Chapter 22:

"You're hair is getting longer." Kenji said conversationally, sitting down next to Shinko on the wooden walkway that surrounded the Aoi-ya.

"I know. It's getting in the way, but I haven't had the chance to do anything about it..." Shinko replied, blowing her fringe out of her eyes with a sigh. When she could see again, her eyes fell to Kenji's hip where the katana he had picked up from the carnage at Toranaga's house still hung. It had been an awkward pall over the three of them since – Shinya had abandoned the katana he had used as soon as they arrived at the Aoi-ya, and was training across the courtyard with a bokken, grimacing occasionally as a particularly strenuous technique tugged at the injury on his chest. Kenji hadn't explained why he'd kept the katana – Shinko though he might not even be certain himself, but it always made her feel uncomfortable, even though he only carried it within the Aoi-ya.

"Let it grow then – you can always tie it back." Kenji said, breaking the growing silence. Shinko's eyes widened in surprise – it was the first time Kenji had ever ventured a personal comment, other than how crooked her kimono was.

"Maybe..." She opened her mouth to change the subject, when she heard the rapid patter of soft, feminine footsteps on the other side of the shoji. Other than her mother, Shinko only knew one woman with the distinctive shuffling footsteps that came from always wearing a kimono and being 'proper'.

"Ohayo Megumi-san." She said, looking up as the paper door slid open.

"Ohayo Gozaimasu Megumi-dono." Kenji echoed. "When did you get here?" The doctor stared at the two of them for a moment, noting the bandage poking out under the sleeve of Shinko's gi and Kenji's slight limp then cast her trained eyes over Shinya, picking out every action that even hinted he was being careful of a healing chest wound.

"I would need to find some way to be everywhere at once to keep up with all of you." She muttered to herself, before beckoning to the three. "Come on. I need to check that none of you are crippled."

"Is that why you came?" Shinya asked meekly, coming towards the door.

"No, we came because someone is a useless freeloader." Megumi said loudly and pointedly, looking back over her shoulder.

"Oh... how is uncle Sano?"

Shinko and Kenji followed Shinya, the girl still watching the katana on Kenji's hip. Her arm ached where that very blade had sliced along it, but she couldn't bring herself to say anything. Kenji caught the direction of her attention and shrugged, looking away.

"Why?" The question escaped, but she realised as she said it that she wasn't even asking about the weapon, but why he seemed ashamed to carry it.

"I killed someone with this sword." Kenji said, too quietly for the others to hear. "That is not something to lightly discard."

"But Masaru-"

"Masaru's act was a mercy." Shinko paused, unable to refute the statement, biting her lip as she fingered the blunted katana at her side. It was her sword, and she had chosen it, just like Kenshin had chosen his sakabato, Yahiko his bokken, and even Shishio his flaming blade. A sword said a lot about the person who chose to wield it, but as she looked at Kenji's dark eyes, she wondered what a sword said about the person it chose to be wielded by.

"I do not regret it." Kenji said suddenly, touching the handle. There were still faint rusty flecks on the cloth of the grip.

"Why?"

"It had to be done." Kenji said coldly. Shinko stepped away slightly, stung. Kenji had once again passed from slightly friendly to cold and incomprehensible.

"Shinko, come here." Megumi said drawing the girl away from Kenji and into a small room, her medical kit already neatly arrayed. "I want to see the cut on your thigh as well." She said, deft fingers unravelling the bandaging around her arm.

Shinko showed her, a livid red line running from the point of her hip towards the hollow of her thigh; covered by a single, translucent layer of skin – it had been deeper than the one on her arm, which had already healed to a purplish, slightly raised ridge.

"The arm probably won't scar permanently... this one? " Megumi shrugged. "Does it hurt?" She pressed her fingers gently against the centre of the dark mark on Shinko's leg. Around the injury, pain flared from the contact, but where the blade had cut was only a dull, uncomfortable pressure.

"Not really."

Megumi nodded, as if she had expected as much, but a faint frown deepened the fine lines beginning to appear on her forehead.

"At least it missed all the muscles – keep working your leg, but there will be a scar." She said, shrugging, and handing her a small jar of ointment, neatly labelled with instructions before calling Shinya in.

*break*

"Aoshi-dono?" Kenji tapped on the shoji of Aoshi's study, taking a slow deep breath as he waited for the former Okashira to respond.

"Mm?" Aoshi slid the door open, raising an eyebrow at Kenji.

"I came to Kyoto to learn from you, but I haven't had the opportunity to speak with you about it."

"You don't want to learn how to be Oniwabanshu," Aoshi stated. "Nitto ryu would not suit you... What do you want to learn?"

"I want to learn why to fight - how to fight for a cause that isn't too steeped in morality to do what is necessary when it is necessary, but isn't depraved cruelty."

"That is easy to learn. What is harder to learn is how to stay to that path." Aoshi glanced pointedly at the sword at Kenji's hip. "And that I can't teach you."

Kenji hesitated, tightening his lips, before nodding.

"I understand."

"Maybe you can find someone else." Aoshi said mildly, one finger idly tapping a map of Kyoto stretched out on his desk, his index resting on a stylised mountain.

"Maybe." Kenji bowed, and left the study, a small smile playing around his lips.

*break*

"Shinko-san." Shinko looked up to see Ayame standing at the door, Kana by her side – the boy seemed to have been attached to her since he arrived at the Aoi-ya.

"Nani?" Shinko asked shortly, looking up from her study of the katana she had gotten from Kaname only a few days ago. The steel was still perfect along both sides, looking as if it had never been used.

"Kano-san wants to talk to you tomorrow – he's going back to Osaka soon."

"Fine." Shinko stood up, shoving the katana into its sheath and shoving it into her shinai bag before brushing past the two and leaving the room.

She went out into the front courtyard, slipping on her shoes on before walking out the open gate. Her eyes widened in surprise as she saw a familiar shock of red hair a little way down the street.

"Kenji-san?" She ran over to the older boy, wondering what he was doing, noticing with a faint shiver that he was carrying a swathe of cloth that wrapped around something long and slender.

"Shinko-san."

"Where are you going?" With a sword...

Kenji didn't answer immediately, watching Shinko contemplatively – probably the same look she had given him when he offered to accompany her on her way to the Umenonemu-ya.

"You can come." He said eventually, slightly grudgingly.

"Okay... where are we going."

"Don't ask so many questions." Kenji said, tapping the back of his hand against the side of Shinko's head – an almost big-brotherly gesture that he hadn't used in years.

"Then answer them."

"... We're going for a walk."

"Where?"

"You said you would stop asking questions if I answered you." Kenji said, folding his arms.

"That was a useless answer!" Shinko protested.

"Fine; there." Kenji pointed at a mountain rising over Kyoto.

"Wh-" Shinko stopped herself, biting her lip and frowning in frustration. Kenji let a smug smile flick across his face,

"You've decided something." Shinko said eventually, smiling as well, and letting a finger brush against the cloth wrapping of the katana. Surprise darted across Kenji's face.

"How did you know?"

"Who's asking questions now?" Shinko asked with a laugh, winking. "It's obvious from your..." She waved a hand vaguely over Kenji. "Demeanour."

"I didn't know I was so easy to read."

"You're not – but I've known you since I was a baby, and I've been watching your fights. You're moving like you do when you've decided what attack you're going to use to demolish whichever helpless student of Chichi and Kaoru-san you're facing. If you were easy to read – like Shinya – I would know why we're going to climb a mountain."

"Shinya-kun would have told you."

"Precisely."

Kenji shook his head, sighing good-naturedly and flicking one of the unruly spikes of Shinko's hair.

*break*

Shinya looked up as he heard light footsteps outside the door, and guiltily pulled his hand away from the bandage he'd been itching. But it wasn't Megumi who came in to tell him off – it was Natsuko, her hands knotted in front of her.

"Go away." Shinya snapped, standing up and looking for another way to get out of his room.

"I want to talk to you." Natsuko said stubbornly, not moving.

"I don't want to talk to you." Shinya growled, reaching for his bokken. Natsuko laughed at the gesture.

"I dare you to try." She said, catching the younger teen's gaze and holding it: her dark eyes were flat, and Shinya saw for the first time the cruel, manipulative woman called Ayame in them.

"What do you want then." He asked, looking away.

"I want to thank you." She said quietly, shrugging.

"Funny way to go about it," Shinya laughed sarcastically.

"You're upset because I betrayed you."

"Most people would be; if their sister was kidnapped, by someone they thought was..." Shinya broke off, flushing angrily. "A friend."

"That's not what you thought."

"What do you want!" Shinya shouted, his hands jerking. "You thanked me, so will you just go away?" Natsuko shook her head and sat down gracefully at the edge of a tatami mat.

"Look. I'm sorry for the way things turned out – I'm sorry you got involved in these intrigues, although it amazes me how you can be so closely associated with the oniwabanshuu and stay so naive. I didn't enjoy leading you on, and I didn't ask you to save me – I'm an actress, and I've played the pathetic princess enough to know that a man who plays the prince is usually a bore or a womaniser."

"What's that meant to mean?"

"That you're a boy who can't act, and I think you should stay away from the people that can." Ayame shsrugged, and her entire bearing shifted. "You look upset Shinya-san, should I leave?"

"Nee-san!" Kana ran into the room, clutching a stack of books in his arms. "Did you know that Aoshi-sama has all of Ibsen-sensei's work? We should put on a performance of A Doll's House, don't you think?"

"You're going to Tokyo, Kana-chan, they don't have Shingeki there – you wanted to learn Kenjutsu instead, remember?" Natsuko said, brushing back her little brother's hair. "I think the new hairstyle suits you." The boy pouted, tugging at a ragged lock.

"What are you going to do in Tokyo, Nee-san – you can't learn Kenjutsu with me – even though it's going to be really cool..." The last phrase was slightly brittle.

"I think I'll ask Tsubame-san if I can work at the Akabeko with her – unless you think I'd be a hindrance to her, Shinya-san?"

"I..."

"Oh! Gomene, we've been intruding, you wanted to be left alone, ne?" Natsuko smiled warmly, bowing slightly to Shinya before she dragged Kana out of the room, starting to berate him for rudeness as soon as the door was shut. Shinya sat, completely still as he heard the rapid whisper and soft footsteps fade. Eventually, he reached out for his bokken with a slightly shaking hand, gripping the hilt hard enough that his knuckles immediately whitened and began to ache. He sat for a moment longer, before, with a shout, he launched himself at the sturdiest thing in the room – the wooden chest which the bedding was stored in.

The sound of splintering wood cracked through the Aoi-ya.