A/N: I have a raging case of writer's block, so I wrote this in hopes of jump-starting my plot bunnies again. This is just a random event from Kenshin's wandering years told from the POV of someone he helps out. If anyone has advice about how to cure writer's block, let me have it! Save the world from further pointless one-shots by me!
INCIDENT IN A TAVERN
I am no one of importance. My name is Ito and I come from a tiny fishing village that lies next to a town on the outskirts of Osaka. In the year of the great influenza epidemic both my parents died and I went to live with my aunt and uncle in that small town. My mother's sister, Mineko, had married the owner of an inn and tavern. I was given a job working in the kitchen, for the inn served meals as well as sake.
One day a stranger with red hair came to that inn. My story begins with him.
Aunt Mineko was sick with a bad cold, and lay upstairs on her futon. That meant I had to be out in the front room serving the customers, since she couldn't. My uncle was a gruff, uncommunicative man. He wasn't unkind exactly, it's just that he thought of me as a servant, not as family, so his orders were abrupt and graceless.
When the red haired stranger walked in, I froze in my tracks with my mouth open. I'd never seen such hair in my life. His eyes were an odd color as well. They were a warm purple, like violets in the sun. Was he from one of those European ships that plied their trade in Osaka harbor? I'd never seen a foreigner up close before. As I stared, I saw that he had a cross shaped scar on his cheek.
He took in the room at a glance, then went and sat quietly at a low, square table by the door, removing his katana from the obi belted about his middle and placing it carefully on the floor at his side. This was during the years before the anti-sword law, and after the battle of Toba Fushimi when it was not uncommon to see soldiers and samurai going about armed.
My uncle had to give me a firm shove in the direction of a table full of loud sailors to get me going again. I poured their sake, then walked reluctantly over to the stranger. Whatever would I do if he didn't speak Japanese?
"Excuse me, would you like some sake, sir?" I asked, holding the white ceramic bottle close to my chest. I kept my eyes firmly on the squat, rectangular wooden table where he kneeled like all the others, waiting to be served. I didn't want to be caught staring.
"No, thank you. I'd just like a bowl of miso soup, please." He answered simply in flawless Japanese, in a voice that was low and pleasant, with a humility uncommon in tavern customers.
"Yes, right away." I bowed and went to the kitchen to tell the cook.
The tavern filled up quickly after that. Two travelers, woodworkers, judging by the portable lathe they brought with them into the tavern, sat down at the long table in the back corner. Like the redhaired man, they were more interested in food than drink. Three more sailors entered and seeing their fellows at the rowdy table, joined them. I was kept busy filling sake cups, and handing out soup and rice bowls.
Then he came in. Jun.
I'd met Jun when I was just a small child, not the seventeen year old woman I was now. Jun was the son of the town's most prosperous sake merchant. Jun's father even owned his own boat, which carried sake up and down the coast. That was how I met Jun. He'd fallen off the boat, and my father's fishing boat picked him up.
Jun had been half drowned when father carried him into our small hut. I remembered thinking he was the most beautiful boy I'd ever seen. After mother got some soup in him, and he'd woken up, he spoke to me. I don't know why, perhaps because I'd helped mother feed him. Perhaps because I was close to his age, only three years younger, and there were no other children around to talk to.
Jun told me he'd been playing hide and seek with Hojo, the captain's son, when he'd fallen off the deck. I'd nodded, keeping my suspicions to myself. Hojo sometimes came to the fishing village when his father had business there. We all hated him, for he was a bully who liked to play tricks. I wondered if Jun's fall had been an accident. It would have been just like Hojo to shove Jun off the boat in a way that looked accidental, then keep his mouth shut instead of raising the alarm, for fear of getting punished.
Jun's life sounded so magical. He lived in a two-storied house in town, and his father had enrolled him in a dojo where he learned to use a wooden bokken along with the sons of samurai. Jun was so proud of that, but not in a gloating sort of a way. His eyes had shone with gratitude and awe in the light of our cook fire.
That was how I remembered him in the years that followed, a handsome boy bundled up in our best quilted futon, his warm brown eyes shining softly as he spoke about his life and his family. He was with us for nearly a week before his family sent someone to come and get him. It was the best week of my life. Mother seemed to understand, and quietly took over my chores as I led Jun around the fishing village and showed him how we lived. We'd talked about everything and nothing. I'd never felt so comfortable in anyone's presence before or since.
I heard much later that he'd gone to war, leaving behind a fiancée. She was said to be a beautiful girl, and the daughter of another merchant. I'd hated her, foolishly, for what chance had I, the daughter of a poor fisherman, to marry a rich and wonderful boy like Jun? Then she died in the same epidemic that took my parents, and I was bitterly ashamed that I'd had such bad thoughts toward her.
The war ended for Jun and the other village and town boys who'd joined in to fight for the emperor against the shogun. Eventually they came home, the survivors, and among them was Jun. I'd seen him from a distance, but this was the first time he'd come to my uncle's inn.
With him came Hojo, and Hojo's friend, Uda.
Those two I had seen before close up. They came to the tavern often, for drink, not food. Aunt Mineko always pushed me into the kitchen quickly when they came in. She had my uncle serve them whenever possible, and when he was out she'd get them their drinks and then stay as far from them as she could.
Watching from the kitchen doorway, I'd see her face tighten at some remark they'd make to her as she served them. Sometimes I thought I saw her hand shake with rage. Aunt Mineko was a handsome woman, which is why my uncle married her even though she was just a simple girl from a fishing village. Other customers complimented her, sometimes outrageously, but no one ever made her recoil in disgust as did the thin-faced Hojo and his fat companion, Uda. I asked her once why she didn't tell them to leave if they bothered her so much. Aunt Mineko just shrugged and said she couldn't afford to turn any paying customers away.
Jun, Hojo, and Uda sat at the square wood table in the corner across from the rowdy sailors. Swallowing hard, I went over to ask what they wanted.
From five feet away I could smell the sake on their breath. I think they must have spilled some on their clothes as well. They reeked of it. Before I reached their table, Hojo yelled for me to get them a bottle of sake, because 'the stupid oaf at our favorite tavern won't give us anymore'. I turned and went to the kitchen to fetch a bottle.
When I came up to set it down on their table, I had to lean over between Jun and Hojo. As I did so, I met his eyes. They were the same warm brown color I remembered, but they were bleary with the drink, and his cheeks were flushed.
"Hello, Jun." I whispered. My voice seemed to fly away, and the years receded as I looked into his eyes. Under the alcoholic haze, I could see that he remembered too, and for an instant he was once again the boy I'd befriended those few short days one summer years ago.
He blinked and opened his mouth to speak, but just then Uda yelled that he wanted some pickled vegetables to go with the sake, and I smiled apologetically to Jun and hurried back to the kitchen.
Another customer entered the tavern and sat down by the redhaired stranger, who politely moved his katana out of the way for him. He was still nursing his miso soup, so I left him alone and took the new man's dinner order.
I soon lost track of how many bottles of sake Hojo, Uda, and Jun consumed. I only know that at some point Jun's chin hit the table, his legs spread out behind him, and he began to snore. Hojo and Uda meanwhile began to get just as loud as the drunken sailors at the next table. Soon they were egging each other on with war stories. It frightened me, the way they spoke of carnage with such pride. I wished more than anything that my aunt felt better. She knew how to handle customers like them. All I wanted to do was run and hide.
My uncle had left me in charge of the tavern serving while he went to talk to our rice vendor. When he returned and walked through the door and past me, I opened my mouth to ask if I could be excused from serving. One look at my uncle's set face, and I knew his talk with the rice vendor hadn't gone well.
I closed my mouth and got back to work.
That's when it happened. I was taking another bottle of sake to Hojo's table, and trying not to listen to the ribald jokes being passed between him and the sailors. Somehow their conversation had gone from war stories to stories about geishas they had known.
As I set the sake bottle down on the table, Hojo rose on his knees, put his arms around my legs and hoisted me onto the table. I stifled a shriek and put my hands out to catch my balance.
"This girl could dance like you've never seen, and she looked a bit like this tavern-rat." Hojo sneered.
I gasped. Could he possibly be comparing me to a prostitute? I'd never even been kissed before.
I looked frantically around the room. The sailors' faces were all turned toward me, looking me over the way a samurai did a horse he thought of buying. Cold shivers worked their way down my spine. I had to get away from there, but when I tried to step off the table, Hojo, then Uda put their hands out to bar my way.
"Where do you think you're going?" Uda's voice, thickened with drunkenness, was barely intelligible.
"Yeah, we want you to dance for us, so dance." Hojo had drunk just as much as Uda, but there was a sharp malevolence in his tone. He might have been drunk, but he knew exactly what he was doing.
Helpless, I could feel tears welling up in my eyes. Hojo poked me in the leg with his finger. "Dance." He ordered.
Uda, ever the follower, copied him, pointing his finger and thrusting it at my leg, ordering me to dance as well. Though it hurt, I refused to cry out. I knew that it was what Hojo wanted.
The sailors joined in to the chant Hojo and Uda started. "Dance. Dance. Dance. Dance."
I saw my uncle appear in the kitchen doorway. He saw me too. He looked right into my eyes, looked at the men chanting around me, then he shuddered, turned his back and returned to the kitchen. I couldn't believe it. My uncle abandoned me.
Then I felt a hand grasp my ankle. I looked down and saw that it was Jun's hand. He raised his chin from off the table and blinked up at me while his eyes focused as he regained consciousness.
At that moment Hojo reached up and grabbed the sleeve of my kimono, yanking it so hard that I staggered. My mind registered the fact that Jun's hand tightened on my ankle just as I realized that Hojo's yank had pulled my kimono off my shoulder.
Startled, I stared down at Jun and for an instant, before it faded, I saw in his eyes what I'd been seeing in Hojo, Uda, and the sailors' eyes, though I'd tried to pretend it wasn't there. Hojo continued to pull on my kimono sleeve.
That was when I gave up trying to be brave and screamed.
"You'll leave her alone if you know what's good for you."
The voice was low, and hard. It cracked through the tavern like a whip. The greedy, avid laughter from the sailors' table stopped abruptly.
From over Jun's shoulder I saw that the red haired man had risen to his feet. He held his katana in his left hand, gripping it midway along the sheath. His eyes were as hard as amethysts, and they were directed at Hojo.
"What do you care? Go about your business. This doesn't concern you." Hojo grated out sharply.
The stranger lifted his katana horizontally and drew the blade out slowly. "This makes it my business," he said.
Uda rose to his knees. "Think you can scare us? We've got swords too." Being the fool that he was, he reached down at his side for the weapon he'd stashed there. Even a peasant girl like me could see by the calm, deliberate way the stranger unsheathed his sword that he was a master of kenjutsu.
Uda's move was all the red haired stranger needed as an excuse. There was a flash of motion and a cracking noise as the stranger's blade connected with Uda's skull. I flinched, expecting blood to spray out as it did when the butcher killed a hog, but nothing like that happened. Uda simply folded and fell backwards onto the sailors' table. The sailors grabbed their sake cups and shoved him off onto the floor.
Hojo's curse sounded extra loud to me as he released my kimono sleeve and reached for his katana. This time I kept my eyes wide open and saw the red head's blade snap down horizontally on Hojo's shoulder. He yelped, dropped his sword and raised his left hand to his chest, to grasp the dagger's hilt that protruded from his kimono neckline.
The stranger must have seen it, for he whirled, pivoting so that his back was to Hojo's for a second before bringing his blade around horizontally in a wide swing so that it connected with Hojo's temple.
Like Uda, Hojo slumped to the floor.
The blade remained where it connected by Hojo's head for an instant. Its tip was pointed at me, and that's when I noticed what was strange about the redhead's sword. The cutting edge was on the wrong side. That's why there was no blood.
It all happened so fast, I didn't have time to be afraid. I barely had time to understand what had just happened. Jun was a soldier though. He'd been in the war, and so he reacted the way he'd been trained to when his comrades were being attacked. He dropped his hand from my ankle, and grabbed his katana as he attempted to rise from his sprawled position at the table's edge.
I reached out toward his head, wanting to stop him, to warn him, I suppose. It was foolish of me. What could I do? He'd already grabbed his sheathed katana and was scrambling to get his legs under him.
Down came the stranger's sword again, this time on the back of Jun's leg. It broke with an audible snap. I jumped, my hands recoiling to my chest in startled fists.
Jun howled in pain, dropped his sword and rolled on the ground, grabbing at his injured leg.
One of the sailors stood up. I caught the motion out of the corner of my eye and turned to look.
"You don't want to fight me," The stranger said in that cold, flat voice of his.
The sailor, a squat, squarish man with a jowled face, swallowed hard and sat back down again.
Looking back at the stranger, I saw him continue to glare in the direction of the sailors' table as he sheathed his sword. The rest of the tavern customers just looked openmouthed as the stranger turned his back and walked to the doorway leading out to the street. At the door he turned back and looked at me, just as Jun groaned.
Instinctively, I put my hand out toward Jun, to help, then I froze and glanced back at the stranger in the doorway.
Wanting to help Jun seemed…ungrateful, considering that the stranger had just broken Jun's leg while trying to help me.
Our eyes met, and as I stared a moment of perfect understanding passed between the stranger and I. His eyes softened, going from hard amethyst to the warm violet color he'd had when he first walked into our tavern. He gave a rueful little half-smile. That's when I knew that it was alright to want to help Jun, that the stranger didn't mind. In fact, he approved.
Then he turned and with a flash of that red foxtail-like ponytail of his, he was gone.
Once the danger was over, my uncle ran in, took one look at the two unconscious bodies and Jun's broken leg, and went running for the town doctor.
I got to hold Jun's shoulders while waiting for the doctor. I held him while the doctor set the bone as well. Jun wasn't making much sense by that time. The sake and the pain made him incoherent. He kept saying my name, and something about the fishing village being paradise.
As soon as the doctor had him splinted to his satisfaction and declared that Hojo and Uda would be fine once they woke up, Jun left. With the doctor's shoulder under his arm to support him, Jun lurched out of the tavern and away from me.
The next morning I went to Jun's house. I brought a plate of manju, those steamed riceflour and sugar cakes he'd said he loved all those years ago when he'd stayed in our hut. I told myself that it was just a get-well gift, that I was only doing it so that he'd forgive my uncle and come back to the tavern to spend money. However, I'd only made enough manju for Jun. I'd made no plates for Hojo or Uda.
I slipped out of my wooden geta sandals and walked onto the porch of the big two-storied house where Jun lived. Gathering my courage, I knocked on the door.
As I did, a tall woman came around the side of the house and walked toward me on the porch, eyes alight with curiosity. Just as she reached me, the door was opened by a wizened old manservant. I turned from the woman to the man in some confusion. Who should I speak to first?
The woman settled the matter for me. "Go back inside, Minami. I'll handle this." She ordered.
The man bowed and shut the door, leaving me staring at the woman, plate of manju in hand.
Her hair had streaks of grey, and she was wearing a steel grey kimono with a brilliant coral colored obi. She dropped her gaze to the plate, which I held out between us like a peace offering.
"I take it you're here to see my son."
So this was Jun's mother. I felt a blush sweeping my cheeks as I nodded. So she knew that I knew manju was Jun's favorite sweet.
"He's not here."
I felt my shoulders slump in disappointment. How would I ever find the courage to come here again? The manju excuse would only work once. I held the plate out closer to her. "Please give him this. And tell him that I hope he feels better soon and heals well." I mumbled.
She took the plate from my hands and stared at me for so long that I felt myself blushing again.
"You're Ito, aren't you?"
I blinked. "How did you…?"
The woman smiled. It was a lovely thing, her smile. It softened the rather angular planes of her face and made the corners of her almond shaped eyes crinkle up. "He hasn't stopped talking about finding you again since he came home last night. I haven't seen him this excited since before the war."
Her eyes clouded over, and her smile faded. "But this morning, he was back to usual. He does not sleep well since he returned, and he doesn't speak much anymore."
I was silent. What could I say? I'd only known Jun for a week when we were children. How could I comment on a change I knew nothing about?
The woman glanced down at the plate. "I think he went up the hill out back. It was his favorite place to go and think when he was little. You'll find him there."
And with that, she opened her door and went back inside her house.
I stared at the closed door. Out back? Did she really mean for me to wander her back garden? Did I have the courage to risk it?
I found myself walking along the porch without conscious thought. I forgot my sandals, and stepped barefoot off the porch where it ended at the back of the house. There were shrubs spotting the grass, and a few trees partially obscuring the hill she'd spoken of.
Passing between them, I climbed the hill, keeping my eyes on a tall pine at the top. There under the pine was Jun, his splinted leg stretched out before him, crutches on the ground at his side. He was facing away from me, and as I came closer I saw that he was staring out at the view. From the hill, you could see the ocean. Just around the bend of coast was my old home, the fishing village. Jun seemed to be staring at it, with an expression of such bleak sadness that I nearly fled before it.
A breeze trickled through the pine needles, masking my approach and lifting the hairs which had come loose from the bun at the back of my neck.
He started, and looked up at me. "Ito. You shouldn't have come here," he said and turned back towards the view.
I bit my lip. So that was it, then? He didn't want me. How stupid of me to think he ever would. I should just turn around and walk back down the hill and leave him alone. Yet, if I did that, there would always be a question in my mind. Better to ask it now, and know the truth.
"Why?" I asked simply. Why didn't he like me? Was it because I was a peasant girl and he the son of a merchant? Was it something I'd done or said? Did he blame me for what the stranger had done to his leg?
"How can you ask me that?" Jun said miserably. "You know why. You shouldn't risk being around me. After what I nearly did to you…"
I think my jaw dropped in shock. "What YOU nearly did to me? It was Hojo who pulled my kimono and ordered me to dance, not you." That flare of lust in Jin's eyes had lasted only an instant. Hojo, Uda, and the sailors never once stopped looking at me that way from the second Hojo lifted me onto that table and put me on display.
My words were no comfort to him. "You don't know me anymore, Ito. You wouldn't like what I've become. You don't know what I've done in the war."
I dropped to the ground beside him and pulled my knees into my chest, letting my chin rest on them, the way I'd sat by him on the sand as a child when we'd talked all those years before and shared our childish secrets, our hopes, dreams, and thoughts about everything. "Then tell me."
At first I thought he wouldn't, but when he did it was as though a floodgate had opened. I learned from his words what a horror war is, the way bodies look as they fall, the blood, the rage, the need to kill and keep killing until ordered to stop, and even then it continues in your dreams, nightmares really. I learned too how hard it was to come home where everything was the same, and everyone expected you to be the same even though you weren't and never would be again. Jun said that he couldn't explain such things to his widowed mother or the servants, they just wouldn't understand.
"Would you do it again, if you had to do it over?" I asked him softly when he was done. He'd cried when he told me about having to cremate the bodies of his friends, boys he'd known since childhood. I'd ended up sitting behind him, resting my back against the tree trunk, cradling his shoulders as I'd done in the tavern.
"Yes," he said slowly, his tears dry now, and his voice tired but steady. "It had to be done. The bakufu had to be defeated for Japan to move forward out of its old corrupt ways, but I wouldn't be such a fool about it. I'd know what our new system cost us. I wouldn't take it so lightly."
"Tell me about this new system." It was only two or three years after the battle of Toba Fushimi. Working in my uncle's tavern, I hadn't really experienced any changes yet. People still came in wanting a bed to sleep in, a warm meal, and something to drink. What did I know of changes?
And so Jun told me what he and the others in the Ishin Shishi army had been fighting for, a newer, fairer, Japan where ancient privilege and class prejudice were set aside. A Japan where men were equal no matter who their parents were, and law ruled where injustice once reigned.
He must have truly believed that birth didn't matter, because he married me that same year.
I often wonder as I sit on our back porch and watch my husband play in the back garden with our children, whatever became of the red haired stranger who walked into the tavern and changed our lives forever.
Jun would never have dared speak to me again if I hadn't come to his house with the plate of Manju. He'd thought he didn't deserve a girl like me because of what the war had done to him. He knew I worked at the tavern. He'd only gone there that evening because he'd been too drunk to know the difference when Hojo and Uda dragged him along with them.
I wouldn't have ever visited his house if the stranger hadn't broken his leg. I didn't think a peasant girl deserved a rich man's son.
Yet somehow, whether we deserved it or not, we found happiness together, and all because of a red haired stranger with a cross-shaped scar, violet eyes, and a backwards sword.
Jun and I decided long ago that if the stranger ever returns to town, there will always be a place for him in our home. Until then, we can only hope that he too finds happiness, and a place to call home.
A/N: Well, that's got to be a record for Kenshin. He saves the girl, rehabilitates a soldier, and plays matchmaker all in four lines of dialogue. He's not exactly the eloquent rurouni of the anime series yet! Oh well, I'm pretending this story happens before Conspirator's excellent story, "An Unexpected Lesson" where Kenshin learned how to 'Oro' and act like the swirly-eyed samurai we all know and love.