Sanada stayed to dinner. Hirose was sitting up now, propped against a folded futon, and pleased to be able to wield his own chopsticks. Miura bustled around, happily eavesdropping on Sanada and Hirose's conversation about her brother Yuuichirou while she served the food.
As he spoke of their brother, Sanada kept a wary eye on Kenshin, who stayed quiet and tried to be as self-effacing as possible. Hirose wanted to know what Yuuichirou's last days were like.
"He was ill, out of his mind with fever at the end," Sanada said bluntly, then tempered his statement as he noticed Miura's hand falter as she served the soup. "I don't think he was suffering. He just rambled on and on. He'd talk to people we knew back in town, have entire conversations with people only he could see. It was like he was caught in a dream."
Hirose and his sister exchanged curious glances.
Sanada grimaced. "I'm expressing it badly. He wasn't aware of his present, he was happy in the past. I envied him."
"Envied him?" Hirose echoed in surprise.
"I got sick too. I was on the cot next to his. They put us, the ones who were too sick to be moved, in a temple and let us stay until we could walk home on our own. My fever wasn't as bad as Hirose's so my mind didn't wander. I wish it had."
Kenshin stared down at the teacup in his hand. He knew from the bleakness in Sanada's voice that the temple was probably filled with the wounded and the dying as well as the ill. If the shogunate forces in Ezo were as hard pressed as he thought, they'd probably been low on medicines, especially the ones that deadened pain. He'd carried his share of the wounded to healer's tents on the battlefield. He'd seen the horror of the badly torn up bodies which clung to life despite the pain, heard their cries, and witnessed the helpless pity on the doctors' faces.
"And where would you have liked it to wander to?" asked Hirose, half sympathetic and half joking.
"Why here of course," Sanada set his teacup down. "Where else would I want to be but back home?"
He smiled, but there was a melancholy trace of his memories in his eyes.
"Certainly you can stay here as long as you like," Hirose said. "But won't your mother be missing you?"
Miura knelt by Kenshin to take his empty teacup, smiling at him as she tilted her head to hear the man's reply.
"Mother?" Sanada quirked and eyebrow nonchalantly and took another sip of tea.
"I saw her yesterday. She's taken in boarders while I was gone and informed me that until one of them leaves there's no room for me, unless I want to sleep in the garden. She still hasn't forgiven me for picking the losing side."
"Ah, really?" Hirose chewed his lower lip, uncomfortable. "I'm sorry."
"It's fine," Sanada reassured him. "It'll give me a chance to help out with the harvest."
"But we already have…" Miura burst out then hid, scarlet faced, behind her serving tray. Well brought up ladies of samurai households did not blurt out things which contradicted their elder brothers, especially not in front of guests.
Hirose, startled by Miura's breach of etiquette, opened his mouth to apologize to his guest, but Sanada forestalled him.
"No, no, it's alright," the man said calmingly. "I grew up with you, Miura-chan, and Yuuichirou. Why be so formal?"
Miura lowered her tray to peer at him over the edge, but she moved closer to Kenshin, as if to hide behind him. Sanada noticed, and Kenshin saw that he wasn't pleased by the girl's action.
With a tight little smile, Sanada continued.
"I know you already have help," his gaze flicked over to Kenshin then back to Hirose, "but I need to learn a trade. It'll do me good to work out doors. The new government doesn't need any more clerks, so farming seems as good a job as any. Perhaps if I'm good enough you'll hire me full time."
He laughed, but Kenshin caught the unspoken 'so you won't need anyone else' implicit in Sanada's words. Miura seemed to hear it as well, for she slipped him an extra sweet dumpling for dessert, as if to make up for Sanada's hostility.
The next morning Sanada joined Kenshin and Miura in the fields. He'd stayed up late talking to Hirose and ended up using the futon Hirose used for his backrest, and stifled yawns as he walked.
Miura pointedly chose a row near Kenshin's and worked until her paleness alarmed him and he convinced her to go and rest. Sanada watched without comment from the other side of the field.
At lunch, Sanada told stories of meals he and Yuuichirou scavenged during the war, and managed to make Miura laugh. It made Kenshin smile to hear her laughter. Miura was so young to suffer the way she had, losing both parents and her elder brother in the space of a few short years. They'd sold their home in town and retreated to the family's landholding in the countryside. He hoped Sanada would stay for a long while at the Hagiwara farm. When the harvest was done Kenshin would have to move on, and it pleased him to think that Sanada would be there to continue to make the girl laugh.
Back at the house Kenshin let Sanada use the well water first to wash off. Miura lingered by his side while he removed his sandals.
"I'm sorry, Kenshin."
"For what?" he asked, surprised.
The girl sat down on the engawa next to him. "Sanada ignores you. He ignored you all through lunch. I don't want you to think that just because you're a wanderer that you don't matter."
Kenshin felt his mouth open and close. If Sanada had been ignoring him, he hadn't noticed it. Then again, it was his job as a shadow assassin to go unnoticed. It never occurred to him to be insulted when Sanada addressed all his jokes and stories to Miura. He was a family friend, and Kenshin was a stranger.
Miura sighed. "It was nice when it was just the two of us, wasn't it?"
"Yes," Kenshin agreed politely.
She smiled, and then became solemn. "Hirose promised that he'd pay you for helping us out. He would never go back on his word just because Sanada wants to help out too."
Kenshin watched Miura smile again and go into the house to start dinner. She didn't realize that he'd have worked for room and board. He didn't know whether to be amused or humbled by her partisanship. If she only knew whom she'd championed, she'd probably order him out of the house. Depressed, Kenshin made his way around the porch to find Sanada had left him a bucket full of water by the well.
The former shogunate samurai might not deign to speak to a lower class wanderer, but he wasn't unkind.
The next day Sanada was the one to convince Miura to quit early. With an apologetic glance at Kenshin, she did as he suggested. Kenshin was relieved. He'd worried that she'd make herself ill again when she tried to resume helping out with the harvesting again when Sanada showed up.
She was quiet on the walk back to the house, her steps less vigorous than they'd been that morning, and Kenshin and Sanada had to walk slower to compensate.
"We should take the oxcart tomorrow," Sanada suggested.
"But we're not done harvesting, are we, Kenshin?" Miura looked pleadingly at him.
Hesitating, Kenshin agreed. There was one more small field to go.
"Still, we may as well start carrying the bags back to the shed tomorrow. That way you could ride instead of walk."
Miura wouldn't hear of it. "I'm fine. I don't need to ride."
Sanada stopped, forcing Kenshin and Miura to do so as well. "What's wrong, Miura-chan?"
She backed up a pace. "Nothing's wrong."
He sighed sharply. "Then why did you start pulling on your obi when I mentioned the oxcart?"
Glancing over, Kenshin saw that Sanada was right. Miura was clutching the bottom edge of her obi where it met her hip, creasing the fabric. Startled by his words, her fingers stilled and her face took on the expression of a child caught stealing bean jam. She dropped her hands to her sides and fisted them.
"I…" she began, then fell into confused silence.
"You always do that when you're scared. You've done it since you were a child," Sanada told her. He softened his voice. "What are you afraid of?"
Still looking guilty, Miura stared down at the dirt beneath her feet. "I don't want to ride in the oxcart. That stupid ox hurt Hirose. If Kenshin hadn't come along…"
"Ah, Miura-chan," Sanada's eyes were gentle as he remonstrated.
"You can't blame the ox. Hirose said a snake spooked it. You live on a farm now. You can't stop using the oxcart. I know that you know how to drive it. Hirose told me you're better at it than he is."
"He said that?" Miura looked up from her contemplation of the ground.
"Yes. Tomorrow you're going to show me how you do it, alright?"
"Well, I suppose I could."
Sanada smiled. "That's the spirit."
He started walking, Miura and Kenshin followed.
What must it be like to know someone so well that their smallest gesture had meaning? When Tomoe was alive, when they lived together in Otsu as man and wife, he'd loved her more than anything else, only he realized it too late. Even when he thought she'd betrayed him, he'd gone to her, would have sacrificed anything, even his own life, to protect her, but had he really known her? The pages of her diary revealed more of her inner self, her torments, her joys, than what he'd observed. Had she lived, would he have learned to read her better? Or would he have been insensitive and blind, forced to rely on whatever she was willing to share out loud? Marrying Tomoe and making her happy in the months they had together was his greatest accomplishment, but also his greatest shame. There was so much he didn't know; hadn't learned. He didn't deserve to call himself her husband.
He fell behind, allowing Sanada and Miura to talk quietly as they walked on ahead. She'd glance back at him occasionally, but continued to answer as Sanada spoke to her.
Rounding the last hillock before the farmhouse, Kenshin sensed that something was wrong before he saw Sanada and Miura standing still. The samurai's hand was on her arm, keeping her back from the farmhouse. Her body leaned towards her home.
He moved to join them and saw over their shoulders the front door lying askew, center jagged with gouges as though it had been kicked in. The murmur of voices was coming from the ox shed.
"Miura, go to town and get the magistrate."
The girl's arm trembled in his grip. Kenshin saw her eyes, the brown stark against the pallor of her face, go wide with shock.
Sanada squeezed her arm then released it. "Go! Now! Get help!" he hissed.
Miura was of samurai stock. She knew how to obey orders in a time of crisis. She gulped, dropped her basket to kilt up her kimono skirts with her hands, and took off towards the road.
Sanada drew his sword and advanced towards the house without a backward glance. Like Kenshin, he kept his weapon with him even in the fields.
A man dressed in ragged gi and hakama, stepped around the ruined door and out onto the engawa porch. He was wiping his blade with a bloody cloth, one of the ones Miura used to dry dishes.
Kenshin knew without entering the room that Hirose was dead. Sanada did too. He ran forward with a roar.
The noise alerted the men in the ox shed, who were just leading the ox out, probably to steal it along with whatever they could carry from the house.
They must've been disappointed, Kenshin thought grimly. The Hagiwaras had long since sold whatever luxury goods their family once had.
Leaving the murderer to Sanada, he ran forward and stood between the porch and the three bandits who'd left the ox to rush towards their fellow.
"I am your opponent," he told them coldly.
The first two skidded to a stop, causing the third to run into their backs and stumble backward. All three were dirty, unshaven. They were of varying heights and weights, but the bloodlust in their eyes was the same. They'd tasted battle before, and all three had their swords out and ready in an instant.
The tallest of the three smirked, and spat out a command to the other two who began to circle to either side of Kenshin.
Kenshin watched them, impassive. He was used to being underestimated in battle because of his size. He let them get halfway around him, then crouched in his customary battoujitsu stance, right hand hovering over the sakabatou's hilt.
It was over in seconds.
Draw blade. Slice right across ribcage. Pivot, bring hands together on hilt to slice again, downward diagonal this time, to hear the crunch as the second bandit's collarbone broke. Then the last swipe, upward, under the armpit of the last bandit in a move that would have sliced his torso in two had Kenshin's blade been a regular katana. Instead, ribs cracked, the man howled and fell to the ground to join his partners.
Turning his attention back to the engawa, Kenshin saw that Sanada was just finishing up. The blood of Sanada's opponent spattered the wall and wooden planks of the engawa, his headless body sprawled across the porch, while the head itself lay in the grass by the steps. Sanada hadn't escaped the blood spray either. It dotted his face, hair, and gi top, and dripped off his katana.
Sanada flicked the excess blood off his blade, and reached down to retrieve the cloth his enemy used. Expressionlessly, he wiped his blade once, twice, then sheathed it.
Kenshin sheathed his as well, pushing it slowly into the sheath until the blade was secured, the tsuba meeting the sheath's mouth with a distinctive 'snick' sound. He walked over to the steps and waited as Sanada descended.
The samurai stared over Kenshin's shoulder as he stepped down.
"Hirose…?" Kenshin asked.
"Dead," Sanada answered. His gaze flicked away from the ox shed where the beast was lowing, distressed at the smell of blood, and looked Kenshin full in the face.
"I know you," he told him. "I remember now. I saw you fight once, with Okita-san. It was dark, but it was you. There's no mistake. Yuuichirou and I joined his squad together. We both saw you duel with the captain."
Sanada's eyes were intent, daring Kenshin to deny it, so he didn't.
"Yes. I crossed swords with Captain Okita," he admitted slowly.
Sanada nodded, keeping his eyes on Kenshin's face.
"Captain Saitoh took over the fight. He was second only to Hijikata. Even so, you nearly bested him. You're fast. You could've killed them," he gestured to the three men groaning on the ground behind Kenshin. "Why didn't you?"
Kenshin braced himself for Sanada's anger. The bandits had murdered his best friend's brother. Of course he'd be angry that Kenshin hadn't punished them more severely.
"I took an oath. I will not kill anymore."
Incredulity, surprise, and a hint of respect flashed across Sanada's face before he regained control over his expression and his features tightened.
"There's been enough killing," he muttered gruffly.
Wiping his face with his sleeve, he brushed past Kenshin to tend to the survivors. Together, he and Kenshin retrieved the bandits' swords and piled them in the grass a distance away, then found twine from the ox shed to tie them with. While Sanada wasn't exactly gentle in his treatment of the wounded, he also didn't take the opportunity to cause more pain than necessary while binding them.
They'd just got the ox back into its stall and covered the bodies of Hirose and the bandit on the porch when the magistrate's men arrived. Their leader, Kyouhei, took charge at once. After questioning Kenshin and Sanada, he took the bandits into custody and borrowed the oxcart to transport them and the bodies to town.
Kyouhei was a samurai, like Sanada. He spoke mainly to Sanada as his social equal and mostly ignored Kenshin, which suited Kenshin just fine.
It was Sanada who went with Kyouhei to make the formal complaint against the bandits, leaving Kenshin to clean up.
Blood, reflected Kenshin, was a difficult thing to clean. It seeped into cracks, stained wood and tatami mats, and when it dried it changed to a brown rust color that was difficult to see against the dark tones of the engawa and tatami. He worked through the fading sunlight, skipping dinner in order to eradicate the traces of violence staining the Hagiwara home.
As he worked, it began to rain, one of those summer storms that blow up from out of nowhere. It was as though the skies too wished to wash away the bloody events of the day.
When he was done cleaning, he climbed the ladder to the second floor, crawled to his futon, and collapsed.
Sanada showed up at dawn and found Kenshin making breakfast in the kitchen area.
"She wants to see you," he said as Kenshin turned to greet him, soupspoon in hand.
"How is she?"
The older man leaned against the wall and crossed his arms. "Not well. She's quiet, too quiet. She barely speaks. If only…"
Kenshin waited, but Sanada merely cleared his throat and changed the subject.
"The funeral is tomorrow. She wants you to come to it. If we work hard today, we should get the last field harvested and we can take a load into town tomorrow on the way."
Kenshin nodded. It was a practical plan. It would also give Sanada something to do. The samurai seemed to prefer activity to inactivity. He threw himself into the work, prompting Kenshin to work faster as well. The field was done in record time, and they ate dinner silently, avoiding looking at the new tatami mat Kenshin placed over the spot where Hirose had died.
That night it rained again.
The funeral was held in town. The magistrate opened his home to the mourners. Kenshin kept to the fringes, viewing Miura from afar, allowing Sanada to be the one to stand by her side. The magistrate's wife, a plump woman with a kind face, also hovered over the girl. When it was over Miura slipped by them to grab Kenshin's sleeve. She led him to a small courtyard and turned to face him.
Her face was white and strained, eyes soft with grief, but dry. She wore a loose fitting dark blue kimono he'd never seen before and figured the Magistrate's wife must have loaned it to her. Miura's usual kimonos were plain and threadbare.
"Take me with you," she pleaded softly.
"I…" Kenshin began, not knowing how to respond.
Did she realize what she was asking? A man and a woman traveling alone together wasn't proper. The last time he'd traveled alone with a woman, he'd married her. Katsura meant Kenshin's sojourn with Tomoe to be a subterfuge, but to protect her reputation he'd insisted they wed for real before leaving for Otsu. What was meant to be a sham marriage became a real one. Look how that ended. He wasn't ready to allow anyone close like that again, not even a nice girl like Miura.
"There's nothing to keep me here," she added.
Miura leaned in close, still clutching his sleeve.
"Please," she begged again softly. "Everyone I've ever loved is gone. If you leave too…" She swallowed, visibly forcing herself to regain control.
"I want to go with you. You know what it's like to lose someone you love."
His heart went cold. He'd just been thinking of Tomoe, and Miura bringing her up and comparing their losses twisted something deep inside him. His grief for Tomoe was his, and selfishly he didn't want to share it. How could he help Miura through her grieving if he hadn't finished grieving himself? Was it fair to her try to muddle through together? She looked so lost, so woebegone. Could he really help her? Didn't he have an obligation to help her?
"Life on the road isn't easy," he warned her.
"I don't care." Her expression grew stormy. "Anywhere is better than here."
Kenshin sighed. "Sleep on it. You shouldn't make such decisions at a time like this."
He gestured vaguely to the open doorway where the mourners passed by or stood in twos or threes talking quietly. The funeral was barely over, and she was staying in a stranger's house. Of course she'd be unsettled.
Miura released his sleeve and hugged herself. Clearly, his answer wasn't the one she'd hoped for. She nodded sadly and drifted away down the porch to disappear around the edge of the house.
Kenshin watched her go. He'd made her sad. He felt regret, but made no move to go after her.
"You can't take her with you." Sanada's voice was harsh and angry though low to keep his words from being overheard.
Kenshin turned to find the samurai in the doorway to the magistrate's house. He'd obviously heard everything, and wasn't pleased.
"If leaving with me will ease her sorrow, how can I refuse?" Kenshin asked simply.
He did not love Miura, but he could protect her and travel with her until she found a place where she wanted to be. He supposed traveling seemed like an adventure to her, but it would soon pall.
Sanada stepped forward and closed the shogi screen door behind him to ensure their privacy.
"You don't understand, you can't take her with you because she wouldn't survive. She's dying."
Kenshin began to frown at the implication that he couldn't keep her safe, then Sanada's final words sank in.
Sanada nodded, face tightening with emotion. "I've seen the signs before. The paleness, the coughing. She's got what Okita had. Soon she'll begin to cough up blood, if she hasn't already. Hirose told me she burned some handkerchiefs. He confirmed what I suspected. Their grandmother died of it too. Miura was too young to remember it. Hirose never spoke of his suspicions."
Sanada huffed in exasperation.
"Those two, always trying to protect each other. Losing their parents and their home hit Miura hard, then finding out Yuuichirou was dead…Hirose couldn't bear to cause her any more pain. He wanted her to think she just had a cold."
His gaze dropped to Kenshin's side. "That blade can protect her from bandits, but can it defeat illness?"
Kenshin looked away, conceding Sanada's point by his silence.
He looked back at Sanada. "What will become of her?"
"I promised Yuuichirou I'd look after Hirose and Miura. I may have failed Hirose, but I won't fail her. I'll marry her and run the farm for her."
"She does not love you," Kenshin warned, then felt ashamed for the pain in Sanada's eyes showed that he already knew it.
"She loves you," Sanada admitted. "I can see that. But could you marry her? Stay with her for as long as it takes her to die? Can you hold her when she coughs up blood and listen to her fight for her next breath? Can you do all that while looking over your shoulder? If I recognized you, the Hitokiri Battousai, someone else could too. I'm not the only ex-shinsengumi member around. The war is over. We're all returning home."
Kenshin had no home to offer Miura, and it would be the height of selfishness to take her away from Sanada who was willing to make a home with her, just to prove to himself that he could protect her better than he'd protected Tomoe.
"I understand," he bowed his head gravely. "I will be gone by morning."
Making his way past Sanada, he paused with his hand on the shoji.
There was just one thing he had to know. He was aware that the samurai class rarely wed for love. Marriages were arranged between families for alliance purposes more often than not.
"Do you love her?"
"I've loved her since we were children together, but she's only ever seen me as her brother's friend. My mother opposed the match when I spoke to her about it before the war, but now she's washed her hands of me so I don't care what she thinks. Miura is all that matters."
Sanada kept his gaze on the treetops, refusing to look at Kenshin. There was nothing more to say.
Opening the shoji screen, Kenshin made his way through the mourners and left.
The next morning he packed his things, bundled his few belongings on his back, and made his way down the dirt track, leaving the Hagiwara farm behind him. He stopped off at the small roadside shrine, the one Miura pointed out to him, to pray.
The Buddha was broken. One side of the small hut's roof was caved in, and the statue lay in two pieces. It looked like the bandits' work, typical vandalism from those who cared nothing for human life or decency.
Kenshin cleared away the broken pieces of wood, and taking clay from the nearby stream, he used it to glue the two halves of the Buddha back together. It wasn't perfect, but it would hold.
Miura thought she was in love with him. He'd shared his grief over Tomoe with her and it created a bond between them. It was a mistake he wouldn't make again.
He looked at the stone Buddha smiling back at him serenely. Broken hearts could be mended. He had to believe that for himself and for Miura.
Taking a last look at the Hagiwara farm, Kenshin turned and set off down the road.
A/N: And there you have it, my take on why Kenshin was so reluctant to let Kaoru know that he cared for her, and why he kept quiet for so long about his tragic marriage to Tomoe. Feelings of worthlessness, and of having nothing to offer a girl don't disappear over night, and I wanted to write a story that would explain Kenshin's unique blend of hopeful perseverance and romantic reticence.