A/N: Why did I write this? Because there just aren't that many wandering years stories compared to all the AUs and Meiji era ones, and I wanted to fill in some of the blanks in Kenshin's life story. What events and experiences shaped him into the quiet, gentle man who wandered into Kaoru's life in the opening scene of the anime? Hopefully this story will show one step along the way.
Disclaimer: I do not own Rurouni Kenshin characters or plot.
Kenshin's war was over. His memories of the Battle of Toba Fushimi were beginning to fade from his nightmares when he crossed over into Satsuma province.
He'd been wandering over a year, aimlessly journeying from town to town, and found himself near the bottom of Japan. He'd passed through volcanic mountains with sulfurous hot springs that made his nose wrinkle with the smell of sulfur and the pop of gas bubbling up through the mud.
The green farmlands of Satsuma were a welcome relief. They stretched out before him as he descended from the hills, following the dirt track that meandered through the mountains in back of him. The track joined up with a dirt road. To the right the road disappeared into a dark forest. To the left were farm fields and a small town just up the rise of a hill.
Craving human contact and the possibility of a job and a meal, Kenshin made the obvious choice and turned left. He was nearly to the town when he heard it, that faint, almost animal whine of a man in pain. He'd heard enough cries of pain on the battlefield to recognize that whoever was making the noise was past the first initial wrenching shock of the wound and was now enduring it.
The sound was coming from the left, behind a bank of dirt where part of the hillside had fallen into the dry streambed that snaked alongside the road. Leaping up the bank, Kenshin steadied himself on the crumbling edge by grabbing onto a tree trunk and saw before him a field of sweet potatoes. At the far edge was an oxcart lying on its side. The ox was still harnessed to it and was placidly flicking at insects with its tail.
Beneath the cart was a man. Kenshin ran forward and knelt next to him. The man's face was pale and streaked with sweat. He was barely conscious. His torso and arms were free of the cart, but the rest of him was concealed under the heavy wooden vehicle.
He looked up at Kenshin, opening eyes filled wide with pain.
"Please, please…" he gasped.
"Shh, don't try to speak," Kenshin ordered. The cart had to come off the man, that much was clear. He put his shoulder to the rough wood side and heaved. It moved an inch then resettled itself, causing the man to gasp sharply.
Shoving wasn't going to work; he was only causing the farmer more pain. There had to be something else, some other way.
Glancing around, Kenshin saw several chunks of rock back by the roadside. A round one slightly larger than the others would do. Kenshin rolled it over to the cart then returned to the dirt bank. Taking out his sakabatou, he reversed it and sliced a branch off, dragging it over to the cart.
The man watched, but didn't speak, curiosity leaking out behind the pain dulling his eyes. Kenshin thrust the cut edge of the branch into the dirt under the cart, and set the middle of the limb over the rock. It was a crude sort of lever, but it worked. Tired though he was from walking, Kenshin's arms were still strong. Heaving against the branch, he moved the cart upward.
"Can you crawl out?" he gritted out when the cart was off the man.
"I'm sorry, no," he gasped.
Kenshin stifled a curse and kept heaving. The cart lifted, and then tottered. It was about to fall back onto the man. Horror galvanizing him, Kenshin heaved harder then dropped his grip to rush forward and shove against the cart.
For a second he didn't think he was going to make it, but though the cart teetered between falling back and righting itself, in the end it crashed back on its wheels, startling the ox.
A few murmurs and pats on the nose kept the ox from bolting, and Kenshin was able to turn his attention to the injured man.
His hair had come loose from its tie, and was sticking to his forehead and cheeks. He was alarmingly pale, eyes jammed shut from the pain as he grunted out breaths of air, hands fisting in the soil at his side. Kenshin left the ox and knelt beside him to stare down at the wounded area.
The hip was broken; there was no doubt. It angled oddly and the streaks of blood from upper to lower hip darkened the blue cloth gi he wore and revealed the diagonal imprint of where the cart edge had fallen on him. Moving him would be agonizing.
"Wait here," Kenshin ordered, hearing the tone of command in his voice and cursing inwardly. He was no longer Katsura's trusted assassin, nor was he de-facto leader of men in battle. "I'll come back with help," he finished softly.
The man nodded his agreement while continuing to grimace.
Kenshin took off running. He was further from town than he thought, for the road didn't cut straight through to the buildings he could see in the distance. Instead, it angled around a small lake. Skirting the lake, Kenshin came upon another sweet potato field and found three men busily harvesting. They looked up as he called out.
"Help, please. A man is hurt."
The tallest of the three gaped, then took charge.
He wiped an arm across his brow where the twisted cloth serving as sweatband hadn't caught the moisture dripping into his eyes. The eyes were dark brown and set under bushy eyebrows. He was stocky, graceless, and had the air of one who was impatient with weakness.
The other two were smaller and slighter, but both were at least two or three inches taller than Kenshin. They obviously took their lead from the tall one, sparing only quick curious glances at Kenshin, keeping their attention on their fellow laborer.
"Back there," kenshin pointed down the road.
Kenshin paused. He hadn't thought to ask the man's name.
"Taki, Kai, stay here. Keep working. I'll be back," the leader said, brushing his dirty hands against his thighs and shrugging into the arms of the gi he'd let drop down his back as he'd worked. He tugged at the cloth cord around his waist which kept the gi in place, checked that it was still tied securely, then joined Kenshin.
The man didn't talk much as they hurried down the road. Kenshin found out that his name was Osamu, and he'd lived next to the Hagiwaras his whole life. Osamu also made it clear that after he helped he'd be going back to work.
"Not everyone made it back from the war," he said darkly. "We're all shorthanded this year."
Kenshin nodded and picked up the pace.
When they came to the oxcart Osamu sucked in his breath at the sight of the wounded man who lay unconscious in the furrowed rows of dirt.
"That's Hagiwara alright. Hirose. The older brother Yuuichirou is dead."
Kenshin shot him a curious glance. Osamu was staring down with a mix of pity and impatience.
"We need to get him to a doctor," he reminded the man.
"Their house is closer," Osamu countered, shrugging a shoulder to dislodge a horsefly.
Glancing down, Kenshin saw another fly land on Hirose Hagiwara and begin to saunter over the blood stained gi. He swatted at it.
"The house, then," he agreed.
It took the both of them to pull a side plank from off the cart, slide Hirose onto it, and deposit plank and man gently into the cart bed. Osamu gave Kenshin directions, then took off down the road to town to collect the doctor.
In very little time, Kenshin pulled up in front of a good sized home. It had the steep pitched roof of a typical peasant structure, but the engawa that skirted the walls was of good quality polished wood planks, and a small garden of flowering shrubs instead of vegetables lay to the side of it. It was as if the building couldn't decide if it wanted to be a formal house or a farm dwelling.
Looping the reins around cart edge, Kenshin jumped to the ground and stepped onto the engawa just as a girl came to the door. A bit shorter than Kenshin, she was pale in the shadow of the roof overhang, her dark hair tied back in a simple ponytail. She was holding a bundle of cloth, laundry from the looks of it, and her eyes became questioning. She stayed cautiously in the doorway as she saw him standing there.
"Forgive me," Kenshin said softly, registering her timidity. "I came across a man in the field outside. There was an accident and…"
"Hirose?" The girl's voice quavered, high with fear, and she clutched the cloth to her chest.
"He's alive," he reassured her quickly, "but he's hurt pretty badly. Your neighbor, Osamu, went to get the doctor."
She swayed in the doorway and Kenshin took a step forward, ready to catch her if she fainted, but she straightened on her own.
"I'm alright, but Hirose?"
"He's in the cart."
Silently the girl leaned down and set the bundle of clothes on the engawa then walked past Kenshin to climb up into the cart and settle by Hirose. She touched his forehead and called his name gently.
"Is there anyone else in the house?" asked Kenshin, embarrassed by the tenderness in her voice. "We'll need to get your husband inside."
"Husband?" The girl echoed. "Hirose isn't my husband. I'm Miura, his sister. We're all that's left of our family."
"Oh. I'm sorry." Kenshin berated himself. In the sunlight he could see the family resemblance. Face relaxed now from the grimace of pain, Hirose's thin nose and high cheekbones were echoed in Miura, though her chin was rounder and her eyes were set slightly closer together, giving her an air of curiosity, as if she were perpetually ready to furrow her brow in inquiry.
"We'll need to get him inside," Kenshin repeated.
"How can I help?" she asked simply.
In the end, they managed to get Hirose into the house using the plank. Kenshin took hold of the end of the plank Hirose was resting on and began pulling it out of the cart. Miura held her brother steady on it as it moved. When it was almost to the end, the girl jumped down from the cart and grabbed onto it, nearly pitching Hirose into the dirt in the process.
Though Kenshin tried to take up most of the weight, by the time they got the man into the house Miura's end was shaking. They set him in the center area by the fire pit so that the light from the smoke hole cut into the roof fell on him. Miura rushed to open the side shoji screens to let more light in then sank to her knees by her brother, staring anxiously at him.
"He's all I have left," she said softly, as Kenshin stood next to her.
"Yuuichirou, my older brother, never came back from the war. He made it all the way through the battle of Toba Fushima, and even made it to Hokkaido with Sanada when they retreated, but Sanada wrote and told us he died of illness. Sanada was his best friend. They joined up together." She sighed, then continued. "Since then it's just been me and Hirose."
"Hokkaido?" Kenshin whispered.
Hokkaido was where the pro-shogunate forces retreated after Toba Fushima. Though it was clear after that battle that the Ishin Shishi had won, and the shogun himself admitted defeat and abdicated, some of the shogun's supporters would not stop fighting. They'd retreated to the north to set up their own republic called Ezo. It took the fledgling imperial government months to subdue and defeat them. Satsuma province, under the leadership of Saigo Takamori, initially sided with the shogun against Choshu, but switched sides way before Toba Fushima and fought alongside Choshu against the shogun instead. So what was Hirose and Miura's brother doing in Hokkaido?
"Oh yes, we're not supposed to talk about that," Miura went on dully. "Hirose said not to."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to pry."
"It's OK," Miura's voice hitched as she leaned forward to smooth her brother's sweat streaked hair off his forehead. "Hirose can't hear us right now."
Twisting slightly to look back at Kenshin, she smiled sadly.
"The Hagiwaras have always been supporters of the shogun. It's because the shogun commended my ancestor's bravery in the battle for the Ryuku islands. We grew up on stories like that. When Saigo Takamori decided to ally with Choshu against the shogun, my brother and Sanada left him to support the shogun. I never saw my brother again."
Her voice trailed off. Uncomfortable, Kenshin let the silence continue until the doctor arrived.
He blustered through the door like a gale force, glaring around under iron-grey hair with his medicine box strapped to his side.
"Where's the patient?" he bellowed.
Kenshin retreated outside to where Osamu waited on the porch. It was then that he realized he'd forgotten to take off his sandals when he'd carried Hirose inside.
"I'm going now," Osamu said, crossing his arms and nodding towards the doorway. "The doctor may be a little deaf, but he's good. He'll fix Hirose up in no time at all."
Kenshin had the distinct impression that Osamu was only saying that not because he believed it, but because it made him feel better about abandoning the Hagiwara family into the doctor's tender care.
He nodded shortly and watched as Osamu took off over the sweet potato fields, disdaining the dirt track that Kenshin followed with the oxcart when he first came to the house.
Minutes passed. With nothing else to do, Kenshin decided to tend to the ox. The beast was placidly standing in the cart traces, chewing on some weeds. It flicked an ear when Kenshin walked up to it, and allowed him to rub its nose.
Kenshin liked animals. Apart from cavalry horses in the army, he hadn't had much contact with them since his childhood on a farm. The ox's breath was warm as he nudged Kenshin with his nose. Kenshin responded to the unspoken demand and scratched behind the animal's ears for a while.
After a mutually satisfying interval, Kenshin grabbed the side rein and led the ox and cart around the edge of the porch to what turned out to be the barn. He unhooked the animal from the cart and got it fed and watered in its stall. The cart he left outside. The plank they'd used to carry Hirose would need to be replaced. He'd offer to do that as soon as the doctor left, which looked to be happening from the commotion on the engawa fronting the house.
"I've wrapped him up tight so don't let him pick at the bandages," came the doctor's voice. "Remember, he's not allowed to move about for at least two weeks, not unless he wants that hip to heal crooked. Keep him still. Rest is what he needs right now."
The doctor stomped his way down the front step and shot a glare in Kenshin's direction. "Who're you?"
"Himura, Kenshin Himura."
Looking him up and down, the doctor harrumphed. "So you're the one who found Hirose."
He made it sound almost like an accusation. Not knowing how to respond, Kenshin stayed silent.
"Good thing you did. Hirose was about to go into shock. Nothing could've saved him then."
The doctor stared critically some more. Kenshin resisted the urge to slouch and shuffle his feet. The doctor was one of those people who made him feel like he was being measured and found wanting, even when they were being complimentary.
"Miura!" the older man bit out suddenly.
"Yes, sir?" the girl answered from the doorway.
"Feed this man. He's scrawny and needs to eat."
With that the doctor trotted down the dirt track, leaving both Kenshin and Miura open-mouthed in shock behind him.
"Are…are you hungry?" Miura's voice asked hesitantly.
Kenshin turned back toward the house to answer her.
"Yes," he replied, surprised into honesty.
"Please, come in." Miura gestured and stood back so he could enter.
Taking his sandals off, Kenshin followed her into the house.
After a meal of soup, sweet potatoes and vegetables, Kenshin was ready for a nap. It was only mid afternoon, but he could hardly keep his eyes open. The first real meal in two days served not to energize him, but to remind his aching body that he'd been walking constantly for nearly a week. Miura noticed and was quiet while removing the remains of the meal.
When the dishes were cleared away she came to sit a respectful distance away from him on the tatami mats.
"Himura-san," she began formally.
Kenshin forced himself to wake up, shaking his head a little to move his bangs back from his eyes. Miura stifled a giggle and he felt foolish.
"Yes, Miura-san?" he returned just as formally.
"I have a proposal for you. It's a business proposal. I need someone to help out on the farm. It's just until Hirose is better. You see, the sweet potatoes need to be harvested, and I can't do it all on my own, so I was wondering…" she trailed off, staring down at her hands which were clenching in her lap.
"Would you like me to stay and help out?" Kenshin asked, taking pity on her.
"Would you?" she asked, eyes opening wide with hope. "I know you're a samurai," she said, gesturing jerkily to the sakabatou resting in its sheath at his side. "I didn't want to offend you, and I can't pay you much, but I can offer you food and lodging and, and…"
Kenshin held his hands up to stop the flood of words.
"Miura-san, I'm no samurai. I'm just a wanderer. I'd be grateful for the work."
"Oh thank you!" the girl's shoulders slumped with relief. "I don't know what I would have done if you'd said no."
Hating to break her happy mood, Kenshin forced himself to ask, "But what of your brother? He may not want a stranger in his house."
Miura furrowed her brow. "Why wouldn't he? You saved his life. Besides, it's not as if we could afford to pay someone from town to do it, even if we could find someone who was available during harvest season." She stopped and covered her mouth. "I mean, we will pay you, of course. It's just that we can't pay as much as we could to a day laborer. I mean…"
Miura was now a delicate shade of pink as she floundered.
"Whatever you can pay me if fine. I'm just happy to sleep under your roof tonight instead of out on the hillside," Kenshin reassured her.
The girl smiled, then gasped, staring over Kenshin's shoulder.
"Who's sleeping under our roof?" came a low voice.
Hirose Hagiwara was awake.
TO BE CONTINUED…