The winter snow was pristine. Not a single footstep diturbed the gleaming blanket of ice. Not even as her feet tred across them, in the quick fasion she had been taught. Finally, she held still enough for her feet to sink into the snow. Spikey hair and black garb hidden by a thick cloak to protect from the cold, she scanned the snowy rubble before her. Once, there had been a cave, leading to an underground volcano. Once, she had gone there to rescue a princess, and once...she had a friend named Rikimaru.

Ayame pulled a scabbarb from her side. Carefully, she unsheathed the sword within. Each inch of metal revealed triggered more memories. Suddenly, her grip tightened on the sword, until her hands shook, and she quickly put it away.

"Aya-neechan! Aya-neechan!" A small voice called from behind.

The cloaked kunoichi readied her usual gaze of carefree strength. "Ohayo, Kiku-chan." Ayame beamed, turning to watch the princess leave clumsy footprints in the snow behind her. "What are you doing out here so early in the morning?"

"I know you think no one knows about you coming out here every day. But I figured it out." The child pronounced proudly, pulling her own warm cloak around herself.

"Oh, so now you're spying on me?" Ayame smiled mischieviously. "Ninjas are supposed to follow the princess around, Kiku-chan." She leaned down to Princess Kiku's eye level.

"Well," Kiku put her hands on her hips, and tried not to laugh before finishing the joke. "Then I guess I'm a ninja!"

"And _I'm_ the princess!" Ayame replied. Prancing delicately over a patch of snow and curtsying.

Kiku giggled uncontrollably.

Ayame smiled at the princess and that wonderful sound erupting from her. It was almost enough to make her forget why this place was so sad.

"If Rikimaru had seen you curtsying, he might have actually laughed!" Princess Kiku spurted out.

For a split second, the smile left Ayame's lips. She quickly reminded herself to regain it, and forced her lips to curve. "Naw... Nothing could make that block of stone laugh." Ayame turned away, and again watched the rubble covered in snow. Slowly, her smile faded.

Kiku stopped laughing, seeing Ayame's solemn expression. An expression completely foreign to the jovial ninja. "Aya-neechan?" Kiku walked up quietly beside Ayame. She warrily watched Ayame's stare across the rubble. "Gomen nasai." She almost whispered.

An icy breeze froze Ayame's face, and as she hoped, her heart too. Then maybe, she would be numb to the pain. "Heh. What do you have to be sorry about, Kiku-hime?" Ayame forced a half chuckle.

Kiku frowned. Her Aya-neechan never called her Princess. If she was now, then there was something wrong with her "big sister". Kiku looked out over the rubble again, watching with Ayame. "Rikimaru-san wanted to die that way."

"Huh!" Ayame turned quickly at the young girl. "Who told you that?"

"You did." Kiku looked up with big round eyes. "I..." The princess looked down shamefully. "I overheard you."

Ayame straightened. The night they came back home after it had happened... Ayame remembered...

"Oyasumi, Kiku-chan." Lord Gohda tucked his daughter into her futon for the night with extra care. He had almost lost his only child to a kidnapper. But thanks to his ninjas, he had bought another day with his Kiku.

Once Lord Gohda had left and positioned ample guards outside his daughter's door, a shadow against the wall shifted. The shade watched over the sleeping princess a moment. *She was safe. She was safe. That's what's improtant, right? ...Even if Riki-kun died to save her.* She shook her head and dashed out the window, without so much as a breeze to wake the princess.

*That stupid idiot.* Ayame seethed in the shadows of her master's garden. *He didn't have to die. I could have helped him hold up that boulder, once Kiku and I were on the other side. All 3 of us could have come out of that volcano! That stupid stupid idiot!* "RIKI-KUN NO BAKA!" Ayame slammed her fist against the tree. When the tree dared to remain standing, Ayame hit it again. And again. Her rage now fully focused on the unyielding wood.

"Much like fighting destiny."

Ayame looked up, only now noticing her shortness of breath. "Lord (pant) Gohda." Ayame bowed.

"I'm surprised I came this close to you without your notice." A click-clomp accompanied Ayame's master, as his wooden sandals walked over the garden's stepping stones.

Ayame grimaced slightly and bowed again at the embarassment. "Gomen, Gohda-sama."

Gohda waited for Ayame's eyes to once again meet his. "Ayame. You must not let anything distract you. It could cost your life." The tone of his voice implying the fear of another loss. Gohda took a few steps to survey the garden. "It was his choice to sacrifice his life for Kiku and yourself."

Ayame held back her screaming, protesting mind. This was her master, afterall. "There could have been another way. He didn't *have to* sacrifice himself." Ayame blurted out, still breathing heavily from her indignation towards Fate.

"No." Gohda shook his head. "You didn't _want_ him to."

Ayame turned quickly to her lord. There was the look of a frightened child, hearing the growls of a monster in the dark...then finding that the monster was in herself.

Gohda continued to stare her down. His words reflecting like a mirror. After a moment, he felt she had had enough, and turned his attentions back to the garden.

Ayame humphed. "He always wanted to die that way." She crossed her arms, defiantly staring down another tree.

"I woke up when I heard you yell." Kiku continued confessing. "Why did you call Rikimaru-san an idiot?"

"Hmph." Ayame looked out again, over the rubble and snow, as if what happened was their fault. "Because he died noblely, with honor...just like he wanted." She replied in a bitter, mocking tone.

"But isn't that a good thing, Aya-neesan?" Kiku asked quietly.

"Not when it gets you killed!"

"Then, what would you have done?" Kiku waited for Ayame's answer.

But she only stared out over the pristine ice and snow once again. "...probably the same thing..." Ayame admitted in a reluctant mutter. "But I would have found a way out afterwards!"

"We can hope!" Kiku smiled brightly. "Maybe Rikimaru-san got out!"

Ayame closed her eyes at the princess' words. Rikimaru was strong and skilled. Ayame had faith in him. Surely he could have found a way out. ...But if so, then why didn't he return to Gohda's castle yet? It was such a dim, dim hope.

Ayame turned to leave. "I'm starving. Let's go home, Kiku-hime."

Kiku followed Ayame, trudging through the snow. But not one meter had she walked, when something caught the corner of her eye. "Aya-neechan, look!" Kiku pointed.

Ayame turned quickly, her hand ready at her daggers if it was an enemy. But the sight she recieved instead, made her actions slow, and her eyes captured in awe. "Sakura..."

"Cherry blossoms aren't supposed to come in the middle of winter." Kiku continued staring at the pink flowers covering one frosted tree branch. "It's too harsh for them to survive."

Ayame smiled. Sakura: symbol of the samurai, of honorable men. She gripped the sword at her side and held it tight. *Hope...*