"There's something I want to tell you all... about this battle... from the beginning."
I was crouched on the rooftop, hidden from view. The cold night breeze whipped past me, tugging at my threadbare gi. Peering into the darkness below, I made out shadows, nothing more. The alley was quiet. I extended my senses. They were coming. I knew it, even before I heard the soft scuff of their sandals, or saw the faint light, cast from a solitary lantern.
The lamp was carried by a single man, and as they came into view, I saw he was also the youngest. With detached curiosity, I studied him. He was tall, much taller than me, and older by a few years. His features were straight, and fine; his bearing aristocratic. I suppose 'handsome' is the right word.
Already I knew he posed me no threat. He was not the target. The man I was to kill walked behind. It was unfortunate for the young man; there was no way I would allow him to escape after he witnessed the impending massacre.
Truly the wrong place at the wrong time.
Do not think. It was dangerous to think.
They were talking to each other as they walked, oblivious to the fact that I stood only a few metres away, watching them.
"Kiyosato, you're going to be married next month, aren't you?"
I froze. His name was Kiyosato.
You cannot afford to think. It is not allowed.
"That's right," Kiyosato smiled. His companion grinned; he was obviously fond of the young man. "Marrying your childhood sweetheart... You lucky dog."
"Thank you." They were now walking side by side. They did not hear me as I leapt off the roof. Kiyosato paused for a moment, surprising me. For a split second I thought he had heard me. But that was impossible.
"But I cannot help worrying," he continued, not realising I was now standing behind them with my hand on the hilt of my sword. "In these troubled times, why should I..."
There was a brief instant in which I felt utterly horrified, absolutely terrified at what I was going to do.
"In this world, everyone's trying to find a little happiness."
I crushed the feeling with ruthless control, pushing it down deep within myself.
"If we make a new age through this work of ours, then that's the form that it should take."
No more. It was time to end this. I had a job to do after all. It was time to act, because they were walking away again. A few more steps and…
"You must be Shigekura Jubei." I was surprised at how cold my voice sounded, but I ignored that thought as well. Instead I stared at them as they turned. It pains me greatly to imagine what they must have seen in my eyes at that moment. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps that is why they seemed so terrified.
The man in the centre was my target. Not Kiyosato, not the large man on the left, but Shigekura Jubei of the Kyoto Shoshidai.
As he turned around, the colour draining from his face, I realised he was nothing more than an old man. Frail and defenseless, he never stood a chance.
I did not want to do this.
I had to do this.
They could not move; my sudden appearance had shocked them; frightened them. They were frozen with nervous tension and I had seen their expressions far too often on the faces of other men. Could they read death so clearly in my eyes?
It did not matter. I steeled myself.
"Though I bear you no grudge, for the sake of the new era I must have your deaths." It was the closest that I could come to an apology, but none of them would ever realise it. All they could do was stare. Kiyosato appeared the most shaken of the three. The other two men were a little more experienced; a little more hardened. Kiyosato hadn't even been able to take up a defensive stance.
He was sweating; he was shaking. Poor Kiyosato.
It had to be done.
"Who are you?" demanded Shigekura's guard, breaking the deadly silence. I had marked him as an experienced fighter the moment I saw him. He started to glare at me, but could only manage a glance before averting his eyes. My expression did not change one whit.
"Choshuu Ishin Shishi," I told them, seeing horrified recognition dawn in their eyes. "Himura Battousai."
Three hands fell to three sword hilts. They knew what to do.
Fight or die.
The big man; the bodyguard, was the first to draw his sword. He was also the first to die. A single upwards stroke of my katana meant that for a split second it rained blood. He had been slow, I thought absently as I felt the warm wetness on my hands. Shigekura was next in line. He would die. It was already decided, and in that instant, I think he must have become resigned to his fate, for as I bore down on him he did not move; did not bother to fight back; just stared at me with bulging eyes.
I aimed for the head, thrusting my blade downwards, going through the final motions of a ryu tsui sen which ended in a violent spray of blood and the corpse of Shigekura falling to the ground. I did not bother to look back. He was dead, that was all that mattered.
I hadn't yet finished.
Kiyosato Akira had been unfortunate to be with them. Now he was backed up against a wall, trembling.
"Sh... Shigekura-san!" he yelled in disbelief. "Ishiji-san!" They were dead and Kiyosato's life was slipping through his hands.
I ran forward. It would be a quick kill.
"Gah!" To my surprise he blocked. I had come against him with lightning speed, and he had blocked. I looked up into his eyes and saw, for the first time, the true measure of his spirit.
But spirit alone cannot save a man from death. Too bad for Kiyosato.
"Give up," I told him, trying to impose my will. For a moment, I thought I had succeeded.
No such luck. Here was a tougher opponent than any I had faced in a long time. Our blades were still locked, so I twisted my sword, reversing the direction of the thrust. Caught off guard, Kiyosato stumbled backwards. He corrected his stance and lifted his head to glare at me. It was almost with regret that I attacked him again.
He had to die.
Our blades met with a soft clang. He was managing to block my attacks through sheer effort of will more than anything else. Kiyosato might not have been as accomplished a swordsman as my other two victims, but he had outlasted them by far.
This was cruel, too cruel. I decided to end it. He was pale, and sweat was streaming down his face. I was not even breathing heavily. It was too unfair.
"Ooooh!" He charged at me; perhaps he had been thinking the same thing. All I knew at that moment was that I could kill him. I did not move much, just stepped out of the way and angled my blade downwards, making a smooth, killing stroke.
Kiyosato's charge faltered. I became aware of my heart, the beats slow and even. Time slowed, etching the expression on his face into my mind. The world froze into stiff lines, drawn with terrible clarity. As I followed through, I became aware of a strange, burning sensation... pain.
He fell to the ground, but I did not really notice, for I was too preoccupied with the single vertical slash which had appeared on my cheek. Kiyosato had wounded me? I hadn't noticed. Amazing, that his blade could even reach me. I looked down at my opponent who was now sprawled on the ground, framed by a splash of red.
He had... cut me? Tentatively, I brought my hand up to the wound and the sudden pain, the warm feel of blood, made me think.
Poor Kiyosato. He hadn't stood a chance against me in this life. It really was unfair...
No. I shouldn't think like that. Not ever. Act, don't think.
It had been necessary.
Refusing to look at the slain Kiyosato any longer, I turned on my heel and walked away.
"Die... don't want to... die..."
I thought I heard something, but then I shook my head. Kiyosato was dead. I was just imagining things.
Don't, I told myself, strangling my emotions.
It was necessary.
He was going to marry her.
"I... would have loved her... forever..."
Still alive? Surely...
I spun around and without hesitation plunged my blade deep into his chest. His words... I didn't realise it at the time, but I had wanted them to stop. Terrible words. The mutterings of a dying man pierced me more deeply than any sword could.
Enough. My sword was stained crimson with blood. He was dead. The cut on my cheek... it hurt.
Enough. I turned around, sensing that there was someone around the corner, watching me. Two people, full of nervous ki. They stepped into view, and I recognised two of my Ishin 'minders'.
"We've come to check," said one of them as I wiped my sword. I nodded.
"Thank you for examining them." My tone was polite, but distant. There was no room for conversation between us and I turned to leave. The minder's eyes widened suddenly as he stared at my face.
"Your cheek!" he exclaimed. "It's..."
I glared at him. "It's nothing."
"But he reached your face with a sword... He must have been very good."
I shook my head at his lack of understanding. He hadn't seen the look in Kiyosato Akira's eyes.
"No. His skill itself was nothing." The two men looked at me as if I was utterly mad; they had not been expecting this. "But his will to live..." I sheathed my sword with a barely audible click, "was incredible." I turned my back on them, wanting to get away from that place. The smell of blood... it was becoming too much for me to bear. "I'll leave the rest to you."
It was too much...
Almost as an afterthought, I glanced back at Kiyosato's dead body. A strange regret washed over me; regret that I couldn't have known him as something other than an enemy. Remorse came also, but I only allowed myself that feeling for a second. Kiyosato had not been a proficient swordman, but his spirit... that had burned more fiercely than any skill of his.
"May you find happiness in your next life," I murmured. It was all I could say.
It had been necessary.
It was done.
"Did you say something?" My minders truly were on edge, tense and listening for everything and anything. I was a little surprised that they had even heard me.
"No." I did not even bother to look back. "It was nothing."
A few faint snippets of their conversation continued to drift to me on the breeze as I walked away.
"...will to live... tell that just by crossing swords with someone..."
"...killed them all without even blinking..."
"...he really is a hitokiri..."
Terrible words, painful words.
I pretended that I hadn't heard, for their sakes, and for myself. To do otherwise would be madness, and anyway, it was done. I walked away as if nothing had happened, but inside I was screaming.
Kaoru looked up, meeting Sano's eyes. He nodded once, reassuring her. Her gaze shifted to Megumi, who was stiff, and pale.
They were horrified.
Not of Kenshin, but of what he had just told them; of what he had done. For a while he had plunged them into a terrifying, bloody world. Kaoru had heard stories of the Hitokiri Battousai, but never, ever from Kenshin's own mouth. Somehow, hearing the words from the man himself; her rurouni, was much, much worse than any old wives tale could ever be. It was worse, because of the pain in his voice.
She had not imagined, after so many years, that Kenshin's wounds could still be so raw. But now she realised that they had not healed at all. He had just kept them well bound.
Oh, Kenshin. Kaoru looked at him, but he would not meet her eyes. Poor Kenshin.
She had thought, she had imagined, and she had wondered about him, but never, not in a million years, had she known it would be like this. Far, far more disturbing however, was the realisation that this was only the beginning of Kenshin's story. But why with such a bloody, disturbing moment? Kaoru realised, with growing dread, that nothing good was going to come of this...
But what could possibly be worse?
Kaoru realised that her hands had become very cold, and she clasped them together, shivering.
What had happened between Kenshin and Tomoe? Surely he didn't really mean that...
The wife that I killed with my own hands.
Surely it was just a figure of speech; it hadn't really been Kenshin's fault. The words were just an expression of his guilt.
Kaoru looked at Kenshin again and became very still. It was possible.
Kenshin… killed Tomoe-san?