In the days that followed, we settled into a kind of routine. I thought it was the closest I would ever get to experiencing 'normal life'. The only difference was that instead of working during the day, I earned my living at night.
And of course, what I did was far from ordinary.
Tomoe had become a welcome addition to the Kohagi's workers. Okami-san was kind to her, even protective. Before meals, she helped in the kitchen, and in between, she cleaned, sewed and washed, making herself invaluable, and at the same time invisible. Even the men started to accept her; she no longer drew curious stares.
They thought we were lovers. As a result, her presence was even welcomed by some. They thought she would be good for me; the way I was, for a sixteen year old, that wasn't normal. Perhaps this girl would bring me around, make me talkative and social like the others. Our apparent relationship was reassuring to them; I too had needs, desires.
The emotions were there, somewhere.
But we were not lovers, and I could never be a normal sixteen year old. I did not become more outgoing, or relaxed. I did not talk more. After the initial adjustment, life did not change too much.
Except that she was there. We did not speak too often, but we did share a room. It was a surprise to me that after the day I drew my sword on her, Tomoe seemed to become comfortable in my presence. She would no longer stare at me so much, but instead went about her business, unassuming. It reminded me of the way Shishou and I would not speak for such long periods of time, while I went about my chores and he read, or worked on his ceramics. We were both aware of one another, but there was no need for words. We just existed, together.
Sometimes, during the day, I was able to rest. It was strange, but when she was there, the visions of slaughter evaporated. My insomnia disappeared, and I was granted the gift of dreamless sleep.
At night, I would fulfil my assignments. And always, when I returned, she would be awake. She no longer questioned me about my work. Instead, she would be ready with the wash water.
Had she understood that I was uncomfortable with her seeing the blood? She never lingered while I cleaned. Maybe she had also sensed what I felt; that I needed the time alone, to pull myself back into the world, away from that wild, cavernous place.
Sometimes I felt it would envelop me.
But it was easier to come back when I knew there was a hot bath ready, along with a fresh yukata and a futon rolled out. I needed to return, because she would not sleep until I came to bed. I wondered how much rest she really got, with me tossing all night. She never complained.
What a difficult companion I must have been.
I do not know what she read in my behaviour, during our first days together. As it seeped into my waking life, the detachment I embraced in my work made me unsettled. I became less and less certain of how to act around ordinary people. Sometimes, my thoughts were shot through with anger, and my temper became short.
Except with her. In contrast, her presence seemed to have a calming effect on me.
Even though we rarely spoke, I started to look forward to spending time with her, and it did not take me long to learn of the small things that distinguished her. Everyone has them; traits known only by those who are close to us. They come from within and are shaped by the course of our lives. These minute details can be deceiving. Yet like signs in the earth pointing to a deep vein of gold, they can also be rewarding, if read correctly.
My own quirks are not hard to decipher.
Since coming to Kyoto, I had preferred to sleep in the sitting position. I still do, from time to time. With washing, whether it be hands or laundry, I am on the verge of obsessive.
She had her notebook, which she wrote in every day. And most of the time, the faint scent of white plum surrounded her. Her ki was impenetrable to me, like that of most women. She preferred the side of the room closest to the window. When she slept, her hair was untied.
From observation, I was learning so much. But every time I tried to piece things together, my progress would be interrupted by the savage night. The killings held me back.
And so the days passed in this fashion, growing longer. Tomoe and I continued in our odd routine, and the cool nights became warm and humid, strung through with the drone of crickets. The black envelopes came, I murdered, and in the world beyond us, forces were assembling.
Soon, Gion Matsuri was upon us, and now we return to where I left off before, having declined Katsura-san's invitation. After the meeting, I had returned to my room, weariness tugging my eyelids.
I was sleeping when I felt the warning thread of an intrusive ki. Although I kept my eyes closed, I knew it was Iizuka. Tomoe sat beside me, mending a tear in my sleeping yukata.
"Hey Himura!" He shattered our mutual silence. "Let's go! After Gion Matsuri, we're gonna hit the red light district…"
"Quiet, please." Her soft voice hid an iron resolve. I knew Iizuka would not get far. "Himura-san is finally asleep."
As Iizuka left, sliding the shoji shut behind him, I felt the disappearing trail of his ki; it was tinged with surprise. Then all was quiet, and I felt myself drifting…
My eyes snapped open.
"What is it?" She turned to me. Her hands, still holding the needle and yukata, dropped to her lap. "Iizuka was just…"
Something was wrong. I caught the aura of a man in distress; it struck me like a kick in the chest.
He burst in, tearing the shoji aside. Iizuka was not far behind.
"Himura!" Katakai's eyes were wide, his broad shoulders heaving as he struggled for breath. His moist brow glistened; sweat streamed from him.
Something was definitely wrong.
"Katakai-san." I rose, keeping the alarm from my expression. Katakai was one of Katsura-san's bodyguards; the fact that he was here sent dread coursing through me. "You're supposed to be guarding Katsura-san at the meeting."
Katakai's large frame quivered all over. His face, drained of colour, was pale; his eyes were ringed with shadow. He looked like a man who had come close to death. "The Ikedaya has been raided by the Shinsengumi!"
"Information is being leaked out!" Iizuka stood alongside him, frantic.
I froze, unable to speak. Blood pounded through me and my senses became taut, stretched so I could hear the rasping breath of the two men. Katakai's panic clawed at me and behind it I could feel Iizuka's thin tremor of anxiety.
I could almost hear their hearts, hammering away.
"What about Katsura-san?" The worry burst from me like a crashing wave, spreading wide. I was unable to contain it any more. My thoughts were racing chaos.
And underneath, I caught and held the familiar thread of anger. I was a volatile mess; impulsive and very dangerous.
If something had happened to Katsura-san…
"The meeting started before he could reach the Ikedaya, so the head of Tsushima went in his place." My expression must have been fierce, for Katakai took a step backwards as I stared at him. "Because he was taking a nap, he narrowly avoided the disaster. But Yoshida-san, and Miyabe-sensei and the others…" Katakai lowered his eyes.
The simmering anger exploded into rage. It wiped my mind clear; I forgot them, forgot Tomoe sitting beside me. Everything we had worked for had been destroyed in a single night. I saw the revolution ground back, strangled.
This was the work of the Shinsengumi.
It spread through me; a terrible, destructive force. I could feel my self-control imploding, giving way to madness. Disaster had swallowed us, and I had not known a thing about it.
My ever present guilt found a new direction.
I should have been there.
I could have done something.
I was inconsolable. Only one thought kept hammering through me, like a mantra.
They will pay.
I strode forward, channelling the rage, honing it into pointed intent. I could reach the Ikedaya by going over the rooftops, cutting across streets. It would not take me long, and whoever was still there, whoever was responsible…
"Wait, Himura!" Iizuka grabbed my arm, pulling me back. He was shaking, his face mashed into a desperate grimace. He did not know how close he had come to being struck by me… or perhaps he did. The last shred of my composure forced me to hesitate, and somehow, I heard what he was saying. "It's too late!" Even if you go now, you'll never make it in time. And there are over three thousand Bakufu soldiers out there. Fighting now will only make things worse for Choshuu."
It had been the right thing to say. Perhaps Iizuka knew me better than I had thought. Or maybe there had been something else; a pair of black eyes, wide and imploring, appealing to more than just my reason.
They had plucked me from a raging torrent; Iizuka with his blunt logic and Tomoe, who hadn't spoken at all.
As I looked at her, my self-control returned, settling over me like a blanket of snow. The mad anger, the lust for revenge; both disappeared, leaving outrage and guilt entwined. These went deep inside me, but they would resurface later, when I would draw on them.
I stepped back, freeing myself of Iizuka's grasp. His slow, loud sigh was a sign of his relief. Katakai was still staring at me, his eyes bulging. His pale face, clammy with perspiration, shone in the dim light.
I noticed the sewing needle, still held in Tomoe's grip, between her thumb and forefinger. Her pale hands were draped across her lap, amongst folds of cotton.
The silence from earlier returned, except now it was heavy, underscored with the inevitable.
This was a bad night indeed.
We had all been swept into something bigger than we could have imagined, and at that moment, it felt as if the course we wished history to follow was nothing more than fantasy. Our ideal was swallowing the very lives it was supposed to value. How many more men and women would be broken as our nation was shaped? All we could do, as we were pushed and dragged down this long, revolutionary path, was hope that the choices we made now would prove, someday, to be the right ones.
Trust your reasons; hold firm to your beliefs. That is all one can ever do.
Sano tried to picture it; the younger Kenshin, full of anger, incited to revenge.
That emotion was a terrible thing; he had seen men consumed, eaten away by powerful obsession. It turned people into twisted distortions of themselves; they did things they never realised they were capable of.
The thought of Kenshin being overwhelmed by those feelings sent a thrill of fear through Sano. Volatile, impulsive, and so young. It could have ended in a massacre.
But Kenshin had held back at the last moment. There had been too much at stake. His desire for change; the girl, Tomoe; his own sense of reason. He was bound by the very things that mattered to him. And that was the way it should be.
Sano could see that even when he had been a hitokiri, killing hundreds, glimpses of the Kenshin he knew would have been there. It was a paradox he had never been able to comprehend, but as Kenshin unravelled his past, adding in the small details; the things that were important to him, it was beginning to make sense.
Like all of them, Kenshin's fate had become caught up in the onslaught of events. The difference was that he had the ability to force things in one direction or another. Taking a life could do that.
In Kenshin's mind, there was no forgiveness for what he had done, but Sano knew he would never have stood back and let injustice pass him by. That would have been far worse.
So in the end, because of what he was, and who he was, Kenshin had made his choice.
Sano only feared that the price he paid for that had been far too great.