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Writing Petals (Rurouni Kenshin 1-shot ghost story) [PG-LV]


Yamisui
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[COLOR=gray][I]Author?s Note: ?Oufuda? are charmed characters written on scripts of paper, intended for good fortune but also for spells of warding.[/I][/COLOR]

[B][COLOR=red][center]{{{}}}[/center][/COLOR][/B]

[COLOR=purple][I]Crimson spurted through torn flesh, and then seeped through cloth. . .swiftly at first, but then slowing to a trickle, soaking through the long sleeves and spreading to pool on the dirt like a stain. Blood sank into the earth; a red halo around the flesh that had once housed it; the heart grown sluggish and slow.

The blow had nearly cut him in half.

?I will?I am? I??

Thoughts limped disjointedly through his mind, each fading before completion, like his rasping breath.

The heart clenched and let go, like a fist; then his fingers uncurled, relaxing into death like a flower opening. His eyes saw white petals falling, the last snow of his death, and then nothing.

Then he was moving.

Red seeped through the dirt, awash with spring rain, mixing blood with brown.

Then it rose, sucked hungrily into tiny roots like veins in the earth. Blood flowed into the wood, sweeping upward through bark and cell and atom in a rush of red.

Red twisted through the thicker roots, then rushed more swiftly through the darkness inside the trunk.

It should have been a slow seepage, over many years as the roots drank quietly; after many seasons of rain had purified the angry blood into water. It should have been slow; a long, languorous drinking of his death, while his soul had long since flown on to Buddha.

But his mind was fixed upon the curse of his anger, and the tree drank him in hungrily, welcomingly, up into branches as twisted as the roots, upraised like the arms of a man shaking his fists at the sky. Then it pushed out through the slender twigs, wreathed in leaves, where it burst into bloom.[/I][/COLOR]

[center][COLOR=red][B]{Petals}[/COLOR]

[COLOR=purple]I[/B][/center]

She moved down the lane idly, with all the measured languor of spring. Her wooden sandals clacked cheerily against the stones in the road. The bundle of scrolls she carried was heavy and awkward, but she hardly noticed it. She was young, and so was the season.

?Shall I carry that for you, Miss Kaoru??

The young woman paused, half-turning to glance over her shoulder. As she did so, a breeze rustled through the trees overhead, stirring the branches. A snow of blossoms showered over her, some landing in her hair; others collecting in the place where the collar of her kimono met the nape of her neck. Startled, she shifted the bundle in her arms, one hand moving to feel what had fallen on her head. Then she laughed.

?Oh,? she said. ?I guess it?s that time of year, isn?t it??

The red-haired swordsman walking behind her returned the smile. The scrolls nearly escaped the grip of Kaoru?s right arm, but she caught them in time with her knee.

?Here.? Kenshin moved to take it from her.

?No, it?s all right, I?ve got it,? she assured him, hoisting the bundle back into the cradle of both arms and turning to continue along the path.

?[I]Tch[/I].? This faint noise of derision came from the third member of the errand-goers, Sanosuke. He was walking with both eyes squinted, and both arms tucked lazily behind his head. ?Think they?re pretty, do you? The flowers??

Kaoru glanced at him suspiciously, bristling a bit at the derision in his tone.

?Yes. What of it??

Sanosuke?s mouth quirked.

?They say that the [I]sakura[/I] get their color from soil where blood was spilled,? he drawled. ?That?s why they bloom all over Japan. From centuries of war.?

Kaoru turned away from him, her long hair swaying against her back.

?Well, at least it?s not a total waste,? she said briskly. ?Even beautiful things can be made from all that ugliness.?

The tall man shrugged.

?If that?s how you want to look at it. Those flowers are stained with blood.?

Kaoru shook her head, scowling.

?You?re so superstitious, Sano,? she said in disgust. ?You think everything is either trying to suck out your soul or trick you into dying.?

?Everything [I]is[/I],? he insisted stubbornly.

Kaoru shook her head again, sighing in exasperation.

?Why can?t you be more like Kenshin?? she grumbled. ?[I]He?s[/I] not afraid of stupid things like that. He knows a flower is just a flower.?

Then she paused, waiting for Kenshin to agree.

Silence. Another drift of blossoms fell.

?Kenshin?? She stopped walking. Then she heard the swordsman?s soft, measured footsteps resume, and turned to see him smiling his ingenuous smile, as always.

?A flower is just a flower,? he agreed quietly.

Then he moved toward her and brushed some of the petals from her shoulder. She blushed a little, and started off again down the road. The red-haired swordsman followed close behind, watching the play of dappled sunlight on her flowered kimono. His smile had become a little sad.

He hadn?t brushed the [I]sakura[/I] off his own shoulders.[/COLOR]

[COLOR=purple][B]II[/B]

Spring nights in the [I]dojo[/I] were warm, and Kaoru slept on top of her quilts instead of beneath them. She would have liked to sleep with the sliding panel door open; the one that opened onto the garden. There was a nice breeze outside, and the smell of new leaves. However, she lived with two men (three if one counted Yahiko) and it wouldn?t be proper. Secretly, of course, she felt she wouldn?t mind if Kenshin were passing by and should happen to see. She rolled over, pressing her face into the pillow to suppress a smile.

That was when she felt the cold breeze touch the back of her neck.

She pushed herself up into a kneeling position, glancing sharply toward the sliding door.

?Yahiko!? She cried in outrage. ?What stupid prank. . .??

The outburst stuck in her throat.

He wasn?t there. And the door was closed.

[center][B]III[/B][/center]

?I [I]swear[/I] I didn?t do it!?

?I don?t care! Fifty more strikes before you rest.?

Kaoru sat on the [I]dojo[/I] steps in the morning sunlight, scowling at the boy in the courtyard, who was busy performing his [I]boken[/I] exercises. Yahiko wore a scowl nearly identical to hers. She was suspicious that he?d done something stupid like sneak into her room to pull a prank. Yahiko felt she was being a stupid girl and this was one morning he truly resented the fact that she was his teacher. His shaggy bangs flopped over the front of the strip of cloth he?d tied round his brow to keep the sweat out of his eyes.

It was warm in the mornings here, too. Warmer than at night.

?Are you trying to kill him?? Sanosuke had emerged from the cooler shade of the [I]dojo?s[/I] interior, for no reason in particular. It was the sort of morning good for wandering aimlessly around and puttering at unimportant tasks. Yahiko?s chopping motions became a sight more vicious; he was jealous of Sanosuke and his freedom.

?Shouldn?t you be out chopping wood?? Kaoru snapped. ?Or is that too much work when your stomach?s full of breakfast??

?Mmm,? Sano mumbled noncommittally, settling comfortably onto the wooden terrace in the sun, crooking one elbow beneath his head. ?Jumpy this morning, are we??

?Ugly-[I]sensei[/I] had a nightmare,? Yahiko crowed, emphasizing the ?Ugly? with a chop of the [I]boken[/I]. ?And she thinks it was because beforehand [I]I[/I] snuck into her room to scare her.?

?You had a nightmare, Miss Kaoru??

This time Kaoru flinched; Kenshin had come onto the terrace so quietly that no one had noticed. The swordsman had a way of walking so silently and unassumingly that it was possible to miss him until he was right beside you. It was how assassins trained themselves to move.

?Ah, eh-heh. . .? Kaoru scratched her head, embarrassed. ?No, I didn?t. I just told Yahiko earlier that it isn?t nice to sneak up on people while they?re sleeping. You?d give them bad dreams.?

?A-[I]HA[/I]!? Yahiko stopped practicing altogether, turning to point triumphantly in her direction. ?Something did scare you!?

Kaoru sighed, folding her arms.

?For your information, I only had [I]one[/I] dream and it was nice.?

Sanosuke, who had appeared to be dozing, now lazily opened one eye.

?Oh really? How ?bout dreaming me up some lunch next??

?You just had breakfast,? Yahiko told him, walking over to join them, dragging the [I]boken[/I] tip through the grass. ?I swear, I?m still [I]growing [/I]and I eat less than you.?

?Both of you go inside and finish cleaning the practice room and I?ll consider it,? Kaoru snapped.

As both of them rose to their feet and headed into the shade of the [I]dojo[/I], bickering, Kenshin turned to head in the general direction of the garden gate.

?And where are you going, with your sleeves rolled up?? Kaoru asked, turning to address him.

?Ah, I was going to chop the firewood,? Kenshin replied mildly, ?seeing as those two certainly haven?t done it.?

Kaoru?s sour expression softened.

?Oh, good. Just come back before lunch, or we won?t be able to cook anything.?

?That I will.?

?Oh, and Kenshin? Later can you check the outer wall of my room? I think there might be a hole or crack in the wood.?

He nodded.

The gate closed behind him with a soft clack.

Kaoru lay back onto the warm wood, resting her hands comfortably on her stomach and gazing up at the sky. The white clouds above the [I]dojo[/I] roof were moving so slowly she had to watch them for a while to be able to see that they were moving at all.

There was no wind.

[center][B]IV[/B][/center]

Kenshin returned an hour later with a sizeable stack of wood, which he carried under both arms. He crossed the garden with it, heading for the shed where Kaoru preferred him to stack it, but midway through the weight of the load got the better of him and he set it down to rest. He?d walked nearly a mile with it, after all. With a sigh that didn?t really mean anything, he straightened, rubbing at the small of his back.

He stood by the edge of the koi pond, which was lined with grey stones to keep the weeds from eroding the bank. The water was still as glass; the koi, having already been fed for the morning, swam contentedly near the murky bottom. Beyond the place in the sunlight, just before the grounds sloped downward in a steep series of terraces, there grew the courtyard?s one [I]sakura[/I] tree. It was a twisted old man, with roots knotted like human joints that had seen too many winters. The trunk was so thick it could have been centuries old.

Yet now its branches were laden with young blossoms, which drifted lazily over the pond.

Gazing at the tree, Kenshin realized that this was the first spring he?d spent here; the first spring in which he was no longer a wanderer.

The first year spent with those he could call friends.

?[I]Yes[/I],? he thought, ?[I]if one stares enough at something beautiful, it?s almost possible to imagine having led an entire lifetime of such peace.? [/I]

His smile faded, but his heart was calm. A breeze came, showering blossoms down over him in a soft rain, but he didn?t move. It was like butterfly wings brushing his face. Then the breeze passed, and still he remained there, reflecting on nothing.

Then, abruptly, a fish broke the surface in the pond, mouthing one of the flowers that had fallen onto the water. The faint splash made him blink, and he remembered what it was he was supposed to be doing. With a bit more alacrity, he bent and hefted the wood bundles back into his arms, frowning. The problem with emptying the mind of thought was that it got in the way of your goals. To someone who?d known the evil and the sorrow that he had, emptiness was a seductive thing.

The fish spat the flower out again, flipping underwater in distaste.

Kenshin started off toward the shed at a brisker pace, thinking now of lunch, and of the hole that might or might not be found in Kaoru?s wall.

[center][B]V[/B][/center]

That night Kaoru had difficulty falling asleep. Kenshin hadn?t found any cracks in the panels of her sliding door, and already she was beginning to think she?d imagined the wind from the night before. She was, in fact, ready to dismiss it entirely.

Until the noises began.

It sounded as if there were a fairly strong wind blowing outside, for no sooner had she lain down atop her quilts than something began scraping across the roof. It sounded like branches being dragged across the wood.

The noise startled her; she sat bolt upright. Then, irritated with herself for being startled, she redirected her irritation toward someone else.

[I]?I?ll make Sanosuke cut those branches tomorrow[/I],? she decided, balling her hands into fists in her lap. ?[I]He?s the tallest, and he needs to make himself more useful around here anyway.?[/I]

A moment passed, and the scraping ceased. Nodding in satisfaction, Kaoru flopped back down again, rolling over onto her side.

This time the scratching came again, and it did [I]not[/I] sound like it was from anywhere near the roof. It sounded as if bushes were being blown against the wall outside. It very well might have been, except that [I]there were no bushes outside[/I]. And it came oddly this time, in patterns. First there came a short series of noises, staccato, running along the length of the wall as if someone were testing the wall for weak spots. . .which was stupid and didn?t make sense. If they wanted in, they should be trying the door.

[I]This[/I] particular turn of thought made Kaoru?s pulse jump in her throat.

?Yahiko! Quit it!? she called.

And the tapping stopped. But Kaoru didn?t lie down again; she was waiting. Another moment passed, and then another, and slowly she let out the breath she?d been holding.

The scraping sound this time came louder and longer. It sounded deliberate this time.

Someone was there.

Kaoru clapped both hands over her mouth to keep from whimpering. She was sure it was a person; it sounded like nails scraping across the wood. The scraping persisted. It had to be Yahiko. An animal would claw repeatedly at one spot. This sounded as if it were traveling the length of the door. Regardless of who it was, she felt she shouldn?t show fear. This was [I]her[/I] [I]dojo[/I], and as its master she shouldn?t fear anyone on its grounds. Of course, telling herself what she [I]shouldn?t[/I] fear had very little to do with what she actually [I]did[/I] fear.

But it was time to put a stop to this.

Pulling her haori more securely about her slender shoulders, Kaoru rose to her feet and caught up her[I] boken[/I], which she kept on a notched sconce on the wall. Then she headed for the door. Her feet thumped softly across the wood floor.

Her hand was inches from the panel when the scraping stopped. It stopped so abruptly, so deliberately, that she flinched. She froze, standing with one arm poised to fling the door aside. She let out a faint, shaky breath, swallowed, and then willed herself to reach for the panel.

The instant her fingertips met wood, something very strange happened.

Red script traced its way across the panel. Lines of characters appeared, swift and quiet, seeping out of the dark wood as if someone had spilled ink there. They gleamed in the sudden, dark quiet of her room. Most peculiarly, they seemed to be spreading outward from the place on the door that she had touched. And they continued outward, though she recoiled, as if her touch had been the catalyst. And they did not cease their spread until the entire length of door panels was ablaze with them.

Slowly, Kaoru backed away from the door. The quiet was deafening.

She was beginning to have an inkling of why the scraping had stopped.

[I]?These characters. . .?[/I]

?[I]Oufuda[/I],? she whispered aloud.

Then she fled the room.

[center][B]VI[/B][/center]

By the time Kaoru had raced down the hall of the[I] dojo[/I] to the nearest room, she was nearly hysterical. The nearest room, unfortunately, was Yahiko?s.

And Yahiko was in it.

Yahiko was sleeping soundly, as if he had been sleeping for hours. As if he could not possibly have made it from outside her door to inside his room with the doors shut in the amount of time it had taken for the noise in her room to stop and her to flee it in terror.

Kaoru froze on the threshold, with his door slid halfway open, her heart slamming in her chest. He heard her heavy breathing and awoke, sitting up in bed and rubbing his eyes blearily.

?Kaoru-[I]nee-chan[/I]?? he mumbled.

Pressing her lips together firmly, Kaoru made an abrupt decision. Lunging forward, she grabbed his arm, and without further ado proceeded to haul him out of bed and back down the hall after her.

?Hey!? he hollered, coming more awake as he stumbled trying to keep up with her. ?What?s WRONG with you??

His shout must have awakened Sano or Kenshin, because immediately Kaoru heard noises in the rooms down the hall, but she didn?t stop. She was desperate to have someone else see the [I]oufuda[/I] on her door and proclaim it real before she went stark raving hysterical.

They reached her room just as the last of the characters faded into darkness.

?They. . .? Kaoru murmured, eyes widening in alarm.

But when she glanced over at Yahiko, his eyes were also wide with disbelief. He had seen them, too.

[center][B]VII[/B][/center]

Morning came, eventually. Kaoru had not slept, and neither had Kenshin, who was elected to stay up and keep her calm after the strange incident. He did so with good grace, and Kaoru felt no guilt whatsoever in making him sit up with her. It took her a long time to stop shaking.

By morning, everyone in the [I]dojo[/I] had their own theories as to what had happened. And of course, everyone hastened outside to see what Kaoru?s door looked like from the outside.

There were a long series of tracks left in the wood. Five. Like runnels left by human fingernails.

[center][B]VIII[/B][/center]

The next evening, it was decided that Kenshin would keep watch outside Kaoru?s room. This was decided by Kenshin himself, who said nothing on the matter of the[I] oufuda[/I] but expressed great concern that some sick individual was preying on a young woman under his protection. He slept most of the day in preparation for it, and now he sat on the terrace, sipping a cup of tea that Yahiko actually had the consideration to bring him. Sanosuke looked in on him at one point.

?Is that tea? If I were you, I?d be drinkin? [I]sake[/I]. They say sake tastes sour where. . ? The tall man paused before leaving, eyeing the moonlit garden with deep suspicion. ?Damned ghosts,? he muttered, and then shuffled off to bed.

Kenshin didn?t smile at this. Instead he watched the wind playing through the blossoms of the [I]sakura[/I] tree across the pond. There were less blossoms now than there had been before; the topmost branches were naked, and clawed at the waxing moon. His sword lay across his lap.

It was not until near morning that he awoke to realize he?d slept.

He had dreamed of a tree red with blossoms. It wept crimson petals onto the ground, where a dead man lay in its shadows.

[center][B]IX[/B][/center]

Kenshin was greatly surprised to find in the morning that Kaoru had experienced the same dream. But he didn?t tell her that he?d seen it, knowing that it would worry her. She was excited; she had found something.

?Look here, Kenshin,? she told him, pointing to a scroll she?d procured from her late father?s things. ?I did some digging today and I found this. Old [I]dojo[/I] records, kept by my family. This one was my grandfather?s, dating back to the Meiji Revolution. It mentions that his family was divided by the war; one brother on each side.? She paused, and her face fell a little. ?It finally came to my grandfather?s brother coming to kill him. But my grandfather?s best friend killed his brother instead, as he crept into our [I]dojo[/I] at night. And then. . .it was dark. Well, maybe that wasn?t the reason. But my grandfather killed his own best friend, out of rage over the death of his brother. . .? Another pause. ?. . .even though his friend had protected him from his brother, who wanted to kill him.?

Kenshin was quiet for a bit. Then he said, ?Loyalty is a strange thing,? and left it at that.

?But afterward,? Kaoru continued, pointing to a particular line on the scroll, ?my grandfather recorded strange happenings at the [I]dojo[/I]. He believed he was being haunted. Whether by his brother or his best friend, he never knew. But always these things occurred around his door. . .my door. That was why he had a priest inscribe [I]oufuda[/I] on it. The paint?s faded, but the characters grow bright when the spirit approaches.?

She laid the scroll down, across her lap, and looked up at the swordsman.

?What should I do, Kenshin? Do we get a priest to come??

Kenshin looked thoughtful.

?That we should. But don?t you think your grandfather?s priests would have exorcised this spirit if they could??

Kaoru shook her head, mystified.

?I don?t know. But after my grandfather died of old age, and my father began teaching the peaceful art of the [I]Kamiya Kashin[/I] style, the haunting stopped. I can?t think why it?s started again [I]now.[/I] . .?

Kenshin nodded rising to his feet.

?Today we?ll send for a priest.?

[center][B]X[/B][/center]

The priest came. He inspected every inch of the [I]dojo[/I], and he found nothing.

?There is no relic here,? he insisted. ?Nothing that could bind a man?s soul to the earth. But don?t worry; the [I]oufuda[/I] on your door will not allow inhuman hands to open it. The spirit cannot pass.?

Kaoru wasn?t reassured.

Before the priest left, he said to Kenshin in low tones, ?Have a care, young man. There is a shadow at your shoulder.?

Kenshin bowed politely as the old man stepped out the gate, but he paid little heed to the warning. He?d always suspected there might be a shadow.

[center][B]XI[/B][/center]

There was no wind that night. The sky was brilliant with the hunter?s moon, low and orange and glaring like a demon?s eye. Kenshin sat again on the terrace outside Kaoru?s chamber, watchful and silent. Yahiko slept fitfully, dreaming about wars he?d never seen. Sanosuke sat cross-legged in his room, beneath the wan glow of a brazier, drinking [I]sake[/I]. He sipped at it, and then peered moodily into the depths of his cup. It was bitter.

Kaoru lay awake, staring at the ceiling. She could hear, faintly, Kenshin?s calm breathing beyond her wall, and it was a comfort. But she didn?t sleep. She was wondering why, after all those years of silence, the spirit of her grandfather?s friend or brother had chosen to come after [I]her[/I]. She could think of nothing that had changed since her father?s time. She fought for peace, as did all who lived under her roof. They were all good people; certainly undeserving of the spirit?s vengeance.

?Why do you hate us?? she asked, into the listening darkness. ?I want to see peace here. Hurting me won?t bring you peace. . .?

She fell silent after this utterance, listening for an answer. Then she realized she could no longer hear Kenshin breathing.

[center][B]XII[/B][/center]

?Why do you hate her?? Kenshin asked. He stood on the terrace between the shadow and the door, with one hand on his sword-hilt and the other at his side. Instinct told him to draw and rush. Caution stayed his hand. This thing was not alive. ?Why do you want so desperately to pass the [I]oufuda[/I] to harm her? She?s innocent. Of all of us here, she?s the most. . . If you want revenge, take it on [I]me[/I].?

In front of him, the shadow wavered. The moon shown through it in places; in others it was dark enough to appear solid. It wore the vague shape of a man.

Kenshin?s blue eyes narrowed.

?Or is it that you hate her for the peace that surrounds her?? Again the shadow wavered. This time, Kenshin understood. This was a soul like his enemies?, who came seeking him out to draw him back into his warlike past, or to kill him trying. ?You hate her [I]because[/I] she doesn?t know the pain and the strife that you had. You hate her because she has what you never lived to see.?

A shiver passed down the shadow?s length; anger.

?If it is death you want, then take me,? Kenshin said, eyes fierce with a killer?s gleam. ?Take [I]me [/I]instead.?

Then it flew at him. He could do nothing. A [I]katana[/I] could not slay a dead man. Then his body went cold, and his mind fell backward into sleep.

It took him.

[center][B]XIII[/B][/center]

Kaoru had risen just risen onto her knees when the door slid open. Her heart pounded painfully in her chest, but then she remembered the priest saying that inhuman hands couldn?t pass the [I]oufuda[/I] on the panel. And it was a man entering the room.

?What?s going on?? she asked, squinting against the sudden brilliance of moonlight. ?Did you see something??

She barely saw the gleam of metal; the flash of blade; before the sword descended over her. It was aimed for her head; it caught in her hair as she rolled sideways to avoid it. The point slammed into her bedding and sank into the floor beneath. Her hair pulled sharply as she tugged herself free, lurching to her feet. Her attacker wrenched the blade free, spraying feathers in every direction.

?K-. . .Kenshin??

Kaoru had moved to the wall, taking up her [I]boken[/I], and from this angle she saw who it was. He was coming toward her in the shadows. His head was bowed; he couldn?t possibly see her, but he was advancing straight toward her nonetheless. His movements were slow and disjointed; it was like watching a dead man walk.

?Kenshin!? she cried, backing away from him. Her back hit the door panel. He made no sound; he was eerily silent.

Again the sword lifted. Kaoru threw herself sideways, stumbling onto the terrace outside. Again he slashed at her; low this time, toward her feet. She stumbled backward, lost her footing, and fell. He raised the sword, hilt down, and stabbed downward.

Kaoru managed to strike the blade aside with her [I]boken[/I], but Kenshin was strong and it was only deflected a little. The point grazed her side, pinning the fabric of her [I]haori[/I] to the wood. She had saved herself, but now she was pinned.

And now she understood; this was not Kenshin.

He knelt over her, keeping her fixed in place with one hand on the sword-hilt, and his other hand closed around her throat.

?Kaoru-[I]chan[/I]!? She heard someone shouting; Sanosuke.

Her eyes rolled sideways, and she saw him reach her door from inside the hall. The thing crouched over her looked over as well, and abruptly the door clacked shut in Sano?s face. She looked back up at her enemy, eyes tearing with the effort of breathing, and with fear. Her throat burned for air.

?[I]I. . .can?t. . .undo. . .what was done[/I],? she gasped. ?[I]I?m. . .sorry. .[/I] .?

The hand on her throat loosened fractionally. Her eyes widened in pleading. She had not dared to hope that she knew what this creature wanted, or why it wanted what it wanted from her. Yet now. . .

?I. . .promise. . .I will. . .find. . .way,? she whispered. Her breath whistled in her nose; she was seeing stars.

[I]?Let her go[/I].?

Her eyes widened further. This was Kenshin?s voice, coming from Kenshin?s lips. Her vision was darkening, and now she thought she saw a shadow beside him. Part of it was inside him; it was moving [I]through[/I] him.

?I didn?t offer myself to you for you to use me to kill her,? Kenshin said, in a low, dangerous tone. ?Take my life if you will, but not hers.?

The hand around Kaoru?s throat loosened further, and then fell away. The shadow blurred, but didn?t vanish. Kaoru tried to sit up, staring in horror, but the sword still pinned her in place.

?Let her [I]go[/I],? Kenshin repeated. The shadow shifted further from him, emerging from inside his body. He wrenched the sword from the ground, freeing Kaoru?s [I]haori.[/I] But she was still trapped beneath him. ?We will lay you to rest.?

Angry, the shadow sank into his sword arm, lifted it, and struck.

Kaoru saw the length of the blade descending toward her chest, saw the moon mirrored in steel. It would cut her in half.

It never touched her.

Instead it cut into wood; sank into the wood of her [I]boken[/I], which Kenshin had caught up with his free hand and moved to intercept the blow.

The shadow strained against him, one arm against the other, but he would not give way.

?You can?t win,? Kenshin admonished, between teeth clenched with the strain of fighting the spirit?s will. ?I. . .am. . [I].not[/I]. . .ruled. . .by my. . .[I]sword arm[/I].[I] Go.?[/I]

A rush of wind filled the place, cold and fragrant. The shadow fell away from the swordsman?s body and dispersed, swirling around them both in a flurry of petals. Kenshin cast aside both the [I]boken[/I] in his left hand and the sword in his right, and fell across Kaoru, thinking to shield her from the spirit?s fury. Kaoru whimpered in terror, her voice muffled by the front of Kenshin?s [I]haori [/I]pressed against her mouth.

The wind around them howled a death cry.

Then it subsided.

Nothing came after.

White petals, tainted pink, fell softly around them like snow. The air was still.

Slowly, Kenshin sat up, moving off Kaoru and giving her room to rise. For a long while, neither of them spoke. They were staring in amazement at the surrounding garden, where everything was as it should be.

Then there came a loud crash from inside the [I]dojo[/I]. Sanosuke had flung Kaoru?s inner door so roughly that it rattled on its runners.

?What the hell is going on here?? he shouted. Yahiko spilled into the room after him.

But Kenshin?s attention was diverted by something: the flowers, lying broken on the terrace where they knelt.

?Miss Kaoru,? he said slowly. ?I believe I know what we?re to look for, that I do.?

Looking at him, Kaoru nodded slowly.

?The spirit always tried to come through your door,? he went on. ?The [I]oufuda[/I] were inscribed on your door. From what wood is it carved??

Slowly, Kaoru turned to gaze out over the garden, toward branches that clawed at the moon.

?[I]Sakura.?[/I]

[center][B]XIV[/B][/center]

They knelt beneath the cherry tree, in its shade, bearing thin sticks of incense. They immediately sent Yahiko to fetch a priest; the same one. He came and built them a crude shrine there, at the base of the roots, where both had dreamed the body lay. Now they knelt together before it, in quiet observance.

?What is it we?re waiting for?? Kaoru asked softly, looking down at the incense stick smoking gently in her hands. ?What sign that it?s worked??

Kenshin shook his head. He didn?t know. They knelt in silence long into the night, until the hunter?s moon sank beneath the treetops. Then there came a rush of wind, where there should have been no wind, rising from the tree into the air beyond, soft as a sigh.

Together, they laid the incense on the brazier inside the shrine, clasping their hands in front of them in reverence for the dead.

The final petal drifted gently from the tree, leaving the branches bare at last.[/COLOR]
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