title: Hanafubuki | Part 11
rating: pg-13
author: Mir
email: mir@despammed.com
website: http://tfme.net/tfme/

disclaimer: Rurouni Kenshin was created by Watsuki Nobuhiro,
published by Shueisha in "Jump," and produced by Sony
Entertainment, Media Blasers, ADV, etc. This story contains
spoilers for...I'm not quite sure what...up until the Kyoto Arc
and the OAV's, I think (plus corresponding manga volumes).
Many thanks to maigo-chan for her manga translations.

AN: It's certainly been an eternity since I've worked on this piece,
and after an extended amount of deliberation, I've decided to go with
the more immediate ending and then perhaps work on a sequel later.
It's about time I wrapped up this plot and tied up my loose ends. I'm
sorry for the delay. Life has been busy, okay?

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Another morning
Sunlight falling on amber
Tumbling from our minds.
--------------------------------------------------


*Part 11*


"Himura-san, I see you're up and about." His tone was calm,
civil, as though we were old friends gathering for a reunion over warm
cups of tea. "How fortunate it is that I returned early --" He
stepped forward into the room, casually reaching back to slide the door
closed behind him. "-- we might have missed each other entirely, and
wouldn't have done at all." I followed his movements warily, searching
for any indication that would warn me of an attack; he wore his swords
at his side.

"Don't be fooled. He feigns innocence, but he's had
everything planned since the moment he first attacked you. He predicts
events like you predict movement…." Sumire strode forward from my
touch to stand on his own before Junzou. "You've used and manipulated
me for your own twisted goals -- I release you from your contract.
Your word means nothing to me anymore." His tone, forceful at first,
faded as he spoke until his last words were barely more than a whisper.

And there was more to the exchange than the mere transfer of
words. Seeds of self-confidence and pride had once again taken root in
Sumire's soul where fear and emptiness had previously held control.
"In the memory of my father..." But I was worried that he might try
something rash. After all, he was still a boy and only armed with a
short dagger. "...I should kill you. Your actions do nothing but
dishonor him."

He charged forward before I could stop him. Blade in hand, he
threw himself recklessly at the hitokiri -- only to be ruthlessly
knocked aside. He crumbled to the floor as the dagger fell harmlessly
beside him. "Ungrateful brat. You wouldn't involve yourself if you
know what was good for you." Having thus dealt with the boy, Junzou
then turned toward me, and the wind, in response to his ki, ruffled
through his hair and clothes. Outside, the morning sun was gaining
strength in the sky, and early travelers began to pass up and down the
street. "I won't allow you to leave." He tightened his grip on his
long sword. "No one comes and goes here except myself."

He wanted me to fight him, wanted me to take up my sword not
in self-defense but to initiate an attack. "And Sumire?" I retorted,
not moving one step toward where the sakabatou rested against the wall.
There's more than one way to play every game.

"The brat can burn in Hell for all I care." He glared
menacingly at me as if annoyed that I'd try to put off the inevitable
by engaging him in dialogue. In fact, the thought hadn't even crossed
my mind. "It's a perfect place to continue your little reunion." He
was testing the air, testing my mood as any swordsman might against an
unknown opponent. Despite everything, he was still cautious.

"I think I'll decline the invitation." He had counted on my
being armed, had left the sakabatou in the room for this very purpose,
and although he gave no outward indication of agitation, it was written
clearly in his inaction. But I knew it wouldn't last; there's no
excitement in a game without a winner. "And I think I'll be going
now." I remained rooted in place, eyes never leaving his. "Sumire?"

On the floor, the boy gathered his legs beneath him, but as
he knelt with his hands spread beneath his bent head, his arms trembled
slightly, and I could almost hear the rapid beating of his heart in the
silent room. He wanted me to distract Junzou, to hold his attention
while he finally achieved his father's revenge… against the hitokiri.
It was ironic how quickly the definition of "villain" had changed in
his mind.

"Neither you nor the boy is leaving here alive." It was
clear that he didn't get out much, didn't socialize or even read much
for that matter, because his words were all the same, all clichéd
repetitions of the same obvious refrain. Perhaps he was a genius at
seeing into peoples' deepest fears. Perhaps he was even halfway decent
with his sword. But I didn't see how he'd managed to survive the
Bakumatsu, for when it came to thinking quickly on the spot, he sounded
about as intelligent as a bottom-feeding carp.

I had no plan in my mind, but I wanted to get Sumire beside
me, half to ensure his safety, half to keep him from doing anything
stupid. But before I could stop him, it was too late, and he was on
his feet again, lunging for the sakabatou across the room. He closed
his hands around the hilt as Junzou flew toward him, and the loud clang
of sheath and blade connecting rang through the air. They remained
frozen for a moment, two silhouettes in the morning light streaming
through the window, then the smaller figure pushed forward, and the
larger of the two was forced to step back.

Feet rooted to the floor, I was torn between interfering and
letting the events run their course. Was it right to deny Sumire his
chance for retribution? But would I be able to intervene before anyone
was hurt? As usually happens, the choice was made for me.

"I warned you once, you idiot." The hitokiri snapped his
blade forward, overpowering his opponent with pure strength alone, and
Sumire, as he sidestepped away from the long diagonal cut, fell
backwards, the sakabatou slipping from his grip as he rolled out of the
way. Junzou pivoted smoothly, clearly expecting to finish the boy off
with his next stroke, and before I could think about what I was doing I
was between them, sakabatou in my hands, hesitation forgotten.

The impact of the blow reverberated down the blade and tore
through my shoulder as I stood before the taller man, anger flaring.
What had I expected of the two men? That they would play nicely and
then go home for tea? I almost smiled at the thought. 'Perhaps I'm
growing senile in these days of peace. If Katsura saw me, he'd
probably laugh.' Inside me, a deeper feeling rose, one that had lain
dormant for many years, smoldering like a fire banked for the darkness
of night.

"No, I won't let you." With every breath, the walls pulsed
in time with my heartbeat, and even as I shoved him away from Sumire's
fallen form, he laughed, for he had maneuvered me exactly where he
wanted me in the first place.

"He's just a nuisance, Battousai. It's only you I'm
interested in," he hissed, shifting back toward the window as he spoke,
and his ki slammed into me like a tidal wave crashing onto shore.
Behind him, the sun was gradually creeping across the sky, and I was
forced to squint into the bright glare, half-blinded by the light. I
moved a moment before he struck, deflecting his sword and stepping to
the side. Step, pivot, attack. Somehow he brought his blade up to
meet mine in time, and we stared at each other in silence, the only
sound the lingering ringing of crashing metal in my ears. I pushed
diagonally against his stance to throw him off-balance, but my shoulder
complained in protect, and so warily I pulled away.

I could hear his taunts before they left his mouth, and I
ignored them as they washed over me like a waterfall over a cliff. The
room and its distractions faded into insignificance, and the coppery
scent of blood seeped up from the floor and permeated my senses.
"You'll let us pass," growled a voice, not quite my own even though the
sounds issued clearly from my lips. My hands, working on their own
accord, shoved the blade back into its sheath, and I paused,
battoujistsu stane, body angled halfway between my opponent and the
door.

"And why should I?" He was clearly enjoying the moment,
milking it for all it was worth. He stood waiting, wanting me to
attack him, and although my mind screamed in protest, my body was only
too happy to oblige. "Already tired of my hospitality already?"

And answering with my sword, I sprung forward, drawing the
blade as I closed the distance between us in less time than it takes a
man to exhale. The steel arched toward his neck as he smiled, ducking
to the side and raising his blade against mine. Even as the sakabatou
slid hard across his shoulder, he still grinned, not even wincing under
the blow. We both, in the same instant, turned and attacked, the only
evidence of our movements the grooves left in the soft tatami beneath
our feet.

"Stop! Both of you! You shouldn't do this." The voice cut
through the room with a suddenness that caught us both by surprise.
That boy. I'd forgotten he was still around. Why hadn't he run when
he had the chance? "You shouldn't spill each others' blood here."
There was an edge of panic to his voice – as if he'd unwittingly set a
course of events in motion and was terrified at where they were heading.

"Be quiet. You've no idea what you're talking about." I
don't know which of us spoke, but it hardly mattered. He stared back,
eyes suddenly dark and narrow, lips pressed together, and hands
clenching and unclenching at his sides. Junzou was breathing heavily
about two meters to my right, sword held ready before him. But
although his body struggled to keep pace, I could sense his mind
springing forward once again, ever-plotting how to think his way out of
situations. That was how he had survived, not by skill but by wit.

"There's no reason to take each others' lives here…." His
newfound confidence wavered, and his shoulders trembled slightly
beneath his gi. What right did he have to pretend to take the high and
righteous road? A minute ago he'd been all to ready to spill Junzou's
blood himself. What power did he wield in this odd midmorning dance?
But even as Junzou rushed forward, even as I twisted sideways between
boy and man, the words seeped into my mind like water into dry ground.

And in an instant, as our blades crashed together once more
and the ringing reverberated through my ears, in that instant,
everything came rushing back, and like waking up suddenly after a long
night's sleep, I shook myself back into reality. "He's right, you
know," I whispered, and with the soft utterance adrenaline drained
away, and the soft haze at the back of my mind pushed intently at my
thoughts. "There's no reason for us to stay here."

His approach seemed unnaturally slow as I resheathed the
sakabatou and paused, hand hovering just barely above the hilt. It was
the same stance as before, but at the same time it was different, and
my hand shook not from anger but from fatigue. There was no contest of
speed between us, or if there was, there was no question as to who the
winner would be. I heard him collapse onto the floor beside me, and
mentally I breathed a giant sigh of relief. Now all we had to do was
return home.

"You can't win, Battousai, no matter how hard you try." His
voice was a hoarse whisper, but it was still as firm and confident as
ever. What other tricks did he have up his sleeve? I pivoted sharply,
instantly reminded that one should never turn one's back on a fallen
opponent. "No matter what you do, you can't protect him." And with a
flick of his wrist, he tossed something at Sumire. It wasn't until it
rolled to a stop at his feet that I realized what it was.

"Run!" There wasn't time, I knew, and even as the words left
my mouth, the small bomb exploded in a shower of sparks and a cloud of
smoke. Squinting and coughing, I ran forward, ignoring the patches of
smoldering tatami around me. "Sumire?" There was a black hole of
about a meter in diameter in the floor, and the ground was littered
with jagged bits of wood. And by some miracle, as I peered downward
with a sinking heart, he responded.

"I'm down here. I'm okay…." I needed no further invitation.
With one last glare at Junzou, I pushed myself through the hole and
hoped with all my heart that I'd never have to see this place again.


*end of part 11*

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

So what are Kaoru and the others doing, you ask? Um, I was wondering
that myself... it's okay. We'll all find out together in the next part
(which I certainly hope to finish in a shorter amount of time than it
took to get this one out!). Winter fan fiction contest at TFME... Fun.

- Mir (12.11.02)
.