Remembering Reina

Remembering Reina

by Bottou-chan

A/N: Well, this is my own answer to my own fic challenge. Due to the fact that Reina is not only from the past, but is dead at a certain point in time in the past (thereby limiting any future stories), and even if she * did * survive that night, I doubt she'd undergo any real personality changes… So this is the fic-challenge in reverse… showing how Reina became the way she is when she enters the story. Incidentally, I discovered after I finished it that Ohka was 32 when he died. O_o So that means that my ages are a little off. But y'know what? Too bad. ;oP So, technically, it's an AU fic where Ohka has been made about eight years more youthful, but hopefully, such nits will not be picked. ;o)

I always knew I would marry Ohka, even when we were children together. He, Kagerou, and I had known each other since we were little. Kagerou was two years younger than I, and a year younger than Ohka, and consequently would get left behind on occasion. But mostly, we played nice, and let her tag along with our games.

I remember even when we were children, I thought Ohka was cute. He had a strange sense of humor, and his blustery personality was difficult on occasion, but there was something about him that was charming. He had a disarming smile, a certain frankness and openness, and yet it was strangely illusory. For all his childish pranks, I could sense a certain intensity beneath the surface, and I believe that intrigued me more than anything else. There was this intensity in him as a boy—it was the certainty that he wanted to be someone; he wanted to make something of his life.

And I admired that greatly. I, too, yearned to be a Someone. Even though I was just a girl, I wanted to leave my mark on our clan's history. I wanted to be someone our descendants would tell stories of long into the future. I wanted to be immortalized in their memories, long after I myself was dust.

How odd for a child to be thinking of their own mortality like that. But I was.

When Ohka was a little bit older, there was a good deal of rejoicing when it was discovered he had the power of the Flame. He was probably nine or ten at that time, and being the son of the current Flame Master, it had been long suspected, but never verified. It was odd that it had waited for so long to manifest itself… but there it was. Undeniable proof that Ohka * would * achieve his dream of being someone important.

I, too, was growing up. As Ohka was brought into more intensive training, being manicured for the position he would inevitably succeed, I took great care in making sure he was all right as far as his mundane, human side was concerned. After a stressful day, we would walk down to the river and go fishing, even though fishing bored me terribly. Or I would stop by with homemade dango—for by this time, I, too, was being manicured for my own future position as a wife. Such talents as cooking and cleaning, which I had long been exposed to, were now being refined under my mother's diligent supervision. On occasion, I would just sit and watch and call encouragement to Ohka as he was put through his paces, and play with my own Kuchibashi Oh off to the side.

I think he appreciated it. Needless to say, even though we had known each other when we were little, we grew closer still. He would confide in me. I would provide encouragement and support for him. At this point in time, it was just the two of us once more… Kagerou had dropped from the picture, as Ohka and I were crossing the threshold into adulthood, while she was still considered firmly among the ranks of the children. There was an invisible rift separating her from us for a few years, and I suppose I was glad for the privacy while it lasted. Was I selfish? Maybe.

When Okha turned fifteen, I made up my mind. By this point in time, the others in the village were beginning to notice him. Plans for his future marriage were tossed back and forth amongst the elders. Potential matchings were considered thoughtfully. Girls who had formerly ignored him now flirted congenially in the street.

It was all quite irritating. I felt rather like a gardener who had spent years caring for a mulberry tree, mulching it, pruning it, guarding it from frost and pest. And then, when it was mature, others come from nowhere and say, "What a fine tree this is!" and dig it up and cart it away for someone else's garden. Perhaps I wasn't responsible for his looks or his powers, but I believe I certainly had been instrumental in helping him along through the awkwardness of childhood and early adolescence. I had provided comfort and support and encouragement. While his infantile sense of humor was still present, I sincerely believe that I was a prime factor in his growing up and comparative maturity.

Ohka relied on me. Ohka needed me. What was he doing, flirting with other women?

And so I sat back and looked at my position objectively. What was to preclude me from being considered? My family was a good one; not only were we financially secure, and could provide a good dowry, but we had the added bonus of having two past Flame Masters in our family tree. One was a man, Kazuo, of the Flame Whip. The other was not so distinguished-- Ato, who had been blind and bitter. He had ultimately been chased from the clan and assassinated. Still, the power of the Flame was the power of the Flame, regardless of the personal merits of its wielder.

Those two factors spoke highly for me in regards to the Council. The fact that I had been friends with Ohka for so long was an additional bonus, although I doubted sentiment would play much of a factor in the ultimate decision. However, it gave me the unexpected bonus of having a general idea of how his mind worked, and which buttons to push.

After I had formed my plan, I put it into action. I found one of Ohka's great childhood rivals, and began lavishing my attention on * him *. I drifted away from Ohka for a few weeks, and busied myself with currying Kazuo's favor. I brought * him * my homemade dango, meandered with him in the forest, and let him tell me jokes in the street. After a few weeks of this, I finally took him to Ohka's and my favorite 'talking spot' by the river on a day I was sure Ohka would come.

It was all going quite accordingly to plan. During the first week, Ohka had been oblivious to my absence. He probably noticed, but then chalked it up to my being busy. By the second week, I could tell it nagged at the back of his mind. By the third week, he would give me a troubled look from across the street, but I would pretend not to notice, as he never directly confronted me about it. By the time a month was up, he was curious as to why I was deliberately avoiding him. Ohka wasn't stupid; but he's very good at making excuses to himself. He was never one much for "feelings", and figured that if I wanted to talk, I would have no trouble in expressing myself.

Of course, what kind of woman would I be if I directly confronted him?

He had had my unreserved friendship his whole life. If he was to take me for granted—well, I wasn't about to have any of that. I had confidence in myself. I knew I would get what I want. If he thought he could toss me aside and come back to me later, if he felt like it… I'm sorry, but that's not how I play my games. Besides, I'd much rather he feel as though he had 'won' me back, rather than if I had thrown myself at him.

Tears aren't my style at all. I have my dignity. I have my strength.

But Ohka didn't fail me, of course. I knew him forwards and backwards. He could take the fact that I was avoiding him. He could take the fact that a major factor in his life had suddenly disappeared without notice. He could even take my flirting with Kazuo, although I knew it must hurt his pride terribly. But my taking Kazuo to * our * secret spot by the river was the last straw, and he would snap. One way or the other.

We were sitting there on the riverbank, talking nonchalantly about nothing in particular, when I * felt * Ohka's presence. In my mind's eye, I could see exactly where he stood—on the little path a little ways above the river bank, screened by the trees obscuring a bend in the trail. I could sense him stopping, and could feel his eyes boring into the back of my head as he watched. I could literally feel the conflict within him… did he want to make a scene now, and confront Kazuo? Or would he confront me later, in private?

Either way, there would be a confrontation.

I made sure of it.

I moved just a little bit closer to Kazuo, and let my hand rest briefly on top of his for a brief moment.

That was enough. I could feel Ohka abruptly leave.

I knew he was hurt, mainly because he hadn't come charging down the pathway in a broil of violence. I wouldn't have been worried if he * had *, of course… I could always handle Ohka. But he gave me the exact reaction I was looking for… and hoping for.

The next day, I was down by the river, by myself this time. I had spent the morning practicing with my Kuchibashi Oh; all Hokage, regardless of their gender, are encouraged to become reasonably adept with at least one madougu, and preferably more, by the age of sixteen. It was time for Ohka's training, but I had a feeling he would play the truant today.

I didn't have long to wait. I would be a poor excuse for a ninja if I couldn't feel his blazing chi, inflamed by anger. He stomped down to stand next to me, then threw himself down on the ground beside me. "What do you think you're doing?" he demanded.

It's not quite how he said it—Ohka tended to pepper his dialogue with expletives whenever he's angry—but it's what he meant.

I just looked at him calmly. "You're going to scare the fish."

"Forget the **** fish. You **** hate fishing. What do you think you're **** doing, avoiding me?"

I shrugged evasively. "You're busy. I can tell you've moved on. Don't worry about me… I'm okay with it. I'm happy for you."

I flashed him my most encouraging smile.

"**** right," snapped Ohka. "What kind of **** idiot do you **** think I am?"

"But it's true," I pressed. "And you know what? I'm moving on, too. I mean, sure, it's great that we've been friends for so long. But I'm getting to the point where I need to think of me. I really can't hang around you so much anymore. I need to distance myself. People will talk. We're both going to probably get married within the next year, and what will your wife think? What will my husband think? People will talk. It would look bad for both of us. I can't have that."

Ohka sat silently for a few moments. "That doesn't matter," he finally said.

I shook my head and smiled. "Maybe for you, it doesn't," I said lightly. "But we women have to be a little more careful in who people think we're being friendly with. There's a difference between 'friendly' and 'too friendly'. If people think I'm 'too friendly' with you, how am I supposed to get married? My family doesn't want me to be a spinster, you know."

Ohka frowned. I'm sure the thought had crossed his mind before, but perhaps he had never seriously entertained it before.

"So you're hoping to marry Kazuo?" he finally asked. "You never mentioned that before, you know."

It was an accusation.

I shrugged. "I can name four or five men in the village who would love to marry me," I said offhandedly, as though it was of no consequence, like picking a carrot from a pile. "And I can just as easily convince four or five others. But I've spent so much time with you, I haven't really spent much time with other men. I need to be viewed as more accessible… I need to have space to be viewed as an individual. I can't have you scaring off my suitors, you know."

Ohka pouted. "You * do * want to marry Kazuo," he finally said.

I had to hide a smile. "I might," I said, very reasonably. "Or I might not. My family's powerful enough, I get a little more say than most women when it comes to determining my own future."

I've always been good at being reasonable, and was pleased to see that my calm had rubbed off on Ohka. He was swearing less, and thinking more.

"Why would * they * want you?" he finally asked.

I remained unruffled. "I've got a good family," I said, ticking the points off on my fingers. "I'm * very * good with a madougu. I have money. And I have a good face and a better figure than most of the women in the clan."

"Huh," responded Ohka, and returned to gazing moodily across the river.

He needed his silence.

I gave it to him.

Instead, I watched the shadows play across his face, and watched his features as they changed with each passing thought. Ohka always * was * an open book for me, and I had little difficulty in guessing what was running through his mind. He thought about his own upcoming marriage… he wondered who the Council would pick… he imagined me getting chummy with his wife and telling her all about his faults and missteps which I was privy to.

Strike that thought. Start over again.

He imagined his faceless wife remaining aloof from me, ignoring me as we passed by in the streets. He imagined coming back from fishing with me, and his wife complaining bitterly about imagined infidelities and making his home life a living hell.

Strike that thought. Start over again.

He imagined me coming back from fishing late in the afternoon, with my husband waiting up. Me coming back from the field behind his house, from training with Ohka, with my husband waiting up. My husband finally going berserk from all my imagined infidelities and ambushing Ohka on a dark night.

Strike that thought. Start over again.

The last thought was too clear to even have to work at interpreting. A furtive glance at the obi tying my kimono… the line of my neck and the softness of my throat… my supple lips. Throw in a good dosage of teenage hormones, and it spoke for itself.

Ohka was never very difficult to understand at all.

But I continued to feign my oblivion. Shifting a little closer to Ohka, I patted his hand, held it between mine, and allowed our hands to rest in my lap. I stroked his fingers absentmindedly, and continued in a cheerful voice.

"Whoever it is," I added, after I'd decided he'd had enough time to process that last thought, "They're going to be strong… they're going to be an important person… and they're going to be a good lover."

Ohka looked at me suspiciously. "Is Kazuo a good lover?" he asked, eyes narrowed.

I almost laughed aloud this time. I'd genuinely missed Ohka's frankness and bluntness in the time I'd been avoiding him. Kagerou was the second-closest person I had to a good friend, but even with her, I wasn't as close as with Ohka. But it was a potentially dangerous question. On the one hand, I wasn't some peasant who would roll in a field with any male who asked. And I didn't want Ohka to run after Kazuo and promptly murder him. On the other hand, I didn't want to completely assuage Ohka's worries.

"He's not your type at all," I replied with a straight face.

Ohka made some sort of growling noise, and I was afraid that he would settle back into his favorite expletives. But he didn't.

He just sat there, battling with himself internally.

::Be blunt…:: I mentally encouraged him, watching him weigh his pride and his ego against his desires.

He wasn't coming through, though.

Oh, well. I decided to give it one more effort.

I gave his hand a squeeze and allowed him to take it back from mine. "I'd better go," I said, making a movement as though to rise. "I'm supposed to meet Kazuo."

That was what it took. I never got to rise—with a quick motion, Ohka took hold of my wrists and maneuvered into a half-kneeling position over me.

"And what's wrong with me?" he asked challengingly, his nose inches from my own. "What does Kazuo have that I don't? What is it? Am I too weak for you? Am I not smart enough for you? Do you think I'm ugly? Or do you think I'm just not good enough?"

I gazed steadily at him, then closed my eyes for a few moments and just enjoyed the moment. I had missed being close enough to smell his familiar scent… there was something uniquely 'Ohka' about it. His hands grasped my wrists so tightly… I remembered a point in time where I could overpower and bully him if I wanted to. That day was long gone, but the feel of his strength was consoling, somehow. It had been such a long time since I had been near him, and now the tenseness of the situation added a certain chemistry to the moment.

"It really all depends," I said. My voice was uncharacteristically soft, and I looked at him with hooded eyes. My lips curled in a slight smile. "Are you any good as a lover?"

It was an invitation, and he knew it.

That particular afternoon, I was more concerned with teasing than with delivering. Like I said, I'm * not * some peasant girl, and I knew quite well that a tarnished bride isn't particularly marketable. Still, he received quite enough to be agonizing for more, and I was able to play him well.

What kind of a woman would I be if I couldn't walk that line?

* * *

Within the year, Ohka and I were married. Between the Council's deeming of myself as the candidate most likely to produce a good heir to the position, and Ohka's attachment to me, it was an auspicious occasion. I was decked out in my finest kimono, and wore a beautiful headdress. Everyone said I looked like a princess.

I certainly felt like one.

It was a happy time. Ohka and I were young and in love. I was elevated to the position of a Somebody, and I reveled in the spotlight. Before, I'd been important enough as a member of my own family, but now, as the wife of the Flame Master, my importance was increased a hundredfold.

My most important duty was to produce an eligible heir who could wield their own Flame someday, and I don't need to say that Ohka and I had a fine time trying.

But the joy was to remain short-lived. About a year into our marriage, Ohka and the Council began discussing his taking a second wife. Needless to say, I was distressed.

We'd hardly been trying for a year! Ohka was scarcely eighteen. I was seventeen. It wasn't like either of us were old or at the end of our childbearing years. I was quite insulted, but I remained above it.

After all, if one has a position of respect to maintain, one must act in a respectable manner. One must be strong, and not appear to be weak. I stood by quietly and allowed them to make their plans, and concentrated on being a good wife.

Kagerou, of all people, was finally selected to be his second wife, as a madougu-creating Flame Master had been her great-grandfather. Polygamy was an accepted practice, especially amongst important people. It was a show of one's rank, and as far as rank went, I * was * his first wife, and therefore, his most important one. But still, I couldn't help but take it personally. Yet Kagerou had been our friend since childhood, and if the Council said she was now part of our home, we had to graciously accept her in.

And so I did. I made a concerted effort, especially in the beginning. Kagerou, too, seemed to sense the awkwardness of the situation, but we were both determined to make it work. After all, neither of us wanted to appear to Ohka as the 'witchy' one who wouldn't cooperate.

But it was torture, especially in the beginning. I would lie awake on my futon in my own room, on his nights with her. Even the finest of our houses aren't anywhere near soundproof, and I could hear her pitiful mewling through the paper walls. She would cry after they were finished, with quiet sobs, and he would attempt to console her. I never dared ask what was the matter, as I didn't particularly care to get involved with them. By this time, I had developed a certain indifference, once I had realized that once more, I had to share Ohka.

But Ohka came to me after it had been going on for seven or eight months. Clearly, he was embarrassed, but he explained. It seemed that Kagerou was unable to quite… enjoy herself… to her fullest capabilities. And since I was a woman, and she was a woman, and he hoped I could explain to her what she was doing wrong…

Kagerou. Such a child. But I agreed, if it would make for a happier family. I selected a few evenings to 'teach' Kagerou what she had never figured out on her own, while Ohka watched the process with undisguised curiosity and occasionally joined in. I'm still not quite sure how I felt like that… on the one hand, it was a pleasure to have power over Kagerou and have her mewling because of me. On the other hand, I prefer to make love to my husband, and not busy myself with teaching his other wife the intricacies of the art.

After a few weeks, there was no more crying at night. The soft sobs were replaced by other sounds; I'm not sure which ones bothered me more. About this time, however, I discovered I was pregnant, and discarded my worries.

Ohka immediately began lavishing attention on me. He would pat my tummy and try and speak to our child through it, even before I had any noticeable bulge. Kagerou was given strict instructions to wait on me, hand and foot. The villagers perpetually asked after my condition, or if it was kicking, or if they could do anything for me. I could sense the hope that was in all of them… would this be their future leader? The last Flame Master had passed on in a tragedy, and Ohka had taken over.

I reveled in the spotlight.

When the child was born, Ohka was beside himself with joy to discover it was a boy! We named him Kurei. Once more, I felt secure in my position. Not only was I the Flame Master's first and chief wife, but the Flame Master's firstborn son was my child.

He gave me the reassurance that I needed.

I doted on the boy. I was justifiably proud of him. He was * my * son. He was mine and Ohka's. The Elders seemed pleased with him, and were even more so when, at the tender age of six days, a tiny ball of blue fire spontaneously appeared around his fist.

The villagers went crazy with joy. The line would remain intact! I could hardly believe it myself… * I * had been deemed worthy to bear our future leader, and I strove to be a good mother to him.

I thought about the qualities that a leader should expect from his subjects, and I instilled those values into my dear Kurei.

I raised him to accept nothing but the best. I taught him to stand noble and be proud. He was naturally an intense, quiet, proud child, with a mind clever beyond his years. Surely, he would grow up to be the most ambitious of the Flame Masters, and would lead his people, the Hokage, to future greatness.

But then it was discovered that Kagerou was pregnant, too. Kurei was perhaps three at the time, and four by the time her son was born. Not as big a deal was made about it, as Kurei * was * clearly the successor to the Flame, and was the firstborn son besides. But Ohka became as giddy as a child anyways, and I tolerated it.

Let Kagerou have her son, too. Perhaps a rival would be good for Kurei, although I didn't see how a boy four years his junior would provide much competition for my son.

But the oddest thing happened. Her son, Recca, was discovered with a spark of fire igniting from his hand a few days after his birth! What was more, it was an orange fire, like his father's, rather than Kurei's blue flame.

I was bewildered. How could this have happened? What—how could this be?

We went to the village Elders. I told them in no uncertain terms that Kurei was the true successor. After all, it was impossible to have two Flame Masters simultaneously. Recca would have to go. Kurei had been Chosen.

But the Council didn't entirely agree with me. One of them even claimed that he had known Kurei had a cursed Flame, which was why they allowed Ohka to continue having children. What a ridiculous claim! There was nothing cursed about Kurei * or * his Flame! The fools couldn't tell that their future, destined leader was sitting stonefacedly by my side. I was proud of Kurei; I had trained him well. A good leader remains stoic and calm, even in the face of disaster. He betrayed no emotions at all, even when his death sentence was pronounced. I, on the other hand, was overwhelmed by a maternal desire to protect my only son.

Kurei was my reason for living. Ohka—Ohka had changed. After Recca's birth, I felt that Kurei was no longer the apple of his eye. Yes, he still * loved * Kurei. He loved him very dearly. But Kurei's place in Ohka's heart was now shared by Recca.

Rather like how I had made room for Kagerou in Ohka's heart.

What had begun as dislike now bloomed into hatred. Did Kagerou think she was being so noble, interceding for us like that?! She was an interloper! She had done nothing but infringe on * my * rights and * my * happiness. And now that * her * son was infringing on * my * son's rights and happiness and even his ability to live… now * she * takes him as a cause… how noble is that?!

It's not Recca who's life is at stake! Why would Recca be spared, when Kurei is obviously so much more fit than his half-brother!

The madness extended beyond that one incident. Yes, Kurei's life was spared. But I was exiled to a small house on the outskirts of the village. Perhaps the Hokage resented me. They had honored me for so long, and now that I didn't have Ohka's complete protection, they felt compelled to go out of their way to be nasty.

I didn't care. I was sick, I was hungry, I was cold. But I was never lonely. I had Kurei, and Kurei was the only one I needed for happiness. I needed Ohka, too… but Ohka wasn't the same as he had been. He had changed.

I was resentful of Kagerou, and anything associated with her. I guess, to a certain degree, I always had been. She had always been the one in need of help. She had always been weak. She had always relied on Ohka and myself for support.

What kind of a leader has a weak mother?!

I resolved not to be weak myself. I loathed to be like Kagerou, with her false kindness. I doubt she missed me at the house… she didn't have to share Ohka on a rotating basis, or live with the guilt of seeing the way people treated us. She and her son now had Ohka to themselves… and I hated her for it.

How did such an interloper get such a position?

I was less concerned with my own future, however, than I was with Kurei's. I could deal with the villager's scorn, but Kurei was only a child, and vulnerable. They would throw rocks and sticks at him. They would pick fights, and then their parents complained to me their children came home dusty and with torn clothing because of my boy. I lost count of the black eyes and bruises Kurei came home with… I never stopped trying to mend the patches on his clothes… I went without food to make sure he was well-nourished.

And I told him what a good boy he was. How proud I was of him. How dearly I loved him. What an important place he held in my life.

Kurei needed love, and there was so little of it in the village.

I needed love, too.

Kurei was not a stupid child. He knew exactly who the cause of our sufferings was. If Recca was gone, we would be reinstated to our former glory. I think he was driven less by concern for his own self, and more by my own plight. I still remember the look on his face when he told me very solemnly, "If Recca was dead, we wouldn't have to suffer like this."

It was noble and self-sacrificing of him, and it pained my heart to see the levels to which he had to stoop to assure ourselves of a better future. And yet, I couldn't help but watch in morbid curiosity.

Ninja must be prepared at all times. Would Kurei be able to sneak into Ohka's home? Would he be able to assassinate the baby? Would he be able to escape? Would he be strong enough to go through with the deed?

Surely, even though he was so young, he was capable.

But he was caught, and thrown into the jail. I was miserable… not because of the attempted murder, but because he had been caught.

It was a reminder that my son, despite his obvious genius, was still fallible. But it strengthened my resolution to further instill values in him. I continued to encourage him to be strong, to despise the weak. Tears were a sign of vulnerability. Be resolute! Hold your head high! Be proud! Walk on the weak, kill them if you must, but never show weakness yourself.

I believe he took my advice to heart. Even suffering imprisonment, Kurei still remained dignified, aloof, and strong, despite the fact he was just a five-year-old child.

But then the village was attacked. In the chaos, no one thought about the jail. I made my way to the prison just as the roof was about to collapse, and I rescued Kurei from the smoke and the flames and the burning wood. He was crying—perhaps panicking from the fire and the sounds of massacre going on outside.

I suppose even a five-year-old child needs to have their outlet once in a while. I didn't reprimand him immediately; I smiled and patted his head lovingly, ignoring the pain in my lower leg which I had just incurred from a heavy beam's fall.

"Are you all right?"

He sniffed a bit, trying to hide his tears as we made our way from the jail into the trees nearby—I limped slowly beside him. "Let's escape," he begged me. "Together—you and I—the village will fall to Oda's army—the two of us!" There was desperation in his voice, and he clung to my clothes.

I finally had to take a seat on the ground, I couldn't walk anymore. "Mother can't walk," I said, forcing myself to be calm and collected. No use in panic… that would only hurt Kurei's chances at being sensible. "I'll just be a burden and slow you down, if we escape together. You… I want you to run from here. Run."

Kurei completely broke into tears when I said that. "No! Mother!" he sobbed, burying his face in my neck. "Don't leave me!"

I pulled away and gazed at him solemnly, tilting his chin up to meet my eyes. Then I gave him a forceful slap. It was enough to make him catch his breath and stop crying. When I spoke, I forced my voice to be stern and resolute. "You are my son! You're Ohka's son! You are destined to be the next leader of the Hokage! As long as * you * are alive, the Hokage will live on," I told him forcefully. "You can't cry… you can't be weak. You must stand above everyone else, even if it means killing others. You need to be relentless; you need to be determined. If you think about me, let me and my death be changed into determination and strength for yourself. Don't make me be your weakness. Let me be your strength." I rummaged around and found my short sword, pressing it into his hands. "I'm sorry for placing such a burden on you… you're so young! But I believe in you, Kurei… my dear Kurei…"

I pulled him into my arms and held him tightly for a last hug. "Be healthy… be strong… make me proud," I murmured, tousling his hair and holding back my own tears.

I placed one last kiss on his forehead. "Now run," I whispered. He looked at me with bright, terrified eyes, but I returned the gaze steadily. Something seemed to click in his mind, for suddenly, it was as though a shadow had drifted over his face. Once again, the calmness and determination that I loved in my son. The strength was there. The nobility. The pride.

I nodded my approval. * That * was the way I wanted to see my son for the last time.

I think he sensed that, for he wiped the tears resolutely from his eyes and gave me a soft, almost shy smile. I could tell he was determined to fulfill my request and make me proud. And then he slipped off into the shadows of the forest, clutching the short sword to himself, leaving me to examine my leg and ankle.

I didn't have long to myself, however. Within minutes, one of Oda's soldiers had discovered my hiding spot, and struck at me with his sword.

And now I lie here… thinking of the past… looking back at my life… wondering why I feel so empty. So cold. Something's missing. I feel weak… and I hate myself for my weakness. I can feel tears trickling down my face… silently, as I'm unable to speak. I'm sure they're involuntary tears of pain, and not anything else… I wouldn't be so self-pitying as to be crying… that's not how I wanted to die.

I take great satisfaction in the knowledge that Kurei will be safe. Kurei will * have * to be safe. Kurei is destined to be safe. I can feel it.

It saddens me that Ohka will die tonight, too. I always did love him… but it was encouraging that Kagerou and Recca would not survive the night, either.

They would not live to torment my son any more.

He would be free of the hatreds which consumed me, and for that, I'm grateful.