I spun around as I heard a wild yell behind me and crouched low just in time to avoid a blade aimed at my neck. Before the soldier wielding the sword had time to realize that he had missed and draw back, I shifted all my weight to my left foot and lashed out with the right one with perfectly trained control. The side-kick attack landed in the pit my opponent's stomach and I heard his air whoosh out of him as I had intended. He stumbled and fell backwards onto the ground, gasping for his lost breath. I sprang back to my feet, clutching my sword in both hands once again. The ruthlessness of battle had me tightly in its grip and I finished the man before he had time to regain his air or his feet. I didn't even pause to look down at him. In a battle, it is kill or be killed, there is no time for remorse.
The next man came at me from the front and I parried his attack, throwing his blade off my own with a grunt. My master had always taught me not to wage a war of strength with a larger opponent sword to sword, but instead to throw them off the second you block their attack. It saves your strength in battle and gives you the advantage of distance. It had saved me many times. But, this battle had gone on too long. I did not know how much longer even that strategy was going to help me.
My foe immediately came at me again and I swung my katana in a crescent to block his high attack. I braced my feet as I realized that the angle this time was going to prevent me from throwing him off. Instead I caught his blade on my own in my block and there it stayed. He bore down on me, forcing me backwards as he tried to get my strength to give out. Sweat and blood ran into my eyes and my already exhausted muscles screamed with the effort of holding the much bigger man off. He sneered at me, light gleaming off his eye teeth and pushed down even harder against my resistance.
My spent arm muscles quivered violently and then gave in to the pressure, my sword sliding off his blade and out of its blocking position. I swiftly tried to jump backwards to avoid certain death as my opponent's sword came down at me with incredible speed. I had not leaped quickly enough and as I landed, his katana caught me down the center of my chest. I gasped in shock and pain, white light dancing in front of my eyes. Don't let down your guard because of a little injury! My mind screamed at me and I steeled myself. To give into pain now would be certain death at this man's hands. Forcing my arm muscles back into action, I swung my sword up just in time to break the man's second lunge. Our swords clanged together and the man snarled in my face before suddenly gasping and stumbling backwards in shock.
"A woman?!" He hissed, staring at my chest in amazement.
I involuntarily glanced down momentarily to see blood blossoming onto my kimono from my wound. But, that didn't matter. What mattered was that the sword slash had shredded my layers of clothes and had revealed my secret for any person who looked at me directly.
Taking advantage of my opponent's shock, I swiftly swung my katana in a two-handed arc that ripped the air and left the metal ringing in my hands. The man's head fell from his body, his features frozen in the look of horrified amazement so common on the battlefield. Not even staying still long enough to see the body fall, I spun around, looking for the next opponent. None came at me, the battle was coming quickly to an end at last. I had to get out of here. My secret was everything to me. It could never be discovered. Dying was better than facing all the charges that would stand against me.
In desperation I clasped my tattered clothes together in front of my breasts with my left hand, and held my sword in my right, blocking and parrying the few attacks that came flying at me. I could feel my strength beginning to leave me, I was losing too much blood from the wound. Adrenilin alone kept me going, knowing that I had to get away. I released my hold on my clothes just long enough to clasp my sword in both hands and lunge at the final soldier in my path to escape.
At last, I broke clear of the battlefield and saw the forest just beyond. My vision was swimming, but I was determined to make it to the safety of that forest where I could not be found. My secret above all things was important to me and keeping it had become second nature. Even if I had the strength to seek a doctor, I could not go to one for this injury. I trusted no one. Seeking escape in the dense forest seemed the only answer.
I staggered to the tree line and then into the forest itself. The dead branches of the trees whipped at my face as I stumbled blindly. I did not even feel their sting as I pushed my way through, moving farther and farther away from the battle. I shoved a row of whip-like saplings out of my way and stumbled into a small clearing. Stopping, I slowly turned around and peered through the winter forest, but I could no longer see the battlefield. I could still hear it, but that didn't matter. Panting from my efforts to keep my secret safe until the end, I slowly sank down to my knees, my strength giving out at last. I could go no further. The wound was still bleeding openly and the white around me was stained red. I did not want to die, but I feared punishment more than death. So, like a cat, I had chosen to disappear into the woods and die quietly with dignity where no one could find me. Sheathing my sword for the last time, I curled up against a fallen log to shield myself from the wind and waited. Before losing consciousness, I fervently hoped that this revolution would be successful and a better world than the one that drove me to this end would come to be.
As light penetrated my closed lids and warmth filled my bones, I stirred, but didn't open my eyes, thinking to myself, "Well, this can't be hell if it feels this good… Buddha must be more forgiving than I've given him credit for." Just then, the sound of wood popping in a fire jerked me fully into consciousness and I sat up abruptly, gasping as pain shot through my chest and I nearly passed out again. However, I did not have long to consider the pain and the fact that I obviously was not dead as my eyes fell on the person sitting quietly against the wall a few feet from where I was lying on my futon. The Battousai.
My hand went to the sword slash I had received and I found that it had been carefully tended and my blood-soaked kimono changed. My blood turned to ice and my mind began to race. He knew my secret. He must have somehow found me in my forest refuge, tended the wound himself, and then carried me all the way back to the Ishin house. Why? To see that I was brought to justice? I violently shuddered inwardly. This had been my worst nightmare for the past five years. However, I had to pull myself together. I hadn't survived as long as I had by losing my head when I got in tight spots. I steeled myself and looked up again, meeting the cold eyes that had been watching me intently ever since I had regained consciousness. I lifted my chin, ignoring the pain any movement caused and said as evenly as I could, "How did you find me?"
He considered me for a moment before answering quietly, "I saw you get slashed and then disappear into the woods. When the battle ended minutes later, I followed your blood trail."
I furiously cursed myself silently. How could I have been so stupid as to forget that my trail would be clear to anyone who had happened to see my flight and wanted to follow me? That mistake could very well cause me much more suffering than the wound had. However, if there is one thing can't be changed, it is the past. Now that my momentary stupidity had put me into this situation, I would have to find a way out of it.
The Battousai had fallen silent again. I had no idea what kind of a man he was or how he planned to handle this. In truth, I feared him. Like all members of the Ishin, I knew far better than to underestimate him by his small size. He was the only man in Kyoto capable of breaking the Gatotsu of the Wolf of Mibu, the only man who had acquired only a single cross-shaped scar throughout his many battles. He was not someone to be taken lightly in any sense. I had to tread carefully if I wanted to make it through this alive. Surely he wouldn't have bothered to save me only to turn me over to the authorities. Meeting his dark eyes again, I asked bluntly, "What do you plan to do?" My voice shook slightly, despite my best efforts to control it.
Again, he did not answer immediately. When his response did come, it was spoken in the same quiet tone as before, "Nothing, at the moment. Though, it's been a long time since something surprised me."
I felt my face flush involuntarily at his words. Despite my embarassment, I had thought I had seen a slight twitch at the corner of his mouth when he spoke. Encouraged by the thought that perhaps I had, I ventured, "All I ask is that I be allowed to explain before you decide. I know it is more than I deserve. But, please, hear me out."
Shifting into a more comfortable position against the wall, he nodded, the firelight catching his hair as he moved, "An explanation was the next thing I was going to ask for. The truth." He said simply and he crossed his arms in front of himself.
I took this as a signal to begin and starting telling my tale. I did omit some things, things that no person alive except for myself and Katsura were aware of, but what I did choose to reveal was the truth he had asked for. Lying would only make my situation worse. I did my best to emphasize the more dramatic parts with Geisha skill in hopes of convincing this so called merciless man to maybe develop some for me. He did not interrupt or change his expression once during the entire telling, just listened without comment. After I finished, silence hung thick in my small room. Being unable to bear it, I spoke again, this time with real feeling, "I knew when I chose to disguise myself that I was choosing a short life. But I would rather have a short life of freedom than live to a pathetic old age in any kind slavery."
The Battousai's head shot up at this and his eyes locked onto mine. Something was there in those normally dead eyes. Something I had said had sparked a well concealed memory in his mind. His eyes bore into mine and I swallowed to ease my dry throat before saying what was truly on my mind, well aware that I was seriously pushing my luck. However, I had to say it as it was my whole reason for doing what I had done. "I will be no man's plaything." I finished, the words coming out in a hiss I hadn't intended.
I saw the corner of his mouth twitch for sure this time and then he smiled slightly. I blinked in utter amazement. This was the first time I had seen anything even close to a positive emotion from him in all these months and it altered his face completely. It made him look… gentle. His eyes had even changed color slightly. They were lighter, and some of the deadness was gone. Perhaps there was something more to him than what we had all been told. I stared at his changed face for a moment before mentally shaking myself for these thoughts. This is the most dangerous man in all of Kyoto, Sasaki. Get a grip. I ordered myself. I let out the breath I didn't know I was holding and waited for him to respond to what I had said.
Finally, his eyes fell from the locked gaze and he said, "Do not worry, that won't be your fate. Not yet. I won't be the one to give you away. I promise." He stood then, and in the same fluid motion, slid his two swords back into his belt. "However, perhaps you should consider wearing something across… there that is not so easily cut."
Was that a blush I saw? Battousai the manslayer blushing! That did it. Something in the wall I had built around myself gave away. He might have a reputation for being a merciless demon, but that blush proved that under his hard facade he was still just a young man who had gotten caught up in the thrill of the changing times and the desire to make our world a better place. Now, he was just trying to survive the only way he could. Not so different from myself at all. Not a monster, not a bloodthirsty killer, just another human being. Another human being who had saved my life. I did not have time to dwell on my surprise or my epiphany as he was already turning to leave.
"Wait!" I called to him, rising slightly on the futon, "Thank you, Battousai -"
"Kenshin." He said sharply, cutting me off.
I furrowed my brow at him, "What?"
"My name is not Battousai. It's Kenshin Himura. Referring to me as that is thanks enough."
I had never really thought about his name. Everyone had always just called him Battousai from the day that I first joined the Ishin. I had never stopped to consider that he might not like his nickname. Once again, I had to quickly get over my surprise as he began moving towards the door. I called, "Wait… Himura. It may be enough for you, but it's not enough for me. I am not a fool, I know few other men would have been so kind-"
"It wasn't kindness. The Ishin needs as many good warriors as it can get if we're going to end this and bring this bloody era to a close." He muttered, the cold wall snapping back up around him in front of my eyes. He seemed annoyed and I realized that he hadn't known he was letting me see a bit beyond his facade until I had called him kind and I mentally kicked myself for pushing him away with it.
"Okay, not kindness," I quickly amended. "Still, I owe you a life debt. How about you and I become battle partners until this revolution is over? Or at least until I can repay you for what you did today." I offered, the words coming out in a rush. What was I thinking? Why had I suggested such a thing? I knew why. For years I had lived trusting no one enough to let them ever get close for fear they would learn the truth. I risked going into battle without someone watching my back. I was tired of being all alone. Since this man now knew my secret and had promised to keep it, maybe he was someone I could finally trust. It was a gamble, but one I was willing to take.
He turned and looked back at me over his shoulder, amazement showing in his dark eyes, "That's twice this day you've managed to surprise me. No one trusts Battousai the Manslayer's sanity enough to risk anything like that." He finally replied in a bitter tone.
Then I saw the small smile return, starting in his eyes and spreading to his whole face. I knew that he had made up his mind, and held my breath as I waited for his answer.
"I usually prefer keeping to myself and not involving others in anything I do, but…" He stopped abruptly, obviously unwilling to share any more with me just yet.
"Partners then, Miss…" he stopped and blinked, "What is your name? Obviously, it's not Taro."
I weakly returned his smile and answered, "Yukiyo Sasaki. But, please, just call me Yuki, Himura."
He nodded and said, "Yuki it is then. Now, get some rest and try not to move around too much or your wound will reopen. You've already lost a lot of blood. You can't afford to lose more. Good night, Miss Yuki." Then he left the room, shutting the door quietly behind him.
So started our hesitant partnership. At first we were only in each other's company on the battlefield, each of us watching out for the other in the heat of battle to make sure no enemy attacked from behind while we were fighting another opponent. However, before long we began occasionally taking tea, sake, and meals together, much preferring each other's company to the rowdy, older men of the Ishin. During these quiet times, I worked subtly at penetrating Kenshin's hard shell and bringing him out of the deep depression and self-loathing that I found was the cause of his solitary silence. Very slowly, each of us became more comfortable in the other's company and our partnership grew into a friendship that continued long after I had paid off my life debt.