A/n: Many thanks to Angel/Ms. Wyrr for assisting in the writing of the letters. She played Kenshin!
Dear Miss Kaoru,
It has been some time now and I am beginning to understand why you sent me away. Freedom is very strange to me still and sometimes it hurts, but there are many other people here like me, in one way or another, and being together makes it less strange. Most of the people here are kind but some of them are still very confused, and others think that freedom means that they should be masters now, and hurt other people. I have met some of them but I have made friends, too.
It is difficult and confusing and I didn't like it at first. I wondered why you didn't want to keep me. But the other day I was fishing with my friend Makoto and as we sat together he said something and I laughed. I realized that I was happy. I was happy when I was with you but this was a different kind of happiness, and I don't think I could have felt it if you had kept me. I decided to find paper and write to you then. Ms. Yuriko at the freedman's school helped me. I want you to know that I am alive and well and I have received the gift you wanted to give me when you set me free.
I hope that you and Yahiko are well. I hope that this letter reaches you. You don't have to respond but it would be nice to hear from you.
He woke up, and, for a split second, couldn't remember his name. Then it floated to hand, easy as breathing.
Kenshin. My name is Kenshin.
Kenshin opened his eyes, shivering in the cold air. The fire had died down in the night, leaving only cooling embers. He pushed the blanket back reluctantly; then he remembered that it was his blanket, and he could do what he wanted with it. So he wrapped it around his shoulders and padded over to the fireplace, crouching to build the remaining cinders back into a flame. It was nice to watch the fire crackling greedily along the dry winter wood as it flickered back to life. He watched it for a few minutes, fighting the unease in his belly that demanded he do something.
He didn't have to do anything. It was winter, and there were no more crops to harvest. He'd already done his turn hunting this week, and added to the common woodpile, and Makoto wouldn't want to go fishing until after noon. There was the little school to go to, if he wanted to, but he didn't have to. He could stay here and watch the fire all morning, if he wanted.
No one would be angry if he did. Nothing bad would happen. He wouldn't get hurt.
Kenshin kept remembering that, watching the fire until his gut knotted so tightly that he couldn't stay still any longer.
Then he stood, folding his blanket neatly on the cot, and bundled up to go outside. But before he left he unfolded his blanket and let it crumple along the bedding, taking up space.
It had snowed in the night. The air was crisp and cold, biting at the tip of his noise, and the hard white crust crunched and crackled underfoot. He was up before almost everyone else, again. The mess hall was empty, no smoke rising from the kitchen chimney. He didn't mind. It was nice, being alone in the white, piney silence. Quiet made it easier to remember who he was.
My name is Kenshin.
Kenshin slid into the mess hall and went to build the fire. No one had thought to leave wood inside, so he had to go out to the pile. It hadn't been covered, and the wood was damp. It would take a long time to get the fire going. For a moment, he was irritated. The knot in his gut lurched forward and his limbs shook. His breath came hard, panting out white smoke into the winter air.
He sat down, leaning against the woodpile, and breathed slow and careful like he'd learned to. The slow seep of damp against his skin pinned him, held him steady as he very deliberately thought what he wanted to think, silently mouthing the words.
People were sometimes careless, because the mess belonged to everyone, so they felt that someone else would take care of it. And that was wrong, because it made other people have to do more work than they should, which wasn't fair, and that made him –
Made him –
It was all right to be annoyed. The mess hall was his, too.
He swallowed hard against the strain building behind his eyes. Then he stood up, still aching, and gathered wood for the fire.
Kenshin was stirring a pot of soup when the door to the mess hall opened and shut again. He turned to see Soujiro limping in, rubbing at his legs. The cold made them hurt. Makoto was right behind him, unwinding his long wool scarf.
"Morning, Kenshin." Makoto blinked. The unscarred half of his face creased into a frown. "Isn't it Sousuke's turn to cook?"
"I don't mind," Kenshin said. Then he replayed what he'd just said, and brightened. The 'I' had come out cleanly, without caveat, and hadn't tangled his tongue as it sometimes did. "I like cooking."
Makoto looked at him for a moment, approval glinting in his single coal-black eye. He'd noticed it, too.
Kenshin took a moment to examine what he'd said, turning inward. Cooking was – was Sir Hiko's strong hands shaping his small fingers around the knife-handle, showing him how to cut against the grain. It was Yahiko telling stories as he chopped haphazardly at vegetables, laughing, but not at him. And it was Miss Kaoru standing nearby, steady as the north star.
"Yes," Kenshin said finally. "I like cooking."
"All right, then." Makoto settled into one of the chairs. "Sousuke should pay you back, though, the lazy sod. Tell me if he makes a fuss."
The rest of the camp – those who didn't want to stay at home to cook, anyway, which weren't many on a cold morning like this – trickled in slowly, including Sousuke. He'd overslept. He apologized once, and that was all right, but then he kept doing it and Kenshin had to pretend that he needed more firewood and go outside until his heart stopped beating in his throat. When he came back in, Makoto had involved Sousuke in a conversation, and no one bothered Kenshin again. Soujiro did the dishes, because it was his turn.
Kenshin stepped out of the mess hall just as the supply cart was pulling up. It came by once a week or so, with mail and things that they couldn't make themselves, though less often now that it was so cold and snowy.
"I'll bring the mail in," Soujiro said. Kenshin let him, because he and Makoto were supposed to go fishing. He went back to his little cabin – just one room, very small, but he knew it was his because he'd built it himself, with some help – and gathered up his gear. When he passed by the mess again, on the way to the lake, Soujiro flagged him down.
"There was a letter for you." Soujiro handed it over, trying not to look too curious.
Kenshin held it delicately. The seal on the back had the same crest as his armguards, so he knew right away who it was from. His heart was racing again, and his head felt light and strange, but it didn't hurt.
"Thank you," he remembered to say, and tucked the letter inside his coat.
Makoto was waiting at the lake, fishing rod over his shoulder. They didn't talk as they set out across the ice. The sun gleamed across the uneven surface, shimmering in random, distorted patterns, and sometimes they had to shield their eyes. The forest around the lake was sleeping, its barren branches yawning towards the sky.
It was Kenshin's turn to pick the fishing spot. He tried to focus on that, and not the letter sitting snug inside his coat. But he probably didn't pick a very good one.
"I got a letter," he said, after they'd dropped their lines. The water in the hole they'd made was still, smooth as glass and very dark. Things were alive in it, he knew: silver fish and insects and water plants, all alive and thriving deep below the ice.
Makoto raised his eyebrows, or tried to. He only had the one: the other half of his face was all tight, gnarled skin, thick with scars and half-burying his clouded, dead left eye.
Kenshin hesitated, uncertain. Makoto didn't like Miss Kaoru. Makoto didn't like any of the masters, which made sense; but Miss Kaoru wasn't one of them, not really, and sometimes the way Makoto reacted to Kenshin talking about her made Kenshin uneasy. But he wanted to tell someone, and he didn't have anyone else to tell.
"Really?" Makoto shifted, jangling his line. "Are you going to read it?"
"…I want to." Kenshin said it very small, but that was all right, because he'd said something that he wanted. Makoto glanced up, giving a slight nod.
"If you want to," he said simply, "then you should."
When they were done fishing he went to the school and asked to borrow the big dictionary, the one that Ms. Yuriko kept locked safe her desk because it was the only dictionary in the camp and they couldn't afford another if it got ruined. She let him borrow it – she always let people borrow it, which was how you knew she was only locking up the dictionary and not the words inside it. He took it to a desk and opened the letter, reading very slowly and looking up any words he didn't understand, because he wanted to get it right.
I'm glad that you're well. Yahiko and I are as healthy and as safe as anyone in Edo is. I'm sorry that it took so long to write, but we have been very busy. I've been helping Dr. Oguni at the clinic and with the freedman's camps that have been established here, and things are so frantic that most days I fall asleep as soon as work is done. There are thousands of refugees coming to the city, and there is some fighting on the outskirts between the imperialists and the shogun's forces, but by and large we aren't important since the shogun fled the city so it's nothing too serious.
We have a few families living here now: Mr. and Mrs. Nakamoto and their grandchildren, Akiko and Yoshi; Mr. Tanaka, a widower, and his young daughter Mariko; and Yutaro, Mayumi, and Daisuke, who have all lost their parents. Ayame and Suzume have pretty much moved in, too, since the clinic is so busy that Dr. Oguni has no time to take care of them. They're very happy to have so many new friends. Yahiko is progressing well in his studies and has asked me to pass on his regards and well-wishes.
I am writing because I want you to know that I didn't give you anything. I returned something that was always yours, that had been stolen from you and was never mine to hold in the first place. Please don't feel that you're indebted to me. I am so very, very happy to hear that you are healthy and that you have a friend who makes you laugh. I hope that you will laugh again, often, with friends always beside you.
I was glad to hear from you. Thank you.
Kenshin bit down on his lower lip, thoughtfully rather than hard, and twirled the calligraphy brush absently between his fingers. Unfortunately, he'd put ink on it – something he'd forgotten in his intense contemplation of the blank page before him – and it splattered across his face, propelled by the inexorable laws of the physical universe. He sputtered, wiping at his cheek, and succeeded only in leaving a smear of ink across his cheekbone.
"…oro…" he muttered, blotting the pen clean and re-inking it. He took a deep breath, centering himself.
Then he started to write.
Dear Miss Kaoru,
Almost a year has passed since I received your letter. I apologize for taking so long to write, but I wanted to write this letter myself, without help, and it took some time to recover the skills that I once had. I hope that everything is still as well as you described it, though I hope you are not working yourself so very hard now. I have carried your letter with me through days filled with dangers and new challenges, but each their measure of gladness too. I did share it with my friend. I hope that's all right? Makoto didn't believe what you'd said until he saw it for himself. When other freed people get letters, they're from family or friends searching for each other. Those who receive word from a former master in a freed province unerringly report it is an offer that they return to their former position – not in name, but in conditions little improved except for a nominal wage. I'm sorry to say that there are those who do return, though many more who tear the letters up or have someone transcribe for them a response containing all the words they would never have survived speaking to their master before the war began.
Kenshin paused, uncertain. Makoto still hadn't exactly believed, even after he'd seen it written in plain language: he'd only frowned, his scars tugging at his skin, and said that she shouldn't expect people to praise her for common decency. Kenshin hadn't thought that Miss Kaoru had been trying to say that at all, but it was hard to talk to Makoto when he got into one of his black moods, and by the time Makoto had come out of it there was no point bringing the matter up again.
Should he tell all that to Miss Kaoru?
He thought about it, chewing on the wooden end of the brush, and decided not to. Makoto had probably figured out on his own that Miss Kaoru wasn't doing anything like that, and anyway he didn't want to worry her by carrying tales. He'd talk about something else, instead.
Those who return – would you be disappointed to know I do not blame them? It is difficult to find work, even for those of us who are strong. And there are many here who have no surviving friends or family. Not all were subjected to the same cruelties as I was, and no few of them seem to feel some real affection for their former masters and their kin. I do not blame them for that, either. I have come to understand that people are not meant to live as I was made to, without friends or family or common feeling, and in the absence of such extremities as I was subjected to they will find kinship with one another even under conditions of slavery. In some ways it is frightening to consider – if I had been ruled with kindness, and not cruelty, would I be free today? – but it also gives me hope to know that the bonds of human fellowship are not so easily extinguished. Is that strange?
I'm lucky. I have my freedom and the knowledge of your friendship, too. And young Yahiko's as well! Please thank him for sending his regards. I'm glad to know of his progress. He is truly a student after your own heart: you cannot be aware of the full extent of his kindness to me when I lived there, for he did not do it for your eyes or your benefit. Perhaps one day I can acquaint you with more on that account. He did much for me, from whom he could expect nothing in return. Please tell him the memory of his friendship has been received and grown within me as I have grown more able to be a friend. I would ask also to be remembered to Ayame and Suzume, who are doubtless growing to be fine young women.
Kenshin read the last paragraph again, wondering if it was too much. It was true, though. He had Miss Kaoru, when so many people in the camp didn't have anyone. Miss Kaoru, and the little green frogs hidden in the hems of his clothing. He'd never told Makoto about the frogs. It didn't seem right. That was something secret, a promise made just to him, and sometimes when he went to bed with his head still aching and his hands trembling, he would twist his shaking fingers around the embroidered cloth as he closed his eyes and dream of gentle hands stroking his hair.
He ducked his head, although there was no one to see the blush heating his face, and tried to remember what else he'd wanted to talk about.
This is a very long letter and perhaps very unbeautiful; I have scrounged together paper from wherever I could find it. Mostly from the ladies at the freedmen's school (why do they call everything that, when there are freedwomen too?) where I have been taking classes at night. They tell us that we must be educated in order to maintain our freedom, and I do believe them. There are so many questions about what the world should become, and none of us feel equipped to answer them! Most of us were taught little more than the most basic tasks. Some of the men are educated, though, having been secretaries or assistants, and they know things I am only just beginning to understand. You should hear Makoto talk with them about an Englishman named Marx! It is very confusing.
For example, it seems to me from listening to the others talk that some redress is necessary for all our years of unpaid service. If we are given nothing but our freedom, how can we maintain it? We have no savings to draw on as we establish ourselves. We have been taken from our kin and the material care they can provide. The freeborn have their families, their possessions, their conviction of their freedom and the conviction of people around them.
And yet I worry – will it hurt someone like you, who has done so much already? Makoto shakes his head when the subject arises and says that the worst of the masters will escape fair punishment, and that most of the burden will fall on those like you, who never held more than one or two slaves and might lose much of what they have to pay the wages owed by those wealthier than they. I am not sure how this can be, but he is a much quicker study at this than I and I believe his words. So even though it strikes me as just, how can I ask such a thing, knowing that those least guilty will bear the greatest burden? Especially in your case, when you never asked for the position you were put in. You, of all people, do not deserve to be punished for the choices you had to make. Although perhaps I am overly biased in that respect; Makoto certainly seems to think so.
There. Now she would know that he was learning things, too, learning more every day. He hadn't quite gotten to the point where he did more than listen to the talk in the mess hall at dinner, but that was more than he'd been able to do a few months ago. He could listen, and understand. Most of it, anyway. Most of the time.
But he wasn't ignorant any longer, and it seemed important that she know that. He thought about things, and tried to figure them out – he didn't let other people do it for him. She would be happy about that, and the thought of her happiness made him warm inside.
Kenshin frowned, re-reading what he'd written. Maybe it wasn't quite right, to talk about money so much, even though this was an important, topical issue and he wanted her to know that he'd thought it over carefully, like a man would. But he didn't have enough paper to redo it on.
He dipped the brush in ink again and kept writing, hoping that she would understand.
I suppose this all weighs heavy on my mind because there is talk in the camp of some of the men going to join the fighting, and I think my friend Makoto will be one of them. He is encouraging me to go with him, and in some ways I want to, except that I have had my fill of killing. Perhaps it is selfish, but I do not wish to take even one more human life, even for the best of reasons, even if that life deserves to be taken. I think that some part of my heart would break beyond repair if I did. Maybe it is a kind of cowardice, too. But I truly feel that I could not bear it.
Please don't be concerned by all my nattering here, Miss Kaoru! I do not expect you to tell me what to make of all of it. I know that these are things I have to work out for myself. I feel a burden lifted in writing to you, though. I hope you do not mind receiving my ill-written words – my calligraphy remains quite rudimentary, very much to the displeasure of the ladies at the freedmen's school! – it gives me a sense of peace to be able to write them to you. I am lucky in so many ways, and you are large part of that.
Kenshin hesitated again, not sure if he should keep going. Maybe he'd already said enough – but really, all he'd done was thank her, so far, not said how very much deeper than thanks it went. How much he hoped for her safety; how much he looked to the day that he could come home to her a man, and show her everything he'd accomplished.
He kept writing.
I send these words to you in the spirit of all my prayers for you, that you be always happy and in good health.
Maybe he shouldn't have closed with 'warmly' – maybe it was too casual, but – well, he had, and there was no space left to undo it. So Kenshin folded the letter up, all three ragged pages of it, sealed it, and went out to set it in the box with all the other letters in the mess hall, waiting to be picked up the next time the cart came by. Mayu the cat was curled up nearby her calico tail tucked over her bright pink nose. He spared a moment to pet her and she uncurled with a long stretch, acknowledging him, before settling back down.
Then he went out to the fields. The frost had finally broken, and the ground needed to be churned and softened for the planting to come. It was hard work, but not bad, and even kind of fun with everyone working together. Sometimes it made his chest hurt to be around so many people, but sometimes he could stay the whole day out in the field and walk home with everyone, smiling as they laughed and looked forward to dinner.
Today was one of those days, a good day, and Kenshin couldn't help thinking that there had been more good days than bad in the past month or two. That was a nice thing to think, and it buoyed him up so that during dinner, he made a joke. A few people even laughed.
People didn't always leave the mess hall after they ate. Sometimes they stayed, talking and playing games and making music, and today had been a good day so Kenshin stayed, too, tucking himself into a corner just on the edge of the fuss. After a little while Soujiro came to sit next to him. He liked Soujiro; Soujiro was quiet and calm, and understood things. They sat together, not needing to talk, and watched the rest having fun. The air was warm, laden with good cooking scents and bright pine burning in the hearth.
That was why Kenshin was there when the hall door opened and Sir Hiko came in, carried on the moist spring air. He froze as Sir Hiko looked around, caught and torn with the impulse to hide, or stand up, or run, and mostly wanting to do all three at once. His heart hammered in his throat, blood rushing thick and dizzy through his too-tight veins.
Makoto stood up. There was a cold, sardonic look in his eyes, and Kenshin should have been reassured by it but he wasn't. It only made him feel sick. Makoto worried too much about people, and the last thing he wanted was him and Sir Hiko fighting.
"Can I help you?" Makoto asked, crossing his arms.
"I'm sorry to intrude." Sir Hiko's voice rumbled like the echoes in the mountain, and his eyes swept the room again. "I'm looking for someone – a member of my family. A student. I was told I might find him here."
My family. It hurt to hear, more so because it was so unexpected. He'd wondered, sometimes, what he would say to Sir Hiko if they ever met again. And what Sir Hiko would say to him.
"What's their name, and what do you want with them?" The challenge hadn't gone out of Makoto's stance. Kenshin started to get up, pausing with one foot flat on the floor and trembling with uncertainty. Soujiro gave him a curious look.
"His name is Kenshin." Sir Hiko gave Makoto a single, assessing glance. His lip quirked upwards in amusement, which didn't mean anything, but Makoto didn't know that and it was only making him angry. "And the rest is his business and mine, not yours."
Makoto started to say something, and Kenshin stood up.
"I'm here, sir," he said, and knew by the look in Sir Hiko's eyes that he'd known perfectly well where Kenshin was. "Um. Hello."
"Kenshin." Sir Hiko nodded. "You look well." There was a question in his eyes, half-formed and all unspoken. Kenshin kept his breathing even, trying not to shake under all the eyes watching him, Makoto's hardest of all.
"It's been a long year, sir."
"Is there somewhere we can talk privately?" It was a soft question, and Kenshin's heart fell from his throat to pound against his ribs instead, a little more slowly now.
"My cabin." He planted his feet firm against the wooden floor, keeping his back straight even as his stomach knotted hard against his spine. "Um. Though it's a little small…"
"That's all right." Sir Hiko almost seemed to smile. "It will do."
If reports of what they are now calling the Second Battle of Edo haven't reached you yet, they will soon, so I will preface my letter with this: Yahiko and I are fine, as are all our boarders, and the dojo is a bit battered but not too seriously worse for the wear. Yahiko was cut, but it's not serious and is healing well; soon he will have a very impressive scar to show off to Tsubame. I suffered a broken wrist and a few bruises, but the break was on my left hand, so I have been able to resume most of my work without serious inconvenience. None of the children were hurt or too badly frightened and they are all making much of Yahiko, who is the hero of the hour. Yahiko was glad to hear that you remember him fondly, and I have enclosed a letter from him.
I suppose I should tell you about the children. Because we have the space and ready caregivers, the dojo has taken in so many lost children that I'm beginning to think I should change the sign to 'Kamiya Orphanage' and be done with it! On top of that, many of the neighborhood children come here while their parents are occupied, to play and for what schooling we can give them in the midst of this war, and so we are full to bursting almost every day. It is wonderful to see the children running and playing together, freed and freeborn alike. It makes me think, perhaps, that even if the older generation cannot fully overcome their prejudices, there is still some hope for the new one.
Yahiko and I take turns looking after the children and helping at the clinic, so I don't work entirely alone. He is really becoming a man now, and I know that his parents are smiling down on him. I couldn't be prouder of him.
Ayame and Suzume do remember you, and speak of you fondly. Though it seems they mostly remember your red hair; it took me a moment to realize who 'Big Brother Strawberry' was when I remembered you to them. They are indeed growing well, and rather like weeds. I only need to turn my back for a moment and they've shot up another inch! Ayame has reached the age where she can help with the younger children, and does so cheerfully. Suzume, of course, wants to do everything that her big sister does and it's very sweet to watch them herding the littlest ones around like mother hens with chicks, full of self-importance and deep concentration.
I don't think it's selfish of you to wish never to take another life. Nor, I think, is it cowardice, for you have faced far deeper darkness and overcome it. Of course, the teachings of my school color my feelings on the matter and so I am not without prejudice. It's your decision, and whatever choice you make will be the right one, because it will be yours. Still, I'm certain that your decision, whatever it is, will not be made out of fear or selfishness.
The question of reparations is a subject of some debate here in Edo as well, and I personally support the idea. Circumstances aside, the cold truth is that I held you as my chattel and benefited from your labor, and you are owed recompense for it, and for what you suffered at Kanryu's hands. And truthfully, a reparation tax would reduce the burden on me by sharing it out proportionately, for as you know most of my family's wealth is in the land we hold, not income. But whatever happens, you must not fear on my account. I will make do; you should believe and act as your conscience dictates.
I don't mind that you shared this correspondence with your friend. I'm glad that you have a friend whom you hold dear and who cares for your well-being. I am saddened, though not surprised, to hear that some former masters seek to coax freedmen back into their service, for even here in Edo I hear former masters grumbling about ingratitude and treachery. It seems that old habits die hard and badly. But then I think of the children, and how easily they accept one another, and I cannot but have faith that the future will be a little brighter. We're all human, after all, and without the brands there's no way to tell freeborn from freedman. In a generation or two, perhaps we will be only Japanese.
I am honored that you remember me so kindly – though I do hope you know that I need not be 'Miss' to you now, or ever again.
I wish you every happiness,
Kenshin read the letter once more, his eyes lingering on her last sentence – I need not be 'Miss' to you now, or ever again – and smiled. Makoto watched silently as Kenshin folded the letters up and slid them into his sleeve, leaving Yahiko's letter for later.
"You're not going to read the other one?"
"Not now." Kenshin tucked crossed his arms, tucking his hands in their opposite sleeves. "Didn't you say it was best to get in line early? I can read the rest while we wait."
It was hard to keep the grin off his face, although he knew that he must look a bit of an idiot. Knowing that Miss Kaoru – that Kaoru – was safe was good; knowing that she saw him as a man and an equal – her name, she wants me to use her name – made him feel warm and bright, like a small child. Makoto snorted, somewhat amused.
"Was it good news, then?"
Kenshin nodded. "They came through the battle safely. Miss – Kaoru is well, and so are Yahiko and all the rest. Thank you," he said, as they stepped out of the inn to the frantic bustle of Kyoto's streets. "For making sure the letters found me."
Makoto shrugged. "I know it's important to you."
They were staying near the military headquarters, for convenience's sake. Crowds hurried back and forth, some in uniform and many not, while the bright summer sun beat down overhead. The air was rich with incense rising from the temples and Kenshin focused on that, seeking calm in the middle of all the bustle. It was easier if he paid attention on just one thing at a time, especially when there was a lot going on.
Sir Hiko had left last night, citing a general disinterest that Kenshin knew to be a lie. It was more that they both knew it was time for Kenshin to walk somewhere on his own, and Sir Hiko was ever an enemy of sentiment. Still – and Kenshin briefly touched the blade resting on his hip – Sir Hiko had his own ways of saying the things that mattered, and he'd said them quite clearly.
The headquarters were emptier than Kenshin had expected. He gave Makoto a quizzical look.
"It's not the line," Makoto said, taking up a resigned slouch, "it's the time. Hurry up and wait."
"Oh." One of the secretaries noticed them and hurried over to find out their business; Kenshin told him, and he scurried away and back again, bearing paperwork. Kenshin filled it out as quickly as he could, stumbling only once or twice. The secretary reclaimed the paperwork and rushed off again, leaving Kenshin and Makoto to wait.
"You're sure you don't want to join a combat unit?" Makoto glanced significantly down at the sword at Kenshin's side. "We could use you."
"That would be why." Kenshin heart beat a little faster as he held his ground, but this was Makoto and he wasn't really afraid, just remembering being afraid. "I'm a little tired of being useful in combat."
"…right." Makoto looked away. "Sorry."
"It's all right." Kenshin's heart slowed down to something almost normal, and he decided to claim it as a victory. It was getting easier. One day, maybe, he wouldn't worry about it at all –
Even if you don't, he heard Sir Hiko rumbling, there is no shame in having limits, only in believing that those limits define you.
"But you're still going to carry a sword?" Makoto had that look on his face again, narrow and creased and slightly perturbed at the world's failure to act according to his beliefs. Kenshin nodded.
"This sword isn't meant for killing," he said simply, and unsheathed the first few inches. "See?"
The light filtering through the windows gleamed along the reverse-forged blade, showing it to be blunted where the cutting edge should be. Makoto eyed it for a moment, then shrugged again.
I will, Kenshin couldn't quite bring himself to say, although he knew that Makoto wouldn't mind and it would have been a bit clever if he did, and he liked being clever. Instead he smiled, and took out Yahiko's letter.
You jerk! I'm the one who told you to write us, why didn't you write me when you did Kaoru? Honestly.
Kaoru probably already told you that I got a little hurt during the battle. It was a stupid mistake; I forgot to watch his other arm and he had a hidden knife. I'm more embarrassed than hurt, but you know how Kaoru gets about this stuff. So I'm stuck in my room getting fussed over while Kaoru works herself too hard. Although things are a little easier with all the people we've got living here, even if most of them are kids. Extra hands and all.
Anyway, the whole thing got me thinking. You saved my life, that time I fell off the cliff, and I never really thanked you for it. So thanks for that, and for earlier, when you dealt with those thugs, and before that when you pulled that police officer off me. I guess there's a lot that I should be thanking you for. You really looked out for me. I haven't forgotten.
I've tried to keep the garden going, although I kinda lost the peonies and had to replace them with daisies, like you originally wanted. I want to try replanting them, but I'm not sure what to do differently this time. Can you tell me? The rest of the plants are doing okay, and it's been really nice not to have to buy all our own herbs. If I have time, I want to get another plot cleared and grow a few more vegetables. All we've got is that squash plant right now, which I'm pretty sure wouldn't die even if you killed it. Kaoru says it's been around ever since she can remember. Squash gets kind of boring after a while, though, and it's been hard with wartime prices and all these kids to look after. The neighbors help out, but I don't like relying on them too much. I should be able to look after my family, you know? I mean, I'm going to be fifteen in a few years. I'm almost a man.
Anyway, aside from the same stuff everyone's dealing with because of the war, things are pretty good here. How about you?
Write back soon,
Kenshin's smile had deepened by the end of it, and it stayed on his face as he went through the rest of the military rigmarole. That night, before bed, he wrote them both back.
I had heard about the battle, and I was worried, even though I know that you and Yahiko can take care of each other. I'm very glad to hear that no one was seriously hurt, and that the house and school are still intact. It is a balm to my heart to know that you are all safe.
It made Kenshin blush a little to write it, but that didn't make it any less true.
A great deal has changed since the last time I wrote to you. The day I wrote my previous letter, Sir Hiko arrived in at the freeman's camp to visit me. We spoke longintothenight and forgive me, for I do not think I can fully explain what passed between us; suffice to say that we understand each other a little better now, and while perhaps I should feel more bitterness than I do, my heart tells me that to forgive or not is my choice, and I choose to forgive.
He also brought with him a gift for me. A sword, forged in reverse, so that the back is sharpened and what should be the cutting edge is blunted. It was forged specially; there are no others like it in Japan. For all his faults, he is still my teacher and my nearest kin save yourself, if you will permit the liberty, and he still knows me as few others do.
Sir Hiko also brought with him an invitation from Tomoe's father, Mr. Yukishiro. Mr. Yukishiro wanted to meet with me, if I was willing to travel to him, for his health is very bad and he is largely confined to his bed. I decided, after some thought, to see him, and Sir Hiko and I left the camp together. It wasn't that I wanted to see Mr. Yukishiro so much as that I felt that I had to. Tomoe died trying to help me. Perhaps, had I been a little quicker, a little more clever, she might not have had to pay that price.
Kenshin had to stop there, for a little while, and stared out the window at the gathering dark. Lanterns were lighting one-by-one, like distant fireflies. The sun had already sunk below the horizon, and its pale copper light was fading fast over the mountains. He lit a candle, and kept writing.
It is very strange to go half your life believing you have wronged someone beyond bearing, only to discover that it is they who feel they have wronged you. I had thought that he would resent me, at least a little, but his grief was as for me as much as for his daughter. It helped us both, that meeting, and he allowed me to read Tomoe's diary, which answered several questions I had not known to ask.
He paused again, wondering how much to tell. Maybe this was enough. The memory was still tender, like a half-healed wound finally free of infection: to know, finally, what had happened and more importantly why.
He wanted to tell Kaoru about it, one day. But – not in a letter. A letter was too cold. One day, after this was over, when they would sit side-by-side on the porch drinking tea, and he could tell her all the things he wanted to tell her. How much he missed her. How much he thought of her. How much she meant to him – and how much he wanted to mean to her.
His son, Tomoe's younger brother, was not there. Did I ever tell you that she had a younger brother? After her death, he blamed Kanryu and ran away to join the abolitionist cause. He has kept in touch with his father only sparingly, but apparently he's a member of the intelligence division. I suppose it's unlikely that we'll meet, since I'll be at the front.
After meeting Mr. Yukishiro, I tried to see Mr. and Mrs. Kiyosato. I'm not sure why – it wasn't anger, exactly, although I think I would have the right to be very angry. Truly, I only wished to ask them why. I wondered, selfishly, if they had ever felt even a little guilty about what they did, and felt somewhat entitled to that selfishness. Which I suppose is very demanding of me, but I do not feel that I was wrong in presuming that I had the right to know.
It doesn't matter. They wouldn't see me. Sir Hiko wanted to force the issue, but I asked him not to. I don't think that any answer that they might give me would count for anything unless they choose to give it, and they didn't. So there didn't seem to be much point. Maybe that was wrong – maybe I should have pressed them, but… that would be acting a bully, I think. And perhaps I have the right to that, in their case, yet I do not think that is the kind of person I am – the kind of person I wish to be. I don't like being angry. It makes me tired.
I did find out, though, that despite all they'd done to gain his cure, their son died anyway. So I suppose, in a way, that their refusal to answer was an answer in itself.
All these travels helped me come to a decision. I want to help in this war. I want to see slavery destroyed and its legacy purged from our country. But I don't want to kill. I don't want to replace violence with more violence. And I'm still not sure that isn't a cowardly way to look at things, but it's my way. I did not come to the decision lightly; I made my choice after long thought, and not out of fear. Which seems to me to be more important than what other people might think of me for that choice.
I don't oppose the war. I was a farmer's son before I was ever a swordsman or a slave, and the only way to pull up a noxious weed is by the roots. But the work of a nurse or a doctor is as important as a soldier's, maybe even more so, because they are the ones who will ensure this war is no more bloody than it needs to be. And that's what I want to do. I don't want to hurt anyone; but if I have to, I do not wish it to be greater than it needs to be. So I decided to join the medical corps.
I joined up today. It's the first official form I've ever filled out. I'm now enrolled under the new government as a free citizen, owned by no one – and I have a family name. It took me a while to choose it; I hope you like it. It uses the characters for 'red' and 'village,' because the village where I was born made scarlet dye.
The next time I write to you, I will be at the front.
You are ever in my thoughts,
Kenshin Himura, freedman.
P.S. Yahiko, peonies like full sun and shelter from the wind. You should plant them in fall, before the first frost; spring-planted peonies are usually weaker than fall-planted, and need a lot of skill to nurture. As for vegetables, it's difficult because we're already in summer, but greens, radishes, leeks and peas can all be planted in summer and grow into the fall without suffering too much.
Dear Mr. Himura,
I'm so happy to be able to address you that way. Your new name is lovely; may you wear it in good health and happiness.
I don't have much time to write these days. With things intensifying at the front – as you must know – wounded men and refugees are pouring in, and we are swamped. I've never been gladder for Yahiko's help; I don't think I could keep caring for the orphans and families we've taken in and continue my work at the clinic without him. But between the two of us, we manage.
It's good to hear that you've come to your own decision about the war and acted on it. I know how difficult it can be to stand for what you think is right, especially when the people close to you aren't sure you're doing the right thing. And medical work is important, more important than I ever dreamed before this war began. Every life that you save is one less grieving mother or widowed bride, and one more pair of strong hands to build the future with. After all, there is little point in winning this war if there is no one left afterwards.
The reversed-blade, also, is a clever solution. I'm not sure how Mr. Hiko found you, but I'm glad he did. It seems that his visit helped you in many ways; I'm glad for it. As I am glad that you and Mr. Yukishiro reached a reconciliation. I cannot say that I am surprised by how the Kiyosatos responded to you. It is hard, desperately hard, to admit to having been wrong, and they were about as wrong as two human beings can be. And to lose their son anyway, despite it all… I can't tell you if you've made the right decision, about that or anything else, but I am glad that you've made them, and that they are yours.
Kenshin dipped his hands the basin and watched the blood stream from his skin. It swirled in the still water like ink, but quite the wrong color. His shoulders slumped; he sighed, heavy right down to his bones, and raised a dripping hand to touch his aching scar.
"You did everything you could." Yumi touched his shoulder lightly, handing him a towel. "It's not your fault."
"I know." He took it from her and dried his hands, leaving streaks of soap and blood on the rough cloth. "It's just… when they come to us so far gone… why can't they get the wounded out sooner? A few minutes earlier, and he might have lived."
Yumi shrugged, letting her hair down for a moment and retying it higher on her head. "They do their best, Himura, just like us. It's a war out there; we don't always have a choice."
They stepped back into the main hospital tent, sliding into the controlled chaos with the ease of long practice. It was a large space, made small by the sheer number of beds and bedrolls, each with a wounded man. The air was muzzy with low moans of pain and the incense burned to ward off disease, nurses and doctors ticking along their rounds. There were too many patients. There always were.
Yumi patted Kenshin on the shoulder again, then headed off on the rest of her round. Kenshin went to the now-empty cot where the soldier they'd failed to save had rested and began stripping the soiled bedclothes. They'd go to be cleaned, and he'd fetch a new set. In a few minutes, the cot would be ready to hold another wounded man.
"Himura." One of the doctors hailed him, stopping for a moment in his rounds. "When you're done with that, I have a few new patients who'd like letters written, if you have the time."
"Of course." Kenshin balled up the sheets, smiling politely at the doctor. "I may not have the time until this evening, though… is it urgent?"
Are they dying? was what he meant, and the doctor knew it. He shook his head.
"No. It can wait for the evening."
They lost two more men before the end of the day, and pulled three back from the brink. Three for three. Not good, but not bad either.
As you can see, my calligraphy is much improved, though under the darkest of circumstances. I've been writing many letters these past few months. Not for myself, but for the wounded and dying. Those who are aware enough to speak ask us to take down words for their loved ones. Sometimes they seem to be reaching for anyone to write to and I feel that they must want simply to leave some mark in the world, some proof that they were a person who existed, an individual with a name and concerns of their own. Among them I have found my corner of this nightmare – for this war is a nightmare, although the cause is just – where I can work and feel, if not peace (there is no peace here, I am sorry to say), then certainty in my choices. I am with those who care for the injured and aid the dying. I provide protection for them when needed, as one of the few people here able to fight, and do my part in the labor of caring.
I've found in this work a satisfaction I cannot completely explain. I feel, though, that you might understand it anyway, for the Kasshin's philosophy of protecting life is about a battle of love – there is no other word for it – toward others that lives in every moment, beyond the limits of a single fight. It is uncomfortable, dirty, sweaty, unsanitary work. Our supplies are few and the injured seem to double again every day. But I feel blessed to lend my hands to changing their bandages, feeding them what little food we have, giving them water, even changing their bedpans. I have never felt so clean as I do now. That must sound very strange. Yet somehow I think you will understand?
My constant thought through it all is that we have developed the art of destroying bodies far beyond our knowledge of how to heal them. I wonder sometimes at Kanryu's art – if he had cared for relieving suffering, might not there be herbs and regimens that heal minds rather than break them? And yet brilliant men turn their minds toward destruction. I cannot tell you what the sight of a man torn apart by a Gatling gun does to one's heart; perhaps I could manage it, but I refuse to try. I find myself wanting to share everything with you and at the same time wanting to protect you. I pray that your corner of this nightmare our country is living does not contain so many horrors.
But we do what we can, yes? Sometimes I write so long into the night that my hand cramps up. But it is somehow a – not a good but a right feeling, looking into men's eyes and letting them know that they are heard and remembered. Most of those who die go to unmarked graves and it seems oftentimes that the thought of going unnamed and unremembered is a greater torment to them then their death, which I suppose I can understand. We do what we can to relieve their pain. It is often difficult; those doctors we do have sometimes come with callous ideas. One man, a foreigner, lectured me that the lower sort of soldiers did not feel pain the same way higher born men did and thus should not have their share of our precious morphine.
I am afraid that I frightened him very much in my response. I didn't touch him! But I spoke to him of pain as I have known it and told him that if he truly believed that then he was no supporter of abolition but a true friend of our enemies. I say again: I did not touch him. Yet I found in my heart that I wanted to, and it frightened me perhaps more than I frightened him.
...this has been a very gloomy letter. I'm sorry. There is hope in my heart too, I promise you. When I write letters for the men, I can comfort and reassure them and in the moment that I am speaking to them I truly do believe what I say. But when I sit down to write to you, somehow the truths I cannot speak to anyone else emerge. Please take that for trust and know that it is not all I feel and... please, tell me your truth, if you will. Let me share in your burdens. Let me know anything you wish to say and cannot say to anyone else. But only if you wish it. I hope that you will wish it.
And please – if you wish it – I want to be Kenshin to you, now and always. Not Mr. Himura.
My father told once that there would come a time when all my sword-art, all my courage, all my strength would not be enough, and I would be unable to prevent the evil unfolding in front of my eyes or to protect those caught in its path. It would not be a question of failure, any more than a latticed screen could be said to fail to shelter a man from a typhoon. It would simply be that nothing I had could possibly turn the tide.
When that time comes, he told me, there is only one thing a person can do, and that is remember. Stand with the suffering and remember their names, look into their eyes and let them know that you see them, that you will hold fast to the memory of them and tell the world what happened here.
You learn their names, Kenshin. You take down their last words and stories, and speak to them kindly, and they do not go alone and afraid into that final darkness. All anyone wants in this world – so my father said, and so I have found to be true – is to know that they are not alone. And because of you, these men are not alone in their last hours. To accompany the dying on their journey is dreadful work, but to abandon a human soul in its most vulnerable and anguished moments is the sin of sins.
I have come to understand over the course of the last few years what it truly means to carry the sword that protects. You're right to say that it's more than merely sword-play. I lived its teachings without understanding them for a long time; now I know exactly how harsh a man my father was, and how much he demanded from his disciples. Yet once one sets out on this path, there is no turning back. Once you know the difference between right and wrong, doing wrong is no longer an option. No matter the cost.
Which is all a very silly way of saying that I think I know the feeling you can't describe. Even if all the world is engulfed in flames, there are pockets of goodness, places where there is healing and compassion, and it isn't enough, but somehow it is. If this world is all that we have, then what we do matters – then it's important that we choose to be kind when we could be cruel, to help when we could walk away, to bear witness when we could close our eyes.
And you're right – it is clean work, the cleanest there is.
I can't speak for Kanryu's art, since I only know some basic nursing skills. Megumi talks, sometimes, of such things; but she does not have the time to explain anything in depth, given the sheer number of wounded she must tend to. For now, nothing comes of her previous association with Kanryu, since all skilled hands are needed. However, there are rumours... but I'm sure it's nothing. She's helped too many to leave even the most trenchant idiot anything but convinced that she is not his creature.
I'm sure that you didn't touch that foreign doctor. I'm equally sure that you scared him witless. And I don't blame you. That was pure foulness he was spewing! Megumi has Western training, as do some of the other doctors, and there are a few foreign nurses here. I've never heard any of them speak that way. It must be some odd quirk of his, for the Western nurses are nothing but kind, even though they do not speak Japanese very well and things are sometimes difficult because of it.
Your trust honors me, Kenshin, and I don't mind a little gloom. This is a gloomy time. Only please remember that it is not all there is; there is laughter here, despite it all. The children are healthy and grow to love one another as family. They run and play together, and there is no difference, among them, between freeborn and freed. That is the future of the nation, I think – I hope – I pray. These children of the war, who nonetheless remember how to smile.
You are in my prayers,
Kenshin let the letter fall from his hands, barely noticing as it hit the ground. His fingers were numb; his heart was numb; everything was numb, and that was good. He'd read her letters so many times, but even Kaoru's words couldn't break the ice around his heart, not anymore, and he felt obscurely that it was better that way.
She didn't need to know. Even though he'd written her that letter, the one he hadn't sent – she didn't need to know. Not this. Not how badly he'd failed. He couldn't bear for her to know, couldn't stand the thought of her understanding how little he'd accomplished, in the end. How unworthy he was of her name, and her kindness.
He stood with a sigh, and left his tent.
Makoto was waiting for him outside. Kenshin spared him a nod, then set off towards the hospital tent. There was work to be done. There was always work to be done, and as long as he was doing it the ground wouldn't crack open and swallow him.
Makoto's hand on his elbow stopped him.
"What?" The word came hard and slow, dropping from his tongue like a hot coal.
"I need to talk to you."
"It can wait." Kenshin shrugged off Makoto's hand and continued towards the tent. It could always wait. It could wait until he died, for all he cared.
His head started to hurt, tight as paper before it tears.
Makoto stepped around in front of him. "No, it can't. Yumi's worried; everyone is. I know – I can't imagine what it was like for you, seeing that. But you can't keep going on like this."
Who's going to stop me? he didn't say. Instead he stepped around Makoto. The older man turned, falling into step beside him, and Kenshin took a sharp breath. Hot, black nothingness knotted under his heart, digging rancid fingers into his veins.
"I don't want to talk about, Makoto." It was clawing up his throat now, blocking speech, and Kenshin had to force the words around it. "Leave it be."
"Do you think you're the only one?" Makoto demanded. "We're all having nightmares. It was a goddamned horrorshow. The least you can do – "
"Shut up." It snapped out unbidden, all hard sibilants bursting on his tongue like foreign candies, exploding behind his eyes. "Leave me alone!"
"No, dammit." Makoto grabbed his shoulders. "You're not eating, you barely sleep – "
Kenshin punched him. It felt good: hard bone under his knuckles, bruising force singing up his nerves as the black hot thing howled, surging through his infected veins. For a moment the world was purely, blindingly simple, and nothing hurt anymore.
Makoto touched his jaw, lightly. His eyes widened for a moment.
"Good," he said, and Kenshin would have been surprised if the rage hadn't carried him far beyond all that. He pulled his fist back again.
"What do you know about it – "
This time, Makoto caught his hand.
"Be angry, dammit." His hand was warm around Kenshin's fist, too warm for the cool spring weather. "You should be. They're monsters. And it wasn't your fault."
"You can't know that!" Speech came easy now that the violence had unstopped his throat to thunder through his veins. He ripped his hand from Makoto's, falling back. "How can you possibly know that?"
"Because I was there! Or have you forgotten? We were all there. We all saw! If there was anything we could have done, don't you think we'd have done it? Do you think we didn't care – "
"I should have saved them!" Anguish tore the truth from where it had been hidden the past two months, smothered under work and work and more work, until he drowned in it. "I should have – I should have guessed, I should have known they'd do something like that, I'm the only one who could have – "
Kenshin spun around, suddenly ashamed, and clutched his shoulders hard enough to bruise.
It wasn't aimed at anyone or anything: it came out of the hollow place the rage had left behind, crackling like a cicada shell in his throat. Kenshin started shaking, heat pounding behind his eyes in time with his aching head. He gasped in quick breaths, holding the air in his lungs as long as he could, afraid of what would happen if he let himself breathe.
Makoto's arm came around his shoulder, and Kenshin didn't pull away.
"Like I said," he murmured, "I can't imagine what how it felt, for you, seeing what they'd done." His voice was calm, as it always was, and it was frankly irritating. "But I know what it's like to lose people you wanted to protect. Let me help you."
Something trembled in the undertones, something as raw and honest as his scars.
And Kenshin wanted, very badly, to say no.
They talked for a long while, where no one else could hear, and afterwards Kenshin didn't remember half of it: only a long, slow ebbing as the world came back into focus. He hurt when it was done, hurt like a cleaned-out wound. Hurt more than he'd wanted to. Hurt the way he'd needed to.
That night, he took out the letter he'd written to Kaoru and read it again.
I feel as if I've seen most of the country by now, more than I ever expected to see, but I can't say that I know any of it. We see it at its very worst, torn and shattered. The land itself is murdered by our efforts. Green and living things are crushed, ancient trees torn up by the roots as we rip wounds in the earth with wrought iron and shaped stone. I have stood in fields where I know that nothing is familiar anymore to the people who lived and worked them except the sky, always above us. It's a mercy that there are still things in the world beyond human reach. We may wish to fly like the birds or touch the stars, but we can't, and I am glad for it.
I feel that we're at the deepest dark of this long night now. It must be so, for I cannot see how it could get any darker. I must have some hope, and the only hope I can see is that this cannot go on forever, that it must end. Our opposition endures great losses and shares the same world as we do; how can they continue, with so much blood already spilled? They're human, as we are. They must grieve, as we do. They must shrink from the horrors we've created. They must.
I've never believed that those we fight are demons, or monsters, or anything other than ordinary men caught up in something far beyond them. There are those among us who do think that way, who must think them monsters in order to be soldiers and fight without going mad. But I do not face that challenge and therefore do not allow myself that luxury. Yet I have seen things done, now, which shock me to my core, which make me realize there are some who truly believe that people like me are not people at all – that the addition of slave-mark has some vile power to rob a person of their human mind and soul in truth, and not only in the eyes of unjust law.
I've thought over what to tell you of recent events and I've questioned whether it's fair to put them into words at all, since they will hurt you. But I take strength from your reply to my last letter: I see in your words that you truly understand beyond my capacity to explain and that you have much wisdom that can help you do as I wish to do and transform the painful things into something better within my own heart. So I will tell you and let you help me – is it enough of a comfort to you if I say that telling you these things comforts me? That you've made my life better by your willingness to listen to me as an equal? Is it not clean work, to hear someone's pain and, in hearing it, lessen it? Or am I still too selfish, asking you to take more of my burdens on your shoulders when you have already carried so much?
But I am delaying here. I am saying everything but what I must say: I have been to a place like the one where I died once, where a man killed me, and I don't know what to say. I don't know what to do. Can we really be like the land itself, which I know will heal? The green will return, covering over the wounds in the earth. Can it really be the same for us?
I will say what I must now. The last facility which used Kanryu's obscene methods has been liberated. I know in my mind that this is a good thing and shows how much we have accomplished. But when I try to believe what I know…
I was there, when it was freed. We came prepared to care for very injured people; I came prepared to see people with eyes like mine once were, and I hoped that I could see them heal. But instead I saw what was left of the light in their eyes go out, one by one. After their defeat was assured, the men guarding the facility decided to kill all those souls who remained suffering at their hands. I cannot understand it; I refuse to try. If I did, I do not think that I could ever again see those we fight as human.
I am sorry to speak of such things, but I have no else to tell save those who were already there and I feel that I must tell someone or go mad. They lasted long enough that we could take them from the cells; they died, at least, breathing free air, with the sun on their faces and cool water on their lips and I know as none of my comrades can what a mercy that was. I know that we did all we could, moved as quickly as was humanly possible, were not negligent in any way. And yet I cannot help reliving that day, thinking if only, if only.
I sleep out under the stars every night. Many of the men complain about our lack of supplies, but I'm glad for it. I sleep outside and I look up and I see a world above us so clean and pure and good and I think that we must never, ever grow wings and fly. There must be something that we cannot touch.
I'm so sorry, but we can't be trusted. We must be ever hoped for and believed in and cared for, but I cannot bring myself to trust us. Not when there are such people to be found in the world, people who would have done the same to me, who would have put a cup of poison in my hands and ordered me to drink out of sheer spite, simply to deny me even the possibility of ever being more than their creature.
Oh, Kaoru. Tell me I have not pained you too much by recounting this. Do not feel that you must comfort me; I have the stars. I have the people I know and care for here. I have my work, which I am proud of and which I believe matters. I have much. The only thing I know myself to lack is you, and so I reach out, selfishly, from no impulse other than the hope that you might hear me. I am not so different from the soldiers I write letters for, in that way; I too I long to be known. I saw in the men and women who died that day what might have become of me if you had not taken me in and shared your life and your home with me. I have so much. I have been so lucky.
Kaoru, I couldn't even get their names to write down! They were still too trapped in the drugs and the conditioning to tell me, and we couldn't find the records. They're buried now, in marked and nameless graves. I helped dig those graves. I wish I could have done more.
I don't know what else to say.
Kenshin read it once more, and thought about it for a long time. Then he wrote another letter, smaller, and folded it inside the first. He would send them both in the morning: send them, and then – and then he would wait and see.
I wrote the previous letter two months ago and decided to wait before sending it. I'm glad that I did. At the time I wrote it I was tangled in things I've carried inside me since I began to heal, things I've been facing in small ways every day since you set me free. I didn't notice at first, I thought I was acting normally, but my friends here have been very concerned. Their kindness, and my own desire to keep doing our good work, has helped me come out of the dark place I found myself in. I promise you that I am well and whole. Now that the infection of Kanryu's evil art is burned from our country, there will be healing. I know it, I have known it all along, but now I can tell you that I have begun to believe it.
I've doubted whether I should send the original letter at all. Writing it helped me, but maybe you don't ever need to see it. Maybe I should protect you from it. But then I remember that you were there when I was like the men and women who died here, voiceless and trapped in my own mind. You were there when Kanryu opened the door to the place where he destroyed me. And you were there when I faced him for the last time. You alone know everything, and you alone have been the one to see and accept me through it all. You have always been beside me; even during this time that we have been apart I have felt you with me. You are the reason I have my name and my life. If I want you with me now, at the end of the story, it is only because I know that you are strong and brave and
good enough to bear it, and because I want to show you that it is ended. He's gone. What he did is gone. But the people I met, the people I helped... they can live inside me without hurting me, as do all the memories of the people I have known and written letters for, both those who survived their injuries and those who did not.
I visited the graves we dug today. I brought incense to burn, and flowers. I told their spirits that I would remember them as my brothers and sisters. They were more than evil men made them; I don't need to have heard their names to know that. I can stand with them as you stood with me, asking nothing, certain of nothing save that I was someone who needed you.
You are ever a bright and good thought to me. And always in my prayers.
I don't know how to respond to your last two letters. There is too much to say, and not enough, and all of it mixes together until I don't know where to start, or even if there is a place to start, except perhaps the very beginning.
How much do you remember of the day we met? I should have told you – I want you to know that I never meant to do what I did. I only meant to help a wounded man. But when I asked your name, and Megumi told it to me – when I tried to get you to respond to it, and you flinched away, and she explained to me what had been done to you – I was so angry, in the moment, that I didn't think at all. I only acted, because everything Megumi had just told me was so abhorrent to me that I didn't know what else to do.
I think that what I mean to say by this is that they knew their names. As you knew yours, but didn't dare speak it. I know you know this, but perhaps you need to hear it – perhaps I need to say it. They knew what you asked, even though they couldn't respond. Kanryu locked so many names and souls away, but he never destroyed them. Could not destroy them. Nothing ever can or will. And it is not enough, will never be enough that at least in the end they knew relief from pain and a kind voice asking their name – but it's all that I have to offer.
I'm sorry, all I have is platitudes. I don't know what to say.
I am glad that you saw the end of Kanryu's horror. I am glad that you had friends to hold you safe through that storm. And I am glad – forgive me, I cannot make the words sound right so I must say them as they come to me – I am glad that you were there for those last victims, and that you asked their names. Because I don't think it would have occurred to anyone else to ask – I don't think anyone else would have understood the importance of their names. I am glad that they had you to bear witness, at the end; that it was their brother at their deathbeds, and not a stranger.
I am also glad that you remember me as one who helped you, and that you have honored me by asking me to witness the end of this part of your story – because it is not the end of your story. There is so much waiting for you, now, even with all the healing yet to be done.
Please, never ever think that I am the reason for anything you have now. You owe me nothing and you never will. I am only a foolish girl who gave a foolish order to a wounded man, who acted in a thoughtless, selfish fury and through some lucky miracle managed not to make things worse. What you've done is yours alone. If I did anything, it was only provide you with a little time and space to heal the worst of your hurts. Your own strength did the rest. And you are strong. You are the strongest man I know.
There's talk that the shōgunate will surrender soon. There are plans, also, to build a park where Kanryu's manor once stood. They're planning to flood the lowered portion where the pens once stood to make a lake, and plant trees and flowers – not roses – and raise a memorial for the dead. It should be beautiful. I hope it will be. I hope you'll come and see it, some day.
Kenshin raked his fingers through his hair, puzzling over Kaoru's letter. It was the fifth time that he'd read it, and it still didn't seem quite right. There was a terrible air of finality to it, as if she thought they'd never speak again, and that wasn't right. Couldn't be right. He'd made things clear – at least, he thought he had – how else could she have understood his letters?
He read the letter again, wondering.
Please, never ever think that I am the reason for anything you have now. You owe me nothing and you never will.
The line drew him, hooked itself into his thoughts. He turned it over, trying to understand.
You owe me nothing and you never will.
Kenshin sighed and stood up, folding the letter and tucking it into his sleeve with all the others. He always kept her letters with him; the others, the letters from the dying that he'd written but never been able to send – because the men had died before giving him an address, or had no one to send them to – he kept bundled with his things, wrapped in oilskin to keep them dry. Only Kaoru's letters were always near his skin.
It was a bright, hot day – summer was lingering, this year – and the air smelled of smoke. The sky above was painfully blue, blue enough that it nearly hurt to look at. Kenshin shaded his eyes and looked anyway, following the faint wisps of clouds as they floated across the endless expanse, blown by the even fainter winds.
Never ever think that I am the reason for anything you have now,
But she was, he wanted to argue with her, except that she wasn't here to argue with. Or at least, he liked to think so; without her faith in him, he couldn't have come as far as he had. The journey had been his, but she'd outfitted him for it. She'd believed in him. How could she not know that?
You owe me nothing and you never will.
It wasn't a question of what was owed…
Hoofbeats broke his reverie; hoofbeats and a voice shouting joyful and wild above the din. He blinked, starting towards the noise. Frantic messengers on horseback were nothing new, but this fellow sounded happy to be delivering his news.
The rest of the field hospital started to trickle out, picking their way across the churned, muddy ground as the messenger skidded to a halt in the center of the camp. His horse was lathered, sides heaving, and he wore Choshu colors.
"Surrender!" he managed to gasp out. "It's a surrender! It's over! The shōgunate surrendered! We've won!"
For a moment, no one seemed quite able to understand what the messenger had said. Then one of the nurses – Itsuko, Kenshin knew without looking, recognizing her throaty voice – let out a war whoop. One of the doctors picked it up, and it spread in half a heartbeat until the entire camp was cheering, faces that had been worn to a sliver with care suddenly lightened.
The war was over. Soon, everyone would be going home.
They could only spare a few moments for celebration. The wounded still needed to be cared for, the dead buried as honorably as they could be under the circumstances. But with the end in sight, everyone worked with a lighter heart than ever before and Kenshin, still not very good at living inside his skin, could not keep the grin off his face. Even Kaoru's strange letter – and all that it might mean – couldn't touch that joy.
They found time to celebrate that night, passing around a store of sake one of the doctors had hauled with them from Kyoto in anticipation of eventual victory. He'd been ribbed for it, called Bad-Luck Ashigara for the presumption inherent in the act, and the potential to offend the gods. Now he was magnanimous in victory, validated in his long faith, and the camp was all the more grateful for it. And drunker. But not too drunk; there would still be work to do in the morning. Those patients who could safely be moved joined the celebration, looked after by the nurses and each other as the bonfire flickered against the night sky, sending sparks into heaven to merge with the stars.
Kenshin leaned back, muzzily satisfied. An empty sake cup dangled from his fingers. After a little while, Yumi came and sat down beside him.
"So it's finally over…" she mused, turning her cup in her hands. Her face was a little flushed. "It feels so strange."
"Well, it's a good thing, isn't it?" He smiled up at her. "You and Makoto can finally have the wedding."
She blushed a little deeper. "That's true. It's – well. I feel like we've waited forever."
"You didn't have to," he pointed out. She stared off towards the fire, sipping her half-filled cup.
"We made the right decision," she said finally. "It was hard to wait, but… this way, everyone can be there. You'll be there, right?"
"I plan to." Kenshin was a little surprised that Makoto hadn't already shown up to carry off his bride; presumably something was holding him up. He'd be there first thing in the morning, Kenshin was sure – or possibly even later that night. "Hey, Yumi?"
"What is it?"
Kenshin toyed with his empty cup, the warmth in his veins giving him uncommon courage.
"Well…" He bit his lower lip, not entirely sure where to begin. "Um. Say, someone – a man – really cared about a woman, but..."
"But what?" Yumi sipped her sake again, eyeing him with a knowing glint. He probably wasn't fooling her; yet he forged ahead, too nervous to say what it was really about.
"Well. It seemed that maybe, she doesn't understand his feelings? Or doesn't return them? And he's not sure which it is…"
Yumi hummed contemplatively, setting her cup aside.
"Well, I suppose the most important question is what he's been saying to her. Men aren't nearly as clever as they think they are, you know; this man might think he's been perfectly clear about things, but that doesn't mean that she's understood any of it."
"She talks a lot about how he shouldn't be so grateful to her," Kenshin muttered.
Yumi laughed, ringing out clear as a bell. Kenshin bolted upright, stung.
"But I – he is grateful!" he protested, not sure why Yumi was laughing so hard. "For knowing her – for having her in his life, for having had the chance to meet her and – "
"Oh, Kenshin." She giggled one last time, wiping a tear from her eyes. "No one worth loving wants to be loved only out of gratitude! Have you told her that it's more than that? That you're grateful because you love her, and not the other way around?"
"Er…" He thought, quickly, over all the letters he'd written. "Um."
"How on earth is she to know, if you haven't told her?"
"I… thought I was being clear…" he muttered, abashed. Because he hadn't actually said it, not once – had always assumed that Kaoru understood.
Which had actually been rather stupid of him.
"Well, you are a man," Yumi said merrily. "Although you're normally quicker than this. Probably because you're so short," she said, her solemn tone belied by the glint in her eyes. "The blood actually makes it all the way to your brain."
"There's no need to rub it in," he said sourly. She poked his forehead, teasing.
"Don't worry about it," Yumi said, smiling gently. "Just be honest. She'll understand."
He waited a few days, thinking hard. And then, five days after the shogunate's surrender, he wrote Kaoru one final letter.
I fear I have misled you by not laying out matters more directly sooner. Let me be clear, then: I do not love you because I owe my life to you; rather, I choose to say that I owe my life to you because I love you.
I love you.
I love you!
Forgive me – having written it once, I find myself dizzy with the joy of it, wanting to shape the words over and over! This is the first time in my life that I have had cause to write those words. The very first. And they are for you, as are all my joys. With great gladness and hope I dream of you always by my side, in the past as well as the future – when I tell the story of my life, you are there because I want you there. I could imagine my life without you, but I don't want to – I want us to be together, always.
Though it would take a callous soul indeed to ignore the many kindnesses you have done me, it is not from any sense of obligation or gratitude that I have continued to seek your words and company. My memories are colored by what I was when we first met, but I am not in thrall to some dream version of events. I remember it all clearly. There were times when I was frightened; from my very first moment with you I doubted your good will so absolutely that it was an article of my deepest faith that you would turn on me.
But your voice. Oh, Kaoru! I remember my fears, but I remember your voice as well, always calling me. Calling my name! I resented it, horribly. I wanted to sink into the oblivion of obedience, to protect myself from whatever evils would come next by denying that I was a thinking, feeling being. Yet you would not let me rest, would not stop calling my name and reaching out with soft hands and gentle words. I was lost in the darkness and glad to stay there, save that your voice would not let me be, and I followed it from that labyrinth into the sunlight. You did save me, Kaoru, but that is not why I love you.
Never think that my feelings are born only of gratitude! It was only when I stood in the sun again that I came to understand what you had done. I shudder, now, to think of how deeply I doubted you, but if it will ease your fears to hear then I will admit it: I was certain that you would hurt me. I knew in my bones that every kindness was a trap designed solely to make my ruin that much more complete when it finally came. I knew that you would use me or sell me or find some way to extract from me whatever was left to be taken. It was all I knew to expect; it was my world. It would surprise you, I think, to know how long I thought this way. I remember sometimes the things that I believed and I weep for the man that I was, so lost to pain that he could not conceive of gentleness.
It was not a warm place to sleep and kind words that made me love you, Kaoru. It was coming to know myself, and to know you – it was that journey from the darkness that made me see your actions for what they were, as proof that you are brave and kind and good beyond the telling of it, and that is why I love you. With all that I am, I love you.
It pains me to think that I have led you to believe that my feelings for you are born of mere obligation. Forgive me, my love, for my reluctance to speak freely. But surely you can understand how I, with my limited prospects and uncertain life, felt it best to make no promises I was not certain I could keep or, indeed, to ask a promise of you that might tax your heart?
It has been a long winter for us, Kaoru. Like trees in the deep snow, we've pulled in all our life's blood, saving our best from the cold. I couldn't give wholly of myself until this war was over, nor could I ask you to open your heart to me. Not while my life was still at risk here on the front lines and you had so many depending on your strength. And now… Kaoru, soon the leaves will be turning gold and red with autumn, but it is spring inside my heart. I am full of courage, able to sprout forth with leaves, brave and green and bright. All of the sweetness and life I have kept safe inside, afraid of what the world would do to it, all of it is rising up in my heart now. Might it not be the same with you?
I love you. (Oh, to say it out loud! I long to say it out loud for the first time, and then over and over, for the rest of my life, if you wish to hear it. I hope that you do). I know that you care about me, at least as a friend. I hope that you might feel more. You met me when almost everything had been taken from me; in these past few years we've survived some of the worst that humans can endure. If we can care for each other through that, what might we feel now that the war is over, now that the world is born anew?
Every day men leave the camp and our field hospital. More and more of them leave alive and well, though there are days when we must yet dig graves. Soon I will be leaving, too; soon there will be no work left for me here, and I might turn my weary feet homewards. Before the snow falls I will come to see you and we will talk, really talk, as equals, of the things that letters alone cannot contain. Oh, Kaoru... if you wish it, if you will allow it, I will end this journey gladly in your arms and begin a new one beside you. And we will know each other as we never have, in peace and joy and happiness.
With all my heart – with all my love! – yours, always,
The warm wooden gates of the Kamiya home stood before him, propped open in welcome. Kenshin had thought that he might need to ask directions, given how much time had passed, but he'd remembered every step of the way home.
He took a deep breath. Cookfires and autumn leaves, and the crisp coolness of the coming winter. Summer had come late and lingered long, but the world was finally tilting towards winter. Before the snow falls, he'd told her, and he'd kept his promise.
Now, as he stood at the top of the wide stone steps, he hesitated. Shouts from the training hall split the air, interspersed with the crack of wooden swords. Kaoru was giving a lesson, then. She'd be in the hall, among her students, shaping small hands around bamboo hilts, her hair streaked with sweat, her eyes lit with joy and patience…
Kenshin brushed his fingers against the lintel as he stepped across the threshold. Hello, he meant to say. I'm back. And he thought, for a moment, that the gate sighed happily in response.
Something eased in him as soon as he took that first step into the courtyard. Here was safety, hearth and warmth and home, and he'd thought sometimes on the way back from the disbanded front that he might have misremembered the nature of the place, but he hadn't. It was all brightness here, and gentle welcome. Even the golden cast his memories had given the air of the place was real, some special trick of the light or maybe just his own addled senses rejoicing to be home.
He found that he didn't particularly care.
A contented sigh curled its way up from the deepest part of his soul and, smiling, he made his way towards the training hall. As he rounded the corner he nearly bumped into Yahiko coming the other way.
"Kenshin!" Yahiko stared at him, nearly dropping his basket of squash. "Holy shit!"
"I said I would come back, didn't I?" Kenshin asked, amused. Yahiko blinked at him, eyes round with shock. He'd grown a fair bit, his bones a little faster than the rest of him; he was just barely taller than Kenshin now, and gangly with it.
"Well, yeah, but that was years ago," he said, propping the basket awkwardly on his hip. "Kaoru – I mean, we – well, we kinda thought that maybe you'd changed your mind, since we hadn't heard from you…"
It was Kenshin's turn to blink in surprise.
"I sent a letter."
"You must have beaten it back." Yahiko shrugged. "Anyway, it's good to see you. Are you in town long?" His voice was scratchy and uneven, in the throes of breaking.
"I – well, I thought I might stay, actually…" Kenshin trailed off, dismayed. Kaoru hadn't gotten the letter; Kaoru still didn't know. And, more importantly, now he'd have to tell her. Face to face. He felt, suddenly, a bit nauseous.
Yahiko must have noticed him paling, because he grinned reassuringly. "Hey, don't worry about it. Kaoru promised that this'd be your home as long as you wanted, remember? She doesn't break her promises. Besides," and Yahiko's grin softened. "We kinda missed you. At least, I did."
Kenshin smiled back, light again at the sincerity in Yahiko's face. He toyed briefly with the string of the bag slung over his shoulder, wondering.
"How is she, by the way? Kaoru, I mean." He said it carefully, not quite certain what he was asking.
"She's healthy." Yahiko shifted. Uncertainty flashed in his eyes, and his smile faltered. "But, you know… the war was pretty hard for everyone. I mean – she hasn't changed or anything, she just might not be like you remember. It's been a while since you saw each other." Then he grinned again. "I mean, hell, look at how much you've changed."
"And you," Kenshin said mildly. "What have you been doing, stretching yourself on a rack?"
"Dangling from the ceiling beams with the kids hanging on my ankles, actually." Yahiko retorted cheerfully. "Every night after dinner."
It was a terrible joke. They laughed anyway, and something comfortable and easy settled in the space between them.
"Listen, the lesson's going to be over soon." Yahiko hoisted his squash up. "I gotta get this into the kitchen and start pickling for dinner, and dish out lunch – you should head over to the training hall."
"All right." Kenshin shifted his bag again, almost sighing. "Do you think – ? Well. That is…"
He couldn't quite get the words out.
"It'll surprise the hell out of her," Yahiko said, answering his unspoken question. His eyes were suddenly very solemn. "And – she might be different from what you remember, but she does care about you, an awful lot. Just – you know, give her a little time. A lot's changed."
There was a message there, behind Yahiko's eyes. Kenshin smiled gently, certain that he understood.
"I know it has."
Kenshin settled himself outside the training hall, just to the side of the door, and listened. He could hear Kaoru's voice above the sounds of the lesson, calling the count in a steady beat. Now and again it would break off to correct someone, softly; then she would give another order and begin the count again. He leaned back against the wall, closing his eyes.
He'd missed her voice. He'd missed her – and of course she would have changed, of course things would be different but – she was still Kaoru. She had to be. All brightness and warm certainty, and the will to protect…
He pulled his knees up, wrapping his arms around them, and waited with fierce, fizzing joy to see her again.
The students came out mostly in a rush when the lesson was over, chattering to each other as they headed for the gates or for the dining room, and Kaoru didn't come with them. He waited a few moments, wondering if she would come outside, but she didn't. After a time, he bolstered his courage and got to his feet, leaving his bag to rest on the veranda.
Kaoru was standing in the middle of the hall, her back to the door, with her wooden sword poised to strike. Her long, shining hair fell down her back from its high ponytail, and her gi was streaked with sweat, plastered to her body to reveal the strong lines of muscle and bone. Sunlight poured from the high windows, pooling golden on the fine-grained wooden floor and shimmering in the air around her. She held her pose for a long time, long enough that Kenshin wasn't sure that she planned to actually do anything with it – and then she struck. Her movements were quick, precise, and powerful; she ran through her forms with easy grace, and bowed to the altar when she was finished. He watched her the entire time, heart in his throat.
"Kaoru…" he whispered, and didn't realize he'd spoken aloud. She turned, gasping in surprise.
Her blue eyes widened, dark as midnight. She clutched at her collar, lean fingers twisted in the heavy canvas. Her lips parted, breath rushing hard between them from exertion or surprise, or both.
He took a step forward.
"I'm home," he said quietly.
"…Kenshin," she finally managed to say. "I – I didn't know you were coming. Here. Again."
"I'm sorry," he said, not coming any closer. There was something strange in her eyes, in the weary lines of her face – she looked so tired. "I sent a letter, but I guess I must have gotten home before it did."
"Oh." Her throat worked. "Well. I – how are you?" she blurted out. "The last letter you wrote me…"
Then she turned away, abruptly, and went to hang her sword on the rack. The room seemed a little darker; he felt strangely bereft, as if she was pulling away. He reached out to her, uncertain.
"I'm sorry," she said, wiping the wooden blade clean before she hung it. "That's none of my business. I didn't mean to intrude. Will you be in town very long?"
Kenshin let his hand drop to his side, exhaling sharply with a hurt he wasn't sure he was allowed to feel.
"I – " He swallowed, suddenly unsure. "I – thought I might stay here, actually. Unless it's…"
His throat closed around the words, aching. Her hand paused as it lifted from the rack, just for a moment.
"It's not an imposition," she said brightly. When she turned to face him again she was smiling: but her smile was hollow, shielding her and shutting him out, and it hurt enough to make him breathless. "After all, I did promise that you could. Lunch should be ready – have you seen Yahiko?"
He nodded, trying to swallow down the lump in his throat.
"You should meet the children, too," she said, walking briskly past him. "I'm going to change. I'll see you at lunch."
Then she was gone and he was left standing in the doorway of the training hall, his heart aching.
Kenshin lay awake that night in the small room he was sharing with Yahiko, since every other bedroom was full. The door was cracked to let in the cool night air. He watched the moon floating in the clear night sky through the gap, his hands laced behind his head. The house mumbling gently to itself, settling. Everything was peaceful. And everything was wrong.
Kaoru had acted as though they were mostly strangers. As if she didn't feel – anything, for him. But that couldn't be right. Were his feelings for her – and maybe she hadn't gotten that final letter but she had to know, even if she thought, wrongly, that it was only gratitude – were his feelings a nuisance for her? Did she not return them at all?
But her letters…
He couldn't have read them wrong. She had cared for him when she wrote them, if only as a friend. So why, now, did she act like there was nothing at all between them?
He turned on his side, digging his fingers into the sheets, and sighed heavily. Something had changed – something had happened, something that he didn't know about, something that had changed everything. Something was wrong. He hadn't understood at all.
A night-bird called in the distance. Kenshin burrowed a little deeper in the blankets, searching for sleep. His stomach knotted in on itself, tight and hard and frightened.
He'd find out. Somehow. Find out and – and fix it, if it could be fixed, and if not –
No. The war was over. There was time, plenty of it, and he could wait. Would wait.
There was time.
After a long while he slept, and dreamed of chasing Kaoru through endless corridors, always a few too many steps away.
Uzushou sat uncomfortably in the western-style chair, waiting for the foreigner. The riotous sounds of the New Year barely penetrated the office, nestled deep in the heart of the foreigner's compound. He knew that the foreigner was keeping him waiting to make a point, and the point was not lost on him.
The newspaper on the foreigners desk seemed to mock him. Surrender. Cowards – vile, cringing cowards, throwing away centuries of peace and order at the craven whining of a handful of bleeding hearts. No matter. They would understand soon enough how badly they had erred.
Finally, the door opened and the foreigner sauntered in, trailing his rank scent behind him. He settled down behind his desk and Uzushou kept a tight lock on his face. It was important that the foreigner not know how foul he smelled, or how much Uzushou despised him. He still needed this stinking barbarian – needed his money, the money that had come with him when he'd fled his own country's cowardly surrender to the gods-cursed bleeding-heart abolitionists.
"I presume you've heard the news, Mr. Chuzin?" the foreigner said.
"Yes." Uzushou flattened his hands against his thighs, heart raging in his breast. "What are we going to do?"
"There isn't much we can do." The foreigner shrugged. "It isn't as though we didn't expect this. Our own plans are not disrupted; they must only be broadened in scope."
"So it would seem." It was the answer he'd expected, although not the one he'd wanted. He wanted to attack now, today, yesterday – to rage through Japan and take vengeance for his master. To hunt down that rabid, red-headed dog and his traitor-bitch mistress, and that cunt of a doctor, and make them pay –
His hands clenched. He knew, though, that the foreigner did not see. Blind, idiot, arrogant – but useful. For now.
"In any case," the foreigner said, writing something. "This should allow you to draw further funds from my account. I've included an estimation of how much we need to expand in order to meet the new circumstances. And our allies in the new government have pledged to help us find the doctor – so we should be able to work out the kinks in the formula in short order."
Uzushou bowed, accepting the papers.
And when it was all over – when Japan was sane again, brought to heel under Kanryu's banner once more – then the foreigner would be of no further use.
As he left the foreigner's office, Uzushou allowed himself a small, cold smile.
He had always wondered how long it would take a stinking barbarian to die.
And that's all she wrote, folks. For further debriefing, see my tumblr - linked in my profile. See you in the sequel!