|Disclaimer||All disclaimers apply. Please, do not sue. No profit is being made with this story. Stuart Murdoch is truly a lovely man. Potatoes are good. Spoiler warning for the last episode of the Tsuiokuhen OVA/ Remembrance arc of the manga.|
|Author Intro||This story is based on the OVA... I’m quite aware that there are many elements in the manga that contradict my version of events here, but that weren’t mentioned in the OVA probably due to time constraints, so I’m just shamelessly taking advantage of that fact. Dialogue has been left non- descript because, frankly, it’s not so much who’s doing the talking but what they’re saying. Blame it all on the sins of a first-time RK author, anyhow. :)|
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Proceed to Heaven
by narie the waitress ::: 21.Jan.2002
He’d found the two of them while running down the road; as he tried to get home before the cold seeped through his clothing and into his body, before it reached his marrow and sucked him dry, leaving him shivering and lost in the silent darkness of falling snow.
At first he saw nothing, only a small trail of red in the otherwise clean snow; a child’s lost hair ribbon. But then he saw footprints, and in the hazy darkness of sunset a figure, a boy, bloodied and torn, leaning against one of the many trees that lined the road, huddled in such an awkward posture over what could only be another human figure, that if he wasn’t dead he was probably unconscious. Dried, caked blood had run from the side of his face down his neck to his shoulder, pooling and soaking the blue gi he was wearing. But all that blood, it couldn’t have come only from that cut on his cheek...
“I wonder why they were attacked. They seemed rather harmless and aloof, leaving their house only to sell medicine, and buy food.”
“Maybe they were hiding?”
“From what? Does that kid look to you as if he could hold out his own against an assassin? Or against a Mibu Wolf?”
“My point exactly.”
“Oh, I see what you mean... still, it doesn’t make sense. And why didn’t they kill him?”
“Maybe they were happy enough with having killed her.”
“Her? Why would anyone want to kill a woman, after all?”
“Oh, I don’t know... her father could be some high-ranking officer, something along those lines.”
“Maybe... Still, I don’t know, makes very little sense to me. What would a Mibu Wolf be doing this far from Kyoto to begin with? And why would they attack him, out of all people? He is such a kind person, after all...”
Running up to the two of them, he had recognized them almost instantly. The boy was that medicine salesman, the one who’d come down to the village last month and from whom he had bought some good medicine for his achy joints. He looked around their prone bodies, but the medicine box was nowhere to be seen. Husband and wife, they were; newly weds or something like that, who had moved to that remote cottage a small way off from the village, and kept mostly to themselves these past months, coming down only to either sell medicine or buy the bare necessities of life; tea leaves, fish, and the occasional jar of sake.
The more he thought about them, the more he remembered. They were both serious; they had never smiled on those rare times in which they had come down to the village, not when he tried to make lighthearted conversation, nor when he had made a simple joke; nor had he ever gone down to the town teahouse to sit around and chat during the autumn days after harvesting, when there were preciously few things to do. They had always been a strange couple, him and her, both so silent and stiff. His impression had always been that they were never comfortable with one another, that there was something between them as invisible as air, and as durable as a wall.
But he wasn’t one to meddle in the affairs of others. They had both been polite to him in all his encounters with them and the medicine he had bought from them was quite good, so he had simply filed them off in his memory as an awkward couple and gone on with his daily routine. An arranged marriage of sorts, none of his business.
“No, I tell you, one of those lower daimyos, born into the title but with no use for it. Father has two sons, hires someone to teach the second kid how to hold a katana and look menacingly enough so that normal people on the streets will leave him alone, but nothing much else asides from that.”
“But why? If the kid is important, then surely we would have heard something; or at least he would have had some visitors once in a while to make sure he was safe...”
“Not if they were trying to hide him and keep his location secret...”
“I suppose so...”
“Just think about it... how many of us knew where he lived, after all? He wasn’t really forthcoming about it, was he, coming down the village only when it was necessary.”
After running most of the way to the bodies, the last five or six steps had been excruciatingly hard. He couldn’t muster enough will to go stand next to them, to check for breathing; he remained rooted to the ground, jaw slightly unhinged, looking at the two bloodied bodies that stared back at him with void, glassy eyes. Only after a while had he crept up to them, carefully, afraid of what he could find, afraid that the medicine seller’s head would suddenly roll off his neck and fall to the ground, where it would be engulfed by the quickly growing blanket of snow; or that the body that rested on his lap was going to suddenly extend two ghastly, pale hands and drag him to hell.
But neither thing happened. Neither figure stirred. Resting against the tree in a macabre tableau the boy and his wife did not make a single move that acknowledged their awareness of his presence.
She was dead. He might have been a simple fishmonger, but he knew that when you could see through someone’s torso, they were usually past the ‘dire trouble’ zone and into a much grimmer one.
It was strange... mixed in with the coppery smell of the blood that stained both her and his robes he thought he could smell the faintest trace of white plum blossoms.
“Good morning to you too, Nishimura-san. What will you be having today?”
“The usual, please, Mikado-san, if that’s not too much trouble.”
“Of course not! I’ll send Miko with it to your house as soon as she comes back, she’s out delivering right now.”
“Not to Himura-san, yes?”
“Why, yes, indeed... she quite likes him, and believes that since it was my husband who found him in the snow, it is her duty as a daughter to take care of the man.”
“Oh... I wouldn’t let her do that if I were you, Mikado-san... that man, he is dangerous!”
“You think? He’s always seemed rather innocent to me, nothing much else than a decent medicine maker. Someone you’d want to have around.”
“You haven’t seen his eyes, have you?”
“Of course I have! Lost kid with no idea of what is going on around him, that’s what he is. Especially now, after what happened to his wife.”
“No, no, no! Those are the eyes of someone who knows how to wield a sword, how to defend himself. The eyes of someone who knows how to kill, and who won’t hesitate to do it again.”
“Then explain to me how he ended up so tattered and beaten...”
“I don’t know... but doesn’t it bother you that the thieves who attacked him carried such powerful weapons? Or that they haven’t attacked anyone else, neither after nor before him?”
But, back to the urgency of the matter. She was certainly dead. Her husband looked the part as well, sitting there immobile, letting the snow pile on his shoulders. But just to make sure -before he went into the village to find someone to help him carry their bodies and give them both a decent burial- he shook the man’s shoulder, softly at first, brushing off the snow, but receiving no response. There was a faint surge of panic within him. The overall wrongness of finding two dead bodies while running back to his house from his usual fishing spot, a trek he had made every day for the last seventeen years, was simply indescribable. In his fear, he shook the boy more viciously, disturbing his cold grip on the dead woman resting on his lap, making her roll off his crossed legs and to the ground.
He was rewarded with a faint growl and a pair of clouded eyes that moved sluggishly, as if they were unable to focus. He raised his head slowly, in obvious pain, his lips pulled into a thin line as he winced involuntarily.
“Betrayed,” he said, then closed his eyes again and with noticeable effort pulled back the girl into his lap, letting his head fall back to its original position, almost as if he were weeping for her.
I always wondered how he managed to drag her body back to the road. To be honest, I think he didn’t. I know who he is, I think she had become a danger to him and so he killed her, then set it all up to make it seem like an ambush.
I had seen his eyes, and always known he was a killer; they were too cold for him to be anything else. But I don’t think he killed her, I think he was saying the truth when he said they had been ambushed by thieves. Sure, I don’t know what they were doing in the middle of the forest to begin with, but that’s none of my business. I saw him grieving over her body, it was fairly obvious that he loved her, and that he was quite sorry that she was dead.
- Okiwa-san, cousin to Mikado-san.
Who says they didn’t love one another? The first time I saw him at the village, he came into my store and bought her a mirror. I know because he actually asked me to wrap it up a bit so he could give it to her as a present. He seemed somewhat uncomfortable with the whole thing, truth be told, but I do think he loved her somewhere. Maybe not as much as this my son here, and his wife; or maybe it was because they were both so quiet, I don’t know. But if you ask me, it’s truly a pity that she’s dead. A beauty like hers, rotting already. Pity, pity... I feel bad for him as well, as he has lost everything he had, it would seem... with those wounds, I’m not too sure how long he’ll have to spend in a bed, until he is able to move again. But you should ask Miko-chan about that, she spent the night watching over him; that’s what her mother told me.
- Kanata-san, general store owner.
He did not have the faintest idea as to what he should do. None. Running back to the village for help seemed like a good idea, but something inside him told him that if he left the medicine seller unattended that long he would return only to find two dead bodies in the snow.
But his current behavior, something along the lines of stand-at-the- sidelines-gaping-like-an-idiot was not that much more effective either. Trying to think, to free his mind from the sluggishness forced on it by the cold, he came up with nothing better than offering the man his own coat to wrap himself up with and a sip of sake to warm him up.
With an urgent promise to return, which received absolutely no acknowledgement from the boy, he ran down the rest of the road to the village, panting and sweating in the cold of the snowfall, praying to his own god that the boy would make it, and that he would not have to bear the guilt of having made the wrong choice for the rest of his life.
“Say... do you remember the tales of that monster slayer in Kyoto, the one working for the Ishin?”
“Eh, that one.”
“What about him?”
“What do you mean, what about him? Isn’t it obvious?!”
“Isn’t what obvious?”
“Well, didn’t you ever pay attention to how they describe him? A scarred cheek, cold eyes, short...”
“You know I don’t listen to the tales that come from Kyoto. All this spilling of blood will come to nothing, and the people that took place in it will be forgotten. It makes no difference...”
When Mikado-san got to the village he ran straight to the teahouse, quickly spewing off a hurried and confused version of what he had found on his way home. A handful of villagers got up in different states of urgency and morbid curiosity and made their way to the door, waiting for him to lead them to the spot where he had found the medicine seller and his wife. Running behind them at a safe distance was his daughter, who was following out of her own curiosity concerning the ‘handsome, mysterious stranger’ (as she later described him to a friend) who came down to buy fish every week.
The long run back made itself eternal for Mikado-san, who kept on praying to his ancestors to intercede in some way, to keep the boy alive so that he would not have to deal with the guilt of having caused the death of an innocent man for the rest of his days. He wasn’t a well-read man, Mikado Jun; he was someone who chose not to meddle in the affairs of others, who concerned himself only with catching enough fish to feed both his wife and daughter and make a living, and while he had heard of the Bakumatsu, of the violence that plagued far-off Kyoto, he had remained distant from the almost fantastic tales and hushed whispers of men who could slay with a single, sudden move, with swords that cleaved people into two in effortless gestures, and with eyes that glistened in the dark and that held absolutely no emotion. And as such he had considered his occasional customer nothing but a boy with a troubled past, someone who had fled the capital for the safety of the country side at the orders of his parents, taking with him a young bride that had probably been forced on him out of a political alliance.
And so they reached the place where he’d left the boy, merely half an hour ago. Only to find that the boy wasn’t there anymore. He had left bloodstained snow behind him, and painfully visible red tracks that led into the wilderness. But he was gone.
“You know, now that I think about it, I heard something coming from the forest this morning. It sounded far away, but it was like two or three trees collapsing at the same time.”
“You’re right, I heard it too.”
“I wonder just what they were doing in there...”
“I think we’ll never know.”
“Neither do I... say, would you look at that?”
“Well, he obviously went that way...”
“You weren’t kidding when you said he was coated in blood, were you, Mikado?”
“Crazy... he’s crazy... to leave the road with all those starving wolves around... and in this weather, even!”
“Going to his death.”
“Well, think about it. He’s got nothing to do now... wife’s dead, someone’s attacked him... he’s probably killed himself by now, thinking something about how he is a dishonor to his family.”
“And he’d be right. Failed to protect her. Eh. No use looking for him now.”
“Eh. Let’s go back home.”
And gone home they had, leaving only Mikado-san, along with his close friend, Hinode-san, and Mikado’s daughter, Miko, whose breath was still coming out in short wheezes and puffs, her lungs not used to anything that required more than five minutes of continuous running. They had followed the tracks the boy had left while moving away, Miko trying to avoid looking at the bloodstained snow, while her father and his friend simply trudged on, bleak expressions on their faces.
He’d gotten surprisingly far, the boy had, in the hour that had passed after Mikado-san had given him a sip of sake and left him with a promise to return. But the recently fallen snow had been unable to cover up his path, allowing them to find him, as he laid sprawled on the ground, obviously incapable of going any further. Clumsily tied around the boy’s left hand was a shawl that had seen better days. Torn and bloodied, it seemed to be there more for comfort than for stopping the blood from oozing from any of the numerous wounds he had.
I was one of the people who went up to bring Himura down to the village. Didn’t say one word in the whole trip, not a single thank you, not a single grunt of pain. Just tries to stand up when we get there, refuses to let anyone help him asides from Miko-chan, who drapes a blanket over him. We found him some distance off the road, heading away from the village, towards his cabin. He’s fallen face first on the snow, and there is blood all over him. He’s got four gashes on his back, and a hole on his right shoulder... And still, he won’t let go of the girl, or of his swords; he’s dragging himself through the snow; himself, the swords and his wife; and us, we’re just following him. He collapses after a few steps, topples forward again, into the snow. The three of us think he’s died on us, but then Miko gets down on her knees and suddenly makes this shrill noise; “he’s alive” she cries out, so I pick him up, carry him on my back -and he was surprisingly cooperative when it came to that- while Mikado hauls off the girl. Take them to Mikado’s house, where his wife takes care of the boy, Himura-san; and leave the girl’s body downstairs, as if it were her home, as if the funeral rites were going to be held there... Kid wakes up one day later, has no clue where he is... almost dead, he was, when we found him. Had we gotten there a bit later, he would have been gone for sure. And he still wouldn’t say a word about what happened. People start to assume it’s a pretty horrible thing, or that maybe he killed her. I don’t care much; he was odd from the start. What else were you expecting from the likes of him, anyhow? Just look at his past...
I think it’s so sad, everything... I don’t care who he is, but I’ll never forget his eyes when I came up to him with that blanket, after he fell to the ground; they were so miserable, but also happy; I almost started crying that moment. Maybe he thought he was dying, and was happy about that. Mom told me he couldn’t see very well when he woke up, so he probably mistook me for someone else. Maybe he though I was his wife, or something. I don’t know... but it’s all so heart wrenching. Like he wanted to die. I think what he needs is someone to take care of him and hug him when he needs that. And hey, if I’m being honest with you, I wouldn’t mind being the one...
- Mikado Miko.
I went into the room the next morning to check whether Himura-san was alive or not. Miko had wanted to stay with him through the night, in case he woke up again and needed something, but when I walked in she was asleep against the wall, while Himura-san stared fixedly at her. He did not notice my presence until I was fairly close to him, which I thought was unusual, because on those occasions when I had sold him fish he had seemed completely aware of everything that happened around us, from the swaying of a grass blade in the breeze to the footsteps of an approaching customer. I realized that he couldn’t see me too well, and neither could he place where my voice was coming from, which left him very ill at ease, almost like a cornered animal. He asked me about his wife’s body, very demure and worried about her, then about where he was, and then proceeded to thank me and my husband -polite but coldly- for all the help provided and tried to get up and leave, saying that he needed to go back to his house, and arrange for his wife’s burial. And had you seen his wounds, you would have thought it impossible for him to move, let alone carry another body with him. So I simply asked him whether he needed anything, checked the makeshift bandage on his back and shoulder and then left him in the room, while Miko slept, and went out to help with the store.
- Mikado Kozue.
It had been a strange day. She’d woken up when the sun was high in the sky, just in time for lunch; after having fallen asleep against the wall during her silent vigil over Himura-san. Her bones hurt, and she wasn’t quite sure whether to blame it on the run from and to the village or on the rather unhealthy position in which she had spent the past eight hours. But she stopped worrying about that once she realized that the ‘boy’ (although she refused to think of him as anything else but the handsome stranger) she had been watching over was gone. And having seen the state in which he was yesterday, then that could only mean one thing.
She tried to blink the tears away from the corners of her eyes, tears for a man she didn’t even know. But maybe he was happier this way. Maybe...
Getting up, she went looking for her mother. She just wanted to take a look at the boy’s face, that was all; make sure he had died with a happy expression on his face, happy at having been spared a life with the memory of his wife’s bloodied body on his lap flashing forever behind his eyelids.
But when she’d gone down to the store to ask her mother where Himura- san was, she’d received only a shocked glance and a “why, in the room where else?”
And maybe there was a simple explanation for his not being in the room when Miko had woken up. Maybe there was. But there wasn’t one for the fact that his wife’s body was also missing, or for the fact that so were his swords, along with the discarded and torn shawl Miko’s mother had gently pried away from the unconscious boy’s iron grip, as she had cleansed his wounds the previous night. But he was gone, the only remnant of his presence being the matching red stains on both his discarded gi and the futon where he had spent the night, alongside with the coppery smell that would linger in the air for the coming months.
It was very sudden! I had gone into the room to ask Miko to deliver something for me, but saw her asleep, so I turned to our ‘guest’ instead. He was asleep this time around, wearing one of my husband’s old gis, looking ghastly pale. I think he was having a nightmare, because he kept on tossing, and trying to turn -but I suppose he was in too much pain to even do that- and sometimes he would move his mouth, although no words would come out. If you had seen him, you would never have believed that he would leave the house that same day! He looked like a broken puppet; lying there discarded and forgotten, almost begging to be put out of his misery. He looked in so much pain that I stayed there for a short time, crying in silence, and thinking about these troubled times, where things like these can actually happen...
- Mikado Kozue.
He never figured out how he had managed to drag himself and Tomoe’s broken body to their cottage, so far from the village. He had not thought himself capable of such a feat, not in his current state, and he suspected that part of him had just wanted to get this mockery of a life over with, to forget everything and simply surrender to the blackness that threatened at the corner of his eyes.
He did not want to die, but he expected that he would soon, in any case. Dying meant breaking his promise to Tomoe (then again, he’d already broken it, hadn’t he?), and left no room for atonement. But then again, not even survival held room for atonement in his eyes. He was not afraid of dying. Whatever hell he found himself in after leaving this world, he was worthy of that and more, he told himself. So good he was at self-loathing, indeed, that he didn’t believe in going anywhere else but hell. Before, to keep his mind at ease, he had used the flimsy excuse that there had been a purpose behind all the murders he had committed. A sketchy one he did not understand, granted, because a child never understand politics, but there had been some sort of logic to it all. But now that didn’t make it any better, because all those people he had killed had been, after all, someone’s sons, if not someone else’s spouses... And while technically a hitokiri couldn’t care less about how his victims’ wives felt about him, the boy who sold medicine to the villagers in Otsu did. And the boy who sold medicine, and who worked the fields and helped his wife with the harvest had been there from the beginning, steadily losing himself in murky rhetoric and the urge to usher a ‘new era’ and ‘protecting people’ and ‘killing on the behalf of the country’ and any countless number of void statements like those.
And now the boy who had sworn both to himself as to his (accidental) wife that he would kill only for the sake of defeating the Shinseigumi and the oppressive Shogunate found that he had broken his vow. The knowledge and the dread that sooner or later, his most heinous and recent crime would catch up with him crept up his spine and comfortably lodged itself into some easily-accessible part of his mind, blurring everything around him into grey, everything but Tomoe’s body falling gracelessly into his stunned arms.
And so, he dragged himself and his wife across the hardened snow, as images from the previous day superimposed themselves over his field of vision. All he could remember now of that silent journey back to the cabin were two simultaneous trains of thought. Half of his mind was devoted to carrying out what would be the first of many self-flagellation sessions, while the other half simply meshed blurred present and past together into one confusing mixture he was never able to completely separate, but that he would remember for the rest of his life. The scenes danced through his mind, an endless replay of how; after accepting that she was dead, that he had killed her; he had dragged Tomoe’s limp and increasingly stiff body through the snow, trying to get as close as possible to the main road; how he had spent the whole day pitifully attempting to retrace his steps back to the cabin they both shared, leaning against that tree only to catch his breath, telling himself that he would start moving soon again, to stop the cold from seeping into his bones, only to slide down to the ground unconscious, surrendering to all the blood he had lost, and how he hadn’t been able to do anything but hold Tomoe’s body as wait for the inevitable, until an innocent, foolish man had found him there, as he held Tomoe’s body, and refused to see what to him was apparently obvious - the blood, the broken vow, the dagger sliding down his cheek - but instead seeing only a bloodied child, who would very well have passed for a broken puppet, but never for the killer that had been necessary by a few shadowy politicians to bring about a new era; a shadowy individual with no heart, and worst of all, no hope.
So, yeah.. that’s all, folks. I’m not even sure where it came from, since this was certainly not the plot nor story I had in mind when this idea first came into my brain, but I suppose I like it well enough for a first time RK fic... Commentary and criticism are both highly appreciated. I can take flames as well. It gets cold in Brazil, believe it or not. :)|
São Paulo, Brazil
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