Aoshi and Misao through the eyes of strangers. If you're looking for waff, turn back now. You won't find it here.
Disclaimer: This is fanfiction. It happened a long time ago, somewhere inside my head. Rurouni Kenshin and its characters all belong to Watsuki Nobuhiro.Supposing
Supposing the crickets hadn't disturbed her cooking, she would never have discovered the body in the field, almost unrecognizable in the mud and blood that covered it. She would never have screamed in terror, bringing her startled older sister running to where she stood.
She sought to hide her whimper by burying her face in her sister's kimono. "Maeko-neesan."
"Hush, Sachi," Maeko assured, a comforting hand through Sachi's curls. "Go back to the house."
Supposing she had listened, she wouldn't have seen Maeko approach the man -- for it was a man -- and prod him with a foot. She wouldn't have heard the faintest groan, almost imperceptible over the crickets' evening hum. But she heard it, and she stilled, and the hand that clung to her sister's kimono only tightened its grip.
"He's still alive!" Maeko exclaimed. "Hurry, get me the herbs!"
This time she obeyed. Her feet pattered over the soft ground, her thoughts already searching for the box of herbs that Maeko kept near Grandfather's bed. Still, she cast a backwards glance at Maeko, who was already gently peeling away the man's heavy white coat, a hint of orange barely visible beneath the darkened crusts of blood.
Later, Maeko instructed Sachi to watch over Grandfather as she nursed the man through the night. Sachi wanted to run to town to fetch a doctor, but Maeko was firm. "It is a difficult journey. It would take you a day to reach the town, even if you hurry," she had reasoned. "Besides, a little girl wouldn't be any match against thieves and bandits."
"I'm nearly twelve!" she had protested, but the look on Maeko's face brooked no argument, prompting her to change her approach. "But that man will surely die if we don't find help."
Maeko had shaken her head. "We are all the help he'll ever have. Even if I sent you, you will take days to return. He can die in that time as well." She went back to grounding leaves for a poultice. "Besides, should he live or die, it will mean nothing to us."
Sachi understood. There had been no help when Mother had died in childbirth save for that frantic midwife. There had been no help when Father followed a year after, wasted by longing for a wife and a son he would never see again. Something told her it shouldn't be this way, but she understood.
"Sachi!" came Maeko's cry from the next room. "Fetch me some fresh water. His bandages need changing."
As she went to their backyard for a small bucket, Sachi wished she were more like Maeko. Her sister would have known how to deal with bandits in the forest. She would have found the quickest way to get a doctor to their remote home. Maeko was only six years older than her, but to Sachi, it meant a world of difference that brought to light her own childish incompetence.
The man was thrashing about when Sachi entered the room. She had brought along a pair of clean bandages she found near the kitchen, placing them neatly by Maeko's side. She could see the deep cuts that lined the man's arms and torso, including a particularly angry one that ran from his left shoulder to his abdomen. His eyes were wide open, yet those intense blues stared past the dark walls of their small home, into faces that he saw only in fevered dreams.
And amidst his wordless cries, a name.
"He seems better now," Sachi told their Grandfather as she fed him gruel. "I'm glad he didn't wake you. But Oneesan says that after last night, the worst is over."
"I trust Maeko knows what she's doing, taking this man in." The old man's voice quivered as he spoke, from age or fear, Sachi could not tell.
"Maeko knows everything," Sachi replied with absolute faith, wiping away the traces of food that escaped her grandfather's mouth. "There, now. I'll see if Oneesan needs me."
The morning filtered itself through the slits of their paper windows as she made her way through the small house, until she found her sister still by the stranger's side. "You said he'd have improved by now," she accused.
Maeko nodded absentmindedly, placing a cool rag on the man's forehead. "He has. There's a slight fever still, but he'll be fine."
Sachi glanced at the man, studying the chiseled face that seemed to slumber peacefully. Whatever nightmares had plagued him last night, they appeared to have subsided in the light of day. But if that were true, and this man was recovering, then what kept Maeko here? It was not in her nature to stay when there were still so many things that needed to be done.
"I'll go fetch water from the stream then," Sachi offered. "We nearly ran out last night. And maybe I should get some potatoes for supper."
An uncharacteristic blush colored Maeko's cheeks as she was reminded of her chores. "No, Sachi, you stay here. I, uh… I'll go."
Sachi pondered over that flush even after her sister had left for the stream. She dismissed it as a remnant of the previous night's ministrations; Maeko must be so tired. When her sister's footsteps padded softly away, Sachi walked towards the bed, taking up the damp cloth and wiping it against the man's clammy skin.
He stirred at her touch. The eyelids slowly opened to reveal a pair of ice blue eyes, sharp and unassailable.
Sachi took a surprised step back. "Neesan!" she screamed. "Neesan!"
He was surprisingly quick for a man who had been on the edge of death as he grabbed her spindly arms. "Did you find anyone else?" he rasped.
Sachi shook her head emphatically. "No one but you."
He fell silent. He looked like a man whose word was seldom questioned, but this time, Sachi dared. She needed to know all she could about this man they had saved, why the gods had chosen to spare him and not her family. "Who else would there be?"
But the man was already straining to get up. "My gratitude goes to you, young mistress. But you should never have taken me in. I --"
Maeko burst into the room. "Move away, Sachi!"
"It's okay, Neesan," Sachi began to reassure her, but the man's quiet tone easily drowned her out. "I would never endanger her," he said. "Which is why I must go."
They let him pass. In two stumbling steps, he had crossed the small room and would have almost made it to the door if his body hadn't given way. Maeko caught him before he crumpled to the floor.
Sachi watched her sister gently lead him back to the bed. "I guess this means he's staying." Outside, she could hear the crickets chorusing their disapproval.
Her sister's days and nights began to revolve around the stranger, and Sachi couldn't blame her. At first, she charged it to a curiosity that refused to be satiated, fueled by the man's reluctance to reveal anything but a name. Shinomori. Later, she realized that there was something more, only she wasn't quite sure what to call it. Or perhaps, she was just too young to know.
On the second night, though he was still too weak to move, Shinomori-san let Sachi sit by him, listening to her talk while Maeko observed from the hall. On the third day, his wounds began to heal and he limped his way around the house, even paying Grandfather his respects. At dinner, he seemed content to hear Maeko's strategy on growing the best vegetables in the area, never feeling the need to interrupt the idle talk with even the slightest hint of who he was. Sachi watched her sister glow under his courteous gaze. She never glowed before. She wondered if this was the reason Maeko had begun wearing her hair up, pinned by a pearl comb their mother had left behind.
On the fourth day, he surprised them all by volunteering to help with the chores.
"But you've never done this before!" Sachi giggled as Shinomori-san struggled with the laundry. It wasn't that he was noticeably inept; rather, to her eyes, it was his cautious, almost tentative, actions that gave him away.
His face was a picture of concentration. "It appears I never had to before."
Sachi took the yukata from his hands, and began slipping it through the thin bamboo pole. Shinomori-san moved a split second later to steady the pole for her. "I suppose you always had a woman to do your laundry for you. Like that Misao."
It was a subtle movement, yet Sachi felt the slight shifting of the bamboo's weight, as if he had clutched it to himself instinctively. But there was nothing on his face that betrayed whatever emotion he felt at the unexpected name until he spoke. "Where did you hear that?"
Sachi knew then she had crossed an invisible boundary and stammered her way through an explanation. "I--I heard you. You called for her. D-during your fever. In your dreams."
For a moment, those eyes of perpetual calm looked troubled, a squall on the horizon. But there was something deeper there, like longing, or sorrow, but before Sachi could truly grasp it, he had blinked the storm away.
"I need to speak to your sister," he said finally. "Thank you for teaching me." He ruffled her hair as he limped past. Sachi wondered why the twist of his lips that others called a smile never seemed to reach his eyes.
There was an argument. Polite as it was, it was an argument nonetheless. Sachi's ankles ached at her position as she crouched, pressing an ear against the thin wall. She shifted slightly to make sure she still kept her weight balanced between both feet.
"But you're not well yet," Maeko pointed out. Sachi knew that voice she used, a voice that commanded submission from anyone who heard it. "I can't let you walk away in that condition. Who knows what will happen to you on the road?"
Shinomori-san remained firm. "I am grateful for your kindness, but I am capable enough. I will not trouble your family any longer."
"But you're no trouble to us," her sister protested.
"You do not know who I am, Kawabata-san. You put your sister in danger the longer you let me stay here." There was almost a tinge of bitter regret in his voice. "As you hinted, I may not even be able to defend myself."
Sachi could hear Maeko's embarrassed fluster. "I didn't mean that-- what I meant was-- i-it's just that-- I meant no disrespect."
"I understand, Kawabata-san," Shinomori-san replied. "But please understand that I need to leave as well." There was a pause, and Sachi recognized a mixture of sadness and urgency in his words. "For all our sakes."
And then Sachi heard a tone in Maeko's voice that she had never heard before.
"One night," Maeko nearly begged. "Then tomorrow you may be on your way."
The air was heavy when Shinomori-san spoke, much like the moment that lingers after a sigh. "One night."
It was twilight, and tomorrow he would be gone. Sachi played with a paper crane Shinomori-san had folded for her, watching Maeko sweep the last of the autumn leaves away when she arrived.
The girl was short, with blue-black hair that softly grazed her chin. Her bearing was not one of docile femininity, but a self-assured stance that commanded her own space. But Sachi could see the uncertainty in her eyes, speaking volumes of a search whose fruition was about to come, but one she could not predict.
"They said he was here," the girl spoke, low and firm, without preamble.
The defensive way Maeko gripped her broom told Sachi that her sister was wondering if this was the danger he had intimated earlier. Yes, she is, Sachi wanted to shout. Yes, Oneechan, she has come to take him away from you.
The shoji opened.
Sachi watched the girl's eyes grow large at the sight of him as he stepped onto the porch, brimming with unshed tears that caught the light of a dying sun. She watched as she ran to him, shedding all notion of propriety as she leapt into his arms like a child.
Sachi watched Shinomori-san's arms hold her, tentatively for a heartbeat, then tightening as if he never wanted to let go.
"I looked for you," they heard the girl sob into his shoulder. "I looked for you everywhere. I wasn't going to lose you again."
Shinomori-san's calm reassurance belied the flicker of emotion in his eyes. "We didn't anticipate an ambush of that size. I trust the others found their way home."
But the girl didn't hear him, or if she did, she chose to ignore his words. "Don't you ever leave me again."
Sachi had to avert her eyes, fearing that in that precious embrace, she had become the intruder in her own home. She wished Maeko had the sense to do the same, but all Sachi could do was watch her sister watch them. Supposing Maeko hadn't cared whether he lived or died, would they have been the better for it? She wondered if her sister could go back to the life she had before he came and stole a part of her without his slightest inclination.
He said goodbye. They let him go.
That night, the crickets were silent.END
Author's Notes: Mostly for Jamie, who never stopped, and for the rest of my friends here at This may not count as coming out of hiatus, but it's a step.