~*~Part One: Frightening Ladies and New Memories~*~

The sun splashed low among the buildings in the distance, leaving behind a fiery tinted sky. Seta Soujirou gazed at the brilliant sunset with wide eyes.  Before this year, he had never once stopped to watch the sun rise or set. He had never bothered to study the stars in the sky or the ripples in water or the people on the street.

Now as a rurouni, he noticed all these things. The world surrounding him was fresh and striking. The gentle wind blew a swirl of sakura petals around him and he smiled, content. Perhaps he hadn't found all answers he was searching for but he did know that felt good to be alive.

The back roads of Kanazawa were silent. His worn sandals made soft thuds upon the hard-packed dirt as he looked around for a place where he could spend the night.

Abruptly, the languid feel of the dying afternoon was shattered by a woman's scream.

"STOP!! STOP THIEF!!! OI I SAID STOP DAMMIT!!!!"

From a side street spewed out a small man, running for all he was worth, a pink bag clutched in his hands. The thief glanced over his shoulder at the shrieking lady who was far behind him, tottering shakily in her getas.

"SSSTTTTOOOOOOOOPPPPPPPPPPP!!!"

Soujirou moved fluidly to block the man's path. "I don't think that bag is yours," he remarked, smiling.

The man gasped, coming to a halt. "Who the hell-"

He placed his hand on the hilt of his katana. "And I'm sure that you wouldn't want me to use this." Soujirou nodded to the bag. "Give it to me please and I won't hurt you."

The man looked at Soujirou and then looked at his katana. He looked over his shoulder at the lady who was clopping towards him, yelling obscenities and shaking her fist. Obviously the robber realized that his odds were not good.

He turned and fled, tossing the bag as he ran into the shadows.

Soujirou deftly caught the silken purse. "It's okay," he assured the lady, who had slowed from running to a fast trot. "I got your purse back."

"AHA!" A loud voice above them proclaimed.

Soujirou and the lady both looked up.

Standing dramatically on the roof of a closed pottery shop, framed by skies of pink and blue and orange, was...that girl. The one with the long braid and odd clothing who had been with Himura and Saitou in the Shingetsu village.

Lithely, she jumped down, her braid snaking around her. With theatrical flourish, she pointed an accusatory finger at him. "Tenken no Soujirou!" she bellowed, her voice swirling around the nearly empty street. "I should have known that you'd use your evil ways to rob a helpless woman! However I Makimachi Misao, will not let this pass! Defend yourself, smiling boy!"

Soujirou blinked. "Eh?"

The woman ignored Misao's noisy allegations and instead hurled herself onto Soujirou. "OH my HERO!" she sobbed melodramatically, burying her face into his gi. "I was SO frightened! The man was SO BIG and SO SCARY! There was SUCH terror in my BOUNTIFUL bosom! How can I EVER repay you?" She looked up at Soujirou with dry eyes and batted her lashes seductively. Said 'bountiful bosom' was pressed suggestively against his chest.

Soujirou smiled nervously, his face red. He didn't like the predatory gleam that was shining in the woman's eyes or the way she was rubbing against him. "Erm..."

"Don't you know who he is?" Misao demanded.

The woman glared at her. "I KNOW this DASHING young man SAVED my LIFE! So WHY don't you SHUT UP and SCRAM little GIRL?!"

"LITTLE GIRL??!!!" Misao hollered, outraged. "I'm seventeen dammit!"

The woman pointedly ignored Misao. "Why don't you stay with me tonight?" she purred, breathing hotly upon Soujirou's blushing cheek. "A worldly WOMAN like ME could teach a SEXY little boy like YOU a LOT of *interesting* things."

For the first time since his 'family' had tried to kill him, Seta Soujirou knew real terror. Blatantly stark horror. He was afraid. No, he was petrified.

He squirmed as the woman tried to slide her hand into his gi. "Um...your hand..." he flushed embarrassedly, hoping the brazen lady would get the hint.

"WHAT?!!!" Misao howled in disbelief. "You're propositioning the TENKEN?"

"I'm a rurouni now!" he cried, his smile faltering as he tried unsuccessfully to dislodge the woman's death grip around his neck. He was more than a little panicked.

"A RUROUNI! How sexy!!!" the woman squealed, nuzzling his neck. She tittered. "Is that a KATANA or are YOU just happy to see ME?"

Neither Soujirou nor Misao knew what that strange comment meant and neither wanted to find out.

"So you still have your katana eh?" Misao muttered, narrowing her eyes. "I just knew it!"

"Himura-san still has his katana," Soujirou gasped, reduced to shoving at the clingy woman draped over him.

"That's different!"

"How is it different?"

"BOY YOU UNHAND MY WIFE RIGHT NOW!!!"

Everyone turned to see a massive, burly man stomp onto the scene. Soujirou used the woman's surprise at seeing her husband to extricate himself from her clutches. ShiShiO's highest subordinate cowered behind Misao, his face apple red, smile more than a little bit strained.

"Why SNOOKUMS, this BRAVE young man RESCUED my PURSE from a MUGGER," she gushed, leering at the smiling, shaking boy. "We simply MUST thank HIM!"

"Oh I'll thank him," the beefy man growled. "I'll thank him right in the nose!"

"Hey watch it!" Misao scowled her hands fisting. She was unable to ignore this intrusion of justice. "He was only trying to help your stupid hussy of a wife! She's the one coming on to him you blind fool!"

"Stupid hussy?!" the woman shrieked. "How dare YOU call ME a stupid HUSSY!"

Misao glared, stalking towards her threateningly. "You are a stupid hussy! You're married to that lunk of meat over there and you still decided to come on to the Tenken when you're like an eon older than him!"

The woman glared back. "Are YOU calling me OLD little GIRL?"

"Ahahaha!" Soujirou laughed fearfully, rubbing at the back of his head. "Uh...it's getting very late and..."

"What's the matter pretty boy?" the man taunted. "Too afraid to fight like a *real* man? Or is that katana you've got there just for show?"

"Hey the Tenken could kick your ugly ass all the way to Wakkanai!!!" She nudged Soujirou sharply in the ribs. "Right Tenken? Right? HEY I SAID RIGHT!!!"

Soujirou cringed. Women, he decided, were very scary creatures. "Er...right, right!"

She shoved him towards the scowling man. "SO BEAT THE CRAP OUTTA HIM ALREADY!"

The man slammed his fist into his other hand. "Yeah, show me what you've got, pretty boy!"

"Oh don't HURT him HONEYCAKES!" the woman begged her husband. "He's ONLY a CUTE little BOY. If you wanna hurt SOMEONE, hurt that LOUD-MOUTHED BRAT over there!"

"LOUD MOUTHED BRAT??!!" Misao turned to Soujirou. "KICK HER ASS TOO!!!"

Soujirou looked around at all the angry faces. He smiled a shaky smile and began to hop up and down on one foot. He knew that this was definitely a time for his Shuku-Chi.

In a flash, quicker than the naked eye, he grabbed Misao and didn't stop running until he reached the outskirts of town, 4.826 seconds later.

Soujirou stopped beside a vacant rice field and let go of Misao. He was sweaty, not from the quick little sprint but from his encounter with that...leechy woman.

Disoriented, Misao sank to the ground and blinked. "What the hell?" She looked around. "Where are we?"

Soujirou shrugged, raking his bangs from his forehead. "As far away from that weird lady as I could get us." He cringed, still shaking. "Boy am I glad Yumi-san was never that crazy!"

"Gee, I knew you were fast but not that fast." Suddenly Misao jumped to her feet. "SHIT! Now they'll think we ran away!"

"We did run away," he replied, calming down. He was far away from that lady. She couldn't hurl herself on him anymore. He breathed a heavy sigh of relief.

Misao rounded on him and blasted a scathing glare his way. "How can you be so relaxed about this? We're cowards now! I don't wanna be a coward! Dammit, Makimachi Misao is NOT a coward! SO TAKE ME BACK AND WE'LL BEAT THOSE JERKS STRAIGHT INTO NEXT WEEK!!!!"

"We weren't being cowardly, we were just having some self-preservation," Soujirou explained, smiling. "Think about it. If I'd beaten that man then the lady would have wanted to thank me. She would have hugged me again." A shudder wracked his thin frame. "I don't think I could have handled that. She was scary!"

Misao stroked her chin. "Hmm, I see your point. I still would've liked to see you kick some ass but maybe another time."

He nodded, one little detail gnawing at the back of his mind. "Um...how come you suddenly defended me to that man? You didn't seem all that pleased to see me before."

"Oh that," Misao replied breezily. "Well I heard the screams and I saw you so naturally I assumed you were the thief. But of course you weren't and like you said, you're a rurouni now, not a bad guy. And then that big, ugly guy came along and demanded that you let go of his wife. I mean jeeze, gimme a break! Any idiot could see that she was holding onto you and not the other way around. It was an injustice for him to accuse you of coming on to his dumb wife and I'm a defender against injustices!" She bowed floridly. "Makimachi Misao at your service!"

His smile grew. Misao was unlike any other girl he'd ever met before. Well not that he'd met very many girls before but she was different. "As you know, I'm Seta Soujirou. But you don't have to call me 'Tenken' anymore. Those days are over."

She studied him with big, liquidy eyes. "So you really aren't a killer any longer."

"No."

"That's great!" she burst out, beaming. "Now c'mon, let's go find a decent place to stay!"

Soujirou stared at her. "Place to stay?" he echoed. "You're not thinking of..." he trailed off, shocked.

"Coming with you?" she finished, grinning. "And why not?"

"Why not?" he sputtered. "Because...shouldn't you be in Kyoto or something?"

"Well yeah, but I kinda got broke. So I figured I could stay with you until I thought of something." Misao grabbed his shoulders and stuck her face an inch from his own. "You guys *DID* total my Aoiya, didn't you? So you *DO* owe me, right?"

He quickly pulled away from the glaring girl. "Well I suppose..."

Misao clapped her hands gleefully. "So it's settled then! I'm coming with you. Let's go!" She turned and began to walk down the path towards the city.

"Erm...it's not quite that simple Misao-san..."

She whirled around, blue eyes flashing as her voice took on a dire tone. "What's not quite that simple?" she demanded coldly.

Soujirou rubbed at the back of his head and smiled sheepishly. "Well actually, I'm broke too."

"WHAT?!!!!!"

He clamped his hands together in a prayer-like gesture and bowed at her in rapid succession. "I apologize! I'm sorry, Misao-san!"

"How the hell can you be broke?" Misao shrieked, her face turning an interesting purple color.

"Being a rurouni pays...well nothing!"

"SHIT!" Misao grabbed him by the collar of his gi. "Why didn't you steal that hussy's purse if you knew that you had no money left?!!!"

Soujirou struggled to keep smiling. And here people thought ShiShiO-san was unpredictable and frightening. They obviously didn't know Misao. "That would be an injustice. You yourself said that you defended against injustices, didn't you?"

"SHIT!" She cursed some more before letting go of him. "So what are we going to do now? We've got no money, no food, no shelter, no nothing! This sucks!"

"It's not as bad as that," Soujirou said soothingly. "I've been broke for a couple weeks now and I've survived. I'm sure we can find a barn to sleep in."

Misao shuddered. "Barns have spiders and I hate spiders. Therefore I hate barns too!"

Soujirou shrugged. "Well sleeping in a barn is better than sleeping on a street."

"I can't believe that I'm reduced to this," Misao wailed. "I'll never get back to Kyoto at this rate!"

"I'm sure that we'll figure something out."

There was a silence as they headed down the path in search of a place to stay.

"Misao-san? How did you lose your money anyways?" he wondered curiously.

"I didn't lose it," Misao muttered, her expression dark. "Some guy took it all! He said that I broke his roof. Well was it my fault that his house was thatched poorly?"

"What were you doing on his roof?" he asked innocently.

Obviously it was a touchy subject. "NONE OF YOUR DAMN BUSINESS!!!!"

Soujirou's smile nearly blew off his face. "Maa, maa calm down Misao-san!"

"DON'T PATRONIZE ME SMILING BOY!!!"

~~*~*~*~~

After a little hunt, Misao and Soujirou finally found a rickety barn to stay in. They both settled down into the coarse hay.

"Don't even think about sneezing," Misao warned, squirming in the hay as she tried to get comfortable. "You might blow this dump straight apart."

Soujirou rested his head upon his bag of meager belongings and laughed. Misao's complainings were actually quite amusing. He decided that he liked her. She was friendly and kind, when she wasn't angry that is. Her temper bordered on volcanic.

"This barn is a lot nicer than some of the other barns I've slept in," he mused, staring up at the roof. He could see the stars twinkling through the cracks.

"You know, Himura said that you were going to find your own answers from now on," Misao remarked, her voice soft. "Have you found anything yet, Soujirou-kun?"

"Actually I have." He braced himself on one elbow and looked over at her. "I discovered that I'm glad to be alive. I'm free now. Himura-san was right. Deep inside, killing always did bother me. When he used his ougi on me, that truth came to the surface. I understand now that there's so much more to life." A far-off smile crossed his features as a memory floated to the surface. "When I was in Shizuoka I played with children. They were so small and full of life. I discovered then that I like children. I think...I think that it's these tiny memories that matter the most and they can erase all evils of the past and heal a broken spirit."

"Do you really think so?" Her voice was hopeful, eyes distant.

"Well I don't really know anything Misao-san," he admitted quietly. "I'm still figuring things out and I'm a long way from finding the truth. But...I can hope can't I?"

"Aa." She grinned suddenly. "You know, you aren't so bad. I'm sorry that I accused you of being a robber. Actually, you're kinda cool!"

A strange warmth puddled over him at Misao's unexpected compliment. No one had ever complimented the new, rurouni Soujirou before. "You're very nice too Misao-san." He blushed into the darkness that swam around them. "I'm grateful for your company. Before, I was always with ShiShiO-san and Yumi-san so I'm really not used to being alone. It's nice to have someone to talk to again."

"Don't worry," she reassured him. "After we get some money, you can come and stay with me in Kyoto if you want to."

Her generous offer brought a genuine smile to his face. "That's very kind of you but I doubt I'd be welcome. Afterall, we were the ones who destroyed your Aoiya."

"That big monster destroyed it not you," Misao contradicted, sitting up. "Besides, I'm the Okashira of the Oniwa Banshuu so I can do whatever I want to!"

Soujirou bolted upright. "You're the Okashira?" he blurted out. "What happened to Shinomori Aoshi?" He goggled at her, unable to imagine the stony, silent man relinquishing his title to Misao.

"After Aoshi-sama left us to join you and ShiShiO, I took over his position," she murmured, hugging her knees to her chest. She looked childishly vulnerable at that moment, as old pain clouded her expressive eyes. "Being a part of the Oniwa Banshuu means everything to me. It always has and it always will. Even if… even if he doesn't..." her voiced cracked.

"I'm sorry Misao-san," he whispered softly, guilt sweeping over him.

"No," she cried hastily. "No. I'm just being silly." She smiled at him. "You said yourself that new memories could heal a wounded spirit right? That's what I've been doing ever since Aoshi-sama came home. One day he'll forgive himself and then I know he'll smile for me."

"ShiShiO-san gave me the task of bringing Aoshi to our side," he told her quietly, staring down at his lap. "I used his desire to fight Himura to make him join us. I apologize."

Misao touched his shoulder gently. "That's all in the past," she replied firmly. "Mistakes are made and we learn from them. We don't have to worry about all that anymore because everything turned out for the best. We can still make new memories, right?"

Soujirou smiled, her words enveloping him into a hug of warmth and acceptance. "Aa."

"So let's get some sleep. Tomorrow we have the big task of finding some money!"

He nodded, falling back into the hay "Good night Misao-san," he murmured peacefully.

"Good night Soujirou-kun."