Chapter 02

They set out the next morning, leaving before Kaoru or Yahiko had roused from their sleep. Kenshin had decided to forego saying goodbye. He’d made the mistake the last time he left of telling Kaoru he was leaving and she’d followed him all the way to Kyoto. This time, he wasn’t taking that chance. There would be no trail for her to trace to him. He would disappear and while she would grieve, he knew that she would live on without him.

Sano walked beside him, silent in the chill morning air. He was nowhere near a morning person and conversation was the last thing he wanted to indulge in.

That was fine with Kenshin. He preferred silence to empty words. He absently fingered the symbol around his neck, wondering what it meant. Whatever it was, it was important enough that his master had told him to keep it concealed. The village they were heading towards was sure to be like no one they’d ever met. Knowing that frightened him, forcing him to caution he hadn’t relied upon for years in the path he chose as they walked, but in a deeper part of himself, he was looking forward to meeting them.

The people of Tokyo and Kyoto were nice enough, but they weren’t able to understand him or what drove him to live the way he did. Even Saito, his old Bakumatsu enemy, didn’t understand why he lived without killing. The Wolf didn’t know how hard it was to keep those instincts at bay or the fear he lived with every day that he would flip his blade on someone who didn’t deserve it.

In part of his mind, he knew that he went too far in his effort not to kill. Just look at the fiasco with Shishio. If Kenshin had been more willing to flip his blade and fight with his all, the way he had in the past, they wouldn’t have had as much trouble with Shishio and his men as they had. But Kenshin let his fear rule him and refused to turn the blade against the worst hitokori Japan had ever produced. He’d even gone so far as to get his master to teach him the final Mitsurugi Ryu technique, a technique that was so deadly it nearly ended up being fatal with his sakabatou.

Kenshin sighed, picking his way idly through a clump of heavy brush, amused when he heard Sano swear behind him. Sometimes it paid to be short.

“So tell me,” Sano said, yanking the brush out of his way, “why we’re traveling through the forest like this instead of taking the road.”

Kenshin flushed. He’d gotten so caught up in his thoughts that he hadn’t even noticed that he’d diverted them from the main road. “Force of habit,” he murmured, feeling slightly embarrassed.

“Habit?” Sano raised an eyebrow. “I’ve never seen you choose a forest over a road before.”

“It’s the way I got to Kyoto,” Kenshin said. He didn’t want to discuss why he had a fondness for forest routes. The reason was born of the Bakumatsu, after all, and that was a past he’d tried to leave behind him.

Sano, of course, wasn’t going to let him get away with it. “The woods? You walked through the woods all the way to Kyoto? Are you mad?”

“I didn’t get lost,” Kenshin said, defensive.

“Considering that you’re here in front of me, I’d say that much is obvious,” Sano said.

Kenshin winced. He hadn’t meant to force Sano into sarcasm. The man could get mean with it if the mood struck him right. “It’s a habit left over from the revolution,” he said, in way of apology. “I was sent after important men. Guards posted on the main roads made them unwise to travel.”

“The revolution is over,” Sano said. He left unsaid that with it over, Kenshin shouldn’t be falling back into habits formed over ten years ago.

“I was thinking.”

“Hard enough to wander into the forest?” Sano’s disbelief was palpable.

Kenshin shrugged, suddenly uncomfortable. He hadn’t wanted Sano to see how much the Bakumatsu still affected him this soon. It was inevitable that the man would see it eventually, but for him to find out on the first day of their journey was almost too much for him. “We can go back to the road if you want,” he offered.

Sano stared at him for a long moment, his hands stilling from where he’d been working on getting through the heavy brush. He frowned, looking down at his hands and then back at Kenshin. “Will this get us there faster?” he asked.

Kenshin pulled from memory the map leading to the village. While he’d learned during the Bakumatsu that forest paths tended to be faster than main roads, they often offered hazards that could slow you down. And sometimes they were slower, if they were heavy with brush the way this one seemed to be. After a few minutes of studying it, he shook his head. “We’ll cut out around ten minutes of travel time this way, but if this brush gets much thicker it’ll add time.”

Sano nodded. “Back to the road, then.”

Kenshin swallowed, then shook his head. “I’d rather not, Sano. Even with the quicker time, I don’t like roads much.”

Sano just looked at him, then turned and began walking towards the main road. “Tell me the name of the town I’m walking to and I’ll meet you there,” he called, not bothering to turn around as he spoke.

“Mitaka,” Kenshin said, numb. He stared after his friend in disbelief. Had that really just happened? He stared at the brush in front of him and pulled his sakabatou free of it, sliding it back into its sheath. While he’d planned to go on this journey alone, now that he had Sano’s company, he was reluctant to lose it so soon.

He caught up to Sano and settled into an uneasy silence that stretched between them as they made their way back to the main road. Kenshin had never allowed anyone else to decide the path he walked, either literally or figuratively. In a way, that scared him. It meant he was responsible for every kill he’d ever made. He’d been the one to accept the mantle of a hitokori when he could have rejected it. His ideals hadn’t allowed him the comfort of rejection.

Chapter 1      Chapter Index     Chapter 3

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