Disclaimer: I do not own Rurouni Kenshin plot or characters.
After the battle of Toba Fushimi Kenshin exchanged his sharp edged Katana for a sakabatou, a reverse blade sword, and began to wander. He headed North, away from both Tokyo and Kyoto and the memories of war. In the chaos of the Bakumatsu period bandits began to roam the roads with impunity. Merchants were more likely to hire bodyguards to protect their goods on the roads, and the first few jobs Kenshin found were guarding caravans of sake jugs, miso paste, and silk.
He liked the work. Walking alongside the caravans, scouting out the road ahead, and keeping an eye out for anyone following behind didn't leave him a whole lot of time for socializing. He kept himself and his thoughts to himself, accepting payment at the end of the journey and disappearing into the nameless crowds of whatever market town the merchant had chosen as his destination.
His last job paid well. It ended at a big town having a weeklong festival. Not in the mood for celebrating, Kenshin set off, headed for the next big town that might have need of a guard. He walked all day long, his feet making puffs of dust that rose in the still air above the dirt road that wound its way up and down hills. It was late afternoon when the road emerged from tall pines covered with moss and opened up into fields. Beyond the fields lay a small post town, nestled between two foothills.
Before the war, the shogunate carefully controlled and monitored travel, forcing travelers to stop at checkpoints to explain themselves. Now that the war was winding to a close, most of the government officials in charge of the checkpoints had abandoned their posts. This town was one of the smaller substations. As Kenshin drew near, he saw that the checkpoint was indeed abandoned, though the town itself was still going.
He got a few curious looks from the townsfolk as he made his way down the broad center street towards a large sprawling enclave of buildings at the far end. It wasn't that far to go, for the town was smallish, the sort of place people only stopped at if the light was waning and it was too far to make it to the next big town. There would probably only be one inn, and his best bet was the two story building with outbuildings placed strategically around the compound enclosed by a wooden wall.
Kenshin's instincts paid off. The sign outside the gate read, 'Inn' and the gate was open. With a last look down the street lined with one-story buildings on either side, Kenshin entered.
Two children, a boy and a girl not quite into their teens, were sitting on the engawa, the broad wooden porch jutting out from the tallest building set in the center of the fenced enclosure. Both immediately jumped off the porch and ran to him.
The boy got to him first, the girl following a little more shyly. They were dressed in good but worn dark green kimono. The girl's had little butterflies embroidered on the shoulder and hem.
"Welcome to our inn. Were you in the war?" the boy asked, his eyes on the sakabatou hilt sticking out at Kenshin's waist.
"Yes," he answered quietly, a bit nonplussed at the boy's excited demeanor. The kid's eyes were shining and his high ponytail bobbed as he practically jumped up and down with glee.
"I knew it! See, Miho, I told you he was a warrior." The boy sent a triumphant look at the girl who smiled an apologetic smile. "Miho never believes me, but I can tell. Our father is a samurai. He hasn't come back yet, but he will," the boy said confidently.
The girl, Miho, nodded her agreement, and fixed big brown eyes on Kenshin as she said, "Our father is a soldier, just like you. His name's Tanaka. Hiroshi Tanaka. Do you know him?"
From out of the corner of his eye, Kenshin saw a man come around the side of the building, a bundle of linens in his arms and stop to lean against a tree, waiting in the shadows.
"I don't…" began Kenshin hesitantly, mentally going through the list of names of men he'd served with, at least the ones he'd learned. He'd served with Katsura's Choshu faction against the shogunate, but the rebel army had been mixed. Men from Choshu, Satsuma, Tosa, and rebels from all different provinces of Japan had joined together to fight the shogun's forces.
"Father was with the Shinsengumi!" the boy exclaimed.
Kenshin started; he couldn't help it. The Shinsengumi were his enemies, the ruthless police force who patrolled the streets of Kyoto and struck down any suspected rebels. He'd fought against them on several occasions, sometimes killing his opponents, and other times fighting the better of them to a draw.
The boy caught the widening of his eyes, and his quick jerk of recognition. "You've heard of them! Did you fight with them at Toba Fushimi?"
"Yes…" Kenshin found himself answering in the affirmative. He had fought on the same battlefield with the shinsengumi, only it was on a different side. He gave a mental sigh and resigned himself to heading back to the road to try to find another inn further on. Judging by the shadows beginning to lengthen along the grounds of the inn, he'd be lucky to find anything before night fell.
"I knew it!" The boy grasped Miho's arm. "Do you hear that, sister? He was at Toba Fushimi with father!"
"Yes, Mikio, I heard," answered the girl, putting her hand over her brother's and smiling at him.
"Father has a mole by his nose and a crooked little finger on his left hand. Do you remember him now?"
Staring into the boy's eyes, Kenshin had a flash of memory. Toba Fushimi had been chaotic. Gunshots firing all around, the smoke of cannon, and the rush of going into battle armed only with a sword, frantically trying to differentiate enemies from friends in the knots of fighters, those were his memories of Toba Fushimi.
At one point he thought he'd seen Hijikata Toshizo, the shinsengumi's second in command, battling against a bunch of Satsuma men. There'd been several other shinsengumi fighting by his side, both with swords and guns. One of them had a mole by his nose. Then Kenshin had lost sight of them as he'd gone to help some of his Choshu comrades being rushed by shogunate forces. Kenshin closed his eyes for a moment, trying to fix the memory.
"So did you? Did you see him?"
Opening his eyes, he saw the boy, Mikio, staring at him with such a hopeful expression that Kenshin felt he had to answer.
"I think I may have, for a moment. I wasn't in the shinsengumi, I was…"
"Do you know where my brother is now?" The question, low and intense, rang out from the man with the linens, as he entered the conversation for the first time.
Both Mikio and Miho's heads swiveled to look at the man who'd emerged from the shadows at the edge of the building.
He was tall, with long arms that wrapped around the bundle of linens tightly, showing the tension in his body. A few strands of hair had escaped from his ponytail in back and hung down over his temples. His face was unlined, but mature looking, and Kenshin figured he had to be in his late twenties. He stood with his weight on foot and hip, resting his burden on that side of his body as he stared at Kenshin.
"No," said Kenshin, turning slightly from the children to address his answer to Hiroshi Tanaka's brother. "I'm sorry, I only saw him for a minute."
"Ah." The man held his gaze searchingly for a moment, giving Kenshin the uncomfortable impression that the elder Tanaka didn't quite believe him, that he somehow sensed Kenshin wasn't telling the whole story. Then the man's shoulders slumped and the loose strands on his temples fell forward, so he jerked his head to get the hair out of his eyes. "I'm Fukashi Tanaka. You are welcome to our inn," he said formally and bowed over his armful of laundry.
Bowing back, Kenshin straightened to find that Mikio had stepped around his sister to stand in front of him, hands on his hips.
"Father was fighting bravely, wasn't he? When you saw him?"
Hearing the strain in the boy's voice and his manful attempt to both fight back tears and to convince himself that his father was alright, Kenshin nodded. He then turned his attention back to Fukashi as the men came forward, addressing his words to his nephew.
"Hiroshi was the best warrior for miles around before he left to join the Shinsengumi. With the skills he learned serving with them, he's sure to have survived the battle," he said reassuringly.
Mikio grinned his agreement.
"Now, why don't you and your sister go help Aya in the kitchen and stop bothering our guest?"
The children looked disappointed, but nodded and ran inside.
Fukashi turned back to Kenshin. "Please, sir, follow me and I'll show you to a room."
Opening his mouth to protest, Kenshin closed it when he realized Fukashi had already turned his back and was on his way to the porch steps. There was nothing left to do but follow. As he waited on the porch for the innkeeper to slip off his shoes and slide open the shoji screen door, he noticed that the man's right hand and wrist were horribly scarred. Three of his fingers were missing as well, leaving only his thumb and forefinger.
Kenshin had seen much worse, so he didn't comment, noting that the man quickly hid his wounded hand under the linens when he stepped back from the door to let Kenshin through.
The marred hand explained why a man of Fukashi's age from the samurai class had not joined the shinsengumi with his brother. Swordsmen were taught to grip the handle of their swords primarily with their pinkie and ring fingers, placing the strength of the grip in the bottom instead of the top of their clenched fists. With only his forefinger and thumb left, Fukashi would find it difficult to grasp a sword properly. The scars were similar to those Kenshin had seen on corpses that had been burned by explosion or fire. They looked to be old burns too, Kenshin reflected as he slid his weary feet out of his sandals and crossed the threshold of the inn.
"Mamma, Mamma! There's a guy here who knows Father! He fought with him at Toba Fushimi."
Mikio's strident voice rang out from somewhere in the back of the house. Fukashi paused in the inn's main room as a woman appeared, sliding back a shoji screen at the end of the room and peering around it white-faced and trembling.
She was lovely. Her eyes were small and soft looking, set in a pleasantly rounded face with a delicate nose and fine, dark hair pulled back in a simple round bun at the top of her head. A few shorter strands lay in tendrils across her forehead, and she clutched the edge of the shoji screen as if it were a lifeline.
"My husband? You've seen him? Is he…coming home?" she whispered.
Kenshin could feel the tension rising from her and realized that all soldier's wives must live with the constant anxiety of not knowing from one moment until the next if word would come that their spouse was alive or dead.
"I don't know, I lost track of him after Toba Fushimi, but he was alive when I last saw him. I don't know what happened to him after that." Kenshin told her.
It was as if she were a punctured balloon. Her shoulders slumped and she cast her eyes downward as the tension drained out of her.
"Forgive me, great samurai," she murmured. "I must go tend to the dinner."
She bobbed her head in a small bow, and turned to go as an old, white-haired woman appeared to take her arm and lead her away. Kenshin had the oddest feeling that the elderly lady gave a glare at him as she turned to fuss over the younger one. It made him feel guilty.
He hadn't actually lied though. He'd lost track of everyone, both friend and foe, after the battle. Letting her think that he was a samurai, born into that class was another lie of omission, but she'd looked so dejected as she left that Kenshin didn't have the heart to correct her false assumption about him.
Looking over at Fukashi, he saw the man staring at the shoji screen where the woman had gone, with such intense compassion that Kenshin felt embarrassed so he looked away. The room he stood in was square shaped, with matting on the floor and an alcove to the left housing a wallscroll with a mountain scene painted on it. In front of it was a short table with a vase of vibrant red flowers. They were the same color as the red in the red and white imperial banners that had flown over the Choshu/Satsuma line at Toba Fushimi. They were the color of blood.
When Kenshin looked around again he saw Fukashi's retreating back and moved to follow him down the hall to his room.
That evening when Kenshin opened the shoji screen at the end of the hall and came into the main room he was surprised to find it full of people. Short lacquered tables were set around the room, and he saw Miho, her mother, and the old woman, Aya, quickly dishing rice into bowls.
As Kenshin entered, all eyes went to him and the room silenced. He ducked his head down as he turned to slide the shoji screen shut, uncomfortably reminded of the way his comrades at the inn in Kyoto would react in the same way when he entered the room. Back then, they were wary of him because they knew his reputation as hitokiri battousai, Katsura's main assassin. Did these people somehow guess his identity?
"That's the samurai who fought with Father!" Mikio's voice rang out in an overly loud whisper.
Kenshin saw the boy across the room leaning into the ear of an elderly man who nodded sagely and glanced over at him. Most of the men in the room were older, as were most of the women sitting demurely by their sides.
Mikio's words seemed to break the spell and the crowd got back to talking and eating. Catching sight of Fukashi, Kenshin went over and sat by him. He'd much rather have retreated to his room to eat alone, but he could see by the way Fukashi's sister in law wiped her forehead wearily and Miho rushed around anxiously that such a request would place an undue burden on his hosts.
"You never mentioned your name."
Kenshin froze for a second while removing his sakabatou from where it was tucked in at his side, then continued to pull it out and set it next to his leg as he sat. His real name was not well known to any but Katsura's inner circle. It was his title, hitokiri battousai, that struck terror.
"It's Himura, Kenshin Himura," he told Fukashi.
Noticing the sake bottle on Fukashi's lacquer tray and the slightly glazed look in the man's eyes, Kenshin realized that his host was well on the way to getting drunk. As he watched, Fukashi used his left hand to pour some more sake into a small saucer, then set the bottle down to pick it up and sip at it, keeping his wounded right hand down at his side.
"You're out of luck," the man said, glaring vaguely around the room. "Otsune ran out of fish so all we've got left is miso soup."
"That will be fine," Kenshin told him.
Fukashi continued to glare and the silence between them lengthened, so Kenshin asked, "Is it always so busy at dinner?"
Snorting, the man knocked back his sake and set the saucer down. "Nope. This is all because of you."
Opening his mouth to ask why, Kenshin was distracted when suddenly Miho appeared holding a tray. Kneeling down, she placed it in front of Kenshin. The intoxicating scent of soup and rice wafted up. With a nod of thanks to the little girl, Kenshin began to eat. He hadn't realized how hungry he was until he started putting the food into his mouth.
To give them credit, the crowd of people waited until he was finished before pouncing. The first to come over was the old man Mikio had whispered too. He made his way over to where Kenshin and Fukashi sat, and plunked himself down next to them.
"So you fought with Hiroshi, did you?" The man's eyes looked expectantly out of a face lined with age, as wrinkled as day old linens.
Deliberating over his answer, Kenshin took the route of least resistance and answered in a monosyllable. "Yes."
"What's your name, sonny?"
The man looked him over doubtfully. "You sure you're old enough to have fought in the war?"
Kenshin bit back a sigh, willing his face to remain neutral. He didn't know which was worse, being mistaken for a child not old enough to kill, or being recognized as the legendary assassin of the Ishin Shishi who did.
"Ha ha ha, Hibiki is only joking, great samurai!" Another old man, this one tubby and cheerful looking, sat down by the first and grabbed his friend's shoulder bracingly. "If you're good enough to have fought by Hiroshi Tanaka, then that's good enough for us."
Murmurs of agreement swelled from the people nearby as they swiveled to face Kenshin. Uncomfortable at being the center of such attention, he looked over at Fukashi, hoping that the man would explain that Kenshin had merely been on the same battlefield as his brother, but Fukashi was single-mindedly downing sake and seemed oblivious to Kenshin's plight.
"I am not one of the shinsengumi," Kenshin told the men. "I just fought near them at Toba Fushimi."
"He saw Father there, fighting bravely!" Mikio piped up, squirming in between Fukashi and the men who'd come to sit closer. Even some of the women followed their husbands to sit at their heels, craning their necks to see over the men's shoulders. All except one, a woman of remarkable beauty who sat next to a large, burly man. Kenshin had the feeling that she would have moved closer, but he saw that her husband had his hand on her obi, the broad sash at her waist, and was holding her in her seated position by his side. Her naturally full, red mouth was pressed together and she pointedly ignored the man as she too craned forward to hear.
Kenshin sighed. It looked like he'd have to talk more before they'd let him out. Evidently Hiroshi Tanaka was some kind of small town hero.
"I saw Hiroshi fighting near the ridge where the shinsengumi were stationed. He was at the side of Hijikata Toshizo. It was after the shinsengumi's charge was repulsed and they were fighting hand to hand. I was pulled away to a different part of the battlefield and I didn't see him after that."
The people sighed and began talking excitedly among themselves. Happy that the attention was now off of him and concentrated on discussing what he'd said, Kenshin sank back and glanced over again at the unhappy couple sitting against the far wall. The woman saw him looking and went to rise, but her husband jerked her back to the floor and her expression grew angry. Discomforted at having seen it, Kenshin looked away.
Fukashi wasn't the only one who'd been drinking sake, and Kenshin found that tongues loosened by liquor tend to wag on and on. He sat by his host's side listening to stories of Hiroshi's goodness, his intelligence, and his valor with a sword. Kenshin listened, nodded when appropriate, and let the excited townsfolk talk. Eventually, the yawns became too marked to ignore, and people began to drift away to go home.
Kenshin hadn't seen Miho, Aya, or Fukashi's sister in law, whose name was Otsune, in a while, but from the lack of dishes on the trays he assumed they were back in the kitchen washing up. He sighed. If his last job hadn't paid so well, he'd be the one back there washing the dishes in exchange for a roof over his head and a bite to eat, and thankful for it.
"But I don't want to go home yet!" Hibiki, the old man who'd first sat by Kenshin, sounded like a petulant child.
His friend, the rotund one, merely laughed and said, "Come on, you know you need your beauty rest!"
Grumbling, Hibiki got to his knees and shot Kenshin a look. "Fine, I'll go, but we'll continue our conversation tomorrow."
Conversation? Hibiki had prattled on, sharing his favorite Hiroshi stories all evening. Kenshin hadn't contributed a thing to the 'conversation'.
"I'm sorry, but I'm leaving tomorrow morning," he told the old man politely.
There was a collective sigh of protest. Men paused while gathering themselves to go and turned back to object.
"No, no, you can't go now!"
"So soon? Why not stay a while?"
"But you just got here!"
The last protest was from Mikio, who pushed his way in front of Kenshin and sat confronting him.
"I must go where there is work," Kenshin told him gravely. "I'm a wanderer. I act as bodyguard for merchant caravans."
Mikio made a rude noise.
"Well, if you're looking for that sort of work you're out of luck for a while!" crowed Hibiki, with an arch grin.
"He's right," the tubby man affirmed. "I'm afraid that all the caravans have come and gone by now, and you won't see many more of them until the festival in Sendai is over. It's the largest marketplace around and with the festival going on all week…Every merchant worth anything is already there and will stay until it's over."
There was a collective grumbling about the lucky Sendai townsfolk and their festival, and then the renewed protests started.
Hibiki looked pointedly at Fukashi, who rolled his eyes blearily as he realized that the townsfolk were looking to him.
"Yes, samurai, please stay at least for the weekend. As a comrade of my brother's how can you deny us our hospitality?" Kenshin wasn't sure, but he thought he heard a hint of reluctance in the man's voice. He sympathized. The man probably thought that by inviting him to stay longer, he'd have to put up with him for free. Luckily, the coins Kenshin earned on his last job would stretch to enable him to spend a few more days at the inn.
Added voices urged Kenshin until he reluctantly found himself agreeing to stay the weekend. He wanted to tell them that he wasn't a samurai, that he wasn't really an ally of Hiroshi Tanaka, but somehow he just couldn't bear to disappoint the people in front of him who were leaving with smiling faces and happy memories relived.
Reassured, they left and soon Kenshin found himself lying on a comfortable futon and staring up at the ceiling of his room, wondering what he'd do if Hiroshi showed up tomorrow. Over a hundred shinsengumi had survived the battle of Toba Fushimi. He didn't know where they'd gone, he just heard they'd retreated. Was Hiroshi a casualty, one of the many deserters, or was he still out there somewhere with the remnants? How many other families like the Tanakas were waiting for word of their loved ones, going on with their lives without any way of knowing if they should be mourning or rejoicing?
How many families' lives had Kenshin ruined by cutting down their husbands, fathers, or brothers? He sighed. At least he knew beyond shadow of doubt that this was one time he would not be responsible for others' sadness. Hiroshi had been healthy, with a strong fighting spirit when he'd seen him that brief instant on the battlefield. If he was dead, that was one death that was not Kenshin's fault. He closed his eyes and went to sleep.
To Be Continued…