Kenshin wiped the sakabotou’s blade clean of blood spatters and stooped painfully to retrieve the saya. Sheathed it, tucked it through the ties of his hakama. Such normal, routine motions.
He took a moment to allow himself to feel sick to his stomach, even if none of it showed on his face.
The blade could have been marked with one solid red patch, as wide as a man’s neck.
He sighed and forced his feet to move toward Kaoru-dono. He had broken his oath in thought and desire – did it matter that his hands had not followed through? That he had stopped only because she had begged him to? That he would have gladly torn Jin-e’s head from his shoulders if it would have saved her life?
He was still grateful. Grateful that she had cared enough to stop him, even if he didn’t deserve it. Even if Jin-e had deserved it. Grateful that she was strong enough in her principles for both of them.
He knelt, his back protesting, and began to fumble with the cords binding her wrists. His fingers were numb but at least she would not be pained by his clumsiness. Her breathing had evened to a deep, steady rhythm and unconsciousness had softened the pain and horror in her face.
If it wasn’t for him, she would never have had to see a man kill himself.
Kenshin’s shoulders slumped and he sat back on his heels, giving up on the knots and looking for where Jin-e’s tanto had landed instead. If he could help it, she would never see this place again.
The dagger, after a quick cleaning, made short work of the cords. He scowled to see how deeply they had cut into her skin, leaving red marks where she had strained them falling down the stairs. Red like the raw scrapes on her cheek and chin and the scratches from the pine twigs. He lifted her a little and arranged her arms more comfortably, aware that she would ache just as badly as he did once she awoke.
Was Jin-e’s first slash to her arm even fully healed yet?
He should have taken on the crazed hitokiri then and there, police or no police. Then he could have seen her safely home and walked out of her life, taking that danger with him.
Only to leave her to the mercy of Takeda Kanyruu’s thugs?
Kenshin shuddered, picking spiny pine twigs out of her hair as he cradled her shoulders. Never. Bad enough that he’d thrown himself around her and tackled her to the ground, and that he would have to carry her out of this place. But to imagine what those men might have done…
He slid his arm further under her shoulders and drew her right arm loosely around his neck, sitting her upright and stooping to get his other arm under her knees. Her head rolled easily to rest on his shoulder, it’s weight and unknowing trust adding further to his burden.
No father would have wanted to see his daughter in the arms of Hitokiri Battousai.
He wished she were not alone, that she were not forced to rely on him like this. That her father had lived, that she had a family he could return her to that would cherish and protect her as she deserved. That she did not have to rely on a murderer.
A murderer she had dressed in her father’s clothes.
Kenshin shifted her into his lap, automatically making sure that the sakabotou’s hilt was between them where he could reach it easily without dropping her on her head, should he have to let go with one arm. Her hair brushed his neck and for one moment, unseen and alone, he held her tight, closing his eyes to focus on the rhythm of her breathing and the smell of her floral perfume, still distinguishable beneath sweat and blood and fear.
He had not failed her.
However much he was at fault, however much he had been tempted, he had not failed her.
And however much she increased his burden, he would bear her weight without complaint, because it was not a dead weight but a warm, living one.
Kenshin rose with an effort and took a moment to adjust his balance, drawing her closer to his center, glancing about to make sure he had left nothing behind. The fires snapped loud in the silence, causing him a moment’s worry, but in the end he turned his back on them. The wood was damp, the leaves heavy with dew.
The boy from your dojo came to the police…
It was no longer his concern.
The stairs he had stomped down so quickly pulled at torn muscles in his gut as he started back up, overbalanced still further with his unconscious burden. Twice he stepped on his hakama, further complicating the climb and forcing him to move painfully slowly, but he doggedly kept on, head bowed, ignoring how his shoulder ached from the strain and navigating his way around the fallen branches littering the steps.
He was barely through the shrine gates when the police squad arrived.
Kenshin stopped and simply waited for them. If they wanted to drag him away, they were welcome to, but not until…
The squad parted around him with hardly a glance, clattering down the uneven steps toward the fires and Jin-e’s body, leaving only one tall figure waiting at the top. A figure he would have recognized anywhere, even without the katana dangling from his hip.
Kenshin lowered his head once more to his task, little caring that the man’s eyes drifted lazily over him, no doubt noting every bloodstain, every mark. Let him look; let him wonder.
Just don’t let him try to stop me or I’ll give him a fight to remind him of…
“Well, now you know what the real world does with rurouni who say they don’t kill.”
The Shinsengumi-captain-turned-policeman sauntered down the steps to meet him, a grim smirk of justification tugging at his lips. A fresh cigarette turned casually through his fingers.
Kenshin was suddenly sick of having to defend himself and his principles.
“When a man is killed, an animosity forms that leads a man to kill again,” he said wearily, refusing to rise to his old enemy’s bait even as a single vindictive retort rose to his lips in spite of himself.
“Having a sword that cannot kill breaks that cycle.”
Let the man make of that what he would.
Saito Hajime narrowed his eyes, taking in the brief defiant curl of the diminutive hitokiri’s lip, the same wary forbearance in his posture that he’d exhibited in their last encounter. There was guilt, but no fear of reprisal, no knowledge of deserving punishment. So he didn’t kill Kurogasa. Even when provoked.
“Enough with the moralizing,” he drawled, stopping opposite with every intention of getting some firmer answers on what had happened, but his eyes dropped instead to take in the condition of the young woman cradled against the other man’s chest. It didn’t take years of training put together the marks on her face, the dirt on her clothing, the story the little boy from the dojo had blurted out, the dogged, bowed steps of the redheaded swordsman…and Saito Hajime found himself, for the first time, feeling disconcertingly as if the man before him was not quite the clear-cut enemy he had always been.
Belatedly realizing that he was staring, he pulled his eyes up and away, covering the motion by raising the cigarette to his lips. The Battousai walked past him without even looking up, making him seem even shorter than he was.
“Is that the whole story, then?”
He did have a report to make up, after all; it was his duty to uphold the law, not personal vendettas. The former hitokiri continued up the stairs without replying, which in a way was answer enough.
“Wandering is an escape for the weak, you know,” Saito called after him. Still no rise from the rurouni. Not even a flicker of his famous temper.
“Live by the sword and die by the sword,” Saito snarled under his breath. Even the old mantra rang a little hollow somehow, while the Hitokiri Battousai simply lifted his chin and walked on. Saito glared at his back. Idealist…idiot… He couldn’t possibly be jealous of the man.
“There is no other path for us.”
“Oi, what’d they do to Jou-chan? You hurt?”
Yahiko hovered at his elbow just short of grabbing his sensei, wide eyes taking in the pair’s battered state as Kenshin maneuvered her through the back dojo gate. Sanno, bruised and bandaged but undeterred, made as if to take her from his arms, but one look at his face stopped him.
“You should close the gate,” he murmured. It was fully morning now, and it had taken all of his training to get them back to the dojo unseen by the neighbors. It was ridiculous to worry over her reputation when she could have been killed, but he couldn’t help it.
“Megitsune, Kenshin’s brought Jou-chan back!”
“Bring her up here,” the doctor directed him, indicating a futon already laid out, its covers turned back in readiness. Apart from the bruises on her face and the dark circles under her eyes, Megumi seemed quite her usual self, if not quite as abrasive.
“She will be very sore…”
“What’d they do to her?” Yahiko demanded, his dark eyes too wide and full of things a child should not know.
“She will be all right, Yahiko,” Kenshin reassured the boy gently. He held the boy’s gaze. “She was injured, nothing more.” As he stepped clumsily out of his zori and onto the engawa he explained briefly about the Shin no Ippou and the fall. On one knee beside the futon he hesitated.
“Ano – won’t you need to clean her up…?”
“Don’t you worry about that, Ken-san.” Megumi tugged at his burden, encouraging him to transfer Kaoru’s weight to the mattress. With a strange sense of loss and yet relief he obeyed. Already there were purple bruises blossoming under the scratches on her face; the sick feeling clenched hard in his chest again and he swallowed, not fast enough to escape the doctor’s sharp eyes. Her arch gaze probed the bloodstains on his gi knowingly. “The bath is hot; you go get cleaned up and then let me look at those once I’m done with Kaoru-chan.”
“Ano, Megumi-dono…it’s nothing serious…”
“Don’t you dare give me that line, Himura Kenshin. I’ll be waiting.”
Sanno smacked his shoulder. “Yeah, listen to the doc!”
Kenshin gulped. “Ah…hai.”
Sanno and Yahiko followed him out of Kaoru’s room, closing the shoji to give the two women privacy. The street fighter yawned hugely.
“Well, I’m ready to call it a night. You too, eh, Kenshin? All this rescuin’ damsels business is exhausting.”
Kenshin smiled ever so faintly. “Thank you for coming, Sannosuke.”
“No problem, man. Anytime. Oh, and the Fox made us save some chow for ya…”
“There’s onigiri,” Yahiko offered.
Kenshin shook his head, too tired to be hungry. He collected one of his own worn nagajuban and bandages from the room Kaoru had assigned him, snagged the laundry tub, soap, and an extra bucket from the engawa, and headed into the bath house.
Cleaning up after a battle was an old routine, too.
Methodically, he ladled warm water from the furo into the tub and the bucket, adding a slosh of vinegar to each. As he stripped off each bloody garment he dropped the dark colors in the tub and the lighter ones in the bucket. The blood would come out easier when it was fresh. Much easier. Thankfully the lighter hakama were more dirty than bloody…
Gingerly he washed himself, feeling again the many bruises blossoming across his back and hips, flushing his wounds until they did not bleed much. They stung sharply, but familiarly, as he slid into the hot water, and he sighed to see faint tendrils of red seeping away to dissolve in the steamy depths. He would need to clean the tub tomorrow.
For now, though, the hot water was heavenly, and he dunked his head and watched his hair drift around him like fiery seaweed, feeling the aches slowly easing from his muscles.
Mustn’t fall asleep and drown in the tub…
Leaving the water sooner than he would have liked, he dried himself and checked for further bleeding before dressing in his own clothes. Then he shrugged his left arm and shoulder free of the light robe and set to scrubbing the worst of the blood from the clothing Kaoru had given him.
At least the gi is red anyway…
Carefully he worked the edges of the neat cut in the sleeve, doing his best to keep it from fraying under his fingers as the blood dissolved out into the water. Easy to mend.
“Ken-san no baka!”
Megumi found him hanging up the clean but unmended laundry and chewed him out roundly for not having the sense to rest. She dragged him over to the porch and after more protests got the nagajuban off his left shoulder. He sat stoically while she poked and disinfected, her fingers hard and professional and her bandages tight.
The one on his arm wasn’t bad, really – no more than Kaoru had taken when he first met her, but the one from the tanto was deep, and he gritted his teeth as she packed it expertly and then did the same with the long angled stab between his ribs, chiding him all the while that he was lucky to be sitting up and talking. Yahiko wandered over, attracted by her harangue, practically asleep on his feet.
“You should rest, Yahiko.”
The boy gamely swallowed a yawn. “I gotta watch Kaoru for a while.”
“I can do that…”
“You’ll do no such thing,” Megumi cut him off. “You are going to lie down, close your eyes, and if you’re not out in an hour I’m force-feeding you a sleeping draught.”
Kenshin winced as he shrugged back into his top, old wounds and new protesting now that the heat from the bath had worn off. He’d not fought with all he had in a long, long time. He stood, retrieving the sakabatou from its place beside him, and headed wearily to check one more time on Kaoru before retreating to his own room.
Her face was clean now, slack with sleep, and Megumi had changed her clothes. An aromatic salve was spread slickly over the ugly scabs, promising healing. He resisted the urge to touch her. Would she scar? He knew she wouldn’t care about such a trivial thing, but every time he saw them he would be reminded…
With a sigh, he left her. There was one task yet left to him.
Hidden away from the others behind the closed shoji of the room Kaoru had assigned to him, he cleaned his sword. For a moment, after he resheathed it, he was tempted to sleep as he always did, with his back to the wall and the sakabatou a reassuring weight against his shoulder. He could react faster that way. There might still be some of Kanryu’s men on the loose, who knew where the dojo was…
Kenshin buried his face in his hands.
Kaoru would be furious if she found out. Given his condition, it was highly likely that she would, too. Sanno would catch him, or Yahiko, or Megumi, and then…
It felt strange and comfortable to be lying flat on his back, surrounded by covers, for all of two minutes.
Then he was fast asleep.
It felt wonderful to be lazy.
From the position of the sun it had to be nearly afternoon. No, it was afternoon. Masaka, it was nearly sunset already! Kenshin went to sit bolt upright and remembered, just in time, that he was very stiff and a bit sore. He rolled over and levered himself upright, trying to remember how he’d come to be sleeping in a futon.
Megumi-dono ran away.
Gein in the library.
Jin-e at the shrine.
…will be all right, his memory told him, but he still needed to see. He took up the sakabatou and padded down the engawa toward the main house. He could hear someone snoring, full-throated and regular. That would be Sannosuke. He didn’t hear Yahiko, but the boy had been worn clean out and would sleep for a while. That left…
He came around the corner to find Megumi seated on a zabuton in the sunshine, his red gi pooled around her knees and a needle glinting between her fingers.
She indicated the open shoji behind her. “She’s sleeping, and no, she hasn’t woken. Still, it’s early yet.”
He stepped up onto the tatami in his bare feet and looked down for a few minutes at Kaoru’s peaceful face before rejoining the doctor on the engawa.
“You don’t have to do that, Megumi-dono, I can…”
“Yes, I do,” she replied briskly. “I needed something to pass the time. Besides,” she added, with a pointed look at his rumpled clothing, “you can’t run around in your underclothes all day.”
Kenshin blushed at the barb, hating how his fair skin gave him away, and sat down a few feet away, crosslegged.
“How do you feel?”
Absently, he reached inside his clothes and peaked down at the bandages he could see. “No fresh blood, it seems. Your wound salve is very good, Megumi-sensei.”
“M-mm. It’s a Takani family recipe.”
“And how are you doing?”
He asked it softly, so softly that at first she didn’t seem to hear him. She tied off her thread and cut it close with a small scissors.
“I fully intended to kill myself.”
“I thought so.”
“Is that why you came?”
“We can die any day, Megumi-dono,” he said quietly, with the certainty born of long experience. “It is living that takes courage, often.”
She swiped casually at her eyes, as if denying their presence would mean he would not see the tears. “You came to rescue me, you and that tori-atama, after you knew what I had done.”
“And Kaoru-dono brought me to stay here, after knowing what I have done. What I am.”
“That was a long time ago, Ken-san.”
“This will be a long time ago someday, Megumi-dono.” He smiled, and with a watery sniff, she smiled back, if ruefully, and they sat in companionable silence while she finished repairing the tears in his clothes.
Yahiko woke briefly after dark, declaring that he was starving, so Kenshin fed him and then patiently answered his barrage of questions about the full events of the battle. The boy recounted how he and Kaoru had been sitting up, waiting for their return, and how they had begun walking laps around the house and dojo to pass the time. How he’d suddenly missed her, and run through the compound looking and calling for her, only to find the place empty and the candles before the dojo shrine blown out. His eyes flickered then, revealing his fear, and how young he really was.
“You were right to go to the police,” Kenshin reassured him firmly, suddenly stricken by the image of what could have happened if Jin-e had come across the boy on the way to his primary target. “That man…he was a very dangerous swordsman, and sick in the head. Sessha wa – it was very difficult to defeat him.”
“So you didn’t get hurt at Kanryu’s place, that’s all from him?” The boy’s eyes widened.
The boy slouched against the doorframe, looking across at the andon glowing softly in the room where Kaoru still slept. “I guess it’s lucky we met you, then. Not only can you beat up crazy punks and insane murderers, but you can actually cook, too. I’d probably have starved to death by now if I was still eating busu’s cooking.”
Kenshin watched him weave off in the direction of his own room, yawning again, then went to find Megumi half asleep by Kaoru’s side, insisting that she was fine.
“You haven’t slept yet, Megumi-dono. I will stay with her now.”
It took a few more minutes of arguing before she finally acquiesced, and the house once more fell silent.
Kenshin settled himself in the doorway at the foot of the futon, one knee up and the sakabatou cradled against his shoulder. Kaoru’s soft breathing surrounded him; the stars were bright and clear overhead.
He sat patiently until dawn, watching over his friends.
“Megumi-dono, is it good that she has slept for so long?”
The doctor shrugged, poking the embers of the kitchen fire and judiciously adding kindling until it caught. “She’s really only been resting for 24 hours. If you think about it, she was awake and under stress for 24 hours before that. She sustained no serious injuries, and she’s strong and healthy. I’m more surprised that you slept as little as you did.”
Kenshin shrugged, brushing off her concern. “I’ve never slept long, even as a child. And then…it was not safe to, during the war…”
He was grateful enough for that one solid, dreamless sleep. Other than a catnap after dawn, when he hadn’t fully lost his awareness of his surroundings, he hadn’t rested. Still, he felt fine. He’d dressed in the mended gi and hakama, and Megumi had woken Sanno with many grumblings to make him watch Kaoru for a while.
“Looks like we’re clean out of vegetables, and no fish,” Yahiko declared, breaking into their low-voiced conversation.
“Sessha will go to the market, then, de gozaru,” Kenshin announced, before Megumi could protest that he shouldn’t in his condition. On his way out the gate, he heard Sanno snoring again.
As he walked briskly back toward the dojo with his purchases, he found himself feeling – lighter – than he had in a long time.
“It is a relief to have finally cleared out that nest of vipers,” the police chief had told him when he stopped in at the station to reassure himself that Kanryu’s forces were all disposed of. “While your methods might be considered a bit unorthodox, Himura, the district is grateful for your assistance in the matter.” Saito Hajime, or Fujita Goro as he called himself, had been nowhere in sight, for which he was privately grateful. Not that he was – avoiding – the man; it was just that the former Shinsengumi Captain had never been the most affable of his former opponents, nor adept at social situations.
In the market, too, tongues had been busy with the opium ring, Kanryu’s misdeeds, and the numerous arrests, but not a whisper of Kaoru or the Kamiya name had reached his ears, meaning that her kidnapping was still a private matter and would likely remain so.
Kenshin was immeasurably relieved.
Megumi-dono will have the rice going; the vegetables will go quickly, and the melon can be sliced…
He balanced the wicker basket on his hip and let himself through the main gate, his mind still on food, and was nearly bowled over by a –
“Oro – ”
A wide-eyed Kaoru stared back at him across the basket of vegetables, strangely distraught. Barefoot, too, her geta clutched in her hand.
“Kenshin,” she breathed, as if she couldn’t believe her eyes. He smiled uncertainly, still a bit taken aback and not quite sure what the fuss was.
He settled for, “You’re finally awake, Kaoru-dono.”
“Maa, and maybe you should listen to what people are saying before going tearing off like that,” Megumi added, having appeared from the kitchen at a run followed by Yahiko and now sitting down on the step to fan herself.
“Kenshin just went to market so we could finish lunch,” Yahiko added, coming out into the yard. Sanno chose that moment to appear from the front room at the mention of food, stretching his impressive array of bruises.
“Argh, I’m starving!”
Kaoru turned from them back to face him, some of the lost expression fading from her eyes. Still confused, Kenshin held up his purchases and grinned triumphantly. Leeks, onions, the sweet melon for a treat… Everyone was looking from him to Kaoru and back again like there was something going on that he didn’t know about, but it didn’t seem to be anything dreadful…
…and Kaoru-dono was starting to smile a little bit now, although it almost looked like those were tears in her eyes…
His smile softened, reassuringly, and it seemed to work even if he didn’t know what he needed to reassure her of. Finally she smiled, full and dazzling, even as the tears welled up under her lashes but not quite enough to spill over down her cheeks.
“Okaerinasai, Kenshin,” she said, tremulously, and though he still wasn’t quite certain he smiled back.
“Tadaima de gozaru yo.”
Because she wanted it to be home.
Because it was.