Dry rustling marked his progress across the empty fields, the papery remains of a season's worth of pumpkin vines crackling under his boots and the wheels of his cart. It was the eve of Winter Solstice, and he had one last pumpkin to harvest – the biggest and the best of the entire crop.
Legend held that the last farmer to bring in his crop was responsible for the well-being of the kamiya – the harvest sprite. It was said that she would live with him until the following season, at which time she would leave to wander from farm to farm until that harvest was complete, and her next caretaker decided. Although his neighbors hadn't followed the old ways or put much faith in the ancient superstitions for generations, Kenshin made certain he was the last to finish his harvest each season, and welcomed his supernatural guest into his home with a gift made from his fields' bounty. This time, he planned to carve the last pumpkin, pride of his crop, into the semblance of a cottage for the sprite. It was a bit whimsical, but the others already thought him backward and foolish. Still, none could deny that his fields flourished regardless of drought or insects or flood, and his produce was always in demand. If that was the work of the kamiya, he had no intention of antagonizing her.
Not to mention his other reasons for staying in her good graces...
As he approached the area of the pumpkin patch where his prize awaited, the light of his lantern burnished the bright orange skin of the squash to gilded copper. A few steps later, and the circle of light expanded to outline the figure of a young woman. Kenshin halted abruptly, a hot tingle upon his skin.
She was not from the village.
Her dress was reminiscent of the garb the local women wore to festival reels or barn dances, although the skirts were far longer, allowing only her bare toes to peep out from under the hem. The whole was predominantly white, warmed by the glow spilling from his lantern to a candle lit cream, but her vest was a deep green, and the embroidery decorating her skirt a mix of autumn colors. Ink-black hair was pulled back in a youthful pony tail, and bound by a matching ribbon. Perched brazenly atop the pumpkin, knees drawn up to allow her feet to rest against the curved side, she gave every appearance of one patiently awaiting the arrival of a lover or swain, yet Kenshin was the only one around for several miles.
"Good evening, Battousai," she said suddenly, voice soft and sweet and welcoming, although the name she used was one he wished never to have earned. He'd become a farmer after the war, hoping to nurture rather than destroy. His new life suited him far better than his old.
"Good evening, Lady," he returned.
Laughing, she stretched, raising her arms over her head, fingers splayed toward the sky. "I'm no lady," she told him, blue eyes bright, "I'm a grubby little urchin who likes to run barefoot over rich, sun-warmed earth."
Kenshin smiled. "Me too," he answered, stepping close enough to touch – although he didn't yet dare – and to catch the mingled scents of fruit and spice that swirled around her.
She nodded. "I know. It's one of the things I like about you. That, and you know how to court a girl properly. All those gifts!" Cocking her head to the side, she surveyed the simple wooden cart he'd brought to convey the pumpkin back to his home. "Have you come to fetch me, then? To be your bride?"
Kenshin hesitated, uncertain if it would be wise to tell her he hadn't intended the gifts as anything more than respect or appreciation for a healthy harvest. Besides... it wasn't quite the truth. This, too, was part of the sprite's legend, which was why there were clean sheets on his bed and a hot bath waiting in front of his fire. He'd worked his land for two score seasons, choosing to harvest his fields last, thereby courting the kamiya when he repeatedly welcomed her into his home. Although he'd been skeptical that she would appear, he'd also been hopeful. By virtue of his relationship with the soil and the seeds he tended, she knew him better than anyone, knew what really was in his heart. Where else would he find a woman willing to take him, scarred and blood-stained as he was? Who else could understand all the things he had yet to find words to express?
Eyes gleaming knowingly in the lantern light, she put her hands on her hips. "Stop that," she scolded, "you're not unworthy in any respect. I wouldn't be here if you were." He opened his mouth to protest, and she raised one hand to press work worn fingers – farmer's fingers – lightly against his lips, shushing him. "If you're unworthy, then I'm unworthy, and surely you're not churlish enough to suggest that!" When his cheeks flushed she grinned, then, tossing her head, pulled her hand back to hold a finger up in warning. "You should know, though, that I'm useless around the house, and completely unable to cook."
Lips warm from her touch he smiled back, almost shy... but the eyebrow he raised was teasing. "You expect me to believe that, when my vegetables are unfailingly perfect?"
Laughing again she shook her head. "That's really mostly you. My job is just to whack Drought and Frost and Pestilence with a stick if they try to interfere. I'm good at that," she added frankly, "but when it comes to the actual growing..." A long-suffering sigh escaped her faintly pouting mouth, and she threw her hands up in exasperation. "If I do more than smile benevolently and whisper encouragement, things go wrong." Frowning suddenly, her tone turned apologetic. "Like the trouble you had with the east field... I heard you say the soil was too dry, and I was just trying to help." Biting her lip, she glanced up at him through her bangs. "Sorry?"
Unable to resist Kenshin chuckled, and reaching down he took her hands, pulling her up to stand in front of him. They were quite the pair – a swordsman who refused to use his sword, and a kamiya with a self-professed brown thumb. Somehow... he thought they'd do well together. Bending his head, he kissed her lightly. "What's your name?" he asked, resting his forehead against hers.
Raising up on her tip-toes, she brushed her nose against his. "Kaoru," she answered. "Kaoru Himura."
Her tone was challenging and emphatic.
Nodding in agreement he kissed her again, this time with more passion and certainty.
He wouldn't need to carve the pumpkin after all.