Last modified: 08/17/98
This is a draft for a companion piece to one of my other short stories called "Together". It takes place after the final battle with Shishio and is based on the events in episodes 61-62.
WARNING: Contains spoilers for the Kyoto story arc.
As always, C&C is greatly appreciated! ^_^
APART: A Rurouni Kenshin Fanfic (by MadamHydra)
All rights and privileges to Rurouni Kenshin belong to Nobuhiro Watsuki, Shuiesha, Sony Music Entertainment, and associated parties. The characters of this series are used without her permission for the purpose of entertainment only. This work of fiction is not meant for sale or profit.
English translation of Episodes 61-62 by Shinsen Gumi and/or HECTO fansubs.
( ) are character thoughts
* ----- * ----- * marks the start and end of flashbacks
As Shinomori Aoshi stared down the street toward the ruins of the Aoiya restaurant, he saw Misao, Okina, and the others waiting. As one, they rose to their feet and stared at the three battered survivors of the day's battles. He glanced at the two men beside him. Sagara Sanosuke, who was carrying a bleeding and totally unconscious Himura slung over his shoulder, had a big, cocky grin on his face.
He silently waited as Himura's friends, Misao, and the other Oniwabanshuu ran forward to meet them. Confronting Okina and the others -- the mentor he had tried to murder and the comrades that he has coldly abandoned to Shishio's intrigues -- was the last thing he wanted to do, but he had promised....
As Misao approached, he could see tears streaming from her eyes. For a brief instant, he thought the tears were for the severely injured Himura, but she only gave the red-haired man a passing glance before stopping in front of him.
Himura said that she had been crying because of him and what he had done... because he had made himself the enemy. But as she stared up into his face, Shinomori Aoshi was stunned to realize that Misao was crying from sheer joy... joy at seeing HIM.
He avoided her teary, blue-eyed gaze and lifted his head to look at the others as the Oniwabanshuu caught up with Misao... and he received another surprise.
Bruised and battered,... and yet they were smiling at him. They were welcoming him home. Looking into their eyes, it was as if he was finally seeing things clearly for the first time in ages... seeing what he had done, what he had come so terribly close to throwing away or destroying with his own hands.
He met each gaze briefly, but directly. He then walked toward Okina, gave him a slight nod of acknowledgement, and got a faint nod in return.
In the background, he heard Kamiya Kaoru's voice, filled with a mixture of joy and horror.
He watched impassively as everyone rushed about trying to figure out the best way to take care of Himura and Sano. With the Aoiya in shambles, the very first item of business was finding a place to stay. Somehow they all ended up with another restaurant called the Shirobeko. Shiro and Kuro were ordered to roust the two best doctors in Kyoto out of bed and bring them to the restaurant, even if the Oniwabanshuu ninjas had to carry them there by force.
Inside the Shirobeko, Aoshi stoically ignored the flurry of activity. He was present in body, but that was about it. He could see the others constantly giving him worried looks, but his distant gaze kept all of them at bay just as effectively as a brandished sword.
The only other pool of calm in the chaos was the white-caped man who sat in a corner, steadily working on a jug of sake.
(Seijuro Hiko. Himura's master.... The man who taught Himura how to find the will to live. What power he has.... the only person capable of teaching someone like Himura Battousai.)
Aoshi wanted to think that he had fulfilled Himura's promise. He had returned to the Aoiya and seen Okina, Misao and the others.
(Can't I now go and lick my wounds in peace?)
But he knew better. Himura hadn't promised to bring Aoshi Shinomori to a mere place -- Himura had promised to bring him HOME. That particular promise would not be satisfied by paying a brief, fleeting visit.
Aoshi suppressed a sigh. No, he had much more to do, but he had no idea how to begin. How does one rebuild shattered trust and broken loyalties?
As the hours stretched on, his thought drifted back to his final confrontation with Himura Battousai.
* ----- * ----- *
Aoshi had thought that he had cast aside everything of value -- honor, justice,... his very humanity.
But now he knew better.... Standing in Hoji's library, he had been subjected to the most ruthless, deliberate, and painful attack in his life....
Himura Battousai's... no,... Himura KENSHIN's words were like sledgehammers. They smashed the sealed areas of his soul open, releasing and exposing things that he had never thought to see again... those unwanted parts of his own soul.... They were not lost, but merely buried, locked away deep within himself.
There was no escaping Himura's unrelenting assault. He had frantically tried to silence the words that ripped aside his veil of self-deception.
Himura was right. His mind was weak.
That voice... a soft voice, rarely raised in anger, was now shouting... and the last of his self-deceptions crumbled, leaving him with only the naked, unyielding truth....
* ----- * ----- *
He was drawn back to the present by someone tugging open his trenchcoat. He glanced down to see Misao staring at the ugly bruised welt that ran diagonally across his chest. Something deep inside him stirred uncomfortably as she whispered, "Aoshi-sama...." The girl reached out to touch the mark left by the Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu succession technique with exquisite care.
But the intimacy of the moment was shattered by the emergence of the doctors from Himura's room, looked exhausted but pleased. Amid the sighs of relief and the muted cheers, Aoshi silently rose to his feet... or tried to, at least. His injured body had grown stiff during the long wait and now he could barely walk.
The instant he staggered, Misao was by his side, helping him up.
For the first time in untold months, he looked at her... truly looked at her. Unwilling to face not only the worry, but also the dawning hope in her eyes, Aoshi pulled free from her hands, gave her a cool nod, then turned to leave.
Behind him, he heard Misao's hurt and bewildered voice cry, "Aoshi-sama! Where are you going!?"
A part of him desperately wanted to turn around and stay... to stay in the warmth he sensed here. But he steeled himself and kept walking. Toward the quiet solitude of the temple in the hills....
Just before he left the Shirobeko, he gave Okina a brief glance, then closed the door behind him. But even through the sturdy door, he could hear Misao wailing in disappointment.
"Why is he leaving!?"
Okina's gruff response was, "Don't worry, girl. It's going to take some time for him to remember where his true home lies."
(How I hope you're right....)
A month passed. During that time, he saw virtually no one. There were the occasional message from Okina... status reports on the rebuilding of the Aoiya, descriptions of Himura Kenshin's recovery, information on the fate of various members of the Jupon Gatana....
Very early one morning, Aoshi finally gathered his courage and visited the newly rebuilt Aoiya. Okon and Omasu opened the front door and nearly passed out on the spot when they saw him calmly standing in the open doorway. A few minutes later, he and Okina were sitting down in one of the ground floor rooms.
Aoshi stared down at the steam rising from his tea cup and murmured, "You know me too well."
Okina sipped his own tea. "Before that battle with Shishio, I would have said the same thing. But in truth, Himura knows you best of all."
Aoshi looked up in surprise.
"His promise to bring you back to us...."
"I... had assumed that either you or Misao asked him to bring me back."
The old man shook his head. "No. Misao was too inexperienced to make such a request. And I... I was too old and cynical to ask. It was entirely Himura's idea."
He continued to stare blankly at Okina.
"The day before he left to face Shishio, I formally requested that he kill you."
The bald statement lay between them like a stone.
"I could only see the surface... the violence, the relentless power of your obsession. But Himura knew better and pointed it out to a stubborn old man."
"What did he say?"
Okina smiled slightly. "That if you were truly and utterly consumed by your hunger for the 'Strongest', I would have been dead several times over."
Aoshi looked away. "You could have very easily died from your injuries."
The old man shrugged that statement away. "He told us that there was a part of the Aoshi Shinomori that I remembered ... the honored leader of the Oniwabanshuu... the man Hannya and the others died to save... he said that this man still existed. It takes a youngster less than half my age to show me the truth...." Okina shook his head ruefully. "And so he promised to bring that Aoshi Shinomori back home to us."
Aoshi felt the familiar surge of pain and grief, but it was muted.
"Despite all I've done..."
"Of all people in this world, I think Himura Kenshin is uniquely qualified to understand and deal with the burden you carry."
(Oh yes. He said as much to me....)
* ----- * ----- *
He watched Himura Kenshin stagger to his feet amid the ruins of Houji's library. The red-haired swordsman was bloodied and bruised, but his gaze did not waver as he stared at Aoshi.
"As the Hitokiri Battousai I committed many unforgivable crimes. But I will never give up my will to live...."
* ----- * ----- *
Aoshi shook his head. "Really? He may have killed many but I... I lost all sense of honor. Right or wrong meant nothing to me." His voice flattened. "I am a traitor. Even the Battousai did not sink so low as to turn on or destroy the people who trusted him."
"Perhaps. Perhaps not." Before Aoshi could puzzle out the meaning of Okina's cryptic reply, the old man said, "Himura made a promise to us. He kept his word."
Aoshi said sharply, "And very nearly died for it."
The width of a few hairs. That had been the only thing standing between this country and Shishio. If his blades had cut just a few hairs deeper, he would have sliced open Himura's carotid arteries. All the willpower in the world would not have stopped him from bleeding to death within a minute or so.
And having killed the Battousai, what would Shinomori Aoshi have done then?
He could not have defeated Shishio, even at his full strength. And after all the wrongs he had knowingly committed, he probably wouldn't have cared if the whole country ended up incinerated in the fires of Shishio's revolution.
The debt lay heavy and bitter in Aoshi's stomach. Himura Kenshin had literally risked everything -- his life, the success of his mission -- to awaken him.
To keep a promise to Misao....
The little Aoshi had managed to do -- buying time for Kenshin to recover from Shishio's devastating attack -- was nothing in comparison.
In a tight voice, he said to Okina, "It was a foolish thing for Himura to do... to risk his life to keep a promise to a young girl, considering that he knew that he had yet to face Soujiro AND considering what was at stake if he failed to stop Shishio."
Okina said quietly, "That's just like Himura. In the past, as the Hitokiri Battousai, Himura cast aside the value of individual lives for a greater goal... to his own great cost. He will not do that again. To Himura Kenshin, all lives have value."
"So he would sacrifice the lives of many just to save the life of one?"
"Not necessarily, but he would do his utmost to save both the one and the many." Okina put his teacup down and locked gazes with Aoshi. "And you fail to grasp what Himura has long since realized. It was not just your life at stake here, Aoshi, but also Misao's."
He blinked in shock. "Misao!? How...?"
"Life is so much more than the mere beating of a heart and movement of lungs. And no matter how much you try to separate yourself from others, no life stands completely alone. Each life touches and intertwines with other lives. What changes one life also changes many other lives. Himura knows this better than any other man. If you had died.... at the very least, your death would have scarred Misao's heart forever. Now do you understand?"
Aoshi slowly bowed his head.
Back at the temple, he sat on the covered porch, pondering Okina's words. The gray, cloud-filled sky and the warm, steady noon rain suited his pensive mood perfectly.
(But how do you reforge the links to other people's lives, especially when you were the one who destroyed those links in the first place?)
But as the summer shower came to an end, the sun slowly emerged from the clouds. Aoshi glanced up to see a vibrant rainbow running across the sky. His eyes idly followed the arc of color down to the ground.
And there, seemingly at the end of that rainbow, was Misao. Clutching an umbrella in her arms, she playfully skipped among the puddles of rainwater. He was too far away to see, but he knew that she was smiling.
No one would ever know, but Aoshi Shinomori smiled, too.