Disclaimer: This fan fiction is based on the Rurouni Kenshin manga and anime series. Rurouni Kenshin characters are the property of creator Watsuke 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 Two

After finishing the dishes, Kioko made tea before joining the rurouni by the fire. She poured tea for both of them, the rurouni taking his absently, only to set the cup down without drinking. After sitting in silence for a while, Kioko began surreptitiously watching him. His face was empty again, eyes shadowed, looking into an indeterminate distance. It was a good idea to play Igo today. It definitely took his mind off his troubles. But they seem to have come back with a vengeance. He doesn't look like he plans on sleeping tonight. As if worrying himself into exhaustion is going to help! She took a sip of tea, while considering what to say that might ease his conscience.

"You were right, Kioko-dono, I was a soldier during the Bakumatsu."

His soft voice was so unexpected, Kioko nearly jumped in fright. She turned to fully look at him. The rurouni's head was lowered, his fiery bangs hiding his eyes. He wants to talk about his past? That's a surprise. Kioko settled herself, prepared to listen for as long as necessary.

"I was a soldier," he repeated slowly, "but I was not always a soldier. Before that, I was a bodyguard. And before that. . . I was. . ." Kenshin's voice trailed off. How can I tell her?

Kioko waited patiently for him to continue. Obviously, this was difficult for the rurouni to talk about. She had the feeling that he had not shared his experiences with anyone for a long time, if at all.

Start from the beginning. Kenshin began speaking again, his voice carefully neutral. "I left my Shishou, against his wishes, to participate in the Revolution."

Kioko blinked, confused by the apparent change of subject. Nani? Shishou?

"He knew I was not ready to face the realities of war. I was already a skilled swordsman, although not fully trained, but I lacked the maturity to understand the consequences of my actions. All I knew was that I could not stand aside and watch innocent people suffer under the cruelty of the Bakufu. I had to do something!" Again, he stopped, not saying anything for a long time.

Kioko watched as he sat there, silent, his posture stiff, tense. Why is he telling me this? It is clearly very painful for him.

"I left the security of my Shishou's mountain and joined the Choushu han of the Ishin Shishi. I was told my sword would make a difference. I could help bring about a new era of peace and equality. I wanted to do that so much! But what did I know? I was fourteen, what could I know about such things? My Shishou was right, I was a fool." His voice was low, filled with bitterness. I was so certain that I could right the wrongs done in the name of the Bakufu. Was I acting upon my principles, or did my pride guide my actions? It doesn't matter, though. Either way, the end result remains the same.

He was only fourteen?! Kioko was dumbfounded. What could the Ishin Shishi have been thinking? Were they so desperate, they needed a boy to fight their war?

"I swore my blade to the cause of the Ishin Shishi. I agreed to do whatever was necessary to bring about the new age. . . to protect the weak and innocent. . . to make a difference. Katsura-san asked me if I could kill, for my ideals, and I said . . . yes." Now he was staring into the fire, the flames reflected in his pain-filled eyes.

Katsura-san? Katsura Kogorou? Leader of the Choushu clan? She suddenly became angry at Katsura for asking the youth to fight, to kill. How dare Katsura use a boy as a tool to achieve his own purposes, no matter how noble they might be!

"I was prepared to soil my blade. . . to sacrifice my childish innocence so that others could live quiet lives. I believed that because I had the skills, it was my responsibility to bring about justice. I thought I knew what I was doing. Hn!" he snorted derisively. Fool!

He had such high ideals! Kioko thought. His heart was certainly in the right place. He was so very young, though, scarcely out of childhood. He wasn't ready to make such decisions.

"There are many ways to fight a war," Kenshin remarked, seemingly irrelevantly, with no inflection in his voice. "You can destroy valuable property, materials and supplies. You can conquer important areas of the country, thus controlling the enemy's movements and supplies. You can reduce the enemy's numbers in large-scale battles. You can also eliminate key personnel, thereby weakening an enemy's effectiveness." He stopped talking again, shifting uncomfortably. Eliminate key personnel. . . is that how you describe it? the cold voice in his mind said mockingly. Don't you mean murder?

What is he talking about? He sounds like he's reading from a treatise on warfare, rather than what he did during the Revolution. Kioko waited for the rurouni to continue, but the silence dragged on. When it became almost painful, she finally spoke up. "You don't need to tell me anything, Rurouni. Whatever happened in the past, is just that – in the past. You don't have to explain yourself to me."

"Sessha disagrees, Kioko-dono," he replied softly. "You rescued me, gave me medicine, food and clothing. . ."

Kioko interrupted, "Anyone would have done that, Rurouni!"

Kenshin continued quietly, as if he hadn't heard her. "This one cannot tell you how ashamed he is to have returned your kindness with such violence."

Kioko lifted her hand, shaking her head in vehement denial, "Rurouni. . ."

"You deserve to hear the truth, Kioko-dono. Sessha owes you that much, after what this one did to you last night," he insisted, self-condemnation thick in his voice. Yes, the truth! the voice demanded. Will you tell her the complete truth?

All color draining from his face, he faltered, then went on, "When I joined the Ishin Shishi I became an. . . assassin. And not just another assassin. . . I was the Shadow Hitokiri. I was known as the Hitokiri Battousai." Kenshin's voice had dropped to a toneless whisper. Blood. . . dripping from my sword. . . running down the street. . . He knelt there, staring at his hands – twisting together in distress – without seeing them, his body shaking from inner turmoil.

Kioko could hardly believe what she had heard. HE was the Battousai?! The most infamous assassin of the Bakumatsu?! Even though she and her husband lived in the mountains, well away from the bloody battles of the Revolution, they had heard of the notorious Manslayer, who was known for his bloodlust. Wandering soldiers and merchants had spread the tales of the bloodthirsty killer. Kioko sat there, feeling numb. It was one thing to know that the rurouni was a soldier, but to find out that he had been the feared Hitokiri, responsible for the deaths of countless numbers! And now this murderer was sitting across from her! Fear clawed its way up her spine to her throat, choking her. Before she could say anything, however, he went on.

"My hands are. . . I am. . . drenched. . . in the blood of hundreds of victims," he paused, his voice breaking. "I have killed so many. . ." He took a deep, shuddering breath, face twisting, his self-hatred all too apparent. "I could not leave any witnesses. That was the policy. I couldn't just kill the intended targets. I had to eliminate bodyguards and companions, as well, if they saw me." You did your job, the voice of the Battousai was indifferent, if you hadn't taken care of the witnesses, they would have hunted you down and killed you. "That was hard. . . so hard. They didn't stand a chance against me. They didn't deserve death that way, no one does." As he talked, he seemed to collapse from within, head bowed, shoulders sagging beneath the weight of endless guilt and remorse. Was your brother one of those innocents I butchered? The thought grieved him deeply. After everything you've done for me, was I the one who brought you such sorrow?

'They didn't stand a chance against me.' He sounds so matter-of-fact about that. He was only fourteen at the time and he was that deadly? Kioko had never been so confused. She could not reconcile her experiences with this gentle rurouni, against the knowledge that he had been an implacable manslayer. Is he lying? No. His pain and guilt are real. I've never met anyone as tortured as he is.

Kenshin cleared his throat, continuing in a subdued, almost conversational, tone, "You know, I thought I could do whatever it took to bring on the new era, but a part of me died every time I killed. Each time I did an assignment, I became a little less human." Hn! You became me, you mean, Battousai snapped. "But I had sworn to fight for the rebellion and I could not honorably withdraw my sword."

Honor! Kioko almost spat the word out loud, the intensity of her feelings surprising her. Where was Katsura's honor when he asked a boy to become a killer?! The youth had accepted self-destruction because of honor. She had seen far too much pain and suffering caused by honor, to be impressed with the concept.

"At first, I didn't understand the full enormity of what I was doing. I thought I was just eliminating an enemy. It took an exceptional woman to show me that I was doing much more than just killing an opponent " Kenshin stopped, closing his eyes before continuing, his voice rough with emotion. "I was also hurting all of the people in each of my victims' lives and, at the same time, I was killing myself." Himura Kenshin was weak, he deserved to die, Battousai stated brutally. "She believed in me, and showed me that it was possible for me to find inner peace. I swore to her that, when the war was over, I would never kill again." For the first time since he had started talking, he looked directly at Kioko, his eyes glistening with unshed tears.

Was that Tomoe? Kioko wondered. Is she the woman he's referring to? The one he had the nightmare about? He wanted to die, didn't he? She convinced him to live, gave him a reason to survive. She must have been a remarkable woman.

"After that, I couldn't be an assassin any longer." Coward! Battousai snarled. "I became a bodyguard and mobile attacker, instead. It felt better to protect people, but I still had to kill regularly. When the war openly broke out and the battles started, I became a soldier. I fought and killed in the open, instead of in the shadows." Yes, making yourself a target for anyone with a grudge, was Battousai's scathing response. Don't try to tell me you didn't have a death wish! "At least I no longer had to worry about killing innocent people, just because they happened to be with the wrong person."

He has seen so much death, she thought sympathetically, then mentally shook her head. What am I saying?! He has caused so much death and misery. I should fear him, even hate him, but. . . I don't. Why? I don't understand. . .

"I was given permission to leave after the battle of Toba Fushimi. I left my katana at the battlefield and walked away. I have vowed to never kill again and to dedicate my life to repenting for all the deaths and pain I have caused. I carry a sakabatou because using a sword is the only way I know to protect people. There are those who do not desire a new era, who do not want to lose the power they once had. Many former soldiers and ronin have turned to banditry because they cannot see any other way to survive in these days. It has not yet become easier for the common people to live in these troubled times. I do what I can to defend those I meet during my travels, without killing." How long do you think you can keep up this charade? the icy voice of the Battousai demanded. Are you willing to die, rather than kill?

He protects people without killing? The notorious Battousai wants to repent for his actions? Is that why he became a rurouni? Kioko felt dizzy from all of the emotions she had experienced during his revelations. She had so many questions, but didn't feel she had the right to ask. Wait. . . he said something about when he joined the Ishin Shishi. . . something about how he couldn't stand by and watch people suffer. . . he had to do something. . . He still feels that way! He hasn't really changed that much since then, he's still trying to protect people. Kioko took a deep, calming breath to help bring order to her chaotic thoughts. "Rurouni, thank you for telling me about yourself, I know it isn't easy."

Kenshin nodded sadly, and then went on. "As you know, Kioko-dono, I have nightmares about the war most nights. I still remember the faces of all of my victims. I doubt that I will ever forget them. I accept that as simple justice for my actions. It is the least I deserve for the suffering I have caused."

The sorrow in Kenshin's voice made Kioko feel like weeping in sympathy. He was so young! He was willing to sacrifice himself for the good of the people. He did not realize how it would affect him for the rest of his life. To the Ishin Shishi, he was probably considered a hero of the Revolution. But he sees himself as just a monster who destroyed lives, who scarcely deserves to live.

Kenshin looked back down at his hands, now clenched tightly together, the knuckles white. "I did not tell you about my past in order to excuse my unforgivable behavior last night." Why did you tell her? Battousai wanted to know. Do you really think she understands? Or have you just given her more reasons to fear you?

"Rurouni," Kioko interrupted, allowing a touch of severity to show in her voice, "we've been through that already. You did not attack me last night! I triggered your response by thoughtlessly waking you from a nightmare."

His guilt-filled eyes locked with hers, "Kioko-dono, I told you about myself because I. . . I. . ." he stopped, the lump in his throat making it almost impossible to talk. He shook his head, swallowing heavily before continuing, his voice raspy. "I think I was responsible for your brother's death. I think I killed him during one of my assignments." He felt her ki spike and had to look away from the sudden anguish in her eyes.

"No. . ." she whispered brokenly.

Kenshin knelt there, lost in the deepest despair he had felt since the war. It had been hard enough living with the knowledge that he had destroyed the lives of all the families of his many victims, but this! To know that he had caused such pain to the kind woman who had saved his life! What could he do to repent for such a tragedy?

Kioko sat there, thinking of her beloved brother, remembering him as he was the last time she saw him. He had been laughing at some joke their father had told him. Unbidden, the image shifted. Now she saw the flash of a sword and he was lying in a pool of his own blood, his laughter forever stilled. Did the Battousai kill Tatsuo? He had fought so bravely through the war, only to die at the end. It just wasn't fair! Something stirred in the back of her mind. The end of the war. . . when did Tatsuo die? But the rurouni said. . .

"Rurouni, tell me. When did you leave the Revolution?" Kioko asked, watching him intently.

Kenshin looked at her uncertainly. "I left right after the battle of Toba Fushimi. Why?"

"That's what I thought you said. Tatsuo died over a month after Toba Fushimi. That means you didn't kill him!"

I didn't kill him! The tremendous sense of relief Kenshin felt was short lived, though. "I am very glad I didn't kill your brother, that I am. But it doesn't really change anything. I am still hurting people, whether or not I want to. I injured you last night, because I could not control my reflexes. People suffer, just because I exist! I am hunted: by those out for revenge, and men who want the reputation of having killed the Battousai. These people have proven that they will not hesitate to endanger those around me, if it will suit their purposes." That would not be a problem, Battousai growled, if you would let me take care of them! "This is why I never stay in one place for too long. To do so will only put others in danger. Just as I am jeopardizing you now."

"Even if this is true, what is your point? You say, 'People suffer, just because I exist.' You feel responsible for the pain caused by those who wish you harm. But it's not your responsibility! It lies directly upon the heads of the men who want you dead. They do not have to hurt others to attack you. If they do, then judgement is solely upon them, not you! Do you understand?" She had a thought and tilted her head, questioningly. "What do you want to do? Die, in an attempt to stop others from being hurt? Is that what Tomoe would want you to do?" The last comment was a stab in the dark, but Kioko felt it was the right thing to say.

The rurouni winced and shook his head, then looked at her suddenly. "How do you know about Tomoe?" he asked sharply, his eyes narrowing suspiciously. "And what makes you think she doesn't want me to die?"

"You called for her while you were unconscious," she answered steadily. "She is the woman you spoke about earlier, isn't she? The one who helped you understand that you were hurting more people than just your enemies. If she didn't want you to hurt other people, then I'm sure she wouldn't want you to kill yourself." Kioko met his glare effortlessly, undismayed by the sting of his voice.

"Yes," Kenshin agreed, after taking a deep breath, "you are right. Tomoe would not allow me to throw my life away, that she would not."

"Besides, your death would not stop the misery. Alive, you've got a chance to alleviate some of the pain and sorrow being experienced by others. You've got to quit being so hard on yourself! What happened in the past cannot be changed. All you can do now is deal with the consequences, which is exactly what you've been doing all along, ne?"

He nodded in agreement, though not looking happy about it. "Sessha has tried to stay out of trouble, but not always successfully. It seems the best thing to do is to keep moving, to make it harder for those searching for this one." You run away, instead of dealing with the bastards, Battousai said, disgusted.

Kioko considered this, before suggesting, "Maybe, but wouldn't you be safer if you went to the government? It seems to me that they would be willing to give you a job, since you were so instrumental in bringing about the Meiji era."

"Do you think I want a reward for being a manslayer?" he said coldly, eyes flashing. "I neither want, nor deserve, recognition for my actions during the Bakumatsu. I am not proud of what I did during the Revolution. I have left the life of a hitokiri behind me and now want nothing more than to live a quiet life, protecting those around me to the best of my ability."

Kioko bowed her head, surprised by the fierceness of his reaction. "Forgive me, Rurouni-san, I did not mean to anger you."

He sighed. "Kenshin. My name is Himura Kenshin. It is all right, Kioko-dono, I am not angry with you."

"Arigatou, Kenshin." Kioko looked into his eyes, speaking earnestly, "You were an important part of the reason the Imperialists won the Revolution, weren't you? You are a patriot of the Ishin Shishi. I am certain you have earned the respect of the leaders of the Meiji government."

"Perhaps," Kenshin replied quietly. "But you do not understand what it was like during the war. I was feared as much by the Ishin Shishi as by the Shogunate forces. The lifespan of a hitokiri was measured in months. If they were not killed during an assignment or by another assassin, as most were, they were frequently eliminated by their own people. Sometimes because they went mad, but often because they knew too much and were considered too dangerous. I think that Katsura-san protected me from the Ishin Shishi because he knew I believed in his ideals. If I were to reappear, I am certain that there are many who would not be happy, because of what I represent."

"You are right, Kenshin, I don't understand. Are you saying that your life is in jeopardy from the very government you helped to establish?" Kioko was upset by the injustice of the situation. Could the government really consider him such a danger?

"It is possible, Kioko-dono, that it is. However, even if it is not the case, this one does not wish for the government to acknowledge his part in the Revolution. Sessha wants the Hitokiri Battousai to fade into the background, to simply disappear." You cannot get rid of me, Battousai challenged. I am the strongest part of you!

"So you have become an anonymous rurouni, traveling throughout Japan? You have done this deliberately, in order to avoid those who are searching for you?"

"Hai, Kioko-dono. That, plus sessha thinks he can do more to help others if he is a true free sword and not bound to one place or group." Shishou, that is what you tried to tell me the day I left. I'm sorry I didn't understand then. I truly was a baka deshi.

Kioko thought about what Kenshin had said. Given how badly he feels about what he did during the Revolution, I doubt that he is going to accept anything I might say in his defense, but I've got to try. "Kenshin, you are not proud of what you did during the war, but try to remember this: You did what you felt you had to do back then to protect others. You acted upon your convictions. No one can fault you for that. I certainly don't."

Kenshin frowned, shaking his head. "No. It is not that simple, Kioko-dono. Too many people have been hurt because of my. . . convictions, as you put it."

"It is true that many people suffered because of the Revolution, some of them because of your actions. However, how many more people will be able to live peaceful lives now that the new era is upon us? An era you helped to create. What about the children who will grow up never knowing the cruelty of the Shogunate?" She watched him closely, waiting to see his reaction. He was watching her quietly and, although pale, he seemed to be less tense.

Kenshin finally looked away, wanting desperately to believe her, but not quite daring to.

She mentally sighed when she saw that his shadowed eyes did not lighten, remaining pain-filled. I was right, he is not ready to believe that he is a worthwhile person, even though he did what he did for a greater good. "All you wanted to do was save people from misery and unhappiness. You are still doing that, although in a different way. Can't you see that you haven't really changed that much?"

He nodded tiredly, but would not meet her eyes. If only that were true. . . Kenshin picked up the forgotten cup of now cold tea and took a sip, focusing on the dying flames of the fire.

Kioko realized that Kenshin wanted to end the painful conversation, so she also took a drink of cold tea as a way to bridge the silence. Her thoughts scattered and whirled like leaves in a gusting wind. Well, I never expected I would ever be face to face with a living legend! Although there are those who would say 'demon,' instead. Even after everything he had told her, she found it difficult to believe that the quiet, sorrowful man sitting next to her was the fearsome Battousai. Who would have thought that he would be haunted by guilt and the ghosts of his victims? The tales all said that he exulted in the terror he created and delighted in the sight of blood running everywhere. Right! And he was supposed to be seven feet tall, with fangs, too. The reality that this small, almost delicate, man was the 'Demon of the Bakumatsu' was almost shocking.

Feeling that Kenshin might want some privacy, Kioko finished her tea and decided to go to bed. "Kenshin?"

"Hai, Kioko-dono?"

"Unless there is something you would like me to do for you, I think I will go to bed now."

"Sessha does not need anything, arigatou. This one will let Hebo out and take care of the fire. Oyasumi nasai," Kenshin replied softly.

"Arigatou, Kenshin." Kioko stood up and started to walk past the rurouni, then stopped to kneel before him.

Kenshin looked at her in surprise. "Kioko-dono?"

Leaning forward, she put her arms around his shoulders, giving him a comforting hug. "Thank you, again, for sharing your past with me, Kenshin," she said softly, feeling him relax a little. Before he could become uncomfortable, she released him and stood up. "You are planning on sleeping tonight, ne?"

Deeply touched, Kenshin answered, "I will be fine, Kioko-dono, that I will. Onegai, don't worry about sessha."

Kioko hesitated. "Well. . . all right. Oyasumi, Kenshin, sleep well. I'll see you in the morning."

After letting Hebo back in, Kenshin walked over to the fire and placed several pieces of wood on the coals, prodding them thoughtfully until flames started to rise. Returning to his cushion, he poured himself another cup of cold tea. He sat there and wearily contemplated what had occurred this evening. What in the world possessed me to reveal myself to her like that? Not that she didn't take it well. In fact, considering she just found out she's got an assassin sleeping in her house, she took it very well, indeed. But, why? I didn't need to tell her. She believed that it was just a soldier's nightmare. I haven't told anyone. So, why now? Why to her? Unsettled, Kenshin took another drink of tea.

Well, he had been honest earlier. Kenshin knew why he had felt compelled to tell her about his past. Guilt. Pure and simple. I told her the truth. Thank Kami-sama that I didn't kill her brother, but once again I have hurt an innocent. And not an anonymous bystander this time, but someone to whom I owe my life! It doesn't matter that the injury was minor. I threatened her with my sword! That she was willing to take responsibility for what happened still amazed him. Now that she knows you are the Battousai, the inner voice sneered, she probably thinks she was lucky you didn't kill her. Kenshin ignored the taunt. The Battousai's comments tonight had been more vicious than usual. He had come to accept the part of him that was the Battousai. At times he felt like two people trapped in one body. Sometimes he was afraid that he had gone mad during the war, as had so many other assassins. He had heard somewhere, though, that if a person worried they were mad, it meant they weren't. For some reason, he didn't find it reassuring. Perhaps it was another form of justice.

Finishing the tea, Kenshin considered what to do next. He did not want to risk having another nightmare, so dismissed the idea of sleeping on the futon. Standing up, he put the cushions away and went over to the corner next to the fire. He sat down and leaned back against the wall, bending his left leg to slide it under his raised right knee. Kenshin left his sakabatou where it was, although it felt odd not having it leaning against his left shoulder as usual. He knew from experience that, in this position, he would not sleep as deeply and would be less likely to dream of the horrors of the Revolution. Having slept this way for years, he relaxed and let his mind drift.

Memories of the war were never far from his awareness. He could still hear the sound of swords clashing and the screams of the injured and dying, smell the metallic odor of blood, see the light of life fading from innocent eyes. Tonight had been especially bad. The whole time he had been talking, in addition to the usual memories, he had yet again felt the despair he had experienced back then, when he had realized that he was nothing more than a murderer. It had been almost more than he could bear this evening. He had not been able to bring himself to look at Kioko more than a few times, for fear of the horror he would see in her eyes.

Kenshin did not really expect to get much rest, but short sleep the night before and the stress he had undergone this evening had left him more exhausted than he thought. And I thought today was going to be awkward! Tomorrow will be much worse. . . was his last conscious thought before sleep claimed him.

Kioko slept brokenly, waking often with a start. Finally, becoming aware that it was getting colder, she decided to get up to check the fire. When she came around the screen into the main part of the room, she stopped in her tracks, stunned. There was no futon in front of the fire! Where is he? He couldn't have. . . she looked around frantically. Just then one of the logs on the hearth popped and she quickly looked that way. An errant flame created a flash of red-gold in the dark corner beyond the fire. Kenshin! What is he doing there? He was sitting up, with his head bent forward, and seemed to be asleep. She quietly moved further into the room, not wanting to disturb him if he really was sleeping. Why didn't he use the futon? I'll bet he didn't intend to fall asleep. Why, he doesn't even have a blanket! She considered laying a comforter over him, but immediately thought better of it. Sure, Kioko, wake him up unexpectedly two nights in a row, why don't you? Baka! Instead, she carefully built up the fire, making as little noise as possible. At least he's wearing warm clothes. He should be all right.

When she had finished, she stood up and started to go back to bed. Suddenly she noticed how quiet it was. The wind had finally died down. Silently, she walked to the window. The blizzard had stopped. The moon shone through the broken cloud cover, causing the snow to shine like silver. No wonder it's getting colder. It will probably freeze hard before morning.

Kenshin woke up the next morning to the brightness of a clear dawn. He stood up, adjusted his clothing, and went to the door, quietly sliding it open. Hebo immediately joined him, leading the way outside. Kenshin quickly shut the door to keep the warmth from escaping. He stood on the engawa and admired the beauty of the scene. The early morning sunlight sparkled off of the snow drifted around the house and covering the tree branches. It was bitterly cold, but seeing the sun for the first time in four days cheered Kenshin immensely. Yes! I can leave today! He was very much looking forward to leaving these frozen mountains. I should be able to reach the coast in a week and a half. Kioko said the town was. . . what? Ten miles? His excitement dimmed when he realized that Kioko would be lonely again. He knew she would be able to take care of herself. That wasn't the problem. No, she would be alone, with nothing but her memories and a dog. He was all too well aware of the core of sadness she concealed behind her serene exterior. It was easy to recognize since it mirrored, to a lesser degree, his own pain from losing Tomoe. He began considering how he would tell Kioko that he planned on leaving today.

Kenshin's thoughts were interrupted when Hebo began barking at a raven that dared to taunt him from the top of the woodpile. "Hebo! Quiet!" Kenshin called. "You'll wake up Kioko-dono, that you will." He watched, amused, as the dog tried to run to the house, slipping and sliding on the icy snow. Hmmm. . . if the snow is frozen hard enough to walk on, it will be much easier to walk to town. Moving carefully, Kenshin stepped out onto the snow-covered path. He found the frozen crust held his weight easily. A staff will make it a lot safer. . . Feeling pleased with the way everything was working out, he went back to the house, barely avoiding being bowled over by Hebo as he rushed up the stairs.

Once inside the house, Kenshin began thinking about preparing breakfast. A piercing shriek startled him into grabbing his sakabatou.

"HEBO! Get off of me, you stupid dog! You're freezing! Get OFF!" Kioko's angry cries resounded throughout the house.

Kenshin sighed, shaking his head and replacing the sakabatou. "Gomen nasai, Kioko-dono! It is sessha's fault, that it is. This one let Hebo outside. Sessha should have thought. . ."

"It's all right, Kenshin. It's about time I got up anyway." Kioko regretfully left her warm futon, glaring at Hebo, who just wagged his tail happily.

The water kettle was steaming and the rurouni was busily working over a pot, when she came into the room. "Ohayou, Kenshin!" she declared cheerfully.

"Ohayou gozaimasu, Kioko-dono. The sun is shining, that it is," Kenshin responded, without taking his attention off of his cooking, trying to postpone the inevitable confrontation.

Kioko walked over to look out the window, blinking in the bright sunlight. "So I see. Well, I guess you will want to get an early start, ne?" she asked, hoping that he would disagree.

That got his attention. "Oro?" He turned to face her, looking surprised and a little guilty.

"I thought so," Kioko said, nodding. "You know, Kenshin, you are more than welcome to stay here for the winter."

"Nani?" Kenshin was stunned by Kioko's offer. "But. . ." I'm welcome to stay? Even after. . . "I. . . I am honored by your generous offer, Kioko-dono, that I am. But. . ."

"But you want to continue your journey, don't you?" she finished for him.

"Well. . . uh. . . the weather is. . . uncertain at this time of year. It would probably be. . . best. . . for me to take advantage of the clear skies. . . um. . . while they last," Kenshin stammered, not wanting her to think that he was leaving because of her.

Kioko walked over to stand before the rurouni. "I understand. All right, we'll get started after breakfast. It won't take long to get you outfitted and ready to go," she said briskly, feigning a nonchalance she did not feel.

Kenshin blinked, unprepared for her ready acceptance of his explanation. 'Outfitted?' What does she mean by 'outfitted?' To give himself time to think, he announced, "Breakfast will be ready in just a few minutes, that it will," and began pouring the tea.

"You shouldn't have any trouble reaching Koshi by early afternoon," Kioko stated, as she accepted the cup of tea Kenshin gave her. "I wouldn't recommend that you try to go any further today, though. It's at least 25 miles between Koshi and Matsutani and the road is difficult." She paused to take a sip of tea. "Once you get to Koshi, I suggest you go to the Matsukasa Inn. It's on the main road, just south of town. My cousin, Yamamori Toshiro, owns the Inn. I will give you a letter for him and he will let you stay for free for as long as you like."

"Kioko-dono, it is not necessary for you to do that! Sessha does not wish to impose on your family, that he most certainly does not," Kenshin protested.

She laughed and looked at the scandalized rurouni with a twinkle in her eyes. "Oh, don't worry! Toshiro owes me a lot more than just a few days of room and board. Believe me, he won't mind at all."

Not looking even slightly convinced, Kenshin began dishing up breakfast. Throughout the meal, Kioko continued giving suggestions about the upcoming trip. Kenshin listened closely, grateful for the advice that would make his journey out of the mountains much easier.

Just as they were finishing eating, Kioko ended with "After you leave Matsutani, you will find woodcutter's huts about. . . oh, every fifteen miles or so, alongside the road. You can't miss them, they're marked with tall posts next to the path. Feel free to stay there, just clean up after yourself and replace any wood you use."

Kioko got up and began gathering up the dishes, setting them aside to wash later. Then she walked over to the chest, opened it, and began rummaging around inside. I know they're here somewhere. . . Ah! Here they are! She set several pairs of double-thickness winter tabi on the floor next to the chest. Reaching back inside, she pulled out a quilted hanten and laid it down next to the tabi. Next she found a warm scarf and added it to the pile of clothing. Finally, she took out a thick blanket. Closing the chest, she gathered up the clothes and brought them over to where the gi and hakama she had worked on yesterday lay.

Kenshin watched her in growing confusion. What is she doing? Surely she doesn't expect me to. . .

"Kenshin? Would you come with me, onegai? I could use your help," she requested, leading the way to the storeroom.

"Of course, Kioko-dono." Curious, Kenshin followed her into the room.

Once inside, Kioko handed a basket to Kenshin, which he took with a questioning look. After studying the contents of the shelves, she began taking items down and placing them in the basket. "Let's see. . . there's plenty of dried fish. . . some dried plums. . . soba. . . konbu. . . rice. . ."

Kenshin began to fidget as the pile of food in the basket grew. Finally, to his relief, she stopped, adding a cloth bag to the items in the basket before returning to the main room. "Kioko-dono? What are you doing?" Kenshin asked uncomfortably.

"What does it look like I'm doing? Set that down here and bring your travel bag over, onegai. I think you'll want to transfer your cooking equipment to this other bag, to make room for the clothes."

"But, Kioko-dono, sessha can't. . ." Kenshin began, only to be summarily cut off.

"Yes, sessha can and sessha will," she stated quietly, though her voice was steely with resolve. "I've got more than enough supplies to last the entire winter. Trust me, I'll never miss these few things. Are you just going to stand there, or do I have to pack for you, as well?"

"But. . ." Kenshin tried to protest again, but a disapproving glare was all it took to make him accept the inevitable. Imagine, the deadliest assassin of the Bakumatsu defeated by a scowl from a mere slip of a girl, Battousai laughed.

Obediently, Kenshin started unloading his travel bag, setting aside his meager food supplies and equipment. This must be what she meant by getting 'outfitted.' I can't believe she wants to do this for me! He then began carefully putting all the food she had given him into the new bag, heaviest items on the bottom. Lighter things went in next, with his cooking utensils last. With this much food, I should have no trouble making it to the coast with the little money I have left. Fortunately, I won't have to spend as much on inns as I was afraid I would, it's not always easy to find jobs in the dead of winter. Those woodcutter's huts will certainly come in handy. It was so kind of her to tell me about them. Once again he was assailed with feelings of guilt for leaving her alone. Should I stay longer? No! It is just too dangerous for her. There's no telling when the next psychotic killer will show up. But who would know? It's not as if there are a lot of people around who know I'm here. The internal argument went on, pitting his desire to leave as soon as possible against his guilt at leaving her alone. I can't stay here forever. Once winter is over, my presence will become known and the risk of being discovered will increase dramatically. Not to mention what it would do to her reputation, once people know that she has had a man living with her all winter. No, the longer I stay, the more hazardous it will be for her, and the more difficult it will be to say goodbye. The sooner I leave, the better. Mentally sighing, he gave in to the inescapable conclusion.

Meanwhile, Kioko had been folding and stacking the clothes that she was giving to Kenshin. Handling her husband's clothing caused her some pain, but not as much as she had thought it would. It was as if the act of sharing them with another was healing a deep wound that had been ignored for too long. She realized now that these clothes were not the only, or even the most important, link she had with her koishii. Caring for the rurouni had allowed her to step outside of her memories. Watching him smile while playing Igo encouraged her to remember the good times without dwelling on the pain of the past two years. She shook her head, so much had happened in only three days. Maybe it's time I moved on, koishii. Perhaps I should consider moving to Koshi in the spring, like everyone wants. It's something to think about anyway. She picked up the blanket and rolled it up, tying the ends with leather strings. Finding that Kenshin had the food packed away, she handed the blanket and clothes to him.

Kenshin started to object, but one look at her eyes made him change his mind. "Arigatou, Kioko-dono, sessha appreciates your gift very much, that he does." Kenshin picked up the quilted hanten and held it up to himself. It's a little big, but it will certainly be much warmer than my old coat. With that, he folded his worn hanten and put it in the bottom of the bag. He put the clothes she had given to him into his travel bag, noticing that the light blue yukata he had worn was included. Examining the thick tabi, he set a pair aside to wear, packing the rest. When he was done, he had two very full bags. After considering what would be the best way to carry them, he decided to tie the straps together and hang them over his shoulder, one bag in front, one in the back.

While Kenshin was packing, Kioko wrote a brief letter of introduction to her cousin, explaining that Kenshin was a friend who was traveling through the mountains. She asked him to extend the courtesy of his hospitality for as long as needed. She finished by thanking him for helping Kenshin and telling him that she was looking forward to seeing him in the spring. Folding the letter, she put it into a protective envelope.

She walked over to where Kenshin was standing. He had put on the hanten and was adjusting his sword, so that it was unobstructed by the coat. Smiling around the tightening of her throat, she handed him the letter, which he put inside his gi. "Well, I guess it's about that time, Kenshin, isn't it?"

"Yes, Kioko-dono, this one should be leaving. Sessha cannot tell you how much he appreciates everything you have done for him. Sessha owes you his life, that he does. But more than that, this one values the friendship you have given him. Believe me, I know the value of such things as friendship. Sessha hopes that you will find happiness among your friends and family."

"I hope for the same things for you, Kenshin, you deserve them. Do you think you will ever settle down in one place?"

"Sessha does not know, Kioko-dono," he answered, his clear violet eyes darkening with sadness, "but it does not seem likely, that it does not." Kenshin reached down to pick up the travel bags, slinging them over his right shoulder. He placed the blanket roll on top, then turned and walked out of the house.

Kioko noticed that he had forgotten the scarf. Picking it up, she hurried out after him. He was walking very carefully across the frozen snow towards a stand of hardwood trees. Drawing his sword, he flipped the blade and cut one of the saplings down. He cut it to length and began trimming off the branches, creating a serviceable walking staff.

"Kenshin!" she called out to him. She waved the scarf when he looked back at her. "Don't forget this! It can get really cold, even during the day. You don't need to get sick again." Kioko waited as he made his way back over to the house. Stepping down from the engawa, she wrapped the scarf securely around his neck, lifting his hair out of the way and tucking the ends inside the hanten. "Take care of yourself, Kenshin. I am so glad I got to meet you." She had to blink a couple of times, but no tears fell. "Now I expect you to stay at Toshiro's inn. I will find out if you don't and you don't want to see me when I get angry!"

Kenshin smiled at the idle threat. Bowing deeply, he said, "Domo arigatou gozaimasu, Kioko-dono, for everything you have done for sessha. It has been an honor to meet you, that it has." He turned away and began to walk down the path to the road.

With her hand resting lightly on Hebo's head, she watched until she could no longer see him. "Good luck, Kenshin," she whispered, "I hope you find what you're looking for."

Owari


Author's Notes: First, I want to thank everyone who read my story. This is my first attempt at writing fan fiction, so I apologize if it didn't turn out well. Any inaccuracies or out-of-character situations are due solely to my inexperience. I hope to get better with practice. The list of Japanese Words is after my reviewer responses. You have no idea how grateful I am to those readers who took the time to write a review. Thank you!

Reviewer Responses:

Nekotsuki: Thank you for being my very first reviewer! You were very kind and I greatly appreciated your comments about my mixing up the tenses when using "sessha." I absolutely love your story, Tanabata Jasmine! It's one of my favorites! The last chapter rocked! I can't wait for the next one, please update soon! You have done such a wonderful job of writing Tanabata Jasmine and bringing Kenshin to life, that I hope you will continue to write Rurouni Kenshin fan fiction. We readers need more high quality Ruroken stories.

Ms. Zeal: Thank you for your great review! Thank you so very much for all the help you have given me! I don't think I would have posted The Blizzard, if it weren't for your encouragement. Praise from the author of great stories like Darkness of the Heart of the Sword and Mnemonic makes me positively blush!

xZig-zagx: Thank you for your kind review! I appreciate your taking the time to read and review my story. I understand about the difficulties of homework. I hope your instructors lighten up on you. After all, there is more to life than just hitting the books! Like writing fan fiction with your inimitable style. Amber Eyed Angel is one of my favorite stories and I can't wait for the next chapter! Hint, hint. I hope I didn't make you wait too long for the conclusion of The Blizzard.

animeinsomniac: Thank you for the lovely review! I love your story, Flowers of Blood! Kohana is such a great character. I really like the interaction between her and Kenshin. I didn't mean to keep you in the dark about my writing, but I just wasn't sure that I would ever finish, much less post, my story. I am honored to think that you want to keep track of my stories. Yes, I am working on another one, although I don't know if I can pull it off. Please wish me luck.

skenshingumi: Thank you for your generous review! I really appreciate that you took the time to let me know what you liked about the first chapter of The Blizzard. I hope the ending didn't disappoint you.

BakaBokken: Thank you for your marvelous review! I'm sorry! I didn't mean to steal your story idea! I just thought that Hiko would have taught Kenshin how to play Igo because of the way it teaches strategic tactics. I'm really enjoying reading your stories, Igo and A Strong Will! I hope you update them soon, 'cause I can't wait to find out what happens next. I hope you don't mind that I didn't have Kenshin tell Kioko more about Tomoe. It just seems to me that Kenshin is extremely sensitive about talking about Tomoe. I mean, look at how long it took him to tell the Kenshin-gumi. He didn't tell them until he was forced to by Enishi. Yes, both Kioko and Kenshin have lost their spouses, but Kenshin feels the additional pain and guilt of having accidently killed Tomoe, so I just couldn't see him telling Kioko about her. I decided to give Kenshin a break and not have him kill Kioko's brother. He's suffering from enough guilt as it is from hitting Kioko and scaring her half to death, without making him hurt the woman who rescued him even more.

Danielle56: Grazie! Thank you for your wonderful review! I really appreciate your kind words. I was warned that readers don't like long chapters. I'm glad that you didn't mind the length. I just couldn't find a better way to break up the story. I hope you weren't disappointed with the ending to the story.

Japanese Words:

arigatou - "thank you"

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

baka deshi - idiot apprentice/student; what Hiko Seijuro XIII, Kenshin's Shishou, calls Himura Kenshin

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

Battousai - the nickname for Himura Kenshin when he was a hitokiri, it means "master of the battou-jutsu sword technique" (Battou-jutsu is the act of whipping the sword out of the sheath, which can increase its speed twice or three fold. A great technique which can kill with one blow without taking a single blow from one's opponent.)

Choushu - one of the most anti-Shogun provinces, fought for the Ishin Shishi

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

-dono - an honorific term one step above -san

engawa - porch

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

hai - "yes"

hakama - a samurai's pleated skirt-like pants

han - clan

hanten - a short coat

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

Himura Kenshin - the main character of the anime series Rurouni Kenshin, created by Watsuke Nobuhiro; Kenshin means "heart of the sword"

hitokiri - manslayer or assassin

Igo - the Japanese name for the game of Go

Imperialists - another name for the pro-emperor Ishin Shishi forces

Ishin Shishi - the name given to the pro-emperor forces from Choushu 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)

Kami-sama - Lord God

katana - Japanese sword

Katsura Kogorou - leader of the Choshu clan and one of the three leaders of the Ishin Shishi (the other two are Okubo Toshimichi and Saigo Takamori); he is Himura Kenshin's "boss"

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

Kioko - a main character in the story The Blizzard, her name means "happy child"

koishii - beloved

konbu - dried kelp seaweed, used in making soups (particularly dashi)

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

Meiji - the name given posthumously to the 15 year-old Mutsuhito emperor who reigned after the end of the Tokugawa Era; it also refers to the government at that time, which started in 1868

Matsukasa Inn - the name of an Inn in the story The Blizzard, it means "pinecone"

Matsutani - the name of a town in the story The Blizzard, it means "pine valley"

nani - "what"

ne - "right" (as in "correct")

ohayou - "morning" (short version of "good morning")

ohayou gozaimasu - the polite version of "good morning"

onegai - "please"

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

oyasumi - the short version of "good night"

oyasumi-nasai - "good night"

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

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 - a 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

soba - noodles made from buckwheat flour

tabi - split-toed socks, worn with zori sandals (flat-bottomed sandals)

Tatsuo - a character in the story, The Blizzard; Kioko's brother, he died at the end of the Bakumatsu

Toba Fushimi - the decisive battle in January, 1868, that effectively ended the Shogunate

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

Yamamori Toshiro - a character in the story The Blizzard, his name means: Yamamori - "mountain forest;" Toshiro - "talented or intelligent"

yukata - bathrobe; light summer kimono; sleeping kimono, the shirt/kimono that goes under a gi