It's hard to wake up and realize that you are a cold-blooded murderer.

         Cold-blooded. That's the way it has to be, when you kill someone. Lots of someones. You have to be dead yourself, in a sense, so that all those deaths can't touch you. You have to be soulless. So that, after you wipe the blood from your sword and wash your scarlet-stained hands, you can continue. And you can sleep peacefully in the relief of oblivion, undisturbed by the razor-sharp blade of remorse that can kill, if not your body, then your sanity in an infinitely less-merciful manner than the deaths you have inflicted on others...

         But the soul can't really die, I've discovered. It can only sleep, suspended in an icy cocoon, waiting to be reborn in all its terrible raw beauty; waiting for an unwitting spark to wake it and set it free so it can rage up, white hot, out of its frozen confines, burning through the numbness and...

         Damn. My hands are shaking. I come to myself again, surging out of my dark inner depths to feel the warm sun on my back, the soft grass beneath my knees... I quickly grab a rice bowl and plunge it into the bucket of warm soapy water with the rest of the dishes and wash fervently, hoping that Kaoru is too absorbed in helping Yahiko with his kendo practice to notice my momentary lapse...

         She notices, of course. She doesn't let me get away with much, if she can help it. I shouldn't be thinking about this, in front of her where I might slip. Especially since I know that, no matter what she's occupied with, she's always watching me out of the corner of her eye, keeping track of me on some level, as if afraid I might vanish without her constant vigilance keeping me safely rooted here to her dojo.

         But sometimes, all the mental discipline in the world can't keep the memories away... though I've found that washing dishes helps. So does laundry. And cooking.

         Kaoru leaves Yahiko to his exercises, and comes over to me. "Kenshin?"

         I look up, wide-eyed and innocent. "Yes, Kaoru-dono?" Her eye barely twitches at that. She's never asked me to stop calling her by the honorific, but I can tell that she doesn't like the distance that it puts between us.

         I don't like it either, I think. But I also think that I... I...

         I don't know what I think.

         "Is something wrong? You look distracted." Her concern melts into a sudden scowl. "Has someone challenged you, is that it?" At the thought, she's suddenly livid, and I'm not sure if she's angry with me, or with the supposed challenger. For a moment, I wonder if she's going to pound me on the head again, but she refrains, merely clenching her fists instead. "You're not thinking of sneaking off on another duel without letting us know about it, are you? Who is it this time? Yakuza? Some weird government faction?"

         That brings Yahiko over in a flash. He holds his practice sword so that its tip is almost right between my eyes. "Ha, Kenshin, don't hold out on me, I want to come too! You saw me practicing, I'm ready! Who is it? I'll kick his ass!"

         "Oro?" I respond helplessly, pulling my now-steady hands out of the dishwater, holding them up palm outward to ward off their suspicions. "What are you talking about ?"

         Kaoru blinks, and Yahiko lowers the practice sword, childish disappointment flashing in his eyes. "Isn't there going to be a fight?"

         I smile. "No, there's not."

         Yahiko turns and scuffs his foot against the ground. "Aw, man, it's been too quiet around here lately!"

        Kaoru nods, still eyeing me with open suspicion. "Well, if it's not a challenge, then what's wrong? You looked as if you'd been struck by lightning."

         I shrug, still smiling. "Oro... Everything's fine, Kaoru-dono." I say it in a way that communicates, without being offensive, that I've said all I'm going to say on the subject.

         "Well, if you're sure..."

         I assure her that everything is fine, and she reluctantly wanders back to the practice area, where she immediately puts Yahiko back to work on his katas.

         I watch him practice for a moment. He's good. Focused, and determined -- a rare quality in a boy his age.

         Sometimes, I can almost remember what it was like back when I was a boy, without a single drop of shed blood on my conscience. Full of righteous rage, ready to change the world... and too willing to kill my own soul for the sake of what I considered a greater cause. A new era for Japan, free of the violence and corruption that was the signature of the Shogunate; an era free of the "might makes right" mentality, where ordinary people wouldn't have to live in fear.

         I liked that dream, even then.

         Once the decision was made, it was easy. I buried my own soul far from the reaches of any human feeling. I became no longer human, but merely a tool. The instinctive will behind the sword and nothing more. No love, no hate, no desire. Just Hitokiri. Manslayer. A tool of perfect accuracy, wielded by the new government to forcibly eliminate the old, barbaric social order, and get the job done as swiftly and efficiently as possible.

         I fully expected, in the beginning, to die for the cause. I certainly didn't expect to be such an effective weapon.

         I often wonder what cruel twist of fate, what laughing kami, bestowed me with such deadly talent, only to then fling me through grim circumstance into the apprenticeship of the one arrogant mortal master who could teach me the skill required to perfect the art of inflicting death. And then, to be in a place and time of civil war, with a people who needed that skill...

         I think that if I had known, when I joined the Ishin Shishi, that I was going to survive beyond my usefulness as a tool -- that I would be required to actually live in the glorious new Meiji era that my sword had carved out of flesh and blood -- I would have thought twice about my decision.

         Maybe.

         I don't know.

         All I know is that my soul is now awake. It's awake and burning. The shattered remains of its frozen chrysalis lie in the dark depths of my mind, never melting, always there to remind me. And my sleep is no longer the obliviousness of the dead, but rather, full of slack faces. Wide, lifeless eyes. And rivers of blood.

        I will never kill again. That is the oath I took when my awakening soul left me shivering, retching and weeping over...

         No.

         I cannot remember that now. I force the memory back into the depths of the past, away from my heart. For if I remember, it will show in my face, my eyes, and Kaoru will know.

         And I don't want her to worry...

         So I hold the memory of that moment away. It is enough to remember the oath alone.

         There is a fine line that separates my living oath from the Hitokiri within me. For he still lives as well; cold, fierce, and utterly merciless, within the shards of that frozen chrysalis. And I know all too well that if the soul can be reawakened, it can also be lost again to the ice...

         In battle, the line between granting life or inflicting death is so very thin.

        But now, even after ten years of trying to atone, of using my skills to protect and serve rather than destroy... my dreams remain filled with the countless accusing faces of the dead. So often in sleep, I find myself sitting, like a broken, weary king, atop a mountain of bones in an endless landscape of carnage...

         None of those men were innocents. And yet, they were like me. Fighting with all their strength for what they believed in...

         I'm almost used to the dreams now, after so long. I take comfort in my conviction that I am, at last, doing the right thing, and that perhaps someday the dead will be appeased. And it has been years since I have awoken in the night with a strangled shout caught in my throat, the smell of blood in my nostrils...

         Perhaps that is a good sign.

         And yet... as the dreams continue night after night, I can't help but wonder, with the quiet beginnings of despair, if it will ever be enough...

         "Ken-nii! Ken-nii!" A tugging on my sleeve calls my attention to Suzume-chan, Kaoru's youngest adopted sister, looking up at me with wide hopeful eyes. "Come play with us!"

         "Yes, come play!" Ayame-chan is now tugging at my other sleeve, pulling me away from the sudsy water.

         Their laugher is contagious, and I follow them, only too willing to escape my own company.

         I lose myself in their latest game, basking in their warm youthful exuberance, and feeling, with mixed emotions, their absolute trust in me. I can feel Kaoru watching me as well; can almost sense her smile. And Yahiko, too, pausing in his practice to wonder with idle curiosity once again why the strongest warrior he knows so often plays with children.

         I hope he never has to know.

        Hope
~The End~

        This fic is dedicated to Avatar, who introduced me to the first 28 episodes of Rurouni Kenshin.