Beautiful, treacherous, helpful, mysterious: the more things change, the more they remain the same. One-shot.

The tiny boy huddles behind the snow-dusted cord of firewood, trembling not with the afternoon's chill but with delighted terror. Peering between the chinks in the stack, he can see the soaked back of his father's gi, the man peering in the other direction, craning his neck around the near corner of the chicken hut. In the father's hand rests a snowball, and the boy knows his name is on it—knows that he will pay dearly for having succumbed to the earlier temptation of that gaping neckline as his father bent over, mending the wagon's broken wheel.

Suddenly, a log shifts under one little foot, and the man spins around, a fiery glint in his eye. Shinta can stand it no longer, and abandons any pretense of hiding. He squeals and dashes out into the open, tiny legs churning and slipping and sliding in the yard's snow, eyes wide and frantic, ears filled with the pounding of his father's feet as they close the gap between them, and hopes for salvation fixed on the pale, smiling figure of his mother standing in the kitchen doorway.

Three hundred forty-eight. Three hundred forty-nine. Three hundred…

The full moon hangs in the cobalt blue evening sky, snow gleaming in the pale light and icicles glistening in the branches above the youngster's head. Warm firelight from inside the hut throws a long yellow trail out the open door, nearly reaching the big tree's trunk.

This winter's day is nearly done, but Kenshin has many strokes yet to go. He's just beginning to understand his master's teachings, just glimpsing the possibilities for his future, if only he can practice enough, if only he can endure, if only…

Rest will just have to wait.

Three hundred fifty-one. Three hundred fifty-two. Three hundred…

It's been unseasonably warm of late, and the roof tiles are slippery with snow that can't quite decide whether to melt or freeze. On nights like this, he prefers going barefoot, despite the numbing temperature, to relying on the uncertain traction of wet rush sandals, or even of heavy woolen tabi.

The assassin waits patiently. He has at least three more hours until this night's target is due to appear, at least three more hours until the gathering will begin to break up, before the few brief seconds of release, before he will leap down to the street below, into the path of startled guards. He knows his line—Tenchuu!—and he knows his move—it rarely varies, and these guards will require nothing special—and he knows his escape route.

Bare feet also leave lighter prints, especially in late-winter slush like tonight's, and the snow will muffle even the tiniest echo as he slips back into the night.

What's wrong with the snow? Why is it melting?

Why is it red?

The woman's husband slips to a half-sitting position beside her, cradling her limp body in his arms. He gazes at her in disbelief; she seems to be merely napping, her left arm fallen carelessly away from her side, the knife still lying in the bloodless palm. His blood, trickling from the new wound on his cheek, dissolves into the ever-widening pool surrounding the two figures.

The forest—white, pristine, mute—watches dispassionately as he staggers to his feet, stumbling under the weight of his burden.

Years of wandering, winter after summer after winter spent in the open, have taught him much. An afternoon of flurries no longer sends him scurrying for shelter. He knows how to keep his tabi dry—the key to avoiding hypothermia—and he knows that walking keeps the rest of him warm enough.

He remembers—and the memory brings a wry little smile to his face—how he had resented his master's refusal to build a furo, how the man had gruffly insisted that the ice-melt river cascading down the mountainside was perfectly good for bathing "all year round".

Ah, shisho… You are so far away.

The father pretends not to know where the boy is hiding; he deliberately avoids glancing in the direction of the bathhouse's near corner. He hears clearly the shuffling of tiny feet; he sees, out of the corner of his eye, the puffs of his son's breath steaming out from behind the building. The back of the father's gi is soaked, chilling his spine even more than the snowball he holds behind him numbs his fingers.

"Anata! Kenji! Where are you?"

The mother's call breaks the tension, and the boy can stand it no longer. He bursts from the shelter of the structure, abandoning stealth altogether. Shrieking, he surges across the yard toward her open arms, barely keeping ahead of Kenshin's carefully measured strides.

gi : the wrap-style top worn with pants or under kimono.

rush sandals : footwear made out of reeds (rush) and tied around the foot and up the ankle.

tabi : fitted socks, split between the big toe and the others; usually cotton in summer, often woolen in winter.

tenchuu : "heaven's justice"—Kenshin's typical announcement to his victims.

furo : a bathhouse, or, more specifically, the bath itself.

shisho : "master"

anata : literally, "you"; the term of address typically used by a wife to speak or refer to her husband.