This story was inspired by Omasuoniwanbashi's "In The Shadows". If you haven't read it, go check it out first - it's in my 'Favorites' - so you know where this one is coming from. Really, it has much more impact that way. Then come back here. I gave Omasu first dibs at checking this one out so I wouldn't step on her toes, and she thinks it's pretty good. Don't forget to tell me what you thing when you get to the end. Thanks, and enjoy. twp

Shadows of Shadows

It was night, and the usual gaiety was in full swing in the Gion District. Music of samisen and flute poured out into the streets with the lights that spilled out the doors and shone in the paper lanterns that advertised the diverse tea houses. Men, singly and in groups, strode, wandered, or lurched from one to the next, depending upon their state of inebriation. And in the shadows lurked a solitary figure, eying the crowd, looking for one particular man.

The black envelope had come that afternoon, delivered with the same off-hand casualness as handing off a shopping list. Inside were the name and description of the latest victim and the place he could be found tonight. Nothing more was needed. If he was targeted, he was vital to the Bakufu, and therefore subject to Tenchuu – Heaven's Justice, meted out by a small cadre of shadow assassins in the employ of the Ishin Shishi. This man was luckier than some, though he would not have thought so if he'd had any idea of his fate. The envelope with his name went to the best of those assassins, known for his speed and mercilessness. For this Bakufu official, death would be swift and silent and virtually painless. He would be the latest, and hopefully last, victim of Hitokiri Battousai.

The man known as Battousai didn't care for the Gion District. Too many lights, too many people, too much noise. The bright lights and deep shadow forced his eyes to constantly readjust, and there was too much chance of missing important things while they did so. It was hard to sort through the noise of voice and laughter to find the sounds that mattered, and it was difficult to sort through the ki and identify the dangerous amongst the harmless, foolish, and drunk. He clung to the deepest of shadows and searched the light.

There, in a group of loud, laughing, back-slapping men…there was his mark. They lurched from a teahouse, stumbling down the shallow steps, and headed away from him down the street, their voices proclaiming to all and sundry that fresh entertainment was in order. Battousai cursed under his breath at their direction. It was too bright to follow them openly, but going behind the building chanced losing the man. He looked up at the roof above him, not for the first time that night. Any good assassin kept an eye on all the dimensions. It looked like up was the way to go, so he did, taking a couple steps and springing to the roof like there was leopard in his ancestry. Imitating a big cat stalking its prey, he followed the group, soft-footed over the tiles, leaping easily from one building to the next. He didn't envy the clean-up men who followed him on this job; they'd have to elbow their way through the crowd and keep the mark in sight. Then again, they could be more open than he. Three buildings down, his mark said a word to one of the group, and headed away from them, down the gap between the buildings, responding to their razzing by insisting he had to "make room for more". Battousai smirked. Could it be so easy? Apparently, it could. As the man fumbled with the ties of his hakama, Battousai dropped lightly down behind him.

"Kawashi Taro, for your crimes against the Emperor and his people, I bring you Tenchuu," he said softly. The man barely had time to turn before the blade had kissed his throat, leaving a thin red line that suddenly gushed blood like a ruptured dam. Battousai waited only long enough to ensure that nothing else would be needed, then he leaped again to the rooftop. As he paused to monitor the area, two figures slipped into the alley from the back of the building, checking the corpse and leaving the customary notification. One raised a hand, not bothering to look above him, to signal the job was complete, and then all of them left the scene to make their various ways back to headquarters. No one saw the small, plain-faced man who peeked around the door of the outhouse that an arrogant samurai hadn't been interested in using.

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The garden was small, but the design granted the illusion of spaciousness. Walled in by a high wooden fence, it kept out the noise and dirt of the streets – not to mention the riff-raff – and provided a space of calm within the busy neighborhood on the edge of the Gion District. Gravel paths raked with swirling patterns meandered through artificial hills, artful displays of flowers and shrubs, and a small koi pond. It was a good place to contemplate the next move in the three-way go game of squeezing out maximum profits while the pro-Shogun and pro-Emperor forces tried to rip out each others' throats. The big man on the engawa enjoyed the game, although with the two forces in virtual open warfare, it was almost too easy. The news brought by the small, plain-faced man at his back was not welcome, and the small man knew it, although he couldn't possibly know just how unwelcome.

"Are you sure?" His voice was cold, flat, and controlled.

"Red hair, cross-shaped scar on the left cheek…it was dark, but I could see that much," the little man responded. "He wasn't advertising he was around, but he wasn't hiding who he was, either. And they left their usual note. It was an Ishin Shishi hit, and it was Battousai who did it."

"Right on the edge of my territory. After I told him not to come back." The big man turned around, sunlight glinting in the streaks of grey in his hair and beard. From the back, he'd been massive and intimidating; from the front, he was terrifying. In a country of generally small people, he was a giant, standing well over six feet tall and weighing close to three hundred pounds, all of it iron-like bone and bulging muscle. The tight, Western-style trousers emphasized the heavy muscles in his thighs while the loose, kimono top made his deep chest and massive arms look even bigger. His face was cold and cruel in appearance, with flat eyes and thin lips compressed to the point of disappearing. The long, unbound hair waved against the hard slashes of cheekbones and the thick, corded neck. Strength and menace seemed to roll off him in waves, and the informant took an involuntary step back. After a moment's thought, he took two more and still didn't feel any safer.

"Suzumu." The big man didn't raise his voice, but another man opened the shoji and stepped through, bowing deeply. He was of average height and looks, dressed in dark kimono and hakama, with a dark bandanna keeping straight, stringy hair out of his eyes.

"I think we have a problem with Battousai-san. Why don't you arrange to take care of it." Though phrased as a question, it wasn't one, and Suzumu knew it.

"Hai, Nori-sama." Suzumu bowed deeply again and disappeared as silently as he'd come.

"Yori."

The small man cringed inwardly as the big man's focus landed on him. "Hai, Nori-sama?"

"Back to your post. Keep an eye on things."

"Hai, Nori-sama." Relieved, Yori beat a hasty retreat.

The big man turned back to his garden. The sun was painting the wooden fence and gravel paths with rich, molten gold as it ascended towards the middle of a cloudless blue sky. The day promised to be another hot one. Nori Yuudai, undisputed leader of the Kyoto yakuza for nearly thirty years, narrowed his eyes against the glare.

"In my territory. Big mistake, Battousai," he mused.

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Himura Kenshin surveyed the tumultuous scene around him, senses stretched to find any anomaly, eyes constantly searching under the brim of the conical hat that shaded him from the sun and hid the bright flame of his hair. It had been Katsura's plan to send off this shipment of guns and ammunition to Takasugi's encampment with all the appearance of a tea merchant sending a routine shipment to Osaka. Stolen a week before from a shogunate warehouse under the noses of the Shinsengumi's fifth and seventh squads, the whole lot had been repackaged into the appropriately marked crates and barrels, a thin lining of tea providing a disguise for cracked or open barrels. It wouldn't bear close scrutiny, but perhaps enough for any casual inspection. Katsura hadn't expected any of that in the city. The warehouse they worked from belonged to a man who shipped tea regularly and kept his feelings about the Shogun and his supporters buried deep; deeper than the son who hadn't bowed low enough to appease one of the local samurai. But just in case, and to help protect the two high-ranked Ishin Shishi who would pose as the merchant and his other son, Katsura had asked Kenshin to be a guard.

It was better than being asked to take on the role of hitokiri again. He hadn't liked being asked to do that again, but Katsura had seemed desperate.

----------

"Himura, I know your feelings on this, but this is the best chance we have to getting this man. I'd no idea he would be in town now – they seem to have kept that information well hidden, but now that we know he's here and planning a night in Gion, it's our best chance. I can't call back any of the others – their hits are important, too. Would you take this one on?"

"Katsura-san, is there no other way?" Kenshin asked hesitantly. He had gotten into this war swearing he would help his leader in any way, but the events of the last year had shaken him badly. Tomoe…no! He wouldn't…couldn't…think of her now.

"Himura, I know he's negotiating for gaijin artillery and they may be close to making a deal. If that goes through before we can eliminate him, I don't have to tell you what that would mean for our troops. It's just dumb luck on our part – or maybe the kami do smile on us – that we found out this afternoon that he was in town. Please. I will do my best not to have to ask you again." Katsura's eyes were understanding. Of all of them, he was the only one who knew all the facts of that tragic day last winter. He alone knew of Kenshin's self-loathing.

He alone was the one man Kenshin respected enough to know he couldn't refuse.

"Who and where?" was all the red-haired swordsman had asked, and for one night had once again turned into the feared Hitokiri Battousai.

It was afternoon before the last of the barrels and crates had been packed into the two waiting wagons. The "merchant", well-versed in an oft-played role, paid the workers and climbed into the first wagon, taking up the reins. His "son", new in the role, but following along well, climbed into the second wagon and Kenshin and the other guards ranged themselves around the vehicles. Kenshin took a place behind and to the left of the second one. It was not a popular spot, being where the dust of the road would blow onto him as they left the city, but one that allowed him to guard the rear and spot any trouble ahead. He knew he could get to the front quickly if needed.

The roads through Kyoto were narrow and crowded, and the wagons crawled along at a snail's pace. Kenshin didn't mind. It gave him plenty of time to study the buildings, roofs, and alleys as they came up, all senses alert. It was too easy to let the mind wander, to be diverted by the haggling of merchant and customer, the childish shrieks of laughter as children played tag in the street, the flapping of banners and paper lanterns. Kenshin didn't let it happen. Unbreakable focus, Shisho had always said, was the mark of a master swordsman. It paid off.

He barely picked up on the masked ki just as a man shot out of a nearby alley, his trajectory planned to pass just behind the second wagon and into another alley on the far side of the street. He didn't make it. Kenshin's saya blocked the initial thrust of the man's sword, diverting the energy of the attack past him. His own katana bit into the man's back as he spun along with the flow of the block, and the man collapsed into the middle of the street. Passers-by gaped at the sudden appearance of a bloody corpse on the pavement, but neither the wagons nor their guards stopped to pay it any attention. Two neat sideways flicks had taken the blood off Kenshin's blade, and it was back in the saya almost before the body hit the ground. No one of the gathering crowd seemed to notice who had actually created the notice of death in the street, and the wagon train was soon gone from the scene.

While he didn't turn back and shared no more than a raised eyebrow and a shrug with the man on the right side rear guard position, Kenshin was going over it in his head, pulling up and cataloging the details. Dark, non-descript clothes. Scarf over the head. Mask over the lower half of the face. Hidden ki. Attack only on his position. One man only.

'If I were a betting man, I'd say he was targeting me, not the shipment,' Kenshin thought. 'But why? In broad daylight, too. If he were a squad of Shinsengumi, it would make sense, but he appeared to be ninja, and they don't attack during daylight very often. They have to be paid well for that…' No matter how he turned them, none of the pieces to the puzzle dropped into place.

He hadn't come up with any more ideas by the time they camped a few miles past the outskirts of Kyoto. The sun was descending in a glory of color beyond the western mountains, and it was completely dark by the time they had cleaned up after their simple meal. Kenshin had found a reasonably comfortable spot under a tree away from the fire, and he hunkered down there, resting his katana against his shoulder, and leaning back against the rough bark. He'd volunteered for the pre-dawn watch. It was everyone's least favorite time, but he hadn't gotten much sleep between doing Katsura's hit and reporting to the warehouse for guard duty and he was starting to feel it. This way he could get some sleep and be more alert for his own shift. Like any good soldier, he could sleep any time, anywhere, and he was out within seconds of getting settled, the light of the fire and noise of the various conversations around it delaying him not at all.

He woke with a feeling like a geisha plucking the string of a samisen to tune it, a rhythmic ping, ping, ping on his nerves. He held entirely still, continuing to breathe in a steady, deep fashion while stretching out his senses and slitting his eyes open. The fire had burned down to mere embers, and the men on midnight watch had done no more than keep it going. He found their familiar ki easily: Tanaka Kichiro watchful but undisturbed on the far side of the camp to his right; Sasaki Juro, agitated but unfocused, closer to the core of the camp and slightly left. He'd just added another stick to the fire. Closing in around them and the group slumbering around the fire, flaring sharply in his mind's eye, were five hostile ki, creeping in towards the fire. Two, on either side of Kenshin, had already passed him without noticing his form tucked between the tree roots. From the corners of his eyes he could barely see them, dressed in dark colors and slithering slowly toward the fire, using every bit of cover available, including stillness and tall grass. He took a moment to decide the best way to attack them and get to the other three, should that be necessary, noting obstacles along the way and trying to predict which of the sleeping men were most likely to get up in his path once things started happening. He clenched and released the muscles in his arms, legs, shoulders…everywhere he could, to get the blood moving and the muscles warmed up. The last thing he needed were cramps in the middle of the attack because he'd been sitting on the ground sleeping for a couple of hours. Plan set, Kenshin seemed to explode silently off the ground.

A shallow arc to the right around the attacker, slicing him in half as the man rose from the ground, then use the momentum of the strike to curve left. This man actually had time to swing at him, but Kenshin ducked the move, feeling the end of his high ponytail snag briefly on the blade. A backhanded swing took that man down and revenged the couple inches of hair, and then he was on to the next man, leaping the officials and one of the other guards as they stirred in their blankets. He barely landed before he made a second leap and a Ryu Tsuisen crashed down on the third man, slicing him from shoulder to hip across the body. A clashing of steel told him Sasaki was taking on the fourth hostile; the fifth seemed to have disappeared. Tanaka had come around one of the wagons at the sound of a scuffle and started past the fire towards him when some instinct warned Kenshin to jump. Unquestioning, he did – straight up in true Hiten Mitsurugi style – as several bright flashes flickered below him. One lodged in Tanaka's shoulder and he fell with a cry.

Kenshin landed lightly a few feet from where he'd taken off, crouched low and senses stretched to the limit, but all he got was a faint sense of someone leaving the area at a high rate of speed. Sasaki had finished off his attacker and the entire camp was now awake, the babble of voices growing steadily louder. Several people added fuel to the fire to build it up. A couple men were kneeling next to Tanaka, but he was waving them off and climbing to his feet. Others were dragging the bodies into the light to see what might be discovered. Four men, dressed in dark, non-descript clothes. Hair covered. Lower faces covered.

"Just like the guy who attacked us this afternoon," Nakajima Takeshi said, looking at Kenshin. He'd been the guard at the right rear side of the second wagon.

Kenshin nodded while someone else exclaimed, "We were attacked this afternoon?"

"They told us at supper," another man said. "You must have been off taking a piss."

"I always miss all the good stuff…"

"Was that all? Four of them?" The question came from Ito Katashi, the squad leader.

"At least five, by my count." Tanaka held out his hand, displaying a glinting, bloodied silver shuriken. "Ninja," he said. "And I think this and its friends were meant for you, Battousai. I just got in the way."

"Poisoned?" Ito asked sharply.

"No, or I'd be down to stay already. I think it was a weak parting shot, though they might have gotten you if you weren't so quick." He had turned back to Kenshin. "Next time warn me when you move and I'll hit the dirt."

"Sorry, Kichiro. Thanks for taking the hit for me," Kenshin said. "I only counted five, also. The last appeared to be headed for Kyoto when he left."

"You got someone after you, Battousai?" Ito asked. Half the men in the group snickered. The question was more like who in the Bakufu wouldn't want Battousai's head.

"Who'd want to go after Battousai?"

"Yeah, he's just a sweet kid from the sticks."

Ito glared at the group for their foolery.

"No one I'm aware of," Kenshin answered. With Ito's generalized glare, Kenshin didn't smile. He wasn't exactly known for his openness and it might scare them if he did, but the fact that this group of men were comfortable enough with him to joke about him in his presence meant the world to him. He'd worked with them before, and while he couldn't say he was friends with any of them, they accepted him more easily than some he'd associated with when he'd actively filled the role of shadow-killer. "I don't think it was specifically me, Ito-san. I just happened to be pretty visible at the end. They were already past me and still creeping in when I first noticed them. If they were going to attack me, they could have tried it without rousing the whole camp."

"Hn. Unless they didn't see you at first and just assumed you'd be with everyone else. Well. We'd best inform Katsura-san when we get back. All right, boys, we've got several more hours of dark before we can hitch up and get moving. You can sleep or you can gab, make your choice. If you're gabbing, keep it down for the rest of us. Battousai, Yamada, your watch." Ito pointed at four of the guards. "You guys get those bodies out of here. I don't want to have to look at them over breakfast."

The group broke up, with some of the men returning to jokes to work off the lingering tension.

"Hey, do you think they missed Battousai 'cause he's so short?"

"The first one I saw was crawling through the grass," Sasaki said, his voice serious.

"Like I said…"

One of the others whacked Tanaka lightly on his uninjured shoulder. "So much for being named 'Lucky'."

"I am lucky," Tanaka retorted. "I'm not dead, am I?"

Kenshin caught Yamada's eye and tipped his head left, indicating the direction he was going. Yamada raised a hand and went in the other direction, threading his way around the still-joking men. After a while, the camp settled down again and the rest of the night passed uneventfully.

They started early the next morning, with much of the group grumpy and silent from interrupted sleep. They continued southwest, oxen plodding slowly and stirring up a dust cloud that hung over and coated the group. Kenshin left some distance between himself and the back of the wagon, hoping for better visibility, but the still air wasn't giving him a break. There was simply no wind to blow the fine particles away. Late in the afternoon, they met up with another group of Ishin Shishi, who would guard the wagons the rest of the way to Osaka. The men milled about exchanging greetings and getting small personal packs off the second wagon. Ito filled in the new leader with the events of their trip and warned him to keep a look out, then gathered his troop.

"Head back to Kyoto in twos and threes. You can take your time and chose your own path, but everyone should be back there by evening of the day after tomorrow. I don't care what you do in the meantime, but keep your mouths shut about operations, as always."

Kenshin opted to start back right away. There was still plenty of daylight left and he wasn't much for lounging around when he could be doing. Several of the others did the same, but a large part of the group stopped at a nearby stream to whip the dust out of their clothes and take a bath. The departing group seemed to divide itself naturally according to walking pace, and Kenshin found himself walking with Nakajima and Tanaka. Both were taller and longer-limbed than he, but years of following Hiko around had taught him to move short legs fast for long periods of time.

"So what do you think, Battousai?" Nakajima asked. "Personal attack or random?"

"It wasn't random, but I don't know that it was personal. Bandits don't dress up like ninja," he said, considering. "And ninja don't usually bother us unless they're contracted. I suspect they were after our officials, and they felt pretty sure of themselves." From force of habit, he didn't name names.

"Could be. If they'd known you were there, they might have tried to look more non-descript. There are always casualties when you're around," Tanaka said. "Not that I mind, you understand, as long as it isn't any of us. But if they'd known you were there, they'd have known they'd be leaving bodies for identification."

"That lone guy earlier in the day didn't look like he was going for the wagon," Nakajima argued. "He was going for you, Battousai."

"That's the thing that keeps me from feeling certain. If he was going for an official, he would've headed straight towards the man, not tried to take me out first." Kenshin shook his head. "It doesn't make sense."

"Maybe one of Katsura-san's information sniffers will know something. No point in worrying about it now," Tanaka said.

By just after noon the next day, they'd reached the outskirts of Kyoto. Kenshin split off from the other two with a wave and entered the city by a twisting, turning route down little-used streets, narrow alleys, and occasional rooftops. He stopped at a soba stand for lunch, and then entered an alley that took him south of the inn to which his group was assigned. A flash caught the corner of his eye and he was again ducking and changing direction at near god-like speed as several kunai struck the wall where he been a moment before. The flash and the trajectory of the blades indicated the attacker was above him, and Kenshin leaped to the rooftop at first opportunity. A man in dark clothing was hunkered against a piece of ornamental stonework in the direction Kenshin had been going, but as Kenshin's feet hit the roof tiles, the man spotted him and sent two more kunai in his direction before racing away. Kenshin dodged them easily, but the delay cost him. Despite his best efforts, he couldn't catch up before the man dropped from the roof and lost himself in the crowd below.

'That answers that question,' Kenshin thought. 'Whatever it's about, it is personal.' He spent several more hours wandering through the market and nearby alleys, hoping to draw out another attack, but none came. He finally made his way back to the inn, arriving in time for dinner.

The attacks continued over the next several days. Kenshin made sure to go well out of his way whenever returning to the inn and spent extra time just sitting in obscure, hidden places for hours with all senses wide open to detect anyone who might be following him. He would not put the inn and everyone in it at risk. It was increasingly obvious that he was the target, not the men or goods he escorted. It was also obvious that the attempts were attracting unwanted attention. On a couple of occasions, the attacks attracted the attention of the Shinsengumi, forcing Kenshin and the other guards to scramble to get their officials away safely.

A week after the first attack, he came down from his room after napping most of the afternoon away. He'd been awake until dawn, first working with Tanaka and Nakajima to get an Ishin Shishi family to a new safe house. They'd barely gotten there when Kenshin was attacked again by another set of dark-clad, masked ninja. He dealt with them efficiently while the other two kept the family out of the way, but the fact that the ninja knew where to find them necessitated moving the family to yet another house. Tanaka, as the leader of the detail, had decided they should split up to return to the inn, and Kenshin had spent some time sitting under a bridge waiting to see if he'd been followed. Tonight was a late night meeting for Katsura, and Kenshin, among others, would be guarding him. Nakajima and Tanaka were already eating and waved him over. Kenshin settled across the low table from them, accepting the bowl of rice the serving girl placed in front of him and indicating he preferred the fish from the several choices on her tray. None of the men said anything until she left.

"I made the report about the attacks already, but I think Katsura-san would like to talk to you," Tanaka said, dipping a shrimp into a small dish of wasabi and then waving it in circles. "I think he's sending his sniffers out, so he may wait until they come back before asking you in."

"Then with luck, I'll have time for a bath before he calls," Kenshin said.

"Someone is after you," Nakajima said around a mouthful of rice. "I knew it." He shoveled more rice into his mouth and stared expectantly at Kenshin as he chewed, but Kenshin ate his fish and rice quickly without adding any more insight and excused himself. Takeshi sighed.

"You'd think he'd have some idea and would let us in on it," he lamented.

Tanaka shrugged. "Katsura-san will figure it out and Battousai will handle it, and that will be that. Not for us to worry about." He waved the serving girl over and helped himself to another dish of shrimp.

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Nori surveyed the bowed heads in front of him as Suzumu gave his report: how many attempts, how many dead, how many wounded. Most tellingly, not a hit on Battousai, as far as anyone knew, much less his head in a basket. He could taste the fear emanating from the prostrate bodies in front of him, not the least of which came from Suzumu. It was too bad, really, when a man reached his limit. Some of these men were talented, with the kind of special talent for finding out information in ways not normally considered civilized, or for knowing just where some…leverage…needed to be applied to make things happen correctly for the organization. Most were ambitious. Still, there was no use for non-producers in the food chain. The trick was to figure which ones were still necessary and which ones would best serve him as an example.

The room was silent, Suzumu having finished his report. Nori let it stretch a little longer. No one so much as twitched although the position had to be getting uncomfortable by now. That was good. Let them be uncomfortable. When he spoke, his tones were quiet, reasonable.

"I gave the order how long ago?"

"A week, Nori-sama," Suzumu answered promptly, forehead still pressed to the tatami in front of him.

"And still no results."

Suzumu didn't answer. After all, he'd just given his report; what else could he say? Nori liked that, that the man knew when to hold his tongue.

'Oh, Suzumu, you have been a good subordinate. I am really going to miss you,' he thought.

"I am…displeased," he said aloud, still reasonable. Conversational, really. He drew the wakizashi from his belt and held it out. "Suzumu, why don't you remedy that for me?"

Suzumu looked up, sallow color washing from his face as he saw the offering. He came forward on his knees to take the short sword from his master's hand.

"Take Oto to assist you." Oto had ambition and brains, too. It was time to give him a chance to truly prove himself.

"Hai, Nori-sama." Suzumu's voice sounded rusty as he spoke, but he bowed again, placing his forehead on the floor and then got up and backed to the door. Oto did the same. As the shoji closed behind them, Nori could see Oto pick up his katana from the stand outside where all the swords had been left, loosening it in the sheath. Yes, Oto had potential.

He surveyed once again the heads bowed before him. No one else had moved. That should be enough. No point in over-doing; this would get the message through. Nori did not suffer incompetence.

"The rest of you may go," he commanded, and as one, the men left in the room straightened in their kneeling positions, bowed again to the floor, and then got up to file neatly out the door.

Nori turned in place to look out at the garden behind him, only now aware that it had started to rain. He sat and stared out at it, letting himself become one with the falling drops. The sound of them drumming on the roof did not block a sound reminiscent of an axe cutting firewood. But only one cut. Firewood wasn't that necessary this time of year.

When he returned to his bedroom later, the clean wakizashi was resting on its stand next to his katana.

--------------

Kenshin had already had his bath and was sitting in the open window of his room gazing out across the twilit city when the summons came from Katsura. He could feel the tension across his shoulders immediately return, negating all the good done by that nice long soak in the furo.

He bowed formally to his superior as he entered the room, noting the presence of an older man sitting perpendicular to Katsura and registering the non-threatening ki before seating himself, setting his daisho on the floor to his right, handles pointing towards Katsura. Katsura simply introduced his other guest as "Nobu-san", which Kenshin decided must be an alias, and got right down to business.

"Tanaka reported on the events of your last assignment, but I'd like to hear it again from you. You may have some details or insight he might have missed."

Kenshin related the story in his usual spare manner, adding the information about the ninja with the kunai who had met him on his return to Kyoto. Both Katsura and his companion asked detailed questions about each situation, which Kenshin was more than able to supply. Shisho had stressed noting details about everything wherever he was during his training in Hiten Mitsurugi, and Kenshin had an excellent memory, but his natural reticence tended to leave them out unless he was prompted. Katsura was well aware of Kenshin's ability and actually appreciated the succinct recitation over some of the more garrulous reports he received. With Himura, it was all about which questions to ask to get pertinent information, not trying to weed out the important from the unimportant.

"So," Katsura said, after the questions had run out. "Now we think."

Kenshin thought, but he'd been over it all so many times and his brain wasn't dredging up anything new. Instead, he studied Nobu-san. The man was dressed simply in good quality but unremarkable gi and hakama in cream and brown, much like a moderately prosperous merchant or a high level clerk. His face was long and narrow and, like his clothing, somewhat unremarkable except for the lines fanning out from the corners of his eyes and between nose and mouth. Those indicated a ready sense of humor and a kind of lightheartedness uncommon in Kenshin's experience. His voice, when he spoke, was a mild tenor.

"Style of attack and clothing noted by Himura-san are typical of Kagemure, a fairly small clan which nevertheless has members in both Tokyo and Kyoto. Not as good as the Oniwabanshu, but certainly up to most tasks of this kind and generally successful. I suspect that Himura-san is of a caliber they do not often find in a target, so they have been trying several techniques in order to be successful. Their services are not cheap, so their involvement indicates that there is money behind whoever ordered the hit. It was also ordered by someone who knows who to contact for such things, and therefore not someone new to the game of murder for hire. I did, in fact, find indications that the Oniwabanshu were approached about a difficult hit and offered a very enticing sum but turned it down for reasons I did not find. I suspect the object of that contract was Himura-san. The amount of money offered also indicates that the employer either has something vital to hide or has strong personal feelings about the matter. Himura-san, have you made enemies of this kind, who would know for sure that you, personally, and not the Ishin Shishi, are the one to be punished?"

Kenshin traced with his eyes the pattern of the weaving in the tatami mat directly in front of him while he turned the thought over in his head. He rarely had much contact with anyone outside the organization, so the thought that it might be personal had never really seemed possible to him. Even though he was no longer the organization's top shadow assassin, he lived quietly and tried to be as unnoticeable as a red-haired, violet-eyed man could be in Japan. It had been drilled into him as a child to be polite to those of the farmer and artisan classes – They are the real Japan, Kenshin – and kept out of the way of samurai and daimyo – There is no need to call attention to yourself or your skills, meager though they are. He was not acquisitive and rarely shopped – only enough for necessities or to purchase new clothing when the old got too stained, frayed, or outgrown to be even remotely acceptable and might draw attention. He didn't visit the teahouses or pleasure gardens of Gion…

At the thought of Gion, a picture loomed in his mind's eye of a paved half-circle of courtyard covered with still bodies painted in black and gleaming red, a low well at his back, Okita of the Shinsengumi dressed in dark civilian clothes kneeling and coughing nearby, and a big man on a second story flat roof in front of him. "You're not as invisible as you think" seemed as loud in his brain now as it had been in his ears that night. He looked up at the two patiently waiting men.

"I think I have it," he said, and explained about that night near Gion, only leaving Okita's identity out of the tale and making it seem as if the leader of the Shinsengumi's first squad were only another minor samurai stumbling through the stews near Gion looking for a way to safer neighborhoods. His eyes caught on Nobu's and held in fascination as the man's plain face and mild expression was transformed by suddenly piercing eyes and intelligence. It was such a startling transformation that he almost lost track of the tale.

"I don't know who the big man was, but he was clearly in charge of the others. He told me not to come into 'his territory' again, but three weeks ago I did just that when I did that last hit for you." He looked at Katsura. "He has obviously taken exception to that."

"I wish you had told me this before. We might have been able to arrange the hit somewhere else."

Kenshin hitched one shoulder in a shrug. "He doesn't determine where I go," he said, with a slight emphasis on the first pronoun. It was so slight that Katsura almost missed it, but he didn't miss the steadiness of Kenshin's eyes on his face, and he nodded in acknowledgement of that tribute.

"Nobu-san, do you know who this is?"

"Hai. He is Nori Yuudai, self-styled lord of the Kyoto yakuza. He clawed his way up from petty-thievery as a teenager thirty years ago, and has done it based on cunning and ruthlessness. He excels at strategy and planning, and his information network is almost without equal. If he ever chose to take sides in this fight we are in, the side he chose would surely win, but he gains more power, money, and influence by playing both sides against each other. He is not to be trifled with, and negotiations are always high stakes."

"This is not something we can negotiate on. He is uncomfortably well-informed about our movements, and while his current gripe is with Himura, he could do our cause serious damage if he decided to pass some of his information to the Shinsengumi or other Bakufu groups. As it is, he is neutralizing my most effective protector, and we have too many important meetings scheduled where Himura's services are essential." He looked at Kenshin. "Can you take him?"

Kenshin nodded once. "Hai."

"Then I will leave it to you to decide when, where, and how, although please remember that our time is not unlimited and I have need of your abilities. You are relieved of other duties until you inform me of the completion of this task."

"Katsura-san, I must disagree," Kenshin said, bowing his forehead to the floor and staying in formal obeisance until it was acknowledged and he was given leave to sit upright again. "If we change our patterns now, they will know we are aware of who they are and what they are doing. It would be better, I think, to continue as we have been. However, if I could discretely depart during meetings or if we could set up decoys, then I could scout the territory and plan a strategy that might take them off-guard and make our counter-offensive more effective."

"Hn. Yes. Kimo is about your size; he might make a good stand-in. I will speak to him when he returns from his current duty, and we will talk strategy then. For now, we will go on as we have, and we will all continue to be vigilant."

"Hai, Katsura-san." Kenshin bowed again and then rose, picking up his katana as he did. He bowed to Nobu and again to Katsura before he left.

"You know what you've asked of him again," Nobu said after a moment.

"Aa, but I suspect that Himura doesn't mind this one. It has gotten personal – not that he would ever let on – and I can count on him to leave the kind of message that can't possibly be misconstrued. While part of him shudders at this knowledge of himself, Himura can also be cunning and ruthless."

--------------

The meeting was of the kind that made Kenshin thankful that he wasn't one of the leaders of the Ishin Shishi. While Shisho had taught him to have the patience of a wild creature and he could sit still for hours ignoring extremes in temperature, weather, or insects, listening to the same topic being discussed over and over with no resolution in sight was almost enough to drive him screaming from the room. He'd picked out the essentials of the information within the first fifteen minutes. The next several hours involved them being talked over, around, and through several times. Monitoring the ki in and near the room made him aware of caution, temper, boredom, and Katsura's careful impatience. He knew his leader well enough to know Katsura would never jeopardize the talks if he thought they were necessary, but wanted the conclusions arrived at more quickly so that they could move onto what actions needed to be planned.

Kenshin was the only one of Katsura's guards actually in the room with him. The others were discreetly posted around the building. When they finally emerged, Tanaka looked relieved.

"Shinsengumi have been busy tonight," he reported to Katsura in a low voice. "We've heard a lot of noise a couple streets over, and a couple of our fellows have stopped by with warnings."

"Then let us return quickly. I have wasted enough time here tonight."

Tanaka nodded and motioned Kenshin into the lead position. "Bamboo route," he said, and they started away moving fast enough to cover ground, but not so fast as to be particularly noticeable.

They had just moved into an alley when Kenshin picked up a spike of pleased malice ahead and above them. He motioned Tanaka to slow down as he scouted ahead, looking above as well as in front and to the sides, senses wide open. He didn't pick up that particular ki again, but he did pick up a group from the street at the other end of the alley, all arrogance and spoiling for a fight. He knew that attitude: Shinsengumi. As he started back, he heard shouts from the street and then a shadow started into the alley. It didn't run toward him far, though. Instead, it leaped onto the roof of a lean-to shed and then onto the roof of the building. Kenshin knew what would happen even as he started back toward his group. The Shinsengumi wouldn't see the shadow. What they would see, coming around the corner and into the alley, was Kenshin's shadowy figure running away from them. He was almost to Tanaka and the others when the defenders of Kyoto rounded the corner and fresh shouting broke out.

"Shinsengumi. Take him back via the Lotus route," Kenshin said, skidding to a halt and reversing direction. "I'll take out this lot."

"Right. Katsura-san, this way, please. Quickly." Tanaka lead the way back the way they'd come, and then ducked into an even narrower side alley. With only a glance at Kenshin, Katsura followed and the other two guards dropped in behind. The set jaw and narrowed yellow eyes of his favorite guard were burned into his memory. No one doubted that the Shinsengumi were in for a rough time.

"Halt, now! We are the sixth squad of the Shinsengumi, protectors of Kyoto!" the leader cried out.

"So what?" Kenshin challenged. He went into them like a whirlwind, taking advantage of the narrow alley that only allowed two or three of them to approach at once. No one got past him, although they put up a good fight. He didn't intend to beat them all, nor even kill them. Wounded men meant that some of the more able-bodied would stay behind to help them. When he was sure there was no way they could track down or catch up to Katsura's party, he abandoned the fight, using the momentum of the fight to launch himself up onto the roof and dashing off in a direction at right angles to the path his commander had been hustled down. Even if the Shinsengumi gave up on him and tried to track the others by going in the opposite direction he'd gone, they wouldn't find Katsura or the guards.

Some time later, he was slipping along the shadows of a back street, gradually working his way towards the inn. There was a faint lemon light just starting in the east and it was more than time to get off the street. He was hungry and tired, but still alert. Shisho had never allowed such things to get in the way of training, and he'd never been adverse to attacking Kenshin at odd times just to see if the boy was still mindful of his surroundings.

It was a whisper of sound that alerted him. From above! Instantly, he launched forward, angling for a nearby stone wall. He leaped towards it and used it to flip into the air, landing behind his confused attacker. His sword flashed out, decapitating the man. As with all the others, this one was in dark clothing with only his eyes showing. Kenshin nudged the severed head with his toe.

'This is getting old,' he thought. 'They may not be very bright, but they are certainly dedicated. It's time to put an end to this.'

He made it the rest of the way to the inn without incident and wolfed down breakfast before curling up against the wall near the window in his room to sleep, sword cradled against his shoulder. He woke at noon and ate lunch, and then changed into nondescript clothes and a conical hat, tying his hair up high on his head to hide its color. A ragged haori covered his katana; he left the wakizashi propped against the wall. He slipped from the inn and drifted through town, generally heading toward the Gion District but not hurrying. He stopped at booths in the market, stepped inside a store or two, and used every sense he possessed to survey the area around him at all times.

He walked boldly through the Gion District, like any other person on their mission of the day. To try to hide would only make him more obvious. With his senses open, he spotted several watchers, stationed in upper floor windows, on roofs, or lounging in doorways. None showed any interest in him, and their ki showed no change: watchful, perhaps a little bored, but no spikes to indicate interest or excitement. Kenshin paused for several minutes to drink from a well, sitting on the stone rim to ostensibly rest his feet. Sitting still, concentrating without seeming to, he picked up the ki of a couple more men who were better hidden and attempting to hide their ki. None of them displayed any interest in him, either. He ambled towards a shady wall, along which a couple other people were resting and settled a little distance away, tipping his hat so it didn't knock against the wall but not so far that he couldn't see under the brim, and pretended to nap through the hot early afternoon hours. The watchers changed a couple times while he sat, apparently under the theory that they would stay awake better if the shifts were short.

As the shadows began to grow long, he finally stirred, stretched and got up. There were public outhouses on the fringes of the District and he headed for one. It was good cover and a necessity by this time. When he left it, he continued on through the stews, skulking a bit this time, projecting through both ki and body language a kind of shifty belonging. He zigzagged a bit, covering ground and checking on sentries and gathering places. He passed through the courtyard where he and Okita had fought the yakuza, but at this hour no one was there. He could sense the presence of many people in the building on which the crime lord had appeared, and he had no doubt that it was the headquarters. A cursory scan gave him information on entries, connecting alleys, and sentinels, but to stay too long was to attract attention. He moved on, winding his way back to the inn to coax a late supper from Okami.

He spent the next week mixing assignments from Katsura and reconnaissance of the stews. He was attacked several more times with no more effect than making him and his companions even more watchful. In the stews, which never failed to make his shoulders twitch despite his watchfulness, he learned the rhythms of the yakuza headquarters: when and where the sentinels and guards were posted, when Nori made the rounds of his holdings, when reports were made to him. The crime lord was generally good at avoiding a pattern, but Kenshin, sensitive to finding patterns others missed, was able to tease one out. Truth be told, he was enjoying the challenge of this target. It reminded him of training with Hiko, and there could be no more unpredictable man than his master, although Saito of the Shinsengumi certainly had potential.

It was a night of a full moon when he decided to strike. Many waited until new moon so there would be less light to betray them, but Kenshin liked the full moon. The shadows were deeper and it took more time for the eyes to adjust from light to dark when searching them. It was also less expected. He smiled grimly to himself as he leapt to a rooftop a couple blocks away and worked his way in. He paused as a unit of Shinsengumi passed on a street below. They'd stepped up their patrols in Gion after Okita reported his attack, but Kenshin couldn't see who was leading this troop. It didn't matter. They didn't concern him on this job. It wasn't like the yakuza would be reporting a murder to them. The mental picture that thought inspired made his smile wider. He jumped the gap between the two buildings after they'd passed and continued to move in on his target.

Nori frowned as he contemplated the message in his hand, one off the top of a stack of them to his right. His…interests…were so diverse that a stack of messages from his various employees, informants, and hangers-on wasn't unusual by the end of every day. This one was letting him know that a certain linkage in the trade with foreign companies in Nagasaki had a potential for breaking down. It seemed he was getting business offers from the Bakufu and was contemplating the advantages of them. It seemed they would have to have a talk with Shimakawa-san. He made a note on the corner of the paper and set it aside, picking up the next message.

"Nori Yuudai, for crimes against the emperor and his people, I bring you Tenchuu."

The voice was quiet, pleasant, and he knew it. How the little bastard had gotten so close, he didn't know. He'd have bellies slit for it later, but now… His hands dropped to the katana at his left side, one grasping the saya and the other going for the handle as he stood and turned in one fluid movement. He was fast, he knew. He trained regularly in all manner of weaponry, striking from a variety of positions and angles. None of his men could beat him, and against one of them, it might have been enough. They wouldn't have leaped into the air, ducking to miss the ceiling, to strike from above. He felt the blow smash into the junction of neck and shoulder, driving down into his chest and crushing him into the tatami on the floor.

'Such a little man, to have such power,' he thought, as the darkness closed in on him, trying to draw a breath to shout for his guards. He couldn't even whimper. He could hear, just at the last, that quiet voice.

"You're obviously not as protected as you think."