Aya's eyes flew open, the scream tearing from her mouth and yanking her free of the terrors haunting her sleep.

Rising quickly from the mattress, she tossed the covers away and studied the fusuma a few scant feet from her bed with frightened eyes. Aya's muscles tightened on reflex, almost as if expecting something to crash through the sliding partitions. Sweat beaded across her brow, chest and back. The bedsheet beneath her was damp, leaving it feeling clammy and uncomfortable against her skin. Her heart was pounding so hard, she felt as though it was trying to beat its way out of her chest. She couldn't stop shaking. The dream had felt so...real.

No, not a dream; a nightmare.

She tried to swallow with what little moisture was in her mouth. It didn't help. Her throat was as dry as cotton.

As if realizing for the first time since waking that she was safe from the horrors witnessed while asleep, Aya tried to relax. Pulling her knees up to her chest and leaning forward, she wrapped her arms around them. Why did she keep having that same dream? Though years had passed since that terrible nightmare came to an end, Aya couldn't shake the feeling that something was…wrong, off somehow. It was something that she couldn't remember.

Or maybe, didn't want to remember.

With a weary sigh, Aya buried her head against her knees. Taking a deep, shuddering breath, she tightened her arms around her knees. The pounding in her chest was beginning to lessen, those dogging and terrible images from her 'dream' finally fading off into a half-remembered haze.

On the nightstand beside the bed, a small, oscillating fan heater continued to drone quietly. The sweat on her body made the air coming from cracked widow above her bed even colder than it actually was. She found herself shivering, not from just the sudden coolness creeping across her naked skin in the otherwise warm room, but also from the idle thoughts that kept finding their way back into her mind in wake of the nightmare.

Looking up, Aya glanced around her room. There was very little to be found. Two nondescript standlamps sat in adjacent corners on the same wall as the fusuma. Just next to the one on the left was a small dresser. A doorless closet occupied the other side of the room and beside it was a lacquered, floor-level table. Atop it, resting on a crimson ceremonial cloth inscribed on all edges with beautiful Japanese script comprised of both kanji and hiragana, sat a splendid, cherrywood sword stand that held a sheathed wakizashi; a sharp, short-bladed weapon she was more than familiar with.

The cool air of a late October evening flowed through the curtainless window lazily. Somber light from a setting sun continued to filter into the room in weak, sporadic rays. The shallow hues of an approaching winter bathed it in dancing splotches of yellow and orange as the tree branches swept back and forth in the cold wind.

The drab walls were devoid of the typical trappings found in the room of a girl her age. No posters of favorite pop stars or popular anime characters or cute boys or anything else that could be considered normal. Even the color of the walls and ceiling were uncharacteristically gloomy, a dull smoke gray more befitting a mortuary that that of a fourteen-year-old girl's room. Nothing around her could be considered ordinary. But then, there was nothing ordinary about her.

Or her life.

No, what lay pinned to almost every wall in her room was something that no everyday girl could feel comfortable with. Shot from multiple angles, numerous pictures of various shapes and sizes hung to her left and right where there was space; all of which depicted men. Their ages ranged from early forties to late fifties. Some of them were crossed out with heavy lines of black marker or sliced or torn in half, while others were yet to be touched.

Those men were her life. They were her reason for being. Men like them had poisoned her mind with dark dreams that left her feeling afraid, alone and violated. Men like them had taken away her innocence and left nothing but an insatiable emptiness in its wake; an emptiness that could only meet temporary appeasement in the arms of one person. They had made her regret ever living through the Hell she'd survived. She hated men like them.

She hated all men.

A series of lights taps against the fusuma startled Aya from her thoughts.

"Yes," she began, quickly reaching down to pull the covers back up around her. "Come in."

There was a pause and then the wide, panel of a door slid open.

"Are you alright, Aya," a woman asked as she walked into the room, half-open robe flowing gracefully behind. Aya could see that the delicate curvatures of her face were creased with worry. It sent a warm rush flooding through her. "I was in the living room reading," she continued, "and I thought I heard you cry out."

Aya gave a light smile as she let the covers slip back onto her lap. Sakoda Iwa was her governess, the woman who had taken her in after she was orphaned. Her caretaker for six years now, she was beautiful and vibrant. The woman stood as a centerpiece to a world that had been built to shield her from the pain of her past. She was also the closest thing Aya had to a mother.

Iwa helped her to not only push past the hurt caused by men, but also to gain a sense of strength from it. At a very young age, she was taught how to turn that hurt into a weapon. Aya could never see herself anywhere else but at the side of her beloved governess. She would do anything for Sakoda Iwa.

Walking up to the side of the bed, Iwa smoothed the wrinkles from the rear of her white, silk robe and sat down beside Aya.

"Was it another nightmare?"

Memories of the dream that had horrified her awake coalesced in an uncomfortable and intrusive way. It dulled the loving thoughts given by Iwa's arrival. Her smile fading, Aya didn't say anything. She only nodded.

"The same one?"

Aya nodded again.

Iwa slid closer. Aya tried to stop the shiver she felt working its way through her. It instead turned into a brief bout of trembling. A small spike of anger intermingled with the shame. She was supposed to be better than this, stronger than this. The way these nightmares left her feeling was no better than the way those who violated her had.

Hurt and alone.

This wasn't how Aya wanted the woman she had come to adore see her. Not again – weak, trembling and broken by a past she couldn't control. Nightmares or not, the woman beside her had taught her to rise above this – to not be dragged down by a past that she could do nothing about. It was as much a dishonor to what Iwa tried to indoctrinate into her as it was to the woman herself.

In spite of what she felt, however, there was no surprise when a comforting arm came to rest around her small shoulders. Aya more than welcomed it and the solace it was meant to bring. Yet it did nothing to alleviate the humiliation growing within. How could she disgrace the woman who took her in and loved her in a way that no one else ever had? Why couldn't she just let the past go and focus on what was important to her now?

"Talk to me Aya," the older woman urged, drawing her closer. "Tell me about the nightmare. Open up to me. You've never been this closed-off before, not since the very first time I saw you. I want to help, but you're going to have to let me in. You're going to have to trust me."

Aya let out a long breath. Though she didn't want to, she turned to look up at Iwa. A face full of compassion and worry gazed back. The shame in her heart was palpable. It was like razors slicing it apart from the inside out. Looking into the older woman's face was almost unbearable.

"Th…There's nothing more I can tell you, Iwa-chan," Aya uttered, averting her gaze to stare down at the dark bedsheets. "It's the same as before. Nothing's changed."

If there was any disappointment at her answer, Iwa didn't show it. Instead, her governess lovingly pulled Aya into a deeper embrace and began to stroke her fingers through her hair with a free hand. The slow, methodical caresses filled her with a comfort she hadn't felt since waking up. It washed away some of the tension that the nightmare caused but couldn't clear her troubled mind of the nagging questions it had brought forth in the first place.

It also couldn't lift the perpetual shame clouding her heart.

"A rose petal for your sweet thoughts, my dearest child," Iwa whispered.

Keeping her feeling of dejection hidden, Aya nuzzled closer to her governess as she stretched her long legs out under the sheets. Laying her head somberly against Iwa's half-covered breast, she closed her weary eyes and breathed in the older woman's scent. Memories of the day's earlier pleasures grew and eclipsed those of her nightmare, if only for a moment. Tranquility and comfort washed over her as she wrapped her arms around Iwa's waist. As always, she felt safe and secure in the presence of this woman – her loving governess. There was nothing that could hurt Aya while Sakoda Iwa was holding her close.

No matter what nightmares she had.

"I was just thinking about the past, Iwa-chan. Thinking about how I'll…how I'll always have these…nightmares, no matter how much time passes. The pain just won't go away." Aya answered. She opened her eyes then and stared hard into the sheet covering her legs. "It never goes away."

Iwa stopped stroking Aya's hair and looked down at her.

"We can never change the past, my sweetest of petals," she began, swinging her legs up onto the bed. Cupping a hand under her chin, she gently pulled Aya's head up until their eyes met. "We can only learn from it and gain strength from it; use it to make those who repeat it pay for their crimes. We can never change the past, darling Aya. We can only make sure that it never happens again; to us, or anyone else. Do you understand?"

Aya eyes remained locked on those of her governess, brown matching brown. She had seen them lustful and wanting, dark and terrible, loving and genuine. But as she stared up into them now, she saw in them something she never had before. A deep, undeniable sadness.

It was so surprising that she almost forgot to answer. "Y-yes, Iwa-chan."

Despite what her eyes revealed, despite Aya's own hesitant response, Iwa tapped her on the nose playfully. "Good," she said, pulling away and rising from the bed with the elegance of a dancer. "Now try to get some sleep. You have a very busy night ahead of you tomorrow and I won't have you attending to your duties half-awake. You remember what I want you to do, don't you?"

"Yes, of course. Meet Kusae Hiroki-san at the Karasuma-Oike Train Station at eleven o'clock," Aya stated. She tried to push back the questions that were dawning. They warred with the ones already in her head – about her feelings of shame, about her nightmares and about how she could deal with them.

The sadness witnessed in her governess's eyes only distressed her further. Aya knew her past, knew of what she suffered at the hands of men. All the same, she believed that the woman who had taught her those lessons of strength was far removed from her past. But, what she just saw in Sakoda Iwa's eyes left Aya…troubled. Could she too still be a prisoner of her past?

Iwa stood next to the bed for a moment, then turned on a graceful foot and walked toward the open fusuma. Pausing as she exited the room, she spoke one last time. "And what are you going to do when you meet Kusae-san, my sweet petal?"

Aya's face suddenly grew cold. She turned to face the pictures suspended above the table holding her wakizashi. All the disquieting questions in her mind vanished. Her dark eyes narrowed on one of the unmarked photos on the wall. They lingered there for only a moment before lowering to the small, red-clothed table. When they fell upon the short weapon, an undeniable feeling of anger interlaced with the smallest sprinklings of anticipation grew to overwhelm the mixture of emotions that had come before.

"Kill him, Iwa-chan."