January 1, 1865
New Year's Day
As the light of a cold, crisp new years day peeked into the farmhouse, Tomoe rose from her place beside Kenshin in their futon. Their lovemaking had been tender and pleasurable. Silently, she wrote in her journal, then dressed, doused herself in her white plum blossom perfume and retrieved her dagger from the bureau. She cast a tender gaze at the redhaired man who still slept peacefully in the futon.
'This man stole my happiness,' she thought to herself as she made her way to the door, 'then gave me a new happiness in its place. He will kill again, but he will protect more people than he will kill. I can't let him die here.'
"Farewell to you, my second love," Tomoe whispered as she slid the door shut.
Tomoe made her way through the forest toward the shrine where she knew they would be waiting. She would tell them that she had changed her mind about wanting to kill Battousai and upbraid them for involving Enishi in this matter. Then she would return to Kenshin and confess everything. Hopefully, he would understand.
As Tomoe approached, Nakajou descended from the trees.
"She's a day and a half late. You should be thankful, kid. If she'd been any later, I'd have killed... Huh?" Nakajou looked around. "Hey, where's that brat?"
"I sent him to Battousai's house. I have overlooked nothing in our plan," said Tatsumi with a wicked grin. "Now, for this woman. What news does she have for us?"
Tomoe silently followed the Yaminobu back to their shrine. When they were in front of the shrine, the grilling began.
"Tell us your news," demanded Tatsumi.
"First, I must ask you one thing," said Tomoe. "Why did you involve Enishi in this?"
"The boy was running around Kyoto asking for his sister's whereabouts and an elder of the Shogunate sent him to me, just like when you were recruited," explained Tatsumi. "Tell us your news!"
Tomoe was silent.
"Tell us Battousai's weakness," demanded Sumita.
"You aren't going to tell us you don't know after you've been with him for six months?" asked Nakajou, fingering the baika chuzen on his left wrist.
"Well?" growled Tatsumi.
Tomoe knew it would be too risky to stall them anymore. She had to think of something to say quickly.
"Himura Battousai's weakness is..." she began.
'He's too kind to be a hitokiri.'
"Sleep," she continued. "Even the best swordsman can't defend himself while sleeping."
"I see," replied Tatsumi with a mysterious smirk. "Let me ask you another question: Is Battousai in love with you?"
Tomoe's eyes widened, her heart nearly stopping in her chest as panic started to grip her.
"Why do you ask me that? That has nothing to do with his weakness!" she said desperately.
"Oh, but it does. If Battousai is in love with you, then he will come after you. If we can lure him into this forest, the odds are stacked in our favor. I've already sent a messenger with our invitation. Battousai surely knows you're gone by now and is blazing with rage."
"No..." Tomoe's words caught in her throat. "Then you never needed me to learn his weakness. Your real goal was..."
"Rather than looking for a weakness that probably didn't exist, it was easier to use you to create one," sneered Tatsumi. "We aren't as stupid as you seem to think we are."
'Oh, Kami-sama! I've trapped him!' Tomoe thought to herself.
Making up her mind, Tomoe reached into her obi for her tanto.
'Then I can at least decrease the number of the enemy by...'
Tatsumi's fist connected with Tomoe's jaw, sending her flying.
"You think we didn't anticipate this? Sleep? Please! The twisted words from a young girl's weak heart!" the Yaminobu leader barked. "Nakajou, Sumita, Yatsume! Now is the time to show our dark arts! Come to our Binding Forest, Battousai!"
With that, Tatsumi sent his men off. He then stooped down to pick up Tomoe's tanto, which had fallen to the ground at his feet when he had hit her. Tatsumi then dragged Tomoe into the shrine and shut the door to await the arrival of Battousai, if he made it that far.
The wooden door snapped shut so hard that it made the house's timbers rattle. In the snow stood Himura Kenshin, no Himura Battousai, daisho at his side and a look of murder on his face. His right hand clutched the Yaminobu's "invitation", which he had found lying on the floor just inside the slatted window that morning. Crunching the offending document in his hand, Battousai started forward. How could they have gotten into the house and kidnapped Tomoe when he had been right there beside her? Perhaps Iizuka had been right about an idle life causing his skills to wither!
From behind a tree, Enishi watched the warrior walk toward the forest.
'He's moving,' the boy thought happily.
As soon as Battousai was out of the area, Enishi headed toward the farmhouse to fetch Tomoe.
'Let's go home, Tomoe. Let's go back to Edo!'
Battousai stood at the edge of the forest.
"This is it," he said to himself after confirming the directions on the paper, which having no more use for it, he discarded.
As Battousai entered the forest, he became aware of a discrepancy. Something was missing, as if the forest had gone silent in his mind.
'What is this feeling?' he thought as he looked around. 'Something's wrong. This forest feels strange somehow, as though I've lost one of my senses.'
A sharp, biting pain slid down Battousai's back before he could turn and jump away.
"Welcome to the Binding Forest, Battousai," announced Nakajou. "This no ordinary forest. It's a demon forest with a magnetic field far stronger than even the forests of Fuji. Your swordsman's intuition is useless to you here. The only ones who can use their sixth sense here are those who have trained here, we of the Yaminobu! Your back is to the wall!"
"So... what?" growled Battousai through clenched teeth.
Drawing his sword in lightning fast battoujutsu, Battousai lunged forward, sword arcing across Nakajou's chest.
Nakajou went flying backward and landed on his ass, blood spurting from the horizontal slash on his chest. The next thing he knew, Battousai's sandaled foot was grinding into the wound.
"Gah!" the shinobi cried.
"I will protect Tomoe's happiness. I vowed that last night! You and this place mean nothing to me! Anyone who gets in my way, I will kill!" Battousai snarled, eyes glittering with murderous rage. "Will you take me to Tomoe, or will you die? Choose quickly!"
Nakajou stared at the katana and the swordsman behind it.
'That was a killing blow,' the shinobi thought. 'If he'd pushed it one step further... No, he... Could it be?'
Nakajou grinned when he realized it.
"Then try this!" he barked, firing his baika chuzen at Battousai.
Battousai felt the sting as the dart buried its head in his right shoulder.
"I thought so! You didn't stop a step short!" gloated Nakajou. "As I thought, you misread your own movement. In this forest, you can't use your intuition. You're weak. You can't win!"
Nakajou's rant fell silent as he watched the young assassin reach up for the dart, grasp it, yank it out of his shoulder and toss it away as if it were nothing.
"I said... SO WHAT?!" roared Battousai.
Before Nakajou could react, Battousai had sliced off both the shinobi's forearms with his katana. Nakajou keeled over backward, pain radiating through his whole body.
"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!" he screamed as blood spurted from the stumps where his arms had been moments before.
Battousai advanced on him, death written on his face. Overcome by panic, Nakajou jumped to his feet and ran.
By the time he came to the cave, Nakajou had lost so much blood, he felt like he was going to pass out. He didn't even get a chance to rest when he heard something behind him.
Nakajou turned and saw his severed arms lying on the cave floor. Behind them stood Battousai, now entering the cave.
"You forgot these," said the assassin. "Tell me where Tomoe is, then I'll give you a quick death."
Nakajou knew he was defeated. Without his hands, there was no way he could fight Battousai.
"Leave the cave and go right," he said. "But it's not over yet! There are three of us left and even if you beat the last of us, we will still win! In the east, there is the Oniwabanshuu, in the west, there is the Yaminobu! We are ninja among ninja who will stand for nothing short of victory! Even in death, I will bind you!"
As he spoke these words, Nakajou grasped the end of a rope in his toes and gave a goodly yank.
Kenshin ran, keeping just ahead of the blast. At the mouth of the cave, he leapt forward. Using his hand to stabilize himself, he skidded to a halt.
"Hm! Sore loser," Kenshin said to himself.
Then he realized something was wrong. He was hearing his voice mostly from inside his skull. He looked around and listened for the sounds of debris falling and settling from the explosion. Everything sounded... off.
"So that was his goal," Kenshin said as he grasped his ear. "That's what he meant when he said he would bind me."
'The noise of the explosion has harmed my hearing. I can still hear, but I can't tell from what direction the sounds are coming. I won't be able to rely on it for a while.'
"Your instinct and hearing. You've lost two of your six senses," a voice from behind Kenshin said.
Kenshin looked about, finally finding where the voice had come from. A huge ogre of a ninja stood among the trees with a large ax in his hands.
"Don't make me repeat myself," Battousai said. "So what?"
"Here I come," said Sumita.
The balding ninja raised his ax and charged, chopping at trees as he barreled forward. The chopped logs flew in Battousai's direction. Battousai flew into action, dodging and weaving among the flying logs.
"Even without my instinct and hearing, I can still see well enough to dodge these flying objects!" shouted Kenshin.
"That may well be," came a guttural voice from above. "But what happens when the objects themselves attack?"
Kenshin looked up and saw a strange creature with long claws, riding one of the flying logs.
The creature slashed at Kenshin with its claws.
Kenshin slashed the log in two with his katana.
The creature dodged the slash and landed in the branches of a nearby tree and grinned at Kenshin, displaying a mouth full of ominous looking fangs.
"Two against one," said Kenshin.
"Haaaaa!!!!!!" Sumita slashed again with his ax.
"Perfect. That will let me kill both of you at once," said Battousai.
Enishi slid the farmhouse door open and entered. The house was empty, the fire pit cold and dark.
"Huh? Tomoe? Sis?" he called. "That's weird. Where could she have gone?"
Then he realized something.
'Could she have gone into the forest?!' he thought in a panic.
"Hooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!" Battousai cried as he charged toward Sumita, dodging all his wooden projectiles.
No matter what was thrown at him, Battousai dodged it or sliced it in two and kept charging at Sumita.
"He's chosen to target one of us at a time," said Sumita. "When the first one's defeated. He'll go after the other."
"Just what we're hoping for!" shouted the creature, jumping from tree to tree. "Wide open above!"
Kenshin felt the creature's steel claws bite into his left shoulder. This distracted him from dodging and left him open to the huge log hurling toward him. Kenshin saw it too late to dodge and was hit full on in the jaw.
"Heh!" laughed the two ninjas, certain they had defeated Battousai.
They were wrong however. Battousai skidded back a few feet, but didn't fall down. Instead, the assassin lunged forward, targeting Sumita's legs with his katana.
"Gaaaaaaaaaaaaah!!!!!!!" Sumita cried as he felt his legs being severed from under the knee.
Battousai's katana dug into the ground and became stuck. The assassin's body kept traveling to the right and smashed into a tree behind him. Kenshin internally cursed himself, remembering one of the first swordsmanship lessons he had been taught as a child: Never let go of your sword. Before he could rectify it, he felt the steel claws bite into his right shoulder.
"So stubborn," sneared the tree climbing creature. "I expected no less of Battousai. What a pity you dropped your sword."
"You're pissing me off," growled Battousai.
He yanked his wakizashi from its sheath and thrust it through the right hand embedded in his shoulder.
"GYAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!" cried the creature, long tongue protruding from its maw.
"Just stay put. I'll kill you in a minute," said Battousai, clutching his right shoulder as he stepped away to reclaim his katana.
The creature tried desperately to wrench the wakizashi out of its right hand, but the blade was stuck fast in the tree trunk.
"It won't come out. Damn you!" the creature growled.
It looked and realized that Battousai was staring right at it, taking in the form of its body: abnormally long arms and legs, giving it an arachnoid appearance.
"I see what you are. You scuttle around in the shadows and attack from unexpected places," said Battousai.
"You saw me?" said the creature.
Suddenly, it gave a mighty yank and pulled its right arm up, the blade of the wakizashi severing its hand in half.
"This body is the legacy of the Yatsume clan!" the creature cried as it launched itself into the air. "It is our law to kill anyone who sees our form! I will retreat for now, but I will kill you! In this era, or the next, I will kill you!"
From his place on the ground, Sumita saw the whole spectacle.
'He's strong! Too strong!' the ninja thought. 'Even now with his instinct and hearing gone! But he's fighting so recklessly. He couldn't have assassinated 100 people fighting like this. He's completely different from the Battousai we so carefully researched. What is he?!'
Battousai now turned his wrath on the legless ninja.
"The first one said there were three others. Where is the last one?" the assassin demanded.
"In the shrine up ahead," Sumita answered in defeat. "The girl's there too."
Battousai turned his back on Sumita and started walking away.
"Wait!" called Sumita, causing Battousai to stop and look back. "You might miss the third barrier. Take a good look!"
With these words, the defeated ninja pulled the rope on a barrel that had been hidden in the snow. There was a bright flash and the sound of thunder.
Making his way through the forest, Enishi saw the flash in the distance and heard the thunder.
"That flash! Battousai must be fighting the ninjas," he said to himself. "Tomoe!"
Enishi broke into a run.
Battousai sat against a tree, his left hand clutching his aching head. He slowly opened his eyes. Everything before him was hazy.
'Instinct, hearing and now sight,' he thought as he got slowly to his feet. 'If I wait here, my vision should return to normal. But!'
Battousai gripped his katana and moved forward, going on his sense of touch alone.
Akira's smiling face, his soft touch, his quiet, cheerful voice.
"I'll be back by Spring. Until then, we must both be patient. I'll bring you a hozuki..."
Akira melted away and was replaced by another softly smiling face with gentle violet eyes and flowing red hair.
"I will protect your happiness..."
Tomoe was at last able to pry her eyelids open. She sat up slowly, bringing her hand up to her throbbing jaw. Looking around, she realized she was in the shrine. Her eyes then landed on Tatsumi, who had been sitting the whole time, arms crossed, watching her.
"So you're finally awake," sneered the Yaminobu leader.
"You used me and Enishi," accused Tomoe.
"That's right. What do you think you can do about it?" challenged Tatsumi.
Tomoe lowered her gaze. Indeed, what could she do? She had no strength or skills to speak of and she knew Tatsumi had taken her dagger, her only means of self defense.
"Perhaps you wish to forget the origin of your involvement with us. Are you haunted by Kiyosato?" Tatsumi asked.
Tomoe started and stared at the Yaminobu leader.
"Just what was Kiyosato to you? Wasn't he the man you loved more than anything? I know he loved you very much. He wanted to be recognized as a great warrior, even though his swordsmanship was weak. That's why he joined the Mimawarigumi in the first place," said Tatsumi.
Tomoe lowered her gaze, tears welling in her eyes.
'If I'd only spoken to him, he could have stayed in Edo and we would have been happy together,' she mourned to herself.
"And now you've gone and fallen in love with his killer," said Tatsumi, causing Tomoe to flinch. "I understand why it happened of course. Human emotion is a foundation of shifting sands. The difference between love and hate is no thicker than a piece of paper. The emotions of a woman are even less reliable. A vicious assassin can seem as harmless as an infant to the woman who loves him."
"You think that little of me?" asked Tomoe incredulously.
Tatsumi was about to answer when they were interrupted by the distant sound of thunder, which caused them both to look at the window.
"It seems Battousai has defeated Sumita and Yatsume," he murmured, standing up. "To defeat those two, he has to be good. Well it's as I thought; I will be the one to deal the death blow. Feel free to watch. I will avenge Kiyosato for you as well."
Tomoe sat mutely as Tatsumi exited the shrine to await Battousai's arrival.
He didn't have to wait long. The assassin appeared, bloody, dishevelled and exhausted, but still wearing a dangerous aura.
"I am taking Tomoe back!" roared Battousai, even as blood seeped from the wounds all over his body.
"Taking her back?" echoed Tatsumi. "Look at you! You've used up all your strength just to arrive at your execution. Now you know that when a man has to fight to protect something, the battle is harder. Yet, from the very beginning, you had nothing to preserve, unlike us. By order of the Bakufu and as chief of field operations, I will see you dead this day."
Finished speaking, Tatsumi charged forward, slamming his upper arm into Kenshin's neck and knocking him backward. Suddenly, the flesh on Tatsumi's chest split open, sending blood spraying out from a horizontal wound he hadn't realized he had. Already, Battousai was rising to his feet, blood dripping from the tip of his katana.
Tatsumi quickly realized that even though Battousai's senses were dulled, he still had enough skill to strike if the ninja got within range. Tatsumi decided to change tactics.
Meanwhile, Tomoe sat in the shrine, watching the battle from the ajar door. In her mind, the image of Kenshin kept wavering, melting into an image of Akira, then changing back again.
'I couldn't stop Akira from going to his death. Then I threw everything away to cause Kenshin's death. But I ended up falling in love with him. I can't let the man I love die again.'
Tomoe closed her eyes and smiled to herself, reaching a decision.
Tatsumi attacked quickly, landing two punches on Kenshin, then jumping out of range just as Kenshin attempted to slash him. While Kenshin was open from slashing, Tatsumi kicked him in the thigh.
Kenshin slashed in response, but again hit empty air as Tatsumi dodged back. He gritted his teeth in a snarl of disgust.
Tatsumi sneered when he noticed Kenshin's grip on his sword's hilt weakening.
"The extreme cold and your blood loss means you can't even feel anything now. With your sense of touch gone, the fourth binding is complete. You can't win, but you've fought well up till now. Death inching slowly closer and closer, or a quick, painless death? I will let you decide," said Tatsumi.
Kenshin stood straight and faced his enemy.
"You're right. I can't win," he admitted, a feral smile crossing his face and his eyes glittering.
'But I can at least take you to the next world with me,' he thought as he gripped his katana in both hands.
"A quick death then," said Tatsumi, reaching into his tunic for Tomoe's dagger.
'Might as well finish the assassin off with his girlfriend's dagger,' he thought.
'If I can't use my senses, I will risk everything on a final blow. I'm sorry, Tomoe. Please be happy in the new era,' Kenshin thought, closing his eyes and cutting off all his numbed senses.
"Let's go!" Kenshin cried, charging forward.
Pointing the tanto toward Kenshin, Tatsumi charged as well.
Kenshin raised his sword to slash downward.
Suddenly, a familiar and heady scent hit his one remaining sense: his sense of smell.
'The scent... of white plum blossoms!' Kenshin thought.
It was too late! His sword was already in its downward momentum. He felt it cleave through flesh and bone, felt the warm blood spatter on his face and a light body fall back against his own; not Tatsumi's body. A sharp, stinging pain as cold steel bit into his left cheek, slicing a new cut across the one he had received back in April.
Kneeling in the cold, wet snow, Kenshin groped about like mad and felt the body, her body. Slumping down, Kenshin pulled the dying Tomoe into his arms. His eyes were barely able to focus on her face as she smiled up at him.
"Tomoe? Why? Why?" Kenshin asked, tears spilling from his eyes for the first time in years.
Tomoe reached up and caressed the new wound on Kenshin's left cheek.
"It's alright. Please don't cry," she whispered with a smile.
Then she let out a rattly breath and her head lolled to the side.
"To-mo-e?" Kenshin asked in a raspy voice.
No response. She was still, too still.
Oh Kami-sama, this couldn't be happening!
'This isn't alright!' he thought sorrowfully. 'I should have died. You didn't deserve to die! Tomoe!'
Kenshin pulled Tomoe into a sorrowful embrace, slumped over her and broke down completely, sobs of grief and self-loathing racking his bloody form as he grieved for his only love.
In the distance, unseen by the grieving swordsman, a little boy stood with tears flowing unheeded from his black eyes as he watched Battousai clutch his dying sister.
He had seen everything: Tomoe standing between the two charging men, using all her strength to hold her dagger, which Tatsumi clutched in his hands, over her head, Battousai's sword biting right down the middle of her body, slashing her from shoulder to pelvis, sending blood spraying everywhere, turning the white snow red.
"Tomoe? My sister?" Enishi mumbled to himself, turning and blundering away through the forest, needing to get as far away from the hated Battousai as he could.
January 15, 1865
Kenshin sat mutely, staring at the cold, dark fire pit. Two weeks ago, it had been crackling with light and life, warming the house. She had been by his side and for the first time in over a year, he had felt warm and alive inside. Now, like the fire pit, his soul was cold and dark. He didn't want to eat, drink or live.
Unconsciously, he brought his left hand up to the new scar on his left cheek and touched it. Even two weeks later, it tingled. The scar from her tanto had intersected with the one from the Bakufu bodyguard's sword, creating a perfect X.
Only now, two weeks later, was he even able to think things over. The past two weeks had felt like a hazy nightmare. He had been quite helpless when brought back to the farm house by the children's parents and had required someone to look in on him every morning to change his bandages and give him the medicine from his own stock. Finally, the fever had broken and the haze had lifted.
The nightmare was real.
Vacant eyes travelled over to the urn where her ashes now rested; the children's parents having been kind enough to take care of the funeral rites.
'No matter how much I think, I don't understand. How? Why?' he thought.
A wind blew in through the barred window, turning the pages of a book lying on the table that Kenshin hadn't noticed till now.
Moving stiffly, Kenshin got to his feet, limped over to the table and picked up the diary. He leafed through the pages till he came to an entry dated nine months earlier.
"News of the murder of Kiyosato Akira arrived from Kyoto. I simply could not believe it and regret not stopping him from leaving, but it is all too late..."
'Kiyosato. The name of Tomoe's fiance. It sounds vaguely familiar. It was... It was...'
Images of his struggle with the young Mimawarigumi swordsman last April suddenly flashed into Kenshin's head; the feeling of the scar being sliced into his cheek and the sound of the man's voice as he strangled out his dying word.
The realization hit Kenshin like a bolt of lightning, causing him to drop the diary.
'I killed him! I was the one who killed Tomoe's fiance! I stole her happiness!' Kenshin cried out in his mind as he brought his hand up to the cruciform scar. 'Tomoe...'
The scar would tingle for years to come.
Kenshin was startled from his reverie of self-loathing by the sound of the wooden door sliding open. For a moment, he thought it was the village children coming in to check on him, as they had every day since their parents had dragged him back, half dead.
Instead the gentle, but authoritative, voice of his commander spoke, uttering words that were meant to comfort, but instead only hurt him more.
"It was an unlucky coincidence that you fell in love with Tomoe after killing her fiance. It's not your fault. I heard all about what happened here and have already sent someone after the traitor," said Katsura.
Wearing a straw hat, Iizuka made his way up the mountain. His footsteps were those of a man with a bounty on his head. Iizuka hadn't been in the game as long as he had by being stupid. He knew that his role as the Shogunate mole would be discovered sooner rather than later and that it was high time to make a hasty departure from Japan.
"Heh heh! It's way past time for me to get out of this. It doesn't even matter whether it's the Shogunate or Patriots who win. The samurai are finished either way. These are much better than swords," Iizuka said to himself, glancing down at the two rolls of gold coins he had received as payment from the Bakufu for spying on the Ishin Shishi.
The sound of snow crunching and a sword being unsheathed from up ahead caused Iizuka to stop in his tracks and look forward.
"Heh heh heh!"
Before Iizuka stood a fierce looking swordsman, one fold of his gi hanging off his bare right shoulder, even in the cold weather, to give him maximum freedom of movement. The blade of his sword glinted in the snow. In his eyes smouldered the flames of Hell.
"Yep. That's the Kogoro I know; he won't just let me walk away," Iizuka smirked to himself, reaching for his sword. "I guess I'll have to use my sword ONE LAST TIME!"
Iizuka charged forward as he unsheathed his sword.
The red-eyed swordsman's mouth turned up in a feral grin as he charged forward to meet his opponent.
"Heh heh heh HA HA HA HA HA!"
The last thing Iizuka saw was flame erupting from the sword's blade.
Burning, slashing pain!
"They've underestimated me, giving me such an easy first assignment," declared the crimson-eyed swordsman. "Well, that's fine. They can use me as their servant for now. In the end, it will be neither the Bakufu nor the Ishin Shishi who take Japan, it will be I!"
After Katsura kindled a fire in the long-unused fire pit, he and his prize warrior sat across from each other. For quite some time, neither spoke, Katsura examining Himura who sat, face lowered, eyes obscured by ruddy bangs, long unwashed. Although two weeks had passed since the tragedy, Himura was still covered in the blood and dirt of the fight, as though he had totally neglected himself since returning from the Binding Forest.
At length, Katsura took a long breath and spoke.
"The man we sent after the traitor is a swordsman new to our clan, Shishio Makoto," the clan leader began.
"Shishio Makoto?" Himura repeated mechanically without raising his eyes, voice barely audible.
"Yes. No one knows where he comes from, nor what sword school he uses. He's a dangerous man, but his skills are on par with yours," explained Katsura.
"It has been decided that he will do the assassinations from now on."
"Which means I'm no longer needed," said Himura softly.
"No!" said Katsura quickly. "We need your swordsmanship now more than ever. The Bakufu's hunt for the Ishin Shishi in Kyoto grows more intense by the day. If we cannot stand against them, our cause will be lost and we will all be executed. Himura, I will have you function as a free-striking swordsman, protecting the Patriots on the front lines. I know it's cruel of me to ask this of you now, but there's no one else we can entrust this duty to. Please, become a demon for the time being and wield the Hiten sword!"
Before Himura could respond, the door rattled open in its track, revealing the village children, now wearing boots and holding their bouncy balls and kites in defiance of the snow. For the past few days, it had broken Kenshin's heart to have to decline them, as he could barely move without stiffness and pain radiating through his body.
"You can't come play with us today either?" asked Ayaka.
"Let's fly kites today, even though it's snowing!" said Gen.
"Um, we're busy right now. Please come back later," said Katsura, waving his hand dismissively at the children.
He was stopped from saying anything further by Himura, who stiffly rose to his feet, still clutching Tomoe's diary.
"I accept," he said softly.
"Himura?" asked Katsura.
"If I put down my sword now, I will have taken all those lives in vain. Until the new era comes, which is lit up by all the small happinesses Tomoe taught me about, I will continue to lend my sword to your cause. But, when the new era comes..." Himura said softly as he walked stiffly toward the door.
"You'll put down your sword?" asked Katsura.
"I don't know, but I will never kill again. Ever," Himura answered quietly as he hobbled out of the house to catch up with the children.
The finality in Himura's voice left Katsura with no room in his heart for doubt. Himura would find a way to stick to that vow, no matter what. Katsura watched as his best swordsman joined the children outside, taking two of the little girls by the hand and leading them out to the fields to play for the last time. Katsura felt what he could only describe as remorse flood his heart. It had been his decision to take Himura to Kyoto and make him an assassin that had done this to the young man. He would bear the responsibility for Himura's soul for the rest of his life.
The words that his closest friend, Takasugi Shinsaku had said to him when he had taken Himura from Choshuu echoed in his mind.
"This line of work will ruin that boy's soul."
'Things turned out just the way you thought they would, Shinsaku. I was wrong to doubt you. This was my fault. Hiten Mitsurugi should only be used to protect the new era, never to destroy the old one. I'm so sorry, Himura,' Katsura thought, pangs of regret knifing through his heart.
Kenshin walked stiffly with the children, who moved at a slower pace so he could keep up.
"Where's Tomoe?" asked Ayaka. "What happened to her?"
Kenshin flinched at the mention of his wife's name.
"She's gone far away and isn't coming back," he answered, grateful that his bangs concealed the tears threatening to spill from his eyes.
"She left you? How crummy," said Gen.
"Something like that," replied Kenshin softly. "And after today, I must go far away too."
"What? You can't!" cried the horrified children in unison.
"I'm sorry," said Kenshin softly. "So today, let's play together, until the sun sets."
And that's just what they did.
The red flames danced and flickered against the backdrop of the navy blue sky, consuming the farmhouse that had been the birthplace of Himura Kenshin's short lived happiness. Standing on a hill, Kenshin watched impassively as this last vestige of his life with her was consumed into ash, as her happiness had been.
When the fire burned itself out, Kenshin turned and started for the wagon that would transport him back to Kyoto, back to a life of bloodshed.
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