All respective rights belong to Nobuhiro Watsuki-sama

Teaser: The smallest act of kindness means everything to the young man who has never experienced it.

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The Smallest Act of Kindness…

by April-san

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What a horrible day.

The sweat rolled off his forehead in rivets.  His feet ached from walking so many miles.  His eyelids slowly drooped, exhausted from the never changing landscape and the lack of comfortable rest.

They had been traveling for days along this same path, sand in their mouths and between their toes, money pouches practically empty, minds full of conflicting thoughts.

Yet, they had each other.

He licked his cracked, salty lips one more time under the bright sun and hesitantly glanced at his traveling companion.  Still not used to having a figure follow as his shadow, Soujirou looked up at the tall blue-eyed ninja's face.  The strong jaw, thin lips, the way his hair hung over his eyes, Soujirou studied every detail of the other's features a moment before those blue eyes met his.

The young man bit his lower lip before turning back to the path, a touch of pink in his cheeks, a smile slowly forming.

It wasn't always like this.  There were so many times he was sent from Shishio's side with a pocket full of money, a name in his mind, and his dagger at his waist.  Nothing simpler.  Make it look like an accident.  Draw no suspicion.  No mistakes.  Once he learned the trade, he never did.

Now, so many questions, thoughts, truths swimming in his mind.  He lost a fight and was still alive.  That in itself was amazing to the young man.  But, even more amazing was the tall figure at his side. 

Aoshi had joined him with little more than a few words and a nod.  Never more than a few paces away.  Mood calm but always guarded, as if always expecting attack.

Soujirou had never known such a man.

He had felt something when he first laid eyes upon the tall figure nimbly breaking into that dojo through his spy glass.  Shinomori Aoshi.  Leader of the Oniwabanshu.  Soujirou could remember his thoughts at the time:  For Shishio-san.  Find the strongest for Shishio-san.  If he does not join us, entrap him.  Use him.  For Shishio-san. 

And, yet, even after everything he did to snare the ninja in Shishio's plans, here he was, walking in the young man's shadow of his own free will.

Shishio did not believe in mercy.  It was simple.  The strong lived.  The weak died.  No effort was wasted on human sympathies.  Not even for the young man faithfully traveling at his side, doing anything asked of him without hesitation.  Hesitation showed weakness.  Weakness meant death.

It was so simple.

If he fell, he either found the strength to pull himself up or not.  To become stronger or lay in the dust and die.

It was too simple.

Looking back, Soujirou shook his head at his innocence and foolishness to entrust one's total belief in such a truth.  If he had only opened his eyes sooner.  If he had only questioned his adored Shishio-san.

He sighed.  Questioning his mentor would have meant his death.  Do what you are told.  Do not hesitate.  Do not feel. 

It was so hard to pretend he was stone when he brought the tall ninja into Shishio's presence.  They had none of the promised information.  But they trapped him.  Stir the ninja's emotions.  Trick him in joining us.  Use him.  Let Battousai use his energy on someone expendable.

He remembered approaching Aoshi after the order in which they would fight Himura Kenshin was decided.  Let me fight him first, the words fell from the young man's lips before he could think about it.  I will kill him.  You don't have to fight him.  Please, Shinomori-san…

I will kill Battousai, was the only response. 

Soujirou stole another glance at his companion and smiled, seeing those eyes which now didn't seem so cold.  The face didn't seem so rigid.  The voice had almost a touch of warmth. 

So wrapped up in his thoughts, Soujirou did not notice the small hole in his path until he found himself on the ground, a curse on his lips, knees and palms scraped, eyes squeezed shut with tiny drops escaping from the sides.  He winced, the memory of reprimands in his mind.

Baka na!  Clumsy!  Stupid!  Can't do anything right!  How can you become strong if you can't even do this?

He again sighed, the familiar smile slipping onto his face as he blinked open his eyes.  An upturned hand was centered in his view.

Soujirou could only stare at the offered hand, his mind not truly comprehending.  His gaze traveled from the appendage to the offer's face.

"Daijobu ka?" the lips slowly moved, blue eyes actually showed…concern?

This was so new, so different.  Aoshi was actually…worried?  About me?  "A…Aa."  His eyes returned to the offered hand, not knowing if it was something to fear.

"I'll help you up."  He said it so simply, so naturally as if it was the most normal thing in the world to say.

I'll help you…

No one had ever said those words to him before.  No one. 

There was so much he didn't know.  But, that was the purpose of this journey, wasn't it?  To discover one's own truth.  To find out what it truly meant to live.

With almost a grin on his face, Soujirou reached up to take hold of the offered hand.  "Arigatou, Shinomori-san."

Would Aoshi ever realize what this simple act meant to the young man?  So many years of terror and now…

With a soft pull, Soujirou found himself on his feet, the ninja's eyes checking him for visible injury.

"I'm okay," he reinforced his words with a smile and brushed his hands together causing dirt and small pebbles to fall.  He then ran his hands over his hakama, brushing off the dust.

Aoshi made a soft sound of agreement and again stood in the young man's shadow, just waiting.

Waiting for him.

Soujirou stole another glance at the tall man, flashing him a bright smile, before taking another step down the long path.

What else do I not know?  Things I have taken for granted, taken as truth, are becoming false.  There is so much to learn about this new world…

How many holes will I have  to trip in before I discover the real truth in life?  Maybe…just maybe…one's view of life depends on those one keeps company with.

Yet again, Soujirou glanced back at the tall man, meeting his blue gaze.  The upturning of his lips was in response to the warm feeling deep inside. 

Today isn't so bad after all.

*owari*

Author's notes: Thanks Akai! *chibi Soujirou gives Akai a big hug*

More to come! ^__^