All rights for Rurouni Kenshin and Peace Maker Kurogane belong to their creators Watsuki Nobuhiro and Kurono Nanae respectively. I intend only to show my gratitude for and appreciation of their wonderful imagination.
Please forgive any inaccuracies as I've only watched the anime for both RK and PMK. This is also my first attempt at fan fiction, gah. It takes place shortly after Kenshin returns to Kyoto from Otsu.
New Year's Day
The sun was already low in the sky by the time Kenshin set out for Kiyomizu-dera, taking a deliberately roundabout route through the winding streets. Although Katsura had allowed his men time for the customary New Year shrine visits, he had made it clear that their hatsumoude was to be carried out as unobtrusively as possible.
Normally Kenshin would not have thought much of such traditions; his shishou had never observed them, shunning the overbearing crowds and the general atmosphere of jovial camaraderie, and when Kenshin had first come to Kyoto such celebrations had seemed grossly inappropriate for one engaged in such work as he did. But now, the first spring since his return from Otsu, the first spring since… she had left, he felt the need for quiet repose. For himself, and for Tomoe.
The New Year decorations of the shops which lined the slope leading to the red gates of the temple appeared before him, their colours bright against the gathering twilight. Kenshin quickened his footsteps, keeping to the shadows. The street was slowly emptying; the last of the visitors were leaving, concluding their cordialities, making a few last purchases before returning home.
It was when he was halfway up the street that he sensed it. He looked up swiftly, scanning the passers-by, dismayed that he should be running into the very people he needed to avoid.
It was easy for him to discern the familiar figure of Okita Souji coming towards him, a downy piglet nestled in his arms. He was accompanied by a vermillion-haired boy, whom Kenshin had previously spotted with the other Shinsengumi members and had always assumed was an errand boy. Taking advantage of the fact that the pair were talking to each other, Kenshin hastily ducked into a narrow nook next to a confectionery shop to wait for them to pass, pulling his straw hat down further over his face.
To his horrified annoyance the boy noticed the confectionery counter and, with a delighted cry, yanked Okita inside. They were the only two customers; if Kenshin emerged from his current hiding place, he would run the risk, however slight, of being seen. He had no choice but to wait till they left. Letting out a small sigh of exasperation, he concentrated on making himself unnoticeable, watching the pair as he pretended to adjust his haori jacket.
Okita seemed paler, thinner than when he had last seen him, or perhaps it was only because he wasn't in his usual blue and white uniform. He looks just like a girl when he's off-duty, Kenshin noted with a slight touch of scorn. From his position he picked up fragments of cheerful conversation, the boy's bright chirp ringing against Okita's alto.
"Tatsu-nii might like these cinnamon twists, won't he? He doesn't really like the sweet sugary stuff. Maybe we can get a box of mochi for the others too!"
"It's a good idea, Tetsu-kun, but I think the three of them would like more than just ONE box…"
"That's true, but this is all the money I have! And I'd wanna get something for Susumu too… Ne, aren't you getting anything for yourself? Everything looks so good!"
"Thank you, but perhaps I'll get some another day. I'll get scolded for eating so much kyougashi."
"But it's New Year's Day! You should try the mochi, they're still warm!"
"Tetsu-kun, wouldn't you like to get something for Saya-chan? You still have time to visit her this evening. I'm sure you'd like to tell her that you managed to walk in a straight line from one love stone to another."
"Iya haha, don't say that, it was just luck! But yeah, maybe I should get something that they don't serve at the teahouse, she's probably sick of those…"
A bleak emptiness seemed to well up within Kenshin, a deep wound which he thought he had only just managed to close. He too had once been familiar with the warm happiness that emanated unconsciously from Tetsu's voice; he too had once known the happy anticipation of someone's companionship at the end of a long day.
Would she have liked to receive dainty kyougashi? What kind of desserts would she have liked? He would never know now, just as he would never see her again, would never hear her quiet voice again. The scent of white plum blossoms had long since disappeared from the scarf that he cherished, but sometimes she still seemed so real it hurt.
Watching Tetsu excitedly turn to Okita to ask his advice, Kenshin felt his hollow yearning turn to choking, sickening envy. This boy was innocent, carefree, untainted by the blood which stained Kenshin's nightmares. He had a girl whom he was growing to care for, he was surrounded by seniors who looked out for him.
As for Okita, Kenshin had crossed swords with the Shinsengumi captain often enough to know that his skills were as demonic as those of his own. But, unlike Kenshin, he had reconciled his calling with his character to remain child-like enough to believe in old traditions, and cheerful enough to tease the boy at his side.
Suddenly he hated them both, the quiet hatred seething white-hot. Not just because they fought for the prevailing order he was working to overthrow, but because they had everything that Kenshin could have known, had glimpsed for a very short while, but had never had the privilege to dream of.
He was so absorbed in his thoughts that he only vaguely noticed Okita finally, laughingly accept the New Year mochi which Tetsu pressed onto him, only to choke and turn away to cough out the red paste, quickly wiping his hand on the inside of his yukata sleeve. "Iya iya, daijoubu desu! I guess I swallowed it too quickly…"
However, a brisk movement Okita made in his direction made him snap back to attention. "Tetsu-kun, I've just remembered I need to get something from the pharmacy. It'll only take a few minutes."
Kenshin shrank back as Okita, still stifling the last of his coughing fit, walked by. He watched warily as the other crossed to the small pharmacy opposite. The shop owner had just lighted his lanterns, the warm glow reflecting off the indigo of Okita's hair as he peered among the baskets.
Kenshin frowned as he noticed the roots which Okita was picking up. His knowledge of medicinal cures remained fresh enough for him to know that they weren't used for common illnesses. The only time he had heard mention of those bitter herbs was when he'd attended to a man dying of a lung infection, whose breath constantly jarred in his throat and whose speech was interrupted by violent fits of harsh coughing -
A sudden chill ran down Kenshin's spine. So it was not sweet bean paste that Okita had coughed up just now.
"Tetsu-kun! Are you intending to buy the entire shop?!"
Okita was standing in the middle of the street, grinning as the flustered Tetsu hurried to pay for his purchases. The spiky-haired boy then scurried out to join him, only to drop half the candy in his arms in his haste. "Aa!!! Gomenasai…What did you get?"
"Never mind that, hurry up before - "
Kenshin watched as Okita, laughing with genuine mirth, scrambled with Tetsu and the piglet to retrieve the scattered sweets. His violent emotion of a few moments before had faded to a lingering sadness. He had not known what was hidden behind that impish smile. Neither had he been aware of the strength within that slight frame.
A small movement near his feet made him realise that one of the mochi, fortunately still within its paper packaging, had tumbled to a stop near him. Without thinking he bent down to it.
"Aa - " Looking up, Kenshin stared right into a pair of frank hazel eyes. Silently he held out the rice cake to Tetsu.
Tetsu smiled up at him. "Arigatou!" He reached out for the candy, but just as his small hand closed around it he paused.
"Sir, you can have it, I'm sure my friend wouldn't mind having one less. Happy new year!"
The smile he gave Kenshin shone with sincerity. Astonished, Kenshin could do nothing but stare wordlessly as the boy rushed back to where Okita was patiently packing away the last of the mochi, the piglet still nosing hopefully at his side.
"I decided to give one away to that man there. He looked so sad."
"That's really nice of you."
Kenshin froze as Okita stood up and looked over in his direction. Violet met violet.
Kenshin's hand immediately flew to his katana, but stopped on the sheath. He could find neither surprise nor menace in Okita's gaze. Instead, there was a tinge of sorrow, of regret - and a silent understanding.
Okita inclined his head in a slight bow. Kenshin blinked.
"It's getting dark, Tetsu-kun."
Kenshin watched as the pair of Shinsengumi members made their way down the deserted street, Tetsu yelling out in irritation as the piglet nipped at his sandals. He wondered how long Okita had known he was standing there. Clutching the mochi tightly, he slipped out from his corner towards the quiet temple. Above him the new moon was already bright in the sky.
Kiyomizu-dera - A cluster of Buddhist temples situated on a slope in Easten Kyoto
Hatsumoude - The first shrine visit of the year
Shishou - mentor
Kyougashi - Kyoto confectionery
Mochi - Rice cake, usually made for the New Year
Love Stones - A pair of stones found within one of the shrines at Kiyomizu. It is said that those who manage to walk in a straight line from one stone to another with their eyes closed will find true romance.
Iya - No / Nah
Daijoubu desu - I'm all right
Teme - You (an extremely informal and offensive form of address)