Under cover of night, Himura Kenshin and Yukishiro Tomoe made their way down the road. Their only possessions were the packs and bento they carried over their shoulders, Himura's daisho and Tomoe's diary and tanto. They moved quickly, stopping neither to rest nor eat, until they came upon a small Shinto shrine a few yards back off the roadside.
Kenshin turned his gaze to Tomoe, then over to the shrine. Tomoe nodded and the two entered the shrine and politely accosted the attending priest.
With the young couple kneeling before him, the priest performed the wedding rights in a very hasty ceremony. The young man and woman quietly exchanged vows, each taking three sips of sake from a saucer. This done, the priest hastily drafted and signed a marriage certificate bearing both their names: Himura Kenshin and Tomoe.
Before the ink was completely dry, Kenshin rolled up the certificate, left four gold coins for the priest and led his new bride out into the night air to continue their journey. Their marriage was, if not properly celebrated, at least official.
There it was up ahead! A tiny wooden farmhouse with a thatch roof! It didn't look very different from the house Kenshin had spent the first nine years of his life in. Kenshin felt an unaccustomed pang of nostalgia grip his heart for just a second, but quickly tamped it down, for there was much to be done.
To Tomoe, who had been used to living in a regular house in Edo and being attended by servants, this seemed a positively barbaric way to live. However, she said nothing and instead went to work, sweeping out the house and making it ready for the furniture.
Kenshin and Tomoe spent the day moving in furniture that had been provided for them by the clan and generally setting up housekeeping. Kenshin also found that they had been left with a supply of herbs, mortar and pestle, etc. to sell as medicine as part of their cover.
Finished setting up the furniture, Kenshin slid his katana and wakizashi from their customary place on his left hip. With mixed feelings of relief and anxiety, if it were possible to have both at once, he set the sheathed blades into a box, which he shut and then hid at the back of the bottom drawer of the bureau. An apothecary had no need for swords.
Kenshin then got to work, grinding the herbs and bagging them to start selling to the nearby villagers whose houses they had passed.
While arranging her diary on her low writing desk, Tomoe watched Himura out of the corner of her eye. She wondered how the change of environment would affect the young man who was used to carrying swords and watching over his shoulder, even among his compatriots.
It had been a good day! Himura Kenshin had taken his pack of medicine into the village to sell. After only three hours, all his herbs had been sold and his money bag was full and heavy. Kenshin's heart sang in his chest as he made his way back to the farmhouse from town. The vault of blue sky arching over him and the green of the grass beneath his feet caused Kenshin to pause on his journey and just take everything in.
As he looked around him at the open field, lined by trees with huge mountains in the background, Kenshin felt something in his heart, long dormant, begin to stir. It had been over a year since he had left the countryside for the big city. To now be back in a place so similar to where he had grown up, reached deep into the cockles of his heart and warmed them. Without even realizing it, Kenshin was smiling up at the sun, down at the flowers and all around him at the grass and the trees.
As Kenshin made his way down the path with his full money bag in his sleeve, he became aware of several presences surrounding him. His left hand reflexively reached for his katana, only to meet with empty air. Kenshin swore inwardly, remembering that his daisho was tucked away in the bureau.
Much to Kenshin's relief, from the bushes and trees emerged, not Shinsengumi or ninja assassins, but five children: two boys and three girls, each one clutching some kind of toy.
One of the boys had a brush haircut, the other black hair pulled back in a short messy ponytail. The boy with the brush haircut smiled a broad, gap-tooth grin at Kenshin.
"Hi! You're the new herbalist, aren'tcha?" he asked.
A small smile found its way to Kenshin's lips.
"That's right," he said softly. "My name is... Kenshin."
"I'm Gen. Good to know ya!" said the kid.
He then gestured to the boy with the messy ponytail.
"This is Somaku. And these dumb girls..."
Gen didn't get to finish his sentence as one of the girls' sandals made communication with his head, bowling him over.
"My name's Ayaka," said the girl, bending over to get her sandal.
"My name's Chiharu," piped up one of the other girls, this one with shoulder length brown hair and a striped kimono. "And this is Emiko."
This reference to the last little girl, who peered at Kenshin with wide eyes, but said nothing.
"It's nice to meet all of you," said Kenshin, bowing from the waist.
"Likewise," said the five children together, returning the bow.
"Wanna fly kites with us?" asked Somaku, holding up his kite.
"Well," said Kenshin, glancing up at the sun.
He knew he should get home soon, but the sun was at its zenith, so there was time. He set his shoulder pack down.
"Yeah!" the kids yelled.
The five kids took off running, each grabbing their own kite and Kenshin followed them, easily keeping pace. Kenshin, who had never flown a kite in his childhood, learned quickly and easily under Gen and Somaku's tutelage. Soon, he was racing up and down the field with the kids, kite borrowed from Somaku flying majestically in the sky.
After kites, they bounced a shiny red ball around, each catching it as it bounced up from the ground, then bouncing it to the other.
Eventually, the boys tired of catch and insisted on teaching Kenshin how to play dueling tops. Each would shoot a spin top at the other, trying to knock the other's top over. Whose ever top remained spinning upright was the winner.
Kenshin stayed out playing with the kids much longer than he had anticipated. When he finally looked up from his latest victory in dueling tops, he realized that the sun was about to slip below the tree line. In a hurry, he rose to his feet.
"I've had a great time playing with all of you, but now I must be going. My wife is waiting for me at home," he said with a bow.
"Aw!" said Somaku.
Gen, nothing daunted, smiled his gap tooth smile at Kenshin.
"See ya round!" he said happily.
"Bye!" said Chiharu.
"Let's play again tomorrow," said Ayaka.
"I'd like that too," added Emiko quietly.
"I live in the farmhouse with the persimmon tree next to it," offered Kenshin.
"I know right where that is!" exclaimed Gen. "We'll be there tomorrow!"
"See you then," said Kenshin with a smile and a wave goodbye.
Kenshin hurried home and made it back to the farmhouse just as the sun slipped below the mountain line, leaving a pink swathe in its wake.
"I'm home," he said softly as he entered the house.
"It's a bit late," replied Tomoe.
"I apologize. I met some of the village children and lost track of the time playing with them," explained Kenshin, stepping out of his sandals.
"I see," was all Tomoe said. "Dinner is ready."
"It looks good," said Kenshin, sitting down as Tomoe began ladling out the food.
"Thank you for the food," the young couple said quietly in unison before tucking into their meal.
As they ate their meal of fish and vegetables, Tomoe felt that something was missing. The fish tasted rather flat.
"I'm sorry," she said presently.
"Hm?" asked Kenshin, looking up from his meal.
"I have no daikon to season the fish," Tomoe explained.
"I don't mind," Kenshin answered.
"The fish tastes flat without it," Tomoe said before falling silent again.
Kenshin blinked, then continued with his meal.
The down slash of Battousai's sword easily cleaved the man's body in two.
Battousai sliced the black ninja in half with the ninja's own sword.
Battousai's sword split Ishiji's skull in two and he was charging down his next target, leaping into the air and finishing off Shigekura with his Ryu Tsui Sen Zan.
Battousai charged through a group of Bakufu warriors, slashing and thrusting through them as though they were paper instead of men.
Ignoring the grisly memories, Kenshin chopped slowly and steadily along.
Presently, the sound of the wooden door sliding open and shut from behind caught his attention. Kenshin stuck the ax in the stump, stood up and pulled his kimono sleeves loose from their tie. He then turned to face Tomoe, who stood silently watching him.
"I'm sorry to have kept you waiting," she said softly.
"It's such a beautiful day. The firewood will dry out nicely," was all Kenshin replied.
He then turned and began walking with Tomoe following behind him, hands folded demurely.
Kenshin and Tomoe made a day of it in the countryside. When they climbed the rocks, Kenshin helped Tomoe since she was wearing geta and a kimono, which constricted her legs' range of motion. When they arrived at a statue of Buddha with a small shrine in front of it, Tomoe lowered her head in prayer while Kenshin stared at the huge stone edifice.
The couple made their way to Lake Biwa and stood in front of the huge body of water, watching as the sun's light glinted on the waves. Kenshin and Tomoe stared at the huge red tori that some Shinto priests had built in the water long ago.
Kenshin took Tomoe by the vendors' stands in Otsu. They checked the prices on various items, such as fish, but Kenshin decided it was better to fish for them and save money. Just then, something caught his eye in one of the vendors' stands.
"Wait here," he told Tomoe.
When Kenshin returned, he held a disk wrapped in a cloth out to Tomoe, who accepted it silently and clutched it to her breast.
The two made their way silently back to the farmhouse in the dying sun's crimson light. Tomoe was glad when the house appeared, for she was exhausted from having been on her feet all day.
Once they were inside, she unwrapped Kenshin's package to find a mirror. Tomoe looked at her reflection in the glass for a few moments, tracing her finger vertically over her left cheek.
After a delicious dinner of hiyashi chuka, Tomoe and Kenshin drank sake, which Tomoe had warmed over the fire pit.
"It tastes good," said a surprised Kenshin.
"I'm glad to hear that," Tomoe replied as she tasted her own drink, which tasted rather flat to her.
After recording her thoughts on the day's events, Tomoe closed her diary and tucked it away in its drawer. She then picked up the candle and approached her laid out futon. The futon beside it was empty, Kenshin still unable to let himself relax enough to sleep supine, even out in the middle of nowhere. Instead, he sat up against the wall, katana propped against his shoulder.
Tomoe knelt down next to Kenshin, setting down her candle softly. She surveyed his sleeping features. His face was completely relaxed, thanks in part to the sake, which still lingered on his breath. She felt the familiar light weight of her dagger resting in her obi. It would be so easy to pull it out and plunge it into the assassin's heart while he slept. Even if he had his sword, the sake would have dulled his reflexes to the point where by the time he awakened, the dagger would be thrust through his sternum and his fate sealed. Tomoe sat motionless for what seemed like an eternity. There her fiance's murderer was, reflexes dulled, vulnerable in sleep. Why wasn't she reaching into her obi and pulling out her dagger to avenge Akira? As suddenly as the impulse had arisen, it dissipated, leaving her mind spent.
Tomoe shrugged her haori off her shoulders and draped it carefully over Kenshin's. She then fetched the blanket from Kenshin's futon and draped it over his legs. Through this, Kenshin never stirred. This was not lost on Tomoe as she leaned back on her heels to survey the young man as he slept.
She wondered if he would ever be able to bring himself to sleep in a futon.
"Let's plant some crops," Kenshin suggested on a sunny day as he and Tomoe stood outside, surveying their land. "I helped my father and brothers to farm when I was a boy. I should be able to do it myself. Maybe we could even grow some daikon."
Tomoe's eyes widened. The assassin had once been a farmer? Who knew?
Kenshin and Tomoe broke into the long-fallow ground with their hoes. Churning the soil was easy enough for Kenshin, but Tomoe, who was only used to light work such as sweeping, found herself breaking a sweat and breathing hard. If her peers back in Edo could see her now, they would laugh her to scorn!
After churning the soil, it was time to drop in seeds. Kenshin and Tomoe each took a row, dropping in a seed every few feet so the seedlings would have room to grow.
When they finished, Kenshin surveyed the garden happily. It had been a long time since his hands had done something productive instead of destructive and it felt good!
In the evening, Kenshin ground more herbs to sell tomorrow. Tomoe sat at the window, working on a flower arrangement. A full moon blessed the sky outside and provided enough light for her to work by. Presently, Kenshin abandoned his herb grinding and joined her at the window to look up at the moon.
"I'd forgotten how beautiful the full moon is," he said softly.
Tomoe swallowed her sadness. Akira had loved the full moon too.
"I saw red dragonflies this evening," she responded. "I can't help wondering, how long will we be able to stay here?"
Kenshin tensed at this question, feeling unnerved at being reminded that this life could end at any time.
"Until Iizuka returns to take us back," he answered crisply.
The magic of the moment broken, Kenshin returned to his grinding and Tomoe to her flowers.
The next morning saw Kenshin standing outside the farmhouse, pack on his shoulder, as he patiently waited for Tomoe to finish getting dressed for their first foray into town as a couple. Did girls always take this long to get ready?
Inside the house, Tomoe sat before her mirror, combing out her hair before tying it back into its braid. She then dabbed some white plum blossom perfume on. Finished, she put the mirror back into the desk drawer, grasped her purse and stood up.
As she headed for the door, a thought struck her, causing her to stop. She reached into her obi, pulled out her tanto and gazed thoughtfully down at it. She and Kenshin were living as apothecaries now. Kenshin no longer carried his swords with him. If Kenshin didn't have his swords, did she really need her dagger?
Tomoe remembered back to when she had left Edo. It had been when spring was at its height, pink petals falling from trees that lined the walkway. She had carried with her just her purple shawl, journal and dagger. The journey from Edo to Kyoto had been an arduous one, Tomoe having to be clever and crafty to evade the government checkpoints that made it impossible for people to travel from one province to another without permission.
Now though, she was here and had found Akira's killer. She could have had revenge any time she wanted since Kenshin had come to trust her enough to sleep in her presence. And yet, she had never raised her dagger against him. The thought had certainly crossed her mind from time to time, but she had never found the will to act on it. Wanting to kill someone and actually going through with it were two very different things.
"If we're to make it back by sunset, we need to leave now! Are you ready yet?"
Kenshin's voice cut into Tomoe's thoughts, pulling her back to reality.
"Yes. I'm coming!" she called back softly.
Tomoe quickly made her way over to her bureau where all her clothes and possessions were stored and set the dagger down in the bottom drawer. If Kenshin could go to town without his swords, she could go without her dagger.
Tomoe joined Kenshin outside and the young couple walked silently into town to peddle their wares. Once there, Kenshin and Tomoe set up their sale and were immediately accosted by many townsfolk, all of whom seemed to have one malady or another. Once again, Kenshin was amazed when all the herbs were sold out and they found themselves with bulging bags of gold coins.
"The people believed we were really apothecaries," said Kenshin as he and Tomoe walked back to the farmhouse under the crimson light of the setting sun.
"Yes. We sold more medicine than I thought we would. I'm glad," was Tomoe's response.
Silence fell between them for a space.
"You didn't bring your dagger with you," Kenshin observed.
Tomoe's eyes widened and her lips parted. How could he possibly have known about that? Immediately, she recovered her composure.
"That's right. An apothecary's wife doesn't need to be armed," she responded.
"It's getting cool. Let's hurry home," was all Kenshin said in response.
The couple returned to their home, ate dinner and retired in silence.
Kenshin and Tomoe settled into their new life and created a daily pattern, from which they seldom deviated. They would awaken at the crack of dawn, put away their futons and eat breakfast. After breakfast, they would take the herbs Kenshin had ground the night before and walk into Otsu to sell medicines, or sell them to the people living in the area near them.
After a day selling medicines, they would walk home. Tomoe would cook dinner and Kenshin would play with the village children until Tomoe called out the door that dinner was ready. Kenshin and she would eat, drink sake and retire for the evening. Each night, he commented on the improving taste of the libation.
On days when they didn't go into Otsu, they would spend hours working in their garden or walking through the breathtaking countryside, sometimes stopping and chatting with the neighbors.
As she watched him work in the garden they shared, Tomoe still couldn't believe the new life she was leading with Himura Kenshin, known in the war as Hitokiri Battousai. True, it was a life in hiding while the Patriots were scattered after the Kinmon Battle, but out here in the country, it was a life of peace. Though they'd only been here for one month, Kenshin seemed like a different man. The same young man who had almost slit her throat with his katana back in May now hoed and raked peacefully in their vegetable garden. His features were so much more relaxed now, his eyes soft and gentle instead of hard and cold. Most importantly, he was beginning to smile and wasn't even aware of it.
'Am I really falling in love with him?' Tomoe asked herself.
It seemed so unfaithful to Akira's memory, to fall in love with his murderer. Yet, she couldn't help it. The Kenshin she saw before her wasn't a cold blooded killer by any stretch of the imagination. He loved playing with the village children and was always happy when he heard that someone had been healed by the medicines he and Tomoe made. That was not the disposition of a murderer.
More and more, Tomoe realized that Kenshin wasn't the monster she had thought he was, but a pawn. The monsters were those who used him for their own selfish ends. In Tomoe's eyes, Katsura Kogoro was the real monster, turning this young man with the gentle eyes and quiet voice into a cold killer.
Sensing Tomoe's gaze, her husband looked up and smiled at her. Tomoe was almost able to return the smile. Almost... An image of Akira smiling gently at her as he bade her goodbye flashed into her mind. Tomoe wanted to smile, but the darkness in her heart weighed her lips into a perpetual frown. Perhaps one day, she would break those weights and return Kenshin's smile.
Kenshin and Tomoe made their way back from Otsu, laden with food they'd bought with the money Kenshin had made making medicines for the farmers. It felt wonderful to Kenshin to be able to spend money he had earned doing something aside from his usual job. Kenshin also proved quite the expert fisherman, coming home each time with no fewer than three large catfish that he had caught in the rice paddies.
That evening, Tomoe looked up briefly from her plate of fish, rice and daikon, to watch her husband eat. His appetite, which had been nearly non-existent in Kyoto, had spiked sharply since they had begun work on their garden. Though a very polite eater, Kenshin nevertheless ate with the appetite of a young boy. Tomoe couldn't help but smile slightly as she thought of a young boy with jet black hair and eyes like hers who had eaten the food she cooked with the same enthusiasm as Kenshin now showed. This young boy was back in Edo and no doubt in a great deal of distress over his sister's absence.
The thought of her little brother's distress erased the small smile from Tomoe's lips, replacing it with the customary frown. Should she have told him? No. If she had, he would have gone into a howling fit and clung to her kimono with an iron grip, making it even more difficult for her to leave.
Kenshin's soft voice startled Tomoe from her reverie. She looked up into her husband's concerned eyes.
"Y-yes?" she asked.
"Are you alright?" inquired Kenshin.
"Yes. Thank you for asking," said Tomoe, hastily reaching for the sake and pouring it into Kenshin's saucer.
After Kenshin had retired on a rainy night, Tomoe sat down at her desk with only the andon lighting the room. Listening absently to the raindrops' staccato beat against the thatch roof, she slid open the drawer and pulled out her journal. She opened it and was startled when it flipped to a particular page: the page she had written on the day she had found out of Akira's death.
Tomoe gazed at the page as her mind turned back to that horrible day...
April 15, 1864
Tomoe sat in her room, staring mutely at the journal she had just hastily updated with the tragic news that Akira would not be returning next month after all, her entire being numb with shock.
Somehow, she was able to force herself to function when Akira's aunt proffered her a tanto, a gift from Akira's grieving parents.
"Take this, Tomoe-chan. Akira's parents want you to have it to remember him by," she said softly.
"Thank you very much," Tomoe said mechanically as she clutched the dagger and bowed to the older woman.
Tomoe remembered hearing the voices of the gossipy old women as they talked about the tragedy, thinking she didn't hear them.
"If only Akira had stayed, none of this would have happened."
"Why did he go to Kyoto in the first place?"
"To impress Tomoe because a second son wasn't good enough for her."
"That girl is so arrogant and insolent. She caused this tragedy!"
"Don't say that. This calamity has hurt Tomoe-chan more than anyone else."
"Tomoe?" came a small voice behind her.
Tomoe didn't respond.
Tabi clad feet crossed the wooden floor. She felt hands gripping her shoulders.
"Tomoe! Don't worry about what those gossipy old broads said! They're all stupid!" begged her little brother behind her.
Still, she couldn't respond, the women's voices playing over and over again in her head.
"Tomoe, please talk to me..." his voice came out in a strangled sob.
Tomoe felt the fabric of her kimono becoming wet as the boy sobbed into her shoulder. Still she couldn't bring herself to turn around, smile and soothe her little brother's fears. The only thing she could think about was what the women had said, that her silence was what had sent Akira to his death.
Over the next few days, Tomoe had felt her grief turn into rage, directed both inwardly and outwardly, toward Akira's killer. That was when she had packed a few things and departed for Kyoto without so much as a goodbye for her distant father and distracted little brother. She would find Akira's murderer and make him pay!
The murderer she was now married to and sharing a home with! Away from the war and bloodshed, Kenshin's personality was almost identical to Akira's! Tomoe felt the tears slip from her eyes as she buried her face in her arms and sobbed silently.
"When you aren't killing people, you're so gentle," she murmured brokenly.
Kenshin reached into the ground and pulled each vegetable out by the roots and dropped it into the basket Tomoe held.
"What a great harvest!" he exclaimed jubilantly.
"Yes, it is," agreed Tomoe softly.
"I thought this was a crazy idea that was doomed to fail, but I guess my farming instincts are still intact," said Kenshin with a smile as he picked the last radish.
That night, the fish was seasoned deliciously with daikon from their garden.
Kenshin introduced Gen and Somaku to pretend swordsmanship, a game he had frequently seen the boys of his old village play as a child. He showed them how to pick long, sturdy branches and shave all the little protrusions from their surface and showed them the correct way to hold a sword.
Standing still with a single branch in his grip, Kenshin easily deflected both Gen and Somaku's pretend swings.
As the sun descended into the night sky, the village children came over to Kenshin and Tomoe's farmhouse and ate with them due to the huge excess of food they had. Gen and Somaku had a contest to see who could eat the most the fastest. The girls did their best to ignore the rude boys and eat in a ladylike manner the way Tomoe did. It was a lively meal in the usually silent little house.
On a bitterly cold December day, Himura Kenshin and Iizuka sat together by a currently fallow rice paddy. Kenshin was listening intently to the news of the capital that Iizuka was currently relaying to him as he smoked his pipe.
"The cavalry battle of four provinces took place in August. Then in October, the government began purging the populist movements. We'd barely evaded the first Bakufu suppression when rumors of a second attempt reached us. Then on the 18th of this month, Takasugi got pissed off and led the Kiheitai to take back Choshuu's government. Our province is in a state of total anarchy right now."
Kenshin digested the news silently. About the only good news was the fact that Takasugi-san was out of prison and fighting to reclaim Choshuu's government from the conservatives.
"Is there any word from Katsura-san?" he asked hopefully.
"Nothing," said Iizuka with a sad shake of his head. "No one knows what's become of him. Since he was the sole survivor of the raid on the Ikedaya, people have accused him of turning coward and running away. Maybe it's true. Choshuu is history."
With this joyful news, Iizuka tapped the last smoked tobacco out of his pipe.
"No," said Kenshin firmly. "Takasugi-san will win and Katsura-san will return. How are things in Kyoto?"
"Hm? Oh, terrible," answered Iizuka. "Kyoto is the Shinsengumi's stomping grounds right now. Patriots are being hunted down nightly by packs of wolves in light blue mountain pattern jackets. The Mimawarigumi and other Bakufu troops are competing with them. It's so different from before. The city is overflowing with blood. You should be careful too."
Kenshin shook his head and looked straight forward.
"Their first mission is to keep order in the city. The countryside is a very low priority for them," was his response. "Right now, the enemy I fear most is the one who strikes from the shadows of the Bakufu. Someone who would never be recorded in history unless they were caught. Someone like me, who could do anything."
At length, Iizuka grabbed his shoulder pack and banner and stood.
"All this bad news is depressing me. What about you? You don't seem depressed at all," he commented, noting the easy-going smile and softness of Himura's eyes, so unlike the coldness the hitokiri had always worn like a shroud back in the city.
"Why, it's because of you," said Kenshin with a smile.
"I didn't expect to find you so content. I thought you'd be restless way out here in the country after being a hitokiri."
Kenshin rose gracefully to his feet, grasping his basket. He looked down at the rice paddies, his expression full of thought as he pondered what Iizuka had said.
"Not at all," he said at length. "I love kenjutsu, but not killing. And these past five months have been anything but boring; so many eye-opening moments."
Iizuka's eyebrows shot up. Himura had definitely changed since coming out to the quiet life of Otsu. This was a welcome surprise.
"Even so, I hope this quiet life hasn't caused your skills to wither," he commented.
Kenshin was about to answer when they were interrupted by the approach of two farmers.
"Oh, it's the apothecary," said one of them. "Are you gathering stock again? It must be tough to come so far out here."
"Yes, but they say in Kyoto that the ointment that Kenshin-san makes for sword wounds works wonders," said Iizuka.
With this, Kenshin and Iizuka went their separate ways, Iizuka back to Kyoto and Kenshin back to the small farmhouse that he had shared with Tomoe since the summer. As he walked, he took in the beauty of the open space about him, so much like the beauty he had grown up in as a child and trained in as a teenager.
Soon, Kenshin saw another one of the farmers.
"Ah, Kenshin-san! Good to see you!" called the farmer, raising his hand in greeting. "I've had an upset stomach since last night."
"I understand," said Kenshin with a smile. "I'll mix some medicine for you and you can come by later and pick it up."
Kenshin then saw two more men, evidently on their way to the mountains judging by the gear they carried on their backs.
"Been gathering herbs again?" asked one.
"You work very hard," commented the other.
"As do you. Please be careful in the mountains," answered Kenshin with a smile before continuing on.
As Kenshin trod the path that led to his and Tomoe's farmhouse, the familiar sounds of shouts and laughter reached his ears. Ahead of him, he saw the five children playing ball and having pretend sword fights. Standing awkwardly among them was Tomoe, trying her best to play with the kids, but clearly out of her element.
After a brief smile of amusement, Kenshin made his presence known.
"I'm home!" he called.
"Ooooooooo! Welcome back!!!!!!!!" the kids cried, chucking several projectiles at the hapless redhead.
"Where've you been?!"
All the eager questions washed over Kenshin like a river of gladness.
"I was out gathering herbs. Didn't Tomoe play with you?" he asked the laughing children.
"Well, yes, but... she's no fun at all. Too gloomy," answered Ayaka.
The youngest girl, Emiko, stood a bit away from the group, shuffling her feet nervously.
"What's wrong?" asked Kenshin.
"My dad doesn't think I should play with you anymore," Emiko answered. "He thinks you're strange."
"I see," said Kenshin with a sad smile.
"But my mom says you're a good man and that you take care of people," Emiko continued.
Kenshin's eyes scrunched up and his smile became wider than ever.
"I do my best," he said, patting Emiko on the head. "Well, I'll be home all day tomorrow. So, come over and play with everyone."
Emiko smiled, reassured by Kenshin-san's gentle smile, soft words and pat on the head.
"Now," continued Kenshin. "It's getting late, so you should all head home."
"OK! See you tomorrow!" called Gen over his shoulder for the group as they headed to their farmhouses.
"I'm sorry. It's hard for me to smile," said Tomoe, who had been silent up till then. "I love the children, but..."
"That's OK," laughed Kenshin, finding the whole thing amusing.
"I love their innocent smiles," Tomoe continued. "Especially since you are smiling so much now."
Kenshin stopped in his tracks and turned to look at Tomoe. He had never even noticed when the change had come upon him, but she had observed it all.
"Yes, you're right," he said quietly, face softening as he thought things over. "I've been through a lot of hardship in my life. I was born into the middle of a famine. My parents and brothers died of cholera when I was nine. By age ten, I was training relentlessly in Hiten Mitsurugi. Now, I'm a shadow hitokiri of Choshuu. Up until now, my experiences with people haven't given me much cause to smile. I trained in Hiten Mitsurugi and wielded a deadly blade, all so I could create an era where people could live happily and in peace. But to tell you the truth, until very recently, I didn't really know what peace and happiness were. Living with you in Otsu has shown me what I'm really fighting for and what I must keep fighting for."
Kenshin's features lit as he smiled anew.
"I know I'll have to fight again one day, but I hope we will be able to ring in the New Year peacefully," he said as he and Tomoe went inside to eat dinner.
A large man warmed himself over a brazier on the streets of Kyoto. Katagai sighed in frustration as he pondered the Isshin Shishi's recent losses and continued life in hiding.
'How much longer do we have to live in hiding like this? I hope Katsura-san returns soon,' he thought unhappily as he rubbed his hands together for warmth.
Katagai was distracted from his thoughts at the sight of Iizuka making his way through the crowd. Katagai stared incredulously at the man who was supposed to be spending the next day or two in Otsu.
'What's Iizuka doing here? He said he was going to spend the night with Himura. Something's wrong,' Katagai thought as he started following Iizuka, being careful to stay well back to keep from being caught.
Katagai followed Iizuka out of Kyoto, into Otsu, into the forest and then to an abandoned shrine at the base of Mount Hiei. He hid behind a tree until Iizuka had entered the building and shut the door behind him. Then he slowly approached the shrine.
'Something's definitely wrong. Choshuu has many hideouts, but I've never heard of this one,' Katagai thought as he peered inside through a gap between the wooden planks that made up the building's walls.
Inside the shrine, Iizuka sat on a mat surrounded by three fearsome looking ninjas, one with short black hair, one who was bald and finally one with long brown hair, a full beard and fierce eyes.
"Choshuu's finished. Katsura escaped, but I know where Battousai is. He's gone soft over the past six months. Now is the best time to attack him," Iizuka told the ninjas.
Sweat broke out on Katagai's brow and panic flowed through his veins. The mole had been among them all this time!
'Iizuka is the mole! We can't win in Kyoto without Himura! I have to warn him!' Katagai thought as he turned to make a beeline to Kenshin's home.
Katagai was never even able to set foot off the porch before a hand shot down from the roof and clamped over his face.
This alerted the other ninjas in the shrine to Katagai's presence.
"Who's there?!" cried the black-haired ninja, Nakajou.
"You really should be on guard!" came a voice from the roof as a masked head peered down through the slatted window.
"Mumyoi?!" said Nakajou, going into action as soon as he saw Katagai, still being held still by Mumyoi's hand on his face. "Damn it! I'll kill him! Die!"
Nakajou fired a small dart from a miniature crossbow on his left wrist. The dart embedded itself in the base of Katagai's skull. Nakajou flicked his left arm back, pulling the arrow out by a string, killing Katagai instantly.
"That's a neat little toy," commented the balding ninja, Sumita.
"Yeah. It's called a baika chuzen. I got it from a friend, who loves shadow instruments," grinned Nakajou.
Iizuka knelt over Katagai's corpse grimly.
"This is Katsura's bodyguard. Someone will notice that he's gone missing very quickly," he commented.
"It was unavoidable," said the lead ninja, a man named Tatsumi. "We must move forward with our plan to kill Battousai. At the same time, we must be very careful when we fight him. Battousai was able to finish off Murakami and his chain sword in one blow."
"Meaning?" inquired Nakajou.
"Meaning, we will use the seed we planted six months ago. Enishi!"
At the call of his name, a small boy with spiky black hair, jet black eyes and a sullen and dirty face stepped out from behind a shoji.
"Your time has come. Go now!" commanded Tatsumi.
The week had passed peacefully, the weather turning colder and colder. There was no doubt that soon, the first snowflakes would fly. Kenshin sold medicines and played with the village children while Tomoe silently kept house and cooked her and Kenshin's meals.
"I am Katsura Kogoro of Choshuu!" said Somaku, wielding a branch.
"And I am Takasugi Shinsaku!" announced Gen, also brandishing one.
Kenshin, holding a branch in each hand, sneered threateningly at the boys.
"Beware, you fools. I am Kondo Isami, the ogre leader of the Shinsengumi. My beloved blade, Kotetsu thirsts for blood tonight," he growled in his best mimicry of the feared Shinsengumi captain.
Gen and Somaku swung down their branches, which Kenshin effortlessly blocked with his.
As he played with the boys, Kenshin thanked the kami silently that these children could see kenjutsu as something fun to do, the way he once had, before it had been tainted for him.
Just then, the three girls, who were playing ball nearby, stopped and seemed to be staring at something. This caused Kenshin to stop his pretend sword fight and look where they were looking. Standing on the path that divided Kenshin and Tomoe's house from the neighboring houses was a boy, who looked to be about ten or 11, with spiky black hair, deep black eyes and a sour expression on his dirty face.
"Who's that?" asked Kenshin.
"I don't know. He's not from the village. Maybe he wants to play with us," suggested Chiharu.
"I'll go ask him!" said Somaku, always eager for new playmates.
Somaku ran over to the boy and spoke to him. The boy responded by bashing him upside the skull.
"Hey!" yelled Kenshin, dropping his branch and rushing to Somaku's aid.
"Enishi?" the boy stopped his tirade when he heard the familiar and longed for voice call to him. "Enishi, is that you?
"Tomoe!" he cried, whole face lighting up at the sight of his beloved sister.
In the farmhouse, Kenshin stood before Tomoe and Enishi, who stood defensively between them.
"This is my little brother, Enishi," Tomoe explained softly as she gripped Enishi's shoulders.
Enishi glared at Kenshin with open hostility, the reason for which Kenshin could only guess.
"Your brother... Now that you mention it, you have the same eyes," he said, reaching out to pat Enishi on the head.
Enishi responded by smacking Kenshin's hand aside and glaring at him.
Deciding it would be best to give the siblings some time alone, Kenshin excused himself.
"You two probably have a lot to catch up on. I'll play with the kids outside," he said.
Kenshin retreated outside with the children, including the still irate Somaku, who rubbed the bump on his head. Soon, the children were settled into playing ball and kenjutsu in one of the fallow fields. Kenshin sat down on the grass to watch them.
'So, Tomoe has a little brother. She's never mentioned him before. Then again, she's never really told me anything about herself,' he thought. 'But how did he know where to look for her? This is a safe house that no one but Katsura-san, Katagai-san and Iizuka are supposed to know about.'
Kenshin's gaze traveled to the closed door of the farmhouse.
'The only other person who knows about this place is Tomoe,' he thought ominously. 'But judging by her surprise at seeing him, it seems unlikely she was the one who told him.'
Kenshin's train of thought was disrupted by the children's calls.
"What's wrong?" called Chiharu.
"Aren't you gonna play with us?" asked Somaku.
"Ah! Sorry! Here I come," said Kenshin, scrunching up his eyes and smiling as he rose to play with the children.
Still, his thoughts remained on the Yukishiro siblings.
'No matter how I try, I can't make sense of it. I have a feeling though, that we may not be able to ring the new year in peacefully after all.'
Inside the farmhouse, Tomoe and Enishi sat facing each other, foreheads touching, Tomoe caressing Enishi’s face gently.
"It's been a long time," she said at last, sitting back and smiling tenderly at her little brother. "You surprised me, but I'm very glad to see you."
At this, Enishi closed his eyes and smiled widely, basking in his sister's love. How he had missed this!
"You must be hungry. If you'll wait a bit, I was just making dinner," Tomoe said, placing her hands on his shoulders.
Tomoe returned to the fire pit, where a pot of oden was simmering, and began stirring.
"How is Father? When did you leave Edo?" she asked as she stirred.
"Uh, he's alright, I guess," said Enishi indifferently. "I left Edo six months ago, right after you did."
Tomoe tensed at this. Something felt wrong to her.
"Enishi... where have you been staying?" she asked, turning to look at him. "And how did you know where I was? I haven't contacted anyone outside."
"You didn't need to, because I am the contact," said Enishi as his face twisted into a sneer. "Be glad, Tomoe. It's finally time to get revenge on that bastard Battousai!"
The wooden spoon dropped from Tomoe's hand and clattered on the floor.
"Enishi! Then, you're the..." she trailed off.
"You didn't know? The man said he'd already told you," said Enishi.
The man's words returned to Tomoe's mind with startling clarity.
"I don't care what method you use. Just get close to Battousai and study him. Watch him until you understand his every movement. Once you find his weakness, your goal and our victory will be accomplished. When the time comes and Battousai trusts you, I will send someone you know to fetch you."
Never had Tomoe dreamed that the someone would be her own little brother!
"Let's go, Tomoe! It's almost over!" Enishi cried exultantly, holding out his hand.
"Go back to Edo," Tomoe said softly.
"Huh?" asked Enishi, a look of shock crossing his face.
"You're the eldest son of the Yukishiro family. You mustn't taint the family name by getting involved in this mess," Tomoe explained.
"I don't care about the family name!" spat Enishi. "I just want to help you!"
"Go home, Enishi," commanded Tomoe, putting the iron into her voice and refusing to meet her brother's stricken gaze.
A heavy silence fell between the siblings as Enishi tried to make sense of his sister's senseless attitude toward him and the news he had thought she wanted to hear.
"What is it? What happened to you?" he said softly, fists clenching at his sides. "Why won't you come with me?"
Suddenly, the boy looked up, tears of frustration and confusion spilling from his eyes.
"Why are you protecting that bastard? He's your mortal enemy! He stole your happiness!" Enishi cried at the top of his lungs, unable to comprehend his sister's change of heart.
Tomoe couldn't bring herself to respond to, or even look at, her brother.
The sun was setting as Kenshin watched the children return to their homes before turning to go back to his own home.
"See you tomorrow!" called Somaku as he raced off after the other kids.
"OK. Take care!" called Kenshin.
After Somaku had disappeared into his house, Kenshin turned and started down the path toward his farmhouse, where he would dine with the Yukishiro siblings and hopefully learn a bit more about them.
"Hm?" Kenshin exclaimed when he saw what appeared to be Enishi walking up the path, head down, fists clenched at his sides.
"Where are you going? It's almost time for dinner," Kenshin asked.
Enishi shot Kenshin a glare of pure hatred, eyes pinned, teeth clenched, tears threatening to fall. Kenshin was taken aback. What cause had Enishi to be so irate with him?
"If only you... hadn't been there!" growled Enishi.
Before Kenshin could respond, Enishi broke away and dashed down the path. Kenshin watched Enishi go until the boy had disappeared from sight.
Kenshin slid the farmhouse door open.
"Hey, where's your brother going?" he asked.
A startled Tomoe slammed her diary shut and looked up at Kenshin with panic in her eyes, clutching the book to her chest.
What was going on here?
"What is it?" Kenshin asked as he sat down to remove his sandals.
"Um..." Tomoe began. "Enishi is going back to Edo."
"Edo?" Kenshin asked.
"You've probably been wondering about me," Tomoe said. "I've never said anything about myself, and being so polite, you've never asked. But perhaps it's time. Let's talk a little."
Before the conversation got under way, Tomoe set tea to steep for both of them. Hearing the wind beginning to rage outside, Kenshin slid the door open to look and saw white flakes of snow falling to the ground.
"Snow. This will be a long one," he murmured before sliding the door shut.
"My family is from Edo. My father is a retainer for the Bakufu. He's neither a skilled swordsman, nor an artist, but he is kind and hardworking. We were never rich, but we always lived happily. My mother was kind too, but her health was fragile. She died while giving birth to Enishi. He never knew her and I raised him in her place. To him, I am both sister and mother," explained Tomoe as she poured the tea for Kenshin. "Enishi is my darling brother, but he's very emotional and he can be a problem. When my engagement was announced, he threw the worst tantrum he had ever thrown."
Tomoe rose to her feet and approached Kenshin with the bamboo cup of tea.
"Here," she said, proffering the tea.
"My fiance was the second son of another samurai family. I had known him since we were little. Like my father, he wasn't skilled in swordsmanship or painting, but was kind and hard working. When he proposed to me, I was very happy. But, for all my joy, I couldn't smile at him. My heart is so dark that it's very hard for me to smile. Maybe that's why I never told him how happy I was," said Tomoe softly. "'If the second son of a samurai can't make you happy, I should at least be known as a strong warrior,' he told me. Then he postponed our wedding and joined the Mimawarigumi, entering the bloodshed in Kyoto. And... he never returned. I couldn't rest after I heard the news."
'So I came to Kyoto, and devoted myself to plotting your death.'
"He died in a distant place and my happiness died with him," said Tomoe, voice starting to break and tears welling in her eyes despite her best effort. "It was really my fault. If only I had cried and begged him to stay. The more I thought about it, the more I had to hate someone, anyone, or I would go insane."
Suddenly, she was pulled into a strong, but tender embrace.
"It's alright, Tomoe," Kenshin whispered. "I understand."
The gentleness of Kenshin's voice, the feeling of his strong embrace, the grief over Akira and her guilt at what she knew she was leading Kenshin into, all conspired to break down Tomoe's carefully constructed walls. She buried her face in Kenshin's shoulder and sobbed in abandon while he held her.
How long they stayed thus, neither could tell. At last, Tomoe's tears dried and her sobs died down. Tomoe realized that she felt much better than she had in a long time. She and Kenshin returned to the fire pit and wrapped up in a large blanket for warmth. Kenshin poked the fire with a stick to keep the flame going. At last, he spoke.
"A year and a half ago, wanting to protect the well-being of the nation's people with my sword, I quarrelled with my master and left him. I journeyed to Choshuu and allied myself with the Ishin Shishi under the alias Hitokiri Battousai. I wanted to end the chaos and create a peaceful new era. I believed my skill with Hiten Mitsurugi would help me to do this. But in reality, it wasn't that easy. I killed and killed, but the new era never seemed to get any closer. I had become nothing more than a heartless tool of murder. The stench of blood permeated everything."
Kenshin glanced at Tomoe and a small smile crossed his features.
"And then I met you. Your questions pierced the fog in my mind, allowing my sanity to return to me."
'I no longer smell blood, but the faint scent of white plum blossoms.'
"For the first time, I understand what happiness is. I can weigh this happiness and now I know that no matter how powerful his sword style is and no matter how skilled he is, no single man can change an era. No single man can bear the well-being of Mankind alone. All a man can do is protect those he sees before him," Kenshin concluded.
A pause and a deep sigh.
"However," Kenshin continued. "Until the war is over, I must continue to be the hitokiri who treads atop mountains of corpses. But when the new era truly comes, I want to find a way to protect people without killing and seek a way to make up for the terrible things I did as a hitokiri."
Kenshin turned his gaze to Tomoe.
"Tomoe?" he asked.
"Yes?" returned Tomoe.
"The happiness you lost once to this violence, I will protect from now on," Kenshin promised.
Tomoe's eyes widened and for the first time since he had met her, Kenshin saw her smile.
"Yes," she agreed happily.
No further words were necessary. Kenshin and Tomoe gazed quietly into the fire far into the night.