Out of Time

Chapter 19: True Strength

1865

They stared at each other in silence. Kenshin, trying to steady his breath, while leaning heavily on his good arm. Hiko, glaring down at the baka deshi whom he'd sworn he would have nothing more to do with. They were like this for a long, eerie moment. To Kenshin it was surreal. Like some kind of hazy dream, where impossible things, like Hiko's timely arrival were nothing out of the ordinary. But it couldn't be a dream, he thought, putting pressure on his shoulder when it throbbed suddenly. You couldn't feel pain like this in a dream. At least not pain of the physical sort.

It was Hiko who finally broke the silence, the cold arrogance in his voice at odds with the depth of concern in his eyes. "I thought I told you I didn't want to have to save you again. Why can't you ever listen?"

Kenshin blinked up at the tall swordsman. Still confused by the events in the past few moments. This couldn't be. In Meiji, perhaps his shishou would have come to help him. But here… in Bakumatsu? When their fight was still such a fresh and bitter memory…? Even if they had spent some time talking, the rurouni had held no doubts that Hiko had meant it when he'd said he was going to forget all about his baka deshi as soon as they parted. "Shishou…" Kenshin said, wheezing a little, finally finding his voice. "I don't understand. What are you doing here? Why did you—"

Hiko snorted, sheathing his long blade. "Why did I come to help?"

Kenshin nodded.

"I didn't. Don't flatter yourself. Your little fight just happened to be in my path. I came here to buy some sake."

Kenshin stared blankly at him, his mind still a bit hazy from the pain. Sake? At this hour? He looked away before a thought suddenly struck him, and he glanced back up at Hiko. "Shishou," he said, his voice taking on a slightly suspicious tone, "you don't like Kyoto-made sake, that you do not. You have always refused to drink it."

Hiko scowled, looking away from his deshi at the bodies scattered across the street. "You're overthinking things as usual. Sake is sake." He eyed Kenshin, who was still kneeling on the ground, clutching his shoulder. His blade lay before him. They were going to have to leave here soon, unless they wanted things to get ugly. But the baka didn't look too good, and Hiko had to fight a little to bury some of the concern in his eyes. It wasn't like Kenshin to stay down so long, especially huddled the way he was. "Why don't you stop just kneeling there and get up?" he snapped, hoping that his deshi was able to do so. "I'm getting tired of talking to the top of your head. Since I had to save you again, the least you can do is face me like a man." Why wasn't he moving? How badly did they hurt him? What if one of those wolves had dealt him a fatal blow, and the baka was dying under his nose? But to his relief, Kenshin finally nodded and began moving.

The rurouni slowly reached for his sakabatou and barely managed to sheath it. His arm was still shaking badly, and he couldn't help but remember what Okami had said to him. That if he strained that arm further, he could lose the use of it. The truth behind that comment was becoming evident. He slowly managed to pull himself to his feet, but he was tired and in a lot of pain. Speed was no longer an option. He had a funny feeling he wouldn't be finding that boy tonight after all, and Katsura was going to kill him when he returned.

"You look like hell," Hiko said, again glancing at the fallen tenth unit in disgust. Not much of a unit, by the looks of it. "They managed to do this to you?" He snorted. "You've gotten weak in ten years."

"Shishou…" Kenshin said softly. "I'm no longer a hitokiri, nor do I have a hitokiri's strength. You know that."

"You don't have to be a hitokiri to fight well," the swordsman replied sharply, unconcealed anger flashing in those dark eyes.

Kenshin looked down, pained and a little ashamed. "Perhaps not, but they expected hitokiri Battousai. A man will put everything he has into a fight if he thinks his life is on the line." His eyes shifted to gaze at the still form of Harada Sanosuke.

The tall swordsman noticed, and turned to follow his gaze. His eyes fell on the fallen unit leader, and for a moment he still didn't quite understand, until he saw the deep, diagonal gash across the man's chest. Hiko's eyes widened into a rare expression of shock. Without another word to his deshi, he strode to the body and knelt over it, checking the injury. It was a large indentation. Very little blood, and a great deal of bruising already under the torn clothes. The swordsman ran his fingers over the wound, and was surprised to feel the slight rise and fall of the leader's chest. Hiko's expression was one of deep thought.

It can't be… Hiko thought. This is impossible…unless he did come back to me eventually. He must have finished his training. Why didn't he tell me? He felt a flicker of pride at his deshi's tenacity. Then an even stranger thought crossed his mind, and he straightened up. Wait a minute… then that means in his time I'm…

"Shishou…?" Kenshin said tentatively, blocking some of his pain as he slowly took a few steps toward his shishou.

The swordsman looked up at his baka deshi with a strange expression in his eyes. "You used the Amakakeru Ryu no Hirameki. I didn't realize you'd finished your training…"

The redhead simply nodded, confused at the peculiar look on Hiko's face. Then, it was as if all at once he understood, and a dull sort of horror settled in the pit of his stomach. He thinks he's dead in my time. I can't let him think that. He opened his mouth to speak, and then shut it again. But if Hiko had known that he would live through passing on the succession technique, everything could have gone differently. Can I risk that? My life… Japan's fate… they rested on our thoughts and actions at that precise moment of training. It would be like saving Tomoe. Can I risk everything just to put his mind at ease? Which is more important? It was a harder decision than he'd have once thought.

But it appeared that Kenshin would not have to make that decision after all. The moment of surprise was over, and Hiko was now looking back with his usual smug expression. "Either shut your mouth or say something. You look like a carp, opening and closing it like that." His teasing didn't quite reach his eyes. Clearly he was still trying to come to terms with this new information.

Kenshin didn't get a chance to respond. There was the sudden flare of ki as another Shinsengumi unit passed only a few streets away. After sending a fierce scowl at the baka he'd trained, Hiko stood. "Kuso!" the older man growled. "Let's get out of here before we have to deal with another unit. I don't feel like decimating the ranks of the Shinsengumi tonight just because you're too stupid to know when you shouldn't be fighting."

Kenshin's eyebrow twitched, his concern for Hiko dissipating. However, he said nothing and followed.

They moved in the opposite direction of the ki, distancing themselves as much from the bodies as they could. Kenshin was starting to have a hard time of it by the time his shishou finally ducked into an alleyway and stopped.

Hiko peered around the corner to see if they'd been followed. "I hate this running," he muttered. "But if you aren't supposed to be in this time, we can't risk killing anyone in case it changes something in the future. Look at the stupid situations you put us into, baka. Why did I ever bother training you? You're more trouble than you're worth."

Kenshin didn't answer, but apparently Hiko didn't care. The swords master just kept on talking. "What I don't understand, is why your wolf back there is still alive. Something weakened the blow, although I don't see how he could have blocked it. And even a sakabatou should have killed him…" He turned back to Kenshin, finally noticing that Kenshin was breathing hard, and clutching his right shoulder. "What's the matter with you?"

Kenshin just shook his head and looked away. "I'll be fine, that I will."

Hiko's eyes darkened, and he glared at his deshi as he stalked over. "Hold out your right arm."

Kenshin blinked at him. "What?"

"Do as I say, baka," he snapped.

The redhead's eyes widened, and he complied, painfully lifting the arm. It shook worse, and he was having a hard time getting it completely horizontal.

"Damn," Hiko swore. "You were already injured when you started that fight, weren't you? That's why the attack failed. You didn't have enough force behind it." He took hold of Kenshin's arm, surprising his deshi by actually handling the injury gently. Supporting it with one hand, he used the other to pull down the bloody shoulder of his gi to expose the bandages. He gently felt the wound, pressing here and there as though looking for something, occasionally moving the arm to see what kind of mobility he had. Kenshin flinched silently, but Hiko noticed, and slowly lowered Kenshin's arm. He then untied the bandages to get a good look at the wounds. This seemed to further irritate him. "You let this get infected, baka. Did you want to lose this arm?"

Kenshin looked away. "What was I supposed to do about it?"

"See a doctor, baka. What do you think you're supposed to do when you get injured?"

Kenshin glared at him. "That's impossible. I am not Himura Kenshin here. I'm no rurouni. I am hitokiri Battousai. Assuming I find a doctor who doesn't side with the Shogunate and kill me on the spot, I would be risking his life. What do you think the Shinsengumi would do to a doctor that helped me? They would kill him."

Hiko's glare was fierce this time, and it silenced the rurouni. "That wound could kill you, Kenshin,"

He looked furious, and Kenshin suddenly got the peculiar impression that Hiko was not so much angry with him as he was afraid that his deshi really was going to get himself killed. Kenshin stared at him in surprise. It was so easy sometimes to forget that this harsh man could actually care about people, especially about him.

"Get it checked," Hiko said gruffly. "All it takes is a little medicine. You can't convince me that the Choshu clan has no doctor aiding them, so if worst comes to worst, you can slip in back there long enough to get some help. You've given enough to that damned clan and their petty little fight. The least they can offer you is a doctor who is willing to put the same devotion into your welfare."

Kenshin pulled his gi back up. "I'll try, Shishou. That's the best I can promise."

Hiko watched the rurouni wince a little when the coarse material of his gi scraped against his open wound. "Don't just put the gi back on it, you baka. Wrap it up correctly." He scowled. "Just let go. I'll wrap it so it stops bleeding at least." He took some of the bloody bandages, and began tightly pulling them across his arm and shoulder. "How did you get this stupid, anyway? I know it isn't my fault. I did a fine job teaching you. Apparently you never paid enough attention to what I said. Otherwise you wouldn't have wound up as a lost baka with a death wish." He tugged the bandage tight, causing Kenshin to gasp in pain as Hiko tied it off. "Stop squirming."

Kenshin bit back a retort. There was a long pause before the redhead finally said softly, "You know I don't have a death wish, Shishou. If I did, how could I have learned the succession technique?"

"Don't contradict me," the swordsman snapped. "That's another reason you never learn anything." But even as he was griping, his expression grew distant again, and after finally finishing with the bandages, he muttered, "About the succession technique… why don't you wear the mantle? It's your right as successor. Obviously I won't need it anymore."

The rurouni lowered his eyes, searching for the best way to answer that. "I had no wish to take the position of Hiko Seijuro the 14th. I wish only to pass on the teachings, not the techniques." He looked up at his shishou. "I'm sorry."

The swordsman sent him a long, assessing look. "I see. I shouldn't be surprised. Hiten Mitsurugi will die with me, then." He sighed. "That is as it should be. Even now, it is becoming a thing of the past. I expected as much, anyway. The days of swords and honor have been dying a slow death. I suspect they will die before I do." He sent Kenshin a contemplative look. "Well, maybe they'll last a little longer than that. Until your death at least." He turned away, seeming a little tired. "I never planned on passing it on either."

Kenshin's eyes widened. "What? You weren't going to train anyone? But… then why did you take me as an apprentice?"

Hiko looked back, seeing the child, Shinta, in the wide-eyed man's face. Thinking back to that field of graves. And remembering the wonder he'd felt when he'd realized that this boy was just like Hiko had once been. That this child who should have been tainted by the horrors around him still seemed to be able to see life, even in death. Even with all of the hatred and evil and disease in the world, this boy had not been corrupted. And Hiko had felt a responsibility to that boy. Not so much to teach him swordsmanship, but instead to protect him long enough for that strong spirit to survive and be able to protect itself. Because that was one of the greatest things that Hiko had learned in his life. People aren't saved by swords. They're saved by compassion. And compassion had always been one of Kenshin's greatest strengths.

"I trained you," he finally said in a quiet voice that wasn't quite his own, "because you understood."

"Oro?"

Hiko shook his head, as though to clear his thoughts. "Never mind. It's better this way. No more nightmares of me getting stuck training your future son."

Kenshin shook his head, a small smile on his face. "I doubt that would have ever been a problem, Shishou."

The older man smirked. "I wouldn't be so sure." He paused for a moment, listening for footsteps. Trying to see if any strong ki was in the area… but all seemed clear. "Listen, Kenshin. Going to your own time can wait a few days. You're not in any shape to be wandering Kyoto at night for any reason. All you're going to do is get yourself killed. You need to get back to wherever you're staying."

"I'm with Katsura," Kenshin replied softly.

Hiko stared at him. "That was a stupid move, not that I'm surprised. Fine, go back to him. And you can tell him that if he sends you out on any more fights before that shoulder has healed, I'll personally visit him and show him what a real master of Hiten Mitsurugi can do to him." Hiko smiled wickedly. "He'd do well to remember that his top hitokiri is only my baka deshi."

"Shishou," Kenshin said, overwhelmed. "He didn't…" He trailed off at a sharp look from Hiko and sighed. "I will go on no missions." He smiled gently. "You don't have to worry."

"I'm not worried," the tall man said, scowling. "Now, go back. Be careful. I'll watch your back until you're inside, so no detours. You got that? It's getting late, and I'm getting thirsty."

"Yes, Shishou."

"Good. Now get out of my face."

Kenshin bowed slightly to his shishou and began walking out of the alleyway. He stopped at the sound of Hiko's voice.

"Did you ever find that boy, baka?"

Kenshin glanced back at Hiko. "No," he replied tiredly.

"Any clues?"

"No."

Hiko nodded. "Then you aren't as observant as I'd thought."

"Oro?" Kenshin sent him a look of puzzlement. "Do you know something?"

"No more than you should, baka," the older man replied. "I just find it strange to find a child's footprints in the snow around the head of a dead man. And they were fresh."

"Sagara?"

Hiko nodded. "There were children in the Sekihou-tai, Kenshin. And your boy was suicidal, wasn't he?"

Kenshin paled, as a distant memory forced its way to the surface. A memory so old that he wasn't even sure if it was really a memory or just a dream.

The boy looking at him thoughtfully. "I guess waiting one more night wouldn't hurt. Maybe the captain would want that."

The captain…

"It was him," Kenshin whispered, starting to finally understand what had happened. He'd never even realized… How had he never realized? "I know who that boy was."

"Kenshin?"

The rurouni laughed shortly, darkly. "He's a close friend of mine. Or at least, he will be one day. Sagara Sanosuke." Kenshin met his shishou's eyes. "That boy was the same man I was on the bridge with when I came back here."


1878

Kaoru was standing on the bridge, just staring off into the hazy morning sky, and mentally kicking herself. I can't believe I fell asleep in that old building. What if something happened to Kenshin while I was back there? I'll never forgive myself.

"You're troubled," came a male voice to her right. She glanced over to see Shinomori Aoshi approach her. The tall ex-okashira of the Oniwaban leaned against the rail beside her. Kaoru had woken up just after sunrise and had resumed her frantic search for the rurouni. She'd run into Aoshi and Misao on her way back to the Aoi-ya to find the others. After having explained the situation, and discovering that the others had already left on their own search party, Aoshi and Misao had gladly joined Kaoru to help look for their friend. Not that it seemed to be doing any good.

"You are worried about Battousai."

She looked up into the tall man's cold blue eyes. "Of course I am. You have no idea how many times Kenshin has been there for me. No matter how down I am, or how horrible things get, he has always been by my side ever since the first day I met him. He understands when I get angry, and won't hold it against me. In fact, for someone who could wipe out entire armies, he even takes my hits. And what do I do for him?"

"You spend the entire night searching for him," Misao said joining them. "That says something. It means you really care about him, and he'll know that. Himura's not stupid. He didn't live through everything he's gone through by being dumb and not understanding the way people think."

Tears welled up in Kaoru's eyes. "Then why did he leave me?"

Misao put a comforting hand on the other girl's shoulder. "He didn't."

Tear-filled blue eyes turned to Misao. "What?"

Misao had turned to face the water again. "Think about it Kaoru. Himura hasn't been himself lately. He's been paranoid and scared. Ever since that accident, he's been really different."

Kaoru shook her head. "I don't understand."

The ninja shrugged. "Well, I haven't known Himura as long as you have, but I traveled with him a long way when he first returned to Kyoto, so I've seen him when he's really struggling with himself. And that's kind of how it feels now. Like he's not sure who he is, and he's fighting the hitokiri inside again." She looked back at Kaoru. "That first time he left you to face Shishio… it sounds to me like he was leaving to protect you from what was happening both in Japan and in himself. Did it ever occur to you that maybe he's doing that again?"

Kaoru didn't answer, but Aoshi nodded. "Misao is right. People will do things that seem strange to others, hurtful, if they think it is in the best interest of those they care about." He leveled his gaze at Kaoru. "I know this, because I have done it myself… more than once. Battousai is a skilled fighter and an intelligent man. But most importantly, he cares about other people. He does nothing for himself. Misao is correct. He was not running from you. If he was running from anything at all, it was probably himself."

"Um, Kaoru," Misao said suddenly.

But they weren't listening.

Kaoru sighed. "I just worry about him so much. Sometimes he will be so careful with himself, patching up injuries. Letting Megumi-san look at him. But then there are times when he won't even let you know he's been hurt, or why, or how badly. He'll disappear for awhile, and an hour later he'll be back. And I'll find him hanging up laundry, his wounds bandaged, smiling as though nothing happened. I almost get the feeling that the only reason he takes care of himself at all is for our sakes, not his own."

"Aoshi-sama…" Misao cut in, but again, she was ignored.

Aoshi nodded at Kaoru. "I'm sure that's exactly what he's doing. He was a hitokiri, Kaoru. I'm not sure if you know exactly what that means."

Kaoru glared at him. "I don't care if he was a killer. That's a part of his past. It doesn't matter anymore. It's not him."

The tall man shook his head. "No. Past or not, it does matter. His past as a hitokiri is very much a part of him. It will always be a part of him. That is a choice he made, and he will always have to live with it. With the deaths he has caused. Being a hitokiri would have shaped him, Kaoru. You are only looking at the obvious parts. Think about it. He was younger than you are when he first killed someone. And he killed for at least five years during Bakumatsu. He was known as a demon back then. Even in Edo we knew of that. He was spoken of in whispers, as though his very name would bring him out. But in reality, he was a child sent to murder. Grown men go mad with killing. It happens far more often than not. If Battousai managed to retain his sanity after five years of living with death, I have to wonder how."

"How?"

"How did he ignore the blood… the power? When you shut off your emotions during a battle, it is sometimes difficult to turn them back on." He looked down into the water. "Battousai wouldn't want you to see him like that, because it would hurt you. He cares about your welfare." Aoshi stared out over the water. "And that is exactly what makes him the strongest."

"Hey, guys! I know that's a nice inspirational message and all, but I'm right here and you can stop ignoring me."

Kaoru turned and glared at the other girl. "Misao, this is an important conversation. I don't see what could be so important that you have to keep interrupting!"

Misao glared back, weasel versus raccoon. She pointed toward the opposite side of the river near the forest. Through clenched teeth, she replied, "I found Himura. He's with Sano."

Kaoru turned to look inthe direction Misao was pointing. As soon as she saw them, shemade ready to run, but Aoshi grabbed the back of her gi. "Patience," he said softly.

She shot an angry look at Aoshi. "What are you talking about? Let me go."

But Aoshi wasn't looking at her. He was staring in the direction of the redhead. "You almost ran into a battle."


Sano turned to where Battousai was looking in time to see Saito emerge from the trees. The wolf flicked the cigarette into the grass, and smirked. He closed the gap until he was only a few yards away. "Hello, Battousai."

The redhead was so tense he seemed almost like an animal bristling before a fight. Already his right hand was reaching across his body, so that his katana would be easier to draw. He said nothing.

This didn't appear to disturb the policeman, who was now eyeing the boy critically. "How old are you, Battousai? Fifteen? Sixteen? I don't think you could be much older. The killer is still in your eyes." He smiled coldly. "And it's begging to be let out, isn't it?"

Sano's eyes widened. Saito already knew? But how? He glanced back at his friend.

Battousai had slipped into a battou-jutsu stance, clearly just waiting for Saito to end the chit-chat and attack. "Enough with the small talk, Saito. If you're here to fight me, let's just get it over with."

The wolf's amber eyes narrowed. "I thought you'd never ask," he replied, drawing the katana. He tugged on the collar of his shirt, popping off the top two buttons to give him more mobility. Then he slid into the Gatotsu stance, running his gloved hand over the gleaming silver blade.

"Are you two crazy?" Sano exclaimed.

Battousai's eyes were narrowed, and there was a faintly amber light within their blue depths. The hitokiri was frighteningly near the surface, waiting to break free. His voice was cold and flat, sounding very much as he had when they'd first spoken at the river. "Get back, Sanosuke."

Sano clenched his fist, growling, "I'm not leaving you. If you're going to fight, then I'm going to help you."

Battousai didn't even look at him. "No. Just go back where it's safe. I can't protect both of us from him if I don't know where you are."

"You know exactly where I am, Himura, because I'm staying right here."

Still Battousai wouldn't look at him. If Sano hadn't known his friend so well, the youth would have been frightening. It wasn't just his voice or his eyes, but his entire demeanor had changed. He seemed older, stronger, and far more like a dangerous predator. "Sano," Battousai said sharply. "Get back by the bridge, now."

Saito snorted. "Yes, little boy. Go play somewhere else. The grown-ups are busy here."

Sano shot him a glare. "You shut up." He turned back to his friend. "You don't have to do this, Himura. You don't have to protect me. That's not why I'm your friend."

The redhead slowly turned his eyes to look at Sano. They softened a bit, the amber fading away into their depths. "I know that Sagara. Protecting you is my choice. I may be just a hired sword… but I will protect those I care about." His expression was troubled for a moment. "Please Sanosuke. This fight won't be long. Wait for me elsewhere. I don't want you hurt." He smiled faintly, easing some of Sano's worries.

The fighter finally backed off, but only after shooting a glare at Saito, and promising his friend that he wouldn't go far, and would be nearby if Battousai needed him.

The youth turned back to his opponent, not surprised to see the former Shinsengumi leader still in stance, patiently waiting. The redhead slipped back into a fighting position, looking carefully at the man before him. This was eerie. His hair was short, his clothing… well, that was no surprise. The Shinsengumi had always been considered something of a police force within Kyoto. But that wasn't really what bothered him. Unlike Hiko, Saito had changed, and even though they were enemies, the boy wasn't sure he liked that. This Saito was clearly older, some strong lines in his face now, a slightly more hoarse quality to his voice, although that may not have been the result of time as much as the cigarettes.

He didn't dwell on it further. Clearly Saito wasn't worrying about such things, the predatory gleam in his eyes announcing his annoyance at waiting. He was ready for this fight to begin.

Battousai hardened his expression, shutting off all of his accessible emotions. This was nothing more than a series of movements and predictions to him. It meant nothing now. Again a faint flicker of amber glowed inside of his frigid blue eyes. His nod was imperceptible, but Saito had been waiting for it, and returned it. His lips curled up into a cold smile. "Have at you."

And it was a blur of movement. Neither of them was exactly sure who had drawn first, the thoughts had been almost simultaneous in their minds. Just do it. And they had. The first charge had resulted in nothing. Battousai had easily managed to turn and dodge Saito's Gatotsu, a move he'd seen so often in the past. And Saito had blocked enough of the youth's draw before attacking, to spare himself. But even after that move, they kept in motion for a moment longer, Battousai skipped the typical defensive moves to go behind his opponent and swing down in a modified Hiten Mitsurugi attack. Saito defended, blocking the attack, and lunging with his blade, modified his own into a side slash that would have hit its mark if Battousai hadn't ducked and pulled back.

The second attack was smoother, now that they had both been able to reevaluate their opponents moves. The redhead was airborne, coming down with a Ryu Tsui Sen, which Saito was forced to dodge instead of block. But the movement of his turn only gave him more force behind his next blow. Battousai blocked with his blade.

The men were inches from each other, their katanas crossed between their faces. Amber glaring into amber. The two men looking more alive in this moment than either of them had felt in awhile. They were at stalemate, and realized it at the same time, leaping backwards and falling into position once more.

Saito's eyes gleamed. "This is more like it, Battousai," he said softly. "You're putting everything into it this time."

Battousai didn't change expression. What was he talking about? Was this some sort of game to him? "What is this about, Saito?" he asked. "From what I've heard of Meiji, this is no longer necessary." He eyed the man's police uniform again. "And judging from your clothes, isn't your job to stop things like this?"

The wolf was unperturbed. "It will stop when one of us wins. We just have a fight to finish." He fell into one of his modified Gatotsu positions. Battousai had seen this one before. It was easily blocked by Hiten Mitsurugi. Why would Saito intentionally use an attack that he knew his adversary could block?

Kenshin was dimly aware of movement behind him. More people had joined Sano. Wonderful. An audience. He ignored them, sheathing his blade, and turning his body. "So, we're still at a stalemate is what you're saying," he replied. "Even now, neither wins. Neither loses. What are we fighting for, then? Your pride?"

Saito's eyes darkened. "I am not the one who has changed, Battousai. Aku soku zan. I am as much a wolf of Mibu now as ever. But you... Do you even understand what you've become? It's disgusting, a hitokiri who won't kill. A rurouni who protects the weak, without showing his true strength."

Battousai tensed, and his voice was low when he responded. "One who protects the weak?" His gleaming eyes stared into the older man's. "You don't know me as well as you think, Saito Hajime. Let's just finish this."

This time the first move was clearly Saito's. The two circled, dodging and thrusting in an all out attack. Twice, Battousai was forced to draw up his sheath to block some lower blows. Once Saito barely managed to dodge, and wound up with a deep wound in his side.

They circled again, spilling more blood. Battousai had a few shallow cuts, but it was becoming evident that he wasn't going to lose this battle.

When they drew back this time, however, Saito's stance had changed once again. This time the blade was high in the air in a position that the boy had never seen.

What's he doing? What does he think he can hit that way? Battousai eyed the blade, trying to determine how to adjust his own attack to whatever the wolf could pull out of that position. He brushed some blood from his forehead to keep it from dripping into his eyes. Then he was in position.

Again there was movement out of the corner of his eye, but this time, as Saito bore down, Battousai felt another strong ki coming at him from behind.

And she was there out of nowhere. Battousai didn't even hear what Kaoru had shouted, but she looked angry, protectively throwing herself in front of the boy, her useless wooden sword drawn and ready. What the hell was she doing?

"Stop!" That's what she was shouting, and there were tears in her eyes. "Both of you, stop it!"

The wolf was too close to slow, even if he'd have been the type to do so.

Battousai grabbed her gi and threw out of the way just before Saito's blade cut into his shoulder. The youth clutched his wound in shock. He looked up at the Shinsengumi leader, but something was wrong with his vision, and instead of seeing Saito, he saw a huge man with gray hair. One of the Shogunate. And, even as his vision was blurring, he could see her falling in front of him. Tomoe. So he hadn't pushed her out of the way in time. He knew he'd opened his mouth. Knew he'd screamed something, but none of that mattered as he watched her lifeless body fall into the snow before him. He'd killed her.

Battousai dropped to his knees, unable to even touch her. "Don't die," he whispered, his wide blue eyes seeing nothing as his mask finally shattered. Cold sweat poured down his body as he reached out his hand to her. "Please." His voice was hoarse. "Please, don't die. Not now. Not again. Don't…" He'd stopped breathing. It was as though the shock of her jumping into his path again had shut him down completely. Everything was fading to black.

Good, he thought. I deserve this death. If I can't even protect you, what reason do I have to live?

The last sensation he was aware of was the smell of white plums, drowned out by the scent of blood.

Several crimson drops stained the crystalline snow. Another droplet fell.

The scar on his cheek was bleeding.


Author's Note: Hello! I'm so sorry for the long wait on this update. I hope you're pleased with how it turned out. The chapter itself was a lot harder to write than I'd expected. I had a few surprises come up that changed the initial train of events, and at home, my roommate (one of my best friends) is moving out. The chapter was put on hold, so she and I could spend time together before she leaves. Also, I'm sorry I wasn't able to respond well to reviewers last chapter. Things have been difficult lately. But I think it will be better soon. Anyway, thanks for your patience!

Dragonspirit4215: Of course I'm still using dewa mata. My Japanese is limited and heaven forbid I make people think I'm going on hiatus for a long time by using "sayonara" again! Thanks for the nice review!

sRose: Yes, this story takes place not long after the Kyoto arc, but before Jinchuu (which I haven't read)… so yes, Shishio is a very disturbing thing for Kenshin to have pondered. (laughs)

Ms. Zeal: I'm glad you liked the humor, and about such a battle... I agree. Hmmm…

Yamma: Perhaps some BK romance, but as I've mentioned before, as strange as it sounds, I don't control this story as much as I like to think. The way I write is by trying to get into the character's heads and put them into a situation. The story's end result then has to be based on their natural reactions to things. So if that romance turns out to be natural, perhaps we'll see some…

FFchick: Yay! Sake. Good choice for a reward. (laughs)

Sueb262: A Shishio background story… (contemplates) I have a lot on the back burner right now… but I'll keep the idea in mind. Thanks!

WhiteRabbit5: Sam is a good name for the analogy. (laughs) Thanks. Hehehe…

Frog squisher: (blinks) Scary. You know, if you chop off my head, I can't update. Probably not a good idea. (blinks again) What does "kioshi ai itsumo" mean?

BakaBokken: Thanks for the great review! And I really do like you IY story. It's good. Please do update it soon. (I mean that from the bottom of my heart!)

JMJV: Thanks for the warning. I usually try hard to edit well, but when I'm rushed, I screw up. If you ever see typos, please let me know where they are if you can. It makes it so much easier for me to fix! Thank you!

WolfDaughter: (blushes) Yes, I meant "centrifugal."It's fixed. I appreciate you finding that! And thanks for the great review!

To all other reviewers: I'm pleased to see that the pottery analogy went over so well. Very pleased, actually. Thank you so much for reading and for all of your wonderful reviews!

Dewa mata!