To Look Into Her Eyes
Epilogue: To Look Into Her Eyes
"Thank you very much, sir."
Kenshin bowed his head slightly, and staggered under the weight of the bag of "indispensable things" that Kaoru had prepared for him the other day. As he could see, the days of rest surrounded by his loved ones had left indubitable effects on him, like his sudden laziness and unwillingness to carry heavy weights, but this would disappear in a day or two, or so he hoped.
He wasn´t dead yet, was he?
"Who is there? I repeat it, we´re full!"
"It´s me", he answered with a smile, even if the growl of the nurse had made him cringe. As the woman recognized him, though, her tone softened, and she seemed only too glad to beckon him in.
"Oh… sorry, I thought it was…! Well, never mind." She shook her head, and thoughtfully rubbed her eyes. "Welcome back, Himura-san, we were eagerly expecting your return. There´s so much work here!"
"So I supposed", he answered, following her into the darkness of the old and unhealthy building. At first, as always, his eyes as well as his nose had to undertake a great effort to get used to the place, but this time, much to his worry, he actually found himself about to have a fit of nausea.
"Oh, don´t tell me you´re ill, too, Himura-san", a male voice greeted him with concern. Kenshin willed himself to act normal once more, and raised his head to meet the youngest of the doctors.
"Nice to see you again", he said politely, and then smiled. "I'm thankful for your concern, but I´m really fine. The trip was very tiring, though."
"So… do you want to rest?"
"No." Kenshin´s answer was adamant as he laid his bag on the floor. "I come to work."
"Oh, of course, of course." The hidden amazement in the doctor´s voice and in the nurse´s glance was, as always, more than apparent to Kenshin, so he paid no heed to it. He was already more than used to the strange ideas everybody in the hospital had about him. Apparently, to see someone who just wanted to help was so impossible in this world that they thought he was a member of some weird sect, or that he was here to fulfil a promise, or maybe to atone for something he had done in the past. Which, by the way, was more or less the fact, though he knew that he had always wanted to help people, regardless of any vow or promise.
"And I´d wish to ask you a question as well" he added. "It´s about a woman I was caring for before I went away….Hanaoka Akiko."
"Uh? Oh, she…." The doctor´s eyes flashed briefly with something akin to sudden remembrance. "The woman that made you stay here for some more weeks the last time, if I´m not mistaken…"
Kenshin swallowed with difficulty.
"Hanaoka Akiko is alive", the nurse informed him, taking his bag in spite of his efforts to prevent it, and shrugging her nose as if she was angry with the fact. "According to every prevision, she should have died already, but the fact is that she wakes up every morning. And, you know, there are people waiting to take her couch."
"I guess so", Kenshin muttered, doing an effort not to snap at her for her lack of sensitiveness. After all, who was he to act self-righteous? Who had "killed them well" years ago? Not that nurse, if he remembered correctly. "I would wish to see her now."
"Oh, but certainly", The doctor turned back, and beckoned him to follow. "Besides, I´m sure she will be very happy to see you. If she´s who I think she is, she spent every single day since you went away calling for Shinta."
The red haired man´s eyes widened at that.
"Really. And I daresay very astounding, given that she doesn´t keep record of anything else. She has to like you quite a lot, Himura-san."
As he followed the man through the dark and smelly corridor, Kenshin wondered once more why it was that every time he heard somebody uttering that name he felt that inside him, as if someone had ripped him apart and taken the secret from his insides. After all, it had been him who had given them and others that name. He still did not know if he had done it by simple instinct, because he felt that Kenshin hadn´t an appropriate sound for those places, or because his natural uneasiness at having his past identity discovered in every place where he intended to pass as an ordinary person became sheer horror once he stepped inside this segregated world. If he had been asked why he felt that, though, he wouldn´t have known how to answer.
This name is too weak for a swordsman… From now on, your name will be Kenshin.
Instinct, most probably.
"Was the trip too tiresome? I head that some trains had to stop several times because of the floods."
"Um? Oh… yes, mine was actually stopped for half a day. I could use the time to sleep a bit, though, so I suppose it was a good thing", he answered quickly, dismissing his thoughts. "But tell me… were there any problems during my absence?"
"Problems? Apart from the usual ones, you mean, like overflow and such?" The doctor snorted discreetly, then spared a brief glance to another nurse that passed them in the opposite direction. "I don´t understand how so many people can still get that thing. When is true modernization going to reach this country? There´s still a sad lack of means, of hygiene, of morals… Sheeesh."
"I believe that what you call modern countries haven´t get rid of that problem either", Kenshin noted, somewhat acidly. "And maybe they never will. You know… there never has been a world without disease, and I find it very difficult even to imagine it."
"Well, you should know about the advances there have been in Western medicine. Believe me, there won´t be a disease that cannot be cured in this world in just a few years."
"Really?" Kenshin could not hide his scepticism as he asked that question. He knew a woman who was much more knowledgeable about those things than what that man would ever be, and she had told him several times about her doubts. Besides… those people who talked about ultimate cures and the advances of medicine without caring for those who lay ill next to them could not help but remind him of hitokiris who talked about an era of peace while they killed. From things he had heard from that man´s lips he knew that he would be happy if he could do research in the West and make himself a name, instead of being stuck in a hospital of incurables… but, as for how could an ultimate cure be discovered by someone who didn´t feel an inch of true compassion towards his patients, no, even worse, by someone who, influenced by European ideals, added a weight of moral guilt to their shoulders, Kenshin could not tell .
"I´m absolutely certain of it. But I´m aware that it may sound as some kind of big idealistic joke to non-specialised people, so let´s not argue about the issue anymore", the doctor said, as he turned to give him a him a conciliating look. "And, anyway…here we are."
Standing still, Kenshin watched how the young man slid open the shoji of the terminal patients´room. For a moment, he braced himself for the foul odour that he knew was going to invade his nostrils, then remembered, and forced himself to relax. It was in that precise second, when the strongest realization of how much things had changed came upon him, and his mind staggered under the weight of the knowledge that he was not entering an alien world anymore.
He was home.
"Well… I´m afraid I must leave you now, Himura-san", the doctor´s voice interrupted his musings. "A nurse will come here in several minutes, I promise."
"Do… do not worry. I….I will be fine", he stammered, still dazed. In the distance, he spotted the dirty couch besides which he had last stood two weeks before, and started to walk towards it, as if drawn by an alien force.
"She´s most probably asleep", the man said before he left.
Without paying attention to his voice, Kenshin sat down, bending over the lean figure on the couch. His insides could not help but be twisted at the pitiful sight offered to his eyes, for in those two weeks that he had spent with his family and friends, she had changed so much that now she was barely recognizable. If she had been thin before, now she seemed little more than a skeleton wrapped in skin, her face was also beginning to be affected by wounds and breakings, and the pale, yellowish colour of her skin could have made viewers believe that all blood had departed from her veins long ago. Even Kenshin would have thought she was already dead, if it hadn´t been for her tormented breathing.
Like her, his mind could not help but think, while he got even nearer and took her hand into his to feel her pulse. You will end your days like her, Himura Battousai. His lips twisted in an ironical smile at the thought. To think that everything would come to this in time…
"No!" Suddenly snapping awake, the woman´s face twisted in fear, and she jerked herself away from him with all her remaining strength. "Leave me alone, please! I haven´t done anything to you!"
"Ssssshhh." Kenshin forced himself to remember what the doctor had told him, that she had been calling his name. If this was true… maybe she would still recognize him. "It´s me, Akiko-dono. Do you… remember me? I promised I would return…"
At first it was disbelief. Then, her body relaxed painfully, and, as the evidence began to sink in her clouded mind, she suddenly found a new unexpected strength inside her, and stretched her arms to pull him by the kimono into her space. Kenshin retreated almost imperceptibly, and took her hands into his.
Slowly and gently, the red haired man laid her back on her couch, and looked deeply into her eyes. The colour in them was waning, leaving an unnatural reddish hue on them, and they were so swollen that she looked somewhat unreal. However, they were also gleaming with some kind of joyful light, and beneath the layers of mist which clouded them he could see that, once, they had been soft brown.
She was crying.
"So you… you too… You came…"
"She´s delirious", the recently arrived nurse intervened. "She lost it long ago."
"No!" Akiko cried. Her smile widened still more, even as tears mingled with blood trailed down her cheeks. "He knows now, he does. I have seen them. I have seen… his eyes."
Violet orbs widened then in shock.
"What is she talking about, Himura-san? Do you have a clue?"
Kenshin bowed his head, bent by a sudden overwhelming sensation of poignant remorse, and at the same time of warm and complete understanding. He hadn´t understood wholly before, he had even dared to question it, but now, just by looking into the eyes of that woman, the answer, the reason behind everything, was clearly displayed in front of him. So simple.
He could never have possibly known before.
"I´m sorry", he muttered, letting go of her hands and embracing her. For a moment, he had the impression that he was embracing a shadow, so frail and unresponsive her body was. A strong smell of dry blood and rotten bandages reached his nostrils, and he noticed belatedly that his kimono had been drenched by the red fluid as well. "I´m very sorry, Akiko-dono."
Kenshin ignored the nurse´s gasp, and just stayed there embracing the woman, who, for the first time, was looking as blissful as if she was already in peace. Through his mind, many scenes passed in a rush, of the last parting day, and of the farewells of his friends. Kaoru had smiled, but there had been tears in her eyes when she had muttered that she was very, very proud of him. Megumi was hiding her true emotions, as usual, when she made him promise he was going to follow her instructions and take care of himself. Tsubame and Yahiko had taken him to the station, trying to smile and talk to him while their expression was sad, and Kenji… his son had had an unreadable expression he had never seen in his face, as he told him he could leave whenever he wanted because he was old enough not to need him anymore. He felt guilty even now, maybe precisely now that he knew how would all have to end, and would feel so again whenever he remembered them. And yet….
And yet, he thought, if there was something he had learned for sure, through all his past experiences, if there was something he would never forget again as he once had done, it was that he was just a man. Nothing more than a single, imperfect, anonymous man, who, after turning useless for swordsmanship, had received yet another painful gift that he was in the obligation to use until the end.
And so he would do.
"Himura-san, it´s… it´s dangerous to do that! The blood…"
"No", he muttered, leaving the nurse gaping in deep shock as he carefully laid the cold corpse back on the couch. "Not anymore."