~Standard Disclaimer: I do not own Rurouni Kenshin or Rurouni Kenshin characters. This story was not written for sale or profit.

A friend is someone that knows you and likes you just the same. Two boys will test the boundaries of their friendship, as they each encounter different experiences in life.

Dare to Breathe

Prologue

As the two boys hurled their bodies forward, their shinai clattered against each other to the rhythm of a very well orchestrated tune.  Each hit carried out with precision and grace.  Evenly matched they fought to out best the other.

In a state of exhaustion, they both fell to the floor neither having captured the victory.

Panting, they both lay on their backs in silence just enjoying the exhilaration of the moment.

"Had enough for today?" Kenshin asked between gasps of breath.  Rolling over on his side to look at his friend, Kenshin propped his elbow on the floor, and rested his head in his hand, before asking, "Or do you want me to finish you off right now?"

"As if you could," Aoshi replied.  Still out of breath, he opted to just turn his head to look at Kenshin.

"Ok, but I'll get you tomorrow for sure," Kenshin smiled.  Their bouts always ended the same, a tie. Letting his head fall onto his arm, he finished the roll landing on his stomach, the cool floor helping to take some of the heat away from his body.

"Only in your dreams," Aoshi quickly retorted.

Waiting for their breathing to return to normal, both boys lay on the training hall floor.

"Kenshin, has there been any word yet?" Aoshi hesitantly asked.  Rumors had been making the rounds at the dojo, once again someone had reported seeing Kenshin's parents in a foreign country, living the life of luxury while their fifteen year old son had to work to have a place to stay.

"No, nothing yet."  The words were barely audible as Kenshin's face was buried in the crook of his arm, pressed firmly against the floor.  Kenshin's thoughts returned to the day, seven years ago, when a social worker had come to his house and taken him to Hiko's without any explanation. 

Kenshin had lived with Hiko, training in the sword style that Hiko taught in his dojo.  When Kenshin was good enough, Hiko began using him as the instructor for the beginner's class, allowing him to pay for his room and board.  Although Hiko was hard on all his students, he took particular delight in making Kenshin the brunt of all his lessons, as if that was his reason for taking care of Kenshin.  But no matter what chore or assignment Hiko would give Kenshin, he always managed to rise to the challenge, and in the flare that was his alone, get the job done.

"Are you all right?" Aoshi asked, not daring to breathe until he heard a soft "Yes."  With each new rumor that surfaced, Kenshin would try to withdraw inside himself, where he felt safe and protected but Aoshi refused to let him have that luxury.  Having met in the beginner's class at Hiko's dojo, they were inseparable, and as their friendship continued to grow, as well as their competitive nature, they spent many hours together practicing as well as doing the chores around the dojo.

"What did your dad get you for your birthday?" Kenshin suddenly asked, changing the subject of their conversation.   He once again rolled up on his side with his head supported by his arm.

" A real Japanese sword.  He said now that I am thirteen I am old enough to have one, only it's an import.  I can tell," he said the disappointment evident in his voice.  "He bought it for himself, not for me.  He wants me to be this samurai but that isn't who I am."  Aoshi sat up, crossed his legs and then looked at his friend.

 "I'm sure his intentions were good," Kenshin said softly, and then his voice quickened as he continued, "That is one step closer to being a man in his eyes.  I don't think Hiko will ever look at me as a man.  In fact, I'll bet he doesn't get me a sword and I will be fifteen next month.  I would be old enough that if we lived in the days of the samurai, I would be treated as a man then."

"I think of you as a man," Aoshi nonchalantly said.

"You don't count," Kenshin quickly replied.

Aoshi crawled over to Kenshin, locking eyes with him until Kenshin lowered his and said, "Ok, you do count, but I am not a man… yet."

"Roll over," Aoshi commanded, pulling him back onto his stomach.  Straddling his legs, Aoshi placed his hands on either side of Kenshin's lower back and started working his fingers into the tight muscles.  Slowly and with expert precision, he moved up Kenshin's back, delving into the taut muscled until his fingers reached Kenshin's shoulders.  Moving to his neck, Aoshi gently massaged the muscles until they felt like a soft sponge under his expert fingers.

"Oh, that feels so good.  How do you do it?" Kenshin asked half asleep.

"I don't know. I have always been able to do it.  Father keeps telling me that I have a gift when I massage his shoulders," he answered turning Kenshin's limp body over.  Starting at the base of Kenshin's neck, his hands worked their magic over his chest then extended out to his arms.  

 With his eyes closed, Kenshin just lay on the dojo floor, soaking up the wonderful feelings that his body was experiencing.  Never before could he remember feeling so relaxed and calm.  It was as if his entire body was floating.

Aoshi watched mesmerized as Kenshin melted under his ministrations, how his eyelids fluttered, cheeks rosy pink.  And then when Kenshin's tongue slowly slid over his lips, Aoshi could hold back no longer, he leaned down and gently kissed him.  Instantly a flash of reality hit him, propelling himself off Kenshin, he flipped back, leaving Kenshin staring dazedly at the ceiling.

With his back to Kenshin, Aoshi sat holding his knees, his head buried between his legs, rocking back and forth.

"Aoshi?"  The question so soft that Aoshi had to hold still to make sure that he did hear something.

"I'm sorry," he quickly stated, resuming his rocking.

"Are you all right?"  Kenshin asked, leaning forward to rest on his elbows.

Unable to face his friend, he blurted out, "No."  His voice softened when he said, "I really like you a lot."

"I like you a lot also but not that way," Kenshin softly replied.

"I'll understand if you never want to be alone with me again," Aoshi said, hoping that he had not crossed a forbidden line.

"Don't be stupid.  I don't know how I would have survived without you as my friend.  And I am not going to throw that away.  Are you?"  Kenshin asked, scooting over to Aoshi.  He touched Aoshi's shoulder and turned him around so that he could see his face.

"Then you're not mad?" Aoshi asked, looking into Kenshin's smiling face, "You don't hate me?"

"Of course not, but don't you do that again or I'll have to hurt you, Ok?" Kenshin said, shaking his fist in his face to emphasis his point.

"As if you could hurt me.  You couldn't even touch me…"

Rising to the dare, Kenshin leapt at Aoshi tackling him and pinning him to the floor.  Moving his hands, Kenshin started to tickle Aoshi making him writhe underneath him in fits of laughter.

Unknown to the two boys, they were being watched by a young boy who was constantly hiding in the shadows, staying away from any human contact until he saw Aoshi.  He was so enthralled with the dark haired teenager that he took to shadowing him whenever possible.  His biggest thrill was to watch as Aoshi sparred with the red head that lived with his Uncle Hiko.  There was just something that sparked his interest when Aoshi would wield his shinia.

But today was different, although the match had ended in a tie as usual, instead of getting right up and cleaning the dojo, the two boys opted to lay and talk.  Then the red head did the unthinkable and attacked the man who had caught his attention.

Jumping up, Soujiro ran to help Aoshi, yelling some unrecognizable sound, hoping to scare the red head into leaving his Aoshi alone.  He had no plan as to what he was going to do once he reached the two boys but when he got there he used his small fists and beat on Kenshin's back and then using all his strength, he managed to push him enough that he fell over, allowing a space that Soujiro could occupy.  Putting himself between the two boys, he stood and scowled at Kenshin.

"Soujiro?" Kenshin quietly asked, totally dazed at the aggression the ten year old was displaying.  The young boy and his mother had moved in with Hiko almost a year ago and in all that time, Soujiro had never done anything that would even suggest that he was aggressive.  Always hiding and never answering when called, everyone though that the boy was deaf or just didn't care enough about the world to participate.

Soujiro stood his ground, fists clenched in front of him, and then lunging forward he renewed his attack on Kenshin.

Aoshi jumped to his friend's defense, grabbing the boy around his shoulders, he pulled him off Kenshin.

"Soujiro, what do you think you're doing?" Kenshin angrily asked.

Soujiro stood defiant with Aoshi's arms around him.  His face red, cheeks puffing out and his eyes wet with unshed tears as he glared at Kenshin.

Surprised at the emotions that the boy displayed, Kenshin calmly asked, "Soujiro, are you all right?"

Soujiro let his tears fall as he slowly turned around and looked at Aoshi.  Breaking free of his captor, Soujiro ran from the training hall, leaving two very confused boys behind.

Watching Soujiro run from the training hall, Kenshin shrugged his shoulders.  His experience with the boy was very limited and he didn't have the time or energy to try to figure out what was wrong with him.

"Who was that?" Aoshi asked, looking down at where the boy had been.

Getting into a sitting position, Kenshin explained. "That is Soujiro.  He is Hiko's sister's son.  They are staying here until she can get enough money to afford a place of her own.  Hiko wants her to stay here but she is too much like him and they fight a lot.  I don't think that I have heard the boy say one word the whole time he has been here.  At least I know that he does have a voice now."

"He is kind of cute," Aoshi said aloud before he realized what he was saying.

"Yea, you would notice that and it did appear that he was trying to save you," Kenshin teased, playfully punching him in the shoulder.

Aoshi blushed.  "Come on lets get this place cleaned up before Hiko yells at us again."

"You're blushing," Kenshin said, laughing as he jumped out of range of Aoshi's shinai.

Outside the training hall, Soujiro leaned against the building.  Too late, he had realized that the two boys had been playing not fighting as he had thought.  But as Aoshi was his hero, he should have been the one to make the red head succumb to his wishes not the other way around.  It just wasn't right.

Confused as to why he had tried to beat the red head, he started walking toward the main house.  He needed to find his mother, for she always comforted him when he was confused and helped him to figure things out.  She was also the only one that he could and would talk to.

Walking down the hall towards the kitchen, he could hear his mother's voice along with Uncle Hiko's.  He stopped just out of sight and waited, listening to their conversation. 

"NO…  I won't allow it," Hiko's voice bellowed, bouncing down the hall.

"You can't stop me," his mother quickly answered. 

Soujiro smiled.  He knew his mother well enough that in order to prove herself, she would tackle Godzilla, if such a creature existed.

"YOU are living under MY roof and YOU will do what I say," Hiko stated, slamming his fist on the table.

"I can fix that, I will have my things out by morning," she said defiantly.

"Then the boy stays here," Hiko replied. 

Soujiro gasped.  No, he thought, you can't leave me here, mommy.

"No, he will leave with me," his mother said.  Her voice had lost some of its edge now that the decision was made.  "This is a path that I must walk, with or without your help."

"I will be watching you and, if I deem it necessary, I will take the boy away from you," Hiko said his voice steady and sure.

Soujiro's eyes widened and his body began to shake as he listened to his mother quietly say, "I understand."  The thought of losing the only solid thing in his life was more than he could take.  Running back down the hall, up the stairs and into the room he shared with his mother, he crawled into the small space in the tiny closet.  Curling into a ball, he gently rocked himself until he fell asleep.

To be continued…