I've come to realize that I do indeed have the strangest family.
There's the bratty little boy who's a poor excuse for a student. In fact, I can imagine him right now getting all worked up for referring to him as a little boy. That kid is in a hurry to grow up – and he's none too discreet in showing it. He's loud, unrefined, impatient, disrespectful, and most of all, he calls me ugly. I'm not quite sure which one of us has poor eyesight, and I'd like to believe I'm not that old yet, but the pretty little thing that stares back at me in the mirror is in no way within ten feet of the perimeter of ugly. And it's not that he has bad taste either – Tsubame is the cutest girl I've ever met, if a tad too shy. Then again, perhaps her quiet nature is an apt counterbalance to his big mouth. Really, if he calls me ugly one more time, I'm going to whack him like I mean it.
Which makes me wonder, really. I've seen him fight. I've seen what he can do – and I've seen his potential to become even more than who he is now. He's going to be great someday. He's already phenomenal now – even more than the idols he looks up to when they were his age. Imagine what kind of fighter he'll grow up to be – and yes, I admit, I can't help but feel proud of him when I think of his future, bright and promising, and I'm overwhelmed by a surge of pride… which quickly dissolves whenever those nasty insults spew from his mouth. My father would definitely be rolling in his grave right now if he heard those… colorful words being spoken inside his home. Really, this kid… I ought to wash his filthy mouth with laundry detergent.
I'd like to believe I'm better than the average fighter. I can hold my own against men, and I can fight side by side with the greatest fighters I know. Yet this young boy, this child, will someday be greater than I am. Perhaps he already is.
Which makes me wonder why whenever I try to whack him, he never dodges. He can always choose to, and I know he has that capability. But strangely enough, he never does.
He calls me ugly. At times, he'll even go as far as calling me an incompetent teacher to taunt me. But he always – always – follows me. Sure, I'll be met with a few muttered curses or, if he's feeling particularly energetic, he'll try to land a few strikes on me. But eventually, he'll always follow what I tell him to do. Begrudgingly, yes. But he never disobeys me.
I can tell him to do one hundred, five hundred, one thousand strikes, and he'll do it; I can tell him to clean the dojo floor until it sparkles and I can see my reflection on it, and he'll do it; I can tell him to go with me to the ends of Japan and face the craziest and deadliest warriors with nothing more than a wooden sword, a courageous heart and a fierce determination to protect the people we both love – and he'll do it.
I can tell him to do anything – and he will never disobey me. He's willing to give me that power. This ten-year-old warrior-in-the-making, who will someday surpass every generation of fighters before him, chooses to follow me.
Of course, the bratty little boy will never say it. And he'll whine and complain and loudly protest being taught by a girl. But he'll never say it.
Then there's the freeloading idiot. Mind you, of course I'm glad he gave up fighting for a living. While that sounds hypocritical of me, unlike the freeloading idiot I never actively seek a fight – at least, not without a good reason. I'm pretty sure that going after a murderer who defiled the names of not even one, but two of the men I love, is reason enough for me to go after him. But this freeloader used to be more of an idiot than he is now. His fights used to be fueled by anger. And I don't blame him – I know what it's like to have someone you love taken away from you so suddenly… so brutally. Revenge is a seductive mistress; she's almost impossible to resist. And he almost – almost – gave in.
Don't get me wrong. I'm glad, really and truly, that he had given up that anger and violence as his means for livelihood. That doesn't mean, however, that I'm glad he still hasn't found a decent job to replace it. For a tall, strong, well-built young man, he's just too damn lazy.
And the nerve of him to come mooching around only to complain about my cooking. Of course I'm no Tae, I admit, but it's not like I'm deliberately trying to poison him. Not yet, anyway. Really, if he stops spending whatever money he has - and I don't even want to think about how he gets it - on sake and gambling and women, then he should try feeding himself sometimes. Although now that I think about it, perhaps that's actually the reason why he'd rather eat my food. I bet his cooking skills are worse than mine, and he'll be the laughingstock of his buddies if he happens to die by accidental self-poisoning.
There are a few things I've noticed about him though – little things, but significant nonetheless. Whenever he gets off his lazy ass to accompany me to the market, and we'd pass by the seedier parts of the town, he'd always walk closer to me. Once, when I happened to be wearing one of my finer kimonos and several men ogled longer than necessary, he pulled me by the waist and told them pointedly, "She's taken." I blinked at him in surprise, and as soon as we were out of earshot, he winked at me and added, "Hey, not necessarily by me. He's just doing your laundry back at the dojo."
I blinked at him again, and when the insinuation of his words finally dawned on me, I blushed madly and whacked him on the shoulder. He laughed and let me go. He never holds me longer than necessary. For a notorious womanizer, this freeloading idiot treats me differently. And knowing the capabilities of other womanizers less affable than him, he knows how to protect me from them, without overstepping his boundaries.
He also knows – and I'm embarrassed to admit – that I'm a violent drunk. And though perhaps the prospect of bodily harm has more to do with it, he's surprisingly the one who usually stops me from drinking a cup too many. He also dodges my queries about the gambling houses he frequents. Once, he even gave me a disapproving look when curiosity got the better of me and I told him I wanted to try. "Best leave the bad habits to me, little missy," he said in a tone that reminded me strongly of my father. And then he promptly went back to brawling with my bratty student as they fought like unfed strays over their food.
Strangely though, they never – never – take from my plate.
The freeloading idiot will never say it, though. And he'll come by again and again, complaining about my cooking, letting himself drown in his vices so he'll know how best to protect his family from them. But he'll never say it.
And of course, there's also my favorite person – or should I say, my favorite animal. And I'm sure she'll even take that as a compliment. She's a fox in every way; sly, wily, cunning and clever – not to mention that annoying giggle that puts the flirting skills of every geisha out there to shame. She's beautiful and she knows it – hell, she even rubs it in my face. She finds every way to prove how she's so out of my league and how she's a much better woman, in the traditional sense, than I'll ever be.
And then strangely enough, she'll find every way to prove that I am the right choice for him.
Her tongue is as sharp and dangerous as a sword's blade. She chooses her words with the same precision a swordsman has with his target – she can be blunt, scathing, or hurtful when she chooses to, delivered with just the right force that the situation calls for. I should know – I've been at the receiving end of her tongue's blade more times than I could count. She finds every way to mock just about everything she could point out about me: my apparent sordid taste in fashion, my tomboyish attitude, my violent tendencies, the sweaty smell that lingers each time I train, my lack of skills in the kitchen, my hopelessness in becoming the ideal housewife.
She mocks everything about me… except those that make me who I really am. Like a professional swordsman, she has absolute control over the power of her words so that no matter how much they slice and cut, they never penetrate deep enough to destroy that which makes one truly alive. Her tongue's blade does not even dare graze the depth of my ideals, my principles and beliefs, my ambitions and dreams and hopes and fears. And she never – never – mocks my feelings.
And that's why sometimes, when she shoots down all the traditional standards of society by stripping it away from me and showing how I don't have any of them, I wonder if it's actually her way of protecting me.
I will never forget the way she held a blade – a real one – against her throat, ready to plunge it in and end her suffering. She gave up on everything, she gave up on life, but most of all, she gave up on herself. In the short time I had known her before that moment, she had a certain fire and spirit inside her that, even though one didn't necessarily have to like her, demanded one to respect her. That night when we came close – so close – to being too late to save her, I was stunned at the sudden change that came upon her. Much more than fearing for her life, I feared for her soul. The fire in her eyes was extinguished by her helplessness and guilt and her overbearing sense of unworthiness. He was the one who rekindled that flame, and we were all relieved to watch the life flicker back into her eyes.
I wonder what could've happened if we hadn't been there. If he wasn't there.
Sometimes… I can almost believe she wonders the same about me.
She'll be the last person to admit this – and I think she'll rather dance naked in the middle of the town square before she does – but I believe she sees that same fire in me. In many ways, she and I are the same – people are as scandalized with a woman doctor who challenges the status quo as much as they are with a woman fighter. And like me, she doesn't care. She's damn proud of who she is, and everyone can see that determination and defiance burn in her eyes. And yet knowing firsthand how easily that fire could be put out, she's also determined to make sure it doesn't die in mine.
And that's why sometimes, I can almost believe she's actually happy when she sees I'm affected by the barb of her words. She will find any means necessary to keep that fire in me burning.
She'll never say it though. And she'll continue to insult me and mock me and delight in the way I bristle and snap back, knowing that it keeps the fire blazing inside both of us. But she'll never say it.
And so I won't say it either.
I don't say anything even as I see how the bratty boy works hard at the Akabeko to bring in extra money. I don't say anything even as I see how the freeloading idiot peruses the shadiest parts of the town to know who to watch out for and how to protect us from them. I don't say anything even as I see how the flirtatious fox hides the real cost of her expensive services by deflecting our queries with her witty remarks.
I don't say anything even as I see how, whenever we'd walk together, he'd always position himself in such away that I'd be inside the safe perimeter of the sword that constantly hangs by his side.
I don't say anything even as I see how, whenever he's too tied down by household chores, he'd cast the freeloading idiot a pleading glance, and the idiot would smile in understanding and accompany me when I need to go downtown. He trusts his womanizing friend enough to know that the idiot won't let anyone else touch me – including himself.
I don't say anything even as I sense how he watches me when I train, and see from the corner of my eyes the approval in his smile and the proud cast of his gaze.
I don't say anything whenever the bratty boy would look over my shoulder during our lessons, and he'd suddenly sober up and become a relatively agreeable student for a moment, and I'd know that he had cast the boy a look of warning whenever the level of disrespect for me as his teacher is pushing the limit.
I don't say anything even as I see how, whenever I'm wearing something new, or appear relatively better dressed than usual, he'd stop whatever it was he was doing and smile at me, and the gentle heat emanating from his gaze is enough of a compliment.
I don't say anything even as I see how, even in the presence of the flirtatious fox, or even in the presence of attractive young girls in the middle of the town, his eyes always linger away from them and searches for me when he loses me in the crowd.
I don't say anything as I take on extra jobs at other kenjutsu schools and I give up buying that kimono I've been eyeing for months just to buy extra clothing for the bratty boy, to buy extra food for the freeloading idiot, or to give compensation to the flirtatious fox for all of her free medical services. I don't say anything even as I automatically set up extra plates at the dining table and I clean up the spare rooms and set up extra pillows and blankets. I don't say anything even as I leave the gate unlocked for them to come and go as they please – they aren't shunned or turned away, but neither are they obliged or indebted to me. They're welcome to stay – and they're free to go.
And I don't say anything whenever he'd be the last one to sleep, inspecting every inch of the Kamiya compound before securing the gate; I don't say anything whenever he'd be the first to rise, preparing the bath and the meals and everything else that gives comfort to and alleviates the responsibilities of the people he's living with; I don't say anything even when he never fails to remind everyone that he's a murderer no more, but a wanderer – a wanderer – who fights everything that gets in his way and keeps him from coming back home.
I don't say anything, even now, as he suddenly stops in front of a certain shop, and I blink when I realize he isn't walking with me anymore. I watch him from a short distance away, and I see him cast a longing gaze at the colorful items in display through the glass window before he sighs and walks away. He catches me watching him, and he scratches his head and offers a sheepish shrug before he turns to attend to the other groceries we need to buy that week.
Curious, I take advantage of his distraction to closely inspect what had caught his attention so intensely. My eyes widen at the beautifully arranged rows of delicate-looking wagashi on display, and I suddenly realize that I'm standing in front of the shop famous for producing the highest-quality sweets in town. Even amidst the more intricate-looking items surrounding it, my gaze is immediately drawn to a modest manju on the side – small balls of pink, glutinous rice stuffed with azuki, each one wrapped with a pickled sakura leaf for that distinct flavor and fragrance.
And then suddenly, I know without a doubt that this is what he had been looking at. Because I suddenly remember how he told me that, once upon a time, his mother used to make it for him. And I suddenly remember how, as he was telling his tale in one of those rare moments when he lets his guard down, he didn't look like a man who, haunted by his bloody past, is trying to atone for his sins. He didn't look like a wanderer trying to desperately stay one step ahead of the grief and the guilt that always follows him. He looked like every inch of the carefree, innocent child he once lost – perhaps the child he still is, hidden underneath all that darkness and pain life has brought him.
I smile in amusement. That, and the fact that he has always been fond of anything colored pink. I'm not sure why – though perhaps that's a story for him to tell some other time.
I step closer and eye the humble manju with interest. The shop's products truly exceed its reputation – the manju is a simple but exquisitely crafted work of art.
It is also ridiculously expensive.
I frown and look through my purse, and deliberate for a moment if I should spend the little money left to buy that salve Genzai-sensei has been recommending I use for weeks now – I don't say it, but lately my muscles are beginning to ache and burn from all those extra jobs I've been going to.
Then I remember the longing in his eyes, and the little boy he has become for a moment, and the decision is swiftly made.
And so I don't say anything when we return home and his eyes immediately stray curiously to the colorful box I've been hiding under my arm. And I don't say anything even as I laugh when his eyes bulge like a child as I open the box and reveal its contents, and his gaze hungrily devour the rows of pink manju neatly arranged inside. He licks his lips for a moment before he glances at me questioningly, as if seeking permission. I chuckle and carefully extract one manju from the box and gently place it in his waiting hands.
The smile that lit up his face hit me with a wave of immense pleasure tinged with the deepest sadness, as I suddenly wonder why no one else bothered to find out how easy it is to make him happy.
He holds the manju in his hands and stares at it for a long moment before he frowns, making me suddenly doubt and wonder if I had gotten the right type of wagashi he wanted. Curiously, I watch him as he carefully sets the manju down on his plate. He reaches for another one inside the box. Then he looks pointedly at me.
I blink at him, unsure of what he wants me to do. He gestures at my hands. I offer them to him – and to my surprise, he places the manju in them.
I stare at the pink sweet in my hands. Then I look at him. And then… he smiles.
And suddenly, I remember how I told him that, once upon a time, my mother used to make them for me too.
Even in something so small and precious, even in the simplest and most genuine form of happiness, he refuses to partake it if he isn't sharing it with me.
And yet just like the rest of us, he doesn't say it. No one among us dares to. Because no words can ever do it justice.
He is still watching me. And I realize what he is waiting for.
Of course we don't say it. Because this strange thing we have as a family…
I smile at him, raise the manju to my lips and take a bite. Then, and only then, does he finally bite into his happiness.
What we have… there are no words for it.
A/N: This piece suddenly flowed from my fingers as I was studying for an exam. I seriously don't know where it came from – although I'm very glad to know that I'm actually capable of writing a oneshot. Yay! And don't worry, I assure you, One Last Opponent will be updated. It is in fact the fic I'm hoping to complete first, because as I've said before, it's a story that's very precious to me – kind of like Kenshin's beloved manju. ;) Thank you all, once again, for your kind support and encouragement. I hope this little piece gave you a simple yet genuine joy just like that sweet did for Kenshin. :)
Azuki = red bean paste
Manju = steamed bun-like sweet with a dough made from yam or glutinous rice
Sakura = cherry blossom
Wagashi = traditional Japanese confections, usually served with bitter tea as a snack