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.

Rurouni Kenshin:
The Reason

Part 3: But I Continue Learning

3rd year of Keiou
Early Spring 1867 - Kyoto

"Make it a game," she says, Kenshin thought sourly as he and Kenji stripped down in preparation for another--and he labeled it loosely--bath. Just make it a game, huh? How do you make a game out of taking a bath? You can play games in the bath, but bathing is not a game...

He eyed Kenji as the tiny child tossed his undergarments away carelessly and made for the washtubs, not relishing the prospect of another battle to get the child bathed. The last one had been chancy at best, a lucky turn away from approaching defeat...how could he make sure this went better than before?

Kenshin headed after the boy, preparing himself for the inevitable clash. Make it a game. Make it a game. Yeah, right. Everyone knows bathing is no game, just a process...

I know that, realized that helpful little heart-voice, but does he know that?

"Yosh'!" he announced with quite unusual cheer, making Kenji stop and look at him curiously. "Let's get the bath done so we can go shopping. What do you say, Kenji?"

The little boy blinked, then smiled. "Hai!"

There--now he's got the right attitude for a trainee. He's got to want to accomplish the goal I choose for him--so I make it sound really, really appealing. Kenshin actually dared a grin at his stroke of insight. Arigato, Shishou; I'm going to borrow one of your training methods...

Though I'm going to do it a lot more gently, he added tartly.

"Here's how it's going to be," Kenshin told the small boy, seating himself on a stool. "We've got to get done fast so we can go with Okami-san. So I'll help wash you and you help wash me."

Kenji's eyebrows went up. Way up. "Wash Touchan?"

"Aa. Here's the soap." Kenshin presented him with a sudsy cloth, keeping a second for himself. He got in some good washing as Kenji stood there, looking astonished. Then the giggles kicked in and Kenji started to do his part, scrubbing earnestly at Kenshin's chest, oblivious to the quick and thorough scouring he was getting.

He was quite absorbedly washing Kenshin's knee by the time the hair-cleaning was finished and Kenji was rinsed and pronounced done. Kenshin got some extra help getting himself scrubbed, but having one's back washed is never something to complain about, so he didn't. He was only slightly displeased to discover a bit of sticky fish-grease in his hair from the lunch fiasco, but it washed out easily enough; no harm done, so he let it pass.

Into the steaming tub they went, Kenshin once more keeping a careful hold on the small child. This time, the heat seemed to soothe the boy; instead of wriggling, he leaned back against Kenshin's chest with a soft sigh.

And Kenshin sat as still as stone, staring down at the top of the child's damp head. Kenji rested against him in perfect innocent unconcern, little hands tracing lazy whorls in the warm water just to watch it swirling, humming softly to himself.

Okami-san's going to expect us soon, Kenshin thought, after a few minutes of sitting still, allowing himself to relax, bathing not only in warm water but in the warm, contented ki of the little boy. We're going out...she'll be waiting, and we only have a few hours before the meeting, then I'll be late for Katsura-san's appointment... His thoughts moved slowly, circling back, as though he were trying to convince himself to get up.

We have to go; we're expected. I have things to do...responsibilities... He looked down at the damp tousled head against his chest. ...but I just don't want to leave this...

Eventually, common sense and the press of time won out; he carried Kenji out of the tub and headed over to finish up. Somehow, the getting-dressed part seemed to go a little more smoothly; less water ended up in places it shouldn't have during the drying process and there were no frantic grabs to keep an errant scamp from diving back into the bathtub. After getting himself dressed in the clothes he'd brought--his usual dark blue, a little more suitable for going out--he helped a giggling Kenji into his little blue-gray yukata and scooped him up to carry him outside.

Once again, he left the used clothes in the laundry bin. Blood or no blood, it was nice not to have to worry about them.

There were fewer men in the halls of the Inn during the day, since many had either gone out about their business or were down in one of the lounge rooms drinking or talking. Kenshin was able to make it to his room without seeing a single soul, though he could sense several nearby, and once there he set about finishing the process of dressing and making sure Kenji was presentable as well.

They sat together at the open bedroom window, letting the breeze dry their loose hair. Kenji was somewhat wriggly but smiling and cooperative, less genki than in the morning probably because his energy was going down as the day wore on. Kenshin kept an almost unconscious smile on his face--a faint, reflective one--as he sat the child between his knees to comb his unruly mane.

It was a painstaking process, working small tangles in the surprisingly long strands loose with comb and fingers without making Kenji wince; the results of going through two baths, a sleep, and nearly a day without a brushing. Kenshin went about his work with careful delicacy and uncharacteristic gentleness, bearing an expression of tender concentration that would have shocked far too many of his compatriots.

Soon, the red locks were clear and smooth from roots to tips, though Kenshin continued to comb for a bit longer, just because the child's hair was so soft--even softer than his own, and just as thick, with a silky newness to it that brought to mind the down of a baby bird. The color was somewhat deeper than his as well, shading toward true red rather than the flaming scarlet of Kenshin's long bright mane. But unless an observer really looked, Kenshin and Kenji were redheads one and the same, and there could be no mistaking where the boy had gotten that hair.

No, Kenshin thought absently, running his fingers over Kenji's soft hair one last time. No mistake...

He didn't even stop to realize that it was the first time he'd consciously accepted that assumption as valid. His mind didn't even protest or raise a doubt; without even thinking about it, he was slipping into the role.

Kenshin's own hair was tackled with less finesse, more speed. He defeated the knots in the long tangle quickly, winding it up into a high tail as was his custom, though it was still just slightly damp. He completed his routine with his armguards and tabi, straightening his top and brushing lint off his hakama.

Kenji had occupied himself during this activity with trying to pull the futon down from its folded stack to jump on it like a pile of leaves. Lips qurking, Kenshin caught him up, deciding that the boy needed finishing touches as well. A hair tie would keep that fiery mass in check--though not a high ponytail like his own, he decided after a bit of combing; no, it would look best low on the boy's neck, to keep his appearance soft and innocent, as he truly was.

"Ready yet?" Kenji asked yet again, fidgeting as Kenshin looked him over one last time.

"Not quite," Kenshin replied, partaking of a ritual that had become commonplace ever since he'd lost his place in the shadows as a hitokiri--the disposal of the hair.

His red hair was very distinctive, and if even a strand of it was found here by the Shinsengumi investigators that occasionally showed up for searches and raids--a strand, or any trace of his presence at all--then Okami-san and her staff could be slaughtered for harboring him. So each time he combed, the hair that collected in the comb had to be gathered and properly disposed of. Usually he took it down to the kitchen, where it was burned in the stove.

"Ready now?" Kenji wheedled, bouncing impatiently by the door.

"Aa, I guess we are," the youth replied, pausing one moment to slip his money pouch into his gi and set his wakizashi in his belt. Okay, let's see...money? Check. Sword? Check. Hair? Check. Haori and...oh--hat...got it. He had everything he needed; why was it that he felt so unprepared?

Because he was venturing out once more into the streets beyond the Inn, without the cover of darkness, in a city where every lawman had his description and orders to kill on sight--and not only that, but he was bringing a child along. The probability of disaster just got higher. Even if Okami-san did most of her shopping in the more Ishin-friendly streets--and there were quite a few--there was always the chance of a Shinsengumi patrol or some Shogunate loyalist with a loose katana.

But Kenji was tugging determinedly on his sleeve, hopping up and down like a rabbit in his eagerness to go. Kenshin let show a small, wan smile and allowed himself to be pulled out the door, hat and katana in hand.

* * * * *

He always felt like the hunted in the open street--and being a hunter himself, it was the worst possible feeling. There were too many eyes, too many people; the sun highlighted him as a target, and there was too much chatter and noise to distinguish the whispering ring of a drawn blade, the patter of stealthily charging footsteps. All he could do was listen to the flicker of ki all around him, watching the shifting cool colors of everyday emotion in the people going about their business--waiting for the sharp sparks of aggression and attack.

Ever since he'd left the shadows as the Ishinshishi prime hitokiri, Kenshin had become ill-at-ease walking down the streets during the day. Normally, he reserved his trips for evenings when he was not working, so that the lengthening shadows of sunset afforded him some cover. Even if he knew it really wasn't true, he felt as though everyone was watching him; the shadows of his straw hat hid his face somewhat, but they could never completely disguise the flaming color of his hair, nor the brand of sorrows on his cheek.

Thankfully, his ki-senses told him the truth--few people noticed him, going about their busy lives as they were; those that did only prickled with surprise and curiosity, seldom recognition. Most gazes were drawn to a different head of bright red hair--the tiny vibrant boy skipping down the street with him.

Here in the street, Kenshin slipped back into the role of the warrior, the killer, the deadly danger of the hitokiri he had once been wrapping around him like a cold, comforting, defensive cloak. There was no sign of his earlier gentleness; he walked several paces behind Okami-san with no expression on his face, keeping one eye on her heels and the other on the little boy who bounced back and forth between them, barefoot and excited to be out and about.

And to the hitokiri's hunter-eye, the child was a bright, laughing target for any enemy who might be on the street; with that in mind, Battousai watched and listened and guarded, hypervigilant, mentally frowning at the situation, the possibility of danger, the feeling of exposure.

Don't walk so close to me; if I'm attacked, you'll be hurt, the hunter-sense commanded, when Kenji dropped back once again to pant and laugh and ask another of his seemingly-endless questions. Don't hang on my right arm; I may have to draw my sword. Don't talk so much and laugh so loud. Don't draw so much attention to yourself; don't let them connect you with me. Don't stay so close--don't stray too far!

Kenshin fought off a scowl at himself, kicking the predatory part of his consciousness for its paranoia. He knew his vigilance was well-warranted, but really, he could trust Okami-san to know where to go; she'd been in the espionage and undercover business longer than he had, that was for sure. His job had required secrecy in solitude; hers meant keeping deadly secrets and operating her daily business among hundreds of people. She knew what she was doing.

Another tug on his hand reminded him ruefully of his very small companion, who was becoming frustrated with his long silence and continued refusal to engage in meaningful conversation--meaningful being to answer "What's that?" and "Why?" repeatedly, about nearly everything the boy saw.

"Touchan, what's that?" Kenji asked, true to form, pointing at a wooden cart decorated with flags and signs.

"A yakitori seller," Kenshin replied simply, scanning the cart once before looking straight ahead again.

"An' what's that?" Another finger accompanied the question.

"A greengrocer."

"We'll be stopping there on the way back," Okami-san glanced back to inform him, smiling as if enjoying a stroll on holiday. "We'll pick up the vegetables and fish when we're done looking for clothes, so they won't spoil while we're shopping."

"Hai," Kenshin responded. Okami-san "tsked" to herself about his reversion to a cold shell, but he couldn't help it much; the threat of danger always put him on-edge, sharpened him, and with Kenji along it only seemed to make his gnawing anxiety worse.

"Asaya-han should have what we need," the older woman went on, half to herself, slowing down to turn toward one of the shops on the other side of the street. "She has good fabrics and is always willing to give me a low price..."

Kenshin didn't really know much about clothes shopping--if it fit, he wore it, and dark colors were most suitable for his work; and that was it. He had little use for what was "stylish," though Okami-san had told him once to avoid wearing colors that clashed garishly with his bright hair. Whatever that meant.

With Kenji still on his sleeve, he stepped through the door of the shop after Okami-san, removing his hat once he was within the small store's interior, away from so many eyes. There were many racks, all of them hung about with kimono of many shapes and sizes, in a dizzying array of colors.

"Youokoshi, Hana-han!" called a female voice from the back of the shop. Within moments, a plump woman barely taller than Kenshin himself bustled out from behind the racks and displays, dressed in flowery colors and smiling a sunny welcome at Okami-san and her guests. "And what a lovely day we're having, ne?"

"Asaya-han, konnichiwa," Okami-san replied pleasantly. "It's good to see you again. I think you remember Himura-han...?"

The plump woman looked Kenshin up and down for a moment before smiling again. "Ah, yes, of course I remember him! My carrot-top samurai boy! Goodness, I haven't seen you in ages, Himura-han--has it been that many years? And you've grown a bit too, I see!"

Kenshin only gave a brief nod of a bow; he remembered this busy, active woman from his early days in Kyoto, when he was only just getting into his role as hitokiri. Okami-san had brought him here a couple times, to outfit him with new clothes during one of the only major growth spurts he'd ever had. And even so, the new clothes and alterations made weren't too concerned with height, just a little more width to his shoulders.

Nowadays, he hardly bothered with clothes shopping; he had a couple of sets, and that was good enough.

"We'll be needing some small yukata," Okami-san was explaining to the seamstress, "and possibly one little hakama for dress occasions."

"Child-size?" Asaya-san wondered aloud, puzzled for a moment--until she glanced questioningly at Kenshin and caught sight of the tiny redhead peeking out from behind the young swordsman's leg. "Oh, goodness! Goodness gracious me! Look at that hair! Is that your little one, Himura-han?"

"Ah, yes, this is Kenji-chan," Okami-san informed her when Kenshin froze blankly, reaching down to coax the little boy out. "There've been some distressing circumstances, you see, and this child has nothing but one piece of clothing to his name--"

"Oh my, say no more, Hana-han!" Asaya-san interrupted, nodding sagely before bending to Kenji's level with a wide smile. "Hello there, cutie! Are you shopping with your Otousan today?"

"Un!" Kenji replied, quickly warming up to the middle-aged woman's breezy chatter. "Shoppin' for waraji!"

"And footwear as well! Smart boy, smart boy!" Asaya-san gushed, patting Kenji on the head and cooing like a doting auntie. "Such a sweet little thing! And he looks just like his papa--two redheaded peas in a pod! Goodness gracious, Himura-han, what a precious little angel you have here!"

Overwhelmed, and unprepared for what he found himself in the middle of, Kenshin surreptitiously edged away from the woman. "Ah...arigato..."

"No need to blush so, Himura-han!" Asaya-san winked at him, going back to her gushing over Kenji, who was simply eating it all up with the most sparkling of childish smiles. "What a darling little boy!"

"She's quite vivid, isn't she?" Okami-san whispered aside to Kenshin, trying not to laugh at the somewhat-helpless non-expression on the serious youth's face. "Here, I'll spare you just this once."

The proprietess of the Inn turned to the seamstress, in the most pleasant and businesslike manner. "Asaya-han, would you happen to have any yukata in Kenji-chan's size?"

The plump woman looked up from her engaging conversation about favorite animals. "This size? Oh--hai, hai, I believe I do!" Patting Kenji on the head one more time, she rose and bustled off again, gesturing for them to follow her further into the shop.

"Well, shall we?" Okami-san gave him a patient look, taking Kenji by the hand to lead him after the woman.

"Oro..." the former hitokiri sighed, heading deeper into the lion's den.

The rack at which Asaya-san stopped was full of children's clothes, from flowery multicolored girls' kimono to more plain, masculine hues for boys, arrayed in cut and color according to materials and station. Kenshin stared at the dazzling display in some disbelief, wondering how in the world one was supposed to choose from all of this--and who would wear some of those patterns of pinkness and swirls.

Maybe he should be very glad that Kenji was a boy.

"Yes, yes, here..." Asaya-san was folding through several garments on the boys' rack, pulling out a few of the smallest. "He's such a wee thing I think only these will do! Oh, he would look so kawaii in a fuscia and spring green, with that pretty hair! And goodness, this one would match his eyes--!"

"Ano, Asaya-han," Okami-san interjected politely, seeing the somewhat horrified glimmer in the back of Kenshin's blank stare, "I think we're looking for something a bit simpler, if you know what I mean." The older matron gave the seamstress a meaningful look. "We'd rather that Kenji-chan not draw too much attention to himself."

Asaya-san paused in her blithe chatter for a moment, one eyebrow raising slightly. Then the moment passed, and the plump gabbing woman returned. "Oh yes, of course, it wouldn't do to dress him up like a doll! No, not a big boy like him!"

Immensely pleased at being called a "big boy," Kenji danced eagerly alongside her to see what would be picked out. Asaya-san drew forth several boys' yukata and matching obi, setting them on the front of the racks for perusal.

Okami-san took over, once Kenshin gave her a helpless glance. "I think these two will do," the older woman said easily, making her choices skillfully. One was a dusty leaf-green with a darker belt, and the other was a soft sky-blue not too unlike the one Kenji wore now, but not as grayish. Both were plain, but made of sturdy cloth and serviceable for everyday use.

Kenshin breathed a sigh of relief; once more, the ever-efficient Okami-san had saved him, knowing much more about both clothing and children. He trusted her choices to be good ones.

"There you go, Kenji-chan," Okami-san offered, showing the little boy the two she had chosen. "Do you like these?"

Kenji made a great show of careful consideration, scrunching up his face until Kenshin began to worry that he'd reject the yukata altogether. Then, after several moments of thought, the small boy nodded at last. "Aa. Those're okay."

Both Okami-san and Asaya-san smiled, as the seamstress whisked the garments away to wrap them in paper for the sale. While she was seeing to that, Okami-san led her two redheaded charges back to the front.

Kenshin leaned a little closer to the matron. "Will I be able to afford those?" he asked softly, giving voice to a concern he'd been hiding since they'd walked into the shop.

Okami-san offered him a reassuring look. "Don't worry, plain yukata like that are fairly cheap, especially when they come small, even with a couple sets of undergarments." She smiled wryly. "Just be glad Kenji-chan isn't a little girl, otherwise the amount of cloth would cost that much more."

Kenshin gulped and nodded.

"I know you're fretting behind those icy eyes of yours," the woman scolded lightly, patting his shoulder. "Don't worry so much, Himura-chan. Oh--Asaya-han, choi...!" Abruptly breaking off her low-voiced talk with Kenshin, Okami-san stepped over to where the seamstress was wrapping the little yukata and spoke quietly to her for a moment.

Kenshin observed, but did not interfere, when the two women gave him and Kenji a measuring look and disappeared once more into the back of the shop. Kenji, also puzzled, clung to the corner of Kenshin's gi sleeve.

"Go buy waraji now, Touchan?" the boy inquired, turning his cherubic face upwards.

"Soon, I think," Kenshin responded, automatically reaching down to smooth the top of the child's hair. "When Okami-san is done."

To his surpise, Kenji took a step forward and hollered into the back of the shop, "Okami-saaan, hayaku! I wanna go!"

"Oro! Shhh! Kenji, don't shout!" Kenshin hissed, startled by the child's volume--and by his own alarmed reaction. As if one little kid yelling could bring every Shinsengumi in the city down on their heads. "Ah...it's rude to shout indoors..." he added lamely, to soften his previous snap.

Kenji just frowned at him, sticking out his lower lip. Kenshin sighed, hoping the boy's attitude wouldn't go sour.

"Yes, we're coming, Kenji-chan," the voice of Okami-san responded, laughing softly as she returned to the front with Asaya-san. Both women carried something of cloth, and between the two of them held the pair of garments up together for inspection.

Kenshin raised an eyebrow. Okami-san held up the top, a small gi of pure blue with a white undershirt; beneath it, Asaya-san held a pair of light cloud-gray hakama--a perfect miniature of a samurai outfit, very well-made and obviously of fine value. The little garments were the very same hues of blue and gray as his own favorite clothes, only several shades lighter.

Are they trying to color-coordinate us? Kenshin wondered, staring mutely at the ensemble.

"Well?" Okami-san chuckled at last. "What do you think?"

Before Kenshin could open his mouth, Kenji was bounding forward to finger the fabrics. "Waaai! Just like Touchan's! I like it! I like it!"

"That settles that!" Asaya-san laughed cheerfully. "You were right, Hana-han--you simply must get this oufit!"

Okami-san turned patient, amused eyes to the young swordsman. "Well, Himura-han?"

"Aa...it's nice, but..."

"Onegai, Touchan!" Kenji was already scuttling back to cling to his leg, gazing up pleadingly with his most darling expression. "Onegai?"

Oh, Kami-sama, how was he supposed to say no to that? Kenshin tore his gaze away from the earnest little face to stare helplessly at Okami-san once more. "I wish I could, but...I can't afford that! The quality..."

The older woman smiled sympathetically, secretly. "Then consider it a gift, Himura-han. A welcoming gift for Kenji-chan."

Kenshin boggled, unintentionally breaking his mask. "But Okami-san, I couldn't--"

"Asaya-han will put it on my bill," Okami-san interrupted, winking at the seamstress. "You can pay for the yukata easily, but this will be my gift to Kenji-chan."

"Touchan, I can have it?" At Kenshin's final, reluctant nod, Kenji began to bounce around in joy, not sure who to hug first. "Waaai! Yatta!"

Asaya-san laughed and folded up the little outfit to add it to their packages. Leading a very happy Kenji, Kenshin followed Okami-san to the counter to make their payments. Kenshin was only slightly dismayed at the price of the two yukata, but began to wonder how much Kenji was going to cost him for his clothing, food, and other needs. And Okami-san seemed to indicate that small children needed a lot... With another faint sigh, he replaced his hat and accepted the packages from Asaya-san.

"Here you are, Himura-han!" The plump seamstress leaned closer to him, still smiling as widely as ever but her voice much lower and more serious than he'd ever heard it. "No matter what happens, you take care of that little boy of yours, my carrot-top samurai. He is the most precious thing you have ever been given."

Taken aback, Kenshin glanced down at the child clinging to his sleeve, then back at the woman, nodding with a gulp. "Ah--hai. Wakatta, Asaya-san...I will."

"Good, good!" Just as surprisingly, the loud chatty seamstress had returned, stepping back to nod and bow to the departing group. "Arigato gozaimashita! And come back soon, Hana-han! Himura-han, don't let that little darling grow as tall as you before I see him again!"

Okami-san bowed shortly once more as the trio exited the shop, chuckling at the bemused look on her young companion's face. "Rather boisterous, wasn't she?"

"That's...an understatement," Kenshin replied quietly, already slipping back to the wary hitokiri once more in the street.

"She's a fearless woman, that's for sure," Okami-san commented with a sigh, glancing around to make sure no one was in earshot. "Remember? She makes the Choshu Ishinshishi soldiers' uniforms, without even her husband's knowledge."

"Aa." Kenshin glanced back once, at the door of the little clothing shop. Courage came in all shapes and sizes--from an imposing soldier to a short, plump woman who chattered endlessly in a loud voice. "She won't...mention Kenji to anyone, will she?"

Okami-san shook her head. "No, she has a great deal more discretion than that. She understood everything the moment I told her that Kenji-chan needed to draw no attention. Since she already knows who you are, it's easy enough."

"I see..." Now, Kenshin could spot the place where the older woman was leading them next. "Ah...sandals?"

Okami-san chuckled. "Sandals. Hopefully this stop won't take as long."

The place they entered next was a small, musty store that sold sandals of various types--wood, straw, and leather--as well as tabi and other sorts of socks. Kenshin had never been in this shop before; most of his footwear was secondhand.

But the atmosphere in this store was considerably chillier; almost immediately, Kenji clung to his hakama and stuck close. The hawkish gaze of the woman in charge of this shop was only emphasized by her sharp features and very black eyes--along with the steely glare of her beefy, jowly husband making more sandals in the rear. Okami-san did not smile at the woman's curt greeting, nor did she attempt to engage in conversation, simply stating their need for a child's waraji and a few pairs of tabi.

The shopmistress knew who he was, that much was certain; Kenshin could feel the coldness in her accompanied by alarm and traces of fear, though she hid it well. Her reaction to seeing Kenji at his side was only the faintest softening of that harsh gaze, along with a glimmer of surprise and disbelief in her ki.

"Hai, we do have small waraji," the woman replied to Okami-san's query. "I'm not sure if we carry any tabi quite that small; just a moment."

She turned and strode back to several drawers in the rear of the counter area, rifling through them for the footwear she was looking for. In a moment she returned with several pairs of both white and brown. "Here, lift him up on the counter and we'll see if these fit."

"Hai." Kenshin set his hat and packages on the wooden surface before reaching down to lift Kenji up beside them.

The shopkeeper picked up one small dusty foot and compared it to one of the little socks, frowned, then tried another. "How old is he?" she asked quietly, stiffly, as she worked.

"I'm three!" Kenji replied, removing the finger that had found its way into his mouth--also saving Kenshin the trouble of fishing for the answer.

"Sou ka..." Again, the woman's eyes softened just so, in a face as hard as leather. Then she was all business, as if nothing had happened. "There, I think this size will do. How many do you need?"

Caught unprepared once again, Kenshin blinked. "Ah...two, perhaps?" He glanced at Okami-san.

"Hai, two will do nicely," the proprietess of the Inn responded, giving him a praising smile. "And the brown ones, if you please; white socks are so hard to keep unstained with small children."

"So they are," replied the shopmistress, setting aside two pairs of little brown tabi and taking the rest back to their drawer. "Anata! Do you have those sandals?" she called back to her husband.

"Aa, of course I do! You needn't shout so, onna," the gravelly voice of the sandalmaker came back, as the steely-eyed man came to the front with a very tiny pair of waraji. "Oi, these should do. Been making sandals for thirty years and never missed a sizing, I haven't."

If the shopmistress had a face of leather, then the sandalmaker himself had a face of stone, and towered a good head over even Okami-san, to say nothing of Kenshin. He was a burly-armed man with a gaze just as sharp as his wife's, and a manner even more gruff.

And despite that, Kenji grinned at him as the big man put the little straw sandals on his feet--and true to his word, they fit quite nicely. The child wriggled his toes in the straps and giggled delightedly, drawing the faintest twitch from the lips of the stone-faced sandalmaker.

"Aye, when I'm right, I'm right," he growled, ruffling Kenji's bangs with calloused fingers before turning his steely black gaze to Kenshin. "Boy, I know who you are."

Despite Okami-san's presence and his knowledge that this place was supposed to be safe, Kenshin's face went cold and blank and his right hand--currently holding Kenji to keep him from tipping off the counter--ached for the grip of his sword.

If he sensed the change, the sandalmaker didn't flinch. "You lead a dangerous life," the big man went on gruffly. "Don't let him get dragged into it. You'll lose him."

Unconsciously, Kenshin's hands clutched the little boy's body tighter. "I don't intend to let him come to harm," he answered evenly, meeting the older man's gaze.

The sandalmaker's hard eyes measured him for a moment, before the beefy man shrugged and turned to head back to his work. "Just a warning, boy," he tossed over his shoulder. "From a man who's been there."

Kenshin paid his bill to the shopmistress and tucked the two pairs of small tabi in his sleeve, returning a now-sandaled Kenji to the floor and his hat to his head. Packages once again in hand, they were on their way, following Okami-san once more toward the street.

Warning senses flaring, Kenshin hissed sharply and ducked back into the sandalmaker's store even as Okami-san stepped clear of the door and noticed the commotion just down the way. The woman had barely spotted the source of the trouble before she followed his lead, trusting his instincts without hesitation.

"Shinsengumi," the matron breathed, hanging close to his side as Kenji clung to his hakama once again. "I thought their patrol wasn't until later this afternoon..."

"They've changed it again," Kenshin whispered, keeping his stance still and casual but his eyes just around the corner on the troop of uniformed men coming down the street, scattering folk before them. "I met six last night--that's probably why."

"Sou ka..." Okami-san knew perfectly well what he meant by "met"--killed, a word he could not say in public, and would not want to say within Kenji's hearing.

The ken-ki of those men was confident and alert; Kenshin could sense their awareness and tamped down on his own aggression just in case there were any sensitives among them. The Third Captain was not with this group, so none of them could know he was here. As long as he stayed in the shadow of the sandalmaker's shop, none of them would see him.

Kenji was clinging unusually close to his leg, small fingers clamping into the hakama fabric like a crab. On impulse, Kenshin picked him up and held him close, noting how pale the boy suddenly seemed and how large his blue-violet eyes had become. Kenji wrapped his arms around Kenshin's neck and buried his face away.

Masaka...can he actually...? Kenshin glanced from the boy to the passing troop of Shinsengumi and back again. Is he picking up on the blood-soaked, bloodthirsy ki of those men? I've never seen him so frightened...

Indeed, uncertain fear vibrated through the little boy's ki like shivers, along with a terrified awe at this darkness the child had never felt before. Kenshin watched the boy, feeling an unfamiliar sense of wonder that one so young could perceive such things in any way, without the sword-trainng that it usually required. Kenji's tremors had come even before the Shinsengumi troop had passed within his view; he had to have sensed them on some level, as Kenshin had.

The young man frowned, at once angry with the Shinsengumi for frightening the child and glad that in whatever year Kenji came from, such bloody things were not commonplace. He fears that unfamiliar darkness...so then... A confused thought made him look down at the little boy in puzzlement. ...why did he not react this way to me?

"Do you see the men in the blue and white haori out there?" he asked softly after a moment, drawing the child's gaze out once again.

Kenji clung tighter to his neck and nodded.

"Those are very dangerous men," he told the child firmly. "Bad men. If you see them, you have to hide. Understand? Never let those men see you."

"Aa." The tiny boy nodded again and hid his face. He didn't even question the command.

Kenshin and Okami-san waited in the doorway of the sandalmaker's shop for some time, until the Shinsengumi had gone around the corner, out of this street and far from here. They would take no chances--not with Kenji along.

As they ventured out again, cautiously, Kenshin's previous deadly vigilance had been kicked up a notch by the adrenaline-inducing appearance of the unpredicted Shinsengumi patrol. His senses stretched to their utmost, to pick up such a threat before it occurred again, in case another were to come by. They would need the warning to get out of the street in time.

"I'm sorry for Shoudo-han and Tsuchi-han's curtness," Okami-san was saying softly, to which Kenshin was only half-listening. "They've been like that for a long time. But they're some of our staunchest allies--don't let their gruffness put you off. Their shop is a place you can go even if our safehouses are breached."

"I see." Important tactical information was filed away; the personal matters were disregarded--until Okami-san spoke again.

"They lost their son several years ago to some entangling Shogunate business, and they've been brokenhearted ever since," the matron said, barely above a whisper, glancing over at him. "I think he would've been about your age now, had he lived."

Ice cracked; Kenshin blinked. "Is that what he meant by...?"

Okami-san smiled sadly. "I think Shoudo-han wants you to keep Kenji far away from whatever you have to do for us. He knows what it's like to lose someone precious."

And so do I... Kenshin glanced down at Kenji, who clung to his hand, as Tomoe's face flickered behind his eyes. He would be upset if something happened to any innocent child; he was not so far gone into the callous heart of a killer that he could deny that. Though...losing Kenji...the thought twinged at him and made his hand tighten on the smaller one in his, despite the fact that he'd only known this strange, precocious little boy for a day.

Was his heart so eager to tie itself to another, so soon after its last near-mortal wound? And why did it try to bind him so easily to this little redhead boy?

Their path down the street took them back in the direction of the Inn, toward the greengrocer and the fishmonger that Okami-san had promised to visit on their way back. No Shinsengumi appeared to threaten them, thankfully, and Kenji soon brightened to his cheerful self again, apparently recovered from the scare.

Kenshin stood guard waiting as Okami-san stepped into the greengrocer's to pick out her needed vegetables for the evening, with Kenji fidgeting at his side, playing at wriggling his toes in his new sandals and scuffing them on the dusty road to hear the sounds they made. Kenshin kept his ears tuned into the grocer's, to be prepared to leave when Okami-san was done.

He wasn't quite paying attention when Kenji began to squeal about something he'd noticed--"Omocha! Touchan, look! Toys!"--so he wasn't prepared when after a couple of impatient tugs on his hand Kenji let go and scampered off down the street.

"Kenji--!" the young swordsman all but shouted, before his hitokiri instincts kicked him in the head for yelling in the middle of a street. Gritting his teeth, he hurried after the little boy as fast as he could go without obviously running. Fortunately, Kenji didn't go far--only a couple doors down, to a tiny shop that was decorated gaily with bright colors.

A toy store...? Kenshin felt like hitting himself in the head now. Tucking the clothing packages under one arm, he poked his head in the door. "Kenji?" he called softly. "Come back here. You shouldn't run off like that..."

Kenji turned back to him from one of the shelves, brightly-painted toy in hands, grinning widely. "Lookit!" he squeaked. "What's this?"

Kenshin swallowed hard. "It's...a top."

"Oh!" The little boy blinked. "What's it do?"

"It spins."

Kenji turned the object over in his small hands a couple of times. "How?"

The top was only vaguely similar to the one Kenshin had left behind two years ago, in a little house somewhere in Otsu. It was a little smaller, a little taller, and it was painted in bright red and yellow. But the basic design was there, along with the memories surrounding his own toy that it unlocked.

It tightened his throat a little, the memory of that old wooden top; it was the only thing he'd ever been able to keep of his family, from long ago--his only connection to a life that had died with them, a happier life. And he'd left it behind as well, when he'd left the last of his happiness with Tomoe's grave...

"Here," he found himself saying, setting down the packages as he knelt at Kenji's side there in the store, "let me show you."

He gently took the toy from the child; a quick movement of his hands, and the little top began to spin there on the floor, much to Kenji's delight. The little boy jumped up and down and clapped his hands, giggling brightly.

"Ooo, lookit! Pretty!" A little hand reached out to touch, only to have the top wobble and fall under his fingers. "Uh-oh..."

Kenshin let slip a ghost of a smile. "You have to let it spin, once it's going. Otherwise it falls down."

"Oh..." The tip of a pink tongue showing, the boy wound up the string and made a stalwart attempt to get the top spinning on his own, with little success. "Waa! It won't go!"

"Hold it straight up, like this..." Kenshin found himself guiding the tiny hands gently, showing them where to hold the toy, how to toss it. "...and give it a good spin, like this. You have to do it pretty hard...oro! There it goes!"

Kenji squealed in delight at their success, watching the top wobble along with a proud childish grin. Kenshin stayed where he was, kneeling on the shop floor, letting the little boy lean against him and watch the top, mesmerized by the swirl of fiery colors.

Until he began to notice they were being watched themselves. His guard went up immediately, but he sensed only gentle amusement and satisfaction from the observer.

"It's been a very long time," said a soft, elderly voice from behind, "since I've seen a sword-bearing man with the strength to play with children's toys."

Kenshin was already turning as the man spoke, catching sight of a slightly-hunched, silver-bearded figure in the shadows near one of the shelves. The old man had been sitting on a barrel near the rear of the little square room, as quiet and serene as one of the dolls that sat beside him--no wonder Kenshin, urgently focused on Kenji as he had been, had not picked up on him! There was great age and great peace in this man; he was like calm water, smoothly slipping under most people's radars.

"How do you do?" said the old man, with a cheerful smile, when Kenshin did not speak. "Come shopping with your otouto-chan, hm?"

Kenshin looked down, letting his eyes find the top and his bangs hide his eyes. "He's not my little brother."

"Ah, I see--" The old man cleared his throat, standing up to offer a bow. "Pardon me, then. You don't look quite old enough to be..."

"I'm older than I look," Kenshin stated flatly.

"But not by much, eh?" said the old man, stepping into the more well-lit portion of the tiny shop, toward the front. There was a strange, wise glimmer in his eyes as he smiled gently. "These eyes are old, lad, but not that bad yet. You take great care with that child; I've not seen a man with your kind of heart in many years."

"Sou ka..." Kenshin left Kenji where he was--making delighted twirly noises and practicing with the top--to stand and face the old man. "You make these toys?" he asked, subtly attempting to shift the subject away from himself.

"Aa, that I do," replied the old man, with a pleasant chuckle. "Been making them for years, so all around these parts just call me Ganguta. I think I've forgotten my name by now."

Kenshin allowed a polite half-smile. "Very well, Ganguta-san. I am--"

"I know well who you are, Himura Battousai-san," Ganguta replied gently, stalling Kenshin's automatic reaction of defensive mask with his warm tone and crinkling eyes. "I may be a silly old toymaker, but I do keep up to date. My, my, the famous warrior, right here in my shop...I am honored indeed."

Eyes narrowing slightly, Kenshin read the old man's ki again--half on habit, once someone knew who he was, and half because he was alerted to something within the wise old spirit. "You are...more than just a seller of toys."

"Sou da na...I guess you're right," Ganguta chuckled easily. "You're very perceptive, young man. Once, long ago, I made weapons for the Shogun--spears, bows, and other things of wood and cloth and string and bits of metal."

Kenshin's right hand clenched at the mention of the old man's service to the Bakufu, but he made no move.

"I thought I was doing the people of Japan a great service," Ganguta went on, "making weapons for the Shogun's armies--for our defense. And perhaps I was, in a way; our nation has been safe and strong on the outside for many generations."

"What made you choose to make these toys instead?" Kenshin asked out of pure nagging curiosity, glancing around the tiny shop at the innumerable playthings of all shapes and sizes.

Ganguta smiled, as if that were just the thing he'd been waiting for. Stepping forward, he touched Kenshin's shoulder lightly and turned him about to look at Kenji, who was sitting on the packed floor with his top, cheerfully setting it spinning--a short, wobbly stumble of a spin, but growing stronger.

"There," said the old man softly, with that glimmer in his eyes again. "You see that? See his face, see the light in his eyes? He is happy. With even so small and simple a thing as a little top made of wood, he is happy." He glanced at Kenshin, still smiling warmly. "My weapons may have saved lives, and they may have ended them, but they could bring no one that kind of happiness. These toys can--they bring that light of joy to little ones like him, who will be our future."

Kenshin stared at the old man for several moments, finding himself in awe of that simple wisdom. He looked back at Kenji, who was so pleased with just the little top--and now, a red ball that he had discovered, and was trying to bounce. Ganguta was right--the happiness of the future was what they were all working for; his own sword, carving away the old world, and this old man and his toys, giving cheer to the children of today who would be the men and women who lived in the new world that would be someday.

The new world Kenji was born to be a part of.

"He is the reason you fight, isn't he?" asked the wizened voice quietly. "The stories always say that you are the greatest of warriors, but they have never told us common folk why you choose to fight as you do..." The old man smiled widely again, surprising him. "If the future of your child is the reason, lad, then from the bottom of my heart, I commend you."

Kenshin opened his mouth to protest automatically--he was fighting for the people, for Tomoe's memory, so that her death as well as so many others' would not have been in vain--when he realized that, in his own way, Ganguta was right again. He had only met Kenji just last night--but what Kenshin fought for was Kenji's future, whether he'd known it before or not. He was wielding his killing sword for that reason--creating the world his son would live in--and only now, looking at the child that was his own future, did it dawn on him.

"Aa..." he said at last, slowly, tasting the wonder that realization brought, looking back to the old man. "I guess he is my reason. The best reason I have, anyway..."

Ganguta patted his shoulder again, in a grandfatherly way. "That's a boy. You might be young, but your heart's in the right place; that I can see. Especially with that little one there--you keep him in your heart, and no matter how crazy the world gets, you'll always be headed the right way."

For the first time in Ganguta's sight, Kenshin let slip the smallest of smiles.

While the adults were talking, Kenji bounced the little red ball, jumping to catch it as the somewhat-uneven floor sent it off in different directions. Sometimes he caught it; sometimes it would roll to a stop against a shelf. He tried another bounce, grinning ear-to-ear--but squeaked as the red ball caromed out the shop door.

Uh-oh. Kenji knew that store-things weren't supposed to go outside until you bought them--so he scurried out after the ball, desperate to catch it before it went too far. He was bent over reaching for it--almost caught it--

--when his small, sandaled feet stumbled on the dusty road and sent him careening down on top of the ball--no, on top of the light yellow kimono that filled his vision--

"Ara!" exclaimed a girl's voice, as small arms caught him before he could hit the street. "Daijoubu ka, chibi-chan?"

"Oro?" Kenji looked up into big blue eyes, blinking in surprise. "Ah...aa..."

It was a little girl--a couple years older than him, but still a little girl--and she set him up on his feet with a cheerful smile. "There you go! Watch out where you're running, so you don't fall."

"Hai," Kenji replied politely. "Gomen..."

"It's okay," said the little girl, still smiling. She bent and picked up the red ball that had rolled up against her small geta. "Here, is this yours?"

"Aa..." Kenji took the ball, nodding, still staring up at the girl. His expression had just begun to border on childishly thoughtful.

"Kaoru! Hurry along!" called a deep, male voice from several yards away, in the crowd.

"Hai, Otousan!" the little girl called back, before smiling at Kenji one last time. "I gotta go. Ja ne, chibi-chan!" With that, she hurried off after the tall stern man--who must've been her father.

"Don't wander off, Kaoru-chan," the tall man cautioned, gently but firmly, as the little girl took his hand and they headed off down the street. "We'll be going home soon--you don't want to get lost in Kyoto forever, do you...?"

Kenji watched them as they passed out of earshot, still staring quizzically. Cat-soft footsteps approaching beside him made him turn, looking up.

"What are you up to out here?" Kenshin asked softly, coming up beside the little boy, taking his hand. Kenji shrugged wordlessly; a quick glance at the pair that the boy had been watching told Kenshin nothing of particular note--a little black-haired girl only a few years older than Kenji, and a tall, strong-looking samurai with a focused, powerful ki leading her away by the hand.

As if sensing his brief gaze, the tall samurai glanced back only once; seeing the redheaded pair standing there, his measuring eyes took in Kenshin, then paused on Kenji for a heartbeat before he turned away once again, vanishing at last into the crowd.

"Kenji?" Kenshin, finding no threat in the tall man's gaze, looked back down to the little boy. "Let's go. Okami-san is looking for us."

At his words, Kenji remembered his purpose and thrust out his ball-filled hand with an urgent look. "Touchan, it got away! Gotta take it back!"

Kenshin smiled faintly at the little boy's concern. "Don't worry, you can keep it." He knelt there in the street to look the child in the eye. "The ball is yours now, and so is this."

At the sight of the red-and-yellow top, Kenji squealed in delight once more, forgetting his earlier worry. Kenshin stood up again and began to lead the happily-bouncing little boy back toward the greengrocer's, where Okami-san was standing, looking about somewhat confusedly. The hitokiri's wariness was around him like a shroud, but the set of his face remained a little gentler, at least for a very short while.

"Ah, there you are!" Okami-san sighed as they came up, giving Kenshin a somewhat scolding look. "For a moment I thought the Shinsengumi had come by while I was gone and kidnapped you both."

Kenshin's mouth quirked. "Not quite. We just got a little distracted."

Okami-san glanced down at the little boy, seeing his small hands laden with ball and top. "Ah, I see!" Her gaze toward Kenshin softened quite a bit. "Distracted indeed. A wise purchase, Himura-chan--and you'll see what I mean next time it rains and Kenji-chan has to be entertained indoors, or you risk encountering those mud-puddles I warned you about."

"Ah..." Kenshin's eyebrows went up. "I just thought...he liked them..."

Okami-san just laughed to herself. "Never mind, Himura-chan. It was very sweet of you to get those for him. Come on, let's go buy the fish."

Still somewhat puzzled, the expressionless youth followed the older woman toward the fish stall, a giggling little boy tagging after them both.

* * * * *

By the time they returned to the Inn, dinner preparations were about to commence. Okami-san thanked Kenshin for the escort to the market streets for the supplies she was bringing to the kitchen; Kenshin waved it off and thanked her instead for her assistance with Kenji's clothing. The older woman just smiled at him in that motherly way of hers and recommended he go put the new items away and let Kenji wind himself down before dinner.

So that's what he did, taking the little boy and their new packages upstairs to his room, dodging the men who wandered through the front halls like vultures circling before a meal. Once there, he gratefully dropped off his hat and armguards and haori. Opening his own small clothes chest, he made a little space for Kenji's new things, folding them carefully and in what he hoped was the right way.

With the window open, the room was pleasant and the air fresh. Leaving his wakizashi setting on top of the chest, Kenshin sat comfortably in front of the window with his katana leaning on his shoulder, watching Kenji play on the floor near him with his new toys.

Ganguta-san was right, he thought, relaxed but alert as he leaned back against the windowframe. With only a little ball and top, he is completely happy...

The top provided Kenji great enjoyment, as the little boy practiced spinning it--still terribly wobbly, but Kenshin could see his technique improving even as he watched. The tiny hands would set it in motion, while wide blue-violet eyes stared at it, seeing how long it would go. Then the game became to try and pick up the top by its stem, without upsetting the spin and sending it clattering.

Kenshin watched with lazily half-lidded eyes, for this short while allowing himself to simply enjoy the clean evening air and the quiet antics of the child before him, listening to the drowsy birds outside, the faint wind in the garden trees, and the little boy's soft chatter to himself. A new game was invented before his eyes; the top became a target for the little red ball, which was rolled across the floor to see if it could knock the top off course. Kenji's giggles were like the soothing laughter of falling water, Spring rain on a pond. It was a pleasant distraction, freeing his mind of dark thoughts and painful memory.

And the sun sank away, as the former hitokiri enjoyed an hour of this perfect peace, this simple contentment, for the first time in two long, hard, bloody years.

A knock at the door brought Kenshin out of his odd waking doze, bringing him back to full awareness of the passing of time. "Hai?" he called quietly in response, sensing a familiar presence outside.

"Okami-san said to tell you that dinner is being served shortly," replied Sakura's voice politely.

"Arigato, we'll be along soon." As the woman's presence left, Kenshin heaved a sigh and rose to his feet, looking down at the little boy who had just stopped trying to balance the top on the little red ball--however ineffective that might've been. "Are you hungry, Kenji?"

Bright blue-violet eyes shone up at him. "Aa! Okami-san says dinner!"

"We better hurry then, na?" Kenshin found it hard not to let slip a smile at the child's enthusiasm, as he fetched his swords once again. Hand in hand, the redhead pair made their way downstairs, blending in with the knots of other men heading for the food.

As was his habit around others, Kenshin's face fell into the stony mask of a former hitokiri that most were accustomed to seeing. Most of the Ishin soldiers cleared out of his way without comment, though there were still many whispers and many, many eyes upon the child at his side. From the sense he was getting, many of them dearly wished to ask questions, to speak up, but their fear of him and his vicious reputation sealed their lips.

As he passed the hall to the kitchen, Okami-san flagged him down with a raised hand and a smile. "Himura-han, there you are!" She never addressed him by her pet name for him when the other men could hear. "And Kenji-chan as well. Are you ready for dinner?"

"Haaai!" Kenji hopped in place once. "We're having fish!"

"Yes we are," Okami-san agreed, "and I cooked some extra special just for you! Do you want to come and sit with me on the table and eat it?"

Kenshin found himself tensing in surprise, even as Kenji turned a smile up to him. "Can I, Touchan?"

"Ah...aa, if you want to..." Kenshin glanced up at Okami-san questioningly.

"You could use a peaceful meal to yourself for a bit," the matron told him kindly. "Just go relax and eat, and the girls and I will take care of Kenji-chan. You're expected right after dinner anyway--I'll have him cleaned up and ready for you when you're done."

"A-arigato..." Almost reluctantly, Kenshin let go of the tiny hand he held, allowing Kenji to bounce to Okami-san's side and accompany her into the kitchen.

He stood still there in the hall for several moments, feeling suddenly, strangely... cold, as if the sun had disappeared behind a cloud. Even with the other men still passing him by, filling the hallway, he felt alone--a deserted island in a warm ocean of people.

Then he shook himself and strode down the hall, frowning at his strange wistful thoughts. Keeping his chin level and his face impassive, he turned the corner and went straight into the dining hall without pause. He chose to ignore the changes in conversation and flow as he entered the room, as people noticed that Kenji was not with him.

"Oi, Himura!" called a familiar voice over the din of men settling down. A hand waved over near the wall; Hamano Akira was calling for him, from amidst a group of friendly faces.

Still feeling vaguely lonely, Kenshin gave in to impulse and went to sit with those few he hesitantly called his friends. Hamano scooted down a bit to make room between him and the next of their little group, grinning welcomingly as Kenshin sat down and released his swords.

"Say, where've you been all afternoon?" Hamano asked curiously, still grinning. "Me and the guys were looking all over for you. And where's Chibi-kou?"

Little Red? Kenshin blinked at the taller samurai, wondering whether or not it was meant as an insult or a joking name, and whether he should take offense. "I was helping Okami-san today," he replied evenly, deciding to ignore it altogether. "And Kenji is eating in the kitchen."

"Sou ka...that's a shame," Hamano sighed. "The others kinda wanted to meet him."

Kenshin glanced over at the other three alongside them; to his immediate right sat Takagi Ryou, also grinning sheepishly, and beyond him was Tankei Ichijirou and Komiba Keisho. "Gomen," Kenshin said quietly. "Okami-san offered to take him--the meeting tonight--"

"I heard about that," Takagi interrupted nervously. "Katsura-sama and some other minor Choshu bigwigs, discussing the next month's plans. That's why dinner's late--there's a separate meal for those leaders going on down the hall."

Kenshin glanced at the other young samurai, one eyebrow raised in cool interest. Of all the men stationed here at the Inn, Kenshin was the youngest--and next in line for that dubiously honored place was Takagi Ryou, a little less than two years older. Takagi was a somewhat shy, well-meaning young man, clumsy but good-hearted; he wasn't too good with a sword but his redeeming characteristic for the Ishinshishi was his near-photographic memory. He was invaluable in that regard.

Because of that, the awkward young samurai had been sent on many an information-gathering mission, which his clumsiness did not help--but more often than not, Kenshin was sent along with him to protect him. Already in awe of the Battousai's reputation and startled that the famous hitokiri--former hitokiri--was even younger than himself, Takagi nonetheless came to regard the red-haired swordsman as his savior, having been rescued from close scrapes several times in the course of his work. Takagi was a bit shy around him still, but Kenshin appreciated his kind, nonjudgemental heart and well-meaning, boyish ways.

"The meeting's nothing unusual," Hamano was saying, shaking his head. "The talk around the Inn says that the little akage's got the commanders in a flurry, 'cause he's shown up and interfered with their prime swordsman."

Kenshin's eyes narrowed slightly. "He's not interfering."

"I didn't say he was," Hamano replied calmly, slightly apologetic. "I just said that's what I heard."

"I heard they're pissed as hell about the chibi," spoke up Komiba from his place at the end of their little group. "Not only interfering, but putting the whole operation in jeopardy 'cause he's a handle on you." The older man pointed unflinchingly at Kenshin.

"Komiba!" Takagi yelped, as always, askance at his friend's bluntness. One would think he'd be used to it by now.

Sharp-tongued Komiba Keisho was brusque and candid and hard for most to get along with; his wits were as sharp as his tongue and he never hesitated to use them for both a good verbal jab and a good move in combat. His specialty was the bow, and there was no target he couldn't take down in a single shot, having come from a long line of bowyers and archers. He apparently liked Kenshin for his tendency not to mince words or pull his punches, despite the fact that the younger man spoke far less; Kenshin simply appreciated the older warrior's flat honesty, and the fact that he hid nothing.

Their first meeting had been an accident and a near-catastrophe in a scuffle with a band of Shogunate guards, when two separate Ishin squads had gotten tangled up in a series of alleys and no one had been quite sure who was what or where. Komiba had let fly an arrow at a swift-moving shadow coming at him and his men--and that was the first time in his career that he had ever missed. Kenshin had seen the path of the arrow and dodged aside in a heartbeat, before leaping beyond Komiba and the other men to take down the Shogunate guards coming up on their rear. When the mess was sorted out and the mission over, Kenshin had discovered yet another loyal comrade.

"Take it easy, guys," Hamano soothed, smoothing Takagi's nervous feathers and tossing a look at Komiba, who simply snorted. "No sense in guessing--best to wait until we find out for sure."

"Surely they've invited Himura to the proceedings," Tankei Ichijirou interjected smoothly, unruffled by the whole affair. "After all, it is his son they're discussing, is it not?"

"He's still here, ain't he?" Komiba gruffed.

"I'm to meet with them after dinner," Kenshin replied, nodding to Tankei.

The thin, reedy-voiced Ishin soldier was the tallest of the group, as well as the oldest, though none of them were over thirty. He was most often the voice of reason for the group, being soft-spoken, deliberate, and careful of thought. He was one of the first, along with Hamano, to accept Kenshin after his emergence from the shadows of a hitokiri to the life of a common Ishinshishi soldier--though Kenshin could never be simply common. His even disposition was greatly appreciated by the red-haired swordsman, who could always trust Tankei for a wise answer.

The contemplative samurai called Battousai a juxtaposition of interests, citing his dislike for blood and death and yet the most violent and deadly nature of his art, at which he had no equal. Tankei seemed to be genuinely curious about him most of the time, as well as apparently liking his quietness as they spent time in thought together. And his presence did help moderate Komiba's tongue somewhat, as the two were old friends. Though Tankei was only an average swordsman, his intelligence and level of education were unsurpassed, as well as his handwriting--he was invaluable for his ability to mimic the brush-strokes of nearly anyone whose calligraphy he read.

"Did they tell you what they wanted you for?" Takagi asked, almost too eagerly.

Kenshin shook his head. "Okami-san relayed the message. The only thing I know is that my part in it does relate to Kenji's presence."

"They better not be thinking of pulling anything," Hamano said, his voice dropping to a rather dangerous timbre. "Katsura-san's on the up-and-up, and so's Takasugi and a couple of the others I guess--but the rest are slick, I can tell you that."

Kenshin glanced at him. "What do you mean?"

"Oh, I don't know..." Hamano shrugged uncomfortably--just as the food began to arrive. "I can't really say for sure--but one thing I don't want to see is the Chibi-kou being made into a pawn in one of their power games. It sure isn't honorable to use a little kid."

Kenshin almost smiled at the other man's noble sentiments. Tall, handsome, well-educated, and everything a good young samurai should be, Hamano was the leader of this impromptu quartet that Kenshin had loosely become attached to--or rather, they had attached themselves to him, since each of them had somehow seen something in the ex-hitokiri that they were apparently drawn to. And he, for some reason, found them easier to trust and easier to speak with than the other men at the Inn.

They were a gathering of misfit geniuses; the Ishin's fiercest, fastest, finest ex-hitokiri, as well as three other single-talent soldiers, and a rich noble's son. And Hamano was the glue that held the group together; he was the one who saw their value together and drew them all in, making his friendships theirs. His fairness, kindness, and knack for leadership would take him far someday, if this bloody war didn't kill him first.

They were a strange group, Kenshin mused as the food was set before them and the conversation gave way to chewing. Hamano, the leader; Tankei, the wise man, the analyzer. Komiba was the the rapid tactician, and the one who stated what others were afraid to--while Takagi was their reluctant scout, and the voice of youth and innocence. And Kenshin...

Though he tried to hang back, invariably these men pulled him into their midst. He was not a part of their group, and yet he was; the walls came from his side, not theirs. Somehow, he was their quiet conscience, their reminder of why--and their sword man, their point man, the one with the skills and power to save their lives when the chips were down. They were bound to him--as they chose to be--and somehow, he to them. Just like a casual greeting from one of them could bring him over to sit and eat with them the way no others' could.

The other half of it was that no one else would. These four men alone had chosen to accept him as who and what he was, however willing or unwilling he might have been to let others become close to him. But no other men among the Ishinshishi had the courage to approach him, speak to him--even dare to tease him, as Hamano and Komiba often did! They were willing to treat him as almost normal--almost; there was still the faintest of reserve there, and their caution about his temper, never pushing too far. But even as that was unavoidable in this blood-soaked life they were all living, it wasn't enough to push them apart.

As the meal concluded and people began to leave, Kenshin--who usually ate faster than the others anyway--set down his chopsticks and gathered his daisho to stand up, taking a deep breath in preparation.

"Oi," Hamano spoke up, causing him to glance down. "You tell us what happens in that meeting, okay? If it's not top-secret or anything," he added, in acknowledgement of Kenshin's place in the innermost workings of Choshu Ishinshishi. "If they try anything, you should know...we're with you, hey?"

Kenshin blinked at him, seeing the nods of acknowledgement from the others. Touched by their concern--for a child they hadn't even really gotten to meet yet--he offered them a rare, thin half-smile, along with his own nod. "Arigato." Before he took a step, he paused one last time. "I'll...make sure you get to meet Kenji," he offered hesitantly. "Tomorrow, if time doesn't allow tonight..."

Hamano smiled, and Takagi grinned boyishly while Tankei nodded and Komiba snorted in his usual way. "Don't even worry about it," Hamano chuckled, waving him off. "I'm sure we'll catch up to you sometime."

Kenshin's half-smile tugged again, as he turned and headed back to the hall.

Since he was one of the first to finish eating, he saw far fewer men on his way back to the kitchen to fetch Kenji. There was a strange hush out here in the halls; the servant girls were large-eyed and scurrying, and no one was speaking unnecessarily. No one was at ease when so many Choshu leaders were present; the danger always ran higher. Without looking at any of the passing soldiers, Kenshin made his way to the kitchen door and poked his head in, looking for Kenji.

Inside, there was only the clamor of cleanup and the bustle of the harried kitchen staff. No sign of either the Inn's proprietess or a certain small red-haired boy. Slightly uneasy, Kenshin spotted Rika carrying used trays to the washtubs in back and called out to her.

"Rika-san, where's Okami-san?"

The woman set down her burden and glanced back at him, offering a weary but careful smile. "She took Akage-chan--er, I mean Kenji-chan upstairs a few minutes ago, Himura-han."

"Arigato..." Slightly perplexed now, Kenshin nodded to her and withdrew, padding toward the stairs. But maybe Kenji had spilled something on his clothes, making it necessary to take him upstairs to change them.

He was also somewhat bemused by the nicknames the little boy was apparently picking up. First Hamano, and now Rika-san and probably the rest of the girls as well...

As it turned out, Kenshin didn't have to go all the way upstairs to find Okami-san and her young charge. He had hardly come around the corner to the stairs when Kenji's voice called out to him from above; he glanced up to see the two just coming down the steps, hand in hand. Okami-san was smiling in that sly, wise way of hers--and Kenji was dressed in his brand-new gi and hakama, neat as a pin from head to toe and looking like a perfect miniature of Kenshin himself.

"What...what is this?" the young man asked, taken aback, as they descended to the first floor and stood before him. He reached out to lightly touch the high ponytail that Kenji's silky red hair had been done up in.

Okami-san was still smiling. "It's for the meeting, Himura-chan," she replied, as if it were obvious. "You are going to meet the leaders of several important sections of the Choshu Ishinshishi. I thought it best that you and Kenji-chan make an impression--and remind those men that this is not just any child."

Kenshin swallowed, still staring at the small "samurai" that Kenji had been transformed into. The ensemble fit the boy well enough, if only slightly loose, and the deep blue set off his red hair and made his soft wide eyes seem even more violet. But the high ponytail hardened the overall appearance, making the child's features seem sharper and accentuating his resemblance to the feared Himura Battousai. All he lacked was the distinctive scar to finish the eerie charade.

"Like it, Touchan?" Kenji asked eagerly, spinning around once. "Like it? It's neat!"

"Aa..." Kenshin agreed reluctantly, more to appease the child than to speak the truth. The truth was that it rather unnerved him, both the resemblance and the connection between them that it suggested. But Kenji giggled happily, pleased with his outfit, oblivious to the trepidation it evoked in the older youth.

Okami-san nudged Kenji forward; almost automatically, Kenshin reached to take the small hand. It was warm despite its size, and it fit into his grasp as if it belonged there--and with that touch, he no longer felt cold, no longer felt alone. Like the sun had returned from behind the clouds.

"Thank you for looking after him." Kenshin spoke to the older woman with a nod of a bow.

"You hurry on to that meeting," she told him, with slight undertones of worry tingeing her ki. "Katsura-han will be expecting you in the third rear chamber."

"Hai." Kenshin turned to go, only to be stopped by Okami-san's gentle hand on his shoulder.

"Watch yourself," she warned, barely above a whisper. "You can trust Katsura-han, but watch yourself and Kenji-chan. You take care of him in there; don't let those sly old hounds push you around."

He offered her the same faint, reassuring smile he'd given his friends. "Don't worry."

She sent them off with a smile and a nod; Kenshin led his tiny redhead companion down the hall toward the rear conference rooms, already preparing for what lay ahead. The warnings of both Okami-san and his friends had put him on-guard--he'd had far too much experience with the trickery and sidle-talk of high-ranking men, who played their game with highest regard for their own position and power, and far less for mens' lives.

Such men had already used and abused and made a disposeable tool of him; he would not allow them to do the same to Kenji, if such were their intent.

The walk down the darkened hallway seemed much too short.

To be continued...