Chapter 10 – Akinyemi

Forbearance and dignity were never so closely allied as in the figure of Koro, perched still as a statue atop a flat rock to the side and well out of the lines of action. The two combatants had been hard at it for hours, but the little dog showed no inclination toward boredom. He didn't require that he understand the activities of humans in order to enjoy their company; he found it better not to try.

"I know you are eager to move ahead, but it is most important that your body first learn these foundation moves thoroughly."

Kenshin stepped nimbly aside as he spoke, neatly avoiding Akinyemi's fast, but still wobbly attack. The boy spun quickly and rushed back in. If ferocity of expression counted for anything, Kenshin surely would have fallen. Instead, he dodged to the right, stepping back with his left foot and pivoting around his right, arms straight out at shoulder level swinging his shinai in a level semi-circle. He pulled the swing's power at the last to tap gently on the nape of his deshi's neck.

Despite the lack of force in the strike, Akinyemi, nearly exhausted by now, stumbled forward a few steps before dropping heavily onto one knee and both hands, his weapon skittering away as the fall broke his grip. He scrambled up and stood facing his instructor, face red and blotchy, hair standing in wet curls, breath coming in great gasps, fists clenched at the ends of trembling arms.

"That's … not … fair!" His words were punctuated by gulps of air, and he stamped a foot for emphasis when he finished.

"You will find that 'fair' is hardly ever a factor when facing a real enemy."

"But, shishou…"

Kenshin winced. "Please, Akinyemi, I've asked you not to call me that. I'm very happy to help you improve in your own kata, but I'm not qualified to be anyone's 'shishou'."

Nor do I want the responsibility.

"I … like … calling … you … that!" Akinyemi hopped in a circle around Kenshin, his words timed to his hops.

Where does he get all that energy?

"Can't you just keep using 'oniisan'?" Kenshin moved over to Koro's rock and began to gather their things: the little bag that had carried their morning meal, his hat, the sakabatou; Koro supervised solemnly. "It seems to work fine the rest of the time."

The boy hopped to follow him, and Kenshin had to dodge between restless feet for each object he picked up.

"But I really want to get stronger and I want to be a real apprentice with a real shishou! I'm working hard for you, and I try to do everything you say just the way you tell me to so I can get stronger. I want you to be my shishou, Kenshin-oniisan." During this speech, his dance had gradually slowed, then stopped; his voice and body had softened until, finally, he stood in a posture of pleading, hands clasped in front of him and large liquid eyes searching Kenshin's face.

Inwardly, Kenshin rolled his eyes.

This is another reason I'd make a terrible "shishou"…

Outwardly, he sighed and said, "Well, I suppose, just while we are training here in the meadow…"

Yelping in delight, Akinyemi leaped into the air a good eighteen inches and grabbed his new master around the chest in a bear hug, nearly knocking them both off their feet. Staggering, Kenshin instinctively grabbed Akinyemi around the shoulders to keep his balance, dropping everything except the sakabatou. Exhilarated by the sudden action, Koro hopped down off the rock and pranced around the two, tail high and swishing, adding short, sharp barks to the general melee.

"Thank you, shishou! Thank you! I will make you proud of me! You'll see—you won't be sorry—I'll be the best deshi ever!"

Still in the boy's tight embrace, Kenshin looked down into those strangely open, strangely dark eyes. He couldn't suppress a smile at what he saw there, unmistakable in spite of his unfamiliarity with it; it lifted his heart even as its implications gave him pause: the boy worshipped him.

The sight tickled something in his memory, something just below the reach of his consciousness, something floating deep within the murk of his past.

It was hopeless for him to match his tiny steps to those of the giant striding along the path before him, but he could try, and try he did, leaping more than stepping from one enormous footprint to the next, sometimes wavering unsteadily on one foot, scrawny arms out for balance, occasionally tipping over onto an outstretched palm, pushing off to right himself, careful never to touch a foot down on untrodden soil. His round face shone with exertion and his eyes fairly glittered with the delight of the game.

"Shishou! Shishou! Look at me! Look! I can walk just as big as you!"

The giant didn't so much as glance over his shoulder: the brightly shining ki behind him bathed him in its own kind of sunshine, and he didn't need to see it to know it. A heaviness dragged at his heart as he carefully didn't think about what the future held for his little charge. All he had to offer the boy was a life of discipline and self-denial: satisfying in its own way, but a stark contrast to the lightness trailing him through the wood. He could do it better than any other: it was what life had given him. It was all life had given him. Until now.

"Yes, Kenshin, you grow stronger every day."

He was surprised to discover how deeply this little sparrow had sunk its tiny talons into his heart in just the few weeks since he'd rescued him: he no longer had to hold the boy in order to induce sleep; he remembered the first uncertain smile, shy beneath ducked head and shadowing bangs; the first delighted trill of laughter still rang in his ears. His mouth quirked upward at the mental image of the boy skidding breathlessly through the hut's door, summer's first butterfly caged between sweaty palms and presented triumphantly for inspection. He would sacrifice much for this boy, for his survival, for his well-being.

"And bigger, too! Don't forget 'bigger', shishou! Someday I will be as big as you."

The big man's heart warmed in spite of himself; he felt the love of a father, something he'd never expected would come his way. So much training lay ahead, so much hardship; how would the boy bear up under it? What would become of the gentle spirit now following in his steps, now gathering 'monk's cabbage' from the forest floor, now trotting beside him and tugging at his hand, gazing up at him with frank adoration? No matter, it was what was required, and to ensure the boy's life, the man would sacrifice even being loved in return, if it came to that.

'And I will see to it that he does survive.'

"Akinyemi, don't try to make me proud of you. You must always do what you know to be right. And good."

He buried his fingers in the dark dense curls and ruffled them solidly, finally pushing the boy's head down and to the side to break their embrace. Akinyemi spun nimbly and grinned happily back at his beloved mentor.

"We'd better head back—your mother will be expecting us in the fields."

"Yes, shishou! Let me carry everything, shishou! That's my job, isn't it, shishou?" the boy exclaimed as he scampered about, gathering their things into his arms. Already, Kenshin was beginning to regret having relented on this point. "Oh! And I'll bring you tea in the mornings and massage your feet at night and wash your clothes…"

"Akin-kun, please!" Now Kenshin couldn't help laughing out loud as he tossed his hat onto his head and adjusted the cord to secure it against the morning's freshening breeze. "Nothing needs to change. We'll just keep training, and you will continue your studies and will help in the fields and take care of your mother."

You will learn how to be a human, and will grow to be a man, and you will give life to your life and your love to those who love you. You, my young friend, will become neither pariah nor outcast; your heart will remain whole and your spirit strong and good.

He could contribute to this. This could be good, could be very good indeed. Some small part of him woke to the possibilities, to the hope of his own future.

They turned to start the short trek back to the village. Koro loved this part: there was racing ahead, there was scouting and sniffing for dangerous beasts, leaping after unwary birds flying too low to the ground, there was falling behind and catching up—it made all the waiting worthwhile.

"And I will certainly continue to do my own laundry!"

Review responses: LadyRhiyana: As long as you are still around to R&R my stuff, and to post your own excellent stuff, then I'm glad this chapter made your heart clutch! WolfDaughter: Thanks for the encouragement—it's easy to forget that he was once just a little kid, and that they are remarkably resilient, given half a chance. Peacebunnie: Glad you liked it! Shirou Shinjin: I'm so glad that line made you laugh out loud—it did me when I wrote it. It is a bit weird to see Kenshin in this role, isn't it? 3AM? Go to bed, baka! Omasuoniwabanshi: Thanks thanks thanks! Yes, I, too, hear the voice actor when I write Hiko, and I think that makes all the difference! Lolo popoki: Thanks for the sweet review! I'm glad you liked the flashbacks—I hoped they would fit well. Shikaku Zetsumei Saigen: Ya-a-ay! A New Reader! Thanks for reading and, especially for such a nice review! As far as Kaoru's appearance, I really don't know: the scope of this story has already broadened much beyond what I expected it to (thanks mostly to SiriusFan13!), and I'm just not sure at what point it will end. Sirius: Hmmm… a Hiko-centric fic, eh? I'll have to think about that… "worried about Akin-chan", are you? "major mistakes", you say?