death,” he rasped out at them and the men shivered at the implications in his words. 

The leader of the masked men gathered his courage, realizing that unless they broke the police lines they had no hope of living, for death stood at their back.  “Men, together!” he shouted.  “Charge!”

The police however were not daunted, many of them had been former soldiers in the Bakumatsu and were prepared to defend the city at all costs.  “Hold the line, stop them here!” the officer ordered. 

***

In a dark alleyway, far away from where the fighting was taking place on the streets as the police and Shishio’s men exchanged blows, a small group of the masked men shuffled silently.  One grabbed the other’s sleeve, “this should do, no one will notice the fires until it’s too late.  Quick, while the main unit keeps the police busy.”

The other nodded to the first one.  He nodded to one of the men behind him who hurried over with a dark lantern and the quickly pushed back on of the shutters just enough to reach a wick into the candle within and light the wick.  Then turning to where the others had drizzled some lantern oil over crates in the alleyway, the one with the wick tossed it onto the crates.  The fire blazed up and the men turned and started running away when the shutters of one of the buildings pushed open and an incredibly old and wrinkled looking women looked out over them as the light of the lamp behind her filled the alleyway and temporarily blinded the men whose eyes had grown accustomed to the dark. 

“FIRE!”  the old woman screamed.  “ARSON!  They are over here!”

Before the men could react, there was the sound of running feet and the men turned in fear to the two ends of the alleyway as suddenly a large group of men armed with poles and clubs lined both entrances. 

“Where, where are the arsonists?” they demanded before their eyes alighted on the masked men with steely glares.

Before the masked men could even wonder why so many people were awake so late at night, let alone armed in this area of town that was mainly warehouses.  A small figure leapt off the roof of one of the buildings lining the alleyway, with a flick of the wrist they tossed something small into the fire the men had lit which exploded, showering a white powder over the area and putting out the fire they had gone through such trouble to start.  After flicking the bombs at the fire, the figure twisted their body to kick two of the men in the head, one with each foot, before they hit the ground.  They crouched down once their feet hit the ground, before the other men even realized that they were there.  The men at either end of the alleyway surged forward while the small figure sprung up, grabbing one masked man by the shoulder and rammed his face into the wall.  She twisted in to a sidekick and caught one of them in the ribs before the other men reached them.  Once the other men reached them they made short work of the masked men, quickly tying them up.

Misao straighten up as she surveyed the work.  “Good job men!” she congratulated the men, they were allies of the Onwanbanshu combined with volunteers for the night who had heard that there might be trouble and volunteered to stand watch.  “Place these men with the others in 3rd warehouse, we can get them to the police in the morning when things calm down.  For now, head back to your stations and keep watch, there will be more of them!”

“Right!”  the men agreed, pleased with the progress so far.  Misao grinned before she leaped back onto the rooftops and disappeared into the night leaving the arsonists in the hands of the citizens whose homes they had tried to burn. 

***

In another part of town, another group of masked men had broken off as they searched for a quiet place to start a fire.  They moved through the shadows of the buildings.

“Who’s there?” a woman gasped suddenly and the masked men looked up in surprise to see a young woman clenching a basket of something to her chest and looking around in fear.  “Is someone there?” she gasped.

The masked men studied the women for a moment, it was hard to make out much of her in the darkness which was broken only by the light of a single street lamp, except for her brightly colored kimono, but it was clear she was young and alone, they grinned to themselves.  One of them leaned over to another, “you think we have time to have a little of fun?” he asked.  The other man thought about it for a second before nodding and gesturing the men forward.  The women glanced around, sensing something was wrong as the men moved towards her as silent as death. 

“Hello?  Is someone there?”  She asked into a night that did not answer.

Suddenly one of the men who had gotten within a few feet of her leapt out to grab her, one hand brushed her face and she screamed before suddenly the man was jerked back into a pole and his arms twisted so hard that it dislocated one shoulder and he screamed in pain. 

“I don’t like men who try to take advantage of women,” a woman’s hard voice echoed as two of the men collapsed to the ground, kunai in their backs.

“Why you!” one of the men screamed as he turned and saw a woman step out with her long hair tied back into a simple ponytail, wearing simple black clothes that had hidden her from sight.  Three of the remaining men jumped towards the newcomer, forgetting all about the young girl who had been their initial target.  They never reached the woman, one man went down as his foot triggered a hidden trap when a hidden weight sprung up and struck him at knee height, breaking his knee.  The other two men were dropped to the ground, one with an arrow through the heart, the second with an arrow through the throat.

The young girl dropped her basket, and pulled off her kimono reveling her dark clothes underneath.  “Well that takes care of one group Okon.”  Omasu commented.

“Nice traps sister,” Okon compliment as the man with the broken knee withered on the ground.  And you rigged that up with only a weight, stick, and a hair pin?  I never know how you come up with those things.”

“Well there were a few more odds and ins to it, but that was the major components.” Omasu agreed before she looked up to the dark rooftops where beyond her sight her husband waited at a good vantage point with a bow in hand.

Several men came running around the corner and Okon and Omasu looked up, recognizing them as some of the volunteers.  “We got a couple more of them, take care of this, we have to move on now,” Omasu ordered.

“Yes ma’am,” the men stepped forward quickly before Okon and Omsau jumped back to the rooftops to rejoin Shiro from his vantage point.

“Thank you for the backup dear,” Omasu kissed Shiro on the cheek.  Shiro meanwhile, looked out over the streets, an eye out for more trouble.  “There’s another group moving over to the waterways.”

“Time to go to work them,” Okon stated as the three of them moved like shadows in the night to the next location.

***

At the Aio-ya the twins were frantically mixing up more Fire Stopping Bombs.  One of them worked mixing the chemicals into the proper proportions for the chemical reaction that resulted in final chemical composition that the other used to fill the bombs.  “We’re running low on phosphoric acid,” Sora looked up to his brother. 

Yuuto bit his lip, “and that is all we had mixed up, we don’t have time to make more tonight.”

“Maybe we could raid a lab, they might have more,” Sora responded practically.

“If Mom and Dad find out we’re dead.” Yuuto pointed out.

“And who’s going to tell them?” Sora reasoned.  “The whole city might go up in smoke if we can’t make enough, so what is a little looting in comparison?”

Yuuto thought about it for a minute.  “You do have a point brother, but what about the ones we can make up in the meantime?”

Sora looked around before he got an idea and ran out of the room to where the men that Lady Miku had sent were waiting for the next group.

“Have you prepared another batch?” Asahi asked the boy. 

Sora neither knew nor cared what these men thought about taking orders from a child like him, well not really take orders, just deliver the stuff we make.  “We’ve run into a problem, we’re running low on one of our key ingredients.  We have some more that are ready to prepare, come with me, we can show you how to measure the powder and pack it into the bombs so you can work on that while my brother and I take care of getting more ingredients.”

The Asahi’s eyebrows rose at this before Sora grabbed his hand and dragged him back into the makeshift lab the boys had set up.  “If you need more ingredients then my men or I can see to it if you just let us know what you need.”

“Our ingredients are very specific and we can’t waste time if you accidently get the wrong stuff, better that my brother and I take care of it.”  Sora told him.  “Now just listen up.”  In a matter of minutes, Sora and Yuuto organized the men into those measuring the powder they had managed to make into the bombs while the others sealed it.  Once the boys were certain that the men knew what to do, they turned to Asahi.  “We’ll be going now, once you finish filling those you know where to take them, we’ll be back soon.”

The men nodded before Sora turned to his brother and with a wink they disappeared into the night to procure the necessary ingredients.  “Remember brother, if Mom or Dad asks about this….” Sora started.

“We left the money to pay for it out of the little we earned running errands for customers,” Yuuto soothed over. 

“Agreed.” 

***

The masked men ran from the scene as the fire blazed up behind them, rapidly consuming the dry wood of the shed.  They hurried to find another location to set another fire, they rounded a corner and the first two men were knocked to the ground by a well aimed blow from a sansetsukon.  Hideyoshi flicked the sansetsukon back, dislocating the sections before changing forward to strike at a third of the masked men.  While Hideyoshi struck from the front, Kuro barreled in from the rear, coming up a side street, he charged amongst the ranks of the enemy, knocking them down with the tekko attached to his fists.  From the rooftop above them Masaru jumped down with a drawn katana and between the three of them they brought down all of the masked men with ease.  The fires were a different matter.

“Quick, you two get to the next location, we have to stop the next fire before it’s lit, I’ll take care of this one,” Masaru ordered.

“Right!” Hideyoshi and Kuro responded before they took off running to the next location they had seen the masked men scouting. 

Masaru meanwhile lost no time, turning on his heel he ran back to where the fire was becoming a full blaze, as he ran he pulled out a small whistle from under his tunic and blew on it, it made no sound but from the distance the sound of a dog barking could be heard.  As Masaru reached the fire the sound of the dog barking got closer as Masaru stood in front of the blaze that was rapidly becoming an inferno. 

He pulled out the three Fire Stopping Bombs that he had left, damn, this won’t be enough by themselves, he swore.  Regardless, he threw the three into the blaze and they exploded, putting out part of the fire but it was by then too strong to be completely extinguished.

From around the corner the barking dog came around, attached to the lead around its neck was one of the allies of the Oniwanbanshu with a squad of men behind him.  Masaru turned to them, “Quick, we need water to put out the rest of the blaze, keep it from spreading, you two,” Masaru pointed at two of the men in the back, “head to the section 2 rally point, we need more of the Fire Stopper Bombs, grab them and meet me by the Lucky Dragon Tea House.  Understood?”

“Yes sir!” the men agreed as most of them hurried forward grabbing the small buckets they had tied to their waist as they hurried to the nearest well to draw water and start dousing the remaining fire.  The two that Masaru had pointed at immediately ran off to get the requested items.  Masaru wasted no time, he hurried down the street before he got back into one of the main thoroughfares, running until he reached a point where they were several boxes stacked against a building, using them he jumped up to the roof and ran along the rooftops, partly for ease of moment, but mostly for the better vantage point.  He looked around for any other signs of fire, hoping that he would find none before he rendezvoused with the others. 

For a while, it seemed as though his silent prayer would be answered until suddenly he saw a blaze flare up to his right.  Cursing to himself, he skidded to a stop as he turned and started running towards the blaze, pulling out his whistle to call more allies to his location as he hurried to the fire, wishing he had more of the twins bombs with him at the moment.  Thank the gods we have kept our networks all these years and have so many allies, else there is no way we could stop all these fires and keep Kyoto from burning. 

***

In the home that had started out as a section headquarters but had quickly turned into a makeshift hospital, men were being brought in on stretchers or being carried by friends and comrades from the fighting on the street, the doctors and aids were hard-pressed to keep up with the demand.  One of the officers who was being sent out through the city to collect reports on the status of various locations to report to the chief, who was coordinating the defense of Kyoto, hurried into the section headquarters/hospital to assess the situation and deliver any additional supplies if needed for the care of the wounded.  He spotted the head doctor and made his way there as quickly as possible. 

“How are things here, are you in need of anything?” the officer asked quickly as the doctor was stitching up a stab wound as two aids were holding down the screaming man.  The officer tried not to look, feeling queasy at the sight of so much blood and gore.

“Less patients,” the doctor snapped, annoyed that he was being interrupted.  “And don’t just stand there, either get out of the way or help!” he continued, thoroughly annoyed with having un-helping bystanders in his hospital. 

The officer quickly stepped back, feeling even more out of place than he did before.  He looked around at the rows of wounded men being treated, or the blankets being pulled over their heads before aids carried them out into the area being used as a temporary morgue.  He spotted a richly dressed women among those treating the more minor injuries and a young youth who looked to be 16-17 at most helping the aids in carrying stretchers and fetching things.  “Who are they?”  The officer asked in curiosity, glancing at the odd pair who seemed out of place in the hospital.  “They are not part of your staff are they?”

The doctor glanced up for a moment as he finished stitching and washed the blood off his hands before he moved on to the next patient.  “No, they the owners of this home, they and their servants have stayed to help us instead of seeking shelter elsewhere, now move, you’re in the way,” with that the doctor rudely pushed the officer out of the way and moved on to the next patient, ignoring his presence. 

The officer was momentarily annoyed by his treatment from the head doctor but that was quickly replaced by curiosity about this odd pair in the hospital.  He quickly moved over to the woman’s side as she washed the remaining blood away off a middle-aged police man’s arm that had been stitched and bandaged.  “Excuse ma’am, we thank you for the use f your home but why are you still here, surly you were told to seek shelter elsewhere for the night when they told you we would be using this home for the police?”

The woman glanced briefly at the officer, noting his rank and seeming unconcerned.  “My name is Miku Okazaki and with respect, I stayed because I knew you men would need some help and it appears that I was right.”

“You take that tone with me?” the officer fumed, insulted that a woman would speck down to him.

Miku flashed a haughty look at the officer, annoyed that he was interrupting her as she washed out the blood soaked rag she had been using, she picked up the bowl of water and started moving on to the next patient with the officer trailing after her.  “I currently run the affairs of the Okazaki Clan and I will speak to you in way that I so please when you are interrupting me.”

“And that boy who is here, is he part of your house as well?” the officer seethed, looking at the teenager with a significant glance.

Miku didn’t even bother to look up towards her nephew, “yes he is, that is my nephew and charge, now if you are done being annoying I suggest you see to your other duties, I’m sure you have something more important to do right now than questioning someone who is helping.  Perhaps stopping these thugs who are the cause of this would be a good place to start.”

The officer puffed up with indignation about the way Miku was treating him and he grabbed her arm, forcing her to look at him.  “I beg pardon ma’am.  But if I wish to question you I am well within my right.”

Miku glared at the officer, restraining with great effort from rolling her eyes at the man as she jerked her arm out of his grasp.  “Why are you here in the first place?”

“To assess the status of the hospital and report to the Chief.” The officer responded promptly.

Miku’s beautiful face became fixed as she assessed the man before her, “well now that you have a chance to assess the status here you should report to the Chief shouldn’t you?  And do not call me ‘ma’am’, you shall address me as either Okazaki-sama or Okazaki-dono, understood?”

“But I still questioning you ma’am,” the officer drawled over the ‘ma’am’, not willing to give an inch to this women.

Miku’s face hardened, she had a thousand things to do and this man was keeping her from her work, her nephew looked over and she could see Daisuke’s face get worried about the situation as he left his duties and started making his way over to his aunt.  “Since you are clearly an ignorant fool that does not know who I am I suggest that you report to the Chief at once and I shall forget your rudeness.  If you continue to interfere with me I shall make a formal report to your superiors when this is over with and I do not think that will end well for you.”  Miku threatened. 

“Aunt Miku, is something wrong?” Daisuke asked as he made his way over to his aunt’s side and glanced at the officer who had gone red in the face at Miku’s threat.

“How dare you-” the officer was never even given a chance to reply before the head doctor suddenly realized that he was still there and interfering with one of his volunteers. 

“What are you still doing here, get on with your own duties and get the hell out of my hospital and stop harassing my people!” the doctor roared.  He turned to a couple of his aids.  “Escort this officer out of here since he has apparently forgotten where the door is and let’s all get back to work.”

Sputtering the officer was escorted out with an aid on both arm.  Indignant, he was determined to report his findings to the Chief and hoped that he would be allowed to come back and deal with the situation at the hospital and the blow to his pride and position he had suffered that night.

***

Down yet another one of the endless dark alleyways in Kyoto a group of masked men huddled as they tried to set one of the fires they were tasked to light all over the city. 

“Hey what do you think you’re doing back here?” came a young boy’s voice.  The men looked up to one end of the alleyway to see a boy, short for his age with a shinai perched over his shoulder.  “You’re Shishio’s men aren’t you?” the boy asked, without waiting for a response he charged forward with his shinai drawn back for the attack.

The men sneered, thinking that a kid would be easy to deal with so they could get back to the task at hand.  That thought lasted up until the bamboo shaft of the shinai collided with the chests, arms, legs, and anywhere else that the boy could strike with surprising force given the slight frame of their attacker.

“You little brat,” one of the men snarled as he pulled out his wicked looking blade and charged the boy.

The boy didn’t hesitate, he just turned and ran, then men thinking he was fleeing, ran after him in fury, not realizing that he was deliberately leading them on.  “I’ve got some live ones!” the boy yelled out to the night.

The men didn’t even stop to think, they ran straight out into one of the main thoroughfares as the boy skidded to a halt at the other end of the street, shinai resting over his shoulder as he observed the men before them.

The boy’s confidence and audacity annoyed every one of the masked men and they charged forward, wanting to put an end to this blazon child who had attacked them, none of them realized until too late that the boy was not the only one in the street. 

As the men charged forward, the chain of a kusarigama whipped out and wrapped itself around one of the men before the kama imbedded itself into the shoulder of another man with a scream.  A ko-naginata suddenly swung in amongst the group, driving one man back into another before they both went down in a tangled heap before the ko-naginata was slashed to the side striking another man in the chest and he collapsed to the ground.  The masked men looked around in fright at the sudden attack, afraid that the police had found them.  They were even more surprised to find that their attackers were not police after all, instead it was a young woman dressed in a simple kimono and hakama, and another dressed in a dark tunic as she expectedly wielded the kusarigama, keeping all her attackers at bay.  While the masked men were frozen for a moment realizing that they were being attacked not by harden officers but by women and children, the boy charged back in and with his help the three quickly put down all of the masked men. 

“Okashira, Okashira!”

A group of men came running up to them, behind them they half pushed, half dragged another group of masked men with them.  “We caught some more over by the market place!”

Misao grinned at the men as she freed her kuserigama chain from where it was wrapped around one of them masked men and gripped both kama’s in her hand.  “Great, take these guy’s with you too.  And stay on alert, there’s going to be more of them, protect the people and put out any fires!”

“Yes Okashira!” the men happily agreed as they quickly added the down masked men to their group of prisoners.  Misao turned back to Kaoru and Yahiko with a grin asked, “you two ready to head to the next area?”

“Yeah!” Yahiko agreed, feeling a rush of adrenaline from the night’s events.  We can do this, we can protect Kyoto.  Shishio won’t win tonight with us on guard!

“All right let’s move out!” Misao ordered as she turned with a swish of her long braid behind her she took off running.  She dashed up a wall to reach the rooftops overhead so she had a better view of the streets as she looked for the next target. 

Kaoru and Yahiko hurried after her on the street level, “the Oniwanbanshu are pretty popular here,” Kaoru commented mildly.  She had been surprised by the open friendliness of the network of people that the Aoi-ya had built up in their time in Kyoto, all of who seemed faithfully devoted to the secret ninja clan despite their shadowy background and fearsome reputations as the former defenders of Edo Castle. 

“Yeah, it’s hard to believe their ninja’s,” Yahiko agreed, as they came to a halt, above them Misao stopped as she reached a high vantage point and looked around to see anymore groups of intruders and assessing the status of the policemen fighting in the area.  She had been keeping them away from the groups of police fighting, in case they were mistaken as being part of Shishio’s group and attacked by the police, and keeping an eye out for any of Shishio’s men that broke away from the group to try and start a fire and begin the burning of Kyoto. 

“Okina-san and the others chose this life, and here is the fruit of the 5 years of labor building up the trust and respect of the people of Kyoto,” Kaoru added, impressed with the group.

“The strong bond that even a Gatling gun can’t break,” Yahiko observed with a keen eye.  “The real strength of the Oniwanbanshu.  It’s a different shape than before, but it’s the same heart.”

Meanwhile above them, Misao saw a group of masked men break off from their group a few streets over and she smiled a little at the next sighted target.  She glanced down to the two below her, temporarily forgetting her surroundings in the thrill of the hunt.  “Kaoru-san, Yahiko, got another group, follow me!”  Misao turned about to lead the others before she realized, too late, the presence of another with her on the rooftop.

“I was thinking it was strange that there were no fires around,” Misao’s heart stuttered in fear at a man’s deep voice right behind her and she realized her mistake in forgetting to be aware of her surroundings until too late.  She turned her head over her shoulder as the man continued.  “Who would have thought that it would be because of a little girl?”

Down below, Kaoru and Yahiko looked on in horror, knowing that they would never be able to come to Misao’s aid in time to stop the strange man, wielding a short spear with a weighted ball at the other end from plunging that spear down into Misao’s unprotected back. 

“Misao!” They screamed as the spear started its deadly plunge towards Misao who was unable to defend herself or dodge.

***

The officer who had been sent to the section headquarters/hospital finally made his way back to where the police chief was coordinating the defense of Kyoto.  “Sir,” he saluted as he addressed the Chief.  “I have a situation to report at the hospital.”

The Chief returned the salute, feeling it was unnecessarily given the current circumstances.  His eyes immediately growing concerned about the given ‘situation’ at the hospital.  “What is it?  Is the hospital under attack?”

“No sir,” the officer assured him before quickly filling him on the presence of Miku and Daisuke there and the incident that had occurred leading to him being thrown out of the hospital.  “We must do something at once about the situation sir,” the officer counseled him earnestly.  “We cannot allow the dishonor that was shown to continue.  If you would allow to me to take a few men there I can put the lady and her nephew into custody until we have a chance to sort out this situation.”

The Chief looked at the officer with wide eyes, not believing what he was hearing.  “The city is under attack by thugs intent on burning our city to the ground, men are fighting and dying in the street, and you want to arrest one of the most famed philanthropist and charitable women in the city with strong political connections to just about every reigning political figure in the city, who is only helping the wounded by allowing us to generously use her home and staff to help care for them?  Have you completely lost your mind man?” he asked honestly. 

“Sir!” The officer started to protest.

“Silence,” the Chief snapped losing his patience at the man, he had better things to deal with this than some petty matter of wounded pride.  “You are not to interfere with the Lady Miku or her nephew, if they are choosing to help us then the better for us, meanwhile I want you to report to Lieutenant Wantabe in the north end residential distract and aid the men there, perhaps you would serve better on the front lines and deal with your wounded pride there!”

The officer ground his teeth, infuriated that he was being treated this way by a superior officer but was wise enough to hold his tongue.  After he had left the Chief shook his head, some people worry about the stupidest things when the world is going to hell, he sighed before returning to the job at hand.

Chapter Text

Chapter 11

The Purgatory

From the deck of the ship Hoji stood near the rail of the ship, eyes fixed on the mountains over which laid the city of Kyoto, waiting for the faintest glimmer of light that spoke of a city on fire.  He checked his watch again as behind him, Shishio lounged on a barrel smoking his pipe and Yumi sipped on fine wine while Sojiro stood as the ever present shadow by Shishio’s side.  He checked his watch again, noting that it was almost 1 o’clock and still no signs of the fires.  “It’s late,” he snapped.  “We should be seeing the smoke rising from Kyoto already, what could possibly be taking them so long?”

Shisho however, was quite calm despite the hiccup in the plan, “relax Hoji, they are up against 5,000 police officers after all, a little delay is natural,” he pointed out logically.

“A little delay yes,” Hoji agreed with a hint of irritation still lingering in his voice.  “But even so…”

“Stop worrying so much Hoji,” Shishio counseled him.  “We still have plenty of time to wait, and it’s not like anyone is going to find us here.”

Yumi giggled a little, the fine wine going to her head and everything seemed much rosier to her at present.  She leaned over and wrapped her arms affectionately around Shishio, speaking softly in his ear, “oh Shishio-sama, don’t tell me that you’re going soft on me,” she teased, tracing her fingers across his chest, heedless of the others watching them.  “Even if it was your plan, watching your memories burn must be very hard, so you want to watch the end of it,” she reasoned with only the slightest slur in her words.

Shishio’s eyes flicked back at her, “you’ve had a bit too much Yumi,” he scolded mildly as he plucked the half empty glass out of her hand and handed it to Sojiro who quietly emptied the contents and saw to it that the bottle it had come out of was taken beyond the lady’s reach.  “Why would I be nostalgic about anything in this rotten age?” he asked bluntly.  “We are setting sail for my glory.”  He loosened himself from Yumi’s grasp as he stood up.  “The flames I’m waiting for are fireworks, fireworks to celebrate our declaration of war on this pathetic thing known as the Meiji Government.”  He took a few steps closer to where Hoji was at the rail as his eyes were fixed on the mountains.  “Even so,” he added in a milder tone than before.  “I do feel some regret putting off my fight with that man.”

Yumi tilted her head at him, is he speaking of the Battosai? She wondered. 

One of the men who was keeping watch with a telescope towards the shore suddenly lowered the telescope and turned around to address the others, “Hoji-sama!” he called out.

All eyes turned on the man, “What is it?” Hoji asked quickly, “do you see the fires yet?”

“No sir, it’s a carriage, coming this way and fast.”  The solider answered quickly.

“What?” Hoji demanded as he stepped forwarded, grabbing the telescope out of the man’s hands and looking towards the shoreline where the man pointed to see that his words were true.  There was a carriage being driven at full speed towards the deck, he looked closer as the carriage past a few street lamps he was able to see that the driver wore a police uniform, he lowered the telescope in shock, “no,” he whispered.  They can’t have guessed the true nature of our plan, they can’t have found us so easily.

***

As the carriage was making its way at breakneck speed towards the docks, the driver finally forcing the horses to their fastest once they had reached Osaka, Kenshin had his head out of the window to assess the various ships in the harbor.  On the other side of the carriage, Saito had also stuck his head out to try and see if he could tell which of the ships might belong to Shishio.

“Kenshin!”  Sanosuke shouted from a top his perch on the carriage.  “Which one is it?”

Kenshin didn’t answer, his eyes were too busy observing every little detail of the different ships, looking for some small clue that would lead him to the target.  Finally, his eyes alit upon one ship a little off from the others that was anchored in the bay, he noticed the faint stream of smoke coming from the turrets above the engine room.  “That one!”  Kenshin pointed.  “That wooden ship there in the bay, it’s the only one ready to sail and letting off steam!”

“Stop the carriage!” Saito roared at the driver.

The driver drew back the reins on the horses and they slowed and skidded to a halt, bringing the carriage to a somewhat rough stop.  The men it carried couldn’t care less, the carriage hadn’t even completely stopped moving before Sanosuke had jumped off the top and Saito and Kenshin leapt out from within the carriage.  The men all hurried to the end of the dock, as close as they could get to the ship in question.  Sanosuke took a good look at the ship, looks like the piece of crap that only someone as cheap as me would buy, he observed.  “When you said that they were going to try and bomb Tokyo I was wondering what kind of a ship they would use, but I’m not even sure that dinky piece of scrap will even make it to Tokyo, hell it might not make it out of the bay,” Sanosuke observed with dry humor.  Both Kenshin and Saito ignored him. 

Meanwhile, onboard the Purgatory, Hoji was besides himself with rage and shock, “It’s impossible.  How in the world could they find us!”

Shishio didn’t seem surprised, if anything there was a gleam of something like anticipation in his eyes as he saw Kenshin, Saito, and Sanosuke jump from the carriage and run towards the docks. 

“It appears as though Himura-san was able to find us after all, he is a clever man,” Sojiro observed with a smile. 

“He was my predecessor and a Hitokiri not that long ago, it makes sense that he could see through my plans and find the ship.  After all, Hitokiri’s think similarly,” Shishio grinned a feral grin at Kenshin who was glaring at the ship as though trying to assess how best to deal with them.  “Have you come to see me off, Hitokiri Battosai?”

Shishio held out a hand and Sojiro quickly fetched a telescope and gave it to him so that he could see the three lined up on the shore better. 

“I have to get them credit though.  They were able to find us.”  He held up the telescope to look at each of them on the shore.  “Hajime Saito,” he moved the telescope to the right from the tall wolf like policeman to the shorter statured man next to him, “Himura Battosai,” he moved the telescope a little more to the right to see a tall, young, man with spiked hair and a red headband tied around his head.  “And…”  Shishio stared at Sanosuke, not knowing who this person was.  “And someone I don’t know.”  He lowered the telescope down and looked to Hoji to see if he had any information on this newcomer as he handed his telescope back to Sojiro for him to look.

Sojiro held up the telescope and spotted Sanosuke, “who him?  The one in the white haori?”  Sojiro asked.  “He’s just a friend of Himura’s I believe.  At least I think he is…”

Hoji calmed down enough to raise the telescope in his hands and look at the person in question.  “Oh him,” he lowered the telescope, unimpressed by Sanosuke’s appearance.  “Sanosuke Sagara, he’s a street fighter from Tokyo, he has something a reputation there but he is far weaker compared to the other two,” Hoji informed them. 

“In other words, an unimportant tagalong,” Shishio summarized.

Back on the shore, Sanosuke sneezed loudly enough that both Saito and Kenshin turned to stare at him.  Sanosuke rubbed his nose, the excitement must be getting to me, he gestured to the ship where they could see they were being observed by several people with telescopes, “looks like the enemy’s surprised by our lineup,” he bragged.

Kenshin smiled painfully at that poor attempt at humor, Saito meanwhile rolled his eyes, “idiot,” he replied in a dry voice. 

While Sanosuke started shouting at Saito for his comment, Shishio and the others on the ship were still debating the situation.  “Shall we finish the fight we started in Shingetsu Village now?” Sojiro asked innocently.

Shishio humped at that as Hoji clenched the telescope in his hands, still beside himself with fury at this change in his well laid out plans.  “Just because I’m not in much of a hurry doesn’t mean I can afford to waste time here,” Shishio mused over the situation for a second.  “Of course we can’t look like we are running away either.  And these men have come a long way to see us, we should bid them farewell with a proper farewell.”  He turned to Hoji.  “Hoji,” he ordered in a strong voice.  “Get everyone on board the ship immediately and prepare to remove the outer hull.”  He glanced back to the men on shore.  “We will show them what they are up against and once they see the futility of their quest we shall leave.” 

Hoji finally calmed down fully at those words, realizing that the situation could still be salvaged.  “At once my Lord,” he agreed before he started giving orders to the men. 

***

After Kenshin had calmed Sanosuke down after Saito’s comment and kept Sanosuke from starting a fight with Saito they turned back to the real problem at hand. 

“What are we going to do now Battosai?”  Saito asked.

“First of all we need to swim to the ship, then get underwater and near the bottom of the hull…”  Kenshin started before Sanosuke interpreted him.

“If you want to sink that dung heap I’ve got something better than a sword,” Sanosuke spoke up, he fumbled around in his pocket before he pulled out three small grenades and held them out for the others to see.  “Katsu gave me these before I left Tokyo, they are a new design that doesn’t require an ignition and they are suppose to be really powerful, they ought to do the trick.”

“You idiot,” Saito sighed. 

Sanosuke fumed as Saito once again insulted him, “again with the insults!” he roared.  “Why do you have to shoot down everything I say?  What’s so wrong with this idea?”

“If you don’t know than you are an even bigger idiot,” Saito scoffed.  “And honestly starting to worry me a bit at the level of your stupidity.”

Sanosuke started going red in the face and Kenshin quickly stepped in before he had a war on his hands.  “Sano,” he cut in quickly, “even if these new bombs don’t require an ignition they still won’t go off when they get wet.”  Kenshin pointed out and Sanosuke stopped fuming for a moment as he realized the logic in Kenshin’s words. 

“Exactly,” Saito agreed in a cold tone as he stared down at Sanosuke.  “So why don’t you just cool your heels here, idiot, until the Osaka police arrive, then you won’t be in the way.”  With that Saito stepped forwarded, prepare to face off with Shishio and his ship.

“Damn you bastard,” Sanosuke swore and started after Saito but Kenshin stopped him with a hand on his arm.

“Sano,” Kenshin started.

But whatever Kenshin was going to say Sanosuke never found out, for at the moment the Purgatory suddenly exploded and debris flew everywhere.  Sanosuke and Kenshin both flinched as the force of the blast hit them and they were showered with water and debris. 

Sanosuke raised his arms to cover his face as the blast went off, he lowered them after the initial force of the blast had passed to see a black cloud where Shishio’s ship had been.  “Wh-what happened?” he asked in wonder.  “Did the ship just self explode?”

“Did a cannon misfire?” Kenshin wondered as he lowered his arm down from his face to observe the sight of the black cloud that obscured them from seeing the outcome of the blast.

“No,” Saito countered as he saw a steam turret rising above the cloud of smoke and debris.  As the wind blew it started shifting the cloud obscuring the view until finally they were able to make out the form of a ship in the cloud and Kenshin realized that the wooden ship they had seen before was only the false outer covering for a smaller ship built inside of it.  He swore to himself as he saw what Shishio had been hiding all this time.  Damn, this isn’t going to be easy.

Sanosuke’s jaw dropped open, “I don’t believe it,” he whispered.

Saito was silent as he observed the sight before him.  The perfectly crafted steel battleship that had been hidden inside the hull of an old and battered wooden vessel had been the perfect disguise.  So this is Shishio’s true plan, a twisted masterpiece indeed.

***

Shishio stepped out onto the deck of the true Purgatory now that it was revealed in all of its glory.  He looked through the black cloud, waiting until it shifted enough for him to see his enemies on the shore and their reaction to his pride and joy.  When the cloud shifted, he was not disappointment by the look of shock on their faces.  This is the Black Ship of the Meiji that I will lead to Tokyo to drive the sheep of a people into the bowels of hell, this is the true Purgatory.  He started laughing.  “It looks as though they weren’t expecting this,” he remarked as Yumi and Sojiro joined him on the deck.  “But then considering I invested over three fifths of my resources into the steel-clad battleship I would be disappointment if they were not at least a little surprised.”  He turned to a set of tubes that fed into the command room where Hoji stood by, ready for any orders from his master.  “Hoji,” Shishio addressed the tubes, knowing that his voice would echo down to Hoji, “prepare the Armstrong cannon, let’s give them an even bigger surprise.”

“Yes sir,” came the prompt reply. 

***

Saito became very grim as he realized that the situation had just gone from extremely difficult to nigh on impossible.  “A steel plated battleship?  If a single individual can afford something like this then the Meiji government is doomed either way.”  Without taking his eyes off the ship before him, he addressed Kenshin at his side.  “Battosai can you cut through metal with that new sword of yours?”

Kenshin sighed, “yes, but not underwater.”

And the same with me, there is just no way to get enough speed to force the blade through steel underwater, Saito cursed.

“We need to change our plans,” Kenshin commented mildly, already having an idea, he turned to Sanosuke, “Sano, Saito and I will draw their fire towards us, meanwhile you find a small boat and get to that ship, use the bombs to destroy the ship.  Aim for the engine room in the back, if the engines are damaged the ship will not be able to sail even if the bombs aren’t enough to sink it outright.”  He looked over at Saito.  “I’ll take starboard, you take the port.”

Saito nodded his head in agreement to the plan.  As they exchanged the plan the Armstrong cannon was loaded and moved into position.  Saito noticed the gun port opening as the cannon was pushed into place.  “Time to move!’ he shouted as he leapt to the side. 

Kenshin turned his head and saw it, as the cannon fired on their position he jumped out of the way, pushing Sanosuke out of the way of the oncoming fire.  The dockside exploded in debris as it was struck by the cannonball.  Sanosuke choked from the dust cast into the air. 

“Sano, get to that ship as quick as you can!”  Kenshin yelled before he jumped away into the cloud of debris before Sanosuke could stop him.

Sanosuke sputtered and got to his feet and looked around.  He snarled to himself when he couldn’t see either Saito or Kenshin through the fresh batch of debris that had been cast into the air.  Damn it, hunting for a boat and sailing it out there will take too long, there is no way they can keep dodging fire until then, so how the hell…  Sanosuke suddenly cut off his internal monologue as he looked at the water standing between him and his target in surprise, suddenly an insane plan came to him and without thinking about it twice, he leapt forward boldly. 

***

Shishio’s men had their telescope trained on the shoreline to assess the damage as the cannon was fired.  “Direct hit sir, shall we fire again?” he asked Shishio.

Shishio looked out over the water standing between them and the dock that was now a cloud of smoke and debris with the water filled with the assortment of wooden debris.  “No,” Shishio decided.  “That’s enough of the Armstrong.  We shall use the Gatling guns instead, get them ready quick.”

“Sir?” Hoji questioned from the command room. 

“You heard me, get it ready as fast as you can,” Shishio snapped in reply before Hoji started issuing orders and men jumped into action as the wheeled the Gatling gun’s onto the deck and started getting them into place. 

Just as they had the Gatling guns in place and ready to fire, from out of nowhere Kenshin sprung up out of the water below and over the rail of the ship, landed on the deck, soaking wet, a mild testament to the fact that he had swum out to the Purgatory.  When he landed on the deck in a crouch his ponytail was flipped over his head, dripping.  He tossed his head back, flipping his hair back onto his back and blinked away the water in his eyes as he glared at the men on the ship.

The men at the Gatling gun backed away in surprise from the stranger who appeared out of nowhere while they were on a ship anchored in the bay.  They back up right as from the other side of the ship another figure jumped up out of the water below, also soaking wet and dressed in a police uniform and glaring at every man there with a cold expression. 

The men took a minute to recover themselves before they charged Kenshin and Saito who took them down without even drawing their swords.  Kenshin dodged one man who punched at him, grabbing his outstretched arm and with a twist of his body threw the man over the deck, into the water below.  Saito blocked the punch of one man and retorted with an attack of his own that left the man a bleeding, unconscious mess on the deck.  The others were dispatched similarly until the remaining men had withdrawn to stand around Shishio, Yumi, and Sojiro, and the rest were either swimming in the water below, or laid out on the deck. 

Shishio seemed unconcerned that they were there, or had so easily dealt with the first of his men, instead he stepped forward to the railing of the upper deck he stood on as he addressed them.  “I would like to welcome you aboard the Purgatory and congratulate you for making it,” he announced in a grand voice, as though they had actually been invited along for the occasion.  “You have made it because you anticipated my moves and know how my mind works, but the same could be said of you as well.  As you are about to see,” he gestured with his hand and Kenshin’s eyes flickered over to see that a Gatling gun had been set up not only on the main deck where he and Saito stood, but also on the upper deck with Shishio and his men.

Kenshin turned his head quickly and saw the target in an instant, his heart faltered for a moment as he saw Sanosuke racing across the bay, jumping from one piece to another of the wooden debris, somehow managing to stay above the water as he raced towards the ship.  “Sano!” Kenshin screamed in warning but fearing it would not be enough.

“I knew all along you two were merely a diversion!” Shishio yelled as he made a final gesture and the man at the Gatling gun started firing. 

At Kenshin’s warning, Sanosuke looked up and saw the Gatling gun trained on him, he smiled a little to himself as he came to a halt on a larger piece of the wooden debris, crouching down to the water as the order to fire was given.  A moment before the first bullet fired Sanosuke punched the water of the bay as hard as he could with a yell.  As the bullets reached him, they hit a wall of water sent heavenward by the force of his blow.

On the ship, Kenshin’s eyes widen a bit at the wall of water, when did Sanosuke learned to do that?  He wondered in amazement.  Meanwhile Saito had no reaction, having already seen Sanosuke’s new ability several times already. 

From the command room, Hoji felt another wave of amazement as he witnessed Sanosuke’s abilities.  “That was Anji’s Futae no Kiwimi!  Where could…?”

Shishio gritted his teeth as he realized that he had just underestimate this street thug, he’s not just some weak tagalong. 

They temporary lost sight of Sanosuke because of the wall of water but then they saw him racing once again along the debris towards the back of the ship, away from where Shishio’s other Gatling gun had been placed. 

As he reached the back of the ship he pulled out the small hand grenades, and grabbing the fuses he jerked them out before lifting the bombs high and throwing them with all the force he could muster at the back of the ship.

The men on board drew back in worry at the sight, not sure what to make of this strange apparition or the instruments he carried.  From the command room Hoji saw it and spoke over the intercom system, “do not fear, it’s just a hand grenade, it may damage the hull but it won’t be strong to break through the hull of the ship.”

Hoji’s words were proven false as the grenades exploded as they collided with the hull of the ship with a massive explosion that knocked Sanosuke back several feet from the sheer blast impact.  And everyone on board was knocked over as the ship tilted violently from the force of the explosion.  As everyone stumbled back onto their feet after the initial explosion.  Sanosuke was struggling to swim as the explosion had triggered a massive wave that took him under for a few moments before he was able to reach the surface again and take a deep breath as he surveyed his handiwork, treading water. 

“What the hell?  I can’t believe that idiot Katsu let me hold on to something dangerous!”  Sanosuke loudly proclaimed as he saw that entire back of the ship was now on fire and starting to list to one side, a sure sign that the hull had been damaged and it was taking on water.  “How in the world could that ever be for ‘self defense’?”  He wondered aloud before he smiled at the sight of Shishio’s men scrambling around on the deck in panic and the fires lighting up the night.  “Still, I’ve got to admit that was a pretty nice parting gift,” he turned his eyes towards the bow of the ship.  “Wait a little longer Makoto Shishio, I’m coming for you,” with that he started swimming for the ship.

***

Inside the ship, Hoji stumbled back to his feet and reached the intercom, he slid up the cover that had closed off the network of slender tubes and shouted into it, “we need to regroup, all sections report your status!” he ordered.

It was a few moments before the hasty reports started coming in from all over the ship.

“Engine room here, it’s completely destroyed.”

“The screw shafted is completely busted,” came the shout of a man behind the one reporting for the engine room.

“My god,” Hoji whispered to himself, how could such small grenades as he threw do that kind of damage?

“This is the stern, we have a fire and we are unable to get it under control.  The flames are heading for the armory and in ten minutes it’s going to blow!”

“Hull breech!” came another voice accompanied by the sound of rushing and splashing water.  “We are taking on water!”

“Hoji-sama we have to evacuated, just give us the order.”

“Hoji-sama?”

Hoji slammed his fist into the wall in frustration at all the effort he had put in over the years to obtain the Purgatory and everything it carried in the way of arms.  “All the effort,” he gritted out from behind clenched teeth.  “To obtain this gunship, the arms it carries, all of it.”  He raised his head in defiance.  “I refuse to lose to an ignorant thug like that.  Curse him.  CURSE HIM!”

“It’s not just him,” Shishio’s voice echoed down the intercom.  From on top of the ship, Shishio glared down at Saito and Kenshin down below him on the main deck.  “The direct cause of this may have been the element of unpredictability represented in that common street thug and the grenades he carried.  But he is not the only one to be blamed for the Purgatory,” Shishio surveyed the two men before him with distain.  “Himura Battosai was the one who was able to predict my strategy and find the Purgatory and,” his eyes shifted from Kenshin’s glare to Saito’s cold expression.  “It was Hajime Saito who was able to organize a brilliant counter strike from the police to neutralize our Kyoto Fire Scheme.  And it was my mistake for underestimating them all.  That that is the biggest mistake of all.  I’ll admit I’ve been caught off guard and the price of the Purgatory was a heavy one to pay for such carelessness.  But now I know that if I want to take over this country, I need to deal with the three of you first.”

Besides him, Sojiro took a step forward, a small smile on his face as the flames from the burning Purgatory lit up the night.  “Shishio-sama?”  Sojiro asked.  “The score from Shingetsu?  Shall we?”

That man, Kenshin thought, remembering the duel in Shingetsu where the man who still looked like a child with his false happy face, had broke his sakabato in a duel of Battojutsu, and it was that same man who assassinated Ashikaga.

“Yes but…”  Shishio looked around at the burning ship, “The place must be at the Shrine of the Six Gates on Mt Hiei, about halfway up on the northeast side.  In other words, our lair.”  Shishio smiled at the two men before him.  “There we will have no interruptions and the Juppongatana and I will be able to host you properly.”

“Ten against three then?” Saito took a step forward.  “Not to be difficult, but wouldn’t two on two be much faster?” He stated as he reached for the sword sheathed at his side.  “There is still time before the ship sinks.”  He started to try and draw his sword but Kenshin reached out a hand and pushed the sword back into its sheath and Saito looked at him incredulously.  “Why are you…?”

Kenshin instead addressed Shishio, “The Shrine of Six Gates on Mt Hiei, northeast side you say?  That’s detailed enough, I accept the terms of your duel.”

A man came up from a hatch down below the ship and addressed Shishio.  “Shisho-sama, we are ready to evacuate, please hurry!”  He urged his master. 

Kenshin and Shishio stared at each other as the smoke grew thicker as the flames continued to spread.

Shishio started to turn away, addressing Kenshin from over his shoulder.  “Battosai, now and then, you remain only a diversion.  Now however, you have become a diversion worth risking my life on.  From here on I will be on my guard so be prepared for the worst when you come.”  With that he walked away.

Saito and Kenshin remained where they were as the men on the ship together with Shishio and his company boarded the lifeboats and rowed away from the burning ship.  Soon it was only the two of them on the ship.  Once they were alone Saito turned to address Kenshin.  “What was that about, we could have settled it here and now if you hadn’t of stopped me.”

“The men on this ship must be among the most loyal of his men and would not abandoned Shishio.  If we had fought here then the evacuation would have been delayed and some would have died.”  Kenshin reasoned.  “It is best to avoid making victims, whether they be friend or foe.”

Saito glared at the man beside him.  “You are still as soft as before,” he scoffed.  “Do you really think you can beat Shishio with that kind of mentality?”  He asked.  “He will tear you apart.”

“Perhaps,” Kenshin agreed, looking out after the lifeboats as they faded into the haze of smoke and flames.  “But innocent people will not fall in battle while I fight, not ever.”  Kenshin swore.  Once was enough, and once was too much. 

“Even without planning it came out the way you wanted to didn’t it?” Saito asked and Kenshin didn’t answer.  At some unspoken agreement they both turned, prepared to leave the ship for themselves before the fires reached the armory and the ship blew when, much to their surprise, Sanosuke jumped over board and came running towards them, dripping water behind him across the deck. 

“Sanosuke Sagara makes his grand entry!”  Sanosuke bragged proudly.  “All right where is this Shishio guy hiding, just point me the right way,” Sanosuke looked around at the burning ship.

With wide eyes, having temporarily forgotten about his friend and realizing that he had no idea what had taken place on board the ship after the bombs hit, Kenshin pointed at the retreating shapes of the lifeboats as they faded into the distance.

Sanosuke didn’t hesitate, he ran the remaining distance across the ship and stood at the rails shouting at the retreating boats.  “Damn you Shishio, you a chicken.  Come back here and fight me fair and square!”

Saito sighed, “what a moron,” he groaned. 

“Must you be so harsh?” Kenshin asked timidly. “After all we would never have been able to sink the Purgatory without him.  Sano is much more dependable than you think he is.”  Kenshin pointed out as Sanosuke continued to scream insults and challenges at the lifeboats that had faded into the smoke and haze.

Saito turned away.  “I was already aware of that,” Saito told him bluntly as he started walking away.  “But even so, it doesn’t change the fact that he’s an idiot.”

Kenshin smiled at Saito and shook his head a little before he turned to Sanosuke.  “Sano, we need to get off the ship now before it blows.”

Sanosuke looked around suddenly, “oh right that would be good idea wouldn’t it?”

Kenshin saw Saito shake his head and could almost hear the mental “idiot” from him.  The three quickly dove off the ship and swum for shore.  They were halfway to shore when the Purgatory exploded with multiple blasts that tore the remaining parts of the ship to shreds.  The men didn’t stop to observe it however, until they reached the shore. 

“Got to remember to thank Katsu for those grenades, and tell him that they are definitely not for ‘self defense’,” Sanosuke mused to himself. 

Meanwhile, Saito and Kenshin were instead looking towards the mountains where beyond laid Kyoto.  “I don’t see any fires beyond the mountains.”  Saito mused in an undertone.

“So it would seem,” Kenshin agreed.  There has surly been deaths in the fight though, he thought sadly.

Sanosuke turned, “Oh hey, guess everything’s okay in Kyoto then.”

“It would seem the first battle in this fight is a victory for us,” Kenshin agreed.  But what comes with this duel only time will say.

Chapter Text

Chapter 12

The Tears of the Defenders of Kyoto

After Saito had dealt with updating the police of Osaka and they had tied up everything there at the docks, a new carriage and driver was fetched for them to take them back to Kyoto.  The carriage ride back to Kyoto was notably more peaceful than the flight to Osaka.  For one, Sanosuke was allowed to ride inside the carriage with the others.  Saito said Sanosuke could join them inside only if he stayed quiet.  This was far from an issue for less than 20 minutes into the journey Sanosuke fell asleep, leaning against the corner of the carriage.  Both Saito and Kenshin realized that further conversation would be pointless, the duel had been made, it was time to return to Kyoto and assess the damage before they went out to meet Shishio for the duel. 

Saito and Kenshin both closed their eyes, knowing that they both needed some rest, for once they reached Kyoto there would be no rest for quite some time for both of them.  Kenshin had just started dozing off when Sanosuke’s body slid with a bump of the carriage and Sanosuke’s head came to rest on Kenshin’s shoulder.  Sanosuke was unmoved by it, still sleeping peacefully and starting to drool on Kenshin’s shoulder.  Kenshin glanced at his friend and thought momentarily about moving him but exhaustion from the long night spent in vigil over his Master and the mad dash to Osaka to prevent the sailing of the Purgatory won out.  He decided it wasn’t worth the effort and just closed his eyes and gave into the darkness.

“Himura!”

Kenshin’s eyes snapped open as Saito called to him.  He glanced outside the carriage window and realized that they were in Kyoto stopped outside the police headquarters and he blinked again, he was certain that he had only closed his eyes a moment before.  He glanced to Sanosuke who was still sleeping on his shoulder and shoved his friend away, waking Sanosuke.

Sanosuke yawn and stretched as Saito, without another word, opened the carriage door and stepped into the courtyard.  Saito immediately demanded a full report from the nearest officer on the night before.

Sanosuke looked around, blinking away sleep and absently scratching his shoulder, “we there already?”

“Yes,” Kenshin responded as he looked at his slightly damp shoulder from Sanosuke’s drool in slight disgust.  “And next time you can use someone else as your pillow,” with that Kenshin scrambled out of the carriage after Saito.  First thing when I get back to Aoi-ya I’m changing into something clean.

“Huh?” Sanosuke asked not understanding Kenshin’s meaning, he shrugged as he was left alone in the carriage, “Some people are snippy in the morning,” he grumbled.

Kenshin glanced around the courtyard to see officers scrambling around to and foe on various tasks.  Some were limping or being helped by others as Saito was handed a written report and was reading through it, at some point from the time he alighted from the carriage and Kenshin joined him he had found a cigarette and was now smoking as he read through the report. 

“So what’s the news?” Kenshin asked as he joined Saito as Sanosuke was just starting to step out of the carriage.

Saito flipped pages as he continued to read.  “No houses or warehouses were destroyed, 7 homes were damaged and 11 warehouses.  There were 53 fires but all were put out quickly, it’s almost a miracle,” Saito mused half to himself.  I never expected things would work out so well, even with all the police presence in the city there should have been a lot more damage to the city then this.  He continued to read through the report.  “Forty-three policemen dead, many more injured, but no reports yet of any deaths among civilians.  And we were able to capture almost all of the perpetrators.”  Saito glanced up from the report.  “Forty-three out of five thousand, and capturing nearly everyone of our enemies.  Not a bad ratio over all.”

“But it’s still 43 lives,” Kenshin argued as Sanosuke joined them.

“Humph,” Saito grunted in reply as he smoked his cigarette, taking a deep breath of smoke and feeling it fill his lungs in relief before exhaling.  “If that’s the way you want to look at it, but overall I’m satisfied with the outcome.  There is an interesting part of the report that it seems a great many of the citizens of Kyoto were organized and paroling the streets putting out fires and capturing some of Shishio’s men as well,” he glanced at Kenshin remembering the letter he had sent before they had left for Osaka.  “I don’t suppose that you know how so many people were organized and led on such short notice?”

Kenshin smiled a secretive smile at Saito.  “It would seem that Kyoto has protectors that you were unaware of Saito.”

Saito’s eyes narrowed a little at Kenshin but he decided to let it past, after all he would take whatever allies he needed in the fight with Shishio, especially when they deliver results such as these despite the odds, Saito thought as he glanced at the report in his hands.  “There are still some loose ends that I will need to tie up here before the duel with Shishio.” 

“Very well,” Kenshin nodded.  “Sanosuke and I will go to the Aoi-ya Inn and wait for word from you when you’re ready to leave.”

“All right,” Saito agreed.  “I’ll send word to the Aoi-ya when I’m done,” without another word he turned and left to see to matters.

Kenshin turned to Sanosuke, “ready to go?”

“Sure thing,” Sanosuke followed as Kenshin led the way to the Aoi-ya.  “Man,” Sanosuke commented as they walked through Kyoto,” looking around you wouldn’t even know that anything happened here last night.  Hey Kenshin, this Aoi-ya, is that where the Missy and Yahiko will be?”

“I’m sure of it,” Kenshin replied.  “I can’t think of anywhere else they might have gone.”  And I’m sure they were fighting with them last night as well, but since there were no deaths among the civilians then they must be okay.  Kenshin took some comfort in that and he was looking forward to seeing both Kaoru and Yahiko again.  I need to apologize to both of them, and Kaoru-dono especially.

Walking down the streets, Kenshin had to admit that Sanosuke was right, everything seem normal as early morning risers were already busy shopping or heading to work or on various errands.  There were only a few black marks on the walls or random broken fences or doors that testified that anything had happened the night before.  But these few signs were being scrubbed cleaned and repaired and Kenshin was sure that in a few days time there would be little signs in the city of the disaster that had been averted the night before. 

“It’s kind of funny,” Sanosuke mused, half to himself as they turned a corner.

“Huh?” Kenshin asked, glancing to his friend out of the corner of his eye as they walked along.

“Even though you and Saito are fighting on the same side, you guys don’t mix too well, kind of like oil and water,” Sanosuke observed.  He kicked a rock out of the way.  “I guess some things don’t really change that much with time then.”

Kenshin quirked an eyebrow at him, “but Sanosuke, you spent so much time at the police station before I arrived yesterday, haven’t you and Saito made friends by now?”

Kenshin didn’t expect that Sanosuke’s instant reaction to that innocent observation would result in him backhanding Kenshin right into a wall.  Kenshin hit the wall with a thud and slowly slid down to the ground, stunned by the force of the blow and rubbing a sore jaw.  “I would rather die than make friends with that bastard!”  Sanosuke roared in fury, clenched fists and a fiery rage in his eyes.  “Once we’ve dealt with Shishio that guy’s next!” he declared.  Then he dropped his fists and grabbed Kenshin’s kimono, forcibly hauling Kenshin back onto his feet and holding him by the shoulder until Kenshin was able to regain his balance.  “Now that we have an understanding,” Sanosuke started in a more pleasant voice as he shoved Kenshin forward a little to start him walking.  “Hurry up and show me the way to the Aoi-ya, I’m starving.”

“Fine, fine,” Kenshin mumbled in reply even as he wondered why he should after Sanosuke just punched him into a wall.  I know that the way I left Tokyo pissed everyone off, but I still think I’ve paid for that by now, so why do they still keep hitting me?

“So by the way Kenshin, how did all those civilians get organized last night?  What the hell kind of letter did you send?”

“Oh right, I didn’t get a chance to tell you about the members of the Aoi-ya,” Kenshin realized, he had only had a chance to tell Sanosuke that Kaoru and Yahiko were in Kyoto before they left for Osaka, he had yet to get a chance to tell Sanosuke about Okina, Misao and the others.  “You see the Aoi-ya while it is a famous inn in Kyoto, it has also has served as a secret post for a division of the Oniwanbanshu that was tasked with collecting information during the Bakamatsu.  After the fall of the Shogun they have continued running the inn.  While to most they seem to be nothing more than simple innkeepers they also have kept up the intelligence network over the years of the Meiji.  I helped one of their members on the way to Kyoto, and young lady by the name of Misao Makamachi.  She was the one who introduced me to the leader of the group, Okina.  He agreed to help me in the mission to stop Shishio in any way he could.  Through his help, I was able to obtain a new sakabato after mine had been broken by Shishio’s right hand man Sojiro Seta.  I sent the letter to Okina asking for him to organize his people to aid the police in stopping the fires and protecting the city.  It appears as though they have continued to serve as the defenders of Kyoto even in this era as well.”  Kenshin concluded. 

Sanosuke stared at his friend for a moment, “Okay, I’ve got about a million questions for you right now, like how you met this Misao girl, is she good looking, your sakabato got broken, there are Oniwanbanshi on our side…?

“Those will have to wait,” Kenshin cut his friend off before the rest of his questions came out.  “We’re here.” 

Sanosuke glanced up to see a sign that proudly proclaimed the “Aoi-ya Inn” on a respectable looking complex, and outside Yahiko was waiting with his shinai strapped across his back as was his custom and sweeping the small walkway outside of the inn.  The boy glanced up and saw both of them and a big grin spread across his face as he stepped forward to greet them.  “Kenshin!  Sanosuke!”  He greeted happily.  “Glad to see both of you, guess even you Sano managed to make it, despite your lack of direction,” he laughed.

“Hey Yahiko,” Sanosuke greeted in good humor despite the comment about how lacking his sense of direction was.  “What are you doing out here anyways, they kick you out because you were eating them out of house and home or something?”

Yahiko fumed at Sanosuke.  “I’m standing guard!” he snapped.

“Looks like your sweeping to me,” Sanosuke pointed out.

“It’s a cover, so no one realizes I’m a guard,” Yahiko fumed back.

That didn’t take long, we just got here and already the bickering starts, Kenshin thought with a hint of amusement.  He was starting to feel like things were getting back to the way he remembered them despite how everything had been turned upside down in the past month since Saito had originally attacked Sanosuke in the dojo and started the train of events that lead to Kyoto.  It was a bit startling but Kenshin suddenly realized that it had been a full month since that fatefully day and so many things had changed in that period of time. 

“Come on you two,” Yahiko gestured as he and Sanosuke stopped their bickering for a moment and motioned for them to follow them into the entrance room of the inn, “hey Kaoru, Kenshin’s back!” he called out.

One of the doors to the side of the room slid back a crack and the figure behind it glanced through the crack.  The three stared at that door as it slid just a hair more but stopped as though the figure behind it seemed to hesitate and lack the courage to greet them.  Sanosuke, ever the tactful one of the group, grabbed the handle of the door and slammed it back so quickly that Kaoru, who had been crouched behind it, fell forward, catching herself on the doorframe before she hit the floor, still dressed in her training clothes from the night before. 

“What’s with the sneaking around?”  Sanosuke demanded.  “Just get out here and say hi already.”

Kaoru glanced up, her eyes searching for the one face she longed the most to see.  Unlike when she had seen him 9 days before at his Master’s home, this time Kenshin’s eyes meet her gaze and he was smiling at her, the happy smile she remembered from the Rurouni she had first met in Tokyo on a cold February night.  “Kaoru-dono,” Kenshin greeted her softly.  “I’m so sorry for worrying you so, and everything else as well,” he concluded somewhat sheepishly.  There was more he wanted to say but he wasn’t sure how to word it.

Kaoru didn’t care, Kenshin was finally looking like the man she remembered and had left Tokyo to find.  “Kenshin!”  Kaoru leapt forward and wrapped her arms around him, hugging him tightly.  “It’s all right, I’m just so happy to see you again,” she whispered in his ear as she rested her head on his shoulder.  Kenshin hugged her back and they stood there for a moment, completely forgetting that there were other people in the room.  When they finally drew back both Sanosuke and Yahiko were giving them significant looks.  And they looked away, a little embarrassed by the show of affection. 

“So you did get the Missy to Kyoto after all, good work kid.”  Sanosuke commented mildly.

Yahiko shrugged, “Of course, it was a promise between men after all.”  Yahiko deliberately left out that he had nothing to do with getting Kaoru to Kyoto, that she had done that part on her own.

“Of course, a man comes all this way to greet his lady, apologizes and everything for being a total ass, and all he gets is a hug,” Sanosuke shook his head mockingly.

“Well he did have the bad taste to pick Kaoru to be his girl so what did you expect?” Yahiko teased right back.

“You two,” Kaoru snapped and Kenshin chuckled a little, feeling some of the stress and worry he had been carrying for so long start to fade away at so familiar a scene. 

“Oh Kenshin,” Kaoru’s face turned a little more serious as she turned back to him, “the secret you went to learn…?”

“It is mine,” Kenshin told her noting the flicker across his face over his use of words, “mostly anyways, now it is just up to a purity of heart.”  Kaoru looked as though she wanted to question that further but Kenshin didn’t give her a chance as he turned to the business at hand.  “And how is Okina, Misao-dono and the rest of the Oniwanbanshu after last night?”  Kenshin asked pleasantly.

Kaoru’s face turned very serious, and she glanced to the floor, realizing that Kenshin didn’t know what had happened to Okina, and of course he wouldn’t have known about the events from the night before.  Kenshin caught that look and his blood ran cold.  “Actually, Okina isn’t doing very well, he’s been unconscious from a fight he had the same day we met you at your Master’s he’s been unconscious since then, so Misao-san, well she took charge of the Oniwanbanshu after and led the counter defense of Kyoto last night, and well she was…”

Kenshin didn’t wait to hear the fatal words from Kaoru’s mouth.  “That fool!” he spun on his heel and ran out of the room, and dashed up the stairs to the upper quarters and made his way to the part of the inn where the Oniwanbanshu members had their rooms, hurrying to the one he knew belong to Misao.  That letter was meant to raise everyone of the Oniwanbanshu in Kyoto and their allies, but of course with her personality she would take it on herself.  Curse her!

“Kenshin no wait!”  Kaoru called as she ran after him.  Yahiko and Sanosuke paused for a moment, staring at the two who had left so quickly, in confusion about what to do, belatedly they chased after the others. 

Meanwhile Kenshin had reached the door to Misao’s room and grabbed for it.  Blast her, why can’t she just stay out of danger!  Kenshin thought violently as he flung the door back, fully expecting to see Misao laid out on her bed with the other members of the Onwanbanshu tending to her.  “Misao-dono!”

But the sight that greeted him would never have crossed his wildest imagination.  Misao sat on the floor, she turned to look at him with tears in her eyes.  “I’m dumb,” she told in a sob.  “Dumb, stupid, embarrassed, mortified, shame, shame, shame!”  Misao sobbed, tearing at her hair for a moment.  “How could I have left an enemy take my back like that?  How?”  She twisted her body back around to face in front of herself and started pounding on the floor with her fists.  “Damn it, damn it, damn it, damn it…”  Misao repeated in a cycle as she pounded the floor to the rhythm of her words, before she sat back on her heels and screamed to the world.  “How could I not have noticed that freak sneaking up on me?  How could I be so stupid?”

Kenshin fell back on the floor, staring at Misao with wide eyes, his jaw dropped open slightly as his brain struggled to understand the scene before him as Misao continued to berate herself for something.  I really don’t understand women.

Kaoru caught up with him and crouched next to where Kenshin was sitting on the floor watching Misao in disbelief.  “Like I was trying to say, something did happen last night,” Kaoru continued, barely glancing at Misao.  “And she’s been like this since we got back last night.”

“And it wasn’t just one guy but two of them!”  Misao screamed as she hit the floor with her fists with increased fury, “And one of them was blind for heaven’s sake.  I’ve been training as a kunachi for 7 years and I’m still such an idiot!”

“She wasn’t hurt,” Kaoru assured Kenshin as she ignored the plight of the girl before her.  “But she was in a lot of danger at the time.”

By then Yahiko and Sanosuke had joined them and Sanosuke stepped forward and peered around the corner into Misao’s room wondering what all the racket was about.  Meanwhile Yahiko who had caught the last of Kaoru’s words joined in on the conversation.  “Yeah it was some creepy guy who just appeared out of nowhere dressed in clothes that had eye symbols all over them and was wearing an eye mask with “Heart’s Eye” on it.  I’m guessing he was blind too cause I don’t know how he would have been able to see with that mask over his eyes.”

“That must be that Usui guy that Cho was talking about,” Sanosuke rubbed his chin as he remembered what Cho had said about the man while he and Saito had integrated the swordsmen.  “He said he was one of the top two Juppongatana members and probably the one who killed 50 policemen in less than 2 hours in the city of Kobe awhile back.  But wait,” Sanosuke looked up as he realized something.  “If that guy got behind the girl how is she still alive?”

“It was a bit of a strange situation,” Kaoru mused.

***

Misao tried to spin around fast enough to defend herself before Usui’s spear plunged into her unprotected back but knew that she wasn’t fast enough.  Below her, she could hear Kaoru and Yahiko’s desperate screams and she knew that would be the last thing she heard.  Suddenly there was a cracking sound and a fist came out of nowhere and punched the spear before it hit Misao, causing the tip of the spear to exploded in a shower of sawdust and splinters as the metal tip of the spear went flying off and clattered as it landed among the tiles of the roof.  Misao finished turning towards the newcomers, falling backwards as she tried to put some distance between her and them, clenching her kunai in her hands, breathing hard as she looked over to the newcomer who had saved her life. 

He looked like a tall, heavily muscular monk, with dark circles painted around his eyes.  He glared at Usui.

Usui raised his blindfold, reveling an ugly scar across his face and that he was in fact sightless.  “Anji,” he intoned in his deep voice.  “What is the meaning of this?”

“All but Kamatari’s and Henya’s units are fleeing the city now, there is no longer any meaning in this, it is time to retreat,” Anji informed him. 

Meanwhile Misao was slowly putting some distance between her and the men, slipping the kunai back into their hidden sheathes and grabbing her kuserigama and holding it at the ready in case they turned their attention to her and attacked.  Below her, Kaoru and Yahiko waited breathlessly as they watched the proceedings, afraid to make any move and put Misao in danger. 

“That’s not what I meant,” Usui retorted in slight annoyance.  “I’m asking why you interpreted my pleasures, and depending on your answer I may kill even you before the girl.”

Anji’s face never changed expressions despite the threat.  “Usui, you joined the Juppongatana under one condition did you not?”  Anji asked the blind warrior.  “Well so did I, and it was the same reason.”

Usui smiled a little, “the ‘life given, life taken’ then?  The right to do whatever you wish with an enemy’s life despite your orders.”

“I do not wish to take any life without reason,” Anji told him, it sounded simple but there was a dangerous undercurrent in the fallen monk’s words. 

***

“They just stared for about 15 minutes after that before they both left without another word,” Kaoru concluded the tale, not noticing Sanosuke’s wide eyes at her tale, or his clenched fist at the mention of Anji. 

Kenshin’s head bowed a little as he though over Kaoru’s tale.  “This Anji, he seems different from the other members of the Jupponganta,” he mulled that thought over wondering what kind of man this fallen monk was.  Or why he would spare Misao’s life.  “My guess is that Usui walked away because he knew that if things escalated into a fight between the two of them then he would not walk away completely unharmed.”

Again Kaoru’s eyes flickered in concern at Kenshin’s words but still she said nothing.  Partly because she didn’t want to spoil this moment when she finally had Kenshin back in her life, and partly because she was afraid what the answer might be. 

Kenshin glanced over to Misao who was still bemoaning her fate, “well as long as you are unharmed Misao-dono,” he smiled cheerfully but Misao in no way acknowledged his existence as she pounded the floor in her tantrum.  Kenshin never lost his smile, “you haven’t heard a word have you?”

Sanosuke was also thinking over the implications of Kaoru’s story, but his thought were very different from Kenshin’s as he stared down at his right fist.  Interesting.  I looks like I will have to find out for myself if all of Monk Anji’s talk about salvation was hot air or not.  This is certainly a strange twist of fate.

Yahiko glanced to Sanosuke at his side, for the first time noticing that he was acting odd, “Sano, is something wrong?”  Yahiko asked. 

“Forget it kid,” Sanosuke snapped back.

Yahiko shrugged, figuring Sanosuke was just being Sanosuke, suddenly something popped into his head, and he swirled his head back to Kenshin.  “Hey Kenshin, there was something I wanted to tell you earlier but I didn’t want to interrupt your training.”

Kenshin’s head twisted back to the boy but it was Kaoru who answered.  “What Yahiko means to say is that he totally forgot to tell you that Aoshi is in Kyoto.”

“WHAT!” Kenshin exclaimed in surprise.  “Aoshi in Kyoto!”

Misao stopped in her tirade, head to the floor, her fists no longer banging the floor but everyone was now focused on Kaoru and Kenshin and didn’t notice for the moment.  “Yes,” Kaoru continued calmly.  “Aoshi Shinomori came to Kyoto after you Kenshin, he has sided with Makoto Shishio in his hunt for you and…”

“I’ll tell him the rest,” everyone turned in surprise to hear the hard words come out of Misao’s mouth.  She got to her feet, an unusually determined and strong expression on her young face.  “Aoshi came to Gramps seeking information on your whereabouts when he first arrived in Kyoto.  Gramps wouldn’t betray you so Aoshi sided with Shishio and then turned on us.  Shishio sent men to the inn to try and attack us and obtain the information by force.  We were able to stop them and Gramps sent a message back to Shishio meant for Aoshi and Aoshi answered Gramp’s challenge to a duel.  And he, Okina’s former student, left him half dead.”  Misao face harden even more as she remembered the awful night, the night she had arrive too late to stop the fight and Okina collapsing to the floor in a pool of his own blood.  Kenshin’s eyes shifted into concern at her words.  “And now it’s been 9 days since and Gramps still hasn’t regain full consciousness and we’re still not sure if he’ll make.  Aoshi Shinomori has forsaken his position as the former Okashira and so it is my duty as the new Okashira to destroy him,” she finished with clenched fists.

Kenshin’s face grew even more concern, Misao-san, do you really hate Aoshi so much for what he has done, or is this just a brave face you put on for the others while inside you are crying for him?  Kenshin wasn’t completely sure but as he thought about the girl he had first met on the road, and they way she would speak of Aoshi with a light in her eye just for him, Kenshin felt sure he knew which of the two it was.  “Misao-dono,” he started.

Suddenly there was the sound of running feet and everyone glanced up to see Okon and Omasu came around the corner with frantic expressions.  “Misao-chan,” Okon called out, completely forgetting in her haste to address Misao as the Okashira.  She glanced at the others in the room.  “Good you’re all here,” she continued in a rush.  “Quick everyone, come with us!” she called out before she turned and started running back down the hallway. 

Misao, Kenshin, Kaoru, and Yahiko immediately dashed after the women, leaving a confused Sanosuke behind them.  “What the hell is going on around here?” he wondered aloud to no one.  “Is it always like this?”  He started after them and made it as far as the stairs before he heard a voice from down below.

“Hello is anyone here?  I’m from the police.”

Sanosuke paused, “huh?”  He wondered before he ran down the stairs to greet the newcomer. 

Meanwhile Misao was demanding answers from Okon and Omasu as they ran.  “What is going on here?”

“It’s Okina, he’s regained consciousness!”  Omasau informed her.

“What?” they all gasped as they rushed into Okina’ s room to see that everyone else from the Aoi-ya was already crowded into the small room.  Okina was sitting up and Kuro was handing him a bowl of soup.

“Gramps!” Misao called out, obvious concern in her eyes as she stepped forward a step before falling to her knees, a happy smile on her face.  “You’re finally awake.”

He looked at everyone as they came into the room, a mix of fatigue and obvious joy at seeing him awake again was obvious.  “I can see I have worried all of you,” Okina commented mildly.  “I am sorry about that.  Himura-kun,” he greeted Kenshin.  “It is good to see you, as I have been asleep for a while would you mind catching me up on the state of affairs?”

Suddenly the story came tumbling out of a dozen mouths at once before Okina silence them with one hand.  “One at a time if you please,” he asked.

There was a little giggle in the room before Masaru stepped up and started telling Okina everything that happened since his fight with Aoshi and about the Kyoto Grand Fire they had stopped the night before.  Kenshin concluded by telling of Shishio’s real plan of sailing the Purgatory for Tokyo that he, Sanosuke, and Saito had foiled and now the duel that had been arranged.  Okina listened in silence as he absorbed the news.  “I see,” he said after he had a chance to think about everything for a moment.  His eyes turned to Kenshin.  “Himura-kun, how much do you know about the state of Aoshi now?”

“A little,” Kenshin admitted.  “Misao-dono gave me a basic idea of what happened.”

“I see, then I can make this short.  I have a favor to ask of you Himura-kun.”  Okina began.  “What I wish to ask of you concerns Aoshi.  I have known him since he was but a small child and he was not an evil person to began with, quite the opposite in fact.  But current affairs have twisted his mind and now he is obsessed with saiyo- “ultimate power”.  And as a result of this he has thrown away all sense of right and wrong.  I have tried and failed to stop him with my own hands, and if he is left to continue down this path then countless victims will pile up beneath his blades.  And so I ask you to end his turmoil and kill Aoshi.”

There was silence in the room, Kaoru glanced quickly to Kenshin, trying to see what his answer might be, he acts like he used to mostly, expected for the way he is talking.  He keeps saying ‘my’ and ‘mine’ and no ‘this one’ like he usually does.  Does this mean that he has decided to become Hitokiri again and kill or not?  Kaoru started to feel the edge of panic coming on.

The members of the Oniwanbashu snuck glances at Misao, her face seemed calm, no real sign of emotion at Okina’s words, as though he was not asking the new friend she had made to kill the man she had once loved and looked up to.

Kenshin’s face likewise gave no indication of what his answer might be, it only had a very serious expression on it as he absorbed Okina’s words.

Okina continued on explaining his reasons.  “I know that you don’t want to break your vow not to kill again but I’m afraid you might be the only person to defeat him as he is now.  Surly you, with your history can see that this is an act of mercy for a tortured soul, a demon, that is beyond all hope of redemption.  The only peace his soul can find now is in death, it is the only way left now to save him.”

Misao’s heart froze at Okina’s words and she felt it break all over again.  Twice now, twice my heart has been broken by Aoshi and now again it’s breaking because of him, Misao thought as she recalled two very different nights…

 

Misao sat at the window of the little room Okina had said could be hers for as long as they stayed in Kyoto.  Beside her sat Aoshi, and they looked out the window together watching the twinkling lights of the city and the stars overhead.  “It’s good to see Okina again after all this time.  And Kyoto is so beautiful!”  Misao exclaimed happily.

“Do you really like it here?” Aoshi asked in a soft voice, turning his eyes from the city to the girl beside him.

Misao beamed at Aoshi, so wrapped up in her own happiness sitting beside Aoshi that she didn’t notice the serious undertone in the teenager’s words.  “Oh yes, I don’t think I’ve liked anywhere else better, well not since we had to leave Edo anyways.  This is like a second home.”

“I’m glad to hear you say that,” Aoshi responded, “and this shall be your home for as long as you want.”

Misao’s eyes lit up.  “Does that mean we are staying Aoshi-sama?  Really?  No more traveling?  We are all going to stay here?”

“This is your home now,” Aoshi replied simply.

“Yeah!” Misao wrapped her arms around Aoshi and hugged him tightly.  “Oh I’m so happy, this will be so wonderful all of us staying here together.”

Aoshi pulled her back a little bit and Misao looked at him in slight surprise, afraid she might have upset him with her display of affection, instead Aoshi was giving her a strange look she didn’t understand.  Suddenly he leaned forward and kissed her.  Misao blinked in surprise, too stunned by his action to do anything.  He drew back and looked at her, still with same strange expression on his face that she couldn’t read anymore than his cold poker face.  “It’s late, you should get some sleep Misao,” he started to get up to leave but Misao grabbed his sleeve and pulled him back just enough so that she could lean forward and kiss him back. 

“Sweet dreams Aoshi,” she whispered to him with shining eyes, her heart aflutter with joy.

“And the same to you Misao,” Aoshi replied before he left. 

Misao put a hand over her mouth as she giggled with joy, certain that she could never be happier than she was in that moment.

 

The Misao of the present was very different from the foolish girl that Aoshi had left in Kyoto that night.  I went from thinking that things couldn’t be more perfect to having my heart broken in two when I realized that he had left, and that kiss he gave me was meant as nothing more than the goodbye he couldn’t say to my face.  And then to make it worse…  Misao felt a wave of hopelessness as she remembered the night of the fight…

 

Aoshi turned slowly to look at her, his face splattered with blood and a strange crazed look in his eyes.  Misao trembled when she saw him, suddenly believing everything the others had told her about Aoshi, about he would scoop so low as to betray them and want to kill Kenshin, even siding with someone as evil as Shishio. 

There was just a moment when they looked at each other and Misao saw not a trace of the man she had once loved in this figure before her, as behind him laid Okina on the ground bleeding out an impossibly large amount of blood across the floor of the shrine.  He took a step towards her and Misao trembled at the aura of death he radiated and stepped back until her back hit the doorframe.   “Are you going to kill me too?” Misao asked, there was no fear in her voice, only regret.  “Like you did Gramps, because he wouldn’t tell you where Himura-san is?”  Aoshi stopped for a moment, his eyes hardening as he looked at her.  Misao raised her chin in defiance, “kill me if you want, but I won’t betray Himura-san.”

Suddenly Aoshi looked away from her, he continued forward, dropping his kodachi to his side and Misao stood still as he walked right past her and out of the shrine.  “Never show your face in front of me again,” Aoshi told her harshly as he walked past her and out of the shrine, disappearing into the night.

 

Misao bit her tongue to keep back the tears.  It was the first time she had seen him in 3 years and he had gone from the teenager who had kissed her so sweetly one night, to the crazed killer who had almost killed the man who had been his mentor and acted as the grandfather she had never known to Misao.  My heartbeat won’t slow down, Misao thought against the pounding in her chest.  My body won’t move.  I thought I had already decided I would be like ice, I wouldn’t love him anymore, that I wouldn’t feel this pain anymore but…  Misao forced herself to keep from shuddering, to make any kind of reaction that would betray her feelings she had kept buried, aware that the eyes of the members of the Aoi-ya were on her, and their keen eyes could see much that was hidden.  She stared at Kenshin’s back.  Himura, will you really kill him?  She wondered, trying to read the back of the man before her.  Will you truly kill Aoshi-sama Himura?

Much to the surprise of everyone Kenshin started laughing softly to himself and he raised his head and was smiling at Okina.  “Okina-dono,” he addressed him in a light tone.  “Your wounds are quite serious,” he observed with keen eyes.  “It would seem that Aoshi’s “Spiral Sword Dance” is quite a powerful attack, and if he was truly the lost soul you claim him to be, a demon, then you would be in your grave now.”

Okina looked at Kenshin in surprise and all eyes were focused on Kenshin as he continued.  “Aoshi is no demon,” Kenshin assured them in a sure voice.  “Not just yet.  He must have held back at the last instant, maybe even he didn’t realize it, but it is sure proof that he is not completely lost his way.  Even if his conscious mind has fallen to the way of demons, his soul is still striving to be human. Aoshi’s resting place where he will find true peace is not in the grave, it is here, with all of you.”  Kenshin looked around at the others in the room.  “And so I promise each of you, I shall bring back the true Aoshi to all of you.”

“Himura-kun,” Okina breathed, not sure if he was really hearing correctly.

“You’re wrong!”

Everyone turned to Misao who was looking at Kenshin with an almost calm face.  “You’re wrong Himura.  The man I saw that night who fought with Gramps, that wasn’t Aoshi, there wasn’t anything of him left.  Don’t make promises that you can’t keep.  It’s better if Aoshi dies like Gramps says.”

Kenshin’s face softened a bit at her words, “Misao-dono,” he remonstrated gently.  “But what if Aoshi could be brought back to you, the same Aoshi you remember and love.  Would you not want that?”

“I-” Misao stuttered for a moment, suddenly all of her resolve not to show her emotions crumbled as she thought of the night when he had left her at the Aoi-ya, everything had been perfect, he was there and I was so happy, if I could have that again…

Suddenly the tears broke through and Misao buried her face in her hands, “I would like that, I would really like that,” she answered through the sobbing.  Okon, Omasu, and Kaoru all ran to the girl’s side to comfort her while all the men were doing their best not to seem uncomfortable at Misao’s tears and failing miserably.

Oh Misao, Okina sighed to himself, suddenly realizing the whole of what he was about to ask of Kenshin and what that would do to Misao.  She fooled us all into thinking that she had moved past Aoshi over the past few days when she had taken on her self-appointed role as the new Okashira.  Here I was about to break her heart yet again.  I only hope that I am proven wrong.  He looked to Kenshin.  I pray that you are right, for both of their sakes.

Chapter Text

Chapter 13

One Night of Peace

While the others were crowded in Okina’s room as they discussed the issue of Aoshi, Sanosuke followed the voice down the stairs and to the front off the inn where a policeman stood.  “I have a message for Kenshin Himura and Sanosuke Sagara,” the policeman announced.

“I’m Sagara,” Sanosuke introduced himself, “so what’s this message?”

“It’s from Captain Fujita,” the officer told him. 

Sanosuke’s eyes narrowed a bit, That’s Saito’s pseudonym, guess it’s about time to roll then.

“Captain Fujita says that he can’t leave for another half a day as he has to arrange temporary holdings for all the captured criminals and the pursuit of those who were able to escape.  He will be ready to leave first thing in the morning and he will meet you here at the Aoi-ya at first light.”  The officer informed him.

Sanosuke nodded his head, “got it, let the Captain know that we’ll be ready for him.”  With that the officer bowed and left and Sanosuke hurried back into the inn to find the others, he wandered around for a while before he finally found Okina’s room where everyone was still crowded in as Misao finally managed to get a hold of her emotions and was wiping her face dry with a sniff.  Sanosuke glanced around at the room, noting all the people he had yet to be introduced to.  “Hey Kenshin,” he said, finally settling his eyes on his friend after taking note of the two women there and making a quick assessment of their features and qualities planning to spend more time analyzing them later.  “Got a message from Saito, he won’t be ready to go to Shishio’s until first thing in the morning, he’ll meet us here, which is too bad cause I’m kind of ready to go now.  Well maybe grab something quick to eat but then ready to go.” 

“I can’t believe the battle has advanced so far while I was ill,” Okina shook his head.

“Hmmm, well 9 of the 10 Juppongatana still remain,” Kenshin pointed out.

Misao turned around to stare at Sanosuke, “Hey you, you hang around like you belong here but who are you anyways?”

“My thoughts exactly,” Masaru agreed and all the Aoi-ya’s members turned hard eyes on Sanosuke. 

Sanosuke meanwhile turned to Kaoru with a look on his face, “You didn’t tell them about me Missy?”  He asked her in a thick voice.

She smiled nervously back at him, “there has really been a lot going on and I didn’t really think about it,” she laughed.

Sanosuke rolled his eyes, women, can’t trust them with anything.  “Feh,” he scoffed out loud.  “I’m Sanosuke Sagara, I’m a friend of Kenshin’s.”

“Uh-huh,” came the response of the Oniwanban members. 

“You don’t believe me?!”  Sanosuke roared at them. 

“Not really,” Yuuto and Sora shrugged.

“Why should we?” Misao asked.

“You look shady,” Hideyoshi observed. 

“Your eyes are shifty,” Okon added.

“Men with hair sticking up like that are usually trouble,” Okina summarized.  Like that Cho swordsmen.

“Sano,” Kenshin broke in with a smile before Sanosuke could retort.  “Is among the friends that I trust the most,” Kenshin informed everyone. 

“Yeah, despite his shady appearance, shifty eyes, poor taste in wardrobe, and vulgar habits he’s really not that bad of a guy… some of the time,” Yahiko snickered in the corner. 

Okina ignored Yahiko, “Well in that case, welcome son!” he greeted with a smile.

“Oh shut up all of you,” Sanosuke pouted. 

“Well it seems that Himura-kun has a lot of friends here.  So let’s drink tonight as a send-off party for tomorrow’s battle,” Okina offered with bright eyes.

“Oh no you don’t,” Omasu broke in with a hard look on her face.  “You’re still healing and just recover consciousness, no saki for you.”  Okina made a face that look remarkably like Yahiko’s every time he tried to sneak a sip of saki and Kaoru took it away and scolded him for it. 

“Your offer is appreciated Okina-dono,” Kenshin informed him.  “But we shall be leaving early in the morning so an early dinner and some rest would be nice.”  Everyone grew somber as they realized the implications of Kenshin’s words.  Tomorrow morning would be the beginning of the end of the fight with Shishio. 

***

While the adults were busy preparing dinner and a room for Kenshin and Sanosuke, Yuuto and Sora were running around getting into general mischief and just being two young boys.  They were in their room when Yuuto was digging through a drawer looking for something and noticed that something was missing.  “Hey Sora,” Yuuto called over his shoulder.  “Did you move the pocket money?”

Sora, who had been in the process of putting the final touches on the distilling apparatus that they had been building looked up at his brother.  “No, why?  Is it not there?”

“I can’t find it,” Yuuto confessed.  Sora joined his brother and together they dug through the drawer but the money did not appear.  The two boys looked at each other in mutual understanding and agreement before the proceeded to tear through every drawer, hidden compartment, and through every object that they could think of, looking for the lost money. 

There was a gentle knock at the door and their aunt, Okon, slid it back a bit to see a certifiable disaster as the boys had thrown around clothes, weapons, bedding, and other odds and ins in their search for the missing money.  “My goodness, just what is going on in here, it’s more a wreck than usual,” Okon exclaimed as she pushed the door back further to take a better look. 

The boys turned to her with a frantic expressions on their faces.  “Aunt Okon,” they exclaimed.  “We lost our money and can’t find it!”

“Oh,” Okon stepped into the room, a look of genuine concern on her face, “the money you’ve earned from running errands for customers, oh dear.  Well how much did you lose?”

“It was 1 yen and 31 sens,” the boys told her in a rush, knowing the exact amount as they had counted it many times, certain that they had a fortune.

“That’s a bit funny,” she held a finger to her lips as she thought about something, eyes staring into nothingness.

“What’s funny?” Sora asked.

“They say one of the apothecary’s was robbed last night, apparently someone needed some sulfur and other items badly because they took them but left money, and now that you mention I think it was exactly 1 yen and 31 sens that was left there.”

The boys stared at her in disbelief.  Did they…?

Okon laughed a little, “Can you believe it, someone trying to take advantage of the situation last night to try and steal some silly old chemicals?  Well at least they had a good enough heart to pay for it,” she winked at the boys, a knowing expression on her face.

“Aunt Okon, but that was our money,” Sora protested weakly. 

“And those chemicals were the apothecary’s,” she retorted.  “And you too know better than to steal from the people here, this is our home and you don’t break your own house,” she told them sternly.  The boy’s hung their heads in shame. 

“Does Mom and Dad know?”  Yuuto asked in a quiet voice. 

Okon quirked her head at the boy’s, “they know, but lucky for you, your aunt left that money there so they think it was you instead and so won’t say a word about it, you got lucky this time kids, but next time,” she turned and gave them a sharp look over her shoulder. “I will hang you out to dry.”  She slid the door closed behind her as she left.

The boys stared at the closed door for a moment until they were sure their aunt was really gone.  “You thinking what I am brother?”  Yuuto asked Sora.

“Yeah next time, we hide our money better,” Sora replied.

“And watch out for Aunt Okon, I’m starting to understand why Dad doesn’t really like her that much,” Yuuto agreed.

“You mean besides the time she tried to kill him?  And how she’s always threatening to do something bad to him if he ever hurts Mom?”  Sora asked, knowing well the story about his aunt and how she had almost killed their father because of a slight misunderstanding about their mother.

“Besides that, he always keeps one eye on her and I’m starting to get why,” Yuuto replied.  Sora could only nod in agreement. 

***

Everyone sat down to the early dinner that Shiro and Kuro had prepared for them.  The only absence was Masaru who had taken up some food to Okina who was still unable to walk much.  But otherwise everyone was talking through dinner, ignoring that this was the last dinner before the two members seating there would leave for a death match with Shishio.  As the dishes were being cleared away, Yahiko turned towards Kenshin and Sanosuke with a serious expression.  “So what exactly is our plan for tomorrow?”

The tone in the room immediately went from pleasant to deadly serious.  Kenshin’s was the only one who smiled, like a single ray of light.  “I’m glad you asked Yahiko,” Kenshin commented cheerful despite the sudden chance in the atmosphere in the room.  “There are some things I’d like you to see to while we’re gone tomorrow…”

“Wait!”  Yahiko cut him off.  “You mean you’re not taking me with you?” he sputtered.

“Of course he isn’t,” Sanosuke pointed out logically.  “You and the Missy are staying behind, after all if you guys get killed then who’s going to pay my tab at the Akebeko?  It’s really been piling up you know.”

Kaoru and Yahiko both turned on Sanosuke in an instant, “you are!” they both yelled at him.

“I’m not paying one sen of it!”  Kaoru declared.

“And you not going to mooch off me you lousy freeloader, I work hard for my money,” Yahiko added. 

Sanosuke pouted, “cheapskates,” he muttered under his breath. 

“You need to work on that argument Sano,” Kenshin told him in an undertone. 

“Kenshin,” Yahiko turned back to the issue at hand.  “I want to go with you guys, I haven’t missed one day of training since you left and I’ve gotten a lot stronger and I want to show you how good I’ve gotten!”

Kenshin smiled a little at the boy, “I know that Yahiko, I can see how much you’ve grown, and that’s why I’m asking you to stay behind.”  Yahiko looked at him in confusion as Kenshin went on to explain himself.  “Tomorrow while Sano and I are fighting the Juppongatana some of Shishio’s men might take the opportunity to strike the Aoi-ya and all those there.  While I have arranged a counter measure already, we still need to leave some of our best behind to defend and protect those who have aided us so far at risk of their own lives,” Kenshin told him, nodding a little to the other members around the table.  “And that is why I ask you to stay behind, to protect our friends,” Kenshin ended with a smile.

Yahiko sighed, obviously disappointed but seeing the logic in Kenshin’s words, “okay, I’ll stay behind,” he agreed sullenly.

“Don’t count us so short Himura,” Misao told him in a happy voice.  “We can take care of ourselves, so you two just worry about your own selves tomorrow and leave the rest to us!”  She bragged proudly with a toss of her head.

Kenshin nodded, “and I thank all of you for what you have done for all of us so far.” 

***

Night had fallen over Kyoto, everyone in the Aoi-ya had enjoyed an early dinner and were in bed for morning that would come soon for all of them.  One figure sat up in a downstairs room unable to sleep.  Kenshin sat against the wall, sword propped against his left shoulder, as was his custom, staring off through the open door into the garden beyond, thinking over things on the marrow. 

“Kenshin?”  Kenshin glanced around as Kaoru entered the room from the hall behind him.

“Kaoru-dono?” Kenshin questioned, straightening up a bit as Kaoru came and sat down next to him. 

“I thought you said you wanted to rest,” Kaoru scolded mildly in concern.  “Should you be staying up like this?”

Kenshin smiled gently at her, touched by her concern.  “It’s all right, I got a couple of hours of sleep earlier so I should be fine.”

“A couple of hours, that’s not enough Kenshin, you need at your best tomorrow after all,” Kaoru replied, worry thick in her voice.

“Don’t worry so much Kaoru-dono,” Kenshin soothed.  “A couple of hours will be more than enough.  And shouldn’t you also be sleeping, why are you up so late?”

Kaoru’s head ducked down, “I couldn’t sleep,” she confessed.  “It’s actually been a while since I really got a good night’s rest.  I just keep having these nightmares…”  she trailed off, looking away. 

Kenshin’s face twisted into concern, is it because of me?  He wondered.  Because of what I have been putting her through this past month?

“It’s just that I’m afraid I’ll never see you again Kenshin, and while I know it’s silly,” she looked at him with a nervous smile.  “I just came down to make sure you were all right, that’s all.  And…”  She trailed off for a moment biting her lip.  “I also wanted to ask you, about what you said this afternoon, about the final secret that you went to learn,” she looked at him with earnest eyes.  “What did you mean, about the ‘purity of your heart’?  I’ve been thinking about it and I don’t understand…”

“It’s all right if you don’t understand,” Kenshin assured her quickly.

She looked at him suddenly, “it’s not fine, not if it’s a matter of your life or death!”  She declared.

Kenshin’s eyes widen a little bit as he flashed back to that moment and his frantic thoughts as his Master charged him, the promise of death in his eyes… I have to live, I have to live, I have to LIVE!... 

Kenshin turned to face the open door in front of himself again, “the final secret is the Amakakeru Ryu no Hirameki,” he started to explain, wanting to relieve at least some of Kaoru’s worries but knowing that he wouldn’t be able to sooth them all.  “It is a battojutsu of ultimate swiftness, a technique for striking with the speed of a god.  And through much hardship its secret has been learned.  It is truly a deadly move for even with a sakabato I nearly killed my own Master.  If I lose myself in the fight, like I did with Cho or Saito then someone will die, and yet if I hold back too much in fear of killing it will render the leaning of the secret move all but useless.  So I must walk that paper-thin line between life and death in the heat of battle, using its speed to defeat but not kill my opponent.  That is why I said it is now up to the purity of my heart,” Kenshin concluded before lapsing into silence. 

“I see,” Kaoru whispered.  “So… you still want to keep your vow not to kill?”

Kenshin turned to her with a confused expression, “of course,” he replied.  “Why would I have changed my mind?”

“Oh nothing,” Kaoru replied quickly, a little embarrassed.  So he’s changed the way he’s talking back to his usual way but not because he’s reverted to his Hitokiri self.  Kaoru felt a little relieved by that, it had been nagging at her for awhile now but Kenshin’s simple reply had laid those fears to rest. 

“Kaoru-dono you worry too much about me,” Kenshin told her gently.  “But you don’t need to worry about me reverting back to my killer self, I have a better understanding and control of it now since my time with Master.”

“I’m glad to hear that Kenshin,” Kaoru replied in obvious relief, she took a deep breath feeling a weight fall away that she didn’t even realize that she had been carrying.  Maybe that’s why his speech pattern had changed so much, because he’s not as afraid of himself and what he can do as before.  Kaoru thought, it made perfect sense to her.  “Oh, and this is for you Kenshin,” Kaoru reached into her sleeve and pulled out the medicine that Megumi had given to Yahiko who had given it to her while they were in the Aoi-ya.  Kenshin took the small container from her.  “It’s the medicine that Megumi wanted you to have.  But it’s not just from her, all of us are wishing for your safe return tomorrow,” Kaoru told him in a meaningful voice.

They looked at each other, their eyes saying what they couldn’t find the words before, but the moment was broken suddenly when Kaoru was slapped hard across the back of the head by an unseen attacker.  “Ow,” Kaoru rubbed the back of her head and turned to face her attacker.  “What was that for?”

Yahiko stood behind her with an exasperation expression on his boyish face.  “Shut up and get over here,” Yahiko grabbed her arm and despite Kaoru’s protests he dragged her back into the hallway leaving a wide eyed Kenshin behind them with no idea what was going on.  “I’ve been watching you too for a while now and how lame can you get?”  Yahiko whispered to her once he was sure that they were out of Kenshin’s earshot.

“Watching?”  Kaoru whispered back in anger.  “And since when have you been a voyeur?” she demanded.

“Voyeur, what’s that?”  Yahiko asked in confusion.

Kaoru rolled her eyes, “ignorant brat,” she mumbled to herself.

Yahiko decided to ignore the insult, more concerned with the business at hand.  “Anyways,” he continued.  “You two have a really romantic thing going here but you’re moving too slow.  I’ll apologize to Megumi later for this but I think you two should…”

Kenshin flinched when he heard the sound of a loud thud that testified to Yahiko getting smacked by Kaoru, “get back to bed this instant and clean out that filthy mind of yours Yahiko or so help me I’ll do it!” Kaoru screamed at the boy and Kenshin heard the sound of running feet that testified that Yahiko had followed Kaoru’s orders, at least about the going to bed part.  Kaoru came back and joined Kenshin in a little huff.

“What was that about?” Kenshin asked mildly.

Even in the darkness of the room Kenshin could tell that Kaoru blushed to the roots of her hair, “stupid kid stuff,” she replied too quickly. 

“Okay,” Kenshin answered, knowing that Kaoru would never tell him and he guessed the direction of their conversation.  They sat together in silence for a moment with Kenshin keenly aware of how close Kaoru was sitting to him in the dark room.  “Kaoru-dono,” he broke the silence suddenly.  “You really should go to bed and get some sleep, it’s not proper for a young lady like you to be sitting up with me like this, people could get the wrong idea.”

“Most people who know us in Tokyo already think we’re lovers,” Kaoru informed him bluntly.  “And the ones who don’t are only because they know us better.  And considering the circumstances I could care less what ignorant people say about things that don’t concern them anyways.”

“But Kaoru-dono,” Kenshin tried to protest weakly.

Kaoru twisted her head so she could look at him, “do you really not want me here Kenshin?” she asked in a serious voice.

Kenshin was at a loss for words, he knew he should say yes as was proper to send Kaoru back to bed but that would be a lie.  With a heavy sigh, he shook his head and Kaoru settled in, leaning her head on his shoulder.  ‘That’s what I thought,” she muttered happily.  “And I wouldn’t have been able to sleep anyways, but at least this way we’re together, for the night at least.”

Kenshin closed his eyes and decided to just give in, he wrapped his arm around Kaoru and held her close.  At least one night of peace… he silently agreed.  The Arai family who gave me the sakabto’s shinuchi, Kenshin thought remembering the little family in his mind and the fight with Cho to protect the baby Iori and return him to his parents, and the son of the great Shukku Arai who had given Kenshin the last of his father’s swords.  Master Hiko who taught me the final secrets, the Amakakeru ryu no Hirameki, the friends in a distinct city.  Kenshin thought about Doctor Gensei, Megumi and his two granddaughters Ayame and Suzume, and Tae and all the others he had met in his time in Tokyo.  And the friends I have here.  They have all supported and helped me on this journey of life, there is nothing left for me to fear.

***

Kenshin slept light, so the moment he heard soft footsteps pad across the floor, he shifted his sword lightly and opened his eyes, completely alert, his right arm protectively shielding the one who’s head rested on his shoulder, still peacefully dreaming, unaware of the danger approaching.  So it was a bit of a surprise when Kenshin when he opened his eyes, braced for the attack saw that it was not an enemy who stood in the doorway but Sanosuke.  Sanosuke just stared at his friend for a moment, before with a jerk of his head and thumb he indicated that it was time to leave.

Kenshin nodded, and Sanosuke stepped around the corner and out of sight to give them some slight semblance of privacy as Kenshin turned to Kaoru who was still peacefully sleeping on his shoulder unaware of what was coming.  Kenshin gently shook her awake, “Kaoru-dono,” he whispered, she moaned a little and Kenshin shook her a little harder, “Kaoru-dono.”

“Kenshin?” Kaoru asked in a little confusion as she sleepily opened her eyes and looked around, suddenly remembering what had happened the night before.  “Is it time to go already?” she asked as she looked around the semi-dark room as the sun was starting to peek over the horizon. 

“Yes Kaoru-dono,” Kenshin told her.  Kaoru came awake in an instant and sat up quickly.  “Oh, all right then.  You and Sanosuke will need something to eat before you go then,” she started quickly as she got to her feet. 

“Kaoru-dono,” Kenshin tried to stop her and tell her that she needn’t waste the time to prepare something as he got to his feet and tried to catch her as she was leaving the room.  As soon as they both stepped out into the hallway where Sanosuke waited patiently, they realized that everyone in the Aoi-ya was already up and Omasu held out a bowl of miso soup for both of them.  Startled, they took the soup out of instinct, Sanosuke was already working on his third one.

“Well then, we packed a small bag of some medicinal supplies and some food in case these duels take awhile, don’t want to fight on an empty stomach if you can help it!” Misao announced brightly as she handed the bag to Sanosuke who slung it over his shoulder and handed her his empty soup bowl.  She stepped up towards Kenshin, a little shy now, “umm Himura, I know you promised to bring Aoshi back and all, but if you can’t I’ll understand and you shouldn’t blame yourselves if…”

Kenshin smiled and put a hand on the girl’s shoulder, “don’t worry about it Misao, tonight you will have the Aoshi you remember safe and sound here in the Aoi-ya,” he swore to her.  Misao smiled a little at that and ducked her head in acknowledgment. 

Kenshin and Kaoru quickly finished the breakfast they had been given.  Once done there was a knock on the front door of the inn and everyone glanced up.  Sanosuke stepped forward and slid back the front door reveling Saito standing beyond, dressed in his usual garb of a police uniform and his katana at his side.  “Are you two ready?” he asked as he looked around the room.

“Yes,” Kenshin and Sanosuke both stepped forward and followed as Saito turned and started walking down the street. 

Kaoru ran towards the door and held onto the frame, “Kenshin!” she called out.

Kenshin turned and looked at her, Sanosuke and Saito both turned and stared back, wondering about the interruption in their journey.  “When we go back to Tokyo, let’s all go back together,” she told him, the true meaning of her words not hidden from any there.

Kenshin replied by stepping back to the inn on quick feet, he reached one hand out and cupped Kaoru’s chin as he kissed her forehead, “it’s a promise Kaoru-dono,” he told her with a smile.

Kaoru returned that smile and watched as he left with the others, disappearing into the city of Kyoto on their way to the duel with Shishio.  Oh Kenshin, please be safe, she prayed. 

***

 “Sanosuke,” Kenshin said as they walked along through Kyoto with Saito, Kenshin was sure to speak in an undertone, trying to keep Saito from hearing even though he probably could hear every word.  “About earlier when you came to wake me up this morning, I want you to know it wasn’t what it looked like.”

“Never crossed my mind that it was,” Sanosuke replied offhand. 

“Good, because I wouldn’t want you to think that anything improper happened,” Kenshin continued in a rush.  “I wouldn’t want to hurt Kaoru-dono’s reputation when nothing really happened.”

“Yeah I know, with you two nothing is going to happen if your actions to date are any measure,” Sanosuke added.

Kenshin wasn’t sure if that was meant as a compliment of sorts or an insult.  “Well as long as you understand the situation and all.”

“Are you two done acting like children yet?” Saito called back to the two.  “Let’s pick up the pace, I would rather get this done with sooner rather than later.”

The two men quicken their pace to catch up with Saito as they headed to Mt Hiei.

***

Hoji took a deep breath to settle his thoughts before he opened the door to Shishio’s favorite room to rest in and found him lounging in a chair with the ever present Yumi on his left and Sojiro on his right.  “Shishio-sama,” he began with preamble.  “We have a report from our informants, Saito, Himura, and Sagara have left the Aoi-ya and are on their way to Mt Hiei.”

“Excellent,” Shiho replied.  “Assemble the Juppongatana at once,” he ordered. 

“Before that, there is a plan I wish to suggest to you my lord,” Hoji protested lightly. 

“There is no plan for a duel, unless you want to plan the orders of the battles or something,” Shishio replied offhand.  His eyes narrowed as he caught the look on Hoji’s face.  “But that’s not the kind of plan your talking about is it?” he asked, already knowing the answer.  “Tell me Hoji, what is going on inside that head of yours?”

“There is only one thing that consumes my thoughts, and that is your absolute victory and I will not let anything stand in the way of that,” Hoji responded in a deadly serious voice. 

“My absolute victory?” Shishio replied, not sure what Hoji was trying to get at. 

“Yes,” Hoji’s eyes were earnest.  “In this battle, we will have 10 people fighting against 3, clearly the numbers are in our favor,” Hoji began to outline his idea to Shishio. 

“Obviously,” Yumi cut in with a slight bored tone.  “So what is the problem with that?”

“Because our enemy are the elite of the elite,” Hoji explained.  “If we follow the plan as it is then we lose the lesser members of the Juppongatana and hence our endgame will suffer.  To avoid that, we must also use the elite of the elite and only have our best men face them.  I propose that we use Sojiro, Usui, Anji and of course you my lord, to stay here and duel with them.  Meanwhile the other 6 members of the Juppongatana should lead a group of men against those at the Aoi-ya, that way after today there will be no one to stand in your way again.”

“That does make a little bit of sense, Sojiro agreed with his false smile.    Shishio meanwhile said nothing, instead he was staring at Hoji with an expression that seemed to bore through his soul.

“Question, why did our plan to burn Kyoto fail?”  Hoji continued.  “The increased police presence was a factor yes, but another critical factor in that was Kyoto Oniwanbanshu who were scheming and plotting in the background unbeknownst to us.  They made it clear that they are a force to reckon with that we had not anticipated and as allies of Himura even if he falls here today they will undoubtedly still stand in our way in the future.  If they had not been a factor than our plan to burn Kyoto would have succeeded.  But behind all our failures there is one simple fact, we let them live.”  Hoji was growing more passionate as he spoke and his eyes practically blazed now for the hatred of this enemy who had so easily destroyed such perfectly laid plans.  He took a deep breath and seemed to calm slightly.  “Now the Battosai is no fool, no doubt he anticipates that we will attack the Aoi-ya, however he is also a samurai.  And as such he will come to the duel as promised despite that.  And in order to achieve your absolute victory of taking over this country we must wipe Himura and all his allies in one fell swoop!”

Shishio continued to stare at Hoji for a moment longer, “tell me Hoji,” he began in a deep voice.  “When did you get the right to lecture me?”  The atmosphere in the room grew suddenly tense and Yumi and Sojiro both looked at Shishio in concern, wondering how things would fare for Hoji for his recommendations.  Shishio got to his feet, “I don’t care if your strategy is brilliant,” he continued.  “I promised Himura a duel and as a samurai I will not go back on my word.  The duels will continue as planned, now summon the Juppongatana to me at once!”  Shishio practically screamed at him. 

Hoji made no move to leave and follow his orders, if anything he looked even more determined than before.  “Since I first swore my allegiance to you Shishio-sama I have made a secret vow, that I will do whatever it takes to help you achieve your victory.  History after all teaches us that nation will belong to men who are willing and able to win no matter what.”  Hoji took off his gloves and threw them to the floor.  “I don’t care what I have to do or what role I might have to play.  Even if I am branded as a coward and an upstart.  Even if you come to see me as an abomination I will do whatever it takes.  We lost the Purgatory and now all we have left is the Juppongatana.  Any plan that would risk our last strong card I cannot stand behind!”

Shishio observed him for a moment, surprised by his conviction.  “This is the first time I have met with resistance,” he admitted.  “Not only from my enemy but also from my own dog.”  He looked over his shoulder to Sojiro, “Sojiro?”

“Yes,” Sojiro answered promptly. 

“Gather the Juppongatana at once, we have things to discuss.”

Hoji waited, wondering what Shishio was going to do now and what he was thinking but Shishio said nothing, in fact he didn’t even look at him even after Sojiro returned with the rest of the Juppongatana and everyone assembled into the room. 

“Shishio-sama, this meeting, is it for the next battle?”  Henya asked.

“Yes,” Shishio replied.  “But first there are some things you should know about our last fight and the Purgatory.”

“That’s funny because that was what I wanted to ask you about,” Usui cut in.  All eyes turned towards the blind man.  “The way I hear it, the Kyoto Fire was nothing more than a diversion which means we were sacrifices in the fight.  Is that right Shishio?”

Saizuchi stroked his mustache, “oh if that is true I think we deserve an explanation Shishio-sama.”

“That was not the original plan,” Shishio continued smoothly.  “The original plan was for all of you to be with me on the Purgatory as we set sail for Tokyo.”

Yumi glanced at Shishio out of the corner of her eye, her heart racing a little faster.  That’s not true, the plan was always to leave everyone behind except for Hoji and Sojiro.  The rest of the Juppongatana were never meant to come.

“But you see, Hoji here changed the plans at the last minute, saying that they needed to be more elaborate and that was when he devised the scheme of using the Juppongatana as a diversion here in Kyoto, isn’t that right Hoji?” Shishio asked as he glanced to Hoji.

Hoji was shaking as he realized the fullness of Shishio’s current plan.  I said I was willing to become an abomination if needed to help him achieve his victory, and here he is making me take the blame for what was always his plan so he has a scapegoat.  “Yes,” Hoji choked out.  “It was my idea, and mine alone.”  He fell to his knees and pressed his head to the floor.  “I am sorry and beg forgiveness from all of you.”

“Oh is that how it is,” Kamatari squealed in delight.  “I wondered why Shishio-sama would abandoned us but it turns out it was just Hoji all along.”

“I see, that is how it was,” Henya mused half to himself.

“Well if that is the reason we certainly can’t dismiss Hoji’s behavior,” Saizuchi reasoned. 

Usui stepped forwarded and kneeled in front of Hoji.  “Why don’t you tell the truth Hoji?” he almost purred at the man. 

Hoji froze at those words.  He can’t have seen through the deception could he?  Hoji wondered, knowing well the powers of this man before him, he half believed that Hoji could see into his soul with those blind eyes of his. 

Hoji reached forward and rested his hand on Hoji’s, his spear resting easily against his shoulder.  “Lies don’t work against my Heart’s Eye,” he told him.  “They see right through them.  If you tell the truth now then you won’t get hurt,” still Hoji said nothing. 

“I don’t know what you mean,” Hoji responded as level as he could. 

Usui jerked his spear back suddenly, moving his other hand just as he drove the spear down and cut off the thumb, from the thumbnail on, of Hoji’s right hand.  Yumi flinched and Kamatari’s hands flew up to her face. 

“Shishio-sama,” Yumi started in a half whisper but Shishio ignored her, too intent on keeping his eyes on Hoji. 

“Now do you feel like talking?” Usui asked Hoji who was panting with the pain as he gripped his wounded hand. 

“I am telling the truth,” Hoji grunted out through the pain.  “The Juppongatana were betrayed my me and me alone.  And I will pay!”  he screamed in sudden fury.  He reached his hands up to his face and placing the middle three fingers of both hands in his mouth he bit down hard, biting off the tips of his own fingers and spitting them out on the floor.  “There seven nails for the seven Juppongatana who were deceived by me!”  He screamed in a frenzy.  “To wash away all suspicion from Shisho-sama!”

Everyone stared at Hoji with everything from horror and disgust to calm appraisal.

Suddenly Shishio stepped forward with an air of authority about him.  “Enough of that, it is time to receive your orders for the next battle!’  Shishio declared.  All eyes turned back to their leader.  “Sojiro, Usui, and Anji are to remain here for the duel against the Battosai.  Henya, Iwanbo, Kamatari, Saizuchi, and Fuji are to go to the Aoi-ya and bring me back the heads of everyone there!”

Hoji’s eyes widen in a moment as he realized that Shishio was going to use his plan after all and he felt a wave of almost relief wash over him, certain that their victory was now secure. 

“Bring back their heads you say, it will be my pleasure Shishio-sama,” Kamatari giggled a little at the thought.  With a little wave she followed the other’s assigned to the Aoi-ya out the door.  Anji and Usui also left to take their places in their rooms to await the start of the duel. 

Shishio turned to Hoji who had struggled to his feet, his blood dripping all over the floor as he panted against the pain.  “Hoji,” Shishio commanded and the man’s eyes snapped up to his leader.  “You stay here, you won’t be able to fight with those fingers anyways.”

“My Lord,” Hoji began. 

“I have seen the fire of your determination today, and because of that I leave all the dirty work to you.  From now on you shall be the first to taste my victory together right at my side.”

Hoji’s eyes filled with wonder at those words, “Thank you my lord!” he bowed.

Outside of the door a figure lurked, having heard everything that had taken place in the room.  Aoshi’s eyes narrowed.  So the Battosai is on his way now? 

Shishio turned to Yumi.  “Yumi, you shall guide the Battosai and his group through the duels.  The first shall be Anji, next Usui, then Sojiro, and then if they are still standing, they are mine.”

“Of course Shishio-sama,” Yumi agreed with a smile.  “It shall be my pleasure.”

Aoshi turned and walked away on silent footsteps, he had heard enough, it was time to make his own preparations for the Battosai’s coming. 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 14

The Fallen Monk

Inside Shishio’s fortress Anji waited, he stood before a wooden stature, his eyes closed in meditation until, without warning, he opened his eyes and punched the statue before him and it exploded into a shower of dust and splinters.  Satisfied, he walked to the small alter he had built at one end of the room and picked up the memorial tablet.  He ran a finger over the names inscribed there, remembering the faces of each person those names had once belonged to before he slipped the tablet into his tunic and turned to face the doorway, ready for his first opponent. 

***

Kenshin and the others looked up at the paved pathway over which six red gate arches stretched.  “The shrine of the Six Gates, we must be almost there then,” he observed.

Sanosuke punched his fist into his hand, “this is enemy territory now, things are about to get interesting.”  With that he followed the others as they walked off the road and headed for the northeast side of the mountain.  Sanosuke chewed on some stalks of grass as they walked along around the mountain.  They were following a small path that looked more like a goat track than anything.  They turned a corner to see a woman dressed in an ornate kimono that was loosen so it showed an almost unseemly amount of her shoulders and back, her obi tied in the front in the manner of a prostitute.  Her face was brushed with makeup and her hair pulled back elaborately. 

“Welcome,” she bowed slightly to the men.  “I have been waiting for you.  From here on I will be your guide through the maze that is our headquarters.  I am Yumi Komagata.”

Kenshin’s eyes narrowed a little, he recognized this woman as always being the one next to Shishio at all times, so he has sent his woman to be our guide then, and probably to also to be his eyes and ears during these fights.

“Using a woman to try and catch us off guard, it’s a common trick so be careful around her,” Sanosuke muttered to the other two men.

“You’re the only one here gullible enough to fall for something like that,” Saito replied uninterestedly as he smoked a cigarette and Sanosuke could feel a shiver go up his spine in anger at Saito’s words.

“Shishio would never set so obvious a trap,” Kenshin agreed and Sanosuke felt even more put out that he was before.

Great, now everyone is ganging up on me today, he pouted. 

“Please follow me,” Yumi turned and led them further down the path to a small cave entrance, she picked up a paper lantern that she had left there and used it to light their way as she went inside.  She walked in without hesitation.  It soon became clear as she was leading them that the cave was an elaborate labyrinth. 

Kenshin looked around with slight interest, even for an assassin’s fortress this place is awfully elaborate.  I’m guessing that if we make even one wrong turn we will find it is lined with traps.

Next to him, Saito was thinking the same thing, even if the maze is only meant to keep people out it is obvious that a lot of time and effort went into the design of this place.

Meanwhile Sanosuke was focused on other matters, man I sure hope that the food they packed us the Missy didn’t make.  I can’t think of anything worse than being stuck in the middle of a series of fights with nothing but the Kaoru’s cooking to go on.

Yumi led them across a rope bridge spanning a great chasm up to a set of wooden doors.  She opened the doors and beyond they saw that the cave had been refitted so that it appeared to be the inside of a building, only there were no screens leading to the outside and fresh air.  Yumi left her paper lantern hanging on a hook on the wall, she blew it out before turning to address the men. 

“Now that we’re here I am to explain the rules of the fights to you,” she told them in a clear voice of authority.  “The fights will be one-on-one.  We have put one man in each room and you are to choose who will be the one to face them, and the other two will not be able to lift a finger to help them.”

“I like it,” Sanosuke said with a wicked grin.  “Man to man, that’s the way to fight.”

“This is going to be tedious if we can only fight one at a time, can I perhaps get all my opponents at once?”  Saito drawled. 

Yumi turned her eyes to Kenshin, “and you Himura-san?”

“I’ll agree to it, under one condition.  I won’t allow any opponent to finish off their opponents after the victory is clear.  I have agreed to fight a duel, but I refuse to participate in a death match,” he ended earnestly.  Saito flicked his eyes at Kenshin for a moment but said nothing.

Yumi laughed at his words, “my, what a soft man you are,” she remarked.  “Very well, your first opponent is in here,” she gestured to a set of double doors nearby with a sign overhead that read ‘Meeting Room’.  She opened the double doors and walked into the room.  The men followed her onto a balcony area with a set of stairs leading down to the floor below.  The first thing that caught the attention of the men was the giant statue in the hall.  It was a grim-faced statue of a god with a sword pointing towards the heavens in his right hand while in his left hand he held a coiled rope and was surrounded by flames. 

“Fudo Myo-o, aka Acala the “Immovable One”.”  Kenshin identified the statue.  He is known in Buddhism as the destroyer of the delusions and the protector of Buddhism, what is a statue like that doing in a place like this?  Kenshin wondered.

“Impressive,” Saito commented, “is there a priest among the Juppongatana?”

While Saito and Kenshin were observing the statue, Sanosuke’s eyes had gone downwards to the bottom floor where there stood a single figure, it was a figure he remembered from his week of standing on the edge of life and death.  “Yeah,” Sanosuke answered in a husky voice, his eyes fixed on the man below.  “One who strayed from the path, a fallen monk.” 

Down below Anji’s dark rimmed eyes shifted upwards and caught Sanosuke’s gaze.  “Is that man an acquaintance of yours?”  Saito asked as he watched the way the two men eyed each other. 

“Yeah, he’s the one who taught me the Futae no Kiwami.”  Sanosuke replied.  He heard Kenshin give a little gasp of surprise. 

“This is Anji, the Bright King,” Yumi introduced, before she closed the doors behind them and the light from the brightly lit hallway vanished and the only light left in the room came from below from the dozens of candles lit in front of the shrine to the god.

“I’ll take this fight, I’ve got a few questions for him,” Sanosuke announced before he started making his way down the stairs to where Anji waited for him. 

This is working out perfectly, Yumi thought.  I don’t have to do anything and it’s coming together just how Shishio-sama wanted it.  She raised her chin a little as Sanosuke made his way down the stairs, thinking about what Shishio had told her before he sent her on the mission to be the guide to Kenshin and his group.

 

“Yumi, for the first fight, I want Anji to fight that thug Sagara,” Shishio instructed.  “See to it that’s the way it falls out.”

Yumi nodded but concern washed over her face, “Shishio-sama, I know this is none of my business but aren’t you a little concerned about pitting that Sagara against Anji?  After all the only one who could have taught him Futae no Kiwami and so he might have pity and hold back on his former student.”

Shishio pulled out his pipe and lit it, “you don’t need to tell me that,” he informed her smoothly.  “While that is a possibility, he is a fallen priest but he once followed the path of Buddha.  And he may be the most compassionate of all the members of the Juppongatana, but whatever compassion he might feel, it is far outweighed by his anger.  And Anji the “Bright King” will tolerate no one to stand in the way of his ‘saving’ of this world.”

 

 

Kenshin glanced down to the monk below, so that is the man who saved Misao-san’s life.  He is the third ranked member of the Juppongatana.  He glanced at his friend as he made his way to the bottom of the stairs.  I don’t know what went on between you two, but be careful Sano.

Meanwhile Saito just pulled out another cigarette and smoked it, leaning against the rails, completely unconcerned with the world at large. 

***

While Anji was the first to leave to prepare for his duel since he would be the first of the Juppongatana to fight Kenshin and his group.  Sojiro and Usei both took some time to prepare for their fight, knowing it would be some time before they were called to take their places.  Sojiro quirked an eyebrow at Usei who was sitting against the wall, sipping the snake venom he had milked from a pit viper into a small saki cup.  He sipped it while the snake still withered around in his hand trying to escape from the grasp holding it firmly just behind the head. 

“Does that calm you down?”  Sojiro asked politely.

“No,” Usei calmly replied.  “It is to keep me awake, although I prefer the sweet scent of a woman’s blood.”

Sojiro gave a little false laugh, “you are still as strange as ever Usui-san.”  Before he walked away, katana casually sheathed at his side.

Usui meanwhile stared down at his cup, thinking back to the moment less than half an hour before when Anji had been about to leave to prepare for his fight when Usui had asked if he wanted to pair up with him and together they could take out Shishio and split his kingdom in two.  Usui laughed a little to himself as he remembered Anji’s reply to his plan, “it’s a waste of my time to talk to you.” 

“Damn monks,” Usui thought to himself.  But with his soft heart, he won’t last long in these duels anyways, and so that is another out of my way.

***

Sanosuke reached the bottom floor and walked up to Anji with a coolness about him.  “It’s been a couple of weeks hasn’t it?” Sanosuke mused.  “I admit I wondered if I would ever see you again, but I never imagined it would be like this, I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t surprised to hear you were working for Shishio,” Sanosuke still chewed on the stalk grass, his attitude a direct contrast to his words. 

“Nor did I,” Anji agreed.  “It is a surprise for me as well, to think that all the things you said in Shimosuwa about your hatred for the Meiji Government were all a pack of lies as you stand here fighting to protect it.  Honestly, you have disappointed me.”

“Well you disappoint me!” Sanosuke screamed at him, his anger finally breaking through as he spit the grass out of his mouth in rage.  “You fraud of a priest!  How can a monk like you help Shishio destroy Japan and all the good people who live here?  What happened to that salvation crap you were always going on about?”

“Nothing has happened to it,” Anji responded calmly to Sanosuke’s screaming.  “The first step in salvation is destruction.”

“What the hell are you going on about?” Sanosuke asked, no longer yelling, but now his voice had lowered into a deadly calm.

“Do you really think salvation can be obtained from rescuing people from suffering?”  Anji asked him.  “I don’t blame you if you do, after all when I was still blinded by the ways of Buddha I thought so as well.  But now I see the truth.  The world is filled with many black hearted people who are no better than beasts and are not worth saving.  And those loathsome beings with human faces steal the world away from those who do have pure hearts.”  Anji place a hand to his chest as he bowed his head a little.  “From the chaos of the Bakumatsu came the power of the Meiji.  But still in this so called ‘new age’ those louthsome beings still roam.  And to save those who deserve to be saved the unworthy must be cleansed, and it is to fulfill this I became a member of the Juppongatana and I have become the incarnation of Fudo Myo-o!”  Anji looked at him with fire in his eyes.  “I will wash this world clean in blood and fire, I will punish the wicked and leave a world for the pure souls who can live and find salvation.  This is the true mission.  This is the form that true salvation must take, do you understand Sanosuke Sagara?”

Sanosuke spat on the floor, “Not a damn word of it,” he shrugged.  “Maybe I didn’t study enough Buddhism or philosophy, or whatever the hell you’re going on about to get it.  But I do know one thing.”  Sanosuke gave him a steely glare.  “I can’t say that I like your damn mission much!”  With that he made a fist with his right hand and punched the wooden wall with all his might.  The wall exploded into a shower of splinters and dust.

“He did the same thing when we were at the Purgatory,” Kenshin muttered half to himself, his eyes widening a bit, he had not gotten a chance to ask Sanosuke about his new ability, too many things had happen in the meantime.

“That makes the fourth time,” Saito remarked, as he continued to smoke.  “Then I suppose it can’t just be chance then.”

“Reincarnations of gods, burning the world to save it.  Makes me sick to hear that crazy talk from you,” Sanosuke told the monk bluntly.  “After I left Shimosuwa I must have practice on at least a hundred rocks before I got to Kyoto and I’ve mastered the Futae no Kiwami now.  Just give up, I really don’t want to kill you with the skill you taught me.”

“Kill me?’  Anji asked with a hint of surprise.  “Mastered the Futae no Kiwami?  Don’t be so conceited boy!”  Anji suddenly stomped the floor with both his feet while elbowing the wall with his right, both of which exploded in a shower of splinters and dust.  Sanosuke’s eyes got wide as he realized the implications of what he had just seen.  “All you mastered was the basics.” He told him coldly.  “This is what it means to be a master.”

He is like Fudo Myo-o in some respects, Saito thought from above.  Like the god, he is processed with rage, and like the god he is trying to use that power to conquer the enemies of Buddha and the ignorant, the ones who are unworthy of ‘salvation’.  Saito took a deep breath, filling his lungs with smoke.  Religion, it has been used throughout the world as justification for the vilest of acts, and here is yet another example to add to the countless ones before it.

Sanosuke stood dumfounded, damn it, he can use the Futae no Kiwami with both his hands and feet?  He wondered.  And not just with his fists but also his elbow?  How can I hope to beat that?

Sano was in such shock he was not even paying attention to the danger he was in, letting his guard down.  From above Kenshin shouted down “Sano!”  Suddenly Sanosuke realized that Anji was stepping forward to attack and he jumped out of the way, saved by Kenshin’s warning.  He moved so suddenly that he didn’t pay attention to his footing and stepped wrong, tripping over his own foot and fell to the floor, but at least safe for the moment. 

Saito watched from above, casually leaning against the rails with a calm expression on his face as though he could care less what the outcome of the fight would be.  “Do you want to switch?” he called down mockingly to Sanosuke.

“Shut up you!”  Sanosuke snarled back. 

“I don’t blame you for being blind and unable to understand my mission,” Anji told him in a sure voice as he slowly walked over to Sanosuke who scrambled to his feet, now on guard for the next attack.  “But it is the blind and ignorant who must die for the salvation of the pure hearted.”

No mistake, Sanosuke thought grimly.  He can use both his hands and feet, hell he could probably do the Futae no Kiwami with his head if he wanted to.  And I can only use a fist, and only with my right hand, Sanosuke clenched his right fists, feeling unequal to the task before him.  It doesn’t matter if I’ve only got one move, I can’t back down now.  But how can I win?

“I thought you were an intelligent man,” Anji told him with a hint of distain.

“A mistake in judgment on your part,” Saito called out from above.

“I said shut up!” Sanosuke screamed towards the smoking cop. 

Kenshin, as always, moved to the more useful and diplomatic approach to dealing with Sanosuke than Saito commonly used.  “Sano!”  He called down.  “Don’t be intimidated, even in kenjutsu two swords does not always beat one.  All you need to win any fight is one well placed blow!” 

Sanosuke’s eyes widened at his friend’s words, he’s right, he might have an edge but I still only need one hit to win.

“So even if you’re not the smartest you can still think of a way to win!”  Kenshin finished.

Sanosuke’s face grew glum, I tell you with ‘friends’ like these… and they wondered why the world is so messed up.  He shook himself, facing his opponent with fresh determination.  “You know he’s right, I do see a way to win.”  Sanosuke announced with renewed vigor.

“Himura-san,” Yumi snapped at the red-haired rurouni.  “These fights are strictly one-on-one.  You are not to lift a finger to help your friend, no matter what.  You agreed to the terms.”

Kenshin beamed at the woman.  “That I did, that was why I used my voice to help my friend, not one finger was raised, wouldn’t you agree Yumi-dono?”

Yumi turned away in a huff, unable to argue with him, “disagreeable man,” she muttered under her breath. 

“Still a slick talker aren’t you?” Saito observed.  Kenshin merely smiled pleasantly as he turned his attention back to his friend below. 

“A chance to win?” Anji quirked an eyebrow at him, ignoring the conversation above them.  “You truly are a fool, there is no hope for you now.”

“Probably right, people have been saying that about me for years,” Sanosuke agreed.  “But at least in this fight, there is a chance for this ‘fool’.”  With that Sanosuke lunged forward with a punch, Anji instantly reacted with a punch of his own with high right fist.  Sanosuke dodged to the side to avoid being hit and Anji instantly struck out with his left hand, coiling his right back to his body in the same motion.  But Sanosuke easily spun around the second attack and ended up outside of Anji’s punch and facing his exposed back.

Just like I thought, he’s spent so much time building up his body to master the Futae no Kiwimi with any part of his body that he’s a wall of muscle and not as light on his feet as me.  It doesn’t matter if he can use his whole body for the Futae no Kiwami, if he can’t match my quickness and I can land just one blow.  All I need to win with the Futae no Kiwami is one hit, so the first one to land the punch wins.  With that, Sanosuke punched Anji in the side with all the force he could muster knowing that might be his only opening. 

Above Kenshin felt a rush of relief and pride in his friend.  That’s the way Sano, he thought as he saw how Sanosuke avoided Anji’s attacks and used them to create an opening.  Like Battojutsu, this Futae no Kiwami is a one-shot attack.

Sanosuke felt a quick rush through him as his fist connect, a thrill of victory, but also of sadness that he had to use this attack against Anji.  But that quickly faded as Anji slowly turned his eyes on Sanosuke, seemingly unfazed by the attack.  “What…the…?”  Sanosuke gasped.

But Kenshin saw it clearly from above, the monk hit his own side, on the opposite side from Sanosuke’s attack, it must have canceled out the majority of the damage from Sanosuke’s attack.  He will still be hurt, but not finished off.  Kenshin marveled at the level of mastery that the monk had obtained and he felt a flash of worry for his friend.  Sano, hold on.

“I’ll say it one more time,” Anji told him in a cold voice.  “This is what it means to master it!”  With that he whipped his left hand, still outstretched in the failed attack on Sanosuke earlier, around in a backhand.  Sanosuke managed to jump back enough but he still got grazed by Anji’s knuckled by the attack.  He regained his feet, thinking for one moment that he was all right before he doubled over and coughed up blood in shock.  

“Sano!”  Kenshin screamed from above. 

I was so close, I didn’t think there was a way to dodge that attack, Sanosuke panted.  He barely even scraped me, but the power behind it was out of this world.  Sanosuke glared up at Anji who slowly approached him.  We may both be able to use the Futae no Kiwami, but yet his is so different from mine.

Anji stopped his approach as he observed Sanosuke’s still determined posture, despite his injuries.  “Give up and turn back now,” Anji warned him.  “I will allow you to walk away this time.”

“Monk Anji what are you doing?” Yumi demanded from above.

“Take your friend’s offer,” Anji continued.  “Allow him to switch with you, or else your alternative is death.”

“Did you hear me?”  Yumi continued, irritated that she was being ignored.  “Shishio-sama order you to kill him.”

“Silence woman!”  Anji yelled at her.  “The decision is mine, I hold the right of Seisatsi Yodatsu!”

Sanosuke stood up a little straighter at those words.  “Seisatsi Yodatsu, you mean the right to decide who lives and dies?”  He asked him.  The fire coming back into his eyes.  “Pff,” he scoffed.  “All this talk about being Myo-o has you actually thinking you’re a god.  You conceited punk.”  Anji’s eyes twitched a little at Sanosuke’s words but that didn’t stop Sanosuke in the slightest.  “And who gave you the right to decide who lives and dies anyways?  Was it Shishio?”  Sanosuke guessed, judging from the expression on Anji’s face he wasn’t far off the mark.  “Well if that’s so then that must mean he’s the greatest god of the all, at least if we’re following your logic and all.”

“Lord Shishio didn’t give me that right,” Anji corrected.  “I agreed to join the Juppongatana only because we both wish to destroy the Meiji Government and create a new world.  But if the new world that he builds is not in line with my mission than I will turn these fists on Shishio and destroy that world as well.”

Above them Yumi straightened suddenly in surprise at Anji’s words, turn against Shishio-sama, how could he?

“So what, you plan on going on destroying the world over and over again until you get things your way, and not care who you might have to hurt in the process if they don’t think like you?”  Sanosuke shook his head.  “You don’t get it do you?  You don’t get it all.  I hate the Meiji Government, and I will never be able to forgive the sins they’ve committed, and there are times I feel like tearing it all down too.  But I don’t because I see now that there are still people who live decently in this world and they need people like me who will fight for their right to live in this world, for their future!”  Sanosuke clenched his fist in sudden determination.  “If you want to give up on the world, that’s your own right Anji, but as long as there is still people in this world with hope than I won’t stand by and let you play god.  I won’t lose this fight, I CAN’T LOSE THIS FIGHT!!!!”

Saito sighed above them, he quirked a look at Kenshin, trying to assess his feelings about the fight.  “Can’t we stop this, it won’t just be a death match now, it will be a bludgeoning and slow and painful death for the loser.”

Kenshin smiled a little as he stared at his friend.  “You know he said something like that before when we fought,” Kenshin mused to himself.  “But it seems to carry more weight now than it did.”

With that declaration, Sanosuke charged forward, aiming a kick at Anji that he didn’t even bother to block.  Sanosuke then leaned in with his left hand and punched at Anji and continued to hit him with a furry of blows, all of which the monk didn’t even bother to move to either dodge or block.  All the while Anji’s eyes were focused only on Sanosuke’s right fists which was the only attack Sanosuke did not use.

“Is he thinking that if quality didn’t work that quantity will?” Saito mused, his cigarette burning down.  “If so he’s an idiot, he is never going to get through that wall of muscle before him.  The only thing that will decide this fight is the Futae no Kiwami, that’s obvious just from the fact that Anji is only focused on his right hand.”

“San knows that,” Kenshin corrected.  “That’s why he’s not using his right hand at all.”  So what is his plan in all of this, he has one right?

“I knew it!”  Yumi screamed at Anji.  “You don’t have the guts to finish off one lousily street thug.  You are as soft as any priest.  Forget that he was once your student and finish him off already, if you do I’ll forget what you said about Shishio-sama earlier!”

The men ignored her completely, finally Sanosuke stopped his attack, panting for the excretion of his frenzied attack, still holding his right hand slight back.  Anji on the other hand seemed unaffected.  “Have you had enough of this futile effort?”  Anji asked him calmly.  “You learned the basics of the Futae no Kiwami in only a week when it took me a full month.  It’s a shame to have to kill a man like you, but yet I must.”

“It’s about to end,” Saito commented above as Sanosuke stepped back, stopping his attack and Anji began talking.  “If you want to stop them and save you friend then the time is now.”

“You sure do worry about Sano a lot don’t you Saito?”  Kenshin quirked back at him.

Saito put out his cigarette on the rail before flickering it to the floor below.  “Don’t be stupid.  I’m only worried what his death will do to your morale.”

“Then don’t,” Kenshin responded calmly, “Sano’s not going to die here.”

“After death you will see my concept of salvation is right and you will accept it in the afterlife!”  Anji yelled as he pulled back his fist for the attack.

Finally, Sanosuke thought grimly, clenching his right hand into a fist, what I’ve been waiting for.

Anji charge forward, Sanosuke raised his left arm as though to block the attack, but didn’t brother to try and dodge Anji’s fist heading right for his chest.

Finally, Yumi thought above.  Anji will finally finish this thug off.

Anji’s fist collided with Sanosuke’s chest and Sanosuke’s head bowed over Anji’s fist that remained outstretched.  Anji raised his other hand in front of himself in prayer, “Namu amida butsu…” Anji prayed.

“It’s a little early to pray for me yet monk,” a suddenly strong voice broke out of Sanosuke’s mouth.  Anji’s eyes widened for a moment, he couldn’t see if from his position but Kenshin and Saito got a clear view of when Anji’s fist hit Sanosuke’s chest, Sanosuke punched himself from behind with his right fist.  Before Anji could recover from his shock over Sanosuke not being dead, Sanosuke raised his right fist and punched Anji right in the chest, only this time with his hands before him there was no way he could neutralize the blow like he did before.  The force of the impact knocked Anji onto the ground and he coughed up a shower of blood as he hit the floor.  “It’s over now,” Sanosuke said with finality before rubbing his back and chest where he had been struck by himself and Anji.  “Damn, I thought that was meant to cancel out the attack or something but it still hurts like hell.”

Above Kenshin smiled at his friend’s victory and started towards the stairs in case Sanosuke needed help, Saito followed a half a step behind him.  Above Yumi couldn’t move in disbelief, Anji can’t be dead, not by this street thug surly?

“Sano you okay?”  Kenshin asked in concerned as he ran to his friend.

Sanosuke was doubled over a little, he coughed and spit up some more blood.  “I’m fine, ready for the next round.”  He assured him and Kenshin raised an eyebrow at his friend.

“Well I guess you were right Battosai,” Saito added as he stepped forward.  “But it was only through a plain stab-in-the-dark miracle.”

“That’s not true,” Sanosuke countered.  Well maybe half true, he admitted to himself.  “I admit I took a gamble matching my Futae no Kiwami against his.  But it wasn’t just luck, after risking my own life to learn the Futae no Kiwami I knew I could do it.”  Sanosuke clenched his fist.  “Stab-in-the-dark, yes.  Miracle, no.”  Sanosuke saw Kenshin’s eyes turn in worry to Anji and he guessed the direction of his friend’s thoughts.  “Don’t worry he’s not dead,” Sanosuke told him a little more cheerfully, at least I hope not.  “But after a direct hit from the Futae no Kiwami he probably won’t be able to get up for awhile.”

Sanosuke was proven wrong only moments later when they saw Anji’s fist twitch.  All the men watched in shock mixed with awe for this man as Anji, grunting in pain, pulled himself up to his knees, coughing up blood but the fire of the fight still in his eyes. 

“No, the blow it landed perfectly,” Sanosuke gasped.

That it did, Anji thought.  You may have picked up on the Kiwami Hazushi, the only way to deflect the Futae no Kiwami just by seeing it once.  But it will take more than one blow to stop me!  He reached into his tunic and pulled out the memorial tablet and held it tightly in a fist.

“A memorial tablet?” Kenshin whispered behind Sanosuke.  He wondered what importance it had that Anji would carry it into battle. 

As Anji held that tablet, breathing heavily against the pain, he remembered the fire, the screams of those trapped inside, a single hand extended from the ruins the morning afterwards, and a simple string of beads wrapped around the wrist of that hand.  Anji felt a rush of fury as he remembered the pure souls that deserved salvation who died in that fire.  And with that rage, so came the strength to continue the fight and he got to his feet.

“It’s over Anji,” Kenshin urged.  “The match is over.”  Anji glared at the slighter man.  “To be honest, in terms of skill you far exceed Sano,” Kenshin continued.  “But in Sano’s fists there is not only power but also the desire to protect those he fights for.  That desire brought him power beyond your desire to save the world.”  Anji’s head bowed a little at Kenshin’s words.  “Anji, you saved Misao-dono’s life.  I do not believe that you live only to destroy.  Why did you decide to become the Fudo Myo-o Acala Buddha?  And who does that memorial tablet belong to that you hold it to your chest, even in battle?”  Kenshin asked, genuine curiosity in his words. 

There was a long pause before Anji raised his head, “this tablet represents those with pure hearts who were not saved by Buddha.  It all started 5 years ago with the Buddhist Hunts.  On the night they destroyed the temple.”

Saito narrowed his eyes, guessing the direction of the story now, in the fourth year of Keio, the first year of the Meiji, when the new government wanted to create a state religion and reduce the power of the Buddhist monks, ordered the separation of Shinto and Buddhism, the Haibutsu Kishaku.  The people, however, interpreted this as an order to abolish Buddhism and so a storm of violence began as many temples, relics, and shrines were destroyed.  And in that chaos it seems it also destroyed one of the monks of a peaceful religion, turning him into this ‘destroyer’ who now that aids one of the greatest threats facing this country.

Chapter Text

Chapter 15

A World Not Worth Saving

In the second year of the Meiji, in the snowy regions of Ezo, the battle between the armies of the Shongunate and the Meiji goes on.  But this mountain valley had already been secured by the Meiji Government and was now welcoming spring.  At the Jugaku Temple a monk was hard at work clearing the fields with a plow while off to the side, two young boys were playing.  The older of the two boys snatched away the doll from the younger and was holding it up so the younger couldn’t reach it.  The monk turned when he heard the cries of the younger boy.  He stepped forward and addressed the children, “umm, Tasuke, Goro isn’t,” he started but the children paid no heed to the gentle words of the monk.

A young girl, starting to mature into a woman saw what was going on and the monk, trying and failing to intervene.  Without hesitation, she stepped forward and hit both boys over the heads sharply.  “Hey Tasuke, stop picking on Goro already!”  She turned to the younger boy who had tears in his eyes.  “And Goro, stop crying over every little thing.  You both have chores, so hurry up with planting those seeds and stop fooling around or so help me!”  She screamed at them and both boys ran off to grab the seeds they were supposed to be planting before the girl could finish her threat.  Then the girl turned to the monk.  “And you, what was that anyways?”  She demanded.  “When you scold them, you have to harden your heart and be like an ogre, otherwise you won’t get anywhere!  And you will have to get rid of that kind look you always were as well.”

The monk scratched the back of his bald head with a sheepish look on his face.  “I’m sorry, I’m just not any good at being angry, that’s just who I am I suppose,” he shrugged a little.

The girl crossed her arms with a humph, “I suppose that’s what makes you who you are Monk Anji.”

“Tsubaki, Tsubaki!”  Another girl came running up to the older one who turned at once to her younger sister. 

“What is it?” she demanded.

“It’s a snake, over there!” the younger girl told her frantically. 

“A snake, why didn’t you say so?”  Tsubaki demanded as she grabbed a hoe and followed her younger sister back to where the snake was to kill it before it hurt any of her siblings. 

Monk Anji watched her run away with a smile on his face as he watched the children work together.  Such good children they all are, even when they fight there is still love between them.  These are truly pure hearts and souls. 

He remembered with a smile teaching the children how to write earlier that winter in the snow as they practice writing Buddha.

 

“Look Monk I wrote it all by myself!”  Cried Tasuke, pointing out the characters he had drawn the snow. 

Anji bent over, resting his hands on his knees, making himself eyelevel with the children.  “Listen children, I want you to know that even though your father and mother are far, far away now.  Buddha will always be there to protect you.”

“Really?”one little girl asked with wide eyes.

“Oh yes,” Anji assured her.  He stood up.  “Buddha hears your prayers and watches over all of us.”

One of the older boy’s raised a hand, “so does that mean if I pray a lot I’ll get taller?”

“Or that spring will come earlier?” the little girl asked.

“Or that you will marry our big sister Tsubaki?”  Tasuke asked innocently.

Anji’s eyes widened a little in surprise at the boy’s question and Tsubaki blushed violently.  “That’s enough, this kind of talk is ridiculous,” she told the children firmly.  “I don’t want to hear any more of it from any of you!” 

Laughing the children ran off and started playing in the snow leaving their older sister fuming behind them.  She turned to Anji with a shy look, “I’m sorry if that embarrassed you,” she apologized.  “It’s just that they think if we marry then we would be a real family.”  She shook her head at the idea.

“A family?” Anji responded, the thought of family was one he gave up when he became a monk.

Tsubaki looked at the prayer beads around her wrist.  “Oh, I forgot to thank you for this the other day.  I love it more than anything so thank you for the gift,” she told him with a smile before she ran to join the other children playing in the snow.

 

Monk Anji’s peaceful reminisce was interrupted when four men stepped through the gates of the temple.  Anji turned in surprise to see three tall and well-built men surrounding a slight and older figure of a man.  “Village chief,” Anji greeted.  “What can I help you with today?”

“We need to talk,” the Chief told him curtly in a tone that brooked no argument.

Anji’s eyes widen a little at the tone in the man’s voice, wondering what would cause such hostility against his small temple. 

***

“Leave the village?” Anji gasped in surprise, unable to believe what these men were telling him.  They sat in a room inside the temple as the men from the village explained the situation to him.

One of the men with the village chief answered the monk.  “You know of the Haibutsu Kishaku,” he scoffed.  “We decided at the meeting to follow the government’s policy and raze this temple.”

“I’m not concerned about that,” Anji protested weakly.  “But what about the children?”  He pleaded.  “These children lost their parents in the Boshin Wars and have no other family to turn to.  Where will they go if the temple is razed?”

“They can leave with you,” the village chief told him calmly.  “Or rather they will be forced to leave.”  Anji’s eyes widened at those words and the Chief went on to explain.  “My predecessor as chief of this village, Tsubaki’s father, sided with the Shogun during the war so the new government has little love for this village.  Because of this, we have been denied the relief the government is giving to other parts of this country.  So that is why we must do this.  Fortunately, I have a friend who knows an official, and if I play my cards right we might be able to change that situation and get this village some much needed relief with the money the government is giving out.  But only if those orphans are out of the way.”

“I understand,” Anji bowed his head a little, “please give us till the end of the week, we will be gone by then and won’t stand in your way at all.”

“All right then,” the Chief replied.  “But if you aren’t gone by then we will throw you out by force if need be.”

Anji sat in stunned shock as the village chief and his men left the temple.  Outside the room the children stood, having heard the whole of the conversation.  Tsubaki gulped, wondering what was going through Anji’s head, what will become of us now?  She wondered.

“Anji, Anji!”

“Monk Anji!”

The children came running into the room and Anji looked up to their worried faces.

“Are they really going to tear the temple down?” the little girl asked.

“But where will be live then?” Tasuke asked.

“We’ve been praying as hard as we can, why is this happening?” the older boy demanded, tears in his eyes as they were losing their home yet again.

“I’m sorry Anji,” Tsubaki told him sadly with downcast eyes.  “This is all because of our father, forgive us.”

Anji instead smiled at all of them, he got to his feet and placed a gentle hand on Tsubaki’s shoulder.  “You have nothing to apologize for,” he assured her.  “I know that what your father did was what he thought would bring peace quickly.  I know that for a fact so there is nothing to worry about.”  He looked around at all the children gathered there, his smile like a single beam of sunlight amidst so many sad faces and unshed tears.  “Don’t worry any of you,” he assured all of them.  “Just concentrate on being happy, I know that is what both I, and your parents wish for you.  But if we stay here we will just bring trouble to the people of this village, so it looks like we will have to move, the only question is where shall we go?  Where would you like to go?”

The faces of the children instantly cheered up, they didn’t mind moving and leaving this second home so long as Monk Anji was still with them. 

“Tokyo, I would really like to go Tokyo!” the oldest boy piped up happily.

“But Kyoto is much better,” the little girl protested.

“I say Hakodate!”  Tasuke added.

“Hakodate’s in the middle of the war stupid,” Tsubaki cut in, and that caused the children to start bickering amongst themselves of which place would be the best for them to move to. 

Anji smiled, a little, he knew the road ahead would be hard for them all after they left the safety of the temple, he looked up to the statue of Buddha.  Buddha, he prayed.  These children have known only suffering for so long, please grant them a happy future, please give them your protection.

***

As the Chief and his men left the temple one of his men piped up once they were outside the temple gates.  “Hey Chief, do we have to go so easy on them?”

“Hmm?” the Chief responded, glancing at his man out of the corner of his eye.

“After all,” the man continued.  “It’s just some poor monk with a rundown temple and no parish except those filthy kids who’ve got no parents.  Nobody’s going to complain about how they’re treated.  And the Meiji Government’s funds have a limit after all.  If we wait too long than other villages will get all the money and they will be none left for us.”

“That’s true,” the Chief agreed.  “True enough,” his face broke into a mischievous grin as he thought about the situation. 

***

Night fell over the temple, Anji sat at one end of the sleeping room writing at a desk by the faint light of a single candle while the children slept peacefully.  Tsubaki opened her eyes and glance around and realized that Anji was still up.  She pushed back the covers and gently padded her way over to Anji’s side.  Anji looked up in surprise at the girl, “can’t you sleep Monk Anji?” Tsubaki asked softly.

“Oh please forgive me,” Anji apologized, laying down his pen.  “I didn’t mean to disturb you.”

“Don’t worry about that,” Tsubaki shook her head.  “Monk Anji, about our moving soon, I want you to know that…”  She took a deep breath before she continued.  “I want you to know that I promise I’ll work hard and do whatever you ask of me.  I’m sure I can help you Anji and be just as useful as any adult.”

Anji smiled gently at her.  “Thank you Tsubaki, don’t worry about a thing.  We are a family and there is nothing we can’t do if we combine our strengths.  Buddha is watching over all of us, so rest assured, and go back to sleep.”

Tsubaki smiled at him and did as he said.  As she reached her bed she kneeled, folded her hands, and prayed in a soft whisper.  “Buddha, I pray that you watch over all of us and protect our family please.”

Anji waited until he was sure she had fallen asleep before he blew out the candle, quietly left the room, and walked out of the temple and down the pathway to a small mountain stream where there was a waterfall.  It was a quiet place and one where he liked to go to mediate.  He sat by the mountain stream, closed his eyes, and began to pray.  He lost all track of time as he was lost in his prayer, asking for help and strength to face the coming days and what that would mean for him and the children.  He was drawn out of his prayer as the cold wind blew the scent of smoke from a wood fire in his direction.  He opened his eyes in surprise, knowing that other than the temple there was no other houses or people nearby.  His eyes widen in surprise as in the direction of the temple he saw a bright light over the tops of the trees, combined with the scent of smoke on the air blowing towards him he knew what that meant.  Fire, no the children!  Without hesitation, Anji ran back to the temple as quickly as he could, his only thought for the safety of the children.  “Tsubaki!  Goro!  Tasuke!  Children!”  Anji screamed as he ran through the temple gates, heedless of everything but the temple burning before him and the thought of the children trapped inside.  He was so focused on his goal he didn’t notice the dark figures near the gate, nor pay heed when one of those figures stepped forward as he ran through the gates screaming and hit him soundly across the back of his head.  He dropped to the ground like a sack of rocks.  He was stunned by the blow but not totally unconscious, in his mind he was trying to move, trying to reach the children, but his body wouldn’t responded.

“Right, that’s the last of them,” a harsh man’s voice echoed over the crackle of the fire.  “They should have gotten out today when they had a chance,” he laughed.  “Now we can finally get some of the Meiji Government money.”

“Come on let’s report to the Chief,” another man’s voice broke through. 

Anji still struggle to move but his body wouldn’t respond, he could feel the tears of frustration and anger at the cold way the men would dispose of a problem, even if that ‘problem’ was helpless children who had never hurt anyone in their lives.  Please, Buddha, please protect the children, they have suffered too much, give them a happy future, please Buddha, save them.  Anji prayed before he succumbed fully to the darkness. 

***

But the morning brought no answer to his prayer.  Anji woke to see the temple had been burned to the ground, nothing but charred stumps and lumber remained.  “Children!” he called as he still hoped against hope that somehow, they had survived.  He ran to where a blackened and charred statue of Buddha still stood surrounded by the blackened lumber of the temple.  He started digging through the charred wood, his hands were burned by the lumber he moved but he couldn’t feel it in his desperation to find the children alive.  But it was a prayer not answered.  For once he had moved enough of the lumber, he found the charred body of a child. 

Anji felt his stomach turn at the sight and tears flowed from his eyes.  “No, no it can’t be.  Buddha please no,” he prayed, he kept digging moving off the surrounding lumber.  It didn’t take long before he found the charred bodies of all five of the children, their final moments clear to the monk’s tear-filled eyes.  All of the them had huddled next to their oldest sister, Tsubaki while she cradled Goro who was still just a toddler.  And even in death she still cradled his charred form, while another hand had tried to reach out as though asking for help and Anji could still make out the charred form of the prayer beads he had given her.

“NOOOOOO!” he screamed.  He glared at Buddha’s statue in anger and punched it hard.  “HOW COULD YOU?  HOW COULD FORSAKE THESE CHILDREN?!”  He collapsed among the ruins, giving in freely to his grief.  “Children, I am so sorry, I failed you, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.”

 “When you scold them, you have to harden your heart and be like an ogre, otherwise you won’t get anywhere!  And you will have to get rid of that kind look you always were as well.”  Anji looked up from his grief as Tsubaki’s words came back to him, his heart harden as he reached for her outstretched hand.  I could not save you in life, but I shall avenge you in death.  And I will bring salvation to this world not worth saving.  He pulled his hands away and saw they were covered in ashes.  First, I must get rid of this kind face of mine, he thought grimly.  He raised his fingers to his eyes and drew dark circles around them, eyes that had never known anger or rage before now looked as though they could never hold kindness again.  He got to his feet.  There is much I have to do, I must train hard so that I can be strong enough to destroy this world and bring true salvation to it through fire.

***

Three years later, in the same small village, in the home of the Chief, there was a trail of bodies of men who had once thought that the only way to better themselves was to kill off a simple monk and children made orphans by the war.  Anji held the head of the village chief between his hands and he slowly crushed his hands together while the Chief screamed in pain, screams that in no way moved the once peaceful and kind monk.

“It’ wasn’t my fault,” the Chief pleaded.  “Please I was wrong, I beg you, please forgive me.”

The only answer the Chief received for them silent monk was a sudden jerk of his muscles and a sickening crack as the Chief’s skull was crushed and he was killed.  Anji dropped the body to the floor before bringing his hands back together in prayer and bowed his head, “Amida butsu,” he prayed before opening his eyes once more.  Without another word, he walked calmly out of the house and into the street.  He continued on the road outside of the village, first the Chief, and now to destroy the Meiji Government, Anji thought to himself as he walked down the dark road.

“Hoh there,” suddenly the figure of a young teenager boy stepped out onto the road, a small paper lantern at his side as he waved one hand casually at the fallen monk.  His face seemed pleasant, but his smile was empty and seemed a contrast to the katana sheathed at his side.  “You are the Monk Anji aren’t you?”  The boy’s eyes surveyed the monk. 

“Who are you?” the monk asked.

“I’m Sojiro Seta,” the boy answered cheerfully.  “My master has been keeping an eye on you for awhile now.  See my master doesn’t much care for the Meiji Government, and he is trying to find a group of likeminded, strong, men because he wants to destroy this government and bring a new order to Japan.”  Anji didn’t betray a thrill of surprise that went through him at those words.  Sojiro’s face grew a little more serious.  “My master would like to talk to you and see if you would join our cause, if you are interested you only need to say the word and I can lead you to him to discuss the details.”

“Who is your master?” Anji asked.

“Shishio,” the boy responded promptly.  “Makoto Shishio.”

***

As Anji finished his tale of the death of the children he had once looked after there were mixed reactions in the room.  Saito’s eyes narrowed slightly, Kenshin’s face took on a sad look of understanding.  Sanosuke’s grim acceptance and Yumi closed her eyes and turned her head slightly from the others down below.

“Do you understand?” Anji asked in a burning voice, his hand clenching the memorial tablet so hard it shook.  “Prayers and wishes don’t save anything or anyone.  All that matters is the mission to save this world not worth saving.  Myo-o won’t lose!”  Anji declared as he tucked the memorial tablet into the belt of his hakama.  “Not until those children follow the ring of reincarnation and are born again into this world!”

“Anji!” Kenshin started to protect but Sanosuke held out one hand and stopped him. 

“Don’t bother,” Sanosuke spat.  “He’s beyond all reason and will only be stopped by the fist.  Stay back, I’m finishing this.”  With that he wiped off his haori and tossed it to the ground.  He punched his fists together in anticipation.  “So come on Anji!”  Sanosuke yelled at him.  “I’ll answer those fists!”

Anji screamed in rage, also ripping off his tunic and tossing it to the floor.  Saito grabbed Kenshin who was about to step in to stop a fight when neither opponent was really fit to continue.  Saito hauled Kenshin to the sidelines.  “I don’t really think either of them is reasonable at present,” he informed him grimly.

Damn it!  Damn it all!  Sanosuke cursed as he lunged forward, punching towards Anji’s chest with his right fist.  Why did it have to turn out like this?  He wondered as his right fists connected with Anji’s chest.  They stood like that for half a second before Anji brought both of his hands clasped together across Sanosuke’s back.

Sanosuke coughed up more blood at the force of the impact and almost fell, but slid a foot forward and caught himself, before bringing himself up with an uppercut to Anji’s jaw and then pulled his right arm back just enough to punch it across Anji’s face.  Why does it have to be like this?  Sanosuke wondered.

Anji spat blood from both impacts, but retaliated by punching Sanosuke in the face.  The force of that impact made Sanosuke slid a foot across the floor.  The both paused for a second before with a yell they both lunged forward, continuing their frenzied attack, neither brothering to block, only to hit each other with everything they processed.  It’s the same thing, it’s exactly the same thing.  He’s exactly just like how I used to be, Sanosuke through grimly.  I kept holding grudges, until I couldn’t hold anymore, all because of the death of Captain Sagara and the rest of the Sekihoutai.  If I hadn’t of chanced to meet Kenshin and get the crap kicked out of me than I would have been just like this.  I man of hate, full of a ton of resentment, just like you Anji.  Unable to let go of the past and see that there is a future.

“What’s happening?” Yumi asked, she had made her way halfway down the stairs, her eyes locked on the fight before her as the blood of both men dripped across the floor.  “They are both attacking with the Futae no Kiwami but neither of them is falling.”

“No, either of them may fall at anytime,” Kenshin corrected, his eyes locked on his friend.  “But they are also fighting with their will not to lose.  Their souls have surpassed their bodies, when the mastery of the Futae no Kiwami is no longer a factor than the match is basically equal.”

“Do you really think so?” Saito questioned.  Kenshin turned his head slightly towards Saito, never taking his eyes off his friend as there was a momentary pause in the battle as both men panted before they lunged forward again to attack.  “He is a member of the Juppongatana even though he is not a swordsman,” Saito pointed out.  “So then why does he carry that dagger on his back?”

The men received their answer as Anji realized that he would not to be able to overpower Sanosuke so easily, he reached back and pulled out the dagger sheathed at the back of his belt. 

Sanosuke’s eyes widened when he saw the dagger and he flashed back to the woods where he had first met Anji and he had seen him stab the ground and destroy a statue several feet away from him.  It’s that move!

Sanosuke threw his arms to protect himself as Anji stabbed the ground, sending a shockwave through the floorboards that knocked Sanosuke back and to the ground.  Sanosuke lifted his head up and glared at Anji who was kneeling on the ground, panting hard.  Groaning Sanosuke slowly pulled himself back up to his feet despite his straining and hurt body, determined that he would be the last one standing in this fight. 

“Touate,” Kenshin whispered, recognizing the theory behind the monk’s attack.

“Obviously,” Saito agreed.  “So that dagger is meant to transmit the Futae no Kiwami through the ground and turn it into a long-range attack, that’s useful,” Saito commented mildly as he calmly pulled out another cigarette and put it in his mouth.  Kenshin gave Saito a look clearly saying that he couldn’t believe that Saito could be taking this whole situation so impartially.  “What?” Saito asked as he lit a match to light his cigarette.

“Nothing,” Kenshin turned his attention back to the fight.

This is it, Yumi thought.  There is no way that rooster head can attack someone outside of arm’s reach! 

Sanosuke got to his feet, panting and bleeding, by his eyes still as determined as ever.  Anji screamed as once again he raised his dagger for the attack.

“Jump Sano!”  Kenshin screamed out to his friend.

Sanosuke was already ahead of Kenshin’s suggestion, knowing what he needed to do to win, time to do the Futae no Kiwami, Sanosuke Sagara style.  He leaped into the air as the impact of Anji’s Touate traveled through the ground to where he had been standing before.  Sanosuke’s leap was designed to bring him towards Anji for the attack.  But Anji’s eyes narrowed suddenly and he raised his left fist as Sanosuke leapt towards him.

He read Sano’s attack!  Kenshin watched helplessly, unable to do anything to save his friend.

Sanosuke’s punched forward as Anji did and their fists collided together.

Enough Anji, you have suffered more than anyone should.  But it’s time to finally let go and let those wounds start to heal.  Sanosuke thought in the moment as their fists initially collided.

My wounds do not matter, they are merely scars and I no longer feel pain.  I will continue to fight as Anji, the “Bright King” until my mission is complete.  Because that is what the children who suffered and died in that fire need from me, Anji thought as he shifted his fist into the second impact the instant after the initial collisions of their fists.

You idiot!  Sanosuke thought as he shifted his hand from the second impact of the Futae no Kiwami, instead of keeping his fist closed, he opened his hand suddenly, flicking his fingers in a third impact an instant after the second.  You don’t understand anything!

The impact of Sanosuke’s third hit, not matched from Anji, knocked the monk back, breaking his hand, he stepped back and slipped on the floor splattered with their blood and collapsed to the floor.  Likewise, Sanosuke’s right fists dripped blood and Kenshin was sure that he had probably shattered every bone in his hand.  He struck with his fingers a top of the Futae no Kiwami, Kenshin marveled.  Trust Sanosuke to break the rules and boundaries he is given.

Kenshin thought for a moment that the fight had to be over, that Anji wouldn’t be able to get up after that but he was proven wrong when Anji started pulling himself back up, how much more can he take?  Kenshin wondered in disbelief.  He glanced to his friend who looked as though he was only barely able to stand.  How much more can they both take?

“Anji stop!” Sanosuke snapped suddenly as Anji pulled himself back to his knees.  “Those children who died don’t give a rat’s ass about your ‘mission’.  All they want is for the monk who took care of them to be happy.  Look,” Sanosuke pointed at the monk.  “Drenched in blood, they’re crying out in pain.”

Anji’s eyes widened as he looked down to see that Sanosuke was right, the memorial tablet had been stained with his own blood during the fight.  Children…

Sanosuke’s voice softened a little, “you loved them a lot, so losing them drove you to be lost in that rage.  But that’s not what they wanted.  Listen to their sprits if you doubt me.”

Anji closed his eyes, the tears filling his eyes as he thought of each of them, such innocent children, such pure souls.  The tears ran down his face to the floor where they mingled with the blood that had been shed in the fight. 

Sanosuke turned and grabbed his haori off the ground, swinging it over his shoulder calmly and started to walk back towards Kenshin and Saito who stood near the foot of the steps as behind him the monk cried.  Kenshin felt a wave of relief that the fight was truly over now and that Sanosuke was all right after all, right until Sanosuke took his third step towards them and suddenly collapsed.

“Sano!” Kenshin ran to his friend he was panting on the ground.  “Sano are you all right?” he asked frantically.

“Don’t worry Kenshin, I’m fine,” Sanosuke shrugged him off, though he didn’t even bother to try and sit up at the moment.

Kenshin raised an eyebrow at his friend that was covered in blood and bruises, and he was sure several fractured and shattered bones to boot.  “So you’re really not in pain then?” he retorted sarcastically.  He glanced to his right hand.  “Not even the hand that you broke in that fight?”

Sanosuke thought about it for a moment, “Well it’s not really the hand that hurts so much as the whole arm,” Sanosuke admitted.  “From the neck down,” he added.  “And maybe a little above that too.”

Kenshin sighed, he grabbed the bag of medical supplies they had brought with them and the medicine Megumi had sent and started treating his friend, wrapping up his wounds and rubbing his open lacerations and bruises with the medicine, all the while Saito just leaned against the wall and smoked as he observed the scene.

“Ow, Ow, OW!” Sanosuke pushed Kenshin away, finally sick of his nursing as he sat up.  “Did you take some medical training from that witch Megumi or something?” he wondered aloud.

“It’s your own fault,” Saito observed before Kenshin could respond.  “You should have taken my advice and worked at least a little on your defense, maybe then you would have made it through this fight without looking like bruised meat.  Now there are 7 more Juppongatana members and only 2 of us,” he bemoaned.

“What!”  Sanosuke growled in reply.  “I ain’t dead you know.”

Saito raised an eyebrow at him, taking in his injured form with a mocking expression.  “You’re not thinking you count do you?” he drawled.  “You don’t even have a right hand, you’ve broken it completely with the way you kept hammering away, the injured will only hold us back,” Saito told him coldly as he turned and started walking up the stairs past a stunned Yumi who was still trying to process the fact that Sanosuke had won against Anji.  “You should go back.”

“Like hell I will!” Sanosuke retorted.  “I can still fig-” he started to clench his right fists out of reflex but it shifted the already broken bones and Sanosuke howled in pain.

Kenshin rolled his eyes, “You really have been acting more stupid than usual lately,” he mumbled under his breath before he finished tending to Sanosuke.  “At least the bleedings stopped,” he added in a louder voice.  “I’ll stabilize your hand with a wrap.”  As soon as Kenshin was done wrapping Sanosuke’s hand as tightly (despite Sanosuke’s protests) as he could, he started to pack away the bandages back into the bag, certain they would need them for the future fights. 

Sanosuke saw the case of the Megumi’s medicine on the floor as Kenshin was packing away the other items.  Sanosuke snatched the container and, grimacing got to his feet.  Kenshin’s head spun around in surprise to see Sanosuke on his feet so soon.  “Anji,” Sanosuke took a few hesitant steps forward.

Kenshin scrambled to his feet and laid a gently hand on Sanosuke’s shoulder as they both looked at the monk, still kneeling with his head bowed, the very picture of defeat before the statue of Myo-o.  “It will take more than Megumi-dono’s medicine to heal those wounds,” He told Sanosuke softly.  “Sano?”  Kenshin questioned as Sanosuke continued to step forward towards the monk.

“Anji,” Sanosuke repeated as he drew closer to the monk.  “There is nothing wrong with trying to save the weak,” he told him.  “You’re just doing it the wrong way, but this isn’t the end.  Mistakes can be fixed, you just have to start a new mission.  Not as a god of anger, but as a priest of kindness.”

“People are not saved so easily by kindness alone,” Anji replied in a broken voice.

“I know that,” Sanosuke agreed, thinking back to Captain Sagara and the manner of his death.  “I learned that same lesson 5 years ago.  But even so, those kids were saved by your kindness everyday right up until they died, so for their sake you had best not let it end here.”  Sanosuke turned and started to walk away.

The tears fell down Anji’s eyes once more as he thought of Sanosuke’s words and realized that he was right.  Until the children were killed in the fire, they had been saved by the kindness of one simple and humble village monk.  “It may still not be too late,” Anji raised his head as he addressed the others.  “If you leave now you may still make it to the Aoi-ya before the rest of the Juppongatana get there.”  Sanosuke spun on his heel, Kenshin’s head snapped to attention and even Saito stopped smoking for a second as they listened to Anji’s words.  “The only Juppongatana ahead of you that can fight are Usui and Sojiro, the rest went to the Aoi-ya to kill your friends.”  He warned them.

“Shishio,” Kenshin swore as he thought of everyone left at the Aoi-ya.

“Wait a moment,” Yumi spoke up suddenly.  “It wasn’t Shishio-sama’s idea, that was Hoji’s idea, so don’t blame him!”

“What the hell does it matter whose idea it was?”  Sanosuke demanded.  “They’re still our friends and we still have to help!”

“It won’t do any good to turn back now,” Yumi scoffed at him, her nose a little in the air.  “It’s useless to go back through the labyrinth, you will only get lost and both you and your friends will die.”

Sanosuke growled at her, meanwhile Kenshin’s was thinking hard over the situation.  “Sanosuke,” Kenshin snapped, Sanosuke turned his attention to his friend and Kenshin softened his voice.  “We have no choice but to trust in their own abilities and keep moving forward, we can’t risk getting lost by backtracking.”

“But Kenshin…?”  Sanosuke started but Kenshin was already moving up the stairs.

“Yumi-dono, if you would please show us the way to the next room,” he asked politely as he climbed up the stairs. 

“Hey wait up,” Sanosuke limped across the room as fast as he could as Yumi started to lead the others onwards. 

Saito glanced at Kenshin as the made it back to the brightly lit hallway, trying to read his thoughts, sure that this news that the Aoi-ya was under attack would damage his concentration but he could read nothing.

Kenshin’s face seemed perfectly calm but underneath he was a raging sea of emotions, all of them forming together into one prayer, Please Master, please get there in time.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 16

Aku Soku Zan

At the Aoi-ya, almost everyone was crowded into the upper room overlooking the front of the inn.

Shiro and Kuro came running into the room, the only whose who had been absent.  “It’s no good Okina, they have us completely surrounded, front and back of the inn, they are all covered.  There’s another 97 men covering the back gate.”  Kuro reported quickly.

Okina was sitting propped up with some pillows and he mused over the situation.

“Mom, Dad, what do we do?” Yuuto and Sora asked. 

“Do you think Aoshi told them about the tunnels?” Misao asked Okina, seeking his wisdom and guidance in the situation. 

“Impossible to say, but there is the possibility so we can’t risk sending the boys to safety since it may be a trap.”  Okina mused.

Shiro and Omasu each grabbed the shoulders of one of their boys, though it was unclear if it as to steady the courage of the boys or themselves.  Okon took a step closer to her sister and her family, a determined look on her face. 

Kaoru glanced through the shutters of the windows, “there has to be about 150 men out there,” she guessed.  Oh Kenshin.

“I guess Himura-san’s predictions were spot on,” Misao grimaced as she also glanced out the shutters with Kaoru, “and there’s 167 of them total, front and back,” she corrected absently. 

“So what’s that, like 20 or something for each of us?” Yahiko asked.  “Shishio really doesn’t want to make this easy does he?”

“Everyone, worry less about the defeating the enemy and concentrate on just keeping yourself safe,” Kaoru told them earnestly. 

“Kaoru-san’s right,” Misao added.  “While I’m Okashira no one is given permission to die, and so help you if you do because you’ll have me to answer to!”

“Yoo-hoo!” a high-pitched voice called from down below.  Kaoru and Misao both glanced out the windows to see three new figures join the rank of masked men blocking he street below.  One of the was a an overly obese man wearing a simple set of narrow hakama’s and vest with a stupid expression on his face as though he had never had one intelligent thought in his entire life.  Beside him was a tall woman, dressed in a simple but fancy kimono and obi combination.  She had short cut hair and carrying a giant scythe, and next to her was a short little man clothed all in black and wearing a mask. 

Aside from the scythe woman they could all be something that escaped from the freak show, Misao thought.  But it looks like that the woman is the one in charge at present.

“Oh Oniwanbanshu, won’t you come out and play with us?” the woman called again, seemingly to thoroughly enjoy the situation.  “Oh don’t worry about these men with us,” She tossed her head, indicating the wall of masked men behind her.  “They are just here as a wall to make sure you don’t get away, we are your real opponents, so why don’t you come out and die?”

***

Yumi stopped outside of yet another set of doors in the endless maze of hallways.  Sanosuke glanced at the name of the room, the Room of Screams, sounds like a fun place.

“This is the second room,” Yumi announced formally.  “If you open this door you won’t be able to move forward unless you can get past…”

“Spare us the buildup,” Kenshin snapped.  While his face and posture had seemed calm till present, his words and current actions betrayed the true anxiety he felt upon learning that he had been correct in thinking that Shishio would send someone to harm those at the Aoi-ya, but I never thought he would send members of the Juppongatana, let alone so many.  Kenshin kicked the double doors down, ready to get this second fight over with so they could move on as quickly as possible. 

The room beyond had no light at all, and they peered in by the light cast from the candles in the hallway. 

“Usui, where are you Usui?” Yumi demanded, straining her eyes to see into the dark room.

“There is no need to be so noisy,” A man’s deep voiced from the middle of the room beyond.  One of the shadows seemed to detach itself and stand up, showing the figure of a man.  As all of their eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness of the room beyond, they could see that the room had been painted with eyes all over the walls and a giant one on the floor, the middle of which had been where Usui had been sitting, waiting for them.  “Welcome,” he greeted them.

“Usui,” Yumi growled a little under her breath.

“Don’t act so familiar with me woman,” Usui replied with a dangerous note in his voice.  “After Shishio is dead you won’t even deserve to lick the ground at my feet.”

“After Shishio is dead?” Kenshin questioned, not understanding.

“One, two, three of you then.  I was sure that Anji would be able to kill at least one of you,” he laughed a little to himself as he stood up.

Wait a second, he’s blind, so how can he tell how many of us there is, aside from Kenshin and Yumi none of us have said a word?  Sanosuke wondered.  What kind of magic does this guy process?  He wondered as he looked around at all the painted eyes that seemed to be watching him and shivered. 

“Well that’s all right I suppose,” Usui continued calmly.  “You shall give me a good workup before I kill Shishio, I shall enjoy adding your heads alongside his in my collection.  So which of you would like to see the afterlife first?  Perhaps it will be the one who faced Anji and is barely standing on his feet and can’t stop shivering with fear, that tall one, Sagara I believe?” Usui pointed straight at Sanosuke whose eyes opened wide in shock.  “Or perhaps it will be the smoker of the group, the former Shinsengumi member, Saito.”  He moved his hand to point at Saito before he cocked his head with a slight smile.  “Or maybe the tiny one who can only be the Battosai, and judging by your cold sweat you must have heard of the crisis at the Aoi-ya then from Anji?  Well I suppose it was only a matter of time before he betrayed us.”

“Enough of this,” Kenshin stepped back into a crouch, his hand going for his sword.  He saw beyond Usui was another set of doors and he guessed from what Yumi had said before that the way to the next fighter was beyond those doors.  “Move aside freely and let us pass or I shall move you by force.”

Usui smiled and readied his spear for the attack, crouching a little in anticipation.  Kenshin took that as his answer.

“Kenshin look-” Sanosuke started to warn his friend.  Kenshin was so focused on Usui, thinking that was what Sanosuke was referring to that as he lunged forward he completely forgot about Saito at his side, that was until his lunge forward collided with Saito’s backhand in his face, knocking him back. “-out,” Sanosuke finished lamely as Kenshin stumbled back a couple of steps, rubbing his face and staring at Saito in surprise.

“Anger in battle is useful,” Saito told him coldly.  “Impatience never.  “You should know better.  Your impatience will only create tension and lower your effectiveness.”

Kenshin chewed on his tongue, not wanting to admit the truth of Saito’s words. 

“I’ll take care of this one,” He told him firmly, as he turned his eyes on Usui.  “You two go ahead.”

“Saito,” Kenshin started to protect.

“Go,” Saito told him firmly.

Kenshin wasn’t blind to what Saito was offering by allowing them to move forward faster.  “Sorry,” Kenshin told him softly before he ran quickly towards the door on the other side.  Usui turned to try and attack him but Saito sprung forward in that instant, drawing his sword and deflecting the spear as Kenshin danced by, one eye on Usui and Saito, a silent thanks in his eyes as he made it to the doors beyond.

“Hey wait, you can’t!”  Yumi tried to protest as Kenshin took off running, but was cut off when Sanosuke suddenly grabbed her around the middle and took off after Kenshin, right around Saito who had suddenly engaged Usui in a fight. 

“Stop protesting, you’ve coming with, got to show us the way!”  Sanosuke told her as he ran through the doors on the other side. 

“Get your hands off me!”  Yumi screamed at them as they disappeared into the hallway beyond.  “The only one allowed to touch me is Shishio-sama!”

Saito disengaged and jumped back from Usui as the others disappeared in to the hallway beyond and their footsteps faded into the distance. 

Usui laughed a little, “it seems your heart is softer than I heard, Hajime Saito.”

“And your powers of perception are less accurate than I heard,” Saito calm retorted.  “The Battosai, with his vow not to kill, would only get in the way of my killing you.”

***

Kenshin and Sanosuke ran down the hallway as fast as they could, so far there had been no turns so there was no need to stop and ask Yumi for directions.  Not that she seemed very corporative at present.

“You won’t get away with this!”  Yumi screamed at them as she was carried like a dog under Sanosuke’s arm as he ran.  “I could care less if Usui lives or dies, but he will kill Saito for sure and then he will be coming after both of you!”

“Saito won’t die that easily,” Sanosuke growled at her.  “Just shut up will you?  At least until we get to this next hall.”

Yumi glared at him, “You don’t know about Usui’s ‘Heart’s Eye’, each time he takes a life it becomes even clearer, it’s like the work of a god.”

Sanosuke scoffed at that, “I just fought one guy who thought he was a god, turns out he was wrong, and I’m guessing that this Usui guy is filled with the same hot air.”

***

“You, kill me?” Usui asked with a hint of incredulity.  Saito’s face never changed, he just wore his superior expression as he faced this blind swordsman.  Usui tilted his head a little, “I see, might your anxiety and desire to kill me have something to do with the 50 policemen I butchered in Kobe?” Usui asked.  Saito’s eye twitched a little at those words and Usui smirked, remembering that night so clearly…

 

Usui stood in the middle of the street, a group of police officers stood before him.  “Just take him down,” One of them yelled, though the pile of bodies before the blind swordsman testified that such as thing would not be as easy as it seemed. 

“You,” Usui pointed at one man whose eyes opened in surprise.  “The third one from the right, I can see you are from Satsuma, you have the look of someone processing confidence and skill.”

“But how do you know that?” the man demanded in shock.

“I see…” Usui pulled up his blindfold, revealing his blind eyes.  “Everything.”

Beside him, the men started inching back, not sure what kind of magic this man processed but it was clear he was no ordinary blind man.  “Don’t panic, calm down,” the Satsuma officer whispered to them.  In a louder voice, he called out to Usui.  “I’m coming over myself to sort this out, I don’t want any more casualties.”  Meanwhile he was signaling with his hands, indicating for the men to spread out to ambush Usui from all sides. 

Usui smiled as the men moved soundless around him, “ambushing from both sides.  It’s a good trick,” he told them and every man stopped in surprise.  “Both merciless and vicious, just like the current government.”

“What are you talking about?” The Satsuma officer asked, trying to salvage the situation. 

Usui laughed in response, “And now your surprise is turning to fear, I can hear your heart quicken as though I was holding it in my hand.”

“Get him!” the officer called once the men were in position, readying to deal with this man quickly.  But it was no use.  Usui effortlessly dodged the attacks and took down every single one of the officers, ending with his spear impaled into the body of the Satsuma officer, laughing all the while.  “How long can you endure this pain?”  Usui asked as the officer choked and gasped for air.  “How many heart beats will it take before you give into the pain?”

There was a gurgling noise as the man died and Usui tossed his body away like trash.

 

“Even though my eyes are blind, my ‘Heart’s Eye’ can see your mind clearly, and I can see you are blazing.  There is nothing you can hide from me.”  Usui told Saito smoothly.  “You want revenge for your dead compatriots, and your justice will only be obtained through my death, just don’t go so deep that you lose your reason,” Usui advised him.

“Mmm, just as I thought,” Saito mused.  “Your Heart’s Eye is no witchcraft,” Usui’s face lost its grin at those calm words.  “You may be able to see my heart, but not the thoughts that govern it,” Saito shifted his grip on his sword as he stepped back into the Gatotsu stance.  “The police are like the Shinsengumi,” Saito explained.  “We lay down our lives to protect the people of Japan.  Once we have taken on that duty you accept that death is a part of it.  To dwell on every little life like the Battosai is folly.  So I don’t have feelings of revenge to battle with, since you can’t see my reasons I’ll explain them to you.  There is only one thing that drives me, my own brand of justice.  Aku Soku Zan.”

Usui’s face remained impassive for a moment before he broke into a huge grin, raised his spear and readied for the attack.  “Very good!”  He commended.  “And so fitting for the former head of the 3rd squad of the Shinsengumi.  I revel in a worthy opponent, I look forward to bathing in that hot blood of yours.”

Freak, Saito thought as he lunged forward in the Gatotsu.  Usui shifted his spear quickly, bringing the weighted end down and using the weight at the end of the short spear to accurately block Saito’s katana. 

So the Gatsu of Hajime Saito is worthless, Usui thought as with a flick of his blade he knocked Saito’s sword off course and retaliated with his own attack, whipping the spear and attacking multiple points with deadly swiftness.  Heritage Sword, Hyakka Ryoran- Hundred Flower Splendor.

Saito blocked the attacks and leaped back as quickly as he could to put some distance between himself and Usui.  He halted just outside of Usui’s range, his left shoulder with a nasty gash in it, a minor cut on his right arm, but a more serious laceration on his right leg.

“Only three wounds, not bad,” Usui complimented.  “You seem puzzled,” he continued.  “Wondering how a blind man so effortlessly parried your ‘invincible’ gatasu?”  He mocked.  “Not blind luck surly?” he grinned a little wider and Saito’s face sneered at him for the poor pun.  “Do you want to know, well do you?”  Usui laughed.  “Well I’ll satisfy your curiosity before you die, you were right, my Heart’s Eye is not witchcraft, it is this,” he tapped a finger at his ear and Saito’s eyes quirked, not quite understanding what the man was getting at.  “In the days of the Revolution,” Usui went on.  “I fought against Shishio and lost my sight, because I was blind and useless to the Shogun, I was quickly discarded and my days of hell began.  With no idea of where I was going I stumbled from place to place until I ended up lost in the mountains, walking the fine line between life and death.  Finally, I collapsed and my heart really did stop for a moment.  But then I came back to life, and while I could stand the hunger, the thirst was unbearably, but then I heard the sound of a stream.  So I pulled myself to my feet and ran towards that sound as fast as my body could carry me.  It took me over half an hour to reach the river, and when I did make it I realized that when I had heard it I had been far away, something had been awoken in me, a superhuman level of hearing.  And now, humans are nothing but a collection of sounds to me, the heart beat tells me their emotions.  The friction of bones and the stretching and contractions of the muscles tell me their attack stance.  So against me that Gatotsu of yours is nothing but a simple thrust!”  He smiled wider.  “Your heart rate just went up again.”

“It would seem your clothing isn’t the only thing stupid about you,” Saito scoffed. 

“What?” Usui demanded.

“Don’t underestimate the Gatotsu,” Saito warned him as he snapped his fingers, that simple sound wave hit the weighted ball at the end of Usui’s spear and it exploded under the additional stress after the impact with the Gatotsu.  Usui glanced his sightless eyes towards his spear in surprise.  “Thank you though for the information on the Heart’s Eye.  I may not superhuman hearing like you, but I do have a clarity that only swordsmen who have lived through many death matches process, although I prefer to call it the power of observation, would you like to know what I see about you?”

“Oh do please indulge me,” Usui replied pleasantly. 

“Well the first thing is the real reason you became allies with Shishio.”  Saito pointed his sword at Usui.  “You said that you wanted to kill Shishio but that doesn’t ring true.”  Usui stopped smiling at his words.  “During your nice lecture, when you mentioned how Shishio took your sight and because of that you almost died there was no rage or hatred on your face, in fact you were sneering.  That’s when I realized that you had given up all hopes of getting revenge on him.  You thought with your new found level of hearing and the edge it gives you in a fight that you would be able to beat him, but you realized that he is still more powerful than you.  So you decided to accept his offer to serve as long as you could still try to kill him so that no one would realize just how beaten you truly were.  I may have left out a detail or two here and there but I think that about sums up everything,” Saito concluded with a cruel look on his face. 

Usui started chuckling suddenly, and Saito joined him, before long they were both laughing loudly, cruel laughter.  “What are you laughing about!”  Usui screamed suddenly in rage.  Saito stopped laughing suddenly and simply smirked at the man he had summarized so easily.  Usui unscrewed the bottom half of his spear and the half with the shattered weight dropped to the floor as he grabbed the tortoise shell shield and held both his spear and shield at the ready.  “Hajime Saito, your powers of perception are great, but there can be only one user of the Heart’s Eye and that’s me.  It is time for you to die!”

Saito stepped back into the Gatotsu stance.  “The mongrel dog who ran away with his tail between his legs from a fight should not bark.”

“I’ll kill you!” Usui screamed.

“Try it,” Saito replied calmly.  A shield from a tortoise shell, he observed coldly.  I don’t know what you have hidden in it but there is nothing that my Gatotsu can’t pierce.

Usui charged forward and Saito also leapt forward to meet that charge.  He stabbed forward with his Gatotsu and Usui blocked with his shield, once Saito’s katana hit the shield, Usui deflected the shield downwards and Saito’s katana, instead of piercing it has he had intended it, the sword simply rolled off and to the side, leaving Saito open. 

Once Saito’s weapon was deflected, Usui brought up his shield and shoved it into Saito’s face, blocking his line of sight momentarily.  There is no trick hidden in my shield, my timbe, instead it is obvious to those who look.  It is used to deflect a weapon not by its strength but by its roundness, and then to block an enemies’ line of sight while with the short spear, rocin is used to thrust!  With that Usui plunged his spear in to Saito’s left leg. 

Saito called out in pain before Usui jumped backwards, putting some distance between Saito and himself as Saito brought his weapon around, intending to strike at Usui before he moved out of his range. 

Usui held up his blood-stained spear.  “This timbe and rocin are part of the secret marital art of the royals in my homeland of Ryukyu.”  He explained with a laugh.

Saito glared at him for a moment, before with a snort, he stepped back into the Gatotsu stance.

Usui smirked at him.  “The way of the Shinsengumi was always to polish one’s best attack into a form of perfection.  Hence your Gatotsu, a “finished” version of the thrust.”  Saito lunged forward once again.  And yet, as long as I can hear the moment of impact on this timbe than I can never fail with my three staged attack!

Once again, they charged each other, and this time the fight had the same result, only this time Saito was stabbed in the right leg.  This time Usui didn’t jump completely outside of Saito’s range, he saw no need to, Saito was wounded and would not be able to move quickly with three deep gashes in his legs. 

“The victor is decided,” Usui told him coldly.  “You can no longer use your Gatotsu with those wounds on your legs.  “I hope you are prepared, and not for a quick death either,” he told him in a sure voice.  “You spoke of something truly in my heart, something that even Shishio does not know and I will make you regret what you saw.”  He finished as he licked the blood off the tip of his spear.

Saito never once lost that look that was a mix of superiority and disgust he had since he had first stepped into this fight with Usui.  “As I thought, you distract yourself from the shame of not defeating Shishio by torturing those who are weaker than you.  You really think Shishio doesn’t know?” he questioned.  “There is no way he could be that stupid, I believe he sees right through you but plays the fool so that he can keep playing you like a good little puppet.  And in the end, it is you who sees nothing.”

“SHUT UP!” Usui screamed, shoving his shied up and in front of Saito’s face, blocking his line of sight.  “What now?” he demanded.  “You can’t use the Gatotsu this close to your enemy even if you could still move.  And you can’t see anything through my timbe while I can hear everything you do.  It’s time for you to be afraid, blinded like a drama doll you can visualize my stabbing you in the face through this shield.” 

Not a bad idea, Saito thought to himself, as he suddenly shifted his upper body only, raising his sword and thrusting forward with everything he could, piercing through the tortoise shield and stabbing Usui through the stomach.  The force of his thrust split the tortoise shield in half.  Usui collapsed to the floor, Saito’s blade still impaled through him.  Damn, missed.  But at least this will shut the freak up.

“Wha- what was that?” Usui choked out the words as blood filled his mouth.

“As you said the Gatotsu is a highly developed thrust,” Saito told him calmly, “and as such it takes different forms depending on the situation.  The standard Isshiki stance that you saw.  The downward diagonal Nishiki, the upward aiming Sanshiki for aerial attacks.  And the last resort, thrusting with upper body strength alone when you are so close to your opponent there is no room to move, I call it Zeroshiki.  You should feel honored, I was saving it for when I settle the score with the Battosai.”

“Feh,” Usui choked out.  “I wasn’t supposed to die to you, it was… suppose to be Shishio.”

Saito rubbed his forehead.  “How pitiful,” he moaned.  “When you lost to Shishio without even a fight you should have laid down your sword then.  A man who can’t hold to his beliefs and convictions is useless, dead or alive.”

“You don’t show any mercy do you?”

Saito stared down at Usui in disgust.  “Were you really expecting words of comfort from me?” Saito asked as he reached a hand out and extracted his sword from Usui.

Usui grunted in pain as the sword left his body and he bled even more freely.  “Of course not,” he replied softly.  “But to stay on one’s path, without the slightest deviation is so simple…yet so difficult.  Tell me, how long can you hold to your convictions, to your precious Aku Soku Zan in this new world of the Meiji Government?”

“Without a doubt, I’ll do it till I die,” Saito answered even though Usui was already dead.  He pulled out a cloth and wiped the blood off his sword before resheathing it and starting to limp towards the door that Kenshin and Sanosuke had disappeared through.  That’s two down, now to find Shishio and finish this once and for all.

***

Kenshin and Sanosuke continued their mad dash down the hallways of Shishio’s fortress.  “Blast it, where is the next room already?”  Sanosuke demanded.  “I don’t know how much longer I can carry this heavy broad.”

“What did you say?” Yumi snapped at him.  “Stop your wining, I can’t wait till we do get to the next room, it has the strongest member of the Juppongatana and that’s one boy who won’t be beat so easily!”

Sojiro Seta, Kenshin’s memory flashed immediately, seeing the young man’s false happy smile that hid… Kenshin wasn’t sure what was really behind that smile, but there was something, something that drove that young man.  Suddenly Kenshin slid to a halt outside of a room and Sanosuke skidded to a halt several feet beyond, staring at Kenshin in surprise.

“What is it Kenshin?” Sanosuke asked, looking around in confusion.

Kenshin didn’t answer, he just stared at the doors as though the contained some kind of a secret.

“That’s just Hoji’s room,” Yumi told him briskly.  “But no one’s in there now so you might as well keep moving.”

“Come on Kenshin, let’s go,” Sanosuke tried to turn but still Kenshin stood there. 

“He’s here,” Kenshin half whispered to himself.

“What are you talking about, the broad say’s its empty,” Sanosuke asked.

“No, there is defiantly a presence in that room,” Kenshin responded.

“No there isn’t,” Yumi snapped but Sanosuke set her on her feet and grabbed her by the shoulders before she could continue.

“Is this some kind of trick, you guys trying to pull another fast one or something, leading us on and having someone ambush us from behind or something?”  Sanosuke demanded.

“No we’re not!”  Yumi screamed back.  “The only tricks has been Hoji’s doing, Shishio-sama doesn’t do that in a duel.  Besides Hoji is in no shape to fight, not one member of the Juppongatana is in that room!”

“It isn’t a member of the Juppongatana,” Kenshin responded.  “But it is an ally of Shishio’s.”

Sanosuke looked up, suddenly it clicked in his head who was in that room.  “Kenshin no, we don’t have the time, the Aoi-ya, we have to keep moving.”

“A promise was made,” Kenshin responded softly.  “To Misao to bring Aoshi home, and to Aoshi himself to battle again.  It’s time to keep both of those promises.”

Kenshin stepped forward and opened the doors, beyond was a library stacked floor to ceiling with books.  Sanosuke’s eyes opened slightly, he had never seen so many books in one place in his entire life.  Across from the doorway was a small sofa and a man sitting on the sofa.  The man opened his ice blue eyes and stared at them from behind his long black bangs.  “Battosai,” he greeted Kenshin.  “Is now the time for our fight Himura Battosai?”

***

“Come out, come out where ever you are, the Juppongatana have come to play!”  Kamatari called out in a singsong voice.  “We’ll chop of your heads and wrap them up pretty for Shishio-sama,” Kamatari finished gleefully.

“Is she really a member of the Juppongatana?”  Yahiko asked in disbelief, staring at Kamatari. 

“Who would have thought it right?” Misao agreed, a little shocked about their opponents.  “What should we do?”  Misao asked Okina. 

“If it is a fight of 9 on 3 those are much better odds than 9 on 167,” Okina pointed out logically.  “So let’s take them up on it, of course they are not just any three, so as Kaoru-san said, think about defense, not offense.  A crowd like this is bound to attract the police and there is still an increased force in the city. All we have to do is stall them long enough.”

“We can also send out the pigeons, and get help that way,” Yuuto suggested helpfully.

“Do it,” Okina told him.

“And then both of you boys stay here with Okina, understood?”  Misao ordered. 

The boy’s nodded their heads quickly, “yes Okashira.  Before they hurried off to grab a few pigeons and send out the message.  

“So how should we split up to face these three?”  Shiro asked.  “Do we go three on one?”

“No,” Okina mused.  “We strike hard to take down one quickly, four or five to one gives us better odds.”  Okina quickly glanced down at the Juppongatana members to assess which would be the easiest to take out first and how to divide the members.  “Misao, Masaru, you two take on the scythe woman.  Kaoru-san, Yahiko, you get the masked man.  The rest take out the fat stupid looking one then divide up and take on the others.  I’ll give the orders from here, you all watch your backs and stay alive out there.  We have not been given permission from our Okashira to die today!”

Misao grinned, “Come on guy’s let’s go!” she called as she threw open the shutters of the inn in a rush and leapt out onto the roof over the front porch, charging towards the members of the Juppongatana, everyone else was on her heels, ready to start the fight for the Aoi-ya.  

Chapter Text

Chapter 17

The Man of Ice

Aoshi got up from the couch and took a few steps forward, he was holding a long sheath in his hands, Kenshin stared at him, trying to see even a hint of the man he had known back in the Kanryu Mansion.  A man who would have died for his men in a moment, who had sacrificed even his own future so that he could see to the welfare of those who had once been under his leadership and continued to follow them until their death.  But he saw none of that, if he had thought Aoshi’s demeanor cold before, it was nothing compared to this man of ice before him, there was no hint of anything even resembling human about it.  His eyes seemed focused only on the promise of a fight that Kenshin represented.

“So let me get this straight,” Sanosuke spoke up, his head still reeling from the fact that not only was Aoshi here for his promised fight with Kenshin, but everything he had done up to this point for that fight.  “You cooperated with Shishio just so you could fight with Kenshin again.  You half killed that old man from the Aoi-ya, who used to be your teacher, and turned against the other members of the Oniwanbanshu here in Kyoto when they refused to work for you?  You don’t have any morals left do you?”

“I wouldn’t expect the likes of you to understand,” Aoshi told him coldly, stopping his advance.  “Since I swore this rematch with the Battosai I threw everything away, pride, compassion, good, evil, everything of my former life that had held me back.  All as a sacrifice for this day.”

There was the slightest flicker of almost, surprise, in Aoshi’s eyes at the mention that Okina was not dead, a flicker that Kenshin caught.  So he did have the intention to kill Okina-dono in that fight and it was his subconscious that held back.  This is going to be harder than I thought if even his consciousness mind is not aware of the tumult of his soul.  Kenshin sighed, there was no help for it, he had made a promise after all.  “Aoshi, you’ve changed,” Kenshin told him firmly.  “So much so that I hardly recognized the man I once knew as the proud leader of the Oniwanbanshu.”

Aoshi shifted the long sheath he carried around, grabbing the handle on one end and twisting something at the other end.  “To defeat you, and obtain the title of the true hitokiri I’ve gladly thrown away even my own soul.”  Aoshi drew out to kodachi’s from the long sheath and held them crossed before himself.  “Draw Battosai.”

Two kodachies, Sanosuke thought in surprise.  He’s even changed his fighting style for this.  He glanced at Kenshin, does he really think that there is something left in Aoshi’s soul worth saving, cause if so I can’t see it.

Kenshin had stepped back into a fighting stance, one hand on his sakabato and he used his thumb to release the first part of the blade from its sheath before he hesitated in drawing.  Suddenly he took his hand off his sword and straightened up.  “Umm, Kenshin?”  Sanosuke asked wondering just what was going through his friend’s head now.  Armed madman in front of you who wants your head on a silver platter, why aren’t you drawing?????

“What is this?” Aoshi said, echoing Sanosuke’s thoughts.  “After all this do you intend to break your oath for a fight?”

“Oh no,” Kenshin answered with a hint of cheerfulness that seemed out of place.  “You shall get your fight Aoshi,” his voice turned serious.  “I shall keep both my promises, to you and to one other, to the Okashira of the Oniwanbanshu Onmitsu, one not yourself.”

“What do you mean?” Aoshi rasped in reply.

“Give it up Kenshin,” Sanosuke advised him.  “If he was the type to see sense than this would have ended at Kanryu’s mansion.  Just beat him and let’s keep moving.”

“But then the other promise would be broken,” Kenshin pointed out with a heavy heart.  “The promise to bring back the Aoshi they knew, not the one before us, for if we did that it would mean nothing.  I’ll keep both promises, but I refuse to fight this hollow being who has become just another solider of chaos and forgotten that he was once a man.”

“Are you done now?” Aoshi asked. 

“Kenshin draw your sword already!”  Sanosuke told his friend as Aoshi continued his advance, his eyes burning in anticipation for the fight.

“No.”

“Don’t tell me you were serious with all that?”  Sanosuke asked in disbelief.  Why are you always so damn thick-headed?

“I’ll fight him only with the terrain of the room,” Kenshin responded calmly as he took in the lines of bookcases with a calculating eye.  Prepares if he sees that I won’t be defeated, and the reasons why I fight, it may bring back a spark of who he once was.

“Why do you always have to do everything the pain-in-the-neck kind of way?”  Sanosuke moaned. I don’t care if pain-in-the-neck is your middle name, come on, at some point in time you have to realize there is an easier way of doing things.

While the men had been talking Yumi had been slowly inching off to the side.  Once she was sure no one was paying attention to her she moved off to the side of the room where there was a set of stairs that led to a small balcony area that overlooked the whole room and where Hoji had set up a desk and little office area.  She hurried up the stairs as soundlessly as possible and glanced around at the little office area until she saw it.  Good, it’s still here.

“Sorry Sano,” Kenshin responded as he leapt forward for the attack.

“What the hell, do what you gotta do!”  Sanosuke called after him.  “But if you die I’m going to tell the Missy that you always hated her cooking so she can kill you again!”

As Kenshin and Aoshi both started running towards each other, Aoshi drew back his kodachi’s for the strike, meanwhile Kenshin reached out a hand to the bookcase and used his arm to throw a whole shelf full of books at Aoshi causing Aoshi to have to shift his kodachi’s to defend himself from the heavy books. 

Aoshi slashed through the books, aiming for Kenshin.  Kenshin avoided it by leaping up, bouncing from one bookcase shelf to another he leapt back and forth until he reached the top of the bookcase, high above Aoshi’s head.

Above the men, from the balcony Yumi watched, translating everything she saw as she tapped the receiver in her hand to a steady beat.

***

Hoji walked over to Shishio who was sitting on his couch, smoking his pipe calmly.  His fingers still burned, but he had wrapped up his hands and was trying to shuffle through his duties as best as he could.  “Lord Shishio, we have a message from Yumi,” he announced.  Shishio directed his attention over to Hoji while Sojiro leaned against the wall.  “Anji defeated, stop.  Usui fighting Saito, stop, Himura fighting with Aoshi in Hoji’s room, stop,” Hoji read off.  He glanced up at Shishio.  “This is not good news sir.”

Shishio continued smoking calmly.  “Not really,” He replied.  “No one could fight against Anji without getting hurt.  And Usui is sure to wound Saito at least 2 or 3 times though I’m sure Saito will be able to finish him off in the end.  So that really only leaves the Battosai, Sojiro and I should be able to defeat him with ease, especially after this fight with Aoshi.” 

“You are quite confident,” Hoji admired.

“Would you rather see be flustered and in a panic?”  Shishio asked with a raised eyebrow.  Hoji smiled back.  “In any case, this battle between Aoshi and Himura should take some time as they settle their old score.  So Sojiro you have lots of time to ready your sword.”

Sojiro laughed in response.

***

Kenshin ran across the top of the bookcase, one eye on Aoshi down below.  Aoshi put one foot on the bookcase as he ran, in an attempt to reach the top and fight with Kenshin there.  Kenshin however was going have none of it.  He leapt off the other side of the bookcase.  “Aoshi as you are, you have no chance of defeating me!”  Kenshin swore as he rammed the bookcase with his body, using all the force he could muster.  The heavy bookcase started toppling over on top of Aoshi.

Damn, Aoshi can’t go anywhere.  He’s too far from the ends to make a run for it, and he can’t just block a heavy bookcase like that with his kodachi.  Kenshin really did beat him using nothing but the stuff in the room.  Sanosuke thought, impressed.

Aoshi however, was far from defeated.  He spun on the balls of his feet, slashing with his sword as the bookcase started to fall on top of him, cutting his way effortlessly through the heavy bookcase and books.  Duel-style Nito-ry kodachi.  Kaiten-Kenbu- Wheeling Sword Dance.  Aoshi cut a hole through the bookcase that fell around him, taking down the other bookcase on the other side and starting a domino effort with the other shelves until the last one collapsed against the wall with a heavy thud.  While Kenshin stared at him with wide eyes, unable to believe that Aoshi had escaped the trap so easily Aoshi leapt forward for the attack, what was it you said about me being unable to defeat you as I am now Battosai?

***

“But why will it take awhile Master Shishio?” Sojiro laughed simply.

“That’s simple really,” Shishio responded.  “Since now the Battosai and Shinomori have similar levels of skills at present.  So the battle will inevitably drag on as they chip away at each other’s life.”

He pulled out his pipe and Sojiro stepped forward and helped him light it.  I wonder what the outcome will be?  Sojiro wondered behind his false smile.  Will Aoshi-san or Himura-san win?  And if Himura-san wins than that means…

***

Sanosuke’s eyes were wide, one moment he was sure that Kenshin would win without ever having to draw his sword, but that all changed in one instant.  Now Kenshin was blocking Aoshi’s kodachi with his drawn sakabato, having been forced to draw in order to defend himself.  Kenshin was forced to draw…

“You have finally drawn your blade,” Aoshi commented simply, even as the two men strained against the other’s strength.  “Good, that means I can finally fight.”  He shifted the kodachi in his other hand that was held to his other side and brought it down full force towards Kenshin’s head.

Kenshin knew there was no way he could block the blade with his sword locked on Aoshi’s other kodachi, so he disengaged the swords and leapt backwards to put some distance between them.  Even with Kenshin’s quick action Aoshi was still able to cut a few hairs from Kenshin’s bangs.  Kenshin suddenly realized that this fight was not going to go as he had predicted, the Aoshi before him was a far different creature than the one he had faced before.  He tried to sheath his sword, wanting to fall back on Battojutsu but Aoshi never gave him the chance.

Aoshi never paused his attack, continuing to charge forward, preventing Kenshin from resheating his attack and attacking from the left and right without pause, forcing Kenshin back with every swing of his blades.  Finally, Kenshin, who was backing up as quickly as he could, was forced across the room to the one standing bookcase.  He hit the bookcase hard with his back, holding his sword out in front of him in what seemed to Sanosuke’s eyes like a desperate attempt to try and keep Aoshi’s at bay.

“Kenshin!” he yelled.

Aoshi continued his charge forward, determined to end the fight.  Kenshin’s eyes narrowed a little and he spun on his foot, swinging around Aoshi’s blade, Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu, Ryukansen- Dragon Spiral Strike.  Kenshin managed to spin around to Aoshi’s undefended back and swung hard with his sword, but instead of hitting Aoshi himself, Aoshi brought his other kodachi down across his back in a block and the blades clanged loudly as they collided.  Kenshin’s eyes widened a bit before Aoshi cocked his outstretched right arm after the failed attack on Kenshin into an elbow and hit Kenshin across the face, knocking him backwards. 

Kenshin stumbled across the room and hit the wall opposite from Sanosuke.  Aoshi didn’t hesitate, Kodachi Nito-ryu, Onmyo-hasshi, He flicked something in the sheath of the kodachi before throwing it straight at Kenshin he had taken a few shaky steps forward to avoid being caught with his back to the wall.  Kenshin saw the oncoming blade, a flying strike like the Hiryusem, does he really think that’s going to work?  Kenshin wondered as he raised his sakabato, knocking it away easily, that was when he saw a second blade also traveling the same path as the first but was hidden in the shadow of the first one.  Kenshin realized that he wouldn’t be able to knock it away and moved his head the hair’s width so that the smaller blade impaled into the wall behind him, his heart racing.  So there was a kunai hidden in the sheath of the kodachi, and he threw both of them, hiding the kunai behind the first blade as a distraction.  This is why dealing with shinobi is always a bit of a pain. 

But Kenshin wasn’t given much time to think about it before Aoshi reached him, still running towards Kenshin even after he had thrown his blades.  He kicked Kenshin hard and sent him sliding backwards across the floor until he crashed into the wall and slid down to the floor in a heap. 

Aoshi stopped his advance to take the time to retrieve his kodachi from the floor before turning to Kenshin who sat against the wall with his head bowed, panting from the pain of getting kicked across the room.  When the hell did he get so strong?  Sanosuke wondered.  This man was completely different from the one who had fought with Kenshin in Kanryu Mansion.

“Stand up Battosai,” Aoshi told him calmly as he moved to stand over Kenshin’s crumpled figure.  “I remember you putting up more a fight before.  And as you said earlier, my beating you as you are now will have no meaning.  I want to defeat the one known as the strongest warrior of the Bakamatsu, you the Hitokiri Battosai!  After that I can justify the lives of those 5 who died as members of the strongest and let their souls find rest.  I sacrificed everything for this, even those who had once trusted me.”  Aoshi saw for a moment a pair of scared blue eyes shining in the moonlight as behind him laid his former master bleeding out, eyes that had once looked to him with love and respect, eyes that he would have once done everything to keep back the tears he saw forming in them, eyes that haunted him.  “Everything,” Aoshi repeated.  “Stand up Battosai, so that I can finish you, it is my final duty as the last Okashira of the Oniwanbanshu and then at last I can meet my own end.  So reverse your sakabato and meet my challenge!”

This guy, Sanosuke thought grimly.  He fights expecting death as the outcome.  Even if he wins and lives to the end of the fight, I don’t think he’ll stay alive much longer.  He’s already so dead inside.  He really threw away everything for this fight, maybe he held back for that old man at the Aoi-ya, but not anymore.  Sanosuke looked at Kenshin with worried eyes he was struggling back to his feet using his sakabato like a crutch to regain his footing.  Come on Kenshin, this is no time to be thinking about your promises, this is kill or be killed.  Because if not, then you’re the one who will end up dead.

“You want to justify those 5 lives by killing me?”  Kenshin rasped out.  Aoshi, I’m trying to save your soul, but you are determined to make this hard for me.  So be it.  I tried the easy way but now you get the hard way because I will not go back to face Misao-dono’s tears without you by my side.   “And then meet your own end?  You entered this fight with thoughts like that?”  Kenshin glared at the man before him, his eyes blazing, a direct contrast to the stone like expression on Aoshi’s face.  “I thought you were suppose to be a genius but you are little more than a fool!”  Kenshin spat at the taller man.  “Misao-dono, Okina-dono, Hoshi-dono, Han’nya, Beshimi, Hyottoko, Shikijo, not a single one wanted an ending where you died!!!”  Kenshin lifted his sword, a look of disgust for this man in front of him on his face.  “All right Aoshi, you get what you wished for,” He told him coldly.  “While I’ve always known I would fight this battle with you, I didn’t want to because I remember the tragedy behind those 5.  But if your heart won’t be turned then your own defeat here is inevitable.  I will fight you with all my strength, but I will do it as Kenshin Himura, never as Hitokiri Battosai.”

“You say you will fight at full strength but you won’t turn your blade?” Aoshi replied. 

“Yeah.”

“More nonsense,” Aoshi brought his kodachi up and slashed at the bookcase that was still standing, books and papers went flying.  “How can you fight at full strength and still care for your opponent’s life?  In the chaos of the Revolution you always fought to kill, that is why you became the ultimate Hitokiri.  A sword fight is always a battle to the death and this one is no exception.  I have always trained on the edge of life or death and I demand satisfaction in this fight!”

Kenshin reached up with one hand and wiped the sweat away from his face with a flick of his thumb.  “I have also trained on the edge of life and death.” 

On the other side of the room Sanosuke’s eyes opened wide.  Wait a sec, when did he do that?

“It may only have been for a week but much was learned during that time, including the last secrets of Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu from my Master.  But while you only found darkness there I found a ray of light, a way to fight with all my soul but without reverting back to the power of the hitokiri inside me and to keep my vow not to kill.”

What the hell?  Sanosuke gasped.  Why doesn’t anyone tell me anything anymore?  Kenshin went and got stronger and not a single word to his best friend about it? 

“More empty words,” Aoshi scoffed. 

Kenshin gave him a smirk little grin, “are they?”  He challenged lightly.  “If you think I’m bluffing than fight me and prove that I’m wrong.”

“Go on Shinomori,” Sanosuke egged on from behind.  “You know you want to.  We’re not really getting anywhere with the conversation, and to be honest we don’t really have the time to waste here.  We’ve got to keep moving or we won’t be able to help our friends in the Aoi-ya who are fighting Shishio’s men, probably as we speak.   And besides since you’re the challenger in this fight you don’t really get a say in how Kenshin decides to fight it after all,” Sanosuke pointed out logically. 

When the Aoi-ya had been mentioned Kenshin had seen…something, pass through Aoshi’s eyes and for the first time since he had entered the fight he started to get the hope that he might be able to get through to Aoshi.  But with the walls he’s put up it won’t be easy.  First, we have to break down the walls before we can rebuild.

“Hey Kenshin you jerk!”  Sanosuke called and Kenshin was distracted from his musings.  “This whole ray of light, training on the edge of life and death, final secrets thing you mentioned.  How come you haven’t said a thing about it to me?”  He demanded in a hurt tone.

Kenshin smiled apologetically, “Sorry,” he apologized.  It’s not like I haven’t had a thousand other things distracting me at present…

“Oh well,” Sanosuke put his hands in his pockets and leaned against the door.  “I just feel bad for Kaoru and Yahiko since they don’t’ get see this, but at least I’ll be the first to get to see this new side so I can live with that.”

Kenshin smiled to his friend a little at that, Aoshi however was completely unmoved, “Battosai,” he called Kenshin’s attention back to the fight.  Aoshi charged forward and there was a clash of blades as they struggled against each other for a moment before they disengaged their weapons before striking once again at the other.  This time Aoshi knocked Kenshin’s sakabato away with one slash before raising his blades, crossed and going for Kenshin’s throat.  He was a hair’s width away from beheading Kenshin when Kenshin brought his sakabato up, flipping the blade and putting his hand alongside the blunt edge and driving it upwards with all his might in the Ryushosen- Dragon Flight which knocked Aoshi’s kodachi upwards.  Kenshin than leapt into the air, bring his sakabato up high before slashing down towards Aoshi in the Ryutsuisen- Dragon hammer Strike, one of his favorite moves.  Aoshi brought his kodachi up quickly, catching Kenshin’s blade with his crossed one. 

Kenshin didn’t hesitate for a second, once Aoshi caught his blade, and while he was still suspended in the air, his legs tucked up from his jump he kicked his legs out till his feet hit the bookcase behind him.  He used that additional push to continue his leap over Aoshi before Aoshi could react, and Kenshin struck Aoshi across the back, knocking him to his knees before he half spun, still on his knees to keep his eye on Kenshin in case he decided to continue the attack.  Kenshin paused though, putting a hand to his neck that had been scratched by Aoshi’s blade earlier in the attack. 

Kenshin was breathing hard, “Do you still think them ‘empty words’?”  He asked Aoshi.

Aoshi glared at him with his cold eyes.  “It’s still too early to be gloating, one hair’s width and that attack would have sliced your carotid artery open and it would have been done.”

“Yes,” Kenshin agreed.  “But that width of paper is the gulf that separates us.”  Aoshi seemed confused by those words.

“When I was on the edge of life and death, I learned a power that far exceeds that of the willingness to die.  The will to live,” Kenshin explained, trying to make Aoshi see the truth he had found.  “Sometimes the very act of living is the bravest act one can make, that is what my Master taught me by risking his own life in the process.  Many crimes, more than I care to count were committed by ‘Hitokiri Battosai’, too many to be repented.  Thus I lived for years with no regard for my own life, I saw no meaning in it but if I could find some meaning in my death than I was satisfied with that, but not anymore.”  Kenshin’s voice softened a little now as he urged Aoshi.  “Now I understand that even my own life has meaning, and despite the crimes, despite the past, I refuse to give up on my will to live again.  Aoshi,” Kenshin took a step forward as Aoshi bowed his head, thinking over Kenshin’s words.  “You say you threw everything away, but anyone can throw away things that aren’t wanted, there is nothing to it, it’s the easy way out.  And so your sword has grown stronger, that is clear, but your heart, it barely even casts a shadow anymore.”

“What are you saying?”  Aoshi demanded, raising his head again to look Kenshin back in the eye.

“Saying that you want to honor those 5 in this fight and bring them glory, that I understand.  But when you say those words with your soul as weak as it is now makes it nothing more than an excuse for your own failings!”  Kenshin snapped in reply, he could almost feel the sting of his words in Aoshi’s eyes.  But he couldn’t stop himself, he had to say it, even though his own heart twisted as he did so.  “You are using them as a crutch for your weakness, for your hate of your own life, as a reason to die.  You are using them as some selfish excuse to kill!  The truth Aoshi, are you really fighting for them, or just to drowning yourself in the fight so that you don’t have to face them?  Face the fact that you didn’t save them?”

“Shut up!”  Aoshi screamed, suddenly losing his calm poker face and slashing at Kenshin.  Kenshin raised his sakabato and caught Aoshi’s blade, satisfied that his words were finally hitting home.

“Does that question make you angry?”  Kenshin taunted cruelly, wanting to twist that blade even deeper in Aoshi’s heart.  “Is it because it cuts too close?”

“I said shut up!”  Aoshi screamed again, attacking again and Kenshin and he exchanged blows as they danced across the floor to the beat of the deadly dance. 

“Are you really doing all this so that you don’t feel the weight of their deaths?”  Kenshin continued to taunt as they continued their dance.  “I understand that, but everything that you do in this soulless state of yours does them no good.  You are just turning them into evil spirits!”  Kenshin told him harshly.

“STOP IT!”  Aoshi snapped and kicked Kenshin hard across the floor.  Kenshin hit one of the fallen bookcases and tripped over it, landing on his back on the fallen bookcase before he twisted his body around and got his feet back under him, glaring at Aoshi with a light of satisfaction burning in his eyes.

Sanosuke watched the sudden transformation in Aoshi.  It’s working, he thought numbly.  Kenshin’s actually starting to get through to him.  The pain of having Kenshin scold him in the truth has got to hurt, Sanosuke thought as he stared at Aoshi who was panting hard, before turning his eyes to Kenshin who still had that gleam in his eyes.  But it’s got to be hurting Kenshin more under all that, because he sees Aoshi not as an enemy but as a peer.  This has got to hurt both of them more than just the whaling on each they were doing earlier.  That was when things were finally silent long enough in the room that Sanosuke noticed a strange irregular tapping sound in the room.  Wait, what the hell is that?  He wondered as he started looking around.  Where is it coming from? 

***

As Sojiro polished his sword in preparation for the upcoming fight he glanced at Shishio who was still smoking his pipe, “so Master Shishio, which of them do you think will win?”  He asked presently.

“Who knows?”  Shishio mused.  “They are about equal in strength now.”

“It would be best if it ends with them in a draw, killing the other,” Hoji added into the discussion.  “That way we kill two birds with one stone.”

“Well for myself I’m going to bet on Himura-san to win,” Sojiro announced in his happy voice.  “That way I can still settle the score from Shingetsu Village and the Purgatory, but,” The teenager thought about it for a moment.  He glanced at Shishio, “what will happened if Shinamori-san wins, what will you do then Shishio-sama?”

Shishio smiled a little at the question, “well that’s simple, then I will kill Shinomori and that will make me the strongest,” Shishio laughed. 

***

Sanosuke took his eyes off the fight, and went in search for the sound of the strange tapping sound.  He spotted a small balcony area and hurried up the set of stairs he saw and glanced around for a second before he got his answer.  His eyes narrowed, this is yet another reason why I don’t trust women.  He saw Yumi at the telegraph machine, clicking away on it, presumably sending a message to Shishio about everything that was happening in the fight.  She was so focused on the men below that she paid no attention to anything else and Sanosuke stepped forward, prepared to deal with the situation. 

***

As soon as Kenshin told Aoshi about how he was turning the lives of those he was fighting for into evil spirits Aoshi seemed to snap completely.  He lunged forward with a scream, going on the attack.  Kenshin leapt out of the way of the initial charge and then focused on blocking Aoshi’s frenzied attack, so busy at the moment he couldn’t even think to continue his taunting from before.

But this Aoshi was different, Kenshin could see that Aoshi was becoming more and more frenzied and clumsy in his attacks, so lost in his rage he could no longer think straight in the battle.  Kenshin decided to turn the tables and take advantage of Aoshi’s lack of focus, he blocked one of Aoshi’s attacks, he reached out one hand to Aoshi’s hands, grabbing the man’s wrist and hitting it as hard against the bookcase as he could.  Aoshi screamed as his wrist was broken against the bookcase and the kodachi fell from his now numb left hand.  Kenshin kicked that blade away as Aoshi continued his attacks with his right hand without pause.  Kenshin waited patiently, blocking Aoshi’s attacks that grew more and more erratic before he saw his chance.  Kenshin blocked one slash of Aoshi’s, before with a shifting of his grip on the hilt of his sword, he lunged forward, driving the hilt of his sword into Aoshi’s diaphragm and knocking all the breath out of him.  Aoshi collapsed to the ground, gasping for air, he slashed at Kenshin’s ankles as he went down and Kenshin leapt back out of the range of Aoshi’s weapon as the man fought for breath. 

“Can’t you see it Aoshi, can’t you see what you’ve become and how this shames those you claim to be fighting for?”  Kenshin asked in a cold voice. 

Aoshi closed his eyes for a moment, he wanted to block out Kenshin’s voice, block out the words that stirred something in his heart, something he didn’t want to think about, things he didn’t want to remember.  But try though he might, he couldn’t block out that calm voice of reason. 

“You can be such a prat sometimes you know,” Hoshi’s voice mocked him.  Her face, worthy of to claim the title of the most beautiful in Japan laughed in her teasing way she always had with him.  “Why can’t you just live a little, it won’t kill you don’t you know?”

“Okashira, are you sure you want to come with us?”  Han’nya’s shocked voice when Aoshi had declared that he would lead his men, even in the Meiji Era.

“But Okashira, you can have a much better life than this,” Beshimi had protested.  “You should just take that bigwig job the government is offering you, we’ll be fine.”

“Hey it’s not like I’m expecting much now,” Shikijo had told him pointedly.  “I am after all technically a traitor to this new government.  I know things are going to be tough for me now and that’s okay, I can deal with that alone.”

“If you come with us you’d just be ruining everything for you!” Hyottoko had protested.

But I was your Okashira, even if they took the castle from me, stripped me of my former rank.  It didn’t matter if I took the job they offered to be part of the new government.  I was your Okashira, it was my job to protect you, and I failed, I failed, I failed.  Aoshi realized bitterly.  Something was tugging at his heart, but he was still numb, numb with the coldness he had felt in his soul when he lost everyone to Kanryu’s Gatling gun.  Kenshin hadn’t yet managed to break him with his words, just shake him.  This time Aoshi got his feet under him and leapt forward in the attack, even as he struggled to catch his breath, bringing his kodachi down on Kenshin.  Kenshin didn’t hesitate, he could see that he was starting to get through to Aoshi, and he sensed this was the time to nail down the final nails down.  He reached out a hand, not brothering to use his sword to block Aoshi’s attacked, and grabbed Aoshi’s hand holding the kodachi and strained against the man’s’ strength to keep that razor sharp kodachi from coming any closer to him.  He wanted to get up in Aoshi’s face for the next part, he didn’t want Aoshi to try and run away from these next words.

“Aoshi,” Kenshin told him in a deadly voice.  “I’m not sure if you know this or not but Misao-dono has taken the title of the Okashira of the Oniwanbanshu after your fight with Okina.”  Kenshin saw a slight widening of Aoshi’s eyes that he tried to hide.  “She did it to protect the Oniwanbanshu, and she was able to lead them to successful protect Kyoto from burning by Shishio’s hand without a single loss of civilian life or building destroyed.”

“Misao,” Aoshi almost choked on the word, “is a strong girl.  While I don’t particularly care for her continued involvement in the life of the shinobu I’m sure she will do fine leading them.”

Kenshin let a little fierce grin escape him as he sensed victory on the horizon, I guessed correctly, you do love Misao-dono, that was why you didn’t hurt her that night with Okina.  Why you didn’t even press her for information like you did with the others.  You were never going to hurt her, no matter what, were you Aoshi?  And I suspect that you never wanted her to see you like this, that was why you told her to never see you again. 

“Oh indeed, Misao-dono is a very strong girl,” Kenshin’s voice got even more deliberate in his words now.   He didn’t want Aoshi to miss even a single word now.  “She traveled all across Japan for months at a time trying to find you after you left her here in Kyoto.  Endured undue hardships in her search for you.  But even after you betrayed her and everything you once upheld, despite her feelings for you, she refused to be broken.  She watched you cut down Okina and her determination did not waver, she put her life on the line to defend the city and she did not hesitate.  She led the Aoi-ya Oniwanban with same coolness she learned from you, upholding the same honor and loyalty that you betrayed.  She even agreed with Okina when he asked that I kill you to free you from the suffering and to stop your carnage after Okina failed to do so. But,” Kenshin’s face softened a bit for the next part.  “Did you know that same strong girl, cried like a broken-hearted child when I promised that I could bring back the Aoshi she still loves despite everything?”

“NO!”  Aoshi kicked Kenshin away.  Kenshin hit the wall but Aoshi didn’t bother to advance this time, his face was open for the first time and there were unshed tears in his eyes.

“It’s the truth,” Kenshin told him, this time his voice was gentle, understanding.  “No matter how strong her spirit is, no matter how well she has been trained.  She is still a young woman who has seen more suffering than most, trying to shoulder a responsibility that she is not ready for.  She has been crying inside for so long now, and there is only one person who can sooth those tears.  There is only one person she is waiting to see return home today.  Are you really going to let her cry forever?  Have you really become that heartless Aoshi?”

Judging from the expression on Aoshi’s face, heartless could no longer be used to describe him.  He looked dangerously close to breaking down a crying over Kenshin’s words, Kenshin felt his own heart twist at the sight, forgive me Aoshi, I had to make you see the truth, and you weren’t making it easy to get through to you, Kenshin apologized silently.  

“You let time stop at the Kanryu mansion,” Kenshin continued as Aoshi bowed his head in thought or to cry, without him seeing, Kenshin wasn’t really sure.  “But it’s time to let it start again, it’s time to find your soul again, it’s time to wake up Aoshi.”

Aoshi caught his breath, trying to hold back the tears that were prickling at his eyes.  He’s right, about everything.  Aoshi finally admitted to himself.  About why I wanted to fight, about why I want the title of ‘The Strongest” so badly, about why I threw everything away, everything.  And if he’s right about that then he’s also right about…  Aoshi bit his tongue to stop the cry of pain about what he had done to Misao because of his actions.  The other kodachi fell to the ground, his fingers no longer seemed able to hold the blade.  He stumbled back a few steps, he tripped over the fallen bookcase and landed on it hard.  He breathed carefully, his mind a whirl of emotions and thoughts he had all but ignored now for months. 

“Aoshi?” Kenshin asked, taking a step forward, Aoshi didn’t even bother to look up.

“The fight is over,” Aoshi admitted, his voice sounded horse even to his own ears.  “I don’t want to fight anymore, not like this.  I’ll think over what you’ve said.”  Kenshin took another step forward, obviously still concerned about him and Aoshi raised his head a little finally getting his composure back, his face once again in his characteristic poker face.  “For the first time in a while my head finally feels clear, it is strangely refreshing.”

Kenshin stopped, seeing that Aoshi’s eyes were now clear, no longer the clouded mix of rage and pain that knew only battle like when he first entered the room.  And they were also not the cold fury and frustration he had seen when they had first met in Kanryu’s mansion.  These must be the eyes he wore when he was the Okashira in charge of the defense of Edo Castle.  Kenshin thought to himself.  He nodded.  “Very well, we shall leave you to mediate, when we are back on our way to the Aoi-ya I trust that you will join us.”

Aoshi nodded his head, “of course, I have much to answer for there.”

Kenshin breathed a sigh of relief, pleased that he was able to get through to Aoshi, that’s two promises out of the way, now back to the duel with Shishio.  He turned his head, looking for Sanosuke who was no longer next to the door.  Kenshin glanced around in confusion, wondering where his friend might have gotten to.  “Sano?”  he called in confusion.

“Let go of me you oaf!” Yumi screamed and Kenshin spun on his heel to see Sanosuke half marching, half dragging Yumi down a set of stairs that led to a balcony area overhead. 

“Oh shut up you, I have a half a mind to drag you by the hair for sending secret messages to Shishio this whole time,” Sanosuke growled at her.  She glared back in return.

“Sano?” Kenshin stepped forward. “What’s going on?’ he asked in confusion, glancing between the two of them.

“This wench,” Sanosuke gestured to Yumi who looked as though she wanted to cut Sanosuke’s throat with her fingernails.  “Was using a telegraph machine upstairs to tell Shishio everything that was going on in the fight, probably trying to spy some of your moves for him.  Don’t worry I destroyed the machine so we should be good to go now,” He finished as he picked up Yumi who protested loudly and tucked her back under his arm as though she were a sack of grain. 

Kenshin didn’t comment on it, he had other things on his mind.  “Very well, let’s get moving, there is still another before we get to Shishio.”

With that, the three left the room at a run leaving Aoshi behind.  Kenshin glanced back once at Aoshi before he ran out the door, feeling a pang about just leaving Aoshi there alone but knowing that Aoshi needed the time and space to sort things out in his own mind.  Then his thoughts turned back to the Aoi-ya. Please Master, please get there in time.  Please keep everyone safe for me. 

Ahead of him Sanosuke and Yumi were shouting at each other, “Oh quit your wining already and show us the way to the next room, is it right or left?”  Sanosuke demanded as he stood in the doorway.

“We came from the left so it has to be the right you moron!” Yumi screamed back in fury.

“What did you say you ditzy old hag?”  Sanosuke demanded even as he took off running down the hallway towards the next room.

“I called you an idiot you rooster head,” Yumi repeated.

“What!”

“You heard me rooster head!”

As their voices disappeared down the corridor, Aoshi’s became lost in his own thoughts and memories of those who had fallen.    All of you, please forgive me, I finally understand what you were trying to tell me all this time.  Please forgive me.  

Chapter Text

Chapter 18

The Battle for the Aoi-ya

Back at the Aoi-ya, after every one had so valiantly charged out to meet their enemy, things were not going quite according to plan.  In fact, the plan was so far from working for them that Misao wasn’t sure there was really even a plan anymore. 

She dodged the slash of Kamatari’s chain scythe, rolling to the side, unable to do much more than dodge the attacks since the scythe was impossible to get through, even with her kunai, Kamatari could just knock them aside easily with her weapon and continue advancing.  Kaoru was likewise rolling away from the woman’s attacks.  Yahiko was somewhere off to her side, dodging the bombs being dropped by Henya flying high above them on his strange wing contraception.  And from the glances Misao had been able to take in the direction of the others, they weren’t faring much better.  In fact, it was taking all of them just to try and slow down Iwanbo.  Damn it, we had such a good plan too, why did everything have to fall apart?  Misao wondered.  And it didn’t even take that long…

***

Shiro held back on the rooftop as the others sprung forward, pulling out his bow and quiver, ready to provide the long-range offensive and cover for his group.   Omasu whipped out a few of her kunai and threw them at Iwanbo as she leapt down to the ground, her sister, Okon, also threw a set of kunai as Shiro added to their firepower with a well aimed arrow.  The kunai struck with deadly accuracy the vital points on Iwanbo’s body while the arrow was aimed right for the forehead.  But much to the shock of everyone the kunai did not cut Iwanbo, as far as they could tell, they didn’t even scratch the large, obese fighter.  And the arrow simply shattered when it hit Iwanbo’s forehead.  Shiro, Okon, and Omasu’s eyes widen in total shock, unable to believe what they were seeing.  That can’t be, any of those should have finished him off. 

Behind them, in their group, Kuro and Hideyoshi sprung in to cover their teammates, who were frozen momentarily in their surprise, before Iwanbo could retaliate.  Kuro leapt off the roof with his tekko firmly in place and punched Iwanbo in the face, the man’s head turned to the side, so much so that it seemed unnatural, Hireyoshi hit him with his sansetsukon intact, using it like a short bo as he continued to beat the strange man with Kuro following suit.  Their attack only drove Iwanbo back a few feet from the force of their blows but didn’t seem to faze the man at all.  In fact, he seemed to look at them in slight surprise as if not comprehending what they were doing. 

With a stupid laugh Iwanbo swung his arms out, bladed nails attached to each of his fingers, Hideyoshi was able to dodge out of the way but Kuro was not so fortunate.  He caught a glancing blow, enough that it knocked him ten feet away where he collapsed in a heap.

“Kuro!”  Hideyoshi called in shock, losing sight of the battle for a moment.  Iwanbo moved to strike him but by the others had recovered from their initial surprise in their opponent and they moved forward to cover their teammate.  Shiro shoot an arrow at Iwanbo in rapid succession, aiming for vital points, each arrow either bounced off or broke on contact but he kept going, looking for a weak spot. 

Meanwhile Okon leapt forward, pulling her kama out with a yell as she attacked Iwanbo, distracting him before he could take advantage of Hideyoshi’s lapse in concentration.  Iwanbo was suitably distracted by the fierce woman charging in for the attack with her kama.  Even though she struck him, her kama was as unable to pierce the man’s flesh any more than any weapon before it had.  Iwanbo turned and started attacking Okon who ducked and dodged the attacks.

Meanwhile, Omasu was fiddling with several things, pulling out various odds and ins from her pockets.  Without even needing to say a word, the others knew that they needed to distract this man so that Omasu could do what she did best.

Kuro shook himself with a groan as he raised his head to see Hideyoshi and Okon were doing their best to distract Iwanbo but were just barely able to keep themselves from being hit by their opponent, with a groan Kuro realized that doing so could possibly put them out for the rest of the fight.  He had managed to avoid the blades on the nails and was more backhanded by him, but even that had nearly broken all his ribs.   He felt his bruised ribs as he got to his feet, every muscle aching in protest.  He would not leave his friends in this fight, not as long as he still drew breath, he saw Omasu off to one side making… something.  He stumbled forward as quickly as he could with his bruised ribs to join the others, he would see what Omasu was doing later, just got to distract this freak until she’s ready.

***

The other groups weren’t faring much better.  Misao and Masaru both leapt forward to attack Kamatari and she whipped her scythe them.  Masuru deflected with his katana and wakizashi combo while Misao ducked out of the way, throwing two kunai as she ducked, aiming to end the fight quickly.  Kamatari on the other hand, whipped the scythe around so fast that Misao was shocked, considering how heavy a weapon it was, and caught the blades of the kunai on her scythe blade with ease.  Masaru leapt forward, continuing his fight, taking the close combat since he knew that Misao was not skilled at close combat, that was why all of her weapons were designed for long range attacks.  He was trying to distract Kamatari enough that Misao would be able to score a hit.

Kamatari just laughed at them as she flicked her scythe around as though it weighed nothing and brought it bearing down on Masaru.  Maseru attempted to block the scythe with his katana, but this time there was a greater force behind it and the long chain and weight attached to the other end rattled as it was pulled along.  This time when the blades connected, Maseru’s sword shattered like glass and Masaru barely had time to dodge to the side before the scythe cut him across the shoulder. 

He screamed in pain as he rolled to the side, panting hard and holding his shoulder that was bleeding freely.  He dropped the now useless katana and switched his wakizashi to his non injured arm, panting hard.

“Masaru!”  Misao cried out. 

“Focus Misao!” Masaru shouted back as Kamatari continued the attack, swinging again at Maseru who this time dodged to the side, knowing that Kamatari could break his wakizashi as easily as his katana. 

Misao turned her eyes back to Kamatari and threw two more kunai at an opening when she saw it, but Kamatari just whipped her scythe around, attacking Maseru and the kunai became tangled in the chain that suddenly jerked into their path. 

Damn it, Misao thought, feeling the rising edges of panic.  This is not going according to plan.

***

Above them from the upper floor of the inn Okina watched with wide eyes at the sudden turn of events.  To his left Kuro, Hidoyshi, and Omasu were fighting a delaying action with Iwanbo while Shiro provided cover fire that did nothing Okina could see other than serve to distract Iwanbo.  While the others were distracting him, Omasu was busy stringing up thin wire and building some kind of trap.  Off to his right Misao was trying to find an opening with her kuni while Masaru tried to distract Kamatari.  Kaoru and Yahiko were the only ones not engaged in a death match, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.  When they tried to attack Henya the short man simply leapt into the wind, flicking out his arms with the black cloth attached to and was pulled by the wind up to a rooftop behind the wall of men as he looked down on them in disgust.  Kaoru and Yahiko could get no further without fighting their way through the wall of men.

Time to change the plan, fine if that strange man does not wish to engage in a fight then we won’t force it, we have others to focus on now.  Okina made a quick assessment of the status and decided to issue some new orders.  “Kaoru-san, help Misao out!  Masaru pull back and help with the fat one.  Yahiko stay with the small one in case he tries to attack.  Remember we only have to hold out until the police arrive!” 

Masaru didn’t hesitate at his orders, he had full trust and confidence in the one who gave them, he rolled out of the way and took off for the others, Kamatari tried to press the attack and catch Masura before he could escape but Misao leapt forward, throwing more kuni at Kamatari.  Once again, the kuni made no difference, Kamatari mearly swept them away and they clattered to the ground and she tried to attack Misao who dodged out of the way, picking up her fallen blades as she danced out of Kamatari’s reach. 

Meanwhile Kaoru hesitated for a moment to leave Yahiko on his own and Yahiko glared at her, “what, you have no faith in your apprentice?  This is what you’ve trained me for Kaoru!  Besides Misao is going to need your help with that one,” Yahiko just glanced over as Misao was hard-pressed to stay out of Kamatari’s reach once Masaru had managed to escape to help his friends. 

Kaoru nodded and ran to Misao’s side, she held up the bokken that they had taken the time to procure for her after the Kyoto Fire Incident as her preferred weapon, just in case, she still had a steel tessen and her tanto tucked away.  Behind her, Yahiko started yelling about childish things to his opponent but Kaoru tuned him out, she had more important matters to deal with at the moment. 

Kamatari broke off her attack with a huff once she faced another opponent and laughed to herself.  “Wait for the police you said!”  She laughed loudly.  “What makes you think that the police are even going to come?”  She asked in a deadly voice.  “You assume they aren’t too busy, now aren’t you?”

***

Meanwhile across Kyoto there was a fire burning out of control and a trail of bodies as a police squad fell back before the giant who stalked the streets with his demon helmet and a small figure of an old man perched on his shoulder. 

“It’s a monster, a monster!” one of the officers screamed as he ran away in terror. 

Saizuchi laughed manically at the sight, “now this is too easy Fuji, just like hunting rats.”  He looked around at the destruction as more police whistles went off around them calling for reinforcements.  He pulled out a watch and looked at the time, “alas we don’t have time to have a little more fun but I think it’s about time that we join our comrades at the Aoi-ya, shall we go Fuji?”

***

Kaoru glared at Kamatari, not caring if the police were coming or not was true.  All she cared about in that moment was doing her best to keep them all alive.  “Don’t let her taunts get to you Misao,” Kaoru told the younger girl in a hushed voice.  “Just focus on the fight.”

 “So,” Kamatari smiled a little, “it seems I get to fight two-on-one, only now it’s two girls and one boy, fine with me.”

“Wait what did you say?” Misao asked, her face falling in confusion.  “You mean you’re a man!” she shrieked in sudden understanding.

Kaoru’s expression didn’t even change though she sympathized with Misao’s shock, 9 months before she probably would have had the same reaction. But after spending the last few months with Sanosuke as a companion, such things didn’t even faze her anymore.  “Yahiko!”  She called back behind her, “don’t forget that you still have a lot of training left ahead of you, so if you really want to be a master you had better not let me down today.”

Behind her Yahiko grinned, never taking his eyes off Henya, “you ain’t getting rid of me as an apprentice that easily you old tanaki!”

“Misao, focus now.  We have to take down the scythe man-woman person and we need to work together, got it!”  Kaoru snapped. 

“Right,” Misao answered, still a little dazed from the revolution that Kamatari was in fact a man.  “I can do that, no problem.”

***

Yahiko glared at the slim figured man dressed in black standing above him, his eye twitched angrily as Henya loudly sighed when Kaoru disappeared from his side to help Misao and they started talking but Yahiko ignored them.  He was too irritated in the fact that his opponent seemed bored to notice such trivialities.  “Hey you freak!”  Yahiko yelled.  “What was that sigh for?”

“You would sigh as well if you were in my position,” Henya mocked in reply.  “For I, Henya, the proud warrior of the Juppongatana is faced with only one opponent, and a brat at that.  Especially after I had heard that a wielder of the kenjutsu style Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu was here and he dances in the heavens with the speed of the wind.  As a member of the Juppongatana it was a dream to face such an opponent, so I came here under Shishio-sama’s orders and this is what I get instead.”  Henya turned his back on Yahiko.

Yahiko’s eye twitched, ‘dance in the heavens’ that’s some pretty flowerly muck coming out of the mouth of some black, shriveled up freak.  And why won’t anyone show me any respect?  I’m not just some little kid!  “Don’t treat me like that!”  Yahiko yelled in defiance.  “For starters I’m not just a ‘brat”.  I may be young and no master of kenjutsu, Kamiya Kasshin or any style.  But I have been watching and I’m closer to that “heaven dancer” that you want to fight so bad, more than anyone else.”  Henya turned his head and looked at Yahiko over his shoulder in a faint display of curiosity.  “So if you turn your back on me than you are nowhere near worthy to fight with Kenshin.  So why don’t you prove how tough you really are by killing me first, if you can!”

“As you wish,” Henya spoke softly.  “If you wish to die, then fine.”  Suddenly he turned, throwing out the black cloth around him firmly and Yahiko saw that a hidden skeleton of metal wires formed a skeleton frame, turning that black cloth into a set of wings, underneath the cloth he could see Henya was bare chested aside from the straps that connected the black wings to his back.  “But not quickly, for you will pay for your insult boy!”

“Yahiko!”  Kaoru suddenly shouted, interrupting the conversation between the two, “don’t forget that you still have a lot of training left ahead of you, so if you really want to be a master you had better not let me down today.”

Yahiko grinned, never taking his eyes off Henya, “you ain’t getting rid of me as an apprentice that easily you old tanaki!”  Then he gritted his teeth when he got his first good look at Henya under the clock, like I thought, a freak.  Underneath the black cloth, Yahiko could see that Henya was nothing more than skin and bones, the bones pocking out from his skin in a way that seemed almost painful.  However, as if in contrast to his frail body, around Henya’s neck was a long string of bombs and Yahiko wonder vaguely what they were for, he didn’t wonder for long.

“I thought you said you weren’t going to kill me quickly, and then you pull out dynamite, do you even hear what’s coming out of your mouth or not?”  Yahiko yelled up to his opponent. 

“These aren’t for killing you fool,” Henya told him coldly.  “This is just what makes me invincible,” with that  he lit the fuse with lighting rings on his fingers and tossed the bomb out into the air while at the same time pulling out a steel blade with his right arm that was attached to his wrist and extended out of his hand.  He leapt into the air with his wings extended as the dynamite went off and Yahiko understood in an instant what the bombs were truly for as the dynamite went off he saw that Henya suddenly went souring heavenward on its impact, meanwhile everyone down below went scrambling for cover, Yahiko included. 

***

Masaru and Kuro helped as best as they could in the fight, but with Masaru’s wounded shoulder and Kuro’s ribs there was little they could do.  Masaru dodged in fighting as best as he could with his uninjured arm.  Kuro hung back knowing that he couldn’t go toe-to-toe with Iwanbo in his current state so he settled on grabbing bits of broken weapons and kuni, flipping them into his hands with his feet to avoid bending and hurting his ribs as he threw them and did his best to keep his distance.  When Masaru backed out of the fight for a few moments, panting in pain., Kuro untied his hand band and pulled out a spare bandage tucked in his clothes in case of need.  He quickly tied a quick tourniquet for Masaru who nodded in thanks before leaping back into battle as Iwanbo yelled in rage, swiping his arms in fury as he was unable to strike a blow at Okon or Hideyoshi who were tag teaming on Iwanbo and doing the majority of the melee fighting.  Above them, Shiro gritted his teeth in frustration, none of his arrows had anymore effect then a buzzing fly to the obese man.  Correction: man-like thing.  There is more to this ‘Iwanbo” then meets his eye.  It’s obvious he’s not really human, if he was then our weapons would have an effect.  So he’s something else entirely, but what?  Shiro didn’t know, and at the moment he didn’t have the time to contemplate, he had to find a way to at least slow down the seemingly tireless fighter.  He, grabbed another arrow, noting that his stash was running dangerously low.  Damn it all!

“Dad!” 

Shiro twisted his head after firing another arrow that shattered when it struck Iwanbo to turn one eye back to the Aoi-ya, keeping the fight in her peripheral vision.  At the window was Sora with quiver covered in cloth in his hands.  Sora tossed it to his father with all his strength and Shiro grabbed the bag before it hit the roof, flipping the cloth off and quickly replacing his nearly empty quiver with the full one.

“I need that cloth, and the quiver too while you’re at it!”  Omasu shouted from down below.  Shiro didn’t questioned for a moment, he pulled out the few arrows left in his previous quiver and stuffed the cloth in before tossing it down to his wife before he started firing arrows once again to help aid his comrades down below.

Omasu was focused on her task.  She grabbed the quiver from her husband, taking the cloth and ripping it into stripes using them to form a quick makeshift rope.  She grabbed the quiver, cutting a hole in the bottom and slipping her makeshift rope of cloth through the quiver forming it into a sheath around the rope before she ran to the wall by the inn where slipped the quiver around one of the solid beams supporting the building.  She then picked up the wires where she had attached several kunai to the ends.  She looked up to her husband, she would need him for the next part. 

“Shiro, three arrows at a time, I need them in as deep as you can!”  Omasu shouted. 

Shiro looked down to her and nodded, nocking an arrow to his bow and pulling it back, waiting for her signal.  Omasu twirled the wire above her head until it was a blur before she threw the wire with the kunai attached towards the tall lamppost on the other side of the sea of Shishio’s men.  The wire flew over the heads of the men and wrapped around the lamppost, as the kunai swung past, Shiro shot three arrows with expert skill, sticking each arrow through the metal ring at the hilt of each kunai as the wire wrapped around the post.  Omasu threw two more wires in similar fashion, attaching them to another lampposts and to the beams of the building opposite the Aoi-ya. 

“Hey you!”  Omasu shouted suddenly, addressing Iwanbo.  Iwanbo turned his head stupidly, looking at the motherly looking woman.  “Yeah you with the idiotic face, why don’t you try picking on someone your own size?”  Omasu challenged taking up a fighting stance and gesturing the obese fighter with one hand.  “You look like a stupid push over to me.”

“Okay,” Iwanbo replied, seemingly impervious to the woman’s insults as he blundered forward, the others hung back, realizing that Omasu’s trap must be ready and all of them wondering what form it would take. 

As Iwanbo rushed Omasu, suddenly Omasu turned and ran, taking cover at the inn, and trusting that the others would also take the hint.  They didn’t hesitate, all of them spread out behind Iwanbo as he charged her, suddenly one of the wire nets that Omasu made in her spare time for the traps in the inn sprung up from the ground and wrapped around the obese man, slowing his progress but not stopping him entirely.  Shiro scrambled back on the roof top, taking note of Kaoru and Misao exchanging words with the Kamatari and Yahiko shouting at Henya but paid them little attention at present as he wondered what Omasu’s trap was.  There has to be more than just a net, otherwise it wouldn’t have taken her so long to make, Shiro reasoned.  And that’s not even slowing him down.

Suddenly one of the wires snapped and Shiro felt a rush of panic for his wife who was still in Iwanbo’s path, crouched in the shadow of the inn, not moving.  He was a heartbeat away from jumping down to protect his wife before another wire snapped and Iwanbo had nearly reached his wife when Omasu suddenly leaped to the side and grabbed a rope hidden in the dirt of the road, a kuni tied to the end, she tossed it past Iwanbo, aiming for her comrades, “pull it as hard as you can!”  She shouted to the others and she ducked and rolled to avoid Iwanbo.  The others all grabbed the rope as it flew past them and threw all of their weight behind it, suddenly more nets sprung up around Iwanbo triggered by hidden springs attached to the rope, Iwanbo hollowed in rage as he was suddenly immobilized, he strained against the nets wrapped around him, moving slowly.

Omasu quickly joined the others, grabbing the rope and throwing her weight behind it, trying to immobilize the fighter.  For a moment, it seemed that they would be able to stop him, that was before the world suddenly exploded into a shower of dust as Henya threw his first bomb and they lost their grip on the rope as they were forced to dodge for cover as bombs rained down from the sky. 

***

The bombs were raining down from the sky as though they would never end and Yahiko ducked and rolled, trying to avoid the flying debris, the world lost in a cloud of dust and smoke.  His eyes stung and his lungs burned. 

“I told you, I won’t kill you with one blast!’  Henya laughed from above as he flew on the blasts high above Yahiko’s head.  “No matter what martial art you study, anything above your head will always be a blind spot, and that is what makes me invincible!”  Henya threw another bomb as he spotted Yahiko through the smoke, riding the blast wave higher into the sky.  This is my Hikuu Happa, that ignorant brat will pay for insulting me!

Kaoru’s eyes turned to fear as she lost sight of her apprentice in the smoke.  “Yahiko!”

***

Aoshi sat alone in the dark library, only a few lights burned in the room casting long shadows that seemed to match Aoshi’s current mood perfectly.  He felt a deep shame for the level he had fallen to and he wasn’t certain if going back to the Aoi-ya would even be a possibility to him after what he had done despite Kenshin’s words.  The Aoi-ya, he thought about the fight that was likely happening even now as he contemplated his next move.  I will never be able to reach them in time, they will have to save themselves.  But what should I do?  Do I wait here for Battosai to return or do I try to find my own way out and make him break his promise to her?  He closed his eyes, thinking about his fallen sister and comrades, what do I do, what can I possibly do as I am now?

***

“You have to be the softest people I’ve ever met,” Yumi scoffed at Kenshin and Sanosuke as they hurried down the hallway. 

“Huh?” Sanosuke asked while Kenshin seemed to have not heard as he continued on without pause.

“Aoshi, Monk Anji, you didn’t finish either of them off when you had the perfect chance.  Soft people like you will never be able to survive 5 minutes against Shishio-sama.”

Sanosuke growled as he stopped and set her on the ground.  “If you’ve got the energy to flap your gums then you’ve got the energy to use your own legs.  We’ve got our friends to save and you’re slowing me down,” Sanosuke told her bluntly before he grabbed her arm firmly and forced her to run with him down the hallway after Kenshin. 

“I don’t care how fast you are, you will still be too late to save them.  I doubt they are even alive at the moment.”  Yumi retorted cruelly as she tried to keep up with Sanosuke’s long legs.

Ahead of them Kenshin heard every word though he showed no sign of it.  Please Master, get there in time to save Kaoru-dono, Yahiko, and the others.  Please save them like you saved me that night. 

***

One of the explosions when off near Kamatari and caught her fingerless glove on fire.  “Hot, hot, hot, hot,” She waved her hand back and forth quickly to put the fire out before she glared up at the sky at Henya who flew overhead.  “Hey watch where you are throwing those things Henya!”

Henya continued to throw the bombs, not caring if their own men were in the blast range and the masked men went running for cover as explosions went off near them and some went down screaming as they were injured by the flying debris, some were less fortunate and laid lifeless on the ground, killed by the many blasts.  Still Yahiko ran, taking cover where he could before he stood up tall and glared at Henya above him as the smoke was blown away by the wind. 

“Look you freak, I couldn’t care less about some crazy cross-dresser over there, but how could you kill your own guys with those bombs?”  the boy demanded even as Henya disappeared into the haze of smoke. 

“What did you say?” Kamatari screamed at Yahiko but was completely ignored. 

“Pawns are easy to replace,” Henya voice echoed behind the boy, before Yahiko could react his back exploded in a blaze of pain as Henya’s sharp blade cut along his back.  Yahiko tried to swing his shinai at Henya but Henya tossed another bomb and Yahiko quickly threw his arms up in front of his face as the bomb went off and threw him backwards and Henya soured upwards once again.  Yahiko screamed in pain, tossed like a rag doll by the blast and landing on his back. 

He pulled himself up with a grunt of pain, he glanced to either side, he saw Kaoru and Misao crouched down, trying to take cover while Kamatari wisely stood back, realizing it was pointless to fight while Henya threw his bombs, unless she wanted to place herself in danger.  Off to Yahiko’s other side he could see that the other Oniwanban members had been tossed aside as the trap failed but Iwanbo wasn’t going after any of the members laid out on the ground or the broken porch where Shiro crouched in the rubble, he was instead watching the bombs go off like they were fireworks.  A part of Yahiko’s mind wondered how and when the porch was broken in that fight, not sure what had happened.  But it was merely a passing thought as he focused on the fight in front of him, realizing that if he didn’t take Henya out quickly then he could easily kill the others as the Oniwanban, Kaoru and Misao had little cover and would make easy targets for the flying man. 

 I’ve been waiting for this day to prove myself, Yahiko thought to himself.  I promised Kenshin I would stay and help defend this place, it’s time to keep that promise, but how?  The boy wondered. 

Kaoru saw the plight Yahiko was in, he won’t be able to do this on his own.  Heedless of Kamatari she started forward to help her apprentice.  Suddenly Misao, who came out of nowhere, knocked her down to the ground, throwing a couple of kuni at Kamatari who had whipped her scythe at Kaoru once she turned her back on her.  Misao was able to knock Kaoru out of the way and her kunai distracted Kamatari enough for Misao to get Kaoru on her feet and out of reach of the scythe before Kamatari could strike again. 

Kamatari tilted her head at the women, “turn your back on me again and I’ll cut you in half,” she promised in a deadly tone.  “You won’t be able to help him anyways.  Because in the end you will all die.”

Misao gritted her teeth, “not today we won’t,” she swore. 

Kamatrai gave them a smug little smile, “come on ladies, don’t you want to play with me?  If you want to live so badly you will have to deal with me first.”

Behind the women, Yahiko was thinking furiously while he waited for Henya’s next attack.  Damn it, how can I beat this guy?  He wondered.  He can see every move I make but I can’t even get close to him.  I’ve got to get up to where he is but how?  Kenshin could probably do it but I’m not that good yet, if only I had wings I could get above his head and see how he likes it.  Suddenly through the haze Yahiko spotted something and got an idea, it was crazy but it was all Yahiko had.  It’s not wings but it ought be good enough.  He darted forwarded to the rubble of the broken half of the porch and grabbed something buried under the debris. 

Above Yahiko, Henya flew on the blast waves, glancing at his supply and realizing that he was running low on bombs, it’s time to finish them.  He took the final bombs and wrapped them together for one final blast intended to take out Yahiko and as many of the others in one shot as he could.  Below him, Yahiko was scrambling with something in the rubble but Henya paid him no mind as he lit the fuse and tossed down the bomb.  “Give hell my regards!” Henya screamed down to Yahiko.

The final explosion sent him souring high into the air and he paused for a moment as the wind blew through his hair, admiring the cloud of debris below him, feeling a sense of satisfaction, that should have finished off the boy, and hopefully a few of the others as well.  Henya thought in satisfaction.

“Sorry, maybe another time!”

Henya gasped and twisted his head trying to see where that voice was coming from above him.  There was a smudge against the sun he couldn’t make out, a shadow that was getting rapidly bigger.  Before Henya could think of dodging suddenly a shinai came down on his head, cracking against his skull. 

Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu rytuisem- Dragon Hammer Strike, or something like it, Yahiko thought as he leaped off the screen door that he had used to ride the blast like wings to get above Henya and hit the man across the head with his shinai. 

Yahiko grabbed onto Henya as they crashed to the roof of the Aoi’ya below, Henya tumbled to the ground, too dazed by Yahiko’s attack to think of breaking his fall, meanwhile Yahiko rolled off the emaciated man as soon as they hit the roof with a thud.  While Henya tumbled to the street below, Yahiko grabbed at the roof but his hands slipped and he tumbled to the edge.  He cried out as suddenly his body slipped off the roof and he started falling before two pairs of hands reached out and grabbed his legs and kimono.  Yahiko glanced up and saw Yuuto and Soro’s smudged faces from all the smoke and debris cast up from Henya’s bombs as they caught him off the balcony.  Yahiko breathed a sigh of relief, realizing that the twins had saved him, right until there was a cracking sound and suddenly the balcony crumbled to one side and all three boys tumbled down the sudden incline and rolled the street below. 

Okay the attack wasn’t that bad, got to work on the landing though, Yahiko thought to himself as every muscle ached and he was laying in a tangle of arms and legs as all the boys collapsed in a heap on the ground.  Above them Okina pulled himself to the ruined balcony to look down, “Boy’s, are you all right?”  he called down.

Yuuto glanced at the other two and noted the groaning from his brother and Yahiko cursing under his breath, “still alive Gramps,” he called up.  And Mom and Dad say Sora and I can be reckless, but this Yahiko kid is a whole other kid of reckless, Yuuto thought in respect. 

Okina breathed heavy gasps, between the pain of his injuries that he had been doing his best to hide from the others and the adrenaline from the attack on the Aoi-ya.  He sighed in relief seeing that somehow all three boys were all right despite all the explosions.  Amazing that boy Yahiko, because he has been watching Himura-kun all this time he has improved several times faster than he should have.  He may in time be as great a swordsman as the man he looks up to.

***

Kaoru and Misao ducked to one side as the scythe came crashing towards them with a speed that seemed almost inhuman considering the weight.  Kaoru caught glimpses of what had happened behind her in the conclusion of Yahiko’s fight.  “Yahiko are you all right over there?!”  Kaoru screamed even as she continued to dodge attacks. 

“Damn it all,” she heard the boy grumble behind her as he tried to pull himself up with Yuuto’s help after he had untangled his brother and himself and was back on his feet.  “Not dead yet,” Yahiko assured her in a slightly stronger tone.  “Just forgot about the landing, I’ll work on that,” he assured her.  

Kaoru swallowed down her panic she had felt in Yahiko’s fight and turned her full attention to her opponent as she and Misao dropped back, putting some space between them and Kamatari and giving them a temporary pause in the fight. 

She heard the surprised gasps from the masked men, “I can’t believe some kid beat Lord Henya with a door?”

“It can’t be.”

“That’s impossible.”

“If I hadn’t of seen it with my own eyes.”

“Who are these people?”

Kaoru smiled a little to herself in pride as Yahiko yelled at the men after regaining his feet, “That’s right and you’re next!”  Yahiko screamed in challenge, taking a step forward before suddenly his knees gave out and he fell to the ground.

“Yahiko!”  Kaoru screamed but didn’t move forward, knowing that Kamatari would take advantage of her distraction to attack.

Yuuto and Sora ran to his side before glancing up, “It’s all right he’s still alive, just dizzy from blood loss.”  Sora assured her before he and his brother lifted Yahiko up and pulled him back to the shelter of the inn’s entrance that was currently blocked by the downed balcony before they started pulling out bandages from their pockets and treating Yahiko to prevent further blood loss.

“Like I said, you are all going to die,” Kamatari told Misao and Kaoru calmly, unconcerned with Henya’s now unconscious form laying crumpled on the ground. 

“Kaoru-san,” Misao glanced to Kaoru out of the corner of her eye, trying to assess Kaoru’s mental state.  I can’t afford her to lose it right now, I can’t take this guy by myself and the others aren’t in a state to help either right now.  Misao had only been able to glance to the others but she could see that they had been hurt badly between the fight with Iwanbo and Henya’s bombs.  I need her to be like during the Kyoto Fire project, not the week leading up to it when she was so cationic almost.

Kaoru’s face however was calm, she looked focused on Kamtari once she was sure about Yahiko’s state.  “Don’t worry about Yahiko Misao,” Kaoru assured her in a level voice, misreading Misao’s main concern.  “He’s taken worse beatings from me about his smart tongue, just stay focused on our enemy.”

“You seem a great deal more focused than this little girl,” Kamtari addressed Kaoru.  “So why don’t you ladies put a little more effort into our fight now?”

“What did you call me?”  Misao screamed at her.

Kaoru did her best not to roll her eyes.  “I don’t need you to tell me what to do,” Kaoru informed her coldly.  She apprised her opponent for a moment, that chain scythe is one of the heaviest weapons I’ve ever seen, it must be at least 8 kans (78 pounds), while that gives it tremendous power it leaves the attacker wide open if he misses, however, Kaoru eyed the chain attached to the scythe.  This isn’t just a scythe we are dealing with but a chain scythe, he-she uses that chain to cover him-herself when he-she misses.  It’s an almost perfect offensive and defense, but there is always a weakness.  There has to be a way we can break through that shield and strike him-her.  Misao had better stay focused, I’m going to need her to do this.

“Misao,” Kaoru whispered under her breath.  “The weapon, focus on that, I’ll be the bait, got it?”

Misao looked puzzled for a moment, not understanding Kaoru’s plan until it clicked.  “Got it.”

Kaoru suddenly charged forward, drawing Kamatari’s attention.  Kamatari swung her scythe around toward Kaoru.  Misao hung back, waiting half a second before she jumped up to give her throw a little more height.  As she took aim, slipping the last of her kunai between her fingers about to throw them when suddenly the ball weight of the chain came out of nowhere and smashed into her ribs and Misao felt a distinctive cracking in her chest.  The kunai slipped between her fingers as she was thrown backwards by the impact and collapsed into a heap against the wall of the inn.

Kaoru meanwhile had rolled away from Kamtari’s attack and saw Misao collapse.  “Misao!”  she shouted in shock and worry, neither of them had realized that Kamatrai had enough control over her weapon that she could use the ball weight for both offensive as well as defense.

“Don’t underestimate me girly,” Kamtari told Kaoru cruelly, holding the great scythe high over her head.  “I am Kamtari, the Great Scythe.  And I have full mystery over my weapon!  Like this,” Kamatari twisted the end of the scythe and it detached, dropping the chain and counterweight to the ground, revealing a prong hook hidden within the shaft of the weapon.  Kamtarai stabbed that into the chain of the counterweight and picked it up, swinging the scythe over her head as the chain whipped around her in a slow spin that quickly became almost a blur that whipped around the scythe woman. 

“Kamatari-sama’s special technique, the Midare Benten,” the masked men behind the scythe woman breathed, seeing it for the first time.  The chain slashed through the bodies of the men killed by Henya’s blasts, and anything else that go in her way as Kamtari advanced towards Kaoru who retreated before this new treat. 

Need a new plan Kaoru, and need one fast, Kaoru thought as she retreated.  Any time now Kaoru.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 19

The Faith of a Child

“Misao!” a voice struggled to reach her from a cracked voice of an old man that seemed vaguely familiar to the girl but she struggled to remember who it belonged to in the haze.  She blinked her eyes but the darkness and haze wouldn’t clear from her vision.  She was only conscious of the voices swarming in her ears and the haze and pain. 

“…-sama…”  Misao breathed in short gasps trying to listen to the words, to grasp their meaning.  “Misao-sama?” the voice called again, this voice was different than the other one, it sounded as though he belonged to a younger man, someone that she once knew...

Misao raised her head a little, Who is that, who is calling me?

“Misao-sama,” the man’s’ voice continued in a sure tone, suddenly seeming to realize that Misao could now hear him.  “The Battosai has kept his promise to you.”

Is that Han’ya’s voice?  Misao wondered.  It sounded like it but she didn’t want to trust her heart. But Han’ya is dead, they all are so how…?

“Aoshi is coming back to you Misao,” Hoshi’s voice echoed clearly and Misao nearly cried, unable to deny that familiar voice.  “It’s going to be up to you now to take care of him.  You need to get up Misao.”

Misao came awake with a start, sitting up and then grimacing with pain at her broken ribs that protested against the movement.  Just now, was that Hany’na’s and Hoshi-sama’s voices, were they giving me a message from beyond the grave?  Misao wondered but didn’t have long to think about it as she saw Kaoru retreating from Kamatari who was swing the chain around her in a blur.  Misao pulled herself to her feet. I’ve got to help Kaoru-san now, I’ll worry about that other stuff later.  She reached for her kunai in their hidden sheathes out of habit but panicked when she realized they were all gone.  She glanced around but didn’t see any near her.

“Misao!” 

Misao glanced up at Okina’s voice and he tossed a roll down to her.  Misao grabbed the roll, feeling the kunai sheathed in the roll, she grinned, knowing what she needed to do.  This is going to hurt but time to finish our plan.

“Kaoru-san!”  Misao screamed to warn Kaoru right before she flicked the roll open grabbing the kunai into her fist and leaping into the air and throwing them with every bit of her strength.  Her vision went hazy from the sudden stabbing pain of her broken ribs at the movement and Misao knew that was it for her in this fight. 

What does she think she can do with those puny knives?  Kamatari wondered.  Hasn’t that girly learned those things will never pierce my defense?  All of the kunai were either deflected away by the chain or impaled into the wooden shaft of the scythe. 

Suddenly Kaoru sprung forward, swinging her bokken with all her strength at Kamtari.  Kamatari wondered for a moment what Kaoru was aiming for since her swing was off to the side of Kamatari herself.  She laughed in her own mind, wondering what was going through her opponent’s mind.  Right until Kaoru’s bokken collided with the wooden shaft of the scythe as it whipped around the scythe woman and the shafted cracked and split, the bladed end went flying out towards the masked men who ducked and the blade impaled into one of the light posts. 

Kamatari’s eyes widened, I thought she was aiming for me.  Unable to believe her eyes for a moment before she looked up to Kaoru who had jumped outside of the scythe woman’s range after breaking her weapon.  My scythe shaft was too thick for a wooden bokken to break or for that girly to pierce with her kunai, but using the kunai as a wedge and the bokken as a hammer they were able to break my weapon.  Kamatari snarled at Kaoru.

Kaoru held up her broken bokken, the plan had worked perfectly.  Misao had been able to strike two kunai into the shaft to give Kaoru a target to aim for to break Kamatari’s defense and Kaoru now knew she could win the fight by herself.  “Good work Misao,” she congratulatde her even as she kept her eyes on Kamatari.

“No problem,” Misao gasped in pain, a grin on her face.  “Couldn’t have done less since Han’ya said Aoshi-sama is coming back.”  Kaoru’s eyes quirked in confusion at the girl’s words and Misao shook her head suddenly, realizing what she had said.  “Just forget it,” she quickly added.  “Just take that man-woman out now!”

“One moment,” Kaoru started in a calm voice, dropping her broken bokken to her side.  “Kamatari-san, won’t you back down now?  Your weapon is broken and you can no longer fight.  If you take your men and leave now we won’t pursue you, you can leave your injured behind and we will see to their injuries.  You will not be able to claim victory now so further fighting would be pointless wouldn’t you agree?”

Kamatari scoffed at her words, “You’ve lost your path to victory as well haven’t you with that broken bokken?”

“Not at all,” Kaoru assured in a strong voice.  “The purpose of Kamiya-Kasshin ryu is to revitalize and bring life.  Our teaching is not to kill our opponent but to conquer them.  Even if my sword is broken in battle, I can still fight!”  Kaoru held the broken handle of the bokken up, horizontal to the ground.

Kamatari smirked at her and pulled her broken scythe back, raising the shaft that had unhooked from the chain, pointing the hook at the end at Kaoru.  “I don’t think you’re bluffing either.  But you’re not the only one who knows how to fight with a broken weapon sweetheart.”

“Finally taking Kaoru-san seriously now?” Misao asked from behind Kamatari as she watched the fight.

“I’ve been taking her serious from the start,” Kamatari calmly responded.

“Liar!” Misao accused.

“It’s no lie,” Kamatari continued in a calm voice, never taking her eyes off of Kaoru.  “When you live as I do you take everything seriously.”  No matter how feminine I am I will never be as loved as Yumi, no matter how hard I train I will never be as respected as Sojiro.  So the only way I can show my love for Shishio-sama is to follow my orders without hesitation and speak my love through unquestioning loyalty!  Kamatari stabbed her weapon down and picked the chain off the ground again and started twirling it, this time for offensive and advanced towards Kaoru, tossing out the chain, intending to hit Kaoru across the chest.

Kaoru ducked to the ground and lunged forward, aiming her weapon straight for Kamatari’s knee, Kamiya-Kasshin ryu Tsuka no Gedan Hiza Hishigi- handle attack, knee crush.  She hit the broken hilt across Kamatari’s knee, hand on either side of the hilt and felt a snap, this time not from her weapon has Kamatari’s knee was pushed backwards, hyper extending it before it broke the knee cap.

Kamatari dropped to the ground with a scream, her knee bending in an unnatural direction.  “I’m sorry,” Kaoru apologized as she knelt in front of Kamatari.  “But I made a promise to go back to Tokyo with Kenshin and the others and I have to keep it.  Please take your men and leave, we will care for the wounded, including yourself if needed.”

Kamtari caught her breath, biting her lip against the pain.  “You joke,” Kamatari bowed her head.  “As if I could go back to Shishio-sama like this, or take help from the enemy.  She pulled something out of her glove.

Kaoru sprung forward and knocked the razor sharp needle from the woman’s hand before she could commit seppuku.  Before Kamatari could fight back, Kaoru whipped out her steel tessen and smacked Kamatari into her neck with a snap of the fan, knocking her out.  Kaoru looked up at Misao who had struggled to her feet, Yahiko who was being supported by Yuuto and Sora, and the other members of the Oniwanban who had now surrounded Iwanbo who had given up fighting when Henya had started throwing bombs.  Kaoru panted, trying to catch her breath before she turned to the masked men who drew back a little, not sure what they had just witnessed. 

“It’s impossible,” the men whispered amongst themselves. 

“Henya-sama and Kamatari-sama both were beaten by women and children.”

“The stupid thug, I mean Lord Iwanbo is still able to fight right?” One of the men piped up and all eyes turned to Iwanbo.

Iwanbo looked around, not seeming to have understood what had happened.  “Huh?” he gasped out, scratching his head, the razor-sharp blades of the tekko having no effect on his skin.  He spun his head to the other side to see the members of the Aoi-ya facing up to fight him and Kaoru joining the group, ready to add her skills with that of the others to take down the last Juppongatana member if needed.  Suddenly Iwanbo spun his head all the way around and stared at Misao and Yahiko behind him.

Misao screamed at that, “He just turned his head all the way around, he really is a freak!”

Suddenly the courage of the masked men broke, “it’s no good, we have to run for it!” one screamed and suddenly as a group they fled, disappearing down the streets to either side of the inn. 

Iwanbo laughed, spinning his head back to the front and with a shrug he suddenly tucked himself up into a ball and rolled away from them and down the street in a way that was far from natural.

“What was that guy, an ogre or something?” Misao asked in a weak voice.

“Or something,” Masaru agreed.  “None of our weapons had the slightest effect, we could barely even slow him down, his strength was inhuman, and his skin was like armor.”

“And then there was that head spinny thing,” Hideyoshi added.  “That wasn’t possible but we all saw it.”

“No matter, we have won,” Okina called down to the group and they all looked up at the old man from the wrecked upper story of the inn.  “I’m proud of all of you, we need to focus now on tending to our injuries.”

Suddenly a shadow fell across the street and everyone turned around as a newcomer arrived on the scene.  “So you actually managed to defeat them all, how nice, that leaves more room for us doesn’t it Fuji?”

Kaoru’s mouth dropped open, her mind not believing what her eyes were seeing as she craned her neck up to face this new threat.  Misao mentally calculate the height of the new attacker, he’s over eight feet tall, but that’s not possible, no one is that tall!!!!

A giant towered over the group, in his hand a giant curved sword, he wore a metal chest plate and a helmet with a demon mask on it, on his shoulder sat a wrinkled looking old man with a mustache that he groomed while he addressed the group.  “Will you accept your fate now mortals or are you prepared to offer resistance?”  The Aoi-ya members drew back a little, not sure how, hurt as they all were, they could stand against the giant.  This reaction seemed to delight the old man, “I’m glad that you recognize the end when you see it.  It is time to welcome death.”

Kaoru stepped forward, her heart racing, clenching her steel tessen in one hand and drawing her tanto with her other hand.  She wasn’t quite sure how she was going to face this new enemy but she was determined not to back down.

“Kaoru-san,” Misao gasped out.

“We are not giving up yet,” Kaoru announced to the odd pair.  “I have a promise to keep and the Oniwanban here were given strict orders from their Okashira they were not allowed to die on this field of battle.  So retreat now or you face us.”  At Kaoru’s words the Aoi-ya members stood a little straighter and stepped forward, pulling out any weapons they still had left that weren’t broken or lost in the fight.

“That’s right,” A boyish but strong voice broke over the crowd as Yahiko stumbled forward.  “My crazy sensei is right, we aren’t done yet.  We can’t stop fighting till Kenshin gets back.”

Saizuchi tilted his head at them in pity as he took in the bleeding and battered group before him.  “Ah yes, children can be so difficult, they are unable to tell yet reality from dreams so let me explain this in small words so you understand little boy, since it would be a shame for you to die in ignorance.”  Yahiko gritted his teeth at the man’s words but said nothing.  “Let’s go through the possibilities, shall we?  First your hope that the Battosai will return, that is close to zero I should think, not only does he have to face Monk Anki’s fist, Usui’s blind sword, Sojirio’s tenken, but he would also have to defeat Shishio’s sword.  The odds that any one man can do this is impossible.  The only way the Battosai will return here and not make his final journey to the spirit world is if he runs away, but even then, it will take 2 to 3 hours to return so he will still arrive too late to save any of you.”

“Second,” he counted on his fingers, “lets apply a similar analysis to your forces here.  I admit that it is a quite a feat to best three Juppongatana with just a handful of women and children, it is quite an achievement and I will acknowledge it, however this fight has left you all injured and barely standing, meanwhile we are fresh and ready for the fight.  And last but not least is the strength of this Hagun army!  But that would be easier to demonstrate than to explain, Fuji?”

Suddenly the man in the demon mask raised his sword and swung it down to the ground, knocking down the other half of the balcony area and causing the front of the Aoi-ya to collapse as it had already been damaged by Hanya’s bombs.

“Okina!” they screamed as the injured old man collapsed and disappeared into the rubble.

Yuuto and Sora disappeared into the rubble and quickly found Okina and pulled him out as gently as they could and the Aoi-ya members breathed a short sigh of relief seeing that he was still alive, at least for the moment.

“Boy’s stay out of this!” Omasu screamed, “Try and get Okina and yourselves out of this!”

Meanwhile Saizuchi laughed manically, “you see now, a three-point analysis that leaves you no hope for victory.  Accept your death here and now!”

“Yeah so, what of it?” Yahiko scoffed.

“Yahiko?” Kaoru turned to her apprentice, knowing that he was barely on his feet.

Yahiko glared up at the odd pair, fire in his eyes.  “To hell with your logic!  I believe in Kenshin and nothing you say will stop me from believing he’s coming back!”

Saizuchi sighed.  “Alas, a modern malady that blind belief can overcome reality, I would try to convince you, but there is no point since you are about to die.”  He bowed his head and Fuji raised his sword again, this time aiming at Yahiko.

“Yahiko!” Kaoru screamed running to her apprentice but knowing she wouldn’t be able to get Yahiko out of the way in time.

Yahiko closed his eyes as that sword came down, knowing he couldn’t get out of the way in time.  Come on Kenshin, we need you Kenshin, please…

***

Miku and Daisuke sat at breakfast quietly eating through the meal prepared by the servants.  Miku glanced up as one of the sliding doors slid back to revel the head of her security forces.  “Lady Miku, please forgive the interruption but I have some news that may interest you.”

“Yes?” Miku responded, setting down her chopsticks and looking up with interest, Daisuke also glanced over in curiosity at this unheard-of interruption to their meal. 

“My lady, we have had a report of a large group of thugs assaulting the Aoi-ya, the police haven’t been able to respond to the scene, apparently there is a disturbance in the theater district.”

“What?” Miku gasped before she regained her composure.  Those who sought to destroy Kyoto the other night must be trying to take revenge from that group’s interference.  “Get some of you men together and help those at the Aoi-ya, they deserve our protection after the service they rendered to the city.”

“Yes my lady,” he bowed before closing the door.

***

Yahiko never opened his eyes as the blow descended.  Kaoru cried out as the sword fell, unable to reach Yahiko in time, she collapsed to her knees crying.

“Umm… Hiko?” Misao gasped behind Kaoru in surprise. 

Kaoru pulled herself together long enough to look up and saw that standing between Yahiko and the giant Fuji, with his sword raised above him blocking Fuji’s swing was Kenshin’s master, Seijuro Hiko.  Yahiko finally cracked his eyes open realizing that instead of pain and death when the blow fell he heard the clang of metal on metal and saw a familiar fluttering white cape.

“Not bad boy, you had your heart in that.  And for believing in my dumb apprentice like you do, you deserve to win this fight.”  Seijuro announced in a ringing voice, a grin on his lips. 

“Seijuro Hiko,” Kaoru breathed, not believing her eyes. 

“Kenshin’s master,” Misao added silently, still not believing that an ally showed up in their hour of need despite the odds. 

“I think I might be in love,” Okon mused as she noticed how Seijuro’s block of Fuji’s sword with his arm bracing the dull backside of his katana had actually managed to crack Fuji’s massive sword.

The other members of the Aoi-ya all swung their heads around to look at the woman in disbelief.

“Gods help that man,” Shiro sighed.  Omasu was fairly certain that Shiro’s remark had nothing to do with the swordsmen Fuji and more to do with her sister’s comment. 

Seijuro didn’t even look as though he was straining as he blocked the monster’s blade, more as though he was having a pleasant workout.  Suddenly he strained and shifted his stance with a cry and the crack in the blade grew until suddenly the blade shattered, the tip of the blade hitting the ground and Fuji remained holding half his sword as Seijuro continued to stand in the street, the wind whipping his cape around him. 

“He broke his sword with one block?  I’m definitely in love,” Okon mused behind them all in appreciation. 

“Who is he?” Yuuto asked innocently.

Misao turned around with a beaming smile, “that’s Seijuro Hiko, Kenshin’s master and the Master of Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu.”

“But how did he know to come?” Kaoru gasped.   

“Kenshin sent you didn’t he?” Yahiko asked as he stepped back half a step and his legs gave out under him.

Seijuro looked behind him at Yahiko collapsed on the ground.  “what’s wrong boy, your legs give out when help comes?”

Yahiko’s face flushed, “shut up you, it’s hard to stand when you’ve been blown up several times and stabbed okay!”

“Wait a second,” Sora broke in while Fuji and Saizuchi were temporarily paralyzed by so sudden of an entrance.  “If you were sent by Himura-san then what took you so long?  We really could have used you earlier you know?”

Seijuro looked as though he wanted to roll his eyes but refrained.  “Take that compliant to my dumb apprentice, he forgot to tell me where the Aoi-ya was so I had to search all of Kyoto to find this place.”

“Not again,” Kaoru sighed, her face in her hand.

Seijuro quirked an eyebrow at her reaction, and also Yahiko groaning behind him at his words.  “Has he done that before?”

“Yeah, when Kaoru got kidnapped, forgot to tell us which temple she had been taken to when he let us know what happened and it took us all night to find them,” Yahiko informed him.

Seijuro shook his head, “that moron.”

Miles away Kenshin and Sanosuke had to stop their progress through Shishio’s lair because Kenshin suddenly doubled over having a violent sneezing spell.

Seijuro glanced over to the others with a flash of a smile, “everyone please stay back, this could be dangerous.”

Kaoru ran to Yahiko and wrapped her arms around him protectively despite Yahiko’s protests that he ‘wasn’t a little kid’.  “Thank you so much,” she told him with shining eyes.

Seijuro ducked his head in response before turning his full attention back to Fuji.  “Shall we get started?” he addressed Fuji as he unclasped his cape and it fell to the ground behind him. 

“I see, so you are the Battosai’s master then, no wonder you could deflect his sword but it is no matter!”  Saizuchi screamed.  “Just as the strength of an ant is nothing to an elephant there is no human who can match the strength of the monster called Fuji Hagun!”

“Shut it old man,” Seijuro retorted.  “I’m talking to Fuji Hagun.”  Seijuro looked intently at Fuji, and Fuji only with those words.

Fuji straightened a little in surprise and everyone else gasped at those words.

“Talking to that monster?” Kuro wondered out loud.

“That was a good swing Fuji,” Seijuro commented, ignoring everyone else.  “You executed the tightening swing of kentjutsu well, that is not something one would expect of a mindless monster.”

“Don’t listen Fuji, I’m the only one you should listen to!” Saizuchi shirked.  “Who protected and cared for you after those peasants tried to kill you because of how you look?  I did, that’s who.  All you should think about is how to repay that debt.”

“Old man!” Seijuro growled and Saizuchi stopped talking as a chill ran down his back at Seijuro’s tone.  He looked over his shoulder to Seijuro who was glaring at him and felt another chill at the look of menace in the man’s eyes.  “I said I’m talking to Fuji, now stay out of it.”

“Scary,” Misao mutter on the sidelines.

“He is the master,” Kaoru agreed, suddenly realizing Kenshin’s blind obedience and reserved respect for Seijuro. 

“Now where was I?” Seijuro mused for a moment.  “Oh yes, that was a good blow, but it won’t be enough to defeat me.  So attack in that heavy armor and you’re doomed.” Seijuro warned the giant in a sure tone.

Misao’s face said it all as to how she felt as this display of Seijuro’s ego, “could he be any more confident?” she wondered.  And he could probably back it up too. 

Okon smiled to herself, “now that’s a man who can take me anytime.”  Her comment caused her sister and brother-in-law to stare at her uncomfortably. 

There is not enough saki in the world to make this any less awkward, Shiro thought to himself. 

“Armor?” Kaoru wondered, ignoring the conversation behind her between the Aoi-ya members.  “Of course,” she mused.  “No matter how powerful the attack, with heavy armor like he’s wearing,” she referred to the metal chest plate,” it will hinder some of the power because of the weight.  And the false sense of security that wearing armor gives could make him careless, so even if he thought that attack was his best it wasn’t.  But why would Hiko-san tell him that?” she mused.

  “I see right through you!” Saizuchi screamed at Seijuro.  “Don’t listen to him Fuji,” he urged his larger companion.  “He’s trying to upset you with his taunts and then make you drop your guard and remove your armor.”

Seijuro scoffed at those words, beginning to get thoroughly annoyed by the wizened old man.  “You must be annoyed by your idiot of a master Fuji, but yet you remain loyal, you are a true samurai.  My dumb apprentice could learn a thing or two from you.”  Seijuro gave the giant a stern look.  “So isn’t it about time for you to choose your own battles?  I’m sure you don’t enjoy fighting those who are so much weaker than you, but no matter how strong you are, there are those you will not be able to defeat even at your full strength, and one of them is before you today.”

This guy has an ego bigger than Mt Fuji, Misao blinked.  I didn’t even know anyone could be that conceited.

Fuji consider Seijuro’s words before suddenly with a roar he reached up and unhooked the metal armor that crashed to the ground and took of his helmet, casually tossing it to one side and for the first time they saw the face beneath the mask, Kaoru’s eyes widen when she saw Fuji was crying.  He’s crying?  She wondered. She glanced between the giant and Seijuro who seemed pleased with the giant’s decision.  They must be tears of joy, we all just saw him as a monster but Seijuro saw the troubled soul of a misunderstood warrior beneath all of that.

Saizuchi seemed to be beside himself, “What Fuji, you can’t do this, you are leaving yourself open, put your armor back on this instant!”

Fuji paid the man no mind, simply plucked him off his shoulder and set him on the ground as though he was an annoying little bird. 

“Can someone explain to me how making him take off his armor and allowing him fuller range of motion is such a good idea ‘cause I’m lost,” Misao crossed her arms, not understanding anything about the scene before.

“I hate to say this since this guy obviously thinks he’s all that, but when he’s being this badass I have no choice but to admit he’s a little awesome,” Yahiko answered the girl.  He ignored the face he got from Kaoru that promised his mouth would get washed out later for his language.  Can’t a guy ever get a break with her?

“N-n-now,” Fuji mutter.  “Now!” he screamed in a suddenly strong voice that boomed across the street as he drew his sword back, one hand out, waiting for Seijuro.

Seijuro smiled as he held his sword out before him, shifting his feet back in a fighting stance.  “Finally, a straight up fight.”

Saizuchi saw that he was in the way of the impending fight and quickly scrambled to one side and out of the way. 

The moment stretched on, neither of them moving for a long time, Misao finally had enough of it, “are they going to stand there till the die of old age or what?” she asked dryly. 

“What’s the matter?” Seijuro asked.  “Are you suddenly afraid of me?”

There was a glint in Fuji’s eyes.  Suddenly he reached his other hand up and gripped the hilt of his broken sword and brought it swinging down with alarming speed and force right where Seijuro was standing.  The broken sword crashed into the ground, but Seijuro was already gone, moving quickly, he dodged out of the way, not even brothering to block. 

“That was an even better strike!” Seijuro complimented as Fuji’s head spun, trying to locate where Seijuro had suddenly disappeared to when he dodged his attack, “but it won’t win this fight.”  Before Fuji could recover his sword, Seijuro charged forward, his sword was almost impossible for the eye to follow as he struck Fuji nine times at his vital points as he charged him before he landed in a crouch past the giant.  Fuji remained standing for just a moment before he collapsed to the ground, landing on Saizuchi who screeched as he was buried under Fuji’s weight.

“Well he sure doesn’t hold back, unlike Kenshin,” Yahiko commented with wide eyes.

“Did he kill him?” Misao asked, her eyes as big as Yahiko’s at the display of skill she just witness in one strike.

Kaoru glanced down at Seijuro’s katana and noticed that he had flipped it, she smiled a little, he seems to do nothing but give Kenshin a hard time and put him down, but I’m guessing that Kenshin rubbed off at least a little on him.  He didn’t seem the type to spare his opponent from Kenshin’s stories about him, unlike the man before her now.

“Don’t worry about him, with a body that large he can take quite a beating,” Seijuro assured them as he sheathed his katana. 

“Couldn’t you have killed at least one of them?” Shiro grumbled as Saizuchi started sniveling and crying out for help, Shiro hobbled over and kicked the man in the head to shut him up for a moment.

“Some people just don’t know when to shut their own mouth,” Hideyoshi agreed as he cleaned the dirt off his glasses. 

Seijuro flicked his long hair out of his face, “Not sure if I gave him peace but I did give him what he wanted,” he shrugged a little as he turned his back on the scene and strolled over to Kaoru who was still holding Yahiko. 

“Ho there!”  Everyone’s attention turned to see a group of armed men running towards them, their eyes taking in the scene before them as they ran up to the group.  Everyone turned to face this new treat but Masaru stepped forward, with a hand out to stop the others, recognizing some of the men as those who worked for Lady Miku.  “We have been sent by Lady Miku to offer assistance when we heard that you had fallen under attack, it appears we are late however,” the leader apologized to Masaru. 

“We thank you and the Lady for her concern, we have injured comrades to see to, perhaps you can aid us with cleaning up this mess?”  Masaru offered.

“Of course, we shall help in any way we can,” the leader agreed before he nodded to his men who fanned out to the different members of the group, helping where needed.

Seijuro turned back to Kaoru and Yahiko, “well I’m not sure if my idiot apprentice will make it back but at least I fulfilled my promise to him.  So boy, I guess you’ll just have to keep believing in him as we wait.”

Yahiko grinned back at him, “not a problem because Kenshin will come back, just like he promised.”

Kaoru smiled as well, looking up at the sky in a silent prayer of thanks, “yes Yahiko,” she agreed as she looked down and smiled at the boy.  “Kenshin will come back to us.”

***

Miles away Kenshin suddenly skidded to a halt once again as he thought he heard a voice call out to him and Sanosuke stopped as well, letting Yumi have a moment to try and catch her breath from being dragged along.  “What’s wrong Kenshin?  Another sneezing attack?”

“No,” Kenshin replied.  “Did you hear that?”  He asked, looking around the hallways for the source of the noise but seeing nothing. 

Sanosuke looked at him in confusion, “hear what?”

“I thought I heard Kaoru-dono’s voice just now,” Kenshin told him.  “You didn’t hear it?  It was as clear as day.”

Suddenly both Sanosuke and Yumi stepped up and placed a hand on Kenshin’s forehead.

“I don’t have a fever,” Kenshin brushed their hands away in annoyance.

“Then why are you talking like you’re delirious then?’  Sanosuke demanded.  “The Missy is miles away from here.”

Kenshin glared at his friend, “I’m fine, and even if it was an imaginary voice it gives hope, it must mean that everything is all right at the Aoi-ya.”

Sanosuke gave him a look at those words.  “When did you become so optimistic?  Two minutes ago you were thinking the worst about all of them,” Sanosuke pointed out logically.

“No matter how strong the Juppongatana may be my Master can defeat them and I asked him to look after the Aoi-ya while I was gone, I know he will not let harm come to them,” Kenshin responded, suddenly sure for the first time that all was well at the Aoi-ya.  Hearing Kaoru’s voice, even if it was only in his mind had finally laid his fears to rest about the fate of the Aoi-ya and he was sure that his Master had arrived in time to save them.  He started hurrying down the hallway but not at the same breath neck speed they had been going before.

“That’s a beautiful relationship between Master and apprentice,” Sanosuke shook his head, “isn’t this the same Master who threw you to a pack of wolves when you were a kid?”

Kenshin’s eye twitched at the memory, “yes, yes it is,” he sighed. 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 20

The Strong Live…

Hoji slammed his hand against the wall, ignoring the pain from his fingers in his sudden frustration as he read the latest message.  Shishio on the other hand seemed unconcerned as they sat together in the room.  Sojiro stood to one side of the room holding his katana in his hands, waiting for the word to leave and meet Kenshin and the others in the room laid out for him.  “What is it Hoji, another message?”  Shishio asked.

Hoji turned to Shishio with shame and fury in his eyes.  “Yes my Lord, word about the attack on the Aoi-ya, our attack has failed and the Juppongatana have been defeated there, Iwanbo has run away, and Henya, Kamatari, Fuji, and Saizuchi have all been captured and are now in police custody.  I’m sorry my Lord but it seems I have made a miscalculation.”

Shishio tilted his head at Hoji, “so you are telling me that the Juppongatana are nearly gone now?”

“Yes my lord,” sweat was pouring down Hoji’s face.  “But why?” he cried out.  “They should have been invincible.”

“It’s simple,” Sojiro spoke up calmly.  “Himura-san and his group were simply stronger than us, that’s all.  The strong live and the weak will die, but you don’t need to worry Hoji, because I am strong,” Sojiro assured him with a smile.  “I’ll be going out now.”  With that the teenager walked out of the room calmly, not fazed in the slightest by the ill news.

“The strong live, the weak die?” Hoji repeated wondering about Sojiro’s strange words.  He looked to Shishio for an explanation.

“Those are the words I taught him,” Shishio explained, “they are in effect his whole philosophy.  He lacks all emotions so he has continually driven himself to improve, and so he has managed to surpass even the Battosai in skills, plus there is a skill that he has perfected that he didn’t show back in Shingetsu village, one that allowed the him to commit the Ashikaga assassination.  That boy, Sojiro Seta, has truly come into his own under my tutelage, let’s see how the Battosai will fare against him.” 

***

“Which way now Yumi-dono?” Kenshin asked as the hallway branched out in three directions.  With a huff Yumi stepped forward, leading them off to the right where they walked for a short distance until suddenly the hallway ended in a door, the name above the room read “The Room without Space”.

“Who names the rooms around here?” Sanosuke wondered aloud.

Yumi ignored him, thoroughly frustrated with Sanosuke and the way he had treated her thus far.  “In this room is the strongest member of the Juppongatana, Sojiro Seta,” she announced, beginning her introduction before she was interrupted by Sanosuke.

“Hey Kenshin, this next guy any good?”

Yumi fumed, but before she could say a word Kenshin answered his friend.  “Indeed, he is the one who broke my sakabato in the duel in Shingetsu village, he agreed to call it a draw then, but if we had continued it was clear who would have won the fight.”  He clenched his fist for a moment, “but things are different now, now I have the sakabato shinuchi as well as the secret Amakakeru ryu no Hirameki, and also,” he thought about Ashikaga for a moment. “I cannot lose this time.”

“I was trying to talk over here,” Yumi cut in dryly but the men ignored her. 

Kenshin just opened the door and strolled into the room casually.  The room was large with nothing but tatami mats spread across it.  There seemed to be some type of skylights cut through the rock for it was well lit with natural light, aside from the mats, there was a screen placed on one side of the room next to a set of tansu drawers. 

“Himura-san, it has been a long time, I’m glad to find you well,” Sojiro greeted cheerfully as though they were old friends and not enemies faced in a set of duels to decide the fate of Japan. 

“That’s him?” Sanosuke wondered in disbelief, “that kid is the strongest member of the Juppongatana?  Is he even old enough to even shave yet?”

Kenshin ignored his friend, “Your kind greeting is gratefully accepted,” Kenshin replied to Sojiro.  “But given the circumstances there is no time for conversation. Will you fight or withdraw?  There is little time to decide,” Kenshin warned him as he stepped forward.

“Little time?” Sojiro cocked his head in slight puzzlement before he realized what Kenshin was referring to.  “Oh you mean the Aoi-ya?” he laughed.  “There is no need to worry, we received word that the attack failed, so you see it is I who have no time, not you.”

“What?” Sanosuke gasped in surprise, Yumi was equaling shocked at the news, Kenshin was the only one who didn’t seem to react at those words.

“Yes Hoji-san was very surprised, but those are the facts and now we have changed places.  I now have to do the work of all of the Juppongatana, but first I have to finish this fight with you.”  Sojiro explained as the smile left his face and he put a hand on his sword.  “And so…”

Kenshin saw his hand going for his sword so he grabbed the hilt of his own as both men sprung forward and drew their swords in the blink of an eye, the blades collided with a sharp crack and they strained against the other for a moment before they jumped back.  Sanosuke looked at both blades and noticed while Kenshin’s was still flawless there was now a tiny crack in Sojiro’s sword, “That’s it, Kenshin wins this round,” Sanosuke bragged.

“What are you talking about?” Yumi scoffed.

“He cracked his sword, you see?” Sanosuke pointed out.

Yumi gave Sanosuke a look, “that tiny little crack?” she was obviously unimpressed. 

Sojiro smiled his empty smile, “I’m impressed, your sword looks the same but it is much nicer than your last one,” Sojiro complemented.  “You have made my beloved Kikuichimonji Norimune worthless.”

“Kikuicgimonji Norimune…” Yumi breathed in disbelief.  “A sword even rarer and more exquisite than the Nagasone Kotetsu?  And he cracked it?”  She looked at Kenshin not believing that he was capable of such a feat. 

“Great swordsmen, great swords,” Sanosuke looked between the two men, “but one little crack means a huge difference in skill.”  It means unlike last time, Kenshin is a step faster with his Battojutsu, he can totally do this.

Suddenly Sojiro started hopping from foot to foot, tapping the toe of each foot on the ground in a strange, almost ritualistic way.  “You’ve improved a lot since last time,” Sojiro smiled at him.  “And you were quite remarkable before.  But I don’t understand, it’s strange to me how someone like you could be so strong.”  Kenshin’s eyes quirked at the teenager, not understanding his words, “well no matter how strong you have gotten,” Sojiro continued.  “It’s still not enough to defeat Shishio-sama, and if I just apply myself a little more.” 

He sprung forward in a sudden burst of speed, hopping from foot to foot in a strange way that allowed him to cover the ground between him and Kenshin so quickly that Kenshin barely had time to raise his sword to block the strike.  Kenshin’s eyes were wide, he couldn’t believe that this young man would be capable of such a feat.  That footwork, that’s how he assassinated Lord Ashikaga in a moving carriage!

Sojiro stopped suddenly after he had charged past Kenshin, “Oops, a misstep I think,” he laughed hollowly.  “Well I guess I’ll just have to finish you with the next one,” Sojiro laid his sword over his shoulder, seemingly unconcern about the fight.

Sanosuke’s jaw dropped a littler, that kid, he moves as fast as Kenshin, wait… can he move faster than Kenshin?  He shook his head, no way, no one is faster than Kenshin.  He turned to the woman at his side, pointing at Sojiro, “hey what the hell was that just now?”

Yumi was also watching with wide eyes, “I’m not sure.”

“Hey haven’t you been the one who’s been going on all this time about how great this kid is and you don’t know anything?”  Sanosuke accused.

“That’s what Shishio-sama always says, I’ve never actually seen him fight until now,” Yumi fumed. 

“Why you dumb whore!”  Sanosuke shouted at her.

“Shukuchi.” 

Sanosuke and Yumi turned to look at Kenshin whose eyes narrowed as he stared at Sojiro, trying to reappraise this opponent before him.  “What?” they asked together.

“Shinsoku is the god like speed of the Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu, but there is a speed which surpasses even that, it is Shukuchi.”  Kenshin appraised with narrowed eyes. 

“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a great swordsmen like you has heard of it.  I myself hadn’t heard of it until Shishio-sama told me of it 2 years ago.”  Sojiro confessed.  

***

“So that is his third strength, aside from his lack of emotion and ‘heaven’s sword’?”  Hoji asked Shishio. 

“Yes,” Shishio confirmed.  “It is a technique that requires extremely powerful legs that can take one to maximum speed instantly, when used correctly it seems to be almost ‘magic’ as if the person has the ability to shrink the earth itself to move quickly.  As the Warlord Mori is said to have told his three sons that three arrows are harder to break than one, so with his three talents Sojiro will not be broken either.”

“So it is a speed that would match the Battosai’s?”  Hoji asked.

Shishio smiled, “no, it is a speed which will surpass the Battosai’s.  I’m afraid there is little likelihood that the Battosai will live, especially as Sojiro is not the type to show any mercy.”

***

Sojiro smiled as Kenshin explained to Sanosuke and Yumi about the sight they had just witnessed, “actually Himura-san, that wasn’t Shukuchi.”  There were gasps of surprise at those words, Kenshin’s eye narrowed even further as Sojiro started his bouncing and tapping his toes like he had before.  “It was really just three steps short of Shukuchi, after our fight at Shingetsu I thought that would be enough to finish you, sorry to have underestimated you.”  Suddenly the boy’s lighthearted attitude dropped and his face grew serious, “this time it’ll be 2 steps short of Shukuchi.”

He charged forward and Kenshin didn’t even bother to try and block, he simply jumped out of the way, thinking that with his great speed, Sojiro would not be able to change directions quickly, he was wrong.  With his particular bouncing movements, he simply changed directions in an instant, with one bounce and came straight for Kenshin who quickly raised his sword to block the attack as he tried to leap out of the teenager’s way. 

“Don’t stop Kenshin, you’ll be a sitting duck if you do!”  Sanosuke shouted from the sidelines.

Thanks for stating the obvious, Kenshin thought even as Sojiro changed directions once again as Kenshin tried to move out of his way, suddenly Sojiro was behind him.  Kenshin turned as fast as he could, breaking the attack with his sword raised to block.  He shoved Sojiro back as hard as he could in his surprised state and broke his charge.  Kenshin backed up several steps as Sojiro started tapping his toe again as he bounced.

“Wait, he got behind Kenshin?”  Sanosuke was flabbergasted. 

Kenshin was feeling a little frustrated with the situation.  Not only can he move like lightening, but he can change direction as fast as he moves, and with his lack of emotions it makes him seem even faster because it’s impossible to predict which way he will go.  But I shouldn’t let his speed distract me, Kenshin mentally shook his head.  I will have to try to use his speed against him with the strongest and fastest charge in the Hiten Mitsrugi-ryu, the Kuzaryusen- the nine headed dragon.

Sojiro was just about to start his charge again, but this time Kenshin also charged the boy, swinging his sword through motions of the Kuzaryusen but each blow was matched perfectly and blocked by Sojiro, suddenly Sojiro was behind him.  Before Kenshin could even try and protect his exposed back Sojiro slashed at him as Kenshin continued forward with his charge.  Kenshin cried out in pain as he came to a stop, turning to keep an eye on his opponent.

 

Sojiro didn’t seem pleased, if anything he seemed puzzled with the outcome of the charge.  Kenshin however was panting from the pain, his whole back seemed like it was on fire.  He blocked the Kuzaryusen which is supposed to be impossible to block or evade, will not impossible but very, very difficult.  He truly has a speed that matches my own, no maybe he is faster.  But something is wrong, he had a chance to finish me then, but he didn’t take it, why?

Sanosuke couldn’t believe what he was seeing, so shocked he couldn’t even think about calling out to his friend to know if he was all right.  I never thought I would see the day someone would get behind Kenshin in the fight, and this kid has done it twice, even managed to cut Kenshin’s back up bad.  This isn’t good, this really isn’t good.

Yumi smiled, that’s it, Sojiro is walking all over Himura in this fight.  Finally, I will see one of them fall.  It will only take one more attack.

Sojiro propped his sword over his shoulder as he observed Kenshin.  ‘That’s odd,” he mused.  “I was sure that I would have you on that attack.”  Sojiro shook his head.  “Himura-san was so vulnerable after that attack, that’s when I planned to finish him off but I didn’t.  This doesn’t make any sense, I don’t get it.”  Sojiro looked truly confused.  “In this world, only the strong live, the weak die,” he heard the words Lord Shishio had taught him long ago. I’m sure I made no mistake, so why is Himura-san still standing?

 

Sojiro stood at the banks of a river as Shukku sat watching the water flow past with his back to Sojiro.  “The Battosai isn’t just strong,” Shukku had told him.

 

Yumi suddenly looked worried, she had never seen Sojiro act like this.  “What are you going on about kid?” she asked.

“Senkaku, said something strange to me,” he shook his head, “it doesn’t make any sense,” he confessed looking genuinely puzzled and confused.

“Kenshin what are you waiting for, he’s leaving himself wide open!”  Sanosuke shouted.

Sojiro’s face cleared a little as he looked at Kenshin.  “Why did you do it?” he asked innocently and Kenshin’s eyes widen at the strange behavior and question.  “Why did you attack with the ryushousen then?  Why did you let Shishio-sama see your technique then?  You didn’t have to, you had won the fight.”

Kenshin stared at the boy for a moment, “because if I didn’t then Shishio would have killed Senkaku,” he explained slowly. 

“But he was your enemy, why show him mercy?  He wouldn’t have done the same for you.”  Sojiro persisted.

“You’re an idiot if you don’t get it!”  Sanosuke commented from the sidelines, he wasn’t even sure who they were referring to but he got the general idea for what must have happened.  “That’s the kind of guy he is, he’ll show mercy to anyone even if they won’t do the same for him.  He’ll protect anyone in need, even if that person is an enemy.  He lives his life to protect the weak.”

“It doesn’t make sense,” Sojiro protested shaking his head.  “You say such strange things.”

“Strange things…?”  Kenshin repeated, he had known from the first time he had met the young man face to face that there was something wrong with his mental state, but as the fight progressed and Sojiro continued to speak it confirmed all of Kenshin’s earlier suspicions.  What happened to him to make him like this?

“You can worry about all that after you finish him off kiddo!”  Yumi shouted.

“You were supposed to kill him,” Sojiro told Kenshin in a sure voice, “it’s because you did strange things like that, like not killing him that… and saying such strange things…” 

 

Senkaku rolled down the embankment in his haste to get away from the police, he landed by a mountain stream panting.  He was so thirsty that he crawled over to the stream and drank some of the water, not realizing that someone else was there until he heard the crunch of gravel underfoot.  He glanced around in fright but then seemed to relax some when he saw it was just Sojiro. 

“You surprised me, I didn’t think you would be able to escape from them,” Sojiro told him with a false smile.

Senkaku sat down by the stream, “Sojiro,” he greeted, turning his attention to the rushing water before him. 

“Senkaku-san,” Sojiro greeted.

“You are here to kill me aren’t you?” Senkaku asked and the question hung in the air for a moment.

“Shishio-sama told me that he didn’t tell you anything important so you weren’t even worth killing.  That’s what he said but I was wondering something, why are you still alive?” he asked in curiosity.  “You lost to Himura-san.”

“You want to understand why the Battosai didn’t kill me then?  I would have been killed by Shishio and be drowning in a pool of my own blood all the way down to hell now if it wasn’t for the mercy of the Battosai.  But thanks to him I get to spend another day in the sun and for that I am grateful.  I realized something in that fight with him, the Battosai isn’t just strong, he’s a completely different kind of man from Lord Shishio who uses fear to manipulate and control people.”

“But I don’t understand what he was thinking,” Sojiro persisted, hoping that Senkaku had the answers to his questions.  “I don’t understand why Himura-san would spare you, I DON’T GET IT!”  He drew his sword and drove it through the back of Sennku’s head and blood gushed out of the wound, splashing in to the stream and turning it red as the water flowed past.  “I don’t understand,” Sojiro mumbled to himself, “I don’t understand…”

 

Sojiro trailed off as he glanced down to his feet and noticed that one of the straps on his sandals had broken.  He looked back to Kenshin, his fake smile plastered back onto his young face, “Himura-san, might you humor me?”  He asked politely.  “It’s been a while since I’ve gone for a run and my sandals are well…” he laughed.  “It won’t take but a moment, I’m sure I have another pair just over there,” he gestured over to the set of drawers in the corner. 

Panting Kenshin nodded, accepting the short reprieve in the battle.  He made his way slowly over to Sanosuke, planning on taking the time to see to his wounds.  “Who’s Senkaku?”  Sanosuke asked Kenshin as he grabbed the bag with medical supplies in it as Kenshin gestured to his back before he started removing his kimono carefully off his shoulders to expose his back.

“He was the one who ruled the village in Shingetsu that I defeated, afterwards he was taken into police custody.”  Kenshin explained quickly as Sanosuke started rubbing Megumi’s medicine over Kenshin’s back to stop the bleeding while Kenshin winced.

“So why didn’t you attack during that whole conversation?  He obviously had his guard down,” Sanosuke pointed out. 

Kenshin glanced at his friend over his shoulder as he started wrapping bandages around his chest and back to cover the wound, “you know you sound like Saito when you say things like right?” 

Kenshin called out in pain as Sanosuke tightened the bandages and irritated his wound, “these are some bad injuries you’ve got here, anyone else would probably have passed out by now,” Sanosuke told him in a serious voice, so he’s a tough one to fight then?” Sanosuke asked. 

 “Yes,” Kenshin agreed.  “With his sword skill, speed, and the impossibility of reading his movements, but there’s more than that.”  Kenshin stared at Sojiro who seemed to be taking longer than necessary to tie his new sandal on while Yumi was talking to him about something, “I thought before that he had no emotions, but it’s becoming clear that’s not true.  He has emotions that he has buried away from everyone, even himself.  Kind of like what I did with my hitokiri side for so many years, but something about this fight is bringing his emotions out.  If that’s the case then what made him like this, and why does this fight affect him so?”   Kenshin wondered. 

“So if he’s starting to get his emotions back, is that a good thing or a bad thing?  Sanosuke asked but Kenshin had no answer for him. 

***

Sojiro was tying his new sandal very slowly and it was irritating Yumi who just wanted to get the fight over with.  “What are you doing, why didn’t you finish him off when you got the chance, are you waiting for an engraved invitation or something?”  Yumi fumed.

Sojiro looked up with his false smile, “is something irritating Yumi-sama?”  he asked politely. 

Yumi felt the smoke coming out of her ears, “you… you do know that this is the Battosai right?  You won’t get an opportunity to take him down whenever you want.”

“I don’t know why,” Sojiro replied, looking back to his sandal.  “I can’t help it, I don’t know why it’s turning out like this.  He is strong, worthy of his legend but it doesn’t make sense.”  Shishio-sama says that Battosai is weak because he fights only to protect the weak and that is why he won’t kill.  “I know that what he says is wrong, definitely wrong.”  Sojiro seemed to repeat the words, more as if to reassure himself than anything. 

Yumi was growing more and more concerned about Sojiro’s mental state, “Are you…?”

Sojiro looked up with a false smile on his face before the smile faded, “because you see,” he continued.  “Only the strong survive in this world,” the rain pouring down from the black sky, the screams faded and the blood was washed away by the rain, the lightening cracked across the sky revealing a courtyard filled with bodies.  “I know that’s true, because back then…”  Back then… what he said to me was…

***

Misao screamed in protested as Kaoru wrapped up the bandages around the wounded girl’s chest.  “Ouch!  Those bandages are tight!  You trying to kill me?”  Misao complained.

Kaoru rolled her eyes, ‘it’s not that bad, stop being such a baby.”

She finished helping Misao and picked up the bandages while Misao gingerly pulled her tunic back on.  Kaoru moved to the next room to where they were treating Shishio’s men and the injured Juppongatana members.  Kamatari was sitting up with her leg wrapped up and looking very glum.  “I’ve really hit rock bottom here,” she complained.  “To get treated by the enemy no less.”

Kaoru tilted her head at the strange man-women, “don’t think that way,” Kaoru told him, “the injured are suppose to be taken care of, no matter who they are.”

Kamatari shook her head and crossed her arms, “just leave me alone.”  She told her bluntly.  Face it, I never was good enough to serve Lord Shishio, is this how it ends?

“We are here for the prisoners,” Kaoru glanced up as she saw Masaru step forward to greet the police who had finally arrived on the scene. 

“We have them in here, we have finished seeing to their immediate injuries,” Masaru explained as the police came in and started carrying out the prisoners.  Kaoru stood back and watched them remove every one of their attackers and take them away to jail. 

“This place is wrecked,” Okon complained as she walked in and looked around at the inn.  Kaoru had to agree with her, the whole front of the inn was destroyed, in fact the men that Miku had sent had taken a half an hour just to clear a way for them back into the inn.  Okina had several ripped stitches and was immediately put back in bed and had several members of the Aoi-ya by his bedside to make him stay put.  After they had moved all of the prisoners in they had started treating them, however Kuro, Okon, and Hideyoshi had remained outside to line up the bodies to the soldiers who had been killed by Henya’s bombs before they were carried off. 

“Well it’s not the first time,” Kuro sighed, “Just like with the Boshin Wars, we will rebuild and reopen.”

“I know, but I was hoping for a hot bath tonight,” Okon complained. 

“Is there anything else that we can do for you?” the leader of Miku’s men asked Masaru.

“Not at present, we thank you for your help so far,” Masaru bowed to them and then escorted them out. 

Kaoru caught Yahiko hobbling around out of the corner of her eye.  She grabbed the boy’s arm and stopped him.  “Where do you think, you’re going Yahiko?”  She demanded.  “You should be resting, you were hurt badly.”

“Let go of me!” Yahiko yelled at her.  “I’ve got to stay up and wait for Kenshin to get back, and I’m not laying around in some bed until then!”

“Yahiko,” Kaoru started.

“I’m going to wait for Kenshin,” Yahiko told her in a steely voice.

Kaoru gave up with a sigh, “all right, but only if we wait for him together.”  Yahiko nodded in agreement and Kaoru smiled a little,” All right, go ahead and wait for me outside, I’ll be there in a minute.”  Yahiko started to hobble to the door and Kaoru ran quickly out of the room and fetched a blanket before running outside to find Yahiko had taken a seat on some of the rubble of the inn.  Kaoru sat down next to the boy and wrapped a blanket around his shoulders. 

“Hey, I’m not a little kid!”   Yahiko protested as she wrapped him up in the blanket.

“It’s going to get cold silly, and you don’t want to catch your death out here.  We don’t know how long it’s going to take for Kenshin to get back.”  She told him in a stern voice as she continued tucking him into the blanket.

Yahiko grumbled but figured it wasn’t worth it to protest further.  They sat together in silence for a few moments before exhaustion started to win out and finally Yahiko realized how hard it was to try and keep his eyes open.  Kaoru noticed that boy was trying hard not to nod over, finally she just put an arm around him and pulled him a little closer, inviting him to lean against her.  It was proof of how badly hurt and exhausted the boy was that he didn’t even protest, instead he just leaned against her, resting his head against her, in less than five minutes he was sound asleep.

Kaoru on the other hand knew she wouldn’t be able to find such a comfort until Kenshin was back.  She looked down the street, trying to lay her fears to rest, Kenshin, please be safe, please come back.

***

Sojiro finally finished tying his sandals and stood back up, walking back to the middle of the floor to resume the fight.  Sanosuke had already finished tending Kenshin’s wounds and they had the time to also get something to drink while they were waiting for Sojiro.  Kenshin joined Sojiro in the middle of the floor while Yumi resume her place against the far wall where Sanosuke also waited. 

This man, fighting him, Sojiro struggled to understand this strange feeling coursing through him.  It makes me… angry, he finally realized.  Even just looking at him annoys me.

“Are you all right to continue this fight?” Kenshin asked politely. Sensing that much had changed since the beginning of the fight, none of which he understood, but Sojiro’s eyes, could almost be angry. 

“You are wrong Himura-san,” Sojiro told him.  “You can’t fight to protect the weak, that’s wrong, it isn’t possible, because if it was…”  Something crossed his face, a flicker that was gone so quickly it left everyone guessing if they had really seen it.  “It’s not possible.”

“Why do you think that?” Kenshin asked in genuine curiosity.

“Because only the strong live, the weak die, that is what Shishio-sama taught me, you can’t protect the weak, it’s wrong,” Sojiro told him, once again something flickered in his eyes.

Yumi felt a slight panic at the strange behavior of Sojiro’s, she had known him for years and she had never once seen him act like this. What’s going on, he’s smiling like usual, but something is wrong.  “No more games Sojiro,” Yumi told him, “finish him off next time with your shukuchi.”

“Don’t worry,” he assured Yumi, his smile made his face appear more like the Sojiro she knew, not the strange creature she was getting glimpses of now.  “I’ll finish him off with one step short of shukuchi.”

“Sojiro!”  Yumi yelled at him.

“No need to shout,” Sojiro replied simply, his eyes focused on Kenshin now as he started his foot tapping and Kenshin braced for the incoming attack.  “I can finish him with that, because if I have to use the full shukuchi on him,” Sojiro’s tone darkened and the anger in his eyes grew.  “Then I will get even more annoyed.”  Protecting the weak is a mistake…

Kenshin looked into Sojiro’s eyes for a moment, he seemed determined to finish the fight, but Kenshin could tell that he was starting to come unhinged, something about his desire to protect the weak stirred something deep inside of Sojiro.  What happened to this boy?  Kenshin wondered.  Something awful must have happened to him in his childhood to think of death as a result of weakness.  Kenshin flashed back for a moment to the night with the bandits, struggling to raise a katana, unable to protect those who died for him.  He said only the strong live and the weak die.  That Shishio taught him that.  I doubt if he has ever had anyone truly care for him, maybe if he had…  Kenshin thought of his master swearing to teach his kenjutsu next to a grave.  Maybe he would have had a completely different life.

Sojiro stared intently at Kenshin, remembering a dark night when his salvation had been given to him, “I’m giving you this wakizashi…”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 21

…and the Weak Die

“You stupid brat!” The kick hit Sojiro soundly in the ribs, knocking him out the door and out into the courtyard where he collapsed, his small, childish frame unable to support him at the moment.  “I told you to move 100 barrels of rice to the west warehouse by sunset didn’t I!” The man was the father of the family, Juro Seta.  He drank some more of the saki from the bottle in his hand before he started yelling at Sojiro again who sat out in the courtyard where he had been knocked out with his head bowed.  “I don’t want to hear that you can’t do it, if I say you do it then you do it!”

Sojiro raised his head, the light from the house shone upon his innocent childlike smile, this only seemed to enrage Juro even more, “What are you grinning at?” he screamed as he threw his bottle at Sojiro and it hit him in the head and made the boy see stars. 

Sojiro’s forehead was bleeding profusely at the gash that the bottle had caused, but Juro took no pity on the boy.  “You aren’t allowed in this house until you get the work done, you can sleep outside until then.”  Juro’s wife, Yuzuki, and his youngest son, Kouta, joined their father with his oldest son, Shichirou, and daughter, Junko watched the spectacle from inside the house.  Sojiro slowly got to his feet, the smile still on his face as he started walking to the warehouse were the rice was currently being stored to start the task of moving the heavy barrels. 

“Oh father,” Junko moaned, “you shouldn’t upset yourself so.  Why do you bother with that kid?”

“It’s bad enough that rice prices are falling since the government switched its tax base from rice to gold, but then to get stuck with that kid,” Yuzuki complained. 

“Why did the old man have to dump his mistress son on us with everything else when he died?”  Juro agreed.

“Oh dad, don’t think of it like that, think of the kid as a gift, you can work him as hard as you want and no one will complain.”  Shichirou pointed out with a grin. 

“What bothers me the most is that fact that he’s always smiling like that, he doesn’t think that our taking him in means anything does he?” Junko asked.

“I hope not,” her mother stuck her nose in the air at the thought.  “It was only for sake of appearances but he will never get any part of this business, everything goes to my children.”

None of them realized that Sojiro heard every word they spoke as he walked away.

***

Sojiro pulled up a barrel of water from the well, carefully washed his head, and held a rag to his head until it stopped bleeding.  He curled up next to the well with his head throbbing and all alone, he gave into the tears he refused to shed in front of his family.  When he was able to regain his composure and the bleeding had stopped, he drank a little water before walking to warehouse to move a few barrels of rice before morning. 

With each barrel, and with every step, the barrels seemed to grow heavy, finally Sojiro decided that he had moved his last one for the night, when he dropped the barrel in the west warehouse he nearly wept from exhaustion.  He looked around, trying to decide where he would sleep for the night since he didn’t dare go back to the house yet, not until he finished moving all the rice. 

Suddenly he heard a man scream in agony near the warehouse and he looked around with wide eyes, wondering what was going on, he crept out, hearing the sounds of screaming and fighting nearby.  He crept next to the warehouse, keeping to the shadows.  He suddenly saw a policeman raise his sword high above his head, a look of fierce determination on his face as he faced a figure from out of a horror story, a man like figure wrapped in bandages from head to toe and wielding a katana dripping blood, around him laid the bodies of other policemen. 

The last remaining policeman never even got a chance to strike before the mummy figure brought his own katana down and cut the man in half.  Sojiro stumbled back, his foot hitting a loose pebble and sending it clattering down the alleyway, causing the mummy man to turn and face him.  Sojiro’s eyes widened even further when he saw drool dripping from the man’s mouth, his eyes seemed crazed and bits of his face were visible beneath the bandages and all of which was horribly burned and disfigured and lit up by the pale light of the full moon. 

A monster, he’s going to kill and eat me too!  Sojiro thought in panic.

“So you saw me, didn’t you?” the man asked in a mincing tone as he stepped toward Sojiro.  Sojiro stumbled back, but lost his footing with his body so tired after the day’s work, he fell to the ground and scrambled back until his back hit the warehouse wall and he trembled in fight, certain he was going to die.  “It’s too bad,” the man continued, shifting his sword to prepare to strike as he advanced.  “But you will have to die here too boy.”

He raised his sword but stopped suddenly as he stared at Sojiro, “does the thought of dying make you happy boy?” he asked.

“Huh, me happy?” Sojiro laughed nervously, his whole body trembled in fright, not realizing he was smiling like a fool and had been since the man had started to advance on him. 

The man lowered his sword and sheathed it at his side as he observed Sojiro for a long moment.  “Boy,” he ordered.  “Bring me some bandages and food.  I’ll let you live if you do.”

***

Sojiro peered at the strange man from behind one of the barrels in the rice shed, he had brought the man some food and bandages as requested and watched as the man rebandaged his wounds, it was clear from the few glances that Sojiro had dared that the man was burned from head to foot. 

The man flexed his arms after finishing wrapping the last of the bandages, “good, I can move a little easier now,” he mused half to himself, completely ignoring Sojiro. 

“Umm, old man,” Sojiro addressed him cautiously, poking his head around the barrel.

“I’m not old enough to be called that,” the man corrected him sharply.  “‘Not that you can tell with this,” he gestured to his body wrapped in bandages.  “I have a name, Shishio, call me that.”  With that Shishio reached for the food and started eating.

“Umm, Shishio-san?” Sojiro tried again.

“Yes?” Shishio answered, continuing to eat.

“Shishio-san, since you were killing policemen, does that make you a bad man?” he asked innocently.

“They are the bay guys,” Shishio corrected.  “These dogs of the Meiji Government used me and my skills and then tried to kill me and burn me alive when I was an inconvenience to them.”

“So you’re a good guy then?” Sojiro concluded in a happier tone.

“No,” Sojiro corrected him in a deep voice.  “I’m actually a very evil person.”  Sojiro gave a little shriek and ducked behind the barrel in fright.  “Don’t worry kid, I promised to spare your life.”  He finished his food and leaned back against the barrels.  “I like this place, I won’t be found unless you report me so I think I might stay for a while.”

Sojiro poked his head out from behind the barrel and stared at him for a long time, so I was right, he is a bad man but…  he thought to him killing the policeman and their faces suddenly morphed into his family beating him… but he is so very strong.

***

It was morning Sojiro was once again hauling rice barrels, sweat pouring off his face as he struggled under his load.  His family was out in the courtyard, ignoring his presence entirely.  

“Hey brother,” Shichirou said, “Have you heard about the criminal that’s on the loose, heard a cop talking about it today, apparently the officers who were sent after him haven’t been seen in three days.  They even searched the mountains, no trace of them,” Shichirou smoked his pipe while Kouta played with his new sword.

They won’t find them, Sojiro thought with a small amount of satisfaction.  Their bodies are buried in the forest and Shishio-san is hidden in the warehouse.  He had buried the bodies as ordered by Shishio out in the forest and even washed away the blood from the street, leaving no trace of the murders. 

The brothers suddenly took note of Sojiro, “hey Sojiro!”  Kouta called out. 

Sojiro’s head whipped around at his name.  Quickly and carefully he sat down the barrel of rice, slipping the straps off his shoulders and facing his older nephew.  “Y-yes?”

“You’ve been sleeping outside these past 3 days, haven’t you seen or heard anything?”  Kouta demanded.  Before he grabbed Sojiro’s kimono and pulled the boy close to growl in his face, “you better tell me if you have, don’t think you can keep it from me.”

“I haven’t seen or heard anything sir,” Sojiro stammered quickly.

Kouta dropped the boy with a sneer, “this will be such a good opportunity to show off my sword skills, I’ll cut off that criminal’s head!” he bragged as he drew his sword and sliced through the barrel of rice, causing all the grains of rice within to spill out over in the courtyard. 

Sojiro gasped at the broken barrel he had so painstakingly carried this far, his heart stuttering in fear.

Shichirou sighed as he continued to smoke his pipe, “shouldn’t have done that brother,” he scolded mildly.  “You’ve got to stop swinging that sword around so much.”  His eyes flickered over to Sojiro and his lips curled back in a grin and Sojiro felt another rush of panic. 

Not again, please not again, Sojiro prayed.

Shichirou raised his voice, making certain that those in the house would be able to hear him clearly.  “Sojiro you broke another barrel of rice, you are such a klutz!”

Sojiro wanted to cry, he knew what would follow, the screen door to the house slammed open and Juro came out like a raging bull, “what was that!” he roared.  He looked over the broken barrel of rice with Sojiro standing next to it and his two sons ‘observing’ the scene.  “Another barrel!  Do you know how much that costs!”  He screamed.  “Can’t you do the simplest of tasks?  I’ve had enough of you boy, this time you’re really going to get it!”  He grabbed Sojiro by the arm as he started beating the unresisting boy, screaming all the while.

Meanwhile in the nearby shed Shishio woke from his nap and heard the screaming outside, in curiosity he got up, glanced carefully through one of the silted windows high up in the warehouse, and saw Sojiro being beaten.  He watched for a moment before he stepped away and went back to his corner and laid back down to sleep awhile longer, ignoring the screaming outside. 

***

It was late and Sojiro sat on a barrel, his knees tucked up to his chin, sniffling with blacked eyes and a body beaten and bruised.  Shishio observed the boy for a long time, “evil comes in many forms,” Shishio told him.  “And your family is pretty evil, so tell me, why are you still smiling like that even though they beat you this badly?”  Shishio asked him in curiosity. 

Sojiro looked up quickly, not even realizing that he was smiling, it had become so normal for him to smile all the time he didn’t even know when he was doing it anymore.  “Oh w-well,” he stuttered.  “You’re right, but I didn’t used to be like this,” he confessed, looking down at his hands, chapped with cracked skin and thick callous from all the hard labor his family made him do.  “Back when I first got here, when they beat me, I used to get mad or cry, but the more I cried or the madder I got they would just beat me more for being a brat.  But one day I managed to keep it all in, and that’s when I learned that if I just smiled and didn’t get mad or cry then they would get tired of beating me and just leave me alone,” Sojiro tucked his legs closer to his chest.  “So no matter how much it hurts, no matter how much I hate it I keep it all in and smile.”

“So that’s why, pain, terror, it all brings a smile to your lips now, and you aren’t even aware of it,” Shishio mused.

 “I can’t help it anymore, even though I’m their brother I’m not really part of this family, so it’s their fault that I’m like this now.”  Sojiro told him.

“You’re wrong,” Shishio’s voice cut like a knife and Sojiro’s head snapped at those words. 

“Huh?” the boy gasped.

“No one can ‘make’ you into anything, it’s your own fault for being weak,” Shishio told him a sure voice.  Sojiro gasped at those words, feeling a shiver of shock course through his body.  “In this world the weak are substance for the strong.  That is the one truth, only the strong live and the weak die.  And no smile will spare you from that eternal truth.”

He picked up the wakizashi next to him and held it out to Sojiro, “here,” he offered.  “I’m giving you this wakizashi as payment for my stay and seeing to my needs.”

***

The whole of the next day as Sojiro moved the barrels of rice, moving even slower because of his injuries, his thoughts were consumed with the thought of that wakizashi that he had hidden under the house.  He knew what Shishio was offering him, he wasn’t a fool.  He could use that weapon against those who beat him, he could become someone like Shishio.  All day he thought about it and tried to decide what he should do.  Part of him, the part that had enough of the beatings and just wanted to be left alone wanted to use that against those who had hurt him.  But the child he was, sly away from the violence, thinking of the policeman cut in half, the blood and gore of that moonlit night. 

Only the strong live, and the weak die, he thought, he played the words over and over in his mind.  Only the strong live, and the weak die.

Finally, after the sun had set he sat by the well, thinking over everything, and trying to make a decision.  “I don’t want to die,” he told himself.  “But I don’t want to hurt them either.”

Meanwhile in the warehouse Shishio flexed his aching joints, “a storm is moving in tonight,” he mused. 

***

Yuzuki shifted through the drawers and noticed something was missing, in frustration she searched everywhere and realized that they were indeed out.  She walked into the main room where the family had gathered in the evening.  “Does anyone know what happened to all the bandages?” she asked the family.

Kouta was polishing his sword in unconcern, “how should I know?” he scoffed.

“Well then who does know?” Yuzuki snapped.  “The rice stolen from the kitchen, that was Sojiro, but the bandages?”

Shichirou laughed as he smoked his pipe, “He probably took those too, he probably needed them after dad was done with him the other day.”

“But all of them?”  Yuzuki asked incredulously, “why would he need five full rolls just for himself?”

Kouta straighten a little at those words.  “Hey dad,” he raised his head to look at his father who was drinking.  “That criminal the cops are searching for, isn’t he suppose to be covered in burns or something?”

“Yeah why?” his father asked, taking a second before he caught his son’s line of thought.  His face hardened as he suddenly realized what had happened, “Sojiro that little bastard!”

***

Sojiro had a blanket wrapped around his shoulders as he thought by the well.  He kept blowing on his hands that had now been rubbed raw from his work.  “In this world the weak are food for the strong, only the strong live and the weak die,” he said, repeating the words that had been running through his mind all day, “but even so, it must hurt being killed by a sword.  After all I know how much it hurts to be beaten, being cut by a sword probably hurts more.”  He put a hand to his bruised face and smiled, a decision made as the wind whipped up around him.  “I think I’ll return the sword,” he said to himself as he stood up.  “I’m just not strong like Shishio-san.  I know I’m weak but I prefer things the way they are.”  He started to walk away before he heard a voice call out to him in the darkness.

“Sojiro!”  Sojiro froze at Juro’s angry voice and his heart started to race.  “Where the hell are you boy!”

This can’t be good, Sojiro panicked, what could I have done this time?

“Sojiro!”  Kouta called out, sounding just as angry as his father. 

Sojiro turned around and headed towards his family, fighting the rising panic he felt.  “Y-yes?”  He came into the back courtyard and stepped into the light shown from the lanterns inside of the house.  He looked to see the entire family out there, and all of them looked angrier than he had ever seen, and armed with canes, sticks, and Kouta with his sword. 

“Sojiro,” Juro snarled as he stepped towards the boy whose smile now infuriated him even more.  “How dare you lie, how dare you lie to me!”  he screamed as he smacked Sojiro across the face with his cane, knocking the boy to the ground.  “You little runt!  You trying to bring the police down on me by helping that criminal!  Are you trying to ruin me?”

“I can’t believe a brat like you would do something against the will of the government like harbor a fugitive,” Shichirou scoffed.

Juro kept hitting the downed boy, “Out with it!”  He screamed.  “Where’s the criminal, where is he?”

Sojiro said nothing, he just laid on the ground, taking the beating.  “I’ve had enough of this bastard kid,” Kouta snarled, drawing his sword, “I’ll finish him off!”

Sojiro looked back at the raised sword, no longer smiling, now his eyes were filled with terror.  Junko reached out and grabbed her brother’s arm to stop him and Sojiro felt a moment of relief thinking that she was helping him.

“Wait a moment Junko, won’t killing the brat get you into trouble?  You don’t want to get arrested for murder after all.  As much as I would like to see the kid killed we can’t have the trouble.”  She told her brother. 

Sojiro felt even more panicked, realizing as he looked at the now strange faces of his family that there was not a single one of them that would help him now. 

“Why would it?”  Shishirou asked with a shrug of his shoulder.  “There’s a violent criminal hiding around here, who’s going to question if he is the cause of another victim,” he pointed out with cruel logic.  “After all, out poor dear little brother must have seen the traitor and then was killed before he could tell the police, so tragic.”

Sojiro’s heart was now in his ears, almost so loud to drown out his family’s voices as they plotted how best to dispose of him. 

“So go ahead and kill him brother.  The only place the traitor could be hiding is the storage shed so we can get the police after the brat’s dead.  We might even get a handsome reward for turning the traitor in.”  Shichirou went on. 

Juro snarled, “do it, I won’t have this brat destroy my business.”

“A reward would be nice,” Junko smiled evilly at Sojiro.

“I can’t believe that you would do this to us after we took you in and cared for you,” Yuzuki accused him. 

“One dead brat coming up,” Kouta raised his sword.

If you’re strong you live, if you’re weak you die.

Sojiro wasn’t sure how he moved so quickly, he didn’t know how he got his bruised and battered body off the ground and running down the stone walkway faster than Kouta’s slash.  The panic had completely overwhelmed him and his only thought was to get away, as far away as he could.  He was screaming as loud as he could, hoping someone would come to his rescue.  Lightening started to crack against the sky from the coming storm.

“Get back here!” Juro screamed.

“I’m going to kill you, you brat!”  Kouta was hot on his heels.

“Help me!”  Sojiro screamed.  “Someone, anyone, help me!”

***

The family circled around the area with lanterns looking for Sojiro, he had disappeared during the chase.  The rain was starting to come down and they were out with the umbrellas and lanterns searching the darkness. 

“He ain’t here,” Kouta complained. 

“Damn it, where did that brat go to?”  Juro scoffed.  “He couldn’t have gotten far.”

Shichirou suddenly saw a small foot print slowly being washed away by the rain that was near the house, he ducked down a little and realized that the footprints lead under the house.  “I got him,” he told the others with a grin. 

Yuzuki saw the footprints that Shishirou pointed to for the others and wrinkled her nose.  “Well go get him then, I’m not going under there.”

***

Sojiro huddled under the house, feeling some safety in the darkness.  He clenched the wakizashi that he had hidden under there close to his chest, tears pouring down his face.  Please help me, Shishio-san, you’re strong, please help me, anybody, please help me.  I don’t want to die. 

“Got you, you sneaky little rat!”  Sojiro spun his head around to see Shichirou right behind him, he grabbed the back of the boy’s kimono before he could get away. 

Sojiro started crying even harder, knowing this was the end for him, Shichirou saw the wakizashi in the boy’s hands, “hey that’s an expensive looking sword, did you find it in the shed or something?”  he asked with a cruel grin on his face.  “Let’s have a look shall we?”  he grabbed the sheath and started to pull on it.  Sojiro held tightly onto the hilt so that as he pulled the sheath, Shichirou unsheathed the deadly sharp weapon. 

Only the strong survive. 

“Who did you steal this from huh?”  Shichirou asked in glee.

The weak die…

The family waiting in the rain heard a high pitch scream from under the house. 

“What a cowardly scream,” Junko laughed.

“He is a whore’s son after all,” Yuzuki scoffed in unconcern. 

They heard a scrapping sound and they moved to the edge of the house to greet Shichirou.  Shichirou pulled himself halfway out from under the house, gurgling and choking on his own blood before he collapsed dead.

“Shichirou?”  Kouta gasped in surprise to see his brother dead.  Junko and Yuzuki both screamed when they realized who it was. 

They heard another sound and they turned to see Sojiro’s small figure standing in the rain, the wakizashi in his hand, his head bowed.  Only the strong survive, the weak die.

“You!”  Yuzuki pointed a finger at the boy, “you!”

“You’re going to die brat!” Juro screamed as he ran forward to wreck revenge for his dead son.

Sojiro turned his head casually to the charging man with Kouta on his heels.  Only the strong survive…

Lightning flashed across the sky, lightening up the world for an instant.

And the weak die.

***

Shishio sat in the shed, listening to the sound of the rain on the roof and the crackling of the lightning and thunder.  The screams and sounds of fighting outside sounded like a lullaby to his ears after so many years of killing.  Finally, the screaming and crying faded, he waited a while longer before he picked up his sword and walked to the door, sliding it back and leaning against the frame as he looked out over the courtyard.  The bodies of Sojiro’s family was sprawled across the courtyard, slashed to ribbons, the rain washing the blood away.  Sojiro was the one figure who stood in the rain, the wakizashi in his hand and his head bowed.  Shishio stared for a long time at that face, trying to read the boy. 

“Are you crying?’ he asked the boy.

Sojiro flinched a little at his voice, suddenly reminded of his presence, but when he raised his face to him, all Shishio saw was the fake smile he had come to expect from the boy.  “No sir,” he told him in a happy voice.

Shishio cocked his head at the boy, apprising him, “would you like to come with me?”

The smile got a little bigger, “yes Shishio-sama.”

“Well come on then,” Shishio told him, gesturing the boy over to the shed, “we’ll leave as soon as the storm passes.”

Shishio hurried out of the rain, “Shishio-sama,” Sojiro looked up at him, “do you think I can be as strong as you someday?”

Shishio grinned a little at the boy, “you can be stronger if you come with me, second only to myself.”

***

“One move short of Shukuchi,” Sojiro promised as he tapped his toe for a moment.  Suddenly he charged forward in a blaze of speed and Kenshin crouched, ready to move as Sojiro charged towards him with his particular bouncing pattern. 

Right or left, will he strike from the right or the left?  Kenshin wondered in a flash.  But I have to defeat him, the path to Shishio leads through him, also to Kaoru-dono.  I have to keep my promise.

He’s wrong, you can’t protect the weak, they are going to die anyways, only the strong live, he’s wrong, wrong!  Sojiro lashed out with his sword, slashing at Kenshin from the right.  Kenshin blocked his attack but Sojiro didn’t stop there, he kept attacking in a fury, and he and Kenshin danced around each other with their swords clanking off each other.  “You talk about protecting the weak but it’s a lie!”  Sojiro yelled as their blades clanged against the other.

Kenshin focused on deflecting the frenzied attack, he knew something was very wrong with Sojiro at this point and he sensed how close the teenager was from breaking down, but for reasons he didn’t understand.  “Why do you say that Sojiro?”  He growled back as he locked blades for a moment before he slashed at Sojiro.  But his blade was deflected before Sojiro spun around to attack from another direction.

“Because if that was true where were you?”  Sojiro shouted back.  “Where was anyone?  Why didn’t you protect me?  Where were you that night when I needed someone to protect me?!”  Sojiro screamed he slashed again at Kenshin who jumped back several paces to give them some space.

Kenshin’s heart twisted in pity, emotions were playing across Sojiro’s face now, anger, sadness, regret, hatred, guilt, more than Kenshin could name. 

“If your sword exists to protect the weak, why didn’t you protect me back then?”  Sojiro’s voice was filled with loathing.

“Back then…?”  Kenshin repeated, “What happen to you Sojiro?  What did you need protecting from?”

But Kenshin received no answer as Sojiro, just started hopping on his feet, this time backing up further.  Kenshin had noticed early on that the closer the boy got to his Shukuchi the further back he would get for his charge.  He hoped to get through the boy, to understand what was going through his troubled mind before he broke down. 

“Full shukuchi,” Sojiro promised half a heartbeat before he charged forward, even faster than before.  But there was a difference from before, now Kenshin had fought him long enough, and with his showing of emotions, allowed Kenshin to predict his attack.  When Sojiro suddenly changed direction and got behind Kenshin, Kenshin was ready for him.  He spun on one heel and blocked the attack, retorting with an attack of his own, driving Sojiro back several steps.

“Back then no one protected me, I had to protect myself, with the wakizashi that Shishio-sama gave me.  That’s why I wasn’t wrong for what I did, the one whose wrong is you!”  Sojiro screamed at Kenshin. 

Kenshin stepped forward, slashing with his sword, this time getting past Sojiro’s defenses and sticking his leg.  Sojiro limped backwards, putting a little distance and Kenshin knew that the boy wouldn’t be able to use his speed anymore, not with his hurt leg.  Kenshin stepped forward, continuing his attack, striking at the boy, Sojiro blocked his attack and Kenshin swept that blade away, he took a half step to the side and slashed again, this time striking Sojiro across the side.  He hit the tatami mats hard and Kenshin held his sword right in front of Sojiro’s face, the teenage looked at him, his face calmer now but clenched with pain from Kenshin’s attack. 

“Didn’t protect him?”  Sanosuke whispered to himself, “what is this kid talking about?”

Sojiro’s eyes lifted slowly to Kenshin’s, “what are you doing?” he asked calmly.  “You don’t mean to let me live do you?”

“About what you said,” Kenshin replied with a note of sadness in his voice.  “About how nobody protected you when you needed it the most.  I don’t know what happened to you Sojiro and why you would say what you have.  But,” he lowered his sword.  “I’m sure that you regret very much what you did back then.  So much that you have sealed away that pain, but perhaps your true self doesn’t want to live at the expense of others.  It’s not too late to start over, so long as you have breath it’s not too late to change.”

Sojiro’s eyes widen at those words, his mind flashed back to that night in the rain.  If you are strong you live, if you are weak you die, that’s the truth that Shishio-sama taught me, but is being weak really that bad?  I’ve killed people, but killing people wasn’t something that I wanted to do.  I was smiling in the rain.  But the truth is…the truth is…

 

The rain poured down on his head and dripping off his face, he was soaked to the bone.  He was aware of the smile on his face, the smile he had worn as he had killed his family, but he wasn’t only smiling in the rain, for the tears flowed from his eyes, mingling with the rain and the blood.

 

Sojiro started screaming as the memory hit him.  “I WAS CRYING!”  He screamed.  He started pounding his left hand against his head as he started screaming and crying at the same time.

One the sidelines Sanosuke’s eyes went wide, this guy has totally lost it now.

Suddenly his hand tightened on his sword, He slashed out at Kenshin, in fury.  Kenshin met that block and their swords clanged for a final time, this time when their swords clashed, the crack in Sojiro’s already weakened blade splintered and his sword broke, the tip flying off to the side.

Sojiro looked at his broken sword and at Kenshin, “Shishio-san was wrong, you were right Himura-san, you were right, this fight proves it, you are right, not Shishio-sama.”

“No,” Kenshin corrected as Sanosuke ran up to join his friend now that the fight had ended and Yumi hurried to Sojiro’s side, standing a few steps away.  Sojiro’s eyes widen at those words.  “A fight does not determine which philosophy or belief is correct, only that which remains.  The real truth is something we have to discover over a lifetime of atoning for our mistakes, we find the answers for ourselves, we are not told.”

Sojiro’s face screwed up at that as he contemplated those words and he started beating his head,

“Sojiro,” Yumi reached a hand out to the boy but he pushed her away and she stood there awkwardly as the boy broke down.

 Shishio grabbed Kenshin’s shoulder, “come on Kenshin, we can’t do anymore for the kid, let’s just find Shishio and get this whole duel thing over with.” 

Kenshin looked back at his friend, “you’re right.”  He turned to Yumi, “Yumi-dono, if you will.”

Yumi shook her head, “Those doors lead straight to Shishio-sama, you don’t need me to lead you anymore, I’ll stay here with him for awhile.”

Kenshin nodded, understanding, and together he and Sanosuke made their way across the room and through the double doors on the other end leaving Yumi and Sojiro behind them.  

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 22

Standing Up after We Fall

Back in the library Aoshi sat, still contemplating what to do, he wasn’t sure that he could go back to Aoi-ya as Kenshin wanted, he wasn’t sure if he could face those he had betrayed.  Not as I am now, I don’t want them to see me like this. 

His wrist was throbbing.  He picked up his kodachi and got to his feet, he stumbled over to where a decorative set of drapes hid part of the wall to give the rocky cave more a home like feeling and cut part of the fabric and wrapped his broken wrist tightly, using broken bits of bookcase as a makeshift splint.  He got his other kodachi and kunai, slipping the kunai back into the hilt of the blade, he sheathed both kodachi back into their sheath, all the time trying to avoid having to make decision.

The doors to the library opened without warning and Aoshi spun on his heel to see Saito standing in the doorway, both his legs bandaged and smoking a cigarette.  His sharp eyes took in the state of the room and Aoshi’s bandaged wrist.  “Looks like you had a hard time,” he commented mildly. 

Aoshi looked him in the eye, “Hajime Saito,” he greeted in a cold voice.

“Eh?” Saito quirked an eyebrow at him, “I thought I told you it was Goro Fujita now?”

Aoshi ignored him, “should you be wasting time here?” Aoshi asked him.  “The Battosai left long ago.”

Saito smiled as he took another drag from his cigarette, “good, things are coming along as planned then.”

Aoshi’s eyes narrowed at that, Saito reached into his jacket and pulled out a folded bit of paper, he tossed across the room and Aoshi caught it.  He unfolded the sheet and his eyes widen a bit when he saw what the paper contained.  This is a blueprint of the central part of the complex, a detailed one at that, even I haven’t learned some of these passageways, Aoshi thought in shock.  His face however still retain his characteristic poker face despite his surprise that Saito had access to such information.  “How did you get this?” he asked. 

“Just like the Oniwanbanshi, the Internal Affairs Department excels at gathering information on everything within the country, perhaps it takes them longer than the famed shinobi clan, but given time they will find out what we need to know.  It is one of the reason’s I’m working as their spy in the police department.  Once I was this far I didn’t need that woman to guide me anymore and splitting up into two groups is advantageous.”   You can keep the map, I have it memorized already,” Saito flicked his cigarette away. 

Aoshi stared at him for a moment as he clenched the map, “you used the Battosai and his friend as a distraction, bait.”

“Something to that effect,” Saito agreed.  “Now that all those eyes are off of me I can move around as freely as the shadows.”

Saito started to turn to leave but Aoshi’s voice made him pause for a moment, “what about your duel with the Battosai, isn’t that something that’s been going on since the Bakamatsu, if he dies here because of this, then what will you do?” 

Saito snorted.  ‘Then I guess the one who survives is the winner.”  With that he left Aoshi standing in the darken library.

Aoshi’s eyes closed as he thought about thing.  Hajime Saito, leader of the third squad of the Shinsengumi.  The streets of Kyoto were teaming with men like him, if only we had fought then.  His resolve hardened and his grip tightened on his sheath.  It’s no time for regrets now.  I cannot linger.  I cannot return to the Aoi-ya as I am, with what I have done.  I will have to start atoning, and there is no time like now to start.  He opened the map and took a moment to scan it, deciding on a route to take him to the area where he knew Shishio would be waiting for Kenshin.  The present not the past.  The time to fight is now.

***

Kenshin and Sanosuke ran down yet another hallway, but this one had no other paths branching off so there was no chance of them getting lost without Yumi’s guidance, even so the hallway curved back and forth and had a definite incline to it.  Kenshin wondered where it might lead to.  “Do you think he’ll be all right?”  Kenshin asked Sanosuke as they hurried as fast as they could.

Sanosuke’s face quirked in surprise, “he’ll be fine, none of those blows were fatal after all.”

“I wasn’t talking about his life Sano,” Kenshin corrected gently.  “It’s his mind and heart I was worried about.”

“I got you,” Sanosuke agreed, getting what Kenshin was talking about now.  “You did everything that you could for the kid, the rest is up to him.  If he’s got the guts he should get through this all right, but regardless we can’t do any more but keep moving forward.”

Kenshin’s eyes closed briefly as he contemplated Sanosuke’s words, trying to get the image of Sojiro clawing at the floor as he wept and screamed out of his head.  “You’re right, it’s time this ends.”  Kenshin agreed in a strong voice.  It’s time Shishio pays for all he has done.

***

Sojiro had finally calmed down some, he had collapsed on the floor finally and Yumi had sat down next to the teenager, grabbing him gently by the shoulder and resting his head on her lap while she stroked his hair, trying to calm him down.  He had been quiet now for a long time, the sounds of Kenshin and Sanosuke’s running had faded into silence. 

“Are you all right now?”  Yumi asked gently.  “I will have to leave soon.”

“I wish you could stay, your lap is nice,” Sojiro commented softly.

Yumi’s eyebrow twitched and she stopped stroking his hair, “you have changed,” she commented drily.

Sojiro laughed softly, “Don’t worry, it’s nothing for you to worry about.”  He sat up and took a deep breath before he turned to address her, this time with no fake smile, just a calm, yet sad face.  “Don’t worry Yumi-sama, you’ll catch up to the others.  Behind that screen is a secret passage that will get you to Shishio-sama before Himura-san.”

“All right then,” Yumi gathered up her skirt and got to her feet, starting towards the screen but Sojiro’s voice stopped her.

“Yumi-sama, may I ask one favor of you?” he asked innocently.  Yumi turned and glanced at him over her shoulder.  “In that set of drawers, the top one has the wakizashi that Shishio-sama gave me five years ago.  It’s been something precious to me since then so I kept it.  But now can you please give it back to him?”

Yumi’s eyes widened at the possible implication in the boy’s words.  “Sojiro does that mean-”

Sojiro gave a half smile, “That wakizashi and Shishio-sama’s words saved me back then, that still has not changed.  I can’t say that he was wrong.  But like Himura-san said, I have to find the answers for myself.  So it’s time that we part ways and I make my own way now.”

Yumi nodded her head a little, “yes, perhaps that is for the best.”  She hurried to the drawers, opening the top one and saw the wakizashi in question, perfectly cared for.  She grabbed the blade and pushed aside the screen, revealing a doorway behind it. 

“Yumi-sama, please do look after Shishio-sama.”  Sojiro called from behind her.

She turned around with a little smile, “Oh, he hardly needs help from me.”

“That’s not what I meant,” Sojiro shook his head a little.

Her face softened, “I know kiddo, take care of yourself okay?”

She left quickly, behind her Sojiro stood alone in the room and let the tears flow down his face freely. 

***

Shishio held the wakizashi that Yumi had given him as a final part gift from Sojiro.  “Sojiro huh?” he questioned after Yumi had finished telling him the outcome of the fight and Sojiro’s final decision to leave.  “And this is his final parting gift.”  There was a strange note in his voice.  He looked up with a mad grin on his face.  “As I thought, in the end it all comes down to my own strength!”  He threw away the wakizashi and it clattered across the floor.  Shishio stood up and then with a magnificent stride left the room, heading out through a back door way to the place where he planned to fight Kenshin.  Behind him, Hoji hurried after him. 

“How many years has it been since I last fought?” Shishio asked of no one, lost in his own anticipation about the upcoming fight.  “Finally, a worthy opponent.”

“You do seem rather pleased my lord, despite the fact that nothing has gone in our favor,” Hoji commented, slight worry in his voice. 

Shishio smiled more at those words, “indeed.  The Battosai has managed all of this destruction of our carefully laid plans, and yet he still seems to be holding on to his vow not to kill.  We have yet to awaken that Hitokiri inside of him, and somehow, even in his current state, he managed to defeat the faithful Sojiro.  As a swordsman, the anticipation of crossing swords with him now makes my blood boil as much as the dream of taking over this country.” 

“I find I cannot agree with you my lord,” Hoji disagreed.  “The Purgatory is destroyed, 2/3 of our men are captured, the Juppongatana are gone.  With all these setbacks it will delayed our taking over of this nation by at least a decade.”  He looked to his master as they started climbing the stairs to the final battleground.  “I beg of you my lord, destroy Battosai and his men here, we can rebuild our army, but only once they are gone.  Then we can make this nation ruled by warlords once again.  In this age with the sprawling powers of Europe is conquering weak nations, Japan must be reborn in strength, it is the only path to survival!”

Shishio bowed his head a little at those words, “Don’t worry Hoji, having me will make up for the 5 years of work that we have lost today.”

He has to win, Hoji thought in desperation.  This age needs a man who can unite our strengths, it needs the strength of Makoto Shishio!  It is all for Shishio-sama, if I have to become an abomination than I will!  “But there is one good thing that has come out of all this, is shows how pathetic this country had become that it relays on the strength one Rurouni to save it,” Hoji pointed out.  “We can’t allow a nation that weak to continue to exist as it is.”

***

Kenshin and Sanosuke continued running, they turned a corner, but saw the hallway ended in a dead end into a set of double doors.  “Dead end, this has got to be it!”  Sanosuke ran up and threw opened the doors.  “Makoto Shishio you’ve got a…”  Sanosuke trailed off when he saw that the only one in the room was Yumi who looked incredibly bored. 

She yawned gracefully as she sat on an elaborate divan in the richly furnished room.  “You’re late, I was getting tired of waiting,” she scolded calmly as she got to her feet. 

Sanosuke looked at Yumi then his head spun to the hallway behind him then back to her, “how the hell did you get ahead of us?”  He wondered.

Yumi ignored his question, “Lord Shishio is waiting for you in the arena, if you will follow me,” she gestured for the men to follow her. 

Sanosuke was still fuming, “But seriously how?  This was the only way up here?”

He was so focused on Yumi he didn’t notice Kenshin panting behind him in the doorway, his head bowed, until Yumi was staring at something behind him and Sanosuke turned his head, realizing that his friend was in trouble.  “Hey Kenshin?”  He asked in concern.

“Yes we should go on,” Kenshin’s face was pale, he took a shaky step forward and collapsed on the ground. 

“Kenshin!”  Sanosuke kneeled at his friend’s side and helped Kenshin up to a sitting position.  Kenshin was still breathing hard and Sanosuke didn’t like how pale his face had gotten. 

“Water,” Kenshin begged.

Sanosuke quickly grabbed the water they had brought with them and Kenshin drank it all down greedily.  His breathing started to grow less labored and normal and the color started coming back into his face slowly.

Yumi just stared at him for a long time, “are you able to continue?”  She asked.  “You are exhausted after so many fights, perhaps you should withdraw now?”

“Just get up some more water over here wrench, surly we are allowed that?”  Sanosuke growled at her.

With a humph, Yumi moved to one side of the room and grabbed a water pitcher bringing it back over.  Sanosuke refilled his bamboo bottles and let Kenshin drink his fill.  Kenshin drank slower this time around, his color almost back to normal and Sanosuke could tell his friend had improved a lot since he had a chance to drink. 

“I’m better now,” Kenshin assured him, handing him back the bamboo bottle.  “Thank you very much Yumi-dono,” he gave her a bright smile.

“You sure Kenshin?” Sanosuke asked in worry.  “You don’t want to stop and rest for a bit?”

“Your friend is right,” Yumi commended.  “Tell you what, I’ll make you both a deal, if you promise to never interfere with Shishio-sama’s business again I’ll let you turn around and leave now, I’ll tell them that you weren’t able to make it this far.” 

Kenshin smiled gently at her at those words, “I appreciate your generous offer but I will have to decline,” Kenshin told her in a cheerful voice, sounding more like his old self now.  “Though I understand your reasons, you truly don’t want me to fight Shishio do you?”

Yumi’s eyes widened at that before her face hardened and she turned with a flourish of her skirts, “I was trying to be merciful.”  She drawled.  “But if you would rather die than so be it.”

Kenshin got to his feet with Sanosuke’s help and they started after Yumi who led them on though yet another set of doors.  “Sano,” Kenshin said under his breath, trying to keep Yumi from hearing.

“Yeah Kenshin?”  Sanosuke replied softly.

“No matter what, from here on out this fight is between Shishio and myself,” Kenshin told him.

Sanosuke got the look Kenshin gave him out of the corner of his eye, “got it,” he replied.

Kenshin smiled a little and bowed his head, “thank you Sano.”

 “I’ll stay out of this fight, but you start getting your ass handed to you I’m going to be there to get your back.”  Sanosuke told him pointedly.  Kenshin’s head swirled to stare at his friend in disbelief.  “You don’t honestly expect me to go back to Yahiko and the Missy without you by my side?”  He asked him in disbelief, “No thanks, don’t got a death wish, and besides you get knocked off then I’m stuck with Kaoru’s terrible cooking and no man should have to face that alone.” Idiot, I can’t let him die here, the Missy and Yahiko still need him around.  Hell, this world needs men like him, Sanosuke thought to himself.  And I’ll be damned if I let my best friend die in this hell hole.

  Kenshin shook his head with a sigh, “how did I know that’s what you were going to say?” he moaned. 

“Then why did you even bother to ask?”  Sanosuke pointed out logically.

Meanwhile they had walked up to an impressive, gate like set of doors, on the wall was a handle hanging from the attached chain that Sanosuke could tell was attached to some kind of mechanical apparatus. 

Yumi turned around to face the man as he reached out and grabbed that handle.  “This area is used only by Shishio-sama, it’s the Inferno Room, once these doors are open then there is no going back, you have agreed to fight Shishio-sama.”

“Well what are you waiting for, we’re ready,” Sanosuke bragged.

Yumi pulled the handle with a heavy heart and the doors slowly ground open as the wheels and clogs that controlled them spun. 

Kenshin and Sanosuke flinched as the bright light of the sun hit them in the eyes, they blinked for a while until their vision adjusted and Kenshin looked around in surprise, not knowing what to expect this final room to look like.  He saw that it was a stone arena that had been built into the edge of a cliff on the mountain face.  As he looked around he realized there was nowhere to go, either left through the entrance, or they jumped from the stonewalls built on the edge of the arena to their death at the bottom of the cliff face.

“Who designed this place?’ Sanosuke wondered aloud.  It was a thought Kenshin had since they had first entered the populated parts of the caves but hadn’t voiced out loud.  He looked around and saw several torch like pillars also built out of the cliff face with fires burning from them, he sniffed the air and caught a familiar sent, “they are burning flame water out here,” Sanosuke wondered. 

“You are truly ignorant, aren’t you?” Yumi asked with heavy sarcasm, “those who know it call it petroleum and it is currently replacing coal in some of the most advance nations as a source of power.  It is what we have been using to power all the lamps throughout the hideout.”  Once Yumi had said this Sanosuke realized that the torches were spread out around the arena keeping it well lit despite the sun starting to set.

Kenshin and Sanosuke looked ahead at the small stone pathway that lead through an archway before they stepped into the square arena area that Yumi led them too.  At the far end stood Shishio with his arms crossed, behind him was Hoji, Kenshin’s eyes narrowed a little as he saw this new figure and wondered who he was and what role he played in Shishio’s schemes. 

“Indeed, Yumi is correct,” Hoji answered.  “We plan to use it ourselves for power after we take over this nation.”

“Psst Kenshin, is this the guy were looking for?”  Sanosuke pointed at Shishio, not brothering to keep his voice down.  “He doesn’t look so bad, half dead already with all those bandages probably.”

Shishio’s eye twitched at those words but he ignored Sanosuke and turned his eyes to Kenshin.  “So you made it to me after all Battosai, I have to say I’m impressed.  To think that you defeat the strongest solider of chaos that I created, Sojiro, all without killing him.  But if you think you can be that soft on me you’re mistaken.”

Yumi started to cross the courtyard but stopped when Kenshin called to her, “Yumi-dono,” she turned and looked at him over her shoulder.  “Thank you so much for guiding us,” his words seemed sincere.  Yumi didn’t answer him, she just continued across the courtyard to stand next to Shishio, trying to keep her face neutral.  She had never believed that they would make it this far.  She pulled out a pocket watch and stared at it for a moment.  She looked up at Shishio, her heart in her throat. 

“Shishio-sama,” She called softly to her lover.  Shishio inclined his head slightly to her, “it’s almost 5 o’clock now, remember what the doctor said, and please in this fight don’t forget to take care of yourself.”

Shisho turned on his heel, cupping one hand under Yumi’s chin he kissed her.  When he pulled away it was with a smile, “don’t worry,” he told her in a sure voice before he turned to face Kenshin.  “This fight will be over in less than 15 minutes.”

He’s sure of himself, Kenshin thought as he took a couple of steps forward. 

Sanosuke’s face wrinkled up when Shishio kissed Yumi, what the hell, the whore is his whore?  I think I just threw up in my mouth.  Sleeping with a bandaged up freak like that has to be like sleeping with the dead and that’s freaky even for me.  He shook his head trying to banish the image, he focused back on the fight as Kenshin left his side and took a couple of steps forward, that was when Sanosuke noticed the trial of blood droplets behind his friend and his eyes opened wide.  Kenshin.

***

Kaoru sat outside the Aoi-ya, Yahiko asleep against her, she kept an arm wrapped around the boy and the blanket firmly wrapped around him against him to keep him warm against the chilly autumn air.  She started to shiver as the sun was setting and the air grew colder.  She heard someone walking up and turned her head to see Seijuro with a blanket in his hands, without a word he wrapped it around her shoulders and she smiled gratefully at him. 

He sat down next to her, glancing at Yahiko, “the kid’s asleep already?  I figured with as much spunk he has that he would make it to sunset at least.”

Kaoru giggled a little, “it’s funny, most of the time Yahiko is yelling at me not to treat him like a little kid, but then he can be like this,” she looked down fondly at the boy.  She looked at the darkening sky with worry, “half an hour till sunset,” she moaned softly.  “And they’re still not back yet.”

“Actually its 39 minutes till sunset,” Okon’s voice pointed out behind them.  They both turned to look at the woman, she shrugged her shoulders, “it would be a poor ninja indeed who didn’t always know when sunset is after all?  I wouldn’t worry too much Kaoru-san, there is still a bit of moon left for them to find their way back here, and besides Himura-san will be familiar with finding his way around Kyoto, even in the dark, considering his history after all.”

Kaoru smiled a little, “you’re right Okon-san,” she agreed.

“Anyways,” Okon continued in a brighter tone, “I’ve got some food and warm saki, would you both like something?  I can bring it out so you can continue waiting for them.”

“That would be lovely, thank you,” Seijuro thanked her with a flash of a smile.

Okon smiled sweetly at him and Kaoru was half surprised she didn’t bat her eyelashes at him, “anything at all, just call for me.”

***

Yumi clenched the watch to her chest in worry as she watched Shishio walk away from her.  Shishio looked Kenshin up and down, noticing the severity of the wounds he had received in the battles so far, “do you really plan on fighting me as wounded as you are?” Shishio asked him with a hint of distain.  “You seem to be barely standing.”

“You don’t look in much better shape,” Kenshin pointed out coldly.

Shishio laughed at that comment, “I can’t argue with you there.  He put one hand on his sword, Kenshin’s hand instantly went to his sword, and he stepped back into a fighting stance.  “So I suppose there is no reason for either of us to hold back then.” 

As the two charged for each other Sanosuke watched with wide eyes and a thought passed through his mind, when did this fight began?  He wondered.  When Ashikaga was assassinated?  When Kenshin became a Rurouni?  When the government tried to kill Shishio by burning him?  No it was long before then, it was when they became Hitokiri, since then they were always fated to meet in battle, Sanosuke realized with a chilling realization.  Two men created by an era of blood, but both fighting for two different reasons, the yin and the yang.

The swords clanged together as both struck with Battojutsu, they strained against the other for a moment and Sanosuke felt a wave of relief, good, Kenshin’s wounded but he still has his strength. 

Shishio drew his sword rapidly down the length of Kenshin’s sakabato and suddenly the tip lit on fire right in Kenshin’s face, that shocked Kenshin and his grip loosen slightly, enough that Shishio was able to push him back with his sword, knocking Kenshin off balance and he fell to the side.  Kenshin twisted his body quickly to keep his feet under him and fall into a half crouch facing Shishio, ready for the next strike.  He smelled burning hair and could tell even without close inspection that some of his bangs had been burned by that fire. 

He lit his sword on fire?  How?  Was it by friction?  Kenshin wondered in a flash as Shishio slashed again at him with his flaming sword and Kenshin blocked the attack quickly as Shishio continued to attack and the flame on his sword died.  No if that was the case than my own sword would lit when I use Battojutsu, there is some other trick to this.

Hoji felt a gleam of pride and satisfaction when he saw Shishio lit his sword on fire, that’s it, that’s is the first strike, the Honura Dama- Burning soul.

Suddenly Shishio dropped his sword to the ground, scrapping it against the stones and suddenly the blade lit on fire once again and he struck towards Kenshin who struggled to dodge it, still thrown up by the sword that could light on fire.  Calm down Kenshin, he told himself as he blocked Shishio’s slashes as the flame died.  The flames are their to distract you, they won’t cause much damage so just focues on the sword. 

No sooner had he thought that did Shishio knock his sakabto off point, sliding his own sword against it to light it on fire again, right before he slashed downward, cutting Kenshin’s chest even as Kenshin tried to jump back from the fight.  Kenshin fell to his knees panting when his feet hit the ground, he kept his eyes on Shishio who was several steps away from him in case he decided to move within striking distance once again. 

“So what do you think of my Honura Dama?”  Shsihio asked in gloating voice.  “Have you ever felt the pain of being burned and cut at the same time?”

Kenshin pulled himself back to his feet against the pain and held his sword out, a determined look on his face as he suddenly understood the secret behind the attack.  “No, I haven’t,” he admitted.  “But the wound isn’t deep, nor is it bleeding since the sword cauterizes the wound even as it cuts, a flashy attack but not very practical for someone interested in killing.”  He pointed out logically, “and after that attack I understand how you’re doing it.”

“He’s got the blade coated with something,” Sanosuke shouted from behind his friend, proud that he had figured it out.  “Then the friction is the spark that starts the fire, just like flint and steel, the rock has flint in it after all.”

Kenshin resisted the urge to look over his shoulder at his friend in amazement, “that’s correct,” Kenshin added in a flat voice, still processing how Sanosuke had seen through an attack so quickly.  That was the most surprising thing yet in these fights. 

“Your powers of insight are as keen as when you found the Purgatory, and it seems you have even managed to educate at least a little the most ignorant of fools,” Shishio coolly replied.

“Hey what the hell was that you bandaged up freak?!”  Sanosuke shouted from the sidelines but no one listened to him. 

Shishio held up his sword, admiring it for a moment, “it’s truly a beautiful sword wouldn’t you agree Himura?  It’s still as sharp as the day it was crafted, this peerless Mugenjin that I wield, but then what can one expect from a sword crafted by Shakku Arai.”  He rested his sword over his shoulder.

Sanosuke was once against struck with the similarities and differences between these men.  Both are wielding swords forged by the same man, and yet their reasons for wielding those swords couldn’t be any different. 

“You seem offended,” Shishio commented as he saw Kenshin’s jaw tighten at his words.  “If you are so convinced that you are right, then prove your righteousness with that blade.”

“Kenshin,” Sanosuke called out to his friend. 

“Don’t worry Sano,” Kenshin called out to his friend, wanting to prevent him from entering this fight.  “As I said to Sojiro, a fight can’t prove what is right or wrong.  But even so,” he reversed his sword, drawing it back against his body as he half turned to Shishio.  “If you are not stopped here then all of Japan will become fuel for your fire.”

“Quite right,” Shishio replied calmly.

Kenshin rushed forward, his hand sliding to loosely hold the razor sharp back of the sword, careful to keep from cutting himself as he brought his sword up for a horizontally strike to Shishio, executing the Ryushosen- the dragon flight.  Shishio reached out with one hand and caught his blade, his sword drawn back as though to strike.

Kenshin’s eyes widened as Shishio caught his blade so easily, “I saw that move in Shingetsu,” Shishio told him calmly as he held Kenshin’s blade tightly, “you can’t stop me with a move I’ve seen, now will your life become my fuel?”  Shishio without warning, leaned his head down and bit Kenshin’s shoulder.

Sanosuke’s eyes widened at this pure savage shown by Shishio and Kenshin screamed in pain, unable to move his sword hand without giving up his weapon to Shisho.  He brought up his knee, kneeing Shishio has hard as he could to try and get him to let go of him before bring his foot down hard on Shishio.  Normally those actions would have been enough but Shishio didn’t even seem to notice, he let go of Kenshin and shoved him back hard, spitting out blood.

Kenshin was panting and gripping his bleeding shoulder as he kneeled, using his sword to help hold himself upright.  Shishio wiped the blood from his mouth, seeming pleased with himself.  Kenshin glared at him, “only the strong live and the weak die, those were the words you taught Sojiro were they not?”

“Of course,” Shishio replied.  “But that is true not only of swordsmanship but also of life, it is a law of nature.  The only purpose of the weak is to be food and substance for the strong, those who are not have no point in existing.  The men in power in this country are the weakest of the weak and have to right to be leading, that is why I must conquer them, as a former Hitokiri of the Revolution you must see this truth.”

“No,” Kenshin snarled at him as he pulled himself back to his feet.  “Not at all, those people that you claim are weak have survived through the same fire, blood, and war that we fought in, and they still live on in this new age finding peace in their lives.  And I will not allow you to throw them back into the chaos when they have peace just because of your sick logic!”

“It’s not logic, it’s law,” Shishio retorted coldly.

“Then it’s a law that deserves to be broken!”  Kenshin screamed in challenge. 

Never yielding as usual, Sanosuke thought.  But no matter how strong his convictions, if he keeps going like this his body isn’t going to hold out.  Sanosuke clenched his fist, the adrenaline coursing through his system from everything so that he didn’t even feel the pain from his broken hand. 

Shishio seemed unimpressed with Kenshin’s challenge, “You mind understands it even if you heart won’t accept it, what a pity that the name of Hitokiri Battosai is about to be put to rest because of your stupidly at seeing how the world works.”

Kenshin suddenly started laughing like a manic and Sanosuke suddenly worried if his friend was losing it like Sojiro had in the last fight.  Kenshin seemed to get a hold of himself for a moment and Shishio stared at him, surprised by his unexpected reaction to his words, “sorry,” Kenshin laughed as he explained himself.  “You see you’re not the first one to tell me an idiot for my beliefs, for thinking that a sword is meant for more than killing that is.”  He smiled a little, “But a sword is meant for whatever you choose to use if for, and I choose to fight for life, not death.”