Disclaimer: Rurouni Kenshin is owned by Nobuhiro Watsuki, Shonen Jump, Sony Entertainment, and Viz, LLC, etc. The following is a work of fiction intended only for entertainment and reflects the author's admiration for the remarkable world of our favorite wanderer. Oh, yes, any resemblance to actual historical characters is incidental.
Summary: This series consists of chapters of paired stories linked by a common theme and the colors red and white. Although not necessarily presented in chronological order, the chapters will often be related and are all from the same universe (interpretive but firmly manga canon).
"You've done well, so–"
Katsura paused at the sound of voices approaching the closed door, both he and his youthful companion turning when the shoji was pushed aside. The thin dark-eyed man who slipped in flashed his teeth in a wide grin at the irritated grumble that followed him.
"No need for formalities, Katakai!" he shouted over his shoulder. "We're all friends here, eh?" He turned back to the room and waggled his brows at the two men seated within.
Katsura's face relaxed in an answering smile. "Shinsaku! I didn't expect to see you here, so far from your beloved Kihetai."
"Kyosuke, that most excellent second-in-command, is more than happy to bully them in my stead when I get the urge to prowl." Takasugi Shinsaku sprawled on the floor beside the two men and laid down his shamisen, then nodded at the heretofore-silent third member of the group. "And how do you fare, Kenshin?"
A soft knock at the shoji alerted them to the arrival of a young girl bearing fresh tea and small cakes. The men sat in silence as she replenished cups and distributed the snacks before leaving them once more to their privacy.
The red-haired youth addressed earlier politely waited until Takasugi had taken some refreshment before he answered. "I am well, Takasugi-san."
The older man grinned and tossed a cake that Kenshin deftly caught. A faint answering smile lightened Kenshin's face before he composed himself and turned inquiring eyes to Katsura, who nodded his dismissal.
"You may go, Himura. Get some rest."
Kenshin bowed. "Katsura-san. Takasugi-san," he said quietly. The two older men watched his silent departure from the room.
"Himura, eh?" Takasugi remarked when the shoji had slid closed behind the youth. "Interesting. Your idea?"
"The idea, yes, but I'izuka was the one who suggested the name. It appeared to suit and Himura had no objections." Katsura smiled. "It seemed the right thing to do for so important a patriot."
"I'izuka has a clever mouth on him," Takasugi remarked, stretching lazily as he chewed on a cake. "So how has your pet hitokiri fit in?"
Katsura contemplated the faint shimmer of steam rising from his teacup. "As well as can be expected. Other than I'izuka the men are quite in awe of him despite his youth, which is not entirely a bad thing."
"Hmm– lonely work. He seems to still be that nice, bright-eyed kid though. Surprising. Quieter, perhaps?"
"He's tired. He's been very busy, more so than I had originally planned."
"So I've heard."
Katsura raised an eyebrow at his companion. "Is Himura why you are here?"
"Heh." Takasugi smirked. "Don't blame me for my curiosity. No sooner do I wander in than your observers almost wet themselves in their eagerness to fling themselves on me and tell me tales. If I hadn't seen that boy in action before I wouldn't have believed their stories." Takasugi picked up his shamisen and smoothed the cat skin cover. "That's quite the little dragon you have by the tail, Kogoro."
"Don't worry, Shinsaku," Katsura answered. "He believes in us, and more importantly, he has a pure heart."
"Pure heart or not, the boy can kill." Takasugi shrugged. "An instinct for it, your observers claim. One fellow kept droning about Himura's 'incredible' first mission and insisted I listen. My fist itched to shut his dreary mouth but as it turned out I'm glad I heard him out. After all, I've never been on the receiving end of a hitokiri's invitation to one final dance, nor even had the pleasure of witnessing one firsthand."
"Shinsaku–" Katsura began, a small frown drawing his brows together.
"Hear me out!" Takasugi laughed. "No doubt you've heard it in tedious detail already but such knowledge screams for release. A lot for you to listen to, eh, especially since you've decided to increase your prodigy's output. You poor bastard, Kogoro."
Katsura's mouth twisted. "Once you called me 'a shrine'. Well, a shrine hears prayers, secrets, and confessions, doesn't it? You may consider it my punishment if you wish."
Takasugi shook his head and grinned again. "I may favor the battlefield and I may leave the dirtiness of city fighting to you but I do still recall the teachings of our school. You might be surprised at my thoughts."
He began to play and the two long-time comrades sat listening to the light notes of the shamisen filling the room, while beyond the shoji faint murmurs and the sounds of a busy inn echoed. Finally Katsura gazed at his companion, who rested at his ease against the wall as he played, and murmured, "Shinsaku, I am listening."
Takasugi lazily opened one eye and looked at his leader, the shamisen falling idle in his hands. "That dull fellow was flattered that I hung on to his words so attentively. Bah! Surely the absurdity of Himura's first effort didn't escape you as it did your starry-eyed observer? Shall I interpret for you what unfolded before his eyes and ears but what he did not see or hear? Ah, it was better than a play!
"Look! Our brave young hitokiri steps out of the shadows. Hear him proclaim his victim's fate in his bold boy's voice– which promptly cracks!"
Takasugi flung back his head in laughter as he continued, "Such a perfect time to declare yourself a man. And to act! A couple clumsy attendants are duly dispatched after a few useless moments bellowing and stomping and flailing helplessly at the ruthless killing wind. Now 'tis time for the unfortunate fellow himself: a skinny old root as dried up as the tax rolls in which he had wallowed daily for years. His family would no doubt be honored to remember him for the weightiness of his final words: 'Unruly rascal! Just how old are you, boy?'"
Katsura frowned into his tea as Takasugi continued to chortle. "Don't make light of the mission; it did not play out so foolishly as that."
Takasugi's laughter stopped. "No," he agreed, and grinned when Katsura shot him a surprised glance. "Didn't I say you would be surprised at my thoughts?"
Katsura shook his head and sighed, "Enough with your wordplay, Shinsaku. Speak plainly!"
"Bah, you old sobersides. Plain speech can't be used to describe the birth of a legend. Don't look at me like that. Did you truly think I would not understand what you hoped for when you unleashed the fury of the Ishin Shishi?
"That 'observer' of yours was dazzled enough to surprise even you, eh? And why not? Ultimately none of the real ridiculousness mattered. I could hear the belief in his voice even after the first wonder had worn off. When poetry falls from the lips of even a dullard such as he– he spoke of how the gods howled as Justice soared into the heavens and then fell, with a great cry, like a summer storm upon the necks of the condemned, swift and ruthless. First the thunder and the lightning, afterwards the rain– a heavy shower of fat red drops, rich with the scent of death, splashing hotly against the skin; and when it was all over only the slow drip upon the stones to mark a man's end.
"He spoke of the silence after the storm– the terrible peace where only Himura stood."
"A terrible peace," Katsura murmured. "You describe it well, Shinsaku."
Takasugi nodded at Katsura. "Already I have felt a change in the wind that blows out of Kyoto– the wind that bears forth whispers, even to where only a simple goat boy may linger to hear, and wonder, and fear. Your madness may actually work." He shrugged and added, "But mind you, what I objected to when you started this still holds: your boy is likely to be washed away in the deluge."
"Shinsaku…" Katsura sighed.
"I know, I know." Takasugi swallowed his cooling tea and grimaced. "Tea's no substitute for sake– poor food for composition." He frowned and cocked his head in thought, his fingers plucking tentative notes upon his shamisen. After a long moment his hand stilled and in the sudden silence he spoke. "Katsura Kogoro of the Choshu Ishin Shishi, listen!
"City of Flowers, with rain-darkened stones night washed, I watch bloom anew and drown in tear-swollen streets ever filled by Heaven's sword."
Takasugi's words died away beneath the slow, steady melody his skillful fingers began to pluck on the shamisen strings. Katsura inhaled and closed his eyes, letting the song of the deadly rain drum steadily through him.
For all the wiliness of his tongue Shinsaku sees clearly.
Kyoto's rainy season has begun.
He tucked the shawl around his neck and squinted in the pale sunshine, smiling at the sparrows spiraling in the blue sky above him. Despite the weakness of its rays the sun was warm and he was grateful. His clothes, which had seen as hard times as he had, had had provided scant warmth during the cold months before.
But now it was spring at last, a time of renewal. The road lay empty before him, beckoning him into the hopes and uncertainties of the new era, while Toba Fushimi and the ruins of an age lay several weeks and many more steps behind. Shifting the weight of his modest bundle upon his shoulder he considered the dirt beneath his worn sandals.
Many steps and three lifetimes.
Shinta. Kenshin. Battousai.
The names might change but the pattern did not. Each time remade by the whims of others, his life had touched others in an awkward weaving of unexpected compassion, mutual need, and expedience, of rare odd moments of peace overshadowed by bloody ferocity. Always, another touch of innocence lost.
How many more times would the cycle continue?
This time, bearing the gift of a blade forged backwards that did not yet love his touch and a scarred face that forever marked him for his acts, he had striven to lay his own hand on the steering of his life. However askance his former comrades might view him, the simple rurouni at least was one of his shaping– his reflection of the man Himura.
Had he been a practical man he would have done as other men of the Bakumatsu had, donning and discarding identities at will, before settling at last on a virgin name with which to walk forth into the new era. But it had been willfulness on his part, that same passionate willfulness that had had so infuriated his master and driven him into the madness, which had compelled him to keep the first family name he had received. However received, a family name for all men rich and poor, samurai and peasant– that had been the first promise of the Meiji given and fulfilled, and he clung to the hope of further promises kept, to ease his heart over how terribly well he had executed his own part of their covenant.
Himura– who had loved and been loved.
He bowed his bright head and began to walk, the packed dirt crunching with each step. Experience gleaned from many long marches kept his pace relaxed but steady, while his thoughts whirled in a mind ever searching.
He welcomed the emptiness of the road, the end of which he could not see even as he was blind to the years that stretched long before him. At last he could begin to seek atonement for his sins as hitokiri though where the answer lay was yet unknown to him. He was uncertain even of what he asked and wryly he acknowledged that perhaps he sought it just as he had once sought happiness, without truly comprehending the nature of his desire. Nonetheless, he needed to find that atonement, whatever it might truly be.
In this new era he would set his feet free to wander, guided only by a heartfelt promise, the stars, and the obscure path that the gods delighted in laying out before poor muddled men. Three lifetimes past and if he had to atone for three lifetimes more then so it had to be. He was but eighteen. Time held little meaning for him.
He crested the gentle rise and glanced ahead where the road wound its way through a grove of graceful trees. Branches hung still and heavy with white blossoms just bursting into full bloom. Against the blue sky they lay like clouds or snowdrifts trapped to the earth, pure and innocent and marred only by the little black shadows of the sparrows darting amongst the white.
He sniffed the cool freshness of the morning with pleasure, savoring the scents that drove away the dark memories of the battlefield's stench and sound. The sweetness of the air, the crunching of clean, honest soil– such small happinesses–
He drew in another breath, then his nostrils flared at the first delicate flicker in the air. His eyes dulled as he gazed closely at the trees beneath which he now stood.
His eyes drifted shut, the scent teasing awake memories fainter than the early morning mist upon the lake near his master's home: her gentle voice, her cool hands, her grave dark eyes–
–her faint smile blotted by congealed blood–
He flinched, hunched small beneath the looming trees, breathing only lightly of the scented air.
In the battles of the past year he had blanked his mind to all but the fierce determination to see the end of it and begin his atonement. In these days of peace, however, he could no longer flee the simple, stark truth.
She was the one who should have been here, savoring the beauty of the day and the promise of the new era.
He had departed Otsu weighed with grief but hopeful, her memory a warm ember in his heart. He had continued to hope into the grim years toiling as the Ishin Shishi's guardian swordsman and soldier but hope had grown more brittle each time he had tried to warm himself with her memory, to recall her gentle smile.
He had never seen it since. All that he had ever been able to see was that slight, terrible curve of her lips, which had not melted however desperately he had sought to warm her cold mouth.
Every time his recall failed his guilt surged, and stilled the hope in his heart, until at last he could not hear the latter over the former.
She was the one who should have been here.
Never forgiveness for such a terrible deed, his guilt had whispered, hurrying his steps past her simple grave that cold day he had left her diary with the temple monks and had turned his back on Kyoto. Never can you offer apologies enough to her spirit.
He had fled then and never returned.
All his other crimes as hitokiri paled before this. Burdened as he was by the unforgivable, how would he ever be able to atone as he had sworn he would to her?
Choose, his guilt now hissed as he stood beneath the tall trees.
The simple beauties of the day forgotten, Himura Kenshin bowed to his guilt.
"Stubborn and selfish I am indeed," he whispered, "even as you have always told me, Master."
Better to betray her memory rather than betray his promise to her. Better never to see her smile again than to have only that last sight of her to hold. Better that some memories, however dear, be left behind, buried deep by distance and neglect, until his burden had lightened enough that he could freely bow before her grave and ask for the impossible.
The world would know him as the nameless wanderer, the rurouni with the backwards blade who belonged to no one, not even to himself– a man out of time.
He was eighteen. Time had no meaning to him.
But stubborn, selfish fellow that he was, he would hold fast to one secret memory for himself: Himura, who had loved and been loved.
He lowered his head, shielding his eyes, and strode forth once more along the road beneath the trees, heedless to the quiet stirring of the branches and the gentle, grieving rustling as he passed; heedless to the pale petals that shook free and drifted thickly about his shoulders and tucked into his collar, patted about his hair and nestled softly against his wounded cheek; heedless to the wind that kissed the sweet scent of white plum against his skin, cloaking him in its fragrant embrace long after the trees had faded in sight and memory behind him.
Author's notes: Takasugi Shinsaku was a warrior, poet, and musician. Sadly I am none of the above. Nonetheless the poem is written in the form of a tanka, a 31 syllable free verse that follows the pattern 5/7/5/7/7. The tanka was the predominant form of Japanese poetry from the Heian period into the Meiji until supplanted by the haiku, which was derived from the tanka.
"Kyosuke" is Yamagata Kyosuke, who later changed his name (didn't they all?) to Yamagata Aritomo and went on to a rather illustrious career in Japanese politics.