Lost Embrace

Written by: Zora

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"...And so we spent awhile swept up in each other's smile.
I never thought I'd see the day would come when you'd leave me..."

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"Kenshin, have you given any thought to how long we're going to wander for?" I asked as the two of us made our way along the snow-covered road, going slowly to avoid any icy patches. We had been wandering the country of Japan for three years now. They had not been long years, in fact, the time had seemed to fly by with him at my side. I didn't care what the answer was, I was happy as long as I was with him. I was simply curious.

He turned and smiled at me, a slight teasing look behind his eyes, "What's wrong, Yuki? Are you ready to settle and become a goodwife already?" He asked.

I laughed and smiled broadly at him, "If it's with you, just name the day!" I said, not joking in the slightest, despite my tone. "But, seriously, I was curious since it just occurred to me that three full years have already passed. It hardly seems possible."

He put his arm around me as we walked and held me close, "That it has..." I saw a flicker of a shadow replace the smile in his eyes and frowned. The past was there. I should not have mentioned any kind of time frame. Before I could quickly change the subject, he continued, "Well, if you're going to be serious, than so will I. I don't know how long I'm going to wander for, that I don't. It may have been three years, but I have not even scratched the surface of repentance for all the lives that I took during the chaos of the revolution. Even though we have saved many, I caused even more to suffer... many more. I will keep going forever if that is what it takes to even begin to make up for that."

I sighed sadly and looked down at the ground as we walked. I had suspected that might be the answer. He had changed so much since the Revolution ended. His physical wounds had healed, his heart had opened, but his mind remained closed. He would not, could not let go of the mental horror he had been through. He believed it was all his fault - his alone. I didn't even think that he believed that his own life was worth much. We trusted each other completely, but no words from me would ever remove that mental block. It was something he would have to figure out on his own one day. For now, he kept living to help others... and for me. I pressed close to him as we walked, more from love than to escape the biting cold of the early winter winds.

"Yuki, you do not have to stay with me, that you do not. The sins are mine, not yours. You could still have a normal life..." I felt his arm tighten around me, belying the words that were coming out of his mouth.

I shook my head, "I will not leave you, Kenshin. If we wander forever, so be it. I don't care as long as I'm with you."

I heard him let his breath out in relief and smiled. But, my smile did not last. I felt his body tense beside me and his arm flew off of my shoulders to grip his hilt. "Yuki, draw your sword, there is someone coming towards us through the woods very quickly."

Without hesitation, I pulled my blade out of its sheath and fell lightly into a defensive stance, my eyes scanning the tree line. I had not sensed anything, but my senses were not a tenth of what Kenshin's were. Now that he had said it though, I heard the snap of twigs coming closer and closer to us. These people didn't care about silence and there were many of them. They wanted vengeance. After three years, I knew their type. I knew all the types. With a familiarity of years, Kenshin and I turned so that our backs were touching, and we waited, our swords held diagonally across our bodies and feet braced.

We did not have to wait long. Within seconds, a group of twelve men came crashing through the tree line and surrounded us. I had only to glance at them to know what they were. Two of them wore silk clothing, fancy sheathes, and had a resemblance that marked them as relatives. The rest wore matching uniforms that proclaimed them lackeys or servants of some sort. The relatives were from an upper-class family and I knew exactly why they were here. I wanted to close my eyes and pray. Not for me, but for Kenshin. This type was often the easiest to defeat, their blind anger made them clumsy, but they were the very hardest on him. I narrowed my eyes nearly to slits and calmly settled my gaze on our foes. I would not show them any emotion. But, I was worried; we had never faced so large a group of this type before.

"Battousai!" The taller of the two relatives cried from behind me where he was facing Kenshin, spitting the name like a curse. I heard the sound of him drawing his own sword and knew that he was leveling it at Kenshin without even turning to look. "You murdered our brother, and we have tracked you down to claim vengeance for him! If you thought hiding in Hokkaido these many months past would save you, you were wrong!"

I felt Kenshin slump ever so slightly against my back. Revenge seekers were so much worse than reputation hunters. After all, people killed in battle were one thing, people killed in assassination were completely different. Worse, he said that he could remember every face, every horrified dying expression. He might have already called this man's brother to mind with the obvious family resemblance. I cringed inwardly and sent him my strength.

"I wasn't hiding, that I was not." Kenshin said quietly. "And I am sorry for your loss. But, killing me will not make you feel any better or bring your brother back. If it would, I would let you kill me without resistance, that I would. But, since it won't, I cannot do that. I must repent for his death and all the others that fall on my shoulders. Please don't make me fight you."

The man sneered and said to the shorter man at his side, his younger brother, "The cocky bastard admits to killing Yohji!" Turning back to his servants, he shouted furiously. "Make him suffer, men, but leave his life for me!" And they attacked.

As I knew would happen, more of the men circled and went at Kenshin than at me. I was left facing four lackeys and the younger of the two brothers. As was also the usual, they did not attack me immediately. Kenshin was their target, and they were reluctant to kill or harm a woman. Already, Kenshin had moved a few steps away from me and by the number of sword clangs I heard, he was fighting at least two men at once. I wished I could turn and help him, but I would be most likely to save him in the end by keeping these five at bay. The brother stepped forward and narrowed his eyes at me.

"Move, girl. We have no quarrel with you."

"I will not." I answered calmly and held my stance.

"Why are you protecting a monster?" He growled furiously, hatred making his eyes over bright as he glanced behind me at Kenshin.

"He is not what you think he is. Not a monster, just a man like the brother you want revenge for so badly. You think he never killed anyone during that bloody war?"

"He was no damned assassin. You dishonor his memory! Now MOVE or I will make them move you." He said in a threatening tone that was obviously suppose to make it clear that move meant kill.

"I am not moving. And you're welcome to try to kill me." I said placidly. The conversations with revenge seekers nearly always went this way. It was like reading from a script.

His eyes flashed as I translated what he had said and he shrugged, "Have it your way then. We will have vengeance for our brother, no matter what stands in our way!" He waved his hand in the casual way of the arrogantly wealthy, sending his servants forward.

They threw themselves at me and I braced myself, sword up and ready. I met the first man's charge and knocked his weapon aside. He instantly came at me again with a backhand chop and I knew that he had had at least some decent training. It wasn't enough compared to my own. I easily parried the attack and threw him back from me. In the same fluid movement, I brought my leg up in a forward kick to his chest. He fell and I looked around for my next foe.

The next two men came at me at the same time. Obviously, they were smart enough to understand simultaneous attack. I blocked, kicked, and struck automatically, allowing my body to take complete control. Hesitation now would mean the promised death.

One of the swordsmen thrust and missed as I danced lightly sideways from his blade. However, he also hopped backwards before I had a chance to finish him. These men were better than I had thought at first. Behind me, I heard Kenshin shout fiercely and someone screamed. The other swordsman looked up to see the screamer's fate, and in his instant of distraction, I swiftly brought the hilt of my sword down on his head. He too fell unconscious. Sweat dripped in my eyes, but I didn't dare pause even for a moment to wipe it away. The fourth servant had joined his companion.

I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye and whipped my head up to see the brother dart forward towards me, sword aimed at my chest. My eyes widened and I sprung backwards, saving myself from his killing blow. However, I felt my thigh sting viciously and I knew that he had not missed me entirely. He moved backwards from us again, a cruel smile on his face. Cowardly bastard! Setting his lackeys on me and then dodging in to wound me when there was an opening. Only the most dishonorable of swordsmen used such methods. I knew I was bleeding, but I ignored it. There was nothing I could do until this was over.

It soon would be, my patience was wearing very thin. Bracing my legs, I sprang from the ground and flipped over the heads of the two servants. Extending my uninjured leg, I landed lightly with all of my weight on it before gingerly bringing the other down to join it. As the two servants slowly turned, I flipped the blade of my sword around and brought them both down with a wicked Kasai Shinkage side cut that would cleave a man in two if executed with the other side of the blade. They joined their fallen comrades.

I paused, panting, just long enough to see that Kenshin had also downed all but one opponent, the elder brother who had spoken first, before whirling around to face my last one as well. The cheating younger brother.

"Impressive, for a girl. But, I suppose that the Battousai's whore would have to have some skill to stay alive for him."

Could people come up with no other insults? That one had long ago lost its effect with me. In fact, in the past year, I usually answered with some flippantly crude comment that surprised whoever had shouted the insult long enough for me to finish them. This time though, with so many previous opponents, I was winded, in pain, and hating this man for cheating.

"Pity about your leg." he sneered with obvious meaning.

I didn't fall for that bluff, I didn't look down even though I knew it was probably very bad. The other minor cuts and bruises I had received seemed non-existent in comparison. My strength would go soon though, I was already beginning to feel sick. I had to finish this one before I fell and he attacked Kenshin's back. I moved in a burst of speed, the little I'd kept back. I leaned away from his sword; my left foot curled up and in, then thrust out, slamming into his belly. He crashed into a tree a few feet behind him and lay where he fell.

Still ignoring the throbbing in my thigh, I turned dispassionately from my fallen opponent just in time see Kenshin finish off the vengeful brother.

"Hiten Mitsurugi style Ryu Tsui Sen!" He cried as his unparalleled aerial attack came down on the brother, knocking him flat. Kenshin landed with perfect grace and sheathed his sword before slowly straightening. His back was to me, but I still saw him start and whirl around to check on my well being. I forced a positive expression and started toward him. The step sent pain rocking through my body and I didn't try another.

His expression said it all. "Yuki!!" He yelled and was at my side in two steps. "We've got to get you to a doctor immediately!"

I waved my hand, "It can't be that bad..." I glanced down and couldn't stifle a gasp. My light-colored hakama pants were stained dark with blood that could only be mine. I forced my head back up and looked at him, relieved to see that he had sustained no injuries beyond the inevitable small cuts and bruises that come with every battle.

I felt him start to pick me up and shook my head, "No, you fought hard, I can walk." I took a single step forward and the leg crumbled under me.

"Yuki!" He cried again and knelt beside me.

"I'm... all right."

"No! You are not!" He answered as he ripped a long strip from his own hakama pants. I braced myself as his hands moved to my leg and gingerly removed what was left of the fabric there. For a second I thought I would lose consciousness and I heard him hiss, "Oh, god..." I didn't look, I didn't want to see the truth, but continued to fight for consciousness as he swiftly bound the wound to slow the bleeding. I felt him put his arms around me again.

This time I didn't resist as he gently picked me up. I leaned my head against his shoulder and whispered, "Don't worry, after I see a doctor, I'll be just fine. This isn't my first or worst injury after all. Remember how we came to be partners." I said. My words didn't work. I could still feel him trembling as he started running down the road, running with an amazingly smooth gait that barely jarred me. Or, maybe I had just gone numb. I didn't know. He was thinking of what I hadn't said, I knew. This wound wasn't as bad as the one that brought us together... but if the muscle had been cut, I would be crippled for life. After that, I stopped thinking and just concentrated on staying conscious. I didn't know how far it was to a town, but I knew Kenshin would get me there. I would not let him down by not fighting.

The forest gave way to farmland as twilight fell and I knew we were close. It had only been perhaps fifteen minutes, but I was having more and more trouble staying awake. Just when I was sure that Kenshin's strength would give out or I would lose my fight for consciousness, we topped a small hill and there was a town spread out below us.

From somewhere within, Kenshin found a final burst of strength. Within what seemed like mere minutes, I found myself being carried down the hallway of a clinic, a white-haired doctor following swiftly behind us. My vision swam as Kenshin gently lowered me onto a futon. He leaned down and kissed my forehead. In a barely audible whisper he said, "Please don't die on me."

Had I really lost that much blood? I blinked groggily, but somehow forced myself to answer, "I won't."

Then Kenshin's face moved aside and was replaced by that of the doctor. Through the haze that had become my reality, I heard him say, "I'm going to put you under, lady. You won't feel any more pain." The words sounded very distant, as if in a dream, but I managed to nod. A cloth came down to cover my mouth and nose and I knew no more.

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Kenshin kneeled beside Yuki's futon, holding her hand clasped between both of his and watching her, waiting for her to wake up. He prayed that she would. The doctor had said that with his medicines and rest, she would be just fine. She would not even limp. Yet, he could not stop worrying. What if? He knew better than anyone did just what fragile strings life hung by, anything at all could sever them too quickly for anyone to do anything. Yes, she had lived this time, but what about next time? Sooner or later, she would die, and it would be his fault. Just like last time.

Leaning forward, he put one hand on her forehead and lightly rubbed the bridge of her nose with his thumb. She felt cooler than her normal temperature, but the doctor had said that too was normal with blood loss. He sighed and murmured, "Yuki... you deserve a better life than this, that you most certainly do."

He removed his hand and continued to sit in complete silence in the dark clinic, just watching. She was lying on her back with her black hair undone from it's usual loose braid and lying around her in long waves. She looked peaceful. He closed his eyes momentarily and squeezed her hand tighter. She never should have had to bear this pain or any of the other injuries that she had sustained because of him. After all, they were battle partners, they were supposed to protect each other. And he had failed. Failed, and almost lost the only person, the only thing in the world that he loved. All my life, all I have ever wanted was to protect people from suffering, and yet, I have never even been able to keep even the ones who mean the most to me safe! He thought, gritting his teeth and clenching his eyes more tightly closed to bear the weight of his thoughts.

After a long moment, he reopened them and looked down on her sleeping form again. She was breathing evenly and the sound soothed him as it always did. He had some knowledge of medicine and knew that it would probably be morning before she awoke - perhaps even later. That meant he had the rest of the night to sit alone with his thoughts and to try to come to terms with what he knew he had to do. I can no longer put her in danger. It would one of the hardest things he had ever had to do and he knew that he would never be able to tell her face to face. He would hint at the reasons why though, she deserved at least that much. He only hoped that she might forgive him for it someday.

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I was vaguely aware of light filtering through my closed eyelids as my consciousness floated back towards the surface. It seemed that I had once again cheated death. I was aware of a few minor aches, but my thigh itself felt normal. I hoped that was a good thing. Grimacing slightly, I forced my eyes open and blinked a few times to adjust to the bright sunlight filling the room and to bring the shapes I saw into focus. I wondered just how long I had been out for. It looked like we were still in the clinic, but my memories of the place were too foggy to be very reliable.

"Yuki! You're awake!"

I slowly turned my head and smiled weakly as I saw Kenshin kneeling beside my futon and I became aware of him clasping my hand in his own. I gave his hand a squeeze and whispered, "Have you stayed by my side all night? You should have rested yourself, Kenshin."

He leaned forward and hugged me gently to him, lifting me slightly off the futon, "I had no intention of leaving your side until you woke up, Yuki! And listen to you, worrying about me when you're the one who's hurt."

I continued to smile and forced my arms to lift and return his embrace. I rested my head lightly against him and said, "If I didn't worry, who knows what would become of you? You never worry about yourself; did you at least get your own cuts seen to?"

He lightly laid me back down against my pillow and nodded, "Yes, I did. The doctor insisted. So, I insisted he do it here by your side, that I did."

I managed to chuckled, "He was probably thinking, 'Silly young lovebirds!' Anyhow..." I began, then paused to make sure of my calm voice, "How is my leg?"

"Not as bad as we feared. The sword didn't cut the muscle. When it heals, you will be able to walk without a limp, though you will have a scar for the rest of your life. It took 35 stitches to close that wound."

I replied quietly, "What's one more scar? At least I will walk again."

Kenshin sighed sadly, and I started at something I saw behind his eyes. He saw my expression and quickly composed himself, "That you will, but not for a week. And it will be two weeks before the stitches can come out and you can travel."

"A week? How am I supposed to get around? And we certainly can't stay here for two weeks."

"Don't worry, Yuki. I will carry you wherever you want to go, you won't be bed bound." He said with a warm smile; he knew how I hated confinement of any kind, "No, we can't stay here. But, the doctor has arranged for us to stay at a nearby inn until you're well enough to travel."

"We can't afford that Kenshin, not even with our performance money."

"The doctor is a very kind man. He put in a word, and the inn is willing to let us use a room for two weeks if I help out around the place while you're recovering. We're going to arrange things this morning."

"Help out? How?" I asked, raising one eyebrow questioningly.

"Oh, wash dishes, do laundry, carry things for the maids, chores like that." He said, a strange expression on his face.

I couldn't hide a smirk, "I cannot see you doing laundry." Our arrangement on the road was that he cooked, since I could not, and I did the washing.

He gave me a long-suffering look, "Master Hiko always made me do all of the laundry up on the mountain when I was learning Hiten Mitsurugi, that he did. And you've never met my master. He's alarmingly huge. It took me hours to wash his clothes since they were bigger than I was at ten years old, that they were!"

I had to giggle at the slight whine to his tone. It was something that he hadn't had until recently and I loved it. It made him more human, along with the rare acts of goofiness that had come to the surface as his cold wall came down. It made me want to hug him, even now when I wasn't sure I would have the strength.

"I will have to meet this master of yours some day. He sounds... interesting."

"You wouldn't like him, that you certainly would not." Kenshin replied, and I saw the sad look flicker behind his eyes again.

I lifted my hand off of where it had been resting on my blanket covered stomach and reached up to lightly touch his cheek, "Kenshin, what is wrong?"

He started slightly and shook his head, "Nothing, Yuki. Now, the doctor said to put some of this salve on your wound everyday until the stitches come out, and then every other day until it scars over. It will prevent infection and pain."

I watched him dig around inside his kimono for the salve and sighed. He would tell me when he was ready and not before. I knew to tread softly with things Kenshin was not open about because they were often very painful memories or thoughts for him.

"Ah, there it is!" He exclaimed and pulled out a plain blue lacquered container. "The doctor wants you to stay here one more day so he can keep an eye on you. He said that you lost a good bit of blood and that could still have after effects. Tomorrow, I will carry you to the inn to recover, that I will."

I frowned, "Being carried around like an invalid." Then I made myself brightened as I saw the unhappy expression on his face, "Oh well, I suppose I don't mind so much since it will be you carrying me."

His sad face changed to a small smile and he bowed slightly, "Your faithful pony, Yuki."

I grinned and was just about to respond when the doctor came in.

"Ah, you're awake, and looking well. But, you will still need lots of rest. Sir Himura, why don't we go to that inn and make arrangements while your lady begins her recovery. I have no patients to see this morning."

Neither of us corrected his assumption that we were married. We always let people believe it if they wanted to since it was a much easier way to travel. There were fewer questions asked and no doubtful looks this way. Besides, we were together in all but legal vows. Such things didn't matter to us.

Kenshin nodded in response and leaned down to kiss me lightly before standing and following the doctor out. I watched them go before reclining back against my pillow and staring up at the paneled ceiling. I wished I knew what it was that was bothering Kenshin. The last secret thing that had made him so miserable had been the story of his first wife. I only hoped that whatever was haunting him now was not as bad as that. Surely, it couldn't be. Resolving to just be patient, I closed my eyes and drifted back into unconsciousness.

~*~

The next week passed so slowly I could barely stand it. I hated lying on my futon, doing nothing all day long, while everyone tiptoed around me as if I was made of glass. Kenshin tried to make it bearable for me. He carried me down to meals and out into the gardens. But, he could never stay with me long. I would see a heart-breaking look flicker across his face and he would be gone on some chore the inn had for him. And I would be alone again. I wanted to be back on the road with him at my side. If this was any example of what settled life would be like, I was seriously reconsidering wanting it afterall. I was quite sure I couldn't stand a lifetime of this monotony.

The following week passed in a similarly slow manner, except now I was able to walk. If I thought either Kenshin or the doctor would have let me get away with it, I would have jumped for joy when the day came that the stitches finally came out. It meant we were free, we could leave the next day and go back to the way things were. Looking back, I had no reason to be happy as that coming day turned out to be one of my darkest.

~*~

"I can hardly wait to get back on the road again tomorrow." I said that night when Kenshin had returned to our room. I was sitting on the futon with my legs pulled up to my chest. The thigh barely even stung. I had my arms crossed on my knees with my chin resting on them and I was watching him move around the room, preparing for bed.

He turned his head briefly towards me and tried to force a smile, but failed and swiftly turned back away, not answering me.

I furrowed my brows at him. He had been getting worse these two weeks past and I still did not know what was bothering him. I wondered if maybe this town reminded him of some terrible incident in the past I didn't know about, and he did not tell me because he didn't want to upset me when I was already injured.

"Okay, Kenshin, tell me what's wrong. And do not say nothing. I know you. You can tell me anything, you know that. I can handle whatever it is and it will do you good to get if off your chest already." I said with quiet bluntness.

He froze where he was standing with his back to me a few feet away. Slowly he turned around and met my eyes. I was unsettled by his expression. He had looked that way when I had first met him and he was nearly consumed with guilt over all the lives he had taken, all the lives he would still have to take. I knew then what was likely wrong with him, but waited patiently for him to voice it himself. Finally, he sighed in resignation and let his hands fall to his sides, "Yuki, what happened to you was my fault, that it was! If you weren't traveling with me, you never would have been injured. You must give up this dangerous life."

My conclusions had been right. I raised my chin off of my knees, straightening my back to meet his gaze more evenly. I shook my head, "Oh no, Kenshin, you cannot blame yourself for this as well. It was in no way your fault. It was my carelessness. My fault for not practicing as diligently as I might have and for underestimating our opponents."

"But, I was the one our opponents were after. It is because of me that you are still fighting at all." He replied quietly, his eyes never wavering from our locked gaze.

"I chose this life with you and I have never once regretted the choice that I made. Never." I said in the same quiet, calm tone. I forced myself to smile, desperate to do anything to improve the troubled atmosphere of the room. I beckoned for him to come over to me and when he did, kneeling beside the futon, I grasped his hand and said, "Being able to love you is worth everything else. I will not give that up." He didn't reply, and that struck me as more worrisome than anything he had yet done. Neither of us were openly very affectionate people, but we always returned expressions of love. "Kenshin, please don't look so sad, I'm fine now." I tried to make him smile by having a Taro moment, something that usually lifted a dark mood, "Ready and rearing to go give the next group of thugs hell!"

His dejected expression remained. I knew what it was he feared and I had to prove that it would not happen again. I was stronger than that. When he opened his mouth to argue against what I had said yet again, I cut him off by reaching up and pulling his face down to mine, gently kissing him. He hesitated for a moment before returning my kiss. When we pulled apart, I leaned my forehead against his, my arms still laced back around his neck. "The past is not going to repeat itself. Remember what I said to you two weeks ago. I will not leave you."

He sighed and finally said, "I know you wouldn't, Yuki. Not by choice. I was afraid to love you, but I'm even more afraid to lose you, that I am."

I felt my heart drop, but I tried to keep my same confident expression, "Oh, now stop talking like that. You are not going to lose me. Come on to bed; I'll prove to you that I'm just fine now and you haven't a thing to worry about where I'm concerned." I replied with a mischievous look, kissing him again.

~*~

Later that night, I lay curled up in the curve of his body and listened to his breathing. I was healed now and we would be leaving tomorrow to continue our life together. I thought that surely it was the end of the matter of me leaving him to continue wandering this path alone. An older, wiser woman would have known better, she would have heard the double meaning in his words to me that night. I regretted not realizing what was happening for the rest of my life...

~*~

I woke up just as the sun rose high enough to shine through the rice paper screen windows of our room and fall on my closed eyes. Without opening my eyes to the light, I stretched, relieved to feel no pain for the first time in days and reached over beside me to where Kenshin was. But, he wasn't. My eyes shot open in surprise and I sat bolt upright on the futon. That sent some pain through my leg and I grimaced slightly, but paid it no mind. I was alone in the room and the bedding beside me was cold. My stomach jolted in alarm and I almost leapt up off the bed before muttering to myself, "Get a grip, Sasaki." Kenshin was almost always up and about before I was. He slept light and very little compared to a normal man. He had spent too many years not even trusting the shadows enough to take more than a catnap and I knew that he was often plagued by nightmares. More than once, he had jolted awake in a cold sweat in the middle of the night. In those times, I had simply held him, more like a child than a lover, and soothingly bid him tell me what it was that haunted him. It was how I had finally come to hear his whole story. Still, it was only perhaps an hour after dawn...

I shook myself firmly this time to clear my nagging thoughts; it was just our conversation from last night making me foolishly suspicious and jumpy. Not my way at all, I took everything calmly in stride, it was how I stayed alive. Shoving the last of the thoughts aside, I bent to look at my leg. Pulling up the light cotton yukata I was wearing, I unwrapped the thin bandage protecting the wound and examined it. It was clean and showed no redness around it, that meant no infection. We really would be able to finally leave today.

Wrapping the robe tighter around me, I got slowly up off of the futon to get my salve from the small paper lamp table that it was sitting on. This was the first time that we had stayed in an inn for a long time, and now only out of necessity. I didn't mind sleeping out under the stars every night, but it had been nice to feel tatami under my bare feet again instead of grass and leaves.

When I straightened from picking up the salve was when I saw the folded piece of paper lying beside the sliding door that led out of the room. I froze and the lacquered container fell from my hands. It hit the floor with a clatter, but I did not even hear it for the deafening ringing in my ears. Feeling as though there was a cannonball in my stomach, I forced my legs to move and walked slowly to where the paper was. I knelt and picked it up. "No." I said simply, quietly as I saw my name written on it in Kenshin's neat calligraphy. My premonitions had been right. My hands shook as I unfolded the letter. I already knew what it contained, but I was determined not to fall apart, to stay strong.

I closed my eyes and gritted my teeth, trying to control my raging emotions. I crushed the paper into a ball as my hand dropped and clenched into a fist. When I finally let my breath out, it came in a slow hiss. "Damn you, Kenshin Himura! Why do you always have to put everything on your own shoulders!"

The salve and my wound completely forgotten, I shoved the letter inside of my yukata and grabbed my kendo pants, pulling them on over my robe as I was already going out the door. I took the steps to the common room two at a time as my hysteria grew. Maybe I woke up in time. Please, god, let it not be too late! Please! I thought as I ran down the last flight of stairs, ignoring the intense pain the jarring was causing my leg. I didn't care. It didn't matter. Nothing mattered except finding him. I couldn't lose him, I couldn't. When I crashed into the common room, panting, all heads turned to look at me curiously. Ignoring them, I ran across the small room, dodging tables and people, to where the innkeeper was seated with her accounts, watching over her establishment. I demanded breathlessly, "When did he leave?!"

She blinked at me in surprise. I had become well aquatinted with Madame Moto in the past few weeks and she knew I was not given to any kind of fits or temper. She asked slowly, "Your husband, my Lady Himura?"

This was too much for my shattered nerves and I gave into a very rare fit of temper, "Who else?! Yes, my... husband! Tell me now! I don't have a single second to spare!"

Heads turned around the room to give me disapproving looks and Madame Moto tsked before replying, "No need to shout, my lady. He left about two hours ago. Don't you worry about a thing though!" She added quickly, misinterpreting the reason for all the color draining from my face. "Your man is a good one, his hard work has more than paid for everything."

I barely heard what she said. It didn't matter. I sank down to my knees opposite the woman and propped my elbows on the kotatsu table in order to bury my face in my hands, fighting to collect myself. Two hours ago. I really wasn't surprised, I just did not want to accept it. He had planned this so that I could not follow him. The reality became more and more numbing as it sank in. I could never follow him, even with my minor tracking skills. People may have seen him leaving the town at that early hour, but no one would know which way he had gone once he was out of town. Nor would he be the only traveler wishing to get an early start. If by some miracle I did pick the right way, I still wouldn't be able to find him. Years of lurking in alleys and disappearing in crowds had given Kenshin the talent of being invisible when he wanted to be. If he didn't want a person to find him, they wouldn't. He most definitely did not want me to find him. It hurt... oh, did the realization hurt. He thought he was saving me, but I was not so sure that losing him would not have the opposite effect.

The innkeeper tapped my arm, alarmed, "My lady... are you all right? Shall I fetch the doctor?" She asked urgently.

I lifted my head from my hands as a freezing cold emptiness growing outwards from the pit of my stomach reached my mind. I shook my head slowly, "No. Thank you, Madame." Bowing my head to her, I somehow rose to my feet and slowly left the common room, oblivious to all the faces watching me. My bare feet dragged along the tatami. I had lost him... the only person I had ever loved or who had ever loved me. A violent shudder ran through my body that had nothing to do with the lightness of the clothes that I had on. What was I going to do? He was my life... and now he was gone. I reached our room and entered, sliding the door quietly shut behind me. I leaned back against it staring up at the ceiling and whispered again, "Damn you, Kenshin, how could you do this to me?" To my shock, the ceiling above me suddenly blurred as tears came to my eyes. I never cried. I had learned long ago that tears solved nothing, but now I could not stop them. They ran silently down my cheeks as I just stood there with my back against the cold wall. I felt like I was sinking, I never thought I could feel so alone.

I do not know how long I stood that morning, lost in grief. However, eventually the coldness began to subside and my head cleared a little. Obviously, I could not stay here. There was nothing for me to do except continue wandering alone. I reached into my yukata and pulled out Kenshin's crushed note. Smoothing the paper, I read aloud, "Start a new life." I laughed humorlessly, "And just how in the hell am I suppose to do that?" I said to whatever remainders of his spirit might still be lingering in the room. I had nothing to start a new life with. No family, only a little money (which he had left me all of. How did he plan to live?), my sword, which I could not sell, and my clothing.

Suddenly, I stood up straight and lifted my chin, raising my arm to dry my cheeks with my yukata sleeve. I was a survivor, I always survived. Sitting here and feeling sorry for myself was not going to solve one damn thing, or help me find this new life that he spoke of. Nor would it help me find him - and he was out there somewhere. Despite what he had said, I knew that I would never be able to forget him, though he turned out to be painfully right about it being easier if I could. I intended to search for him wherever I wandered. However, I knew that the dull ache in my chest was not going to go away any time soon. As I moved around the room, dressing properly and packing my few belongings, I thought dryly, All that poetry about aching hearts isn't so far-fetched after all. Well, aching heart or no, I was not going to just lay down and die. While I was alive, there was hope. Hope for what, I didn't know, but it was something. Shoving Kenshin's note inside my kimono, I slung my pack over my shoulder, stuck my sword through my belt, and set out to begin my search.

~*~

For months, I wandered alone. I returned to my guise of the boy Taro Nakata for safety. A young man traveling alone would not be harassed like a young woman would be. Wherever I encountered so much as a single farmer working in his field, I would ask for news of a red-haired swordsman with a cross-shaped scar on his left cheek. But, no one I asked had ever even heard of him. It was as if he had vanished into thin air or simply never existed at all. After awhile, I stopped asking. There was no point to it. For all I knew, he had left the country of Japan entirely in his efforts to hide from me. Obviously, I was more than right about him not wanting me to be able to track him or follow him in any way. It hurt to know he had gone to such lengths, and I might have hated him had I not known that he was doing it selflessly out of love for me. I stopped searching for him, and began looking for my new life.

In the spring of the 5th year of the Meiji, a memory from my childhood gave me a possible answer to my quest. I remembered my father once complaining about his estranged aunt who lived in Edo and her refusal to help us with our financial problems. I had never been told the story behind why this aunt would have nothing to do with my family, but I still figured that it was worth a shot. Perhaps she only hated my father. It was easy to do so. After all, what did I have to lose? The next day, I turned south towards Edo, now the new capital city renamed Tokyo.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



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