No wonder we fear the unexpected, the unknown. One-shot.

The enormity of the crime, the unbelievable cynicism, even for this most cynical of ages—perhaps this was what first touched her heart, turned her mind from her single-mindedness.

In the abstract, it hadn't seemed that remarkable. Just another young man dedicated to, caught up in, the passions of the times. Sometimes it seemed as though the entire rabble were just a mob of angry, or ambitious, or idealistic young men looking for a target, for a piece of human flesh conveniently labeled "enemy" in which to sink a blade's edge and name it "victory".

So she could understand—no, it was even less conscious than that: she simply accepted as the way of things—that men, older, and who should have had a measure of wisdom, chose this one to be their tool of death; unable to see, uninterested, even, in seeing past their use for him; considered him not even as significant as the overfed koi in their beautifully landscaped ponds.

She, too, in fact, had seen nothing more than his function: an arm wielding a deadly blade, stalking, and then cutting down, his victims, and then nothing. No aftermath, no activity between assignments, no actual person there. She did not even imagine a face attached to the arm. She thought only of the function he had performed in her life; of the way in which he'd changed her future, had altered her path, transformed her destiny.

Of how she would avenge herself on him.

Even after their first contact, after that unplanned and chaotic, but serendipitous, meeting, after he'd protected her in her inebriation and despair, starting awake to find herself in the very heart of her foe's camp, deep in the wolf's lair—even then her purpose remained unsullied, her determination unwavering.

It wasn't until that one early morning…

All the girls had to rise just as the sky began to lighten. The sheer quantity of food required to satiate this horde meant that preparation for the morning meal began hours earlier than she was used to. Since she was also watching the assassin's comings and goings, both night and day, for her opportunity—the Bakufu had their plan, she had hers—she got little sleep most nights.

She had to get close to him, and she knew she was succeeding. She made herself seem completely harmless; she could tell he was even less wary of her than of the other women at the inn.

She learned to sleep lightly enough to be awakened at his return. He was silent, almost mute, but her resolve was so intense that she could feel when he was absent or present in the inn. Sleep did not interfere with this sense.

This morning, as she passed the door to his room, she saw that it was open a tiny crack.

He never leaves it open. But I know he's in there. What… ?

Cautiously she slid the shoji further aside, just enough that she could stand in the opening. Almost breathless, she waited for him to notice. But the still form leaning against a stack of books didn't so much as twitch. She took a step into the room. Still nothing.

Is he ill?

She couldn't believe her luck. The monster was off his guard, and in her presence.

Could this be it?

Her heart nearly burst with tension, with hope, so close to her objective, her goal sleeping just steps before her. She slipped her hand behind her, into the folds of her obi, and grasped the hilt of her tanto.

I am ready. It's time.

Her world narrowed to the short stretch of floor between them. Her spirit soared with the righteousness of divine retribution. On feet light as angel's wings, she stepped forward—not even her own ringing ears could detect a sound from her tabi on the tatami—and, at the same moment that the boy sighed in his sleep, her toe touched something hard and wooden on the floor.

Involuntarily, her gaze fell to the object at her feet.

What is this… ? A top? What is a child's toy doing in this, of all rooms?

She knelt to pick it up, trying to make sense of its meaning. As her hand closed over the unexpected bauble, time slowed almost to a standstill. Her eyes lifted to the slumbering face before her. She saw its clarity, its emptiness, the almost simplistic expression. Against her will, she registered its natural innocence, its untarnished lines.

This is a child. Only a child.

She felt the world tilt. Her mind rebelled against the rising tide of epiphany. The war within her breast threatened to burst open her body; her head felt like it would explode.

Even a child can kill. He's a murderer, a fiend. I must fulfill my purpose. Nothing else matters.

But it was too late. Her heart had corrected course.

Review responses: Sirius: I'm always quite pleased with myself when I can have an effect on you—thanks for the praise! Firuze Khanume: I agree that, often, Tomoe's inner life is ignored, but she is most interesting to me. Thanks for the tip to "The Snow Raven"—I'll surely take it in as soon as I can! omasuoniwabanshi: Your favorites? Well, thanks for liking it so much! I'm pleased to have touched your heart, as well! lolo popoki: Thanks for reading and reviewing (you are one of my most faithful reviewers, and I sure appreciate it!) LadyRhiyana: I like the idea that she is older—there is much in that circumstance that bears development, I think. A lilmatchgirl: Thanks for your kind words! skenshingumi: Yes, the contrast between her view of him when she first sets out for Kyoto and how she is when she leaves him behind at Otsu to plead for his life is, in itself, quite a journey, isn't it? Maybe one of these days I'll write a story about that whole thing, instead of just this pivotal moment. Wistful-Eyes: I'm curious just how, exactly, you found my version different, especially since you liked that difference. I know what you mean about AU's--most of them are unsatisfying in either their characterizations (as in "out of") or in their conception (too much high school for my tastes, although two of my favorite AUs are set in high school, so how do I explain that?) Shirou Shinjin: I like it when you're on a roll, especially when that roll seems to involve my stories! Yes, it seems unbelievable to me that, given her determination as evidenced by her leaving her home, alone and grieving, and plopping herself down in a big, strange city, she could have been easily open to seeing "another side of things". Since you say this is "not quite" how you'd imagined it happening, why don't you write up your version? I'd love to read it…