Chapter 9: Wolf's Blood
Kaoru could tell that something had changed. Kensin's arms that were wrapped so tightly about her loosened, as if a decision had been made. She gazed into his eyes, and found them to be cold and haunted. It wasn't the same as Battousai—it was something even deeper than that. It froze his compassion into ice. "Don't* interfere with us," he told her firmly, climbing to his feet.
"Kenshin…" No, not again. Don't talk like that—don't be like that. You're not… She reached out, but as before her hand couldn't reach. "Kenshin…don't…"
Kenshin ignored her, his manner very still and controlled as he pulled the sheath out of his belt and held it to the side. He moved into a battousjutsu stance.
Sanosuke was urged to speak, but he held his tongue. That's…his secret technique. The Amakakeru ryuuno hirameki. Finally.
Saitou hesitated; he knew too well what the stance implied. He'd seen the power of this attack, the speed, and he knew of the counter. Shinomori Aoshi had not been able to defend against it, nor Shishio Makoto himself. Even having seen the move he was unsure as to how he might dissolve it.
"Your best shot, Saitou," Kenshin said, demanding his attention. The spectators watched, tense and waiting. "If you truly want to settle this, come at me with everything you've got."
Gatotsu Zeroshiki. I've saved it until now, for this moment. The power is incredible, but not quite as fast.
Saitou's eyes narrowed, planning as he slid into a stance. But our blades are different. I can survive a strike; he cannot. If I cannot beat his speed, the best I can do is match it. Gatotsu Zeroshiki was a complicated move with an equally complicated stance; left leg slightly back to allow for the first step, left arm twisted and torso turned. All these things lent to the power of the move, but the position was obvious to most opponents and the attack easy to avoid if studied long enough. Shishio was testimony to that. Delivery of the attack depended on Saitou's speed in moving into and then out of the complex stance. Starting in the position to begin with would cut the attack time in half, but Battousai would never allow him the time for such preparation.
If only I had a second.
Neither contender would realize till later exactly what had happened in those next instants. Someone let out a high scream. Though Saitou didn't bother to see who it had been, for a split second Kenshin's gaze flickered. The pause was enough for Saitou to snap into the proper stance and then into Gatotsu Zeroshiki. His arm swung forward. At the same time Kenshin began to pull his sword from the sheath. Saitou put all his strength into the movement; he knew that nothing would save him from feeling the cold agony of Hiten Mitsurugi Ryuu's finest move, but that didn't matter so long as his enemy fell. There was nothing left other than that, his most ancient goal.
The speed was enough, the aim was perfect, but then something happened that he didn't expect. He felt something pull taunt about his wrists, digging through his cuffs and into his skin. Something was pulling him back, and though the force wasn't enough to stop him completely his speed was diminished. The pause gave Kenshin the little time he needed to unleash his greatest attack in full.
The aftermath of those pivotal moments was nothing more than a blur of pain, confusion, and failure in the wolf's mind. The steel burned deeply in his chest, and the world spun in impossible circles about him as his body was tossed helplessly into the air. For an instant he saw the Battousai, and the girl that huddled behind him, and the three he'd sought to kill; then there was only the expanse of dark sky above, of harsh stars and streaking moonlight. Then the deepest silence he'd ever known.
Kaoru watched, utterly amazed, as Saitou's body sailed over her. She couldn't breath. Clasping her hands to her chest to calm its pounding she stared as the man landed with a thud on the roof of the dojo, then slowly slipped from the edge. Dust rose in a dulled explosion as the broken samurai fell to the earth in a heap. A deep, pained moan escaped his lips as he attempted to push himself up, but his right arm failed him, and he collapsed onto his stomach once more. From there he could not move.
Kenshin's sword clattered to the ground, and Kaoru turned just in time to see him sink to his knees. He hunched over, gasping in an attempt to regain some oxygen for his overworked and aching muscles. Slowly, she came toward him, not knowing what else she could do. "Kenshin…"
He held up his hand, and she fell silent. There was a look of cold anger in his eyes, one she could not speak against no matter how much it hurt her. Refusing her help he stood, weak but determined. He turned to face Haya and Mari. "What did you do?" he asked in a low, strained voice.
"I'm the one that screamed," Mari said, sitting up with Akira's support. "I'm sorry I distracted you, but I wanted him to start." She pointed to the thin line that had wrapped about Saitou's wrist and halted his victory. "Extra wire I keep for my weapon," she explained. "I was just trying to help."
"Help. You were trying to help me." His eyes narrowed. "Don't give me that shit."
"Sorry for pulling you into this," Haya said, finishing bandaging his arm with the wraps Megumi had given him. "But you did good. Thanks a lot."
Kenshin's dark glare landed on the boy, startling him with the intensity of his anger. "That blood on you," the man spoke quietly. "Tokio-dono's blood. Why did you kill her?"
"We were hired." He shrunk back somewhat beneath the harsh eyes. "Don't blame us."
In a swift movement Kenshin snatched his katana from the ground and slash at him. The dull blade slammed into Haya's injured arm, and he cried out in pain as he was sent tumbling. He gripped the wound tightly. "What the hell—"
The red-head samurai forced Haya down by digging his heel into the youth's back. He returned his weapon to his belt. "Who I blame is up to me," he hissed, bending down. "Megumi-dono, bring me some of your bandages."
"Y-Yes." Glancing uncertainly at her friends, she brought Kenshin a roll of thick gauze.
He measured a length and cut it with his sword. "I'm sorry for wasting your supplies," he said, pulling Haya's wrists behind his back and trying them together. "You'll forgive me, I hope."
"Of course. But, Ken-san…" She sent Kaoru a stern look, but the girl was too shaken by everything that had happened to respond much. "Is this necessary?"
"Yes. Send Eiji to find the police." He lifted his captive up by the collar and proceeded to drag him across the ground.
Mari moved to intercept him. "Just what the hell are you doing?"
Kenshin stopped. "What's your name, girl?"
"Kitsuda Mari," she answered stiffly. "Daughter of Kitsuda Yasuhide. I already know who you are."
"Then don't anger me," he retorted smoothly. "Step aside."
"I'm not going to—"
"Mari-san, please," Akira said, pleading with her from his distance. "Don't fight with Himura-san."
"Shut up, coward. I'm not going to let him touch my brother." She moved to reach for him, but Kenshin snatched her arm. "Let me go! I won't let you hurt him!"
Sanosuke came forward at his friend's look, taking the girl's arm and pulling her back. "Shut up," he muttered. "He just save your life."
Eiji turned to Yahiko and asked quietly, "What happened to Himura-san? His speech suddenly changed."
The boy shook his head, rubbing his stomach which still hurt. "I don't know. I've seen him do that before, but…" He glanced at Kaoru sitting silently in the dust, and sighed.
Megumi instructed Eiji to go find the police then, and Yahiko looked after Tsuyoshi as the doctor moved to tend to Saitou's injuries. Kenshin dragged Haya, who was still cursing, and dropped him harshly beside the unconscious beast. "What the hell…" The youth cringed, trying to edge away, as Saitou's face was turned toward him. If those eyes opened, there would be nothing he could do to defend against the man's wrath. "You're not…gonna leave me…?" he breathed fearfully.
Kenshin unwound the wire from Saitou's wrist and began to walk away. "Pray the police get here before he wakes up."
Kaoru stared up at him, still struggling to find her courage. "What are you going to do?"
"Just a moment." He took Mari from Sanosuke and, despite her struggling, was able to pin her wrists behind her back. Sanosuke helped bind her with the wire. "Come on."
Akira stared, mentally bruised by Mari's harsh words and drained from all he'd witnessed. He'd worked hard to protect this girl, but it would all be worth nothing if she was taken from him again. "Himura-san," he stated quietly, "if Saitou-san wakes up, he'll kill them."
Kenshin didn't reply. He continued to lead her toward where her brother already lay, struggling against his bindings. Akira took a moment to examine Saitou, wondering if he would truly awaken and end these two lives. He didn't want that to happen. Faced with that realization an emotion resembling courage rose in him. He snatched Mari's kodachi from the street and stood between Kenshin and his destination, holding the weapons at ready. "Stop," he commanded somewhat shakily. "Take your hands off her now."
The samurai regarded him with blank indifference, seeing no threat in the youth's trembling hands and incorrect stance. "Do you want to fight?" He adjusted the sword at his hip.
"If I have to. Isn't that the samurai way?"
Kenshin's eyes bore into him like daggers. "You knew of this," he snarled. "You knew they were going to kill her and you did nothing. You came to tell Saitou his wife was dead, but you didn't try to help her, did you? There's no blood on you. You were afraid." He flung Mari down, and she yelped as her head continued to throb.
Akira stared at Kenshin, then Mari, caught with indecision. His hands trembled around the handle of the short swords. He admitted to himself that he was afraid; he hadn't wanted to see the corpse of the woman he helped to kill. And he knew he as afraid now, faced with this man of impossible skill. He wasn't a fool, but for Mari's sake he thought somehow he'd manage.
"Don't bother." He was startled when he realized that Mari had spoken. She was able to push herself onto her knees despite the limited use of her hands. "Don't do anything to him, Battousai. He can't hurt anything." And though her words implied that she was attempting to protect him, her voice contained nothing but scorn. She climbed to her feet, and moved with purposeful strides to her brother. She sat down beside him, much to his surprise. "Go ahead and turn us in. As daughter to a former member of the Shinsengumi, I deny not what I did and accept my father's fate with honor."
Sanosuke scowled. "Damn bitch. You think there's any honor in what you did?"
She didn't respond , and it was obvious that she wouldn't, either. Eyes turned to Akira, the last remaining antagonist. They waited to see what he might do. The kodachi slipped from his grasp and clattered to the ground, disturbing the silence. Fearfully he glanced at Kenshin, and the look he found in that man's face made his stomach lurch. He knew then that he had done something truly awful—he had not lifted a hand against Tokio or her children, but his sins were just as great. These people had taken him in, as a student and as a friend, and already he'd pushed them away. Even Mari wouldn't face him; he was a coward.
Akira dropped to his knees in the dust, hiding his face in his hands so that none of them could see his shame. The night rose up against him. Forgetting the people that stood by, he wept softly into his trembling palms.
Kenshin knelt between Haya and Mari then, as he was not yet finished with them. "Look at me," he instructed, and both did so hesitantly. Despite their pride both felt chills of fear. "You are both murderers now," he told them, and there was no anger in his voice. There was, however, a deep, unavoidable truth in his words, like the voice of some commanding spirit passing judgement against them. "I want you to remember these eyes, and Tokio-dono's eyes while she was dying, and Saitou's eyes when he hunted you. Because just when you think you've done enough, and when you think you've finally reclaimed some innocence, you'll remember all these eyes and then you'll know you're still evil. You cannot escape your guilt. Not ever. You'll never have honor. Your only salvation will be your suffering. Do you understand that?"
The two siblings stared at him, somewhat paralyzed by his short, penetrating speech. They knew he was right. They nodded, as their voices were too constricted to work.
Eiji returned then with the police captain following, and the officers swarmed over the scene. "Himura-san," the captain said, "can you tell me what happened here?"
"Yes." Kenshin turned his back on the pair and moved to join the captain. Now that the battle had ended he looked absolutely exhausted, and he walked with a slight limp. Kaoru watched him go, wanting to speak to him, but then she looked down at Akira, and decided there was something she had to do first. Usually Kenshin was the one to speak, to forgive or condemn with his quiet voice. But this one was her responsibility.
Akira flinched as a hand touched his shoulder, and with fearful curiosity he pulled his own hands away. Kaoru was crouched in front of him, her face very serious. He couldn't bare to look at her out of guilt. "Ka…Kaoru-sensei," he stammered softly. "I'm so sorry."
"'Sorry' won't help now," she replied with an equal tone. "Tokio-san won't come back." There tears in her eyes, and he hated himself for having caused them. "All this happened because of one life. I want you to remember that; maybe now my teaching makes sense to you."
He nodded weakly. "Yes, Kaoru-sensei."
"You're not my student anymore," Kaoru went on, though it hurt to say it. "Don't ever come back here, and never pick up a sword again. You're not suited for kendo."
She urged his head so that he would face her. "I'm sorry you became part of this, because I can tell that you didn't want to or plan for this to happen. But I also can't forgive you. Tokio-san was a good woman. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Kaoru-sen…" He swallowed hard. "I mean, Kaoru-san."
Kaoru looked away. It hurt to see that her student came to this. For a few days she'd felt finally complete, the way before her father died and the dojo had at least a few students. She liked being called "teacher". Now her student had betrayed her. Again.
"Excuse me, miss," one of the police officers asked politely. "Could I speak with you? Is this boy one of the criminals?"
Kaoru sighed, lowering her head. "I don't know much about what happened," she admitted, "but I'll tell you what I know."
The police questioned everyone there, and several more doctors were called to care for the injured. Though Kenshin would have preferred that Megumi look after him—simply on a matter of trust—he allowed one of the new physicians to clean and bandage the burns and lacerations on his back. It was during this that a well-dressed man with long hair came to speak to him. "Allow me to introduce myself," he said briskly, his manner one of dignity. "I am Kagewara Shinnosuke, assistant to the Secretary of Defense. I already know who you are."
Kenshin nodded, and thanked the doctor, who had just finished. The doctor left them to speak alone. "What is such an important official doing here?" he asked. By now his state of mind had settled along with the end of the battle, returning him again to the calm, polite wanderer. However, the more time in Kagewara's presence he spent, the more his mood dropped.
"Viewing the end of a long investigation," he replied. "The Night Wolves were a very substantial concern for us."
Kagewara nodded. "Yes. Actually, as cold as it may sound, the circumstances are almost fortunate." He pretended to ignore the shocked look on his company's face. "By taunting Saitou the Night Wolves summoned their own demise. They saved us a lot of trouble."
Kenshin stared at him in disbelief. "You…you could not have…"
"My superiors are pleased, and the Meiji government is secure. To those goals all means are acceptable." He appeared quite indifferent to the entire matter. I was assigned the problem of the Night Wolves, and I completed that task."
"You set them up. Akira mentioned you." His fists tightened involuntarily. "You convinced them to kill Tokio-dono, so that Saitou would go after them…"
"We never questioned his loyalty. Only his motivation."
"That…I cannot believe…" Kenshin felt his insides twisting. It wasn't fair; it was monstrous—was this government he'd fought so hard to create and defend? He wanted to rage and scream, but his spirit felt deadened by the emotional blows dealt him that day, and he could not speak his frustration and injustice. His voice barely reached a whisper. "He threw his entire life away for your cause, and you still betrayed him?"
Kagewara watched him with indifference. "But you know the way the world works, Himura-san. You know governments are cruel because they have to be to preserve themselves. We understand that perfectly. One life or many? That's the question, now isn't it? I may not be sentimental, but I can at least see logic." He started to leave.
"Kagewara," Kenshin called him back. "What will happen now?"
"Who knows?" He shrugged, as if it didn't really matter. "The three will be tried as murderers, but not as Night Wolves, which is the greatest leniency I can show them. Saitou-san will return to duty if he so wishes to. Even if he kills me, someone will take my place, so I hope for his sake he acts intelligently. Other than that, it's up to him." He tucked his arms into his coat, and started to go again. "Excuse me, now."
This time Kenshin didn't call him back. He laid his hand over his face, willing himself to endure. He stayed that way until the police had gone with their captives, and Kaoru knelt beside him. "Kenshin?"
"I am all right," he said softly, and she was very much relieved to hear his speech, though she did not mention the change. "I…am very tired."
"I know." She glanced up at the sky, where dark clouds were already beginning to father ominously on the horizon edges. "It looks like a storm is coming."
Kenshin nodded, then paused as a faint gasping of breath reached his ears. "Saitou is waking up," he said."
Sanosuke and Megumi had managed to turn the injured man onto his back, allowing for the treatment of the Amakakeruryuunohirameki's effects. Presently he began to cough weakly, and his caretakers backed off somewhat as his eyelids slowly lifted. Saitou stared straight above him, his expression dull perhaps from incomprehension. He only breathed slowly and licked his lips of blood. Several silent minutes passed that way. Finally, though his face did not change, he asked, "Where is my son?"
"He's here," Megumi answered just as softly, not wanting to disturb the spell that bound them all motionless. "He's been injured, but he'll live."
"I want to see him." Saitou tried to sit up, but all the muscles of his stomach and chest were bruised from the vicious attack, and he could manage no more than a few inches. After a still moment he locked his jaw and tried again, despite the pain forcing himself into a sitting position. His arms trembled as he held himself up. "Bring him here," he instructed stubbornly.
Megumi and Eiji helped bring Tsuyoshi over, and despite Saitou's protest Sanosuke urged him to lean against the dojo steps for support. His fatigue complied in the end. Tsuyoshi groaned softly as he was placed in his father's lap, and he began to awaken. Sanosuke and Megumi backed away.
"Tsuyoshi." Saitou touched the top of his head, waiting anxiously for the boy to regain full consciousness. His hands were trembling.
"F…Father?" Tsuyoshi opened his eyes, wincing at the pain in his back. "Is…it over now?"
"Yes. It's over now." He touched the boy's face and shoulders, as if assuring himself that his son was here and alive. Relief spread through him, though it had difficulty penetrating his battered and despairing center.
The son felt hot tears flowing from his eyes. "I…I couldn't save her," he whispered. "I wasn't strong enough."
Saitou's face contorted into a look of pain. "Neither was I." He pulled his son into his arms, holding him in sorrow and grief. Tsuyoshi let his tears run freely, but then quieted as a realization came over him: his father was crying, too. He couldn't see because Saitou's face was hidden in the boy's shoulder, but he could tell. He closed his eyes and clung to his father. For a long time they stayed there together, grieving the loss of the most precious person in their lives.
From that point on no one spoke. Yahiko left with Eiji and was gone for some time, returning with some clothes he'd apparently retrieved from Saitou's room at the inn. After having allowed the father and son time to mourn, Kenshin and Kaoru worked together to herd them and Eiji to one of the dojo's empty rooms. None of them saw the evidence of Saitou's tears. For the sake of his sons he did not resist the help in arranging beds for them, and then was left alone.
By that time the hour had progressed deep into the early morning, and everyone was exhausted. The storm clouds that had gathered overhead reminded them that they would have to settling things quickly before the rain hit. Only then did Kenshin speak. "Everyone, thank you for your help. Sano, Megumi-dono—you can return home now. We will watch them."
Megumi nodded, and she handed him a small jar. "Use this on your back," she instructed, though her voice was quiet. "Those burns could get infected easily, so take good care of them."
"Yes. Thank you."
Chapter 10: Epilogue
The first loud crash of thunder woke Kaoru from her sleep, much to her dismay; she'd lain awake for seemingly hours before accomplishing a state of fitful—though desperately needed—slumber. Now she was back at square one. Groaning discontentedly, she sat up and pulled more blankets around her, as the rain had made the air cold.
Lightening flashed, and Kaoru nearly leapt out of her skin. Scolding herself for being so foolish, she set upon returning to her sleep. But she couldn't. Her mind was filled with too many frightening images, and rest wasn't an option. Frustrated and distraught she wandered outside.
The rain was coming down lightly despite the harshness of the thunder. Kaoru followed nothing in particular, but ended up in the courtyard by the well. There she paused, coming upon an unexpected sight: Kenshin was there. He was leaning with his hands on the edge of the well, head bowed and coat shed to allow the rain of running down his back. He'd removed the bandages and she was surprised by how severe his burns looked. He hadn't noticed her yet. As she watched, he turned his head to the sky. There was a look in his face she'd not seen before.
"Kenshin…?" Kaoru stepped boldly into the rain, her shoulders dampening and feet splashing in the puddles. It made her shiver. "What are you doing out here?"
Kenshin turned to face her, a kind of soft smile creeping upon his face. "Oh, Kaoru-dono," he greeted. "I thought everyone had gone to bed."
"They did. I just couldn't sleep." She scrutinized him carefully. "Are…you okay?"
"Yes. Just thinking." He raised on hand, palm upward, letting the droplets collect on his skin. They rolled down his bare arms. "It is a cool rain, like snow. It feels good against the burns."
"Oh, yeah. Does it hurt?"
"No, not much." She couldn't tell if he was lying or not. "But…the thinking…"
Kenshin nodded, letting his hand fall. "We were a lot alike inside, I think. We both lived through hard rimes at the same age. I…" He sighed deeply in regret. "I would have liked to speak with her more."
"Yeah." Kaoru thought back to when Tokio had came to the dojo and stayed the day, and how open she'd been about her thoughts. It was impossible to think that such a lively woman could be ended in such a way. "I don't like Saitou very much," she said quietly, "but I can't help but feel sorry for him. This must be killing him…"
"Yes. I wonder what he would do if he knew…"
"Oh, nothing." He smiled grimly. "Saitou…he has survived a long time. He will yet survive."
She watched him, feeling a rise of sympathy for the man in question. "When you lose someone you care about," she whispered, "it really hurts."
Kenshin wasn't looking at her anymore. His eyes, full of secrets, turned again tot he cloud canopy above. "Yes. I know."
Several moments passed, and Kaoru knew he would not elaborate. "I know these feelings," he'd told Saitou, but no explanation would accompany that declaration. By now she was willing to accept his silence, for fear of raising more painful memories. Instead she tired to change the subject. "Well, I'm glad Tsuyoshi-kun is at least all right. I'm a bit worried, but he's a strong boy. I have a feeling that Yahiko will help."
"Yes. I think he will. But…" Kenshin faced her, his deep violet eyes reflection seriousness. "I need to ask a favor of you."
"It is important." His gaze faltered, dancing about the dampened scenery. "I have known you for over half a year, right?"
Kaoru nodded, not comprehending the change in subjects. "It feels like a long time."
"It does," he agreed. "To me, very long. In truth, I find it difficult remembering my life any other way." Kaoru felt herself blush a bit, then silently scolded her own foolishness. He continued. "You started it, Kaoru-dono. Had it not been for you, I would not still be here, and neither would Yahiko, Sanosuke, or Megumi-dono. It was you that brought us all together."
"That's not true," she protested, though she was surprised by his words. "It was you, Kenshin. All along it was you."
"It was your kindness that convinced me to stay," Kenshin reminded her. "But allow me to go on." Though his words were kind, his face was filled with restrained urgency. It was something she didn't understand yet. Why was he speaking so openly to her now?
"In these months, I have seen you do many things," he went on. "Some simple, like laundry and chores, and some amazing. I see a girl full of life and energy, and I envy that. I fight hard to protect that." He closed his eyes, indulging in a recent, terrifying memory. "Sometimes my strength is not enough. I am not always there when you need me. So please." When his eyes opened again they were only for her. "If you must fight, do so bravely. But please be careful. Leave my enemies to me, and take care of yourself. I…do not want to see that youthful energy taken from you."
Kaoru was speechless. She thought he must have been saying things to make her feel better, because he'd never said anything like this before. Her heart was beating a bit faster. His eyes, bright and full of sincerity, bore into hers. And…
"Kenshin, you don't have to say stuff like that," she blurted out, fleeing from the tension in their situation. "I know you're concerned, but I'm not that important, right?"
Kenshin blinked, surprised by her dismissal of the speech he'd spent nearly an hour preparing. "Kaoru-dono?"
"You need to worry about yourself," she went on, forced cheerfulness in her voice. "You're the important one. I don't do anything but get in the way for you, right? I can't even cook a decent meal."
He set his hands on her shoulders. He wanted her to stop—she hadn't understood what he'd been trying to tell her. More than that, what she was saying wasn't true. "Kaoru-dono, you know—"
"It's okay; you don't have to say anything. I know I'm not much of anything." Kaoru laughed weakly. "There's not much I'm good at. I can't even keep up my father's school." Her heart throbbed painfully, and her voice began trembling in shame and sorrow. "I've worked really hard, but it's no good."
"What happened is not in any way your fault," he told her firmly. "Akira chose to be a part of that."
"But I should have done something," she insisted. "My school teaches to protect life, not take it. If… if I had said one more thing, or… or something… then Tokio-san…" She felt tears invading her eyes, and she quickly wiped them away; she didn't want him to see another of her weaknesses. "But it doesn't do any good now. I was too late. If my father…"
She started as the backs of Kenshin's fingers brushed lightly against her cheek. He was watching her intently, his expression soft and understanding. "Kaoru-dono," he said slowly, "it is not your fault."
Kaoru stared at him, the rain soaking her hair and clothes. His too. She was trembling and a deep, painful sorrow rose in her throat. She began to cry. Ashamed of herself she hid her face in her hands—she had no right to cry when he was so brave.
Kenshin smiled faintly, ever so carefully pulling the girl into his arms. She stiffened, paralyzed the way she had been that night when he left her. He tried to remember when he had been so innocent. "Do not be afraid," he told her in a whisper, holding her head against his shoulder. "Please, cry."
Kaoru hesitated, but the warmth of his body and the strength of his arms quickly destroyed her embarrassment and shock. Clinging to his shoulders she let her tears flow freely, mixing with the cool rain. All her thoughts were in disorder now, but she could do nothing about it. There was only one thing clear in her mind. "Please don't go again," she sobbed, leaning against him as the cold water covered them both. "I don't think I could stand it."
Kenshin sighed, closing his eyes. She would never know how difficult it was for him those moments, the two of them together in the night. He was tentative in holding her, as her body felt remarkable delicate in his arms—like thin glass. Her warm contrasted pleasantly the weather's harsh chill. He reveled in being reunited with a woman's touch; but he was also afraid, as it awakened emotions and memories from a deepest of slumbers within his heart. The same memories that had driven him to the brink of reality hours before. Much of his life had passed without such joys and agonies, and being brought back to them now was something he had not expected. He realized then how lonely the past ten years had been, and how long.
"Kaoru-dono." After some time had passed he gently eased her back, as she had begun to shiver in the rain. "Let us escape this weather. I have one more favor to ask."
She nodded solemnly, and together they went to Kenshin's room in the dojo. Kenshin took off the extra coat of her sleep outfit and offered instead a warm blanket which she eager accepted. She sneezed, and he chuckled. "Crying in the rain seems redundant to me," he said with a smile. "I like being dry, better."
Kaoru nodded, sitting down on the tatami. "What did you want to ask me?" She tried to look cheerful; even though it had released many of her tensions to cry with him that way, now she felt more exhausted than ever.
"Simply this." Kenshin sat in front of her and displayed the medicine Megumi had given him. "She said for me to use this, but I cannot reach my own back easily. Would you?"
"Uh…sure. I mean, of course." She accepted the medicine hesitantly, and he turned around. "But, really, I'm not good at this."
"Just spread it over anything that appears to need it," he replied. "I trust you."
"Okay." Kaoru began as he had instructed, though she felt clumsy and awkward. Her hands were shaking with embarrassment. With a deep breath she held onto her courage. "Come on, Kaoru-chan," she could almost hear Tokio say. "Don't pass up this chance." With a bit of a rueful smile she applied the medicine, doing her best not to let her mind wander.
The task did not take long—not long enough for Kaoru, anyway. She was just beginning to relax when she realized he had no more skin for her to treat. "Oh, that's it," she said, disappointment carefully hidden. "Is…did that help?"
"Yes. Thank you." Kenshin turned to face her and smiled. "I appreciate it."
"It's nothing." She stifled a yaw, her fatigue reminding her of the hour. "Well, I suppose I should let you rest," she said. "It's late. Or early; I don't know."
"Of course; you seem tired as well." Kenshin stood and then helped her, there pausing to let their gazes mingle. Something twisted in his heart when he looked at her: her head was bandaged, outfit soaked and eyes a bit swollen from crying, but still all he could see was a beautiful young woman. A woman who had asked him to stay.
He would have to choose his words carefully. Hundreds of times before he'd spoken to people in a way meant to inspire and teach, to give insight, advice, or admonishment. This was a far different and infinitely more difficult matter for him.
"It is not a sin to love twice."
Kenshin took a deep breath. "Kaoru-dono," he stated slowly, "I want you to know that everything I said before I meant sincerely. I do not judge you by your cooking, or even your sword skill, but as a terribly caring person. I admire you for that."
He smiled, as her baffled innocence was enough to quell his anxieties. "Yes, I do. And I would regret living the rest of my life away from this place, never seeing the woman you will someday become." He moved closer, causing her to blush. "So please, let me stay. If only to do your laundry, I want to be here."
Kaoru's expression quickly morphed from stunned, to delighted, to embarrassed all at once. "You…you mean that?" she asked hopefully. "You won't go?"
Kenshin shook his head slowly. "No. I will not."
That may be the best I can do for her now, he thought to himself, silently cherishing the joy in her face. Perhaps one day I can do more. Or maybe…
Had Kaoru's eyes reflected any more of her happiness their shine would have outspoken the moon. He could not abandon such a chance, or such a perfect moment. Slowly, almost fearfully, he moved closer to her. As he'd expected she became very still, and did not resist or even flinch as he gently pressed his cheek to hers. Her skin was warm, a sensation that did not fail to affect him. "I will protect you," he told her in a whisper, successfully hiding the tremor in his own voice. "I will do anything. So please, live happily. That is all I ask."
Kaoru struggled to respond, but she found no words. She remained motionless as he stepped back once more. Then she nodded dumbly.
"Thank you. Now." Kenshin smiled. "It is late. I will make breakfast in the morning."
"Alright." She beamed, regaining her senses in a wave of delighted euphoria. "Good night, Kenshin. Thanks for everything. I'm sorry about that."
"Do not be. You took care of me, too."
He didn't think her grin could have been wider. She nodded, and with a final wave slipped outside. He could hear her bare feet tapping lightly as she ran back to her own room. Kenshin let his breath out in a deep sigh, preparing to sleep. That night he said a quiet prayer before letting his usual state of light sleep fall over him.
Thank you, Tokio-dono. I will not forget.
The next morning Kenshin prepared breakfast as he'd promised, but found them to be one place short: Saitou had left sometime during the night. Tsuyoshi and Eiji ate, silent despite both Yahiko and Kaoru's efforts to coax some conversation from them. Finally they settled into the stillness.
"Where's my father?" Tsuyoshi asked at one point.
Kenshin and Kaoru exchanged glances. "We're not sure," the latter admitted. "He left last night, but I'm sure he'll be back."
The boy nodded solemnly. After a silent moment he spoke again. "Where is my mother?"
This time the answer was longer in coming. Kaoru looked at him, his head bowed and hands clasped to his knees, and found no words. She looked to Kenshin for help. He shifted and was about to answer when the panel that led outside slid open. Saitou was there, dressed in simple clothes, and though his face bore no emotion his eyes were plagued with bags of sleeplessness, and his manner was one of tightly restrained pain.
"Father." Tsuyoshi stood very slowly, wincing at the pain in his back. "Where is Mother?"
"Being prepared," he replied. His voice was hoarse and weary. "She enjoyed this city. She'll be buried this afternoon."
Kenshin swallowed hard; it pained him to see this man reduced to such a state. In his heart, he did not want them to be enemies. "Saitou…"
"I have business today," Saitou went on. "Battousai."
He hesitated only a moment. "I want you to look after my two boys."
Kenshin nodded slowly. "Yes."
"Thank you." Without another word he turned and left.
The rain continued to pour throughout the funeral precession and the burial. Kaoru stayed close to Kenshin's side as Tokio's body was placed in the dampened earth, her eyes sad and brimming with tears. As Tsuyoshi and Eiji knelt before the grave in prayer she too prayed, wishing well the soul of so brave and spirited a woman. She felt Kenshin's hand take hers, and she wondered vaguely if it was for her comfort or his own.
The grave was covered. Kenshin took a deep breath, glancing about at the people who were there to witness the event. There were many people there mourning; he was surprised, as she hand not spent long in Tokyo. It was somewhat pleasing, however, to know that so many care for her. He looked to Saitou. The man's eyes were very distant, almost as if they were blind to the scene about him. Kenshin didn't understand how the man would not cry from his departed wife, unknowing that, in truth, he had done so alone. Even more startling and mysterious was that he had the boy Shiburo Akira with him. Akira's wrists were tied securely behind his back, the physical sign of the imprisonment that reflected in his face. He too was staring without true sight at the grave. Saitou's long fingers dug harshly into the boy's shoulder.
The grave mound was completed, and with a final prayer the mourners began to drift away. The two sons of the woman stayed, however, uncaring of the rain. Kaoru bit her lip, considering for a moment, then turned to Kenshin. "Can you share an umbrella with Yahiko?" she asked.
He nodded, understand. "Go ahead."
Kaoru moved over to the boys and knelt between them on the muddy ground. She held her umbrella over them. Eiji lifted his head first, his wide eyes swollen and filled with sorrow. "It's not fair," he said hoarsely, wiping his nose on his sleeve. "I lost my family again. I couldn't be like my brother."
"It's all right, Eiji-kun." With her free hand she urged him closer. "I know. It's not your fault."
The boy clung to her and cried, and Tsuyoshi turned dully to see what was happening. Kaoru invited him with a soft smile, welcomed him into her arms so that he could weep freely. Yahiko held both his and her umbrella to shield them from the rain.
Kenshin watched, smiling ruefully at the scene. Kaoru-dono…she is so caring…
"Hey, Kenshin." Sanosuke tapped his shoulder to gain his attention. "Megumi's volunteered to make us all lunch after she checks my hand."
"Alright. Go ahead back to the dojo, and Kaoru-dono and Yahiko and I will be there shortly to help."
"Don't worry about it." He glanced at Saitou briefly, debating on whether or not he should say something. Finally he merely sighed and shook his head. "See you later, okay?"
"Yes. Take care."
Kenshin waited until all the others had left before approaching Saitou. He'd spent much of the night before after Kaoru's departure as well as the morning trying to formulate some way of speaking to this man, but even now he knew all he could do was speak as they went. Silence between them, in his eyes, was not acceptable. He was also curious as to Akira's presence. He licked his lips and started. "Saitou—"
"You're a fool, Battousai," he interrupted before he could think of a full sentence. "I always knew you were a fool, but now I know you are even more so."
Kenshin stopped, startled and struggling to comprehend. "Maybe if I knew what you were referring to, I could defend myself."
Saitou nodded his head, indicating where Kaoru was huddled with Tsuyoshi and Eiji. He didn't have to say anything. Kenshin even admitted to himself that it seemed unfair that he be granted such a gift, undeserving and unappreciating, and his enemy's be taken. "I may be," he consented. "But Saitou—"
"I know you would try to do this," he interrupted once more. "I don't want to hear the preaching of a hypocrite. I don't need you to tell me how to live my life now. I never did."
The red-head nodded, bewildered. He quickly recovered his wits. "Granted. Did…you speak with Kagewara?"
"I didn't have to," Saitou said, his manner stiff and brisk. "I know now what they did to me."
He didn't answer at once. His hands twitched as if in want of a cigarette, and Akira winced just barely as the grip on his shoulder tightened. "I spoke to my superiors. After some persuasion they admitted to me what they did. It was all meant to destroy the Night Wolves." He paused again. "But now more than ever I must think of my sons. I won't kill Kagewara. I have no choice but to continue. Someday Tokio may forgive me for that."
"If it is for her son's sake, Tokio-dono will forgive you." Kenshin smiled grimly, though he was inwardly pleased. Saitou was acting more reasonably than he'd dared to expect. "What will happen to the boy?" He indicated Akira.
Akira lowered his head, choosing to answer for himself. "Imprisonment," he said quietly. "Three years. Hayato and Mari-san have seven."
He didn't know how to answer, but then Akira spoke again. "I wanted to be here to apologize to Tokio-san. And Kaoru-san. I won't want them to forgive me, but I wanted them to know that I regret what I did."
"They know. We all know."
The boy nodded, and Kenshin could see damp trails on his cheeks that weren't from the rain. Though Akira's fate saddened him, he knew that this outcome was unavoidable.
He lifted his head. "Yes?"
Saitou stared straight ahead as he spoke. "Our dual isn't finished. You were right about it not being fair. I will defeat you as an equal."
"Fine with me." This is something he needs. It will help if things do not change between us.
"Father." Tsuyoshi and Eiji approached, Kaoru and Yahiko lingering behind. "We're hungry," the former said quietly, wiping his eyes and nose. "Can we go?"
Saitou nodded, then turned to Kenshin once more. "Keep yourself prepared, then," he advised. "We'll meet again." He turned and began to leave, his two boys falling into step at his side and Akira in tow. They departed together.
"Do you think they'll be okay?" Yahiko asked, holding his hand out as the rain began to stop.
"They will be," Kenshin assured, wringing out his hair and shaking off his coat. "Saitou may not be the best of men, but he is smart and very strong. He will survive."
Kaoru nodded. "You're right. Shall we go back now?"
"Just a moment." Kenshin reached into his sleeve and pulled out a folded piece of paper. This he placed beside the gravestone along with the other gifts. "Behind every great samurai," he whispered, smiling faintly, "there should be a woman like you, Tokio-dono." Then he rejoined his friends. As they left the silent place a gentle wind stirred the paper, unfolding the seems to reveal the picture Kenshin had purchased that morning: a samurai family; father, mother, and two boys, dressed in handsome robes. Their eyes almost seemed to shine on the flat paper. In the corner, beside the author's signature, was a short message scrawled in somewhat messy handwriting:
A gift from God.