AN: It seems some people don't get it when I say don't tell me to "update soon". As much as I appreciate and am astounded by the kind of impact my works have with people, please remember: I have a life. I'm about to be a college student and one who's busy with other things and struggling to hold onto what little inspiration I have (and I'm lazy. As is almost every 18 year old tech-geek). In fact, I didn't even write this chapter. Sure, I had it played out, and stuff, but I had a dear friend write it for me and she's helping me a LOT. She wishes to stay anonymous because she sees how irritated I get when people tell me to update my fics when I don't have time. I swear, if I keep getting "Update soon/now/please" I'm going to quit writing. I'm very close to stopping entirely in the RK section due to lack of drive to finish my fics. I'll toss 'em all over to my friend and let her deal with them, but she doesn't want that. So be nice and leave something creative in your review. Like critique. This doesn't apply to everyone and to those it doesn't apply to, thanks a lot. :D And to those it does apply to and they've just not been reading the AN's or my profile page…C'mon people! Or I will quit all together and you'll NEVER know what happens. BWUAHAHAHA!!
Disclaimer: Don't own it, never will, never have.
Rating For This Chapter: R (for Child Abuse, and some cursing)
To Make A Difference
Chapter Six :: The Devil's Advocate
Shishio came awake abruptly; snapping out of a light doze as his combat-honed senses caught the faintest rustle of disturbed hay. Hand wrapping instinctively around the hilt of the katana at his shoulder, he straightened up noiselessly from his slouch and glanced around. Another crackle of crushed straw and his keen gaze locked onto the heap where he recalled instantly the children had crawled into and fallen asleep. Craning his head, his interest was piqued as he saw that the boy, Soujiro, had risen and was bent over the little girl, Misao. A smirk tugging at his burnt lips, he decided to simply watch.
Soujiro's smile was genuine as he stared down at the deeply sleeping Misao. Misao's little rosebud-shaped mouth was curved in a light grin as she slept and Soujiro wondered what delightful dream she was having. Kawaii, he mused, touching her mussed raven bangs and tucking them behind her ear before stroking her cheek. Misao murmured happily and leaned into his hand, and Soujiro felt his happy smile become content. My friend...my Misao-chan. I will protect you, always.
Crouching, he fished inside of the hay carefully so as not to wake her and pulled out the beautiful blue and white michiyuki. Unfurling the cloak, he placed the makeshift blanket over her and tucked in the ends around her. Misao giggled and burrowed into the silk. "Sou-chan..." she mumbled, sighed and fell quiet.
"Sleep well, Misao-chan," he whispered gently, dropping his little head to kiss the top of hers. "I'll be back in a while, this should keep you warm while I'm gone."
Stepping away from Misao with surprising stealth, Soujiro began to move towards the closed barn doors. Halfway across the room, he stopped briefly beside the pile of farming tools and picked up a shovel before continuing. He had just reached the doors and was lifting a hand to slide them open...
"Where are you off to, Soujiro?" Shishio's voice floated out to him, causing the boy to give a little gasp and jump in shock. Wheeling around, his smile never faltering in the slightest, Soujiro looked up to find Shishio looming over him; free hand resting on doors as the other one loosely gripped his deadly katana.
"Areh..." his smile widened and he scratched his head. "I just remembered those policemen…"
"Hnm?" if Shishio had eyebrows they would have arched behind the bandages wrapped around his face.
"I want to hide the bodies, if anyone saw them, they would wonder if someone here heard what happened tonight and I know that my...family would ask Misao and me since we were made to sleep outside."
"Ah. You trust me enough to leave her alone with me?" Shishio asked, jerking his head towards the dozing girl, his voice almost threatening but a playful flame flickered in his maroon eyes.
Soujiro's smile wavered for an instance then steadied. "Hai, you gave us your word and I think you are someone who keeps his word," The boy met the intense maroon stare without fear and his ever-present sweet smile. Shishio snorted, impressed the boy had read him so well and so quickly. Soujiro added, "I have to make sure no one suspects that you're here, the bodies outside would lead any searchers to this farm in time and I know you would agree with me, Shishio-san."
Grudgingly, the former hitokiri nodded. "That's good thinking, boy."
He beamed. "Thank you, Shishio-san. I'll be back in a while."
The man only waved him off, silently striding back to his spot among the bundles of rice. Reaching his place, Shishio sat down, his thoughtful gaze resting fleetingly on the tiny girl cocooned in the cloak before dropping his head and returning to his nap.
* * * * *
Misao woke with the dawn's rosy light teasing her out of her dreams. Groggily rubbing her eyes, the little girl shivered in the early morning chill and snuggled closer to Soujiro. She grumbled, nuzzling into his neck. "Sou-chan..." she murmured. "It's time we get up."
Sitting up, she looked around and froze as her still bleary gaze landed on Shishio. The man was awake and returning her stare calmly.
"O-ohayo gozaimasu!" she stuttered, the memories of the night before filling her waking mind and making her uneasy and unsure. Shishio only grunted then pointed at Soujiro. "He won't be waking any time soon, he just got back about ten minutes ago."
Misao blinked, her brow furrowing. "Why? Where did Sou-chan go?" she asked, looking down at her friend. One of her small hands drifted down and brushed back his hair.
"He went to hide the evidence."
The girl looked lost until her jade eyes lit up in understanding. "He went to bury the bodies?" she moved out from underneath the michiyuki, wrapping the cloak around Soujiro as she did. Getting to her feet, Misao looked at the man questioningly.
"Yes, he did," Shishio tucked his hands behind his head and leaned back against a rice barrel.
"Why didn't he wake me?! I could have helped! Baka Sou-chan!!" Misao stomped her foot in hurt indignation. Shishio's smirk became amused as he watched the little girl rant. The ensuing tantrum was interrupted, however, when Soujiro shifted suddenly.
Misao instantly clamped her mouth shut and covered her lips with both of her hands as she saw Soujiro stir slightly. Squatting quickly, Misao started to stroke his back, singing softly, and lulled him back to sleep. The boy sighed, returning to slumber's embrace, and Misao blew out a relieved breath.
Shishio looked on with increasing amusement, the little girl fussed over the boy as much as he did her. The care and attention the children showered on each other revealed a bond that was deep, strong and undeniably growing. It would be very useful for them and will only double what strength they already had. These two are not normal children, he mused in satisfaction. How fortunate for me.
"I know what I am going to do!" Staring down at the serene features of her best friend, Misao clenched a tiny fist and held up the balled hand to her face, determined. "Sou-chan is going to rest today, I'll be the one to do all of our chores."
"Can you?" Shishio drawled. "You're not as strong as him."
Misao scowled, meeting his mocking smile with a look of challenge. Crossing her arms, she declared vehemently, "I will do all of them. I'll work until I drop just so Sou-chan can get a good sleep. I--" she broke off as a shout came from the house.
"Looks like there's your 'family' now..." Shishio tilted his head to the side, listening. "That man sound's very demanding."
"He usually is," the girl frowned cutely, her arms tightening in front of her chest as she hugged herself. "I had better get going before he gets mad. Ja ne, Shishio-san. I'll be back for lunch."
Scampering towards the barn doors, Misao pushed them open and disappeared outside.
* * * * *
"Hey, you Brats!! GET OUT HERE!!"
Misao ran quickly to where the voice hollered. When she skidded to a stop in front of the father, she bowed slightly, recalling how he liked it when they were subservient.
"Took you long enough," the father sneered, taking a swing from the bottle Misao wondered if it was glued to his hand. She stifled a giggle at the thought. "Where's the other brat?"
"Soujiro isn't feeling well, so I'll do all of the chores today. I promise to do everything that has to be done, please let him rest," she coated her voice in all of the childish charm she could muster. For Sou-chan, I'll do whatever it takes.
The father was unimpressed. "Oh? What if you can't?"
Misao lifted her face and set her jaw, shining emerald eyes resolute. "Then I won't rest until I do them all, even if I have to keep going until tomorrow."
One of the brothers chuckled. "Gotta like this kid's attitude, she's got spunk."
"I say we make Soujiro work anyway," the other brother suggested maliciously. Hands balling into tiny shaking fists, Misao barely restrained herself from leaping at the man in anger. Looking to the father, she clasped her hands together and knelt before him, gazing at him beseechingly. "Onegai! You don't need to Soujiro, I can do! I will do it!"
The father relished the spectacle of the little girl begging before finally giving grudging nod. "Fine, go to the fields, get four rows done and move the twenty rice bundles left yesterday to the barn," he rattled off the chores, amidst the sniggers of his sons and giggles of his daughter. The mother looked like she didn't quite approve but did nothing more than watch silently. Misao's eyes went wide in shock then narrowed in determination.
"Hai! Arigato gozaimasu!!" she jumped to her feet, and started to turn when she was grabbed roughly by the shoulder and pulled back towards the father.
The man leaned down and growled into her ear, Misao grimaced as the stink of sake hit her face. "If I don't like what you do, girl, I'll beat you until you do them right and you're only getting lunch for yourself. Soujiro isn't here so he won't get fed."
Misao's eyes flashed angrily, but she only nodded. "Wakarimashita." I'll just give my share to Sou-chan and Shishio-san, if he wants some, she decided.
"Good, get going, you've got a lot of things to do!" he barked, shoving the little girl so hard she stumbled and crashed to the ground in a cloud of dust. The rest of the family broke into raucous laughter as they disappeared back inside of the house. Misao stood, wincing as she dusted off her outfit before running to the fields.
* * * * *
Shishio sat in the loft of the barn, looking out into the fields. From where he perched, cloaked in the shadows of a noon sun, he could Misao bent over the rice patties. The girl worked steadily, but the weariness in her tiny body was evident to him as clearly as if she had told him aloud.
Still, for a child and a girl she's strong...perhaps, my first impression of her was premature.
Glancing down, the former hitokiri fixed his idle gaze on the boy who slept peacefully below him. Not as strong as this boy, but she can match him in time, with the proper training.
His musings scattered abruptly as a wave of warning rolled up the nape of his neck and instantly made him swivel his head back to Misao.
One of the brothers was walking leisurely over to the girl. The pose of the young man's body revealing to Shishio what his intent. the fugitive smirked faintly. This should be interesting.
* * * * *
Misao panted, drawing harsh breaths as she hunched over the final row on the rice field. Sweat slid down her face in rivulets, stinging her eyes and leaving the sharp taste of salt in her dry mouth. Misao endured the discomfort, remembering why and for who she was doing all of this for. I need to finish this row, it's the last one...and I still have to do the rice barrels.
"Not bad, girl," One of the brothers, the younger, sauntered over, taking a drag from his pipe and looking at the rows in grudging admiration. "I didn't think you had it in you to get this done, but remember you've got the rice barrels still to do."
"..." Misao kept her silence, swinging the hoe she held tightly in sweaty, dirt-caked hands, not wasting the effort to take notice of the man. The brother didn't miss the girl's snub and his smirk became spiteful as he moved about slowly until he was behind her. Reaching over, he shoved Misao into the ground, laughing as the child landed on the earth with an indignant squeal of surprise and pain. Her hand lost its grip on the hoe and Misao winced as the pole slapped the side of her stomach as she was falling.
"Oops, you should be more careful!" he jeered, spinning away with a high-pitched guffaw. Misao spared him a hateful glance then picked up the hoe again, rubbing her hip as she did.
Seeing the girl return to her work, the brother stopped again and glanced around, bored and restless. Watching her, he felt another little urge overtake him. It was so tedious around the fields, he had nothing to do since they had a bunch of kids to do all of the work for them. Still, he could have a little fun, it never hurt him...
* * * * *
Soujiro woke slowly, enjoying the feel of the michiyuki against his cheek. So soft... he murmured and nuzzled the cloak. A brilliant shaft of shimmering sunlight spilled into one of the barn's many high windows and Soujiro grumbled, his face scrunching up cutely before he rolled out from underneath the ray.
I don't want to get up...he thought, reaching out for Misao.
And found only hay.
With a gasp, Soujiro sat upright; blinking owlishly as he searched frantically for his friend. "Misao-chan?" he called out anxiously. His constant smile was surprisingly absent, Soujiro let his gaze wander around the barn.
"You must have been tired, you slept very deeply."
Soujiro's missing smile slid into place as he looked over towards Shishio's voice and found the man overhead, sitting close to one of the windows of the loft. "Ohayo gozaimasu, Shishio-san. Where's Misao-chan?"
The fugitive gestured towards the window and towards what Soujiro knew as the rice fields of the family. The young boy felt a twinge of alarm. "She's doing all of the chores since she thought you needed to sleep..." Shishio blinked once, startled at how quickly the boy had acted on his words.
Soujiro gasped out in shock; alarm and concern pricking him like fine needles on the back of his neck. But, as he shot to his feet and raced for the doors, he felt amidst this twinge of feelings was a warm glow of knowing that Misao cared this much about him.
Watching the boy vanish out of the barn, Shishio nodded. Yes, this bond will be of utmost use and advantage to them and to me. Smirking in satisfaction, he reclined against his makeshift backrest and waited, watching closely.
* * * * *
Soujiro slowed in his sprint as he arrived on the edge of the farmlands, a single loud voice boomed across the field and dread rose in him as he recognized the furious baritone of his stepfather. "WHAT THE HELL IS ALL OF THIS?! DO YOU CALL THIS FARMING?! YOU LITTLE BITCH!!"
Misao-chan!! Worry lent wings to his feet and Soujiro closed the gap instantly, arriving on the patch of land at the end of his family's property...
* * * * *
Misao could only stare in shock at the row the father was pointing at angrily with his bamboo cane. The neat little mounds she had made were gone, ripped open like gaping wounds; the seeds she had so carefully placed in the earth lay littered on the ground. She had simply gone to get some water since her throat was so parched...
Wheeling on her, the huge man flailed his hand. "YOU! Do you think of this as some kind of bloody joke?!"
"Iie!" She shook her head wildly. "But I...I did this one just like the other two!! And I really made sure I did it right..."
"URUSAI!" he backhanded her hard and Misao landed in the mud. Pulling her face from the clinging wet earth, Misao wiped her eyes and held her throbbing cheek. The father loomed over her, drunken face livid. "I warned you that I'd beat you until I got the results I wanted!!"
Lifting the bamboo stick he had been carrying, the man slammed the cane down into Misao's arm. Misao muffled her cry, a grimace twisting her features as her arm seemed to explode in pain. Is this what Soujiro feels every time when they do this to him? Tears sprang to her eyes as the rod cracked onto her back then whipped into her leg. Biting her bottom lip, she curled into a ball as the father kept striking at her.
Off to the side, behind the towering figure, Misao caught a glimpse of the younger brother before she ducked her head, watching them in malicious glee.
He did it...she realized amidst the rising waves of agony, struggling to quell her whimpers. This is for Sou-chan. I know he'd do the same for me...must be strong...I'll prove to Shishio-san I can take it too...she chanted the mantra over and over inside her mind. The oath she clung to blocked out most of the loud burning slaps of bamboo on flesh.
The last crack of the rod slammed into the nape of her neck and Misao couldn't have held back the shrill scream of pain, stars filled her vision and she felt lightheaded. At least the pain is going away...
Soujiro stared as his father raised the staff, aiming for her head. No...They will NOT... The image of what he was about to witness snapped Soujiro's control and, with a low snarl, the boy jumped into the fray; moving to shield Misao with his own body.
"SOUJIRO!" The father stared down at the boy like he was insane then barked, "Move out of the way! She needs to learn that I have a business to take care of and I will NOT tolerate her poor excuse of labor."
Without the slightest thought, Soujiro wrapped Misao in his embrace and calmly turned his back on him.
The man's face turned purple with unbounded fury. "HOW DARE YOU IGNORE ME?! I SAID GET OUT OF THE DAMN WAY, YOU USELESS BRAT!!!"
Misao gasped, blinking once, as the blows stopped and a warm presence encircled her. Looking up, she was startled to find Soujiro smiling down at her sweetly.
"Sou, onegai, get away!!" she pleaded, trying to push him away. "I'm being punished...He'll hit you, too!!"
Soujiro shook his head and only tightened his grip. "Iie, Misao-chan, I won't let you get hurt, ever. I promise to protect you. And I will--" His eyes flashed as the rod descended and impacted on his back.
"Iya da!" she screamed in denial, fighting to turn them around but Soujiro was too strong and he held them in place. The first strike rang in Misao's ears like a clap of thunder and the stiffening of Soujiro's body against hers sent a different kind of pain spearing her heart.
"This will teach you brats not to think that you can take it easy around here!!" the father raved, swinging madly with the slender rod of bamboo Each lash burned Soujiro's back, arms and legs in a blaze of agony, a mirror of the anguish Misao felt. Where he sealed his voice in the barrier of a never-vanishing smile, Misao released hers in screams and pleas.
"Soujiro!!" Misao sobbed brokenly, staring up at the shield her only friend had become. Dame, dame, DAME!!!!
"It will be alright, Misao-chan...It will be over soon...just wait..." he whispered over and over, tucking her head protectively under his chin as the blows became furious. I will protect you, Misao-chan. Always. No matter what happens to me.
My fault...this is all my fault because I'm weak! I don't want to be weak and let him get hurt...it's my fault... Nearly blinded by her tears, Misao finally fell quiet and clutched the front of his gi. Sou-chan...gomen nasai...
* * * * *
Misao sighed quietly, giving the ugly slash-shaped bruise on Soujiro's back a gentle swipe with ointment-dipped fingertips.
"Iie, you shouldn't use so much..." Soujiro protested weakly, looking at her over his shoulder, his childish face still smiling even though his twilight eyes were dulled with pain. Misao only shushed him, gently pushing his head back down and continued to dab the rest of his injuries generously with the salve. Soujiro released a long breath noiselessly in relief, resting his head on the hay. Thank you, Misao-chan, he thought, beginning to drift.
Once the father had exhausted his drunken rage on Soujiro's battered body; he had turned around and staggered back towards the house, hollering for a bottle of sake. Misao had held Soujiro close to her, tears falling freely down her cheeks, until the family had disappeared after the father. Then, as gingerly as possible, she helped Soujiro back to the haven of the barn. Shishio only watched them as Misao supported the dazed boy to their bed of hay and lowered him down. The moment Soujiro had settled on the straw, Misao dug into their hoard and pulled out the salve she had managed to finch from the house once. Her mouth twitched as she recalled how Sou had reacted when he found she had stolen the medicine; he had told her firmly to return the ointment. Now, Misao was glad she hadn't listened to him.
With infinite care, she had taken off his ragged shirt, swathing the medicine onto the bruises as she found them. She whispered a prayer of thanks to the kami that the father hadn't broken skin, but still, the sickening sight of Soujiro's back and arms mottled in purple and red-blue bruises brought fresh tears to her eyes. Oh, Sou-chan, what did I get you into? I'm so sorry. I wasn't strong enough to protect you and you had to protect me!!
Finishing with his back, Misao murmured gently to him to turn over and helped him roll. Giving him his gi back, Misao told to leave it open so she could check for any injuries on his chest and was beyond relieved to find none. Moving to his arms and legs, she rolled up his old hakama and frowned as she spotted some more.
Watching her quietly, Soujiro felt that warm glow return, he had never been fussed over so much in his life, and the sight of Misao nursing him so wholeheartedly made taking his father's ire more than worth the pain. But the boy noticed she refused to meet his gaze and from what he could tell, she was very angry. And ashamed.
"In a bit, I'm almost done..." Misao kept her head bowed, putting down the salve and covering the lacquered case. "Okay...I'm done. Ne, let's get some sleep, Sou-chan." Still refusing to meet his gaze, Misao fixed his hakama and closed his gi, wrapping the worn obi around his waist and knotting the silken belt. Taking the michiyuki, she was about to throw it over him when Soujiro stopped her.
"What about you?"
"I'm fine...itai!" Hastily, Misao tried to brush off his questing hands but was too late.
Soujiro smiled chidingly as Misao dropped the cloak, crossed her arms and huffed. "You're not...here, let me."
Taking up the medicine, he did the same for her. Making her sit, Soujiro went behind he and asked her to lower her gi. Silently, she did as he asked. The marks on her back chased away Soujiro's smile and a trickle of anger towards his family rose in his heart. Misao struggled to keep her hisses stifled as the balm was wiped on her injuries but the worst ignited twinges that made her breath strained.
Coming to the last of the bruises, Soujiro touched the one at the back of her neck gingerly. "This will really hurt in the morning..." he murmured in quiet concern.
"I'll be fine," Misao insisted stubbornly. "You're the one who took almost all of it..."
A catch in her voice made Soujiro crawled around so he faced her. Staring into her eyes, he saw the echo of his pain and hers in the luminous pools of jade, reaching out, he pulled her close in a comforting hug. "I'll be alright, Misao-chan. Don't feel bad. It wasn't your fault."
She sniffled, muffling her sob, and huddled against him. Willing her tears not to fall. "D-demo..."
"It isn't," he tightened his embrace carefully and started to stroke her back soothingly. "This always happens to me, even before you came
along," he cupped her chin and tipped her face up to him. "But, now, I have you to help me whenever it does. You can't give me a better gift, Misao."
"But I caused this..."
"Iie," Soujiro shook his head. "You wanted to help me, nobody ever did. Remember that, Misao. You helped me first..."
"Hai!" Misao smiled bravely, then added, "And I promise you'll always be there for you, Soujiro."
He beamed, a genuine smile of happiness and contentment. "Then I have everything I need."
"You ask for so little, Soujiro, you've got a right to a whole lot more!" Misao giggled. Soujiro reached out and touched her mouth with his fingertips, enjoying the ripple of her mirth on his skin.
"That's it, Misao-chan, laugh it's all going to be better." he coaxed, caressing her cheek.
"Silly!" Misao admonished, catching his hand in hers and pressed it the back of the palm against her face. "Now, you get some rest, Sou-chan. We have a lot to do tomorrow." she gave him a squeeze.
"Hai, Misao-chan," he agreed, letting her pull him close in a firm but gentle embrace and resting his head against her chest. Misao shut her eyes, beginning to sing the tune of lullaby she had sung to him earlier that morning and rub his back carefully. Her light stroking and soft voice guided Soujiro to a dreamless sleep.
Once Misao knew Soujiro had drifted off, she lifted her chin from where she rested her jaw on top of his head and her face hardened. Looking over to where she knew Shishio had been watching silently, she fixed the man with such a fierce stare that Shishio could see the girl's ki shimmer around her.
"Shishio-san, I want you to train me and make me as strong as you," Misao said quietly, but with unbreakable conviction.
"Why do you want to be strong?"
"I'm going to protect him," jade fire lit her narrowed eyes.
Shishio only grunted. "Can you?" he asked bluntly. "And what if you can't take my training?"
Silent, the tiny girl only gazed at him. Then finally, pointed out simply, "Then like you said, if I'm weak, I'll die." Returning her eyes to Soujiro, Misao stroke his mop of hair. "I'd rather die than get Sou-chan into so much trouble all the time."
"Hn," Shishio smirked, pleased. "Good, you understand my philosophy. The weak have no place in this world."
"I understand that I am weak, that's why those people can do what they want to me and to Sou-chan," Misao glared at her hands, helpless fury welling in her chest and bringing a lump in her throat.
"Yes," agreed the man. "They do what they do to you because they can."
"I don't want it to happen again, I won't let them hurt Sou-chan or me anymore."
"Will you kill them for him, if you have to, Misao?"
She didn't hesitate. "Hai!"
Shishio finally rewarded her with an approving smile." Yosh, then you are strong enough for me to take as a pupil..." he trailed off then added in a thinly veiled threat. "If you survive my training is another matter entirely."
"If I don't, I die. But if I do, I'm strong enough to be of some help to Sou-chan," Misao finished. "Hai, I'm ready." For the first time since he had arrived in the farmstead, Misao walked over to him without the slightest hint of fear and stood before him, staring up at him expectantly. "Teach me. Now."
And so, I have one... Shishio mused in satisfaction. It would take some time...but the other will follow, eventually.
AN: Yeah, so there you have it folks, a big thanks to my other self who is in the wake of anonyminity (if theres a such word). Leave a review and tell us how we're doing. I know my AN was harsh, but those of you who leave an honest good critical review, you know it wasn't meant for you :D
**Ignore the grammar, I do**