Disclaimer: I don't own Rurouni Kenshin characters or plot.
The last strand of rope broke just as Yahiko heard his captor's footsteps outside the shed.
There was no time. No time to hide the pottery shards or the fact that the ropes which had once bound his ankles were lying in an untidy pile over the shards.
The porch outside the shed creaked as the man stepped on it.
Swallowing a curse, Yahiko bent his legs and got his feet under him, gathering himself for launch.
The door swung open.
They found the house just where the captain described. Once upon a time it had been a small cottage in a group of homes backing onto the canal path. Over time the other homes had been demolished to make way for a warehouse, which had since fallen into disuse.
Only this house remained, mainly because it was on the side of the canal by a short but steep rock face which was impractical for building a dock. The abandoned warehouse with its ruined dock lay on the other side of the house and the old footpath was blocked off so pedestrians had to use the street to get around that area of the canal.
Unlike the warehouse, the small cottage was in good repair, though it could have used a fresh whitewash or coat of paint. The captain, too drunk to care who was asking, told them that the boy he'd been hired to transport to Osaka was being kept in a shed in the back. A gentle tap on the back of his neck by the butt of Shimada's gun, and the captain was left slumbering unnaturally at his table in the bar.
By mutual decision, Kenshin and Shimada avoided the house. From the light in the front window and the smell of rice cooking, someone was home. They'd deal with whoever it was later. Their first priority was freeing Yahiko.
They jumped the barrier blocking off the footpath and crept down it towards the side fence. For a large man, Shimada moved practically soundlessly, crouching down until his head was at the same level as Kenshin's. When they reached the rock wall jutting down from the fence, Shimada knelt without being asked and made his hands into a stirrup for Kenshin.
Not wanting to hurt the man's feelings, Kenshin stepped onto Shimada's palms and allowed the giant to heave him up. He could have jumped it by himself, but didn't want Shimada to think he didn't appreciate the gesture.
Kenshin landed on a small rim of weeds that grew on the apex of the rock face, and clung to the bamboo fence. Turning his head to look back, he saw Shimada scramble up the rock, shoes making only the faintest of whispers against its hard surface. Soon Shimada was by his side, balancing on the same tiny rim of dirt and foliage.
Kenshin jerked his head toward the bamboo fence, reached up on tiptoe and grasped the circular top of one of the bamboo posts, then vaulted, swinging his legs and body up and over the fence to land in a crouch on the other side.
He was in a vegetable patch, bushy bean plants trailing up a serviceable lattice at his back along the fence, and daikon radish tops poking out of the soil at his feet. In a moment, Shimada appeared over the fence too. It swayed a bit under his weight, but held as he too swung his body over the top and landed next to Kenshin.
Light blazed out in a rectangle across the yard as the back door of the cottage swung open. A man appeared in the doorway, carrying a tray with food on it. He kicked the door closed behind him and advanced across the yard.
Instinctively, Kenshin and Shimada both shrank down among the bean trellises and stayed still, watching. Before the door shut behind him, cutting off the illumination, they'd seen the hilt of the gun stuck in the man's obi.
They followed him with their eyes as he walked dead center down the long yard towards the shed at the far end. He passed them without noticing.
At the shed, he hefted the tray up and out of the way in his left hand as he used his right to unbar the door. Stepping back on the two foot wide shed porch, he let the door swing open, and brought the tray back to chest level.
That's when Yahiko exploded from the shed, catching the man in the torso and sending him and the tray of food falling backwards off the porch and onto the ground.
The man hit the ground with a grunt and lay flat, stunned, but Yahiko kept going, rolling off the man's body and to his feet. The boy hurtled forward, arms bound at his sides and legs pumping along the dirt path bisecting the center of the yard. He kept his head down, as if he still had someone in his path he was intent on tackling.
Kenshin was moving forward the minute he saw Yahiko emerge from the shed and begin running. He made it to the dirt path in seconds, catching Yahiko around the waist as he tried to run by, allowing the boy's momentum to swing the kid's body off its feet.
Yahiko gave a strangled cry, and Kenshin grunted. He'd forgotten how much bigger Yahiko had grown. The days when he could have slung the scrawny boy-child over his shoulder by hooking the collar of Yahiko's gi on the top of his sakabatou sheath were long over.
"Yahiko, it's me. It's Kenshin. You're safe now."
"Kenshin?" Yahiko's voice came incredulously.
Kenshin set him down on his feet, keeping his arm across the kid's waist to steady him as Yahiko craned his head back to look at him. The side of his face was bruised and puffy, and there was a streak of dried blood along his jaw from a nasty scrape, but apart from that Yahiko seemed unharmed. Kenshin breathed a short sigh of relief.
"Gimme that boy!" From over Yahiko's shoulder, Kenshin saw the man at the shed had rolled to his knees and was pointing a gun at him.
"No." The security guard's tone was low, commanding, and brooked no argument.
Shimada's gun was out as well, and he was standing, feet shoulder width apart, both hands on his weapon in a way that bespoke training and competence.
"Drop your gun," the giant of a man ordered harshly.
Kenshin felt Yahiko step away from him so he could turn around to face his captor.
The man's gun wavered, but didn't drop.
"I'll shoot," threatened the man desperately. "I've got nothing left to lose." His eyes were white and wild in the starlight.
Kenshin dropped his hand to the hilt of his sakabatou and prepared to move, transferring his weight to the balls of his feet and beginning to lean forward in anticipation of moving.
"That's your decision," Shimada told him coldly.
Kenshin glanced over at Yahiko, who'd moved a pace forward, arms still bound at his sides, to shout out his request.
"Stay out of this, kid." Shimada told him, his eyes never leaving the man kneeling in the dirt, gun leveled between Kenshin and Yahiko.
"I'm not a kid! This is my fault." Yahiko burst out.
Shimada ignored him, standing statue-like, his weapon aimed at the man by the shed.
Yahiko took a few quick steps forward and then cut over to stand in between Shimada and the man by the shed.
Perplexed, Kenshin began to admonish him softly. "Yahiko, I don't think you know what…."
Yahiko silenced him with a look. Kenshin recognized that fierce determination, and let the end of his sentence trail off.
"This is my responsibility, Kenshin. You can't help me this time."
The scrawny pickpocket had disappeared. In his place stood a man, young, but old enough to know his own mind and make his own decisions. Though it killed Kenshin to know that decisions could be made mistakenly, that consequences were often serious, and miscalculation could mean death, he had to respect the man Yahiko had become. He nodded, and let his hand fall from his sakabatou. If any harm came to Yahiko there would be consequences for the one who harmed him, he promised himself silently, and settled on his heels to watch.
Shimada growled and kept his gun up, but didn't speak.
Yahiko deliberately turned his back on his friends and took several more paces toward the man, stopping a few feet from him, and ignoring the gun trained on the center of his chest.
"You're right," he told the man softly. "I did something boss Tanishi told me to without knowing why. I owe you for that."
"I know why," the man said bitterly. "I was a clerk in a government shipping office. A Yakuza henchman approached me, wanting me to be their spy, to 'fix' certain records at the office. I refused. This was their revenge."
Yahiko swallowed, memories of his own time with the Yakuza sweeping back. He knew firsthand of the poverty that led people to turn to the Yakuza, to give up on themselves and let someone else order them around and run their life. The criminal organization was used to having an iron grip on the fish in their net. What the man said made sense. Bastards like Tanishi always hated it when one of their fish got away. He lifted his chin and stared the man in the eye.
"I'm sorry. But if you want to shoot someone, you should shoot me, not Kenshin, and not Big. He's just a nice old guy trying to protect me."
"Old?" came a strangled exclamation from the security guard behind Yahiko. He ignored it and went on.
"Look, I'm sorry I ruined your life back in Edo, but I was stuck in that shed all day. I've seen your tools, and your garden. You've got your own house, and you're dressed nice. For someone with a ruined life you look like you've got it pretty good."
The man's face scrunched up, stifling some sort of strong emotion, then it evened out and he stared back at Yahiko, and began to speak in a voice that was low and angry.
"I survived. So what? I moved to Kyoto and changed my name. After the Bakumatsu peasants could create their own last names so it was nearly impossible for my new employer to check my background, but the name I use isn't mine. It's not my life here I want, I want my old one, I want my old life back."
Yahiko closed his eyes at the sound of raw pain in the man's voice. He opened them again and let his own remembered pain from that time in his life show through.
"I can't do that. I wish I could. All I can do is go back to Tokyo with you and tell your old boss and the cops what I did, but I can't change the past." He gave a short, emotional sigh, then said again, "I wish I could."
The man gaped at him for a minute, and Yahiko was shocked to see tears come into his eyes. He threw his gun down on the ground much the same way he had when he'd thrown the sake jug on the floor in the shed, and grabbed the hair at his temples with both hands, screwing his eyes shut.
"Liar!" he shouted, turning his face so Yahiko wouldn't see him break down, but it was too late. Deep sobs wracked the man's body.
Yahiko didn't have a clue what to do. He shifted his weight and continued to stare in embarrassment, at the man who he should have hated, but couldn't.
"Leave! Just get out of here and go! Go!" The man reached down and threw a clump of dirt at Yahiko.
Yahiko let the dirt hit the ropes around his chest, then he lowered his head respectfully, turned, and walked back to Shimada and Kenshin. Without a word, he passed them and kept going down the path, skirting the house and treading the narrow passage along its side between the house and the bamboo fence until he came out on an empty street. He knew that the broken man crying on the ground behind him wouldn't take up his gun again. The street was deserted, shadowed, and still. He waited there and a minute later Kenshin and Big came up behind him.
The ropes at his back shifted, biting into his chest more firmly, then released and fell away as Kenshin slipped the dull side of his Sakabatou up by Yahiko's spine and pulled, the sharp edge of his blade cutting through the ropes. Kenshin resheathed his blade with a 'snick' and came to stand beside Yahiko.
"Now I know what guilt feels like," Yahiko said bitterly. "Does it ever get any better?" he asked, looking over at the red headed swordsman who'd once been the most notorious manslayer in the Bakumatsu.
"No," Kenshin answered softly, violet eyes tinged with a sad honesty. "But it gets more bearable as you go on. You learn from it that the best way to atone is to live right and help others."
And Yahiko understood at last, truly understood, why it had taken Kenshin so long to marry Kaoru, to accept the happiness that she offered.
He wasn't Kenshin. He wasn't going to let his past keep him from going forward with Tsubame, but he understood.
"True," said the security guard.
Yahiko tipped his head back and saw the big man looking down at him. In the yard, by the shed, Big's face had been that of a stranger's, expressionless, implacable. It was back to normal now, a neutral expression with a twinkle in his eyes. The twinkle deepened as Big bent his neck down so Yahiko could see his face better. It was an uncomfortable position to be in, so Yahiko turned completely around to face him, sighing a little at the reminder of how short he was.
"Thanks for coming to help me." Yahiko told him.
"No problem, we old guys have some use after all," the security guard answered with a touch of rueful humor in his voice.
Yahiko flushed. "Sorry about that, I just didn't want him to shoot you."
Big brushed it off. "No problem. See you tomorrow?"
"Yeah. I'd like that."
"Tomorrow, then. But for now I've got to go, I'm late for work." Nodding at Yahiko and Kenshin, Big smiled and set off down the street.
Yahiko watched him go, then moved his head and saw Kenshin watching him too. He'd just had a moment of true understanding with a man he'd both envied and idolized for years. What now?
Kenshin smiled and rubbed the back of his head. "We'd better be getting back to the Aioya, Yahiko. Kaoru will have my head for being so late bringing you back." He grinned again, and Yahiko found himself grinning in return.
The lovable rurouni side of Kenshin was back, and Yahiko was glad for it. He didn't think he could take another emotional outburst. They set off down the street together, walking silently and comfortably as only old friends can.
The next morning Yahiko woke before dawn. He hadn't taken the sleeping medicine Misao tried to pour down him the night before. He didn't want to be drowsy for what he had to do.
Slipping through the streets of Kyoto, he retraced his steps from last night and found his way to his captor's house. Dawn was just breaking when he made it to the man's front door. Taking a deep breath, he steeled himself and knocked.
The man opened the door and gasped sharply.
"Good morning." Yahiko bowed low at the waist and remained bent.
"You? What are you doing here?"
The man's voice sounded shocked, but not angry. Yahiko rose.
"I came to apologize. And I wanted to let you know that I'm going back to Tokyo soon, and when I do, I'll go to the police, and your old boss at the shipping office too if you give me his name, and I'll tell them. I'll clear your name, I…"
Yahiko stopped in the middle of his prepared speech as the man started shaking his head.
"You don't have to do that. You were right, what you said last night. I have a good life here. My new name isn't so bad. It's time I let go of the past and moved on."
"But what about Chiyo?" Yahiko blurted out, then could have kicked himself when he saw pain flash in the older man's eyes.
"Chiyo married someone else. I heard that she has children now. I can't go back and expect her to drop everything if she finds out that I was innocent all those years ago. That dream is over. I have to think up new dreams now."
There was a silence, then the man spoke. "If anything, I should be the one apologizing to you. I had a really bad day at work. I lost a promotion I thought I was getting and I went out and had a few drinks. My friends tell me I'm a mean drunk, and I guess they're right," he said sheepishly, staring down at the floor. "I saw you on the street and it was like fate handed me a way to fix everything that had gone wrong in my life. I never bothered to think about why you did it, but I realize you were just a kid back then. I guess I wanted revenge. I'm sorry."
"It's OK," Yahiko told him, uncomfortable with the way the man was abasing himself.
There was another silence, then the man raised his head. "Oh, I have something of yours!"
Reaching back into the house beside the door he brought out Yahiko's shinai, with the strap still attached. "Here. Take it."
"Thanks!" Yahiko grabbed it and slung it over his shoulder.
The man gave a sad little half smile. "It suits you."
Yahiko smiled back. "Thanks."
"Well," the man glanced back inside his house. "I'd better get ready for work. I sent word I was sick yesterday, but I'm sure they're expecting me today."
Realizing the man was standing in his doorway in his sleeping yukata, Yahiko flushed. "Oh, sorry. I'll go." He began to back away.
"Don't be," said the man. "I'm glad you came."
Yahiko stopped. "So am I."
"Well then. Have a good life," the man said, stepped back, and slowly shut the door.
"You too," whispered Yahiko, and set off down the street, back towards the Aioya.
He was halfway back to the Aioya before he realized he'd never got the guy's name. He'd never know who he wronged all those years before, and he wondered how many nameless victims Kenshin had to carry around in his memories.
Yahiko knew he'd never forget the man's face, or what he'd done to him. He hoped Kenshin was right. From now on, he'd try to live the best life he could, not to fulfill some outdated samurai code, or to assuage his guilt, but because it was the right thing to do, and the way he, Yahiko Myojin, chose to live his life. He'd take the man's advice, let go of the past, and create new dreams for himself, ones that included Tsubame. He'd also take Kenshin's advice and start living to help others.
Maybe he'd start by volunteering to help Misao with the diapers. After all, if things went as planned with Tsubame, he'd need to know how to do it for the kids he hoped to have with her someday.
Letting a smile break across his face, he quickened his pace and headed back to the Aioya.
A/N: Well, this is it, end of story. Unless another plot bunny bites me soon, this'll be it from me for a while. (Work is getting insane lately) Hope you all enjoyed it!