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 2: I'm Sorry That I Hurt You
3rd year of Keiou
Early Spring 1867 - Kyoto
Okita Soushi didn't even reach for his sword when the door to his quarters slid back and someone stepped in. There was only one person amongst the Shinsengumi who would dare to simply walk into his room like this--and anyone who was not of the Shinsengumi would not be coming in through the door.
"Ohaiyo, Saito-san. You're here early, ne?"
"We've had another incident," Saito Hajime replied, not bothering with pleasantries. "Six men, perfect kills, no blood on their swords. And no captures."
"So, Red's been busy again last night, hm?" Okita turned from his calming observation of the city at dawn. "And another band of rebels has slipped through our nets, thanks to him."
The tall, lean-faced Shinsengumi captain snorted in disgust. "The patrol tried to take him on alone, without support. If they were that foolish, they deserve to be dead."
"Hai, hai," Okita sighed, leaning back against his windowsill. "But still, we do have a job to do, and the more of our men get killed the harder it is to get that done. So perhaps you could show a little consideration?"
Saito sneered. "I just want to see that red-haired demon spitted on the sharp end of my Gatotsu. Without him, the Ishin rebels would crumble."
"Sou da na..." Okita shrugged. "Well, that'll only happen if we happen to be in the patrol that catches up with him. And our spies are being flushed out almost daily now--they've really tightened their security these last two years. So we haven't tracked his specific movements for over eighteen months now--no telling where he's hiding."
With gritted teeth, the intense Captain of the Third Squad paced the width of the room twice. "This is the fourth loss in a week. It can't continue like this. We have to run that little bastard down and corner him so that he can't disappear into shadows." Saito recovered some of his level composure and snorted again. "It's his most annoying habit--disappearing before the duel is decided."
"He is--or was--a hitokiri," Okita replied with a smiling shrug--as he usually did. "Fight and flee is his first instinct, I suppose..."
"And you'd know all about that," Saito needled with a cold half-grin. "Since he's run away from you the most."
For a moment, Okita's eternal cheer flickered into irritation--before his smile returned again. "Sou ka! Well, that must mean he fears me the most out of us, ne?"
They shared a brief chuckle of laughter before Saito returned to his stern frown.
"We need to change the patrols again. Make them more frequent, and more random. I don't care if we have the troop leaders sit down and draft up a new schedule every morning, but we've got to catch those Ishin off guard."
"Hai, hai...I'll make sure to bring that up at our meeting this afternoon." Okita smiled again. "You worry too much, Saito-san--just trust in our justice. We'll catch him."
Already on his way out, Saito glanced back once. "Yes," he growled, with a hint of a wolf's fanged grin, "I will."
As a former hitokiri, and current swordsman of the Ishinshishi, Himura Kenshin was quite used to keeping odd hours. Sometimes sleeping all day to work all night, or waking up at midnight to work until noon, or working all afternoon and late into the evening and sleeping in nice and long to make up for it--like he wanted to do today.
Kenji, however, had other plans.
"Touchan," came the incessant little voice, small hands nudging his shoulder. "Touchan, okite!"
Of course, he'd been awake since Kenji had stirred, the small brightening ki alerting him to the other presence in his room. But he wasn't quite open-eyed and moving yet, and he would much rather have just drifted back into sleep. He didn't have to work today--not yet, as far as he knew--and he was still tired.
"Touchan!" Kenji's voice grew more plaintive, drawing out the syllables into a half-whine that drove right into his ears. "Wake up!"
With a disgruntled growl, the former hitokiri raised his head to direct a suitably frightening glare at the child--one that had sent many interlopers scrambling from his room when they had interrupted his sleep. It was probably a little more harsh than the boy deserved, given the urgent look on his face, but Kenshin grumbled anyway. "Nan da yo?"
"I gotta go potty."
Kenshin stared at the furiously frowning toddler for a full beat before placing his forehead into his hand, somewhere between feeling irritated and feeling foolish. He rubbed at the bridge of his nose for a few moments before speaking again. "Hai...alright..."
A glance out the window told him that it couldn't have been very long since dawn; the light was still gray and he could sense only a few people awake. With a semi-audible groan, he rose, bringing his katana down from his shoulder and snatching his wakizashi from its place on the floor beside him, tucking both into his belt before rubbing at one eye with his free hand.
Feeling marginally ready to face humanity--though still preferring to go back to sleep for a few more hours--he headed out the door, Kenji scuttling to take his usual place at Kenshin's side, small hand clutching sword-calloused fingers. Blinking away sleep, Kenshin headed downstairs on a path for the toilet house outside, nodding vaguely to Sakura-san's pleasant "Ohaiyo gozaimasu!" on her way in with well water.
"Can you go by yourself?" he asked once he and the boy reached the outhouse, dearly hoping this wouldn't be another one of those things.
To his good fortune, Kenji nodded brightly, so Kenshin let him proceed into the hut alone, with only a stern warning to finish his business and come right back out without dawdling. The young swordsman took up position by the door, fighting off a yawn as his eyes scanned the clean yard and the rear of the expansive Inn.
None of the lazy soldiers were up yet; just a couple of the captains and Katsura-san, their kis all clustered in the dining hall. There was Midori-san by the bathhouse heating up the water for early bathers, and Sakura-san coming out for another bucket of water, and Kojiro-san chopping wood for the fires. Okami-san and the cook would probably be in the kitchen by now, preparing breakfast for the many hungry men hosted by the Inn. It was still very early, the sky lightly overcast so that the morning sun shone gray and cool.
That yawn finally escaped him as he stood there, leaning on the rough wooden wall, arms folded against a faint shiver at the colder temperature outside. He caught the faint titter of Sakura-san's giggles as she headed back inside, and he wondered whether or not he should care that she had caught the Ishinshishi's prime swordsman mid-yawn and probably looking like a sleepy kid.
He decided he wouldn't bother, after beginning to wonder what was taking Kenji so long. He was just about to go in and see what was up when the door was pushed open and a little red head poked out.
"All done!" Kenji chimed happily.
"You didn't make a mess, did you?" Kenshin asked, with a half-suspicious glance beyond the boy at the interior of the hut.
"Nope!" Kenji held up his hands. "No mess. I can do it."
"Good," the swordsman replied honestly--and gratefully--steering the child back inside to wash his hands. There was a convenient scrubbing basin inside the back door, and Kenshin lifted the little boy up to give him access and make certain he used it. After a good washing, they were on their way back in--and Kenshin was fully intent on heading back to his room for another hour or two of sleep.
But again, Kenji had other plans. He tugged on Kenshin's hand and pulled them both to a stop, looking plaintive once more. "I'm hungry," he announced frankly, turning wide, innocent, pleading eyes upwards. "Time for breakfast?"
Kenshin stood there for a moment, giving a deep sigh. He likely wasn't going to get any sleep with Kenji complaining, so he might as well feed him now and get it over with. "Okay, okay...we'll go see Okami-san."
Kenji--who had apparently gotten enough sleep to be depressingly energetic--hop-skipped at his side all the way to the kitchen, bare feet pattering on the floor. More and more people were stirring out of bed, especially the staff, so there were quite a few to peer at them on the way.
"Ohaiyo, Okami-san," Kenshin announced around another yawn as he stepped into the bustling kitchen, deftly sidestepping a fast-moving serving girl with an armload of clean plates.
"Good morning to you too, Himura-han!" Okami-san called from across the room, smiling at him while she supervised the action at the stove. He was one of the few who was allowed into her back rooms, since she had practically adopted him as a son/nephew, so he wasn't shooed out of the kitchen on the business end of a wooden spoon. "And how's our little guest this morning?"
"Genki," Kenshin replied ruefully, making his way around the worktable with bouncing boy in tow.
"Ohaiyooo, Okami-san! Breakfast time!"
"...and hungry," Kenshin added, as Okami-san laughed.
"Good timing," the matron replied, pausing to send a girl with two trays on her way. "Breakfast will be served shortly--you can wait in the dining area with the men."
"I was hoping to just grab something and head back to sleep..." he tried hopefully.
"Goodness, I don't have time to take aside an individual meal!" Okami-san huffed. "I'm sorry, Himura-han--we're bringing the food out in minutes, so it won't be too long."
"Hai..." Kenshin almost visibly wilted, turning to make his way back out to the main eating area. So much for getting more sleep.
Not to mention he would be sitting in to breakfast with all the Ishinshishi soldiers gathered here--bringing a kid along for the ride. Not only was it not usually done, but it would be embarrassing, too.
"Yare yare..." he sighed at last, resigning himself to his fate. "I've been through worse and lived."
Predictably, most of the morning din hushed as he approached the doors to the large eating room. The stragglers hanging about the entrance pulled back to give him a wide berth, most of the eyes straying from his own slim, frigid form to the tiny red-haired boy beside him. He stepped inside the door, stilling most of the conversation within; all but Katsura and the captains and a few of the men who had known him longer.
Instead of waiting around, Kenshin picked a spot nearer the door, in an empty corner, and sat down without a word. Suddenly solemn at the presence of so many imposing, sword-bearing men, Kenji had grown quiet and plunked himself at Kenshin's side, huddling close to his elbow.
Kenshin didn't look at anyone, just remained still and closed his eyes. A few of the stares that prickled in his direction for too long were given an icy glance that quickly redirected them, but for the most part the other men studiously kept to their own business.
Finally, a familiar ki approached more closely than the others. Kenshin looked up to see one of his few friends amongst the current troop, Hamano Akira--a smooth-faced young samurai a handful of years older than himself with sword skills that Kenshin would call quite decent indeed, by comparison.
"Hamano," he greeted with one of his typically small, grim smiles.
"Himura," the samurai nodded back, taking a slightly longer glance at the little boy before sitting down on Kenshin's other side. "So. The rumors are flying all over the Inn."
Kenshin shot another glare at yet another curious stare from across the room. "So I've gathered."
Hamano leaned over a little. "Hey, some of us want to know the truth, instead of the scuttlebutt."
"The rumors you're getting are probably the truth anyway," Kenshin told him, the slightest of wry curls to his lips.
"Come on, Himura," the older samurai wheedled. "Takagi and me and the others--the ones who're your friends, ahou--we want to know what's really going on. Men saw you two come in last night and a whole wildfire started up--everything from kidnapping to some courtesan you've been fooling with finally dumped the kid on you."
Kenshin's teeth clenched. "I guess the rumors aren't getting it right after all," he bit out, wondering who he should throttle for starting up those ideas.
"See?" Hamano scolded. "Some of us care. So what's going on? Is that really your kid?"
The samurai blinked. "Oh. Whoa. Y'know..." he chuckled sheepishly, "...I was half-expecting you to deny it."
"Well, because you...I mean, you're not...er, I didn't..." Suddenly awkward, Hamano scratched the back of his neck, his voice dropping to a serious timbre, quieter. "Heck. None of us ever saw you as the sort to have kids in the first place, much less so young..."
"What difference does that make?" Kenshin hissed, suddenly realizing that his age would be awkward to explain. Kenji had to be two years old, at least--probably more--and if he were too old it would look...odd to anyone who questioned. Kenshin himself was not yet even eighteen.
"Oi, oi, take it easy!" Hamano backed off with a placating gesture. "I didn't mean anything by it. Honest."
Kenshin let out a breath. "Gomen, Hamano. I...I've had a lot on my mind lately."
Kenji, meanwhile, had peered around Kenshin's body to regard this tall, friendly samurai and was watching him with shy interest. Hamano noticed the little face peeking from behind Kenshin's gi sleeve and grinned at the boy, making him disappear into hiding again.
Hamano chuckled. "He's cute. Looks just like you."
"Arigato." Kenshin cocked a wry eyebrow at his friend.
"Uh, not to say that you're cute, Himura..." Hamano floundered for a second, remembering the small samurai's sensitivity about his...delicate features. "I mean...he's cute, like a little kid is cute, but he's got your hair and all..."
Kenshin snorted in amusement. "Relax, Hamano. I won't behead you before breakfast."
Relieved, the tall man grinned. "Good, then I'll have an entire meal to plan a proper funeral."
And with that, breakfast arrived. Several tray-bearing serving girls swept in, led by Okami-san, and proceeded to lay out the small tray-tables the men ate off of, beginning with Katsura-san and the higher-ranking patriots, then around the room to the random soldiers arrayed in a loose circle. Kenshin shared his tray with Kenji, having been singled out by a smiling Sakura-san with a tray that Okami-san had prepared especially for him, with extra portions and an additional pair of small chopsticks.
She had also sent along two extra cloth napkins--and a message via the giggling Sakura-san that he shouldn't let Kenji-chan make a mess in the dining hall.
The arrival of food distracted the men somewhat, making it easier for Kenshin to ride herd on his small charge and get some food into himself without drawing too many stares. These hardened soldiers were emphatically not used to seeing their vaunted Battousai shepherding a small child through a meal, trying to keep him clean with marginal success. Hamano only chuckled at him twice, as his quick hands darted to catch some dropped bit of pickle or rice.
By the time the meal was finished, Kenshin was somewhere between frustrated and just plain tired. Kenji needed constant watching to ensure that breakfast time did not become game time, especially not in front of all of these men. At least the dropped food was at a minimum--just a few grains of rice, a pickle, and a piece of carrot--and there were no obvious stains on either his sleeve or Kenji's yukata.
Kenji was already heading for his feet and ready to go when the serving girl came by to pick up their trays. Kenshin snagged a cloth to wipe off the little boy's hands and face, removing the last of the meal's remainders, being watched all the while by his incredulous friend.
"I'm impressed, Himura Battousai," Hamano said at last, gathering up his swords. "You're better at that domestic stuff than I ever thought."
Kenshin blinked at him. Domestic stuff? Women's work? That was the last thing he needed to hear--especially with the babysitting he'd had to do last night and this morning.
"Well, I've got a planning meeting to attend," the samurai announced, rising up. Kenji darted around behind Kenshin to cling to his shoulders as the imposing man loomed over them both, eliciting yet another laugh. "I'll see you two around."
With a wink at Kenji, the older man went on his way, disappearing into the trickling straggle of men heading out of the hall.
Kenshin heaved another sigh and pushed to his feet, gathering his own swords. Letting Kenji cling to his sleeve, he decided to head for his room before anything else happened. Hopefully, Okami-san or one of the girls could watch Kenji for a couple of hours...
He stopped before he even entered the kitchen door. The bedlam and the harried kis inside informed him that the staff was much too busy with after-meal cleanup to babysit. It took as much work to run an Inn as it did to look after a child...
Today is just not my day. Defeated, Kenshin sighed for what seemed like the hundredth time and turned toward the back hall.
"Where we going?" Kenji asked, as they left the noisier portions of the halls behind.
"Outside," Kenshin replied simply.
The little boy smiled brightly. "Out to play?"
"You can play if you want."
"Touchan, play with me?"
"Play by yourself," Kenshin told him as they stepped out into the morning sun. "I'm tired."
"But why?" the child wheedled.
"Because I worked last night."
"Because it's my job to work when Katsura-san tells me to."
Oh, I am so not getting into this... Kenshin glanced down at the wide curious eyes and gave the boy a look. At least he knew the child was just being a child, not asking pointed questions that Kenshin didn't want to answer. One thing he did know from experience was that little kids like this could go round and round and round with the word "Why?"
"You can play here," Kenshin informed the boy, leading him out to one of the leafy trees by the more open side of the yard, across from the bathhouse and toilet. "Do what you like," he said with a shrug, sitting down against the tree. "But you must stay in this yard, and don't go around to the front. And don't get in anyone's way."
Kenji just looked at him, seeming faintly disappointed as he glanced around the yard. "Wanna go home...Kaachan..."
"Oi. Your mother isn't here, so you have to do what I say. Don't go anywhere but this yard. Do you understand?" He reached out and touched the boy's cheek, bringing his attention back around. "Hear me?"
"Un," Kenji nodded reluctantly. "Play here in the yard."
"Good. Now off you go." Kenshin dismissed the child with a nudge, sending him skipping off toward the bushes along the back wall. It was safe; there was only one gate there, and the latch was too tall for Kenji to reach. Kenshin sat back against the tree trunk, his sword tucked against his shoulder and his wakizashi at his side, rather pleased with his little plan; Kenji could play happily outdoors and entertain himself, and Kenshin could get some decent shut-eye for a bit.
He breathed deeply the morning air, listened to the patter of childish bare feet and the soft twittering of birds, and began to doze off. Normally he wouldn't even think of sleeping outside, but things had been at a lull lately and he figured an alert cat-nap would not allow any to catch him off-guard.
Not to mention he was weary enough to just not care if he got shot by some daring ninja at the moment...
He had nearly drifted off when a sharp whack! jerked him awake like a rope. Startled, his eyes tracked the sound--and found Kenji playing with a fallen stick of bamboo from the little grove at the back wall, using it as an impromptu bokken while apparently playing Super Killer Samurai.
The little boy's target was one of the smaller cherry trees in the yard, just a handful of strides away from where Kenshin sat. Half amused, Kenshin observed this activity for a short while as his heart rate calmed down; sudden loud noises without the foreshadowing of aggressive attacking ki always got his adrenaline going, since they came without warning.
Kenji had a strong ki, though--strong, and focused for such a young child. The boy raised his stick again to thwack it against the tree once more, and Kenshin caught the faint edges of a trained stance in the boy's posture. Either someone was training this toddler in kenjutsu--unlikely--or he was a very good mimic and would be a natural prodigy in swordsmanship someday.
Then again, if he's really my son... said that nagging little voice down in his chest in a tone that wanted to be pride, before he firmly squashed it.
Kenshin was about to turn away again when Kenji changed his approach to the tree. Instead of a planted attack, the little one stepped back, then leaped at the tree in a downward, crosswise blow that made Kenshin blink.
Is he trying to...?
Kenji stared at the tree he'd accosted, face set in a childish scowl. Then he dropped his "sword," apparently giving up, and headed for the well at a fast clip. Kenshin was momentarily concerned, but remembered that the well had a sturdy, heavy cover on it and that the child would be in no danger.
He was just about to doze off again when a heavy clunk! brought him around. Almost growling now, Kenshin looked over to find Kenji standing with his bamboo "sword" atop an upturned wooden washbasin that he had dragged over beside the tree. Apparently he'd decided he needed more height to attack.
Another flying leap, this time from the top of the washbasin, flimsy weapon wielded one-handed, small voice raised in a loud shout. "Rususen!"
Kenshin almost swallowed his tongue, staring openly now. He's...going for a Ryu Tsui Sen! Has he actually seen...?
If he is my son, he may have seen me in battle... Once more, Kenshin clamped down on that still small voice.
Now, Kenji was peering at the tree as if examining it for damage--possibly disappointed that his kiddy version of that strong attack had yielded nothing but perhaps some chipped bark. Instead of climbing up on the tub again, the little boy began to attack the tree freestyle once more, laughing to himself about stopping "evil bad men" and "saving innocents."
You have to wonder who taught him that, said that little voice again, wryly. Kenshin squashed it.
To his continued surprise, Kenji crouched down and performed a sloppy version of a battou-jutsu attack that Kenshin knew very well--the one that had given him his nickname. It was unbalanced and agonizingly off-target, but the speed and force were such that Kenji spun himself around with the momentum of it, giggling at the dizzy turn.
That boy would be a swordsman one day, Kenshin decided, settling back down against the tree with an unwilling shadow of a smile on his face. A very great one, with incredible talents--he was a natural, able to mimic those around him even at this young age. He would be a wonderful pupil someday...
And who will teach him? the voice demanded, and this time Kenshin was too sleepy to stomp on the words of his own conscience, his own heart. In the world I am fighting this war to create--the very world he may come from--the killing sword will no longer be needed. But the sword to save the innocent will always be needed--and this child may be the one who is called to wield it. And someone must show him how...
His thoughts deep within once again, Kenshin began to nod off at last, content to doze while half-listening to the sounds of a little boy at play. He only watched out of the corner of his eye, but then his eyes drifted shut; his vision faded just as he registered the little boy performing a clumsy but surprisingly fast battou-jutsu move with the wrong foot forward...
The first thing he became aware of was the silence. Or perhaps it was more correct to say that the silence woke him--the silence and the absence of anyone nearby. There was a wrongness to it that pinged on his radar and brought him out of sleep. Something was absent--the sounds of small feet, of panting little breaths, of babbling words and soft laughter and a happy playful ki...
Kenshin raised his head with a single sleepy blink, baffled for a few moments, scanning the yard and the nearby Inn porch for whatever was amiss--whatever had nudged him from his doze. There was no danger nearby, only a sense that something was missing--
A gasp was torn from his chest as a hot flash of alarm and dismay brought him fully awake and to his feet in an instant--and on the tail of that instant he was dashing for the Inn, fighting back sudden unfamiliar panic. Had the boy wandered inside--or worse, out to the front, or even out the gate...? All his senses were already reaching out, automatically seeking--
--a small bright ki not very far away at all. And it was coming closer. Very close.
Kenshin screeched to a halt in the middle of the Inn's back doorway, narrowly avoiding a head-on collision with a very small red-headed form bearing a tray and followed by the startled-looking matron of the Inn. His hands braced on the doorframe to assist his braking, the young swordsman stared first at the child, then at the woman, his breathing slightly faster than normal as his pounding heart began to subside.
"Touchan!" Kenji squeaked in surprise, as Okami-san took a second to calm her own racing heart at the youth's sudden appearance.
"Himura-chan, is something the matter?" she asked, concerned at the brief wild look that had been in his eyes.
Kenshin glanced at her. "He was gone...I thought..." Trailing off, the young man took a deep breath, let go of the doorjamb, and stepped back out of her way. "Gomen, I didn't mean to startle you."
Okami-san smiled, as she and Kenji stepped outside after him. "Don't worry about it, Himura-chan. I was a bit startled myself when this little one came wandering into my kitchen unattended." She looked down at the grinning boy. "But he said you were sleeping, so we thought it best not to wake you. We made you lunch instead."
"I helped!" Kenji piped up.
Kenshin blinked at them. "Lunch...? How long was I asleep?" Suddenly dismayed, he glanced toward the sky and found the sun much higher than he'd anticipated.
"A long time, Touchan," Kenji replied scoldingly. "I was lonely."
"It's been a few hours." Okami-san led Kenji around to the Inn's porch, where she directed him to set down the small tray he carried, upon which sat a small plate of fish. Okami-san herself set down the two bowls of rice in her hands. "I thought you could use the rest, since you've been working so many nights this week. But you've terrified half the men, breaking pattern by sleeping in the open--and now they all think the sky is falling or some such."
Seating himself on the porch beside the tray, Kenshin ducked his head. "Sorry. I thought I could take a short nap while Kenji played--I didn't mean to bother everyone."
Okami-san just laughed, lifting Kenji onto the porch as well to seat him where he could eat. "It's not a bother, Himura-chan! Goodness, you work harder than almost every man here, and have been through so much--you deserve some time to yourself to rest." She fixed him with a motherly look. "You can ask one of us to keep an eye on Kenji-chan when you need a break."
"Arigato...but you were just so busy this morning, I didn't want to interfere..."
"Ask next time, you silly," Okami-chan scolded with a laugh. "I was more worried that Kenji-chan was wandering around the halls unsupervised. At his age, he can't always judge who and what is unsafe."
"Hai..." Chastized, Kenshin ducked his head and glanced down at the child, who was already digging into one of the small bowls of rice on the tray. It was a simple meal; just rice and fish, without frills. "I know...I keep forgetting he's so young, since he talks so well for a two-year-old..."
"He's older than that," Okami-san observed, smiling again at the little boy who was eating fairly neatly, listening to them talk about him. "He does speak very well, he holds his chopsticks properly, and he can go to the toilet on his own, among other things. He's three years old if he's a day, Himura-chan. He's just tiny."
Kenshin raised an eyebrow skeptically.
Okami gave him a slightly apologetic smile. "It's only logical. I don't mean to offend, but you're just not very large for your age either..."
"It's alright," Kenshin sighed, giving the matter a shrug and reaching for the second bowl of rice. My growing years are nearly over, and I'm still barely as tall as a woman. Not to mention pretty as one, as many are so fond of pointing out. It's going to haunt me for the rest of my life... "By now I guess I've resigned myself to my fate," he added, shoving his self-pitying thoughts aside with a wry half-smile.
"Oh, you..." Okami-san gave him an affectionate smile and reached over to ruffle his messy hair. "It's not your size that counts, Himura-chan, it's your heart. You'll be fine." After looking him and the little boy over one last time, she took a deep breath and stepped back. "Well, I've got to get back inside--we'll be starting to cook the mens' lunches soon, so I've got to make sure Yumiko gets things right..."
With a nod she took her leave--leaving Kenshin once more sitting face to face with a certain redheaded child. Kenshin was finishing up his rice and Kenji had started on a fish, so for a few moments they sat and eyed one another--Kenshin less obviously, Kenji more so.
After a while, the silence was broken. "Why'd you take off earlier?" Kenshin asked at last, somewhat miffed that his instructions had been disregarded.
Kenji blinked at his tone, cocking his head.
"You left the yard," Kenshin clarified, pointing his chopsticks accusingly. "You went inside and you didn't tell me."
"Got lonely," Kenji said, thrusting out a pouting lip around half a mouthful of fish. "I was--"
Kenji wrinkled his nose defiantly, but did. "Was lookin' for Kaachan," the tiny boy grumbled.
"Your mother isn't here," Kenshin told him sternly. "You won't find her no matter where you look."
The child's face crinkled with upset and anger. "But I want Kaachan! I wanna go home!"
Kenshin was equally as frustrated as the boy, but he was not allowed the option of a temper tantrum. "I know that, but you can't! You're just going to have to--"
To the young swordsman's shock and ire, the scowling little boy reached out, took a firm grasp of the nearest lock of his hair, and yanked. "Touchan daisukinai!"
"Ite! Oi! Let go!" Kenshin snapped, slamming down his empty rice bowl to bat the offending little hand away. "What do you think you're doing?"
Angered and strangely stung, he glared down at the furiously frowning child, who was glaring back at him with watery eyes and the beginnings of a trembling lip. Childish rage warred with creeping uncertainty in the small bright ki, accompanied by loneliness and fear of the unknown.
Kenji wasn't getting the reaction he'd expected. Usually a good hair-tug and a noisy pout was enough to make Touchan either give in or retreat from his presence altogether--but Touchan was not relenting; he was angry instead, giving an accusing glare.
It was one thing to cling to Touchan's leg in a strange place, where Touchan was a safe island. But he was tired of this place and wanted to see his favorite person again, and Touchan wasn't doing what Kenji wanted him to do!
There was nothing soft about Touchan any more. His ire was heavy and sharp, and his eyes were hot and angry. He had never been like this before. Kenji's own anger was fading out, to be replaced by doubt and resentment and fear.
"Touchan...kowai...." Meal forgotten, the tears began to fall.
The boy's quavering little words cut through Kenshin's flash of temper like the finest edge of his own katana, shooting a stab of guilt into his shell. He watched the tide change from furious hellion to pitiful child, and somewhere inside his own anger was surprised at the extremes of sudden change--especially when it was his own snappish irritation that had dimmed the light in those once-bright blue-violet eyes.
His ire was melted by the small sniffling tears; at a loss, Kenshin stared at the downcast little face, mouth working as he fought for something to say. For too long, his throat was tight, and no words came--as his heart pattered frantically in search of something that could stop the hurt for both of them.
There were two ways he could deal with this; he could walk away from this emotional entanglement...or he could try to fix it.
He decided he wasn't going to back down.
"Kenji..." he tried, hoping his voice didn't really sound that creaky and high-pitched. "Kenji...I'm sorry, I didn't mean to yell..."
"I want Kaachan..." the little boy sniffled. "...want Kaachan..."
"I-I know, but she's not here..."
"...go find Kaachan..."
"You can't find her." Kenshin nearly winced at his expression. "I'm sorry, Kenji...you can't be with your mother right now. I know...I know you miss her, but..." How could he explain that he had no idea where Kenji's mother was, or who she was, or even how old she might be now?
Following his gut, Kenshin shoved the food tray aside and moved closer to the little boy, reaching out to touch the small quivering shoulders. "Oi..." he prodded clumsily, attempting to get the tearful eyes to turn up to his. "Aren't I..." He swallowed hard. "Aren't I Touchan? Can't you stay with me?"
"...like Kaachan better..."
Kenji's head dropped again, but he allowed himself to be pulled closer as Kenshin put an awkward arm around him. "Sou ka...demo...you didn't...really mean that before, did you?" the youth said softly, almost into the child's messy hair, with a nudging squeeze. "Kanashii...don't you like me too? Even a little?"
With a sniffle, the shaggy little head nodded against his shirt, one small hand grasping at a loose wrinkle of the fabric to hold tightly. Kenji didn't really hate his father--not really...he hated being pushed away and he hated the fear and detachment he had always remembered; he wanted to play with his father, and to be loved by him--but so much of what he felt was far too complex for his young mind to phrase or his small vocabulary describe.
"Touchan daisuki...hontou ni daisuki...gomen...gomen..."
"Iie...it's okay..." Kenshin fought back a sigh of inexplicable relief, running a brief clumsy hand over the child's head in a ruffling pat, a boyish attempt at comfort. "You just stay here with me for a little while, alright? And maybe soon..."
At last, tearful yet hopeful eyes turned up to him. "Find Kaachan maybe?"
Kenshin attempted a reassuring smile--thought it wasn't a very large one. "Maybe. I'll try--I promise. In the meantime, let's be friends, okay?"
"Aa," Kenji answered, with a tiny hint of a giggle at the idea of being "friends" with Touchan.
"That's better." The brightening face--as well as the brightening ki--made it impossible for Kenshin not to smile; a small, hesitant, genuine smile that encompassed all the gratitude and relief he would not express in words. "You can play here all you want, if you're good. And if you're hungry, you already know where the kitchen is..."
Kenji nodded. "Okami-san!"
"That's right," Kenshin chuckled. "So...are you going to eat the rest of your fish?"
"Fish!" The little boy looked down in surprise, as if he'd forgotten it was there. Kenshin pulled the tray back again as he fought off another quirk of a smile; fetching chopsticks once more, the two of them went back to eating in earnest.
"Oh...new rule," Kenshin spoke up, after a few moments of thoughtful chewing. "If you pull my hair, I pull yours."
Kenji blinked up at him with utter innocence, cocking his head.
The young swordsman snorted his opinion of that display. "You understand perfectly well, and I know you do." Reaching over, he tugged ever-so-gently on one of the little boy's tangled locks of hair. "See? You'll get a yank much worse than that if you pull my hair. And I mean it, too."
"Haaai," Kenji giggled, leaving Kenshin not entirely convinced of his sincerity.
"I'm serious," Kenshin warned, just to make sure, wagging his chopsticks at the boy. "Hair-pulling is mean. Nice boys don't do that."
Kenji smiled blindingly--a little less than impressive, given his current mouthful--so Kenshin subsided, still a bit skeptical as to whether or not he was getting through.
When the food was finally gone and the tray pushed away for the last time, Kenshin remained where he was, resting against one of the porch posts and staring into nothing, his bare feet dangling onto the soft smooth dirt below. How long had it been since he'd traced patterns in the dust with his bare toes? It had to be years...not since he'd been with Shishou, when he was carefree...
Kenji sat beside him, uncharacteristically reserved, watching him with a slightly odd look as the little boy attempted to emulate his actions--but his short legs could not reach the ground from his seat. He was observing Kenshin quite openly, almost carefully, as if trying to puzzle out something.
"Nani?" Kenshin asked quietly at length, raising an eyebrow lazily.
"Touchan's different," the tiny boy said solemnly, thoughtfully. "Talks different. Eyes different. Smiles different."
"You just noticed." Kenshin's mouth curved again, wryly, before his gaze passed back to the yard. He enjoyed the silence, ignoring Kenji's curiosity prickling at him; let the boy stare if he wanted to. His gaze wasn't like that of most of the soldiers, which often contained subtle undercurrents ranging from the fearful to the disheartening to the sickening.
He started only a little when a small hand touched him--reaching for his hair again, but gently this time, seeking some of the flaming locks that fell across his arm. He hadn't bothered to tie it up properly this morning, being too...preoccupied, and the low, loose ponytail allowed escaping strands to spill over his shoulder. Little fingers touched, ever so carefully, fingering a bit of the scarlet mass before drawing back.
"Taregami," Kenji commented seriously, considering. "Touchan gots long hair now."
"Sou ka..." Kenshin eyed the little boy. "It's another different thing, na?"
"Aa..." Kenji reached out again, petting at the conveniently-positioned hair. "Yawarakai... Longer than Kaachan's. I like it." He glanced back up at Kenshin, his small feet swinging over the edge of the porch as his face brightened into a smile. "Kirei."
Not quite sure how to take that, Kenshin sat still, undecided whether to pull away or to acknowledge. He'd been accused of beauty before--usually in the form of insults, for his delicate stature and near-feminine looks, or the occasional stranger who wanted to attract the attention of a "pretty" man who was more a novelty than an object of love. But his outward appearance had little to do with his inner bloodstains.
Kenji's simple statement was, however, just that--no matter what Kenshin thought of himself--a simple truth, as the child saw it.
In the end, Kenshin just shifted uncomfortably and looked away. "Aren't you going to go play?"
Kenji shrugged with typical childish indifference, still eyeing Kenshin in that strange, thoughtful way. But at least his ki had settled once more to contentment, if slightly hesitant; though it bore a new note of curiosity and attachment. Giving a mental shrug of his own at the complexities of children's minds, Kenshin went back to staring out at the yard, concentrating on keeping his own mind blank of bitter memories and focused on the here and now.
Kenji had been a tidy distraction, at the very least. He hadn't had much time to dwell on past shadows since the little boy had arrived, what with the harried previous evening deciding what to do with him, and this current somewhat-frazzled morning. He'd been weary enough this morning that his nap--however unintentionally long--had been completely dreamless, sitting there in the shade-dappled morning sun. His thoughts hadn't even touched on Tomoe since...
He hadn't even had her face come to mind since last night, sometime before dinner.
Kami-sama, did that mean he was just forgetting about her? He cursed himself silently, closing his eyes to the midday light, for so easily forgetting the very reason he had sworn to end this horrible war--so that he could stop killing, stop piling sin after sin atop her grave, atop his own already too-bloodstained soul, and finally begin to atone for the innumerable lives he'd taken. To atone for her death, at his own bloodthirsty hands...
Even if it had not been his intent--never, ever had he meant to harm her--his own rage and thoughtlessness and careless killing sword had cut her down as easily as a hundred other men he'd slain. She had managed to forgive him and his murderous ways, even managed to come to care for him, had helped him so much to soothe the disillusioned, frustrated, lonely youth and the haunted, frightened, angry hitokiri he'd become...and he'd repaid her with blood twice over--the death of the one she loved, and her own.
And here he was, forgetting her, disregarding her memory because of the antics of one silly, stubborn, redheaded child...
A small bright-eyed child who clung to him not only out of choice, but out of necessity--who had no shadowy motives, nowhere else to go, and no terror of him, nor even a care for his reputation...or the danger that came of being near him.
Another innocent in his path of destruction, he realized with a faint shudder. And this little one, far more innocent in this than even Tomoe...
His mind, already stinging him again with the bloody rain and Tomoe's death, was far crueler to thrust at him the image of Tomoe and Kenji together in the snow, her lifeblood pouring into the whiteness as it had that day--and the tiny body beside her slashed in half--
With a ragged gasp, his eyes flew open, trying to banish that forceful flash even as he wiped cold sweat from his brow on the back of his sleeve. His hands were sticky with sweat, but it felt like blood; his tongue was glued to the roof of his mouth, but his own spit tasted of blood--and for a moment, he could even smell it thick in the air as just after a slaughter, and he felt sick...
Yet even as he gasped for air, the sudden loss of a small weight against his side startled him out of that circular, bloody deathtrap his mind so often fell into; there was Kenji, alive and whole and not a trace of blood anywhere, having leaned against him during his darkening reverie without his even noticing. But now, the boy sat up, gazing at him with hugely wide eyes and a serious little frown.
"Touchan?" Kenji quavered softly; had he somehow sensed the conflict within the older boy? He looked...worried. "Obiete?"
Kenshin swallowed hard as the red tide receded. The little voice came like sun through a fog, turning his thoughts from black memories of bloodshed to this moment, this place, on the sunny porch next to a sweet-faced child--who was worried because Kenshin was suffering in his heart.
No suspicion, no fear--only concern and caring and affection. And Kenji's simple love radiated from his small bright ki, uncomplicated and undefileable, simply because Kenshin was there, because he existed. For no reason other than that--merited or unworthy, clean or dirty, scarred or whole. It was all right in front of him, glowing like the Spring sun to his senses--a purity that awed him, a devotion he did not deserve.
Since he had gotten no answer, Kenji leaned a little closer and tried again. "Touchan daijoubu?"
Kenshin gulped audibly, stung by feelings old and new. "Aa...hai..." he replied, his voice raspy and trembling. "I'm okay, I just..."
Instead of believing him, Kenji leaned against him once more--this time with both arms flung as far as they would go around his waist. "Touchan's sad!" the little boy asserted, half-muffled against his shirt. "Don't be sad...it hurts..."
Bloody images forgotten, Kenshin tucked his arm tight around the little boy, pulling him closer--it was automatic somehow, a gut reaction of comfort for both himself and the child. The small body was warm and real, in need of reassurance as much as he himself was, and for a few open moments he allowed himself to just bask in this rare closeness, this unique tenderness. Never in his life had he sensed such contentment and caring, such complete and utter trust--not from anyone he'd ever known.
Not even Tomoe.
There were no shadows in Kenji's ki--no faint mistrust or nagging doubts, nothing to conceal or accuse; he was happy, he was concerned, he was content. The little boy was living simply in this moment, cozy and safe in the arms of the young man who would one day be his father. Like this, it was so easy to just be...
Was this what it might've been like, if he and Tomoe had been able to have a family--if she hadn't...?
Kenshin's head bowed over that of the child, flame-scarlet mingling with the darker red.
The lump that rose in his throat was hard to choke down; as it was, his eyes stung with emotion he always kept so tightly reined--but there was no one here in the yard, none but Kenji. The thought of what he might have someday--if this child was his, and he found himself hoping it was true--made his throat tighten almost painfully with a yearning gladness. If there could be a life anything like the inadequate reflection of which he was glimpsing here...even without Tomoe...
"Touchan?" Kenji's small voice spoke up softly. "You're still sad! Why?"
"I'm not...sad anymore," the young man replied somewhat unsteadily, blinking the remnants away. "I was just thinking."
"You're sad," the boy asserted, frowning little brows over sharp eyes turned up to face him, unconvinced.
"Just remembering someone I lost..." Kenshin whispered, looking away from the child's deep eyes. Two years--had it already been two years? The pain of her death still burned fresh as a hot brand, yet it felt as though he'd been alone forever. He didn't know Kenji's presence could be such a balm to that still-raw ache...
A small hand touched his left cheek, startling him into stillness once again, tiny fingers tracing the familiar cross-shaped scar--healed but still livid--that marred the smooth skin. "You remember. I know that story."
Kenshin's breath caught sharply in his throat, and he reached up to grab the little hand away from that precious, heavy mark, holding it gently.
"You have that..." Kenji never looked away from Kenshin's eyes, concentrating his limited vocabulary on what he was trying to say to help--and it was probably the longest, most thought-out thing the concerned little boy had ever said. "'Cause...it's a promise. You said so. Tomoe-san no yakusoku. So you remember. Tomoe-san is watching...an' smiling. Remember, no being sad."
Kenshin found it so hard to breathe again, staring in awe and wonder at the little one's wisdom, gifts from a father's remembered words; words that were a childish echo of something he himself had said--or would say, someday...
Someday, when he had finally healed...
Which meant that somehow he could.
On impulse, he wrapped his arms around the tiny boy and pulled him close again, unable to speak for the raw gratitude of knowing that he could perhaps be happy one day, that there was the hope of mending. He had not held someone like this, just to share warmth and human touch and--dare he think it--love, since Tomoe died. No one else had reached him that way, not even Okami-san and her affectionate pats and hugs and smiles as she tried her best to help. Yet here in this one tiny form was such innocent warmth, innocent caring, given freely to him without condition...
"Touchan? No more sad?"
Kenshin drew back a little to offer a shaky smile. "I think so...for now," he replied softly, meeting the bright pools of the child's eyes.
Kenji nodded half to himself, apparently pleased that the matter was resolved. "No more sad!" he reminded, almost a diffident little command, in utter seriousness.
"Aa," Kenshin agreed, still smiling faintly. "I'll try."
It might be a long time before he could keep his word--but he could try. His grief and guilt over Tomoe's death was still too fresh, still too heavy--still waiting to spring upon him should his mind drift away, should his thoughts turn to her and their brief life together--but he knew now that in time the open wound would close as his scar had...and perhaps one day cease to bleed...
A sudden sense of nearness and a soft scuffing footstep put Kenshin on-edge; cursing himself for letting his emotions blanket his awareness, he tensed and jerked his head up, glancing over toward the Inn's back door. His feelings were still raw within, but outwardly they had been pushed aside by the cool, wary face of the former hitokiri that he still had to be, until the war was won.
Awakening senses, fully alert once more, recognized the person coming through the door just as Kenji's head turned as well. Okami-san's presence registered the instant before he saw her, allowing him to relax somewhat, expression going from stern to...if not friendly, something a little more welcoming.
"Himura-chan...?" she called quietly, spotting him right where she'd left them a half-hour ago. She paused as she did, suddenly feeling as though she were interrupting something precious.
"Okami-san," Kenshin acknowledged, realizing that he was still holding Kenji close against him. The little boy had turned to smile at the woman as she approached, so Kenshin surreptitiously released him and scooted back.
"I'm sorry to disturb you--" And she looked like she meant it, too. "--but Katsura-han gave me a message to relay to you."
"Hai?" Clearing his throat, Kenshin sat up straight and hoped his eyes weren't any bit red.
"Several of the troop leaders are due to arrive tonight for the monthly meeting--Takasugi-han is going to be there too--and Katsura-han would like you and Kenji-chan to be in attendance."
"And Kenji?" Startled, Kenshin's browsed raised, glancing down at the boy. "Naze? I can understand if Katsura-san wants me to go, but...there's no need for Kenji."
Okami-san frowned slightly. "I'm not quite sure--something about preparations, and making arrangements...I think they're trying to decide how Kenji-chan's presence is going to affect our progress."
"I see..." Pensive, his eyes narrowed. "I'll be there as he asks."
"I'll let Katsura-han know." The matron paused again, giving him a critical look. "Might I suggest...you and Kenji-chan make yourselves quite presentable before then? You, Himura-chan, look somewhat frazzled."
Chagrined, Kenshin's mouth quirked as he ran his fingers through his errant, neglected bangs. "Sou da na...and I feel kind of frazzled too. But you're right--I'll get cleaned up and look the part of the fearsome hitokiri." He gave another glance to the little boy who had gotten up to scurry over to Okami-san for a hug. "I don't have anything for him, though..."
The older woman laughed briefly and patted Kenji on the head. "Oh, don't worry, Himura-chan. When Sakura did the laundry this morning she washed this little man's clothes as well as yours. He'll have his blue yukata back again; I think if you just give him a bath and comb this pretty hair, he'll do fine."
Kenshin's shoulders slumped a bit. "Another bath?"
"Bath!" Kenji agreed boisterously, already bouncing back to lean on Kenshin's knees. "Bath, Touchan!"
"Later, Kenji--we'll do it later..." Kenshin sighed, resisting the urge to rub the bridge of his nose. Apparently satisfied, the little boy whooped and scuttled across the yard toward his tree-victim of earlier, in search of his stick. "How many baths do little kids need?" the young swordsman hazarded, not sure if he wanted to know the answer.
"As many times as they get dirty, apparently," Okami-san answered, almost wistfully. "Which is a lot, given that they play from dawn to dusk and have no care for formalities or good clothes or mud puddles. You haven't lived until you get to clean Kenji-chan up after a mud puddle."
The look Kenshin was giving her made her laugh aloud. Wiping her eyes, the proprietess of the Inn took a rare moment to sit down on the porch a yard distant from the young swordsman, watching Kenji play Super Samurai again with his little bit of bamboo.
"Have you been around children much?" she asked at length, not pressuring him by turning her eyes to him--instead, merely watching the little boy in the yard as if commenting on the pleasant weather.
Kenshin shrugged vaguely in answer, his own eyes also tracking the child. "I was with children fairly often...when I was in Otsu. They would come and see me, to play games...but they would always go home for dinner and bed."
"What about before that?" Okami-san inquired. "Before you...met with Katsura-han?"
"There wasn't much playing to be done, before," Kenshin replied. "Shishou kept me hard at work training, and there weren't any other kids on the mountain. Sometimes I'd see children my age when we went down to the village, but most of them avoided me, especially once I started wearing a sword. Some thought I was a samurai...sometimes it was the hair that frightened them away..." He snorted briefly in amusement. "...and sometimes it was my Shishou. He's...very imposing. Especially to kids."
"I can imagine," Okami-san tittered softly, hiding her sadness at his brief explanation. She knew that she was one of the few to whom he'd actually told anything of his past--Katsura-han being another one of those few. But she was fairly certain there were things he'd told her that not even their master knew--like his life during training, or things he remembered of his life even before his master. He had confided in her once, long ago, that he had been the lowest of peasants, even a slave--not a samurai, not even supposed to pick up a full katana--and she would not break his trust, not even to Katsura-han--
"Itai!" came a sudden wail from across the yard--Kenji, who had dropped to his rump to cradle one foot, fighting back tears.
To Okami-san's intense surprise, Kenshin was up as soon as the cry fell, darting to kneel at Kenji's side in a flash of the speed he normally reserved for his enemies. He looked down at the upset boy, searching for any sign of blood and injury--
--and finding none, simply blinked. "What happened?" he asked, letting the small child lean against his leg. "What's wrong?"
"Toes ouched," Kenji explained with a short sniffle, holding up his foot. "Gotta pokie."
"Is that all," Kenshin snorted, almost affectionately, maneuvering the small appendage so he could examine the bottom of it. There was indeed a splinter in the little boy's foot, right in his big toe--not a bloody stab wound as Kenshin was used to, so he couldn't quite see the point of the fuss...but then, it was a decently-sized sliver. "Alright, hold still..."
Kenji bit his bottom lip in near-comical seriousness as Kenshin delicately removed the offending bit of sharp matter. It took only a moment before the sliver was gone, and the boy was once again smiling.
"There, now do you feel better?" Kenshin asked, standing up to dust off his knees.
"Hai!" Kenji responded, sparkle restored, pain forgotten. "All better!"
"And it was just a little tiny--oro! Hold up, you--" Kenshin snagged the child by his collar to brush off the rear end of the white--or formerly white--borrowed yukata, which had been gifted with a coating of dust courtesy of Kenji's splinter-induced plunk. "What a mess..." he sighed at last, releasing the little boy to scamper off to play once more--wondering why he'd bothered.
Okami-san was already on her way over to him, looking as though she were trying not to laugh. "What, no one died?" she offered amusedly. "Well that's a relief."
Kenshin sighed, shaking his head at himself. "He needs some sandals or something..."
The older woman looked at him compassionately, with faint reprimand. "He needs a lot of things, Himura-chan."
"I know that." The youth shrugged, half-helplessly.
Okami-san sighed, patting his shoulder with a sympathetic smile. "I can bring Kenji's yukata out to you, so you'll be ready..."
To her surprise, Kenshin shook his head. "Don't, please. I can come and get it."
"Very well," she replied with a nod. "This way."
He followed her a few steps before he realized that he'd forgotten his daisho when Kenji cried out; shocked at himself, he muttered an unappreciative descriptor for his lapse and stepped over quickly to retrieve them. Okami-san just shook her head ruefully and called Kenji over to accompany them inside.
"...for this street, this street, and four more on the bridges here..."
Okita caught himself yawning in the middle of his subordinate's speech on the currently proposed changes in patrol routes and squad deployment. "Ah, gomen, gomen!" he chuckled at himself, at the lieutenant's askance look. "The afternoon is so lazy...please, continue."
Trying to ignore Saito's snort from the door of the meeting room, the man finished his explanation with only a few hesitant glances at the imposing Shinsengumi captain. "Er, yes...that is...four more patrol groups on these bridges, in case anyone slips past the eight between the markets and the south residential."
"Have you taken into account the street layouts versus the buildings around them?" Saito asked abruptly.
"I...we did lay this out by using the original maze design of the inner city," the lieutenant replied, paling slightly. "Any gaps in the patrols should be compensated by the lack of direct path in the--"
"Ahou," Saito growled, causing the shorter soldier to jump.
"Maa, Saito-san, be gentle," Okita cautioned lightly, trying not to snicker. Several other Shinsengumi in the room tittered, which didn't help.
The tall captain rolled his eyes. "If this ahou didn't plan for the heights of the buildings, I might as well start finding someone else to do his job. He'll be dead, because the Battousai will have hopped right over one of those flimsy alley walls he's bragging about and cut him down."
"Ano...we did take that into account, sir," the lieutenant protested politely, if cautiously. "We planned for the height of the walls versus the height of the buildings, and--"
"Unless you were only planning on using the two-story and higher buildings as a barrier, don't even continue," Saito growled again. "You obviously haven't been studying your opponent, have you?"
"Er, ano, that is..."
"What Saito-san means to say," Okita interjected smoothly, offering a pleasant smile to the snow-pale lieutenant, "is that the Hitokiri Battousai can jump like a mountain cat, and can easily reach any window on the second floor of most structures. It is impossible to simply corner him in a maze, when he is not bound by the walls of that maze."
"Ah...hai..." Wide-eyed, the young lieutenant stared disbelievingly--accompanied by either shaking heads from the more experienced troops in the meeting room, or mutters of equal disbelief from the less.
"Quiet, all of you," Saito snapped. "Any fools here who think they know anything had better be prepared to die. None of you has any experience whatsoever. And I tell you..." He stood up from his lean on the doorframe to glare at all of the faces gathered within. "There is no man here today who has actually faced Battousai in the field. Because, ahou-tachi, every man who has ever fought that devil of a hitokiri--every one who ever drew his sword and stood his ground, exept for Okita and myself--has died."
He fixed each soldier with a look that lasted no longer than a second, as many of them shifted uncomfortably. "I will tell you this now--if any of your patrols does happen to catch up with Battousai, it is quite likely that all of you will die exactly as your comrades did last night, down to the last man. The Battousai is not a rat that can be cornered--" At this, he directed a glare at the lieutenant. "--he is a dragon which can only be slain by the strongest of knights."
Dead silence reigned. Glaring at the gray faces of the Shogun's finest--so many of them new recruits, given the number of recent deaths--Saito curled his lip and finally turned away with a snort.
"You need to modify your plans a bit," Okita said at last, his softer tones more welcome than Saito's scornful ones, as the other squad lieutenants looked to him gratefully. "None of you will be able to kill the Battousai--unless one of you is a prodigy and hasn't told us..."
A polite titter ran through the gathered men.
"So the object of your patrols should be to avoid a direct confrontation with him," Okita went on, still smiling. "You should be able to net any common rebels you come across, but if you find him, he has two options. One--he can flee, and he usually will if he is not defending rebel men. That means your lives are spared--if you do not pursue him." The Captain of the First Squad had a strange glint in his eye. "Or two--he can attack, and he will if he is on assignment or protecting rebel activity. In that case, many of you will die before you draw your swords."
Now many of the men were back where they started--just as pale as before.
"But take heart," Okita went on with a sunny look, "he's not cruel, and is very efficient--most likely you won't even feel a thing."
"Ahou ga..." Saito muttered disgustedly. "And you think I'm a problem."
"Hai, hai, gomen..." The shorter captain laughed briefly at himself and went back to the subject. "To wit, gentlemen; if the Battousai runs, that's our chance. That means he's on his own and is not going to seek to attack. If we can coordinate our parols when the alert is given, and drive him where we need him to go, we can assure that only Saito-san and myself, or one of the other captains, need cross swords with him. Safer for you, more fun for us."
Renewed--if somewhat nervous--chuckles sounded from the lieutenants.
The one who had been doing the speaking gave a half-bow. "I will heed your advice, Captain. We will proceed with these patrols today, but starting tonight we will begin with your new plans."
Okita nodded, hiding the slightly predatory look--the one he shared with Saito sometimes--behind a pleasant smile. "Arigato. You're dismissed."
The gathered Shinsengumi lieutenants bowed and rose to file out, trying not to look like they were tiptoeing past the leaning Saito. He only snarled at the last man out, sending that young man scurrying, and turned to face Okita, who was still seated in his place.
"Fleeing? Drive him?" Saito snorted, turning a raised eyebrow at his compatriot. "What happened to just holding him off until we get there?"
Okita sighed, smiling fondly. "You're a most excellent warrior, Saito-san, but you forget sometimes that not everyone is as strong as you. We both know Red's too fast a killer to be held up by a few bodies thrown his way. And he's quick on the uptake as well--if he suspects he's being delayed, he'll cut and run, quite literally."
Saito snorted again.
"This way will perhaps spare us a few men," Okita went on with a shrug. "And give them some hope of success--and survival. If Battousai just thinks he's being chased, instead of actively baited or held up, he'll most likely run to where the confrontation seems less probable."
"Where you assume we'll be headed when the alarm is given. That is, if he doesn't smell a trap and bolt," Saito grumbled, looking disgusted by what he had to admit. "Are you forgetting he's got better senses than either of us?"
"No," Okita replied, still smiling, though it had gone cool. "That just means we'll have to be very, very quick. And if I'm wrong, we'll be back where we started, no more and no less."
"That's a long way to hike to go in a circle."
The Captain of the First just shrugged again, standing up to leave with his companion. "At least this way the patrols that catch up with him can begin to narrow down his patterns of movement and perhaps even his general location." He offered another much less sunny--and much more sharp--grin. "Then you and I can go sniffing around, ne?"
At last, Saito smiled as well--a thin-edged, hungry slash of a smile. "Now that sounds much better..."
Once again, they were in the kitchen--the empty kitchen, which, incidentally, conjoined with the laundry area--and Kenji was sitting on the worktable, this time with his happily wagging feet dangling over the edge. He was munching away on a piece of carrot, with Kenshin leaning on the table right beside him to make sure he didn't fall.
"Don't mention it." Okami-san waved away Kenshin's gratitude with a smile. "We're doing basketloads of laundry anyway--what's one more little yukata?"
Kenshin glanced down at the small, light gray-blue garment he held. It was no worse for wear, after having been blood-smudged last night--for which the young swordsman was supremely grateful. "Still, thank you," he insisted, dropping his head. "Sorry to be such a burden. Especially since you'll have to be looking after him so much..."
"Not too much," Okami-san warned, shaking a finger at him, eliciting a surprised blink. "You're going to have to do some of the looking-after yourself, young man. I can help, but I can't be running after him all the time; I have a cover operation to run." She winked conspiratorily.
"Oro...but...I have to work so often, and...!" Startled, the brief splutter just slipped out.
"Himura-chan, don't worry," Okami-san said soothingly. "I'll help you out with that; the girls and I will watch him when you have to work for Katsura-san, or when you need to rest. But he won't want to be with me and the girls all the time, you know," she explained firmly. "He's a little boy who loves his father--he'd rather be with you. Isn't that right, Kenji-chan?"
Kenji swallowed his bite of ninjin to grin dazzlingly. "Touchan daaaisuki!" he announced, at which Okami-san laughed.
Kenshin flushed and gulped, and tried to speak; all he got was an embarassingly girlish squeak.
"See what I mean?" the matron chuckled. "He doesn't want to be stuck in a flock of hens all day. And I'm afraid we can't always spare the time. So when you're not working and not practicing kenjutsu, you'd best be prepared to be in charge of him," Okami-san went on--apparently deciding to lay down some ground rules for Kenji's stay at her Inn. "He'll need to be fed and washed and entertained, and kept out of trouble."
"And you'll have to make sure he doesn't wander away from you, or get outside the yard on his own. You must keep him out of the way of the soldiers and captains, and most especially out of sight of the Shinsengumi on the streets or any surprise searches. Is that clear?"
"He's going to need more than just this one set of clothes, obviously, as well as some footwear and perhaps some toys to keep him occupied. You may want to get him his own small futon, which is easier to wash in case of accidents. And if he gets sick, you should come get me right away--I know you can keep him out of most mundane dangers yourself, but if he gets a cold or some such the both of you are going to be miserable..."
"This might seem like a lot to you, but it's really just basic things," Okami-san continued. "Common sense, alertness, and safety will get you far, and you should already be good at those. He needs you for everything, Himura-chan--you have to realize that. He's too small and too young to do very much at all by himself. But don't worry." She smiled. "Just love him and take care of him, and everything else should work out fine."
"Yes, Himura-chan?" Okami-san asked gently, spotting the terrified look creeping through the former hitokiri's already-cracking mask of neutrality.
"...I don't know how..." he admitted, half above a whisper, head bowed with embarrassed distress.
Okami-san stared at him in surprised fondness for a moment. The look on his face was just so precious; beneath the crumpled mask, anxiety and uncertainty mixed with determination and an almost childlike resolve to try...really, he hadn't changed, not a bit. Only the scars on his face and the scars on his heart; he was still the same good-hearted boy she had always known, ever since he'd been a gawky youngster in the big city for the first time--and she'd held him then just as she would do now. Without a moment's hesitation, she pulled the unresisting youth into a hug.
"You dear boy...of course I'll help you," she murmured, over his bowed head. She smoothed a hand over his back, feeling the tension in his far-too-slim shoulders. Father though he might be, he was still so young, and so new to it. The only life he'd ever known was the sword, and the war, and endless blood--and his one brief glimpse of a happy life was cut short in one night by one tragic mistake. And now this cold-faced, gentle-hearted death-dealer had somehow been entrusted with a child; barely more than a boy himself, he suddenly had to shift his perspective, his whole world, to include another who was entirely dependent on him.
At last, the trembling in his shoulders eased under her gentle rubbing, and his breaths were a little more even. Kenji, long since done with his carrot, was watching solemn and wide-eyed when Kenshin finally straightened and stepped back. Hiding his face behind the unruly fall of his bangs, he spoke softly but clearly.
"Arigato gozaimasu, Okami-san. You've helped me so much...through all of this...ever since I came, and I've hardly done anything for you but carry water and hang laundry...and I don't even do that any more--"
"Nonsense." She ruffled his tempting red hair, smiling in a motherly way, grateful as always that there was no one else in the kitchen; Kenshin would never have opened himself so freely, and she could never have broken decorum to reach out to him. The others would be shocked if they knew who their illustrious hitokiri really was behind closed doors. "I love having you stay here, and not just for the chores. It's like having my boy back in the house again."
"You can always ask me if you have any questions," she assured him. "And if I'm not available there's always Sakura or Midori or even Rika--they've all had children of their own and they can give you advice."
"Aa...I'll keep that in mind." Kenshin glanced over at Kenji, who was watching him seriously. "Oi, don't look like that. I'm not sad. See?"
The smile he attempted probably didn't look all that great, but it apparently convinced the boy. Kenji's stern flat line of a mouth shifted into a happy curve once more. "Hai, Touchan! No more sad!"
Okami-san smiled maternally at the interplay, feeling glad that this small toddler could coax even that wan effort of a smile out of the quiet, lonely, wounded shadow of a boy her Himura-chan had become. Kenji-chan is good medicine for him, she considered wisely. His place is right where it helps most--in Himura-chan's heart.
"I've got an idea," the proprietess announced. "You've got several hours to pass before your meeting with Katsura-san and the others; why don't we take that time to go shopping?"
The former hitokiri looked up from the little boy to stare dubiously at her. "Shopping?"
"To get those sandals you were suggesting for Kenji-chan," she answered with a smile. "And an extra set of clothes and such. Goodness knows he'll need it if he's to be with us for a while. Did nothing come with him?"
Kenshin hesitated a half-beat. "No. Nothing but these clothes."
"Sou ka..." Okami-san didn't want to pry, guessing that perhaps the boy had had to be whisked off with only the clothes on his back. "Then we'll just have to fix that! You two go get your bath in short order, and I'll get my bag--there were some things I was going to send Midori to fetch, but I can do it myself; it'll be nice to get out of the Inn for a spell."
"Bath, bath," Kenji began to singsong cheerfully. "Bath-bath-bath!"
"Hai...bath..." Kenshin's shoulders drooped once more, as he caught up an eagerly wriggling Kenji and cradled him in his free arm. Child in one arm, yukata in the other, the young swordsman headed for the kitchen door. "We'll be back...I hope."
Okami-san's soft, amused voice made him turn, seeing her gentle, motherly smile. "Hai?"
She winked at him. "Just make it a game."
Puzzled, he went on his way.