Teaser: One year after the events in Kyoto, two men searching for completion cross
paths. Will they find what they are looking for, or just discover more questions? An
All respective rights belong to Nobuhiro Watsuki-sama.
The sharp wind rustled the leaves of the over-hanging trees, sending the sparse sunlight
almost glittering on the forest floor. Silence. There was nothing but the sound of the
wind, the groaning of the branches, and the soft beating of his heart.
He stood over the four cold markers for a long moment, staring, memorizing every chip
and crack in each memorial. He closed his eyes and silently prayed, the wind gently
playing with his hair. After a long moment, he blinked his eyes and bit his lower lip.
Before he realized what he was doing, he was at the first memorial, softly brushing away
the dirt and unwrapping the overgrowing vines. He continued down the line, doing the
same for each one. He nodded his approval once he had finished. Yet, something was
As silently as he arrived, he disappeared into the forest growth, searching
Shinomori Aoshi was a very intense man, in many ways. He himself knew it as well as
those around him. Even through his placid mask, Aoshi felt deeply. It was his duty, his
responsibility to protect those who followed and believed in him. He would not show
weakness, not to anyone as long as someone depended on him.
They had died for him. Those that followed him, those that depended on him. The men
he gave everything for, the men he was suppose to protect, had died for him. His men
died to protect him. It was that devotion that sent him spiraling into chaos and blackened
his soul. Yet, it was their love that brought him back into the light.
He did not know why they began to call out to him. It had been almost a year since he
had last heard their voices. A year since his battle with Battousai. A year since returning
from chaos, a year of reflection.
The year in itself which was not at all tranquil. It took Misao a long time to realize the
man she was in love with was nothing more than a memory, a memory locked away ten
years ago. People change. Feeling change. For days upon days she screamed and yelled
at anyone who came into sight. But, in the end, she seemed relieved with her discovery.
Aoshi himself spent many days in the Zen temple trying to determine his own feelings on
this matter. He knew he loved Misao. He loved her more than anything in the world.
However, he also knew he wasn't attracted to her as a lover. He would always be
grateful to the young woman and she would always have a large place in his heart. He
had finally come to the conclusion that he could never love her the way she wanted him
to and a weight was lifted from his shoulders.
After this revelation, they started calling to him once again. The men that died for him
began to call out his name. It took the voices a single day to turn from pleading to
demanding. But, demanding what, Aoshi did not know.
He had not visited their graves since before his battle with Battousai. His heart told him
they had forgiven him for what he had become. He decided to prove to himself he
deserved that forgiveness. He lived a secluded life, a pure life, a life he believed they
wanted for him. He had not heard their voices in over a year.
Yet, they called out to him now.
Why? Aoshi did not know.
Therefore, he spoke with Okina and packed a small bag. He hesitated but ultimately
tucked the long sheath under his arm and left the Aoiya as quietly as a shadow.
The trip was uneventful. He avoided people as much as people avoided him. He kept
mainly to the less traveled paths and slept beneath the stars.
And now, he stepped into the clearing, his mind and heart prepared for what he would
see, hoping the voices would be put to rest.
He stopped and, unconsciously, his hands clenched.
The memorials to his fallen comrades he had built with his own two hands had been
recently visited. The stones had been cleaned and…
He blinked and blinked again.
And flowers had been placed on the graves.
Aoshi was prepared for anything but that.
He felt himself loosing control, losing everything. Everything he had spent the entire
year acquiring was slipping through his fingers. A scream of frustration was caught in
the back of his throat.
Even in the middle of nowhere, where no one would ever see, tears would not come.
His feet started moving on their own. As the wind whipped around his face, he barely
noticed anything. All reason had gone.
Was it all for nothing?
Aoshi blinked and his feet stopped their methodical pace.
The world slowly came into focus. He blinked again as color ensnared his mind.
It was a blue thread caught on an exposed root, snapping wildly in the soft breeze,
drawing attention to itself.
Aoshi stared at the fiber, watching its intricate dance. Hesitantly, he bent down to
capture it in his hand. He abruptly froze.
A small figure was curled up in a little indentation behind the trunk, eyes squeezed shut,
hands clenching the torn sack he was using as a blanket, breathing uneven, face filthy and
twisted, caught in a nightmare.
Aoshi realized had he not stopped for the thread, he would have passed the trunk by
without a second thought. "Soujirou." With a quick step, he jumped the root.
The boy jumped awake, body tensed, eyes wide in terror. His gaze slowly rose and he
finally took a breath as he realized who stood before him. "Sh…Shinomori-san."
"What are you doing here?"
"I…I…" The other's gaze was intense and Soujirou looked away, a touch of pink
appearing in his cheeks. "This is where my feet took me." A smile grew on the pale
face, hiding any internal emotional response. "I thought…I thought you were in Kyoto."
"Ahh." He shifted his position in the following uncomfortable silence. His smile
suddenly wavered. "Are you angry with me?"
Angry? He felt something deep inside, but it was not anger. "No."
"Ahh," he spoke again, his smile growing slightly brighter.
The diffused light sparkled on the forest floor through the swaying leaves. The playful
wind picked up a fallen, dried leaf from the ground, tossed it back and forth, and finally
rested it on Aoshi's shoe.
After a long moment, Aoshi turned his back to the boy, took a step, and stopped.
"Come." Like a wrath, he made his way through the scattered trees.
Stunned, it took Soujirou a long moment to stand and gather up his worn blanket to
follow the retreating shadow.
In a small clearing, a small fire merrily danced, four skewered fish crackled before the
Without a sound, Aoshi took the rag from the other's hands and handed him a skewer.
He turned and dropped the thread-barren cloth next to his own pack. A soft voice behind
him whispered, "Arigatou."
"It's hot. Don't burn yourself." The boy was starving, Aoshi realized. He slowly
observed the other sitting across from him as Soujirou picked at his meal, unable to wait
until it cooled. Soujirou's clothing was in terrible condition, torn, faded, half mended
with unmatching thread poking from every opening. The white undershirt Soujirou
normally wore was more brown than white, stained and covered in dust. The blue
hakama was frayed on the hems, torn and patched in a dozen places. The only thing half-
way clean was his hands, and even they had fresh scars. His face was thinner than
remembered. But, it was the eyes, the soft blue eyes, that had changed the most. No
longer bound, it was Soujirou's eyes that seemed to reflect the spirit of everything around
him. Those eyes that timidly glanced up, trying to determine who truly sat across from
The voices had stopped calling. Aoshi blinked with the sudden realization.
Nothing but the sound of the wind through the trees.
Is this why you wanted me to come? For this boy? Why? His thoughts were distracted
by the boy softly blowing on a pinch of meat.
Aoshi only picked at his meal, desperately trying to find a reason for the recent
happenings. Even as he handed Soujirou the third skewer, and the boy tried to refuse it,
his thoughts were on the events of the past few days.
Only after the sun had set and the boy drew close to the fire, trying to warm his hands,
Aoshi realized there was no reason. Neither of them should have been there, but there
they sat, before the same fire, sharing a meal, trying to keep the cold night at bay.
Aoshi slowly pulled himself from his thoughts of the past and decided to focus on the
present. He slowly moved and pulled a large blanket from his pack. He held it out.
"You're cold. Take it."
Hesitantly, Soujirou reached out and took the blanket from the other's hands. "What
Aoshi's response was inaudible as he settled himself before a large tree trunk, wrapping
himself in his coat. "Rest," he spoke before he closed his eyes.
He just couldn't sleep. Perhaps it was the blanket, soft, warm. Perhaps it was the
snapping of the fire, the constant noise. Perhaps he had eaten too much for the first time
Blinking open his eyes, the first thing Soujirou saw was the peaceful resting face of his
companion and he knew why he couldn't sleep.
Why is he being so kind to me?
In the past, when conflicting thoughts overwhelmed his mind, when Shishio-san was
unable to quell them, he used his training to burn though the insignificance to reach a
He yearned for such an easy resolution. A sword and a quiet place to practice was all he
needed. Sadly, a sword was beyond his reach and had been for the past year.
His eyes fell to the long sheath, almost a full pace from Aoshi's side.
Soujirou's gaze once again fell to the softly sleeping figure whose chest slowly rose and
He swallowed and slowly moved. As silently as he could, Soujirou picked up the long
sheath. He took another quick glance at the sleeping figure before slipping into the
Soujirou loved to do his kata, consisting of the graceful movements and the clarity of
thoughts. Even though his normal instrument of choice was a katana instead of the twin
kodachi he now held in his hands. No matter. He could wield any bladed weapon with a
practiced hand. Unconsciously, a smile appeared on his lips as he started.
He was once called Tenken, sword of heaven. A protégé of the sword. A master before
the age of eighteen. He had no equal. He stood at the right hand of the most ambitious,
the most powerful man in all of Japan. But, that all changed a year ago.
Soujirou slightly stumbled as he missed a step. The smile on his face became forced
before he continued, trying to clear his mind.
A year ago he was forced to recognize his error of thought. A year ago he had to start
thinking for himself.
It was not easy. After ten years of being told what to do, who to kill, what to think,
Soujirou was terrified of doing anything on his own. And, yet, with Shishio dead and his
companions scattered, Soujirou had no choice.
As the weeks passed, things became more difficult, not less as he first thought. Instead of
fighting for what he believed, he found himself occupied with just living. The strong
lived. He could have laughed at that thought if his aching feet did not hurt so badly.
Who in the world was stronger than he? Yet, here he was, wandering from village to
village, from town to town, watching. He saw many things in the short year; the best in
mankind and the worst.
He witnessed countless families surviving difficult times. He saw fathers playing with
their children, mothers watching with smiles on their faces. Such kindness in the faces of
But there was darkness in these times. Soujirou was amazed by the amount of passion
which stirred within him when a man kicked his dog, and the mutt obediently followed
after his master. There were those that did not welcome strangers, much less rurouni.
For as many towns he found himself welcome, there were five times as many that sent
him swiftly on his way.
Soujirou actually helped to defend a small village against a gang of thugs. He almost
laughed in irony as he fought side by side the minuscule police force.
After the incident, the surviving police members seemed truly concerned about his
welfare. Many offered him a place inside their own homes, a chance to start anew, they
had said. If they only knew. If they only knew he was already starting over.
Trying to make amends for his past, for those he had killed, trying to find a new way, a
new path in life.
Being strong means nothing.
Unconsciously, the smile returned to his lips as he felt a gaze on his back. Eyes were
watching him. He loosened his grip on the weapons and stepped forward, as if still
working on his kata. With a swift movement, he spun on the heal of his foot, twisting,
turning the blade so it faced the threat from behind.
Aoshi didn't even blink as his own kodachi paused a breath from his neck, his gaze
focused on the other's face.
The blades shook and fell, landing in small puddle on the forest floor.
Soujirou could not look from the impassionate gaze as he stumbled backward, no words
could form on his gapping lips.
Perhaps it was a trick of the moonlight, but it seemed to Soujirou that Aoshi's face
softened a moment before he turned. "Clean the mud off of them before you return."
And, he was gone.
Soujirou could not continue his exercise after that. With a practiced hand, he cleaned the
blades and gently sheathed them. He bit his lower lip as he slowly approached the
clearing, knowing fully what would happen at his return.
Aoshi leaned against a tree, arms crossed over his chest, just watching the newly
A broad smile hid the fear on Soujirou's face as he approached the other man. "I…I'm
sorry." He laid the sheath at Aoshi's feet and, as he stood, winced.
"Ask next time."
"Hai." He squeezed his eyes shut and clenched his hands.
"You should rest."
His eyes grew wide. "You…you're not going to yell at me?"
Aoshi blinked. "No."
"You're not going to hit me, then?"
Aoshi turned his gaze from the fire to Soujirou. "No. Why?"
Why? Soujirou stared at his tabi. "I…I borrowed Shishio-san's sword, once. To do
this." He shook. "Shishio-san was furious. He said he would kill me if I ever did it
again. And I…I just smiled."
His gaze returned to the fire. "I am not Shishio. My weapon is not precious to me."
"You should rest."
It took Soujirou a long time to gather himself, almost sobbing in relief. His feet started to
move on their own and brought him to the discarded blanket. The blanket that smelled so
clean and fresh. He slowly wrapped the softness around him and rested his head on the
cold ground. Yet, he faced the fire and watched Shinomori Aoshi until sleep took him, a
smile lingering on his face.
Soujirou awoke the next morning half-fearing the previous day was just a dream, half-
fearing his companion would be gone.
Shinomori Aoshi sat in the exact same spot as when Soujirou fell asleep. Yet, four more
skewered fish sizzled over the stoked fire. Their eyes met. "Good morning."
Soujirou knew his cheeks burned and he rubbed the sleep from his eyes to hide them.
"Good morning," he spoke with a smile.
"A few minutes and they'll be done."
They ate in complete silence. Soujirou found, at times, when he looked up Aoshi was
staring at him. At those times, he flashed the other a bright smile and returned to his
Picking every last bit off of the bones, not knowing when he would eat this well again,
Soujirou tried everything he could think of to extend this moment. But, all too soon,
Aoshi knelt and began to tie his pack.
Soujirou couldn't refrain from the question in his mind, stirring since the previous day.
Aoshi actually stopped and turned to look at him. "Why what?"
"Why are you being so nice to me?"
Without a word, he turned back to the pack.
Soujirou blinked. "Ara?"
His brows knitted and he cast an uncertain look at the older man.
A shadow of a smile appeared on Aoshi's lips. "You brought me some in Mount Hiei."
"Oh." He scratched the back of his head. "You were…well, I didn't think…you
"Even in…my condition, I did notice. I know what you did for me. Everything."
"I'm glad." His gaze slowly fell to the remains of the fire as Aoshi finished tying the
pack and hefted it to his shoulder.
Aoshi tucked his long sheath under his left arm and stood in a fluid motion.
Soujirou did not look from the ashes, knowing he was unable to watch the other leave.
"I'll be okay. Thank you, again, Shinomori-san." After many silent long moments, he
finally looked up, afraid Aoshi had disappeared.
Ice blue eyes met baby blue. "Where are you headed?"
A small smile appeared on Soujirou's lips, almost in relief. "Tokyo. I was going to see if
they have work for someone like me."
He slowly nodded under the other's scrutiny. "Are you going back to Kyoto?"
A million different reasons passed though his thoughts but none truly seemed plausible.
"I…I don't mean to be rude, but why not?"
A soft breeze stirred the leaves and ruffled both of their hair.
"Because I'm going with you."
Soujirou couldn't help but gape at the other, his mouth opening and closing much like a
"It's a half-days travel to Tokyo. We should get started."
A corner of Aoshi's lip curved upward slightly before he turned and started walking.
Soujirou had to grab the blanket and run just to catch up.
"You need a bath. And new clothes."
A grin appeared on his face and he sheepishly scratched the back of his head. "Hai."
The wind stilled in the wake of the two young men. A green leaf gently floated down,
flipped in a sudden joyous elation, and happily touched the ground.
This was so much fun to write! I hope everyone enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed
writing it. It was written in about three days, mainly listening to Linkin Park: In the End.
Absolutely indebted to Akai_kitsune-sama for her suggestions and corrections (The title
is perfect!). Thank you! Just watch that whip. =P
Thank you, Susan and Kuroiyousei, for making me an Aoshi/Sou fan.
*Sigh* I really can't take Sou from Aoshi, so I guess just Okita is mine! All mine!
Mwa ha ha ha!