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 nonprofit work for entertainment purposes only. Permission was not obtained from the above parties.


(Rescue, Deliverance)

Written By: Terry L. McElrath

Chapter Thirteen

Katsura gazed in disbelief at the hole that had suddenly appeared in the wall before him. How did Kenshin do that?! When the redhead gestured for him to join him, Katsura slowly walked forward, only then becoming aware of the groans coming from either end of the wide hallway. Looking both ways, his eyes widened at the scenes of utter destruction he saw. Thick hardwood planks were splintered as though they were made of lightweight balsa. Broken and bleeding bodies were lying where they'd landed against the walls. And the ends of the corridor were simply . . . gone – the uneven gaps edged with cracked masonry and split timbers. He shook his head sharply, shelving the mystery for now. I'll ask Kenshin later, he thought, then chuckled at the ridiculous notion, surprised that he could find amusement at a time like this. As if he would explain it to me!


The urgency in Kenshin's voice swiftly brought Katsura out of his reverie. "I'm sorry, Kenshin. Let's go," he responded, stepping forward slowly.

Kenshin kept his hand on Katsura's arm, guiding and supporting the wounded man as they prepared to climb through the gap. Although his field of vision was severely limited, Kenshin constantly scanned the area, trying to see through the pall of thick smoke. As he had expected, it quickly became apparent that he would have to rely heavily on his other senses to navigate across the compound. Explosions echoed throughout the complex, along with screams of both panic and pain, adding to the overall chaos. I would say that the ninjas' distraction is working, he thought, and then snorted at the understatement.

Reaching the outer wall, Kenshin glanced down. Colorful flower petals were strewn haphazardly across the debris-littered ground, adding a surrealistic touch to the scene. However, he wasn't interested in the unplanned floral display. Due to the landscaping, he hadn't been able to see the building's foundation during his earlier reconnaissance. He was, therefore, pleased to find that the floor they were standing on was less than two feet above the ground. Dropping lightly to the ruined flowerbed, he unexpectedly swayed as exhaustion momentarily overwhelmed him. He gripped his katana tightly and closed his eyes, trying to quell the dizziness. It seems that my reserves are running dangerously low. Perhaps using the Do Ryu Sen three times in a row wasn't a good idea, but what choice did I have? Grimly, he gathered his remaining strength. He still had to protect Katsura while they made their way across the compound and he would not fail now! Opening his eyes, he turned and lifted his hand to help Katsura, all the while keeping his hearing and inner senses attuned to approaching danger. Kenshin's hand froze when he saw the stricken look on the older man's face as he stood motionless in the impromptu 'doorway.'

Staring down at the ground, Katsura stiffened in horror as remembered agony sent chills down his back. It's only a couple of feet. It's not that far down, his rational self whispered. I can't, he moaned in response. Can't?! You have to! You have no choice! his mind snapped back. But . . . the pain . . .Katsura felt cold sweat break out all over his body as he fought to keep from backing away from the opening. So, came the caustic retort, Katsura Kogorou really is a coward. JUMP! Without giving himself more time to think about what was going to happen, Katsura clenched his jaw and stepped through the hole.

The moment his feet hit the ground, pain flooded Katsura's vision with coruscating shards of white. Lost within the agony, he longed to escape into the hovering darkness, but the memory of unfinished responsibility forced him to endure the seemingly endless torture. Aching pressure within his chest added to his torment, until the need to breathe broke through his stupor and he took a gasping, shuddering breath. His attention was finally captured by a very familiar voice repeatedly calling his name in steadily increasing tones of urgency. Dazed from the horrendous throbbing in his feet, he could barely register that it was Kenshin who was supporting him.

Kenshin watched in dismay as Katsura wavered indecisively before jumping out of the wrecked building. Upon landing, the older man went rigid, sweat breaking out across his ashen face. A low-pitched groan resounded from deep within his chest just before he began to collapse. Kenshin lunged to grab him before he could fall, bending slightly under the larger man's weight. "Katsura-san!" Becoming alarmed when there was no response, he kept trying to get the Choshu leader to reply. After an anxious minute, Katsura straightened up – much to Kenshin's relief. "Sir?" Slowly the wounded man's eyes opened and he looked around blearily.

"Ken–shin?" Katsura whispered, his voice tentative and pain-roughened.

"Yes, sir," Kenshin replied reassuringly, not releasing his supporting grip. He knew that it must be Katsura's injured feet that was causing the problem, and wished that he could allow the wounded man to rest. But there was no time. They could not delay their escape. "Sir–"

Kenshin's head whipped around, so that he was looking over his left shoulder, tracking an angry ki that had changed direction and was now coming straight toward them. He must have heard me. For an instant Kenshin hesitated. Could Katsura stand on his own? It doesn't matter. I can't defend Katsura if I'm holding him up. Despite the danger racing toward them, he took precious seconds cautiously releasing his grasp – carefully steadying the swaying man – before turning to face his opponent.

In moments, a soldier burst through the smoke, his face contorted in rage. "Imperialist dogs! Die!" he yelled, drawing his sword.

Eyes narrowed, Kenshin crouched slightly. He refused to waste either time or energy on this suicidal fool. One step . . . two . . . With perfect timing, his battoujutsu sliced upwards, shearing through the man's ribs and collarbone. The scream was both loud and short, ending with a solid thud as the body hit the ground.

Turning away, Kenshin dismissed the dead soldier without another thought. Still standing where he had left him, Katsura was rocking slightly from foot to foot, his face gray, seemingly unaware of where he was. His eyes were dull, his focus turned inward. Tightly controlling his anxiety, Kenshin gently took Katsura's arm. "Katsura-san, we have to leave now."

No sooner had Katsura heard Kenshin's calm affirmation than the young redhead had turned away, leaving him standing – barely balanced – on what felt like a bed of red-hot coals. Through his agony, Katsura heard explosions and screams. The sounds were faint, however, as though they were coming from a great distance away. Briefly, he wondered what was going on, but between the pain and exhaustion, he just didn't care. He started to drift back into the gray fog that promised to deaden his suffering. Before he could fully retreat, however, he felt a light tug on his arm and Kenshin was speaking again. Katsura missed the words, but the urgency told him that they were important, and he fought to clear his pain-befuddled mind. Opening his eyes, he forced himself to focus on the earnest face of his young companion. "Kenshin?"

Pleased that Katsura seemed to be more aware, Kenshin hid his relief, merely responding, "Yes, sir. We have to leave now."

Leave? Confused by his conflicting memories and nauseated by the pain pulsing in his feet, Katsura struggled to understand. Kenshin is dead, so why do we have to leave? Does that mean I am dead, too? But . . . Kenshin isn't dead! Gradually his memories began to make sense, and the reason why Kenshin was here resurfaced. He came to rescue me . . . we're leaving Shogunate headquarters. The thought of walking was almost more than he could bear, but he rejected the idea of giving up without a fight. Kenshin won't leave without me, and I will not allow him to be killed – or worse, captured and tortured – because of me. Trying to hide his weariness, Katsura resolutely gave the only answer he could, "All right, Kenshin. Let's go."

Nodding, Kenshin slowly began to lead the wounded man between the ki-blasted camellia bushes and around the moss-covered rocks that partially hid the security building's foundation. Glass crunched beneath their feet as Kenshin helped Katsura avoid stepping on or stumbling over the broken branches and debris that was scattered across the ruined flowerbed. Once they were on the parade ground, Kenshin stopped long enough to orient himself with Kaze's ki. Turning slightly to the left, he urged Katsura to continue walking toward their escape route.

The sound of ragged coughing, followed by a stifled moan, brought Kenshin to an abrupt halt when he realized how the smoke was affecting Katsura. Idiot! How could I have overlooked that?! Silently cursing, he took a soft cotton cloth out of his sleeve, then grimaced when he saw that it was bloodstained, remembering too late that he had used it to clean his swords several times. After a moment's thought, he reached into his gi and pulled out the clean towel that had been wrapped around the two onigiri. Carefully tying the cloth over Katsura's mouth and nose, he apologized quietly, "Forgive me, Katsura-san. I should have thought of this sooner." The muffled "It's all right, Kenshin," did nothing to alleviate his shame when he saw the older man wrap his arms around his chest in a desperate attempt to ease the pain of his broken ribs as another deep cough made him hunch over in agony. As soon as the coughing fit eased up, Katsura began walking forward again, his eyes half-closed – his misery clearly visible in his slow, shuffling gait.

Kenshin was still berating himself for his thoughtlessness even as he continued to closely monitor the surrounding area. The sound of sandals slapping loudly against the packed earth of the parade ground acted as a focus for his anger. He placed himself between Katsura and the approaching threat, drawing his katana with unusual vehemence. In moments, a short, rotund man appeared in the smoke. One look at the expensive embroidered kimono and ridiculously long mustache told Kenshin that the overdressed clotheshorse must be one of the Bakufu bureaucrats called in to act as a witness to General Daishi's carefully planned execution. Not wanting to kill a civilian if it was not necessary, he refrained from striking and instead leveled a narrow-eyed glare at the symbol of Shogunate corruption.

Apparently the man was running in blind panic because he almost ran into Kenshin before he realized he was standing there. The official blanched, his eyes bulging, when he came face to face with his worst nightmare. In his frantic effort to stop, he skidded and nearly fell against the glowering redhead. Blinking, Kenshin watched as the terrified witness recoiled violently, falling backwards and winding up sitting at his feet. Screaming in terror, the man's feet kicked frenetically as he tried to both scramble backwards and stand up at the same time. The bureaucrat's shrill shriek spiraled upwards, setting Kenshin's teeth on edge and almost making him regret his decision to let the man go. Finally, the official managed to turn around and scuttled away on all fours, still screaming.

Kenshin shook his head, almost amused by the bureaucrat's antics. He turned back to discover that Katsura had kept walking. The older man's head was down, his shoulders hunched, as he continued plodding forward. Unfortunately, he had deviated from their original direction, which wasn't surprising, given the limited visibility and Katsura's overall lack of awareness. With a few quick strides, Kenshin caught up and carefully grasped the injured man's arm. Startled, Katsura flinched and turned to look at him uncertainly. Pain and exhaustion had leached the color from Katsura's face, turning his eyes into dark wells of suffering. Infuriated by what had been done to the Choshu leader, Kenshin felt the embers of his banked rage flare up into hot flames and had to take a moment to suppress the unwanted emotion. Later, he might need the energy inherent in that strong emotion, but not right this minute. Certain that he now had himself under control, Kenshin spoke quietly, keeping his voice reassuring, "It's all right, sir. Just come this way, please," he murmured, gently turning him in the right direction.

Suddenly, Kenshin felt an unmistakable ki slowly approaching. Okita. It was bound to happen. I'm just surprised he didn't show up sooner. I wonder how long it will take for Saito to get here? He didn't let the knowledge alter his calm demeanor. Kenshin refused to worry about a possible showdown with the Shinsengumi Captains. If it happened, then he would deal with it. Otherwise, he had more important things to worry about.

The next couple of minutes were a frantic whirl as Kenshin circled Katsura, dodging in and out of the clouds of grey smoke. Rarely did the men he sought out have time to cry out when he killed them, and many didn't even know he was there before they were cut down. After each foray, Kenshin returned to Katsura's side, both to reassure him and to make sure he kept walking toward Kaze.

Dully, Katsura trudged onward. How much farther? It doesn't matter. Can't stop – have to keep going. One more step – I can take one more step. His lower lip was swollen and bloodied from the many times he had bitten into it to keep from groaning from the pain that lanced up his legs with each excruciating step. He had thought that nothing could be worse than the walk back from the torture chamber, but he was wrong. Even the knowledge that he might be free in a few minutes was not enough to overcome the pain. More than once he had nearly quit, convinced that he could not push himself any farther. But then Kenshin would be there, encouraging him to keep going, and Katsura knew he could not give up. Just one more step . . .

Kenshin paced beside Katsura, worried about the older man's exhaustion. He was walking more slowly with every minute that passed, and Kenshin was acutely aware of how long it was taking them to cross the compound. Thank the gods that the morning has been windless so far. The smokescreen is not dissipating as quickly as I was afraid it would. And how long can the ninjas maintain their distraction? They don't have an unlimited supply of bombs, after all. It had been nearly five minutes since he and Katsura had left the security building, and they were only a little over halfway across! With an effort, Kenshin controlled his impatience and regained his equanimity. Emotions were a serious liability on the battlefield. They could distract a fighter at exactly the wrong moment, with deadly consequences. His Shishou had drilled that into him continuously during his training, but he had never realized just how difficult it would be to maintain that dispassionate calm in a situation like this. He had to keep his emotions under control, since it was a given that the Shinsengumi that had been lured away from Shogunate headquarters had heard the explosions and were returning as swiftly as possible. And the likelihood of a confrontation with Saito meant he could not afford to become distracted now. Especially since he had become aware that Okita was slowly moving toward him. The last thing Kenshin wanted right now was to be forced to face both Saito and Okita. In his exhausted state, the outcome of the fight was certain.

To add to his list of concerns, Kenshin suddenly felt the auras of several warriors running straight toward Katsura. Five against one. I've faced more, but still . . . He would have to make sure to not let the fight drag on, so each strike would have to count. He couldn't afford to waste any energy at all – not with the possibility of Okita joining the fight. Taking a deep breath, he swung around to face the coming battle.

Okita grimaced as another cough slipped past his control. Sternly, he focused on breathing shallowly as he cautiously advanced through the murky clouds of dust and smoke that engulfed the parade ground. The limited visibility made it difficult to see the bodies and debris scattered across the landscape, slowing his progress. Even with his sleeve held tightly across his mouth and nose, his breathing was becoming labored, and he could feel the burning deep within his chest that meant another attack of consumption was inevitable if he didn't rest soon. He couldn't quit now, though. Duty required that he not allow his condition to interfere with his obligation to stop the rebels from successfully getting to Katsura. He knew that the patrolling Shinsengumi squads were returning as quickly as they could; but, until they arrived, it was his responsibility to delay the rescue attempt as long as possible – no matter what it took.

As he worked his way across the compound, Okita thought about the events that had occurred prior to the Ishin Shishi invasion and bombing of the headquarters. First, there had been the fight between the merchants that had escalated into a full-scale riot. And then, as soon as his men broke up the brawl, the Ishin Shishi had attacked. Obviously, the Ishin Shishi assault was a distraction, Okita speculated, his eyes narrowing. But could the fight among the merchants have been part of the diversion? His forehead creased as he remembered the overweight shopkeepers flailing at each other with more enthusiasm than skill. They certainly hadn't been trained fighters! Not to mention, at least half of them had been Shogunate supporters. But the timing had been too fortuitous to have been an accident. No matter how the Imperialists had managed to do it, he had to admit that it had been extremely clever. No one, including myself, believed that the Ishin Shishi were capable of such an intricate rescue plan, given their usual battle tactics. This strategy is completely different from anything the Rebels have done before. The Imperialists must have a new strategist. I wonder who he is? This unknown man is a danger to the Shogunate, and we will have to identify him as quickly as possible. After this, I will never allow myself to underestimate them again!

A series of deep, racking coughs forced Okita to stop. For a long minute he stood there, shoulders bowed, as his slim frame shook from the violent force of the coughs. When he was finally able to take a breath, he pulled his hand away from his mouth. Glistening wetness caught Okita's attention, and he stared at the smear of bright red blood that spread across his palm and dripped to the ground. After a moment, he slowly lowered his hand and wiped it clean on his hakama. Setting his shoulders, he doggedly continued walking.

Uncertain about whether he was near the security building or had already passed it, Okita stopped again. Damn this smokescreen! he thought angrily. Closing his eyes in order to concentrate, he turned in place. Gradually, he made sense of the auras swarming throughout the compound. Most were bright with panic, he noted with disgust. Some of the individuals were undoubtedly civilians and could be pardoned for panicking; but the rest were soldiers, who had no such excuse. There were a few, however, who seemed to have kept their heads, and Okita headed toward a group with strong combat auras, intending to organize them into a fighting unit.

Before he could reach them, though, their auras flared as they prepared to go into battle, and Okita felt his heart begin to race. They must have found the Ishin Shishi rescue team! He began to hurry as quickly as he could, grateful that the smoke had thinned slightly as he approached the fight, making it possible for him to run toward the unmistakable din of battle cries and blade striking blade. Over there! Anxious shouts could be heard in the distance, responding to their comrades' war cries.

Just as Okita saw vague movements up ahead, he stumbled as another coughing spasm forced him to come to a halt. Fiercely, he fought a dual battle to control both his breathing and his impatience. He was too much of a tactician to enter the fray if he could not fight effectively, but that did not mean he didn't want to. However, to do so would simply be throwing his life away, and he would not do that. No matter how much he wanted to join in immediately, he would wait until the time was right. Reluctantly, he forced himself to relax and take slow breaths.

Unconsciously, he edged forward, peering intently into the haze in an attempt to observe the shifting knot of fighters more closely. Suddenly two men collapsed, their agonized screams slowly dwindling to pitiful whimpers. The previously concealed swordsman came into view, spinning to face the remaining three fighters. The smoke swirled briefly, revealing the stylized insignia on their haoris. They're Mimiwarigumi? Then the other swordsman must be a Rebel. Okita watched, fascinated, as the unknown fighter engaged his opponents with delicate finesse, sidestepping fluidly with no wasted motion and shifting with such grace that his antagonists looked clumsy by comparison.

As Okita looked on, another Mimiwarigumi swordsman fell to the Rebel He's so fast! I've never seen such speed! In less than a minute, he's killed three men! Okita shook his head. He's reading his opponents' moves so rapidly that he's able to overwhelm them before they've scarcely begun to attack. Incredible! And the precision! I've never seen anything like it. Utterly engrossed in the swordplay, Okita's experienced eye followed the skirmish intently. He had already noted that the Rebel's ki was masked and that, along with his other observations, convinced him that the man was a master swordsman – most likely a highly trained samurai, although Okita didn't recognize his sword style. What could have convinced him to join the traitorous Ishin Shishi? He concentrated on the Ishin swordsman closely. It was important that he learn everything he could beforehand, since he would most likely be facing the unknown fighter before long.

The Rebel fighter glanced toward Okita, proving that he was well aware of his presence. Yet that knowledge was not reflected in his actions. He kept his focus on his current opponents, and it was obvious that he was not intimidated in the slightest by Okita's proximity. His control is phenomenal! Every movement is exact, with absolutely no wasted motion or energy; each sword stroke is accurate and deadly. Given my condition, and his incredible reflexes, I will have to be extremely careful when we fight. Well, at least I won't have to worry about the fight dragging on. Unless something changes before the end of this fight, my duel with him won't last more than two minutes.

Looking terrified, the two remaining Mimiwarigumi fighters separated and tried to back away from their adversary; but he swiftly advanced, targeting the larger man. Now that the Rebel wasn't surrounded by the other fighters, Okita could see how much shorter he was than his opponents. The small man wore his hair in a high ponytail that swung freely with each of his movements, although the concealing clouds of smoke and dust obscured the color of the waist-length hair. Okita was fairly sure it wasn't black, but it could have been any shade of brown. Racking his brain, he tried to remember a samurai swordsman that matched the unknown man before him. Surely I would know of a samurai this highly trained. But what sword style is he using? The dexterity, speed, and grace . . . He moves almost like an assassin . . . Assassin? Ishin Shishi? Stunned by the possibility, Okita's eyes widened. Is it possible? Could Battousai's death have been faked? But . . . several Shinsengumi fighters saw it happen and swore that he could not have survived having his throat cut! Okita had never seen the redheaded hitokiri himself, but he knew the man's description and was certain that he could identify him, if he got a good look at him – the cross-shaped scar on his left cheek would leave no doubt.

The thought of Saito's reaction – if his opponent did indeed turn out to be Battousai – made Okita smile smugly. And he thought that he could keep me out of the fighting! I may finally get to fight Battousai, and Saito won't even get to see it! Just thinking about facing off against the infamous hitokiri made Okita's nerves tingle in anticipation, and he could already feel the intoxicating thrill of adrenaline running through his veins. Prudently, he reined in his excitement. Not only did he know the reputation of the Ishin Shishi's most deadly hitokiri, but he was witnessing for himself just how dangerous the anonymous Rebel was, even if it turned out he wasn't Battousai. While Okita had no doubts about his own abilities as a swordsman, there was no denying the fact that he was not at his best right now, and that meant there was no guarantee that he would win the coming confrontation. There were too many unknowns. The fact that he did not recognize the Ishin fighter's sword style meant that the man might have some unexpected moves that could catch him off guard, if he wasn't careful. No, he would fight cautiously . . . very cautiously, indeed.

The dying scream of the larger of the two remaining Mimiwarigumi nearly drowned out his comrade's desperate call for assistance. That outcry was immediately answered as three more men appeared, running to his aid. The Rebel dispatched the last of the original squad with a flashing downwards slice, and then threw a questioning glance toward Okita before turning his attention to the newcomers, probably wondering why he wasn't joining in on the fight. Okita understood the swordsman's perplexity. It was accepted by many that Okita was the strongest swordsman in the Shinsengumi, and it must have confused the Rebel when he didn't come to the Mimiwarigumi squad's aid. In fact, it did bother Okita a little that he had allowed those men to die; but he hadn't had a choice in the matter. He simply refused to commit suicide, unless it was the only option left to him. He was feeling better, and every additional moment of rest would increase his chances of defeating the mysterious Ishin Shishi swordsman.

Okita's thoughts were abruptly disrupted when the Rebel unexpectedly charged the three newcomers, swiftly decapitating the man running in the lead, and defeating the other two in a dazzling display of swordsmanship, using an over-and-under technique to kill them both with only one figure-eight stroke. Finishing the follow-through, the swordsman casually took a cloth from his sleeve and meticulously wiped his blade clean before sheathing it and turning to face Okita, completely ignoring the blood-soaked corpses behind him. Moving with smooth, deadly grace, he began walking forward. The Rebel's coldly indifferent dismissal of the men he had just killed sent a chill down Okita's spine, and he had to sternly suppress the shudder that wanted to follow right after it.

After finishing the follow-through against his final opponents, Kenshin stood motionless, controlling his breathing with an effort. Closing his eyes, he took a few moments to deliberately relax each tense muscle, until he felt reasonably certain that they would not cramp at an inopportune time during the upcoming fight. Not since his days of training under his Shishou's unforgiving regimen had he overstressed himself like this. Between his injuries, exhaustion, and constant sword fights, he felt weaker than he had since he joined the Ishin Shishi. And he could not display weakness while facing Okita – to do so would give the Captain of the First Troop a serious edge during the fight. The stakes were too high for him to allow his enemy such an advantage. Taking a deep breath, Kenshin slowly released it and then reached into his sleeve, pulling out the soft cloth he used to clean his swords. With slow deliberation, he ran the cloth down the bloodstained length of his katana, prolonging the simple act of cleaning his sword in order to give himself another minute of rest. While he did that, he sent his senses ranging throughout the area, seeking other dangers. Satisfied that there was no one nearby, he glanced at Katsura, who was slowly shuffling toward Kaze. Finally, he put the cloth away and sheathed his katana. As he paced toward Okita, he mentally prepared himself for the difficult fight ahead.

As the Rebel came closer, Okita calmed himself, taking as deep a breath as he dared in an attempt to relax his anticipation-tightened nerves. Gradually, the unknown fighter emerged from the haze, and he was able to begin making out more details. Okita was startled to see how young the swordsman was. He's practically a child! The knowledge of how skilled this young warrior was chilled Okita. Dust liberally covered the Rebel from head to foot, masking the color of his hair and obscuring the midnight blue and gray of his Ishin Shishi uniform until it was nearly a homogenous brownish-gray. He stared intently at the young man's face as he drew nearer, until finally the unmistakable cruciform shape of a scar became visible beneath the dust and Okita tensed, his hand closing into a tight fist. So, Battousai is alive.

While he approached Okita, Kenshin spent a few moments wondering why the Shinsengumi Captain had not assisted the Mimiwarigumi fighters. After all, had he joined in, the engagement might have turned out much differently. Shaking his head minutely, he dismissed the conjecture as irrelevant and began evaluating his target. Tightly focusing his inner perceptions, Kenshin concentrated on Okita, immediately sensing his uncertainty. It's almost as if he isn't sure who I am. I wonder if he will be disappointed when he learns that I'm not dead, he thought in amusement, snorting softly. Studying his opponent's unusually dull ki showed him that Okita was exhausted and apparently quite ill, which was surprising. When he was near enough, Kenshin closely observed Okita, noting a smear of blood on his chin, the pinched tightness of his mouth, and the unhealthy pallor of his face that not even the all-pervasive dust could disguise. However, the Captain was taking great pains to not reveal his weakness, standing straight and watching his approach calmly. Kenshin understood and respected the man's determination to not let his condition interfere with his duty. He knew that Okita had become a master swordsman by the time he was eighteen, and was considered to be the best swordsman among the Shinsengumi. However, just because he was sick, it did not mean that he was not dangerous. Far from it. This unexpected turn of events merely meant that as far as the upcoming fight was concerned, they were more or less on equal footing.

One look at the hitokiri's impassive face and Okita sobered, his earlier exhilaration vanishing beneath the cold, impersonal gaze of the deadly assassin. To him, I am only an inconvenience – nothing more than a problem to be dealt with efficiently. Somehow that calm, expressionless regard – so much at odds with his obvious youth – managed to convey an inherent strength that shook him badly. Can I defeat him, as sick as I am today? The pragmatic strategist within him considered the outcome of the fight dispassionately, and determined that the odds of his winning this duel were poor – very poor. However, the frisson of fear that ran through Okita's body reignited his resolve. The assassin moved confidently, with no hint of concern over the upcoming fight. It would seem that as far as he was concerned, the outcome had already been decided. I will not be dismissed so easily! Okita snarled inwardly, letting his sword-ki radiate outwards toward the redheaded manslayer.

Kenshin felt strong waves of ken-ki rushing toward him intimidatingly as he came closer to his adversary, but let them wash over him harmlessly. It's a logical first move, he reasoned. Okita knows very little about me and doesn't know what to expect, so it makes sense for him to attempt to unnerve me before we even begin our duel. Not only that, considering his current debilitation, I'm sure he wants to appear as strong as possible. Considering his own condition, the irony of the situation did not escape Kenshin's notice. He is not willing to show any weakness, and I can't give him the slightest advantage by letting him know of my own exhaustion. This may be the most difficult fight I'll ever face. To save energy, Kenshin refrained from returning the blast of ki. Let him make of that what he will. His Shishou's voice echoed in the back of his mind, "A little uncertainty in an opponent can be very useful, Kenshin."

The way Battousai simply ignored his intimidation attack disturbed Okita far more than he wanted to admit, and he mentally gave himself a hard shake. He's only trying to demoralize me. I've done the same thing, he thought. Yes, and he's doing a fine job of it, too, a small, traitorous voice pointed out. Shut up! he growled. Great, now I'm talking to myself. Sighing, he focused on his enemy. The notorious Ishin Shishi hitokiri was advancing steadily, and Okita made good use of the time it took him to approach by studying his opponent closely for any signs that he had been badly wounded. Having seen the identifying crossed scars on the assassin's cheek, Okita immediately looked at his throat, quickly spotting the bandages wrapped around his neck. According to the reports of the surviving members of the Shinsengumi squads, their comrade, Bando, had managed to assault the hitokiri from the rear and cut his throat. All of the men agreed that they had seen the manslayer collapse, blood gushing from his slashed throat. Then one of the Ishin Shishi had bent down and felt for a pulse just before he declared that Battousai was dead. They all insisted that there was no possibility that the Ishin Shishi fighter had been lying. "You should have seen the horrified look on his face, Captain! If you had, then you would know he wasn't lying!" Okita snorted derisively. For a dead man, Battousai certainly seemed to be in fine shape. Idiots! The wound couldn't have been that bad. They probably just wanted Battousai to be killed so badly, they were willing to believe anything! Grimly, he locked down his anger, although it was difficult, since the exaggerated reports had caused the Shinsengumi to be unprepared for this attack. The hitokiri's arrival captured Okita's full attention.

Struck by the man's cool, assured demeanor, Okita felt his confidence wane slightly. Bristling at his reaction, he addressed the hitokiri with equal assurance, "Battousai."

Okita waited until it became obvious that the expected reply to the overture wasn't forthcoming. Battousai merely looked back levelly. Okita wasn't completely surprised, however. The limited information they had on the hitokiri indicated that he wasn't given to conversing with his enemies. He was, apparently, a man of action, not words.

Undaunted, Okita continued, "You have failed, Battousai." Again, no response. It was as though he was talking to a statue. I have to delay him until reinforcements get here! I may not be able hold him here for long, but every moment I can keep him distracted will improve the chances that Saito will get here in time. "I have no intention of permitting you to reach Katsura, much less rescue him." A brief flicker of an unknown emotion passed through Battousai's eyes. Determination? Resolve? Okita brushed aside his questions; there wasn't time to address them now.

Surprised by Okita's assumption that he had not yet gotten to Katsura, Kenshin had to strictly control his features. It would not do for Battousai to smirk at a time like this! Is he serious? he wondered. A quick scan of his ki proved that he was. Somewhat amused by the Captain's misconception, Kenshin waited patiently. Undoubtedly, Okita was attempting to delay the rescue until the rest of the Shinsengumi could return. Not only that, he was certain that the exhausted Shinsengumi Captain was also trying to stall the upcoming fight so that he could rest for as long as possible. Kenshin was willing to let him talk a little longer. After all, Okita wasn't the only one who needed to rest. Once again, he cast his senses outwards, making certain that Katsura was all right and hadn't gotten too far away. Unexpectedly, he discovered that the injured man had stopped walking and seemed to be resting. Kenshin was relieved by this development. Knowing where Katsura was meant one less thing to worry about during the fight. Delegating a small portion of his awareness to Katsura, Kenshin returned his attention to Okita, who appeared to have not noticed his distraction.

"It was clever of you to fake your death that way, Battousai. I'll admit you had us convinced. Who came up with the idea?"

Faked my death, did I? If it had been faked any more realistically, I'd be dead now, Kenshin thought wryly.

Again Battousai refused to rise to the bait, his impassive expression unchanging. Undeterred by the other man's refusal to respond, Okita continued, "I see that the Ishin Shishi's strategist is using very different tactics than usual. What happened to the other one?"

Kenshin ignored Okita's not-so-subtle probe for information. He was busy recalling everything he knew about the Shinsengumi Captain's Tennen Rishin fighting style. He is a master, but does he have any special attacks? I will have to be very careful– A tingle on the edge of his awareness alerted him that Katsura had started walking forward again. I cannot delay the fight any longer. Kenshin locked away his concerns and emotions, his hopes and fears – entering a state of hyper-awareness that allowed him to be aware of everything, but be affected by nothing. He would pay for this denial of feeling later; but for now, it was a necessary evil. Turning slightly to the left, he bent his knees a little – lowering his center of gravity – and shifted his weight to the balls of his feet as his right hand hovered a scant inch above the hilt of his katana. "Enough talk."

Taking in Battousai's battle-ready stance, Okita knew the time had come. He's preparing to use his Battoujutsu. The first blow landed may determine the outcome of this duel. I cannot let him get in the first strike! Although disappointed that he hadn't been able to delay the hitokiri longer, Okita accepted the challenge. "Very well." The words were scarcely out of his mouth before he had launched his signature technique, the Sandanzuki – a triple-thrust attack so rapid it was difficult for a person to see all three of the sword's strikes. The Sandanzuki had never failed before, and Okita did not believe it would now, either.

A flare in Okita's aura warned Kenshin of his attack. Even as he unconsciously noted the changes in the Captain's position, he was already responding reflexively to the rapid-fire attack. Shoulders tensing . . . A thrusting strike. The flicker of his eyes . . . My right shoulder! Already shifting . . . Neck! Nearly imperceptible twist of the hips . . . Left shoulder!

In total amazement, Okita's eyes widened in disbelief as he watched Battousai's right shoulder turn smoothly to the left just enough that his blade slipped past, close enough to slice the fabric of his sleeve. No! Disbelief changed to shock when the hitokiri then faded back precisely far enough that the tip of his katana stopped one inch from his throat. Impossible! As he went for the third strike, shock nearly became panic when his blade was beaten aside by a stroke so forceful it left his fingers tingling in reaction.

His defenses left wide open, Okita was barely able to throw himself aside in time to avoid the assassin's swift reprisal. Scrambling backwards, he made a frantic effort to gain enough distance to reestablish his guard. The manslayer followed him relentlessly, and Okita's blocks and parries were anything but elegant. I'm already in trouble! he thought, his heart pounding furiously. Chest heaving as he panted for air, he felt the initial burning within his lungs that warned of an entirely different kind of attack. Kami-sama . . .

Calling upon all of his skills, Okita recovered swiftly. He wasn't a kenjutsu prodigy for nothing! Seeing an opening, he came in from the side, blade rising in a slanted slash. Battousai pivoted to meet his stroke, deflecting it with apparent ease. But Okita was exceptionally skilled at interpreting his opponents' movements. He wasn't certain, but he thought that Battousai seemed to be favoring his left side slightly. If that is the case, then I may be able to take advantage of that. Despite the seriousness of the situation, Okita automatically continued to study his adversary as they exchanged blows. The slenderness of his arms is deceiving, he noted, seeing how the muscles of his forearms flexed and the tendons of his wrists stood up like cables beneath his skin. His strength is astounding! He is undoubtedly the strongest opponent I have ever faced. Although, surprisingly, he does not rely on brute strength. His strategy relies on finesse and speed, instead. Interesting.

Having sensed a potential weakness in the manslayer's defense on his left side, Okita took another few steps to the left – completing the half-circle he had started during his previous attack, and inadvertently putting Battousai closer to the security building that held Katsura. However, far from discovering a weakness, he found himself struggling to meet – much less return – Battousai's rapid series of blows. No sooner had he blocked one strike, than the lethal blade would suddenly swing in from a different angle. Okita was nearing the end of his strength, and could feel his chest tightening threateningly. Again the hitokiri's katana swung, its incredibly keen edge slicing through the air directly toward his neck. Okita raised his sword to block, only to discover to his horror that it had only been a feint. Exhaustion-dulled reflexes could not meet the new challenge fast enough. Too slow! Desperately, he tried to counter the incoming strike, only to be partially successful. He gritted his teeth as a line of fire burned its way across his chest. Not taking the time to appraise his condition, he quickly backed away.

Watching Okita intently, Kenshin maintained iron control of his breathing, forcing himself to take deep, slow breaths. Why did he put himself between Katsura and me? Did he see Katsura? Is this his way of stopping the rescue? Delay me until someone else can recapture him? That will not happen as long as I am alive!! However, Kenshin held back, unsure if that was the Captain's plan. Okita's body language had not indicated any awareness of the Choshu leader's presence. If that was true, then Kenshin would not do anything that might bring Katsura to his attention – not even glance in his direction. Fortunately, Kenshin's peripheral vision was excellent, and he could follow the older man's progress without alerting his opponent. A quick look at Okita's aura proved that he was near the end of his strength. And so am I, Kenshin thought wearily, grateful for the opportunity to rest, even if it was only for a few moments.

I won't last much longer . . . Okita thought resignedly, his chest spasming as he fought the urge to cough. The need to pant for more air was nearly overwhelming, but he didn't dare take a deep breath now. If he did, he would lose his fight to control the coughing spell that hovered just a breath away. Strangely, Battousai just stood there, watching him closely. I wonder why? It certainly isn't because he needs to rest! He has to know how close he is to winning this duel, so he must be granting me this chance to recuperate. Is it because he feels that fighting a weakened opponent is dishonorable? Surprising behavior, coming from an assassin. Although confused by the unexpected respite, Okita seized the opportunity to recover. While keeping an eye on the manslayer, he glanced down at his wound. Dyed red by his blood, his haori, gi, and yukata were hanging limply, cleanly slit by the hitokiri's razor-sharp katana. Deciding that the injury wasn't serious enough to prevent him from fighting, Okita began calculating his next – and probably last – move. One final attack . . . If I can't stop him, at least I can injure him and maybe slow him down so that the others can finish him. Gathering the shreds of his strength, he prepared to charge.

The determined look in Okita's eyes as he straightened to his full height, told Kenshin that he was prepared to continue the duel. I will not let him keep me from Katsura! This ends now!! Nodding slightly, Kenshin drew his sheathed sword from his obi and prepared to resume the fight.

Taking a firmer grip on his katana, Okita returned the hitokiri's acknowledgment. With no further hesitation, he ran forward, swinging his sword into ready position. Battousai raced toward him at an unbelievable speed, his sheathed katana held in his left hand. As they came together, Okita readied himself, intent on delivering his strongest strike. With a resounding metallic chime, steel collided with steel, and his stroke was stopped by a brutal blow so powerful his sword was knocked out of his hands, landing several feet away. He nearly screamed as something slammed into his unprotected side at practically the same instant. He fell to his knees, arms wrapped around his waist, gasping in agony. Desperately, Okita tried to regain control of his breathing, but it was too late. Oh, gods . . . not now . . . please . . . I don't want it to end like this . . . The first racking cough bent him over, shaking from the force of the explosive paroxysm, bright blood spattering across the ground.

Kenshin stood still for a few moments before he sheathed his katana and slipped it through his obi, giving his overstressed muscles a chance to relax. That Double Battoujutsu took more energy than I had to spare, he thought tiredly, but the Sou Ryu Sen had worked. Turning, he faced his defeated opponent and watched him gamely try to bring his stricken body back under control. It was obvious that he would take quite some time to recover, but Kenshin could not afford to ignore such a potentially dangerous threat to Katsura. Emptying himself of all emotions, Kenshin started to walk back to Okita. It is time to finish this.

Even as Okita knelt there, coughing helplessly, he tried to keep track of his opponent. Battousai had stopped a few feet away, holding his sheath in his left hand and his katana in his right. Double Battoujutsu. Of course. I should have known when I saw him holding his sheathed katana. He is indeed a master of the Battoujutsu. The manslayer turned to face him and Okita looked into fierce amber eyes. There was no cruelty in them, but neither was there any mercy. There is no disgrace in being defeated by such an honorable warrior, he reminded himself. He fought the urge to close his eyes when Battousai began to pace forward to deliver the killing stroke. I will meet my fate without fear and with my eyes open.

The hitokiri had taken only a couple of steps when he stopped abruptly and looked over his shoulder, his head turning so swiftly that his high ponytail whipped through the air. Suddenly he was gone, running even faster than he had before. Okita stared in disbelief as Battousai vanished into the haze. Does he think so little of me as an opponent that he would deny me an honorable death?! Anger at the insult that had just been given began to rise up within him. Wait – he ran away from the security building? he questioned, confused. Then he saw the shuffling form of a man – head down and shoulders slumped wearily – disappear into the smoke. Katsura? he suddenly realized, eyes widening. He's already been freed?! Then that means . . . Okita nodded to himself as he began to comprehend what had just happened. The memory of hearing shouting in the background, moments before the manslayer left, explained his behavior. Yes . . . Battousai is protecting Katsura while he makes his escape. And that means that he will attack anyone he feels is a danger to him. Another racking cough seized him and he lost track of time for a while. When he was finally able to take a deeper breath, he bitterly understood that the manslayer had made the right decision. I am no longer a threat. His duty lies elsewhere and I cannot fault him for fulfilling his responsibility. Then a horrifying thought sprang up. Saito was right. Oh, gods . . . I'm never going to live this down. Releasing a dejected sigh, he closed his eyes, and focused on recovering from his latest attack of consumption.

By pushing himself hard, Kenshin managed to intercept the soldier just before he reached Katsura. With one swift slash, the man's head parted ways with his body. A howl of outrage made him spin, only to see another soldier closing in on him. A sidestep, and Kenshin's katana blurred, nearly cutting the man in half. Two more soldiers appeared, running through the smokescreen. The older one yelled to his comrade, "Nakata! Go tell the Capt–"

Nakata didn't live long enough to do more than scream.

After that, things became a somewhat confused series of attacks and parries as Kenshin fought his way through a seemingly endless procession of enemies. He suppressed a weary sigh as his seventh – or was it the eighth? – opponent collapsed. As far as their skills as swordsmen were concerned, his adversaries were barely average; but they just kept coming! It was as though there was a never-ending column of soldiers lined up, just waiting for their chance to die at Battousai's hands. It took Kenshin three strokes to eliminate this last particularly determined foe, when it should not have taken more than one. I'm getting tired, he admitted to himself, and actually snorted at the absurd understatement. Yet another soldier came running forward, even though any reasonably intelligent fool would have run, after seeing all the bloodied bodies lying where they had dropped. Is there no end to them?

Wearily, Kenshin jerked his katana free from his last victim, and absently wiped away the sweat that ran freely down the side of his face. He glanced at Katsura, judging his condition. At the same time, he noted that the Choshu leader had again strayed away from the direct line to the breach in the wall. It had taken longer to eliminate the Army swordsmen than he had thought, and Katsura was farther away than Kenshin liked. The older man's head was bent, seemingly focused on the ground just inches in front of his feet, and he was apparently unaware of what was going on around him. Kenshin's inner and outer senses were stretching, prowling throughout the gray smoke-shrouded parade ground, looking for the next threat. His heart raced when he detected a squad with strong fighting auras running toward Katsura. They were already very close to the Choshu leader, but before Kenshin could do more than begin running toward the group, a bomb exploded in their midst, eliminating them as a threat. Instantly, Kenshin looked at Katsura. He was still walking slowly; and his hearing was obviously still impaired, as he hadn't even flinched when the bomb went off. A ki suddenly spiked in triumphant recognition and Kenshin's head twisted around, his eyes probing the featureless gray clouds that surrounded them as he began moving closer to Katsura. The warning had come from over there . . .

A scream of agony sounded out when another bomb exploded nearby. Debris blew through the smoke, narrowly missing Kenshin – revealing a rifleman taking aim at the injured man walking blindly ahead. Even as he launched himself forward, Kenshin dispassionately calculated the bullet's trajectory. The situation was bad. The rifleman was outside of Kaze's range, even if he could see the soldier, which Kenshin doubted. But even at that distance, there was no possibility of the marksman missing. To make matters worse, Katsura was too far away and Kenshin was afraid that, in his current exhausted state, he could not run fast enough to get to him in time. The Do Ryu Sen was his only long-range attack; but considering his condition after already executing the powerful Hiten Mitsurugi technique three times, it would be a weak one, at best. Besides, he realized, it cannot travel faster than a bullet. The rifleman's aura began to glow with confidence as his aim steadied. Weakness-driven desperation surged through Kenshin, only to be replaced by disgust at his failure to protect Katsura. I will NOT allow this! Reaching down deep within himself, he released the rage that had been banked earlier, and let that primal energy flow through him.

It would have been easy to let himself be overwhelmed by the surge of energy that filled him, but Kenshin knew better. The extra strength he had tapped was limited, and the mission to rescue Katsura had not yet been completed. He had to stay in control – he could not afford to waste any of the precious energy. Using his iron discipline to clamp down on his reaction, Kenshin disappeared, running with phenomenal speed.

Time seemed to slow to a crawl as Kenshin skidded to a halt between Katsura and the rifleman. Kenshin's keen eyesight focused on the soldier and saw his finger begin to tighten on the trigger of his rifle. Driving the tip of his katana into the ground, he used the sword as a focus, channeling his rage-fueled sword-ki through the blade and sending it in a straight line aimed directly at the rifleman. Between shielding Katsura from danger and concentrating on controlling the raw energy that burned through his veins, Kenshin didn't notice that his aura flared brilliantly. In a rare display, his sword-ki was released in an incredibly powerful burst, streaking across the compound.

Kenshin saw a puff of white smoke erupt from the rifle's muzzle and felt as though a burning poker had been plunged violently into his left shoulder. He was spun halfway around as the force of the bullet meant for Katsura struck him. At almost the same instant, the powerful Do Ryu Sen slammed unforgivingly into the rifleman, throwing him back twenty feet. He crashed against the side of a building and slid down, landing in a broken heap at the foot of the wall.

Dizzy and nauseated, Kenshin reeled from the shock of both the bullet wound and the enormous drain of energy from firing off yet another massive Do Ryu Sen in less than ten minutes. For several seconds everything seemed to go gray, and he was only distantly aware of his wound beginning to hurt. In the background, an anxious voice intruded into his fogged mind. Lethargically, Kenshin focused on the familiar voice, responding reflexively to the fear and pain woven through the words. Katsura . . . ?


Katsura! The knowledge that Katsura was in distress snapped Kenshin out of his daze. Instantly, his training took over and he automatically blocked the pain, locking it deep within his mind. Opening his eyes, he looked around and found Katsura standing nearby, his face pale and drawn. Fighting the dizziness, Kenshin walked with carefully measured steps, to stand next to the injured man."Yes, sir?"

"Are we almost there, Kenshin? I'm not sure how much longer I can go on."

"Yes, sir. It won't take much longer, so hold on."

"All right, Kenshin." Sighing heavily, Katsura took a shaky step forward.

Kenshin gently took the older man's arm and carefully turned him in the right direction. Pacing slowly beside the Choshu leader, he considered Katsura's reaction – or to be more precise, lack of reaction to what had just happened. I suppose that since I already knew that Katsura is pretty much unaware of what is going on around him, I shouldn't be surprised that he doesn't realize how close he came to being shot. Still . . . The bullet wound burned deep within his shoulder in a way he had never experienced before and he felt a trickle of warm blood trail sluggishly down his chest. Well . . . at least the wound isn't bleeding too fast, so I shouldn't bleed to death, he thought remotely. Taking a deep breath, he wearily summoned the energy to send his inner senses out, seeking the aura of anyone who might be a danger to the completion of this mission. Fortunately, the ki closest to them belonged to Kaze, and Kenshin relaxed slightly in relief. They were close enough now that the jonin ninja could assist in their defense, if necessary. There were others gathering in the distance, but for now, they were safe.

It took Kenshin far more effort to monitor their surroundings than it should have, which was a clear indication that he was reaching the end of his strength. But by using his indomitable willpower and training to stay centered upon his duty to save Katsura, he could keep going, pushing his body far beyond its normal limits. Kenshin knew he would not be able to keep this up for long and that he would have to deal with the consequences of his actions later, but he would go on until he could continue no longer. He could only hope that it would be long enough.

High in the oak tree near the wall, Kaze stood on a sturdy limb, keeping watch as Katsura and Himura drew near. With difficulty, he had managed to identify and follow Katsura's weak ki. He had also discovered an unexpected way of keeping track of Himura, whose ki was masked, of course. Because he had been so focused on separating Katsura's ki from the auras of all the fighters in the area, he had noted an interesting phenomenon. Shortly after the two men had left the security building, auras started disappearing. Sometimes singly or in pairs, sometimes in groups, but the disappearances were always near Katsura. Himura. And considering the number of auras that are vanishing, Himura is keeping very busy.

Kaze was quite pleased with himself that he had figured out a way to observe their progress. It gave him the opportunity to judge how long they would take to reach him. And that allowed him to ration his bombs, so he would not run out before they completed their escape. Otherwise, it might have gotten pretty nasty right about now.

He was dismayed when he sensed Okita's ki enter the compound. Bleakly, Kaze watched his slow progress across the parade ground, heading steadily toward Katsura. He knew how badly injured Himura was, and feared that he was not physically prepared for a fight against such a skilled opponent. He had hoped that they might not meet; but when both Okita and Katsura's auras stopped, he knew that a fight was inevitable. The next couple of minutes dragged on for what felt like an eternity, and Kaze prepared to go after Katsura if his aura started going back to the security building. However, Katsura continued walking toward him, while Okita's ki stayed where it was. Less than a minute later, another ki disappeared, about halfway between Katsura and Okita's auras. Kaze blinked, looking back and forth between the two auras. Yet another ki vanished, and it became obvious that for some reason Himura had let Okita live.

Before Kaze could spend any more time thinking about the mystery, a group of men with fighting auras came running toward him through the smoke and he smiled coldly. Waiting with a hunter's infinite patience, he held off throwing a bomb until his prey were precisely where he wanted them. It landed right in the middle of the group, exploding with a loud, vicious boom! Kaze felt a moment's satisfaction before he went back to keeping watch. Himura and Katsura were getting close. The mission was almost complete.

The sound of footsteps running along the wall alerted Kaze to another menace approaching. The oak tree's thick branches blocked his view of the men, and he cursed silently when they swerved away from the wall and into the concealing haze of smoke and dust, headed toward Katsura. Apprehensively, he waited for them to come into range, wondering if Himura would take care of the problem. Another aura vanished near where the previous ones had disappeared, indicating that he was too far away to be able to counter this new threat. Kaze grew anxious as he watched Katsura approach. He had veered slightly away from the direct path, putting him closer to the squad that was drawing nearer by the second. Thoughtfully hefting the percussion grenade he held in his hand, the jonin's eyes hardened as he began calculating the distance to his target. It was going to be much closer to Katsura than he liked, but he had no choice.

Focusing intensely on his targets' auras, Kaze threw the bomb with all the skill that years of training had given him. The explosion – and its successful results – gave him a brief thrill of pride, and his lips curved in a small smile of satisfaction. The glow of achievement was very short-lived, though. Seconds later, he felt a ki spike in excitement and instantly began scanning the area, looking for the source of that aura. The blast from the grenade had thinned the murky smoke a little and Kaze was able to see a rifleman standing approximately 200 feet away, aiming directly at Katsura, who seemed to be totally unaware of the danger. Aghast, he realized that not only was the soldier out of his range, but that Himura was too far away and couldn't stop the rifleman, either. Frantically, he tried to think of a way to stop the impending attack, but could only wait, frozen in horror, and watch as Katsura walked to his doom.

Kaze was shaken out of his immobilization when another group of soldiers came running from a little further away. His mood dark, the ninja threw another grenade, his teeth showing bone-white in a starkly vicious smile that was anything but friendly.

Suddenly, Himura slid into view, shielding the Choshu leader with his body. Before the jonin had time to question how the redhead had managed to arrive in time, the hitokiri unmasked his ki, which blazed forth at full intensity. Kaze instinctively started to throw his hand up to shield his eyes from the lustrous red-gold brilliance. Slightly embarrassed by his pointless reaction, Kaze grimaced as he dropped his hand. He jerked involuntarily when the rifle's report echoed across the compound and instantly looked at Katsura. But it was Himura who was hit by the bullet, not Katsura. Stunned by the unexpected deliverance, Kaze glanced at the rifleman just in time to see him flung backwards and smashed against the side of the armory building.

Thoroughly bewildered by what had happened to the rifleman, Kaze looked around the dust-shrouded parade ground and tried to figure out what had just taken place. Finally, he shrugged and decided to discuss it with the clan leader. As the eldest in the clan, he had many years of experience, so maybe he could explain the mystery. But how did Himura arrive in time to protect Katsura? Kaze wondered in confusion. Well. . . I suppose he could have been aware of the squad approaching, and started running to meet them as soon as he finished fighting his last opponent, he rationalized. And he probably continued running toward Katsura, even after I took care of them. Although, he mused thoughtfully, considering his abilities, he might have even known about the rifleman before I did.

The jonin watched Katsura trudge painfully slowly toward him, the small redhead walking alongside. The hitokiri's eyes never stopped searching the area while they walked, and Kaze saw him reach out instantly to help the obviously injured Choshu leader maintain his balance when he stumbled. Amazing. You'd never know Himura's just been shot. His dedication is beyond belief! Kaze shook his head in admiration. Had someone told me a week ago that one man could enter Shogunate headquarters at a time like this – during the day, no less! – and steal a prisoner out from right beneath their noses, I would have called them a liar. Even though he arranged for us to create a division, I don't know of anyone else who could have managed to rescue Katsura from this place singlehandedly. The Ishin are lucky to have a man like Himura on their side.

Keeping his hand under Katsura's elbow, Kenshin guided him on a direct path toward Kaze and their escape route. Occasionally, he kicked aside a piece of debris before Katsura could trip over it. Frowning from the effort it took, he once again sent his inner senses ranging outwards. Almost directly above their heads was Kaze's strong ki. In front of them, on the other side of the wall, were perhaps twenty auras. Far from being threatening, they were merely alert, which told Kenshin that the auras belonged to the Ishin Shishi fighters that were on guard. It was difficult, but he was able to narrow his focus down and identify Ikeda's aura, which brought a faint smile to his lips.

Abruptly, Kenshin's eyes narrowed as he became aware of hostile auras swiftly approaching the Ishin fighters on the other side of the wall. It didn't take much imagination to figure out that they were most likely Shinsengumi squads returning to headquarters. Shouting behind him made him turn smoothly to face the new threat. The smokescreen was beginning to thin finally, and he could see twenty or thirty soldiers running toward them. For a moment, Kenshin almost sighed, his shoulders drooping a little, responsibility and fatigue weighing heavily upon him. We were so close . . . He stiffened at the note of resignation in the thought, and his eyes hardened. No. We are close! And nothing will stop me now!

Glancing to the side, Kenshin assessed Katsura's condition and shook his head. The wounded man was sagging in obvious exhaustion, mute pain evident with every heavy breath he took, his suffering written in the deep lines etched on his face. Yet he hadn't given up, and Kenshin was well aware that he would try to do whatever was necessary. With enemies on both sides, their choices were limited; but Kenshin knew that they stood a better chance on the other side of the wall, where there were more allies. To stay here was to risk being trapped, and it was a certainty that they would be overwhelmed by sheer numbers before too long. He looked upwards; but before he could say anything, the jonin called down from the branches above.

"Get Katsura-san out of here, Himura-san! Don't worry, I can handle them!" he said with cheerful contempt.

Not questioning the ninja's assertion, Kenshin gave a sharp nod and quietly urged Katsura to stand next to the jagged-edged hole in the outer wall. After a quick study of the compound, he moved to the breach and looked through, studying the situation on the other side. A carriage was parked a few feet away, the horses snorting nervously and shifting back and forth in the traces because of the fighting going on around them. It appeared that the two forces were fairly evenly matched, with the Choshu fighters keeping the Shinsengumi held back in a semi-circle around the opening in the wall.

As though from a great distance away, Katsura heard Kenshin ask him to stand and not move. Stubbornly, he fought his way through the leaden fog that engulfed his mind. Looking around, he realized that they had finally reached the outer wall. At first, Katsura was confused. How will we cross the wall? he wondered anxiously. But then he saw Kenshin lean forward, and understood that there was a hole in the wall. Of course! It made perfect sense. Katsura shook his head, disgusted with himself for not figuring it out in the first place. I must be even more exhausted than I thought I was. He pulled off the towel that Kenshin had tied around his face and used it to wipe the dust away from his eyes. Absently, he tucked the small cloth into the coat's pocket.

Silently, Kenshin stepped back, turning to find Katsura watching him steadily, his eyes tired but determined. "I'll go through first, sir. When you come through, move to the right a few steps and keep your back to the wall."

Eyes serious and pale lips compressed, Katsura nodded.

With his hand under the older man's elbow, Kenshin led him to the gap, making certain he had a firm grip on the wall before slipping through the rough opening. Drawing his katana, he signaled for Katsura to come through. Not letting his guard down for an instant, he kept vigil, constantly scanning the immediate surroundings even while he kept track of Katsura's progress by the sound of his dragging footsteps and labored breathing. In the background, he heard the sound of grenades exploding and the shrieks of dying men. When Katsura had slid to the side of the opening, Kenshin took a couple of steps forward, standing in front of the Choshu leader with his katana angled across his body in ready position.

Now that he didn't have to worry about anyone coming up from behind Katsura, Kenshin took a deep breath and gratefully took the chance to rest a bit while studying the situation in greater depth. By comparing the uniforms on the bodies that lay strewn haphazardly around the perimeter, it appeared that originally there had been more Shinsengumi than Choshu troops. Now, however, the numbers were nearly even; which, while an improvement, was not good enough for him to relax. He wondered idly if any of the Ishin fighters expected him to join in the fight. If so, they were doomed to disappointment. Under no circumstances would he leave Katsura unguarded.

Noting that there was no one sitting in the carriage driver's seat, Kenshin took a longer look at the fighters. He spotted squad leader Motoyoshi first, recalling with faint surprise that they had fought back-to-back only the day before. His opponent was a lean swordsman, who moved with smooth assurance, but was perhaps a bit too self-assured. He tended to rely too much on clever footwork and didn't seem to realize that he was leaving himself open to a straight-line attack. Kenshin watched as Motoyoshi lured the man into committing himself, then cut him down without the slightest hesitation, a predatory grin spreading across his face. Shaking his head, Kenshin could remember all too well the times that his Master had done exactly the same thing to him. It took a bit of effort to not rub at the non-existent bruises that he remembered so well.

Out of the corner of his eye, Kenshin saw two Shinsengumi facing off against one man, and focused on that duel. The Ishin fighter had his back to Kenshin, but there was no mistaking how skilled he was. The man was handling his two assailants with relative ease, managing to keep one or the other off-balance, so that they could not attack in concert. Kenshin found himself watching in appreciation as the Rebel swordsman adroitly maneuvered one of his opponents in such a way that he actually wound up interfering with his partner's attack. Then the three men shifted, and suddenly Kenshin realized that it was Ikeda he was watching. In three strokes, Ikeda finished off both men and turned away, looking for another adversary. Pleased, Kenshin nodded to himself. Ikeda was every bit as skilled as he had thought he would be.

Kenshin continued studying the groups of combatants. He remembered seeing some of the Choshu fighters before, but had never learned their names. His inspection was cut short when one of the Shinsengumi swordsmen recognized him. The man's exclamation rang out and, for a moment, all of the fighters froze. Then another voice shouted, "They've freed Katsura! Stop them!"

The dramatic announcement seemed to break the spell and the fighting began again – only with much greater fervor. The Shinsengumi were bent on recapturing the Choshu leader, while the Ishin guards were even more determined that they not succeed. The antagonists battled fiercely, the Shinsengumi intently trying to break through the fragile human barrier. That tenuous battle line shifted constantly as pairs of swordsmen fought back and forth, each trying to gain the upper hand on the other, but the Choshu forces refused to give in. Screams of pain vied with challenges, creating a cacophony of chaos.

Kenshin divided his attention between Katsura and the fighting going on in front of them. Collecting the remaining tatters of his strength and focusing intently upon his need to protect the older man, he combined the two into a hard knot of determination that he would use to see himself through this mission. He could not take any chances. He was not expendable. While Katsura was in danger, he had to stay alive!

Men were fighting all around the carriage now and no one was paying any attention to the team. Their nervous snorts became anxious whinnies as swords clashed, slicing through the air practically under their noses. Frightened, they tossed their heads and tried to back away, but the carriage brakes kept them from succeeding. Finally, a Shinsengumi swordsman jumped back from his opponent, inadvertently crashing into one of the horses. The terrified bay half-reared, his steel-shod hoof coming down to land directly on the man's sandaled foot. The swordsman's scream of pain was very short lived, as his Rebel adversary took full advantage of his distraction.

Having watched the whole episode, Kenshin was amused by the unexpected turn of events. I hope that someone remembers to give that horse an extra treat. His eyes widened in alarm, though, when the team spooked and lunged forward, apparently on the verge of bolting. If we lose the carriage . . . Ikeda suddenly appeared in front of the frightened horses, grasping their reins tightly and talking calmly and reassuringly to them. Kenshin blinked when both horses suddenly shoved their heads against Ikeda, seeking security, and nearly knocked him over – for all the world looking like they were trying to hide. He laughed and affectionately rubbed each horse's forehead.

Instinct sent a tingling warning along Kenshin's nerves that screamed, Danger! Whirling, he blocked the descending blade smoothly and retaliated before the stunned Shinsengumi swordsman had recovered from his shock. The look on his face clearly expressed his incredulity, his total inability to understand how his attack could have failed. That look slowly changed to one of pained disbelief just before Kenshin jerked his blade free.

Looking up, he concentrated on the three Shinsengumi fighters that charged in. A quick study of their auras showed Kenshin that the narrow-eyed, rat-faced swordsman was the most dangerous of the three. The shorter, curly-haired man was the least dangerous, while the tall, lanky man had medium skills. Rat-Face and Beanpole tried to come in from the sides, in a pincer movement, while Curly charged up the center. Kenshin bashed the hilt of his katana into Curly's face, breaking his nose and making him stagger – with blood gushing from his crushed nose – into the tall swordsman. Kenshin then took advantage of the skinny swordsman's distraction and attacked with a horizontal stroke that was, surprisingly, blocked. Keeping his attention on both of the fighters before him, he maintained his aggressive attack, making certain that neither swordsman was able to exploit any opportunities that might come up. It took four more blows before the lanky swordsman made his mistake. Kenshin immediately countered with a vicious cross-slash that was only partially blocked at the last second, leaving the fighter's right arm hanging uselessly. Before he could recover, Kenshin's blade flickered and the man fell, his throat cut.

The rat-faced Shinsengumi glared in rage, but refused to be baited into attacking recklessly, falling back on a defensive strategy. After having several of his strokes either blocked or parried, Kenshin knew he couldn't allow the fight to drag on any longer. He just didn't have the energy to spare. Taking a deep breath, he moved in swiftly, using the Ryu Sou Sen technique to deliver several rapid strikes in a row. His opponent was able to parry the first three strokes, but the following five blows all landed squarely and his adversary went down. Breathing heavily, Kenshin stood over the man, imprinting the fighter's face in his memory before delivering the killing stroke.

A roar of outrage from behind reminded Kenshin that there had been three swordsmen. Taking a deep breath, he spun and dodged the bloody-faced fighter's slash, slipping to the side and driving his blade deep between his ribs. Grunting in surprise, the man collapsed abruptly, freeing Kenshin's sword. Panting, he cleaned his blade and sheathed it.

He started to turn back, but fatigue closed in, turning his bones to water and blurring his vision; weighting his limbs until it seemed that he didn't have the strength to even lift his sword. For a moment, the pandemonium surrounding Kenshin seemed to fade away until it was as though he was a spectator watching the fighting going on around him from a great distance. In the back of his mind, Kenshin realized that the last of his strength was gone, that he had given everything he had to give and there was nothing left. Never before in his life had he been this tired. Tired? If he had had the energy, he would have laughed at the thought of describing how he felt as merely 'tired.' All he wanted to do was collapse and never get up. So close . . . so close . . . He forced himself to look at Katsura, slumped against the wall, bloodshot eyes half closed. Katsura . . . forgive me . . . I failed . . . Failed. If he failed, Katsura would be recaptured, executed, and everything would have been in vain. Failed. 'Understand this, Kenshin,' came the deep, rumbling voice of his Shishou. 'If you choose to protect others, failure is not an option.' Failed. No. Failed! NO! Failed!NO!! Failure is not an option! I can not fail! Katsura is depending on me! I will not fail! Fiercely, he called upon that indomitable will that had never abandoned him, and began to fight the gray lassitude that filled him, trying to break its relentless grip. I will NOT fail! KATSURA!! He did not know where the energy came from, what depths he had plumbed to find the strength that filled him; but nevertheless it came, and with it came the renewed resolve to complete his mission. Slowly, he straightened up, once again alert. Kenshin knew the exhaustion was not gone. It hovered at the edges of his awareness, waiting to come crashing down on him again; but he would not allow it to happen until he was done.

Exhausted or not, his reflexes were still as sharp as ever. His sense of perception detected a flicker of motion, and he reacted without thought. Light flashed brilliantly off his polished blade as his katana slashed through the air, and an arrow aimed at Katsura fell to the ground harmlessly – cut in half. Quickly looking to where the arrow had come from, Kenshin saw a Shogunate army archer leaning over the wall trying to take aim again. Apparently unsatisfied with the angle of his shot, he scowled and drew back, running forward a ways. He stopped and leaned over the wall again, taking aim – only this time it wasn't at Katsura, but at the hitokiri that was guarding him. Kenshin tensed as the archer drew the bowstring back. Abruptly, he stiffened, his bow falling from his nerveless fingers, as a crossbow quarrel suddenly imbedded itself in his chest. Collapsing limply, the archer fell over the wall, tumbling slowly until he hit the ground with a solid thud. Looking up at the tree that concealed Kaze, Kenshin gave a quick nod of gratitude. With the jonin guarding his back, he could focus on the enemies at hand.

Shouts from behind warned Kenshin that more Shinsengumi had broken through the line. He spun to face five more swordsmen closing in on him. Motion on his left caught his eye, and he saw three Shinsengumi come up behind Ikeda, but there was no time to warn him.

Then he was surrounded, and Kenshin concentrated on his foes, quickly becoming immersed in the fighting. Early in the fray, he managed to glance over to where he had last seen Ikeda, but he wasn't there. Kenshin could not afford to worry about his friend – not at a time like this. He could only trust that he would be able to take care of himself. Kenshin's mind became so numb from fatigue that he fought on instinct alone – muscle memory allowing his body to react automatically to his opponents' moves – and his recollection of that fight was one long series of broken, disjointed images. Block! Dodge. Swing! Blood. Parry! Duck. Slash! Face. Target! Screams. To Kenshin, it seemed that time slowed to a crawl, while his reflexes became even faster.

Katsura leaned against the wall, immensely grateful for its strength at his back. He desperately wanted to get off his throbbing feet and looked longingly at the carriage that was so close, and yet, at the same time, was so very far away. Ishin fighters wearing Choshu insignia were battling furiously against Shinsengumi swordsmen in an arc that included the carriage. There was a semicircle of clear space between the sword fights and the wall. Kenshin stood a few feet away, a solid bulwark of protection, watching the fighting closely. Katsura closed his eyes wearily. If it hadn't been for Kenshin, I'd be dead by now. But if I'd listened to him in the first place, none of this would have happened.

Shouting made Katsura open his eyes in time to see Kenshin face off against five Shinsengumi. As tired as he was, he still couldn't help but be interested, and was soon completely absorbed by the fight. Focusing closely on Kenshin's moves, he was very impressed, not only by the way the young man avoided the deadly blows aimed at him, but by how he avoided those blows. While dodging lethal strikes, he displayed incredible skill at leading his adversaries in such a way that they either left themselves open to body shots or interfered with each other, making it easier for him to eliminate them. With supple grace and phenomenal quickness, Kenshin slipped past his foes' defenses, attacking with devastating results. His reflexes are incredible! He fights like a demon!

However, Katsura suspected that he would have nightmares from watching the young redhead's blank expression remain unchanged as his katana sliced across a man's eyes – leaving the blinded man reeling, blood pouring down his face. Only to use the follow-through from the previous slash to cut another fighter's arm off – complete with sword. He then beheaded a third man before finally finishing off the now-blind swordsman. After killing man after man, Katsura could only wonder, How can he remain so unaffected by this? There was only one man left facing Kenshin when two more Shinsengumi ran up. But, as far as Katsura could see, the only change in the young man's dispassionate countenance was that his eyes narrowed slightly. Shaking his head, Katsura didn't even attempt to stop the shudder that ran down his back, shaking him hard enough to make his teeth click together loudly. The three men encircled the redhead, but that seemed to be exactly what he wanted them to do; because no sooner had they done so, he dropped into a semi-crouch, spinning in a full turn that ended with all three men being disemboweled. Eyes wide in shock, Katsura watched the blood-soaked young man rise to stand calmly within a circle of carnage, surrounded by screaming, dying men.

When his last opponent collapsed, squad leader Motoyoshi stepped back and took a good look around. There were only half a dozen Shinsengumi left, and they were surrounded by Choshu fighters, so they wouldn't last much longer. So far, Motoyoshi had not been able to catch more than a few glimpses of Himura fighting, but he would never forget what little he had seen. The young man moved with unusual smoothness, giving his maneuvers almost a dance-like quality. And the precision! He calculated his moves with such narrow margins for error that a miscalculation of half an inch would have had lethal results – for Himura. And he made it all look so effortless, that Motoyoshi felt like a lumbering ox compared to him! But watching Himura's absolutely impassive expression never change while he killed his opponents chilled the squad leader to the bone. Without a doubt, he is a hitokiri. The Demon of the Bakumatsu. Shuddering, he turned to face the hole in the wall, and saw that Himura had three opponents now. In an effort to avoid tripping over the bodies of their comrades, the knot of Shinsengumi fighters had moved to the left, a little further away from Katsura. It was a good thing Motoyoshi was watching, because if he had looked away, he would have missed seeing Battousai taking out three adversaries in an incredible move that he wouldn't have believed possible had he not seen it. Where did he learn such techniques?! Unbelievable!

Motoyoshi suddenly became aware of the soft murmurs and whispers coming from the other Choshu fighters, as they talked about what they had just seen. The men were all staring with wonder – mixed liberally with fear – at the small redhead standing amidst the bodies of seven Shinsengumi. His amber eyes were fierce within the blank mask of his face, and although he stood utterly still, he radiated such an aura of danger and menace that the Ishin fighters all took a step or two back.

Motoyoshi was debating about the safest means of approaching the high-strung hitokiri when Ikeda stepped around the back of the carriage. It was obvious that Himura was instantly aware of movement to his left, since he stiffened and began to turn to face his opponent. Much to Motoyoshi's astonishment, Ikeda paused for only a split second before he started walking directly toward the redhead. Fear of agitating the tense hitokiri made the squad leader hesitate, unsure if he should try to warn Ikeda to stop. But then Motoyoshi saw Himura change. It was very subtle, almost as though he had relaxed slightly. And although the squad leader didn't know how it could have happened, he thought that Himura had somehow recognized who was walking toward him before he had seen him. Motoyoshi actually gaped when Ikeda called out cheekily to Himura.

"Hey, Himura-san! What took you so long? I was getting pretty tired of waiting."

Unable to believe what Ikeda had just said, Motoyoshi held his breath as he waited for Himura's reaction. To his surprise, the redhead relaxed even more, although he blinked in obvious confusion.

Kenshin stood still, all of his senses alert to the slightest hint of danger. For the last few minutes, his battle instincts had taken over and his focus had narrowed down to the point where his vision almost seemed to be in black and white. He was well aware that there were nearly twenty men in front of him, but they weren't a threat to Katsura. That didn't mean he would ignore them, though, and he discreetly kept his eye on them. Movement to his left instantly caught his attention. He recognized the aura, however, and relaxed a little, relieved to learn that his friend was still alive – becoming a bit less edgy. Gradually, he became aware of how nervous the Choshu fighters were. But before he could figure out why, he heard Ikeda's confusing question. 'What took you so long?' Am I late? I don't remember setting a time . . . Completely bewildered, Kenshin tried to recall if he had ever given a timeline to Uchida or Ikeda, but he was so tired, he just couldn't remember. Facing his friend, Kenshin hesitantly said, "I'm . . . sorry, Ikeda-san. I got here as quickly as I could . . ." He thought he heard several choked coughs, but kept his attention on Ikeda.

Himura's serious response to his teasing comments stunned Ikeda, but he recovered rapidly. Casually waving a hand, he replied cheerfully, "Oh, don't worry, Himura-san. I was just joking!"

Kenshin blinked. Then blinked again. Joking? Ikeda is joking at a time like this?

Motoyoshi's jaw fell again. Himura apologized for being late?!

As Ikeda drew closer, he was able to get a better look at Katsura. He was shocked by the sight of crusted blood on the Choshu leader's chin and how pale he was. Anger welled up, but Ikeda shoved it back down and didn't let it show in his voice as he suggested, "Let me help you get Katsura-san to the carriage, Himura-san."

Nodding, Kenshin paced to Katsura, cautioning Ikeda, "Be careful with Katsura-san's left side, Ikeda-san. He has fractured ribs." Laying Katsura's right arm over his shoulders, while Ikeda did the same with the injured man's left arm, Kenshin began helping the exhausted man to the carriage – one slow, halting step at a time. The remaining Choshu fighters closed ranks around their leader, creating a solid protective barrier.

Katsura bit his lower lip yet again to keep from groaning as he was helped to the carriage. Thank the gods that it is as close as it is. I don't know if I could walk much farther. As it was, he was unable to keep from gasping when he stepped up into the carriage. He was eternally grateful when he was able to sit back onto the cushioned leather seat and take the weight off of his feet. No sooner had he sat down, than a man he recognized – although he couldn't for the life of him remember his name – immediately began looking him over.

"My name is Yasukawa Rintaro, Katsura-san, and I am a doctor. Can you tell me where you are hurt?"

Stepping into the carriage, Kenshin pulled his daisho out of his obi before settling onto the seat opposite Katsura. Placing them between his knees, he leaned back against the padded seat and suppressed a sigh of relief. He would not completely relax until they arrived at the safe house, but it still felt good to just sit down. He listened to the quiet tones of Katsura answering the doctor's questions, and felt a surge of relief that the mission had been completed so successfully. The carriage rocked a bit when Ikeda and one of the three guards climbed up onto the driver's seat. The other two guards climbed onto the back of the carriage, taking the place of the footmen that might otherwise have been there. Kenshin heard Ikeda call out to the horses, and the carriage began to move slowly forward.

The sound of two very large explosions, followed by a whole series of smaller detonations, echoed from the headquarters compound, and the carriage jerked as the horses tried to bolt. Kenshin grabbed onto the seat with one hand and used the other to help Yasukawa steady Katsura, while Ikeda brought the team under control. Unfortunately, he had grabbed onto the seat with his left hand, and his injured shoulder bitterly protested at the unexpected pull. He didn't let go, however, until the horses had settled down and the carriage was moving steadily along. Then, for the first time in several hours, Kenshin laid his head back, closed his eyes, and rested.

To Be Continued

Author's Notes: I would like to thank all the people who have taken the time to read this story. Domo arigatou gozaimasu, minasan! I will try to work on chapter 14 as steadily as I can. I have no idea how long it's going to be or how long it will take me to finish it, but I promise I will post it as soon as I can.

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 you want me to respond to your review. Thank you to the following reviewers who left anonymous reviews for chapter Twelve: sasukichan, Cestari, Kate, and heather. I really enjoyed your generous reviews! 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!

List of Japanese Words:

Bakufu - the 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)

battoujutsu -The act of drawing the sword out of the sheath while pressing the blade's edge against the inside of the sheath, which can increase its speed two- or three-fold. In this way, the attacker may strike the opponent before there is time to react. In other schools, this same technique is known as "iai" or "nuki."

Battousai - The nickname for Himura Kenshin when he was a hitokiri, it means "master of the battoujutsu sword technique."

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

daisho - term used to refer to the pair of swords carried by a samurai: one long (katana), and one short (wakizashi)

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

Do Ryu Sen - (Earth-Dragon Strike): a Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu technique; the user strikes the ground with the tip of the sword and projects Ken-ki (sword-ki) outward, causing massive destruction to anyone or anything standing in the way

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

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.

haori - Hip- or thigh-length kimono coat which adds formality. Haori were originally reserved for men, until fashions changed at the end of the Meiji period. They are now worn by both men and women, though women's kimono jackets tend to be longer.

Himura 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."

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.

hitokiri - manslayer, assassin

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

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); also known as Imperialists, Revolutionaries, Patriots, and Rebels

jonin - a "high" ninja

Kami-sama - Lord God

katana - a Japanese daito or long sword, worn blade up through an obi; the blade of a Japanese long sword is longer than two shaku (60 cm or 23.6 inches) long; most katana are about 42 inches long from tip to pommel (the end of the hilt) and the blade averages 70 cm (27.5 inches) long

Katsura Kogorou - Born in 1833; he was a 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 was born Kido Takayoshi and was also known as Kido Koin. He died of natural causes in 1877. He is Himura Kenshin's "boss."

kaze - wind – in this case, the jonin ninja's code name is 'Wind'

ken-ki - A person's 'aura,' particularly his sword fighting spirit; the Asian concept of a life force or life spirit; it's used a lot in martial arts anime. 'Ken-ki' is used in Rurouni Kenshin in reference to swords

kenjutsu - swordsmanship taught for battle (as opposed to kendo, which is geared toward personal improvement)

ki - A person's 'aura,' or his sword fighting spirit; the Asian concept of a life force or life spirit; it's used a lot in martial arts anime. 'Ken-ki' is used in Rurouni Kenshin in reference to swords

Kyuushutsu - rescue, extricate, reclaim, deliverance

Mimiwarigumi - a Kyoto police force with equal standing with the Shinsengumi, but not as popular; they were Shogunate supporters

minasan - everyone

ninja - a mercenary agent who is trained in the martial arts and hired for covert operations such as assassination and sabotage

obi - the Japanese equivalent of a sash or belt, which is used for a kimono, yukata or hakama; obi are generally worn differently depending on the occasion, and they are usually more intricate for women

Okita Souji - Born Harumasa Soujiro in 1844 from a samurai family, he started training in the Shieikan Dojo at the age of nine with Kondo Isami, a master of the Tennen Rishin Ryu. He proved to be a genius swordsman, and was a teacher of kenjutsu at 18. His signature technique being his Sandanzuki, which translates as "Three Piece Thrust," a technique that stabs the sword at the neck, left shoulder, and right shoulder. (This technique was said to have hit all three points almost simultaneously, but this is most likely embellishment.) Okita is usually considered one of the most talented and strongest out of the Shinsengumi, along with Saito Hajime and Nagakura Shinpachi. After the Boshin War, he went into a tuberculosis hospital in Edo and died at the age of 25, on May 30, 1869.

onigiri - rice balls wrapped in seaweed

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

Ryu Sou Sen - (Dragon's Nest Strike): a Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu technique; this is a multiple strike attack, each of the swings hitting the opponent (also described as the 'wild attack' technique)

Saito Hajime - Born January 1, 1844; his life story and origins are very obscure and somewhat contradictory. Some say that he was a son of a ronin, while others say he left Edo after killing a person (some say accidentally) to join an army in Kyoto. He was the captain of the third troop of the Shinsengumi. He was one of the few who survived the numerous wars of the late shogunate period. He was not considered to be as strong as Okita Souji, but he was fierce and fearless in combat and his left-handed single thrust was the most dreaded and lethal techniques of the Shinsengumi members. This one-hit technique matched well the philosophy of "Aku Soku Zan" ("Kill Evil Instantly" in a loose translation, "Kill those who are evil immediately" in a figurative translation). He married Takagi Tokio, a daughter of a daimyo. After the war, he changed his name to Fujita Goro and worked as a police officer. He obtained special permission to carry a katana. He died on September 28, 1915, of a stomach ulcer, at the age of 71.

samurai - Japan's ancient warrior class, officially abolished at the start of the Meiji era (1868)

-san - an honorific; carries the meaning of 'Mr.,' 'Ms.,' 'Miss,' etc., but used more extensively in Japanese than its English equivalent (note that even an enemy may be addressed as '-san')

Sandanzuki - Okita Souji's signature technique, which translates as "Three Piece Thrust," a technique that stabs the sword at the neck, left shoulder, and right shoulder. (This technique was said to have hit all three points almost simultaneously, but this is most likely embellishment.)

Shinsengumi - In 1862, in order to assure the security of Kyoto city, the Edo Shogunate formed a special police force by recruiting among masterless samurai and farmers skilled in sword technique. Serizawa Kamo, Kondo Isami, and Niimi Nishiki were the original three Captains when the Shinsengumi was formed from the Roshigumi in March, 1863. Niimi Nishiki's rank was lowered to Sub-Captain, and he was subsequently forced to commit seppuku on September 8, 1863, by Hijikata Toshizo and Yamanami Keisuke. Serizawa Kamo was assassinated by Kondo Isami and Hijikata Toshizo on September 16, 1863, because of his reckless actions. Kondo Isami then became the Captain and Hijikata Toshizo and Yamanami Keisuke became the Vice Captains. They provoked terror among pro imperial samurai with the Ikedaya incident in 1864. The Shinsengumi disappeared with the defeat of the Tokugawa regime in 1868.

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

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

Sou Ryu Sen - (Double Dragon Strike): a Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu technique; a form of battoujutsu using both the sword and the sheath. After removing the sword from the belt, the user strikes first with the sword, then with the sheath.

Tennen Rishin-ryu - Tennen Rishin-ryu was a sword style practiced by several core members of the Shinsengumi. It was founded by Kondō Kuranosuke Nagahiro around 1789.This style, like other koryū ('old school' or 'traditional school' ancient Japanese martial arts) arts, teaches kenjutsu, bojutsu (the martial art of using a staff weapon called a bo), and jujutsu (a Japanese martial art consisting primarily of grappling techniques). Tennen Rishin-ryū was particularly suited to group fighting techniques. The style was famous in Edo, and was headquartered at the Shieikan dojo. In 1861, Kondō Isami became the 4th sōke (leader of a martial arts form, a title of the highest level) of the style, spreading its fame during his time as commander of the Shinsengumi. Noted practitioners were Hijikata Toshizo, Inoue Genzaburō, and the famous prodigy Okita Souji, who mastered all the techniques of the school and attained Menkyo Kaiden (meaning that the recipient has learned everything that the organization or school can teach, and is licensed to pass on all aspects of his training) status at eighteen or so. Several men already certified in other styles, cross-trained in Tennen Rishin-ryu, such as Yamanami Keisuke, who was enrolled in 1860, and others like Nagakura Shinpachi and Harada Sanosuke, who stayed at the Shieikan without becoming practitioners of Tennen Rishin-ryu. Even though quite a few techniques were lost in the beginning of the Meiji era, Tennen Rishin-ryu is still practiced today, among other koryū.

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.