The Memory of Trees
The Patient

It is the human nature to

Construct a mask out of guilt,

So that one can hide behind it

And away from the world

He would sit there every morning without fail, gazing dreamily out of the window. It was a routine that everyone was used to, and before breakfast the nurses would already have placed a cushion there for him.

They all liked him. He was caring, obliging, thoughtful... He never threw any tantrums, and was very polite, albeit the fact that he was a bit dreamy and sometimes looked like he was oblivious to what was going on around him.

But he knew. He knew every single patient in his building. He knew what kind of sickness each of them had, what their family members were like, and how infrequently they would come to visit. He knew when the nurses talked in hushed voices about him, about how he was such a nice kind of person, how sweet he was, and how it was a pity his life had to go to waste like that. After all, he was only twenty-eight.

He was totally aware of his surroundings, and he knew that he could leave this place once and for all whenever he wanted to. Scheming, clever Hitokiri Battousai took care of that.

The Asylum. Society in nineteenth-century Japan shunned this place; they made it seem like a living hell that they put freaks in. But Kenshin knew why it was called the Asylum. Because it provided rest, it provided comfort for him. In the Asylum, he didn't need to worry about anything other than whether he had arranged the flowers that the nurse asked him to arrange correctly, or whether he had hurt the feelings of the person in the room next to his. Of course, they had taken his sakabatou, but Kenshin didn't really care about that. Battousai did.

The Asylum buildings were fairly nice and comfortable traditional Japanese buildings built on a plot of sprawling land. They were nothing like some of the other Asylums, horrible cold western buildings that made Kenshin shudder when he thought of them.

He was jerked out of his reverie as a nurse tapped his shoulder.

"Please come for breakfast, Himura-san."

Every morning it was the same line that they would say, the same smile, the same light tap of the shoulder. Please come for breakfast, Himura-san. They said it like he was their equal, not like he was some worm on the ground that needed to be squashed, or an evil, powerful swordsman who could snuff out their lives any moment.

I could, you know, Himura. Battousai's voice was taunting him, trying to make him stumble.

"You couldn't," Kenshin muttered under his breath as he got up from the stool and numbly followed the nurse to the mess hall.

"What was that, Himura-san?" The nurse's voice came across as worried.

"Oh, nothing. Thank you for your concern." Kenshin smiled.

"You don't need to be so polite, Himura-san."

It was better to ignore that one. Kenshin kept on smiling. Nowadays the nurses didn't press him for replies so much.

He sat down at his reserved seat. Porridge. They had porridge every morning. Mechanically, he dipped his spoon in and started to eat. The people around him had started five minutes ago, but he always could finish faster than them. Battousai never relished the luxury of pushing food around on one's plate, watching the way the patterns and colour combinations changed. Kenshin had been trained never to do so, and old habits died hard. So it was still like the old way- efficient and never really tasting anything.

Very soon, he had scraped up the last remains of the porridge and drank the glass of warm water that had been set down in front of him.

"That was an excellent breakfast." Every morning. Every morning he would finish his porridge, drink his water, and then stand up to declare the breakfast as excellent at exactly eight o'clock. It was such a routine that everyone would pause what he or she were doing at that exact moment for Kenshin to do so. That was an excellent breakfast.

Liar. You didn't even taste it, Himura. Battousai again.

"Oh yes I did," Kenshin muttered as he proceeded to return the tray and the utensils.

He smiled at the pretty nurse that took his tray. It was strange; he had never seen her before. She had beautiful black hair and beautiful blue eyes that seemed to look into his soul. It was a pity she was dressed in the regular blue nurses' kimono with the white apron, or she might have looked prettier...

Himura's got his eye on a nurse... Battousai could be surprisingly irritating sometimes.

"Tomoe..." Kenshin whispered under his breath, trying to push thoughts of the nurse out of his head. Normally, he would have walked back to his seat by the window, but for some peculiar reason- probably something to do with Battousai; he disrupted his daily protocol and instead started off for his room.

...

Kamiya Kaoru had started her first day as a nurse at the asylum with much apprehension. Her family members had thrown up a big fuss when she had announced her decision, and spent a lot of energy trying to persuade her to choose another career path. They all told her the same thing- that she would go crazy and have to join the asylum as a patient if she stayed for too long. But Kaoru had persisted, and finally her family had to relent. Besides, they needed the money.

Kaoru smiled as she observed the strange patient with flaming red hair tied up in a ponytail turn to go to his room. He was short for a man, and his frame was rather delicate. Kaoru blushed slightly as he turned around and directed his oddly concentrated attention to her. His large purple eyes had lowered slightly as she looked at him, smiling, and a small, distracted smile played on his lips. His smile was... strangely sad, like he was filled with regret. No wonder, Kaoru thought to herself, as she noticed the ugly-looking cross scar that marked his face before he turned away.

"He must stand out a lot to visitors when they visit the asylum," Kaoru muttered to herself.

"Absolutely, Kaoru-san. In an asylum full of mental patients dressed in white, a red-haired man dressed in a fuchsia kimono and white hakama pants has to stand out," a voice piped out from behind her.

Kaoru turned around, horrified to see that the person was Megumi, the resident doctor at the asylum.

Megumi had worked at the asylum for easily ten years already, and she was actually the person who had recommended Kaoru as a nurse. She was not married yet, but everybody knew that she would someday get engaged with Sagara Sanosuke, a prison warden from the detention centre down the road who would drop by to help out every day after work. Kaoru was very grateful to Megumi, and looked to her as a mentor.

"That's Himura Kenshin. He's twenty-eight this year, and he's lived here for ten years. None of us are quite sure about his past, but I do know that he was involved in the Bakumatsu at the end of the Tokugawa period. Not long after the Meiji Restoration, he turned up at our doorstep, begging for asylum. I had just started my job as a doctor here, so I wasn't involved in the interrogation. But they let him stay, in the end. Besides, he earns some of his keep. He does the laundry for us. Ken-san is a very nice man." Megumi smiled fondly at his retreating figure. "But I've given up hoping that my Sanosuke would be more like him..."

"What was that you said, Kitsune?" Sanosuke had crept up from behind and had suddenly brought his hand down on her shoulder, causing her to jump in fright. Of course, today was his off day, Kaoru realised.

Kaoru smiled as she watched Megumi reprimand Sanosuke sharply. Even though they quarrelled a lot, everyone knew that they loved each other very much.

"I'll be starting work now, Megumi-san," Kaoru said, bowing slightly.

"Of course, Kaoru-san," Megumi said absently, before she was dragged off by Sanosuke to see the cake that he had bought for her, leaving Kaoru to stand there holding the empty tray.

"It's time to start work now, Kaoru," she told herself.

A/N:

So, how was that? I hope it wasn't too bad... :) This is my first shot at a semi-AU fic, and I'm busy planning out where it's headed too. Please review! Oh