... Well. Ah. I'm back? Obviously. Good lord, it's been two years. I'm not going to start making excuses for my lengthy absence - I'll merely apologize and say that fickle muses be damned, I am not abandoning this story just because I happen to hate a certain story arc. I will be very slow, but I'll try not to back myself into a corner again. It's not fair to the story, or people who have encouraged me so much, especially not after going this far.
A few notes before I begin: I've been giving the story a lot of thought, and I've realized how incredibly naive I was when I first started. I've been outright unfair - it may have been my first Kenshin fanfiction, but that's no excuse to be one of those obnoxious fangirls who spout random Japanese words all over the place. That said, I'm cutting back: some of the lingo is staying, such as the honourifics, "busu" (come on, it's Yahiko's favourite word), and "ume-chan" (since it was translated earlier on in the story anyway), and most likely a few others, but for the most part, from here on, this story will be in English, not Japanese.
Another thing I noticed was how much of a brat Hikari was to Kaoru when they first met. And a lot of her lines are way too wordy for her age. Where the hell did that come from? Huh. Maybe someday I'll revamp the whole thing...
Finally, I am hating on our lovely host site for disallowing lyrics in fanfics. It was such a big part of this story and now I have to cut it out. Ugh.
Anyway, I talk too much. Onwards!
Disclaimer: RuroKen is not my property. Like that's a surprise.
The Light of the Snow-Red Village
Part VII - Flicking Shadows: The Devil's Walking Stick
Sanosuke didn't like not getting what he wanted. Above all else, he didn't like not getting food when he wanted it. So he was quite unhappy when he arrived at the dojo to find it quiet, no sign nor sound of the usual scuffles between teacher and student - or student and student, if Hikari got herself involved. Which she usually did. He was stalking through the yard and around the property, the prospects of a free meal decreasing with every step, when he suddenly caught a whiff of tea in the air.
...Score! Shifting to a jog, he made it to the kitchen just as Kenshin was pouring himself a cup. "Yo."
The vagabond turned, not so much surprised - he often wasn't - as simply looking as if he hadn't expected a visitor. Normally it might've been the same thing, but Kenshin and 'normal' were not exactly friends.
"Good morning," Kenshin murmured somewhat absently, offering the cup to Sano instead. "You're here early."
Sano raised an eyebrow, downing the tea easily. As always, Kenshin made a damn fine brew. "Early?" he echoed. "Was hoping I'd be just in time for lunch."
Kenshin smiled faintly, shaking his head. Curiously enough, there were telltale signs of worry in his expression, though apparently it was nothing big enough to make him take off at a mad run to whatever was wrong. "Then you're still early."
"Where's jou-chan and the kids?"
"Kaoru-dono and Yahiko are training at Maekawa dojo," the rurouni sat down, placidly drinking his own tea, trying to look as neutral as possible. Sano wasn't fooled. "She asked me to come, but there's shopping to do, and I have to pick up Hikari at the clinic in a few hours."
Sano blinked. "Something wrong?"
"Not that I know of," Kenshin answered musingly, "But I suspect Megumi-dono would notice better than I. Hikari asked if she could go and learn a few things from the doctors. She seems interested in herbal medicine for some reason..."
Better medicine than swordsmanship, he added inwardly.
"Go fig. What then?" Sano prodded, leaning against the wall, eyes glinting faintly.
Kenshin hesitated, then admitted, "We're meeting for lunch at the Aka-"
"Alright! Let's go shopping!"
Two minutes later, the pair headed out the gate, Sano eagerly - and hungrily - leading the way.
"Hmm..." Megumi leaned down to study the mixture, giving it a careful waft. Pausing a moment longer, she nodded in approval. "Not bad, Hikari."
The girl's expression, which had been somewhat worried for a while, brightened considerably. "Really? I thought I'd missed something so I was-"
"-Perceptive," Megumi mused. "You missed the burdock." Hikari's eyes fell again. "Don't feel bad. It takes practice, and by the look of it, your measurements were good. Take another look at the recipe and fix it, and I'll add it to my supply."
"Okay!" Hikari grinned and spun away, eagerly going back to work. Shaking her head in amusement, Megumi took another look at the girl's accomplishments. She was an attentive student, at least; not particularly gifted for the trade, but focused and patient enough to listen to the instructions given. Both traits were certainly useful - and mandatory in her line of work - though really, what Megumi wanted to know most was why the girl had the sudden desire to learn about medicine. She'd asked, of course, but Hikari had shrugged it off as mere curiousity. It might have worked - she was young enough to not have other motives for it - if she wasn't a terrible liar. Which doesn't give me any answers either, the doctor reflected, shaking aside her thoughts. It probably had something to do with Kenshin, knowing the girl's attachment to him and his tendency to get injured. It wasn't surprising for her to want to know how to deal with them.
But still... that's too much responsibility for a child.
Perhaps it was just one of those childhood impulses, a phase she'd outgrow. Megumi wasn't sure whether it was good or bad, but, really, she didn't know the girl well enough to be a proper judge. Kenshin hadn't objected, so obviously it wasn't much of an issue on his part. A swordsman of his caliber would have taken pride in her abilities, and frown upon anything that turned her attention from that... or perhaps as an Ishin Shishi, he was a traditionalist? Not that medicine was a woman's trade either...
She sighed. The only way to know was, of course, to ask Kenshin, and knowing him he would smile and give no answer at all.
Invincible swordsman indeed... he leaves no openings. Smiling faintly to herself, she turned back to Hikari, finding the herb mixture well corrected and acceptable for use. She was about to say so when there was a pounding of footsteps on the floor, and a young man burst into the clinic, clad in a simple dojo uniform.
"Sensei!" he cried, eyes wide with fear. "An attack on our dojo - our master's been hurt! Please-!"
"Bring him in!" Megumi instructed swiftly, even as two more students followed the first, an older man supported between them. Following was, surprisingly, Yahiko, and another student just behind, carrying-
Megumi inhaled sharply, and Hikari gasped a the sight.
When they finally arrived at the clinic, Kenshin and Sano were surprised to find a line of unfamiliar kendo students waiting around one of the examination rooms. Upon questioning them, they were both startled to find they were in fact from Maekawa-sensei's dojo, and that both he and the young, female instructor who had been visiting were currently with the doctor.
"It was crazy!" one student told them, expression wild with concern and amazement. He didn't seem to notice the glint in Kenshin's eyes, silently demanding the full story. "This huge man came in and challenged the dojo! He defeated Maekawa-sensei easily, and when Kamiya-sensei tried to stop the fight, he attacked her with wind!"
Kenshin and Sanosuke exchanged a look at this - Sano didn't miss Kenshin's expression so easily - and were about to head right in to see what was going on when the door opened, and out stepped Hikari, wearily lifting a hand in greeting.
The colder, calculating part of Kenshin wanted to grab the girl practically interrogate her on what exactly was going on. The father half - the stronger of the two, always always - pushed it aside in favour of asking if she alright, just whose blood it was on her hands and tunic, and then what had happened.
Hikari attempted a reassuring smile, letting him take her hand and pull her to a wash basin. "It's not mine," she murmured, "It's Kaoru-san's. That man... Yahiko saw it, not me. But..." she trailed off, eyes widening at his expression, adding hastily, "She's not bad! But she's resting... she hurt her head. Megumi-san said it looks worse than it is, that she was lucky."
"Only because he was aiming at her shinai," a curt voice called from the door, and they turned as Yahiko stepped out as well, looking unusually grim.
"Kaoru-dono?" Kenshin questioned, his voice worried.
Hikari sighed, leaning tiredly against him, murmuring, "Papa, I told you..." but he merely brushed a hand through her hair, shaking his head apologetically.
Yahiko shrugged. "She's out. Megumi says she will be for a while. Concussion or something. There's not much else they can do, so we gotta wait." He shuffled a little, eyes drifting towards the door before returning to Kenshin. "He cut her arm; not deep, but she can't move it yet. It was mostly that... wind blast." His brow furrowed. "Ever seen anyone attack with the wind from their sword like that?"
There was a pause. "Perhaps," Kenshin replied cryptically, his voice soft, "But I didn't see it."
Yahiko snorted. "Well, whatever. It knocked her right over - she hit her head. I was gonna get him but the other students..." he reddened faintly. "I mean, the hag was out, and someone had to help carry her here. She's too heavy for one person."
"Yahiko," Kenshin chided, but his eyes were on the door. "What about Maekawa-dono?"
"Megumi's fixing him up," the boy jerked a thumb at the other room. "I think he broke some bones, but he'll be okay. ... Kenshin," he said after a moment's silence, "This guy who did this..."
"I wanted to ask you," Kenshin nodded. "Who was he?"
"His name's Raijuuta," Yahiko answered, eyes narrowing. "He's an asshole!"
"We got that," Sanosuke rolled his eyes.
Yahiko bristled. "Shut up! I'm serious! He's nothing like you, Kenshin - says swords are for killing, and dojos like busu's are worthless! He's trying to shut them all down." His scowl deepened. "He even had his own little sidekick - stupid brat. I coulda kicked his ass if I wanted to."
"Sano," Kenshin looked to the gangster, "Your information network. Do you think...?"
"On it," Sano grinned, stuffing his hands in his pockets. "I'll see what I can dig up." He waved off Kenshin's quiet thanks and within moments was gone from the clinic.
Yahiko shuffled again, his eyes shifting to look at the floor. "Kenshin... don't get pissed, but he might be heading to our dojo next."
Briefly amused at the boy's first comment, Kenshin merely questioned why.
And was floored.
"I told him you could kick his ass too."
... well... that's one way to deal with the problem...
"Oro," he managed, shaking his head. "... I suppose we'd best hurry back there when Kaoru-dono is well enough."
"Papaaaa," Hikari complained, her voice rising, shattering the serious atmosphere, stomach growling a scant second later. "'m hungry. Didn't you go shopping?"
Kenshin blinked; he had forgotten all about the shopping trip. He smiled gently, curving his daughter's head in the direction of the buckets he had carried in and deposited in the corner. "There are some vegetables in the second basket - leave enough for supper, please, but a few now won't hurt."
"Good," she beamed at him, expression bright, her weariness vanishing in the midst of her hunger. Kenshin wondered - he often did, these days, and blamed it on the fact that he really wasn't getting any younger - where she had gotten her endless energy from, and gave Yahiko a pointed look as she bounded over to the buckets to hunt for her snack.
The boy shrugged his shoulders, leaning against the wall. "Not hungry," he answered the silent question. "I'll eat when we get back."
His eyes were focused on the door, and Kenshin had to withhold a smile at what he found there.
It never ceased to amuse him, the constant cycle of denial and bickering they seemed to thrive in. "I'm going to check on Kaoru-dono and see if they need any assistance," he said softly, straightening up and heading for the door himself.
"They might kick you out," Hikari chimed in, the words half-muffled by the piece of daikon she was chewing on. Yahiko gave a curt nod in agreement, but Kenshin merely smiled, pushing open the door and stepping inside.
"Oi! I think busu's awake!"
"Don't-!" Kaoru started to snap before her eyes even opened, but then she gave a low groan, voice quieting as the pounding in her skull told her that raising her voice was definitely a bad idea. "Don't call me that. What happened...?"
"You were injured," Kenshin murmured. She lifted her gaze to see him leaning over her, smiling patiently. Aside from that, his expression was unreadable; it was a little disturbing.
Dr. Genzai was there a moment later, checking her eyes. "How do you feel, Kaoru-chan?"
"Sore," she mumbled. And blinked. "That... that man... Raijuuta...?"
"He left," Yahiko spoke up again, eyes narrowed sharply. "Him and his punk follower. Probably to trash some other dojos around town."
"If that's the case," Megumi frowned tightly, two fingers massaging her forehead, "It seems we should expect to see more patients coming in."
Kenshin sat back in his chair beside the bed, offering his hand out to Kaoru as she attempted to sit up again, Genzai supporting her from behind. "I think this Raijuuta should be dealt with as soon as we can meet with him, to prevent more injuries from occurring."
"And just how are you going to do that?" Kaoru gave him a suspicious look, wavering a little, but apparently less likely to fall over than she had a moment ago. "You're not going to challenge him, are you?"
"It's a little late for that," Kenshin murmured wryly, sending Yahiko a sidelong glance.
The boy reddened a little as Kaoru echoed the look. "Yahiko, you didn't!"
"It's not like I was lying or anything!" he protested, crossing his arms and looking away. "Kenshin can kick his ass, and he will, right?"
There was a pause, as Kenshin stared mutely at him. He wasn't sure if Yahiko was talking about revenge for hurting Kaoru or simply asserting his strength, but either way, he didn't like being volunteered as an opponent to a man he'd never even met.
He ignored the inner-voice that firmly reminded him that had he been there, he would have interceded and probably already faced the man for Kaoru's sake. They didn't need to be told as much; from the expressions they wore, they probably already knew.
I suppose it's what I get for becoming so predictable... there is no avoiding it now. He lifted his head, glancing at the corner, and was met by Hikari's smile, while Kaoru and Yahiko argued in the background. He found it curious; she hated when he was dragged into fights that weren't his own, yet now she seemed to be encouraging him to get himself involved, despite the fact that Kaoru had already been injured because of it...
"Come on now, Kaoru-chan," Dr. Genzai urged, his voice a slight, scolding tone to pull her out of her verbal battle and bringing Kenshin's attention back to the aforementioned patient as he helped her swing her legs around to dangle off the edge of the bed, "Let's see how steady you are."
"I feel silly," she mused, cheeks going pink, her feet lowering to the floor, slowly putting pressure on them to rise. "All this attention for a little bump on the head..."
"Head injuries are nothing to laugh at," Megumi advised meaningfully, glancing over at Kenshin. "You'll have to watch her carefully and keep her out of trouble on the way home. No running off with strange swordsmen until she's asleep."
She was jesting, of course, and Kenshin did his best to smile in response. Fervently he hoped any strange swordsmen would leave them well enough alone, at least until morning.
Wishes against futility never did anyone harm, after all.
The return trip to the dojo was mercifully uneventful for the most part; Sanosuke met with them just outside the clinic, reporting that very little was known about Raijuuta aside from what they were already aware of, and the fact that he was apparently staying in one of the richer sections of Tokyo, specifically the Tsukayama estate. What he was doing there was still a mystery, but one Sano intended to resolve - preferably after a good meal and some sleep. The 'brat' that Yahiko had mentioned was the only son of the estate owner, though his reasons for following the rogue swordsman around were also unknown. Yahiko, not caring much either way, redubbed him 'rich brat' and did his best to annoy everyone with his foul mood.
Kaoru, for her part, was quiet, and Kenshin along with her, somewhat uncomfortable walking at her side with her arm curved a little too comfortably through his. He had brushed it aside, firmly told her he didn't mind when she'd asked - shyly - and he did his best to look like he meant it. A young lady at his arm shouldn't be such a big deal, but he honestly didn't want to set across the wrong impression, especially since he was living with her. Rumours could ruin a person, especially when they involved fidelity and the purity of unmarried girls; one such as Kaoru, with no one else to support or shelter her, could easily have her future stolen away by giving people ideas.
He blinked, glancing over as she lightly tapped his arm. "Yes, Kaoru-dono?"
"You look like you were stuck again," she mused, smiling softly, then laughed a little at his baffled expression. "In your head, I mean. Lost in thought. Are you okay?"
The look faded, though his confusion did not. He hadn't been aware that she was already so attuned to his hidden state of mind; he wasn't sure if this bothered him, either. "I'm fine." After a moment's hesitation, he admitted, in an attempt to be honest, "Just wondering about the man who attacked you."
He regretted it instantly, when a look of pure and unadultured wrath covered the kenjutsu instructor's face. "Oh, him! When I get my hands on him, he's going to regret ever coming to Tokyo!"
She stopped there, noticing his expression now looked more like one a riceball might wear right before being devoured by Sano in the morning. "Er... Kaoru-dono... you may want to take it easy until you recover."
"I'll be just fine!" Kaoru tossed back, waving her hand in dismissal. He chose to ignore how her body wavered a little at the same time, leaning against his. "Just need to rest a little. Genzai-sensei said I would recover soon, so don't worry so much, okay?"
Kenshin averted his eyes, and they walked in silence for a while, avoiding looking each other. Distantly, he wondered exactly how he was going to deal with this particular issue without having Kaoru and Hikari tag-team him in an attempt to convince him not to get in over his head. They were getting good at that. Disturbingly.
"Kenshin," Kaoru said again, squeezing his arm, "It's sweet of you to be concerned. Thank you."
He almost spluttered. Was proud of himself, actually, that he didn't; it took a great deal of restraint. "O-of course, Kaoru-dono! It... ah... what else could I..."
She laughed. It was brief, but gentle, and a welcome sound that made him forget just what had made him so embarrassed to begin with.
He remembered it, hours later; the memory was clear and unforgettable, if only because it was the last time he heard her laugh for several days.
When they turned the final corner, the dojo coming into sight, he heard a cry break free of her lips at his side, and he had to tighten his grasp on her arm to keep her from running towards the pale flicker of a dying flame in the middle of the street. The remains of a twisted piece of wood, nothing more.
Everything, he corrected, as she clung to him, shaking, eyes wet, and they came close enough to see that the sign of her father's dojo - decades old, a family treasure, if only in her eyes - was gone from the outside gate.
And lay burning in the street, for all the world to see her shame.
To be continued
Notes: I love messing with things.
I should make a note right now as a reminder that I'm still following the MANGA timeline, not the anime. That means Yutaro's father is not dead, nor is he a great samurai. To be honest I despised the manga version of this arc so much I barely remember anything from it. That aside, don't expect anime occurances here.
Researching Japanese herbal medicine is a pain. The things I do for you people...
The site better not screw with story formatting. I've had lines and italics magically disappear after posting. It's so odd. ... and I'm rambling again, ignore me. (I've been quiet for too long!)
Thank you for reading (and for your patience; goodness knows I haven't deserved it). I, er, will try to do better with this fic from now on...