The Legend of the Fireflies
Disclaimer: I don't own the Rurouni Kenshin anime, manga or any other media.
It was a pleasant day in Tokyo.
At the Kamiya dojo, Kenshin was smiling brightly as he busied himself with the day's laundry. Two little girls sat beside him, cheerfully observing his work.
"Ken-nii, isn't it nice?" bubbled Ayame, as he lifted a newly cleaned shirt from the bucket.
"All white!" added Suzume.
"Yes, all white, that it is." Kenshin agreed.
"I can't believe this is the same guy who just finished fighting for the future of Japan." he heard Sanosuke muttering behind him.
He only smiled more widely at the words. Yes. It was finally over. The blood. The violence. He had stopped Shishio Makoto, exorcised the last of the demons left over from his bloody past as a hitokiri.
Now he could find peace. Now he was finally home.
Home. Until a few months ago, such a word had been alien to him. He had resigned himself to spending the remainder of his days as a lonely wanderer to atone for the sins of his past. Then he came to the Kamiya Dojo. And met Kaoru. And for the first time in his life, he made friends; friends who cared about him for who he was and not what he was. And in the gap of a few months, he had come to think of this place as his home.
After the affair in Kyoto was finished, they had all returned to Tokyo together. Things returned to the way they had been before. Kaoru continued teaching Yahiko the sword that protects life. Yahiko continued disrespecting his teacher and crushing after Tsubame. Sanosuke continued picking fights and coming for free meals, and Kenshin continued doing the household chores. Nothing had changed.
Nothing had changed. It was because of this fact that Kenshin felt both comforted and disturbed.
Why was he still behaving the same way as he did when he first came here? Why was still acting like a temporary tenant who did chores to pay for his food and lodging? Why did he still address Kaoru as 'Kaoru-dono'? Why wasn't he returning the feelings that the master of Kamiya-Kasshin-Ryū had harboured for him for so long?
It wasn't that he didn't feel the same way about her. He had shown her, that day when he bid farewell, and that day when he agreed to come back with her, that he did care. But now that they had returned, he had gone back to being the humble Rurouni. He had made no further indication that he saw her as anything more than a friend or landlady.
Kaoru noticed. And he knew she was confused and saddened by his apparent indifference. But she hid her feelings, and continued to pretend cheerfully that she was content with this odd status quo, as she patiently awaited the day when Kenshin would be ready to show her his true feelings, to finally let go of his past and accept this new life.
"Ken-nii, what's wrong?" asked Ayame in a worried tone.
"Oro?" he stirred.
"You've been looking worried for the past few minutes!" added Suzume, her eyes widened in anxiety.
Kenshin forced himself to smile. "It's nothing. I was merely lost in thought, that I was."
He looked down. Perhaps the reason he could not bring himself to accept Kaoru's feelings and settle down was because a part of him didn't want to let go of his past, to leave behind his former life. As shameful as it had been, it was still an integral part of him. Those memories defined who he was, and he did not want to forget them. He did not want to forget her.
The woman he had loved, long ago. The one who would have been by his side now, had he acted differently then. She was gone now, and all he had left of her were memories, and he was afraid he would lose those memories if he allowed himself to love again; to be complete once again.
Kenshin sighed as he hung the last of the wet clothes out to dry. He made his way back to the dojo. He could hear Kaoru's voice; lecturing Sano and Yahiko on the household chores that needed to be done if they were to eat. "...and there's dust everywhere! We're going to dust the house with wet rags a hundred times!"
"A hundred times!?" came Yahiko's indignant reply.
Then Kenshin opened the shoji. "Excuse me, Kaoru-dono," he addressed her in his usual polite manner, "I finished the laundry, that I did."
She smiled, ignoring his use of the honorific. "Kenshin, come this way."
She led him to the small outhouse beside the dojo. Ruffling through a large trunk, she dug out a long, thin object, wrapped in cloth, and handed it to him.
Kenshin received it in his hands. It felt round. "A shinai?"
"It's a fishing rod." Kaoru replied. She was twiddling her thumbs. Her voice held a hint of embarrassment. "To tell the truth, Kenshin, because of our long trip, we're barely scratching out a living. Can you please catch tonight's dinner for us?" she looked at him pleadingly.
Kenshin was slightly surprised, not by the request but by the manner in which she put it to him. After everything she had done for him, did Kaoru think she even needed to plead with him for such a small favour? This must be because of my reluctance... perhaps she thinks that I'm feeling distant from her...
He smiled warmly. "Of course, Kaoru-dono."
"We're counting on you, Kenshin!" yelled Yahiko, holding a mop and bucket, with a rag tied around his head. "A huge catch!"
"We're gonna be real hungry if we work like this!" growled Sanosuke, who had a stack of wooden planks slung under one arm and a carpenter's toolbox in the other. "I won't forgive you until you catch twenty, no, thirty whales!"
Kenshin sweatdropped. He tried to keep a straight face as he departed, with Ayame at his side and Suzume sitting on his shoulders. It was hard not to laugh at the sight of Yahiko and Sanosuke looking like domestic servants.
"Take care!" Kaoru called out.
Kenshin smiled slightly. He remembered the last time he had bid farewell to her, in the field among the fireflies. He had not known, back then, if he would ever come back, and Kaoru had been too distraught to even call out to him as he left. He could not ever make her go through that again.
"I'm in trouble, that I am..."
Kenshin was sitting on the riverbank. He held the two sections of the fishing rod in front of him, wondering how he could make them fit. He had been fishing before, but he never had to assemble his own fishing rod. He finally succeeded with the help of some leaves and string and lowered the baited hook into the water. Ah, I should get a bite now, that I should.
Minutes passed and turned to hours, yet nothing happened.
"Ken-nii, are you going to catch a whale..." asked Suzume in a bored tone. "or an octopus?" added Ayame.
Then Kenhin felt a tug on the line and pulled it up to find that he had caught... a slipper.
They gave a mutual sigh. Then Ayame brightened up. "Ah, it's the old fisherman!" she exclaimed, waving happily.
Kenshin followed her gaze to find an old man squatting on the bridge that spanned across the river. He was examining a set of fishing rods.
Behind him, Kenshin noticed something else on the bridge. A group of ruffians were hovering over a little boy, bearing weapons. Kenshin could sense evil intent from their ki.
Apparently the man had noticed it too. He got up and calmly walked across the bridge, paying them no attention. But as he passed them by, something strange happened. Suddenly, all four thugs found themselves mysteriously disarmed. The next moment, another man, presumably the boy's father, arrived and chased them away. He then turned his anger on the fisherman, thinking him to be in league with the ruffians, and punched him to the ground. He and the boy left in a huff.
Kenshin narrowed his eyes. The thugs had not known what hit them, but his trained eyes had seen everything. The 'fisherman' had the speed and grace of a master swordsman.
Ayame and Suzume rushed to his side, Kenshin following behind them. "Oh no, he's dead!" cried Ayame, and both girls started weeping at his prone form.
"Now, now, don't cry." The old man opened his eyes and held out his hand, which held a pair of paper cranes. "I promised the other day, didn't I?" The girls cheered up, accepting the present gratefully.
The old man picked himself up, laughing to himself. "It looked like you were having a hard time there." he said to Kenshin, referring to his earlier attempts at fishing. "I know a spot where you can catch plenty of fish."
He took them to a place further downstream and they sat down, lowering their lines into the river while the girls played on the grass.
"Honoured sir, you are quite adept, that you are." said Kenshin, pointing to the skill he had displayed on the bridge.
"When did you stop slaying men?" the old man calmly asked in reply. Kenshin widened his eyes in surprise. How did he know?
"I've never met someone like you," the man continued, "whose sword-ki contains both kindness and fierceness, but no trace of killing intent."
"It seems I can't hide anything from you, sir."
The fisherman smiled. "Two swordsmen who have thrown away their fangs, aren't we? My meeting someone like you must be fate... the fate of one who has lived too long."
"Lived too long?"
The old man had a distant look in his eyes. "Have you ever come here on an evening in early summer? At night, this area becomes filled with fireflies. They're called the wishing fireflies..."
As they sat there on the riverbank, the old man told a story about a young man who lived in the Tokugawa era, long ago. His name was Ryunosuke, and he was a prodigy in the art of kenjutsu. Before long his his skills became well-known across Edo, and he even gained the attention of the government.
But he was not satisfied. He wanted to become even stronger; to wield a real sword, not a shinai, and to master the ultimate kenjutsu.
Then one day, he met a beautiful woman. Her name was Kinu. She had been in love with him for many months, though he barely noticed her. In those days there was a local legend that said that if one prayed on the riverbank every day for a year, that person's wish would be granted by the fireflies that came on summer nights. And so Kinu prayed there every day, wishing that one day Ryunosuke would return her feelings.
At first, he was hesitant, but gradually he came to accept her love, and for a while he found peace, forgetting his goal. A faint light glowed in the heart of a man who had cared only for the way of the sword.
But it did not last, and soon there came a fateful day when the light and shadow switched places.
It was a rainy day. Ryunosuke was returning home late and stopped under a porch, seeking shelter. Then he hear cries of "Thief!", and saw a masked man, dressed in ninja's attire, running towards him, chased by many men. But instead of fleeing, the man allowed his pursuers to surround him, and before they could react, he had drawn his sword and cut them down in a flash.
Ryunosuke could only watch, flabbergasted, as the ninja gave him a passing glance and sped away on his horse. His sword had moved like lightning; he had killed the three men without them even realising the fact. He realised that he had seen the ultimate kenjutsu, the kind that could only be seen in a battle of life and death.
Then the thief's companions emerged from the house, and seeing Ryunosuke, they moved forward to kill him. Immediately, he grabbed the katana of the man who lay closest to him and fought them back, driven by fear and instinct. That night, he killed a human being for the first time.
From that point, there was no turning back. The next day, he bid farewell to Kinu, and left Edo against her wishes, abandoning his love and his home. He had resolved to master the ultimate kenjutsu at any cost, even if he had to stain his new sword red with blood.
From that day on, Ryunosuke travelled the length and breadth of Japan, and he slew, and kept slaying men. He never gave a thought to the people he had slain. He only focused on that one fateful night, on the ultimate kenjutsu that he had seen.
But no matter how much blood he spilled, he could never match the skill of the masked man in his memory. Days became weeks, weeks became months, and months became years, and Ryunosuke continued wandering in search of the elusive ultimate kenjutsu, leaving a trail of corpses in his wake.
Then one day, in the twenty-first year of his journey, he found his answer.
It was late in the evening, and he was walking in the direction of a village. He despaired of his hopeless quest, and was contemplating suicide. Suddenly, he heard cries of help in the distance and saw a man ninja's attire riding towards him on a horse. Though his face was covered, Ryunosuke recognised him, by some sense other than sight, as the same man whom he had seen on that stormy night many years ago; the one who had spurred him on his quest for the ultimate kenjutsu.
Before he knew it, Ryunosuke had drawn his sword. Seeing him, the man halted and dismounted from his horse. He drew his own sword, accepting the silent challenge. The two adversaries charged at each other and clashed blades in their first and final duel. Then it was over.
After two strikes, the ninja fell noiselessly to the ground. Ryunosuke gaped at him in surprise. His mask fell open, and the expression on his face revealed that he had died instantly, without even feeling any pain.
Then Ryunosuke's world came crashing down around him. How could he have defeated the man so easily? He realised, with horror, that the ultimate kenjutsu he had sought all these years was a sham; it never even existed. What he had seen in the storm that night was an illusion, caused by the darkness that resided in the shadows of his heart. His lifelong quest had been for nothing. All the lives he had taken were for nothing.
It was as if he had woken from a long dream. For the first time, all the lives he had taken, all the happinesses his sword had ended, began to weigh down upon him. Lost and without a purpose, he continued wandering. But now, wherever he went, he found himself being tormented by the sins of his past, haunted by terrible visions of his victims.
Then one night, early in summer, as he lay in an uneasy sleep on a riverbank, he was woken up by a voice calling his name. He peered into the darkness nervously. In front of him, sitting among the fireflies, was the figure of a beautiful woman. It was a face he had not seen in many years. It was Kinu.
She embraced him in the moonlight, among the glowing pinpoints, and told him, crying, that she had been waiting for him all these years, and now that the long journey of his soul was over, they could be together... forever.
Then he woke up for real, and realised that his long wandering had brought him back to the place he had left twenty one years ago. Before him, a man was praying on the riverbank. When he finished, he greeted the new traveller.
"Have you heard the story of the wishing fireflies?" he asked, "My older sister was waiting for someone here. She believed that he would return some day. She waited here every day for twenty years." he bowed his head sadly. "Today is the anniversary of her death."
Ryunosuke was silent with shock and grief. Because of his foolish ideal, because of his choice to follow the path of murder, he had lost the woman he loved and left behind the life they could have had. Having no further love for kenjutsu, he renounced his sword and spent the remainder of his days in penance.
"That is the story of the wishing fireflies." The old man finished wearily. "A story many decades old."
The afternoon had passed into evening and the sun was beginning to set. Ayame and Suzume lay sleeping on the riverbank.
Kenshin remained silent. He had never met Ryunosuke before, yet his story was intimately familiar to him. It was a story he himself had seen before, and one that he was seeing again. He remembered the woman he lost because of his sword, many years ago. And then he remembered the forlorn figure of Kaoru, sitting among the fireflies, silently waiting for his return from Kyoto. "Wishing fireflies..."
He turned to smile at the old man, who now got up to leave. "Hmm, when did it get so late?" He petted Ayame on the head. "You be a good girl now."
As he watched the retreating figure, Kenshin called out to him. "One thing...I want to ask one thing, that I do." Ryunosuke paused. "Does..." his voice caught in his throat as he spoke, "does that man currently... regret how he lived his life?" Unconsciously, he touched the scar on his cheek.
Ryunosuke's face was hidden from him. "Even if he were to regret it, he can't ever go back." his voice held a trace of sadness, "However, he now believes... that each man may meet one woman in his life... that he can never forget." he paused, "I just... I just wanted to let the glimmer of life from that one woman, fragile like a firefly's light, rest on someone else's heart."
He turned and smiled at Kenshin. "I thank you for keeping me company during this long story. We will not meet again."
As he watched the retreating figure of Ryunosuke dissappear into the horizon, Kenshin smiled to himself. The old man had found his answer. And he was finally beginning to find his own.
By the time he returned to the Kamiya dojo, it was already dark.
"Welcome back, Kenshin." Kaoru welcomed him at the door with her usual smile. Kenshin gazed at her intently. Still waiting patiently for the day he would accept her, and stop being a Rurouni for good...
"What's wrong, Kenshin?" asked Kaoru, her smile unwavering.
Kenshin blinked. "Oro, nothing."
"Were you able to catch any fish?"
"Sorry, I couldn't catch any, not even one."
Kaoru giggled, as if she had already known the outcome, not showing the slightest hint of anger or disappointment. "That's all right. Dr. Gensai came by and brought us some food. Ayame-chan, Suzume-chan," she looked down kindly at the little girls, "You're both hungry, right? Let's have dinner."
"Yay, dinner!" Both of them flung aside their slippers and rushed inside. Giving Kenshin a nod, Kaoru went after them.
Kenshin followed them with his gaze and smiled. He stared gently at the wooden bucket in his hand. Inside it sat a blue flower; an iris blossom that he had found on the way home. He had not offered it to Kaoru; that wasn't the reason he had picked it. It held an entirely different meaning for him.
"An iris is a flower that blooms best in the rain; even a rain of blood."
He shook his head. He had made up his mind. It would take time, but eventually he would bring himself to return Kaoru's feelings openly and give her the smile that she deserved. He would not go back to being a Rurouni and leave her to follow the way of the sword ever again. He had already made such a mistake once, many years ago. He would not repeat it this time.
He smiled again. He did not regret his choice. He knew now that by accepting the present, he would not have to forget his past. And he knew that whatever he did, he would never forget her; that other woman whom he loved. Gently, he laid down the bucket and followed Kaoru into the dojo.
Yes, I will move on... but no matter what happens, you will remain in my heart... forever... Tomoe.
Behind him, a solitary firefly fluttered beside the iris, illuminating the blue petals with its pale glow.
Rurouni - A wandering, masterless samurai
Shinai - A training sword made of bamboo
Kenjutsu - The art of Japanese swordsmanship
Author's note: I first watched Episode 63 of the Rurouni Kenshin anime 'The Legend of the Fireflies' sometime last year. Although it was a filler episode, I thought it was one of the best fillers I had ever watched. Not only did it have a beautiful story, but it also paid homage to Kenshin's own backstory(which was ultimately left out of the anime), and as such the episode had a double meaning; one for those who read the manga and knew of Kenshin's past and one for those who didn't. At first glance it would seem that the old man is merely advising Kenshin not to repeat his mistakes; but actually he is (unintentionally) empathising with Kenshin, who has made similar mistakes in life but unlike him has a second chance to avoid such mistakes.
Recently, I re-watched the episode and it left such an impression on me that I had to write this fic; because a great many people would never appreciate the beauty of that episode, either because they didn't watch it due to being filler or because they didn't know about Kenshin's past when they watched it.
For those who know of Tomoe from the manga but haven't watched the Tsuiokuhen/Trust and Betrayal OVA, the line about how the iris blooms was used to describe Tomoe's relationship with the young Battousai. It is also the same flower which Kenshin laid on Tomoe's grave at the end of the Kyoto arc.
Though I put my heart and soul into this story I don't think it came out reading as well as I intended. Do let me know how you felt(i.e. Please Review).
PS: I tend to have unusual tastes in music, but I think the song 'Behind Blue Eyes' by limp bizkit is great to listen to while reading fics with Tomoe.