*Warning: MAJOR spoliers for the Revenge story arc in the manga, and the OAVs (though I tend to use the manga as my primary source).
The Snow Raven, Chapter 2
Old one, winter touched,
- excerpt from the private diary of Yukishiro Tomoe
Warm against my face, shining red through my eyelids...
The sudden, dark memory of blood. Of rain. Of falling... into the depths of lost, amber eyes...
As the fog of sleep lifts from my mind, my heartbeat quickens in surprise.
I am alive.
The boy... didn't kill me?
I blink against the dawn light filtering through a rice paper window, and discover that I am in strange surroundings. An unfamiliar room. A soft futon beneath me, a blanket draped over me.
And he is sitting there. Leaning against the window bench, his shoulders hunched, one hand resting lightly on his bent knee. His head is bowed slightly; his flame hair, lit by the soft morning glow, hangs over closed eyes. A long, slow breath... almost a sigh... whispers through his barely parted lips.
Strange, how it never occurred to me that a hitokiri might sleep... like any normal person...
And in sleep, he is so... different. The hard set of his jaw has softened, the cold anger that lined his face in the midst of battle has smoothed.
Silently, carefully, I sit up, half expecting him to snap awake at my movement. But he doesn't even stir. And as I look at him closer... the slump of his shoulders tells of a deep weariness; an exhaustion within him that surprises me. For I saw not even a hint of such fatigue last night when...
...when he killed that man. When he made the blood rain down upon the night.
His sword lies, sheathed, a mere hand's length away.
And he is asleep.
My enemy. The one who murdered my beloved.
If I had my tanto in my hand at this moment, I could...
... do... nothing.
For the sight of him, so peaceful now after the violence of the previous night, makes my soul tremble with a strange aching pain... almost like...
Ah... I don't understand...
What am I to do now?
Get close to him, the old man had said. Find his weakness. Then come and tell us. We will take your vengeance for you. You do not need to stain your pretty little hands with the blood of this filthy assassin.
The words echo in my mind, and I cling to them, struggling to renew my sense of purpose.
My purpose, that was swept from me so unexpectedly by the sound of this young man's voice, by the stark, haunted look in his eyes...
Well. I am close to him now. Opportunity has been flung into my waiting arms, and yet... now... I find myself reluctant to embrace it.
Because, rather than killing me, he has brought me here.
I am not even sure where "here" is. His home?
Why did he bring me here? I saw him kill. He must understand that I know that he is the Ishin Shishi hitokiri. And in these dangerous times, where a treacherous word to the wrong ear can cost lives, even if he chose not to kill me, it would have been smarter, safer for him to just leave me where I fainted on the blood-drenched street. Surely he knows that.
I notice that there are books scattered on the floor, and on a small table next to where he sits, motionless. One book on the table lies open and upside down, to mark the page.
Ano... Does he like to read?
What does a hitokiri do, when he is not killing?
I slip from beneath the blanket and, as quietly as possible, fold the blanket and the futon, stacking them neatly in the corner. I pick up the books from off the floor and put them in a straight pile next to the table.
He sleeps even now.
I am glad. I don't want to be in this room when he wakes up. And I want to find out more about where I am without having to worry about him.
About him interfering, that is...
Sparing him one last, long glance, I slide the screen door open and step out into a long hall, taking in my surroundings, wondering what I should do next. Hm... too large to be a house. An inn, then?
"So, you've emerged at last," says a voice, quiet and tight, and I turn, startled, to find myself looking down at a small, thin, gray-haired old woman who is frowning at me severely. She reaches behind me to slide the door closed, but then pauses as she notices the folded futon and the young man. Still sleeping peacefully.
When she turns her gaze on me once again, her eyes are still stern, yet softened by amazement. "Come, girl," she says softly as she closes the door. "You and I must talk."
"Yes," I agree.
The old woman's frown fades further. "Follow me," she whispers, turning to walk down the hall. "We can talk in the kitchen. I've got important guests to feed, and breakfast to make." Then she mutters, "I've never seen Himura-san sleep so soundly before..."
I follow her silently.
Himura. His true name, then. Not Hitokiri Battousai.
He brought me here. He must have carried me.
I wonder... what it felt like. I don't remember...
Akira-san never carried me, never held me in his arms like that. He never got the chance...
The smell of cooking rice and miso fills the air. The old woman leads me to the kitchen, where several pots of food are boiling over small fires.
"There," she says, sliding the kitchen door closed behind us. "We shouldn't disturb him now. That poor boy gets so little sleep as it is. Now then, my name is Okami Yui. I'm the proprietor of this inn."
"I am Yukishiro Tomoe," I respond with a polite bow. "I..."
I have abandoned my family and station, I have no one, and nothing left to me but my grief, and a desire for vengeance that has become jumbled and confused since ever I looked into the eyes of my fiancé's killer last night...
"I am... alone," I whisper.
She stares at me for a long moment. "Alone," she repeats. "So alone, that you follow a strange man into the night?"
So he told her. She probably knows everything that happened. Which means that she is also aware that I know who he is. "He... saved me from some men..."
"Yes, yes, I know all about that." She peers at me intently, her eyes piercing. "What I want to know is... having witnessed the bloodshed for yourself... what do you think of him?"
I hesitate. "... I don't know."
"Does he frighten you?"
"Yes." But not for the reason you think.
"Are you planning to leave now?"
Her eyes are hard, her gaze sharp. "Why not? You know who and what he is. He is the Ishin Shishi hitokiri. Even in the midst of this war, his business is bloodshed of the most terrible kind."
"And you want to stay with him now, even knowing that? Why?"
Because I'm going to destroy him. Because I cannot bear to destroy him. Because I have seen myself in his eyes, and now I am lost, and I need to find myself again...
"Because... he helped me. And I have nowhere else to go."
She looks at me for a long moment, as if trying to see beyond my words and into my hidden heart. But I am confident that she cannot see that far, for not even Akira-san, who loved me, ever did...
Finally, my answer, or whatever she thinks she sees in my face, seems to satisfy her, for her cold look melts away completely and she looks strangely satisfied. "Ah," she says at last. "I see." And she nods with such knowing look that I almost believe she understands.
But how could she, when I don't even understand myself?
"Well, then." She gestures for me to sit on a tatami, where two places have been set. "Would you like some breakfast?"
I blink in surprise. "Thank you..."
The tea is scalding. I hold the ridged cup in my hands, letting its heat soak into my cold fingers before bringing it carefully to my lips.
"Now then." Okami-san reaches up to brush a few loose strands of iron-gray hair behind one ear. "Just so you know, I managed to scrub all the blood stains out of your kimono. It's hanging up to dry now, and should be ready this afternoon."
So that's what happened to it. I reach down to unconsciously smooth the soft cotton of the clean white yukata that I awoke in. "I'm so sorry for the inconvenience..." As the words leave my mouth, I think how strange it is to apologize for such a thing. How strange it is to be discussing such a thing over breakfast. Terribly sorry that you had to wash a murdered man's blood from my kimono. And thank you for allowing me to stay in the killer's room for the night...
She snorts softly before taking a sip of tea. "No inconvenience, dear. I've washed enough blood-stained clothing in my time to know how to handle a single kimono. And I think I managed to wash most of the blood off your skin, but you'll still want to take a bath later, just in case."
My eyes widen. "Then you... I thought that he..." I glance down at myself, and feel a twinge of relief from a fear I didn't even dare voice to myself.
Okami-san looks at my face, and chuckles suddenly. "Himura-san, change your clothes? Oh, my, no!" The thought seems to strike her as amazingly funny, for she wipes tears of laughter from the creases around her eyes. "Tomoe-san, he may be a hitokiri, but in... other matters... he is quite the innocent. Until last night, I wasn't sure he even understood what a girl was."
I blink, not sure how to respond to such a revelation.
"I must say," she continues airily, "I'm quite relieved, frankly. He's always so pale and serious, never really speaking at all unless you address him directly. And last night is the first time I've ever seen him blush! I don't think I'll ever forget the look on his face when I caught him trying to sneak in, carrying you in his arms. His face turned almost the same shade as his hair, I'd say, and he immediately began stuttering explanations..." She chuckles softly, with a fondness that surprises me.
Ano... I cannot imagine the dark warrior of last night either blushing or stuttering.
Then again... the sleeping boy of this morning...
My skepticism must show plainly in my eyes, for she smiles at me with a knowing, almost mischievous glint in her eyes. "Tomoe-san, trust me. I've known him to face some of the most dangerous men alive without fear... and yet I've never seen him quite so relieved as when I took the situation under control and sent him off to get cleaned up. Believe me, my dear, your virtue is safe around him. I think he would rather have let you sleep bloodied for a night than dare try cleaning you himself."
"Oh..." I look down briefly to gaze into my tea... not quite sure how to feel about her assurances. Relieved, yes. But also...
"Anyway, down to business," she says, her face becoming serious once again, though it lacks the hardness of suspicion that it held previously.
"Ano..." I say quickly. "I would consider it a great honor if you would allow me to earn my keep by helping you with cooking and cleaning."
She smiles. "I would much appreciate that, dear. But that's not what I wanted to talk to you about."
I blink. "Then..."
"It's about Himura-san," she says. "And why I am going to let you stay."
"Ah..." I set down my cup with hands that tremble slightly. A part of me wants to know... But another part of me is afraid. If I know more about him, if he becomes even more human in my eyes, how can I...
And another part of me whispers that it is already too late...
The old woman drops her gaze and softly taps her chopsticks against her rice bowl absently. "You have seen his eyes," she murmurs.
After a moment, I realize that it is a question. "Yes..."
"Oh, Tomoe-san," she says, her quiet voice suddenly thin with distress. "If only you knew... if only you had seen him before..."
A small knot of sick dread begins to form in my stomach. "Before?"
"I've known him for over a year now," Okami-san says quietly. "Ever since Kogoro-sama brought him to Kyoto to be the hitokiri for the Ishin Shishi. He was only fourteen."
Her words wash over me like ice water. I was right, then. Just a child...
"He was quiet then as well, and so serious, but oh, such a sweet boy. He even helped me around the inn. He was always washing dishes, cleaning the floorboards, and doing laundry without even being asked, before that first..." She trails off, shakes her head and smiles wistfully, though there is a hint of sadness in the expression. "And his eyes... You could never tell now, but they were the most gentle lavender color..." She pauses, rubbing her forehead with thin, wrinkled fingers. "He might be the hitokiri, and heaven knows how badly we need him. But just a year ago, he was a child in every way that mattered. Full of idealism and excitement and... innocence... compassion..."
That last is said with a grief that pulls at my heart, and yet...
And yet, I can't believe her. How could the killer that I saw last night possibly have been what she says? Far more likely that he was a delinquent boy, angry at everyone and everything, looking for an excuse to lash out in his pain...
...like another young, angry boy I know...
"I raised three sons," Okami-san says, as if reading my mind. She is looking at me again, her gaze heavy. "I know what boys are like. Rowdy and raucous, often selfish and light-minded... But not Himura-san. Oh, what I would give if those three big louts of mine had even half his soul..."
And in spite of myself, perhaps because of the insistence in her voice, I try to imagine him as she describes him. I try to think of him with eyes not burning cold, or lost and empty... but warm and full of compassion...
Eyes like... Akira-san's...
The cup begins to slide from my numb fingers. Quickly, I place the palm of my left hand underneath to keep it from falling.
Ah... why won't my hands stop shaking?
"Poor boy," Okami-san whispers. Oh, I want so badly for her to be silent, finished, to not speak any more about him. But she denies my unspoken wish. "He wanted so badly to help people..."
"Wanted..." I repeat, noticing the past tense, knowing even as I do that I am grasping at shadows. "Does... he no longer..."
All murderers were once innocent, after all. No matter how pure his past, it changes nothing for me, if now...
"Oh no," she says firmly. "Of course he still wants to help. But..." She trails off, and though I am anxious to hear her capitulation, I sit silently and wait for her to continue.
"...but all those deaths," she says wearily. "And he's still so young... but now, so old...
"...and... his eyes..."
The way she speaks... her voice full of an undefinable ache. As if she knows how I felt when I saw him.
Perhaps it is not just me. Perhaps anyone who looks into those eyes will be lost...
And Okami-san is talking again, only her once-sharp gaze is clouded and distant.
"I'll never forget the day he came home after his first... assignment. His eyes had lost all their life and warmth; the violet had faded to an almost translucent gray. I was startled, and I asked him if he was all right...
"And he said, ‘I'm fine. Anyway, it doesn't matter, does it? I have to fight for the new era. That is all.'
"I think I remember crying for him then..."
She is crying for him now. But her gaze is so distant, I wonder if she even knows. The slow, leaking tears are lost in the deep creases around her eyes...
"And after each new assignment, I could see even the flickering gray of his eyes slowly being swallowed, eaten away by a terrible flat, cold amber...
"Poor boy," she whispers. "Poor boy..."
No more. I can't bear it. "Why," I ask finally, "are you telling me this?"
She starts at the sound of my voice, and stares at me uncomprehendingly for a moment, as if seeing me for the first time. Then, slowly, she shakes her head, and one withered hand flutters at her temple, as if brushing away the memories as one would shoo a moth. When she raises her gaze to meet mine once more, her old eyes are again sharp and clear. She either doesn't notice, or simply ignores the tear tracks on her wrinkled skin.
"Because," she answers. "Last night, for the first time since he became the hitokiri, I saw the barest glimmer of true life within his eyes once again."
"And that," she says, nodding at me sharply, "is why I am allowing you to stay."