Disclaimer: I own nothing Rurouni, and have created the following out of my own fevered brain for my own amusement.

Please note well: This story is intended for an audience intimately familiar with episodes 1 and 2 of the OVAs (in my set, they are on disc 1), and highly tolerant of angst. It contains spoilers for those episodes in the form of flashbacks and references, and requires of its readers good recall of events, visual images, character, detail, and sequence. Again, sorry.

I must at least try to credit the wonderful writers whose work inspired me (at least, before someone stands up and shouts "Stop, thief!"), but their numbers almost guarantee I will forget someone. Someone important. Possibly someone mean.

I will, however, give it a shot. In all of SiriusFan13's work, the strong, direct writing and careful attention to detail of every stripe inspired me to strive toward that light (for all the good it did); Haku Baikou's authentic "Against a Sea of Troubles" deepened my view of the character, his inner life, and his motivations. Both Conspirator's "Descent Into Madness" and Linay's "Broken Pieces" inform the darker parts of my character, and Tir-Synni's "Kurushimi no Dorei" provided a psychological context for much of my character's motivations. The historical detail in Naga's excellent "Darkest Shadows, Brightest Lights" creates an almost palpable world, which I unapologetically used as my mental landscape while writing my own story.

I lifted a gorgeous phrase from OmasuOniwanbanshi's "Journey's End" (with permission), and a powerful concept from Part 1 of Akai Kitsune's "Peace In Your Arms" (no answer yet).

This list is sadly incomplete, and the only comfort I can offer to those I have not mentioned, on whose prose and poetry this story so firmly stands, is that they can forever remain officially disassociated with this thing.

Also, I endnoted possibly unfamiliar concepts; I tried to be complete, so check there.


Chapter 1 - Kurushimi
"Agony"

Morning and evening, evening and morning, Amaterasu watched the small figure below as it crisscrossed the land, sometimes following her path, sometimes against it, often immobile the entire day. As far as she could tell, her ax handle would rot away before the creature would develop a spirit.


He moves as in a dream.

Head bowed, one leaden step after the other.

His mind registers only the repetition: first the toes appear beneath the hakama's hem; the whole foot as the heel meets the ground; the tiny puff of dust as the foot settles; the gradual disappearance of this foot as its mate starts its travel forward.


In the beginning, the nights are wretched. When he sleeps at all, it's only until the dream awakens him.

he's standing.

where am i?

it's pitch black.

what is this place?

his senses begin to awaken to the dream world; sounds increase to an identifiable level. metallic clashes, dull thuds. he's surrounded by warring men, the heat of their bodies almost searing. grunts of exertion, screams of pain. he is drowning, but he's on dry land.

why can i not breathe?

then the smell. the taste. blood is pouring over him, gushing over his head, almost knocking him down; filling his mouth, his nose, his ears. frantic, he tries to run, but the blood is so deep he slips and falls. his clothes are soaked, so heavy he can't rise.

now the bodies pile on him, one atop another, submerging him further in the enveloping sticky warmth. the weight is incredible.

how can they be this heavy?

dead elbows and knees gouge his flesh, immobilize his limbs. he sees every face, every contorted, agonized face. he hears every death rattle, each groan as each soul is wrenched from its incarnation.

He wakes in a cold sweat, gasping for air, heart hammering, ears ringing. There will be no more sleep that night. Sometimes he waits for dawn, collapsed against the tree or stone serving as his bed that night, just trying to coordinate his body's erratic functions. Sometimes he rises and walks, Tsuki-yomi his only companion, fittingly enough.

Who else would look upon this scarred visage?


He'd made his bargain: I will leave the City, and live. I will atone. I will make a way. Regardless of the bargain's return, he would fulfill his duty.

He would fulfill that vow he'd made, as well.

Those last days: no longer in shadow, but somehow even more blood-filled and so blindly random. As Katsura's bodyguard, he had struck down any and all attackers (baka – in daylight he was indisputably recognizable) rather than significant, targeted enemies. It was disgusting. Soon, the mere announcement of a meeting would begin to wind him up, the tension building over days instead of hours, until at last they were all safely back in hiding. It was absurd, devoid of any meaning.

Finally his soul had rebelled. He had to get out. Whatever else was happening with the revolution, their group was disintegrating, losing its focus. He had fulfilled his agreement with Katsura to come back after …, well, afterwards. It had been time to leave. His job was done.

One last meeting with Katsura; for the first time, at his own request.

"You are leaving us?"

"Hai."

"Where will you go? We have safe houses that I could …"

"Iie. Thank you very much, Katsura-san, but my continued presence will only … cause problems. I will disappear."

Katsura poured another cup of sake for each of them. They drank in silence, each man tasting according to his own soul. Through the open shoji, only the sweet, delicately scented breeze and the gentle sounds of the garden marked the passage of time. Shadows lengthened across the tatami. The air cooled.

Katsura's cup tapped on the table as it was set down. "Hai. You will disappear. We will not meet again in this world."

He finished his own cup. Then he had briefly touched his forehead to the tatami, risen and turned to go.

Katsura had watched boy exit the room and close the shoji behind himself, marveling, as always, at the utter silence with which he moved; it created a disconnected feeling of distance, as if one were seeing an apparition. He had turned his eyes back to the cushion on which the hitokiri had last sat, as if to conjure him back up. Only then had he noticed the katana and wakizashi lying horizontally, placed formally between them.

The full import of this sight had broken his heart.


The apprehension, the vulnerability, especially their potency and persistence, had been quite unexpected. He found it unbearable. He hadn't thought about that; he had only known he had to rid himself of his ability to kill, his weapons.

I almost thought "hands".

However, knowing he had nothing with which to defend even his own life had nearly driven him mad.

Except for her own… No! Blood will never stain it while it is in my hands.

He couldn't sit; he couldn't concentrate; he certainly hadn't been able to sleep, and that had begun to seriously affect his wits. He had been in danger of simply allowing himself to be run down in the road like a dog. What atonement would there be in that?

The situation could not be allowed to continue.

Hiko.

Could he even approach him? What kind of welcome would he get? No matter, he had needed the older man's advice, in whatever form it might come.


He stood at the edge of the clearing. As usual, his shishou sat on the log outside the cabin, his back to him. The boy waited for acknowledgment.

"Baka deshi …" Spoken like a warning growl.

"Master, I have left them."

Silence.

"And my swords."

Hiko's head half-turned towards him. "Still not burdened with wisdom, I see."

"I will never kill again."

"We'll see."

He breathed deeply, slowly, centering himself; he couldn't give up now.

"But I need to protect myself."

"Get yourself a pointed stick."

"Please, master, I need your advice. What can I do?"

"I'm not joking. It's better than you deserve, as you are now."

"Master …"

"Leave me."

He stood for a few more moments, then dissolved back into the forest. When Hiko felt him gone, he sighed raggedly. That boy would be the death of him yet.


I should not have come. I have always been only a burden to him. He has never failed me before though …

Something kept tickling at the back of his mind as he'd walked away, however. Something in his shishou's few words … what was it?


Shakku had nearly thrown him out on his ear when he first heard this ridiculous, insulting idea: a sword with the edge on the inner curve? What in hell for? Who had time to waste on something so foolish? Already, he had been thinking about abandoning swordsmithing altogether! But in the end, the young man's intensity and barely-concealed desperation had won him over. Also, he certainly knew of the hitokiri, and wasn't eager to be on his bad side. Can this soft-spoken, polite boy actually be that demon?

Ridiculous! He, the swordsmith of the revolution, being approached in this fashion for such a request.

Oh, well, the youngster had been willing to work in addition to having cash, and had kept quietly to himself when not actually helping out.

Wakarimashita! He'd do it. A gesture to the new era.


He'd left Shakku Arai's small compound, still a little disbelieving. It had taken the last of his Ishin Shishi earnings, and he'd spent a month working around the place to make up the rest, but now he had it, his salvation: the sakabatou. He'd certainly have to practice with it: he'd tested it when it was complete, and had found its balance, its heft, even the way it slid out of its saya, to be curiously different.

It was an excellent sword, all the same. Lighter than he'd expected. In his hand, it felt eager, responsive, almost to the point of seeming alive. As he'd danced through his kata, it had leapt into place, as if it could read his mind. Increasing his speed had only increased their rapport. Silver arcs had sliced the air like lightning, sundering the peace of the little valley. Crockery had rattled on shelves; water slopped out over the well's walls; the forge's fire dampened and nearly extinguished. The last stroke had burst the earth at his feet in a long trench. He'd never wielded anything like it: a joyous union.

It felt right: slinging the long, soft pouch over his shoulder and head, adjusting the string across his chest, pulling his hair out from underneath. The familiar weight, resting against his back. He was complete again.


The dream hasn't come in a long time now. Actually, almost no thoughts at all come anymore.

Keigen. How has this happened?

His soul trembles to investigate, but the answer surfaces easily, effortlessly: I can mask my ki.

Of course. His years as a hunter had developed his control over his ki to an almost otherworldly degree. How often had the rabbit not heard so much as his breath as he moved right behind it, even at the moment of capture and kill? How many snakes had nearly bitten him before he learned to make at least a slight rustling when not actually hunting them? Even flies did not spring away from his hand.

Now this skill rises, unbidden, to numb his torture: he masks his own ki from himself. He no longer feels the overwhelming guilt, the ripping pain; no longer hears the screaming of his soul as it endures its hell.

Good.


On good days, he thinks no thoughts; he walks.

On bad days, he sits; he breathes. Head bowed, body nerveless, sakabatou shrouded and dormant on his back. Enduring the vow, as well as the years-earlier charge, to live. Sinks ever deeper into emptiness, fleeing memory. Cruelly relentless, it pursues him. Her translucent skin. Her ebony hair, silken against his arm. Her scent, so haunting. That small, melodic voice: "Husband, welcome home." The unfamiliar, wavering spark in him of … was that happiness? This is far worse than the dream. Each memory hauls him into its present; he relives his soul's tremulous awakening to love. To life. Against all resolution, he clings to these precious, agonizing shreds.

The memory fades. Always fades. He's slammed back into the present, with its grisly chronology. This is too much. The schism is so great surely his body will burst asunder.

Blessed oblivion: not permitted to one such as I.

Many times on these days the river receives the meager contents of his stomach.

He's instinctively followed the river out of the City. Water, at least. Keeps him alive. Plants along the bank: some are edible; others aren't. Once, a fish swims by as he reaches for a drink. Hunger and habit trigger the hunter's response: the automatic plan to catch, kill, eat. He nearly pulls himself apart in horrified recoil at the image of taking its life. Scrambles back against a tree. Lies inert, trembling and paralyzed, for the rest of the day.


The road, though not a main highway, is not untraveled. He's such a non-entity, however, that most people truly do not see him as they hurry to their destinations, burdened with the blessings of purpose, family, connection. Only children, and others who live in truth, notice him. Occasionally, on the days he sits and breathes, a child approaches. His haggard appearance seems not to frighten, but rather to inspire the charity born of a pure heart. In his isolation, he yet responds to the piping voice, the feathery touch, the delicate warmth, as an innocent offers a soggy rice ball or a bit of steamed yam.

Shame at his unworthiness fights with starvation. He usually accepts the small heart-felt gift. Carefully avoids eye contact. Desperately locks away the terror wrought by his gaze. Thank you very much, small honored one. Live in peace.


He wakes. A good night after several good nights. The breeze in the pines. The soft susurration of the river. Birdsong delicately filling the crystal morning air.

What season is this?

He's dry and relatively warm, so it's probably not winter.

Birdsong? Breezes?

The realization shocks him starkly awake. When is the last time an external stimulus, not specifically directed at him, has reached his consciousness? Struggles to sit up (so weak!). Cocks his head to take it all in. The morning is beautiful. It gives him … pleasure.

Pleasure without pain.

I wonder where I am?


So it's alive after all. Amaterasu smiles to herself. We can begin.

Amaterasu smiles to herself.
Notes:

"wakarimashita" : "okay"; "agreement"

"keigen" : "relief" (as from pain)

Amaterasu : www(dot)onmarkproductions(dot)com(slash)html(slash)shinto-concepts(dot)shtml According to this excellent site, "Shinto & Buddhist Corner", the sun goddess Amaterasu is the child of the creator gods Izanagi and Izanami. Japan's imperial family claims direct decent from her line; the current emperor is said to be the 125th direct descendant of Emperor Jinmu, Japan's legendary first emperor and a mythical descendent of Amaterasu.

"her ax handle would rot away" : The Tale of Genji, translated by Royall Tyler, publ. by Penguin Classics. In chapter 18, "Wind in the Pines", pp 338, Genji's young wife, Murasaki, complains about how much time he's spends at the new villa he's building in Katsura, suspecting that he is in actuality keeping another woman somewhere. (By my muddled count, he's actually keeping about 10 other women! But onward …). As he leaves yet again, Murasaki complains: "You will no doubt be gone long enough to need a new handle for your ax," she said with visible annoyance. "I shall have a wait!" Footnote 17 explains: A Chinese story tells how a woodcutter deep in the mountains came upon two immortals playing Go. His ax handle rotted away while he watched, and he found on returning home that seven generations had gone by.

Kenshin's state of mind right at the beginning : As I understand it, when a person "does" "Buddhist walking" or "Buddhist breathing", this kind of closed focus is part of it. The intention is to quiet the mind, and allow existence only in the present moment. Very difficult. The hitokiri is not consciously doing this; he's just trying to control the pain, but it turns out to be the same activity.

"Tsuki-yoko his only companion" : The moon god Tsuki-yomi bungled an important errand for his sister Amaterasu, and she cursed him, saying: "Henceforth I shall not meet you face to face." Also from "Shinto & Buddhist Corner".

Hiko says, "Get yourself a pointed stick" : A Monty Python reference, just to lighten things a bit. Fits Hiko, though, don't you think?


Review responses: First, thanks to my reviewers! kuramagirl44: thanks for the "thumbs-up" – very encouraging! moeru himura: hmmm, I didn't really intend to write "cute" for the scene with the child. I'll have to watch that. lolo popoki: I'm glad you liked the "ki hiding" thing; it sort of came from my past. I hope my "different" style is to your liking! omasu oniwabanshi: I'm bowled over by your review (blushes) – I just hope the following chapters don't disappoint you! RoseGoddess874: I did check out your fics – thanks for the tip! WolfDaughter: I'm glad you liked the last line. I first ran across Amaterasu in the excellent "Onmyoji" movies, which I recommend to anyone with a taste for the Heian. Chibi Binasu-chan: I asked a Japanese friend of mine about the use of this word, and she seemed to think I was using it correctly. Misaoshiru: I'm glad you liked the cultural references. To me, that kind of thing helps "solidify" the story. SiriusFan13: I'm so flattered by the statement: "The style is Kenshin", especially coming from such an excellent writer. I can't express how much I appreciate your criticism! Wistful-Eyes: I hope you continue to enjoy the later chapters. Cleo: Thanks for calling this well-organized! It doesn't feel quite like that, but I'm glad if it comes across that way! IKnowNot: Well, I hope you enjoy it in spite of its flaws. Thanks for reading so far! (I do have to admit I actually laughed out loud when I read the phrase "show off academic knowledge". I have so little that I can't believe it sounded like that! I was just putting in stuff that I found interesting, and hoped it was interesting to others.) HitokiriTaijiya: Oh, goody, a new reader! I hope you enjoy the following chapters—thanks so much for reviewing! Shirou Shinjin: You can't imagine how thrilled I am that you are reviewing this story! Let's see, objections and other pointy things: 1) The Toba Fushimi thing—ummm… piffle! Just "piffle"! Meaning, of course, that I didn't think very hard about it, and this is what came out. 2) The Shakku conversation—all I can say is I hope you have similar problems with the rest of the story because your review was the funniest thing I've read in a long time! (In fairness, though, you haven't posted the "armed with a cube of tofu" thing, so …) 3) And Hiko is less "cold" than "pissed." "Still." It had been only about, what, 5 years since Kenshin crossed him, right? He's getting over it, just in his own time. Give the guy a break, can'tcha?