The Language of Closed Doors
Spoilers for Rurouni Kenshin, Kyoto Arc, Soujirou

He knows he has been dreaming again because when he wakes up, it is with both his arms folded neatly around his head, hands dovetailed on the back of his skull.

Breathing in air strained through the filter of the blanket over his chest, Soujirou focuses first on his breathing to keep it steady. Calm. His biceps are his shield until then, muscles strengthened from long hours of heavy lifting and then carrying a sword too heavy for one appropriately his age; all he can think of is how exposed his back is with his body is curled there on the mats, knees up to sternum and toes pointed together so that he can roll before waking fully if he has to. A strike to the flexed muscles of the back when it is doubled over is more protection than the stomach, and he knows this, but his spine insists on warning regardless.

Shishio never gave him problems for being able to sleep in any other position than on his side.

The inner crook of his elbow smells of the meat of the kitchen's stew, the hot air sweating out the mystery of the cooking pot's contents. His pores reek. One sniff and he knows just how they had been contaminated.

They had planned to stay the night at an inn which was deserted enough that a sickly man and his son earned little note apart from the weight of the coins that the boy set neatly on the counter, lining them up one by one until their price was paid for the two rooms and a bath beside.

The bath was the important part, the boy had said. His father was infirm.

And liked to smoke.

Shishio had ordered the Tenken to wash first, planning to soak longer while Soujirou drip-dried on sentry's watch outside the curtains. Plumbing was poor enough in this country bed-down that the tubs were located next to the kitchens so that there would be as short a trip from the wells as possible to them both; while one of the cooks had offered the boy a bowl of whatever breed of creature they were forcing into an imitation of palatable, Soujirou had refused out of habit. Shishio could eat first. Hunger kept him alert anyway, kept him free of the threat of poison or stomach's ache while he was expected to perform a security's measure.

Nothing would get past the gate. No one was allowed through the door until Shishio was done.

Now his arms are coated in the grime of dinne and he cannot get the stench out of his nose. His bones are lines of pure sensation. They are on fire. The pain radiates to his ribs like a webbing of spider's lace placed neatly upon his back, and when the Tenken bites his lip, he can swear he can feel every single thread of his shirt on his skin.

The posture is one which he has learned from years of experience, balanced between enough relaxation of the muscles to actually rest, and enough structure to actually provide him with shelter. The crook of his elbow over his head cushions his skull from being woken by a kick or a fist. He could have tucked his head deeper into the arm, but then he would have blocked his ears, and those have been the most reliable defenses. They have pulled him out of sleep on numerous occasions, scrubbing at his eyes in confusion to what it was he heard, and then realizing the problem slowly as footsteps would approach.

The kick never comes, and he relaxes, but his clothes do not stop burning.

The weave of the tatami mats are digging into his cheek as his mother by adoption rakes the wooden comb through his hair.

Sometimes she misses the children which played with the edges of her kimono, and she misses herself as she was then. The boy has learned to predict her moods when her voice turns wistful and then her hand reaches for him, and he has learned to remain perfectly still beneath it.

He used to squirm in discomfort when the rubbing of her fingers across his back would start to chafe, but he knows better now. From where he sits, he can see the groove where the wall screens are set. The bar of the darker wood is a contrast to the beige of the tatami, and in focusing on that, the boy can forget how much his back has begun to burn.

When his adopted mother is done in her meditations, she will remember what year it is and allow him to flee from her sight. Until then, the boy is a prayer bead for her thumbs. Polished and tucked into a perfect sphere, he could be strung with a knot through his belly one hundred and eight times to hang on the wrist of a priest and be massaged as a counter when it was time for prayer.

That was the only memory he had of his birth mother; bereft of his father's patronage, the quarters she had worked at were too poor to hire more than the meanest of rites. When the boy tries to recollect her, he can only think of the string of cheap sandalwood beads as it swung from the man's hand when he chanted. They had been soaked in oils to make up for the quality that the wood lacked. The room had stank of flowers and the preliminaries of rot. He had been too young to understand what it meant to have a priest in black speaking sonorous words over the blurry figure of a woman's body in his mind, and instead had to have been restrained from trying to reach out and catch the string as it traced overperfumed arcs in the air.

It is with a start within him that the boy realizes he feels nothing for the loss, which has become so old that he has forgotten why it should ever make him sad.

Because he cannot stand the feel of something touching him, Soujirou pulls off his shirt.

Silk was too cold, and linen, too rough. Shishio was kind to him, as far as kindness could be and still understood. The first time the assassin saw the boy wake from sleep to pluck at the fraying edges of his gi, removing it to sit shivering in the cold rather than return to dreams, he had not asked for the reasons behind it. Instead, the former Ishin took pains to seek out something imported, woven with what the tradesman claimed was finely spun cotton and then he did not mind when Soujirou took the shirt down to the river and spent hours methodically scrubbing the newness out of it by hand and rock. Silk was cold, and linen too rough. Shishio had gone through two packings of his pipe while he watched the boy work, and the smell of strong tobacco had worked its way into the stitches of the gift.

Afterwards, Shishio had kept an eye out for when Soujirou would reach down to unbutton the cuffs, rolling them up or down depending on the amount of sensation the boy's wrists would tolerate. The collar would fold down over the edge of the haori and shield his neck from the rubbing of the thick fibers; the layer of protection between his skin and the rest of his clothes kept the Tenken calm when he would begin to notice them again. The boy could unhook the top two buttons at his throat and tug as much as he wanted to give himself space from the memories that lived there, and then Shishio would suggest staying somewhere quiet until the Tenken's smile became docile once more.

When Soujirou would wake with his eyes wide enough to show the whites, pupils dilated wide enough, the foreign cloth was light enough to be worn without becoming heavy on heightened nerves, and then the Tenken could wait out the rest of the night warm.

Sometimes even that weight would be too much.

They slept apart at first. Shishio liked his privacy, and when they had the funds for it, he would house the boy in a seperate room and expect that to be Soujirou's natural preference as well. The first few times that he knocked were disasters. Shishio would enter after his announcement and find the boy worthless for conversation, his smiling face pressed down against his hands as they were folded on the floor.

When he moved the Tenken into his room, it was even worse; with no barrier of privacy between them, Soujirou would always be on watch for the next command. Reprimanding the boy brought blankness, and Shishio would sit with him in long moments of mutual silence, waiting out the reflex until Soujirou stopped coughing out soft laughs and could lift his eyes once more.

The Tenken never fully understood why the assassin would be so wary if he noticed the boy approach. Once Soujirou had seen Shishio pinch at his shoulder in irritation for its tension, but when he moved automatically to rub it out with his thumbs, Shishio had caught his wrist in a hand that felt like fire and fixed him in his vision as a hawk might with a rabbit it suspected was rabid. Soujirou had apologized until the words became nonsense. Shishio did not speak until the boy had run out of coherency and broke down into mute smiles.

That was the only time Shishio asked after Soujirou's family duties in detail, waiting out the fits of helpless silence and laughter.

The hand of his father's wife cups the boy's hip, and he tenses at the new direction that her fingerpads are taking down his skin, the way her thumb sweeps wide before moving back up again. After a while, the nerves have begun to sing. Each scrape across his vertabrae is a blow with a fist.

Once when he dared to look up through the protection of his bangs, he had seen her eyes unfocused in her thoughts as she hummed the same tune he had caught her at over the dishes. He knew he shouldn't complain. She could be doing much worse, he reminds himself now, and wasn't he lucky for a moment of affection?

His mouth twitches in his smile and the intersection of the walls with the floors with the mats make perfect angles, not at all like the imprecise curve of his spine as he cannot stop his muscles from trying to curl away from the woman's touch, locking them as rigid as wood frames that felt nothing and let nothing inside.

Eventually, Soujirou learned that he did not have to turn to face his new master every time that Shishio entered, and that the man preferred different rules than home.

Three visitors leave the inn now as the Tenken loses track of what hour it is while keeping perfect time on potential threats. Soujirou tallies their weight slopping onto the path by the sound of a sandal scraping the doorframe, a muffled jibe. A maid exits long enough to dump dishwater and then returns inside. The travelers are gone by then and the air hangs silent for its next announcement.

It was cold in the room and Soujirou moves first to touch the moth-bare blanket provided and then to the waistband of his hakama. It was cold. Instead he leaves the bed where it is and decides to sit up to sleep, his knees just so with the feet folded beneath to keep them warm. If he kept his fingers tucked down, he could use them to shelter at his elbows and form a pillow for his head. The greatest loss of heat would be at his torso. The risk, acceptable.

He could light a candle to try and grace the room with company of life, even a dying form, but that would only alert others to the presence of him as a living being. Better to play dead in the dark.

Instead he drowses on the windowsill in fits and starts, marking the sound of patrons' passages in wooden vibrations.

Laughter from the next room reaches him. It is of a couple from the sound of it. They stumble down the hall and reach their quarters once the haze of sake has lifted enough to allow them to do so.

Their door slides back.

The pressure of his adopted mother's palm becomes heavier and heavier as the minutes pass. She might imagine him to be a cat, or her own child, but she is lost in her visions and the boy winces every time her thumb grates over the bruise on his left kidney. Tears have begun to swell in the corners of his eyes and he attempts to ignore them, ordering the smile on his lips to keep them at bay. It was foolish to cry. This was nothing in comparison to what she could do, he reminds himself, but it does not seem to help.

His mouth is the only obedient part of his body.

The rest wishes to tear the skin off his flesh so that the pain will become the clean sting of open wounds instead.

Their door slides back and he hears his eldest brother come in and welcomes the new presence gladly for the change in feeling it will bring upon his back.

Birds are known to sing in his ears only when there's nothing else to focus on. Their throats are noise no matter how golden the warbled tune, and noise masks the sound of what's important in the world--footsteps, the clink of bottles. Wood sliding, sleek as a poisonous beast with paper paneling.

Morning has come before he knows it. Morning means that Soujirou's eyes are meant to turn away from the window and wait for sign of human approach, ears blocking out the chirrs of living beast distractions.

One person checks out early by the sound of it, distant through the hum of diners assembling. Another walks down to the washrooms--an adult male, judging by the shadow through the screens and the way the floorboards groan tiredly beneath his weight, the irregular lump on his arm that must be a towel. The couple from the night before rouse themselves. They pass a third on their way to rinse their mouths out.

People enter. People exit. Soujirou's ears keep count of them all while he tracks the population of the corridors.

When the door to his own room pulls back, Soujirou has already guessed who else in their hallway was awake.

"Sleeping late?" The voice is familiar. "I expected you down at breakfast already. We don't have time to fool around." There was a pause as the speaker judges the Tenken's state of undress, and then when it continues, it would only admit to being less harsh in one's imagination. "You have five minutes. If you're later than that, don't expect to eat."

The Tenken lifts his head and smiles. His mouth knows its own business now. His shirt is in his hand.

"I'll be right there, Shishio, sir."

The door slides closed once more, and instead of waiting, Soujirou reaches to open it.