Disclaimer: The Rurouni Kenshin characters, setting, and themes are owned by Nobuhiro Watsuki and Shonen Jump Comics.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~ Chapter 1: Hyotokko ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



"Wake up. You are in danger."

My eyes burst open as my hand slammed down on the floor next to me, instantly gripping my sheathed twin kodachi. As I pulled it upwards quickly, I flicked my finger, causing the sheath to fly across the room. My heart beat rapidly as I scanned the room quickly for my opponent, trying to hear the sounds of an oncoming attack over my rapid breath.

No. No one.

Of course. This is how I had been waking up for the past two years. In fact, there were several small dents on the wall of my room in the Aoiya from my kodachis' sheath hitting the wall. A sane person would tell you that this could be solved by not keeping my kodachi by my bedside. A sane person would be able to -sleep- without his hand resting on a weapon.

I am not a sane person.

I sat up, quickly discerning what needed to be done. Things must be orderly, you see, so that you can keep a tight control on them. Things which are done out of order lead to chaos. Chaos leads to confusion. We can not have confusion. That would be the scissors cutting the thread that holds all things together.

First, get dressed.

Not hard to accomplish. One of my ninja uniforms is folded neatly on a chair. I haven't the slightest clue how, but it is always there, folded on the chair in the morning. My trenchcoat is on the hook where I left it. It has seven pockets, you know? Two of them hidden. I fetch my kodachi sheath, the smaller of the pair still inside, and hook it on my belt. Lastly I find my...where is it? Oh no. Oh no. It has to be here somewhere. There, on the small western dresser. A small copper sundial on a leather band. Excellent. Complete.

Second, go directly to the temple.

This can only be accomplished successfully if I am the only one awake. Otherwise, someone will stop me and attempt to hold a conversation. If it is Misao, she will somehow get me to come to breakfast. She'll talk so fast and grab my hand, and before I know it, I will be sitting at breakfast with the others. But, this morning, it is only Okon.

"Aoshi-sama. Good morning."

I ignore her. Maybe, if I can just coldly ignore her presence, I can get to the temple without incident. Maybe she will not speak again. Please don't let her speak again.

"Will you be coming to breakfast, or will you be going directly to hell, you pathetic excuse for an Okashira?"

I turn on one heel and stare at her.

"What did you say?"

"I asked if you would be coming to breakfast, Misao collected some wonderful blackberries in the forest yesterday." Okon smiles meekly as she positions her body behind a wooden column a bit, as if worried I might attack.

I turn back around. Of course. Of course Okon would not say something like that to me. I remind myself for the thousandth time that the Aoiya is not a den of conspirators trying to cause my insanity. I leave without ever answering her question.


Third, meditate.

Meditation, contrary to popular belief, never came easily to me. When I was younger, the Okashira would force me to meditate every day. "You have too much fire, Aoshi," he would say, "If you can not control it, it will burn up your soul." How right he had been.

Hyottoko sits down next to me. This is how it starts. This is the battle I face every day.

"Oi. Aoshi-sama, I'm hungry. Is it lunchtime yet?"

'No,' I think in reply. I do not dare to look at him. I know if I look, he will look exactly like he did the moment he died. I can tell without even looking that Hannya is sitting on my other side, and Beshimi is crouched on a ceiling beam. Shikijo is elsewhere in the room, laying on his back, stroking the scars on his face in thought.

This is how it has been since they died. Strangely, the only place they are -supposed- to be, at their graves, is the only place they would never go. I haven't the heart to tell them to go away. It is my punishment, isn't it, to be haunted? They will never talk, I know, about what happened. They don't seem to remember. Really, it is infuriating, but quite better than the alternative. When I become angry enough to banish them, they are replaced...replaced with the ghosts of all those I slaughtered after my four friends died. Ghosts I can not so easily control, who scream epithet after epithet, who conjure visions of widows and orphans crying, who nudge me towards my kodachi, whispering sweetly that I may join them if I wish silence.

"I sure could go for some of Omasu's cooking," Hyottoko tries again. The guy always could pack away food. Rice especially. He said it soaked up any invasive chemicals he might accidentally swallow. Absently, I wonder if you get food in the afterlife.

"Hyo, Aoshi-sama is trying to think," Hannya explains quietly. Well, at least Hannya is on my side. Today, anyway. Yesterday he was trying to convince me that we needed girlfriends. Yeah. A bit hard to explain to a girl that you want her to date the ghost of your dead friend, Hannya.

"That so, Aoshi-sama?" Beshimi asked, "Hey. What are you thinking about? We have a mission soon? Let us help plan!"

That's Beshimi for you. He may not look like much, but the guy has...had...a mind like a steel trap. He loved puzzles. I remember once he made an actual wooden replica of the Aoiya, and then cut it carefully into 50 different pieces and gave it to Misao to reassemble.

Anyway, I can't tell them that I am thinking about the fact that they are -dead- and should not be sitting here talking to me. If I do, then poof, they are gone and will be replaced by even more frightening visions.

'I'm thinking about...' My telepathic explanation is cut off by my last friend, the reserved Shikijo. You wouldn't know it to see him in battle, but he really is quite sensitive, though sparing with words.. Always picking up on the thoughts of others.

"Misao-chan. He's thinking about how much he missed Misao-chan."

So. These are my friends. My four dead friends. Ghosts to which I can not apologize. Beshimi, the clever and quick-witted one. Shikijo, the sensitive rock. Hyottoko, so simple and genial, always smiling. And Hannya, my oldest and most trusted companion.

I had thought that maybe, just maybe, when I finally defeated Himura, they would rest. They would accept my apology vanish but -without- leaving me to the demons. But, I know now that isn't what they wanted. I just wish I knew...how to let them rest.


"Oh. Look at the pretty ninja girl who just came into the room," Hyottoko says gleefully as I continue to try to meditate.

"That's Misao-chan, Hyo! I tell you that every day," Beshimi explains.

"Not so "chan" anymore, ne?" Hannya replies, standing up to walk next to Misao. "Good gracious. I wonder how many kunai she throws now."

'Fourteen,' I say mentally, not opening my eyes. Though, I am not exactly sure how I know that. Have I seen her throw her kunai, recently? How do I know that?

"So many?" Beshimi queries, "How can that be?"

Misao sets the tea down on a nearby low table silently. She pours it and sets a solitary cup in front of me. I know she will wait, wait until I open my eyes and drink it. I'd really rather not. Opening my eyes means seeing my dead friends.

But, I do so anyway.

"Misao." I intone.

This is her cue to immediately start talking.

"Oh. Aoshi-sama. You will -never- guess what happened today. Guess. No don't guess, because you will -never- guess. I found out that Omasu has a boyfriend!"

There is a collective gasp from my undead friends, except for Shikijo, who takes it all in stride.

"He better be a good sort," Hannya says in a low voice, "If anyone tries to take advantage of our Omasu..."

"Shh. Shh..." Hyotokko implores, "I wanna hear what Misao-chan has to say."

"And you will never guess who it is! Its Gouko from the Hashinisasareru clan. Oh, I adore him. Remember him, Aoshi-sama? He's the guy who used to bring us those special wax candles that kept away the insects during the spring."

The Hashinisasareru clan are the Oniwabanshu's oldest ninja allies. They have a remarkable rapport with insects, and Beshimi used to get the special poison for his darts from them. Their headquarters is far to the north, but they generally station a few of their operatives here in Kyoto.

"Oh. I remember Gouko. Smart kid. Pretty decent ninja, too," Hannya remarks. I sip my tea, my mind whirling with all this conversation, my face as impassive as possible, so as not to alarm Misao to the fact that ...once again...we are having tea with ghosts.

As Misao goes on and on, I listen to her voice, but hardly to the words. It coats me, like a breeze, gently playing on my skin. The tea feels wonderful sliding against my tongue. Amazing. Despite all the horrors of my mind, I get a gentle reprieve every day at tea time. I feel like a prisoner being led out into the yard for a few moments, reveling in a few feet of sunshine.

But, I can not keep her here. Because I can not control her. Control, as I said before, is the most important thing. And, if Misao is anything, she is chaos. If I am fire, like my old Okashira used to say, then she is wind, capricious and intangible. Fire can be controlled, put to use, but wind can rarely be captured.

Besides, the longer she stays, the longer I have to see my friends. The longer I watch them, the closer I get to losing it, to banishing them. And then...and then...

I just don't want Misao to be around when that happens.

Misao has long since stopped talking. I finish my tea and place the cup on the floor in front of me. Misao scoops it up quietly and takes it back to the trey, readying herself to leave.



"Will you be coming to dinner this evening?"

"No," I reply, much to Hyottoko's despair.

"Ah." She doesn't even implore like she used to do when I first came back. Misao picks up the trey and heads for the door as quietly as possible.

"Misao. Wait."

The diminutive girl turns her head slightly and smiles at me over her shoulder, "Yes, Aoshi-sama?"

"How many kunai do you throw now?"

"Fourteen," she replies, "Why do you ask?"

"That's absolutely amazing!" Hannya stutters. Beshimi agrees in a slight murmur, "I can't believe it. She used to only be able to do six!"

"We should go watch her train," Shikijo mentions.

"Your Okashira wishes to inspect your technique," I cover quickly. "I will be coming to watch you train this evening."

My dead friends are absolutely delighted. Misao, on the other hand, looks mortified.


I remember it clearly. Misao was only five, but she already had decided she was going to be the best ninja ever. To pacify her, and supposedly help her achieve this goal, Beshimi and I taught her how to spy on people. You do not understand what a terrible decision this was, as the entire autumn was filled with frightening moments of Misao popping up in the most unlikely places at the most inopportune times. Of course, I could always sense her presence, but some of the other Oniwabanshu, ones less accomplished in sensing non-warrior ki, had the living daylights scared out of them.

At the time, I secretly thought it was hilarious that a mere child of five could upset an accomplished group of ninjas so easily.

"Aieeeeeeeee!" Omasu squealed, finding Misao squished into a kitchen cupboard.

"MAKIMACHI MISAO!" Okina rumbled, finding her in a bush in his garden.

"Damnit Misao!" Shiro exclaimed, finding her hiding behind a tall pile of futons and covers.

But, one day in late October, Misao pulled her most infamous stunt of all. She waited for almost an hour in a tree above where Hyottoko practiced. I'd seen him earlier that week, and noted that he'd been getting pretty good with his directional fire-breathing. Before, he'd been able just to do fireballs in front of him, but with practice, he'd slowly been learning to track targets with his fire, a harder proposition than you might think, when you can barely see your quarry running due to the flames in front of you.

After he finished, he sat resting under the tree, not even noticing Misao-chan. When she jumped down on his chest, she did so with just enough force that it depressed his lungs and caused him to exhale a tiny lick of flame. Thankfully, however, she had jumped down facing -away- from Hyottoko, and his flame only singed off the end of her ponytail and burned the back of her left ear. (No one realizes it except me, but this is why she keeps her bangs so long, to hide the scar. She thinks her left ear is deformed, but it has healed to look quite normal.)

Nonetheless, Hyottoko was livid. I swear that man screamed louder than Misao. We all told him that she would be fine, and she was. Misao was back up and bouncing around (with a bandaged ear and a slightly shorter ponytail) in just a matter of hours.

But Hyo, he wouldn't come out of his room. For days, I kept bringing a tray up to him, trying to let him know everything was alright. He'd never come out and get it, though. After four days, I was fed up. Tired of trying to coax him out, I sliced through the rice paper and bamboo of the door, and walked in.

What I found was Hyo, curled up in a corner. We'd given him an extra large room, an old training room actually, to accommodate his massive size. The place smelled awful. I knew he hadn't bathed, or eaten, since the incident.

"Hyo?" I asked.

"Aa, Aoshi-sama?" He croaked in reply.

"You should eat, my friend. I won't have a ninja like you waste away to nothing."

Hyottoko looked up. I could see he had been crying, but I left him his manly dignity and didn't mention it. "Okashira," he implored, "I know I am inept. I know I'm stupid and clumsy and I hurt little Misao. I don't deserve to remain in the Oniwabanshu. But please, please don't send me away. Don't send me back to the slavers."

You see, Okina and I had found Hyottoko on one of our missions. He had been a slave up for auction. Even though I was still young at the time, I could sense his ki, like a flame that cut through the night. I guess Okina sensed it too, and so we bought his freedom.

"Hyo, you are your own man now. You no longer belong to anyone. So, when you hurt yourself, when you punish yourself like this...for something we all know was an accident, it is like you are spitting upon the gift that the Oniwabanshu gave you. Sure, I understand it frightened you to hurt one of your family, but she will be fine. So, eat now."

"Now?" A little voice asked from beside the broken door, "Do I come in now, Aoshi-sama?"

Hyo stared at me as I nodded to the hidden Misao. She jumped out in front of me holding the biggest bowl of rice she could carry, which she then walked over and placed in front of Hyo. Finally, to his surprise, she produced three long sticks.

Very carefully, Misao-chan performed the magic trick I had been teaching her all day, using the hidden flint in her hands to light the sparklers.

"Ta-da!" she exclaimed, and stuck the ends of the sparklers into the rice bowl, forming a "W" shape.

"Misao-chan!" Hyottoko exclaimed rapidly, picking up the mini-ninja and hugging her tightly. All was forgiven. And, after that, Hyottoko never missed a single meal.


I walk back to the Aoiya quickly. I wish I could say that I was alone, but to do so would be wishful thinking. My dearly departed friends follow me every step of the way. I can't remember what season it is now. Time doesn't stick in my mind very well. Could be springtime. Could be summer. Or an extraordinarily warm autumn day. I'm not certain.

How long have I been back? How long has it been like this?

"Ach, Aoshi-sama, lets stop for a drink at Iizumi's place. We can have her daughters bring us sake and all the latest gossip. If you pass out, Hyo-kun can carry you back." This is Hannya. He finds it uproariously funny that I can't hold my liquor. They -all- do. I hear Beshimi's chittering "kekeke" laugh as we turn down the market street where the Aoiya sits.

I don't have the heart to tell Hannya that Iizumi's place burned down three years ago, and that all of the daughters died in the fire.

I wish I could walk with my eyes closed.

Okina is out on the front porch, leaning against a broom, leering at passing girls. One of his favorite hobbies. Every time I see him, I flinch inwardly. He knows, better than any of the others, how deeply my psychosis had taken root. All I can think is: "I could have killed him. I would have killed him. Why didn't I kill him?" I knew he was still alive when I left that ramshackle hut. So, why didn't I kill him?

Of course, I am glad I -didn't- kill him. I just don't have any clue -why- I didn't.

But, then, everything would have been different. They would have never wanted me back at the Aoiya after that. And, I wouldn't want to return, anyway. Killing Okina, I think, would have pushed me over the precipice past which there would have been no redemption. Who am I kidding? I still don't know if redemption exists.

"Aoshi!" Okina calls to me, but doesn't take his eyes off of a passing beauty. "You're back? Did Misao get lost with the tea? Or perhaps she finally got tired of trying to pull your blackened soul out of the abyss?"

I know I didn't really hear that last comment. And yet, I still can't help but stare at Okina and wonder if that is what he really thinks. Misao is wasting her life trying to help rehabilitate me, a lost cause. I'm like the crazy uncle in the family, I suppose. Tolerated. Even perhaps loved, despite my problems. But, no one is really and truly going to be very surprised when I finally hang myself from the rafters. They'll mourn, but in the shadows, everyone will say, "We all saw it coming. And, maybe it is for the best, anyway."

Suicide constantly seems more and more like a free gem found laying in a bin of refuse.

Oh. Okina asked me a question. I suppose I should answer. I forget, sometimes, how communication with the living works.

"Misao brought the tea. I've come to watch her train."

This appears to drag Okina's attention away from the marketgoers. "That's good. She'll like that. Are you hungry? Omasu is cooking..."

I don't hear the end of whatever Okina said, since Hyo is beating his chest and begging me to go to the kitchen.

Am I hungry? Remind me again which of these gnawing feelings beneath my flesh is hunger?

I might have had more words with Okina. I'm not sure what I said if I did. I probably just walked away. Conversation isn't my forte. Conversation is messy, unpredictable, and worst of all, revealing. Revealing is bad. Revealing leads to unpredictable emotional situations. Unpredictable emotional situations engender chaos.

And we know where chaos leads.

The next thing I know, I'm standing in the training hall. My mind just blacks out, sometimes, and I end up moving through the world like a zombie. It's better that way. Not thinking is always better than thinking.

"Okina's hair is all white. He looks like some sort of ghost."

Mark one on the irony scoreboard for Hyo. Beshimi and Hannya are arguing now about exactly how old Okina is. I'm not certain. He was married once, though. Sweet lady, she's the one who came up with the menu for the Aoiya. It's named after her, you know. Aoki. Aoiya. But, she died while I was gone. Caught a fever, from what I understand, and one morning she just didn't wake up. You might think it strange that Okina chases after those girls, instead of honoring the memory of his wife by becoming some doddering old homebody. But, I think, he just wants those girls to know they are pretty, to show them that they are alive, and he is alive. And somehow, in the mix, his love for Aoki is still alive, too. He wants to remind them that youth is beautiful, and short, and not to be wasted.

Or, something like that. I'm not always certain that I exactly understand the man. I'm not an expert on affairs of the heart. No, listening to my opinions on love is a lot like letting a geisha expound upon kempo techniques.

"Did you say something about visiting a geisha, Aoshi-kun?"

Hannya again. I'm not exactly sure how he became such a brilliant kempoist when all he ever thinks about is having a good time. Of course, I know, when we're on a mission, it flies out the door, and he's all business, from beginning to end.

"You shouldn't bring up geishas or oirans or any sort of pretty women to Aoshi-sama," Shikijo says quietly. How such a large and muscular man can have such soft voice, I'll never know. Saves all his aggression for fighting, I suppose. "He's still sore about that one time."

Well, yes, it is true. Thank-you, Shikijo. I -am- still sore about that one time. Hannya thought it proper for me to become a man, in the most seedy sense of the phrase, and the expedition turned into a catastrophe. This would also be the same night that we all discovered Shinomori Aoshi will never be a great drinker.

That poor, poor, woman. Shrieking at the top of her lungs, coated in my vomit. And me, naked and shivering in the corner, apologizing in what didn't even sound like Japanese. My comrades burst in, thinking from the woman's screaming that we'd been attacked.

At the time, I thought it to be the absolute pinnacle of what shame could be heaped upon a man.

I've since learned differently.

They all laughed it off, of course. And, I've been with women since that time, but none of them...

"Misao-chan!" Beshimi claps his hands as Misao enters the room. "Look how graceful she is. I taught her that, you know."

Hannya disagrees vehemently, claiming that he definitely was the one who taught Misao how to be so graceful, and the pair end up arguing again.

"Who's that, then?" Hyotokko asks.

While the others are explaining to Hyo, yet again, that the 'pretty little ninja girl' is, in fact, Misao, I examine some of the weapons hanging on the wall. I don't remember the practice weapons being this worn. They were brand new, weren't they, last time we practiced? Hm. This is the bokken the old Okashira cut down to size to emulate a kodachi for me. When did it get so beat up?

"Aoshi-sama?" Misao asks, her voice like a sparrow in the graveyard of my mind. "I'm ready."

I turn around, and notice she's set up several wooden targets around the room. As I cross my arms, she leaps into action, executing a perfectly sonorous yell, her own style of kiaijutsu, before completing several kicks and a round of punches.

Her hands are really tiny when she clenches them into fists. I can't imagine they'd do much damage.

And then she's jumping, pivoting, an unrelenting whirlwind of attack. Her technique is good, I'll admit, formidably executed. But, what Himura told her once is the truth: her slight frame will prohibit her kempo from ever being a true danger. I'm mildly relieved at the thought. Maybe she'll live a halfway normal life after I'm dead, instead of seeking Strength in the most ludicrous of places.

She flips through the air and lands only two feet from me.

I might be frightened, if I hadn't been the same person who wiped her nose, all those years ago.

Her hands spring up, and kunai fly in opposite directions, seven landing perfectly on the easternmost target, and six striking the westernmost.

The last one ends up on the floor with a metallic clang.

"Ooo, I botched it," Misao says, pouting for only a second before storming off across the room to retrieve her throwing knives.

My dead friends are in awe.

"Would you look at that? If I met that on the street, I'd prob'ly faint," Hyotokko says.

"I know. I taught her that, -too-," Beshimi declares, only to be corrected in the next second by Hannya. "-I- taught her that."

"Well, maybe some of the kempo, but the kunai throwing definitely comes from me."

Another argument breaks out between the pair. They were like that when they were alive, too. Always fighting about absolutely nothing. It never came to blows, though. Just blowing off steam.

But, of course, it is Shikijo who knows what I am thinking. "She's too small, isn't she, Aoshi-sama? You're worried that the kempo and the kunai aren't enough."

"It's not like there's an eminent battle," I reply.

Misao whirls around, peering at me with those aquamarine eyes, her lips caught in a tiny "O" of confusion.

Did I say that -out loud-?

Kami-sama, I'm talking to dead people again. I'm talking to dead people like it is the most normal thing in the world. Maybe that Seta kid had the better idea. At least, if I were wandering around, Misao wouldn't have to watch what is happening to me. I could think fondly of the residents of the Aoiya, and not constantly suspect that they are trying to sabotage my sanity.

I wouldn't have to look into Okina's eyes.

"What did you say, Aoshi-sama?"

"Nothing." I take the modified bokken off the wall and run my fingers along the worn edge. Despite the abuse, it is still quite sturdy. As Misao approaches, I hold it out towards her. "Take this. Your kempo form is fine, as is your ability with the kunai. But, you..." How do I say this without hurting her feelings? "You should diversify."

I take one of the full sized bokkens off the wall and turn to set myself at the opposite end of the training hall from Misao.

I know she has some rudimentary training with blades already. We gave her a pretty rounded education.

"Shh, shh. Aoshi-sama is going to spar with Misao-chan," Beshimi whispers.

Hyotokko backs up against the wall, and shakes his head. "Uh. Ano, Aoshi-sama, that isn't a good idea."

I bring the bokken up to a fairly simple defensive stance, knowing that Misao will want to attack first. "Hmmm?"

"No, I'm serious, Aoshi-sama, you shouldn't do that," Hyotokko tries again.

Misao flies at me, her light steps hardly making a sound against the wooden floor. She tries for my left shoulder, then my right, in quick succession. I parry easily.

But, then she does something I don't expect. She slides her bokken underneath my trenchcoat, right by the outside of my knee, and thrusts upwards, causing the fabric to billow upwards and obscure my view of her for a second.

She's trying to get behind me.

I spin in the opposite direction, meaning to meet her attack.

I never do.

The last thing I remember is the sight of the rapidly-approaching ground, and Hyotokko whispering, "I wish you would have listened, Aoshi-sama."




"Wake up. You are in danger."

My eyes fly open, and my hand hits the floor. Need my kodachis. Nothing. There isn't anything there.


I can feel my heart begin to race as I jump up. It feels like chipped ice is flowing through my veins. The world...pulsing...I...

I'm dizzy. And, in my dizziness, I collapse back onto the futon.

Why am I in my room? I was in the training hall with Misao and then...

"You shouldn't try to get up yet."

Hyotokko is suddenly kneeling beside my futon. I try not to recoil at the immediate appearance of his lifeless face. But, successful or not, he doesn't seem to notice.

Wait. Something is different. Hyotokko is the only one here. The others...I can't see them, or sense them.

"I tried to tell you, Aoshi-sama. But, you wouldn't listen."


His face has an oddly blue tint to it, which subsequently melts away to a deep purple. Wonderful. Now I'm not only seeing ghosts, but I'm hallucinating them in a rainbow of vivid colors.

Hyotokko's voice seems to be melting, too. Syrupy. It's oozing into my ears, sliding around, uninvited, in my mind. "When was the last time you ate, Aoshi-sama?"

When -was- the last time I ate?

I had some bits of dried bread with the tea Misao brought. Nothing substantial.

Before that...

I'm not certain.

"You fainted from malnutrition."

I must have eaten recently. Surely.

"You should eat, my friend. I won't have a ninja like you waste away to nothing," Hyotokko says, peering down at my face.

My words, my own words. Hyotokko grabs my limp hand in his oversized paws. "When you hurt yourself, when you punish yourself like this...for something we all know was an accident, it is like you are spitting upon the gift that the Oniwabanshu gave you. Sure, I understand it frightened you to hurt one of your family, but Okina will be fine. So, eat now."

My own goddamn words.

The way he's looking at me, he's telling me...goodbye...isn't he?

"Is that...is that what you want from me, Hyo-kun?"

"Yes, Aoshi-sama," he replies, "I just want my friend, my leader, to take care of himself. Will you do that, for me?"

I nod weakly. Of course. How could I have been so stupid? How could I have neglected myself like that and ended up making everyone worry?

Suddenly, Hyotokko's face is no longer contorted with the horrific agony of his death. This, too, melts away, leaving behind the gentle giant, smiling softly. In the candlelight, his eyes dance with unrestrained joy, just like the time Misao brought him rice with sparklers.

And then, he's gone.

I know he's gone for good.

Opening the hand Hyotokko had been holding, I find my copper sundial.

I can't say I understand. He was here, all this time, just trying to get me to take care of myself? Not to haunt me or drive me insane?

This puts a kink in my general theories on my own personal hell.

I wonder what the others want.

Well, I'm certain there will be time to meditate on such things tomorrow.

Right now, I need to go to the kitchen.

I hope Omasu is cooking.


In The Next Chapter: Further adventures in Aoshi's varied psychoses. What do the other dead Oniwabanshu want? And what's up with this sundial?

Thanks for reading. This story will be four chapters long, if you hadn't already guessed, but may take me some time to update, since I have a -lot- of stories in progress. My apologies for that.