Chapter 5: Duty & Honor

The silence of the dojo was highly unnatural, but not unexpected after two years of the Meiji government's best turning his full attention on him. Max Fuushiro looked over his domain with alcohol-reddened eyes and growled, smashing his sake jar against a nearby wall. 'Humbled' was the word that best described his once lavish estate. The walls of his home, once expertly maintained to show all who simply passed by that he was a force to be reckoned with, were in desperate need of paint and maintenance. The staff of beautiful, mostly nubile women that laughed and worked within this edifice had long been dismissed to save money. Many sections of the house had simply been closed off now that the only inhabitants of said home were himself, his lover, and his dark-skinned servant.

"That girl..." Fuushiro ground out angrily, wishing for more sake suddenly. His plan for her had been brilliant. Seduce the heiress and reap the rewards of a fortune worthy of royalty. He doubted the little chit even remembered that her net worth outside of this world he'd forced her into was more than that of some small countries. With that much wealth at his disposal, he doubted even the mighty Officer Gorou would have been able to touch him. Where had it gone wrong? The girl had her mother's face, a face he'd once thought to steal from the foolishly idealistic naval captain he'd duped into befriending him so many years ago. Elizabeth Grayland, then only engaged to his former puppet, had been possessed of a beauty that called to mind Ethiopian queens. She had been strong-willed and stubborn to be sure, but at heart she was delicate and well-mannered. He felt the first stirrings of desire imagining the woman broken and crying out as he took possession of her as only a real man could. She should have been his! In another situation and time, she would have been his. But fate was cruel, allowing him to only watch as she and her own family's sizable fortune had slipped through his fingers.

But it seemed that all similarity to Elizabeth ended with Areyn's facial features. At heart, his ward was weak and rather dim. He often found himself feeling nauseous when confronted with the smell of her, a rotten smell that lingered even after she bathed. 'Of course', he admitted begrudgingly to himself, 'that may be because we're all but starving her'. Indeed, what food he and his faithful mistress could afford was shared among the pair, with the scraps reserved for his useless goddaughter. Her limbs were supple but almost stick-thin, alarmingly so when compared to the fat belly under that damn kimono she wore. He hated her, hated her for her politeness; hated her for her weakness where her dear mother had been so strong. He could march into her room right now and show her how a man takes what's rightfully his, but he knew he would get no pleasure from it. There was nothing to break in her; the girl's will had been broken eleven years ago upon hearing of her precious parents' deaths. Even revealing his part in their demise would give him no satisfaction; for all that she was the child of his beloved Elizabeth, she was nothing but an empty shell of a girl with no will and no desire to break the chains of her captivity.

Suddenly, a thought pushed its way through the fog of inebriation. If bedding the girl was no longer a palatable option, he could always have her sign over her fortune.

"Yes," he nodded to himself, excited. The wording would have to be precise, but he could simply have her trade her meaningless life for any and all inheritances she might be entitled. Surely after so many years being under his thumb, she would leap at the chance for freedom! That way she would return home, penniless but free, and he would reap the benefit of her affluence without ever having to see that infuriatingly familiar face again!

His eyes alight with what some might call madness, Max started back to his private rooms, his intent to celebrate his cleverness with a good, hard f*ck from his woman. In the morning, there would be a victory to seal.

"We'll see who's the strongest when I have more money than Kami-sama, Gorou."

"…And Lido's arms shipments have started again," Areyn concluded her monthly report. "I've heard rumors of a warehouse on the east side of the docks that he's using for storage, but I haven't been able to narrow it down to a specific number yet."

Hajime leaned against the alley wall thoughtfully, allowing his young pupil's words to sink in. In the two years since they'd stuck their unusual accord, she'd become the type of informant that he both did and did not like. The young woman was cunning and brave in her information gathering, her sharp ears missing very little detail that may be of interest. However she had an annoying habit of forming connections with that same information, a habit that was dangerous in this type of investigation. He constantly worried that her stubbornness would eventually cost him a valuable resource.

"You're digging too deep again, Areyn-chan," the police officer scolded. "I've already told you that I can't protect you if-"

"I don't need protection, Saitou-kun," she broke in angrily. "The information I'm giving you could have been gotten from anyone in the Whispering Leaf Teahouse, the only place he'll meet his contacts anymore. You know as well as I do that my idiot uncle is too stupid to realize that I'm the traitor. You've made sure to keep our lessons a private matter all these years too, so I'm not seeing the problem. Besides, Fuushiro is trying too hard to seduce me into submission right now to notice much of anything." This last was whispered with lowered eyes and cheeks that would have been dark red had her coloring allowed it. It still irked the man that she would only divulge what she knew he could act on immediately during their talks. There was no doubt in his mind that his willful student knew a great deal more about her uncle's plans, but was holding onto the information until a scapegoat could be found for it. It was galling to know that should she be caught, her knowledge would no doubt die with her for her treachery and that her trust in him did not extend beyond his next arrest.

The Wolf of Mibu was not known for his impatience or incompetence after all. Beginning his investigation with a series of arrests in the lower ranks of the Fuushiro Empire had been a brilliant move lauded by his superiors. It had shaken up the organization and lost Maxwell Fuushiro enough face that a number of his more respectable contacts and clients had completely disavowed him. For a few months there, it had truly seemed the end of Fuushiro. But the man had not manipulated both the Ishin shishi and the Shogunate during the Bakumatsu by giving up so easily. While Akira Fuushiro had been the troubled yet capable brains back before the Meiji Era began, his older brother had learned the business end of weapons smuggling well enough to cultivate his own contacts and methods. He'd dug himself deeply into the seedy underbelly of Kyoto's society, using every contact, every crumb of influence he had left to keep what he'd built. And Hajime had let him. 'All the better to find the evil and destroy it,' he mused, noting that his student/informant was about to take her leave.

"Until next week, Saitou-kun," she lilted, gracefully bowing before grabbing her groceries and proceeding back to her master. Without a word, the man watched her leave, taking a moment to admire her ability to blend into the sea of humanity even in this foreign land. It astounded him how the teenager had somehow managed to gain the closest thing to respect she would ever get from his countryman over the years. While it was still painfully obvious that she would never fit into Japanese society, idle taunts were no longer flung her way out of the blue and most of the male population in Kyoto knew not to trifle with the girl on pain of a sound beating.

Fuushiro's desire for his servant had become an open secret as of late. Which was odd. Not only did the girl not fit the classic beauty of his consort, the man was not approaching the situation as any sane man would. Whatever the situation between the two, they were still master and servant. Most men would have approached her by moonlight and ended the matter easily. However, if anything, the arms dealer seemed to be attempting to court her, suggesting that he wanted her favor as well as her love. What could a servant possess that would make him go to such lengths? Even more troubling was the sight of his nemesis in the courthouse earlier that morning, an expression of such relief and glee on his face. No one seemed to know what the man was up to, but according to other sources, the sight Max in the courthouse had not been uncommon over the last week and a half, nor was anyone privy to his purposes there. Whatever it was, Saitou could not help but worry for the young woman.

"What do you have in store for her, Max?" he pondered quietly, making his way back to his home, when his wife and children awaited him.

Later that same night, a slightly sickly looking shadow moved stealthily, easily blending into the night. Areyn smiled slightly as she went to investigate her lead, fully aware of what she must look like to the unsuspecting populace of Kyoto. Over the past two year, the seventeen-year-old had carefully altered her appearance so that under her threadbare kimono, she looked obscenely portly, much like the starving children from distant lands that she used to read about. It had been a hard thing to obscure the graceful, slender curves of her impending adulthood from her dimwitted uncle, but she had finally managed it with a series of small mud and jell-o filled bags strategically attached to a bodysuit she wore at all times. The only downside to this method was the unsavory aroma that constantly surrounded her. But, try as she might, she could not see this as anything but a blessing as her lecherous uncle tended to spend a great deal of time in her personal space of late. In fact, she was a bit surprised when only Yumi showed for dinner tonight. As an even bigger surprise, the woman was not even spitting her usual venom during the short meal while the girl stood around waiting for the hated mistress to finish, opting to throw speculative glances her way throughout their awkward time together instead. For this, Areyn was also grateful, as the strain of constantly maintaining her defeated persona had been wearing on her lately. Maybe it was because she was so close to completing her father's plan, but sometimes she wondered how the other two occupants of the dojo didn't see right through her.

Halfway to her destination, Areyn suddenly stopped and let out a sigh. "You can come out now," she called softly. Immediately, two figures joined her on the street. "You two should be in bed," she scolded just as softly.

The two she was addressing immediately looked chagrined. "I thought you said you were a spy," the younger of the two griped to the older.

"Former spy," Misao ground out indignantly. "I got us this far, didn't I?" she added.

Areyn couldn't help rubbing the bridge of her nose, feeling yet another of their rather infamous arguments. She honestly could not understand how either of them expected to get the drop on anyone being so loud. Even as deep in her musings as she had been, the teenager had been able to track the pair with no problems. Yahiko and Misao become fast friends immediately after being introduced on one of the young servant girl's impromptu visits eight months ago. While they were quite good at keeping to the shadows and muffling their movements, neither of them could keep from bickering constantly as they followed their target.

"You know, Misao, Okon is not going to be pleased if you're not able to do your usual day's chores. I doubt 'sleep deprivation' counts as a valid excuse." Hearing the tell-tale snort behind her, the girl whirled to reprimand her student. "And you, Yahiko! I'm surprised you're here at all, considering how early you need to be up tomorrow morning." The boy lowered his gaze, knowing his teacher was right. With the Fuushiro dojo under such close scrutiny, it was inevitable that his full past would come to light. Yet somehow – and he still suspected that the dark-skinned woman in front of him had much to do with it – his only penance had been community service and the immediate termination of his job with Max Fuushiro. The latter had been more of a slight towards the once powerful and influential arms dealer more than anything, but the former pickpocket had been happy to be away from the den of vipers his teacher worked in. How she could endure the endless backbiting, taunts, and sexual overtures was beyond him. Even with the rest of the once powerful entrepreneur's staff gone, he still preferred paying for his room and board at the local boarding house with honest manual labor to the alternative.

"We don't care if we're sleep deprived tomorrow," Misao growled vehemently, bringing the boy back from his musings. "We're not gonna let you stroll into danger alone anymore!" Areyn was taken aback by the statement. And, if the startled look on her young pupil's face was any indication, he had not expected it either. In fact, this was the most passionate the sixteen-year-old had become in the thirteen months since discovering that her beloved 'Aoshi-sama' was sleeping with the Mistress of her former teahouse.

"Misao… I'm… Well, I'm grateful for your concern. But for goodness sake, I'm older than both of you, and I know what I'm doing!"

"Yeah, trying to get yourself killed," Yahiko muttered angrily. At the girl's pointed glare he elaborated. "What exactly are you trying to prove anyway? It's Gorou's job to catch your uncle! And if you get caught out here, that man really will kill you."

"He wouldn't dare," Areyn spat bitterly. "He still needs me to-"

"Needs you to what?" Misao jumped in immediately. She groaned when the older girl simply stared at her. "Look, you never tell anyone anything, Are-chan! We're supposed to be your friends, so you should just tell us what's wrong so that we can help you!"

"And what exactly do you two think you can do that a policeman can't?" she growled right back, stopping dead and glaring at the duo. "I made a promise to – I made a promise already, okay? And Sa- Fujita is counting on me, which means I have a job to do. I don't need you two getting in the way with your constant squabbling. If you hadn't noticed, I'm honestly not interested in being caught tonight. Go home." With that, she turned and left the two standing in the middle of the street, worry mirrored on both of their faces.

Kenshin was quick to dress, Shura noted with her usual pang of unhappiness. "Why are you in such a rush, Ken-kun? You know you could always stay the night here." She couldn't help the surge of hope as she said it, even knowing what his answer would be. The young geisha was a truly accomplished lover, never having allowed a patron to leave his arms unsatisfied. But at the same time, he never seemed to find his time exploring the realms of passion fulfilling. In fact, if there was anything she could find fault in with their time together, that was it. She would scream and writhe under his power, but it was power he never seemed interested in having over her. On the other hand, as far as she knew, no one shared that coveted place in his heart. He never even cried out in the midst of lovemaking, not since that first time with her. A frown marred her kiss-swollen lips as she turned on her side and faced the teenager now walking out of her room, deigning not to answer what even she knew was a silly question by now.

"Who is 'Are' anyway?" she sighed angrily.

The boy in question did not even stop by the baths on his way to Megumi's office. Today was his sixteenth birthday, which meant that his two and a half year contract with that witch of an employer was over. Megumi had done her best to entice him to stay as one of her geisha. But when that had not worked; she'd switched to more practical matters, namely how to get the most out of her most prized possession. Kenshin had spent almost all of the time he had left in the teahouse pleasing anyone and everyone with the money to pay. His popularity was such that Megumi had carried out her threat of stopping his warrior training to leave him more time for contracts. As of today, however, that was over. He had already spoken to his sensei, who had agreed to take the teenager with him when he left Kyoto tonight. Apparently, the sword master had always planned to return to his mountain and solitude after the war. The fact that he was willing to take his one-time student with him spoke volumes of HIko's estimation of his potential. The prospect of fully exploring his potential and not spending his days as some woman or other's plaything excited him to no end. He knocked and waited, wondering what last minute trick his mistress planned to try this time.

Megumi sighed when she heard the knock, already knowing who it was. She had actually hoped for a little more time to prepare herself before facing the loss of her favorite geisha. It had shocked her to realize how much she still wanted the boy to stay here. Equally shocking was her constant vacillation between the desire to play the role of mother to him and her body's demand that she take him as lover. The loneliness she had kept at bay since childhood had been crushing her as of late. But the loss of one's only true friend could do that to a person.


"Get out here, you rebel slime!"

Megumi had stirred from troubled sleep, her body still contoured around that of her stone-faced lover. Brain still foggy, she lurched her way out of bed, absently pulling on a yukata as she went to look out her window. There, standing in her back courtyard, raindrops falling off a sword that was easily the height of her home and looked heavy enough to take down a horse and his rider with one thrust, was her personal bodyguard.

"Sanosuke Sagara, take that monstrosity of a sword out of here. And keep your voice down," she snapped, seething when he didn't immediately obey her order. "You're scaring my clients." Indeed, many of her patrons were stirring; or at the very least had stopped whatever activities they were doing to look on in curiosity.

"I don't give a damn about your clients, Fox. You tell that bastard to get out here so we can settle up. My blade wants blood!" Before the woman could think what she could do to defuse the situation, her spymaster was already walking out her door to face the threat. Without a thought to her current state of dress, the proprietor of the teahouse barreled out of her room to stop him.

"Don't, Aoshi," she cried, grabbing his arm as he started down the stairs. "He'll kill you with that sword." The man gave her one of his most frigid stares to date, as if insulted that she would say such a thing.

"He will not."

With that, he pulled his arm from her grasp and descended the stairs, trenchcoat fluttering in his wake. It was only then that she noticed that she was barely clothed, surrounded by patrons. She wasted no time dressing so that she could intervene somehow. 'Sano, you big buffoon. What in the world are you thinking coming here like this?'

Meanwhile, Aoshi pushed through the crowd at the courtyard entrance, sword in hand. "What is the meaning of this?"

"The Seikihou Tai demand vengeance," the man bellowed as if it should make a difference. Aoshi allowed his thoughts to drift for a moment until he found the memory that half-forgotten name inspired.

"Ah," he said at length. "I thought your last name sounded familiar."

"The hell with names, it's time-"

"You have taken your time avenging your father."

"He wasn`t my father, you cold-hearted bastard! Captain Sagara was a good man who fought and bled for the same ideals you bloody Ishin Shishi did. Only you and your corrupt comrades destroyed us before that glorious vision was even in sight!"

"That still does not explain your presence here tonight," Aoshi stated smoothly, unaffected by this declaration. "I have frequented this establishment for years-"

"It wasn`t until I learned of you and my mistress that I had cause to cut your evil down," Sano growled beginning to swirl his gigantic blade menacingly. "I`m not going to stand idly by while you toy with the life of the woman I love." There was a gasp at this, but neither man seemed to notice.

"Your mistress and I have an arrangement. One that she has never had a problem complying with." Megumi gasped again, this time with embarrassment. This was the closest to gloating that she had ever heard from the leader of the Oniwabanshu.

"Do you love her?"

"Of course not."

"Then you shouldn't be sleeping with her."

Aoshi actually chuckled at this. "What a strange ultimatum for a whore who runs a whorehouse." The reaction was immediate.

"That's enough, both of you," Megumi cut in sharply, determined not to have this spectacle continue. "This is still my property and I want you BOTH off of it!"

But Sano was beyond words at this point, bringing his weapon down to crash where the spymaster should have been. "Get back here, you coward! No one talks about her that way."

Aoshi let the man have his head, knowing that this was the last battle of the Seikihou Tai. 'How appropriate that it be a losing one,' he thought contemptuously, dodging yet another swing of the massive sword.

"Fight, you spineless-"

"You will not insult me again," Aoshi breathed quietly from behind him. When Sano tried to retaliate, he found his fist, a fist capable of shattering walls, grasped roughly moments before he was slammed face-first into a stone wall.

"I give you the honor of witnessing my final technique, Seikihou Tai," the man said as he watched his opponent stumble to his feet, icy blue eyes narrowing to slits. "You shall join your companions tonight."

The easy retort died on the street fighter's lips as he saw his adversary split into multiple images, whirling around him at a speed he could never hope to match. It was at that moment that Sanosuke Sagara realized that he was going to die.

"You deserve so much better than he can give you, Fox," he called almost sadly to the only woman he had ever really cherished, picking his sword up from the ground in an attempt to block death. The strike came a split second later, the last sound he heard in this life the sound of flesh ripping as her sweet voice yelled out his name into the night.

"Why? Why did you do it?" Megumi hollered, running to attack the man who'd just murdered her... bodyguard. "You knew he couldn't beat you! Why didn't you just scare him away and leave it at that?"

Aoshi flicked the blood off his sword, unconcerned with the woman's antics. "Did he seem like the type to scare so easily?" he shrugged, stepping over the dead man as one would garbage. "You-"

"Aoshi-sama?" a small voice, one that he had secretly almost regretted confronting with this knowledge, piped up.

"Return to headquarters for your new assignment," he said indifferently as he prepared to crush her dreams.

"Aoshi-sama, why?"

The man made sure to look directly in her eyes, knowing this was the only way she would stop this foolish and futile pursuit of him. "I have no time for children." Just as he'd expected, tears flooded her aquamarine eyes and the teen clutched her heart as if the pain he'd just inflicted on her were physical. Surprisingly, she did not weep as he had expected, letting the pouring rain be her tears.

"Yes, Aoshi-san," she whispered, knowing that it would carry to his sensitive ears. Misao took one last moment to look at the corpse at her feet, severed into three bloody chunks, and understood in a moment that when the pain of his betrayal had faded, she would go on with her life separately from Aoshi Shinomori. That she would likely even be thankful for what this night's events had saved her from a life with a man who was physically incapable of not hurting those around him. That thought offered some small comfort as she walked away, never once looking back.

The man in question simply watched her go. Whatever small part of him wanted to go to her, to soothe the pain he'd just caused in her crushed ruthlessly by the Okashira. Love, the kind of love she wanted did not exist, and the sooner she learned that, the better this life would be for her.

It wasn't until he turned away from the heartbroken girl that Megumi chose to retaliate, slapping him viscously and making sure to get her nails into the act. "You used me to destroy that little girl. Toyed with someone who truly cared for me before killing him mercilessly before me very eyes. You are no longer to come here Okashira."

With a shrug that belied the blood on his face, Aoshi Shinomori set off into the storm, his mind already on which of his spy network would be best to take his place. The Silent Dove was an important asset to him after all, even if this fiasco had established that his personal presence was no longer needed.

~~End Flashback~~

As is wont to happen, since the death of her - her breath hitched as she thought the words - potential suitor, her mind would wander to her times with him. It was frustrating how often she would see pointless moments in her dreams where his dark eyes would soften and he would look as if he were about to say more. What purpose did it serve, anyway? Sano was dead! Even the snapdragons he'd fallen into on his death had mourned him, withering away to nothing in the weeks following his death. The former geisha couldn't help a bitter laugh as she noted the heather the gardener had put in their place. How appropriate.

"Megumi-san? Are you there?" Oh right. Kenshin.

"Come in, boy. I haven't got all night," the woman declared, ready for this meeting to be over. "How soon can you clear out your room, Kenshin? I have more potentials coming in after all, ones that will appreciate the gifts I will so lavishly bestow on them." She winced inwardly, having been unable to help the small jab at him. First Sano and now Kenshin. It was no wonder she had never trusted men...

"Shishio and I will be leaving at dusk," the answer rolled off his tongue, but his beautiful violet eyes were fastened on her daringly. "Megumi-san-"

"Then go! Go and play with your swords for all I care," The mistress snapped angrily, disturbed by the recognition she saw in his face. "It will be interesting to see you try to find employment, being a samurai slash whore!"

"Megumi-san, is this truly the path you want?" the boy asked, ignoring her harsh words entirely. Megumi wondered again at his aptitude for this life. Perhaps it was best that he not continue by her side. Such blinding insight would surely have gotten him killed in the long run.

"There is no path for me, save this," she quoted from some play or other, sighing heavily. How in the world could he look at her with such pity and yet such a penetrating gaze that she felt for a moment that her whole life was spread out before him?

And, in the most infuriating part of this, their last encounter, he did not even bother to respond. He simply bowed deeply in respect and left. She turned back to her courtyard as she heard the shoji door closing, ironically feeling caged even though she was clearly the master of this prison.

"Only if you wish it to be, Takani-sama," his soft voice sounded just as the shoji shut, leaving the woman to ponder this parting shot. Just then she spied a Star of Bethlehem poking through the heather patch.

Megumi wept.

"Are you ready to become a man?" The question, as usual, was rough and full of the humor of his apprentice's predicament: a geisha that wanted to learn the way of the sword. The concept was so disjointedly amusing that Hiko Seijiro almost felt compelled to teach the boy just for the laughs it would bring him for years to come.

In all honesty, the sixteen-year-old had amazing amounts of potential, and from their sparring match this afternoon he could tell that somehow Kenshin had managed to keep up with his training between 'appointments'. It would be interesting to see how far his student was able to advance in his chosen field of study.

"I will meet you later Shishio. There is something I must do."

"You know she won't come with you." The man felt something akin to compassion as he saw the longing swirl through the teen's strangely colored eyes. He decided to take a kind of pity on the boy, knowing that his stubbornness would lead him to heartache by the end of the night. A heartache that he would not understand for years to come. "Your friend is as iron-willed as you, boy. And she has her own mission to complete. She won't be able to give you what you want of her until after she's done what she's come here to do."

"You don't even know her!" the boy ground out, his nails digging into his palms as he fought for composure. Hiko smirked at this.

"I know of her, boy. And I have seen her before come to think of it." He decided just one more time to give his pupil the answer, knowing it was pointless. "You have put your heart aside for the last nine years, doing what needed doing to survive to this point. Will you begrudge her the extra time it will take her to finish her task?"

Instead of answering, Kenshin stalked off, fury clearly written in every line of his body. "So be it," the thirteen master of the Hiten Mitsurugi sighed, taking a long swig of sake before heading off to their arranged meeting place.

Anger was still rolling off of him in waves when Kenshin Himura reached his destination, Fuushiro's dojo. His original intent had been to go to the man himself and plead his case, offering to protect her in the shelter of his master's home. But his Shishio's words gave him pause. What if she truly was not willing to leave with him? And what was this about a mission? Kenshin had been thrown into the life of a geisha by her; he'd endured... Well, he'd endured and now she owed him. She would come with him. She had to.

Thusly decided, Kenshin reached out to knock on the dojo gates when a hand caught his.

"She isn't here, Kennie," a spiritless voice greeted him. It had been over a year since he'd heard that voice and the changes to it were astonishing.

"Mimi?" Truthfully, the boy was thunderstruck by what he saw when he turned to question her. Her eyes, once so full of life and laughter, were dull. The energy that used to radiate off of her in waves was now gone, leaving a depressed teenager of his same age. She smiled mirthlessly as her old friend gawked at her.

"The Okashira had me assigned to the Shirobeko. Apparently, he felt that I needed to do some 'women's work' instead of 'gallivanting around the city like a man'.

Hearing her so despondent made him hate Aoshi all the more. Ever since that faithful day when he'd shattered her heart, Kenshin had dreamed of avenging her. However, he'd been present at Sagara's execution – for it could be called nothing else – and knew it would be years before he could even attempt such a feat. In the meantime…

"Back when… When Sano died, you said you weren't going to let him control you anymore. Right?"

The girl looked dejected, but did her best to muster a smile for her old friend. "But the heart doesn't forget so easily, Kennie."

Before he could think of a reply, a new voice cut into their conversation, sounding panicked. "What are you two doing here?" Before either teen could reply, Areyn ran up from down the street and grabbed both of them, dragging them away from the entrance to her home. "Go away! If Fuushiro-san catches you here, he'll kill us all."

"It's my birthday, Are-chan," Kenshin announced, feeling familiar warmth spreading through him at her nearness.

"Happy Birthday," the teen said absently, still looking startled and afraid as she pulled the pair down the street. Once they found an empty alleyway, she let them go. "What were you thinking, Misao?" she growled, whirling on her younger friend. "The sun hasn't even gone down yet! And you KNOW how much Yumi loves to find reasons to torture me. And why in the world did you bring him?" she continued, pointing an accusatory finger in the boy's face, all the while ignoring his stunned expression. "Or are you and Yahiko determined to see me beaten bloody?"

"I didn't-"

"I came on my own," the former geisha ground out, not liking being talked about as if he weren't there one bit. "I came to collect my birthday present." He grinned interiorly as the older girl's bewildered expression. Truthfully, this was the most emotion he'd ever seen from the brave woman who had saved him all those years ago. He liked it, and nothing would please him more than to see more. "Aren't you going to ask me what my present is?" he grinned, all smiles as he advanced on her.

"I…" For a moment she faltered. But when her back hit the filthy alley wall, she remembered herself. "It's… It's not my place to care," she sighed indifferently, feeling some semblance of her usual façade returning. "If you have business in the dojo, I shall take you there." She moved to pass him, but stopped just short of touching his extended arm. "This way, Himu-"

"Stop doing that," he yelled, grabbing her shoulders. "Stop hiding from me, Areyn! I want you , don't you see that?" He wasn't expecting the shove that sent him sprawling. Nor the kick to his gut.

"What I see is a spoiled, stupid child who hasn't learned a thing in all the time I've known him," the servant growled out in a voice that chilled him to the bone. "I know you want me, and so does my lecherous uncle! I'm not something to be sampled and taken for granted. I'll kill you both before I let that happen."

His astonishment was palpable. Then he growled himself and gained his feet. This time he wasn't going to let her steal the conversation from him. "I'm not trying to 'sample' you, Areyn. I just want you to be mine. I'm leaving the city tonight with my master. We're going to his cabin in the mountains, were I can train in peace. If you come with us, I can protect you. I can love you. I can-"

"You're such a child," the girl growled again, hands fisting. How could he possibly understand, this spoiled, pampered little boy? "And how do you plan to protect me, you lazy leech? You have no viable skills, no prospects, and no future! You're planning to hide in mountains like the child you are, living off the land like a vagabond, letting some old war vet take care of you in the meantime. God, you're pathetic. Go away; hide in your mountain, Himura-san. Some of us have real work to do."

Her words stung in a way Hiko's blade never could. Pathetic? She thought him pathetic? All his life he'd dedicated himself to the protection of others, the latest example being her. "What do you know about-"

"I told you to leave, geisha. There's no need for your services here."

"You're the one who-" So many words! Why couldn't he get the words out? Why couldn't he express himself around her. Areyn was one of the most frustrating females he had ever encountered, and even his training didn't seem able to help him. "Look Areyn, I'm offering you an escape! You don't have to be trapped by the past. You don't have to stay here!"

"And if I choose to stay?" the girl countered derisively. A slight widening of his eyes was her only response. "I'm here to do a job. That man, the man I work for destroyed my family and my life. It would be wrong of me to pay him any less courtesy," the girl finally revealed to her shocked audience. "My father tasked me with something I would have done even if he hadn't begged me to. But it's not enough to avenge my family anymore. No, I wanted that spineless bastard to lose everything all at once, the exact same way he took away everything from me. Leave with you? Walk away from it all and make a fresh start?" she scoffed furiously. "You couldn't drag me away."

"Don't you love me?" the former geisha tried again, desperate to regain control of the conversation.

"Love you? For God's sake, I don't even know you. We've met a handful of times in the last nine years. And unlike you, I haven't had time for useless daydreaming. My days are full of backbreaking labor and my night are-" with a quick look around, she cleverly changed tacks. "I dream of vengeance, nothing more." She sighed heavily, knowing this would be hard to hear for a boy who was so used to getting everything he wanted. "Your life in service was my fault, I admit it. It was the only way to keep you alive. And I don`t begrudge you wanting to be free of that life, Lord knows you`ve more than earned it. But the new life you`re offering me… I don`t want it. I just-"

"Then you don't want me," Kenshin ground out, turning away in defeat. He didn't want to see the pity in those depthless eyes.

If he had but looked, he would have seen nothing but pain and anguish, followed by a rage strong enough that even he had to brace himself against it.

"Fine! I don't want you! Are you happy now?" she screamed, suddenly not caring who overheard her. "There's obviously nothing left for you in this wicked city, so leave, go be the whore samurai, with no practical skills to support yourself!" Before he could think of a suitably caustic remark, she had retrieved the grocery basket she'd left at the mouth of the alleyway and left him to future. 'I wish you the best… Kenshin.'

Yes, it's been a ridiculous amount of time since my last update. Between school, work, marriage, and a two-year-old, I've kinda had my hands full. I will say that I woke up yesterday with the perfect way to end this fic and it literally has not left me alone since. Only one more chapter to go, and I promise it won't be 5 years before I update again.

Just a couple of notes:

1. Yes, I'm aware that I'm about to receive a deluge of flames for killing off Sano. But I swear it was necessary to the plot. I'm of the school of thought that Misao is largely wasted on Aoshi and that she sells herself short by settling for a man that's determined to be unhappy. Honestly, I feel the same way about Kaoru, but that's another story for another time. If I had more time, I might have put someone else in their for the poor girl to turn to, but I've decided that the 'finding your inner strength' motif is a much better message than the old standby 'you can't be happy without a man'.

2. I am fully aware that the flowers I picked for Megumi's final scene probably don't grow in the same climate. But for the purposes of that scene, it made sense. Megumi is the kind of person that would know the meanings behind certain flowers. Snapdragons symbolize presumptuousness; something I think perfectly symbolizes Sanosuke's actions the night he died. Heather apparently represents loneliness. 'Nuff said. Finally, Star of Bethlehem represents hope.

3. I'm notorious for not knowing where certain quotes come from. So I'm honestly not sure where the line Megumi used is from, or whether it's a quote at all. My mind has always been a mish mash of information, I'm never quite sure what's gonna pop out at any given time.

4. Like I said, it'll only take one more chapter to wrap things up, I think. So please look forward to it. In the meantime, critiques are the reason I post here. Please feel free to indulge me ^_^