Warnings: Soldiers fighting a war, but nothing graphic.
Note: the title of this chapter, and that of chapter 26, are from the Paul Valéry quote, "the wind rises, we must try to live" (the one that's also included in Miyazaki Hayao's last movie). And this is the last chapter, so a big 'thank you' to everyone who's read and commented and encouraged me! It means a lot. Happy holidays to you. Thank you again!
We Must Try To Live
The new year has barely begun when Kenshin stops by the dojo. His ki is dark, his features pulled, which can only mean one thing.
"We are being sent to Fushimi," he announces. "Tonight. I sneaked out to let you know."
Dread pools like cold lead in Kaoru's stomach. They knew this moment was coming, but now that it is here…
"So this is it then? You'll fight the Shogun's army?"
"Yes. They outnumber us, but we have the better weapons and the moral advantage. Katsura-san is confident."
Kenshin hasn't taken off his shoes, hasn't fully stepped into the house, because he knows that if does, he'll never want to leave. And he has to go, the Shishi don't even know he has sneaked out, but that means willing his feet to move and take him back outside. The longer he stays, the harder it gets. He has a pretty good idea of what the morning will bring, on the battlefield.
"Maybe," Kaoru ventures, "if your victory is decisive enough, there will be no more fighting? Maybe this is the end of the war?" Her voice cracks a little, with hope that she won't quite let herself feel.
Yahiko has been looking back and forth at them, and now nods in emphasis. One last push, and then it could be over…
"I hope so," is all Kenshin can say. It could be the end of the war, or the beginning of so much more. Only the next few days will tell.
He doesn't say goodbye, only exchanges one long look with both Kaoru and Yahiko before whispering, "well, I've got to go", and turns to leave.
Kaoru and Yahiko watch the shoji close in stunned silence as the news sink in. The rumours will soon spread throughout the city. Everyone will hope for it to be the end of the fighting. Everyone will also remember the last time armies clashed in Kyoto, when half the city burned. Kaoru makes a mental note to stock up on food and necessities first thing in the morning, just in case.
It is then that she realizes that something essential is missing. She steps into her geta and all but throws the shoji open.
To her relief, Kenshin is still there, just about to reach the gate. He turns at the noise, but doesn't get to inquire about it. Kaoru has joined him as fast as her kimono allows, her intentions clear once her hand cups his cheek.
She presses her lips to his in a hot, demanding kiss that he eagerly returns. She makes it last, her fingers tangling in his hair and refusing to let go, and he clings to her as she clings to him, just this side of desperate, and waits for her to pull back before making any move.
When she does, she takes the ribbon holding her hair back, the one he gave her years ago, and places it in the folds of his gi, right over his heart.
"You better bring it back," she warns him.
The mock threat manages to make him smile – he has no doubt that his brave Kaoru would come get him on the battlefield if it came to it. He kisses her again, this time soft and tender, to seal their promise.
"Your word is my command, my love," he replies.
She looks up at him then, eyes shining with determination. "Then come back alive, husband."
Her voice does not waver, and he is once again amazed by her strength. He takes one last look at her, to burn this image of her – his fierce wife – in his mind and hopefully take some of that power into battle with him. Then he steps back, arms falling to his side, and the loss of contact causes her breath to catch.
He bows low to her in a formal salute. "I will be on my way," he tells her.
When she finally releases her breath, he has long since disappeared into the night.
Kenshin does not think. When the Shogun's armies were in sight and his commanding officers gave the order, he drew his sword, marched forward, and stopped thinking.
He has never seen war on such a scale, only skirmishes, smaller fights that never spanned more than a day. He imagined it would be an endless repetition of these fights, where more enemies kept coming, more enemies kept falling, and he'd keep going until no one else was left standing.
It is worse.
He hadn't imagined the noise – the screams of rage, of pain, the swords, the rifles, the canons, the sound of thousands of feet stomping the ground. And the smell… He knows the smell of blood and gore all too well, but with so many bodies piling around him, he feels like that smell has lodged itself in every single cell of his body. It is too strong, and mixed with sweat and gunpowder, and he is convinced that no amount of washing will ever get him rid of it.
He tries to invoke Kaoru's sweet perfume to block it, takes advantage of a rare moment of respite to press her ribbon to his nose, but the flowery scent is faint, easily overpowered by the rest.
He is at Bungobashi bridge with Choshu and Satsuma forces, to block Bakufu armies from getting any closer to Kyoto. Some of them Kenshin recognizes: he has crossed swords with Aizu and Shinsengumi fighters many times before. It is strange, to see somewhat familiar faces like this, but Kenshin blocks such thoughts from his mind. They would only distract him from the only thing he needs to know here: to make his swords fly. No need to think.
In Kyoto, people have learned to fear hitokiri Battousai, and most think twice before engaging him. But most of the men in front of him come from far away and do not know who he is. They see a Choshu man, and attack as they have been instructed to.
He kills them all for it.
The battle echoes and buries itself inside of him until it has replaced everything else. The imperialists have followed the Bakufu's armies as they retreated to Tominomori, and attack as soon as the day is light enough to see. Kenshin knows that in front of him are dutiful, honourable men intent on making up for yesterday's defeat and who will fight to the last. The battle will be long, and exhausting.
He retreats to the previous day's tactics, stops thinking, and lets his instincts take over. He only remembers to take a second to check the uniforms of the men coming at him before letting his swords dance.
Later, he'll hear stories of the Demon felling enemies with a blank face, unblinking, and will not care.
The imperialists' armies superiority becomes an unstoppable wave at noon, when Satsuma officers join them with the Imperial banner. Emperor Meiji's brother has been named commander in chief, making the Choshu and Satsuma troops official imperial armies, and anyone who opposes them enemies of the crown.
Kenshin sees the distress on his opponents' faces, a sharp contrast with his comrades' fierce joy. He sees them waver, torn between their orders and the fear of going against the Emperor's will. The imperialists around him raise their swords and, with loud battle cries, charge the Bakufu forces. Kenshin hesitates. Fighting enemies intent on killing him is one thing, hitting them when they are visibly lost and confused, hastily trying to put up a counter-attack, is another. It is a relief, then, to see them abandon the field and retreat.
As little as he knows about the intricacies of politics, one thing is blaringly clear: the Emperor's approval of Choshu and Satsuma's actions means that they have effectively won. If the Bakufu forces still try to retaliate, they will be annihilated, and even if they do survive, the consequences of their actions will be dire. Both sides know this. And if the war is won, then…
"The new era… is finally here." he whispers to the wind.
Around him, the imperialists exult.
Kenshin is told to fall back to Kyoto and wait there for new orders. The Bakufu troops retreat to Osaka, where Shogun Yoshinobu is waiting, and the imperialists wait to see what his next move will be, weapons at the ready.
The next day, news reach them that the Shogun has fled Osaka for Edo, abandoning his troops and dealing his men a devastating blow.
The imperialists are crying in outrage, demanding to chase the coward who'd dare behave in such a dishonourable way down, all the way to Edo if need be.
When their wish is granted, with Satsuma's Saigo Takamori announcing that they will indeed be marching east, Kenshin takes a different path.
It is one he has been mulling over for months, and with the blast of canons still ringing in his ears, he knows he cannot wait any longer. While his comrades prepare for the next phase of the fighting, he seeks out Katsura-san.
The whole city has been holding its breath, pretending everything is fine while making preparations for the worst, just in case. The canons ring loudly in the cold winter air and, when the wind is right, the cries of men carry all the way to them.
Kaoru is no different. She slips into her morning kata in the hopes of drowning the battle out, and tries not to think about her husband and the men falling under his blade. Tries not to think about him falling.
Beside her, Yahiko's ki is as tense and tightly wound as her own, so she changes tactics. Their warm-up done, she suggests a full-out sparring session, to which her student readily agrees.
Neither of them holds back, not even hesitating to use less-honourable moves they've both learned out on the streets, and keep going until they're out of breath, their muscles aching, and absorbed enough into the fight to ignore the rest of the world.
On the third day, the most popular rumour is that the rebels have won and been recognized by the Emperor. No official announcement has been made, but the wounded men coming back into the city seem to confirm it. If anything, they know the troops are moving towards Osaka.
Assuming Kenshin would also be on his way to the port city, Kaoru never expected him to come home at nightfall. Yet there he is, exhausted, but alive and whole.
Before she can say anything, he engulfs her in a tight embrace. There is reckless abandon in it, as if he'd let the last of his guard down – Kaoru realizes, then, that she has never seen that. There is always the slightest restrain in him, a warrior who knows he has to leave in the morning. But not this time. Winding her arms tight around his back, she wonders if the recent fights have proven too much, if this is a new way of dealing with it, if…
"What's going on?" she asks, her ki probing his.
To her complete disbelief, he holds her closer and kisses her temple before pulling away, a small, tired, genuine smile on his face.
"The new era is here," he tells her. "My part is done."
"What do you mean…" she barely dares to breathe. "Done?" After all these years…
"I saw Katsura-san. We agreed that Battousai helped open the way for the new era, and now that it is here… I am not needed anymore."
"You've been discharged?"
"Yes." His smile grows, and for a moment, he is positively giddy, so much his voice catches. Kaoru feels the same giddiness spread in her chest, and she laughs and jumps into his arms again. Using her momentum, he spins her around, laughing with her, finally… finally!
It is only then that Kaoru notices that Kenshin is not carrying his swords. Her hand stills in the air where the hilts should be – she knows the feel of leather and stingray skin, imagines them against her palm and… nothing. Even more than Kenshin's own words, this is what convinces her that it is over. Not the war as a whole, but their fight has ended. They are free.
Her laughter gives way to tears, good tears, and she spills them against her husband's chest - his heartbeat is strong and steady under her ear.
"Then you are… home for good?" she whispers, her hands fisting in his gi.
He holds her tenderly, and leans his head against hers before replying. "Yes. Yes, my love. I am home for good."
His ki is the lightest and the brightest she's ever sensed it.
Days pass, and Kenshin settles into his new life. He takes up most of the chores, allowing Kaoru more time to train Yahiko and practice herself, and has talked to Oguni-sensei about making salves for him again. Spring cannot come fast enough – he is eager to tend to their garden properly.
He rediscovers what he first found out in Otsu: that the repetitive motions of good, honest work keep his mind busy and give him a sense of purpose, and sometimes even make him tired enough that he doesn't dream at night.
This is one problem he doesn't know how to solve: the nightmares keep coming, the same ones he's had for years. Battousai may have died at this Toba-Fushimi battle, but his ghost still haunts him.
He had never really thought about that. During the war, Kaoru and him often talked about what their future would bring – there were plans, some completely unrealistic and others much more rational, but both had assumed that they'd wake up one day at peace and move on with their lives, that they'd be able to leave it all behind.
Kenshin discovers, now, that it won't be so easy.
The nightmares still find him at night, and sometimes even during the day, when he walks a street where he narrowly escaped ninja, or turns a corner where the Shinsengumi ambushed him – and the Shinsengumi have tried to ambush him many, many times. His hand reflexively reaches for a sword, and for one mad second he could see himself striking imaginary foes… except there are real people in the street now, and they are not Shinsengumi and, sword or not, he could hurt them. It would be easy. He knows exactly where to strike.
He is scared of himself; perhaps even more than when he was Battousai.
He and Kaoru have talked. She has nightmares, too, has had them for years, although they are not quite as violent by day. In the darkest hours of the night, the only comfort they have often is the other's warmth and soothing voice.
In his nightmares, he kills, and kills, and kills, until Kaoru falls under his blade before he can even recognize her. He sees the faces of his victims, and hears how they mock him.
In hers, their connection is discovered, and she loses Kenshin, or Yahiko, and can only watch, and is made to watch. Invisible enemies taunt her, surround her, and she is never strong enough to fight them off.
Kaoru spends those mornings-after in the dojo, going through her kata over and over again, faster, stronger, and only stops when she has seen some progress. On those days, Kenshin knows better than to interrupt her.
He hasn't touched a blade since he gave his daisho back to Katsura-san. It had been fitting – the Choshu leader had gifted him the swords on their way to Kyoto, all those years ago. He would soon outgrow the katana he'd brought from Shishou's house, and in his line of work, a wakizashi would be vital. Sitting in front of Katsura, on the other side of the war, Kenshin couldn't see himself keeping it. He didn't ask the older man what he would do with it. He still isn't sure he wants to know.
And since then, nothing. He hasn't even touched a shinai, not even when he helps Kaoru dust the dojo.
Another ghost still nags him: Yukishiro Tomoe, standing on pure white snow, and his own words whispered to the wind. When the new era comes, I will find a way to protect its people without killing. I will fight to protect lives.
He is making salves for Dr Oguni, but is starting to realize, down in his heart… it is not enough.
The snow is melting when Kaoru finally sees a change in him. The winter months have been… trying. Her nightmares are slowly subsiding – she has learned to talk back to her fears, to tell herself that she will not let them take control of her mind. Kenshin… is a different story. He is restless, looking for an answer he is not sure he can find, all the while putting on a brave front and smiling at her with his usual loving smile.
Months before, when he had agreed to spar with her, she had resolved to find him a weapon that would allow him to reconcile the Way of the Sword and his vow. She has spoken to her late father's blacksmith about it and together, they have come up with a solution – one that the wry, cynical Arai Shakku had laughed at, but that Kaoru thought would be perfect.
She had been ready to give it to Kenshin soon after he'd come home. Then she had noticed how he refused to touch any weapon, not even the shinai beginners use, and feared that she had been mistaken. The sword Arai had made for him was hidden in one of her drawers, and she could only wait for the right moment, if it ever came.
So she is surprised to find him in the dojo one spring morning, as she comes to practice her kata. He is intently staring at the bokken stand, then reaches out as if to grab one.
His movement causes him to notice her at the door, and his hand falls as he smiles at her.
"I was just making sure everything was in order," he tells her.
She does not push for an explanation – Kaoru knows her husband: if he isn't telling her, it means he is still working through it. He will talk when he is ready. And she'll be ready for him then.
It doesn't take very long. She sees Kenshin going through his kata a few days later, using one of her bokken. He takes them step-by-step, starting over when not satisfied, putting all of his incredible skill to use. His ki flows like she hasn't felt in a long time, intense, focused, swelling as he deploys more strength.
She watches him, mesmerized – it has been so long.
But something is… different. These are undeniably Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu kata, but… It dawns on her when she imagines the invisible opponents Kenshin is fighting. His blade shifts ever so slightly as he strikes, aiming for the shoulder instead of the neck, the hip instead of the stomach. In a real fight, it would mean the difference between an incapacitating injury and a lethal strike. It would stop his opponent, but not kill him.
He repeats the moves over and over again, and Kaoru knows he won't stop until they've become a second nature.
Not wanting to disturb him, she slips out of the dojo. She was right after all. Kenshin is ready.
"Here," Kaoru says, holding the sword out to him with two hands. "To accompany you in this new era."
Kenshin almost hesitates. He may be changing his style's attacks to make them less deadly, but they can still cause serious damage, even with a bokken. With live steel…
But then again, he knows Kaoru better than that.
They are kneeling in the dojo, in seiza, face to face. The formal setting is slightly intimidating, but he has never had any reason to doubt her. Mirroring her gesture, Kenshin takes it with both hands, and draws it a few inches.
And stares, before unsheathing a few more inches to confirm what he is seeing.
The blade is reversed, its sharp edge on the back. He stands and draws it fully, inspecting it closely, testing its balance… This is a high, high quality blade.
"Arai Shakku made it," Kaoru explains. "I thought it would allow you to keep fighting for the people, but…"
"Without killing," he finishes for her.
"Yes. I've seen how you've been adapting your style for it, but you'll need a proper sword. A bokken will never resist long enough. So, this sword… Do you think it can help?"
Kenshin executes some basic moves to try the new blade. It is heavier than a regular sword, and obviously still a dangerous weapon. Having the blunt edge on the outside will make drawing it slower, so he'll have to improve his battoujutsu to compensate for it. Ironic, and somehow fitting, when those moves made him famous during the rebellion. He will have to rethink his attacks again, allow himself no mistake and constantly hold back so he doesn't inflict too much damage… And yet, for the way he has chosen…
"It's perfect," he answers as he kneels back in from of Kaoru, and means it.
It gets easier after that, a little. Training with the reverse-blade sword has proved to be wonderfully therapeutic for Kenshin. He is still not entirely sure of how he will wield it: reach out to authorities in the city, or walk the streets by himself, helping those in need? But it doesn't matter. He will try, and make mistakes, until he finally gets it right and finds what works best for him.
The nightmares may never leave, but as long as Kenshin can use his own two hands to do some good, Kaoru knows he'll pull through.
She has been hard at work too, to find new students. It is only a matter of time until they come, now that the everyday life of Kyoto has calmed down. She and Kenshin have had long talks about how the Kamiya Kasshin Ryu perfectly fits what they hope the new era will be, and her message is slowly spreading through the city. Unlike other schools, she will not train only the samurai-born, but welcomes children of merchants and artisans. Kenshin is confident that the dojo will soon be filled with the loud clashes of shinai and bokken.
Kaoru comes awake in the middle of the night. There is no nightmare, and no alarm. She is simply awake, listening as their corner of the world sleeps.
An old habit, perhaps, from when Kenshin was out fighting in the streets and she thought she could feel his ki. Maybe it was a coincidence. Maybe she really could sense it, and unconsciously kept trying to detect it among the fighters in the city. She doesn't really want to think about it. Their war is over. What she feels, now, is peace.
She is awake, so she watches the moonlight cast shadows on the paper screens of her room; and she watches Kenshin's hand holding her own in his sleep.
In the night, her senses are heightened, and she feels every callus, and the smallest movement of his fingers. She wonders if he is dreaming. He is calm and relaxed, his breathing deep and easy.
She studies his face, turned towards her, and lets the fingers of her free hand trace his cheekbone, then slid down to his lips. His ki flickers in response, so she presses a kiss to his forehead. Over the years, she has often felt like this, like she can never be physically close enough to him, that even this, skin on skin, is not enough, and it breaks her heart in the most exquisite way. She would not have it any other way.
Kaoru is awake, and refuses not to be confident about their future. And with Kenshin sleeping peacefully beside her, she can almost pretend the war never happened.