January 20, 1865
Himura Kenshin made his way wordlessly up the stairs, following a doctor trusted by Katsura-san to examine and treat the revolutionaries as needed. He had been badly injured fighting the Yaminobu in Otsu and Katsura-san insisted that he submit himself to an examination before he was allowed to take up his new duty as a mobile striker. Kenshin seethed inwardly at this order. The last thing he wanted was to waste time sitting around. Sitting around idly gave one time to think and if he thought, he would only think of one thing, and who knew what insanity of guilt and torment that would lead his mind to? Nevertheless, Katsura-san had given an order and it was Kenshin's job to obey. To that end, he silently followed the doctor into the room, shutting the fusuma behind them.
"If you'll please remove your kimono," said the doctor as they both sat on the tatami.
Kenshin wordlessly shrugged out of his kimono and sat immobile as the Ishin doctor touched a cold stethoscope to his chest and listened to his heart beating, moving the stethoscope around to listen from different angles.
Raising the andon he had brought along to Kenshin's head, the doctor peered into his eyes to check for any lingering damage from the battle in the Binding Forest.
"Close your right eye," the doctor instructed.
Kenshin closed his right eye and the doctor held up two fingers.
"How many fingers am I holding up?"
"Two," came the short, cold answer.
"Open your right eye and close your left eye."
Kenshin complied and the doctor held up three fingers.
"You are holding up three fingers," droned Kenshin, before the doctor could ask the question.
The doctor nodded and Kenshin reopened his eye.
Next, the doctor peered into each of Kenshin's ears, checking for any lingering signs of damage to Kenshin's ear drums from the explosions.
"Mt. Fuji is the tallest mountain in Japan," the doctor whispered. "Repeat what I just said."
"Mt. Fuji is the tallest mountain in Japan," Kenshin repeated mechanically.
The doctor went over to the other ear.
"Tokugawa Yoshinobu is an ass," the doctor whispered to see if he could get some kind of reaction from his patient.
"Tokugawa Yoshinobu is an ass," Kenshin repeated, not so much as a smile ghosting his lips.
The doctor sighed inwardly.
"Your eyes and ears are fine," he stated. "Now, let's look at those wounds you suffered. It looks as though you suffered some damage to your spine. Stand up and bend down to touch your toes."
Wordlessly, Kenshin stood up, then bent over to touch his toes as the doctor watched. As he bent down, the chipped lumbar vertebra that he had suffered in his fight with Tatsumi started to cause him pain. He winced and faltered a bit, but forced himself to continue.
"Looks like you've suffered a chipped vertebra. That will heal with time, but you must take things easy for quite a while before you resume your duties," instructed the doctor. "Sit down again and we'll take a look at your shoulders."
Seething inside at the idea of having to rest, Kenshin sat back down on the tatami and moved his ponytail over the front of his shoulder so the doctor could check his wounds. The Ishin doctor held up the andon to inspect the still healing wounds on his shoulders. The doctor sucked in breath at the depth and length of the wounds, which looked as though they had come from a bear's claws.
"These have begun to heal incorrectly. If they scar over like this, you will lose 25% of your shoulder mobility. The only way to prevent that is to reopen them and then stitch them shut properly," warned the doctor, tracing his index finger over each of the tender wounds.
Kenshin nodded, but remained silent.
"Would you like a painkiller before I start?" asked the doctor.
A sharp shake of the head was the only answer. The doctor froze. Never had his offer of a painkiller before a painful treatment been turned down, even by the most stalwart of warriors.
"You do understand this will be a very painful treatment?" the doctor cautioned.
"It doesn't matter," was Kenshin's short, cold response.
After what he had been through, all subsequent pain would be a mere discomfort.
"Very well," said the doctor, sponging Kenshin's shoulders with alcohol to sterilize them, then picking up his scalpel.
The doctor touched his scalpel to Kenshin's flesh and began drawing it along the lopsided wound. He felt the young warrior's muscles tighten under his touch, but heard no scream. He spared a glance at Kenshin's face, which he saw was pale and taut, but there was no other sign of discomfort.
Amazed by the young warrior's fortitude, the doctor continued slicing the wound open. When he finished, he took up needle and thread, realigned the sides of the wound together and began stitching. This was repeated on the other five scratch wounds on Kenshin's shoulders. During the entire procedure, Kenshin sat stiff and silent. When the doctor finished, he bandaged the wounds up. As Kenshin shrugged his kimono back on, he gave strict instructions.
"You must avoid using your sword for two weeks or else the stitches will be pulled out and your wounds won't heal properly," he said solemnly.
The only acknowledgment Kenshin gave was a curt nod as he stood up, slid his daisho into his obi and left the room.
'That kid has some serious problems,' the doctor thought as he packed his instruments up.
In the back room, the only place in the crowded inn that afforded any solitude, Himura Kenshin pulled his katana from his obi, slumped against the wall and slid slowly down to the floor. Once seated, he propped his sword against his left shoulder and his forehead against his right knee. Kenshin closed his eyes and let out a sigh that seemed to come from his whole body.
Alone in the dark room, he allowed his mind to return to the farmhouse in Otsu, to the warmth and quiet love they had shared. He had loved her. He was certain, or at least he hoped he was, that she had loved him during their final night together and when she had...
Snow! Blood! Slash! Pain!
Kenshin abruptly pulled his head up from his knee and forced his mind back to the present. If he allowed himself to linger on her, he would break and be useless to the Patriots. Once the war was over, then he could break. For now, his skills were needed.
In an effort to distract himself from his grief, Kenshin went over what he knew about the present state of the war in his mind. The Shinsengumi had grown in strength and ferocity, hunting down Patriots and killing them without mercy. Inwardly, he cursed the improperly healed wounds that would keep him laid up for at least two weeks.
Two weeks with nothing to do but remember.
"Himura-san?" a soft, feminine voice called from the doorway.
Kenshin lifted his gaze and focused on the face lit by the dim light of the andon she carried.
"Ikumatsu-dono?" he questioned.
Ikumatsu entered the room, holding the andon before her. She knelt down in front of Kenshin, setting the lantern down beside them.
"Why are you in this room alone?" she asked in concern.
"I am unfit to be around anyone right now," answered Kenshin softly, gazing at the floor.
"Himura-san, you mustn't blame yourself. Kogoro told me all about what happened between you and Tomoe-chan. I believe she knew what she was doing when she intervened in your fight and was happy to do it," said Ikumatsu.
"Why would she wish to save the life of the one who murdered her fiance?" Kenshin asked, still staring at the floor.
"Because she realized that you weren't a horrible monster, but a boy who had gotten caught up in the chaos of war. She wanted you to be able to live out the rest of your life in peace," explained Ikumatsu. "That's why, as hard as it may seem right now, you mustn't give up on your life, Himura-san. If you truly wish to honor Tomoe-chan's memory, you must live on!"
Kenshin hesitantly raised his gaze to Ikumatsu's kind brown eyes.
"Do you truly believe that's what she would want?" he asked, a catch in his voice.
"I do," said Ikumatsu solemnly.
Kenshin closed his eyes and inhaled deeply.
"I will live on, only for her sake," he promised softly.
"Good," said Ikumatsu. "Now come. Kogoro fixed a small room just for you so you can rest and heal in peace."
Hesitantly, Kenshin got to his feet and permitted Ikumatsu to lead him to the small cell, which had a brazier crackling away in it and a futon already laid out. An open door looked out into the courtyard. There was also a hakuzen with some konnyaku laid out on it.
"I know you probably aren't hungry, but you must eat at least a little so you can regain your strength more quickly," advised Ikumatsu.
"Yes, Ikumatsu-dono, this Himura will eat soon," agreed Kenshin softly.
"Good night, Himura-san," said Ikumatsu, gazing sadly at her fiance's favorite warrior.
"Good night, and thank you, Ikumatsu-dono," said Kenshin with a bow.
Ikumatsu nodded and backed out of the room, closing the fusuma behind her.
Kenshin withdrew his katana from his obi, sat in front of the hakuzen and forced himself to eat a few bites of the konnyaku and take a few sips of the green tea. He winced at the faint taste of blood. It wasn't as bad as it had been before he had met his beloved, but now that she was dead, it was beginning to creep back in.
'I may be going insane again. It's no less than I deserve for ruining, and then ending, Tomoe's life,' Kenshin thought bitterly.
He glanced at the comfortable looking futon. His back ached and the idea of stretching out in the warm futon was tempting. Instead, Kenshin seated himself against the wall and resumed the position he had sat in in the storage room earlier. The one who had ruined the life of, and killed the woman he loved, didn't deserve the comfort of a futon.
Kenshin closed his eyes, lowered his head and let a fitful sleep take him. The sweet scent of white plum blossoms, the coppery tang of blood and the bitter cold wetness of the snow assaulted and tormented him even in his deepest dreams.