Teaser:  One reaching the end of his life.  The other just learning how to live.  Two warriors discuss the past and the future.

No longer Battousai but not yet the lovable Rurouni.  A quick meeting in year one of the Meiji era. 

All respective rights belong to Nobuhiro Watsuki-sama.

***

Questions Left Unanswered

By April-san

The place had the rancid stink of death. 

Beyond the smell of pestilence, the sound of coughs, beyond the sight of hopelessness in people's eyes, there was nothing here to live for.  So little hope.

His first instinct was to leave, to avoid this place of pestilence.  No one would know he had been there. 

Yet, he knew he had to come.  There were just too many unresolved issues.  He had questions, so many questions even after two years of wandering, and the only place he vaguely anticipated answers was here.  Anyone else who would understand the questions was already dead.

The building was single level with about twenty rooms.  "To separate the patients," a nurse told him, a white cloth mask covering her mouth.  "That way, those who get better do not get re-infected by those who remain ill.  Less than one of four get better.  Only those with strong will fully recover."

Those without past demons.

Politely, he refused the offered mask, much to the nurse's surprise.  He would speak to him warrior to warrior, without any barriers to their communication.  The slightest change of air between them would speak louder than any spoken word, and Kenshin did not wish to lose any meaning.

"The three men who usually come to see him have not visited for a very long time," she spoke as she led him down the dark corridor.  Her eyes met his.  "You would not happen to have any news?"

He took a breath.  "Yes.  They-"

"I do not wish to hear it," she quickly cut him off.  "You will keep such news to yourself.  His health has been fading all winter long.  He is so weak he cannot stand without help.  News of…them may break his spirit, the only thing keeping him alive."

The red-haired man blinked at the passion with which she spoke and slowly nodded his agreement.

She lowered her head.  "Forgive my hasty words.  He is…has brought so many people here hope and happiness, just with a smile and a joke.  I would do anything to keep him from harm."

The room was small and sparsely decorated.  A few mundane possessions rested on a plain table.  The shoji was thrown wide, allowing bright sunshine to illuminate the dim room.  Yet, dark shadows remained and hid in the corners.

In the middle of the room, resting quietly on a futon, the young man's face was buried in the blankets.

The first thing Kenshin noticed was the other's samurai topknot was gone.  The young man's hair had been cut to the nape of his neck, giving him a foreign appearance.  He then realized how thin the young man's arms were, the arms desperately holding the blankets to his chest and struggling for every breath. 

Dropping to her knees, the nurse gently shook the exposed shoulder.  "Sou-kun?  Sou-kun, wake up.  You have a visitor."

A pale face, framed by the short brunette hair, emerged from the blankets.  His brown eyes sparkled on his youthful visage and he smiled, unaware of a small trail of blood falling from a corner of his mouth.  "Aa?"

She smiled back at him with her eyes and wiped the blood from his lip with a wet cloth.  "You have a visitor."

His face twisted in confusion but, as his gaze rose to meet a lavender one, his smile fell and he slowly nodded.  "Thank you."  He turned his head and, with a swift movement, he captured a handkerchief at the side of his futon and brought it to his lips.

With a nod, the nurse rose to her feet and left the room.

"Konnichiwa."  The young man looked deeply into the other's face.  "Battousai-san."

"Okita Soushi…san."

His name seemed to brighten his entire air.  "I'm known as Soujirou here.  It-"  He turned to cough into the handkerchief.  "It is…less known."

The red-haired man just nodded.

"Are…are you here to kill me?"  Okita asked with ease, the brightness never fading from his expression. 

"Iie."

The smile returned to the pale face.  "I didn't think so, but I had to make certain."  Again, he turned to cover his cough, the smile never leaving his face.  "Yet, you still carry a sword.  Is killing that difficult to give up?"

"I…cannot kill."  He drew his sword a hand-width and showed it to the young man on the futon.  "I made a vow."

"Sakabatou?  You certainly surprise me, Battousai-san."  His youthful face tilted.  "So, why have you come…if not for revenge on an enemy?"  Yet again, he turned and coughed, running his already bloody sleeve across his mouth.

"Himura."

Okita blinked.  "Ara?"

"My name is Himura Kenshin."

"Hi…mura…san."  His mouth seemed to work around the name.  Again, the kind smile returned.  "I am sorry.  I never thought of you as anything other than Battousai."  He swallowed.  "Just another enemy to defeat."

The red-head turned to look out the open shoji.  "I felt the same."

"Then," he spoke almost cheerfully, "We are of similar thoughts.  Himura-san, may I ask you a question?  When was the last time you smiled?"

What?  Smiled?  What the…?  The lavender eyes grew wide.  "O…Oro…?"

The reaction to the simple question was instantaneous.  Laughter echoed through the room, which all too quickly turned to harsh coughs.   "Sumimasen, Himura-san," he finally spoke after catching his breath.  "It…it appears to me you take yourself a little too seriously."

"Eh?"

"It is okay.  I can see you are uncomfortable in this place.  It is as it should be.  No man…"  Again, he coughed and ran his reddened sleeve across his lips.  "No man should feel comfortable with death.  Especially not here." 

"I am not afraid of death."

Okita's eyes grew wide and the smile finally fell.  "Oh?  I am.  I am terrified.  Every time I faced you, faced any opponent, I did not want to die.  Even if it was for one more day, I just wanted to live.  Even, now…"  He brought the handkerchief to his lips to cough.  "My death is inevitable.  Yet, I keep living every day to the fullest."

Kenshin closed his eyes, trying to find the words in his confused mind.  "I…I am wandering.  Searching.  To find my answers.  To seek redemption for what I have done."

"Redemption?"  He shook his head.  "There is nothing you have done which requires forgiveness."

His hands clenched.  "The people I have killed.  I-"

"You believed in what you did.  You fought for your ideal.  There is no dishonor in that."

How did those brown eyes seem to read him so well?  "There were other means."

"Looking back, we can see all our mistakes.  In the middle of conflict…it is much more difficult to see the entire picture.  We trust that to others."  His eyes did not stray from the other's face.  "You have regrets."

"Yes."

"I…If things were different I…I would have liked to journey with you.  To find our answers."  Cough.  "To seek forgiveness.  I think…"  He took a breath.  "I think we could have been friends in different circumstances.  You seem…very much like myself.  If you could smile more."  An attack suddenly hit him and the young man did not stop coughing for many long moments.

Concern must have shown on the younger man's face for Okita's smile only grew.

"Let me tell you something, Himura-san.  It is good to die like this."

"Nani?"

"If I survive the battle today, no one will have lost their life.  If I don't, blood is only on my hands."  Cough.  "This is a gentle, peaceful way to leave this world.  I have lived a full life."

"How can you call this peaceful?"

"I admit I would have preferred to die in my bed as an old man, my family around me.  However, this is better than watching my blood spill onto the white snow.  After living a life of such violence, this is a very serene means of dying."

Kenshin slowly nodded.  "I think I understand."

"Do you?"  He closed his eyes, as if speaking in itself was draining him.  For long moments, the only thing heard in that small room was the wheezing sound of strong resolve.  "I…I have learned," Okita finally spoke, "one does have a choice in the end.  To die by the sword or…not to."

"I admit I do not understand that."

Was there sadness in those brown eyes?  "Merely something to be discovered.  Just remember it is a good thing to live, Himura-san."

"Aa," he spoke a little uncertainly.

Moments slowly passed as the young man gathered himself, the handkerchief held to his lips now soaked in blood.  "Himura-san?  Himura-san…what day…is it today?  I always…"  Another cough.  "I always lose track of the days.  What season is it?"

Kenshin turned to the open shoji, where warm, moist spring air drifted into the stale room.  "May," he spoke softly.  "Almost June.  Spring…is almost over."

Okita closed his eyes, the smile never leaving his lips.  "Aa.  Now I can feel it.  It doesn't seem so cold anymore."  He slowly gazed into the other's face.  "Are you still cold, Himura-san?"

He opened his mouth with a sharp denial, but, instead, allowed his breath to escape.  "Hai," he spoke, the concurrence almost inaudible.

"Then, you should continue on your journey.  I…"  A soft cough.  "I hope you find what you're looking for.  I am sorry I could not help you with your questions.  But…"  Another cough and another soft smile.  "But, I believe, your journey is just as important as the answers to your questions."  He paused and turned his head.  "Promise me…promise me you will not break your vow.  Promise me…you will not kill," he spoke, a hint of desperation in his voice.

"I…promise…"

"And…"  The young man turned back to his visitor, the smile became a broad grin.  "Promise me you will smile more."

"O…oro?"  It took him a moment to respond, not expecting such words from the mouth of the squad one Shinsengumi Captain.  "Hai.  I promise."  A small smile appeared on his lips.  "Thank you, Okita-san."

"No.  Thank you, Himura-san.  I think…I think I can rest knowing…you are still here."  He started to cough and he quickly brought the handkerchief to his face.  "I am sorry.  I get so tired lately…"

From the expression on the young man's face, Okita did not expect the former Battousai to bow so respectfully.  "I will take your leave now."

"Sayonara Himura-san.  I believe…"  Cough.  "I believe we will not meet again in this world."  He then closed his brown eyes, the smile lingering on his thin lips.

"Goodbye…Okita Soushi-san."

Kenshin stepped from the walls which held death just moments later.  He hesitated and closed his eyes.  For the first time, perhaps, he actually felt the warmth against his pale cheeks.  A scent of wet grass and plum flower mingled in the air.  The sweet song of a bird drifted on the wind.

It is a good thing to live, Himura-san…

After pausing for yet another long moment, Kenshin took a step, the first of many in his search for life…

Fin

Author's notes:  For Okita…

I thought it was sort of interesting when I realized Kenshin and Okita died similar deaths…

There certainly is not much information on TB in early Meiji era Japan.  *sigh*

The three men the nurse spoke of would have been Kondo, Hijikata, and Saitou, all of the Shinsengumi.  I kept thinking that these three would continue to visit Okita, even after he was hopitalized.  At this time, Kondo had been executed, Hijikata would be soon killed by a stray bullet, and Saitou would quietly disappear into society.

I would like to thank Akai for helping me keep the creative juices flowing with her wit and humor.  Thank you so much, Akai.  I don't know what I would do without you.

I would also like to thank everyone who leaves a review. 

And, I would finally like to thank my muse, who has finally stopped his cowering in the corner. 

I'll try something a little more up-beat for my next one.  *threatens muse*  Did you hear that?!  I said up-beat!  =P