After the procession passed, the crowd broke apart, swirling into the street as their daily lives resumed. The chatter and clatter barely reached his thoughts as he slid down to the ground, panting.

Right now he really, really wanted to scream, losing all his valued self control just for a moment... but the sound was stuck in his throat.

Was this real? It couldn't be, surely he'd passed out from hunger or something, things like this didn't just happen - but the wall felt real - was he dreaming? But he couldn't be awake!

Soujiro blinked, not registering the sandaled feet attached to hakama clad legs stopping in front of him.

Yes, he had to be dreaming - he'd fallen asleep sitting in the bamboo, it'd been a long walk, and he was still there. No odd cloudy-stormy-mists, no opening his eyes to see the place all changed - a dream.

Someone was saying something, and he wondered if he had to pay attention, since he was only dreaming. But maybe he'd wake faster if he followed it through, he reasoned, and looked up.

Then sound came unstuck and he screamed - a shrill, prolonged scream comparable to a terrified rabbit. The boy in front of him started violently.

It wasn't that the boy was dressed in a samurai's gi and hakama, even if they were a bit too big. Nor was it the daisho at his waist, out of place on one so young. Wasn't even the freakishly perfect complexion.

It was the red hair. Definitely the red hair.

A very familiar shade on a familiar face.

"Uh – um," the little dream-Himura stuttered. He retracted a hand Soujiro hadn't noticed had been extended, and began inching back. "Are you alright?" Little dream-Himura repeated, clearly unnerved.

Soujiro stared blankly at the boy. Maybe – not a dream? Because he never would've come up with this.

Oh, right. He ought to reply.

"I'm fine, thank you," Soujiro said, a smile coming to his face with the speed of many years' practice.

Himura's brow furrowed with disbelief; but too unnerved to protest, he stepped farther back.

"Alright," Himura said, and with a few more steps he turned and disappeared into the crowd. Soujiro remained seated, lifting a hand to his smile.

Can't I at least be honest with him? The one person I know will care...

With a sigh, the smile faded, and Soujiro pushed himself up.

Even if this is the past, with a younger Himura, he aids others -

Soujiro's eyes went wide.

I just let go of the only person I know here.

Soujiro shot into the crowd, yelling "Himura-san, wait!" But the redhead was long gone. Several people glared at him and elbowed him as they passed, but the anger ebbed, and Soujiro was left in the middle of the street as the crowd hurried on.

"Oi, I wan' 'nother drink over here!"

At the drunken shout, Miwa winced, then quickly turned to bow in the direction of the disorderly patrons.

"Right away, sirs!"

Wishing that the group of idiots boozing it up would pay their tab and go, she grabbed another bottle of sake and started back towards their table.

"Um -"

A voice, male, off to her side. Sounded young.

"One moment, sir," she muttered, walking past. Placing the sake on the group's table, she forced a smile, ignoring the leering of a particularly greasy man. Bowing again, she backed away, and returned to the counter.

Waiting there was a boy – no, really, a man – in bad condition. His clothes were dirty, worn and disheveled, his short brown hair unwashed, and his cheek was lightly bruised. Despite all this, there was a smile on his face.

"May I help you?" She asked cautiously.

"Well, it's a little embarrassing," he laughed, "but while I was traveling to Kyoto, I was robbed, and now I have no money for a place to stay. If it's alright, could I work here for a night or two in exchange for a bath and a bed?"

Miwa blinked at the strange request. Considering, she studied him again. He really did look poor, he didn't appear to have any weapons, and he didn't seem to be lying...

"I will ask my father's permission. Please wait here."

The man nodded. As she turned to head for the kitchen, someone in the rowdy group shouted something incoherent that set the table to laughing. She scowled and continued on, missing the cold glare aimed at those same miscreants.

Ducking into the kitchen, she relayed the request to her father.

"Father, there's a traveler here, and he wants to stay the night in exchange for work."

The older man nervously tugged at the collar peeking over his apron, and headed for the door. Returning to the counter, Miwa noticed the rowdy group had gone quiet. Odd.

"My daughter says you need a place to stay?"

She returned her attention to the conversation. The traveler had raised a hand to the back of his neck, and despite his untidy, harmless appearance her father was his usual nervous self.

"Yes, I was robbed and can only offer to work as payment." He laughed sheepishly.

Her father was studying the traveler, trying to keep his fidgeting hands from tugging his collar, and managed to instead curl the toes on his left foot. Nodding jerkily, he consented.

"Miwa will take you around back to clean up, and loan you some of my clothes for tonight's work – yours can be washed tomorrow. You can take orders and carry food."

The traveler nodded, smiling, then tilted his head as father spoke.

"My name's Hiraku, and you are...?"

"I'm Soujiro-"

The greasy man from the group of drunks sidled up to the counter, cutting off conversation. Head lowered, he placed their payment on the counter, mumbled what might have been thanks, and joined his group in walking out the door. Hiraku scratched his half-bald head.

"Huh, they usually don't leave until dusk." He turned back to the younger folk, straightening his apron.

"Well then, get him clean and set him to work!"

The coast was clear; it was time to go retrieve his sword.

Rising from the storage room's spare futon, Soujiro tied on his sandals, then headed for the back door; he'd noticed the simplicity of the lock when he went to bed.

One pilfered chopstick pulled from his sleeve later, he was outside.

Taking a moment to get his bearings, he headed down the road. Turning right into an alley, he leapt onto the closest roof, then sped east for a dozen buildings. Dropping into another alley, he took a left, and slipped inside an abandoned house.

Thank goodness for old floors. He pulled up three boards that were loose in the corner, and pulled out his sword. He always hated to part with it, but appearing defenseless was often the only way he could get a decent meal. Over the years, he'd gotten very good at finding hiding places in new towns.

Now reunited with his weapon, Soujiro sighed and relaxed. He had plenty of time to return to the Nagura Pub, and a good place to stash his blade in the storage room while he stayed there. Stamping the boards back down, he slipped out, and started walking back to the pub.

And a good choice that pub had turned out to be. He'd noticed the neighbors behind it didn't return home until late evening; meaning it would be a simple matter to tuck his sword into their yard when he wanted to leave, and circle back for it after bidding farewell to his hosts. Beyond that -

His ears picked up the sounds of speech; not wanting to see anyone, Soujiro turned onto another street, trying to cut over to the next going the correct direction. But all that served to do was draw the attention of four samurai several blocks down the cross road.

"Hey! You!"

Who, me?
Soujiro pasted a smile on his face, and tilted his head as the samurai rushed over.

"What are you doing out here at this hour?" The apparent leader demanded. Behind him, the others glared.

"Walking," Soujiro answered guilelessly, "it's such a beautiful night, isn't it?"

"Who is your lord?"

Soujiro blinked. The issue hadn't even occurred to him.

"I don't have one."

The samurai narrowed his eyes, the others shifting stance.

"A ronin?"

Soujiro considered; yes, he was an unemployed wanderer, sort of, but he was never a samurai.

"No, I'm not a samurai."

"Then you break the law in wearing a sword," the samurai growled, hand flying to his own blade. Four swords were soon aimed at him.

Too late, Soujiro remembered that, officially, only samurai were supposed to carry swords.

Soujiro stepped aside as the first sword swung at him.

"I can't carry one when there's a war?"

One of them from behind lunged forward, screaming about "honorless law breakers". Soujiro drew his blade and blocked.

"Leave me be and you'll get to live."

The others were trying to rush in; it seemed the answer was no. The smile on his face shrinking, Soujiro sliced the first from hip to neck, then pulled his blade to the side to slice the second's throat.

Falling back a step to gain space, Soujiro swung upwards, sending his opponent's blade straight toward the sky and giving himself the chance to lunge in and impale the man. Pulling out his sword, Soujiro noted the sound of a sword fight down the other road as he leapt over the last man and sliced open his back. The corpse fell with a splatter as Soujiro landed.

With the immediate area clear, Soujiro jumped over the bodies back toward where he came from, intent on the other fight he'd heard. Peeking around the corner, he saw two dead bodies sprawled messily across the street.

Are night fights really this common?

He spied motion and ducked back, not wanting to be caught. Keeping alert, he leapt onto the lowest of the nearby roofs, then west across the street and toward the pub. Relieved that he didn't sense pursuit, he chuckled, reminding himself to relock the storage room when he got there.

He failed to notice the eyes observing him from a nearby alleyway.

Hey everyone, welcome back to Path to Truth! I hope you enjoyed chapter two. Much thanks to sueb262 who helped me iron out all the snags, this wouldn't be half so nice without you Sue :)