Disclaimer: Himura Kenshin and all his friends (and various enemies) belong to Nobuhiro Watsuki, who was wise and kind enough to create such an enjoyable series. Other original characters invented in this fic belong to me. But I'm still not getting any money out of this, so please don't sue.
Part 4: I Wish That I Could Take It All Away
3rd year of Keiou
Early Spring 1867 - Kyoto
Already, the veil of the hitokiri was falling shut around him.
Kenshin's steps grew silent, his breaths deep and even, his ki lowering to a fine, deep, icy line--as though he were preparing for battle. And in a way, he very nearly was.
Kenji seemed to pick up on the growing chill, walking close by his side in quiet tabi-clad steps, eyes large and strangely bright in the dimness of the back hall. Kenshin glanced down at him, seeing those eyes staring at him questioningly, and made a brief gesture for silence as they approached the door.
"...only just decided to inform us of this when we arrived this afternoon!" an indignant, nasal voice was speaking loudly. "When this could destroy the last two years of scraping and planning we've had to do on account of that defective--!"
"I only informed you of this development this afternoon because I myself was only informed last night, gentlemen," responded Katsura-san's voice, stern and strong and even. "I have not even been able to report to the other leaders of Choshu. Besides, none of our work was endangered by Himura's decision to abstain from the duty of hitokiri. We already had another standing by for the inevitable day when our prime fell; it was simple enough to replace him, and all the better for us that the replacement did not mean the loss of such a fine sword for our cause."
The nasal voice spoke up again. "You make it sound like it's a good thing there's two of them running around now--"
"Feh! Two or three or ten--so long as the work is getting done, who cares?" interrupted another, much gravellier voice. "As long as they can be put down properly when their usefulness is run out. And your 'former' hitokiri is pushing it, Katsura. There's no such thing as a former hitokiri and you know it--and you have that just romping around on guard duty and service missions, wasting a perfectly good sword on--"
"It was Himura's decision to stop working as our primary hitokiri," came another voice--a smooth, low tone that Kenshin recognized very well. Takasugi of the Kiheitai--the man who had discovered his talent and handed him to Katsura. "As efficient as he was at his old job, I still think his skills were wasted on single assassinations. His sword style is designed for one man against an army--what better use is there for him than the front lines, rather than the shadows?"
"Well spoken, my friend," Katsura seconded, sounding pleased.
"That's just the problem!" said the nasal voice. "He just up and decides he's not going to be our prime hitokiri any more? Like he just got tired of it! What if he just decides he's not going to wield his sword for us any longer? Half our forces would die out in a month without him! I've too much at stake in this for him to just walk away--"
"Hitokiri or not," the gravelly voice growled, low and dangerous, "whether he's killing men on a list or men in the field, his job is still to kill the enemy for us. So tell me, Katsura--will he continue to work for us? Does your little pet dragon still kill on command?"
Kenshin decided that now would be a good time to make his presence known, before those men ignorantly said anything more that would make him really angry. He knocked stiffly on the doorframe, as the room inside fell to a sudden, pronounced hush. "Sumimasen, Katsura-san," he said lowly through the door, into the silence.
"Ah, that would be my pet dragon now, Daionjou-san," Katsura said, rather scathingly. The unspoken was obvious: Would you really like to find out if he kills on command? "Come in, Himura."
Obediently, Kenshin slid aside the door. Five faces turned to look at him, one of them paling sharply upon meeting his narrowed eyes--a large, heavy-jowled man that was probably the owner of that gravelly voice. Three of the faces reflected the fear and awe that rang in their ki, for the brief moments it escaped the owners' notice; Katsura's broadcast satisfaction, and Takasugi's gladness as well as surprise. He wouldn't have thought the Kiheitai captain was happy to see him again, and was privately rather pleased to see that his former commander seemed still to be in fairly good health.
Then all eyes tracked to the tiny boy half-hiding behind his leg, and the awe turned to renewed shock and displeasure.
"Well, come in already," Katsura spoke up, breaking the spell at last. "Sit down, Himura; we have a lot to discuss."
Kenshin stepped forward and slid the door shut behind him, never letting go of Kenji's hand. He strode forward to take a place nearer to Takasugi, facing more against the three men he didn't know than in a real circle with them. Kenji sat down quietly beside him, uncertain but at least keeping still, big-eyed at all the finely-dressed, imposing men.
"So this is the chibi Battousai," the nasal voice said scornfully--coming from a rather long-nosed individual sitting beyond Katsura-san. "Honestly, Katsura, a child that small isn't even useful, let alone--"
"His usefulness is not what we are here to discuss," Katsura cut him off with a stern look. "I believe you all were wondering about Himura's continued performance. Why not ask him yourselves?"
Paling slightly, the two outspoken men glanced at Kenshin, who merely leveled a glare at them and replied. "I fully intend to wield my sword for the Ishinshishi. I have already given Katsura-san my word. Until your place is won, I will still kill for you."
"What about the brat?" the gravelly-voiced man--Daionjou--said roughly. "What are you thinking, bringing a kid into Choshu's primary Kyoto safehouse in the middle of a conflict? He's in the way!"
"Not to mention he's a security risk and a secrecy nightmare," the nasally man added indignantly. "All it takes is one careless moment for a Shogunate guard to spot that hair and he'll give us all away!"
Kenshin did not speak, preferring to allow Katsura to solve the diplomatic entanglements. But instead of Katsura, it was the third stranger--the one who had not said a word in Kenshin's hearing yet--who spoke to diffuse the situation.
"Peace, peace," said the third man in a soft tenor voice, his tones deceptively gentle compared to the hard-edged, calculating ki he exuded. "I believe a solution can be easily reached. Himura-san is too skilled a warrior to let such a thing slip, but mishaps do occur..." He offered a sympathetic smile to the young swordsman. "Remember what we discussed before, Kousei-san, Daionjou-san? Perhaps that option can put us all at ease."
Kenshin's face didn't change, but Katsura raised an eyebrow. "Speak, Mokushi."
The soft-voiced man nodded briefly. "From what I gather, something has happened which has placed the child in Himura-san's care, and the mother is no longer available. I'm sure we already know that there is no place safe in Kyoto for a child such as this--and apparently Himura-san does not wish his son to be simply pawned off as an inconvenience to any available orphanage."
Kenshin's eyes narrowed; aside from making him irritated at their sidewinding ways, their talk was upsetting Kenji. The boy's ki was filling with uncertainty, and it was probably a wonder he hadn't spoken up. But he did huddle ever closer to Kenshin's side under the sharp, scornful gaze of the two loud men.
"Go on," Katsura said evenly, not betraying his opinion on the matter. Takasugi was watching carefully, the other two with interest.
"We could take the child to the heart of Choshu," Mokushi offered, a little too eagerly. "There are friends of my family who would be honored to take the boy in during this conflict--perhaps I could even keep him in my own household. He would be safe, and far from these bloody battles."
Kousei and Daionjou were both nodding approvingly, flashing each other glances and smiling far too easily. Kenshin's only reaction was a tightening of his mouth, but his suspicion deepened.
"Send him away to Choshu territory?" Katsura mused thoughtfully, shrewdly, glancing at Takasugi as he did. "You're right, he would indeed be safer away from Kyoto..."
The two noisy men were nodding once again. "Hai, Katsura," Kousei seconded eagerly, his smile almost a leer. "It is a good decision! A wise option, Mokushi, a wise option! The boy will be safe, and Himura's performance guaranteed!"
"Kousei," snapped Daionjou sharply, warningly, as Kenshin fixed his eyes on the large-nosed lord.
"It would be best for the boy," Mokushi offered, with a smile at Kenshin. "He would have the very highest quality of care, I can assure you."
"Touchan?" spoke up a very small voice. Kenshin glanced down quickly, as did all the others, focusing on the little boy at his side. "Don't wanna go away," Kenji asserted thinly, wide-eyed and terribly worried. "Wanna stay with Touchan." His tiny hands clenched tight in Kenshin's sleeve.
Katsura and Takasugi shared another glance, their ki in growing agreement--but not necessarily in agreement with the three others. As the political leader of Choshu fixed the three men with his even glance, Takasugi smiled faintly at the little boy beside Kenshin.
"The decision is Himura's, not mine," Katsura said at last, confidently.
Kenshin met his commander's eyes, reading the trust and support in his ki. He glanced back over at the three men who hung on his decision, waiting for his words--looking indignant that a mere soldier should be given this choice over samurai of higher station.
They wanted him to send Kenji with them--away to Choshu, miles and miles away into the south country. Miles away from where he might need to be should that light-tunnel come back for him. Miles away from the Inn and Kyoto altogether, though that was the purpose, but Kenshin would not be able to see him at all.
And somehow, that thought stung more than it should have. Far more, and it was almost frightening--both how the thought made his hands clench, and how strongly he felt about having the little boy stay. He wanted to keep Kenji near, and that feeling had a vehemence to it that surprised him.
He looked down at the child again, into large blue-violet eyes that were watching him just as earnestly as those other men, also hanging on his decision, pleading...
Those three men wanted him to send Kenji away--into their grasp, within their control. And from their earlier harsh words and their almost-drooling eagerness, Kenshin had no illusions as to why.
They were hanging on the hope that he cared about Kenji enough to be bound to the boy's well-being. And it was his unconscious care that they could see the moment he'd stepped into the room--holding Kenji's hand so tight, seating the boy so close next to him, guarding him in a way that any sword-trained eye could see.
They wanted a hostage. They wanted his son to guarantee his cooperation--to force him to follow their orders unquestioningly, even to become a hitokiri again. They wanted, as Komiba so bluntly put it, a handle on him--a leash for a powerful "dragon" only dubiously tamed. And that manipulation--the use of an innocent child to try to control him--made him angry, even more than Daionjou's careless, cruel comments earlier.
Kenshin didn't even stop to question his mind's unconscious acceptance of the little redhead child as his son.
"No," he said quietly, in a voice as soft as steel, as the hard deadly eyes of the Hitokiri Battousai fixed on the three minor Choshu troop leaders. "I will not send him with you."
Immediate protest broke out--nervous, but noisy--most of them appealing to Katsura to override the young swordsman's decision.
"Katsura, really, he's endangering the entire--!"
"--and if that little brat falls into their hands what do you think--?"
"--please, Himura-san, think of the well-being of the child--"
"I said no," Kenshin all but snapped, cutting them all off pale-faced; he had raised his voice in a meeting for the first time in anyone's memory, from the soft whisper of a drawing blade to the sharp ring of steel cutting flesh and bone. Even Katsura looked somewhat startled, as Kenshin glared from gaze to gaze and spoke his final judgement. "He stays with me."
Kenji made a little happy noise and leaned closer to his side, as the three men subsided into nervous, wary silence, suitably cowed by Kenshin's terse words.
"Himura has made his decision," Katsura spoke into the quiet. "Would any here like to contest it?"
Looking at the deadly-eyed, unmoving former hitokiri, it was easy to puzzle out the threat behind the Choshu leader's seemingly-innocuous question: Does anybody here want to try to take that child from him?
It was amazing what Katsura-san could say without saying. All three of them shook their heads, again, intimidated into silence by Kenshin's glare.
"We are already seeing to the boy's care here at this Inn," Katsura informed them flatly. "The Okami has informed me that the staff is quite willing to help out in regards to this situation. Himura's performance will not be affected."
The others looked skeptical but reluctantly agreed, scowling at the unsupportive Takasugi, who was clearly on Katsura's side.
"If there is no further business tonight...?" Katsura went on, his tone friendly but his eyes suggesting that any further business tonight would be dismissed without hearing anyway. "Good, then we'll continue this after breakfast, when we've all...rested from our long journeys. You will soon see just how well Himura will continue to carry out his duties."
Kousei and Daionjou huffed through their partings indignantly, stomping out the door, while Mokushi was all pleasantries again, bowing politely as he went. Takasugi remained by the door as Kenshin and Katsura stood up--he was apparently amused by the whole affair, if his faint, humorous smile was anything to go by.
Happy once more, Kenji clung tightly to Kenshin's hand and grinned tiredly at everybody, reassured that no matter what those men said, his Touchan wasn't going to send him away anywhere.
Kenshin finally had time to look Takasugi in the eye and offer the man a nod of greeting; the Kiheitai commander just smiled sardonically at him, glancing at Kenji. "Cute kid, Himura," he said casually, with a twitch around his mouth. "You'll have to tell me all about it tomorrow."
Kenshin blinked, startled--but Takasugi was already gone, chuckling to himself as he headed off down the hall.
"Kousei, Mokushi, and Daionjou couldn't care less," Katsura-san spoke up quietly, "but Takasugi knows you a little better--and more importantly, he knows exactly how old you are and where you came from. He's a little more suspicious of the affairs of things--such as how you managed to hide Kenji for three years."
Kenshin's eyes widened somewhat. Kenji blinked puzzledly with droopy eyes. "Hide? I didn't hide."
Katsura chuckled, looking back up at Kenshin. "Don't concern yourself, Himura. Takasugi is a man who believes what he sees--and he saw Kenji tonight. That's all the evidence he needs."
"Sou ka," Kenshin responded, almost a sigh of relief. Common curiosity aside, he didn't want his former commander thinking he had lost his mind--the very idea of children falling out of thin air. It was bad enough Katsura-san couldn't believe him.
"Truth be told, I was surprised at your insistence tonight," the Choshu leader commented thoughtfully. "I had assumed from our conversation last night that you might have jumped at the chance to send the boy out of this place, but.."
"Not to them," Kenshin spoke quickly, seconded by a muffled "Not goin' away!" from Kenji.
"I can agree with you there." Katsura's gaze softened. "However, I can agree with them in that there is danger in his staying here. I know you wouldn't trust them with Kenji, but would you perhaps consider the same offer from me? I have a place or two in mind where we could send him, where I can promise you he would be looked after with no ulterior motives. I will give you my solemn word he would be safe."
"Katsura-san..." Kenshin stared at his commander in grateful surprise for a beat. "I...I...a-arigato, but..."
"You need time to think about it?" Katsura asked, almost curiously surprised.
Kenshin looked down at the tired little red-haired boy hanging on to his hand. That feeling was still there, still strong enough to surprise him. "I don't think...I want to send him away at all..."
Katsura regarded the redheaded pair for a few moments, taking a deep breath. "You are determined to keep him with you, then?"
"Aa..." Kenshin's bangs hid his eyes, even as his hand tightened on Kenji's. He couldn't even begin to explain it, even to himself. It was like that feeling of emptiness and loneliness when Okami-san had taken Kenji to dinner--it was a hard knot that beat in the center of his heart at the thought of the little boy going away. A part of him was afraid of the strength of that feeling that was growing, rooting itself into him without his consent--a part of him was angry that his heart was so easily swayed into caring so much, into tying its fate to that of another so soon, so readily.
"Very well." Katsura straightened at last, recalling Kenshin's gaze to his own. "Somehow I expected as much. Then he will be under your care, Himura. And I expect there will be no loss of performance on your part. Am I clear?"
Kenshin nodded smartly. "Hai."
"I may have taken your side in front of the others, but as the Choshu Ishinshishi leader here I must see to it that what must be done is done, and in that regard I can show even you no mercy, Himura," Katsura told him, almost sadly. "And for that, and for the sorrow it has cost you before, I am truly sorry."
Kenshin looked down again. "Hai..."
"I will speak to the paymaster regarding your salary for this month," the taller man went on, his tone lightening somewhat. "You will be given an addition to your regular pay as long as Kenji remains with you. I should think you'll be needing the extra money to afford the added costs of keeping a child."
Surprised, Kenshin stared at him blankly for a second. "Katsura-san...!"
The corner of the Ishin leader's mouth quirked. "Okami-san tells me there are many things children need, which you have yet to acquire."
"Ah...hai..." Kenshin fought off a flush. "She's been a great help..."
The sound of a tremendous yawn made the two look down, at an increasingly-sleepy little boy leaning against Kenshin's leg with the tired indifference of a child who's too out of energy to fidget and too drowsy to complain. Kenji merely rubbed an eye and looked up at them, with an expression of bored, sleepy patience that was almost comically serious.
"And he's behaved very well for you during this entire unpleasant meeting," Katsura said amusedly, glancing back up at Kenshin. "I know of a few small children who would have stomped and whined and shown you the far less pleasant side of parenting had they been asked to wait and be still so long."
Kenshin blinked in surprise, suddenly feeling rather grateful. "Aa, he's been very patient...most of the time," he added, a little ruefully. "I think it's been a long day for him."
"So it has, I'm sure..."
As Kenshin leaned down to lift the tired little boy into his arms, Katsura watched with an expression that was...almost wistful, yet dark and sorrowed. "Himura..."
"Tomorrow night..." The Ishin commander's eyes seemed somehow very weary, hollow and sad and far too old for his still-young face. "There will be a job for you tomorrow night."
All at once, any trace of ordinary Kenshin that had been creeping out of the mask was hidden once more behind the eyes of a hitokiri--always the ice-cold eyes, whether former or not. "Hai," he responded, his voice gone smooth and emotionless again. "I will hear the details in the morning."
Katsura nodded silently, and Kenshin went on his way.
Once again, Kenshin reached his room with a very tired little boy mostly-asleep in his arms. It was still early--and at least for Kenshin's usual hours, it was quite early indeed--so there were still a few men in the halls, coming or going from the rooms on the second floor. All of them hid looks of either shock or amusement or a mixture of both as the ex-hitokiri passed them by, a small red-haired head resting on his shoulder.
In his room, with the door closed and safely away from the prying eyes and ears of so many others, he was finally able to begin to relax. The icy shell of the hitokiri began to wane, first from his eyes; then, slowly, from his face, as he set the sleepy, wobbly little boy down and started to help him undress. He pushed the dark thoughts away and concentrated on the child, using him as a wall to keep the depression at bay.
He left his wakizashi atop the clothes chest, as was his custom, and set his katana within easy reach on the floor next to him. And sitting on top of the folded futon was an offering that made Kenshin smile--a clean white sleeping yukata like the one Kenji had borrowed before, folded carefully and left there no doubt by the caring hands of Okami-san.
Kenji yawned enormously as he obediently raised his arms for his top to be removed, too tired to bounce or smile or even to protest the idea of going to bed as children often did. He'd had a full day for such a young boy--though Kenshin was not a good judge of what was too full a day for any child--what with getting up so early, playing in the yard all morning, the trip to the market in the afternoon, and the rather intimidating meeting after dinner.
"There you go," Kenshin murmured, finishing the last little tie of the sleeping robe and smoothing the cloth. Kenji merely yawned in reply, rubbing his sleepy eyes and scratching his head as Kenshin removed the hair tie that bound the little ponytail.
"I bet you're tired," Kenshin offered quietly, reaching to pull down the folded futon and spread it out. "It's been a big day, na?"
"Not tired," Kenji retorted, without much conviction--apparently a rebuttal on general principle, at which Kenshin gave the briefest, smallest hitch of a chuckle. The little boy was so tired it could be seen in his ki, dimming and swaying like a tree about to fall.
"Hai, hai," he responded agreeably, as he tucked the boy in and pulled the covers up warmly, smiling at the sleepy face. "No, you're not tired at all."
"M'not," Kenji asserted, even as his eyes were falling shut. "Oyasumi, Touchan..."
Kenshin offered one of his rarest smiles--a true one, less of a ghost, more real as it hovered on his lips for an instant. "Oyasumi, Kenji."
As always, the room was only lit by the moonlight coming in the open window--more than enough for Kenshin's eyes. He sat still, motionless as the hunter, watching silently as Kenji slowly drifted into sleep as peacefully as a sunset. The tranquil little ki was full of the utter, unthinking trust and easy abandon of a child at rest in a place he felt was safe.
The small face was washed pale by the silvery moonlight, highlighted further by the depth of the shadows around it. Kenshin watched, stared, with silent patience; observing, thinking, wondering, as if waiting for some answer to which he didn't even know the question.
"...He is the most precious thing you have ever been given."
Almost of its own volition, his hand crept up to touch the soft skin of the little boy's pale forehead, smoothing back silken bangs; a gentle gesture he had never learned but somehow knew--from a place inside so deep that he couldn't see the bottom, intrinsic to that something within him that was already claiming this child. Kenji sighed in his sleep, never waking under the touch, even as the sword-calloused fingers trailed down one elfin cheek.
He really is...precious, Kenshin thought, somehow captivated by the small face, by the baby-softness of the skin under his fingertips. A tiny precious flicker of life--one little boy among thousands in existence, but somehow more important than all of those, than everything. And he wondered over and over again how, how had this child whom he had only known for a single day become so inexplicably priceless to him.
It was that question, and the answer to it, that awed and frightened him the most. He is...mine. Somehow...someday...he is my son...
He swallowed hard; the answer was so easy and so difficult--such a simple thing, yet so profound. It was like his feelings for Tomoe--but different still, reaching him in different places, tugging at different parts of his heart. But never less powerful--no, never any less intense.
More so. More potent--and frightening, to realize that it had come about in only one day. Terrifying and confusing, as part of him flung itself headlong into that precious connection with the fervor of an orphan child clinging to any hope of love and trust--while another part screamed in protest, hating the fact that he was leaving his heart open to the sword of love and death once again, crying out against his disregard of Tomoe's memory for the sake of one child...
One child--his son, though flung through time to this place, this day, this moment, by some unknown force. His own flesh and blood, no matter from where or when, with the red hair and purplish eyes and small frame and sharp-chinned little face to prove it.
I am not forgetting Tomoe, he asserted to himself--to that protesting part of himself that didn't want to believe and didn't want to hope. I will never forget Tomoe. But I can't just ignore Kenji...I can't...
He still stared down at the innocent sleeping child as his hand reluctantly withdrew, tenderness warring with hesitation and faint distress on his briefly-unmasked face. What he felt for this one boy alarmed and overwhelmed him, a feeling that came so quickly and easily, somehow stronger than any of his griefs or indecisions or doubts.
Like a surprise attack that left him dazed and confused and even terrified, this attachment had crept up on him and wrapped itself around his heart before he'd even noticed--growing on him through baths, through meals, through shopping and toys, and sweet childish antics, and a little voice saying "Touchan!" and simply knowing who this boy was--and by the time he had truly realized, it was too late to free himself from its entanglement. He could not let go, even for the sake of a man he had trusted for years, even for the sake of his cause.
For in that cheerful little face and small bright ki was someone who trusted him implicitly without hesitation or reserve, who needed him in a way he had never been needed by anyone, who smiled at him and reached out to him and even tried to help him heal. A faith in him that was humbling, an innocence that awed him, a responsibility that shook him to his very core. This entire little life, simply dropped into his trembling hands--bloody, tired, unworthy hands; his to care for, his to protect. His someday-child, whose fate right now depended on him.
I can't ignore this, he told himself, pushing away the angry, protesting part that railed against this glimmer of hope from the future. He is mine, now or later, however he got here. He needs me. I can't forget my past--I can never forget Tomoe--but if this is my future...if he is my future...
"I will protect you," he whispered, barely a breath, as he stared down at the small sleeping face. I will protect you with my sword and my life, until you can return home to where you belong. He smiled faintly, almost ruefully. I'm sure I miss you, whenever I am...
The moon was still moved as slowly as the ages, shining through the open window, tracking silver pools across the floor. At last, reluctantly, Kenshin left the side of the futon to sit up against the wall, at guard between the door and the child. His son. His most precious thing...
For a time, as the night deepened and the ki within the Inn dimmed away, he watched the small form curled up on the futon; watched the lazy flicker of the tiny ki in dreams, watched the steady rhythm of breathing in and out, listened to each small, reassuring heartbeat--just for this moment, he simply watched the child live.
And in time, the peaceful rhythm of that life soothed him into sleep. And though his mind wandered into dark dreams lit only by the appearance of a brilliant light and the arrival of a strange, startling, life-changing little red-haired boy, he remained on-guard to the slightest threat--more vigilant even in sleep for the sake of this child, rather than himself alone. At even the smallest danger, the most silent approach, he would wake in an instant ready for battle, ready to protect his son.
Sometime in the night, as the moon fell toward the horizon and the world lay sleeping, something small and quiet shuffled forth, alerting the hitokiri senses of the room's guardian. But the ki was harmless and familiar--a bright sleepy innocent spirit approached, questing and nonthreatening, so the hunter's instincts subsided, welcoming the second presence protectively.
Less than half-awakened, Kenshin felt a small form crawl into his lap, dragging something--a blanket--along with it. With a sigh, the little one curled up like a kitten to sleep once again, and though Kenshin's subconscious acknowledged Kenji's presence, he wasn't awake enough to register that the boy ought to go back to his own bed. Besides, that selfsame subconscious had already accepted Kenji's proximity, even embraced it, knowing that the small child was much safer, much warmer when held so close--and comforting to his own heart as well.
So Kenji remained where he was, undisturbed, drifting once more into contented sleep, soon followed by a tired young swordsman--whose dreams tonight became far lighter than they had been for many years past. And the hand once clenched tight around his sword even in slumber relaxed to let that same sword sag against his weary shoulder--while his fingers found their resting place in the little boy's soft red hair.
"Nothing," spat the Captain of the Third Troop, as he and Okita trudged back to the Shinsengumi headquarters with their respective patrol squads, in the wee hours of the predawn morning. "Absolutely nothing!"
"Maa, it's only the first night, Saito-san," Okita soothed, knowing well his good friend's temper. The tall captain had gone out expecting to see some blood--and with none drawn, he was edgy and restless. "And the rebels did just have a close call last time, so they may be keeping their heads down for a few days."
"Close call," Saito snorted, ignoring the weariness in his feet and concentrating on his impatience. "You call that a close call? The dogs ran while the dragon stayed to fight our wolves. It wasn't a close call--it was a slaughter."
Okita shrugged tiredly--even if his fellow captain preferred to cover his tiredness with anger, Okita himself had no bones about yawning widely as they passed through the headquarters gate. He'd gotten no sleep this night and would likely only get a couple hours before "tomorrow" started in earnest. "Maybe we should've gone out with the afternoon patrols instead," he suggested wearily. "You know, there were people saying they'd spotted red hair in the market street on--"
"Don't be ridiculous," Saito snapped, shoving the door open and stepping aside so the tired men could file in. "You know as well as I do that demons don't come out in daylight."
Okita shrugged again. "It's what the informants said, anyway. Or is it just that you'd rather meet him by moonlight for an uninterrupted duel?" the shorter man needled, not unkindly. "He'd be easier to catch during the day--no place to run, with that head of hair...and you know how he is about collateral damage, too, with all those people about."
"Yes..." Saito's eyes narrowed. "But I wouldn't have the satisfaction of killing him with my own sword."
"Hai, hai..." Okita yawned for the second time, whilst trying to nod agreeably. "Now if you don't mind, I'm going to try and get some sleep before we have to meet with the patrol lieutenants again. Oyasumi nasai, Saito-san."
Without waiting for a rejoinder, Okita walked away, leaving Saito gazing after him with narrowed, impatient amber-brown eyes that burned with a tightly-bound desire for battle. "Good night indeed," he growled, turning to go his own way. "Not good enough, without Battousai's blood on my blade..."
Again, Kenshin was awakened in the gray hours of early morning--though at least this time, he hadn't had to work the previous night and had gotten plenty of sleep. However, this time it was not just the drowsily wakening ki that alerted him and brought him to consciousness; it was the nearness of that ki and the small wriggling body that began to stir in his lap.
Startled violet eyes opened, staring in confusion for a moment at the drowsy, blinking violet-blue ones that gazed back. For several seconds, Kenshin blinked incoherently, wondering how this tiny form had gotten there--until his brain warmed up and he recalled the sleepy little ki that had come up to him in the night and he, not awakening to the presence, had simply let the boy be.
Then Kenji stretched and yawned, taking up most of Kenshin's lap and spilling limbs over into the tangle of blanket that he'd dragged with him, which was now pooled halfway around Kenshin's legs and halfway about the boy. "'Haiyo, Touchan," he murmured, sleepily rubbing his eyes.
Blinking once again, Kenshin raised his head and began to drop out of his usual sleeping posture, still watching the boy. "Ohaiyo," he replied softly, still rather startled at finding the sleepy child in his lap and not quite sure what to do with him now.
Kenji began to sit up, remaining half-curled in Kenshin's lap as he pulled himself up to sit against the youth's chest, still a bit sleepy-eyed but looking most serious. "Touchan, I gotta go potty," he announced gravely.
Kenshin stared at him for a beat. "Oh..." he responded lamely, realizing what had caused the child to wake. But really, was he going to have to escort Kenji to the toilet this early every morning? "Alright..." Hiding the beginnings of his rueful half-smile, Kenshin helped the boy out of his lap and stood up for his own stretch, sword in hand. "Mm... Come on then, let's go."
Once more into the quiet Inn they strode, hand-in-hand on silent feet. Again, only a few of the staff were up and about--particularly Sakura, trekking in and out with the water and giving Kenshin a most amused look as she hid her laughter and hurried on her way. Kenshin just sent Kenji into the toilet to do his business and stood waiting against the wall outside, ignoring any looks from either the tittering Sakura-san or any of the other servants who happened by.
He was back inside helping Kenji to wash his hands when he was bid a pleasant good morning by Okami-san, already up and dressed and looking quite ready to face the day. "You know," the older woman offered helpfully, hiding the twitching about her lips, "if you make sure he uses the toilet right before he goes to bed, he won't have to get up so early."
Kenshin didn't hide his own faint smile of gratitude. "Arigato. I should've known; I'll keep that in mind."
The matron only nodded, still trying to keep her face marshalled.
"Okami-san, ohaiyo!" Kenji greeted, even as Kenshin tried to catch his hands to dry them. "Breakfast time?"
"Almost," she replied, bending down a little to smile at the boy. "Are you hungry?"
"Un!" Kenji responded eagerly, his happy wriggles frustrating the young man who was attempting to keep the child's wet hands from dripping on the floor.
"How would you like your breakfast, Himura-chan?" Okami-san asked, laughing softly, reaching out with a gentle grasp to still the little boy's bouncing long enough for Kenshin catch up. "I can have things ready for you to eat with the men again, or you and Kenji-chan could eat on the porch again."
"Arigato," Kenshin sighed, finally putting the towel away. "I really don't mind either way--"
"Porch! Porch!" Kenji crowed, all but hopping up and down.
Kenshin glanced down at the child, hiding a rueful little half-smile. "The porch it is, I guess."
Okami-san laughed gently again. "Very well. You boys get dressed for the day, and I'll send one of the girls out shortly."
The young swordsman led Kenji back to his room to dress, and true to her word Okami-san had one of the kitchen helpers meet them at the porch a breakfast tray. With bare feet side by side dangling off the edge of the porch, the two redheads dug into the simple meal; Kenji grinning as he enjoyed the morning and the food, and Kenshin smiling faintly in response, unable to help it. The weather was clear and bright, and the coming night promised to be cloudless and cool.
Kenshin's smile faded, but he pushed the coldness away; he didn't want to think about tonight. He didn't want to think about the job he had to do--the lives he might have to take. He didn't want to shut himself away from his emotions yet; it would make him have to shut himself away from Kenji. And he hated that thought even more than he hated the idea of the murders he might have to commit. He would have to armor himself...but later--not now. Not yet.
He looked at Kenji's giggling face and found himself softening again. No, not yet...
As soon as he sensed them, he realized he should've known; setting down his empty dish, he reached over to wipe the remnants of breakfast from Kenji's face in a process that was becoming as familiar as drawing his own sword. Hamano-tachi wouldn't waste a minute tracking me down once breakfast was over, he thought wryly, rather glad now that Kenji had "convinced" him to take his meal on the Inn's back porch. Out here, without the other soldiers about, he didn't feel so guarded.
Barely a couple seconds after he picked up the ki of his four friends, he could hear them clattering toward the Inn's rear door. Despite how much more at ease he was with them than with the rest of the Inn's population, he still drew himself inward, barely defensive, hiding the gentle face that so far, only Okami-san and Kenji had seen--replacing it with the cool, not-quite-emotionless mask he usually wore.
"--said he was out here having breakfast with Chibi-kou..." Hamano's voice trailed off as he stuck his head out the door, his face brightening as he caught sight of the two redheads. "There you are, Himura!"
The young samurai piled out the door, followed quickly by the rest. Takagi looked openly eager, and Tankei interested, while Komiba attempted to appear as though he couldn't care less. Kenshin glanced up at them, nodding slightly in cool greeting; Kenji was not startled by the presence of the newcomers--Kenshin guessed he might've sensed them as well--but he did grow more quiet, large-eyed once more as he peered around Kenshin at the tall men.
"Ohaiyo, Himura." Hamano simply grinned, jerking a thumb at his comrades. "They just couldn't wait to see the little guy, and since you kinda promised last night..."
"Aa, I did." Kenshin's expression wasn't quite a smile, but it was softer than his usual as the others stepped off the porch to cluster in front of the little boy at his side. "This is Kenji," he announced simply.
Takagi was practically beaming. "Hajimemashite, Kenji-kun, I'm Takagi Ryou--nice to meet you!"
Hanging back, Komiba snorted at the younger man's enthusiasm, but Kenji responded quite favorably. "Hello!" the little boy chirped, much of his reserve melting before the young samurai's genuine welcome.
"Kawaii na," Takagi chuckled, reaching out to ruffle the child's soft red hair. "And you look just like your tousan, too."
At Kenshin's somewhat annoyed look, Hamano laughed aloud. "There's another 'cute' for you, Himura--I guess you can't win!"
Takagi caught himself and drew back, suddenly red-faced. "Ah! Sumimasen, Himura-san, I didn't mean--"
"Iie, it's nothng," Kenshin sighed, earning a chuckle from Tankei this time.
"Indeed, the resemblance is very striking," the soft-spoken samurai observed, in his usual thoughtful manner. "Himura's features are quite unique, but somehow it doesn't surprise me to see them repeated so precisely in the next generation."
Kenji blinked up at him, the choice of big words confusing him somewhat. Tankei offered a smile to the child, nodding as if to an equal. "My name is Tankei," he stated simply.
"And that standoffish fellow over there is Komiba," Hamano added, stepping closer to throw the little boy a conspiratory wink. "He's only pretending to be mean, y'know--he's really very nice once you get to know him."
"Shut the hell up, Hamano," Komiba growled from his place against a porch post, a respectably cool distance from the rest.
"Komiba!" Takagi all but squawked. "Please, your language--there's a child here!"
The bowman snorted his opinion of that, but his ki flared with brief chagrin as he turned away, and Kenshin only spared him a glance, instead of a glare.
But Kenji didn't seem to mind; instead, he giggled and smiled widely. Quite taken with the bright-eyed child, Takagi soon coaxed the little boy off the porch and into a game in the yard, one that involved hopping on patterns drawn in the soft dust with a stick. Intrigued by the child, Tankei chose to accompany them, watching the activity with an amused smile and mild commentary.
That left Kenshin with Hamano and Komiba on the porch; the latter did not move from his place, but Hamano plunked down on the porch edge not far from Kenshin, amiably watching the humorous activity in the yard. Though his body was as relaxed as it could ever be in this open place, in the company of others, the former hitokiri's eyes followed Kenji's small form with a keen focus that spoke volumes to the two men with him.
"So," Hamano began softly, much of his previous boisterousness vanishing. "How'd that meeting go?"
Kenshin barely spared him a glance; his eyes stayed on the child, though he replied readily enough. "It went," he said, with a faintly distasteful curl to his mouth that, for the quiet and withdrawn ex-hitokiri, was as if he'd spat in disgust. "I don't know what I thought I was expecting from them..."
"You have to figure that when the situation changes this drastically, the paper-pushers are bound to get nervous," Hamano observed, in his usual easygoing manner.
"They wanted to take Kenji away," Kenshin informed his friends, startling himself with the hostility in his own voice. "They wanted to take him to Choshu territory, to keep him safe."
Hamano didn't look startled; then again, very little could ruffle the ever-relaxed young samurai. "We sorta figured as much--them wanting to grab the 'handle' on you before anybody else could."
"They tried. I said no. Katsura-san backed me up." Kenshin frowned faintly, still watching Kenji's cheerful face as he played. "They were not pleased."
Komiba scowled. "K'so. Did they threaten you?"
"Not out loud," Kenshin replied darkly.
"Those cowards wouldn't dare," Hamano half-chuckled. "Your reputation's got them scared shitless."
Still frowning, Kenshin glanced down. He might not like it, but Hamano was right; those men feared his name as much as anyone--perhaps more, since they knew him in person. It was that fact that kept them from openly challenging Katsura's decision, lower-ranks though they might be. Still, though the fear had radiated through the ki of all three of them, there was a rebelliousness in their resentment--especially that Mokushi. That man smiled and agreed on the outside, but on the inside he felt more devious by far than the other two.
"At least we can count on Katsura-san," Hamano was saying, continuing almost cheerfully. "And Takasugi-san too. They'll keep the dogs at bay."
Komiba snorted again. "I don't like it. Political bastards who call themselves samurai. Who says they won't try anything?"
Kenshin's right hand tightened, as if on the hilt of a sword. "If they do, they know the consequences."
"Oi, oi, easy there, ryu-san," Hamano cautioned half-jokingly with a raised eyebrow. "Those are Choshu troop leaders you're talking about. You can't just go hacking them up so easily."
Kenshin glanced sharply at his friend, frowning rather fiercely. "I won't let them--!"
Hamano raised his hands placatingly. "I know, I know! I'm just saying you should think about it. Even if one of them tried something, and you killed him, there might be major consequences that not even Katsura-san could protect you from. Some of those men have influence in Choshu."
"Aa, and there's already yarou out there who want to have you put down just for being hitokiri--" Komiba halted mid-sentence, clamping his mouth shut in a rare instance of realizing he was saying too much.
Kenshin didn't even blink. He already knew there were many who questioned Katsura-san's decision to keep him on as a soldier; in the opinion of most, there were no such things as former hitokiri. They didn't know him--they didn't know he had no desire to kill beyond what he had to do for the cause. He was not like those men lost to the wild blood-madness and killing frenzy, that literally had to be executed because they were no longer anything human.
After finishing a brief glare at Komiba's thoughtlessness, Hamano glanced back at the red-haired young swordsman. "Anyway, Himura...take it easy. Don't be too quick to draw your sword. Me and the guys--we'll back you up, you know. Nobody's gonna mess with Chibi-kou on our watch. Right, Komiba?"
Komiba snorted yet again, but nodded shortly.
"Nice to see you have such good friends, Himura," spoke a new voice.
Hamano and Komiba both started slightly, but Kenshin did not. Smiling only faintly, the former hitokiri turned his head to look up at the newcomer. "Ohaiyo gozaimasu, Takasugi-san."
Takasugi nodded, taking all three of them in his greeting. His own smile was lazy and sardonic, with the half-hidden razor edge that always imbued him. "The chibi's genki this morning, na?" the Kiheitai commander observed rather humorously. "Makes me wonder if you were that cute at his age, Himura."
Hamano tried vainly to cover his laughter, managing to sound vaguely like he was choking on something. Kenshin closed his eyes with a weary sigh.
"I see I'm not the only one who shares that opinion." Takasugi gave a brief chuckle. "By the way, Himura, when in your busy schedule did you manage to have a kid?"
Kenshin looked down, saying nothing.
"I have to admit, I'm curious," Takasugi went on. "What with hitokiri duties your first year and Katsura keeping you hopping so much, I'm surprised you found the time. He's...what, two?"
"Three," Kenshin murmured, almost without meaning to.
And somehow he'd surprised his former commander--the older man's eyebrows went up a bit. "Damn. You were--" Takasugi paused a moment as he thought back, remembering the short, slight redheaded boy that had shown up to enlist in his Kiheitai--remembering how he'd almost turned that boy down, thinking he had to be only ten years old and too small to fight, until given a demonstration of Hiten Mitsurugi. "...fourteen? That's awfully young..."
Kenshin heard the faint reproach in the commander's voice and found himself shrugging, not looking up. Technically, it wasn't true--but who'd believe the truth?
Now, Takasugi looked almost genuinely confused. "So who was it?" he asked rather softly. "An old girlfriend? Some farm maid between your master's place and mine? Someone in Kyoto? It couldn't have been..."
At Kenshin's brief, almost unnoticeable flinch, the Kiheitai commander broke off, realizing he was treading on sensitive ground. "Ah, gomen. I shouldn't have--."
"Iie..." Kenshin shook his head, dismissing the potential offense. It was impossible for people not to be interested--after all, what else could they think? The Ishinshishi's famous assassin, with a child? And it was impossible for it to have been Tomoe--they hadn't even been married long enough.
"That's nothing," Komiba snorted, rather distastefully. "You should hear what's going around between the men."
"Oi..." Hamano almost barked.
"What?" the bowman shot back. "You can't blame anybody for being curious who the mother is."
"Enough," Hamano commanded, frowning. Despite him, however, Takasugi was still watching Kenshin, his gaze inquisitive.
The red-haired swordsman did not flinch under the Kiheitai commander's eyes. "I...cannot say who his mother is," Kenshin said at last--as close to the truth as he could manage--in a tone that ended further questioning.
The uncomfortable silence that followed was broken by the sudden arrival of a breathless, laughing Kenji, who dashed in to pounce against Kenshin's knees. The former hitokiri's half-startled blink drew surprised chuckles from the other three men.
"Touchan, I won! I won!" the little boy squealed happily, beaming from ear to ear. "Takagi-niichan fell down!"
"Ah, sou ka?" Kenshin couldn't help the little smile at the child's enthusiasm. "That was clumsy of him."
Takagi and Tankei were approaching once more, the younger samurai sheepishly dusting off his hakama. "I guess I'm out of practice," he confessed. "I haven't played that game in years."
Komiba was already laughing. "You knocked yourself on your ass playing hopscotch? Oh, that's rich..."
"Komiba, please!" Takagi gasped, wary of the bowman's language again.
Kenji only giggled, latching on to Kenshin's hand and tugging. "Touchan, asobo! Come play!"
"Ah--Kenji--" Kenshin glanced around at the highly amused faces of his companions. All of them managed to hold straight faces, with the exception of Takagi--who had let slip a tiny chortle.
Takasugi coughed, hiding a laugh. "Well. Feel free to enjoy yourself, Himura. I'll just be on my way..."
As the Kiheitai commander headed back into the Inn--chuckling softly to himself--Kenji continued to pull for all he was worth, almost bouncing up and down with excited impatience. "Touchan, come on! You never play!"
Unable to resist, Hamano leaned over to nudge the rather stunned swordsman. "Yeah, come on, 'Touchan.' Go play hopscotch with the chibi."
Kenshin tried to shoot his friend a dark glare, but it was hard to be entirely convincing with an eager three-year-old tugging him off the porch. At last, internally cringing under the scrutiny of all four friends, he gave up and let himself be dragged to his feet. "Yare yare...alright, Kenji, I'll go..."
"Yosh'!" the tiny boy squealed, beaming. "Touchan better not fall down!"
"I don't think I will," Kenshin replied, allowing the child to pull him toward the slightly-smudged designs in the dust.
"Ano, Himura-san," spoke yet another new voice from the Inn door, before they could get very far. The entire group turned to see Sakura peering out at them, bowing briefly in the presence of the samurai. "I'm sorry to interrupt, but Katsura-sama wishes to speak with you..."
Kenshin caught his breath, feeling the familiar, hated ice creeping into the edges of his heart, and the schooled emptiness falling over his face. That's right. The mission. Tonight. "Hai. Thank you, Sakura-san. I will be in directly."
The woman nodded, then disappeared.
Sensing the sudden cold, unpleasant hush that had fallen over his father and the rest of the men, Kenji's cheer had vanished. Instead of bouncing, he tightened his grip on Kenshin's fingers and looked up at him, worried. "Touchan?"
Kenji... At the child's small, quavering tone, Kenshin's eyes tightened and his emotions fought with themselves--warmth against cold, affection against emptiness. For a brief moment, his own ki was painfully unbalanced, and the two more experienced warriors among his friends could just pick it up.
"K'so," Komiba hissed, scowling fiercely. "What a shitty time for a job."
Hamano's easygoing expression had hardened as well. Uninformed he and the others might be, but they knew that the only reason Katsura Kogoro summoned the red-haired swordsman was either to brief him on a mission or debrief him after one. Rarely did the Choshu political leader call for his favored soldier for any other cause.
With a breath, Kenshin finally beat back the ice one more time. Softening his expression with an effort, he knelt down to look the little boy in the eye. "Gomen, Kenji. I can't play now. Katsura-san needs me."
"Maybe you can play with Takagi again?" Kenshin suggested, glancing at the other young samurai and catching his nod.
"But Touchan," Kenji protested plaintively, his chin quivering a little. "You never play."
Kenshin's jaw tightened. Whoever his future self was, he'd better have a damn good reason for that. "I know, and I'm sorry. But I'm going to have a job to do. Can you stay here and play for a little while?"
For a moment, the little boy looked like he would either rebel or burst into tears. But somehow he didn't; he frowned as much as a small child can and nodded reluctantly.
"Good. I'll be back as soon as I can." Kenshin stood up again, and Kenji gradually let go of his hand. Still feeling the ice at the edge of his consciousness, the young swordsman turned away with an effort and strode for the Inn door. "Hamano," he said, pausing a moment as he passed. "Can one of you watch him for a few minutes?"
The samurai nodded gravely. "Aa. No problem, Himura. You go ahead."
Without another word, the Ishinshishi former hitokiri headed off to be informed what bloody mission he would have to perform next, leaving Kenji behind--and this time, exposed.
"I'll get straight to the point," Katsura Kogoro said bluntly, gazing flatly at the young swordsman sitting across from him. "Your mission tonight is another escort. Hopefully everything will go without a problem, and there will not be a need for your sword."
"Hai." Sitting rigidly on a cushion in Katsura's quarters, Kenshin relaxed infinitesimally. Relieved that it was not an offensively-based assignment, he let out a breath and allowed his eyes to flicker from Katsura to Takasugi, who sat beside the Ishinshishi political leader. "Katsura-san. Since it's an escort mission, and since you have given it to me, I assume that it's someone very important?"
Both older men smiled knowingly. "Quite," Katsura replied. "Takasugi is returning to his troops in the field this evening. I need to you make sure he gets safely out of the city. He came in with Mokushi-tachi before, and was safe with their swordsmen, but tonight he is leaving alone. I am assigning you, Hamano, and Morimoto to escort him. You will meet with Takasugi's men outside the city, and they will take him from there."
Kenshin nodded. "It will be done."
"You'll need to be extra careful," Katsura continued. "Our informants have sent word that the Shinsengumi has changed its patrols again, with more dense patterns and timing. It will be more difficult to leave the city unnoticed, especially with a group of men after dark. But I cannot send Takasugi out in daylight, with the same patrols in the streets, where both he and you are too easily recognized."
"With the cover of darkness, there's a better chance of slipping through," Kenshin agreed, half to himself. "And if we are discovered, I will remain as defense while Takasugi and the others escape."
Katsura nodded, almost sadly. "I always regret using you like that, Himura. But I am afraid it must be done." And now, of all times...with the child...he almost looked like he wanted to refuse...
"I have given you my word, Katsura-san."
Beside him, Takasugi smiled. "It's a dirty job, Himura; I know that. But I'm glad it's you who'll be watching my back out there."
Kenshin couldn't quite find the wherewithal to smile at the compliment, but he did incline his head to Takasugi-san with a slightly softer look. "I am honored to be of service," he replied formally.
"I will inform Hamano and Morimoto as well," Katsura said at last. "I would advise you to eat early this evening. The mission will begin one hour after sunset."
"Hai. Wakarimashita." The red-haired swordsman bowed stiffly, shortly, then gathered his swords and rose to leave. "I will be prepared."
When the door slid shut behind him, Takasugi flopped back from his formal position and leaned against the wall. "Damn. He's taking it well, but it's upsetting him."
Closing his eyes, Katsura nodded. "Aa. His heart is on the child now."
"Almost thought he'd turn you down," the Kiheitai commander observed shrewdly. "Promise or no promise. He sure as hell doesn't want to be out killing men with his kid waiting at home."
"Sou desu..." Katsura sighed. It is hurting him. The part of him that longs to remain open to the boy is the part that must close itself off to perform these missions...he does not know how to be father and warrior in the same moment...
"I know the kid is good for him, like the girl was--but the downside..." Takasugi commented quietly, trailing off. "If something happens to that chibi, it really would kill him this time. I don't think he could live through it again..."
"I hope he'll never learn how close I was to ordering him to send the boy to Choshu," Katsura replied, keeping his voice low as if to hide the disappointment. "But even in the homes of my closest friends, there is danger--almost as much as there is here. So much could go wrong, and we would be too far away." He sighed tiredly, regretfully. "Things would go much more smoothly if the child had not come here--but now that he is and Himura has taken him in, all I can do is pray, and try to protect them both as much as I can without compromising our mission."
"There isn't a place in any city you could put that kid," Takasugi told him bluntly. "He's too recognizable to the wrong people. He's in the way here, but you can't send him anywhere else. No way around it--wherever he goes, the kid's either a hostage, a target, or a burden."
Katsura closed his eyes wearily. "That is why, for the moment, the safest place for the boy is right at his father's side. Right now, I can grant them both no better security than that. Things are stable, so I can allow them this much..."
The quiet seemed loud for a long time, far too much left unsaid.
"Would you let him go?" Takasugi asked softly, into the silence, breaking into his old friend's thoughts.
"Eh?" Katsura looked at him, puzzled for a moment.
"Despite what he promised," the commander clarified, his gaze piercing. "If he wanted to take his son and get the hell out of this, would you let him go?"
Looking down, Katsura thought carefully for long, quiet moments. "If he decided to leave," he replied at last, "none of us could stop him. But we need him so much, especially now..."
Takasugi looked away, having apparently seen his answer. "I wish you could let him go. He's been through enough already, and if he loses that kid on top of it--"
"I know," Katsura snapped, uncharacteristically sharp. "I know that, and I feel for Himura as a friend. But I have a cause to lead, and a greater purpose to achieve, and I can't be lenient even with him."
After a moment, Takasugi sighed as well. "Sou da na. It's a damn shame, and we both know it. I just hope nothing goes wrong."
"Aa." Katsura closed his eyes again, knowing that neither Takasugi nor himself were speaking solely about the mission tonight. "I pray everything will be well."
Kenshin wandered back toward the rear door of the Inn, somewhere between ice-cold focus and being lost in his own thoughts--a strange combination indeed, for the former hitokiri. A dangerous one, for someone whose life depended on sight and sense and a hair's-breadth of instantaneous movement--as it would tonight.
As three other lives would depend on him tonight.
Approaching the back door, the sense of others and the sounds of voices brought him around, turned his inward gaze outward--and even sharper. Not just his friends and Kenji awaited him ahead--and as he stepped out onto the porch, he found an astonishingly large crowd.
It seemed as though half the Ishinshishi stationed at the Inn had turned out to the back yard, creating a veritable zoo. It centered around three familiar individuals and a small, bright, worried ki, and the yard was abuzz with voices.
Kenshin's eyes narrowed, his jaw tightened, and his left hand gripped the sheath of his katana. Hamano, Komiba, and Takagi were in the middle of the ruckus, with soldiers pressed in and almost shoving each other to get a look at a certain tiny red-haired child.
"--really Battousai's kid--"
"--chicchai da na--"
"--no mistake, look at that hair--"
"--probably be scrawny just like--"
"--oi, chibi, over here, c'mon--
"--wonder if his eyes do that same--"
"Oi, back off, Nishira!" Hamano's voice rang out, strident. "You're scaring the kid!"
Unconsciously, Kenshin's lips pulled back from his teeth, twisting his face into a protective snarl for a single unguarded instant. Then he was simply cool, silent fury again, stepping off the porch to stride purposefully into the group. As those on the edges noticed him, they began to go pale and silent, yelping and stumbling over each other to get out of his way. The disturbance drew the attention of the rest, and the noise fell away as the soldiers hurriedly cleared a path.
In the middle of them, Takagi looked positively relieved, as if Kenshin's arrival had just stemmed a terrible riot. Hamano too, but he also seemed wary, as if fearing that the former hitokiri--and still fearsome killer--would take offense and slaughter these men. But, with smooth and deliberate steps, and without budging his blade, Kenshin soon reached the side of his friends, where Kenji peeked out from Takagi's legs to smile suddenly upon seeing him.
"Touchan!" the little boy squealed, leaving the safety of "Takagi-niichan's" side to dart to Kenshin's. He latched his small arms around the swordsman's leg, happy and relieved.
Without dropping his gaze from his friends and the men around them, Kenshin let his right hand slip down to brush gently across Kenji's soft hair. "What's going on?" he asked simply, his voice the same low, quiet monotone that most of the men were familiar with--but the strength beneath as hard as his touch was soft.
Hamano spoke up first, using his easygoing tones to diffuse the situation. "Ah, nothing much. The guys here are just being a little too curious, that's all."
"I see." Kenshin's eyes traced across the frozen group of men, each of them feeling a shiver up their spines under the cold gaze of Hitokiri Battousai--and even if he wasn't technically a hitokiri any more, it still counted in all the ways that mattered.
"They didn't mean any harm, Himura-san," Takagi piped up nervously. "They just...um, wanted to see him..."
Kenshin reached down and took Kenji's hand, his gaze not piercing any one individual, but seeming to encompass them all. "This child," he stated, his voice gaining just a hint of a razored katana's edge, "is not a sideshow."
There was the sound of many apologetic murmurs and scuffling feet, but Kenshin ignored them all--he turned and led the quiet and subdued Kenji back toward the Inn, away from the prying eyes and curious stares of the soldiers.
Not only did their blatant, rather perverse--in his opinion--interest annoy him because it frightened Kenji, it also nicked something deep and painful inside his own heart. Something old and half-forgotten--whispers and pointed fingers and stares and shame. A constant in his life ever since he was old enough to recognize the scorn and scrutiny of others, and to realize how different he was, in everything--in the questionable circumstances of his birth, his impossibly un-Japanese coloring, his inexplicable inherent abilities, his unbelievable skill with a sword, his status as hitokiri, or ex-hitokiri...he had stood apart from others since the moment his life began. And in this society, being unusual had only brought disgust, contempt, or morbid fascination from others.
He might not let himself feel the sting any longer, but he would not allow such things to be directed at Kenji--not if he could help it. He would shield the child from that humiliation--Kenji would not be stared at, poked at, nor regarded as a tool or a novelty. He would not allow his son to be made uncomfortable in his own skin, ashamed of his appearance, ability, or origins.
Kenshin led the little boy down the Inn hall, toward the stairs--toward the room they now shared, where he could close the door on the rest of the world and feel more secure than he would anywhere else. Kenji stayed close at his side, quiet, the strong little ki still slightly worried and confused from the ordeal of the overly curious crowd outside. The child did not--could not--understand the motivation of those men, who, however benign their intent might have been, had alarmed him with their number and proximity, and the many invasive hands that had tried to reach for him.
In his room, Kenshin slid the door shut with an involuntary sigh of relief, glad to be away from the mob in the yard. By now, he guessed, Hamano would have thoroughly scolded the nosy men and sent them tail-tucked on their way.
Kenji giggled at last and tugged away to go and play with his top, as Kenshin set down his swords to sit near the window once again. The little boy was showing no lasting effects from the scary crowd encounter; it seemed that he'd already forgotten in light of his toy, which he was tossing into a spin with startling skill there on the floor.
Kenshin rested his head against the windowframe, fighting off a frown. Really, he'd been well aware of the need to protect Kenji from threats outside the Inn, but he'd never expected to have to defend him from his own comrades.
But then, considering the meeting last night, perhaps his own comrades were the ones he had to be the most cautious of. After all, a traitor's deception had resulted in tragedy for him before...
"Touchan?" Kenji's voice broke into his thoughts, making him blink. "Touchan, play with me?"
Kenshin pushed aside his brief suspicious musing to glance down at the boy; Kenji stood before him with the little red ball, watching him eagerly. "Play..." the young swordsman murmured, mouth quirking. The only reason he'd even contemplated a game of "hopscotch" or whatever that had been was because he thought it looked rather too callous of him to turn the boy away, with all of his companions watching. Now...there was no one to see, and he really didn't feel drawn toward play any more, not when he'd long since left childhood behind...
"Touchan?" Kenji asked again, hesitant but eager. "Play with me? Please?"
The child was so hopeful, yet a shadow of crushing disappointment lingered in the back of his ki; he expected to be turned away, but held out hope beyond hope that Kenshin would reach out.
So reach out he did, slowly, meeting the small boy's brightening eyes as his slim fingers closed on the red ball and lifted it--testing its meager weight, the smoothness of its surface. Kenshin studied the plaything for silent moments, wondering how such a simple object could give this bright little child so much happiness.
His face practically glowing with excitement, Kenji scuttled back and waved his small arms, smiling bright as a lantern. "Throw it, Touchan! Ball's for throwin'! Throw here!"
Kenshin's mouth quirked again as he watched the little boy, who offered him direction as though "Touchan" had never seen a ball before. And to be honest, he admitted, it might as well have been the case; he hadn't played with any sort of ball since he was six--before Shishou, before the slave traders, before his parents died...
"Throw it, huh?" Kenshin said, voice soft but humorous. "Are you sure you can catch it?"
"Un!" The child nodded happily. "Throw!"
With a mental shrug, Kenshin gave the ball a gentle underhand toss, just enough to cross the few strides' distance between himself and the boy. Giggling, Kenji caught it in both hands, looking supremely pleased.
"Here comes, Touchan!" the playful boy announced, lobbing the ball back at Kenshin with impressive accuracy for a child so young.
The red-haired swordsman did not move a muscle other than his left arm; the catch was easy enough when so cleanly aimed, and he simply placed his left hand in the ball's trajectory, which was heading for the center of his chest. There was surprising strength and control in the throw, not just in the aim but in the speed and arc.
He's got a good arm, and good eyes, Kenshin considered with a flash of marveling pride. I wonder if other kids his age can do this.
He tossed the ball a little harder this time, and Kenji caught it yet again, easily. The ball came back again, accompanied by giggles, and Kenshin swiped it out of the air with his other hand, finding himself fighting off a smile.
"You must play ball a lot," Kenshin observed, continuing the game.
"Mm," Kenji replied with a nod. "Lots'n lots."
The ball came zinging back at him, and Kenshin caught it with his usual careless ease. "Maa, take it easy, Kenji," he cautioned with the faintest of chuckles. "We're indoors; don't throw too hard."
Kenji grinned sheepishly--or as sheepish as a child so full of laughter and impishness could be. "Kaachan always says don't throw the ball inside."
Kenshin cocked an eyebrow. "I'm sure she does, and she's probably right."
"Aa..." Drooping slightly, Kenji gazed at the ball in the older youth's hands and tried to look repentant. "Shouldn't throw inside."
Kenshin glanced from the boy to the ball and back again, an edge of long-forgotten mischief creeping into him. "But..." he began, drawing the little boy's gaze back up to meet his suprisingly real smile. "...I won't tell, if you don't."
Kenji's face brightened instantly once again, and he grinned merrily. "I won't tell!"
"Yosh'. Then here it comes." Kenshin tossed the ball. "Just don't break anything."
Kenshin got more enjoyment out of watching the light and life in Kenji's face than out of merely throwing the red ball. It was amazing, to him, to see the tiny boy smile--every childish laugh lifting his heart somehow, as though they were little wings. And eventually Ball-Toss became Keep-Away, just because Kenshin was feeling mischievous and he wanted to make Kenji laugh even more.
So Kenshin teased with the small ball, tossing it from hand to hand, not noticing the smile on his own face as Kenji howled with giggles and bounced around him, trying to intercept the lively toy. And after a few unsuccessful attempts, the child decided to take charge and pounced on the former hitokiri, landing full in his lap in an attempt to stop his quick hands.
Startled, Kenshin went rigid for a half-instant, unused to such abrupt contact--but, chiding himself for foolishness, he let Kenji's insufficient attack topple him to the floor near the window, flat on his back. Quite beginning to forget himself, he pretended to be trapped under the little boy's weight as Kenji sat firmly on his stomach--small hands darting across his chest, seeking the ball.
"Oh no you don't...!" The former hitokiri's quick fingers found the child's ribs, turning Kenji from a determined little boy to a shrieking, wriggling puddle of laughter. The ball bounced away across the floor, forgotten, as Kenshin tickled the giggles out of his small would-be tormentor, unaware of the almost childlike smile that graced his own features.
"Stop! Stop!" Kenji shrieked, squirming helplessly in hilarity. "Touchaaan! No--no fair--eep!"
At last, laughing quietly himself at the sheer merriment of the situation, Kenshin relented, having tickled his little victim into submission. Exhausted--and still giggling here and there--Kenji flopped on his father's chest, breathless and secure, his ki glowing invisibly, steadily, in playful contentment.
This warmth and companionship was still new to him--but for a welcome moment, Kenshin let his arms fall around the child; just to hold him for a little while, cherishing the trust that radiated from the small bright spirit.
Treasuring this moment, before he would have to remember his mission tonight, and push the child away...
Before he could dwell on the future, the small form on his chest stirred--and perhaps Kenji was not as defeated as he'd first thought; tiny fingers brushed across his own ribs, poking, searching for weaknesses. "And what are you up to?" he queried, raising an eyebrow at the little boy.
Kenji grinned unrepentantly. "Gonna getcha, Touchan!"
"Get me, huh?" Unable to help his mischievous smile, Kenshin rolled over--playfully, quickly, but as gentle as a woolly blanket's embrace--until Kenji was on the bottom of the little wrestling match. "We'll see about that. I think I've got you!"
Fingers flashed and giggles returned as the tickle war resumed. And somehow, despite all his skills and power, Kenshin knew he'd lose in the end.
He would always lose to that smile.
Just outside the door, one fist poised to knock, Hamano Akira stood frozen in shock and wonder at the noises coming from within the former hitokiri's quarters--a child's high-pitched giggles, acccompanied by soft, boyish laughter. He almost could not believe his own ears, hearing the sound of his silent, solemn companion's ever-hidden heart and soul.
Masaka...I forget he's so young...I forget that he can even laugh... Swallowing hard, he lowered his hand. How can they keep making him fight this war for them? Kami-sama...he's just a kid...he shouldn't have to live through this hell...
His jaw tightening, Hamano turned back to the hall and walked away, leaving his friend in peace for a little while longer. Battle plans and mission discussions could wait a few more hours, anyway.
It wasn't nearly as important as what was happening in that room just then.
AN: Thank you to everyone for being so patient with me! Apart from my obvious little AU tendency here... Later all!
Also, I don't want to shock anybody, but this story is not based directly on any of the OVA's or even specifically the anime; I prefer to refer directly to the Rurouni Kenshin manga whenever I can. Sure, the OVA/movies were beautiful, and I appreciate their artistry and depth, but where they conflict with the manga's telling, well...I'm afraid I have to side with the manga.
Apart from my obvious little AU tendency here...