Disclaimer- I don't own Rurouni Kenshin.

With a single swing, yet another soul was sent into the afterlife tonight, another scream silenced by the sword.

A bloodied, torn corpse was hurled into the wooden buckets, sending a particularly loud crash through the night.

Hitokiri Battousai glanced at his latest victim with utter apathy. Easy... then again, all enemies had been easy...

A slight breeze tickled his still healing face, and he remembered that he had been wounded. A foolish mistake, to be sure. To let some unskilled, unknown captain be the first to wound him.

As he continued to glance at the corpse, he watched with disinterest as the water, made dark in the shadows, spread towards him, casting his own reflection.

For a moment, he just stared at himself. It had been a while, since he'd had the courage to look at his visage. Still the same, the odd, delicate features, the peculiar red hair... except for the eyes.

His eyes were different now... they didn't sparkle with life or amusement, they didn't express joy at some rare act of kindness his master showed, they didn't burn with conviction and determination and sincerity. Now they were empty, an abyss of feeling, full of terrible apathy. In fact, there were times when, as he looked into the eyes of his enemies as they died, his eyes seemed a demonic amber...

The mirror was tainted as the man's blood mixed and polluted the water, turning clear, innocent water into dirty blood, mixing vermilion with crystal, forming a tinted mirror of truth that showed him what he was.

Now his visage was truly that of a murderer's, cast in a bloody crimson, cloaked in shadow, standing over the bodies of his foes with stained sword in hand.

"Given this, I wish to protect the suffering!"

Was this his wish? What happened to protecting the suffering? The only suffering he ever saw was the suffering he inflicted upon his dying foes, watching as their blood snaked across the ground, hearing their last, pleading screams of mercy or, rarely, defiance.

"To protect many... many lives... with these hands..."

Protect many lives? His hands had instead taken many lives, endless lives, and would take even more.

How many... how many would and had died at his sword? Just how far gone was he...

Shishou was right... yes... his master was right.

He wasn't a warrior, a free sword killing to protect the weak, to bring justice upon the guilty...

He was a murderer. Nothing more. A Hitokiri, a tool of politics and men... a sword. Under the guise of Tenchuu, he was a cold blooded murderer whose hands were tainted by the blood of men.

How many had he killed?

Ten? Twenty? A hundred?

God... he had lost count... stopped keeping track of the now mundane experience of watching the light die in an enemy's eyes, feeling the warm, sticky feeling of blood on his hands, or shiver at the way the water poured over him, washing away the evidence of the murders he had committed...

For a moment, something inside him screamed, that last, barest hint of Shinta that still lived within the Hitokiri, buried deep in the abyss, as he gazed at his own vermilion duplicate.

For a moment, he found himself repulsed by what he had become, gazing at his stained sword, watching his own red image in the bloody water.

For a moment, there was a decision, a choice to be made. Running away? To break ties with the Ishin Shishi, and beg his master for forgiveness as he returned? Or to return, return to a path of murder and blood and swords... the path of a sword.

All was contemplated, staring into his crimson reflection.

The others were coming around the corner, their quarry finished and dead. They would soon be here...

If he was going to run, he had only moments to do so. Shinta, the boy, yelled, screamed, and fought to leave, trying to escape what he had become.

A murderer.

Shinta wanted to move... the Battousai wanted nothing... or maybe he wanted blood.

A struggle... between stubbornly continuing and forging a new path...

In a split second, the victor was decided, and the path of this boy-man-killer was decided forever. Not a single hint showed of who won, and no one would witness this silent, invisible conflict... but hundreds would feel the effects.

Slowly, Hitokiri Battousai turned and walked out of the alley, heading back for headquarters, eyes again eerily empty, a deep, haunting abyss of apathy.

And inside, that piece of Shinta finally stopped holding on, and died.