Chapter 01

Kenshin stood outside the Akabeko, staring up at a starlit sky. It had only been a few days since he’d healed from the injuries he’d received fighting Shishio, but he was eager to be on his way. Everything that had happened in Kyoto had just driven home to him how dangerous it was going to be to stay in Tokyo. While it was true that no one had been killed, the fact that his friends had followed him into mortal peril without even understanding what they were up against terrified him.

They all accepted that he had been a manslayer in the past, but the only one who understood even a semblance of what that past entailed was Sano. He’d seen the way Kaoru looked at him, the distaste in her eyes, every time he got close to flipping his blade. She didn’t understand that part of his life. She never would.

Yahiko idealized him, turned him into this grand swordsman that Kenshin could never be. Not in more than name, at least. Because he could talk for eons about enforcing justice and protecting the weak over the strong, but the truth was that during the revolution he’d thrown his sense of right and wrong out the window. To be an effective assassin, he’d had to discard his morality. Trying to pick it back up, to turn back to the ideals he’d had before the war, was turning out to be rather difficult.

Then of course there was Dr. Gensai and the children. The doctor may have seen some hard things in his life, but those children were innocent. It was only a matter of time before someone ruthless came after Kenshin and took those small girls as bait. And that was a thought he couldn’t stand. To be responsible for the death of truly innocent children-it was unthinkable.

Megumi was even worse. She’d been used and pushed around for years. Kenshin knew she would end up with more of the same if he stayed in Tokyo so that it could happen. There was no one he wanted caught up in his problems less than her. She deserved to live peacefully.

Kenshin sighed. There was only one person he was going to tell he was leaving, and that was because he knew Sanosuke would follow him to the ends of the earth until he found him. After leaving him behind before going to Kyoto, Kenshin had sworn to himself he’d not forget the promise he’d made to Sano again. He rubbed his jaw, the remembered pain of Sano’s fist ghosting along the edge of it.

He straightened as he felt Sano’s ki coming towards him and turned to face the fighter. “Sano,” he greeted lightly.

“Yo.” Sanosuke stepped up beside him, falling into the rhythm of Kenshin’s walk when the wanderer began moving down the street, away from the Akabeko and in the opposite direction of the dojo.

“I’m leaving,” Kenshin said simply.

Sanosuke angled his body towards him, staring down at him with a mix of anger and confusion. “Why?” he asked.

“I can’t stay here anymore. Shishio was dangerous, but I have enemies more powerful than him. Karou and Yahiko will continually risk their lives to try and help me with those problems and they will get themselves killed. I won’t allow them to throw their lives away when they don’t understand that they’re doing so.”

Sano frowned at him. He hated to admit it, but Kenshin had a good point. “Why not just talk to them?”

Kenshin stared at him for a moment before turning to face the road. “They aren’t going to understand because neither one of them can truly accept the fact that I was an assassin. They find ways to gloss over it, to blot it out, to pretend it doesn’t matter. But the truth is still there, hanging like a shadow over all of us.”

“The two of them didn’t have to face the chaos of the revolution,” Sano said quietly. “But they understand enough to know that you sacrificed yourself to help bring the Meiji era into existence and they don’t need more than that from you.”

Kenshin smiled sadly. “It’s not about what they need. It’s about what I need.”

At Sanosuke’s frown, he added, “I can’t continue to live in a place where I am forced to constantly deny the assassin that lives inside me and the instincts that go along with that.”

“Why not?”

“Sano, you lived as a fighter-for-hire for years. You don’t get paid for fighting anymore, but I know you still seek out fights when you go out gambling.”

Sanosuke flushed. He hadn’t known anyone knew about that. It wasn’t terribly surprising that Kenshin knew, but it was a bit awkward to have it brought up in conversation.

“You have that outlet. I get some relief when I have to fight men like Shishio because that feeling of kill or be killed is all I knew for years. But having to protect Kaoru and the others makes it impossible for me to fight the way I truly do, because I can’t stand seeing the disgust in their eyes.”

Sanosuke sighed softly. He understood Kenshin’s reasoning, but he still didn’t like it. “Where will you go?”

Kenshin lifted his hair, unclasping a twine necklace that he’d kept hidden since he’d received it in Kyoto. He held it out towards Sanosuke, who picked it up gingerly in his hand. It was a small wooden circle with a strange symbol engraved on it, a mark slashing it open through the center. “My master gave that to me before I left Kyoto. He told me that though I’d learned the final technique of Hiten Mitsurgi, that there was something keeping me from being whole. He spoke of a hidden village and said that they could help me if I was willing to leave everything behind.” Kenshin took the necklace back and put it back on his neck.

Sanosuke stared at him for a long heartbeat, then moved his shirt aside so that his own necklace was visible in the faint moonlight. “I don’t know what your master was thinking,” he said, “but he gave me a similar token.”

Kenshin looked at the wooden symbol around Sanosuke’s neck with undisguised surprise. “Did he say anything to you?” he asked curiously.

“He said that even an idiot apprentice like you would know what it meant. He wasn’t very forthcoming,” Sanosuke mused.

Shaking his head, Kenshin had to agree with that. “I don’t even know what my symbol means. Yours is different-it’s upside down and there is no slash through it. But it is obviously of the same mold. My only guess is that he meant for both of us to visit the people he spoke to me about.”

Before he could stop himself, Sano was grinning. “So you’re not leaving me behind!”

Kenshin smiled back. “I guess not.”

Sanosuke let out a whoop of joy, completely unabashed by his behavior.

Kenshin allowed it for a few minutes, but he needed Sanosuke to understand just how permanent his leaving was going to be. If the fighter planned on joining him, neither one of them would be coming back to Tokyo. “Sano, when I leave, I’m not ever coming back here.” They had left town some time ago and were walking through the country.

Sano stopped and threw himself against a tree, staring at Kenshin, who’d stopped as well and was simply waiting for his response. There wasn’t really anything for him in Tokyo. At one point he’d thought maybe he would find a home here, but he hadn’t. Kaoru and Yahiko put up with him purely because he was Kenshin’s friend, though they might never say it to his face. He was too outspoken and too much of a brawler to really fit into the niche they’d made for themselves. “Ok,” he said.

Kenshin raised an eyebrow. “Ok?”

Sano nodded. “There’s nothing for me in Tokyo.” He traced the pattern engraved in the wood circle hanging from his neck. “Besides, I’m curious. Who are these people and why does your master want us to see them?”

The only answer Kenshin could give that question was a shrug. All he knew for sure was that his master had been very insistent, sure that the people of the hidden village he’d told him about could help restore his spirit. He didn’t really know what that meant or what part of his spirit needed restoring, but his master would never send him to a strange group of people without reason.

“When are we leaving, then?” Sano asked.

Kenshin smiled. “At sunrise. It is a long journey.”

“I thought you said this village was hidden.”

“It is.” Kenshin flipped his own wooden symbol over and showed the back of it to Sano before sliding it off. He pulled out a piece of paper no more than an inch across that was crammed full with writing. “This is the map.”

Sano peered at it, frowning. “That’s not even legible.”

Kenshin laughed. “It’s written in a code only I can decipher. I doubt my master wanted this village’s location falling into the wrong hands. He was fairly adamant that I protect this with my life.”

“It’s a piece of paper,” Sano said, voice flat with disbelief.

Kenshin nodded, smiling. He wondered what Sano would say if he knew how many times he’d put his life on the line to deliver important papers to the right people during the revolution. He shook the thought away. Now was not the time to be thinking of that.

Sanosuke made a disgusted noise and folded his arms over his chest, glaring at the small piece of paper in Kenshin’s hand. They were going to set off to find a hidden village with directions only one of them could read and a very high probability that they would lose the slip of paper the directions were on.

Kenshin laughed. “Don’t worry so much, Sano. I already memorized the directions.”

Sanosuke scowled at him for a solid minute before he relented. “Fine. Did your master say anything else about these people?”

“He did.”

“Well?” Sano said, tone impatient.

Kenshin startled. He hadn’t realized Sanosuke wanted to know what those words had been. “He told me that these people were like no one I had ever met and that if I decided to seek them out, that it would be necessary to throw away all my beliefs on how people are supposed to live.”

Sano frowned. “What exactly did he mean by that?”

“I have no idea,” Kenshin said. “But I can’t stay in Tokyo and endanger everyone anymore. And I can’t think of anywhere else to go. It seems this hidden village is as good a bet as any.”

“But to throw away all our beliefs seems a bit extreme,” Sano said doubtfully.

“Perhaps,” Kenshin acknowledged. “But it’s where I’m going.”

“I’m not letting you go alone.”

Kenshin smiled. Having to become a wanderer again was a burden, but knowing that the one friend he’d managed to make who didn’t shy away from his past was coming with him almost made it worth the pain it cost him to leave the rest of his friends behind.

Chapter Index     Chapter 2

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