Seven years have passed since Kenshin's stay with the Daisuke family, and much has changed, both for Kenshin and for the family.
Just so you know who's who in this story:
Ikuko: Daisuke's wife, Grandmother
First Uncle: Ryosuke
Second Uncle: Ennosuke
Thanks one last time to all the copyright holders for not suing me for writing a piece of fanfiction.
An Unexpected Lesson
The year was 1878, but it might as well have been 1864, considering the gossip that was making the rounds of Kyoto this June. "The Hitokiri Battousai is back!" went one rumor. "The Hitokiri Battousai has assassinated someone!" went another. "The Hitokiri Battousai is dead!" went a third.
"Well, I know for a fact that that last rumor is right," said a grimly smiling Orinosuke V, one of the greatest—some would say the greatest—dramatic actors in all of Kyoto. "Let him rot in hell, where he belongs."
"Husband!" his wife Mayako exclaimed, a warning in her voice.
And so another pleasant mealtime began at the Kawayama household. This was the sixth summer that Bunjiro and his brother Byako had made the trek from Kagoshima to Kyoto to live with their parents. Ever since that fateful trip to Miyazaki seven years earlier, when Orinosuke had angrily moved back to Kyoto, the boys spent October through April of every year studying the family kabuki traditions in Kagoshima. Then they would take a boat to Kyoto to spend the summer months with their parents.
It had been difficult, to say the least, for Bunjiro. His father had always been a stern man, but after the move, he had become downright unpleasant. His break with the family he blamed on the old Ishin Shishi revolutionaries, who, as he so frequently ranted, had ruined Kyoto during the Bakumatsu for good law-abiding citizens like himself. Why, if it hadn't been for their blood-thirsty ways, he continually reminded everyone, the family never would have had to leave the city in the first place! And who was the poster boy for all that blood-letting? None other than that strange wanderer who had come into their lives that autumn of 1871—Himura Kenshin, the Hitokiri Battousai.
Of course, they didn't know right away that he was the Hitokiri Battousai, though Orinosuke always told everyone that he knew right off the bat the man was dangerous, not that anyone listened to him. But to Bunjiro, and to a lesser extent Byako as well, Kenshin had been a friend, that rare adult who treated them not as mere children, but as valued human beings. Orinosuke knew this and despised Bunjiro for it. It was only in the last two years, as Bunjiro had started coming into his own as an actor, that the relationship between father and son had calmed down somewhat.
But now his father's ranting and raving had reached new heights. Only a few days earlier, there had been a huge explosion on Mt. Hiei. It had happened right in the middle of a performance—it had ruined one of his father's most famous soliloquies, in fact—and when his father heard that it had something to do with the Hitokiri Battousai, he went ballistic.
"How do you he's dead?" Byako protested. He had never forgotten how Kenshin had saved him from breaking his neck when he was nine. "Maybe he survived! Maybe he wasn't even there at all! Maybe he's not the monster you think he is!"
Orinosuke glared malevolently at his younger son. "I know it's true because I heard it from the man who sold the sheet metal to build that factory up there. His customer was just an honest businessman, he said, but apparently that's not good enough for the Hitokiri Battousai. Oh, no, only an assassination was good enough for him. Well, this is one assassination that backfired on him, that's for sure."
Bunjiro pushed his bowl away and stood up.
"Where are you going?" Orinosuke snapped.
"I've lost my appetite," Bunjiro snapped back.
Bunjiro stormed off to find some peace and quiet. Was Kenshin really dead, he wondered? He had secretly idolized Himura Kenshin for the past seven years. Never had he met anyone quite like him. No one had ever considered him capable of anything important before, but Kenshin had actually entrusted him with the safety of the entire family during that nerve-wracking trip through the mountains. And certainly no one had ever treated him almost as an equal before, as Kenshin had. It had hurt him terribly when Kenshin left, not least because his own father had such a large hand in forcing Kenshin's sudden departure, and he had sworn that very day that if it took the rest of his life, he would find Kenshin again to thank him for coming into his life. Well, now he had found him, almost, but it was too late. He felt tears coming to his eyes, which embarrassed him no end considering he was now a man of nineteen. He turned away as he heard his mother come after him. He didn't want her to see his weakness.
"First Son," she said sternly.
He stepped further away. His mother loved him, he knew, but she was a stiff-necked, prideful woman who placed more importance on appearances than on what was right.
"First Son," she said again, but this time her voice was somewhat kinder. "I know how you feel about the Hitokiri Battousai. I never liked the man myself, but I cannot deny that he saved your brother once and that he saved the rest of us from those ruthless yakuza."
"So, it may be that your father's information is not accurate. It sometimes isn't. But I happen to know of someone who might know for sure. I know it sounds strange, but it's our greengrocer. Your father doesn't think much of him, but I've found over the years that he's rarely wrong."
"The greengrocer? That old gossip Ko?"
"First Son, make a trip tomorrow to the greengrocer. Ask him outright. If he says the Hitokiri Battousai is dead, then believe it."
Bunjiro turned around and quickly hugged his mother. "Thank you," he said with heartfelt gratitude. "I'll do that."
And that's how Bunjiro, the heartthrob of Kyoto's younger kabuki-goers, found himself the next day surrounded by squealing females as he tried to do the family food shopping. He handed out card after card of his likeness, signed autograph after autograph, but finally had to be rescued by one of the greengrocer's assistants, who managed to grab his elbow and pull him into the store.
"Well, if it isn't our young actor friend!" the greengrocer, Ko, bellowed. He pounded Bunjiro on the back. "Well, well, well! And what can I get for you today? Daikon? We have some lovely daikon, fresh from Fushimi! And red lettuce—ah, you haven't seen red lettuce until you've seen this!"
"Ko-san…," Bunjiro said, but Ko kept on going.
"Ko-san!" Bunjiro tried again, finally pulling a bag of sweet potatoes from Ko's hands to get him to stop. "I'll take the potatoes, some string beans, and the daikon, okay?"
Ko beamed. "And a wise choice that is, too!" He fumbled about for a string bag to put everything in, then handed it to Bunjiro. "Anything else?"
Bunjiro hesitated. How to do this, he wondered…. "Well, there is one more thing," he said. "You know that explosion the other day on Mt. Hiei? I was wondering…."
"Oh, the explosion," Ko said in a conspiratorial whisper. He grabbed the neckline of Bunjiro's kimono and pulled him closer. "I have it on good authority that there was a secret munitions factory up on Mt. Hiei, that some madman up there was plotting to overthrow the government!"
"You don't say," Bunjiro said, hoping for more. He wasn't disappointed.
"In fact," Ko went on, "I have it on good authority that the government was so worried, they sent not only for an ex-Shinsengumi captain to take the man down, but also the Hitokiri Battousai himself! Can you imagine that? The Shinsengumi and the Ishin Shishi working together!"
Bunjiro's heart clenched. So, his mother was right—this man knew. "So what happened?" he asked, hoping against hope for a good answer.
"Well," Ko continued after looking around to make sure no one else was listening, "they say the Shinsengumi captain disappeared in the explosion, but the Hitokiri Battousai didn't. I know some say he's dead, but he's not! They brought in some lady doctor from Tokyo who brought him back from the brink, and he's alive right here in Kyoto even as we speak!"
Bunjiro's breath caught. Kenshin was alive! "Do you know where?" he asked.
Ko looked left and right again, then said, "At a restaurant called the Shirobeko. A fellow I know is helping rebuild this other inn that got destroyed the same day as the explosion, and he heard it there."
Bunjiro stood up straight again and pulled out his purse to pay for his groceries. "Ko-san, thank you so much for everything!" and he gave the man double what the groceries cost.
"Hey, you paid too much!" Ko called after him as he left, but Bunjiro just waved and said, "Keep it!"
It didn't take long for Bunjiro to find out the location of the Shirobeko. One of his father's stagehands was a rowdy man about town who knew the location of every restaurant, gambling hall, and brothel in Kyoto, and he knew exactly where the Shirobeko was. Boring place, he called it, which probably meant that the waitresses refused to fall straight into bed with him.
However, it was a week before Bunjiro could act on this information, and so he had to take great pains to hide his impatience from his father. This was not easy, as he was spending many hours of each day under his father's tutelage. This was the year when he would be performing his first leading role, as the sinister priest Seishin in Izayoi Seishin, and although he had already learned the role at the family acting school in Kagoshima, everyone had agreed that he should refine his technique by studying it with his father. To be given a chance to perform this difficult role at the tender age of nineteen was an enormous privilege, and if it went well enough, he would probably be in line within a year to advance to a new family name. He couldn't afford to blow it .
Finally, the break he had been hoping for came in his training and performance schedule, and he hurriedly made plans to sneak off during the rare afternoon lull. Only Byako knew of his plan to find Kenshin, although he had a hunch his mother suspected. This time out, he wasn't taking any chances on getting mobbed by fans—if his father heard about this outing, there would be hell to pay. So, he grabbed his newest purchase, a western-style fedora hat, and pulled it low over his head. And so, with his brother to cover for him, he disappeared from the theater shortly after lunch to make his way to the little restaurant located on the northern end of town.
Given the stagehand's description of the place, Bunjiro figured the Shirobeko would be a drab, not very unusual little place, but when he got there, he found a young boy fiercely practicing what looked like kenjutsu kata right in front of the doorway. He looked at the paper in his hand to make sure he had followed the stagehand's directions properly, then looked back at the building's sign. It said 'Shirobeko,' all right, but why in the world would someone be practicing kenjutsu in front of a restaurant? Then he noticed the boy eyeing him. He bowed slightly to the boy and said, "Is this the place where Himura Kenshin is staying?"
The boy tensed. "What's it to you?" the boy replied rudely.
The boy's attitude put Bunjiro off just a little, but he answered politely, "I'm an old friend of his. I was hoping to see him."
Suddenly, the boy took what looked like a battoujutsu stance. "A friend, eh?" the boy said menacingly. "I know all about Kenshin's so-called 'friends.' Psychos, every one of them!"
"Psychos? You don't seem to understand…," Bunjiro tried to say, but the boy just hunkered down lower.
"If you think you're gonna get a piece of Kenshin," the boy continued defiantly, "then you'll have to fight me first! I am Myojin Yahiko, Tokyo Samurai, who single-handedly defeated the fearsome Hennya of the Juppongatana, so you'd just better…!"
Suddenly, an arm shot out from the Shirobeko's interior and latched onto the back of the boy's gi. "Hey, let go!" Yahiko yelped as he felt himself dangling from the end of tall man's long arm.
"Heh, don't mind him," the man said. "He's just a little overwrought. Right, Yahiko-chan?"
"Don't call me –chan!" Yahiko shot back. "And for your information, Sano, this guy's looking for Kenshin, and you know what that means!"
The man put Yahiko down. "Kenshin, huh?"
Bunjiro quickly regained his composure, removed his hat to make himself look more friendly, and said, "Yes. I'm an old friend of his. Is he here?"
"Depends on who's asking," Sano replied cautiously.
Bunjiro began to have second thoughts about his quest. These people apparently had the wrong idea about him, and he didn't want to start any fights.
"Forgive me if my inquiry has caused you any distress," he finally said. "It's just that I knew Kenshin-san when I was a young boy—about your brother's age—and I was hoping that I could see him again. Perhaps I should be going…."
"Brother? I'm not his brother!" Yahiko started to protest, but Sano stopped him with a quick fist to the head.
"Well, that does put things in a slightly different light," Sano said carefully. "See, Kenshin's been…a bit under the weather recently. In fact, this is the first day he's been up and about, and he's pretty tired. I'll go see if he's up to visitors. What did you say your name was?"
"Kawayama Bunjiro," Bunjiro said. "Just tell him that."
"Kawayama Bunjiro, eh? Hmph, never heard him mention you, but…." Sano shrugged, then turned to Yahiko and said softly, "Keep an eye on this guy while I check with Kenshin, okay?"
Yahiko planted his feet and crossed his arms, shinai at the ready. "You bet," he said.
This left Bunjiro standing there rather uncomfortably, especially as he took in the tall man's heavily bandaged fist and the kanji on the back of his jacket. 'Evil,' it said. What in the world had he gotten himself into, Bunjiro wondered, although he had to admit he was intrigued by this Sano character. Outwardly, the man seemed rather carefree, but just under the surface he could sense a kind of danger radiating from him. It was exactly that knife's-edge distance between the two that he had been trying so hard to learn for his role as the sinister priest in Izayoi Seishin. If only he could spend some time observing this man….
"Hey, what're you staring at?" the boy demanded.
Bunjiro smiled. Maybe a friendly conversation would defuse the situation, he decided, so he said, "You know, I was about your age when I met Kenshin-san. He's the one who taught me how to hold a sword."
Yahiko stopped in mid-swing. "Kenshin taught you how to hold a sword?" He frowned, then said dejectedly, "Geez, he refuses to teach me anything."
"He does? Well, I'm sure he has a very good reason for that," Bunjiro started to say, but then Sano came back out.
"Hey, Sano!" Yahiko shouted to the older man. "He says Kenshin taught him how to hold a sword. He's never taught me how to hold a sword!"
"Maybe that's because you're a jerk and this guy isn't," Sano retorted as he quickly jumped out of range of Yahiko's shinai. Then, turning to Bunjiro, he said, "It seems Kenshin does know who you are, and he says to bring you on through. Follow me."
Bunjiro bowed, skirted Yahiko and his shinai, then followed Sano into the restaurant. Yahiko brought up the rear. "Just remember," Yahiko muttered to him darkly, "no funny business, or you'll face my shinai."
It was only a short walk from the front entrance to the garden where Kenshin was, but Bunjiro's mind raced a mile a minute the whole time. Now that he had finally found Kenshin, what was he going to say? For seven years he had idolized this man, had defended his name against all those who invoked him as some kind of curse, and all because of what? A life-altering five days in a boy's life? It would sound ridiculous.
He was torn from his thoughts as Sano stopped before the doorway to the garden, almost causing Bunjiro to bump into him. "He's straight through there," Sano said, "but first I need to ask…." Bunjiro sensed a sudden, subtle shift in Sano's voice. "How'd you know where to find us?"
There was that knife's-edge distance again between carefree and dangerous, Bunjiro noted clinically. His answer, he had a feeling, would determine the quality of his meeting with Kenshin. Using his best conversational tone, he replied evenly, "Our greengrocer Ko happened to mention it."
Sano and Yahiko exchanged shocked glances. "You mean to tell me even some greengrocer knows where to find Kenshin!" Sano sputtered.
"Well, so much for the Oniwabanshuu and their secrecy," Yahiko muttered darkly. "This wouldn't happen in Toyko, that's for sure."
"Don't mention them in public, you idiot!" Sano hissed in Yahiko's ear. Then, turning on a smile, he said to Bunjiro, "Well, go on out there, I guess," and he and Yahiko stood aside to let Bunjiro through.
Bunjiro nodded, then opened the shoji and strode through to the garden. His heart was pounding a mile a minute in anticipation, but it nearly stopped at the sight that greeted him. It was Kenshin, all right, but a Kenshin who was excruciatingly thin, pale, and drawn. A young woman in a blue smock was helping to adjust his loose kimono around his shoulders, but before she could, Bunjiro saw that nearly his entire torso was covered in bandages. On what little of his chest was left exposed, there was what looked like a terrible, oozy burn, and on either side of his neck were long red gashes. No one had suggested to him that Kenshin had been so badly injured. Maybe his coming hadn't been such a good idea after all….
"Bunjiro-san!" he heard Kenshin call out to him. The voice was weak. "It's been a long time since we saw each other last. You've certainly grown since then!"
Bunjiro tore is eyes away from Kenshin's injuries to his face and saw with relief that familiar, gentle smile. Then Kenshin tried to stand, a slight hiss of pain escaping his lips. When Bunjiro saw that the woman had to help him up, he hurried forward to lend a hand.
"Please, Kenshin-san, don't stand on my account," Bunjiro said quickly, but his way was blocked suddenly by Sano and Yahiko, who placed themselves protectively in front of Kenshin. Yahiko's shinai, he noted, was drawn once again.
"Sano, Yahiko, it's okay," Kenshin said softly. "Bunjiro-san poses no threat." The two muttered something under their breath, then let him through to sit next to Kenshin.
"Megumi-dono, Sano, Yahiko, this is Kawayama Bunjiro," Kenshin continued as if nothing had happened. "Sessha lived with his family for a short time many years ago."
"Oho," Megumi chortled as she bowed, "there's someone from your past who isn't dangerous? So pleased to meet you!"
Bunjiro bowed back to her, then to Sano and Yahiko. It was such a pleasure to be greeted like a normal human being for once, instead of being mobbed by squealing fans.
"So, what'd Kenshin do for your family when he lived with you?" Yahiko asked, now that he realized this stranger was on the up and up. "Cooking? Laundry? That kind of thing?"
Cooking and laundry? What a strange notion, Bunjiro thought. "Oh, no," he started to say, but before he could finish, Sae emerged from the Shirobeko bearing a tray with tea. She took one look at Bunjiro and dropped the whole thing.
"No! I don't believe it! I don't believe it!" she stammered. "It's… it's… Uwaaa! It's Shinosuke II! Misao-chan, Misao-chan, come quick! It's Shinosuke II, and he's right here in my garden!" And suddenly she was at Bunjiro's feet, bowing and grabbing the hem of his kimono, saying, "Oh, Shinosuke-sama! I am so honored to have your presence at my restaurant!"
Megumi, Sano, and Yahiko looked at each other in confusion. Megumi reached down to tap Sae's shoulder and said, "Sae-san, I believe you're mistaken. This man's name is Kawayama Bunjiro, not Shinosuke."
Sae looked up, tears of happiness in her eyes. "Oh, no, Megumi-sensei, you don't understand! This is Shinosuke II, the hottest young actor in Kyoto!" and she proceeded to continue with her bowing.
Shinosuke II? Kenshin's gaze clouded over. His mind was still a bit slow after the all the concussions he had sustained in the fight with Shishio, but he was sure he had heard that name somewhere before. He closed his eyes as he searched his memory. Suddenly, in his mind, he heard a voice say, "Husband has created a stage name for you—Shinosuke I. You like it?" It was Ikuko who had said that to him, just before his first performance. His eyes opened with a start. Bunjiro had taken the name created for Kenshin as his own stage name? He looked over quizzically at Bunjiro, who was blushing profusely at Sae's fawning attention.
"Gomen, gomen nasai," Bunjiro was saying to the rest of them. "It's an occupational hazard, I'm afraid." He reached into his chest pouch to retrieve a card illustrated with his picture. He signed it and gave it to Sae.
By this point, Misao had arrived, and when she saw who it was, she, too screamed "Uwaaaa!" and started running out to meet him. Sano, however, pulled her back by her braid.
"Oww!" she screeched. "Let go!" but Sano reeled her in.
"Listen, weasel girl," he growled in her ear, "don't you wanna know how this actor guy knew where to find Kenshin?"
Misao stopped dead in her tracks. She hadn't thought of that.
"He says some greengrocer told him were to find us," he continued. "Doesn't that worry you just the slightest little bit?"
In fact, it did. Just the day before, she had told Sano the news that remnants of Shishio's army, who had initially dispersed after the explosion, were known to be filtering back into Kyoto. Her spies were at that very moment trying to find out what their intentions were.
"A greengrocer, huh?" she finally said. She tapped her foot in annoyance. "And I'll bet I know exactly who it is, too—that blabbermouth Ko, down in the central part of the city." She looked over wistfully at Bunjiro and Sae, wishing she could meet this famous hunk and get an autographed card, too, but she was the okashira now. This was no time to get all gooey-eyed and weak-kneed over a handsome young actor.
"I'd better take this up with Okina," she sighed. Then, as she walked back inside, Sano heard her mutter, "Boy, are Okon and Omasu gonna be jealous when they hear what they missed!"
Hearts were now streaming from Sae's eyes as she clutched the autographed card to her chest. Pouring out thousands of arigatou's, she turned back to the restaurant, only to realize that she had a terrible mess to clean up. She slipped the card into her sleeve pocket, then started pouring out thousands of gomen's as she picked up the tray and the shattered tea service. "I'll bring more tea out right away," she promised apologetically.
"Geesh, what's wrong with her?" Yahiko muttered disgustedly.
"I'm really sorry about that," Bunjiro said somewhat sheepishly. "That seems to be happening more and more these days."
Kenshin chuckled as he remembered his own brief run-in with unruly kabuki fans all those years ago. He had found it almost terrifying in its own way, but he had something more important on his mind now than crazed kabuki fans. As soon as everyone had calmed down sufficiently, he turned to Bunjiro and said, "Your name—you took the name Shinosuke?"
Bunjiro smiled. "Kenshin-san, there's so much I want to tell you, but now that I'm here, I hardly know where to start! When I turned sixteen, just a few months before Grandfather died, they wanted to give me the name Ryosuke because of my acrobatic abilities and because I was dabbling with playwriting…."
"Daisuke-san has died?" Kenshin gasped. Such a kind man, he remembered. And what was this about Ryosuke? If Ryosuke's name was being passed on, did that mean he, too, had died?
"….but I insisted on taking your name," Bunjiro continued as if he didn't hear. "I told them it was because I was doing so well at kenjutsu as well as acrobatics, and you had that combination, too, but really it was because of everything you did for me when you were with us. Father practically disowned me for even suggesting it, but Grandfather thought it was a great idea and forced him to agree. I just hope I can bring enough luster to the name that someone else will want to take it up someday."
"Sessha doesn't quite understand," Kenshin started to say. What had he had done for Bunjiro? All he could remember was telling him rather forcefully not to become a soldier.
"What, Kenshin, you don't like the name or something?" Sano chuckled as he took in Kenshin's perplexed look. "Almost sounds like my name, and that's pretty damned good, if you ask me! But why change your name at all?" he asked Bunjiro. "The name you've got sounds like a good actor's name to me."
Megumi sighed exasperatedly. "Sano, don't you know anything? Actors belong to acting dynasties, and they all take names of famous ancestors. Isn't that right, Kawayama-san—or should I say Shinosuke-san?"
"No, no, please just call me Bunjiro," Bunjiro laughed. "The thing is, Shinosuke was never the name of any of our ancestors. It was made up seven years ago for Kenshin-san, when he filled in for my second uncle. So, technically it wasn't one of the family names at all…."
He didn't get to finish his sentence, however, as three pairs of eyes suddenly became riveted on Kenshin.
"Wait a minute," Sano cut in. "Are you saying Kenshin was an actor once?"
Now, this was something truly unbelievable. Sano turned to Kenshin, whose face was completely inscrutible at the moment and said, "Exactly what aren't telling us here?"
Kenshin put on the most clueless look he could muster and said, "Sessha did help out Bunjiro-san's family once or twice, but that was a long time ago."
Now Megumi was staring hard into Kenshin's eyes. Given his weakened condition, she knew he was not so adept at hiding things as he normally was; now she was sure he was trying to hide something. "Oro?" was the only response she got to her unspoken query. So, she turned to Bunjiro and asked in a suspiciously sweet way, "And why, pray tell, would your family need Ken-san to fill in for your uncle?"
Kenshin may have been weak, but not so weak that he didn't know what would happen if certain of his friends found out what he did for Bunjiro's family. He started to say, "Sessha only helped fix a broken leg," but Bunjiro beat him to it. He sighed resignedly as he heard Bunjiro start to tell the tale.
"Well, you see," Bunjiro began, "we were traveling through the mountains to Miyazaki the summer I was twelve to give a command performance for the governor, when our wagon overturned and broke my uncle's leg. That's when Kenshin-san happened along. He saved my uncle's life that day, but the problem was that my uncle was our onnagata for the summer, and everyone else in the family was too tall to fit in his costumes except for Kenshin-san. So, First Uncle taught him how to play an onnagata, and he did the show. He left us right after that."
There was deafening silence as three pairs of eyes drifted once again towards Kenshin. "Say what?" Sano managed in disbelief.
Little fox ears sprang up on Megumi's head. "Ken-san," she said in that strangely sing-song voice that seemed so uniquely hers, "you've been holding something back from us all this time, haven't you. An onnagata, you say, Bunjiro-san? Why, Ken-san, you have talents we never dreamed of!"
Kenshin blushed a faint pink—somewhat of a feat, considering how weak he was. "Sessha only did it twice," he admitted reluctantly.
Suddenly, Sano and Yahiko were both rolling on the ground laughing hysterically. "No wonder you never told us about this part of your life!" Yahiko managed between laughs. "I mean, you're pretty short and scrawny anyway, but a girlie man!"
"Sessha is not scrawny!" Kenshin protested, trying to stand in his own defense, but he moved too quickly. A stab of pain from the wound in his side forced him to sit back down.
"Well," Sano managed to gasp out between laughs, "you do have the build for it!"
"Actually," Bunjiro said, enjoying the humor of the situation, "I'm told that some farmer who saw Kenshin-san on stage proposed to him."
That set the two off into even greater gales of laughter. Now Yahiko started imitating a flirty, giggling girl, while Sano play-acted a love-besotted farmer.
"So, Kenshin, what was it that turned the men on?" Sano continued, barely containing his laughter." Your girlish figure?"
"Sano!" Kenshin's voice may have been weak, but there was warning in there somewhere.
"Heh, don't worry, Kenshin, you don't have the right equipment to interest me!" Sano guffawed, causing Yahiko to laugh all the harder.
Kenshin blushed again, but truth be told, he was enjoying what was going on around him. After the trauma of his fight on Mt. Hiei, it felt good to hear the laughter and joking of his friends, even if it was at his expense. He started laughing with the rest of them, unconsciously holding his side as he did.
Megumi noticed. The doctor in her kicked in as she noted the fleeting wince that crossed Kenshin's face and the somewhat strained sound in his laughter. He was still way too weak for her liking, even after all these days of rest. Perhaps she could kill two birds with one stone here—relieving the current cause of his pain while beginning to strengthen him at the same time. So she smiled coquettishly at Kenshin and said, "Perhaps Bunjiro-san might be willing to escort you around the garden so we can see your onnagata technique for ourselves."
Kenshin stopped laughing, as she knew he would, thus relieving the pain in his side. "Megumi-dono," he said, that warning tone rising up just a notch.
"Well, Ken-san, you do need to start walking some, now that I've allowed you out of bed, and I'm sure we would all like to know what kind of onnagata you make…."
"Yeah, Kenshin, we'd sure like to know!" Sano chimed in.
Whatever hesitations Kenshin may have had about trying to stand again vanished quickly. Continuing to hold his side, he slowly started to raise himself up, pushing away Megumi's proffered hand and Sano's offer of assistance.
"Sessha can do this himself!" he insisted. The smile of triumph that crossed his face as he succeeded, for Megumi, was worth everything. "Bunjiro-san?" Kenshin now said, indicating that he was ready to walk.
Bunjiro stood to join him and offered his elbow, but Kenshin refused it, and the two started walking side by side around the small garden.
"So," Bunjiro said after they had taken a few steps, "is this your family?"
"My what?" a startled Kenshin answered. "Oh, no," he laughed once he regained his composure, "not my family—just friends! They came from Tokyo to help this one. Megumi-dono is a doctor, Sano is—well, Sano just is, and Yahiko is an orphan that Kaoru-dono, my…landlady…has taken in. You haven't met Kaoru-dono yet. She's helping repair an inn that was damaged during…."
Kenshin hesitated. He hadn't spoken much with anyone yet about what happened that day he battled Shishio. He wasn't sure he was ready to. "She runs her father's dojo, that she does, and she's been teaching Yahiko," he finished.
But then he started thinking. Maybe his friends were a kind of family, maybe more of a family than he ever remembered having before. Sano and Yahiko? They were like brothers to him, weren't they? And Megumi was certainly the teasing sister he never had.
And Kaoru? He stopped walking as he thought back to the night he left Tokyo for what he assumed would be forever. It had been so hard that night to say goodbye to Kaoru. Merely his landlady? Who was he kidding?
"Kenshin-san, are you alright?" a worried Bunjiro asked. "Do you need to sit down?"
Kenshin smiled. "No, no, sessha's fine—it's just that you've made me realize something." Then, to ease Bunjiro's concern, he slowly started walking again and changed the subject. "Your grandfather, Daisuke-san—you say he died?"
Bunjiro sighed. "So much has happened since you left us, Kenshin-san. It was three years ago, during a performance of The Forty-Seven Ronin. Grandfather and First Uncle were doing the climactic scene when suddenly Grandfather clutched his chest and collapsed. I was on stage, too, playing one of the secondary characters, and Uncle and I raced to his side, but he was already gone."
"Sessha is so sorry to hear it," Kenshin started, but Bunjiro said, "Don't be sorry. Grandfather died doing what he loved best. We were devastated, of course, but we all agreed that was a much better way to go than getting sick and having to retire." Bunjiro sighed, then added, "The governor insisted on a state funeral for him, you know. It's the only time Father ever came back to Kagoshima."
Kenshin became lost in thought at this news. He remembered Daisuke so well. He remembered that unusual combination of power and kindness that seemed to be such an essential part of Daisuke's nature. He remembered how those elements showed themselves in that the riveting performance he had watched Daisuke give in that small hamlet. He remembered the compassion Daisuke had shown him when Orinosuke confronted them all with the truth of Kenshin's identity. The world had lost a great man, he decided.
"And your grandmother?" Kenshin continued, remembering Ikuko's many kindnesses during his short stay with the family. "She hasn't…."
"No, she's just fine," Bunjiro chuckled. "I think it'll take more than the death of her husband to slow Grandmother down. She's really something, isn't she. No sooner was the funeral over than she called everyone together and basically gave all of us our marching orders. 'We have lost our guiding light,' she told us, 'but that doesn't mean this family is through!' So, we had our mourning period, and when it was over, she made sure we came back just as strong—maybe even stronger—than ever. But she absolutely refused to give Father the name of Daisuke, even though my uncles thought he should have it."
"Because of what happened that fall in Miyazaki?" Kenshin asked.
Bunjiro shook his head yes. "She's still very bitter, even though my uncles have forgiven him somewhat. Father, of course, has never forgiven any of them, especially when they went on to inherit new names and he didn't. He felt even back when you were with us that it was time for Grandfather to step down as head of the family and bestow the name of Daisuke on him. Some other kabuki families do that—when one of the sons reaches a certain stature, the patriarch relinquishes the great name and gives it to that son—but Grandfather never believed in that."
"Oh, so both your uncles received new names!" Kenshin said with relief. "Sessha thought, when you said the name of Ryosuke was to be given to you, that something had happened to him!"
"Oh, no! Far from it!" Bunjiro laughed. "I know it's confusing, but the uncle you knew as Ryosuke is now Saemonosuke VII—a great honor. See, there were three brothers who started our dynasty two hundred years ago—Daisuke, Saemonosuke, and Orinosuke. The first Saemonosuke was a great comedian as well as a great dramatic actor—a perfect fit for First Uncle, don't you think? No one's had that name for over twenty years because the previous Saemonosuke, Grandfather's brother, died in that big earthquake before I was born. And the uncle you knew as Ennosuke is now Kaginosuke III—a name that's rarely given. It's for the actor who has distinguished himself as an onnagata, and sometimes a generation comes along without one. Again, a great honor."
Kenshin shook his head. This all very confusing! "Sessha always wondered why everyone was called Oldest This and First That," he said. "Now sessha understands!"
They continued to walk some more, but now Kenshin was holding Bunjiro's arm continuously. Just from this short walk, he was getting tired. Still, there was one more person he needed to know about. "And Baiko-san," he finally asked. "What of Baiko-san?"
"Baiko-kun's still with us," Bunjiro said with a smile. "Remember that reward we all got from the governor for capturing those yakuza? Well, he told Grandfather he was going to take that money and set himself up as a carpenter, but Grandfather said to him, why not save that money and apprentice yourself to our theater's carpenter first? So that's what he did, and now he's our chief carpenter and set designer. He's got a wife and three kids, and he's happy as a clam."
Kenshin smiled. It was good to hear that at least someone he knew had managed a happy landing in this life.
"You know," Bunjiro continued, "he really took your departure hard. You know how talkative he always is. Well, he barely said three words to anyone for weeks. It was only after I was older that he told me about it, about how you were the first person who really understood what he was going through from being in the army. He worried about you for a long time—still worries about you, in fact. The two of us are notorious around Kagoshima for being the great defenders against any and all slanderers of the Hitokiri Battousai."
That brought a smile to Kenshin's face. "Baiko-san was a true friend," Kenshin remarked softly. "He even came to make sure sessha wasn't hurt when sessha had to meet that man seeking revenge. This one told him he didn't have to worry, but he came anyway. It meant a lot to me. Sessha has thought of him often. Will you tell him that for me?"
"Of course," Bunjiro answered.
They were heading back to the engawa now, for Kenshin was visibly tiring with each step. It looked like Megumi had used the time to rewrap Sano's bandages, and now she waved to them.
"I sent Yahiko off to the Aoiya to fetch Kaoru-chan," she told Kenshin as Bunjiro helped him to sit. "She should be here any minute. I'm sure she would never forgive me if she missed this opportunity to meet a friend from your past!"
"Ah, your landlady, right?" Bunjiro remembered from their conversation.
Sano let out a low rumble of laughter at that; Megumi tittered quietly behind her hand. Another blush arose on Kenshin's face. "Well, she is my landlady," he said lamely. "Sessha didn't lie…."
"You know," Bunjiro interjected with a sly smile, "Baiko-kun once told me the most interesting story about you. He says that back then, you were too honest all the time, that he had to teach you to just smile and tell people as little as you could get away with. That isn't, by chance, what you're doing right now, is it?"
"Oro? Kenshin exclaimed guiltily. "Sessha has no idea what you're talking about!"
Bunjiro burst out laughing. "So, Baiko-kun was telling the truth!"
Kenshin put on as innocent a look as he could manage—what else could he do? Here he had worked so hard all these years to convince people that his silly rurouni personality was the real him, and now Bunjiro was spilling his secret!
Bunjiro's comment, however, set him to thinking. Was it really Baiko who had helped him create his clueless persona? He had been acting the silly rurouni for so long that it was almost second nature to him, but now that he thought about it, he realized Bunjiro was right—it was Baiko who had set him on this path. He smiled as he remembered the man who had saved him from that crazy marriage proposal, who had put up with him spilling soup in his lap, who had trusted him when no one else ever would have. Now he realized that if it hadn't been for Baiko and his wise advice, he might never have survived as long as he had as a rurouni.
Megumi watched as flickers of memory crossed Kenshin's normally unreadable face. Well, well, well, she thought as little fox ears began to sprout. Bunjiro's insight was indeed a revelation, and it answered so many questions about Kenshin's personality! As she heard the shoji slide open and saw Kaoru and Yahiko in the doorway, she called out, "Oh, Kaoru-chan, "wait 'till you hear what I've just learned!"
Bunjiro stood to bow, and Kenshin moved to stand as well, but Megumi held him back. He was looking more tired than was good for him. It was probably time for him to go back to bed.
There was a flurry of introductions, and Sano and Yahiko fell all over themselves trying to be the first to tell Kaoru about Kenshin's secret life as an onnagata.
"Kenshin!" Kaoru said, surprise making her eyes look as big as saucers. "How come you never told us about this!"
"Yeah," Sano said. "All this time you could've given Jou-chan here some lessons in how to be a lady!"
Kaoru scowled and started reaching for her ever-present bokken.
"Tsk, tsk, Kaoru-chan," Megumi chided. "We don't want to give Ken-san's friend the wrong impression of you, do we?"
Kaoru growled, then forced a bright smile on her face. "So, Bunjiro-san, do you ever come to Tokyo? We have some wonderful kabuki theaters there, you know."
"Actually, I'm headed there in a few weeks," he said. "Kenshin-san, I didn't get a chance to tell you yet, but First Uncle finally did move to Tokyo, just before the Seinan War. What with all the political turmoil from the insurrection, he and Second Brother thought it would be a good idea to set up shop in the capital, just in case we found we'd have to leave Kagoshima. Sort of history repeating itself, you know?"
A strange look come over Kaoru's face; Bunjiro noticed. "Gomen nasai," he said suddenly. "Did I say something wrong?"
"What? Oh, no," Kaoru said, forcing herself to smile once again. "It's just that…well, my father died in that war, that's all. But that's okay—don't worry about it! So, your uncle acts in Tokyo? What's his name?"
"Saemonosuke VII," Bunjiro said.
At that, Kaoru's jaw dropped, all sad thoughts suddenly forgotten. "Saemonosuke?" she repeated in awe. "The great Saemonosuke?" A brief silence descended on her, before…."I don't believe it, I don't believe it—uwaaaa!" she cried out.
"Oh, no, not you, too," Yahiko groaned. "We already went through this with Sae-san. What's with you women and actors anyway?"
"It's just….the great Saemonosuke?" she said again as she fanned herself to keep from fainting. "Megumi, do you realize who this is? The nephew of the great…."
"Yes, yes, Kaoru-chan, I think we get the picture," Megumi laughed. "Well," she said to Bunjiro, "I am most impressed. Perhaps we'll come to see you when you're in town."
"Actually, I've written a new play, and Uncle has agreed to stage it when I go," Bunjiro said. "It's something you may find interesting—it's sort of about you, Kenshin-san."
Kenshin looked up, startled. "About this one? Why…."
"I don't think you quite understand the effect you had on me," Bunjiro explained. "You may have been with us for only a few days, but you influenced me more than almost anyone else I've ever met. It wasn't just that you were so different from those swaggering samurai heroes I was used to from our plays, and still you overcame those those evil yakuza. It's that you treated me like I was worth something, like maybe even a twelve-year-old had something to contribute to the world. It made a real difference to a self-absorbed kid like me. And then to find out the world wanted you dead for something that happened years and years before, when you weren't much older than I was? It just seemed so unfair, because anyone with eyes could see you weren't what people said you were. So I wrote a play to show the world the truth. Technically, it's about the feud between Minamoto Yoshitune and his brother back in the thirteenth century, but it's really about you."
Bunjiro reached into his chest pouch now, pulled out one of his cards, and started writing on it. "Here," he said, holding it out to them when he had finished, "take this. It's a voucher for free admission for all of you to see the play." At Kenshin's discreet, "Oh, no, sessha couldn't…," Bunjiro said, "You, too, Kenshin-san—especially you."
Kenshin didn't know what to say. He had lived so long with his burden of guilt, with the ever-present belief that because of that guilt, his life was worth nothing. It was only his promise to Tomoe, in fact, that had kept him all these years from giving in to despair and taking his own life. Now to find out that years ago someone had found something of worth in him? Not just in his sword, but in his very existence?
"Bunjiro-san, sessha …," he began to say, but this revelation was more than his tired mind could take in. He suddenly felt the urgent need to lie down and rest—both mind and body, at this point, were past the point of understanding. He left the sentence unfinished, causing Megumi to say worriedly, "Ken-san?"
He shook his head to clear the tiredness from it, then answered softly, "It's been a long afternoon, Megumi-dono. Sessha thinks perhaps…."
"Yes, you're right," she finished for him. "Sano, would you take Ken-san back upstairs? I think he's had enough for one afternoon."
Sano reached down to help Kenshin stand, then let him lean on him as they slowly headed for the shoji.
Bunjiro stood as well. "I've overstayed my welcome," he said apologetically. "Your friend Sano-san warned me not to stay too long, and look what I've done."
"No, Bunjiro-san," Kenshin smiled. "Sessha can't thank you enough for coming, for…for everything. Please, will you tell your family and Baiko-san that sessha has never forgotten their kindness? They have meant so much to me, even after all these years…." And then he was gone with Sano.
Bunjiro watched as he disappeared through the shoji, then turned to Megumi and said, "Is he going to be okay?"
Megumi sighed. "To tell you the truth, I don't know. His wounds are so serious, and he lost so much blood…." She heard Kaoru gasp, and she realized this was the first time she had admitted this even to herself.
"The thing is," Megumi continued, "I don't think he's really built for the sword style he uses, and his body really can't take much more."
"What do you mean?" asked Bunjiro.
"Well, you should see his shishou," Yahiko cut in enthusiastically. "He's huge!" and he held his arms out wide to show just how huge the man was. "I mean, as much as I admire Kenshin and all, he is a bit scrawny…."
"Scrawny?" Kaoru screeched. She whacked him over the head with her bokken. "The thing is," Kaoru continued more calmly, "when you see his shishou use the Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu, you realize it was really designed for someone a lot … bigger." She glared at Yahiko. "But Kenshin's obviously been able to overcome that little problem. It's just that, according to Sano, Kenshin had to use the succession technique three times against three different opponents during his battle, and even his shishou admits that using it just once is enough to tax his own body…."
"Well," Megumi suddenly broke in with a bright smile, "let's not get ahead of ourselves here. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe he'll be just fine," but deep down, she knew it wasn't true. Maybe it was time to have a little chat with Kaoru about what she was beginning to suspect about Kenshin's condition.
"Yes, maybe you're right," Kaoru sighed, but she didn't look like she believed it, either.
Bunjiro had a sudden thought, then reached again into his chest pouch to pull out an old, dog-eared fan. "Here," he said, handing it to Kaoru, "take this. It's been my good-luck charm all these years, but I think maybe you should have it now."
Kaoru took the fan and turned it over in her hands. Nothing special that she could see about it. Then, at Bunjiro's urging, she opened it up. On it were drawings of four actors with their flamboyant signatures beneath. "Daisuke VI," "Orinosuke V," "Ryosuke III," and "Ennosuke II," it read.
"Look down at the right-hand corner," Bunjiro prompted.
There, at the bottom, in a small, somewhat childish hand, was "Shinosuke I." It was Kenshin's handwriting. Kaoru looked up in confusion.
"It's from the day Kenshin-san performed in Miyazaki," Bunjiro explained. "He signed some extras, but not all of them sold. I've carried this one with me ever since."
"Oh," Kaoru breathed as she realized what it was. "I couldn't possibly accept this…."
"No," Bunjiro smiled. "Take it, as a token of my esteem for Kenshin-san. Maybe it will bring you as much luck as it's brought me."
He stood then and said, "Well, I really must be going. I have a performance tonight, and my father doesn't know I'm here. Please, come see us when you return to Tokyo. I know my uncle would be thrilled to see Kenshin-san again. He's the one who taught him how to be an onnagata, and he still says that performance he did with him of Demons Out, Fortune In was the most fun he's ever had on stage."
They all got up now to accompany Bunjiro to the front door, and he waved as he walked down the street to head home. It had been an intense afternoon for him. To see Kenshin so injured and weakened had been upsetting, to say the least, but to see how happy Kenshin seemed to be in the midst of these people was a consolation. He hadn't realized how much worry he had been carrying around with him all these years, worry that because of his past, Kenshin would never find the happiness Bunjiro was convinced he deserved. But now, suddenly, his heart felt light. He kicked up his heels and started whistling a tune. He couldn't wait to tell Byako!
Yakuza: criminal gang.
Izayoi Seishin: A famous kabuki drama in which the young priest Seishin is banished for falling in love with the geisha Izayoi, causing the two to decide to drown themselves. Neither dies, however, and both are drawn into lives of crime and murder.
Kenjutsu kata: the prescribed moves used to learn and perform sword-fighting.
-chan: honorific for a child, as opposed to the –san used for an adult.
Shinai: practice sword made of bamboo, meant to mimic a real sword.
Gomen nasai: very sorry.
Uwaa: an exclamation akin to 'wow.'
Arigatou: thank you.
Onnagata: in kabuki, the man who plays the women's roles.
Bokken: a wooden sword.
Seinan War: The unsuccessful, short-lived samurai revolt against the Meiji government in 1877. It took place in Satsuma.
Author's Note: So, there you have it—the answers to all your questions (I hope) and the end of this tale. If you want to know what happens next to Kenshin, then run (don't walk) to Haku Baikou's excellent "Recovery," the story of what happens while he's recuperating from his battle with Shishio (there's a reason Sano and Misao are concerned about Shishio's returning men). And just to give myself a very shameless plug, observant readers may remember the gossipy greengrocer Ko from my previous story, "In Search of Family." Making him the source of Bunjiro's information was a stroke of genius, if I do say so myself!
Thanks, everyone, for your suggestions and wonderful words of encouragement over the past year (and thanks, Calger-san, for help with that "Uwaaaa!). It's been great fun creating and writing about the Daisuke kabuki family, and especially great fun turning our favorite rurouni into an onnagata . As for what might spill next from my fevered little brain, I really couldn't say, although one or two ideas have popped into my mind. You'll just have to wait and see!
One last note: Death to editing program! This is the fourth attempt I've made to fix what that program has screwed up!
Co-Conspirator's Note: I'm going to miss the Daisuke family a lot. It's been so fun getting to know them and writing about their antics and such. I can't believe this story is finally over. It's a pity that Kenshin didn't get to meet Baiko again (pokes C. hard in the arm), but I guess there can be only one epilogue—or can there? (only one!—C.). I'd almost forgotten about how much I loved Ko. There's nothing that goes on in or outside Kyoto that Ko the greengrocer doesn't know! Despite the fact that there was a little too much Kaoru in this chapter for my liking, it was still a lot of fun to write. As for Bunjiro's play, we actually had the plot written out, but it seemed a bit too long to put in (way to long!—C.), but if enough people want to know, we can post the synopsis.
Well I guess that's all for now. Thanks so much for all of your support, it really means worlds to us every time we get a review. So until another twisted inspiration strikes again, ja ne!