Teaser:  Aoshi and Soujirou visit Kenshin on a very special day.  Hints of shounen-ai.

All respective rights belong to Nobuhiro Watsuki-sama.

***

Moving Forward

By April-san

***

"We shouldn't be here."

Aoshi almost smiled at the small, cloaked figure at his side.  "We were invited.  It would be rude not to make an appearance."  He shifted the long sheath underneath his left arm.

The figure nervously turned the plainly wrapped package in his hands.  "You were invited."

A soft noise came from Aoshi, yet he continued his pace, perhaps slightly faster than his normal speed.  He did not feel comfortable in these crowded city streets of Tokyo.  He had not felt comfortable among normal society for quite some time.  

The small figure walked briskly, yet effortlessly, to keep up with the tall man, being extra cautious not to disturb the box in his hands.  His head slowly looked up and his pale face emerged from the dark folds.  "Aoshi?"

"Hmm?"

His head quickly lowered, as much to hide his expression as to keep from walking into people.  "What…what is he like?"

The tall man actually slowed his pace a step.  "Nani?"

Blue eyes peeked from the darkness of the hood as he again looked up at his companion.  "I've only known him on the battlefield.  As an enemy.  What is he like…really?"

Aoshi took a deep breath and slid his hands into the pockets of his jacket, unconsciously touching the paper envelope.  "He is a good man."

The small figure waited a long moment for the other to continue.  He let out a small, heart-felt laugh and a hand reached under the hood to scratch the back of his head when he realized the other would not.  "Aoshi, how can you sum up an entire man, Himura Battousai-san no less, in just five words?"

"Because he is."

The grin faded to a soft smile and, again, the small figure looked away.  "Ahh."

"We are almost there."

"I could wait for you outside the-"

"We have already discussed this."

The young man sighed and his face disappeared inside the darkness of his hood.  It was a long minute before he spoke again.  "Aoshi?"

"Nhmn?"

"Will he be angry…seeing me?"  He took a deep breath.  "I don't want to ruin this day for him."

"No," Aoshi said simply.

"Are you certain?  I once tried to kill him."

"Yes."

"But, how can you be so sure?"

Aoshi shook his head, the long bangs hanging over his blue eyes swung back and forth.  "Because he is a good man."

The small figure quietly sighed, shook his head at his companion, and continued to toy with the box in his hands.  "But-"

"We're here."

"But…but…"  The pitch in the young man's voice raised a notch.

Aoshi did not pause in his stride as he walked straight to the open entrance.  The dojo was in the mist of extensive preparation measured by the noise and laughter from inside the main building, spilling beyond the walls.

As the tall ninja expected, a familiar red-head was crouched over a low tub, diligently scrubbing at soapy articles.  Yet, unusually, his lavender gaze was caught in a nothingness, as if his spirit was elsewhere, beside someone else.

"Battousai."

Reaction to the single word was instantaneous.  The crouched figure's back stiffened, hand moving to the sword at his side, and he slowly looked up.  But, as soon as his eyes met the speaker's, realizing the spoken name was not in challenge, a huge grin appeared on the scarred face.  "Aoshi!"

Aoshi nodded, his lips almost curved into a smile.  "Himura."

With the grace only matched by another swordsman, Kenshin came to his feet, laundry forgotten, and strode to greet his visitor.  He wiped his soapy hands on his frayed white hakama and looked into the tall ninja's static face.  "I'm so glad you came.  And…"  His gaze caught at the small cloaked figure almost hiding behind Aoshi.  "Misao?"

The small figure took a deep breath and finally stepped into view.  "Iie, Himura-san.  It's…It's me."

The smile on Kenshin's face was replaced by a look of utter shock and amazement.  "Sou…Soujirou?"

***

Soujirou clenched his hands to keep them from trembling.  His gaze fell, unable to look into those lavender eyes.  This man had changed his very life.  "I'm sorry.  I…I'll leave if you want me to."  His face disappeared into the darkness of the hood.  "I did not mean to disturb you, Himura-san."

"Come in."  Those lavender eyes had softened from their initial shock.  "It is much more welcome inside.  Please come in."

Aoshi responded without hesitation and stepped through the gateway.  "Don't be rude, Soujirou," he added as he glanced back.

"Hai, Aoshi."  He took an extra moment to collect himself but finally followed Aoshi inside the dojo gate.  Once within the walls, Soujirou found himself suddenly in a tight embrace, the smell of ginger engulfing him, red strands in his view.

"I'm so happy you came," a soft voice whispered in his ear.

"Himura-san, you're crushing your gift!"

Kenshin only laughed and hugged the young man tighter.

Soujirou let out his breath and closed his eyes, a smile creeping to his face.  He could count on one hand how many times he had been hugged in his entire life.  Yet, every set of strong arms encircling him with momentary protection brought intense contentment and joy.

After what seemed like an eternity, which was much too soon for Soujirou, Kenshin finally pulled away, first brushing back the dark hood, then keeping his hands on the young man's shoulders.  "Soujirou…" he spoke again, as if to convince himself of who stood before him.

A slight tinge of pink quickly spread across his cheeks and Soujirou looked away.  "Himura-san-"

"Kenshin," the lavender eyed man insisted.

The pink turned to a shade of red.  "Kenshin-san-"

The former Battousai laughed and stole a glance at the tall ninja only watching.  "How long did it take for him to call you by your first name?"

Aoshi's expression remained serious.  "Months."

Again, the red-head laughed and finally released the other.  "It's been…a very long time."

Soujirou nodded, keeping his gaze averted.  "Hai, Himura…Kenshin-san."

"What have you been doing?"

He stared at a particularly plain looking bug crawl near his feet.  "Wandering."

Kenshin let out a loud sigh.  "You've been with Aoshi much too long.  You used to be much more talkative."

"Ahh."  Soujirou nervously scratched the back of his head and flashed the other a soft smile.

"Wandering."  The red haired man's smile froze.  "Rurouni?"

"Hai…Kenshin-san.  I'm searching for my truth, like you told me to."

Carefully studying the two figures before him, Kenshin slowly began to nod, the smile softening.  "It's not an easy path."

Soujirou's eyes sneaked up to meet Aoshi's.  "It's not as hard as I feared."  The blush across his cheeks reappeared and his smile became true.

"Friends make the journey easier."  The former rurouni slowly turned and glanced at the noisy dojo.  "And more difficult."  He sighed, the distant smile appearing on his lips.  "Come inside."

"Iie."  Soujirou took a quick step back almost backing into Aoshi, the unconscious false smile on his lips.  "I'm sorry.  We can't stay.  I'm sorry, Himura-san."  I'm sorry I came.

Aoshi placed one hand on Soujirou's shoulder in response to Kenshin's confused look.  "You are busy with preparations.  We do not wish to intrude."

Kenshin openly looked at the soapy laundry tub and shook his head.  "Nothing that can't wait.  This one will make lunch."  Lavender eyes caught at baby blue.  "Please stay."

Soujirou felt his deepest thoughts exposed with that single look.  Once again, he wondered how he ever managed to defeat this man in their first battle.  He almost defeated him in the second.  Almost.  He felt the smile struggle on his lips.  Looking back, he was surprised to discover the feeling of happiness as a result of losing a single battle.  A battle he once believed ended only in life or death.  It was this man's conviction which shattered that notion, and everything else he believed in to that point.  Rebuilding his values allowed him to currently experience life with new eyes and a new companion at his side.  He felt Aoshi's hand tighten on his shoulder, bringing him back to the present and to a red-headed smile.

"Soujirou…?"

The smile caught his attention.  The brightness appearing on the red-head's face and his honest, hopeful expression sent an ache though Soujirou's heart.  "Himura-san-"

"There's no reason to be afraid."  The smile became a grin.  "This one's cooking is fairly good."

Soujirou blinked as he studied the other man.  Happiness, joy was expressed in that face.  Yet…yet, there was something in his eyes.  A touch of something Soujirou could not immediately identify. 

"Please-"

Sadness.  He blinked.  For what reason could Himura Battousai-san be sad?  On this day?  He has everything he ever could want.  "Kenshin-san, if I…if we won't be a burden…"

Kenshin quickly shook his head.  "Of course not."

Relief.  Soujirou blinked again.  Why would Himura-san be relieved over us staying?  Doesn't my very presence cause him pain?  A warmth touched his cheek and he found himself once again staring deep into purple orbs.

"When we first met, this one could not tell what you were thinking."  His head slightly tilted, red strands of hair swinging freely over his eyes.  "But, now…this one is truly happy you are here.  Both of you.  Do not worry so."

This is Himura Battousai?  This is the real Himura Kenshin?  This is…a good man?  Soujirou unconsciously scratched the back of his head once again.  "Aa."

The last time he had been here, Soujirou thought with a cold shudder as he looked around the yard, he had been watching the tall, blue eyed man at his side threaten another.  He took a deep breath.  They had been both different people at the time.  Things had changed.  They had changed.  It took him a moment to suddenly realize the man in the fuchsia gi had asked him a question.  "Ah…Ara?"

Kenshin kindly smiled and repeated his question.  "Have you discovered anything in your travels, yet?"

"Aa."  Soujirou's eyes narrowed with mischievousness.  "Aoshi snores."  The moment the words fell from his lips, his face turned a bright red, and he fell back a step, almost trying to hide behind the taller man.

Kenshin blinked, then burst out in laughter, gripping his side.

"Soujirou…"  Aoshi softly admonished the boy and slowly shook his head.

"Sorry," Soujirou spoke in a tone which betrayed no remorse, especially not with the grin on his young face.

As soon as Kenshin caught his breath, face still flushed, he nodded to Soujirou.  "You must tell this one of your travels.  Perhaps there will be time in the next few days."

Days?  Before Soujirou could respond to the comment, a silvery voice echoed through the yard.  "Ken…shin."

A young woman stepped from the porch and gracefully strolled to Kenshin's side.  She was clad in a long yellow kimono, adorned with blue butterflies, and an indigo ribbon decorated her dark hair which matched her blue eyes.  She smiled at the red-haired man, eyes sparkling, before she turned to the new arrivals.

Watching her expressive face and the deep love that shown in her eyes, Soujirou suddenly thought of Yumi-san and the exact same way she always looked at Shishio-san.  The adoration, the affection, and the unconditional love in their expressions.

"Kaoru-dono."

Kaoru stood next to the red-head, almost touching his arm, and she smiled at the tall ninja.  "Aoshi, I'm glad you came.  And…"  Her eyes met the young man's and her smile wavered.  She glanced back to Aoshi and crossed her arms in mock annoyance  "I never knew you had a brother, Aoshi."

Aoshi's eyes grew very wide.

Soujirou's head franticly shook.

A grin plastered Kenshin's face.  "Iie, Kaoru-dono.  This is Seta Soujirou."

"Seta…Soujirou."  She paused a moment before she turned her gaze to the young man and the smile returned.  "Seta-san, are you a friend of Kenshin's?"

If possible, Soujirou's face blushed even more and his mouth slowly fell open, trying to form words.  None would come.  A friend?  What can I say to her?  I was once of the Juppongatana.  I once tried to kill this man.  I gave him a terrible wound across his back.  Am I a friend to him?  Am I…?

"Yes."  Blue eyes quickly jumped to meet lavender.  "Yes, Kaoru-dono, he is."

"That is good."  Her hand reached out and ensnared one of Soujirou's, much to the young man's surprise.  "Then, we need to talk."  Without another word, she began to walk, not releasing Soujirou's hand, almost dragging him along.

"Don't worry, Aoshi.  Kaoru-dono won't hurt him."  An obvious hesitation was suddenly heard in his voice.  "At least, this one hopes she doesn't."

A silent "Ara?" escaped Soujirou's lips as he found himself pulled into the garden, away from the others.

"I heard Kenshin laugh."  Her eyes glanced in the direction of the waiting two.  "It's been so long since Kenshin laughed."  Her smile returned to the young man.  "Seta-san, I just wanted to tell you, I am grateful."

He quickly shook his head, his empty smile on his lips.  "Please…please, I am Soujirou."

"Soujirou-san."  Her welcoming smile only grew.  "Make yourself comfortable here, Soujirou-san.  New friends will make tomorrow even more special." 

"But…we're not staying."  Why did her expression make him regret his words?

Her dark eyes grew large and she shook her head.  "What do you mean?"

The mask was held firmly in place with his smile.  "I…we're leaving before dusk.  We cannot stay."  I cannot stay.

She blinked at him and her brows lowered.  "Why?"

Why?  He shook his head.  Why?  Soujirou almost laughed.  Because I almost killed him.  Because I did not…I could not believe his words.  Because I have killed.  Because he really doesn't want me here…

"Soujirou?"

"Ahh."  A familiar, empty smile returned.  "I'm sorry.  I will not trouble your house.  He doesn't want me here.  You have no idea what I have done to him."

"You fought him.  You gave him that scar across his back."  She smiled at him, her head slightly tilted.  "If he didn't want you here, if he didn't trust you, he would never have welcomed you like that."

You gave him…  Soujirou stumbled back, his face losing all color, the smile gone.  "You…you know…"

"I know many things."  Her smile never wavered.  "I know you were once known as the Tenken of the Juppongatana.  You are one of the strongest swordsmen in all of Japan.  I also know you have changed."  Her eyes met his.  "You are welcome here."

"How…how do you know?  How could you?"

"Aoshi.  I trust Aoshi.  He brought you here.  He trusts you.  You are welcome in this home."  She tried to catch his gaze.  "How long have you been traveling with Aoshi?"

He took a deep breath, trying to hide the slight blush.  "Almost a year."

"I understand.  You are companions."  Her smile deepened as Soujirou's blush grew more profound.  "Now, I want you to explain what is so important that will take you from our wedding?"

He looked into her trusting face.  "Himura-san.  I tried to kill him.  I had every intention of doing so."

She laughed.  "Even I fought him the first time we met."  With the thought, a small blush appeared on her cheeks.  "And Aoshi.  And Sano.  And…well, many people he now considers friends at one time tried to defeat him."  She grinned.

"But-"

"He sees you as a friend.  Once you stepped through that gate, your past no longer mattered in my eyes.  What you do now is what counts.  Now, if you attack Kenshin or one of my guests while you are here, I will not forgive you."

He lowered his head to her, his words came from his heart.  "He…No one has anything to fear from me."  He held his hands to her.  "I do not carry a sword."

"Even Kenshin carries his sakabatou.  It is what he uses to protect others."

Soujirou bit his lower lip as his gaze fell to the garden path.  A soft wind stirred his black cloak, wrapping the material around his form.  "It's been a year.  A year since everything changed for me.  I…I…I'm still afraid.  Of who I am.  What I'm capable of doing.  I don't want to hurt anyone."

A soft laugh was heard a moment before warm arms flung themselves around his shoulders.  "That is how it should be.  And you won't know.  You just need to trust yourself.  Trust those closest to you.  Those that know you better than you know yourself."

Soujirou only gaped at her, the spoken words kindling a sense of understanding.  It was almost as if Himura-san had used his ougi, bringing a moment of clarity.  "Aa…"

She paused for a moment, studying the young man before her.  "I want you to attend the ceremony tomorrow," she suddenly spoke, her tone serious.

"A…ara?"  He could only blink at her.  What did she just say?  No.  She didn't…

"Will you stand at Kenshin's side?"

Stand at his side?  The most important day of his life?  A ritual observed by only the closest of family.  She wants…"Me?"

"You do not understand.  Tomorrow, Kenshin will have no one.  His friends have gone their own way.  We could not contact Sano or his master or any other he would consider family.  Yahiko is my student, who will stand at my side."  Her indigo eyes glistened.  "He will be alone.  He doesn't say anything, but I see it hurts him.  He's been alone so long.  I don't want him to be alone tomorrow."  Her head tilted.  "I knew he felt a connection, a bond with Aoshi even in their first battle.  And, now, watching him and you…He's very proud of you."

What?  P…proud…?  Of…me…?  He shook his head.  I've never had anyone…

"It's true.  He wants you to stay.  I do too.  It would hurt him if you left now.  Please say you'll stay."  Her conviction remained firm which was heard in her voice.  She would not take no for an answer, and she would argue the point until the moment of her wedding the following day.

Yet, Soujirou's doubts remained.  "Only if…Himura-san…if he…"

"We will ask him."  She laughed.  "I would be honored if you will stay here.  I have so many family members here, I won't even notice two more.  But, I'm afraid, you and Aoshi will have to share a room."

"That's no problem at all."  The blush slowly spread across his face, his eyes looking away, in the direction of a tall ninja.  "We've had to share rooms frequently.  The…little money we do have was used for…other things."  And, to emphasize his words, he held out the plain package, almost forgotten in his hands.

Hesitantly, she slowly took the small package from the young man.  "You didn't have to."

"I…I wanted to say thank you, but I really didn't know how.  This was the closest to what I felt."

"May I open it now?" she customarily asked.

He blinked at her, at her excitement, at her unconcealed anticipation.  "Only if you want to.  It's not much."

She smiled at him before she slowly unwrapped the unadorned package, her long fingers unfastening the brown paper.

Soujirou's blush had returned.  "I…I don't have much money.  Aoshi has our true gift."  With every word, his blush deepened.  "It-"

Kaoru shook her head.  "Not another word until I get this op-"  She let out a soft gasp as the paper fell away from the object inside.  "Oh!  I…"

"It's not much," Soujirou continued, his empty smiling gaze on his feet.  "If you don't like it-"

"Baka," she spoke under her breath.  A delicate glass butterfly caught at the daylight and sent a rainbow of color before her eyes.  "I…I…"  She held the fragile looking object up, examining the fire captured inside the delicate facets.  "This is…"  Her words caught in her throat.  "Kieri," she whispered.

He lowered his head and his hair fell over his face.  A soft touch on his cheek made him jump and stare into the indigo eyes of this girl.

"Thank you.  It is a treasure."  Pure sincerity echoed in her voice and showed clearly on her face.  "I love it and Kenshin will too."

"I owe Himura-san my life.  I owe him…everything I have.  Everything I will ever have."

She nodded knowingly.  "I understand.  Perhaps, I understand more than you realize."

Staring at this joyous girl, Soujirou suddenly understood who he stood against.  Her strength.  Her determination.  Her beauty.  This was the one person Himura Kenshin had ever lost against.  This girl's strength had surpassed the strongest swordsman's.  But, it was her love which gave her the unfair advantage.  And her reward stood only a handful of paces away, chained in absolute devotion.

Once again, he felt his hand strongly grasped by a smaller one and he found himself following this girl.  No, he silently corrected himself, this young woman.  This woman who seemingly could match wills with the strongest swordsmen.

"Kenshin!" she called out the instant a glimpse of red was seen.

Huge lavender eyes blinked.  "Oro…?"

The young woman was almost bouncing as she approached the tall ninja and her beloved, excitement rang clear in her voice.  "They're staying.  They're staying for us."

Soujirou found himself looking into lavender eyes the moment the sadness seemed to disappear with her words. 

"That is good news.  This one is very happy to hear that.  Now, this one will make lunch, as promised.  Come inside.  We have much to talk about."  Kenshin turned and, along with the dark haired woman at his side showing him the exquisite gift, led the way to their home.

Soujirou paused, watching the happy couple show the way, and felt Aoshi's hand once again on his shoulder.  The young man flashed the other a bright smile.  "Aoshi," he whispered.

"Hmm?"

His blue eyes sparkled.  "I'm glad we came."

*Owari*

Author's notes:

This one has been playing on my mind for a very long time.  Hopefully, I should be finished with an Okita and Soujirou one next.

Once again, thanks Akai.  Your corrections and comments are invaluable.  *Congrats on your 100th chapter of Kendo no Go!!* 

Thank you to anyone who leaves a review, good, bad, or indifferent.  It's the way I get better.  Thank you all!