Disclaimer: Watsuki-sensei created "Rurouni Kenshin" and all characters therein.  This story was not written by him, but by me for my own reasons.  I make no monerical profit from it.

Notes:  This story takes place at no particular time in the series, except that it is after Megumi joins the group.  It will move in its own direction, like an alternate arc.  It is important to have seen the first OVA before reading this, as important parts deal with Kenshin's past and how he got his scar.  The story starts out tame enough for anyone to read Episode 1, but it gets rough after that.  Beyond rough.

In fact, I doubt many of you will be able to read it all the way through.  Unspeakable horrors lie ahead.  I wrote this story for personal reasons I don't want to completely reveal.  Lots of stuff I wrote here shocked even me.  Lots of it was to help me understand things I otherwise couldn't, such as love, certain aspects of humor, and problems plaguing my life and the world.  Problems taken far too lightly.  I really can't explain it any better.  Good luck on your journey, dear reader.    

~Sonja the Saiya-jin, aka _Ice-Angel_

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Rurouni Kenshin: The Phoenix Saga

Episode 1: Interesting Visitors: Western Angels and Painted People

Kaoru awoke with a yawn and a stretch, but didn't sit up just yet.  She curled up, bunching her blanket up more than it already was.  It was so warm, so snuggly under the thick cloth, and so chilly in the house outside of it.  It was the beginning of an abnormally cold winter, so the house was often dark with the portals shut.  There was a flickering of candlelight at the edge of her sight perception, though, so she knew somebody was already awake.  It was probably Kenshin; Dr. Genzai was at his own place, a much warmer home better equipped for the winter months, and Yahiko certainly would not be responsible enough to light candles without burning down half of the building. 

She rolled over and looked at the sleeping boy on the neighboring mat.  He was snoring softly as usual, a bit of drool hanging from his lip.  She smirked in playful evil.  Her younger brother-figure looked so silly, it was as if he were begging to be picked on without realizing it.  Kaoru toyed with many ideas in her head, wondering what would be the most effective way to make fun of the lad.  The ground was too hard from frost to get mud, so she couldn't do the face-splat trick...  It would be some trouble to get a bowl of warm water...

"I have an idea," another woman's voice whispered.  Kaoru sat up slightly and looked at Megumi, who was lying on her own mat further along the wall (Due to the unusual cold, the girls and child shared a room to conserve heat until the planned house improvements were finished).  She had fox-ears on her head and the grin of a trickster on her face.

"You read my mind," Kaoru whispered back, smirk growing. "What's the plan?"

***

Kenshin hummed softly as he stirred the beef stew he was cooking in the fireplace.  It smelled very nice despite the vegetable shortage, and the tofu and rice he added would make a creative twist to the flavor and texture.  Sure, beef was a heavy meat and not always easy to come by, but it would feel good and warm in the stomach due to the bitterly cold weather.  An Akabeko at home, that it is, the red-head thought with a smile.

He looked over his shoulder as Sanosuke sat up and stretched on the floor mat behind him.  The taller man rubbed his eyes a bit, then looked around apprehensively, blinking rapidly. "Wh.. where am I?"

"You are at Kaoru-dono's house," the smaller answered, smiling pleasantly, "You drank a bit more than usual and where you stayed before was far too cold, that it was, so she allowed you to stay here."

The street fighter relaxed and ran a hand over his face.  "No kidding about the drinking part," he muttered, eyes closed again, "My head hurts.  Why'd I go an' do a stupid thing like that anyway?"

"I believe you kept getting cold as the warm sake wore off, though I may be wrong," Kenshin answered.  "Also, you seemed very depressed.  You drank in honor of Souzou-san many times, that you did."

"Oh yeah..." Sanosuke sighed, lowering his head, tone pensive and tired. "I remember now...  Bet he wouldn'ta liked me gettin' fool drunk over him.  I mean yeah, I've pretty much come to terms with what happened an' all, but sometimes it comes up again, ya know?"

"I do know," Kenshin said with quiet sympathy, turning to face his friend and sitting with his legs folded beneath him.  "He was like a big brother or a father, from what you said, that he was."  His face, eyes, and voice began to leak deep personal regret as his words went on.  "Your times have been very rough.  But you have been very strong to remain such a good person... You are entitled to an occasional regression...  That you are..."

"Kenshin," Sanosuke interjected with his own regretful tone.  Kenshin didn't look up, his head by now lowered.  His friend smiled sadly.  "Look, I'm sorry for sayin' that mean stuff to you last night.  That was mostly the sake talkin', an' you know I don't blame you for that stuff anymore.  You had it harder in lotsa ways an' you know it."

The ex-assassin remained silent, feeling a little ashamed of being indirectly comforted concerning his own past.  He really tried to avoid the subject; repressing it helped him keep it in factual terms rather than emotional.  Helped him remain in control of his dark side.  Yet sometimes he felt part of himself begging to let out the regrets that side had caused him, to tell his entire tale of blood and death, to let the world know of his sorrow.  But as usual, he pushed it down.  Finally, he murmured, "You're forgiven, as always.  I would not take it personally for you to release your anger on me for my association with your troubles.  I did not last night either, that I did not."

"Well, I don't plan to do that anymore," Sano assured him, smiling more in earnest now.  "You know the reason I hang around an' stuff is cuz I respect you.  There ya are, outta that dark past, an' still able to be really silly an' likeable.  I figure hey, if you can do it, I can do it.  You inspire me an' all that.  C'mon, cheer up!"

Kenshin raised his head again, and had that puppy-eyed, lop-sided grin of his on his face again.  "I am glad that I manage to do good for you, that I am," he humbly acknowledged to his friend's praises.

"That's the spirit," Sanosuke said, "By the way, that's smellin' pretty nice.  That beef stew?"

"Hai, sou da de gozaru," he answered, turning to stir the food again.  "It is almost finished cooking, although I shall not awaken the others; it shall need time to cool down, and they deserve extra sleep, that they do."

"That's alright," a female voice said cheerfully from the right, "I'm wide awake, and Megumi's taking a quick bath."

The men looked up and saw Kaoru in her warm winter kimono, hair left loose to keep her neck warm although this room was a comfortable temperature.  Most noticeable was the fact that she was smiling like a mischievous elf, a bright color in her cheeks, eyes sparkling even past her thick dark eyelashes.  Kenshin found his own smile growing as he gazed at her.  Kaoru was beautiful, always.  This bad-happy look she wore was just a different type of beautiful that he found particularly amusing and pleasant.  So caught up was he in her radiance, in fact, that it did not occur to him why she looked the way she did.

"Ooooh, Kenshin," she then said, "The food does smell great.  I'll go get the bowls."  She scampered off, returning shortly to put the bowls around the table and rearrange the seating cushions for those she knew used them (Megumi, Yahiko, and herself).  She then sat at her place, smiling broadly and occasionally glancing at the doorway from the bedroom and the hallway.  Soon, Megumi came in as well, and everyone was seated around the table except for Yahiko, waiting on their stew to cool down.

Sanosuke looked at Megumi and noticed her trying to suppress a chuckle, fox-ears poking past her still wet, black hair.  "What's goin' on, Fox-lady?" he wondered, "You're up to somethin', ne?"

The woman waved her slender hand dismissively.  "Whatever put that idea into your head?" she bubbled, covering her mouth with her other fingertips.  Meanwhile Kaoru also covered her mouth, eyes sparkling. 

Before the women could be prodded for more information, they heard the padding footfalls of Yahiko coming through the doorway. "Ya guys didn't eat without me didja?" his semi-grumpy, drowsy voice asked, "I'm hungry."

All heads turned toward him.  There was silence.  Then the eyes of the men bulged, their jaws dropping in shock, and a squeaky "ORO?!" sounded.  The women, meanwhile, snickered behind their hands.

Yahiko looked at each of them, eyes narrowed. Narrowed eyes... above bright red cheek-spots... beside a bright red nose... and a giant red smile that smiled even though he was not.  Yahiko looked like a clown!

The girls couldn't take it anymore and burst out laughing, as did Sanosuke.  Kenshin began to chuckle, then he too gave in to hearty laughter.  Yahiko blinked, sleepily.  "What?" he demanded, sounding annoyed but still looking smiley and rosy.  This kept the laughter going.  He looked down at himself to see what was so funny.  Had he accidentally left the room without his hakama?  Nope.  Did he have a silly sign stuck to his gi?  Nope.  Nani?

He looked back up at them.  "Eh, I dunno what's funny, but I'm gonna eat."  He sat at his spot and waited for his portion of stew, seeming to ignore the eyes on him with determination.  The chuckles were quiet now, as Kaoru spooned some of the stew to Yahiko.  The boy picked up his spoon and looked at it, not too familiar with using such a contraption to eat.  Then he paused.  His eyes widened when he saw his reflection on its metal surface.

"What's with my face?!" he demanded, standing up abruptly, "I look like a drunk person!"

More laughter, except from Kenshin, who seemed a bit sheepish.  "Now, now," he said, trying to calm the quickly seething Yahiko, "We shall wash it from your face, that we shall."

Suddenly, Megumi leaped to her feet and ran around the table to where Sanosuke sat.  "Your turn!!!" she squealed, grabbing his head with her arm and pulling out her lipstick.

He yelled out in protest, but was otherwise frozen in place despite his swift reflexes and great strength; he had no instinct to use them against a girl.  Soon she pulled back, leaving the man with red marks all over his face.  Kaoru, meanwhile, fell upon Kenshin with her own share of lipstick, yelling "WEEEEEE!!!" as she happily scribbled on the flopping, squeaking samurai.

Yahiko watched in mild shock for a moment, then a mischievous grin spread across his own features and he dashed forward, grabbing Megumi's lipstick from her as she laughed at Sanosuke's state.  He pinned her against the painted street-fighter as he fell to work with his own artwork on her face, laughing joyously.

Kenshin blinked a few times as Kaoru chuckled, when she herself was finished with her handiwork, then he too smiled, and daintily picked the lipstick from her hand.  It was her turn to blink, as the man gently yet quickly drew on her face as well, eyes glimmering with humor.  She had not expected him to retaliate.  This made it even funner though, and they both laughed at the same time.

After Yahiko's handiwork, Sano grabbed the lipstick for himself and added a few marks to the boy's face, then to Megumi's, laughing out loud.

Finally, the commotion died down and everyone fell into chuckling, panting heaps.  Megumi lay against Sanosuke, Yahiko was gnawing on Sano's head, and Kaoru lay in Kenshin's lap, facing up, laughing so hard she was in joyous tears.  Kenshin was smiling radiantly, his face flushed.

After a bit, a metal plate was brought out so everyone could survey the damage.  They took turns looking at their reflections and laughing anew.  Yahiko, along with his clown-face, also had a pair of fangs and an extra set of evil eyes on his forehead.  Sanosuke had little swirls and flowers covering his cheeks and nose.  Megumi had pretty much random scribbles that really managed to make her perfect face look funny. 

Kenshin felt a bit nervous as he waited his own turn; he worried that his scar had been humored, perhaps repeated on the other side of his face or having another mark added deliberately to it.  But he let out a chuckle of relief as well as humor when he saw that he had merely been painted to look like a cat, with a button-nose and whiskers, as well as the little cleft between lip and nose.  "Kenshineko!" the others chanted out, to which he replied by smiling brightly and squeaking "Nyo!"

After that bit of laughter, Kaoru looked at her own face.  Her eyes widened and she seemed surprised in more ways than one.  On one cheek was a pair of angel wings with a halo over them (although she didn't really understand what that meant, it looked pretty and meaningful), and on the other cheek was a heart-shape.  She felt both shy and flattered, color rising in her cheeks and nearly obscuring the markings there.  "That's pretty, Kenshin," she murmured, looking at him with newly sparkling eyes and a smile.  "What do the wings and ring mean?"

"Tenshi wa, de gozaru," he answered, "It is a Western perspective of an angel, that it is.  You see--"

He was interrupted by the door being thrust open, and two men dressed in dark clothing rushed in, wielding roughly-hewn wooden swords.  They had cloth draped over their heads and faces, leaving only part of their faces visible.  "Don't move!" the heavier built of the two bellowed, "This is a rob....berry...???"

Both robbers' eyes had widened, and their dropped jaws could be seen poking from the bottoms of their makeshift masks as they stared at their would-be victims, who stared back from painted, goofy faces.  Sweatdrops gathered on the masks somehow.

"Uh..." one of the bad guys muttered, "Did we... interrupt some sort of ritual?"

There was some hesitation, then Sanosuke smirked. "Yeah," he said, smirking and narrowing his eyes, "We were doin' a war dance.  Summoning the demons of destruction an' all that."

The robbers looked around apprehensively.  "S..summoning... d..demons?" the thinner one stammered, eyes wide.

The other robber recovered in a moment and punched the more frightened one on the shoulder. "Baka," he growled, "I don't see any demons.  Ritual or not, we're here to rob this house."

"Uh oh," Megumi burst, "Oh my! Your voice..."

"Eh?" the heavier robber queried, "What about my voice?"

"It sounds rather nasal," the female doctor observed with carefully played-out concern.  "Your friend's does too.  A little raspy too, the both of you.  That's not good at all!"

Both robbers thought for a bit.  "Come to think of it... My throat does feel a little bit scratchy..." the smaller one muttered, putting a hand to his throat.

"And... my nose is kind of stuffy," the other added, self-concern in his eyes.

"You sound ready to have coughing or sneezing fits, if my doctoral experience serves me right," Megumi continued slyly,  "And from what little skin I can see... Oh dear, I'd better not even say if I'm not certain!"

"Nani?  You think we're... getting sick?" the shorter one asked nervously.

"We have been out in the cold for a long time..." the other added hesitantly.

"Well why didn't you say so?" Kaoru asked, bowing then straightening and gesturing to the fireplace with a smile.  "Come on in and warm yourselves up.  She can give you a quick examination, and you're just in time for breakfast."

They hesitated, looking nervously at the house's occupants, then at each other.

"My pardons, but do not worry yourselves," Kenshin said brightly, his sword having been hidden under the table, "The demons will not come for you.  We had merely given them some tea to keep them contented, that we did."

Yahiko merely watched in surprise as the two men closed the door and, by now shivering, sniffling, and coughing, made their way to the area near the fireplace.  There, they finally removed their masks, revealing stubbly faces pallid with worry.  Megumi made a big deal about examining them, checking their tongues, ears, eyes, pulses, etc., muttering "Oh dear" and "My oh my" repeatedly, adding to their nervousness.  Finally she gave them the diagnosis of "Oralnasalviralcatatosis, a slow, miserable, and often even deadly disease", bringing a cringe from them at such a big word said in such a serious tone.  They were overjoyed when she said she had the cure though, and begged for it, promising they would not rob the house if only they could be spared before the symptoms grew worse.

She happily agreed, struggling to keep her steps professional looking as she left to "mix the medication" for them.  Meanwhile, bowls of stew were being prepared for them and were placed at the table.  They looked on at this in surprise.  When the "medicine" arrived, they drank down what was merely a bitter, cold tea and declared that they felt better already!  Then, they were invited to the table, where they ate one of the tastiest stews they'd ever had, there amongst the paint-faces.

After some conversation, it was revealed that the two men had both recently lost all they had in a hotel fire the previous month.  The managers were unable to repay them for their losses, so they had teamed up to help each other out find odd jobs or places to stay, but they were not very successful and, having too much pride to go begging, they decided all they could do was rob a house, and this was their first attempt.  After receiving verbalized sympathy for their situation, they were told there was no shame in asking for help, and were told that they should go to the local town and ask for work at the Akabeko, if not at a few other shops that were seeking employment as well as offering room and board.

The men were overjoyed at being offered this chance, as well as for being completely forgiven, and they headed out after warm goodbyes and well-wishings, as well as a few meals worth of money, skipping merrily toward their future.

"Kekko na," the bigger one laughed, "The world has good in it after all!"

"Hai, sou da!" the other said cheerfully, "And who would have thought it would come from those strange, painted people."

***

"Hoooooo boy!" Sanosuke exclaimed, "That was the best stew I've ever had, Kenshin!"

"Thank you, if I may humbly say," the smaller man replied, "Half the joy was due to our interesting guests.  It always feels pleasant to create peace, that it does."

"This has been such a fun, interesting day," Kaoru agreed, "And it has only begun.  Amazing what a little trickery and a little kindness can do."

"Were those guys really sick?" Yahiko wondered.

"Oh, heavens no," Megumi chuckled, "Perhaps they were a bit chilled, but it was nothing a little warm stew couldn't cure.  They were merely gullible to my suggestions.  That won't work on everyone, of course, but we could tell they were uncertain."

"Well, I'm gonna go wash off my face before I smear up my clothing," Sanosuke announced, standing and stretching.

"Me too, I get the washtub next," Yahiko declared.

Kaoru stood up and excused herself, walking to her room. Kenshin watched her go curiously.  Was she troubled?  Was she sad?

She came back in a bit, beaming, and proudly holding up a piece of paper with two red pictures on it.  She showed it to Kenshin, who blinked with surprise.  She had pressed the paper to her cheeks and printed off the heart and angel-wings.

"Now I can remember all the fun we had," she explained with a smile.

Kenshin smiled back his kitty-cat grin.  "I am honored," he said, "that you consider my drawings worthy of saving, that I am."

They were both smiling, and gazing into each others' eyes.  Both were admiring the beauty they found there.

Meanwhile, Sanosuke came back in with a clean face. "Damn, that stuff's hard to wash off," he said, rearranging the front of his wet hair.  This brought Kaoru's and Kenshin's gazes over to him.

"Oh," Megumi said in an enlightened tone, walking up to the street fighter, "I forgot to put something else on your face!"

She jumped up and gave him a peck on the cheek, her hair flowing back from the jump, Sanosuke's eyes widening.

The mark of her lips was left there on his face, as he confirmed when he touched it and looked down at his hand.  The woman giggled behind her hand, closed eyes slanted as once again she sported the ears of a fox on her head.  She took off running amidst her own laughter and that of Kaoru.

"MEGUUUUMIIIIII!!!!" Sanosuke yelled in humorous anger, taking chase although he had no idea what he'd do if he caught up to her, "That's not funny! You get back here!"

"It seems I'm victorious," the woman announced proudly as she dashed about just out of Sanosuke's reach, "It's all too easy to get reactions from Kenny and Kaoru, but now I've pushed the Zanza button!"

Their audience, now consisting of Yahiko as well, laughed heartily.  "My pardons," Kenshin chuckled, "It is not common to see a rooster chasing a fox, that it is not!"

Outside, the winter birds went about their business of feeding, preening their feathers, and puffing up to stay warm.  They were well accustomed to the sounds of laughter and joy coming from the house they lived near.  Their forest was quiet enough, at least, and the sunlight made the day feel far warmer than it really was.