Disclaimer: I do not own Rurouni Kenshin or Samurai X Trust and Betrayal plot or characters.
CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN
A/N This is the very last chapter of this story. Since I won't be able to respond to any last reviews, I'd like to thank my readers in advance for sticking with it and reading all twenty seven chapters. Your reviews have meant a lot to me and I've cherished every one – even the ones that pointed out my errors! Thank you for reading my story.
Kenshin walked through the trees back toward the artillery encampment. In the late afternoon sun, the tree trunks and branches took on an orange cast, the still-green leaves bathed in the golden light, reminding him that fall was on its way.
Even so, Kenshin walked with a lighter step than usual. It seemed as though a great weight had been lifted from off his shoulders, one he'd been carrying for so long that he hadn't realized the burden had become a part of him.
It was like the time Master Hiko had been forced to cut his hair when he was nine years old and got his pony tail caught in the cleft of a sap ridden pine tree. Hiko could have simply pulled the hair out, freeing Kenshin, but the Hiten mitsurugi ryu master couldn't resist showing off a precision sword cut. The hair remaining on Kenshin's head hadn't contained a drop of pinesap, while his ponytail, still caught in the tree, was saturated with it.
His head seemed ten times lighter the moment Hiko sliced away the ponytail, as though only the anchor of his neck kept it from floating away. Later on he'd grown his hair long to emulate his master and to get ready for adulthood.
Kenshin found his mouth softening at the memory. Having his hair sliced off hadn't seemed funny at the time, but now…
He gave himself a mental shake. There was a war on after all, and the time for reminiscing could come later.
The weighty Parrott cannons lay silent when Kenshin returned at last to the artillery unit. The noxious white smoke had long since dissipated, and the men were desultorily standing around waiting for new orders, the ammunition shells already stacked on wagons, ready to go. Inui, the perpetually hungry gunner, gave a friendly wave to Kenshin as he walked up, then seemed to catch himself, and looked away in confusion.
The men must be tired if Inui was absent-mindedly waving to him. Even in this unit where no one knew his history, something about Kenshin set him apart. Only Shunme dared try to laugh or joke with him. He'd noticed but never really minded until now.
The officer who'd sent him after the Bakufu troops spotted him, broke off his conversation with the artillery captain, and walked over.
"Did you find them?" he asked bluntly, stopping to cast his eyes up and down Kenshin's blue kimono top and dark grey hakama to check for bloodstains. It was a rather obvious way of letting Kenshin know that if he claimed to have killed them and didn't show the evidence of it that the officer would not believe him.
"Yes." Kenshin let the blood spatter on his clothes speak for itself.
The officer took a last appraising look, nodded, and walked off.
Shunme returned at nightfall, plopping down next to where Kenshin was seated by a campfire, his sword already cleaned and at his side.
Kenshin gave him a look. Shunme's clothes were dusty, as if he'd lain in the dirt, and lines of tiredness were etching themselves over the laugh lines beginning to develop at the corners of his eyes.
"Ah, you know you did. Life's no fun without me around." Shunme arranged himself cross-legged and laid his carbine across his knees. "We found our men today."
Kenshin didn't have to ask to know that Shunme and the other scouts had killed them. If Shunme were still alive, it meant that his enemies were dead.
"Hmm." Kenshin muttered.
"I hear you did too?" Shunme's eyes were bright with curiosity.
"Yes." Kenshin nodded slowly. He didn't mention Takahata. What was the point? Shunme already knew Takahata was still alive and wandering around somewhere. Having granted the man his life, Kenshin granted him another head start.
Something caught Shunme's eye and he looked away across the dancing flames of the campfire then back again. His mouth quirked. "I hear you gave Inui the fright of his life today."
Kenshin glanced inquiringly at Shunme, who laughed.
"He accidentally waved at you, and when you saw it, he got scared! He's terrified he offended you. I think he even forgot to eat dinner!" Shunme sounded so impressed by this that it took every ounce of Kenshin's concentration to keep himself from smirking in response.
What was left of June passed into July. The Choshu forces took over the Bakufu stronghold in Hiroshima, pushing them away from the Choshu/Hiroshima border. Shunme and Kenshin stayed with the artillery squad as rumors grew that the bakufu troops were planning an all-out counter attack in retaliation.
The attack came at the end of July. The bakufu troops pushed in from the east, spilling over the mountains like angry ants dislodged from an anthill.
At least, that's what it looked like to the artillery group. The Bakufu were intent on capturing their artillery, since it lay in a strategic position on a hilltop overlooking the road the Bakufu army wanted to use to bring its forces back to their old stronghold.
A contingent of Bakufu riflemen opened fire on the artillery squad from the north. The men abandoned their cannons and scattered for cover.
Shunme, Kenshin, and Inui, the ever-hungry gunner, threw themselves into a ditch as the Bakufu's bullets flew overhead. Kenshin gripped the hilt of his sword and kept still, his back against the dirt. All his sword fighting skill was useless in a situation like this. He glanced over at the abandoned cannons, and heard the metallic pings as stray bullets hit the long black canon barrels with their thick bands of metal collaring the loading end.
"Kenshin." Shunme's voice came from his right.
Kenshin looked over to find Shunme dipping his head back down from where he'd peeked over the edge of the ditch a moment before. The man's chest was pressed up against the dirt as he crouched next to it. Shunme looked back at Kenshin, eyes alive and calculating.
"There's ten, maybe eleven of them. They're scattered in the trees on that hill above us. If I cover you, do you think you can make it to the tree line?"
Remembering the lay of the land, how the ditch terminated in a series of rocky boulders before petering out along the trees that lined the meadow-like hilltop where the cannons had been stationed, Kenshin nodded.
Shunme gave a quick, irreverent grin. "Just don't get yourself killed before I have a chance to make you laugh."
Another furious burst of bullets came over the top of the ditch. Shunme grimaced and held up his finger, signaling Kenshin to wait a bit.
Kenshin glanced over to see how Inui was faring. He hadn't reacted to Shunme's joke.
He was dead. He lay slumped against the dirt. There were two bullet holes, one entering under his eye and the other exiting between his shoulder blades. He must have tried to peek over the top of the ditch as Shunme had, to see what was going on. And just like that, his life was over.
Kenshin gently tugged Inui's sleeve, pulling the body down further away from the top of the ditch. Why let the bakufu's guns desecrate the body even more?
There was a slight lull in the gunfire. Most of the Bakufu must be reloading. Kenshin's eyes met Shunme's in a moment of perfect agreement. He came to a low crouch and began running for the boulders at the end of the ditch.
Glancing behind him, he saw Shunme's head and shoulders appear at the top of the ditch, cocking and firing his Spencer Carbine in quick succession, a couple of spare bullets clenched between the knuckles of his left hand, to be loaded when the first seven in the magazine ran out.
Then Kenshin was dodging around the boulders and into the trees, all his attention on the task before him.
He flashed back to the forest near his master's hut. One of Hiko's training exercises had been to place marks on various tree branches at intervals in the forest. Kenshin's job had been to run through the forest and cut down the branches using only a single concentrated swing of the katana for each.
Tree branches. That's all they were.
Kenshin didn't consider that tree branches couldn't fire guns, he couldn't consider it, he had to simply act.
The first man was kneeling by a tree trunk. A lateral swing separated the man's head from his body before he knew what happened. Hearing gunfire directly ahead, Kenshin kept going, running lightly on the pine needle bestrewn dirt between the tall rough trunks that reached up and away from the carnage at their base.
There were two this time, one sensing motion and beginning to swing his gun barrel around as Kenshin was upon them.
Angling his blade, Kenshin swung under the man's rifle and up, separating rifle, arm, and a portion of shoulder from his body. Immediately, Kenshin twisted his wrists at the apex of the cut so the hassaki, the sharp edge, was now angled downward and slashed diagonally through the next man, who managed to get off a shot that went wild before the blade tore through his chest, starting at the base of his neck by his shoulder.
He found the next bakufu soldier hunkered down between two rocks, shoving a ramrod down the barrel of his musket. Kenshin paused, for the rocks cradled the man on either side. It would have to be a downward stroke.
As he launched himself in the air, the man glanced up, and grabbing his musket, twisted to face Kenshin and brought the bar shaped metal gun barrel up between himself and Kenshin's blade. Sparks flew as the two metals connected, the force of Kenshin's blow knocking the man on his back.
Thwarted in his initial plan to cut the man's chest, Kenshin improvised, rocking his blade against the gun barrel so the kissaki, the sharp tip, imbedded itself in the man's neck, severing the carotid artery.
The man gave a harsh, gurgling cry and clapped his hands to his neck in a futile attempt to staunch the flow of blood. A bullet clipped a low hanging branch and tunneled through the loose fabric of Kenshin's kimono style top.
Spotting the shooter, a bakufu soldier standing up recklessly about ten yards away, Kenshin let his blade's tip angle downward at a diagonal as he began to run forward toward the man.
The man's body jerked spasmodically, two blossom shaped splashes of red appearing on his chest as bullets raked the area. Kenshin barely had time to dive behind a fallen pine tree trunk before gunfire sliced through the air right where he'd been.
The gunfire was coming from the direction of the cannons. Evidently some of Shunme's fellow riflemen had come to the rescue of the artillery squad, nearly killing Kenshin in the process.
As he lay inhaling the scent of rotting pine needles, he stared over at the fallen body of the bakufu soldier. The man's eyes were open, staring sightlessly into nothing. His face was pockmarked with the old scars of a childhood disease, and his arm lay splayed out from his body, the barrel of his weapon across his open palm.
Would the Choshu rifleman who'd killed him ever know that it was his bullet which had ended this man's life? There was no honor in gun battles. At least with a sword, you looked into a man's eyes as you fought him, man to man and skill to skill. You took his measure, got a sense of him, as Kenshin had when he'd battled Saito, the Shinsengumi captain back in Kyoto. There was a man who'd neither ask for nor give any concession in battle.
Eventually the sound of gunfire died down as the return fire from the trees where Kenshin lay diminished then stopped entirely. The rest of the Bakufu squad was dead, not by his hand, but by flying lead.
Kenshin pushed himself upright, took out a sheet of rice paper from his sleeve, and calmly wiped his sword, resheathed it, and walked away.
It was late in the afternoon. Days had passed since the last battle. Once the artillery had been freed, the Choshu troops used it to block the road, and the Bakufu attack faltered and failed.
Rumors, faithfully reported by Shunme, said that the shogun was disappointed with the efforts to crush Choshu and was considering backing down.
The artillerymen were resting after having wrestled their guns down the hilltop and the road in the direction of the retreating bakufu army. They'd stopped early since the bakufu had destroyed a bridge which needed to be repaired if the artillery was to cross the mountain stream that interrupted their progress.
A few soldiers set up targets downstream and began some desultory target practice, the sound of gunfire commonplace, as small pockets of resisting bakufu troops were still being rounded up.
Shunme had lighted a small campfire for himself and Kenshin a distance away from the others. It was a flat spot on a gently sloping hill. Kenshin noticed that Shunme faced in the direction of the road, so that he could watch the progress of the bridge repair work while he put together the ingredients for miso soup.
Kenshin pressed his back against a tree trunk and listened.
"I'm telling you, Kenshin, you've got to get yourself one of these," he said, patting the Spencer Carbine lying at his side. "They're great little weapons."
"I will never fire a gun."
"Not even if I asked you nicely?" Shunme asked, setting the footed iron pot of water down among the flames. "Just for me?"
"Never. I will never shoot anyone, no matter what." Said Kenshin with finality.
"You know," Shunme began in a wheedling tone, reaching into his bundle of belongings for packets of dried kelp and bonita flakes. "Guns really can come in handy. Even Sakamoto Ryoma uses a pistol."
Kenshin's eyes narrowed. The last time he'd seen Ryoma, he'd seen the barely healed pink scars from a sword all over the man's hands. "What?"
"Oh yeah. I never finished telling you about the Teradaya Inn." Shunme opened the packed of dried fish and tipped a quantity into the water in the pot. "It was just Miyoshi with his spear and Ryoma with the pistol Takasugi gave him. A police squad burst in and Ryoma and Miyoshi fought them off single-handedly before jumping out the window and escaping. Ryoma thanked Takasugi for the gun, and said it saved his life."
Shunme frowned down at the broth, and added some more dried kelp, before stirring it with a stick.
Kenshin swallowed and looked away. Were all his assumptions wrong? He'd thought Ryoma was a great swordsman. He'd walked and held himself like a man who could use a sword.
"So if Ryoma approves of guns…" Shunme began, then pitched forward, overturning the cooking pot and broth, which fell into the fire, extinguishing it. It was then that Kenshin registered the sound of a gunshot, and the direction from which it came.
In a lightning fast move, he located the shooter, who was standing next to a tree, just lowering his rifle and beginning to step away. Kenshin couldn't leave Shunme, who could still be alive, yet the rage in his heart couldn't let the shooter escape.
As the katana left its sheath Kenshin reversed his grip, clutching the hilt with his thumbs toward the fuchi, the metal tip that capped the hilt's end, and threw the blade as hard as he could.
It struck the bakufu soldier through the throat, pinning him to the tree at his back. He dropped his gun and began to make gurgling noises. Kenshin turned his back and dropped to his knees by Shunme, pulling the older man's shoulders, off the cooking pot and back into his arms.
Shunme's head fell back against Kenshin's shoulder, giving him an unobstructed view of his chest. There was a bloody hole slightly off center on the right hand side.
Kenshin felt his heart seize up within him. The wound was making a sucking noise as Shunme inhaled, and air bubbles appeared in the blood at the edge of the wound, giving the blood a frothy appearance. He'd been hit in the lung.
"That's what I call…landing in the soup." Shunme gasped out.
Kenshin's grip tightened on Shunme's arms, and he had to consciously order his grip to loosen, to avoid hurting him any more than he already was. Shunme's chest wasn't rising and falling normally.
"Sheesh." He gasped. "You're a tough sell." Shunme's normal booming voice was more of a labored whisper, but he kept talking. "I thought…that was a good joke."
"Don't try to talk." Kenshin ordered harshly, and tried to cover the wound with his hand.
Shunme hissed, and batted his hand away. "Don't bother. We both know it's fatal." He coughed and winced at the pain. Then opened his eyes and looked up at Kenshin.
"I'm going to miss you." Shunme's lips were taking on a slightly bluish tinge.
"Don't" Kenshin whispered. He didn't want to think about losing Shunme, even though it was happening right in front of him. His only friend was dying.
Shunme raised his hand and clutched at Kenshin's sleeve. "Meant to tell you earlier." His grip found Kenshin's arm and tightened. "Don't be afraid to feel. Katsura worries about you." A smile quirked Shunme's lips. "You don't know how to seem, like me, so he worries." The smile broadened. "You should work on that."
Kenshin drew in an uneven breath and felt tears, his first since Tomoe's death, prick at his eyelids. Shunme was dying and he was worried about Kenshin?
"Where's the shooter?"
Kenshin's eyes blurred. He didn't trust himself to speak, so he nodded in the direction of the bakufu soldier.
Shunme's head shifted to look. There was a silence, then Shunme asked in a normal, deadpan, though quieter tone of voice, "Kenshin, how did your sword get over there?"
Kenshin followed Shunme's gaze and blinked to clear his eyes. "I threw it." He told the dying samurai softly.
Shunme coughed again, causing more blood to bubble up out of his wound. His body tensed up then relaxed in Kenshin's arms as the attack subsided.
"You THREW it?" he repeated incredulously, tilting his head back to look up at Kenshin again.
Kenshin bit his lip and nodded.
"Like an arrow?" Shunme asked, coughing more gently this time.
A big smile stole across Shunme's face. "Kenshin, you just SHOT a man with your sword."
Astonished, Kenshin stared down at Shunme, his mouth open as he remembered his last words to Shunme before the bakufu soldier had wounded him.
Shunme's smile got even bigger. "Admit it, Kenshin. You SHOT someone."
Shunme began to make raspy noises, his smile never fading. Kenshin realized he was laughing. "You…shot…someone." He wheezed, hilarity in his eyes.
Against his will, Kenshin felt his own mouth quirk. His shoulders jerked, and an unfamiliar sound began to spill from his mouth, and suddenly he was laughing too, along with Shunme.
Together, their laughter filled the clearing, until at last only Kenshin's laughter remained.
Gently, he set Shunme's body on the ground and passed his hand over the dead man's eyelids to close them.
The sun was setting in the mountains to the west, casting its dying rosy light over the clearing. Kenshin saw that the bridge wasn't finished, so the artillery squad wouldn't be able to leave until tomorrow.
They'd be leaving without Shunme.
He looked down at his friend's face, peaceful and relaxed in death, the smile seeming to linger on his lips. 'I will remember what you taught me.' He promised the slain warrior silently. ' I will learn how to seem normal. I will live. I will endure this war, and when it is over, I will force myself to laugh and to smile for your sake, and perhaps someday I will truly feel what I seem again.'
It was already happening. The emotions Kenshin kept locked away when he was a hitokiri were already coming out. How else could he have felt such rage against Takahata, or such relief when he came to the turning point and realized he still retained enough self control to step back from a selfish murder? How else could he have laughed with Shunme instead of crying? It was his last gift to the one man in all Choshu who called him friend.
Kenshin lifted his face to the dying sun, then turned and went to retrieve his sword. The war was not yet over, and he would need it in the days ahead. There would be more bloody conflicts to endure, but for the first time Kenshin allowed himself to hope that in the years to come, the years of atonement and peace, he might himself find peace, and perhaps even a sort of happiness within. That would be Shunme's true legacy. That and the gift of laughter.
A/N Well, that's it. When I started this story, I wanted to show how Kenshin could change from the cold, unemotional killer who was devastated by Tomoe's death in the OAV 'Trust and Betrayal' to the very different Kenshin of the 'Rurouni Kenshin' TV series. I don't know if I succeeded very well in my goal, but I hope in the chapters you read that you noticed a gradual change in Kenshin. I tried to make him thaw out emotionally from his grief and guilt while retaining the sense that he was still a teenager dealing with a bewildering adult world that he'd been thrust into prematurely. While I could never hope to match the brilliance and creative genius of Nobuhiro Watsuki, I do hope that this story has remained true to his vision and to the historical period he chose for it. Most of all, I hope that it brought joy to my readers, and maybe even encouraged them to want to learn more about the Meiji era. Thank you for reading. –Omasu.
P.S. If you want a better and more thorough explanation of how Kenshin changed from the amber-eyed Hitokiri Battousai to the slightly goofy wanderer we all know and love, check out Conspirator's "An Unexpected Lesson" – she does a much better job of it than I ever could!