Disclaimer: I do not own Rurouni Kenshin's characters or plot.
A/N: Several years have passed since the events in the Kyoto and Jinchu arcs of the Rurouni Kenshin anime series. Yahiko is now a teenager and Kenshin is married to Kaoru.
Bakumatsu – War in Japan between the shogun's forces (including the shinsengumi) and the Ishin Shishi who were loyal to the emperor. Kenshin fought on the side of the Ishin Shishi's pro-imperial forces under Katsura Kogoro of Choshu
Aizu – A han (a district) in Japan that was loyal to the shogun
Seppuku – Ritual suicide method used by samurai
There was one thing on Yahiko's mind, escape. He had to escape from the Aioya or he'd go crazy.
If he had to listen to Misao bragging one more time about how beautiful, adorable, or smart her baby was, he'd go insane. It wasn't that he didn't like Misao. Misao was OK, especially now that she'd mellowed a bit. She'd always be a livewire, but now that she'd snagged Aoshi she was too busy being a wife and a new mother to torment Yahiko like she used to. However, she was still being completely annoying, only in different way. Everything was the baby, the baby, the baby. How much he ate, slept, and wet himself was the topic of every conversation with her. She'd even tried to get Yahiko to help change the kid's diapers!
Diapers! Yahiko was the son of a samurai from a long line of samurai. He was NOT a nursemaid.
Yahiko stomped down the stairs grumbling to himself.
It was bad enough that he'd agreed to accompany Kenshin and Kaoru to Kyoto, not to fight a psychopath bent on taking over Japan like the last time, but to visit Misao and see her baby. Yahiko didn't even want to think about how the hyperactive weasel girl managed to get Aoshi to marry her. Why she'd want a cold, silent beanpole like Aoshi was beyond him, but at least she seemed happy.
Walking through the hustle and bustle of the Aioya's main room, Yahiko knew he wouldn't find any peace there. The restaurant was full of patrons, and the noise level reflected that. In the midst of the sound of chopsticks clicking against serving bowls, chatter, and the slurping noises of hungry customers inhaling noodles or drinking down tea, Yahiko longed for a minute's quiet.
As he looked around for the best route through the tables, he remembered what he'd seen the night before. Yahiko, Kenshin, and Kaoru had been at the Aioya for a week, and were using the rooms usually rented out to paying guests. In the middle of the night he'd left his futon to go use the latrine out back. From the backyard he'd seen a light on in Misao and Aoshi's room on the second storey. The baby was fussing, and he'd seen Misao's silhouette through the fuzzy diffused light of the rice paper windows. Her silhouette, a slight black shadow against the white panes, bent down and picked up a bundle, obviously the baby, and held it close.
Another silhouette, tall and lean, came to stand next to Misao's. Her head raised, and Yahiko clearly saw the outline of her chin move as she said something to Aoshi. His hand came down gently on the bundle that was his newborn son. Yahiko couldn't be sure, but Aoshi seemed to be wrapping the blanket more securely around the child. Then Aoshi's silhouette dipped down and he and Misao's faces met.
Yahiko found himself grinning like a fool at the sight. Years ago when he'd first come to Kyoto in search of Kenshin, he'd have made barfing noises or rude comments at the thought of Misao kissing her longtime obsession. He guessed that meant he'd grown up a bit, but everyone still treated him like a child.
It didn't help that he was still short for his age, and he'd always be the youngest of the Kenshingumi.
"Oh, Yahiko!" Okon, the tallest and prettiest of the Aioya waitresses, raised her tray above Yahiko's head to keep him from running into it. She'd straightened and turned just as Yahiko tried to dodge around the table she'd been serving. "Where are you off to in such a hurry?"
Where could he go? Behind him were the steps leading upstairs to the living quarters. Over Okon's shoulder was the doorway to the kitchen where Kaoru and Omasu were holding up a tiny kimono Kaoru had spent hours sewing for the baby and making little feminine squeals of delight. Yahiko shuddered. Not that way! That left only one other exit.
"Out," he told Okon firmly.
The woman smiled. "You're going sightseeing?" She lowered her tray to chest level and stepped back to allow a couple of middle-aged patrons, a man and a woman, to brush past on their way out the front entrance. "Be careful you don't get lost," she warned, and with a last smile she raised her tray up over his head and walked around him to the kitchen.
Yahiko opened his mouth to tell her only little kids get lost and he wasn't a kid anymore, then closed it abruptly, realizing that would make him sound childish. Swallowing an exasperated sigh he clumped out the Aioya's entrance, holding the shinai slung over his back so it wouldn't touch the doorposts on the way out.
When would they learn that he wasn't a child who had to be protected and coddled? There had to be some way to prove himself, something he could do to show them all, but the days of daring feats of bravery were over. The stories of samurai willing to risk everything in epic battles were just that now, stories of a time past. There were no more battles in Japan. The Bakumatsu was over, and Yahiko supposed he should be happy about that. After all, wasn't that what Kenshin fought for all those years ago? Wasn't that what he still, on occasion, fought to protect? Yahiko just wanted a chance to do the same. Was that so bad? He'd worked hard to become stronger, and now he longed for a chance to prove himself.
As he wandered down street after narrow street, he realized he'd been unconsciously following the couple who'd left the Aioya in front of him. They'd stopped by a sandal shop and were asking directions.
"Mibu Village?" The sandal maker's toothless wife echoed querulously. "Why would you want to go to a run down old place like that? Kyoto proper is much nicer."
"Gomen," the Aioya patron said. He was middle aged, wearing an old fashioned patterned kimono, and he was holding solicitously to his wife's elbow. "Kyoto is indeed beautiful, but we heard that Mibu Village was once the headquarters of the shinsengumi, and we wanted to see it."
His wife, also middle aged, nodded eagerly. "My husband is a bit of a scholar, and he's thinking of writing a book about the war. That's why we're here in Kyoto."
"A book, hmm?" The elderly sandal maker stroked his chin and sighed. "Why bring up those horrible old days? Those shinsengumi were bad news."
"Killers!" interjected his wife, nodding her head so vehemently that her grey hair in its upswept bun threatened to come loose from its hairpins. "No one was safe with those wolves roaming around. They'd kick in your door if they so much as thought you were hiding a man from Choshu or Satsuma, and they wouldn't pay for the damage either if it turned out they were wrong."
"Now, now, mother," the sandal maker patted his wife calmingly on her shoulder. "What else do you expect? They were ronin samurai after all."
"That's just it!" the man in the kimono said excitedly. "They were samurai. If no one writes about what the samurai were like, the younger generation will never know. How can we let such valuable information be lost forever?"
The sandal maker and his wife looked at each other, then back at the couple staring hopefully at them.
The sandal maker seemed to come to a decision. "Well, if you want to get information about the shinsengumi, you won't have much luck in Mibu village. I heard that both the Yagi and Maekawa families don't like to be reminded of the time when they were forced to take on the shinsengumi as boarders in their homes. They're more likely to spit in your eye and send you packing than help you. Now their other headquarters…"
Nodding sagely, the sandal maker continued. "Their second headquarters was right in the city. They moved here to Kyoto proper right before they left to fight in the north. They stayed at a Buddhist temple, Nishihonganji Temple, I think it was. I can draw you a map."
"Yoshi here is good with maps," the sandal maker's wife said, and led the way into their shop.
Yahiko stayed outside in the street, watching the four people disappear through the doorway of the sandal shop. Nishihonganji Temple, huh?
He'd once seen Hajime Saitoh fight Kenshin. The fury and savagery of that sword fight was the first real glimpse he'd had into Kenshin's past during the Bakumatsu. Kenshin and Saitoh had fought each other to a standstill. Somehow the image of the cruel policeman in a serene temple sparked Yahiko's interest. Kenshin never liked to speak of the past, and Yahiko respected that and didn't try to pry into it anymore.
Saitoh, on the other hand…Maybe visiting one of the shinsengumi headquarters wasn't such a bad idea. The shinsengumi were once called the wolves of Mibu, and though they were on the losing side of the war, people still spoke of them with respect. As the old guy just said, they were, after all, samurai.
Hitching his shinai up firmly on his back, Yahiko set out to find Nishihonganji temple.
It took a lot longer than he'd thought it would. The directions he got from two cackling crones sunning themselves on a bench outside a tavern led him to the wrong temple. The Shinto priest in charge of it laughed uproariously at the thought of shinsengumi living in his temple, and gave Yahiko directions that led back across town in the opposite direction. To add insult to injury, he'd tousled Yahiko's hair as he sent him on his way.
Scowling, Yahiko stomped back through the streets, realizing he'd gone hours out of his way thanks to the old crones. If he'd been a real samurai he wouldn't have been laughed at or had his hair mangled.
A real samurai, like his father…
Yahiko barely remembered his dad. All he had were indistinct impressions really. He'd seen other samurai when he was a little kid though. You could always tell when a samurai walked down the street. They had a presence that made people step out of the way. They also usually scowled.
Yahiko's steps slowed as his memory kicked in. He'd been just a little kid, clutching his mother's kimono skirt, watching a group of samurai walking down the street. He could feel the sense of menace wafting off of them as they glared this way and that. That was it! That glare. Just carrying a weapon wasn't enough; you had to have the patented samurai glare.
Glancing around, Yahiko saw that he was coming to a crossroads. When he passed it, he would start practicing his samurai glare. That decided, Yahiko scrunched up his face, straightened his back, and marched down the street.
No one noticed.
It was discouraging.
He came to a residential section and crossed a bridge into a courtyard area with a well in the center. A group of children were playing along the wall of a row of one-room dwellings.
"You can't come with us, you're too little!" a boy's voice called out truculently. He and two other boys were facing down a little girl who was pulling a small wooden horse on wheels behind her on a string. She was a cute little thing, maybe two or three years old, wearing a green and white kimono, with a matching green ribbon in her hair.
"Why not?" she asked quaveringly.
"Because, we don't want you, so go back to mother," came the boy's quick reply.
"yeah!" the two other boys chimed in jeeringly.
The boy, about ten or so, grabbed his sister's shoulder, spun her around and gave her a hard shove in the opposite direction that sent her stumbling to keep her balance. "Now get out of here and stop following me."
The other boys laughed.
Yahiko's eyes narrowed. He came level with the boys and stopped.
As they turned to see who'd paused by them, Yahiko gave them his best samurai scowl. "Stop messing with that girl," he ordered angrily. It irritated him to see someone being bullied just because they were small.
Yahiko could see the boys' eyes notice the shinai strapped to his back. Their faces paled.
"We…we were just…" began one of them, then he turned and ran. The other two, including the girl's brother, exchanged scared glances then took off after him.
Triumphant, Yahiko turned back to the girl, forgetting to remove his patented samurai scowl.
The little girl's eyes grew big. She took a step backward and tripped over her wooden horse, falling squarely on her bottom.
Instantaneously, her eyes filled up with tears and she began to wail.
Yahiko's jaw dropped. This wasn't what was supposed to happen! He wanted to help her, not scare her to death.
"Hey, um…don't cry. I'm not going to hurt you!" Yahiko tried to make his expression and voice as reassuring as possible, but the girl just screwed her eyes shut and wailed even louder.
Yahiko glanced nervously around the courtyard, praying that someone, anyone, would come outside and take the girl off his hands, but no one came. Evidently crying children weren't a matter for concern around here.
What was he supposed to do? Misao always picked up her baby, slung him over her shoulder and bounced him gently when he cried, but this little girl was too big for that.
"Come on, please stop crying! Please?" Yahiko begged, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
The little girl simply sat there, clenching her hands in the dirt, crying loudly as if her heart would break.
With another desperate glance around for help, Yahiko realized he'd have to take matters into his own hands. Kneeling down next to the girl, he reached out gingerly and rubbed her back. He'd seen Misao do that to her baby and it always seemed to calm him down.
What happened next was completely unexpected.
The little girl gulped, turned, and buried her face in Yahiko's chest, her little hands clenching the fabric of his gi, transferring the dirt from the ground firmly into the fabric of his top. Yahiko sighed. It looked like Kenshin was going to have more laundry to do when he got back.
Not worried about the dirt anymore now that his gi was slated for the laundry basket, Yahiko shifted so he was sitting on the ground, and put his arms around the child. He tried making the comforting shushing noises Misao always did when her baby cried.
He didn't know how long he'd sat there waiting while the girl's sobs became fewer and fewer, but eventually the storm passed and she was down to desultory hiccoughing noises. Yet she kept her face buried in his now wet gi.
"You gonna be OK now, kid?" Yahiko asked anxiously.
"Takiko? Takiko? Where are you?"
A woman's voice preceded her as she came around the edge of the building at the far end of the courtyard. Yahiko looked up and saw a plain looking woman in a grey and white striped kimono with worry in her eyes changing to relief at the sight of the little girl in Yahiko's arms.
The little girl, Takiko, raised her head and yelled, "Momma!"
The minute she loosened her grip, Yahiko pulled gently back and stood up.
"She tripped and fell!" he explained in a rush. "I was just trying to help and…"
The woman nodded distractedly, but didn't seem to be listening as she swept towards her child, dropping to her knees in front of Takiko, who scrambled to her feet, the wooden horse toy forgotten at her side.
"Did you fall down, baby?" the woman asked gently.
Takiko nodded. "I fell down and hurt myself."
Yahiko breathed a sigh of relief. The last thing he needed was for the woman to think he'd been abusing her kid.
"Oh, poor honey!" Takiko's mother's voice showed concern, but a laughing one. "Where does it hurt?" she asked.
"Right here!" Takiko crowed, turned around and lifted her kimono skirt.
The minute Yahiko saw the edge of her diapers, he gathered his manly samurai dignity around him and promptly fled.
Was there nowhere in the city of Kyoto safe from diapers?
TO BE CONTINUED