August 9, 1879
Onboard a ship to Osaka
It was hard for Kaoru to believe that almost a year had come and gone since the day she had been kidnapped by Yukishiro Enishi. While that time had been a living hell, it had been the thing that finally brought her and Kenshin together. The shedding of doubts and the conquering of demons had paved the way for them to become man and wife.
Now it was time for them to make their first trip to Kyoto together as man and wife for the festival of Obon, which would run from the 13th to the 15th. They had already made arrangements with Aoshi and Misao to stay at the Aoiya. After the festival, they would promptly return home, as Kyoto still held dark memories for Kenshin.
Last night, they had boarded the steamship that would take them west to Osaka and were now floating placidly over the waters of the Philippine Sea. Sitting in their cabin, Kaoru cast a glance at her husband and caught the most faraway and wistful look on his face; the look he only got when he was thinking about his past.
Kaoru longed to ask him to share what was in his heart with her and to bop him over the head with a bokken if he refused to tell her, or gave her that dumb rurouni smile. She restrained herself because she knew she needed to overcome her immature temperaments and demanding nature. She knew would never be a consummate lady like Tomoe-san, but she needed to be less impulsive and impatient with those around her, especially Kenshin. He still carried the wounds of his past with him and probably always would to a certain degree. One year of happiness wasn't enough to undo a lifetime of pain.
Kaoru decided to leave Kenshin alone with his memories and get some sleep. After crawling into the bed, she looked out the window at the rolling waves, swooping gulls and pink dolphins breaching the water. Watching them made her drowsier. Finally, she closed her eyes and drifted off, lulled by the motion of the ship. Before long, she sensed the bed shifting and a warm body lying down next to her. An arm encircled her protectively and drew her into a world of oneness, bliss and contentment.
The week-long trip was very lovely. Kaoru and Kenshin spent a lot of time looking out at the ocean and wondering what lay beyond the horizon. Sometimes they exchanged ideas as to what their globe trotting friend Sanosuke might be up to at that very moment. Surely, he was on the North American continent by now and probably getting into all kinds of mischief.
They watched the fishing birds and swimming cetaceans with great amusement. They passed Shizouka, Nagoya, Tsu and the peninsula and were approaching Osaka Bay, where they would disembark in Kobe.
Kaoru woke up to a gentle shaking. She looked up into a pair of soft violet eyes and a gentle smile. Kenshin held a tray of rice balls, which he had procured from the galley. With a soft "thank you", Kaoru sat up, rubbed the sleep from her eyes and took the proffered food. Kenshin sat down next to her on the bed, and the couple proceeded to eat in silence.
Not long after they finished and Kaoru had dressed for the day, the ship pulled into Osaka Bay. Kenshin stood up and shouldered both their bags. As they disembarked from the ship, Kaoru looked around her as they stepped out into the hot August air. She pulled out a fan she had brought with her and started flapping it in front of her face to try and cool off.
The train ride to Kyoto was uneventful. Kaoru spent most of it looking out the window and watching trees, countryside and a few buildings whizz by. Kenshin didn't really say much. Kaoru knew he was thinking of their visit to Kyoto, partially anticipating and partially dreading it.
At the end of the day, the train pulled into the year-old Kyoto station and came slowly to a stand-still, blowing steam from its stack. The station hadn't changed much in ten months since she and Kenshin had made the same trip to visit Tomoe's grave after the Revenge.
They stepped off the train and onto the platform, which thankfully had a roof overhead to shade them from the harsh August sun. Kenshin took both bags again and started forward.
"Kenshin, why don't you let me carry something?" offered Kaoru.
Kenshin smiled at her.
"That's alright, Kaoru. I don't mind," he said, then turned and pressed ahead.
Kaoru shook her head and followed her rurouni to go look for Aoshi and Misao, who were supposed to meet them. As it turned out, they didn't have to wait long.
Next thing Kaoru knew, she had been bowled over by a petite kunoichi with sharp green eyes and a long braid.
"Oops, sorry about that," said Misao, quickly jumping to her feet and helping Kaoru up as well.
"Misao-dono always stands out in a crowd," said Kenshin with a sweatdrop on the back of his head.
"You better believe it!" said Misao, still dusting poor Kaoru off. "AOSHI-SAAAAAAAAMAAAAAAAAAA, OVER HEEEEEEERRRREEEEEE!"
Kenshin was just able to glimpse Shinomori Aoshi making his way through the throng of travelers.
"Greetings, Himura," said Aoshi in his usual sunny voice.
"Hello, Aoshi. How are things going for you and Misao-dono?" asked Kenshin.
"Everything's great here!" chirped Misao before Aoshi could get a word in edgewise. "Let's get you guys to the Aoiya before the dinner rush tramples us!"
Before anyone could say anything, Aoshi bent over and picked up their bags.
"Oh, Aoshi, I can..." Kenshin faltered.
"Don't be stupid, Himura. You and Kaoru-san are our guests. Right, Aoshi-sama?" said Misao.
"Right," said Aoshi, shouldering everything and heading out.
Kaoru smiled at the dumbfounded look on Kenshin's face. The guy was just going to have to learn how to accept hospitality. The foursome made their way back to the Aoiya in relative quiet. The streets were packed with tourists who had come for the three-day festival which would start tomorrow.
When they reached the Aoiya, they were greeted by Okina.
"Welcome back! I've reserved a special room upstairs for both of you," he said. "Misao, would you take them?"
"Sure, Gramps. Follow me!" said Misao.
"Thank you, Okina-dono," said Kenshin with a bow.
He and Kaoru followed Misao upstairs. Misao slid the fusuma open, revealing a bed room with a double futon rolled up in the corner and a large west-facing window that would show off the setting sun nicely.
"Have fun, you two," said Misao with a wink.
"Get your mind out of the gutter," spat Kaoru after the kunoichi as she left, sliding the screen shut behind her.
After Kenshin and Kaoru had everything arranged, they made their way back downstairs where they met up with Okina, Aoshi and Misao. The stepped down into their footwear, then walked through Kyoto’s always crowded streets until they arrived at the familiar, yet different, beefpot shop, the Shirobeko.
As soon as they were in, they were accosted by the familiar face of the head waitress.
“Welcome back to Kyoto, you two! It’s so good to see you again!” greeted Sekihara Sae.
“How are you, Sae-san?” asked Kaoru happily.
“Splendid. Thank you for asking, dear. Himura-han, you’re looking very healthy,” commented Sae, who could well remember Kenshin’s month long battle to stay alive after the ordeal they had gone through.
“Thank you again for your hospitality, Sae-dono. It meant a lot to all of us,” said Kenshin softly.
“Oh, go on with you,” smiled Sae as she led the group to a large booth.
Soon they were all seated and happily chowing down on a dinner of somen, watermelon, green tea and then kakigouri.
When they were back at the Aoiya, Kenshin and Kaoru headed to the bath house. Okina had reserved the bath house just for the two of them so they could bathe together without interruption.
Kenshin and Kaoru took their time washing and rinsing each other off and then headed into the bathing area, casting glances and exchanging nervous smiles with each other. Although Meiji law forbade men and women to bathe together in public bath houses, the law had so far gone over like a lead balloon with lax enforcement and zero respect for it. Kenshin and Kaoru certainly had no intention of following such a prudish and clearly Western-influenced law. Kenshin and Kaoru spent the next half hour soaking in each others' arms, enjoying the solitude and warmth provided by the dimly lit bath house.
After breakfast, Kenshin, Kaoru, Aoshi and Misao set out. They would walk together until they were to split off to pay respects at the graves of their respective dead. Aoshi and Misao had buried the Four in a sunny little patch of field that only they knew of and would go there while Kenshin and Kaoru went to the temple to see Tomoe's grave. That night, they would reunite for the Obon festivities.
Kenshin and Kaoru stopped at a vendor's and bought incense and flowers for Tomoe's grave, which Kenshin carried in a bucket. Kaoru followed him through the crowded streets to the temple. They walked up the steps to the front of the temple. Kenshin tossed a gold coin into the offering box and rang the little bell. Kaoru did the same and both stood in silent contemplation for a few moments before heading to the graveyard.
One year ago, after the end of Enishi's Revenge, Kaoru and Kenshin, his right arm still in a sling, had visited this very spot and prayed over Tomoe's grave. Kenshin had told Kaoru that Tomoe had been the kindest person he had ever known and he was certain that she would watch over the now-missing Enishi. Kaoru thought privately that Tomoe watched over them silently as well.
When they came to the graveyard, Kenshin led Kaoru down the steps. Instantly, the din of the noisy crowd outside seemed to just disappear and it was as if they had been transported to another time and place. The graveyard was silent and green with lush grass growing everywhere and shaded by many beautiful trees whose green leaves suserated in the gentle summer breeze. Kenshin led Kaoru to the small unmarked grave that looked far less lonely than it had when Kenshin had visited it right after the battle with Shishio; the hairclip and the bottle of white plum perfume maintained their silent vigil. Kenshin thought perhaps Enishi and the unknown relative came by to care for the grave from time to time.
Kenshin poured water on the stone, stuck the incense sticks in the ground and lit them to burn. He and Kaoru each left their flowers on the grave, then bowed their heads in silent prayer.
"Hello, Tomoe. It's good to talk to you again. Kaoru and I are married now and I love her very much. Know though, that no matter how my love for her grows, I will never forget nor stop loving you. Kaoru will never replace you, but each of you occupies your own place in my heart and my love for you both grows by the day. I hope you are happy in the next world. All my love, Kenshin."
"Hello again, Tomoe-san. Thank you again for protecting me on the island and for allowing Kenshin and me to come together. You needn't worry about Kenshin because I've been taking good care of him in your stead. He is very happy now. However, I know he will never forget you. I will continue to stand by his side and support him in everything he needs as I know you would have. See you next year. Kaoru."
Kenshin and Kaoru stood up from praying, exchanged smiles and walked out of the quiet graveyard and back into the noise and chaos of the crowded Kyoto streets. As they made their way through the throng, Kaoru stumbled a bit. Before she had the chance to fall on her face, Kenshin was there, steadying her.
"Thanks," said Kaoru, mentally cursing her stupidity at wearing those high wooden sandals.
Kenshin merely nodded with a smile, then turned and began leading the way again. Kenshin took Kaoru to one of the Kyoto tea gardens to get out of the hot, crowded streets. The garden was very green and quiet with ponds and rocks, forests of miniature pines, clumps of bamboos and different kinds of ornamental trees and shrubs. The garden was spotted with Man's work; bridges, tea houses, pavilions and pathways, all of which were constructed to harmonize with the natural beauty around them.
Kenshin and Kaoru sat in one of the open air tea houses, sipping on ginger tea and eating little tea cakes. The wood of the floor under their bare feet cooled them while the warm August wind blew through their hair as they meditated on the solemnity and beauty of the tranquil garden that surrounded them.
After they finished their tea, the couple walked one of the pathways by a pond. Taking out some bread he had brought with him, Kenshin divided the loaf in half and gave one to Kaoru. Tearing his half in pieces, Kenshin tossed them into the pond. Large catfish came to the top and quickly devoured the watery bread before retreating under the water. Kaoru did as Kenshin did and was delighted by the fish with the large mouths, beady eyes, shiny scales and fins.
In the evening, the Himuras met up with Aoshi and Misao again and headed for the epicenter of Kyoto for the Obon festival. As they went more to the center, the streets became crowded and nearly impossible to walk through. However, Kenshin, Kaoru, Misao and Aoshi weaved through the mass of humanity with the ease of a snake gliding through water.
The atmosphere was thick with gaiety. Women dressed in their finest summer kimono, patterned with cranes, floral prints and butterflies, clopped about in their high wooden geta, fanning themselves with colorfully decorated fans while little children ran around, waving multi-colored sparklers. Sake flowed like a river; several people stumbled about drunkenly, reminding Kaoru of Sanosuke and Yahiko.
Just then, the sound of loud drumming drowned out everything else. The foursome looked over to the left and saw the four taiko drummers, banging their giant drums that were set up on wooden stands, with their thick wooden bachi. Everyone in the area surrounded each yaku and began dancing in a circle around them as they continued to drum rhythmically. Moved by the music, Kaoru suddenly yanked Kenshin forward by his sleeve toward the closest circle.
Kaoru yanked Kenshin into the circle and began moving with the other people. Not knowing what else to do, Kenshin followed suit and soon found himself swept up in the pandemonium. Squealing, Misao tried to yank Aoshi into the dancing circle closest to them.
"C'MON, AOSHI-SAAAMAAAA!" yelled Misao.
"I don't dance," said Aoshi cooly.
Seeing the disappointment in Misao's green eyes, he quickly added. "However, I would enjoy watching you do it."
"OK!" said Misao, breaking away from his side to join in the festivities.
Misao jumped into the fray and danced with the rhythm, her long braid whipping about in the air and hitting the faces of those unfortunate enough to be behind her.
Aoshi did indeed enjoy watching her.
As the moments passed, the drumming grew louder and faster, building to a crescendo. Kaoru reveled in the fun and freedom of moving to the music. Kenshin was beginning to feel dizzy. When the drumming came to a thunderous and sudden end, Kenshin went stumbling forward, eyes all aswirl.
"Kenshin!" called Kaoru going after the stumbling redhead.
Kaoru lunged forward and yanked the sheathed Sakabatou out of Kenshin's belt.
"Sorry. But I can't have you stumbling off and getting lost," said Kaoru, handing Kenshin back the Sakabatou.
"Thank you, dearest," said Kenshin, rubbing the new lump on the back of his head.
Over the next three days, the foursome took in the sights and sounds of Obon. Every evening concluded with the exciting festivities and fireworks. Kaoru noticed with some sorrow in her heart that Kenshin flinched whenever the fireworks were set off, doubtlessly an old war reflex. A secret squeeze of his hand helped him to relax and he flashed her a quick smile of thanks before returning his attention to the spectacle lighting the night sky.
On the last night of Obon, at the hour of the dog, everyone gathered for the culmination of the event. Facing Mount Nyoigatake, everyone watched in awe as the first fire, and the most famous one was lit. Kenshin, Kaoru, Aoshi, Misao, Okina, Okon, Omasu, Shiro and Koro watched as it was lit high up the slopes of Mt. Nyoigadake on the east side of town from their vantage point at Ginkaku-ji Temple. Following the Daimonji were the other fires: Myo (life), Ho (Buddhist law), Funagata (ship), and Hidari Daimonji, the left fire.
Kaoru, who had never seen it before, was moved to silent awe. For Kenshin, the giant burning kanji brought bittersweet memories of his days in the war. Even when the war was going on, the Obon festival was still celebrated and every August 16, the giant kanji burned away on the hillsides. As Battousai, Kenshin hadn't taken the time to appreciate their beauty. Now as a man of peace, he was finally able to take them in, but they would always have a darkness behind them.
After the festivities concluded, the group headed back to the Aoiya where a huge send off dinner for Kenshin and Kaoru awaited. On the menu was a food to which Kenshin took an immediate liking: Raw shellfish. Kenshin took a generous helping for himself and held some out for Kaoru, who turned green at the sight.
"No, thank you," she said disdainfully.
"Alright," said Kenshin. 'More for me.'
Kenshin ate his plateful of raw shellfish along with the assortment of other vegetables and rice.
After the dinner, Kenshin and Kaoru retreated to their private room to be alone with each other. Kaoru was a bit worried because Kenshin all of a sudden looked rather pale. She wanted to dismiss it as tiredness, but noticed that Kenshin's body was a bit warmer than usual as they snuggled under the blanket together.
"Did you have fun?" Kaoru asked the redhead, who was struggling to keep his eyes open.
"Mmhm, but I'm ready to go home," he said solemnly.
Kaoru ran her fingers into Kenshin's hair and gazed at his sweet, albeit slightly sad face. That was when she felt the sweat on his scalp. Concern etched on her brow, Kaoru put the back of her hand to Kenshin's forehead.
"You're running a fever," she said, gazing at him in concern.
"I felt fine earlier. I wonder why now," said Kenshin softly.
"You probably overdid things a bit the last few days. I'm sure you'll be fine after a good sleep," she instructed, though she was by no means certain of what she said, as she was not a doctor.
"Thank you, my Kaoru," said Kenshin with a smile as he snuggled up to his wife and closed his eyes.
Kaoru wrapped her arms around her rurouni and caressed him as he slept.
"NO! NO! Please!" Kenshin's voice shattered the quiet of the night.
Kaoru was awake at once, putting her arms around Kenshin's shoulders. She had been through enough night terrors with him to know what to do.
"Kenshin, it's OK. You're having a nightmare," she said firmly.
There was no response. Kaoru could feel his sweaty body writhing and struggling in her embrace. Something was wrong. This wasn't just a regular night terror. Kaoru laid the back of her hand against Kenshin's brow. He was burning up!
Kaoru started fumbling with the matches to get the lantern lit so she could see to Kenshin. After what seemed like an eternity, she got one to take and held the lantern up to Kenshin. His yukata was completely drenched. Sweat shone on his pale brow in the lantern light and his face was scrunched up in pain, his head jerking from side to side.
"Don't hurt them!" Kenshin cried out.
'He's delirious,' Kaoru thought, heart sinking.
This reminded her too much of his month-long recovery from his fight with Shishio when he had been feverish and delirious and nothing could wake him.
"Shinta, do something! Save them!" Kenshin cried out again.
'Who's Shinta?' Kaoru thought.
"Shinta... is weak!" Kenshin said through gritted teeth, eyelids snapping open to show eyes blazing with fever and rage.
Kaoru recoiled in horror, totally ignorant of what to do. Even when he had been recovering from the Shishio fight, he had never been this delirious.
"I'm sorry... I tried... I couldn't save them. Shinta is useless!"
Now Kenshin was sobbing. Rage one minute; tears the next. What was he dreaming about? Suddenly, Kenshin's stomach spasmed as he coughed up the half-digested shellfish in a steamy, smelly pile of pale yellow vomit. Kaoru ran to the window and slid the screen open to let in some fresh air as her face turned green.
Just then, the fusuma slid open and in came Aoshi, Misao and Okina. Okina was on his knees and checking Kenshin's brow in an instant.
"Misao, get the steel tub, two bags of ice and bring a fresh yukata," he ordered.
"On it," said Misao as she headed to do his bidding.
"Kaoru-kun, I need you to go to the kitchen and brew up some willow bark tea," said Okina, partially to get the distracted Kaoru out of the room.
Snapping out of her shock, Kaoru nodded, quickly getting to her feet.
"Aoshi, help me undress him," commanded Okina.
"Right," said Aoshi as the two shinobi went to work on the suffering rurouni.
Kenshin's fever was dangerously high and they had to bring it down quickly or he would literally cook to death.
Misao came back with the tub and two large bags of ice. The two men lifted the sweat-drenched Kenshin into the tub. Once he was in, Misao opened the first bag and poured the ice cubes onto Kenshin's overheated body. Kenshin let out a piercing scream as the cold ice covered his body. Aoshi and Okina had to hold him down to keep him from lunging out. Even in his enfeebled condition, it took both men using all their strength to keep him in the tub.
Okina kept checking Kenshin's brow to see if his temperature was starting to lower. Kenshin was so hot that the ice cubes touching him were already starting to melt. Misao kept adding more ice from the bag as necessary while Aoshi and Okina held Kenshin down. The moment his fever was below danger level, it would be necessary to get him quickly out of the tub and into a yukata to stabilize his body temperature. Otherwise the fever could return, or worse, pneumonia could set in.
Meanwhile in the kitchen, Kaoru worked as quickly as she could to get the tea ready. First she had to load the oven with wood and get a fire going on which to boil water. Then she had to wait for what seemed like hours for the water to begin to boil. After that, she had to put the willow bark tea in the water and leave it to steep.
Back in the bedroom, Kenshin's fever had finally started to come down. Okina checked Kenshin's brow and was relieved that it now felt a bit cooler. Kenshin's fever was now below the danger level.
"Alright, let's get him out. Misao, grab the yukata and hold it open for him," said Okina.
Misao grasped the yukata she had brought in with the tub and held it open. Aoshi and Okina took Kenshin by the arms and lifted him out of the tub, mindless of the ice falling to the floor. Together they guided the ragdoll of a rurouni over to Misao and the three shinobi wrestled him into the yukata. Kenshin had stopped struggling and gone limp from exhaustion. Aoshi lifted Kenshin into his arms, carried him over to the futon and tucked him in.
By the time Kaoru got in with the willow bark tea, Kenshin was lying still in the futon, somewhere between sleep and delirious wakefulness. Kaoru was relieved and thankful for the shinobis' help. With Aoshi holding Kenshin in a sitting position, Kaoru fed her husband the willow bark tea in small doses. Kenshin took it with little trouble, only sputtering once. When the tea was gone, Aoshi laid the rurouni down carefully and Kaoru put the sheet up over him and put a cool cloth on his forehead.
"Those shellfish made a few other guests sick as well," said Okina. "That's the last time we'll buy from that vendor!"
"Thank you, everyone," said Kaoru with a bow.
"You're welcome, Kaoru-kun. If he isn't awake by tomorrow, we'll fetch a doctor to look at him, but I think he'll be better by then," said Okina, wanting to reassure the young woman as much as possible.
"Night, Kaoru-san. Aoshi-sama, say 'good night'," said Misao.
"Good night," parroted Aoshi.
After the shinobi had gone, Kaoru looked at the now sleeping Kenshin and pondered the things she had heard him say.
'Who is Shinta? Someone you knew in the past. Was he a compatriot in the Revolution? Who was he supposed to protect?'
With these questions in her mind, Kaoru slipped under the sheet, stretched out and fell asleep next to her poor rurouni.
Kaoru came slowly to wakefulness when she felt movement next to her. Turning onto her side and opening her eyes, she saw a pair of confused and glazed violet eyes staring back at her.
"Kenshin... You're alright," she said, wrapping her arms around the rurouni.
"Ken-shin?" confusion etched on his features, he repeated the name as though he didn't know it.
"Yes, that's you. Kenshin," said Kaoru, looking her husband straight in the eyes.
Partial recognition dawned on Kenshin's face and he suddenly pulled Kaoru into a tight embrace.
"I'm here. Everything's OK," said Kaoru, feeling the trembling of her rurouni's body.
"Couldn't save them," Kenshin murmured.
"Who?" asked Kaoru.
"Too weak," said Kenshin softly.
'He must be talking about Shinta,' Kaoru thought.
"Who was too weak? Was it Shinta? Who was he supposed to save?" Kaoru asked.
This seemed to snap Kenshin fully to wakefulness.
"I'm right here," said Kaoru again, hoping Kenshin was finally back to his senses.
"I need to see them," said Kenshin, not letting Kaoru out of his embrace.
"Who?" Kaoru asked.
"Please take me to them."
"Take you to who?" Kaoru asked.
"I never left flowers," said Kenshin.
"Kenshin, who do you need flowers for and who is this Shinta?" Kaoru asked, not wanting to get exasperated with him when he had just awakened from a nearly lethal fever.
Kenshin looked straight into Kaoru's eyes.
"Take me to Aki and I will show you," he said.
"Aki? You mean Hiroshima?" asked Kaoru, referring to the old province by its new prefectural name.
"I need to give them flowers," said Kenshin again.
"Well, we can't go today. You almost died last night," said Kaoru decidedly.
"We'll go wherever you want after you're well again," Kaoru promised. "OK?"
Kenshin nodded and yawned immediately after. Kaoru's heart softened at the sight.
"Go back to sleep for now," she said softly, giving his left hand a squeeze.
Kenshin only managed a nod before he was under again.
Kenshin spent that day and the next recuperating from the fever. He was administered medicinal tea, water and soup to keep him hydrated, but couldn't even look at solids without feeling ill. When he wasn't eating, taking his medicine or relieving himself, Kenshin slept like the dead. Kaoru doted on him and loved every minute of it, bringing him his medicine and soup, rubbing his back to put him to sleep after he had taken his medicine or just holding his hand.
Finally, on August 19, Kenshin felt enough strength in his body to be allowed out of bed, though he still had to take things easy since he hadn't had anything to eat and still felt queasy at the sight of solid foods.
Now that Kenshin was a bit better, Kaoru decided it would be alright to sail to Aki. They would be on the steam ship for a few days and Kenshin could rest some more. He would probably be alright by the time they got there. Kenshin still wanted to go and she was curious about what he had dreamed. Kenshin's eyes had never left the desire during his two-day bed rest.
Kyoto train station
The couples facing each other, Aoshi and Misao bade Kaoru and a still rather pale Kenshin goodbye.
"Well, I hope you two had fun. Sorry about the shellfish," said Misao apologetically.
"Oh, there's no harm done. We enjoyed every minute of it," said Kenshin, which was mostly the truth.
This visit to Kyoto had been enjoyable, but it was also a visit to which he wanted to make an end.
"Come to Tokyo and see us soon, OK you two?" said Kaoru.
"You can count on it. Right, Aoshi-sama?" said Misao.
"Right," said Aoshi.
"ALL ABOARD!" called the conductor.
Kenshin knelt down to pick up the bags, but received a whap on the head from Kaoru.
"Oh no, you don't!" she said severely, quickly seizing the luggage before Kenshin could argue.
"Bye for now," called Kaoru as they prepared to board the train.
"Bye, Himura! Bye, Kaoru-san!" called Misao.
"Have a safe journey," said Aoshi.
"Thank you!" called Kenshin, still rubbing his head, as they got on.
As the train bound for Kobe pulled out of the station, the motion quickly lulled Kenshin to sleep. Kaoru kept an eye on him, hoping he would pick up in the salty sea air, in which they would be later that day. Soon, her eyelids became heavy and she too fell asleep. After an hour, they arrived at the train station in Osaka and detrained, Kaoru still insisting on carrying the luggage.
Kenshin purchased two steamer tickets to Aki. Tired from their walk to the docks, he and Kaoru sat down and rested until the ship came. As they sat there, they watched the people come and go. Different ships came in and unloaded people and goods from all around the world. This was an exciting time of change for Japan as more and more Western technology was being adopted and finding its way almost seamlessly into people's daily lives.
An hour later, the steamer arrived. After the ship put down its anchor and its planks, the passengers disembarked. Kenshin and Kaoru made their way down to the ship. They had plenty of time, but Kaoru wanted to get them settled in their cabin right away, as Kenshin's energy was starting to flag.
Kenshin and Kaoru were shown to their cabin by an attendant.
"You lie down," said Kaoru, pointing to the bed and fixing Kenshin with an authoritative glare.
"Yes, ma'am," said Kenshin, who really didn't feel up to an argument.
Kaoru put their luggage down in a corner. There was no need to unpack as they would be off the ship in three days. Very soon, the ship blew steam from its stacks and let out its loud honk to signal that it was going to get underway. After the ship was underway, Kaoru decided to see about some food.
"I'm going to order some lunch. Want anything?" she asked hopefully.
She didn't need to ask twice. Kenshin's stomach was finally ready to receive solids again and was letting him know in a big way.
"A few riceballs and some tea would be appreciated, dearest," he said honestly.
"You wait here. I'll be back," said Kaoru, getting up from the bedside.
Kenshin settled himself comfortably on the bed to await his beloved wife and much needed food. The cool, salty sea air blew in through the open window, sharpening Kenshin's appetite as he breathed it in. No longer did his stomach roil at the thought of food. Now it cramped with hunger as his strength and therefore his need for food returned to him.
In no time at all, the door swung open and in came Kaoru with a tray of 12 riceballs and a small kettle of tea. Kenshin smiled and sat up in bed, reaching for the proffered tray.
"Thank you, dearest," he said, a bit of sparkle returning to eyes that had been dull with weakness for the past few days.
"You're welcome, darling," said Kaoru, plucking a riceball off the tray.
They bit into theirs at the same time and were wowed by the taste: Beef! Kenshin's eyes lit with delight at the unexpected surprise. This was good, spicy beef; just the thing his depleted body needed. Kaoru smiled at the enthusiasm etched on her rurouni's features as he quickly polished off the first riceball and went for the next.
By the time they had finished their tea, Kenshin and Kaoru were quite drowsy. Kenshin lay back in bed and pulled the blanket down, inviting Kaoru to lie next to him. Pausing only to discard her kimono and obi, Kaoru was in his arms in a heartbeat.
For the next three days, Kenshin and Kaoru spent most of their time holed up in the cabin, making love, lying in each others' arms, or speaking to each other in hushed tones about anything and everything. Kenshin's strength came back to him very quickly thanks to the brisk sea air and the steady supply of riceballs.
By the time the ship dropped anchor at the docks the evening of the third day, Kenshin's strength had returned to him in full. The couple walked down the plank with Kenshin in the lead, both their bags hoisted on his narrow shoulders. He led Kaoru through the busy streets of the port city until he found an inn they could afford. Kenshin led Kaoru in and registered them under his name. They were led to an upstairs room where they deposited their luggage.
After dumping their junk at the inn, the two saw the sights of Hiroshima. They visited the import store, which carried all sorts of Western gadgets, the use of which they could only guess. Kenshin took Kaoru to a German restaurant that had just opened up. Kaoru got her first taste of Frankfurter! Kenshin tried the Hamburger and found it delicious.
As the sun dipped into the western horizon, seeming to set the landscape aflame, Kenshin and Kaoru made their way back to the inn where a hot bath and dinner awaited them.
There was a knock at the door. Kenshin bade enter. A maid slid the door open, and carried in dinner for them. The maid entered the room and set up the two hakuzen. Kneeling down, she set a hakuzen in front of Kenshin and one in front of Kaoru. She then left, bowing out of the room and sliding the fusuma shut behind her.
After they had eaten and the maid cleared out the hakuzen and dishes, Kenshin and Kaoru waited until the other guests were finished using the bathing area, then slipped in clandestinely together for their illicit ablutions. Kenshin washed Kaoru's body and hair and she reciprocated before they slipped into the hot water together. Kenshin held Kaoru close to him as they soaked in the warm darkness.
After 30 minutes, the two hesitantly got out of the water, toweled off and donned yukata provided by the inn. They then made their way back to their room where they settled into the futon together. Kenshin's arms snaked around Kaoru's waist in the quiet darkness and Kaoru's fingers locked in his crimson mane, which looked bewitching in the moonlight.
In the morning, after a quick breakfast of tamago kake gohan, the couple set out from the inn. After stopping at a flower shop and buying a bucket-full of flowers and some incense, Kenshin led Kaoru away from Hiroshima and into the countryside. As they continued deeper into the countryside, their surroundings became more and more rural with trees and fields on either side of the road.
Just as it seemed like they were getting into the middle of nowhere, Kaoru spotted the burnt-out skeletons of some houses, nestled in a small glen to the right side of the road, isolated and forgotten by everyone save the man who walked before her. Kenshin wordlessly led her toward the frames of the houses, which were barely visible, having been overgrown by vines or fallen into ruin. He led Kaoru up to the frame of a very lonely little house on the edge of the small village.
"What was this place?" whispered Kaoru, feeling as if she were in front of a shrine.
"This is the house I was born in," said Kenshin in a hushed tone, causing Kaoru to stare at him.
Kenshin paused a bit and closed his eyes, taking in the house and deep ties it held for him.
"The first nine years of my life were a struggle. I was born into the middle of a famine and there was hardly ever enough food to go around. My parents and brothers and I worked very hard to try and make ends meet, but many in the village died. Because of my unusual complexion, the other village children wanted nothing to do with me. The only ones who would play with me were my elder brothers, Sotohiro and Benjiro. Sotohiro was smart and kind. Benjiro was impulsive and rather given to fights, not so different from Sano. I looked up to both of them because they protected me from the other children. Even though life was very difficult, we loved each other deeply. In the winter of my ninth year, a scourge of cholera swept through the village, killing the entire populace in under a week. My brothers died within a day of each other, my parents were gone by the end of that week," said Kenshin, his voice full of emotion.
He stopped again, letting memories, long buried, flood him as through a broken dam.
"When the samurai came into this house, they found me in the room with my parents' bodies. For some reason, I alone had survived the outbreak. To them, it was a bad omen that the 'red haired demon child' was the only survivor of the village. To rid themselves of the curse, they forced me from my home and sold me into slavery."
"Slavery?! Because of your hair?!" cried Kaoru.
"I never knew it was like that," whispered Kaoru, suddenly realizing just how safe and sheltered her own childhood had been.
“That is how it was under the Bakufu," continued Kenshin. "Everyone except the shogun themselves were dirt-poor. Even the highest samurai were little more than bureaucrats, unable to maintain peace. If they lost their daimyo, they became ronin and ended up as either bodyguards or more often, bandits who robbed and killed to survive. They would rob merchants and raid peasant villages. Peasants, forbidden weapons to defend themselves, were their victims."
"Which is why you joined the Revolutionaries," said Kaoru, partially to herself.
"Yes," answered Kenshin.
For long moments there was a heavy silence between them as Kenshin faced very painful memories and shared them with Kaoru, who in turn tried to understand them.
"Where are they buried? The villagers? Your family? Surely there must be a graveyard," asked Kaoru, unable to bear the silence any longer.
"I'll show you their final resting place," said Kenshin, taking his wife by the hand and leading her deeper into his murky past.
Kenshin led Kaoru away from the remains of his village to a large copse of trees that stood alone in the middle of an otherwise barren meadow. He gestured to it with his right hand.
"The bodies were dumped into a charnel pit, burned and buried. These trees have grown out of their ashes. They stand as a memorial to my village and family," said Kenshin as he let go of her hand. "Excuse me, dearest, just for a moment."
Kenshin left Kaoru's side and went around halfway to the other side, where he knelt down and set the incense sticks in the ground, lighting them with a match. He then set down the flowers next to the burning incense. Finally, he faced the trees and prayed. As he prayed, his shoulders began to shake and his head lowered. Kaoru knew that he was weeping long unshed tears for the family he had lost so long ago. She decided to offer her own prayers for Kenshin's family, as she had for his first wife. She knelt down and prayed too.
When Kenshin returned, he wrapped his arms around Kaoru and held her close to him for a long time. Kaoru felt his hot breath on her neck. It was the strangest and yet most romantic feeling; being out here alone with Kenshin, miles away from other people, near a symbol of his long-forgotten past. It was almost like they were in their own world. Part of her never wanted this moment to end.
Finally though, Kenshin pulled back and looked at his wife with those dark violet eyes that he only had when he was very sad or nostalgic. Kaoru took his face between her hands and traced her thumbs over the tear-tracks that now streaked his cheeks.
"Thank you for praying for them," Kenshin whispered at length. "Let us go back to the inn and get something to eat."
"I'd like that," said Kaoru.
Now that reality was setting back in, she realized that she was indeed very hungry from their long walk.
Kenshin led Kaoru away from the remnants of his early childhood.
Kaoru's eyes took in the scenery as they left everything behind. This place would always be sacred in her mind because it was linked with her husband's remote past, a past that he kept locked deep within his heart and had shared with no one. That he had brought her here and bared his soul to her in this way, showed her how far into his heart she had penetrated.
In no time at all, Kenshin and Kaoru arrived back in Hiroshima. Kaoru assumed her proper place, a few feet behind Kenshin as they walked into the town. Once back at the inn and in their suite, he and Kaoru slipped off their sandals and sat down across from each other. Kenshin ordered chilled pork while Kaoru had a bowl of cold edamame beans.
The couple ate in silence. With Kenshin, this was the norm, as he wasn't much for talking while he ate. Kaoru usually liked to talk and he would listen. Right now though, she was thinking over everything Kenshin had revealed to her today. It had always been difficult for Kenshin to get close to people and to trust because every time he had, the person he trusted had either betrayed him or died tragically. It seemed that Kenshin was a lightning rod for trouble and tragedy and that it somehow transposed to any he let into his heart. Kaoru knew that she was the first to escape this.
After the meal came the sake. Kaoru declined because she didn't want to get drunk at the inn, and took tea instead. Kenshin drank a few cups of chilled sake to beat the stifling August heat.
After eating, Kenshin and Kaoru set out again, this time heading for a show being put on by a travelling bunraku troupe. The play started with the first group of puppets appearing on the revolving musicians' stage and making their way onto the main stage while the shamisen and chanting were performed by people behind a bamboo curtain. When the puppets moved, their feet moved along the first of three stage partitions called tesuri, making them seem to really be walking. Behind the last railing or funazoko, stood the puppeteers, dressed all in black so they were almost invisible to the audience. Behind them was the main stage, where the kawikari or backdrop was attached. The puppetry was exquisite and it was so easy to forget that the characters were in fact marionettes, as they seemed so lifelike.
As much as she watched the play, Kaoru watched Kenshin out of the sides of her eyes. He seemed to be enjoying himself immensely, his smile reaching his eyes as he watched a pretend fight between a samurai and a youkai that was terrorizing a small community. It was good to see Kenshin finally able to enjoy himself after all the hardships he had endured in his 30 years. The play was so good that they stayed through all the acts.
After they had returned to the inn and had their clandestine dinner and bath together, Kenshin and Kaoru again snuggled into their futon. Kenshin held Kaoru close to him and stared at the ceiling, the tiniest of smiles pursing his lips. Kaoru was far away and thoughtful. Kenshin had been a slave?! She couldn't bear the thought of her beloved rurouni being little more than property. The more she thought about it, the sadder she got. She didn't think it was right that anyone should suffer as much as her dear redhead had. As she traced the scars on Kenshin's bare flesh, tears filled her eyes.
Kenshin sensed the sadness in his young wife's ki and looked at her. When he saw the tears glowing in her eyes, he reached over and brushed them away with his fingers. Kaoru looked up at him, their gazes meeting intently. Kenshin's right hand found purchase in her hair, gently stroking the midnight strands. His gaze questioned, what was bothering her?
The concern in Kenshin's eyes was immediately replaced by interest as Kaoru leaned over and began softly kissing the old scars. Her lips moved across his upper chest to his right shoulder, which bore the scars of his battle in the Binding Forest, Jinei's katana, Shishio's guren kaina and Wu Heishin's bullet. Sensuously, she kissed each scar on that battle-worn shoulder.
Moving slowly downward, her lips lavished their attention on the old stab wound from Shishio's Mugenjin on the right side of his abdomen. She kissed all up and down the scar from Enishi's watou that ran from his collarbone to his waist. She kissed all the old Bakumatsu scars that were barely visible on his body as well, then moved on to the watou scar on his left arm. To finish, she gently kissed the cruciform scar, slowly, softly and warmly.
When she was finished, she lay down next to Kenshin, who in turn took her in his arms and planted hot, searing kisses all over her creamy skin. He moved even more slowly and sensuously than she had with a patience borne from his decade seniority over her and his extensive kenjutsu training. His hair spilled over them in a red curtain on either side of their faces. His lips and tongue lavished attention on her breasts, which came erect under the attention. Then he moved down, down...
The next morning...
After breakfast, Kenshin led Kaoru to the same flower shop and bought three buckets of flowers. After this, he led her out of the city and even farther into the countryside. Even beyond the remnants of Kenshin's old village, they walked. Just when it seemed as though they had walked forever, they came to a large meadow with what looked like a makeshift graveyard. There were grave mounds all over the place and in the center stood three stones, side by side.
"A graveyard..." gasped Kaoru.
Leaving Kaoru's side, Kenshin approached the three graves and knelt before them, gently running his fingers over their weathered surface.
"You made this graveyard!" proclaimed Kaoru.
Kenshin turned to his young wife with a sad smile. How well she knew him.
"These are the graves of three young women who took pity on me when we were being transported in the slave caravan. Their names were Kasumi, Akane, and Sakura. They took an instant liking to me and I to them. They shared their food with me and held me in their arms so I wouldn't be frightened. For the first time since my family died, someone cared for me... The next day, that would all change. The caravan was attacked by bandits wielding swords. The slavers tried to fight them off, but were outclassed and quickly done in. The three girls shielded me with their bodies and died that I might live. Just as I was about to join them, a large man with a white cape and a sword as fast as the wind showed up and killed them all in an instant."
Kenshin paused to look at Kaoru, again with that sad little smile.
"Hiko-san," she said.
"Yes. Hiko Seijuro XIII told me that I would be cared for in the nearby village if I told them of what happened, then left," said Kenshin. "But someone had to look after all the bodies and give them proper burial. I couldn't find any flowers, however..."
"All the bodies? Even the bandits?" asked Kaoru.
"Yes, even the bandits," said Kenshin. "Once a person is dead, they're a body. It doesn't matter if they're a shogun, a samurai, a peasant or a bandit. They all go to the same place in the end. Even a murderer deserves better than to be left to the vultures. When Hiko returned the next day, he found me where he'd left me. It took me all night to do what I felt must be done. He asked me my name, which by birth was Shinta. He told me that Shinta was a child's name, unfitting for a swordsman. On that day, I ceased forever to be Shinta and took the name Kenshin. And the rest, you already know," he concluded with another sad smile.
Without another word, Kenshin knelt down at the three stone graves and set down incense sticks and lit them ablaze. Next he set down the long-delayed flowers in tribute to the lives that had ended so his might continue.
As the couple paid their respects to the three girls' graves, Kaoru mulled over everything she had just learned. It made more sense to her now than ever before why Kenshin was as he was. As a child, he had seen so many people he had loved die or be cut down before his eyes. Each time he had been helpless to do anything about it. When he learned kenjutsu, Kenshin had gained much power and had hoped to be able to use his new strength to protect. Because of his youth and naivete, he had instead become a pawn that did little more than cut people down like the bandits had the three girls.
Kaoru found it quite sad that Kenshin had had to learn the hard way that a sword can't protect everyone in the nation. Kenshin hadn't truly understood the wrongness of what he had been doing until his blade had slashed through Tomoe's body and the second line of the scar had been cut into his left cheek, marking him forever.
Now though, there was a second chance. Kenshin had wandered Japan for ten years, seeking the answer that had been with him all that time. Now he, Kaoru, Yahiko and the absent Sanosuke would fight to protect the happiness and safety of the people around them and those who came to them for help. In this way, Kenshin would repent for his sins and continue to better himself. With that in his heart, the cruciform scar on his cheek would continue to fade as Kaoru noticed it was already beginning to do.
When they finished, Kaoru looked Kenshin over. In truth, she thought Shinta was a fine name for him. It matched his sweet face, huge violet eyes and that disarming smile of his. Kenshin was a fine swordsman's name and fit him well when he wielded his blade, but Shinta just seemed so right for him when he was at peace.
"Would you rather I called you 'Shinta' instead of 'Kenshin'?" she asked impulsively.
Kenshin smiled and shook his head as he stood up.
"Shinta died in the raid on the caravan. Kenshin was born in his place to keep what happened to Shinta from happening to those around him," he said.
Kaoru could only nod solemnly and stare again at the three stone graves. She pondered all this in her heart as Kenshin led her away from the little graveyard.
The couple spent the next few hours walking around and taking in the sights. The countryside was very beautiful and not too built up. They saw sika deer grazing timidly out on the meadows, ready to flee at a moment's notice. They observed a mama black bear foraging for food and keeping an eye on her two rambunctious cubs. Kaoru privately thought about what it would be like to be the mother of Kenshin's children. She hoped this would happen sooner rather than later. But she knew that if she broached the subject, she would receive swirly eyes and an endless string of "Orooooos" as her only response.
As the sun got lower in the sky, Kenshin reluctantly decided it was time to leave his memories and return to Tokyo. Seeing the places he had grown up in had been bittersweet. If Kaoru hadn't been by his side, he could never have made this journey. It felt good though, to finally put these last old ghosts to rest. Now, he could truly move forward for good.
"Kaoru, let us live happily," Kenshin said at length as he gazed directly at her, nothing held back.
"Every day," said Kaoru, giving his hand a squeeze.
Side by side, Kenshin and Kaoru made their way back to Hiroshima and the ship that would take them home.