"Kenshin!" Kaoru called from inside the house.
"Hai?" Kenshin replied over his shoulder, hanging up the last of the laundry.
"Can you please bring Kenji in here for his bath?"
Kenshin sighed. "Of course!" he answered cheerfully, picking up the empty laundry tub and carrying it back to the house. Now then- where was his son? The boy was usually not far from his mother, although lately he had developed the habit of running off and hiding when it was bath time. Kenshin closed his eyes and let his instincts tell him where to find someone who didn't want to be found. Unhurriedly he walked around to the storage shed, and spotted his son perched on the roof like a large angry pigeon.
"Kenji," he said softly. "Mom says it's time to take a bath de gozaru."
"No!" the four-year old shouted.
Kenshin sighed. Why was he so awful at this? He'd always liked kids and they always seemed to like him- except for this one. "I don't think I've ever seen you on top of the shed before," he said, changing the subject. "How'd you get all the way up there?"
"I jumped!" Kenji exclaimed. Kenshin grimaced and hoped his son couldn't see the drop of sweat that formed at the side of his face.
"No you didn't," Kenshin said, frowning a little. "You have to climb things to get on top of the dojo, and that roof's lower than this one de gozaru." The child had started turning up on rooftops when he was only two years old. Extremely concerned, Kenshin had spied on the toddler until, to his relief, he had seen him climbing up the firewood pile to reach the roof. Only now that he thought about it, the firewood pile was fairly low these days… but surely the kid wasn't able to jump 10 feet in the air!
Kenji only scowled. "I don't want a bath," he said at last.
"Well mom says you're going to take one, whether you want to or not."
"NO!" Kenji yelled, with so much emphasis and conviction that it made Kenshin wince. Kaoru was always telling him he had to be firm, to show authority.
"Jump down, I'll catch you," Kenshin said, raising his arms.
"I don't want to!" Kenji declared.
"Come down right now," Kenshin said sternly, lowering his eyebrows a little. Kenji only glared at him. It was a battle of wills at this point. Finally Kenshin sighed. "If you don't come down by the count of three, I'm coming up there to get you," he warned.
The boy stuck out his tongue.
"One," Kenshin counted. "Two…"
Kenji's blue-grey eyes glinted with determination.
"Three!" Kenshin said, kicking off the ground as if gravity didn't apply to him. He landed catlike on the roof, but by then Kenji was nowhere to be seen. Kenshin's eyes widened. "But when did he…" he started to say, and then he heard scampering footsteps below him, and turned to see his son running away across the yard. Kenshin frowned, and suddenly one of the tiles under his feet came loose, and before he had time to realize what had happened, he was falling off the shed and landing in a heap on the ground in the midst of several broken roof tiles. "Oww," Kenshin groaned. It suddenly occurred to him that at 36, he was very, very old.
"What happened?" Kaoru exclaimed, rushing outside. "Is everyone ok?"
"Yes, more or less," Kenshin replied.
"Did you just fall off the roof?" Kaoru asked, blinking.
"I must be getting old," Kenshin muttered, picking himself up.
"No… come to think of it, on the first day I met you, you fell off a roof just like that. Remember?"
Kenshin thought back. Yes, a roof tile had slipped out from under him in much the same way. But back then, jumping into the air was much easier, and falling out of it was somehow less painful.
Kaoru sighed. "thank goodness Kenji never falls off the roof," she said matter-of-factly. She turned and went back inside, not seeing it as another roof tile fell directly onto her husband's head. Kenshin crashed backwards, saying "ororo" in defeat.
A few minutes later, Kenshin was trying his best to seem like he was NOT stalking up behind his son, when in fact he was trying his best to do exactly that. Kenji was playing with a block of wood that Yahiko had whittled into the shape of locomotive for him. He was making happy train sounds, playing in the dirt like any normal four-year-old boy. Proud of himself for escaping his dad on the roof, it was as if he had forgotten all about the bath. Kenshin was exactly behind the child's round auburn-haired head, exactly downwind of him as well, and moving absolutely silently. Just a few feet closer, and he'd be able to dash forward and scoop the boy up in one swift motion. But suddenly, Kenshin knew that Kenji knew he was there. Without turning around, the boy had sensed his father's presence, and had frozen in place, and had sent an icy piercing flash of recognition straight through Kenshin. Without speaking, the boy had clearly said, "I know you're there, so don't even try it!" Kenshin shook off the eerie feeling, gritting his teeth. He lunged for the child without a second's hesitation, but he was just out of range and seemed to disappear right out from under him. But somehow Kenshin predicted exactly where the youngster would be, and practically snatched him out of midair. His little feet kicked and struggled ferociously, losing both his sandals in the process. Kenshin held him up firmly with both hands.
"Maa, maa- calm down," Kenshin said soothingly. "Let's go find Mom." Still looking angry, the child nevertheless settled down and allowed Kenshin to carry him into the house. "You're getting a little big to be carried around like this," Kenshin said to him, smiling. Kaoru met them at the door to the bath house, and Kenshin was quite happy to pass the child into her arms.
"Here you are!" she said happily. "Why didn't you come when I called you earlier?"
"I don't want a bath!" Kenji exclaimed.
"So you've said," Kenshin remarked.
"Go away!" Kenji demanded, pointing at his dad.
Kenshin sighed wearily. "I guess he's mad at me again de gozaru," he said in a tone halfway between regret and embarrassment.
"Kenji, that was mean. Say you're sorry," Kaoru warned her son. Kenji suddenly looked heartbroken. Dejected, he stared at Kenshin.
"Gomen nasai tou-san," he muttered.
Kenshin reached out and patted the top of his son's head. "It's alright," he replied, then looked imploring at Kaoru, who indicated that he could leave. Shoulders slumped, he retreated, mumbling "excuse me" as he closed the door behind him. Kaoru turned her attention to her mischievous son.
"You shouldn't run away from Dad," she scolded. "now hurry up, into the tub before the water gets cold." Reluctantly the miniature Kenshin complied. Kaoru smiled to herself. She'd seen Kenshin sneaking up behind Kenji and had never seen anything so cutely hilarious.
Two days later, Kenshin smiled as he sensed who was standing at the front gate. "Yahiko," he said warmly as he opened the door. The 17-year-old swordsman returned his smile.
"Got anything to eat around here?" Yahiko asked, sounding for all the world like a certain ex-gangster they both missed.
"Sure," Kenshin said, and then blinked in surprise as the boy strolled through the entrance. "Oro? I think you've gotten taller than me de gozaru!" he said. Yahiko stopped and stared at Kenshin, and suddenly looked surprised as well. A faint red hue appeared on his cheeks.
"huh- maybe I did," he said with an awkward grin. Kenshin did look somewhat smaller to him. The whole dojo looked smaller these days… but then again it was also much more crowded, with its dozen or so students and all the new furniture and things that Kaoru had bought with her hard-earned savings.
"Well good for you!" Kaoru said, stepping out of the house. She smiled at Yahiko warmly. "Welcome back!"
"Thanks," Yahiko said, beaming. "I guess it's been a month or so since I've seen you all. Where's my little buddy?"
"Yahiko-san!" shrieked the little brown-haired boy as he ran to Yahiko's legs.
"ohisashiburi, kiddo," Yahiko said, grinning and ruffling the boy's auburn hair. "Been stuck on any roofs lately?"
"Mou!" Kaoru said. "Just two days ago he was up on the shed! Don't ask me how he got there."
"Aw, he's a clever little fellow. I'm sure he found something to use that was even easier than a ladder." Yahiko glanced over at Kenshin, once again marveling at the resemblance between father and son. Then a thought struck him. "or maybe he just jumped?" he asked. Kenji nodded happily.
"So desu, so desu!" the child sang excitedly.
"Hmm? Shouldn't that be 'de gozaru'?" Yahiko asked. Kenji looked confused. "Aw, I'm just kidding. But I'll never forget that time when you called Kaoru kaa-san-dono!" they all laughed at the memory.
"Anyway," Kaoru said, "Yahiko, keep a hold of him if you can- it's time for his bath."
Instantly Kenji's mood exploded in a wave of anger. "NO!" the boy screeched. Yahiko scrambled to hang on to him, but Kenji twisted violently and kicked his way free. A split second later he had already disappeared beneath the porch. Kenshin and Kaoru sighed simultaneously.
"About a week ago he decided he hates taking a bath," Kaoru explained.
"And every day since then it's been harder to catch him de gozaru," Kenshin added wearily.
"Well I did it yesterday, dear, so it's your turn today," Kaoru said, almost apologetically. "Anyway I want to show Yahiko something."
"All right," Kenshin said, and squatted down to peer underneath the porch. "Kenji, please come out," he said softly.
"no!" came the adamant reply.
"Man, raising a kid must be tough," Yahiko said, and followed Kaoru into the house.
"Yahiko, come look! He's finally got him out into the open!" Yahiko joined Kaoru at the door, peeking through holes in the rice paper.
"This is what you wanted to show me?" he asked doubtfully. Kenshin was standing motionless, his posture neutral, his expression bleak. He could have been a statue, except that a faint breeze rustled his hair and his clothes. Twelve or fifteen feet in front of him stood Kenji, panting and obviously angry, his little hands clutching a stick.
Yahiko grinned. "oh, look, he's got himself a little half-sized shinai! The poor kid is nearly worn out- I guess it was quite a chase!"
"Just watch!" Kaoru said, smiling. "Kenji's never been exactly fond of Kenshin but when they're like this I'm sure they're bonding. I'm sure Kenshin's the one who understands him best when he's playing- It's so adorable!"
Meanwhile, outside, Kenshin's eyes narrowed. "Kenji, please put that down," he said. Why was this situation making him so uncomfortable? Ever since Kenji had picked up that stick. At the instant his small fingers had closed around it, Kenshin had sensed the surge of the child's confidence. But maybe Kenshin was overreacting. All little boys played with sticks, stones, bugs, anything they could get their hands on. Hands… that was what he didn't like. His son was clutching that stick for all the world like it was a sword. I'm imagining it, Kenshin tried to tell himself. But he knew he wasn't. A sudden coldness swept through him like dread.
"I don't want to," Kenji replied.
"Do what I say," Kenshin said, surprised at the sternness in his voice.
Kenji's determination seemed to waver for an instant, but then every ounce of his Kamiya-bred stubbornness exerted itself. "No!" he said. Kenshin took a measured step forward and Kenji instinctively stepped back with one foot- but remained poised on the ball of that foot, ready to either spring forward or backwards at the slightest warning. Kenshin stared at his son's small foot. He prayed that the boy would put his weight on that foot, flat on the ground like a normal person- but the child remained balanced, in that versatile stance, the stick held out in front of him defensively, an impossibly serious expression on his round, chubby-cheeked face. Kenshin felt something like thunder rumbling in his heart. An unseasonably cool breeze swept the yard, and Kenshin was ashamed and horrified to realize that he was beginning to feel angry.
"Stop it," he said, stepping forward again. "Stop now. You don't know what you're doing." Kenji didn't move. Kenshin studied the situation for another second. Two more steps, and then… no- don't even think like that! He's just a baby. He can't possibly be thinking about when you'll be within range of that pitiful little stick. "Kenji," Kenshin said. "Listen to me." He took another step. Kenji was staring right into his eyes, not watching his feet. Somehow knowing what would happen, Kenshin took that final step. And at the instant Kenshin shifted his weight forward, without even a blink, Kenji sprung towards him, bringing his 'half-sized shinai' slashing down in front of him- perfectly timed, perfectly balanced. An attack.
"Impossible!" Yahiko said. "Did you see that?" He turned to Kaoru, and knew immediately from her pale, wide-eyed expression that she had indeed seen what he'd seen. "You still think they're playing?" he asked grimly. With a strange feeling of cold spreading over him, Yahiko threw open the door and stepped outside, fists clenched. Kenshin had caught the stick in his hand, but if it had landed, it would have struck him exactly where his neck joined his shoulder. Kenji was still holding on to the other end of the stick, his hands and feet still in the correct positions. But instead of looking angry, now the child only looked surprised.
"Kenshin…" Kaoru said, noticing his face. Kenshin stared down at Kenji with half-closed eyes, the first time he had ever looked at the child so seriously. Kenji was too young to recognize the emotions in his father's eyes- shame, anger, grief, despair…
"Tou-san?" Kenji asked uncertainly, his round eyes shining.
Kenshin could see his reflection in those eyes, and it made him sick. With an anguished cry he tore the stick away from Kenji's hands and flung it out over the dojo's walls. He stared at the child for another breathless minute, and then, staggering, he turned his back, and walked away.
"Kenshin!" Kaoru repeated, but he was already through the gate. Determination filling her face, Kaoru rushed forward and picked up Kenji. She looked back at Yahiko. "We're going after him right now," she announced.
"Should I stay here?" Yahiko asked.
"It's a family matter," Kaoru said. She looked at him, and he recognized the love and courage shining from her heart, as strong and warm as always. "So of course, you ought to come."
Yahiko smiled and nodded.
An hour later, they were running out of ideas. Kaoru had long since passed Kenji to Yahiko, who was carrying the boy piggy-back.
"Face it," Yahiko said regretfully. "If he doesn't want to be found, we're not going to find him."
"Oh, we'll find him," Kaoru said.
Yahiko sighed. "He'll come back when he calms down. Think about it from his point of view- Kenji just tried to kill him!"
Kaoru felt her throat begin to tighten. "That- that's ridiculous! Don't say such things! He's a child. He didn't know what he was doing."
"Yeah, he was acting on instinct- instinct he inherited from Kenshin! A killer's instincts!"
"A swordsman's instincts," Kaoru corrected him. "That's all I saw. That wasn't a Ryu Tsui Sen or anything and you know it. It was basic, blind, elementary kendo. That's all! It might have been instincts he inherited from ME! But even if it was Kenshin's hitokiri instincts… it doesn't mean anything bad! Kenshin's not using those instincts for evil, so why would his son? Why can't Kenji grow up and be a good-hearted, peace-loving, expert swordsman like his father and you? I know Kenshin fears the worst for his child's future- every parent does! But he's got to see that the future –Kenji's future, our future- isn't written in stone, steel, and blood the way his past is written. He's got to understand that!"
"I agree," said a cool, almost smug voice behind them. Yahiko knew who it was before he caught the scent of tobacco. He turned around defensively.
"You," Yahiko said, his distaste evident.
"Saitou-san," Kaoru said, surprised to see him. "I thought you were in Hokkaido."
"hm." Saitou looked Yahiko up and down. "So you lived to grow up after all," he said disinterestedly, but there was a look of approval in his eerie yellow eyes. Smoke curled from his lips as he studied Kenji for half a moment. His eyes flicked over to Kaoru.
"And you," he said, sounding amused this time, "managed to make another one of him. This new one should be Battou-chan. Ha ha."
"How dare you!" Kaoru exclaimed, her hands turning into fists. "That's not funny!"
"Where's Kenshin?" Yahiko asked gruffly.
"In jail," Saitou replied coolly.
"Whaaaat?" Kaoru and Yahiko exclaimed in unison.
"I arrested him half an hour ago."
"for what?" Kaoru asked.
"Loitering. Standing in the middle of a bridge. Bridges are crowded these days. If we allowed every self-pitying idiot in this town to stand in the middle of a bridge when they had a bad day, it would hold up traffic. So so- visiting hours end soon. if you'd like to talk to him, I suggest you hurry."
"Thanks," Kaoru said quickly.
"-for nothing," Yahiko added.
Saitou just smiled.
Kaoru put both her hands up to the bars of the little holding cell at the police station. She frowned and saw that her expression made Kenshin flinch, even though he didn't look up. Behind her, Yahiko held Kenji on his hip, a serious expression on his face. He hated to see Kenshin like this.
"Moping again, are you?" Kaoru accused. "Snap out of it!"
"You saw what happened," Kenshin said quietly.
Kenshin brought his hands up to his face. "Kaoru-dono. I'm so sorry," he whispered.
"Sorry? For what?"
Kenshin didn't reply, but Kaoru knew what he was thinking, and it brought tears to her eyes.
"Oh no you don't. I won't let you feel sorry about Kenji. Do you hear me? I forbid you to regret anything about our son." She clenched her teeth and put her forehead against the bars. "If you really felt that way…That… that would be so cruel of you," she whispered fiercely, and Kenshin raised his head to look at her. Cruel? Kaoru stared into her husband's innocent-seeming eyes. Then she turned to Yahiko. "Kenji," she said. "come here." Yahiko put the boy down, and obediently he ran to his mom. She smiled at him, leaned down, and whispered something to him. Kenji looked apprehensive, but nodded. Then, bravely, the boy slipped through the bars of the cell and approached his father. Kenshin watched him, his heart aching. "Look," Kaoru said softly. "Look at him- study him. Use whatever means you have to sense the nature of his young heart. Is there any darkness in him? Any at all?"
"None," Kenshin replied honestly, as the child laid a small hand on his knee.
"Exactly," Kaoru said, smiling with relief as she watched Kenshin pick up his son and hug him. Kenji's little arms stretched up, hugging his father's neck.
"Tou-san," he muttered
"Kenji," Kenshin whispered in reply, holding him close to his heart.
"I think you over reacted," Kaoru said kindly. "What scared you was only the recognition of his great potential."
"That's part of it," Kenshin admitted, "But also…" he sighed, and looked back and forth between Kaoru and Yahiko. "What I saw in him at that moment was my own reflection. I'm afraid that some part of me will be a bad influence on him as he grows up. It seems like I provoke his instincts. I've tried my best to avoid it, to hide my own instincts when I'm around him… but…"
"He can sense it," Kaoru finished. "He is your son, after all."
"I've often worried… about what kind of person he'll be," Kenshin said softly.
"He'll be the kind of person we teach him to be," Kaoru said confidently. She put a hand on Yahiko's shoulder, delighted to feel the strong muscles under the fabric of his gi. "Our first son turned out all right, didn't he?" her eyes closed in happy semi-circles. Kenshin looked up and smiled.
"Yeah, I guess he did," Yahiko said. "Although actually, he might have suffered a little too much influence from a certain rude uncle he idolized…"
"Uncle?" Kenji asked.
"So so, your uncle Sano," Kenshin said to the boy.
"Someday I'll tell you all about him," Yahiko added with a conspiratorial grin.
After dinner, the three adults sat around sipping tea as Kenji slept peacefully on the tatami, his hand around his toy train.
"saa," Kaoru said. "I'm glad Saitou-san let you go,"
Kenshin sweat-dropped. "He only arrested me to amuse himself de gozaru. He likes to hassle me. He asked me if I'd finally been thrown out of the house."
"Generally, I feel sorry for him," Kaoru said. "But he sure pissed me off today. I nearly punched his lights out,"
"Good thing Kenji's asleep and can't see his mom's violent side," Yahiko said.
"Oh, he'll see my violent side soon enough. I think he's just about old enough for some real discipline," Kaoru said.
"gaaa, she sounds so enthusiastic," Yahiko muttered to Kenshin. "Since I left she must be lonely for somebody to beat up, huh?"
Kenshin laughed weakly. "Actually, since we've been married she's just taken it all out on me…"
"I heard that!" Kaoru said. "And it's not true! I beat up my students, too." She smiled, and then looked at Kenji. "And that reminds me… Kenshin, when should we start to train Kenji?"
"Train him?" Kenshin asked, alarmed.
"In Kamiya kasshin ryu, of course," she added.
"Do we really have to train him at all de gozaru ka?" Kenshin asked.
"You've got to teach him to control his instincts, right?" Yahiko reasoned. "Otherwise he won't know what to do with them- they'll probably always be there, but without training, he won't know how to use them properly."
"Exactly," Kaoru nodded. "He's got so much potential. It would be irresponsible of us to ignore it, and worse if we tried to hold him back."
"Look, I don't think either of you quite understand," Kenshin said uncomfortably. He glanced over at the sleeping boy. "how can I explain it? When I was Kenji's age, I was just a normal child. I couldn't jump up on roofs or sense sword-ki and to the best of my memory, I never attacked anyone with a stick. I was in love with my mother, and never left her side--"
"Well that's the same as Kenji," Kaoru said, smiling.
"She always told me I was a… a little angel. It wasn't until I was ten years old that I started to develop any kind of kenjitsu instincts. And even then, I don't think I was able to jump as high as the roof of the storage shed until I was 11 or maybe 12!"
Yahiko looked at Kenshin thoughtfully. "So you're saying…" his eyes widened. "You think Kenji might be stronger than you were?"
Kenshin nodded. "From the day he was born, I've been afraid that it would be his destiny to… surpass me… I'm not sure exactly how, but there are several grim possibilities de gozaru..."
"Oh stop that!" Kaoru said lightly, finishing her tea. "Grim possibilities." She laughed. "You can't be serious. I see only a bright, happy future for him, if only we raise him up properly, of course. Telling him he's got some sort of ominous destiny hanging over his head won't help him."
Yahiko didn't seem to be listening to her. He looked at Kenshin solemnly. "Do you… think it will ever come to a challenge?" he asked.
Kaoru laughed again. "Kenji's been challenging him since the day he was born. Remember how horrified he looked the first time you held him? How he screamed! But that doesn't mean anything bad. You saw how he hugged you today. He loves you, and you love him." She looked back and forth between Kenshin and Yahiko's serious faces. "Come on, you two- snap out of it! I know what you're picturing- Kenji vs. Kenshin in some kind of duel, right? But that will never happen!"
"It almost happened this afternoon, Kaoru-dono," Kenshin said softly.
"I agree that we don't want to encourage the sort of thing that happened this afternoon," Kaoru admitted. "But, just because of that…"
Kenshin sighed and closed his eyes. "All I'm saying is that we might not be able to handle training him. When he gets a little older, he'll be unstoppable." He looked up meaningfully at Kaoru, and what she saw in his eyes sent an arrow of ice through her heart. Suddenly she understood what her husband was trying to tell her: in a match against Kenji, he'd lose.
"All right…" she said slowly. "Then… what should we do about it?"
Yahiko realized what he was thinking, and smiled. "Hiko Seijurou!" He recalled his initial reaction when he learned who Hiko was: Kenshin's master? There is such a thing? Ostensibly, since Kenshin himself hadn't been born with any apparent kenjitsu instincts, the talent that Kenji showed could be traced back to Hiko's influence. There could be no better person to train Kenshin's son.
"Good grief, from your excitement anyone would think you were eager to ship him off to Kyoto tomorrow morning! Well I'm putting my foot down on this nonsense: You may be right about Kenji's ability, but only time will tell. And so I don't want to hear another word about Hiko-san training him, not until I've taken a decent stab at the task myself." She yawned and stretched. "Anyway, it's getting late. Yahiko, will you spend the night?"
"Yes, thank you," Yahiko said. Kaoru nodded.
"Kenshin, can you please put Kenji to bed? I'll get the dishes."
"Sure," Kenshin said, and walked over to where Kenji lay, gently snoring. As Kenshin picked the boy up he dropped his toy, and his eyelids fluttered.
"train…?" the child asked sleepily, snuggling against Kenshin's chest. Kenshin's eyes widened.
"What?" he whispered, alarmed.
"He means this," Yahiko said, picking up the wooden locomotive. (((sorry y'all, that doesn't work in Japanese… but I couldn't pass it up!))) Relieved, Kenshin tucked the toy under his son's arm, and padded softly down the hall to put him to bed. Yahiko watched him thoughtfully.
Kenji… I wonder who you'll be?