June 14, 1878
Moving as quickly as they could, the little group made their way from the ruins of the Aoiya to the Shirobeko which Sekihara Sae had opened up for them to stay at. Hiko was a great help, taking Kenshin into his own arms so Sano would be free to help others struggle along. Hiko kept the body of his pupil hidden under his cape to protect him from any prying eyes that might be about. Thankfully, they were able to move under cover of night, guided only by moonlight, free from the stares of the townsfolk.
Sekihara Sae was waiting for them and quietly welcomed everyone into the Shirobeko. She showed Hiko and Kaoru to an upstairs bedroom with a futon already laid out in it. By the light of a lantern, Hiko and a pale, frightened Kaoru undressed Kenshin by slowly peeling away the tattered remnants of his red kimono and gray, bloodstained hakama and began cleansing his wounds.
Kaoru was sickened by the scourge of wounds and burns covering Kenshin's slender body. Though he was unconscious, his face was taut with pain as he struggled for each shaky breath. So shocked was she by the injuries, she couldn't even think of modesty and gladly assisted Hiko in any way she could in caring for the Rurouni. Hiko, having seen injuries many times before knew what to do, though his medical skills beyond the basic cleaning and dressing of wounds were lacking. Kenshin needed advanced medical care urgently.
The doctor who was brought in a few hours later to treat their wounds removed Hiko's ad hoc bandages and looked Kenshin over grimly. He didn't think there was much hope for the Rurouni, but couldn't bring himself to voice it to the giant swordsman and the young girl with the frightened eyes who refused to leave the room.
The doctor spent most of the night working on Kenshin's wounds; disinfecting them, stitching them, rubbing on a healing poultice and finally applying bandages. The three most worrisome ones were the stab wound in his right side, the blast wound on his right shoulder and the bite mark on his neck. Kenshin's forehead was hot to the touch due to a raging fever.
"He's very fortunate," the doctor told Kaoru and Hiko as he looked over the stab wound in Kenshin's right side. "If he'd been stabbed even an inch higher, his liver would have been pierced and there would be no hope."
Kaoru put her hands over her mouth and tried to fight back tears. Just the thought of losing Kenshin again drove her nearly to distraction. Hiko remained grim and silent.
"His fever is dangerously high. Someone needs to stay with him at all times. Keep the cloth on his forehead cool and send for me immediately if it goes any higher," instructed the doctor.
Kaoru could only nod, staring in mute horror at the bruised and battered Rurouni.
After the doctor left to treat Sano, Yahiko, Aoshi and Misao, Kaoru looked up at Hiko, her gaze beseeching him to say something comforting. Hiko, however couldn't really think of anything comforting to say. He believed, or at least hoped, his stupid student would pull through this.
"Hiko-san, thank you for your help," Kaoru said at length.
"You'll look after him?" he asked the girl.
Kaoru could only nod.
"Then I'll take my leave!" said Hiko, suddenly turning, his white cape billowing out behind him.
After Hiko left, Kaoru took Kenshin's bandaged hand between hers and watched as his chest rose and fell in sleep, his breathing shallow and ragged.
"Kenshin?" she said softly. "Can you hear me?"
"You fought so well and you kept your promise to me. I'm waiting for you to wake up so we can go back to Tokyo, OK?" said Kaoru softly, tears slipping unheeded from her eyes.
Kaoru said nothing more. She just stayed by Kenshin's bedside, rewetting and applying the cloth on his forehead as necessary.
In the morning, Kaoru was awakened by a gentle tapping on the door.
'Wha? I fell asleep?' she thought in alarm.
She hadn't meant to do that!
Quickly, she looked to Kenshin and was relieved to see that he was still breathing, but disappointed that he was still unconscious. Again, the gentle tapping.
"Come in," she called softly.
The door slid open and in hobbled Okina, leaning on his cane.
"Kaoru-kun, Sanosuke-san told us about the lady doctor in Tokyo who's a friend of yours," said the ninja.
'Lady doctor? Oh!' thought Kaoru.
"Megumi-san!" she exclaimed.
"Yes, that's the one," said Okina. "I've sent a telegram to her clinic in Tokyo and told her about Himura-kun's wounds. She should be here the day after tomorrow. After what he's done for Japan, Himura-kun deserves the best."
"Yes, he does," she agreed.
The doctor came by again, removed the bandages and checked Kenshin's wounds. Thankfully, no infection had set in yet. He reapplied the poultice, then wrapped the wounds in sterile dressings and tucked Kenshin back into the futon.
"When do you think he'll wake up?" Kaoru ventured.
"That's not something I can guess at. It depends on his will and strength," said the doctor simply.
'Will and strength,' thought Kaoru. 'Right now, I have to be Kenshin's strength. I must stay by his side.'
That is exactly what Kaoru did. She nursed Kenshin as best she knew how. She made certain the cloth on his forehead was cool, read to him, sang to him and sometimes just held his hand or stroked his bangs back from his fevered brow.
The only times Kaoru left Kenshin's room were when she needed the out house. On her way back in from said out house, she ran into Sanosuke, obligatory fish bone hanging out of his mouth. It seemed like nothing could get Sano down.
"Hey, Missy," he said nonchalantly, flashing his roguish grin.
"How's the hand?" asked Kaoru.
"I've had worse," said Sano as he chawed his fishbone.
Kaoru smiled. Knowing Sano, he probably had.
"You told Okina-san to send for Megumi-san?" asked Kaoru.
"Thank you," said Kaoru earnestly.
"No problem. My little buddy needs the best right now. How's he doin'? Still sleepin', right?"
Kaoru nodded sadly, eyes downcast.
"Don't you worry. He'll wake up. You just wait till the Vixen gets here. She'll get him back on his feet in no time. Kenshin wants to get better. When he was fightin' Shishio, he said, 'I can't die. I won't die yet! Someone's waitin' for me to return.' I'm pretty sure that 'someone' was you," said Sano.
"He said that?" asked Kaoru, looking up at Sano with a hopeful gaze.
"Sure as the Aku on my back," said Sano.
"Thank you, Sanosuke," said Kaoru.
"Sure," said Sano. "See ya in a bit. I'm gonna go snatch some more a Tae's food now."
"You mean Sae. Tae's back at the Akabeko in Tokyo," corrected Kaoru.
"Sae, Tae... whatever. They got the same face," said Sano with an indifferent shrug as he sauntered down to the kitchen to pilfer Sae's food.
Kaoru stared after the Rooster and shook her head.
The next day proceeded in the same way. The doctor dropped by, changed Kenshin's bandages and examined him. The wounds however didn't show much sign of healing, still bleeding slightly into the bandages. The doctor although proficient, had no medicines powerful enough for such deep abrasions.
"I'm afraid these wounds are really beyond my ken. They need more powerful herbs than I have access to," he admitted sadly to Kaoru.
"It's alright. I'm sure he's better off than he would be otherwise," said Kaoru resignedly.
All Kaoru could do was look after the Rurouni and pray silently that Megumi would get there quickly. She looked out the window and saw Sano, Yahiko and Misao heading off to help the Oniwabanshuu repair their damaged home. Part of her wanted to go, but she just couldn't leave Kenshin's side till he either woke up or died.
Finally, on the third day, the door to Kenshin's room slid open and in came Megumi, carrying a large wooden medicine chest. Despite her dislike for the lady doctor, Kaoru was elated to see her.
"Megumi-san, thank you for coming so quickly," said Kaoru.
"No time for pleasantries. Let's get to work. Sit him up so I can get those bandages off," Megumi instructed in a stiff voice as she began laying out her supplies.
Kaoru shot Megumi a glare, but didn't argue with her. Instead, she hoisted Kenshin into a sitting position and held him steady so Megumi could treat him. While Kaoru held Kenshin sitting, Megumi felt Kenshin's forehead, looked in his eyes, took his pulse and blood pressure and listened to his breathing. She then began undoing his bandages.
As the bandages came away, Megumi's trained eye could tell that Kenshin's wounds were quite severe and weren't healing properly with the regular medicine.
'Oh Ken-san, how could something like this happen to you?' Megumi screamed in her mind.
Forcing herself into her doctor mindset, Megumi decided that what Kenshin's wounds needed was the special Takani touch. With such severe injuries, Kenshin would need a lot of care if he were to recover. The first thing Ken-san needed was a good, cool bath.
Megumi dipped the cloth into a bowl of cool water and gently bathed Kenshin from head to toe. She had Kaoru lie him down on the clean surface of the futon and allowed Kenshin to dry off with the summer wind blowing through the open window. This would help to lower his fever.
'I've seen injuries before, but not like this. It will be nothing short of a miracle if he survives,' Megumi thought sadly as she eyed the hastily stitched wounds on the poor Rurouni's body.
Bath finished, Megumi rubbed her ointment onto his wounds. Kaoru then helped her bandage Kenshin up. After this was done, Kaoru tucked him back into bed.
"Has he been given anything to eat since he returned?" Megumi asked.
"No. The doctor just had me give him water to keep him hydrated," answered Kaoru.
"Alright. I'm going to feed him a miso broth tonight and see if he can tolerate that. It's very important that he start getting nourishment so he can recover faster," said Megumi. "I'm also going to give him a sedative so he can heal without too much pain."
Kaoru looked down at the still form of the supine Rurouni. She certainly hoped he would recover faster now that Megumi was here. She couldn't bear seeing him lying there helplessly, feverish and covered in bandages. It was like he wasn't really Kenshin anymore.
With Kaoru holding Kenshin in a sitting position, Megumi began slowly feeding him a miso broth. It contained no solids for fear his weakened body would reject it. Megumi poured a small amount into his open mouth, then rubbed the bottom of his jaw to make him swallow automatically. It had to be done very carefully or Kenshin could choke on the soup.
Eventually the soup bowl was depleted. Megumi then fed Kenshin his medicinal tea, which had been keeping warm in a pot. She repeated the slow process of pouring and rubbing, pouring and rubbing until the tea was gone. With a nod of Megumi's head, Kaoru gently laid Kenshin back down on the futon.
"Kaoru-chan, come around here. There's something I want to teach you so you can care for Ken-san," said Megumi.
Kaoru came around to Kenshin's side. Megumi folded the blanket down so Kenshin's abdomen was exposed. Taking Kaoru's right hand under her own, Megumi guided it to Kenshin's belly and began showing her how to rub her hand in slow clockwise circles on Kenshin's stomach in a gentle massage, taking care to stay away from the sword wound. Kaoru's eyes widened.
"Megumi-san?" she asked.
"This will help Ken-san digest his food. Massage also has healing properties," explained Megumi.
Megumi removed her own hand and watched as Kaoru continued to rub hers gently in slow, rhythmic motions. Megumi nodded her approval.
"Just keep that up for the next five minutes and slowly taper off in the last minute," she said softly.
"Alright," replied Kaoru, determined to do anything she could to bring Kenshin back.
As she continued rubbing, Kaoru became aware of the odd fact that she was enjoying this. Of course she hated the fact that Kenshin was in this state, but touching him so intimately and caring for him was a somewhat pleasurable experience that almost offset the worry.
'I've never felt this way before,' Kaoru thought to herself as she continued the slow, gentle massage on Kenshin's stomach.
Because Kenshin couldn't move on his own, Megumi came in several times a day to reposition him slightly on the futon to keep bed sores from developing and to keep the blood circulating properly to his extremities. Megumi also had Kaoru rub Kenshin's limbs to aid blood flow.
With Kaoru holding Kenshin upright over the pot, Megumi pressed her left hand sharply into his lower abdomen and her right hand into his groin, causing a stream of urine to shoot out from him. Kaoru blushed crimson as she heard the sound of the pot being filled. Megumi continued pressing down until no more urine came out.
The two women laid Kenshin back down into the futon and covered him up with the sheet. Kaoru looked at Megumi with curious eyes. Megumi couldn't help but smirk at the girl's ignorant curiosity.
"Pressure points," was her succinct answer.
Kaoru nodded, feigning comprehension.
Megumi shook her head, picked up the pot and went out to empty it. With a sigh, Kaoru turned back to the redhead and gently placed a cool cloth on his forehead. Hopefully he would wake up soon.
Megumi and Kaoru worked together to bathe the fallen warrior. The lady doctor carefully removed all of his bandages. Kaoru held Kenshin in a sitting position while Megumi bathed him with warm water and soap. Megumi took her time, sponging off the Rurouni's torso and limbs. She then poured warm water over him, making certain to get all the soap off.
After he was clean and dry, Megumi medicated and then wrapped his wounds in fresh bandages. This done, Kaoru tucked him back into the futon. Through this, he never once responded.
The rest of the week passed in similar fashion. Every morning, Megumi and Kaoru would bathe Kenshin and change his bandages. Megumi was pleased to see that Kenshin's wounds showed a bit more evidence of healing each time she checked them.
Although she knew he was getting better, Kaoru still refused to leave Kenshin's side until he awoke because she wanted him to see a familiar face upon awakening.
With the passing of a week and Megumi's special salve, Kenshin's wounds began to heal more quickly. By the time week two rolled around, Megumi decided that it was time to allow her patient to wake up from the sedative-induced sleep she had kept him in since her arrival.
Although Kenshin's repose appeared peaceful, in reality it was anything but. The rurouni was trapped in a never-ending cycle of nightmares about his battle with Shishio and the horrors of the Bakumatsu.
The demonic swordsman with the crimson eyes, looking like some mummy brought to life, was laughing and mocking him, flames shooting up from the stacks behind him and glaring off the serrated blade of the Mugenjin.
Over and over again, Kenshin relived the horrible feeling of Shishio's acidic saliva as the man's fang-like teeth pierced the right side of his neck, gouging a huge chunk out of the tender flesh.
As Shishio held Kenshin off the ground by the folds of his kimono, Kenshin could smell the gunpowder and hear Shishio's laughter. There was a bright flash of light and the sound of thunder as the gunpowder in Shishio's glove exploded, blasting his right shoulder into a mangled mess. Kenshin's body exploded in pain as he hit the ground, seemingly dead from Shishio's Guren Kaina.
Summoning all his strength and training, Kenshin rose to his feet and went on the offensive. Summoning the Dragons of Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu to his aide, he attacked from above with the Ryu Tsui Sen, then from below with Ryu Sho Sen. Spinning around to the right, he hit Shishio with a Ryu Kan Sen, Wintry Wind, Whorl and Storm.
Shishio was knocked back a few feet, but glared defiantly at his assailant.
"IS THAT ALL YOU'VE GOT?!" he called out, taunting the Rurouni.
Immediately, Kenshin felt the searing flame of the Homura Dama again. Using his training, Kenshin ignored the pain and grabbed one of Shishio's trailing bandages.
"The mind can overcome such pain. All who choose the life of the warrior know this," the rurouni said, as he gasped for breath.
Looking at Shishio with rage in his violet eyes, he cried out.
"BUT A WORLD THAT WOULD FORCE SUCH PAIN ON THE WEAK, WHO HAVE NOT CHOSEN BLOODSHED, THAT I WILL NOT ALLOW!"
Kenshin launched into the Kuzu Ryu Sen, striking at Shishio nine times in rapid succession with the Sakabatou. The attack sent the mummy hurdling into the wall behind him.
The pain of the Mugenjin piercing his right side was nothing next to the pain Kenshin felt as he saw the horrific vision of Komagata Yumi being pierced through by her lover's sword. Shishio and Yumi kissed as she died in his arms. What kind of monster could betray the woman he loved?
Yumi and Shishio disappeared, replaced by a beautiful young woman with sad black eyes and a purple shawl, standing among silently falling snowflakes. A katana cleaved her nearly in half, her blood spattering on the white snow. Kenshin's heart shattered into a thousand pieces.
The dead, all the dead, everyone he had ever killed... he could remember their faces. With empty eyes and bloody bodies, they chased him, grabbing at his feet, trying to pull him into Hell with them. Kenshin ran as fast as he could, yet he didn't seem to make any progress. He could hear the howls of the dead behind him.
A sharp cry awakened Kaoru in the middle of the night. Quickly lighting the andon, she saw Kenshin thrashing about on the futon across the room from hers, sweat glistening on his skin in the dim light. His handsome features were etched with pain and fear. Worried that he'd pull the stitches in the abdominal wound if he didn't stop and even more so disturbed to see him obviously in the throes of a nightmare, Kaoru was by his side in a second.
Kenshin's voice was cracked and faint. It came out not in words, but in cries that belied great pain and suffering, cries that made Kaoru's heart squeeze in worry for the man she loved. Kaoru laid her hand on Kenshin's forehead and stroked thick bangs back from his fevered brow.
"Shhhh, Kenshin. Shhhh, it's alright. I'm here. You're OK," she said soothingly as she continued stroking his brow.
Kenshin's cries gradually ceased and his face relaxed and became serene.
"That's it. You're fine. Go back to sleep now. I'm with you," Kaoru softly cooed to him.
Kaoru stayed with him until his breathing changed to sleep.
Kaoru was sitting by Kenshin's futon, singing to him as she gently touched the few areas of his body that were not bandaged. She hoped her touch would offer him some comfort, some evidence of her presence.
Kaoru lifted the cloth off Kenshin's forehead and felt it; still warm, but much cooler than before.
'His fever's going down!' she thought happily.
A faint sound of rustling cloth caught Kaoru's attention. She looked down and saw that Kenshin was stirring just a bit. Her gaze traveled to his scarred face. Kenshin's features tensed up as he struggled to open his eyes.
Kaoru's joy knew no bounds when his lids finally pried themselves open, revealing the violet eyes she had waited so patiently to see. Kenshin's lips moved as he tried to speak.
"K-Kao..." he struggled, but couldn't quite get her name out.
Kaoru held her index finger to Kenshin's lips to silence him. She poured some water into a cup, then lifted Kenshin's head and held it to his lips. Kenshin drank the water slowly, struggling to keep his eyes open and on her face. After drinking half the cup, Kenshin turned his face aside, indicating that he could take no more water.
Kaoru put the cup aside and gently lowered his head back to the pillow. Next, she dipped the cloth in the bowl, wrung it out and laid it on Kenshin's forehead. Again, he attempted to speak.
"We're at the Shirobeko, which is owned by Tae's twin sister, Sae," explained Kaoru. "Everyone's fine. You were hurt worst of all. We've been so worried about you. It's good to have you back, Kenshin."
Kenshin smiled weakly up at her, struggling to keep his eyes open, fighting the oncoming sleep to fix her face in his memory.
Kaoru stroked Kenshin's heavy bangs and smiled softly at him.
"Go to sleep," she said softly. "I'll be here when you wake up. I promise."
This seemed to be enough. Kenshin smiled, then closed his eyes and allowed sleep to claim him again. Kaoru sighed happily and sat back on her heels. It might not seem like much to the average onlooker, but that small moment of wakefulness meant the world to her.
Kaoru decided the first thing to do now was appraise Megumi of her patient's progress. She stood up and moved quietly toward the door. With one last look back to make certain Kenshin was still asleep, she stole from the room with a silence to rival that of any hitokiri.
Megumi exited the main dining area where she'd just finished bandaging Sano's hand and chewing him out for the umpteen-billionth time since arriving for being careless with it. Her eyes widened in surprise to see Kaoru out of the room. At first, cold dread gripped her heart. Had Kaoru come to tell her of something wrong with Ken-san? Then she saw the joy shining in the girl's eyes and her heart soared.
"Ken-san woke up?" she asked before Kaoru could get her words out.
"How'd you know?" asked Kaoru, annoyed that Megumi had stolen her thunder.
"It's written all over your face, Racoon," said Megumi, feeling like she could finally tease Kaoru a bit now that things were starting to look up.
Ignoring Megumi's little barb, Kaoru continued with the happy news.
"He opened his eyes and looked up at me. I gave him some water and then he went back to sleep," she reported.
"Alright. That's a step in the right direction," said Megumi. "Let's keep this to ourselves for now. I want Ken-san to be stronger before Sanosuke and Yahiko go barging in to see him."
Kaoru nodded in agreement.
"I'd better head back up now," she said.
"Let Ken-san sleep till I come up with the miso tonight," instructed Megumi.
Kaoru nodded again and hurried back upstairs. She slid the door open to find Kenshin as she'd left him. After sliding the door shut, Kaoru sat down by his bedside and took up a book she'd started in on to pass the time.
In the evening, Megumi came up with the miso soup and a special tea she'd made with a strong painkiller that Ken-san was sure to need when he fully regained his senses. At her behest, Kaoru gently shook Kenshin awake.
"Wake up, Kenshin. Megumi-san's here with food," she said softly.
Kenshin's eyelids fluttered open. Everything was a bit fuzzy at first, but a few blinks cleared his field of vision up. His eyes darted from Kaoru's face to Megumi's.
"Megumi-dono?" he asked, voice a bit stronger than earlier.
"I came here to look after my favorite patient," said Megumi with a smile. "How do you feel, Ken-san?"
"Awful," said Kenshin with a weak smile.
"I've brought some food and a tea that'll help with the pain," said Megumi as she knelt at the side of the futon. "Do you think you can eat?"
"Will try," said Kenshin.
"Just let me sit you up," said Kaoru, sitting behind Kenshin and gently helping him to sit up and holding him against her.
"Thank you," said Kenshin.
First came the tea. Kenshin made a face at its taste, but forced himself to take it all.
"Sorry about the taste, Ken-san, but as the doctor who trained me used to say, 'Good tasting medicine isn't medicine at all'," said Megumi.
Kenshin smiled vaguely.
Megumi held the bowl of miso broth to Kenshin's lips and the Rurouni drank it slowly. It felt nice to have hot food in his stomach again. It felt like forever since he'd last eaten.
After he was supine again, Kaoru began her massage of Kenshin's stomach.
"Kaoru... -dono?" asked the Rurouni, a slight flush seeming to tinge his cheeks.
"It'll help you get better," said Kaoru, too nervous to make eye contact with the Rurouni.
Kenshin said nothing more, instead closing his eyes and letting a tidal wave of sleep carry him away.
Kaoru sat back on her heels and watched as Kenshin slept, his ribcage inflating and deflating with each breath he took. His breathing was deep, even and peaceful, a great contrast from how he had struggled for each breath his first few nights back.
Kaoru's eyes fell on the bandaged sword wound that Sanosuke had said came from Kenshin's second battle with Divine Sword Soujiro. It was hard for Kaoru to believe that anyone could have been fast enough to slash Kenshin on the back. Like all the others, this wound was healing nicely and probably by next week, Megumi would be able to remove the stitches.
Suddenly, Kenshin sucked in a large breath and rolled over so his face was to Kaoru. Kaoru couldn't help but smile at how peaceful he looked just now, even though she knew that was due in no small part to Megumi's pain killer. Each day showed improvement in how Kenshin's wounds looked and more alertness in his visage.
Kaoru longed to brush the thick, red bangs from Kenshin's forehead, but he was alert enough now that this would wake him up. Kaoru contented herself with watching the redhead sleep for the next few hours.
Kenshin closed his eyes gratefully as he let his bladder muscles relax. A weak stream trickled into the pot Megumi had put under the sheet. Megumi discreetly looked the other way as her patient finished relieving himself. When no more came, Megumi removed the pot and replaced the sheet.
Kenshin was asleep before she was out of the room.
Kenshin spent the majority of each day asleep, having only enough energy to remain awake while he was being cared for and fed. His sleep was deep for the most part. Sometimes he would be brought near wakefulness for brief periods by the sounds of the continuous party going on downstairs. In the end though, exhaustion would pull him down again.
Slowly though, as the days passed by, Kenshin began to be able to stay awake a wee bit longer and was more lucid during his waking moments. Megumi and Kaoru kept his wakefulness a secret from the others so Kenshin could heal in peace and quiet and always kept their conversations with him short and quiet so he wouldn't be overwhelmed by too much stimulation.
By the end of the week, Kenshin was more alert and was starting to become a bit bored and restive with nothing to do all day but lie in bed. Having slept for a few hours after Kaoru and Megumi had cared for him earlier, Kenshin lay awake in the futon, back and legs aching. He was lying down too much! Just then the door opened and Megumi came in with a pile of yukata and sheets that had just been laundered. After she had put them away, Kenshin called for her.
"Megumi-dono?" he asked.
"Yes, Ken-san?" responded Megumi.
"Would it be possible to sit up for a bit?" asked Kenshin.
"Certainly!" said Megumi.
It would actually be good for Kenshin to sit up for a bit. He had spent most of his time lying supine and that wasn't good for the back.
Megumi fetched the large cushion and sat Kenshin up against it, pulling the blanket up over his chest. Kenshin smiled gratefully at her. Megumi blushed, smiled quickly and looked away. She was heartened to see Kenshin looking alert for the first time since her arrival.
"Thank you, Megumi-dono," he said shyly.
"You're welcome, Ken-san. If you need anything, don't hesitate to ask," said Megumi.
"This worthless one will remember that," said Kenshin.
Kenshin spent the next few hours sitting propped against the cushion, looking out the window at the skyline and the city of Kyoto below. Kyoto... never had he thought to return to this city after the bloody days of the Bakumatsu. He certainly had never thought to find allies in the Oniwabanshuu, a clan of ninjas that had been the deadly spy and assassin network of the Bakufu. Ten years could really change things!
A bit later on, Kaoru came back with some books borrowed from the book lender. After hearing Kenshin's faint "come in", she slid the door open and stepped in. Kaoru's eyes widened when she saw the Rurouni sitting up against the cushion, as up till now he'd only had enough energy to sit up against her while being fed. Even a small change like this was the sign of a huge step in Kenshin's recovery.
"I thought you might like these. It must be boring to just sit there," said Kaoru, holding out the books.
Kenshin took the books with a smile.
"Thank you, Kaoru-dono. These will help pass the time," he said.
"You're welcome," said Kaoru, blushing.
"Now listen you, when you're in there, you’re to be on your best behavior. Use your quietest voice. Don't stay in there too long either. Ken-san is exhausted and needs rest," said Megumi in the tone of a mother exhorting her young son in the tenets of proper behavior.
"Yes, Vixen," said Sano in a mocking tone with a roll of his eyes.
"Just do it!" said Megumi through clenched teeth.
"Hey! No hittin' a guy whose arm's in a sling!" whined Sano.
"Your arm wouldn't BE in a sling if you hadn't shattered your hand with that Futae no whatever nonsense!" flashed Megumi.
Sano scowled at the lady doctor, but couldn't really think of a good comeback. She was right after all! The sulking Rooster turned on his heel and headed down the hall to Kenshin's room, still rubbing the back of his head.
Sano paused at the door, putting his left hand on the opener. He slid it open to find Kenshin sitting up against the large cushion, wearing a yukata over his bandages. Though wan and obviously in very weak condition, Kenshin smiled brightly when he saw his friend enter the room.
"Hello, Sano," he said happily.
"How you feelin' man?" Sano asked, observing Kenshin's peaked little face.
"This worthless one has felt better," answered Kenshin, knowing it would be futile to say he felt fine. "How's the hand?"
"Don't hurt," said Sano, giving his hand a nonchalant glance.
In truth it was killing him, but he would not tell Kenshin this when Kenshin was obviously in much worse shape.
"Sano, thank you for being this worthless one's 'strong right arm.' Without you, the battle would have been a loss," said Kenshin softly.
"Hey no problem. I got to learn Futae no Kiwami cuz of it. Proved that asshole Saitou wrong in th’ end," said Sano.
At the mention of Saitou's name, the smile disappeared from Kenshin's face. He now fixed Sano with a serious and inquisitive gaze.
"Did Saitou make it out with us?" asked the Rurouni.
Sano's gaze dropped.
"Sano?" pressed Kenshin.
With a sigh, Sano told what happened.
"Saitou rammed the door down with his Gatotsu Zeroshiki, then turned and disappeared into the flames just as the bridge gave out b’tween us. Nobody coulda survived that," Sano explained grimly.
Kenshin closed his eyes, trying to digest the news. Was this to be how their ten-year duel would end, with him as the winner merely because he survived?
"Kenshin?" asked Sano, worried that he might have just set Kenshin's recovery back with this news.
"This worthless one is fine," said Kenshin, opening his eyes again.
Sano nodded, but was unconvinced.
"How goes the rebuilding of the Aoiya?" asked Kenshin, evidently wishing to change the subject.
"Goin' good. 'Bout half done," answered Sano.
Kenshin nodded, feeling guilty that he couldn't get up and help.
"Don't feel bad about not bein' able to help. You've done enough already," said Sano.
Kenshin smiled a bit. Sano was learning how to read him almost as well as his master.
"How is Aoshi?" Kenshin asked at length.
"The Ice Man's locked himself away in a Zen temple and won't talk to nobody," replied Sano indifferently.
Kenshin sighed a bit.
"He needs to work things out in his soul before he will be ready to deal with people again," explained the rurouni.
Sano grunted in response. At present, his eyes landed on an igo board sitting unused on a shelf across the room.
"Hey Kenshin, you up for a game of igo?" asked the Rooster.
Kenshin hesitated. He was very weak and drained, yet a game would be just the thing to break up the monotony of being bedridden.
"This worthless one can manage one game," he decided.
Sano jumped up, crossed the room and grabbed the box. He plunked down next to the futon and set the board up so Kenshin could reach it without straining. Kenshin insisted on taking white, to which Sano shook his head, but didn't argue.
As weak as he was, Kenshin still managed to thump Sano soundly by the end of the game.
"Well, damn," said Sano.
Kenshin smiled, but was immediately overtaken by a jaw-splitting yawn. Sano looked his friend over critically, remembering Megumi's admonishment. Indeed, Kenshin's face and eyes looked very sleepy.
"Mmmm, think I wore out my welcome. I'll go get Missy and the Vixen," said Sano as he put the board and pieces away.
"Thank you for coming," said Kenshin through another yawn.
"No problem. Once you're up ‘n around, me and you are doin' a rematch," said Sano.
"This worthless one looks forward to that," said Kenshin, eyes closing and face relaxing into sleep.
Sano left the room, closing the door behind him and found Kaoru and Megumi.
"I think he's gettin' kinda sleepy," said the Rooster.
"I told you not to stay too long, idiot," reprimanded Megumi as she and Kaoru headed for Kenshin's room.
"Yes, Vixen," said Sano in his sarcastic voice.
Kaoru and Megumi went in and attended to the worn out Rurouni. Kaoru held him upright while Megumi traded out the large cushion for the pillow. Kaoru then carefully lowered Kenshin back to the futon and pulled the sheet up over him. The poor Rurouni was already in a deep sleep.
"Sorry, Yahiko-chan. You'll hafta wait till tomorrow to see Kenshin," said Sano as he headed downstairs.
"You're not the only one who wants to visit him ya know, Bird Brain!" rebuked Yahiko.
"Whatever," said Sano, clocking Yahiko on the head with his left hand.
"Stupid Rooster!" said Yahiko, jumping up and gnawing Sano's head.
"Hey get off me, punk!" said Sano as he tried in vain to pry the boy off his head.
The two succeeded in stumbling onto a low table and breaking it in half.
"You're gonna pay back Sae-san for that table!" barked Misao, catching them in the act.
"Shut up, Weasel," said Sano and Yahiko in unison.
"Weasel?!" roared Misao, jumping into the melee and getting a few licks in on both guys before Okon and Omasu came in and broke them up.
"WOULD YOU IDIOTS SHUT UP BEFORE YOU WAKE KENSHIN UP!!!" Kaoru roared over the banister.
"Your shouting'll wake him up before us, ya ugly broad!" called Yahiko.
Kaoru veinpopped and jumped over the banister, landing her own very good imitation Ryu Tsui Sen on her disrespectful pupil, pounding him into the floor.
Somehow Kenshin was able to sleep through the racket downstairs. He slept deeply for two hours and woke up feeling quite refreshed. Seeing the large cushion was within reach, the rurouni dragged it over to himself and propped himself up against it. He was startled by the sound of the door sliding open.
'I should have sensed someone coming. I must be in pretty bad shape,' Kenshin thought to himself.
To his relief, it was only Yahiko. Yahiko was startled to see that Kenshin was awake and shyed a bit from entering, as he had planned to just peek in and see how Kenshin was doing. Kenshin smiled at the boy.
"It's alright; you can come in," he said softly.
Yahiko slid the door shut behind him, walked over, and sat down formally at Kenshin's bedside as quietly and respectfully as if he were at a shrine.
"How did things go at the Aoiya while this worthless one and Sano were gone?" Kenshin asked.
"It went fine. Nothing I couldn't handle," said Yahiko, holding his head up proudly.
Yahiko went on to relate the story of how he defeated Hennya of the Juppongatana with a mimic Ryu Tsui Sen. Kenshin's heart skipped a beat in his chest. It had never occurred to him that Yahiko might be able to learn some of his moves just by watching.
"Then that giant showed up, but I knew you'd come for us. I kept hanging on and believing... and then your master showed up and defeated him in one move," said Yahiko, gesticulating by now because he was so caught up in telling the story.
'I knew the Master wouldn't let me down,' Kenshin thought happily.
Hearing Yahiko's story allowed Kenshin to forget the weak and ill feeling wracking his body. Kenshin hoped Yahiko would come talk to him every day until he was allowed out of bed.
Later on, after Kaoru had found Yahiko and chased him out of the room, Kenshin sat thinking about the boy who had become like an adopted son to him. Kenshin had detected the proud samurai spirit in Yahiko that day the boy had refused his charity on the bridge. But if Yahiko was able to learn some of Kenshin's moves just by watching, he had underestimated the boy's abilities. With the right training, Yahiko would have a glorious future as a swordsman.
Leaning heavily on Sano's arm, Kenshin took his first tentative steps around the upstairs room. Megumi, Yahiko, Kaoru, Okina and Misao looked on in breathless silence, ready to bolt forth and help if the rurouni showed any sign of stumbling.
Though Kenshin's muscles were starting to ache and his strength to flag, he kept his chin up and eyes fixed straight ahead. He was determined to make it back to the futon on his feet. Putting one foot in front of the other, Kenshin kept his eyes on his goal and summoned all his training to see it through.
Kaoru blinked back the moisture in her eyes as she watched Kenshin walk with his head held high and his eyes focusing straight forward. Each step he took was a step toward complete recovery. Always Kenshin looked forward and never back. That was what this time was, Kaoru realized, a time to move forward, away from pain and toward wholeness.
By the time he was lying in the futon again, Kenshin's brow glowed with sweat and his eyes with pride. Wounds or no, he was determined to be out of this room by no later than next week. Kenshin tried to stave off sleep, but was too exhausted from walking and finally succumbed.
The next day saw Kenshin able to be up twice as long on Sano's arm as before. They walked around the room six times instead of three. After this, Megumi allowed Kenshin to be out of the futon, though he was still confined to the bedroom for fear he might collapse in exhaustion if he left the room. Kenshin now spent all his waking time sitting in the open window, gazing out on the Kyoto skyline as he had done at the Kohagiya so long ago.
Kenshin resisted the urge to suck his breath through his teeth as Megumi painstakingly pulled the stitches from the newly healed wound on his back. Megumi worked slowly and carefully to avoid causing Ken-san any undue pain. As she worked, Megumi eyed the multitude of scars crisscrossing Kenshin's back and torso. The freshly healed wounds from this most recent battle would eventually scar over and join them.
'It will be a miracle if you live to 40, Ken-san,' the lady doctor thought sadly as she proceeded to medicate the tender flesh with her salve before applying fresh dressings.
"Alright Ken-san, that's it for the stitches, but you still need to move slowly or the wounds could reopen," Megumi warned him.
"Thank you, Megumi-dono," was all Kenshin could really think of to say.
"You can thank me by taking better care of your body in the future," said Megumi, with a surprising sharpness in her voice.
Kenshin didn't know what to say, so he said nothing.
Sunlight flooding in through the window hit Kenshin's eyes through the thin veneer of his closed eyelids, coaxing him slowly to wakefulness. Kenshin smiled to himself because he could feel the strong ki of the revelers downstairs. Their collective energy pulsated and piqued his mind's eye. Slowly, Kenshin's violet eyes opened and fixated on the bright blue sky with only a few wispy clouds floating by on the wind. A delicious, tingling energy started in his scalp and enveloped him down to the tips of his toes as he stretched himself out. Feeling alive for the first time in a month, Kenshin stretched his muscles out, enjoying the energy and strength that now flowed through them.
Kenshin eagerly flipped the sheet aside and stood up. Opening the window, Kenshin allowed the warm sunlight and cool breeze to hit his face and envelope his bare skin for a few moments. It felt so wonderful to finally be ready to rejoin the world.
Kenshin retrieved the new clothes that his friends had bought for him while he'd been laid up because his old clothes had been burned and shredded beyond repair. With a smile of appreciation, he looked over the new gray hakama, white juban and red kimono and tabi. Kenshin shrugged into his juban and kimono, folding the left side over the right. Next, he tied his hakama, pulled the tabi onto his feet, gathered his loose hair into its customary low ponytail and ended by sliding the Sakabatou into his obi.
As Kenshin padded down the stairs, he heard the sounds of the month-long party growing louder and louder. It had gotten so loud that he could no longer sleep through it and since he was feeling so good now, he thought it high time to join the other revelers. He had earned that much.
Kenshin slid the curtain separating the staircase from the public area open and smiled when he saw Kaoru wearing the Shirobeko apron and holding a tray in her hands. Worry creased Kaoru's young features when she saw her swordsman standing there.
"Kenshin, are you sure you should be up?" she asked anxiously.
"Quite. This worthless one is feeling much better," said Kenshin, wearing his disarming Rurouni smile. "Besides, sleeping through the victory party is getting harder by the day."
"True enough," sighed Kaoru as she and Kenshin watched a drunken Okina dancing around on the table, singing into a ladle.
With the completion of the new Aoiya, the Kenshingumi and Oniwabanshuu thanked Sae for boarding them and packed up to walk over to the Aoiya. Kenshin was a bit put off when Kaoru and Megumi wouldn't allow him to help with the packing or carry anything, insisting that he still needed to take things easy.
Sano and Yahiko were a bit put off when they were made to pack and carry the things Kenshin would have packed and carried if he had been at full strength.
In the cool of the evening, the two groups, moving as one, made their way to their new quarters. The only one not in the procession was Aoshi, who was still cutting himself off from all human contact.
The sun was just creeping up in the eastern horizon and the early birds beginning their morning song when Himura Kenshin slipped from the Aoiya through the rear entrance. On his left cheek was a bandage to conceal his trademark scar and in his left hand was a bucket.
Even though he hadn't been there in ten years, Kenshin could have still walked the streets of Kyoto blindfolded. He knew every corner and alley by heart.
'Ten years. The scenery's changed but little,' he thought to himself as he looked around.
Even now, Kenshin could still see shadows of his younger self guiding Patriots through the winding alleys or clashing with the Shinsengumi in bloody fights. Kenshin blinked his eyes rapidly to clear out the shadows and concentrate on the present. He had had more than enough of being caught in the past.
Kenshin felt his heart grow heavy in his chest as he approached his destination, a Buddhist temple with a quiet graveyard attached to it. After paying respect at the temple, Kenshin entered the graveyard. Slowly, he made his way through the lush green grass and the gray gravestones until he arrived at a small, non-descript gravestone that looked as though it had suffered years of neglect. Kenshin ripped the bandage from his cheek, revealing the cruciform scar.
"Here is one place where nothing has changed a bit," Kenshin said softly to himself.
Just then, Kenshin sensed a strong kenki behind him, but not one that would cause him alarm.
"Is that the grave?" came the booming voice of his master.
Kenshin reached up with his left hand and touched the scar before answering.
"Yes," he said softly.
Kenshin poured water onto the gravestone, set the incense sticks in the ground and lit them to burn and give off their aroma. He then set the flowers in front of the stone.
"It's been ten years. Ten years of neglect. Why do you suddenly visit today?" asked Hiko.
Kenshin knelt down and folded his hands in silent prayer before the grave while Hiko loomed in the background like a giant guardian spirit watching over his small and still very frail pupil as he offered long-overdue oblations.
When the incense sticks had almost burnt themselves to nothing, Kenshin slowly rose and proceeded to answer his master's question.
"Since the beginning of Meiji, this worthless one has wandered throughout Japan," he explained in soft, lilting tones. "But Kyoto is the one place where too many still remember him. To avoid undesired battles, this worthless one has stayed away."
Hiko smirked to himself. He knew his student was withholding something.
"Is that the only reason?" he asked.
Kenshin was silent for a moment, gathering his composure.
"The one who sleeps here, killed by the hands of Hitokiri Battousai. Kyoto brings back strong memories of her," Kenshin explained, voice thick with emotion. "Memories best left behind."
Kenshin paused and took a deep, steadying breath.
He turned around slowly and smiled softly at his master. If Hiko thought he saw tears in those violet eyes, he was kind enough not to say anything.
"At last, this worthless one knew it was time to offer flowers to this grave."
Hiko let out a small sigh. It seemed that his little idiot would be alright from here on if he stayed with these people who obviously cared so much for him, especially the Kamiya girl. Abruptly he turned his back on Kenshin, white cape billowing out in an arc as he did so.
"Then if you're through, go back to Tokyo!" he announced. "Even if there are 'undesired battles' in the future, don't count on me to lend a hand."
With that, Hiko departed the graveyard without so much as a glance backward.
Kenshin smiled a bit, then lowered his head and looked at the grave.
"See you next year at Obon," he said softly to the grave.
Kenshin picked up his bucket and left.
Kenshin was on his way back to the Aoiya, the now empty bucket swinging in his left hand. He looked up and to his surprise, saw Kaoru, Megumi, Sanosuke and Yahiko gathered in front of the inn.
"Oro? What are you four doing here?" he inquired, eyes round with curiosity.
"Kenshin?" said the other four together.
Kenshin's face was a look of affable confusion.
"Yes?" he asked.
"Not that it matters, but where've you been all mornin'?" asked Sano.
Kenshin held up the bucket and glanced at it.
"Oro? Well, as you can see, there was someone's grave to visit," he explained.
"Hey Kenshin, you just said 'oro'," said Kaoru, pointing at him.
"There! See? You definitely said 'oro'!" exclaimed Kaoru.
For a moment, Sano, Megumi and Yahiko looked perplexed. Then it dawned on them... She was right! For the first time in what seemed like months, their rurouni had uttered his trademark exclamation of cluelessness.
"She's right! Oh man, how long's it been?!" cried Sano joyfully.
"Seems like we haven't heard that in half a year!" shouted Yahiko.
"Orororo?" yelped Kenshin as Sano and Yahiko closed in on him.
The next thing the poor Rurouni knew, Sano was kicking him around while Yahiko took a few playful whacks with his shinai while Megumi stood in the background and laughed.
"Oro!" he yelped.
Even though it was most undignified, Kenshin couldn't help but smile. Finally, after so much stress and pain, it felt so good to smile and whom better to share his smile with than the people who had stayed by his side during this trying time, the Kenshingumi.
Kenshin knew in his heart that he had finally found where he belonged.