Just a quick author's note: This is an old fic I wrote quite a few years ago and I think I was still working out how I wanted to do POVs. As a result, this thing switches between Jin'eh's and Kenshin's POVs like a Pingpong match. I've put some dividers between the sections to mark where one POV ends and another begins. Also, I don't own Kenshin and all the usual disclaimers. I wish I owned Jin'eh though. He's my fave. :P

The Hitokiri Battousai raised his sword, ready to strike. Below him, the Hitokiri Jin'eh knelt, grinning up at him psychotically. Batousii's sword arm trembled in anticipation, the darkness within him growing excited at the thought of finally spilling blood again. It would be so easy, too. Jin'eh was making absolutely no effort to avoid the strike he knew was coming. In fact, he seemed to be as excited as Battousai, if not more so. Battousai started to swing.

Almost instantly, he felt his mood change. A horrid sickness rose within him as he quickly repressed his dark thoughts and realized what he was doing. The horror of the many murders he'd committed during the revolution, the screams of the men he'd killed, the looks on their faces as he'd taken their lives, it all came rushing back to him at once. To kill once again….., he thought. How can I do it? My vow…my new life…all of it…gone with one swing of my sword. His arm was beginning to grow tired from being held in the air for so long, but he took no notice, lost in his own internal debate between light and darkness. Suddenly, Jin'eh's voice snapped him back to the present situation:

"Why do you hesitate, Battousai? You know the girl's life hangs in the balance! Spare me, and she will die. Kill me, and she will live. The choice couldn't be more simple. Now hurry! There is no time for hesitation. Become the Hitokiri of legends and kill me with a single blow right here!" He traced a line on the top of his head with his finger, then gazed up at Battousai expectantly.

Battousai realized the awful truth. Jin'eh was right. There was no choice. He had to do it to save Kaoru-dono. The thought of her last breath leaving her body, of her eyes never opening again, of never hearing her voice…such a thing would be even more awful than becoming a Hitokiri again. He fixed his gaze on Jin'eh once more, his yellow eyes growing cold.

"I have no desire to give you such a gift, Jin'eh. But to save Kaoru-dono, I will become a Hitokiri once more."

"That's it!" Jin'eh raved. "Give me a taste of your assassin's blade!"

Battousai started to swing.

/ / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / /

"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!"

The great, paralyzing pressure on Kaoru's chest and body left her in an instant as she forced it from her, forced the scream from her throat, carrying all the pain and anguish she'd felt during this battle with it. A second later, air rushed into her lungs and she fell forward, gasping. Supporting herself with her hands, she waited for her vision to clear, almost afraid of what she would see.

She felt a flood of relief as she saw Kenshin's sword had stopped just inches from Jin'eh's head. Both men stared at her with matching expressions of utter astonishment. They looked almost comical like that. Even as that nonsensical thought ran through her mind, she felt her strength leave her. She tried to sit up, but hadn't the energy even for that, so instead she pitched backwards towards the floor of the shrine.

She waited for the pain of her head hitting the floor, but it never came. Instead, she felt strong arms surrounding her, holding her, protecting her. A gentle hand stroked her hair, and a soft and familiar voice spoke to her with both love and concern.

"Kaoru-dono., are you all right?"

She opened her eyes and saw with relief that it was Kenshin holding her. There was no trace left of that monster inside of him. He had been restored to her. "Oh, Kenshin," she managed to say. "I'm all right."

"Oro?" he seemed surprised by her reply.

She couldn't help but grin. "You're talking like how you always do." There was no doubt that her Kenshin had returned now. "I'll be all right now," she said again.

/ / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / /

Jin'eh remained where he was, staring at the two of them with a mixture of disbelief and rage. How could this weak little girl….how could….how could she? It was impossible! Yet there she was, still breathing. How could she have shaken off his strongest Shin no Ippou? A spike of fury rushed through him and he pushed himself to his feet. Then he stopped, still staring at them. Neither of them had even taken any notice of him. That was the most infuriating part of all this. Suddenly he had become nothing to worry about, just a part of the scenery to them. He would show them that he was not something that could be ignored…

The pain that came when he reached for his sword reminded him. His sword arm could no longer bend. He tried to move it, but even the fingers would not work. Gritting his teeth against the pain, he glared at Battousai and his little woman once more. Curse you, Battousai. You were right. I will never be a swordsman again. The thought filled him with a hatred he had thought he was no longer capable of feeling. He wanted to rush at the two of them, to rip their flesh apart, watch the ground grow red with their blood. He wanted to hear that fool and his little witch scream. But he knew such an act would be useless. Battousai had beaten him, and there was nothing he could do about it. It is over. It is over and I've lost. Not only to Battousai, but to Battousai's woman. All his skills, all his techniques were shit if such a person could shake them off. And here he'd been slightly embarrassed by Battousai's friend from the previous night's victory over the technique…

"First the rooster-headed fool, and now her. Two have managed to overcome my strength. I must be getting soft," he mumbled to himself. How could he have been so weak and not even known it? I am weak. I am pathetic. And now, I am worthless as well, he thought, looking at his crippled right arm. What now?

He knew what Battousai was planning to do with him (when Battousai finally got finished doting on his little girlfriend and started paying attention to him). Turn him in to those ridiculous police officers. That humiliation would be more than he could bear. To be a captive of such useless buffoons would be the final insult. And he knew he could not let the secret of who had hired him get out. That was not a proper thing for a Hitokiri to do. Our secrets die with us. He could not let himself be captured. And yet, escape was impossible. There was no way he was going to get away from Battousai now. And even if he could, then what? Battousai had ruined him and he could no longer serve his only purpose in life. A horrid sense of helplessness filled him. It startled him as much as it upset him. He thought he'd left such feelings behind long ago. I must really be getting soft, he thought to himself. I truly am not fit to live anymore. I am a disgrace to my kind. There is only one thing left for me to do.

He'd known it might end like this someday. A Hitokiri was meant to die this way if he could not die in battle. But not tonight. I didn't expect it tonight. If I was going to die tonight, I wanted it to be at the edge of his blade. But it doesn't matter anymore anyway, so I mustn't allow myself to feel regret. Consoling himself with the thought that at least there would be pain and blood at the end, even if it was only his own, he drew his short sword and started toward Battousai.

/ / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / /

Kenshin was just helping Kaoru to sit up when he heard Jin'eh approach from behind. Knowing that the man could not do anything to him now, Kenshin didn't even bother to turn around.

"Battousai." Jin'eh's voice was a growl.

"Give it up, Jin'eh," he said, still not turning around. "There is nothing you can do with only a short sword and your left arm. It's over. You lost. Now accept it quietly."

"No, it's not over," said Jin'eh softly. "There is still something I can do." Kenshin began to realize with disbelief that Jin'eh was actually going to try something. Satisfied that Kaoru-donno was not going to fall over, he curled his hand around the handle of his sword.

"I can clean up!" said Jin'eh, a crazed satisfaction in his voice.

Kenshin whirled around to see Jin'eh with the sword pointed at his own chest. He's going to kill himself, Kenshin realized instantly. Summoning all his Hitokiri's speed, he launched himself off the floor of the shrine and reached Jin'eh in an instant. Swinging his own sword, he quickly knocked the blade from Jin'eh's hands.

/ / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / /

Jin'eh gave a useless cry of rage as the sword went spinning from his grasp. It flashed once in the light from the full moon, then landed with a clatter somewhere off in the darkness. With another cry, he turned as if he were going to try to go after the sword, but he had trouble keeping his balance with only one arm, and ended up spinning in a circle, as if he were drunk on sake. An instant later, Battousai's arm caught him across the chest, shoving him roughly to the ground. He landed badly, because he had only one arm to try to stop his fall with, and he fell over onto his side. He flailed about uselessly for a moment, like some fish that had been thrown onto land, until he managed to use his left arm to push himself into a sitting position. Battousai was standing over him with a maddeningly calm expression on his face.

"DAMN YOU, BATTOUSAI!" Jin'eh screamed up at him. "Why must you always interfere? You've already taken everything else away from me! Why can't I at least have this? If nothing else, can't I at least have a warrior's death?"

"You are not a warrior, Udou Jin'eh. You are a selfish bully. A swordsman's death is too good for you. But that's not why I stopped you." Battousai's voice was flat and expressionless. Jin'eh did not respond, instead glaring up at him as if trying to kill him with his stare alone. Battousai continued:

"I stopped you because I believe that all human lives are precious. Including yours. What are you hoping to accomplish by ending your life? It will not fix any of your problems and it will change nothing. Your life is a gift that you should not throw away. I learned that long ago, when I decided to live even though I'd committed so many crimes."

"Spare me your pretty speeches, Battousai!" Jin'eh snarled. "They do not become you, just as this smashed arm does not become me. Neither are weapons of a true Hitokiri!" He continued, his voice becoming a sneer: "You are just as pathetic as I, Battousai. You too are not fit to be called a Hitokiri. You should drive your sword into your heart as well. And then, when the two of us are standing beside one another in Hell, perhaps you will understand."

"Silence." Battousai's voice was still expressionless. "It is you who does not understand. I knew you were many things, Jin'eh, but I never knew you were a fool."

"I HATE YOU, BATTOUSAI!" Jin'eh also hated himself, now that he had been reduced to schoolboy-like insults, but he could no longer help it.

"I know." said Battousai. "But I do not hate you. I pity you."

That did it. With an inhuman scream, Jin'eh lurched to his feet and charged Battousai. But it had taken him a few seconds to regain his balance once he got up, and so Battousai had had ample time to prepare. Battousai stuck out an elbow, smacking it into the other man's chest, knocking him down once more. Expecting this, Jin'eh reached out his left hand, and seized Battousai's elbow, hanging on for dear life. As a result, when Jin'eh went down, Battousai went with him. He landed on top of Jin'eh, and Jin'eh stuck out his left arm, knocking Battousai to the ground next to him. Hardly believing his good luck, he leapt onto Battousai's chest, kneeling on his stomach. He wrapped his left hand around the gasping man's neck and squeezed. Ah, this feeling- it was good.

"Since you refuse to end your own life, Battousai, I suppose I will have to do it for you. Don't worry. We will not be parted long. I will be coming right behind you. And when we meet again in Hell, tell me if you thought dying was as enjoyable as killing. I certainly intend to find out myself." With an evil chuckle, he squeezed harder. Behind him, he heard the girl scream, and then her footsteps as she ran toward them. Ha! She was not going to interfere this time. He had Battousai and was not going to let anyone stop him.

He was thinking about that instead of concentrating solely on Battousai, and so the other man took advantage of his temporary distraction. Doing some kind of backwards somersault, he sent Jin'eh flying face first into the dirt, and he himself went from flat on his back to a crouch position.

Jin'eh tried to get up, but he felt a foot suddenly slam into his back, forcing him back into the dirt. Battousai once again had the advantage.

"And will you kill me now, Battousai? You can't leave someone as nasty as me running around, now can you? Go on, do it! I'd do the same to you if you were in this position. That should be incentive enough."

"I have no doubts that you would kill me if I were in this position, Jin'eh. But I am not like you. I will not kill you, no matter what you say or do."

"I HATE YOU, YOU BASTARD!" Jin'eh flailed uselessly against the ground. He sank his fingers into the earth, clenched his fist, delighted in the pain as one of his fingernails tore. "I HATE YOU!" His voice was becoming raw from screaming.

"I know that. You've said that already. But it doesn't change anything, that it doesn't. Now stop this. It's over. Accept it."

Jin'eh screamed then, a scream of both rage and anguish. He screamed and screamed, and his scream gradually became a sob. He could no longer hold it in. He screamed his fury, sobbed his anguish into the earth, as though he were trying to wake the dead from their slumber with some demented ritual. It was an infantile temper tantrum, but he could….not…help it! He beat at the ground with his fist, completing the effect.

As he grew exhausted, his tantrum diminished until he was weeping weakly into the grass. He didn't think he could have stopped his tears even if he'd tried. After being held back for so many years, it was now as though they threatened to overflow. It was like some dam had burst, and he was now caught up in the raging floodwaters. Gods, he could not stop! He cried and cried, not caring that his face was getting dirty, that a blade of grass was poking him in the eye, or that his nose was running. He felt a gentle hand touch his shoulder.

Battousai. He became dimly aware that the man was kneeling next to him. He was probably waiting for the chance to make one of those self-righteous speeches he seemed to be so fond of. Jin'eh didn't care anymore. Battousai had now robbed him of the one thing he'd had left-dignity. Gods, how he hated the man. However, that hatred was no longer that fiery hatred he'd felt earlier. It was now only a quiet kind of ache. He was too exhausted to even hate Battousai properly now. Yet even as this realization brought on a flood of fresh tears, he had another, more important realization. Battousai's foot was no longer holding him down.

It was only a half-hearted realization. Somewhere deep inside him, he'd finally accepted that he wasn't going to be able to kill or even hurt Battousai. But he didn't know what else to do. Still crying, he pushed himself wearily into a sitting position and then threw himself weakly at the man.

He just wanted one good punch, but Battousai had obviously expected this all along. He moved his head slightly to the side, and Jin'eh ended up punching air instead. However, his momentum carried him forward, and he fell into Battousai, knocking him into a sitting position and falling on top of him, practically into his lap. Sitting up, he pummeled Battousai's chest weakly with his fist, like an angry little girl. He hit and hit, his blows doing absolutely no damage whatsoever, and snarled his hatred of the man over and over. It was useless, but he couldn't stop. He had no idea how long Battousai let him go on like this. Finally, he must have decided he'd had enough of being used as a punching bag (even if it likely didn't hurt). He hooked his right arm around Jin'eh, effectively pinning his left arm against his body. Jin'eh gave up completely then, practically collapsing. Battousai caught him and helped to keep him in a sitting position. Not wanting any help whatsoever, Jin'eh pulled away, but then nearly fell over backwards. Again, Battousai caught him, and pulled him forward. However, he overcompensated, and Jin'eh ended up falling into him, his face smashing against his shoulder. He simply remained there, crying into Battousai's shirt with the broken, desolate sobs of a man who'd lost everything.

/ / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / /

Kenshin was momentarily startled. He had still been expecting Jin'eh to try to attack him in some other way, and was quite surprised to see his adversary give up so completely. He must really be exhausted, Kenshin thought to himself. Yet even as he felt relief that the battle was finally over, he was still concerned. Jin'eh was clearly still suicidal, and Kenshin was not certain how to make sure he wouldn't try to hurt himself again. He knew that it would be so easy to just bow out now and turn Jin'eh in to the police. They could deal with him, and whatever happened afterward would be out of Kenshin's hands. But he knew he could not do that because he knew that Jin'eh would kill himself the first time the opportunity presented itself. There was no way that the police would be able to watch him every second. If I turn him in now, I am ensuring his death. But what else can I do with him? I know I have to try and help him somehow, but I don't know what to do. Maybe if I try to talk to him…. No, he won't listen. But I have to try something…. He looked down at his defeated rival, who was still weeping uncontrollably and felt an awkward but strong urge to comfort him in some way. That is what I must do, he realized. I have to try to calm him. He probably won't let me, but I'm going to try. If I can get him to calm down, then maybe he'll listen to me. He set down his sword, sliding it out of Jin'eh's reach (just in case), and encircled the sobbing Hitokiri with his arms, embracing him gently.

/ / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / /

Jin'eh was caught completely by surprise. He had already been somewhat startled by the fact that Battousai didn't initially push him away when he collapsed, but now he was suddenly experiencing a sensation so foreign to him that for a moment he thought he was being attacked in some way. He gave a cry that sounded almost like fear and struggled weakly against Battousai. But Battousai simply held him in a gentle but firm way until Jin'eh's struggles subsided, and he sat stiffly in Battousai's embrace, wide eyed and breathing in great gasps, as though an ice-cold blade were being dragged across his back. He felt Battousai reach up and gently stroke his hair. He froze once more, then began to whimper as a new kind of tears stung the corners of his eyes. He couldn't remember the last time anyone had touched him in this way. He didn't know how to react, or even how it was supposed to feel. Gods, what is this? What is he doing to me? I don't…..I don't know how….why is he…what….His mind was a swirling mix of confusion and half-asked questions. He wanted Battousai to stop, but strangely, at the same time, he didn't want Battousai to stop. What? No! I do want him to stop! Please, please, make him stop! Please….Battousai…..Please stop. Please…stop….

"Please stop, Battousai," he finally begged. "Please, just leave me alone." Hot tears trickled down his cheeks.

"Jin'eh…." Battousai's voice was soft and tender, barely louder than a whisper. His hand moved downward, stroking first Jin'eh's neck, then his back. Jin'eh began to whimper again, but Battousai soothed him. "It's all right, Jin'eh."

Jin'eh had to fight the strange urge to relax. He was so tired that it suddenly didn't seem so bad to just calm down. Yet his mind screamed at him not to do such a foolish thing. He was terrified that if he calmed down, he'd fall into Battousai's trap. Because if he calmed down, he might discover that this felt….good.

NO! NO, IT DOESN'T! IT DOESN'T FEEL GOOD! I AM A HITOKIRI! NOTHING FEELS GOOD TO ME EXCEPT KILLING!

He struggled once more, in a last ditch effort escape what he was feeling. I have to get away! I can't let this happen! I don't want it to feel good! I don't want his pity, and I don't want his kindness! And I don't want to be a weak and worthless person who needs affection from others! I'm already worthless enough! I HAVE TO GET AWAY! His struggles became frantic, and he began to wail: "LET ME GOOOOOOO!"

But Battousai did not let him go. He simply held him tighter, and waited Jin'eh's struggles out. Growing tired once more, Jin'eh once again ceased fighting and simply sagged against him. He realized with terror that he was not going to win. His surrender was inevitable, and this thought caused him to whimper with despair. Immediately, he felt Battousai's arms tighten around him, and Battousai's hand run through his hair once more.

"Jin'eh," said Battousai. "Please calm down."

"No, Battousai!" whimpered Jin'eh. "Not unless you leave me alone! Please, I don't want you to do this to me! I don't like it! It …hurts!" That was not the right word, but it was the closest he could come, in his panic.

"Where does it hurt?" asked Battousai kindly, but Jin'eh was shaking too hard to respond. Battousai gently slid his hand between their bodies and placed his palm directly over Jin'eh's heart. Ignoring Jin'eh's gasp, he asked softly: "Here?"

Tears welled up in Jin'eh's eyes once more. He clenched his teeth together, trying to fight it, but knowing he was fighting a losing battle. He couldn't resist it anymore. He had to give in. If he didn't, something in him was going to break. As he began to shake uncontrollably, he heard Battousai whisper in his ear: "It's all right, Jin'eh. Just let it out."

Jin'eh released it then, throwing every negative emotion he'd ever felt into a wail that grew louder and more anguished until it built into an ear-splitting crescendo that echoed around the clearing, caused the girl (who'd been standing near them this whole time) to leap back in fright and scared a flock of birds that had been roosting in a nearby tree. Battousai was the only one who remained calm throughout it all, holding Jin'eh to him and rocking him gently as though he were trying to soothe a young child who had had a nightmare. Jin'eh wailed and wailed and wailed, sobbing without tears because he didn't have any left to cry. He squeezed his eyes shut, hoping to somehow shut out the pain he was feeling, but instead, all he could see in his mind was blood-huge splatters of blood on the walls, pools of blood on the floor, dried blood, fresh and dripping blood, all of it soaking the scenery, soaking him, soaking everything. Such a scene would normally have driven him out of his mind with excitement, but instead he felt terrified, sick, ashamed-all the negative emotions he'd repressed for so long came flooding back. Not knowing how to deal with this, he shuddered against Battousai and cried out his name softly. He felt the man hold him tighter, comforting him, protecting him. Jin'eh clung to him, wanting only to be kept safe and protected. He buried his face in Battousai's shoulder, sniffling softly as Battousai stroked his hair once more. For the first time since they'd started, his sobs were finally beginning to come under his control. He ever so slowly began to relax. Battousai continued to comfort him, murmuring in his ear that it was going to be all right. Jin'eh almost began to believe him. He closed his eyes and let himself almost drown in this kindness, this gentleness. This feeling….this feeling is…good.

Once he finally admitted it to himself, he felt not anger, not shame, not even pain, but only a great flood of relief. He still wasn't sure if it was right for him to feel this way, but he no longer cared. It felt good and he didn't want it to stop. He nestled closer, not caring how utterly ridiculous he must look right now. He simply let himself enjoy this affection. Both his aching body and his tortured mind accepted it gratefully and longed for more. Please, Battousai. Please stay with me. Please hold me and don't let me go. I need you. I don't want to be alone. I'm…scared. I'm all alone and I'm scared.

"Don't leave me, Battousai," he finally begged.

"I won't, Jin'eh." It was a promise stated in the faintest of whispers, but it was a promise nonetheless.

With that, Jin'eh finally allowed himself to relax completely. He simply gave up and lay in Battousai's arms. He was content now, because he knew he was not alone in his suffering anymore. Battousai was with him. Battousai would not let anything bad ever touch him. Thank you, Battousai. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. He repeated this over and over in his mind until it became a sort of meaningless background noise for his thoughts. But he did not say it aloud. Instead, he laid his head on Battousai's chest and whispered: "I give up, Battousai. I surrender. It's over. You've won the fight."

/ / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / /

Kenshin felt a great surge of relief when he heard those words. Finally, he thought. Finally it's over. He then allowed himself to relax as well. He had grown quite exhausted with the intense effort of calming the fallen Hitokiri. But now it's over. It's finally over. And it worked, he thought, looking down at the man who was nestled in his embrace. I can't believe it, but it actually worked.

Now what?

What do I do with him now? I still don't know if he is going to try to hurt himself again. And he still has to face the fact that he's been captured, that he's a wanted criminal, that he can no longer fight. What is he going to do? How can I help him? Kenshin began to worry slightly that he'd made a promise to Jin'eh that he could not keep.

No, I have to keep it. He needs me. But I don't know what to do for him. The police are going to come for him, even if I don't turn him in myself. He's spent the last ten years as an assassin. He's soaked in the blood of who knows how many people, and many of them are important politicians. They WILL come for him. And even if I could get him out of that mess, what is he going to do? He can't fight. And he won't listen to me if I suggest that he do something else with his life. He doesn't like anything else, or at least he thinks he doesn't. I could suggest that he try to atone for his crimes somehow, but I don't even know if he wants to do that. And how do I suggest he do that, anyway? He can't fight. What am I going to do? I don't know how to help him. But I can't give up. I promised to help him and I will! He looked down at Jin'eh, who was still lying in his arms with a peaceful expression on his face. He looked almost strange with his harsh features softened and relaxed. Kenshin smiled gently at him, his desire to help him suddenly strengthened. I'll find a way, Jin'eh. I promise.

He reached out and touched the other man's shoulder. Jin'eh stirred slightly, and murmured his name (actually, he murmured Battousai's name, but Kenshin was willing to let it slide for now). "Jin'eh," he said aloud.

Jin'eh looked up at him, his deep blue eyes soft and questioning. Kenshin was momentarily startled by how different those eyes looked. They were the same eyes that had terrified him the night they first fought at Tani's house, eyes that had reflected a psychotic, predatory joy during that battle, and during this battle tonight. Yet now they were reflecting a mixture of emotions-fear, sadness, uncertainty…and some kind of strange adoration. Their deep color made them very expressive, and Kenshin almost felt as if he could look right through them and see into the depths of Jin'eh's tortured soul. He wasn't quite sure how long he stared, but suddenly he realized that quite some time had gone by, he still hadn't said anything, and Jin'eh was still looking at him expectantly. He shook himself and then smiled kindly at the other man. Jin'eh hesitated for a long moment, then smiled back ever so slightly. Kenshin was slightly amused-Jin'eh looked like he didn't quite know how to do it properly. Kenshin let his smile broaden a bit. It was nice to be able to lighten the mood, even if it was only a little. "Jin'eh," he said finally. "Are you going to be all right?"

Jin'eh started slightly, as if he were not expecting such a question, but he dropped his eyes from Kenshin's and nodded slightly. However, Kenshin also felt him draw closer, almost fiercely, as if he were afraid that Kenshin was going to abandon him now. He didn't need to worry about that. Kenshin was only trying to see if he was up to talking, for they had many things to discuss if Kenshin was going to try to help Jin'eh. "Good," he said, still trying to smile comfortingly. "Jin'eh, it's time to talk about what happens next."

He felt Jin'eh start again, and a look of unhappiness clouded his features. But then Kenshin saw him visibly suppress it, and a moment later he spoke: "I know what happens next, Battousai. You're going to turn me in. That's what you were planning to do all along. I…" He hesitated, then continued. "I'll do it. I'll give myself up. It's time for me to take my punishment. You've beaten me fair and square, and so you may now turn me in and claim your glory."

Kenshin blinked at him in surprise. He hadn't expected Jin'eh to say that in response. Was he really willing to give himself up just like that? Is that what he really wanted? No, it couldn't be. He's doing this to…please me! It was unbelievable, but that had to be it. He's really willing to give up his freedom for me. But…that wouldn't be a real solution. Kenshin knew that while Jin'eh was now providing him with an easy way to get let off the hook, he couldn't take it. Because if he turned Jin'eh in, there was the very good chance that Jin'eh would be executed. His crimes were certainly executable offences, and even if they weren't, the police in this new age seemed to be a bit unscrupulous and might take matters into their own hands. And even if he wasn't executed, he'd spend the rest of his life locked up, all alone and miserable. That was no way to help him. He knew he could not do that. He looked down at Jin'eh once more.

"Do you really think that that is what I want?" he asked. Jin'eh looked surprised by this question, but Kenshin continued: "What I do want is to know what you want."

"What…I want?" Jin'eh did not appear to believe what he was hearing. "You want to know what I want?"

"Yes," said Kenshin. "How else can I figure out how to help you?"

Jin'eh's jaw dropped. He blinked at Kenshin stupidly, then opened and shut his mouth several times as if he wanted to say something, but couldn't quite figure out what. Finally, he managed to stammer: "You…..want to…..help me?"

"Of course," Kenshin laughed slightly. "Why do you think I've been doing all this?"

For the longest time, Jin'eh simply looked up at him with astonishment. Then, slowly, his expression changed. It softened, and Kenshin suddenly saw something that he had never seen in the other Hitokiri's eyes before. Jin'eh was looking at him with something like…affection.

No, that couldn't be it. He was quick to deny what he had seen. It didn't scare him, but he simply could not believe that his former adversary would look at him that way. He looked back, hesitantly, and saw that Jin'eh was still looking at him with the same expression.

"Battousai," Jin'eh said softly, in a gentle tone Kenshin had never heard from him before. He buried his face in Kenshin's shirt once more. "Oh, Battousai," he said again.

Kenshin suddenly felt the wretched man make a pitiful attempt to embrace him with only one arm. It didn't really work, but he could tell that it was lovingly meant. He gently reciprocated, then gave Jin'eh a kindly pat on the back. Jin'eh looked up at him once more, his expression tender, but serious.

"Thank you, Battousai," he whispered. He lay there for a moment longer, then finally sat up.

/ / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / /

Jin'eh left that warm, protective embrace reluctantly. He knew it was time, that he couldn't stay like that all night, but he also realized with an aching sadness that he would almost certainly never be held like that again. He sat up and supported himself with his left arm, fighting off a slight attack of light-headedness. Battousai put his hand on Jin'eh's shoulder, also helping to support him. When Battousai seemed to be sure that Jin'eh was not going to topple over, he let go and started digging in his pocket for something. His balance regained, Jin'eh reached up to brush the hair out of his eyes, and suddenly realized that his face was filthy. Although he himself could not see it, he knew what it must look like, covered with dirt, tears, snot, and drool. He wished he were still wearing his top, so that he could wipe his nose on his sleeve. He tried to make do with the back of his hand, but then realized that his hand was just as filthy, and that it was only making his face dirtier. Giving up on keeping up appearances, he looked up and saw Battousai holding out a handkerchief. So that was what he had been looking for. Jin'eh took it gratefully and wiped the crud off his face and blew his nose. Then, crumpling it into a little ball, he held it out and asked hesitantly: "Do you want it back? It's…uh...kind of messy now."

"Don't worry about it," said Battousai, taking it gingerly. "I'll wash it when I do the laundry tomorrow."

The laundry?

Jin'eh looked at Battousai as if he'd misheard. But the expression on Battousai's face told Jin'eh that he was serious. A moment of stunned silence followed, before Jin'eh managed to say: "Um, yes. Of course. Well, th-thank you."

"You're welcome," said Battousai, putting the handkerchief back in his pocket. "Jin'eh, now I'd like to know how I can help you. What can I do? I'll do anything I can to help."

He sounded almost like a salesman. Jin'eh was mildly amused by this, but he also couldn't understand why Battousai was so eager to help him, why he was being so nice to him. But now was not really the time to ask, he realized. Battousai was looking at him, waiting for an answer. Jin'eh looked down at the ground, trying to think. He quickly realized that even though Battousai was willing to do anything to help him, it was of no use. Because Battousai could not give him the one thing that he really wanted. That panicked, empty feeling returned, and he felt familiar tears of despair well up in his eyes. He blinked them back (he'd had enough of crying for one night) and looked back up at Battousai.

"Thank you, Battousai. But…there is nothing you can do for me." Battousai started to say something, but Jin'eh cut him off. "I know you are willing to do anything in your power to help. But you know as well as I that some things are beyond your power. And this is one of them. You…..you can't give me what I want. You can't fix this." Jin'eh placed his hand on his broken elbow.

"Jin'eh…." Battousai started to say, then stopped. He looked like he was considering continuing, but then seemed to change his mind. He sat there quietly for a moment, then looked up at Jin'eh. "No, I can't, Jin'eh," he said finally. More silence followed before he spoke once more: "I can't fix that, but I truly don't believe that you should give up. You can't be a fighter anymore, but that doesn't mean that your life is over. You can be happy if you do other things with your life. I truly believe that you can."

Another sentimental speech. Jin'eh felt a rush of familiar annoyance, but this time he forced himself to keep his mouth shut. He didn't really want to say mean things to Battousai anymore. Besides, Battousai…...well…he was only trying to help. Jin'eh stared at his feet, trying to think of a nice way to tell Battousai that he was full of shit. However, some of what he was feeling must have crept into his expression, because he heard Battousai say: "I know moving on doesn't sound appealing to you right now, but I really believe you should give it a chance. You don't know that you can't be happy being something other than a killer. Personally, I know that you will be happier being something else. Because if you look deep within yourself, you have to admit to yourself that killing people doesn't really make you happy, don't you?"

Jin'eh was utterly taken aback. Such a thing had never even occurred to him in all his days as a Hitokiri. His first instinct was to deny it, to tell Battousai that he didn't know what he was talking about, but even at that point he knew he would only be taking the easy way out if he did that. Instead, he followed Battousai's advice and looked deep within himself, into that cold, dark, ruined mess that was his soul. And the last tiny wisp of humanity that was still there was surprisingly easy to understand, even though it whispered. I hurt, it said faintly. I suffer. I'm in pain.

Jin'eh could not bear to listen anymore. He shook his head frantically, trying to clear it. He didn't like these thoughts, these feelings. That he might have been unhappy all this time and not even known it… It was a thought that seemed to come from nowhere, but the utter certainty of it unnerved him. He felt he could not argue with that voice. What the hell is the matter with me? Why am I suddenly so confused?

Battousai. It had to be Battousai. Those sugary speeches must have finally gotten past Jin'eh's defenses. That was what was the matter. He'd begun to place his trust in Battousai, and so he'd started to believe Battousai's foolish sentimentalities. Of course, he tried to reassure himself. I'm feeling unsure of myself because I've just had a…difficult experience. I'm upset. And he's offering me…something. Something to take the pain away. And I want to believe him.

It was a beautifully stated argument. It made perfect sense. And it was complete and utter bullshit. Jin'eh knew he was just deluding himself, that he was just making a fruitless attempt to keep himself from having to face reality. He covered his face with is hand, trying to sort out these bewildering feelings. He had to try to dig deeper. He had to try to remember. Think past this night, and remember how he felt before. He thought back to the intense excitement he would feel before he would strike a planned target, to the incredible rush he would feel when he saw fresh blood stain the blade of his sword, to the amusement he would feel when he heard his victims scream. He'd enjoyed it to the fullest. See, he told the voice inside of him. I did like it. You're wrong. You're wrong. I DID like it!

But did it make him happy? It hit him like a slap in the face that there was a difference between liking something and finding happiness in it. Gods, he'd never thought about it like that before. Fighting the splitting headache he'd gotten from screaming and crying (his broken nose didn't help much either), he tried to think once more, tried to remember all the times, any of the times, when he'd felt not simply pleasure, but happiness.

Flashes of memory, flashes of feelings. Pleasure…excitement…satisfaction. Nothing lasting. Nothing really strong enough to stand out either. Certainly, the feelings leading up to and during tonight's battle had been exciting, pleasant, powerful…but even they did not really feel like true happiness. More like the high from some exquisite drug. Nothing lasting, nothing…fulfilling.

He tried not to panic. He may not have been able remember any times when he'd been happy, but that didn't necessarily mean that Battousai is right. He couldn't truly remember a time when he'd been unhappy either, at least, not before this night. He reminded himself that he was a cold, empty, void Hitokiri. He wasn't supposed to feel anything. It was in his nature.

Another load of garbage. He knew right away that it was not true. He'd certainly experienced his share of feelings (both good and bad) tonight. He was not a cold, empty, void Hitokiri, as much as he would have liked to believe it. Besides, he hated to admit it, but he could remember times when he'd felt…if not unhappy, then at least unpleasant. Many times. In fact, the longer he thought about it, the more times he could remember. Even after the brief pleasure of spilling blood, such feelings were there. He remembered how he would feel afterward, once the high had worn off. Empty. Not guilty, for he could never admit to himself that he could feel guilty about his crimes, but empty. And…strange, too. He couldn't quite pinpoint the other feeling, but it was an overall feeling of weirdness, of feeling that somehow, something was not quite right. Like he was not really living, but rather, existing, in a pointless life that consisted of, and would always consist of, nothing but searching for the next brief bit of pleasure. And these feelings, he finally admitted to himself, they are…not…good. They may not have been expressly bad, at least, not bad like the feelings he had struggled with tonight, but they were not good. And they overshadowed what pleasant feelings he did feel, consumed him, made it so that alleviating them (in the only way he knew how, through bloodshed) was all he could think about. Battousai truly was right, he finally admitted to himself. I am so…unhappy.

/ / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / /

Kenshin waited patiently while Jin'eh thought it over. He didn't dare interrupt this time. He could tell by Jin'eh's body language that he was having a serious conversation with himself, and he knew he could not say or do anything that might influence that conversation. This was something that Jin'eh needed to figure out on his own. It was hard, because he could see Jin'eh was clearly having a difficult time with it, but he forced himself to keep quiet. Instead, he urged Jin'eh on with his thoughts. Come on, Jin'eh. You can do this. Just admit it to yourself. Once you admit it, you can start to heal. He remembered back to how hard it had been for him to admit it to himself. He was certain that he had never actively enjoyed killing, the way Jin'eh had, but he and tried very hard not to let it bother him in all his days as a Hitokiri. He had always thought he was doing the right thing, and so he had forced himself to crush any feelings of guilt. However, once he had decided to stop, it had been one of the hardest things he'd ever done to admit that what he had been doing was wrong, and that he did indeed feel great shame for it. But after he hadadmitted it, it had made it easier for him to stop. And each time he remembered the unhappiness of his former life, it had always strengthened his resolve not to start killing again. It helped me overcome my dark side. And it can help you too, Jin'eh. Please. Don't torment yourself any more. Just admit it.

"Kenshin?"

He looked up and saw Kaoru-dono standing nearby, with a look somewhere between concern and boredom on her face. Kaoru-dono. He hadn't forgotten about her, and he did feel bad about ignoring her somewhat, but it couldn't be helped. He couldn't concentrate on both Jin'eh and Kaoru-dono at the same time. And right now, Jin'eh needed him more. He knew Kaoru-dono was going to be all right. She just needed to be patient for a little while longer.

"Kenshin?" she asked again. She stepped closer, giving Jin'eh (who was sitting with his hand over his face) an uneasy sideways glance. "Kenshin, can we go home soon?"

"Kaoru-dono," he said. "Thank you for being patient." He lowered his voice, afraid of distracting Jin'eh. "We'll go home as soon as we can. I know you're tired, and I know you've had a difficult evening, that you have. But I can't leave here without settling this."

"How long will it take?"

He hesitated, knowing she would not be happy with his answer. But he had to be truthful with her. "I don't know. As long as he needs. I don't want to rush him, that I don't. He needs time to think."

"Why are you coddling him?" she snapped. "He tried to kill us!" Kenshin's heart jumped as he saw the familiar look of anger on Kaoru-dono's face. "Why don't we just turn him in and go home? We don't owe him anything! He's a murderer, and a lunatic as well! I don't care about him, and I don't understand why you do!" Kaoru-dono's face was red with anger, and it looked like she might start crying tears of rage at any minute.

"Kaoru-dono," he said, trying to sound as calm and neutral as possible. "Please keep your voice down." He glanced over at Jin'eh, and was relieved to see him still sitting with his hand covering his face, almost as if he hadn't heard them at all. Kenshin realized that he probably hadn't, for he looked quite lost in thought. And unhappy, too. He looked back up and realized that Kaoru-dono looked unhappy as well. In fact it looked like steam was going to come shooting out her ears any moment now. She opened her mouth, and he heard her take a deep breath, as if she were planning to completely and whole-heartedly defy him.

Summoning his Hitokiri's speed once more, Kenshin leapt to his feet, stepped quickly over to Kaoru-dono, and placed a hand gently over her mouth. Whatever she had been planning to yell at the top of her lungs became a muffled "MMMMPPFF!" instead. She struggled against his hand for a moment, still trying to yell something, and then he felt her bite him.

He pulled his hand away with a loud "ORO!" Leaping back, he shook it vigorously while staring at Kaoru-dono with surprise. She stood there with her arms crossed, glaring at him with an it-serves-you-right kind of expression. He opened his mouth to say something, but she beat him to it. "Don't tell me what to do, Kenshin." Her voice was full of quiet anger, but at least it was quiet. "I'm not going to inconvenience myself for him. If I want to be loud, I'm going to be loud. I don't care about his feelings or his problems. He's evil. EVIL! And I don't understand why you'd want to help him. Why would you help a man who tried to kill you? Why would you help a man who tried to kill ME?"

Ah. So that was it. He understood now. He walked back up to her and gently placed a hand on each of her shoulders. She looked as though she were going to try to shake him off, but then stopped. Her expression softened as she looked into his eyes. Kenshin smiled at her.

"Kaoru-dono, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make it seem like I don't care about you, that I didn't. You know that's not true. I just…well, I'm stuck in a bind. I want to take you home. You know that I do. I'm very worried about you, that I am. It must have taken a great deal of energy to break the Shin no Ippou, and I know you need to rest. If anyone deserves my undivided attention after a fight, it's you. But…" he paused, looking for the right words. "I also know that you are very strong. Though you may need me right now, I know you will be all right even without my help. But I don't think I can say the same thing about Jin'eh. Can you understand?"

Kaoru-dono looked at him without saying anything for a moment. Her eyes left his momentarily, focusing on something off in the distance. Then she looked back. "I understand, Kenshin," she said finally. "I understand that part of your argument. But what I don't understand is why you want to help him in the first place. You stopped him from killing us. And you've stopped him from hurting anyone else by breaking his arm. You stopped yourself from killing him. And you stopped him from killing himself. Isn't that all you're obligated to do?"

All he was obligated to do. He'd never thought about it that way before. He supposed on some level, Kaoru-dono was right. He could just give up on Jin'eh right now, and no one would think any worse of him. He'd still be considered the hero who saved the day. But he also knew that deep down inside him, he'd never forgive himself if he did that. Because Jin'eh needed him. He was all alone and frightened. He needed someone. Anyone. And Kenshin was the only person he knew, the only person he trusted, the only person he thought might give a damn about him. Kenshin could not abandon him. Besides Kenshin, he reminded himself, you've already broken down everything he's ever believed in. You are now obligated to build him back up again.

He looked at Kaoru-dono once more. He saw with surprise that she was smiling at him. "I know, Kenshin," she said. "You've never settled for just doing what is expected. You've always had to do what you think is right. And I know it doesn't matter if I don't agree with you. You are going to do what in your mind is the right thing, whether I like it or not."

"Kaoru-dono…" he began.

"I won't stop you, Kenshin. Just promise me you'll try to wrap this up in an hour." With that, she turned and went over to the benches in the center of the shrine area. Sitting down on one of them, she turned to look back at him. When she saw that he still had not moved, she made a motion with her hand-go on, go on.

Kenshin smiled his thanks at her, then turned and went back over toward Jin'eh, who was still sitting in the grass. Kenshin noticed that it looked as if Jin'eh had reached some sort of unhappy conclusion to the question he'd been asking himself. He was sitting with his knees drawn up toward his body. His left arm was resting on top of them, and he had his face buried in that arm. Kenshin wondered if he was crying again. He sat down next to him and gently placed a hand on his back.

Jin'eh jumped slightly but did not raise his head. Now that he was sitting next to him, Kenshin realized that he was not crying, but was instead sulking, like a child trying to avoid having to deal with something unpleasant. "Jin'eh…" Kenshin said.

"You were right, Battousai. You are always right. Gods, I've been such a fool." Jin'eh's voice was thick with the threat of tears.

"It's all right. It's good that you were able to admit it. I'm proud of you. You may not realize it now, but you've just taken the first step toward making things right."

"How does it make things right, Battousai?" Jin'eh finally raised his head to look at him. "How does admitting that I'm an idiot change anything? I'm an idiot! There! I said it! I'm an idiot, and I'm an evil, psychotic, stupid, ugly murderer who deserves to die!" Jin'eh ripped up a handful of grass and threw it. "There! I've said that too! But it doesn't change what I've done! Nothing's changed!"

Kenshin was silent while he waited for Jin'eh to calm down. Finishing his angry outburst, Jin'eh rested his arm on his knees once again and sat there sulkily. Kenshin looked over at him to say something and noticed with interest that Jin'eh's expression had changed. He still looked angry, but he no longer looked like someone who was trying to win an argument. Instead, he looked more like he was waiting for Kenshin to contradict him. He's actually ready to listen to me! Trying to keep his smile from showing (he was afraid Jin'eh might think he was being smug), he patted Jin'eh on the back and said: "I know it doesn't seem like anything's changed on the surface, but inside of you, something has. You have now acknowledged that what you have been doing is wrong, that you have. You've admitted to yourself that you don't want to do it anymore. You are now ready to try to make things right."

"And how can I do that, Battousai? You know I can't bring any of the people I killed back to life again." Jin'eh stared at the ground, avoiding Kenshin's eyes. He no longer looked angry. He just looked like someone who was lost and wanted help.

"No, you can't," said Kenshin. "And I can't bring any of the people I killed back to life either. But I'm not giving up. I know I can't change the bad things I did, but I also know that I have the power to inside me to commit as many good works as I have bad works. Maybe even more. I don't know if the two will cancel each other out, but I do know that helping people makes me feel better, it makes me into a better person, and, above all, it's the right thing to do."

"But I can't do what you do," said Jin'eh. "I know you're atoning for your crimes by protecting people. But I can't do that. I can't fight anymore. And I don't know anything else. What can I do?"

"There are other ways to atone. Other ways to help people besides fighting for them. I'm sure even a man with only one arm can find a way to help others." Kenshin smiled reassuringly at Jin'eh.

"So what am I supposed to do, Battousai? Get up, walk away, and start looking for babies to rescue from burning buildings?" Jin'eh made no attempt to hide his sarcasm. "You know it's not that easy. I'm a wanted criminal. And I don't have any special skills other than fighting. It's all well and good for you to say that going out into the world and helping people is easy and makes you feel better. But that's because you can do it your way. You're a Hitokiri. You are a fighter, even if you don't want to kill anymore. By protecting people, you get to atone for your crimes and do something you are good at at the same time. But that's not an option for me. And I don't have any other skills. I can't do anything else! And I don't have anyone to teach me anything else, even if I wanted to learn how. And to top it all off, the entire government wants to see me dead!"

Boy, he painted a bleak picture. Kenshin realized sadly that much of what he said was true. But it was still no excuse for giving up. "I didn't say it would be easy, Jin'eh," Kenshin said. Jin'eh looked down at the ground, his expression quite unhappy. Kenshin rubbed Jin'eh's back comfortingly while he tried to figure out what else to say. However, Jin'eh must have interpreted his silence as hurt feelings, because he suddenly looked back up at Kenshin, his face worried.

"I shouldn't have yelled at you. I know it's not your fault about my arm. You had to stop me one way or another. And I know it's not your fault about the mess I'm in. It's my fault. All of it. I did this, and I know that I have to try to fix it. I just wish that I knew what to do! I just wish that I wasn't all alone!"

Kenshin was dumbfounded by the apology, but it was the second part of Jin'eh's statement that really caught his attention and confirmed his suspicions. No wonder he was worried. He was scared of being abandoned. Well, there was no need to make him worry unnecessarily anymore. He looked at Jin'eh, his expression serious.

"You are not alone, Jin'eh. You have me."

"No, I don't, Battousai." Jin'eh looked back down at the ground. "You don't want me." His voice was a quiet, despairing little whisper.

"Yes I do." Kenshin placed one hand under Jin'eh's chin, gently moving his head up and forcing him to look at him. "I won't leave you. I'll always be with you, and I'll always help you in whatever way I can. You will never be alone, Jin'eh. That is my promise to you."

Kenshin held out a hand. Jin'eh looked at it hesitantly, then reached out and took it. They shook, the promise sealed.

"Why are you so good to me, Battousai?" asked Jin'eh, having trouble meeting Kenshin's eyes. "What did I do to deserve this?"

"Everyone deserves to be helped when they're in trouble, Jin'eh. And I told you, that's what I do. I help those in trouble."

"Ah, so that's it." Jin'eh's face fell slightly. "I'm just one of those people you are helping to make yourself feel better."

Kenshin tried to reassure him. "That's partly true, Jin'eh. But there is also more to it then that. I feel a special need to help you. After all, you're a Hitokiri too. That makes you kin in a way. Can't you see we have a unique bond?"

It worked. Jin'eh's face lit up. "Yes, Battousai." He was practically beaming. "I knew it the moment we met." His face fell again. "And I still tried to kill you. I…I'm…" Jin'eh looked like saying the words physically pained him, but he seemed determined to get it out. "I'm sorry, Battousai."

Kenshin smiled, willing to make peace. "It's all right, Jin'eh. Just don't do it anymore."

"I won't, Battousai. "I…I promise."

Wow, Jin'eh was really eating out of his hand. Kenshin had the sneaking suspicion that if he'd asked Jin'eh to dress up like a schoolgirl and sing "Sakura," he'd have done it. Having no such desire, Kenshin instead said: "Good. I really hope you'll keep that promise, that I do. Now let's figure out what to do. I'm sure we can think of something."

"We." Jin'eh smiled ever so slightly, and it was a natural smile, one that softened his harsh features and was a welcome change from his usual malicious grins. "Maybe we really can..."

Kenshin smiled, hoping he could keep his promise. He didn't want to admit it, but he still didn't really have any ideas on what Jin'eh could do with his life. But he also realized that some people are simply harder to help than others. It would be easier if he only had to rescue Jin'eh from some evildoer's clutches. But instead, he had to rescue Jin'eh from himself. However, he thought he was doing all right so far, even if it wasn't as easy as rescuing Yahiko from gangsters or rescuing Kaoru-dono from Himura Gohei.

Himura Gohei. Himura Gohei! Of course! That was it!

"Of course!" he said aloud. "Himura Gohei! Why didn't I think of that before?"

"Huh?"

"I've got it!" Kenshin grinned. "Jin'eh, I want you to remember everything I've said to you. I want you to take it to heart. Because you really do need to learn to broaden your horizons, to learn to like other things, if you're truly going to live a normal life." He continued, his smile growing: "However, I also know that as a Hitokiri, fighting is very important to you. And I know you want to use it to atone for your crimes, the way I do. And I think that you can. I truly believe there's hope."

"What?" Jin'eh looked utterly surprised, but there was also a faint glimmer of hope in his eyes. "How, Battousai?"

"I knew a man who was a fighter. Well, actually, I didn't know him, but I met him. He enjoyed hurting people the way you did. So one day, his sensei broke his right thumb. He said it would prevent him from ever holding a sword with that hand again. And he was right. However, that man then trained himself to fight with his other arm. He re-learned his entire fighting style with his left hand."

Jin'eh looked as if he didn't know what to think of this. "And it worked?"

"Oh yes. I fought against him. He was a capable enough fighter, even if he really wasn't a match for me."

"I don't believe it! Such a thing could not be possible!"

"Believe it. It happened. And he was only an average fighter. Imagine what a Hitokiri could do. I'll bet you could become a master at fighting once more, perhaps even better then you were before."

"I….could fight again. I could fight again! I could fight again!" Kenshin had the feeling that if Jin'eh had been standing up, he might have started dancing around. "I don't believe it! You are sure this is true?"

"Quite sure. Do you want to do it?"

"Of course! Of course I do!" He suddenly looked at Kenshin. His face became serious all of a sudden. "But Battousai, wouldn't that undo everything you've done? If I become a fighter again, you run the risk that I'll become a killer, too. Are you really willing to trust me?"

"Yes," said Kenshin. "I believe in you. And besides," he stopped as an idea occurred to him. An incredible idea. An idea that was sure to leave him with plenty of lumps on his head. But he couldn't turn back now. "Besides," he said again, "the style you are going to learn is a style that does not kill. It is a style that protects people." He paused, less for effect than for the fact that he was actually afraid to say it out loud. Finally, he got up the nerve to blurt out: "Kamiya Kasshin Ryu!

"WHAT?" Kaoru-dono's shocked, angry voice reached his ears like the screeching of an enraged tanuki. With a speed a Hitokiri would have envied, Kaoru-dono leaped to her feet and rushed over to him. "KENSHIN, WHAT DID YOU SAY?"

"I…er….I said he was going to learn Kamiya Kasshin Ryu."

"OVER MY DEAD BODY!" Kaoru-dono picked up a stick that was on the ground and hurled it at Kenshin. Kenshin was knocked flat on his back, and lay there mumbling "ORORORORO!"

"ABSOLUTLY NOT!" yelled Kaoru-dono, although Kenshin was not sure if she was talking to him or to Jin'eh. "I AM NOT TEACHING KAMIYA KASSHIN RYU TO THIS…THING!"

"What is this style?" he heard Jin'eh ask.

"Kamiya Kasshin Ryu is my father's fighting technique! And I'm not going to disgrace it by teaching it to you! Kenshin may want to help you, but I don't! I HATE you! If it were up to me, I'd have let you turn yourself into a shish-kabob and left it at that! I'd be at home in bed right now, and you'd be watering the grass with your blood!" She turned her back on them. "I'm not helping you and that's final!"

Kenshin got up. He went over to Kaoru-dono and placed a hand on her shoulder. "Kaoru-dono…" he said.

"Save it, Kenshin. My mind's made up." She suddenly turned to him, with a hurt expression on her face. "Kenshin, how could you volunteer my services without even asking me? You know how I feel about him. I don't want to help him, I don't want him in my life, and I don't even want to ever see him again. How could you?" Tears glinted in the corners of her eyes.

He put his arms around her. He owed her that much. "Kaoru-dono, I'm sorry," he whispered. "It was all that I could think of. I wanted to ask you first, but there wasn't time. The idea just came to me and I had to say it. Please, I know it sounds awful to you right now, but…won't you think about it? He needs our help."

"No, Kenshin. I don't want to help him."

"Why not, Kaoru-dono? Wouldn't it be nice to have another student at your dojo?"

"NO! Not if it's HIM! I'd rather my dojo went broke or burned to the ground then have him as one of its residents!"

That didn't sound promising. Kenshin could understand why Kaoru-dono felt the way she did. However, he also knew that this was the best solution for Jin'eh. He had to try to get Kaoru-dono to agree. He decided to take the rational approach.

"Kaoru-dono?" he asked. "Why don't you want him as your student?"

Kaoru-dono looked at Kenshin as if he'd gone crazy. "Why? Gee, maybe because he tried to kill me! And you, too," she added.

"He is sorry for that. You may not have heard him, but he apologized."

"So what? I don't believe him. And even if he really is sorry, I don't forgive him! Do you have any idea what it's like to suffocate? To suffocate and watch someone you care for get hurt at the same time? It was the worst thing I ever experienced! And now you're asking me to take the man who did that to me into my home? How could you?"

"Kaoru-dono, I'm sorry for what he did to you, that I am. It wasn't right. It was very, very wrong. But he is sorry for it. He really is. I can see it in his eyes. And there is nothing he can do to change it. But he wants to try to atone for it. And to do that, he needs to have someone help him learn to fight again."

"But he is a killer! Even if I were willing to let what he did to you and me go, it still doesn't change the fact that he's killed so many others. I don't even want to imagine how many people he's killed. I don't want a man like that at my dojo."

"Kaoru-dono," he said suddenly. "Why did you take me into your dojo?"

"What does that have to do with anything?"

"Just tell me."

"Because I like you! You're kind and gentle and brave and you saved me from Himura Gohei, remember?"

"Yes. And you took me in, even though you knew I was a Hitokiri, right?"

"Yes. I don't care about your past. I don't care what you've done. I don't-Oh!" Her eyes widened as she realized that Kenshin had caught her in a trap.

"Don't you see, Kaoru-dono? You already have a man like that at your dojo."

"No, Kenshin," she said desperately. "You're not like that at all! Don't you ever compare yourself to him! You are so much better than him. You are a good man! You may have committed some crimes, but you're making up for them!"

"Yes, but I was once like him. I was once lost and frightened, guilty of so much, and longing to repent. Exactly as he is now. The only difference between Jin'eh and me is that you have seen Jin'eh at his worst, and you haven't seen me. It's easy for you to pretend that I haven't done anything wrong. But I have. You've just never seen it." He sighed. "That's not really fair to Jin'eh, now, is it?"

"Oh, boo-hoo," she said sarcastically.

"But you know that I'm right. If you admit that I deserve a second chance, then you have to admit that Jin'eh deserves one too."

"All right, fine!" she said, flustered. "He deserves one too."

"And to get that second chance, he needs someone to help him learn to fight again, right?"

"Why does it have to be me?"

"You're one of the only swordmasters I know. And your style would be perfect for a reformed killer, that it would. It would let him try to make up for his crimes by protecting people, but at the same time, it would stop him from killing again."

"But Kenshin," she said, her face worried. "What if he's faking it? He could just be pretending that he's sorry so that he can avoid being punished. And if he is, then he could decide to murder all of us in our sleep some night. You have to accept the fact that if we take him in, we're putting ourselves and others in danger!"

That thought had occurred to him. But he didn't think Jin'eh was faking it. He could tell by his words and actions that the Hitokiri was sincere. Unless of course, Jin'eh was the greatest actor in all of Japan. But Kenshin didn't think so. Jin'eh didn't seem like the type. "That is a chance we would take, Kaoru-dono. But I really don't believe he is acting. And besides," he said, lowering his voice, "It will take him forever to relearn to fight with his left arm. He won't really be of much threat to anyone. And I'll be watching him like a hawk, to make sure he doesn't try anything."

"But Kenshin…" Kaoru-dono sounded nervous, as if she were afraid she were losing the argument. "The…the police are after him! The police are after him!" She sounded like she was grasping desperately for a straw. "He's a wanted criminal. They will find out if we keep him at the dojo. Remember how fast they found out that you were there? They'll find him, and then we'll get arrested too, because we hid him there!"

"That is a problem. But I think I've figured out what to do about that, too. Remember how Mr. Yamagata offered me a government position? When I turned it down, he was disappointed, but he also said that instead, since I wasn't taking the job, the government still owed me. I never planned to ask for that "debt" to be paid back, but I guess plans change, that they do. Perhaps he would be able to work out a full pardon with the proper authorities."

"He's not going to like that, Kenshin. I don't think he'd be very popular if word got out."

"If. He is powerful. Sometimes I think that man could wipe Kyoto off the map and cover it up so no one's the wiser."

"It sounds unscrupulous. Not like you at all, Kenshin."

"I know. I wish I didn't have to resort to dirty politics, but it's the only thing I can think of. And I'll make sure it doesn't hurt anyone."

"Well…" Kaoru dono paused, then sighed. "I've run out of arguments and I still don't want him there."

"Please, Kaoru-dono?" Kenshin gave her his best pleading look.

"If I still said no, would you hate me, Kenshin?"

He sighed. He'd almost thought he'd gotten through to her. "Of course not, Kaoru-dono. I'd just be disappointed in you."

"Disappointed?"

"Yes. Even though you now know it's the right thing, you still refuse. And that makes me sad."

"Oh, all right!" she threw her hands up in the air. "I'll take that creature on as my student! But he's your responsibility! You'd better keep him out of trouble! If he does something bad using my fighting style, I'll never forgive you!"

"Thank you, Kaoru-dono." He put his arms around her and hugged her. She seemed as though she wasn't sure she wanted to accept it at first, but then she relaxed.

"I trust you, Kenshin," she whispered in his ear.

With that, the two of them turned and went back over toward Jin'eh.

/ / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / /

Jin'eh waited patiently for them to finish their conversation about him, trying not to worry, even though he knew his future depended on the outcome of that conversation. He sat there uncomfortably (as people always do when they know someone is talking about them), holding the stick the girl had thrown at Battousai in his hand and pretending to look at it intently. When he heard them approach, he looked up hesitantly, not sure what their expressions would tell him. He immediately felt better when he saw that Battousai was suppressing a smile, and the girl's face wore a ferocious scowl.

"Congratulations, Jin'eh," said Battousai. He gestured toward the girl. "Kaoru-dono has just decided to take you on as her second student."

The girl simply glared at him.

"Thank you," Jin'eh said to her in a small voice. He tried to rise to greet her properly, but forgot that he had only one arm to do it with. He lost his balance and fell over backward with a loud Thud! Lovely. Managing to at least sit up again without much mishap, he tried to think of what Battousai would want him to say to her. "I, uh…a- appreciate your doing this for me. I know you don't want to but-"

"Shut up!" she said. "I'm doing this for Kenshin, not you! I don't like you and I NEVER will! Do you understand?"

"Yes," he squeaked, still taken aback at her transformation. She had been a bit feisty when he'd been holding her prisoner, but seeing her temper for the first time had been something to behold.

"Good!" she said. "Now don't talk to me again unless I address you!"

Jin'eh wanted to ask how he was going to be her student if they couldn't speak to each other, but he wisely thought better of it. Instead, he looked at Battousai, who merely rolled his eyes and shook his head. Not sure what to do next (since he couldn't talk), he just sat there stupidly and waited for one of them to address him again.

Finally Battousai spoke once more. "Kaoru-dono has agreed to let you stay at her dojo and be her student. Do you agree to these terms?"

"Yes, Battousai," he said quickly.

"His name is Kenshin!" snapped Kaoru.

Ignoring her, Battousai said: "Good. Learn Kamiya Kasshin Ryu. Become a swordsman who protects those who cannot protect themselves. Atone for your crimes. And," he added with a smile, "Find happiness."

It was a rather formal-sounding speech. Formal, but kind of nice too. However, it also sounded like the speech of a man who was now going to walk off into the sunset. Or, in this case, moonset. Jin'eh looked up at Battousai nervously. "You're not going to leave me now, are you Battousai?" Jin'eh was still scared of being left alone, but he was now even more scared of being left alone with this girl.

Battousai looked surprised. Then he seemed to understand what Jin'eh meant. "Oh no, Jin'eh," he said. "I'm not going anywhere. You see, I live at the dojo too."

"Oh!" Jin'eh was relieved, but a bit surprised as well. He knew this girl was Battousai's woman, but he hadn't been sure how close they were. Were they married then? He supposed he would find out son enough. "Oh," he said again. "I didn't know."

"Didn't know what?" asked Kaoru, a thinly veiled threat in her voice.

Jin'eh swallowed hard, afraid of making a faux pas and making things harder for Battousai. He could tell Kaoru was NOT happy with Battousai. "Didn't know…uh…that he lived there," he answered lamely.

"What are you implying?" she snarled.

Battousai quickly jumped in. "I live there, so I'll always be near. You can come to me anytime you need my help. And if you want to follow my path, to learn by my example, I have no objection."

Jin'eh wasn't sure how closely he wanted to follow Battousai's path (he didn't know if he really wanted to become a wussy-assed wanderer who went around making sappy speeches), but he did want to learn by his example, so he was grateful Battousai was going to be there. "Thank you, Battousai," he said. "I will. I will learn as much as I can from both of you. I trust you, Battousai. I still don't know if I believe in everything you've told me tonight. But I believe in you."

"And I believe in you, Jin'eh. However," he added, kneeling down next to him, "I still must issue this warning: Use the solution of Himura Gohei, but do not follow his path. Even though he re-learned to fight using his left arm, he still fought with the same evil desires in his heart. And for that I broke his left hand was well. Now he cannot fight at all. I know at some point you will also be tempted to fight again with evil in your heart. For your dark side is still within you, just as mine is within me. Do not give in to that desire. For if you dare defile Kaoru-dono's fighting style by using it to take an innocent life, I swear to you that I will break your left arm as well."

Jin'eh sucked in his breath ever so slightly. There it was, proof that, no matter how agreeable this situation might turn out to be, he was essentially a prisoner of Battousai's philosophy now. Of course, he'd already known he was, but to hear concrete proof like that finally made it real. It was a bit disconcerting, but he also knew that it was better than the alternative.

"That is my second promise to you tonight," said Battousai somberly.

"I won't let you down, Battousai," Jin'eh made himself say. "I promise." And he knew it was a promise he had to keep.

"Good," said Battousai, smiling once more. "Now let's go home."

"Hey Kenshin!" came a voice from the other side of the clearing.

The three of them turned to look. Jin'eh saw with surprise that the rooster-headed man had emerged from the bushes. "Hey, you two!" he said to them. "Did you win?" He finally noticed Jin'eh sitting at Battousai's feet. "Well, well," he said. "It looks like you did!"

"Sanosuke!" said the girl. "What are you doing here?"

"We were worried about you, so we came to see if we could help. I guess we didn't need to. We should have realized that Kurogassa would be no match for Kenshin." This was stated so mildly that it was impossible for Jin'eh to tell if the man meant for it to be sarcastic.

"We?" asked Battousai.

"Yahiko's around somewhere." He leaned against a tree, chewing on something that Jin'eh could not make out. "Hey Yahiko!" he called. "You missed all the action!"

"Man," said a younger-sounding voice. "I never get to be in the serious fights!" A moment later, a boy who couldn't have been older than ten or twelve came out into the clearing. "Is it really over?" he asked. "Are you okay, Kenshin?"

"I'm fine," said Battousai.

The boy looked over at Jin'eh. "Hey, is that him? Boy, is he ugly!"

"Yahiko!" said Battousai reproachfully, while the rooster-headed man just laughed. Then Jin'eh heard the boy say: "Hey Ugly! How come you look so grouchy?"

Jin'eh looked over at him, taken aback, thinking Yahiko was addressing him. He realized with a mixture of surprise and childish relief that he was talking to the girl, who was still standing there scowling.

"Yahiko." Her voice was quiet, but the anger in it seemed barely contained. "You are not supposed to be here. You are supposed to be at home."

"Well sorry if I thought you might need some help."

"Uh, why don't we finish these conversations at home?" said Battousai. "I'm sure we're all tired. There will be plenty of time to talk later."

"Fine," said Sanosuke. "Are we going to drop Corpse-Face off at the slammer on our way home?" He gestured toward Jin'eh.

"No, he's coming with us," said Battousai, while the girl gave an angry sigh.

"HE'S WHAT?" yelled the two of them in unison.

"He's going to be Kaoru-dono's student."

"WHAT?" said Yahiko. Sanosuke just stood there in shock. Finally, he burst out laughing.

"Great joke, Kenshin!" he laughed. "That would be the funniest thing ever!" He looked over at Jin'eh and started guffawing again.

"I'm not joking, Sano," said Battousai.

"What? You have to be!" Sanosuke looked at Battousai. When he saw that Battousai was not smiling or laughing, he said: "Kenshin, you can't be serious!"

"Don't I get a say in this?" asked Yahiko. "I don't want him hanging around when I'm trying to get some serious training done. Ugly! Why on Earth would you want this weirdo for a student? Did you get hit over the head with something?"

The girl gave him the Silent Treatment.

"What the hell is going on?" snapped Sanosuke. "Will somebody please explain this bullshit to me?"

Jin'eh sighed quietly while Battousai began the lengthy explanation. He was sure it was going to be repeat of the conversation he'd had with the girl. Not really wanting to listen a second time to how this was all crazy, how he was a creep who should be left to rot somewhere, and how this was never going to work (even if all of it was probably true), Jin'eh turned around so that his back was to them. He found himself facing the girl, who apparently did not want to join in the conversation either. He dropped his eyes from hers, not really knowing what to say to her. She simply made an angry face at him and turned her back. Sighing once more, he began to try to think of something else to do while he waited for Sanosuke and Yahiko to finish bad-mouthing him to Battousai. He suddenly wondered where his hat had gone. He scanned the clearing for it but did not see it. Black things were always hard to find at night. He tried to think back to where he had been when Battousai had knocked it off, but couldn't remember. He decided to look for it, since, from the sound of things, Battousai's conversation with the other two didn't seem to be getting very far. Remembering this time to adjust his balance to account for his arm, he managed to get to his feet and started off toward the other side of the clearing.

"And just where do you think you're going?" asked the girl.

"To look for my hat. Don't worry. I'm not going to run off. I'll be right back." He kept walking, hoping she wouldn't yell at him. He didn't want the others' attention on him again. He felt ridiculous enough already.

She did not, but he could feel her glaring at him as he searched the ground, trying to find that telltale patch of black. He must have searched for about five minutes before he finally found it at the base of a tree. Relieved (since this was his only one-Battousai had ruined the other), he picked it up and put it on his head, even though he knew he looked stupid wearing a hat and no top. He also spotted his scarf lying nearby, and he picked it up and stuffed it into his pocket. He debated whether to look for his swords as well, but decided that he wouldn't be needing them anymore, since he would almost certainly receive a sword more befitting to his new style from his new "master." That settled, he turned and went back over to the others.

They looked like they were just finishing their debate when he approached. All three of them turned to look at him. Battousai smiled at him, but the other two looked at him as if he were something that had just crawled out of a sewer. Not wanting to deal with this right now, he looked down at the ground intently and kicked at a rock that was sticking out of the dirt.

"I just can't believe this," said Sanosuke. "I just can't believe we're stuck with this jerk. Hey Asshole! My arms are still throbbing from that dirty trick you pulled last night!"

Good. Oops! The thought slipped out before he could squash it, and he had a feeling Battousai would not have approved of it. Still, at least he hadn't said anything out loud. He remained silent, hoping the rooster-headed man would leave him alone.

"Hey! Are you stupid or something? Ha, that's a dumb question! Of course you are. I'm talking to you! Answer me!" Sanosuke advanced threateningly.

"Sano." Battousai's voice stopped him in his tracks. "Leave him alone."

"But Kenshin…!" Sanosuke started to protest.

"Let's just go home now. We can discuss it later."

"Fine. You guys do look like you've had a rough time of it." He sighed. "All right, let's go."

Battousai started off first, leading the way. Rooster-head followed, and then Yahiko (after giving Jin'eh a weird look), and finally Jin'eh and Kaoru brought up the rear. Jin'eh noticed with weary amusement that they all fell into line like a group of ducklings, following Battousai.

They trudged wearily through the woods, none of them really having the energy to speak (except the boy, who was full of questions which nobody felt like answering). By this time, Jin'eh felt like he was walking in his sleep, and he had to concentrate hard on not tripping over any of the various tree roots or rocks that were on the path. It seemed like they were on that path forever, but he knew it could not have been that long, since it hadn't taken him very long to get to the shrine using this very same path yesterday. Finally, they began to see lights in the distance, and he knew they were getting near Tokyo. After a little while longer, they turned off the path onto the main road. After crossing a bridge, they came into the city itself.

At this very early hour, the only light came from streetlights and the moon. Tokyo always seemed like home to him when viewed like this. He, as a Hitokiri, was quite at home in the night and the darkness and the dead hours when most men slept. As they walked through the deserted streets, he could almost hear the silence of the city, and the whole scene took on a surreal quality. The moon was going down behind them, throwing their five shadows far in front of them on the road. The moon was still bright enough to blot out the stars overhead, but ahead of them, the constellations glittered in the east. They turned off the main road, heading down a tree-lined lane. It was only lit up by one streetlight at the end, but it was bathed in silvery moonlight. He stopped as he realized that it was beautiful. He smiled. It only lasted a moment, but in that instant, he realized with that he'd just taken pleasure in something other than bloodshed. It was a wonderful feeling to have on the very road that would take him to his destiny. Realizing that the others were getting farther ahead (they apparently hadn't noticed his momentary pause), he shook himself and started walking again, quickening his pace. Catching up to them, he set his pace so that he was walking next to Battousai. Battousai looked over at him, smiled, and mouthed one word: Home. Jin'eh nodded, ready to face whatever lay down this road, and together, the five of them walked down the long street, bathed in the light from the setting moon.

~Fin