|Battousai the Damned
Author: Khrysalis PM
Maybe I did belong in hell...but still...I had hoped... Oneshot, Kenshin's POV, and a good deal of violence.Rated: Fiction T - English - Suspense - Kenshin - Words: 5,968 - Reviews: 31 - Favs: 41 - Follows: 3 - Published: 04-17-05 - Status: Complete - id: 2354867
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Disclaimer: I don't own Rurouni Kenshin. But just like Watsuki-sensei, I lose a lot of sleep carving out stories of the wandering swordsman. ...Unlike Watsuki-sensei, I don't get paid for it.
Battousai the Damned
My arms were burning. I had tucked as much of my hair as I could into my gi before rushing into the burning building as hair caught fire so easily, and I kept my arms in front of my face, trying to protect my eyes as I forced my way through the flames. The house was falling part all around me.
Behind me I could hear Sanosuke's choked curses. "Kids, where are you?" he called out. I was shocked he could speak so loudly with nothing to inhale but smoke. I could barely gain a breath, let alone speak.
Someone tried to call back to us, but racking coughs came out instead. It was all we needed. We rushed to the sound and found three young children huddled in the corner. They were burned and frightened and couldn't breath, but they were alive. Sano grabbed two of them, rasping that it would be all right now.
I quickly took up the third and youngest child, no more than a toddler, with a blue ribbon in her hair. She looks a lot like Kaoru-dono, I thought abstractedly as I rushed behind Sanosuke.
The house was being eaten away by the flames, and it made dangerous, creaking, cracking sounds.
"The house is gonna fall, Kenshin!" Sanosuke shouted. "GO!"
We ran quickly, trying to move around burning obstacles, but there was so much smoke. We could barely see, could barely breath. The way out seemed so close, yet it seemed to take us so long to get to it. And then just as we were about to reach it, the entrance collapsed!
Sanosuke swore loudly, then raising his leg he kicked a small hole where the door had been. He pushed his two children through, where I could hear Kaoru calling out to us. "Get the kids outta the way, Jou-chan!" Sanosuke shouted, pushing them farther out. He dropped onto his stomach and slid quickly through the hole. He held out his hands for the girl I carried.
The walls collapsed on either side of me, bringing the burning ceiling down. "Sano!" I had time to shout in warning, and pitched the little girl through the hole into his arms just as the ceiling fell down on me.
"Kenshin! KENSHIN!" I could hear Sano screaming. "No, oh, no, KENSHINNNN!"
I was pinned down. I couldn't move. My flesh was burning, but I couldn't feel it so well anymore. I couldn't breathe, there was so much smoke, there was such pressure on my chest. I could hear Yahiko's voice, and Kaoru's voice, the loudest. She called my name, she was screaming, crying.
I tried to free myself, but I was becoming so feeble. I wanted to see her, my Kaoru. I couldn't die yet! Kaoru… No, I had to see her, I had to see her face, I had to tell her…tell her… Kaoru-dono… Kaoru…I…
My eyes snapped open. Everything was gone. There was no burning house, the anguished cries of my loved ones were gone. I stood in a dark place where I could just make out a rough stone floor and blank stone walls steeped in shadows.
"Well, home at last are you, Battousai?"
I whirled around. I had sensed no one, but there in the shadows stood a man. He was wearing a heavy brown cloak, the hood drawn over his head. His hands and arms were wrapped thickly in bandages, as was his chin and mouth. Only his eyes were uncovered, glinting in the shadows of his hood.
His voice muffled in the wrappings, he said pleasantly, "Welcome to Hell."
I fought the urge to back away, completely unnerved. "What?" I blurted. "Who are you?"
"Mako," the figure answered coolly. "Though you're going to be on your knees calling me Master as you learn your place here."
My eyes narrowed. "Where am I?" I demanded.
"I told you: you are in Hell."
My sword hand twitched, but my sword wasn't there. I looked down, surprised. I was naked but for a simple white cloth swaddling my waist and loins, and barefoot as well. All my scars were exposed, but there were no burns on my body, no soot, no blackened areas, no effects from the fire at all.
I was a bit embarrassed for my undressed state, but decided I had more important things to worry about than modesty as a scream ripped through the air. It was loud and long and came from far away, a scream of unspeakable anguish. Mako's bandaged face stretched slightly, and I knew he was smiling.
"The cries of the damned, there's nothing like them," he said, almost solemnly. He started to say more, but just then the air was filled with screams like the first one. Screams of unbearable desolation and pain. They were voices of men, women, and even high, young voices.
Louder and louder as more voices joined in, and I clapped my hands over my ears. Frantically I cast about, looking for the way out of this nightmare, but as far as I could see, it was only darkness and shadows. Just as I decided to pick a direct and run, anything to get away from those terrible screams, they were abruptly silenced.
"As I was saying," Mako said softly in annoyed tones, rubbing at his left ear. "Your cries will soon join theirs."
I just stared at him, my eyes narrowing further.
"Ah. You don't quite believe yet, do you? All right, then. A demonstration." He nodded in mock politeness as if we had reached some sort of agreement, and suddenly I found myself knocked against a stone wall. Sharp rocks dug into my bare back as I was pressed flat, unable to move.
"I don't need to tell you what you are, Himura Battousai. You already know!"
Images sped before my eyes, but not so fast I couldn't understand them…and I wish to God I couldn't. Every head I ever lopped off, every heart I ever slashed through, every person I ever maimed, every child I ever orphaned, every mourning parent, brother, sister, every tear, all the bloody rain…pain physical and emotional washed over me until all I could really hear over the noise was endless, maniacal laughter and the sound of one man screaming at the last, as my sword passed through the body of a woman, as she reached up with her knife and carved a scar on my face…
The visions ended, and my chest heaved. I had been the one screaming. Mako stood before me, silent. If he had been the one laughing, he didn't seem to think anything was funny now.
"You died in a fire," he said simply. "You are in Hell."
Still pinned to the wall, gasping, I could only stare at him.
"Tell me, Battousai…do you believe you don't deserve to be in Hell?"
Released from whatever invisible force that had held me captive, I stumbled forward, nearly falling, and I sank slowly to my knees.
I looked down at my hands, marred by small scars and well-calloused from life by the sword. I had killed so many, did not believe in, did not understand the value of life. I was fifteen when I killed a young man, a young man whose will to live was so strong that despite his lacking sword skills he had cut a single scar onto my face. He had been engaged to marry the woman I married myself not long after…Tomoe, who had died trying to protect me, pierced through by my sword and my opponent's sword on either side. Her blade had crossed over the scar of the man she had been meant to marry, and the cruciform scar on my left cheek was proof enough...even with everything else...
Maybe I did…belong in Hell…
...I had hoped…
Tears stung at my eyes. Kaoru…I…I'm sorry…
"Enough of that!" Mako snapped. "You have eternity for that. Come."
He turned and began to walk into the shadows. I numbly stood and took a step forward, head bowed so that I didn't seem him suddenly turn and lash out, aiming for my neck. Before I could react, he jerked back, and I stumbled forward, pulled by a very short leash attached to a collar around my neck.
"There's my good little dog," Mako sneered.
My sorrow and numbness turned immediately to anger. Taking hold of the leather strip that was the leash, I tried to pull it from his grasp, but he held it easily in his bandaged hand, and though I saw it coming a long time ago, for some reason I lacked the speed to dodge as he backhanded me. I reeled, but he jerked forward on the leash, making me stumble again.
"Who are you?" I snarled.
"I'm your keeper," he said calmly. "And for all the things you're going to see on your stay here, I can easily say I'm the most pleasant thing you'll ever see. Soon you'll be on your knees begging me for my attentions like the well-trained pet I intend for you to become. Let's go."
He tugged at the leash. I tried to dig my heels in, but he was strong, and he held the leash high, forcing me to hurry along behind him on my toes. I stepped on sharp shards and rocks on the stone floor, but there was no opportunity to slow down as he led me down shadowy corridors. I gripped the collar to keep from suffocating, my face burning with shame.
"Ah, here we are," Mako said pleasantly. "I see no reason not to begin your training now, as I'm most eager to show you off when you're ready. We'll start with this one."
Yanking me into a shadow that cleverly concealed a small entrance, we came into a room. I gasped. Though no light had filtered from the open entrance, this place was full of sunlight. I saw the familiar paper walls of an ordinary house. A small table with cushions was neatly set in the center.
There was someone else in the room also. A small boy of seven or eight sat huddled in the corner, his face pressed into his drawn-up knees, his small hands wrapped around his legs.
There were footsteps from the other side of the wall, and the young boy's head came up. I recognized him instantly. Yahiko!
Though a little younger than I remembered him, I knew his face well, the sharp, pointed eyes Kaoru-dono made fun of so much, the unruly hair spiking in all directions…and the troubled, highly focused slant to his features.
He stood up quickly, as several men carrying a dummy draped in small bells came filing loudly into the room. I watched as they roughly set the dummy down. One of the men turned to Yahiko. The boy met his gaze steadily. I could see his hands trembling.
"Time to train a little, Yahiko," the man said sneered. "Pick-pocketing takes finesse, you know."
He shoved the boy forward roughly, toward the dummy. "There's a wallet of cash on this 'man' somewhere. Without ringing any of the bells, find it. You have three seconds."
Yahiko slipped forward quickly and quietly, and within two seconds he had removed a small wallet from the dummy's kimono…but two bells hanging near the flap rang, faintly.
In an instant the men were on the small boy, beating unmercifully.
"NO!" I shouted, starting to leap forward, but I was yanked back by the leash. "Let go!" When he did not I tried to attack him, force his grip from the leash. Jerking on the leash again he spun me back around to face Yahiko's beating and forced me to my knees simply by putting his hands on my shoulders.
His hands had unnatural heat that burned my bare skin, but I only had concern for Yahiko. I fought to get off my knees, but Mako was powerful, pressing me there not only with his strength, but with the same force that had kept me pinned to the wall and forced me to see again the horrors I had inflicted. It was useless, but still I fought, trembling, trying to reach out toward my young friend, desperately wanting to save him, to protect him.
My features contorted painfully, my teeth ground so hard together my jaw ached, as I watched Yahiko take a hideously cruel beating that went on for what seemed like hours until the men finally tired and backed away from him. He lay in a ball, bleeding on the floor.
"We'll try again tomorrow," one of the men snarled at him. "And tomorrow, don't ring any bells, or it'll be worse for you."
He leaned over and set the wallet carefully into another pocket on the dummy. "I suggest you practice a while."
They left the room, shutting the door behind them. After several moments, I watched as Yahiko struggled to his feet with difficulty. Head bowed, he shuffled to the dummy, reached out with his deft fingers, and slipped the wallet out again. This time, only one bell made the slightest tinkling sound as the wallet was 'stolen'. It was…such an improvement, especially when he could barely move after being beaten so badly, but still the boy's shoulders slumped and a soft, snuffling sound came from him.
"Yahiko!" I whispered, trying to reach out to him.
Mako yanked me from the room roughly, moving at a stride as we were plunged into darkness again. I struggled to regain my feet, my bare knees and legs scraped against the rough floor before I finally got them under me and hurried along behind him, tripping and stumbling as he tugged on the short leash.
As we walked dozens of ideas to get away from him crossed my mind, but the moment my posture changed, he seemed to sense it. "You can't get away," he said clearly in the gloom. "I can incapacitate you in an instant. You don't have much dignity left, so it's either you follow along or I'll drag you paralyzed by your neck."
"Yahiko…" I gasped, straining against the leash.
"That wasn't your young friend, Moron," Mako said flatly, striding along easily despite my efforts. "That was an echo, a distant memory of the boy Myoujin Yahiko was before you and the Kamiya girl came along. The boy had freshly lost his mother to syphilis, and was being looked after by a Yakuza group, who used the best methods they knew to teach him to become a skillful thief in the quickest way. That was just a small demonstration, a taste of what you're about to know here, Battousai."
He jerked me into another shadowed alcove, though this one was not as lighted, but certainly a lot larger.
Yahiko was in the room again, and this time there was also Sanosuke and Megumi-dono…and Misao-dono too. I looked to Mako--and he was gone! Looking around quickly, I couldn't see or sense him anywhere.
The exit had also vanished, I noted dimly, as I turned back to my friends.
I only took a single step toward them before the ground exploded around me. Chips of the stone floor flew and I had time to observe three rusted manacles writhe before me like living snakes before they struck. In only an instant, the two smaller ones had captured my wrists and the third and larger one encircled my waste.
I concentrated bleakly on my right arm, pulling hard on the rusted chain. The links continued into the ground, and the manacle around my wrist was tight and unbroken, as if it had been welded there. I had no hope of breaking free.
There were the sounds of footsteps in the shadows. I looked up to see dozens of men emerge. Their faces were both familiar and shrouded with unused memory. Nearly every one grinned in my direction, but they were moving toward my friends.
My true suffering began.
There are many things I try to forget every day. There were always times when I couldn't, when shame, guilt, regret, remorse, and my great desire for forgiveness washed over me, and I couldn't rise above it. Just as I would come close to drowning, I'd always see one of them. Sano, smirking with his dark joviality, but his heart open and honest with fighting spirit. Young Yahiko, grinning with mischief, focused in his swords training, and even more single-mindedly focused when it came to eating. Megumi-dono and her healing touch, though her coy, seductive side was always difficult to dodge around. Misao-dono, whose energy and light could make anyone smile. And most of all, Kaoru-dono. She soothed away the waves of anguish with a simple look directed my way, and her laughter was like sunlight on my soul.
I watched helplessly as Sanosuke fell under a circle of men. It was a brawl, the thing that Sano excelled at more than any other, yet the young man couldn't seem to lift an arm to throw a punch. His cries mingled with Megumi's and Yahiko's and Misao's.
I knew I couldn't break free, but I strained against the chains anyway until I heard Mako's voice at my ear. "This is your damnation, Battousai. It isn't quite enough that you be sealed in fire, and wail and weep and gnash your teeth. No, Battousai. They suffer in your place!"
The screaming began in earnest. And this time it was mine. I couldn't close my eyes as people I loved cried under the wrath of dozens of men. I heard bones snapping, cloth ripping, and clubs and rocks rained down on them, whips slashed their skin, daggers hacked and pierced them through until their blood ran across the floor, almost reaching me where I stood tethered to the ground. Yet they did not die.
I could feel my shoulders close to dislocating as I pulled the chains. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I screamed at the men, at my friends, at myself, at no one… It didn't seem to matter that they weren't real, that they were really safe at home, in the world of the living, in Tokyo. All that I knew was that I could see them now, that I witnessed their unbearable pain and anguish, that I was the cause of it.
My lungs forced me to stop, and as I knelt, gasping, sobbing, I could only think of one more thing to say. "Make it stop," I whispered brokenly.
And everything stopped.
The manacles fell away from me and dragged with heavy, hollow sounds back into the ground where they'd come. I struggled to my feet, but the room was empty of people. Blood was still everywhere, pooled thickly where they had been.
The door had also reappeared. Moving shakily, I left the room. There was only one direction to go, and I walked slowly down the tunnel, expecting to see Mako at any second.
He didn't appear. I felt my way along the wall until I reached a dead end. Sobbing in frustration, I turned to feel my way back but my hands connected with empty air. Another doorway. With nowhere else to go, I stepped cautiously inside.
Weak light from a single torch cast over the cave. A small form huddled just where the light didn't reach. I moved in that direction, expecting at any moment to see the writhing manacles burst from the stone, or feel the jerk of the leash.
I didn't realize it was her until she turned to look at me. Most of her hair was gone, carelessly hacked off, clothes tattered and barely covering her. She was emaciated, and her skin was badly burned. I may not have recognized her, if not for her eyes. Huge, sapphire, they had always reflected everything she felt.
She gasped when she saw me and held out thin, blackened arms to me. My touch hurt her as I gathered her up, and I swear if nothing else I've ever said is true, the soft whimper she let out hurt me more than I've ever been hurt before…or since.
"Kaoru-dono," I breathed into her hair. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm so very sorry…."
"That's the point. That's why you're in Hell."
Even though I had been expecting something to happen at any moment, somehow I just was not prepared when Mako gripped a handful of my hair in one hand and ripped Kaoru from my arms with the other.
"Let her go!"
Mako rolled his eyes. "At some point, you're going to have to realize just how useless your protests really are."
He flung Kaoru several feet away from us and dragged me farther from her by the leash. My protests were useless. So were my struggles, no matter how desperate, how rabid.
They came, of course. Just as before, all of them wore the face of someone I had sent to Hell as Hitokiri Battousai. Just as before, their eyes were full of malice, their hands clenching and muscles bunching in anticipation of satisfying violence.
I looked at Kaoru. She wasn't looking at the advancing men. She was looking at me. She crawled toward me with an outstretched hand, my name on her lips. Then they were upon her.
My body was weak with despair as I did they only thing left I could think of. I turned to the men and shouted as loudly as I was able. "Please! I am the one who deserves this! Don't hurt her, hurt me! Punish me! I am Hitokiri Battousai! Spill my blood, not hers!" I stood and held up my arms, both in appeal and surrender.
All were still a moment, all eyes on Mako, who was looking on me with interest. "She isn't real, you know," he pointed out. "Just as the boy Yahiko and your other friends aren't real here. They're safely in Tokyo, mourning your death."
I did not reply, only looked back at him.
After another long moment of silence he asked, "Is this what you want?"
"Yes," I whispered.
They were on me before I could turn to face them.
Instinct had me folded into a fetal position, protecting my face as the blows rained down. Every hit I took was one I didn't have to see fall on Yahiko. Every time a blade pierced my skin, I knew it wasn't cutting Sano. Every time I felt the burning lash of a whip, I knew it was a stripe Kaoru wouldn't be wearing later. Please. I'll endure it for eternity, just don't make me watch as you hurt them anymore…
There were shouts from somewhere nearby. The first few times, I was too deep into my suffering to pay attention, but I did finally notice when the beating stopped.
Something warm and thick was running into my eyes. I tried to wipe it away to see what was going on. I was panicking. Had they changed their minds? Were they going to bring back the images of my friends, torment me with their shadow sufferings?
The shouts got louder, there were the sounds of battle. Again I tried to rub the blood from my eyes. Hands grabbed me then, and I braced for more pain. None came. The hands that hauled me up were…gentle, and whoever it was that had me pulled my right arm around his neck and slipped an arm about my waste, supporting me.
"Sozo!" he shouted.
"Have you got him?" a young voice called back.
"Then get him out of here!" a different, much older voice shouted. "We'll take care of Shishio!"
"All right, Kamiya-san!"
Shishio? Kamiya-san? What…?
"No! NO! NOO! He was mine, he was mine, he was mine!"
Then we were running. Or rather, he was running, and I was being half-carried, half-dragged. I still couldn't see, and then--if such a thing is possible when you are dead--I must have passed out.
The next thing I knew, someone was washing my face with some very cold water. It felt good, so I didn't move for several moments as water splashed gently onto my face, and then was rubbed away with the blood and grime. I finally dared to open my eyes.
Green. That was what I first noticed, how green the place was. The grass was thick and vibrant, with flowers breaking through in bursts of color. Trees of many kinds stood out in the full, healthy leaf of mid-spring.
My companion chuckled beside me. "And this isn't even the prettiest place around," he said, amused by my gawking.
We were sitting on a stone fountain that flowed water gently from statues of winged people. He was sitting with an arm around my shoulders, supporting me.
He looked so familiar… He had shoulder-length, carrot-colored hair and very deep-blue eyes. He was thin and had a youthful, heart-shaped face.
It didn't take me a long time to figure out that he looked very much like me. Still, I had been through a lot in the last few hours… I blurted, "Who are you?"
He laughed, his head leaning back, eyes shut. Sobering only slightly, he said, "That wasn't exactly the first thing I hoped to hear from you after all this time, Shinta."
The years that had passed over me had been rough ones, rough enough to obscure this man to no more than a memory of a blurred shadow at whose knee I once sat. Yet with my childhood name came back a flood of remembered voices, scents, and feelings.
With the arm that supported my shoulders, he pulled me into a gentle, but completely enclosing hug.
"Forgive the familiarity, Son. I realize I'm something of a stranger now to you, but you're not a stranger to me. Your mother and I, we never stopped watching, and you never stopped being our son."
He released me, and I sat back, still supported by his arm.
"You mother wanted to come, but I was kind of scared she'd deck you." He winked at me. "She's been threatening to do that for years. Especially this last year, when you've been staying with Kamiya-san's daughter. She almost throttled me a couple of nights ago; told me your emotional sluggishness has to come from my side of the family, and that if the year ended without you kissing the girl you loved, she was bringing Armageddon down early just to tell you what a moron you are."
"But…F-father… I don't understand. I was in Hell, wasn't I…? Why are you…where am I now…? Kamiya-san…?"
"Easy, easy, Son. One thing at a time." He rubbed his chin, looking at me a little wryly. "First of all, you weren't in Hell."
I blinked slowly. "You could have…fooled me."
He smiled regretfully. "You were fooled, as I recall. Very clever idea, really. But then again, most of Shishio Makoto's ideas are clever."
Shishio! Not "Mako", but "Makoto"! It had been Shishio all the time, wrapped unrecognizably, his voice disguised, keeping me off-balance and busy so that I never really took a close look…
Father saw my eyes widen. "Ah, you're getting it now. It was a type of hell, but it wasn't the Hell. Shishio knew well what kind of life you lead. You're a warrior, a swordsman, with many enemies known and not known, and even with those last lessons Hiko-san tried to teach you, you still see your life as a little less important as anyone else's. He knew the odds of you getting injured until you were close enough to death for him to have you in his grasp. But! The difference is that there were certain restrictions Shishio had to work around. For example, he would not have had you had you not let him."
He shook his head, exasperated. "You submitted to him, walked into it. Shinta, you were so certain you deserved Hell that you actually walked willingly right into it! If you'd told him to get stuffed, or something, he wouldn't have been able to touch you, or show you the images of your friends' torment."
I was reeling with shock. Shishio had facilitated a hell just for me? And I had played right into his hands like an idiot…
"…and you came to save me."
He raised his eyebrows. "Not without help. In fact, I was one of the last to even find out what happened to you. Your mother and I were surprised when Sagara Sozo and Kamiya Koshijiro ran up on us. Interesting how they've never met or spoken to you, but you're very important to them. After all, you've been taking care of Sanosuke and Kaoru for them.
"Anyway, the plan was very simple. They would fight Shishio and I would carry you to safety."
"Are they all right?"
"Well, I would suppose they are. It's not exactly as if they can die again, now is it?"
"Where am I now?"
"The place between asleep and awake."
"The place between…so this isn't, ah, Heaven?"
"Kind of. It's around the edges, the place we all touch when we're finally at peace, even when we are still alive."
"Oh. So…were am I supposed to go now?"
Father laughed. "Worried you're going to get sent straight to the real Hell?"
His laughter vanished. He studied my face. "You're serious!" he observed, disbelieving.
"Well…yes," I said sheepishly.
I was beginning to notice that my father and my master aren't so different when it comes to letting me know I've said something stupid. My father just seemed to do it more subtly.
"Shinta, there aren't really all that many more people who deserve Hell less than you do."
"But…but I was--"
"What? An assassin? I know that you were. I was watching you. Shinta, do you think you're the only one who killed someone else during that time? You were badly misguided, but I'm not the only one who would agree that the lives you've saved are really starting to tip the scale against the lives you took."
Sitting there with my father, looking into his eyes…something deep within me began to heal.
Father helped me to stand and guided me away from the fountain. "Where are we going?"
"Home," he answered, grinning. "I think you understand the things you're supposed to understand. Now, I've got to get back to my wife before she comes after me. Dangerous lady when crossed. And you've got to get back to your own woman, who is also dangerous when crossed."
"Yes. Back to her, back to life, back to your body. You see, back on Earth your heart is still beating, brain still functioning, though barely. If you don't get back there soon, we'll be troubling your mother to set an extra plate for dinner. Not that she wouldn't be delighted to see you. It's just that Kaoru and your friends need you more than we do right now."
There was a circle of flowers before us, where a great many butterflies mingled. Father led me to the center, the backed away a few paces.
"Butterflies are said to help lost souls find their way," he said.
"Don't worry, Shinta. Just stand there a few minutes."
"Should I do anything?"
"If you like. Close your eyes."
I did. The inside of my eyelids seemed very soothing, and I realized just how tired I was.
"We're sorry we left you alone," Father said softly, wistfully. "We wish we could have spent more time with you, Son."
I tried to say something to him, to tell him that he had been there when I truly needed him, but my mind was blank and felt at rest. It seemed as though I slept for a time.
I opened my eyes again, hearing the sounds of voices speaking quietly in the background. I registered pain, but it was dulled and unimportant.
I had often thought of Kaoru as the most beautiful thing that greeted my sight every day, but never more so than when her face floated above me that moment. She was beautiful, whole. Her hair was long and lustrous, her skin perfect and smoothed, not burned or bruised or broken.
"Kaoru-dono." I groped for her hand, failing, until she grabbed my searching fingers and held them still in her hands.
Tears spilled down her face. "Oh, Kenshin. We were so worried… We almost lost you."
My memory drifted to the burning house, rescuing those three trapped children. It felt like years ago…
"Are the kids okay? Sano?"
"Sano's fine, the children will be okay. You on the other hand, got pretty burned. Sano got a bit burned also, saving you. You should have seen him. He actually picked up the entire collapsed roof and tossed it aside, trying to get to you. People are going to be talking about that for years to come." She giggled, looking a bit undone with emotion.
I squeezed her hand. I was trying my best to stay awake; I had many things I wanted to say to her. But I lost that battle, and my eyes closed heavily.
She gave my had a last squeeze and I felt her start to pull away. I quickly gripped her hand again. "Wait, Kaoru-dono."
I cracked opened my eyes, met her questioning ones and gestured for her to come closer. As she leaned forward, I lifted my head and kissed her softly on the mouth.
My heavy eyelids slipped close again as I eased back onto the pillow, but I managed to open them one last time to see her standing there, looking down on me with surprise, fingers resting lightly on her lips where mine had touched.
I smiled sweetly at her and drifted off to sleep.
I did that with the hope my mother was watching, of course. I can't have her bringing Armageddon and the end of the world just yet to tell me what an idiot I am. There's a woman, who waits by my bedside while I sleep. I must ask her to marry me, spend my life making her happy, to try to tip the scales of all the times, like this one, that I've made her cry and worry.
Thanks for showing me that balance, Father. There is so much living I have left to do before I die.