Eri stormed into Akane's back garden, her fists clenched, anger covering her very real fear. There he was, scrubbing laundry in the cool afternoon sunshine, a blissful smile on his face like this was his favorite thing to do in the whole world. He looked much better. A week had done him a world of good. She didn't want to see it undone again.
Kenshin looked up from behind the laundry tub, saw her expression, and blanched, his smile freezing in place.
Eri didn't slow down. "Get inside. Now."
She'd grabbed him by the arm and hauled him after her, into the kitchen, and slid the door shut. No one here. Good. She could hear someone bustling around in the dining room, cleaning tables. Kenshin had pressed his back against the wall of the little entry way, standing very still, watching her with alarm.
"Sakurai's looking for you," she rasped, her voice harsh and rapid. Kenshin stared at her. His expression hadn't changed. She waved her hands. "Sakurai, Sakurai, the tall one with the long black hair. He's here, in town."
Kenshin's eyes widened.
"He stopped me in the market. Asked where you were. I told him you'd left town." Eri paused. That wasn't fear on his face. It was-- wonder?
"I'm going." Kenshin pulled open the door and ducked under her arm, slipping out before she could stop him. "Tell Akane-dono I'll be right back, that I will!" He ran across the garden, gathering speed, sweeping up his sword from beside the laundry tub without breaking stride.
Kenshin sprinted up the narrow streets of the warehouse district toward the market. Sakurai! He hadn't gone to Satsuma. He hadn't gone to re-start the war. He'd come back. 'I hope I have the chance to meet you again...'
Kenshin paused at the bottom of the market, breathing hard, one hand holding the ribs on his right side. It still hurt; the cut had closed up days ago but the bruising was slow to heal.
The street was full of people. He stood on tiptoes and tried to peer over their heads.
There! Up a couple of blocks, just before the road curved a little and was lost to view behind some shop buildings. A man on a horse, heading up the road at a brisk walk, long black ponytail down his back.
Sakurai. And he'd gotten his horse back. Kenshin started to push through the crowds after him, then stopped. Sakurai had nudged the horse into a trot and was already out of sight. Kenshin wouldn't be able to catch him.
He gazed up the market the way Sakurai had gone, remembering the other man's reactions that morning in the clearing in the woods. Maybe Sakurai had indeed changed his mind. Kenshin smiled. In any case, he was sure Sakurai would have an interesting life.
Eri drifted through the market, a few fish in the bag under her arm. She had to keep cooking meals. It wouldn't be right to just stop. She had to feed Shinichiro.
His strange intensity hadn't let up. If anything, it had gotten worse since he'd healed enough to be up and about. He'd re-read all the books, and then started writing things down -- phrases, lists, scribbled paragraphs. When she'd left the house this morning to go shopping there had been papers strewn all over the living room, Shinichiro with a brush in his hand and an excited, zealous expression on his face.
She had been ready to die. That night, when Shinichiro had gone out with his swords to commit the unforgiveable. But Kenshin had made that unnecessary. He had brought Shinichiro back. But he'd brought back a changed man. This wasn't her Shinichiro. Her Shinichiro was-- Her Shinichiro--
Her Shinichiro was striding briskly up the market street, his brown hair swinging jauntily above his shoulders, a book open in one hand and two others under his arm. He was smiling, with that intense light still in his eyes. He hadn't seen her yet.
Eri froze, a sudden sense of deja-vu sweeping over her as she remembered the second time she'd met him.
The first time had been a formal meeting arranged by her parents. They'd talked politely, shyly; nothing much had happened.
The second time had been different. He'd been walking down the street of their home town with his nose in a book. He'd almost run into her, looking up just in time and catching her in his arms to keep her from falling. There'd been a light in his eyes then, a startled smile on his face. She'd fallen in love with that light.
Eri's heart thumped. The light was back in his eyes. Had been back for days, and she hadn't even seen it, had even been annoyed by his newfound intensity.
The light had gone out of him during the revolution. When she'd found him, on the run, it had been gone, but there'd been no time then to think about it, they'd been too worried about just surviving. He'd been lost, adrift. She'd taken charge, driven their lives forward, made sure they survived, stopped their wandering at the first chance that looked really safe, built their livelihood and their home. She'd kept going, living for both of them. It had been fun, most of the time. But something had always been missing.
Shinichiro looked up, and saw her. There was a light in his eyes, a startled smile on his face. Eri had fallen in love with that light.
Hideki untied the last rope and threw it up to the sailor on the deck. "All right!" he bellowed over the breeze and the slapping of the harbor waves. "You're good; push back!" The sailor waved and nodded. The ship creaked and edged away from the shore.
Akane was suddenly beside him, flustered and out of breath.
"Hey nee-chan, you almost slept too late," he joked. Akane liked to watch the ship launches, despite their usual early hour.
She grinned at him and set a package proudly on the top of the seawall. "Nope! I got up early. I made you rice-balls; that's what almost made me late."
"Thanks! How did you know I didn't have breakfast?"
"Heh heh, we have ways."
They leaned their elbows on the seawall, watching the ship slosh up and down a few feet from the dock, the sailors running around busily on deck.
Akane looked happy, at last. She'd been a little anxious these past three weeks, worrying about Eri. But Eri was better now. Hideki had seen her two days ago when she'd come in to arrange delivery of a bunch of printed cotton and pick out a few new needles from his shipment of ironwares. There'd been a glow to her, like a girl in love.
"Have you talked to Eri lately?" he asked her.
She nodded, smiling. "Yesterday. I'm so glad. She seemed so depressed before. I thought I'd lost her as a friend." Akane turned around and leaned back on the wall on her elbows, gazing up at the roofs of the far east end of town, visible as they marched up the hill above the first row of warehouses across the harbor plaza. The sky was gray with a smooth layer of cloud, but bright. "I think she must have been afraid for Shinichiro. He could've been killed that night. I think she couldn't stop thinking about it until he'd gotten better."
Hideki nodded, still watching the water. "Shinichiro's changed," he said.
"Yeah. It's funny, it's like this is the real him, that's been hidden inside all this time." She laughed. "Eri told me he's started writing a book. A book! Can you believe it?"
Hideki grinned. "This isn't a very scholarly place. Half the people in this town can't even read."
"Yeah, I know, and so does Shinichiro. Eri said he's talking about starting a school. For the kids." She smiled. "Heh. He'll double the market for his book. If they can tackle it. Eri said it's some kind of history. Sounds boring to me."
Akane had turned again, looking down the curve of the harbor at the few fishing boats back so far from their morning runs.
"How's Kenshin?" Hideki asked.
She looked back at him. "Fine," she said. "Completely healed." She tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear and grinned. "He's so much more interesting when he's not lying in bed." She turned back to the fishing boats, watching them bob up and down. "I think he's getting ready to go wandering again," she continued. "He's been here a month almost."
Hideki watched her watch the boats for a little while. "You'll miss him," he said.
Akane shrugged. "He's certainly made things more interesting around the restaurant." She turned back towards him and grinned, suddenly animated. "Oh, you should have seen him yesterday! I was so glad it finally stopped raining; he's been just bouncing off the walls the last few days. I thought it would drive me crazy!" She waved her arms. "Anyway, Aki-kun brought his two little sisters over during the afternoon and Kenshin was just tearing around the back garden playing with them. He tired them out."
"Hah. Yasunori-kun could have used some of that energy yesterday. We had to load up the ironwares. You should have sent him over."
"Hands off, he's mine," Akane said, mock-serious. "No, really, if you need some extra help just let me know. Aki and Eiko can practically run the restaurant on their own by now."
They stood for a while, watching the water. The ship had finally pushed back from the dock and was tacking its way slowly across the harbor, using only its small front sail.
"Those girls need a mother," Akane commented softly.
She shook her head. "Nothing. Just thinking."
The ship turned and tacked, its sail refilling with a distant fwump. The wind fluttered Akane's hair. She hooked a loose strand behind her ear. "Aki finally got up the nerve to ask Eiko-chan out on a date."
Hideki raised his eyebrows. "Did he really? I thought he'd never do it."
"Yeah, so did I. He must have noticed the way Eiko-chan was mooning over Kenshin those first couple of days and figured he'd better act soon or lose his chance."
Hideki leaned on the seawall, thoughtful, scraping at a lichen with his fingernail. "You know," he said slowly. "It's Kenshin. He changes people. Just by being there." He looked up at his sister. "Aki, the Yukawas... He changes everyone he touches."
"Heh." Akane smiled and leaned her elbows on the wall next to him. "Except us."
Hideki gazed out at the gray water, towards the far horizon. The ship was past the breakwater now, raising its square mainsail. The wind caught it and it billowed, suddenly taut. The ship leaned against the wind, gathering speed ever so slowly, growing smaller, until it was skimming away out onto the wide ocean.
"...Yes," he said at last. "Except us."
Kenshin heard the clacking of Eri's wooden clogs on the cobblestones of the harbor plaza long before she caught up with him. He slowed down, waiting for her. The sound of her clogs changed as she pounded onto the packed earth of the road.
"Himura-san!" she yelled. "Wait!"
Kenshin looked back over his shoulder, through his red bangs, his eyes wide and innocent. "Oro?"
Eri slowed to a halt and leaned her hands on her knees, catching her breath. "I wanted to give this back to you, before you left." She fished something soft out of her kimono sleeve and handed it to Kenshin.
"You left it at our place. I finally got the stains washed out of it."
Kenshin smiled and looped it around his neck. Eri was watching him.
"You are leaving, aren't you."
Kenshin nodded. "It's time to go wandering again, that it is." He picked up his bag from the road, full of rice and vegetables and dried fish thanks to Akane.
"Will we ever see you again?"
His eyebrows tilted, a little sadly. "Probably not."
"Where will you go?"
Kenshin shrugged. "Somewhere. There're still lots of places I haven't wandered to yet." He slung the bag over his shoulder and gave her a big smile. "Thank you, Eri-dono." He turned with a cheerful wave and walked on.
Eri was standing still. He could feel her eyes on his back. She called after him again suddenly. "Kenshin!"
He stopped, surprised at the change. "Oro?" He looked back over his shoulder again, his eyes wide.
Eri was smiling at him knowingly. "I hope you find what you're looking for."
Kenshin's smile slipped. What I'm looking for? I'm not looking for anyth--
An image from a dream flashed through his mind. An outstretched hand, okaeri.... His eyes widened.
"See you, Kenshin." Eri waved, a small polite gesture, and turned back toward the plaza.
He watched her go, speechless for several seconds. "Arigatou, Eri-dono," he called after her. "Sayonara!" Then he smiled again, and turned once more to wandering.