Disclaimer: This fan fiction is based on the Rurouni Kenshin manga and anime series. Rurouni Kenshin characters are the property of creator Watsuki Nobuhiro, Shueisha, Shonen Jump, Sony Entertainment, and VIZ Comics. This is a non-profit work for entertainment purposes only. Permission was not obtained from the above parties.

The Blizzard

Written by Terry L. McElrath

Chapter One

So cold! Kenshin thought miserably as he stumbled forward into the frigid wind of the blizzard. Wrapping his worn coat more tightly around himself, he rubbed his numb hands over his arms in a desperate attempt to generate some warmth. He was shaking violently and could no longer feel his feet, making it even more difficult to walk. Have to get out of this snowstorm. The large flakes were coming down so thickly it was hard to see the road, much less spot potential shelter.

I should have stayed at that village. Kenshin's thoughts wandered to earlier in the day. From the way the innkeeper had talked, he hadn't thought it would take all day to reach the next town. Unfortunately, Kenshin hadn't realized how much longer than usual it would take, given the steep terrain and how weak he had become from eating so little food. The snow started coming down a couple of hours before sunset, quickly building into a major storm, slowing him down even more. He had no choice but to continue onwards, hoping to find a farm or place where he could get out of the arctic weather. It's too late to worry about that now . . .

Without warning, Kenshin collapsed, falling full-length onto the snowdrift-covered road. Get up, you fool! screamed an anxious voice in the back of his mind. You've got to keep going! "I will," Kenshin muttered, his voice slurred, "just give me a minute to rest . . . " The icy cold slowly faded away as he gradually lost consciousness.

Kioko listened to the wind howling around the eaves of the house, urging her to move closer to the warmth of the fire. This is the worst blizzard I can remember. Perhaps I should sleep by the fire tonight. The flames sent shadows dancing on the walls of the room, making it look emptier than usual.

This was not a good night to be alone, with only a dog for company. The memories of other cold nights – warmed by loving companionship – nearly overwhelmed her. It has been so long, anata . . . how can I go on? What do I do now? Angrily, she rubbed at her eyes, trying to prevent the hot tears from falling. What's wrong with me? I haven't been this depressed in months. Kioko knew the cause of her weakness, though. She could hold her feelings at bay as long as she kept busy, too busy to remember painful memories. However, with nothing to do during the storm, Kioko couldn't control her thoughts.

After the accident, her friends had suggested that she come live with them. But how could she leave her home? Leave the one place where she had been happiest? It was unthinkable. Even if her husband was no longer there, she could still feel his presence.

Kioko used to love the winter because it meant extra time with her beloved. They spent the days together doing a variety of things: talking while he carved the figurines he sold to the merchants, doing chores, playing games. Loneliness was only a concept to her then, never anything she actually experienced. Even though they lived deep in the mountains, with no neighbors nearby, they were never lonely. There was always so much to do, there was never enough time in the day, and the evenings . . . No! I will not go there! Not again!

Kioko stood up, desperate to do something – anything – to keep herself from thinking. Methodically, she brought over her futon, unfolding it next to the fire, placing a comforter nearby. Now then, should I bring in more wood? She glanced at the small pile of wood lying to the side of the fire pit. Yes, it would be a good idea. I don't really want to run out during the middle of the night.

"Want to come with me, Hebo?"

At the mention of his name, Hebo lifted his head, tongue lolling out. What a ridiculous name for such a large dog! But he was so clumsy when he was a puppy, the name simply stuck. He followed her to the door and waited patiently while she put on her quilted hanten. When she slid the door open, he pushed past her – almost knocking her over – and led the way to the woodpile next to the house. Placing wood into the basket she carried, she made several trips back and forth until she was satisfied with the amount of wood stacked neatly next to the fire.

Turning away, Kioko noticed that Hebo wasn't in the room. Sliding the door open, she called his name. When he didn't come running, she stepped out onto the engawa, beginning to feel irritated. Now where did he go? It's too cold to be running around in the dark. Stupid dog!

"Hebo! Come back here, right now!"

At last, Kioko heard his deep bark coming from down the path that led to the road. What in the world is he doing down there? When he didn't return after calling him several more times, she reluctantly decided to go look for him. After going back inside to fetch a lantern, Kioko set off down the trail.

She didn't find him until she was all the way down to the road. Hebo was standing over the body of a man lying partially buried in the snow. What?! Kioko struggled through the snowdrifts to get to the traveler. Why would anyone be on the road during a blizzard? Finally, she reached him. Carefully rolling him over, she felt for a heartbeat, afraid that she wouldn't find one. There it was! Erratic and weak, to be sure, but still there. I've got to get him to the house, he won't last much longer. But how? Granted, he isn't a very big man, but he's still bigger than me. She tried to pick him up . . . impossible. Can I drag him? No. Frantically, Kioko tried to think. The sled she used for hauling wood! It was the only possibility.

Quickly, she took off her coat and wrapped it around the freezing stranger. The bitter cold instantly bit into her, even through the warm winter kimono she was wearing. She made Hebo lie down next to the man, hoping that the dog's warmth would keep him alive.

"Hebo! Stay, boy!"

Kioko ran back to the house as quickly as she could, slipping and sliding, cursing at the snow and wind. Once inside, she put on another hanten and grabbed a quilt. Drawing the sled behind her, Kioko headed back down the path.

Terrified that the stranger would already be dead, she knelt next to him, hoping he was still breathing. Yes! Removing his sword, Kioko placed it, along with his travel bag, on the sled. She then spread the quilt out next to the man and quickly rolled him up in it. Positioning the sled beside him, she carefully pulled him onto the platform.

Praying to every kami she knew, Kioko fought her way back home. For once, she regretted living so far from the road. Hauling the sled through the snowdrifts was a nightmare. She slipped on the ice and fell to her knees more times than she could count. Each time, she would grit her teeth and stand up, struggling onward. Kioko refused to give in to the exhaustion that threatened to overcome her.

Halfway there, the man slid off when the sled almost tipped over. Breath sobbing in her throat, she wrestled to straighten the sled and reposition him. The horrendous trip continued, seeming to take forever to reach the house.

Once there, however, Kioko faced the monumental task of getting him up the stairs and inside. Gripping the quilt tightly, she began pulling, desperation giving her needed strength. Slowly, she backed her way up the stairs, being careful not to bump his head on the steps. Pausing only to slide the door open, Kioko continued dragging her burden into the house. Hebo darted inside, barking excitedly, just before she closed the door.

Thank Kami-sama I already put out the futon! Kioko leaned against the door, panting heavily. Now, to get him into bed. Bending over, she unrolled the quilt from around the man and pushed him onto the futon.

Turning quickly, she put the water kettle over the fire. Kioko returned her attention to her guest, noticing that his clothes were worn and his coat much too thin for really cold weather. I wonder if he's a ronin, down on his luck? After all, he is carrying a sword and has his hair up in a high ponytail. I'm not surprised he collapsed, though. He's certainly not dressed warmly enough for winter in these mountains. She began taking off his wet clothes. He's so cold! He'll need something warm to wear. Once his clothes were removed, Kioko carefully examined him. His lips were blue and his skin so colorless it seemed translucent. She was appalled by the number of scars on his slight body, particularly the cross-shaped scar on his left cheek. Could he have been a soldier? But he's so young! Kioko saw that, although he was well-muscled, he was much too thin, his ribs showing. She tucked the warm comforter around him. What she had at first thought was dark hair, turned out to be an amazing shade of rich, vibrant red, which picked up golden highlights from the lamps and fire. Incredible! I've never seen hair that color before. Is he a gaijin?

Standing up, Kioko swiftly crossed the room and stepped back out into the blizzard to retrieve the man's possessions. Returning to the comfort of the fire, she looked in his travel bag for a dry sleeping robe, but did not find one. She walked over to a chest standing in the corner, hesitated for a long moment, and then opened it. Kioko reached in and pulled out a light blue yukata, which had been her husband's. Slowly, she lifted the garment, burying her face in the soft cotton robe. His scent was long gone, but she could easily remember the combination of soap and sweat that was so uniquely him. The images of her beloved that arose made her heart ache with loss. After a minute, though, she took a deep breath, and shook her head to dispel her sorrow. I don't have time for this! I can't think about this now, there are things I must do. After taking a moment to pull herself together, she fetched her medicine box, and returned to the stranger. Pulling back the comforter, Kioko dressed him in the familiar yukata, biting her lip to stop the tears that threatened to fall. When she was done, she re-covered him.

Kioko looked through her medicines, selecting one with ginseng and reishi to strengthen his body. If he doesn't catch pneumonia, it will be a miracle! She prepared the tea and set it aside to steep. Next, Kioko put a pot of miso broth next to the fire. I've got to warm him from the inside, as well as the outside. I don't think he's had a good meal in a while.

When the tea was ready and cooled a bit, she poured some into a little bamboo cup. Kioko propped the unconscious man up with pillows and carefully tipped a small amount of the medicine into his mouth, lightly rubbing his throat to help him swallow. Repeating the procedure many times, she finally got him to drink all of the tea. Then she began again, this time with warm miso broth. Once she felt he had had enough, Kioko gently lowered him back down onto the futon.

Having done all she could for the moment, Kioko sat back and simply watched her patient. He is so pale. Will he live? He should, with luck, if he doesn't get too sick. She finally noticed that she was shivering. Baka! I've got to get out of these damp clothes. Kioko went behind the screen and changed into her yukata. Then she sat down next to the fire and drank some soup, enjoying the warmth that spread throughout her body. She checked the fire, adding more wood.

Leaning forward, Kioko felt under the comforter. He's still so cold! I've got to warm him up, and quickly. Concern for his welfare overrode her modesty. Before she could change her mind, Kioko lifted the comforter and slipped under it, positioning herself alongside the man, intent on sharing her warmth. He was so cold, it felt as though he was made of ice, even through the yukata. Kioko stretched full-length against him, lifting his head so that she could slide her left arm under, nestling his head against her shoulder. Then she put her right arm and leg over him, trying to cover him with as much of her body as possible. She felt his chest rise and fall, his breathing shallow. She was exhausted from her exertions and finally drifted off.

A slight movement next to her startled Kioko into wakefulness. He's awake? She raised her head to look into his face. His eyes were still closed, only his head moving. He's warmer, at least, thank goodness. How long was I asleep? Carefully, Kioko eased away from him, sliding out from under the comforter. The fire had died down considerably, so she must have been asleep for three or four hours. Time for more tea and broth. She rebuilt the fire and then filled the kettle.

Is he unconscious or asleep? Propping him up again didn't wake him, so Kioko was careful as she fed him broth, while waiting for the medicine to steep. Still no color in his face. Well, at least he's not running a fever . . . yet. She was pleased when he made a face at the bitter taste of the tea. Good, a response. He's beginning to come around. In case he was becoming aware of his surroundings, Kioko began talking to him, "You're safe now. You don't have anything to worry about. Go back to sleep."

He must have heard her because his face relaxed, making him look even younger. Shortly thereafter, his breathing deepened and he truly slept. Observing him while he slumbered, Kioko noticed his delicate features, which seemed out of place for a swordsman. With his slight build, unusual hair and pale coloration, he was almost pretty. How strange! If it weren't for the scars on his face, he could almost pass for a girl. It was a good thing he was asleep, because otherwise she couldn't have looked at him so closely without being unforgivably rude.

Hearing another voice later was almost shocking, it had been so long since Kioko had talked to anyone. "Tomoe? Tomoe?! Please, come back . . ." The words were spoken with such sorrow that her heart went out to the stranger. "Please . . . come back . . ." His eyes were tightly closed, but he seemed to still be asleep, although his head was thrashing from side to side. "Tomoe!"

Kioko laid her hand against his forehead to soothe him, murmuring, "It's all right, everything's going to be all right." He calmed a bit and stopped tossing his head. "That's right, relax," she said softly. She sat back, wondering what nightmare he was having. Whoever Tomoe is, she seems to be very important to him. I wonder what happened.

The morning found her still beside the stranger. She was preparing another cup of medicinal tea, when Kioko heard a soft sound behind her. She turned to find herself staring into the most beautiful violet eyes she had ever seen. He was looking at her blankly, obviously trying to understand what had happened. "Good morning, how are you feeling?"

"Oro? Good morning . . . much better, thank you very much. How did sessha get here?" His voice, while soft, had a charming, musical quality. Where am I? Kenshin wondered. I fell in the snow. I couldn't keep walking . . .

"Good! My name is Miyuki Kioko. You are at my house. I found you last night . . . well, actually, my dog found you last night. You were unconscious on the road." She reached over to feel his forehead. "You still don't have a fever. Perhaps you will not get sick, after all." Sessha? 'Unworthy one?'

"Thank you very much, Miyuki-dono. I'm very sorry to have bothered you."

"Nonsense! What was I supposed to do, leave you there to freeze to death?" she asked, with some asperity. "Let me help you sit up, so you can drink your medicine."

Soon he was sitting up against the pillows, still looking wan. His hand shook slightly when he took the cup she gave him. His face contorted, but he drank the tea down quickly.

Kioko handed him a piece of candy. "Eat this, it will help. I know the tea tastes awful, but it is very effective."

"Thank you, Miyuki-dono." What an understatement! That tea is positively nasty. Well, Shishou always said that medicine wouldn't work if it didn't taste bad.

"Please! Call me Kioko, Miyuki-dono makes me feel old."

"Yes, Kioko-dono."

"May I ask your name?"

"Sessha is a rurouni." I can't tell her my name, Kenshin thought, she might know it. It doesn't seem that she recognizes me, though.

"You wish me to call you Rurouni?"

"Yes, that is what this one is." Kenshin looked down at himself, just now noticing the yukata he wore. "Oro?"

"Don't worry, Rurouni-san, that's one of my late husband's yukatas. I'll have your clothes ready later."

"Your late husband's . . . you . . . are alone here?"

"Yes, Rurouni-san, there is no one else here. It was important to get you warm as quickly as possible, you were nearly frozen. Fortunately, I saw no sign of frostbite. You are very lucky."

His eyes widened, as the impact of what she said hit him. Then, she must have been the one who undressed . . . He blushed a delicate shade of pink.

Amazing! He's blushing! Quickly turning away to hide her smile, Kioko filled a bowl with broth. "Please, have some soup, Rurouni-san. Your strength will come back more quickly if you eat."

"Just rurouni, please. Thank you, Kioko-dono." He took the bowl of soup without hesitation and began drinking. Kenshin watched her over the edge of the bowl, uncertain of the situation. He saw a calm young woman, with hazel eyes and dark brown, almost black, hair. There was a certain air of sadness around her, but she seemed to radiate a sense of composure. She didn't seem old enough to be a widow. "Is a town nearby, Kioko-dono? Sessha does not wish to impose upon you, that he does not."

"The town of Koshi is ten miles away. I'm afraid you won't be traveling for at least a day or two, Rurouni, because the blizzard is still going strong. I haven't had company for quite a while, so I'm delighted to have you stay."

The short conversation seemed to tire the rurouni, so Kioko removed the pillows and helped him to lie back down. He closed his eyes and soon went back to sleep. After changing her clothes, she let Hebo out. Placing her biggest cauldron over the fire, she filled it after fetching several buckets of water from the well. Kioko set out her laundry tub and gathered up the rurouni's clothes. The only clothing in his travel bag was a faded brown gi, which was even more threadbare than the black one he had been wearing, and a shabby grey hakama, both of which she added to the small pile of laundry. How could a man get by with so little clothing? Her husband hadn't been that much bigger than the rurouni. It should be possible to alter some of his clothes to fit the smaller man. He certainly needed warmer clothes for the winter. It would give her something to do during the next couple of days.

The wonderful smell of cooking food woke Kenshin. He opened his eyes and saw his clothes were drying on a rack next to the fire, his sakabatou and travel bag nearby. He felt warm and rested for the first time in days. I was beginning to think I would never be warm again. A blast of cold wind announced the entry of Kioko, who came in with a basket of wood, followed by a large black dog. He immediately struggled to get up to help, only to be scolded: "Lie back down, Rurouni! Don't be silly, you're not in any shape to get up!" Unable to argue with the logic of the statement, given how shaky he felt, he unhappily did as he was told.

She crossed the room and placed the basket near the fire. After checking the pot next to the fire, Kioko poured hot water into a cup. "Your medicine will be ready in a few minutes, Rurouni. I hope you're hungry, because I made enough for a small army."

"Yes, Kioko-dono, this one is hungry. The food smells delicious, that it does." He carefully sat up on the futon, crossing his legs.

"Good!" She dished up a bowlful of rice and fish. Setting it, a pair of hashi and a small dish of pickles on a tray, she spread a cloth over the futon before placing the tray in front of the rurouni. Kioko then filled a bowl for herself. "Are you warm enough, Rurouni? Would you like a blanket around your shoulders?"

"It is not necessary, Kioko-dono, I'm comfortable, thank you." Picking up the hashi, Kenshin softly muttered "itadakimasu," and began eating.

They ate in a companionable silence, neither of them needing to fill the quiet with unnecessary talk. It had been a long time since Kioko had enjoyed a meal as much. It felt good to be helpful to another again.

While Kenshin was never truly comfortable in the presence of women, he was surprised at how relaxed he felt around her. Since she lived alone, she was obviously a capable woman. She didn't chatter all the time, act flighty or coy, as did so many other women. Everything about her was calm and serene. Although he could sense her loneliness, she did not demand attention. Why is she alone? Doesn't she have any friends or family?

"Rurouni, I'm curious," Kioko finally asked, "why were you walking through the mountains in the winter?"

"Well, Kioko-dono," Kenshin said, speaking slowly, "I plan on spending the winter along the seashore further south. Unfortunately, I became ill and my departure was delayed. I had thought to accompany a merchant caravan, perhaps as a guard or cook, but the last one left while I was still sick. It has taken longer to cross the mountains than expected, and I was taken by surprise when the blizzard struck."

Kioko nodded sympathetically. "I see, just bad luck. Well, it seems your fortune has changed now." He was sick, was he? That helps explain why he is so thin.

The rest of the morning passed peacefully, with the rurouni sleeping for much of the time. Kenshin got dressed as soon as his clothes were dry, which made him feel better. He watched her do a few light chores and tried not to feel guilty for not helping out. She surprised him by noticing his discomfort.

"Don't worry about helping me, Rurouni. You can do what you like tomorrow and I won't argue with you. Just relax for today." What an interesting man. Why does he seem to feel that he doesn't deserve even the smallest of kindnesses? Why is he alone?

Kenshin woke up in the afternoon to find she was hemming a light green hakama. He laid there, watching her perform the simple task. It was nice to not have to worry about anything for a change. For a while he did not have to keep looking over his shoulder. I have to leave as soon as the weather clears up, though. I can't risk endangering this kind woman. But, for now, it feels good . . .

Seeing that he was awake, Kioko asked, "Would you like some tea?" She picked up the teapot and set it in front of him before he could reply. "You said you are a rurouni. Have you traveled long?"

He poured himself a cup of tea while he considered his reply. Kenshin hoped she would not press him for information about his past, but could not refuse to answer her question. "Yes, Kioko-dono. Sessha has traveled for three years."

"Could you tell me a bit about your travels, Rurouni? I haven't been much beyond these mountains."

Kenshin made himself comfortable and began telling her some of the more amusing stories of his journey. He found she was a good listener and he talked for longer than he had in a long time, sometimes losing himself in the memories.

Kioko was well aware that the rurouni was carefully avoiding speaking about anything prior to three years ago. Three years . . . the war ended about three years ago. Was he involved in the Revolution? How could he? He's so young! His scars . . . did he get his scars during the war? But he doesn't want to talk about it, obviously. So be it. She had never been one to pry and Kioko was certain that his earlier memories must be painful, although she wasn't sure why. She simply enjoyed listening to him talk while she sewed, laughing at some of the ridiculous situations he had found himself in.

The rest of the day went by quickly. Everyday chores seemed easier, not that there were that many to do, anyway. The rurouni's appreciation for every little thing she did, made even fixing dinner feel like a celebration. After letting Hebo out one last time and stoking up the fire for the night, she laid out a futon behind the screen, leaving the rurouni to prepare for bed in privacy. "Good night, Rurouni," Kioko called out.

"Good night, Kioko-dono."

Kenshin awoke surprised to find her already up, fixing breakfast. His training ensured that he was always aware when people were around him, even when he was asleep. After a moment's thought, Kenshin realized that he must have subconsciously recognized that she wasn't a threat and continued to sleep even after she got up. Usually, he got up at dawn. Obviously, he was more drained than he had thought. It was certainly a good thing that she found me. I would have died in the snowstorm if she hadn't. Granted, he hadn't wanted to live for a long time, but he had made a promise to Tomoe and he could not throw his life away. Her voice interrupted his musing.

"Good morning, Rurouni! Breakfast will be ready in a minute."

"Good morning, Kioko-dono. It smells good, that it does."

After they finished eating, Kioko suggested, "Perhaps you would like to wash up, Rurouni. There is plenty of hot water ready." Kioko filled two wooden buckets and set them next to her laundry tub, on a rug behind the screen. She laid out soap, a washcloth, and some drying sheets on a small stool.

"Thank you, Kioko-dono, it is most thoughtful of you to think of this, that it is."

Kenshin went behind the screen, looking forward to being clean again. Bathing did not take long, although washing his hair was a bit more difficult. Soon he was dressed and feeling much better. He walked back into the main room, still drying his hair. He was pleased that he only felt slightly weak this morning. It's amazing what a little food will do. My supplies have been pretty low for a while. Can't let that happen. I can't afford to let myself get this weak. There's no telling when I'll have to fight again. I can't protect anyone else if I can't even protect myself! He walked over to the window and sighed when he saw that the blizzard still seemed to be blowing at full strength. Turning back to the fire, he took a comb out of his travel bag and began working the snarls out of his hair.

"Sorry, Rurouni, it looks like you're stuck here today." He needs to rest more, anyway. At least this way he can't argue with me! Kioko watched him combing his hair, enjoying the sight of the shining red locks reaching down to his waist.

After emptying and cleaning Kioko's laundry tub, Kenshin helped out by bringing in firewood, buckets of water, and sweeping the floor. The look on her face when he picked up the broom was priceless. I guess her husband didn't do many household chores, he laughed to himself. When he worked at inns, sweeping was one of his regular duties.

Having finished the few morning tasks, Kioko selected a dark green gi and started shortening the sleeves. This gave her the opportunity to observe the rurouni without being too obvious. He seemed much stronger today, with a bit of color in his cheeks. All he needed was a chance to get warm and some food to eat. You know, he really is very good looking. This green is a good color for him, it will show off his red hair well. She was puzzled by the rurouni, though. He was always polite and anxious to be helpful. He smiled frequently, although she noticed it didn't always reach his eyes, which were usually guarded. Whenever he thought she wasn't looking, his cheerful expression would slip, making him look very sad and lonely. He's been through a lot and it has affected him pretty badly. He won't let himself rely on anyone. He is such a riddle.

The rurouni pleased her by talking some more about his journeying. His words painted wonderful pictures of places she would never see. It seemed like he had walked all over Japan. He was less reticent today, more open. Perhaps it's because he knows that I won't pressure him to talk about things he doesn't want to. Certainly, he hasn't pried into my past. He seems to be very sensitive about emotional issues.

Kioko accepted his offer to cook dinner, albeit somewhat dubiously. The tasty meal was quite a treat. She couldn't remember the last time someone had cooked a meal for her. His gratitude for her honest appreciation made her feel flustered. Surely someone must have respected his skills before, hadn't they? Why does such a kind man feel so worthless? The more time Kioko spent with the gentle rurouni, the higher her regard went.

The sounds of tortured moaning woke her in the middle of the night. Alarmed, Kioko ran to the rurouni's futon. He was obviously in the middle of a terrible nightmare. His face was covered in sweat, his breathing ragged. He fought the covers as though they were demons trying to tear him apart. Kioko spoke to him softly, trying to wake him, but he seemed oblivious, trapped in his own personal hell. So she reached out and gently shook his shoulder. The rurouni reacted instantly by lashing out at her with his fist, knocking her aside. Abruptly, he sat upright, grabbed his sword, and drew it from its sheath in one smooth movement, aiming it directly at her. He looked around wildly, panting heavily, as though he had been fighting. Blanching, his eyes widened in shock – changing from amber to violet in an instant – when he saw her cringing away from his sword, her hand pressed to her reddening cheek.

"Oh, Kami-sama! I'm very sorry, Kioko-dono! Please, forgive me! I'm so sorry!" Kenshin exclaimed, his voice trembling. He looked down at the sword in his hand and dropped it as though it were burning. Reaching towards her, he whispered, "Are you all right? Did I hurt you badly? I . . . almost . . . gods! . . . I almost . . ."

It took all of her self-control to stay still, to not flinch away from the distraught rurouni. Then she became angry with herself for her fearful reaction. Fool! You know he was a soldier! You don't just wake up a soldier from a nightmare like that, you know that! Kioko took a deep breath and sat up. "I'm fine, don't worry about me, Rurouni-san. It was very stupid of me to wake you like that."

Eyes stricken, Kenshin looked at her cheek, which was already showing signs of bruising. He shook his head, letting his hand drop, and turned away from her. How could I do that?! I thought I had learned how to control my reactions better than that. I hit her! I . . . hit . . . her! I can't protect others . . . I'm the one people need to be protected from! "I'm very sorry, Kioko-dono," Kenshin repeated hoarsely.

He looked so ashamed of himself that Kioko immediately moved forward and carefully put her arms around him, wordlessly forgiving him. He sat there stiffly, unmoving within her arms. "Rurouni, please listen to me. You did not mean to hit me, it was a reflex, I know that. I understand that you were a soldier. It may take years before your fighting reflexes relax, especially when you are startled. My father was a soldier when he was young and I remember some of the nightmares he had. I cannot blame you for my own stupidity." Kioko felt him slowly begin to relax. Gently, she released him, watching him closely.

Kenshin raised his head to look into her eyes, astonished by the understanding he saw there. She thinks I was a soldier? Well, it's true, of course, but I was so much more . . . I will never be able to leave my past behind, will I? he thought bitterly. He carefully read her ki, looking for signs of fear or distrust, and was reassured when he realized that she truly was as calm as she looked.

Kioko returned his look with compassion, noting how sorrowful his violet eyes were. His eyes . . . they were gold for a moment . . . I'm sure of it. It was only for a few seconds, but . . . they were not the eyes of the gentle man I know . . . they were dreadful. What has he been through?!

Feeling that it was time to distract him from his guilt, she looked around for something to say. Her eyes fell on his sword, lying on the futon where he had dropped it, and she noticed that it didn't look right. Looking more closely, Kioko realized that the blade was reversed. Without thinking, she said, "Your sword . . . the blade . . . why is the blade reversed?" No sooner had the words left her mouth, than she instantly regretted saying them. That's just great! You've just reminded him that he drew his sword on you. That's going to make him feel so much better, Kioko, you baka! It was too late to pretend she hadn't just said the wrong thing, so Kioko continued, "I've never seen a sword like that before." She knelt there, just looking at him serenely, patiently waiting for him to answer.

Kenshin's head jerked up, guarded eyes appraising her. He stared at her for a long moment, before looking away in shame. Reaching down, Kenshin sheathed the odd sword with a sigh. "This is a sakabatou. Ever since the war ended, sessha has refused to carry a killing sword," he said reluctantly. Please, no more questions, not now!

"I see," Kioko replied quietly, although she didn't, actually "Please forgive my rude question, it really is none of my business. Would you like me to fix you some tea or something to eat?"

"No, Kioko-dono. Thank you."

"In that case, I'm going to go back to bed. Good night, Rurouni."

"Good night, Kioko-dono."

Kioko returned to her futon behind the screen, taking her medicine box with her. Before lying down, she applied a soothing herbal salve to her cheek. It would reduce any swelling and lessen the bruising. She lay there for a long time, staring at the ceiling and remembering the rurouni's golden eyes. For that moment, he had seemed like a completely different person. A very frightening person . . . perhaps, a killer. Well, he was a soldier. Soldiers kill during war. The war obviously affected him deeply, and now he carries a non-killing sword. But, if he is against killing, why carry a sword at all? Truly, this man is an enigma, wrapped in a mystery.

Kenshin sat there, gazing into the flames, and listened to her moving around behind the screen. He smelled the green fragrance of the herbal medication she used. Her ki indicated that she was not relaxed, but pensive, instead. He could guess what she was thinking about, although he did not sense any anger, only confusion. Finally, her ki settled down into the quiet rhythm of sleep.

He let his thoughts revolve around the tragic incident. Of course he knew he had nightmares, they came almost every night. During the Bakumatsu, his reflexes were honed so sharply that, if awakened suddenly, he automatically reacted violently. Tomoe . . . even Tomoe . . . had experienced my violence. But the war was over years ago. Hadn't the last three years of wandering allowed his reflexes to relax at all? On the other hand, the cold voice in his mind noted wryly, getting attacked at irregular intervals doesn't exactly help, now, does it? But tonight . . . tonight he had assaulted a harmless woman, whose only fault was to be too concerned about his welfare. Kenshin couldn't remember the last time he had felt so ashamed. Sleep was an impossibility, so he just made himself as comfortable as he could and proceeded to wait until morning.

Kenshin could tell by the changes in her ki that she was close to awakening. Setting the water kettle on the fire, he prepared to make tea. He was not looking forward to spending an awkward day with Kioko. He had no choice, however, since the snowstorm showed no indication of letting up any time soon. How long can a blizzard last, anyway?

Kioko wakened late that morning and laid there for a few relaxed moments before she remembered last night's nightmare. She put her hand up to her cheek, feeling the mild ache of the bruise. I hope it doesn't look too bad, he already feels awful enough as it is. Well, I can't put this off forever, might as well get up and get on with it. Kioko dressed and brushed her hair quickly, then used a little mirror to examine her cheek. Not as bad as I was afraid it would be. Good.

When Kioko came around the screen, she was met with a pot of tea and breakfast, ready and waiting. The rurouni was dressed and kneeling before the fire. He flinched when he saw the bruise and looked away quickly. His face settled into a blank mask, his eyes bleak. Before she could say anything, he lowered himself into a deep obeisance, forehead nearly touching the floor.

"Please, pardon sessha, Kioko-dono, for the pain this one caused you last night. It was unforgivable, and I swear that you need have no fear of a repetition of such behavior."

Kioko blinked at his abject apology. Now what do I do? What should I say? It wasn't his fault! Unexpectedly, she chuckled, causing him to look up at her in confusion. Wonderful, Kioko, now you've insulted him! That's going to make him feel much better! Baka!

"I'm very sorry, Rurouni-san! I'm sorry!" she said, while bowing apologetically. "I am not laughing at you, truly! Of course I forgive you. Although, I'm the one who should be apologizing, for putting you into such a ridiculous posi– . . . ah . . . I mean, situation. I got precisely what I deserved, for waking you that way, especially since I knew you were a soldier. I've already told you, I know better. You can be sure I won't make that mistake again! As for this," Kioko touched her cheek, "it's nothing. It will be gone in a day or two. Now, please, get up and let's have breakfast."

He looked at her, wide-eyed, for a moment, before quickly looking down again. Trying to determine if she was serious, Kenshin studied her ki, noting that it was tranquil, her eyes relaxed. Slowly, he sat up and silently began to serve up breakfast. She might forgive me, but I cannot! How could I do that to her?!

Upon seeing the rurouni's face once again become expressionless and his eyes darken in pain, Kioko sighed to herself. This isn't going to be easy. I've got to do something to convince him that I know what happened was only an accident. Hebo whined, distracting her. Still thinking about what to say, she walked over to the door to let him out.

"My brother, Tatsuo, was a soldier, too, during the Bakumatsu," Kioko said, as she looked out the window into the storm, "he fought and died in Kyoto." She didn't see the rurouni freeze in place.

No! Oh, please Kami-sama, no! Kenshin thought despairingly. Not another victim!

"I only got to see him twice after he began fighting," she reminisced, "but I remember how jumpy and nervous he was. I startled him pretty badly a couple of times without meaning to. Mother said my father was the same way after he came home from the war."

It might not have been me who killed him. Maybe he fought for the Ishin Shishi. Kenshin cleared his throat before speaking, "Ah, Kioko-dono, which side did your brother fight for?"

Kioko turned away from the window and walked to stand before the fire. "He didn't want to get involved, but the daimyo conscripted almost all of the young men in this region. Tatsuo wound up fighting for the Shogunate." Kioko shook her head at the painful memory.

Closing his eyes, Kenshin bowed his head. "What did your brother do during the war?" he asked, in a near whisper.

"He was a good swordsman, so he acted as a bodyguard to some Bakufu official," Kioko replied, not noticing that the rurouni paled and shuddered convulsively. "Anyway, I just wanted you to know that I do understand a soldier's reflexes. What happened last night was not something you did consciously. You were in the middle of a nightmare and I startled you. I don't want you to worry about me, I'm fine. Now, that's enough about that. Why don't we eat?"

Slowly, Kenshin placed the dishes onto the trays, which he set in front of the fire. However, his appetite had disappeared and he merely played with his rice, before giving it up as a lost cause. Fortunately, Kioko did not notice how quiet he had become.

She surprised him after breakfast by presenting him with the dark green gi and light green hakama she had altered. "Try them on. They were my husband's, but they should fit now." When he hesitated, Kioko gently insisted, "Please, Rurouni."

Kenshin recognized the clothing that she had been working on the day before. She wants to give these to me, even after last night? Hesitating for a few moments longer, Kenshin accepted the clothes with a deep bow. He went behind the screen to put them on, finding that the warm clothes fit well enough. He stepped back into the room, saying, "Thank you very much, Kioko-dono, these are fine clothes, that they are."

"You are welcome. You look good in them, Rurouni. I'm happy to see those old things get used, instead of just sitting in a chest." Anata, I remember when you wore those . . . it was a festival day early in October . . . even though the sun was shining, the wind was chilly . . . It took an effort, but the threatening tears did not fall.

"Kioko-dono, are you all right?" Kenshin quickly went over to her, worried about the grief in her eyes.

"I'm all right, Rurouni, honest. I was just indulging in a memory. I really am happy to see you in those clothes. By tomorrow, I'll have another set ready for you. Which do you prefer, blue or brown?"

"Oro? Blue, I suppose, Kioko-dono. Yes, sessha likes blue, that he does. But I don't want you to go to any further trouble . . ."

"Blue, it is, then." Kioko went over to the chest and pulled out a blue gi and white hakama. She brought them over to the fire and dropped them next to her sewing basket. "Want some tea, Rurouni?" Kioko turned to set out cups and the teapot on a small table. She arranged some chigashi on a plate, placing it next to the teapot.

"Yes, Kioko-dono, thank you."

Kenshin brought two cushions over and placed them in front of the fire, kneeling on one. He accepted the cup she handed to him and took a cautious sip of the hot tea, before lapsing into an introspective silence while staring into the crackling fire. I killed her brother! I wonder which official was my target? I'm so sorry, Kioko . . .

Oh, no, you don't! I'm not going to let you brood all day. "Do you play Igo, Rurouni?" Kioko almost laughed, because he jumped at the sound of her voice, nearly spilling his tea.

His dark thoughts interrupted, Kenshin turned to look at her. "Yes, Kioko-dono, this one plays the game. It is an interesting exercise in tactics, that it is."

She went to get the board and stones. 'Exercise in tactics,' indeed. Hasn't he ever done anything just for fun? Moving the little table aside, Kioko set the board and bowls down between the cushions. "Shall I let you have black?" His gentle smile, as he shook his head, charmed her.

"I will play white, Kioko-dono, and give you a three-stone handicap."

"That confident, are you?" Kioko chuckled as she set three black stones on the board. "I think you will regret your generosity." She then threaded a needle and picked up the blue gi. She smiled at the rurouni's bewildered look and assured him that sewing would not hamper her game.

Kenshin quickly stopped worrying about her sewing, as she soon proved to be an extremely capable opponent. She was just as ruthless as his Shishou, although certainly not as insulting, capturing two strings in short order. Kenshin found his attention totally focused on the game, anticipating her strategies and planning his counter-moves. He found it somewhat disconcerting that she could sit there placidly working on the sleeves of the gi, apparently not focusing on the game at all, and yet place a stone on a strong attack point unhesitatingly after each of his moves. His Master had not taught Kenshin Igo to merely have fun. Oh, no. No training opportunity was ever wasted. After a session of Igo, Kenshin usually felt mentally as battered as he did physically after a long day of training. However, he was grateful for all the lectures on strategic tactics his Shishou had inflicted on him during their games. They had been useful on many occasions.

After removing the dead stones, they prepared to calculate their scores. It had been an exhilarating game. In the end, Kenshin won, but only by one point.

"Thank you, Kioko-dono, for an excellent game. You are a very proficient player."

"That's kind of you, Rurouni. We played most evenings, my husband and I. It's been quite a while since I've played and I am out of practice. No handicap for the next game, and you may play black."

"You are too modest, Kioko-dono. I agree to no handicap, but I will play white."

"And you are stubborn, Rurouni," she laughed.

They decided to take care of the chores before beginning another game. He brought in wood and water, followed around by Hebo. Kioko prepared a light lunch and filled the kettle with water to heat over the fire. The anticipation of another game cheering them both.

This game was played in an intense atmosphere, each move carefully planned, no quarter asked or given. Kenshin could remember battles that had been fought with less ferocity. He noticed that Kioko had finished the gi and was now hemming the hakama. Incredible! How can she sew at a time like this? Shishou would have his hands full with this mild-mannered woman. And he wouldn't be able to vent his frustration on her with insults either. That thought almost made him laugh. Almost. Pushing the distracting thought away, Kenshin returned his attention to the board, looking for a weakness in her defense.

At the end of the game, they silently placed the captures onto their vacant points, then began counting the remaining empty intersections. Again, the rurouni won, this time by two points. The rurouni stood up, stretching, while Kioko put the game away.

Kioko shook her head, smiling with pleasure. She hadn't had this much fun in a long time. She was surprised to see that it was dark already. The rurouni was busying himself preparing dinner, chopping vegetables and setting rice aside to steam.

Later, while she washed the few dishes, Kioko listened to the sound of the snowstorm outside. It seemed to be easing off. Perhaps it would blow itself out tonight or tomorrow. She knew the rurouni would leave soon after the storm ended. It would be hard to be alone again. Well, I won't think about that right now. There will be time to deal with that when it happens.

To Be Continued

Author's Notes: This is the first piece of fiction I have ever written, fan fiction or otherwise, unless you want to count "What I Did During Summer Vacation" school reports. Because of that, I apologize for any inconsistencies you may find in the story. I would like to thank all the people who have taken the time to read this story. Domo arigatou gozaimasu, minasan!

On November 21, 2005, Fan Fiction Dot Net announced that reviewer responses will no longer be allowed. I will reply individually to signed reviews from now on. Anyone who wishes to leave an anonymous review will have to give me an email address, if they want me to respond to their review. I wish to thank all the people who take the time to review my chapters, you have no idea how much I appreciate your letting me know what you think about my stories!

Japanese Words:

anata - literally "you," means "honey" or "dear" when used by a wife to her husband; my beloved

baka - idiot, fool, moron, etc; all-purpose and occasionally affectionate insult

Bakufu - military government of the Shogunate, which was overthrown by the Revolution

Bakumatsu - the late Tokugawa Shogunate Era, just before the Meiji Restoration; also another name for the civil war, which went from 1862-1868, that pitted the anti emperor Shogunate forces against the pro-emperor Ishin Shishi forces (also known as the Revolution)

chigashi - tea sweets, made from a base of mochi (A popular (and extremely yummy) Japanese dessert; it's a special type of rice that's been pounded to the consistency of marshmallow and rolled into balls and/or stuffed with various ingredients.)

Choshu - also known as Nagato Province, it is now part of Yamaguchi Prefecture; it was one of the most anti Shogun provinces, fought for the Ishin Shishi

daimyo - feudal lord; these people were the next rank above samurai in Japan's feudal era class system and were usually the major landowners

domo arigatou gozaimasu - the most formal version of "thank you very much"

-dono - an honorific term one step above -san

engawa - porch

futon - the thin, soft mattresses many Japanese sleep on; they are folded and stored in cabinets when not in use

gaijin - foreigner

gi - kimono shirt; a fighter's or sword practitioner's shirt

ginseng - an herb which boosts the immune system

hakama - A divided or undivided skirt, rather like a very wide pair of pants, traditionally worn only by men but now worn also by women, and also worn in certain sports such as aikido or kendo. A hakama typically has pleats, and a koshiita – a stiff or padded part in the lower back of the wearer.

hanten - a short coat

hashi - chopsticks

Hebo - the name of the dog in the story, The Blizzard, it means "clumsy"

Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu - Flying sword to heaven philosophy. Himura Kenshin's sword technique, used more often for defense than offense. An ancient style that pits one against many, it requires exceptional speed and agility to master.

Igo - the Japanese name for the game of Go

Ishin Shishi - the name given to the pro-emperor forces from Choshu and Satsuma during the Bakumatsu (another name for the civil war that pitted the anti emperor Shogunate forces against the pro-emperor Ishin Shishi forces)

itadakimasu - a little phrase one is supposed to say before one eats a meal, it means roughly "I'm receiving/appreciating this food"

kami - god

Kami-sama - Lord God

Kenshin - The main character of the manga and anime series, Rurouni Kenshin, created by Watsuki Nobuhiro. A swordsman of legendary skills and former assassin (hitokiri) of the Ishin Shishi. Kenshin means "heart of the sword."

ki - a person's "aura," or swordfighting spirit

Koshi - the name of a town in the story, The Blizzard, it means "riverside"

minasan - everyone

miso - fermented bean paste; it's usually made into soup (misoshiru)

Miyuki Kioko - a main character in the story, The Blizzard, her name means: Miyuki – "deep snow;" and Kioko – "happy child"

oro - Nobuhiro Watsuki-sensei's made up word, in the Rurouni Kenshin anime series, Himura Kenshin's version of "huh?"

reishi - a medicinal mushroom that enhances the immune system

Revolution - another name for the civil war, also known as the Bakumatsu, which went from 1862-1868, that pitted the anti emperor Shogunate forces against the pro-emperor Ishin Shishi forces (also known as the Bakumatsu)

ronin - a masterless samurai

rurouni - Nobuhiro Watsuki-sensei's made up word, in the Rurouni Kenshin anime series, it means "wanderer"

sakabatou - Nobuhiro Watsuki-sensei's made up word, in the Rurouni Kenshin anime series, it means "reverse blade sword"

-san - an honorific

Satsuma - a southern province, now the western half of Kagoshima Prefecture; it was very anti Shogunate, but it had a long history of bitter rivalries with Choshu province

sessha - an archaic Japanese term, literally "this unworthy one," how Himura Kenshin in the Rurouni Kenshin anime series refers to himself in first person

Shishou - master teacher of swordsmanship; Himura Kenshin's master, Hiko Seijuro, the Thirteenth Master of Hiten Mitsurugi

Shogunate - the military rulers of Japan, they ruled from 1192-1867

Tomoe - Yukishiro Tomoe was Kenshin's wife, he accidentally killed her in a fight to the death with a Shogunate samurai

yukata - An informal unlined summer kimono usually made of cotton, linen, or hemp. Yukata are most often worn to outdoor festivals, by men and women of all ages. They are also worn at onsen (hot springs) resorts, where they are often provided for the guests in the resort's own pattern. Yukata are also worn under a kimono or gi, and for sleeping.