With enormous gratitude to my beta, siriusfan13, whose unerring ear
and indefatigable persistence have made this story at least readable.
Thanks, my friend.


"Ikiru" – to live; to exist. In a world defined by loss and death—where your future lies not in your existence but in the lives of those who will follow you, in the lives made possible by your sacrifice—what does it mean to be handed an opportunity to live, in this moment? For yourself? A story in two voices.

Chapter 1 - Watch

At first, he spent most of his time outdoors.

The ceaseless vigilance and unrelenting terror of his last months in the City clung to him like a stench that he couldn't wash away. He slept little and, after a few hours dozing in the darkest corner within sight-line of the door, he would wake in the cold pre-dawn grey, the dew still dripping from the roofline, and slip out into the chill air. Soundlessly treading the pathless forest behind the cottage, he would seek out a different spot each day—sometimes up a tree or pushed back into a bush-shielded hollow in the mountainside—and settle in for a few hours. Sometimes he didn't stay put, but patrolled restlessly, ears alert for sounds and signs that didn't belong. He thought it unlikely that they would use the path that passed by the little house, but with no backup, he had to cover all approaches himself.

Once the sun was up, he would come back to the house. And to breakfast.

The provisions they'd brought with them were adequate for a few days of strict rations, but he would have to find a way to re-supply soon; there were two of them, after all, and he wasn't sure how much sustenance a woman required. Hadn't his shishou mentioned some kind of special, periodic nutritional needs? He didn't like to recall those awkward lectures about women and sake; his master's tastes and habits had been disturbingly foreign to him, and he wondered what the older man would say about the situation he now found himself in…

Initially, he'd been uneasy with his commander's choice of companion. He understood the necessity for a cover for himself, and he even accepted the idea of posing as the husband half of a married couple. After all, a single man, living alone in one of the tiny forest huts that dotted the mountainside above the town, would have attracted far too much curiosity. While it wasn't unusual in the City to find men living on their own, they usually did so in cramped row houses, or as tenants in larger households. But in rural areas, with living space carved out of precious agricultural land, no dwelling could be allowed to house only one occupant. This one had stood empty for too long already, and so risked drawing unwanted attention to itself, damaging its credibility as a "real" house. To be useful as a safehouse, it was essential that the townspeople believe it to be owned and operated by a landlord. And what landlord, even an absent one, could afford to have a potential income source stand idle?

So while he knew that a "wife" was key to the success of the plan, to his survival, he would have preferred someone—anyone—other than this particular woman. It was bad enough that he'd gotten saddled with her at headquarters. Now he worried that her presence, while necessary, would interfere with his ability to concentrate. He'd avoided the company of the women whenever he could; their endless chattering had been a distraction at best, and he had been appalled by the flirtations flung his way. What were they thinking? What possible outcome could they have been imagining? He was not a suitable companion, no one to be desired. Certainly not husband material. He was a killer, a demon.

Nothing but a sword.

But to his relief, he discovered that the solemn demeanor she'd displayed at the inn was, in fact, her true nature. Her obsession with order seemed almost a match with his own, and she was not giddy. Too, her personal habits proved to be adequately unobtrusive.

In fact, she was almost mute.

This suited him. She kept their space tidy with a minimum of fuss, and she provided their meals promptly and handily. She did not seem to require anything of him, and this, too, suited him: he was free to focus on that which was truly important: morning kata, hauling water, chopping wood.

Keeping watch.

A/N: I tried to use only Japanese words familiar to most readers, but I will provide a glossary anyway:

sake – rice wine
shishou – master
kata – patterns of movement for Japanese traditional art forms, but especially the martial arts