This is it! It's done. Over. I'm dancing inside.
I'm tired. It's five times longer than anything else I've ever written. I'm going to take a nap. For a month.
Thank you to Animanical, my wonderful beta reader.
Thank you to my reviewers, who fill my heart with happy, fuzzy feelings of joy and keep me writing.
"Kenshin. Did you already threaten him?"
Ignorance was likely his best defense. "Oro?"
"You did! You threatened him without me!"
"Oro!" She darted a hand downward, trying to reach the ticklish spot above his left hip and he only half-heartedly tried to evade her, because laughing was pleasant, and because playing with Kaoru made him happy.
Kenshin sat the little package on the floor and examined it, turning it this way and that, watching the predawn light play over the cloth. Should I have used red? ... I should have used red… He'd spent an inordinate amount of time on this already, so he only sighed, packed the gift away, and then woke Kaoru. After coaxing his grumpy wife out of bed, they headed down to one last breakfast with the Hanaris.
Kaoru had barely taken the first bite when Mayako said, "The road might still be muddy in spots. Be careful."
"And you're still a bit too thin, Kenshin-kun; I packed plenty of food, so make sure you eat enough."
"Be sure to write, too. Okabe-sensai can read."
Kenshin made the mistake of taking a large sip of tea.
"If Kenji-chan is nearly three, I'll expect news of another child soon," Mayako said, and he swallowed the hot liquid incorrectly, nearly choking. Iesada slapped him on the back.
She sniffed unapologetically. "Well. You're both young and healthy. And I've got a soft spot of redheaded babies."
Leaving took nearly twenty minutes, as Mayako couldn't stop bustling around them, checking that they had everything she deemed necessary for the journey. Eventually even she could find nothing lacking, and the couple gently bid her a final farewell. Mayako smoothed her hands down her apron one last time, her face twisted in some type of distress.
"Mayako-dono?" Kenshin asked, before Mayako darted forward and nearly squeezed him breathless in a quick, tight hug, then drew back just as quickly.
"Be sure to write!" Then she nearly threw them out of the house. Kenshin blinked in the sunshine, while Kaoru smothered her laughter with a raised hand.
The villages were so close that the walk would take minutes, not hours, meaning that in less than an hour, Kenshin would be introduced to his sister. Excitement and anxiety swirled together in his gut. What will this one say to her? Had she thought about him over the years? Did she even remember him? She was a little older than he was, arguably she should remember, but they had both been very young…
Kaoru stepped around a sizeable rock and into his space, slipped her arm through his and hugged it to her chest. "She's going to be so happy to see you, Kenshin. You'll see." He glanced over and offered her a strained smile. She hugged his arm more firmly. The little village came into view, as picturesque as its sister, and Kenshin paused a moment to take it in: one deep breath in, and then they started the climb up the road that cut through the village center, exactly like the village they had just left. Recalling Iesada's directions, Kenshin counted houses anxiously as they walked.
Ninth on the right, Ninth on the right... Suddenly, there it was. It was a neat little house, basically identical to the others, but with a pretty little flower garden already beginning to bloom. She must be a skilled gardener… He stared for longer than he'd intended, and Kaoru gently elbowed him in the side. He took a reflexive step forward, but Kaoru tugged him back.
"Your hat," she whispered.
"Oh." He hastily untied it, then moved forward and lightly tapped on the door. "Pardon me?"
The door slid open – revealing a pretty child, about four years old. "Hello?" She was dressed in clean, well-repaired clothing, a neatly tied ribbon holding back her dark hair.
"Hello." Kenshin kept his voice gentle. "Are your parents home?"
Kenshin's lips twitched. "May this one speak with them?"
"Okay!" She bounced away, leaving the door wide open. He glanced at his wife to find her grinning, and his stomach settled a little at this oddly sweet welcome. It took only a few moments before a woman's voice filtered out of the house.
"You left them there? Naoyuki, where are your manners?!" Rapid footsteps came their way, and Kenshin caught his breath as she came into view: she was petite, her bright red hair pulled back – she had his chin. She was looking down, drying her hands on her apron, as she hurried to the door. "I'm so sorry, my daughter-" Her words cut off as she looked up. "I - um - you are - I'm sorry… Can I help you?"
Kenshin couldn't seem to find his tongue. Kaoru stepped forward. "Chiho-san?" The woman blinked and looked at her, nodding. "My name is Kamiya Kaoru." She bowed politely. "And this is my husband Kenshin." Kenshin tried to smile, and hoped that he'd managed it around his numb facial muscles. Chiho huffed out a breath and leaned against the doorframe. She pressed a hand over her heart and stared. Kenshin stared back.
Clearly beginning to get nervous, Kaoru started talking again. "We're so sorry to have dropped in like this! But -"
Chiho startled and flicked her gaze away from Kenshin."No!" she interrupted. "No, no, no. Please, please come in!" The inside of the house was spotlessly clean, the furnishings worn but in good repair. Kenshin seated himself where she indicated, and continued staring like an idiot. She had his nose. Kaoru sat to his left, and his – his sister sat across from them. She was still staring at him, just as rudely as Kenshin was staring at her. Her eyes were more blue than violet. She opened and closed her mouth a few times, but didn't manage to say anything.
"Mooom! Tatsuyo is being mean!" A little girl, maybe eight years old, exploded into the room, with an older boy close on her heels.
"No I wasn't. Aki wasn't supposed to be in the vegetable garden and she was, and you said -"
"No, I wasn't! I wasn't in the vegetable patch, he's fibbing!"
"Yes, she was, I prom-"
"We have guests," Chiho cut in, her voice calm and composed. Both children froze and and immediately looked their way. The boy was not quite a teenager, but he was close, with his mother's eyes. All three children, and his sister, were clothed in shades of red and brown, and it caused snippets of childhood memories flit across his mind. A third child ran into the room, obviously wanting to be part of the action, as the elder two looked down at the floor, chastened.
"Sorry." It was a sad little chorus, and Kenshin smiled.
"That's quite alright, so it is."
Rapidly recovering, the middle child looked him over boldly. "You've got red hair!" she blurted, and then blushed as Chiho gave her a look.
"Aa, so I do."
"Are you from Shiraiyama?"
"Originally, this one believes."
Chiho took in a pained little breath. "So… you – have we met then?"
His stomach was in knots. He nodded. "I believe so. This one… was originally named 'Shinta,' that I was." Chiho was silent, her lips pressed together and her eyes unreadable. Kenshin felt frozen, staring at the woman across the table, desperately trying to puzzle out what she thought of his statement. Even her energies were muddled and he wasn't quite sure…
A small voice interrupted: "So where are you from now?"
"We're from Tokyo," Kaoru said, beginning a quiet conversation with the children, their voices a background murmur. Kenshin's own heartbeat was loud in his ears.. He consciously steeled his nerves and waited; he'd come to her home uninvited, and would do her the courtesy of allowing her to decide what she wished to do about that.
She started to cry, and Kenshin panicked. He wanted to bash his head on the table, or take Kaoru and run, he wanted to gasp apologies for the presumption, he wanted to be back in Tokyo immediately. He opened his mouth to say something, anything. Chiho interrupted him by leaning across the table and grabbing his face, pulling him to meet her halfway. She rested her forehead against his.
"I prayed every day that you would find your way home." Her voice was a trembling whisper. Kenshin watched as shining tears trailed down her cheeks and had no idea what to say.
"Mom?" Her son's voice was anxious.
Chiho pulled away and wiped her cheeks. "Go get your father from the fields. Tell him that my brother has come home."
The boy's eyes grew huge, and he bolted blindly for the door, then jerked around, bowed hastily and snatched up the eldest girl's hand, pulling her out the door with him. The littlest child tilted her head curiously, and put a finger in her mouth: dark hair aside, she looked very much like her mother. "You're my uncle?"
Kenshin swallowed against his dry throat. "Yes, that I am," he said, his voice a quiet rasp.
"Okay!" She picked up her doll and plopped down to the floor to play, clearly unimpressed with her new relatives.
"...You changed your name," Chiho said, with the hint of a question in her voice.
He looked back to his sister. "Yes, long ago."
She nodded. Kaoru elbowed him firmly in the side, and he blinked over at her, blankly. Her eyes were wide and laden with meaning; she nodded ever-so-slightly at Chiho. He blinked at her again.
Kaoru smiled and turned to Chiho. "He was adopted soon after leaving here. His master renamed him."
Oh. Oh! "Yes." He nodded. ...I am a half-wit. Chiho raised a hand to her mouth, her blue eyes crinkled at the corners with amusement.
"I shall fetch us some tea." His sister excused herself and left the room, presumably to the kitchen. As soon as Chiho was out of sight, Kaoru reach for his hand and squeezed.
"It's okay, you see? She's happy and everything is fine. Relax, Kenshin." He breathed out, straightening his shoulders and reaching for equilibrium.
His sister resettled herself and served the tea. "...Do you have any children?"
"Yes, one, that I do." Kaoru quietly cleared her throat. He continued, "His name is Kenji; he is two years old."
Chiho smiled. "We have the three you've just met; Tatsuyo will be thirteen this fall, then there's Aki, who's nine, and little Naoyuki is not quite five."
"Kaoru-dono and this one were married three years ago," he tried again.
"That's nice," she shifted forward a bit on her knees, and her smile was eager. "Haru and I have been married thirteen years this summer. Did I hear that you live in Tokyo?"
"Yes," he said, and Kaoru elbowed him again, just a bit. "This one has lived there for the last five years, that I have."
Chiho smiled, and there was only a little tension in her mouth. "Such a big city! I can't imagine."
"This one has a garden," he blurted. "Your flower garden is very... nice." He could feel his ears turning red at the inanity of his attempts at conversation. She smiled, though, and that was worth it.
"I enjoy gardening. Do you remember Mother's garden?"
"No..." he said, regretting it immediately – Chiho's smile fell, and his stomach began to knot again.
"Well… you were very young," she murmured and looked down to her lap, picking at her sleeves.
Kaoru, beloved woman, rescued him. "What did your mother grow?" She smiled her lovely smile, friendly and open, the one that always put people at ease. His sister blossomed, regaining her own smile and sitting straight again.
"She loved flowers."
"What kind were her favorite?" Kaoru led the conversation along, keeping Chiho talking, and allowing Kenshin room to breathe. He looked around the room and was pleased with what he saw. The furnishing were old, but everything a family might need was there. The cushions were worn but soft and plump. The tea set was no masterwork, but it was still very pretty. The room was full of sunshine. The walls were sturdy and well-sealed; there wasn't a draft, despite the wind. Chiho herself was dressed in a homespun kimono that was relatively new and had a nice weight; it seemed warm. After a few minutes, Kaoru began to draw him into the conversation as well. Kenshin followed her lead with relief, only too happy to allow her to clear the way. It wasn't long before he began to enjoy himself.
The words washed over him, but in it, he learned that his sister was clever. She was sweet natured. She liked to talk. Kenshin soaked it all in, and he felt… pleased and full and warm, sitting in that sunny little room, drinking tea and pretending that he hadn't noticed the small chip in his cup.
"Chiho?" A man that was certainly Kenshin's brother-in-law nearly skidded into the room, a little out of breath. He was of medium build and dark complexion, and a worried frown creased his face. His brown eyes were openly worried, and his posture stiff.
Chiho leapt to her feet, a beautiful smile on her face. "Haru! Haru, come meet my brother. This is my brother, Kamiya Kenshin-san and his wife, Kaoru-san."
He murmured polite greetings and waited while Chiho fussed over her husband, tugging at his sleeve to coax him to the table. Kenshin was careful to keep his ki calm and nonthreatening. After the man had taken that first quiet sip, Kenshin produced a small, prettily wrapped gift and extended it with steady hands..
His sister's face lit like a lantern. "Oh, how pretty! I couldn't possibly accept."
"It's nothing really," he coaxed.
"No, no," Chiho said, "it's not necessary."
"It's only a small thing, so it is."
Chiho tucked it away carefully, smiling widely. Something seemed to ease somewhat, soothed by the familiar rituals of tea and gifts, and the conversation flowed more easily for several minutes.
"How did you find your way here, Kamiya-san?" Haru asked.
Kaoru smiled and leaned slightly into Kenshin's side. "We met Manami-san in the market, actually. She recognized Kenshin, and so we came to visit." Haru's tension seemed to ease a little.
"What is it that you do, in Tokyo?"
He smiled. "This one mostly cares for our home, and Kenji, although I do have an herb garden. I have some small training in making medicine, that I do."
"Oh!" Chiho's smile was bright. "That's so interesting!"
The conversation relaxed, although it was still strange. The questions were far more personal than would be considered polite, but it was a family visit, and the mix of casual and strange was to expected. Chiho was transparently happy, keeping up an excited stream of chatter, and Kenshin was more than content with that. Lunch was a happy affair – he delighted in watching his nephew and nieces try very hard to use their best table manners.
"Kamiya-san?" Haru's brow was creased, a touch of challenge in his eyes. Kenshin tilted his head in inquiry, projecting peaceful calm. "Perhaps you would like a tour of the village."
Kenshin nodded politely, smiling guilelessly as he rose and slid the sakabatou through his waistband. Kaoru shifted to rise and he could feel her nervousness. "Kaoru-dono, please do not trouble yourself. This one is certain that we will return shortly." There was mutiny in her eyes, but her composure was flawless; something in his expression convinced her to remain seated.
The two men walked quietly for several minutes, passing neat country homes and gardens. Kenshin smiled at a group children as they tumbled past, playing some form of chase.
Haru didn't speak until the reached the lowest terrace of a rice field. "You've been gone a long time, Kamiya-san. Manami-san is in Tokyo, but…"
"This one was quite surprised to meet her, that I was."
Haru seemed to be chewing over his words. "Chiho – she's always missed her brother." A strange little pain shot through Kenshin's chest. "She might not- she might not look too closely at a man claiming to be him. So I have to."
There was now open challenge in the other man's eyes, but Kenshin didn't resent the suspicion; it was comforting, to know his sister had someone to protect her soft heart. He kept his voice and manner gentle. "This one wishes nothing from your wife, other than a visit, that I don't."
"...How long are you staying?"
"We should leave tonight; we have a son waiting for us in Kyoto." A single day's visit would mean that they were not seeking lodging, and would not eat food meant for his children's mouths. Haru nodded, and he finally relaxed. "This one would like to write, however, and we return to Kyoto for a visit each spring; it would be nice to visit Akaida as well, so it would."
"That would be a good thing. Chicho has always missed her brother," Haru repeated, this time with a smile, and they turned around, heading back towards the neat little house that Kenshin's sister called home.
They stayed the rest of the afternoon, but as the shadows began to lengthen, he covertly plucked at Kaoru's sleeve. She meet his gaze and he nodded subtly toward the door; her eyes widened, but she nodded.
"We should be going; it will be dark soon, so it will."
Chiho's face fell instantly. "You're leaving already? But you must stay the night!"
"But Kenji-chan is waiting for us, and we've been gone too long already," Kenshin said, keeping his own disappointment in check.
"It's alright, we visit Kyoto every year! And we'll write," Kaoru promised. Chiho looked unhappy, but nodded reluctantly, and stood. She seemed surprised when Kaoru suddenly clasped her hands. "I'm glad to have gained a sister."
With happy tears in her eyes once more, Chiho saw them off, waving until they were out of sight.
Kaoru was smiling as they walked, nearly vibrating with excitement. When they had completely left the village behind, she sprang. Kenshin caught her in both arms, laughing in the face of her joy. Her hands were in his hair as she covered his face with kisses.
"It- was- perfect!"
"Kenshin…You did so well!" She pulled away and, alone with his wife, he smiled until he could feel the corners of his eyes crease; his heart was light and his arms were full of a happy Kaoru. What could be better? "We'll write, and come back next year."
"Yes, so we will."
She stepped back and tugged at his hand. "Then come on; let's go get our son."
The walked until just before dark, perhaps three ri, and Kenshin busied himself with fetching water and starting the fire for dinner as Kaoru unrolled their bedding. That night, he lay with her in their little bed; he still didn't sleep, they were outdoors and vulnerable, but he was wrapped comfortably around his warm wife, her soft hair tickling his chin. He'd need to be careful, always, to not lead danger to his newfound family. He needed to have a conversation with Aoshi and Misao; the villages were outside of their usual range, but they were closest. He was confident that they would not mind adding those two sleepy little towns to the list of places watched by the Oniwabanshu.
The rest of the walk to the Aoiya was easy; the wind was not as fierce and the road was largely downhill. Kaoru's feet had healed during the weeks in Shirayama, and Kenshin was careful to dawdle excessively. He was also careful not to smile when the sight of the Aoiya brought an audible sigh of relief from Kaoru.
Omasu spotted them walking down the street. Her shout was the loudest sound he had ever heard from her. "Kamiya-san! Kamiya-san! You're back!" She dropped the stack of linens in her arms and hurried toward them, quickly followed by a myriad of rapid footsteps, as the various members of the Oniwabanshuu poured out of the front door. Friendly voices overlapped and friendly hands reached for packs but Kenshin's eyes were trained on the entrance. There! In the arms of a haggard Misao squirmed a familiar red-headed toddler.
Kenshin peripherally registered that Misao looked exhausted, while Kenji looked happy and clean and just a little bit sticky. His little face lit with excitement when he spotted his parents and he wriggled out of Misao's grip with urgency.
"Mama! Daddy!" He ran as fast as chubby legs could carry him. He went to Kaoru first and she scooped him up, his arms tight around her neck, like a little person-sized scarf.
"Auntie Misao took us- we saw jigglers!"
"An' Auntie Omasu made ohagi! It was good." He allowed himself to be transferred to Kenshin's arms. "An' Auntie Misao gave Kenji a bath!" The disgust in his voice made Kenshin smile, Kenji's chatter and the others' questions and news a pleasant backdrop for his silent inventory: Kenji was just slightly sticky, his skin baby-smooth and soft, he smelled like soap and little boy, and his hair was silky under Kenshin's chin; his grip on his father was almost tight enough to strangle and Kenshin couldn't have cared less. They were settled in the Aoiya's main room briskly and served tea and cakes while everyone tried to share their news all at once.
There was all the usual rabble of talking and laughing. It wasn't quite home, and they wouldn't be home for at least another week; they had responsibilities in Kyoto, to Shishou and to Tomoe. But it was good and it was familiar, and they would be home soon enough. His garden was overdue for planting, and Kenshin longed for that little green space. Kaoru's students would be waiting, and so would peaceful days of breakfast and laundry and weeding and being – and letters. There would be days of letters, sending and receiving, and days of reading about his sister's life, and the goings on of two little villages tucked away in the mountains. Truly, nothing much had changed, but now there was more, more family, more joy, and… more peace.
Kenshin accepted a cup of sake, and smiled at the sweet flavor on his tongue.