Disclaimer: Peacemaker Kurogane belongs to Nane Chrono and not the faeries.

CHAPTER EIGHT

With blank eyes, Kichisaburo stared at the fire he created.

Higher and higher the flames leapt, until the whole house disappeared. With Kasai's mother inside. Soon the place would be nothing but ashes. And then those ashes would scatter with the wind, and those who chanced upon these fields would never know that she existed. It was all gone.

The air became thick with smoke, and once again he turned towards the dirt road. As the flames roared behind him, Kichisaburo wished he could do the same with his past.

The same with his memories. It was true that no one in the village would know about his past until he told them. He could pretend to be a ronin and get away with it. But he couldn't get away from himself. He couldn't burn his memories. They would be with him until the day he died.

Every single one of them.

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"Kaiyoumi!"

The strangled cry startles the young woman heading towards the shoji. With an expression of sadness and not surprise, she turns around. Kichi has woken up screaming from a familar nightmare. He is eight now but he hasn't forgotten what happened a year ago, when his clay jar shattered. It haunts him. He sees the clay break, in slow motion. He sees the butterfly change into a million butterflies in front of him, all of them blood red, trying to smother him. He feels a calloused hand grabbing hold of his own and that's when he screams. Hard.

"Sshhh, shhh, I'm here. It's alright."

He feels a soft hand grasp his, and his damp hair being stroked. The dream slowly dissolves. He sinks back on the futon, heart thudding, but his eyes, when they open are calm. Kaiyoumi's face comes into focus and he smiles. Because she will always be there for him. She will always be there when he calls out for her. That's all that really matters.

Kichi knows Kaiyoumi rescued him, because that's what he heard her murmuring that night, after she thought he fell asleep. It is true that Kaiyoumi had left her room to search for him after he had taken long to deliver her robes, and almost on intuition had found him. But what else had she whispered?

"It could have been worse."

Words that he has never forgotten. For there are things worse than a strange man grabbing you out of nowhere and taking you to a dark room. He remembers the fear that rose up in his throat when the man had shoved him down. How he opened his mouth and tried to yell but nothing came out. How panic crept into his veins like ice cold water. For if he couldn't cry her name out, how would she find him?

And then the shoji had slid open with a startling bang, and Kaiyoumi had stood there in the doorway, trembling with rage, and looking scarier than Kichi had ever seen her. He can still hear the crack of her palm against the strange man's face. And he will never forget how tightly she had held him, and how her body had been shaking against his.

"It could have been worse."

Kichi finds that somehow, he understands this, and cannot stand to be out of Kaiyoumi's sight. He can never forget that she saved him from the strange man. She is the only one who will always protect him, that is what she told him. Though he had first doubted it the day he met her, he believes that she is indeed an angel. She is his angel. Unfortunately, this is beginning to create more problems for Kaiyoumi than his young mind realises.

"Please stay," he whispers, tightening his grip on her hand.

Kaiyoumi bites her lip as she looks down at him with clear sorrow in her eyes, being a child he has the ability to make everything sound so simple yet he is unaware of who truly decides those choices for her. Oziki has warned her that if she spends another night in his company and not her clients, he will personally remove the boy from her care. And since Chubei has departed with Shouki on a short trip to Osaka, it seems all she can do is abide by his wishes.

She continues to reassuringly stroke Kichi's hair until she hears a loud bang at the screen doors.

"Alright, I'm coming!" Kaiyoumi calls out in a concerned voice, looking down at the boy again, who is now holding onto the silk cord of her obi. She and Rozu have been requested to host the banquet of a wealthy merchant and she knows that the older woman dislikes arriving late at any of her appointments just as much as she dislikes Kaiyoumi's presence.

Kichi recognises the expression on her face and with a sinking feeling, knows that she will leave him. But to an eight year old, acceptance doesn't come so easy.

"Please don't go," he implores, his face tear stained. "I don't want you to go!"

He looks so afraid and so helpless. Not for the first time, Kaiyoumi feels the guilt overwhelm her, feels that she is a horrible person. She promised him she wouldn't ever leave him. She didn't think he would take it so literally, but the fact that this boy places so much trust in her and she continues to fail him, fills her with a burning pain. Some days she can't stand to look him in the eyes, to see the love clearly shining there with childish honesty. She has been gazed upon by so many men, with looks of admiration, desire, awe, longing. But never love.

I don't deserve it, she thinks, her eyes watering, the lump in her throat reaching painful proportions. I don't deserve his love. One day, he will look at me with the pain and anger of betrayal, the same way I did with Chubei... I prepare him for his life here, and thus, I too have a hand in his fate. After he realises what is expected of him here, how could he ever forgive me? I am still grateful to Chubei, and in some way I still love him. But I could never forgive him.

A single tear slips down her cheek and falls onto his face, as if creating a river of their joint pain. The pain they share. He stops his crying, reaches up slowly and touches the wetness on her cheek. Her tears have made her rouge run, and Kichi frowns.

"Red is a bad colour," he whispers to himself, staring hard at the smear on his hand.

Kaiyoumi freezes. Ever since the incident, apart from not chasing butterflies anymore, he makes sudden comments that unnerve her. The ways his eyes cloud over and the blank look on his face during these occasions make her shiver. Could this life already be impacting him in ways she couldn't comprehend?

Kaiyoumi quickly shakes away the unsettling thought, and instead, smiles warmly at Kichi. She inclines her head and playfully asks, "But I wear red all the time, Kichi-chan. Does that make me bad?"

"No," he murmurs, shaking his head. "But it makes the people bad."

"What people?"

"The people who make you wear it."

She stares at him, before another angry succession of knocks interrupt them once more. "Get out here, Kaiyoumi! You can't keep doing this! That kid is nothing but trouble!"

"You have to go," Kichi says, a resigned yet worried look on his face as he releases his grip on her robes. He wants so badly for her to stay, but something tells him he will be causing trouble for her if she does. He bows his head, ashamed now. "I'm sorry I cried."

Kaiyoumi smiles faintly as she pulls the covers up to his chin, but her hands tremble. I too have a hand in his fate...

"Don't ever apologise to me," she says quietly. "Not for anything."

And then she is gone. As Kichi clenches his jaw and tightly shuts his eyes so he can't cry, he takes comfort in the lingering scent of her perfume, before that too disappears. For one thing he has learned, is that things rarely last in their world.

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sleep will not come to this tired body now

peace will not come to this lonely heart...

I'll always miss her wherever she goes

and I'll always need her

more than she could ever need me

I need someone to ease my mind

but sometimes a someone is so hard to find...

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"No.."

Kasai turns over on his side, looking anything but blissful. It must be three in the morning. Half moons shadow under his blood shot eyes. A clear indication that he hasn't slept well for days. He props himself up on his elbows, and reaches for the wooden top near his pillow, aiming it for Kichi's head.

"...please!"

Kasai lowers the top and blinks. He studies his friend carefully for a moment. Kichi is renowned for his talented abilty to peform, but this time he realises, it's not an act. Kasai can see his face illuminated in the moonlight, and it is twisted into an odd expression. Grief. He is whimpering like a wounded animal.

To find Kichi's infamous smirk replaced with such a sight is enough to send a shiver up his spine. He has been here long enough to understand that nothing holds the power to frighten his vain friend. But then again, he never does know what goes on inside Kichi's head, in fact he hardly knows anything about his past.

"No...don't.."

Kasai pulls back the bedcovers and slowly, crawls over to where his friend is sleeping. His eyebrows knit together as he watches the struggle of emotions on his features. Then Kichi lets out a cry and Kasai winces. His eyes widen. Kichi is crying in his sleep. Kasai is half shocked and half amazed at the tears dripping down his cheeks.

"Kaiyoumi!"

"Shut up you idiot," says Kasai in an urgent whisper. "You'll wake everyone."

Kichi doesn't hear. Wherever he is in the depths of his mind, it doesn't seem he can leave so quickly. "Kaiyoumi," he sobs, reaching out with his hands, curling them into fists. Kasai looks at him waringly. Not for the first time, he finds himself wondering why he had to be the one to move in with Kichisaburo. But then again, he wouldn't have it any other way. Kichisaburo is really the only friend he has ever had.

"Kaiyoumi!" He is shaking now, and his voice is growing more distraught, louder. Kasai sighs, if he wakes him, Kichi's pride is sure to be hurt. Who is he to take that away from him? He finds himself remembering what his mother used to do whenever he had a nightmare. Feeling the familiar heavy guilt at the thought of her, Kasai pushes it aside and reluctantly grasps Kichi's hand. Cautiously, he glances at him.

Kichi's eyelids are still twitching, but he has quietened down. Swallowing his own pride, Kasai squeezes his hand, and hesitantly, reaches out and starts to stroke his damp hair. And prays that Kichi does not wake up, for he would probably think something else and there is no forgetting the fact that he sleeps with his sword.

What seems like an eternity ticks by, and Kasai kneels there, not making a sound, watching Kichi's face as it slowly slackens and he drifts back to sleep. Careful not to make a sound, Kasai returns to his futon. He lies awake for a while, pondering.

About his mother. How she would tell him stories at night and, how they used to cook together when he was young. He remembers running in the wheat fields around their scarecrow...

He thinks about Ikue. Her warm brown eyes, the dimple in her right cheek when she smiles. The light that comes to her face whenever she sees him standing by her doorway. Their conversations about leaving Yogotoya and moving to Edo. The way she giggles behind her sleeve, when he playfully talks about the number of children they will have.

He muses about Kichisaburo. The way he struts around the compound as if he owns it, all too aware of his looks and popularity. How he never fails to embarass Kasai, or ridicule him, or scoff about what an idiot he is, willingly turning up on their doorstep. He remembers the day he first entered his room, looking tired, filthy and starving, and the incredulous expression on Kichi's face when he told him he was to be his roomate.

Kasai understands that Kichisaburo pities him. It is plain and clear, in his words, in his actions, in the way he glances at him sometimes. He knows that Kichi has him all figured out. Naive village boy running away from his mother with dreams of life in the Capital. But what Kichisaburo doesn't know, is that Kasai, unlike all of the other boys, now pities him as well.

This night has changed everything.

It has made him realise that Kichisaburo has a heavy and painful past that weighs him down. It lurks underneath his arrogant facade, and as Kasai's gaze rests upon the sword by his friend's side, he wonders what will happen when the burden finally overcomes him.

--------

"Move," said Kichisaburo through gritted teeth as he glowered down at the obstacle in front of him. "Don't make me hurt you."

But gods, he wanted to, so very badly. He had just entered the village a moment ago, intent on finding an inn to stay in until he sorted out where to go, but just as he started to approach what looked like a suitable though rather narrow street, this brat refused to let him pass. He found himself being reminded why he hated all children. Even though the ones at Yogatoya were smart enough to blend into the walls when he was around, their presence was still irritating.

In his opinion, children were the stupidest little things, so naive and so damned ignorant.

"I'm not moving," The boy's round eyes were defiant. "Not until you give a coin. If you don't, you're not allowed."

Kichisaburo snorted, then started to stroll forward when he noticed the boy raise what looked like a toy sword.

"If you don't obey, you will suffer consequences," the boy informed him gravely. "This is where I live, and everyone who goes through here must give a coin."

Kichisaburo stared at him. The brat couldn't have been more than six years old. "Those are mighty big words for such a runt like you," he said, gaze turning hard and cold as his hand gripped the hilt of his sword. It was an act of course, Kichisaburo would never slay a child, no matter how troublesome they were. He was just hoping that the kid would become frightened and run off. Instead the boy moved into a swordfighting stance, acting as if his sword were made from steel and not wood.

Kichisaburo sighed in exasperation as he slipped a hand inside his gi, pulling out a cloth purse. The pouch was bulging with coins, all of which he salvaged before burning the old woman's house. The boy's face lit up at the sight of the single coin on Kichisaburo's palm.

He grabbed the coin, placed it inside his mouth and bit down. What a strange child, testing to see if the money was authentic or not, thought Kichisaburo. Now that the boy had stepped aside, he started walking only to receive a hard blow to his leg.

"Ow!" He swivelled around and glared at the child. "What did you do that for!"

The boy lowered his wooden sword, bowed and grinned. "You look new, so I'll show you around. My name is Jiro."

Kichisaburo raised his eyebrows. "I can find my own way, thank you."

Jiro's face fell. "But I show everyone! I want to show you too!"

"Fine, whatever." Kichisaburo rolled his eyes. He might as well take advantage of the kid's knowledge. Maybe he'd find out where the inn was.

Jiro skipped to the front, tugging at the newcomer's hakama as they walked. Kichisaburo glanced around at the open vendors. People weren't staring, perhaps travellers always came through here. Jiro pointed everything out to him in a loud voice as though he were senile. Kichisaburo was about to snap at him when the boy gave an excited shout and started to run towards a shop. He stopped halfway and wildly gestured for him to follow.

From the look of reverence on Jiro's face, Kichisaburo felt as though he was entering a shrine, not that he'd ever been inside one. Then he smelt the aroma of sweets and from hearing the excited giggles of other children he realised he was in a very tiny sweet store. Jiro pulled Kichisaburo towards the shelves and happily pointed all the different sweets the members of his family enjoyed. From the boy's ramblings, he found that Jiro lived with his parents, little sister and an uncle visiting from Kyoto.

After he paid and Kichisaburo was introduced to the shopowner as being Jiro's friend, they finally left.

"So are you a samurai?" the boy asked as he munched on his candy.

"No," Kichisaburo laughed to himself. Then seeing the disappointed look on Jiro's face he paused, and added, "I'm a ronin."

"What's a ronin?"

"A wandering samurai," replied Kichisaburo, placing his hands over his head.

"Wicked!" Jiro exclaimed, grinning. They were leaving the bustle of the village center and moving into a more peaceful street. Jiro smiled at a passing flower seller who waved at him. Every now and then, passerbys would say, "Hello Jiro-chan!" or "Jiro-chan, say hi to your mother from me!"

"You're a popular little guy aren't you," Kichisaburo snorted.

But Jiro didn't appear to have heard him. The scruffy haired boy had freezed, and his eyes were narrowed as he looked around.

"What is it?" asked Kichisaburo warily. Then he heard the jeering laughter, and the whimpers of a girl. Obviously someone important to the kid, from the expression on his face.

Jiro dropped his sweets, unsheathed his toy sword and rushed through the bushes in front of him. Kichisaburo frowned, and reluctantly followed. Pushing apart the leaves, he saw in a small clearing a little girl no bigger then four, crying as two older boys threw her doll around. "Come and get it!" one taunted, reaching forward and yanked the ribbon in her hair.

"Don't!" The girl bravely pummelled the boy with her fists, but he only laughed and pushed her. She cried out as she fell hard on the ground.

With an angry yell, Jiro charged at the bully. "Leave my sister alone!"

Kichisaburo watched the scene in front of him with great amusement. Jiro was now wrestling with the boy, their faces red and angry as they cursed at one another. They were both throwing punches, but didn't seem to be doing much damage. He snorted and turned to leave.

Then, from the corner of his eyes, he saw the other boy pick up a rock and aim it for Jiro's head. Quickly, he swivelled around and nimbly caught the rock. He narrowed his eyes at the offending bully, and drew his sword. The boy's eyes widened and with a scared yell, he turned and ran.

Kichisaburo advanced on the other one, who was staring at him in terror. "I think I should cut you up into pieces for this," he said murderously, his sword glinting in the light.

The boy gasped, Kichisaburo wondered if he had wet himself. He smirked.

"Please don't hurt me!" the bully begged, his face white. "I swear I'll never do it again!"

"You better not," said Kichisaburo silkily. "Now leave!" With a yelp, the boy scrambled to his feet and ran as though a pack of wolves where behind him. Kichisaburo laughed out loud, sheathed his sword, and turned away, when he felt a tug on his hakama. He looked down to see the little girl smiling at him.

"Thank you," she whispered.

"You should be more careful." He gave her a disapproving look. "A little kid like you shouldn't be wandering around all by herself."

She looked at her feet. "I wanted to play with Jiro." She looked at her brother, who was staring at Kichisaburo with great admiration.

"That was so cool!" he declared. "You're so cool!"

"Yeah, it was no problem." Kichisaburo looked up at the sky. It was getting dark. As much as he disliked children he couldn't let them walk home by themselves. "What's your name?" he asked the girl as he reached for her hand.

"Sachi," she answered shyly.

"Pretty name for a pretty girl," said Kichisaburo, and she giggled. He turned to the boy and shrugged. "Well, I might as well walk you guys to your house."

Jiro shook his head.

"I've already made up my mind," said Kichisaburo wryly, causing the girl to laugh again. "So there's no use saying no."

Jiro laughed. "I didn't mean no. I meant we don't have a house. We live at an inn." He proudly added, "Our dad owns it."

"Does he now..."

Kichisaburo grinned. So he hadn't wasted his time with the brats. What a great coincidence, that they were the kids of the innkeeper! Life really did work in strange ways. There he was, wondering where the inn was, only to bump into a little boy that would lead him right to it. This luck better last, he thought to himself. He found himself being reminded of the morning. How he had been staring at the fire when his vision had once again blurred and he woke up with his face in the dirt again.

"I'm just going to forget about it all," he whispered firmly to himself. "I need to start a new life...Why should I keep remembering all these old useless memories? I won't."

But this, like so many other things in his life, would be easier said than done.

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