A/N: This story is for Ladywater2010, WolfDaughter, Larie-chan, and Finick01 who requested a sequel, and for Jecir and Sai Orlianna who specifically wanted a wedding. As for Senaca, I'll try to work in the soba noodles, but I don't think Saitoh picked up the nasty western cigarette habit until well after the Battle of Toba Fushima and the shogun's abdication.
Personal note to anonymous reviewer # 29337423 who informed me that I "suck". I may be many things – untalented, lazy, a bad speller, or careless with plot details, but I am NOT a vacuum cleaner. I suggest you invest in a copy of Partridge's Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English where you may find inspirations for truly creative insults that go beyond the schoolyard level of name-calling. Until such time, I will be deleting your rather unimaginative flame, assuming ffdotnet still allows authors to do that. Is anybody else out there irritated with the new changes?
Disclaimer: I do not own Rurouni Kenshin characters or plot.
Tokio sat on the porch outside Okita's room. The large Buddhist temple which served as Shinsengumi headquarters was a beautiful old building, and spacious enough to provide all its captains with separate rooms.
Okita's room was only a few doors down from Tokio's fiancee's room. But Tokio wasn't there today to see Saitoh. She was there to see Okita.
"So you see my problem." she finished and looked at the boy expectantly.
Okita's face crinkled in a sunny smile. "Yes, of course I do, but Tokio-san, I'm not sure what you expect me to do about it. Unless you want me to go shopping for you…" he trailed off uncertainly.
"No, no. That would defeat the purpose." Tokio sighed and slumped sideways against the post which held the protruding temple roof over the porch. "Ever since I heard about this western custom of exchanging wedding gifts, I just knew I had to get something special for Saitoh. The problem is, I don't know what he wants."
She glanced over at Okita. "Do you?"
Okita blinked and laughed. "What Saitoh wants? That's a tough question! If he ever needs something he tends to go out and buy it right away, but as for what he wants…He wants you, of course, Tokio-san."
Tokio smiled on the outside, but on the inside she blanched. Her marriage had been arranged by Saitoh's boss, Kondo, and her grandfather. Even though she was completely happy with the arrangement, she wasn't totally sure that Saitoh was. After all, he'd never actually said how he felt about it.
She started and realized that Okita had been talking. "I'm sorry, I missed that. What did you say?"
Okita laughed again. "Distracted by thoughts of Saitoh, I see. It must be nice to be in love, and think about your future."
A shadow passed over his face, so quickly that Tokio wasn't sure she'd seen it. Then the old familiar Okita smile was back in place, and he was beaming at her so genuinely, that she decided not to comment.
"Well, there won't be a future if there isn't a wedding, and there won't be a wedding unless I can find Saitoh a gift."
Tokio was pinning all her hopes on this gift. If she could just get him the perfect gift, something that would prove that she'd thought about it long and hard, then maybe he would deem her worthy of him.
He was so very hard to read. He didn't like to talk much, and rarely gave anything away. She supposed it was part of being a Shinsengumi captain. Yet Okita was a captain and he was the happiest, most helpful person she knew. Which is why she'd come to him.
"Then I will do whatever I can to help you find a gift." said Okita. He paused, then asked curiously, "What can I do?"
Tokio leaned forward. "Tell me what Saitoh admires. Surely there's something, some quality he admires more than anything else."
Okita nodded thoughtfully, setting his bangs shifting across his forehead. Tokio had to subdue a motherly urge to lean forward and comb them back into place with her fingers.
She knew that Okita was a skillful swordsman and an excellent captain, but he still looked like a young boy, and he reminded her of the neighbor kids she used to watch for their parents.
"Strength," Okita said suddenly, decisively. His eyes were half closed in concentration as he gazed across the side garden in front of the porch. "and honor. Definitely honor." He went on softly, "Above all, don't get him anything soft or effeminate. He really hates that sort of stuff. He needs people to be strong."
Tokio's heart dropped. That's what Saitoh admired? She did a quick self assessment. She was none of those things. Strong and honorable? She thought with an inward wince of the way she and Saitoh had met. He'd caught her breaking into Shinsengumi headquarters. That wasn't very honorable at all. And strength? She was really good at doing household chores – she'd had to be since she and grandfather had no servants – but the sort of strength it took to use a katana? Tokio looked down at her slim arms and skinny wrists dispiritedly. Sinking back onto her haunches, she let her kimono sleeves fall back over her arms to hide them.
"So how are the wedding preparations going?" she asked brightly, changing the subject. "I can't thank Kondo-san and Hijikata-san enough for hosting the reception. Have they decided where to put it yet?"
"Oh, ah…" Okita hemmed and hawed adorably for a while, then flashed her a bright smile. "You see, the thing is, Kondo and Hijikata are pretty hopeless at arranging social events so they delegated the job to Shinpachi."
"Oh." Wasn't that the captain that Saitoh thought was an utter fool? Of course, Saitoh thought a lot of people were fools, Tokio reminded herself.
"It'll be fine! I'm keeping an eye on Shinpachi, and he says he's found an inn with a great cook not too far from the shrine where you're going to get married. In fact, he told me where it is. Do you want to go see it?"
Tokio nodded. Anything to get her mind off of the impossible task of finding the perfect gift, of being the perfect woman, for Saitoh.
Okita jumped to his feet. "Just let me change out of my Shinsengumi uniform and I'll be ready to go." He dashed inside his room and closed the shoji screen behind him.
Whipping out the handkerchief tucked in his gi, he barely made it to his face before the coughing began.
Doubled over, he muffled it as best he could until the coughing subsided.
"Okita, are you alright?" Tokio's voice came anxiously from outside.
"I'm fine. I think I swallowed a gnat!" he laughingly called back to her. His smile faded as he looked at the red stains on his handkerchief. He was still coughing up blood. At least it was no more than the last attack. His tuberculosis was progressing inexorably, and there was nothing the doctor could do to stop it.
He couldn't let Tokio know. She was such a soft-hearted person. It would probably ruin her wedding day.
At least Okita thought he did. They never spoke of it. The last thing Okita ever wanted was for the man he looked up to almost as much as Kondo and Hijikata, to see him as weak, or a burden.
Though Okita loved to tease Saitoh and poke fun at him, he didn't do it out of meanness. Saitoh was so rigidly determined to wipe out evil that he forgot to be happy. That was why Okita had worked so hard from behind the scenes to maneuver the lone wolf into marriage. Saitoh thought that it was Kondo's idea that he marry Tokio, when in actual fact Okita had asked Kondo to force Saitoh to marry her.
Okita had never seen Saitoh be jealous or territorial until he'd met Tokio. Being Saitoh, he was too stubborn to admit he liked her, so Okita gave the couple a push.
Time was far too precious to waste. He wanted Saitoh and Tokio to have a full lifetime together.
Wadding up the handkerchief, he tossed it in the basket of laundry in the corner of his room, shrugged out of his haori jacket and bounced out of the room to rejoin Tokio.
The inn was quite a walk away, and uphill too. Tokio was breathless by the time they made it to the top. Okita marched cheerfully along beside her, pointing out objects of interest.
He seemed to find joy in the simplest of things – a gnarled cherry tree shaped like a squid, a shop selling bright paper lanterns, even the clacking sound a group of giggling matrons made as they walked down the street in their noisy wooden geta sandals.
In such company, Tokio couldn't help but cheer up a little.
The innkeeper, a fussy looking middle-aged man, slightly bow-legged, met them at the doorway, and ushered them into a large square room that served as the inn's central dining area. By the sound of the pots and pans clashing at the far end, Tokio guessed that the shoji screen back there led to the kitchen.
"Good day, I'm Okita shouji and this is Tokio Takagi. We're hear to see about the arrangements for Tokio and Saitoh-san's wedding reception."
"Ah, yes." said the innkeeper, tapping his chin with his finger. "Another young gentleman was here a few days ago to arrange it. It's to be a little over a week, isn't it?"
"Almost two weeks." Offered Tokio shyly. In almost two weeks she would be Saitoh's bride.
The innkeeper smiled. "You must be very excited to marry such a wonderful…er, what does your husband to be do exactly?"
Okita started drifting towards the kitchen and the smell of grilling fish. "Oh, he's a captain in the Shinsengumi, like me." He threw over his shoulder as he wandered toward the food.
Because he was already halfway across the room, he missed the innkeeper's reaction. The man's jaw dropped and his eyes bulged out. "Sh…sh…shinsengumi?" he whispered in a horror-stricken tone.
Tokio looked at the man sympathetically. That was how she'd felt about the dreaded shogunate police squad until she'd met Saitoh and came to know him.
She leaned forward conspiratorially and whispered to the stricken innkeeper, "It's alright, Okita is the nice shinsengumi captain. The mean one, Serizawa, is dead."
Mouth still open, the innkeeper turned to her and stared, obviously not convinced.
Tokio smiled, patted his arm and walked past him into the kitchen where Okita stood and inhaled through his nose, a blissful smile on his face.
"Can I help you?" asked one of the kitchen maids, pushing a strand of hair back under her headscarf as she stirred something in a simmering pot of water.
"We're here to see the cook about a wedding reception menu." Okita told her.
The maidservant and another girl exchanged looks. "Oh yes, the cook has been wanting to speak to someone about that." She said grimly. Taking her wooden spoon out of the pot, she used it to point to an open doorway leading to the inn's back courtyard. "He's out back."
Okita bowed politely and led Tokio out of the kitchen.
The courtyard was half garden, half storage area. Two of the inn's guests, old men, were sunning themselves on a porch connected to the back wall of the inn next to some desultory looking shrubs. One of the guests sat up when Okita came by and asked him if he thought 'Go' was a good game for teaching young folks strategy. Smiling apologetically at Tokio, Okita left her side to reply to the man.
A man, presumably the cook, was at the back fence by some pens and boxes, talking to a strikingly beautiful girl. She wore a pale kimono with a long blue scarf draped gracefully over her shoulders. In her arms she carried several black lacquer trays, which matched her midnight black hair, pulled back with a blue ribbon low on her neck.
The cook, a squat ugly man in a stained apron, pointed at the inn and turned his back on her. The girl nodded and began to cross the courtyard. As she did, a gate in the back fence opened, and two men walked in, talking.
No, Tokio decided, not two men, but a man and a boy. The man was tall like Saitoh but there the resemblance ended. This man slouched and there was something shady about him. He lacked Saitoh's firm sense of purpose. The boy had the oddest shade of hair she'd ever seen. It was red, so red that it was almost black, but when the afternoon sun hit it there were undeniable glints of red in it.
The boy stopped when he saw the lovely girl walking past him. She shot him a glance from her almond shaped eyes, set in a face with perfect alabaster skin, and would have kept going, but he stopped her with a question.
"What are you doing here?"
The question was graceless, and the boy seemed to know it, for he paused, abashed that he'd said anything.
"Okami-san sent me to loan these trays to Inui-san. He's hosting a wedding reception here next week." The girl replied calmly then walked on.
"A wedding?" the boy repeated doubtfully, as though he wasn't sure what the word meant.
"Yes. People do get married, you know." the girl said as she continued to walk gracefully across the courtyard without turning.
The boy pivoted quickly on his heel and pushed the gate open.
"Hey, I thought you were coming with me to talk to Inui," the taller man called after the retreating boy.
"Do it yourself, Iizuka." came his cold response as he fled.
Tokio hid a smile. Whoever that boy was, he was completely stuck on the girl. Tokio couldn't help it. As the girl came close, her amused smile burst out.
The girl looked at her and allowed her own lips to curve gently upward in response as she passed Tokio and took the trays to the kitchen.
Okita bounded back to her side. "Shall we go?"
The tall, shady looking man broke off his conversation with the cook and left as they came up.
"I understand you're going to be cooking the meal for the wedding reception next week?" Okita asked.
The cook turned a pinched, irritated look at Okita and Tokio. "Yes, your friend what's-his-name, Shuichi? He already arranged the menu. That's my problem." He glared.
"What do you mean?" asked Okita.
"Look!" The cook pointed down into the pen built next to the fence. A medium sized pig was lying in the dirt, panting in the afternoon heat.
"It's a pig." commented Okita blankly.
"Of course it's a pig! Your friend Shuichi…"
"Shinpachi" Okita corrected him quickly.
The cook rolled his eyes. "Shinpachi. Whatever. He wants this pork dish from Edo where you have to feed the stupid pig lotus blossoms and ginger root for a week before you slaughter it. The pig is supposed to be a young one so the meat will be tender."
"So?" Okita's eyes mirrored his puzzlement. "Isn't the pig young enough?"
"That's just it!" growled the cook. I ordered a YOUNG pig from the pig farm and they messed up and sent me a pig with young!"
"The pig is pregnant! They won't take her back because they said the weird diet had ruined her for any other customers. Kyoto country folk don't approve of weird Edo ways. So now I'm stuck with a pregnant pig, and everyone knows it's bad luck to slaughter a pregnant pig!"
"Of course it is! It's like spitting near a rice merchant's wife. Your rice won't cook right for a week afterwards." The cook's face was getting red. "Do you know nothing about cooking? If I slaughter a pregnant pig I'll have bad luck for weeks."
"Uh, Mr. Cook? I don't think that will be a problem much longer." Tokio had been staring, fascinated into the pen. At her words the cook leaned back over the pen and bit back a curse. "I think your pig is having babies."
Okita watched the proceedings with Tokio while the cook ranted and raved.
"What will you do with the extra pigs?" Okita asked him at last, more to quiet him down than from actual interest.
Tokio didn't like the look of avarice that crossed the man's face as he leaned over the fence counting the babies.
"Pickle them and sell them in jars." the cook said triumphantly.
Tokio made a sound of distress. How could he talk of pickling them when they'd just been born? She knew it happened all the time on farms, but Tokio was a city girl. She'd never seen anything but the neighbor's dog give birth before. When half the litter turned out stillborn, she'd cried.
Hearing the sound, Okita stared up at the cook. "But doesn't this pig belong to Saitoh and Tokio? For the reception?"
A hard look came over the cook's face. "Shinpachi ordered the Edo dish, not the pig itself. I know my rights. The pig is mine. You only get the parts I need to make the recipe. Come on. I'll show you the contract."
Reluctantly, Okita followed the cook to the kitchen.
Tokio glanced back over the side of the pen. Poor mother pig! Not only was she going to lose her piglets, she was going to be turned into Shinpachi's favorite dish. Tokio resolved not to eat any of it.
Wait, what was that? Another pig was being born, one the cook missed. It was so tiny, and the mother didn't seem interested in it.
A quick glance around the courtyard revealed that the two old men on the porch were arguing loudly and not looking her way.
Tokio hefted her stomach onto the top rail of the pen, reached in and snagged the baby. Shoving it into her kimono top, she fled through the back gate. The neighbor's dog had just given birth in an abandoned shed on grandfather's property. She'd give the pig to the dog to nurse.
Okita wouldn't mind walking home alone, she rationalized. Now, which alley led back to the street? After a few false starts, Tokio found an alley that led back to the main street and began her journey home.
Okita came out of the front door of the inn after learning from the two old men that Tokio had gone out the back gate. Unable to find her in the maze of alleys, he went back out the front of the inn just in time to see her rush past on the opposite side of the street.
Mouth agape he noticed her bosom. Tokio had a very nice bosom, not that Okita allowed himself to dwell on it now that she was Saitoh's fiancée, but right now her bosom was doing some rather interesting things. As she passed, he saw a tiny pink snout flick out of her neckline.
Mouth quirking, Okita waited until Tokio was out of earshot before bursting into laughter. Ignoring the curious glances of pedestrians, he made his way back to Shinsengumi headquarters alone.
A/N Sorry, I don't know of any Japanese pork recipes that call for feeding the pig lotus root and ginger, so I can't give anyone the recipe. Besides, who could bear to feed and house a pig for a week without getting attached to it? I made it up for the purposes of the story, though I did read somewhere that in the South, pigs are fed solely on peanuts in order to make the meat tender. I also made up the cook's superstitious beliefs.
And by the way, yes, that was a brief cameo appearance by Kenshin and Tomoe, but they won't be a part of the central plot. It was a sheer indulgence on my part since I mentioned that the Ikedaya Incident had already happened by the time of my "In The Wolves' Den" story, so by this story Kenshin and Tomoe would have been gone from Kyoto.