|*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 3(b)
I clutch the broom until my knuckles are white, and sweep the smooth wooden floor with swift, hard strokes, focusing solely on removing every last speck of dirt from the floor.
Clean. Clean. Clean.
I clench my eyes shut briefly as the burning ache of my own betrayal threatens to rend my heart.
Don't think. Don't...
The floor is clean. More than clean. I can see myself, pinched and pale, in the polished wooden surface.
Ano... I... cannot be seen like this... with my mask of ice melting under the white heat of anger... fear...
If he sees me now, he will know. He will know the truth of why I came to him...
I need to work. Work will occupy my hands, my mind...
Perhaps... perhaps Okami-san needs help in the kitchen...
Broom in hand, I walk slowly through the long halls. The purposeful movement calms me, giving me the chance to once again blank my face and deaden my eyes, allowing me to hide my feelings and intents from perceptive eyes. As I pass by each partitioned room, I can hear the muted sound of men talking in low, intent voices, whispering through the rice paper doors as I pass by...
I wonder where he is now. In one of these rooms? Discussing war campaigns and strategies with the Ishin Shishi leaders? Preparing to shed the blood of more people who are helpless before the demonic power of his blade?
I enter the kitchen and slide the door closed behind me with relief.
Okami-san is not here. But there is a pile of unwashed rice bowls and sake cups in a wash bucket...
My hands move with swift automation. Soak. Scrub. Rinse. Dry. Don't think.
Don't think about how, just a few minutes earlier, you enjoyed being in the presence of your beloved's killer... How his young, scarred face and intense crystalline gaze filled your mind and heart so that you could think of nothing else...
A rice bowl slips from my shaking fingers to shatter on the floor. I am on my knees in an instant, picking up the large shards, fighting the fear that is rising in my chest at the bad omen that I myself have precipitated...
"Tomoe-san?" I look up to see Okami-san enter the kitchen. She looks down at me and the shattered bowl.
"Go... gomen nasai," I whisper, looking up at her, struggling desperately to keep my calm mask in place. "I was careless, and I dropped it..."
"Don't worry about it, dear," she says kindly, as she takes the broom from the wall to sweep up the scattered slivers of glazed pottery into a small pile. "Accidents happen. Heaven knows these old hands of mine have been guilty of dropping a rice bowl or three."
She is being too kind to me. Don't you know who I am? I want to shout at her. With all the wisdom of age, can you not see that you have welcomed a viper into your midst? My bite may not draw blood nor leave a mark, but the poison is sure and deadly all the same. And the murderer Himura, whom you love like a son, will surely perish because of it...
"Did you see him?" she asks suddenly, startling me, and I glance at her, almost sure that the guilt I feel is plain on my face. But no... she is smiling.
"See who?" I ask carefully.
"Kogoro-sama," she says eagerly, sweeping the last of the ceramic shards onto a folded piece of rice paper. "He was in Matsu's room when you served them breakfast."
Ah. The leader of the Choshu Ishin Shishi. "Ano... there were so many men in that room..."
She clucks her tongue. "Oh, you would know him if you saw him. He's easy enough to pick out of a crowd." A small smile curls the corners of her wrinkled lips. "Tall, handsome, with the face of a god, and the bearing of an emperor."
I blink, surprised at the muted gleam in her eyes. "Ano..."
She raises an eyebrow, and frowns in disappointment. "If you have to think about it, you didn't see him." She sighs, and slides open the back door to toss the clay debris out into the dirt. "Ah, well." She smiles again and shrugs her thin, frail shoulders. "I just thought it might be nice if you could catch a glimpse of the man who is going to change the destiny of Japan."
"Ah," I say, with a nod and a slight smile. It seems to be the appropriate response. "Well, there will be other opportunities to meet him, I'm sure."
"Indeed." She dusts off her hands, and glances around at the clean kitchen with approval. "Hm, well now. You really are a wonderful help, my dear. But I think you've done enough for today. Why don't you go take a bath now? After everything you've been through, you deserve a nice hot soak."
For the first time in what seems like ages, a small, genuine smile touches my lips. A bath does sound wonderful...
Just entering the bath house is relaxing. The air is warm and moist with steam. Okami-san has left me a clean yukata, and some hair needles. With practiced ease, I pin my hair atop my head, then remove my work-worn yukata, letting it fall to the floor around my ankles.
I bend to pick it up...
...and freeze, my skin growing cold in spite of the warm room...
Okami-san was right. In spite of how well she cleaned me up last night while I was unconscious, she apparently preserved my modesty as much as possible... for I can see that there is still a dead man's blood on my skin...
Moments later, I find myself sitting on a stool, pouring buckets of frigid well water over my body, watching in numb, almost mesmerized fascination as the reddish-brown flakes dissolve and wash away. The water, swirling down the floor drain to soak back into the earth, is tinged pink.
Shivering... I rinse myself thoroughly, again and again until the water that flows off my pale skin runs clear and untainted...
Ano... That's... better...
Closing my eyes, I ease myself into the hot and steaming bath, submerging myself up to my chin. It feels soothing against my aching, weary muscles... and yet I cannot stop shivering.
You killed that man with the ferocity and ease of a wild beast. Your eyes blazed feral gold in the darkness...
And yet, this morning when you spoke to me, you seemed... such a boy. An innocent, almost... Such a contradiction from who you were last night, that I couldn't even see you as the same person...
How can this be? When the moment of death and destruction is passed... how do you feel?
Is there no remorse, no grief that touches your heart? Do the murders mean nothing to you? Are you truly nothing more than a soulless shell, a killing tool for the Ishin Shishi?
The memory of haunted amber eyes fill my mind...
Or... does each death imprint itself deep within your young heart?
Do you remember the names of those you have killed, whose blood has stained your hands? Do you remember their faces?
Do you remember... Akira-san?
And... if you do remember... how can you bear to live? What is it that drives you to continue?
I cannot tell. I do not understand you.
You frighten me so...
Ano... The water is cooling. How long have I been sitting here?
... I need to go back. Okami-san must be wondering if I have drowned in here...
The feel of a clean yukata against my skin is comforting, in a strange way, as is the feel of the polished wooden floor beneath my bare feet as I walk down the hall towards the kitchen.
And as I approach the sliding door... I suddenly hear his voice. Low... yet clearly upset... and faintly pleading.
"...is ridiculous. Just... can't she stay somewhere else?"
I pause just outside the door... and listen.
"There is nowhere else," Okami-san's voice explains patiently. "With Kogoro-sama here, all the rooms are full. We haven't a one to spare."
Eavesdropping is not polite, I know. However, since I seem to be the topic of conversation...
"But... she can't stay in my room!"
"Why not? She stayed there last night, and you had no complaint."
"That was different!"
"Well, she was... unconscious."
"And now she is awake to appreciate your hospitality." Okami-san's sly tone leaves no doubt as to her meaning.
He splutters. "Wh-what? No, that's just it! I don't want to give her... uh... hospitality!"
"Then why did you bring her here last night?" Okami-san asks coyly.
"What was I supposed to do, leave her? She practically fainted right into my arms!"
"My, how romantic!"
A pained groan. "Okami-san..."
"I'm sorry, Himura-san," Okami-san says, her voice losing its teasing tone, "but there is no other alternative. You brought her home, therefore she is your responsibility. She must stay in your room."
"No 'buts'. You brought her here, and she has chosen to stay with you. That means that your room is her room. If you do not like the arrangement, you must take it up with her."
Silence. Then, a heavy sigh. "Fine. I will."
So intent am I on the conversation, I don't even have time to move when I hear him walk towards the door. He slides it open... and blinks, startled, as we once again look at each other face to face, eye to eye...
"T...Tomoe-san," he says. And a faint blush -- of embarrassment or anger, I cannot tell -- spreads across his face as he realizes that I must have heard at least the end of his conversation.
I incline my head towards him politely, my mask in place, though my heart is thudding so hard within my chest, I'm sure he must be able to hear it. "Himura," I reply softly.
He swallows hard once, twice... and then his flustered features harden with determination.
"Okami-san says you are through with your chores," he says with surprising calm, "so I presume you have no other pressing engagements?"
"None." Oh dear... There's no putting it off now. Am I ready for this?
He nods sharply. "Good. Then we need to talk."
Without waiting for a reply, he walks past me. I follow silently, inwardly steeling myself for what is to come.
I cannot be weak now. I am confused by him, frightened of him... but he cannot know that. He must not know that.
I must stay with him, no matter what.
He is heading for the garden. But, as he slides open the door to the outside, a flash of dismay flickers across his face as he sees that the garden is already occupied by several of his comrades. He closes the door quickly before they can turn and see us standing together in the hallway.
"Perhaps," I suggest, keeping my voice carefully neutral, "we would have the privacy for discussion that you seek... in your room."
He glances at me, irritated... and then he sighs. "Right. Come on, then," he says in a manner that clearly communicates, I can't wait to get this over with.
His room is not as I left it. While the futon is still folded neatly in the corner, I notice that some of his books are once again scattered about on the table, and I wonder when he found time to read today. Does reading... ease him? Does it, perhaps, take his mind off the grim nightmare of his existence?
I kneel on the tatami mat, expecting him to do the same... but instead, he paces for a moment, as if unsure what to do with himself... then he goes and sits on the window bench. His display of nervousness eases my own fears a bit, and I feel my own resolve harden.
Himura... desolate, emotionally scarred man-child, or heartless killer... whoever you are, you will not be rid of me until I know for sure.
He takes a deep breath. "Tomoe-san..."
"Yes?" I look at him expectantly, and he sighs again, closing his eyes, and bowing his head so that his flame-red hair falls about his face, partially obscuring the long scar on his cheek.
"So..." he says at last. "Swear you'll forget everything that happened last night." He looks at me, waiting for me to respond.
"Um," he adds uncomfortably, "I'd like you to be on your way now."
I blink, taken aback by his bluntness. Ano... he certainly isn't one to beat around the bush...
"Am I an annoyance to you here?" I ask innocently, knowing full well the answer. "Okami-san likes me," I add, as if that alone should qualify me for permanent residency within his personal quarters.
He looks at me then, his piercing amber gaze perplexed. He opens his mouth, closes it, then opens it again, as if struggling to find a suitable rebuttal.
"...Your family must be worried," he says finally.
His words send searing daggers of loss and guilt into my heart.
"If I had a family to go home to," I say, with painful honesty, "then I wouldn't have been out all alone getting drunk."
At that, he closes his eyes, a pained expression on his face. "Look," he says, his exasperation suddenly tempered with a softness that surprises me. "I don't know what's going on with you and your personal life. I'm sorry if you're in trouble. But in case you haven't noticed, there is a war going on. We're in no condition to look after you right now."
For a moment, I almost falter. For a moment, his unexpected sympathy for my plight almost makes me feel guilty for imposing upon him...
But then, I suddenly wonder where that compassion was, when he forever deprived me of my beloved...
"What will you do, then, if I refuse to leave?" I say with deliberate slowness. "Will you finish me off? Like the dark samurai you were last night?"
The bluntness of my question takes him off guard, and he tenses with anger. For a brief moment, I see a fleeting glimmer of killing fury in his eyes, and the sudden primal fear it sparks within me is raw and terrible...
But then the glimmer is gone from his eyes so quickly that I wonder if perhaps I didn't imagine it -- that I only expected such a reaction from him because of my brazen, insulting question. Though my rapid pulse says otherwise...
It is a forceful reminder to me. This is no mere youth before me, but the Hitokiri Battousai. And I am playing a dangerous game here, in trying to unravel the puzzle of his existence...
I must be careful. And yet, I cannot be gentle with him, either...
"Look," he says sharply, though his anger, to my relief, does not seem murderous, but merely defensive. "Think whatever you like, but I kill for a new era that will let everyone live peacefully. It's not like I kill regardless of who it is. I only fight armed Shogunate members. And even if the townspeople are indeed enemies, I would never kill anyone who was unarmed."
"Ah," I say with a strange calmness, as if we were discussing the merits of tea, rather than murder. "So, you would kill people, good or bad, if they were simply holding a sword?"
The question seems to strike him like a blow. He blinks at me in silent shock.
His stunned reaction is a revelation to me.
Ah... I see. He has not thought about it that way before. And he doesn't like the idea, phrased in such a manner. No, not at all.
"If that is the case," I persist quietly, looking directly into his wide amber eyes, "then... if I had a sword in my hand at this moment... would you kill me now?"
He stares at me in silence... and I can see no ready answer within his stricken countenance.
That alone is disturbing enough to shake me to the core.
"I see," I say quietly, rising to my feet with a steadiness that surprises me. "Well then. Someday, when you find the answer... by all means, please let me know."
And with that, I leave the room, leaving him to stare at the door as I slide it closed behind me.
Only when I am gone does he once again find his voice. "Wa... wait!" he calls after me. "Do you really intend to stay here?"
I don't respond. My presence in his room tonight, I muse grimly, will be answer enough.