Disclaimer: Himura Kenshin and all his friends (and various enemies) belong to Nobuhiro Watsuki, who was wise and kind enough to create such an enjoyable series. Other original characters invented in this fic belong to me. But I'm still not getting any money out of this, so please don't sue.
Part 1: I'm Not A Perfect Person
3rd year of Keiou
Early Spring 1867 - Kyoto
Hitokiri Battousai was not even winded, even after dispatching a small patrol of Shinsengumi that had attempted to corner him in a dark street. He was confident, at least, that the men he'd been looking after had escaped safely--but he had to catch up to them quickly and ensure that they reached the Inn.
He had just performed chiburi and sheathed his sword when a bright flood of light dashed the sight from his eyes and brought him around--sword redrawn--with a gasp. His mind registered that the light was too bright, too white for torches--some kind of explosion or--
Or a strange, flickering, glowing hole in the space above the middle of the street, swirling like a watery whirlpool as it spat something out and disappeared as abruptly as it had formed.
Alarmed, blinking spots from his eyes, Himura Kenshin stood at guard and tried to make out what the whatever-it-was had just deposited in the street. Far from being able to comprehend what that light had been at the moment, for now he simply concentrated on what he could hear and sense and on getting his vision back to normal.
It had to be a person--he was picking up confusion, fear, uncertainty in that person's ki. But it was strange, simple, bright colors...and somehow familiar.
It moved--a tiny huddled shape on the dusty street, as his vision cleared; a small head turning this way and that, searching.
Kenshin immediately sheathed his sword. As silent as he was, the motion still brought the child's head around with a jerk to peer at him.
What is a child that small doing here? he pondered somewhat dazedly. And more than that, how did it come to appear from that...thing?
Any moment now the child was going to notice the six strewn bodies around him. He took two steps forward, to get himself clear of their midst, his mind working frantically to puzzle out the origin of the tiny form and what he was supposed to do with it. His better nature wouldn't allow him to just leave the child out here in the cold, dark, dangerous streets of Kyoto.
Abruptly, the little figure hopped to its feet with surprising alacrity, becoming more clear in the shaded light from the windows. A tiny pale face in the dark with large, bright eyes turned up to him, lit even more with a wide, welcoming smile. Small hands reached out to him as the toddler-sized form suddenly zipped toward him with a shrill cry.
Kenshin stared as the little arms attached themselves to his leg, unmindful of the spatters of blood. He was too shocked to move at first--how long had it been since anyone had approached him so easily? How long had it been since he had taken the time to play with children? How long had it been since anyone had embraced him so freely?
This had to be a very young child, he reasoned as the initial shock began to lessen, one slightly-numb hand reaching down to touch the soft head. Young enough to mistake him for its father, a male figure dressed in samurai garb. This child had come from...nowhere, from nothing, from a whirling tunnel of light--but it was still a child. No matter how cold he tried to make himself, he couldn't just leave it here alone...
His compassion still would not let him leave an innocent, defenseless being alone in a cold, dark, dangerous street--even after what had happened with the last one...
But he had a mission to fulfill. There was no way he could drag a toddler along for the ride--but no other way to insure this one's safety. This was not the best part of town; trying to get help from anyone here might result in this child disappearing into the lower depths of Kyoto forever, never to be seen by its parents again.
Coming to a decision, Kenshin carefully detached the small hands from his hakama and squatted down to eye-level with the child. He couldn't quite tell if it was a boy or girl, wearing a soft-colored child's yukata as it was, but the face was small, round-cheeked and sharp-chinned, the eyes large and...somehow too pale-looking--the hair, too, but in this hour of darkness all colors faded to shades of dim gray.
"Hello, little one." Kenshin spoke softly, hardly above a whisper, not wanting to alert anyone who might be nearby, or in one of the buildings. "What's your name?"
The wide eyes blinked confusedly. "I'm Kenji," said the small, thin voice. "Touchan...?"
"I'm not your father," he informed the child--a boy, with a name like that--gently. "You must be lost."
The little boy looked up and down the dark street briefly, brows turned pensive. "Lost," he agreed solemnly. "Where's Kaachan?"
"I don't know where your mother is," Kenshin replied, glancing up and down the street, feeling the press of time ever more acutely. "I might be able to help you get home, but you'll need to come with me."
Kenji nodded vigorously. "Go with Touchan."
"I'm not your father..." Kenshin sighed. "Alright, come on. And you must be very quiet."
Carefully, he lifted the little boy into his arms--such a tiny child, and yet he spoke so well--and hurried off down the street, careful to avoid turning in a direction that would allow the child to spot the carnage behind him. On soundless feet he ran, the child tucked close to his chest, his every sense tuned to catch the slightest hint of enemy presence.
A confrontation with the Shinsengumi now would be disastrous.
Alert, he traced the path he expected the men would take returning to the Inn, hoping he would catch up to them. He would probably be scolded by Katsura-san for this lapse--stopping to take in strays, after all, was no job for a former hitokiri, and his last instance of doing so had proven ultimately catastrophic--but at least he'd taken care of the Shinsengumi chasing them.
Surprisingly, the obedient boy made not a sound as they sped through the streets. Kenshin had expected perhaps a murmur of complaint, or crying, or questions, but instead the little one simply kept his head against Kenshin's chest, held tight to his gi, and said not a word.
He could feel comfort and trust radiating from the boy's spirit, and the amount of it confused him. Even the most friendly child has some reserve when interacting with a stranger for the first time--did this little one truly believe he was being carried home by his father?
He wondered what other short, slim, soft-voiced samurai there were in Kyoto, whom he was unintentionally impersonating in the mind of this little boy. The only one he could think of offhand was Okita Soushi--but that was more than unlikely.
Kenshin began to worry as he turned the corner to the Inn street and had seen no sign yet of his party--wait, there! At the Inn gate, just turning to enter! He heaved a sigh of relief and slowed his pace somewhat, more at ease now knowing that the mission was fulfilled and he wasn't as late as he'd thought.
He turned in the gate not long after the men, still carrying the quiet, compliant little boy. As the gate shut behind him he breathed a deep sigh, glad that one more assignment was over and that he was home safe--or at least as close to home as anywhere was, in these times. Okami-san's new Inn was their headquarters and safehouse once again, and it was the only place in Kyoto where he ever felt even remotely safe.
The lights were on and he could hear others inside. Kenji stirred curiously in his arms as he walked up to the door and pulled it back, stepping into the light of the entry hall to remove his sandals.
He heard Okami-san's rapid, diffident footsteps approaching, coming to greet him after having finished dealing with the men who came before. She had always been most kind to him, like a mother or an affectionate aunt; he trusted her more than he trusted most, and he knew she could help him with this...little problem.
The middle-aged woman came around the hall corner with a welcoming smile on her face, already speaking. "Himura-chan! My, I'm glad you're back in good time tonight, along with--" He saw her eyes snag on the child as she stopped right there in front of him. "Himura-chan...!"
Wasn't she a little more surprised than she needed to be? Really. "I apologize, Okami-san, but I seem to have picked up..." He glanced at the boy to indicate--but as he did, his eyes snagged just as hers had, widening in sudden shock.
The elfin face of the child was framed with red hair--flame-red, a shade darker than his own, long enough to fall around the small thin shoulders. And staring at him from out of that pale little face were two large blue-violet eyes, wide and bright as jewels.
It was almost like looking at his own face, with fifteen years peeled away.
"Himura-chan..." Okami-san's voice reached him through the startled shock, brought his head around to stare at her in a daze once more. "Himura-chan, is he...yours?"
Kenshin swallowed, trying to get whatever-it-was out of his throat. "I...I didn't..."
"Touchan?" Kenji spoke up for the first time in the Inn, surprising both of them. He looked at Okami-san, at the hall around him, then back to Kenshin's wide-eyed face. "Not home. Touchan, where is it?"
"I'm not..." His throat was too dry to finish; he tried swallowing again.
Meanwhile, Okami-san was smiling broadly. "What a beautiful child!" she said happily, reaching out to tickle the shyly curious little boy on the chin. "And so well-behaved, aren't you?"
Kenji squirmed a bit at the brief touch and finally smiled at the nice lady. "I'm a good boy," he informed them both proudly, looking up at Kenshin once more for confirmation.
"Yes you are," Okami-san agreed, keeping her smile and her tone pleasant as she turned a reprimanding look to Kenshin. "Though I must say, Himura-chan--really, bringing your child here during such times..."
Her direct words snapped the former hitokiri out of his dazed stare and back into business mode--albeit a slightly frantic business mode. "I--wait--he's not mine!" he burst out, before moderating his tone. "I just found him..."
Okami-san raised an eyebrow, flatly disbelieving.
"I...I need help," Kenshin went on, lowering his voice and leaning closer. "I swear, I just found him on the street tonight. There was a--" He broke off, unsure of how to explain the mysterious light. "I had to...deal with a squad of Shinsengumi. And when I was done, he was there."
"I see." She still looked skeptical. "Himura-chan, I would prefer you be honest with me--I understand you trying to protect him, but--"
"You know I would never bring a child into this frivolously," he spoke sharply, gone cold once more. "All I need is for you to look after him and ask around to see who's missing a child. He can't stay here and we both know that."
Okami-san sighed, apparently relenting, worried and sad. "I don't know, Himura-chan...you'll have to discuss this with Katsura-han. This is certainly no place for a child, especially not one that young. I'm not sure what we'll be able to do for him. If you have no place for him...Katsura-han may just have one of our agents drop him off at an orphan's shelter and leave it at that."
Kenshin felt a flutter in the little boy's oddly familiar ki--there was a recognition there, a fear...of being abandoned? Of being alone? He knew the feeling himself. "I'd hoped we could find his family quickly."
"Himura-chan..." Okami-san agreed. "These are dark times; you above all people should know that the world is not always so kind."
Kenshin closed his eyes. "Aa."
"Touchan? Sad?" asked Kenji's tremulous voice, and he opened his eyes to see the little boy's concerned blue-violet eyes peering into his own.
"You have got to stop calling me that," Kenshin said ruefully, ignoring the question and remanding his private griefs to the back of his mind once again. No longer needing to carry the child for speed, he set the little one down on his own two feet--bare feet, he noted--and was chagrined to have the boy attach himself once more to his hakama leg. "I'll...go see Katsura-san," he announced awkwardly, sensing the tugs of amusement from Okami-san as he removed Kenji's grip from his leg. The boy didn't want to let go of him, so he found compromise by just holding his hand.
"Good luck, Himura-chan," the proprietess offered as the pair headed off down the hall, her lips still twitching with a sad sort of amusement coupled with...pity? Why should they need pity?
Kenshin sighed. Now if I can just make it to Katsura-san's quarters without being seen...
Fat chance of that. It was late evening and a lot of the Ishinshishi housed here were up and about, either lying around in the lounge or preparing to head up to bed. No one actually said anything--not to the former hitokiri, the feared Battousai--as Kenshin and his young charge passed through the hallways, but the double-takes and disbelieving stares were enough.
He just had to have red hair. Somehow the thought of all these men assuming that the boy was his son made his cheeks heat. Would it be too much to ask if it was just black? But no, it's red. He had to look just like me. And it fools everyone...
There had been no one in his life but Tomoe--no one before or since. It was impossible for this child to be his.
That doesn't mean everyone else knows that, his brain reminded him. You're the only person with red hair that anyone's ever seen here--it's only logical...
At last, he made it to Katsura-san's door, glad for the fact that his reputation kept most from being so foolhardy as to ask any questions. Clearing his throat softly, he tapped on the doorframe. "Sumimasen--Katsura-san?" he called through the paper door quietly. "I...have a slight problem I need to discuss with you."
Slight problem? That's an understatement, Himura...
"Himura? Please, come in," replied his superior's voice, amidst the sounds of someone putting away writing utensils.
"Ojamashimasu..." Kenshin slid the door back, and with a meaningful, silencing look at Kenji, stepped inside.
Katsura Kogoro was just rising from his place at a low desk, nodding a polite welcome to his finest and most competent soldier. "I was just going to send for you, to hear your report on tonight's..." He trailed off once he caught sight of the small figure half-hiding behind Kenshin's hakama-clad leg. Something like shock flickered across the man's tightly controlled features, and then his eyes rose piercingly back to Kenshin's. "Might I inquire as to why this child is accompanying you?"
Kenshin barely managed to keep his flush down to a dull roar. Great, Katsura-san too... "It's what I wanted to speak to you about."
"Go on," Katsura replied neutrally.
"I know what he looks like, sir...but the truth is that I just found him tonight on the street. And I was hoping--"
"You were hoping we could locate his home and return him?" Katsura finished half-skeptically, his features softening almost fondly. "Sasuga Himura--always kindhearted though he strives not to be."
Kenshin flushed faintly again. "I...couldn't just leave him on the street, sir--on a night like this--"
"I understand. Please, sit, and we'll discuss it." Katsura gestured him to one of the cushions near the lamp. When they were all seated--Kenji close beside his rescuer--Katsura glanced at the boy with interest before continuing. "I must say, despite your claims to have simply found him, the resemblance between you two is striking. Are you sure that...?"
"Positive, sir," Kenshin replied tightly, controlling his voice to a cool, level tone. "There's been no one else."
Katsura nodded solemnly. "I see. So how, specifically, did you find him?"
"I had just dispatched six Shinsengumi that were attempting to apprehend our men," Kenshin responded, as flatly as if he were giving a rote report, "when I was nearly blinded by a bright light. The source was a strange door of light in the space of the street, and this child fell out. Then it was gone."
As he told his story, Katsura's eyebrows had been slowly climbing to his hairline. "Himura...if I didn't know you better I'd say you were lying through your teeth," he said at last. "Yet I know how bad you are at that. The next thing I would assume is that one of those Shinsengumi got lucky and cracked you over the head, but I must also admit that's highly unlikely."
Kenshin blinked once, surprise flaring behind his cool mask. "You believe me, sir?"
"I'm honestly not quite sure," Katsura replied. "You are not given to untruths, Himura. But this...'door of light' is a stretch of the imagination. Perhaps you were seeing things, perhaps not." Kenshin frowned at this, as Katsura glanced down at the little boy--who was trying valiantly not to fidget or yawn. "Our next question is...who is this, and where did he come from?"
The child looked up at Katsura as though the man were a little slow. "I'm Kenji!" he asserted, as if it should have been obvious. "Who're you?"
Katsura's mouth twitched. "Katsura Kogoro. I am his commander," he explained, pointing at the red-haired young man to elucidate.
"Touchan's...commander?" The little boy tried out the new word. Katsura's eyebrows went up, and Kenshin flushed yet again.
"He keeps calling me that..." the former hitokiri mumbled.
"A child wouldn't just call you 'father' for no reason whatsoever," Katsura observed thoughtfully. "There must be something else to this, door of light or no. Little one," he addressed the boy again, "can you tell me your full name? Your family name?"
The child paused for a moment, frowning. "...Himura Kenji?" he tried hesitantly.
Kenshin paused. "That's got to be wrong--he's just heard it from you and Okami-san..."
Katsura held up a hand, sending his warrior to silence. "Kenji-kun, who is your father?"
Once again, Kenji gave him a look as though Katsura were having trouble grasping reality. He pointed with one small finger at the youth sitting next to him. "That's Touchan," he said firmly. Kenshin almost yelped aloud.
And Katsura almost laughed. "I see. Kenji-kun, who is your mother?"
"Kaachan?" For a moment, the boy looked hopeful, but then looked around and frowned. "Not home. Kaachan's not here."
Katsura smiled again. "No, I suppose she's not. How about your parents' names? Do you know your father's name? Your mother's name?"
"Uh...Kaachan?" the child tried hopefully. "Kaachan is Kaachan..."
"Still not quite old enough to associate his parents with proper names." Katsura shook his head ruefully. "What do other people call your parents? What do friends call them?"
This time, Kenji scrunched up his face in careful thought. "Himura-san?" came one slightly confused guess.
"This isn't getting us anywhere..." Kenshin murmured.
"Let's try one more," Katsura offered patiently. "Kenji-kun, what does your mother call your father?"
"Anata!" Kenji answered, quickly enough and with a smile--that one he obviously was more familiar with. Then, with a thoughtful expression, he amended. "Uh...sometimes...Kenshin no baka!"
"Kenshin no baka" almost choked where he sat, blinking owlishly. And this time, Katsura actually did laugh--a brief, amused chuckle.
"I'm not sure what to think, Himura," the Ishinshishi leader said when his laughter had passed. "By all accounts, this boy is firmly convinced you're his father. And nothing he says contradicts it; he's not old enough to think up complicated lies like this--only to parrot back things he's heard. He obviously thinks he knows you quite well."
"But it's impossible!" Kenshin all but squeaked. Enough twists had been thrown at him tonight that his normally-stony composure had somewhat crumbled. It wasn't every day a little boy attached himself to your leg and called you Daddy.
Katsura ignored the outburst, continuing to regard Kenji thoughtfully. "Perhaps..." he muttered half to himself. "But maybe..."
"I find it hard to believe that he simply came from nowhere," Katsura answered, looking nearly skeptical of himself. "But if what you saw tonight was real...perhaps he is not your son now, but he will be someday."
The former hitokiri blinked. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"Bear with me for a moment." Katsura held up a placating hand. "You yourself said you saw a 'door' in the space of the street. What if it was not space, but time that this door passed through? What if this child is exactly what he believes himself to be, but he's simply a few years too early?"
Kenshin's face had gone blank and pale. "You mean...in the future I...?"
"I'm just saying it's a possibility," Katsura replied with a noble equivalent to a shrug. "You said you saw that light. If the supernatural is supposed to be involved, then any explanation might work. In that case, perhaps instead this Himura Kenji child is a gift to you from the gods, sent to you for some unfathomable reason. Or perhaps a youkai has played a trick on you..."
Kenshin's eyes narrowed imperceptably. "Katsura-san, are you mocking me? I have not lied to you, ever--"
"Kenji-kun," Katsura interrupted, "can you tell me about your father? What is he like? What does he do?"
"Touchan's a swordsman. Hiten Misugi Ryu," Kenji was happy to reply, stumbling over the complicated name of the style. "Touchan's really strong!"
Kenshin's breath had stopped at the child's mention of the name of his master's sword school. Not just anyone would know that--not just any child. "Who told you that?" he demanded, almost harshly.
"Kaachan did," Kenji replied, a little wide-eyed at the tone. "Kaachan tells stories. Says Touchan win the war."
"Win the war...?" Katsura murmured, looking half surprised. "Ah, perhaps my jesting guess was not far from truth. Unless his mother was just being confident...if he is from the future, this little prophet might be very useful."
"Don't even think of using him for--" Kenshin broke off, startled at his own outburst, before moderating his approach. "Katsura-san, I'm not sure myself where he came from, but I don't know if it would be wise to demand too much of the future from him...if he is from the future." His face tightened at that admission. "It might do more harm than good and interrupt the way things are supposed to be."
"I suppose that's right," Katsura agreed at length, after a quiet moment of thought. "If we win the war anyway," he added ironically.
There were several long moments of silence, in which both Kenshin and Katsura stared at the little boy. Kenji yawned and rubbed at an eye, the classic sign of sleepiness in a toddler. Kenshin tried to calm his thoughts enough to think, feeling upset that Katsura-san wasn't really believing him--honestly, as if he'd ever lied to his commander before! Sure, he didn't want anything bad to happen to this child, but that didn't mean he was really the boy's father.
"So...what do I do with him?" Kenshin asked softly at last, his Battousai composure still strong--but not above the remaining shock and confusion, heavily muffled.
"I don't imagine there's much you can do, Himura," Katsura replied sadly. "He's in danger here as much as we all are. And more than that, he's in just as much or more danger no matter where you send him. I don't know how you managed to keep him hidden this long..."
Kenshin glanced up, his brows lowering.
"When you were the shadow assassin, and not a living soul outside our circle knew who you are...he might've been safe in an orphanage or monastery nearby. But as it is now, the whole of the Shinsengumi and the all troops of the Shogun in Kyoto know to look for a small man with red hair and crossed scars on his cheek."
"What does that have to do with him?"
Katsura shook his head. "Himura, you know how to think like a hunter. Look at him."
Kenshin looked down at the little boy--who now all but leaned against his side, drooping--seeing the red hair that marked them both like a raised flag to the enemy. His eyes narrowed in a sudden, unfamiliar flash of defensive anger.
Seeing his comprehension, Katsura nodded slowly. "Indeed. Anyone who sees him will know he is connected to you. There is nowhere in this entire city he could stay where he would be safe from harm. The Shinsengumi--especially their captains--know you and your ki too well. And even I can sense that this little one is...similar to you."
The familiar ki...it...it's half like mine...! "Then...I have to send him back where he came from somehow." Kenshin frowned again. "But how, when I don't even know for sure where he came from?"
"That, my friend, I do not know," his commander replied sadly, a tone of skepticism still coloring his ki. "You say yourself you don't even know how it was he arrived here."
If he is mine...someday...if it is so...then that someday-me will be missing him... Kenshin glanced down at the innocent, droopy-eyed face trying not to nod off beside him. Even if the boy wasn't really his son...technically, it was as if he were, almost--and if Katsura-san's half-joking guess was right, he would be--and Kenshin felt...responsible for him, somehow. Somewhere, somewhen, this little boy's parents would be waiting for him. He and the child shared blood--even if, for him, that time had not yet come.
I wonder...who she is? After Tomoe, how can my heart...?
"I believe it is best to house the boy here," Katsura said at last, breaking into Kenshin's thoughts. "I will allow it, at least for now. Obviously some emergency has prevented him from being able to remain where he was kept before, wherever that might be. For the moment, keeping him here with us will be the safest for him, and for you."
"For me?" Kenshin glanced up.
"I do not want to put you at risk, Himura," Katsura told him gravely. "You are one of our most valued assets. Should our enemy use the child as a tool against you..." The commander shook his head. "I do not presume to know your thoughts on this matter, but if I know you, you could not stand to see a child come to harm--any child, whether yours or not. Better to keep you both out of Bakufu hands and avoid that scenario altogether."
Heartily agreeing, Kenshin nodded slightly.
"Okami-san and the servant girls can help to look after him for the time being," Katsura went on, his tone becoming more brisk. "For now, it's best to keep out of sight and continue as usual."
"Wakarimashita," Kenshin replied obediently--then hesitated, a thought coming to him. "Sir...how am I to explain him to the others? You know there's bound to be...questions." He barely fought down another uncharacteristic blush. There already are questions...
Katsura chuckled softly again, surprising him. "I don't think the chibi is going to make it any secret. Why don't you just stick to the truth?"
"But--!" Kenshin all but choked, the flush finally breaking through. "But he's not young enough to be...but Tomoe wasn't...but I...!"
"I didn't say you had to tell them everything," Katsura stated, fighting down his laughter. "Not when you won't even tell me. Just be as closemouthed as you usually are, and they'll get over it. A child out of wedlock may be embarrassing, but it's hardly unheard-of."
"But--but...!" Kenshin spluttered incoherently for a moment, his face nearly as red as his hair--before he swallowed back his mortification and clamped down on his expression. He was certain now that Katsura-san still did not believe him, and probably never would; the man hadn't seen firsthand the light that brought the child. So there was really no further reason to protest. Still not feeling very reassured about the whole situation, the young swordsman finally nodded obediently. "Ah....h-hai...I'll...go get something to eat."
"You do that." Katsura almost grinned. "And make sure he gets fed, too. You've long since missed supper by now--you'll have to see Okami-san in the kitchen."
"Hai." Calm once more, his expressions under control, Kenshin nudged the sleepy boy next to him, bringing him out of his leaning doze. "Kenji...come on, let's go."
"Touchan?" the child yawned pinkly, rubbing at his eyes again. "All done?"
"We're done," Kenshin replied, trying not to twitch at Kenji's method of addressing him. It made him feel...strange inside. "Are you hungry?"
Wakening more, Kenji nodded vigorously. He and Kenshin rose almost as one, and even as Kenshin gathered his swords from the tatami, Kenji caught at the fingers of his free hand and held on tight. Kenshin paused for a beat, then mentally shrugged, bowing to his commander. Katsura just waved him off, his twitching mouth hiding his obvious amusement.
Stepping out the door, Kenshin decided to simply hold his head up high, glare at anyone who whispered, and act like it was all completely normal. It had always worked before.
Fortunately, almost everyone was either in their rooms or still downstairs in the dining hall talking and drinking. He was able to slip all the way to the first floor without anyone noticing the two of them; Kenji moved quite well and quite silently for such a young child.
However, down on the first floor near the main halls, he came across the first gaggle of Ishinshishi patriots standing about on their meandering way to their rooms. The conversation came to a staggering halt when he and Kenji rounded the corner; Kenshin walked as a hitokiri from head to foot, practically radiating ice, while Kenji walked close at his side, clutching the youth's left hand, practically radiating incongruous cuteness.
It was quite the picture.
The five patriots standing in the hall stared at them the whole time as they went by--Kenji offering the dumbstruck men a friendly smile as he passed--but they didn't say anything, not so much as a murmur, so Kenshin didn't give them a backward glance. He made for the kitchen as fast as pride would allow, grateful when he could at last slip away from the awkward stares and the curious heads poking from the dining room doorway.
That didn't make the stares from the servant girls in the kitchen any less awkward.
"Himura-han!" Okami-san greeted him from the kitchen worktable, ignoring the other women--though she never addressed him by her pet name for him in the hearing of others. "I saved you a plate. How did it go?"
Kenshin stopped across the table from her with a sigh. "Katsura-san says Kenji will stay here with us. Until we can find a...safe place to send him."
Briefly, the older woman looked worried, a shadow passing over her features as she lowered her voice for his ears only. "I see...but...Himura-chan, what made you change your mind about this? Just before, you were--"
"He is my son." The words took a monumental effort to say through the dryness in his throat, and were barely above a whisper--but all the sound in the kitchen stopped, the serving girls and the cook all frozen still to turn serruptitious and disbelieving stares his way again.
Okami-san gazed at him for a moment. "As you say," she said after a deep breath, forgoing to mention the strangeness of their earlier conversation in the entrance--at least in front of the household staff. "Well then, you might as well get cleaned up and ready to eat--and take Kenji-chan with you. The poor thing is covered with street dust."
Kenshin hesitated. "You mean...I have to give him a bath?"
"Of course," the matron said, coming around the table to stand before him. "He'll need a bath and a fresh change of clothes--I can see if Sakura has any spare children's yukata in the guest closets. The bathwater should still be warm, and not too many have been in yet."
Kenshin's stomach disagreed with that idea. "Can't we eat first?" he asked, his voice level but his carefully-maintained expression slipping to just this side of pathetic--at least for a former hitokiri. But he'd worked hard all afternoon, and he was hungry. On top of that, he was a hungry teenager.
"Not covered in dust and blood you can't," Okami-san replied, already back in her brisk-mother-innkeeper mode; as such, she ordered even the feared Hitokiri Battousai about with impunity. "Really, Himura-han, you should know better than to wander about still bearing the marks of conflict."
Jolted, Kenshin looked down, mentally cursing himself for his lack of thought. There were still spatters of dried blood across his clothing--not a dripping bath of it, but enough to make it noticeable. And he'd just been prancing about the inn, child in hand! Such a slip was unforgivable in his line of work.
And Kenji, who looked up at his stony face with wide innocent eyes, was covered in dusty smudges--as well as a few suspiciously rusty stains on the front of his small yukata, where the still-damp blood from Kenshin's gi had brushed him.
Guilt twinged; a child had been smeared with the blood of men he had slain.
"Hai," he said at last, keeping his head low. "Sumanai...I've been distracted. We'll go bathe."
Okami-san smiled and, in a rare show of sympathy, patted the young man on the shoulder. "It's alright. I'll heat your dinner up for you while you're gone. And I'll have someone bring by the clean clothes for Kenji-chan."
He ventured back out into the staring, whispering halls, where he felt the press of eyes like the points of a thousand swords. Kenji, though obviously tired, tagged obediently after him, clinging close. However sleepy he might have been, the little boy was obviously unwilling to let go of the one person in all this strange new world that was familiar.
After a quick trip up the stairs again to fetch fresh clothes for himself from his room, he and the child headed out the back of the Inn to the bathhouse.
Thankfully, it was unoccupied. Inside, Kenji finally consented to let go of his hand, trotting forward to stare around in awe. "Waaa, sugoi!" The little boy squeaked in delight. "Big bath!"
Kenshin's lips quirked into half a smile. "Aa. Can you get your own clothes off?"
"Haaai!" And with that, Kenji cheerfully proceeded to strip. Kenshin took a more sedate pace, keeping an eye on the child to make sure the he didn't go caroming off and drown himself in the tub. How did he go from blinking and sleepy to such a state of genki bounciness anyway?
Within a few minutes, little Kenji was attempting to begin his own scrubbing, though not very successful at hefting any of the buckets. With a rare chuckle, Kenshin finished pulling off the last of his clothing and headed over to help him out. It couldn't be too hard to bathe a child, right?
But Kenshin quickly discovered that managing a soapy, slippery, wriggling little boy while trying to finish washing him was harder than it looked. Kenji was attempting to do washing-type things---more like he was just playing in the water bucket--while Kenshin struggled to hang on to him and scrub at the same time. It wasn't working; even his hands weren't fast enough, it seemed--he'd need another pair of arms for this!
"Kenji, hold still--come on, at least let me finish--" Growing increasingly frustrated, the youth attempted to fence the boy in with his legs, but Kenji thought this was a marvelous new game and splashed at him with water from the bucket. Half wet, half dry, and now slightly sudsed, Kenshin bit his lip against a short-tempered curse and closed his eyes for a moment.
How in the world had Shishou put up with him when he was little?
Wait, check that--Shishou hadn't had to deal with the Terrible Twos. By the time Shinta had arrived on his mountain doorstep, he'd already learned how to behave.
Deep breaths; he's just a child, he doesn't know any better... Okay, if I was my future self--if this kid is my future son--how would I handle this?
When he opened his eyes, Kenji was using one of the washing cloths as an impromptu boat--or was it a sea dragon? It seemed rather submersible--in the washtub. And that's when Kenshin noticed that the little boy was holding still.
Blessed inspiration! Kenji would stay in one place if there was something for him to do!
Now to get that scrubbing done... "Oi, Kenji," he said, going for a cheerful, cajoling tone--that probably would've frightened any of the patriots who heard it. It wasn't frighteningly bad--just...not his usual style. "Are you having fun?"
"Aa!" came the happy reply, while Kenshin scooted cautiously closer with the soap and washing cloths.
"Great. Hey, what's that you've got?" Kenshin was already scrubbing away on the remaining parts of Kenji, and there wasn't too much wriggling escape going on.
"Wash cloth," Kenji replied easily, taking the white cloth for another swirl in the bucket. "It's a boat."
"Oh? What kind of boat?"
"You like fishing?"
"Un! We always go fishing!"
"We do, huh?" Finished washing the child--and highly grateful it was over--Kenshin dropped the soapy cloth. "Time for rinsing."
After a good douse, Kenshin let Kenji continue his game in the remaining bucket while he gave himself a quick scrubbing-down--probably the fastest he'd ever undertaken in his life. When he was done, he led the boy to the big warm tub for a good soak before they went to eat.
Kenshin ended up seating Kenji on his lap to keep the water from going over the tiny boy's head. Kenji continued to wriggle and squirm like a little eel, making it impossible for Kenshin to have a nice, quiet, mind-clearing soak. It was a constant battle to keep the child from escaping to drown himself in the large tub.
"Sit still, Kenji," the former hitokiri pleaded gruffly for what seemed the hundredth time in only a few minutes. "This is supposed to be relaxing."
Giggling at the splashes he was making, Kenji squirmed around to face the youth, a sharp little knee landing on Kenshin's thigh despite the buoyancy of the water. "It's fun!" the little boy insisted, churning waves with his hands. "Play, Touchan!"
"A bath isn't for playing," Kenshin retorted, frowning to close the matter.
Rebuffed, Kenji pouted and wriggled some more. "You never play. Where's Kaachan?" he whined at length, sounding unhappy. "I'm hungry!
Kenshin's stomach growled its agreement; the young man fought off an urge to roll his eyes and sigh like a displeased child. "Fine. Let's go."
True to her word, Okami-san's worker had left clean children's clothing in a basket outside the bathhouse door. In making use of it, Kenshin discovered that it was also rather difficult to keep a hungry, tired, somewhat-cranky child still for dressing without ending up in more washtubs. His own clothes only slightly moist around the edges, he tied his damp hair in a loose band at the nape of his neck and caught Kenji's hand to lead him back to the Inn.
He left his bloody clothes in the dirty laundry bin outside. For once, he didn't feel like hiding them and cleaning them himself. After the chore of washing a child, he just felt sick of washing in general.
At least there were fewer to stare in the halls, since most were gone to their rooms. The kitchen was also mostly empty when he arrived; only a couple of girls washing dishes remained.
Along with Okami-san and two plates of hot food.
Yokatta...manna from Heaven, Kenshin thought with a half-weary, half-grateful sigh. "Arigato, Okami-san. I'm really starving now," he said with an astonished shake of his head. "I didn't know it was so hard to give a kid a bath."
Okami-san tittered and clucked, reaching out to pat Kenji's damp red head. "There now, I'm sure he was a perfectly good boy. Want to come with me, Kenji-chan? I'll get you set up for dinner."
Kenji regarded her for a moment, his face neutral. Under normal circumstances, his father wasn't his favorite person to be with, but at the moment there was no one else he knew. Okami-san was a nice lady but he didn't want to go with her; instead, he turned away and buried his face in Kenshin's hakama.
"Ara!" Okami-san laughed softly. "Someone's tired and shy. Here, Himura-chan, just lift him up to sit on the table right there and I'll get him a tray."
Within minutes, Kenji was sitting on the kitchen worktable with a small four-legged tray-table in front of him, happily munching away at dinner with both fingers and a pair of only somewhat clumsily-wielded child-size chopsticks. Kenshin took his meal standing at the tableside, watching with some chagrin as a portion of the food Kenji attempted to shovel into his mouth ended up on his face instead.
"You're a mess," he finally commented, amused at the sight of the brownish sauce all the way up to the little boy's nose.
Okami-san swooped in with a cloth, cleaning Kenji's face in one pass in a move as smooth as any swordsman's thrust. "That's little ones for you," she said, smiling at the boy, then at the youth.
"You're good at this," Kenshin observed, eyebrows lifting a bit.
"I did raise up three of my own," she told him. "A boy and two girls, all grown and married off now."
Kenshin glanced down at Kenji; the landlady caught his look and smiled her own knowing smile. "They need help with so many things when they're young," she said. "But they grow every day, it seems, doing so much more on their own with each month and each year. Until one day you realize they're all grown up, and they don't need you any more..." The older woman sighed wistfully. "At least now I have grandchildren to spoil," she went on, cheering. "And this little darling, for a while."
Kenji gave her a sweet smile in response to her attention, before polishing off the last of his vegetables. He was hungry enough not to complain about what was on his plate.
Kenshin, already done with his food, set his dishes down on the worktable and stepped back. "I'll be in my room for the evening," he announced coolly. "I trust you'll have a safe place to put him for the night."
Okami-san turned a surprised glance to him. "I-I suppose he can sleep in the servants' quarters with the girls, if that's what you..."
"Hai. Arigato, Okami-san." Kenshin turned to leave--but had hardly taken a step before a scuffle and a wail rose up behind him.
"Touchan! Don't go! Don't go!"
Kenshin whirled back around at Okami-san's gasp, starting in surprise as he saw that the woman had caught Kenji before the little boy could dive off the high table after him. The child's face had crumpled in an instant to tears, and fear of abandonment rose off him in waves.
Okami-san lifted the crying boy into her arms and patted his back, comforting. "There there...there now, it's okay..." As the sniffles began to subside, she turned a very pointed look at the redheaded youth. "I think he should sleep with you tonight, Himura-chan. At least until he settles in here."
Kenshin swallowed. "Aa...very well."
"Do you need any extra bedding?" she asked.
"I think I have enough," Kenshin replied. I never sleep on the futon anyway. The matron handed the little boy over to him, and the upset child put his small arms tightly around Kenshin's neck as the young swordsman held him, carrying him to the door of the kitchen.
"Sleep well Himura-chan, Kenji-chan," Okami said softly as he went.
His mind still churning, Kenshin did not reply.
There wasn't a soul in the halls on the way back to his room. Everything was quiet, the air filled with snores and mumbles and the sleepy ki of many men. Few were alert; those on night watch and those few who were more like him, who remained wary of hunter and hunted even at rest. Cradling Kenji in one arm, he slid back the door to his room, slipped inside, and closed it behind him all in one smooth motion.
The little boy was nearly asleep in his arms by the time he set him down on his small unsteady feet. "Bed," he yawned, clinging to Kenshin's hakama once more as the former hitokiri pulled out bedding that hadn't been used since the room's previous occupant. It had been aired regularly by the staff, however, so it wasn't musty. It was quite large enough for one tiny boy as well, and Kenji would be quite warm.
As soon as the child's head hit the pillow, he was nodding off. Kenshin pulled the blankets up close around his chin as he somehow remembered his mother doing, long ago in blurry faceless memories.
Sleepy eyes gave one last effort of wakefulness. "'Yas'mi, Touchan," the little boy mumbled. Then those tired eyes drifted shut, and the weary ki dimmed to sleep, peaceful as slow rippling water, utterly at ease. Kenshin remained where he was for a few moments, looking down at the face of the child, barely lit by the silvery light of the moon from the window.
What am I doing? he wondered, face drawn to a frown more serious than many of his iciest masks. This isn't my child or my job--I'm a hitokiri, not a babysitter...even if what Katsura-san said is true, I have no business keeping him with me...
Doubt and confusion still turned like an uneasy tide in the young man's mind. Common sense and his own pride didn't want to believe Katsura's hypotheses--future son, gift from the gods, or something else entirely--but the light and the circumstances and the child himself made it hard not to believe it. He didn't know what to think, what to believe.
He wasn't sure what he was supposed to do with this.
At last, he left the side of the bed to take up his usual sleeping position, sitting up against the wall between the door and the child, taking a defensive location by habit. For a while, he gazed at the tiny form buried in blankets, listening to the soft, even rhythm of Kenji's breathing.
He's not my son, he told himself firmly, ignoring the twinge in the bottom of his heart at the assertion. Light or no light, just watch--tomorrow we'll ask around and someone will be missing him...or the door will come back and take him away...
His thoughts uneasy still, and doubts pushing at him from the softer side of his conscience, Kenshin finallly nodded off into a fitful sleep.