Disclaimer: I don't own Rurouni Kenshin plot or characters.

A/N: Spoiler alert for the OAV 'Trust and Betrayal'. This story takes place the summer following Tomoe's death. Kenshin is still in Katsura's employ, though no longer as an assassin, and the battle of Toba Fushimi is three years away.

Summer 1865

It was hot, humid, and still. Kenshin stayed in the shade of the maple tree, its green leaves motionless in the torpid air. The shade was welcome, but it was the shadows that kept Kenshin beneath the tree. That, and the vantage point. From his position under the tree he could see the front gate and one side wall of the spacious samurai dwelling where Katsura was staying.

The family was middle ranked samurai class, rich enough to afford to feed Katsura and his retinue without feeling the pinch of the expense, yet not so important as to excite attention. They were also old and dear friends of Katsura who'd grown up in Choshu han.

Kenshin preferred bodyguard duty to assassinations, but old habits died hard and patterns of behavior weren't easy to shake so he stuck to the shadows. Inside the house Katsura was attended by competent samurai. They were familiar and trusted comrades, and someone had to take outside duty so it fell to Kenshin. After the long winter months alone with Tomoe in Otsu, he found he preferred the solitude of his own thoughts to the tensions inside. When he closed his eyes sometimes the peacefulness of that time with her came flooding back.

Things were getting desperate in the war against the Bakufu. The shogun's army had guns. Choshu needed them as well if they were to prevail against the corrupt government that dominated Japan for so long. As a disgraced clan Choshu was forbidden by the Bakufu to buy weapons. Though Kenshin couldn't imagine fighting without his sword, he realized that the new era of peace and prosperity could only be attained if the Choshu rebels were as well armed as the Bakufu army. He'd witnessed enough heated exchanges between Katsura and his fellow Choshu rebels to see the logic of it.

He let his eyes drift over the rooftops to the fields beyond where rice fields lay in cool green blanket-like patches below the verdant hills. This was what he fought for, why he'd joined Katsura's rebels in the first place, to protect the poor. They deserved to live in freedom to work their fields without injustice or fear.

"Himura."

Ito Hirobumi was standing in the doorway of the gate. He'd been tasked with indoor guard duty that day. He glanced up and down the dirt path in front of the gate searching for Kenshin. Ito was a thin man with sunken cheeks and the beginning of wrinkles by his eyes. His specialty was the short sword, so he was a logical choice for an indoor guard.

"I'm here."

Ito's eyes brightened in recognition as Kenshin stepped out from behind the tree.

"Katsura wants to see you."

Nodding briefly, Kenshin followed the older man through the gate to the engawa of the house. A maidservant bowed deeply as she came around the corner of the porch with her arms filled with laundry.

Slipping off his sandals, Kenshin entered the house, watching the fabric of Ito's kimono pull slightly across his back as he strode through the cool darkness of the interior hall of the wood and plaster dwelling. There was a tense set to his shoulders and he held himself with a suppressed excitement that rolled off him in waves.

A messenger came and left earlier that day. Kenshin supposed that whatever it was Katsura needed to see him about had to do with that. It wouldn't be an assassination. The Ishin Shishi movement found another hitokiri to take on Kenshin's old duties. He was a bodyguard now, nothing more.

Ito pulled back the shoji screen and stepped into the room where Katsura was staying. He waited for Kenshin to enter as well then slid the screen door back in place and went to his knees, bowing formally before the small group of men seated in the center of the room. Katsura sat in the forefront, a small writing desk by his knees. On it were a brush, an inkstone, water, some paper, and a dish with ashes. The faint acrid smell of smoke lingered in the room. Katsura often burned messages after receiving them. He had an amazing memory and it was safer to commit a letter to memory than it was to leave it lying around.

Removing his sword from his obi belt, Kenshin set it carefully on the floor by his side then bowed. When he raised his head he met Katsura's intense stare. He was struck again by the charisma and intelligence between the leader's brown eyes.

"Kenshin. I need you to accompany Inoue and Ito to Nagasaki to buy guns."

Kenshin nodded. Sometimes Katsura sent him to guard other people for short term missions. The order wasn't surprising. The next words out of Katsura's mouth were.

"You are to go to Satsuma's mansion in Nagasaki. There you will receive Satsuman names, aliases."

Satsuma and Choshu were enemies. A year earlier the two hans clashed over who would have access to the emperor, the man upon whom the Ishin Shishi movement pinned their hopes. The emperor was to replace the corrupt Bakufu, and the han who had the ear of the emperor would be the one with the most power in the new Japan. Satsuma had blocked Choshu's access to the emperor, much to their fury. So why was Kenshin being sent to Satsuma's headquarters?

Katsura saw Kenshin's confusion and smiled with a hint of tiredness. "We can not buy rifles openly in Nagasaki, but Satsuma can. So you three will become Satsuman. Ito and Inoue will pose as samurai and you'll be their page."

It made sense. Inoue and Ito wore their hair in classic samurai fashion with a shaved strip across the top and their ponytails folded over. Kenshin simply pulled his hair off his face in an informal ponytail. He was also younger, and used to being underestimated. That quality had served him well as an assassin.

One of the men behind Katsura, one of the few who knew Kenshin's former profession, grunted in surprise. His eyes went from Katsura to Kenshin wonderingly. Katsura waited, head tilted slightly back, but when the man behind him didn't speak he continued.

"It is of the utmost importance that the mission remain secret. The Bakufu are watching Nagasaki. Merchant warehouses are kept under surveillance. Bakufu spies are everywhere. Glover will be expecting you. You know his house?"

Kenshin nodded. He'd seen the foreign arms merchant's house before. It was built high up on a bluff overlooking the city. It was also the only western style house in Nagasaki, which made it hard to miss.

"You leave tomorrow."

"Yes," Kenshin agreed, ducking his head in another small bow.

It was a dismissal, and his fingertips were just brushing the sheath of his katana to retrieve it when one of Katsura's men, a heavyset samurai, spoke.

"How do we know it isn't a trap? Why must we trust those Satsuma scum?"

Katsura gave a sharp sigh and shifted on the tatami mats to face the man.

"They need rice. We need guns. They are willing to make an exchange that will benefit us both. Is that so hard to believe?"

The other man's lips thinned. "You've been listening to Sakamoto Ryoma again."

"And why not?" asked Katsura sharply. "He makes sense. Neither Choshu nor Satsuma can take on the Bakufu alone."

"You're not proposing an alliance with them?" The other burst out incredulously.

Katsura shook his head slowly. "Not a formal one. Not now. Perhaps not ever, but we need guns and unless you can come up with another idea for getting them, this is our only option."

The man stared back at Katsura for a moment, holding his gaze defiantly, then angrily turned his head to stare at the floor.

"I've met with Godai Tomoatsu," Katsura went on in a gentler voice. "Though he's Satsuman, I know he will not betray us. He's spoken to the men at their Nagasaki headquarters. They will help us. This is a war, old friend. We must adapt if we are to win it."

The other man huffed in defeat, met Katsura's eyes, and nodded brusquely.

Kenshin found himself releasing a breath he hadn't known he was holding. The other men in the room relaxed as well.

Turning his back now that the confrontation was over, Katsura directed his attention to the pair by the doorway.

"Kenshin. Ito. Get some rest. Inoue will join you here tomorrow morning for the journey to Nagasaki. If you have any questions, ask him."

Closing his fingertips on the cool sheath, Kenshin rose and followed Ito out of the room.

o-o-o

The next morning Kenshin and Ito met Inoue on the engawa. They left a little after dawn, preferring to travel in the relative coolness of the morning. All three wore conical straw hats, protection against the sun's glare later in the day. It wasn't that far to Nagasaki, Choshu's port city, but they'd still be walking when the noonday sun was at its strongest.

The older men walked on ahead, talking quietly. Their sandals kicked up small puffs of dust. It hadn't rained in days though the air was heavy with moisture. Kenshin followed a few steps behind, in keeping with his role as a lowly page, a retainer to the samurai. He looked younger than his sixteen years and understood why Katsura chose the role of a page for him. Neither Inoue nor Ito knew that he'd been Katsura's shadow assassin. They'd stayed in Choshu while Katsura traveled to Kyoto or simply sent black edged messages to let him know who to kill.

As he watched the two men walking in front of him, he was glad that they knew him only as Katsura's bodyguard. He was glad too to be far away from Kyoto and the whispers about a red haired demon who stalked the streets at night. Kyoto held too many reminders of Tomoe. Then again, everything reminded him of her. As they walked past the rice fields he thought again of their small garden in Otsu, the feel of the soil between his fingers, and the simple joy of watching things grow.

Fields gave way to clusters of peasant houses, then the orderly rows of town homes as thatched roofs became tile and pedestrians thronged the streets. The Satsuma mansion lay behind a wood and plaster wall in the center of one of the town's quieter areas. It was a popular place for han headquarters, and Satsuma wasn't the only han with a mansion in that part of town. The gate attendant was expecting them, and let them in quickly.

Inside was a courtyard with a few trees pushing up through the gravel that blanketed the earth below. They walked across smooth paving stones to the front of the residence, pausing at the engawa to take off their sandals.

"Nice," Inoue muttered approvingly as he straightened to look up at the two-storied mansion's imposing front door. The wood was carved and polished, metal studs interspersed to give it an air of strength and prosperity.

"Surprising," Ito countered. "Considering its Satsuman."

"Must've bought it from a really rich Nagasaki family down on their luck, eh?" Inoue whispered back, implying that Satsuma was incapable of building anything so grand.

Kenshin cleared his throat warningly. A servant was passing by on the other side of the door. He'd already spotted two men talking quietly across the courtyard watching them. They were too far away to overhear Inoue and Ito, but their demeanor and stance proclaimed their warrior status. It was a good thing too, for they'd likely take offense at Inoue's slighting words. Inside the house he could hear other footsteps coming their way. They were louder and more confident than the servant's nervous scuttle.

The gate attendant must have sent someone into the house to announce their arrival already. There'd been no movement in the windows of the upper storey when they walked across the courtyard, so the rooms above were probably for sleeping and thus vacant during the day.

The door swung open, and a man Kenshin recognized as Godai Tomoatsu stood with a well muscled samurai by his side.

"Welcome."

Godai's eyes swept across their three faces, pausing a little at Kenshin's as he remembered him. Kenshin had accompanied Katsura to an evening meeting with Godai, though he'd been outside for most of it patrolling the area around the small teahouse. The fact that Godai recognized Kenshin without seeing his hair spoke well of the man's powers of observation.

Since they were about to go inside, Kenshin pulled at his chin strap and slipped his hat off as Inoue and Ito exchanged polite greetings with Godai. The samurai standing beside Godai remained impassive, but his eyes stayed on Kenshin measuringly. Kenshin wasn't a fool. He knew his hair color was uncommon and invited questions about his ancestry, but the samurai didn't appear to be intrigued by it. Carefully masking his warrior's ki, the aura that comes from years of channeling all one's energies into martial arts, Kenshin held his hat by the rim and stared back without expression.

With a last look, the samurai turned to follow Godai, who led the way inside. Godai had a small but energetic build. When he came to the stairs he bustled up them quickly then waited at the top for the others to catch up. Leading them down a wood paneled floor, he paused by a shoji screen door and opened it.

"This is your room. The bath house is down the stairs and to the back. Dinner is in an hour. We eat early." Godai finished his speech and stepped back to let them enter.

Kenshin followed the others into the room, aware of the samurai's stare on his back, and closed the screen without looking behind him.

Inoue pulled his sword out of his obi, flopped gracelessly on the floor and began to rub his feet. "Dinner in an hour? What are they, hicks? I just hope they don't serve sweet potatoes," he said, making a face.

Pulling his own sword out of his obi and placing it carefully in the sword rack, Kenshin sank to the tatami mats as well. He'd eaten sweet potatoes before. They were a specialty of Satsuma, a han known for its agriculture.

Ito walked over to the window and slid open the wooden shutters to look outside.

"The bath house doesn't look half bad. It's a big one."

Inoue brightened. "Then let's go."

He clambered to his feet and belatedly set his sword on the wooden sword rack by the door. Ito stared disapprovingly.

"Aren't you going to take your sword with you?"

"No." Inoue shrugged. "Godai is a businessman. He's not going to do anything that would jeopardize future trade with Choshu. We're safe enough here."

Crossing his arms, Ito's mouth pulled downwards. "You sound like a businessman yourself," he said, making a moue of disgust.

"What's wrong with business?"

"We're Samurai, not merchants."

Inoue put his hand on Ito's shoulder condescendingly. "Katsura says we're fighting for a new Japan, one where people are free to do as they please. If a samurai wants to make a little money like a merchant does, why not?"

Shrugging off Inoue's hand, Ito stalked over to the shoji screen. "I'm going to the bath house with my sword."

He yanked the screen open and paused in the doorway.

"Kenshin, are you coming?"

Kenshin shook his head. The last place he wanted to be was with two out of sorts, cranky samurai.

"I'll go after dinner."

"Suit yourself," Inoue said as he walked past.

Kenshin leaned his back against the wall by the sword rack and closed his eyes. It was going to be a long night.

o-o-o

At dinner Godai sat next to Inoue and Ito.

The room was filled with Satsuman warriors, diplomats, and clerks, all seated behind two long rows of dinner trays set in two parallel lines across the floor. Kenshin sat on Ito's left, at the end of one of the row of dinner trays. Directly across from him was the same samurai who'd been with Godai at the door. A smaller boy sat next to him. Kenshin learned that the samurai's name was Yoshida. The smaller boy was his younger brother, Yoshi. He could see the family resemblance in their faces, though their physiques were nothing alike. Yoshida was solid, stocky. Yoshi was much thinner and where his older brother had the mannerisms and self-confidence of a warrior, Yoshi was subdued in the presence of his Satsuman elders.

He also kept glancing at Kenshin's hair.

Kenshin sighed inwardly. It was the same everywhere he went. It was why he usually wore a straw hat out of doors.

After dinner Godai led them to a small room overlooking a side garden. The light was beginning to go and the tiny pond surrounded by white and purple flowers was bathed in the golden glow of the fading sun.

Yoshida and Yoshi entered the room last and sat with the others on the tatami mats.

"Inoue, Ito."

Both straightened to attention at Godai's voice.

"Katsura asked that I brief you. You will be called Juroku and Nanshu. Kenshin will be called Kichibei. Commit those names to memory and call each other by them. I have forged travel papers in those names which prove you came from Satsuma."

Taking the folded papers out from under his kimono lapel, Godai handed them to Ito.

"If you are stopped and questioned, you have only to produce these. Let Yoshida and I do the talking."

Ito bristled. Seeing it, Godai grinned wryly. "Trying to fake a Satsuman accent is riskier than not talking at all."

Inoue grinned.

"As you say, Godai," he responded in a thick Satsuman accent, so overdone as to be comical. It reminded Kenshin uncomfortably of Iizuka's disrespectful attitude, and he looked at Godai to see how he'd react.

Godai's smile tightened, but he let the foolishness pass.

"We leave at midnight. I've done business with Glover before. Yoshida comes with me at times. If anyone asks, you're visiting Nagasaki and wanted to meet a foreigner so I brought you along. Since Kenshin is posing as a page for one of you, Yoshida's brother Yoshi will come along as the other page."

Kenshin looked over at the boy sitting quietly next to his larger brother. There was no surprise on his face, just earnest determination. Godai's arrangements had been made in advance obviously.

"That only leaves one question," Inoue said.

"What is it?" Godai asked.

"What will we do until midnight to pass the time?"

"There's a sparring match planned," Yoshida broke in before Godai could respond. "You're welcome to watch."

Reluctantly, Godai seconded the invitation.

"We'd be honored," Ito accepted quickly.

"Satsuma's reputation for martial arts is well known in Choshu." Inoue's voice held a faintly mocking tone, reminding all of them of the clash between the two hans the previous year.

Yoshida leaned forward a bit. "Perhaps one of you would like to show us Choshu's strength?"

Ito's eyes narrowed. "We have a mission…"

"What do you have in mind?" Inoue interrupted.

"Gentlemen, please…" Godai began, putting his hands up placatingly, his voice distressed at the turn the conversation had taken.

"I challenge him," Yoshida's arm shot out to point at Kenshin, "to a match."

Inoue's eyes widened in surprise and an angry sneer twisted his lips as Yoshi and Ito gasped in surprise. Godai merely sat back and gave Yoshida a considering look.

"I decline," Kenshin said.

He didn't know why Yoshida singled him out. He'd done nothing to excite the man's hatred. Yoshida had a strong warrior's ki. He had no need to thrash the weakest looking of the three Choshu visitors to enhance his reputation. It made better sense to challenge Inoue or Ito, the two obvious samurai.

The boy, Yoshi, shot him a sympathetic look. Yoshida kept his eyes locked on Inoue, as though he'd issued the challenge to him.

"We accept," Inoue said. Finishing his staring contest with Yoshida, he turned to Kenshin.

"It would be rude to decline an invitation by our hosts," he told him.

Inoue was in charge of the mission. Katsura placed him in charge of it, and Kenshin had sworn to obey Katsura's wishes. He would never forget his kindness after Tomoe's death. He owed the man the use of his fighting skills until the Bakufu were no longer a threat to the people. Reluctantly, Kenshin nodded. He hadn't sparred since his training with Hiko, preferring to practice his kata, his battle moves, alone before dawn.

He found himself following the others to the spacious training room near the back of the building.

"It's alright, Kenshin," whispered Ito encouragingly as he walked next to him. "If you're injured, we can go on without you."

Opening his mouth to reply, Kenshin closed it when he realized there was no easy way to explain to Ito that he wasn't frightened of being hurt or of not being able to finish the mission. He was too busy wondering how to avoid killing the large samurai he was supposed to fight. In his sparring matches with Hiko there was no question of harming his sensei because Hiko really was that much better than he. Hiko insisted on using steel, not wooden bokken, and he taught Kenshin killing moves. Hiko knew each move better than Kenshin so he could and did counter them. Not always with ease, but always with the compact grace so at odds with his size and bulk.

Yoshida wasn't Hiko. His warrior ki was strong, but not out of the ordinary.

The sparring matches had already begun when they arrived at the training room. Satsuman samurai watched from the spectator area lining the walls as two sets of opponents laid into each other with wooden staves.

"Bokken," Kenshin whispered in relief. He'd been half afraid that Yoshida would insist on katana.

"Huh?" The boy, Yoshi, heard him as they passed through the doorway together. He looked at him curiously as the word registered. "Oh yes, sparring is done with bokken."

Kenshin nodded, embarrassed as Yoshi gave him a commiserating look as he walked over to where Godai and his brother were talking to a grizzled old samurai standing by the wall.

"Just do your best, Himura." Inoue admonished him.

The two matches ended and soon Kenshin was standing on the tatami mats, an unfamiliar wooden practice bokken in hand. He'd seen sparring matches before and knew how they worked. Moving his body into a basic stance, he waited for the old samurai to give the signal to start the match.

Yoshida held his bokken aloft, both hands gripping the wood by his ear so the bokken was vertical. It was an unusual stance. When the signal came, Yoshida attacked first, with a running downward slash.

Bringing his own bokken up, Kenshin parried and moved around to the side as their practice swords connected and Yoshida's slid off his. Turning quickly, he slashed at Yoshida's back, and only a quick duck as the older man sensed the movement saved him from a concussion.

They faced each other again and again. Yoshida attacking, Kenshin parrying. He ignored the obvious openings Yoshida left for him. Yoshida was testing him while Kenshin was trying desperately to tone down his own attacks, rejecting moves that were instinctive because even with a bokken they could prove fatal. The head, the neck, even the chest were off limits because a crushed sternum could very well puncture the heart beating beneath it.

Warrior's determination shone in Yoshida's eyes. His fighting style was solid, and he executed the moves with fierceness. It wasn't enough. Finally Kenshin saw an opening with a consequence he could live with.

Yoshida was advancing, trying to herd Kenshin toward the corner of the room to force him into an attack. Kenshin retreated, and when the man thrust at him he pushed off the wall, the bottoms of his feet using it as a springboard to somersault up and over Yoshida.

Pivoting as he landed behind the man, Kenshin brought his bokken down on Yoshida's shoulder. If it had been steel, it would've cleaved the man in half diagonally. As it was, there was a crunch of bone and Yoshida dropped to the floor, grunting in agony.

Kenshin barely heard the grizzled old samurai call the end to the match as he stared in dismay. He hadn't meant to break the man's collarbone. Clutching his shoulder, Yoshida heaved himself back to a sitting position.

"Good match," he grunted, then passed out.

Kenshin stepped back as Yoshida's comrades swarmed around him. He lifted his eyes to see Yoshi staring at him from across the room, face slack in shock. Then Yoshida was being lifted on a makeshift stretcher, and Yoshi turned to trail after the crowd carrying his brother out of the room.

There was a little shock in Ito's eyes as he congratulated Kenshin on his win and took the bokken from his hand to replace it in the rack by the door. Inoue, on the other hand, was ecstatic.

"That's showing them, Kenshin!"

Sickened by the glee in the man's eyes, Kenshin grabbed his sword from off the rack and placed it quickly in his obi.

"I'm going to take a bath," he told the two men.

"Go ahead, you earned it," said Inoue.

"Just be ready to go by midnight," Ito reminded him.

Kenshin soaked in the bath for as long as he could, listening to the faint sounds of further sparring matches coming from outside the bath house window. Satsuma had a reputation for belligerence. They were known as the uncouth country cousins of Japan, prone to starting fights and causing problems. Kenshin saw none of that in the men in the training room. To him they were just warriors honing their skills. Even Yoshida, who'd unaccountably fixated on him, showed no sign of disrespect or overt annoyance when Kenshin refused to attack until the last few moments of the match. They were all just fighting for what they believed in.

He waited until his skin was wrinkled before getting out of the soaking tub, and took his time combing out and towel drying his hair as the shoji screen in the antechamber opened and he heard the Satsumans readying themselves for the bath.

When he exited the bath chamber and made his way through the dressing and washing area, the conversation stopped for a second. When Kenshin kept his head down and continued trudging towards the shelf where he'd left his clothes, it resumed, the low hum of words rising around him.

Sitting on a stool in front of the clothing shelf was Yoshi. He stood when he saw Kenshin.

"I brought you a spare haori coat," he said, pointing to the bundle of cloth next to Kenshin's clothes on the shelf. "Godai thought it'd look better if we matched."

"Thank you."

Yoshi turned his back politely as Kenshin began dressing.

"It's nothing, really. I brought two when I came here to be with my brother after dad died. Mom insisted I take both in case it got cold. It hasn't been cold much though so I don't really need two."

Kenshin made a noncommittal noise and looped his hakama ties in back, bringing the ends round the front to be tied.

"That was quite a match you had with my brother."

Fingers stilling momentarily on the hakama strings, Kenshin struggled for words.

"I've never seen anyone defeat him before, of course I've only been here four months," Yoshi went on when Kenshin didn't answer. "He defeats me every time we spar together," he ended ruefully.

"You're not angry?" Kenshin asked, pulling the spare haori coat off the shelf. He and Yoshi were much the same size. It would fit well.

Yoshi turned around. "Angry? Why would I be angry?"

"Your brother…"

Yoshi laughed. "I've never seen big brother so happy in all the time I've been here. The only one who can come close to giving him a challenge is Zenbei. He's the one who was calling the match."

Crossing his arms, Kenshin held the hoari coat against his chest. "Why me?" he asked.

"Why you what?" Yoshi tilted his head and frowned slightly.

"Why did he challenge me?"

The frown smoothed out as Yoshi answered. "Oh, that. Big brother told me that he heard Katsura was sending one of his best fighters to go meet Glover. He said he could read Ito and Inoue's ki the moment he saw them, but he couldn't read yours. That's why he chose you."

Yoshi smiled. "Yoshida won't be able to come with us tonight, so it's just you, me, Inoue, Ito, and Godai. I'm to tell you to meet us at the front gate at midnight. See you then!"

Bowing quickly, Yoshi excused himself and left, dodging another group of samurai entering the bathhouse. Catching their curious looks, Kenshin exited as well and found a vacant section of the engawa where he could lean against a support post and look up at the stars.

He wondered what Tomoe would have made of his exchange with Yoshi. It was nearly half a year since she died, and he still found himself wishing for her presence, catching himself thinking of things to share with her over dinner at the end of the day. They were both quiet, private people, so conversations were things to be treasured because neither of them spoke just to fill silences.

Closing his eyes, he concentrated on memories of her. The one thing he feared more than death itself was forgetting her, and the promise he'd made to her. The war against the Bakufu would end one way or another. All things ended, but what he'd done to Tomoe would remain in his memory forever. He knew he'd never forget the sight of her blood spilling across the snow as she died in his arms. That image was seared to his soul.

It was the good memories he feared losing.

Her gentle smile, so rare and fleeting, filled his mind. She'd smiled at him that way when he returned from town to their hut in Otsu, looking up from her weeding. Her hands were caked with dirt and there was a smudge of it on her cheek, right by where she'd tied her kerchief over her hair. She'd never looked more beautiful to him than at that moment because the smile was spontaneous and it was directed at him. He opened his eyes and watched the stars, their pinpoints of light shining down from an unforgiving sky, and grieved for her.

o-o-o

Godai Tomoatsu led the way through the streets of Nagasaki to the Glover mansion. There was little talk, as each was intent on getting to their destination as quickly and quietly as possible. Despite the lateness of the hour, the pleasure district was crowded and noisy. They skirted it as much as possible and began the climb up the hill to Glover's house.

Kenshin knew where the house was located, but he'd never visited it before. It stood at the edge of the bluff. A hedge separated the garden from the steep drop below. As they walked over the rectangular paving stones to the front entrance, his eyes took in the foreign aspects of the house. There was a porch, as was common to all well to do Japanese homes, but white latticework adorned the top of each support pillar in half circles. It was as though massive spiders had spun identically shaped webbing between each of the pillars. There were small benches set against the walls. It seemed westerners preferred to sit on something other than the planks of the engawa while enjoying a summer's evening. The windows were odd too. They had shutters on either side and didn't slide open like a shoji screen.

The group stopped on the foreign seeming porch and knocked on the front door. A servant answered, holding a candle. Godai spoke to him quietly then he, Inoue, and Ito entered.

"Stay here," he told Kenshin and Yoshi.

Kenshin nodded. Guard duty was something he understood. Satisfied, Godai went inside.

"Go left. I'll take right," Kenshin told Yoshi.

"Um, OK."

Yoshi sounded startled, and Kenshin sighed inwardly. Though he wore a sword, the boy was younger than Kenshin and unused to fighting. He doubted Yoshi was many months away from the ceremony that marked a boy's change from childhood to adult.

"Just look out for anyone trying to get near the house, and if you see anything, come and get me."

"OK!" The boy strode off through the garden.

Concentrating hard, Kenshin let his senses scan the property, but found no trace of warrior ki apart from Inoue and Ito's inside. It was just as well. The only way Yoshi would find an intruder was if he tripped over him.

An hour went by. Kenshin made a complete circuit around the house a few times, passing the oblivious Yoshi with the ease of one trained by Hiko Seijuro in the art of blending in. The large pine tree that cast a massive shadow helped as well.

At one point he heard loud voices and glanced into a window. A foreigner, an older man in a jacket and tie was speaking intensely, one hand on a tall table. The others, Inoue, Ito, and Godai, were seated in contraptions called 'chairs' instead of on the floor. Kenshin had seen chairs before, but didn't see the point in them. When seated on tatami matting, his sword was always in easy reach, even if custom dictated that he put it on his right side on the floor in deference to the ranking person in the room. In a chair there was no way to reach a sword quickly, unless one set it on the table, and he doubted that was permissible even in a western household. The voices calmed and Glover began nodding.

Reassured, Kenshin moved on.

It wasn't long after that when Godai appeared at the front door.

A low whistle brought Yoshi running. He made it to the porch the same time as Kenshin.

"We did it," Inoue whispered triumphantly. "All Katsura wanted and more. Over 7,000 Minie rifles." He smiled at Kenshin as he passed by, Ito following closely behind.

Glover came to stand in the doorway. He wished them all a polite goodnight in oddly accented Japanese, then closed the door gently, as if unwilling to make any more noise than necessary. Kenshin respected his politeness and carefulness. Quietly they walked past the towering pine which dominated Glover's garden, and made their way in silence down the hill.

They were almost back to the Satsuma mansion when it happened.

The pleasure district was still awash with music and the raucous laughter of the very drunk. Paper lanterns spilled circles of light on the roadways, blatant in their invitation to enter and join the revelry. A few merchant stalls selling food or sake were still open. Rounding the corner of a sake stall situated at a crossroads, they ran into a party of Bakufu officials headed home after a night of debauchery.

They would've been fine, if Yoshi hadn't stumbled. He tripped over a stack of sake jugs. They crashed and splattered, the pungent liquid splashing the hakama clad legs of one of the Bakufu party.

"Hey!" Bleary eyed, the official glared down at Yoshi, sprawled gracelessly in the street. "What do you think you're doing?"

Yoshi stared back, wide-eyed on his hands and knee, sprawled over the fallen sake jugs.

The sake vendor hung back behind his stall, fearful of the officials. Tensions began to rise. Kenshin felt Inoue and Ito's ki begin to boil. Their hands dropped to the hilts of their swords. Kenshin's did too, even as he realized that a fight with the Bakufu officials would ruin everything. He'd have to kill them. When their bodies were found there'd be an investigation, an investigation that could lead right back to the Satsuma headquarters. Friendly though Godai might be, his first allegiance would be to his han.

"Ha, ha, ha!"

Yoshi's hoarse laugh startled Kenshin. It was raucous, overloud in the tense air surrounding the group. The Bakufu official backed up slightly, treading on one of his comrade's feet. They'd begun to cluster around the fallen boy menacingly. It would only be a second before they noticed Inoue and Ito's instinctive battle stances.

"I'm gettin' more sake." Yoshi slurred his words and looked cross-eyed at the official. He picked up the shattered bottom half of a sake jug and held it out. "Want some? There's plenny for everybody!"

He gestured with the broken jug and let it slip out of his hand. It fell with an audible crack on the ground, sake spilling in the street.

"Whoopsie!"

Godai swooped forward and yanked the boy to his feet, muttering apologies and pardons all the while.

The Bakufu official snorted in disgust and swept by. His friends followed him, talking loudly about the ill manners of Satsuma han.

And just like that it was over. Godai dropped his hand from Yoshi's arm as they all stared at each other, not quite ready to believe they'd escaped that easily.

"Let's go," Godai said, and set off quickly down the road.

They followed without speaking and made it to the Satsuman headquarters without further incident. The gate attendant let them in, and they clustered in the entryway of the mansion. Someone had left a few candles burning behind paper screens, the light a way of welcoming them back.

"I don't know about the rest of you, but I need a drink." Godai's voice shook a little. "I'm going to go wake a servant."

"I'm with you," Inoue said smoothly. "There's nothing like a drink to calm your nerves."

Kenshin noticed that his voice wasn't shaken at all.

"I'll go too." Ito wasn't about to be left out, and Kenshin had the sense it was as much to keep an eye on Inoue as it was to slake his thirst.

"Himura?"

"No, thank you." He didn't like the taste of sake. There was a time in his life when the taste reminded him too much of blood.

"Yoshi?"

"No." Yoshi's voice was subdued. He'd stepped back into the shadows, away from the light. "I need to change clothes."

"Right, follow me then," Godai ordered tersely to the Choshu men and strode off, leaving Kenshin and Yoshi standing alone by the front door.

"Does it hurt much?"

Startled by the question, coming as it did out of the shadows where Yoshi hid from the candle's glare, Kenshin turned to look at him. He had excellent night vision and could see the misery on the other boy's face.

"Does what hurt much?"

"Dying, by the sword." Yoshi's voice grew frantic. "You're a true warrior, Yoshida said so. You must've seen people die by the sword. Does it hurt much?"

"It depends on the method," Kenshin said slowly.

"Well, you know the best method I'm sure. Will you help me?"

"Help you do what?"

"Commit seppuku," Yoshi said dully. "I've disgraced my family and jeopardized the mission."

Kenshin let the silence between them drag on. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. Was Yoshi actually asking him to perform the duties of a second? To lop his head off after Yoshi had plunged his dagger into his own belly?

"Godai can't even stand to be near me, and…" Yoshi continued miserably, stopping only when Kenshin reached out and yanked him into the candlelight.

"Do you value your life so little?" he snarled at the kid in disbelief. "Godai was scared. We all were. He just wanted to get back here."

"Yeah, but he didn't wet himself."

Glancing down, Kenshin realized that not all the stains on Yoshi's clothing were sake.

Oh.

Releasing his grip on Yoshi's kimono lapel, he crossed his arms over the borrowed haori coat.

"You're not the only one who's done that," he told Yoshi.

"You…?" the kid asked wonderingly.

Kenshin nodded. Yoshi didn't have to know that the last time had been when he was a child and wet the bed after having nightmares of the massacre he witnessed before Hiko rescued him.

"Yoshi, you saved us all."

Hope flared in the boys eye's then died. "You're just saying that so I won't commit seppuku. It's OK you know, I know I'm useless. Why do you think Yoshida sent for me after dad died? It's because he doesn't trust me to look out for myself. He wanted me here to keep an eye on me because he knows I'm hopeless with a sword."

"If we had relied on our swords back there, it would have ruined everything," Kenshin said flatly. "You saved the mission, not us."

"But I didn't do anything but cause problems," he protested.

Kenshin shook his head slowly in denial then decided to change tactics.

"How did you come up with the idea of making them think you were drunk?"

"Oh." Yoshi blinked. "I just remembered something I read from Sun Tzu's 'The Art of War'. Let's see, it goes something like this," He closed his eyes in concentration as he recited the passage.

"'To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence. Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting.' He also says, 'He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.' I don't think big brother would agree with Sun Tzu though," he opened his eyes and ended sadly. "I think he would want me to commit seppuku. He's very big on samurai honor."

"There is no honor in death," Kenshin told Yoshi.

The faces of all the men he'd killed rose up in his memories. He remembered Akira, Tomoe's fiancée, reaching out for something only he could see, still reaching as Kenshin's sword took the last bit of life out of him. At that time Kenshin hadn't cared, had called the man's body 'garbage'. He hadn't realized that every life he took caused untold suffering for those left behind.

"Honor comes in living your life the way it should be lived," he told the boy slowly.

Yoshi wasn't convinced, but he was listening.

Kenshin wasn't used to fighting with words, but he was very aware that he was fighting for Yoshi's life, fighting against a samurai upbringing that took life so lightly that it compared dying to the falling of a cherry blossom.

"Katsura of Choshu, Sakamoto Ryoma of Tosa, and yes, even your own han of Satsuma are trying to change the way things are right now. We all want a better Japan, a Japan where death is not the answer." Cursing inwardly, Kenshin tried and failed to remember the exact words he'd heard Sakamoto Ryoma say to Katsura, words that had stirred his soul.

"Look," Kenshin grabbed Yoshi by the shoulders, much the way Hiko used to do to him when he leaned in to make an important point, like the reason why playing with his sake jug was a very bad thing to do.

"If we win, we'll need people like you, people who can find solutions that don't involve killing. Japan needs you, Yoshi. To end your life now would be selfish."

"Selfish?" Yoshi's voice quavered.

"Yes, very selfish."

The boy dropped his gaze, eyeballs fluttering back and forth under his lowered lids, and Kenshin realized he was thinking fiercely.

"OK," Yoshi said, opening his eyes wide to stare back at Kenshin. "I'll live. For Japan."

Kenshin nodded and dropped his hands from Yoshi's shoulders.

The kid straightened his spine. "And the first thing I'm going to do is get out of these wet clothes." Nodding decisively, he pivoted and marched down the hall towards the bathhouse.

Left alone in the foyer, Kenshin watched him go. One life saved. It wasn't anywhere near enough to begin to counterbalance the lives he'd taken, but it was a start.

Yoshi's words came back to him. 'He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.'

Kenshin had no time for books. This was war, and it had to be fought without distraction. Tomoe, his best and greatest distraction, had loved books and writing. For a moment he saw her again in his mind's eye, sitting at her writing table, calligraphy brush poised over her diary, her face serene as she contemplated the brush strokes on the page. It was through Tomoe's sacrifice that he learned to value life again. Perhaps later, if he survived, there would be time for books when the battles were done.

Maybe there was a way to live without fighting, without killing. He'd have to find it if he was to honor his promise to Tomoe. The years ahead seemed to stretch on and on in his mind. He'd lost his wife, but gained back his soul. There would be time for atonement after the war was over. He only hoped he could survive the loneliness.

With a last look down the hall where Yoshi had disappeared, Kenshin made his way up the stairs to go to bed.

The End.

END NOTES: Sakamoto Ryoma was one of the movers and shakers of the Meiji Restoration. He nearly single-handedly orchestrated the alliance between Choshu and Satsuma that gave the Ishin Shishi movement the strength to topple the Tokugawa Shogunate, otherwise known as the Bakufu. Glover, Ito, and Inou were also real participants in the Bakumatsu, and did actually consummate an arms deal to bring guns into the hands of Choshu soldiers in the summer of 1865.