Rain of Blood

Stray Cat

Battousai stood unmoving as he gazed haplessly at her. He wasn't even aware of the assassin's sword slipping out of his left hand and falling with a clang to the ground. She had seen everything! In his year as an assassin, Battousai had never been caught in the act of his work. Now for the first time, he wrestled with himself. He couldn't leave witnesses, but the whole reason he had joined the Ishin Shishi had been to protect people like this girl!

'Should I kill her?'

Battousai was spared the painful decision when the girl's eyelids started to lower and her body to pitch forward. Realizing what was about to happen, Battousai lunged forward and caught her on his left arm.

'I'm not surprised she fainted; a natural response to seeing so much blood. I debated whether or not to silence her. But I knew... I couldn't. Now what shall I do? I can't leave a witness, nor can I leave a woman alone at night in Kyoto,' Battousai thought to himself, going over his options.

He realized there were none.

'I have no choice,' he thought, blushing as he hitched her into his arms and began carrying her bridal style.

As Himura walked along, the scent of the girl's perfume mingled with the stench of blood, knocking him a bit off balance.

'Perfume... white plum blossoms, I think,' he thought, feeling his eyelids growing heavy.

Battousai stopped and shook his head sharply, trying to shake off this dizziness.

'No! This isn't normal! The smell of blood and white plum blossoms must be making me dizzy.'


Battousai made his way quickly and quietly back to the Kohagiya, keeping to the back alleys and warily casting his senses out for any enemy presence. Thankfully, there were no further incidents and he made it back to the Kohagiya safely.

The okami looked up in startlement from the mending she was doing by the light of an andon as the hikido suddenly slid open and the young assassin came barging in, dripping blood on her clean floor and carrying what appeared to be an unconscious girl in his arms.

"Okami-san, I have an emergency. Please prepare a room at once!" Battousai demanded.

Moving with deliberate calm, Okami set her sewing aside, rose gracefully, approached Battousai and examined the girl in his arms. A heady scent of white plum blossoms mixed with sake and blood permeated the air.

"Well, Himura-san, you Choshuu boys certainly are a lively group. You kill all night and still make time to find yourself a whore," chided the landlady.

"Hurry up and get a room!" snapped Battousai, cheeks blazing crimson.

"I have no vacancies, absolutely no vacancies. This is an inn, not a whorehouse," said the landlady calmly. "Why don't you be a gentleman and take her to your room? I'll prepare a change of clothes and a hot bath."

Before Battousai could object, Okami turned her back on him and walked smartly off to heat up a bath and fetch clothes for the girl.


Battousai looked up as Okami slid the fusuma to his room open and motioned him over. In her arms, he saw the girl's bloodied clothes. In her hand was a sheathed dagger.

"I'm finished," she declared.

"Thank you," said Battousai.

"I found this on her," said Okami, handing the tanto to Battousai. "I'll let you decide what to do about it."

Without another word, the okami left to go wash the girl's clothes.

Battousai entered the room, sliding the panel shut behind him. He pulled his katana from his obi and sat down, glaring at the sleeping girl whose dagger he now held.

"Keh! Just a drunk," Battousai snarled to himself, resentful that he now had to share his private space with someone.

Well, that wouldn't last. First thing tomorrow, he was giving this girl a bento, some money and showing her the door!

Battousai kept thinking that over and over again, totally unaware that the still-lingering scent of white plum blossoms was seeping into his brain through his olfactory gland and making his eyelids heavier and heavier...


The screams of his victims, the sound of their bones being split, blood spraying everywhere.

"You truly make blood rain..."

Battousai's eyes snapped open and he jumped to his feet, clutching reflexively at his katana. His gaze darted wildly about the room and fell on the futon, now neatly folded away in its corner.

'I fell asleep?!' Battousai thought incredulously.

Not since his first assassination had Battousai permitted himself to sleep in front of others. This girl was having some sort of intoxicating effect on him. This would not do at all! In his line of work, any distractions could prove deadly. Battousai immediately jumped to his feet, sliding his katana into his obi as he went. He pounded down the stairs, keeping his eyes and ears peeled for the girl.

Battousai slid open the door to the kitchen just in time to see Okami handing a stack of hakuzen, laden with trays and pots of breakfast food, to the girl.

"Now, take these to the dining hall," instructed Okami.

"Yes, ma'am," said the girl, carefully holding the stacked trays in her arms, ignoring the slack-jawed assassin completely.

Upon seeing Himura standing there with his jaw hanging open, Okami smiled pleasantly at him.

"Ah, Himura-san. Your girlfriend has been a great help this morning," she said sweetly.

'My what?!' thought Himura.

Ignoring the Okami's polite, but pointed, teasing, Himura turned to face the girl.

"Um..." he started awkwardly.

"My name?" said the girl. "Tomoe."

After answering, Tomoe turned on her heel and began carrying the hakuzen down the corridor to the dining hall, with the young assassin following miserably behind her.

For his part, Himura was seething inside. He had planned to rid himself of this Tomoe girl first thing this morning, only to find that Okami-san had apparently hired her on as a maid! And since there was no more room in the maids' quarters, guess where she would still be sleeping! Things were definitely not going the way he had planned.

"So, Tomoe-san," he ventured as he followed her. "What are you doing?"

"Can't you see?" asked Tomoe without looking back.

"Helping out in the kitchen?" Battousai ventured.

"See? You already know," said Tomoe disdainfully.

"I need to talk to you," pressed Himura.

"I'm busy. Talk to me later," said Tomoe dismissively as she set down the trays, went down on her knees and began to slide the fusuma to the dining hall open.

"Excuse me, I've brought breakfast," she said as she finished sliding the panel open.

The reaction of the men inside was predictable. Their eyes ran up and down her, then they howled like a pack of wolves.

"Oooooooooooo!!!!!!!!"

"So this is Himura-kun's woman!"

"She's beautiful!"

"And classy!"

"But just as mean-looking as Himura!" the guys joked.

Himura was beside himself with embarrassment. Though his compatriots were a group of rough, good-natured men, they never spoke directly to him, except out of necessity. Now, they were teasing him as though he were some dumb kid, all because of this Tomoe girl! Himura felt his cheeks reddening and his right hand twitching to grab his katana, yank it from its sheath and threaten all the idiots in the room for teasing him about Tomoe-san.

"My name's Tomoe. It's nice to meet you," said Tomoe quietly as she started setting up the hakuzen.

"Hey! Stop that!" fumed Himura, truly put off by Tomoe's boldness in speaking directly to the men.

"What'r you actin' all embarrassed about, lover boy," teased Iizuka, sitting down by Battousai and fluffing his red hair.

"Iizuka," the assassin warned through clenched teeth, loathing the intimate touching.

"So, how was she?" asked Iizuka, grinning ear to ear.

CACHAK!

It took only that sound to silence the yammering in the room and send the men scattering away from Battousai's loosed, but not yet unsheathed, sword.

"Sorry! Sorry!" they cried.

Battousai glared at them.

"Almost forgot we're dealing with Battousai!"

"Yeah, one wrong joke and you're dead!"

Battousai gritted his teeth and shut his eyes, trying to tamp down his annoyance with the others for their inappropriate comments, and with himself for acting so rashly. They had only been teasing and it really hadn't been necessary for him to threaten them.

"What are you doing here?" he asked Iizuka testily. "Security must be tight during Katsura-san's stay."

Iizuka sweatdropped and pointed over to Katsura, who had been sitting there, watching the whole spectacle, all while calmly sipping his tea. Battousai yelped inwardly. How could he not have noticed Katsura-san's presence?!

"I had no idea the Ishin Shishi were so lax," he muttered.

"Even a great warrior should make time for love. I have Ikumatsu," said Katsura, taking a sip of his tea.

"May we speak seriously?" fumed Battousai.

"Frankly, I'd prefer it," agreed Katsura, rising to his feet.

Battousai followed his commander outside, grateful to get away from the teasing of the other men, and the annoying presence of Tomoe-san.


"Is this true?" asked Katsura as he stared incredulously at his young hitokiri.

"Yes, I was ambushed by an assassin of the Bakufu," answered Himura. "Information about Choshuu is being leaked, even about 'Battousai', once a carefully guarded secret. There is a traitor in our midst."

"Now it makes sense," mused Katsura. "Furutaka, who was supposed to attend our previous meeting, was captured by the Shinsengumi yesterday."

"Do you want me to guard you?" Himura offered.

"No. I'll be alright," Katsura answered. "I want you to be careful though."

Himura nodded and watched as Katsura walked away.

'Their prime target is the leader of the Ishin Shishi. The traitor must be found quickly. One mistake and history will take a terrible turn.'

With that in mind, Himura decided that he must immediately rid himself of all distractions, the chief of which was a certain girl with deep black eyes and heady scent of white plum blossoms. Himura went in search of Tomoe-san, who, now that breakfast was over, was likely to be found taking up space in his room once again.


Himura did indeed find Tomoe-san in his room, sitting at a hakuzen, taking her own breakfast of rice and fish. Wordlessly, Himura slid the fusuma shut, pulled his katana from his obi and sat down in his window seat. He then fixed Tomoe with his piercing gaze.

Tomoe took a few more leisurely bites before deigning to acknowledge the assassin's presence.

"Yes?" she asked, finally looking up at Himura.

"I want you to swear that you will forget everything you saw last night and leave immediately," said Himura, not mincing words.

He drew Tomoe's tanto from his kimono sleeve and laid it on the floor between them.

Tomoe's eyes widened a bit at the sight of her dagger, but she betrayed no other feeling.

"Does my presence bother you so much?" she inquired. "Okami-san seems to like me."

"Your family must be worried about you," Himura tried lamely.

"If I had a family to go home to, I wouldn't have been out alone at night, drinking sake," answered Tomoe disdainfully, as if that should have been abundantly obvious.

'This isn't going well...' Himura thought, feeling annoyance start to build up.

"I don't know what your situation is, but we can't take of you here," he said bluntly.

"Then will you get rid of me, like you did the black warrior last night?" Tomoe asked suddenly, an unusually passionate tone arising in her voice.

Himura bristled at this girl's ignorant insinuation. He sat up straight and glared down at her.

"You can think whatever you like of me, but I kill to bring about a new era where everyone can live in peace. I'm no wanton murderer. I only target warriors of the Bakufu who oppose us. I will never strike an unarmed civilian, enemy or not."

At this, Tomoe put down her chopsticks, picked her tanto off the floor and stood up, looking Himura directly in the eye, all demureness stripped away.

"So, bad people carry swords and good people don't?" she asked, holding up the sheathed dagger. "Then if I had been holding this blade last night, would you have..."

Himura's eyes widened as the full meaning of Tomoe-san's question hit home. What would he have done if she had been holding a blade last night?

"I... I don't..." he stammered, stopping when he realized that he couldn't decide what he would have done.

"Well," said Tomoe, tucking her tanto into her obi as she turned to leave, "When you arrive at an answer, please share it with me."

Tomoe turned and headed for the fusuma.

"Wait a minute? Does this mean you're staying?" Himura called out as Tomoe slid the door shut behind her.

"Damn it!" Battousai swore, putting his hand to his forehead.

'Am I going crazy, or regaining my sanity?'


Over the next two weeks, Himura avoided Tomoe as much as possible. Gradually, though Tomoe's presence was still quite discomforting to Himura, he learned to tolerate, or rather ignore her, which was easily enough done since he rarely saw her. Most nights, Himura was out, performing his duty for the Ishin Shishi and Tomoe slept in their shared room. During the day, Tomoe generally worked downstairs and Himura stayed holed up in the room.

On the odd occasion when they passed each other on the staircase, each would continue forward silently as if the other were not there.

Even as Himura avoided Tomoe, he couldn't shake her words from his mind. Would he have killed her that night if she had been holding a sword? As for the people he did kill, were they really all bad? When he had joined the Ishin Shishi, he had convinced himself that anyone he killed deserved to have divine justice cast on them, but now Tomoe's words gave him pause. If a man held a sword, he was fair game. If he didn't, he was off limits. But was being armed or unarmed really a good mark of whether or not someone was an enemy to be cut down? Could he have been wrong in thinking that all this time?

Although he didn't notice it, Himura's sword slashes were no longer as crisp and sure as they had once been. He was beginning to hold back just a bit. It was so tiny as not to be noticeable, but to the trained eye, it was indeed noticeable.


There were times when Himura couldn't avoid interacting with Tomoe, such as when she was ordered by Okami to sweep out his room.

Himura sat in his window seat, mulling things over.

'Then if I had been holding this blade last night, would you have...'

'That was two weeks ago,' Battousai thought to himself, frustrated that he was no closer to an answer now than he had been when this question had first been posited to him.

Just then the fusuma slid open and in came Tomoe, wearing a headscarf and carrying a broom.

"I'm going to sweep your room. Get out!" was all she said.

Himura glowered with annoyance at this girl's impertinence.

"I don't recall asking you to..."

"Okami-san asked me to," Tomoe replied as she started her sweeping.

Standing up to leave, Himura stopped when he saw a book he didn't recognize on the table in the midst of his other books.

"What's this book?" he murmured to himself.

Hearing him, Tomoe looked up from her sweeping.

"That's my diary. Please don't read it," she said.

"As if I would!" declared Himura.

Tomoe tucked the book into the folds of her kimono.

"Just to be safe," she said.

The fuming Himura left the room, sliding the fusuma closed with more force than necessary. He couldn't even get privacy in his own room anymore! As Himura stormed down the corridor, he heard the sound of tabi clad feet thumping over the wooden floor in order to catch up with him.

"Hey, Himura!" called Iizuka.

"Iizuka?" returned Himura, who really wasn't in the mood for company right now.

"Why the sour puss? You have a fight with Tomoe-chan?" Iizuka teased, easy-going grin spreading across his face.

CACHAK!

"Woah! Sorry! Sorry!" cried Iizuka as he quickly backed away from the loosened katana. "Man! What's eating you?"

"What do you want?" growled Himura, locking his katana back into its sheath.

Iizuka held up one of the hated black envelopes.

"Tonight. We're counting on you," he said seriously as he handed the envelope to Himura.

Himura felt the annoyance drain from his heart, only to be replaced by the cold numbness.


Himura was again doing his mizugori after returning from the assassination. Into the icy water he plunged his hands and scrubbed them furiously over and over again, all the while knowing it would do nothing to remove the feeling and scent of blood.

To his left, he heard the wooden door slide open. The scent of white plum blossoms told him who it was, standing in the door, staring at him.

"Will you go on killing people like this forever?" he heard her voice question him.

Himura didn't answer and she said nothing more.


The next day, rain poured hard on Kyoto's streets from fat, iron gray clouds. Seeking shelter from the rain under the roof of a tea shop were three men, all sitting with their backs to each other. Upon closer inspection, we see that these three men were in fact Katsura, Katagai and Iizuka. They had gathered here away from the inn, where they now had reason to believe they were being spied on. A common, out of the way tea shop was a safer place to meet and speak for the time being. Their meeting today was not about the war or the Bakufu, but about a certain girl with jet black eyes, purple shawl and constant scent of white plum blossoms.

"Her dialect, behavior and cooking are not those of a Kansai woman. She's literate and has beautiful handwriting, which leads me to believe she's the daughter of a samurai family in Kantou. But the name Yukishiro doesn't appear in any of the registries. I asked at the whore houses around here if any of them had a girl who smells of white plum blossoms and none of them does," said Iizuka quietly to the other two.

"If she's working as a spy, she might have changed her name," pointed out Katagai.

"There's been no sign of her trying to contact anyone outside the inn. I seriously doubt she's the mole. She was probably sold into prostitution when her family couldn't pay off some debt and drifted here on the trade routes," replied Iizuka.

"We're still learning about her, so it's too early to draw any conclusions. Has she had any effect on Himura?" asked Katsura.

"Not too bad an effect, but..." Iizuka stopped, wondering if he should mention this minute detail.

"But what?" persisted Katsura.

"It seems like the swings of Himura's blade have dulled somewhat," concluded Iizuka.

Katsura's eyes widened slightly. Any change in Himura's behavior was an object of great concern for him. Perhaps it was time for him to find out more about Tomoe for himself.


The next night, after retiring from her daily duties, Tomoe sat in her and Himura's room, sewing. Presently, she heard a soft knock at the fusuma. Who could it be at this late hour?

"Come in," she answered softly.

The door slid open to reveal the handsome samurai in black kimono and striped hakama whom she had last seen when she had served breakfast her first morning at the inn. What was his name? Katsura...

"Forgive me for intruding so late," he said in a dropped voice.

"If you're looking for Himura-san, he's out for the night," began Tomoe.

"I know. I'm Himura's commander and know all about his work," answered Katsura.

'Work is what you call it...' thought Tomoe.

"It's actually you I'm here to see. I was wondering if I might have a word with you," said Katsura.


Tomoe and Katsura sat facing each other, each with a bamboo teacup in front of them.

"Madness?" Tomoe echoed.

"That is the principal of Shouka Sonjuu, taught to me and Takasugi by our master, Yoshida Shoin, who was executed six years ago," explained Katsura. "He said that in order to destroy the Bakufu at the peak of its madness, we too must give ourselves over to mad justice so we can fight without hesitation for the New Era. Himura is the leader of this mad justice. His duty is the harshest of them."

‘You would give a child a sword to preserve your justice?’

"And what duty would you have me do?" asked Tomoe at length.

Katsura smiled sadly and sighed.

"I'm not asking you to do any duty. I just want you to understand what we're doing here," he replied, rising to his feet and exiting the room.

Tomoe sat quietly for a long while after the fusuma slid shut. At length, she sat at the desk, opened her diary and wrote down everything she and Katsura had discussed.

Meanwhile, in the storage room below, a young man with blood red hair and red blood on his hands scrubbed furiously.


The next evening, Tomoe was finishing with her sweeping in the kitchen. Presently, Okami approached her.

"You've been working hard all day, Tomoe-chan. After you finish sweeping, you can retire early if you'd like," said the landlady kindly.

"Thank you," said a grateful Tomoe.

Accordingly, after she had put away her broom and removed her headscarf, Tomoe made her way up the stairs to what she expected to be an empty room. To her surprise, when she slid the fusuma open, Himura was there, sitting in the window seat, sword propped on his shoulder, his head bowed.

Tomoe quickly realized this was one of Himura's rare nights off and he was catching up on much-needed sleep. She took the opportunity to study the young man up close.

Himura's face was completely relaxed in sleep, so different from the cold, tense visage he wore while awake. Seeing him asleep like this reminded Tomoe of just how young her fiance's killer really was.

'Mad justice,' she thought to herself, considering Katsura-san's words as she gazed at the sleeping boy before her. 'The leader of this mad justice. But when I see him sleeping like this, I realize he's just a child.'

An image of Akira's smiling face flashed into Tomoe's mind, darkening her thoughts.

'A child who kills...'

Shawl in hand, Tomoe leaned over to drape the garment around Himura's shoulders.

Suddenly there was a flash and flurry of movement followed by the unmistakable feeling of cold steel being pressed to her throat. Tomoe's heart stopped in her chest as she stared straight into the cold, feral eyes of a killer. In an instant the spell was broken as Himura's eyes widened, first in surprise, then in horror as he realized what he had almost done.

"Oh!"

Tomoe found herself being shoved harshly away from Himura's sword and almost toppled over to the floor. She looked on in a mixture of fascination and horror at the man who a mere second before had been on the verge of slicing her throat open and was now gasping for breath, sweat pouring down his brow in torrents.

"I'm sorry. After everything I said about not killing civilians, I... Please leave now, before I end up..."

In that instant, Tomoe realized that the madness of the justice Himura was fighting for was slowly consuming him, robbing him of his sanity with each life he took in the line of his duty. It was then that she decided what her duty was to be.

Himura never got to finish his sentence because Tomoe draped her shawl into his lap. He looked up at her with confusion mixing in with the fear and self-loathing in his eyes.

"I'll stay a while longer. You need a sheath to contain your madness now," Tomoe said quietly.

Himura hesitated for a mere second before grasping her shawl, the last lifeline tying him to the pier of sanity in a maelstrom of madness. In a small, shaky voice, so unlike the cold, clipped voice he usually used, Himura spoke to her.

"You asked me two weeks ago, would I have killed you if you had held a sword on the night we met. The answer is no. I would not have killed you. No matter what may happen, I will never kill you. Never... you..."


After that incident, Himura and Tomoe's relationship began to gradually change. The icy awkwardness between them thawed bit by bit. Now, when they met each other on the stairs, they would nod at each other briefly before continuing on their way. Himura would no longer object when Tomoe entered the room to sweep, but would graciously step out and wait for her to bid him enter again.

On the rare evenings when Himura didn't have an assignment, he and Tomoe would sit together silently, he reading and she sewing, or he looking after his sword and she writing in her diary.

One night, about three weeks after the sword incident, Tomoe looked up from her book to the young man sitting against the wall and saw that Himura's chin was touching his chest, which rose and fell rhythmically as he breathed. For the first time since she had known him, Himura had actually fallen asleep in front of her of his own accord.


July 5, 1864

Gion Festival

Summer was in the fullness of its vigor, with blistering heat during the day and stifling humidity during the night. It was on a hot July night that Tomoe and Himura sat quietly together in their room, Tomoe sewing and Himura sleeping, the lambent flame in the andon casting dancing shadows on the walls.

The peace of the atmosphere was disrupted when the fusuma slid open to reveal Iizuka, usual easy-going smile on his face.

"Hey, Himura," he said casually. "Let's go to the festival, then we can hit the brothels and..."

"Please be quiet," said Tomoe, holding her finger to her lips. "Himura-san is sleeping."

Iizuka stared at Himura with a dumbfounded look on his face before sliding the fusuma shut and retreating outside.

Tomoe returned to her sewing.

Quite the next moment, Tomoe heard a slight shuffling and saw that Himura's eyes had snapped open.

"What is it? Iizuka was just..."

Suddenly, the fusuma was slid open with enough force to almost knock it off its track. This time, Katagai stood in the doorway.

"Himura!" he shouted, panic and desperation etched on his face and evident in his voice.

Himura was already on his feet.

"Katagai-san, why are you here?" Himura inquired. "You're supposed to be guarding Katsura-san at the meeting."

"The Ikedaya was raided by the Shinsengumi!" Katagai shouted, seemingly on the verge of hysterics as he finally realized that the Shinsengumi weren't a bunch of nobodies after all.

"So our information is being leaked out!" cried Iizuka.

"What about Katsura-san?!" cried Himura, almost frantic with worry for his leader.

"Katsura-san was running early so he took a nap at Tsushima Clan headquarters, but Yoshida-san, Miyabe-sensei and the others..." choked Katagai.

Eyes glittering with fury and lips curled back in a snarl, Himura grabbed his katana and lunged forward, only to be held back by Iizuka.

"No! Himura!" shouted Iizuka, blocking Battousai's exit with his arm. "It's too late! Even if you go charging down there, you'll never make it in time."

"There are 3,000 Bakufu soldiers heading this way. Attacking now will only hurt Choshuu!" agreed Katagai tearfully.


Wearing a large straw hat to conceal his startling red hair, Himura Battousai stood in the crowd as he watched the Shinsengumi march proudly through the street, their blue and white mountain pattern haori still covered in the blood of last night's raid on the Ikedaya.

'The Shinsengumi,' Himura thought. 'These men pose the greatest threat to the Ishin Shishi.'

Suddenly, Himura felt his kenki spike. One of the men in the group was an exceptional swordsman, close, or even equal to, his own level of skill. Himura's eyes traveled to the front and locked with a pair of glittering amber eyes that might have belonged to a wolf. The man, obviously a high ranking officer, grinned ferally at Battousai before turning and marching off with his compatriots.

'He and I are destined to meet again,' Battousai thought to himself, lowering his hat to further conceal his face.


July 18, 1864

Even with Himura Battousai fighting on their side, the Ishin Shishi were routed by the Bakufu in a battle that lasted barely a day. The Bakufu lost only 60 men compared to the Patriots' 400.

A group of rogue Patriots set Kyoto ablaze as they retreated in a last ditch effort to kidnap the Emperor in the confusion and take him to Hagi to move the capital. Their effort was a failure, ending only with Kyoto burning to the ground and all the Patriots being declared enemies of the Emperor.

In the chaos, the Kohagiya went up in flames, forcing Battousai, Tomoe, Okami, Iizuka, Katagai and Katsura to evacuate.


"The real objective of the Ikedaya meeting was to set Kyoto ablaze and take the Emperor in the confusion. You were the only one who was opposed to such an atrocity and the only one to survive the attack. Katagai-san says it's the will of the heavens that you survived," commented Himura, looking down into the little gully where Katsura was leaning up against one of the pillars of the Nijo bridge, under which flowed the Kamogawa.

The Katsura Kogoro hiding under the bridge was a completely different being from the Katsura-san Battousai had always looked up to. Gone was the proud, dignified leader who had always worn his finest clothes and kept his hair immaculately pulled back in a top knot. In his place was a broken man, barefoot, clad in a straw mino, and covered in the dust and ashes of his dream.

"But look at me now. Choshuu's Kyoto faction has been destroyed. We are being pursued as enemies of the Emperor. The conservatives are gaining power in Hagi due to the reversal in our province's government. I'll have to go into hiding for a while. I can't return to Hagi, but if I stay here, I will be caught," mourned Katsura.

"What should I do? The Kohagiya has been burnt down," asked Himura.

"I'll have someone prepare a farmhouse in Otsu for you. You'll hide there until we decide our next move. I'll contact you through Iizuka," said Katsura, slowly standing up to leave. "Tomoe-kun?"

"Yes?" asked Tomoe, clutching her diary in her arms.

"If you've nowhere else to go, I'd like you to live there with Himura. A young couple will blend in more easily than a single young man. The arrangement can be entirely for appearance. Please, take care... of Himura," said Katsura's sad voice.

Tomoe and Himura watched as the once regal leader of Choshuu shuffled away into an incognito existence that would end who knew when.

"Now what shall we do? I've nowhere to go," said Tomoe.

"Everyone has somewhere to go. If you need traveling money, I will give you some," offered Himura.

A pause.

Himura sighed.

"I know. That's the coward's way out," he said, lifting his violet eyes to communicate with Tomoe's black ones.

Silence descended between them for a moment as their gazes communicated.

"Stay with me. I don't know how long we can be together, but I don't want it to be just for appearance. I want to be with you until death parts us," said Himura, his eyes lit by unaccustomed warmth.

With no further words between them, the young swordsman and the woman whose life he had saved and who was saving his sanity, watched the giant red sun slip into the western horizon and the stars wink on their lights, one by one.


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